The Present Moment
Author: Cheyne Curry
Summary: A day in the life of the Sheridan family six years after we last visited them. It’s the Sunday before Halloween. The reverend and a few church members are not thrilled about the sheriff’s new addition to the harvest festival, the gang at Wilbur’s just want to be left to their card games and Trace finds an intellectual equal to discuss her life with.
***Spoiler Alert: This is a story involving already established characters from my novel, Renegade. If you have not read Renegade and want to, this story contains a ton of spoilers. This story can stand on its own but it definitely makes more sense if you know the backstory.
For Brenda who comes up with all the excellent ideas.
Many thanks to M.E. Logan for her input and to Renae for her red pen. :-D
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“We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existence, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave.”
― H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
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“Chief is all hitched up, so whenever you’re ready,” Trace announced, walking in from outside.
“Papa, why don’t you ever go to worship with us?” Wyatt Sheridan asked, as Trace knelt down and adjusted the boy’s bolo tie. Trace leaned back and assessed the thin necktie that consisted of braided leather and decorative metal tips, secured by a silver clasp. Wyatt must have been sneaking in another growth spurt, Trace mused, as the aglets were no longer touching the top of the boy’s trousers.
“If I am sitting with you and Mama in church, who would protect the town?”
“Isaac or Matthew,” Rachel said, as she entered the parlor and fastened her bonnet straps under her chin. “Why, don’t you look right handsome?” She said, proudly, admiring her six-year-old son.
Wyatt grinned up at her, blushing. “Thank you, Mama.”
“Has he grown just from last week?” Trace asked Rachel, although the answer was obvious now that Wyatt was fully dressed. His best shirt, which fit him perfectly just seven days before was now showing a little too much of his wrists at the end of the cuffs. Wyatt’s trousers were also barely touching his ankles.
“Seems so,” Rachel said and sighed. “At least I made his overalls longer so we don’t have to think about replacing those yet but he’s definitely going to need a new go-to-meetin’ outfit.”
“So Papa, are you comin’ to worship with us?” Big green eyes blinked at Trace.
“If I go to church with you and Mama, who will plan the Halloween party?”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “The only planning you’ll be doing will be at Wilbur’s over a beer glass.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Trace said and smirked. “Go get in the wagon, I’ll be right out to take you into town.”
Wyatt raced outside, trailed by Ramiro, the family pet, a wolf-hybrid given to them by a tribe of Pawnee before Wyatt was born. Rachel took a step away from Trace to follow her son when Trace reached out, grabbed her by the waist and pulled her back. Rachel was trapped in a secure embrace and, clearly, one she didn’t mind. She ran her hands up Trace’s strong arms and folded them behind Trace’s neck.
“You sassin’ me, woman?” Trace asked, pretending to be stern, barely containing a smile.
“You like it when I’m sassy,” Rachel said, and stood on her tip toes to give Trace a quick peck on the lips. Trace’s arms tightened. “More?” Rachel asked. When Trace nodded, Rachel pressed her lips firmly to her spouse’s and got lost in the connection.
“Mama! Papa! We’re gonna be late!” The sound of their son’s voice from outside broke the spell.
“All right, hold your horses, we’re coming!” Trace yelled out to him.
“You wish,” Rachel said, grinning as her cheeks reddened.
“You are sassy today,” Trace agreed, with an amused smirk. Looking into Rachel’s eyes and seeing the arousal stirred up in them, Trace said, “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Wyatt is feeling better. Tonight he goes back into his own bed.”
“Yes, dear.” Rachel chuckled. She brushed her lips against Trace’s again and slid her hands back down Trace’s arms. She grabbed Trace’s hand and pulled them both out the front door.
The horse-drawn, uncovered wagon ambled along the dirt road. Wyatt sat between Trace and Rachel, holding onto the reins that guided their horse, Chief, in the proper direction. Controlling the tethers made Wyatt feel as though he were the wagon master but Chief pretty much completed this trip without supervision. It was mostly a straight shot from the Sheridan homestead to the main street of Sagebrush and to the church.
“You’re doing a great job, son,” Trace said, rubbing the boy’s shoulder.
“Heeyah, Chief!” Wyatt shouted and snapped the reins in a display of pride. It didn’t prompt the horse to move any faster but it did elicit a heartwarming smile from both parents, who exchanged a loving glance.
Trace sighed in contentment. Who would have guessed that seven years earlier such a lost, complex soul could have found happiness and fulfillment in a life so quaint and simple?
More to the point, it wasn’t that Trace’s life still wasn’t complicated because Trace had made certain choices that kept her – and Rachel – on their toes. For example, Trace’s decision when she first came to Sagebrush to live life as a man.
Trace Sheridan’s convoluted arrival in the “wild west” wasn’t exactly planned, either. She had been a corrupt cop with a price on her head when she stepped into a friend’s experimental molecule transference contraption and suddenly found herself over one hundred years back in time with no way of returning to the 21st century.
After a while, she was grateful not to have a way back, as her life found meaning with a beautiful but troubled woman, Rachel Young, in a provincial setting. Even though Trace perpetuated the disguise of being a man, Rachel knew the truth from the beginning but kept the secret between them…well…them and a tribe of Pawnee who lived in a settlement outside of town.
Trace had found herself embroiled in the middle of a territorial war with a cattle baron and his financial hold over the small town of Sagebrush and his family’s bullying and devious actions to get Rachel’s land from her. With Trace’s modern ingenuity, she led the defeat of the oppressing and brutal Cranes and for once was on the side of the good guys. She also got the girl, which surprised both women. In the 21st century, Trace was an experienced and unapologetic lesbian but Rachel was a God-fearing, church going, bible quoting, 19th century Plains maiden who was shocked when she realized she was completely in love with the woman living as a man under her roof. Perhaps if the town had been aware of Trace’s gender, the courtship would not have taken place…at least not in Sagebrush but Trace doubted Rachel would have let much get in the way of them being together. Once the young rancher understood her feelings and knew that Trace wanted her just as much, Rachel made up her mind to spend the rest of her life as Trace’s wife.
Although it should have, her relationship with the enigmatic Trace did not turn her away from her religion, which condemned such “acts of perversion.” Rachel still had her faith and still believed in the Bible: not so much anymore as a history book but as a guide to living an honorable and decent life. She no longer criticized nor defended Trace’s dislike for the church. If anyone had an issue with it, Rachel highly advised them to take it up with her spouse as opposed to making snide remarks to her or Wyatt. That challenge usually stopped any more comment. Trace was widely liked and there was a healthy dose of respect for the town’s sheriff who had single-handedly turned Sagebrush into a prospering little hamlet after taking the power away from the villainous Crane dynasty.
It was Trace’s energizing of and leading the town to take back its independence that resulted in her unanimously being voted into the office of sheriff. The former sheriff, Ed Jackson, bought and paid for by the Cranes to enforce the Cranes ultimate rule over Sagebrush, was killed when Jackson’s cowardly ambush of Trace backfired. If not for Rachel’s unparalleled love for her spouse, Trace would have died that day, too.
Since then, Trace Sheridan seemed to become the most powerful “man” in Sagebrush. Regardless of the fact that she wasn’t rich and held no financial authority or influence, her logical competence, fairness in peacekeeping and enforcing the laws garnered her appropriate deference among the small populace. Even Jed Turner, the mayor, capitulated to Trace’s decisions.
Trace helped Rachel down from the bench while Wyatt just jumped to the ground with boundless energy and ran toward the front of the chapel, where he stopped beside Annabeth Reddick, who was a year younger than he. Wyatt and Annabeth approached another small group of children around their ages and started to play ‘tag.’
Trace was admiring her blond haired, freckle-faced son, thrilled that he looked just like his mother and so far, had no traits from his father. Rachel did not need that reminder of just how Wyatt came to be.
“Howdy, Sheriff,” Pastor Edwards said, reaching out to shake Trace’s hand.
“Reverend,” Trace acknowledged, accepting the pastor’s greeting.
“Will you be joining us today?”
“No but thanks for asking,” Trace said and smiled.
Pastor Edwards nodded and said, amiably, “I’ll never give up asking.”
“Why? Think you might catch me in a weak moment?”
“I certainly hope you don’t consider attending services as ‘weak’.” Edwards tried to look serious even though he knew Trace wouldn’t buy it.
“Actually, I am going to plan the Halloween costume party for the Harvest Festival,” Trace told him. She looked longingly in the direction of Wilbur’s Saloon.
Pastor Edwards followed where Trace’s eyes were focused. He knew the sheriff liked to spend the time Rachel and Wyatt were at Sunday worship in Wilbur’s with the few others who became a lot braver about not being full believers because of Trace’s attitude toward religion. Although the pastor admired Trace and held the young sheriff in high regard, he did not like the lesser number in his congregation and he did not approve of drinking alcohol, especially on a Sunday. “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Proverbs 23:31:32,” Edwards recited.
“That’s okay, Reverend. I don’t drink wine,” Trace said, accompanied by a chuckle. “If you’ll excuse me, I have an event to finish planning.” She nodded at Pastor Edwards and touched the brim of her hat.
“Of course, Sheriff,” Edwards acquiesced. At least Trace hadn’t turned Rachel and Wyatt against the belief in the Lord. That was something to be thankful for. Usually if the husband was opposed to something, he demanded his family follow his way of thinking. Trace did not appear to be that kind of husband, however. The sheriff and Rachel seemed to have an equal role in their marriage and in their rearing of Wyatt. Whatever they had, it was working because Trace and Rachel appeared to be just as happy now as they did when they married in his chapel almost seven years ago. No matter how Trace felt about religion, the bible or church, their union did seem to be blessed. “The Lord does work in mysterious ways,” Edwards mumbled to himself as he watched the sheriff walk to the saloon.
Silas Boone had just completed his routine of opening the saloon when Trace pushed through the batwing doors.
“Trace!” Silas called in greeting. “Meant to stop by yesterday. Got another complaint from that temperance biddy about Wilbur’s bein’ open on Sundays.”
Esther Wheeler of the Sagebrush chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was on one of her self-restraint through abstention warpaths. “Mr. Wheeler get himself all liquored up again?” Trace asked and shook her head. It seemed the only time Mrs. Wheeler readied herself for battle against the evils of alcohol was when her husband slipped off his sobriety wagon. When Lemuel Wheeler took a drink, the whole town usually paid for it one way or the other.
“Yep. But wherever he got drunk, he didn’t do it in here,” Silas said. He stepped behind the bar and automatically poured Trace a mug of beer. “She’ll most likely be stoppin’ by after church.”
“Will she come in here?” Trace asked, as she took a sip from her glass.
“Probably not if the Angel Gabriel hisself was blowin’ his horn from the top of the stairs,” Silas answered, wiping off the bar. “Nah. She’ll go to the sheriff’s office.”
“Well, she won’t find me there so she either has to come in here or stand outside and yell.”
“Who’s mindin’ the sheriff’s office today?”
“Me. Then Isaac, after services.”
“He hasn’t been in here in a while. When is his wife due?”
“Two months. You would think he’s the only man who was ever about to become a father.”
“Knowing Isaac, he was probably shocked that putting that into that would get you that, if you know what I mean,” Silas said.
Trace laughed. Isaac Tipping was a little naïve. “So let’s talk about the costume party. Are you still willing to donate the gallons of cider?”
“Sure. And I promise to be good and make sure it’s fresh and not hard.”
“You’d better. I’m not about to face Esther Wheeler because we got the kiddos shit-faced.”
“Shit-faced,” Silas repeated. “I love some of these phrases you come up with. “ He sat on the stool behind the bar. “Who else is contributin’ to this little gatherin’?”
“Pretty much everybody who’s attending. We should have enough baked goods and apples for bobbing and ginger ale and root beer. Rachel is planning games for the kids, Cassandra is going to set up a fortune-telling tent, Luther and Mrs. Foster are going to provide and supervise carving the pumpkins and Mayor Jed is bringing in some musicians from Jefferson.”
“You know that Mrs. Wheeler and some of the other church busybodies believe that this gatherin’ you’re plannin’ is the devil’s work. With you not ever goin’ to worship and all and makin’ the theme about ghosts and goblins and spooky stuff…”
“I’ve heard. Look, it’s just an extension of our normal harvest festival. Mrs. Wheeler doesn’t like anything she cannot put her own God-fearing spin on. All this does is make it a little more fun for the kids. She’s going to have to get over it because a majority of the town wants it and has already committed to attending and participating.”
After Trace got the people of Sagebrush to rebel against the Cranes and run them out of town, the community began to embrace seasonal celebrations that tended to bring them all closer together again. Even though Trace had no theological leanings, she encouraged the ecclesial festivities that honored Christmas and Easter and other non-Christian-themed holidays such as New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Eve Day, Valentine’s Day, Independence Day and Labor Day, even though that one had yet to be declared an official holiday (and wouldn’t be for another eight years). Trace was the first sheriff to actively champion the celebrations as a shared event for all.
Sagebrush had yet to play host to any citizens who practiced Judaism but when that happened, Trace was ready to embrace that faith and its holidays, as well. She wanted Sagebrush to be a town of tolerance and as one of the municipal leaders, she was in a position to make that happen.
She was less enthusiastic about Thanksgiving because of her sensitivity to her Pawnee friends. Regardless of the lovely stories spread over the past few centuries about the Pilgrims sharing a celebratory meal with their neighboring Native Americans, Trace believed the real history as explained to her by Little Hawk. According to the Pawnee elder, on that first Thanksgiving, the Plymouth colony governor proclaimed a festivity to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters. All were outpost volunteers who had just returned from their journey, where they massacred seven hundred members – men, women and children - of the Pequot tribe.
Having firsthand knowledge of how covetous white male leaders behaved in the 21st century, Trace had no problem believing Little Hawk’s version. In the seven years since Trace’s arrival in Sagebrush, she had helped to convert Thanksgiving to the proper holiday it should have been – the Pawnee and Sagebrush inhabitants celebrating a day of thanks and sharing, together.
This was the first year she was actually able to persuade the town to commemorate Halloween or, as a visitng European promoted it: Samhain.
Silas continued to wipe dry freshly washed glasses and was about to ask Trace how the harvest festival got so tangled up in the spooky stuff when another customer pushed through the saloon doors.
Londoner Reginald Neal walked up to the bar and stood with Trace, greeting both the sheriff and the bartender.
“What can I get you?” Silas asked the new Wilbur’s regular.
“I’ll have a gin and tonic…you still have that Old Tom Gin I brought you?” Reggie inquired of Silas.
“Yep. Right here.” He picked up the bottle to show Reggie. “Gettin’ low, though. Gonna have to order some more.” He prepared the drink order while Reggie greeted Trace,
“Sheriff. A little early in the day to be imbibing,” Reggie said, playfully.
“I could say the same to you,” Trace countered with a smile.
“Indeed, however, in England, it is well past an appropriate hour to indulge in the spirits.”
“Yeah, speakin’ of them spirits,” Silas began, as he pushed Reggie’s finished beverage toward him, “What did you tell ol’ Trace, here, that’s made him change our little jamboree into somethin’ that’s givin’ our holier-than-thous the vapors.”
“Reggie didn’t make me change my mind, Silas,” Trace said. “He just gave me the incentive to go forward with the party.”
“What’s your harvest festival like?” Silas asked Reggie.
“That depends entirely on where you mean. We British celebrate All Souls Day on the first of November to observe all Christian souls in purgatory. All Hallow’s Eve is the night before. It’s actually quite religious. Our Irish brethren, on the other hand, celebrate Samhain.”
“What…what is Samhain?”
“It is a Celtic festival that marks the end of summer, the season of the sun and the beginning of the season of darkness and cold.”
“Winter,” Trace clarified and Silas nodded. She enjoyed Reggie’s company. He was eloquent without being glib and genteel without being stuffy.
“It’s tradition for people to gather and sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables.”
“But I’ve already said no animals. Never while I’m sheriff,” Trace said, adamantly.
“As is, of course, your prerogative,” Reggie said, with a slight bow. “According to legend, on that day all manner of beings are about: ghosts, fairies, and evil spirits, as well. The celebrants also light bonfires in honor of the dead, to help the departed on their journey to the otherworld, and to frighten them away from the living.”
“You really believe all that hogwash?” Silas asked.
“Hogwash? I say, dear fellow, what a crude colloquialism for what I guess you consider nonsense.” Reggie took a swallow of his drink. “But, since you make such an extraordinary cocktail, I’ll forgive you.”
“Forgive me by leavin’ me a bigger tip,” Silas suggested and grinned. “Ya know, those traditions might be fine in jolly ol’ England but I don’t think they’ll really catch on here.” He looked at the sheriff. “Sorry, Trace. Not that I’m against fun but too many folks don’t like playin’ around with evil sprits.”
“That’s okay, Silas,” Trace said, knowing Halloween would more than ‘catch on’ in the future.
“Why, I would think your vicar would love it,” Reggie said. “What better way to get the flock back to the shepherd than scare the bloody bejesus out of them?”
“Well, gotta admit, ya gotta point there,” Silas said. “Did that squash lightin’ idea come from you, too?”
“Pumpkin,” Trace corrected. “And that started long before Reggie. In fact, it should have been an adapted practice before this.” Trace tried to remember when carved, lit pumpkins became a tradition of Halloween. She was pretty sure it was before 1886.
“Yes, quite,” Reggie said. “An ember taken from the communal bonfire is placed in a hollowed out turnip –“
“Pumpkin,” Trace corrected again.
“Here, yes, but, originally, turnips were used. In the spirit of the celebration, fearsome faces are cut into them to scare away evil spirits as the gourds were used as lanterns to help light the way home from the festivities.”
“And we use pumpkins because we can use all of the pumpkin, not just the shell,” Trace said. “Pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, bread, cookies and dried, roasted pumpkin seeds.” And, oh, how she wished for the knowledge to make pumpkin spiced coffee. Or pumpkin beer. “There is only so much you can make with turnip innards.”
Two more men walked into Wilbur’s, both looking around as though waiting for a pious smiting because of their presence in such an establishment. Actually, one of the men, Webb Bingham, was more terrified of his mother-in-law finding him in there than anything remotely religious.
Webb had married Suzanne Beauregard last year and in doing so, inherited Suzanne’s family. Rosalie Beauregard was a snooty, gossipy gold digger, living vicariously through her daughter and concerned only with perceived appearances. Suzanne had been betrothed to Seth Carter, a Crane cousin, who was sent to jail for his participation in various crimes against the people and community of Sagebrush. The prison sentence freed a relieved Suzanne and only “disgraced” Rosalie until she could find the next suitable man for her daughter.
Webb, a land investment merchant, settled in Sagebrush a year after the Cranes and assorted relatives had left or been sent away. Suzanne’s mother had been less concerned with how Seth Carter got his wealth, just that he had it and was due to inherit more as the Crane dynasty continued to build their riches. Rosalie wanted to cash in on that opulence. When Webb moved to Sagebrush, it mattered not that he was twenty years older than Suzanne, nor that Suzanne wanted to fall in love before she married, like Rachel had, Webb was ensnared in Rosalie’s trap before he knew what hit him.
Once Rosalie Beauregard had found out Webb was not only quite well-off but a bachelor, she immediately began negotiations with him to marry her daughter. It was more of a business deal than wedded bliss, much to Suzanne’s resentment. The Beauregards owned prime real estate on the outskirts of Sagebrush, property that Webb had been eyeballing when he first arrived in the area. It was a perfect place to erect a train station and market those parcels of land to the railroaders who had been scouting that area to lay tracks. A train running through Sagebrush would certainly bring prosperity to the town, as would a second hotel to accommodate an increase of visitors or people just stopping over.
Since Webb’s marriage to his young bride, he made it a point to try and spend one Sunday afternoon a month at Wilbur’s, to relax with his friends and colleagues. The best time was when Suzanne and Rosalie were attending worship and, every thirty days, mother and daughter always stayed late to help provide guidance for the youth fellowship, who met for a couple hours after the service on the third Sunday of every month.
The other man, accompanying Webb, was Asa Beauregard, Rosalie’s milquetoast husband, who was two years younger than his son-in-law.
“Who’s ready for cards?” Webb asked, once he felt safe.
“No gamblin’,” Silas announced, like he did every Sunday Webb showed up. “Drinkin’ on Sunday is one thing but no bettin’.
“Bloody Hell, Silas, we know!” Reggie said. He picked up his glass and met the others at a round table.
Rachel leaned over to Wyatt. “Stop fidgeting,” she whispered to him. He looked up at her and nodded. He stopped but moments later he was squirming around the pew again. Rachel sighed and shook her head. She was amazed at how Wyatt could be so much like Trace and not have any of Trace’s blood in him.
With the service nearly half over, Rachel realized that the particular type of restlessness that Wyatt displayed indicated to her that he probably had to relieve his bladder.
“Wyatt, sweetie, did you drink too much water outside again?” Rachel whispered.
The little boy suddenly looked caught. This was the second week in a row Rachel would have to step away from the worship services so that he could go pee. He nodded, slowly. She gently took his hand and they quietly slid off the pew and left the church.
“Sorry, Mama. Davy Cady said I couldn’t drink as much water as him. Papa says I shouldn’t let Davy push me around.”
“I agree with Papa, Wyatt, but Davy Cady isn’t the one out here makin’ his mama miss the sermon, is he?” Rachel’s tone was gentle but firm in her intent. She walked her son to the bushes and turned to give him the privacy to complete his business.
When he was finished, he turned to Rachel. “Do we have to go back in, Mama?”
Rachel was struck with a momentary flash of panic. Was Wyatt also going to inherit Trace’s dislike for church? Before she reacted, in a neutral tone of voice, she asked, “Why? Do you not like Pastor Edwards sermons anymore?”
“No, I like Pastor Edwards. But…it’s like he’s trying to tell everyone that the gatherin’ Papa is helpin’ to put together is bad. I don’t like anyone callin’ Papa bad.”
Rachel considered her son’s words. How astute of him to decipher that hidden message as she felt Pastor Edwards was trying to be as diplomatic as possible with him basing his Sunday lesson on Ephesians 5:11 – Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them and Ephesians 6:12 – For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. He lectured about how an ancient, seemingly harmless ritual might be opening the door for evil or demon worship and sinful reverie masked as a celebration is still sinful reverie.
“Papa would never do anything to let anyone get hurt or to get God mad at them,” Wyatt said, with all the conviction a six-year-old could muster.
“That’s true, honey, Papa is a good person and would never wish God to be mad at anybody.” She led him over to a wooden bench, outside the chapel, where they sat.
“Why doesn’t Papa come to worship?”
“We’ve talked about this,” Rachel said and looked down at her son, whose expression was all innocent wonder. “Papa chooses not to attend so that Mr. Tipping and Mr. Reddick can. Somebody has to keep us all safe.” She didn’t want to explain the real reason to him. She didn’t want their impressionable son to try and emulate Trace’s rebellion against religion. If Wyatt made that decision later in his life, when he understood more, she would begrudgingly honor it but right now, she wanted him to have knowledge of the gospels, the routine of the sacrament and the experience of attending worship with a devout group of people, as well as children his own age.
“Mama? Are we still going to carve our pumpkins tonight?”
“If Papa promised you, then he won’t disappoint you.”
Wyatt pushed his sandy-colored hair out of his eyes. “Mama? Why do they call them jackalannerds?”
“Jack O’Lanterns,” Rachel corrected, gently. “Do you want to hear a story about that?” When Wyatt nodded, she pulled the small boy onto her lap, encircling him with her arms. “Well…let’s see… once upon a time there was a man everybody called Stingy Jack.”
“Why was he called that?”
“My guess is because he liked to keep everything for himself and didn’t like to share.”
“Papa would send him to his room for that,” Wyatt declared.
Rachel chuckled. “Yes, he would. So Stingy Jack was also a liar and a thief and he liked to play mean tricks on people.”
“He sounds like Davy Cady,” Wyatt mumbled.
“That’s not a nice thing to say, honey. I know Davy can be mean and I know he likes to play tricks on people but do you know for sure he lies and steals?”
Wyatt nodded. “He takes candy from Mr. Foster’s store. And last week, he pulled Annabeth’s hair hard enough to make her cry and told Miz Reddick he didn’t do it.”
“Maybe you should tell Papa and ask him what to do,” Rachel suggested.
“I don’t want to be a tattletale.”
“Ah.” She squeezed her son. “Sometimes tattling is more than just telling on someone to get them in trouble. Sometimes it is better for them to be told on, especially if they are doing things that hurt others. Davy shouldn’t be stealing. He’s breaking a commandment.”
“Isn’t lying breaking a commandment, too?”
“Well…yes. Bearing false witness. Lying is never good.”
“Because there is always somebody else who knows the truth. That’s what Papa says.”
“Your papa is very smart,” Rachel said, with unabashed pride in her tone, “But lying is also not good for the soul.” She kissed the top of Wyatt’s head. “So where were we?”
“Stingy Jack was a mean, lying, thief.”
“Right. Jack thought he was pretty clever. He would put salt in people’s sugar bowls when they weren’t looking and he would sneak up on friends who were napping and tie their shoelaces together and one time he poured liquor into a trough and the farmer’s pigs all got drunk.” Rachel paused to smile at her son’s giggle.
“Drunk like Papa gets sometimes?”
Rachel’s smile disappeared and she cleared her throat. “Um, no. Papa never gets drunk like that.” She looked heavenward. Lord, forgive me for bearing false witness to my son on a Sunday, outside of worship. Actually, Trace hadn’t gotten that intoxicated in a long time. Her accidently leaving Wyatt at the Pawnee settlement one Saturday, when the boy was just two cured her of overindulgence. Thankfully, Trace had not traveled that far before Black Feather, one of the Pawnee hunters, rode up with Wyatt safely secured in front of him. Black Feather tied his horse to the wagon, placed Wyatt in the back and rode with Trace back to the Sheridan homestead.
“So did Jack get in trouble?”
“Yes. But not with the farmer or his friends. He got in trouble with Lucifer.”
Wyatt’s eyes widened. “The devil?”
“Mmm hmm. Jack got so drunk that he fell over the edge of a cliff and died. When Jack tried to get into the Pearly Gates, St. Peter denied him because Jack had not lived a life worthy of spending eternity in Heaven. Jack then had no choice but to knock on the gates of Hell. Lucifer looked Jack over and told him that he didn’t want Jack in Hell, either, because Jack had even played tricks on him.”
“He did? How did he do that?”
“Jack liked to steal apples. One night, he convinced the devil to climb up a tree for some apples, and then Jack cut crosses all around the trunk so the devil couldn't climb down. Lucifer promised to leave Jack alone forever, if he would only let him out of the tree. So Jack did. And, in keeping with their agreement, Jack was turned away from Hell.”
“Jack was cursed to travel forever as a spirit in limbo.”
“It means Jack couldn’t go up or down. He was stuck in the middle.”
“The middle of where?” Rachel’s inquisitive son asked.
“The middle of nowhere, I guess.” Rachel felt Wyatt nod then incline his head, in a signal he was waiting for her to continue. “As Jack left the gates of Hell, Lucifer threw him a hot ember to light his way in the dark. Jack placed the ember in a hollowed-out turnip, and wandered off into the world. With the light of this ‘lantern’, he wandered around, thinking about his life and how stingy he had been, how he had played tricks on everyone. Nobody knows for sure what happened to him.”
“Does he still wander around?”
“I’ve never seen him, honey,” Rachel said, reassuringly and hugged Wyatt close again. “Besides, it’s just a story about why it’s called a JackO’Lantern.” A sudden thought crossed her mind. “You’re not going to have nightmares, are you?”
The four patrons of Wilbur’s were playing a card game called Three Card Brag. It was a popular poker game in Britain and Reggie introduced it to Trace, Webb and Asa. As they were not allowed to gamble money, they were literally playing for peanuts.
The players anted and were dealt three cards face down. There was a single round of betting, action starting to the left of the dealer, who this time was Asa. They all looked at their cards; Trace, Reggie and Asa bet and Webb folded. The players contributed at least as much as the previous bet, adding more to the pot. They continued to bet until there were only Trace and Asa left, at which point Trace doubled her prior bet to "see" Asa’s wager. Trace and Asa revealed their hands, and the player with the better hand, Asa in this case, took the entire pot.
They started all over again, when Webb said,” How much time do we have left?”
Reggie pulled out his pocket watch. He flipped open the case cover and looked at the time. “We’ve got a good thirty minutes left before the sheriff’s lovely wife retrieves him.” He looked at Webb and Asa. “You two have another couple of hours.” He put the timepiece away and picked up the deck of cards to shuffle them.
“This costume party my wife is all excited about,” Webb began, as he anted up. “Why the masks and disguises?”
“No reason, other than it’s fun.”
“Guising is all the rage back home,” Reggie said, tossing three cards to Trace.
“My wife is on her high-horse about it, Trace,” Asa said as he accepted his cards.
“Asa, your wife is on her high-horse about everything.” Webb shook his head. “Her and that Wheeler woman. I know she’s your wife and my wife’s mother but I thank the heavens every day that your daughter is nothing like her.”
Asa glared at him, then downed a shot of whiskey Silas brought to the table. “Amen to that, Webb. Amen to that.”
“Does everybody have to dress up?” Webb asked, as he pushed a handful of peanuts forward to the pot.
“No, not like it will be mandatory but a lot of people will be in costume.”
“And who will you be dressing up as, Sheriff?” Reggie asked.
“My favorite science fiction author.”
“Science fiction? That sounds ominously intriguing.” Reggie folded his hand. “I consider myself well-read but…I’ve never heard of science fiction,” Reggie told Trace. “What is science fiction?”
“It is writing based on future scientific or technological advances.”
“Tech…what? I’ve never heard of that word,” Webb said.
“Technology, it’s…” Trace thought a moment as how best to explain. “It’s a practical application of knowledge to certain fields of study.”
Webb and Asa looked at her as though she had just spoken a foreign language.
“Like what, pray tell?” Reggie asked. He seemed quite impressed by Trace’s parlance and intelligence.
“Well… like space or time travel and life on other planets.”
“Like that’ll ever happen,” Webb commented and shook his head. He tossed a few more peanuts into the middle of the table.
“Why couldn’t it?” Reggie spoke up. “Hopefully, we as an intelligent species can advance enough, scientifically, to explore other worlds.”
Trace nearly dropped her cards, her attention fully on Reggie. “You believe that’s possible?”
Reggie shrugged. “Why not? My cousin, Bertie, is fascinated by the sciences and I believe he has the kind of mind to lay the foundation for future progress and evolution.”
“Trace, you gonna play or talk?” Webb asked, a hint of mild irritation colored his tone.
Trace reluctantly refocused on the game and added more peanuts to the pot.
“Who is the author?” Reggie asked.
“H.G. Wells,” Reggie repeated, scratching his chin, contemplatively. “Interesting…”
Trace had just added to the kitty when Wyatt burst in through the back door. “Papa, Mama’s ready.”
The group turned in surprise to see the young boy run up to Trace. “She’s early today,” Trace said, and placed an arm around her son. “Let me just finish this hand and I’ll be right out.”
“Okay.” Wyatt looked at Trace’s cards. “Wow, Papa, are those all aces?” he asked, innocently.
Reggie chuckled, amused, as Webb and Asa groaned and both threw their cards down.
“Guess that’s my cue to leave,” Trace said and stood up.
“Papa, can I have a peanut?” Wyatt asked, eyeballing the stash on the table.
“May I have a peanut?” Trace corrected.
Wyatt looked up at Trace, confused. “Aren’t they your peanuts? Why do you have to ask?”
“Clever lad,” Reggie said, before Trace could respond. “Sheriff, I would love to continue our conversation sometime regarding this fascinating ‘science fiction’ genre.”
Trace took Wyatt’s hand, as the boy kept trying to pull him outside. “I would enjoy that very much, Reggie. How about stopping by for supper later? I’m sure Rachel won’t mind the company.”
“I would love to! How do I get there?”
“You invited a total stranger to our home for supper tonight?” Rachel asked, clearly trying not to sound annoyed.
Trace looked over at her wife as their son, once more, sat in the middle and held the reins. “Reggie isn’t a stranger to me and I enjoy talking to him.” How could she explain to her beautiful, adored wife that she had finally found a person with whom she could have an intellectual conversation and not come off as hurtful, offensive or the biggest asshole on the face of the planet. Trace would not give up her life with Rachel and Wyatt for anything but sometimes talking about crops, child-rearin’, Sagebrush gossip, town ordinances and ranch life were not enough. To have met someone so well educated and versed on so many levels was such a welcome surprise. She could have spent weeks just picking Reggie’s brain.
“I can see that,” Rachel said and looked away. “In fact, I haven’t seen you so excited about someone in a long time.”
There was something in Rachel’s voice that sent up warning flares to Trace. She reached over and touched Rachel’s shoulder. “What’s really bothering you, sweetheart?” Trace asked, softly.
“I don’t want to talk about it in front of Wyatt,” Rachel said. She appeared to be on the verge of tears.
“Okay,” Trace said, confused but accepting Rachel’s request. Then, it hit her. Rachel was jealous! “Wait…baby, you don’t think I’m enthused about Reggie because – “ She stopped and looked down at Wyatt, whom she could tell was listening, quietly. She cleared her throat and started again, glancing back at Rachel who was waiting for her to complete her sentence. “You aren’t suggesting that I would ever put anyone before you, are you? Because that will never happen, I promise you that. And, besides, Reggie is a man –“
“And you’re n…” Rachel caught herself before she completed that sentence in the presence of Wyatt. “You know what I mean.”
“Oh, sweetheart, it doesn’t work that way.” Trace tried not to sound condescending. Even though Rachel had fully embraced their same-sex partnership, she apparently still believed because Trace was still all female, there was always a possibility she could be attracted to a man. “Trust me when I say the only thing I find appealing about Reginald Neal is his mind. You have my heart, my body and my soul and if that ever changes, I give you my permission to put me out of my misery and I would, without a doubt, be miserable without you.”
The tenderness and sincerity in Trace’s tone and demeanor prompted silent tears of relief to slide down Rachel’s face. Wyatt looked up at his mother. “You okay, Mama?”
“Yes, honey, I am fine.” She wiped her tears, planted a kiss on Wyatt’s forehead and showed Trace a comforted, thankful smile. “Um…he will be leaving soon after Wyatt goes to sleep in his own bed tonight, won’t he?” Rachel asked, emphasizing her question with the raise of an eyebrow.
Trace chuckled and nodded. “Yes. Oh, yes, he will.” She visualized her wife in the throes of passion and swallowed hard. Their lovemaking had been non-existent the last month while Wyatt recovered from a flu-like virus and shared their bed so that they could monitor his fever and symptoms. Both Trace and Rachel had missed the intimacy desperately. “Very soon after Wyatt goes to bed.”
“All right, then. What should I make for dinner?”
Reggie arrived just as Trace and Wyatt were cleaning up the porch, following their pumpkin carving. Three gourds of various sizes now hollowed out, with triangle-shaped eyes, noses and teeth, stood by the front door. Wyatt ran inside and returned moments later with three candles to place inside the creations.
“What a talented artist you are, Master Wyatt,” Reggie stated as he stepped on the porch and removed his hat.
“Thank you, sir,” Wyatt said, as he stood next to Trace. Wyatt wasn’t sure he liked this man who had caused his mama and papa to argue earlier and made his mama cry.
“Come on in, Reg, let me formally introduce you to my wife,” Trace said, after greeting the Englishman with a handshake.
A wonderful aroma of something delicious simmering in spices was instantly absorbed by Reggie’s sense of smell. “Oh, Mrs. Sheridan, that is heavenly! Do I detect the fragrance of nutmeg?”
Rachel’s mouth dropped open. “Yes! You can smell that?”
“Indeed! Nutmeg and cinnamon and…ginger. Yes, definitely ginger.”
“Those are the exact spices I used in my pumpkin soup,” Rachel said, amazed that a man was able to decipher and distinguish spice scents.
“Pumpkin soup. I have never had it but I shiver with anticipation to sample yours,” Reggie said.
“We’re also having egg pie,” Wyatt said.
“Egg pie?” Reggie turned to Rachel.
“Quiche, actually,” Trace clarified. “That’s something you have in England, isn’t it?”
“Oh, quiche, yes.” Reggie nodded.
“This has eggs, of course, and spinach, sweet onions, bits of bacon and cheese,” Rachel said. “I’d never heard of it until Trace told me about it.”
Reggie looked over at Trace. “How did you know about quiche? I’ve been to quite a few eating establishments since I landed on your shores a little over a month ago and traveling and I have not seen it on any menu, anywhere.”
“I actually don’t remember. Probably had it in my hometown.” Trace said, vaguely.
“Oh? Sagebrush isn’t where you were born and raised?”
“No, I’m from Cottonwood,” Trace supplied.
“Cottonwood? Never heard of it. Where is it?”
“Far from here,” Rachel and Wyatt chorused before Trace could say it.
“So, Reggie, let’s say we get out of Rachel’s way. She is also baking a small loaf of pumpkin bread and preparing fire-roasted salmon,” Trace said.
“Do you need any assistance?” Reggie asked Rachel.
“No, thank you, Mr. Neal. Trace offered already but the kitchen is my territory and I get nervous with anyone but Wyatt underfoot.”
“Then we shall leave you to it. Mrs. Sheridan, I am humbled to be in the presence of such a lovely woman and gourmet cook.” Reggie executed a half-bow and Rachel was charmed.
Trace rolled her eyes. “How about we have a glass of Absinthe Fire before dinner and enjoy this mild weather on the porch while Rachel cooks?”
“Splendid idea, Trace. But…what is Absinthe Fire? I’ve only had Absinthe with water.”
“I’ll show you,” Trace said and snagged two cubes out of the sugar bowl and two glasses out of the cupboard. Reggie followed Trace to the parlor where she retrieved the bottle of Absinthe. She poured a shot of the Absinthe into the glass, then she placed one sugar cube on a spoon which she suspended over the glass, then poured the bitter liquid over the sugar, just enough to cover it. Trace struck a match and lit the cube of on fire and waited while it caramelized. Before it could turn brown and burn, Trace poured water over it and when the combination of water and sugar hit the liquor, it produced spontaneous emulsification. She handed the glass to Reggie and repeated the process with her own drink.
“Fascinating. Looks like it could be tricky, though,” Reggie said, as he waited for Trace to finish with hers.
“Don’t try this at home, folks,” Trace joked. “The Absinthe is highly flammable, so you need to be really careful and you cannot let the sugar burn and drip into the alcohol because that will render it pretty much undrinkable.” She held her glass to Reggie’s. They toasted and each took a sip.
“This is splendid! Where did you learn this little trick?” Reggie followed Trace out to the porch where they both sat in chairs that faced the vast land Trace and Rachel now owned.
“You’ll have to give me directions to this Cottonwood before I leave. It sounds quite ahead of the times.”
“Oh, that it is,” Trace said and took another sip. They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, enjoying their drinks and taking in the scenery. “Reg…you said your cousin - Bertie, is it?”
“Bertie is into the sciences. Tell me more about that.”
“All right, well, let’s see…he is currently studying biology and history. He’s a socialist and pacifist. He’s not quite sure whether or not he’s going to teach or be a researcher but you and he share a lot of the same ideas.”
“What makes him think we will eventually accomplish space travel?” Trace asked.
Reggie shrugged. “I don’t know, really. He probably concluded it the same way as you. Our species has to evolve and with that evolution comes experimentation and knowledge. If history is any indication, we agree that we are destined for great things.”
Wyatt appeared on the porch and without a word, crawled up in Trace’s lap, snuggling into her. She placed a loving and protective arm around him and kissed him on the top of the head. “Even time travel?” Trace asked Reggie, cautiously.
“You mean transporting from one era to another, future or past?”
Trace nodded and repositioned her son slightly so her arm wouldn’t fall asleep. “Yes.”
Reggie took a moment to contemplate that thought. “I really don’t see why not. If we can master traveling to other planets, anything is possible, I suppose.” Reggie snickered. “Don’t tell me you’ve accomplished that in Cottonwood, as well?”
Trace chuckled with him and took a long drink from her glass. She looked down at the little boy in her arms, then out at the horizon. “I wonder what your cousin would say about the space-time continuum.”
Reggie stared at her. “The what? I say, Trace, your vocabulary is astounding. That’ll teach me for thinking I’m smarter than everyone in this town,” Reggie declared, shaking his head. “What in heaven’s name is a … what did you call it?”
“Space-time continuum. It means – I guess it means that the more everything changes, the more it stays the same.” She looked over at Reggie, who still appeared to be silently stumped. “It means combining space and time into a single transition from Point A to Point B without any unanticipated changes.”
Reggie still looked lost. Finally, he said, “Give me an example.”
Trace hesitated, then thought, what the hell…. “Okay, say, hypothetically –“
“You mean conjecture,” Reggie clarified.
“Right. Say someone traveled back in time and where they came from, they were battling a powerful family of outlaws and then when they got back a century or so, they discovered they were battling the ancestors of that family from the future. Still with me?”
“Yes. Please go on.”
“Do you think, by going back in time, the traveler, aware of the cycle, could change the dynamics, therefore changing the outcome of the future?” Trace studied him as he digested her question.
He placed his glass on a table, clasped his hands together in front of his face and steepled his fingers. “Very interesting question, Sheriff. Definitely one to put to Bertie. I would think that whatever the traveler did in the past had already affected the future, don’t you?”
That was not the answer Trace wanted. “Why do you say that?”
“It seems to me that, according to your…space-time continuum, these events would be occurring simultaneously but also would be set to a repeat cycle. Wouldn’t the events that formed future descendants have already occurred? Or why would the traveler feel the need to go back and change the cycle?” He scratched his chin. “On the other hand…” he looked at Trace, his curiosity totally piqued.
“Confusing and complicated, isn’t it?”
“What a brilliant concept, though. Is this the science fiction you speak of?”
Trace tilted her head and nodded. “Well…yes. You’re actually the first person in Sagebrush I’ve ever dared to talk to about all this.”
“Because everyone else would just brush it off as a wildly active imagination?”
“As I’ve said, Bertie has a similar imagination. He constantly talks about the wonders of the future. I should give him your address. I’m sure you would thoroughly enjoy his theorems, as well as he enjoying yours. Tell me, Trace, why did you never pursue the sciences?”
Trace shrugged. “Never thought about it. My destiny has always seemed to be as a lawman.”
“Dinner’s almost ready,” Rachel called from inside. “How about everyone get washed up?”
Reggie finished his drink as Wyatt climbed off Trace’s lap and raced into the house. “So, tell me, Sheriff, what else sails around that riveting mind of yours?”
Later that night, Reggie returned to his rented room at the hotel. Buoyed by his conversation with the sheriff, he sat down to compose a letter to his cousin in England.
My stay in America has not turned out as boorish as I had originally envisioned. I have met a charmingly fascinating lawman that believes in a lot of the same notions as you.
We met at the town saloon where we played cards. He is helping put together a celebration, much like Samhain in the Irish Isles, except he called it Halloween. However, the most extraordinary thing was that today, as we discussed costumes, I asked him who he was going to dress up as and he said his favorite “science fiction” writer, HG Wells. I told him I had never heard of that author and I was not sure what science fiction meant.
At that moment, his wife came to collect him and it was time for him to leave. He invited me to dinner at his home and after a delightful meal, Mrs. Sheridan then put the child to bed and the sheriff and I sat on the porch drinking rather good brandy.
We had begun a discussion right before the scrumptious meal and resumed it after. I once again asked about science fiction and he began an absolutely compelling tale of futuristic subjects such as time travel, argonauts and other things like wars between other worlds and ours, where our planet is invaded by aggressive spacemen from Mars. His imagination sounds as far-fetched, ahem, I mean as well developed as yours! Imagine – an island where a mad scientist creates human-like creatures from animals! I should ask him to write to you or at least where to find these books he has spoken of.
I suppose if you get bored with becoming a scientist, you could, take up “science fiction” writing. You’d probably have to take a pseudonym, though.
I will write more next week.
Reggie folded the letter, placed it in an envelope and addressed it:
Herbert G. Wells,
Normal School of Science,
South Kensington, London,