A Stranger Comes to Town, Page 1

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Charlotte crawled through the tight space beneath the floorboards of the saloon, careful not to bump her head or make any other sound.  She’d entered by way of a gap in the back wall, a narrow opening only she knew about.

The floorboards creaked, and Charlotte heard voices above her.

“Where’s that brat of yours?” the reverend’s wife said.

“Charlotte?” Rebecca asked.  “Probably off spying on someone.  Needs to learn to stop sticking her nose in other people’s business.”

“Needs to learn to act like a lady,” the reverend’s wife said.

“Oh, I wouldn’t know how to teach her that,” Rebecca said, and the women laughed.

Charlotte muttered something unladylike and settled into her hiding spot.  She never wore the silly dresses her mother made nor paid heed to the reverend’s wife’s speeches on womanly virtue.  She cropped her hair short and wore denim, and at first glance most folk mistook her for a boy.  Her breasts were just starting to develop; she hadn’t decided what to do about that yet, but she’d think of something.  When she grew up, she was going to be a journalist.  Even if she had to pretend to be a man, she’d do it.

As for her mother, the saloon dancer, and the reverend’s wife–she’d had enough from them both long ago.  But when they got together in secret to play cards, drink whiskey, and whisper disgraceful tales of fornication and other sinfulness, Charlotte listened.  She often got a few tips to include in her newspaper.

Doc Jones let her post her articles in his general store, assuming the content wasn’t too scandalous.  She’d practiced a lot and had the neatest handwriting of anyone in town.  When she wrote something Doc Jones wouldn’t allow–well, she found other places, and every word she wrote got read.

Rebecca and the reverend’s wife sat down at their usual table, along with one of the other dancing girls.  Charlotte crept a little closer.

“I had a friend in Chicago,” the reverend’s wife said, dealing the cards.  “She got pregnant with a child she didn’t want.  Said she used a wire coat hanger, jammed it up inside her, and fished the damn thing out of her belly.  Said it only hurt a little.  Just think, Rebecca, if you’d done that you’d have no Charlotte to worry about.”

The other dancer giggled, but surprisingly Rebecca didn’t have any witty response.  After a moment, the women placed their bets and went on with the game, none of them speaking.

Charlotte didn’t let herself get flustered.  She knew she’d been born under shameful circumstances, that her mother had no idea who her father was because there were just too many men to choose from.  Everyone knew that.  It wasn’t newsworthy.  And if Rebecca or anyone else wished they could change the past so Charlotte was never born, well that was too bad.  Nobody could do that, no matter how much wishing they did.

The saloon doors swung open and shut.  Chairs scrapped on the floor as the women turned to look.

“Howdy!” a bright, musical voice said.  “The name’s Talie Tappler.  I don’t suppose you ladies would mind answering a few questions.”

A little over a thousand people lived in town or on the surrounding farm land.  Charlotte knew almost everyone, but she’d never heard of a name like Talie Tappler.  She’d never heard such a strange accent before either.  She tried to peer through the gaps between the floorboards, but she couldn’t get a good view of the Stranger.

“Where did you come from?” the reverend’s wife said.

“No one new has come here in… gosh, I don’t remember how long,” Rebecca said.

“Is that so?” Talie said, amused.  “Why do you think that is?”

Charlotte scurried from her hiding place unmindful of the noise she made.  She couldn’t help herself.  She had to see what this Talie Tappler looked like.

Running around the building, Charlotte stopped at the first window she came to and peeked inside.  Talie wore clunky, leather boots, a blue skirt that showed everything from the knees down, and a matching jacket with square buckles on the front–probably the latest fashion from Europe.  A thin, purple ribbon was tied around her neck, and her curly, golden hair was capped with a cowboy’s hat.

But more striking than her attire was her confidence.  Charlotte saw it in her walk, the smirk on her lips, the flash of humor in her eyes.  Talie glanced at Charlotte.  Charlotte ducked for cover.  She’d never seen eyes like that before–never seen anything that intense shade of violet.

Charlotte sprinted home.  She had the perfect headline for today’s paper: “A Stranger Comes to Town.”

* * *

When the wagon trains came, inching across the vast landscape of America, the people prayed for a new life far from the troubles of the Eastern States.  They named their new town Greenfield.  They should’ve called it Brownfield, Charlotte thought, because there was nothing green in sight.

She never understood why the East was so bad anyway.  She’d collected a few old newspapers from Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, and she’d read every article over and over again.  Exciting things were happening.  They’d abolished slavery, women were fighting for the right to vote, and the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was coming true.  One of Charlotte’s favorite articles, an editorial from a Progressive paper, said in a hundred years the United States would elect a Negro president and soon after maybe a woman president too, and when that day came people would wonder why it hadn’t happened sooner.

Charlotte knew she’d never be the first woman president, but she wanted to be the first woman journalist.  She wanted to cover the important stories, sniff out the big scandals, and bring down the corrupt politicians.  She wanted to be part of making society better, but living out West she couldn’t do that.

Charlotte was walking to the general store, her article complete, the ink dry, when she noticed some boys clustered together, probably torturing some helpless, fury critter they’d caught.  Charlotte had written stories about some of them before, and they’d gotten mighty angry with her.  She turned around and went the other way, but one of them had already spotted her.

“What’s the big story?” he shouted.

“Never you mind!” she shouted back.

“Hey, Davis,” the boy said, “I don’t think Ugly Charlotte likes us.”

“I bet she’s still mad about the outhouse,” another boy said.

Charlotte walked a little faster, clutching her paper.  The older boys used to earn a few pennies a day tending the horses for the farmers outside town, at least until Charlotte wrote an article on how they mistreated the animals.  Next day, they’d ganged up on her and shoved her head first into the shithole of an outhouse.

The boys were hurrying after her now, not running but walking quick.

“You know, I could be a journalist if I wanted,” the boy named Davis said.  “You know why?”

“Why?” his buddy said.

“’Cause I’m a boy.”

“Yeah, but Charlotte looks like a boy.  Acts like one too.”

“Don’t matter ’cause she ain’t one.”

Charlotte clenched her fists and kept walking.  Once, years back, she’d tried to be Davis’s friend.  He seemed like one of the nicer boys, and his father had some rusty, old junk in his cellar, including a printing press and a working camera.  She’d told Davis all about wanting to be a journalist and showed him her newspaper collection and said that maybe, if they worked together, they could start a real paper right here in Greenfield.  He’d laughed at her, and when he told the other children at the schoolhouse they laughed too.

“I’ll have you know,” Charlotte said, still walking, not looking back, “I’ve just finished an important story.  Everybody will be talking about it by the end of the day.”

“I bet they will,” Davis whispered.  He’d come much closer than Charlotte expected, and she felt his hand slap her on the behind.

Charlotte spun around to hit him back, but Davis dodged her blow.

“What?” he said, chuckling.  “That’s what they do to your mama.  She seems to like it.”

“So help me, Davis Richardson,” Charlotte said, “one of these days I’m going to write a story about you.  I’m going to expose you for the devil’s child you are!”

The boys broke out laughing.  Charlotte glared at them, letting her hatred swell inside her–her hatred for Davis, for Greenfield, for the whole West–and this time when she threw a punch she hit Davis square in the nose and felt it crack under her fist.  He yelped and fell backwards.

“Enough of that!” a voice shouted.  Charlotte turned and saw Sheriff Hughes striding toward them, his face as red as his beard.

“Sheriff,” Davis said, his eyes wide and innocent, his hand covering his broken nose.  “Did you see what she did to me?”

“I saw a lot more than that,” the sheriff said.  “Now shake hands and play nice, or I’ll lock you both up.”

“But he started it!” Charlotte said.

“Whenever I catch the two of you fighting, he always started it,” the sheriff said, dragging Davis back to his feet, “but you cause a lot of grief in this town, girl.  Don’t think I don’t know that.  I reckon you deserve at least half the trouble you get into.”

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