We pack into the dining room with the train crew and the doctor, the lot of us tired and dusty and smelling somewhat rank. The Fletchers' home is dimly lit, with low ceilings and small rooms, but like the store below it is tidy and pleasant. I have the impression it is likely one of the nicer homes in town. The decorating is fairly 'bare-bones' though I spot a fine pair of pewter candle sticks displayed proudly on the mantle—a little touch suggesting someone, probably Abigail, has endeavored to enliven the place.
The doctor sits beside me and introduces himself as Edwin. He explains that he is not a true doctor, but that he makes his living treating livestock, mostly. He says he did perform a fair amount of field surgery during the war.
He points to my short arm and asks, "did they use a Liston blade here?"
I pull my arm away instinctively and say, "you have been treating horses for too long, Doctor. Your bedside manner could stand improvement." Perhaps this offends him. I do not know, I turn away and speak with the fireman from the train.
The fireman tells me that the engineer is likely to 'pull through.' The poor man has been left resting in the backroom downstairs.
Abigail, as it turns out, is an excellent cook. The meal is somewhat small, owing I suppose to the fact that she was not expecting a to feed an extra six men (and one tall girl) when she arose this morning. But what she has prepared is delicious: a brown peppery stew brimming with chopped carrots and potatoes and what I think must be a wild game-bird, as well as a whitish bean I do not recognize. There are warm biscuits with sweet butter, too. Unlike the biscuits I am accustomed to, these seem to be cut with corn meal. In spite of my weak stomach I eat two.
She does not ask for any payment, but when Abigail leaves the table to fetch me some more butter Mr. LaBoeuf passes around his hat and we all pitch in some of what remains of our money.
As we do so, I hear the clatter of several pairs of footsteps coming up the stairs. I suppose Abigail hears it too for she hurries back into the room.
A man enters with two boys. I recognize them immediately as Abigail's kin—they have the same heavy dark hair and olive skin. The man though has hard bottle-green eyes, in contrast to Abigail's warm brown. I think, this must be Clay. He has a crutch under one arm and I see his left leg is oddly stiff, the foot pointed out at an odd angle. The boys are young, maybe Frankie's age. The taller of the two is carrying a sack over his shoulder.
I expect Clay would be surprised to see his dining room full of strangers, but he just surveys us with a canny stillness.
Abigail says, "Clay, these folks is from a train that was robbed—"
He holds up his hand and says, "I heard. We came by Duke Noblet on the way home, he told us the whole story."
He turns from her and gestures to the two boys. "Peter, what are you still doing with them birds? Get that sack down to the smokehouse."
Abigail produces another bowl and begins to serve Clay his dinner. She says, "you are mighty late tonight. Everything all right with the boys?"
"Well, you know how Duke likes to jabber," Clay grunts, making his way over to the washstand behind me. "Apart from that, the bird dog I bought from Lyle is simple-minded. Damned thing took off after a jackrabbit this afternoon, we had a hell of a time coaxing it back. Should have left it out there to be food for the buzzards."
"Aw, Clay, he's just a pup," says the smaller of the boys, Henry. Peter reenters the room now, unburdened of his sack of quails. They are both clearly hungry for supper.
"You two wash up first," Clay says sharply seeing them start to sit down.
He himself makes his way over to a seat at the far end of the table. His crooked leg gives him a pronounced limp, but he is able to walk. I decide that the crutch he was using when he came in must be helpful for long distances, but that he can get by on his own in the house at least.
Clay sits and sucks a breath in deep, surveying us. He does not smile. He says, "well, I welcome you gentlemen." His eyes fall my way and he seems to consider me for a second before adding: "And lady. I am Clay Fletcher. My family is sure glad to have y'all with us tonight."
The lot of us introduce ourselves. When it is my turn I say, "I'm Mattie Ro—"
A sharp pain in my shin. It takes me a stunned moment to realize Mr. LaBoeuf has kicked me under the table. I flash him a horrified look, but his face is impassive as he casually stabs a fork into his bowl. I suppose I should count myself lucky he did not dig his spurs into me!
The table is now fixated on me. I say, "I'm Mattie…Ro—Rose LaBoeuf." grating out the words. I now have a false middle name as well as surname!
Clay looks at me as though perhaps I am a bit silly. I do not blame him, frankly. I would think the same were I in his position.
Mr. LaBoeuf clears his throat and says, "she is my sister. We are from just east of El Paso."
Abigail says, "Mr. LaBoeuf is a Ranger. He will be assisting in the pursuit of them Mauldin boys who robbed us."
"That right," Clay says. He looks at Mr. LaBoeuf and I am surprised at hard, unmistakable contempt in his eyes. "Well, 'hats off' to the Ranger troop."
It is impossible to ignore the ice in Clay's voice. Abigail goes stiff and passes an anxious sidelong glance at her brother. The men around me keep plugging food into their mouths, but I can sense a tightening in their shoulders, the curious darting of their eyes.
If they are eager to see a quarrel go down though, they are disappointed. Mr. LaBoeuf pauses for a long moment, meeting Clay's eyes, but only says, "Yes, that is correct. I would like to interview you about the incident after dinner."
"Always happy to help the law," says Clay. His voice is dry as a bone.
I help Abigail with the washing up. The men from the train crew, drowsy on their full bellies, are given a stack of blankets and retire to a little barn around back of the place. I suppose they will bed down in the straw. Despite my long nap this afternoon, I find I am so tired I would happily fall asleep in the straw myself.
But Abigail says, "come on, you will share my bed. I will dig up an old flannel shirt of Mama's that should fit you all right."
I own I am not particularly pleased to wear some dead woman's night shirt, though I know in my head it is silly to be so "spooked."
Abigail brings me to her room, which I quickly realize used to belong to her dead parents. I find I can almost draw a line where their effects end and Abigail's begin—as though I can mark by the objects therein when they died. The sky blue quilt, the iron bed, the milk-glass pitcher on the washstand, these are their things. The small girl's clutch of dried prairie flowers on the beside table, the small colorful beadwork pouches handing from individual pegs in the wall, these are hers. I realize Abigail is younger than I initially thought, probably not much older than myself.
As she digs through a trunk of her mother's old clothes I wander to the dresser where I find a tintype of her parents on their wedding day. I am surprised at how fair her father is. He has whiskers not unlike Mr. LaBoeuf's, and a little billy goat's beard. As for his wife, Abigail looks just like her.
I say suddenly, "my father is dead, too. He was shot and killed by a coward in his employment." My voice catches in my throat as I think of Tom Chaney's face, his sour breath my cheek as he pressed a dull-edged knife to my throat.
Abigail says, "I am sorry to hear that. My parents died of influenza, along with my three little sisters. It was horrible—we near lost Petey and Henry. Clay and I were wretched with it for a long while, too. Clay was only 17 at the time, but he has done well taking care of the rest of us ever since."
I say, "that could not have been easy."
"No," she agrees. "But then, you know what it is like to lose a parent. And I am sure Mr. LaBoeuf takes good care of you."
It takes me a moment to register what she is saying. "Oh, yes. On account of he is my brother." I feel my gut twist at the lie. She is so earnest.
Abigail says, "here we are," handing me a green night shirt. I put it on. The hem hits just below the knee.
"My mother was a rather small lady," Abigail says by way of apology.
I am struck then by the undertone of melancholy in her. It is part of her demeanor, independent of mood—a low mournfulness in her eyes that makes her seem like she is peering at you from the end of a long hallway. It is like in illustrations of the Virgin Mother holding Christ, where her body is dipped in sorrow over His, like the stem of a wilted flower. Some women have this quality by nature. Mother does, and young as she is, so does Victoria. I do not.
I point to the beadwork pouches and say, "did you make these?"
"Oh!" Abigail says, her eyes lighting up. "Yes. Well, many of them. My grandfather, he was full Caddo, he taught me beadwork. Them two medicine pouches on the end are his."
"They are all beautiful," I say. "You are very talented."
"Thank you." Abigail smiles a little. "Back when my parents were alive, we would go to fairs over in Hooks, and even a few times in Texarkana. I would show my beadwork there while father sold his wares or traded livestock, whatever it was that year. I won a ribbon once. I was just nine years old."
"Are you working on any now?"
"Oh," she winces. "No. The materials are not easy to come by out here. Sometimes we have wagon traders coming through town, but…"
She waves her hand a little, as though shooing off whatever reverie she is in. She says, "it was only a childhood hobby."
I have the feeling this is something someone else has told her. I say with sudden vehemence, "you should take pride in your accomplishments. No one else will do that for you, especially when you are a woman."
She looks at me in surprise. Finally, she says, "I suppose you are right about that."
Abigail leaves to see Petey and Henry off to bed. She tells me the milk-glass pitcher in the bedroom is just for show and should I like to wash up, she has left a basin in the kitchen sink.
I make my way down the narrow hallway and back into the kitchen, which is now dark. Dim light spills from the dining room from where I can hear men's voices. Mr. LaBoeuf is conducting his interview with Clay. I keep my footsteps quiet so as not to disturb them. There is a heel of lye soap by the basin and I reach for it.
I do not intend to eavesdrop, but as I bend over the sink I cannot help but overhear Clay saying, "you have the number wrong. They actually stole three hundred from the barn. Plus the four or so from the register. I can get you the exact amount from my ledger."
"Your sister told me it was one hundred in the barn," says Mr. LaBoeuf, scratching something onto a piece of paper.
Clay gives a frustrated huff and says, "I told Abigail it was a hundred. Truth is, I do not tell Abigail much about our finances. I do not like to worry her about such matters."
Mr. LaBoeuf says, "Where was the money, exactly? Please describe this in detail.s"
"In the corner of the tack room, under an old milk crate. I had an old lock box with a key that Papa used to keep contracts in. Money was tucked in there." Clay sighs, "I was saving to send Peter and Henry to school in Texarkana, or even Fort Worth. Give them a fighting chance, like you people have down in El Paso, Dallas, wherever. Everywhere else but here."
At this last part, his voice goes tight and bitter.
Mr. LaBoeuf says, "I am sorry for your loss."
This just seems to agitate Clay. He says, "well, perhaps that is sincere, perhaps it ain't, but on the whole the Rangers do not give a damn what goes on in Red Lick, or any place like it."
I hear Mr. LaBoeuf shift in his chair and I imagine he has gone rigid at this comment. He sets down his pen and says, "well, hold on now, Mr. Fletcher!" he says. "Let's take a moment to cool down. I understand you are upset, but there is no reason to speak ill of the Ranger troop."
"I sent word to you boys in Texarkana soon as the robbery 'went down' eight days ago and have heard nothing back. Some defenders of peace!" Clay retorts.
Mr. LaBoeuf (I imagine his face has gone red now) says, "now, I am sure there is an explanation to that. I am not stationed in Texarkana and cannot account for it, but on behalf of the Ranger troop, I am here now."
"Yes," agrees Clay. "And it took a damned train robbery to pin you down!" I hear his chair scrape back on the floor as he stands angrily.
I deliberately drop the heel of soap from my hands. It lands in the basin with a splash. Clay calls out in a much different tone of voice, "that you, Abby?"
"It is only me," I reply, making my way to the doorway. I say, "I am washing up for the night."
The men both look at me, then quickly look away, as though embarrassed. It occurs to me that Mrs. Fletcher's night gown is a good deal shorter than is appropriate for a girl my age to be wearing. I feel my face flush and I quickly retreat out of the circle of lamplight, back into the darkness of the kitchen.
"My apologies for disturbing you gentlemen," I say.
"No problem," Clay mumbles gruffly, still refusing to face me. "We, ah—look, Mr. LaBoeuf, it has been a long day for the both of us. Let us retire now and conclude this interview tomorrow morning."
"That suits me," says Mr. LaBoeuf stiffly. He stands as well.
Clay says to him tiredly, "come. You can sleep in the parlor."
They push past me with mumbled apologies and disappear into the hallway, leaving me standing in the dark, at the edge of the brimming lamplight.