Today we have another entry received for the Writers Forum 2020 Short Story Contest.
Since the contest judges are supposed to be judging the entries without knowing who wrote them, the author’s names will be withheld until after the winner selection. After the winners have been chosen, all authors will be identified, and the top three stories will be re-posted. The contest is only open to Writers Forum members. Click here for the complete contest rules.
There is still plenty of time for Writers Forum members to submit your own short stories. The deadline is September 15, 2020. All submissions will be posted to the website and the Facebook page, and will also be considered submissions to the Writers Forum anthology, River’s Edge, to be published at the end of the year.
INCIDENT AT MISS PEARL’S
Oreanna Rochester gazed at the tintype on the wall, a browned photograph of men and women wearing the latest 1876 fashions and smiling while riding a San Francisco cablecar. She closed her eyes and smiled, too. Soon that would be her. This room, this boarding house of Miss Pearl’s, this Arizona Territory, would all be dust in her memory. San Francisco was her future.
As she did each morning, Oreanna caressed the ornate gold ring, the only piece of jewelry left by her mother, before returning it to the painted tin box containing all her savings and valuables. She locked the box and set it in the drawer of her dresser and placed delicates over it.
She dressed, and hurried downstairs to the kitchen.
“Morning, Rosa,” she said to a woman standing at the stove stirring beans in a pot.
“Buenos dias, Oreanna. Miss Pearl said she wants you to make sure rooms are ready.”
Rosa shrugged and held out a piece of paper. “And she also wants you to go to Señor Black’s store to pick up the things on this list.”
“Why me?” Oreanna asked, giving Rosa a why-not-you stare.
Rosa shrugged again. “Do you want me to ask her?”
No, of course not. Miss Pearl didn’t like her orders being questioned. Oreanna sighed and finished setting the table for the two boarders and the few locals who would soon be enjoying the morning’s meal.
Two hours later, the heels of her boots sounded confidently as Oreanna strode over the wooded sidewalk on her return from Black’s Mercantile. She imagined herself in a New York dress, flowing over the planks, the tips of her high-button shoes revealing themselves flirtatiously as she glided along.
# # #
The weekly stage rumbled into town just before noon and came to a rest in front of the depot down the street. Dusty travelers stepped out and managed a few uneven steps until they had adjusted their balance.
From Miss Pearl’s front door Oreanna surveyed them, discerning who the day’s contributors were. The last gentleman out—tall, thin, trimmed mustache, gray suit—drew her attention. He knew fashion, and it raised her eyebrow.
The stage hand pointed toward Miss Pearl’s. Oreanna waved her arms, letting them know they, and their money, were welcome.
At Miss Pearl’s behest, Oreanna always sat with stage patrons during lunch, smiling and questioning where they were headed, and why. She addressed the distinguished young man in the gray suit.
“A doctor? Really? You look much too young to be a doctor,” she said.
“Looks can be deceiving,” he replied. “I have degrees from Harvard in medicine and biology. Perhaps it is my keen interest in others that keeps me appearing young.” He returned her gaze without a flinch.
Her eyes followed the slow movement of his hand, with its slender fingers, down to his vest pocket. He retrieved a watch connected to a gold chain and kept the watch low as he flipped the cover.
She flushed and turned her attention to the gray-haired couple who had been on the stage. “How are you finding your lunch, Mr. and Mrs. Podmore?” Had she had spoken loud enough?
The woman motioned to her plate. “What is this shredded meat?”
Oreanna hesitated, then said, “It’s a local specialty. Do you like it?”
Mrs. Podmore had already scooped more and stuffed it into her mouth. She nodded.
“So, Doctor,” Oreanna asked, “where are you continuing on to?”
“Los Angeles, where a school friend has an opening for me in his practice, but, as they say, nothing is permanent.” He stared at her again.
And again she flushed and turned away. That feeling.
The front door opened, and the stage driver walked in. “Sorry, folks, but I’ve got some bad news. Seems we have an axle problem. The blacksmith says he can fix it, but it’ll take some time. Looks like we’ll be stuck here until tomorrow morning.”
Oreanna smiled and spread her arms. “Well if you’re going to get stuck, this is the place to be,” she said. “We happen to have rooms available for you, and Miss Pearl would love to have your company for dinner this evening.” She noticed the single twitch of Mrs. Podmore’s eyebrow.
The doctor eyed Oreanna and asked, “Tell me, what is there to do in this town for a few hours?”
“The bar has a piano player,” she said, “if you enjoy music. Not what you might hear at Harvard, but he does a reasonable job.” She forced a grin. Realizing she may have insulted a paying customer, she added, “If you’d like to ride, the livery will rent you a horse for the afternoon.”
“What about Indians?” Mrs. Podmore asked.
“Not much of a problem anymore,” Oreanna said with a smile. She turned back to the doctor. “What about you, Sir? Do Harvard graduates ride?”
“Indeed they do,” he replied. “and it may be a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Would you care to ride with me?”
“Why, Doctor, you are rather forward, aren’t you?” She flicked her eyelids.
Mr. Podmore grinned.
The doctor said, “I apologize, Madam, I meant no offense.” He stood. “Where might my room be?”
Oreanna rose and motioned with her hand. “Everybody follow me. I’ll show you all the empty upstairs rooms, and you can have your pick. The livery is down the street and off to the left.”
“Well, Dear, I think we’ll not go for a ride,” Mrs. Podmore said. “Rest in a comfortable bed will suit me just fine.”
A few hours later, with dishes clean, floor swept, and the evening meal prepped, Oreanna left the kitchen and climbed the stairs. As she turned at the top of them, she spotted the doctor at the far end of the hall.
“Why, Doctor, I thought you went for a ride.”
“Uh, well, I went to the livery, but found no horse I was comfortable with, so I decided against it.”
She pointed to the black medical bag at his side. “Do you always take that with you on your walks?”
“Oh, I had to use some supplies for a minor emergency in the last town, and I thought if I needed to restock I could do so at your local mercantile.”
Before she could quiz him more, he added, “I thought I heard Mrs. Podmore, so I came down the hall to listen at her door.” He stepped forward. “But apparently I was mistaken.” He yawned. “I think I’ll take her advice, though, and enjoy a short nap myself.” He smiled, opened the door to his room, nodded at her, stepped inside and closed the door.
Oreanna stood for a second, then shook her head and continued to her room. She flopped onto her bed, and glanced at the photograph on the wall before closing her eyes.
# # #
Late in the afternoon, Oreanna set Miss Pearl’s best dinnerware on the table for the special guests. And of course Miss Pearl herself would accompany them for the evening meal.
The elderly couple came down the stairs first and Oreanna greeted them with a smile. “Hope you had a pleasant rest,” she said.
“Yes. It was refreshing,” Mrs. Podmore replied. She straightened her frumpish black dress. “I’m glad the stage needed fixing. California can wait another day.”
They took a seat at the main table, and Rosa brought them a cold tea. Oreanna directed the conversation toward San Francisco, the final destination for the Podmores.
The doctor came down and apologized for having overslept. Oreanna narrowed her eyes.
The stage driver and a few locals walked in and sat at the table, and the discussion drifted to the ability of the stage to complete the journey.
Outside, shadows lengthened, then faded, as dusk approached.
The front door abruptly swung wide, and standing in the opening like a statue, one hand on her hip and the other braced high against the door jam, was Miss Pearl, squeezed into a floor-length red velvet dress, wearing long-sleeved red gloves, and sporting an oversized feathered hat that would make a French musketeer proud. Her true self peeked out from the bulges around her midsection and the gray streaks in her hair.
Mr. Podmore’s mouth dropped open and the doctor’s eyes widened. The two boarders, having seen the entrance before, grinned.
Miss Pearl glided to the table, waited for the doctor to pull a chair for her, and sat between him and Mr. Podmore. She addressed the most vulnerable, Mr. George Podmore. “Would you care for a sip of whiskey?” she asked through her bright red lips. “The finest from the east. I’m sure you’ll like it.”
Mr. Podmore beamed and nodded, not looking at his frowning wife.
Miss Pearl motioned to Oreanna, who brought a snifter and set it in front of Podmore.
“It’s such a pleasure to have your company,” Miss Pearl said to the men.
Oreanna poured her a wine. A red wine.
“Please, George,” Miss Pearl said. She rested her hand on his arm. “Tell me about yourself.”
Mrs. Podmore neither spoke nor smiled for the next twenty minutes as her husband tried to remember the manly parts of his youth.
George Podmore had just finished relating another exotic adventure when Rosa and Oreanna set platters of steaming meat and vegetables on the table.
Podmore, now on his third whiskey, pointed to the food. “You certainly have a way with cookery,” he said. He leaned toward the evening’s fare and breathed in deeply through his nose. “I’m surprised you can provide these delights out here in the middle of nowhere.”
Miss Pearl bowed her head. “Sir, this may be the middle of nowhere, but food is abundant if you know where to look. Rosa’s husband Jose is an excellent shot, and he can find edible greens anywhere.”
“Well, wherever it comes from,” Mr. Podmore said, “this is a meal that would rival cuisine in a fine restaurant in New York or San Francisco.”
After dinner Miss Pearl convinced George to purchase one more whiskey, ignoring his wife, whose face had progressed from frowning to severely tight-lipped.
Oreanna was removing dishes from the table when Mrs. Podmore grunted, stood, scowled at her husband, and said, “I’ll be in my room if I’m needed.” She hobbled toward the stairs.
Her husband slurred, “Pleasant dreams, Dear.” He winked at Miss Pearl.
For the next few hours, Miss Pearl manipulated the conversation, and the whiskey bottle, until one by one, the men drifted off: the boarders to their rooms; the stage driver to his blankets beside the stage; the locals to the bar; the doctor and George Podmore to the stairs.
Miss Pearl nodded at Oreanna, smiled, and left the way she had arrived.
# # #
As was her habit, Oreanna woke the next morning as dawn was not yet definite in the eastern sky. She yawned and stretched, got up and shuffled to her water bowl, splashed her face, toweled, and turned to her dresser. She opened the drawer and removed her tin box, first noticing its lightness, then that the top was bent above the lock. Her eyes lost focus and she slumped onto the bed, box in her lap.
Her fingers lifted the lid. Empty. She gasped, and her hand instinctively covered her open mouth as if it could recapture a lost breath. All her dreams had been in that cache, and now they were gone. She clenched her jaw. Who did this?
The doctor. Of course. A red-hot flash raced over her skin. It had to be him. That’s why he was in the hall yesterday. A few minutes sooner and she would have caught him in the act. Her fingers curled into tight fists and she visualized getting Jose’s rifle and shooting him.
A minute passed, then she wiped her eyes, and contemplated her options.
Downstairs Oreanna kept herself busy, not wanting to look any early risers in the eye. She glanced out a window and saw the sheriff entering his office near the end of the street. “Rosa, I‘ll be right back,” she hollered toward the kitchen.
“Look, Sheriff,” Oreanna said, her hands on her hips. “It has to be him. Can’t you arrest him?”
“Proof?” he asked.
She waved her arm. “I saw him in the hall with his bag.”
“Oreanna, that’s not exactly proof of anything. But, tell you what. I’ll stop by, maybe ask some questions.”
Later, as the guests were savoring breakfast, the sheriff walked in and sat at the table. Oreanna set a plate in front of him.
“Sorry you had to stay overnight,” he said. “Hope you all enjoyed your rooms here—and Miss Pearl.”
Everyone responded with nods and chuckles. Except Mrs. Podmore.
“So, Doctor,” the sheriff said, “I hear you need medical supplies from our store.” He motioned with his head toward the black bag in the seat beside the doctor. “What exactly might you require?”
“Oh, no Sir, I have everything I need,” the doctor said, and rested his free hand on the bag.
The sheriff swallowed a mouthful of scrambled eggs. “Never actually saw the inside of a doctor’s bag,” he said. His focus lifted from his plate to the doctor and he pointed with his fork. “What all do you keep in there?”
The doctor shifted in his chair. “Just a few essential medicines, some doctoring tools, bandages, and the like.” He raised his coffee cup to his lips.
Oreanna, who had been standing in the kitchen doorway, lurched forward. “Really, Doctor, you shouldn’t be so humble. Why don’t you show us?”
The sheriff frowned at her.
All the guests were silent, and motionless.
She snatched the bag, plunked it on the table, and fumbled with the latch.
The doctor grabbed her wrist. “What are you doing?”
Oreanna ripped away from his grasp and shouted, “You stole from me. You went into my room and pried open my mother’s box and took all my savings and jewelry. You’re probably not even a real doctor.” She stabbed a finger at the bag. “Now open it.”
She glared at the doctor; everyone else stared at her.
The doctor reached out, unlatched the bag, and opened it.
Everyone, including Rosa who had come in from the kitchen and was standing behind the doctor, leaned close to look in the bag.
“See,” the doctor said, “nothing but what I told you.” He snapped the bag shut and swiftly latched it.
Oreanna blurted, “Where did you put it?” She turned to the sheriff. “Sheriff, he obviously put it somewhere in his room.”
All attention focused on the sheriff.
“Doctor,” the sheriff said, “seems we have a situation here, and if you could see your way clear to help us out, would you mind if we took a look in your room?”
“Am I being accused of something here, Sheriff? I truly don’t know what Miss Rochester is talking about. I was in the hall yesterday, yes, but like I told her I was checking on Mrs. Podmore.”
All eyes turned to Mrs. Podmore, who said, “I know nothing of this, Sir. I saw no one yesterday afternoon because I was napping in my bed.”
“Yes,” said the doctor, “and that’s why I didn’t speak to you. I simply listened at your door.”
Mr. Podmore stiffened. “Were you spying on us for a reason, my good doctor?”
“No, of course not, I just—“
The sheriff held up his hand. “All right folks, now if you’ll all cooperate, we can get through this. Oreanna told me valuables were taken from her room yesterday, and she wants to know what happened to them.” He faced the two boarders.
“We weren’t here all day, Sheriff,” one said. “We went out to Mrs. Johnson’s place to fix her roof. Ask her. We didn’t get back until just before dinner.”
The other boarder nodded agreement.
Oreanna planted a fist on her hip and flipped her other hand. “Maybe my things were stolen after that. I was down here during and after dinner. It might’ve happened later.”
The first boarder snapped, “And maybe you’re making all this up.”
“Okay, easy,” the sheriff said. “Doctor,” he asked, “would you assist us?”
“This is preposterous,” the doctor said.
“Indeed,” the sheriff said as he pushed his chair back and stood, “but I’m going to go upstairs and check your room.”
“I protest,” the doctor said.
Minutes later the sheriff came down and looked at Oreanna. He shook his head.
“Maybe he put it in his trunk,” she said.
“They’re still tied onto the stage,” the sheriff noted.
The front door opened and the stage driver stuck his head in. “Stage is ready,” he said. “We’ll be leaving shortly.”
Oreanna sank into a chair. A tear trickled down her cheek.
Mrs. Podmore came over and put her hand on Oreanna’s shoulder. “There, there, my dear. Things will improve. My own mother told me someone always comes along just when we need them the most.”
Thirty minutes later the stage swaggered out of town. Oreanna watched, helpless. Doctor, my foot. He’s a scalawag, and I fell for it. She inhaled deeply. She’d not let it happen again. Never! Lesson learned. Trust no one. At least trust no man.
She went back inside and climbed the stairs to her room. She stared at the tintype on the wall, then yanked it down.
The next morning Oreanna trundled down to the kitchen, only to find Rosa humming at the sink. Oreanna fought tears as she removed dishes from the shelf and set the table.
# # #
A month later a letter from San Francisco addressed to Oreanna arrived with the eastbound stage.
My Dear Miss Rochester,
You were right about one thing; I am not a doctor. But trust me, you were wrong about something else; I did not steal your valuables. On the day in question I heard a noise in the hall, so I stepped out to investigate, only to see Mrs. Podmore just entering her room. I eased down the hall to listen at her door. Although you might find that unusual, it’s my job. You see, I’m a detective, and for over a year I have been on the trail of Mr. and Mrs. Podmore, who indulge in many more nefarious activities than just ransacking boarding-house rooms. I perhaps should have uncovered myself at Miss Pearl’s, but my orders were to follow them until they made a mistake that would put them behind bars for years. I followed them here to San Francisco, where they have finally done so, and they have been arrested and are awaiting trial.
The good news is that I have recovered many valuables from the Podmores, including a handsome ring which may be yours, and if you would care to describe any other items, I can set them aside for you.
I have decided to remain in San Francisco, so if you decide to travel here, do look for me, as I would appreciate an opportunity to act more gentlemanly toward you.
Oreanna recalled Mrs. Podmore’s final words to her, “. . . someone always comes along . . . ,” then remembered her own admonition to herself—trust no one, at least no man.
She put the letter in her tin coffer and returned the container to the dresser. After staring at the wall for a minute, she took the photograph from a drawer and hung it again.
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