July arrived so hot and ponderous the air seemed to vibrate, as if it were stretched out over the town and tapped, lightly, rhythmically, by an unseen hand. Walking along the dirt road to town, my cousin, Josy, and I heard the cawing of crows in the meadow and the far off barking of dogs behind fences. Grasshoppers, hidden in the yellow sea of mustard weeds covering the valley and hills, strummed in a rhythm that conjured summertime. As the days grew longer, their music grew louder, and someone who didn’t know might mistake the sound for a giant rattlesnake, coiled up and waiting to strike at a misplaced foot. We stomped, Josy and I, stirring up dust with our button shoes, to warn any wild thing of our presence.
“Race you,” Josy said, suddenly shooting across the stone bridge that spanned the wide arroyo. We’d spent the afternoon in a shady grove of oak trees, pretending to be Apache princesses and picking wildflowers that Josy now dropped along our path, their colorful heads as wilted as our own from the heat. Our hands were dirty and the sash on Josy’s checked pinafore hung loose down her backside like a tail. I made no effort to catch up with her. It was too hot for running, so I only watched the ruffle on her petticoat kick up like sea foam as her legs churned. She stopped abruptly, alongside the railroad tracks.
“Susannah!” She called, waving for me to hurry.
“What is it?” I quickened my pace only slightly. It was probably something perverse–a crippled stink bug or a broken sparrow’s egg. Josy had a weakness for things like that.
“Careful,” she said, holding out a hand as I neared.
“Why?” I said, perturbed. “You made me hurry–now I have to stop?”
“It’s a snake.”
“Oh.” I drew closer and saw the alternating white and orange bands of a California king snake. “Is it dead?”
Josy picked up a stick and poked at it. “It’s got a hole in it.” She pushed the tip of the stick into a small black spot in one of the snake’s white stripes. I grimaced.
“Poor snake,” she said.
For a moment we stood there, looking at the creature, its mouth curved into a kind of smile, as if it were dreaming whatever a snake dreams.
“Should we bury it?” Josy asked.
“No,” I said, continuing along the railroad tracks. She frowned. A faded red punch stain around her mouth frowned with her. But by the time we reached town, Josy had forgotten the unburied snake. Her emotions fluttered from one thing to another as often and as fitfully as a moth. Whatever feelings came, she welcomed; even the hard ones. She just never let them stay for long. We paused beside the tall signpost that read “Valhalla – Founded 1854” and I tied her sash. Then we crossed over to Main Street, dodging a hay wagon and a handful of cowboys headed to the surrounding pastures. The cattle had eaten what little grass had sprouted after a dry winter and spring. The town was quiet as we hopped up onto the wooden sidewalk. The wagon rutted street lined with modest storefronts was the legacy of the town’s frontier beginning, almost forty years earlier, of the sweat and tears spent putting lumber and nails together and the hopes and ambitions of ranchers, school teachers, merchants, and miners who continued to shape its character. Valhalla still had rough edges, and from a passing train it no doubt looked as if Main Street had sprouted up from a narrow, dusty crack in the ground, the buildings and the people clinging to it with tender but stubborn roots.
“Let’s get a piece of pie,” Josy said as we neared The Blue Posy Cafe between The Alice Hotel and Blom’s Mercantile.
“Do you have any money?” I asked.
“Neither do I.”
The bell in the tower rang three times as we jumped after the falling flowers of a jacaranda tree, gleeful at the sound they made–pop!–when we stepped on them. We stomped on the bright purple petals until the blast of train whistle turned our heads. The Sunset Limited was slowing as it approached the station’s platform. Standing outside in the last car, like a caboose brakeman, a fellow in a bowler hat smoked a cigar.
“He’s probably going to San Francisco,” Josy said.
“Lucky dog,” I replied.
I’d gotten off that train three years ago; an 11-year-old girl with blonde pigtails and a constellation of freckles across her cheeks. Arriving from San Francisco unaccompanied, I assumed my stay would be temporary. My mother had put me onboard, unable to come along but knowing her kin, the Wheelers–Josy’s parents–would meet me at the station. (They did. And swept me up into their arms and lives as if I were not Josy’s cousin, but her big sister). My mother was an actress and could not give it up. We needed the money. “Until I make enough to buy us a proper home, Susannah, and hire a proper housekeeper,” she’d said as she buttoned my dark blue velvet coat that last day in the gingerbread house we shared on Connecticut Street, “it’s best you stay with Aunt Sosie and Uncle Asa in Valhalla. You and little Josy will have quite a time going around together, playing games and laughing. She’s just a few years younger–not much difference, but enough so you won’t be rivals for boys or dresses. Sosie and I used to be that way.” She sighed. “I miss my big sister. And now I’ll miss you, Sweetpea.” I cried. She did too, promising to come visit me often. Neither of us imagined she’d be gone eight months later, taken by scarlet fever. Three years had passed since then. I often dreamed of her and Connecticut Street where people strolled along in pairs or rode clustered in carriages, wearing their finery. Sometimes my father was there–a hazy figure, holding a hat in his hand. My memories were of fondness for him, but nothing more tangible. Momma used to say he’d most likely died alone, a gun in his hand, somewhere down South. I didn’t ask why, but I suspected from her hints and from overheard snippets of conversation that he hadn’t been one to walk the straight and narrow. His way was wide, very wide, according to Mrs. Jenkins who did our sewing and mending. She told Momma one afternoon after lunch that she knew for a fact my father was in prison. That he was in Leavenworth, in Kansas, serving time for train robbery. Momma acted like she didn’t care, but when Mrs. Jenkins left, I found her crying in the parlor, her hand clasping the locket she always wore. I had that locket now. The picture inside of it had faded, but I knew it was him. The one I barely remembered, the man she tried to forget.
Josy and I waited to see who got off the train, but no one did. No one came to Valhalla unless they were expected, and it seemed no one was expected today. A few crows were watching, too, from the telegraph wire; they looked like judges in shiny black robes. They cawed for a chaotic minute, then fell silent. We started again along the sidewalk until abruptly pushed out of the way. Sheriff Bly and Deputy Barrow rushed by, guns drawn. Josy and I looked at one another, wide eyed. We’d never seen the sheriff or his deputy do anything more than pick up discarded cigar butts and cast admonishing glances at suspected litterbugs. It never occurred to me they actually had guns, much less ever used them. Valhalla wasn’t famous, but it was peaceful. The two men went directly to Blom’s Mercantile. There, Mrs. Blom, a tall woman with pointy cheekbones and hair of portentous gray, stood outside the open door, pointing inside, an empty flour sack in her hand. As the lawmen entered, she drew the flour sack up to her face, covering it as she shook her head.
“What’s that all about,” I said. Others had begun to emerge from doorways and the few on horseback or in buggies stopped in the street. Mrs. Blom was not known for open displays of anything but irritation or haughtiness. She didn’t like children. She didn’t seem to like much of anything, as far as anyone could tell, but she especially did not like children. Mrs. Blom found most people lacking–except Mr. Blom. He was an exceptional being, in her eyes. If anyone complained about prices being too high or the quality of the merchandise, she offered no apologies. Instead, she declared that Mr. Blom was would sooner cut off his own foot than cheat a customer. “Mr. Blom is doing us all a favor–myself included,” she liked to say, “by staying here, in this Godforsaken town, to bring us civilization. Why, look at these silks–all the way from China. Look at the French milled soaps and the British tea! You can’t get that anywhere near here unless you spent six hours on a train. And at these prices–oh no. Mr. Blom is practically a saint. High prices, indeed.” Then she’d scoff and that would be that. I understood why she’d defend her husband, but I didn’t understand about the foot. Why should he cut off his foot rather than cheat us? But she was always violently imaginative in her admonitions.
“Let‘s see what’s going on,” Josy said.
“Mrs. Blom will scowl.”
“Oh, who cares. Come on.”
I followed Josy until we were close enough to stick our faces up to the mercantile’s window. Mrs. Blom had gone inside, at the request of the sheriff. Through glass painted with the words, “Creeping Ivy Half-Price,” the short, limp form of a man was visible lying on the ground. A dark pool of blood had formed around his head, which faced outward, at us, with open, unblinking eyes. I stepped back in horror.
Josy gasped. “It’s Mr. Blom.”
I pulled her away from the window, bile rising in my stomach. “We shouldn’t be here. Let’s go.”
“Two dead things in one day,” Josy whispered as I pulled her away. Uncle Asa would be called, I knew, with his black bag and stethoscope. He was the town doctor. Though anyone could see he was useless to Mr. Blom now. Pushing through the gathering crowd, we headed home. We lived up a narrow road near the opera house where we could look out at night and see its light spill into the dark street.
“Two dead things in one day,” Josy repeated, twisting a lock of her sun-faded hair around her pointer finger.
An unfamiliar shadow lurked in our town, I thought. Hiding in corners. I kept seeing blood on the pine floor, spilled out in the shape of a heart. Could that really have been Mr. Blom, never again to move even an inch, as fixed in his state as a piece of timber? Saw it in half, carve it, set on fire, but it couldn’t become part of the tree again.
“Why would somebody do that to Mr. Blom?” I said. Unlike Mrs. Blom, he was cheerful. He gave Josy and me licorice when Aunt Sosie was shopping and needed to think. To keep us from trying on all the hats and bending them out of shape, he’d tell us a story about a gambler and thief who came to beg food from him on the road to Deadwood back in 1876. “I told him I didn’t have much food,” Mr. Blom would say, “but I’d gladly share what I did have if he helped fix my wagon. The axle had gotten loose going over rocks and through rivers…he said OK. Oh, I had a grand time listening to his yarns over supper–he rode with Jesse James right after the war.” He’d get excited at that, taking off his pince-nez and putting on a cowboy hat. “Well, he ate his fill, girls, I can tell you. Just about all my beans and whatever salt pork I’d saved for the next three nights. But a promise is a promise, so I delivered. Did he?” He waited until our mouths were hanging sufficiently open before continuing. Then he shook his head. “Nope. I tell you what he did do–got drunk. Drank a bottle of whisky until he passed out, right under the stars in the long grass. I had to go looking for him in the dark.” Here he would always stop and laugh, his eyes halfway shut, as if picturing that drunken outlaw spread eagle on the prairie. “I often wonder what he thought of doing to me when he woke and found his pistol gone–and his hat. This hat.” He took off the ten gallon he was wearing and held it out. “Really?” I always asked, trying it on. “It’s true, Miss Pine. I thought of taking his horse, but that would have been too mean. He might have died or I might have gotten myself hanged. But to this day, I have his pistol–and his hat.”
“Maybe that outlaw finally found Mr. Blom,” I said. It didn’t make sense that anyone would want to shoot him otherwise. No one ever shot anyone in Valhalla. Josy and I walked on, quiet in our pensiveness, past a vacant, leaning house and its dried up wishing well. Mr. Blom’s store was one of the first buildings erected in town. He ran it himself–no employees except his wife. If they had to go visiting, he closed up shop. He rarely did that, though. If only he had today, I thought.
“It must have been a robbery,” Josy said. “A bandit from Los Angeles, probably. That’s a dangerous town. Papa says so.”
“But why shoot him? Why shoot Mr. Blom?”
“I’d of held up the bank instead, that’s what I’d of done,” Josy said, picking up a stick and holding it as if it were a pistol.
“Not now, Josy. It isn’t ri–” We stopped. A covey of quail skittered out of the oleanders at the corner of our street. They’d been startled by a man half-obscured by the flowering hedge. He was tall and lightly bearded. A gun stuck out of his waistband, its pearl handle glinting in the afternoon sun. Eyes fixed on an open book, he didn’t notice us. We held our breath. Then he snapped the book shut. Looking around, his gaze fell on us. Josy and I clasped hands, terrified. But he seemed to look through us. Adjusting his hat, he sidestepped a gourd vine and walked the other way until he disappeared into tree shadows.
“Who was that?” Josy whispered.
I shook my head. “Let’s go home”
“Shouldn’t we go tell the sheriff?”
“Yes, you’re right.”
Sheriff Bly wasn’t at the jailhouse. We found him at the train station talking to the conductor. Deputy Barrow stood beside them. We went over to the platform where a small crowd of passengers had gathered, impatient in their traveling clothes; all eyes were on the conductor and the lawmen. The deputy, a slightly built, friendly young man, looked around, as if preparing for ambush. The sheriff said something terse but unintelligible. The assembled were silent, listening. It was hard to make out all the words. The men spoke in confidential tones, like people do who are discussing a bad omen. Then suddenly the sheriff barked, “Where is he?” We looked around at one another, acquaintances and strangers alike, with questioning wonder. The conductor shook his head.
“This train stays put until I find him,” Sheriff Bly said.
We approached the men. I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, Sheriff. I think…well, we have some information you might find helpful.”
“Yes?” He said, impatient.
“W-we saw a man, sir. A stranger.”
He looked me over skeptically. Josy, too. “Where?”
“In the oleanders.”
“On the way to the opera house. Right by our street.”
“You live off Hazel Dell Road, don’t you? You’re the Wheeler girls.”
“I’m Susannah Pine.” The sheriff ignored me, turning to Josy. “Did you see him too?” She looked at me, suddenly shy. I gave her an encouraging nudge, but she said nothing, only nodded.
“What’d he look like?”
“He was tall. Slim. Dark hair with a beard. He was reading a book.”
“What makes you think he had anything to do with Mr. Blom?”
I shrugged. “I guess because he had a gun. I saw the pearl handle.”
Now the sheriff was interested. No one could walk around flaunting a gun in his town. There were laws. “Alright, ladies–are you being straight with me? Do you swear you’re not making it up just to be part of things?”
“We’re not,” I said. “We saw him. And the gun.”
“Did he see you?”
“No, sir. I don’t think so. He walked off, toward the opera house We came straight here.”
“We weren’t scared,” Josy said.
The sheriff nodded slowly, putting one hand on her shoulder and the other on mine. “Alright now. We’ll take care of it–no need to be scared.”
He turned to Deputy Barrow, “Go on with these young ladies, Josh, and check things out. Then take them home–they live off Hazel Dell.”
“You gals stay close to the deputy. Do as he says. He’ll watch out for you.”
Deputy Barrow headed off at a lope and we trotted along behind to keep up. As we approached our street, past the row of houses sitting white, square, and familiar in the late afternoon sun, that same covey of quails we saw earlier skittered across the road, back toward the oleanders, then veered away as the deputy rustled around in the branches and peered into the dark green leaves.
“D’you see anything?” Josy asked. She wasn’t tongue-tied around a lowly deputy, apparently.
“No. Not sure what I’m looking for though.” Deputy Barrow rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead. His chestnut hair was mussed and his white shirt collar was dirty. I’ll admit I was a little bit sweet on him. His youthful face contradicted the toughness typical in lawmen, and despite his size, he walked and talked with forceful purpose. Aunt Sosie said he was no more than 18 or 19–still a boy, in her opinion.
“Maybe the man left a footprint,” I said.
“Ah!” Deputy Barrow looked down. There he saw his own two feet and their prints obscuring what might have been anyone else’s. “Dang,” he said under his breath. “You weren’t thinking, Josh.”
“I’m not sure that information would have helped much, anyhow, Josh,” I said.
He smiled wryly. “Was he wearing boots, Miss Pine? Cowboy boots? Or work shoes?”
I shook my head, unable to recall. Josy remembered. “Cowboy boots. Black, with pointy toes.”
Josh smiled. “Well done, Miss Wheeler. Alright, I best get you two home now.”
“Oh, no–we don’t want to go home yet. Do we?” Josy said.
“No. We want to help.”
“You heard the sheriff. He said I was to take you home. There’s a man running around with a gun–the best place for you is inside with our family and the doors locked.”
“But–we know what he looks like. You don’t,” I said.
This gave Josh pause. After some thinking, he said, “True.” Then he sighed. “I guess as long as the sun is up I might as well take advantage of you–I mean, your having knowledge I don’t have, Miss Pine.”
“I have the knowledge, too,” Josy said, eyeing me.
“You said he went off toward the opera house? In that direction?”
“That’s right. “
“Alright. Let’s go.”
We pushed our way through the heavy damask curtains and entered the theater, light from the crystal chandeliers glowing beneath the gilded ceiling. It was dazzling. A breeze wafting through the long windows made the light dart from corners and dance against the walls like spirits. We’d already looked around the outside, gone past the opera house and behind it. We waited a little, too, while Josh questioned townsfolk in the area. No one had seen a tall, bearded man with a gun. So, twilight falling and Josy and I not willing to give up, we suggested a look inside the opera house. By then people had begun arriving for the evening’s show–The Importance of Being Ernest. I had seen it twice before in my life, both times in San Francisco. My mother had played Gwendolyn Fairfax for a season when I was ten.
The ticket taker let us in without paying–the star pinned to Josh’s shirt paid the price of our admission. Standing behind the last row of red velvet seats, Josh said, “You see the fellow anywhere?” I scanned the theatre. It wasn’t full yet–no more than 30 people in an auditorium that seated 500. “No,” I said. “He isn’t here. Not yet.” As I spoke, the lights began to dim. We walked up the aisle and sat down three rows back from the stage, myself in the middle. Darkness slipped down around our shoulders and enveloped us as the curtain went up. The first act began with a carnival of piano music, soon after which Josy gave a start. “Susannah–it’s him,” she whispered.
I saw him, too. The tall man with the beard playing Dr. Chasuble. I drew in my breath. Something about that moment triggered more than just memories of a pearl handled gun. Squeezing Josy’s arm, I put my finger to my lips. “Shhh.” I could see only the outline of her face in the darkness, but I knew she was scowling at me.
“Shhhhhh,” said everyone around us.
I scrutinized the man onstage. The footlights shone full on his face. I recognized the cut of his shoulders, the strength of his jaw. The bowler hat on his head.
Josy, Josh, and I walked out into the warm evening. We stood at the top of the stairs leading down to the sidewalk where the street lamps glowed on the small, dispersing crowd. Josy, twisting a ringlet of hair around her finger gave me a sidelong glance. “Why’d you do that, Susannah?”
“You know what.”
I descended the steps, fingering the golden locket around my neck. The one my mother used to wear. Josh saw us home, leaving us at the front gate. “Thank you, ladies. At least we tried.” Josy and I watched him walk away. Then Josy said, “Susannah, why didn’t you say anything to Josh about that man? I recognized him. Didn’t you?”
She gave me a bewildered look. A carriage clattered by and the sound of laughter spilled out from inside. “I know him from a former time. That man is Jack Pine.”
“As in…Pine Pine? Your Pine?”
I opened my locket for her to see. It had taken awhile for the stranger’s face to sink in and jog my memory. On that stage, in that setting, something jogged it. I’d unconsciously grasped my gold locket when he appeared. My father. Funny, I thought. Just like my mother had said so long ago, and just like I had pictured him, holding a gun in his hand. Only he was alive. Very much alive.
“The picture resembles him,” Josy said.
“It is him.”
“But…how? You said he was dead.”
“I never knew for sure.”
We stood in silence a few minutes, neither of us sure what to do. Then Josy said, “Remember the story Mr. Blom liked to tell?”
“About that drunk outlaw?”
She nodded. “You think he could have been your father? That he took revenge on Mr. Blom?”
“But he’s an actor now–I guess. And it seems foolish to kill someone over something like that.”
“But what if it’s true? Shouldn’t we warn him?”
He didn’t notice us at first. Jack Pine was sitting at a small dressing table, reading a book–the Bible. I cleared my throat and he looked up. “Why, hello, young ladies,” he said, standing and bowing slightly. He motioned for us to sit on the settee under the open window. “What can I do for you?” He said, taking his place again at the table.
I cleared my throat. I tried to speak but words failed me.
“Mr. Pine, I’m Josy Wheeler,” she said.
“Nice to meet you, Miss Wheeler.”
“This here is my cousin–her name is Susannah Pine.”
He eyebrows shot up. “Susannah…Pine?” He stared at me. I stared at the floor. “My Lord, I see your mother in your eyes. O, my dear girl.” Reaching out, he grasped my hand.
I looked up at him then and smiled. “Do I really look like her?”
“Oh, yes. I should have known who you were the minute you walked in.”
He let go of my hand but continued to stare at me with wonder, his smile constant. “What a coincidence my turning up here–after all these years. I had no idea your Aunt Sosie settled in Valhalla after she married. I just got to town,” he said. “I’ve been back East a few years but came out to join this troupe. I’ve taken up acting, you see. What do you suppose your mother would have made of that?” He chuckled. “A friend of mine is one of the production managers. Turns out I’m not too bad at it, either. Wish I’d known that long ago. Things might have turned out differently.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just waited for him to say more.
“I wish I’d been there–when she was ill. I heard about her passing when it was too late. I’m sorry, Susannah. I should have been there. I should have been there all along.”
“Is it true you were in jail?” Josy said.
He nodded. “Yes, that is true, I’m sorry to say. Down in Texas–and once in Mississippi.”
He wasn’t scary like I imagined a badman to be. He was just as friendly as any person, he spoke well enough, and he was polite. I didn’t quite know how to talk to him, though. So I stuck to the issue at hand. “Did you hear about Mr. Blom?” I asked.
“No. Who’s Mr. Blom?”
“He owned the mercantile in town.”
“Someone shot him,” Josy said. “It wasn’t you, was it?”
I elbowed her in the ribs. “We don’t think it was,” I said.
“It wasn’t me. I don’t know any Blom. When did this happen?”
“Earlier today. Right after the four o’clock train got in,” I said.
He shook his head slowly, a pained smile crossing his face. “Of course. Of course…this is just the sort of thing that always happen to me. I should have known I couldn’t get clear of the law.”
“So you did shoot him?” Josy asked.
“Because Mr. Blom said back in Dakota Territory, he stole an outlaw’s hat and gun.”
“And you think that guy is me?”
“We were wondering.”
“She was wondering.” I said.
“Well, even though I didn’t do it, I’m the first one they’ll suspect.” He stood, picking up his Bible. “I need to go. And quick.”
“But if you didn’t do it, you should stay around. It might look suspicious if you run,” I said.
“They won’t believe me, Susannah–trust me. I need to get out of here.”
“But you just got here–”
“I know. I’m sorry.” He leaned toward me and took my hand. “I’m truly sorry, I am. But–I’m might hang for it if they catch me and don’t catch anyone else.”
“Alright, then, Papa,” I said, “I’m going with you.”
“No!” He laughed. “You’ll do no such thing. You have to stay and go to school and be safe here with your kin and your friends. That’s what your momma wanted.”
“You’re my kin. I can go to school somewhere else. I’ll make new friends. You need my help. You need company.”
“It’s true I wouldn’t mind the company of my own daughter I haven’t seen since she was a guppy. But what about Josy, here? Won’t she miss you?”
I looked at her. She was frowning.
“I’m sorry, Josy.”
“It’s OK, Susannah. I understand. Momma might not like it, though.”
“I reckon she won’t,” my father said. “But if you’re serious, Susannah, my long lost daughter, we’re leaving now.”
“I’m serious. Let’s go.”
“Wait,” Josy said. “At least come home and get your things, first. Can she do that?”
“That’s a bad idea.”
“Please?” She said.
“Josy–it’s dangerous,” I said.
“Yes, but are you just going to leave your new muslin dress behind–the one with the lilac
insertion? And what about your rosewater? You put that on everyday. And your embroidered handkerchiefs–and Momma’s gloves she just gave you–”
“OK, OK,” my father said. “Let’s go, but quick. Boy is Sosie going to rip into my hide, though.”
We set off for the house, two nervous Pines and a determined Wheeler. I was thrilled to have my very own parent again after being short two. No matter what Aunt Sosie said or did, I was going with him.
July 1, 1891
How is San Francisco? Is it wonderful, like you remembered? I miss you and hope to see you soon. It’s OK to come back to Valhalla now, and I’ll tell you why. Right after you left, the sheriff ordered Josh to keep an eye on the train station in case the killer tried to make an escape. You guys fought me, but it turns out it was a good idea to go home and fess up to Momma and Papa before you left. Momma wasn’t even that mad to see Uncle Jack. I think she likes him. He is likeable–I hope to see him again, as well as you. Anyway, my point is, Papa’s horses were a much better way to get out of town than that train.
Remember that snake I found? The one with the hole in it? It was a king snake. Pretty thing. Anyway, I got this idea in my head, so I went and I found it. I guess because it was kind of in the bushes, the vultures didn’t get it. I took one of Momma’s flour sacks and scooped that snake right up. Imagine! But I did. You see, I wanted Josh to see it. It was on account of that hole–it reminded me of something. Can you guess what? It reminded me of a bullet hole! Not that I’d ever seen one up close, but I’ve read about them and seen those pictures in the newspapers of the Daltons in Coffeyville, lying on a board. You know the ones–think of how Bob Dalton looked. That little black hole in his chest. Just like the little black hole in that snake. Don’t you think it would be an odd coincidence for a snake and a man to be shot in our town on the same day? No one shoots anyone in Valhalla and no one hardly ever hunts anything, except for deer. It would be awful difficult to mistake a king snake for a deer, and even if they were side by side, you’d never be aiming so low when you aim at a deer that you’d hit a snake. Maybe if you were aiming at a squirrel or a rabbit, I guess. But what are the odds of someone accidentally shooting a king snake when they’re aiming at a rabbit? I don’t like those odds. Doc Holliday wouldn’t have liked them and neither do I. Anyhow, guess what? Josh took the snake and–while I was there, in the jailhouse–he handed it to Sheriff Bly to take a look. Now, here’s where a coincidence really did happen. As we were standing there, looking down at the poor old snake, lying stretched out on top of Josh’s desk, who should arrive? Mrs. Blom. And was she ever shook by that old snake, let me tell you. “How did that thing get here!” She cried. This is when it got kind of funny. Sheriff Bly says, “Do you recognize this snake, Mrs. Blom?” I burst out laughing. I mean, why would Mrs. Blom recognize a snake? Much less that one? She’d have to be some kind of sorceress. Though king snakes are kind and helpful, and if she was going to be familiar with serpents, I’d think the rattle snake would suit her better. Anyhow, she didn’t answer right away. She did that thing where she sticks her chin out–like after someone tells her they got overcharged for a pound of sugar. Like she’s ready to fight you. “It’s just an old dead snake,” she said. Then the sheriff says, “Sounded like you knew this particular snake.” I thought he’d gone plum crazy until Josh asked her, “Did you shoot this snake, Mrs. Blom?” Did she shoot the snake! She got impatient, then, like she had to go somewhere else quick and was late. Real casually, she says, “It was in my pantry. So what? I shot it and threw it out into the riverbed. Now, I’ve left the store unattended–”
I was disgusted, I can tell you. Who kills king snakes? Who? Well, I’ll tell you who, though you must have figured it out by now–the same kind of person who kills a Mr. Blom, that’s who! Sheriff Bly said, “the bullet I pulled out of this snake a minute ago is the same kind of bullet the doc pulled out of your husband.” Susannah–she killed him! She did it. Mrs. Blom. Remember how she was pretending to be so upset? Honestly. She’s wicked. Josh told me later that they went to her house and found her suitcases packed. One was stuffed full of money! Poor Mr. Blom. Poor snake. I hate that woman.
So, you can tell your pa it’s OK to come back–at least to visit, if not forever. I bet you’d like to stay in the City. I would, too. Momma and Papa say they’d like to come see you and get to know Uncle Jack better. Momma has been agitated thinking about you being looked after by a man–and a man who knows more about guns and how to rob trains than he does cooking dinner and mending petticoats. I told her you could do that yourself. You’re nearly grown. But she wants to see with her own eyes. So do I. I miss you, Susannah. But I’m glad you got your pa back. Tell him I said hello.
Josephine Violette Wheeler