Summary: A resident of Burgess Gulch goes missing and Cody is about the onliest person to notice, until it happens again.
Author’s Note: This began as my 2006 Nanowrimo Novel.
Whitey McGee wasn’t a body one normally missed. Now that you come to it, his was a body one was usually pleased to miss, what with the smell. That said, a few days after Cody’d seen the strange woman riding up to the high pasture, he came to notice that he hadn’t had to step past Whitey- who could be reliably found at the mouth of the alley between Miss Nannette Corbet’s and the saloon, reclining with his back against the broken hitching post there- Cody hadn’t had to step past him in more than a day, maybe two. Cody stopped in on Jeb, the undertaker, to make certain that he hadn’t planted him in the potter’s field (he hadn’t) before putting Prentice on the case. Jitters was alternately pleased to have Cody showing trust in him and disappointed at the person he was meant to find. Seemed that looking under haystacks for the town drunk wasn’t the kind of work he’d been hoping for.
Two days later, Whitey came stumbling back into town with a wild-eyed story about beams of bright light and green skinned strangers poking at him while he screamed and thrashed about. Jitters was bit twice by Whitey’s reappearance, firstly because it meant that he would again have to endure the stench of Whitey on a long hot August afternoon when the wind blew easterly, wafting it gently into the door of the Sheriff’s Office, and secondly, it meant that Jitters had failed to solve the first case Cody had given him on account of not being able to find a drunkard on a three day bender. Thing was, Cody had watched Prentice going about looking for Whitey and he hadn’t done a half-bad job of it. The fact that Jitters didn’t come up with Whitey didn’t go against the truth of it that he’d done just the same as Cody would have- looked under the same rocks and behind the same outhouses. By what he did, Prentice should have found Whitey, only he just didn’t.
Less than a day later, it was the Mayoress that Cody came to notice he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of in a day or so, which was just unheard of, so he decided to take on the mystery of the disappearances himself, her being kin and all.
Whitey claimed to have been sleeping behind Miss Nannette Corbet’s before he’d been taken up in the beam of light. Course, no one had any remembrance of him being there at the time, nor of a bright flash of light round that time, neither. Cody and Jitters went round there and had a look at the bare ground, which was all there was to see.
“What you looking at, Sheriff?” Nannette cooed at them as she leaned on the frame to the kitchen’s back door, her arms crossed.
Prentice gave her a scowl. “Official business, ma’am,” he snapped and leaned down lower to squint at the nothing that was there in the dirt. Cody left his deputy to it and stood to speak to Nannette.
“You heard ’bout Whitey, now haven’t you?” he asked conversationally as he reached up and brushed a wisp of her dark honey colored hair off her cheek and put it behind her ear.
“Course, Cody. Darn idiot stops everybody who passes by to tell the whole foolish tale,” she replied, leaning into his hand with her cheek and smiling real pretty.
“Then you know he claims the varmints took him from hereabouts. You see anything of him or maybe a great flash of lightning round a week past?” His voice was hardly more than a whisper- she was close enough for him to save the extra breath as he spoke.
“Not a bit, Cody.” She leaned in closer, barely making a sound herself.
“If you don’t mind!” Prentice scolded, his head popping into Cody’s view. “Sheriff, I think I’ve found something of interest.” Nannette pulled away and went back into the kitchen with a lingering glance back at Cody that made him that much more irked at Jitters.
“So, where’s your all fired important discovery?” Cody demanded as he turned to his depute.
“There’s nothing here,” he stated flatly, his face shining as if he were a schoolboy who’d finished the whole primer on the first day of school to please a buxom new schoolmarm.
“I know that, Jitters. That’s why I had moved on to questioning a witness,” Cody said with a smirk.
“No, Sheriff, you misunderstand- the thing that’s of interest is the fact that there is nothing here. No signs that anything has happened here at all. The dirt is smooth- no foot prints at all. Not even from when we walked here.” Prentice pointed across the ground to the place where they’d rounded the corner from the alleyway. The ground was level and unmarked. Cody followed the dearth of footprints round the corner until the place where the scuffing of their boots appeared.
“I’ll be darned!” Cody exclaimed. He wrote his name in the pristine dirt with his finger only to watch it fade into smoothness again.
Cody and Jitters had spend the better part of the afternoon poking around behind Miss Corbet’s, watching as the footprints they left in the dirt faded a few seconds after they raised their feet from the ground, but they didn’t find anything that pointed them to either where to find the Mayoress or a reason for the peculiar workings of the dirt. Whitey had come back to himself (or perhaps it were, to Earth), quite coincidentally, in the high pasture near to Redfield’s ranch and so the next place they went was there. Throughout the ride up there Cody kept expecting to spy the mysterious woman- the protectress, as Blackdeer had called her, but there was no sign of her, her oversized duster or her gaudy calico dress.
“Sheriff, there’s nothing here,” Jitters said after they’d dismounted, herded the steer away, and looked round at the turf where it had been twisted up and wavy the last time they had checked. It was not quite so churned up anymore, and grass was growing back in the line where it had been bare.
“Is there? Where is it?” Cody inquired, expecting that his deputy had found a place that acted the same as the piece of Earth behind Miss Corbet’s.
“No, this time I mean- nothing, not nothing.” Jitters made an exasperated face and tried again, “There’s no strangeness here- just normal dirt, see.” He dug his heel into the ground and they spent a couple of long minutes waiting on the smoothing out that never came. “Not at all certain what this means, Sheriff.”
“Never you mind the thinking it out, Jitters. I got that end covered,” Cody assured his deputy, even though he didn’t have a hint what it all meant- it was beyond his ken for sure. “It means that whatever way he come back, if he was even ever gone and not sleeping off his whiskey breakfast, lunch and dinner in some barn- whatever way he come back didn’t do to the dirt what the way he left did.” Prentice looked at him, blinking in disbelief. “Well, it’s something, ain’t it?” Cody asked.
Now Cody was about sure that she had been a specter from inside his head, the strange woman, but then she had to go ahead and top her first entrance into Burgess Gulch by walking into town leading an old nag with Mayoress Litchfield a sitting in the saddle two days after Mandy had gone missing. And, as soon as she did, all and sundry greeted her as if she was a favored daughter, beloved there since birth.
“How do, Miss Lucy, how goes things round about the mine?” Jeb asked her, sweet as you please.
“I’m quite well, thank you kindly. It’s poor Miranda here that needs tending to,” she told him as they made for Doc Smith’s office.
Of course, Cody and Jitters went right over to see about how Mandy was. She claimed to have been thrown from her horse outside of town, not far from Prowess Copse. Said she spent the better part of two days lying in a ditch before Miss Lucy came upon her and got her inside to get fed, cleaned up and rested a while before they came into town. Doc Smith prescribed rest and laudanum for her aches, and then all the excitement was finished.
As they stepped outside leaving Mandy in Doc Smith’s capable hands, Miss Lucy stepped close to Cody, smiled that same sweet smile she’d given in the sweat lodge up at him and said, “Awful nice of you to be so concerned for the Mayoress considering, Sheriff.”
“Considering what, Miss Lucy?” Cody asked, but she just shook her head at him and walked off. Now, what in tarnation was he to make of that?
As Cody watched her walk off in her ridiculous get up- still the oversized duster and the lurid calico dress, Cody could hear Prentice speak as he poked Jeb with his elbow. “How is it that they that woman can look like that and still look like that?” he asked in appreciation of her and Cody figured he best just give it all up and find some whisky.
Soft knocking roused Cody from the stupor he’d fallen into looking at the changing light of the setting sun play in and out of the whisky bottle glass. As he turned the bottle, the light twisted and hopped along the flaws in the glass. He’d been thinking about how much like that light he’d been feeling lately- someone up there was twisting his bottle round so that nothing looked the same and he didn’t know what was true and what was flawed. There was just about none who came up to his room above the sheriff’s station to get him unless there were some peacemaking problem that needed seeing to. It was something awful rare when that type of problem prompted such a timid knock. Cody wondered who might have been so bold as to come up to his rooms, only to turn so bashful as to knock with such gentleness.
A tug on the rickety doorknob revealed Nannette standing on the landing. She had a crooked smile on her face and a basket that smelled suspiciously of apple pie. “Going to let me in Cody or do I have to get rough with you?” she asked smoothly. Then, without waiting on an answer, she swept passed him into the room. “Sake’s alive, this is a sight,” she scolded, looking around at the disarray that had crept up round the place over the last few weeks.
“Well, you know me and housekeeping,” Cody muttered and came over to help her as she started picking up refuse from the small table he’d just been sitting at. Cody looked at her, again getting hit with the trueness the woman had about her. If he’d had a mind to be getting married, which he didn’t much, he couldn’t have conjured up a more perfect woman to bind himself to. Cody shook that though off- Nannette weren’t naught by a friend to him and seemed not to want to be more than that to any man. There was something about her that was beyond that.
“Come now, Cody, it ain’t all that bad that pie won’t help, is it?” Nanette asked as she laid the table and cut them each a slice, his rough pewter plates sounding harder on the wood than Nannette’s soft use of them made him expect. Then she sat herself down there at his table.
“No, ma’am, it certainly ain’t,” he agreed and took his place next to her, feeling glad not to have slid comfortably into that all but forgotten whisky bottle (for he would have missed this if he had and that weren’t anywhere near to an even trade).