Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sheriff Charley Brown: Chapter XI

Dressing warmly against the bitter cold, Marguerite left the house just as the morning passenger train was backing away from the St. Vincent depot. The sudden spinning of the engine's wheels and the belching of dark smoke briefly drew her attention. Moments later, while passing the depot, she heard a door slam at the station. Glancing up, she observed a tall man stepping from the depot platform. Over the rumble of the departing train she heard his crunching footsteps as he crossed the icy crust angling toward her. Although it was apparent he would overtake her, she felt no trepidation since it was a bright, sunny day. Surprisingly, he pulled abreast and slowed to her pace.

As she looked up she became aware of his striking good looks, his clean-cut, beardless face. She judged him to be in his mid-twenties, a bit over six feet in height. His clothes showed a casual elegance, his garments, including his overcoat, all indicated custom tailoring. He's from the city, she decided.

Smiling at her, he said, "I'm on my way to Pembina. If that's where you're headed, may I walk with you?"

"You must have come in on the morning train." She was certain she had never seen him before.

"Yes, I'm from Chicago. I'm a representative of the McCormick Machinery Company. My name is Paul Evans, and I'm making the rounds of the local implement dealers. It seems a poor time of the year to do it though." His face held a wry look.

She laughed lightly, "I'm Marguerite Grant. You're welcome to walk along with me. Perhaps you can tell me something of your big city." She noted his smooth complexion, his nicely shaped nose and vivid blue eyes. Wisps of light brown hair protruded from the sides of his stylish derby hat.

"There really isn't much to tell you about Chicago except for the great fire back in October of '71. You probably heard all about that.”

"Very little detail -- we get few newspapers here. Were you involved?"

"I lived it! I was only fifteen years old at the time and my family was burned out. My father, mother and I took refuge on the edge of the Lake Michigan--we almost stood in the water at times." His voice faltered, "There were nearly 100,000 others who lost their homes, and over 300 people lost their lives. Surprisingly, within a year the city was nearly rebuilt. Now Chicago is booming, mainly because of the railroads, packing houses and manufacturing."

"That must have been a horrible experience. We've had few dangerous fires around here." She glanced at him fleetingly.

As he studied her, his interest grew. He noted her slimness and striking looks. Her dark eyes seemed to devour him and her shapely lips awoke strange feelings. A brief silence settled between them, then he finally said, "Christmas time is certainly a poor time of the year for me to see distributors. I'll probably have to wait days before being able to transact any business." He added ruefully, “It wasn't my idea to come here at this time of the year, my blockman boss insisted upon it. Say, what do people hereabout do on a Christmas Eve?"

"Where are you staying? I see you're not carrying any luggage."

"The depot agent promised to deliver my bags to the Geroux Hotel in Pembina by one o'clock this afternoon."

She looked up at him with interest. "Geroux's hotel is where I'm headed. A Christmas Eve ball is planned for this evening. I'm going over to help with the final decorations. The party is open to one and all."

He slowed in his walk, turning, "Will you be there?"

She felt her cheeks warming. "Yes, my fiancé is escorting me." She thought she detected a sudden crestfallen look on his face.

He hesitated several moments before finally saying, "Well, if it's a ball, there must be an orchestra. Perhaps you'll save a dance for me?"

"It's possible, we'll see." She was smiling outwardly, but her emotions were suddenly nettled. Charley might not approve of her dancing with a total stranger, especially a handsome stranger. Abruptly, it occurred to her that this just might awaken a spark of jealousy in him. She tossed her head -- it'll serve him right! I'll dance with this Paul, if he asks.

Reaching Pembina's main street, Paul remarked, "For a small town it has a lot of stores."

"Oh, folks have been crowding into town for the past three years. Much of the land has been free to homesteaders; also the railroad has cheap land to sell. We've nearly 4500 people between the two towns." She nodded to the north; "That's Geroux's new hotel on the corner, it just opened recently. It's supposed to be the finest in the Territory. I'll introduce you to Lucien, he's the owner."

Paul took her arm to aid her on the icy hotel steps. "I'm looking forward to seeing you this evening."

As he reached out to tug on the door handle, she looked at him shyly, "I'd like that!"

"And I'm also looking forward to seeing you in future days to come!"

She felt her cheeks flush, "That remains to be seen." Minutes later she joined others in the huge dining room being converted into this evening's ballroom. Lulu Robinson had seen her enter the hotel with Paul and was inquisitive. "Who was that handsome man you introduced to Lucien. Where did he come from?"

Lulu and Marguerite had never been close friends, obviously because of Marguerite's family and heritage. A Machiavellian idea struck her; she said coolly, "He's a friend of mine from Chicago. He's coming to the dance this evening."

"Isn't Charley escorting you?"

"Certainly, but I'll be dancing with Paul, too."

She could immediately see the expression of envy on Lulu's face. A warm feeling of smugness came. It serves you right Lulu! You've always treated me like trash!

Sarah Abrams rushed gaily over to her. She carried a small paper bag partially concealed under colored crepe paper. She wore a secretive expression. "I managed to get three sprigs of mistletoe from Ned Cavalier. Where can we hang them to our best advantage?"

Marguerite smiled. "I suppose one cluster hanging from the center of the dance floor, and maybe one hanging in the foyer. But darned if I know about the third."

"How about the cloak room. It'll be a quiet place and out of the way."

"Fine, as long as Mrs. Geroux doesn't find out. She's won't want any embarrassment."

Sarah laughed gaily, "She's got her man; we've got to catch ours."

"Fine then, but we'll need a ladder."

The Christmas Eve supper at the McLaren home was gay and festive. The entire McLaren family, with the exception of Mary, who was living at Fort Leavenworth with Kirby, was present. Susan had seated her mother between Charley and Ian's mother. Grace was said and wine glasses were filled as Ian's father, Patrick, carved the turkey. Susan and Marguerite began serving platters of fluffy mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, deviled eggs, and cranberries. In addition, sweet and sour pickles along with small cut slices of both rye and white bread magically appeared.

A half hour elapsed before Patrick firmly pushed back from the table. "I'm plumb full of dinner and wine; it's all I can hold. You youngsters going to the dance had better be on your way. Mother and I will clean up and take care of the baby. In fact," he looked roguishly at Jerold and Knute, "You two just might make yourselves useful with the dishes, too!"

"Like heck we will!" Jerold began to grin. We're going to the dance. In fact, you and mother should come along with us," Maggy smiled, "It'll be too crowded and too much for us. I'll clean up and take care of the Susan's babe."

"No, mother!" Susan shook her head, turning to Ian, "Marguerite and I will do the kitchen, then we'll go up and dress for the ball. Ian, why don't you and the boys harness up a team to the bobsled? Marguerite is riding with Charley, but there'll be four of us, and the cutter is too small. We won't be long, we'll hurry!"

With Ian and Susan on the front seat and the two boisterous boys seated behind them, the bobsled led off. The boys began singing Jingle Bells at the top of their lungs, accompanied by the jingling string of bells attached to their team. Charley and Marguerite followed immediately behind, bundled snugly together under a buffalo robe.

The night sky had cleared with a quarter moon emitting a ghostly, foggy cast, abetted by the sounds of the trotting horses and crisp hissing of sleigh runners. Sounds of the steadily ringing bells came from the lead sleigh, gradually fading as Ian pulled far ahead.

Charley felt thwarted, "Those darn kids swiped the string of bells I had the hostler put on my horse. I might have known they'd pull that stunt."

"We'll just steal them back," Marguerite chuckled, "They'll park and blanket the team behind Geroux's. We can do the same."

Entering the hotel lobby Marguerite pretended indifference to the mistletoe hanging in the foyer. Waiting momentarily for Ian and Susan, she finally removed her wrap with Charley's assistance. Her appearance drew gasps of admiration from several onlookers, and to her delight, Charley actually whistled. She wore a snow-white décolleté dress of white silk that appeared to have no support. Then he noted the barely visible, shoulder straps. The dress was of a simple design, but it emphasized her shapely shoulders and bustline. It fitted snugly to her sleek body, ballooning out to within an inch of the floor. The gown was a complete surprise to Charley, as she had donned her coat prior to descending the stairs at Ian's house.

Her heavy fall of hair was braided into coils arranged crown-like, sprinkled with tiny flicks of mica, to sparkle much like snowflakes. Although momentarily shocked at the daring of the dress, Charley realized he would be the envy of every unattached man in the room, and probably many of the married ones.

Smiling saucily, Marguerite pirouetted for him. "Well, how do I look? Is it a bit too daring?"

Charley was almost tongue-tied. "My Gosh! I almost forgot how beautiful you really are! Where did you buy that stunning gown?"

"I made it myself -- ordered the material from the cities."

At that moment Paul Evans was the furthest thing from Marguerite's mind, her love for Charley so apparent.

While hanging up their coats Charley noted the sprig of mistletoe dangling in the cloakroom, but deemed the room too crowded to take advantage of the moment. As they entered the ballroom he and Ian were forced to take an available table next to the dance floor. Nearly half of the huge room was already crowded with revelers, while only a third of the floor was cleared for the actual dancing. Gazing around the room Charley observed his mother seated with friends. He was conscious of her gaze and noted that she watched him intently as he seated Marguerite. Bending to Marguerite's ear, he whispered, "I'll be right back." Squeezing through the throng he approached his mother, nodding briefly to her friends.

"Mother, would you care to join our group?"

She gazed at him frostily, and then said, "I will remain here. I prefer to sit with my friends."

For moments her crude rebuff shocked him, then he stiffened to murmur dispassionately, "As you wish." Turning away in dismay, he determined to totally ignore her. I might have known, he thought, she hasn't changed a bit.

Marguerite noted the grim expression on his face as he returned and sensed his disquiet. Reaching out to cover his hand lightly, she suggested, "Could we have some wine or champagne. I'd like something bubbly to start the evening."

Susan smiled, nodding agreeably. Jarred from his brooding, Charley said, "Certainly! I heard Lucien ordered several cases of wine just for the occasion. We'll find a waiter."

Ian and Susan had also sensed his uneasy mood and Ian stood to say, "The service is slow -- just too many people. I'll step into the bar for a bottle and glasses."

The Emerson band members began gathering in the corner of the dance floor, setting up their music stands and tuning their instruments. Susan exclaimed, "Look, they have two violins and a cello. Hopefully that'll tune down those loud coronets and drums they love so much."

When Ian returned with a tray of glassware, he handed dance cards with small-attached pencils to each of the girls. Charley reserved the first and last dance with Marguerite, saving two others. Smiling, he pleaded two dances with Susan, exclaiming, "I'd love more, but I suppose you two will be dancing with the boys, and probably every other Tom, Dick and Harry, too"

As Marguerite tied the dance card to her wrist she smiled, "Yes, and I'm going to enjoy tonight, even if my feet feel worn-out tomorrow."

Gathering their instruments, a brief prelude was played to indicate the forming for the Grand March. Couples paired off, vying for positions in the march behind the sponsors of the ball, Lucien Geroux and his wife.

Charley and Marguerite found their position in the line almost back by the kitchen of the huge building. The stirring march music then began, leading to their grand entrance into the ballroom. The orchestra then accompanied them in two circles of the ballroom before finally swinging into the Blue Danube Waltz. Surprisingly, Marguerite judged the orchestra's rendition of the waltz quite excellent. When the music ceased for an exchange of partners, and before they could fully return to their table, the girls were besieged with dance requests.

After exchanging the second dance, Charley and Ian retired to the adjoining bar, leaving the girls to cope with admirers.

Ian noted Charley's glum mood. "Something troubling you?"

"Is it that obvious?"

"Well, it appears something is tearing you up. What is it?"

"It's a family matter. I'm disgusted with my Mother; she's so set in her ways."

"You mean it's over your escorting Marguerite, isn't it?"

His question went unanswered; Charley turned to the bartender, ordering bourbon. After casually sipping his drink, he morosely remarked, "You're right. The problem is, my Mother met Marguerite while she was working as a chambermaid upstairs. How she found out that Marguerite is part Indian I'll never know. Even I would hardly have suspected it if I hadn't known her folks. Because of my mother's moralistic traits, she frowns on miscegenation. You see, intermarriage is not allowed in Virginia or any other southern state for that matter. It's considered a reflection of complete degeneration of white mankind."

"Is that the way you feel?"

"I just don't know my own mind, Ian." Charley shook his head wearily. "I'm half-afraid of marriage."

"You'd better straighten your head out," Ian was growing peeved. "Marguerite is a mighty fine woman and she's not going to wait forever. I know she's in love with you now, but love will fly out the window after too long a period of time.”

"For heavens sake, Ian, drop the subject! It's my problem; I don't need any further advice!"

Ian downed his drink, and then he turned abruptly toward the ballroom.

During the men's absence cut-ins became prevalent on the dance floor. While dancing with Knute, Marguerite became aware that Paul Evans was approaching. Tapping Knute on the shoulder, Paul smiled pleasantly to say, "May I have the honor?"

Knute looked hopefully to Marguerite, but saw her radiant smile at the stranger.

"Do you mind Knute? We can dance later."

After sweeping Marguerite into his arms, she became aware that Paul was an accomplished dancer; they seemed to reach a smooth fluidity on the floor. While Charley was a fair dancer, this man easily matched her every nuance with ease. As they twirled at each step, her skirt twisted around her ankles, falling away as they reversed. The decor of myriads of lighted Japanese lanterns used in the ballroom seemed to blend into kaleidoscopic images. She became aware of a rapt enchantment, dancing dreamily with him, cheek to cheek. Even the faint male odor of him seemed strange, but comfortable. Almost too quickly the dance ended and he escorted her to her table.

As he thanked her, he managed the chair to ease her seating. "Is it possible to dance with you later?"

She looked up at him, smiling, "My scheduled dances are all taken, but it's possible you can cut-in again."

Susan arrived almost breathless after her dance with Jerold. She looked up at Paul and asked nonchalantly, "Just who are you?"

Marguerite laughed aloud. "This is Paul Evans, the man I told you about. Paul this is my sister Susan, she's married to Ian McLaren." She turned to Susan. "Where are the men?"

"We're footloose and fancy free -- they're both at the bar."

Marguerite gave Paul a brief peek at her card. "See, it really is full-up. But you can try again later."

"I'll certainly do that." Turning to Susan he added, "Now that I've had the pleasure of meeting two beautiful women, I'll leave to bask in my reflections." He smiled as he bowed briefly and turned away.

"You didn't tell me he was that handsome." Susan accused.

"And he's a wonderful dancer too!" Marguerite was smiling.

"Won't Charley be jealous if you dance with him more than once?"

"Let him, it's a free world." She smiled dreamily, "He didn't see me dance with Paul this time, but I hope there will be another time when he will."

Susan slapped her sister's hand lightly, "I'll bet Charley will be green-eyed! Lordy, that guy is gorgeous!"

"It'll serve him right. He's too possessive and sure of himself. Maybe he'll finally propose."

"A little jealousy goes a long way, but what do you know about this Paul?"

"Not much. He's well mannered, polite and works for the McCormick Company. He seems quite sincere and honest."

Susan indicated with her hand, "Here comes Ian, and Charley is right behind him. I've got the next dance with Mike."

Marguerite studied her card, smiling as she shook her head; "I've got the next dance with Ned Cavalier. I'll have to hold him at arms length. He's a devil in disguise, always holding me too close."

Susan turned to Ian and Charley. "You two can roam the room looking for girls. We're going to be busy dancing, especially Marguerite."

Ian noticed Knute dancing with a young girl. He nudged Charley. "Look at that Knute dancing up a storm. You'd never know he lost a foot."

"He adjusted well after that bastard Murphy threw dynamite under his buggy horse. It's a wonder he and Mary weren't killed. Their carriage was smashed to bits in the runaway. At least Murphy is dead now. He got what was coming to him."

"Hey, look! Someone is cutting in on Ned."

Charley leisurely turned to see a tall handsome man whirl Marguerite away from a surprised Ned. They swept the floor with a visible grace, and it became apparent other dancers were watching them closely. He had to admit that they were well matched; they seemed to meld in every dance movement.

"You've got some competition, Charley. I've not seen the man before."

"Neither have I. He's probably a drummer, or someone new in town."

As the dance ended and Paul escorted Marguerite back to her table, Charley noted the flushed and obviously happy look on her face. She smiled up at him as she made the introduction. "Charley and Ian, this is Paul Evans. He's here for the next few days on business. He sells farm machinery."

Charley felt a pang of jealousy as he took the stranger's hand. "Odd time for you to be in Pembina, isn't it? Not much machinery moving now."

Paul quickly sized up Charley, guessing that this man was Marguerite's escort. He smiled, "You're quite right. My business might take longer that I first anticipated." He studied the faces of Charley and Ian. "Although I'm a stranger in town, I've already met two lovely ladies."

"Won't you join us at our table?" Susan asked.

Paul noted the stiff expression on Charley's face, but Ian was smiling graciously.

"No, I don't want to intrude upon your kindness. I believe I'll step to the bar."

As he walked away, Charley turned to Marguerite. "This is our dance I believe." As they went onto the floor, he asked, "What was that all about? How well do you know him?"

His questioning raised her dander. "He asked me for a dance. What's it to you? Are you running me? Are you my husband?"

"No, but I'm the one who brought you to the dance."

"Well, goody two-shoes! Aren't you the nice one now! What would I do without you?" Long moment’s later reasoning returned and she calmed down, moving tightly to him.

Charley realized he had no right to question her and remained silent for the remainder of the dance.

At the stroke of midnight, couples endeavored to crowd under the mistletoe to kiss. As the final notes of Auld Lang Syne faded, a buffet lunch was wheeled out on long tables and lines formed. By l a.m. many of the older folks began to leave. Marguerite noted that Charley's mother and her friends were among the first to go.

At times Marguerite felt self-conscious, since she observed Paul gazing at her occasionally. She wished he would cut-in one more time, but he only smiled at her as he watched from a distance. She noted that several of her recent schoolmates conveniently crowded close to him, hoping for his attention; apparently he was ignoring them all.

It was nearly 3 a.m. when Susan finally said, "I'm exhausted; isn't it time to go home?"

Entering the cloakroom they surprised Knute who was in a torrid embrace with the youngest Johnson girl. The couple was completely unaware of their existence. At first the girls stopped at the door, not wanting to embarrass the pair, but Ian laughingly approached Knute. He put his hand upon Knute's shoulder. "I hate to break up this romance, but I have to get our coats."

The surprised couple broke apart, the Johnson girl not a bit embarrassed. Knute looked abashed, "Kate is riding home with us. Her folks left her in my care."

Ian smiled at the girl, "Kate, I'd watch him like a hawk. Thank heaven you're safe now; we'll all escort you home." Turning to Knute, he advised, "Better find Jerold, unless he has another ride home."

Knute was already helping Kate with her coat. "We'll round him up. It's too darned cold for walking."

Stepping into the sleigh, Marguerite arranged the robes while Charley removed and folded the blanket cover from the horse. Placing it on the floor beneath their feet, he tucked the buffalo robe around them, pulling it to their chests. Turning to Marguerite, he asked, "Whither way?"

She looked at him mischievously, "It's too cold outside so I guess you might as well take me home."

"We could sneak upstairs to my place for awhile."

"Yes, and we'd probably fall asleep and be seen coming out of there in the morning. No thanks! We'd be the talk of the town."

"Any better idea?"

"Nope! Not at the moment. Of course you could marry me and make me an honest woman."

Charley turned to her defensively, "Bringing that up again?"

"Just take me home!" A sudden anger came. "It seems I'm just not good enough for you." Involuntarily tears began streaming down her cheeks and she pulled her hood tightly over her face. After their wonderful evening together everything seemed to be falling apart; Charley was spoiling it all!

Returning Marguerite to St. Vincent, Charley attempted to break the ominous silence twice, but she remained tight-lipped. As he drew up in front of her home he tried for a final kiss, only to have his arms thrust away. Quickly stepping from the sleigh, she entered the house without as much as turning her head. Frustrated, he hesitated for long moments. Shaking his head, puzzled, he slapped the reins and drove away.

Dressing for bed, Marguerite pondered wearily. Why do I have such trouble with Charley? It seems we always end up in an argument. Perhaps if Paul remains in town for a few more days I'll see more of him. He is charming and so sure of himself. If it upsets Charley, then so be it! It's been two years now and we don't seem any nearer to marriage.