A Historical Novel

Chapter Three
      Gigi knew that the troublesome boy had claimed an abandoned adobe on the banks of the Rio Hondo. Having replaced the broken windows, hung curtains, and changed the locks, he declared himself the house’s owner by right of possession. No one contested his claim, though the people of Gigi’s generation knew the old adobe had been built by Ramon Zamora, a former Chisum top hand. Gigi could remember going there as a child with her father. Before Chauncy moved in, the house had stood empty since long before her return nearly a decade ago.
      “What we need, Teene, is a mailbox,” she said, emphasizing the last word. This was a game she had taught the dog early in their companionship, having found it necessary to decipher an address when she was going someplace new. The trick only worked in certain neighborhoods, however, because the fancier homes had mail slots cut into their front doors and the numbers attached to the house itself. She couldn’t very well approach someone’s home and feel for the numbers to be certain where she was, but she could do that with a mailbox, and this neighborhood was accommodating. Teene led her to a post with the metal receptacle on top. Gigi felt along its side, deciphering the name STEWART spelled out in paint raised above the surface. “Thank you, Teene,” she said, facing the yard.
      No scent of horticulture graced the bare dirt, though she smelled the uniformly dry disturbance of the ground having recently been swept as she followed Teene to the front door. Sparrows twittered in a nearby mulberry, its pungent buds hinting at the bitter fruit to come. From two blocks west, faint traffic noises floated off Main, otherwise only a mutt barking a block away, having caught the scent of Teene, a dog new to the neighborhood. Gigi knocked on the door closed snug in the crudely plastered adobe wall, but from the silence within she expected no response.
      She cast her attention around the neighborhood, the location of the other humble, flat-roofed homes suggested only by a sense of interrupted open space. She felt no eyes, not even a cat’s, and that was odd, to walk anywhere in town without feeling the surreptitious focus of felines crouched in the strangest spaces to watch Teene pass by. The sparrows chittered unconcerned, nothing else alive within range, the silence of Chauncy’s home a dirge.
      Gigi nudged Teene back toward the street. It was nearly time for Ida’s lesson. The girl may have heard something more about Chauncy and Eleanor, and Gigi would much rather listen to Ida prattle than punish the piano.
      Chauncy Stewart peered over the edge of the river bank to watch Miss Garrett walk away with her seeing-eye dog. Tall and blond, he crouched to keep the sun from glinting off his hair, then remembered she couldn’t see him. He stood up and watched her bulky body in its bright green coat tagging along behind the small shepherd dog.
      Chauncy regretted that he hadn’t been home to talk to her. But since she was already leaving, he decided it best to stay invisible as long as he could. After walking back to town the night before, he had gone by Eleanor’s house and flicked pebbles at her bedroom window without getting any response. Not knowing if she was deeply asleep or simply not there, he went home feeling dreadful. Sleep when it finally came had been a sledgehammer that knocked him out so long he was late for work. Sneaking in through the back door, he had heard Sheriff Rendt ask Mr. Sutton where he was. The grocer hadn’t sounded annoyed when he said he didn’t know, so Chauncy was about to relax about being late when Rendt told Sutton that Eleanor was missing.
      “You think she’s run off with Chauncy?” Sutton asked with a twang of ridicule.
      “Or worse,” Rendt said. “If the boy shows, lock him in a closet ‘til I can pick him up.”
      Chauncy had slipped out the back as silently as he had gone in and jogged south down the alley, too scared to think. Finding himself directly across from the jail’s parking lot, he slowed his pace to an inconspicuous stroll. The lot was empty, which meant all the officers were out in the field. The sheriff in his new Packard shiny black as a spider. Mr. Fielding was prob’ly with him, a shotgun on the seat. Chauncy ran through the naked sunlight to the winter-dry arroyo of the Hondo, jumped its five-foot bank and trotted up its sinuous, sandy throat to within twenty yards of the back of his house. Then he just sat down and let the warm sand trickle through his fingers, thinking his hopes and ambitions were as meaningless as the falling sand. When he finally stood up, he saw Miss Garrett walking away from his front door. Though he wanted to call to her out of pure loneliness, he held his tongue and watched her leave. When he was sure she was gone, he sprinted across the yard, unlocked the door, and slid inside.
      Seeing his meager belongings as he had left them, he felt a premature nostalgia, knowing he couldn’t stay and doubting he’d be back. In the kitchen, he opened a box of cereal and ate it by handfuls stuffed in his mouth as he prowled his bedroom, surveying his possessions for what he should take. When he dropped the box, yellow corn flakes spilled in a crescent across the green army blanket stretched tight on his bed. From a cracked dusty shoe at the back of his closet, he took a small roll of bills tied with string. He didn’t need to count the money. Fifty-eight dollars in fives and ones. He returned to the kitchen, opened the back door, and scouted out the yard. Casually sauntering across it, he veered to his neighbor’s back door, lifted the fresh quart of milk off the stoop and drank the cool, rich froth as he walked east on a dirt path striped with shadows thrown by the bare cottonwoods lining the road.
      He left with regret. The formerly abandoned adobe had been his first home on his own and he had lived there only two years. Since being orphaned, he had traded work for lodging and sometimes board, too. The merchants acted like giving him a job was an act of charity, yet everyone expected him to pay his way. He had done it, even stuck with Sutton a lot longer than any other box boy. But he couldn’t stay now to find out what had happened to Eleanor, couldn’t explain anything to the sheriff and her father since they already blamed him. She wouldn’t have gone there without him, so maybe it was his fault, whatever had happened, but not his desire, he never wanted to hurt her. Didn’t matter. They wouldn’t believe him. Best to blow now, like the dust across the prairie.
      Gigi smoothed fresh newspaper on the floor of Jericho’s cage. Smut watched from the floor, nonchalantly cleaning a paw as if she had no interest in the canary. Nervous over the calico cat’s proximity, Jericho pooped on the clean paper.
      “You could have waited five minutes,” Gigi scolded, then laughed as she latched the door. “Come along, Smut,” Gigi said, running her palm over the cat’s face, the smudge of gray she was named for dense as wet ashes across one eye. “If it weren’t for you, Jericho could fly free about the house. But I’m afraid your baser instincts would get your best.”
      Propping the screen door open with one foot as she lifted the metal lid off the trash can, she dropped the dirty paper in and closed the lid, then stood straight a moment, savoring the quiet lull of a Saturday morning when all her neighbors were engrossed in finishing chores before lunch. The intensity of collective determination hummed around her until a buzzard flew so low overhead the wind of its wings tarnished her mood with a reminder of death.
      “Nonsense,” she muttered. Hearing Ida arrive at the front door, Gigi left Smut in the walled yard with Teene, begrudging companions at best, and hooked the screen.
      “Yoo-hoo, Miss Garrett?” Hope in the girl’s voice that the lesson might be canceled.
      “Here I am, Ida.” Gigi quickly washed her hands at the sink. By running her fingertips along the smoothly-plastered adobe, she charted her course the short length of the hall and from there was able to walk freely the familiar steps across her studio to sit gracefully at her piano. “Have you been practicing, Ida?”
      “Yes’m.” Contrition in her voice. “But, golly, Miss Garrett, I’m just so breathless from what’s going on, I can’t hardly pay attention to nothing.”
      “It’s in such moments we especially need to assert control. The choice is yours, Ida. Do you want to be a will-o-wisp blown every which way by anything that happens, or to stand your ground, firm in your purpose?”
      “Stand my ground,” she acceded, taking her place on the bench. “But, golly, Miss Garrett, aren’t you excited?”
      Gigi opened the music. “Is this where we left off?”
      “Yes’m,” came the murmured response.
      Ida smelled of Pears soap, Bluestone Bleach, and Dreft laundry detergent. Her fly-away hair was oiled by her mother to make it more manageable; the oil had a honeysuckle sweetness belied by the soiled mustiness emanating from the swaddled damp places on the girl’s pubescent body.
      Gigi listened to her clumsy execution of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, a piece so melodious its beauty could survive the massacre of artless performance. “Use your fourth finger there, Ida, not your third.”
      The music stopped mid-phrase. “How can you tell which finger I’m using?”
      “I can hear how it sounds. Continue, please.”
      Ida played a moment more. “I just can’t hardly stand it!” she cried, giving up with an exuberant toss of her hands. “What do you think Chauncy and Eleanor are doing right now?”
      “I have no idea. Let’s begin this time with the second movement.”
      “Oh, Miss Garrett! You’re no fun.” Ida twisted on the bench so her breath came warm and syrupy from her pancake breakfast. “Don’t you think it’s romantic to elope!”
      A breeze through the open door rifled the sheet music. Gigi held it in place with the flat of her hand, enjoying the scent of hyacinths carried on the wind. “If that’s what they’ve done, I hope they’ll both be very happy.”
      “My father thinks Chauncy took her without her say so. He says boys like Chauncy, growing up without a family, go crazy sometimes and grab the first woman that stirs their loins.”
      Gigi folded her hands in her lap. “Who was Eleanor’s best friend, do you know?”
      “Marta Wylie, I guess. They usually sit together at church and stuff. What do you think they’ll do to Chauncy when they catch him?”
      “That depends on what he’s done. Let’s go back to Beethoven, shall we?”
      Ida sighed. “This piece is kinda pretty when I don’t mess up.”
      Gigi smiled. “Music is an art, which means a person never stops learning its craft.”
      Ida vigorously pounded the poco moto movement, but Gigi persevered, reminding herself that the tuition of such students allowed her the freedom to work on her own compositions late at night.
      They were just beginning a Brahms lullaby when Sheriff Rendt filled her doorway. Gigi lifted her head and nodded at the man who blocked so much of the sun’s warmth, identifying him by the qualities she had assigned him earlier: the musky sweat of day-old clothes, creaks of a leather belt with his breath, and a faint odor of machine oil off his weapon. Ida was intent on the lullaby and finished before looking up.
      “Oh my gosh!” she squealed. “You heard me!”
      “Sounded pretty,” Rendt admitted gruffly. “Run along home now, Ida. Lesson’s over for today ‘cause I gotta talk with Miss Garrett.”
      “About Eleanor and Chauncy?” The girl was almost beside herself with curiosity.
      “Never you mind. Run along now.”
      “It’s all right, Ida,” Gigi said. “We’ll make up our lost time next week.”
      Ida’s soapy aura diminished as she walked backward toward the door. “See you, Miss Garrett.” Then, turning away, “Goodbye, Sheriff Rendt.”
      They listened to her footsteps run across the dormant yard and a distant door bang before Gigi said, “Come in, Sheriff. Would you like some tea?”
      “No thanks,” he scoffed, as if he might say yes to coffee.
      But Gigi didn’t offer that. “Won’t you sit down?”
      He crossed the room and lowered himself onto the banco of her unlit kiva fireplace in the corner, hardware on his belt clinking as leather creaked around his girth. “I heard you visited Chauncy Stewart this morning.”
      Not surprised she had been seen, she answered smoothly, “I paid a call. He wasn’t home.”
      “What’d you go see him for?”
      “I thought he might need someone to talk to.”
      The sheriff looked around. Feeling his eyes invade every shadowed corner of her studio, she let her mind’s gaze fondle her things to compensate for his rude prying: the Spanish painting of gypsy dancers, red skirts flashing, all stiletto legs and smoldering glances; the bundle of fatwood beside the hearth, its cold ashes velvet with soot; the black wrought-iron tools hung in their rack; the bench with its brown serape folded for padding; the blue-painted hutch in the kitchen at the end of the hall, the Regulator clock beside it ticking off minutes; the oak shutters behind her, closed to the sun, letting ribbons of warmth slash the dark wooden floor, the ebony piano behind whose ivory keys she sat facing her sunroom, inhaling the earthy smell of potted flowers, their rainbow blossoms riotous beneath Jericho’s golden song.
      “I’ve been thinking about that bouquet of lavender tulips you gave Mrs. Fielding,” Rendt said. “I’m surprised you know there are such things as colors, being blind and all.”
      “I could see for the first months of my life,” she said, having become accustomed to peoples’ curiosity about her condition. “I suppose the colors imprinted themselves into my mind.”
      “Huh,” he said. “How’d you lose your sight?”
      “It was customary in those days to place drops of blue vitriol in an infant’s eyes. The doctor apparently gave me too much.”
      After a moment, he mumbled, “Shame.”
      “Yes,” she agreed, “but I have my music.”
      “Did your daddy know you were musical before he sent you to that school in Austin?”
      “Yes,” she said.
      “Is that why he sent you so far away?”
      “My family was living in Uvalde most of those years, so it wasn’t very far.”
      “Raising race horses, wasn’t he, your daddy?”
      “Was good at it, what I heard. Better’n being sheriff.”
      She smiled politely. “The paperwork got him down.”
      “He was the best at tracking men, though, wasn’t he.”
      “He knew this country, and the ways of its men.”
      “Uh-huh.” His demeanor softened with his smile. “Wish he was around now so I could ask his advice on tracking Chauncy.”
      She waited.
      “You got any notion where that boy might’ve lit out to?”
      “Are you certain he’s gone?”
      “Nobody’s seen him all day.”
      “It’s not yet noon. Maybe he slept over with a friend and has no idea what’s going on.”
      “Eleanor just run off on her own?”
      “It’s possible, isn’t it?”
      “Not according to her parents. ‘Sides, where would she go?”
      “There are many places more alluring to a young woman than this town, Sheriff.” She bit her tongue against asking if he had no imagination, fearing the answer.
      “She didn’t leave on public transport. I checked the bus and train stations. To get outta town and go some place else, you gotta cross a hundred miles of prairie in any direction. Nobody’s reported a missing vehicle, and I don’t guess she walked.”
      “Does Chauncy own a vehicle?”
      “A fellow can come by one easily enough if he’s a mind to.”
      “But you said no one’s reported one missing.”
      “It might not’ve been noticed yet.”
      “Don’t you think you’re jumping the gun, Sheriff? You have no evidence Chauncy had anything to do with Eleanor’s disappearance, yet now you’re accusing him of stealing an automobile to carry her off, of which you again have no evidence.”
      “Hunches count in law work. Your daddy’d know I’m right.”
      “Why do you suspect Chauncy so strongly?”
      The sheriff scratched his cheek, still unshaved since they had talked hours before. “I always watch the oddball. Something odd happens, nine outta ten, I can lay it at his feet.”
      “Perhaps someone else crossed Eleanor’s path. Someone odd in the sense that they don’t belong here. Couldn’t that unknown person have taken her?”
      “When it comes to law, Miss Garrett, you can’t be thinking ‘what-if.’ You do that and pretty soon you’ll have a whole fandango that’s nothing but air. One prick of reality and—poof!—your theory’s in shreds.”
      She laughed to hear his husky voice say poof. “I stand corrected, sir. But surely you’ve considered other suspects?”
      “Like who?”
      She thought over the men in town. Recalcitrant workers, some, and negligent husbands; hard fathers, no doubt, among the gentry as well as the pobres. But she could think of none who would deliberately harm a child. Yet she knew young women were considered fair game to a certain breed of men, knew of amorous adventurers who gave no weight to the consequences of their conquests. None of that sort ever courted her, of course; such men steered clear of a sheriff’s daughter. “In this town,” she said softly, “there are places no ladies go. I should think he might not be a stranger there.”
      “We don’t get a lot of men moving up and down the Pecos ‘til planting starts. Right now we got drunks and shysters so bad at their game the spots let ‘em win outta pity. They’re mostly codgers. The young fellows on the loose are heading west to California.”
      “We’re in the midst of a great migration,” Gigi murmured.
      He studied her more sharply, his eyes like rivets of attention. “You follow the news, Miss Garrett?”
      “I listen to the radio at night.”
      “Me, too. In my car, often as not. Even when nothing’s happening in town, it takes a lotta watching to keep it that way.”
      She smiled, sitting protected behind her piano, its elegance speaking for her; all she had to do was sit straight and be pleasant. Minor achievements in the grand spectrum of life.
      “You’re good company,” Sheriff Rendt said, surprise rippling his voice. “Would you mind if I stopped by again sometime? Ain’t easy to find a sympathetic ear. Everybody’s got an angle going, expecting favoritism thrown their way, know what I mean?”
      “I can well imagine.”
      He stood up and walked in front of her piano to the door, opened it and stood looking out a moment, then faced her. “What do you think your daddy’d do about Eleanor Fielding?”
      “Search as if for a lost child.”
      “But fifteen ain’t quite, now is it? And Chauncy was seen talking to her last night at the boathouse. Being as her parents only faintly recollect seeing much of her after supper, there’s a chance she wasn’t there and they flat didn’t notice. Not something they’ll ever admit to, a’course. But given all that, far as we know, she was last seen with Chauncy. So ‘til we hear what he’s got to say, he’s our prime suspect. If he shows up here, will you let me know?”
      “I’ll try to convince him to talk to you.”
      “Not quite what I asked, is it, Miss Garrett?”
      “The best I can give, Sheriff Rendt.”
      “I’ll be darned,” he muttered, closing the door.