Chapter 5: Things Go Sideways

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My second morning in Phantom Gulch, I experienced slightly less disorientation than I had the day before. I climbed out of bed, commenced the awkward calisthenics of relieving myself, and selected a dress for the day. I chose one that buttoned up in front and tied in the back, a neat little royal-blue affair. Unfortunately it had a very stiff little standing lace collar that pressed on my windpipe and made my neck itch like nobody's business, but at least I didn't have to bother Shirley to help me get dressed. I gathered my hair up in a ponytail before I realized that elastic hair ties didn't actually exist here, so I settled with doing my best at "tying my hair up" with a ribbon, at least so it would be off my neck. If I was going to wear elbow-length sleeves in this blazing hot "Texa-Zona-Cali" weather, I definitely wanted to do whatever it took to take the layers off the back of my shoulders!

The look that Shirley gave me when I walked into the kitchen made my cheeks burn.

"Land sakes!" She gasped, her eyes full of pity. She pulled her hands out of the biscuit dough and wiped them off thoroughly before reaching out to take my arm. "Laura, you look like you didn't sleep a wink! Is the bed too uncomfortable for you? We haven't had any new mattresses in town for several years--I just had to keep repairing that one every time the stuffing wore out--"

I shook my head. "Please, that bed is heavenly!" I assured her. "I didn't sleep well because I kept dreaming about those bandits up there in the bluff." I left it at that. I had told as much as was the truth, but not too much of the "iffy" details.

Shirley nodded somberly as she returned to plopping wads of dough on a smoking, sizzling slab atop the stove. A tangy, earthy smell came from a pot of simmering sausage gravy beside it.

"I don't blame you a bit, poor dear!" she soothed. "If I had been through half of what you've no doubt suffered, I would dream of it often, too!"

I almost jumped when a pair of boots hit the floor in the front hall behind me. Jerry came padding in on stockinged feet, just in the act of fastening his last suspender and smoothing down his shirt front. "Ah, Laura, good morning," he muttered, sitting down across from me as Shirley placed a mug of coffee next to him. "How's our wayward surprise visitor this morning?"

He looked at me, with eyes so noble and bright, I thought of Jerrak and I realized I couldn't feed him a line, not the way I did with Shirley. She saved me from answering, though, as she immediately volunteered, "The poor thing hardly slept at all, thanks to constant dreaming of getting attacked by the bandits in the bluffs--small wonder!"

Jerry gave an affable nod and sipped his coffee. "Well, wish me luck, Shirley-belle," he stood and planted a quick kiss on her floury cheek. "I'm off to assess the damage from yesterday's runaway wagon and oversee the repair jobs for the public spaces. Here's hoping there won't be too much of a spectacle around it. You know how this town gets."

"I do," Shirley murmured. "Good luck, Jerry."

"Be careful!" I warned, thinking of the bandits' conversation I'd overheard the night before.

Jerry stopped and looked at me. "Why would I need to be careful?"

My mind suddenly snapped back to my present reality and I realized what I'd done. Now they were both staring at me, surprise turning into concern which would quickly sour into suspicion if I couldn't come up with an alternative to the truth fast enough. Darn my mouth! "I, uh--well, I just can't help feeling that the runaway wagon might just be the first diversion in a much bigger coup, the way they've driven out the past sheriffs before you."

It didn't work. If anything, Jerry got even more suspicious. "Begging your pardon, ma'am," he got overly formal, dropping the familiar use of my name altogether, "but you just happened to arrive in this town yesterday.What could you possibly know about these past sheriffs you speak of?"

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