Meanwhile, Back in Porterville
Just as Sheriff Lom Trevors was putting the last of the bulletins away, he heard a small groan from the cell behind him.
"Must be waking up," Lom said to himself. Glancing over his shoulder, Lom saw the clock on the wall and realized that Preston Sherman (or "Pop" as he was popularly known) had only been asleep for half an hour. Normally, it took Pop hours to wake up after a really good bender.
Not that it happened all *that* frequently. Pop wasn't the town drunk -- that'd be Cleet Willet who lived above the livery stables. No, Pop was a respected member of the community with a lot of money and too much time on his hands since he'd sold his share of the Porterville Bank. The thing was this -- he liked to keep busy and one of his favorite pastimes was meeting new people. Unfortunately, since he already knew nearly everyone in Porterville (and they him), he'd taken to hanging about the saloons and hotels, meeting strangers and passing the time of day with whoever might strike his fancy. This led, not unexpectedly, to Pop occasionally going overboard buying rounds of drinks for the house. He'd also been known to dabble in a bit of matchmaking whenever he thought he'd come across a pair of young people that needed a little push. Yes, Pop was an eccentric and some thought he might even be slightly touched, but everyone liked him, including Lom. So, when Lom saw Pop coming out of the Double Eagle Saloon with a wobble in his step and his hat a tad skewed, he followed at a discreet distance and had been on hand when the old man had lost his balance.
If he was waking up already though, he might not have been quite as drunk as Lom had supposed when he saw him stumble out in the street. Still, Pop wasn't getting any younger and it worried Lom to have him wandering the streets when he was too muddled to really know what was happening or where he was. That's why whenever he saw that Pop in that condition, he led him back to the office to let him sleep it off.
It didn't do any harm to let Pop rest up there. After all, it wasn't as if cell space was scarce. Porterville was a quiet enough place most of the time. Certainly there were times the saloons could get pretty rowdy. Like when the hired hands from the surrounding ranches came in after pay day or when there was cattle drive passing nearby. Otherwise it was a quiet town where people went about their business in a nice, orderly fashion. That's what Lom liked about it.
A loud yawn disturbed the silence of the Sheriff's office. Pop sat up and was gingerly patting his hair back in place. Lom walked over, opened the cell door and went inside to help the older man, who was just getting to his feet. Pop smiled genially. "Thank you, Sheriff. Always obliged. No, no. Please don't bother with me. I can look after myself quite well now, thank you." The old man patted Lom on the arm as he made his way to the door that led out to Porterville's main square.
"Pop, you sure you don't want me or Deputy Harker to see you home?"
"Nonsense, Sheriff. I'm perfectly capable of seeing myself home this evening." He paused with a twinkle in his eye. "I may avail myself of your offer at some other time, when my night is not cut quite so short."
Lom smiled slightly. "Sorry, Pop. I guess I thought you'd been out a mite longer than you had. You stumbled..."
"Over a stone, dear boy. Over a stone. However," he paused to yawn slightly, "I'm not as young as I once was. Perhaps my evenings of endless carousing are coming to an end. And you," he pointed a finger at Lom, "need to find someone of your own to worry about instead of nursemaiding me."
Lom held the door open as the old man stepped out onto the walk outside the building. "Just doin' my job, Pop. Looking after things. 'Night." As Pop moved away, he passed the Porterville Bank which sat caddycorner to the Sheriff's office. Lom glanced at the bank before going back indoors. It was dark, just as it should be at this time of night. It wasn't too long ago that a group of outlaws had tried to rob it. Fortunately, the plot had been foiled by Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry.
Now, some people might have thought it was odd that two of the most notorious outlaws in the West would do such a thing -- particularly when it was their own gang's plot that they had foiled -- but then most people didn't know it had been Heyes and Curry. They had only been known to the good people of Porterville as Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones. Lom had known. They'd come to Porterville to see him. Naturally that wasn't something Lom let on about. If people would think Heyes and Curry preventing a bank robbery was odd, how much more odd would they think it was for the two outlaws to come to town intentionally to see the Sheriff. Lom had thought it more than odd. He'd thought they'd gone loco. When they explained why they'd come, he'd been sure of it.
Amnesty! He hadn't believed them at first. He thought it must be some kind of trick. Heyes and Curry, two men with $10,000 each on their heads, wanted the Governor of Wyoming to grant them amnesty. He pointed out to them how unlikely it would be, seeing as they had been mighty successful bank and trainrobbers and in the course of that success had managed to get on the wrong side of some pretty powerful people. Heyes pointed out that they'd never killed anyone and surely that ought to count for something. Furthermore, they'd said that Lom was the perfect person to ask on their behalf. Who better than a lawman who'd once been an outlaw? They reminded him that they'd always done right by him, never caused him the trouble they might have -- knowing he'd once been one of them, been on the other side of the law. And though he might have been being played like a fiddle, Lom realized that it had taken a great deal for them to walk into his office. They'd trusted him enough to come to ask his help and he knew that to do less than his utmost to help them turn their lives around would be a betrayal of that trust.
So, though he had some doubts about whether he could help them or not, he knew he couldn't refuse to try. They'd been through too much together for him to do that. They'd done what they could to spare his town and his reputation after he'd gone over to the law, rather than see him as a traitor as some might have. And lastly, Lom admitted to himself with a wry grin, he liked them, always had.
His decision made, Lom had gone to the Governor and gotten the best deal he could for his friends -- conditional amnesty. The conditions were that they stay out of trouble for a year or so as an act of good faith and that they tell no one about the deal. While he had no problem with the former, Lom wasn't crazy about the latter. The Governor had been worried about the political ramifications of such an announcement and had been adamant about keeping it quiet, so Lom took what he could get. Not surprisingly, Heyes and Curry were skeptical about such conditions but had apparently wanted the amnesty enough to accept them. Lom was not sure, even now, what had surprised him more -- their original desire for amnesty or their acceptance of the terms under which it was offered. As he'd watched them leave a few weeks back to embark on what they hoped would be a new way of life, he made himself a vow to do anything he could to help them succeed. If any two deserved it, it was those two.
The next morning Lom was up early and stopped by Southern's General Store on his way to relieve Deputy Harker at the office. His arrival was met with several hearty greetings from the group of local businessmen who made it a habit to gather there on weekday mornings.
"I hear Win Porter got back from his trip the other evenin'," said Patrick Southern from behind the counter. He handed Lom a cup full of freshly made coffee. Lom nodded and took a great gulp of the drink. "He was gone an awful long time," Southern continued. "What was it, Bill? Three months?
Bill Thomas, a giant of a man with quiet disposition, considered this for a minute. "'Bout that," he agreed. "I don't think he meant to be gone so long but since Miss Porter was keepin an eye on things..."
Another customer interrupted. "I don't hold with that...," he began.
John Cutter, owner of the local livery, was quick to agree. "The girl should not have been left in charge. Anything might have happened. That band of outlaws a couple of weeks back..."
Lom cleared his throat, getting their attention. "Nothing happened, Mr. Cutter. The robbery attempt failed. Even if it hadn't -- same thing might have happened if Mr. Porter had been here. Miss Porter did a fine job while her father was gone." Lom raised an eyebrow in Cutter's direction and addded, "Lessen' you've got a complaint I don't know about?" Lom waited a moment but Cutter had nothing else to say and left the store with a hurried word of farewell.
Patrick Southern laughed. "Sheriff, you've gone and scared off one of my best customers. You know, he hasn't got anything against Miss Porter in particular. Just strikes him a mite odd going and leaving a young woman -- and an attractive one at that -- in charge of the bank. Now me, I didn't mind at all." He grinned. "No sir. Makin' deposits became my favorite part of the day." Laughter followed and general agreement was reached that routine trips to the bank were not going to be nearly as attractive now that Mr. Porter was back. Lom chuckled a bit at the chaff that was bandied about but he didn't join in.
Soon after, the rest of men left, leaving Pat and Bill Thomas alone to watch the Sheriff walk towards his office. Pat shook his head with a slight smile and remarked, "Lom's been awful quick to jump to Miss Porter's defense lately. Must be gettin' soft on her."
Bill looked surprised. "Really? I'd a thought Lom would've been more interested in...well someone a little less..." he seemed stuck for a word.
"Spirited?" Pat supplied.
Bill frowned. "Well not exactly. I mean, sure Lom might not mind a little life in a woman. Who wouldn't? But...well, Miss Porter seems to have her heart set on being a businesswoman and all. Don't seem to me that Lom would be all that keen on that."
"Didn't seem to object to her runnin' the bank," Pat pointed out. "Maybe he wouldn't mind."
Bill shook his head sagely. "She ain't his yet. Many a man's changed his mind about what he wants once he's got it."
Pat thought about this for a minute. "You may be right," he admitted. "Still, it's probably nothin' to be speculating about. Likely nothin'll come of it. Can you imagine," he said with a sudden grin, "what Miss Agatha would say?" Both men laughed so hard about the reaction of Miss Porter's Aunt Agatha to the thought of her niece and the Sheriff that restocking of the shelves didn't get done until well after its usual time.
Lom walked thoughtfully towards the jail thinking about what had caused him to jump down Cutter's throat like that. Everytime Prudence Porter's name came up these days, he seemed to overreact. In the larger scheme of things, this might not have been so bad, but it was small town and Lom didn't want word to get around that Sheriff Trevors was getting short tempered. Lom prided himself on not letting much bother him or at least not letting it show. He knew had a reputation for being a calm, steady sort of man. That was just fine with him. He had no desire to be one of those flamboyant sheriffs with countless notches on their guns. Oh, it was true that early on (as a deputy under Sheriff Wilson) he'd demonstrated that he was willing to use guns if the occasion demanded. Word had gotten around that if you managed to push Trevors into drawing his gun, he was perfectly willing to fire and a damned good shot. He just wasn't interested in being that kind of lawman. He wasn't interested in notoriety. Just peace and quiet. Lom sighed.
Prudence Porter was not a peaceful or quiet sort of person. She had ideas and expressed them. She helped her father run the bank with an efficency and skill that most people found to be very unladylike. Her father seemed very proud of her, though, and few people in the area were in the position to contradict Mr. Edwin Q. Porter of Porterville. Some people, on the other hand, thought it was a wonderful thing. Many young women Prudence's age in town envied her the chance to get out and "do something". Though few had the will to face down their parent's objections, some used their parents' reluctance to criticise the owner of the largest bank in the area (even by implication) to get their way and hold positions of their own.
Lom sighed again. He'd have to get his mind off of her somehow. Otherwise he wouldn't get anything done today. Reaching the jail, Lom tried to think of some task that would require his complete attention. Deputy Harker was snoozing quietly behind the desk when Lom entered his office. Now, had there been anyone in custody this might have been a problem. Fortunately the cells were all empty and this time of the morning was not likely to produce any crises of a criminal nature. Lom didn't wake Harker, who seemed to be settled in quite comfortably considering the stiff back of the chair and its comparative slightness -- compared to Harker's more sizable frame that was. Instead, Lom went to the back room to check on some of the stores he kept there in case of emergency.
Satisfied that his jail was prepared to withstand a siege of goodly proportions (not that it was likely, but you never knew), Lom made his way back to the front room. Pausing at the door, he saw a female figure bent slightly over the desk, reaching across Deputy Harker's sleeping form for a pencil. Lom felt his palms dampen for a second before he realized that it was not Prudence Porter. It was Kathleen Stewart, Prudence's best friend. The girls did bear a passing resemblance to each other. They were roughly the same age, had the same long hair of similar browns (though Lom thought Prudence's slightly lighter hair the more attractive of the two) and both young women were of simliar height and build. But there was no mistaking them after a passing glance. Most obviously, there was little chance of mistaking the color of Kathleen's ice blue eyes for Prudence's dark brown ones -- a point driven home to Lom when Kathleen looked up and saw him in the doorway.
"Oh!" she gasped. When Harker snored suddenly, she almost started to laugh but clapped her hand over mouth. With an eloquent glance at the Deputy, she motioned to the Sheriff to follow her out onto the sidewalk.
He did so, closing the door behind him. "Miss Stewart?"
"Good morning, Sheriff. I didn't want to wake Deputy Harker. He looked so sweet. Just sleeping away like he hadn't a care in the world."
"It's been pretty quiet so I suspect he doesn't at the moment. What can I do for you?"
"Me? Oh, nothing. I've just come on an errand for Pru. Her father is back, you know."
"I did hear tell he'd gotten back." Lom looked towards the bank, wondering if he'd missed Prudence's daily walk past his office to get there. He cursed himself for spending so long at Southern's. Looking back at Kathleen, he continued, "He must be anxious to get back to the bank."
"Oh. Well, yes I suppose he is, but that's not why I've come. Prudence asked me to invite you to a small party this evening at their house."
"Oh, not a big party or anything fancy. Just some neighbors and family coming around to hear about her father's trip. My family will be there, the Fredericks, Mr. Sherman, and oh, lots of other people. Anyway, Prudence would dearly love to have you there. Sometimes those things can get so stuffy."
"I'm sure no one could call you stuffy, Miss Stewart."
Kathleen giggled a bit. "I suppose not.... but seriously, Pru and I will bored to tears if no one interesting is there. Say you'll come. Please."
"Why doesn't Miss Porter come by herself on the way to the bank this morning? She normally stops by before she goes in."
"Oh, she isn't going to the bank this morning. She has to help her Aunt Agatha today. She's livid about it of course. Aunt Agatha can be so..."
"Stuffy," Lom said.
Kathleen smiled at him. "Exactly. She's absolutely determined that now Pru's father is back, Pru will become a 'lady'. Heavens only knows what that means. Quilting, I suppose. Quilting and gossip. As if that could hold anyone's interest for more than a day...or two depending on the gossip. Very dull. So you'll come?"
"I don't see how I could refuse such a heartfelt invitation, Miss Stewart."
Kathleen clapped her hands together with delight. "Oh, thank you, Sheriff Trevors. You have no idea how happy this will make Pru."
Lom swallowed a sudden lump in his throat and had to cough slightly before he could speak. "Whatever makes Pr...Miss Porter happy, it's my pleasure."
Kathleen bestowed one last smile upon him as she left. "See you tonight then, Sheriff. At 7:30?
He waved and nodded. After a minute, he went back inside and saw that Harker was just waking.
"Howdy, Sheriff. Morning."
"Morning, Harker. Anything happen last night?"
"Nope. Not a thing. Couple of hands from the Circle R got into a disagreement over at the Golden Gate but I managed to get'em to talk it out real civilized like."
Lom didn't doubt that. While Harker might not have been the quickest draw or the keenest intellect Porterville had ever seen, he was a large, imposing man and, though good-natured, had very definite views of how people should behave -- especially towards their fellow man. Few people, except those who were determined to make trouble, ever argued with Harker. And as Lom had cause to be thankful many times before, there just weren't troublemakers of that kind in Porterville.
Harker headed off to get breakfast and likely go home to continue his interrupted nap, leaving Lom to ponder what an evening at the Porter house would be like.
"Prudence, you are not paying attention," Agatha Morris sighed impatiently. "At this rate, we will never have the house in any state to receive visitors. Now, *please*."
Prudence sighed as well, though with more resignation than impatience. She would so much rather be at the bank this morning than following her Aunt Agatha around taking notes on what needed to be done for this evening. Prudence didn't see what possible difference it could make to anyone coming tonight whether all the pillows in the upper chambers had been plumped and the bric-a-brac dusted. After all, who was likely to come up here? Just herself and Kathleen if things got too dull downstairs.
Thinking of Kathleen reminded Prudence of the errand she sent her friend on. I do hope Lom agrees to come tonight, Prudence thought. If he can tell Daddy how smoothly things went while he was away then Daddy is sure to tell Aunt Agatha to let me be once and for all. Actually, Prudence admitted to herself, her father didn't really need to be prodded into thinking anything of the sort. Prudence just wanted Aunt Agatha and everyone else to hear it for themselves. She knew what most people in town thought of her working in the bank and she thought it was grossly unfair. Yes, her father had been indulging her at first. He was her father and that's what fathers did in Pru's experience. But if she hadn't shown a flair for banking, surely her father wouldn't have continued to have her there. He certainly wouldn't have left the bank in her sole care while he was in Europe. He was a businessman, after all, and a successful one. One didn't reach such a station in life by humoring daughters at a loss. She knew she was an asset to her father and her father knew it. She just wanted everyone else to know it too and not see her as just the spoiled only child of an indulgent parent. If Lom Trevors, who had been elected and supported by most of the prominent citizens in town (most of whom would be in attendance this evening), demonstrated that he too thought she was an asset to the bank, Porterville might come around to fully accepting her in the role she'd chosen for herself.
Finally, Aunt Agatha seemed to feel that the list of tasks and the menu was ready to be passed along to the housemaid and cook. Prudence ran down the stairs with the paper in hand before anything could be added. Anne and Ellen, who'd worked for the Porters since before Prudence could remember, were in the kitchen.
"Anne, here, take this quickly before Aunt Agatha finds me and tells me to add something else. I must go next door and see Kathleen."
"Miss Kathleen is on her way up the walk," said Anne with a glance out the window.
Ellen pulled out a chair and steered Prudence into it. "You sit right down and take a breath. What is so all fired important that you have to come slammin' doors in my kitchen? Mrs. Morris must have been a rare mood this morning. She's been in a state ever since your father got home."
"Oh, it's not like that," Prudence said. "It's just that she has so many things she wants to get done and I'd rather...well, it's not that I don't appreciate her you know. I mean, I love Aunt Agatha but..." Prudence sighed. "She just doesn't understand why I'd rather be at the bank. What if the loan papers for the Watkins don't come in? Daddy wasn't here when the Watkins came in to arrange it and I'm the one who assured them...."
"He's coming!" Kathleen burst through the back door and into speech right away. "Sheriff Trevors said he'd come tonight! Mission accomplished."
Anne and Ellen smiled at each other over Prudence's head and Ellen patted Prudence on the shoulder. "Well, I see why you were in such a rush to see Miss Stewart. So, Sheriff Trevors is coming this evening? Isn't that nice, Anne?"
"Very," Anne said, turning to hide her grin from Prudence. Then to Ellen she added, "I'd better get started with the front room." Still averting her eyes from Prudence and Kathleen, she went through the door out to the parlour. The sound from the parlour a second or two later was probably Anne sneezing from the dust but you couldn't blame anyone if they thought it sounded a bit like smothered laughter.
Prudence and Kathleen, feeling that they couldn't talk freely when Aunt Agatha might walk in any second went up to Prudence's room, leaving Ellen to get to work on lunch for Mr. Porter. He always came home for lunch and Ellen was particular about having it ready on time. Agatha came in as the rolls were going into the oven.
"Ellen, have you seen Prudence?"
"Yes, Mrs. Morris. She and Miss Stewart went up to her room." Feeling slightly mischievous, Ellen added,"Seemingly to discuss this evening. It appears that Sheriff Trevors will be able to attend."
Agatha looked puzzled. "Sheriff Trevors? I don't recall Win mentioning him coming." Taking her guest list out of her pocket, Agatha looked at it carefully. "No, he isn't here. I *do* wish people would tell me if there are to be changes in plans. How am I supposed to keep things running smoothly if people are always changing them? Well, I suppose if it's what Win wants."
"I believe it was Miss Porter that invited the Sheriff, not Mr. Porter, ma'am."
"Prudence? But when? She's been with me all morning."
"I believe she sent Miss Stewart a note and asked her to do the actual inviting. That pulley outside their bedroom windows from when they were little girls..."
"You mean that old pulley is still up? I had no idea. I'll mention it to Mrs. Stewart. Whenever will those girls start acting their age?"
"Oh, I suppose that's likely to start anytime now, ma'am," Ellen muttered under her breath.
"What? I'm sorry, Ellen. I was thinking of something else. Did you say something?"
"No, ma'am. Just that the rolls would be ready any time now."
Agatha glanced at the clock on the counter. "Gracious, I'd better get changed. I need to go over to the Fredericks before lunch. Ellen, please make sure you tell Mr. Porter that Sheriff Trevors will be joining us this evening, if I am not back to do so before he leaves again for the bank."
"Yes, Mrs. Morris. I will be sure to do that." Ellen bent down to check on the rolls when she suddenly recalled a message she was supposed to pass on. She dusted her hands and hurried into the hall to the bottom of the back stairs.
"Mrs. Morris," she cried.
A rustle of fabric was heard and Agatha's head appeared over the banister. "Yes, Ellen, what is it? Is everything all right?"
"Oh yes ma'am, everything's fine but I nearly forgot that I was to tell you that Mr. Sherman came by and he wishes to know what color you'll be wearing this evening."
Agatha sputtered for a moment and then frowned. "Ellen, I declare you *encourage* that man to keep up these... these..."
"Attentions, ma'am?" Ellen didn't bother to hide her smile.
"Shenanigans!" Pleased that she'd finally come up with a word to describe these activities of Mr. Sherman's, Agatha repeated it for good measure. "Shenanigans. Whatever difference could it possible make to Preston Sherman what color I am wearing?"
"I believe, ma'am, that it has to do with what color of flowers he's planning on bringing you."
"Flowers? That's outrageous!"
"He brought you flowers last week," Ellen pointed out. "You didn't seem nearly as put out about then."
"We didn't have a house full of people to witness this foolishness last week. It is one thing for Win to indulge Preston in this charade. I understand that they are old friends and partners. One must make allowances. But...for him to make a public spectacle..."
"Mrs. Morris, he seems awful sincere to me."
"Sincere? Preston Sherman? When is that man ever serious? He thinks everything is funny," Agatha sniffed.
Ellen raised her voice as she turned to go back to her kitchen. "Aw, you ought to give him a chance. He's got a real soft spot for you."
Agatha leaned over the banister slightly and hissed,"Ellen, I will thank you not to speak of this so loudly when my niece can hear you. And stop encouraging him!" Whether or not Ellen heard that last comment, she couldn't tell, since the cook had already moved down the hall. Walking back to her room, Agatha passed the door to Prudence's room and heard her niece and Kathleen Stewart speaking in soft voices. She thought of speaking to them about the pulley and about having it taken down but she was due at the Fredericks' shortly and thanks to Ellen she was running even later than she had been before.
As she straightened her hair and brushed the skirts of her dress, she considered what to do about the persistent attentions of Preston Sherman. It was absolutely ridiculous, she thought. Not that she was opposed to the attentions of a gentleman caller. But Preston was so unsuitable. Yes, he had a certain standing in the town and was quite well off but he was so...unpredictable. She never knew what to expect from him except that whatever he did would be totally unexpected. Last week, he'd written her poetry. He'd written terrible poetry. When she had asked Win to speak to him about it, he had deliberately misunderstood her and pointed out that it was the thought that mattered and Pop wouldn't become a better poet by having been spoken to. Sometimes, it seemed to Agatha that Win took much too much amusement from the situation. She'd gotten no sympathy from Prudence either.
"Oh, Aunt Agatha, Pop is so sweet. How can you not be flattered?" Prudence had said when Agatha had complained a few weeks back of the embarrassment of being subjected to flowery compliments and speeches.
"I don't see *your* head being turned by pretty compliments, Prudence. You've kept every suitable young man at arm's length for so long I'm surprised any of them even try anymore.
"Aunt Agatha, please don't start again. You know I just don't care about all that. If I could find someone who would see things more my way..."
"That's hardly likely, Prudence. Men are not interested in having a banker as a wife. You're getting much to old to be carrying on this way and it is really time your father stopped indulging you and ruining your chances of making a decent match." She hadn't realized how unkind her tone had become until she'd seen the look on Prudence's face. She'd tried to apologize but it was an argument that they had had so many times that it seemed not to mean anything. Agatha hadn't really meant to take it out on her niece, of whom she really was terribly fond. It was just that she was just so unsettled by Preston and concerned about Prudence's future that her tongue sometimes got the best of her.
The church bells reminded Agatha that she only had moments to get over to the Fredericks and she left hurriedly by the front door, fearing that if she went out the back one, Ellen might have some further message from Preston.
Lom, who'd been out getting some lunch, turned to see Edwin Porter (known to friends and enemies as "Win") hailing him from across the square and changed course to meet the banker halfway.
"Trevors," Porter greeted him heartily (Win did most things heartily). "Heard there was a bit of excitement while I was gone."
"It came to...It was nothin'." Lom hoped he looked as if it were nothing. He really didn't think he could explain how his former cohorts had almost robbed Porter's Bank. Mr. Porter was a good-natured man, but even a good-natured man might be unable to overlook something like that. So, instead of elaborating, Lom opted for a distraction tactic. "Good to see you back, Mr. Porter. It's been a time. Your trip went well?"
"More than well, Trevors. Had an excellent trip. Not all business, you understand, but that went well too. Saw a lot of things I never thought to see. Amazing place, London. Wonderful place. Ever been?"
"No. 'Fraid I've not done much traveling...not of that distance. I look forward to hearing about it this evening."
"Ah yes, Agatha mentioned that Prudence had invited you. Would have invited you myself but I didn't think you went in much for that kind of socializing." Win Porter paused and looked thoughtful for a second or two. "Come to think of it, Sheriff, I don't recall you ever being to the house before."
"I suppose the occasion never..."
"No, I didn't mean you'd been snubbing us." Win smiled. "No. Just noticing the oversight on my part. In any case, Prudence has made it quite clear that she feels you must be there."
Lom gulped slightly. "That's very kind of Miss Porter."
"Told me how helpful you'd been while I was away -- and about that robbery attempt."
Lom gulped again. "I..."
Checking the pocketwatch he always carried, Win asked,"Can we talk later? I can come to your office on my home after the close of business today. It's on my way home from the bank and I don't want to keep you now if you're busy."
"Yes, certainly, Mr. Porter. I'll look forward to it. " Lom tipped his hat and watched as the banker made his way to the bank, greeting various townsfolk and being greeted in return.
Lom wasn't sure what Win Porter wanted to speak with him about but chances were it had something to do with the thwarted theft. If that was the case, Lom was more than glad to put the conversation off for a few hours. It would give him the time to figure out what to say if the subject of his old friends "Smith and Jones" came up. He'd just as soon avoid the subject but if Win Porter wanted a word with him, Win Porter would get it. That's what it meant to be a Porter of Porterville. *The* Porter in Porterville to be more accurate.
"Sheriff?" A small, anxious voice interrupted his reverie and Lom looked down to see seven year old George Carter at his side.
"George. What can I do for you?" Lom looked around. "Where's your ma, George?"
"She's inside at Southern's, sir. She sent me to get you. She says Missus Frederick an' Missus Wheeler are creatin' a disturbance and to come right away."
"Lead on, son. Best see what this is all about."
Since his legs were not nearly as long as Lom's, George had to run a bit to keep up with the Sheriff as he went to Southern's. As they drew closer, Lom heard raised voices but was unable to tell who was shouting. When he got to the door, he could see Mrs. Wheeler and Mrs. Frederick on either side of a shelf of cloth and Pat Southern darting from side to side, doing his best to calm both women. Seeing the Sheriff enter with her son, Mrs. Carter hurried from behind the counter where she'd taken refuge when Mrs. Wheeler appeared to be casting about for something to throw.
"Thank goodness you've come, Sheriff. They've been carrying on like this since Mrs. Wheeler got here. You must make them stop. They are upsetting George and he is at *such* a delicate age."
Lom glanced down at young George who seemed to be watching the argument with great relish. Feeling the sheriff's eyes upon him, George looked up eagerly and asked"Will you arrest them, Sheriff? Can I tell Robby Wheeler his ma's in jail?"
Lom did his best to hide a smile. "Not yet, George. I'm hopin' to reason with'em. Save the jail for real mean hombres."
Lom made his way towards the fight, leaving George next to his mother. George seemed a mite disappointed at not getting to take such news to Robby but the vague idea of real mean hombres coming to town seemed to make up for it. Pat Southern saw Lom at last and heaved a sigh of relief. Stepping back he let the Sheriff step between the two agitated women.
"Ladies, could I ask you to tell me what this is all about?" When both women took a deep breath and appeared to be ready to burst into speech, Lom hastened to add, "One at a time...and perhaps in my office."
"At the jail?" Beth Wheeler sounded shocked.
"We can always step around to the cafe if you'd prefer. I just think we ought to let Mr. Southern have his store back."
As the trio made their way out of the store with the Sheriff in the middle, Pat Southern gave Lom a smile of thanks and went to straighten up the disarray on the cloth display.
After ordering two cups of tea for the women and a cup of coffee for himself, Lom made his way back to the table where he'd left his companions. They were staring at each other in stony silence but they had promised the Sheriff not to say anything to each other while he was wasn't there so they kept their word. Once he sat down however, both women hurried to get their story out first.
"Ladies, I can't hear you both at the same time. Now, I want to hear both sides, so if I promise to hear you both out, can we please agree that you'll speak one at a time." Lom cast a pointed look around the crowded cafe. "Besides, if we all end up shouting, the whole town'll hear and I doubt either of you want that."
*That* seemed to strike a chord with both women and Mrs. Wheeler agreed to let Mrs. Frederick go first. Mrs. Frederick described incidents that had occurred in the past few weeks -- flower beds dug up, the back gate left open and the dogs let out and strange noises outside the house late at night. Just the other night, Mr. Frederick had gone out to investigate and had fallen in a large hole dug up right outside the back door. She seemed quite certain that Mrs. Wheeler's eldest son had been behind these occurrences. Mrs. Wheeler, while admitting her son and his friends might be high-spirited and even a bit wild on occasion could never, ever intend to seriously hurt anyone.
Mrs. Frederick snorted delicately. "I couldn't care less what their intentions were. I want them arrested him for vandalism and attempted murder."
Lom's eyes widened in surprise. "Now ma'am, that seems a bit harsh. I'll talk to the boy and..."
"Horace could have broken his neck and been killed fallen into a hole like that," she insisted.
"Davis is *not* a criminal..." Mrs. Wheeler began again.
Lom took a sip of coffee and let them wind down a bit before he tried again. "Mrs. Frederick, I will go over and talk to the boy today and if I think that further steps need to be taken, I promise that I *will* take them. I know the difference between highjinks and criminal behavior."
Mrs. Frederick, impressed by the firm tone of voice and the force of purpose behind it, agreed that she would trust the Sheriff to decide what would be best. Gathering up her things to go, she tossed a haughty look at Mrs. Wheeler, smiled at the Sheriff and made her way to the door. Mrs. Wheeler, watching her go, gave a sniff and turned her attention back to her rapidly cooling tea.
Lom waited until she'd put her cup down to speak. "Mrs. Wheeler, a couple of folks have been saying that Davis has been getting up to a lot of questionable stuff lately. Have you or Mr. Wheeler spoken to him about it?"
"Boys will be boys, Sheriff. It's just high spirits. He's only 17, after all."
"Mrs. Wheeler, he best be settling down before he gets into real trouble. Being 17 is not an excuse. A lot of the residents of the Wyoming Territorial Prison are about that age."
Beth Wheeler bristled. "Are you threatening to arrest Davis, Sheriff? If you are, I am sure Mr. Wheeler will have something to say about it."
"No, ma'am, I am not threatening to do anything but talk to him. I just think it would be a shame for him to end up in a bad way 'cause no one took the time to speak to him and straighten him out. I've seen it happen before."
Mrs. Wheeler looked concerned. "My husband..."
"I'll speak to Mr Wheeler before I speak to the boy," he assured her.
Reassured that her only son was not about to be thrown into jail, Mrs. Wheeler finished her tea and left. Lom soon followed and went on his usual afternoon round of inspection.
Lom enjoyed these walks about town. Not only did they allow him to keep a fairly close eye on things, but he found they helped clear his head when his thinking wasn't a clear as it might be. Sort of like now, Lom sighed to himself.
Things had been going along nice and orderly until Heyes and Curry had come to town a few weeks before. Suddenly he was thinking about all sorts of things he'd never really considered before. What would Prudence think? She'd seemed quite taken with Heyes and Curry -- Curry particularly -- and had spoken about them a great deal even after they'd left. Of course, she thought they were bank security people but if she ever learned the truth? And what would the people of Porterville do if they knew he'd once been one of the type of men he now protected them against? It had worried him ever since those two had come to him for his assistance.
Lom had been in Porterville for three years and had become a respected member of the community. Certainly that had taken time. When he had arrived, he was a stranger who no one knew anything about. Nothing but that he was good with a gun and had a letter for Sheriff Wilson saying that the bearer was his new deputy. The letter was signed by the Governor. Wilson had been opposed at first. After all, it was usually the Sheriff that decided these matters and Wilson had been planning to appoint his nephew. There had been a standoff of sorts and many in the town feared that the tense, volatile situation could only resolve itself by erupting into the sudden gunplay, so frequent throughout the area, but that didn't happen. What did happen was, that after a trip to Cheyenne to see the Governor, Win Porter had thrown his support behind Trevors. Wilson's nephew had left town (word came back some months later that he'd been arrested for swindling people back in San Francisco) and Win Porter's preferences prevailed as they often did in municipal matters.
Porter's support helped, but eventually Lom managed to win the town over on his own merits. After he'd managed to control some of the rowdy types that all towns in the West had trouble with from time to time and had shot the one who'd held a gun on an unarmed Sheriff Wilson, Wilson and the rest of the town had come to share Porter's good opinion of Lom Trevors. Wilson had retired and Porter had supported Lom for Sheriff. He'd become a far more popular sheriff than his predecessor, who'd been a gambler, a bit of a blowhard and was drunk probably more often than he should have been. In view of that, Lom was quite a change for the town of Porterville. He didn't spend an awful lot of time at the card tables (though he was known to be a steady, slightly better than average poker player when he did play) or in the saloon (one beer was as hard as it got drink-wise). Though when he'd first arrived, many of the young ladies in town would have been happy to accompany him to any of the socials he might care to attend, Lom had been heard to say that he had two left feet so no one pushed him to demonstrate. It was true that Lom didn't socialize a great deal, but the people of Porterville didn't mind that too much. He was there when you needed him and that was what a sheriff was for.
Whenever people asked (as they occasionally did) what had happened during that trip to Cheyenne to get him to back a total stranger over someone he'd known all his life, Win usually said he'd always felt there was something shifty about Wilson's nephew. Furthermore, the Governor had explained how much faith he had in Lom ability to keep law and order. And he'd been right, Win would always conclude. Porterville was known as a nice, peaceful, safe, place to live and do business.
Deputy Harker was in the middle of explaining that he wasn't sure when the Sheriff would be back when Lom, having finished his round of inspection, returned. Both the deputy and Miss Porter, to whom he was making his explanation, looked up and smiled with relief. Harker's relief was due to the fact that he would not have to take a message. Not that he objected to taking messages. It's just that they often came out wrong somehow. Prudence's relief was related since frequently the messages that went wrong were hers. Lom managed a weak smile in return. Not that he wasn't pleased to see Prudence. Far from it. He was quite happy to see her wherever and whenever he could. It was just that he was suddenly conscious of his slightly disheveled appearance and the dust that had accumulated on the black boots and vest that he wore. He wondered what on earth had possessed him to wear the black vest rather than the tan one. It didn't show the day's wear nearly as quickly and he always thought it suited him better.
"Why, here he is now. Ain't that lucky?" Harker exclaimed.
"Oh, wonderful. Now I won't have to leave a message." Hastily she added, "I mean, it's so much easier to talk to you in person, Lom and Deputy Harker has so many more important things to do than take messages from me." She bestowed a quick smile on Harker who fortunately had not taken any offense at her obvious relief at not having to depend on his note-taking skills.
"Well, now as it happens, I do have a couple of things on my list to take care of, but you know I am always happy to oblige, Miss Porter." Turning to Lom, Harker explained, "I was just saying to Miss Porter here that I'd be glad to take message but now that you're here, I guess I'll get along and look into those downed fences of Cutter's. On the way back, I thought I go speak to Edgar about that noise complaint from Widow Perkins. Lessen' you need for something else, Sheriff?"
Lom realized that he hadn't heard a word Harker had said between 'Ain't that lucky' and 'Lessen' you need...'. Giving himself a mental shake, he waved a hand at Harker and replied, "No, no, you go ahead. I'll take care of things here."
Harker nodded and left. Lom walked behind the desk and had started to sit down, when he caught himself halfway into the chair and asked, "Miss Porter, would you care to sit down? Some coffee, maybe? I'm afraid we don't have anything else."
Prudence sat down on the bench near the desk and declined the offer of coffee. "I really came to see you about this evening," she began, as Lom finally took a seat.
"Well, I...Thank you for the invitation. I look forward to hearing about you father's trip."
"Yes, I do too." When Lom looked puzzled, she elaborated. "He refuses to tell us, Aunt Agatha and myself, anything about it. Says he'll tell everyone at once so he doesn't get accused of telling the same stories over and over. Still, that isn't why I came." She took a deep breath and continued. "Lom, I need your help."
"What ever I can for you, Pr...Miss Porter. All you need to do is say the word. Trouble at the bank?"
"No, Lom, this isn't a matter of theft or law or anything like that. It's a matter of...It's a personal favor. Not a big one. Just, um...well, it's just a matter of being there and..."
Lom nodded encouragingly, wondering what could cause the normally articulate Prudence to grasp for words.
She sighed. "Lom, you *know* how hard I worked at the bank while Daddy was away. I really did. And I did a good job too. Everything went so smoothly...well, except for that attempted robbery but Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones handled that so well that it's hardly worth mentioning."
"There I agree with you 100%, Miss Porter. Let's not mention it."
"That's just the problem, Lom. People are bound to and I am so afraid that Daddy will let himself be convinced that I really shouldn't be working at the bank. I can't imagine anything more ghastly than him agreeing with Aunt Agatha."
Lom didn't know Agatha Morris very well but she had always seemed perfectly polite and normal to him. He'd noticed nothing ghastly about her. "About what, Miss Porter?"
"About me. She hates the fact that I work at the bank. She thinks it isn't ladylike. She wants me to sit at home and sew or paint and wait for some boring man to come call on me." Prudence shuddered delicately, then leaned forward in a confidential manner. "May I confess something to you, Lom?" she said in a low tone.
Lom was finding it very difficult to speak so he simply nodded.
"I hate sewing. I am a terrible painter and, with very few exceptions, most people in town -- the men particularly -- agree with Aunt Agatha about me and the bank, so why would I *want* them to call on me?" When Lom didn't answer, Prudence looked concerned. "Lom, are you all right?"
Lom cleared his throat. "Yes, I was just... thinking about how difficult that must be for you."
Prudence sighed with relief. "I knew you'd understand. You have been so supportive about this. I mean, you've been so helpful at the bank, and your friend Mr. Jones gave me so much to think about..."
"Like what?" Lom asked a bit more harshly than he intended.
She didn't notice the frown on Lom's face and gushed on enthusiastically about her conversations with Kid Curry. "Oh, about all sorts of security issues with the banks. He told me about the First Bank in Yuma and about how the security had been breached and how to avoid the same thing here. And Mr. Smith was very helpful with the safe and made several really excellent suggestions that I mean to show to Daddy as soon as I can. Between all I learned from them and you telling Daddy how smoothly things went, I'm sure he'll be as convinced as ever that I should remain in the bank. That's why it is *so* important to me to have you there tonight. I wanted to bring all this up in front of company so Aunt Agatha won't be able to make a scene. She'd never, *ever* do that in front of company and that way, everyone will be there to see that Daddy really does believe in my abilities and isn't just humoring me."
Lom was finding it difficult to speak again. He wondered briefly if this was always going to happen when Prudence Porter was around. "You...You want to bring all *what* up?"
"Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones and all the things they said. And I wanted you to be there to lend support to what I was saying. I mean, with their being old friends of yours, you can vouch for their being experts, like you said and that they thought I was doing just fine."
"Oh, I...well, Miss Porter I don't know..."
"Oh, Lom, please." Prudence stood, hurried over to the desk and took Lom's hands in hers, pulling him up, out of the chair at the same time. "You must *know* how important this is to me. You won't let me down, will you?" She looked at him imploringly, holding his hands tightly in hers.
Lom didn't even try to figure out how to get out of it. He just agreed weakly that he would do whatever she asked and found that his hands had been abruptly released. Prudence clapped her own hands together triumphantly, threw her arms around him in a sudden embrace and just as suddenly was gone. Lom sank back into the chair and stared at the door for quite a while.
Slowly, the realization of what he had agreed to do hit him. He tried to imagine vouching for his old friends "Smith and Jones" in front of an entire room full of the most important people in town. Someone was bound to ask how he knew them and where they were from. The vague story that he, Heyes and Curry had concocted, about having met over an incident involving a bank robbery, had been just fine for the two men to use if they needed to use him as a reference while on the road. They wouldn't be in any one place that long where people would ask questions. Whether that story would stand up in Porterville, where Lom was all the time...well, that was quite another thing. He'd have to think of something, Lom decided. The only problem with that was that every time he tried thinking about it, all he could recall was Prudence's pleading with him to help her and her unexpected embrace.
Win Porter closed the ledger on his desk with satisfaction and rose to get his coat from the coat rack behind the door. As he made his way out of the bank, he noted the time. Plenty of time to speak with Sheriff Trevors and still get home for a light supper before the guests were expected. It was not far from the bank to Sheriff's office but Win knew it was not unusual for him to be delayed by people wanting to speak with him about this or that. It had been especially true since he'd returned from Europe. Sure enough, he'd no sooner stepped out of the door of the bank when Pop Sherman approached him.
"Win! Looking forward to this evening."
"Glad to hear it. Glad to hear it. Yes, I am looking forward to seeing everyone. I enjoyed the trip but it is good to be back."
"Agatha will be there, I trust."
"Of course, Preston. How could we entertain without our hostess?"
"Well, Win, Prudence just might view that as her job. After all, she is the daughter of the house."
"Prudence doesn't mind. She's never been interested in that sort of thing. We have a houseful of people expected this evening and while Aggie is running around with a thousand last minute details, all Prudence could think about was whether the Watkins' loan was processed." Win grinned. "You know Preston, I *do* believe she snuck out of the house just to come make sure I was looking after things here at the bank to her satisfaction. I asked her if her Aunt Agatha knew she was here and she looked downright evasive."
Preston nodded. "Up to something. Mark my words. Up to something Agatha wouldn't approve of at all. She and her friend Kathleen were whispering all morning, according to Ellen."
Win affected a look of shock. "Preston, are you courting my cook? I thought your heart belonged to Aggie."
"Oh, it does, it does. But Aggie does not seem inclined to take me seriously and Ellen has been extraordinarily helpful in planning my campaign to woo your sister-in-law from your house. After all, how is a man to make any progress without inside information?"
Win shook his head amusedly. "Well, I wish you the best of luck, Preston. Aggie is a tough nut to crack. Always was."
"I shall persevere. In any case, I shall make the most of this evening to press my suit...and lend Prudence any assistance she might require in whatever campaign she has afoot."
"You know, Preston, I think you spoil Prudence more than I do."
"I've got no one else to spoil, Win. Agatha won't let me spoil her. I might as well spoil her niece."
"I don't know what Prudence's campaign is, but I'm sure she could have no more eager assistants than you and Kathleen. I suppose I will be the last to know. The father usually is." Clapping the other man on the shoulder, Win began to move away. "I'll see you tonight, Preston. I must go have a word with the Sheriff."
"Do say hello to him for me."
"You can do it yourself this evening. Prudence has invited him to come along."
Preston's eyebrows rose but Win was already moving away and missed it.
"Invited the Sheriff, eh?" Preston muttered to no one in particular. "Well, perhaps Ellen was right at that." He began to chuckle. "Oh, Agatha will have fits. Lom Trevors and her niece. I should have thought of it myself."
Kathleen watched from the bed as Prudence stared into her closet. The girls had been in her room since she had gotten back from her visit to the Sheriff's office. They'd been trying to work out the best way to broach the subject of Prudence's continued work at the bank at some point that evening. They had agreed that it would be best if the subject were not introduced by Prudence herself. Kathleen had pointed out that it wouldn't be that hard to bring it up, since someone was bound to mention the attempted robbery.
"After all," Kathleen said,"Nothing else near as exciting happened while your father was gone." She paused and corrected herself. "Well, unless you count Cleet Willet showing up to Sunday services a few weeks ago. Someone might mention that." Then Kathleen smiled, her dimple making her look a bit elfin. "Of course, since Cleet thought the end of the world was coming when that dynamite exploded at the bank, chances are the bank robbery will come up in that case as well."
"I really was hoping to make my point without mentioning that. And furthermore, it was an *attempted* bank robbery," Prudence corrected her friend without turning around.
Kathleen sighed. Prudence was taking an awfully long time to decide what to wear for the party. An awfully long time for Pru, that was. Kathleen was always having trouble deciding what to wear (her father said it was because she had far too many choices) and was frequently late to wherever she was expected on account of these clothing dilemmas.
Kathleen sighed again, this time more loudly. When Pru still didn't turn around, she got up and walked over to the door her friend was holding open. Peering around Pru's shoulder, she took a quick inventory of what hung inside the closet.
"Well, you can't wear the green check."
Prudence looked over at the green check, which she hadn't really been considering until Kathleen had taken it out of the running. Pulling it out of the closet for a closer look, Prudence asked, "Why? Actually you know, it's one of my favorite dresses."
"I know," nodded Kathleen. "And you always wear it when company comes over. Wear something else." Glancing again at the selection, Kathleen pulled out a light blue dress. "This one?"
"What's wrong with it?" Kathleen was surprised. Prudence had always seemed to be partial to the dress in the past.
"It's just that I don't like that shade of blue. I never realized before, until a few weeks ago, how unattractive it was. Remember Mr. Jones, that friend of Lom's?"
"Yes, of course I do. The one with the nice smile and dark hair."
"No, the other one. The one with the blue eyes and the blond hair." Kathleen nodded and Prudence continued as she took the dress from her friend and placed it back in the closet, "Well, we went to dinner and..."
"You went to dinner twice."
"What difference does that make?"
"Well, it doesn't make any difference to *me*. It's just that it was noticed. I mean, it's not every day that Miss Prudence Porter is seen in company." Kathleen grinned mischievously. "And such handsome company at that."
Prudence snorted in what Aunt Agatha would have called 'an unladylike manner' if she'd heard it. "Handsome, eh? I'm surprised you noticed. All you could do is stare at his friend."
Kathleen shrugged. "What can I say? I'm partial to dimples."
Kathleen laughed, collapsing into the chair next to the dresser. "You didn't tell me what Mr. Jones had to do with the suit."
"I was telling you but you interrupted me. Now, the night we went to dinner...the first night, he wore a blue suit in this exact shade and it was just so awful. I mean, he was very nice and so knowledgeable about banks. Really, it seemed an even bigger shame about the suit than if he'd been all stuffy and boring like most of the men around here." Prudence glanced into the closet again. "What to wear, what to wear."
"What about the plaid with the white lace collar?"
"Then wear the floral with the pink bows."
Prudence considered that for a moment. "That's not a bad idea. I have been complimented on it. But maybe we can take bows off."
"Why on earth would we do that?"
"If we keep the bows, then I have to wear the hair ribbons and I'd rather not."
"Why ever not?" Kathleen asked, thoroughly confused. In addition to having a vast wardrobe to choose from, she had the accessories to go with each and every outfit. Ribbons were an integral part of that collection. "What's wrong with ribbons?" she demanded.
Prudence sighed. "There's nothing *wrong* with them exactly. I'm not giving my ribbons away or anything but since I am trying to create the impression that I can be serious and businesslike, I really think floral *and* ribbons would be a little too...frivolous."
Kathleen looked unconvinced. "Prudence, your father already *knows* you can do the job. He left you to do it while he was away. And you were wearing hair ribbons all along. I really don't think it will make one whit of difference."
"I know it won't make a difference to him. But it'll make a difference to other people. A lot of people in town don't really believe I can be as good a banker as Daddy and they think I'm 'playing' at it until I get bored. I want to show them that I am serious about it."
Kathleen relented. "All right. I'll help you take off the bows. But," she added firmly, "Since I am not going into banking, and don't mind if people think I'm being frivolous, I intend to wear hair ribbons tonight. And since I am being frivolous, I may even flirt, just to get Mama's goat."
Prudence laughed as she sat down on the bed and arranged the dress so that they could make the intended alterations. "It has nothing to do with your mama's goat. Lloyd Matthews will be here tonight and you'll do it just to get *his* goat. Though I can't imagine who you'll flirt with. It's all friends of Daddy's and Aunt Agatha's. They're all far too old or too married or...
"Too stuffy." Both girls said at the same time.
Kathleen seated herself next to Prudence on the bed and started picking out the stitches on the nearest bow. "You're right," she agreed. "I guess that leaves Sheriff Trevors."
Prudence was so startled that she dropped the small scissors that she had just picked up. "Lom? Don't be ridiculous. You can't flirt with *Lom*."
Kathleen was surprised to hear Prudence speak so firmly. She hadn't really meant it. It had been a joke. Normally, Prudence would have laughed along with her. It was interesting to Kathleen that her friend didn't even seem to realize it was intended to be funny. "Why not?" she asked.
"He's much too...that is, he's...well, he..." Having to articulate why it should be so ridiculous, Prudence was finding herself at a loss.
Really, this was very strange behavior from Pru, Kathleen thought to herself. "He's what?" she pressed the question. "Not too old, not too married and not at all stuffy. Actually," Kathleen said thoughtfully,"now that I think about it, he's rather mysterious and exciting."
Prudence stared at her openmouthed.
Kathleen, warming to her subject, elaborated. "Yes, he is. Think about it. No one really knows much about him. He doesn't say much. Who knows what he's seen or done? He could be anything. And he's awfully handy with that gun."
"Of course, he's handy with a gun, you ninny," Prudence spoke sharply. "He's the Sheriff. He's supposed to be."
Stung by her friend's tone of voice, Kathleen's temper flared. "I'm a ninny? You're the one who seems to have lost her sense of humor lately. You've gotten so wrapped up in the bank since your father left you in charge that you're no fun at all." Prudence started to object but Kathleen was not finished. "I was only kidding about the Sheriff, Prudence. That's all. I didn't know it would bother you so much. I don't know why it should. You didn't give two figs for Sheriff Trevors or anyone else that I knew of lately -- unless it had something to do with the bank. That's the only reason you went to dinner with his friend Mr. Jones. Even if Lom thinks otherwise."
"What?" Prudence was at a complete loss, in addition to being quite upset. Kathleen so rarely lost her temper that when she did, it was very distressing. "What does Lom have to do with my going to dinner with Mr. Jones?"
Kathleen sniffed indignantly. "What difference does it make? If you hadn't noticed, you obviously don't care."
"Noticed what? Not care about what?"
Kathleen took a breath and just as she would have continued to rant, noticed that Pru did look genuinely confused. "You really don't know?"
"Know what?" This was getting ridiculous, Prudence thought.
"You *don't*! Oh my goodness." Kathleen began to smile. "I thought you were just being mean but you really don't know."
"Know what!?" Pru practically shrieked.
"Lom! And you called *me* a ninny!" Kathleen shook her head. "He's sweet on you. He has been for simply ages. Whenever anyone mentions that you went to dinner with Mr. Jones -- I told you it had been noticed, right? -- he gets all ornery and stiff. If it weren't so sweet, it'd be funny."
Prudence said nothing. She walked over to the window and looked out. "Lom? Me?" she spoke faintly.
"Yes. You. Lom. I thought you knew and just hadn't said anything because you didn't want to call attention to it."
"I didn't know," Prudence insisted. Turning back towards the bed where Kathleen was seated, she asked, "How did you know?"
"Oh gosh, I think lots of people know." At her friend's look of alarm, Kathleen corrected herself. "Well, not lots of people. Only a couple. Me, Papa and Mr. Southern. Oh, and Bill Thomas. Mr. Southern mentioned it to Papa but he said not to tell Mama 'cause she was such good friends with your aunt and all. Daddy didn't think Mrs. Morris would take to the idea." The thought of Mrs. Morris reminded Kathleen of a snatch of conversation she'd heard on her way in and she added, "Wait. I think Ellen and Mr. Sherman know, too."
Prudence sat down and said nothing. Kathleen waited a minute or two but then the silence became too much for her. "Prudence?" she asked tentatively.
Prudence looked up but still said nothing.
"Prudence, I shouldn't have yelled at you. I shouldn't have told you. Now it'll just be awkward everytime he's around. I'm sorry."
Prudence shook her head. "No, Kathleen, it's all right. I was just surprised, that's all. I'm...I'm glad to know.
"You don't think it'll be awkward?"
"Why would it be?"
"Well, not knowing and not noticing is one thing but knowing and pretending not to notice is a whole different thing."
"Why would I pretend not to notice?" Prudence asked.
Kathleen's eyes widened. "Why Prudence Porter! If you noticed it, he'd know you know and if he knows you know, it'll just encourage him and if you encourage him, I think that would be mighty mean, seeing as you don't care about him particularly."
Prudence looked thoughtful for a minute. "That *would* be an awfully mean thing to do to someone if you don't care about them in particular." Kathleen smiled and sat back down on the bed next to Prudence, who continued in the same thoughtful voice, "The thing is -- and you know, I'm not sure that I didn't know this already -- I think I do."
Now it was Kathleen's turn to be confused. "You think you do what?"
"Care in particular."
"You do? Truly?"
"Yes, I truly do."
"What will you do?"
"Do?" Prudence asked.
"Yes. About Lom and how you feel? He's liked you all this time and never said anything. Left on his own, he might not. He may go on worshipping you from afar."
Prudence blushed. "He doesn't *worship* me."
"You know what I mean," Kathleen insisted. "You can't let him just moon all around like a demented sheep. Someone has to start things off and I think, considering how shy he is and all, it had best be you."
"Kathleen! I can't...can't...court Lom Trevors."
"Why not?" Kathleen asked innocently.
"It's not...I mean, he's supposed to...it would be improper to..." Prudence sighed. "I'm sounding like Aunt Agatha. You're right. If I don't do something to let him know that I...that I..."
"Also care," Kathleen prompted.
"Right. I have to let him know that I wouldn't be adverse to his...to his..."
Prudence glared at her friend in mock anger. "Do you want to do my courting *for* me?"
"I may have to if you keep stuttering like that," Kathleen grinned. "So you decided? You are going to court Lom Trevors?"
Prudence nodded. The two young women sat absolutely still for a few seconds and said nothing. Finally, Kathleen started to laugh. Lightly at first, but soon she was wiping tears from her eyes as she tried to compose herself.
"What," Prudence demanded to know, "is so funny?"
"Oh Pru, I was just thinking. Your Aunt Agatha is convinced that if you were to take more of an interest in the men in town and settling down, you wouldn't be interested in the bank anymore. And now," Kathleen started to giggle again, "now, you've decided to take an interest in one and he's the one who just agreed to help you stay at the bank. I was just trying to picture her face when she hears about it."
As arranged, Win had stopped by the Sheriff's office as he left the bank. The two men sat on opposite sides of the desk -- Win with a cigar and his jacket draped over the back of the chair, Lom seated comfortably in his own chair which was pushed back from the desk so he had room to stretch out his legs. They frequently found themselves arranged exactly in this way. It was in these informal chats that the two men discussed their concerns for the town towards which they both felt a strong sense of responsibility.
They had spoken briefly about the attempted robbery at the bank but since nothing had ultimately come of it, Win didn't see much of a point in dwelling on it too much.
"Damned good thing those friends of yours were here, eh Trevors?" Win had heard nothing but praise heaped on Smith and Jones since he'd gotten back and was curious about them. No one in town knew much about them. Just that they were old friends of Lom's and were in banking. Since Win believed in always going to the source, he'd decided to ask Lom himself about the men (something that had apparently not occurred to anyone else to do). "Who are they?"
"Smith and Jones. Who are they? Where are they from?"
"Prudence tells me that they were in banking in St. Louis. Any chance they worked for Everett Simpson? At the Second National?"
"I don't rightly know, Mr. Porter," the Sheriff stammered. " I mean, that is to say, that would have been after I knew them."
"Thought they were old friends of yours?"
"They are. It's just that I hadn't seen'em in quite a while when they came here. Must have been nearly four years ago last time. I expect they must have been in St. Louis after that. They didn't mention a Mr. Simpson."
Win waved his hand as if to dismiss the subject. "Doesn't matter. Prudence mentioned the Mercantile Bank. Suppose they must have worked for Stan Blodgett. Good man Stan. I ought to get down to St. Louis one of these days and see him again."
Lom hoped he didn't look as alarmed as he actually was by that statement. "To tell you the truth, Mr. Porter, I get the impression that they've been doing some traveling and not really working anywhere regular-like. More like consulting."
"Ah," Win said nodding his head. "Getting out to see some of our fine country. Excellent plan. Would have done it myself if I were 20 years younger. Had a serious case of wanderlust in those days." He paused with a smile and then went on. "Still do, I guess. Otherwise I would have been back sooner. I'd very much like to meet them when the get back this way. Prudence seemed to think they were the greatest thing to hit banking since the Brooker safe. In fact, they apparently held many strong views on safes. Prudence seems to have taken it as gospel and threatens to give me no peace until I read all her notes on the subject. You'll let me know if they plan to be back here? I'd like to thank them personally."
Lom nodded. Seeing Win glance at his watch, he asked, "Was there anything else I can do for you?"
Win shook his head as he rose to leave. "No, no. Best get back before Agatha sends out a search party. Just came in to find out about these two men I've been hearing so much about since I got back." The Sheriff also got up and walked Porter the short distance to the door. "As I said, Prudence seems to have taken to them. Especially the security man." Win reached around the chair to retrieve his jacket so he missed the slight stiffening of the Sheriff's posture. "Which one was he again? Smith?"
"Jones." Lom corrected shortly. Damn it, Lom thought. I've got to stop letting this get to me. He took a deep breath and tried to relax.
Win, having finished redonning his jacket and straightening his lapel, glanced at the younger man. "You sound like Agatha when she's getting fed up with Preston. You're too young to sigh like that, Trevors." He stopped with his hand on the doorknob and smiled. "Unless it was a yawn and you were trying to be polite, in which case you're too young to be that tired this early." As he left, Win added over his shoulder, "We're counting on you to be at the house this evening."
Agatha looked around contentedly. Everything was going perfectly. True, it was early, but Agatha had found that most social disasters happened early on, so if you got through everyone's initial arrival without incident, you were fairly safe in assuming that things would go smoothly. The guests had been arriving steadily for the past half an hour and were mingling in the parlour, front room and library. The weather, which had concerned her slightly earlier in the day since it had looked like it might rain, had taken a turn for the better. There was a soft breeze blowing that had prompted Win to open some of the windows, making the house delightfully comfortable even with the great number of people crowding it's rooms. Agatha noticed Charlotte Stewart just arriving with Kathleen and made her way to the door to greet them.
"Charlotte, how lovely you look. Kathleen, I'm so glad you're here. Run up and tell Prudence that the guests are here and she really *must* come down. I haven't any idea *what* she could be doing up there all this time."
Kathleen handed her shawl to her mother as she said, "Right away, Mrs. Morris. She's probably just fretting about her hair or her dress or something." She gave her mother and Agatha an impish smile and dashed upstairs.
"That would be a comfort," Agatha said to Charlotte. Seeing Anne come back into the hallway, Agatha waved her over. "Anne, could you please take these wraps and put them with the others." Anne took them and hurried away as Agatha led her friend into the parlour.
"You were saying, dear?" Charlotte prompted.
"Oh yes. Well, I would be most gratified to know that Prudence was worrying about her hair or what to wear for once. It seems that these days all she worries about is whether the Watkins loan went through or what kind of safe they should have at the bank. I don't think I've seen her dressed up for company in...oh, it's been ages. She'd steal her father's suits if she could and if it made her feel more 'banker-like'."
"Now, Agatha, it hasn't been that long. Why, she was quite fetchingly dressed when she went out to dinner with that nice young man...Smith, was it?
"Jones," Agatha corrected. "It's funny how everyone keeps mixing them up. They didn't look at all alike."
"It must be the names," Charlotte answered. "They're both such common names that they're almost interchangeable. It must happen to them frequently. But as I said, she looked quite lovely. Clyde and I were out that night and saw them. They seemed to be having quite a good time."
"If only she'd take more of an interest in that sort of thing and less in the bank," Agatha sighed.
"I know, dear. I know." Then she brightened. "Maybe she'll meet a nice banker. They'd have so much in common."
"Where will she meet a banker? Win *is* the banker in Porterville." Agatha pointed out. "Even if there was another bank, Prudence wouldn't be likely to be interested in a rival banker. She seems determined to be the next Porter of the Porterville Bank."
"How about a rancher, then? After all, we have quite a few eligible ranchers around here. I know," she added with a grimace, "because I think I've tried setting Kathleen up with every last one. But, she says she'll have the right one or no one. I'm *sure* she means Lloyd Matthews."
"Lloyd Matthews? From the newspaper?
Charlotte nodded despairingly. "Yes, that's the one. Can you imagine? Kathleen and a newspaper reporter."
"No, frankly I can't. She'd have about as much in common with him as...as...," she cast her eyes about for a suitable comparison. Seeing the Sheriff making his way into the front hall and being greeted by Win, she finished triumphantly, "as Prudence would have with Lom Trevors."
"Prudence," Kathleen cajoled, "you look fine. You can't possibly find anything else to do to your hair."
Prudence, who was sitting in the chair at her dressing table, responded to this by taking a small section of hair and retucking it under the clasp at the nape of her neck.
Kathleen stamped her foot. "Would you *please* stop fussing and come downstairs? If we're up here much longer people will think we've run away or been kidnapped by Indians."
Prudence gave a disappointed sigh. "I should have worn the plaid."
Kathleen hurried to pull Prudence out of the chair and away from the temptation of the closet. "No," she insisted. "I spent a whole hour helping you take those bows off and you will wear the floral. Come on." She dragged Prudence out the door and down the hall.
At the bottom of the stairs, they ran into the Southerns, who had just arrived and were being led towards the parlour by Anne. Falling in with the couple, Prudence and Kathleen went to the parlour as well and found Agatha still speaking to Kathleen's mother. Mr. and Mrs. Southern greeted Agatha and then Mr. Southern asked after their host. Told that Win was in the library with most of the other men, Pat Southern nodded to the ladies and made his way to the other room. Prudence was in the middle of apologizing to her aunt and the guests for being late when Kathleen tugged lightly on her sleeve.
"Prudence, you said you would show me the theatrical programs that your father brought back from London. The Irving and Terry ones. Let's go get them. Do you suppose they're in the library?"
Prudence shrugged. "I think he was planning to bring them out once everyone got here." Glancing around the house, she noted, "Which should be very soon if this crowd is anything to judge by. You'll see them then."
Kathleen sighed inwardly. It wasn't that she cared particularly for the programs but she could think of no other errand that might innocently take them into the library, where it was more likely that Lom Trevors would be. Kathleen had seen him coming up the street as she and her mother had crossed to the Porter's house and knew he must havearrived shortly after them. And if she also managed to find Lloyd Matthews there, well, what a delightful coincidence that would be. She tried again. "Prudence, you know we'll end up having to pass them around and I won't have a chance to really look at them. Let's ask him if we can have a quick peek in advance." Just in case Prudence didn't understand her true meaning, she added for emphasis, "Come on, he's in the library. We'll just go in there and ask. I'm sure the gentlemen won't mind a small interruption."
Agatha smiled at Kathleen indulgently. "Kathleen, you and Prudence go ahead and ask Win for the programs. I do believe it'll do the men good to have someone interrupt them." To the small crowd of ladies surrounding her, she commented, "They're probably still discussing the new train schedule. If someone doesn't stop them, we'll never hear about the trip." Delicate laughter filled the room.
As Kathleen and Prudence came into the front hall, Preston Sherman was just coming out the library, which was directly across from the entrance to the parlour.
"Prudence, you look charming. The women in your family quite take my breath away. Kathleen, you are getting prettier everytime I see you." Both young women hugged him affectionately. "Now, where might I find your Aunt Agatha, Prudence dear?"
"She's in the parlour, Pop."
"Were the two of you escaping from us already? Too dull for you young people, eh?"
"No, Pop," Kathleen denied. "We were just heading into the library to ask Mr. Porter if we could take a peek at the theatre programs he brought back."
"I suppose you're not at all interested in seeing if Lloyd Matthews was in there as well, hmmmm?" Kathleen blushed slightly and Pop chuckled. "Now Kathleen, don't try and fool an old man. He's in there all right, talking to Pat Southern and Bill Thomas, but I imagine he would much rather be talking to you. I know I would. Not that I don't like Bill and Pat you understand," he spoke with a smile for both girls. "But they aren't nearly as pretty as you two. Or Agatha. Which reminds me, I must get into the parlour."
As Pop made his way through the entrance to the parlour, both girls caught sight of Agatha Morris face, which evidenced some slight alarm at what her ardent suitor might do or say. Not wishing to be seen giggling like schoolgirl on the same night she was trying to make a business-like and serious impression, Prudence dragged Kathleen into the dining room next door where both girls collapsed with laughter into chairs covered with the coats of the guests.
"Do you suppose," Kathleen asked when she had caught her breath, "that your Aunt Agatha will ever be interested in Pop? I mean, he obviously thinks she's wonderful and he is *so* sweet. If I were 40 years older, I'd marry him myself."
"I don't know," Prudence said. "I wouldn't think she ever would but Daddy thinks that deep down, Aunt Agatha is really flattered by it all and doesn't mind." She thought about this for a minute. "Maybe she'll come around eventually. I think she enjoys looking after me and Daddy too much sometimes and doesn't really think about herself."
"Oh, Ellen and Anne can look after your father just fine. As for you," Kathleen said as she got up, "if we go into the library and get started, you won't need looking after either, pretty soon." Prudence looked inquiringly at her friend. Kathleen threw up her hands in mock disgust. "Must I explain everything? Prudence, I kept trying to get you into the library because Lom Trevors is there!"
It was Prudence's turn to blush. "I didn't know he'd arrived."
"Yes, he came in just after me and mama. Now, remember what I said. He doesn't know you know he likes you so you have to let him know you know without making it seem like you know. At least at first. Got it?"
Kathleen sighed. "Okay, listen. You can't just go in and announce that you are aware of Lom's feelings for you. You have to sort of lead him into it." As soon as Kathleen had shooed Prudence out the double doors and led the way down the hall to the library, the door leading from the dining room to the kitchen opened to reveal Anne and Ellen looking at each other with pleased grins.
"Seems Mr. Sherman was right," Anne told the cook.
"Miss Prudence and the Sheriff," Ellen said as if trying it on for size. "Now that is a fine idea. I wonder why no one thought of it before?"
"You know," Anne said suddenly, "I'm not sure somebody didn't."
"What do you mean?" Ellen demanded to know.
"Those two friends of the Sheriff Trevors'. I had a chance to speak with them a couple of times when I would take things over to Miss Prudence at the bank. Mr. Smith..."
"The security man?"
"No, that's Mr. Jones. Mr. Smith was the one who filled in when she was short a teller. Anyway, Miss Prudence was in a meeting with Mr. Watkins. There wasn't anyone else in the bank so while I was waiting, I had a chance to speak with Mr. Smith for a few moments. He asked all sorts of questions about Porterville. He told me he was pleased to see that the Sheriff had found a place where he seemed so happy. I told him that we all thought real highly of the Sheriff and how much help he'd been to Miss Porter while her Daddy's away. That seemed to strike him in particular because he said...what was it now?... Oh yes, he said, 'Miss Porter will always be able to count on Lom.' And now that I think back on it, it was sort of odd for him to make that so particular about her, don't you think?"
Ellen agreed. "I didn't get much of a chance to speak with them but they have known the Sheriff a long time so they presumably know him best. I guess that's why they saw it sooner." She turned to go back to the counter where the small rolls were cooling.
Following, Anne nodded then frowned slightly. "But Ellen, if he's liked her this whole time, why hasn't he said anything about it to her...or anyone else for that matter?"
Ellen looked up from the spread she was preparing for the rolls. "Well now, I suppose he could be shy." She shook her head. "No, he's not shy exactly. That's not the word I was looking for. It's more likely that she's a Porter of Porterville and the Sheriff seems to take that to heart. Probably thinks he isn't good enough."
"Miss Agatha might agree with him," Anne suggested.
"Oh, Miss Agatha will fuss for a bit but she'll come around. I think she was hoping that Prudence would take a more serious interest in that nice Mr. Smith."
"Jones," Anne corrected.
"Mr. Jones was the one she went out to dinner with. Mr. Smith was the one we saw flirting with Miss Kathleen at Southern's."
Ah yes, I remember now. Now *that* was a fine figure of a man. Eyes that twinkled, he had. And a lovely smile."
Anne smiled. "Ellen, we were talking about Prudence. Not about men with charming smiles and fine figures."
Ellen sighed dramatically as she stirred the spread. "Well, it doesn't hurt to talk about them, does it? But you're right. As I was saying, I think Miss Agatha was hoping those two dinners might come to something -- him being in the banking line and all -- but I could have told her it wouldn't. Those two were not the settling down type. The Sheriff is a much better choice. Steadier."
Anne agreed, adding as she left to attend to her duties in the hall, "I think Mr. Porter'll be pleased. I'll be back in a bit to get the next tray." Picking up her cap and setting it on her head, she left Ellen to her preparations.
Once again alone in her kitchen, the cook set the bowl she was holding aside and fetched a platter so that she could arrange the next batch of appetizers. "Yes," she said to aloud to herself, remembering the smile of the charming stranger that had been in town so shortly. "A fine figure of a man." She sighed with a smile. "If only I were 20 years younger."
Seeing Agatha standing to one side of the room with two of her friends, Pop made his way to her, took her hand in his and said simply, "Agatha, everything looks wonderful. You've outdone yourself." Raising her hand to his lips briefly, he then to turned to say something to Charlotte.
Since she been prepared for a much more flowery, effusive -- and in her mind, embarrassing -- greeting, Agatha was momentarily speechless. His usual procedure upon seeing her was to begin comparing her to the heavens or jewels and whatever else he was able to think of. He did none of this now. He seemed intent, instead, on flattering Charlotte Stewart and Violet Fredericks, who both preened under the attention. Deciding that now would be the ideal time to step around to the front room and check on guests there, Agatha made her excuses (of which, it seemed to her, the trio took very little notice) and left them to their conversation.
Everything in the front room seemed to be going satisfactorily. Both the Jessups and the Callahans were there, as were the Lewises and Parkers. She mingled a bit, but she did find herself wondering what Preston, Violet and Charlotte were talking about .
"Agatha dear, you must tell me what Win brought back from Europe. Did he bring you any of those fashion catalogs you mentioned? I am simply dying to know what he saw and did."
Turning to answer Flora Jessup, Agatha caught a quick glimpse of Prudence and Kathleen making their way into the library (funny, she thought they'd gone in before that). Perhaps their interruption would give Win a little nudge towards settling down to tell everyone what they wanted to hear. Well, if not, she'd go and fetch him, Agatha decided. For the next few minutes though, Agatha, Flora Jessup and Sophie Callahan discussed the vagaries of fashion and what they might expect from the catalogs Win had brought back.
Prudence and Kathleen opened the door to the library, cautiously at first (it was the largest room in the house but since there were so many people someone could very well be standing where it might hit them) but finding that it met no resistance, opened it wider and came through together. Prudence saw her father near the couch talking to Lom Trevors and Patrick Southern. At least she thought it was Patrick Southern. Both he and Lom Trevors had their back to the door. Her father however, had seen them when the door first opened.
"Prudence. Kathleen. Have you come to rout us out?" Win called out. Conversation had paused for a moment as everyone noted the new arrivals, but soon the murmur of masculine voices resumed.
"No, Daddy, but we..." Lom had turned and since it was the first time she'd seen him since becoming aware of how he felt, she faltered briefly. Getting a hold of herself, she continued. "We wanted to take an advance peek at those programs you brought back. We...uh...might not get to them until much later..."
Kathleen, seeing that Prudence was struggling to remain composed, finished their request for her. "I was so interested in them, Mr. Porter, I just couldn't wait." She smiled at him. "I hope you don't think we're just *too* awful for interrupting?"
"Not at all, not at all. They're right over here. This way." Win started towards his desk but before she could follow, Prudence felt a slight shove which caused her to lose her balance and to fall against the side of the arm chair.
Kathleen gasped dramatically and exclaimed "Oh, Prudence! Are you all right?" Did you stumble?" She practically forced Prudence into the couch and fussed over her effusively. "Here, sit down for a moment. I'll bring the programs to you. Mr. Southern," she asked the store owner, "I wonder if you might get Pru some lemonade. For the shock." Pat Southern assured her that he would fetch it right away. Looking up appealingly at the Sheriff, she added, "The Sheriff will sit right here and keep you company until I get back. Won't you, Sheriff?"
Finding himself being tugged gently to the seat next to Prudence, Lom said, "Certainly, Miss Stewart."
"I'll be right back, Pru," Kathleen promised, as she went to follow Mr. Porter, who was pulling out stacks of programs and other things he thought might interest the ladies.
"Gracious, Mr. Porter," Kathleen said in a very impressed tone of voice, "you certainly did an awful lot while you were away. Just look at all these wonderful things. Perhaps I can just sort out a few to take over to Pru so she doesn't have to get up. She's seems to be quite comfortable where she is."
Win agreed that the piles did need a little sorting before anyone could really make sense of them. "Should have done it before now, what with everyone wanting to see these things. Perhaps you could do it for me. Just a cursory sorting out. Don't go to too much trouble. I'll go and tell Agatha that as soon as you're done, we can start."
"I think that's a wonderful idea," Kathleen agreed warmly. "Now, you just go and tell Mrs. Morris and I'll do this."
As Win left to do just that, Kathleen gave herself a mental pat on the back. Really, this was almost too easy. She knew that Lloyd Matthews had been watching her since she'd come into the room (it was the sort of thing Kathleen made a habit of noticing) and she called to him now. "Lloyd, I wonder if you might help me?"
"Glad to, Kathleen," the young man said eagerly.
"Well, I'd like to look at all this stuff with Prudence but as you can see, there's not nearly enough room over there for all this. And Mr. Porter has asked me to put it in some sort of order. If you and I work together, we could get it done so much faster right here at the desk. If you just pull that chair over right here next to mine..." Lloyd was gone and back with the chair in seconds.
As he settled down next to Kathleen, he leaned towards her and said "You know, Kathleen, I'm sure you had a really good reason, but why did you shove Pru like that?"
Kathleen tried to look offended, but Lloyd was smiling so sweetly she just couldn't. "If I tell you, you must promise not to tell." Lloyd nodded. "Well," she whispered, "I was trying to arrange it so Prudence would have a chance to speak alone with Sheriff Trevors. He's awful sweet on her and I think they needed a little shove...so I did."
Lloyd's smile became a grin as he whispered back, "The town heiress and the town Sheriff. What a story!"
"Lloyd Matthews, if you dare make a story out of this...I...I will never ever speak to you again. You'll ruin it. Now hush and help me sort. Oh, look, they're talking."
After a few initial remarks inquiring as to whether Prudence was actually all right and having been assured that she was, Lom fell silent. He was finding it extremely difficult to make small talk (he'd always found it hard but tonight he was finding it especially taxing). He was painfully aware of how lovely Prudence looked and he was struggling to mask the fact that all he really wanted was for everyone else in the room to just be somewhere else so that he could be alone with her. Don't be stupid, he taunted himself. Even if you were alone with her, you wouldn't *do* anything about it. You'd just sit there and say, 'yes, Miss Porter', 'no, Miss Porter' or be unable to talk at all.
Prudence sipped at the lemonade that Patrick Southern had brought and glanced at Lom over the edge of her glass. She'd never seen him in a regular suit before and she thought he looked rather nice. And the color was a good one, so she didn't have to make such an effort to ignore it as she'd done with Mr. Jones' terrible blue suit. She was not unaware of this inner struggle he seemed to be going through, Really, it was so obvious now that it had been pointed out. Prudence gave herself a mental slap on the wrist for being so insensitive that she hadn't known this before. She thought briefly of excusing herself by saying that it was up to him to tell her or that she was far too busy at the bank to take the time, but the truth was that she'd taken Lom (and all his help) for granted and that just wasn't right. Well, she make it up to him now and make it easier for him to speak up.
Placing the glass down on the coaster, she smiled at him. "You know," she said with a glance at Kathleen and Lloyd at her father's desk., "I do believe that Kathleen did that on purpose."
"Did what?" Lom asked.
"Shoved me into the chair."
"Shhh...you'll interrupt them. It's all right. I didn't get hurt."
"You could have been," he said harshly.
"She didn't shove me that hard, you know and besides, I think she just did it to get to spend time with Lloyd."
Lom looked over at the desk where Kathleen was ordering Lloyd around prettily and Lloyd was enjoying it thoroughly. "Well, she handled that pretty neatly." Looking back at Prudence, he asked, "You really don't mind her doing that?"
"No, not at all. She gets to spend a little time with Lloyd, Daddy gets his papers and souvenirs sorted out and I get to spend a little time with you."
Lom gulped. "Well, I'm flattered, Miss Porter..."
"Lom, don't you think it's funny for you to keep calling me 'Miss Porter' when I call you 'Lom'?"
"I...well that is..."
"Is it the name? You don't like 'Prudence'? What about 'Pru'?"
"No, no...Prudence is a very nice name. It's just that I didn't think that it was..."
"I'd like it if you called me Prudence or Pru, Lom. After all, you're a good friend of the family. I know Daddy and I think of you that way. I hope you feel the same way about us?"
"I..." Lom took a deep breath and finally found his voice. "I never thought about it that way before. Thank you."
"Thank you, Prudence." Then he smiled at her.
It was Prudence's turn to gulp. Gracious, he had a wonderful smile. She felt warm suddenly. She grabbed her glass of lemonade and took a large sip. Hearing a giggle from behind her, she glanced over at where Kathleen as standing over the bent figure of Lloyd Matthews, who was picking up papers from the floor. Kathleen looked up, met Prudence's glance and winked. Stifling a giggle of her own, Prudence winked back, and turned her attention back to Lom.
Though she could have happily worked side by side with Lloyd for hours, eventually even Kathleen had to admit that she had sorted the materials as much as possible. While Lloyd went to tell Mr. Porter that they were finished, Kathleen enlisted the help of the Sheriff, Mr. Southern and Mr. Fredericks to bring some additional chairs in from the dining room. While they were fetching the chairs, Kathleen dashed over to Prudence, who was still on the couch.
"Well?" Kathleen asked eagerly.
"Well, what?" Prudence responded, all innocence.
"Wretch! You know what. How is it going?"
"Oh, were thinking about me and Lom?" Prudence teased. "I thought you were busy with Lloyd. You certainly looked busy."
The girls heard the men coming back with the chairs and Kathleen rushed to claim seats for herself and Lloyd.
Soon the guests were streaming into the library, anxious to hear what Win had to say and to see what he'd brought back with him. It took some moments for people to sort themselves out and find places to sit. Pop Sherman, who had already heard a great deal from Win about the trip, made it a point to find a spot where he could observe the audience (people watching being one of his great pleasures in life) and their reactions to what they heard. He was just settling himself into the large leather arm chair near the door when Prudence, who had tired of sitting on the couch and had given up her seat to Mrs. Jessup, came to stand next to him.
"Pop, there's a space next to Aunt Agatha. I can save it for you, if you like."
Pop patted her hand. "Thank you no, child. I am engaged in a new tactic. Agatha doesn't seem to respond to being run after so I've decided to try my hand at playing hard to get. Soon, I may have Agatha chasing after me." He smiled contentedly at the thought.
Prudence tried to imagine it and failed but she just smiled back. "I wish you the best of luck, Pop. Let me know if I can help."
"I will, I will. Which reminds me, how is Sheriff Trevors?"
Prudence felt her face flush. It was one thing to know that Lom cared about her and to let Lom know she knew. It was quite another to discuss it with someone else when the whole idea still so new to her. "He's fine. I think he's having a nice time."
"And you Prudence? Are you having a nice time?" Pop asked. "I can see that Kathleen is." He nodded over to where Kathleen was sitting, smiling down at Lloyd who'd dragged over a footstool and was sitting in front of her chair, leaning back against the armrest.
Prudence sat down in the chair next Pop's and leaned over to whisper, "If you knew about Lom and how he felt this whole time, why didn't someone tell me?"
"My dear, half the fun of being in love is finding the person for yourself."
"What's the other half?" she asked.
Pop couldn't remember the last time he blushed in front of a woman, but he did so now. "Well, my dear, I don't think...well, that is to say..." Looking around helplessly for a distraction, Pop's eyes lighted on the Sheriff standing next to the fireplace mantle. "Oh look," he said to Pru brightly, "There's the Sheriff. I wonder if he might care to join us here. Sheriff, we've a seat over here if you like."
Lom weaved his way through the crowd to the empty chair and sat down. "Thanks very much, Pop. I was trying to figure out where to sit so I wouldn't block anyone and I didn't fancy the floor much." Glancing around he commented, "Seems like folks are settling down. Your father must be getting ready to start. Can you see from that seat, Miss...ouch!" Prudence smiled as if she hadn't just kicked him lightly in the ankle. "Can you see from that seat, Prudence?" he corrected himself.
"Yes, thank you, Lom."
Pop observed this exchange delightedly. Really, it was just to perfect, he thought. Prudence wanted very much to continue to work with her father and Lom wanted very much for Prudence to have whatever it was that she wanted -- even if it upset his ideas of proprieties and left him slightly bewildered. Pop felt himself getting slightly teary-eyed at the generosity of it all. He sighed happily and leaned back in his chair as Win Porter began to regale his audience with tales of his travels.
"And then we left London for Paris," Win was saying. "I suppose that is mostly what the ladies' want to hear about." He smiled as most of the ladies in question tittered happily. "Now, I think I am a pretty fair business man," he paused as several people chimed in with 'Here, here' or 'the fairest' and then continued, "but I admit to knowing nothing about ladies fashion, so I brought these catalogs back to make up for my lack of narrative."
Prudence found her attention wandering again. It wasn't that she didn't care about fashion. It's just that her mind was on other things, mostly on the man sitting next to her. (no, not Pop -- sheesh!) While Kathleen had been sorting materials for Win, Prudence found herself flirting lightly with Lom. It seemed to disconcert him a little but he obviously enjoyed it. He'd never spoken very much before or at any great length. She'd always thought he was a bit shy. But from the moment he called her Prudence for the first time and he'd smiled at her, she found it was like talking to a whole new Lom. He seemed more relaxed - smiled more, laughed easily -- and showed a great deal of concern for many of the same things she did. It made her wonder what he'd been like before he came to Porterville. She'd have to ask his friends, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones when they came back through town.
"Lom," Prudence whispered, so as to not interrupt her father.
"Yes," he whispered back.
"Are your friends Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones coming back any time soon?"
Lom looked confused and then...something else that Prudence couldn't quite decipher. "I don't know," he said shortly. "Why?"
"Goodness, I just asked a question," she hissed at him, annoyed at his tone. Suddenly she remembered what Kathleen had said about Lom being jealous of her having gone to dinner with Mr. Jones. "Oh Lom," she said teasingly, "Daddy asked about them and wanted to have them to dinner or something. You can't imagine I wanted to know for myself."
Lom looked at her for a long minute, turned to Pop with a hurried "Excuse us," and pulled Prudence out of her chair and into the hall.
Prudence looked back at the library door which had closed behind them. "What on earth are you doing? What will Daddy's guests think?"
"They were all listening to your father talk about the underground train," Lom said. "I doubt most of them even noticed. Is there somewhere we can go where we won't be interrupted? I need to speak with you."
"We're speaking now. We were speaking before."
"Alone," Lom insisted.
Prudence thought a moment. The house was full of people going in and out of all rooms. Where to go? Of course. "The gazebo."
"Fine. Let's go."
Lom hurried her along the hall in front of him. As they came into the kitchen, Ellen and Anne looked up, startled. When they would have started to speak, Prudence shrugged, shook her head and said, "I can't talk now. I'll be back...I hope," she added with a glance at Lom.
As soon as the couple was out the door, Anne and Ellen both moved to the window to see where they were going.
"The shed?" Ellen guessed confusedly.
"No, no...look, they've gone right. They're going to the gazebo," Anne crowed.
"How romantic," Ellen sighed.
"She didn't have a shawl. It's a bit breezy."
Ellen scoffed. "Like she'll notice. Come on. We've got trays to pick up in the parlour."
Anne laughed. "I suppose that your sudden desire to help me clean up has nothing to do with the view of the garden from the parlour."
"Oh, you just hush!" Ellen scolded good-naturedly.
When they reached the gazebo, Prudence expected Lom to launch right into whatever it was that was so important, but suddenly he seemed to be at a loss. She waited a moment while he paced a bit and then reached out to touch his arm. "Lom?"
He turned suddenly and said, "You don't know anything about Smith or Jones. Why is it that everytime I turn around they're coming up in the conversation?"
"And even though you don't know anything about them, you hired them to work in the bank and then went to dinner -- twice -- with Jones."
"I'd like to know what was going on."
Prudence scowled, suddenly annoyed again. "It so happens that Mr. Jones and I went to dinner because he was giving me information about bank security."
"We covered a lot of banks. And I'd like to know why that is any of your business, Sheriff?" she asked coldly.
"It's my business because I...well, because I..."
"You what?" Prudence demanded.
"Because I... know them and you don't."
"What sort of nonsense is that?"
"You're too trusting. They could have been anyone."
"You said they were old friends of yours. I trust you."
"But you aren't..." Lom stopped. He took a deep breath. "You trust me?"
"We all do, Lom. You're the Sheriff."
Rather than looked pleased, Lom looked disappointed. "Oh,...well, yes," he said.
Neither Prudence nor Lom said anything for a minute. Then Lom cleared his throat. Prudence looked up expectantly.
"I shouldn't have spoken so sharply at you, Prudence. I'm sorry," he apologized.
"It's all right, Lom." When he looked unconvinced, she hurried to reassure him. "No, it really is all right. I just thought...well, I thought that maybe..."
"Oh, it's just that I thought maybe you were jealous or something and I...well, never mind. It's just something someone said." Prudence turned to leave the gazebo when Lom's hand on her arm stopped her.
"What did someone say?"
Prudence turned to face him and saw that he was waiting quite tensely for her answer. Kathleen had said not to tell him outright but it seemed to Prudence that she and Lom had been misunderstanding each other a great deal lately. She took a deep breath and decided that it was now or never.
"Someone said you loved me."
Prudence waited for a reaction. She didn't move, she didn't breathe. Neither, it appeared, did Lom. Oh no, Pru thought. What if everyone were wrong? What ever would she do now? She felt like crying but she didn't want him to see her do it. "I'm sorry, Lom. I guess they were wrong." She started to leave again but found herself swept backwards and being thoroughly and enthusiastically kissed.
Win's description of his trip was drawing to a close. He'd talked about London and Paris, the underground trains, the growing apprehension over the situation in Khartoum, and perhaps most interesting of all to the people of Porterville, the bizarre view that the Europeans had of life in the American West. Win had told them of the countless questions he'd answered and mistaken beliefs he'd corrected. But now he drew his talk to a close with a more local matter of interest.
"And now, if you'll permit me," he said, "I'd like to finish up by touching on something a little closer to home. As you all know, I left the Bank of Porterville in the capable hands of my daughter Prudence. I think you have to agree that she did a fine job." Glancing to the back of the room, he raised his voice slightly, "Prudence, I think you should take a bow." Everyone turned to where they'd last seen Pru but she wasn't there. "Prudence? Odd. I don't suppose anyone's seen my daughter?" Win asked with a chuckle.
"Probably went to the bank to check on things!" Pat Southern called out and there was a good deal of laughter.
Pop got up and moved towards the door to the hall as he spoke up. "Win, she stepped out a while back."
"Stepped out? Well, at least there'll be someone who hasn't heard all these stories so I'll have an excuse to repeat myself." Again, laughter filled the room. "Well if someone could run and fetch her from where ever she is, I have a little announcement I'd like to make."
Agatha started to get up and Pop called out "No, no Agatha. You stay there. No need for you to get up. Kathleen will be happy to go and get her." Kathleen, who had been perfectly happy sitting with Lloyd at her feet, resented this assumption. It wouldn't do, however, to throw a temper-tantrum about it, so she made her way quickly over where Pop was standing.
Reaching his side, she smiled so no one would know how annoyed she actually was and said through gritted teeth, "Pop, is there some reason *I* have to go? Because if there isn't, I am likely to become most miffed at you." Her smile got wider and anger flared briefly in her eyes, indicating that she was already well on her way to miff-dom.
Pop just laughed and said very quietly, "Put your claws away. Yes, you have to go because about twenty minutes ago, Lom Trevors rushed Prudence out of here and they never came back. Now, if I were a betting man -- and I am -- I'd say that they were probably in the gazebo.
Kathleen's jaw dropped in surprise but when she realized people were staring curiously at them, it just as quickly closed again.
"Kathleen?" Pop waved a hand in front of her face a couple of times. "Hurry now, dear or people will begin to wonder what we're talking about."
Kathleen shook her head in amazement and dashed out the door.
Pop turned back towards the room of curious faces. "Just take a moment. Win," he called to his friend, "why don't you tell us about New York. That's where you came back in, wasn't it. Tell us about the new bridge. Brooklyn, is it?"
Win shrugged and launched into a series of 'only in New York' type stories.
Even though Pop had seemed so sure of himself, Kathleen thought it might be a good idea to check. That's why, as she made her way through the kitchen, she asked Ellen and Anne if they'd seen Pru and explained that she need to fetch her back into the library for an announcement. Anne and Ellen looked at each other and Kathleen thought they looked like they were about to burst.
"Oh, Miss Kathleen, I don't know if...that...well..." Ellen was so overcome with the giggles that she was unable to continue.
Kathleen, who could rarely keep from laughing when anyone else was doing so, found her own laughter bubbling up uncontrollably. "Do you mean Pop was right?"
"About what?" Anne asked, her grin almost as wide as her whole face.
"About Pru and the Sheriff being in the gazebo."
"Yes," Ellen confirmed breathlessly from the chair into which she had collapsed. "Now I wonder how he knew that?"
Kathleen felt a new round of giggles coming and said, "Probably that's where he plans to sweep Mrs. Morris off to." With that she hurried away on her errand, leaving Ellen and Anne helpless with laughter.
As she neared the gazebo, it suddenly occurred to Kathleen that her interruption might not be all that welcome, and she stopped before she got any closer. She thought briefly of going back and telling everyone that she couldn't find Pru and thus giving Pru and the Sheriff a bit more time together alone. Which gave rise to another thought. Kathleen supposed she might as well get used to thinking of him as Lom, seeing as he was courting her best friend -- or perhaps Prudence was courting the Sheriff. Either way, Kathleen was bound to be seeing more of him socially, so she best accustom herself to calling him 'Lom'.
She tried it aloud a couple of times. "Afternoon, Lom." That didn't sound quite right. "How are you today, Lom?" Well, that was better. Perhaps it just took some getting used to. Oh well, she thought. There's nothing for it but to go barge in and interrupt them. If I don't, I'll never know what the announcement is and I'll simply die of curiosity. Making her way resolutely towards the small white structure, Kathleen stopped again when she heard another voice apparently practicing saying the Sheriff's name.
"Oh, Lom," the voice sighed.
Kathleen shook her head. Oh, she was *not* going to be welcomed with open arms into that gazebo. She called out as she approached, to give fair warning. "Prudence. Prudence!" She heard scrambling and wondered, not for the first time, whether there actually was room on that gazebo bench for two people. Stepping around the front of the gazebo, she peered up the stairs. "Pru, your Daddy sent me to get you for some big announcement."
Prudence threw a puzzled glance at Lom and then turned back to Kathleen. "What about?" she asked.
Kathleen shrugged. "I don't know. He wouldn't make it until you were in the room. I think it must have something to do with the bank though because that's what he was talking about when we realized you weren't there." Kathleen looked pointedly from Pru to Lom and back to Pru again.
Prudence was very glad it was too dark for anyone to see how flushed she was suddenly. Then, as Kathleen's words sunk in, she gasped. "The bank! Oh, Kathleen, I completely forgot. And I was going to be so business-like tonight. We haven't even had a chance to bring it up. I better get inside.' Without another word she dashed down the steps and into the house. Kathleen stood watching her flight across the yard and then turned to Lom, who was also staring after Pru.
"Sheriff, the bank is very important to Pru, you know."
"Yes, Miss Stewart. I am very much aware of that."
"Sometimes, it seems like it takes up all her time and it seems like it's all she thinks about but you should know..."
"Yes, Miss Stewart?"
"Well, it only seems that way. Don't let it bother you. She really does care about...other things."
Lom might have smiled but in that light Kathleen couldn't be sure. "Thank you for the advice, Miss Stewart. I'll remember."
"Oh, that reminds me," she said with a small laugh. "Don't you think you ought to call me Kathleen. I mean since you and Pru are...that is, since the two of you have...Well, why don't you just call me Kathleen and I'll call you Lom."
"Okay, Kathleen. That's what we'll do."
"Excellent," she said, very pleased. Now, we'd best get back inside before we miss the announcement." And they walked back towards the house.
When they reached the library, only a moment or two after Prudence, they saw her up at the front of the room with her father. She glanced at them as they came in and her facial expression indicated that she was still thoroughly at sea about what the announcement might be. Going to stand next to Pop, who was beaming away at them as if he'd done something quite clever, Kathleen whispered to Lom, "Do you have any idea what this is about?"
"Not a clue." Craning his next to see across the room, he reported, "And from the look on her face, neither does Mrs. Morris."
Pop leaned in the interrupt them. "No, no one knows but Win...and me, of course. Actually, you know, it was almost my idea."
"What is it?" Kathleen demanded.
Win cleared his throat. "Now that my daughter has returned, I'd like to touch on a more local matter. As you know, while I was gone, I left Prudence in charge of the Bank Of Porterville and I am sure you will agree she did a fine job." He clapped lightly and a ripple of applause followed. Prudence smiled demurely.
Now," he said firmly, "As you also know, there was an attempted bank robbery while I was away." At his daughter's alarmed glance, he patted her hand and continued. " Prudence handled it as well as anyone might have and she made, if I may add, excellent use of the resources at her disposal to make sure that nothing of the kind was likely to happen again. Many of you met Sheriff Trevors' friends, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, while they were here and are aware they were instrumental in preventing the theft of the banks funds.
Lom struggled to look calm. It wasn't easy. Being friends with Heyes and Curry was not a job for the faint of heart. Every time someone mentioned them, he felt like the rug was being pulled out from under him. And now that it seemed that everything he wanted was right in his grasp, he was terrified it would be snatched away. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and prayed that Mr. Porter would move away from the subject of his two friends.
Win was still speaking. "What you may not be aware of is that after that, they gave Prudence many valuable insights into making a bank as safe as possible. Prudence, ever mindful of a way to improve our service to you, took advantage of this opportunity and spent many long hours, asking questions and taking notes. It is because of Prudence -- and the help of Sheriff Trevors and his friends --
Lom opened his eyes to see many of the faces in the room looking back at him.
" -- that the bank I came back to is even more secure than it was when I left. And in thanks for all her hard work, her dedication and," Win finished with a wink and a smile, "because it's my damn bank and I can do what I like with it -- I am making over to Prudence a full partnership in the bank, effective this morning."
After the briefest of stunned silences, the room exploded into sound. Prudence burst into tears of happiness and found herself smothered in her father's embrace. Kathleen shrieked, threw her arms around Pop and Lom, each in turn, and ran to her parents. Agatha gasped and rose quickly to demand to know what Win was thinking. The guests were all talking noisily amongst themselves. Lloyd Matthews was making notes as fast as he could. Pulling away from her father, Prudence wiped the remaining tears from her eyes and looking across the room, caught Lom's eye. The smile she gave him was brilliant. She still looked slightly stunned but incredibly happy at the same time.
Even a few days ago, Lom might have been jealous that someone else -- even her father -- could make Pru that happy but today he'd found out that he didn't need to feel that way. Yes, the bank made her happy and she treasured her time there. She felt it was important. But she'd made it abundantly clear to Lom that he made her happy as well and she placed just as much value on him as anything else in her life.
Pop sighed happily, attracting Lom's attention. Lom sat down next to the old man and leaned over. "That was your idea?" Lom asked.
"Yup. The girl is the best damned banker I've seen in years. In fact, when I gave up my half of the bank, I asked Win to hold my shares for her. For a special occasion. I guess he figured now was it. Your friends agreed with me."
"About Prudence being an excellent banker. Said they'd known all sorts of them and that she was, in addition to being one of the prettiest -- calm yourself, boy, they didn't mean anything by it and besides, it's true -- in addition to that, they said she had a quicker grasp of the facts than most men they'd encountered." Pop sighed again. "You know, I really liked those boys. Specially that currency and vault man, Jones."
"Smith," Lom corrected faintly.
"Smith, then," Pop agreed. "Yes, fine boys, fine. Not bad poker players, either. Hope they come back this way again real soon. They really seemed to stir things up."
Lom shook his head but was forced to agree. Their arrival in town had brought many issues to a head that had been a long time brewing. Still, he hoped it was a while before they came back. Porterville was a nice quiet place to live and that's what Lom liked about it.
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