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Overview and Reviews

Over the Brink

A Warbonnet Mystery


Robert Kresge



Cheyenne, Wyoming Territorial Capital

September 1874, 10 days after Unearthing the Bones

“Monday Malone! What are you doing here,” asked Kate Shaw, fumbling in her reticule in the hallway outside her hotel room.

“Same as you, I reckon,” the marshal said, taking off his hat to her. His damp sandy hair was plastered to his forehead.

“Just leaving my room. I knew you’d be coming back some time soon through Cheyenne from taking Mary to teachers’ school, but I didn’t know we’d be staying in the same hotel.”

“I got to come back a day earlier than I’d planned. It’s a welcome surprise to see you at any rate. Goodness, is that your room right here?”

She gestured toward the open door of Room 204.

Monday pulled it closed and locked it, keeping his key in his hand.

“Yeah. Are you close by? Is this your floor, too?”

“I’m, um, next door. In 206.”

She hoped she wasn’t blushing. There was actually a connecting door between their two rooms that could turn it into a family suite. Perhaps Monday hadn’t noticed that door. She certainly wasn’t going to call it to his attention.

“What brings you back to Cheyenne so soon?”

“I came back for the trial of those two kidnappers we caught, the ones that took Laura Cullinane. Judge didn’t need us for the first few days, but me and Laura come down here on Tuesday’s stage. She’s staying with some aunt over to a different hotel. Didn’t hear yet how long they’ll need me to testify. Laura got to go first. Court’s payin’ for our hotel bills.”

“How is Laura coping? I know her parents have relatives back East. Are they planning to send her away until she recovers? And what are Warbonnet people saying about her? We know she wasn’t raped.”

“Her ma and pa are still discussing her recovery. If they send her away, folks may think there’s bound to be a baby involved. So I think she’s gonna stay in Warbonnet.”

“Well, if you don’t know yet how long they’ll need you, do you know if they’ll need me to testify?”

Her cheeks flushed.

“After all, we arrived at that shack at virtually the same time.”

“Our town council said it might be better for Warbonnet’s reputation if nobody knows their schoolteacher led her own posse after them two and Laura. Better for Laura’s reputation, too, I’m thinkin’. So far, the Cheyenne paper’s been keeping Laura’s name out of the story of the trial. Yours, too. Don’t know what’s been in the Laramie paper.”

“Well, I guess I’m grateful for the anonymity at this point.”

When she saw Monday frown slightly, she added, “I mean keeping both women’s names out of the papers. I’m sure they’ve been naming names in closed court; perhaps the testimony will be sealed and only the verdict reported.”

They reached the reception desk on the first floor and turned in their keys.

Kate was happy to wear her wide-brimmed straw hat over her long blond hair now. Her hat hadn’t been fashionable in Kansas City, but she’d always felt dowdy the few times she’d had to wear a bonnet.

“I’m glad your trip with Mary brought you back here just now. You interested in a bite to eat, Miss Kate? Bet they don’t feed folks on that train up here from Denver.”

“No, you’re right they don’t. But yes, I’d like something to eat. Somewhere inexpensive. The Warbonnet town council paid my stagecoach and train tickets to and from the teachers’ school in Kansas City, but not my overnight accommodations there, or in Denver where we changed trains, or even here. And I won’t start drawing my usual pay until school starts in another week.”

“I know just the place. Been eatin’ there regular from when I brought that dinosaur bones killer down here before the kidnapping. The territory’s payin’ me a dollar a day extra to be here, so I reckon you can keep your money.”

She smiled and nodded as they walked out of the two-story brick Plains Hotel and up the hot dusty street toward a little eatery Monday pointed out. More two-story buildings here than the brick bank building and some two-story clapboard homes back in Warbonnet, Kate noted. More even than in Laramie, the county seat for Warbonnet.

“Goodness, I’ve been so preoccupied with escorting Mary, I’d forgotten you’d have to be here for that dinosaur hunters murder trial, too. Did that go to trial? How did that case turn out?”
“Man was found guilty. But not murder. They called it manslaughter. His lawyer claimed the killer only rolled that dynamite into those two men’s tent to scare ’em. As a ‘joke’ to stir things up between the Cope and Marsh camps, he said. Man had a good lawyer from back in New York. Jury bought the story. But he’ll still do ten to twenty years in the state prison.”

Kate assumed the murder trial took place here in the territorial capital because of the notoriety the case had likely generated, as far away as back East since the killer had a New York lawyer representing him. They must have decided to hold the Laura Cullinane kidnapping trial here too, rather than in Laramie, because jurors over there in Albany County would know Laura’s family and her name couldn’t have been kept out of local newspapers as easily.

She sighed as they sat down. Mary Oberdorf had now been successfully enrolled in nine months of teachers’ school. Kate would have a busy year beginning in a couple of weeks, but even without Mary’s help, Kate knew she could probably still handle the growing crop of pupils. Monday took both their hats to a nearby rack and returned. She ran her fingers through her blond hair, which she’d worn down today.

After they ordered their food, Kate questioned Monday about the progress of the kidnapping trial. They were still discussing it when their meal arrived. As they ate, Monday told her Sean Finnegan and the Sioux family at Monday’s ranch were taking care of the marshal’s horses and would be putting in some new fencing in his absence.

They laughed at the predicament of arranging baths they’d had at the ranch with an entire Indian family to consider.

On the walk back to the hotel after the meal, Kate thought longingly about a bath. Whatever tub the hotel could provide ought not to be in demand this early in the afternoon. The train car had been well ventilated, but the relentless sun of Cheyenne beat down on the dusty streets and now her hair felt limp and stringy. Kate was grateful for the straw hat she’d taken for the Kansas City trip and touched the strings as a gust of wind made her light summer skirt swirl.
As the breeze subsided, she touched the neck and the bodice of her dress. The string of pearls Reverend Jonah Barnes had given her last month as a sort of engagement gift was still secure and out of sight. He’d expect an answer to his proposal when she got back to Warbonnet.
She’d done most of her thinking about Jonah as a husband while on the train back from Kansas City, when there was no Mary to distract her. His proposal was still a secret between the two of them, but he’d be waiting for an answer after giving her nearly a month to consider it. He was an ardent admirer and would surely be a good catch, as her mother and her aunts would say. Her life would certainly not be boring as Jonah could use considerable help in serving the people of Warbonnet, to say nothing of her accompanying him on his infrequent circuit rides between Sundays.

Kate didn’t think Monday Malone would ever acknowledge feelings for her, if indeed he actually had any. Still, she doubted that Jonah would allow his wife to have the kind of adventures she’d shared with this aggravating cowboy turned lawman.

But she knew a grown woman needed to be practical. Marriage wasn’t child’s play. It was after all a contract for life.

Well, the next stagecoach for Warbonnet wouldn’t leave until tomorrow. Maybe she could assess Monday’s level of feelings for her over dinner tonight. He would have to remain a few days after her departure, until the trial for Laura’s kidnappers was finished. That would allow her time to sort things out with Jonah.

As they entered the hotel, an older woman was fussing with the clerk, complaining about street noise in her room, 202, at the front of the hotel.

Goodness, it would be a bit noisier there. But 202 was at least a corner room and the windows would catch breezes from two directions. She ought not to be complaining, Kate thought, conscious of her camisole and blouse clinging to her damp back.

The woman stepped aside, evidently not finished with her complaint. Kate told the clerk her name and asked for the key to 206. Monday did the same and was given his key to 204. The old woman opened her mouth as if to say something, but closed it again.

Kate asked for a bathtub and hot water to be brought up to her room. She had one last change of clean clothes and that would have to do for the rest of this day and for her return to Warbonnet on tomorrow’s stage.

As Kate and Monday left the counter and headed for the stairs, Kate felt the weight of the woman’s stare on her back. Who was she and why was she paying them any attention?

“Let me see the register,” the old woman snapped to the clerk as Kate and Monday climbed up to their rooms.



Chapter 1

Town of Warbonnet
Two days later, September 1874

“I’m glad you came to see me before church tomorrow, Kate,” said Reverend Jonah Barnes as they sat down in his lodging behind the church.

“I know you’ve been busy with laundry and other chores since you got back, but I wanted to see you before choir practice tonight.”

He ran a finger around the clerical collar under his closely-trimmed brown beard.
“I thought we should discuss things, Jonah. I gather from talking with Martha Haskell—Martha Fitch—that you haven’t said anything to anyone about, um, us yet.”

Kate couldn’t keep her hands still in her lap. Her fingers opened, closed, and she finally put them on her knees. She dreaded having to say what she’d planned.

“No, but I’ve wanted to. You said you’d have plenty of time to think about my proposal in the train on the way back from Kansas City.”

He leaned forward in his chair.

Kate swallowed hard.

“And I have. Thought about your kind offer. And about us.”

She sat up straighter and squared her shoulders. This was it. Time for a reckoning. She drew a deep breath, but Jonah spoke first.

“I’m glad you’re ready to discuss things. But I’m afraid I have bad news for you,” he said, reaching into an inside coat pocket and taking out an envelope.

“I received this letter from Mrs. Emily Warren down in Cheyenne. It came on the same stagecoach that returned you to Warbonnet yesterday. The wife of my bishop in Denver had occasion to visit Cheyenne last week and said she reported to her husband that she encountered you in a hotel there the afternoon before last.”

“I don’t recall meeting—”

“No, I understand no introductions were forthcoming. Mrs. Warren said she determined that you and Monday Malone shared a suite there. Mrs. Warren further reported that she could hear male and female laughter from the window of that suite from her own window. Laughter that continued for quite a while, then silence. And she said you’d ordered a bathtub sent up.

“Kate, what am I to make of this report? From the laughter in your room, and from the order for a bathtub?”

Kate sat stunned. Her blood roared in her ears. She put her hand to her chest.

“Jonah, I had no idea I would be in Cheyenne at the same time as Monday. It was pure happenstance that we were given adjacent rooms on the second floor. After we returned from lunch, we went to our separate rooms. I don’t think Monday realized at first that there was a connecting door. But when he knocked—”

“You innocently opened it.”

“I wasn’t thinking of any, any liaison. We just told each other stories of the past couple weeks since we’d seen each other in Warbonnet. There was considerable laughter on my part as Monday recounted details of the kidnapping trial and the dinosaur hunters’ murder trial. Then when the bathtub and hot water I’d ordered appeared—”

“You had the bathtub delivered, knowing a man—and not just any man—was present in your room at that time?”

“Yes. Monday helped the elderly bellman position the tub and went with him to bring up buckets of hot and cool water—”

“Then did he stay as you, uh, prepared for your bath? That was Mrs. Warren’s impression. From the laughter that continued to flow from your room.”

“No, of course not! Monday politely poured three times from the heavy buckets. Then left me a full bucket of rinse water. There was no conversation or laughter after that and he went back to his own room. I turned the key in the connecting door before disrobing.”

“Kate, even if things transpired as you state—”

“Even if? When have I ever given you reason to consider me a liar? I cannot believe I’m hearing this from you.”

“Kate, the point is not entirely about what sort of acts you engaged in or didn’t engage in with Monday Malone. It’s the impression you gave Mrs. Warren, the bishop’s wife. Then and later, when she saw the two of you en route to dinner. She said you actually held hands.”

“Of course Monday took my hand whenever we crossed a street. There were puddles from an afternoon shower. Not to mention horse and wagon traffic and horse manure. Yesterday, he also escorted me to the kidnapping trial he was attending and made sure my name never came up in connection with the posse pursuit of those two men. He was the very picture of a gentleman. Then he put me on the coach up here the next morning while he stayed behind to attend to his trial duties.

“No other contact occurred between us, unless you want to count pulling out and pushing in my chair at meals!”

She unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse and reached behind her neck to unclasp the pearl necklace she had worn discreetly out of sight.

“You don’t have to be embarrassed about asking for these back. I couldn’t stand wearing them if you thought I’d betray your trust.”

Her face scarlet with anger, she placed the necklace on the table between them rather than put them into his hand.

“Now that that’s taken care of and I’ve told you that I’m as virtuous as Caesar’s wife, do you still want me to play piano at tonight’s choir rehearsal?”
Jonah’s face had gone pale.

“Um. Yes. That would be appropriate, since no one knows of—”

“And no one will learn of this conversation, nor of our almost engagement, from me, Reverend Barnes.”

Kate composed herself as best she could, dabbed her perspiring upper lip with her handkerchief, and consulted the watch pinned to her bosom.

“I shall see you next door for the rehearsal in half an hour.”

With that, she breezed out the back door to the street, avoiding the possibility of meeting anyone in the sanctuary proper.



Chapter 2

Warbonnet, Wyoming
June 1875, nine months later

Mayor Noah Crandall rapped a carpenter’s hammer on the table to call the Town Council to order. But the two soft taps indicated his heart really wasn’t in the effort.

The other two members present looked at the balding mayor glumly. Joe Fitch, owner of the livery stable and the stagecoach station franchise, sighed through his black beard. Grey-haired hardware store owner Isaac Hauser adjusted his glasses and waited expectantly. Crandall and Hauser had removed their jackets. Even at 8 o’clock in the evening, Wyoming summer heat made ties and starched collars torture. Joe Fitch rarely wore either a tie or a frock coat. He sat in a faded collar-less undershirt, his sleeves pushed up.

“Who’s gonna take notes?” Joe asked.

“Not me,” said Noah. “I’m the mayor this year. Don’t hafta. Ike, looks like you’re elected.”

“It’s bad enough,” Hauser said, reaching for a tablet and pencil, “that we don’t have our fourth member here, but this is the second time I’ve had to do this.”

“All right, simmer down. We tried having Joe take minutes last time and he can’t write nearly fast enough. We haven’t got much to discuss tonight, anyway.”

They dealt quickly with taxes received and spending matters.

“All right,” Noah said, “let’s talk about the main business tonight.”

Before they began, Noah reached into a drawer and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. Then he came up with a stack of three glasses and pushed them into the middle of the table.

“Uh, we usually wait ’til the end of the meeting for this,” Hauser began.

“Don’t matter, Ike,” Joe said, opening the bottle and pouring. “Get out the seegars, too, Mr. Mayor. With Miss Kate gone, we don’t hafta wait for the end of the meeting.”

Noah produced three cigars and pulled out an ashtray. The council meeting room was located above his bank.

“Damn,” Ike said, setting down his glass after his first sip. “I thought we’d have her back by now. I’m beginning to get worried.”

“I think we should all be worried. It’s been almost a month now, without even a letter from her.”

“Four weeks, my missus says,” Joe said, waving out his match and exhaling a plume of smoke. “Nobody coulda expected this.”

“Oh, I think we’ve seen it coming,” Noah said. “My Liza had several long talks with Kate since last fall.”

“And my missus—Martha—had some late night talks with her right after Kate’s posse and Monday rescued Laura. Them long talks didn’t stop until school ended this spring. Then off she went back east to Buffalo.

“Martha thinks she ain’t comin’ back.”

The fourth council member, schoolteacher Kate Shaw, appointed a year ago to finish out widow Martha Haskell’s term when the latter resigned to become Mrs. Joe Fitch, had left Warbonnet after the school term ended in mid-June to return to her family’s home in Buffalo, New York. She’d said she wanted to see her younger sister and her new baby. Kate hadn’t returned so far and had answered none of the council’s letters or the two telegrams Noah had sent.

“I didn’t think we were too hard on her. Nobody in town ever said a cross word to her,” Ike said, pouring himself a second glass.

“No, no one did. Everyone in this town loves Kate, even our newest arrivals. Every newcomer man who opens an account at the bank asks who she is, and whether she’s married or not.”

“Martha’s been writing to her every week since she left. She ain’t got no replies neither.”

No one spoke for a long time. They were silent with their whiskey and their thoughts. What could they have done—or said—differently? The town had reeled in anguish when Laura Cullinane was abducted last summer. Although she’d been rescued by Monday Malone, the town marshal, after less than three days, everyone assumed the worst, that she hadn’t returned “intact,” and that she’d likely been cruelly abused by her captors.

Kate, who was acting as temporary town marshal at the time, formed a posse of the old scout Sean Finnegan and two Sioux Indians to search for Laura. Her group had spent two nights on the trail and some women in town believed Kate had also ruined her reputation by riding alone with three men. All the town’s women were chilled by Laura’s abduction. The very idea of being stolen away and enslaved by such violent, horrible men. Women who held their heads high at the threat of Indian wars were left trembling at the thought of Laura’s helplessness.

“We never raised the subject with her,” Noah said at last. “And our wives don’t know of anyone one else who did, at church, in school, or in any dealing they had with Kate. Did we err by considering her feelings and not giving her a chance to talk about it? Would she have talked to any of us about her, um, her time with the posse or what they learned when they rescued Laura?”

“She talked to Doc,” Joe said. “Martha told me that. And she musta talked to Monday about it at some point.”

“Liza said Kate’s best friends, Becky, Mary, and Tina, said she never talked to them about it and they never pressed her. Kate never addressed any concerns for propriety, never gave them any details. But for crying out loud, she was only out two nights with an old white man and two Indians, one of them a boy. And she was tryin’ her mightiest to save one of her own friends. We never supposed . . . .”

“Well, I don’t know what to do now,” Noah said. “Council rules say we can remove and replace a member for nonattendance. But should we? I mean, Kate helped Martha get elected the first female town council member in Wyoming—maybe in the whole US of A—nearly three years ago. And we appointed Kate to take Martha’s place when she resigned. Might go hard with us if we dumped her. Hafta find a female replacement, I suppose. Folks have gotten used to—”

“Couldn’t we give her at least a couple more meetings,” Joe asked. “Until September? If she ain’t back by then, she won’t be coming back for the school term. Young Mary’d have to take care of all the students and we’d be looking for more than a new council member. We’d need another teacher, too.”

“That’s too long to wait,” Ike said. “Much as I like Kate . . . . Hell, much as I love Kate. We all love Kate in one way or another. We have to plan for the likelihood that she won’t be coming back. Either she wants to forget Warbonnet because of that, uh, that abduction, or she’s remembered all the attractions of a secure life back East. Maybe she’s found someone there to marry.”

Noah and Joe looked down at their empty glasses. No one made a move to have another drink. Cigar ashes burned long in the silence.

“There is another way,” Noah said, finally. “To find out her intentions maybe in just a week or two. Then we’d know whether we’ll need to advertise in Kansas and Colorado for a new schoolteacher. And figure out who we’d offer a council seat to. It would cost us the price of a trip all the way to Buffalo and back, though.”



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