A teacher and old bones - Editor
by David E. Hughes
When I arrived in Gold Mesa in September of 1874, its one-room schoolhouse was equipped with thirteen desks, a blackboard, and a human skeleton.
"Oh, what a wonderful teaching aide!" I said to Mayor Stratton, who had picked me up a quarter hour before at the stage station. "Why didn't you tell me about the skeleton in our correspondence?"
A frown formed behind the mayor's thick handlebar mustache. "Because it shouldn't be used as a teaching aide. Someone put it there without my permission. You must not display it, Miss Riley."
The skeleton was suspended by a series of wires from a wooden pole that looked like a coat rack. The bones jiggled and danced as Mayor Stratton picked up the pole. The cadaver and the short, stout mayor looked as if they were performing a strange danse macabre before he shoved the skeleton into a closet in the back of the room. "That's where it shall stay," he said.
"But that would be such a waste! I could make the children of Gold Mesa experts in human anatomy, perhaps inspire some to become physicians."
"I'm sorry, but that's the way it has to be." The mayor pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his hands.
"The skeleton was a boy named Spinner McGrady. He was hanged right here in Gold Mesa a few years back. Fortunately, Gold Mesa has moved beyond vigilante justice. I don't want the children reminded of our embarrassing past."
I crossed my arms and wondered if I'd made a mistake in accepting this position. The mayor had assured me in his letters that Gold Mesa was beautiful and staid. The rosy sun setting over the white-capped Rocky Mountains had convinced me of the town's beauty, but, thus far, the mayor had done little to persuade me of its civility. "Perhaps if I preceded anatomy with a civics lesson I could—"
"No! I will not hear of you using him!"
I took a breath to calm myself. "Why don't you show me where I'll be staying?” I asked, resolving to do what I could to get that skeleton out of the closet.
The following day, I gave the classroom a good scrubbing. I was not hired by the town to be a scullery maid, but neither would I willingly expose my students to dust. No doubt many of the children already had plenty of dirt in their homes, but that could not be helped on the frontier. I hoped that my influence would at least make the next generation of Coloradans more sophisticated.
Spinner, of course, provided no help during my toils. I pulled him out of the closet only to have him leer at me the entire time and, I suspect, peek at my petticoats. I exacted a modicum of revenge by giving him a thorough dusting. I refused to let the cold, smooth bones send shivers up my spine. An educated woman knows dead is dead, and a Christian woman knows that Spinner's soul was no longer earthbound. My labor was rewarded when I opened Spinner's jaw and discovered a note lodged inside the skull cavity:
To Mayor John Stratton:
Please accept this gift as a token of our thanks for keeping Gold Mesa safe.
--The Vigilance Committee
How strange that the Mayor would not want to display this "gift" for all to see. And who was this Vigilance Committee?
My curiosity piqued, I reluctantly returned Spinner to his resting place—at least for the time being.
The following Friday afternoon, Mrs. Sophia Stratton was kind enough to invite me to tea with the Gold Mesa Ladies Quilting Club. While sipping good English tea in a fine china cup and sampling shortbread, I concluded that my impression about the town not being staid was premature. The Stratton's home was as nice as some houses I'd visited in Chicago. Fine woven carpets lay across polished wooden floors. Colorful artwork lined the plastered walls, and a beautiful player piano stood in the corner of the sitting room. I felt more at home here than any place I'd visited west of the Mississippi.
Mrs. Stratton was quite unlike her husband the mayor. She had a pleasant demeanor and hardly seemed reluctant to share the town's gossip. She and the only other active member of the club, Mrs. Amanda Merkle, told me about the hasty marriage of Mr. Beauregard Treat to Miss Nancy Greenmoss, who was quite obviously pregnant and rumored to be Mr. Treat's first cousin. I'd also heard plenty of speculation about whether Reverend Cooperman had been inebriated while delivering last Sunday's sermon.
"So, Miss Riley, did you enjoy your first week of teaching?" asked Amanda Merkle, a squat woman married to the druggist.
"Very much so. The children are darlings and seem eager to learn." For the most part, anyway, I thought. Max Harvey could hardly sit still for his lessons, and Julia Fanbrake kept falling asleep during the class reading. Few of the children brought proper supplies and most lacked even a basic understanding of the alphabet. I had my work cut out for me, but that's why I had come.
"And is the classroom to your liking?" asked Mrs. Stratton.
"Yes, but . . . ." I wondered if it was wise to bring up Spinner, considering how intractable Mayor Stratton had been on the subject.
"But what?" asked Mrs. Stratton.
"My teaching assistant hadn't been of as much use as I'd hoped."
"I thought you were to teach alone," said Mrs. Merkle, her eyebrows scrunching on her heavily powdered face.
"So did I, but he was in the classroom when I arrived," I said.
"Really?" asked Mrs. Stratton, leaning forward in her velvet armchair. I caught a whiff of her perfume—French, if I was not mistaken. The fine, patterned cloth of her dress and her carefully curled hair also hinted at European sophistication. "Who?"
I smiled. "Spinner McGrady."
The ladies of the quilting club burst into laughter.
"Oh my dear Miss Riley, you are a hoot!" gasped Mrs. Murkle. She spread a delicate looking fan and waved it in front of her chubby face.
"I explained that a skeleton would be a valuable tool for teaching anatomy, but Mayor Stratton insisted I relegate Spinner to the closet," I said.
"Why?" asked Mrs. Stratton.
"He said it would remind the children of an unfortunate episode in Gold Mesa's past."
"Oh, my husband can be as dry as a Santa Fe boot heal sometimes," said Mrs. Stratton. "He's embarrassed by even the slightest hint of social disorder—as if we live in London rather than on the frontier." She took a sip of tea and settled back in her chair. Her face was quite comely, but Colorado's sun had deepened the wrinkles around her keen eyes and rouged lips. "He probably didn't even tell you the whole story about Spinner. It all happened seven or eight years ago. Spinner was an Irish boy who was a bit slow in the head. He was only 17 when he took a fancy to a lady of ill repute named Moll Howard who worked at a saloon here in town called The Golden Feather. Well, one night the boy flew into a fit of jealous rage, he hit Moll in the head with a rock, killing her. Before the sheriff could arrive, a Vigilance Committee formed and lynched the boy."
"That's horrible," I said.
"I agree, Miss Riley," said Mrs. Merkle. "Prostitution is a terrible sin and a nearly irresistible temptation to even the most temperate man. Unfortunately, it's still going on right here in Gold Mesa."
I bit the inside of my lip, holding back the retort that came to mind. Prostitution may be repugnant, but, no matter the circumstances, a slow child did not deserve death for an act he could not have truly understood. "What is the Vigilance Committee?" I asked instead.
"It usually consists of upstanding citizens who want to make sure justice is done," said Mrs. Stratton with a sly smile. "But, in Spinner's case, I'm not so sure `upstanding' applies, since some of the committee members were ladies of the evening and spend their time on their backs."
Mrs. Merkle giggled.
The conversation having taken a turn for the worse, I quickly excused myself from the tea. I must have spent more time at Mrs. Stratton's house than I thought, because the sun had nearly disappeared over the mountaintops when I left. I marched down Barnett Avenue toward the cabin where I boarded. It was bad enough walking past the many crib houses that lined the street in the bright light of day, but walking by them in the fading light left me feeling uncomfortable.
The dusty street was crowded with men riding horses and wagons loaded with supplies for the mining camps up the mountain. Most of the men looked dirty and tired, but an undercurrent of excitement filled the air. It was only a matter of time, folks claimed, before someone struck it rich by finding gold.
Laughter and piano music poured out of the saloons as I passed. Most were run-down one-story shacks that would blow down in a strong wind. As I approached the Golden Feather, I noted that it stood out from the rest. Other than Jake Stratton's Trading Post, it was the only two-story structure on the block. The wooden exterior was sturdy and neatly painted. I had heard the interior was lined with mirrors, carpet, and crystal chandeliers. If this were true, it was the most opulent building in Gold Mesa. I tried not to think what Father would make of this.
"Well, looky here!" said a man directly behind me. I jumped, startled by the interruption and turned around. "Ain't you just the purtyist site I ever seen."
A prospector stood behind me in frayed clothes, a floppy rawhide wide-brimmed hat, and muddy boots. His leering grin revealed the poorest dental hygiene I'd ever witnessed. He reeked of horse dung, wood smoke, and cheap whiskey. Around his waist, he wore a gun belt with a pistol.
I tried to turn around and resume my journey home, but the man grabbed my elbow with one of his filthy hands. "Not so fast, lil' filly. We've hardly gotten to know each other."
I nearly fell over from the reek of his fetid breath. My heard pounded as I tried in vain to yank my elbow free. "Unhand me!" I shouted.
The prospector cackled. "What do you say we get a room someplace?"
"Let go!" I shouted. I struggled, but he grabbed me with his other hand and dragged me across the street.
"There a problem here?" asked a tall, rugged-looking, and well-built man, placing his hand firmly on the prospector's shoulder.
The prospector released me immediately, and he deflated like a punctured balloon. "No, Sheriff, me and the lady were just talking."
"I've had enough of your kind of talk, Pete. I don't expect to see you in town after sunup, understand? You're not welcome here anymore."
"But Sheriff I—"
"On second thought, I could put you in the jail."
"No, Sheriff, please. I'll git. I'll git right now."
"Fine idea, Peter."
The prospector ran down the street. If he had a tail, it would have been between his legs.
"You all right, Miss?" asked the sheriff. He wore a leather vest pinned with a brass star, polished cowboy boots, and a holster with an ivory-handled six-shooter. To top it all off, he wore a wide-brimmed white hat. Until now, I had thought that men like this existed only in dime store novels—not that I had ever read one.
"I . . . I think so. Thank you." Some dust blew into my eyes and I batted my eyelashes.
"You're right welcome. Are you the new school mistress, Miss Kelly Riley?" His eyes were a fine color of blue, like the Colorado sky. Not that I really cared. Those eyes had probably never cast themselves on a good book.
"I am. And you are?"
He took off his hat, revealing dark brown hair frosted at the edges with grey. "Pardon, me. I'm Sheriff Greg Blackmore. Pleased to meet ya." He donned his hat again. "Do you carry a gun, Miss Kelly Riley?"
I pulled myself up to my full height, which was still considerably lower than the sheriff. "I most certainly do not!"
"Well, you should. Gold Mesa has come a long way, but it ain't as safe as it should be for a lady by her lonesome. Pete probably wouldn't have harmed you, but there are even less savory characters around."
My God! He even talked like a character from a dime store novel. "What would you have me do? Walk around with a six-shooter strapped to my side?"
"I have a gun you could borrow that's small enough to fit in a lady's handbag."
"Tell me, does your wife carry a gun in her handbag?"
He sighed and lowered his head. "Polly passed on before I came to Gold Mesa--goin' on three years ago."
"I'm . . . sorry to hear that. Well, anyhow, I'm sure I can take care of myself without a gun, but thank you for your help—and your suggestion."
I stepped around him and continued on my way.
"Miss Kelly Riley?"
I turned. "Yes."
"Let me know if you need to borrow any books for your school. I wouldn't mind loaning some out of my collection."
For the next three weeks, I didn't think about Sheriff Blackmore at all, or about the strange musical way he said "Miss Kelly Riley," or about his book collection. I did, however, think about what Mrs. Stratton told me about Spinner. How was it that a slow, 17-year old boy could fall in love with a prostitute? And what crazy kind of jealousy could possess him to kill such a woman?
Whatever the answer to those questions, there was certainly no reason to keep Spinner in the closet. So I took him out and displayed him to the class.
The mayor paid a visit to my classroom the next day.
"I've heard you took Spinner out of the closet," he said. "I told you to keep him in."
"So I recall. However, in my judgment --"
"You will put him away." The mayor's chubby cheeks flushed. A look flashed through his cold blue eyes that made me think he was going to attack me, and I wondered if the sheriff had been right about the gun.
"If Spinner is so distasteful to you, why not simply destroy him?"
"It would be . . . rude."
Ah, yes. The Vigilance Committee had made it a gift. If the committee found out he had spurned it, who knows what they would do? Perhaps the committee was not as much a part of Gold Mesa's past as the mayor would have me believe.
"If Skinner appears again, you can pack your bags," he said.
I was nearly ready to pack my bags without further prompting, but I'd just started making progress with the children, and I'd written to Father and told him I was getting along swimmingly on the frontier. Why was the mayor so passionate about Spinner? His explanation of the skeleton being a reminder of Gold Mesa's sordid past did not ring true. I needed more information, but I could think of only one place where I might get a reliable story.
The Golden Feather.
That night, I stayed up late reading Shakespeare by the light of an oil lamp. The Makenzie family, whom I boarded with, retired to their beds. Well past midnight, I dressed in a drab, grey dress, put my hair in a bun, and walked into town. Gold Mesa was different at night. Few men—and no women—braved the streets, the shops were closed and dark, and the shadows were long. Fortunately, the full moon and the crystalline Rocky Mountain stars cast enough light for me to avoid the horse droppings. I could just hear the music of a piano and the occasional roar of laughter. I headed toward it.
I didn't dare go inside the Golden Feather. The only women there would be serving girls and ladies of ill fame. Not only would I stand out, but I'd get far more attention than I wanted. The memory of Pete the prospector was still bright in my mind. I was lucky the sheriff had come along when he did. If I was accosted tonight, I may not be so fortunate. So, I found a dark shadow across the street and waited.
The revelry inside the saloon went on far longer than I expected. By the time the piano stopped and men staggered out of the swinging doors, I was practically asleep on my feet. Finally, I saw what I was looking for. A small woman came out and walked toward the poorer part of town.
"Excuse me!" I said, emerging from my place in the shadows.
The woman started. "Who are you?"
I finally got a view of her face in the moonlight, and what I saw shocked me. She was nearly young enough to be one of my students, probably no more than 18. "Please don't be alarmed. I was just hoping to talk to you."
"About what?" She still looked as if she were about to run.
"A woman who used to work here named Moll Howard."
The girl's eyes widened at the mention of Moll's name. I'd gotten lucky.
Her brown eyes filled with tears. "She . . . she was my mother."
"There now," I said. "Why don't you come back to my cabin and we can have a nice talk. I doubt we'll wake the Makenzies. I'll make tea."
"You're the school mistress, aren't you?"
I couldn't imagine how the girl knew, since I'd never laid eyes on her before. I nodded. "I'm Miss Riley."
"I'll come. My name's Jane."
Jane gulped down tea and tore into biscuits as if she'd never tasted food before. She didn't seem at all curious about why I was asking about her mother. Instead, she seemed grateful for the opportunity to talk about her. Moll had been married to a poor farmer named Luke, who was Jane's father. Luke got the idea that they would homestead in Colorado and headed west, but was bitten by a rattlesnake on the way and died, leaving Moll and Jane penniless in Gold Mesa. Moll began working at the Golden Feather as a prostitute. It was a horrible job, but it allowed her to keep Jane fed, clothed, and sheltered.
Moll thought her luck had turned when she caught the eye of one of the richest men in Gold Mesa. At first he was just a customer, but then it seemed like something more. He claimed he loved her, and when Moll discovered she was pregnant with, she suspected, the man's child, she was thrilled. "But the man wasn't," said Jane. "He slapped her around, told her to get rid of the baby. Mother refused.
"The next day, Spinner McGrady came into the saloon. I was there earning extra money washing glasses. Spinner had money and wanted to see Mother. The other men at the bar thought it was funny. They kidded Spinner about saving up to lose his virginity and wondered if maybe he wasn't as slow as he seemed. When Mother finally took him back to her room, everyone in the saloon cheered. Sometime later, Spinner came running out of the room, tears in his eyes. `No! Bad! No!' he kept saying. I ran upstairs to Mother's room. Her head was covered in blood, and I knew she was dead.
"`The boy killed her!' someone shouted behind me. I turned around and saw him. The man who said he loved my mother.'"
"What was his name?" I asked, although I thought I already knew.
"Mayor Jake Stratton."
The very same Jake Stratton was kind enough to pay me a visit after school a few days later. The children had been doing remarkably well with their anatomy lesson, especially with Spinner's help.
He reddened when he saw Spinner prominently displayed at the front of the room.
"Ah, Mayor Stratton," I said. "I'm glad you have come. I wanted to show you the children's latest anatomy quiz. It proves Spinner is a valuable teaching tool."
"Now you listen--"
I sat down behind my desk, opened one of the drawers, and faced the mayor. "I also wanted to tell you about the next civics lesson I'm going to teach. I'll use the story of Spinner to explain the evils of vigilante justice. I'll explain that hanging Spinner without a trial made it impossible for the true story to come out."
"I advise caution, Miss—" sputtered the mayor.
"If there had been a trial," I continued, "witnesses would have testified that it was not Spinner who was fond of Moll Howard, but you. You discovered two nights before that she was pregnant with your child. You gave Spinner more money than he had ever seen in his life and told him to seek out Moll. You killed Moll and framed poor Spinner for the deed. Then you goaded the Vigilance Committee into hanging poor Spinner. When the committee sent back Spinner's bones, you had a problem. You couldn't stand to have the evidence of your misdeed displayed to the children day after day, but getting rid of it would only draw suspicion. That is why you made me keep Spinner in the closet."
The mayor took a menacing step toward me. His face was grim and serious. "I don't believe you'll ever get the chance to teach that lesson, Miss Riley."
"I think I will." I pulled a small gun from my desk and pointed it at him. "Care to test my aim, Mayor?"
The mayor raised his hands and took two steps backwards. "Now, let's be reasonable. If you shot me, you would be the one hanging from the gallows."
"I do not think so. I would testify that I was resisting your ungentlemanly advances. I'm sure I could find witnesses who would willingly testify that, historically, you did not limit you carnal interests to Mrs. Stratton."
"What do you want?"
"I'm allowed to use Spinner without interference, and you will give your full support to adequate funding for the school and the schoolmistress in the future."
The mayor slowly lowered his hands. "Very well, it's a deal."
"One more thing," I said, keeping the gun raised, "if I should meet with any sudden, unexpected demise in the future, every newspaper in the country will know about your interesting past. The arrangements are already in place."
After he left, I decided it would be a good day to visit Sheriff Blackmore again. After all, I should thank him for his kindness in loaning me the gun. Perhaps he would even teach me how to shoot the thing.