Clara Belle, PI.
The stagecoach pulled up in a cloud of dust, the coachman reining in the steaming horses with an oath. He jumped down, spat into the conveniently placed spittoon, and opened the stagecoach door.
“Help you down, Ma’am,” he said, his moustaches quivering appreciatively.
“Thank you.” Clara Belle descended into the arid atmosphere of Gorey Creek, looking like a dewy rose in a desert.
A young lady of some twenty-five summers, her glossy chestnut hair was swept back into a knot at the nape of her slender white neck. She lifted her long skirt slightly as she climbed down, to reveal starched white petticoats and buttoned boots.
Clara waited patiently as the driver swung down her trunk from the luggage rack on the roof, and then extracted a dollar from the purse attached to her slim wrist as a tip.
Her fine blue eyes surveyed the town. On the whole, she decided she liked what she saw.
Gorey Creek was an up-and-coming township in America’s mid-west. There were several similar settlements dotted around the county, becoming prosperous by the region’s rich gold seams and enormous cattle ranches. Yes, Clara thought, Gorey Creek would suit her and her business very well indeed.
She left her trunk in situ, and crossed the road to a large and noisy saloon bar.
Pushing open the swinging doors, she walked in. The noise was turned off, as if by a tap. Unperturbed, Clara walked briskly to the bar.
“Good day, bartender. Can you tell me where to find Mr Walter Stoner, please?”
Cowboys, ranch-hands and saloon girls turned and looked at each other in astonishment, but it seemed the bartender was used to out-of-the-way questions.
“Large house on the edge of town,” he replied, laconically. He nodded the direction. “Name of Star Creek Ranch. You can’t miss it.”
“Thank you. May I rent a room here for a few days, please? My trunk is across the road.”
“Sure.” He reached behind the bar and brought out a register and a key. “Name and address?”
“Miss Clara Belle, England.” There was a hum of excitement and interest behind her, like someone had stirred a hornet’s nest.
The bartender passed her a key. “Room 8. I’ll have your trunk brought up.”
Clara, smiling sweetly at a couple of cowboys who were regarding her with open mouths, ascended the stairs. She was followed by the bartender’s assistant carrying her trunk. After testing her bed, she re-powdered her face, and set off to explore the town.
Outside, she located the Sheriff’s office and marched in. The Sheriff was talking to his deputy, and both men jumped to their feet when they saw Clara.
She quickly sized them up. Mmm, yes. The tall, good-looking one is the Sheriff. His deputy looks keen – might be after his job. Aloud, she said,
“My name is Clara Belle. I intend to set up business in this town as a private investigator. I thought it only fair to warn you. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes!”
Both men looked as though they would love to have their feet abused by Clara, but the Sheriff merely remarked,
“I’m Bill Ferron, Miss Belle, and this is my deputy, Dan Branner. I don’t think there’s any call for a private detective out here.”
“Say,” piped up the deputy. “I’ve heard about these PIs. Aren’t you like Sherlock Holmes of London? I’ve been reading about him.”
“Very clever man, by all accounts,” said Bill. “Do you model yourself on him, Miss Belle?”
Clara was aware of two pairs of wary eyes boring into her dark blue ones, but she answered coolly.
“No, Sheriff. I model myself on Mr Conan Doyle, who invented him. Now, there’s a clever man.”
“How can a lady in skirts chase criminals?” Dan asked.
“With her brain, of course, Deputy.”
Silence. Then the Sheriff jumped up. “Allow me to show you around town, Miss Belle.”
“Clara, please. That would be most kind, Mr Ferron.”
“Bill.” He turned aside to hide his embarrassment and spoke to his deputy. “Dan, carry on with that report.”
Outside, Clara and Bill strolled down the street, the Sheriff pointing out the various buildings.
“That’s the livery stable. You can hire a horse and carriage and driver there.
“This here is Jeb’s store. Sells provisions, household items, anything you like, I guess. Here is the man himself.” A large rotund man in a long white apron came out and was introduced to Clara.
“I hope the Sheriff here will bring you to the dance tomorrow night.” He winked to the Sheriff, who glared at him and walked to the next building.
“This here’s the saloon. You don’t want to be going in there, a lady like you.”
“On the contrary, Bill, I’m staying there. Till I can find a house to rent. I could stay with my cousin but I’d like to be independent.”
The sheriff stopped in his tracks, horrified. “You get right out of there, Miss Be...Clara. That place is full of rogues and ruffians. There’s many a bad business plotted in there. I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of it for months. There’s a clever brain behind it, you mark my words”
“Hmm, well, maybe you can be just as smart, Bill – with me to help you.”
“Yes, I told you. I’m a private investigator. Think Pinkerton’s. Really, I’m a step better than the law. I can ask questions in places where most lawmen fear to tread.”
“Yeah, and get yourself killed doing it! This place ain’t all cosy like your green and leafy England. It’s rough and tough and there are many ruthless people here who will stop at nothing to get what they want!”
It was a powerful message but Clara didn’t bat one of her lusciously-lashed eyelids.
“Sheriff, believe me when I tell you I can take care of myself. And little old England can be just as dangerous.”
Bill jutted out his jaw, but realised he had met his match.
“OK. If you really want to help me clean up this town, let’s start with this.” The saloon door burst open, and a man fell out onto the street. With a sigh the Sheriff moved forward, as the man pulled out his gun, cursing and pledging a bloody revenge. Bill grabbed his arm. “Come on, Hal, get yourself off home before I give you a cell for the night!”
Hal tottered off, still muttering, and Bill rejoined Clara. He said, “There’s getting to be too many of these incidents.”
“How do you mean? He’s just drunk, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t drink, normally. I think someone is going around inciting trouble in this town – though what for, I can’t for the life of me guess.”
They walked on for a while till they reached the church at the end of the street, where a parson stood chatting to someone. Bill turned.
“All this,” his gesture took in the main street. There was dirt and dust everywhere, and people bustling back and forth, each intent on their own affairs. Overall was the wide, blue, western sky. “I suppose it’s all strange to you, coming from England. Tell me, what is it like there? Do you miss it?”
Clara gave him a direct look. She said,
“I live in a city. It’s much bigger than your town, but most people are poor. I’m lucky, I have inherited money from my father. I want to help people who can’t help themselves. But my home country won’t give women that chance. I believe that here, in the New World, I can realise my dreams, fulfil my ambition.”
“And what is that?” Bill stared at this strange, strong, beautiful woman.
Clara turned to him. “I want to be a female Sherlock Holmes, of course. Will you be my John Watson?”
They looked into each other’s eyes, and Bill moved closer. Then the vicar hailed them, and the moment was spoiled.
Next day, Clara made an early start to Longhorn Ranch. Tying up her horse and carriage on the rail outside, she walked up the steps to the verandah and knocked on the door.
Nick opened it, and did a double-take when he saw Clara. She introduced herself.
“You are the private detective?”
Clara opened her bag and took out a notebook and pencil. “Can you tell me about your problem – from the beginning.”
“Yeah, I can do that – though what the hell you can do, Miss Belle, I can’t imagine – no offence.”
“None taken.” She aimed to prove him wrong – prove them all wrong. Jeb/nick? was speaking. “It started about eight months ago. I had some cattle rustled. Then a barn burnt down. A week or so after that, I had a well and stream poisoned.
“Did you report all this to the sheriff?”
“It’s the Garroway gang. Real bad bunch of outlaws they are – stop at nothing. The Sheriff was hot on their trail one time and they were real mad. They warned him to back off but he wouldn’t. He came home one day to find his wife had been shot. The gang was blamed for it – crazy bad lot, they are. Sheriff was never the same since.”
Nick looked very serious.
“Sure is ma’am. So, you just be careful now, won’t you?”
Clara squared her chin, gave herself a little shake, and began her tour of the ranch. She was determined to cover as much ground as possible, but it was a daunting task to have to search every square inch. The land around the house and outbuildings stretched to several acres. Surely though, the answer must be secreted in this house, the nucleus of the ranch itself.
Clara walked round the back of the farmhouse. Seemingly nothing unusual here, just a solid, sprawling wooden structure. There were outbuildings; a barn and several cattle sheds. She walked to the back of these and gazed across at the miles of dusty fields, filled with steers. Why did those hoodlums want this ranch so badly?
“Did you report all this to the Sheriff?”
“Sure. He said it was all a coincidence.”
“The Sheriff said that?” “Well, him or his deputy. Same thing”
“And what do you think?”
? scratched his head.
“Don’t rightly know. Seems like there’s a jinx on the place – or me.”
The ranch seemed run-down and deserted. Cattle, herded into a corral, lowed and stamped their feet. In contrast, the morning air was sweet and clean. Whit puffs of cloud seemed fixed into a vast sky of cerulean blue. In the distance were the fantastically-shaped rocks exclusive to the county. It was a scene far removed from anything in England, but Clara thought she had never seen anything so beautiful. She was going to settle out here, she suddenly decided. She was going to be successful, marry, raise a family in this enthralling wide open land. But first she had to solve this case!
“There’s a dance on tonight at Jeb Stowe’s place – you can meet all the locals.”
Later that evening, Clara arrived at Jeb’s house, a large farm just out of town. The dance was taking place in Jeb’s roomy barn.
Everyone, it seemed, was there. All the women seemed to have on their best dresses, mostly flower-sprigged cotton. Clara felt out of place in a sophisticated dark blue silk gown, which matched her eyes. She found herself the centre of attention as Bill performed the introductions.
A three-piece band stamped their feet and struck up a tune, and Bill claimed the first dance. As he put his arm around Clara’s waist she felt the spark of attraction. And by the look in the lawman’s eyes, he felt it too.
The evening progressed, with many of the men claiming dances, and Clara managed to amass a lot of information. But was any of it going to be useful? Time would tell.
Deputy Dan Branner was at her elbow. “May I have the next dance, Miss Belle?”
“Clara, please. Could you get me a drink first? This dancing is thirsty work.”
Dan came back with two glasses of punch.
“Steady on with that, Clara! Jeb’s wife makes it keen and strong.”
“Just what I need.” Clara drank deeply. Dan said,
“Look, Clara. I happen to know the Sheriff really doesn’t want you around. You might be better in some other town.”
“Yeah, I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but I like you. He told me he thinks you’re going to put him out of a job.
“Clara’s sapphire eyes flashed fire. “That’s ridiculous. I only want to help him. Anyway, he seemed to accept me.”
“Yeah. That’s what you call male pride, I suppose. He doesn’t want to beg you to back off, or admit to being worried of being bettered by a...woman.” His eyes ran down Clara’s cleavage as he spoke.
“I see.” Clara’s mouth was a thin, tight line.
“If I were you, I’d go somewhere where your talents would really be appreciated. The sheriff is hidebound – he’s got no vision. I’ve known the guy years so I can tell you this. Actually, I think it stems from him losing his wife the way he did.”
“What happened – I suppose she died?”
“Died, nothing! She left him for a visiting Marshall from California. The Sheriff has been against women ever since.”
Later, Bill asked to accompany her back to her lodgings. She looked at him with cool eyes.
“No, thank you. See you around, Sheriff.”
A brash, bold, woman overloaded with paint and powder sashayed her way over to Bill.
“Well, howdy, Sheriff.” She smiled seductively. “This your new lady friend?”
The woman circled Clara like a starving vulture, her eyes all over her. She seemed to miss nothing; from Clara’s coiffed hair down to her buttoned boots, she devoured every detail.
Clara, in her turn, saw a blowsy female of indeterminate years; the wrinkles that had formed on her face thickly covered in powder in a vain attempt to hide her advancing age. Her lips and cheeks were heavily rouged, and the plunging neckline and raised skirt of her gown told its own story. Well, she hadn’t come over 3000 miles to let this madam intimidate her!
“I’m afraid the Sheriff is busy at the moment, Miss?”
“Patty-Jo is the name, I’ve got some information for him – about this.” She held out her hand, and Clara could just discern a yellow glint. Probably going to sue someone for breach of promise.
The woman walked up to Bill, putting her face close to his, and batting her eyelashes. Clara had had enough. She stepped between them.
“Well, you can just tell it to me, Miss Fatty...sorry, Patty-Jo. Bill turned away to hide a smile and the saloon girl flounced off.
“Actually, I had better go and have a word with her now,” he whispered to Clara. “She may just have picked up something. Think how many men she must mix with in a week.”
Clara closed her eyes briefly. Yes, ‘picked up something is right’! But she realised the truth of his words. Aloud she said, “I’ll go. And then I’m going back out to the ranch. I have a feeling there’s something I’ve missed.”
Clara returned from the ranch and marched into the Sheriff’s office. The two men were seated at the desk as before. She faced Bill.
“The person responsible for terrorising Jeb(?), indeed responsible for most of the villainy in this town, is sitting right in this room – aren’t you, Dan?”
To say that everyone was shocked would have been the biggest understatement. Only the deputy himself seemed unperturbed. He laughed, then unfolding his arms, he stood up and strolled over to where Clara stood with the sheriff. Bill Ferron stood up to confront him.
“How d’you work that out, Miss Holmes?”
“You are jealous of the Sheriff and dissatisfied with your lot, attempting to undermine his authority. You even tried to turn me against him, by saying he didn’t want me around. Not content with trying to stir up trouble in the town by inciting fights and rowdiness, you wanted to drive poor Walter from his ranch, so you could take it over at a cheap price.”
The deputy’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“You found gold on the land. When I was up there I saw it glinting in the river bed. Then I caught sight of some more in your desk drawer. The final nail in your coffin was Patty-Jo.”
“What! That old whore from the saloon? Who’s gonna take her word?”
“I am.” Bill stood and confronted Dan.
“Aww, Bill, come on! Do you honestly think me capable of doing this?”
Doubt crept in to the Sheriff’s handsome face, and in an instant Dan snatched his gun. “get into that jail – go on, both of you. I ain’t gonna tell you twice.”
Obedient now, Clara and Bill walked into the prison cell. Dan locked it and leered at them from the outside of the bars.
“Well now, don’t you make a pretty pair!”
“Dan, what the hell has come over you? How many years have we known each other? Please, don’t do this. ” Sheriff Ferron made a last ditch appeal to Dan – which failed.
“Yeah, known each other is right. But you never let me into your elite circle of friends, did you Bill? It was always about you. You were made Sheriff, you knew the Marshall and his family, you bagged yourself the prettiest girl in the town for a wife, and now you’ve fallen for Miss Sherlock here.”
Bill looked embarrassed and Dan began pacing up and down the office. “You didn’t know that Casey had turned me down to walk out with you, did you? Yep, I helped on her pop’s ranch when he had his accident on the horse. I would have done anything for that girl and that’s how she repaid me – by choosing you, Mr oh-so-perfect Ferron!” He pushed his face up to the bars, his anger crackling round the room. “Well, she got her dues alright, didn’t she?”
Bill Ferron leapt at Dan and managed to grab his coat through the space. Quick as a flash, Clara followed suit and she clawed the bunch of keys from the deputy’s pocket, while Bill snatched his gun.
Dan struggled free, alarm replacing the sneer on his face. Bill said, “Stay where you are, Dan,” as Clara hurriedly tried to unlock the cell. The deputy turned and ran as Bill fired off a shot. He missed, and didn’t know if he was sorry or glad. Quickly the pair ran outside, just in time to see Dan disappear inside the saloon.
“Heaven knows what the fool thinks he’s doing by running in there,” muttered Bill.
Clara looked at his set face and knew Dan wouldn’t get away. “Bill, be careful.” But Bill was almost at the saloon doors. He dashed them open, his gun up and revenge in his sights.
Bang! A shot was fired from the landing. “Everyone get down!” Dan yelled.
Clara took in the surprise on people’s faces as they watched the sheriff and his deputy try to murder each other. There was a scream cut short. Upstairs, Dan appeared holding a frightened Patty-Jo around her white throat.
“Let me go, Bill, or she gets it. You know I’ll do it.”
Clara took advantage of the confusion and the crowded saloon to nip out under the swing doors. Quickly, she ran round the back of the building. Yes, there was the outside staircase. She ran lightly up and through an open window. A saloon girl and her client were on the bed. Motioning silence to their astonished faces, Clara slipped out of the door onto the landing, directly behind Dan and his hostage. Creeping up, she put her pistol against his head.
“Give it up, Dan,” she said, and the deputy lowered his gun in disgust.
A few days later, Clara and Dan were the guests of honour at a large party in Jeb Stowes barn.
“How on earth did you know Dan was behind so much of the villainy in this town, Clara?
With you just over from England and new to everything here? I had known Dan all this time and I never guessed.”
Clara looked at him. His Stetson awas tilted back on his handsome head and his grey eyes were alight with intelligence. Mmm, she could have a worse Watson, she supposed.
“You know my methods. Apply them!”
They both laughed as the sheriff whirled her round the floor.