The clock chimed the magic moment.
“All right, children. Gather your things and exit in an orderly fashion.”
“Yes, Miss Meechum,” the students chorused. Chaos erupted as the children exploded from their chairs, flinging their slates, rulers, and sundry into their book bags.
Susquehanna Meechum rolled her eyes. Moving among the clamoring children, she buttoned a sweater here, separated two combatants there, handed another one the nature journal that they’d just spent the past hour of school making, only to have it forgotten, and ushered the children out the door.
There were no stragglers on this dreary Monday. She shut the door and surveyed the room. Studying the disarray of her rows of desks, she moved among them straightening them as she walked to the front of the room. She erased the board, turned and took the broom, sweeping methodically. When all was set to rights, she took one more look around the room. Satisfied, Susquehanna pinned her hair back into its neat bun and unlocked the door in the back that lead to the two rooms allotted for the teacher’s quarters.
Entering her quarters, she began her evening routine. Walking slowly to the peg where her apron hung, she tied it about her dress, gathered the bucket, and exited to feed her chickens and see them safely into their coop for the night. Upon her return, she stoked her stove and set about making a simple supper from the egg she had found that morning, the berries and cream the Pilaski children had brought her that day, and bread.
Supper done, she washed the dishes and hung her apron back on its hook. She paused by the window and looked towards the town. Whatever was happening in the town was not for her. There would be a barn dance Saturday. She was expected to help with the refreshments, but that was all. To dance or flirt with the men would not be permitted. She had been warned of the deportment expected of the teacher. There had been the time she had been caught smiling and laughing with one of the ranch hands. The school board had felt it necessary to warn her that such loose behavior would not be tolerated. But that was years ago. She smiled grimly to herself. No one had even tempted her to engage in such unbecoming behavior in years. At twenty-five she was an old maid and likely to remain so. If only…
She wandered the room restlessly before resuming her routine. Susquehanna pulled out her accounts. She reviewed the school accounts. After careful scrutiny, satisfied that they would balance, she turned to her own accounts. She checked every penny and sighed when she realized that her life’s savings amounted to a mere nineteen dollars and thirty-seven cents. Resolutely, Susquehanna returned the books to their shelf and reviewed her lessons for the next day. That task completed, she stood unmoving, looking around her sparsely furnished space. She considered her limited options.
With a sigh, she entered her windowless bedroom, retrieved her oil lamp, and filled its well. Once the lamp was lit, Susquehanna hesitated considering her limited options. Finally, she drew the curtain over the lone window, slipped off her dress and corset and wrapped herself in her faded dressing gown. She pulled the pins from her hair and allowed it to cascade down her back.
She checked that she had locked the door to the schoolroom and bolted the door to the small yard where her chickens spent their day. Satisfied that she would not be disturbed, she walked to her hiding place and withdrew a slim, leather bound book – her journal. She held it remembering that halcyon summer, before the restrictions and, yes, the boredom of her life had caged her.
“Hey,” she heard, “is this the Markum place?”
The young girl dropped the hoe she was wielding and swung around to face the road running along the other side of the fence from where she was working. “Why?” she asked the two boys standing there. They were ragged and barefoot, holding a basket between them, their faces liberally smeared with purple juice.
“Cuz that’s where we’re looking for,” the younger, blond boy answered impatiently.
He rolled his eyes at his older companion who grinned.
“Sorry,” the companion said, “Jed here sometimes forgets his manners. Anyway we sure hope this is the Markum place ‘cuz this basket is getting real heavy.”
She smiled, “I’m Suzie Markum so I guess you found what you were looking for.” Then she frowned and looked down the dusty road as it faded into the distant haze. “Not sure why anyone would want to come here though.”
“Old Widow Warner sent us.”
Now it was her turn to ask, “Why? Why would she send you?”
The two set the basket on the road. “We work for her. I’m Han and this is my cousin Jed. Anyway, she sent us with this basket of plums and jam and stuff and told us to bring back a couple of laying hens. You know anything about that?”
Jed spoke, “How come you’re working this garden all by yourself?”
Suzie sighed. “Because Mama and the baby died and Papa and the boys are out hunting for a few days, so I have to tend the garden, and the chickens, and the milk cow, and the house, and, and …” She stopped and gulped before glaring at them defiantly.
Jed nodded. “At least you still have your Pa.”
“He’s a mean old cuss and the boys are no better,” she stopped, looking frightened. “Never tell anyone I said that or I’ll get a beating for sure,” she begged.
Han grinned. “We never tell adults anything if we can help it. Find we’re better off if they don’t know any more about what we do than absolutely necessary.” He reached into the basket and handed her a plum. “Here have a plum. They’re real good.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t, I need to can them for the winter. My Pa would be real mad.”
“How’s he gonna know if any are gone if you don’t tell him?” Han asked, his dimples showing.
She looked struck by this thought then grabbed the plum and devoured it. “You two can come up to the house and get some water if you want. Then we can get you those hens.”
For ten days the three ran wild while the weeds grew in the garden and the house fell dusty. Suzie hurried through her farmyard chores to be ready when Jed and Han could slip away and come over. They roamed the countryside, building dams in the streams, skipping stones in the shallows, and forgetting their cares.
The friends lay head to head watching the grasshoppers and sucking on grass they had plucked. “How come you’re working for Mrs. Warner?” Suzie asked as she lay back to watch the clouds.
“We’re on our way south. Gonna be cowboys and own a ranch someday,” Jed boasted.
“Don’t your folks worry about you?”
“Don’t have any.”
“This is better,” Han declared. “We can go where we want and do what we want. We’re gonna be rich and famous someday, just you watch.”
She sat up. “Oh, I’m sure you will.” Then she sighed and looked into the distance. “I wish I could travel. Ma used to read me stories about all these different places, and we’d make up tales about what we’d do if went there.” She stood up, brushing the dust off her dress, and squinted at the sun. “Time to get home; the cow needs milking.”
“You always have chores. Bet Widow Warner probably has some for us too. I hate chores,” Jed said. “Han and me’ll walk you home, and then I don’t know, maybe we’ll go somewhere.”
“Don’t know, just different than here.”
“Well, someday I’m going to go to Paris. That’s all the way across the ocean in France. I may never come back.”
“Maybe we’ll go, too,” Jed countered.
Han rolled his eyes. “Not yet, we don’t have enough money yet. I got a plan for the other boys in town. When I win that, maybe then we’ll get going.”
Suzie’s eyes grew wide. “You’re gambling?” she whispered, impressed.
Han threw out his chest. “Sure, got to get ahead somehow.”
Jed supported his friend. “Yeah, Han has lots of good ideas. Those boys better watch themselves at that barn raisin’ next Saturday.”
The three strolled companionably down the road towards Suzie’s home.
As they drew in sight, Suzie let out a gasp. “Oh, no. Pa and the boys are home!” She began to run.
Jed and Han slowly followed.
At the fence surrounding her house a man stood scowling. “Git yourself in here, girl! Ain’t I taught you better?” He grabbed Suzie by her braid and hauled her into the yard. “You two. I see you sniffing around my girl again; I’ll give you a load of buckshot in your britches. You ain’t pulling her into the gutter with you.” He strode toward them and lifted the shotgun that had been resting by his side. “Git!”
The boys needed no further warning; they ran without a backward glance.
The bruise on Suzie’s face had faded to a pattern of green and yellow by the barn raising, and her back no longer ached from the beating her father had given her. She stayed with the women, setting out the supper to be served to the men when the barn was completed. She felt her father watching her, and she worried. She’d seen him talking to Mrs. Warner earlier in the day.
Jed and Han had stayed away, although she was conscious that they were sneaking glances towards her as they hauled materials for the older men. Once when she looked up Jed smiled at her. Another time Han winked and walked by whistling a tune she had taught them.
After the supper Suzie was startled as she carried a load of dishes when a voice spoke out of the shadows. “Psst, Suzie, it’s Han and Jed.”
She stopped and looked around. No one was paying any attention. “I can’t be seen with you. My Pa will kill you if he catches you talking to me.”
“We came to say, good-bye,” Han explained. “Jed and me are leaving.”
Aghast, she turned towards them, forgetting to be wary of being seen, her eyes brimming with tears. “You’re leaving me?”
Jed shuffled his feet. “Yeah, old lady Warner got mad at us for spendin’ so much time with you, and, and… Anyway we’re goin’ to Abilene.”
“Oh, I wish I could go.”
Han and Jed looked at each other. Han spoke slowly, “Why don’t you? You could dress as a boy and be just fine.”
“I could? But, what if someone found out I was a girl?”
“Well,” Han hesitated before taking a deep breath. “If that happened, why I guess I’d just have to marry you.”
“Marry me! We’re not old enough to get married.”
“Well, I ain’t aiming to do it, only if we get caught.”
Suzie took a step towards them then stopped as Jed laughed. She hesitated. “I wish, I wish…”
At that moment her father called her name. “I’m coming, Pa.” She turned to the boys. “I just can’t. Write me, won’t you?”
Susquehanna looked up. She had never heard from them again, although lately she had begun to hear about them. Everyone in Wyoming territory had heard of the Devil’s Hole Gang and its daring leaders. Returning from her daydreams, she put away the journal and picked up her lamp before turning toward her bedroom.
A knock sounded on the door. She hesitated before drawing her dressing gown tightly about her and hurrying to the door. She looked at it fearfully. “Who is it? What do you want?”
“Ma’am, we’re real sorry to trouble you at this time, but we have an urgent message for you.”
“Yes, ma’am. I need you to open the door.”
She reached her hand towards the doorknob, dropped her hand, and looked at the door. Taking a deep breath and clutching the edge of her dressing gown with one hand, she reached out with the other to open the door.
As she unlocked it, it burst inward, revealing two men with guns pointed at her.
“No need to be afraid, ma’am. We won’t hurt you if you just do as you’re told. My partner here needs a place to rest up for a couple of days, and we need to get this bullet out of his leg.” The speaker smiled at her, his dimples showing but his dark eyes hard.
His blond companion entered behind him, hobbling, with one pant leg soaked in blood. He nodded to her. “Ma’am, if you could just seat yourself over there and be quiet, I’d much appreciate it. We won’t be hurtin’ you unless you try to yell or run or somethin’. Then we’d have to tie you up and gag you.”
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary, Kid,” Heyes commented. “This lady looks real smart.” He grinned, “After all, she’s a teacher, isn’t she?”
Susquehanna studied each of the men before her but saw no trace of recognition in their looks, just grim determination hiding behind their smiles. “I won’t try anything.” She sat where she had been instructed. “How did you get hurt?”
Curry looked sourly at his partner. “Let’s just say we were somewhere we shouldn’t have been.”
“It was a good plan,” Heyes argued.
“It wasn’t good enough; I got shot.”
“Ma’am, I need,” Heyes paused. “I can’t keep calling you ma’am. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m Hannibal Heyes and he’s Kid Curry, and we’re sorry to be bothering you this way. Now what is your name?”
Susquehanna spoke quickly. “Hanna, Hanna Meechum.”
The Kid lowered himself into a chair with a grimace. He touched his hat with the tip of his gun and smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Hanna.”
“That your bedroom in there?” Heyes asked. When she nodded, he turned towards the Kid. “Kid, you gotta lie down, and I gotta get that bullet out of you.” He looked at Susquehanna. “Hanna, I guess you’re going to have to help me. You don’t faint at the sight of blood, do you?”
“I’m a teacher, Mr. Heyes. It takes a lot more than a little blood to make me faint.”
“I bet. I remember some of the things we put our teachers through. It’s just Heyes, darling, not Mr.”
The next hour left everyone’s nerves frayed. The partners kept up a steady conversation, interrupted by occasional grunts or gasps from the Kid as Heyes dug the bullet out and bandaged Curry’s leg. When it was over, the Kid leaned back against the headboard, pale and breathing shallowly. “You ain’t never gonna be a doctor, Heyes.”
Heyes pulled out his watch. “I have to get going.” He glared at the Kid. “This is all Wheat’s fault. Hanford,” he exclaimed bitterly.
“I told you, you were makin’ a mistake.”
“When you listened to one of Wheat’s ideas.”
Heyes chuckled. “Yeah. I really have to get going. I’ll be back in a few days when the coast is clear.”
Susquehanna had been listening to the two and had remained silent throughout the extraction of the bullet, mopping up the blood and helping to bandage the leg but not offering any comment. Now she turned to Heyes. “What do you mean you’ll be back in a few days? He can’t stay here.”
Curry’s eyes turned cold and his hand clasped his gun, lifting it off the bed and pointing it at her. “I can’t ride, and there’s folks lookin’ for us. I’m not goin’ anywhere for few days so you’re just goin’ to have to be a good girl and keep quiet about it. Don’t worry, no one will know, unless you tell them, and that would be a real bad idea.”
Heyes stared at her until she blanched. “I’ll be back when the coast is clear. You just go about your normal business and don’t tell anyone he’s here. If anything happens to the Kid – anyone finds out he’s here – I will make sure you regret it. Are we clear?”
Eyes wide, she nodded.
“Good.” Heyes clapped his hat on his head. “Try not to cause too much trouble, Kid, until I get back.” He looked at Susquehanna before leaning towards the Kid and speaking softly so she couldn’t hear. “And don’t be going and falling in love with her either. She ain’t our type of girl even if she is real pretty.” He turned and left, pausing on the other side of the door until he heard Susquehanna lock it again.
Susquehanna stood hesitantly in the doorway of her bedroom, looking at the Kid, who was lying back with his mouth in a tight line and his eyes shut. Her eyes wandered around the room. As she made a move, the Kid’s eyes opened and his gun again materialized in his hand. “Heyes warned you not to try anythin’.”
“I’m just trying to figure out where I’m going to sleep. You’ve taken my only bed.”
He smiled at her. “You’re goin’ to sleep right here next to me.” As she started to protest, he stopped her. “I don’t force myself on women, never have, never will. Now get over here, you can sleep in what you have on or you can change, but you aren’t leavin’ my sight.”
They stared at each other until she dropped her eyes and acquiesced. After she had climbed onto the bed and lay as far from him as the restricted space allowed, he spoke again. “Turn this way and give me your hands.”
“I’m tyin’ them for the night then I’ll tether you to my wrist.”
“Because I need to sleep. I can’t be sittin’ up watchin’ you all night, and I need to be sure you don’t try anythin’ while I sleep. Now, give me your hands!”
In the morning, he untied her and turned his head while she dressed.
“Got any food?”
“Bread and jam.”
“What am I supposed to do about school today? They’ll check on me if I don’t teach.”
He looked steadily at her, considering. “The children don’t come in here, do they?”
“Then, you give your word that you won’t give me away and you can go ahead and teach like normal. I’ll be on the other side of the door. Just remember what Heyes said about regrettin’ it if anyone finds out I’m here.”
“I remember. I won’t give you away. You have my word.”
The day passed slowly. Susquehanna was all too aware that Jed, no Kid Curry, sat in her rooms, prepared to hurt her and who knew who else if she slipped up and let anyone know he was there. She also realized that she’d be ruined if the town found out he’d spent the night there, even if she was his prisoner.
Curry’s leg hurt, but he forced himself to walk, knowing that he had to be able to get away if necessary. He paced quietly, pausing now and then to listen through the door. When recess came he retreated to the bedroom, resting his leg but alert and edgy, tensing at every sound.
Finally, the long day ended; the children left; Susquehanna straightened the classroom and slowly entered her residence. She stopped in the doorway as the Kid turned his gun on her, lowering it only when he saw she was alone.
She had had enough. “Put that silly thing down! I told you I wouldn’t give you away, and I won’t. Now I have to go see to my chickens, unless you plan to shoot them.”
Curry’s eyes narrowed then he laughed and holstered his gun. “Might be tempted to wring one’s neck, I’m starvin’. Go see to your hens, Hanna. Maybe we both need to relax some. This is gonna be a tough few days for both of us.”
She responded with a slight smile. “And I need to call you something.”
“Most folks call me Kid.”
“Don’t you have a name?”
“I do, but I don’t use it anymore. Kid’ll do. Go feed your chicks then make us some dinner, why don’t you?”
Supper over and the few dishes washed, the two sat looking at each other.
“So what would you normally be doin’?”
“My accounts or preparing lessons or reading.”
“Well I’m not stoppin’ you.”
Susquehanna glared at him then walked over to her shelf, picked up a book, and began reading, her back turned towards the Kid.
He watched her, a wry smile on his face. “Why don’t you read that out loud, Hanna? Who knows I might learn somethin’. At least it would pass the time.”
She glared at him. “It doesn’t seem to me as if you are interested in learning anything.”
He laughed. “Heyes’d probably agree with you. Read it out loud anyway.” As she glared at him, he smiled and added, “Please.”
“Fine.” She turned around and began again, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”
She read until her voice became hoarse. “I have to stop.”
Curry looked at her. “That was real good.”
“It was my mother’s favorite book. We used to talk about going to Paris someday.”
Susquehanna stopped suddenly and stood abruptly. “I need some sleep before I teach tomorrow.”
Curry looked at her curiously and nodded. This time, once they had lain down, Curry didn’t bother to tie her wrists.
They settled into a routine that varied little from that first day. During the day, Susquehanna taught her classes and Curry wandered the residence strengthening his leg with each day and trying to contain his boredom. In the evenings Susquehanna read while Curry either sat and listened or did small repairs about her place. They talked little, neither wishing to discuss their lives or their pasts. Sometimes Susquehanna would look up and catch Curry studying her with a question in his eyes, but he did not ask.
Friday evening Susquehanna read, “… it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and closed the book. She sat for a moment looking at her lap then rose and set the precious book back on its shelf. When she turned, Curry glanced at her then looked away and stood up, walking with little difficulty.
“Heyes should be back soon.”
“You’ve changed, Suzie.”
Startled, she stared at him. “When did you realize who I was?”
“Figured it out today. Your name wasn’t Meechum. You married?”
She laughed. “No. When they hired me they misspelled my name. I just never bothered to correct them. Somehow it didn’t seem important. I was making a new start, getting out of Kansas, and I figured a new name went with the change. That’s why I use Hanna now instead of Suzie.” She looked him over and sighed. “Guess we’ve both changed and both have new names.”
“Do you like it? Outlawing, I mean. You two always said you were going to be rich and famous someday, and I guess you’ve succeeded.”
“I guess. The famous part at least. Haven’t managed the rich part yet. Money just seems to slip through our hands. How about you? Ever make it to Paris?”
She sighed again. “Wyoming’s as far as I’ve managed. With what I make I’ll never get there, and I’ll probably starve when I’m too old to teach.”
“You must have some beau’s.”
“That’s frowned on for the teacher. They’re probably afraid I’ll get married, and they’ll have to find another teacher.” She smiled at him. “You, you have adventures …”
He snorted and pointed at his leg in its bloodstained pants. “I could do with less adventure.”
“You have no idea how I long to be free, to have an adventure.”
“I guess you’re havin’ one now. Not many school teachers’ve been held captive in their own home for a week.”
She laughed before sobering. “Tomorrow’s Saturday.”
“So I need to go to the barn dance – to help with the refreshments,” she explained bitterly.
“A dance sounds like fun. What’s wrong with you doin’ that? I don’t figure you’ll tell anyone I’m here.”
“Dancing would be fun, but I’m not allowed. It’s not ‘seemly’ for the teacher to dance.”
“That’s dumb. You should go teach somewhere else where they ain’t so strict.”
“It’s not that easy to find another job, and if they knew I was looking, they’d fire me.” She looked at him, her eyes wide. “Take me with you when you leave. I hate teaching. I want adventure. I want to do something. Anything other than this.”
Eyebrows raised the Kid spoke slowly. “I can’t do that, Suzie. It wouldn’t be right. Our life isn’t for a woman like you. You wouldn’t want to be the women we know.”
“Maybe, maybe I could cook for the gang.”
“No!” Seeing her stricken look, he temporized. “Women ain’t allowed in the Hole. It’d cause too much trouble among the men. We’ll talk to Heyes when he gets here. He can figure out something for you.”
Seeing his set expression she said no more then or the following day until she readied to leave for the dance. “Will Heyes get here soon?”
“And you promise, when he gets here you’ll talk to him about me coming along? Promise me.”
He looked away, hesitated, and answered slowly. “I promise I’ll talk to him about you.”
Susquehanna made her way home quickly from the dance but paused on her doorstep. Something felt wrong. She looked around and saw darkness. No light glowed from the lamp within. She shook her head, of course it wouldn’t, that might alert someone that she wasn’t alone here anymore.
She entered quietly and listened but heard nothing. In trepidation she hurried to light the lamp. “Kid?” she called softly. No answer.
Looking around she spotted a lump on her table. As she moved closer, she saw it was a note resting on a small leather pouch.
Hands trembling she opened the note.
What a surprise, seeing you after all these years. Thank you for looking after Jed. We hope this will repay your kindness.
Han and Jed
She crumpled the note before dropping it back on the table. Picking up the pouch she threw it against the wall, where it broke open spewing silver and gold coins. Ignoring them she sank down, rested her head on her arms, and sobbed.
Eventually she stopped, wiped her eyes, and stood. Walking rapidly to her hiding place she extracted the journal and walked to her stove. There, she opened the journal and, grabbing her lamp, poured oil over the exposed pages. Finally, she snatched up the crumpled note and, setting a match to it, thrust it onto the journal. She watched as flames shot up. When the fire had consumed the journal, she swept up the ashes and threw them out her door.
Done, she shut the door and looked around. Spotting the spilled coins, she gathered them and placed the refilled pouch in her hiding spot. She blew out the lamp and walked in the darkness to her bedroom.
Author’s notes: Charles Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” was first published in 1859.
Abilene, Kansas was founded in 1857 as a stagecoach stop called Mud Creek. It was renamed Abilene in 1860. In 1867 the Kansas Pacific Railway came through Abilene and it grew to become the final stop on the Chisolm Trail, becoming one of the wildest towns in the west. Wild Bill Hickok became Abilene’s marshal in April 1871. He didn’t last long. Involved in a shoot-out in which he accidentally shot his friend and deputy, Mike Williams, Hickok lost his job in December 1871.