The summer of 1904, when the air hung thick, like wet sheets on a line, three New Orleans streetcars collided on the tracks, a barge exploded and sank in the river, and Lilly Quinn was three months dead.
The situation wasn’t complicated. She was gone to her reward and I grieved the loss keenly. Try as I might, I couldn’t discover the means to bring her back.
She’d stepped into my life when I’d been but sixteen years of age, an orphan living alone in my dead parents’ house, and in great need of a shepherd, though I didn’t know that at the time. Lilly sensed it and her kindness helped lead me through the rest of my youth. Why did she respond so? Because she was that way, her nature always to put others above herself.
She taught me a good number of things: how to cook, how to mend my clothes, how to scrub a pot until it shone. Moreover, she informed, “Abigail, you can behave confidently, even when you don’t feel it. Hold your head high and speak up. Soon enough, you’ll believe in that confidence.”
When she departed my house, it was not of her own choosing, but of God’s. Our tasks reversed, I tended to her in the last days of her illness. Afterwards, I rattled around in my New Orleans home, at times, weeping deep tears. Other times, I felt benumbed and simply gazed out a window. I’d not grieved for my own parents in such a profound manner, but Lilly had been incomparable.
I talked aloud to her, as if she was right beside me, and I did little without questioning her. “Should I read this book by Twain or this one by Dickens? Yes, the Dickens story is bleaker. I’ll read that.”
The house fell into disorder, cluttered and dirty, and I paid no attention. Outside, the grounds were the only part of the property that retained neatness, kept up by my gardener Jupiter. Beyond him, I didn’t care for engagement with anyone.
Then one morning early, I awoke from nighttime sleep, having conversed with Lilly in a dream. She scolded me for being a woebegone. “Honey, you’re young and should have a joyful life. Get yourself up! Clean this filthy house! Go back to your employment! Stay busy! And you could sort my things as I asked you!”
Even from the confines of my imagining, she was still mindful of me.
I began by going through Lilly’s abandoned possessions and came across an item, completely unexpected. It was a box of papers covered with scribbled tales, comments, and scenes of her life in the West. I sat in what had been her favorite chair, read and read to the bottom of the stack. Of all she’d written, I had previously known less than half of it. What I learned from her words then was overwhelming.
“Lilly, these stories must’ve been very important to you. What would you have me do with them?”
I recognized that her ramblings should not stay in my hands. Thus, I made the difficult decision, bundled, and sent them to the sheriff in Lilly’s former home, a little town called Minden Springs, somewhere on the Kansas prairie.
After that, I set myself to following her other suggestions, cleaned the house and returned to my prior job in a candy shop near the Vieux Carré. Her advice had been sound. Keeping occupied was an elixir to diminish my sorrow. Evenings, I took up my former bent of reading the dime novels about the West, those accounts that Lilly had scorned. Still, I didn’t release the habit of speaking to my fine companion. The fear was, if I stopped, all traces of her would disappear forever.
Throughout the following months, I received correspondence from one Stratford Brock, editor of the Minden Springs twice-weekly. The sheriff had passed Lilly’s papers on to this journalist and he had determined to work towards turning her memories into a printed volume. I was pleased about his endeavor and the letters he sent kept me apprised of his progress.
“Lilly, people will read your journal of the West and they’ll be enthralled.”
The spring of 1905, twelve months after her passing, I reached the age of twenty-eight and believed that I would abide for the rest of my life, as owner of this venerable house on Prytania Street in the city of New Orleans.
But who in this world can know what predicaments might descend, what critical junctures might arrive, or what opportunities might shine through?
I was soon to find out.
● CHAPTER 1 ●
Heavens to Betsy!
“There you go, Mr. Grissom, three boxes of .30-30 cartridges, smokeless.” I slid the purchase across the counter.
“Thanks much, Miss Abigail,” the little man said. “ ‘Preciate your gun shop. You carry the best for my favored Winchester.”
“I aim to please.”
Mr. Grissom tipped his hat and turned to leave, but all at once, the door to my shop clattered open and Sheriff Hewitt bounded in.
“Miss Abigail! Just got word that Panther Bill and his compadre Coot Washburn ambushed the rider for the Blood Creek Mining Company! Killed him dead and stole the payroll! I’m rounding up a posse! Grab your firearms! Meet next to the livery! We’re heading off!” He dashed out to spread the news further.
I buckled on my Colt and yanked my personal Winchester rifle from below the counter. “You coming, Mr. Grissom?”
His hands trembled. “Not me. I value my own hide. Those two varmints’re ruthless. They’d sooner shoot their own mothers than be taken by the law. I’m going home.” He left faster than lightning.
“Such cowardice!” I gripped my wide, flat-brimmed hat and was soon astride my fine horse Thunder, galloping along with the sheriff and one other fellow, all that was courageous enough to face Panther Bill.
Sheriff Hewitt hollered, “I know of a hide-out they might use! In the hills! On Lost River!”
We aimed for there, which was hard going — up steep inclines, down to gullies, and around rocky cliffs. But we made it. The sheriff held up a hand, as the bandit’s hide-out was near. The three of us dismounted and slunk to a large rock. We peeked over its edge and there was the cabin, perhaps fifty yards away. Instead of just two outlaws, I counted seven bad fellows lazing about.
The sheriff was alarmed. “Dag-nab-it, Miss Abigail! There’s too many of ‘em! The odds are against us! We should go back!”
“Come now, Hewitt! Stiffen your spine! That’s only four more’n us!” I pivoted to our other man. “Johnny, you stay here with the sheriff. I’ll climb the hill and follow the ridge to those two boulders, side by side. Just remember, we’re the bravest of the brave and we’ll take them.”
In a flash, I left Johnny and Hewitt behind and was up the hill, sneaking across the top of the ridge. When I gained a good view of the cabin, I hunkered down, got a bead on one of those miscreants with my trusty Winchester, and pulled the trigger.
Bang! His hat flew off!
I aimed at another bum and Bang! His hat went sailing, too! Before a body could say Jehoshophat, I’d fired again, Bang! Bang! Bang! Three more fellows lost their hats to my bullets!
The last two mongrels ran for the cabin door, but in a split second, I knocked their hats off, also! Hewitt shouted, “Give it up, Bill! You and Coot and the rest, throw down your guns! Then hands up!”
I put several more bullets into the ground around their feet. By then, all seven of those dastardly men were quaking, hands above their heads. “Don’t shoot anymore! We give up! And whoever’s on that hill, tell them to stop!”
Sheriff Hewitt was overjoyed. “Holy Gertrude! Miss Abigail, you’re an extraordinary shot with that Winchester! I might have to make you an actual deputy!”
“Now, sheriff,” I said, “we just did what was necessary and we’re sending a few wicked men off to jail!”
What a daydream! It was such a lark to revise my favorite dime novels. In this one, I’d jettisoned the main character of Cyclone Nell, Bold Girl of the West, for myself. And that was even better than reading the book!
To my left side, a large pot of black-eyed peas simmered on the stove and before me, a skillet full of cut-up chicken bubbled in deep fat. Between my daydreaming, I stood by, minded that chicken, and turned the pieces as they cooked. Despite all windows being open, the air in the kitchen was sizzling and I wiped my perspiration-soaked brow. It was June, 1905, and all of New Orleans was steamy as a hot bath. Summer days there called for limited time in the kitchen, dining on just cold ham and fruit and perhaps sipping a mint julep.
Even so, I’d given in to a sudden craving for a taste once again of Lilly’s fried chicken. My skills using her recipe weren’t quite as good as hers had been, but close enough to satisfy. How much I missed her, even a year after her passing.
Abruptly, the telephone jangled in the front hallway, not a common occurrence. I hurried to answer and hoped for receiving a conversation of some merit. It turned out not to be, just the busybody who lived across from me on Prytania Street.
“No, Mrs. Lahaurier,” I said, “I did not see or hear Mr. Riceland shouting at the postman. No, I’m not about to go next door and ask Mr. Riceland what the altercation was about.”
“Yes, Mrs. Lahaurier, I know Mr. Riceland threatens to call the police about any little thing. I know he’s not to be trusted.”
Thus it went, on and on. Every time I tried to end her prattle, that woman would switch onto another tangent. But I was ever courteous and wouldn’t interrupt her mid-sentence. I’d tarried in the hallway far too many minutes when my nose caught a whiff of something odd. No longer did I enjoy the savory aromas of black-eyed peas and fried chicken.
What was it? Acrid. A burning stench. Then I saw smoke wafting through the kitchen doorway. Every hair on my head felt to stand on end. I shouted, “Goodbye,” to Mrs. Lahaurier, dropped the telephone receiver, and dashed back to the stove.
My eyes were met by the sight of flames as they rose from the skillet and leaped as high as the ceiling. . .