Constance sat straight up in bed.
“Roland, wake up!”
“Wha- is it?”
Roland noticed sunlight streaming through the lace curtains.
“Roland, we overslept. It’s Monday morning and Melissa will be here any minute!”
Roland rolled out of bed and stretched. Constance was already getting dressed. Roland reached for his clothes and did likewise.
It was a hurry-up affair. Roland realized that Constance had her proprieties, and she would be mortified if Melissa showed up with the two of them naked and in bed. So Roland hurried.
The two of them looked presentable in short order. Constance was putting her auburn hair up in its usual workday bun when there was a brief knock at the door, the scrape of a key, and Melissa appeared.
“Miss Constance, are you up? Oh, good morning, Mr. Mason.”
“And to you,” Mason replied. “Mrs. Sweeny is just finishing her morning toilette. It looked like a nice morning, so I stopped by to walk her to her shop.”
Melissa looked at Mason quizzically, especially his unshaved face, but finally accepted his explanation.
“It’s still early, Mr. Mason. Will you be staying for breakfast?”
Constance opened the bedroom door and walked out. The hastily-made bun was mostly in place but a lock of hair that escaped the process and fell on her forehead.
“Since Mr. Mason was so kind to, um, drop by, I would hope he would accept breakfast.”
“That would be so kind, Mrs. Sweeny.”
Melissa looked first at Constance and then back at Mason.
“Of course, Miss Constance. I can have some bacon and eggs ready in short order.”
Melissa headed for the kitchen. Roland and Constance looked at each other and silently made their way to the table.
* * * * *
Roland walked arm in arm with Constance from her house to her store. Although Constance was dressed for work- simple brown dress, belted around her slim waist, with a tan lace collar, and sensible shoes- she still showed a bit of style, as befitted a member of the wealthier class. She wore a shawl of fox fur and tan kid gloves with pearl buttons that extended to mid forearm. Roland had fixed the rebellious strand of hair before they left Constance’s house.
Roland, as was his wont, nodded to all the passersby, with a “Good morning,” including their names if he knew them. He was greeted in return with smiles and “‘Mornin’, Mr. Mason, Mrs. Sweeny.” Roland realized that as many people, maybe more, knew the good Widow Sweeny as knew him. In fact, Roland thought, Constance probably had the better reputation- a widow who ran an honest business by herself after the death of her husband. Mason was well known, but mostly for being notorious. On the side of the law, but maybe not quite reputable. No, not the best of reputations.
Constance looked up at Roland and smiled. The pair had had a disagreement about the propriety of greeting people of the lower classes. It wasn’t until the base ball game two months prior that Constance realized that she should resume her previous habit, of answering with a friendly “hello,” before her new-found wealth caused her to start thinking of her new social status, It was not only “proper” and a way of making friends, but also a way attracting potential customers to her dry goods and millinery, an aspect of the simple greeting that she had almost forgotten.
Along the way, Constance and Roland met Mrs. Van Der Meer, primly dismounting from her carriage with her sullen-faced, rather hefty daughter following after her. Both wore what Roland judged to the height of fashion in New York City, but, despite the satin and bows and vivid colors, the younger Van Der Meer still somehow made the outfit look frumpy. They were in front of Edward Ivinson’s mercantile, probably intending a shopping visit.
“Good morning, Mrs. Van Der Meer.” Constance nodded and smiled. “You remember my friend Mr. Mason?”
“Indeed I do,” the woman replied. “Mr. Mason helped foil a robbery at the Wyoming State Bank this past May. It was all the talk.”
“I am escorting Mrs. Sweeny to her store,” Roland spoke up, “And then I am bound for my law office.”
Mrs. Van Der Meer turned to her daughter, who, it seemed to Roland, had a permanent pout on her face.
“Now, Charity,” said the elder Van Der Meer, “You should observe the proper way a gallant gentleman escorts a lady. Note that it is all very chaste. No skin touching skin, as it should be.”
Roland positively snorted. Mrs. Van Der Meer, startled, looked at Roland. Constance did likewise, but her look included open mouth and raised eyebrows.
Roland pulled out a handkerchief to hide some additional stifled laughter behind a feigned cough.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am,” Roland was able to choke out. “I fear I have a touch of hay fever today.”
Mrs. Van Der Meer was completely oblivious to the real reason for Roland’s reaction, when she replied, “Why, you poor dear! My late husband Cletus had much the same problem. All the time, he would pull out his handkerchief and say, ‘Hay fever. Need the remedy. And off he would go. He always swore by laudanum mixed with peppermint, supplied by the druggist Gramm down the street, who mixed it personally just for him.”
Roland settled on what he thought was a thoughtful expression, although the corners of his mouth twitched once or twice.
“Thank you for that advice, ma’am. I shall give it all the gravity it deserves.” He bowed and kissed her hand, causing a blush to rise on the elder Van Der Meer.
“My, how gallant, Mr. Mason. Now, Charity, you be a mind to how a gentlemen behaves, since you are almost of courting age.” The younger Van Der Meer maintained her pout but rolled her eyes.
“Good day, Mrs. Van Der Meer,” Constance said hastily, as she practically pulled Roland after her.
“Roland-” Constance began.
The lawyer was still having trouble stifling his laughter, his face a shade redder than before.
“‘No skin touching skin.’ That’s what she said. I guess her Charity was conceived by Immaculate Conception. I think it would have shocked the propriety right out of her if she saw us earlier this morning.” Roland looked at Constance, and his face softened as he gazed into the hazel eyes of his true love. He lowered his voice, but still had trouble containing his laughter. “I seem to remember a lot of skin…”
Constance looked back at Roland, brows knitted and a frown on her lips. “Roland, you hush. What if somebody overhears…” Then she suddenly burst out into laughter of her own. Roland, unable to contain his own amusement, joined in.
“Hay fever, Mr. Mason?” asked Constance. “You had best tend to that, before this coming Saturday. Constance batted her eyes at Roland and squeezed his hand. “I’m at my store, Roland. Will you stop by for lunch?”
Roland bowed and kissed the back of Constance’s gloved hand. “No skin touching skin, my dear Mrs. Sweeny. I shall see you at noon.”
Constance had to fight back a snort of her own.
“Shall I show up for lunch with the laudanum and peppermint?”
Constance almost ran into her store to muffle the sound of her own laughter.
* * * * *
It was a short walk to Mason’s law office. The mostly sunny sky that had greeted Roland and Constance that morning was starting to cloud up. Lower, dark clouds that carried the portent of rain. The wind, from the west, was starting to pick up, blowing dust from the street.
Still, Mason stopped in the street long enough to look with a bit of pride at the shingle above the front door. As it swung slowly in the breeze, Mason read the words, “Roland E. Mason, Esquire. Attorney at Law.” If a passerby looked closely at the window, however, that person might have observed evidence of the previous owners. When the late afternoon light hit just right, the faint words, “Barber and Hairdresser” were evident. The husband and wife that constituted the barber and hairdresser, respectively, had left town rather precipitously, with the barber running off with his paramour and the wife in hot pursuit. Roland sometimes wondered what became of them, but he was grateful for the vacancy.
The building had only two rooms. The front room, the former barber shop, became Mason’s office. The rear room- the beauty parlor- Mason had transformed into his living quarters. It was spacious enough for a bed, armoire, night stand, dresser, table and two chairs, and a cook stove that doubled as the source of heat in the small space. Since a hairdresser needed water for her beauty treatments, a pump and sink came with the room. All of this was more than adequate for Mason’s bachelor needs.
With the help of his lovely Constance, he had been sober now for half a year or so, and Mason was pleased that his living quarters were now in order, clothes put away and dishes washed and stacked on the cupboard. Maybe not to Constance’s exacting standards, but a vast improvement on the squalor that he lived in, with only his bottle for company.
Roland had to look around. Laramie had a different, cleaner, clearer look to it then when he was drinking daily. He saw buildings, new businesses, new faces.
Laramie was growing. Since its founding in 1868, Roland estimated the town now had a good two thousand, five hundred residents, not counting the farmers and ranchers outside of the city proper.
Roland knew that the townsfolk thought of themselves as residing in a city, and most were proud of that fact. Mason, through fifteen years of drifting, had seen cities- real cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco. He wondered what the citizens of Laramie would think of those magnificent edifices to the modern world.
Still, Laramie was forward thinking and forward acting. It was not a large city, but, through the efforts of the citizenry, was able to earn the term “civilized.” Laramie had its school, hospital, library, and churches. It was already planning such improvements as the use of electricity in their lighting, to replace the gas lights now lining the streets. He gave much of the credit for the “civilized” state of affairs to Sheriff Boswell- an extraordinary lawman who kept the peace- and such ladies as Jane Ivinson- wife of Edward Ivinson, a founder of Laramie and owner of the Wyoming State Bank. Jane had almost single-handedly helped Laramie reach that “civilized” state of affairs. Even more so, some thought that without her determination Laramie would have ceased to exist as an entity within two months of its 1868 founding.
As Mason approached his office, he saw, outside the office’s front door, a man of middling age, pacing back and forth and looking nervously over his shoulder.
Mason smiled at the stranger, put his key in the lock, and opened the door. He barely had time to flip the sign on the door from Closed to Open when the man was through the door and staring at Mason quizzically.
“Are you M-Mason?” he asked.
“I am,” Mason replied. “And you are…”
“Name’s McAllister. J-Jeremiah McAllister. You can call me M-Mac. I need a lawyer.”
“Very well, Mr. McAllister- Mac- what can I do for you?”
The man who identified himself as Mac still looked around, left, right, back toward the door, and then again to Mason himself. He was shorter than Mason by half a head, but he held himself erect, and his physique was one of a person used to hard labor.
He was dressed in brown work pants, faded and worn through at the knees. His shirt, likewise worn, was a red plaid, open at the collar. Brown suspenders held up his pants.
His eyes, when they stared directly at the lawyer, were a piercing blue. He still possessed most of his hair, although the original color- likely blond- had been partially replaced by gray, and receding on top, forming a widow’s peak. He had a beard of a man who had not used a razor recently. There were a good two months of growth, mostly gray but with a few stubborn blond streaks. The beard was unkempt but clean. Mason judged him to be fifty, give or take five years.
A mill worker or a prospector, were Mason’s guesses.
“Mr. Mason, I need a lawyer,” Mac repeated. “I’ve been accused of k-k-killing my partner, and I’ve been on the run from a bounty hunter the past two-three weeks.”
Mason managed to keep a neutral expression, but the revelation was intriguing.
“So, Mac, you seem to be in dire straits. Maybe you should explain what got you into this situation.”
“Mr. Mason, I’m afraid you’re not going to b-believe it.”
“I have heard a lot of strange stories. If it has to do with the case, I need to hear it.”
“Mr. Mason, I agree that my partner was killed. He’s dead and gone. That’s a fact. Only, Mr. Mason, he wasn’t killed by me. No sir. He was killed by a g-g-ghost.”