The Dark Wind Howls Over Mary Alice
Sheriff Stringbean Hooper figured there couldn’t be any other place much prettier in the middle of summer than this portion of the state of Montana. That’s what he would say if anyone bothered to ask his opinion which he didn’t expect to happen. No one else much cared what he thought.
The sky, a vast, robin egg blue, was dotted with a few, wispy, cotton mounds, lazily drifting from one horizon to the other. Circling high in a graceful arc over the sheriff’s head, an eagle screeched, breaking the silence. The waist high, prairie grass, as bright a green as it was going to get all summer, stretched out as far as the eye could see, waving gracefully back and forth in the breeze. Velvety, purple smudged foothills rose in the distance. The elusive, jagged, snowcapped Rocky Mountain range towered behind them.
The countryside looked peaceful, but looks could be and were often deceiving. If he ever let his guard down in this wild country, he might wind up dead. The events of this morning made Stringbean more sure of that than he had ever been before. He felt trouble brewing way down deep in his gut.
Stringbean let his black and white, appaloosa horse, Freckles, pick his careful, skillful way through the grass. The horse tromped through a field of pink, bitterroot blossoms cupped skyward. The sheriff thought those flowers was extremely pretty. Ever so far along the trail, tall spikes, bursting all the way to the top with yellow blooms, shot up from the middle of large, wide, fuzzy, dull green leaves. He couldn’t put a name to that plant, but he liked the looks of it just the same. A village of prairie dogs perked up and scolded with sharp chatter, warning him not to ride any closer. He did just for orneriness to watch the dogs dived into their dens.
Happy to be alive, meadow larks trilled from the leafy cover of the aspen trees. Mourning doves cooed softly to their partners and were answered in the shimmering, hazy distance. A flock of chortling prairie chickens ignored the rider passing by, preoccupied with strutting their mating dances.
By mid morning, Stringbean breathed deep, inhaling the crisp, clean air filtering down from the mountain tops off the thawing snow. White patches still glistened on the highest peaks just above the purple haze that hung over the mountain’s cover of yellow pine. The ever present wind funneled through the valley, battering Stringbean’s black hat brim as he rode directly into it. He tipped his brim down to keep the wind from whipping his hat off. That helped keep the bright sun out of his keen eyes too so he could see where he was headed. Still in all, he figured he didn’t see a reason to complain. The snow cooled gusts, moaning over the prairie, made for a brief relief from the summer sun that beat down on him with an increased intensity.
Nearly forty years old, Stringbean earned his nickname back home in Missouri because of his tall, rawboned features. Brown hair and dark brown eyes ran in the Hooper family, and according to what most women told him he was easy on the eyes. He took their word for it. Listening to the rhythmic clip clop of his horse’s hooves on the hard packed trail relaxed him as he cantered along with one hand resting on his hip. It didn’t matter to him if he wasn’t going but a few miles. The ride relieved a little of the wanderlust in him that he had been born with. Trouble was, he knew down deep in his gut that this would have been a better day to be out for a ride if it hadn’t been for where he was headed. Very few places he dreaded going as Sheriff of Sully Town, but this sure was one of them.
Swiping the sweat beads that popped up on his suntanned forehead with his shirt sleeve, he hoped by the time the afternoon grew unbearably hot he’d be headed back down the trail toward the office. He cleared his throat and spit. It would have been nice to have a cool drink of water now and then to settle the dust, but he wasn’t about to ask for one where he had to stop. He mentally kicked himself for not thinking to fill a canteen for the ride. It was his own fault that he got in such a big hurry and forgot that little detail.
Just never know each morning when a fellow got out of bed how the day was going to turn out. Stringbean’s plan had been to laze around with his feet up on the desk, drinking as much coffee as he could before the pot cooled off. In the summer, it heated up the office way too much to stoke the stove just to keep the coffee warm.
He had figured to take it easy most of the day, watching the comings and goings on Sully Town’s Main Street from the sheriff office’s large, front window. On Mondays, town stayed pretty quiet. He didn’t figure he received enough wages to walk up and down the street, showing himself all day long when no trouble was brewing. Early in the week, ranch folks tended to stay home to work, having just been in town for church on Sunday. Toward the end of the week, women showed up in wagons or buggies to do their trading. On Saturday, farmers crowded Main Street, walking along side dust covered drifters and cowhands, headed straight to the Silver Dollar saloon. That was when he had to be on the alert for trouble way into the night. Once the cowhands got liquored up, no telling what kind of a ruckus he would have to break up. So on Monday morning, he generally figured he would stay put in the office and take it easy. Since his routine hadn’t changed in two years if anyone needed him, they knew where to find him. Sure enough, that was what happened.
After tossing the stack of newly arrived wanted posters he just went through out of his way, he relaxed back in his chair with his feet, propped on his desk, crossed at the ankles. He had just taken a sip out of a full cup of coffee when the town doctor, Doctor Clarence Strummer, burst through the door with such force it slammed against the wall. He looked as wild eyed as a spooked bronc. Startled by the sudden interruption to his quiet time, Stringbean dropped his feet off the desk and sat up fast, slopping coffee all over his clean, gray, cotton shirt. He groaned, but not from the coffee being hot. Since that was his third cup, the thick, black brew had cooled down considerably which was a good thing. Problem was, Stringbean only had two shirts. They happened to be just alike, but the other one was at the laundress, Ginny Holstead, getting washed.
"Tarnation, what’s got yer pants on fire?" Stringbean snapped. Jerking his red handkerchief out of his back pocket, he rubbed the numerous, dark stains spreading across his chest.
The doctor stalked across the room. "Sorry about that, Stringbean. I got a problem. I can’t find my wife anywhere. She’s missing," he cried, wringing his hands together.
At the distressed sound in his voice, the sheriff stopped rubbing the stains to give Doc a good once over. Usually, he was neatly dressed with his thick, black hair combed back from his high forehead and slicked down to his ear lobes. Not this time. His hair spiked out every which way like he had just crawled out of bed. Without his suit jacket on, he looked a fright in a wrinkled, not so white shirt. Looked as though he had slept in it. No sir, Doc didn’t look his dudie self at all.
"Just settle down yer horses. Tell me what happened," Stringbean ordered, pointing to a ladder back chair in front of the desk. "Let me get you a cup of coffee. Looks to me like you could use one."
The tall man plopped down and rubbed his forehead like he had a headache. "Last evening, Mary Alice said she was walking over to the Sullivan ranch to visit her folks before dark. She intended to spend the night. I had to go out on a call at the Bar M to check Slim
Stevens’s broken leg I set last week."
"I’ll be dern. Slim Stevens broke his leg?" That was the first time Stringbean had heard that news. He handed Doc the coffee.
"Yes, but he’s getting along fine." Doc’s dark brown eyes narrow as he gave the sheriff an irritated glance for interrupting him. "Anyway when I came back home last night, my wife had already left. This morning, I rode over to the Sullivan ranch in the buggy to pick her up like I told her I would. Her father says she never showed up. So I don’t know where she is." Doc combed his fingers through his hair, frazzling it even worse in every direction. He took a drink out of the cup and made a face."
"All right. Take it easy. What’s your problem now?"
"You call this brew coffee. Why, it’s worse than any medicine I give out," complained Doc as he set the unfinished coffee on the desk. "What you going to do about my wife?"
"Never claimed it was good coffee. Don’t hurt me, and I drink it all the time," Stringbean said, defensively. "Now about your wife, I’ll start checkin’ with the neighbors out yer way and see if she stopped at one of their places to visit. Chances are that’s just what she did. Which of
the neighbors would she be most likely to visit?"
Doc growled, "The old Indian witch that lives behind me. Never have seen what Mary Alice finds about that old woman to like. She visits Maggie Dawson on a regular basis, too."
"Kind of agree with you where Matilda Vinci is concerned. I’m not lookin’ forward to visitin’ her. She’s just a little bit too spooky for me, but I’ll go see both them women. You best head back home. If she just decided to visit somewhere besides her folks, she might already be home by now," Stringbean reasoned to calm Doc down.
"Sure thing, Stringbean. I hope you’re right. Mac’s having a fit, because I don’t know where Mary Alice is. He’s not one to have mad at you, if you know what I mean." With that Doc left out the door, leaving a trail of dried, clay chunks from his shoes.
Stringbean frowned when he saw the mess. He had already used floor sweep that morning. He considered once a day his quota for cleaning the office. While he swept the mess out the door, he wondered where the doctor tracked in clay. Then it came back to him, Doc said he had been to the Bar M ranch. That red dirt must have come from there.
The neighbor back of Doc Strummer’s place was Matilda Vinci, a middle aged, medicine woman. That’s where Stringbean headed when he left the office. Captured by the Sioux when she was a youngun, Matilda became a member of the tribe. After her brave was killed in the Little Big Horn fracas, Matilda showed up in Sully Town, sprouting amber braids and dressed in a beaded, rawhide gown. Folks distrusted her for the first while. It didn’t take long for Matilda to get herself some store bought clothes so she looked like other white folks. A loner, she settled down on the prairie to homestead forty acres.
One thing led to another, and soon folks learned that gruff, old woman, using her Indian
shamus ways, was better than no doctor at all. That reasoning didn’t make being around Matilda
Vinci any easier as far as Stringbean was concerned. Depending on her mood, some days she acted like a medicine woman. Other days, he would swear she seemed to be instilled with witch’s powers.
Only way to get to her place on horseback was down a cow path near Doc’s house that wound back into the timber that joined Doc and Matilda’s place. If he didn’t count her wolf dog, Matilda lived alone. She liked it that way. Her log cabin was right in the middle of a large clearing. With that sassy dog to warn her when someone rode in, not much chance that anyone would ever be able to sneak up on the old woman. Her mutt heard Stringbean’s horse a quarter a mile away. The dog yapped to tell Matilda that Stringbean was riding in long before he reached the clearing. The sharp barks echoed against the bluffs along Mulberry Creek on the far side the timber and right back at Stringbean, unnerving him even more.
The sheriff moseyed across the clearing, pretending a confidence he didn’t feel. Growing increasingly jittery, he neared the front of the cabin, not knowing if a rifle was pointed at him or not. The door stood wide open. The interior of the cabin was pitch black. No way to see, but he suspected Matilda was probably leaned against a back wall with a rifle aimed at him.
The mangy, gray-black dog, his neck hairs standing on end, pranced back and forth on the lean-to porch, barking roughly. No one would make it through that cabin door if Matilda didn’t call the dog off unless they shot that mean mutt first. Stringbean considered doing just that for the pleasure of putting that yapping hound out of his misery, but a gut feeling warned him, he would be the next one shot if he tried a fool trick like that.
As he studied the watch dog, he came to the conclusion that Matilda and that wolf dog made a good pair. He had the same kind of glittering, black eyes and snaggle tooth sneer as her, but at least, a fellow knew where you stood with the hound. Beat never knowing what the lady of the house’s mood would be from one moment to the next. Her best mood was cranky, and her worse was down right dangerous.
"Hello, the house," the sheriff called.
Dark gray smoke chugged fast and thick out the cabin’s rock chimney. He got a whiff of something bitter stinky on the breeze. It made him wrinkled up his nose. The medicine woman was brewing up potions for her putrid smelling poultices. Some folks swore by what she handed out for cures. They thought she had better healing skills than an educated doctor. Just the smell was enough to make Stringbean glad he stayed healthy around her. For sure, he wasn’t curious what Maltilda’s medicine tasted like. He didn’t even want to find out what ailment a potion that rotten smelling would be used for.
Looked like he guessed right. The wrinkled, leather skinned woman edged slowly out onto the porch, carrying an infantry carbine aimed right at Stringbean’s gut. It passed through his mind that she might have picked that old carbine up at the Little Big Horn when she went to find her brave’s body. Not that he considered asking her. He figured getting nosy about her past with the Indians held a certain, death wish.
With restless eyes, Matilda checked around the clearing to see if the sheriff came alone. She lowered the weapon slightly. "Hush, dog!" She yelled. Pointing to the end of the porch, she ordered, "Get away."
With his scruffy tail between his legs, the dog cowered. He slinked to the end of the porch and leaped down into the grass. He sniffed the ground and turned in a circle three times. When he had found the best place, he slowly laid down and curled up in a ball with his chin on his front legs. One eye shut, but the other stayed open, aimed right at the sheriff.
Stringbean vowed silently that just the harsh sound of that old healer’s threatening
command would have been enough to make him turn tail. She wouldn’t have to shoot at him. The scowl on her face was added incentive. Sweat beads from the edge of her braided, amber streaked, gray hair dripped down Matilda’s cheeks. The top of her faded, calico dress darkened with a spreading, sweaty wetness across her chest. Evidence that she had been standing over the cookstove for some time, stirring a kettle of boiling who knows what. The foul, steamy smell floating out the door grew stronger by the minute. His stomach turned over. Being up right close made Stringbean positive, he didn’t want to ever use the old woman’s medicinal services. Matilda reached into a pocket on her skirt. Stringbean tensed. He didn’t know what would be in her hand when it came back out. Turned out to be a large, red handkerchief. She made a swipe across her glistening face. If he had been in the presence of anyone else, he might have felt a little sheepish -- no a lot foolish -- at acting so skittish all the while that old woman gave him the evil eye.
The sheriff tried to take a deep breath, slow and easy like, so the cross, old healer wouldn’t notice how uneasy he felt. He wanted to put up a good bluff. "Howdy, Miss Matildie. You know me, I reckon?"
"Sure, I know you, Sheriff Stringbean Hooper," snorted Matilda, propping herself against
her porch wall. She glared down her beak shaped nose at him like a hawk sizing up her prey.
Leaning forward in the saddle, he rested his right arm across the pommel. Putting forth as good a front as he could muster, he looked her right in the eye. He was determined not to act as though this cranky, old woman scared the bejeezus out of him even though she did.
"You expectin’ someone in particular?" Stringbean asked, nodding toward her rifle. Seemed to him she was being a might over cautious for a woman who should be used to having folks stop all the time for her potions.
Matilda lowered the rifle even more. "Reckon not. What you want here? Look plenty healthy to me." She leaned her head to one side and studied Stringbean like she could see right through him.
"I wondered if you had seen anything of your neighbor, Mary Alice Strummer, in the past couple days?" He asked, trying keep his voice easy going.
Matilda paused to think back. "Not since a couple weeks ago. I came across her in the timber while I was gathering woody nightshade leaves to make an extract. Mary Alice was picking raspberries." Her eyes narrowed. "Why you ask?"
Stringbean scratched an itchy bump on the side of his head where a mosquito nailed him in the timber. "Seems Mrs. Strummer has been missin’ since last night. The good doctor is worried about his wife so I’m out asking around."
"The good doctor is worried, is he?" She squawked sarcastically in her harsh voice and snorted.
She sounded full of sour grapes to the sheriff. The way he heard tell when he first came to town, that old woman had a good business as a healer until Doctor Clarence Strummer showed up in Sully Town a few years back. Since then Matilda had been reduced to mostly midwife duties which cut her income considerably. Stringbean didn’t have all day or the patience to listen to her complain about Doc Strummer. Besides something about the way she sized him up had him feeling mighty skittish. She looked like she was ready to put a curse on him for talking favorable about Doc. With the way Matilda looked at him, Stringbean wanted to get down to business and get the heck out of there. "You didn’t see Doc’s wife yesterday?"
"I just told you I haven’t seen her for days," Matilda bristled. Then she changed her mind and added, "You might ride over east of Doc’s place to the Dawson ranch. Talk to Maggie
Dawson. Mary Alice visits with her on a regular basis I hear."
"Much oblige, ma’am." Stringbean touched his hat brim, clicked to Freckles and turned to leave.
"Oh, Sheriff Hooper," Matilda called, walking to the edge of her porch.
Stringbean pulled up on the reins. He twisted at the waist to look back at her rather than turn his horse around in case Matilda had that carbine pointed at him again. At least if he had to leave in a hurry, he figured he ought to be headed in the right direction.
"If I were you I’d find Mary Alice real soon," she said, giving an uneasy glimpse toward
the timber between her cabin and Doc’s house. "Yesterday I knew something was wrong. I felt
the dark wind howl over Mary Alice."
With that said, she whirled and disappeared through the open door which signaled the hound the sheriff’s visit was for sure over. He rose up and came back to his post on the edge of the porch. The mangy, gray hair on the back of his neck stood up. He started a growl that rumbled deep in his throat, slipped through his bared, snaggled teeth and out his snarling lips.
As far as the sheriff was concerned, the mutt shouldn’t have bothered to get that worked up. Stringbean couldn’t have been more ready to leave on his own. That dog didn’t need to tell him twice.
Still watching the cabin, the creeps soaked through Stringbean when the old woman faded into the darkness beyond her door just like she disappeared in thin air. Stringbean consider himself a fair to middling smart man. He knew it was the darkness of the room that made her hard to see. At least, he wanted to think that was it. He supposed Matilda counted on the fact that most folks weren’t smart enough to figure that out. She liked keeping everyone off guard about her spooky powers, whatever they be.