(Wilhelm von Brandt, a naive German noble turned Nebraska rancher, is helped in his attempts to build a stud farm by Johnny Moon, a Pawnee halfbreed. As soon as he's able, Will intends to send for his fiancee, to bring her to America so they can be married.)

...Today was the Big Day.

Will had gone into town early, to withdraw the men’s wages from the bank and to wire Gretchen her fare. He was excited, almost nervous, knowing that, by performing this commonplace act, he was setting into motion the events that would at last bring his beloved liebchen to him.

Before buying the ticket, however, Will went to Painter’s General Store, which also served as the little town’s post office. Hoping there would be a letter from Gretchen, he thought how pleasant it would be to read it while he made the preparations to send her the fare.

There was.

Walking out onto the boardwalk, he opened the letter to read it, leaving Johnny, who was busy buying tobacco, inside. Will tore open the envelope, eagerly reading the first three lines.

It slid from his fingers, fluttering to the boards.

Johnny, stuffing his makin’s into his hip pocket, nearly ran into him. Seeing the fallen letter, he stooped and picked it up.

“Hey, Boss, you dropped--” At sight of Will’s stricken face, he asked, quickly, “Will, what’s the matter?”

To his horror, a tear slid down his friend’s cheek, and Will raised one hand, pressed it against his eyes and began to sob.

With a quick look around, Johnny caught his arm and pulled him down the steps and into the alley before anyone could see. “What the Hell’s happened?”

All Will’s English deserted him. He held out the letter, waving it helplessly.

“Gretchen…mein liebchen…oh, Gott in Himmel…Chonny…!”

Johnny took the letter, scowling at the foreign words written in a hand that was definitely not Gretchen‘s delicate feminine one. “I can’t read this. It’s in German!”

“S-she’s dead, Chonny…mein liebling is dead….” He stifled another sob.

“S-six months ago…!”

Johnny stared at the piece of paper crumpled in Will’s fist. All the wonderful letters Will had received--she had been dead before the last two arrived. While he was planting those sunflowers by the back door, someone else was placing flowers on Gretchen’s grave.

“How?”

“There…was an influenza epidemic…in E-Eisenstadt….” Will replied wearily. “Many people were stricken…Gretchen--“ He looked at Johnny with eyes bleached colorless by tears. “S-she called for me. Her Papa told her I vas coming back….”

Johnny’s fingers tightened around his arm. He took the letter from Will’s hand and stuffed it into his hip pocket. “Come on! You need a drink!”

Will pulled away. Nein. I do not vant to be around people right now.”

“Won’t be nobody there this time of mornin’,” Johnny answered, dragging him from the alley’s shelter and into the street. “Come on!”

***

Depositing Will at a table, he almost ran to the bar where Jessie and Jed, the Wagon Wheel’s bartender and bouncer, stood.

“A bottle an’ two glasses, Jed--big ones!” He leaned over to give Jessie a quick kiss before placing his mouth against her ear to whisper quickly.

Jessie turned a startled gaze on the slumped figure.

Johnny picked up bottle and glasses and returned to the table. He filled Will’s glass and his own, drinking his as Will sat there staring at the dark liquid.

“Will--I’m sorry.” Johnny’s voice was low. Only someone at the table could have heard him. “I never met the lady but from what you told me and from her letters, I think she was a fine woman.” He raised the glass, “To Miss Gretchen!” and tossed down the drink.

Will drank his also, choked, swallowed, and with stone-faced determination, emptied the glass, and Johnny filled it again almost before he could lower it. He drank that one, too, as if he barely realized what he was doing.

By the time Johnny gestured to Jessie to come over to the table, Will had consumed five glassfuls in rapid succession and--being unaccustomed to the strength of Western spirits--was now so sloppy-drunk, he was about to break into another crying jag.

Almost hesitantly, Jessie stopped beside Will’s chair, one hand resting on its back. The lilac-scent of her cologne seemed to float over the table like a cloud.

Blearily, Will looked up at her. Polite, even when snockered, he staggered to his feet. Fraulein Jessie!“ He wobbled, and nearly fell against her, mumbling.

“E-excuse me. I-I am not feeling so vell….”

“Yeah!” Johnny agreed quickly. “Say, Boss, you look purty tired. Maybe you ought to lie down!”

He nodded encouragingly at Jessie, touching her shoulder, and giving it a slight shake to prompt her.

“Yeah, Will--w-why don’t you come upstairs…a-and…rest?”

Understanding Will’s grief, Jessie wasn’t too happy with what Johnny wanted her to do.

“Oh…nein, I could not-- “

“Sure, you could!” Johnny disagreed. “Look--” he went on as Will reached for his glass, knocked it over and stared stupidly at the liquid running to the edge of the table and trickling onto the floor. “You're practic’ly asleep on your feet now! Here, Jessie--given ‘em a hand!”

“Well…perhaps….” Will didn’t get any further, as Jessie, looking at Johnny, interrupted, “Johnny…I don't think this is such a good--”

In answer, the halfbreed dug into his pocket, extracting the pay Will had given him only a short time earlier. “Here!” He thrust it at her, saying in a quick hiss, “Twenty dollars…a month’s wages--if you’ll just make him stop hurting!”

Jessie looked from the money to Will and back at Johnny’s dark worried face, without another word took the crumpled bills and stuffed them into the bosom of her dress. Stepping to Will’s side, she draped his arm over her slim shoulders.

“Come on, Will,” she whispered. “I’ll help you!”

Danke,” came the slurred mutter as she steered him away from the table and toward the stairs.

It took several minutes for them to maneuver the first two steps, but after that, Will managed to reach the top without stumbling. At the landing, however, he stopped, to look back.

“Chonny--”

Glass still in his hand, the halfbreed had followed them to the foot of the stairs in case Jessie needed assistance. “I’ll be right here, Boss,” he promised. “...when you wake up!”

Nodding, Will allowed Jessie to guide him down the narrow hallway....

2 comments

  1. Mary Marvella // November 24, 2007 at 9:57 PM  

    Good emotional depth. Good work, as usual. Sounds like a good story, Ms. Toni.

    I remember rolled cigarettes.

  2. Anonymous // July 2, 2010 at 10:25 PM  

    Wondering how you know about painter's general store and that it was also a post office...