Howdy, all. Jim, being a wonderful husband, talked me out of working all day on writing. He say's I'm too tired and worn out from the week. And I let him talk me out it because he's hot and I adore him. Instead, he talked me into taking a nap after posting the first chapter from a novella that we co-wrote (well, we discussed it and then he wrote it and I edited it). This novella will be a never-before seen, brand new Five Dollar Mail story about none other than Tommy Page, and will appear in its entirety in the upcoming The Five Dollar Mail: Riders and Kickers anthology.
Jim's work has been published in various horror magazines, and he is now a force in the digital comic scene with his own project, Flashback Universe. He will be working with me on the next project after Five Dollar Mail, so I thought it would be a fun introduction to have him write a piece for the anthology.
Chapter One: The Girl That Liked Dime Novels
|Tommy by Angela Taratuta|
Standing out on the Green River town stagecoach depot in the early morning chill of a December morning, Tommy Page found himself nervously waiting for three things. The icy winter air had, once again, formed a sparkling fog on the lenses of his spectacles, and as he wiped them clear, he mentally tallied his expectations as if ticking chores off a list.
First, there was Christmas. While he no longer looked forward to it with the excitement he had when he was a child, the idea of enjoying the holiday with his friends at the station had renewed his interest in the season. He was especially looking forward to some of the delicious dinner treats Fiona and Lily had hinted at.
Second, there was the latest installment of Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, in the Beadle’s dime novel series. While the stories could tend to get a little outlandish at times, Tommy found himself addicted to the series. That the newest edition was supposed to arrive today on the stage coach is how Tommy happened to find himself out on the stoop in the brisk weather. He wanted to meet the driver and be sure to get a copy before they went into town. He’d been on a run to Three Crossings when the previous edition had arrived on the stage, and he’d ended up missing out. He ended up having to pay double the price to Jed Ward, a boy in town, who charged him an outlandish 20 cents just to read his copy after he was done with it. What he’d gotten was a dog eared, torn version with water stains and one of the illustrations missing. In hopes of preventing that from happening again, he had traded his regularly scheduled run today with Jessie...or maybe it was Luis. Jessie and Luis had a habit of trading their runs between themselves so often that it caused confusion in the station. Lynch had asked them politely to refrain from such shenanigans by grunting “I reckon you boys need to stop this horseshit!” the last time they’d done it. Unfortunately, they still were apt to trade on the sly from time to time, seeing how the exact meaning of “this horseshit” was open to interpretation.
And while he was eager for Christmas and anxious to read the new dime novel, neither of these two impending events were the source of his nervousness. No, what had his palms sweating and his heart beating fast was the third thing he was waiting for: a chance to speak to the young girl who was walking his way at this very moment.
He had been watching this girl ever since she appeared down at the end of the wooden sidewalk that ran along the main street through town. At first she was just a blurry image on the horizon through his dust-smudged spectacles, but has she was drawing nearer, Tommy was able to ascertain that she was indeed a person...a girl...a pretty girl...headed his way. He found himself going from curious interest to genuine excitement at the idea that she might be coming over to speak to him.
Now, normally, Tommy would have assumed any visiting girl at the mail depot was some wayward admirer of Luis or, more likely, Jesse. But what gave Tommy hope this morning was the exact nature of her arrival.
Tommy had heard from Mr. Thomason, the owner of the mercantile, that there was a girl his age who also bought the dime novels. This idea fascinated Tommy in a way he couldn’t quite explain or escape. Could there actually be a girl in town who shared his love of stirring adventure and heart-stopping action? He had to meet her. Imagine the rousing conversation they could have as they recounted their favorite stories and characters! And the fact that Mr. Thomason had mentioned that she was cute had only fanned the flames of his fascination.
And as Tommy watched this young girl walk up, he had to concede that her appearance did indeed fit the definition of “cute”. Actually, as Tommy stole furtive looks in her direction (all while attempting to coolly ignore her, as Saint once instructed him), Tommy realized that cute was a weak description for such a girl. With her long brown hair, piercing dark eyes, regal cheekbones, and aquiline nose, she possessed a bewitching presence that defied the cramped confines of a word like “cute.” What would the correct word be? he thought, his heart racing.
Coltish, Tommy thought, but then nixed it as sounding too young.
Gorgeous. Hm...better... He shook his head. Somehow, that suggested an older woman.
Winsome? He had seen that word applied to cute girls in his dime novels, but he thought it had something to do with smiling.
Fetching was a bit better, but it remind him more of dogs than anything else.
As she approached, his mind swirled in a morass of synonyms and sounds as it searched for the appropriate adjective, the perfect word, that bit of lyrical truth that would correctly define her forever...
“Hello. Nice morning isn’t it?” she said, her face lighting up with a welcoming smile as she stepped onto the stoop.
With a start, Tommy turned towards her and was suddenly overcome by the answer to his unspoken question. “Stunning!” he blurted out in awkward exclamation.
The young girl cocked a dark eyebrow and tilted her head, the polite smile on her face disappearing. In Tommy’s mind, he could imagine Saint going on and on about first impressions and having a good opening line. He could tell he hadn’t said the right thing, but he couldn’t think now what the right thing actually was. Watching her standing there wasn’t helping. She seemed to be re-tabulating some mental calculation and Tommy was afraid he wouldn’t like the answer. At long last, a smile broke across her face, and she said, “While that seems like a rather bold word to describe this cold morning, I applaud your passionate appreciation.”
Tommy wasn’t entirely sure he followed all that, but it sounded like a positive response, so he followed up with the most evocative rejoinder he could muster. “Hello! I’m ...my name is Tommy Page.”
The girl tipped her head a bit as if making a small bow and said, “Pleased to meet you Tommy Page. I’m Theresa Perrin, but everyone calls me Terry.”
His name sounded amazing rolling off her tongue. It took him a few seconds before he replied. At least, he hoped it was just seconds, as time seemed to be dissolving all around him. “Are you...what are you doing here?” he asked, instantly regretting the accusatory phrasing of the question. Yes, he did want to know why she was here, but he didn’t mean to sound so blunt.
Arching her brow in confusion, she looked at the post office beside them.
“Is this where the stagecoach unloads?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Ah. That’s what I was hoping. Mr. Thomason at the mercantile told me that if I wanted to get my hands on the new Beadle’s book, I would be best to try and pick it up here.”
“You...you’re the girl who...It’s you that buys the dime novels!” Tommy exploded. “I thought it might be you!”
With a wild gush, Tommy started to recount his favorite moments from the ongoing Malaeska serial novel. While he wasn’t sure what to say to girls, he definitely knew his dime novels. He could tell her every detail about every dime novel he had ever read.
And to any onlooker, it would have looked as if he was doing just that very thing.
Indeed, he was so overcome by this chance to share his love for the genre, he failed to notice that his audience seemed to be getting bored.
Terry took a deep breath, as if to bolster herself from the battering waves of his enthusiasm, raising her hands before her as if to press back the tide. “Hold on,” she said, chuckling nervously. “I don’t read them. I get them for my brother,”
He words were an icy bucket of water dousing him. If he had been a waterfall of words before, he was now a dry well. For a few uneasy seconds he didn’t know what to say. Time stretched like winter molasses, hanging between them in awkward, excruciating silence.
He opened his mouth, and closed it, pulling his glasses behind his ears. “Oh.” Flailing in an ocean of random advice he had picked up from the older riders, he found a lifesaver from Wash: ‘It’s easy to talk if you know what you’re talking about, so it is. And the only way to know is to ask.’
Tommy retrieved his courage, dusted it off, and tried again. “How is it that you happen to be picking up the dime novel for your brother?”
Terry leaned her back against the depot’s shingled front wall and relaxed a bit. “Oh, it’s a long story, Mr. Page, I shouldn’t bore you with all that.”
His awkward tension relented a bit. “You could...I mean, I’d love it if you bored me.” He cringed, wincing. What is wrong with you, you blathering idiot?
She laughed,and gave him a forgiving smile. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Her brother was named Charlie, and he was eight years old. However, despite his young age, he was quite a good reader, as Terry had been teaching him to read him since he was five years old.
The reason Tommy had never seen Terry in Mrs. Plunkett’s classroom is because she had completed school back East prior to her family's arrival in Sweetwater.
Her family lived on the opposite side of the Green River, where her parents had a small farm.
Their father was away back East tending to their recently deceased grandfather’s estate. Mr. Perrin had hoped to be back by Christmas, but business complications had made his return impossible.
During the conversation, Tommy told Terry a bit about himself, focusing on his job as a Pony Express rider, the places he had gone, and the people he worked with. Occasionally, he would mimic some of the other riders, which helped illustrate their personality. Even though Terry didn’t know any of them, she found the impersonations entertaining. As the morning passed, they were so caught up in their exchange that neither of them realized that the stage coach was running late.
“So, Miss McMillian,” Tommy continued with the story of how Lily came to work at the station, his face twisted in his best Erastus Lynch impersonation. "Does a lot of cussin’ bother you?”
Terry laughed out loud at the punch line, and Tommy felt quite pleased with himself...until Lynch stepped out onto the stoop with a dour look on his face. Albeit, this was sort of his natural expression, but this morning there was an intensity on his furrowed brow that told Tommy something was wrong. Did Lynch hear that?
Lynch looked at Tommy, wearing a far scarier version of the pinched scowl Tommy had been wearing moments before. His pale, intense gaze traveled from Tommy’s face to Terry, and he nodded knowingly to himself. He raised an eyebrow and settled his eyes back on Tommy. “You been here all morning?”
“Yes, sir. I...uh...since b...breakfast.”
“No sign of the coach?”
Lynch turned his attention towards the horizon. “Hmph.”
He gave the skyline a frustrated glare as if to provoke it into revealing the overdue stage coach. Then he turned towards the station. “Let me know as soon as you see it,” he muttered over his shoulder as he went back inside. “I reckon you’ll still be standing here.”
“Yes, sir.” Tommy said, deflating. He was relieved that Lynch wasn’t upset at him, but a new concern was growing now. Where’s the stage coach?
“Was that?...” Terry started to ask.
“Yeah.” Tommy interrupted her question with a hushed, faraway reply. “Old Man Lynch.”
Like Lynch, Tommy scanned the horizon. His mind was busy conjuring up grim reasons the stage might be late. He didn’t want to think something could have happened to Saint and Wash. Normally, I wouldn’t worry too much...but bad weather can blow in without warning this time of year. Nor did he want to explain the morbid possibilities. In an attempt to prevent his concern from spreading to Terry, he made a game attempt to restart their previous conversation.
“So, I guess...I mean...is it hard raising chickens?”
She played along, answering the question and asking him more about the station. To anyone listening, there would have been little difference in the tone and tenor of their dialogue. However, to Tommy, it seemed their words were colder than before and sentences hung in the air longer than they should.
What’s delaying the coach?