Steeds 34

28 05 2017

“Miss De Havilland. Good afternoon.”

“Hello, Sheriff.”

“I presume you’re in town on errands,” said Lee, “but, for most people, errands don’t normally include stops here.”

“I am running a few errands, shopping mostly,” said Judith. “However, I scheduled those because I thought it necessary to pay you a visit. The shopping is secondary to my report.”

“Really? Well, come through the little gate there and take a seat here.” Lee pointed to the chair next to his desk. He stood and walked across the floor to open the gate.

“Thank you.”

“Mrs. Oakley may have some coffee yet. Otherwise, I’m sure she has water hot enough to make some tea in short order.”

“Oh, don’t bother. I shan’t be long.” Judith seated herself.

Lee resumed his place at the center of his desk, though he spun in his chair so that he could fully face Judith.

She produced some paper from her purse. “You may know that I am not from Tuscumbia County. I came here to accept the offer of employment.”

“By the Town of Pleasant Valley to teach at the Fairview School, yes.”

“You can surmise that I have family and friends elsewhere, and that I correspond with them by mail as often as I am able.”

Lee nodded.

“One of my dear friends―Helen Vrechek―is also a school teacher. We lived in the same town growing up, though she had the misfortune of being reared in an orphanage. We became fast friends in school, where we were inspired and where we inspired each other to take a long-term interest in education. In time, I came here. In time, she went to Doylestown.”

Lee nodded again.

“We trade letters regularly and often. This is Helen’s latest.” Judith held it up. “I had earlier written Helen, telling her the news about horse thefts here in the county. This letter tells me about a horse she has received as a surprise gift.”

“Really?” Lee responded. “One would normally guess that such a gift came from her family, but you said she is an orphan.”

“Indeed.”

“And something tells me the horse was not a gift from a man seriously plighting his troth.”

“I wouldn’t be here if that were true,” said Judith. “She writes that the horse was a gift from an anonymous benefactor. He is to be an aid and an encouragement in her work.”

“Who? The benefactor or the horse?”

“Oh. The horse. And she has been encouraged. Thrilled, to be more accurate. Surely, the horse will provide useful, if not necessary, transport. Helen writes that he may allow her to come all this way to visit me with some frequency. She is so pleased.”

“So tell me, please, why you’re telling me this.”

“What benefactor? That’s my question, and hers. She hasn’t a clue.”

“No one on the township board. None of the parents. None of the farmers.”

“She hasn’t a clue … except this.” Judith held the paper up again. “This is stationery I purchased for both of us to use in our correspondence, and it’s special. That is, it’s as special as I could afford to buy. I searched for a kind and quality at the least out of the ordinary, as well as fine. I bought a packet for me, and I bought a packet for Helen, which I sent to her by post. The agreement was that we would trade letters using only this paper. You know, as a token of our being friends forever. That kind of girlish thing.”

“I’ve read Emerson’s essay on friendship,” said Lee. “That’s not girlish.”

“Well, thank you,” said Judith. “But to continue, Helen noticed that the note telling her that the horse was a gift to her was written on this exact paper.”

“Some special someone snitched a piece from her stash?”

“No, sir. She is wondering whether I gave her the horse, which is absurd. I cannot afford a horse for myself. As it is, I hitched a ride into town with one of my pupil’s parents on his way to the hardware store.”

“Friends forever, you said,” said Lee with a smile. “Maybe you sacrificed a horse for yourself to give one to Helen.”

“Maybe I would if I could, but Helen also knows I cannot afford a horse any better than she can. You know what school teachers earn … younger ones who happen to be female, in particular.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“So. I didn’t write the note, and the note wasn’t written on any of her paper, but it was written on the same paper.”

“How do you know?” Lee asked.

Judith reached into her purse and removed a plain sheet. “Hold this to the light and notice the watermark.”

Lee stood and carried the sheet to a nearby window. “I see it.”

“That’s the same watermark within the pieces of paper I bought for Helen and me.”

“You could afford to have custom paper made?”

“No, sir. That’s not unique. As I said, though, it is out of the ordinary.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Here, in Uttica, at the print shop.”

“George Hodges doesn’t make paper.”

“True. He does service custom orders. He ordered that stationery for me.”

“This kind of stationery,” Lee said. He looked at the watermark again. “Atlas Paper Company. I daresay Mr. Hodges is not the exclusive distributor of Atlas products.”

“He did, however, order some additional packets to offer for sale, just in case I want more later … and just in case my taste in stationery happens to appeal to other women. That brings me to my second clue,” said Judith.

“Oh?” Lee returned to his chair.

“Helen sent a description of the horse, and why wouldn’t she? A new horse! And he has a name, according to the note: Asher.”

Lee paused, and then said, “You don’t say.”

“I do, and so did Helen.”

“Asher is the name of one of the horses stolen from the Chastains.” Lee pondered. “But wait. How do you know the name of the one of the missing animals?”

“Their implement dealership is in Pleasant Valley, you know. Children talk. I meet with parents. I go for walks and talk to other people, neighbors.”

“Of course.” Lee pondered further. “Oh. You said Helen described the horse.”

“Bay, with coronets and the prettiest star.”

Lee went for his file. After a minute or so, “Well, well. This news of yours is, indeed, intriguing.” Lee stood and commenced pacing the floor. “May I keep that sheet of stationery?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know if Doylestown has a telegraph office?”

“It does not.”

“I didn’t think so. But it has a post office.”

“It does.”

“If you please, Miss De Havilland: send a letter immediately to your friend. Today, from Uttica. Use my desk to write it, if you want. Any paper, any pencil or pen. Ask your friend to send that note as soon as possible. I want to examine it carefully.” Lee stopped pacing. “Summer is upon us. Is there a possibility that Miss Vrechek can pay you a first visit on that horse? Soon?”

“I will ask.”

“No need to fret about room and board. If you can’t put her up, I’ll ask the Ladwigs. I’ll reserve a room in the hotel, if need be.”

“I’m sure any arrangement will be acceptable.” Judith paused. “Oh, my.”

“What?”

“What if Helen loses her new horse?”

“To its rightful owner?”

“Yes.”

“It’s too soon to know that will happen. I must follow your lead, however.”

“Of course you must. That’s why I came.”

“And I thank you.”

“Now for my third clue.”

“You have another?” Lee asked. “Excellent! What is it?”

Judith removed another paper from her purse. “This comes from my sister’s son, my nephew. They are visiting for a spell. I told them the news of the stolen horses. We must have something to chatter about.”

“About which to chatter.”

“Stop it. We discussed the news. My nephew―his name is Quentin―has his own lead for you to follow. He’s written it in a letter addressed to you.” Judith held the paper out.

“There’s no envelope.”

“He knew I was carrying it by my own hand.”

“Ah.” Lee took the letter. “What does he think?”

“He thinks the horses are being taken by Panther, the Water Spirit.”

 

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