They were all waiting for me in Amy’s parlour. I’d made it there somehow but I scarce knew how.
Amy jumped up when she saw me. “Fran! Why, whatever’s wrong?”
Mercy grabbed one of my hands and started rubbing it and even Adele took her hand out of the bowl of candy long enough to push her eyeglasses further up the bridge of her nose and say, “What’s wrong with you? You look like you just saw your folks kissing or something icky like that.”
Mercy took her eyes off me to stare at her. “Do Fran’s folk want more kids? They’re awful old.”
I stood there wringing my hands. “It’s worse than that. Much worse!”
“Ooh,” they all chorused and sat down with a whoosh of petticoats on the sofa like three plump birds. It was ‘blue’ day; each of us wore her favourite blue dress.
“Never was our ‘blue day’ more fitting than this. Although, after this news, you might want to change into black.”
“Oh, gracious,” squeaked Mercy.
“I don’t have a black dress,” Adele said.
Amy pulled on my arm. “Fran, don’t you dare keep us in suspense a minute longer.”
I pointed to Adele and Mercy. “Amy, you’d best stand there with them – and you’d better hold onto your hearts.”
They eyed each other – and gripped a hand each instead. “We’re ready,” Mercy whispered.
I took a breath. It was almost too awful to say. “You’ll never guess who I just saw sitting in Lucy’s dress shop?”
“Not the widow Hargis?” Amy asked.
When I shook my head Mercy shrilled, “The new preacher’s wife?”
“Jemima Fothergill and that stuck-up cousin of hers?” was Adele’s suggestion.
“Are we even close?” Amy said.
“Not even the teensiest bit warm.”
Adele shrugged. “Well if it wasn’t one of them, I don’t see what all the fuss would be about.”
And that’s Adele for you – she hates it if someone knows something and she doesn’t and now the other two didn’t look quite so excited either. They clearly needed some reminding. “I said you’d better hold onto your *hearts* didn’t I?”
Well, that got them all interested again.
“We want to know.”
“Don’t be mean.”
I walked across until I was standing right in front of them. “Who has the bluest eyes and the softest drawl and the dreamiest…”
I’ve got to admit, even though my heart was breaking, the shrills and
screams and shrieks were everything I’d hoped for.
“No, it couldn’t be!”
“He couldn’t do that to us!”
“He just did,” I told them.
“Oh Fran, are you sure it was *our* Johnny?”
I nodded my head. “He was wearing the shirt with the gorgeous little flowers and the buckskin jacket that perfectly matches the dress mama bought me in San Francisco.”
Adele was the first to recover. “We need to be calm about this. He might have been picking up a dress for Teresa.”
But I was ready for this suggestion. “He might have been – ‘cept I saw him go through to the back room with her!”
Mercy’s mouth dropped open and Amy jumped to her feet.
“And,” I continued, “when he came out he wasn’t carrying any old parcel. No, he was grinning from ear to ear!”
Mercy jumped to her feet that time and Amy screamed – loud enough for her ma to come in and demand to know what all the noise was about.
“We’re just excited about the dance on Saturday night, that’s all,” Amy told her. Mercy had had to turn away and bite down hard on her knuckle but she managed to keep quiet while Mrs Parsons was in the room. The kick Adele gave her helped.
Mrs Parsons, who was really very nice, smiled at us all. “Just don’t be fighting over the same boy.”
Of course that made our hearts feel twice as heavy - it looked like none of us would be fighting over Johnny Lancer now.
We all managed to sit demurely while she told us a story about her first dance but none of us were really listening. It was a marvel she didn’t notice our drooping mouths. It was all I could do to hold myself in until she’d left the room.
Once she’d gone the wailing began again – only quieter, until I said, “Wait. It gets worse.”
“Worse!” shrieked Mercy.
Amy had to poke Mercy in the side and Adele threatened to sit on her if she didn’t hush, before turning to me and saying, “Just how worse could this get?”
That arch of her eyebrows niggled at me – especially as I’d spent hours in front of the mirror and my brows never arched quite like that – so it was with some satisfaction that I said, “Doris Mayberry told me that while we’ve been away, Johnny has been courting Lucy and everybody expects an announcement any day now.”
We’d all learned to embroider the daintiest handkerchiefs while we’d spent the summer at Miss Millpott’s Finishing School for Young Ladies – and now each of us put our handkerchiefs to good use.
“That’s the worst news I’ve ever heard,” sobbed Amy. “And she’s so wrong for Johnny.”
“I know,” I cried.
We all clung to each other. Mercy cried so much she gave herself the hiccups.
Adele was the first to wipe her eyes. “Lucy, of all people. Have you ever seen a more insipid smile?”
“And I’ve heard tell her hair colour isn’t natural.”
“Real – hiccup – ly?” said Mercy.
“And,” said Amy, getting up to check that her mother wasn’t listening, “do you think,” she put her hands to her bosom, “*hers* are really that rounded? Why, I bet it’s nothing but padding.”
“And the last dress I bought from Lucy ripped at the seam on the very first wear,” I told them.
“I remember that,” Amy nodded.
Adele frowned. “Didn’t you rip it that day in town when you missed the step down to the street?”
“Oh, I remember that,” Mercy perked up. “You fell flat on your face in front of Johnny *and* Scott Lancer.”
I could feel myself getting red just thinking about that day. “Well, I wouldn’t have tripped if the hem had been even and didn’t get caught on my heel.”
“You’re just jealous it wasn’t you that Johnny helped up, Adele,” Amy said, coming back to the sofa and slipping her arm about my waist.
We were all silent after that for quite a while.
“I shall probably never smile again,” Amy said after our long silence.
“Me neither,” Mercy added, having a hard time stopping her lips from trembling.
Adele chose a candy. “Well, I think if Johnny Lancer is silly enough to pick Lucy over one of us, then he deserves everything he gets.” She popped it in her mouth.
“Adele, how could you be so mean.” Mercy was almost crying now.
Amy took Mercy’s hand. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to fall in love with her.”
Adele offered me a candy but I couldn’t possibly eat at a time like this. “That’s right – she’s probably bewitched him. When he came out he didn’t look like himself at all.”
Mercy and Amy nodded gloomily.
Adele got up and walked across to the window. “I saw a whole passell of men come into town just yesterday. They looked to be from a trail drive.”
The three of us shrieked at the same time. The very thought of choosing a filthy drover over *our* Johnny was just unspeakable.
I looked at Adele. “Sometimes I wonder if you have any soul at all?”
“I guess we’re destined to be spinsters the rest of our days,” Amy said in a small voice.
The notion of us pining away to shadows of our former selves and Johnny being filled with remorse when he’d seen how dreadfully he’d treated us did something to lift my spirits. But not a great deal.
Just then Mrs Parsons came back in with the tea tray. “Ooh girls, I forgot to tell you the latest talk about town. They say Johnny Lancer is about to be married.”
We all just looked at each other – and we tried to hold it in – but before long Mrs Parsons had four weeping girls in her arms and all she could do was look over our heads and say, “There, there.”
It was exactly one week later that I walked into Amy’s parlour. And it had probably been the most trying week of our lives. We’d scarced raised a smile and our folks thought we’d all taken ill. We had of course. It was Yellow Day today, in honour of the buckskin jacket but I’d felt like I was in mourning as I did up the buttons when I’d dressed.
I was barely in the door when I burst out with, “You’ll never guess what I just heard!”
“Well, there’s no sense in holding our hearts this time, because they’re already broken,” Adele muttered.
Amy closed the door after me. “I don’t think mine could hurt any more than it already does.”
“Mine’s been smashed,” sighed Mercy.
“Well, out with it, Fran,” Adele snapped.
I looked at each one of them, making sure I had their attention. “Lucy ran off with that dreadful, smelly sheepherder – and she’s dead.”
For a moment there was silence – and then mayhem broke out.
“You mean the man who wore that maggoty sheepskin on his shoulders?”
“The one with the squinty eyes?”
“My pa wanted to lynch him,” Adele said.
We all stared at her.
“He didn’t,” she added, a little defensively I thought.
Amy looked back at me. “Tell us, Fran. Tell us what happened!”
“Well, the way I heard it, Lucy had gone out and,” I lowered my voice, “spent the night with the sheepherder.”
“She never did,” Amy said, her eyes as big as Mercy’s.
“Well that sure didn’t kill her,” Adele pointed out.
I pursed my lips at her. “No, but apparently those drovers went out there to stampede the sheep and somehow she got caught up in it all and our poor Johnny found her out there – dead.”
“Stampeded by sheep. Well I never,” whispered Mercy.
“Well, to be honest, I’m not sure if it was the sheep that killed her.”
“All the same, what a way to go,” Adele added, with an arch of her brows.
We all stood there, scarce knowing what to say or even think, with Adele and Mercy and Amy staring at me.
“And you’re sure Lucy was dead?” Amy asked.
I nodded. “Quite sure.”
And then the three little birds plumped themselves down on the sofa in front of me – and trilled and trilled and trilled.