The two cells which served as the town jail lay empty and had been empty ever since Mary Wilkins had attacked her husband with a rolling pin and very near killed him, all because he would wet the bed at least once a week. A subsequent visit to the doctor afterwards revealed that poor Mr Wilkins had a groinal infection which he was still being treated for.
When Mona stepped into the jail house, a young man in his twenties was busy sweeping out one of the cells. Connor Pemberton had been a man without much of a future, unless you counted dying of alcohol poisoning before too long, when Mona first met him. She had seen a spark of intelligence in him and offered him a job as her steward. He hadn't believed she was being serious to begin with. Not until she had hauled him into the jail house, sat him down at the front desk, and ordered him to take down the details of the three people she'd just arrested. Since then, he'd committed to his job honorably. More than one person had passed comment that Connor was a changed man.
'Morning, Sheriff,' he said brightly, pausing in his sweeping to greet her. 'I heard about Henry. Is he all right?'
'Morning, Connor,' Mona replied, hanging her stetson up on one of the coat hooks behind the desk. 'He's fine. Just resting. He won't be in, today, though.'
Connor nodded. 'Let's just hope we don't have any trouble today.'
'Surely you can handle any trouble, Connor. I'm sure all the bad 'uns would quake at the sight of you,' she teased, looking at the thin-boned man.
He gave her a pointed look, though smiled. 'Quake with laughter, I'm sure,' he replied.
'Don't put yourself down,' she countered, taking a seat and resting her legs on the desk. 'That's my job.'
'You're in a good mood today, if you don't mind me saying.' Connor continued the sweep of the cell.
'If it's against the law to be happy, please feel free to lock me up.'
Connor laughed. 'No, it's not illegal, not to my knowledge, anyway.'
'Oh damn,' Mona said suddenly, getting to her feet.
'What is it?'
'I need to go to the school,' she told him, grabbing her hat and placing it firmly on her head.
'The boy who shot Henry, he looked of school age. I need to find out what boy was absent from school yesterday.'
'Want me to come with you?' Connor asked, a little too eagerly. It wasn't really something that needed two people but it wouldn't hurt to have her steward show up at the school with her, show everyone this was serious business.
'Sure. Just smarten yourself up a little. You're an officer of the law, after all,' she said, glancing at the shirt tails which hung over his trousers.
Connor came out of the cell and leant the broom against the wall. He hastily tucked in the shirt tails and gave himself the once over. 'That do you, Sheriff?'
'Very handsome,' she nodded.
Connor followed Mona out of the jail house, smiling.
The school had a name. It was one of a list of things Mona had implemented when she'd become Sheriff. She'd argued that being called "The No Hope School" wasn't the best name to inspire the students who attended. So, there had been a compromise and Mona had been invited to officially cut the ribbon when the three-roomed building had become 'Every Hope School.' Mona had thought the name a little tacky and twee but had kept quiet and dutifully accepted it.
There was a small vestible on entering the school. A door to one of the class rooms at either side, plus the third one straight ahead. About ten pupils averaged each class. 4 to 10 in the youngest class. 11 to 15 in the second class. And the third class catered for 16 year olds and up. It was an unwritten rule in No Hope that the third class also cater for any adults who it was thought in their best interests to get some additional schooling, though no one had taken up the offer. Most probably out of embarrassment, Mona had thought.
Mona approached the middle door, guessing the boy belonged to this classroom. Through the thin walls, she and Connor could hear the children reciting their five times table aloud. She refrained from interrupting them for a moment and listened.
'… four is twenty. Five times five is twenty-five. Five times six is thirty. Five times seven is thirty-five…'
She waited until they'd finished and then rapped on the door, not waiting to be asked in before stepping over the threshold.
Nine students sat behind wooden desks. Their teacher - Mr Woods - stood by a large square blackboard at the front of the class, wiping the white chalk writing off with a duster. He stopped when he saw who it was who had come to visit.
'Morning, Sheriff,' he said, bowing his head slightly. Mona regarded him for a moment. He had been a face she'd recognised in the saloon the previous night, rather worse for wear. At least he had sobered up enough to teach, though that raggedy brown beard he wore did him no favours. His comb over looked slightly awry, too. Perhaps Mona would have to have a word with the headmistress about the behaviour of her teachers.
Mr Wood turned to his students. 'What do we say to the Sheriff, children?'
'Good morning, Sheriff Mona,' the students said in monotone sing-song.
Mona bit back a smile. This took her back to her own school days. Perhaps the bored-sounding greeting was a universal and timeless one.
'Good morning, children.' She noted they didn't bother greeting Connor, who stood to the side of her. 'I hope you're all behaving and taking in what Mr Woods here is teaching you.'
'Yes.' Another bored drawl from the class.
'Glad to hear it. Now, I would like to ask you all something very important. I'm here on official Sheriff business and it's vital you tell me the truth.'
'Is this to do with the Deputy?' Mr Woods asked. At once, the children all started whispering to one another, but their teacher soon shut them up with a look.
'Yes,' she said, then turned to address the students again. 'Now, Deputy Henry was shot in the line of duty yesterday. A robbery was taking place at the bank and a lot of money was stolen. The robber was a young boy, most probably around fifteen years of age. I would like to know if one of your classmates was missing yesterday, around two o'clock.'
All nine faces looked towards the clock above the blackboard. She hoped, by this age, they knew how to tell the time but she couldn't be sure.
'I was absent myself yesterday, Sheriff,' Mr Woods said. 'I was feeling unwell so Mrs Ross covered the class as well as her own.'
Oh, you were ill, were you? Not ill enough to stay away from the saloon, though, Mona thought.
'Perhaps you could ask her?' the teacher went on.
'Perhaps I will,' Mona said. A student stood up, a pale, blond-haired boy.
'Yes, Jimmy?' Mr Woods asked. 'You know anything about this?'
The boy nodded, studiously avoiding the gaze of his fellow classmates. 'Yes, sir. Matthew Reedus. He weren't here yesterday and he aint here today.' To his credit, the boy looked far from happy at having to reveal this information.
'Wasn't and isn't, Jimmy,' Mr Woods corrected him.
Mona glared at the teacher. Who was he to correct the boy when he had failed in his role as teacher. 'Mr Woods, are you meaning to tell me that you didn't even notice one of your students was missing today?' she demanded.
The teacher looked taken aback that he was suddenly in the wrong. 'I've… um…' he began, dashing to his desk and lifting up sheets of paper. 'I've not yet taken the register, Sheriff.'
'That's very remiss of you, Mr Woods,' Mona said pointedly. 'Surely the register is the first thing you do at the beginning of a school day. And besides, you have nine children in your class, normally, Mr Woods, ten including Matthew Reedus. We are in the middle of a school term. Are you telling me you cannot remember the faces of ten children, Mr Woods? Ten children you teach every day?'
'I… I … I…' stuttered the man, but Mona wasn't finished.
'Come here, Mr Woods. I want to smell your breath.'
A chorus of 'Eww!' rose up from the children. Mona wasn't looking forward to smelling it herself but she couldn't go back now. Besides, she was too angry with the teacher.
'You'd best do as the Sheriff asks, Mr Woods,' Connor piped up. 'Unless you want to spend a night behind bars.'
The teacher looked utterly shocked now, but there was a hint of guilt in his offended expression. He crossed over to Mona and stood before her, arms folded. Mona leant forward. She didn't have to smell his breath; the stench of alcohol was prevalent.
Mona turned to Connor. 'Go and fetch Mrs Ross. Tell her she's going to have to cover this class again today.'
'Sure, Sheriff,' Connor said, pulling open the door.
'Oh, and tell her to take the register as soon as she gets here, please.'
Connor nodded and left the room.
Mr Woods face had turned a deep puce colour. 'So you're arresting me for being absent yesterday?' he asked bitterly.
'No, Mr Woods,' Mona sighed. 'I'm not arresting you. I'm ordering you to go home and sober up completely. Have a bath. And stay away from the saloon, tonight. This really isn't a good example to set your students.'
She watched the teacher, as he started quivering with restraint anger. 'It was a sorry day you became Sheriff of No Hope,' he hissed, just as Mrs Ross walked in accompanied by Connor.
'Mr Woods,' said the large lady. 'Go home, and be lucky you still have a job.' Evidently Connor had quickly filled her in on what had happened.
'But, Martha -' Mr Woods began, trying to get his colleague to side with him.
'But nothing, Geoffrey. You've a liken for liquor that I do not much care for. Don't think we haven't noticed. The headmistress is all for kicking you out, but I told her to give you another chance. Don't make me regret it.'
Mr Woods, speechless, looked at the students who were watching with surprised delight. This was one of the most exciting school days they'd ever had, a teacher getting a telling off from another teacher.
'Fine,' Mr Wood said, tearing his coat from the back of the chair. 'You teach these dumb kids, then. I quit.'
At once the children cheered as Mr Woods stormed out of the room. Mrs Ross let the children continue for a few more moments then silenced them.
'All right, children. This isn't a rodeo. Settle down, now.'
'I'm sorry,' Mona told the remaining teacher. 'I didn't mean for him to quit.'
Mrs Ross waved a dismissive hand. 'Oh, don't worry, Sheriff. He's had it coming for a long time.'
'But you're without a teacher.'
'We'll manage. We've done before, and we'll do again,' Mrs Ross told her. 'And I'd just like to say, I disagree with him; it was the best day when you became Sheriff. When I think back to how it was before,' the woman paused and shivered.
'Thank you,' Mona smiled. 'I do need to speak to Jimmy. Is it all right if we take him outside for a few minutes? For some privacy?'
'Of course. Jimmy, the Sheriff would like to speak to you. Come straight back when you're done, all right?'
'Yes, Miss,' the blond boy said, rising to his feet once more.
When Mona and Connor had finished talking to Jimmy, they were now a lot more wiser about Matthew Reedus and his reasons for leaving No Hope with a bag full of other folks money.
The Reedus family lived half a mile outside No Hope. Since Mrs Reedus had died of pneumonia three years earlier, only Matthew and his father, Gregory, were left. According to Jimmy, Mr Reedus was a hateful man who barely treated his son like a human being. And when he did treat Matthew with anything resembling fatherly, it was to teach his son that everyone were sons of bitches, that Gregory was the only one Matthew should take any notice of and listen to. It was a wonder the man let his son come to school. Again, from what Jimmy told them, Matthew was only sent to school so Gregory could spend his days in the saloon or in the whore house without his son getting under his feet.
With each new piece of information, Mona's dislike of Matthew Reedus had begun to vanish. Obviously he was a result of his environment, mainly his nasty-sounding father.
She and Connor walked through No Hope's main street. Mona had decided they would visit Mr Reedus and find out if he even knew his son had ran away.
'Mattie said he was running away to New Moray,' Jimmy had told them earlier. New Moray was the nearest city to No Hope but it was still a distance. It would take someone on horseback four days to get there, and Matthew wasn't much of a rider, Jimmy had said.
'What do you know about the Reedus father?' Mona asked Connor who was walking alongside her.
Connor, being a native of No Hope, would be someone in the know. 'He's a bastard,' the young man offered. 'Not in the biblical sense. He's a nasty man. Been known to attack kids with his belt if they happen to be near his home.'
'So why haven't I run into him before?' Mona asked. She'd been Sheriff for just over three years and thought she knew almost everyone in the ever-growing town.
'I think a lot of folk are scared to report him,' Connor confessed. 'He's the kind of man who seems to know secrets. Folk are scared that if they report him, he'll reveal them.'
'Should I be concerned about these secrets? Do you know them?'
Connor's grin confirmed that he did. 'I know some. Keep my ear to the ground and to the walls,' he added, his grin widening. 'And no, they're not things that should be brought to the attention of the town's Sheriff. It's mostly adultery, or bad-mouthing someone behind their back. Trivial things.'
She glanced at him through the corner of her eye. Trivial things, he said. But did he know the truth about Henry? If so, he'd never mentioned it.
'Morning, Sheriff.' A couple of men were exiting the brothel. It was the two newcomers. The one who had spoken to her last night was the one who had called out. He walked across to her, his friend staying back, idly kicking up the dusty terrain as he waited.
'Good morning,' she said, coming to a stop. Connor copied her. Mona briefly looked at the building the men had just left. 'I see you decided to return to Mrs Fontaine's,' she commented.
The man broke into a smile, slight crow's feet around his blue eyes. 'Yes, we did. Well, my friend did. I just waited on him.'
'You didn't spent time with one of the girls?' Mona asked. 'What's wrong with them?'
The man looked slightly taken aback at her words. Still grinning, he said, 'Well, I must admit, the ladies are indeed beautiful but I have never used a whore house personally and don't intend to.'
Mona was dubious. 'So you waited on your friend the whole night? Your friend must have tired the poor girl out.'
The man shrugged. 'I guess he must have.'
Suddenly the green door which served as the entrance to the brothel opened, and one of the girls, Tallulah - all blond curls and bosom - skipped out. She wore a tight, red ribbed corset and matching dress and held something tight in her hand. She moved past the other man and headed towards where Mona stood.
'Oh, Sam,' Tallulah cooed, reaching them and stroking the stranger's stubbled chin. 'You forgot something,' she went on, smiling coyly, and placing something into his hands. Sam glanced at Mona and then turned to Tallulah. 'Thank you very much, miss. Much obliged that you should return my dear mother's wedding ring.'
Tallulah frowned. 'But -' she began.
'You'd best get back inside, Tallulah,' Mona said. 'It's a cold day today.'
'Oh, Sheriff,' said Tallulah, as if realising there were other people nearby. 'Yes, you're right. It is a bit chilly, today.' She reached up and gave Sam a peck on the cheek, leaving a faint trace of lipstick on his left cheek. 'Do call again,' Tallulah flirted, and then skipped back inside the brothel.
'So you were just waiting, were you?' Mona asked, as Sam pocketed the plain ring.
Sam shrugged again. 'I did my best to resist, but when a beautiful young woman stands before you, well, a man starts to have indecent thoughts and sometimes has to act on them.'
He was flirting with her again. She decided to hold his gaze. Neither spoke. Finally, Connor who had been watching the two, coughed.
'Um, Sheriff, shouldn't we get going?' he asked.
Mona broke off looking at Sam and nodded at her steward. 'Yes. Well, Sam, it was enlightening to meet you again.'
'Likewise, Sheriff,' he doffed his hat and walked back to his friend.
Just as the two men started to head down the main street, Sam stopped. He was gazing up at the sky. Mona followed his gaze, and noticed a small black dot in amongst the clouds, gradually getting bigger.
'Let's make this visit quick,' Mona told Connor as they continued onwards to the Reedus house. 'Looks like the airship's on its way back.'
The Reedus residence was just as Mona had imagined it after speaking to young Jimmy. The building itself looked as though, once upon a time, it might have been aeshetically pleasing. Not anymore, though. Parts of the roof were missing, the decking at the front were missing some planks of wood, and all the curtains were closed shut.
'Ready?' Connor asked.
Mona nodded reluctantly and the twosome approached the run-down house. Before they could step onto the porch, the front door flew open and out stepped, Mona presumed, Mr Reedus. A rifle was being pointed at them. Both Mona and Connor took a step back.
'Good morning,' Mona began. 'Mr Reedus, I presume?'
The man glared at her through narrowed eyes, never lowering the gun. 'That's right. What you doing sneaking round on my property, missy?'
Mona bristled at the word missy, but continued nonetheless. 'I don't believe we've met, Mr Reedus. I'm the town's Sheriff.'
Reedus continued staring at her and then spat on the ground. 'No, you aint.'
'I'd like to talk to you -'
'I don't talk to women. They never have anything useful to say,' Reedus interrupted.
If Mona was less of a person, she'd have pulled her gun out then and there, but she didn't want to make matters worse. 'It's about your son, Matthew.' She could see the man waiver a little at the mention of his son.
'What's the dumb ass done now?' Reedus asked.
Mona didn't answer right away. She was weighing up her options. What would the father's reaction be on finding out his son had stolen money and shot at a law officer? Anger? Apathy?'
'Your son shot Deputy Henry,' Connor blurted out, not noticing the glare Mona was giving him. 'And he stole money from the bank.'
Reedus frowned. 'The kid did that? Maybe he's less than a mouse than I thought. I suppose you got him locked up?'
'No, Mr Reedus,' Mona said, taking charge again before Connor could utter another word. 'He shot Henry and ran off. We hear he's heading for New Moray.'
Reedus shrugged. 'Gets him outta my hair.'
Mona had enough of this man. She moved forwards. Reedus raised his gun again but she didn't care, only stopping until the gun was pressed against her throat.
'Not the wisest decision, missy,' Reedus said. From this close, Mona could see that the man would have been a looker in his younger years. She wondered if he had been this way, acted this way, before his wife had died. She would have to ask around.
'Mr Reedus, I assure you that once we find Matthew, and we will - that's a promise - you will never see him again.'
Reedus smirked. 'I'm not one for visiting prison, anyways.'
'Oh, the child won't be going to prison,' Mona assured him. 'He'll be found a loving family who can care for him and treat him like a human being, not an inconvenience. There's hope for him. You, Mr Reedus, you can just waste away the rest of your life by yourself.' There was no reaction from him, so she turned away, and walked back down the steps to where Connor stood.
As they walked away, Connor whispered to her, as though he thought Reedus, who still stood on the porch watching them, could hear. 'You're gonna do what you said you'd do? Take Matthew away from his papa?'
'I have no choice, Connor. Matthew has grown up with that all his young life. He's been misguided. A new, caring family is the best thing for him.'
'You think any family round here will take him?'
'We'll have to see.'