by Nancy Means Wright
Enjoy another never before published mystery short story, this one by mystery author Nancy Means Wright.
For a while, back in l874, it looked as though Widow Dottie May Leach would be the mother of five hundred acres, as many Merino sheep, and married to the best catch in Branbury, Vermont. She was just thirty; Vic was twenty-four. He was interested in Dottie May all right. Other folks say different, but I know the whole story, being her only near relative and a local correspondent for the Addison Register. When you get paid a penny an inch, you develop a nose for news.
Besides, my land adjoins Victor’s and I saw the whole affair as it evolved. As it turned out though, I couldn’t make a nickel on it. I was in between the devil and the deep, as you’ll see.
Victor took over the farm in ‘71 after a team of horses ran his father’s sleigh off the icy Branbury ledges, leaving only himself and an ailing granny to run things. Vic was a clever young man, but so hard-working for a year or two after the funeral, he didn’t even have time for Marianna, his schoolgirl sweetheart. He worshipped her, everyone knew that–the times I glimpsed them together behind the barn! But when her family moved away to Bennington, he didn’t speak up to keep her, and that was a mistake; when Marianna left, Dottie May moved in.
One day in January, Victor drove his horses over to the Bingham Street house Dottie’d inherited from old Elwyn Leach (he’d drowned in the Lemon Fair River under odd circumstances), asking to borrow some sugar. Vic’s granny was in bed again and poor Vic was near crazy with her yelling orders at him all the time. Lavalley’s store was closed, he said, and he happened to be going past Dottie May’s house. Dottie had heard the sleigh stopping and before I could slap my cup in the saucer–I’d stopped by for a chat and a little “news”–she was dolling herself up in a red shawl with a red bow stuck in her hennaed hair.
“Will you look who’s here!” she cried when she opened the door, “ blushing” all over her face. “You come right in here, Vic Foote!”
She pulled all six-feet-two of him into her kitchen, undid a top button, and I knew from the sideways smirk he gave me, he was caught.
“It’s a shame,” she said, “a downright shame your granny don’t get another woman into the kitchen, her sick half the time and you haven’ to do all the cookin’. You set right down here now–Ruth was just goin,’ wan’t you, Ruth?–while I fix a nice toddy. Sugar, you said?”
“Yes’m.” And he sat down in the Boston rocker like a six-foot baby, his face flushed up to the roots of his carroty-red hair. He was appealing, for sure–tall and lanky, and oh, those robin’s egg-blue eyes! He never said much, but there was a sparkle in the eyes I’d seen in his daddy’s when we courted one summer before Vic’s mother came here to teach (and later died of a ‘flu) and I married Will Flint instead.
When I left the pair together that winter afternoon, I felt that Dottie May had caught a bigger fish than she could manage.
Vic got his sugar all right. Dottie May went back with him that evening, cooked supper for him and his granny and after that, she was over there every day. Though she knew little about farming, she knew the value of a Merino sheep–famous for its yield of fine oily wool–and the importance of a good crop. She did his shopping, patched his overalls and kept his books. She even helped with the funeral when the granny choked on her second piece of Anna’s sugary raspberry pie (while the old lady was known to be allergic to raspberries). Believe me, Dottie May knew the Foote assets down to the last ear of corn.
One warm evening in March she had Vic take her to the Addison County Fair. His gig didn’t limp home into the barn until four a.m. I was just pulling out the chamber pot when I heard it. At seven that morning, Dottie May came flying into my kitchen, her broad face pink as her new lace-edged petticoat and flashing a tin ring Vic had won for her.
“’Til we get us a real one!” Her voice was squeaky and breathless. She flung herself into a chair, threw her head back and laughed. “My first true love…” she warbled. And when I looked hard at her: “Oh, that old fool Elwyn–—I never loved him, Ruth, and you know it. But what’s a decent girl with both parents passed on and no schooling to do if she don’t get married right off?”
It was true; we both knew it. She’d had a lonely upbringing by a tight-lipped grandpa, though you could never feel too sorry for Dottie May. There was an instinct for survival there that you learned out of school, not in and it was too strong for most folks’ taste–or maybe survival was in the blood. Dottie May’s mother had killed off two husbands with her cooking before she died herself from too big a mouthful of mutton.
“Vic asked you to marry him? Really?”
“Well, it come to the same thing. We was there behind the Ferris wheel huggin’, and the next I knowed he was telling how he couldn’t be without me, the way I did for him all the time. And then he pops this ring he won, right on my finger. I could’ve died on the spot!” She laughed again, showing off those fine white teeth.
“He must be done with Marianna then,” I said, turning my back to fetch the coffee.
“Only last month there was another letter. I saw it in Horace’s mailbag when he came to the door. ’Course I guess you changed his mind for him.…”
“Humph. A skinny little house-mouse, scared of her own petticoats.” She sliced a fresh red apple in half, stuffed her mouth full and flipped the core into the bucket.
If Victor hadn’t gone off to Bennington for a weeklong sheep fair, I might have thought better of putting Dottie May’s announcement in the paper. I surely would have confirmed it with him, but she swore it was true. And besides, a penny an inch is a penny gained and I take pride in making the Branbury news readable. Writing should entertain was my motto, so next Thursday’s Register announced that:
Wedding bells will soon have a victorious ring for Dottie May Jones and a certain young gent here in town.…
There was a lot of sympathy over Marianna: “How would she take it,” and “Weren’t it a pity, that sweet couple, Marianna and Vic–yup, you can bet Dottie May’s twisted him round her sly little pinky.” Still, the printed page made it Official Truth and Branbury accepted the betrothal.
Victor stayed away two weeks. Meantime, Dottie May measured all the windows in the Foote farm for new curtains and hired a seamstress to sew up her wedding clothes. She had that news clipping pinned up on her kitchen wall right next to the calendar where she and Parson Boggs had marked up three wedding dates for Vic to choose from.
So imagine my shock when I was out walking one Tuesday afternoon and saw the gig coming down the road at a gallop the way Vic always did, and careen to a stop in front of his barn. When the dust settled, out climbed not one body, but two! It didn’t take a spy glass to see that the second party had skirts and long sleek hair the color of maple syrup.
It was Marianna all right. They called me over that same day to give me an announcement for the paper. They made such a pretty couple, Marianna blushing all over and Vic smiling at me with those knowing blue eyes, that I couldn’t bear to tell them what had happened. I didn’t dare tell Dottie May either. Like I said before, I was in between the deep and the devil.
So events took their natural course and by the next afternoon it was all out in the paper. Dottie May came rushing through the teeming rain to Vic’s house and put up such a screech and holler, that even the sheep started stomping and bleating in the barn. It was a scene, I tell you (I opened my kitchen window wide to hear). Vic backed up against the barn door in his best go-to-the-minister frock coat and Dottie May’s petticoats all muddy above her boots where she stood hanging onto his lapels like a rabid she-dog. Marianna, shocked, stood in the doorway, her maple syrup hair straggling down the back of her soaked dimity blouse.
The girl suddenly yelled and raced over to pull Dottie May off her lover; for a minute they were all three locked in a kind of Laocoon embrace. Till Dottie wheeled about and shoved the girl down in the muck, both of them screaming, Dottie’s hands squeezing on Marianna’s thin white neck. You could almost see the veins go purple and then black! “Home wrecker!” Dottie May hollered, “sneaky little house mouse!” Marianna couldn’t say a word. She just lay there limp, like she was already gone from this world and Dottie May was riding her like a pony.
I had just run outdoors to help when Vic gave a blood curdling yell and yanked Dottie up off the girl by the hair. He scooped his sweetheart into his arms, kicked the barn door open and out rushed the herd of Merinos, knocking Dottie May face down in the mud and making such a bawling I couldn’t tell my cousin’s noise from the sheep’s.
After Vic went back in the house with Marianna, I had to scurry home because Dottie May, all bedraggled five-feet-two of her, was staggering toward my house, her mouth open in a huge O. She slammed into my kitchen and hollered like she knew I’d witnessed it all. “All right, Ruth Flint, here’s another one for your precious column. I’m heading right over to Henry Willis to sue that hyper-critical Victor Foote for breach of promise!”
Her voice rose to an unearthly squawk while I hung onto the sides of the iron sink.
“And on the way, I’m stoppin’ by Deacon Paine’s place and get that fiend ex-communicated from the church. And her, too, oh yes, ma’am, her, too! There’ll be no weddin’ with that skinny temptress in town!”
“There may not be any wedding at all,” I said. “It didn’t look like any live girl Vic was carrying back into that house.”
She just stared at me, considering the consequences. Then she let out a wail like some Celtic warrior woman, jumped into her wagon and raced off down the road.
After that, things happened so fast I was on a Ferris wheel myself, though it seemed more like a rack, when Dottie May came over to discuss her revenge. Marianna was alive, but wearing a neck brace and Vic sent her home to Bennington to recuperate, and then prepare for a wedding down there. He plunged into fixing over the house to bring his bride to after the July ceremony. I asked if he was planning to tell the sheriff about the assault on Marianna. His cheeks went radish-red as he spoke, though whether from anger or guilt it was hard to tell. He said he’d sleep longer on it and think of what to do.
Dottie May went ahead with her lawsuit. The court case came up May l5, and I found myself in the embarrassing position as witness for both sides. It was a closed affair in the neighboring town of Middlebury, otherwise the whole town would have been there, it was that much of a scandal. Victor sat in one corner of the courtroom with his lawyer, Dottie May in another with Henry Willis. She was dressed up like The Poor Jilted Widow, with three petticoats under the black taffeta dress, her only color, a red ribbon in her hair. As for myself, I was nervous as a chicken, having eggs in both baskets, so to speak.
“Yes, I saw the ring he gave her. She was over to his house, helping out most of the winter,” I testified, and felt Victor’s blue eyes–his daddy’s eyes–bore into my face.
And “Oh yes, he and Marianna were sweethearts, always hugging behind the barn.” I felt Dottie May’s body blaze scarlet over in her corner.
After Dottie May took the stand it was all over. She wept and wrung her hands, pleaded poverty and loneliness and then looking directly at Victor, she said: “Can you deny, Victor Foote that you hugged me and said you couldn’t be without me? Those was your very words: ‘I can’t be without you, Dottie May, I need you,” you said (a tremor in her voice) and then you give me the tin ring, and put your hand under my petticoats and…”
There was a loud hemming from the judge and Victor’s face got as red as the ribbon in Dottie May’s hair. My cousin broke down completely then and all you could see was that fool ribbon bobbing up and down on top of her bee’s nest hairdo, while Vic sat clutching the sides of his chair till his knuckles went white. Henry Willis patted his client’s knee and clucked like the horny old rooster he was.
She stopped crying just in time for the verdict. After it came, the ribbon perked back up on her head, the black eyes snapped, and she marched out past judge and guilty suitor like a Judith with the head of Holophernes under her arm.
It being a Wednesday, I ran all the way from the Middlebury Courthouse to the Register office to get in the news, and this time I made the front page with a headline of my own:
JILTED WIDOW WINS BREACH OF PROMISE SUIT. And in smaller caps: Dottie May Leach To Get Settlement of Sheep and Richest Meadowland.
And that explained the smile on Dottie May’s face as she leapt into her wagon and flogged the old mare till she practically flew home. A female Merino sheep and a whole meadow, of her own choosing, from Victor’s five hundred acres! She envisioned corn growing like Goldenrod and sheep multiplying until they earned a fortune for their oily wool. She was so excited she wanted to go out and make her choice of meadowland right then and there. It was Henry Willis who convinced her to wait until August 7 when the corn would be full and you could tell the most fertile meadow by measuring the height of the stalks.
Vic, though, didn’t wait for August. He and a hired man went to work that very night. This time discretion overcame the need to tell my story–especially after Vic came over to borrow an extra shovel, grinned at me and left two chickens that had accidentally got slaughtered. He didn’t say exactly what he was up to and so I had to follow my nose again and this time, hold it, too! They must have dumped one hundred loads into that meadow–the strip over by Lemon Fair river–all black rotting stinking horse manure. All night long they worked, dumping and digging, ‘til there wasn’t a stone showing, just thick black soil turned over and ready for planting. Pretty as a picture postcard that twenty acre strip was then.
I still wasn’t quite sure what Vic was up to though I had my suspicions. I observed all the May and June plantings and once in early summer I walked out to the fertilized strip. Sure enough, the corn was pushing through the manure taller and thicker than in any other meadow. If I hadn’t seen it done with my own eyes, I would have been fooled, too. It was then I fully understood Vic’s plan.
August 7 came and with it the Day of Judgment. It was a hot afternoon, the sun forking down into the fields like lightning. We were all there, of course, tramping the land—a regular parade: first Victor and Marianna, who were safely married now (July 23, Old Bennington Church), then Dottie May in her shiny black boots, holding up her petticoats, an orange bow like a queen bee in her hair. I was followed by old Henry Willis in his black barrister’s suit, dabbing at his bald head with a white handkerchief. We covered every inch of those five hundred acres, each time just skirting the edge of the strip where the corn rose a full foot higher than it did anywhere else.
“That your land?” Dottie May yelled up at Victor, pointing a plump arm at the fertile meadow.
“That?” Victor stopped short, squinting; a pained look on his face like it was the worst piece he owned.
“Yep, that one. Come on, Victor Foote. You’re not foolin’ me. That’s your meadow and you’re keepin’ me from it on purpose. Well, you’re not pulling another she-nnanigan on me!”
She shoved between the newlyweds like they were corn stalks and strode over to the meadow, Henry Willis panting behind her. She dove into the river of corn and disappeared from view. Moments later she emerged, grinning from ear to ear, holding up handfuls of loamy black earth, her nose all black where she’d been sniffing it. With old Henry nodding behind her, she marched back to Victor, her face flushed with triumph.
“Ha, Victor Foote! That’s the strip I want. And you was fixin’ to hide it from me.” She never saw the squeeze he gave Marianna, or the wink he turned around to give me. He was his daddy’s boy all right.
Well, the story’s not over yet. After a winter of heavy snow there was the usual rain and the next spring, when Lemon Fair flooded over and–you already guessed it–washed away the manure Vic had cleverly shoveled on. It lay there exposed: twenty acres of rough rock ledge, with only enough dirt to grow a bit of moss. Dottie May set up a howl that out-howled the north wind.
“What is it, Dottie May?” I called. I’d just gone out in the yard to empty my chamber-pot. There was no response and I started over towards the meadow. “Dottie May? You stop that noise now and answer!”
When she kept on howling, I flagged down Victor and Marianna, who were coming back in the gig from a morning ride to show off their new baby. Vic knew at once what the matter was and he couldn’t resist. He wheeled about in the direction of the meadow.
When Dottie May saw the gig she snatched up her shovel and raced toward it. This time it was Victor she lit on. She yanked him out of the wagon and before he could wipe the grin off his face, she started swinging. Wham, wham, wham! Every third swipe struck home; she was a small tornado. Vic could hardly defend himself for he had no weapon, and of course he kept swiveling about to see to Marianna who was standing up in the gig, the baby in her arms, both of them bawling. Another step forward and they’d be within range of Dottie May’s fiery blade.
It was then I stepped in myself. I tell you I’ve never done such a thing before and I never will again, but I couldn’t see poor Vic battered that way. Something had to be done to stop that wild woman before she killed all three Footes. I had the advantage because she didn’t see me coming.
I hefted the chamber-pot and spilled it all out on her head! It was full all right: I’d been testing out a batch of hard apple cider the night before. For a second, she stood stock still, stunned. It was a pretty stink, I’ll allow. Vic saw his advantage and wrenched the shovel out of her hands. Dottie May lunged at him, bare handed but Vic stepped neatly aside. Half-crazed, she kept running ‘til she slid down the muddy banks of the Fair, where she lay spread-eagled, her blouse and smelly hair soaking up the yellowy waters.
After that, Dottie May wanted to press charges against Victor for his “treachery.” She might have had a case, too, but Vic reminded me to remind my cousin of the assault on Marianna–and before that of his granny’s sudden demise– and before that of old Elwyn’s drowning in three inches of water…
Dottie May knew she had no case. She turned on me then, for “ambushing” her with the chamber-pot. “And you’d been eating asparagus!” she cried, like that was the final insult. Reluctantly, I promised I’d keep the episode and the discovery of Vic’s ruse out of the newspaper.
“Folks aint goin’ to have the pleasure of knowin’ I been tricked,” she said, sticking up her dimpled chin. And off she went to buy a load of manure to start patching up the rocky strip.
So there it is: Petticoat Strip, as folks named it, the juiciest story I’ve ever had and I couldn’t print a word of it in the Branbury News. That’s why I’m writing it up now, to send off to the Level Best Gazette.
Dottie May’s too busy preparing a defense for pushing a glut of raspberry pie on an asthmatic granny to ever read a fiction magazine.
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