Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Four)

"Mother," Jeremy said for the fourth time. "I don't think you're listening to either of us."

"My dad's choppin' wood," Zachary said without looking up. "Got his shirt off."

Kathryn certainly did hear that remark, and she moved away from the window swiftly, because she had indeed been watching Cole Jordan with his shirt off. "Yes, Zachary," she said as efficiently as she could manage, "could you show me on the map where Borneo is?"

"Sure thing, Mrs. Kate," he said with a cocky grin. "But maybe we oughta work on biology today."

One look from Kathryn made him close his mouth and go to the map pinned to the far wall. And for the rest of the day Kathryn made herself stay away from the window. But it was later when Zachary spilled a bottle of ink that she knew she'd have to leave the room they were using for their classes;

"I'll go, Mother," Jeremy said when he saw the look of dread on her face. Most of the school supplies were kept in Cole's office.

"No," she said, "finish your lessons. I'll be back in a few minutes." She knew that if she sent either one of the boys, Cole would show him something that was infinitely more interesting than geography, such as roping or branding or how to throw a knife accurately. The schoolroom was the only place that Cole respected as off-limits to him. That and Kathryn's bedroom, she thought as she walked down the stairs.

Straightening her shoulders, smoothing her dress, Kathryn made her way toward Cole's office. In the few weeks that she had been in the house, it was amazing how successful she had been in avoiding him. For the most part she tried to act as though he didn't exist. She and the boys ate at different times than he did, or at the very least at one end of the table while he sat at the other. And Kathryn scrupulously avoided wandering about the house when she knew Cole was home.

But who did she think she was kidding? Certainly not Zachary, who seemed to be nine going on fifty. The "child" seemed to know everything that was going on in her mind, for Kathryn secretly watched Cole as though he were the most fascinating person on earth.

For one thing, he didn't seem to be who she originally thought he was. He was an excellent father –to both of the boys. He never included his own son in something that he didn't ask Jeremy to join. And he was wonderfully fair. If Zachary was better on a horse than Jeremy, Cole would ask Jeremy to recite the multiplication tables. If Jeremy began to think he was smarter than Zachary, Cole would ask his son to tell them how to mine silver, including all the technical aspects of it.

Yes, Kathryn thought, Cole was an excellent father. And he was true to his word that he hadn't so much as tried to touch her since she had been in the house. Truthfully, their relationship was one of great formality. For all that they addressed polite words to one another, they could have been living in different cities. But then Kathryn went out of her way to be where Cole Jordan was not

Now, after giving a soft knock to make sure he wasn't inside, she put her hand on the doorknob to his office and took a deep breath. Then she reminded herself that this was ridiculous. Mr. Jordan meant nothing to her. This was a job and nothing more.

But then she remembered the day he had joined her and the boys on a nature walk when they'd been trying to identify trees by their leaves. Out of nowhere Cole had appeared and surprised them all with an extensive knowledge of plants.

"I only know what's good to eat," he'd said when Jeremy had asked him where he'd learned so much. "Not that Manuel ever uses any of these plants, but when I was nine I became interested in herbs, and my mother helped me learn what was what. And, too, there was Wendell."

At that Zachary had let out a whoop of delight so, grinning, Cole stretched out on the ground, his long legs almost touching Kathryn's skirt, and had told what Zachary called a "Wendell story"–his favorite. And Kathryn had to admit that the story–untrue, of course–was indeed entertaining. It seemed that Cole had been telling his son about this extraordinary woman who wore black leather clothing, ever since Zachary was left with him by his mother.

By the end of the story, Kathryn found herself as eager as the boys, only barely able to keep from asking questions about where this woman came from, what had happened to her, and were the outrageous stories of the future she told true.

But Cole had ruined the moment by leering at Kathryn as though to let her know he knew she was intrigued by him. So Kathryn had closed the picnic basket just as he was slipping his hand inside.

Cole had drawn back with an expletive, then sucked at his fingertips, which she had caught with the lid. "What is wrong with you?" he muttered, then looked at her with anger in his eyes. "Don't you ever forgive a man?"

"There is nothing whatever wrong with me," Kathryn said firmly. "And I do forgive people, but not when they put me through the humiliation that you did," she said, referring to the trial. With her back rigid and her resolve strengthened, she had led the boys back to the house.

So now she was going into his private domain in order to get a bottle of ink, which she was sure he kept there just so she'd have to come after it. There was no answer to her knock, and since she knew he was still outside, she went into the room. The first thing she saw was that a wall safe was open and scattered on the cabinet below were a stack of papers. Rushing toward the safe, with thoughts of robbery in her head, she saw that there were stacks of what appeared to be hundred-dollar bills inside the safe. So there was no robbery, she thought, relieved, just someone's carelessness at leaving a safe open.

With a few stern thoughts about the irresponsibility of some people, she began to put the papers away, but then one of them caught her eye. It was a bank statement for an account in Denver, opened in the name of a man in Legend who had begged Kathryn to get Cole to allow him to buy his store.

With interest, Kathryn began to go through more of the papers. There was a book that showed that Cole was paying for a retirement home in Denver, and the names of the tenants were things like Diamond Sue and Tricky Jane. There were huge bills for the repair of the houses of Legend.

"Seen all you want?"

Kathryn nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard Cole's voice, then spun on her heel to see him sitting in a chair in the far corner of the room, at least half a dozen ledgers on his lap.

"I… I came for a bottle of ink," she said, and even to herself she sounded as though she had something to hide.

"I rarely keep ink in the safe," he said, one eyebrow raised..

"I didn't mean to pry," she said as she put the papers she held back onto the cabinet below the safe. She knew she should leave now. She should forget the ink and leave, but instead she looked at him. "What are all these documents? Why don't you sell Legend to the inhabitants? Why do you have to be such a, a…"

"Despot?" He was laughing at her, but she didn't care; she wasn't going to back down. When he took a while to answer, she knew he was trying to decide whether or not to trust her.

"I'm sure you won't believe me, but I'm doing this town afavor." Standing, he walked across the room to reach above her head and put the ledgers back into the safe. "The mines are playing out. Colorado is no longer in a silver boom, and most of the towns that were near here when I was a kid are now ghost towns. And the people who put their money into them have lost everything."

As he turned his back on her and walked to his desk, she tried to put together what he had just told her, and when she did understand, she gave a little laugh. "Am I to believe that you are retaining sole ownership of this town out of some altruistic motive? When the mines do give out, every person in this town can walk away without losing a penny because you've allowed no one to buy any property? Is that what I'm to believe?"

When Cole looked at her his eyes were cold. "It doesn't matter to me what you believe. But what I have just told you is the truth."

"And I guess there is nothing in this for you," she said, one corner of her mouth tilted up in a smile of disbelief. "You don't get riches beyond belief? You don't get power to control a town full of people? To make their decisions for them? To–"

"Power?" he half shouted at her. "You think that running a place like Legend is power? Have you actually looked at this place? There are more whorehouses than there are businesses."

"But that's because you won't allow decent people into this place. You encourage only the lowest people to come here."

He advanced on her. "That's exactly right, and have you ever stopped to ask why I encourage such decadence as this?"

Kathryn was backing toward the door, and he was moving closer to her, leaning over her.

"Have you ever asked yourself why my own family moved to Denver, yet I stay here alone? I'll tell you why, Mrs. High and Mighty de Longe. It's because there is no future for this town. My father wanted to close the place down; he said it made him ill."

"Then why not bring in some decent people? Why not allow–"

Her back was against the door, and he was so close to her now that she could see the tiny flecks of black that were in his blue eyes. And she could feel his breath on her skin.

Abruptly, he turned away and walked to the center of the room, then stood there looking down at his desk. Kathryn knew this was her opportunity to escape, but instead she took a breath and said, "Why?"

He didn't answer for a while, and when he did his voice was soft and low. "My family has made a lot of money from this town, enough to keep us for generations if we have any sense. A few years back when my father found out the mines wouldn't last much longer, he could have sold every inch of land to anyone who wanted it, then left here forever."

"But he didn't," Kathryn said. "No, you didn't. You stayed behind to run the town.''

He turned back to her. "Yes, I stayed behind. I had Zachary so I wasn't totally alone, and my grandmother had long ago fenced off this part of town so we could have some semblance of life that didn't involve liquor and bets being wagered." He gave her a little half smile. "But I haven't done so well with my son. He's grown up knowing more about a roulette table than about…"

"The Bible?" Kathryn supplied.

"Exactly," Cole answered, then gave her a genuine smile.

Kathryn moved away from the door and went to the safe, where she picked up a handful of papers. "So what are these?"

"Just a bit of management," he said, taking the papers from her, as though he were embarrassed at her seeing his good deeds. When he'd put the papers away and closed the safe, he walked away from her, and his gesture was a dismissal, but Kathryn didn't move.

"Why have you done this?" she asked. "I can understand why you didn't sell the land, but the rest of this is not something I can comprehend. The people of Legend are adults; you are not their father or their guardian. You don't have a right to decide their futures for them."

"A right?" he asked, turning back to her, his face angry. "I have an obligation to them. I have–" Halting, he put his hand over his face. "That's right, Mrs. de Longe. I have no right. I am rich, therefore I am bad. Isn't that what you believe? Isn't that what everyone believes? Now, would you please leave so I can get back to my work of duping poor innocent people out of their hard-earned money?"

When Katbryn just stood there without moving, he barked, "Go!" and she had to work to keep herself from running away as though she were a schoolgirl. Calmly, she opened the door and left the office.

It was after that encounter that she began to ask Zachary questions about his father's business. At first the boy was very secretive, until Kathryn told him what she already knew.

"He told you the mines are playin' out?" Zachary said in disbelief. "He told you that? Don't nobody know that."

"No one knows of that," she corrected him automatically, then waved her hand before Zachary started one of his "That's what I said" routines that could go on for half an hour. "Why has he stayed here?" she asked.

"A dream," Zachary said as he bit into a piece of apple pie, then grinned at the look Kathryn gave him. "All right, I'll tell you, but it don't make no sense to me."

Kathryn had to bite her tongue to keep from correcting his grammar, and the imp knew it. Finally, Zachary told her that when his father was nine years old he'd had a dream that changed his life. In the dream his whole family had been shot by the people of Legend, and as a result all the townspeople were sent away and died terrible deaths.

"And because of this dream he now takes care of the inhabitants of this town?"

"Don't make no sense to me, either, but that's the way he is. He won't carry no gun, and he makes sure that when this town goes under, nobody is hurt but him. He's put money into banks in Denver for the people who have been here the longest."

"And knowing that the mines are going to give out, he doesn't encourage family people to come here. They'd lose their homes in a few years," Kathryn said thoughtfully.

"That's right. My grandpa wants Pa to stop tryin' to be a hero and move to Denver with the rest of the family, but Pa says he owes something to these people and he has to keep them from cursing the Jordan name for all eternity. That seems to be part of the dream too. Oh, and that woman Wendell told him some things too. I think she's a distant cousin to my pa."

It was later, as Kathryn felt her resolve melting toward Cole Jordan, that she renewed her distance toward him. Hadn't he made it abundantly clear that he wanted no woman who was interested in him in a matrimonial way? And as for Kathryn, she knew where such closeness could lead. Jeremy was evidence of that.