Tumbleweed Thompson and the Sharpshooter
by Glenn McCarty, illustrated by Joe Sutphin
“You’re aimin’ too high. Gonna blast a hole clean through my window. And I like that window. Lower your arm a touch.”
“High? Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure.”
I turned to where Wendell Jenkins, graying barber of Rattlesnake Junction, sat dispensing wisdom from a slat-backed rocking chair on his front porch, eyes half-shut as his mouth opened in a yawn.
“You’re not even looking at me. How can you tell?”
Wendell’s eyes popped open, wide and gray below a mass of stringy black hair flecked with silver. “Don’t need to see you. I can tell. Your aim’s off.”
I shook my head, but something in his quiet confidence told me to heed his advice. Besides, as my boss for a few hours a week, he was something of a benefactor for my brand new slingshot, purchased a few hours earlier at the general store. Squeezing my left eye shut and tightening my grip on the handle, I lowered my arm, pulled back the strap, and let go.
WHIZZ – CLANK
As if yanked by a string, my tin can target leaped off the fence post and tumbled to the ground. It had happened so fast I hadn’t even seen the rock fly. I grinned and looked at Wendell.
“Hmph,” he grunted. “Guess I still got the ole’ eagle eye, don’t I?”
His voice was as quiet and gravelly as ever, but I could read surprise on his face. Heck, I was a bit surprised. Five out of five cans in a row isn’t something to sneeze at. I must have been all those Dead-Eye Dan novels I had been reading. My brain had been soaking up information while my hands were waiting to be filled with the small, mighty power of a slingshot.
“Do we have time for a few more?” I asked, glancing at the sky, where the afternoon sun floated in a bowl of hazy blue.
Wendell shook his head and stood. “You can go on plinking cans with that pea shooter till the cows come home, but you’re on your own. I got to spiffify the shop for tomorrow. Grand opening of Junction Days, and all manner of folks be stopping by for a shave or a haircut. So long,” he said, heading toward the front door. “And aim low.”
Ah, Junction Days. The annual late-July celebration of the anniversary of the founding of our fair town of Rattlesnake Junction, Colorado. There was indeed something for everyone: livestock exhibitions, tree-felling, calf-roping, trick riding, games on the town green, concerts under the gazebo, and food, glorious food! Jams and jellies, salted ham, salted potatoes, salted corn, salted beets, salted pickles. Pretty much anything you can salt, we ate while crammed around groaning tables set up back of the church following Sunday morning meeting.
And this year being the town’s 10th anniversary, I had heard tell of an honest-to-goodness jamboree, featuring a square dance called by Red Derby himself, the most sought-after caller in the entirety of the American frontier. It was enough to make a boy positively ache with anticipation.
But while Junction Days dangled on the horizon like a warm, salt potato, I was anticipating a different occurrence. If my calculations were correct, in exactly eight minutes, Charlotte Scoggins would exit the Silver Dollar Hotel and round the circle for her weekly piano lesson at the Mount Carmel Christian Church. Charlotte Scoggins, daughter of the mayor and owner of possibly the most radiant blonde curls I had ever laid eyes on. Lately, it seemed I was seeing her everywhere – and paying attention, mind you.
Charlotte’s appearance being still a few minutes off, I raised my slingshot for a few more tries. Suddenly, the afternoon calm was shattered by a familiar nasal twang.
“Extra, extra, read all about it. Special Junction Days insert in the newspaper! Food, fun, and frivolition! It’s all right here!”
I whirled to see Tumbleweed Thompson himself standing on the other side of Wendell Jenkins’ fence. He wore a red checked shirt, sleeves rolled up, and a bandana tied loosely around his neck. A tan satchel stuffed with newspapers hung from his shoulder. His red hair was again performing its gravity-defying vertical swoop, and he grinned broadly from ear to ear as he waved the newspaper above his head. Without stopping to open the gate, he hurtled the fence and sighted my slingshot. “Well look at that, Gene, you went and bought yourself a slingshot with your hair-sweeping money.”
“Sure did,” I boasted, my chest swelling with pride.
“Looks like we’re both going to be armed men, then. Feast your eyes on this baby.” Tumbleweed reached into the satchel and produced a small silver pistol. Squinting at me, he cocked the hammer and raised the pistol. “Reach for the sky, you lily-livered varmint.”
“A gun?” I began to back away. “Where’d you get that?”
Tumbleweed slowly squeezed his forefinger against the trigger until –
I leaped skyward, stumbling backward over a stump and sprawling backward on Wendell’s front steps. Tumbleweed exploded in laughter as I examined myself for bullet holes. “Did I scare ya, Gene?” he howled. “Put a little kick in your ticker?” He leaned down. “Don’t worry, pal. It’s a cap gun. Just pop and smoke, that’s all. Won’t do nothin’ but skeer ya.”
I swallowed hard and commenced breathing. “Yeah, I … I knew that,” I panted. “Where’d you get it?”
Tumbleweed hoisted me to my feet. “Dad won it in a poker game offa some train robbers. Call themselves the Clean Shave Gang. They’re hiding out in the caves beyond Mosquito Ridge, this side of Salt Lick Canyon. Planning something big, but laying low for the time being after their last job outside of Rocky Flats.”
I gulped again. I highly doubted there had been a poker game or any group called the Clean Shave Gang. But once again, Tumbleweed had found a way to cast a spell over me with his tall tales and fancy technology. I knew better; trust me, I did. But at that moment, with the acrid smell of gunpowder filling my nose and a shiny silver firearm inches from my palm, I didn’t care.
“And this here’s a Tess Remington model,” he continued.
“No way, Tess Remington? The sharpshooter who rides with Coyote Pete’s frontier show? She shoots rifles, doesn’t she?”
“Most of the time.” He dangled the gun from his finger, its silver barrel shining in the sun. I wanted to ask to hold it, but firearms were at the very top of Ma’s Forbidden Items list, right above pet snakes and a few spots north of sarsaparilla. In other words, even touching was out of the question.
I changed the subject. “So what’s with the whooping and hollering? What’s in the paper?”
“Oh, right.” Tumbleweed unfolded the crinkled wad of newsprint and laid it carefully on the stump between us. “Look,” he said, pointing. “It’s an ad-vertysment.”
“Yeah, for Junction Days. I saw this yesterday.”
“Nah,” he said. “There’s something new. Look.”
I peered at the paper. He was right. Between the schedule of events and a notice about men making sure their tobacco juice ended up in the spittoons and not Widow Springfield’s flower pots, there was a small box.
“Says something about cane sugar, I believe,” Tumbleweed said.
“Cane sugar? That’s strange. Give it here,” I said, pulling the paper closer. I read the notice:
Junction Days Children’s Essay Contest!
Topic: What Does Rattlesnake Junction Mean To You?
Essay must be 100 words minimum
Entries Due by Friday, July 24, noon, to Junction Days Office
*located inside the General Store
Winner Announced Friday evening at Jamboree
First Prize: 30-Minute Private Lesson with Sharp-Shooting Legend Tess Remington, Star of the Coyote Pete Frontier Extravaganza!
My mind spun like a top as I tried to process all the information. “This is incredible,” I said breathlessly. “But where’d you get cane sugar out of this?” I asked.
Tumbleweed jabbed a finger at the page. “Right there,” he said pointing to the word contest. “I reckoned that word there were ‘cane sugar.’”
“Huh? Wait a minute. You can’t read, can you?” I asked, incredulous and yet somehow completely not surprised. Given Tumbleweed’s tumultuous upbringing, I didn’t think he had spent much time inside the four walls of a schoolhouse.
“Never mind that,” he said. “Did you see the prize? Tess Remington herself is going to give a private shooting lesson. Tess Remington!”
“Holy smokes!” I said, suddenly feeling the weight of the slingshot stuffed into my back pocket. “You think she’ll teach me to shoot marbles out of the air like she does?”
“You? I’m going to win that prize, no doubt.” Tumbleweed said. He began to pace the yard, fingers twitching excitedly as he recounted Tess Remington’s escapades in the Coyote Pete Frontier Extravaganza. “Her record is twenty-seven marbles in a row. Imagine that, blasting ‘em apart – bang – bang – bang – all the way to twenty-seven. Then, she takes another rifle and shoots ‘em both, back and forth, picking off cans of dandelion-burdock and sarsaparilla they toss in the air. For the big finale, they blindfold her and put her backwards on a horse. And she lies down, flat on her back, and shoots apples off the head of a volunteer from the crowd. An apple, Gene! Blindfolded! On a horse!”
“That’s what they say,” I said, my heartbeat reaching top speed at the thought of trading in my slingshot – which until 20 minutes ago had seemed the pinnacle of weaponry – for one of Tess Remington’s custom-made .44-40 caliber smooth-bore Winchester rifles. I closed my eyes and imagined myself at the shooting lesson, squeezing off shots with my rifle and watching the cans dance in the air like puppets on a string. Tess Remington would swoon at my dead-eye accuracy and plant a kiss on my cheek. No, both cheeks. Then, Coyote Pete himself would ask me to join his Frontier Extravaganza. Eugene the Dream, Boy Wonder, they’d call me.
I wanted to win the contest. I wanted it bad.
Tumbleweed snapped his fingers in front of my face. “Daydreamin’ again, Gene. Come back to reality.”
I pulled the paper closer and read the small type at the bottom of the box. “Here are all the terms and conditions,” I said.
“The rules,” I said. “Says here it’s only for kids, so you have to be younger than thirteen years of age…”
“Of sound mind and body,” I continued.
“Well, mostly,” Tumbleweed said, scratching furiously at a spot on his neck.
“And a resident of Rattlesnake Junction, duly enrolled in school on a full-time basis.”
“You’ve got to be a student, Tumbleweed. In school.” I lowered the paper. “You can’t enter.”
“No way,” he said. “Lemme see that.”
I handed him the ad. He glanced at it, then realized the difficulty entailed in processing the complex set of symbols on the page. “Ah, never mind,” he said, tossing the paper to the ground. “They probably don’t mean that bit.”
“Sure they do, it’s a contest for Junction Days. So they want the winner to be someone from this town.”
“Yup. Trust me, that settles it. Sorry, pal.”
But Tumbleweed did not reply. Instead, a faraway look crossed his face. “Hmm,” he said.
“Never mind,” he said mysteriously. “Well, gotta go. See you around.”
I started to call after him, but at that moment, who should appear on the other side of the fence, piano books tucked under her arm, but Charlotte Scoggins. She paused at the gate and waved, her blonde curls bobbing in a beam of sunlight. “Afternoon, Eugene!” she called.
Right on cue, my mouth picked that moment to go dryer than a heap of sawdust. But, recalling how awful it had felt to stammer out nonsense in the presence of Harmony Curtis a short time ago, I vowed to not wilt this time. I vowed to do something daring. I vowed to say something. With words.
She froze. “Pardon me?”
“Oh, uh, I mean hi, Charlotte.”
Tumbleweed snorted and stepped beside me. But I was ready for him. Quicker than a panther, I slid to my right and blocked him from Charlotte’s view. “You heard about the contest?” I asked.
“Isn’t it exciting?” she asked. “Are you going to enter?”
“Enter? Are you kidding? I’m going to win.”
Behind me, Tumbleweed grunted in disgust.
“Who’s that behind you?” Charlotte asked.
“Nobody,” I said.
Tumbleweed snorted again and stepped out from behind me. He bowed dramatically. “Name’s Tumbleweed Thompson. Frontier renegade and high plains drifter. Perhaps you’ve heard of me.”
“Yeah, I know who you are,” Charlotte said. “You’re the one who interrupted the fiddle concert at the church by dressing as a hooligan. I was supposed to give a piano recital that afternoon, but I couldn’t, on account of you breaking the pulpit and scaring the church half to death. Thanks a lot.”
Tumbleweed blinked, apparently shocked to be confronted for the first time by someone who didn’t approve of his shenanigans. “Well, he was there, too,” he stammered, pointing to me.
“I know it was you who instigated it,” she said, eyes flashing.
Tumbleweed blinked again, but didn’t miss a beat. “Well, shucks, missy. I’m terribly sorry about all that. Do you think you could ever find it in your heart to forgive me?” Eyes wide, he stuck out his lower lip slightly in the most sorrowful expression I believe he could muster.
Charlotte frowned at him, but I could see her face soften under Tumbleweed’s puppy-dog eyes. “Hmm… I suppose I can turn the other cheek, on account of Christian charity,” she said.
“I can make it up to you,” he said.
Charlotte raised her eyebrows. “What did you have in mind?” she said.
“Well, for starters, I’d love to give you some help with your essay for this contest. You are planning on entering, aren’t you?”
I nearly choked. Tumbleweed helping Charlotte – top of our class in school and spelling bee champ for six years running – with her essay? And who’s to say Charlotte even wanted to win the shooting lesson with Tess Remington? But in further proof of the world’s utter strangeness – at least when it came to girls – Charlotte smiled again. “Well, that’s right nice of you, Mr. Thompson. I believe you could do just that.”
I croaked loudly as Tumbleweed smirked and shook Charlotte’s hand. “Then, I’ll be in touch.”
The bell atop the church steeple began to toll the half-hour, and Charlotte turned to leave. “I guess I’ll be seeing you soon, Eugene. Mr. Thompson, same to you.” She curtsied once to each of us, then continued down the sidewalk and out of sight. I turned to give Tumbleweed what-for, but he had already retreated to Wendell’s back gate.
“Hey, what gives?” I shouted after him. “Didn’t you learn anything from Harmony Curtis?”
Tumbleweed grinned and ran his hand through his vertical swoop of hair. “The question, Gene, is did you learn anything?” He placed one hand on the fence post and hurtled the gate cleanly, then dashed out of sight.
My mouth flopped open. True, we had engaged in a fierce competition for Harmony’s attention, but the end result had been utter humiliation for us both. Girls were strange territory. Without a plan, the best course seemed to tread carefully, lest we wind up with a repeat of that incident. Unless Tumbleweed already had something in mind…
I spent the rest of the evening locked in my room, scribbling out the best response I could muster to the question at hand: “What does Rattlesnake Junction mean to you?” By the time three candles had burned to their nubs, I had managed to scratch down exactly 98 words, leaving me two shy of the required minimum. I thought for a moment, then scribbled out the only logical conclusion: “The End.”
I folded the paper, stuffed it into an envelope, and crept to the kitchen. Leaving nothing to chance, I set a note on the kitchen table instructing Ma to wake me at ten minutes to eight o’clock, so I could deliver my essay as soon as the office opened.
The next morning, bleary eyed and wearing the same wrinkled flannel and denims I had slept in, I stumbled out of bed and lurched to the town offices. The church bell rang eight o’clock as I was crossing the square. I could make out a lone, hatted figure already leaving the office as I passed under the tree in the middle of the square. But by the time I reached the general store, it had vanished.
I took the steps two at a time and entered the office to see a thin-faced man I didn’t recognize sitting at a long wooden desk that had been set up just inside the door. Behind the desk, I could see Mr. McReedy sweeping the main aisle. The clock on the wall softly ticked the hour, and a calico cat glanced up at me from a small pile of straw.
“Help you, son?” the man asked.
I freed the envelope from my pocket and placed it on the desk. “I’m here to turn in my entry for the essay contest.”
“Age?” he asked, sliding the envelope onto a small pile of papers in the corner of the desk.
His hand paused atop the pile. “That’s strange,” he said.
“Just had a feller in here a minute ago name of Teitsworth. Come to think of it, his name was Eugene, too.” He leaned forward over the desk. “You got a brother?”
“Then something suspicious going on?”
My heart began to thump faster. “I don’t know, sir. My name’s Eugene Teitsworth, and I’ve come to submit my entry for the essay contest, to win the shooting lesson with Tess Remington.”
The man pulled the pile toward him and pulled a second envelope out from under mine. “Yup, right here – essay brought over just a wink or two ago, submitted by Eugene Teitsworth.” He narrowed his eyes. “So who are you?”
The hatted man. It had to be. “No, I’m him. I mean, I’m me. Eugene Teitsworth.”
The man handed me back my envelope and folded his arms across his chest. “Listen, son, all manner of folks – grown-ups, even – are pining to enter this contest. But Tess insisted this was to be only for the young folks. We find any foolery involved – such as submitting two entries – you’ll be disqualified, no questions asked. So I’m going to need proof.”
My mind raced. Everyone in town knew me; Amos Revere must be new. So he was right; this did look fishy. How was I going to prove I was me? Even the grade report from school, which I had brought to prove I was enrolled, had just my name on it. Ma and Pa were both going to be occupied with Junction Days-related obligations until at least after lunch, and the deadline was noon. I wasn’t sure I could find them in a pinch. But what other options did I have? I would have to try to track down Pa to vouch for me.
“Wait,” I said.
Just then, the front door to the office opened and a heavyset man burst in, red-faced and panting. “Mr. Revere,” he gasped. “The bull is loose!”
Amos Revere leapt from his seat. “You mean Goliath?”
Swiping a handkerchief across his sweaty forehead, the man collapsed against the desk, trying to catch his breath. “Yep. And he’s headed for the pie booth.”
Mr. Revere scowled. “I told you that bull was too dang ornery to bring into town.” He turned to me. “Son, I’m afraid this contest business is just going to have to wait. We’ve got a rogue bull on our hands out there, and it’s all hands on deck. “
“Wait, no,” I said. “You can’t leave now.”
He leaned forward, hands shaking as he tightened his belt and reached for a thick coil of rope from a nail on the wall. “I’m afraid you don’t appreciate the seriousness of the situation,” he said. “The fate of Junction Days rests on the safe retrieval and penning of Goliath the white bull. These genteel townsfolk will run me out of town if he isn’t caught. Do you understand, son?”
I nodded. “But what about my essay?”
“It can wait!” he shouted, bolting for the door and throwing it open. “Stay here, and I’ll be back to sort everything out soon as I can.”
The door slammed shut, and the General Store was plunged into quiet. Through the open window, I could muffled screams mingled with shouts and grunts from somewhere in the direction of the festival grounds. The cat yawned and stretched, and the minutes ticked by. With every passing stroke of the clock, I could feel the morning slipping away, the deadline looming closer.
Figuring my best chance was to stay put and wait for Amos Revere, I slumped into a chair on the porch and watched as boys and girls trickled up, read Amos’ sign on the door – “Back Soon, Rogue Bull” – and slid their envelope through the slot in the door. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I wandered the streets of town, eyes peeled for Ma or Pa. But they were nowhere in sight. Soon, the church bell tolled noon, and I knew it. I had lost.
I couldn’t figure how or why someone would have submitted an essay to the contest claiming to be me. I should have, mind you; but I didn’t. Not yet, anyway. It wasn’t until I arrived at the jamboree that night that the pieces began to fit together.
Banker Cartwright’s barn – the scene of the jamboree – was lit by the glow of hundreds of candles in huge round chandeliers strung from the rafters. At one end of the barn, a large stage had been erected for the eight-piece band, which was already in full swing when I entered with Ma and Pa. By the time I had found them a few hours earlier, I could barely answer their questions about the contest. I was truly lower than a toad sunk in a puddle of mud.
Only a glimpse of Charlotte Scoggins could raise me from the doldrums of despair, and as I entered the barn, I glanced around, searching the scores of fabulously-dressed dancers for her magnificent blonde locks. Then, I saw her – beside the stage, standing beside her Pa, as he engaged a group in conversation. Just then, she looked up. Our eyes met. I took a step forward. She smiled and waved me over.
Suddenly, a figure in buckskin lurched into my path, slapping me on the shoulder. I started to shove him aside, then stopped. “Tumbleweed?”
“Hey, pal, how’d the essay writing go?”
Finally, that puzzle piece I spoke of earlier – the one related to the false identity –dropped into place, and I knew exactly what had happened.
“You,” I croaked. “You low-down, double-crossing –”
We both whirled around, and Charlotte appeared at my elbow, a vision of lace and pearls in a red and white dress that looked like a plate of strawberry shortcake. “Charlotte?”
“Did you turn my essay in on time today, Tumbleweed?” Charlotte asked.
“Her essay?” I asked, feeling my blood pressure begin to climb skyward.
“Sure did,” Tumbleweed said, a wide grin splitting his freckled cheeks. He winked at me.
“Did you enter, too, Gene?” Charlotte asked.
“Uh,” I said. “Not exactly.” I opened my mouth to explain, but at that moment, the sound of fiddle music split the air, and the band lit into the opening notes of the Polka Dot Shuffle. The crowd cheered, and the booming voice of Red Derby filled the barn. “Grab your partner, swing ‘em round. It’s square dancing time!” He slapped his thigh in time to the brisk pace set by the band. I turned to see Charlotte staring at me with wide eyes. Her foot tapped to the beat, and her arms hung expectantly at her sides. It was almost like she was waiting for me to do something. But what? What was I supposed to do?
“Uh, hang on a minute, Charlotte,” I said. She frowned and crossed her arms. I grabbed Tumbleweed by the elbow and pulled him across the dance floor toward the refreshment table. “Let me get this straight,” I hissed. “You made Charlotte Scoggins write an essay, told her you were going to turn it in for her, put MY name on it, then pretended to be me and beat me to the office to turn it in, SO I COULDN’T!”
“Yup, pretty dang good plan, ain’t it?” he said, popping a raspberry tart into his mouth.
“Good? You cheated, you slimy little –“
“Gene, Gene, settle down, you’re going to get tart all over your nice clean shirt,” Tumbleweed said, nibbling calmly on a lemon bar.
“How could you …” I spluttered on.
“Everything okay, boys?” Charlotte asked, appearing beside me.
“I’m going to tell her,” I said.
Now it was his turn to grip my elbow. “Please, don’t,” he whispered, his face taking on that wide-eyed look he had used on Charlotte the day before. Charlotte cleared her throat and extended her left arm toward me, bent slightly at the wrist. Again, it seemed she was making some sort of gesture which I was failing to recognize. She smiled and tilted her head toward the stage where the band was careening toward the tail end of the Polka Dot Shuffle. I squinted at her, still confused. The music crescendoed, then stopped. Charlotte’s face fell, and she lowered her hand slowly.
In a flash, I knew what she had been waiting for. Thoughts of the contest vanished, and I opened my mouth to ask Charlotte for a dance. Amos Revere stepped to the front of the stage. “Nicely done, Red. How about a hand for Red Derby and his Hard Tack Boys?” The crowd whooped loudly. Amos mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. “Now, before we dive into a favorite of mine – the Sassafras Swing – we have a little business to attend to. You might have heard that the First Lady of the Frontier, Miss Tess Remington herself, will be joining us tomorrow here at Junction Days” – more raucous shouting – “In addition to her trick shootin’ show, she’s graciously agreed to provide a thirty-minute lesson to one lucky boy or girl from town who can explain in an essay of no more than one-hundred words what Rattlesnake Junction means to them. And I’m here to announce the winner of that contest.”
I jabbed Tumbleweed in the ribs. He winced slightly, but his grin showed no signs of fading.
“If your name is announced,” Amos Revere continued, “come to the festival office tomorrow morning at nine a.m. sharp to claim your certificate. You’ll need to verify the contents of your essay, and your proof of enrollment in school, of course. We want to prevent any sort of fraudulent behavior in winning this outstanding prize.”
Fraudulent behavior. That was rich. I elbowed Tumbleweed again, but he didn’t even look at me. Amos Revere reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a piece of wrinkled paper. I had a sinking feeling in my chest as I turned to look at Charlotte, her face now glowing with hope, of which she, like me, had none.
“Before I announce the winner,” Amos said, “allow me to read a selected portion from the essay, which will provide a picture of the talent this young author possesses.” He cleared his throat and began reading:
“‘Rattlesnake Junction, oh Rattlesnake Junction. Like the town itself, nestled in the foothills of the majestic Rocky Mountains, at the junction of the mighty Colorado and San Pedro Rivers, I, too, am nestled within your glorious bosom, at the junction of joy and family. Oh, Rattlesnake Junction, I shall forevermore be true to your town and your people, no matter how far I roam.’”
Charlotte’s face – which I had thought was shining before, beamed like a sheet of gold leaf foil at the public reading of her essay. She clasped her hands together in anticipation, awaiting the announcement of her name from the stage.
“You guessed it folks, the winner of the contest and the shooting lesson is … Eugene Teitsworth! Come on up here, Eugene!”
Beside me, Charlotte gasped loudly. She turned toward the spot previously occupied by Tumbleweed, her face darkening with anger by the second.
“You!” she shrieked.
But Tumbleweed, ever the master of surprise, had conveniently slipped out of the barn and vanished into the warm Colorado evening.
“And you!” she cried, turning to me and balling up her fist. Apparently, the delicate frontier rose had sprouted thorns in a matter of seconds.
“No,” I stammered, backpedaling quickly. “It wasn’t me. I didn’t have anything to do with this.”
“I wanted that shooting lesson,” she said through gritted teeth. “You had better explain yourself.”
I shook my head. But just then, a thought flashed into my mind. Charlotte was as much a victim of Tumbleweed’s scheme as I was. Here was an opportunity to be taken advantage of. Here was a potential ally. One who knew how to wield the power of words, and potentially a firearm. “Wait!” I cried, throwing up my hands. I pulled Charlotte after me into a dim corner of the barn, composed my thoughts, and explained – to the best of my knowledge – how Tumbleweed had managed to hoodwink us both into his victory in the essay contest.
“This will not stand!” Charlotte hissed, blue eyes wide. “We will claim what’s rightfully ours.”
“I totally agree,” I said, now as interested in this sudden partnership with Charlotte Scoggins as in the shooting lesson. Well, maybe not equally interested. But still …
“How?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “The worst part is he turned in the essay. So they’re expecting him, not me to claim his prize. Even though my name was on the essay.”
“Yeah,” Charlotte said. “That’s a pretty impressive scheme.”
“Him. Not me,” I repeated. Then, I got it. “Come with me,” I said, a plan beginning to form in my mind. The past month or so of partnering in Tumbleweed-inspired schemes had greatly improved my skills of improvisation. Leaving the revels of the square dance behind, Charlotte and I slipped into the moonlit night, the crickets and cicadas providing a soundtrack for my thoughts. I began to picture Tumbleweed’s room in the Cutler’s boarding house, his few worldly possessions, those things he held most dear.
Yep, I was thinking of a diversion.
“Eureka!” I cried suddenly.
“Eureka?” Charlotte asked.
“The plan for retribution – and to set things right – has two parts,” I said triumphantly. “I will need you for Part One tomorrow morning. Part Two will rest entirely on my narrow, but capable, shoulders.”
Charlotte frowned. “You heard Mr. Revere. They’re expecting you to come to the festival office and verify what he wrote. And you don’t know what’s in the essay.” She paused. I waited for the truth to dawn on her. “Wait a minute,” she continued, a smile crossing her face. “He didn’t write the essay. I did. I know what the essay says, word for word. And I can tell you what to say.” She threw her arms around my neck. “Eugene, that’s brilliant!”
I shivered slightly at my proximity to Charlotte’s blonde curls. But I remained composed. “Yes, I believe it is,” I said.
“But how are you going to do it?”
“Simple,” I said. “They want Tumbleweed tomorrow morning. Then it’s Tumbleweed they’re going to get.”
To Be Continued…
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