An Unpublished Short Story
Although the outside temperature was just above freezing, the warmth from the New Mexico sun pouring through the sheriff’s office window made Iragene Jones remove the coat she had been wearing since early morning. With the heat from the small wooden stove on one side and the warmth of the sun’s rays on the other, she was comfortable in spite of the flimsiness of the building. She sat, occasionally looking out the window at the ever-changing snow capped Manzano Mountains and the brilliant lapis blue sky.
Sheriff Jones had been reading some of the wanted posters that had arrived on yesterday’s stagecoach. She was relieved to know that the most nefarious men were running amuck in Montana and Wyoming, no where near New Mexico this winter. She put down the mail and stretched.
If anyone had been looking in the window, they would have seen a woman in her early twenties with sable hair pulled back and curls cascading down her back. She was unique in that no single feature was outstanding except her sapphire blue eyes, but they were enough to capture the attention of anyone meeting her for the first time. She looked nothing like a western sheriff.
Iragene had never aspired to become sheriff when she arrived with her family in New Mexico from Austin, Texas. She came from a family of horse breeders and had been content to raise horses and to marry a neighboring landowner named Alejandro Gallegos. However, after a series of unexpected and horrifying events, she and Alejandro had to form a vigilante group. Though successful in bringing down the ruthless gang that included the former sheriff’s wife, she had lost her fiancée during the shoot-out, and now instead of a wedding ring, she wore a sheriff’s badge.
The door opened and in walked Cruz, her deputy. Like Iragene, he was smaller than the average cowhand, gunslinger, or miner passing through La Madera, but whereas Iragene could outkick, outshoot, or outride any of her adversaries, Cruz had learned to use his lithe body to its advantage in different forms of fighting that he had learned from the local Indians and the Chinese passing through New Mexico on the railroad. So far his knowledge of alternative fighting skills had served him and Iragene well. She was lucky he had volunteered to become her deputy, because most men refused to serve under a woman.
“Ah, perfect time for a break. Thank you,” Iragene smiled. Iragene always enjoyed a late morning coffee, and Cruz would often bring over a pot of coffee and cream from The Hotel for both of them. She reached over to pour herself a cup, but her boot heel got caught in her riding skirt, and she pulled the skirt out of its waistband.
“Damn!” she exclaimed then look furtively around, hoping that no one heard the honorable woman sheriff curse. “I really ripped that skirt!”
“Sheriff,” Cruz quietly replied, attempting to hide a smile, “you’ll need to get that fixed. You’ll look more official if your clothes are. . .in tact.” She looked down and saw the skirt had ripped so much that her pantaloons could be seen.
Cruz was too much a gentleman and too much in awe of the sheriff to laugh, and she smiled at his attempt to remain serious. “Seńorita Jones, why don’t you finish your cup of coffee and then go down the street to that new dressmaker’s shop?” he suggested. “She can probably repair your outfit or make you a new one.”
Iragene owned three riding skirts. One was with her family about fifteen miles away, while the other lay in her house just down the road, too soiled to wear. Unlike the majority of women riders who chose to wear the matching riding habit, made specifically for riding sidesaddle, Iragene preferred to wear the western split skirt that enabled her to ride astride the horse, using the same western saddle that the men used. The split skirt was more prevalent in the west than in the more settled east, but the style was still unacceptable to the majority of men and women in 1885—especially to the traditional Mexicanos of New Mexico and the older, American men. However, Iragene spurned criticism, knowing that riding astride was safer and more practical, especially for an officer of the law.
“I’d forgotten about the new dressmaker down the street,” she said. “I paid her a visit when she first arrived, but I haven’t been there since. Actually, I don’t think it would hurt if I had three new skirts made—mine are all worn down to the bare threads. Besides, I’m sure that she can use the business during the winter when fewer homesteaders and ranchers get to town.”
“I’ll be here, Sheriff, so you needn’t rush,” her deputy replied.
“Thanks. I’ll just put on my long coat to cover me up nice and proper and head over to the shop.” She put on her guns and hat and walked out the door. She pulled the hat down over her eyes for shade from the bright sun and walked past The Hotel, two of the eighteen bars, and a tiny bakery--La Panadería until she arrived at the shop: Kelly’s Millinery and Dressmaking.
The sign said, “Open,” and Iragene walked in. The young woman named Kelly looked up and then smiled when she saw who had entered the door--Iragene Jones, sheriff of La Madera, New Mexico Territory. Unknown to Iragene, it was she who had been the reason why Kelly chose to come to La Madera, all the way from New York. She had read a story about how Iragene had brought down three huge, brutal brothers named Titus (of all things) and saved the town. Kelly needed to know that women could begin again and be successful—even in a man’s world.
“Sheriff, it’s so good to see you again. Can I help. . .” and then Iragene opened her coat, her back to the window, showing the dressmaker her ripped skirt.
Kelly smiled slightly, “Yes, I think I can be of service. Would you like me to repair that right now? It would take no longer than a few minutes.”
“Actually, Kelly, I would love to have you repair this so I could get back to work, but I think this skirt and my two others are pretty worn. Can I order three new skirts? Two of suede, and one out of a lighter material?”
“Sheriff, I can do better than that. I can sell you one right now. I wanted to learn how to sew the split skirts, so I experimented and made myself one—except in wool. We’re about the same size, would you like to try it on?”
Kelly held the beautifully tailored, maroon skirt out to her, and Iragene couldn’t help but smile at the color and the workmanship. “Kelly, this is beautiful. I’d love to try it on.”
“Certainly. Take your time. There’s a dressing area right through the door, complete with a mirror.”
Iragene took the skirt and walked through the door to the dressing area where Kelly fitted the clothes for the women. Though a workshop, Kelly had made it soft and comfortable by draping fabric tastefully over the walls. Iragene slipped off her skirt and put on the new one. The fit was perfect, and the wool felt soft and warm. She was just about to come out without the benefit of her guns when she heard Kelly scream. She quickly put on her holster and moved to the door to see who was out there. A man was standing in front of the frightened dressmaker.
“Get out of here, Cal! You’re supposed to be in jail. Leave me alone!”
“That’s a fine greeting after three years in the pen, Kelly. Don’t you have a kiss or better yet, some money for your long lost husband?” he hissed.
Iragene stepped out silently. “Step away from Kelly, and put your hands up in the air, mister,” she said slowly in her east Texas drawl. “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if you don’t do as I say.”
Now, the man turned toward Iragene, a woman no larger than Kelly, and spit out his words, “Who the hell are you, bitch? I can take you out with. . .”
Iragene drew her gun faster than he had expected. “No, you can’t, because I’d shoot you before you got close to me or even tried to pull your gun. Now put your hands up. Kelly, take his gun and move away. We’ll just walk over to the Sheriff’s office and see what this is all about. Kelly, can you close up shop and join us?” The dressmaker nodded and grabbed her coat and followed, shaking more from the confrontation than the cold.
The man walked slowly, looking maliciously over his shoulder at the two women. He attempted to lower his hands, but Iragene put the gun to his spine. “Don’t try anything, mister. I want to know who you are and why you’re here, and I’d hate to kill you before I found out anything.”
They walked into the sheriff’s office. Cruz sized up the situation and immediately got up and opened the cell door. “Cruz, see if he has any other weapons.” The deputy nodded and began patting him down. The man made an attempt to seize Cruz’s arm, but the young man twisted unexpectedly and in doing so twisted the stranger’s arm behind him. He then grabbed the new Bean Cobb handcuffs and put them on the stranger. No other weapons were found on the man. Cruz sat him down and closed the cell door.
Finally Iragene turned toward Kelly. “Who’s this man and why did he accost you?”
Before Kelly could answer, the man did. “My name is Calvin McConnell, and I demand to be let free! I was merely claiming what’s mine--my wife and my rightful property. You can’t arrest me for taking what’s legally mine, Sheriff. I demand you let me out. As her husband, I not only own her property, I own her. Hell, I can even beat her if I wish.”
“Not in my county, mister,” Iragene said emphatically. Iragene knew that in New Mexico, the law stated that a woman could seek and be granted a divorce if her husband beat her. However, not all states, including New Mexico Territory, recognized the rights of women. Her suffragette aunt from South Carolina had recently sent her newspaper clippings about two court judgments. One was finding a whip yielding, wife beating husband innocent: in State v. Rhodes, a husband was found innocent because, the judge said, “the defendant had a right to whip his wife with a switch no larger than his thumb.” The second article described a judge from the South Carolina Supreme Court who ruled “that the husband who had struck his wife with ‘three licks’ from a ‘switch about the size of one of his fingers’” had not violated the law. That judge emphasized that their grounds were “not that the husband has the right to whip his wife much or little; but that we will not interfere with family government in trifling cases.” The archaic treatment of women by their husbands and the courts hadn’t changed much—even in modern 19th Century America.
“Sheriff,” Kelly interrupted, “we’re not married! I had our marriage annulled when Cal went to jail for embezzlement. He’s no longer my husband.”
“Like hell, I’m not! We’re married, and I have the marriage license to prove it. So all that money that you got when you came of age is mine.”
“And I have the papers saying our marriage was annulled. In New York a marriage can be annulled if either the husband or the wife was unable to consummate the marriage, there was incest involved, if one partner was deemed insane, or if one partner was in the penitentiary. You, Calvin, were in the penitentiary for three years!”
“Maybe, but the date of the annulment was after you came of age and received your money. Therefore, your money and your property rightfully belong to me. Besides, I don’t accept this annulment.”
“Father changed the date before the wedding. I came of age after the annulment!”
Iragene looked at them and shook her head, “Kelly, I’m sorry, but this is above and beyond my knowledge of the law. I’m afraid you’ll have to take this to court in Santa Fe or wait until the judge arrives on the 15th of the month, three weeks from now to try the matter here in La Madera.”
“Sheriff, how can I protect myself and my shop from Cal? He’s an ex-convict, and you saw how he is. Quite frankly, I’m afraid,” she pleaded.
“Kelly, I can’t make any legal judgments, but I can protect you from Mr. McConnell,” she said and spoke to the man in the jail cell. “I’ll let you out only if you promise to stay away from Kelly until the court date or I’ll lock you up until the trial. It’s your choice.” She then turned and faced the young woman, “Kelly, I’ll need your full name so I can make this official.”
“Kelly Ann Shipley.”
“What! You took back your name?” McConnell shouted.
Iragene looked at him with a warning stare, “Easy, Mr. McConnell, that’s what happens when an annulment occurs. Remember, it’s your choice. Can you control yourself?”
He glared at both the women and then nodded. “The court will prove me right. Just let me out. I want to change my clothes and get a drink—I need a stiff one right now.”
Iragene looked at Kelly. She looked a little frightened but resigned. Cruz opened the door and took off the handcuffs.
“My gun,” he stated rather than asked.
“No gun, mister,” Cruz said, “as long as you’re in town, you don’t need a gun.”
Anger appeared on his face, but he swallowed whatever he was going to say and took off, out of the office, heading for one of the eighteen bars.
Kelly looked away, and remembered that she would have to defend her shop and her independence in court. “I’ll need a lawyer. Do we have one in town willing to support a female’s claim over a male’s?”
“Actually we do have a lawyer in town, and I think he would be happy to help you. His office is around the corner from the blacksmith shop. Not a big demand for lawyers here, but he’s very good, and he knows the law well. And speaking of the law, before you press charges on me for stealing, I think I’d better pay you for the skirt I’m wearing.”
Kelly smiled. “I’ll put it on a tab, Sheriff, and we’ll sort it out when I’m finished with the other two skirts—suede you say?”
“Yes, and now I think you’d better get your papers together and make an appointment to see the lawyer. Please let me know if your former husband bothers you or any of your customers. In the meantime, Cruz and I’ll keep our eyes on your shop. No backdoor, right?”
“Right. Sheriff, will you walk with me to see the lawyer?” Kelly asked.
Sensing the younger woman’s need for company, she replied, “Of course I’ll walk you there, and we can talk.”
“Thank you, Sheriff.” Both women started walking the short distance to the lawyer’s office, stopping to get the official papers and Iragene’s coat and hat. The walk under the winter’s sun was comfortable, and Iragene turned toward the dressmaker.
“Kelly, how in the world did you end up in New Mexico Territory from New York? In fact, how in the world did you even discover La Madera?” a curious Iragene asked.
“Well, I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you this. After I married Cal, the perfect husband from the perfect family, the truth came out that not only was he a drunk, but he had helped himself liberally to the money from his family’s business. By then I knew he wasn’t the perfect husband at home or work. He was a mean drunk and was verbally abusive to me. The only time he was civil was when he talked about the money I would inherit when I came of age.
“Strangely enough my father sensed things were not as they seemed, though he failed to mention this to me,” she said angrily, “and he changed the papers that gave me my money automatically when I came of age. He gave me the money after I annulled the marriage, so Cal has no legal rights to my money or property. If father had only told me his concerns before I married. . .”
“Would you have cancelled the wedding?” Iragene asked and looked at her.
With a small laugh that reached no further than her mouth, she answered, “Probably not. Cal seemed so perfect, but after the wedding, the truth came out about his stealing and drinking, and his own brother and cousins took him to court. He got three years for embezzlement. To avoid the ignominious position I found myself, I decided to leave New York.
“One morning I was reading the New York Times when I found an article about a woman sheriff who single handedly took on three of the West’s worse bad men, the Titus brothers, and killed them.
“I found La Madera, New Mexico, on the map, and I talked to my father about making a new start. He then told me about my money being available to me. Since I had always loved to design and make clothes—mostly for my dolls and later my friends, I decided I’d come out here and live safe and happy in a town run by a brave, women sheriff. I think I made the right choice.”
“Kelly,” and Iragene’s hand stopped her gently, “my deputy Cruz helped me take down the Titus brothers, and though I try to do my best, I’m no great hero. I hope you’re happy here in our town, but you might find me to be rather ordinary.”
Kelly looked at her, smiled, and said, “I find you anything but ordinary, Sheriff. You probably don’t even know what an icon you’ve become for women who have felt that life has little to offer them as females.”
Paul Freeman was sitting in his office, wearing a tweed wool suit. His office was tidy with a set of law books on one wall, and a picture of Abraham Lincoln on the other. He had black hair and thick eyebrows behind his glasses. He looked efficient and very bookish but not unpleasant.
His door opened and in walked a young woman, attractively dressed. She was quite lovely with brown eyes and blond hair. She turned and thanked someone he didn’t see, and then she turned to him. “Mr. Freeman, I would like to make an appointment with you. My name is Kelly Shipley, and I need a lawyer. Sheriff Jones recommended you.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place, Miss Shipley, or is it Mrs. Shipley?”
“It’s Miss and hopefully with your help, it will remain so.”
One of his eyebrows came up inquisitively, and then he was back to business. “Miss Shipley, you don’t need an appointment. Right now is fine with me. Why don’t you sit down, and please tell me exactly why you need my help.” He took out a sheet of paper and began to write down everything she said.
She retold him everything that she had told the sheriff but in more detail, specifically outlining her husband’s family company and how he had embezzled their money and went to jail for it. Then she talked about the painful and embarrassing procedure of annulling the marriage. She explained her current situation where she had set up shop with her trust money and how she still had a good deal of it left in investments that her father had made. Finally she described the nerve-racking events of today and Cal’s claim on her and the money.
Freeman looked at her, asked for clarifications and a copy of the marriage license, the trust, and the annulment. She gave him everything he requested.
“Mr. Freeman, there is one more thing. Are we alone?” Freeman looked up suddenly and wondered where this question was leading. He nodded but when he looked at her, she was bright red and obviously very upset. “I’d like to tell you one more thing, but I would appreciate it if you locked your door so we won’t be interrupted or overheard.”
Uncomfortably he got up and locked the door.
The trial came up three weeks later. The judge that arrived was not Judge Orejo, an open-minded judge who respected the law, but an old-fashioned, traditional man whose views more resembled those of the Inquisition than the modern 19th Century.
“All rise for Judge Thompson!” and the trial was on.
“Mr. McConnell,” the judge turned toward the plaintiff, “who is representing you in court?”
“I am,” Cal answered. “I’m in the right, and I’ll prove it to the court.”
Kelly was surprised to see that Cal had no representation in the court but not too surprised since her former husband was such a narcissus. She wondered why she had never seen that quality in him before the wedding—she had believed his self-centered boasts and bravado had been the characteristics of a confident and clever man. Now she knew better.
“As you wish, and I see Mr. Freeman is defending Miss Shipley or until this court has decided, Mrs. McConnell.”
“I object, your Honor, this court has not convened to contest the annulment, just the settlement of the trust money. The annulment occurred legally in the state of New York which like New Mexico recognizes that an annulment can take place when one of the marital partners is serving time in the penitentiary.”
“We shall see, Mr. Freeman.”
Kelly almost groaned. Of all the judges in the New Mexico Territory, why had she gotten this one?
The trial went on all day. By the end of a long afternoon, after showing clippings from the New York Times about Cal’s trial and embezzlement, with quotes decrying his crime against his entire family, the judge seemed to remain stalwart in his desire to rule on the annulment and not Cal’s unlawful claim to Kelly’s money and property—for if they were still married, both New Mexico and New York recognized a man’s right to his wife’s property.
Business at the sheriff’s office was slow, so Iragene and Cruz took turns keeping their eye on the town and attending the trial. News of the trial was all over the county, and the courthouse filled up. Kelly was distraught to see the number of people attending the trial. Everyone now knew the tawdry details of her life. She was humiliated and couldn’t face the people who were her customers and fellow citizens. What a nightmare. Iragene saw the expression on Kelly’s face and felt her pain. She not only had to expose her life to this judge, but to twelve male strangers, and a crowded courthouse.
Finally the legal debacle was over, and the judge turned to address the jury. “Men, I think you need to remember that marriages are sacred, a blessing from God. Marriage between a man and his wife is for better or for worse, ‘til death do them part. If every woman decided to leave a marriage because of a little strife, what would this society become? A woman should remain faithful and dedicated to the man she marries.”
“I object, your Honor!” Freeman stood up and almost shouted, dismayed at the direction this judge was taking.
“Mr. Freeman? On what grounds do you object?”
“May I approach the bench?”
“On what grounds? I think you’ve covered everything.”
“No Sir, I haven’t.”
“Then be quick, Mr. Freeman, I am sure that Mr. McConnell is anxious to resume the role of husband to Mrs. McConnell.”
Freeman looked to Kelly. She had tears in her eyes but she slowly nodded.
“Your honor, in addition to the legal annulment, my client has never truly been Mrs. McConnell.” He took a breath. “You see, the marriage was never consummated.”
McConnell jumped up. “What, why that lying bitch! How dare she say that! She’ll stop at nothing to defame me!” and he made a forceful movement toward Kelly and the lawyer. “YOU!” he screamed at Freeman. “You put her up to this! Why I’ll. . .”
“Order in the court! Deputy, please show Mr. McConnell back to his seat or he’ll be put into a cell for contempt of court!” and he swung his gavel, hitting the desk with a crash. “Counselor, approach the bench immediately.”
Freeman stood up and walked to the bench while the red-faced judge hissed, “Counselor, what proof do you have that this marriage was never consummated? Just the lady’s word?”
“No, Sir. Miss Shipley submitted to a physical exam with Dr. Stein. His report indicated that her claim was correct.”
“Is the good doctor in the courthouse?”
“Yes, Sir, he is,” Freeman replied quietly.
“Dr. Stein, will you please approach the bench?” The doctor stood up and walked to the front of the room in front of the judge’s bench.
“Dr. Stein, Mr. Freeman has suggested that this marriage was never consummated. Is that true? Could this young lady have been cagey enough to make it look as if. . . well, you know.”
“Sir, body parts do not grow back, and I spent enough years in med school to recognize an intact hymen.”
“Doctor,” the judge whispered angrily, “please keep your voice down in the courtroom, we have ladies here.” He looked around, confused as to his next step and then suggested that the court recess while he discussed this further with the counsel, the doctor, McConnell, and Miss Shipley. “I’m not sure what we’ll discover further, but this case has gone in a direction I’m not sure how to follow.”
“Your Honor, I demand to know what game my wife is trying to play. We were married and together almost six months, of course she’s no virgin!”
“Empirical science does not lie, your honor. Kelly Shipley is a virgin.” Dr. Stein stopped and looked at Kelly. “Miss Shipley, I am so sorry. I don’t mean to embarrass you.”
In a voice so soft the men could barely hear she answered, “It had to be done.”
“How could you do this to me, Kelly!?” he screamed. “You made a fool of me in front of everyone. I don’t know what your game is, but I can tell you one thing, you won’t get away with it!” and he lunged at her. Freeman stepped in front of her while the judge yelled for the deputy. Iragene walked in instead.
“Judge, do you have a problem?” she asked.
“Yes, I need your deputy to take this man and put him in a cell before I lose my temper.”
“I think I can handle this, Judge,” and almost before the judge said anything further about the deputy, Iragene walked McConnell through the snickering crowds and back to his jail cell. The former bombast was gone, and he was strangely quiet. He just sat there. “I need a stiff drink,” he said to no one.
“Sorry, Mr. McConnell, we don’t serve liquor in jail,” but when she looked at him, she realized he hadn’t heard.
Later that day, Judge Thompson dismissed the jury, and declared that the annulment was official, and that Mr. McConnell had no claim to Kelly’s property or her trust money. With no other cases that day, he packed up and headed out of town, skipping dinner at the town’s best restaurant.
The doctor said good-bye to Kelly and the lawyer and left to avoid future embarrassment for her. The lawyer touched her arm and asked her if he could walk her back to her shop and apartment.
“There’s no need, Mr. Freeman. I’ll be happy to pay you and relieve you of my sordid affair.”
“Miss Shipley, I have no such opinion of you. The sordid part was that of the man who tried to take your money after letting you down in every way.”
She started walking toward the door, but he stayed by her side.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I’m still a. . .”
“It’s none of my business.”
“You see, he. . .well…he just couldn’t, well do what he. . . and he would start to drink and then blame me and that is why, I guess I’ll be the laughing stock of the town. Maybe I should start packing and begin thinking of somewhere else to go. I can’t face anyone,” and she began to shake with physical and emotional exhaustion. Finally her emotions broke and she cried uncontrollably. Freeman held her until she finally stopped.
“Come. I’ll take you home and then get some food. You haven’t eaten all day, and you must be hungry and tired.”
They were about to leave when Iragene came in. She had been concerned when she hadn’t seen Kelly leave the courthouse and go home. “Kelly, can I help in some way?”
Kelly looked at the woman she was beginning to think of as a friend and mentor as well as the lawyer who had stood by her in spite of the embarrassing circumstances. Then there was the doctor who had testified to the judge for her.
With her head held high, Kelly cleared her throat and attempted a smile, “Thank you, I’ll be all right, but do come by to try on your new skirts, and, Sheriff, thank you for being anything but ordinary.”
“I certainly won’t forget, Miss Kelly Ann Shipley,” and Iragene walked contentedly back to her office.