An Excellent Team
by Edith Maxwell
Art by Shutterstock
It was a Tuesday morning when everything changed for Ruth Skinner.
As she walked past the massive Baker Boyer Bank building on Walla Walla’s busy main street, a young lady cried out near the end of the block. A man in a natty suit and bowler clapped a hand over her mouth. His hand on her arm in an iron grasp, he dragged her around the corner. A black touring car slowed. Its female driver gaped but didn’t stop.
Ruth set her mouth and hurried to the side street, but it was empty. Peering into the alley behind the building, she saw the man shaking the woman by the shoulders of her fitted red suit.
“Don’t you ever show your tawdry self in there again,” he snarled. He slapped her face with such force it whipped her head toward where Ruth stood. The woman’s cardinal-colored cloche nearly flew off.
As the man closed his hands around her throat and squeezed, her terrified gaze fixed on Ruth. The woman’s eyes widened as her face darkened.
Ruth raised her Winchester .22 rifle. She cocked it and took aim.
“That’s not real nice, sir,” she called out. “You’d better let her go.”
The man loosened his grip and stared at Ruth. “Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?”
A deep voice sounded from over Ruth’s shoulder. “Just do as the little lady says, Baker.”
Ruth didn’t lower the rifle until the man dropped his hands. The accosted woman stumbled away down the alley in the other direction. A stocky man in uniform stepped next to Ruth.
“Sheriff Bertrand LaRue, ma’am.” He touched his hat.
“I’m Miss Ruth Skinner.”
Down the alley, the man he’d called Baker was disappearing into a rear door to the bank.
“It’s a dangerous business to be taking the law into your own hands, you know,” the sheriff said. “This is nineteen twenty, not frontier days.”
“That fella purt’ near killed her.” She gestured with her chin. “Who is he?”
The sheriff pulled a face. “The errant younger brother of one of the bank’s owners.”
“Does he always attack ladies like that?”
“I’m afraid he has a temper on him. He doesn’t hesitate to exert it on those weaker than he.”
“Why don’t you do something about the coward, Sheriff?”
“My hands are tied.”
Ruth stared up at him. “I suggest you untie them.”
A young woman in a red suit sat alone in the Cascades Cafe that afternoon, nearly trembling, nursing a cup of coffee. Dorothy Henderson surreptitiously sketched the flyaway blonde curls, the brown eyes about to brim over, the way the upper lip naturally folded over the lower, giving its owner a pensive look. Dot had driven by a young woman being attacked that morning. Was this she? Dot wasn’t sure.
After some minutes, a guilty pang struck. It was cruel to study the poor creature. She stashed her drawing supplies. Carrying her own coffee over, she said gently, “May I join you, miss? My name’s Dot Henderson.”
She glanced up. “Sit if you want. I’m Alice Colby.” Up close she didn’t look much older than Dot herself.
Dot sat. “Looks like you’re going through a rough patch, Miss Colby.”
Alice’s troubles dragged down her heart-shaped face. “I surely am.”
Dot waited. Patience wasn’t her middle name for nothing.
“It’s this way, see.” Alice studied her coffee cup and spoke softly. “There’s a gent who’s been paying me some nice attention, if you get my drift. I was his squeeze, his tomato.” She ran a hand down her suit. “Nice dresses, fine jewelry. But now . . .” The corners of her mouth drooped. “Now he’s telling me to dust out. He’s not giving me no more dough. How am I supposed to pay the rent and my debt at the dress shop? He promised me the moon, Miss Henderson. All’s I’m getting is the gutter.”
“You poor thing.” Dot, normally reserved in the extreme, couldn’t help herself from patting the girl’s hand. “Did he give you a ring?”
Alice scoffed. “He ain’t one to shackle himself.” She swallowed and winced, touching her throat. “Worse, he’s grown mean as a hungry coyote. Nearly choked me to death this morning.”
What a horrid man. “You could go to the sheriff and report the scoundrel.”
Alice shook her head slower than a tortoise would, finished her coffee, and stood. “Thanks for listening, hon. Maybe I’ll be seeing you around town.” She gave a wistful smile before leaving.
Dot left too. She walked slowly back to the ladies’ boardinghouse, her unsettling encounter weighing on her heart. If one couldn’t count on law enforcement, where did one turn?
Dot emerged from her room at six to go down for supper, as Mrs. Lockhart put it. When Dot had inquired if one should dress for the meal, the proprietor laughed away the idea.
“This is the West, my dear, not one of your high society homes back East.”
Dot hadn’t bothered to correct her that Indianapolis was hardly “back East.” That would be Boston or the nation’s capital.
The door across the hall opened as Dot shut hers.
“Hello, there,” said a petite woman with curly dark hair. She wore wire-rimmed cheaters on her tiny button nose and had the tidiest little waist in her blue-sprigged dress.
Dot felt like a gargantuan in her tailored suit. She swallowed and greeted the lady, who looked a bit older than she. “I’m Dorothy Henderson, but please call me Dot. I just rolled in today.”
The smaller woman extended her hand. “And I’m Ruth Skinner, Dot.” She gave Dot a keen look as they shook. “You were driving an automobile near the bank this morning, weren’t you?”
“Why, yes, I was.” Dot gazed just as keenly back. “Say, were you carrying a rifle? I saw a man grab a girl in the worst way and I think I glimpsed you going after them. I wanted to help, but the traffic was terrible, and I couldn’t.”
“He tried to hurt her in the worst way too. He slapped her hard and tried to choke her to death.”
“Winnie and I convinced him not to.” Ruth smiled widely, her blue eyes sparkling. Her lashes were some of the longest and curliest Dot had ever seen.
“My trusty Winchester twenty-two. The sheriff appeared out of nowhere and backed me up. He said Mr. Baker, younger brother of the banker, is a scoundrel who picks on the less powerful.”
Dot shuddered at the thought.
“The sheriff also claimed his hands are tied to do anything about the coward, more’s the pity.” Ruth sniffed the air. “Shall we go down? Mrs. Lockhart makes a chicken stew that’s absolutely the berries.”
“Let’s. I’m ravenous.” Dot’s stomach rumbled to confirm the statement.
“I’d like to get to know you better, Dot. A lady who can drive a car sounds like a good friend to have.”
Dot nodded. “As does a woman with a gun.” No matter how little she was.
At a knock on her door, Ruth called out, “Come in.” She’d invited Dot for a chat after dinner so they could get to know each other better.
Dot, her suit now changed for a loose sweater and baggy trousers, held up a flask. “You don’t mind, do you?” Her other hand held a drinking glass.
Ruth gaped. “Um, well . . .” Liquor in her room? What if Mrs. Lockhart found out? “It’s against the law, you know.”
Dot threw back her head and laughed, the first cheerful expression Ruth had seen from her. She tucked an auburn strand of her fashionable bob behind her ear.
“There are ways around the law, Ruthie, dear. My car is full of bottles of hooch under the floorboards. What’s life without a glass of giggle juice in the evenings?”
Ruth had never touched a drop of firewater in her life—no God-fearing Baptist would—and didn’t intend to start now. “I’m sure I wouldn’t know. But you go on ahead. I brought up a cup of tea, myself.”
“Sure you won’t join me? A splash in tea is tasty.”
Ruth shook her head in a quick gesture. “No, not at all, but thank you.”
The taller woman lowered herself elegantly into the other chair, crossed her legs, and took a sip. “Tell me more about yourself so we can become better acquainted.” She drank again and looked like she was rolling the liquor around in her mouth—and enjoying it too.
Ruth wrinkled her nose at the smell but didn’t mention it as she studied Dot’s face. Her intelligent eyes below a wide brow were the color of hazelnuts, and while she didn’t smile much with those thin lips, amusement played on her face in subtle ways.
“I can do just about anything domestic,” Ruth began. “I bake, knit, sew, you name it.”
“I’ve never learned to cook, and I can’t sew a blessed thing.” Dot didn’t look chagrined in the least. “Mother pays housekeepers and seamstresses for that kind of work.”
Which was all well and good if you could afford it. “I was raised in South Dakota, Idaho, and then Hermiston, Oregon, which isn’t far from here.”
“Are those the places where you learned to shoot?”
“Of course,” Ruth said. “It’s all rather wild territory, or it was when I was younger. What are you doing in Walla Walla?”
“I adore driving and picked Walla Walla off the map because the name amused me. I came up from California. What about you?”
“I simply had to escape my family, so Winnie and I took the train here.”
Dot bobbed her head as if she understood. “Say, that girl you rescued this morning? I’m pretty sure I met her in a cafe a few hours ago. Her name’s Alice.”
“You did? What did she say?” Ruth leaned forward.
“She told me Baker had been paying her some nice attention. He was giving her money, clothes, jewelry. She didn’t exactly say, but I’m sure he was getting what he wanted in return. She’s not much older than I and is remarkably pretty.”
“And now he’s done with her. She’s feeling desperate, Ruth. And the sheriff wouldn’t do anything if she did report the violence you yourself witnessed.”
“Mrs. Lockhart said at dinner Sheriff LaRue was put in his job by the Bakers, didn’t she? He did back me up this morning, but maybe he didn’t want to see the fellow shot.”
Dot pulled out a silver case and fitted a cigarette into a holder. “You won’t mind if I have a gasper, will you? It helps me think.”
“I’m sorry, but I would mind terribly. I can’t abide tobacco, especially not indoors.”
Dot pulled her mouth to the side, but said, “Yes, ma’am. Now, what are we going to do about this Baker gent?”
“We? Do?” Ruth’s jaw dropped for a second time. “What in heaven’s name do you mean?”
Dot tilted her head. “We can’t let him meander about the place beating on defenseless ladies, can we?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“I mean, look. If our comrades on the suffrage line could risk all to gain us the vote, we need to be at least as strong for poor Alice and all the other girls in a similar pickle.”
“Just think, next month we’ll be able to vote for president for the very first time.”
“That’ll be the bee’s knees.” Dot bobbed her head. “But first we need to figure out where Baker lives, what he does, all that.”
Ruth lifted her teacup and extended it to clink with Dot’s glass. “Let’s make a plan, my new friend. . . .”
Copyright © 2021. An Excellent Team by Edith Maxwell