Ghosts From the Past

By Lelani

     Althea Cooper looked into the looking glass one last time. She was a little shocked at the image that stared back at her, but she had a purpose in mind and it wouldn’t do to back down now. Her husband, Sheriff Hays Cooper, had been called to Austin by his former employer, the Texas Rangers. He had been asked to come back to the Rangers on a temporary assignment. Cooper, as most people, herself included, called him was working undercover in a small border town called Mesquite. He was playing the part of a hired gun working for Colton Reed. Reed was a very rich and powerful man who wore the cloak of respectability. He owned a large cattle spread and lived the life of a gentleman rancher. The Ranger’s suspected that he was no gentleman. He was suspected of bringing cattle and horses up from Mexico illegally. He would blend these in with his own herd and bring them up to the northern states to sale them. He was in short, a cattle rustler. Cooper had hired on using the name, John Smith. He’d used it before and it had served him well.

     Althea looked once more in the mirror and decided that she could pass for the saloon woman she was pretending to be. Her dress was scarlet with a deep plunging neckline. Her hair was pulled up high on her head and cascaded down in ringlets. She wore more makeup than she ever had in her life. She had darkened the natural beauty mark that sat to the left of her mouth. Steeling herself, she turned to head out of the boudoir and down the steps to the saloon itself where she spent the next two hours fielding offers from unsavory men. Her back was to the door when she felt the familiar tingle that told her that Cooper had just entered. She turned slowly and watched as he walked confidently across the room and sat in a chair that faced away from the door. Althea was puzzled at first, Cooper never left his back unguarded, but then she realized that he could see the swing doors and the stairwell from the mirror that hung behind the bar. He had positioned himself in the best possible place.

     Althea steered clear of his table and continued to watch as men offered to buy her drinks that went untouched. Cooper threw back a shot of whiskey and waited until a cowboy swaggered in. The man had short dark blonde hair and a day’s growth of beard. He was handsome in a rugged way, his light blue eyes looked out with intelligence and humor. He joined Cooper at the table and ordered a whiskey for them both. After another fifteen minutes, Althea made her way to the table next to theirs. She listened into their conversation and realized that this rugged cowboy was Colton Reed. She was surprised having expected him to be better dressed and to have a more pampered air. He obviously wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and he sat with ease in the tattered saloon.

     Althea passed next to the table only to have an arm snake out and pull her onto a hard male lap. She found herself looking into Colton Reed’s eyes and she had to admit that he had some indescribable something that made her heart race just that little bit faster. “My, my what have we here? You are one classy lady. What are you doing in a dump like this?” Reed asked her. “Working,” she said in a short-tempered manner. “Well, you are far too beautiful for the men around here. You’re obviously not used to the way they treat women either. I’d say you were down on your luck.” Althea lowered her eyes briefly and then raised them and looked into Reed’s eyes with spirit. “Not that down on my luck. Your friend there has paid a week’s wage to have the honor of my company later. Things are looking up.” Reed looked across the table at Cooper and narrowed his eyes. “Really? I thought you had sworn off women Smith.” “Not when they look like that,” Cooper drawled. Reed cocked an eyebrow, “yeah, a woman who looks this good can change a man’s mind in no time. I’m tempted to offer two weeks salary myself. Your salary, not mine.” Reed laughed at his own joke and released the trapped Althea. Althea stood up and turned and looked straight into her husband’s eyes. “Right of the stairs, third door on the left. Give me another half hour and I’ll meet you there.” Cooper nodded his head once in acknowledgement and turned to face his temporary employer.

     Althea was holding baby Jane to her shoulder as she walked her around the room softly singing her to sleep. She had come up to gather her up from the chambermaid who had agreed to keep an ear out for her while Althea was down in the saloon. Althea had of course promised to pay the dark skinned woman for her effort. She had nursed her and was now putting her five-month-old strawberry blond daughter to bed for the night. A light knock on the door made Althea jump slightly, but she instantly relaxed when she realized who it was. “Come in,” she called and watched as the door opened to admit her husband.

     Cooper entered the room with his hat in his hand and when he saw the sight before him, he stopped dead in his tracks. “What is it?” his wife asked as he stared at her. He wasn’t about to tell her that for an instant he had been transported back in time to another saloon woman’s boudoir. He gazed at her and couldn’t believe the resemblance to the saloon woman who had for a short time cared for young Timothy Stanton. Dressed as she was, Althea looked remarkably like that woman as she too had comforted a baby in her arms. Cooper finished entering the room and shut the door tightly behind him. “I was just thinking how lucky I am,” he said. Althea smiled at him as he continued to her to lift Jane from her arms and cuddle his infant daughter. He kissed her tenderly and laid her in the dresser drawer that Althea had converted into a makeshift cradle. Next, he turned to his wife and gathered her tightly into his arms kissing her with weeks of pent up passion.

     Althea was certain that her lips would be bruised and swollen in the morning by the time Cooper raised his head and looked into her passion filled eyes. “You have some explaining to do,” he told her in a panting breath. “Later,” she said and began unbuttoning his shirt. Cooper helped her as she rid him of the garment and then he in turn rid her of her dress. She stood there in the corset that pulled her full breasts up and the ruffles that filled out the bottom of the dress. Cooper undid his gun belt and quickly undid his pants stepping out of them and placing them on the chair that sat at the end of the bed. The remainder of his wife’s garments joined his and soon they stood nude staring at each other. “You look like a woman who has been paid for,” he said. “I haven’t seen your money yet cowboy,” he wife replied surprising him with her daring. “I don’t pay until I’m satisfied with the service,” he told her. Althea was surprised at her own wantonness, but for one night, she wasn’t the wife of the town’s sheriff, she was a woman paid to have sex with a man and she lost all of her inhibitions.

     Hours later, Cooper lay spooned against his wife playing with the ringlet curls that had fallen down around her bare shoulders. He picked up one ringlet and used it as a brush, sweeping it across her smooth alabaster skin. “You are full of surprises,” he told her as she lay facing away from him blushing at the memory of some of the ‘services’ she had just provided. There were things she’d heard whispered about that she’d never experienced. Cooper was a very experienced man, but he had never asked her to do anything that she felt uncomfortable doing. After this decadent night, there were far fewer taboos when it came to their lovemaking. “I wanted to earn my pay,” she told him and giggled as she turned to stare up into his eyes. “Tell me why you’re here,” he said suddenly serious. Althea took a deep breath and said, “Don’t get mad.” Cooper cocked his eyebrows at her and waited.

     “Captain Jennings wanted to know how it was going and I said that I would come in undercover to find out.” “And he allowed you to?” Cooper asked as his temper burned. “Not exactly,” she confessed. “What does ‘not exactly’ mean? Did the Rangers send you in to debrief me or not?” “Well… I had grown frustrated waiting to hear word of how you were. There was nothing to do in Bovine. The house is still being rebuilt and I was starting to feel as if I was imposing on the mayor’s family boarding there this long. So I went to Austin to try and find out when you were coming home. Captain Jennings said that he hadn’t heard from you and that he wasn’t able to send another man in without raising suspicion, so I volunteered.” “And he went along with that?” “Well… no, but I decided to do it anyway.” “Althea Cooper, I could ring your neck. What were you thinking putting yourself and Jane in jeopardy like that?” “I was thinking that I miss my husband and it’s just for a short while. I thought that I could manage to see you this way and then I could leave and take word back to the Captain.” “You think you can just leave town after one night and not raise suspicion?” “I thought we could stage something. Like you get all mad at the saloon owner and tell him off and I storm out or something.” Althea looked at her husband knowing that her suggestion sounded lame, but relying on him to come up with something better.

     Cooper rolled away from her and sighed loudly. “God protect me from independent thinking women,” he grumbled. They lay there silently while Cooper thought about it. “If I could afford to buy your services exclusively, that might work. Let me think on it. In the meantime, you should thank your lucky stars that I don’t hit women, because I’m tempted to put you over my knee and tan your hide.” “We haven’t tried that yet,” his wife said. Cooper’s jaw dropped at her audacity and after the shock wore off sufficiently, he began to chuckle. He raised his hand and delivered a stinging slap to her bare rump that caused her to yelp and scoot closer to him. Her naked body stretched against the length of his gave him other ideas and the night continued with only groans and gasps.

     Althea watched her husband dress the next morning as she nursed Jane from the comfort of the bed. “Have you thought of anything yet?” “I think I’ll say that Jane is my child and you just told me about her. You could have tracked me down to let me know that I had fathered a child since it’s cut into your ‘work.’ I’ll ask Reed if you can stay out at the ranch with me. It’s not the best solution, I’d rather have you out of here, but if I can’t do that, at least I can keep an eye on you.” Althea liked the suggestion more than she was willing to let on. Staying with Cooper in any circumstance was better than waiting and worrying back in Bovine. “Do you think you’re ready to take Colton Reed down?” “I’m close. I know who his Mexican contact is from the last trip I took with him. I rode down to provide protection while he met Vargas. He’s not the most trustworthy business partner, but what do you expect from a cattle rustler. Vargas’ men bring the cattle to a little village called Pueblo del Sol and Reed pays him his share from the last haul and takes the cattle across the border. Once they’re on his property, they brand them and fatten them up then head them up north. It’s a constant stream of stolen cattle. I’ve seen some great looking horseflesh come through as well. I just haven’t discovered his contact person up north yet. When I do, I plan to get the authorities in Mexico to bust up Vargas’ operation while I take care of Reed myself and let the law up north bust the contact up there. The man goes by the name ‘Crow’, but I don’t know his real name yet.” “You could be talking weeks,” Althea said just beginning to realize how big this was. “At least,” he told her. “I’ll try to get you out of here as soon as I’m able to, but for now, I better get back to the ranch and see if I can convince Reed to let you stay.”

     Three weeks later, Althea found herself regretting her impulsiveness to join Cooper on this investigation. Colton Reed had allowed her to move onto the ranch, but had insisted that she live in the main house. It was actually a good arrangement for Cooper as he was able to stay closer to Reed and get more information. Whenever Cooper wasn’t around though, Colton Reed made it clear that he was interested. He was afraid enough of Cooper to be respectful in front of him, but he made passes when he wasn’t there. Althea was torn wanting to tell Cooper what was going on, but afraid of causing him to get mad enough to confront Reed and ruin the investigation. The only consolation were the nights she spent in Cooper’s arms. It was difficult to remember to call him John Smith, but when she cried out in passion, it was impossible. Cooper was always hushing her when they made love, but he used methods to keep her quiet that she found she rather enjoyed. She was getting a little tired of dressing like a saloon girl, but she wasn’t getting tired of acting like one in bed with Cooper.

     A man with a northern accent rode in one day when Cooper was out guarding Reed’s accountant as he went to the bank. Althea made sure to stay as close as possible trying to figure out who the man was. Reed caught her lurking near the thick drapes of the parlor and invited her in to meet Senator ‘Crow’ Jackson. It was all Althea could do to remain smiling as she shook the hand of the corrupt politician. She gathered from their conversation that was carried out in code in her presence that the senator was there to deliver money to Reed in person. From their talk, she decided that Crow was unhappy with the last shipment of cattle and wanted to see the herd before paying for it this time. Of course the man wasn’t very well versed in cattle and it was obvious that what he’d seen in the fields had impressed him. “I want the cattle to look this fat and healthy when they arrive in Chicago,” he stated pompously. “That’s a long drive and there’s no way they’ll look anywhere near this good by then. I fatten ‘em up here to get ‘em ready for the drive, but they lose weight on the way.” Althea bit her tongue and listened intently until the housekeeper came to tell her that Jane needed her. She excused herself and headed back to her room.

     Cooper returned and Althea filled him in on what she’d learned. He then rode out that night to send a message via telegraph to Ranger headquarters to ask for reinforcements. They waited two more days until word returned that the Mexican authorities were ready to take down Vargas’ operation as soon as they gave them the word. The Rangers would be arriving on October 31st.  Althea had lived in Texas all of her life and knew about the significance of this day to the Hispanic culture. The ‘Day of the Dead’ was celebrated each year with everyone going to visit the graves of their ancestors. She knew that many of the workers at the ranch were preparing to honor this holiday, but she didn’t know that it would lead to such a nightmare for her.

     The night of October 31st was a cold windy night. The wind seemed to cut right through those brave enough to go out into it. Cooper was one of those as he rode out to meet the posse coming into town. Althea tucked Jane up in bed and walked around the house pacing nervously while she waited for the Rangers to arrive. She didn’t see Reed until he stepped from the curtained parlor stopping her in her tracks. She gasped slightly startled at his appearance, but after looking into his eyes, she felt real fear. “So, it looks as if we are all alone. The servants are all out dancing on graves and Smith rode into town. The Senator retired early tonight, he was a bit under the weather.” Althea knew that he drank and that he was most likely sleeping it off. “I was a little restless, I thought I’d find a book to read,” she told Reed. “I bet if we put our heads together, we could find something better than reading.” He had barely finished his statement when he grabbed her and pulled her against him forcing his kiss onto her.

     “Stop!” she shouted as soon as she was able to break away. “Come on, we both know that you’re a whore. I have a lot more money than Smith will ever have. I’ll even put up with that bastard you have, you can stay here and service me.” “Do you really think C… John will allow that? He doesn’t share and you hired him because of how good he is with a gun. Do you really want to mess with his property?” “I’m not worried about Smith, or whatever his name is. I made sure that he won’t return from this particular trip.” “What do you mean?” “I mean that in about an hour, he will be one of the ‘dead’ that will be honored on this night.” “No!” Althea screamed and began to struggle as Reed pulled her tighter to him. “Let go of me!” she shrieked as he bound her arms to his side and pulled on her gown. “Let’s find out what Smith’s been enjoying all these nights. You owe me, I let you live in my house, eat my food and now you’ll get to share my bed. That is if we make it there,” he said as he pushed her to the ground pulling her skirts up over her head. Althea continued to struggle praying that Cooper would arrive, but fearing that he was already dead. “Let me go you bastard! Let me go! I’ll kill you!”

     “Alex! Alex! Wake up!” Walker shouted as she continued to fight him. She had the blanket up over her head and was fighting it and him for all she was worth. He finally sat on her and pinned her arms to her side, all the while she screamed and fought him. Walker gave up and leaned forward kissing her to silence her screams. That was when she bit his bottom lip and drew blood. Walker jerked up and off of her and she finally quieted down a bit. Trying a new tactic, Walker stood out of reach and called her name. Slowly, Alex opened her eyes and began to adjust to her surroundings. “Walker?” “Yes, Alex, I’m here.” Alex threw the blanket off and sat up rubbing her eyes as a child would. “Oh god, I was having a horrible nightmare.” “Yeah, I could tell,” he said as he dabbed at his lip with a tissue. “What happened to your lip?” she asked as she finally focused on his face. “Your nightmare happened that’s what.” “I did that?” “Yes. Honey, I know that it’s Halloween, but did you have to bite me?” “I bit you?!” “Yes Vampira, you bit me.” “Oh god, I am so sorry. I thought I was biting… oh I don’t know it’s all fading. I thought I was being attacked and I was fighting my attacker.” Far be it for her to say that the man in her dream had looked and sounded just like Dalton Reed. He was still a sore spot between them even after all these years.

     “I know that you’re overtired, but I’ve never known you to have bad dreams unless something bad has happened to you, like Victor LaRue.” Alex’s head shot up and she glared at her husband. “Don’t mention that man’s name! I also had bad dreams that time I saw Trivette shooting you. That was almost like a premonition.” “Well, do you think this was a premonition?” “I doubt it. You were Hays Cooper and I was his wife Althea and Angela was their daughter Jane. Walker?” “Yes?” “Did Hays Cooper die when his daughter was still a baby?” “Nope, he lived to a ripe old age and had three more daughters and one son, Glen’s great, great something grandfather.” “Thank god!” “Alex, it’s those costumes isn’t it?” “Maybe.” “I told you we could go as something other than Hays and Althea Cooper. Anyway, there’s no way Althea Cooper would have worn a saloon woman’s dress. She was the wife of the town’s sheriff. She wouldn’t have been caught dead in the outfit you chose.” “Yes she would if she went undercover to be with her husband who was on assignment for the Rangers.” “What?” “Never mind, what time is it?” “Time for you to get your corset on.” “Oh gosh, look at the time, why did you let me sleep so late?” “I thought you needed it. You haven’t been doing well with the interrupted sleep each night.” “Walker, do you know how long it’s going to take to put my hair into ringlets? Even with the hair piece I got, it’s going to take forever!” “Well, since you haven’t let me trim my beard and you got me that wig, I guess it’s not going to take me anymore time to dress than usual, so I’ll take care of Angela while you get ready.” “Oh, are you going to nurse her too?” “Don’t get snippy with me, I’m not the one who wanted to go to this costume ball thing,” “Hey, it’s for a good cause and you’ll have fun.” “Uh huh. Well go start getting ready and I’ll keep Angel happy until you’re ready to feed her.” Alex started to leave the room and paused, turning to walk back to Walker and kiss him gently on the lips. “What was that for?” “For always riding into the rescue,” she said cryptically. She hadn’t finished her dream, but she knew that Cooper had ridden in and saved Althea. She just knew it.

     Hours later, Alex entered the mayor’s home on Walker’s arm. She looked around the room feeling some unexplained dread. Nothing looked out of the ordinary and she eventually relaxed and had a wonderful time. She was dancing with Walker, snuggled all close against him when someone interrupted them. “Well, if it isn’t Mr. and Mrs. Cordell Walker. Fancy bumping into the two of you here.” Alex stepped back and looked up, the chill racing down her spine telling her that what her ears heard was true. Dalton Reed stood next to them looking at Walker with a mixture of pain and jealousy. “Mind if I steal the beautiful lady back from you?” “Actually Reed, I do mind.” “Just one dance, I’ll return her afterward, I give my word.” Walker cocked an eyebrow at Alex and she gave him a tight smile before turning into Dalton’s arms.

     “Dalton, what brings you here?” “Well, it is a charity costume ball for the families of the victims of the September 11th attacks.” “Yes, how does that relate to you?” “I lost a sister in law in Trade Tower One. She was a secretary on one of the top floors.” “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. Did she have children?” “Yes, two and they’re staying out with me on my spread. Her husband isn’t doing very well and he sold everything and moved back to Texas.” “It’s good of you to give them a home.” “They’re family Cahill, what was I supposed to do?” “What about you? Have you married yet?” “No, it didn’t work out. I don’t seem to do well with women. They always fall for another man.” “Dalton, that’s not true. I know plenty of women who would give their eye teeth for a man like you.” “Well, the next time you meet one, give her my address will you? Cole and I are not doing that well as bachelor fathers.” “Cole?” “Yeah, my twin brother. It’s short for Colton, it’s a family name.” Alex’s face turned pale. “Do you think we can stop dancing now, I’m not feeling very well. I think I’m coming down with something. I’ve been running a low fever all day and it probably wasn’t a good idea insisting that I come to this party.” “Sure Cahill. You know you are looking a little pale. I guess I should return you to your husband.”

     Dalton escorted Alex back to Walker and stepped back to speak briefly to Walker. “I don’t think your wife is up to this. She said that she’s been running a fever all day.”  Walker frowned and looked over at Alex. “Is that true honey?” “Yeah, I think I caught something from Angela.” “Who’s Angela?” Dalton asked. “Our daughter. She’s five months old and she has been fighting a head cold.” If anything, Dalton was now paler than Alex. “I hadn’t heard. Well, I guess congratulations are in order,” he said as he offered his hand to Walker. “Thank you,” Walker said as he returned his handshake. “It’s good to see you again Reed. I’m sorry to leave so suddenly, but I think I best get my wife home to bed.” Dalton looked stricken, but he merely nodded his head and said to Alex. “Take care of yourself Cahill. Goodbye.” “Goodbye Dalton,” Alex said as she headed out with Walker.

     On the way back to the ranch in the Ram, Walker looked over at Alex. “Why didn’t you tell me you were running a fever?” “Because then you wouldn’t let me go to the ball and I already had the costumes and everything.” “Stubborn,” Walker said shaking his head at her. “Walker, do you have anything about Cooper that was written after he married Althea?” “Well, there are some historical accounts of different things he did as sheriff and there’s Althea’s journal.” “Althea’s journal?” “Yeah, she kept a journal until the day she died. I haven’t ever read it, but I have a copy of it.” “Would you mind if I read it?” “Of course not. Why the sudden interest?” “I don’t know, I guess these costumes and my dream have made me curious.” “Well, now at least we know why you had that dream.” “We do?” “Sure, it must have been the fever.” “Oh, yeah maybe.”

     After they arrived home and thanked Erika and Trivette for staying with Angela, Alex fed her daughter and headed up to bed. Walker entered the bedroom to see Alex sitting with pillows propped against the headboard. “Honey, why don’t you go on to sleep? I’m going to read for just a bit longer downstairs.” “Walker, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to sleep after that nap I had. Do you think you could find Althea’s journal for me to read?” “Sure, I’ll be right back.” Walker left the room and returned minutes later with a hardback book that he had purchased once at the Ranger’s Hall of Fame Museum. It was a published copy of the life of Hays Cooper as told through his wife’s journal.

     Alex took the book and began flipping the pages. It began with Althea meeting Cooper and as Alex flipped she saw where they got engaged and then where they were married. She wanted to go back and read those stories later, but for now, she had one purpose. Walker, seeing that his wife wasn’t going to try to sleep right away, crawled into bed next to her and opened his Louis L’Amour book he was rereading. Alex flipped pages until she came to the time frame she was interested in. She read the pages and chills went up and down her spine. “Walker…” she said in an awed whisper. “What honey?” he answered distractedly as he read his book. “Walker, listen. ‘I fought with all my might, trying to dislodge Colton Reed from me. He had me pinned and he wasn’t about to let go. When he began kissing me, I bit his lower lip, drawing blood. He drew back, just for a moment and that was when Cooper knocked him off of the top of me. He came rushing through the door and just like a knight in shining armor, he came to my rescue once again. He was accompanied by the other Rangers he had gone out to meet. I learned later that there had been an attempt on his life, but he had returned fire and hit his mark, the man died in the saddle. Cooper punched Reed until his face was swollen and black and blue. The few drops of blood I’d drawn were unnoticeable after Cooper got through with him. The other Rangers had to pull him off. They have a saying, one riot, one Ranger, now I know what they mean. The reinforcements Cooper had gone out to meet consisted of two men. They arrested Reed and Senator Jackson who had slept through it all in a drunken stupor. Reed was sentenced to ten years hard labor. I later heard that he married and lived a quiet life somewhere down around Austin raising bulls. I never set eyes on him again. Cooper and I took Jane and returned home to Bovine. Our house wasn’t yet finished, but I insisted on sealing up one room and living in it for the winter until we could finish the rest of the house in the spring. It was a very cold winter, but we managed to keep each other warm,’” Alex sat there with her mouth gaping. “Honey, I admit there are some similarities, but you don’t really think it means anything do you?” Alex flipped the pages and found a pencil drawing that Hays Cooper had done of his wife wearing the saloon girl dress that she had worn the first night in Mesquite. Walker looked at the picture and then he looked at the gown that was hanging on the door of the closet. He looked at his wife and then he looked at the outfit he’d worn to the ball. “They say that this is the night when the separation between the real world and the spirit world is thinnest. Maybe Althea paid you a visit while you were sleeping.” “So, you think ghosts were telling us a story?” “You never know honey, I’ve learned not to say never to anything. Years with Uncle Ray and White Eagle have taught me that there are things that man can’t explain and he often looks like a fool when he tries to.” “Walker?” “Yes?” “Will you hold me?” “Now that I can do,” he said as he turned out the lights and scooted down into the bed pulling her into his chest. “Goodnight Althea, goodnight Cooper,” he said as he snuggled against his wife. A chill breeze passed over them and was gone.

The End

*All the usual disclaimers apply.