A VERY SPECIAL 4TH OF JULY
by Pat Pritchard
A Western Romance Short Story
June 18, 2014
After the Civil War, newspaper editor Malachi Jones has stopped trying to outrun his memories and is building a new life for himself in Peace, Missouri. He starts his own paper and makes some new friends, but it's Maggie Phillips—the editor of the rival, Gazette—who intrigues him the most. Maggie has her own lingering pain from the war, and she is determined to honor her late father by keeping their family paper going. With their heated debates confined to their editorials, Maggie and Malachi find that there's not much they agree on, but at the same time they cannot deny a growing attraction off the page. As the annual Fourth of July picnic draws near, will they overcome their professional differences, and might they discover that the night sky isn't the only place for fireworks?
Malachi Jones was a man on a mission, one he was determined to see through to the end, no matter what it took. According to the calendar on the wall, he had only a few more days until he would know the outcome of his carefully laid plans. Because he'd served as a correspondent in the late years of the war, he'd learned a lot about strategy and campaign tactics from watching the military at work. He was by no means confident of his success, but he'd done all he could under the circumstances.
He snapped his watch closed and cursed himself for a fool. It had become his habit, one that he regretted, to wait outside his office for Tommy Joe to come trudging down the sidewalk carrying the latest edition of the Gazette. He knew full well the boy would stop by with a courtesy copy after he completed the rest of his rounds, but Malachi wasn't willing to wait that long. He reached for his hat and jacket and headed out the door, locking it behind him.
Rather than look as if he were waiting around for something to happen, he strolled up the familiar streets of the town he'd picked for his new home. There were probably hundreds of similar places scattered across the country, but something about this one had stilled his restless feet. He shook his head, wishing he knew what had drawn him to this particular Missouri town that stretched out along the crooks and turns of the river that shared the same name. Maybe it was something as simple as wanting some peace in his life, even if it was only in the name of the place he'd chosen to live.
If he didn't run into young Tommy before reaching the corner, he could either stop in at the bank or pay a visit to the mercantile to see if his cigars had come in with the latest shipment. Besides, a short walk would serve to work out some of the stiffness that came from sitting too long at a desk. He slipped off his jacket and slung it over his shoulder as he walked along the sidewalk out of respect for the gathering heat of the day. Squinting up at the sun, he figured he had an hour, two at the most, before it would be too hot outside for man or beast. There'd be plenty of time then to finish the last few articles for tomorrow's paper.
The few horses tied up at the hitching rails along the street stood with heads down, their tails twitching halfheartedly at pesky flies as they waited for their owners to return. Just looking at the weary animals made Malachi thirst for something cool. Maybe once he had his cigars and the paper, he'd head on down to the hotel for a lemonade and some of Millie's apple pie. He should probably eat something besides dessert for lunch, but the day was too hot for a heavy meal. Besides, once he read Maggie Phillips's latest editorial, no doubt aimed right at him, he'd be in no mood for anything but firing off his rebuttal.
He couldn't wait.
When he reached the corner, he looked both ways, careful not to spend too much time looking in the direction of the Gazette. It wouldn't do for anyone to get the idea that his interest in his competition was anything other than professional. After all, as editors of opposing newspapers, he and Maggie were bound to tangle once in a while. It was their job.
Trouble was, his feelings for Maggie Phillips were getting complicated. Sometimes he truly hoped that he merely felt a bit protective of her, although he would have sworn that the war had burned away the last vestiges of any of the softer emotions. By the time he could report the slaughter of thousands of men without blinking an eye or screaming from the insanity of it all, he'd lost all ability to feel anything other than despair.
Maybe now, after five long years, he was learning how to care again. It was hard to tell, and he wasn't sure how he felt about the idea. All he knew was that he'd been intrigued by Maggie Phillips from the first time he laid eyes on her. He'd only been in Peace a few days when he'd attended his first town council meeting, which was being held in the only local saloon. If he hadn't been looking at the door at the right time, he would have missed seeing her quietly slip into the room. As far as he could tell, no one else but him took notice.
She wasn't the only woman in the room, but the rest worked there. The chance of mistaking Maggie for a painted lady who plied her trade upstairs over the bar was ludicrous. Still, none of the men paid the slightest heed to having their territory invaded. Curiosity caused him to miss most of the mayor's speech that night as he wondered what would drive a decent woman to cross the threshold of such a male stronghold and why no one was raising a ruckus. Afterward, he had cornered the town physician, trusting his old friend to be both knowledgeable and discreet. Doc had actually looked surprised to see Maggie walking out of the saloon while the men stood around smoking cigars and sipping whiskey.
The older man shrugged. "Maggie started tagging along to these meetings with her father when she was just a little bit of a thing. She's been sitting at that same table for so long, I guess no one even notices anymore."
No one except Malachi. He admired the courage-or perhaps headstrong foolishness-it took for a woman to follow in her father's footsteps as a reporter. But after that first night, he'd made it a habit to sit where he could study his competition without being too obvious about it. Not that watching her was any hardship, not in the least.
He pictured her in his mind, drawn as always to her glorious hair that wasn't red and wasn't brown, but an indefinable shade somewhere in between the two. She wore it neatly coiled in braids, although a few tendrils always managed to escape, framing her face in soft curls. And he found the smattering of freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks endearing ; he bet she hated each and every one of them. But it was those intelligent eyes that could be green or gray, depending on her mood and temper, that kept him awake some nights.
The sound of approaching footsteps snapped his thoughts back to the present, warning him that he'd been woolgathering out in the sun too long. He nodded at the farmer who passed by. Malachi made a pretense of checking his watch again, as if he'd been waiting for someone, giving himself an excuse to look up and down the street one last time. One glimpse of the door to the Gazette office opening sent him hurrying across the street to the mercantile, usually one of Tommy Joe's first stops along his route.
Maybe it would be less obvious if he were to wait inside the store for the boy. Dust hung heavily in the humid air, making it feel damn good to get out of the sun. The dim interior of the store felt deceptively cool as he hesitated just inside the entrance to let his eyes adjust.
"Malachi, I'm glad you stopped by." Bill Payton stepped out from behind the counter with a big smile on his face. "Those cigars you special ordered came in yesterday. Those are some damn fine smokes you bought."
"I'm glad you like them so much," Malachi said, trying to tell himself that he didn't mind sharing.
Bill, always easy with a laugh, chuckled and slapped Malachi on the shoulder. "Now don't go looking all hangdog on me. I ordered an extra box, figuring if you liked them well enough to send all the way to New York for them, some of the other men in Peace might be willing to buy a few now and then. One of the privileges of owning your own store is sampling the merchandise when it comes in."
A little chagrined, Malachi smiled sheepishly. "Well, in that case, I really am glad you liked them. I hope they sell well for you."
"I've got yours safely tucked away in the back room." He started to step away but then he glanced past Malachi toward the door. "If you're not in any hurry, I'll see if Miss Maggie needs anything before I go get them for you."
The door was already opening before his words really sank in. There was nothing Malachi could have done to avoid the unexpected encounter, short of bolting out the back like someone possessed. Instead, he mustered up what he hoped was a pleasant smile and turned to face the woman who haunted his dreams at night and a fair portion of his daytime thoughts as well.