The caravan rolled in on Wednesday afternoon. By the time the eighteen-wheelers, horse trailers, food trucks, RVs, and pickup trucks converged upon the tiny hamlet, Hannah was close to panic mode. What had she been thinking, inviting such a huge operation to crowd into her tiny little town? And on opening weekend, no less?
Worry tagged along with her as she and Fred led them to the field behind the inn where they would eventually set up. At Walker’s suggestion, the public wouldn’t access the event through the town itself, but via the fence-line road at the edge of the property. Until he pointed it out, Hannah had never noticed the unattended lane, but she agreed it would be less intrusive for their overnight guests.
On the up side, Hannah decided, as she glanced back at the line of vehicles behind her, there would be no missing it now. Not after this caravan came through and dug an unmistakable set of ruts.
She and Fred waited for the lead eighteen-wheeler to idle to a stop beside them. They watched as a tiny woman, no bigger than Fred herself, jumped from behind the wheel.
“Now, that’s my kind of woman!” Fred beamed proudly. The two were even dressed in similar fashion: fancy western duds, complete with boots, hat, and shiny belt buckles. “I like her already. Good choice, Hannah.” She elbowed her companion in a show of approval.
“Which of you is Hannah Duncan?” the sprite of a woman asked.
Hannah stepped forward with an extended hand. “Hello. I’m Hannah.”
“Jazz Dawson.” With her tiny stature, pixie smile, pert nose, and a head full of short, blond curls, the woman actually resembled a sprite. “Nice to finally put a face with a name.”
“Absolutely! And this is Fred Tanner. If you have any issues with the animals or the property, she’s your go-to.”
“Nice outfit,” Fred murmured in appreciation. “Are those boots Lucchese?”
Jazz presented a foot swathed in rhinestone-encrusted black and turquoise leather. “Absolutely. Custom made to match the belt.”
“Mine, too,” Fred beamed.
“Is that a Texas Sweetheart buckle?” Jazz practically squealed. “You’re not the Fredrika Tanner, are you?”
“The one and only.”
While the two women exchanged an animated conversation, Hannah watched in bemused confusion. The best she could tell, Fred was once a trick rider and was still a bit of a legend in the rodeo and western show circuit. That explained the shiny silver belt buckle she always wore, even though the thing must weigh a ton and was almost as big as she was.
With the oohing and ahhing phase of the conversation over, the women discussed logistics. A middle-aged man with a dripping mustache joined them from the second semi-truck, who Jazz introduced as her show foreman, John Boy Hopkins. As they talked about the space required and the expectations of the show, Hannah felt the panic kick back in. She smiled and nodded in the appropriate places, but inside, her mind was spinning.
“Okay, so it looks like we’re all set!” Jazz said brightly. “I have your signed contract and your deposit. We’ll collect the rest at the gate and give you your cut at the end. Oh, just one last thing. I trust you have the insurance policies in place?”
“Yes, yes.” Still practicing her deep-breathing techniques, Hannah nodded more than was necessary. “All done.”
She hadn’t understood why some of the policies were necessary, but she ran them by Walker before agreeing to purchase the short-term policies. He assured her that while some seemed to be a bit of overkill, it never hurt to be fully protected. There were the usual personal liability policies, covering guests and performers while on Hannah property. A few generic policies to cover equipment failure or damage, special-event coverage in case of inclement weather or unforeseen natural disasters. The final policies were on the animals, providing for adequate veterinary care and loss of income for the production company, should an injury occur and the venue be found liable. Walker combed through the policies, added some specific language for his own ease of mind, and signed off on each of them.
“Wonderful,” Jazz said with a huge smile. “It’s nothing but a mountain of paperwork, but it keeps my lawyers and my accountants happy.” She clasped her hands together and looked around with twinkling eyes, clearly excited. “So? Can we get set up?”
It was now or never. Go big, or go home.
Hannah drew in an unsteady breath. “Yes, by all means.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but it can get a bit hectic down here. You may want to watch from a safe distance,” the tiny woman suggested.
“Oh, absolutely. Fred and I will get out of your way and let you get to work.”
Jazz recognized the expression on her face and offered a wink of confidence. “There’s no need to worry, you know. We’ve got this.”
Even as the vehicles circled like a wagon train of old and set up camp within a tight circumference, Hannah nibbled on her lower lip. Would the open field to the right be enough room for parking? By the time the eighteen-wheelers unhooked and parked, would there be ample room available for patrons? Would there even be any patrons? What if all this was for nothing? What if the whole thing was a colossal failure? Clearly, Hats Off Productions had high expectations from her little town.
Calling Hannah, Texas a town was a bit presumptuous, by anyone’s standards. What began as a stagecoach stop in 1851 swelled and waned over the next hundred and sixty-something years. At its height, the unincorporated town boasted some twenty or so families and enjoyed a healthy economy. In addition to the stagecoach inn and café, there was a blacksmith, general store, two saloons, one church, a gristmill, and a few other odd businesses sprinkled through time. One by one, the businesses shuttered, leaving only the General Store to remain on a come and go basis. That, and the faithful old inn. Despite numerous wars, the Great Depression, lean economies, and bad times in general, the Stagecoach Inn kept its doors open. About a hundred years into its lifespan, the name had changed to The Spirits of Texas Inn, but during all that time, a member of the Hannah family had owned and faithfully operated the property.
Upon Wilhelmina Hannah’s death last year, the last of the Hannah bloodline was gone, and the family legacy ended. Her will instructed that the town and all its buildings, including the inn, be sold at auction. Hannah’s uncle placed the winning bid and gifted it to his sole niece, thinking it amusing that she own a town bearing her name.
So now, here she was, knee-deep in panic, watching as organized chaos unfolded before her very eyes. A second ‘town’ was erected behind the first, almost a mirror image of how Hannah must have looked, back in the day. According to the false storefronts, this town also had a saloon, general store, blacksmith, and a dressmaker. She knew the string of make-believe
buildings were a backdrop for the show, where the comedy acts, songs, and an Old West gunfight would take place. The portable pens were for the trick riding and rodeo-inspired portion of the program, and the food and game trucks were for the carnival alley.
Hannah had watched the video and studied the website, so she knew what the finished product should look like. But watching it unfold, all she felt was panic. As new worries washed over her, she wondered where to find the escape hatch.
“I think we should get back to the inn,” Fred suggested, breaking into Hannah’s pity party. “When we come back, it will be all set up and look completely different.” She rattled on, trying to ease the younger woman’s fears. “I’ve seen these set ups before, you know. They come in like a whirlwind and whip everything into shape. It’s best to see the end result, rather than watch the madness.”
“You’re probably right.” She still looked unconvinced, but she decided to take the advice and return to the inn. At least there, things were in a semblance of order.
Hannah walked through the back door of the inn and promptly stepped into a pile of mushrooms. The squishy feel beneath her shoe startled her, causing her to jump away with a squeal. She landed on a head of lettuce, which masqueraded that day as a bowling ball. Hannah went down like a pin in a bowling alley.
“Holy boomtown!” It was a phrase her uncle had coined, born in the oilfields. “What is all this?” Her fall was broken, in part, by more scattered vegetables. They trailed down the hall, strewn from the kitchen to the back door. She had landed on a sack of flour, which softened the blow to her backside but resulted in a billowing cloud of white. The sack burst and flour mushroomed into the air like an atomic bomb.
“Hannah!” Sadie said in worry, hurrying into the hallway at the sound of such commotion. “Is that you? Are you all right?”
She struggled into a sitting position, pulling a sprig of parsley from her hair. “I think so. What happened in here?”
“The delivery man overturned his dolly when he high-tailed it out of here.” Sadie huffed out a disgusted sigh as she extended her arm. “Here. Give me your hand, and I’ll help you up.”
“That’s okay. I think I’ll sit here a minute and catch my breath.”
“You’re not hurt, are you?” the older woman asked in worry.
“Just my pride. That wasn’t one of my more graceful falls.”
A giggle escaped Sadie’s lips, pinched tight to squelch the sound. “You look like a ghost. You’re all white with flour.”
Hannah attempted to brush the powdery substance off her arms. “We have enough of those around here,” she muttered, “without me joining their forces.”
“Isn’t that the truth! That’s what caused this fiasco to begin with,” Sadie told her.
“What do you mean?”
Fred, who trailed behind, stepped through the door and accessed the disaster with a shrewd eye. “What tornado hit in here?”
Her sister gave another noisy sigh. “Blackie Cole and Clyde Shumach.”
The simple answer was enough to satisfy Fred. Without another word, she started gathering the scattered vegetables.
“Wait. Who’s black as coal? Clyde Shumach? And isn’t that a rather rude way of describing him?” She reprimanded the other woman with a severe frown.
“Blackie Cole,” Sadie corrected. She took a wadded-up plastic bag from the pocket of her apron and tossed it toward her sister. It made it as far as Hannah and floated down atop her foot. “Hand that over to Fred, will ya? Clyde Shumach is the delivery driver. The one who heard Blackie say he saw a ghost, turned as white as one himself—like you are now—and skedaddled out the back door, spilling everything on his dolly as he mumbled prayers and obscenities, all in the same sentence.”
“Did this Blackie person really see a ghost?” she dared to ask.
Sadie shrugged. “Probably. Clyde drove right over Caroline’s yellow dress.”
It was Hannah’s turn to sigh. She didn’t have time for this. This being resident ghosts and damaged food inventory. This being anything that stood between her and a smooth Grand Re-Opening, which happened in exactly two days’ time.
Having not seen the spirits in the last few days, Hannah should have known it was too much to expect, thinking they would continue to stay out of sight. What if some of the guests saw them?
Which led to a new worry. Could the guests see them? Apparently, this Blackie Cole had.
Fred spoke as she worked on filling the plastic bag. “Clyde always has been a skittish young man. Makes you wonder how he ever handled bombs for the military.”
“Maybe that’s why he is skittish,” Hannah pointed out. She brushed off her pants legs and attempted to stand, making certain there were no more dangerous lettuce bowling balls beneath her. Her gaze fell on the busted flour sack. “I hope we have more flour.”
“No burs under my saddle,” Sadie said with a nonchalant air. “That was a backup for my backup.”
“What was Blackie Cole doing out here?” Fred asked.
Her sister motioned to the scattered produce. “What he does best. Making a mess. And by the way, he’s still here.”
“Then why isn’t he helping to clean up his own mess?”
Fred was still grumbling when the door to the hall powder room opened. An unfamiliar man stepped forth, and Hannah realized the name ‘Blackie’ was as much a misnomer for this man as the tag Chicken Little was for the huge rooster outside. He had a full head of snow-white hair and bushy brows to match. Standing as he was in the doorway, the light behind him illuminated his long, white beard. With his pale skin tones, if Hannah didn’t know better, she might think the man was a ghost, himself.
Or did she know better? She tried to replay the conversation in her head, listening for a clue. She gave a small shrug. He had opened the door, not walked through it as Caroline did, so she was going with the assumption the man was still among the living.
In lieu of a greeting, Fred demanded, “Blackie Cole, why aren’t you helping with this mess you made?”
“Tweren’t me who made the mess. Twas the delivery man,” the old timer insisted.
“Because you told him you saw a ghost! Scared the poor boy half out of his wits!” Sadie cried in exasperation.
“I did see a ghost. Standing right there where you are, in a long, yellow dress.”
“Have you been smoking grapevines again?”
“Haven’t done that in years,” the old man replied. “And don’t act so high and mighty. You tweren’t no better than me. You two done the same thing.”
“Grapevines?” Hannah asked, perplexed.
Sadie’s sheepish smile said she was guilty as charged. “They’re hollow inside,” she explained to the younger woman. “We used to light the ends and pretend they were cigarettes. Drawing that smoke into your lungs burned like the dickens, but made us feel all grown up and sophisticated.” She struck a pose as she puffed on an imaginary stick and blew invisible circles into the air.
“Blackie was older than us,” Fred pitched in, “and could smoke the real thing. But he let us tag along with him to all the best fishing holes, and we wanted to be like him and smoke. He turned us on to grapevines.”
“Went to smoking them myself,” he confirmed, “when I couldn’t afford cigarettes.”
“That’s enough talk about grapevines. Help clean up this mess,” Fred said.
“I would, but it’s my back, you see.” He put a hand to his bony hip, and his shoulders hunched more than they had just moments before. “Ol’ Author has been writin’ to me again.” He snickered at his own joke. “Arthritis. Get it?”
As her companions groaned, Hannah stepped up and thrust her hand forward. “Hello. I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Hannah Duncan, the new owner of The Spirits of Texas Inn. How can we help you?”
“Well, howdy, there, little missy. You sure are a pretty little thing. But you don’t look a bit like Wilhelmina. Ain’t no one but a Hannah owned this here town since the middle of the 1800s.”
“No, we’re not related. And I didn’t inherit the town. I bought it.” She didn’t bother with the technicality of her uncle having made the actual purchase. Explaining that fact to the older gentleman would probably take too long.
“How do you buy a town?” he asked, scrunching his face up so tightly it looked like a ball of white fur. “And why?”
“Good question,” she muttered under her breath. “Can we help you with something, Mr. Cole?” she asked again.
“I came for dinner. I heard Sadie is cooking again.”
“And I explained to him that we’re not serving dinner, but the dang fool won’t listen!” Sadie grumbled.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to come back next weekend, Mr. Cole. Not this Saturday, but the next. We’ll serve you breakfast then,” Hannah promised. Having him underfoot on opening weekend was one complication they didn’t need. She had a feeling they would have enough troubles of their own, without adding him into the mix.
It took several more minutes, but they finally saw the old gentleman off. They kept the conversation off ghosts and convinced the man he had his dates confused, insisting they weren’t open until the following weekend. When he was finally gone, they finished picking up the strewn vegetables. Hannah stepped into the bathroom to wash residual flour from her arms, when someone knocked at the back door. She heard Sadie open it and have a brief conversation with the delivery driver.
According to the parts of the conversation Hannah could hear, the man realized he had overreacted and wanted to come back and apologize. He was happy to have the inn back on his route and hoped to make a good impression on the new owner.
Hannah was impressed with the gesture and wanted to commend the man on his professionalism. She guessed that the young veteran had served in the Afghanistan war, if what
her friends said were true. Instead of spending valuable time washing the flour from her face, Hannah poked her head into the hall for a quick greeting.
“I know it was foolishness on my part,” the man was in the middle of saying. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
Two things struck Hannah at once.
One, her friends’ definition of a ‘boy’ and hers varied by about fifty years. If he were a war veteran, it was most likely the Vietnam War.
And two, for a grown man, he screamed like a baby at the sight of a real-live ‘ghost.’