(If you aren’t caught up in the series, don’t blame me if you accidentally read a spoiler.)
The mules were singing. It was easy to think so, if you were stuck with them long enough. The rows of corn in our garden were head-high and my hat concealed everything above them. Tucked away in this green bower, I added four more ears of corn to my basket before the braying in the corral across the way merged into words.
“Heights!” the mules sang out.
Knowing full well that certain vocabulary was beyond a donkey’s skill set, I stepped out of the corn row and peered between the buildings toward the road. The song grew louder.
Something loud headed our way and, tucking the basket against my skirts, I walked swiftly between my hotel and the post office to find out what. To my left, my cook appeared on the veranda, wiping her hands on a dishtowel, and my maid came after her. On my right, the postmaster opened his screen door and peered out at the road, the tips of his white handlebar mustache bristling.
I stepped onto the boardwalk as a group of women came marching toward us from the north bend, hot summer dust kicking up in their wake. Linked arm in arm, they stretched across the width of the dirt road.
A single woman marched before them, waving a long, sturdy baton, and smiling at the passing pine trees as though they were spectators at a parade. Their song bounced from the forest wall. They tramped in unison, each step accentuating the cadence. Squirrels raced to hide behind tree trunks and a crow scolded them and flew off in indignation.
“Together, let us seek the heights!” the young women sang. I guessed their ages to be near mine, but I was speculating hard at their occupation. At twenty-two, I ran a hotel in the mountains, so I admired creativity in this department.
Their simple gray skirts and white shirtwaists had been set off with olive green sashes at the waist, and each of them had a scarlet silk carnation tucked into the band of her straw hat. They were rather young to be suffragettes, far too jaunty for a trade union, and too old to be a Girl Scout troop.
“Together, we will raise our lights!” The swath of women sang in four-part harmony as they passed the hotel and swung to a halt in front of the post office. Mr. Hannahs, the postmaster, let the screen door shut with a bang.
“Together, strive to right the wrongs!” they chorused. “Together, we employ our songs!”
By the time they crescendoed on the last lingering word, they had taken in the entire view and appeared eager to break ranks. The group remained at attention as their leader addressed them.
“That was rousing, girls! Inspirational!” The older woman turned and appraised the four buildings that comprised the town proper, eyeing the boardwalk that connected them from one end to the other. She brightened when she met my eyes, but she blinked a couple of times at Deputy Winters at the far end of the boardwalk.
“This is the place we seek,” she said, nodding at the wide, shaded post office landing. “In you go.”
The girls swarmed the landing and the idea of Mr. Hannahs inside, braced behind his counter, made me smile.
The lead woman tipped her head at me and her three perky carnations waved among wide loops of olive green grosgrain ribbon. “How do you do?” she asked, stepping onto the landing.
“Very well, thank you,” I replied, but she continued inside without introductions. Before I took offense, I glanced at my work clothes and basket. Perhaps a gardener didn’t merit an explanation of one’s presence in Idyllwild.
No matter. Whether he liked it or not, Mr. Hannahs would be full to overflowing with the particulars within twenty minutes. I waved down the boardwalk at Winters, but with the crowded post office and the vacant blacksmith shop between us, he was much too far away for words. He lifted a friendly hand in reply and beat a hasty retreat into his small office.
“Aren’t you going in?” Hattie called.
I turned to face my maid, and Karine, our cook, added, “Who are they, Miss Brown? The corn can wait.”
Crossing the grass toward them, I said, “There isn’t room to swing a cat in there.” I placed the basket between the veranda rails at Karine’s feet. She scowled, and I hastily added, “Not that Spoon would take to the idea.”
Karine rested her hands on her wide hips, her cornflower-blue eyes narrowed, and her forehead crinkled up more than usual. Spoon was a beast of a feline, and Karine and Hattie spoiled him to pieces. I often wondered why he’d never taken to me.
“But it couldn’t hurt to linger at the door,” Hattie said. Her smile brought out the twinkle in her green eyes and a warm flush to her freckles.
Hattie’s crown of glossy red braids contrasted prettily next to the crown of silvery gray on Karine’s head. Hattie was sixteen and Karine was sixty. I couldn’t run our hotel without them. We were family, and it was hard to deny them a fresh bit of gossip.
Animated voices poured from the post office window facing us. I consulted my pocket watch. After another hopeful grin from Hattie, I left them and returned to the post office landing to spy through the screen. Mr. Hannahs had his hands full.
One girl sat at the typewriter desk in the only chair in the single-room building. She pecked away at the keys and the girl standing behind her giggled at whatever was being written. Another girl stood on the other side of the desk, flummoxed, investigating the telegraph machine as though it were an archaeological treasure. Two more admired the postcards for sale on the side wall.
Mr. Hannahs stood behind the counter that spanned the room at the back. Several girls peppered him with questions, and he turned to run a finger over the mountain lion skin mounted on the wall. A large clock ticked above it. When he flicked the rattle that still hung from the large rattlesnake skin next to it, there were shrieks all around.
Mr. Hannahs turned back to his audience with a grin and slid a thumb beneath a suspender. “You’ve come to the right spot, ladies. We’ll have you ready in no time.”
“Miss Henderson!” the matron exclaimed. “Come away from there at once.”
The lady addressed stepped back from the oscillating fan with a guilty look on her face and her hair partially blown from below her hat. I couldn’t blame her for sacrificing a few loose strands for five minutes of cooling breeze. Afternoons were too hot for marching. Or singing. Or picking corn, now that I thought it through.
The implications of Mr. Hannahs’ words began to sink in. The lady in charge signed something on the counter and said, “You’ve explained very well. This sum should cover the next three days.” She handed him some folded bills.
“There’s fodder enough at the Idyllwild Inn,” Mr. Hannahs said, tucking the money away. “And remember what I said about using the lead lines. If the ladies get too rambunctious, they’ll get stubborn as…” He chuckled. “Mules.”
“I think we can manage, Mr. Hannahs. Thank you.” The woman turned to her group. “Kappa Nus!”
The ladies collected themselves.
“Everything we need is behind the building. Let’s get to it.”
I backed away quickly but was soon surrounded by chatter as women poured from the post office.
“Hello,” a girl said, extending a hand. “I’m Vi. Do you live here?”
“Loveda Brown,” I said, shaking it. “Yes. Next door. You aren’t going after the—”
“Hold up, Vi,” a tall, thin girl interrupted. “I’m Verbena.” She thrust a hand at me. “President of the Kappa Nu Upsilons.” She took my hand and pumped it. “First sorority at the University of Los Angeles. You’re looking at the class of 1913.” She beamed at her friends as she released my hand.
“Bean, you better shake a leg,” a girl called in passing.
“You’ll all graduate next June?” I asked as the group trailed after their leader.
A girl with studious green eyes said, “All of us but Marge, if she doesn’t get her Latin down.” She patted a shorter girl on the shoulder and the girl retaliated with a poke in her back.
“Et tu, Livy?” she said under her breath.
The woman in charge marched around to the back of the building. “Without delay, please,” she called.
Verbena rolled her eyes. “Miss Earnstwhistle. She thinks we need to be herded like buffalo.”
“Cats, Bean.” The last girl was a curvy blonde and tucked a stray hair into place. “She said herded like cats. Come on.”
They disappeared around the building, and I marched into the post office.
Mr. Hannahs looked up expectantly, but sobered when he saw me.
“You rented the mules to them, didn’t you?” I asked. He was silent as I approached the counter. “Congratulations.”
Mr. Hannahs pursed his lips, and his mustache lifted from his face in both directions. “They promenaded over,” he grumbled, and went about tidying something beneath his counter that didn’t need to be tidied. “They walked here in the heat.”
The mules were the first sore spot in our long and neighborly relationship. I always looked forward to visiting Mr. Hannahs at his post when I could sneak away for a break from the hotel. He was an Idyllwild original, the first man to operate a logging business, open a sawmill on the creek, and raise a family on his homestead. When the logging industry shut down, he became Idyllwild’s postmaster, connecting the entire mountain range through this single portal.
He wore his significance like a cape on his broad shoulders and his pride, both Swiss and American, knew no bounds. Self-educated, Mr. Hannahs spent his hours at work with a coffee mug at his elbow, reading every newspaper he could get his hands on. It made for interesting conversations.
It had been a quiet job until the mules arrived.
“I am being sincere,” I said. “I’m tired of hearing them bray at four in the morning. At least a rooster would be picturesque.” I smiled grimly. “And we could eat it.”
He shifted the telephone stand into a precise and invisible location on the counter.
“They must be staying at the Idyllwild Inn,” I continued. “I never thought I’d live to see the day you did business with Walter Lindley.”
“Mr. Lindley is a businessman. Renting mules is a business. Now we have something in common.”
I cleared my throat.
Mr. Hannahs finally met my eye. “I sold Mr. Lindley most of my property to build a sanatorium. He turned it into a resort.”
“He didn’t want to be a doctor anymore.”
“He brings up hundreds and hundreds of tourists.”
“They’re noisy and messy and inconsiderate.”
“And they all need a way to explore the mountain.”
“Mr. Hannahs. I’m shocked. I thought our job was to give them a bed and a breakfast and send them home as fast as possible.”
He narrowed his eyes. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
Commotion outside drew me to the door. Each girl was mounted on a trotting mule, but none of them was going in a straight line. Laughter, shrieks, and frantic shouts punctuated their attempts at progress. The mules were saddled with thick pads and broadcloth girths and the ladies sat astride, skirts hiked up over shoes and stockings, yanking ineffectively on the reins.
“Are they using the lead lines?” Mr. Hannahs asked from behind his counter.
He chuckled, and I turned to him. “You look smug,” I said. “You did this on purpose.”
He held up his hands in defense. “A mule is a safe animal for ladies. A mule is a follower. Not a leader.”
“That seems a little too safe.”
“They’ll stay out of trouble. There won’t be any races. They won’t take any long trips. There won’t be anyone wandering off and getting themselves lost. If we’re lucky, they’ll give up in less than a day and go home.”
Noise came from the south bend in the road. Hoofbeats, creaking wheels, and rumbling like thunder alerted the girls, and they kicked frantically at their steeds as the stagecoach came into view.
“Mail’s on time,” Mr. Hannahs grunted, looking up at his clock.
The mule bearing the leader of the sorority swung long ears toward the ruckus and made a decision. I could have sworn it winked at the mule next to it as it took off down the road, away from the incoming coach. As one, its fellows trotted after him. The girls squealed and held on for dear life and after a few tense moments, they were replaced in front of the post office by a team of four magnificent horses and their important cargo.
“If Emily were here,” I said, “she would have told them they’re better off walking.”
“If Emily were here,” Mr. Hannahs retorted, “we’d be out twelve dollars.”
Jim Roster, the driver, pulled his team expertly into position, aligned with the landing, and set the brake. He drove the coach on alternating days between Idyllwild and Hemet to the south and Banning to the north. Nearly five hours down in the morning and up again by suppertime, his life spent in the driver’s seat was broken only by Sunday respites. As Jim shaved on his day off, the heavy whiskers across his face told me loud and clear it was Thursday evening.
“Welcome back, Jim,” I called, letting the screen door shut behind me.
“Evening, Cinderella,” Jim said. He tugged at the heavy metal lockbox and dragged it onto his shoulder. “Don’t run off. I’ve got something for you.” Despite the use of his teasing nickname for me, he didn’t smile as he turned. He brushed past me and went into the post office.
“A letter?” I asked, taking a step after him. “Or a parcel?”
“Neither,” he called from inside.
I stopped and considered the silent coach. Today was normally the day we expected paying guests for the weekend, but sometimes they all went to the Idyllwild Inn instead. None of us had relatives or friends coming to visit. Had Karine ordered a specialty item for the kitchen?
Deputy Winters exited his office at the end of the boardwalk and headed our way. It was time for supper.
The horses stamped and blew, impatient to get home and fed. We didn’t wait long. Mr. Hannahs followed Jim back out of the post office and turned to lock it for the night. Jim stowed his empty box and I stood patiently on the platform, sensing he wasn’t in the mood for our usual banter. The scar that cut over his right eye made him look somewhat intimidating, but I knew better. His rough edges disguised a good man, faithful to his job and meticulous with his horses.
Jim disappeared behind the coach, and Mr. Hannahs went around the building to the nearly empty corral to collect his chestnut gelding.
By the time Mr. Hannahs rode up, Jim had reappeared carrying a heavy chair. He dropped the chair unceremoniously onto the boardwalk with a creak and a clunk of large metal wheels.