Excerpt: The Persephone Star

The rumors had been flying for days. The ship had been spotted just over the town line, in Copper Creek. It hung heavy in the sky, a blot against the sun, and messages had been flying into Fortuna’s Post Office, warnings and pleas alike.

Penelope took them down dutifully, listening to the clicks of the telegraph and writing down the messages in careful, clear letters. She sorted them methodically, pretending that she was merely a conduit for the letters that flew over the line, merely another cog in the machine, her pencil connected to the wire that snaked its way through the sky, all part of the great Line.

As Postmistress she knew everyone’s business—often before they did. Every family emergency, every business deal gone good or bad. Every love letter sent over the line arrived at its destination in her neat, careful handwriting. Every ‘Dear John’ letter came the same way.

Penelope had to pretend not to see, because she had to look the townspeople in the eye, had to smile at them in the general store, chat with them over coffee at the church, dine with them at her father’s house. She had to be a townsperson like everyone else, as if she wasn’t so full of secrets she often felt liable to burst at the seams, nothing holding her together but the corset that bound her ribcage tight.

So she wrote the messages from Copper Creek down and pretended not to see them, pretended fear didn’t well up in her throat as she wrote the name Mirage Currier over and over again, and put them in a neat little pile to be delivered to the Sheriff.

Tobias Combes came in at midday, looking spooked. He was a frail man, tall but so lean he looked like he’d fall over with a gentle breeze. He crossed his spindly arms on the high counter and leaned forward, eyes wide. “A rider just arrived from Copper Creek.” He pitched his voice low, as if they weren’t the only two in the office.

“Oh?” Penelope said mildly. She knew what he wanted. People came by all the time, ‘just to chat’, knowing Penelope knew more than she let on, hoping she’d let something slip.

She took pride in her job and so kept her lips sealed tight. No one was going to say a woman couldn’t be trusted with the Line while Penelope was in charge.

“A ship’s come into town,” Tobias continued, his lean face more pinched than usual. “An outlaw ship.”

If she weren’t so unnerved herself, Penelope would have laughed. Everything sounded ridiculous coming from Tobias, a man who could be frightened by a black cat crossing his path.

“Is their sheriff doing anything about it?” Penelope asked. She had been wondering all day. Surely the problem was Copper Creek’s—not theirs.

“They’re not causing any trouble, so the sheriff can’t do nothing.”

“Outlaws who don’t cause trouble?” Penelope arched a brow, reaching for the mail sack for something to do with her hands.

“Not in Copper Creek,” Tobias said darkly. He leaned closer, pitching his voice lower. “It’s the Persephone Star—Mirage Currier’s ship.”

Penelope had only been in town for nine months, since she drove in on the steam coach when her father opened Fortuna’s first bank. But everyone in Fortuna knew the Persephone Star—it had become legend, along with its captain, Mirage Currier. Penelope was sure that the legend had spread far beyond their little town—she couldn’t believe they weren’t talking all the way back East. A woman bandit, leading a crew of female outlaws.

“I thought Currier was in jail.” Penelope said, forcing blandness into her voice.

“Got out, got her crew together, and came right here.”

“To Copper Creek,” Penelope corrected.

“For now.” Tobias’s brows lowered, and Penelope was glad she didn’t have to upset him more, to tell him what the messages that had been streaming in all day said: Currier was gathering supplies, trading for guns and ammunition with the worst Copper Creek had to offer. Gearing up, to come to Fortuna.

“Don’t worry,” she said, trying to be kind. “The Sheriff will handle it.”

“It’s him they’re coming for,” Tobias mumbled and Penelope turned from the counter, pretending not to hear.

“You mind letting Mrs. Cranshaw know she’s got a letter here, Tobias? I know she’s been waiting.”

“Oh. ‘Course, Miss Moser.” Tobias was too polite to stay when he’d been so clearly dismissed. He shuffled out of the office, rolling his narrow shoulders to avoid cracking his head on the doorframe.

Penelope picked up the stack of messages for the Sheriff. Everyone knew why Currier was back in town; it was Fortuna’s sheriff who had put her away. The Star had been terrorizing the good God-fearing folks of the area for too long, and when Wiley got elected sheriff, he decided to do something about it. Currier hadn’t ever hit Fortuna, but Wiley got together with some of the other sheriffs in the territory and went after her—before she could come after Fortuna, he said.

And now she was back for revenge.

Penelope tucked the Sheriff’s messages into her knapsack and set about tidying the office for the day. Mail and telegraphs got sorted into neat slots under the desk, and the moneybox was kept under lock and key—in a safe, to be extra secure. Penelope wasn’t a fool, and she knew that the Post Office was the place most likely to be robbed if anyone looking for trouble came to Fortuna.

Once those chores were done, Penelope turned to her pride and joy: the library.

It was really just two shelves on the wall behind the counter, lined with volumes donated by townspeople. But each one had a slip pasted into the front, with neat little boxes to write a due date in.

Only, Penelope couldn’t get anyone to borrow them. She had taken the position as Postmistress for something to do, some way to pass the time in the tiny town fate had brought her to. The library was her pet project. She had been to the public library in New York once, a massive building with stacks and stacks of books, for anyone to read. Wandering through, running her childish fingers over the endless spines, Penelope got it into her head that it was where she belonged. She looked at the women behind the big desks, helping people to find books, and decided then and there that that was what she was going to do when she grew up.

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