Sheriff Cooper hears the piano playing at the saloon long before he goes up the steps and pushes through the batwing doors. It’s not because the piano’s magically gotten any louder; it’s just amplified by the enthusiasm of the people singing along. Intuition, and the presence of an unfamiliar wagon, let him know that there’s a new entertainer in town. The flourishes and curlicues of the weathered to illegibility name painted on the wagon let him know it’s a lady.
Most people in Table Rock think their Sheriff's a pretty serious man, and they’re right – most of the time. He takes his job to heart, often spending long sleepless nights puzzling over the location of some outlaw gang’s hideout, and he never stops chasing a criminal until they’re caught. But then, they also know that once he set his heart to wooing Miss Penny, the schoolmistress, he didn’t stop until she was Missus Cooper, still the schoolmistress but also, in a way people see but don’t say, his other deputy besides Deputy Hofstadter. It wouldn’t be proper for a woman to do a lawman’s job, but anyone who’s seen Missus Cooper shoot knows better than to argue the point.
Besides, if women like Leslie Winkle can run with the outlaws, then surely decent women like Missus Cooper can side with the law to help bring them down.
Tonight’s not a night for worrying about outlaws, female or otherwise, though. He knows his territory, knows there’s no trouble within fifty miles of Table Rock, and he’s too intrigued by this new arrival to fret anyway. Tonight might just be a night he gets to let his hair down a little.
Bernadette’s behind the bar, back to full health except for a little flinch every so often if she overextends her arm. Wolowitz and Koothrappali have abandoned their usual table near the bar for a table right by the piano, which is set up on a little stage down the other end of the saloon. Sheriff Cooper scans the crowd for troublemakers and sees none – one or two men who he might have to keep an eye on, maybe ask Bernadette to water their whiskey a little as the night goes on – and lets himself relax a little.
There’s a handful of people dancing near the piano where the tables have been pushed back. The song’s not one he knows, but it’s swinging and easy and the stamp of boots and click of heels on the wooden floor provides a solid counterpoint to the pretty notes from the piano and the prettier voice of the singer. Her blonde hair’s all teased up into a big cloud and the dress she’s wearing is a shade of pink he’s never seen in the haberdashery downstreet.
A hand slips into his and he jumps and turns, only to be confronted by his smiling wife.
“Checking out the new talent in town?” she asks, squeezing his hand.
“She’s got an amazing voice.”
“That’s not all that’s amazing if you ask Wolowitz. His eyes’re out on stalks.” She makes an indecent gesture in front of her chest with her free hand.
“I hadn’t seen that much yet,” says Sheldon, and Penny pinches the back of his hand.
“Sheriff Cooper.” The new voice comes from behind Penny. Sheldon drops Penny’s hand and extends his hand to her father, who shakes it briefly, giving him a quick once-over as he does so.
“I wasn’t expecting you to be in town, sir,” Sheldon says, dropping automatically into the respectful speech of his childhood, when even his parents were “sir” and “ma’am”.
“Son, you know you can call me Wyatt. You made an honest woman of my daughter.”
“Are you saying I was dishonest before?” Penny asks with genuine interest.
Her father shoos the remark away with a wave of his hand. “I was just passing through, and thought I’d stop by to see how you two were getting on. I haven’t had a letter from you in months.” He directs this last at his daughter, who squirms a little under his gaze.
“Everything’s fine, sir.”
Penny is less inclined to accept her father’s explanation as gospel. “Just passing through? You work way over on the West Coast. Where on earth could you be going to just ‘pass through’ Table Rock? People who live here have to make a special effort just to come into town sometimes.”
“It so happens that I’m scouting out a route for the new train line the company intends to run ‘cross the country, and although we don’t think it’ll come as far north as here, I took a little detour.”
Sheldon feels his shoulders go tense. “A train line? Sir, that’s awfully dangerous work.”
Wyatt gives him a shrewd look. “And your job isn’t?”
Sheldon concedes the point with a nod. He can’t help but think of the perils, though; outlaws, people fighting to get their hands on a piece of something not rightfully theirs, and of course they’re not going to make any distinction between a man of means and Penny’s father, who’s just a land surveyor. He won’t breathe a word of it to Penny, though; most likely she’ll work it out for herself.
Bernadette comes over to them with a tray bearing three glasses. Sheldon rarely drinks anything but water, and Wyatt takes the whiskey with a smile, leaving the lemonade for Penny. That’s a surprise; she’s a lady in a lot of ways, but when it comes to shooting, riding, and drinking, Sheldon would pit her against any man.
She sticks her tongue out after the first mouthful in a very unladylike fashion. “Bernadette! Did you forget the sugar?”
“I did not,” Bernadette says. “I suggest your sense of taste’s a little off at the moment.”
Penny gives her a scathing shut-your-trap look. Sheldon catches it and also catches Wyatt catching it, and the next thing he knows his father-in-law has him by the elbow and is hustling him outside.
“What do you know about this?”
Sheldon is very rarely lost for words, but now seems to be one of those unfortunate times. “Nothing, sir?”
Wyatt sighs and slips a silver case from his shirt pocket, plucking a slim, meticulously rolled cigarette from it, and scratches a match to light it. He draws deep, exhales a plume of smoke, and says, “I know my daughter’s ways have changed considerably since she settled down with you, but I’ve never known her not to partake of alcohol on a Friday night when there’s music playing and people dancing.”
“That’s true,” Sheldon says cautiously.
“So, Sheriff, tell me: what do you think might make a girl like my Penny suddenly give up alcohol? You know she ain’t no quitter, and she’s not just a pretty face, so what’s she hidin’ behind that smile of hers?”
Sheldon stares at his father-in-law for only half a second before the penny drops. He turns on his heel and dashes back into the saloon, hearing Wyatt’s chuckle behind him.
Penny’s taken over behind the bar – a quick scan of the dance floor tells Sheldon that it’s because Bernadette’s out there with Wolowitz.
“What’s going on?” he asks, stepping behind the bar and catching Penny’s hands in his.
Her cheeks are pink. “Oh, Wolowitz was staring a little too hard at the stage and Bernadette decided to remind him just who he’d set his cap at before that lady singer came into town.”
“Not that, Penny Cooper. What aren’t you telling me?”
“About what, husband mine? Seems to me there could be a lot of things I’m not telling you.”
“Your father suggested that maybe there was more to you drinking lemonade than a sudden taste for sugar-water over sour mash.”
“Bernadette’s lemonade isn’t that sugary,” Penny says.
“You’re changing the subject.”
Whatever Penny is about to say is cut off short as the saloon doors crash open. The woman who comes striding in is wearing a shockingly short dress; Sheldon can see her knees. Her brunette hair is fluffed out and teased up, and the earrings she’s wearing swing almost to her shoulders, which are mostly bare thanks to how—strappy her dress is.
“Thief!” she hollers across the room, and the music goes on for only a moment longer before coming to a jangly halt. The newcomer cuts an effortless path through the crowd, clearly bound for the piano and singer.
Sheldon takes a second to say, “We’ll discuss this later,” before rounding the bar.
Deputy Hofstadter’s already on his way over there, and a good thing too, as the brunette reaches the piano and is moving to grab the blonde singer just as the deputy interposes himself between them.
“All right, ladies,” he says, holding his hands up a prudent distance from their respective heaving bosoms. “What seems to be the problem here?”
“She’s a darned old thief!” says the brunette. Her accent is downright odd to Sheldon’s ears; it’s not southern like his, nor yet is it local like Penny’s. While the singer sounds like she’s from over east, he can’t place the brunette’s at all.
“She’s a liar,” the blonde counters. “I didn’t steal a thing.”
“What, exactly, did she steal?” Deputy Hofstadter looks like he’s about ready to just let them fight it out.
“It’s not a what, it’s a who!” The brunette turns and points dramatically at the pianist – who was in the middle of making a stealthy exit until he runs spang into the chest of Table Rock’s finest.
“You can’t leave just yet,” Sheldon informs him. Then, remembering his manners, and that this man is not yet confirmed guilty of anything, he adds, “Sir.”
“Stefani,” Deputy Hofstadter says. He’s got his thinking face on. “Sounds German. Are you German?”
“I can be if you want,” the singer says with a wink.
The brunette – Eilleen, she’s introduced herself as – sighs and rolls her eyes. “Oh yeah, you would, wouldn’t you?”
“Pretend to be all exotic, try to win his love, the same way you always do. Don’t be stupid.”
“Listen,” says Stefani, sounding less exotic with every word, “I am not the one responsible for your relationship breaking up. I can’t help being a rising star, and I can’t help it if some people want to rise with me. Besides, you’re the one from up north.”
“Up north?” Sheldon interjects, before the tiny lockup can explode with feminine fury. “From snow country?”
Eilleen nods, looking a little shy. “Bobby and I were traveling together, and then Miss Oh So Fancy here caught his ear, and the rest is history.”
Sheldon turns to Bobby. “So you left your wife for another woman?”
All three of them give him blank looks. All four, if you count the Deputy, but he’s had the same blank look most of the conversation.
“No, hon,” Stefani says. “This is strictly professional, you understand.”
“She stole my pianist,” Eilleen spits.
A whoop of laughter from outside indicates that they have an audience.
Sheldon stands up, ready to go smack some heads together, but then hears a rather closer giggle. Eilleen, having heard her own accusation out loud, tempered by the laughter of their unseen listeners (Sheldon suspects Wolowitz and Koothrappali), has covered her mouth with her hand, but not before Sheldon sees the smile that’s sprung to her lips.
“I think that came out all wrong,” Stefani says.
“You’ve been doing just fine without me, Eily,” Bobby says.
“I guess,” Eilleen allows. She glances at Sheldon before she continues, but he just nods at her; they’re no longer at each other’s throats and if they can resolve it themselves then so much the better. “It’s okay, Sheriff. This isn’t a bad romance. I guess I may have treated it like one a little. But I’d like us to do at least one more song together before we all move on.”
“Just you and me, Eily?” Bobby asks.
“I think all three of us?” She makes it a question, looking at Stefani, who nods and smiles.
“Well, come on over to the saloon,” the Deputy says, “and maybe we can rustle up a guitar as well. Don’t make sense to have two singers and only one instrument.”
The laughter from outside this time is identifiably Koothrappali, and Sheldon strides out to shoo the pair away, hearing as he goes Eilleen’s admission that actually, she has her own guitar. Too bad for the Deputy; he doesn’t get the chance to haul out his own six-string, although to be honest that’s probably for the best for everyone else. It’s not that he’s tone-deaf, just that he’s got his own notions about what sounds good.
Half an hour later, everyone’s settled in to listen to the music, or to dance. Mostly to dance. Before long, Bernadette lights the big oil lamps so that nobody has to dance in the dark.
A couple of brief spats between the two singers over which song to play next are resolved by the simple expedient of Wolowitz flipping a coin. After the second time that said coin lands in Eilleen’s cleavage, Bernadette marches over and drags him back behind the bar by his ear to reprimand him. Penny’s pa is drinking quietly in a corner, and keeps shooting his daughter meaningful glances. Sheldon has to objection to his father-in-law, but sort of hopes he’s leaving town soon; he doesn’t want Penny caught between the two of them.
Although Penny’s always been pretty capable of doing things her own way, with or without a ring on her finger.
Sheldon waits until he’s sure nobody’s going to start a brawl over who’s singing whose lyrics, or – after one song – whose bed whose boots have been under. Miss Fowler in particular looks liable to remind Deputy Hofstadter who he’s been stepping out with lately. At least she’s not the wildcat type to slap his face in public, but his ears would be smarting by the time she was done with him.
Then he seeks out his lady wife, who is leaning against the bar, sipping another lemonade, and escorts her out to the front porch.
The bench out front has its rough spots still, even after years of being sat on, but the two of them know very well where the smooth places are so Penny won’t snag her dress. Sheldon stretches his arm along the back of the bench and Penny nestles against his side, pulling her bonnet off. The music is still loud, but not so much that they can’t hear each other, with the benefit of those inside the saloon not being able to hear them. The moon’s belly is filling like Penny’s, turning the town silver and black.
“When were you gonna tell me?” he asks once they’re settled, not bothering any longer with dancing around the truth.
“I swear to God, Sheldon, I’ve only known a few days myself. It’s been six weeks since I last, well, rode the cotton pony—”
Undaunted, she continues, “—but I wanted to be sure, and so when Miss Barnett came into town last week, I got her to check then.”
“Miss Barnett? Couldn’t you have gotten a real doctor?”
Penny thwaps him with her bonnet. “She knows more about midwifery than any old sawbones with a piece of paper, and you know it.”
Sheldon puts a careful hand on her belly, still just about flat.
“Oh now, Sheriff Cooper, you are not going to break me just by touching me.”
“I feel like I ought to ask first.”
“As if touching me isn’t what got me this way in the first place,” Penny scoffs.
Sheldon has to admit that she has a point. “Are you planning to tell everyone?”
“Please. Then everyone’ll treat me like I’m a delicate flower. Bernadette and Amy know, and Miss Barnett. But otherwise I aim to carry on just as I have until I start to show.”
“Then everyone’ll realize you’ve been keeping secrets.”
“Yes. But,” Penny says, turning her face to his for a kiss, “no one needs to know right now.”