Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change -- Spring, part 5 of 13

Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change – Spring, part 5 of 13
By Ellie Dauber and Chris Leeson © 2014

Sunday, April 28, 1872

Nancy walked slowly towards the schoolhouse. ‘Feels good to be back here,’ she thought to herself, as she joined the crowd of Sunday worshipers gathering outside the doors. ‘Even just for Sunday services.’

There was a rustle around her, as people turned to look her way. “What is she doing here?” someone said indignantly, speaking just loud enough for Nancy to hear.

Another voice – Nancy thought that she recognized the nasal tones of Zenobia Carson – added: “Look at her, coming here today as if she had nothing to be ashamed of.”

Nancy bristled and shifted to face her. “Why shouldn’t I be here? I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Cecelia Ritter suddenly blocked her path. “Go home, you brazen hussy. You’ve no place here among decent folk.”

Nancy looked the matron in the eye. “I thought that the church would be exactly the place for a sinner as evil as you claim I am.”

Cecelia laughed smugly. “The place for a repentant sinner, perhaps, but I see no sign of repentance – or the hope of repentance -- in you.”

“And I see no sign of Christian humility – or Christian mercy – in you, Mrs. Ritter.” She tried to step around the other woman. “Perhaps, we’re both in need of some divine assistance.”

Lavina Mackechnie and Zenobia Carson moved in front of her. “How dare you speak to Cecelia like that?” Lavinia asked.

“Because she deserves it; now let me pass.” Nancy glowered at the trio, as they continued to obstruct her. A few others, male and female, joined them. Nancy was all but surrounded. She thought that she saw Phillipia Stone at the back of the crowd, giving her a smile of encouragement, but unable to get any closer.

Reverend Yingling pushed his way through the crowd. “What is going on here?”

“This… this hussy insulted us.” Cecelia replied.” She… she boasted about her scarlet ways.”

Nancy shook her head. “I did nothing of the sort, Reverend. All I wanted to do was to attend services, and these three tried to force me to leave.”

“Perhaps…” Yingling studied Nancy’s face. Then he glanced over at Cecelia. “Perhaps, Nancy, it might be better to let things quiet down before you --”

“Seek the guidance of our Lord?” Arsenio stepped up next to the minister. “That’s hardly what I would expect a man of G-d to say. A politician might say it, but a preacher like you – never.”

Yingling took a breath. “She, ahhh… she is, of course, welcome here today. I only meant that she – that all four ladies -- should take a moment to calm down before joining us.” He looked angrily at Cecelia. “Joy, not anger, however justified, is the way to worship our Savior.” He turned and hurried off, with most of the crowd following him.

“Thank you, Mr. Caulder,” Nancy said, trying to collect her thoughts. “And good morning to you, Mrs. Caulder,” she added when Laura joined her husband.

Arsenio smiled. “Glad to be of help.”

“Nancy!” Phillipa Stone and her husband, Lucian, joined the group. “I wanted to talk to you some more about the school.” She smiled at Nancy and gave a reassuring wink.

The teacher felt her body unclench. “Certainly, we can have a nice long talk about things after church.”

“Why don’t you join Phillipia and me, then?” Lucian offered Nancy his left arm, as his wife took his right.

“Delighted.” She took his arm and walked with them into the building.

* * * * *

Cap Lewis rode into town at full gallop. When he reached Doc Upshaw’s office, he pulled up and leapt from his horse, pausing just long enough to tie the reins to the hitching post.

“Damn!” he spat when he reached the door. “Locked.” He pounded on the glass in frustration.

The curtain at the window to the left of Cap opened deliberately. It was Edith Lonnigan, squinting into the darkness outside. She bustled over to the front door, and turned the latch. “Who?… oh, Mr. Lewis.”

“Thanks,” Cap said as the door opened. He hurried past her into the waiting room, a wild look in his eyes, his clothes coated with dust from a long, hard ride. “My uncle,” he demanded. “Luke Freeman wired me that he’d been shot. How is he?” He waited for a response. When she didn’t speak, he started for the back, where he knew Upshaw had some beds for his patients.

“Wait a minute, Mr. Lewis.” The curtain before him moved aside, and Red Tully stepped through, to block the way. “The doc’s checking on your uncle right now.”

Cap raised an eyebrow. “Red… what are you doing here?”

“Helping me.” The physician walked through the curtain from the back. His white coat was rumpled, and his hair was messed. He’d been busy. “Helping your uncle, too.”

“How is Uncle Abner? What happened? Can I talk to him?”

Upshaw raised a hand. “I just gave him something to make him sleep, so you won’t be able to talk right now. To tell the truth, I’ve got him sleeping a lot. It’s about all I can do for him at the moment.”

“Who hurt him?” Cap demanded.

“Two men, Stafford and Saunders, ambushed him,” Red added, “but don’t you worry none. We caught ‘em. They’re cooling their heels in jail till their trial tomorrow.”

“Who in hell are they?”

“A couple o’polecats from Texas,” Red answered.

“Stafford… from Texas? Is that the same Stafford Bridget told my uncle and me about?”

The other two men suddenly looked uneasily at one another, as if they knew something that they didn't want to say.

Cap took a breath. “In jail? That’s some good news, anyway.” He looked the doctor in the eye. “But you said that all you could do was help Uncle Abner sleep. What exactly is the matter with him?”

“The bullet lodged in his spine, as near as I can tell without surgery. He was mounted when he was hit, and he fell off the horse – hard. He doesn’t seem to have much feeling below the middle of his back.”

“Is he… paralyzed?”

“It’s too early to say. He seems to have some sensation in his right arm, but not much other than that. Look, Cap, there’s a Doctor Vogel in Philly. He was an Army surgeon during the War, and he’s an expert on such wounds. I’ve written – telegraphed – him to ask for advice. He’s helped more than one doctor that way, so I have every hope that he can help your uncle, too.”

“How… how soon will he write back?”

“I don’t know. I said that it was urgent. In the meantime, I’m monitoring your uncle. Luke Freeman told Red to stay here and help out. Did you know that he was an orderly at a Union Army Hospital?”

Cap shook his head. “I guess he did mention it once or twice.” He glanced to the cowhand. “Thanks, Red.”

“Glad t’help. Your uncle’s a good man.”

“Thank you for that, too.” Cap’s body relaxed, and he suddenly yawned.

Doc Upshaw studied the man for a moment. “You rode straight on through from Prescott, didn’t you?”

“I did. What… what of it?”

“There’re four beds in my ward. Why don’t you pick one that your uncle isn’t using and get some rest?”

“But my uncle… and… and Bridget.”

The physician frowned for some reason that Cap didn’t understand. “It’s only mid morning. Wouldn’t it be better to wait until later, after you’ve had some sleep, before you see her? You’ll be rested, and you and she can give each other your full attention.”

“Now, that…” Cap yawned again. And smiled. “… that sounds like a real good idea. Okay, Doc, show me to that bed.”

* * * * *

“Papa,” Ruth Yingling said hesitantly, “can I ask you a question?”

Yingling smiled. “May I ask you a question, and, yes, you may.”

“Why was everybody being so nasty to Miss Osbourne? What did she do wrong?”

The Reverend thought for a moment. “She, ah… some people feel that she has not been acting in a manner appropriate for a school teacher.”

“That’s not true,” the girl protested. “She’s a good teacher. She gave me all that extra help with my spelling, and look how well I did on my last test.”

Yingling patted her head. “It is not her spelling that is the problem, daughter. It was the example she set for her students.”

“She didn’t set a bad example today,” Stephan interrupted. “She was just trying to come to church when Miz Ritter and them – and those other women stopped her.”

The minister raised a surprised eyebrow at his son. “Cecelia – Mrs. Ritter – and the other women were concerned that she might cause trouble. I’m surprised that you didn’t see that.”

“I saw,” the boy continued. “It looked to me like they were bullying her, trying to force her to leave.”

Ruth smiled and clutched her father’s arm. “But they didn’t. Papa stopped them.”

“Yes,” the boy replied, “yes, he did… eventually.”

The man frowned. “I merely wanted to give them all time to calm down. One should not enter a church in anger.” His son just misunderstood. The boy couldn’t possibly be questioning him.

“Of course, father,” Stephan said innocently. “What other reason could you have?”

* * * * *

“Your lawyer’s here to see you, boys,” Paul announced.

Zach Levy walked over to the jail cell where Stafford and Saunders were locked up. “Good afternoon, gentlemen.” He waited while Paul unlocked the cell and opened the door. “May we have some privacy, Deputy?” he asked as he entered the cell.

“Don’t see why not.” He locked the door. “Give a yell when you’re ready to leave.” He turned and walked back to the desk. The deputy was far enough away that there was little chance that he could hear them talking.

The lawyer sat down on the bunk. He set his dark brown, leather briefcase on the cot next to Forry and took out a pad of paper and a pencil. “It doesn’t look very good. Forry, you were heard arguing with Abner Slocum about something. Then you’re found holding a rifle and looking out from hiding when he’s shot. They found you both, actually.”

“They done shot me, too,” Leland interrupted. “I’ll be limping for weeks from that bullet them bastards put in my leg.”

“The fact that you were two trying to run away doesn’t help your case very much. The only thing in your favor is that Slocum is still alive. Otherwise, you’d be on trial for murder instead of attempted murder.” Zach studied the faces of his two clients. “Can you tell me anything – anything at all – that would help?”

Forry grinned. “How about the fact that I know Ed Davis; know him real good. Does that help?”

“I’m not sure. Who is this Mr. Davis? Does he live around here?”

The other man chuckled. “Nope, he lives back in Austin – in the governor’s mansion.”

“So you claim to know the governor of Texas. I’m afraid that I don’t see how that might help your case.”

“Oh, I know him, all right, but it won’t help at my trial, though. They’ve got me dead to rights.”

Zach raised a curious eyebrow. “Do you want to plead guilty, then?”

“Might as well. It doesn’t really matter what happens at the trial.”

“What do you mean? Of course it matters. If you can give the jury a good reason as to why you ambushed Abner Slocum, you might even get lucky and draw a lesser sentence.”

“Well, I could say that Slocum had been making false accusations about me, and that he'd sworn to my face that he was going to smear my honorable reputation by spreading them around. But that defense would just drag things out. I've had enough of this territory, and I just want to get home as soon as I can.”

“Threatening to hurt your reputation, that seems like a pretty weak justifications for shooting a man from cover. Tell me, do you have any witness to these threats you say he made?”

“Leland here.”

Zach shook his head. “He's one of the accused. His testimony won't count for much, not with Slocum being such a respected man locally.”

“If I’d had my way, Slocum’d be dead right now. But, like you said, after the trial comes the sentencing, and that’s where knowing Ed’ll come in very handy. Whoever you got as the territorial governor of Arizona, he should fall all over himself when the governor of Texas tells him to let me go.”

Saunders looked nervous. “What about me, boss? You ain’t gonna leave me rot in some jail, are you?”

“I suppose I owe you something. I’ll see if Ed can’t get you out, too.” Forry smiled and put him arm on his hireling’s shoulder. ‘The hell I will,’ he thought, still smiling broadly. ‘If I get you out, you’ll have something you can hold over me for years, just like you and Cooper did with Adobe Wells. It’ll be a pure relief to let you rot.’

* * * * *

Cap walked through the swinging doors of the Eerie Saloon. He stopped almost at once and looked around inside. Bridget was alone, sitting at her usual table.

‘Probably playing that solitaire game of hers,’ he thought, ‘but why is she sitting with her back to the door, instead of watching to see who comes in?’ He shrugged and started towards her.

Shamus saw him and started to say something. Cap stopped and put a finger to his lips, asking the barman not to give away the surprise.

“Guess who,” he told her, reaching around as he did so to cover her eyes. He leaned down and kissed the side of her neck – just to give her a clue, of course.

She shuddered and pushed away from him. “N-no! Don’t… don’t touch me!” Then she turned and saw his face.

“Oh… oh, my G-d… Cap!” She looked at him, like he never saw her look at him before. She sprang up and bolted for the stairs before he recovered from his own surprise.

He stared, confused, for just a moment. “Bridget, what’s going on?” When she didn’t answer, when she kept running, he began the chase.

With his longer legs, he closed most of the distance between them while they were still on the stairway. But when she reached the second floor, she sprinted for her door. She managed to get inside, closing it behind her in time to shut him out.

“Bridget, please.” He tried the knob, only to hear the click of the latch, as it slid into place.

“G-go away. I… you don’t… don’t…” Her voice trailed off.

He shook the door, trying to force it open somehow. “I don’t what? Please, Bridget, please tell me what’s the matter.” He took a breath. “I… I love you.”

“No, you… you don’t.” There were no words after that, only the horrible sound of a woman – the woman he loved – sobbing.

Why was she acting like this? All at once, he remembered the odd glance that had passed between Red Tully and the doctor. Something had happened to Bridget, something so bad that they didn't want to him to know about it. He sank down to the floor, his fists clenched in frustration and anger. Anger at whoever had done this to her, and frustration that he couldn’t take her in his arms and comfort her.

* * * * *

Shamus caught Molly staring at the ceiling. “Why don’t ye go up there, Love?”

“What do ye mean?”

“That’s gotta be the ninth time ye was looking up towards Bridget’s room in the last five minutes.”

“I’m worried, Shamus. Ye saw the way she ran, like she was being chased by a demon from Hell, and not by the man she cares for – and who cares for her – more than any other.”

“I know. The best thing for the both of them would be if they was in her room… comforting each other. But if they ain’t – which is the more likely, I’m thinking, that maybe ye can help.”

“From yuir mouth t’the Good Lord’s Ear.” Molly gave him a quick peck on the cheek and headed for the staircase.

* * * * *

Cap sat on the floor outside Bridget’s door. Her crying had stopped, but there were no other sounds from within the room. He was trying to decide what to do next, when he heard a voice, a voice on this side of the door. “Cap, are ye all right?”

“Molly?” He managed to get to his feet. “What’s going on?”

She gave him a vague smile. “I’ll not be telling ye here. Come down and have a drink.”

“What about Bridget? I want to --”

“Ye’re not likely t’be hearing it from her. For that matter, it ain’t likely that she’ll be coming out anytime soon.” She put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Ye might as well be waiting for her at the bar. Our stools are a lot more comfortable that that patch of floor ye’ve been sitting on.”

He thought for a moment. “I suppose. She’s got to come out sometime, and I can wait just as well downstairs.” His stomach growled. “Sorry, I haven’t eaten all day.”

“Even more reason t’be coming with me. Maggie’s serving up some nice chicken stew at that restaurant o’hers tonight.”

Cap followed Molly down, and they both took a seat at one of the restaurant tables. “Now,” he asked as soon as he sat down. “What’s the matter with Bridget? Why did she act the way she did? What does everybody know that I don't?”

“She…” Molly sighed. She looked down at the table and spoke in a low, troubled voice. “Cap, there ain’t no good way t’be saying it. Bridget…” Molly sighed and closed her eyes, hating what she had to tell him. “She… she was… raped.”

She saw the young rancher's expression change to astonishment, then horror, then rage. “Take it easy, Cap,” she cautioned.

“What! Who did it? Where is he?” Cap growled, his hands balled into fists. “I’ll… I’ll cut his balls off.”

“In jail, he is, and good riddance.” She spat. “His trial’s tomorrow, only it… it ain’t for that.” She laid her hand on his arm. “His name is Stafford, and he’s… he’s the man that shot yuir Uncle Abner.”

“Stafford again! I’ll… I’ll kill him right now!” Cap’s fists were clenched, and Molly kept a careful eye on the steak knife that was part of his place setting at the table.

“Don’t ye be going off and doing something stupid like that. Bridget needs ye. She’s been in a dreadful state of mind, since he… done it to her.”

“She behaved like she was afraid of her own shadow, but, Molly, why did she run away once she knew it was me?”

“That devil of a man done a lot more t’her than just… what he done t’her body. He come in here the next day, bold as brass, and pays her for what he done t’her. He paid her right thuir where everyone could see.”

“My Lord! He damned well called Bridget a whore when he did that.”

“Most of them that was about when he come in, they knew that it was a lie. So do most o’them that’ve heard of it by now. Ain’t nobody talked like they thought she was a whore, at least not while me or Shamus was around t’be hearing it.” She shook her head. “The problem ain’t what other people thinks of Bridget; it’s what she thinks o’herself.”

“She can’t possibly be thinking that she’s a whore.”

Molly nodded. “She does, and she’s convinced that everybody else thinks the same. Worst of all, she’s sure that ye’ll be feeling that way, too, as soon as ye hear the tale. That’s why she ran. She was afraid t’be facing the disgust she knew she’d be seeing in yuir eyes.”

“I won’t just cut off that bastard’s balls…” Cap’s face was purple with rage. “I’ll cut off his prick, too, and feed it to him. Then I’ll kill him.”

Judge Humphreys had been seated two tables away, eating dinner with Dwight Albertson.
He stood up and walked over, taking an empty seat between Molly and Cap. “That’s a good sentiment, Cap, though it’s hardly something a judge should approve of. Only you won’t be able to put those admirable intentions of yours into action,” he told them, “now or after the trial either, most likely.”

“What do ye mean, yuir Honor?” Molly asked.

“I heard about what Stafford did, and, no, I didn’t believe a word of what he implied about Bridget, not for a minute, either. Unfortunately, she was too ashamed to file charges, so there was nothing the Sheriff or I could do for her.”

“But they got caught dead to rights on your uncle’s land, and the jury’s most likely to find them guilty. If they do, I intend to throw the book at them.”

Cap studied the Judge’s face. “So if they get found guilty, they’ll get the choice of the potion or jail, like Jane did, or Ozzie Pratt?”

Humphreys gave them both a nasty sort of grin. “Maybe.”

* * * * *

Monday, April 29, 1872

“Oyez, oyez,” Dan Talbot called out, “the court of the Honorable Parnassus J. Humphreys for the Township of Eerie in the County of Maricopa and the Territory of Arizona is now in session.”

The Judge was sitting at one of the restaurant tables. He pounded his gavel one time. “Be seated,” he ordered and turned to Paul. “What’s the first case?”

“The Township of Eerie versus Forrest Stafford and Leland Saunders on the charges of attempted murder and
flight to avoid prosecution.”

Zach Levy was seated between the two defendants. He quickly rose to his feet. “Zachary Levy defending these men, Your Honor.”

“And how do they plead, Mr. Levy?” Humphreys asked.

“Guilty on both counts, sir.”

The Judge blinked. He clearly had not expected this. Then, composing himself, he motioned with his hand. “Stand up, you two.” He waited for the men to stand. “Is that right? The two of you are admitting to shooting Abner Slocum?”

“We are, Your Honor,” Forry replied.

“Just for the sake of curiosity, would you care to explain why you did it?”

Stafford shrugged. “Angry words were spoken. My friend and I over-reacted.”

“That would be an understatement,” the Judge said with a scowl.

Forry shook his head in distaste. “Let’s get on with it.” He started to sit until Levy warned him to keep standing.

Humphreys frowned. “Mr. Saunders, are you pleading guilty, as well?”

“He is,” Forry said.

The Judge studied Stafford with annoyance for a moment. “Let the man speak for himself, Mr. Stafford. Are you telling me that you’re also guilty, Mr. Saunders?”

“I-I am, s-sir,” Leland answered nervously. “I -- I'm deeply sorry, Your Honor.”

Milt Quinlan had been sitting alone at a table a few feet away from Levy and his clients. “It seems that we won’t need your services as prosecutor, after all, Counselor,” the Judge told him, “or those of the jury. However, I’ll ask the jurors not to leave, as their services will be required again shortly.”

The dozen men, picked by lot as people came into the saloon, were clustered around two nearby tables. “I think we can do that,” Fred Norton, one of the jurors, replied. The others agreed.

“Thank you, gentlemen.” Humphreys took a breath. “Will the defendants please rise?” Stafford, Saunders, and their lawyer stood up, as the Judge continued. “Do either of you have anything to say before I pass sentence?”

Forry gave a low chuckle. “Yes, Mr. Stafford?” the Judge asked. “Speak up.”

“Do what you want to me, Judge,” Forry replied confidently. “I may have acted in rash high spirits, but I only did what any decent man from Texas would have done in the face of such provocation. I think my friend, Governor Davis, would agree with me. He's a Texan through and through, and a man of wide influence. He knows your own esteemed territorial governor, I believe.”

The Judge shook his head and then looked at Leland. “Do you have anything to say, Mr. Saunders?” When the other man nervously shrugged, Humphreys continued. “Very well, then. I sentence you each to a drink of, shall we say, O’Toole’s ‘Special Blend’ and a two month stay in the Eerie Special Offenders’ Penitentiary.”

“Two… two months?” Forry was almost incredulous. Then he smiled. The Judge was no fool. He didn't want to take the political heat. If the man was, in fact, such a coward, a little more pressure yet should get him released by the weekend. “Is that all?”

Zach Levy spoke up. “Your Honor, I’m afraid that I am unfamiliar with this type of sentencing. Where is this ‘penitentiary’ you just mentioned?”

“As a matter of fact, you’re standing in it. The Eerie Saloon has been an adjunct of the town jail for several months already,” the jurist answered. “And here comes the warden to start their sentences.”

“What exactly is the sentence? We may wish to launch an appeal.”

“Appeals? We do things quickly out here,” the jurist replied. “Justice delayed is justice denied. You may, of course, launch any appeals that you and your clients deem wise, but for now, the convicted felons have to be rendered into custody. If that doesn't suit the defense, take it up with your client’s friend, the governor.”

He then pointed to Shamus who was walking towards the table where Zach and the others stood. The barman was carrying a tray with two glasses of beer.

* * * * *

“Now comes the fun part,” Wilma said with a chuckle. She was sitting in the back of the crowd next to Rosalyn, who had wanted to see what happened to her “good friend,” Forry Stafford.

The other woman pouted. “I cannot believe this travesty of justice. Forrest was always a true gentleman. He could never have done what they accused him of.”

“Then why did he just plead guilty? You don’t know him as well as you think you do,” Wilma replied. “I guess you two never talked much when you was together.”

A blush ran across the blonde woman’s pale complexion. “No… we did not, I must admit. I will miss his… company.”

“You can still come over and visit, I suppose. She ain’t going nowhere for a while.” Wilma chuckled. “‘Course, her company’s gonna be a lot different from what either of you was used to.”

“That's horrible, and it isn't fair! This town is more evil in its ways than anything he's accused of doing!”

Wilma was genuinely surprised. Rosalyn had always stayed a bit aloof from the patrons of La Parisienne, but now it seemed that she and Stafford had become friends of a sort. ‘Birds of a feather,’ she told herself. ‘Speaking of which.’ She glanced up towards the stairs. Bridget was sitting on the top step, watching the trial. She was hugging herself. Wilma had hoped that she would be smiling by now, but her face was still an immobile mask of misery.

* * * * *

Shamus set down the tray. “You’re the warden?” Levy asked in amazement. “You're a barkeeper. I-I’ve never heard of such a thing. Why is this place of business called a penitentiary?”

“In just a wee minute, Mr. Levy, ye’ll be hearing – and seeing – a lot of things ye’ve never did before,” the barmen told him. He put the two drinks in front of the guilty men.

Forry looked at the beer stein. “It’s not poisoned, is it?”

“What sort of a man serves poison in his own bar?” Shamus said indignantly. “Consider it a courtesy of the house. It won’t be killing ye, so ye might as well drink up.”

“You have not been sentenced to death, gentlemen,” the Judge told them. “The refreshments are definitely not poisoned. If we thought that your aggravated assault on Abner Slocum merited a capital penalty, we are quite capable to ordering you to the gallows.”

Leland looked at the drinks again and shrugged. “Might as well.”

Forry looked, too. If the spineless judge were giving him only two months of jail for a guilty plea of attempted murder, he certainly wouldn't have the nerve to serve poison. “I never was one to pass up a free beer,” he said, trying to sound confident. Both men drank at the same time. “Not bad.” He put down his half-empty glass. “Do I get another when I finish this one?”

Shamus laughed. “Ye surely deserve another, but I’ll not be serving it up t’ye. If ye want a second drink, ye'll have to ask for it. But that will have to come after ye sentence is served. Too much in one day is no good.”

“What do you mean? After all, I’ll b-be stuck here f-for two mo-months – wh-what the-the h-h- hell?” He was shuddering and moaning, his voice rising in pitch. “Yaah!” Forry doubled over as sharp pains coursed through his body.

Leland, too, screamed as the pains shot through him also. “I-It w-was p-p-poison!”

Forry felt weak; his head was spinning. He leaned against the table for support, but his knees gave way, and he fell to the floor. His clothes didn’t feel right. They seemed to be moving along his body, and the material felt coarser than it had before. He couldn’t see; his eyes were closed from an ache that made him want to scream. He couldn’t stop the way his body was shaking, but he could hear moans – his own and those of that idiot Saunders.

“M-Make it st-stop, boss,” Leland yelled. The man fell to the floor, feeling too weak to stand. He watched his right hand growing smaller, as his sleeve crept down and all but covered it. But there was more to whatever was happening to him. ‘Why’s my skin getting darker?’ He thought feverishly. ‘This is worse than seeing snakes.’

Then both men felt a yearning, a need, which grew stronger with every breath. Forry had to open his eyes and to see and to hear something, something more important right now than life itself. Leland was staring as well. They were both compelled to listen for a voice that they absolutely must hear.

* * * * *

“Can ye hear me?” The pair nodded, their faces blank, eyes opened wide staring at him. Shamus looked down at two of them. Even after all this time, the effects of his potion amazed him, and in this instance, something new had occurred. ‘No time t’be thinking about such things,’ he considered, as he began to speak again.

“Ye’ll be obeying me and me darling, Molly, here…” He spoke in a clear voice, stopping for a moment to point to Molly, who was standing next to him. “…and the Sheriff. Ye won’t – ye can’t -- hurt nobody, and ye won’t be trying t’escape, or asking anyone t’be helping ye escape from this place. Do ye understand?”

The pair nodded. They suddenly blinked, as the need to listen to Shamus went away.

* * * * *

“What in the hell?” Forry shook his head, trying to clear it. He tried to stand, but his clothes were suddenly far too big for him. They kept getting in the way, tripping him as he tried to rise. What had that liquor been? If it wasn't poison, it had been the worst corn squeezings he'd ever tasted.

He pushed back the sleeve of his coat to find his hand. The hand he uncovered was much smaller and daintier than his should have been. His fingers were slender and supple with much longer nails, and his skin was a light peaches and cream.

He saw that the other hand was the same when he used it to pull himself up to his knees. As he looked down at his body, he saw that his oversized shirtfront was pushed out by something – two somethings. His exploring hands found a pair of rather large, firm breasts beneath the shirt. He shook his head to clear it. One cup of booze shouldn't bring on a dream like this one.

Something else didn't feel right. One hand shot down into his pants, groping at his crotch. Only it wasn’t his crotch any more. All his fingers found was a very sensitive opening where his male equipment had been. One finger slipped inside, and his eyes went wide in surprise – and disgust. “A cunt! A damned --”

“Stop yuir talking, especially like that,” Molly’s voice rang out. Forry tried to answer, but he couldn’t make a sound.

Wild-eyed, he looked for his lawyer, but the man had taken a few steps back and was staring in astonishment at him and… ‘A nigger, a nigger bitch,’ Forry thought. ‘That can’t be Saunders, can it?’ This was like a fever dream.

He looked more keenly. This was a particularly pretty piece of “dark meat.” She was short, with a damned nice pair of tits as far as he could tell with all those shapeless clothes of Saunders’ she was buried in. She had a heart-shaped face with high cheekbones and full lips. Her hair was dark, almost black, a mass of tight curls, and it flowed in waves down around her shoulders. Her eyes were brown and opened wide, as she stared back at him. He felt like hell; he wondered how he looked to her, though, since she was a nigger now, he hardly cared.

“If I may have your attention,” the Judge ordered, interrupting. The pair turned to face him. “There is one more point to attend to before I hand you over to Molly… Mrs. O’Toole. As part of your sentence, I am legally changing your names. Forrest Stafford, you are now Flora Stafford, and you, Leland Saunders, you are now – damnation, I was going to change it to Leigh Anne, but that doesn’t seem to fit now in light of your new… appearance.”

Forry's head had cleared enough to realize that O'Toole was speaking to the nigger gal as if she were Leland. Forry -- Flora -- touched his -- her -- breasts again.

Aaron Silverman had come over to help his wife with the new women’s clothing. He raised a hand. “How about Lylah, Your Honor? It means ‘night’ in Hebrew.”

“Thanks, Aaron; that’ll work.” Humphreys pointed at Saunders. “Your name is Lylah Saunders, now. You are both legally women, and may you both do better with these new names -- and new lives -- than you did with your old ones.”

Flora understood that she had just been called a woman, along with the darkie that was being addressed as Saunders. She touched herself again between the legs.

“And them names is the only ones ye’ll be answering to or calling each other,” Shamus added.

Molly stepped up beside him. “Flora, Lylah…” She smiled to see the pair both turn their heads at the sounds of their new names. “Ye’ll be coming upstairs now, t’see yuir room and get the two of ye into the proper clothes for working here.”

“Working?” Lylah asked. She was still totally confused about what was happening. She was only beginning to realize that she had changed race as well as sex. Flora tried to protest, but she still couldn’t utter a word.

“Aye, working. For the next two months, the two of ye are the Eerie Saloon’s two newest waitresses.”

* * * * *

Zach Levy watched his clients slowly climb the stairs. They’d both stopped at the bottom to take off boots that were now far too big for them and were carrying them now. Leland – Lylah, now – had to bunch her pants up tightly in one hand. She was so much smaller that her belt was useless.

It was a disturbing sight, and Zach felt that he had to do something. He caught Judge Humphrey’s eye with a wave of his hand. “May I approach the bench, Your Honor?”

“You may, Mr. Levy. I expect that you have some questions.”

Zach nodded and walked over to the Judge’s table. “I do, sir. For a start, I have to wonder how this… transformation is even possible.”

“Magic,” the Judge replied. “Shamus’ potion is half old Irish magic he learned from his mother and half something he learned from the Cheyenne who raised him. He put it in their beer and, voila, magic.”

“But I never heard of such a thing, except in stories!”

“I hadn't either, until last summer. But, in Eerie, we deem it a humane punishment. And all who have undergone it thus far have become upstanding citizens and a credit to our community.” He glanced at Wilma. “Mostly.”

Wilma waved at him congenially.

Zach fought to stay calm. “But is it legal?”

“You show me a law -- any law – that forbids the use of magic to punish prisoners, and I’ll rule that giving Shamus’ potion to those two wasn’t legal.”

The lawyer frowned. “Point taken, Your Honor, but, still, doesn’t this sentence doesn’t qualify as cruel and unusual punishment?”

“I’ll grant that it is unusual, but two months of living and working in a saloon doesn’t strike me as very cruel, not when you compare it to ten years or more hard time in the territorial prison, which their crime certainly would have merited if this better recourse wasn't available to us.”

The lawyer persisted. “What about the very idea of turning the men into women? Isn't that cruel and unusual?”

The Judge shook his head. “I don't see that, Counselor. Nobody gets to choose their own sex, do they? You were born a man, and you grew up to like it. These two were also born men, but they aren’t men anymore. It’ll take time, but you – and they – will be surprised at how well they adjust to their new lives. After all, women are honored members of our community, as they are in your own home community, too, I presume. The counselor doesn't have any objections to his own mother being a woman, correct?”

Wilma was walking over to join Jessie, and she had been close enough to hear the lawyer’s question. “Hey, Zach, honey,” she said, draping an arm around his shoulder. “You didn’t think there was anything so terrible about women them times you come over t’La Parisienne. Leastways, you didn’t mind Mae being a woman.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek and continued on, her hips swinging invitingly.

“Asked and answered, I’d say,” the Judge replied with a chuckle. “Oh, I grant you that a man who didn’t know better might think it’s demeaning to be transformed into a woman, but so is being known as a convicted felon of the conventional kind, isn’t it?”

“I suppose it is.” He shrugged, thinking hard about what more to say. “How often is this done here?” he finally asked.

“Six felons were previously administered the potion. I am very sure that you may have met some of them.”

“Met some of them? Who? Where?”

“That’s not for me to say,” Humphrey's said with a grin. “They are no longer under sentence, and it isn't up to me to be pointing them out. In Eerie, we respect a person's privacy. When these ladies are certain that you are a man whom they would like to know, one or more might introduce themselves. Ah, you look like you have something more to say, Counselor.”

Levy took a deep breath. “I’ll withdraw my objections – for now, at least.”

The Judge thought it was high time to break the tension. “Counselor, we have spoken earlier about you and Milt trading off, with you becoming the prosecutor against Carl Osbourne. Are you still up for it?”

“Uh, yes Your Honor,” Zach answered quickly, still quite bedazzled.

“Good.” Humpheys now regarded Milt. “How soon do you want to get started on that, Mr. Quinlan?”

Milt took that moment to join the two men. “Actually, Your Honor, I wanted to ask for a very brief postponement of that case.”

“May I ask why?” the Judge inquired.

Milt pushed his glasses back against his nose. “Although my client, Carl Osbourne, is the most directly involved – as the victim, of course – in the theft, it was, in fact, an indirect attack against Abner Slocum; it was his money that was stolen, after all.”

“And…” Zach asked suspiciously.

Milt smiled. “And we have just finished a case involving a direct attack against the same Abner Slocum. Your Honor, I suspect that Mr. – Miss Stafford and Miss Saunders have some knowledge of that robbery. I ask for a postponement until the two ladies return to us once properly dressed and ready to testify regarding their knowledge of that robbery.”

* * * * *

Cap had watched Molly and Rachel lead the new women upstairs. Bridget had been watching the trial from the top step. He saw her expression alter to something that looked intense and thoughtful as the potion was administered, and the pair had changed. Cap hoped that she would at last feel avenged. ‘Maybe I can talk to her now,’ he thought.

He started to stand up, but, as the four women climbed the stairs, Bridget rose and hurried down the hall to her room and slammed the door shut. She didn’t come out after they had walked past. He watched for a while, but there was no sign of her. Cap took his chair. He couldn’t help wondering what two months of living with Flora Stafford would be like for her, and he promised himself that he’d be there to help her through it.

He realized that the trial had left him feeling unsatisfied, and he scowled. It just didn't seem like it was punishment enough, even though he suspected that the rape had actually influenced Humphreys' sentencing. Forry Stafford was a rat and should die like a rat. How he wished he had been able to call the man out into the street and settle things there, fast and hard, in a way that he thought would have satisfied him. Stafford's blood running into the dust would have truly avenged the wrong against Bridget.

Now how was he supposed to get back at Forry -- Flora? By being rude to her?

* * * * *

Molly led the two new women to a small room near the end of the hall. “Here ye go, ladies; ye’ll be living here for the next two months.” She opened a door and motioned for them to go in.

“Who the hell’re you?” Lylah asked when she saw an older woman in a dark green dress, with a matching scarf covering her hair, sitting on one of the two beds in the room, waiting for them.

The woman rose. “My name is Rachel Silverman – from Silverman’s Dry Goods, and you, my pretty, young schwartze, need some better manners.”

“What’d you call me?” Lylah asked indignantly.

Rachel chuckled. “Schwartze; it means ‘black’, what you are now.”

“The hell I am.” Lylah held her left hand up in front of her. She kept hold of her pants with the right hand. Her sleeve was far too roomy and slid down to her elbows. Her skin was the color of cocoa. “Sheeeit!” she screamed. “I can’t be like this.” She started for the door. “They gotta change me back to a white man.”

Molly blocked her way. “Thuir ain't no magic that can do that. Ye’ll be a woman – and a negro for the rest of yuir life. Ye might as well get used to it.”

“No, I-I can’t be no nigger. I just can’t.”

Rachel tilted her head, as if she were studying the new female. “No? It looks to me like you’re doing a pretty good job of being one.”

“You surely are,” Flora laughed.

The other new woman spun around and glared at her former employer. “I don’t see that you got that much t’laugh at, you damned bi--”

“Enough!” Molly ordered firmly. “Neither o’ye can say anything except t’be answering a question from me or Rachel.” She watched for a bit, as the pair tried to speak. They couldn’t, and they looked even madder as they tried and failed. “Good, now strip, the both of ye, down t’yuir undershirts and drawers.”

Flora tried to argue, but she couldn’t make a sound. At the same time, her hands slid her jacket off her shoulders. It fell to the ground, as she began to unbutton her shirt.

Lylah’s pants fell around her ankles as soon as she let go of them to work on her shirt. She watched her fingers, her small, slender, dark fingers working the buttons. ‘I don’t believe this,’ she thought. ‘I’m a damned crow; my skin’s as dark as I’ve ever seen.’ She rubbed her left arm roughly with her right hand, trying to wipe the color away. It didn’t work.

Both of the transformed men were wearing sleeveless, gray union suits, shirt and drawers combined into a single garment that stretched down to mid-calf, with buttons from the neck to the groin. The clothes had fitted the men they had been, so, now, they hung like tents on their new bodies.

“Lylah,” Molly said, “ye sit down quiet-like on one of them beds, while Rachel measures Flora.” She waited while the black woman walked over and sat on a mattress.

Rachel stood and walked over to Flora. “Now, we measure. Stand still.” She pulled a cloth tape and a small pad from a pocket in her long skirt.

“Do like she says,” Molly said firmly. “Like it was meself telling ye what t’do.”

Flora wanted to squirm, as Rachel wrapped the tape around her neck, but a voice in her head wouldn’t let her. “Such a pretty neck,” the older woman told her. “So long, like a swan, it is.” She released the tape and wrote the number on the pad.

“Now lift your arms.” Rachel held the tape in the small of Flora’s back and brought it around, holding it so that it went just above her breasts. “Thirty-four,” she announced and jotted that number down.

The shopkeeper picked up the tape again and warned, “Keep your arms up. This might tickle a little.” She brought the tape around from behind Flora’s back, only, this time, she placed it right on Flora’s breasts. It rubbed against her nipples, tickling her, and she had to try very hard not to move. “Thirty-seven,” Rachel told her. “That’s a nice healthy body you got, girly.”

‘You can have it,' Flora thought, even if she couldn’t speak the words.

Flora endured the rest of the measurements: neck to waist, waist, hips – which also tickled, waist to ground, and the rest, through clenched teeth. It was maddening, and there was nothing she seemed able to do about it.

It wasn’t any better when she sat on a bed, unable to move or speak, and watched Rachel repeat the process with Lylah. The tall, muscular cowhand had become a dainty, little – a foot shorter if she was an inch – negress.

What had the Irish woman said? That there was no magic to change Saunders back? Did that stand for her, too? She couldn't -- wouldn't -- believe it. She'd have to find out who else, if anyone, had been bewitched in this town and what had happened to them. She'd put Levy on the task.

“How old are you?” Rachel asked Lylah as she was finishing. “No, how old was you?”

Lylah gave her an odd look. “Thirty-one, ma’am; thirty-one last August.”

“Ye don’t look it,” Molly said, chuckling. “Maybe ye was that old, but now… now, ye don’t look a day over eighteen.”

* * * * *

“So, Yully,” Stephan asked, “how’s it feel to have your ma for a teacher?”

The Fort Secret garrison, as they called themselves, was sitting around the picnic table where they usually ate lunch. It was recess, but most of the boys had been more interested in talking about their new teacher than playing ball. Stephan and Hector Ybañez, this week’s captains, had agreed to start the game on Tuesday.

Yully thought about the question before he answered. “It ain’t too bad. Ma warned us all about it on Friday, so we weren’t surprised. She said she’d try to be fair, no ‘teacher’s pet’ stuff.”

“No picking on us either,” his brother, Nestor, added. “But now we can’t get out of doing chores by claiming we got homework that we don’t really have.”

Penny chuckled. “You never were too good at doing either of them, Nestor, chores or homework.” She gave him a wink to show that she was teasing. “I don’t mind Mama being here, either. Besides, she said she said it’d only be for a little while, just till Miss Osbourne comes back.”

“That’s not the way Hermione tells it. Just look at her.” Emma pointed over to another picnic table. Hermione and her brother, Clyde, were sitting, surrounded by at least a dozen of their classmates. “She was carrying on all morning about how her mother got Miss Osbourne fired. Hermione even tried to correct Mrs. Stone, when she was introducing herself.”

Ysabel shook her head. “Not fired, suspended, that is what Señora Stone told us. Miss Osbourne is a good teacher. She has to come back. She just has to.”

“Don’t you worry about it, Ysabel.” Stephan gently put his hand on the girl’s arm. “We’ve all heard Hermione’s boasting and bragging before, and we all know she’s been wrong a lot more often than she’s been right.”

* * * * *

Molly sat at the table, waiting for Rachel to bring back the new clothes for Flora and Lylah. The new women were sitting on the two beds, unable to talk because Molly hadn’t reversed her order that they could only talk to answer questions.

“While we’re waiting,” she asked them, “would ye like for me t’be telling ye just what ye’ll be doing here for the next two months?”

It was a question, so she could speak. “I would,” Lylah muttered. “What more crap you got in store for us?”

“Yeah, dammit,” Flora added. “What sort of shit are you going to make us do while we’re stuck here… like this?”

Molly frowned. “I’ll thank ye -- no I’ll be telling ye, there’ll be no more bad language from either of ye while I’m around t’hear it.”

“As t’what ye’ll be doing,” she continued, “ye’ll be working as bar maids and waitresses, mostly, helping t’keep the place clean and bringing drink and food to the customers. That means helping Maggie with her restaurant, too. Her and Jane do the cooking, but they need help sometimes. It’ll be the pair of ye that does the dishes, too, and washes out the glassware.”

“That’s right,” she told them, enjoying the shocked look on their faces, particularly the boastful Forrest Stafford, the man who’d raped poor Bridget and almost gotten away with it. “Ye ain’t Mr. High-and-Mighty Stafford, no more. Ye’re Flora the barmaid. And, ye ain’t just servants, bringing men beers and cleaning up after them. Not only that, ye’re --”

She was interrupted by a knock on the door. “It’s me, Molly,” Rachel yelled through the door. “Shamus and me got clothes for the new ladies.”

“Be right there.” Molly hurried over and unlocked the door. She let Rachel enter, but blocked her husband in the doorway. “The ladies ain’t exactly dressed for male eyes, Love.” She reached out her arms. “I’ll be taking them packages from ye.”

He smiled. “Ah, Molly, Love, ye know ye’re the only woman I ever want t’be looking at. But… if ye want…” His voice trailed off as he handed her four large paper-wrapped packages. When he was certain that she had them, he leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “I’ll be seeing ye – and them -- downstairs, and it better be as soon as ye can.”

“Why’s that?”

Shamus whispered, not wanting Flora or Lylah to hear. “The Judge wants t’be starting the inquest for Carl Osbourne, for that robbery and for Carl shooting that man Cooper. Milt Quinlan – he’s Carl’s lawyer -- wants t’be asking our new ladies a few questions about them things.” He turned and started for the stairs.

“All right then.” Molly kicked the door shut behind her and set the packages down on the table next to the ones Rachel had brought. “Stand up the both of ye, and strip off them clothes.” She saw the hesitation in their eyes. “I mean right now,” she added in as firm a voice as she could muster.

The new women stood up. Their hands trembled. They wanted to disobey, but the voices in their heads wouldn’t let them. They reluctantly undid the buttons on their now much oversized union suits and let the garments slide off their bodies and onto the floor.

“Step out of them things and come over here,” Rachel said.

The pair obeyed and walked to the table. As they walked, they used their hands to cover their crotches.

“Ye might as well be putting them hands down,” Molly said with a chuckle. “Ye ain’t got anything that me and Rachel don’t have.”

Each package had Flora or Lylah’s name written on it, as well as a list of the contents. Molly cut the string and opened two of them. She took a pair of drawers from each one and held them out in her hands. The drawers were lacy, white cotton, with green ribbons dangling down from the top and from each leg. “Put ‘em on,” she ordered.

The two women grimaced, but each slowly reached out for a pair. They stepped into the garments and pulled them up around their hips and waist.

“Use them ribbons at yuir waists t’be getting them tight; then ye tie them ribbons in a pretty, little bow.”

Flora and Lylah obeyed. They noticed that these drawers felt cooler and softer than their old union suits. They didn’t scratch, either. It was a reminder that they hardly wanted of how they had been changed.

Flora got a worse reminder when she bent over to tie the ribbons at the bottom of one leg of the drawers. She felt her long hair brush against her neck as it fell down into her line of sight. ‘I’m a blonde now,’ she thought. Then she felt the weight of her breasts hanging down from her chest. ‘And a big-titted blonde, at that.’

“Don’t ye be tying them legs yet,” Molly said. “Ye’ve got other stuff ye need t’be getting on first.” She held out two camisoles. “These for starters.”

Lylah took one camisole in her hands. It was the same material as her drawers, and she turned it this way and that, staring at the lace trim on the front of it with a look of disgust.

“Now what’s the matter?” Molly asked.

Lylah was quick to answer. “I don’t like these girly clothes, and I don’t like not being able t’even talk about it.”

“Ye’re girls now,” the older woman replied. “And ye always will be, so ye might as well be getting used to dressing like girls.” She thought for a moment. “As for the other matter, ye’re right. It ain’t fair that ye can’t be talking. I’ll be letting the both of ye talk now, but polite like, and with none of that profanity.”

Lylah cleared her throat. “What the he… he… heck do you mean we’ll ‘always’ be girls? Ain’t you gonna turn us back when our sentence is up?”

“There ain’t no way t’be turning ye back. Me Shamus never made no antidote to his potion, and, from what he’s told me, it don’t never wear off. That's why the Judge uses the punishment for only the most serious crimes.”

Flora looked nervously at her new body. Her breasts, her narrow waist and broad hips, the… the bulge that was missing from her crotch. “You… must be joking? To be stuck like this, it-it isn’t fair.”

“No fairer than what ye done to Bridget Kelly – or Abner Slocum, I’m thinking. But right now, let’s be getting back t’be dressing ye up for yuir new jobs. Put them camisoles on.”

The pair grumbled, but they both slipped the garments over their heads and let them slide down onto their bodies. The cloth was soft, cool, almost, and it felt… funny, sort of ticklish, against their breasts. “Happy?” Flora asked sarcastically, as she adjusted the article of clothing on her body.

Molly ignored her comment and tossed each of them a pair of yellow and blue-stripped stockings. “Ye pull ‘em all the way up past yuir knees before ye tie ‘em off. Then ye pull the legs of yuir drawers down over them stockings, and tie them off, too. Make sure ye tie them ribbons tight, with the same sort o’pretty bows.”

When they had the stockings on, Rachel opened a second pair of packages. “These are next.”

“No fu… fu… fu…” Flora sighed and gave up trying to say the word. “It’s going to take magic to make me wear that.”

Rachel just smiled. “Nu, everything else we gave you, you’re wearing. Why not these? They’re ‘Thompson's Glove Fitting’, the best corset on the market for the price.”

“Ye’ll wear ‘em and – well, ye may not like it, but ye’ll do it,” Molly said firmly. “And for making such a fuss, Flora, ye get t’be the one who wears it first. Lylah, ye’ll get t’be sitting down and watching. Flora, ye’ll be the one standing still while Rachel fits ye into that thing.”

The women did as ordered. Rachel walked over to Flora and wrapped the corset around her. It was a milky white color, with ribbing inside to form it into a feminine shape.

“Take a deep breath,” Rachel said, as she started hooking the corset closed. She began at the bottom, working her way up hook by hook.

Flora felt the corset constricting her. She wanted to fidget, but the voice wouldn’t let her. As Rachel’s fingers moved upward, Flora felt the cups of the garment pressing against her breasts. It was like a pair of hands, holding them in place, lifting them up for display.

When Rachel had finished, Molly had Flora sit on the bed and watch, while Rachel did the same to Lylah. It was… arousing, Flora thought, watching the pretty little coon getting dressed up in female frippery. The problem was that Forry’s male mind was in Flora’s female body. She felt the arousal as a tingling in her breasts and an oddly pleasant warmth down in her privates. She shook her head, trying to banish the sensations.

Molly handed each of them a pair of shoes. Women’s shoes weren’t that different from men’s, and the former males were used to wearing shoes with a heel for when they were riding. After they’d gotten the shoes on and tied, Rachel handed them…

“Petticoats…” Flora protested. “Why do we have to wear these?”

Molly chuckled. “‘Cause that’s what ladies wear under their dresses, and ye will be wearing dresses. So hurry up and get ‘em on. Ye tie ‘em up tight with that blue ribbon at yuir waists.” The women frowned, but they donned the underskirts as directed.

Now you put on these nice dresses,” Rachel told them, “and we’re done. You can go downstairs and show everybody how pretty you look.” She took the garb from the last packages.

Flora’s dress was navy blue. It contrasted with her creamy complexion and long, blonde hair. Lylah’s was canary yellow and worked well with her dark brown skin. “Oh, joy,” Flora said sarcastically. “ It’s just what I wanted.”

“Maybe it ain’t what ye wanted,” Molly answered, “but ‘tis what ye deserve. Now button them things so we can be getting downstairs.” She watched the new ladies working the buttons on their dresses. “Thuir hair’s still a mess, but we can be dealing with that later.” She laughed to herself. “Thuir’s a whole lot of things we’ll be dealing with.”

* * * * *

“Here they come,” Angel Montiero yelled. A lot of Abner Slocum’s men had come to see the trial – and the punishment – of the men who’d tried to kill their boss. For the most part, they were quite pleased with the sentence Forry and Leland, now Flora and Lylah, had received.

The two new women skulked down the stairs, glancing nervously at the crowd waiting below. When they were about halfway down, Flora stopped, turned, and started to climb back towards the upper floor. Lylah hurried to follow.

“Get down thuir.” Molly and Rachel had walked behind the pair, and they blocked their way. “The both of ye.”

They tried to continue upward, but couldn’t. “Da – darn it,” Lylah muttered as the voice in her head forced her to shift again and head towards the barroom again. Flora followed, muttering something under her breath.

“Smile, ladies,” Shamus told them, when he met them at the foot of the stairs. He sounded almost gracious, but it was still an order they had to obey. “And take yuirselves seats over thuir.” He pointed to a nearby table.

The place was still set up for a trial. The Judge was seated at a table in the front of the room. Their lawyer, Zach Levy, was talking to him. The man that had shot Dell Cooper was sitting at a table a few feet away, facing the Judge. That other lawyer – Quinlan – sat next to him.

“What’s going on?” Flora asked as she and Lylah sat down. “I thought our trial was over.” She didn’t want to think about what else this insane court could come up with.

Shamus pulled out a chair and turned it around. He sat down, facing backward on it. “We’re having us an inquest about some things that happened here in town lately. That man…” he pointed at Carl, “…robbed a payroll– or got robbed of it. A few days later, he went and shot a friend o’yuirs. We thought that ye two might know something about both of them things.”

“Ye’ll be called up t’testify in a wee bit,” he added, “and I’m telling ye – no, I’m ordering the both of ye t’be telling them the truth, no lies, no twisting things around. D’ye understand?”

“Yes,” they both nodded, not sounding at all happy about the implications of what he had said.

The Judge banged his gavel once to get everybody’s attention. “Bailiff, if you please.”

“The Court of the Honorable Parnassus J. Humphreys in the Township of Eerie in the County of Maricopa and the Territory of Arizona is back in session.” Dan’s voice was loud and firm, carrying to every part of the large room.

Humphreys nodded as the Sheriff took his seat. “Thank you, Dan. The next item before this court is an inquest into two events, the theft of Abner Slocum’s payroll and the death of one Dell Cooper. Carl Osbourne is, at present, only a participant in both those events, although this court may hold him for trial for charges related to either or both of those events.” He took a breath and looked at the men who were still gathered around a pair of tables with the sign “Jury” hanging down front of one of the tables. “Did you all understand that?”

“We do,” Joe Kramer, the jury foreman replied, and the others mumbled their agreement.

Carl stood up. “I do, too, Your Honor, and I got Milt Quinlan here to speak for me, if it’s okay with you.”

“It is,” the Judge answered. “Shall we get started?”

Milt nodded and rose to his feet as Carl sat down. “Thank you, Your Honor. For my first witness, I call my client, Carl Osbourne.”

“Carl Osbourne,” Dan called out. He was carrying a Bible that he used a moment later to swear Carl in.

The cowboy promised to tell the whole truth and took a seat in the witness chair that was set next to the Judge’s table facing the room.

“Carl,” Milt began, standing and walking over to the chair. “Can you tell the court what happened on Saturday, April 20th, regarding Abner Slocum’s payroll?”

Carl told the story. He was often the one Slocum sent into town to pick up the cash to pay the men. Things went as usual until he was some fifteen minutes away from the ranch. “I was coming ‘round a curve in the trail and something… hit me in the chest and shoved me clear off my horse.”

“I landed flat on my back,” he continued. “I was laying there, trying to catch my breath, and this voice from behind tells me to roll over onto my stomach. I heard the click of a pistol being cocked, so I did what he – whoever it was – said. The bastard hit me in the head with something, and the next thing I know, Luke Freeman is splashing water in my face.”

Milt glanced at the jury for their reaction. “And you don’t know who this ‘bastard’ was, do you?”

“No, sir, but I’d sure like to find out.”

“Why is that?”

“Why? So I can pay him back is why. First off, ‘cause he took Mr. Slocum’s money, and, second, ‘cause he tried to make it look like I helped him do it.”

“So you’re saying that you didn’t rob – or help rob – Abner Slocum?”

“No, sir, I did not. I’m an honest man. I wouldn’t do that t’Mr. Slocum – or to his men. They’re my friends and that money was for them.” He chuckled. “Some of it was even for me. No, sir, I wouldn’t steal it.”

“No,” Milt replied in a firm but friendly voice, “no, you wouldn’t.” He looked at Zach Levy. “Your witness.”

Zach shook his head. “No questions right now, but I reserve the right to recall the witness.”

“Okay,” Milt told Carl, “you can go sit down over at our table now.” As Carl walked back, his lawyer added: “For my next witness, I’d like to call… Leland – excuse me, Lylah Saunders.”

Dan repeated the name and waited for her to walk over. “Do you swear to tell the truth,” he asked, holding the Bible that she had placed her hand on, “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you G-d?”

“I… I…” Lylah glanced nervously over at Flora, who frowned, then at Shamus who glared back at her and nodded sharply. “I d-do.” She hurriedly took the witness chair.

Milt walked over to stand next to her. “Lylah, do you know anything about the events that Mr. Osbourne just described for us?”

“I… y-yes. Dell – it was D-Dell Cooper. He took that money.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He told me, me and Mr…. and F-Flora b-both.”

“What did he tell you?”

She didn’t want to answer, but the voice gave her no choice. “He used… used a t-trick from the War, a rope… str-stretched up h-high… across the road. Some… sometimes, it’ll catch a rider in the throat ‘n’ ki… kill him. Sometimes, it’d j-just knock him off h-his horse.”

“So Mr. Cooper wanted to kill Carl Osbourne?”

“If he could.”

“If Mr. Cooper tried to kill my client, they must not have gotten on too well. Why is that, do you suppose?”

“Dell, he… wanted your man’s si-sister. Osbourne warned h-him off. Dell figured to get Osbourne outta the way, one w-way or another.”

“And he did that by taking the money. Is that correct?”

“It is.”

“Did you see him do it?”

“N-no, sir. He told me, me ‘n’ Flora the next day.”

“And how did you know that he wasn’t lying?”

“‘Cause he showed us the money.”

“Did he still have that money when he was shot?”

Lylah shook her head. “Flora, she… she got mad when D-Dell told us what he done.”

“Was she mad because he had stolen the money?”

“N-no, s-sir. She… we all come out here on-on account of… something else. She got mad ‘cause he mighta messed that up.”

“Where is the money now?”

Flora jumped to her feet. “Shut up, you stupid nigger.”

“Sit down, Flora, and be quiet,” Shamus ordered.

She sat down at once. When she tried to speak again, no words came.

“F-Flora,” Lylah answered, some anger in her voice. “She made Dell give h-her the money. It… it’s hid in her room somepl-place.”

Milt looked over to where Flora was sitting, a look of disgust on her face. “And I’ll ask her about that shortly.” He turned back to Lylah. “Was Dell Cooper afraid of my client?”

“Nope. Not after the robbery. Dell f-figured Osbourne was too worried about… about getting thrown in jail for taking that money to do anything to him. He went back to trying to f-f… to bed that snooty sister of Osbourne’s.” She laughed. “He almost done it, to hear him tell the tale.”

There was a lot of muttering from the men in the room. Many of them turned to look at Nancy, who’d been sitting alone in the back of the room. She looked horrified.

“That’s a lie!” Carl leapt to his feet. “You tell ‘em that’s a lie, Saunders.”

Milt frowned. He sympathized with Nancy, and he certainly didn’t need this distraction. “Do you think he may have been lying about his… success with Miss Osbourne?”

“He probably was,” Lylah shrugged. “Dell wasn’t no good with women – unless he paid ‘em, and she…” He studied Nancy’s face and figure. “…don’t look like that sort.” She leered at the woman. “More’s the pity.”

“What about pistols, Lylah? Was he any good with them.”

“He could hit what he aimed at, but he w-weren’t very fast.”

“How do you think he’d do in a gunfight?”

“Well, enough, if… if he got the first shot.”

“Would he draw on a man without warning?”

“If he could. I seen him do it once back in Texas ‘bout two years ago. That other man woulda yelled ‘foul’… if he’d lived.”

Milt tried hard not to smile. Juries didn’t like a smug attorney. “Thank you, Lylah. Do you have any questions, Mr. Levy?”

“Just one,” Zach replied. “Mr. -- ah… Miss Saunders, did you see what happened when Mr. Osbourne shot Mr. Cooper, or were you just guessing when you told us that Mr. Cooper may have been trying to ambush Mr. Osbourne.”

“Just guessing, but that’s the way Dell was.”

“If you say so,” Zach told her. “For now, you can stand down.” When she just looked puzzled, he explained. “You can go back to where you were sitting.”

Lylah stood up and walked back to the table. Flora was looking daggers at her, and Lylah circled around the table so that Shamus was between her and her former employer when she took her seat.

“I’d like to call Miss Flora Stafford now, Your Honor.”

Shamus put his hand on Flora’s arm. “Remember what I told ye, Flora. You go up thuir, and you be telling Milt the truth, no matter what he asks ye.”

“Flora Stafford,” Dan called.

Flora sighed and stood up. She walked up to him as if walking to her own hanging and let him swear her in.

“Now then, Flora,” Milt began, “did Dell Cooper steal that payroll money?”

She didn’t want to answer, but… “Th-that’s wha-what he… he told m-me.”

“And did he say anything about Carl Osbourne?”

“Yes, d-da… darn it.” Molly order about cursing was still binding, it seemed. “He s-said that ma-making it loo-look l-like Osbourne d… did it, was almost… almost as much f-fun as taking the m-m-money.”

“And where is the money he took?”

‘Don’t tell,’ Flora’s mind screamed. She trembled as she fought the voice in her head. Fought, and lost. “I-It’s in m-my r-room, h-h-hid… den in… in my tr-tr… my trunk.”

The Judge scribbled something on a sheet of paper. “Excuse me a moment, counselor,” he told Milt. “Paul, Paul Grant, come up here please.”

“Yes, Your Honor, what can I do for you?” Paul walked up to the table.

Humphreys handed him the paper. “That’s a search warrant for Miss Stafford’s room over at the Lone Star. Take somebody with you and go over and see if you can find any sign of that loot. Sam Duggan’s over here, so you be sure to show the warrant to Cuddy Smith first, then go see if you can find anything.” Duggan had witnessed the killing of Dell Cooper. Zach Levy, who was acting as prosecutor in this case, had asked him to testify.

“Right on it.” The deputy answered. “Angel,” he called to Angel Montiero, “You wanna give me a hand?” The cowhand nodded, and the pair hurried for the saloon’s swinging doors.

The Judge nodded to Milt. “You can continue, Mr. Quinlan.”

“Thank you, Your Honor.” Milt turned to Flora. “Just to make it absolutely clear, Flora, did Dell Cooper say anything, anything at all, to suggest that Carl Osbourne had anything to do with the theft of Abner Slocum’s money – beyond being the unwilling victim of Cooper’s ambush?”

“No,” Flora spat the word. “He s-said he fi-fixed things so i-it looked… like Osb-b-ourne was a… a part of it.”

“You told the Sheriff that Cooper was afraid of my client, that he was drawing his pistol because he thought that Carl Osbourne was going to shoot him. Was any of that true?”

Flora sighed and closed her eyes for a moment, unhappy at being caught in a lie. “N-Not a wo-word. Dell thought he co-could take Osbourne by f-fair means or f-f-foul. But he liked to hedge every bet.”

“Then why did you say it?”

“I w-wanted to… to mu-muddy the water a l-little.”

“You certainly managed that,” Milt replied. “But I think you’ve managed to clear things up today. Tell me, Miss Stafford, did you actually see the final encounter between Dell Cooper and Carl Osbourne?”

“N-No, I was s-someplace else.” She glanced over quickly to where Wilma and Rosalyn were sitting. Rosalyn gave her a demure smile, and Flora realized that it was the first smile directed at her since coming downstairs that wasn't full of mockery.

“Flora, what do you think happened when Cooper and Osbourne faced off?”

Zach jumped to his feet. “Objection, that’s speculation.”

“Your Honor,” Milt began, “Miss Stafford brought Dell Cooper with her to Eerie for an unknown, but very possibly criminal purpose. He…she… knew the man well and is an expert witness on how he would have handled himself in such situations.”

The Judge considered Milt’s argument. “Mmmm, I’ll allow it. Answer the question, Flora.”

“D-Dell wasn’t too f-fast, but he… he was a sn-sneaky bas… man. But he… he was also a d-dead sh-shot, and that's… that’s why I br-brought him. I th-th-think he’d’ve tried to get in a… a first sh-shot be… fore Os-Osbourne was… r-ready.”

“Thank you, Flora,” Milt said. “No more questions.” He walked over and sat down next to Carl.

Zach stood up, but stayed where he was. “But that’s just your… guess about what happened, isn’t it?” Levy said curtly.

“Y-Yes. I w-wasn’t th-there.”

“I think that’s enough,” the lawyer said. “You’re dismissed – for now.”

Flora rose to her feet. “Gee, thanks.” She started back to the table with Shamus and Lylah.

“Found it, Your Honor!” Paul rushed back into the room. He was holding up a cloth bag. “It was right where she said it was.”

Flora turned to face him. “You can’t prove that’s the stolen money.”

“Sure I can.” He pulled a crumpled sheet of paper from his vest pocket. “I found this withdrawal slip in the bag. It’s got Abner Slocum’s name and the date of the robbery written on it.”

The Sheriff placed a hand on Flora’s shoulder. “Flora Stafford, you’re under arrest for the theft of Abner Slocum’s payroll. You're an accessory after the fact.” He paused a beat. “You, too, Lylah.”

“I concur,” the Judge added, “but the trial won’t be today. We’ll give these women a chance to talk with a lawyer first.”

Zach raised a hand. “Can we get back to this inquest, Your Honor?”

“Very well,” Humphreys answered. “Milt, do you have any other witnesses?”

“Yes, Your Honor. I call Sam Duggan to testify.”

Duggan walked briskly up to the witness chair and let Dan swear him in, after which, Milt asked him to identify himself.

“Sam Duggan,” he said proudly, “owner and operator of the Lone Star Saloon, the best damned watering hole in the Arizona Territory.”

Milt tried not to smile. “Please just state the facts, Mr. Duggan.”

“That is a fact.”

“Speaking of facts, can you tell this court what happened on April 24th when Carl Osbourne came into your establishment?”

Duggan told what he had seen. Carl had come into the saloon and headed straight for where Dell was standing at the bar. The two men had started arguing about Carl’s sister, who, Duggan quickly added, had never been on his premises.

“They looked ready to fight -- fist fight,” the barman continued. “So I told them to take it outside. I didn’t need them breaking up my place. Besides, a fight is like a bad cold. It spreads real easy to the folks nearby.”

Milt nodded in agreement. “And what happened then?”

“They both headed for the door. Only, Cooper shifted, so Carl couldn’t see his right arm. I came out from behind the bar to make sure that they left, and I saw him draw his pistol. He pulled it out real slow, so you couldn’t hear the metal slide against the leather. Well, I sure as hell didn’t want a murder in my place, so I yelled a warning to Carl.”

“Why do you say ‘murder’, Mr. Duggan?”

“Cause that’s what it would’ve been. He’d’ve had that pistol out and fired before Carl even knew he was being drawn on. And Cooper had a big mean grin on his face, like he was happy to get the chance to kill.”

“Are you sure that he didn’t look scared; look like he was drawing in self-defense?”

“Nope, he looked like a cat ready to jump on a mouse.”

“Thank you, Sam.” Milt turned to the Judge. “I have no more questions.”

Zach shook his head. “Nor do I, Your Honor.”

“Do either of you have any other witnesses?” Both men shook their heads, and Humphreys turned so that he was facing the jury. “Gentlemen, you’ve heard the evidence. You’re not here to say that anyone’s guilty. You’re here to say if you think we need to hold a trial because Carl Osbourne might be guilty of something. Go upstairs and decide.”

Joe Kramer, the foreman, looked at the other members of the jury. “Do we need t’think about it, fellas?” The men all bunched together around Joe. After a few minutes, they moved back to their places at the table. “Judge,” Joe made a start, “as far as that robbery went, all Carl’s guilty of is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And shooting somebody in self-defense is no crime, either. Let him go.”

“Thank you for your help, gentlemen of the jury. You are dismissed. There being no other business,” he banged his gavel once, “this court is adjourned.”

“Do we gotta go t’jail again?” Lylah asked Shamus.

The barman chuckled. “Ye are in jail, lass, right here in me Saloon. Where ye got t’be going is into the kitchen t’be getting aprons on over them pretty dresses. Thuir’s thirsty men here, and ye’re the ones who’ll be bringing them thuir drinks.”

* * * * *

Carl’s fellow cowhands rushed over to congratulate him. “Looks like you’s gonna be working for Mr. Slocum for a long, long time,” the foreman, Luke Freeman, said, slapping Carl on the back.

“That he is,” Cap said, pushing his way through the crowd. Then he cupped his hands in front of his mouth and yelled, “Hey, Shamus, c’mere.”

The barman hurried over. “What can I be doing for ye, Cap?”

“I wanted to buy Carl here a beer to celebrate, but, seeing as he hates to drink alone…” He grinned and looked at the men gathered around him. “I guess I’ll have to buy one for all my uncle’s men.” Over the cheers that followed, he added, “But just my uncle’s men. Neither of us is rich enough to spring for beers for the whole town.”

* * * * *

Nancy waited for the crowd around her brother to thin, as his friends took seats to wait for their promised beers. “Oh, Carl,” she said happily, as she hugged him. “You’re free. It’s wonderful.”

“Thanks, Nancy.” He replied, “It does feel good not t’have to worry about going to jail anymore.” He paused a beat. “Now all I have to worry about is getting you out of trouble.”

“Jail? Then you wouldn't have taken the potion?” she teased.

“Not on your life!”

“I think you'd have looked pretty in a dress like Flora's.”

“Nanny Goat, you're crazy. Now, you'd better get out of here. This place is changing from a courtroom to a bar room and you've got a reputation to defend.”

Nancy sighed.

His eyes darted around the room. Many of the men present, even a few of his friends from the ranch, had heard the rumors about Nancy’s behavior. And, from the hungry look on some of their faces, there were men who believed them – or wanted to believe them. They must have been wondering about their own chances with his sister.

“You'll be all right, Nancy; none of those stories about you are any more true than what Dell Cooper said about me.” He'd said it in a firm voice, a bit louder than he usually spoke, intending for as many as possible to hear.

* * * * *

Shamus set a final two beer steins down on the tray. “Ye’ll be taking these over t’that table, Flora.” He pointed to a table filled with Slocum’s men, men who were staring back at him – and at his new barmaid. “And ye’ll not be dropping any of them beers on purpose, and ye will be smiling at them nice men. Understand?”

“I-I do.” Her expression was more of a grimace than a smile as she picked up the tray. It was heavier than she expected, but she managed to carry it to the cowboys. “Here you go,” she told them, setting the tray down.

As she did, she felt a hand stoking her bottom. She gave a surprised squeak and tried to back away.

“Don't you go running off, Sweet Thing,” one of the men said. An arm snaked around her waist, pulling her down onto someone’s lap. “You ain’t near as dangerous as you was when you took a shot at the boss.” He chuckled. “In fact, you look like you could be a whole lot of fun.”

The others laughed. “She surely does,” the man to her left said. “Let’s just see how much fun she can be.” He reached over to grope at her breasts.

“N-No!” Flora twisted free. She jumped to her feet and ran back to the relative safety of the bar, laughter ringing in her ears.

* * * * *

Despite Carl's warning, Nancy had lingered close to the bar. This was the first time she had done more than look into a saloon over its batwing doors. It didn't seem nearly as sinister as what her uncle back in Connecticut had always warned her against.

“Ye look like ye could use something t’drink.”

Nancy looked up. A short redheaded woman was standing before her holding a glass of something. It was she who had taken the felons upstairs earlier. “I… Don’t you think it’s a bit early in the day for a drink?”

“Not if it’s sarsaparilla, it ain’t.” She set the glass down. “Go ahead, ye can’t be toasting yuir brother without something t’toast with.”

“I suppose not.” Nancy lifted the glass tilted it in cautious salute – was it safe to trust this woman? -- toward Carl before she took a sip. 'It is sarsaparilla,' she admitted to herself, not a little surprised.

Molly sat down next to her. “Yuir the first schoolteacher I ever served in here.”

“Not a school teacher at the moment, I’m afraid.”

Molly gently put a hand on Nancy’s arm. “No, but ye will be.”

“And sooner than she thinks,” a male voice said. “May I join you, Nancy… Molly?”

Nancy hurriedly put the glass down and shifted into a more correct posture. “Of course, Mr. Silverman.”

“Thank you.” Aaron settled down into an empty chair. “I hear that you’re staying at Whit Whitney's these days.”

Nancy nodded. “Yes, he was kind enough to --” She blushed, embarrassed at what she was afraid he might be thinking. “But I assure you, it’s all very proper.”

“And who says it isn’t? As the Sages say, the reason the Lord gave us flexible fingers was so we could stick them in our ears when evil is spoken.” He chuckled. “Besides, it was his wife, Carmen, that told my Rachel you was in his guest house.”

“Yes… yes, I am, and there’s a lock on the door and --”

“Don’t drey your koph – don’t get upset, Nancy. Your being at Whit’s just makes it easier for us all to get together. That’s all I’m saying.”

“That’s all?”

“Of course, it is.” He gave her a fatherly smile. “Now that your brother is free, how about you, me, Whit, and Arsenio get together there Wednesday night about… seven?” When she nodded, he continued. “Seven it is. You can tell us whatever it was you didn’t want to tell us before. With any luck, we can get this whole mishagoss behind us, and get you back teaching the children.”

* * * * *

Trisha had just settled back with the latest issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, when there was a knock on the front door. “I’ll get it,” she called out, setting the magazine down on the settee.

“Liam,” she said in surprise, when she opened the door. “Is there some problem at the store?” Her brother lived in a room above the feed and grain.

He stepped past her into the room. “Not yet; is Kaitlin here?”

“Right here,” Kaitlin answered, brushing her dress, as she walked over from the kitchen. “Hello, Liam. What did you want?”

He held out a small bouquet. “To give you this, Kaitlin.”

“What’s the occasion?” Trisha asked suspiciously.

Liam smiled. “Nothing much. I just thought that a man should give a lady flowers when he asks her to have dinner with him.”

“Thank you, brother,” Trisha answered quickly. “We’d love to.”

Liam’s smile got bigger. “I’m sure that you would, Trisha, but I was just asking Kaitlin.” He handed her the flowers. “Is Wednesday all right? We can go over to ‘Maggie’s Place.’ You liked it the last time we went.”

“It was nice, wasn’t it?” She smiled back at him. “Is six o’clock all right?”

“Six is fine.”

Trisha stepped between them. “Wait a minute. Who said she could go?”

“Who said I couldn’t?” Kaitlin insisted. “I’m an unmarried woman and of age. I can go where I please with whom I please.” She moved around Trisha and took Liam’s arm. “And I will be most pleased to go to dinner with you, Liam, and…” She looked pointedly at Trisha. “…anyone who doesn’t like it can sleep on the settee tonight.”

“But… but…” Trisha sputtered.

“The settee.” She paused a beat for effect. “And you know that I can make you do it.” Trisha looked daggers at the other woman, but she slowly nodded her head.

Liam was still smiling. “If that’s settled, I’ll be going. See you Wednesday, Kaitlin.”

“I look forward to it,” Kaitlin replied, smiling back at him. “And thank you for asking me.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek.

He lightly touched the spot where she’d kissed him. “My pleasure.” His smile was now a full grin. “Good night, Kaitlin… Trisha.” He left quickly, closing the door behind him, eager to leave before the shouting started.

* * * * *

Wilma smiled and snuggled up against Ethan’s side. “So what happens now that you got them pictures done? You gonna go looking for some more folks t’paint?” She kissed his bared chest. “Or are you just gonna spend time in bed with me?”

“I am a painter, Wilma. It’s both my profession and my personal calling.” he took a breath. “I have something important to attend to in New York.”

She flipped over on her side, so she was looking him in the eye. “New York? You’re gonna leave?”

“I am. There's no point to stay; no new commissions have been coming in, and preparing for a major showing of my work will take a great deal of time and effort. I have already purchased my ticket. I shall be departing on the Thursday stage.”

“But you… you can’t. I-I don’t want you to leave, not now.” She fought against the burning in her eyes.

He raised himself up, so that their faces were only a few inches apart. “I am not leaving you, not now, certainly. I am here -- with you – and we are sharing a night of mutual pleasure.” Before she could reply, he kissed her, hard, his tongue darting into her mouth.

Wilma wanted to break away, to argue that he shouldn’t go, but her body betrayed her. Her arm reached up and around his neck as she moaned and sank down onto the bed. By the time she was done with him, she swore, he wouldn't want to leave her behind.

* * * * *

Molly led the two new women back up the stairs to their room. Both were yawning loudly. “Sleepy, are ye?”

“You know it.” Flora yawned again, stretching her arms as she did.

The older woman laughed. “Get used to it. Ye’ll be working just as hard every day for the next two months.”

“Every day?” Lylah whined.

Molly gave her a mischievous smile. “Aye, and on Saturday… well, I think I’ll be waiting a while t’be surprising ye on that.”

“Oh, goody!” Flora replied.

They reached the door. Molly opened it and used the candle in the candlestick she was carrying to light the oil lamp that was hanging on the wall just inside. She set the taper down on the table, as the pair walked in after her.

Lylah asked suspiciously, pointing to two packages sitting on the table near the candlestick. “What’re them?”

“Yuir nightgowns.” Molly used her penknife to cut the string around the packages. “Take off yuir clothes… all yuir clothes.”

The pair began to work the buttons on their dresses. “They’s on the wrong side,” Lylah complained, but she, she and Flora both, had their outfits off quick enough.

“Put ‘em on hangers,” Molly ordered, “and close the top two buttons when ye do, so they don’t fall off.”

The women did as they were told. Once the dresses were hung up, Molly had them take off their petticoats and hang them up next to the dresses.

“Yuir corsets next,” Molly ordered. The women almost looked relieved to obey.

“Oooh, yes,” Flora said, scratching her stomach through her camisole, once her corset was off.

In the space of a few minutes, the two new women stood naked next to their beds. They both looked straight ahead, not wanting to see – or even think about – their new bodies. ‘They’ll be knowing soon enough how pretty they are,’ Molly thought with a chuckle. ‘Thuir’s more than enough men t’be helping ‘em find it out.’ She wondered how long it would be before they each had a beau to brighten their glum faces with smiles.

“Now, ye’ll be putting these on.” The older woman held up one of the white, cotton nightgowns. “Use the ribbon at the top t’be setting the collar. Ye can tie the ribbon so ‘tis close to yuir neck, or ye can tie it loose t’be showing off them pretty… shoulders. Ye each get t’be deciding for yuirselves.” She tossed the nightdress to Lylah. “Ye, too, Flora.” She threw her the other.

The women put their arms into the long sleeves of the garment. They raised their arms upward and let the material slide down onto their bodies. Two sets of eyes opened wide at the sensation of soft, cool cloth moving against their newly sensitized skin. When they lowered their arms and adjusted the outfits, the cotton rubbed against their nipples, almost as a tickle.

“Fine,” Molly said, a wry smile on her lips at their befuddlement. “‘Tis after two in the morning, and we’ll be waking ye ‘round nine for another day o’chores. So it’s t’bed with ye, and no talking.” She lit her candle from the lamp, then lowered the lamp’s wick until there was only a small flicker of a flame. “G’night.” She went out, closing the door behind her.

Flora and Lylah climbed into their beds. Lylah tried to talk, but no words came out. It didn’t really matter, since both of them were asleep almost at once.

* * * * *

Tuesday, April 30, 1872

The sound of someone’s loud knocking woke Lylah and Flora. “Rise ‘n’ shine, ladies,” Molly called through the door. “I want ye dressed and downstairs for breakfast in fifteen minutes.”

“Hell,” Flora muttered, staring down at her new breasts. “It wasn’t a dream.” She shifted over and climbed out of bed.

Lylah threw back her covers and sat up. “No, it wasn’t, damn your eyes!”

“Don’t you go yelling at me, girl. I got changed, the same as you.”

“Like hell, the same; you’re still white. I’m a nigger bitch, black as a crow.”

Flora leered at her. “The way you’re pushing out the front of that nightgown, more like a robin black breast.”

“That ain’t funny.” She didn’t add that Flora was as well developed as she was.

“Sure, it is.” Flora raised her arms. “Now, help me get this thing off.”

Without thinking of what she was doing, Lylah walked over. She took hold of the material of Flora’s gown and slowly lifted it upwards, finally pulling it over her head and off her arms.

She tried not to look at the naked woman standing so close to her, but that was all but impossible. Flora’s breasts were right there, almost touching her, nipples erect and begging to be played with.

Lylah felt an odd… something in her own breasts. And down… there where there wasn’t anything anymore. ‘If there was,’ she told herself regretfully, 'it would’ve been rock hard by now.’

“Just fold my nightgown up and leave it on my bed,” Flora said, “after you make the bed, of course.”

Lylah started. “Wh-What’d you say?”

“I told you to fold my nightgown and to make the bed. Why aren’t you doing it?”

“Why should I? I ain’t your maid.”

“Look, you dumb nigger, I told you --”

“I may be nigger – thanks t’you – but I ain’t dumb. You’re stuck here, same as me. You can fold your own damned clothes and make your own damned bed.” She threw the garment at Flora, who dodged, letting it fall to the floor.

The door burst open. “What the… what’s going on in here?” Molly demanded.

“This uppity nigger won’t do what I say.”

Molly looked hard at them both. Flora realized that she was naked and grabbed for her drawers.

“Do what ye say,” Molly said. “And who’re ye t’be telling her what t’do?”

Flora stepped into the drawers and quickly pulled them up to her waist. “She… She worked for me… before. Why should that stop now?” She tied the bow that held the undergarment tight at the waist. “Besides, she’s a nigger. She’s supposed to do what a white man like me tells her.”

“Really?” Molly looked around the room. “I don’t see no white man here, do ye?”

“N-No,” Flora replied. No one that looked like a man, anyway. She was still uncomfortable, being so undressed in front of Molly, and slipped on her chemise, as well.

“Aye, there’s nobody here but us ladies, the warden – which is me – and her prisoners – which is the two o’ye.” Molly fixed the women with her eyes. “So, I’m telling ye, the both of ye, t’be getting dressed – by yuirselves – and get downstairs as quick as ye can.”

* * * * *

` “Innocent Till Proven Guilty”

` “Innocent till proven guilty, isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be here in the
` United States of America? A person isn’t considered guilty until a jury says
` that he – or she – is.”

` “That’s certainly not the way it was for Nancy Osbourne at last week’s
` meeting of the Town Council.”

` “Nancy’s been teaching here for almost five years. Through the years, this
` paper has covered many spelling bees and school pageants. Every spring,
` we’ve has published a feature story about the graduating class. And, every
` time we’ve asked, the students – and their parents – have been constant in
` their praise of Miss Osbourne’s skill as a teacher and of the affection,
` concern, and patience she’s always shown for her pupils.”

` “That all ended at last week’s meeting. A small group of hysterical women,
` acting on rumor and hearsay, rather than on the facts, forced the Town
` Council, which is also the School Board, to suspend Miss Osbourne pending
` further investigation.”

` “These women would have had her fired then and there, without any real
` chance to defend herself. We applaud the Council for not giving in to the
` mob mentality that seems to be spreading in our community these days. We
` have no doubt that, once the Council completes its investigation, they will
` find be no reason to dismiss Miss Osbourne, and she will be returning to her
` classroom and her students.”

` “We only hope that she will want to come back.”

* * * * *

“You ain’t never gonna finish lunch if you keep picking at it like that.”

Bridget looked up from her plate. “Wha – oh, hello, Wilma. I-I guess I’m not very hungry today.” She tried to change the subject. “What brings you over here?”

“I come over t’talk to you and Jessie.” She looked around and saw her sister sitting alone, strumming her guitar. “Hey, Jess,” she yelled, “c’mere.”

Jessie left her guitar on the table she’d been sitting at and walked over. “How’s it going, Wilma?”

“Better ‘n’ good.” Wilma answered, her face breaking into a broad grin.

Jessie pulled out a chair and sat down. “If you come over t’watch Forry – Flora – work, Molly’s got her and Lylah upstairs, cleaning rooms and making beds.”

“They must just love doing stuff like that, especially Flora. Makes me wish I had a chaw of tobacco.”

Bridget cocked a surprised eyebrow. “Why’s that? I never knew you to chew before, not even back when you were Will.”

“Never wanted to. My pa chewed, so did Mr. Edgeworth at the Home, remember?” She pretended to chew an enormous wad of tobacco, distorting her face as she did to imitate the director of the Texas Orphans’ Home, where she and Bridget had first met.

Bridget nodded. “He was a nasty little man, wasn’t he? He always had some tobacco in his mouth.” She gave a faint chuckle. “Remember that milk cow we had at the Home? We used to call it ‘Edgeworth’ because they both were chewing their cud all the time.” Then she looked puzzled. “But why would you want some now?”

“So I could mess up a spittoon or two for Flora t’clean.” She gave a hearty laugh, and Jessie quickly joined in.

So did Bridget… barely. “That would be something to see.”

“It surely would,” Wilma paused for effect. “Too bad I won’t get the chance.”

Jessie raised her chin. “What d’you mean?”

“Ethan’s leaving Eerie on the Thursday stage.” She smiled contentedly. “And I’m going with him.”

Bridget looked stunned. “What! When did he ask you?”

“Last night… in bed.” She gave a happy sigh.

“Are you sure you didn't just dream it?”

“I am, but it's a dream come true.” She giggled. “We’re gonna go to Philly first, then on t’New York for some sorta show he’s having for his paintings.” She giggled again. “Too bad he can’t take that one he did o’me, but it ain’t the sorta painting t’show in public.”

“Why do you want to go with him?” Jessie asked. “Is there something going on that I don't know about?”

“Plenty. But to answer your question, I'm going 'cause Ethan asked me, and 'cause I want to go with him.”

“I didn't know you were that kind of girl.” Jessie stood and stepped over to hug her sister. “I’m gonna miss you, Wilma.”

“And I’ll miss you – the both of you. Maybe you can come t’visit us sometime, Jess – with Paul, of course. You come see us, too, Bridget.”

“You sound like you're never coming back,” said the redhead.

“I hope I never want to.”

Bridget got practical. “What did Cerise say when you told her you were going?”

“She asked if I was sure, and I told her that I was never surer of anything in my life. She said that she was sorry I was going, but she understood why. She’s gonna throw a going-away party for us tomorrow night, and you both’re invited.”

Bridget studied the tabletop. “I-I’ll try to come.”

“I’ll be there,” Jessie said catching her sister’s excitement. She realized that her sister was either in love, or she had an angle going that would get her set up pretty well. And the former would be much more surprising than the latter.

Wilma reached down and cupped Bridget’s chin in her hand. Then she slowly lifted it until the two women were staring eye to eye. “You’re my oldest friend, Bridget, my sister, almost, and you surely look like you could use a little bit of fun these days. You better be there.”

“I-I’ll try,” Bridget answered softly. “I… I promise.”

Wilma smiled encouragingly. “And I’ll hold you to that promise, old friend.”

* * * * *

` “Justice Served, But to Who?”

` “Justice was swiftly served yesterday in the court of Judge Parnassus J.
` Humphreys.”

` “On Friday last, Mr. Forrest Stafford and Mr. Leland Saunders ambushed
` well-known local rancher, Abner Slocum, on a trail leading to the northern
` portion of his property. Mr. Slocum survived but with serious injuries. He is
` currently recuperating in the infirmary of Doctor Hiram Upshaw. Dr. Upshaw
` will say nothing about Mr. Slocum’s condition, except that Mr. Slocum ‘is
` too stubborn to let something like this stop him.’”

` “Stafford and Saunders were captured almost at once by a group of Mr.
` Slocum’s hands led by his foreman, Luke Freeman. At their trial, they
` admitted their guilt and were sentenced to drink the special brew prepared by
` barman Shamus O’Toole and to spend 60 days working at the Eerie
` Special Offenders Penitentiary.”

` “Their sentence was one that might have been expected, considering the
` nature of their crime. The control of Mr. O’Toole’s brew is currently a
` matter of not a little political contention. Yet, none of those who are advocating
` that some other group be given that control were present to witness Mr.
` O’Toole administer his brew and comment on its use.”

` “For that matter, none of these advocates have made any comment regarding
` Mr. O’Toole and his wife supervising those who partake of the brew. Do they
` intend to have the O’Tooles continue to supervise these people if they no
` longer control the brew, or will Stafford, Saunders, and any future persons be
` boarding with them?”

* * * * *

Clara watched from her wheelchair, as Arnie tied the ribbons of her petticoat into a bow at her waist. “Annie, can I ask you a question… friend to friend?”

“Sure, Clara,” Arnie answered, smiling. “Like you said, we are friends.”

“Thanks, I was wondering what you… what you think of Hedley?”

Arnie blinked, taken by surprise. What did she think? “He… he’s a friend, same as you.” She put her arms into the sleeves of her dress, and raised them up over her head. The frock slid down onto her. “Why do you ask?” She straightened the dress over her petticoat.

“Oh, ahh… curiosity. Are you sure it’s the same? I mean, we’re both girls. Hedley… he’s a boy.”

Arnie’s hands faltered, as she tried to button her dress. “So, he’s a boy; what of it?” To herself, she added. ‘I’m a boy, too… inside, aren’t I?’

“I-I’m not trying to be a matchmaker – honest, I’m not. I just thought… it seemed to me that you… you liked him, liked him the way a girl likes a boy. And I think – well, I think that he likes you – a little – too.”

“He does?” A pleasant warmth ran through Arnie’s body. She felt the heat of a blush. “But that… that’s silly.”

Silly or not, she caught herself rushing to finish changing her clothes. But why? It couldn’t be lunch – she wasn’t that hungry. The lessons – not considering how nervous she still was about being a teacher. She took a breath. The only other possible reason was that she was hurrying so the Spauldings – so Hedley -- no, so the Spauldings could see how she looked in her dress.

But that was silly.

* * * * *

“Nancy,” Carmen yelled from the kitchen. “Would you get the door, please?”

Nancy hurried over to the front door. “I’m coming; I’m coming,” she called to whomever was knocking.

“K-Kirby,” she said in surprise, when she opened the door. “What are you doing here?”

He beamed at the sight of her. “Nancy, are… are you all right? I-I was worried.”

“Worried?” She found herself smiling back. “Whatever for?”

“May I come inside to explain?” He glanced both ways down the street.

“Of course.” She stepped aside.

He hurried in, and she closed the door behind him. “The dictionary you ordered for the school,” he explained. “You never came to check on it. It arrived last week.” He held up a thick volume to show her. “I was waiting for you to come in for it, so I could talk to you without making any more trouble for you. But when I saw that editorial in today’s paper, I-I had to make certain that you were all right.” He set the book down on a bench near the door.

“Had to make sure?” she asked shyly. “Are you that concerned about all your customers?”

“No,” he said, sounding embarrassed, “but you’re more than just a customer.” He took her hand in his. “You’re… you’re a… a friend.”

A warm, happy feeling ran through her. “A friend?”

“A friend… and maybe more – if you’ll let me.”

“More? I'm not quite sure what you mean to say. I do like you, Kirby, but...” Her voice trailed off and she gently withdrew her hand.

He continued for her. “But you’re a teacher, and you can’t have a life of your own outside of the school. You’ve told me that before.”

She shrugged. “I’m not a teacher now.”

“But you will be again, I’m sure of it, and very soon. In fact…” He glanced over at the book. “I’ll just leave the dictionary here… with you, so you can take it in on your first day back.”

“Thank you, Kirby, for saying that.” She sighed. “It’s nice to know that somebody trusts me.”

“I do,” Nancy, “and I know that I’m the not only one who does.”

Before she could reply, Carmen came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a yellow apron tied about her waist. “Nancy, the supper will be ready soon. Will Señor Kirby be joining us?”

“I-I don’t know.” Nancy couldn’t help but think of Dell Cooper, and all the trouble from when he had taken her out to dinner. ‘What if Cecelia Ritter and the other biddies found out that I had dinner with yet another man?’ She considered the possibility for a moment and decided that she didn’t care. “Yes, Kirby,” she said in a soft voice, “would you like to stay for supper?”

He gave her another broad grin. “I can’t think of anything I’d like more.”

* * * * *

“Damnation!” Reverend Yingling slammed the newspaper down on the table.

Martha Yingling looked over from where she was putting away dinner leftovers. “What’s the matter, dear?”

“These editorials Roscoe Unger published. ‘Hysterical women’, he called Cecelia Ritter and her ladies; ‘mob mentality’ – he is no doubt talking about those who are following my lead regarding O’Toole’s potion. The… impunity of the man is beyond measure.”

She quickly walked over to where he was sitting. “I’m sure that he wasn’t criticizing you, Thad.”

“He most certainly was. Here…” He pointed to a paragraph on the page. “…he mentions me by name, saying that I should have attended that mockery of a trial and insinuating that I am not prepared to take on the responsibilities of controlling the potion.”

“How can he say such things about you? Roscoe is a regular member of our congregation --”

That can change easily enough.”

“You mean that he could quit?”

“I mean that he can be told to leave.”

“T-Tell a man he must abandon his hope of eternal salvation? Thad, you… you can’t mean that.”

He looked up at her and read the shock in her face. He felt a brief moment of shame, and his anger waned – a little. “I suppose I don’t, but I do think that the man needs a severe talking to.”

* * * * *

` “This Pike County couple got married, of course,
` But Ike became jealous, and obtained a divorce.
` Betsy, well-satisfied, said with a shout,
` Goodbye, you big lummox, I'm glad you backed out!”

Jessie finished the song with a flourish of her guitar and a round of applause. “That’s it for this show, fellahs. Thanks for your kind attention. I’ll be singing again in about two hours, and Shamus’ll be glad t’sell you a drink or three to help bide the time.”

She stooped down carefully to pick up the coins a few of the men had tossed. Sometimes – especially if Paul was in the audience – she’d lean forward to show more of her lush bosom. ‘Not tonight,’ she reminded herself, ‘he’s on duty all night, and,’ she added reluctantly, ‘there ain’t enough men here for me to do it for the extra tips.’

It was true. After she’d finished, most of her smaller than usual audience had headed for the bar or signaled for Flora or Lylah to come over and take their orders. Jessie smiled at the sight of the terror of her childhood scurrying between tables, a subservient waitress.

But more than a few of the men had already left, heading for the dancing girls at the Lone Star.

“Ain’t much of a crowd tonight.” Shamus came over to where she was sitting.

She nodded. “A few more ‘n last week, but them gals Duggan’s got are still stealing a lotta my audience – and your customers.”

“That they are,” he agreed sorrowfully. “How would ye like t’be doing something t’get ‘em back?”

“What have you got in mind, Shamus? I ain’t about to dress up in one of them skimpy outfits and flounce around showing my drawers.”

“I ain’t asking ye to. Ye’ll be the one playing the music, while Flora and Lylah are the one doing the dancing. How does that suit ye?”

Jessie had to laugh. “I love it. But ain’t it gonna take a lotta time – and money – t’build a stage and teach them two some fancy dance? They’ve only been girls for a day. Are they ready t’be dancing girls?”

“Thuir ready if I say thuir ready, which I do. Besides, we’ll be starting ‘em off on something simple. D’ye remember that ‘Captain Jinks’ song ye was singing a few days ago?”

“Of course, I do. Why?”

“I’ve seen them shows they do in them dance halls in ‘Frisco and Denver and the like. That song’s a good one for what I’ve got in mind. Them two’ll be dancing, acting out the song – sort of, while ye sing it.” He studied her expression. “Are ye game for that?”

She considered his idea. “Maybe… for an extra dollar a show.”

“Extra… why ye… forty cents.”

“Ninety cents.”

“Fifty cents.”

“Eighty.”

“Sixty.”

“Split the difference… seventy cents.” She stuck out her hand.

He spit in his palm and shook hands. “Done, and thank ye for the fun of that haggle.”

“So when do we start?”

“Tomorrow; me Molly’ll be training ‘em, and, with a wee bit o’luck, we’ll be trying out the show on Sunday.”

* * * * *

Wednesday, May 1, 1872

“Are you all right, Laura?” Jane asked. “You look kinda pale.”

Laura shook her head. “I’m fine,” she said in a tired voice, gently rubbing her swollen stomach. “Junior was restless last night.” She did feel tired, but what could she do about it anyway?

“In that case, Laura,” Maggie said by way of interruption, “could you please take that bowl of coleslaw out to the Free Lunch?”

“Sure thing, Maggie.” Laura put the bowl on a tray and, walking slowly, carried it through the door and into the saloon.

Maggie and Jane went back to working on the Free Lunch. Maggie was slicing leftover chicken, and Jane was piling bread onto a tray.

Suddenly there was a scream from the other room. Lupe came running into the kitchen. “Mama, mama,” she called out in a scared voice, “Tia Laura… she just fell down, and she is not moving.”

* * * * *

Tommy Carson stepped through the doors into the office of the Mackechnie Freight Company. He took a breath and yelled, “Telegram for Ogden Mackechnie.”

“That’s me,” a voice answered from the back of the office. A burly man with graying brown hair and a burnsides mustache walked out from behind a counter.

The boy handed him the telegram. He tore it opened and quickly read the message. “Yee-ah-woo!” he yelled, waving the paper over his head. He fished some change out of a pocket and handed Tommy a nickel. “Would you do me a favor, son?”

“If I can, sir. I gotta get back to my Dad’s office.”

Mackechnie smiled. “Not even for a…” He looked at the change in his hand. “…a dime?”

“A dime, yes, sir!”

“Good boy. Run over to my house, 16 Second Street, and tell my wife that the territory chose my bid for the contract to haul equipment and supplies from Prescott to Yuma, and I’m taking her and the children out to dinner to celebrate.”

* * * * *

“I’m fine,” Laura insisted to Arsenio, staring up at him from their bed.

Edith Lonnigan shook her head. “Women in ‘fine’ condition do not faint. What do you say, Doctor?”

“There’s no sign of bleeding, and the baby appears to be viable.” The relief in Hiram Upshaw’s voice was obvious. “You’re still pregnant, Laura.”

Arsenio breathed for the first time in what seemed like hours. “Thank G-d. What do we do now, Doc?”

“Nothing. We won’t know if anything did happen to the baby for a while, maybe not until it’s born. The best course, though, is bed rest for at least a week -- maybe for the rest of the pregnancy.”

Laura strained to sit up. “But I’ve got a job to do at the saloon.”

“Laura,” Molly said firmly – they hadn’t been able to keep her out of the room. “If ye step through the door into me saloon before the doctor here says ye can, I’ll… I’ll be carrying ye back here meself.” She took a breath. “And, if the doctor says I can, I’ll wallop yuir bottom for trying something so foolish.”

Arsenio chuckled. “Not if I get to her first.”

“With dire threats like that,” Laura said, sinking back into the bed, “I guess I’m stuck here.” Despite her earlier words, she felt relieved at being ordered to stay home.

* * * * *

Nancy was sitting in the Whitney’s garden reading Sonnets From the Portuguese and enjoying the mid-afternoon sun, when she heard Carmen calling, “Nancy… Nancy, where are you?”

“Out here,” she answered and put down the book. Carmen wasn’t due home from her bathhouse for a couple hours. “What’s wrong?”

The other woman walked into the garden. “I am afraid that your meeting with the town council will have to be put back a few days?”

“Why?” Nancy asked nervously. It couldn’t be about her having dinner with Kirby, could it? “Was it something I --?”

Carmen put her hand on Nancy’s shoulder. “This has nothing… nothing to do with you, anyway. Laura, Arsenio Caulder’s wife --”

“I know her from church. I hope nothing serious happened to her?”

“She fainted at work today, and Doctor Upshaw says that she must stay in bed for a while to recover. Nothing will get Arsenio to leave her side, so the meeting --”

“Is postponed, as it should be.” She tried not to look disappointed. “Poor Mrs. Caulder.” It was hard for Nancy to think of Laura as one of those “potion girls,” a former outlaw. She wondered what the new girls, Flora and Lylah, would be like a year down the road.

“Sì, I am going to pack a basket to take over to them. They will both need to eat.”

“May I help? I like Mrs. Caulder. In fact, if you think it would be all right, I’d like to go over there with you, to wish her well and to see if there’s any way I might help.”

“Of course, you can come along. I think that Laura and Arsenio would like some company.”

* * * * *

“Hey Ethan,” Wilma shouted from the doorway to the painter’s rented house. “Where are you?”

His voice came back quickly from the second floor studio. “Up here, Wilma. What did you want?”

“You,” she answered happily, hurrying up the stairs.

The painter was folding up a hinged wooden easel. “What can I do for you this afternoon?”

“Same thing you done to me last night.” She giggled. “And this morning.” She walked over and kissed him deeply on the mouth. “Mmm.” She moaned and rubbed her body against his. Their hands roamed each other’s bodies, exciting her – exciting them both.

Eventually, they had to break the kiss. Wilma glanced about the room. Most of his equipment and supplies were already in shipping crates. So were the paintings he had brought with him to Eerie. The chairs that so many of his subjects had posed on belonged with the house and were stacked against a wall. The bed that he had used for her portrait was in a corner, the mattress rolled up and tied with a thick rope.

“Shame that bed ain’t set up,” she said in a sultry voice. “It’d be nice to use it, just once, the way a bed’s supposed t’be used.”

“Don’t worry about that,” he replied. “Tonight – in your own bed – I have something special --”

“Special, that’s what I come over for. Daisy wanted me t’ask you if there was anything special you wanted for our going-away party tonight.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Our going-away party, are you also going to be doing some traveling?”

“I sure am, to New York… with you.”

“Whatever gave you the idea that you were accompanying me to New York?”

“Y-You did – in bed, last night.”

“Wilma, I said many things to you in your boudoir, but, I am quite certain that I never said anything even remotely along those lines. You must have misunderstood.”

Her jaw dropped in disbelief. “No, you… didn’t you… you promised.” He had to be teasing her for some reason. He just had to.

“Wilma, you are a delightful bedmate, one of the most skillful, most willing women I have ever had coitus with, but I doubt that my fiancé --”

“Fiancé! What finacé?”

“A lovely lady to whom I've been engaged for two years. I didn't mention it because I didn't think it would be an issue with you. Also, I felt that it would be highly improper to mention her name in a place such as Lady Cerise's.”

“But… but what about us and… and this evening? You said it’d b-be special.”

“And it shall be, very special. I have invited your colleague, Beatriz, to join us for the night. It is my experience that the things that can be experienced in such an erotic trio are exceedingly special.”

The woman gasped. This was beyond all belief. She felt her eyes filling with tears, but she was damned if she was going to give him the chance to see her cry. “G-Goodbye, Ethan,” she yelled as she darted down the stairs.

* * * * *

The front door opened almost as soon as Carmen knocked.

“Carmen… and Miss Osbourne, thank goodness.” Arsenio greeted them. “Please, please come in.”

The two women entered the house. Carmen heard loud voices from the bedroom. “Why is Laura yelling like that? It cannot be good for her.”

“It probably isn’t,” he conceded. “Maybe they’ll stop if you go in.” He didn’t look like he believed it. He pushed open the half-closed door. “Laura, you have more company.”

“Who…” Laura looked up from her bed. “Oh, Carmen and… Nancy Osbourne, how nice.”

Nancy nodded. “It is. I was sorry to hear about what happened, Mrs. Caulder --”

“Laura… please.”

“Thank you… Laura, and I’m Nancy. Carmen and I brought some food for you and Mr. Caulder.”

Another voice rang out. “Food? That’s the last thing they’ll need while I’m here.”

Nancy looked around and almost dropped the basket she was carrying. The speaker was Laura’s twin. “W-who…”

“I’m Jane Steinmetz,” the woman answered, stepping forward. “Laura’s my sister – sort of. I was saying how I was gonna come over and t’cook all of her and Arsenio’s meals while she’s laid up.”

Nancy nodded. She had heard about the strange events of last summer’s kidnappings, but this was the first time she had met Laura’s now transformed abductor.

Laura leaned forward. “And I was trying to tell her that she’s needed more over at the restaurant… ‘Maggie’s Place’. She’s the assistant cook over there.”

“Okay,” Jane admitted, “so Maggie wasn’t too happy when I told her what I wanted t’do, but she said that she didn’t mind – not too much, anyway. Molly can help Maggie out instead of me.”

The bedridden woman sighed. “And who’ll help Shamus with those new prisoners, if Molly’s stuck in the kitchen? Or wait on customers, either? Your being over here so much would leave her and Shamus very shorthanded.”

“I know, but you’re my sister, and you – and Arsenio – come first.”

Nancy considered the situation for a bit before she spoke. “Perhaps I can help.”

“Go ahead,” Laura said, “tell Jane how stubborn she’s acting.”

“I don’t think she’d listen to me, but what I meant was that I might be able to help out at the restaurant, for a while, anyway. When I was enrolled at the Hartford Female Seminary, we ate our meals eight to a table, seven students and a teacher. The students took turns acting as server for their table. I could be the waitress you need.”

Jane seemed to brighten. “That’d work; wouldn’t it, Laura?”

“Are you sure, Nancy?” Arsenio asked from over her shoulder. “Those people who are against you won't make any distinction whether you're working at the restaurant or working for the saloon.”

Nancy shook her head. “I think I'm coming to the end of my patience with such bullying. Why should the people who like me the least be the ones who decide what I should do with my life?”

“At least you could give it a try,” Arsenio said with an uneasy shrug. “Then we can both stop worrying.” He gently took his wife’s hand in his.

Jane nodded enthusiastically. “It’s a good idea.”

“Well,” Laura glanced first at Jane, then at Arsenio, then, with a look of relief, at Nancy. “If you're aware of the risks, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.”

* * * * *

“How’s your chicken?” Liam asked. “I’ve never seen it served with a chocolate sauce before.”

Kaitlin used her napkin to dab at the corners of her mouth. “Neither had I, but Phillipia Stone told me that it was a specialty of ‘Maggie’s Place’, so I thought that I'd try it.” She paused a half-beat. “And it is delicious, by the way. How’s your fish?”

“Pretty good, and it’s even better with you as my dinner partner.”

She smiled at the compliment. “Thank you, Liam. I must admit that I was surprised – just a little – when you asked me out for supper.”

“Why? I’ve told you that I was courting you. When a man courts a beautiful woman, he takes her out to share her fine company and to show everybody how lucky he is to be with her.”

“Well…” She sounded impressed. “Thank you for that, but I was still taken aback – just a little – by the invitation. You never seemed to be interested in women. I don’t recall you ever seeing anyone the entire time we’ve been here in Eerie.”

“Kaitlin, I’ve been interested in women since I was eleven, and my Papa told me all about the differences between boys and girls.”

“Really, you never --”

“There was a problem, a big problem. The woman I was interested in – the woman I loved – was married.” He took a quick sip of water. “To my brother.”

“Liam.” The shock was obvious in her face. “I never thought, never suspected…” Her voice trailed off.

He looked down at his meal. “You weren’t supposed to. I'd eventually have settled for second best, I guess, but I wasn't ready for that, yet.” He sighed. “I’m not sure that I should have told you. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, please, don’t be sorry.” She smiled shyly and reached over to take his hand in her own. “Besides,” she told him in a soft voice, “I’m not married anymore.”

* * * * *

Lavinia Mackechnie watched Nancy walking towards the kitchen with the orders for her family’s dinner. “Dis… gusting,” she spat under her breath.

“What’s that you say?” her husband, Ogden, asked.

The woman made a gesture towards Nancy, just as she disappeared through the door. “That… disgrace of a school teacher, Nancy Osbourne. The jury frees her brother after he killed her… paramour…” She said the last word in a whisper that she hoped her children wouldn’t hear. “And she’s back here, among drunkards and gamblers, looking for a replacement.”

“Don’t be so hasty, my dear.”

“Hasty, I’m being nothing of the sort. This only confirms what Cecelia Ritter has been saying all along. I heard that she ordered a beer from Molly O'Toole right after the hearing. Mrs. O'Toole said right out loud that she was the first schoolteacher who'd ever come into this place to drink.”

“But we come here, now and then.”

“To dine, not to guzzle beer like a common trollop! Nancy Osbourne is a wicked, low woman, and she has no business teaching our children. I’ll speak to Cecelia, Zenobia, and the others tomorrow, and, when I tell them what I’ve seen here tonight, the woman flouting her sinful nature for all to see, we’ll make very, very sure that the town council fires her this time.”

* * * * *

“Try ‘n’ relax, Bridget,” Jane said, as she took hold of the hinged bronze cupid on the front door of La Parisienne. “You been here t’visit Wilma lotsa times.”

Bridget glanced nervously up and down the street. “I-I know, but now, I… I shouldn’t have come here tonight.” What would people think – did they expect to see her at a place like this?

“Aw, you don’t wanna let Wilma go off with Ethan without you having a chance t’say goodbye, do you?”

Before the redheaded gambler could answer, the door opened. “’Allo, ladies,” Herve greeted them. “I am so glad you are here.”

“Thanks, Herve,” Jessie replied cheerfully. “Has the party started yet? I brought Bridget… and my guitar.” She held up the instrument for him to see as she walked past the tall Frenchman. Bridget scurried in after her.

He closed the door behind them. “Party… no. There is no party… not now. Mademoiselle Wilma, she stormed in some time ago. She shrieked at my Lady Cerise and… attacked Mademoiselle Beatriz. I had to pull her off before Beatriz was injured. When my Lady asked what was going on, Beatriz said that Wilma had just learned whom Messier Thomas really loved.”

He took a breath and continued. “I thought that such words would make Wilma even madder, expect her to snarl and spit like a wildcat, but she did not. All the life seemed to go out of her. She broke free and ran for the steps, crying like the baby, and with Beatriz’ laughing at her out loud.”

“Where is Beatriz?” Jessie snarled. “I got a few things I wanna say to her.”

The man’s eyes drifted upwards. “She is with Messier Thomas just now, and I do not think that either of them would care to hear whatever you might wish to say to them.”

“No… well, ain’t that too bad.” Jessie started for the flight of stairs.

Bridget chased after her. “Jessie… wait. Before you do whatever it is you want to do to them, don’t you think that you… that we should see how Wilma is?”

“You’re right.” Jessie stopped and drew a breath. “Wilma first, then them two.” She turned back to face Herve. “And don’t you – none of you --- go warn them.”

The big Frenchman flashed a nasty grin. “Now why would I want to do that?” He paused a beat. “We will say nothing… so long as you agree not to hurt our Mademoiselle Beatriz. It is a business thing.”

“You got it.” Jessie agreed, and the pair hurried up to Wilma’s bedroom.

Jessie tried the door. “Locked.” She cupped her hands and called out. “Wilma… Wilma.”

“Ethan?” The door suddenly opened, but Wilma’s eager smile faded, when she saw her sister and her best friend. “You two got no business being here – go away.”

“You invited us,” Bridget answered.

Wilma laughed bitterly. “Yeah… I did, didn’t I? Th-That party, big laugh… big j-joke… on… on me.” She started to cry. Her dress was badly wrinkled, her hair was awry, and her eyes were red.

“Let’s take this inside,” Jessie said, motioning for them all to go into the room. When they did, she quickly shut, and latched, the door.

Wilma sat down on her bed, still crying softly. Jessie put her guitar down next to the door and sat down on her sister’s left; Bridget on Wilma’s right. Bridget fished a white cloth handkerchief from her reticule and handed it to her friend. “Can you tell us what happened?”

“Ethan!” Wilma spat the name. “He told me I was special and what a fine old time we was gonna have. I thought he meant that he was gonna take me t’New York with him.” She laughed hoarsely. “‘Cept he couldn’t do that, now could he? Not with that fiancé of his back in Philadelphia. She’s a proper gal, she is, not a wh-whore like me. Hell, I can work in a place like this, but she's too fine a lady even to have her name mentioned here!”

Jessie took her sister’s hand in her own. “That bastard – lying t’you like that.”

“H-He didn’t l-lie,” Wilma answered. “He-He did have s-something sp-special in mind, something h-him and m-me and… and Beatriz could do in b-bed tonight.”

Jessie gasped. “A three-way?”

“Yeah,” Wilma said in a soft voice, tears running down her face. “It… It’s some-something a wh-whore like me… does.” It was the first time that Jessie had ever heard Wilma say anything bad about being a whore.

Jessie frowned and suddenly sprang to her feet. “Why that dirty…” She took her sister’s hand again. “C’mon, Wilma… you, too, Bridget. We got us a score to settle.”

Wilma blinked in surprise and let herself be pulled to her feet. “What – what are you gonna do, Jess?”

Jessie smiled mischievously. “You’ll see.” She waited a beat, while Bridget stood. “Which is Beatriz’ room?”

“A-across the hall,” Wilma answered, uncertain of what her sister was planning. “About five feet further from the steps.”

“Perfect.” She opened the door part way. “You two stay here. Keep the door open just wide enough t’peek.”

Jessie strode out into the hall. She smoothed the front of her dress and patted at her hair. When she was ready, she glanced back. Wilma’s door was opened just a crack, and she could see the other two looking back at her. She winked and walked over to Beatriz’ door.

“Oh, Ethan,” she called out in a seductive voice. She knocked on the door and spoke his name again.

She was about to knock again, when the door opened. “Yes?” Ethan wore only a white towel wrapped around his waist. Angry as she was, Jessie had to admire the man’s muscular body -- and the bulge that tented the towel in front.

She pictured Paul Grant in just a towel. ‘I’ll have t’do something about that later,’ she told herself.

“Why, Jessie,” he said with a wide grin. “What happy chance brings you here tonight?”

She smiled back. “I heard you like some things in threes,” she answered softly.

Ethan's brows went up. “I do indeed. Are you inquiring for yourself, or for another lady?”

“For myself!”

“Delightful.” He moved forward, putting his arms around her and pulling her to him. She could smell the whiskey on his breath, and, more disconcerting to her, she could feel his manhood pushing against her. “This is a most welcome, most pleasing surprise.”

“Surprise, yes,” Jessie’s arms reached up and circled around his neck. “Pleasant… no. Here’s three to remember Wilma by.” Her knee jerked up, hitting him sharply in the groin. His eyes opened wide in surprise – and pain. But, when he tried to move away, he found himself trapped by Jessie’s arms. Before he could break free, she kneed him twice more.

“Ah… erk!” he said in a high-pitched voice, as he collapsed to the floor, stunned and writhing in pain.

Jessie nodded at Beatriz who sat watching, naked, from her bed. “You two have a good night.” She chortled as she closed the door and returned to Wilma and Bridget. Both were laughing, and the tears running down Wilma’s cheeks were tears of joy.

Their merriment was infectious. “I just hope my kicking Ethan like that does Wilma some permanent good,” Jessie said.

* * * * *

Thursday, May 2, 1872

“You didn’t need to come with me, Jess,” Wilma said breathlessly, as they hurried towards the stage depot.

Jessie shook her head. “Yeah… I did, but I think this is a dumb idea.”

“I know, but I… I couldn’t let Ethan leave, not without saying… goodbye.”

“You’re still hoping he’ll take you with him, ain’t you?”

“Yes… but he won’t, not a whore like me.” She sighed, but she kept walking until… “There he is!” she shouted.

Ethan walked slowly out of the stage depot building. From his odd gait, Jessie could tell that he was still sore from being kicked by her the night before. ‘Hope I broke something,’ Jessie thought as they reached the depot.

“Ethan!” Wilma shouted.

He turned to face her. “Wilma…” His expression changed when he saw whom she was with. “And Jessie, what an utterly disagreeable surprise.” He smiled, but he also took a step back from her. “Or have you come to apologize for ruining my last night in this hovel of a town?”

“Seems t’me,” Jessie replied, “that you’re the one who should be apologizing… to Wilma.”

“Apologize? For what? I never promised her more than a few nights of shared carnal delight, and she is surely too honest a woman to have told you that I didn't deliver. There were a few misunderstandings, I fear, but they were unintentional.” He smiled with smug satisfaction. “There is nothing more to be said; I only wish our parting could have come on a more amiable note.” He started for the stagecoach.

Jessie looked past him into the stage. Two men were already inside. They weren’t close enough to have heard the exchange between her and Ethan, but from the leers on their faces and the way they kept looking from her to Wilma to Ethan and back to her again, they were clearly impressed by the beauty of the two women who had come to see him off.

She hurried to catch up with him. “Well, maybe there is one thing,” she said softly. She walked along with him, although he managed to keep a few feet between them. When they were only a short distance from the stage, she spoke up, using the same strong, resonate voice that she used to be heard when she performed.

“Now don’t you worry, brother,” she began, “that mercury treatment’ll have you cured of the clap in no time at all. Why the doc says it’ll even clean up them sores you got all over your pecker.”

A tall, heavyset man that Jessie recognized as the guard was standing by the door to help people in and out of the coach. He frowned at the artist. “Get in… mister,” he told Ethan, stepping back from the door as the painter reached it. “We sure ain’t holding the stage for the likes of you.”

Ethan scowled, but didn’t reply. When he climbed in, the two men inside moved as far away as they could within the limited space.

“And don’t touch nothing,” the guard said. He kicked the door shut and climbed up to the seat next to the driver.

“Gee-up,” the other man yelled, flicking the reins. The stage lurched forward and headed down the street.

Jessie made a deep theatrical bow towards the departing stage. Then she turned and repeated the gesture for her sister. “Ta-da!”

Wilma was standing on the wooden sidewalk in front of the depot. “Thanks for that, Jess.” She started to giggle, even as tears ran down her face.

* * * * *

“There’s the schoolhouse, Kirby,” Nancy said, pointing to the building. “I’ll take the book now.”

He smiled and hefted the large dictionary. “Are you sure? It hasn’t gotten any lighter in the last half mile.”

“I’m sure. After all, I was the one who ordered it.”

“Yes, but you ordered it for the school, not for yourself. I’m delivering it. You just happened to come by at the same time to talk to Mrs. Stone.”

It was lunchtime, and the students were outside, eating or playing games. Someone recognized Nancy, and a few of them started running towards her.

“Miss Osbourne, Miss Osbourne!” Zenobia McLeod called out. “Are you coming back to be our teacher?”

Some of the other children shouted the same question. Others just chanted, “Come back, come back.”

“Don’t you like having Mrs. Stone for your teacher?” Nancy asked, a smile on her face. They had missed her.

“She’s okay,” Tomas Rivera answered, “but we like you, too.”

“Thank you,” the teacher said. “I liked being your teacher, but it’s… it’s not settled yet if I can come back.”

They were in the schoolyard now. Nancy could see that some of her former students weren’t happy to see her. ‘Hermione Ritter looks positively livid,’ she thought. ‘I wonder how she’ll behave if... when I come back.’

“Nancy, I am so glad to see you.” Phillipia Stone came out of the building and hurried over to her. “And Mr. Pinter, how are you today?”

Kirby nodded by way of a greeting. “I came to deliver this dictionary that Nan – that Miss Osbourne ordered a while back for the school. It just came in.”

“Thank you,” Mrs. Stone replied. “Please bring it inside. You come, too, Nancy, so we can chat.” They all started for the school. When some of the children followed them, she added, “You students should all stay out here and finish your lunch.”

Nancy could see the disappointment on their faces. “I’ll be out in a bit, and we can have a short visit, I promise. Right now, Mrs. Stone and I need to talk. Okay?”

The children fell back. They weren’t following the adults anymore, but Nancy suspected that they would listen at the door – and the open window near the teacher’s desk.

“How are things going, Phillipia?” she asked once they were all inside.

“Well enough, but I still have questions – a lot of questions.”

Nancy studied her face. “More than we have time for now, I expect. Why don’t you come over to Mr. Whitney’s house on Saturday, and we can go over things in detail?”

“That would be perfect. Is two o’clock all right?”

“Two is fine. I’ll see you then.”

Kirby held up the dictionary. “Now that that’s taken care of, where shall I put this book?”

“On the bookstand there – in the corner.” She pointed to an oak stand with a raised, open platform for holding the book, then added. “If that’s all right with you, Phillipia? This is your classroom.”

“Only for the moment. The bookstand is fine.”

He walked over and set the book down where the women had said. “If that’s all, we’ll -- I’ll be taking my leave of you ladies.”

“We both will,” Nancy said. “We’ve disrupted things enough around here, I should think.”

They all walked to the open doorway. Several students were standing on the steps with more gathered around them. “Can we come over on Saturday, too, Miss Osbourne?” Emma O’Hanlan asked.

“We can make it a party – a ‘Welcome Back’ party, maybe,” Yully Stone said, looking hopefully at both Nancy and his mother. The other students voiced their agreement with the idea.

Nancy was genuinely surprised – and more than a little pleased at the show of affection, but… “I don’t know. I-I’ll have to ask the Whitneys if I can have a party for you all at their house.”

“Why not have it at my store?” Kirby suggested. “You and Mrs. Stone can meet in my office to discuss whatever you need to, and the party can be held afterwards, in the yard behind the shop.”

The students all cheered at the idea. “Can we, mother; can we?” Penny Stone asked.

“Well…” Phillipia glanced over at the other woman, who nodded back. “I suppose that it would be all right.”

Hermione Ritter was standing a few feet away with her brother, Eulalie Mackechnie, Bert McLeod, and a few others. “No,” she suddenly shouted. “It’s not okay. She isn’t our teacher anymore, and she never will be again. My Mama says --”

“What your mother says is not always true,” Nancy interrupted, her patience with the Ritters near its end. “And, yes, I would be very pleased to see any of you who wish to come, but I do need some time to talk with Mrs. Stone. Let’s say three o’clock for the party. How’s that?”

Kirby smiled, amused at her reaction to the girl’s insolence. “Three will be fine.”

Nancy felt her eyes moisten as most of the children cheered in agreement.

* * * * *

Cecelia Ritter answered the frantic knocking at her kitchen door. “Lavina, whatever is the matter?”

“News – have I got news,” Lavinia Mackechnie replied, as she walked into the kitchen. “What I saw last night, I just had to come and tell you.”

“What… what did you see?”

“Last night, my Ogden took us all out for supper – he got some sort of contract with the territory and –”

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you. Anyway, he got the contract, so he took the whole family out to celebrate. We went to that ‘Maggie’s Place’ restaurant in O’Toole’s saloon.”

“I hear that it’s very good. It’s such a shame that the only restaurant in town has to be in a place like that.”

“I quite agree, but, you know what they say, any night that a wife doesn’t have to cook dinner is a good one.” She took a breath. “The thing is… who do you suppose was our waitress?”

“Who? Not one of those miserable, outlaw potion women?”

“Worse! Nancy Osbourne.”

Celica smacked her palms together. “I knew it! I’ve heard that she goes there quite often -- looking for men, no doubt.”

“I heard that she was in there drinking beer with a bunch of cowboys just a few days ago.”

“It’s not hard to imagine what else a woman like her was doing with those cowboys.” Cecelia’s face reddened. “We cannot allow such a vile, common woman to be anywhere near our poor, innocent children.” She thought for a moment. “I don’t recall when the town council meets again, but whenever it is, we have to insist that she be fired.”

“I agree, but will they do it?”

“We will make sure that they do. We’ll get as many people as we can there to support us. I’ll ask the reverend to help. He can say something about it in church on Sunday. That Osbourne woman must be stopped.”

“Maybe we can get someone to keep an eye on her comings and goings. Maybe it should be more than one person, so she won't suspect anything. The more evidence we get, the better.”

“If anyone can do it, Cecelia, you can.”

We can, my dear, and we will.”

* * * * *

“All right, Jessie,” Molly ordered. “Sing the next verse.”

Jessie nodded. They were in the back hall on the second floor of the Saloon along with Lylah and Flora. “Here goes,” she said.

` “When he left home, his mamma cried,
` His mamma cried, his mamma cried,
` When he left home, his mamma cried,
` 'He's not cut out for the Army.'“

Molly frowned. “I ain’t sure I like them words, ‘his mamma cried.’ Ye got any ideas about what they could be changed to, something that’d be fit for our ladies t’be dancing to?”

“Lemme see.” Jessie thought for a minute. “How about ‘the girls all cried’? Is that what you’re looking for?”

The older woman sang the lines, “When he left home, the girls all cried, the girls all cried, the girls all cried. Aye, that’s a lot better.”

“Flora,” she continued, “when Jessie sings, ‘When he left home’, I want ye to take Lylah in yuir arms --”

The new woman folded her arms. “The hell I will. This whole thing is ridiculous.” She looked down, frowned, and moved them down below her breasts.

“The hell you won’t,” Molly answered, glaring back. “I’m ordering ye, ordering ye t’be doing this, so ye ain’t got a whole lotta choice in the matter, do ye.”

Flora sighed and slowly shook her head. “No… no, I don’t.”

“Fine; like I was saying, Flora, when Jessie sings, ‘When he left home…,’ ye’ll be taking Lylah in yuir arms and dancing a… a mazurka -- and I know ye can do it ‘cause I seen ye doing it downstairs a couple of Saturdays ago. Ye’ll dance towards the left o’the stage and back to center, while she sings, ‘the girls all cried’ three times.”

Molly took a breath. “And when Jessie sings, ‘When he left home’ a second time, ye’ll be switching off. Lylah, ye’ll be taking the lead. Ye dance Flora all the way to stage right and back to the center again, so ye get there when Jessie finishes ‘He’s not cut out for the army.’ Do ye both understand?”

“I reckon so,” Lylah said, and Flora nodded in forlorn agreement.

“Let’s be trying it, then,” Molly said, as she signaled Jessie to start.

* * * * *

Kirby Pinter walked into the saloon and over to R.J. behind the bar. “Is Jessie Hanks around?”

“She’s working on something upstairs, right now,” he answered.

Kirby reddened slightly. He knew that Miss Hanks and that deputy were a couple. “Would… would it be all right if I went up to see her?”

“Why don’t I get her down here?” He cupped his hands and shouted. “Hey, Dolores, would you tell Jessie that there’s somebody looking for her?”

Dolores had been eating an early supper at a table near the stairs. She hurried up to the second floor, returning a moment later with Jessie. Both women walked over to where Kirby was standing. “I was enjoying my meal, just now,” Dolores told R.J. “Running that errand will cost you.”

“Oh, will it now?” He grinned and reached across the bar for her. She stood on tiptoe. “And how’s this for a payment?” Their lips met in a brief but enthusiastic kiss.

When they broke the kiss, she smiled. “It will have to do.” Then she pecked him on the cheek. “For now.” She turned and went back to her food.

“What’d you want to see me about?” Jessie asked with a wry smile.

He held up a large manila envelope. “The… ah, the music you wanted came in today’s mail.”

“‘The Wedding March’? It came already?” She looked at the envelope. It was addressed to him and was already opened. “What do I owe you?”

“A dollar for the copy of the words and music and…” He glanced down at the envelope. “…and twelve cents for postage.”

“My reticule’s upstairs. Can you wait a minute?”

R.J. tossed some money onto the bar. “I’ve got it, Jessie. You can pay me back later.”

“You don’t have to do that, R.J.,” she protested.

“Sure I do,” he answered with a wink. “Call it payment for giving me an excuse to kiss Dolores.”

* * * * *

“Hello, Mama.” Hermione Ritter walked into the kitchen and set her schoolbooks down on a chair. Clyde, Junior was right behind her.

Cecelia looked up from the vegetables she was chopping for a stew. “Hello, my dears, how was school?”

“Not good… Miss Osbourne…” The girl spoke the name as if she had just drunk vinegar. “...She come by – she came by at lunch time.”

Cecelia set her knife down on the chopping block. “She did? Why?”

“She came by with that Mr. Pinter – you know, from the bookstore,” Junior answered. “He brought a big book, a dictionary that she had ordered for the school a while back.”

“And then what happened?”

Hermione answered this time. “Her and Mr. Pinter and Mrs. Stone went inside – it was lunchtime, and everybody was on the schoolyard – and they talked for a while.”

“About what, do you know?”

“Yes, ma’am. Clyde and me listened at the opened window by her desk. Mrs. Stone is gonna – is going to meet with Miss Osbourne to talk about stuff, about school I think.”

Cecelia made a clicking sound with her tongue. “What is the matter with Phillipia? I thought that she had more sense than to even want to talk with that woman, let alone talk about the school and you children.”

“I don’t know what they’re gonna talk about,” the boy said, “but they’re gonna meet at Mr. Pinter’s store. And… and after that, there’s gonna be a party.”

“Uh huhn,” Hermione continued. “Some of the other kids wanted to see Miss Osbourne, so her and Mrs. Stone and Mr. Pinter are going to have a party for them at his store.”

Their mother shook her head. “Those poor, misguided children, to want to expose themselves to more of that wicked woman and her evil ways.” She studied the faces of her two children. “You… you weren’t planning on going to that party, were you?”

“Oh, oh, no, Mama,” Hermione answered quickly, and Clyde agreed. “I didn’t want to go,” she continued, “and I told those other kids that they shouldn’t go, neither. So did Clyde.” She sighed. “Mama, they laughed at us.”

“A couple of ‘em called us names,” he added.

“Those impertinent little – they deserve Nancy Osbourne. Don’t be upset, you two. It just shows how much better than the rest of them you are.” She gently stroked her daughter’s cheek. Junior had always said that he was too old to be “petted” like a girl.

Hermione knew her mother’s mind. “You’re going to do something about that party, aren’t you, Mama?”

“I am, indeed, and about that Mr. Pinter if he persists in siding with that vile woman.” And, apparently, she would have to keep on eye on Phillipia Stone, too.

* * * * *

Horace Styron strode confidently into Ritter’s Livery and walked over to the counter. “’Evening, Clyde, you ready to go over to the Lady’s place?”

“Not quite,” Ritter answered. “I need to check what’s ordered for tomorrow, especially in the morning?”

“Can’t that wait?”

“A man orders a team for 9 AM, he expects it to be ready for him at 9 AM. He doesn’t want to show up at 9 and have to wait a half hour, while my people put the team together.”

“What’s it matter? You’re the only livery in town.”

“And I want to keep it that way. Besides, I don’t like doing shoddy work.”

Styron considered the notion. “Mmm, I suppose you’re right.”

“I am.” He started looking through the order sheet in front of him.

“So… what’d you think of what the paper said about Reverend Yingling?”

“I didn’t like it,” the liveryman replied. “I thought we’d already taught Unger who was in charge.”

“So did I. Maybe we need to have another talk with him.”

Ritter looked dubious. “I think that the Reverend should put the fear of G-d in some of these townspeople. We need to pick somebody for an object lesson. We show everybody we mean business, and then we won’t have no more trouble with anybody else.”

“You mean warn Unger that someone will beat the tar out of him if he doesn't stop using his printing press to make trouble?”

“Maybe…” Ritter chuckled. “And maybe we need to warn him about what might happen after we get our hands on O’Toole’s potion. Let’s just see how the ideas of running that newspaper of his as a woman sits with him.”

“That’s not a bad idea, and I’ll bet he’d make a pretty one. Not that he’s the only one I’d like to give a dose of that stuff, too.”

“You think the good Reverend’d go along with giving Unger the potion?”

“I don’t see why not? It’s Yingling he’s been insulting. If he wants to control the town --”

“And he does.”

“Then you’ve gotta control what the paper says. Like, if Unger was a potion woman, and she got told that she couldn't print anything that didn't support the consensus of the people…”

“You’re right about that, but it won't be just the Reverend that'll have control. It’s gonna be that board he wants t’set up to be in charge of the potion. Who all you think’ll be on it?”

“The Reverend’ll be the chair, of course, but he’s going to need somebody to do the day-to-day stuff. That’ll be me, with you right there helping. Maybe Jubal Cates or Willie Gotefreund from the church board, too. T’tell the truth, I thought about your wife – to thank her for all her help with the petition, but a woman’s got no place telling men what to do. And I wouldn't trust your Cecelia having a say about anything as powerful as the potion.”

“Amen to that. You figure on having any Mex on that board?”

“Don’t see why we should. It’s the Reverend’s idea. It should be his people that’re on it, not any of them damned greasers. Besides, it’ll make it easier to keep ‘em in their places if they first see what happens to the first person who crosses us. They're so superstitious, magic’d scare the living hell out of them. If not, maybe more examples will be needed.” He looked impatiently at his watch. “You ready to go yet?”

“I am now. There’s no team or wagon reserved before 10 o’clock. I’ll be in way before that to make sure they’re ready.” He put the papers he’d been looking at in a drawer. “Let’s go. The ladies are waiting.”

The two men left hurriedly. They stopped only long enough for Ritter to lock the front door to his business. Neither of them noticed that the door to the stables was open halfway, more than enough for Pablo Escobar, who was working late, to have heard every word that the two had said.

* * * * *

“Hey, Milt,” Jessie said as the lawyer walked past the table where she was resting after her first show.

He stopped at the sound of his name. “Oh… hi, Jessie.” His eyes darted around the room. “Is Jane about anywhere?”

“She’s out in the kitchen. The restaurant just closed, and her and Maggie are putting away the leftovers.” She chuckled. “And Flora and Lylah are doing the dishes.”

“Thanks.” He started for the door to the kitchen.

Jessie stood quickly and put her hand on his arm. “I don’t think she wants t’see you, Milt.”

“She’s still mad, isn’t she?”

“Mad and hurt. You shouldn’t’ve meddled like you did.”

He sighed. “I know. I was just trying to… help. I knew how excited she was about that painting just then, but in six months, she’d have hated it -- and hated herself for wasting her money buying it.”

“You’re probably right, but it is her money. Don’t she have the right t’decide what t’do with it?” She looked pointedly at the man. “Or do you think she ain’t smart enough t’be trusted not to ‘waste’ it?”

“Please, not you, too.” He put his hand up to his forehead. “No, I don’t think Jane is dumb – and I never did. But I do think that she’s naïve. She’s an innocent, too, likely to give in to an impulse, rather than think things through.” He gave her a stern look. “And you think the same thing about her, don’t you?”

“I do, I admit it. Just don’t tell her I said so. It took me long enough t’get her to stop hating me for accidentally killing Toby Hess.”

“That’s right. She told me once that she slapped your face the first time she saw you after that. How did you get past that with her?”

“It wasn’t easy – and it wasn’t quick, I’ll tell you that much.”

He thought for a moment. “Maybe you can help me.”

“What d’you mean?”

“You know Jane fairly well. Is there anything I can do – and I do mean anything -- to get me back into her good graces again?”

She seemed intrigued by the challenge. “Lemme think about it. You’re gonna be here for the dance on Saturday, ain’t you?”

“Of course, I will. Mad or not, she has to dance with me if I give her my ticket.”

“Okay then, you give me one of those tickets, too, on Saturday, and while we’re dancing, I’ll tell you whatever I come up with t’help you.”

* * * * *

Friday, May 3, 1872

Molly led Flora and Lylah up to the second floor of the Saloon.

“We gonna do more dance practice?” Lylah asked. “Jessie ain’t up here.”

Molly shook her head. “Dancing’s in the afternoon. For now, ye’ll be doing some house cleaning. First, ye go in and make the beds in yuir own room. Then ye’ll be doing some o’the other rooms. Lylah, ye’ll do Jessie’s room, and Flora, ye’ll do Jane’s. Then ye can both come and clean up me own rooms.”

“How come we each have to do a room by ourselves,” Flora wondered. “Wouldn’t it be quicker if we worked together?”

The older woman cocked an eyebrow. “Have ye got someplace t’be going that ye’re in such a hurry? Ye’ll do what I tell ye. In fact, I’m telling ye plain, not to be going in t’help each other, even if ye’ve got yuir own room done. There'll be other chores to do. Do ye understand what I’m telling ye?”

The pair nodded, even as they wondered why it was such a problem.

* * * * *

Reverend Yingling heard a knock on the door to his study. “Come in, Martha,” he called.

“It’s us,” Cecelia Ritter said, “Lavinia Mackechnie and I.” The pair walked in, and Lavinia closed the door behind them.

He rose to his feet. “Hello, ladies. What brings you here to see me this day?” He motioned for them to sit, and when they had, he took his own seat behind his desk.

“Nancy Osbourne,” Cecelia answered at once. “It’s… she’s even worse that I had thought.”

“How do you mean, worse?” the reverend asked.

“Her behavior,” Cecelia replied, “she was seen at O’Toole’s on Monday… drinking – whiskey, so people say, and who knows what else she was doing.”

Lavina spoke next. “And on Wednesday – my husband took us all out for dinner, you see, and that restaurant in O’Toole’s is the only restaurant hereabouts. Anyway, she was there, Nancy Osbourne, working as a bar maid, no less, and, I’m sure, carrying on with her customers.”

“You saw this yourself?” Yingling asked in amazement.

“I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. She… she was waiting tables, taking orders for food and drink like she’d been doing it for years. And the people she's associating with! O'Toole and his wife are bad enough, but the women there are almost all former criminals. There are even a couple of serving convicts working side by side with her right now.”

He scowled. “Hardly the proper behavior for a school teacher.” He paused a moment. “What do you ladies suggest we do about our Miss Osbourne?”

“She isn’t my Miss Osbourne,” Cecelia replied, “and I want to make very sure that she is never again our children’s Miss Osbourne. The idea of her spreading her corrupt morals to those dear innocents, it’s… it’s beyond comprehension.”

Lavinia nodded. “I quite agree. You must help us, Reverend. We have to make the town council fire her once and for all.”

“And we shall,” he said confidently. “The town council will be considering my proposal regarding Shamus O’Toole’s potion at its meeting next Wednesday. I had planned to use my sermon on Sunday to urge that as many members of the congregation as possible attend that meeting. It can also afford us the opportunity to acquaint parents with the increasingly worse behavior of Nancy Osbourne.”

Cecelia gave him a satisfied smile. “And they will no doubt be scandalized. Who could possibly refuse a chance to help with such important matters?”

“Indeed, and in the face of such overwhelming support, I am most certain that the council will comply with my proposal.” He smiled broadly. “After which, the same crowd will force – excuse me, will convince the council that Nancy Osbourne should no long be allowed to teach the children of Eerie. The opinion of so many members of the congregation should place great pressure on the town council to formally end Miss Nancy Osbourne's tenure as a teacher in this community.”

* * * * *

Shamus walked over to the table where Bridget was playing Maverick solitaire. Without saying a word, he spun a chair around and sat down, leaning forward over the back of it. “Bridget, d’ye mind talking t’me for a wee bit?”

“Uhh, sure, Shamus,” she said, putting down the two cards she’d been holding. “What do you want to talk about?”

He could hear the uncertainty in her voice. “Yuir rent,” he replied, trying to be as gentle as possible. “Ye ain’t paid me yet t’be running yuir poker game here this month.”

“I-I’m not running my game. Could I just p-pay you for my… room and board?”

“Ye could, but I’d like t’be offering ye a better deal than that.”

“Better?”

“Aye, ye may not feel up t’actually play poker right now –”

Her eyes grew moist. “No, I-I don’t. I... I don’t know if I ever will – ever… ever again.”

“Don’t ye be talking like that, Bridget.” Molly had come over to join them.

She tenderly put her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “Ye’re having a bad time of it just now, but I – me and Shamus both – we know how much ye love t’play cards.”

“Aye,” Shamus continued, “and if ye ain’t ready t’be a free agent, running yuir own game, then I’ll be more than happy t’hire ye as a dealer again.”

Bridget looked surprised. “A… a dealer. I don’t know…” Her voice trailed off as she considered the idea.

“Please do it.” Molly sat down next to her. “Ye’ll have the fun of being in the game with none of the things that’ve been bothering ye. And,” she added, “the job comes with room and board. Ye won’t have t’be paying us anything.”

“That's pretty fair wages for just dealing,” Bridget said with a thoughtful frown. “I don't want to a charity case.”

“T’tell the truth, ye’d be doing me a favor,” Shamus told her. “Thuir’s them men that only came in here t’be playing poker with ye.” He didn’t want to “guilt her” by pointing out that some of those same men hadn’t been in the Saloon since she gave up her game.

She looked down at the cards spread out on the table, not really able to face either of them. “I-I’m not sure that I can even be... a dealer.”

“Ye’ll never know if ye don’t try,” Molly replied.

Shamus turned the knife – just a little. “I know ye’re hurting, Bridget, and I know why ye’re hurting. But ain’t ye enough of a gambler t’be giving it a try?”

“I-I don’t know, Shamus… Molly,” she answered with a deep sigh. It was a challenge, and some part of her refused to let it pass unanswered. “But I-I think I want to find out.”

* * * * *

R.J. watched a very attractive blonde walk into the Saloon. Barely five foot tall, her blonde hair and ivory skin set off her tight sapphire blue dress. She stopped and glanced around as if searching for someone. “Hello,” he said cheerfully, walking over to where she was standing. “Can I help you?”

“Mmm, I’m sure that you could” she answered in a husky voice. “But right now, I’m looking for Mr. Forrest Stafford.”

He nodded, recognizing her now. “You were here for the trial, weren’t you? You’re that friend of Wilma. The two of you sat together.”

“Friend…” She looked like she’d just swallowed something very sour. “Colleagues – co-workers, might be a better word. I am Rosalyn Owens – of the Staunton, Virginia Owenses.” She smiled and offered him her hand.

“R.J. Rossì – of the Philadelphia Rossis,” he answered in a bemused tone. “And speaking of names, she's Flora Stafford now.”

“Yes, I saw… that happen.” She shivered. “It was truly amazing – and more than a little frightening.”

“I guess it would be if you weren’t used to it.” He waited a beat. “Flora’s upstairs with Lylah – the other one that got changed on Monday – and Molly O’Toole. They’re cleaning the bedrooms we rent out.”

“Housecleaning, as if she were some sort of servant?”

“More like a prisoner, which is what they are for the next two months.” He tried not to smirk at her discomfort.

“Does that mean that I can’t see her?”

R.J. shrugged. “I don’t see why not.” He turned and called out. “Hey, Dolores.”

“Sì, R.J.?” Rosalyn saw a tall, willowy Mexican woman walk over – and put an arm around the handsome barman’s waist. “What can I do for you?”

R.J. knew enough to get out of the line of fire. “This, ah… lady wants to see Flora. Would you mind going upstairs and asking Molly to send her down?”

“For you… anything.” She kissed his cheek and headed for the stairs with a sensual glide.

“You welcome to sit over there while you wait.” He pointed to a nearby table. “Can I get you anything from the bar?”

When he looked away, Rosalyn coyly regarded him. That R.J. wasn't a customer of Cerise's interested her. “The only thing that I want from the bar is already here,” she purred, wrapping her fingers around his muscular upper arm. He glanced her way again, his expression uneasy.

“Sorry.” He gave her a noncommittal smile and backed out of her grip. “Private stock.” He made a strategic retreat back behind the bar.

Rosalyn walked to the table and wriggled down into the chair. A man who was loyal to his woman; this R.J. was intriguing her more and more. As time passed, her eyes drifted back and forth between the top of the stairs and the man behind the bar. Dolores had come down almost at once and spent the time talking to R.J. They leaned close over the counter, holding hands.

‘Can’t win them all,’ she thought. 'But one doesn't win a war with one battle.' She glanced towards the steps and saw Flora walking hesitantly down the stairs. “Forrest,” she said loudly, standing and waving her arm.

The woman didn’t seem to respond. Rosalyn rose to her feet and walked over to meet her. “Hello, Forrest.”

“Call me Flora,” the new woman said, looking in her direction. “We… I don’t answer to that other name any more.” She glanced at the floor. “It's…it's that damned witchcraft,” she explained.

Rosalyn frowned. “All right, then, Flora, are you all right – otherwise, I mean?”

“I am, considering what’s happened to me.” She looked at the other woman. “Why are you here?”

“Truth to tell, I’m not sure.” Rosalyn moved over to a table. “Can we sit down?”

Flora nodded, and they both took seats. “Better?”

“Yes, it is. As I was saying, Flora, I-I came over because I… I was concerned about you.”

“Concerned – as in sorry to lose a paying customer, isn’t that more like it?”

“There’s no need to be rude. I’m hardly hurting for ‘customers’, as you put it. There are a good many men who are eager for my… company.”

“Then why come over to talk to me?”

“Because you were a true gentleman when we were… together. We’re alike, I suspect, persons of quality who find themselves in their less than proper place. I found myself thinking of you as a… friend. That was why I attended your trial.”

Flora was still suspicious, but she managed to reply with courtesy. “And I do thank you for that. I have to admit that it was good to have at least one friendly face in the room.”

Flora closed her eyes, remembering Rosalyn’s smile. Then the image shifted to one of a naked, smiling – gasping -- Rosalyn, writhing in sexual fire with her former, very male self. Flora felt herself grow aroused, but the male arousal of her mind had to deal with her newly female body. She shook her head to drive away the sensation of her nipples stiffening and the pleasing warmth that began to build in them and flow down between her legs.

If Rosalyn knew what was happening to Flora, she didn’t react. Instead, she smiled and said. “I do hope that we can be friends. This town has so few people of quality. There are merchants with money, but they're just so vulgar.”

“We can't be the sort we were,” the transformed woman answered, “Never the sort we were.”

Rosalyn nodded, a sad look in her eyes. “Probably not.” She gently placed her hand on Flora’s arm. “But there are other types of friends, you know, and I do believe that you could use that other kind of friend just now.”

It occurred to the Texan that someone like Rosalyn might know a lot of what was going on in town, enough to get some control over things, maybe even enough to find out how to get changed back. But this wasn't the time to ask. “I-I could, indeed,” she finally said. Flora covered Rosalyn’s hand with her own. “And thank you for offering.”

* * * * *

“That’s one… and another one…” Clay Falk chanted in a singsong voice as he unhooked Wilma’s favorite garment, her sea green corset. “Hello, ladies,” he added as her pillowy breasts were almost fully exposed. Her crinkled nipples were pointing straight at him, begging to be played with.

He took a moment to glance up at her face. And, seeing her expression, stopped. “What’s the matter, Wilma?”

She forced a smile. “N-Nothing’s the matter, Clay… honey. You go right ahead with what you was doing. It, umm, it feels so, umm, so… good.” From the flat tone of her voice, she might just as well have been describing the wallpaper as her own sexual delight

“You can’t kid a kidder. There’s something bothering you, ain’t it?”

“No, I’m… I’m fine, really I am.” Her hand snaked down to cradle his erection through his pants. “Now, come on. You wanted me. You paid for me. Let’s get it over, umm… get to it.”

Clay smiled, but without much feeling. It was like she was holding the handle of a machine, not a lover. “You know what I think?”

She sighed and her entire body seemed to droop. “That you wanna take me back downstairs and get somebody else?” She sighed again. “We’re all the same price, after all.”

“Wrong guess.” He put his hands firmly on her shoulders, as if he had to keep her from sagging into a heap. “I’m thinking it’d be nice to just… cuddle, t’lay down next to a pretty girl, to put my arm around her, and to feel her warm, soft, sweet-smelling body up close next to mine. It'll take me back to the days when I was a young buck. You up for something like that?”

She gave him a wane smile. “You sure that’s all you want? The others down in the parlor, they’d be more ‘n happy t’take my place. That’s – that’s how… whores are.”

“I ain’t talking ‘bout whores, Wilma. I’m talking ‘bout me ‘n’ you. You're different from most of those girls. I think a little cuddling is something that we both could use.”

“I'm different from all of those girls,” she said with an ironic lilt.

“You are that, but you're different in a good way,” Clay said.

Her smile warmed as, with eyes glistening, she gave him her hand and let him lead her to the bed.

* * * * *

“Señor Styron, he really said that?” Fernando Hidalgo asked in amazement. “That he would not give any Mexicans a place on the board, not even grandees like Don Luis and Don Sebastian?” He was sitting on a mound of hay in the Ritter stables with Pablo Escobar and Juan Ybañez, while they took their short lunch break.

Pedro nodded. “He did, not even the Padre. Him and Señor Ritter said that they would even use the potion to make sure that they ran the town.”

“But how did they think they would get away with something like that?” ‘Nando rubbed his light beard as if in deep thought.

Juan shrugged and took a bite of an apple. “How do the gringos get away with anything? They just do.”

“I thought that their priest… Yingling – I thought he said that he wanted the potion because he was a better man that Señor O’Toole.” ‘Nando took a breath. “That is what the paper said.”

“They own the paper, too,” Juan shot back. “It says what they want.”

Pedro shook his head. “Maybe they don’t. Ritter said he would give the potion to the man who runs it.”

“This is silly,” Juan said. “They claim that they want it for the whole town.”

“Maybe not the whole town, did they ask any of us to sign that petition of theirs?”

‘Nando shook his head. “No, but I thought that was just for the adults, the ones who can vote.”

“Hammy Lincoln can vote, and they did not ask him,” Pedro said. “When a gringo came into the livery, Señor Ritter asked him to sign. Did either of you see what happened when a Mexican came in?”

Juan frowned. “I saw. He moved it under the counter. They don’t want to let us to have anything to do with that potion – if they get it.”

“Not even the Padre,” Pedro told them. “I heard them say so. “ He suddenly looked determined. “If they do not want to give Father de Castro the chance to speak then, maybe he should speak now. I think that I’ll talk to him about it in church on Sunday.”

* * * * *

“I think the ‘girls’ is coming along pretty good,” Jessie said, taking a sip of lemonade. She was sitting with Molly and Bridget relaxing after a long rehearsal.

Molly nodded. “Thuir coming along in a lot of ways.” She looked over to where Flora and Lylah, now in aprons, were setting the tables that served as Maggie’s restaurant. “But they’ve still a long way t’be going. I’m thinking that I’ll be taking ‘em over to Carmen’s for a bath before the show on Sunday.”

“That’ll be a surprise,” Jessie replied. “In a lotta ways.”

Bridget remembered her own first time, which reminded her of other things. And made her want to change the subject. “Speaking of their first show, what’re they going to wear?”

“Ye know,” Molly admitted, “I ain’t given that a lot o’thought.” She paused a moment. “It can’t be regular clothes like thuir wearing now.”She took a sip of her own lemonade.

“Or even the starched blouses and skirts that we wear for the dance.” Jessie added. “Maybe… for Lylah, a big yellow petticoat she can swing around – flirty like.”

“Aye, and for on top, a corset the same color.” Molly laughed. “Oh, she’ll be loving that. But what about ‘the captain’? Seems t’me she should be wearing something like a uniform.”

Bridget chuckled. Forry had worn an officer’s uniform. “It’s a song about a British officer, so dress her in a bright red corset and a pair of matching drawers. She won't need a petticoat or skirt.”

“That still ain’t very military,” Molly replied, “but, ye know, it seems t’me that I’ve got an old red coat somebody left in thuir room a year or so ago. It’d look like an officer’s coat if I was t’be sewing on some braid. Aye, that and a red cap’d do it.” She let out a hearty laugh. “That’d do her up right ‘n’ proper. Thank ye, ladies.”

Bridget gave her a nasty smile, enjoying the mental image of a very feminine Flora Stafford traipsing around half-naked for a musical show. “Our pleasure, Molly, our pleasure.”

* * * * *

“Finished,” Flora announced, walking over to where Molly stood watching the two new women setting the tables for Maggie’s restaurant.

Molly glanced over at the four tables. “So they are. Lylah, go take them extra plates and such back into the kitchen.” She watched the black woman carry the tray with the plates, glasses, and silverware away. “Ye done a good job,” she said glancing around.

“While nobody else’s around, can I ask you a couple questions?”

“Ask away.”

“Okay, this potion Shamus gave us, who else’s he given it to, and what happened to ‘em after they took it?”

Molly thought for a moment. She remembered with horror what Forry Stafford had done to Bridget and what he’d done all those years ago to Brian Kelly. ‘Better t’be asking Bridget,’ she thought, ‘before I’m telling this one.’ She shook her head. “I’ll be thinking on that for a while, if ye don’t mind,” she told her charge, “before I decide if I want t’be telling ye anything.”

“I do mind,” Flora muttered, “but I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter, do I?”

“No, ye don’t.” She’d have to warn Shamus as well about what Flora had asked.

* * * * *

Nancy Osbourne walked hurriedly into the parlor of the Whitneys’ house. The town councilmen were all sitting together. Carmen was pouring coffee for Arsenio Caulder.

“I’m sorry if I kept you gentlemen waiting,” Nancy told them.

Arsenio shook his head. “You didn’t. I just got here myself.”

“How is Mrs. Caulder?” she asked him.

“Very well, thank you,” he answered, “and she said that you could call her ‘Laura’, remember. She’s resting easier now that she doesn’t have to worry about that restaurant – and thank you for that. Doc Upshaw wants her to stay in bed for a few more days, and then he’ll see if she can go back to work.”

“I was glad to help Laura out. It took my mind off… other things.”

Aaron Silverman dunked a shortbread cookie in his coffee and took a bite. “Speaking of those ‘other things’, we should get started.”

“Not till she has had some coffee,” Carmen told him. She put a cup down in front of the other woman. “Here you are, Nancy. With cream and one sugar, just the way you like it.”

Nancy tasted the dark brew. “Perfect, thank you, Carmen.”

“There are a couple cookies, too,” Carmen added.

Whit chuckled. “Thank you, Carmen, but we do have to get started. If you don’t mind…” His words trailed off, as he glanced towards the kitchen.

“I am going; I am going.” Carmen squeezed Nancy’s hand. “Good luck, Nancy, and don’t let them scare you.”

Now Aaron smiled. “As the Sages say, ‘Honesty saves a man from death.’ Besides…” he leaned back in his chair and patted his large stomach. “…how scary can an old galitizianah shopkeeper clerk like me be?”

“Not very… I hope. Thank you, Mr. Silverman – and Carmen.” Her friend gave her a quick wink and scurried off to the kitchen.

Nancy sipped her coffee. She set down her cup and sat up, her hands demurely folded on her lap. “I-I’m ready, gentlemen. Ask your questions.”

“Let’s start at the beginning,” Whit replied. “Where and when did you first meet Dell Cooper?”

“At Ortega’s grocery, the Monday -- at least, I think it was the Monday -- before Carl was robbed; I don't remember the exact date. Mrs. Carson sent me over for some potatoes. He accosted me, making crude remarks and demanding a kiss. I… I slapped his face and ran from the store.”

Arsenio chuckled. “That should have discouraged him.”

“It didn’t,” she answered. “He showed up at the schoolhouse the next day – someone at Ortega’s must have told him who I was. He made a number of suggestive remarks, and… and when I tried to strike him again, he-he threatened me – sort of.”

Whit raised an eyebrow. “Sort of threatened you, how?”

Nancy explained that he had threatened both her and the children. “I didn’t know what to do. I told Carl, and he went to talk to Mr. Cooper.” She sighed. “Then there was that robbery. People were saying that Carl was involved. I knew that he wasn’t, but what could I do?”

“I wonder if that’s why Cooper staged that robbery,” Whit said, “to get back at your brother for telling him to stop bothering you.”

Aaron shrugged. “Who knows why a man does something like that? As the Sages say, the evil urge begins as a guest and goes on as the host. What I want to know, Nancy, is why you all of a sudden changed your mind and went out with this momzer -- this man you say you didn’t like?”

“I… He threatened me again.” It was the question she’d dreaded. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “It was just a few days after the robbery. People were saying that Carl was involved. I-I didn’t know what to do. And then Cooper came back to the school. He told me he’d seen the robbery happen?”

Aaron stroked his chin. “I suppose that was true, since he was the robber. But what excuse did he give you for not stopping it?”

“He told me that he was too far away,” she answered quickly. “But he was close enough to see that Carl wasn’t a part of it. He said that, if I went out with him, he’d tell the sheriff what he saw.”

Whit studied her expression. “Why didn’t you just tell the sheriff that he was a witness?”

“Be-Because he said that if I didn’t have dinner with him, he’d tell the sheriff that he’d seen Carl helping the robbers.” Nancy’s eyes glistened. “I-I couldn’t let him do that. Carl might’ve… might’ve gone t-to pr-prison.”

Arsenio handed her his handkerchief. “Here, do you want a break for a minute?”

“No… I…” She dabbed at her tears. “I-I’m better. Thank you.”

“Did he ever go to the sheriff,” Whit asked, “with either story?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so. It never got mentioned at the trial.” She made a sour face. “And I even let him – eww – kiss me, when he insisted that was part of the deal.” She shuddered at the memory.

“Why didn’t you say any of this at the council meeting?” Arsenio inquired.

She sighed again. “I-I couldn’t. Carl was still waiting to stand trial. People would think that he was guilty and that I… did what I did to give him an alibi. And if Mr. Cooper was asked, he might have lied about Carl and made things worse.”

“So you kept things quiet – went along with Cooper -- for your brother’s sake.” Whit studied her face closely, as he spoke.

“C-Carl is my brother, my o-only family. What else could I do?”

Aaron gave her a smile. “For our families, as they say, we risk the world. I think we’ve heard enough. You stay here, have one of those shortbread cookies.” He pointed to a small dish next to where Carmen had set the coffee pot. “My friends and I, we’re gonna go in the other room and talk for a bit.”

The three men rose and walked out of the room without another word. Nancy leaned back in her chair and tried to relax while she waited.

* * * *

“Nancy.” Whit led the men back into his parlor. “We’ve decided.”

She put down her coffee and stood up. “Yes, Mr. Whitney.” 'Don’t let them see how scared you are, Nancy.'

“We talked over what you said, and we can’t find a single reason why you can’t get back to teaching the children.”

“Do-Do you mean that, sir?”

Aaron smiled at her. “We do. We’ll tell Roscoe Unger, so the story can be in the paper on Tuesday.”

“And we’ll formally lift your suspension at the town council meeting on Wednesday,” Whit added. “Congratulations.”

Her body sagged with relief. “Th-Thank you, gentlemen. Thank you so very much.”

The men didn't notice a shadow of a doubt cross her face. Would the next family she lived with be better people than the Carsons, or the Ritters? She knew she had friends, but she had also seen the vehemence of her enemies, and she couldn't understand it. Also, Kirby's face suddenly flashed before her mind's eye, and she wasn't sure what that was about either.

* * * *

Saturday, May 4, 1872

Zach Levy strode into the Saloon and over to where Shamus was working behind the bar. “Good morning, Mr. O’Toole --”

“It’ll be a better one if ye call me ‘Shamus’, lad,” the barman replied. “What can I be getting for ye?”

“My clients, if you don’t mind. I felt that I should ask you, rather than just go over and talk to them.”

“I thank ye for that.” Shamus cupped his hands and yelled, “Lylah… Flora, would ye come over here?”

Lylah was setting up the table for the Free Lunch. Flora was sweeping the floor. Both stopped what they were working on and walked over to the two men. Flora carried her broom with her. “What do you want now, Shamus?” she asked.

“Some respect’d be a nice start, Flora. In the meantime yuir lawyer wants t’be talking to ye.” He turned to Zach. “Why don’t the three of ye sit down over there?” He pointed to a table against the wall. “‘Tis far enough away t’be giving ye some privacy.” He glanced at the clock over the bar. “Just don’t be taking too much o’that privacy. We’ll be needing to put out the Free Lunch in a wee bit.”

Zach nodded. “Thank you, Shamus. I’ll try not to keep them for too long.” He led the women over to the table and waited until they sat down before taking his own seat across from them. He opened his brown leather case and took out a pencil and tablet.

“I spoke to Judge Humphreys,” he began, looking at some notes on the pad. “Your trial will be held right here on Monday at 10 AM. You’ll be charged with being accessories after the fact in the matter of the robbery of the Slocum payroll. Do you know what that means?”

Lylah nodded, looking glum. “It means we’re in trouble, don’t it?”

“Exactly; it means that you didn’t know that Cooper was going to rob the payroll. You didn’t help him do it, either, but you knew that he had done it, and you knew where the money was.”

Flora shuddered. “Could… could we get jail time for that?”

“Normally, yes,” he answered, “though not as much as you’d get if you had actually helped commit the robbery. But that’s normally. This is Eerie. They have another way of doing things, as you well know.”

“Too well,” Flora replied. “Did the judge say what he might do – if we were found guilty, I mean?”

“No… and I did ask. As a general rule, the accessory to a crime gets less than the actual criminal. Since Cooper is dead, he can’t get any sentence.”

Lylah looked hopeful. “Does that mean they could let us off scot free?”

“I doubt it,” Zach admitted, “but it may mitigate against a harsh sentence.” He took a breath. “It would have helped more if you had turned the money -- and Cooper -- over to the sheriff. Why didn’t you?”

Lylah started to respond, but Flora stopped her. “Would it help if I say that I was planning to do just that,” the blonde said, smiling wryly, “but I never had the chance with all that was happening?”

“You could say it, but I very much doubt that a jury would believe you.”

“How about if I say that I was going to, but, after Dell was shot, I was afraid of being implicated. I… I was going to leave the money behind – with a note, of course – when I left town.”

“Miss Stafford… Flora, I’m not going to help you lie to the jury. You tell me the truth, and I’ll help you put the best face that we can on it.”

Flora frowned. “That is what happened… more or less. Look, I’m a wealthy man. You check with Albertson at the bank. I brought a sizeable letter of credit with me; one worth more than what I hear was in that payroll. Why would I need to steal it?”

“Greed’s a good reason. So is anger. You admitted to shooting Abner Slocum because he insulted you in some way. Why wouldn’t you want to steal his money, too?”

“Because I didn’t… dammit. Cooper did.”

“But you kept quiet about it. Your story almost made it sound like you were stealing the money from Dell, and that’s what the jury will want to know about.”

Flora sighed. “I told you why. Cooper was dead, and I didn’t --”

We didn’t,” Lylah interrupted, not wanting to be left out of Stafford’s story. “We didn’t want people thinking we done it.” Flora quickly agreed

Zach thought about what they had said. “It’s not much, but I may be able to argue that point.” He made some notes. “We’ll see what it gets us.”

“Free -- I hope,” Lylah said.

“You won’t be free until you finish the sentence you’re already serving,” he told them both. “I’ll just try to keep things from getting any worse. Maybe, since you've already gotten a severe sentence, we can argue for a suspended sentence pending good behavior over the rest of your term.”

“You do that.” Flora considered her situation. “In the meantime, can I ask you to do something else for me?”

“You’re welcome to ask. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to do it, and I’ll bill you for my time if I do. That money you have in Albertson’s bank should cover it.” He added the last in a sarcastic tone.

“I’m sure that it can,” Flora continued. “What I want is to know who else took this damned potion of O’Toole’s, why they took it, and what happened to them afterward.”

Zach looked at her nonplussed. “I’ll do what I can, but it may take a while.”

“I’m stuck here for the next two months, Mr. Levy. That should be more than enough time. I asked Molly O’Toole, but I don’t think that she or Shamus will spill the beans. But somebody in this damned town should be willing to talk, especially if you wave a gold double eagle under their nose. I need to know if anybody ever had the potion and got changed back, who they were and how they did it, so I can aim for the same thing -- whatever it takes.”

Zach wondered about the hard look in her eyes as she said that last thing…

* * * * *

“May I ask you a question, Annie?” Mrs. Spaulding said, looking over at the young woman seated next to her daughter.

Arnie had been cutting herself another bite of the baked chicken they were having for lunch. “Of course not,” she answered, putting down her knife and fork. “Ask away.”

“Thank you,” the older woman replied. “What is this ‘special brew’ I read about in the paper? There’s been talk about some sort of brew or potion or whatever almost every week. To be frank, I’ve become rather curious about it.”

It was not a question Arnie wanted to hear, let alone answer, and she stalled for time. “Have you asked anybody else about it?”

“No, I – we really haven’t met many people since we came to town. That Reverend Yingling, the one the paper talks about, has come to call once or twice.”

“H-He has?” What had Yingling said? Did he know that Arnie had befriended the Spauldings?

Mrs. Spaulding nodded. “Yes, him and his wife both. They seem very nice, especially her, but we’re not really churchgoing people.”

“Mother doesn’t like the reverend,” Clara said in a half-whisper.

“Don’t gossip, Clara,” her mother scolded. “It isn’t ladylike.”

“It’s true, though,” Hedley added. “And I agree. He seemed quite full of himself, one of those preachers – what did Father used to say – oh, yes, the sort of preacher who thought that the first three words of the Good Book were, ‘Dear Reverend Yingling.’ Isn’t that right?”

Arnie and Clara both chuckled at the joke, and even Mrs. Spaulding smiled. “I really do not know the man,” Arnie told them. “I am a Catholic, so I have never been in his church.”

“But why does he want to control this brew of Mr. O’Toole’s?” the mother asked again. “Most ministers are against hard drink. They don’t want to be the one giving it out.”

The Mexican girl took a breath to steel herself for what she was about to say. “It is not just a drink. It is… “ She hesitated. There was no way that this secret could be kept from residents of the town, and if she denied knowing anything, she would soon be seen by the Spauldings as a liar. But if she “let the cat out of the bag,” who knew what more they would soon learn? Still, she felt cornered with no real choice. “It is magic.”

“Magic?” Hedley said. “Are you joking?”

“No, it is magic. Out -- Out here, there are secrets, very strange knowledge that comes from the Indians. Magic from the world of the spirits --”

“Like in the stories of the old Greeks?” Hedley asked. “What sort of magic?”

“It is used to punish bad men. Banditos.”

Hedley smiled. “Let me guess. It turns them into pigs.”

“Si… no, it changes them into… into other people. They look different. They live with Señor O’Toole for a time, like they were in a prison, to get used to what – who they have become. When they leave, they have always become better… people.”

Mrs. Spaulding was quiet for a moment. “What an amazing story – though I find it hard to believe that it is anything more than a story.” The hostess took a sip of the lemonade she had served with lunch. “But I’ll accept it at face value – for now anyway. Thank you, Annie.”

Arnie sighed, relieved. She was sure that Mrs. Spaulding didn't believe a word she had said, but didn't want to declare what she did think -- that her guest was talking very foolishly or carrying a joke too far. But the look on Clara's face told Arnie that she wanted to ask the questions that her mother wouldn't. She immediately started thinking about how to leave the house without first having to talk to Clara alone.

* * * * *

Nancy studied the test paper spread out in front of her on Kirby Pinter’s desk. “These papers look very good, Phillipia.”

“I thought so,” Phillipia Stone replied. “Having them write the words for homework the night before the test was a very useful idea.”

“I’ve always thought so. When you do the next spelling test on Thursday, you might want to put in a few of the words that they did misspell this week.”

“Do you expect to be out that long?”

“Well, I told the town council my version of what happened, and they’ve decided to reinstate me. It’ll be in the paper on Tuesday, and they’ll make it formal at the meeting Wednesday night. I thought that I’d let you finish out the week.”

“Sounds like you’re enjoying the time off.”

“I am, to tell the truth, but that’s not it. I just think it would be better not to switch off in midweek. It also gives us a chance to meet next weekend so you can go over what you’ve been doing.”

Phillipia considered the idea for a bit. “That makes sense, I suppose,” she finally said. She gathered up the papers and put them in a folder. “Think that takes care of everything for now. Let’s go see what Kirby and the children are up to, shall we?”

Nancy agreed, and the two women walked out the back door of the office and onto the porch behind Kirby Pinter’s bookshop. Kirby and Penny Stone, Phillipia’s daughter, were setting things out on a cloth-covered table at a corner of the porch. “Hello, Mother… Miss Osbourne,” Penny greeted them.

“Are you two finished inside?” Kirby asked.

Nancy looked at the table. She saw plates, forks, stacks of glasses, three pitchers of lemonade, and… “Wherever did you get that cake?”

“The restaurant over at O’Toole’s; I went over a couple of days ago and asked Jane if they could bake one for me. They did.”

Nancy raised a surprised eyebrow. “I’m sure it’s delicious. Maggie and Jane are both fine cooks.”

“I was the odd one out for a game of Cross Questions,” Penny told them, “so I’m helping Mr. Pinter.”

Kirby nodded. “And she’s been a big help, but now that your mother and Miss Osbourne are here, Penny, why don’t you go tell the others that we’re ready?”

“Sure.” She ambled over to the other children who were seated in a circle on the grass. Mostly, the children who had come were from the older grades, although Aggie Stone, Enrique Diaz, and Abe Scudder -- all three were third graders -- had come with their older siblings.

Cross Questions was a popular parlor game. The group sat in a circle. Each person, in turn, asked a question of the person on their right. When they’d all done this, they went around the circle again. Each person said the question they’d been asked, and then answered that question with the answer they’d gotten from the person on their right.

It was Jorge Ybañez’ turn. “Okay,” he told the group. “Emma O’Hanlon…” He glanced to his left, where she was sitting. “…asked me, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up’, and the answer I got from Miriam Scudder was…” He unfolded a sheet of paper and read, “A big, gray rat in my daddy’s henhouse.” His expression soured, as the children burst into laughter. “That ain’t funny.” His question to Miriam had been, “What are you the most scared of?”

“Yes, it is,” Penny told him. “Now I’ve got a question. Do you all want to keep playing or do you want to break for cake and lemonade?”

Jorge jumped to his feet. “I vote for cake.” Most of the others agreed, and they all headed for the table where the adults were standing. Kirby had cut the cake into pieces. Nancy put the pieces on plates and handed one to each child, while Phillipia poured glass after glass of lemonade.

Nancy had just taken a seat next to the table, when she heard a shrill voice shout, “How dare you?”

“What?” She looked up to see Cecelia Ritter, Zenobia Carson, Levinia Mackechnie, and several other women standing a few feet beyond the fence that marked the end of Kirby’s yard. She frowned. “What’s bothering you now, ladies?” she asked sourly.

Cecelia started for the gate into the yard. “You are no longer the teacher of these children, Miss Osbourne, and you have no business being anywhere near them.” The other women murmured in agreement.

“I don’t see that it’s any of your concern, ladies,” Nancy replied. “None of you are the mother of any of these children. Their parents are free to allow them to associate with anyone they wish.”

She decided not to tell them that she would be their children’s teacher again in a few days. That was something for the men on the town council to announce.

“I -- We are acting in behalf of those other parents who, I am sure, have no idea that you are here, corrupting these poor innocent lambs.”

The children were all looking at Nancy and the other women. It was fun to watch grown-ups argue. “I ain’t sure what ‘corrupting’ means,” Nestor Stone called out, “but if it has anything t’do with lemonade and cake, you can corrupt me anytime.”

“Nestor,” Phillipia said sternly. “Don’t be rude. Even if Mrs. Ritter deserves it, she is an adult.”

Cecelia stormed through the gate, a few of the other women following her. “You have no right to talk to me like that, Phillipia Stone!”

“And you have no right to act so high-and-mighty, Cecelia Ritter?” Phillipia quickly replied.

Kirby chimed in. “Excuse me… Mrs. Ritter, is it, would you please leave?”

“Leave? I have no intention of leaving.” Cecelia glared at the impudent man.

Kirby smiled. “Whether you have any intent or not, you and your friends are trespassing on my property. You can all leave now, or you can wait, and I’ll send one of these children to get Sheriff Talbot. There are… three… four… five of you. It’ll be a bit tight, but I think there’s enough room in the jail for you all.”

“Why you… you… you wouldn’t dare,” Zenobia Carson said indignantly.

He smiled. “Oh, but I would. We were sitting here peacefully, and you all forced your way in and disrupted our party. Hmm, that would add disturbing the peace to the charges, wouldn’t it?”

“I believe it would,” Phillipia Stone said, trying hard not to smile.

The women hurried out of the yard. “Satisfied?” Cecelia asked smugly. “We’ve left your precious yard. Are you satisfied?”

“Not really. I’ve no doubt that you can be just as disturbing out there in the alley.” He looked at the children. “Which of you wants to go get the Sheriff?” When almost all of them raised a hand, he looked over at Cecelia. “Well, Mrs. Ritter?”

She glared at him for a moment. “This isn’t the end of it.” She turned and hurried down the alleyway, the rest of the women scurrying after her.

“I think it is,” he said with a laugh.

Nancy leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Kirby. Thank you so very much.”

“Any time,” he told her, adding to himself, ‘especially if I get a reward like that kiss.’

* * * * *

Nancy walked over to where Molly was setting up her table to sell dance tickets. “I’d better be going now, Molly.”

“Are ye sure ye can’t be staying for the dancing?” the older woman asked. “Thuir’s a lot o’men that’d like dancing with a pretty thing like ye.”

“Thank you, but I’ll never get my teaching job back if anyone finds out that I did something as ‘wicked’ as dance with a man. School marms like me aren’t supposed to have a life outside of the classroom,” she sighed.

Molly studied her face. “And that ain’t much of a life, I'm thinking. I won’t be asking if ye agree, but I’ll tell ye that if ye ever do decide ye want more of a life for yuirself, ye come talk to me.”

“Thanks, again. I’ll keep that in mind.” Nancy headed for the door. The “Happy Days” Town Band was tuning up, playing bits of some of the melodies they would be doing that night. She stopped for a moment to listen, waving one hand to their beat. But then she sighed again, shook her head, and walked, reluctantly, out the door.

* * * * *

Flora brought a tray of dirty dishes and silverware into the kitchen and carried it over to the sink. She was about to unload the tray when Shamus walked over to her. “Jane’ll be taking care of that, Flora. Ye and Lylah need t’be getting upstairs t’be changing yuir clothes.”

“Changing clothes, why?” she asked.

He smiled. “Do ye remember what happens here at me Saloon on Saturdays? What the two of ye came over for when ye was men?”

“Yeah, the… dance.” Her eyes grew wide. “You don’t mean…”

“I most certainly do. Me Molly has nice outfits, starched white blouse, black skirt, and white apron, waiting for ye upstairs. I knew the pair of ye can dance; I saw ye doing it. Only now, ‘tis the men ye’ll be dancing with. And ye’ll be smiling and talking nice to ‘em when ye do, just like the other lasses did with the two of ye.”

He looked her squarely in the eye as he spoke. This was an order, one the potion compelled her to obey. “Do ye understand what I’m telling ye?”

She sighed and nodded her head. “Yes, Shamus.”

* * * * *

Bridget heard a knock on her bedroom door. “Who’s there?”

“‘Tis me, Bridget,” Molly answered. “Can I talk to ye for just a minute?”

“Sure, c’mon in.”

Molly walked in and took a quick look at the younger woman. “I see ye’re getting dressed for the dance.”

“I am. It’s part of the job, isn’t it?”

“It is if ye want it t’be. Do ye think ye’re up to it?”

“Yes… no… I don’t know.” She took a deep breath. “That's something that I-I need to find out, don’t I?”

“Aye, ye do, but ye shouldn’t be rushing in when ye ain’t ready.”

“Yes, but this is the only way to find out if I am ready. If I keep waiting until I’m sure, I-I’ll never get up the nerve to do it.”

“All right, then, but there’s two things that ye need t’be knowing before ye go downstairs.”

“And those are?”

“First, thuir ain’t a man down thuir – at least none that’re worth more than a bucket of spit – that don’t think ye’re the lady they always thought ye were. And the other is that none of ‘em’ll think any the less of ye, if ye decide that ye ain’t ready and come back up here.”

* * * * *

Cap walked over to where Lylah and Flora were sitting, nervously waiting for Shamus to start the dance. “Good evening, ladies.”

“What…. oh, who’re you?” Lylah said. She’d seen him at her trial but didn’t know his name.

Flora added. “The dancing hasn’t started yet, so you can put your ticket away, mister.”

“Lewis,” he replied, making a slight bow, “Cap Lewis, I’m Abner Slocum’s nephew. I won’t be dancing with either of you, though.”

Flora felt somehow insulted. “You won’t?”

“No, I won’t. My uncle only let about half of his men come in to the dance on any given Saturday. I just wanted to let you know that tonight I’ve just left a skeleton crew at the ranch. The rest are all here, ready and waiting to dance with you.”

Lylah raised a cynical eyebrow. “And… drop the other shoe, Mr. Lewis.”

“And my uncle was very well liked by his men. I’ve told them that, as long as they don’t hurt you permanently, they’re welcome to express their displeasure with what you did to him while they’re dancing with you.” He gave them a wicked grin. “Have a good evening.” He bowed again and walked away.

* * * * *

Milt led Jessie out onto the dance floor. “Have you come up with any ideas?” he asked as they began to dance.

“Lemme ask you a question,” she replied. “Can you sing?”

“Sing? Yes, a little, I suppose. Why?”

“‘Cause that’s how you’re gonna apologize, by singing t’her… here in the Saloon, with me, in front of everybody.”

“Why, for Heaven’s sakes?”

“You got a better way o’showing her that you love her, and that you don’t care who knows it?”

He suddenly broke into a smile. “Jessie, that’s… that’s brilliant. What am I going to sing?”

“I don’t know yet.” She chuckled. “Don’t you go looking at me like that. It ain’t easy t’write a song special just for you and Jane. I wanted t’know you’d do it before I did all that work.”

“Fair enough; when will you have the song ready for me?”

“You come by Tuesday night, and I’ll give it to you. You take a couple o’days t’learn it, and we’ll sing it for her Thursday or Friday. Okay?”

“Better than okay.” He laughed back at her. “I’d kiss you, except that Jane is watching us while she’s over there dancing with Fred Noonan.”

* * * * *

Red Tully handed Flora his ticket. “Here ya is, Flora.”

“You work for Slocum, don’t you?” she asked as she put the ticket into the pocket of her apron.

He took her right hand and led her out onto the dance floor. “I do. More ‘n’ that, I spent the week over at the doc’s helping t’take care of him.” Once they were in position, he faced her and put his right arm around her waist and hugged her hard against him. “Only now, I’m taking a break.”

She pushed his hand away and stood back, but, when she tried to slap his face, too, the voice in her head wouldn’t let her.

* * * * *

“Here’s m’ticket.”

Lylah looked up to see a hand holding a ticket. A very dark hand. “No,” she said, standing up. “I ain’t gonna dance with no nigger.”

“Why not?” Luke Freeman replied, with a chuckle. “You is as dark as I am.”

“The hell I am!” It was as much a wish as a denial.

Before Luke could answer, Shamus hurried over to the two of them. “What’s all this carrying on?”

“He… this nigger wants t’dance with me,” Lylah said frantically.

Shamus smiled. “He does? Why Luke, I’m surprised at ye. I ain’t never seen ye here on a Saturday night.”

“You never had nobody like this pretty gal here for me t’dance with,” Luke told him.

The barkeeper nodded, understanding. It would have caused problems for Luke if he had come on earlier Saturdays to dance with any of the Saloon's other girls. Shamus thought that it was too bad that the color of a man’s skin should be a problem. Unlike some of his customers, he didn’t care about a man’s color, just about the color of his money. Besides, he liked Luke.

Shamus turned to face Lylah. “In that case, Lylah, ye will be dancing with Luke here, and with any other man that gives ye a ticket. And ye’ll be smiling and acting as sweet as ye can while ye’re out thuir dancing with him. Ain’t that right?”

“Yes, Shamus.” Despite her best efforts, she found herself smiling at the two men. She took Luke’s ticket and put it in her apron pocket.

The tall black man winked at Shamus. “Thank you, Shamus.” He offered her his arm. “Shall we… Lylah? The band’s already started to play.”

* * * * *

Cap had waited until the music started. As he expected, Bridget was still sitting. He’d seen her timidly refuse a couple of tickets. He stepped over to where she was sitting. “Dance with me, Bridget?”

“C-Cap?” She looked up to see him smiling, a ticket in his hand. “I… Y-You want to dance with me?”

“There’s no one else here that I would ever want to dance with. You’re going to start dancing with men some time. Why not start with a friend?” He waited while she thought it over and then added, “Please. I-I miss… dancing with you.”

She smiled -- barely -- and stood up. “So… so do I.”

“Then let’s go.” He took her hand and walked with her out onto the dance floor. He could see the uncertainty in her eyes, feel her body tremble, but she still let him hold her in his arms as they danced.

It was a start.

* * * * *

Carl leaned against the wall, watching Flora dancing with Finney Pike, another of Slocum’s men. Finny was holding her very close, close enough, Carl could see, so that the man could fondle her while they danced.

‘I’ll have to dance with her later,’ he told himself. ‘Lord knows she’s pretty enough to be worth the trouble for its own sake. The thing is, though…’

This was the first time he’d been in the Saloon since his trial. ‘If that jury’d found me guilty,’ he thought wryly, ‘that’d be me out there, another damn potion girl dancing with the men.’ He shook his head. If the Judge had given him a choice, like he usually gave convicts, Carl was pretty sure that he would have chosen prison, maybe even hanging, over becoming a woman.

He shivered at the thought and decided that he needed a beer just now more than he needed to dance with anyone.

* * * * *

Molly walked over to the bar and sat on a stool near where Shamus was standing. “The new gals ain’t having a very good time of it,” she told her husband.

“They’ll be having a worse time tomorrow, when they get up on this here bar…” He gestured at the wide surface between them. “…and do that fancy dance ye taught ‘em.”

“I’m thinking that they need something before that.”

“Not more practice time, I’m hoping. I already got signs put up all around town.” He grinned. “Especially over by the Lone Star.”

She shook her head. “They know the dancing well enough. But thuir hairs are rat nests, and they been working hard all week -- and doing all this dancing tonight. They need a bath and t’be putting a brush through thuir hair, I’m thinking.”

“I don’t see why not. Carmen opens her place sometimes on Sunday afternoon. Maggie’s over with Ramon.” He pointed to the couple, happily doing a polka. “I’ll be talking with them once this dance is over, and they can pass the word onto Carmen first thing in the morning.”

* * * * *

“My turn now, little lady,” a deep voice said.

Lylah looked up. Another damned nigger. Except for a couple of Mex – which were almost as bad – she’d been dancing with darkies all night. And Shamus’ orders didn’t give her any say in the matter. “I suppose it is.” She rose slowly, reluctantly to her feet and pocketed the ticket.

“I’se Hammy Lincoln,” the tall man told her. “I works for Ritter Livery.”

She all but sighed with relief. “Lylah Saunders.” He wasn’t one of the ranch hands, even if he did smell of horses. That meant that she probably wasn’t going have to put up with the overly familiar hands the cowboys all seemed to have.

* * * * *



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