Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change -- Spring, part 6 of 13

Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change – Spring, part 6 of 13
By Ellie Dauber and Chris Leeson (c) 2014

Sunday, May 5, 1872

Reverend Yingling looked out at his congregation.

“My friends,” he began, “as we prepare to end this morning's service and go out to enjoy this glorious day that our Lord has given us, I remind you that there is work yet to be done. The town council will be meeting Wednesday in this very room to consider our petition regarding Shamus O'Toole's foul brew. I ask you to join with me Wednesday night to show your support for this measure. And I invite you to join with me now in singing a most appropriate closing hymn, 'Song of Exodus.' Yes, sing it out loud and clear, that your righteous words will still be echoing within these walls when the town council begins its deliberation on Wednesday, here in this very room.”

The hymn was a favorite of the congregation, and it had often ended their Sunday prayers. Even those who didn't agree with Yingling's intentions were singing.

` “G-d led the Children on Israel
` By Moses' might hand.
` He parted the sea before them,
` And then they crossed on dry land.”

Which was exactly what the Reverend had planned. He was smiling broadly as he joined in at the chorus.

` “Oh, how marvelous is the power of G-d
` As He leads us in our way.
` Pillar of fire we see in the night,
` And an enormous cloud by day.”

* * * * *

Shamus paid to have the flyers posted all over town by early Sunday morning.

` TONIGHT ONLY
` (And the Rest of the Week, At Least)

` < ----------=====++000++=====---------- >

` The Eerie Saloon Is Proud to Present:

` O’TOOLE’S CACTUS BLOSSOMS

` @>---->-->---- ----<--<----<@

` In: “Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines”

` <><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

` Music and Vocal Accompaniment by:

` “The Eerie Nightingale”
` Miss Jessie Hanks

` @>---->-->---- ----<--<----<@

` Shows at 8 PM & 10 PM

A double load of flyers was posted on the block around the Lone Star, just to make absolutely sure that Sam Duggan saw one.

* * * * *

“How are you feeling this morning, my friend?” Cerise leaned forward across her desk to study Wilma’s face.

Wilma looked oddly at her employer. “What d’you mean, my Lady?”

“Let me tell you a story,” the other woman replied. “When I was in Savanna, I had a… friend, Georges. One day, he took me for a carriage ride out to his home at the edge of town. He had a large pen behind the house. He took in stray dogs, you see, and tried to find them good homes. Most of the dogs were friendly; they came over to the walls of the pen, barking and jumping up and wagging their tails.”

“Nice story, but what’s it got t’do with me?”

“I have not finished. One dog, a pretty brown and white beagle puppy hung back. Georges had a shelter built in the back of the pen for when it rained, three walls and a roof. The little beagle, she cowered in there, trembling, her tail between her legs. I asked Georges about her. He told me that he had found her half-dead beside the road. Someone, some cochon, had beaten her and… worse. He said that there were burn marks – from a cigar, he thought – on her.”

“That poor dog was terrified of everyone. Georges told me that he had had to drug her, so she would hold still long enough for him to treat her injuries. She was still afraid, and she would not come anywhere near him or anyone else. He was not certain if she would ever recover from what had been done to her, and he despaired of ever finding her a home.”

Wilma frowned in sympathy for the animal. “Are you saying that you gave the dog a home? That would be right nice of you.”

“No, I did not.” Cerise took a breath. “You, mon petit, are like that little dog. When we had guests last night, the others, Mae, Beatriz, and Rosalyn, they smile, they pose, they want the men to pick them. You… you slump your shoulders and do not smile. You give no sign that you are interested in the men who have come to call upon my House and my ladies. And if some man does pick you, you walk with him as if you were headed to the gallows, rather than to your bed.”

“I… I go with them,” Wilma said indignantly. “What’s it matter if I smile? I’m a whore. It ain’t my smile that they’re paying for.”

“Yes, Wilma, in a very real way, it is your smile that the men pay for. As my second, you should know that.” Cerise broke into a sly smile. “And as my second, I give you a problem to solve for me – if you can.”

Wilma smiled, relieved that the subject had changed. “I’ll do my best. You know that.”

“I do, indeed. The problem you must solve is that one of my ladies is disheartened. She has had her heart broken, and it has shaken her confidence in herself greatly. She feels that she is worthless – when she most surely is not – and her attitude is making this House less than the happy place it should be.

Cerise looked across her desk, directly into Wilma’s eyes. “You are my second. Solve that problem for me.”

“Y’know, Cerise,” Wilma replied, a bit of forced humor in her voice, “you’ve got a sneaky streak in you that I’m only now beginning t’see.”

* * * * *

Pablo leaned against a tree in the courtyard outside the church. The early Mass had ended, and most of the villagers were gone. Father de Castro was waving goodbye to the last few as they left.

It was now or never. Pablo took breath to steady himself and walked over to the priest. “Perdóneme, Padre, por favor, may I talk with you... in private?”

“Have you come to take Confession?” de Castro joked. “My sermon must have been especially good this morning.”

“No, I-I have news about Señor Styron, my... my boss.” He glanced around nervously to see if anyone was watching him.

The man put his arm around Pablo shoulder and guided him into the church. As soon as they were inside, he shut the door. “Is this private enough, or should we go to my office?”

“This is fine... I guess.”

De Castro sat down in one of the pews. “Very well, then, Pablo, what is your news about Señor Styron?”

“The... the other night, I heard him and Señor Ritter talking. The livery was closed, and they didn't know I was there – cleaning up in the back. I-I did not mean to listen.”

“But you did, and you heard something that, I am guessing, you shouldn't have.”

“Yes – No, I am glad that I heard it. They... What they are planning is not good, not for us, at least.”

“For you and I?”

“For the whole congregation.”

The priest nodded. “What is it?”

“You have heard of Señor O'Toole's potion and how the gringo priest – Yingling – does not think that Señor O'Toole should be the one who has it.”

“I know. Reverend Yingling – and you should not call him 'gringo'; it is not polite. Reverend Yingling thinks it would be better if the town council appointed a committee to control it. But what does that have to do with Señor Styron and Señor Ritter?”

“They think that they will be the ones who control it, them and some other... Yanquis. None of us, no Mejicanos.”

De Castro frowned. “Surely that cannot be right. Reverend Yingling would not allow it.”

“They think that he will. They think that it will give them power over us, that they will use it on some of us – to make us afraid of them.”

“You actually heard them say this?”

“Sì, they did not say who they would use it on – except for the man who runs the newspaper. They want to use it on him if he keeps writing those things in the paper against them.” Pablo shuddered. “Padre, if they would use it on one of themselves, nothing can stop them from using it on us.”

The priest studied the boy's face. He had probably heard something. Neither Ritter or Styron were known for their great love of Mexicans. “I will think about what you told me,” he said. “For now, we will put our trust in Him Who has always protected us.” He made the sign of the cross and smiled when Pablo did the same. “And you should go home. Your parents will be wondering where you are.”

'Just the same,' he thought to himself, as he watched the boy leave the building, 'it might be a good idea to talk to Don Luis Ortega and some of his other influential parishioners.'

* * * * *

Molly led her two charges around the corner to the back entrance to a large wooden building.

“Wait a minute,” Flora protested as she recognized their destination. “This is the bathhouse.”

Molly nodded. “Aye, with all the work the two of ye've been doing, me Shamus and I thought ye should have a bath before yuir show tonight.” At that moment, a short Mexican woman walked out of the building. “And here's herself, the mistress of the place. Is everything ready, Carmen?”

Carmen Whitney smiled. “It is. Will you be joining the other ladies in a tub, Molly?”

“Not this time.”

“Very well.” Carmen held the door open for the three women. She followed them in and started a flow of water from the large metal water heater in the corner of the room into two of the wooden tubs. “They will be filled in a few minutes. You can put your clothes in there.” She pointed to a curtained doorway.

The women walked through it into a small room. A dozen lockers stood against the walls, with benches in front of them. Molly looked at Flora and Lylah. “All right, now. Pick a locker t'be hanging yuir clothes in, and start taking 'em off. I wants ye t'be getting into them tubs as soon as ye can.”

“D-Don't wanna,” Lylah said stubbornly, but even as she protested, her fingers were undoing the buttons on her dress. Once they were open, she let the garment slide down and stepped out of it. She put it on a hook in the locker and started on her petticoat, muttering under her breath the whole time.

Flora did the same. In no time at all, the pair stood, barefoot, clad only in camisoles and drawers. They stood far apart and moved slowly, not wanting to look at each other, to be reminded of what they had become. “Get that stuff off ye,” Molly ordered, “and get into the water.”

“All right, dang it,” Flora grumbled as her trembling fingers undid the ribbon holding her drawers tight at her waist. They fell to the wood floor, and she stepped out of them. A few seconds later, drawers and camisole were on a shelf in the locker, and she was walking past the curtain into the main room of the bathhouse, carrying her towel in her right hand. Lylah followed close behind.

The pair went over to the now water-filled tubs. Each hung her towel on one of the handles on the side of her own tub, and cautiously climbed in. “Mmm,” Flora said without thinking as she settled down into the water. It was warm and soothing and it.... “Smells like... is that lilac?”

“Aye, lilac bath salts,” Molly told her. “T'make yuir soak nicer.”

She let the new women just sit there for a few minutes. After all that work, they did deserve some time to relax and soak the ache out of their muscles. Still, that wasn't the real reason she'd brought them over here. “Now...” She handed each women a washcloth and bar of soap. “...I want the both of ye t'be using these things t'wash every inch o'yuir body – every inch.”

Flora put the soap in the water and began to work up a lather on the cloth. Once she had, she ran the cloth up and down the length of her right arm. That done, she worked it across her chest. She looked down and sighed. 'Every inch,' the voice in her head repeated. She sighed again and began to soap her breasts.

It felt good, surprisingly good, especially when the rough texture of the cloth rubbed against her nipples. She felt them stiffen, as an ever so pleasurable fire built in her breasts. 'None of that,' she told herself. She switched the soap over to the other hand and began to move it along her left arm. She did her stomach next, and then lifted first her right leg and then her left leg out of the water to wash them.

“Finished.” She leaned back, determined to enjoy the water's warmth until Molly chased her out.

Molly shook her head. “No, ye ain't. I told ye t'be wash every place, and I meant every place.” The woman smiled a wicked smile. “And thuir's one place ye haven't done yet, ain't thuir?”

“There is,” Flora answered sourly. She took the cloth and wrapped the bar of soap in it. She started at the base of her stomach and slid her hand slowly downward, rubbing gently. The rough cloth rubbed against her groin, and she trembled at the yearnings it roused. She tried to yank her hand away, but the voice in her head wouldn't let her.

The cloth moved back and forth against her nether cleft, and she felt it – oh, Lord, she felt it! It wasn't the growing hardness of a man, but a yielding, a dazzling, delicious heat that built and Built and BUILT in her loins, even as it rose up to her breasts, and out to every other part of her.

Her breathing grew uneven. Her arousal – yes, she recognized for what it was, a female arousal – scared her, it was so... pervasive. She tried to stop things, but she... she couldn't, not because of the commanding voice in her head, but because her body wanted – needed – what was happening to her, needed it so very much.

“Oh... oh, yes,” she gasped in surrender. It was the most – cold!

Flora jerked upright from the shock of the frigid water poured down on her. Molly stood next to the tub, an overturned bucket in her hand. “Enjoy yourself when we're not so busy. For now, ye can be washing yuir hair, too.” The older woman handed her a bottle labeled “Overmeyer's Sweet Lilac Shampoo.”

“Thank heavens,” she sighed in relief. She looked over to the other tub. Lylah was lying back against the side. Her hands were beneath the water. Flora couldn't see what the coon was doing, but she had a good guess. Lylah's head leaned back, resting against the back of the tub. Her eyes were closed, but her mouth was open, and she looked to be gasping for breath. How dark she looked against the pale, oaken tub.

Molly came up behind Lylah, toting another large wooden bucket. In one smooth motion, she upended it over the woman's head. Lylah let out a shriek and sat up quickly. “Ye can do yuir hair, lass, now that I got it all wet for ye.” She gave her another bottle of the shampoo and walked away, a sly smile on her lips.

The women shivered from the cold water even as they obediently worked the shampoo into their hair. Molly brought over another bucket, hot water this time, to rinse. Carmen handed each one a towel and helped wrap it around their heads. She held another towel as each woman stepped carefully out of the tub. “Pat,” she told them. “Do not rub. Yuir skin is more tender now.”

“Tell me 'bout it,” Lylah said sourly, as she gently moved the towel up and down her arm. Her skin still tingled from what she had been doing.

Flora did the same, being careful how she dried her own body. 'Don't want to start that again,' she cautioned herself. In a short time, they both were back by the lockers, dry enough for a dash of an unscented talcum powder before they slipped into their camisoles and drawers.

“Before ye finish getting dressed,” Molly told them, “I want t'be talking to ye. Flora, stand up and walk over t'me.”

Flora stood and strode toward Molly. “That's fine,” the older woman told her. “Now turn around and walk over t'thuir.” She pointed to the far corner of the room. “But I want ye t'be taking shorter steps, and when ye walk, put yuir foot so 'tis in a straight line with the one behind.” She watched Flora take a few steps, then added. “and while ye're walking hold yuir hands down low – no, don't slump yuir shoulders – and hold 'em away from yuir body, too.”

“Why?” Lylah asked. “What's so important about how she walks?”

Molly shook her head. “How the both of ye walk, Lylah. Get and walk over thuir, through the doorway and all the way t'yuir tub. And ye'll be walking just the same as I told Flora t'walk.” She watched the black woman step across the floor. “Keep going,” she told her.

“How long do we have to do this for?” Flora asked after a while.

Molly studied the pair as they strolled back and forth. “Much better; ye're walking like ladies ought t'be walking. I mean, with your hips swinging, the way men like to see a gal's bottom moving.” Both women suddenly stopped, aghast.

Reluctantly, the girls started strolling again. A couple minutes later, Molly nodded, satisfied. “Ye can go sit down now on the benches by yuir lockers.”

The pair sat down. “Not like that,” Molly scolded. “Ye sit up straight and tall now, with yuir knees together and yuir hands folded pretty on yuir laps.” They shifted into the positions she described. Molly left them that way for a minute or two to get used to it.

“That's one way ladies sit,” she told them, taking a seat on a bench. “Or ye sit just like this.” She put one knee over the other and held her ankles near each other. “'Tis the best way t'be sitting when ye're in yur dance rig, too. Now ye try it.”

Both women changed to the new position, again, Molly had them hold the position for a short time.

Carmen came into the room just then, carrying a pair of brushes.

“What're those?” Flora asked suspiciously. She took the brush Carmen handed her and stared at it, her legs still crossed.

“Uncross and relax,” Molly said as Carmen unwrapped the towel around Flora's head, while Molly rose and did the same for Lylah. “These’re hair brushes; thuir's more tangles than hair on yuir heads right now,” Molly answered. “After we work out all them snarls, I want ye t'be brushing yuir hair. Ye'll do it each night from now on, fifty strokes a night. And while ye're doing it, I want ye t'be repeating, with each stroke, the words, 'I'm a girl.' Do ye understand that?”

“The hell we – ow!” Flora flinched as Carmen worked on a tangle in her long, blonde hair. There wasn't much curl, so the Mexican woman was able to hand her the brush to use on herself after just a short time. Lylah's hair was a mass off dark curls, and it felt like Molly was pulling them out at the roots as she fought through knot after knot.

Once Flora had taken the brush in her own hand, Carmen opened the locker she was facing. A long, narrow mirror was mounted on the inside of the door. “Just stand there and admire how pretty ye are,” Molly told her. It was the same for Lylah after Molly had finished unsnarling her dark curls.

Each of them stared at the comely young woman that the mirror reflected back at her. Those reflections were dressed only in their unmentionables, their bodies smelling of lilacs and still tingling from the sensations aroused in the bath. As the two new beauties brushed their hair, each kept repeating, “I'm a girl. I'm a girl.” The both of them tried to resist, but they had no choice but to keep saying it.

It was a wholly unsettling experience.

* * * * *

“Well, now, Joe,” Sam Braddock said cheerfully, “look who's back.”

Bridget looked up from her game of Maverick solitaire. “Hi, Sam... Joe. I'm not quite back; not yet, anyway.”

“What d'you mean, Bridget?” Joe Kramer asked. “You're sitting there waiting for a poker game, ain't you?”

She gave him a faint smile. “Right now, all I'm doing is waiting to deal poker, not to play a hand.” She took a breath. “If anybody'll trust me to deal, that is.”

“I don't see why they wouldn't.” Sam pulled out a chair and sat down. “I never had a reason not to trust you, and you're a damned sight better to watch dealing the cards that Joe is, what with that ugly mug of his.”

Joe took a seat. “You're no prize neither, Sam. Welcome back, Bridget, even if you're just a dealer for now. We missed losing all our money to you.”

“I don't know about that 'losing' part,” Sam told her, “but it is good to have you back.”

Bridget's smile brightened. “Th-Thank you both, gentlemen... friends. It's good to be back.” She gathered in the cards on the table to form a deck. She shuffled three times and gave it to Sam to cut. After he just tapped it with his finger, she began to deal. “Now, let's play some poker... five card draw, okay?”

“Sounds good,” Sam said. Joe nodded in agreement.

She knew that she still wasn't ready to play, but the cards felt right in her hands. She was actually looking at the two men as she dealt the cards. She didn't feel nervous. Or ashamed.

And she felt the same way when Fred Norton, Stu Gallagher, and Matt Royce joined the game over the next few hands. It felt like...well, it felt like she was taking the first step on the way back home.

* * * * *

“We want the show! We want the show!”

Shamus walked over from behind the bar to a chair set near the foot of the steps up to the second floor. He raised his arms and waited for the crowd to quiet.

“You'll have to go a ways to better the girls over at the Lone Star!” someone shouted.

Shamus smiled. “Just ye watch and see if our Cactus Blossom girls don't give them Lone Star gals a run for their money.”

There was a wave of lewd chuckling. “That's a powerful promise to live up to!” a man guffawed.

“Well, just see if they don't live up to it,” Shamus replied with a grin.

The excitement of the crowd quieted to a low mutter.

“All right, then,” he said cheerfully, when they finally stopped chanting. “If it's a show ye want, then 'tis a show ye'll be getting.” He looked around the room. The crowd wasn't as big as it might have been, but it had been far too long since this many men were in his saloon.

Shamus put two fingers in his mouth and gave a loud whistle. “And here's Eerie's own nightingale, Jessie Hanks, t'be getting things started.”

“Bring on the dancing girls,” someone yelled.

During the day, Shamus had changed his mind about using the bar as a stage. He and R.J. had hung sheets in the stairwell to the second floor. They reached down from the steps to the floor below, creating a small private area under the stairs. Jessie walked out from it and took her usual place a few feet away. “They'll be out in a minute, gents, but you're gonna have to put up with me singing a little first.”

“Sing away, Jess,” another voice yelled.

Jessie nodded in the direction of the yell. “Thanks, Mort,” she told the man. “Here's a song I think you'll all like. And in a minute or three...” She winked. “...you'll like it even more.”

` “He's Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines.
` He feeds his horse on corn and beans...”

“All right, Jessie's started singing,” Molly said softly within the area under the stairs. “Are ye ready?”

Flora and Lylah were with her. Their dresses hung from hooks R.J. had set in the back of one of the steps. They stood nervously in the unmentionables that were their dancing costumes. “Do we have to do this?” Flora asked one last time.

“Ye do,” Molly answered in a firm tone. “Ye just remember t'be doing everything the way we taught ye.”

Flora snorted. “And if we don't want to remember?”

“Oh, ye'll remember all right.” Molly suddenly had an idea. “Ye'll remember the dancing and... more.” She flashed a wicked smile. “Right now, I want ye t'be remembering them baths ye had this afternoon, what ye done t'yuir bodies and how good ye felt while ye were doing it.”

Lylah gave a soft moan as she remembered. A warm flush ran through her body. Her breasts tingled and her nipples tight. The tingle flowed down to her crotch, and she shifted her stance as she luxuriated in the feeling.

It was the same for Flora. That pervasive excitement and yearning were back in full force. She closed her eyes, savoring in the arousal her memories stirred in her body.

“See how nice remembering can be?” Molly asked. Both of the new women nodded. “And remember that when yuir dressed up to dance, like ye are now, ye should do that special walk I showed ye.” Molly turned and listened to Jessie for a moment.

` “The officers, they all did shout,
` They all did shout, they all did shout.
` The officers, they all did shout,
` 'Why, kick him out of the Army!'“

“That's it then, Lylah. C'mon”

The black woman followed Molly out of the enclosure. Jessie finished the last chorus, but instead of ending, she just stopped singing, while she played the melody of the chorus one more time. “Pick up yuir petticoat in yuir hands, girl,” Molly ordered.

Jessie began to sing the opening verse again. As she did, Molly pushed Lylah's shoulders and said, “Go.”

` “He's Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines...”

Lylah skipped out in front of Jessie, waving her bright yellow petticoat back and forth, flashing a good bit of leg, as she did. She still felt that delicious sparkling throughout her body, and she couldn't help but smile, as nervous as she was.

The crowd broke out in a round of applause and whistles. Lylah stopped a few feet forward of where Jessie was sitting. She faced the crowd, trying to shut them out and concentrate on the feeling that made her smile, still swaying to the music and swishing her petticoats. The bright yellow of her petticoats and of her corset, all that she wore above the waist, contrasted perfectly with her creamy, dark brown flesh.

` “He'll teach the ladies how to dance,
` How to dance, how to dance...”

Flora danced out, doing a high kicking strut as she came into view. She strutted a few feet past Lylah, turned and danced back past her, almost back to the stairwell. She wore a pair of ruby red drawers – Molly had dyed them herself. She also wore a bright red uniform jacket, with gold epaulets on the shoulders. The jacket was specially tailored to show off her figure, narrow waist and pillowy breasts at their best. She held a military cap, also red, on her right hand, as she danced.

She, too, was smiling inwardly at the pleasurable memories of the bath, but all she wore under the jacket was her camisole, and her movements made the fabric of the jacket and camisole rub against her breasts, exciting her even more.

The women went through the routine Molly had taught them. They pretended to flirt. Flora kissed Lylah's hand and danced her around the stage. In turn, Lylah took Flora in her arms and led her through a series of dance moves. In the end, they joined arms and strutted off towards the enclosure. Except, just before they went behind the stairs, they stopped, turned, and blew kisses at the crowd.

Jessie finished the song, “...Tho' a Captain in the Army,” just as they disappeared back under the steps.

And the crowd went wild, shouting, shooting into the air, and throwing coins.

“I'd like to pluck either one of them blossoms!” a wag howled and the whole crowd laughed.

Molly had the pair go back out to the dance floor. She made certain to unbutton Flora's jacket before they did, so that the men could see her scarlet-dyed camisole – and a good bit of her breasts besides – when she bowed low to acknowledge their applause.

That move made the applause even louder.

* * * * *

Monday, May 6, 1872

Zach Levy faced towards the tables where the 12 jurymen sat. “Tell me, Flora, how did you find out that Dell Cooper had robbed Mr. Slocum's payroll?” Flora was seated behind the lawyer in the witness chair, which was positioned next to the Judge's table.

“He-He boasted about it to... Ly... lah and me the next day.”

“And how did you react?”

“I-I got mad, and I t-told him to give me-me the money.”

“Why did you get mad?”

“It was-wasn't wh-why we came t-to Eerie. He m-might've r-r-ruined my plans.”

Zach raised a curious eyebrow. “Plans, what were those plans?”

“Slocum sent f-for... somebody's War records. I... I was involved, and I wanted to... know what he was looking for – and why.”

“Did he tell you any of that?”

“No,” Flora shook her head. “He wouldn't tell me a damned thing.”

“So you robbed him?” It was a question, not a statement.

“No... No! Dell robbed him, and I chewed Dell out for doing it.”

“Why'd he do it, then?”

“He hated Carl Osbourne. When he stole that money, he made it look like Osbourne helped him. That's why Dell stole it, to get Osbourne in trouble.”

“And you had nothing to do with it?”

“I didn't even know he did it, till he told me.”

“Thank you, Flora,” Zach said. “I have no more questions.” He walked over to the table where Lylah was sitting and took his own seat.

Milt Quinlan was at the next table. He rose and walked towards Flora. “I do have some questions.” He paused a beat. “Flora, if you thought that Dell Cooper was wrong to rob Abner Slocum, then why didn't you turn him – and the money – over to the sheriff?”

“I-I meant t-to, but… but…” Flora strained, fighting so hard not to answer. ‘You can do this,’ she told herself. ‘You can lie.’

Milt stepped in front of Flora and leaned down, so he was looking her directly in the eye. “Is that the truth, what you’re trying so hard to tell us – or to not tell us, Flora? You swore to tell the truth here today, and I heard Shamus order you to answer the questions truthfully. So, I'll ask you again. What are you trying to tell these men...” He gestured towards the jury. “...is it 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth', as you are now under oath to tell?”

Zach jumped to his feet. “Objection, Your Honor. My client is being forced to incriminate herself under the compulsion of that potion of O'Toole's.”

“Overruled. She's already admitted that she had the money. Milt's question wasn't if she kept it, but why she kept it. Answer the question, Flora. Were you telling the truth?”

“Y-Y-Yes.” Flora trembled as she fought the voice in her head. “N-No.” She sank back in her chair. “I... kept the m-money be-because I wanted to keep it.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“I... I hated Slocum for not t-telling me what he wanted with those... records. He cr-crossed me, so why... why shouldn't he pay?”

Milt smiled. “Perhaps because it was wrong to take his money – whomever committed the original robbery. No further questions, Your Honor.” He sat back down.

Zach called Lylah to testify. “I was there when Dell told Mr. – told Flora, but I never seen it,” she replied to his question. “Dell brought out the bag he had that money in and give it t'Flora. Sh-She told us t'go down for breakfast and took the bag back into her room.”

“Why didn't you go to the sheriff?” Milt asked.

“'Cause Flora told me not to. I worked for her, didn't I?” When Milt pressed her, she admitted that, “Flora told me that the only way I'd get any of that money was if I kept my mouth shut.” She shrugged. “So I did.”

She was the last witness. All that was left was each attorney's final summation to the jury.

Zach argued that Flora had been right to be concerned about being implicated in the robbery. Dell Cooper had been the thief. Since he was dead, Flora and Lylah were only accomplices after the fact and didn't merit any serious punishment.

Milt said that keeping the money, especially after Cooper was dead, was a crime by itself.

The jury went upstairs to deliberate.

“You find out anything about who else took that potion?” Flora asked Zach, while they sat, waiting for the verdict.

He shook his head. “I'm afraid not. I was too busy working on your case to worry about anything else. I'll see what I can find out when I go back over to the Lone Star.”

Flora frowned. “Humph! That thin case you just made for us shouldn't have taken that much preparation time. I just hope we're still here when you've got something to tell us,” Flora retorted. “Lord only knows what they'll do to us this time.”

Zach shook his head. “It seemed like a risk. I wanted to keep a low profile until this trial was behind us. There are a lot of secrets in this town, and asking questions – questions that someone might not want asked – could stir somebody up. And that 'somebody' might be in this courtroom.”

A voice called out, “They's coming down.” Everyone looked up to see the jury descending the steps.

“They're guilty, Judge,” Joel Keenan, the foreman, announced, once the members of the jury had taken their seats. “They should've turned the money in.”

Flora cast a sour glance at Zach; Lylah just sank dejectedly into her chair.

The Judge nodded at the head juror, as if agreeing. “Is the whole jury in accord with the verdict?” he asked the other eleven men. They all muttered agreement or nodded. “Very well, will the defendants please stand?” Both women – and Zach – stood up. “You have both been found guilty of being accessories after the fact to armed robbery. Lylah Saunders, I sentence you to serve an additional two weeks here at the Eerie Special Offenders Penitentiary – that's this saloon.”

“That ain't too bad – I guess,” she whispered under her breath. She started to sit, but Zach told her not to.

Humphreys turned his attention to Flora. “Flora Stafford, your crime was worse than Miss Saunders. You were the one who decided to keep the money after you found out that Cooper stole it. I sentence you to an extra thirty days as Shamus and Molly's prisoner.” He pounded his gavel on the tabletop.

“Wait a minute,” Flora yelled. “That's two weeks longer than Lylah got.”

The Judge smiled. “Two weeks and two days longer; you really should have given the money back, Flora.” He used his gavel again. “Court adjourned.”

* * * * *

Tom Carson walked purposefully into Doc Upshaw's office. “Is the doctor around, Mrs. Lonnigan?”

“He's with a patient just now, Mr. Carson,” she told him. “Is something wrong?”

Carson shook his head. “No, this telegram just came for him from a Doctor Vogel in Philadelphia.” He held up an envelope. “The doc asked us to watch for it, so I brought it over as soon as I got it.” He handed her the envelope.

“Thank you very much,” she told him. “The doctor's been waiting anxiously for this. I'll give it to him as soon as he's free.”

The man bowed his head for a moment. “Glad to have been of help.” He turned and headed back to the telegraph office.

* * * * *

Sam Duggan watched Zach Levy walk back into his saloon. “How'd your trial go?” he said by way of a greeting.

“Not as well as I hoped, not as bad as I feared, as my papa used to say.” Zach took a seat at the bar. “Can I have a beer, please?”

“Of course, you can. That's what it's there for.” The barman poured one for the young lawyer.

Zach drank some. “Ahh,” he said with a sigh of relief. “I needed that.” He studied the other man's face. “Can I ask you a question, Sam?”

“If it ain't too personal, you can.”

“I don't think this is. That potion Mr. O'Toole gave to my clients, has he ever given it to anybody else?”

“Sure he has, a lotta people.”

“Who... How many, and what happened to them?”

Sam thought for a moment. “First time he ever used it was last summer when the Hanks Gang came into town t'kill the sheriff. They all got a dose.”

“What happened to them after that?”

“They all got changed into women and had to work for O'Toole for a couple months. Some of them still do. Jessie Hanks, she sings for him, and that Mex, Maggie... de Aguilar, runs his restaurant. And Bridget Kelly – the gal that runs... that ran the poker game – she was part of the gang, too.”

Zach blinked with surprise. “They were all men? That's amazing. What happened to the other two?”

“One of 'em, Laura Caulder, she works part time for Shamus, too. She got married and, from what I hear, she's in a family way. Will Hanks, the leader, she's Wilma Hanks, now. He – she – got two doses, and that second dose done something to her head. It done something to her pussy, too.” He smiled at the thought. “She works over at La Parisienne.”

“The... brothel.” Zach's eyes widened in surprise. “But you said 'the first time.' How many times has he used it since then?”

“Three times. Some prospectors ran off with Laura and Jessie, the two from the Hanks Gang, last summer, while they was still working for O'Toole. Jessie killed hers and rode off. The deputy had t'track her down and bring her back.” Duggan chuckled. “Not that she minded. They've been real close since she come back. “

“They caught the other prospector and brought him back for trial. He was offered either time in prison or the potion. He took some of that brew and changed into Laura's double, Jane Steinmetz. She works for Shamus, too, mostly as a cook in his restaurant.”

The attorney grimaced. He had seen this Jane, too.

“The next time was late fall. Some kids was playing over by the freight depot, and one of 'em got hurt real bad. Shamus thought the potion could fix the boy's broken parts, but the kid refused to drink the potion and become a girl. His pa pretended that they would both drink, but he messed up on the pretend part somehow. The boy and his papa both wound up drinking the potion. It saved the kid's life, but they both got changed. It broke up the marriage between the papa and his wife. Ain't nobody knows what's gonna happen to them.”

“Last time was a Mex kid. He drank some by accident a couple months back. His – Her mama runs a laundry, and she's been helping out with that.”

“Unbelievable.” Zach finished his beer and pushed the glass towards the barman for a refill.

Sam filled the glass and handed it back. “It's true, every word. Ask anybody you want.”

“Maybe I will. Tell me, has anybody who's ever taken it changed back?”

Sam shook his head. “I only wish they had. As they are, they're some powerful competition. I had to bring in these dancers to get my customers back. But now he's got your clients dancing over at his place, and the tug of war goes on. Anyway, the talk is that there's no way to change back from that dose.”

Zach decided to confirm his information by asking to ask a couple of the others at the bar, men who hadn't heard his conversation with Sam, and, maybe later, he’d talk to Milt Quinlan. If it were true, he'd tell Flora what he'd found out in the morning. He wondered what the information that there was no way back to her old life would affect her. Right now, though, he wanted to think about the enormity of what he'd just heard.

What sort of town had he chosen to practice Law in?

* * * * *

Cap walked over to the table where Bridget was eating lunch. He set down a bowl of Maggie's spicy chili, a slice or corn bread, and a beer. “I see your class is back in session.” He pulled out a chair and sat down.

“Class?” She looked puzzled.

He smiled. “Yep, where you teach the other players how the laws of chance really work.”

“I-I'm just the dealer; I don't feel... ready to actually play poker.” She sighed and looked down at her food.

He gently put his hand on hers. “You'll be ready to go back in... in no time. I'm certain of it.”

She looked up again. “Thank you. Speaking of certainty, how's your uncle doing?”

“A little better; he can't even feel his left arm, let alone move it, but he's got full use of his right arm, his right hand, too. He just needs to exercise it more.”

She had an idea. “Give him a deck of cards. He can play solitaire. Better yet, teach him that Maverick solitaire that I taught you. It's a lot more of a challenge than regular solitaire.”

“I may just do that. He loves poker. Thanks.” He thought for a moment. “Speaking of challenges, if you don't mind my asking, how are you and... Flora getting on?”

“Mostly, we haven't been together that much. She's still mad – and embarrassed – about being a woman.” She gave him a nasty smile. “Not that she doesn't deserve it, or worse. I'd love to figure out some way to slip her a second dose of potion.”

“Bridget!”

“Why not, after what she did to me? Wouldn't it be justice for her to become a man-crazy bitch, spreading her legs for – “

“I... I don't think I ever heard you talk like that.” He was amazed at her vehemence.

“Cap, you heard what I told your uncle about Adobe Wells. Forry Stafford almost got me, Will, and a bunch of good men killed by his drunken cowardice. Then he got Will and me labeled cowards and thieves. The Army could've hung us, and he wouldn't have cared. Now... Now, he shows up here, probably to find out about me. He almost killed your uncle, and he-he... he raped me, Cap. He raped me, and he... laughed about it.” Tears glistened in her eyes, even as her face contorted with hate. “I want her to hurt! I want her to hurt a lot more than she's hurting now!”

He slipped into the empty chair next to her. He tried to pull her up and into his arms, but she trembled and moved away. He settled for holding her hand and using a napkin to wipe her eyes. “I understand what you're saying, but when you say it that way, it doesn't sound like the Bridget I know talking.”

“I mean what I say, but Shamus would never stand for it. Besides, he's got the potion under lock and key.” Bridget sensed uneasiness in Cap and suddenly realized that she had to reassure him. She rested her head on his shoulder. It felt so good to be near him, even if this was as far as she was able to go, just now. Someday... She smiled in anticipation.

“So what are you going to do about her?” Cap finally asked. “The two of you will be at close quarters for another two... three months.”

“If I can't turn her into a slut,” she answered, feeling better for his concern, “I'll just have to do my best to find other ways to make her life here a living hell.”

Cap had to laugh at that. “And you're just the one to do it.” She laughed, too, and for just a minute it seemed that the old Bridget was back. But, somehow, he knew that the sweetest part of her laughter was her imagining Flora as an abused whore.

* * * * *

Jessie was practicing a new tune on her guitar, when she looked up to see... “Hey, Milt. You come t'see the new show?”

“Good evening, Jessie,” he replied. “I may stay for the show, but the reason I came was to get that music from you. You said that it'd be ready tonight.”

She reached into her guitar case and pulled out a sheet of paper. “And it is.” She handed it to him. “Can you read my writing?”

“I think so.” He studied the sheet for a moment. “Jane, Jane, ya da-da-da,” he sang a bit more in a strong baritone, a better voice than Jessie had expected. “Yes, I can read it.” He folded the paper and put it in his jacket pocket.

“Good. You just make sure you learn it by Friday, okay.”

“Very okay, and thank you, thank you very much.”

“If them words work and you 'n' Jane get back together – then you can thank me.”

* * * * *

Clyde Ritter walked slowly down the main street of Eerie. He stopped and pulled out his pocket watch. Since it was dark, he moved in closer to the nearest storefront window, using the light from inside. “Almost 8,” he said, looking around to see if anyone was watching.

“I think I'll just stop in for a quick beer,” he announced in a clear voice. “Seeing as I'm right here.”

Satisfied that he'd explained his presence, he strode through the swinging doors and into the Eerie Saloon. The room was full, and he carefully inched his way along the back of the crowd.

“Howdy, folks,” a cheery female voice called out from the other side of the room. “I'm Jessie Hanks – as most of you know – and with me, here by very popular demand...” She stopped as the crowd erupted in laughter. “...are O'Toole's Cactus Blossoms.”

Jessie began to sing. The crowd went silent. Ritter leaned back against a chair and listened. Jessie was sitting, so he really couldn't see her over the crowd. He could see Lylah, short as she was, when she danced out, but he'd never been interested in darkies, no matter how pretty they were.

“Whoa, darling!” He broke into a hearty smile when Flora strutted across the stage. “Veerry nice!” He moved in closer, and his hungry eyes tracked her as she danced. He almost drooled when she bowed low at the end.

He tried to talk to her afterwards, but too many other men had the same idea and he didn't feel like fighting through the crowd like a hungry dog. “I'll be back,” he promised himself, as he finally left, hurrying to get home before Cecelia came back from that damned all-hen card party she went to every Monday night.

* * * * *

Tuesday, May 7, 1872

` Virtue Triumphs

` This paper has learned that the Eerie Town Council,
` which doubles as our local school board, intends to
` restore Nancy Osbourne to her role as teacher at its
` meeting tomorrow evening.

` The members of the town council questioned Miss
` Osbourne at length last Friday night. “She answered
` everything we asked about, completely and truthfully,”
` one council member told this paper. After listening to
` her answers, the council apparently holds her to be
` blameless in the matters of her behavior, which had
` previously been in dispute. When asked what her
` explanation of these issues had been, the council
` member told your reporter that it was a private matter,
` and he did not wish to embarrass Miss Osbourne by
` making those facts public.

` The council intends to formally remove Miss Osbourne
` from suspension at the meeting. To ease her transition
` back into the role of teacher, she will allow Mrs.
` Phillipia Stone, who has been serving in her stead,
` to finish the week.

` Speaking for the citizens of Eerie, this paper thanks Mrs.
` Stone for her exemplary, if temporary, service, and it
` welcomes Miss Osbourne back to the position she has
` filled so well for almost six years. We also congratulate
` the members of the Eerie City Council for their sound
` judgment and for not yielding further to the mob
` mentality that forced them to needlessly suspend
` Miss Osbourne in the first place.

* * * * *

Shamus led Flora out of the kitchen and over to the table where Zach Levy was waiting for her. “Here she is,” he told the lawyer. “I'll be leaving so ye can have the privacy ye wanted; just don't be taking too long.”

“We won't,” Zach answered, “and thank you.”

The barman nodded, “Ye're welcome.” He turned to Flora who was standing by the table, wiping her damp hands on her apron. “As for ye, Miss Stafford, ye're t'be heading back to finish the dishes as soon as the two of ye are done here. Understand?”

“I-I do.” She sat down and waited for him to leave before she spoke. “What are you doing here, Levy?”

He frowned. “Mr. Levy, thank you, and, please, sit down.”

“Very well, Mr. Levy.” She took a chair across from him. “You still haven't answered my question.”

“Actually, I came here today to answer your questions. I know who else took O'Toole's potion.”

“Who... How many?”

“Nine in all, most of them were members of the Hanks Gang that supposedly were killed in ambush here in Eerie last summer.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. “Will Hanks, his gang?” She spoke the words as a question.

“The same; he rode in with four other men: his brother, Jesse; his old friend, Brian Kelly; and two new men. Sheriff Talbot tricked them all into drinking some of the potion, and they spent two months right here as Shamus' prisoners, just the same as you and Lylah.”

“Are you sure about this?”

“I am. I've spoken to four different people, and they all told me the exact same thing. Most of the gang still works here in one way or another. Jessie Hanks sings. That's Kelly over there...” He pointed at Bridget, who was dealing cards to three men at her usual table.

Flora frowned. “Bridget Kelly… Brian Kelly?”

“That's right. She goes by Bridget now. Jesse Hanks goes by Jessie, with an 'i-e' now. One of the other men was a Mexican. She's now Maggie de Aguilar, the woman who runs the restaurant. It'll be her dishes you're cleaning when we finish. The last one is now known as Laura Caulder.”

“Laura? But she's... she's the waitress who’s pregnant. How the hell did that happen?”

“In the usual way; she got married last fall, not too long after her sentence was up.”

“Unbelievable. What happened to Will Hanks?”

“That's maybe the strangest part of the whole story. She – she goes by the name Wilma, these days – she got hold of a second dose of that potion. She thought it'd change her back. Instead, it made her... man-crazy. She works over at La Parisienne, that whorehouse I know you went to... before.”

Flora let out a raucous laugh. “Will... Will Hanks is a... a whore.” She shook her head. “If that isn't – “

“Do you want to hear about the others?”

She wiped a tear of laughter from her eyes. “I... I suppose.”

“Jane... Maggie de Aguilar's helper, she was a prospector who kidnapped Laura Caulder. When they gave him the potion, he turned into Laura's twin.”

“Why?”

“That's what the potion does; it turns a man into the double of the prettiest woman he'd ever seen. For the man Jane was, that woman was Laura.”

An odd expression came to the blonde's face. “That explains something I've been wondering about.” Flora decided to consider that particular piece of information later. “What else do you have?”

“There are two other cases. A boy got hurt. He was dying, and they gave him the potion. It healed him, but it changed him, as well. Her father took the potion at the same time – unintentionally, I’d guess – and was changed, as well. The last case was a Mexican boy who drank the potion by accident. Nobody's quite sure what he thought he was doing.”

He took a breath. “Is there anything else you need me for?”

“What do you suggest?” she asked suspiciously.

Zach shrugged. “I don't know. I'm not completely certain why you needed to know who else had been dosed with Shamus' brew. I can do better work for a client if I know why I'm doing it.”

Flora looked exasperated. “Because if I knew that there was somebody who got changed back,” she explained very carefully, “I'd want to change back the same way, no matter who I had to pay off. Is there anybody who actually turned back?”

Zach shook his head. “Everybody says that the change is forever. I've been hoping that the news won't upset you...too much.”

The determined look that came to her face surprised him. “What you're saying then, is that Forry Stafford is dead. Well, rest in peace, Forry,” she said scornfully and then looked away, lost in thought. Zach was about ready to excuse himself, when she said, “Back in the old days, they killed a few of the king's enemies to pile on his grave, so even in death he'd be a conqueror. I reckon that there are a few people right around here that I ought to take down with me.”

The lawyer grimaced. “That is not a subject which I can ethically discuss with you.”

Flora tossed her head. “Just my luck to have an ethical lawyer!”

Zach shrugged. “Is here anything else you want me to find out for you?”

“I'll think about that. I'm going to have to do a lot of thinking. At least, I have nothing to lose now. You're staying on as my lawyer, right? Even if you are too ethical for your own good?”

“Call on me anytime,” he replied evenly.

“I will. In my own good time.”

As soon as she said the words, the voice in her head started urging her back to the kitchen. She stood up. “Thanks, but I have to be going.”

Without another word, she started walking back towards the kitchen. Doing dishes was mindless work. It'd give her plenty of time to plan what she was going to do with the information she had just gotten.

* * * * *

Wilma was reading The Sporting Times, when Beatriz came into the parlor. “Can I talk to you, Wilma?”

“Seems t’me, we ain’t got anything t’talk about.” Wilma glared at Beatriz for a moment, but then went back to her paper.

Beatriz sat down beside her rival. “Sì, we do… Ethan.”

Go away!”

“No, I will not. Wilma… to me, Ethan, he was just someone who was muy good in bed.

Wilma sighed. “He surely was that.” In spite of herself, her body warmed at the memory.

“But he was more – much more -- than that to you. I can see that in the way you have acted since he left.” She gently put her hand on Wilma’s arm. “And I am sorry.”

“What d’you got t’be sorry about?” Wilma snapped. “You… He was with you that last night.”

“Sì, but he wanted to be with us, the two of us. He thought no more of you than he did of me. We were just two putas here to pleasure him.”

“What’re you saying?”

“I am saying that, whatever deep feelings you had for him, he had none for you. You were just another woman to fuck, as far as he cared. That last night, after your sister – well, you know what she did – he told me that he worked so hard to seduce you for the ‘sport of it’; his words, exactly.”

“The sport of it?”

“That is what he said.” She paused. “Sport, not love; you were a challenge to him, a trophy to be won.”

“No…” She felt the burning of tears forming in her eyes.. “He… He said –”

“Wilma, Ethan could paint with words almost as good as he could with a brush.”

“He couldn’t have been like that… could he?”

“He was. You should remember his skill, how he made your body feel. The rest of it – to him, at least – it was just… foreplay, nothing more.”

“He was good at that,” she said wryly and looked suspiciously at Beatriz. “Why’re you being so kind ‘n’ telling me all this? You don’t like me any more’n I like you.”

“That is true. I see you as my rival; I admit that. But, as much as I dislike you, I dislike what he did to you even more.”

“I didn't care for it much, myself.”

Beatriz smiled, but then became serious. “You have always tried to be so hard, Wilma, harder than anyone else in this house. I did not know, before this, but you are not hard everywhere, not where a woman most needs to be hard. Make yourself hard in that special place, and no man can ever hurt you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have a tender heart. It can be broken. You will not be happy doing the.… work that we do until you fix it.”

* * * * *

Cecelia Ritter looked at the crowd of women gathered in her parlor. “Well, ladies, I assume you've all seen today's newspaper, especially that item about Nancy Osbourne.”

“Disgraceful,” Zenobia Carson replied, as if on cue.

Hilda Scudder looked up from her knitting – she was pregnant again. “But what can we do? The paper said that the school board had already decided to reinstate her.”

“Then we get them to un-decide,” Lavinia Mackechnie told her.

Grace MacLeod raised her hand. “Maybe we should hear Miss Osbourne out? There may be – “

“Lies,” Zenobia interrupted, “that's all you'll hear from the high-and-mighty Miss Nancy Osbourne. Besides, I know what I saw on my front porch.”

“Just as I know what I saw in O'Toole's place,” Lavinia added. “And we all know the sort of woman who works in a saloon, don't we?”

Cecelia made a sort of snorting noise. “Not the sort of woman I want teaching my children.” The other women nodded and murmured in agreement.

“And we can't let the town council put her back in place as teacher,” Cecelia continued. “Make sure that you all come to the meeting tomorrow, and bring as many others as you can. Be prepared to shout the council down, if need be, to make them see things our way.”

Lavinia nodded. “Yes, after all, we elected them. They have to do what we tell them.”

“But is it proper for us women to make such a fuss?” Grace asked. “After all – “

“After all what?” Cecelia cut in. “Reverend Yingling says that he supports us regarding Nancy Osbourne, and, surely, a man of G-d such as he can't be wrong.” She stared angrily at the other woman. “Can he?”

Grace looked down at the rug, unable to meet Cecelia's eyes. “N-No, of course not.”

* * * * *

Bridget was dealing cards for a two-man game between Stu Gallagher and Hans Euler. They'd just finished a hand and had stopped to order drinks from Flora, buying one for Bridget as well.

Flora came back a few minutes later, setting down a tray with the three beers on the table. She handed one to Gallagher and the second to Euler. She seemed to hesitate before she handed the last to Bridget. “I wasn't sure if you really wanted this beer, Bridget.”

The pretty redhead looked up at her warily. “Why wouldn't I want it?”

“I know firsthand about some of the drinks you've had in here, especially that one you and your four friends had last summer.”

Bridget sprang to her feet. “What!”

“Hell, Brian. If I'd known it was you, I would have enjoyed what we did together last month twice as much.” Flora grinned nastily at the redhead.

Bridget's face glowed a bright red. She looked daggers at the other woman. “Like hell!” she yelled and slapped Flora's face so hard that the woman staggered back from the force of the blow.

“How dare you? I-I'll... I'll...” Flora started forward. Her hands balled into fists. She was ready to fight, but that voice – the damned voice – in her head wouldn't let her. She trembled trying to gain control, but it was no good. The voice was just too strong.

Bridget watched the blonde struggling with herself. “When you're ready, waitress, you can take that tray back to the bar.” She took her seat, a satisfied grin on her face. She heard Flora's sigh of defeat, watched her pick up the tray and slowly walk away, her body seething with anger.

“Shall we resume the game?” Bridget asked innocently.

“What was all that about?” Stu Gallagher asked, picking up his cards.

She was still smiling over her victory. “Just putting that bit of baggage in her proper place.”

* * * * *

“So what do I do now?” Abner Slocum asked, looking down at the cards spread out on a tray in front of him. He was in his bed in Doctor Upshaw's ward. The top end of the bed was raised, allowing him to almost sit up without too much strain on his back.

Cap pointed at the cards. “You try to arrange them into five of what Bridget calls 'fighting hands', that's two pair or better in each hand.”

“All right.” Slocum slowly reached for the ten of clubs with his right hand. “Let's try – “

Doc Upshaw walked into the room. “Excuse me, gentlemen, but this arrived yesterday.” He pulled a telegram from a folder with Abner’s name on it. “It's from Walther Vogel, that doctor in Philadelphia that I told you about.” He paused a half a beat. “I wanted to look it over – to be sure of what he was saying – before I talked to you about it.”

“What does he say?” Abner demanded.

The physician opened the folder and read. “That he’s sending me a long letter with full details – and instructions on palliative care. Palliative means treatment that won’t cure but will help relieve some of your discomfort.”

Slocum frowned. “In the meantime, what does he say in that telegram?”

“He agrees with my diagnosis. That is, paraplegia – paralysis – on the left side of your body and incomplete paraplegia on the right, since you have some use of your right arm and right hand. The reason is that the bullet or the fall from your horse – maybe both – did serious damage to the nerves in your spinal cord. They may be permanently damaged, or the damage may just be due to the swelling that's occurred from the initial injury. But he also says, he can't be sure from the information I sent him.”

“What does he need to be sure?” Slocum asked quickly.

Cap added, “And can he do anything about it?”

“He wants you to come to Philly. He won't promise a cure, which is good – “

Cap frowned. “Why is it good?”

“It means that he knows his stuff,” the doctor answered. “A quack would promise, maybe even guarantee a cure.” He looked at his patient. “Abner, he's asking you to make a long and, quite likely, a very painful trip with only the possibility that you'll be the better for it. I know how much you want to be your old self, but I want you to give the matter careful consideration.”

“And if I don't go? I'll stay as I am, right?”

“I believe so. And there is even the possibility that your condition will deteriorate. I’ll know more when his letter comes. It should also say something about how to get you to Philadelphia – if you decide to go.”

Slocum sighed. “I'll give that matter some very serious thought, Hiram, and thank you.”

“We'll talk later.” He went to the door, and then paused. “I didn't mean to sound too pessimistic. Even if we can't cure you, things might not be as bad as they seem now. I might even be able to do you some good with Vogel consulting at long distance.”

“I have no doubt that you will do all you can, and I do want to consider what you've said. Right now...” the rancher winked at his nephew. “...I'm trying to learn this new version of solitaire poker that Cap's been talking about. It'll give me something to do while I'm thinking about Vogel and the trip he wants me to take.”

* * * * *

Jessie was leafing through a songbook when Jane came over to her.

“Jessie,” Jane asked impatiently, “what're you and Milt up to?”

The singer looked up. “What're you going on about, Jane? We ain't up to nothing.”

“The hell you ain't. I seen the two of you talking about something yesterday. You gave him some kinda paper t'look at. He read it, and then stuck it in his pocket. You talked a while longer and then he headed off.”

“Oh... aahh, that. It wasn't nothing important.”

“Maybe it ain't... or maybe it is. I just wanna know what it is you was talking about.”

“A song – yeah, that's it, a song I wrote.”

“You writing songs again, Jessie Hanks? And if you are, what does that have t'do with Milt this time?”

“Folks get tired o'hearing the same songs all the time, so I decided to write me a new one. I got an idea, but when I wrote it out...” She gave her friend a pretty pout. “... it was more something a man'd sing.”

“A man like Milt, you mean?” She shook her head. “You ain't never gonna get him t'stand up in front of a crowd o'people 'n' sing. There's just no way.”

“Turns out there is a way. He owes me a favor... sorta, for something I done for him a... a while back. I told him that singing my song – just this one time – would make us even.”

“Milt Quinlan standing up in front of a room fulla people and singing; now that's something I wanna see.”

“Then you come t'my 9 o'clock show Friday night, and you'll see it – and hear it. Hell's bells, you might even like what you see 'n' hear.”

Jane thought about what Jessie said. “I'll be there. It'll be fun t'see him embarrassing himself.”

* * * * *

Wednesday, May 8, 1872

“Well, Doc,” Laura asked, as she buttoned up her nightgown. “What's the verdict? Is the baby okay, and how soon can I get back to work?”

“The baby seems to be doing well,” Doc Upshaw replied. “It's still moving, and its heartbeat is strong and regular.” He took a breath. “But you still seem to be a bit weak.”

Laura gave him a wan smile and gently put her hand on her belly. “Junior's moving is keeping me awake nights; that's all. I'm fine.”

“No, I... I think there's more to it than an overactive fetus. Sleepy isn't the same as dizzy, and you told me that you've had several bad dizzy spells this past week, times when you were too lightheaded or wobbly to get out of bed or walk around without Arsenio's help.”

Arsenio was standing near Laura. He stepped closer and took her hand. “Is it... serious?”

“I can't be sure,” the physician answered. “For now, I think it'd just be better for her to stay in bed a while longer.”

Laura looked almost angry. “For how long?”

“I can't say.” Upshaw answered. “I'll be back to check you again in a week.”

Molly was also in the room. “And me 'n' Jane'll be over here every day t'keep ye company.”

“Thanks, but, Doc, even if I don't go back to work, can I go over to visit everybody at the Saloon?” Laura asked in a sad voice. “I'm getting so tired of looking at these same four walls.”

Molly folded her arms in front of here. “Laura, if ye so much as set one foot in me saloon before the Doc here tells me ye can, I'll throw ye over me shoulder and carry ye back here meself.”

“No, you won't,” Arsenio said in a firm tone. “I'll carry her back here for you. And I'll tie her to the bed when we get here.”

* * * * *

Flora knocked lightly on the door to Jessie's room. “Anybody in there?” When there was no answer, she opened the door and stepped quickly inside. She closed the door behind her and leaned back against it, while she glanced around the room.

“Nice,” she decided after a few moments. “Damned nicer than mine.” She blamed herself for having assumed that the singer's name was nothing but a coincidence, and had nothing to do with Jesse Hanks, the lawless brat who had run off at the age of 16. Now she understood why the singer had seemed to have it in for her from the first moment they'd met.

A window on the far wall brightly lighted the room. A closed book, Songs of the Ozark Hills , sat on a writing desk near the window with two or three scraps of paper sticking out to mark pages. The bed, a four-poster with a green cloth canopy, filled much of the right side of the room. The blanket was thrown back and the sheets mussed. “Goody,” Flora said with disgust, “I get to make that bed; probably need to change the sheets, too.”

A long, metal clothes rack was set against the right wall of the room, filled mostly with hangers holding dresses, blouses, and skirts; except for one with a man's shirt thrown over it and with a pair of men's pants draped down. 'That deputy of hers, no doubt,' she thought.

There hadn't been much that she would have put past the young Jesse Hanks, whom she had known back in Texas, but to find out that he was a she now and was crazy for a man came as a real surprise. Jesse had gotten in all kinds of trouble: fights, stealing, and mouthing off to his betters – the Staffords – but no one ever said that he was a nancy boy. She sneered. It could be that folks had been giving the Hanks kid too much credit. “Maybe she'll get pregnant,” Flora muttered. “I'd love to give her the horselaugh about that.”

She continued to prowl the room. “Well, I'll be a...” Her voice faded off as she stared at a small shelf set in the wall near the rack. A tiny, carved wooden figure, a toy soldier, stood alone on it. “I thought I burned all of these up years ago.” She walked around the room and picked up the figure, turning it slowly between her fingers. Then, with a hearty laugh, she hid it in her apron pocket. “If it means enough for her to keep it, she deserves to lose it. It's mine anyway.”

Buoyed up by a sense of accomplishment, she began sweeping the floor with the straw broom she'd brought with her.

* * * * *

Edith Lonnigan peeked into Doctor Upshaw's ward. Her patient's bed was raised so that he was sitting up, reading yesterday's newspaper. “Are you up to some visitors, Mr. Slocum?”

“I surely am.” Abner pushed back the metal stand that the paper was set on. “Who is it?”

Cap walked in. “Just us, Uncle.”

“How you doing, Mr. Slocum?” Red Tully asked, following Cap into the room. “Mr. Lewis lemme ride into town with him.”

The older man smiled. “Well, I'm glad to see you both. Can you stay long?”

“Not too long, I'm afraid,” Cap replied. “We came in for some supplies from Styron's. We have to get back to the ranch before dark, so we need to leave fairly soon if we're going to get everything done.”

“I'm glad you're here for however long you can stay,” the older man told them. “And, to answer your question, there's no change – at least, none that I've noticed, except that I don't hurt quite as bad.”

Cap studied his uncle's face. “I'm glad that the pain's getting weaker.”

“Yeah,” Red added. “Maybe that's a sign that you are getting better.”

Slocum sighed. “If I am, I haven't noticed it yet.” He paused a half-beat. “Anything happening out at the Triple A, I should know about?”

“Same old same old,” Cap replied. “We're getting ready for that cattle drive up to Fort Grant next week. I'm going to head up the drive, and let Luke stay at the ranch.”

“That's probably for the best,” Abner said, considering the idea. “There's a lot of people who wouldn't want to deal with a negro. I don't like it, but that's the way of the world.”

Cap nodded. “Luke's a good man and a good foreman.” He studied his uncle's face. “Uncle Abner, did you give any more thought to... what the Doc talked about yesterday?”

“I did, and I've decided. I'm going head out to see that specialist in Philadelphia as soon as Hiram says I can travel – which won't be for a while, one or two weeks, from what I understand, maybe more. But we're going to have to find a nurse – or someone – to travel with me. I'm hardly capable of managing matters for myself.” He said the last with no little degree of discomfort.

His nephew nodded. “That's true. The trip'll take, what, two or three weeks, counting the time to get up to Utah to catch a train? You'll need somebody to take care of...” He stopped for a moment, not wishing to embarrass his uncle.

“Tickets, and getting you something t'eat, and all them other things that need taking care of on a trip that long.” Red surprised both of the other men by speaking.

Abner gave his man a wry smile. “You sound like you're volunteering for the job, Red.”

“Why not?” he said with a grin. “If you can't get nobody better. I got my army training, and, truth be known, Mr. Slocum, keeping you company on a trip to back East sounds a hell of a lot easier than my chores at the ranch.”

* * * * *

Shamus glanced over at Molly. She was humming and moving her fingers in intricate patterns along the top of the bar. “And what is it ye're up to, Love?”

“I'm working out a new dance for Flora and Lylah t'be learning?”

“What's the matter with the old one? I surely ain't heard nobody complaining about it, and the crowd last night was even bigger than the night before.”

Molly raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Do ye want t'be waiting 'till that crowd does complain before I start working on something new for the ladies t'be doing?”

“No, no, Love, I don't.” He chuckled. “Ye're right, the same as always. Ye figure out that new dance, and we'll have them two doing it soon as ye can teach it to 'em.”

She smiled. “I think this has turned out to be a good idea. It would be smart t'be investing in some real dancehall clothes for the girls. And remember how we talked about expanding the line? Sam has four girls; if we had four, having Jessie to help the show, the Lone Star won't be able to compete.”

“Until he finds a singer of his own.” Shamus smiled. “It'll cost him more than Jessie costs us, to uproot a lassie worth her salt and get her to come out here. Love, where does a person buy dancehall outfits? San Francisco? Or find more girls for that matter? It might be a long time before any more prisoners are sentenced.”

“I'll be asking Rachel Silverman about getting costumes. And I'll be putting out a posting for a girl or two. I don't have too much hope that any of our local women would be interested, but who knows?”

“Yuir just the person to do the job, me Darling,” he said and kissed her.

She kissed him back. “Thank ye, Love. I'll see if we can't have something ready t'be showing ye by next week.”

* * * * *

“We have two items of Old Business on the agenda tonight,” Whit Whitney said, looking down at his notes. “Since it'll probably take a lot less time, why don't we settle the matter of Nancy Osbourne first?”

Cecelia Ritter jumped to her feet. “It should take no time at all,” she shouted. “Fire her!”

“First of all, Mrs. Ritter, we haven't asked for comments, yet, and, even if we had, you weren't recognized.”

The woman scowled. “What's the matter, are you afraid to hear what I – what we – have to say?”

“Let her speak,” Lavinia Mackechnie called out, and several other women took up the chant.

Whit raised his hands. “Ladies, please, a little decorum; you'll have your chance to speak”

“When?” Cecelia asked in a loud voice. “After you reinstate that wanton woman? After you turn her loose to corrupt our poor innocent – “

Now Aaron Silverman interrupted. “And just what makes her a... what you say she is, Mrs. Ritter? Did you talk to her? Did you, maybe, ask for her side of things?”

“Why should I listened to, let alone believe, anything that... woman has to say?” Cecelia answered firmly.

Aaron smiled. “You're afraid, maybe, you'll hear something you don't want to hear? We, the town council, we listened, ah-and...” He pronounced the word as if it had two syllables. “...we heard the truth in what she said. Are you afraid that you'll hear some truth, too, maybe?”

“What you heard – ha!” the woman replied sarcastically. “I'm too much of a lady to say what you three old goats heard, brazen overtures, no doubt, with a gilt-edged guarantee.”

Nancy had been sitting near the back with Lucian and Phillipia Stone. Now she jumped to her feet. “How dare you make such accusations?”

“I make them because they are true, Miss Osbourne. How dare a person like you presume to teach our children? I... we will not – we can not – allow such a travesty.”

Nancy put her hands on her hips and glared at Cecelia. “You will not allow. It seems to me that the decision of whom to hire is for the town council to make, not some pompous, self-aggrandizing fool of a woman who doesn't care to hear anything even close to the truth.”

“People like me elected the town council, and the council should only hire the sort of people that we want, that we know are of a proper moral fiber to be hired.”

Nancy walked up to the front of the room. “Is that what you people – all you people – believe? That I shouldn't be the teacher because I don't fit Cecelia Ritter's image of what a teacher should be?”

“It is,” Cecelia answered with a satisfied nod. Only a small portion of the crowd yelled in agreement, but they were loud, and no one seemed willing to shout them down.

The young woman squared her shoulder. “Gentlemen of the town council, it appears that we have all wasted our time. I refuse to put myself in a position where I am in any way answerable to Mrs. Ritter and those of her ilk. I appreciate that you had the good hearts to listen to me. You were willing to accept the reasons I gave you for my actions and to give me another chance to do what I love, to be a teacher. I consider that my vindication.”

“But I will not be judged by petty, sanctimonious people who feel – and for no good reason – that they have the right to determine how I live my life. I could easily endure the poisonous barbs for the present, as long as they ended when I am reinstated. But I know full well that the backbiting and harassment will continue, and it will continue as long as I hold my position!”

“Are you saying that you don't want your job back, Nancy?” Arsenio asked, rising to his feet. “You've done so well here for the children for such a long time. We of the council are not about to withdraw our support for you just because there are a few... malcontents in the assembly. We expected that there would be.”

She shook her head. “I'm very sorry, Arsenio... Mr. Caulder, but having people like that... woman, those people, watching me, judging me, not on how I acted, but on how they wanted to believe I acted. I will not do that. And I have been a teacher more than long enough to know that that is exactly how teachers are treated in most towns. I had thought, and thought for a long time, that my years of service and my good conduct over the span of those years would count for something, but I have seen enough now to know that they don't.”

She turned to look at her friends. “I am sorry, Phillipia, but I know that I'm leaving my students in good hands. And I wish you better luck against the forces of intolerance and ignorance than I had.” Having spoken those words, she looked daggers at Cecelia. Then, without another word, she started walking for the door.

“Good riddance,” Cecelia trumpeted her victory as Nancy started to leave.

Lucian stood up. “Gentlemen and ladies of Eerie, I give you Nancy Osbourne.” He began to clap his hands, as did Phillipia. A number of others joined in. Nancy stopped at the schoolhouse door and looked back. Her eyes glistened as she tried to count the number applauding her. It looked to be at least as many as had agreed with Mrs. Ritter.

And it did include all three members of the town council.

* * * * *

“Before we take up the next item of Old Business,” Whit began, after the room had settled down, “I'd like to remind everyone that this is a public meeting, not a shouting match. All speakers – including Aaron, Arsenio, and myself – are to be treated with respect.” He looked directly at Cecelia Ritter as he spoke, but she just glared back at him.

He glanced down at the agenda for a moment, and took a breath to brace himself. “The next item is Reverend Yingling's petition. I'd sure that many – most – of you know the details of it, but I'd like to ask the Reverend if he wouldn't mind giving us all a quick summary of what he's asking us to do?”

“I'd be happy to, Mr. Chairman.” Yingling rose slowly, a beatific smile on his face. “My petition – I should say our petition, since it has over sixty signatures – asks the town council to order Shamus O'Toole to give control over the creation and administration of his amazing potion to an advisory committee that the council would create for the aforesaid purpose.”

“Thank you, Reverend Yingling. Does anyone on the council have a question before we ask for questions from the floor?”

Aaron Silverman's hand shot up. “I got one – maybe a couple more than one.” He waited a moment before he began again. “This committee you want us to set up, is it also going to be in charge of folks after they take the potion?”

“Ah... no,” the minister replied. “No, I don't believe that it would.”

“So, nu, who does? Are you saying that Shamus O'Toole can't be trusted to give people the potion, but it's all right for him to be in charge of those same people for, what, two, maybe three months after they take it?”

“Perhaps not, but, there... there is no other place for those people to be incarcerated for so long. The town jail certainly isn't fit – “

“But O'Toole's saloon is fit, is that what you're saying?”

“Frankly... no, but it can serve until something better can be found.”

“The town ain't got the money to build 'something better.' We could rent out rooms, maybe, or... you got a spare room at your house you want we should put them in?”

“My house?” Yinging went white for a moment before he regained his composure.

Aaron just smiled. “Probably not your house, but you should think a bissle – a little -- about where we could put them if we stopped using Shamus' place, before you tell us we should stop using it.” He turned to Whit. “I think I'm done... for now. As the Sages say, asking questions is easy. The hard part is coming up with good answers.”

Whit looked at Arsenio. “Do you have anything you want to ask?” When the smith shook his head, Whit looked out at the crowd. “Anybody else have a question?”

“Lots of people,” Whit added, seeing the sea of raised hands. He pointed at one. “Father de Castro, we don't see you at these meetings very often. Why don't you go next?”

The priest stood up and faced Yingling. “Thaddeus, my friend, I've seen your petition and read – and, just now, heard – the details of it. You say that Shamus O'Toole is not moral enough to be trusted with anything as powerful as his potion.” He shrugged. “That may be, but this committee that you want created, you say that it will be moral enough. I'd like to know who will be on it to set this high level of morality – besides you, of course? I'm the only other clergyman in town, and I don't recall being asked.” The man's tone had been conversational, even friendly. Now it grew harder. “Or are you setting yourself up as the sole arbiter of morality for this community?”

“Diago!” The minister's head jerked as if he had been struck. “I didn't think you'd – “

De Castro gave him a wan smile. “No, Thaddeus, you didn't think. And you should have.” He sat back down.

“I'd like to ask the next question,” Horace Styron called out, leaping to his feet. “Reverend Yingling, you said that one of your reasons for taking – for having someone else take charge of the potion was because of all the unfortunate accidents that have happened while O'Toole was in charge. Can you tell us about some of the things that worry you?”

The Reverend smiled, grateful for the reprieve. “Yes, Horace, I can. The first instance was when Wilma Hanks took that second dose. Before that, as I understand things, she was starting to accept the second chance for a decent life that her transformation offered. That ended with the second dose. She became a wanton harlot, embarking on a life of debauchery that will most surely lead to her eternal damnation.” He said the last two words in the stern voice he saved for his sermons.

“The second case...” He spoke in his normal tones again. “...is the O'Hanlans. As a father, I was overjoyed to hear that a dose of the potion had saved the life of young Elmer – now Emma – O'Hanlan. But tragically... tragically, Elmer's father, Patrick, was given a dose as well. He is Trisha, now, and her transformation ripped apart the O'Hanlan family and ended a happy marriage of some twelve years.”

“The third case is a poor Mexican boy – Arnoldo Diaz. Isn't that right, Father de Castro?” Yingling looked over at the priest, who grimly nodded. “Yes.”
Yingling continued, “the poor boy was distraught over his mother's near fatal accident, and, somehow, he, too, drank the potion. Even now, the transformed youth is trying to adjust to his – to her – new life.”

The Reverend looked down. “There is another case, a woman, a visitor in our community, who drank – or was given – a dose of O'Toole's brew. She appeared to be a modest, Christian woman when we first met, but later, when I encountered her again after she had apparently taken the potion, her behavior and attitudes were far from modest. I can only surmise about the effect of that change on her marriage. Such accidents should not be allowed to continue. That was my concern.”

“A very pretty speech,” a deep voice spoke out. A tall, elegantly dressed man in his mid thirties rose to his feet. “Many of you know me. I am Don Luis... Luis Ortega, and I would ask you a question of the Reverend Señor Yingling, or, rather, I would expand upon the Father de Castro's question. The Padre asked if he would be on it. I do not care if I am on it, but I do wish to know who will be and how many of them will be of my people, Mejicanos? For, surely, you Yanquis, you cannot claim to be the only moral ones in this town.”

Luis gave the crowd the same sort of genial smile that his younger brother, Sebastian, was known for. “I have met more than enough immoral Yanquis and more than enough moral Mejicanos to know that there cannot be such a claim.”

“It seems to me,” Whit said, seeing the discomfort on the minister's face, “that a lot of good questions have been asked here tonight. It seems only fair that we give Reverend Yingling time to come up with fully thought out answers, so that the strength of his arguments may be acknowledged by all. I don't think that we want to wait a whole month, so I move that we postpone the reverend's response till next – no, the church board meets next week – until a special council meeting two weeks from tonight.” He glanced at his fellow councilmen, who both nodded. “Would this be acceptable to you, Reverend Yingling?”

“Perhaps...” the clergyman began and trailed off.

Arsenio tried hard not to smile. “Second.”

The Reverend, the council noticed, did not react.

“All in favor?” Whit saw the other two councilmen raise their hands. “Passed... unanimously.” He pounded his gavel on the table. “There being no other business...” He waited a moment to see if anyone contradicted him. When no one did, he continued, “I'll take a motion for adjournment.”

Arsenio raised his hand. “So moved.”

“Second,” Aaron quickly added.

Whit used the gavel again. “Passed; meeting adjourned. And we'll see you all back here on May 22nd. Thank you all and good evening.”

The three of them ignored the shouts of protest, as they packed up their paperwork to head for home. Arsenio's mind had been on Laura all evening, and he bolted for the door, not stopping to talk to anyone.

* * * * *

Thursday, May 9, 1872

The light streaming through her window finally woke Jessie up. She glanced over at the ticking clock on her night table. “Just after 10,” she murmured. She stretched her arms up over her head before reaching over with her left for... “Paul?” Then she remembered. “Dang, he had to work late shift last night.” She sighed, but then smiled at the possibilities for that evening, when he would be finished with work about 8 PM.

“Yeah,” she said, feeling the anticipatory warmth run through her body.

Followed by a hunger pang.

'Best get dressed', she thought, 'and see about some breakfast.' She turned and nodded at the shelf near her clothes rack, where she'd placed the tiny wooden figure her father had carved for her so many years before. “Good morning to you, Pa.” It was a small daily ritual with her, one she'd followed since miraculously recovering the figure last Christmas.

The shelf was bare.

“What the hell?” She looked again; nothing. She dropped to her hands and knees, searching for where it might have fallen. There was no sign of it anywhere, even under the bed. Nor was it on the bed table or on her desk, where it could have been placed, if it had fallen and been found by someone else.

Someone? She thought for a moment about what might have happened to this last remnant of her past. An answer, a very bad answer, came to her. “Flora!” Jessie cursed as she grabbed her robe. She hurried to wrap it around herself, as she rushed out the door.

* * * * *

“Here now, Jessie” Shamus said, as the singer ran down the steps. “What's all this shouting about?”

Jessie stopped and glanced around the room. “Where is she, Shamus? Where is that little – “

“I'm right here, Hanks.” Flora stood by the door to the kitchen, a smug look on her face. “What are you yelling about?”

“I know you took it. Give it back to me; right now?” Jessie strode purposefully towards Flora, ready to fight.

Shamus stepped between the two women. “What's all this about? What got took, Jess, and why are ye thinking that Flora is the one that took it?”

“That wooden soldier I... got last Christmas.” She could hardly say how it had come to her. “And I don't think she took it. I know she did. She cleans the rooms, and she's got it in for me!”

Flora chuckled. “Why shouldn't I take it, Hanks? Your pa gave it to me all those years ago, didn't he?”

The words sank in; Jessie squared her shoulders. “All right, so you know who I am. I knew you'd find out sooner or later. It just gives me a double reason to want to get back at you. You made Pa give my soldiers to you; you threatened t'get Will sent t'jail if he didn't.”

“Why he did it doesn't matter. The fact is that he did.” She chuckled again. “He was just too afraid of my Pa. You dumb 'croppers were all afraid of him.”

Jessie growled low in her throat and made a grab for her tormentor.

“Stop it, Jess,” Shamus said firmly, seizing her by the waist and pulling her back. “I'll handle this.” He glared at Flora. “Did ye take that wood soldier? I'm ordering ye t'answer and answer truthful.”

Flora trembled, trying not to answer, but she couldn't stop herself. “I-I did.”

“And where is it now?”

“H-Hidden in m-my... room, in the... the dres.. ser.”

“Then I'm ordering ye to go get it; get it right now and bring it down here t'me.” A thought occurred to him. “And don't ye be doing nothing to it in the meantime.”

Flora closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, fighting the new order. Her body shook as she slowly turned and began a shambling walk towards the stairs. She paused for a moment, grasping the railing at the bottom, only to sigh in surrender and climb the stairs.

“I think she's going to be worse than even Wilma was.” Bridget had joined Shamus and Jessie as they watched Flora walk towards her room.

Shamus nodded. “She just may. Or... she may turn out as well as the pair o'ye did. We'll have t'be waiting t'see what happens.”

“In the meantime, you better do something to keep her out of Jessie's stuff,” Bridget told him. “And mine, come to think of it. She confronted me about our past a couple nights ago.”

As if on cue, Flora came back around the corner from her room. She had a look of disgust on her face as she descended the stairwell.

“Here,” she said, dropping the figure into Shamus' hand.

Shamus turned and gave it to Jessie. “There ye are, lass, back in yuir hands and good as new.”

“It better be.” Jessie's fingers curled around the toy soldier. “And she'd better not take it again.”

Flora glowered. “Why not, it's mine?”

“No, it ain't,” Shamus told her. “Ye gave it t'me just now, and I'm giving it t'Jessie here.” He looked her in the eye. “And I'm giving ye another order. Ye're not t'be going after that wee soldier ever again. And ye'll be treating Jessie and Bridget and all that belongs t'them with all the respect that ye'd be wanting for yuirself.”

“Even if you don't deserve it,” Jessie added triumphantly. Bridget smiled in agreement.

* * * * *

“Good morning, Reverend,” Horace Styron greeted the minister upon seeing him walk into Horace's hardware store. “What brings you in here today?”

Yingling pulled a folded sheet of paper out of his shirt pocket. “I just came in for some odds and ends.” He opened the paper and read, “A box of 3-penny nails... four candles... ten feet of chicken wire... and a can of green paint. More importantly, I came in to thank you for your help at the meeting last night.”

“You're more'n welcome. I saw the way things were getting out of hand, and I figured if you reminded folks about all the mistakes O'Toole's racked up, it'd get 'em back on track to take that potion away from him.” The storekeeper made a quick, clicking sound with his tongue. “It woulda worked except for them da – them darned Mex talking.”

“Yes, it was a surprise to see those two there. They seldom attend functions like meetings of the town council, let alone participating as actively as they did yesterday.”

“You're right about that. I wonder what the... heck put the bee in their bonnet about your petition.”

“I don't know for certain, but I strongly suspect that Roscoe Unger, over at the newspaper, had a hand in it. Their questions all reflected those pernicious editorials he's been running.”

“That's what I thought, too. That boy is a lot more trouble than Ozzie Pratt ever was.”

“Pratt had other concerns to distract him, if you'll recall. Still, Unger is young, still learning the way of the world. In time, I have no doubt that he will discover the folly of going against moral authority such as ours.”

“I ain't sure we have that much time, do you?”

“No, and it is frustrating...” He practically growled the word. “...to have the council decision postponed yet again because of him.”

“We'll get it next time, Reverend.” Horace let a bit of menace creep into his voice. “Or we'll know the reason why, and know how to fix it.”

Yingling smiled at the thought of victory. “Indeed.”

* * * * *

Mrs. Spaulding looked down at the row of whole chickens, sitting on a bed of ice in Ortega's market. “That one, I think, Señor Ruiz.”

“A good choice,” Ruiz replied, smiling behind his mustache. He took the chicken and used a balance scale to weight it. He quickly wrapped it in white paper, tying the paper with a length of white twine, and wrote a price on the paper with a red wax marker. “Do you want anything else?”

Before she could answer, she heard a voice behind her. “Mrs. Spaulding, is that you?”

“Yes.” She turned to see two women standing behind her. One was a short, plumpish woman that she recognized as the minister's wife, Mrs. – What was her name? “Oh... ah, yes, Mrs..... Yingling, isn't it?”

The woman smiled, pleased to have her name remembered. “It is, but please call me Martha.”

“I shall... Martha, and you must call me Vida.”

The other woman was somewhat taller and thin, her graying hair pulled into a tight bun. “And I am Cecelia Ritter... Mrs. Cecelia Ritter.”

“Cecelia is the chairman of the Women's Social Committee at our church.”

Cecelia studied her closely. “You're new to Eerie, aren't you?”

“I am. My family and I moved here just after Easter.” Then Vida recognized the name. “You're the Mrs. Ritter that I've read about in the paper, aren't you?”

Cecelia smiled broadly. “Yes, that is me; working hard in my own humble way to make this town a more wholesome place for respectable people to live. I trust that I can count on the support of you and your husband.”

“My husband, Captain Jeffery Spaulding, has been... dead some fifteen months.” Vida spoke the words slowly, still reluctant to say them.

Cecelia plowed on. “Just you then.”

“Cecelia, please.” Martha could hardly believe the woman's lack of tact, and she decided to change the subject, if she could. “Have you had a chance to get out and meet many people?”

“Not many, I'm afraid. You and Annie are probably the two locals I know best.”

Martha thought for a moment. “Annie... Annie who?”

“Oh, I'm sorry; Annie Diaz. Her mother runs a laundry. She started out just picking up our dirty clothes and taking them to be cleaned, but she's gotten to be friends with both of my children – she and my Clara are about the same age. I've hired her recently to teach us all Spanish.”

Cecelia cut in. “Well, that explains things doesn't it?”

“Explain what?” Vida asked.

“Explains why you don't want to help us. You're friendly with one of them, one of the 'potion girls', aren't you?”

“What is a 'potion girl'? I'm afraid that I don't understand you,” Vida replied. 'Or like you very much,' she added to herself.

Cecelia gave a nasty chuckle. “Your 'Annie' Diaz used to be Arnie Diaz, a most impertinent young man. The very night that his mother was almost killed by a rearing horse, he got hold of a dose of Shamus O'Toole's foul brew and became a girl. There're some that say that he took it out of guilt about his mother, but I think O'Toole forced it on him for some reason.”

Amazement transformed Vida's face. “She mentioned some sort of magic potion, but I didn't believe her. Th-That story can't be true.”

“Ask the little Mex, herself, and see if she doesn't admit the truth. I dare you. Once you know the way of things, you can come see me about helping us take control of the potion away from that ungodly man.” She then walked away, before Vida or Martha could speak.

Mrs. Spaulding seemed at a loss for words. “And, please,” Martha cautioned, “take care to not tell people from outside from the town about the potion, Mrs. Spaulding. You know how vicious and judgmental some outsiders can be, especially about things that do not really concern them. The best way to deal with this terrible potion is to get responsible people, such as my husband's committee, to take it in hand.”

Mrs. Spaulding turned toward the woman still beside her. “Martha, should my family and I be in anyway concerned about these – potion girls?”

The Reverend's wife shook her head. “Of course not. Some of them have already become a credit to our community. The Lord works in mysterious ways. And I especially think that it is a good thing for Arnie – or Annie, as she seems to be calling herself – to have made friends with your boy and girl. I can't say that I really know Arnie Diaz. His mother does our laundry, and he -- she -- delivered it for a while, after she became a girl. But she was always very quiet and didn't talk about her problems. I'm sure the change must be hard for someone her age.”

“It certainly must be,” Vida replied thoughtfully.

* * * * *

Milt Quinlan peeked into Doc Upshaw's ward. Abner Slocum was playing some kind of solitaire. Slocum noticed him and called out, “I'm awake, Milt. C'mon in.”

“Thank you, Abner,” Milt replied, walking into the room. “How are you feeling today?”

Slocum used his right arm to push away the table with the cards. “Grateful to be alive, I suppose. Beyond that...” His voice trailed off.

The lawyer shrugged. “Being alive is something, anyway. And I'm sure that you'll improve with time.”

“I wish I were so sure. That's why I sent word for you to drop by. I want you to draw up a partnership agreement for Matthew and me. There is a good chance that I won't ever be better off than I am now, and I seem to be facing a very dangerous operation.” He sighed. “Funny how things turn out. If I had become a professional gambler, like I almost did back in my twenties, I might have been better off for it now.”

“Gamblers get shot, too,” Milt reminded him.

“They do, but angry gamblers tend to take better aim than that idiot Stafford did.”

Milt nodded courteously, and then took a pencil and small notepad out of his coat pocket. “Very well, how do you want it to read?”

“Make sure you list all my assets, land, buildings, woodland, and livestock; you have the list from when we updated my will last year. I'd like to have an even split between the two of us, but I... I still can't help thinking of the Triple A as my baby. Make it... 60-40, with me getting the 60.”

“I can do that. How soon do you need the papers? I may also need to change a paragraph or two in your will.”

“Take your time. I'm going to see an expert back East about my back and why my left arm and my legs don't work, but Hiram Upshaw says I won't be up to the trip for a couple weeks yet.”

“How about if I bring in the drafts next week for you to look at? If you don't have any problems with the documents, you can sign the new will, and you and Cap... Matthew can sign the partnership agreement any time after that.”

“That'll be fine.”

“Is there anything else you want to discuss?” asked Milt.

“Nothing legal, but you're welcome to just stay and chew the fat for a while. I don't get a whole lot of visitors.”

Milt put the pad and pencil away. “I believe I can do that.” He pulled a chair over and sat down. “And I won't even charge you for my time.”

* * * * *

“Nancy Osbourne,” Molly said by way of a greeting. “Whatever are ye doing in here so early? 'Tis barely three o'clock.”

Nancy gave the older woman a sad smile. “I've been out looking for work, Mrs. O'Toole – Molly. I resigned my teaching job last night at the town council meeting.”

“So I heard. Ye was goaded into it, t'my way o'thinking. I'd be surprised if the council wouldn't give yuir job back to ye if ye told 'em ye wanted it.”

“I know, but I meant what I said. I'm tired of people forcing me to act the way they think I should act, and I'm even more tired of being condemned for things I've never done by people who won't even give me a chance to defend myself.”

“Aye, I know how that can be. It ain't fair, ain't fair at all, for them t'be acting that way, especially to a sweet, young girl like ye.”

“Thank you for that, at least.” She shook her head. “It's like I was trying so hard to be the sort of person that I never really was, just to please people who would never let themselves be pleased.”

“I've been in that spot meself,” Molly commiserated. “So, did ye get any job offers?”

“I got several offers.” Her expression soured. “...But none that I care to repeat. There are a number of merchants in this town who believe the rumors about me. They expected me to... repay the offer of a job in a way consistent with...my bad reputation.” She sank down onto a barstool.

Molly puttered behind the bar for a moment before she handed Nancy a filled glass. “Here, this'll help.”

“Th-Thanks, but I-I don't drink.”

“Not even seltzer water? That's all that I gave ye.” Molly waited while the other woman took a long drink. “Surely, not all the men made that sorta offer to ye.”

“No, a few just said that they'd never hire a... person like me.”

“Them lousy – “

Nancy took another drink. “I... I can't – I won't give in to people who think like that, but I can't live on charity, either. I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm not leaving Eerie. I won't give Cecelia Ritter the satisfaction of saying that she drove me out of town. Besides, the only real family I have is Carl, and I don't want to move away from him. I-I just seem to be out of options.”

“Then I'll be given ye one,” Molly replied. “Ye've done good filling in for Laura. Why don't ye come work for Shamus 'n' me full time?”

“Work... here. I-I don't know.”

“Sure ye do. Ye know we ain't the 'den of iniquity' some folks say we are. We pay good money, and I'll throw in room 'n' board, if ye want.”

“It's... can I think about a little?”

“Ye can. Take what time ye need.” Molly glanced up at the clock. “In the meantime, finish yuir drink, and ye can help me set up the tables for the restaurant.”

* * * * *

Wilma sat, alone in her room. staring into her dressing table mirror. She picked up her brush and began to work on her hair. As she did, she caught herself repeating the phrase that Shamus and Molly had drilled into her. “I’m a girl. I’m a girl.”

She stopped for a moment, frowning, but then she shrugged, “What the Hell.” She went back to her hair, again saying “I’m a girl” with each stroke.

“I’m a girl.”

“No, you aren’t,” she answered herself. “You’re a useless, worthless slut, just waiting to be used. That’s all Ethan ever thought of you.”

She recalled the old joke that said, “It’s okay to talk to yourself. You can even argue with yourself, and there’s nothing wrong with you. But if you start losing those arguments, then you’re in trouble. She wasn’t going to lose this argument.

“That ain’t so, even if he… didn’t love me. He said I was one of the best… whores he ever slept with.”

“See, you admit that he just thought of you as just another whore.”

“I ain’t ‘just another whore.’ I’m a damned good one.”

“That’s not what Ethan thought, and he’s a cultured gentleman.”

“He’s a dirty, rotten son of a bitch. Now Gregario de Aguilar, he’s a gentleman, a land-grant aristocrat, too, and he thinks I’m special. He calls me his ‘lively one’, don’t he?”

“So…”

“And… and Jimmy Kellogg, he’s a gentleman, too, he’s traveled all over the country – been t’Europe, too, and he said…” She smiled remembering what the man had said the last time they had been together.

“You make a man feel special, Wilma,” Kellogg had told her, as they walked downstairs in the morning. “And I don’t just mean the way a man feels when he gets his rocks off. You’re good -- very good -- at that, but, best of all, you make a man feel good about himself, that there’s something special about him that made a woman as wonderful as you are want to spend time with him, to take him to bed, and to share that fine body of yours with him.”

Wilma studied her reflection. “Yeah, maybe I am a whore, but I’m damned good at it.” She grinned, repeating Shamus’ “I’m a girl”, as she brushed her hair once more. “And if Ethan didn’t realize what he had with me…t’hell with him. The stupid bastard didn’t deserve me.”

He didn't deserve her, true, but he had been able to hurt her. How? Maybe it was because he had made her feel like more than just a whore. That had appealed to her deep inside. At Cerise's, she had thought for a while that she had everything that she wanted, but did she, really? Didn't she want to be better than she was? What did being “better” mean? Didn't it mean being special to a person that she would think was special, too? By pretending that he thought she was special, Ethan had baited the trap and she had only too eagerly stepped in.

The bastard! He had been finding excuses not to sleep with her for weeks. As a woman, Wilma hadn't encountered a man like that before. It had made her think that the talented man wouldn't be satisfied with a woman unless she couldn't offer more than just sex. He had given her hope that he had seen that sort of woman inside her, and then had taken the hope away. Why? What had she done to the man to make him want to bring her down so cruelly?

Something drew her glance to the mirror again. Before Ethan, Wilma had liked her life at Cerise's, but there was just one thing she didn't care for – that she wasn't special to anyone – not as Wilma Hanks. Wilma was a complete person who didn't just exist in bed, but outside of it, too. The pretty brunette whom she saw reflected looked about twenty, but in twenty years, how many men would pick her over much younger women in the same room? How many fewer would find her at all desirable in thirty years?

Wilma had realized that the future could be a terrible place. It could be so terrible, in fact, that she yearned to stop thinking about it and live for the moment. She remembered what Beatriz had said, that to go on the way she was going, she had to be smarter about men, she had to harden her heart. That advice might make good sense now, while times were still good, but what about later on? She'd end her days dirt poor, with no family, no special person in her life, and probably not even a home to call her own. All that she could have taken out of the carrousel ride would be a heart as hard as stone.

It didn't sound worth the trip. Carrousels were fun, but stay on them for too long and they made you sick. Maybe she had understood that from the start. Hadn't instinct told her that Ethan was a new force in her life, once that could change her course? But Ethan had been a false pick. So, where were the right picks? And how many right picks could women like herself expect to get?

Trying to understand the present, Wilma found herself thinking back about where she had started. Will Hanks had, perhaps, lived the wild way he had because he didn't care about living and didn't expect to be doing a great deal of it. But Wilma didn't think that she was exactly like Will –- not in every way.

She wasn't sure exactly when it had started, but somewhere along the way, she had started caring.

* * * * *

Kaitlin looked closely at her transformed husband, as the new woman slipped her camisole off over her head to get ready for as bed. “Your waist's getting a bit thicker, Trisha,” she observed.

“I-I've noticed.” Trisha replied. “I guess I-I'm starting to... show.”

“Not yet you're not, but you will soon enough.”

“Maybe I can wear my corset tighter to hide it a bit longer.”

“Don't do that. It's bad for the baby.” She said the word neither of them wanted to mention.

Trisha shivered, and then looked down and gently touched her stomach. “Do you th-think I'll be a-able to... to hide it until after next week's board meeting?”

“Probably, but not for too much longer after that.”

“Oh, oh, my Lord, what am I going to do?” She felt the tears forming in her eyes. “Damn it, I... I hate this.”

Kaitlin walked over and took the sobbing woman in her arms, hugging her close. “I know; I know.” This was hardly the time for saying, “I warned you to be careful.”

“And I hate acting like this!” She rested her head on the taller woman's shoulder, giving in to her wild emotions, tears running down her cheeks.

“It's part of being pregnant, just like morning sickness.”

“I don't like that, either. Emma must think that I have stomach flu, the way I get sick almost every morning.”

“Yes, she has asked about it. She's afraid that it's some women's thing that she's going to come down with any day now.” Kaitlin braced herself for what she was going to say next. “We're going to have to tell her the truth... and very soon.”

“I know,” Trisha straightened up and took a step back. “Liam, too, it isn't fair for them not to know.” She was still holding her camisole, and now she used it to wipe her eyes. “Only not... not till after the church board meets next week.”

“Why not? Liam and Emma won't tell anyone.”

“I-I'm not so sure. It's like leaving the board is the end of an era. In some strange way it feels like I'm stepping out of one life and into another. Once I do, that will be the time for making new beginnings, for telling the hard truths. Anyway, Liam doesn't have the best poker face in the world, and Emma, she's still a child. I'd be too afraid that the word would get out, if we told them ahead of time. If it does, I'm off the board, no bones about it, and with no way to put Liam in as my replacement. Clyde Ritter'd be on the board instead, and him and Styron will undo everything I've worked for.”

Kaitlin grimaced. “That's probably true.” She made a pointing gesture, as if lecturing a child. “But I want you to promise that Liam and Emma get told... and right after the meeting.”

“The very next night,” Trisha said, very reluctantly admitting the rightness of it. She just wondered how her brother and her daughter would take the news. How they reacted would have a lot to do with what she would do afterwards. Leaving town was an option she might have to consider.

“The very next night,” she repeated.

* * * * *

Friday, May 10, 1872

Nancy walked up the gravel path to the bathhouse. Carmen was sitting in the shade on the back porch sewing something – reattaching a shirt button, Nancy saw when she was close enough. Felipe, her toddler son, was taking a mid-morning nap in his wooden playpen.

Carmen heard Nancy's footsteps and looked up. “I'm afraid that there are some men using the baths just now. I can't let you in, no matter how much you may want me to.” She winked to show that she was teasing.

“That's all right, Carmen.” Nancy felt her cheeks warm, embarrassed at the thought. “I didn't come for a bath. I wanted to talk to you.” She pointed at an overstuffed chair set not too far from Carmen. “May I?”

Carmen nodded and put her sewing down into a large straw basket by her feet. “Of course.” She rose for a moment to turn the chair so she was facing Nancy. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I've been... looking for work, and not with much success.” Carmen was about to speak, but Nancy shook her head. “I know you – or Whit – don't need any help in your businesses, so please don't make any offer out of pity.”

Carmen gave her a wry smile. “You may too proud for your own good, Nancy. You could have your teaching job back for the asking, you know. Whit and the others would be happy – and lucky, if I may say – to have you.”

“I know, and thank you. I... A part of me wants to be a teacher again. I loved working with the children.” Her expression soured. “But that Ritter woman and her friends have spoiled it for me. I can't – I won't live my life knowing that they're watching me like a hawk, and hoping that I fail to live up to their expectations. Or cheering when I live down to them.”

“But if you are not the teacher, then they have won, haven't they?”

“Maybe not. I'll be through with them, and I think that they'll find Phillipia Stone a harder nut to crack, if she'll take the job long-term.”

“From what I know of her, she is a muy stubborn woman,” Carmen agreed.

Nancy's expression took on an introspective cast. “Maybe the Lord is testing me, and I turned out to be too weak for my own good. I wasn't a fraidy cat when I was a schoolgirl. I think that came about when my uncle and aunt insisted that I stop being such a tomboy. And the teachers' training school was just as determined that I be a lady. But I think that their idea of being a lady is to let others control one's life. Maybe that's why I let the town biddies get their way for so long. I was living out the wrong idea of how to be a lady.”

Carmen shrugged commiseratively.

“Maybe this problem has happened for a reason,” Nancy went on. “Maybe Providence is telling me that this is the chance I've been hoping for, possibly my last chance, to take my life in a new direction.”

“What will you do then? What are your hopes for finding another job?”

“At most of the places I went looking, the men believed Cecelia Ritter's lies about me. Some of them wouldn't hire the sort of wicked, wicked woman she says I am. The others, well, let's just say that it wasn't a clerk or assistant that they wanted to hire.”

“Men!” Carmen almost spat the word. “Still, not all the men are not like that. I know that my Whit is not.”

“No, he isn't, and I'm very grateful to him – to the both of you. I just feel that I'm imposing on you, now that I'm... not the town schoolteacher anymore.”

“That is nonsense. You are welcome to stay with us while you are looking for something else. Still, you should think more about being a teacher again. Especially if you cannot find anything else.”

“I will, but I'll also think about the one real job offer I did get... working for Shamus O'Toole.”

“Shamus offered you a job?”

“Actually, it was Molly – Mrs. O'Toole – who offered. I've been helping out, taking Laura Caulder's place, while she wasn't feeling well. Molly said that I could be a regular waitress if I liked. I don't know; maybe she was just offering charity. I won't take a job offered in pity.” She felt her eyes begin to fill with tears.

Carmen saw her expression and took her hand. “Molly has a good heart. She wants to be everyone's mother, if she could, but she is also muy serious about her husband's business. If she offered you a job, she meant it.” She studied the other woman's expression. “Do you want the job?”

“I-I don't know. I've enjoyed helping out at the restaurant. It's a nice change, working with other people, other adults, instead of being surrounded by just children all day. And no one there was as rude to me as some of the town ladies.”

“You do know that, to Cecelia Ritter and her friends, you working in such a place would prove that they were right about you? If you take such a job, you may tie the council's hands about ever rehiring you.”

“I know, and a part of me hates that possibility, but – to tell the truth – another part of me likes it. Working there...” She chuckled. “...it would be like spitting in Mrs. Ritter's eye. Besides…” She playfully put her hands on her hips. “…I bet some of those women's husbands would like what they see!”

Carmen joined her in laughter.

* * * * *

Cecelia Ritter gathered in the cards from the last hand, shuffled them twice and held them for a moment in her hand. “Would you like to cut, Zenobia?”

“No, thank you,” Zenobia Carson replied.

Cecelia nodded and began to deal. “Two... three... two, and three to me, and three to Zenobia... two... three... and two.” She set down the kitty, the four remaining cards in the euchre deck, turning the top one over. “Jack of clubs.”

“So what were you saying about Reverend Yingling, Cecelia?” Grace McLeod asked, looking up from the cards she was holding.

“That I still can't believe how poorly he was treated at the town council meeting on Wednesday,” Cecelia responded. “Did you see the look on his face when they put off the decision on his petition for another two weeks?”

Lavinia Meckechnie nodded. “I did, and the councilmen should be ashamed of themselves.”

“Oh, they'll be ashamed,” Cecelia said. “They'll be out of office, too, come the next election. People will remember, I'll – we'll make sure of that.”

Zenobia looked over her own cards at Cecelia. “For the moment, what are we doing with this hand?”

“Pick it up,” Zenobia was sitting to Cecelia's left. Lavinia Mackechnie, Cecelia's partner in the game of euchre, sat opposite her. She nodded in agreement, as did Grace McLeod, Zenobia's partner. Clubs were trump for this round.

Cecelia picked up the card and put it in her hand. She put another card from her hand down into the kitty.

“I'll begin,” Zenobia said, “King of clubs.” She laid down the card. Lavinia set down the 9 of spades, followed by the others playing the 9 and then the ace of clubs.

Cecelia's ace took the hand. She eagerly picked up the four cards. “That's one trick for us.”

“At least we got rid of that horrid Osbourne woman,” Lavinia said, trying to restart the conversation.

Zenobia nodded. “It looked like the council was going to hire her back until Cecelia told them not to.”

“The woman lost her temper and turned it down,” Grace cautioned, “but she may change her mind in the light of day.”

Cecelia shook her head. “She might. That's why we have to keep the pressure on her, show her in no uncertain terms that she's not wanted in this town any longer. She'll just slink off someplace and disappear, that sort always do.”

“I can't help feeling a little sorry for her,” Grace admitted.

Lavinia raised an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”

“She's been turned out of her home – “ Grace began.

Zenobia cut her off. “Out of my home, you mean, and all the time she lived with us, she barely did any work for me to help keep it in order. She was as lazy as Ludham’s dog, ‘that leaned against a wall to bark’ as the saying goes. Only Nancy Osbourne wasn’t a lazy dog, after all; she was a… dog in heat. And one I had every right to turn out.”

Cecelia put down a jack of hearts. “And ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’, as I always say. What's importance now is the town council and making them vote – finally – the way we want on the reverend's petition.”

“I agree.” Zenobia played the 10 of diamonds. “Do you have any ideas on that, Cecelia?”

Cecelia smiled. “I most certainly do. For a start, we need to get the church board – and the membership – to vote to confirm our support for the Reverend at next Wednesday's board meeting.”

“That may not be as easy as you think.” Lavinia played the queen of diamonds. “With Trisha O'Hanlan and some of the others on the board.”

Cecelia's smile grew broader. “Don't you remember, this is the meeting where we vote that... woman off the board. Once she's gone, and my Clyde is there in her place... a vote in support of the reverend should be child's play.”

“I do hope you're right. In the meantime...” Grace put a queen of hearts on the table. Her card took the trick.

* * * * *

“Can I talk to you for a minute, Jessie?”

Jessie looked up from the sheet music she'd been working on. “Sure, Milt. You ready for tonight?”

“That's what I came to talk to you about.”

“You ain't gonna chicken out on me, are you?”

“Actually, I just wanted to talk to you about changing the words in one verse.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Something the matter with what I wrote?”

“No, I just... oh, the hell with it. Here.” He handed her a folded sheet of paper.

Jessie unfolded it, and studied the words. After a moment, she started humming the music as she read. When she'd finished, she looked closely at him. “You sure 'bout them words?”

“I am. Do you mind?”

She shook her head. “Nope, if that's what you wanna sing, then let's do it.”

* * * * *

“May I join you?”

Flora looked up from her lunch, a fried chicken leg and a biscuit left over from last night's restaurant menu. “Rosalyn... please... be seated.” She gestured at a chair nearby.

“Thank you.” She put her own plate from Shamus' Free Lunch down on the table and sat.

“How are you doing these days?”

Flora frowned. “I'm still here, still a woman.”

“I noticed that fact, and, from what I hear, so have a lot of other people – now that Mr. O'Toole's got you dancing for his customers.”

“Yes, I just love being one of his Cactus Blossoms. If that damned potion would let me, I'd cheerfully skin him alive.”

“Why don't you, figuratively, anyway?”

“What do you mean?”

“I think that he's making you dance in that skimpy outfit I've heard about to embarrass you; to punish you for what you did to that... Bridget, yes, to Wilma's friend, Bridget.”

“So you know about that, do you?”

“I know, but I don't know her well enough to be concerned.”

Flora raised a curious eyebrow. “You aren't?”

“No, it... such things can happen to a woman, especially one who's not wise to the ways of the world. A woman has to know how to take care of herself.”

“And you do?”

“I was like that once, foolish, easily taken advantage of. But I learned better. Now Bridget knows better, too.” Rosalyn's expression darkened. “But I'd very much prefer to talk about something else, thank you. For instance, about how you can get back at Mr. O'Toole.”

“Now, that is something I'd like to talk about.”

“I thought that you might. As I said, I think he's making you a dancer to mortify you about becoming a woman.”

“So?”

“So, if you acted as if you enjoyed being a woman, enjoyed flaunting yourself in front of all those men you dance for, it would spoil things for him.”

Flora considered the idea. “It just might. But what would I have to do?”

“Flirt with the men while you're dancing. Pick out one – one in nice clothes; that means that he has some money. Pick him out, look him straight in the eye and smile; maybe even wink at him. It'll take courage at first, but you told me you were a soldier. Once you finish dancing, go over and ask him if he liked your dancing. When he says that he did – and he will – smile again. You might even kiss him – on the cheek, of course. He'll probably buy you a drink.”

“You're not saying I should... go with him, are you?”

“No... unless you want to, of course. I'm hardly one to deny that a woman can find pleasure with a man, but don't have to go that far to have fun. Tease the man, flash your lures at him, the way a fly fisherman does with a large trout, until he's hooked, and then make him work for it while you reel him in. If she plays her cards right, a smart woman can get a lot out of a man and hardly has to give him anything in return.”

“I-I don't know. It sounds risky.” It also sounded wrong. Acting like she liked men would start the saloon staff laughing at her, wouldn't it?

“It isn't. You sit on his lap and snuggle up to him, and just... just kiss his cheek.” Rosalyn smiled mischievously. “Get him rock hard, and he'll love you – and thank you – for it; tips, little presents, all sorts of nice things. And you won't have to do anything more than I've already said. Get a man excited, and you get control of him. He might do things for you, things he'd never do otherwise.”

“And you're sure I won't have to... you know.” She felt her cheeks warm. Damn it, was she blushing?

“No… but you may... eventually. I do recommend it. Most of the potion girls have gentlemen friends. But until – if ever – you are ready for such things, you can still have a lot of fun, fun teasing the man – or the men you pick, and teasing Mr. O'Toole, as well.”

“I-I don't know.” Flora gave her friend an uncertain smile. “I'll have to give it some – give it a lot of thought, but you just may be right.” She remembered some of the fool things pretty women had gotten her to do when she was Forry.

One woman in particular.

“I'm sure that I am, and, if you want, I'll even teach you a few things that will make a man putty in your hands.” She giggled. “If you want the man in your hands to be as soft as putty.”

“Oh, you're a wicked one,” Flora said, her cheeks slightly flushed with shame.

* * * * *

“So tell me, Arnoldo,” Dolores asked across the dinner table, “what are you doing all day, now that Teresa is back doing the laundry deliveries again?”

Teresa smiled. “She still helps out... a little.”

“I have thought about getting another job,” Arnie replied, “now that Momma is better.” She took a bite of her tamale before she continued. “I am still teaching the Spauldings Spanish. Maybe I will go looking for something more next week.”

Teresa raised an eyebrow. 'Dell dicho al hecho, hay mucho trecho [From the saying to the act, there is much distance],' she thought. Aloud, she asked, “Would you like to work at the Saloon again?”

“The Saloon, I do not – wait... Dolores, did Señor Shamus tell you to ask me?”

“No... Heavens, no,” his cousin said, “It was my idea. They tell me that Laura Caulder will be out for some time, so I think that he could use the help.”

“Laura, she is sick?”

“She has been having a hard time with the baby growing inside her. The doctor is making her stay home and in bed, so she is not there, and Molly and Jane spend so much time with her, that, sometimes, it is like they are not there, either. Nancy Osbourne has been standing in for Laura, but now that she has quit the school, some say she will leave town.”

Teresa frowned. “I must go over to visit Laura. She is a good woman, and I know how hard a first pregnancy...” She glanced over at Arnie for a moment. “... or any pregnancy – can be.”

“It may be that Shamus does need my help again,” Arnie said carefully. “Perhaps... perhaps, I will talk to him. I will think about it.” She excused herself. All this talk about pregnancy made Arnie uneasy.

* * * * *

Wilma let Clay Falk lead her up to her room. ‘She’s as skittish and down on herself as the last time,’ he thought ruefully. ‘I’ll have t’be real gentle with her.’

“Yes, sir,” he said, trying to sound cheerful. “Ain’t nothing like just cuddling up to a pretty gal to take a man back to when he was a kid and just learning about the wonders of life.”

She turned to face him. Her shy, nervous smile became a leer. A leer? “That’s true for a gal, too, Clay, but I was thinking we might do something a little more grown up.” To illustrate her point, her right hand snaked down into his pants and began to stroke his manhood through the fabric of his drawers. At the same time, her left arm encircled his neck, pulling his head down so that their lips met.

When they broke the kiss some time later, he was grinning back at her. “Well,” he stammered. “I-I suppose we could do that instead.”

* * * * *

` “I'll bet all my money, the man ain't alive
` That'll stay with Old Strawberry
` When he makes his high dive.”

The crowd in the Saloon burst into a round of applause as Jessie finished singing “Strawberry Roan.” One man fired a couple shots into the air, while several others tossed coins at Jessie.

“Thank you, gents,” she said, smiling. She did a low bow, giving the closest rows a much better look at the tops of her creamy breasts.

A couple more coins hit the floor near her feet. “Sing 'Collee's Ride', Jessie,” someone shouted.

“Later... maybe“ she answered, glancing quickly over towards Shamus, who gave a negative shake of his head. “Right now, I got a new song for you. Only...”

That was R.J.'s cue. “Only what, Jessie?” he yelled from behind the bar.

“Only this here song's meant for a man t'sing. So...” She paused again for dramatic effect. “...I got a man t'sing it.” She smiled as the crowd looked around trying to see whom she meant.

Paul was sitting with Milt at a table near the bar, and he saw many of the men turning to stare at him. Jessie had warned him. “Not me, boys,” he said grimly, and he held up his hands, as if fending them off.

“It ain't the Deputy,” Jessie told them with a chuckle, “but you're close. Milt Quinlan, you get over here.”

Surprised, some of the crowd began to laugh. “Go on, Milt,” Joe Kramer yelled. “Get up there and make a fool of yourself.” There were more catcalls in the same vein as he stood up and strode towards the stage.

'Oh, Lord, I hope not,' Milt thought. He glanced over towards the door to the kitchen. Jane was standing there with Maggie. He gave her a quick, nervous wave and was glad to see her smile encouragingly and wave back at him.

“You ready, Milt?” Jessie greeted him when he reached her. She stood and shifted her chair to make room for him on the small stage where she usually sat, doing her show.

He stepped up next to her. “No, but let's go anyway.”

“All right, then,” she replied. “Folks, this song's called – well, you'll all know in a minute.” She strummed a line of melody on her guitar and signaled him to begin.

He took a deep breath, looked at Jane again, and started singing.

` “Jane, Jane, who can explain
` This longing, this yearning I feel?
` Is it love I now know?
` My mind declares 'no',
` But my spirit insists that it's real.”

He waited for her reaction. She looked surprised at first, but she was soon smiling broadly at him, nodding for him to continue.

` “Jane, Jane, have I caused you pain
` Pretending that I didn't care?
` It's been but a ruse,
` A mask that I use.
` To embrace you, I just didn't dare.”

` “Till the gold in the mountains is stolen away
` And a stone in the graveyard shall my name display
` I'll be repenting and I'll be remembering...”

` “Jane, Jane, a name, a refrain,
` It flows like the prairie bird's trill.
` It drifts like a song
` Sometimes soft, sometimes strong,
` That I hear when the night sounds fall still.”

` “Jane, Jane, I've earned your disdain
` And deserve to be shown to the door.
` Till the day that I die
` I'll ask myself why
` To win you I did not do more.”

` “Till the gold in the mountains is stolen away
` And a stone in the graveyard shall my name display
` I'll be repenting and I'll be remembering...”

Milt stepped off the stage, as he began the third verse. Jessie stayed where she was, still accompanying him on her guitar.

` “Jane, Jane, does hope still remain?
` Can a heart that's been wounded forgive?
` I came to the West
` To meet a man's test,
` But without you I scarce care to live.”

As he sang, Milt walked slowly through the crowd towards where Jane stood, uncertain what she should do. Now, he reached her and took her hand in his, still singing.

` “Jane, Jane, the weeks and months wane.
` Time surges past those who trail slow.”

Suddenly, he dropped to one knee, still holding her hand, and looked up at her, as he continued,

` “Let me place a band
` On thy precious hand
` That forward as one we may go.”

` “Till the gold in the moun -- “

“Yes!” Jane interrupted loudly, tears running down her face. “Oh, yes.” Milt rose to his feet and pulled her into his arms. They kissed, not even noticing the applause that filled the room or Jessie's happy voice finishing the song for him, with some new words of her own.

` “Till the gold in the mountains is stolen away
` And a stone in the graveyard shall his name display
` He'll be repeating how much he'll keep loving his...”
` “Jane, Jane... Jane”

The applause went on even after Jessie ended the song. No one threw money, though, but she hadn't expected them to. She set her guitar on her chair and hurried over to Milt and Jane. They had finally stopped kissing and were accepting congratulations from the circle of people surrounding them.

“You was right, Jessie,” Jane said, as the singer pushed her way to the pair through the crowd. “I surely did like what you got Milt t'sing tonight.”

Milt stood next to her, his arm around her waist. “Jessie just gave me some of the words. The idea of proposing was entirely mine.” He kissed her cheek. “My best idea ever, I think.”

“I think so, too.” Jane snuggled in closer to him.

Shamus picked that moment to join them. “So when's the happy day?” He asked. “I won't be asking where ye'll be married, 'cause ye'll be having it here, o'course.”

“I can't think of any better place,” Milt answered. “The when's as soon as possible. I-I'd just like to ask Reverend Yingling to officiate. Seeing as I'm church parliamentarian, I think it would be expected of me. I hope you don't mind, Jane, or you either, Shamus.”

Jane grinned and shook her head. “I don't care who does it, Milt; as long as it's you 'n' me saying the 'I do' part.” She took his hand in hers.

“It will be.” He pulled her to him and kissed her again.

Shamus shrugged. “I don't care, neither. Maybe it'll change his mind about me to be a part of a wedding held in me Saloon.”

* * * * *

“Why, Mr. Ritter,” a cheery, female voice asked, “whatever are you doing in here?”

Clyde Ritter pushed his hat back – he was recognized, so why try to hide – and looked up. “Nancy – Miss Osbourne,” he said in surprise. “I might well ask the same of you.”

“Thanks to your wife and her friends, I no longer have my teacher's job. Mr. O'Toole was kind enough to hire me as a waitress. Now, what would you like to drink?”

“A beer, and bring one for yourself, if you'd like to join me.” He pulled a five-dollar half eagle coin from his pocket and placed it in her open hand. “We'll have a drink or two first, and see what happens after that.”

“No, thank you. I'll just bring the one drink for you.”

“You don't have to work here, you know. I'm sure I can find a better... position for you.”

“No, Mr. Ritter; I've lost track of how many times I've told you: it wouldn't be right.”

“That was before. You're not the town schoolmarm anymore. You don't have to be so prim and proper any longer.”

“Perhaps not, but you're still a married man.”

“So? What Cecelia doesn't know what hurt her – or me.”

Nancy glanced up at the clock. “Mr. Ritter, the second show will be starting in a few minutes. If you want that beer, I'll have to go for it now. Shamus won't let us serve drinks while the ladies are dancing.”

“Oh, all right... go.” He watched her leave, enjoying the sway of her hips as she walked towards the bar. It seemed much more pronounced than it had when she was living in his home. Nancy was a fine-looking woman, but it was the > “
Cactus Blossoms that he'd come to see.

Nancy brought him the beer – and his change – just as Jessie Hanks sat down on the small stage. He took a long swig and settled back in his chair, as she began to sing that “Captain Jinks” song.

He sat upright when Lylah pranced into view, flashing her petticoat. “Well, now,” he said in an appreciative whisper, “she is still just about the prettiest darkie I've seen in a dog's age.” He was even more appreciative when Flora came out, doing her high-kicking strut. He leaned forward now, watching her body – especially her uncorseted breasts – move as she danced. “And that Flora, she is definitely someone I want to see more of.”

* * * * *

Saturday, May 11, 1872

Sophie Kalish knocked on the half-opened door to the office. “Can I come in, Sam?”

“Sure thing, Sophie,” Sam Duggan replied. “How're you and your ladies doing this morning?”

She came into the room, not bothering to close the door behind her. “Pretty good, thanks. The ladies are downstairs finishing their breakfasts. I thought I'd come up and talk to you for a bit.” She took a seat in one of the two high-back chairs facing his desk.

Sam watched her settling down, smoothing her skirts coquettishly. Sophie was a tall woman, her hair a mass of black curls that hung down almost to her waist. She admitted to being thirty, but, whatever her age, she was damned handsome, and he felt a pang of regret that their relationship was solely a commercial one.

Then he realized that she wasn't looking at him, so much as she was glancing at the open ledger on his desk. “Business hasn't been so good this week,” he told her. “I hit Shamus hard when you and your ladies started dancing, but he got some of it back with those Cactus Blossoms he's got.” He banged a fist on the desk. “Damn that potion of his. How can I compete with that?”

Sophie's expression became serious. “How does anyone compete with magic? I saw it with my own eyes, and I still have trouble believing what happened.”

Sam raised a curious eyebrow. “Oh, and what, exactly, did you see?”

The dancer nodded. “We've figured out it's a town secret. But Ruthie and I were broadsiding – that means we were standing outside, leaning against the building, just watching the world go by. We saw a crowd going into O’Toole’s, so we tagged along to see what was what. It looked like some kind of trial inside, and we decided to stay. We actually saw those two men drink that stuff and turn into the damned Cactus Blossoms.”

“How did Shamus like having you two beauties in his place, reminding people of what they're missing over here?”

She shook her head. “We stayed in the back of the room, didn’t talk to anyone. We were trying hard not to be noticed.”

“The other girls were scared when we told them what we saw. Especially Opal; she’s religious. We talked about getting out of such a crazy town, but then we decided that it's no more terrible to turn an outlaw into a woman than to string him up on the gallows in plain view. We've found out since then that the girls aren’t treated too badly around here. Two months for attempted murder isn't harsh, at all. Some of these potion girls seem to be doing pretty well. Like, we saw that Jessie Hanks’ picture over the bar.”

Sam nodded. “I tried my best to hire Jessie out of Shamus' clutches, but, damn it, she seems to think of that man as if he were her father.” He shrugged. “But right now, I've got to figure out what to do about the competition -- from both her and the Cactus Blossoms.”

Sophie smiled. “Seems to me, that's my problem more than it is yours. We already beat Jessie's competition. Now he's got two girls to my – to our four. We'll just have to out-dance them. I'll start working on some new routines this very day. And I was thinking that we could do a little more hostessing than we've been doing – for a fair share of the extra tips, of course.”

“Of course, thanks, Sophie.” He reached over and put his hand on hers. “I knew I could count on you.”

* * * * *

Jessie hurried over to Wilma, as soon as she walked into the Saloon. “Wilma,” she hissed, “we need t'talk.”

“Ain't that what I usually come over here for, Jess, t'talk to you 'n' Bridget?” Wilma studied her sister's expression. “But I can see you're riled up 'bout something. Take a seat and tell me what it is.” She pulled out a chair from a nearby table and sat down.

Jessie quickly took the seat opposite her. “Flora Stafford, she knows who we are... who we was.”

“Shit! Now how the hell'd she find out?” Wilma glanced around the room. “Who told her?”

“Damned if I know. Maybe that lawyer o’hers told her, or maybe, when she went in t'clean my room, she recognized that wooden soldier I got from Pa.”

“You ain’t gonna try ‘n’ tell me that fairy story again, are you, the one about Pa’s ghost showing up here on Christmas Eve?”

“Look, Wilma, believe me or not, I know what happened that night. And whoever carved that soldier; it looks enough like Pa's handiwork that Flora recognized it. She snuck it out of my room, and wouldn't give it back till Shamus ordered her to.” Jessie made a very sorry face. “In the meantime, she figured out who I am – from my name, probably and who Bridget 'n' you are, too.”

“We have to watch out. She's not as dumb as I remembered. Bridget must've loved Flora knowing that she used to be Brian.”

“None too well.” The two women looked up to see that Flora had come over unnoticed, while they were talking. She said, her chin raised, “The little bitch slapped me.”

Wilma rose to her feet and turned to confront her childhood nemesis. “Ain't nothing you didn't deserve, that 'n' a whole lot more.”

“Speaking of just desserts, Sergeant,” Flora replied. “I'd say that you certainly got yours. From what people say, you're nothing but a common whore.”

The demimonde laughed in her old enemy's face. “Common? I'm a very special whore, thank you very much, and half the men in this town can tell you just how special. I'd warn you t'keep your own petticoat clean, 'cept I hear you don't wear one. You just prance around showing off your pretty red drawers, don't you, Captain?”

“That'll be enough of that, Wilma,” Molly warned, as she joined the others. “Jessie 'n' ye can sit around and chew the fat, if ye want, but this one...” She pointed at Flora. “...she's got work t'be doing. And, remember, I didn't let people pick on ye two when ye were new here, and I'm not going to let ye pick on Lylah and Flora now.”

Wilma looked contrite. “Sorry, Molly.” Her right hand curled into a fist. Without warning, she threw a right cross that caught Flora on the chin. Flora's head jerked to the left, and she fell to the ground unconscious. “Now, it's enough.” She chuckled. “Forry Stafford never could take a punch like that; looks like Flora still can’t.”

Wilma headed for the door, before Molly could throw her out, her lips curled in a most satisfied smile. “See you later, Little Sister; so long t'you, too, Molly.”

* * * * *

Arnie knocked on the Spauldings' back door. It swung open a moment later. “Annie,” Hedley greeted her with a broad smile. “Do come in.” He bowed low and held the door open, while she walked through. Mrs. Spaulding stood by the table. Clara, in her wheel chair as always, was a few feet away. Arnie sensed some tension in Mrs. Spaulding's smile.

“Good afternoon, Annie. Here's the laundry to be cleaned.” Mrs. Spaulding pointed to a large burlap sack on a chair set by the door. The bag was stuffed almost to bursting a seam.

Arnie had been carrying two wrapped packages. She had made deliveries to the Spauldings some of the part-time work that she was still doing for the laundry. “And good afternoon to you, all of you. Here is what we did clean.” She set them down on the table. “It comes to $4.82 cents.”

Mrs. Spaulding looked around. “I... ahh, I seem to have left my purse in my room. Would you please come with me to get it?”

“I can get it for you, Mother,” Hedley offered.

She shook her head. “No, that's all right, dear. I'd like to talk to Annie privately for a moment, if she doesn't mind.”

Arnie frowned, wondering if she was in some sort of trouble. “I don't mind.” She followed Mrs. Spaulding out of the kitchen and through the parlor to the woman's own bedroom.

Once they were inside the room, Mrs. Spaulding carefully closed the door behind them. “I don't want the children to hear us,” she explained. More and more, Arnie suspected that something was not well. Vida studied the girl's face for a moment before speaking. “Annie, please, are you... I mean, I heard a strange rumor. That you yourself are one of those...potion girls... you told us about. Are you?”

“I...” Arnie looked down, not wanting to face her questioner. “I...I am. Who told you?”

“I'd prefer not to say for now. From what I've heard, that potion is only given to convicted criminals.”

The pretty brunette glanced up. “I'm not a criminal!”

“I know. But why did you take it?”

“I... I took it by accident. My mother was hurt – hurt very bad – because of me. I felt guilt and ran away. Señora O'Toole let me stay in the Saloon overnight. I could not sleep, and I drank what I thought was something to help me do so. I found the wrong bottle.” She made a gesture at her body. “It turned me into... this.”

Mrs. Spaulding stood with folded arms, a stern expression on her face. “A very pretty story – if it's true.”

“It is, I swear it is.” She closed her eyes, not wanting to ask her next question. “Does Hedley – and Clara – do they know? Are you going to tell them?”

“I've not decided. You've always seemed to be a good girl, and my children like you.” Her expression changed, as she thought of something. “Like you, perhaps, a little too much. In any event, I don't think that I want you here until I decide what I do feel about what you've told me. It's not so much what you are; perhaps it was an accident. But it hurts that you have been deceiving us for weeks.”

“Please, Señora. I only wanted to be accepted as an ordinary person, not a freak. Everyone else in the pueblo knew about me, and most of them were laughing at me.”

Not replying, Mrs. Spaulding picked up her purse from her night table. She opened it and took out a half eagle. “Here is what I owe you. You may keep the change. Now, please, leave.”

“But...” Arnie felt the sting of tears forming in her eyes.

The older woman shook her head. “No, buts. I will make some excuse to my children. Go now, and I'll try to have an answer to how you should be regarded when you bring the laundry back on Tuesday. That is the best I can offer now.”

“Sì, Tuesday.” Head bowed in regret, Arnie started back for the kitchen.

* * * * *

“Nancy,” Carl demanded. “What’s this I hear ‘bout you quitting your teaching job?”

“You heard right,” Nancy answered, looking up at her brother from her stool at the bar. “They offered me my job back, and I didn’t take it.”

“Why the hell – Why did you do that? I thought you loved being a teacher.”

“I do – but I don’t love what goes with it, having to live my life the way a bunch of meddlesome biddies say I should.”

He studied her expression. “Was it really that bad?’

“It was worse. I got labeled a fallen woman for nothing more than going out to dinner with a man.”

“I sure wish you hadn’t done that.”

“I had to. To protect you – you know that. Dell Cooper threatened to testify that it was you who robbed Mr. Slocum if I didn’t.”

“I know, and I thought everybody heard the truth at the trial. And you told folks what happened, too, didn’t you?”

“I told the town council, and they believed me to a man.”

“Good for them. So why didn't things work out?”

“They were ready to reinstate me at last week’s meeting, only…” Her voice trailed off.

“Only what?”

“Only some people, Mrs. Ritter and her friends, wouldn’t stand for it. They disrupted the meeting, yelling that I was un-unfit.” She blinked, fighting the tears gathering in her eyes.

Carl grew angry at what his sister had had to bear. “What happened?”

“Whit – Mr. Whitney and the other councilmen tried to argue, saying that people didn’t know my side of it.” She sighed. “The women didn’t care for the truth. They just yelled louder.”

“That’s when I knew that I couldn’t go back,” she continued. “They’d be watching me every moment, just waiting -- hoping -- for me to fail. I-I can’t live that way.”

“But they got what they wanted, didn't they? You let them take the trick!”

“I'm not out of the game yet. I'm just not going to be treated that way anymore.”

“But… what’re you gonna do now? You ain’t planning t’leave town, are you?”

“I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of seeing me go away; you’re stuck with me, I guess.”

Carl had to smile at her determination. “That’s my nanny goat of a little sister. You’ll find another job in no time. Just you see.”

“I-I think I have.” Nancy took a breath, bracing for his reaction. “Here, at the Eerie Saloon.”

“You’re gonna work here?”

She shrugged. “Nothing is permanent. I've found that out. 'The best laid plans…’ you know.”

“Why settle for this? Couldn't you find a job in a store?”

“You make it sound so easy! I tried, I truly did. Too many men believe Cecelia’s version of things. Some of them wouldn’t hire a ‘fallen woman’; the others, well, they wanted to hire me because they believed the talk.” Her expression left Carl in no doubt about what she meant.

“Bastards!” He looked like he’d just drunken something very sour. “Up to now, it always seemed like they thought of you as a lady. Maybe I don't amount to much, but I wanted better for you. If you don't clear out of here right now, no one will ever think of you as well as they did before.”

“Do you look down on saloon women, Carl? You certainly spend enough time here.”

“Most people don't harshly judge a man who goes into a saloon for some society. But they come down hard on women who work in such places. If you don't leave, people will start thinking of you as a saloon gal, and that's how you will be remembered.”

“Better that than to be remembered as a spinster with no backbone.”

“If you quit, I'll do my best to help you out until something better comes along.”

“Thank you, but you live from hand to mouth as it is.”

“I can save a little money if I stop drinking and gambling. I just don't want my sister working in a saloon.”

“No, but you don’t mind other people’s sisters working in one, do you?” She waited for an answer. “I said, do you?”

“Oh, hell, Nancy. Saloon work is fine for some women. They have the right nature for it.”

“And my nature? What is it? To be an outcast, supported by a brother who doesn't need the burden? Or should I crawl back to my old job and enjoy the wonderful life of being the only unmarried woman at the one or two tea socials a year that Mrs. Ritter lets me be invited to, barely tolerated by the local gentry as long as I keep my mouth shut?”

“I never got any respect when I was a teacher, Carl,” she continued. “Even the minister told me I had to keep my opinions to myself, because school teachers don't really know much more than the children they teach.”

“That’sYingling, all right.”

She shook her head. “I've tried for long enough to live in the world of people like Reverend Yingling and the Ritters. Just see what it's gotten me!”

“I can't get anywhere with you when you're like this. We'll have to talk this over more when you don't have your back up,” said Carl. “But at least make me one promise.”

“What kind of promise?” she asked sourly.

“That you'll keep looking for other work, and you won't settle for any long spell of waitressing in a saloon. The sooner you take a step up, the better for you.”

She considered that. “You don't have to worry. I don't intend to keep at what I'm doing for very long. A little waitressing is all right for a married woman, to help the family at home, but a single girl on her own needs to do something of more substance. I'm surely going to be keeping my options open.”

He looked into her resolute eyes and decided not to push things any further at the moment. “Thank you, nanny goat, for showing at least that much sense.”

* * * * *

Trisha and Kaitlin sat quietly in the waiting room of Doctor Upshaw's office. There were other patients: a man with his arm in a sling and a woman who sat cradling a small, sniffling boy in her arms. Everyone suffered on their own, not talking to – or even looking at – the others.

“He'll see you now, Kaitlin,” Edith Lonnigan told them. Kaitlin stood up.

As did Trisha. “Can I go in with her?” She asked. When the nurse agreed, they followed her behind the curtain and into the examination room.

Upshaw was waiting for them. “What seems to be the problem, Kaitlin?”

“My... husband is pregnant,” Kaitlin replied sourly. “Her condition needs to be checked, but we didn't want anyone to know, so I pretended to be the one who was sick.”

Trisha stepped forward. “I made her do it, Doc. I-I'm sorry.”

He regarded her. “You're hardly the first woman who didn't want people to know that she was pregnant. Your reason is a bit more complicated than most of theirs, I'll admit, but the important thing is getting you through that pregnancy.”

Kaitlin and Trisha had both been worried about his reaction to their pretense. “Thanks, Doc,” Trisha said.

“You're welcome, Trisha. Now, I need to examine you, so please strip down to your camisole and drawers.”

Trisha was standing next to an alcove with several hooks on the wall, a coat rack and a narrow bench. “Okay, doc.” She began to unbutton her blouse.

“And while you do that, let me ask you a few questions. For a start, are you still suffering from morning sickness?”

“I am,” she answered, “and afternoon sickness, too, some days – the cramping, too, but I don't throw up. Those crackers Kaitlin suggested seem to help with the throwing up, anyway.” She took off her blouse and hung it on one of the hooks.

“Good. Any other symptoms?”

She was undoing her skirt now. “I... my... my breasts feel kind of tender, kind of the way they do just before I get my monthlies.”

Kaitlin made a slight coughing noise, then spoke, “She's gotten moody, too, like before her monthlies.”

“I... I have not,” Trisha said, surprised and a bit angry. She stepped out of her skirt and hung it up next to her blouse.

Edith shook her head. “I think you just proved that you have,” she said softly. “It's nothing to be worried about, though. Your body is still making all the changes it needs to make for you to carry that new life inside you. That can be a strain on any... one.”

“That's not very comforting.” Trisha untied the ribbon holding her petticoat in place. She let them go, and the garment slid to the floor.

Kaitlin picked up the petticoat, as Trisha stepped out of it. “I think her waist's gotten a little thicker, too.”

“It has,” the physician confirmed the fact by gently touching Trisha belly with his fingertips. “And that's to be expected, as well.”

Trisha looked at all their faces. “So where do we go from here?”

“Based on that examination I gave you two weeks back, you seem to be having a normal pregnancy,” Upshaw replied. “Have you had any problems since then?” When she shook her head, he continued. “You should get a monthly check-up for the next few months, then weekly up until you deliver. Do you want to do that?”

“Monthly?” Trisha's eyes went wide. “And weekly, later on?”

Kaitlin gently put her hand on Trisha's arm. “You should. It's better for the baby – for the both of you – to get checked up on regularly, while you're pregnant.”

“I... I suppose. It's just so... so much to take in.”

Doc gave her a reassuring smile. “I suppose it is. You can come back here to see me, if you'd like, but Edith is a very capable midwife. She can take care of you, see you at home, answer your questions, and the like. I'll be here if there are any complications, and either of us can handle an uncomplicated delivery.”

“De... Delivery.” Trisha's legs felt wobbly. She was struggling to understand what she was in for.

Edith slipped a stool up behind Tricia, and she and Kaitlin helped her settle down onto it. “Don't you worry, Trisha, dear,” the midwife told her. “It's always scary, but we'll all be here to help you.”

* * * * *

Nancy Osbourne sat and listened to the band warming up. 'What am I doing?' she asked herself. She had managed to sound cocksure while arguing with Carl, but left alone with her thoughts she felt differently. 'I can't do this.' She glanced around the room that was quickly filling with men. Some of them were staring at her, staring at her and... and smiling.

Were they laughing at the fallen schoolteacher, or did they think she was pretty? Neither idea set easy with Nancy.

She couldn't keep herself from glancing away from those interested eyes. Ever since becoming a teacher she knew she didn't dare dance with a man in public, not even at a church social. Nancy tried to tell herself that the old rules didn't matter anymore. She was free.

But old habits die hard.

“Carl,” she said to herself, when she saw her brother come in along with a few of his friends. “Maybe he...”

‘He's still angry. He isn't about to dance with me tonight,’ she told herself. ‘Not the first dance, nor any that follow. I have to do this on my own.’

No, he was standing with some of the men talking, pointing at the other women, picking out which one to ask. When he saw her looking at him, he frowned and looked away.

She then heard Shamus make the announcement. “All right, men, time t'be picking yuir partners.” There was suddenly a shuffled of boots behind her.

“Hola, Señorita,” a voice said. “I am Angel Montero. Would you care to dance with me?”

Nancy looked up. A tall, round-faced Mexican in a work shirt and jeans was standing in front of her, his hand extended towards her, holding a ticket.

She inhaled deeply, to combat her shakiness. “And I am Nancy Osbourne, and, yes, I would.” She took his ticket in a slightly trembling hand and, as Shamus had told her, placed it in her apron pocket. Then she offered her own hand and rose to her feet. Memories of dances long past came to her mind, as he grasped her hand in his and led her out onto the floor. Memories came, too, of her lost love, of Bill Meisner, who never returned from the Civil War. 'Gone,' she thought sadly, 'but never forgotten.'

She stepped into Angel's arms as the music began. It was a Strauss waltz. She couldn't remember the name, but it was one she had always liked. To get her mind off her nervousness, she closed her eyes and let her body move to the music. “I can dance,” she whispered, delighting in a skill she'd been afraid had gone rusty over long years of non-use.

“You certainly can,” Angel answered, “and you can dance with me any time you wish. It is a pleasure to have you as a partner.”

She had to smile at the compliment. “Likewise, Señor... Angel, and thank you so very much.”

* * * * *

Enough of the men at the dance knew about Milt's proposal that no one else had tried to have the first dance with Jane. He took her into his arms as the band began a sprightly version of “The Blue Danube.”

“You talk to the Reverend like you was gonna?” Jane asked.

Milt shook his head. “I tried. He's been so busy playing politics this week that he didn't get his sermon for tomorrow finished. Martha – that's his wife – told me that he locked himself in his office and ordered her not to let anyone in unless it was a life and death emergency.”

“And he ain't gonna want to see anybody tomorrow neither, I'll bet.”

“Probably not; he likes to relax with his family on Sundays after the service. We'll both go over and see him on Monday, okay?”

“I suppose we can do that – if you want me t'come along with you, that is?”

“Why wouldn't I want you to come along? I want the whole world to know that you're going to be my wife. Besides...” He pulled her closer to him. “...it gives me a chance to spend some time walking around town holding hands with you.”

She rested her head on his chest, so that she could almost hear his heart beating. “I like that answer.”

“So do I.” He kissed her forehead.

* * * * *
~
“Looks like it's finally my turn.”

Flora had been staring down at the floor, enjoying her waiter girl role less and less as the hours passed. She gazed up to see... “Who... Oh, hello, Osbourne.”

“You can call me Carl,” he said with a grin. “After all we've been through, Flora, it seems only fair.”

“Don't remind me.” Her expression was less than happy.

He was still grinning. “Ah, but I want to remind you. If you hadn't gotten so greedy and been so sure of yourself, why... you might even still be wearing pants. You'd be one of the men with a ticket, instead of one of the girls collecting them.==> “

He didn’t add that he might have been one of those girls, himself. That was something he worked very hard at not thinking about. ‘The Judge didn’t give them a choice,’ he thought. ‘Who’s to say that he’d have given me one?’

He enjoyed being male, and the prospect of becoming a woman – especially as punishment for something he hadn’t done – bothered the hell out of him. It was almost enough to make him feel sympathetic – just a little – towards Flora.

“Probably,” she admitted, regret showing in her voice as she stood up.
~
He offered his hand, ticket between his fingers.

“You're one of Slocum's men.” It wasn't a question. She knew the answer. “Are you all here again to give me a hard time?”

“You be nice to me, I'll be nice to you.”

For a moment Flora wondered if she shouldn't try to start taking Rosalyn's advice, but she couldn't. Her face felt frozen; she couldn't even smile. Maybe she should get together with her friend again and hear some of that advice she had been promised. The cowboy was still offering his hand and she took it warily.

The cowboy walked her out into the crowd of people waiting for the music to start. Besides the waiter girls, there were a number of men wearing a kerchief tied to their arm, signaling their willingness to dance the woman's part for a beer afterwards. Seeing them on the floor made Flora feel a little less mortified about what she had to do.

Carl glanced at the girl beside him as they walked. He had planned to tease her as they danced, to get back at her for what she had done to Mr. Slocum, but as he stared at her pillowy breasts and narrow waist, her long, blonde hair that reached down past her shoulders. He decided that just holding her close and feeling her body move against his own didn't seem like too bad an idea in itself.

What good would it do him if he made one of the prettiest women in town dislike dancing with him?

* * * * *

“I come in t'see you dancing during the week, Lylah,” Hammy Lincoln told her while they moved to a jaunty polka. “You was even better'n I thought you'd be.”

The woman smiled, surprising herself. “Thanks, Hammy. It's nice t'hear you say that. I thought I looked like a damned fool.”

“I'se only telling what's true.” He chuckled. “I gotta admit, though, I likes what you was wearing... or not wearing that night... more'n I like what all you got on now.”

Her smile turned to a frown. “I been hearing that all night,” she said sourly, “and I don't like it one bit. Though I surely do know what a man is thinking about when he sees a saloon... lady.”

“I only meant it as a compliment, gal. Them there pretty yellow under things looked mighty nice 'gainst that smooth skin o' yours, a whole lot better than that white blouse and black skirt you gots on now – nice as they is.”

Her eyes shifted to view her right arm and her dark as chocolate flesh. That depressed her more than the dancing. 'Dang,' she thought, 'it's harder t'get used t'being a nigger than it is t'being a gal.’

* * * * *



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