Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change -- Spring, part 9 of 13

Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change – Spring, part 9 of 13
By Ellie Dauber and Chris Leeson © 2014

Sunday, May 26, 1872

The music woke Lylah up.

“What the hell?” She tossed back her blanket and sat up in bed.

Only… she wasn’t in bed anymore, or even in the room she shared with Flora. She was downstairs in the Saloon. The room was full of light, and she could hear music, although she couldn’t see the musicians. She couldn’t see anyone. She was alone.

“This hasta be a dream,” she said, looking down at herself. She was in one of the chairs set against the wall for the waiter-girls to use while they waited for men to give them tickets for a dance. But all that she wore was her camisole, her drawers, and the short aprons that the girls used to hold the tickets they were given.

As she looked down, she saw a pair of feet – men’s feet – step in close to her. “Care to… dance, Lylah,” a voice asked.

“I-I suppose.” She looked up. For some reason, she couldn’t make out the features of the man’s face, but the outstretched hand that offered her a ticket was… dark, a Negro’s hand; a hand the same color as her own.

Lylah felt a warm flush run through her, as she rose to her feet. She accepted his ticket, and her fingers tingled as they momentarily touched his. The tingling spread, when he took her hand and led her out onto the empty dance floor.

“A waltz,” he said in a confident voice, “nice ‘n’ slow.” He pulled her gently into his arms, and they began to move to the music.

Something deep inside her seemed to be responding. “Nice ‘n’ slow,” she murmured, pressing herself against him. She was filled with the same exquisite sensations she’d felt in the bathhouse all those weeks ago, and that she’d been forced to “remember” every time she and Flora had danced.

Her breasts ached -- ached! -- to be touched, and her nipples felt hard as two pieces of lead shot.

“Ooohh!” she moaned softly, and the man – whoever he was – came even closer. His head moved in next to hers, and he sucked on her lower lip. After a moment, he shifted, his tongue sliding between her lips to tangle with her own.

Her head was swimming. Her arms, she suddenly realized, were draped around his neck. The kiss deepened, and her body seemed to glow, filled with some marvelous, ecstatic light. She gloried in the touch of his bare skin against hers.

Bare?

She broke the kiss just long enough to glance down. They were still in the Saloon, still dancing to the music. Only now, they were clad only in their drawers. His were tented almost to bursting, and hers… hers were warm and... and damp, as if she’d peed herself.

Before she could react, the man leaned down. His lips closed around her left nipple, and he began to suckle like a newborn calf. She couldn’t move – couldn’t think. Lylah closed her eyes, luxuriating in the sensations flowing through her.

Whap! Something hit her head.

“What?” She opened her eyes. She was back in her bed, dressed again in her nightgown.

Flora was sitting up in her own bed, glaring at her in the light of the oil lamp near her bed. Even her new kitten, curled up against her hip, managed to look angry. “Stop playing with yourself, you damned horny nigger,” she hissed. “You were making so much noise that you woke me up.”

“I-I’m sorry,” Lylah answered, feeling relief and embarrassment. It had been just a dream. Except that her hand was down there, two fingers pressed against her… cunny. She moved it away and settled down in the bed.

“No; no you aren’t, not from all the sounds you were making.” Flora turned down the wick, and the lamp dimmed. “Just shut up for now.”

Lylah nodded. “I-I’ll try.” She lay in the darkness trembling from both the pleasure she’d experienced during the dream, and the fear that her dream would return.

* * * * *

“My text this morning is Matthew 27:24,” Reverend Yingling began. “When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.”

“He took water, and washed his hands. Pontius Pilate washed his hands, and he thought that he was at an end of some minor problem. He washed his hands because he did not understand the enormity of what was at stake as a result of his actions. He washed his hands because he did not realize that he had handed our Lord Jesus over to those who were to crucify him.”

“That is the way some people are. They make the wrong choice, the trivial choice, the easy choice because they do not understand what issues are at stake. They make these choices, these so very wrong choices, and they try to walk away unscathed, leaving us to live with the, oh, so horrible results.”

“You may say – you may want to believe – that such things don’t happen anymore. If you do, my friends, then you are wrong, so very, very wrong for it happened right here. It happened here – in this country, in this territory, in this very town, and it happened just a few days ago.”

“It happened when the Eerie town council finally… finally chose to act on my petition.”

“I believe – as so many of you do – that the transformative elixir created by Shamus O’Toole is evil.”

“Some might ask, how could it be evil when it delivered this town from the danger of the Hanks gang? Even the worst of the minions of Lucifer, it is said, can take on a pleasant seeming. The better to entice the innocent. The initial good that the potion manifested must be weighed against the evil that it has done since.”

“And… And the evil that it may yet do. The lives that it may disrupt, the innocents that it may cause to stray from the path of Righteousness and from the destiny of good that our Lord has planned for them.”

“And they, the town council, washed their hands of it.”

“They washed their hands of the opportunity to put O’Toole’s brew into the hands of those most capable of discerning the good and evil of it and of best dealing with it. We asked them for a committee, and they gave us a joke.”

“But we are not laughing. We do not see the humor – or the purpose – in what they have done. And we will not accept it.”

“I have no intention of working with this ‘committee’ that they created. Nor – he has told me – does Horace Styron.” Yingling paused a moment to look over at Styron. The other man smiled and nodded in encouragement of the reverend’s words, and Yingling went on.

“The town council will meet again in a month. With your help, we shall be ready for them. We will force the Eerie Town Council to abolish the existing committee and to allow me to form a group of true believers, men who can to properly deal with Mr. O’Toole and his potion.”

“Hallelujah!” he proclaimed, arms raised, looking toward Heaven in supplication.

But only a part of the congregation roared out in response, “Hallelujah!”

“Let our next hymn show the reason we cannot help but be victorious,” the minister announced, ignoring the weak response. “Sing out with ‘Oh What Strength We Have in Jesus,’ on page 87 in your hymnals.”

* * * * *

“Mind if I join you?”

Flora looked up from her breakfast. Nancy Osbourne stood across the table from her, holding a tray. “Sit,” Flora said with a shrug.

“Thanks.” Nancy set the tray down on the table and took a seat. “I… umm, wanted to talk to you about the dance last night… if I may.”

“What’s to talk about? It was the same damned dance as every Saturday. We get our feet stepped on and our asses pinched by a bunch of foul-smelling… horny men.” Even as she spoke, Flora felt a flush come to her cheeks, as her body remembered things.

Nancy looked dubious. “I don’t know; you seemed to enjoy some of it. I saw the way you were dancing with Clyde Ritter. And…” She paused for effect. “…I saw you kiss him.”

“What of it?” Flora thought quickly. Nancy and Molly were pretty chummy. Was she spying for Molly – or, worse, for Shamus? She decided to stick with the story she’d been giving the Irishman. “I-I’m a girl now. Girls kiss men. It feels kind of nice, in fact.”

Nancy grimaced slightly, as if at an obdurate student. “Yes, but when they do, they should know who they’re kissing. He’s married.”

“That didn’t stop him. Why should it stop me?”

She frowned and nodded. “It takes an awful lot to stop him. You know that I used to be the school teacher here in town, don’t you?”

Flora couldn’t resist. “Yeah; you’ve certainly come down in the world haven’t you?”

The other blonde smiled ruefully. “I prefer to think that I’ve simply taken a different path than the one I was on.” Flora was a bitter woman, Nancy knew, and they had never been friendly towards one another. Well, no point in stopping now. If Flora got involved with Ritter, it might be trouble for everyone at the saloon. “I have an unpleasant history with Mr. Ritter myself, and I wanted to warn you about him. My contract with the town called for me to get room and board from the parents of one of my students. Last year, I lived with the Ritters.”

“And?”

“The man was relentless. He chased me the whole time I was there: making suggestive remarks – even in front of his family, catching me alone in a room and trying to steal a kiss -- I even had to mount a bolt lock on my bedroom door, after he used his key to let himself in one night.”

Flora had to smile. “He certainly seemed determined.”

“He was. At Christmas, he gave me a rather lavish present, an ivory pin. He told his wife that it was because I was doing such a fine job teaching their children.” Nancy made a face like she’d just sipped straight lemon juice, instead of the coffee on her breakfast tray. “Later on, he caught me alone in the hall outside my room. He leered and told me that the pin was actually payment for, as he put it, services not yet rendered.”

She sighed. “It was a lovely pin. I never wore it, though, and I left it behind when I moved out.” She took a bite of her toast.

‘Bingo!’ Flora thought. ‘What was it Rosalyn had said about the rewards of flirting?’ This Nancy Osbourne certainly seemed naïve for a grown woman. Aloud, she asked, “Did he ever give you any other… presents?”

“He tried to. He offered other things: a new dress, jewelry – once he just asked me outright how much I charged for my… favors.”

Flora tried to look shocked. “Hot da…. My goodness, what did you do?”

“I told him that I’d tell his wife if he kept talking like that. He – He dared me to. He laughed and said that she wouldn’t believe me.”

“Did you tell her?”

“I-I tried. He was right. She all but ignored me. And, from what she did say, you’d have thought that it was all my fault. I didn’t know what else to do, so I told Mr. Whitney – he’s head of the school board – that I wanted to get to know more of my students’ families. A teacher, especially a female teacher doesn’t have much of a social life. I asked if he could find me another family to board with, starting as soon as the school year ended. He did, and I moved out as quickly as I could after that.”

She sniffled. “A fat lot of good it did me.”

Flora considered what she’d just heard. “You know what I’d have done?”

“No, and that’s why I warned you, so you’d know what you were getting into.”

“What Ritter was offering you was a business transaction. You didn't handle your end of it very well, from what you're saying.” Nancy looked surprised. And Flora surprised herself, too, at how easily she could say the words, “I’d have taken his presents.”

* * * * *

Reverend Yingling stood on the schoolhouse porch after the service, as always. He shook hands with his parishioners as they left the building, taking a reading of how the service -- and his sermon -- had gone.

“Wonderful sermon,” Cecelia Ritter gushed. “I am so glad to hear that you haven’t given up the good fight for control of that horrid potion.”

The reverend smiled and nodded. “Thank you, Cecelia. With the support of fine, Christian people like yourself, I know that our side shall ultimately prevail.”

“We most certainly will.” She beamed at his praise. Her husband simply shook the minister’s hand and moved on, taking Cecelia’s arm in his own.

Arsenio was further down the line, pushing Laura in a wheelchair he’d borrowed from Doc Upshaw.

“Good morning, Laura,” Yingling greeted her. “How are you feeling today?”

She looked up at him and frowned. “Not too good, Reverend. I didn’t care very much for your sermon. I especially didn’t like hearing my husband being compared to Pontius Pilate.”

“I can speak for myself, Laura,” Arsenio said. He turned to the minister. “And I didn’t like it either. You’ve got your committee, sir. Why don’t you try to work with it first before you tear it – and the town council –- down?”

“Because it is not in me to ‘work with’ evil, Arsenio, and that is how I see O’Toole’s potion.”

“You seem to be doing very well at such ‘work’ just now, the way you’re riling everybody up. Did you actually say that the devil changed my wife and her friends only so they'd be able to do even more evil?”

Yingling stiffened, but before he could answer, Laura put her hand on her husband’s arm. “It takes evil to see evil,” she said. “Especially where no evil exists.” She paused, feeling suddenly weak. “We’re holding up the line, Arsenio, and I don’t think either of you is going to convince the other.” Her voice trailed down a little. “Besides, I’m feeling a bit tired.”

“Then I’d best get you home,” he answered. “We’ll continue this discussion later, Reverend.”

The other man nodded grimly. “We shall. We shall, indeed.”

* * * * *

Teresa placed a plate of frajitas on the table and took her seat at the head of the table. “So, Arnolda,” she began, as she used a pair of wooden tongs to lift two frajitas onto a plate. “You have been very quiet this morning. Are you thinking about Señor O’Toole’s job offer?” Without waiting for an answer, she passed the plate to Arnie, who passed it on to Dolores.

“Sì, but I have not decided yet?” Arnie replied, taking another plate of food from her mother. “I do want the job, but I do not know if I want to be a waitress or a busboy.” She also handed that plate to Dolores, who had given the first plate to Enrique. She took the second one and set it down for herself.

“You better decide soon, cousin. Shamus expects you – and your answer – tomorrow morning.” She cut a piece of the frajita. “What is so hard to decide?”

“Waitressing pays more,” Arnie said thoughtfully, “but I would have to act as if I were a girl.”

Constanza looked at Arnie from across the table. “What do you mean, Arnolda? You are a girl.”

Arnie gave her sister a troubled glance. “I… I only look like a girl. Sometimes, I-I admit, I may act like a girl.” As she said it, the memory of Hedley and of his kiss sprang into her mind. “But I… I am n-not a girl; not… not really.”

She took a breath before she continued. “If I take the waitress job, I have to wear dresses—all the time – and I-I do not have any except for the ones that Mama pinned up for me. Men buy the waitresses drinks, so they can talk to them for a while, and I do not want to do that.”

“Why?” Ysabel asked. “From what I have heard, you were not very good at talking to girls… before.”

Arnie scowled and ignored her. “And… And Señor Shamus may even want me to dance with the men at his Saturday dances.” She had a mental image of dancing with Hedley and shivered at the way it made her feel “If people saw me dancing with men, they would think that I like doing it, and they would have no right to think that.”

It would simply be part of her job as a waitress to dance with men, but the thought of it caused an emotional churning inside her. She wasn't sure if what she felt when she was dancing with Hedley -- or might feel with any other man she danced with -- was a good thing or a bad thing, and that left her very confused.

“We could use the extra money, Dulcita,” Teresa said. “And it would not be hard for me to fix one of my dresses for you by tomorrow.” She gave a small sigh. “Maybe Senor O'Toole would excuse you from dancing if you really did not want to. I do not want you to do anything that you truly dislike.”

Arnie relaxed. “Then I will be a busboy, I think.”

“Well,” Dolores said, winking at Teresa, “if you are afraid to be a waitress…”

The transformed girl looked surprised. “Afraid? Why should I be afraid?”

“I do not know,” her cousin answered, “but that is what it sounds like to me.” She paused a beat for effect. “And I would not expect that of you.”

Arnie frowned. “You are trying to shame me into taking the waitress job, Dolores, and it will not work.”

“Good,” Ysabel said. “Because I think you should decide on your own… to be a waitress.” Enrique nodded in agreement, his mouth full of food.

Arnie laughed. “You, too, Ysabel -- and Enrique.” She looked at her youngest sister. “Constanza, you are the only one who is not pushing me to be a waitress. What do you say?”

The young girl took a bite of frajita to give herself a moment to think. “I…” She finally answered, “It is like when Mama cooks something new, something we never ate before. Sometimes… Sometimes, the food looks funny and – maybe – it smells funny. Mama says that we do not have to eat it all, but we got to, at least, try it. If we eat some, and we do not like it, we do not have to eat any more, but we do gotta try some.”

Dolores’ eyes went from Constanza to Arnie. “And what do you think of what Constanza just said?”

“I think that I have a very smart little sister,” Arnie replied with a wry smile. She held up her hands as if in surrender. “All right, I will try being a waitress – for a week; it will mean more money. But if I do not like it, I will not ‘eat’ any more, and I will be a busboy.”

* * * * *

“So how were things at the store this past week?” Kaitlin asked.

Trisha leaned back and took another sip of after dinner coffee. “Pretty good, I’d say. We’re working as hard as ever these days.”

“Some of us are working too hard,” Liam added.

Trisha gave him a puzzled look. “What do you mean, Liam?”

“I mean…” he explained, “… that you’re still trying to carry – drag would be the better word – twenty-five and even fifty pound sacks of feed.”

Kaitlin looked shocked. “Trisha! In your condition that could be very dangerous.”

“That’s what I thought, too,” he said. “I don’t think she should be doing things like that anymore.”

Trisha shook her head. “I don’t see it that way. I’ve been lugging sacks of feed around since I was a kid. Why should I stop now?”

“You could seriously strain something,” Kaitlin explained. “You… You could even lose your baby.”

Liam’s face grew stern. “Trisha, I’m your older brother now, and you promised to mind me. I’m telling you that I want you to stay behind the counter from now on. Leave the heavy lifting to Mateo and me.”

“And I’m telling you that it’s my store as much as it is yours, and I won’t be stuck behind the counter.”

Kaitlin glared at her former husband. “You’re right, Trisha. The store is as much yours as it is Liam’s. But twenty percent of it is mine, and I agree with Liam. The store is more ours than it is yours, so you will stay behind the counter.”

“And if I don’t?”

Kaitlin’s eyebrows narrowed. “Do you really think that I’m giving you a choice?”

“No; no you aren’t.” Trisha sighed. “I’ll do it, but I won’t like it -- and I will remember your bad attitude.”

Kaitlin chuckled. “Go right ahead. As long as you remember from behind the counter.”

* * * * *

Monday, May 27, 1872

“Wakey, wakey,” Molly called through the closed door to Flora and Lylah’s room.

Flora groaned. “Go away!”

“Yeah,” Lylah added. “We got us a couple o’real bad belly aches.”

Molly opened the door and walked in. “O’course, ye have. ‘Tis yuir monthlies, just like I told ye.” She closed the door behind her. “Get outta them beds. Now!”

The pair had to obey, and they did with no little moaning and clutching at their stomachs. “How long’re we gonna feel like this?” Lylah whined.

“Four days,” Molly answered, “once yuir flows get going.”

Flora gave her a suspicious look. “Our ‘flows’; what’s going to be flowing, Molly? It-It isn’t… blood, is it?”

“Aye, it is – and it’ll be coming outta yuir privates for the next four days.”

Lylah shook her head. “A… A man can’t bleed for four straight days. He-He’d die.”

Molly chuckled. “It ain’t men that bleed like this – yuir monthlies, we call ‘em. ‘Tis only women… like the two of ye.” She waited a beat. “And ye’ll be doing it every month for the next twenty years or more. Unless ye’re pregnant, that is.”

“And that ain’t never gonna happen!” Lylah said emphatically.

Molly smiled, remembering that Laura had used almost the exact same words. ‘And look at her now,’ she thought. Aloud, she replied, “And who’s t’be saying ‘never’, me girl? Ye never thought ye’d be having monthlies, did ye?”

“No, we didn’t,” Flora answered sadly. “But now that we have them, what do we do about them?”

“Since ye’re asking, Flora, I’ll be showing ye first. Take off yuir nightgown and drawers.”

Flora grasped her nightgown below her waist and pulled it up over her head. As she did, Molly looked down at the new woman’s drawers. ‘No sight o’blood – yet,’ she observed silently.

“Now what?” Flora asked. She had undone the bow that held her drawers tight at her waist. The garment fell down around her feet, and she stepped out of them without bothering to pick them up.

Molly reached into the small cloth bag she was carrying and pulled out a long, narrow strip of cloth with a string attached to each corner. “This.” She handed the strip to Flora. “Set it b’tween yuir legs and tie them strings off on yuir hips, so it stays in place.”

“Okay, but I don’t see how this’ll help.” Flora did as she was told. In a minute or so, she was looking down dubiously at the loose-fitting loincloth.

The older woman took a roll of white cotton from the bag and handed it to the almost naked woman. “Put this in yuir pouch—that thing ye just tied on ye.”

“O-Okay…”Flora said hesitantly, doing as Molly directed. “Feels… weird.” She gave a slight shiver as she felt the rolled cotton press against her privates.

Molly nodded. “Aye, but ‘tis a lot better than not having something down thuir. Ye’ll be seeing that for yuirself soon enough.” She waited a moment. “Now get dressed and head downstairs t’be helping with breakfast.”

“Yuir turn,” she added, handing a second pouch to Lylah. “And hurry up. Thuir’s work t’be done, and the two of ye need to be getting to it.”

Lylah looked up from tying the knot on her right hip. “We hurt, and we’re gonna be bleeding for the next four days. How come we gotta work?”

“Because ye ain’t going t’be getting off from work for something that’s happened t’every woman since Mother Eve,” Molly told her. “I don’t take time off for me own monthlies, and neither does any other woman that works here.”

“But I hurt,” Lylah complained.

Molly tried to look sympathetic. “I’ll have Maggie make ye some herb tea. That sometimes helps. So does hard work, come t’think of it.” She smiled wryly. “Ain’t that handy?”

* * * * *

“Are you ready, Arnolda?” Dolores asked, as they reached the entrance to the Eerie Saloon.

Arnie took a breath to steady herself. “No, but I am here.” She walked through the batwing doors and into the Saloon with Dolores right behind her.

“Arnie,” Molly greeted her. “And Dolores, too. Good morning to the both o’ye.” She looked closely at Arnie. “Since ye’re in a dress, Arnie, I take it ye decided t’be working here as a waitress, instead of a busboy – a busgirl – whatever.”

The girl had worn the green dress that she sometimes wore to church. In the past, Teresa had always just pinned it to fit her, but her mother had worked most of Sunday, altering it to her actual size.

“I… I wanted to talk to Señor Shamus about that. Where is he?”

“He’ll be in his office just now.” Molly pointed to the door, set in the wall near one end of the bar.

As if on cue, the door opened, and Shamus stepped out. He saw the group and walked over. “G’morning, ladies. I see ye decided t’be me waitress, Arnie.”

“No,” Arnie said, feeling unsure. “That is, I-I don’t know if I want to be a waitress, but I-I also know that I want to try waitressing. My Papa used to say, ‘The greatest mistake you can make is to be afraid to make a mistake. ‘“

Shamus lifted a curious eyebrow. “I ain’t sure what ye’re saying, Arnie. Do ye want t’be working for me or don’t ye?”

“I do, but only maybe as a waitress. If… If you don’t mind, I’d like to try the job for a… a week. If I like it, fine. If I don’t, then – if you still want me -- I will be a busboy.”

Shamus considered the idea. “And if I don’t like yuir work – or if ye steal from me again – I can be firing ye outright. A trial week, that seems fair, I suppose.”

“And I will train her to do the job right – if you do not mind,” Dolores added. “It will be easier than for you or Molly to do it.”

Arnie's mind seemed to be somewhere else. She was thinking about mentioning the idea of not dancing, but it hardly seemed to be the right moment to bring up such a distraction.

Molly looked uncertain. “I still got all that work t’be doing with the Cactus Blossoms.” She smiled. “All right, Dolores, ye’ve got a deal.” She spat into her hand and offered it, first to Dolores and then to Arnie.

Both shook hands eagerly, and the matter was settled.

* * * * *

Paul Grant yanked at the leather cord, tightening the strap holding his bedroll tightly behind his saddle. “Done,” he said, satisfied that it was secure. He glanced over at Jessie Hanks, who was fixing her own rig on Useless, the horse she’d taken from Toby Hess all those months ago. She looked to be as far along in her preparations as he was.

“Glad t’see you two ain’t gone yet,” a voice behind him said.

Jessie turned. “Hey, Wilma, you come over t’see me and Paul head out?”

“I did,” Wilma replied. “In fact, I even brought you – you ‘n’ Paul – a going-away present.” She tossed Jessie a small drawstring bag.

Jessie caught the bag. “Thanks.” She loosened the cord that held the bag closed and looked inside. “Wilma!” she hissed indignantly, as a blush spread across her face.

“What’s the matter?” Wilma asked innocently, stepping in close to where her sister was standing. “I figured that you’d pack yourself some riding coats” she replied in a soft voice. “I just wanted t’make sure that you had enough.”

Jessie quickly stashed the condoms in a saddlebag. “More‘n enough, I’d say, but thanks.”

“Just trying t’take care of my little sister. Lord knows, I want you to enjoy your… trip.” The demimonde chuckled. “I’m sure you ‘n’ Paul’ll put ‘em to good use.”

“We will, and thanks again.”

Before Wilma could reply, Shamus and Molly walked over. “Hello t’ye, Wilma,” Shamus said cheerfully. “Jessie, I brought ye that bottle I promised, some fine Kentucky sipping whiskey t’be toasting the bride ‘n’ groom with. “

“Thanks, Shamus.” Jessie took the brown glass bottle from him and stuffed it carefully in the same saddlebag that she’d just placed the condoms in. She arranged a pocket for it in the folded clothes already in the bag.

“I just come out t’be saying goodbye,” Molly told her. “The two of ye have a good trip and come back to us as soon as ye can.” She leaned over and kissed Jessie on the cheek.

Paul put his foot in a stirrup and rose up into the saddle of Ash, his cowpony. “You ready, Jess?”

“Just about.” She closed her saddlebag, putting the strap through the metal hitch that held it tight. She’d been practicing riding in a skirt, and she scrambled quickly onto Useless. “See y’all real soon,” she called, as the pair started off.

Molly waved. “Good bye, and… be careful.”

“Don’t worry,” Paul answered. “I’ll take care of her.”

Wilma smiled. “Mmm, I’ll just bet you will. Have fun, sister.”

“We will.” Jessie turned Useless to face west and rode down the street. Paul waved one last time and followed after her.

* * * * *

Phillipia Stone glanced over at the small clock ticking softly on the corner of her desk. “All right, children, it’s 3 PM, and class is dismissed for the day. Please put your books and papers away and raise your hands when you’re ready to go.” She waited a moment, watching her students scrambling before she spoke again. “Except for Abe Scudder, Basil Mackechnie, Paula Frick, and Ernesto Sanchez. The four of you will be staying for a while, so keep out your pencils and tablets.”

“Mrs. Stone,” Basil Mackechnie whined. “Luis Gonzales and Sam Yingling was fighting, too. How come they ain’t gotta stay and write lines?”

Phillipia gave him a stern look. “Because I saw what happened. Their sole participation in the fight was to pull you and Paula away while Abe and Ernesto were having at it. Three on one is hardly fair, is it?”

“Umm… no, ma’am,” the boy answered, looking down at his desk. “I guess it ain’t.” He didn’t sound convinced.

The teacher waited for the rest of her students to leave. Most did so quickly. When Luis Gonzales started walking towards Paula Frick’s desk, rather than towards the door, she asked, “Are you that eager to stay here and write lines, Luis? I can arrange it, if you are.”

“No… ah, no, thank you, Mrs. Stone,” he replied. He turned and all but ran for the door.

Phillipia chuckled for a moment before she turned to face the foursome. “Basil, Abe, and Paula, I want you each to write, fifty times each, ‘I will not tease others and start fights.’”

Paula moaned. “Fifty times!”

“Yes,” Phillipia told her. “Unless you’d like to try for more.”

The girl shook her head. “No, ma’am.” She picked up her pencil and began printing out the words.

“I thought not.” The teacher shifted her glance to Ernesto. “And you, Ernesto, your sentence is ‘I will not lose my temper and get into fights.’ And you will also be writing that sentence fifty times.”

Ernesto sighed. “Yes, Mrs. Stone.”

“And you should all know that I will also be writing something,” Phillipa went on. “Each of you will be taking home a note from me explaining why you were kept after school today, a note, which each of you will return to me tomorrow, with a parent’s signature.”

* * * * *

“Are we all agreed, then?” Shamus asked. “Three nights a week?”

“Don’t you mean four nights?” Hiram King corrected him. “Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights – starting tonight – we play for your Cactus Blossoms, and, on Saturday, we do the regular dance.”

Shamus rolled his eyes. “Aye, four nights then.”

“Four is more than enough,” Tomas Rivera said. “Much more and my wife and my children would forget what I look like.”

Natty Ryland laughed. “They won’t. You can go right home after the 10 o’clock show, if you want. And with a little extra money in your pocket to make it up to them.”

“Aye,” Shamus added. “I’ll be paying yuir band five dollars a night for the three weeknights. Ye can all be taking that home, along with the $9.50 ye get for playing at me dance on Saturday.”

Natty shook his head. “Not directly. I was thinking about hanging around to talk to Flora – or maybe Nancy.”

“I can’t hardly be blaming ye for that, but ye’ll be spending enough time with ‘em both when the music for thuir new dance gets here.”

“And you’ll be paying us extra for practicing with your Blossoms, right?” Hiram, the leader of the Happy Days Town Band, asked.

Shamus nodded, “I will, just like we agreed.”

“That’s all I wanted to know.” Hiram put out his hand.

Shamus spat into his palm and shook the other man’s hand. “Done.” And the arrangement was sealed.

* * * * *

Tuesday, May 28, 1872

From the front page of the Eerie edition of The Tucson Citizen

‘ Well and Finally Done

` “The Eerie town council has finally resolved – we hope – the
` matter of Shamus O’Toole and his potion. This paper can
` hardly fault them for the length of time that resolution took,
` since The Citizen has, from the first, urged caution and a
` full consideration of all points of view and of all concerns.”

` “There were some people who felt that the matter was settled as
` soon as they made their opinion known. There are always
` people like that, people who bask in the absolute certainty of
` their beliefs and in the absolute falsehood (and, probably,
` the evil intent) of any other.”

` “Even if this paper did agree with their ideas about how to handle
` Mr. O’Toole’s concoction – and it did not – fairness and a deeply
` held belief in the democratic process would have had us ask that
` all other opinions be heard and given equal consideration.”

` “Which is exactly what this paper did.”

` “The town council listened, and The Citizen thanks them for
` doing so, and it congratulates them on what would seem to be a
` most equitable compromise. Reverend Yingling asked for a
` committee. That committee now exists, and he is the chairman.
` Father Diego de Castro, of Our Lady of Blessed Charity Church,
` has agreed to be the vice chairman. The other committee members
` were chosen to ensure that a range of voices are represented:
` Horace Styron, of Styron’s Hardware and Mining Supplies; Don
` Luis Ortega, of the Ortega Ranch; and, in a surprising but very
` logical move, Shamus O’Toole, himself.”

` “The role of the committee has also, we think, been properly
` defined as an advisory body to Judge Parnassus Humphreys. Since
` the potion – primarily – has been given to those found guilty in
` his court, this would seem to be most appropriate.”

` “There are those who feel that the town council was wrong, that a
` stronger committee with a stronger role would have been the
` better way to go. There were also those who felt no need for a
` committee of any sort. The Citizen applauds the town council
` for their wisdom -- particularly where it agreed with our own
` thoughts – and wishes the Reverend and his committee much success
` in its deliberations. It also counsels those who would see the com-
` mittee in another role to give it a chance in its current form.”

* * * * *

Tommy Carson stepped nervously through the swinging doors and into the Eerie Saloon. “T-Telegram for Miss Jessie Hanks,” he called out. “Telegram f-for Miss J-Jessie Hanks.”

“She’s outta town for a few days,” Molly said, walking over to the boy. “I’ll just be taking it for her.”

The boy looked uncertain. “I-I don’t know ma’am…” His voice trailed off.

“It’s all right, Tommy,” Nancy told the boy, joining Molly.

“M-Miz Osbourne?” he asked.

Nancy nodded. “One and the same. How are you doing with your spelling words?”

“I’m getting better, I guess. Mrs. Stone, she’s been quizzing me on the words, just like you done.”

“Like I did,” she corrected him. “How are your other grades?”

“I… Miz Osbourne, my PA told me that I ain’t supposed t’talk to you.” He sounded embarrassed as he said it.

Nancy looked stunned. “I-I’m sorry, Tommy. I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“Why don’t ye be giving me that thuir telegram?” Molly asked the boy sourly. “And ye can be getting the he – getting outta here?”

The boy all but shoved the telegram into Molly’s hands and hurried towards the door. At the last moment, he stopped and yelled back. “Goodbye, Miz Osbourne. I’m sorry, but please don’t tell nobody that we talked.”

Then he was gone.

“G-Goodbye, Tommy.” Nancy whispered, her face furrowed in anger. She closed her eyes and gave a deep, mournful sigh. When she opened her eyes, she added. “Well, that pretty much settles who sent that telegram back to Hartford.”

Molly studied the other woman’s face. “Are ye all right, Nancy? Do ye want t’be laying down for a wee bit?”

“No, I-I’m -- no, I’m not fine, but I will be. Right now, I think some hard work’ll do me more good than anything else I might do.”

Molly smiled and placed a reassuring hand on the younger woman’s arm. “Hard work, is it? Well, that we got plenty of.”

“Don’t I know it? By the way, what’s in that telegram for Jessie, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“T’be telling the truth, I’m a wee bit curious about that meself. Well…” She tore open the envelope. “…thuir’s only one way t’be finding out.” She took out the folded paper, unfolded it, and began to read.

` “Miss Jessie Hanks
` ℅ Eerie Saloon
` Eerie, Arizona”

` “Jessie. Urgent reasons you not – repeat – not come to Hanna’s
` wedding. Will explain later.”

` “Love, Piety and Hanna Tyler.”

Molly’s eyebrows furrowed. “Something’s wrong; very, very wrong.”

“You think Jessie’s in trouble,” Nancy asked.

The older woman nodded. “I do, and thuir’s no earthly way t’be warning her about it. They’re traveling cross-country, and I can’t be asking a man t’ride hard after ‘em, just ‘cause I don’t like the wording of this here telegram. Paul ‘n’ her are riding into an unholy mess of trouble, I’m thinking, and all we can be doing about it is t’be praying that it ain’t half as bad as it sounds.”

* * * * *

Aaron Silverman made his way back through the storeroom to the small desk that he and Ramon had rigged up for Ernesto. “Nu, Ernesto,” he said, trying to sound cheerful, “what’re you doing back here, instead of up front in the store?”

“I didn’t want to be up there today,” the boy answered. He sounded angry. And sad.

“And why not? Most days, we almost have to bribe you with some of Bubbie Rachel’s sugar cookies to get you to come back here to do schoolwork.”

“Because… I don’t want to.” He looked up at Aaron’s face. “Because Uncle Ra – Señor de Aguilar is in the front, and I don’t want to talk to him.” He waited a moment. “Zeyde, do I have to go home when you close the store? I wanna stay here.”

Aaron’s head jerked back in surprise. “Here; you want you should live in my storeroom?”

“No, I thought – maybe – I could live… upstairs… live with you and Bubbie Rachel.”

The man moved a crate over by the desk and sat down on it. “Now why do you want to give up that nice room you got over at your mother’s house? As the Sages say, it’s a foolish bargain to trade what you know for what you don’t know.”

“I don’t wanna live with Mama – or Señor de Aguilar – anymore. They don’t love me… they… they lied to me ‘n’ Lupe about what Mama was, ‘n’ how she got t’be my Mama.”

“So I heard.” Aaron thought quickly. “You ever think that they lied to you because they loved you. Because they didn’t want to upset you and Lupe. They just wanted the both of you should just be happy living here with ‘em. For the sake of peace, the Sages tell us, you can lie; just so that peace isn’t a lie. What you got with Maggie and Ramon, that ain’t a lie.”

“But she… they… they shoulda told us the truth before now.”

“Are you mad because they lied or because they kept up the lie?”

“Both!”

“That’s a lot to be mad at. Like they say that anger comes in as a guest, but, if you ain’t careful, it winds up as the host.”

“What does that mean, Zeyde?”

“It means that you gotta work all this out with your mother and Ramon. A-und…” He pronounced the word as if it had two syllables. “…you ain’t gonna work it out if you’re living over here.”

“You won’t help me?” Ernesto sounded almost ready to cry.

“Of course I will.” Aaron decided to lighten the mood ein bissle [a little]. “Ain’t I already given you all this wonderful advice? This is something you gotta figure out for yourself. You can’t let it get you sour like a bad apple. But, while you’re figuring, I'll be here, ready to talk to you about it, okay?” He tussled the boy’s hair and gave him a big smile and the wink of his eye.

Ernesto couldn’t help but grin. “Okay, Zeyde.”

* * * * *

“Thunderation!”

Thad Yingling’s voice echoed through his household. “I won’t stand for it. I swear I will not stand for it!”

“Good Heavens, Thad,” Martha Yingling said, hurrying into her husband’s study. “Whatever is the matter?”

“This…” He held up the newspaper and waved it about in the air. “This… rag, this pack of lies, have your read it, Martha? Have you read the so-called ‘editorial’?”

She shook her head quickly. “No, no, I haven’t.”

“Just as well,” he answered. “Rubbish… absolute rubbish. That Unger boy ought to be ashamed of himself.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“That committee the town council stuck me with, he doesn’t describe it until page 3, but most of the second page is filled with an editorial that makes it sound like the foremost idea of the nineteenth century.” He crumbled the newspaper. “And Unger is… congratulating them for doing it – why, he’s… he’s even taking some of the credit for it.”

“He isn’t!”

“He is, and, in a way, it is his fault. ‘Take your time,’ he kept telling the council in this rag of his. And… And he kept raising questions, putting ideas into other peoples’ heads… and their mouths.” The minister all but growled. “I only pray that, when the Wrath of the Lord settles upon this town for the sin that the town council committed in foisting that less than worthless committee on me, I pray that Roscoe Unger receives his full share of the punishment!”

* * * * *

Arnie stood, watching the image in her mother’s mirror, as it – as she – buttoned the last buttons of her new dress. ‘Bad enough to get only clothes for my birthday,’ she thought, ‘but they want to see how I look in them, too.’

“Still…” she whispered, considering what she saw. The dress was indigo, a fine contrast to her coppery skin. Trim at the collar called attention to her pert breasts. The dress was cut tight down to her narrow waist, and then it flared out over her wide hips and flowed down almost to the floor.

In spite of herself, Arnie smiled, turning slowly to the left and right. “Nice… very nice.” She was posing, admiring the way she looked. “I wonder what Hedley would --” No! Don’t think about him. She tried to follow her own advice, but, in her mind’s eye, she could see him smiling, nodding in approval at her appearance.

“Hola, Arnolda,” Dolores called from the other side of the closed door. “Are you coming out any time today? We have to get back to Shamus’ very soon.”

Arnie shook her head to clear it of her thoughts about Hedley and headed for the door. “I am out; I am out,” she answered as she stepped into the main room.

“Very pretty,” Teresa said. “Turn around, so I can see how you look from the sides and the back.”

Arnie did. “When I saw that dress in Silverman’s,” her mother told her, “I knew it was made for you. And I was right.”

“I still do not see why you all had to buy me clothes,” Arnie protested.

Dolores chuckled. “You are not a child anymore, cousin, are you; to be upset because you got clothes instead of toys for your birthday? Besides you will need a lot of clothes for working at the Saloon.”

“And they should be your own clothes,” Teresa added, “not my clothes pinned up to fit you.”

Arnie sighed, in surrender. “I suppose.”

“Good,” Ysabel chimed in. “Now go change into the blouse and skirt that I gave you. I want to see how you look in them next.”

* * * * *

The wall clock had just stuck 8, when Clyde Ritter walked into the Saloon. He stopped just inside the door and looked around. ‘Where’s the show?’ he thought. He saw Flora talking to Nancy over at the bar. He waved to catch her eye and took a seat at a nearby table.

“Good evening… Clyde,” Flora greeted him when she came over to his table. “What would you like this evening?”

He smiled and stood up. “Your company, Flora.” He gestured towards an empty chair next to his. “Would you please bring me a beer – and one of whatever you’d like – and join me for a while?”

“My pleasure,” she answered in an affected purr. She hurried off, returning quickly with two beers. She set them down on the table and stood next to the empty chair.

He stood up again and pulled out the chair, pushing it back in as she sat down. “I had hoped to see you dancing tonight,” he said, taking his own seat. “Is there a problem?”

“No. Jessie Hanks was supposed to play for us. Her and that deputy of hers rode off yesterday for something over near Yuma. They’ll be gone a good week, maybe more. O’Toole hired a band – the one that plays at the Saturday dance – to fill in, but they’re only going to play for us Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights.”

“I’ll have to come in one of those nights, then – if I can.” He paused and tried to look sad. “My… ah, work doesn’t let me come in here every night.”

“Your work or your wife?”

His expression changed to embarrassment – and concern. “You… ah… know about Cecelia?”

She smiled broadly. “I do, but it – she – doesn’t bother me – not too much, anyway. A handsome man like you, it’s no surprise that some lucky girl managed to trap – to get you to marry her.” It was a line she’d been practicing since Nancy had talked to her about him, and she almost had to bite to tongue to keep from laughing at how well it seemed to work.

“Well,” he said, relief obvious in his voice. “I’m certainly glad to hear that. I was afraid --”

“Oh, don’t ever be afraid with me.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I like you, Clyde. I like you a whole lot.”

He took her hand in his. “Good, ‘cause I like you, too. How about I come in here early tomorrow evening and buy you dinner, if I may.”

“Mmm, I don’t see why not… Clyde.” She spoke his name softly. “I like it when a man buys me things: a beer… or dinner… or other… things.” She sighed again. “It makes me like him even more.” Flora knew all those words that Violet...that all those wheedling gold diggers had said to Forry.

She had told Nancy, it was all just a business deal. Maybe it was, or maybe it was just a way to show up O’Toole. She wasn’t sure. Maybe it was a way to get a powerful ally that she might call on down the road. The important thing was that Clyde seemed to going along with the game. She could hardly believe how easily the words came out of her and, more importantly, how much he seemed to be buying what she was saying.

Ritter’s smile grew into a broad grin, as he considered what “even more” might imply. ‘I’ll certainly have to keep that in mind.’

* * * * *

Wednesday, May 29, 1872

Clyde Ritter shook his head. “I’m sorry, boys, but I’m not about to hire someone who plans to quit as soon as they get enough money to go gold hunting.” To himself, he added, ‘especially when they’re dumb enough to tell me about it in advance.’

“But we’s good workers,” Septimus Blake protested. He was a short, well-muscled man with the dark skin of a person who’d spent most of his life working under the sun. He wore dirty, blue-gray work clothes and a three- or four-day growth of beard.

“I’m not saying you aren’t,” Ritter replied, “but I’m still not interested.” He paused a half beat. “I will give you ten dollars for that mule of yours.”

Septimus’ partner, George Higgins, answered for them both. “No, thank ya, Mr. Ritter. We’ll need Homer t’get what gear we do have up to them new gold fields in the Dakota Territory.” George was dressed much the same as Sep Blake, but he was taller with no hair on his head, top or chin or in-between, except for a pair of bushy red eyebrows.

“In that case, I can’t help you.”

Before anyone could say another word, the bell over the door jangled. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…” Ritter’s voice trailed off, signaling the end of the conversation. He came out from behind the counter and hurried over to greet a more important caller. “Reverend Yingling, what brings you in here this morning?”

“Very little, just now,” Yingling answered. “I wanted to ask you, Horace Styron, and, perhaps, a few others to come over to my home around six this evening for supper and to discuss how we might persuade the town council to revoke their inane decision regarding O’Toole’s concoction, to abolish that… committee, and to give us the sort of authority needed to properly deal with that foul brew of his.”

Ritter considered the idea. It would mean missing dinner with Flora, but he could make it up to her. This was important, too. Besides, he didn’t need the grief he’d get from Cecelia if she heard that there was a meeting, and that he didn’t go. As far as dinner with Flora was concerned, well, what that withered, old potato, Cecelia, didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

“I’ll be there,” he sighed. “You know, I thought we had ‘em, that they were gonna give us what we wanted.”

“I also think that they would have done so -- if it hadn’t been for that thrice-damned Roscoe Unger and his newspaper. He insisted that the council stall in their considerations, and he used that time to stir up Ortega and those Mexicans to oppose us.”

Ritter nodded. “I know just what you mean. Unger was a real pain in the… arse about things, getting everybody all riled up with them lies he printed.”

“Indeed, and I must admit that I take some small pleasure in the certainty that he will be punished in the Next World for defying the Will of our Lord.”

“If you say so, Reverend, but I don’t wanna wait that long for him t’get his due. Hell – excuse me – Heck, I’d pay good money to see that happen right here in Eerie.”

The Reverend studied his companion's expression for a moment, but then pursed his lips and said nothing.

* * * * *

Luke Freeman walked into the Feed & Grain and over to the counter where Trisha was sitting.

“Afternoon, Miss O’Hanlan. How’re you doing t’day?”

“Well enough,” Trisha answered. “And you?”

“Tolerable well, I s’pose.” He shrugged and took a folded sheet of paper from his shirt pocket. “Carl Osbourne ‘n’ me come into town for supplies.” He unfolded the list and glanced at it quickly. “First thing’s two hundred pounds of Cosgrove’s Oat Supplements.”

“We’re having a sale on Cosgrove’s products this week. A fifty pound sack’ll cost you less than two twenty-five pound sacks normally would. Do you want the larger size?”

He thought for a moment. “Sounds right good t’me. Let’s go with them fifty pound bags.”

“Fine,” she replied. “I’ll go get one for a start.”

Liam had been standing near enough to listen. “No, you won’t, Trisha.” He cupped his hands over his mouth. “Mateo, bring four fifty pound sacks of Cosgrove’s Oat Suppliments over here.”

“Sì, Señor.” Mateo, a burly Mexican, had been stocking shelves in a corner of the store. He put down a bottle and walked over to a stack of large gray and purple muslin sacks. He grabbed one, threw it effortlessly over his shoulder, and started for the counter.

Trisha frowned at her brother. “I could have gotten that sack as easily as Mateo.”

“You’d have spent a good five minutes – looking ridiculous the whole time -- dragging that sack over here.” Liam looked at her sternly. “Besides… didn’t we agree that you wouldn’t waste time trying to lift heavy stuff like that anymore?”

She sighed, remembering Liam’s threat to reveal her pregnancy. “Yes, Liam.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” he told her. “You keep on saying ‘Yes, Liam’, and we’ll get on just fine.”

She gritted her teeth and spoke slowly, trying not very well to hide her anger. “I’ll say it, Liam, just like we agreed, but don’t expect things to go fine and dandy.”

“I know what to expect, little sister, and what not to expect.” Liam turned to his customer. “Now then, what’s the next item on that list of yours, Luke?”

* * * * *

“Is everything closed up, Winthrop?” Clyde Ritter bellowed at his older son.

The boy nodded. “Yes, sir, but I don’t understand…”

“You don’t have to understand, boy. I have a meeting over at Reverend Yingling’s, and I want the place locked tight for the night before I go.”

“It is, sir. I-I had Hammy Lincoln feed and water the horses, as soon as you told me you wanted to leave early.”

“Good, and what about those Mex?”

“Pablo helped Hammy. Nando put away the livery. They'll be going home, as soon as they're done.”

“Even better. You get going yourself. Tell your Ma I’m over at the reverend’s house for a meeting, and that I’ll be home when it’s done.” He waited a half-beat. “Now, get going.”

Winthrop nodded and ran out the front door without another word. Clyde pulled his key ring from his vest pocket. He turned the “Open” sign on the door around, so the “Closed” side faced out. He walked through the doorway, turned and put the key in the lock.

“Mr. Ritter?” a voice behind him said.

He turned around and saw Hammy standing there, with two grubby men waiting behind him on the wooden sidewalk. “A couple o' gents tah see'ya, sir.”

He recognized the two of them. “Yes?”

“You recollect us, sir?” one of them said. He pointed his thumb towards his chest. “Septimus Blake. And this here’s George Higgins. We was in this morning looking for work.”

Now Clyde remembered. “I’m still not hiring men who plan to leave as soon as they get a grubstake.”

“Maybe not t’work in your livery stable,” Blake replied. He paused and glanced at Hammy Lincoln. “We’d like this conversation to be in private, if you don't mind, Mr. Ritter, sir.”

Ritter nodded warily and told Hammy to head on home. When the black man was out of earshot, Blake continued. “I heard you talking to that reverend fellah ‘bout another job, one just right for a couple of men looking t’leave town in a hurry.”

“Look,” Ritter said, beginning to lose his patience. “I’m in kind of a hurry, myself, right now.” He wanted to tell Flora that he had to cancel their plans for tonight. ‘Friday, maybe,’ he thought. ‘Cecelia has some sort of hen party every Friday.’

The two men smiled. “This won’t take too long, Mr. Ritter,” Higgins answered. “You still looking for somebody t’pay a visit on that Unger fellah?”

“And if I am?”

“Twenty dollars each, and it’s a done deal.”

“And just what would I be paying for?” Ritter asked suspiciously.

“Let's just say that me and Higgins are good at making low-lives respect their betters.”

Ritter scowled. So that was their game. He saw possibilities in the offer. He was tired of just being Horace Styron’s backup man, of paying Styron’s way at – nevermind that. If it worked, this would be a chance to show the Reverend what he could get done. Just the same, there was some risk; better to think about it first. “Can we talk about this another time?” He pulled out his pocket watch and looked at the time.

“We can if we got the job.”

“I said, we can talk about it later.” Clyde was too eager to see Flora to really want to deal with what was being discussed. His thoughts were mostly centered on how she looked in her “Captain Spaulding” costume, and how she’d look out of it.

Both men nodded. “Yes, sir… later,” Sep Blake said, touching the rim of his hat, as if saluting. “Just remember, sir, time and tide wait for no man.”

“Fine, fine; just get out of my way.” He stepped quickly around the pair and headed down the street. They were talking about scaring Unger enough to mend his ways. Shutting the printer up would be a good start to taking over Trisha O’Hanlan’s seat on the board at the next election, but such a measure would be better if Yingling could sign off on it. After all, the Reverend seemed to want something done, too.

Blake sneered after the businessman. “He hasn't got any spine, but there's a way to give him some. I think we've gotten all we needed from this visit. Let's go, Georgie.”

* * * * *

“Everything okay?” Lylah asked Judge Humphreys and Doc Upshaw.

The Judge swallowed the bite of steak he’d been chewing. “Just fine.”

“Same here,” the physician agreed. He was enjoying one of Maggie’s specialties, baked chicken with a spicy chocolate sauce.

Lylah refilled their water glasses. “Either o’you need anything, you let me know, okay?” When both men nodded, she headed back to her seat by the bar, the one set aside for the waitress on duty at the restaurant.

“He’s still watching,” R.J. whispered, as she sat down.

She glanced over at the table where Luke Freeman had been sitting for the past half hour, nursing a beer. He was looking her way. “Dang it,” she spat. “So he is.” At that moment, their eyes met, Luke winked at her. He lifted his glass, as if in salute, and took a drink.

“What the hell does he think he’s doing?” she said in exasperation. Still, she caught herself smiling back at him. He thought she was pretty. Well, no surprise there. She was starting to accept – maybe even like -- her fetching face and figure. Without thinking about it, she sat up straight, as if posing for him. “And what the hell am I doing?”

She continued sitting that way even when he didn’t come over to talk to her. He just stayed where he was, staring. She glanced at others in the room. When she had to, she walked around, waiting on the dinners at “Maggie’s Place.” The big wall clock ticked on. And whenever she glanced his way, Luke was still staring in her direction.

“This is getting silly,” she told R.J., who mumbled something she didn’t quite hear.

All she could think of was how embarrassing it was. She felt… she wasn’t sure how she felt. Part of her felt like a bug on display. When she looked at her reflection in the big mirror behind the bar, she saw how good she looked tonight. She suddenly felt even more annoyed. With a girl like her just a short walk away from him, why was Luke Freeman just sitting there like a bump on a log?

* * * * *

Clyde Ritter glanced around quickly. ‘Nobody’s watching,’ he told himself, as he stepped quickly through the swinging doors and into the Eerie Saloon.

Flora was bringing a tray of beers over to Kelly, the female poker player. Clyde saw her set the tray down on the table and hand out steins to the players. Kelly said something to Flora, who curtseyed towards the woman gambler before she turned, a grimace on her face, and walked back towards the bar.

“Flora,” he called out, and hurried to catch up with her.

She stopped and wheeled around to face him. The grimace transformed at once into a warm smile. “Why, Clyde, I didn’t expect you to come by this early.”

“I had to.”

“Oh, that’s… that’s sweet.” She kissed his cheek. “You missed me that much.”

“No – Yes, I-I’m very sorry, Flora, but I can’t have supper with you tonight.” He sighed. “I have to go to a… meeting.”

She pouted, “Can’t you get out of it?”

“I wish I could. I… I really do, but I just can’t miss it.” He waited a half beat. “Much as I’d like to.”

Flora looked down at the floor. “I understand. If you have to be there…” Her voice trailed off.

“I do, but please... please let me make it up to you. Friday, I-I promise. I’ll make it up to you Friday.”

“Well… I suppose you should get another chance. But it’ll take more than just buying me dinner – like you were supposed to tonight – to get back into my good graces.” She studied his expression. “If you really want to.”

“I do; I do.” He meant it, even if he wasn’t sure exactly how he would make it up to her. ‘Well,’ he thought, ‘I’ll have two days to figure it out.’

He was hooked for sure! Flora smiled in victory. “Then, I’ll see you Friday, and, just so you don’t back out again…” She kissed him quickly on the lips, startling both Clyde and herself. She had actually enjoyed the kiss and the warmth it aroused in her. His interest in her was flattering. But it was only the kiss she had liked, not the man. ‘Damn monthlies; I’m as horny as Lylah,’ she chided herself as she hurried off.

Clyde broke into a broad grin, as he watched her scurrying back to the bar. He quickly wiped his mouth with a kerchief – couldn’t let anybody notice any lip paint – and started towards Yingling’s meeting.

* * * * *

Martha Yingling stood in the door to her husband’s study. “More coffee, gentlemen?” She held a tray with a steaming coffee pot, a sugar bowl, and a small creamer.

“We’re fine for now, my dear,” the Reverend replied. “Just put the pot over there, if you would.” He pointed to a table in the corner.

She put the tray down on the table. “Very well, then, Thad. Will you be out later to say goodnight to the children?”

“If I can.” He took a breath. “Please close the door behind you.” He waited until she had, then turned to face Horace Styron, Clyde Ritter, and Jubal Cates. “Now then, to the business at hand, O’Toole’s potion.”

Styron pursed his chin one and spoke. “Seems to me, the first thing we gotta do is get rid of that committee.”

“Or change it to one more along our way of thinking,” Ritter added. “That means changing a lot of minds.”

Yingling gave them a confident smile. “I have already started that with my sermon on last Sunday. I plan to speak more of the same truth in future sermons.”

“It’ll take more than that,” Styron said. “You’re going to have to show folks that the way the committee is now is a bad idea.”

“Do you mean the way they set it up,” Ritter asked, “or the men they put on it – not counting you two, of course?”

Styron nodded. “Both. Of course. The Reverend and I’ll be on the new committee, too, Clyde, and there’ll be a spot for you on it, as well.”

“We must do both, gentlemen, show the uselessness of the committee in its present form and repudiate the other appointments,” said Yingling.

Ritter frowned. “That’s gonna take a lot of work.”

“First thing we gotta do, is get Roscoe Unger and his paper to shut up,” Styron observed.

“Or get him over t’our side,” Clyde added.

“I wholeheartedly agree,” Yingling said. “I have thought of speaking to him privately about how his opposition to our righteous work is endangering his immortal soul.” He smiled grimly. “And, if that doesn’t work, to see about expelling him from membership in the church.”

Styron shook his head. “I think we need something a bit stronger. When he wouldn’t print those petitions, we threatened to pull our advertising from his paper. I even talked about going into competition against him.”

“You think either of those things’d work now?” Clyde asked.

“Right now, I need money for stock for my shelves,” Horace answered. “I don’t have any to spare. And not advertising would hurt me as much as it’d hurt him. Maybe more.”

Clyde thought for a moment. “Maybe we need to threaten him, not his business.” He wanted to broach the idea carefully, to see their reactions. “There were two drifters in my place today looking for an odd job. Breaking his precious printing press or beating him up’d be --”

“I do not wish to hear such things spoken of in my house,” Yingling said sternly.

Clyde looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Reverend. If you don’t think we should do something like that…” His voice trailed off.

“I am not saying what I think,” Yingling said. “I am saying what I do not wish to hear it spoken about.”

Ritter looked at the Reverend, wondering if he meant what Ritter thought he meant.

Jubal Cates had been sitting quietly, drinking his coffee and listening to the others talk. “I don’t think I want to hear about it, either.” He stood up.

“You changing sides, Jubal?” Styron asked.

Cates shook his head. “I’m still your man, Horace. And yours, too, of course, Reverend. I just think this mud is getting a little deeper than I care to wade through.”

“Take it easy,” Styron said, putting his arm around Cates’ neck. “We were just blowing off some steam, that’s all.” He gave a conspiratorial wink.

Jubal cocked an eyebrow. “If you say so, Horace. Let’s just say then that I’d just as soon not get scalded.”
He put on his hat. “So, I’ll just leave you to it. G’night.” He opened the study door and walked out, closing it behind him.

“Do you think we can trust him?” Yingling asked.

Styron nodded. “I do. Now, if we aren’t going to talk about getting Unger beat up, what else can we do to get that committee set up the way we want?”

Ritter frowned thoughtfully. This wasn't all that he'd hoped for. He’d expected them to congratulate him for a good idea. He was even hoping that they’d admit that he had a lot more to offer than just another pair of hands and a loudmouthed wife.

Instead, they were dancing around the whole thing. The Reverend didn’t say no. He said that he didn’t want to hear them talk about it. ‘He’ll be the first to claim the credit if it works,’ Clyde thought, ‘and the first to shift the blame if it doesn’t. If there was anybody else I could work with…’ He let the thought die as he listened to them prattling on.

* * * * *

Thursday, May 30, 1872

Carl Osbourne walked down from the second floor of the Eerie Saloon, tucking in his shirt, as he did. Luke Freeman was a few steps ahead of him. When they reached the foot of the stairs, they walked over to where Carl’s sister, Nancy, was having breakfast with Flora and Lylah.

“Morning, ladies,” Carl greeted them. Luke mumbled something along the same lines and tipped his hat.

Nancy looked up at Carl. “Good morning, Carl. I didn’t realize that you and Luke were spending the night here in town.”

“Yeah,” her brother answered. “Mr. Lewis told us t’wait for the mail to come in on today’s stage. Red Tully sent a telegram when they got t’Salt Lake City. He said Mr. Slocum was writing Mr. Lewis some sorta letter, and that he was gonna send it back here before they got on the train to Philadelphia.”

Luke had gone over to a second table, covered with serving dishes full of food and a large coffee pot resting on a wooden trivet. Stacks of dishes and cups, and a tray of silverware were also on the table. He came back with a tray full of food: turkey hash, a buttered biscuit, some fruit compote, and a steaming cup of coffee. “Go get yo’self some breakfast, Carl,” he said. “You can talk t’your sister while you eats.”

“Okay, Luke,” Carl said, with a nod, and sauntered over to the other table.

Luke strode over to an empty chair next to where Lylah was sitting. “You minds if I sit here?” he asked her.

“Uhh… no,” Lylah stammered. “If you want.”

Luke smiled down at her. “‘N’ why wouldn’t I want t’sit next to the purtiest gal in town?” He set his tray down and took the chair, moving it a bit closer to her as he did.

“Th-Thanks… I guess.” The compliment unnerved her.

He took her hand. “Thank you, Lylah.” He smiled again and reached over to give her hand a gentle squeeze.

“Oh.” She felt flustered, unsure how to react. She smiled shyly and looked down at her plate. A shiver ran through her, centering finally in her breasts. She could feel her nipples crinkle, pushing against the soft muslin of her camisole. She took another bite of her biscuit and glanced up quickly towards Luke. He winked at her and started on his own meal. Even more confused at her own feelings, her hands shaking, Lylah tried hard to continue eating.

Carl came back with his own breakfast tray. “I think I’ll just sit down here,” he said with a confident smile, as he took the chair next to Flora.

“I see you don’t object to some people being dancing girls,” Nancy said sarcastically.

He took a bite of toast before answering. “No, I don’t – I just don’t like you being one.”

“Do you mind telling me why?” Nancy’s voice was cold.

He frowned. “Do you know what men’re thinking about when they see a gal prancing ‘round in a skimpy outfit – or showing her drawers to every last one of ‘em in the place?”

“I believe that I do.” She didn’t blush, as he had expected, and that fact annoyed him.

Carl continued. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t like ‘em thinking that sorta thing ‘bout my sister.”

“Thank you for your concern, brother, but you’d better get used to men thinking such things about me because that sort of dancing is what I’ll be doing for the time being – however long that is.” She glared at him. “And you’re not going to stop me, understand?” She ate the last forkful of hash on her plate and took a final sip of coffee.

He shook his head. “Same old Nanny Goat you always was, ain’t you?”

“Baaah!” she bleated. She stood and took her tray into the kitchen.

Flora lightly put her hand on Carl’s arm. “Just what do men – what do you think about when you see me performing in my Captain Jinx costume?”

Something wicked danced in her gaze, and she suddenly leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Were you thinking about doing something like that?” She smiled, enjoying the reaction that her little peck was evoking in Carl. He was only a poor cowpoke, but she needed to practice getting a man hot and bothered for the next time that she saw Clyde Ritter. Somehow, though, what she was doing was actually fun on some level, more than just practicing the tricks that Rosalyn had taught her. For the first time she could understand how women felt when they knew that they were beautiful to men.

“For a start,” Carl replied. He steadied her with a hand on her shoulder and returned her kiss. Not expecting that much reaction, Flora tensed, but she sat firm and let him do it.

* * * * *

Arnie spread out the sheet on the bed. “You know, Dolores,” she said with a chuckle, “when I took the waitress job, I did not think it meant I would be making beds, too.”

“Now that you know,” Dolores replied, “what do you think of the job?”

The cousins were in the room where Luke Freeman and Carl Osbourne had spent the night. Since the two men were heading back to the Triple A Ranch, Molly had sent them up to change the linen on their beds and clean the room as needed.

“It is not as bad as washing dishes… as long as fools like Pablo are not here to see it. The only problem is that Shamus watches me like a hawk.”

“Do you blame him? You drank liquor that was not yours to drink, and you stole money from him. You should be grateful that he gave you this chance.”

“Sì, I did a lot of estupido things, and, as Papa used to say, ‘cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos’ [breed crows, and they will take out your eyes]. But… somehow…” She actually felt ashamed for what she’d done. “… it does not seem… right to think of doing such things now.”

“Perhaps you have learned from your mistakes.”

“I hope so.” She tossed a blanket over the sheet and began to straighten it out.

Dolores tucked in the blanket and sheet at one corner of the second bed in the room. “I am glad to hear that you have decided to behave better. Have you also decided about keeping the waitress job?”

“Not yet. After all, Shamus told me that I do not need to make up my mind until Monday.”

The older girl looked closely at Arnie. “I think that Saturday night will help you make up your mind – one way or the other.”

“What do you mean?”

“Saturday night is the dance. You will be there, even if you will not be dancing with the men.”

“Good, I-I do not want to dance with… anyone.”

“It could mean more money. Shamus pays the waitresses who dance more than he pays you.”

Arnie shook her head. “Money is not always the most important thing.”

“You would also share in the ticket mon--” Dolores could see the unease in Arnie’s face. “Arnolda… dulcita, what is the matter?”

“I… at the Spauldings, I-I danced with… Hedley.”

“Hedley?”

“The son. He… he taught me the waltz, and we-we danced.” Her voice broke. “And… I-I liked it.”

Dolores pretended not to understand. “Sì, the waltz is a lovely dance.”

“No-No, not the dance. I-It was more. It was the way he held me.” Her body, her hateful body, it remembered, and it tingled at the memory.

Her cousin nodded. “So you enjoyed it. There is nothing wrong with that.”

“Yes… Yes, there is. I am a man, and a man should not enjoy dancing with another man.”

There was a mirror mounted on the wall above the dresser. Dolores took Arnie’s hand and led her over to it. “Do you see a man in the mirror?”

“Yes!” There was desperation in her voice.

“Mirrors do not lie, Arnolda. In your mind, you may -- may -- still be a man, but what you see in the mirror, what the world sees when it looks at you, is a muy pretty girl.”

Arnie looked away. “A girl? No.”

“Sì, a girl. You have the mind of a man – perhaps, but it is within the body of a woman. And we women, we like a man to dance with us, to hold us close. It is the nature of a woman, the way our bodies are made.” She smiled and put her arm around her younger cousin. “So, it was not you that enjoyed dancing with the Hedley. It was only your body.”

“Just… just my body?” She seemed to relax as she said the words. “My body, not me.”

Dolores agreed. “Sì, not you.” It was a lie, Dolores knew, but by the time Arnie found that out, she might not care.

* * * * *

Nancy pushed open the door to the “bunkhouse,” the large sleeping room above the Saloon, and the original quarters of the Hanks gang after their transformation. “You wanted to see us, Molly?”

“Sure ‘n’ I did,” Molly replied. “Come in here, the three of ye, and close the door behind ye.” She waited until Nancy, Lylah, and Flora were all standing before her before she continued. “Yuir new costumes is here, Cactus Blossoms, one on each o’them beds there…” She pointed three packages wrapped in yellow paper, each on a different bed. “…with yuir names on ‘em. I wants ye t’be trying them on, and then we’ll be having us a little practice, so ye can get used t’be dancing in ‘em.”

The three women milled around until each had found her own package. They untied the strings binding the yellow parcels and examined the contents. “Kind of an odd shade of green, isn’t it?” Flora observed, holding up a pair of stockings.

“‘Tis cactus green,” Molly answered. “The dresses are the same color, as ye can see.”

Lylah lifted the dress and found a double petticoat of dark pink, which she picked up and examined. “Lemme guess, these here’re the ‘blossoms, right?”

“These too, probably,” Nancy said with a groan. She was looking at a pair of drawers that were the same color as the petticoat. Both were covered with a froth of lacy trim.

“Aye, ye’re both right,” Molly told them. She couldn't help sounding a bit smug.

“There’s pink on them dresses, too.” Lylah was holding the dress in front of her, as if considering how it might look on her. A flower made of some sort of dark pink netting was sewn onto the right side of the waist. A second, smaller flower was on the left shoulder strap.

Molly shrugged. “That there is. Now I want the three of ye t’be getting into these fine new clothes. Leave what ye’re wearing now in here. Ye can be coming back for that stuff later.” She paused a moment. “And that includes yuir camisoles – there ain’t room for ‘em under these dresses. Yuir drawers. too; ye can just be wearing them new pink ones.”

“Do we gotta?” Lylah complained.

Molly gave her a stern look. “Aye, now hush up, and get to it, ladies. As me girl, Jessie, says, ‘Ye’re burning daylight.’” Molly nodded her head, as if to emphasize what she’d said. “I’ll be going now t’set up in the hall. The three of ye come out the minute as ye’ve changed.” She left, closing the door again behind her.

* * * * *

Flora laid her petticoat down on the bed and began to unhook her corset. She’d done it enough times that she didn’t have to pay rapt attention to the process, and she glanced up at the other two women. She barely lingered on Lylah. ‘The nigger’s pretty enough,’ she thought with a shrug, ‘but I’ve seen her “charms” before.’ But watching Nancy strip down was a new treat, since they slept in different rooms. And she was guessing that the former schoolteacher would look right fine in the costume, too.

Nancy had removed her own corset and was now unbuttoning her camisole. ‘Damn,’ Flora thought, ‘look at those tits.’ Flora braced herself, expecting the arousal that she would have felt in the past. Nancy’s lush bosom, nipples exposed and ready to be sucked, would have gotten Forry rock-hard and ready for some fun.

‘Mine are better,’ Flora thought. She frowned at the notion and got back to the business of changing clothes. The bothersome female arousal that she’d expected, her own nipples getting tight and the feeling of warmth in her loins, just didn’t seem to happen.

* * * * *

Nancy stepped into her new, dark pink drawers. She pulled them up, past her hips and used the matching ribbon to draw them taut at her waist. ‘The color is horrid,’ she thought, ‘but they feel comfortable enough.’

She sat down on the bed and raised the bottom of the drawers on her left leg, so she could undo her stocking. ‘It’s like putting on a new uniform,’ she told herself. ‘But I’m not wearing these clothes to keep warm and look respectable. I’m wearing them to display my body.’ She chuckled to herself. ‘That’s hardly respectable.’

“No matter what job I took, Cecelia and her crowd would have treated me like a girl of the streets,” her mind continued. “If the choice is between being my own woman and doing this, or minding my p's and q's just to get the approval of the likes of their kind, I choose this.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “After all, if Molly O'Toole could cancan at my age and still become a respectable woman where it really counts, this can't be anything too awful.”

She knew she was taking a big step, one that she might never be able to retrace. She could cut and run now, but that wouldn't be an option later. She remembered that Kirby had offered her a job. ‘Only… he did it out of pity.’ She sighed. ‘Or was it something else, not pity but… friendship, affection, maybe even…’ She shook her head, denying the word. ‘And yet, his reaction when he found out that she’d be dancing, be dressed like this, sounded like more than the disappointment of a friend.’

Her mind shifted. He had sounded more like the frustration of someone who really cared for her, someone like her brother, Carl. He was disappointed, angry even, at her choice. Two men who loved – loved? – her, and she seemed to have let them both down. ‘I’m not going to quit,’ she thought, almost hearing Carl’s mocking ‘Baa-aah!’ in her mind. ‘I'm not going to be the object of pity. I just have to figure out how to convince them that this is the right thing for me.’

* * * * *

“All right, ladies,” Molly began, once the three women were in their new costumes and standing out in the hall. None of them were used to doing her fancy dance steps in this sort of clothing, so their disarray needed a little straightening, which service she performed. Finally she said, “Let’s be getting started. Stand in a line about three feet apart – that’s right, with Flora in the center, her being the tallest -- and put yuir arms on each others’ shoulders for balance.”

Once the women were in place, Molly continued. “We’ll practice that ‘randy jam’ step first. That’s the one where ye take yuir skirts and petticoats in yuir hands, and ye raise yuir right leg up high – get yuir leg up, Lylah, so yuir knee’s about the height o’yuir belly button. Aye, just like that.”

“Now bend yuir right knee, so yuir lower leg’s hanging down, and make a circle with yuir foot, all of ye moving ‘em the same way, like we practiced.” She watched for a moment, as the trio followed her direction.

“And now, we’ll be doing it with music. Remember t’be waving yuir skirts ‘n’ petticoats back and forth to the beat.” She pressed the lever that started the kalliope, which was perched on a small table next to her. The brass disk inside rotated, and the melody came out of the ornate music box, sounding like an orchestra of tiny bells.

Flora, Nancy, and Lylah danced as Molly had directed. Their right feet circled in syncopation, each with the others. Their dresses were raised up in their hands, and their lush, pink petticoats and matching drawers were plainly visible.

‘These here fancy underthings’ll give Luke something to really stare at,’ Lylah mused. Somehow, the thought pleased her. ‘I just wish he’d stop staring and come over t’say something ‘bout what he was thinking about while he was staring.’

Molly had the woman continue the lift kick for about five minutes. Then she had them switch, repeating the same move with their left leg.

“That’s it, Blossoms -- especially you, Flora, you show off those pretty stems,” a voice behind them taunted.

The women spun around. “What’re you doing here, Kel -- Miss Bridget?” Flora asked angrily. Molly’s instructions to be polite to Bridget had kicked in. Flora had to break ranks and courtesy to the lady gambler.

“Watching you, Mr. Stafford,” Bridget answered, barely keeping in her laughter.

Molly turned off the kalliope. “That’s all well ‘n’ good, Bridget, but since ye ain’t up here t’be joining the Cactus Blossoms, I’ll be asking ye t’leave.”

“I’ll go, M-Molly,” Bridget replied, still chortling. “I’ll go. I thought the Captain looked pretty in her little red uniform, but this… this is just so much better. Damn it, Stafford, I can’t believe how sweet you look in that outfit; as pretty as a real desert blossom.” She waved. “Bye, Flora! Don't catch cold,” and went back around the corner and out of sight.

* * * * *

“You sure ‘bout this, Sep?”- George Higgins asked.

Septimus Blake nodded. “I told you I am. All we gotta do is break into this Unger guy’s store ‘n’ mess the place up a bit. You know, just enough to throw a scare into him.”

“It still seems risky,” Higgans said with a grimace.

Blake shook his head. “We do this, and Ritter'll have to pay us more’n enough t’make it to them gold fields in the Dakotas. Now, let’s get to it.” He held his hat against the window glass of the back door, and punched the inside crown of the hat, breaking the pane.

“There we go.” He pushed more of the glass out of the frame before he reached through and turned the latch that held the door closed. The door swung open, and the two men walked in. The room was small with shelves holding boxes of paper and other stationary supplies along two walls. There were two tall wooden file cabinets against the third wall, with a desk and two chairs in front of them.

George looked around. “This here’s just a office and storeroom. There ain’t much we can do in here.”

“You can mess up the papers in them cabinets,” Sep told him, “and see if they’s anything in that desk.”

“What’re you gonna do?”

“I’m gonna see what mischief I can get into in the next room, maybe even break that printing press of his.” He walked through an open door and a few feet into the next room, the print shop, the air tangy with the odors of grease and ink.

The press was in the center of the room. Two rows of trays filled with small pieces of lead type were set against the wall at the back of a long table. A large wooden frame, half-filled with rows of type, lay on the tabletop. To the right of the press, piled high on another, smaller table, stood two stacks of blank paper. A few sheets with printing on them were on a second table to the right of the press. There were bundles of paper, tied with a green string, on shelves along the opposite wall.

“Hold it right there,” a firm voice ordered from behind him.

Sep turned around slowly. A tall man in a bathroom stood near a set of stairs, holding a candleholder in one hand and -- damn! -- a pistol in the other. “I said hold it,” the man ordered.

“You’d be Mr. Unger, I suppose,” Sep said in a cautious voice. “Pleased t’meet you.” He slowly raised his arm, as if offering to shake Roscoe’s hand. While he spoke, he slowly shifted position in the room. Roscoe followed the other man’s movements, until his own back was to the office.

Roscoe glared at the intruder. “You won’t be so ‘pleased’ when I – uhh!” His head jerked forward, and he collapsed to the floor unconscious.

“Shit,” Sep Blake cursed. “I didn’t ‘spect anybody’d be here.” He knelt down and put two fingers on the side of Roscoe’s neck, feeling for a pulse.

George Higgins was standing in the doorway to the office. “Is he dead?”

“Nope,” Sep replied, “just knocked out. Thanks.”

“We better get the hell outta here,” George warned. He holstered the pistol he’d used to knock out Roscoe.

Sep shook his head. “Not till we finish what Ritter’s gonna pay us for.” He reached up and pulled over the boxes of type, scattering the pieces across the floor. He pushed the piles of paper onto the floor, as well, tossing the printed sheets on top of them.

“That should do it,” George told him nervously. “That slug on the head I gave him will teach him as much as a regular drubbing. Let’s go before Unger wakes up.”

Sep nodded in agreement. “Ritter’ll have to be happy with this.” He swept an arm, pointing at the disarray.

The two men hurriedly left the way they had come in, leaving the door open behind them. They were well away when the candle in Roscoe’s candleholder, loosened by being dropped on the floor, slipped free. Its flame touched off the paper it landed on, and in minutes the fire was spreading quickly through the room.

* * * * *

“My brave Ned, that country is not yet sufficiently indicated on the world map, and I admit that the nationality of these two strangers is hard to determine! Neither English nor French, nor German, that's all we can say. However, I am tempted to think that the commander and his deputy were born in low lati --”

Kirby Pinter put down the copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and sniffed at the air. “Smoke,” he whispered. He climbed out of bed and followed the scent. It was stronger from the direction of his opened bedroom window than from the doorway into his apartment above his store. “Not from in here, thank G-d.”

He stepped over to the window and looked out at the surrounding buildings. There was a flickering light that could only be flames from inside a nearby structure. “Roscoe’s!”

He grabbed for his pants and stepped into them. Then he sat back on his bed just long enough to put on his shoes. He tucked his nightshirt into his pants, as he ran down the stairs and out his back door. The print shop was two doors down. As he ran to it, he shouted “Fire!” as loudly as he could. No one answered.

Roscoe’s back door was open. Kirby saw that fire was hadn’t reached the office yet. “Here goes nothing,” he muttered, as ran into the building. The desk drawers and the file cabinets were open, and papers were scattered everywhere. He shouted his friend’s name several time, but to no avail.

He put his right arm over his head for cover. He took a breath of “good” air and moved cautiously into the middle room. Through the smoke, he could see that the fire was mostly paper, loose sheets scattered on the floor and bundles on wooden shelves, burning bright enough to be seen through both the front and back windows. The shelves were beginning to burn. There was still no sign of Roscoe or anyone else.

One wooden shelf was already on fire. The flames were licking at the wooden base of Roscoe’s printing press. As Kirby stepped around the press, he saw a figure lying on the floor. Roscoe. The man was unconscious – Kirby hoped. He wore a thick robe that was burning in several places.

Kirby grabbed a sponge sitting on a corner of the printing press, one of the ones that Roscoe used to ink its plates. The wooden dish it was in was hot to the touch, but it wasn’t on fire. The sponge was clean, nothing flammable on it, and he used it to beat out the flames on the robe, trying to be as quick and as gentle as he could. In a couple places, the garment was almost burned through.

It was a strain, but he managed to get Roscoe over his shoulders. The man was heavy, but, at least, Kirby could feel his breathing. Carefully, crouching to keep his – and Roscoe’s – head out of the smoke, he retraced his steps out into the yard. Once he was outside, he braced himself against a wall and took a long breath of fresh, cool night air. Then, still carrying the printer on his shoulders and panting – just a little – from his load, he slowly began to make his way toward Doc Upshaw’s office.

* * * * *

Tor Johansson was deputy on duty this night. The tall, muscular man was making his rounds on Main Street, checking that doors and windows were shut and locked. As he rounded a corner, he saw an odd, unexpected light in the window of the print shop. He ran over and saw the flames inside.

“Fire!” he yelled as loudly as he could. Still yelling the word, he ran over to the nearest alarm, a thick ring of steel hanging by a chain from a hook on the wall about a half block away. A hammer hung from the same hook, and Tor used it to beat the ring, making a loud, clanging noise.

Duggan’s Lone Star Saloon was just down the street, and three men ran out to investigate the noise. “You…” Tor pointed to one of them. “Get over here and take over der alarm.” When the man hurried over, Tor handed him the hammer and told him to keep sounding the alarm. He sent the second man back inside the saloon to get those still inside. “You,” he told the third, “come mit me.”

Tor led the man to a fenced off area in the alley behind the Sheriff’s Office, through the gate and to the shed where the fire pump was stored. He opened the doors, and a dappled mare whinnied a welcome from her stall. The pair led the horse out and hitched her to the pump. Tor left the man behind to ring the alarm in front of the office, while he drove the pump back to the print shop.

A crowd had gathered by the time he arrived. Some already had buckets of their own and were forming lines. Tor pulled the pump up next to the water trough closest to the fire. He pulled a weighted hose out of the back of the pump and lowered one end into the trough.

People grabbed at the buckets hanging from the sides of the pump. They hurriedly formed double lines to the next two nearest troughs. One line passed empty buckets to the people at the trough. A man or woman filled these and started them up the second line to others, who dumped the water into the tank built into the pump wagon. There were both men and women in the two lines.

Arsenio Caulder worked the small hand pump that was attached to the water trough. Two other men were working the same pumps on the other two troughs. They couldn’t keep up with the big pump pulling the water out, but it took a lot longer to empty the troughs.

Dan Talbot had arrived by now, and he unhooked a second hose from the front of the wagon. Three men on each side of the wagon started working the pump handles, pulling water from the tank and from the trough and pushing it, under pressure through that hose. “She’s ready,” someone – Liam O’Hanlan – yelled. Dan turned a lever on the nozzle of the hose and directed the stream of water through a smashed window and onto the flames within.

It took over an hour to put out the fire, including time to soak the wood of the building – just in case. Every horse trough on Main Street was empty, but the fire was definitely out. Shamus and Sam and every other barman on the street opened their taps and passed out free drinks until the fire in the throats and the ache in the backs and arms of all those who’d helped were also taken care of.

* * * * *

Friday, May 31, 1872

Trisha walked slowly down the street towards the Feed & Grain. Her long, blonde hair swung this way and that, as she glanced from building to building, trying to see where the fire had been. She’d heard the fire gong, they all had, but Kaitlin hadn't allowed her to go out to help, fretting about how unsafe it would be for a pregnant woman in the midst of an excited crowd. Trisha gritted her teeth. She might be going to have a baby, but she wasn't one herself.

“Looking for something, Trisha?” a voice asked.

She turned to see Fred Norman sweeping the wooden sidewalk in front of his leather goods store. “Yes, I am, Fred. I was wondering where last night’s fire was.”

“That was quite a blaze,” he said thoughtfully. “Half the town must’ve been working the bucket brigade to put it out.”

“I’m sure it was, but what building… whose building was on fire?”

“Didn’t I say? I’m sorry. Sometimes my mind just wanders. Don’t you hate it when --”

“Mr. Norman… please.”

“Sorry. It was… ah, the print shop – what’s his name? – Unger’s place. I hear he got burned bad, and he’s over at the doc’s.”

Trisha gasped, fear clutching at her heart. “Th-Thanks,” she called back at Norman as she began running, as fast as she could, toward Dr. Upshaw’s office.

* * * * *

Septimus Blake and George Higgins walked confidently into Ritter’s Livery. They stopped just inside the doorway and looked around. After a very short time, a tall, burly, dark-haired young man came over to them and asked, “Can I help you, gentleman?”

“We wanna see Mr.Ritter,” Sep said in answer.

“I’m Mr. Ritter… Winthrop Ritter. What do you want?”

Blake studied him for a moment. “Your pa, boy. We wanna see your pa, the man that owns this place.” He hesitated for a minute, then added firmly. “In private.”

“He’s over there. Follow me.” Winthrop led the men to a closed door marked “Office.” He knocked twice and called out, “Father, there’s some men out here to see you. They say that it’s a private matter.”

Clyde Ritter’s gruff voice sounded through from inside. “Show them in… and then get back to work.”

“Yes, sir.” Winthrop opened the door. The men went in, closing it behind them.

The boy stood outside, trying to listen. “Now, Winthrop!” His father yelled. The boy jumped in surprise, and then scurried away.

* * * * *

Blake and Higgins stood in front of Ritter’s desk. “How do, Mr. Rittter,” Higgins said.

“You bastards! Were you responsible for the fire at Unger's last night?” Clyde demanded, looking up at them from his chair.

Sep smirked. “There's no reason to be calling us names. We done the job you hired us for, and now we come for our money.”

“Job?” Clyde asked in a strained voice. “I told you to wait until we talked about it more.” His fingers were white from how hard he grasped the arms of his chair.

George chuckled. “We scared that Unger guy, like you wanted. We busted up his place real good last night.”

“I never asked you to do anything!” Clyde sprang to his feet, his hands balled into fists.

Sep nodded. “You were taking your time about it, but Georgie ‘n’ me don't have no time to waste. Strike while the iron is hot, right? We didn’t figure on no fire – that was a accident, but it oughta keep him from putting out that paper o’his for a good while. Any way look at it, you're getting a damned good return on your investment.”

Ritter glared at the pair whose stupidity had ruined his plans. He could have privately taken credit with the better people in church for intimidating Unger and gotten elected to the board on his own. But now, with the fire a part of the act, he couldn't touch the fiasco with a ten-foot pole. “You might have burned down half the town. When I tell the Sheriff --”

“You ain’t telling the Sheriff nothing,” Sep interrupted, stepping towards the man. “Give us any trouble and we'll say that you put us up to it. It'll be the word of us two against you.”

“And who’d believe you?” he asked through gritted teeth, ready to pounce. “I’m a respected man in this town, and you two’re just a couple of --”

Sep nodded, and his grin just got bigger. “That’s true, sir, but we wasn’t the only ones in your store when you told that preacher that you’d pay – what you say? – ‘good money’ t’see that Unger got what’s coming to him. And your own man saw us talking with you private-like yesterday.” He gave a nasty chuckle. “If you want to go on being ‘a respected man,’ you'd better pay up.”

Clyde considered the other man’s words, and then he sighed, knowing he was caught. “And you’ll leave town permanently as soon as I pay you?”

“The very minute,” George promised, holding his hand as if taking an oath. Sep nodded in agreement.

Ritter shrugged, accepting the situation. “Very well.” His body unclenched, as he reached for his wallet. “You said twenty dollars each, as I recall.”

“I said twenty each,” Sep replied, “but… considering everything that we had to do, fifty each sounds a lot more friendly.”

“That’s a hundred dollars!”

Sep and George looked at each other quickly, then both grinned at Ritter. “Why so it is,” Sep said cheerfully. “You just give us that money, sir, and we’ll be on our way t’them Black Hills up in the Dakotas quicker ‘n you can spit.”

Ritter scowled. He put away his wallet and went to get his cash box.

* * * * *

Jubal Cates strode purposefully into Styron’s hardware. “Horace,” he said, “I’d like to talk to you.” His tone was even, but his face showed his apparent anger. “In private.”

“I don’t have a private office,” Styron replied. “Let’s go into my storeroom.” He led cates through a door into a large room filled with shelf after shelf of merchandise. “Now,” he said, closing the door behind him, “what’s this all about?”

“The fire. It’s more than a coincidence, I think, that it happened the night after you, Clyde, and the Reverend got together to talk about ways of hurting Roscoe Unger.”

Styron raised an eyebrow. “Look around you, Jubal,” he said, gesturing at the shelves. “How many kinds of flammable – kerosene… linseed oil… whatever -- do you see? A fire is the last thing I need – or want – to happen.” He took a quick breath. “that’s why I was one of the men working the pump wagon last night.”

“If not you, Clyde, then.”

“Same thing. He’s got horses – you know how they get around a fire; not to mention the hay to feed them and the rigs they pull. He and his boy, Winthrop were both in the bucket brigade.” He frowned. “Neither of us would risk a fire. And neither would Reverend Yingling. Or are you gonna tell me he called down hellfire on poor Roscoe?”

“No… I guess not… I-I’m sorry,” he added.

Horace put his arm over the other man’s shoulder. “I can see how you could make that mistake; the fire happening the night after that meeting, but sometimes… sometimes things just happen that way.”

“I-I guess so.”

“Well, no harm, no foul, as they say.” He slapped Jubal’s back in a friendly manner. “What say the both of us get back t’work?” He opened the door, holding it for Cates.

“I suppose I should get back to my shop.” The surveyor walked through the door. “Sorry to have taken up so much of your time over nothing.”

“I’m just glad we got things settled.” Cates was too good an ally to risk losing over what he hoped was nothing. He knew that he hadn’t done anything to harm Unger, and he was fairly sure that the Reverend hadn’t either. Clyde Ritter was another matter, but there was no real harm done, so Horace decided to let sleeping dogs lie – for now, at least. He didn't like the prospect of finding out more than he really wanted to know.

* * * * *

Winthrop saw the two men leave his father’s office. Both seemed much happier than they had been on the way in.

His father wasn’t happy. He could hear a stream of profanity through the closed door. He heard the slam of a fist hitting wood – probably the desk. The young man hurried away to find something else to do for a while.

* * * * *

“Just follow the music.” Kirby Pinter repeated R.J.’s instructions, as he strode along the second floor landing of the Eerie Saloon. As he walked, he heard very spirited music coming from what sounded like a very large music box.

He turned one corner, then another, and found himself at the start of a long hallway. At the far end, three women were dancing, lifting their skirts and waving them back and forth. They were kicking their legs in time to the music, cheerfully displaying their frothy petticoats and flashing their drawers for all to see. He was staggered to see that one of the scandalously-clad dancers was Nancy Osbourne.

“Ah… ex-excuse me,” he stammered in as loud a voice as he could muster. “Is Mrs. O’Toole about?”

Molly was sitting in the corner, partly hidden by the table holding a large, ornate wood and brass box. She reached into the box and clicked off the kalliope, stopping the music. “Kirby Pinter,” she said, a chuckle in her voice. “Have ye come up here t’be getting an early look at the Cactus Blossoms’ new act?”

“N-No, ma’am.” Kirby took a breath and started down the hall. “Jessie Hanks had me order some music from St. Louis. It came on yesterday’s stage, and I’ve brought it over now. Only… she’s not here.”

“Aye, her and Paul Grant’re on thuir way to a farm near Yuma. The family that owns it is friends with Jessie, and they asked her t’be singing at thuir daughter’s wedding.”

“Yes, she came in Monday morning and told me that she’d be away for a while. She said to bring the music to you when it came in.” He reached out to give Molly the envelope he held.

“Kirby!” Nancy asked tensely. “Wh-What happened to you?” She pointed at the white cloth bandage wrapped around his right hand, the hand holding the packet.

“I… I burned it when I was getting Roscoe out of his shop last night.”

Her eyes went wide. “Last night… the… the fire. You were in the print shop when it was on fire?” Nancy had been one of the women passing buckets, all the women – and the men – in the Saloon had fought the fire.

“I-I smelled smoke and went to investigate. He was lying unconscious on the floor. His robe was burning. I batted out the flames. Then I got him out of there and over to Dr. Upshaw’s office.” He gave her an embarrassed smile. “I didn’t notice my hand was burnt until I got there.”

“You… You could’ve been killed going into a burning building like that.” Nancy impulsively threw her arms around Kirby.

Molly nodded. “Ye’re a hero, Mr. Pinter.”

“And amply rewarded for it just now.” He grinned and held on to Nancy's arms when she began to pull away.

She looked surprised, but not unpleased. Then, suddenly, she frowned and wrested herself free of him. “You certainly don’t seem to have any problem with my profession now, Mr. Pinter.”

“As I recall, Miss Osbourne,” he answered stiffly, “it was you who embraced me a moment ago.”

“I-I was overcome with concern about your hand,” she answered, not sure of herself. “I trust that you’re… f-feeling better.”

He wanted to tell her no, that what he needed to make him feel better was to hold her in his arms again, but he wasn’t about to say that – or anything close to that, not if she was going to act -- and dress -- this way. Instead, he turned to Molly and said, “Here’s Jessie’s package, Mrs. O’Toole.” He tossed the thick envelop onto the table next to the kalliope. “And good day to most of you.” Kirby gave a quick nod and started back down the hall.

Nancy watched, her features shifting back and forth between anger and sadness. ‘That damned man,’ she told herself. “That unreasonable, woolly-headed… brave man!”

* * * * *

Liam peeked through the doorway into Doc Upshaw’s infirmary. Roscoe Unger was lying on his stomach on the farthest of the four beds. His back was covered by a crisp-looking white cotton sheet. Trisha sat next to his bed. She was carefully feeding him soup – a rich beef broth, it smelled like.

“I thought I’d find you here,” he said cheerfully, stepping into the room.

Trisha looked up, a startled expression on her face. “Liam, I-I’m sorry, but --”

“Don’t worry about it,” he cut in. “When you didn’t show up this morning, I had a feeling that you’d either be here or at Roscoe’s store.”

Roscoe turned his head, trying unsuccessfully to see Liam. “Muh… My st-store, how… how is it?” He sounded drugged, probably with laudanum.

“Still standing,” the other man answered, “but there’s a lot of soggy paper goods inside – some burnt wood, too. I don’t know about your printing equipment or your press. I ran into Kirby Pinter on my way here. He said that he was going to try to sort things out as best he could for you.”

“Guh-Good friend… Kirby. S-Saved me.” Roscoe turned his head back towards Tricia. “Muh-More?”

She smiled at him. “Of course, more.” She gave him another spoonful of the soup, and then looked up at Liam. “I’ll get over to the store later.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s been kind of quiet all day. I think some of the folks who worked the bucket brigade last night decided to sleep in. That’s how I managed to find the time to come looking for you. Mateo’s holding down the fort till I get back.”

Tricia’s expression changed. “What about… tomorrow? Saturday’s our busiest day.” She looked – and felt – guilty to be asking.

“You thinking about coming back here tomorrow?” Liam asked.

“Ah… If I can. If you don’t mind.” She studied his face. “Do you mind?”

He gave her a bemused smile. “I have to get back. We can talk about that tonight – you are going home for supper tonight, aren’t you?”

“Supper? Oh, yes, but I-I may come back here – just for a while – after.”

“Fine. It’s Friday, so I’ll be there for dinner anyway, and we can talk.” He glanced over at Roscoe. “Right now, I think your ‘patient’ wants some more soup.”

Trisha pivoted to look at Roscoe. “Pl-Please,” he said in a weak voice.

She gave him another spoonful. When she turned back to talk to Liam, she found that he was already gone.

* * * * *

Flora was watching for Clyde Ritter, while she did her early shift as waitress for “Maggie’s Place.” When he did come in, about 5:30, she waved to him. Then she hurried over to where Shamus was standing, acting as maitre‘d. “I’d like to take my supper break now,” she told him, untying her apron as she spoke.

“And why is that…” Shamus replied. “…when ye’ve just taken the supper orders for Judge Upshaw and his friends over there?” He pointed to one of the tables where the Judge was sitting with his law clerk, Obie Wynn, Milt Quinlan, and Zach Levy.

Clyde stepped in front of Shamus. “Because I’m here to have dinner with her, Mr. O’Toole. Do you have a problem with that?”

“Only with yuir attitude, Mr. Ritter. She’s free t’be having dinner with ye, and it’d be rude t’be making ye wait.” He picked up two menus and led them to a vacant table. “Yuir waitress’ll be here in a minute t’be taking yuir orders.” He set the menus on the table and walked away.

Ritter helped Flora take her seat, then walked around to take the chair opposite her. “You look lovely tonight, Flora.”

“Thank you,” she said, smiling prettily. “And thanks for standing up to Shamus for me.”

He smiled back at her. “It’s always a pleasure to put that sneaky Mick in his place, but it’s especially a pleasure to do it for you.”

“Why thank you again…” She reached across the table and put her hand on his arm. “…Clyde.” Her voice was low and sultry. “I love it when a handsome man like you does sweet things just for me. It makes me think of King Arthur and his knights in shining armor.”

“Oh, and what sort of things do you like a man to do… for you?”

“He says how pretty I look or how nice it is to dance with me – or to watch me dance.” She giggled. “It’s really sweet when you tell me how much you enjoyed my dancing ‘Colonel Jinx’ and then you buy me a drink. I put my whole heart into that act. I get so… hot – and thirsty doing it.” She couldn’t help but smile. A few dumb words, and Ritter was all but wagging his tail like an eager puppy.

Nancy came over to the table, pad in hand. “Are you folks ready to order?” She couldn’t help but frown. She didn’t know what bothered her more: Ritter cheating on his wife – no matter what she thought of Cecelia Ritter, they were man and wife – or Flora encouraging his cheating ways.

“You had your chance, Nancy” Ritter said, misinterpreting her frown. “I’ve found a woman…” He took Flora’s hand in his. “…who appreciates what I have to offer her.”

Nancy shrugged. “I’m so glad for you both.” She waited a half-beat. “Are you ready to order, or shall I come back?”

“We’ll order now, waitress,” Flora answered sourly. “I’ll have the trout with carrots and peas on the side.”

“Steak for me…” Clyde added. “…well done, and with the carrots and peas, too. Oh, and coffee for us both.”

Nancy nodded and wrote their orders in her pad. “Right away,” she told them and headed for the kitchen.

“Thank you again, Clyde.” Flora’s voice was still soft and seductive. “And I’m sure that you have a lot to offer a woman.”

He chuckled. “I do; this supper for a start.”

“Mmm, it’s a good start. I can wait to see the follow-though.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re a man, Clyde, and it’s natural for a man to want what a woman has… to offer. And I’ll admit that I do like you.”

His smile grew into a knowing leer. He'd learned from Wilma Hanks how wanton these potion girls could be. Even the upright Laura Calder had been married and gotten pregnant in just a few months. “Wonderful; after supper, we can go someplace private and --”

“I don’t know you that well. Yet. You have to help me get to know you better, to know you well enough that we can do what you were about to suggest.”

“How do I do that?”

“You just keep on doing what you’re doing right now: talk sweet to me, buy me a drink when I get thirsty and supper – sometimes – like tonight, and… oh… I-I can’t say it.” She looked away, her hand covering her face.

When she glanced back, her eyes were half-closed, just the way Rosalyn had taught her. She seemed to be the picture of shy innocence, even though she was carefully studying Rittter’s reactions.

“Of course, you can say it,” he insisted. “You can say anything you want to me.”

She smiled, the smile of a cat playing with a mouse. “Presents. I-I just love the idea of a man giving me presents now and then. I come from a fine, wealthy family. We're true Texas blue bloods. It's been so hard living in such deprived circumstances lately.” She giggled and gave a pretty shudder. “It makes me feel all warm inside just to think about the generosity of others – and their selflessness makes me feel so grateful.”

“Really?” He tried hard to control his leer. He was about to ask what sort of presents she might like, but Nancy interrupted, bringing their meal.

* * * * *

“How did your day go?” Kaitlin asked, setting a platter of fried chicken down on the table next to a plate of baked potatoes.

Liam speared a breast with his fork. “Mine was a little slow. I don’t know how Trisha’s was. She didn’t come in today.”

“Trisha.” Kaitlin sounded alarmed. “Is that true? What happened?”

Trisha had taken a drumstick, and she was now adding a baked potato. She stopped and gave her brother a nasty look before answering. “The fire last night… it was in Roscoe Unger’s print shop. He got burned real bad, and he needs to be watched all the time. Doc Upshaw stayed up with him all last night, and he was tired, so I volunteered to do it.”

“How did you even know that he was hurt?”

“Fred Norman. His shop’s not too far from Roscoe’s. I was trying to see where the fire was while I was on my way to work. He told me. I like – Roscoe’s a… a friend, so I went to see how he was doing.”

Liam laughed. “The way Doc Upshaw tells it, she came running in, half in a panic.”

“I-I just thought I’d have a quick visit before I went in to the Feed and Grain.”

Kaitlin smiled. “All day isn’t a very quick visit.”

“He’s a friend,” Trisha insisted, feeling embarrassed. “He needed help. Why shouldn’t I --”

Kaitlin raised a curious eyebrow. “Why indeed? Roscoe isn’t one of your three special friends, is he?”

“Special?” Trisha’s eyes went wide, when she realized what Kaitlin was implying. “No – No, nothing like that!” She answered quickly – maybe too quickly, and she caught herself wondering why. “He… He’s just a friend, honest.”

Neither she nor Kaitlin noticed the shocked look on Emma’s face or the nervous way she was staring, silently, shifting her eyes between her parents.

Liam nodded. “That’s true enough. When I found her in the doc’s infirmary, she was feeding him soup, and she looked positively… maternal.”

“Isn’t that sweet,” Kaitlin teased. “And will you be going back to see your patient tonight… or tomorrow?”

Trisha frowned. “Mrs. Lonnigan said that she wouldn’t need me tonight. I-I’d like to go back tomorrow, for a while, at least. Roscoe still needs to be watched all the time. He has no family here, you know. But tomorrow – tomorrow’s our busiest day of the week. I don’t help out as much as I used to…” She glared at Liam for a moment. “…what with no heavy lifting, but we’d still be shorthanded if I wasn’t there.”

“I’d hate to keep you and Roscoe apart,” Kaitlin replied, her lips curling in a small smile. “Why don’t I go in to help at the store? I’ve been wanting to learn more about the business, now that I own twenty percent of it outright. That way, you can spend the whole day over at the doctor’s.”

Liam grinned and put his hand gently on Kaitlin’s arm. “I think that’s a fine idea, Kaitlin. Trisha can spend the whole day helping Roscoe, while you come in and help me.”

* * * * *

Saturday, June 1, 1872

Sam Braddock looked around the barroom. “There still ain’t nobody else here, Bridget; none o’your regular players, anyway.”

“I know, Sam,” she agreed unhappily, “and I’m sorry. I know you came in for a quick game, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone around to play against you.”

He smiled. “Sure there is… you.”

“Me?” She tried to hide the panic she felt at the idea. “No… I-I’m just the dealer.”

“Aw, come on, Bridget. I won’t tell anyone that you actually played a game.”

“Sam, I’m… I’m not ready.”

“What’re you afraid of? It’s just me, Sam. You and I have been friends since you ratted on that Callen fellah last summer. You even told folks that you called him on cheating ‘cause we – me and the other players -- were friends.”

Bridget sighed. It was true. The friendship she felt with Sam and the other players – She warmed at the recollection. Cap had been one of those players, and the thought of him made her smile. So did the memory of what had happened after that trouble with Jeff Callen. Shamus had offered her the job as a dealer because of her calling the man on dealing bottom cards.

But she was still uncertain. “You’re sure that you want to play with… me?”

“Why not?” He pulled a box of finishing nails from his carpenter’s toolbox. “We’ll just play for… nails, if you want – like you play for matchsticks.” He dumped the nails on the table, separating them into two piles. “Hell, I’ll even spot you this stack.” He pointed at one pile. “I know you’re good for it.”

Bridget’s eyes glistened, as she slid the pile across the table to her. “Sam… th-thank you.” She reached across the table to tenderly squeeze his hand.

“For what… playing a few hands of penny ante poker with an old friend, a pretty lady who’s gonna go easy on me – I hope – and not take too much of my… nails?”

She smiled and wiped an eye with her handkerchief. “I won’t promise to go easy…” She raised her hand, signaling for a waitress. “…but I will spring for couple of beers.”

“Well, thank you. Let’s get started. Deal the cards; two nail ante.”

* * * * *

“Well, Roscoe,” Kirby said as he walked into Dr. Upshaw’s infirmary, “you certainly seem to be in good hands.”

Trisha looked up from the Harper’s Bazaar she was reading. “Shh, he’s asleep.”

“Am not,” Roscoe answered. “I’m just resting my eyes for a while.” He was still face down on the bed, his body covered with a fresh, soft muslin sheet.

Trisha chuckled. “And practicing your snoring for good measure.”

“I’m awake now,” he said stubbornly.

Kirby looked closely at his friend. “And sounding a lot better than yesterday.”

“Doc Upshaw cut down on the amount of laudanum he was giving me,” the printer told him. “The problem is, he won’t even talk about letting me out of here before Thursday or Friday.”

His friend shrugged. “What’s the problem with that?”

“I’ve got a paper to get out on Tuesday, and there’s plenty of work to do to get it ready.”

Trisha put down her magazine. “Couldn’t you just skip a week? I’m sure that people would understand.”

“Would you understand?” Roscoe asked. “You and your brother bought an ad in the paper. Would you understand why it didn’t appear?”

“You… couldn’t you print it just as well next week? It’s not like we’re having a sale.”

“No, you’re not, but the Ryland’s tailor shop is, and they bought a special ad to promote it. It has to come out this week.” He sighed. “And what about the news? People are certain to want to read about the fire.”

Kirby nodded. “Oh, yes, ‘Heroic Bookseller Saves Editor’s Life.’ That’s a headline I certainly want to read.”

“And you will -- eventually,” Roscoe told him. “But it won’t be this week. And…” He frowned. “Nobody’s going to be able to read about what happened in Tucson. That’s another problem.”

Both of his visitors looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” Kirby asked.

The Tucson Citizen sells advertising space in the boilerplate – that’s a metal plate they send me every Monday. I use it to print the front and back pages of my paper. I pay them for that, but it has to come out every week. If I miss a week I have to pay them a one hundred dollar penalty.”

He sighed again. “Between what I’m going to have to pay folks like the Rylands for not printing their ads and what I’ll owe to The Citizen -- not to mention Doc Upshaw’s bill, I’m gonna be in a lot of trouble financially.”

Trisha took hold of Roscoe’s hand. She was about to speak, when Edith Lonnigan came in. The nurse was carrying a tray with several objects under a large muslin cloth.

“I’m afraid that you’ll have to leave for a few minutes,” Edith told them. “It’s time for me to change Mr. Unger’s dressings and to give him his medication.” She set the tray down on the small table next to Roscoe’s bed.

“Do we have to go?” Trisha asked.

The other woman nodded. “I’m afraid so, but you’re welcome to come back in when I’m done.” She smiled at them. “Now scoot!”

“We’ll be right back, Roscoe,” Kirby said. “Come on, Trisha.” He took her hand and led her out of the room, despite her mumbled protest.

Once they were in the hall, the man stopped. “Actually, I’m glad we had a chance to talk. I didn’t want to get Roscoe’s hopes up, but… maybe – just maybe – I can put out the paper for him. I’ve got his shop mostly picked up and put away. Between the fire and the water, he lost a share of paper stock, but the press seems all right now that the soot’s been scrubbed off.”

“Do you need help?” she asked, looking very serious.

He shrugged. “Maybe. My idea is just to use the boilerplate and print the ads. We'll have to do the story of the fire, but the other news will have to wait until next issue. Did Roscoe ever say who it was that did it?”

“He didn't know them. Burglars, probably.” She paused. “But if they'd come to steal, why did they start out by tossing all that paper around? The truth is, Roscoe has made some powerful enemies around town lately. I wonder…”

“Come over to Roscoe’s shop right after church tomorrow, and we’ll see what we can work out.” He winked. “Just don’t tell him anything until we know if we can do it.”

* * * * *

“What is it that the Sonnets say about dancing?” Nancy asked.

Dolores thought for a moment. “Number… Four, I think. ‘Tienes tu vocación...' – excuse me, the English is…” She began to recite again, Number Four from Sonnets from the Portuguese.

` “Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor,
` Most gracious singer of high poems! Where
` The dancers will break footing, from the care
` Of watching up thy pregnant lips for more.”

“Lovely,” Nancy said. Then she noticed her brother walking towards where she and Dolores were standing. “Good evening, Carl.”

By way of greeting, he touched the brim of his hat with a finger and nodded. “Evening, Nancy… Dolores. How’re you two doing tonight?”

“That depends on you.” She studied his face. “Are you planning to argue with me again?” She crossed her arms in front of her.

“I’d like to, I really would, but I get the feeling I’d just be wasting my time.”

“Good call, big brother.”

Dolores took a step back. She wasn’t going to leave. The women were standing near the seats where they waited to be asked to dance, and the dance was scheduled to start soon. Still, she wanted to be out of the line of fire between the pair.

“You know, Nancy,” Carl plowed on, anyway, “some of the boys out at the Triple A are starting t’talk about you – and not in a nice way. It… It’s embarrassing.”

“Let them talk,” she replied. “They’re just as wrong about me as Cecelia Ritter and her friends, and I don’t give that...” She snapped her fingers. “… for any of them.”

“You don’t have to work with them, Nancy. I do, and it ain’t easy listening to them snickering about my sister. And it’ll just get worse when you get up there dancing in your… unmentionables. Practically everybody at the ranch wants to be here the first night you do it.”

She sighed and gently touched his arm. “Carl, I’m sorry for you, I truly am, but I-I’d feel sorrier for myself, if I gave in. Please try to understand that.”

“I’ll try, but –if you don’t mind –I’ll keep trying t’talk you outta this crazy idea of yours.”

“You wouldn’t be my brother if you didn’t, but don’t expect me to give in.”

“Baah, you old nanny goat.”

Dolores gave them both an odd look and recited again.

` “Yes, call me by my pet-name! Let me hear
` The name I used to run at, when a child…”

“From the Sonnets,” she explained with a chuckle. “Number 33.”

Carl ignored her and looked sternly into his sister's eyes. “You've never really explained why you suppose you'll be better off for doing what you're doing. Do you realize how your life is going to change if you go ahead with it?”

She pursed her lips. “I've thought a lot about it, in fact. I don't want to keep any secrets from you, Carl; come back one day next week, when we both have more time on our hands, and I'll put it all out on the table.”

He shook his head. “Same old Nanny Goat you always was, ain’t you?”

“Baaah!” she bleated and sat down in one of the chairs.

The cowboy sighed. Until a couple months earlier he had taken it for granted that he knew Nancy's mind. Suddenly, a whole different side to her nature had broken out of the pen. Probably it was because of all the trouble she had gotten into. She was like a maverick heifer, and he didn't know what to expect from her from one moment to the next.

* * * * *

Lylah saw Hammy Lincoln come into the Saloon and she walked over to him. “Well, hello, Mr. Lincoln,” she greeted him. “I was beginning to wonder if you forgot about this place.” And about her, though she didn’t want to say that.

“What’re you saying, Lylah?” he asked in an uncertain tone.

“I’m saying, where you been all week? You don’t work so far from here that you can’t come over for lunch… or for a drink in the evening.”

“I ain’t really got the time t’walk over for lunch. Mr. Ritter, he don’t give us a whole lotta time t’eat.”

“What about after work. Why ain’t I seen you then?”

“Why’re you making such a big deal about nothing?” he asked sounding annoyed. “It costs good money t’come in here. I figure it’s better t’save up for Saturday night, sos I got more t’spend on you.”

“You got all that money now?”

“I got enough.”

“Then go buy me a drink. It’s thirsty work arguing with you like this.”

“I will if you save me the first dance.”

“We’ll see. In the meantime, I’m still thirsty.”

“Lemme see what I can do ‘bout that.” He turned and headed towards the bar.

* * * * *

A pair of men, brothers from the way they resembled one another, walked over to where Lylah was standing, waiting for Hammy. “Ain’t you the nigger that prances ‘round in her drawers?” the shorter one asked.

“I am.” Lylah frowned. She had to be polite to Shamus’ customers, but this was asking a lot. “I’m… Lylah. Who’re you?”

The man smiled. “I’m Nat Crowly ‘n’ this here’s…” He nodded toward the second man. “…m’brother Vern. We was just wondering if we could see that again.”

“Maybe a private show… upstairs,” Vern added. “How many o’them tickets does that cost?”

Lylah glanced over to where Hammy was standing, as R.J. handed him two steins. Their eyes met. She hoped that he could see her distress, but he just shook his head and looked away.

Just then, Luke Freeman stepped up next to her. “The lady don’t do that sorta thing, mister,” he told them.

“And who’re you t’tell us what she’ll do, nigger?” Nat said, glaring at Luke. “You her keeper?”

Carl Osbourne took a place at Luke’s side. “You got a problem, Luke?” He balled his right hand into a fist and used it to hit the palm of his left hand.

“No,” Luke answered, grinning evilly at the pair. “These boys was just leaving… soon’s they apologize t’Lylah, that is.”

Carl looked first at Luke, and then at the brothers. “That sounds like a fine idea. Good ahead, apologize.”

“We… We was just funning you, ma’am,” Vern said. “We’re sorry.”

Nat agreed. “J-Just trying t’say how we l-liked your act.”

“That’s fine, boy,” Luke said. “Now get.” He smiled, watching the pair rush from the Saloon.

The band picked that moment to start playing. “Seeing as we’s already standing here, Lylah,” Luke said in a quiet voice, handing her a ticket. “Why don’t me ‘n’you have this first dance?”

“Why not?” Lylah replied, pocketing the ticket. She hadn’t really promised that first dance to Hammy, and Luke deserved a reward for rescuing her from the Crowly brothers.

She realized that she was blushing, trying to understand the warm feelings, feelings that were more than just relief, rushing through her body. She gave him her hand and let him lead her out among the other dancers. He stopped after a few steps, took Lylah in his arms, and they began to move to the music.

“I wanna thank you, Luke, for handling them men,” she told him.

“That man had no right t’talk to you that way.” He scowled. “No right at all.”

She thought for a moment. “Luke, can I ask you a question?”

“Don’t see why not. What you wanna know?”

“I seen you staring at me, all week. You don’t say much of anything; you just stare ‘n’ stare. I gotta know why; what’re you staring at?”

“You, of course,” he said with a chuckle. “I’se been wondering… well, I’se been wondering what it’d be like t’kiss you.”

She stopped moving and looked at him, her surprise showing clearly in her face. “You have?” She felt the warmth of another blush run across her face.

“I have.” He pulled her close to him. “And I think it’s time I find out.” He leaned in, and their lips met.

By instinct, her arms braced against his upper arms and she pushed against him but he was too strong, too persistent. His tongue moved into her mouth and began to glide over her own. She kept pushing, but didn't shout, didn't try to tear away. Her nipples tightened, as they grew erect against the cotton of her camisole. Her breasts flattened against his muscular chest as he held her close, and with a will of their own, her loins ground against the firmness of his arousal.

She remembered her dream. ‘This is even better,’ she thought. ‘It’s – ooh! – It’s real.’

Luke began to move again to the music. Her body flowed along with his. The kiss lasted until the last flourish of the waltz. She smiled breathlessly as they parted, and kept holding his hand, as they walked back to her seat.

* * * * *

“That was good, the way you stood up for Lylah,” Flora told Carl as they danced to the mazurka that the band was playing.

He smiled. “Thanks, but it was more a case of standing up for Luke. I don’t really know Lylah.”

“Well, whatever reason you did it for, it was a good thing to do.” She smiled back at him. “I do like a man who’s willing to back up his friends.”

“Thank you, Flora. It’s good of you to say.”

“Mmm, thank you.” Finding something to praise a man for was the best way to put him into a good mood. She rested her head on his chest and began humming the music they were dancing to. It was another trick Rosalyn had taught her, but one that that a certain other woman -- Violet! -- had used on Forry so long ago. Some women were such deceivers, but when she had done the deceiving, he -- the two of them, damn it – had certainly enjoyed the game.

Carl felt her breasts pressing against him, and his hand began to caress her back. He had been holding back, but he had wanted to touch her so much. He felt himself harden and braced for her angered reaction.

It never came. Instead, she made a quiet sound that could have been a moan of contentment.

‘This is nice,’ Flora thought. Then, almost in spite of herself, she added, ‘It's fun to get Carl this worked up, too.’ She always had to be on guard with Ritter; with Carl she could relax.

* * * * *

Arnie set the tray of dirty glassware that she was carrying down on a table. Three steins sat there, two empty and the other about one-quarter filled. She picked up the first two, pointedly ignoring the third.

“Any more?” She looked around as best she could. She could see glasses on a few of the tables, but they all held liquid. Most of the men in the room were dancing, some with Shamus’ waiter girls. In other cases, one of the men in each couple wore a kerchief on his sleeve proclaiming that he’d dance in woman’s part in exchange for a drink after the dance.

She stood for a moment, listening to the music. She didn’t know the tune, but she recognized it as a waltz. “One-two-three; one-two-three,” she whispered. That was how Hedley had taught her to count her steps. She warmed at the memory. ‘If he was here,’ she thought, ‘we could be dancing right now.’ It was a nice thought. She held her arms as if he were with her and swayed to the music.

She worried for a moment about how girlish she was acting, but she calmed herself by remembering Dolores’ words. ‘It is just my body,’ she told herself.

“Ye move real nice,” a voice behind her said.

Arnie jumped and spun around. “Molly, you… you scared me.”

“I’m sorry,” Molly replied, “but I meant what I told ye. Ye move like ye might be a good dancer, Arnie, would ye be interested in being one of our waiter girls?”

The girl looked down at her shoes. “I-I know the waltz… a little, but I do not know the other dances that the band plays.”

“Ye’re a smart lass. Ye could learn ‘em easy enough. Yuir cousin Dolores is a good dancer. I’m betting that she could be teaching ye the polka and the mazurka by next week.” She studied Arnie’s reaction. “If ye wanted t’learn ‘em.”

Dance? With men? Part of Arnie wanted to scream No! -- to say that she was a man. But there was a part of her – and not a little part – that actually liked the idea. “I-I will think about it,” she said in a soft voice. And, before Molly could say anything else, she picked up the tray and started for the kitchen.

* * * * *

“I seen you kissing that Luke Freeman, Lylah,” Hammy Lincoln told her, while they were dancing. She wasn’t happy about the way he’d acted earlier, but, thanks to Shamus’ orders, she couldn’t refuse his ticket. Besides, he was a friend -- even if she wasn’t as sure of him as she had been.

She gave him an odd smile. “T’tell the truth, it was him kissing me.”

“You… like it?”

“Kinda… I guess.” She giggled. “I never kissed a man before tonight.”

“Then, lemme show you what a real kiss is like.” The tall man stopped. He cupped her head in his hands and leaned down until their lips met. He was giving her every chance to fight it, but she didn't. A small male voice, Leland’s voice called – softly – that she should stop, but that voice was the only thing she wanted to fight.

Lylah felt as if a spark had passed between them. His arms glided around her, bringing them together, as the kiss deepened. She felt the same sort of delicious glow build in her, as she had when Luke had kissed her. Her nipples sprang to attention as they had with Luke. Her breasts warmed to his touch. Her entire body grew eager, hungry for the touch of a man, and there was a growing yearning for something down there.

She gave a soft sigh as she felt his tongue slip in between her lips. The dream was true. She was a woman, and her body delighted in the kiss of a man – even Hammy.

* * * * *



If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
up
41 users have voted.

And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks. 
This story is 24676 words long.