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

Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change – Spring, part 13 of 13
By Ellie Dauber and Chris Leeson © 2013

Sunday, June 23, 1872

Hiram King finished the waltz with a flourish of his fingers across the keys of his accordion. “That’s it for tonight, folks. We hope you enjoyed yourselves, and that you’ll all be back next week.” He slipped the straps off his shoulders, while Natty Ryland and Tomas Rivera, the other members of the Happy Days Town Band, stashed their own instruments, fiddle and clarionet, in carrying cases.

“Time for bed, I guess,” Cap Lewis told Bridget, his dance partner, “but, for some reason, I don’t feel the least bit sleepy.”

Bridget blushed, but just for a moment. “I should hope not.” She flashed him a sly smile, “Because I’m not sleepy, either.”

“I think that we can find something else to do.” He took her hand, and they walked briskly towards the steps.

As they climbed up to her bedroom, Bridget glanced down. Molly was on the barroom floor looking up at her. The older woman winked and made a “thumbs up” gesture. Bridget nodded and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

“Here we are,” Cap said, when they reached her door. Bridget fumbled in her apron pocket for the key. When she found it, she handed it to him, trembling as she did so. She was offering him far more than the key to a room, and she – they both -- knew it.

He opened the door and held it, gesturing for her to go first. She did, brushing her hand along his cheek as she walked past him. He followed, closing the door behind him, and latching it shut.

She had been so uncertain that first time they’d made love, all those weeks ago. It felt like she was jumping across some wide chasm, making the leap – the final leap -- from Brian Kelly’s past to Bridget Kelly’s future. Back then, she’d wondered if she had it in her to make it across. More importantly, she’d wondered what she would find on the other side.

She was still exploring that other side. There were false trails – and snakes! But Cap had always been there with her, even when she had feared that he was lost to her forever. And she had come to realize how much she wanted him there, sharing her life and her love. And her body. Their future together started tonight, and she wanted it to be as bright and as happy and as pleasurable as she could make it.

She untied her apron and carefully set it down gently on her dresser. “I’ll have to turn in all those tickets in the morning, I guess. For now --”

He interrupted her by pulling her to him. Their lips met. Her arms seemed to float up and around his neck of their own accord. At the same time, his arms circled her waist, holding her close against him.

She sighed, as the heat of his kiss flooded into her body. She delighted in feelings that she had missed for so very long. Her breasts tingled, and she felt her nipples stiffen, pushing against the soft muslin of her camisole.

“Much as I’m enjoying what we’re doing now,” Cap told her, “I’ve got more in mind for tonight than just kissing you.” His hands moved up, and he began to undo the buttons of her starched white blouse. “A whole lot more”

She giggled. “Oh, do you now?” She was enjoying just standing there and letting him undress her. She could see the pleasure on his face while he was doing it. She glanced down. The tenting in his pants showed his arousal, and she felt pride – and her own arousal – as well, in how she was affecting him.

He finished with her blouse and tugged gently to free it from her skirt. Once it was free in front, he slid it off her shoulders. She pulled her arms out and let it dangle free behind her, until, after a bit, it slipped loose and dropped onto the floor.

Cap stepped in close again and put his arms around his woman. He kissed her forehead, the space between her eyes, and the tip of her nose. Then, without warning, he gently nipped her nose. When she gasped in surprise, his kissed her half-parted lips, his tongue darting in to dance with her own.

She moaned, and her arms slipped up, under his, reaching up his broad, strong, male back, so that the palms of her hands were on his shoulders. Sharp little sparks of pleasure flowed down from her breasts, floated through her stomach, and settling in at that special cleft between her legs. They gathered down there pulsing and growing in strength. She moaned, as the feelings began to engulf her.

When they broke the kiss, Cap stepped back for just a moment to unbutton his own shirt. He yanked it off in one quick motion and let it fall to the floor. Bridget pouted. “I wanted to do that.” Wilma had told her how good it was to have a man undress her. She knew, now, just how wonderfully right her old friend had been, and she’d been wondering if undressing a man was as much fun.

“Next time.” He kissed her again, this time at the base of her neck. She shivered and closed her eyes. He continued to kiss her, while his hands gingerly unhooked her corset. Once that was done, he let the garment slide free. His hands moved up to cup her breasts through the thin fabric of her camisole. Her nipples were two hard pebbles, and he strummed each one with a finger, copying the way Jessie Hanks sometimes strummed her guitar.

She sighed and arched her back, pushing her breasts even more into his hands. He continued, and she could feel the warmth of his passion passing into her.

When he started on the buttons of her camisole, her trembling hands pushed his away. “Let me.” Her voice was unsteady, and she looked away, unable to look into his eyes. The buttons seemed to fly open at her touch, revealing her firm breasts, nipples erect, and the expanse of creamy flesh below. He pushed it off her shoulders, and it fell away.

Cap leaned in and kissed the base of Bridget‘s neck. He felt her tremble and started a trail of kisses down to the space between her two breasts. He stuck out his tongue, then and began to run it along her left breast in an ever-narrowing spiral that centered on her nipple.

“Oohh… Cap,” she gasped. Her hands took firm hold of his head, shifting it, so that his lips wrapped around her turgid nipple. Her head tilted back, her eyes half-closed, as the exquisite feelings he was creating threatened to overwhelm her.

His hands were busy, even as he suckled. They shifted down, running one finger along her bared flesh. He found the buttons that held her skirt in place at her waist and quickly opened them. Then, as the garment loosened, he reached in and did the same for the ribbons that held her petticoat in place. The two, skirt and petticoat, slipped over her hips and settled together about her ankles.

She sighed, releasing her hold on Cap. Then, with a short laugh, she stepped out of the pile of clothing and kicked it away. Her lips curled in a sly smile. “My turn, now.” Her hand reached down to run along the bulge in his pants. It reacted with a small, quick jerk. She giggled and began to work on the buttons of his pants.

“Damn!” she blurted out, as her fingers fumbled with one of the buttons. She wasn't used to taking off a pair of pants that someone else was wearing.

Cap’s eyes darted down and saw her problem. “Don’t worry; you’ll get the hang of it eventually.”

“The hell with eventually. I want these pants off you now.” She blushed at admitting her need for him.

“You just need some practice. I guess I’ll have to come around more often.”

“You better.” The button chose that moment to pop open. “Finally!” she muttered. Now his trousers were open, and she yanked them down to his knees.

And found herself at eye level with the bulge in his drawers. “Oh… oh, my, she whispered. She reached out and ran a finger along it, giggling as it twitched in reaction. A thought popped into her head. ‘It’s like presents at Christmas. I have the fun of unwrapping the present and the fun of playing with what’s inside.’

“Hold on a minute,” Cap said, startling her. He shifted and sat down on her bed. His pants were bunched around his boots, but he pulled them up and began to pull of his right boot. He had it off in a moment and began to work on the other.

Bridget had been kneeling. She stood for a moment, and then sat down next to him and untied the bow on her shoe. As soon as it was loose, she tugged it off. She undid the other shoe and wriggled her foot out of it. “Before we go any further,” she said, opening a drawer in the small table next to her bed. She reached in and took out an “English riding coat.”

“I got this from Wilma,” she explained, holding up the condom. “I got a lot of them.” She handed it to Cap. “Here you go; put it on… please.”

Cap smiled and stood up. “For you, anything.” He fiddled for a minute with the buttons on his drawers. They opened and fell down around his ankles. He stepped out of them and kicked them away.

“Oh… Oh, my!” Bridget’s eyes were drawn to his manhood, which sprang up, as if standing at attention. It seemed to be pointing right at her.

Cap slid the riding coat over his maleness, using the attached ribbons to tie it in place. Once he was done, he glanced over at Bridget, who was sitting there, staring at him. “We can’t do much of anything, while you still have your drawers on, you know.”

“I guess not.” Her hands worked the bow that held her drawers in place. When she stood, the intimate garment slipped down around her hips. She wriggled and slid them down a few inches. She shifted her hips one times and let them fall the rest of the way to the ground. “Happy, now?”

He took her in his arms. “Not as happy as I – as we both -- will be in a minute.” He picked her up and gently laid her down on her bed.

“Mmm. I should hope so.” She shifted to the center of the bed and spread her legs wide. He climbed up on top of her, his body between her legs, while his weight was supported by his arms. Her hand found his manhood and guided it to her nether cleft. She was more than ready. “Ooohh… Oh, yesss!”

He began to move his hips, pumping in and out of her. At the same time, their lips met in a torrid kiss.

Wave after wave of delicious pleasure swept over her. The cool logic that guided her at the poker table was swept away, as she surrendered, trembling, to the rapture he was creating in her. Bridget's arms reached out, her hands clawing at his back. At the same time, her legs wrapped tightly around him.

She moaned, with an ecstasy beyond anything she had ever known. The sensations grew and grew and GREW within her, until it exploded in every part of her. She shrieked with joy, as her body writhed.

Cap had been so busy working on Bridget’s pleasure that he hadn’t held himself back. Her movements set him off. He groaned and shot what seemed like buckets of his essence into her. His explosion set her off again, and she cooed her delight.

He tried to continue, but he felt himself soften. He slid off her and onto the bed. She was still in the throes of her passion and he held onto her as best he could. When she began to calm, he kissed her cheek and caressed her, prolonging the experience for her as best he could.

After a time, she regained herself. Her arm reached around his neck. She moved closer and their lips met. “Thank you, so much, Cap. Thank you for everything.”

“Thank you, Bridget,” he grinned, “but that wasn’t everything; it was just the beginning.”

* * * * *

Reverend Thaddeus Yingling stepped up to the altar. He looked out at his congregation and smiled broadly. ‘Never mind the trouble caused by Clyde Ritter’s death and by what was said about him afterwards,’ he told himself, ‘these are my people, assembled here so that I can lead them to the right path.’

“My friends,” he began, “these last days have been a most unhappy one for all of us. Not only have we lost a good and trusted member of our flock with the tragic death of Clyde Ritter…” He stopped for a moment and searched for Cecelia Ritter. When he found her, sitting with her family near the back of the room, he looked her in the eye and gave what he hoped was a comforting smile.

Then he resumed his sermon. “But we, his family and his friends, have had to suffer hearing his name and reputation befouled in defense of the potion girl who was involved in his death. Yes, once again, the shadow of O’Toole’s potion girls has darkened our lives. I have long warned that these women – and the evil brew that created them -- must be under the firm control of the right-thinking people of this community. Nor, and I cannot stress this too firmly, can it be left to the ineffectual advisory committee that the town council has so uselessly created, a body that cannot do other than fail.”

“That pompous ass,” Laura muttered softly. “I’ve had about all of him I can stand.” She firmly grasped the armrests of her wheelchair, bracing herself.

Arsenio put his hand on hers. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked her in a whisper.

“Yes, I have to do it.” She took a breath. “The only way that I can be sure is to challenge him in public.”

“For my own part,” Yingling continued. “I have refused to participate in any activity or ceremony that might be taken as showing my approval or acceptance of these potion girls, and --”

Laura’s voice rang out. “Bullshit!”

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Caulder.” Yingling glared down at her, and she could hear whispered comments from others in the congregation.

She rose slowly out of her wheelchair, and glared back. “I said, ‘Bullshit!’, and I meant ‘Bullshit!’ You ‘refused to participate in any activity’ – hah! You refused to marry Milt Quinlan and my sister, Jane; you said that she was too evil to marry him.”

“And that’s ridiculous.” She glanced over to where Milt and Jane were sitting. Jane’s head was bent, looking down, and Milt had one arm around her, holding her hand. “Jane’s the sweetest woman I know.”

Someone yelled, “Sit down!”

“Let her speak,” Phillipia Stone shouted back.

Laura gave Phillipia a quick smile and turned to face the minister again. “And then, you not only refused to marry Trisha O’Hanlan and Roscoe Unger,” she argued. “You tried to keep them from being married here in church. Only you couldn’t do that could you?”

“No,” he replied angrily, “but that was the fault of the church board. I have long fought against their –”

Laura interrupted him again. “Against their doing the right thing? You wouldn’t marry those couples, but the Judge could. And when he did, it was just as binding as if you had done it.” She gave a deep sigh. “But that’s not always the case, is it?”

“No, thankfully, it is not. And I intend to withhold my support – my presence – from anything that involves one of the potion girls, even from you.” He glanced over at Cecelia Ritter, expecting her, at least, to rise to his defense. She seemed ready to speak, but her older son whispered something to her. She leaned back in her seat, her head lowered, as if avoiding his glance.

Laura looked grim. “Withhold your… support even from me? What about from my child?” She gently touched her swollen stomach. “I’ll be having a baby in a few days, you know, and it scares the… dickens out of me. But one of the things that scare me the most is the thought that you -- my minister – are so caught up in your absurd hatred of potion girls that you won’t baptize my child.”

A swell of realization ran through the hall. Methodists took infant baptism very seriously.

“You’re the only one in town who can do that baptism, and if you won’t… if my innocent little one doesn’t get…”She had to pause, to get control of her emotions before she could continue. “So I’m asking you, right here, in front of everybody, Reverend Yingling. Will you baptize my baby?”

The Reverend looked flustered. He’d never considered this possibility, and he wasn’t certain how to reply. “Perhaps… It might be that I could… If --” Again, no one seemed to be taking his side.

“I’ll take your stammering as a ‘No.’ You’re refusing to…” she sobbed and collapsed back into the wheelchair. “T-Take me home, Arsenio… please. I can’t look at that man anymore.” He nodded and started to push her towards the door.

Jane and Milt stood up. “Neither can we,” Milt said, as they began to leave. A number of other people, including the Stones and several other entire families, followed.

“But…” Yingling stared, watching the people walking out.

Rupe Warrick stepped up next to him. “Why don’t we just go to that hymn on page 97?”

“Y-Yes…” The Reverend moved aside as Rupe began to sing. He took his seat and tried to grasp what had just happened to him.

* * * * *

“What was that all about?” Opal asked Nancy, as they were leaving the schoolhouse.

Nancy was trying very hard not to smile. It felt good to see the, oh, so pompous Reverend Yingling get some of his own back. “You mean between that woman… Laura Caulder and the Reverend?”

“Yeah, I ain’t never seen somebody take on a preacher in his own church like that. What’s her story?”

“Let’s see; you told me that you were there when those men took the potion and got changed into Flora and Lylah, right?”

“No me, but a couple o’my friends, Sophie and Ruthie, was there, and they told me all about it. It’s still kinda scary t’me, them two turning into gals – and one of ‘em turning into a nigra besides.”

“I suppose it was, but they weren’t the first ones to drink the potion. Laura was also a man once -- part of an outlaw gang that was tricked into drinking the potion last year.”

“Did the potion make her pregnant, too?”

“No, she got pregnant the… ummm, usual way. After she changed into a woman, she fell in love with a man and married him. Then, they… you know.”

Opal smiled shyly. “I surely do. It’s kinda romantic, them getting married like that. And it just happened again with that gal, Flora.”

“The problem is that Reverend Yingling doesn’t think the potion is ‘romantic.’ He doesn’t think that it’s anything good. He tried to get the town council to put him in charge of it, instead of Shamus O’Toole. He got the whole town arguing about it.”

“He didn’t get it, though, did he?”

“No, the town council set up a committee, like he asked, but it just advises Judge Humphreys on who he should sentence to take the potion.”

“I’ll bet that got the Reverend even madder.”

“It surely did. He’s always been one of those people who thinks he’s always right and that anybody who disagrees with him isn’t just wrong -- they’re evil incarnate. He was always a bit inflexible, but I’ve never seen him so… obsessed before. I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”

“He’s scared o’that potion; that’s what it is.”

“What? Why do you say that?”

“I’ve seen it before. A man’s afraid o’something, either he runs away from it, or he tries to take control of it, so it can’t hurt him. My cousin, Eben, was scared o’snakes. He set up a bunch of cages and filled ‘em with snakes he caught, even had a rattler in one cage. He liked to stare at them through the glass. Sometimes, he’d tease ‘em with this long pole he used t’catch ‘em. He used t’say that he had his fears all shut up in them cages, and he didn’t have t’be afraid no more.”

She took a breath, and then continued. “I think your Reverend Yingling’s got the same sorta fright about that potion that Eben had about snakes.”

Nancy spent the rest of the walk back to the Saloon considering what Opal had said.

* * * * *

Cap glanced up at the clock on Shamus’ wall. “Damn!”

“What’s the matter, Cap?” Bridget asked nervously. Cap had seemed concerned about something, something else besides her, the whole time they’d been together, but, try as she might, she couldn’t get him to say what it was. “Was there a problem on the ranch?”

He stood up. “I… We have to go. Carl, Luke, and I… we have to be back home before supper.” She could hear the regret in his voice.

“Oh, Cap.” She rose to her feet and moved in close to him. “Do you have to go? Right now, I mean.”

“We should have been on the road an hour ago.” He gave her a wan smile. “I sort of got… distracted.”

Bridget leaned in close and raised her arms up and over his shoulders. “Mmm, now how do you suppose that happened?” A wicked smile curled her lips.

“I don’t know.” He gave her a quick kiss. “But I surely did enjoy the distraction.”

He cupped his hands to his mouth and called out, “Luke… Carl, we’re going.” Luke and Lylah were sitting by the Free Lunch table, and Carl and Flora were standing near the bar. Both couples looked over at Cap. He could read the disappointment on their faces. “In five minutes,” he added. “So say your goodbyes.”

“Thanks, boss,” Luke yelled back before he pulled Lylah in close for a kiss. Carl managed a wave with his free arm. He and Flora were already much too busy for anything more.

“That was sweet,” Bridget said, “giving them an extra five minutes.”

Cap looked deeply into her eyes. “What makes you think I did it for them?” He pulled her in against him with one arm. His other hand cradled her face, as their lips met.

* * * * *

“Where’s that no-account sister of mine,” Wilma bellowed as she strode into the Saloon.

Jessie waved a hand from where she was sitting having a late lunch with Paul. “Over here, Wilma.”

“Damn, it’s good to see you, Jess.” Wilma hurried over to Jessie, who stood up as she approached. The sisters hugged, patting each other on the back. “Where the hell’d you two disappear to?”

“It’s good t’see you, too, Wilma, but you’re gonna have t’wait till Paul ‘n’ me finish eating. We decided, we’re just gonna tell this story once… t’everybody, instead o’having to say it over ‘n’ over.”

Wilma frowned. “Mighta known; you’re as stubborn as you ever was.” She walked over to what was left of the Free Lunch and began to fill a plate for herself.

* * * * *

“Winthrop,” Cecelia said angrily, “you should have let me defend Reverend Yingling when that potion-witch Laura Caulder attacked him for no good reason.”

Her son sighed. “Give it a rest, Mother. Please. You’ve been saying that since the moment we left the church.”

“I will not. Lavinia and Zenobia were all set to back me up, and you… you order me, your mother – to be quiet. Have you no respect?”

“No, Mother, it’s you who have no respect. Father’s been dead less than two weeks, and you want to stand up in church and make a foolish spectacle of yourself. You’re a widow, Mother.” He grabbed for her cap and shook it and its thick black crêpe veil in her face. “Why can’t you be quiet and mourn for a year like widows are supposed to do?”

She took the cap and adjusted it back on her head. She pushed back the dark veil and glowered at her son. “Your father would have wanted me to --”

“My father – your husband -- put up with your silliness for his own reasons. But he’s dead, and I have enough on my hands keeping us out of poverty.”

She jerked her head back, as if physically struck. Winthrop had used the exact tone that his father had used to order her about, a tone that she was used to obeying. “It isn’t foolishness,” she whimpered. “I was doing a service to the community.”

“Fine, if that’s what you think. But now, do a service to your family and steer clear of trouble.” He took a breath. “At least, for a respectable period of mourning, okay?”

Cecelia grimaced. “I’ll think about it.” He was offering a way out, a reprieve – maybe.

“I’ll settle for that, I suppose – you ‘thinking about it’ -- for the time being.” He glared at her. “But only for a short time. Meanwhile, you can help me to find out where so much of Pa's money has gone. I hope he didn't spend it all on the sly. The books at the stable show decent profits, but there wasn't much in his bank account. Did he ever mention any investments? And I’m going to have to talk to Dwight Albertson to find out if he was managing anything for Pa.”

* * * * *

Molly leaned back in her chair, as Jessie finished her story. “That’s quite an adventure the two o’ye had.”

“That it was,” Paul agreed. He put his arm around Jessie’s waist, “but being with Jess, like I was, made the whole thing worthwhile.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “And then some.”

Wilma just laughed. “What gets me is how doing that little bitty robbery last fall got you outta a murder rap now. I guess, sometimes, crime does pay.”

“Robbing a stage ain’t no ‘little bitty‘ thing,” Shamus scolded. “Jessie wouldn’t’ve been accused of murder, if she hadn’t stole that cameo in the first place.”

Jessie made a sour face. “That’s true enough, I suppose.” She took Paul’s hand in hers. “Good thing I found Paul here t’make me give up them wicked, wicked ways.” She smiled when he leaned in and kissed her again.

“You found me?” Paul said with a chuckle. “I found you on the dodge and had to drag you back to Eerie across my saddle bow.”

“That worked out all right, didn't it?” Jessie replied, smiling.

“Still… t’be accused of murder ‘n’ have a posse hunting after you for something you didn’t do.” Jane shivered. “Now I know how Flora must’ve felt when it happened to her.”

Jessie raised an eyebrow. “Flora? What sorta trouble did that lying bitch get herself into?”

“Clyde Ritter tried t’rape her,” Jane explained. “He fell on his knife while he was chasing after her and killed himself. Only everybody thought Flora done it. They was all set t’string her up, but Bridget seen the whole thing and told what really happened. After they heard what she had t’say, they had t’let Flora go free.”

Jessie scowled. “No why’d you go and do a fool thing like that, Bridget? You should’ve let her swing.”

“Jessie!” Paul yelped in surprise. “You don’t really mean that, do you?”

“Yes!” Jessie said firmly. Then she sighed. “No… much as I hate her, she shouldn’t die for something she didn’t do. I just wore those shoes, and they’re way too tight. Besides, she’s got enough real sins t’answer for.” She sighed again, and then broke into a vicious grin. “Still, it must’ve been hell for her, sitting in jail, all alone, waiting t’hang. I woulda liked t’see that.”

Jane giggled. “She wasn’t alone – not all the time, and she surely wasn’t suffering. Her and Carl Osbourne got married. They had their honeymoon in jail, in that storeroom in the back.”

“Damn,” Paul said with a laugh. “That old room of mine must’ve seen as much… use as any of the bedrooms over at your place, Wilma.”

Wilma nodded, giving him a wry smile. “Not quite, but it’s a close second.”

“Married?” Jessie let that sink in. “I could see her marrying some rich fool like Ritter just for his money, but not some down and out cowpoke.” She shook her head. “I just can’t believe Carl’d go and do something that dumb -- I mean t’go and marry Flora.” Jessie shook her head ruefully. “Don’t the man have no sense at all?”

Paul gave his lady friend an odd look. “When it comes to the woman he loves, a man doesn’t always think the way he would, otherwise.” He took her hand in his again and gave it a squeeze. “If I'd listened to all the things people had said about – someone I know – and not listened to my heart....” He paused, grinning waggishly, “...I wouldn't have been on the lam for two god awful weeks.”

Jessie looked back at him, amused. “No, you'd probably have been sleeping cold on the ground all that time with the rest of the posse. Ain't you glad you weren't?'

His smile seemed to say it all. “You have a point.”

* * * * *

Monday, June 24, 1872

“Hey, Maggie,” Jane called out from the pantry, “we got any of that Cheddar cheese left?”

Maggie glanced over from the work table. “In the cooler, next to the milk, but why do you need it?”

“There‘s this recipe for cheese biscuits in one of them cookbooks I bought. I tried it out for Milt. He liked it, so I thought I’d try it here.”

Maggie chuckled. “First a wedding cake, and now cheese biscuits; I think that you are getting to be a better baker than I am.”

“We both know that ain’t true, but can I try it anyway?”

“Go ahead. If they work for breakfast, we can offer them with the Free Lunch or at the restaurant.”

* * * * *

“Wakey, wakey,” Trisha chimed, sounding far more chipper than anyone had a right to be so early in the morning.

Roscoe made some sort of a grunting noise and burrowed back under the blanket, trying to escape for a few more minutes of sleep. Except, something chased after him, a smell, a delicious fragrance, rich and dark, tart and hot. “Coffee?” he asked, suddenly sitting up. “That’s not fair.”

“You’ll live,” she greeted him, setting a tray down on the brown oak dresser. She lifted two steaming cups and turned back to face him, holding the cups up in front of her.

He looked closely at his new bride. Her light blonde hair was tied in a ponytail that snaked over her left shoulder. Her sapphire blue eyes sparkled, and her lips were curled in a mischievous smile. And all that she seemed to be wearing was… “Is that my shirt?”

“Is it?” She giggled and added, “Then I guess that I’d better give it back.” She handed him one of the coffee cups and placed the other back on the tray. Her smile broadened into a grin as she unbuttoned the top button.

Roscoe took a sip. It was hot and black, sweetened with some sugar; just the way he liked it. He leaned back against the pillows to watch. The shirt draped down almost to her knees. It hid her figure – except where it was pushed out by her splendid, pillowy breasts – but, for some reason, that only made the sight of her more arousing. Trisha surely could fill a man's shirt in a more interesting manner that she could have back in the fall. He could feel his manhood stiffen in anticipation.

Trisha was at the fourth button now. The shirt was sliding back on her shoulders. From what he could tell, it was all she wore.

He took another, longer sip of coffee, before he carefully positioned the mug on the small table next to the bed. It was likely to be cold before he got back to it.

He watched his best white shirt settle down around her pretty ankles. She was naked, and, even with that small bulge they were both starting to call “Junior,” her body was glorious.

Trisha sighed, wondering how many times Norma Jean Baker must have felt like this. That thought reminded her of the amazing corset that the girl had worn in the cigar box picture. She could fancy getting an outfit like that and wearing it for Roscoe. ‘Maybe, after the baby comes, I’ll see about getting one,’ she promised herself.

Still grinning, she glided over to the bed, hips swaying in invitation, and climbed in next to him. He could feel her bare skin against his own and shifted to embrace her. ‘At a time like this,’ Roscoe though happily, ‘who gave a damn about coffee?’

* * * * *

“Dang monthlies,” Lylah said, as she tied the straps of her pouch around her right hip.

Flora was doing the same with her own pouch. “Tell me about it. I’m no happier about them than you are.”

“Thuir’s one thing ye both should be happy about,” Molly teased. She was sitting on Flora’s bed. Next to her was a basket filled with rolls of cotton for the other two women to use.

Lylah finished tying her pouch and reached for one of the rolls. “There ain’t nothing t’be happy about.”

“Sure thuir is. Ye should be happy -- real happy – that they waited till Monday. They coulda hit ye over the weekend when Carl and Luke was hereabouts.”

Lylah giggled. “If you put it that way, you’re damned right, Molly. It woulda been no fun at all t’have my monthlies while Luke was in town.”

“Even better,” Flora added, as she considered the situation. “We can be happy that they’ll be over when Carl… and Luke come back next Saturday.”

Molly nodded. “Aye, but ye better be ready for them men o’yuirs.”

“What d’you mean ready?” Lylah’s body tingled as she thought about another session with Luke on that bench in the yard. She glanced over at Flora, who was smiling, her eyes half closed.

Molly studied the expressions on the faces of her two dancers. ‘So much for them not being women,’ she thought. Aloud, she said. “I know ye want t’be with yuir men, but are ye ready t’be mothers?”

“M-Mothers…” Flora’s face went ashen. Lylah’s eyes looked twice their normal size.

The older woman nodded. “Aye, both of ye are big enough t’be knowing where babies come from. If ye don’t wanna be making one – like Laura did right after she got married...” Molly looked directly at Flora, who, if possible, was starting to look even more scared. “…ye’ll be needing some protection, won’t ye?”

“What… How?” Lylah said. “Help us, Molly… please.” Flora nodded in agreement.

“Since ye asked so nice, I’ll see about getting each of ye some British riding coats for yuir men. I’ll have ‘em for ye well before yuir men come back t’town.” She stood up. “Now ye finish getting dressed. Thuir’s more’ n enough chores for ye t’be doing.”

Flora frowned thoughtfully. If his own bride had told Forry Stafford that she didn't want to have his baby, he’d have wanted to strangle her. That was what a wife was for, as far as the Staffords were concerned, to give a man an heir – a male heir.

Now, she was the one a man would be asking for an heir. How would Carl feel if she asked him to wear protection? Would it hurt him? Would it make him angry? How far was she willing to go to keep him from being disappointed in her? If she wasn't willing to go that far, would it change the way he felt about her?

She’d have to find out – and very soon.

* * * * *

Lavinia Mackechnie’s eyes roamed around the Ritter parlor. The furniture had long since been put back to its normal arrangement, but there was more than enough black crêpe hanging to show that there had been a funeral in the room, and that this was still a house of mourning. “Where are your children, Cecelia?” She asked the question as if expecting them to jump out from hiding and shout, “Boo!”

Hilda Scudder sat next to Lavinia, not saying a word. As always, she was quietly knitting.

“Winthrop had to go back to work,” Cecelia replied. “The livery can’t run by itself, after all. We expected Clyde… Clyde, Junior, to work there during the summer, so he went along.” It hurt her to say “Junior.” As was custom, she knew, her son would soon be dropping that no longer necessary part of his name. She sighed and continued. “Hermione is in her bedroom, sorting out which clothes she wants to put away and which clothes she wants to dye black for her time of high mourning.”

Lavinia thought for a moment. “She might as well do most of them. At her age, she’ll probably outgrow a lot of her clothes before six months pass, and she can wear any color but black once again.”

“Probably; she has been growing lately. Up…” She put her hand atop her head and lifted it a few inches. “And out.” She looked down at her breasts for a moment. “I just hope that I don’t have to get her anything new while she’s still in high mourning.”

“That can be a problem,” Hilda said, glancing down at herself. She was due in August, and she’d had to buy clothes for herself already, during her pregnancy.

“I’m sure that her clothes will still fit properly for the whole time,” Lavinia continued. “After all, she – neither of you – will be doing much of anything for a long, long while.”

Cecelia’s eyes grew wide in surprise. “What do you mean? There’s the potion; we still have to…”

“Perhaps we do have work to do, Cecelia, but it can’t be you that does it. Your husband has been dead less than two weeks. You can’t be seen out and about, getting people to work on things, speaking at meetings; it would be a… a scandal.

Hilda nodded. “Yes, you’re supposed to mourn and do nothing else for a year and a day. Otherwise, people would think that you didn’t care about Clyde.”

“And they’d start to wonder how much you cared about anything, including Reverend Yingling’s cause. No…” Lavinia shook her head. “…I’m afraid that you must bow out.”

Hilda had an odd look on her face. “To tell the truth, I’m starting to wonder – just a little, mind you – about Reverend Yingling.”

“Whatever do you mean?” Cecelia asked in surprise – and hoping to change the subject, to give her time to marshal arguments against stepping down.

The pregnant woman answered in a soft voice. “What he said about the potion girls… about Laura Caulder, for instance. She doesn’t seem like an evil person. She’s always at the Sunday service, and she got her husband to start coming to services again.”

“She supported Trisha O’Hanlan ever since we tried to get rid of Trisha back in January.” There was anger in Cecelia’s voice now.

Hilda shrugged. “So did a lot of other people. Is it evil to want to give a person a second chance?” She didn’t wait for the others to answer. “And then for the Reverend to say that he wouldn’t baptize Laura’s baby, to refuse to do that, no one should have the right to deny baptism to an infant -- any infant.” She took a breath to steady herself. “It isn’t right, and… and I’m sorry, Cecelia, but I won’t be a part of helping him anymore, if that’s what he thinks.”

“In that case, Mrs. Scudder,” the widow said, looking daggers at her former friend, “you are no longer welcome in this house.”

Hilda looked at her incredulously. “For land sakes, Cecilia. What if some preacher came up with an excuse not to baptize your children, or mine? What should we think?”

“That wouldn't happen. We're not like Laura Caulder,” the woman in black replied.

Hilda started to gather up her knitting into her bag. “No, I suppose we're not. You have my deepest and most sincere sympathies for your loss, Cecelia, and I hope that we can be friends again… someday.” She rose and started for the door.

“I doubt it.” Cecelia said to her withdrawing figure.

* * * * *

“Call,” Fred Norman said, adding two nails to the pile at the center of the table. “Can anybody beat three ladies?” He laid down his cards: five of diamond, seven of clubs, and the queen of diamonds, queen of hearts, and queen of clubs.

Bridget shook her head. “All I’ve got is a pair of nines.” She put her cards down.

“Four… five… six… seven…” Sam Braddock slowly set his cards down, a smile on his face until he finished with, “jack.” The smile faded. “Well, I almost made it.”

Fred chuckled. “Almost doesn’t count in poker, just horseshoes.” He gathered in the heap of nails, added them to those in front of him.

“How about a little change-up,” Bridget asked , as she gathered the cards together into a deck.

Sam shrugged. “Why not; what do you want to play, seven card stud?” Fred nodded in agreement.

“Five card draw is fine with me.” She shuffled the cards twice and set them down on the table. “I just thought that we could play for… something else.” She tried to keep her best poker face on, while she reached into her reticule. She brought out a small bag and emptied it onto the table.

Sam cocked an eyebrow. “Pennies… well, why not?”

“Suits me.” Fred raked what he guessed was about a third of the pennies into a stack in front of him and right next to the nails. He’d won earlier. Sam and Bridget divided the rest.

Bridget’s hand shook – just a little --- while she dealt the cards. She won the first hand, but she had a feeling that the men had let her win. Sam won the second hand with the straight he hadn’t been able to get earlier.

“Fold,” Fred said unhappily. He had a good hand, three nines, but, he was sure, she had better. “What’d you beat me with, Bridget?”

She couldn’t help but smile. “Two sixes.” She showed her cards and then collected the best fourteen cents she had ever won.

“Welcome back, Bridget.” Fred reached across the table to shake her hand. “Welcome back.”

Sam smiled back as he walked around the table to shake hands with her, too. Instead, he got a big “Thank you!” hug and a kiss on the cheek.

She was back, and it felt so damned good. Bridget was finally sure about what she wanted to reply to Shamus about that question he had asked her.

* * * * *

The three dancers stood together, center stage, arms linked and doing a series of high kicks. They separated with a yelp, and each balanced on her left leg while she raised her right one high overhead, grasping the ankle with her right hand, turning in a full circle. This was the crowd-pleasing move that Molly called “the porty arms.” Another yelp, and the legs came down.

Nancy moved to the extreme stage left, as Lylah moved to extreme stage right. As they moved, they held up the hems of their dresses, waving them back and forth, displaying their lush petticoats and their silky drawers. Flora, standing center stage, did the same with her own dress.

When the two women reached the edges of the stage, all three yelped and did “randy jams”, quick rotary movements of lower leg with knee raised and their dresses still held up.

They yelped again, and, in turn, Lylah, Flora, and Nancy each did a cartwheel towards center stage. They joined arms for another round of high kicking. After that, each yelped in turn and jumped into the air, landing in a split. Their left legs were extended forward, and their right arms were raised in a graceful curve.

The crowd went wild, applauding and tossing coins at the dancers. A few of the men also fired their pistols towards the ceiling. The ladies rose to their feet, joined arms and bowed. The low cut of their dresses gave the appreciative men in the first few rows a more than generous view of their heaving breasts.

* * * * *

Kirby stood and began applauding softly, when Nancy joined him a few minutes later. “You were marvelous, Nancy, absolutely marvelous.”

“When you say that,” Nancy teased, “do you mean that I was ‘marvelous’, or that all three of us were ‘marvelous’, Kirby?”

He chuckled. “After seeing that show, you just did – and I meant that you, Miss Nancy Osboune, were marvelous -- I thought that the school teacher was gone. But after hearing that question, I think, maybe, I was wrong.”

“Oh, she’s still here, Kirby.” Nancy giggled. “She and the dancer are just feeling a little playful just now.” She looked him in the eye. “And what are you going to do about it?”

He shifted over so that he was standing next to her. His arm slipped around her waist and pulled her close. “Oh, maybe something like this.” He paused a beat. “Or this.” Their lips met. Her arm rose up to circle his neck.

Good answer,’ the school teacher thought, and the dancer most happily agreed.

* * * * *

Tuesday, June 25, 1872

An editorial in June 25, 1872 issue of The Eerie Citizen:

` The Wrong Reverend Mr. Yingling

` At this past Sunday’s Methodist Church service, Reverend Thaddeus
` Yingling spoke again on what has become his favorite topic, the so-
` called “potion girls.” Reverend Yingling and – we believe – a few
` benighted others allege that these women are evil by their very
` nature. He and his faction are as free as any other person to hold to
` whatever beliefs they may entertain. Such freedom of expression is
` one of the glories of our great Republic.

` What the Reverend is NOT free to do is to act upon those beliefs in
` such a way as may cause harm to innocent persons. On Sunday, he
` announced what some people, including this writer, already knew. He
` said that he would not participate in any activity that could, in any
` way, support any of the potion girls, even to withhold his services as
` a minister of Christ from those among them who might seek – who
` might need -- those services.

` Any such services.

` Is there anything more innocent than a newborn baby? Don’t we all
` refer to the birth of a child as a “blessed event?” Reverend
` Yingling doesn’t; not if the mother is a potion girl.

` Laura Caulder is a potion girl. She is also the wife of Arsenio
` Caulder, blacksmith and member of the Eerie Town Council. Mrs.
` Caulder is a supporter of the Eerie Methodist Church. She has been
` active in various projects, including the dance that so many of our
` readers enjoyed back in March. Moreover, she and her husband can be
` seen in church just about every Sunday. These days, she attends
` church in a wheel chair, since she is currently well along in what is
` reported to be a very difficult pregnancy.

` And Reverend Yingling has made that pregnancy more difficult by
` telling Mrs. Caulder that he will not perform a baptism when her
` child is born. We ask our readers to imagine how unsettling this
` statement must be to Mrs. Caulder and her husband.

` We must also ask our readers to consider the frame of mind of a
` Christian minister, a man that this writer has long respected, that
` he would act in such a manner. We particularly ask this question of
` the members of the Methodist Church Board of Elders. Consider,
` Gentlemen, and act, as you deem it necessary, for the good of Mrs.
` Caulder, of her unborn child, and of all of the members of the
` congregation you represent.

* * * * *

Kirby walked slowly into the Saloon. As he headed for the bar, he kept glancing around. “Where’s Nancy?” he asked R.J.

“Upstairs practicing,” the barman said. He set down the bottle he was holding. “Do you want me to call her?”

Kirby shook his head. “No, I’m here to arrange something for tonight – a surprise, so please, don’t tell her I was here.”

“Tic a lock.” R.J. held his hand up in front of his mouth and gestured as if turning a key. “Who did you want to see?”

“Jane; she’s in the kitchen, I suppose.”

“She is.” R.J. pointed to the door.

The other man nodded and walked over and into the kitchen. “May I speak to Jane for a moment,” he asked Maggie.

“Sure y’can,” Jane answered before Maggie could reply. “What d’you wanna talk about?”

“I came to collect on your promise, Jane. I’m having dinner with Nancy tonight. Will you be able to bake that apple pie we talked about?”

Maggie chuckled. “Again with the baking. Can you make two apple pies, Jane?”

“I suppose… why?”

The Mexican woman smiled. “Because we will reserve a piece for Nancy – and one for you also, Señor Pinter.” She waited. When Kirby agreed, she continued. “But I would like to have it on the menu – to see if anybody else wants it. I think they will.”

“That would be an excellent idea,” Kirby said. “I suspect that a lot of people would enjoy Jane’s baking.”

Maggie’s smile broadened. “I agree. Jane has become a muy good baker, and I think that it is time, maybe, for there to be desserts on the menu more often.”

“D’you really think so, Maggie?” Jane asked. “I don’t know if I am that good.”

“You are, Jane,” Kirby answered. “I know it. Maggie knows it; she just said you were, didn’t she? And, pretty soon the whole town will know it. You just wait and see if they don’t.”

Jane blushed at the compliment. “In that case, I better go get me some apples.”

* * * * *

A second editorial in June 25, 1872 issue of The Eerie Citizen:

` Wedding Bells – And Horns

` That great cacophony heard throughout the town on the afternoon of
` Thursday last, was caused by the many friends and family of the editor
` of this newspaper, Roscoe Unger, and his new bride, Miss Trisha
` O’Hanlan, who were celebrating the happy couple’s wedding. The
` nuptials were held at the Eerie Methodist Church.

` Mr. Kirby Pinter of Pinter’s New and Used Books served as best man,
` while Mrs. Kaitlin O’Hanlan and Miss Emma O’Hanlan were,
` respectively, matron of honor and maid of honor. The ceremony was
` conducted by Judge Parnassus Humphreys. The bride wore a gown of
` white cotton with satin trim and was, in the opinion of this writer,
` the most beautiful woman in the world. A large crowd was in
` attendance, although, alas, not all those who, it had been hoped
` would be present, were present.

` Following the ceremony, a reception was held on the church grounds.
` At the conclusion of that reception, the pair were very loudly
` escorted to their home, the Eerie Print Shop, where they will be living
` in rooms above their business.

` Speaking for my wife and myself, we thank our friends for witnessing
` our marriage and for their many gracious wishes for our future health
` and happiness.

* * * * *

“Well?” Amy Talbot asked, lifting her head off the pillow. “What’s the verdict?”

Molly put a finger to her lips. “Shh, it don’t work if ye’re lifting yuir head t’be watching.”

Amy lay on one side of the bed in Laura Caulder’s bedroom. She had just had her monthly examination by Edith Lonnigan and was still wearing only her camisole and drawers.

“A circle,” Molly said, “clear as day. Yuir ring says that ‘tis a wee baby girl ye’re carrying.” Molly was holding a string weighted down with Amy’s wedding ring over the woman’s gravid stomach. The ring was moving in a wide circular motion.

“Congratulations, Amy,” Laura said. She was lying on the bed next to Amy and still in her bed clothes. “Can we do me now, Molly?”

Amy looked surprised. “Haven’t you done this already? You’re going to be having your baby any time now.”

“Molly did it weeks ago… twice, in fact. The ring would swing back and forth… a boy, but then it would go in a circle like yours just did. The thing couldn’t make up its mind.”

“You don’t think it was because you’re a… because you weren’t always a woman, do you?”

Laura shrugged. “I don’t know, and neither does Shamus; he’s the expert on his potion, after all.” She sighed. “And thanks for not saying ‘potion girl.’ I’ve gotten quite tired of that phrase, thank you very much.”

“I noticed that on Sunday. The whole congregation did.”

“Do you think I was out of line?”

“No, I think the Reverend was. If he refused to baptize my little one,” Amy gently touched her belly, “Dan’d make him do it at gunpoint. And I wouldn’t blame him one little bit.”

Edith Lonnigan nodded. “I don’t think Mr. Caulder would pull a gun on Reverend Yingling. The way he slings around those hammers in his smithy, he wouldn’t need a gun.”

“No, I’ll be the one threatening him with the pistol. I was one of the evil Hanks Gang, remember? In fact, I was probably – to blow my own horn – the best shot in the gang.”

The midwife frowned. “I certainly hope that it won’t come to that – even if you would be justified. I cannot understand what has come over Thaddeus Yingling of late. He’s never acted so immoderately.”

“Nor I,” Amy added. “It’s as if he were obsessed by that potion for some reason. I… I almost feel sorry for him, for the way it’s driving him.”

“But… getting back to the reason that you’re here, Amy,” Edith continued, “your pregnancy seems to be coming along without any problems – or have you had some problem that you haven’t mentioned?”

The other woman shook her head. “Just the aches in my back and in my legs, the ones you warned me about.”

“Nothing else?”

“No; I’m just feeling a little… anxious about being pregnant, about the baby and all.”

Laura nodded. “That part gets worse as the baby gets closer.”

“I think that’s just a warm-up for all the worrying you’re going to do after the baby’s born,” Amy mused, but then she sighed. “You know, I’ve enjoyed… sharing my pregnancy with you, Laura, talking to you about all the things going on. It just won’t be the same after you have your little one, and it’s just Edith and I.” She suddenly realized what she’d said and put her hand up in front of her mouth, as if to block anything else she might say. “No offense, Edith.”

Mrs. Lonnigan gave her a patient smile. “None taken, Amy. I think that you’ve been good for each other. In fact, I was going to ask you if I might bring in another woman, one who’s adjusting to… many things with her first pregnancy.”

“Who would that be?” Amy asked, sounding curious.

“Trisha O’Han – Trisha Unger; would you have a problem with that?”

Laura chuckled. “Just the other day, I told Trisha that we should stick together, since we’re the only two pregnant potion girls ever. First you ‘share’ my pregnancy, and now you’d share hers. You have to do it, Amy,”

“I’ve been feeling sorry for Trisha and everything she’s had to go through,” Amy replied. “I’ll be glad to do it, Edith. You ask her and let me know what she says.”

The older woman nodded. “I shall, and I am sure that she will happily accept the idea.”

* * * * *

Dolores came over to the table where Nancy and Kirby were just finishing their meal. “Would either of you like more coffee?”

Kirby looked over to her. “Nancy?” When she nodded, he said, “Yes, please, a cup for each of us, and… would you please tell Jane that we’re ready?”

Nancy cocked a curious eyebrow, as Dolores refilled her cup. “Ready for what? What are you up to, Kirby?”

“You’ll see.” He smiled mischievously, as Dolores poured his coffee. Then, as the waitress left, he finished the last piece of his pot roast.

Dolores returned almost at once from the kitchen, carrying a tray with two plates on it. “Here you go,” she told them, as she put one in front of Nancy. “By the way, Jane said to say, ‘Thanks’, and that you let her know how you liked the pie.”

“Pie,” Nancy said in surprise. She glanced down at her plate. “Apple pie, no less; I didn’t know that they -- we served desserts.”

Kirby grinned back at her, as Dolores served his own slice of pie. “You – or they – don’t; not as a rule. You told me one time how much you missed fresh apple pie, so I asked Jane to bake one for you.”

“It must be weeks since I was talking about pie. I’m surprised that you even remembered what I said.”

“I always remember what you say, Nancy, especially when you’re talking to me.” He raised her hand to his lips for a moment and kissed it.

She smiled shyly and reclaimed her hand, using it to take up her fork and have some pie. “Mmm… delicious.” She turned to where Dolores was still standing. “Tell Jane that her pie is delicious… absolutely delicious.”

“I agree.” Kirby dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a napkin. “And tell her ‘Thanks’ from me, too.”

“I will.” Dolores hurried away, first to carry the message to Jane, and then to deal with the other diners.

Nancy looked at her plate and then at Kirby. “How did you arrange for this pie? You must have done more than just ask Jane to bake it.”

“Jane came into my store last week looking for a cookbook. She wanted to bake something fancy for that supper Shamus and Molly threw for Carl Osbourne and Flora. I gave her a big discount on two books on the condition that she bake an apple pie for the next night I took you to dinner.”

“That was very sweet.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek.

He smiled and returned the kiss. “My pleasure.”

“If it involves something as considerate as this pie, you can have ‘your pleasure’ with me any…” She blushed, realizing what she had just suggested. “I-I mean…” Her face felt hot. The trouble was, no matter how Kirby took her remark, she wouldn't be totally sure if he would be off the mark.

Her escort smiled, being very careful not to leer. “You mean that I can feel free to do nice things for you from time to time, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she answered quickly, “that’s… that’s exactly what I mean.” She sighed with relief, even though a small part of her kept dwelling on the other meaning.

Kirby was glad to help her avoid the embarrassment, but he was thinking of that other meaning, as well.

* * * * *

“’Scuse me, Dolores,” Sam Braddock said, as the waitress walked by his table. “Did you just serve up pie to those two?” He pointed towards Kirby and Nancy’s table.

Dolores nodded. “Sí, apple pie.”

“I didn’t know you served desserts,” Fred Norman said.

“We do tonight. It is something special.”

Stu Gallagher was also at the table. “Is it just for them, or can anybody have a slice?”

“Anybody, I think. I will ask, if you want.”

Sam looked at his two friends, who nodded back. “Ask, and if we can, then we’ll each take a slice.”

* * * * *

Bridget tried to keep her hands steady, as she buttoned her green Eaton jacket over her starched white blouse. “C’mon, Bridget,” she chided herself, “you can do this.”

“Done!” she said, taking a breath as she got the last button in place. She checked herself in the mirror. The short jacket was just a bit tight at the waist and across her breasts. “Not enough to distract me,” she chuckled, “but enough to distract somebody else.” She took another breath and watched, bemused, as the garment tightened, accenting her lithe figure. “Especially, if he’s new to these parts.”

She smiled. It felt good to be proud of how she looked. She’d wasted so much time being ashamed of herself, her beauty, after the… after what Forry – damn him -- had done to her.

Now she was happy about her appearance – and about herself. She certainly enjoyed the way Cap looked at her and all the lecherous notions that the sight of her stirred in him. Even more, she enjoyed how she and Cap had indulged some of those notions last Saturday night.

Somewhere along the line since last summer, she’d become a woman. Her mind had become a woman's mind, her heart a woman's heart. The possibility of that happening had bothered Brian, but now, instead of being afraid, she was almost eager to find out the implications of the changes.

“Cap… Dang it, I almost forgot his earrings.” She slipped off the pearl studs she’d been wearing and carefully replaced them with the pair of green gemstone earrings he’d given her so long ago, the same green color as her eyes, he’d said. She remembered, too, that he’d called them lucky because they would be spending their time so close to her. As she screwed the back of the earring tight against her left ear lobe, it felt like he was with her, nibbling on that same lobe. Her body tingled at the thought, and it seemed as if he was there, close to her, lending her some of that confidence she always felt when he was around.

Bridget winced; as much as she'd gotten used to wearing earrings, they still hurt a little, and would fall off if she didn't screw them tight. The pain could be distracting when a girl wanted to concentrate on her cards, or keep a smile on her face. For the first time, she seriously wondered whether she should get her ears pierced. Before, she had looked at piercing as an excessively female thing to do. But so was wearing a corset, and it went with the territory. Pain she could deal with; what mattered more was that earrings and corsets made a woman alluring, and she especially wanted to pull out all stops for Cap.

The redhead checked her reflection in the glass one last time. “Now, I’m ready.” With a confident nod of her head, she walked out of her room and onto the landing.

* * * * *

Shamus greeted Bridget at the foot of the stair, carrying the case with her cards and chips. “Thuir’s some men waiting t’be playing poker with ye, Miz Kelly.” She took his arm and let him lead her to her table. The men he’d mentioned -- Sam Braddock, Fred Norman, Stu Gallagher, and Joe Kramer -- rose as Shamus and Bridget approached the table.

“Please, gentlemen.” She took her seat and gestured for them to sit, as well. As they did, Shamus set her case down in front of her and stepped a few feet back from the table, watching. She opened the case and took out a rack of chips. “The blue ones are a quarter; the red ones, a dime; and the white, a nickel.”

The men exchanged cash for chips, and Bridget took some chips for herself. “Is five card stud all right for the first hand?” she asked.

“Five card stud’s okay for me,” Sam told her, “but, before we start, I -- we all -- just wanted to say how glad we are to have you back as a player.” The others smiled and nodded in agreement.

“And I’d like to add that you look very pretty tonight,” Fred replied. “Pretty enough to ease the pain of losing all my money to you – almost.”

She grinned and gave a quick wink. “Thanks, Fred; thank you all. After such gallantry, I’m tempted to let you win a few hands -- almost.” She shuffled the cards, and everyone anted up.

She wasn’t just back. It almost felt as if she’d never left.

* * * * *

Wednesday, June 26, 1872

Shamus studied the trays that Maggie and Jane had set out for breakfast. “Jane,” he called out, “thuir wouldn’t happen t’be a wee slice of that pie left from last night about, would thuir?”

“Sorry, Shamus,” Jane answered, wiping her hands on her apron as she came through the kitchen doorway. “I took the last two pieces from the second pie home for me and Milt. You don’t mind, do you?”

Shamus sighed theatrically. “With all me heart, but ye can make it up t’me with whatever ye’re baking for tonight’s dessert.”

“I ain’t baking anything tonight,” she replied, but then she cautiously added, “Am I?”

“Ye are… if ye’re willing to. Half the people that ate dinner here last night told me how good yuir pie was. The other half was asking why I didn’t have enough for them. I’ll not be arguing with success. From now on, I’d like thuir t’be something baked for dessert every night, cake, pie… whatever ye decide.”

“D’you mean that, Shamus? Every day; it’s gonna be expensive.”

“We’ll be putting it on the menu, with the price set high enough t’be covering the cost and a wee bit o’profit, o’course. And, Jane, I’ll be paying ye a bit of them profits for yuir extra work.”

Maggie had been in the kitchen listening. “Excuse me, Shamus,” she said, walking into the room, “but it is my restaurant as much as it is yours. Do you not think that you should talk it over with me before you make Jane such an offer?”

“Ye’re right, Maggie.” Shamus bowed his head feeling ashamed for his actions. “I shoulda asked. Jane, that offer I just made ain’t good, not unless Maggie agrees.”

Jane sighed. “I understand. You two talk ‘n’ let me know what you decide.” She started back for the kitchen.

“Jane… wait,” Maggie said. “The only thing that we have to decide is how much more we will pay you. I, too, saw how fast the pie you baked disappeared last night, and I was going to talk to you and Shamus after breakfast about you doing more baking for us.”

Jane spun around. “You mean it?”

“We both said it, didn’t we,” Shamus answered with a smile.

Jane ran over and hugged Maggie. “Thank you… thank you both. Wait’ll I go tell Milt.” She let go of Maggie and hugged Shamus as well.

“I’ll wait… we’ll be waiting,” Shamus told her. “Ye go an tell that husband of yuirs, but hold on t’be… celebrating till tonight. It takes too long, and ye’ve got a long day’s work ahead of ye.”

Jane nodded, blushing, and hurried away.

* * * * *

“What’s the matter with ye, Jessie,” Molly asked. “Ye’ve had a sour look on yuir face all morning.”

Jessie gave the older woman a wan smile. “I’m beginning t’wonder if I didn’t screw myself out of a good job when I went away, Molly. I seen how popular them Cactus Blossoms was on Monday, and I don’t know if I can compete against ‘em.”

“And who says ye have to? I’d like t’be having a nickel for every time somebody asked when ye’d be coming back when ye and Paul was out… gallivanting about. And the crowd was large enough for yuir singing when ye was on last night. I saw more’n one man toss coins at ye after one song or another, too, same as they used t’do.”

“Not as many, though, and I can’t just sing the nights they don’t dance. When the Blossoms first started, I played for ‘em. I can’t do that now; you and Shamus gave them a band, and I don’t play near loud enough t’be heard as part o’the group. So now I’m wondering how long it’s gonna be before Shamus tells me he wants t’cut my pay.”

Molly considered what Jessie had said. “We don’t want t’be losing ye, Jessie. I’ll be talking t’Shamus about what ye’ve said, and we’ll see just what we can come up with.” She suddenly had a sly smile on her face. “For a start, how about if it was ye and not Shamus that introduced the Blossoms tonight.”

“I don’t know how much good that’ll do,” Jessie replied, “but it sounds like a start.”

* * * * *

Aaron Silverman knocked twice on the closed door to Reverend Yingling’s study. “Thad, are you in there?”

“Aaron?” The minister’s voice came through the door. “Come in… please.”

The storekeeper opened the door and walked in. “Hello, Thad.” He closed the door behind him. “You’re looking good -- kayn ahora.

“Thank you, and how are you and Rachel these days?”

He shrugged. “Eh, we’re healthy, the store is doing well -- kayn ahora, what else can I say? I came over to see why you ain’t been over to play chess these past two weeks. What’s the matter, mine friend?”

“Am I?”

“Are you what?”

“Am I your friend? I have to wonder, the way you’ve been opposing my efforts of late; playing all those procedural games at the town council meetings: table this, vote against that, and then to take the very heart out of my petition for a committee to properly control O’Toole’s potion. A friend wouldn’t do things like that, not a real friend anyway.”

“He would if he thinks his friend was wrong,” Aaron said. “As the Bal Shem Tov said, ‘To pull a friend out of the mire, don’t hesitate to get dirty.’ You were mired in a mistake, you still are, I think, and I was trying to keep you from making things worse.”

Yingling's expression darkened. “A mistake; is it a mistake to try to protect this town, these people, from the evil of that damnable potion?”

“To me, it seems like Shamus’ potion has done a lot of good on purpose and, okay, maybe a little bad. By accident. The Midrash says that even in good there’s a little evil – but mostly there’s good.”

“It’s witchcraft, vile witchcraft. Does it not say in the Book of Exodus, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live?’ That’s Old Testament, your Bible.”

“Are you saying that Shamus should be killed? After all, he’s the ‘witch’, the one who makes the potion.”

“O’Toole… be killed?” The idea startled Yingling. “No, of course not, but his potion, he cannot be allowed to continue to have control over it.”

“Why are you being so stubborn about this, Thad? As the Sages say, if you harden your heart, you soften your head.”

“And you are a stiff-necked man, Aaron, as one would expect of your race.”

“Better stubborn than cruel.”

“Cruel? Is it cruel to try to protect people from evil?”

“Protect? You mean like the man who prepares the bandage but then inflicts the wound.”

Yingling glared at Aaron. “I think that you’ve said quite enough, Mr. Silverman, and I’ll thank you to leave now... Right now!”

Aaron sighed. “I’ll leave, Thad, but you should be careful how many friends you chase away. From what I’m hearing in the store, you ain’t got that many left.”

* * * * *

Molly came into the kitchen about 3 PM. “So what’d ye bake for dessert t’night, Jane?”

“There wasn’t a lotta time to plan,” Jane said sheepishly, “so I just made up a whole bunch of sugar cookies.” She pointed to a pile of large, pale yellow cookies cooling on a tray in the corner. “I figure three cookies to a order.”

“That’ll be fine. How much are ye charging?”

“Twenty-five cents an order,” Maggie said. “Why are you asking all these questions, Molly?”

The older woman smiled. “So I can get the sign right.” She took a pen and small container of ink from her apron pocket and sat down at a corner of the work table. She inked the pen and began writing on a large sheet of paper that she’d carried in with her. “No peeking, now.”

“How’s this look t’ye?” she asked a few minutes later. She held up the paper. Written on it in a large, florid hand was

` “Tonight’s Dessert Specialty from Miss Jane’s Bakery:
` Sugar Cookies – Three for Twenty-Five Cents”

Jane grinned. “I don’t know ‘bout Maggie, but I think it’s one of the prettiest things I ever seen?”

“Sí, but why ‘Miss Jane’? Jane is married.”

“Aye, but ‘Miss Jane’ sounds fancier, don’t it?”

Jane nodded. “I kinda like it.”

“Then it is settled.” Maggie shrugged, and both cooks went back to working on the dinner menu.

* * * * *

Just then Flora came in, dressed for waitressing. “You wanted to see me, Molly?” she asked without much spirit.

“Don't look so somber, me girl; I didn't bring ye here to scold ye for anything.” She reached into her pocket and drew out a cloth bag, small but very full. “Here're the riding coats I promised I'd be getting for ye. Ye'll have to share ‘em, half and half, with Lylah.” She smiled teasingly. “I'm figuring she'll need as many as you do.”

Flora took the bag and began to turn away, but then looked back. “Molly, can I speak to you about something…. in private?”

“What about?”

“It's private.”

The older woman shrugged. “I got me a moment. Let's take us a stroll out to the back yard.”

The pair walked out into the yard. As they sat down on one on the benches, Molly turned and asked, “Now what's making ye look so serious?”

“Molly, would you order me to ask Carl to wear... protection every time he and I... every time I have a chance to be alone with Carl?”

The matron threw up her hands. “Land sakes, lass, why do ye think I've ever do a thing like that to you? What ye do in the bedroom is yuir own business.”

“No! I mean, if I asked you to order me, would you do it?”

Molly was taken aback, but then she smiled; this was the first time that Flora had ever come to her asking help to manage a problem. “What's this all about?”

“Molly, I… I love Carl, love him so very much.” She spoke in a soft, unsteady voice, her hands moving nervously. “I want to be the sort of woman – the sort of wife -- that he deserves.”

“And?”

“I’ve been having a hard enough time trying to figure out what sort of a woman that is. I know she’s not much like the man I was – or the woman I am now.”

“Don’t ye be so sure about that last. Ye’ve changed a fair bit, just t’be worrying about such things, and I’d be wagering that ye had more changes t’come. The other potion girls turn out to be a wee bit like the ladies they look like. Do ye know what sort of lady ye resemble?”

Flora made a face. “She was a monster! She ruined my father's second marriage and treated my sister abominably.”

Molly regarded the dancer. This was the first detail of her past life that flora had ever 'fessed up to.

“Well,” she began slowly, “then let's hope ye don't turn out t’be a spitting image of that one.” Then she smiled. “Ye won't, though; I'm thinking. Ye have the chance t'be yuir own person.” She gave a knowing wink. “Carl’s kind o’person.”

“I-I hope so, but now there’s this whole new part of it. A man deserves children -- he expects them. It’s what I was brought up to believe, that a man deserves an heir.”

“Only… the thought of… getting pregnant – or having a baby – scares the living hell out of me.”

She sighed, needing to catch her breath. “I thought if you… ordered me, I’ve still got a month to serve. Maybe… maybe I can have things figured out by then. If not…” she sighed and looked away, fighting back the urge to cry. “…I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Me poor Flora,” Molly said, gently stroking her cheek.

The younger woman nodded, “Then you’ll do it?”

“No, and ye can’t know how sorry I am t’be saying it, but I’ll not be hurting the two of ye like that.”

“Hurting me… us? I-I don’t understand.”

“Look, ye was a man of business… before, wasn’t ye?”

She gave Molly a confused look. “I was, and I’m hoping to be one – a woman of business -- again when my sentence is up.”

“Then ye surely must know what a partnership is.”

“A business partnership? Of course I do.”

“Good, ‘cause marriage is a partnership, too, a partnership b’tween two friends… two lovers.”

“So…”

“So…” Molly thought for a moment. “So, maybe that’s too much t’be talking about just now. Ye can’t be going off half-cocked, forcing yuir answer on Carl. Ye’re risking a lot, an awful lot, Flora, and I’ll not be helping ye do it.”

“But if I don’t…”

“Ye don’t know what’ll happen, and ain’t what ye have… what ye want t’be having between ye worth the risk?”

Flora sighed. There was no way that Molly would do what she wanted, so there was no point in arguing any more.

Besides, a part of her agreed. Carl was worth any risk she could think of, no matter how scared she was.

* * * * *

“Here we go,” Hedley warned, as he took firm hold of the handles of Clara’s wheelchair. He turned the chair and walked backwards through the swinging doors of the Eerie Saloon, pulling the chair along with him. Their mother followed, catching the doors, so they wouldn’t strike the sides of the chair. Once inside, Hedley turned it around, and the three of them glanced about the room.

Clara suddenly raised her arm, pointing. “There’s Annie over there.”

“That must be where they serve the food, then,” Mrs. Spaulding said, and the family moved further into the room. She began to scan the saloon very intently.

“What are you looking for, Mother?” Clara asked.

“If we didn't know Annie, it would make me quite uneasy, walking into a place with all those notorious potion girls around.” She noticed Dolores and Nancy standing by the bar. “Do you suppose that's two of them? They are very pretty.”

“No, Mother,” Hedley chuckled. “One is Miss Osbourne, who used to be Annie's schoolteacher. The other is a young lady from Mexico, Annie's cousin, Dolores.” He took a breath. “I… ah, Annie pointed them both out to me...once.

“I've heard Annie mention Dolores,” Clara volunteered.

Arnie had turned at the sound of her voice. She saw the Spauldings and hurried over to them. “Clara… and… and Hedley and Mrs. Spaulding, what are you doing here?”

“Good evening, Annie,” Mrs. Spaulding greeted here. “We’ve heard such good things about your restaurant that we decided to try it.”

Hedley smiled warmly. “Perhaps you can join us. If you’d like to, that is.”

“Oh, please do,” Clara added.

Shamus had been watching, and he came over to where they were standing. “Good evening to ye. I’m Shamus O’Toole. Welcome to Maggie’s Place… and t’me Saloon.” He saw no point in mentioning to the woman, whom he guessed was Hedley’s mother, that her boy had been at last Saturday’s dance.

“Good evening, sir,” Hedley replied. “My name is Hedley Spaulding, and these ladies are my mother, Mrs. Vida Spaulding, and my sister, Clara Spaulding.”

Shamus nodded at Vida and Clara, as they were introduced. “Please t’meet ye, Hedley… ladies. I gather ye already know Arnie. She’ll be yuir waitress t’night.”

“Oh, dear.” Clara pouted. “I was rather hoping that Annie could join us for dinner.”

Shamus cocked an eyebrow. “Annie?”

“Yes, Annie… your waitress.” The girl pointed directly at Arnie.

The barman turned to face his waitress. “Och… of course; I don’t know where me head’s at. Would ye like t’be having supper with these folks, Annie?”

“Can I, Shamus?” She tried hard not to react to his calling her Annie.

He shrugged. “Ye get a break every night for eating. If ye want t’be having it with these folks, ‘tis fine with me. Lylah can take over for ye.”

“Thanks, Shamus.” Annie smiled broadly at the Spauldings. “I’ll be happy to have supper with you… Clara. Thank you for asking me.” She untied her apron and handed it to Shamus.

The barman led them to a nearby cloth-covered table. He moved a chair out of the way, so Hedley could set Clara’s wheelchair in its place. A moment later, Shamus held another chair for Mrs. Spaulding. As soon as Clara was settled in, Hedley hurried to pull out a third chair. “Here you are, Annie.”

“Oh, uhh… Thank you, Hedley,” she said shyly. She’d never had anyone else pull out a chair for her, and she still wasn’t sure how to act.

As she sat down, he whispered, “Let me slide in the chair under you.” She gave a quick nod and took a slight step forward. Hedley pushed the chair, and she settled down in it.

“Glad to be of service.” He whispered again, but this time he had leaned close enough that she felt his warm breath on her neck. She felt a delicious shiver run through her, and she couldn’t help but smile.

He scurried around the table to sit down opposite her. He had a look of satisfaction on his face, and she felt her cheeks begin to warm.

“G’evening,” Lylah said, suddenly standing by the table, handing out menus. “I’m Lylah, and I’ll be waitressing your table.”

Hedley took a menu and glance at it for a moment. He looked up and straight across at Annie. “I know what I want.” He grinned.

Annie stared down at her menu trying to hide the blush she felt rise to her cheeks. Her whole body seemed to be tingling, and she had trouble concentrating on what to order.

It was going to be a long dinner.

* * * * *

Jessie waited until the Happy Days Town Band had set up on the small stage before she walked out to join them. “Howdy, folks,” she said in the voice she used when performing.

“What’re you doing up there, Jessie,” somebody yelled. “Are you gonna be one o’the Cactus Blossoms?”

Jessie laughed. “The way I dance? I’d be about as useful t’them ladies as tits on bull.”

“Maybe so,” someone else called out, “but your tits is a whole lot prettier.” The room rocked with laughter.

Jessie laughed along with the others. “Well, thank you for that, but I’m just here t’introduce the Blossoms.” She turned to the band. “So, strike up the music, boys, and…” She made a gesture towards the area under the steps where the three dancers were waiting. “…here they come, the Eerie Saloon’s own Cactus Blossoms.”

The band began to play, and the Cactus Blossoms moved out to take up their positions for the start of their routine. Jessie walked silently back to where Molly was sitting. ‘That was a whole big nothing,’ she thought glumly. Anyone could have done what she'd just done. Could she do it in a more interesting way?

* * * * *

Thursday, June 27, 1872

“Here it comes,” Winthrop Ritter shouted, pointing down the street at the incoming stage coach. “Get ready, boys.” He was standing on the raised wooden sidewalk in front of the Wells Fargo depot.

Hammy Lincoln and Pablo Escobar were sitting on a nearby bench. “We sees it, Mr. Ritter,” Hammy replied patiently. “And we knows what t’do when it gets here.”

“Unless you wish to do some of the work,” Pablo added.

Winthrop frowned, ignoring the comment. The three men wore pale green vests with the words “Ritter's Livery” painted on the back in bright yellow letters, but Winthrop had no intention of helping the other two.

He was running the business after his father's death. They were short a man, but, as the new manager, he didn't want to pay more wages until his kid brother, Clyde, Jr., had been tried out. Clyde would work cheap. It had become Winthrop's responsibility to provide for the entire family, and he had to be careful with the money.

By now the stage had slowed. It pulled to a stop in front of the depot and just down from where Winthrop was standing.

“Eerie, Arizona,” the driver announced jumping down from his seat. “There’ll be a ten minute stop, in case anybody wants t’stretch their legs.” He opened the door adding, “Watch your step, please. And, oh, yeah, there's an outhouse behind the freight office.”

Pablo walked over and began to unhitch the horses from the coach. Hammy went to the hitching post where the replacement team waited. Winthrop watched -- supervised. After all, that was what bosses did; they watch while their employees do the physical work.

His own job was worse; the manager had to do the books, something he hated. Winthrop wondered whether someone – such as Miss Osbourne – would hire on to work part time as a bookkeeper. He'd surely like to have a pretty lady like that around the office. But it was a forlorn hope; she was kept busy doing two jobs at the saloon, and the way she smiled all the time made him think that she liked the place. Anyway, he had to be very careful about running up costs for a while.

“I’m getting off here,” Red Tully said, stepping out of the stage and onto the platform. He shielded his eyes from the morning sun.

A woman called out from inside. “As am I, Mr. Tully, if you would be so kind….” She reached out a hand.

“My pleasure, Miss Stafford.” Red took her hand and helped her from the vehicle.

The driver walked to the boot at the back of the stagecoach, where most of the luggage and freight was stored. “You folks got any gear?” He pulled at the straps that held the netting in place.

“The gray valise is mine,” the woman said as she stepped out. She was young, slim, and very pretty. The driver reached in for the case and handed it to her.

Red pointed to a tartan-patterned bag. “And that one’s mine.” He grabbed for the overstuffed carpetbag. A clerk came out of the depot with a cart, and he and the driver loaded several packages from the boot onto it and pushed it back inside the building.

“Are there any hotels in this town?” the young lady asked cautiously.

As a rule, the shotgun rider stayed in his seat while the coach was stopped. “There ain’t no hotel in Eerie,” he called down in reply, “but some of the saloons rent out rooms. The two best’re the Lone Star and the Eerie Saloon.”

“Considering my brother’s love for all things Texan, I’m guessing he’s at the Lone Star,” she said. “Which way is it?”

The man pointed. “Down that way, about a half a block. In case they’re full up, the Eerie’s on the other side of the street a bit further down. Either place, you tell ‘em that Vince Glidden sent you. They know me hereabouts, and that’ll get you the best deal.”

“I shall. Thank you.” She picked up her suitcase and started for the Lone Star.

Red hurried over to match her pace. “Can I help you with your bag, Miss Stafford?”

“Thank you, Mr. Tully, but I can manage it by myself.” She remembered to smile, not wanting to seem too abrupt. “After five days on that stage, it’s a pleasure to get the exercise.”

From days of occasional conversation, Red had learned who she was and was worried for her. “What if you can't… find your brother?” he asked.

“I have to find him. As I've said, he's the only real family that I have left.”

Red only knew Forry as a would-be killer, a crook who had robbed his ranch's payroll. It was hard to imagine a man like that having a sister who loved and depended on him. Would this girl – a nice girl, as far as he could tell – be allowed to find her brother, or would Flora want to hide from her? Priscilla Stafford was either in for a big disappointment or a terrible shock.

He nodded and touched the tip of his hat. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

“I do thank you for the offer, though. Perhaps we’ll meet again while I’m in town.” She smiled once more; Red Tully was a fine looking man, and a cowboy, just like she'd read about in the magazines.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” said Red. “I usually – uh, dine at the Eerie Saloon when I'm in from the ranch. It's the best food in town.” As soon as he had said that, he wondered why he had told her where to find him. She was pretty, that was for sure. But this mannered young lady was going to get hurt and Red didn't want to be around to see that.

He smiled tightly, tipped his hat, and walked toward Doc Upshaw’s office. He had a letter to deliver.

At that moment, the driver came out of the depot. He walked over to where Winthrop was standing, overseeing the exchange of teams. “Ain’t you gonna help your friends with the work, buddy?” he asked Winthrop.

“I pay them to do the work,” Winthrop answered smugly.

The driver chuckled at the boy’s presumption. “Yes, sir, Mr. …” He glanced over and quickly read the words on Winthrop’s vest. “…Mr. Ritter.” He gave a mock salute and stepped away.

‘This kid’s a snot-nosed, little punk,’ he thought, ‘but those other two know what they’re doing.’ Satisfied with what he saw, he sat down on a bench and waited for Pablo and Hammy to finish.

* * * * *

Priscilla angled her way through the swinging doors of the Lone Star Saloon. The only one in the bar was a slender young brunette who was clearing away the plates and cups from a couple of tables. “Excuse me,” Priscilla called out. “A Mr. Glidden told me that you rented out rooms. Who do I see about getting one?”

“That’d be me,” the other woman said. She set down her tray and wiped her hands on her apron. “I’m Winnie Duggan. My father owns the Lone Star.” She walked over and shook Priscilla’s hand.

“I’m Priscilla Stafford. I think my brother, Forrest, may already have a room here.”

Winnie looked surprised. “Mr. Stafford, he… uhh, he used to have a room here. So did his men.”

Used to have; is Forrest still around?”

“Sort of; he’s… it’s kind of hard to explain.”

“I'm relieved. I've been worried sick. He hasn't written since he came out here.” Now Priscilla yawned. “Perhaps we can talk later. I just got off a stage, and I need…” She yawned again.

“I understand. Come over here, and you can register.” Winnie walked behind the bar and pulled out a thin black ledger. “Just sign in, and I’ll take you right up.”

“Umm, before I do, how much are the rooms?”

“Two dollars a night; ten dollars for the week; that includes breakfast and supper.”

Priscilla opened her reticule and took out a small purse. There wasn’t much in it, but… “Let me have it for the week.” She handed Winnie a ten dollar gold eagle. During the journey, it had become clearer and clearer that she wasn't going home again. If Forry refused to support her, if he tried to send her home, she'd have to disobey him. That would leave her on her own, and she'd soon be destitute. What would it mean to be alone in this strange new land? She knew office work, but the town didn't look like it had many offices. She grew worried again.

“Just sign here, please.” Winnie opened the registration book and pointed to a blank line. “Just your name and where you’re from.” Priscilla did as asked.

Winnie came out from behind the bar. “Why don’t I take your suitcase? I can see how worn out you are.”

“That would be lovely.” Priscilla handed her the valise and followed her up to a room on the second floor. In five minutes, the case was set on the dresser, and Priscilla was sleeping on the bed, having taken off only her shoes.

Winnie shook her head, as she went back to gathering the breakfast dishes. “How am I… How – how is anyone -- going to explain what happened to Mr. Stafford? Or should I say… Miss Stafford? That poor girl; I hope she has someone else to fall back on.”

* * * * *

Edith Lonnigan looked up from the papers she was working on, when she heard the bell over the door. “Mr. Tully, I didn’t know that you were back from Philadelphia.” She closed the folder with the papers.

“I just got in, Mrs. Lonnigan,” Red replied. “Is the Doc around?”

She pressed a button on her desk, ringing a bell in the back of the medical office. “He should be out in a moment. How was your trip?”

“The train wasn’t bad, at least I could get up and walk between cars. The last days, on that stage… don’t ask.” Well, maybe the personable Priscilla Stafford had made the trip a little easier than it would have been otherwise. Again, he worried that she was in for a rough time of it.

At that moment, Doctor Upshaw walked out from behind the curtain that separated his waiting room from his work area. “Red,” he said warmly, “welcome back. Did you have a good trip?”

“Mostly, nothing t’talk about, though.”

“How’s Abner doing?”

“He’s ‘bout the same as he was when we left, even after all that poking and prodding that Doc Vogel done. He ain’t getting no worse, thank the Lord, but he ain’t getting no better, neither. I think it’s starting to bother him, wondering if he’ll ever be himself again.” He yawned and stretched his back.

Doc Upshaw nodded. “I can see how that would prey on a person. Abner Slocum was always an active, vigorous man. The prospect of being paralyzed permanently – well, let’s hope that it doesn’t come to that.”

“From your mouth t’G-d’s ear, as my ma used t’say.”

Red squared his shoulders and, with a soft grunt, lifted his carpet bag onto Mrs. Lonnigan’s desk. “Doc Vogel gimme a report t’give to you,” he explained. He opened the bag and began rummaging through it. After a minute, he pulled out a thick brown envelope tied with white cord. He checked the name and handed it to Upshaw. “Had t’make sure I gave you the right one.” he said, as he handed it to the physician. “I got a letter for Mr. Lewis that’s almost as thick.”

“I expected something this size.” The older man hefted the package, as if trying to guess its weight. “Dr. Vogel promised me a complete copy of his findings, his final diagnosis, his proposed treatment regime, and his prognosis for success.”

“Whatever all that means,” Red said with a chuckle that progressed into another yawn.

“It means what the tests show, what he thinks is the matter with Abner, how he plans to treat the problem, and how well he expects the treatment to work.”

“Well enough t’get Mr. Slocum back t’normal, I hope.”

“As do I.” Upshaw studied the other man for a moment. “What are your plans… after you leave here, I mean?”

“I’m gonna get a horse – before I left, Mr. Lewis arranged for me to get one at Ritter’s – and head out to the ranch.”

Doc put a hand on Red’s shoulder. “Not right away, you aren’t.”

“Sure I – yawn – am.” As he spoke, he arched his back and stretched.

Mrs. Lonnigan shook her head. “You really shouldn’t; not in the state you’re in.”

“I agree,” Doc told the cowman. “Red, you just rode five days in a stage coach; that’d tire anyone out. It’s a long way out to the Triple A, and you’re all but dead on your feet.” He paused a beat. “I’ve got a room in the back with four beds that nobody’s using right now. As your physician, I prescribe that you climb into one and get a few hours sleep before you go anywhere.”

Red was about to argue, when he yawned again – loudly. “Well, Doc,” he answered with a laugh. “You talked me into it.”

* * * * *

“Laura,” Amy Talbot asked, “are you all right?” The two women were sitting in the parlor of Laura’s house.

Laura stared at Amy for a moment before she blinked twice and shook her head. “Did you say something, Amy?”

“Yes, I asked if you were all right. You’ve been holding that sock in your hand for I don’t know how long without darning that hole in it.”

“I-I’m sorry.” Laura sighed and put down the sock. “I’ve been feeling odd all morning… cramping on and off like I was having my monthlies.”

Amy raised an eyebrow. “‘On and off,’ you say. About how often does that happen?”

“I don’t know – oh, there was another one. They’re maybe… less than ten, maybe… about five minutes apart.”

“Oh… my; excuse me.” Amy walked quickly to the side door that opened into Arsenio’s smithy. The man was working at his forge. She hurried over and tapped him on the shoulder. When he stopped and turned around, she took a breath to steady herself. “Go and get Edith Lonnigan and the doctor, Arsenio. Laura’s gone into labor.”

He tossed his tongs and hammer to the ground. “Thanks, Amy.” Without another word, he ran for the gate. Amy went back inside to help Laura to her bed.

* * * * *

Molly saw Jessie come around the corner and into the hallway where the Cactus Blossoms were practicing. “What brings ye up here, Jessie? Have ye decided ye want t’be a dancer, too?” The other women stopped moving and stared at the singer.

“You heard me the other night, Molly,” Jessie replied. “I can dance well enough with a man…” She grinned. “…especially with Paul, but I ain’t never been no good at moving in step with a bunch of people. That’s why I wasn’t in the army during the War – one reason, anyway. I stunk at close-order drill.”

“Don't underestimate yerself. Flora and Lylah seemed hopeless at first, but they shaped up right fit.”

“I already got a talent that I like better.”

“What brings ye up here, then?”

“I got an idea about them introductions you want me t’do for the Blossoms, and I wanted to talk t’you about them. The way you had me tackle it, any coyote could have pulled it off. I can do something better.” She pulled a folded up paper out of a pocket in her dress. “Take a look at this song I wrote.”

Molly unfolded the paper and read. “Goes t’that song ‘Buffalo Gals’, don’t it?” When Jessie nodded, she read the words again, this time humming the melody. “Hmm, it fits. How d’ye plan t’be working it?”

“It thought that the Blossoms could come out… here.” She pointed to the page. “And the band’d start playing… here. What do y’think?”

“It sounds good t’me, and I can work it out with the Blossoms real easy, but ye’d better talk t’Hiram King and the others before ye try it out.”

“That’s just where I’m going next,” Jessie told her. “I just wanted t’talk to you first.”

* * * * *

“Will ye stop pacing, Arsenio?” Shamus asked. “It ain’t doing Laura any good, and ye’re like t’be wearing a hole in yuir rug.”

Arsenio shook his head and continued striding back and forth. “I know, Shamus, but I… I feel so helpless out here, while she’s --”

He stopped abruptly, as Jane came out of the bedroom and rushed to the kitchen. “Not yet,” she called to the men, “but soon. I’m just getting some more hot water.” She grabbed a pot off the back burner of the stove without stopping and all but ran back into the bedroom.

The men stared at the closed door for a time. Then Shamus settled back in his chair with his copy of Sporting Times, and Arsenio resumed his pacing. At times, he stopped and clenched his fists when he heard Laura’s screaming from labor pains.

After what seemed like a week, they heard the sound of a slap followed by the cry of a newborn baby. Arsenio bolted for the door, which opened just as he reached it. “It’s a boy, Arsenio,” Jane told them, “and Laura’ll be ready t’see you in a few minutes.”

* * * * *

“Laura?” Arsenio whispered, opening the bedroom door just a crack. “Can we come in now?”

Jane opened the door all the way. “Sure, c’mon in.”

“Hi, Arsenio.” Laura was sitting up in bed, her back propped by pillows. A few strands of hair were plastered by sweat to her forehead. She looked tired, but her lips curled into a smile at the sight of her husband.

He was by her side in an instant, taking her hand in his and raising it to his lips. “How are you doing, Laura?”

“Tired,” she sighed, “but happy to have that over with. Have they let you see the baby? They won’t show him to me.”

Edith Lonnigan walked over. She was carrying something wrapped in a yellow blanket. “We thought he should meet his momma and daddy together.” She very carefully handed him to Laura, who cradled him in her arms.

“Hello… Junior,” Laura said softly. Despite her smile, she looked uncertain.

Arsenio stepped over next to the bed. “What's wrong, darling?” Arsenio asked.

“I-I thought it would be all over. But it's only beginning. How can I be a good mother? I don't know anything.”

“Neither do I.” He sat on the bed next to his wife. “We'll learn how… together.”

He gently slid his arm behind Laura’s head. His hand reached downward until it was touching the blanket. “Hello, son.” Then he leaned in and kissed her on the forehead. “He’s beautiful, Laura. Thanks you; thank you so very much.”

“And thank you… papa.” Laura was cradling the baby with her left arm, handling it like she was afraid it would fall to pieces. Her right arm moved, and her free hand reached for his.

A moment later, her eyes went wide. “Oh… oh, my?”

“What’s the matter?” Arsenio asked quickly.

“I felt another… contraction, like I did before, when I went into labor.”

Dr. Upshaw walked over. He was still wearing his white coat, but the gloves he’d worn were sitting in a bucket with his instruments. “Your body is getting ready to expel the placenta… the afterbirth. “It should be a lot easier than having the baby.”

“No – ow! That was another contraction, and it felt as bad as when the baby was coming.”

Upshaw’s smile faded. “Jane, take the baby from Laura and put it in the cradle. Edith, get me another pair of gloves. And, Arsenio, I’m afraid that you’ll have to go outside again.”

“Doc, what’s the matter? Laura… is she all right.”

“I don’t know, but I don’t need gawkers. Get out, and I mean now.”

Shamus grabbed the smith by his arm. “Ye can’t be helping her, lad, and you’ll be getting in the man’s way.” He pulled, but Arsenio wouldn’t move. “She needs ye t’leave, Arsenio. Please… for her.”

“I’ll be back, Laura,” Arsenio said, reluctantly letting himself be led from the room. He stopped at the door and looked back. “I love you, Laura,” he called to her.

Her voice rang in his ears as the door closed behind him. “I know, Arsenio, and I-I love you, too.

* * * * *

Maggie walked down the steps and into the parlor. “The children are down for the night.”

Your children,” Ramon said, looking up at her.”

Maggie looked as if she’d been slapped. “Our children, Ramon; they love you as if you were their papa, and I thought that you felt the same way.”

“I do, mi corazón, but they are not mine. When Ernesto was angry with you, I tried to talk to him, to explain things, and he said that he did not have to listen to me because I was not his papa.” He took a breath. “I am not his papa, but I very much want to be.”

“What are you saying, Ramon?”

“That I… I want to adopt Ernesto and Lupe, to be their papa. Can I? You are their mama…” He smiled. “…and their papa. It is for you to say.”

“And for them to say. You cannot force them to let you be their papa.”

“I know, but I think that they will, especially if you say that it is all right for them to do so.”

“What about my Lupe, their real mother?”

You are their real mother, Margarita, but they know that she was the one who gave them birth and who loved them with all her heart. And you -- we -- will make certain that they always remember her.” He walked over and took her hand in his.

Maggie smiled and rested her head on Ramon’s chest. “Yes… yes, we will. But… let me think about what you’re asking.” She kissed his cheek. “And thank you for asking.”

* * * * *

Jane opened the bedroom door. “You can come in, now, Arsenio. You, too, Shamus.”

“Is she… all right? Is it over?” Arsenio asked in a nervous voice.

Edith stepped up next to Jane. “She is, it is, and they want to see you.”

“Steady, lad,” Shamus counseled him. “I’ll be right behind ye.”

Arsenio walked slowly to the door and into the bedroom. He stopped and his face broke out in a grin that stretched, at the least, from ear to ear.

Laura was in the bed, propped up with pillows. She was wearing a pale blue bed jacket. Her hair was brushed and seemed -- to him -- to shine in the light of the lamps set around the room. She looked pale, but she smiled back, her eyes glistening.

And she was cradling a baby in each arm. For Arsenio, it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen or ever would see.

“You didn’t get a chance to meet your son,” Laura told him, “before your daughter decided to butt in.”

“Just like her mother.” He ran his hand gently along her cheek. “Her beautiful, beautiful mother.”

“Right now, I think introductions are in order,” she replied. “Arsenio Leroy Caulder… Eleanor Laura Caulder, this handsome man with the big grin on his face is your papa.”

Arsenio kissed his fingers and lightly touched them to his son’s -- his son’s -- cheek. “Howdy, Junior.” He did the same to his marvelous new daughter. “Howdy, little lady. And the one holding you is your mama.” He touched his lips gently to Laura’s. “The most beautiful, most wonderful woman in the world.”

* * * * *

Friday, June 28, 1872

Priscilla Stafford walked slowly through the doors of the Eerie Saloon. Once she was a few feet inside, she stopped and looked around the room. “No sign of Forrest,” she whispered. It was mid-morning, and the only ones in the room besides her were a tall, slender man working behind the bar at the far end of the room, and a young Mexican girl sweeping the floor a few tables away from Priscilla.

“Excuse me,” Priscilla began, walking towards the girl as she spoke. “They told me at the Lone Star that Forrest Stafford, might be here. May I see him, please?”

Arnie leaned her broom against a table. “Sí, she is upstairs. I’ll go get her.” She hurried away before the older woman could speak.

‘She?’ Priscilla pulled out a chair and sat down. ‘That Mexican girl must not have understood me. Perhaps I’ll have better luck with whomever she brings down to talk to me.’ She sat, her hands demurely set on her lap, watching the stairs.

The señorita came down a few minutes later. A second woman followed her, a very attractive blonde in an outlandish – and rather scanty – green dress with a full pink petticoat underneath. Then, as the pair came closer, Priscilla recognized the second woman.

“Violet!” She gasped, bringing her hand, balled into a fist, up to her mouth. What was her step-mother doing here in that ridiculous outfit? Was her father here with her? Was Fred Reinhardt? How had they found her, and gotten here first? What would they do, now that they had her trapped? In a blind panic, she jumped to her feet and dashed for the door.

Flora had recognized Priscilla in the same instant. Her first impulse had been to run and hide, but she wanted to know what the hell her sister was doing in Eerie. “Priss… Wait!” She started after the fleeing woman.

But…

“…and ye won’t be trying t’escape ,” Shamus had ordered Forry Stafford during the process of his transformation. About ten feet from the doors, Flora stumbled. Her legs gave out. She fell to the floor, as she watched Priscilla run through the swinging doors and out onto the street. When she tried to get up she found that they wouldn’t cooperate. She tried to crawl, only to have her arms go numb. She laid prone, tears of frustration running down her cheeks.

R. J. had seen what had happened. He came out from behind the bar and headed straight for where Flora lay. “Just say that you weren’t trying to escape,” he told her. “It’s the only way you’ll be able to get up.”

“I wasn’t trying to escape,” she said grimly. “I just… I wasn’t trying to escape.” She could feel sensations in her hands again. She braced herself and, with R.J.’s help carefully got back on her feet. “Thanks, R.J.”

“You’re welcome, but who was that, and why’d she run away?”

“My sister, Priscilla, but I don’t know what she’s doing here in Eerie.” She sighed. “I look like her worst enemy and she's afraid of me. We have to bring her back and explain.”

Arnie and Molly joined them by the door. “When she came in,” Arnie told them, “she said that somebody at the Lone Star told her that Forry Stafford might be over here.”

“Sam’s a great one for not telling other people’s secrets,” R.J. said. “I guess she'll run back to her hotel room. Your next stop is the Lone Star, Flora. That’s probably where your sister’s at.”

Flora nodded. “Sure, only how do I go there, if I can’t walk out of here? And if… when I do find Priscilla, how do I convince her who I really am?”

“We’ll see what we can figure out on the way over t’the Lone Star?” Molly said, taking Flora by the hand.

Flora looked confused. “We?”

“Aye, you ‘n’ me. I’ll be going with ye for moral support, and, besides, how can ye be trying to escape from this here prison, if ye’re walking out and about with one o’yuir jailers?”

*****

Priscilla sat on her bed, staring at the contents of her purse spread out on her bed, eighteen dollars and some change. “I’ve barely enough to get home,” she said ruefully, “and it would be just like Father and Violet to make me pay my own way. And if I do go home, I’ll be Mrs. Fred Reinhardt as soon as they can arrange it.” She sighed. “Maybe he's come, too. They might even force me to marry him right here.”

With so little money to buy her way out of town, the girl knew she didn't have a chance. “I could go… somewhere, Denver perhaps, but what could I do when I get there? How could I survive… penniless?” ‘Maybe I should just try to get Father mad enough to disown me and leave me be,’ she thought desperately. ‘Even that would be better than the fate he has in store for me.’

But was it?
She buried her head in her hands. “Oh, Forrest, I was so counting on your help. Why couldn’t it have been you and not… Violet waiting for me?” She collapsed on the bed, her eyes full of tears.

A knock on her door made her sit up. “Go away!” she yelled.

“Miss Stafford,” a voice called through the door, “me name’s Molly O’Toole, and I come over here t’talk t’ye about yuir… brother, Forry.”

Her heart leaped. “F-Forrest… Where is he? Is he… all right?”

“That’s not something I’ll be saying from the other side of a locked door. Ye’ll have t’be letting me in, if you want to know the truth.”

Priscilla wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her dress and hurried to the door. “If this is a trick….” What did it matter, really? If her father was outside with this Molly person, what could she do about it? She turned the latch and cautiously opened the door.

An older woman, in her late thirties, perhaps, stood in the doorway. The woman – Molly, she guessed -- was short and slightly plump with the reddish hair and freckles that all but screamed, “Irish.” She had a round face with a broad, friendly smile. “Hello, m’dear,” Molly greeted her. “Can we come in?”

“We?” Priscilla looked off to the side. There, almost out of the line of sight, stood… “Violet!”

She spat the name and tried to slam the door closed. Only, Molly had stuck her foot in the way, blocking it.”Ye may as well let us in, Miss Stafford,” Molly told her. “I’ll not be moving me foot, and thuirs the two of us out here t’push the door in, and only the one of ye t’fight against us.”

Priscilla ignored Molly and kept pushing at the door. “Go away; just… just go away and leave me to my misery.”

“C’mon, Prissy-Britches,” Flora said abruptly, “let us in.”

The words surprised Priscilla. “Don't call me that! You have no right!” she cried. It was an old pet name for her that only Forry had used.

“I’ve always called you that. I know you don’t believe me, but I'm Forry. Please let me explain.”

“I'd have to be crazy to believe that!”

“Whoever I am, you're going to talk to me. You don't have much choice. I love you, Prissy-Britches; don't act this way.”

Priscilla stepped back from the door. The voice was right. She was trapped. If her father wanted the innkeeper to open the door, he would. No one could stand up to the man. Violet was a terrible person, but she wasn’t the type that would hurt her in front of witnesses.

“All right,” she said in a resigned voice; time to face the music, whatever tune was playing. She took a step back from the door.

Flora pushed the door inward. Molly stepped back and let her gaudily-clad companion come in first. When Flora saw the look on her sister’s face, she groped for words to calm her. “I’m not Violet, and I’m not here to hurt you, Prissy-Britches, and that’s a promise.”

Priscilla shook her head. “Of course you're Violet. Who else could you be? I have eyes! If you want to drag me to Father, don’t pretend that you're Forry. I haven't gone mad. Have you?”

“I'm not Violet, Prissy-Britches.”

“How do you know that name? I-I don’t think even Father knew about it.”

“How could he? I never told him.”

“How could you tell him? You shouldn't have known it, either.”

Flora sighed. “I knew it because I’m the one who called you that. I’m not Violet.” She sighed again and half-closed her eyes. It was so hard to say it. There was no way to make it believable. “Like I keep telling you, I’m… I was your brother, Forrest.”

* * * * *

Shamus, Molly, Priscilla, and Flora sat at a table, watching R.J. as he carried a newly-converted “potion pup” – as Molly had dubbed her – out to the yard. The dog, a small, brown mutt, kept squirming in his arms and trying to lick his face.

After some talking – and a bit of arguing – Shamus and Molly had decided that he should keep a bottle of the potion in his office just for emergencies. The bottle was locked in a drawer. Shamus, Molly, and R.J. each had a key, again, just in case of emergencies, like some terrible accident that needed a miracle cure.

“I guess we won’t be calling that one ‘Scrapper’ no more,” Shamus said with a chuckle. Like I was telling ye; a boy drinks me potion, and she’s a girl. A girl -- a born girl or one that’s already tasted me potion – gets a dose, and she gets a lot friendlier – gets to be a lot more of a woman.”

Priscilla shook her head. “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. What am I saying? I saw it, and I still don’t believe it.”

“Do you believe in me?” Flora asked in a hesitant tone. “That I’m who I say I am?”

Priscilla gave her new sister a questioning look. “I-I don’t know. My old nanny, Nora, used to tell me that I should believe only half of what I see and… and…” She threw her arms up in desperation. “Oh, now how did the rest of that go?”

“Still testing me, Prissy Britches?”Flora asked, a chuckle in her voice.” She used to say ‘half of what you hear and a quarter of what you see.” Flora looked her sister in the eye. “And her name was Cora. She was a busty little brunette with a pink birthmark – it looked like a rose – on her left --”

“Forrest! You didn’t… not my nanny?” Priscilla's blue eyes were hot with indignation. “How could you?”

Flora smiled wryly. “How could I what, ma’am?”

Priscilla suddenly realized that these people – and Violet -- almost had her believing their absurd tale. Her jaw dropped, and her eyes went wide as two of Maggie’s dinner plates. “Oh… oh, my Lord, if you are Forrest, then the whole world has gone insane. That's it! You're trying to drive me out of my mind and then lock me away in a madhouse!”

Flora sat down across from her. “Prissy-Britches, I don't want you in a madhouse. Ask me any question, anything that no one except Forry would know.”

Priscilla shook her head, hopelessly, not knowing what to say. Violet – “Flora” she called herself – took her hand and squeezed it gently, reassuringly, a way that Violet never had, never would. Priscilla resisted the impulse to pull her hand away. She didn't want to believe that this was Forry, but she even more wanted to believe that it was not Violet.

“Remember what you just saw happen to that puppy?” the woman in green said. “It happened to me, too. I hate frightening you; but it happened. I’m just glad we're together again. I've been lonely out here a lot of times, but now that you've come, maybe we can both start smiling, again.”

Priscilla looked into Flora's face, not knowing what to say.

Flora pressed. “Violet wouldn’t come this far to get you. Father would, maybe. But our stepmother doesn't care about you. It wouldn't matter to Violet if you married Reinhardt or not. Her kind of vengeance would be to turn you out on the street without a penny. I would never do that to you.”

Priscilla thought for a moment. “Answer this. Who was Mr. Claws?”

“Your porcelain collie dog. You broke it when you were about eight.” Flora was smiling hopefully.

Violet shouldn't have known that, Priscilla reasoned. She had cried all day when it happened and moped about it for a week, but she’d never talked about Mr. Claws again after that, not as far as she could remember.

“This is like a fairy story, where people turn into frogs and other things,” she began tentatively. “Real life isn't like that.”

“Real life is a lot bigger and stranger than people want to believe it is. And for the record, I really never had relations with Cora. She was your nanny, and that made her family… sort of. I wouldn't wanted to have you looked after by a slut.”

She took a breath. “Besides, I think that she and father were…” her voice trailed off meaningfully. “I saw her sneaking out of Father's room, wrapped in a sheet one time when I was home on leave from the Army. She caught the end of it in the door and when she saw me she backed away and the sheet pulled off. That's when I saw the mark. You actually did have a low woman for a nanny, but I didn't make her that way.”

“My goodness,” Priscilla said, sounding more than a little disgusted. “Father is a bastard; isn’t he?”

Flora had to chuckle. Priscilla had seldom used such course language. “He certainly is. I don’t know why I spent my whole life…” She stopped for a moment, realizing what she was saying. “…trying to be so much like him. He only loved himself, so if I could be more like him....”

“Is that how you got to be Flora, by acting the way he would have acted?”

“What do you mean, Priss?”

“Mr. O’Toole said that his potion was used to punish the most serious criminals. What did you do to make them give you a dose?”

Flora shook her head, a forlorn expression on her face. “You… You don’t want to know. I wish you would never find out, but you probably will. I'm afraid that you might stop loving me when you realize what terrible things I did.”

“Did you k-kill somebody,” the girl asked in a tiny voice.

“No. But it was bad enough. When I was talking with Father about what I might have to do out here, that sort of thing didn't seem bad at all. It sounded clever. That's the way he always is. He thinks that people like him should do anything they feel like, just to get their own way. And he always made me think that way, too. But when I look into your eyes, Prissy-Britches, I only want you to be proud of me.”

Molly put her hand on Flora's shoulder. “Ye don’t have to be like that anymore,” she said. “Ye sure ain’t like yuir papa, now.”

Flora nodded, now looking very serious. “I hope not. If I still am, I'm going to lose the two people I love most in the world. I'd rather die.”

Prissy looked intensely curious. “Two people; if I'm one of them, who else is there?”

Flora shook her head. “You've had too many shocks for one day. You've got another shock coming, and it will be a big one. But if you think about it for a while, you're going to realize that it's a good shock.” Flora couldn't imagine how Priscilla would react to her brother being married to a man, a man who was now part of their own family.

* * * * *

“Ladies and gents,” Shamus announced, “here she is, the ‘Songbird of Eerie,’ Jessie Hanks.” The Happy Days Town Band played a quick flourish, as Jessie stepped up onto the stage and took a seat next to them.

She smiled at the smattering of applause that greeted her and picked up her guitar. “Thanks, folks, I got a little song that I’m gonna sing by way of an introduction.” She strummed the cords once and began.

` “Shamus’ gals, gonna come out tonight,
` Come out tonight, come out tonight.
` Shamus’ gals, gonna come out tonight,
` And dance at the Eerie Saloon.”

` “Come see them dancing, oh, so sweet,
` Move their feet, to the beat,
` Come watch them as they jump and leap,
` And dance for all to see.”

During the verse, the Cactus Blossoms strutted out, waving their skirts to the music, and took their places around the dance area.

` “Shamus’ gals, gonna come out tonight,
` Come out tonight, come out tonight.
` Shamus’ gals, gonna come out tonight,
` And dance at the Eerie Saloon.”

During the second chorus, the band joined in, playing low behind Jessie. When the chorus ended, she stood up and bowed. The band segued into the Cactus Blossoms music, playing at a much higher volume. Jessie looked over to where Shamus and Molly were standing. Her eyes caught his. Shamus said something to Molly, and they both gave her a quick “Thumbs Up.” Jessie smiled back and moved quietly away from the stage, as the Cactus Blossoms began their show.

* * * * *

The applause for the dancers ended. Flora broke away from Lylah and Nancy and headed for the table where Priscilla was sitting, smiling bemusedly and still clapping her hands softly. “That's amazing,” her sister told her, as she sat down. “I had no idea that you were so… supple.”

“I get that from Violet,” Flora explained. “When I drank O’Toole’s potion, I turned into her physical double, and, as I found out when she first came to Austin with you…” Flora leered. “…she had a very supple body.”

Priscilla blushed and looked away for a moment. “Flora! You shouldn’t say such things,” she giggled and faced her sister again, “even if they are true.”

“No, I suppose not. But even if I had been this limber when I was Forry, I still couldn’t have done all the steps you saw me do just now. Those splits, where I drop to the floor with my legs splayed out forward and back, I couldn’t have done those without hurting… things.”

Priscilla lightly slapped Flora’s arm. “One thing hasn’t changed. You continue to enjoy teasing and embarrassing me, don’t you?”

“Yes, to tell the truth, I do, but it is good to see you. You did the right thing to come. You'd be miserable marrying that old devil Reinhardt. What's his first name again?”

“Fred!” Priscilla said through gritted teeth.

Her sister shook her head. “Father was always a selfish cuss, but he went too far, the way he treated you after he divorced your mother.”

“I know you loved Violet! He stole her from you! But she wasn't worthy of you! She's evil!”

Flora nodded. “I know. But she had a hold on me that I've never really gotten rid of.” She looked down at herself. “I guess you can see that. I don't regret losing her, but I never could stand the way she came between you, your mother, and Father.”

“It was my fault for bringing her down for a visit. She was so charming, but all she really wanted was to latch onto a rich man. I hoped you two would marry, but she jilted you for Father. After she got her hooks into him, home became a terrible place to live.”

“I know. Because I was angry and still wanted her, I tried to travel on business as much as possible. But when I did that, I missed you, and I knew that you were being treated badly.”

“After you came out here, you were missing for months and father never got worried about where you could be,” Priscilla said. “The only thing I heard him worrying about was whether you were, as he so gently put it, ‘Wasting my hard-earned money on liquor and whores.’ I don’t know about the first, though I haven’t seen you take a drink all day. As to the second, you hardly seem… equipped for such things.”

“Not now, anyway.” Flora looked down ruefully at her body. “When I first came to Eerie, I – no, I can't tell you that. It was another life. It's something else that you'll surely hate me for.” Priscilla's expression made Flora change the subject. “How did you get out of Father's bear trap of a home?”

The girl sighed. “I pretended to accept the idea of marriage and asked for some money to buy a dress to be seen in style with Mr. Reinhardt. He agreed. I used the money to buy a ticket out here.” She sighed. “It was all the money I had, and it’s almost gone. I thought you'd be able to help me.” She looked down at the table, her eyes glistening. “But here you are in prison. I thought I was in a bad way, but you're even worse off. What's going to become of the two of us?”

Flora shook her head. “I'm supposed to get out of jail in a month. When that happens, things won't be so bleak. Father sent me here with a letter of credit for $5,000. Most of that should still be sitting in the local bank. I want to start some sort of a business and build a new life for myself. I'm sure that Father will disinherit me when he finds out what happened. What good am I to him now? He'll think I belong in a circus.” She had a sudden thought. “We’ll go over there – to the bank -- tomorrow and transfer some of it – say, $500 -- to an account in your name. How would that be?”

“It-It would be… wonderful.” The woman sprang up and impulsively hugged her sister. “Thank you, F– What should I call you?”,

“Try to get used to saying 'Flora.' I'm not supposed to answer to Forry. It's part of the magic. They tell me that there's no way back from where I am now.”

Priscilla looked dismayed.

“It beats hanging." Flora said. “I'll have to tell you about that, too, but not today.”

Priscilla squeezed her sister's hand.

* * * * *

Saturday, June 29, 1872

“Ramon…” Maggie whispered in his ear.

Ramon woke with a start. He reached over for his pocket watch from where it was sitting on the night table. “Margarita, it is not yet 7 AM. What is wrong that you had to wake me up so early?”

“I wanted to talk to you about your idea to adopt Ernesto and Lupe.”

“Do you agree?”
“Sí, I want us to be a family… a true family. I want them to be as much a part of it as their younger brothers and sisters.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Younger… Margarita… mi amor… you are not…” He stared down at her trim waist.

She smiled mischievously. “Pregnant; not that I know of, mi corazón, but my monthlies are…” She thought for a moment, mentally counting the days. “not due for a week. Perhaps, by then…” Her voice trailed off.

“How would you feel about... something like that?”

Maggie frowned thoughtfully. “Lo que sera, sera [What will be, will be],” she said at last.

His arm snaked down, around her waist, and he slid over close to her.

“Ramon,” she said with a giggle. “What about your adoption idea?”

“We will talk to them about it tomorrow… after lunch. In the meantime, let’s see about that little brother or sister you mentioned.”

Maggie was about to say something, but when their lips met, whatever she was about to say became much less important.

* * * * *

Molly walked into the Wells Fargo Bank, with Flora and Priscilla right behind her. “Och,” she groaned. “Look at them long lines.” She pointed to the tellers’ cages and a very busy George Sturges and Joe Kramer. “We’ll be stuck in here for hours.”

“I’m not sure if it’s even a teller we want to see,” Flora answered. “The last time I was in here, I talked directly with Dwight Albertson, the bank president.”

They walked towards Albertson’s office door. Milo Nash, the head teller, was working with some papers at his desk nearby. “Can I help you with something, Molly?” he asked, setting the papers aside.

“I’d like to see Mr. Albertson,” Flora told him. “I’m… I was Forrest Stafford.”

“I know who you are, Miss Stafford,” he replied. “Mr. Albertson is in a meeting. What was it that you want to see him about?”

“When I first came to town, I gave him a letter of credit to set up an account. I’ve decided to finally use some of the money in that account.”

Milo nodded. “Yes, I can take care of that for you. Just let me get the account records from the file.” He rose and walked over to a bank of three tall, oak file cabinets set against the wall behind him. He opened the second drawer in one and searched through the folders until he found the one he wanted. He pulled the file and returned to his desk. “Please sit down,” he told the women, as he took his own seat.

“Now, let’s see how much we’re talking about.” He untied the bow that held the file closed and took out an envelope that Flora recognized as the one she had brought with her from Austin. He also pulled out a bankbook and ledger sheet.

As he put the materials down on the table, Flora saw that there were several other papers in the file. “What’re those?” She pointed at the papers. “Can I see them?”

“Certainly.” He glanced at the sheets as he pulled them out. “They’re bills for your upkeep – yours and Miss Saunders – from Mr. O’Toole.”

Flora turned to Molly, an accusing look on her face. “Bills; what’s this about, Molly?”

“The town pays Shamus ‘n’ me for yuir room and board, but we ain’t got the money t’be paying for all yuir new clothes. The Judge said that we can make our… prisoners pay for them, so Shamus send his own bills, plus the ones from Silverman’s, here. Milo here or Dwight checks ‘em over and, since thuir ain’t nothing amiss, they’ve paid ‘em outta yuir money.”

“Miss Saunders was your employee -- you brought him to town and paid his room and board at the Lone Star before you were… sentenced. So the Judge ruled that you would continue to pay for her, as well.”

“That seems fair, I suppose,” Priscilla said hesitantly. “Don’t you think so, Flora?”

Flora considered the matter. “Did I pay for my Cactus Blossom outfit?”

“Heavens, no,” Molly answered quickly. “They belong to the Saloon, and Shamus paid for ‘em outta our own money.” She studied Flora’s expression. “On the other hand, ye paid for that pretty dress ye’re wearing now, Flora. The one ye put on t’be looking nice for…”

She caught herself before she could mention Carl. As far as she knew, Priscilla wasn’t aware that her new sister was married. ‘And it shouldn’t be me that’s spilling the beans about it,’ she decided. Aloud, she said, “… for Mr. Nash here.” She gave Flora a quick wink.

“Point taken,” the other woman said in a resigned tone. “Yes, I guess it is fair.” She found a tally sheet among the bills. “And you haven’t paid out very much, anyway.”

Milo opened a large drawer in his desk and pulled out a form. “If we’ve settled that matter, Miss Stafford, how much money do you want, and who will be getting it? I need to know so we can transfer the money.”

“I wanted 500 dollars… to create an account for my sister here.” She pointed to Priscilla. “Her name is Priscilla Stafford.”

“Easily done. I’ll need you to fill out this first, Miss… Flora.” He slid the form across the table to Flora. “It authorizes the bank to transfer the money to the new account.” He reached into the drawer for a second sheet of paper. “And this is for you, Priscilla. It will create the account that we deposit the money into.” He handed her the paper.

Priscilla grinned as she began to write. “How wonderful; 500 dollars of my own money, money that Father can’t control.”

“That does sound good,” Flora said. “Better give me one of those forms, too, Milo. I think I’m going to set up one of those 500 dollar accounts for myself.” What she didn’t say, but what she was thinking, was, ‘for Carl and I, so we can set up a life of our own when I’m done with Shamus.’

* * * * *

Laura was sitting back on the settee on her parlor, enjoying a quiet cup of tea with Arsenio, when they heard a knock. “I’ll get it,” Arsenio said, putting his cup down and hurrying to the door.

“Hello, Arsenio,” Trisha greeted him, as he opened the door. “Can I come in and talk to you and Laura?” She smiled and stepped into the room. “I’ll try not to be long.”

Arsenio turned to look at Laura. When she nodded, he said, “All right, but please speak softly. We just got the twins down for a nap.”

“Certainly.” She walked over and sat down on a chair across from Laura. “And congratulations, by the way.” She paused a beat. “Can I see them?”

Laura shook her head. “I’m sorry, but they’re light sleepers, and they need the rest almost as much as Arsenio and I do.”

“I understand. Can I ask you a few questions in the meantime?”

Arsenio thought for a moment. “Just why are you here, Trisha?”

“I-I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to fool you.” She looked down at the rug, unable to meet his eyes. “I told Roscoe that I wanted to visit Laura, and he said I should try and interview her – the both of you, I guess – for the paper.” She sighed. “I hope you don’t mind.”

Laura shook her head. “Not really; I’m kind of flattered, I guess. After all, I’m hardly the first woman in town to have a baby.”

“No, but you’re the first one to have twins in quite a while, more important, you’re the first potion girl to have any kind of a baby,” Arsenio replied. “That’s newsworthy, I suppose.” He chuckled.

“But you can't put all this potion girl business into the newspaper,” Laura argued. “Outsiders will read it and this town will become a circus of reporters and novelty seekers!”

“Believe me, I'm concerned about such things myself. I'll be discrete in how I write it, but people who know you will understand the extreme importance of the occasion.”

Arsenio nodded. “It’s also kind of ironic that the person interviewing you is the second potion girl to have a baby – or, she will be in a few months.”

Trisha glanced down at her still-narrow waist. “Yes, but that’s not going to happen for some time – I hope.” She fished in her reticule for a moment before she pulled out a small notebook and a pencil. “Now… if I can ask you some more questions?”

“I suppose.” Laura shrugged. “Would you like some tea while we’re talking?”

“Please….” The reporter waited for Arsenio to pour her a cup. She added two spoonfuls of sugar and a bit of milk, stirred, and tasted. “Perfect. My first question is, do you think that your having taken the potion had anything to do with having twins?” She thought about the possibility, and it really scared her.

That's being discrete?” asked Laura.

“I'll edit it out, but I want to ask real questions, so the interview will flow smoothly. Anyway, that question is mostly for my own information, and you should understand why.”

Reassured, Laura said, “I don’t think so. Two of my sisters are twins, and there are a couple of pairs of twins among my cousins.” She waited for Trisha to write that down. “And... Arsenio, didn’t you tell me that you have an aunt and uncle who are twins?”

He shook his head. “Not quite; my grandpa Caulder had a twin sister, who died before I was born. I had a pair of cousins who were twins, but I only met them a couple of times, when I was a boy.”

“Sounds like twins run in both your families,” Trisha said thoughtfully. “Nothing magical about it.” And nothing she need worry about -- thank Heavens.

Arsenio chuckled. “Maybe not, but the Doc’s been kicking himself about the twins for the last two days.”

“Really,” Trisha asked. “Why is that?”

“All the problems Laura had with being pregnant, they’re just the sort of things he says can show up when a woman’s having twins. He’s mad at himself for not thinking of that.”

Laura gave her husband a bemused smile. “He got caught up in the idea that it had something to do with Shamus’ potion. Of course, Arsenio and I never told him that twins run in both our families, so I guess it’s our fault, too.”

She glanced towards the bedroom, where the infants were sleeping. “And he helped me bring my two beautiful babies into the world, so how could I ever be upset with him?”

“How do you feel about being the first man who became a mother?”

Laura looked thoughtful. “I don't really think of myself as a man anymore. The way I feel about it...Well, I don't know. Maybe you can figure out a way to say it better than I ever could.”

“I don't know what to say,” replied Trisha. “Maybe it's not the same for every one of...us. But how do you feel about motherhood – as a woman?”

“Well, for me, loving the children seems to come instinctively. I didn't know how I'd react to them, so I guess my heart is in the right place. But I was worried enough about being a good enough mother for just one child. But suddenly I have to think about everything in pairs. That is extremely daunting.”

“It'll be daunting for both of us,” said Arsenio, “but I'm going to be here to help her bring it off. Such a wonderful wife has to be a wonderful mother, too.”

“I can say one thing,” Laura added. “Whenever I can forget about being afraid, I feel like I've accomplished something absolutely unbelievable. Until you have one yourself, Trisha, you can't imagine what it feels like to look down into a cradle to see your own beautiful, sleeping baby.”

* * * * *

Horace Styron stood in the doorway to Reverend Yingling’s study. “Can I see you for a moment, Reverend?”

“Certainly, Horace,” the Reverend replied, rising from his chair. “What can I do for you?”

Styron walked in, closing the door behind him. “I… uh, wanted to talk to you about what you said in church last Sunday – about not baptizing Laura Caulder’s baby.”

Babies,” the minister corrected him, “she had twins on Thursday, a boy and a girl.”

“So I heard. Have you decided… what you’re going to do?”

“Am I willing to baptize them, you mean? To tell the truth, I have not yet decided.”

“You should do it.”

Yingling’s expression soured. “And why do you say that, Horace?” There was tension in his voice. “Have you gone over to the side of those errant souls who believe that I am wrong in my opposition to Shamus O’Toole?”

“No, sir, I think you’re right about the potion – and the potion girls. They’ve been nothing but trouble. So, if you say that a committee under your direction should be the one in control, then I’m your man. The only reason I stayed on that advisory committee was to push your ideas.”

“But babies…” He shrugged. “Babies are different.”

“Even when their mother is a potion girl, the creation of evil?”

Styron sighed. “Even then. You can’t blame a baby for who his – or her – mother is, can you?”

“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I, the Lord, thy G-d, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. Exodus: Chapter 20, verse 5.”

“But… but doesn’t that verse say that the Lord will do the punishing, not the people – not his people?”

“The Lord is very good at passing punishment -- or obligation -- down from one generation to the next. However, it does not preclude the involvement of human agents acting in our Lord’s name.”

Horace held up his hands as if in surrender. “I ain’t going to argue religion with you, sir. You know the Good Book a lot better than I ever will.” He took a breath. “On the other hand, I think I know a fair bit more about politics than you do.”

“I would suspect you do. What of it?”

“You got a lot of people riled up when you said you wouldn’t baptize Laura Caulder’s baby… babies.”

“How can that matter so much?”

“A lot of the folks in church have kids. Some of them figure to have more. They believe in baptism, and they don’t like the idea that you might decide that they aren’t good enough for you to baptize their kid.”

“That… that’s absurd.”

“Then you will baptize the Caulder brats – and you’ll tell everybody that you will in church tomorrow. And, for gosh sakes, do it gracefully, with a smile on your face. A grudging concession won't help you very much. Cheerfulness will help people remember that you're a good man and strong leader out to do the best for everybody.”

“I have not yet decided about the Caulder children. I meant that it was absurd that the people of my congregation would ever harbor unflattering thoughts about me.”

“Not as absurd as you think, Reverend. The congregation is really split on this, and you’re not going to win by fighting them on something that they feel so strongly about. Things’d go a lot smoother for you if you did that baptism.”

“Would they? Perhaps it is you who has become one of my gainsayers, twisting things, threatening to withdraw your own support if I do not do as you ask?” He sniffed. “As if I needed your help all that much.”

Styron sighed and shook his head. “You still have my support, sir, but how many others will you have, and how long will you have them if you keep acting this way?”

“That is not your worry, Mr. Styron. And now – not to be rude – I wish to be alone. There are still things that I need to do to prepare for tomorrow’s service.”

Horace nodded and started to leave. “There certainly are. Good day, Reverend.” But, to himself, he added, ‘I’m just not sure that you’re going to do the right ones’

* * * * *

“So, Priscilla,” Nancy asked, “are you going to stay for the dance tonight?” The two women were sitting with Flora, around a table at the Saloon.

Priscilla cocked an eyebrow. “You mean another performance of those Cactus Blossom dancers, like the one I saw yesterday?”

“Heavens, no,” Nancy said. “It’s a regular dance. Oh, the band is the same as last night, but tonight, the men buy tickets to dance with us.”

“Do they dance with you, Flora?” Priscilla asked, not quite believing what she heard.

Flora nodded, feeling a bit embarrassed.

“With Flora and me,” Nancy replied. “And with Lylah and Dolores and – oh, with just about all of the women who work here in the Saloon.”

“So you enjoy dancing with men, now, do you, Flora?”

Flora looked down at her hands, folded there on the table. “Not… Not at first, Priss, but the potion… it works on the mind, as well as the body. I sort of like dancing with men now.”

“If it’s the right man,” Nancy teased, “she likes it a great deal.”

“What does she mean, Flora? Is there a ‘right man’ for you?” Priscilla waited tensely. If Flora said “yes”, how much of the big brother that she’d relied on was left to help her?

Before Flora could answer, a tall, muscular man tiptoed up behind her. His index finger raised before his lips, asking that no one say anything to her. When he reached Flora, he abruptly covered her eyes with his hands. “Guess who?” he challenged and began to kiss her on the side of her neck.

“Carl…” Flora said the name as a soft moan. She smiled, oblivious to where she was, and pressed her body against the stranger.

“Excuse me, sir,” Priscilla said stiffly. “Even if she seems to be enjoying it, you have no right to molest a woman like that, and I’ll thank you to stop immediately.”

The man grinned and pulled back slightly -- very slightly – from Flora. “Well now, whoever you are, ma’am, I’m the lady’s husband, and that give me every right in this world to ‘molester’ her.”

“Her…” Priscilla’s jaw dropped. “Her… husband?”.

Carl nodded. “That’s right, ma’am.” He offered his hand. “I’m Carl Osbourne, and this is my wife, Flora Stafford Osbourne.” He waited a half-beat. “And who’re you?”

“Pri-Priscilla Stafford,” she mumbled, stunned by what he had said.

Carl blinked and asked his bride, “She’s your sister?”

Flora sighed. “I'm afraid so. Priscilla’s just arrived from Austin. She was looking for Forry. She didn't know about me.”

Carl frowned in surprise. “Well now,” he started slowly. “Somehow I never expected to meet any new in-laws.” Then he grinned. “Certainly not one as pretty as your sister.” He put out his hand.

Priscilla shook his hand, still somewhat in a daze, and glanced quickly at Nancy. “Osbourne… Nancy, are you his sister?”

Nancy gave her a small smile. “I am, which, I guess, makes us all family.”

Priscilla sank back into her chair. “My word. I thought I was going to be all alone in the Wild West, and now I'm suddenly at a family reunion.” She looked directly at Flora. “How many more surprises are you going to spring on me?”

Flora smiled and gave Carl’s cheek a quick kiss. “I can’t think of any more… right now. But enjoy this one, because it's definitely the best of the lot.” If she was lucky, Priscilla would never find out the way Forrest had acted, but she doubted that such a thing would ever happen. Nobody was that lucky.

Priscilla rubbed her forehead. “Frankly, this is an awful lot to take in. Now I know what you meant when you talked about too many shocks too quickly. If you all don’t mind, I’d like to go back to my hotel and think about it for a bit.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Flora agreed.

Her sister nodded. “Good, then I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

“Could you make that tomorrow afternoon?” Flora took Carl’s hand in hers. “We… I was planning to… ah, sleep in.” She felt a blush run across her face, though she had no reason to feel ashamed. Still, she was very concerned that the adjustment would be hard for Prissy to make.

Priscilla forced a grin. “I’m sure you were.” The girl from Austin felt like she had lost her brother, without gaining a real sister. Flora was living a life so different from Forry's that it was like she was a stranger. Priscilla had already been told that Forrest had done terrible things here in Eerie. She had known and trusted Forry all her life, and she could have forgiven him a great deal. But could she forgive Flora in the same way? If she couldn't open her heart to Flora, where would that leave her? Priscilla left the saloon and went to her hotel room, once more feeling very much alone.

* * * *

Arnie was gathering the used dishes, glasses and silverware from a table where three men had eaten supper, when Molly came up next to her. “Can I be talking to ye for a wee bit, Annie?”

“What?” Arnie turned, startled. “Molly, why did you call me Annie?”

The older woman smiled. “And why shouldn’t I? Ye’ve told some o’them men ye danced with t’be calling ye, Annie. And me Shamus told me that them folks ye had supper with the other night called ye Annie from the get-go. Ye can't dislike the name too much. Personally, I think Anna is a much nicer name than Arnolda. Ye look more like an Anna, too.”

Arnie shook her head. “The Spauldings are friends of mine. They have called me Annie for many, many weeks.”

“Why did you let them do that?”

“When I first met them, I told that that I was ‘Arnie’, but they called me ‘Annie.’ I was trying to get them to use my mama’s laundry, and I did not want them to ask questions about an ‘odd’ name so I didn’t argue.”

“That was sensible. But every other person that took the potion got her name changed. Ye’re the only one who didn’t. Ye’ve always called yuirself ‘Arnie’, the name ye had before. Now ye’re telling folks t’be calling ye ‘Annie’. It's up to ye, of course, but think about it. What would help ye get along better with customers? Should ye be called Arnie or Annie?”

It was the same question that Mrs. Spaulding had asked. Which did she want to be – Arnie or Annie? Arnie closed her eyes and thought about how she had answered then. How she should answer now?

Being called Arnie made her remember the person she used to be. Arnie was a liar and a drunk. Everything about his life made him miserable. He’d stolen drinks and money from Shamus and lied about it. Shamus had given him a lot of second chances, and he’d wasted each and every one. ‘He was brave,’ she thought in Arnie’s defense, ‘a hero. He’d attacked a man… Hersh, when the man had threatened Bridget.’ Then she answered herself. ‘And Hersh and Parnell had used that same bravery to get him involved in a robbery – and fired again.’ And it almost got her grieving mother killed, when she had stepped in the path of that horse.

And who was Annie? Yes, she was working at the Saloon because Shamus had given her another second chance. But she had done better by that second chance. 'I have told no lies,' she thought, 'and I do not remember the last time I thought about stealing a drink.' Annie had friends, friends at the Saloon who knew her and who trusted her.

And she had the Spauldings. They had been very upset because she had pretended to be something that she was not. But they had forgiven her in the end. And Hedley had forgiven without question. ‘He wants to be more than a friend,’ she thought. That idea alarmed Arnie; he could not let that happen. She knew that as long as she stayed Arnie, it would not happen. But Annie… She seemed to have feelings for Hedley. If she became Annie, she could act on those feelings, see what they truly were. The thought frightened her, but, at the same time, it warmed her.

“Arnie” was not just a name. It was a ways of seeing herself. What would happen if she saw herself, instead, as “Annie”?

She thought about asking Dolores – and her mother, of course, what she should do. But she knew what they would say. ‘Go with your heart,’ they would both tell her. And she would do as they told her.

“Here at the saloon my name shall be… Anna…” She took a breath. “Anna… Teresa… Diaz, Señora Molly,” she said, a shy smile curling her lips. “But you can call me Annie.” She would let Arnie be Arnie at home. But she wanted to find out whether it was better to be looked at as the person she was now, or the one she used to be.

* * * *

“Next dance, Flora?” Carl asked, handing her a ticket.

She stood and tucked the ticket in the pocket of her apron. “Of course, Carl, I’ve been waiting all night to dance with you.” She smiled and took his hand.

“Same here, only I think we should sit this one out.”

She smiled and snuggled against him. “On one of the benches out back? I suppose we can do that.”

“Nope,” he said in a regretful tone. “Those benches are too… distracting, and we need to talk serious.”

Flora felt a chill. “Talk seriously?”

Real serious.” He led her to a table at the far corner of the room from the band, where they could talk without having to shout over the music. “We got married in an awful hurry, Flora,” he said pulling out a chair for her. “And we gotta talk about it.”

The chill became an icy stab at her heart, as he pushed her in and took a seat next to her. “Are… are you having second thoughts about that?”

“Flora,” he raised her hand to his lips and gently kissed it. “The only second thoughts I got about our getting married, is that I’d do it again in a second.”

“Then what… what’s so important?”

“Us… our lives together.” He took a quick breath. “Your… sentence is up in a month. You gonna stay on here as a dancer, or are you gonna try t’get some other job?”

“What about you? Are you going to stay on as a cowboy?”

“Prob’ly not. A man likes t’think he can support his wife, and I sure as hell can’t do that on the $35 a month Mr. Lewis pays me. ‘Course, if I get a good enough job, you could even stay home – if you wanted --‘n’ take care of our house – take care o’me, too.” He winked.

Flora felt another chill. Was that what he wanted, a stay-at-home wife? As much as she loved him, could she be that sort of a woman, that sort of a wife? “I-I guess,” she said, the uncertainty clear in her voice.

“That’s one the things we gotta talk about, Flora. We got a month t’figure things out, at least as much as any couple figures it out.”

The chill deepened. So many questions; she’d been thinking that she’d had all the time in the world to work things out. Now… Now she could almost hear the clock ticking away, and it scared her. “That’s a lot we’ve got to get settled.”

“Yeah, but there’s only one thing we need to take care of t’night.”

“What’s that?”

“With all them other things we got on the burner, the last thing we need is for you t’get pregnant.”

This was the last thing she expected to hear from him. “D-Don’t you want to have children?”

“I surely do, but not right now. That’d make things a whole lot more complicated that we need ‘em t’be. So… well, I… ahh.. I been trying all week t’figure out how t’ask how you’d feel ‘bout my wearing one of…” He pulled a small leather pouch out of his pants pocket. “…these.”

She gave a nervous laugh. “You… You brought protection, too? “

“I did; maybe not for the same reason you did, but it looks like we ain’t gonna have t’talk about... protection – not for a while anyway.” He glanced over to see Shamus waving. “Looks like it’s time for you t’get back in line for the next dance.” He helped her to her feet and kissed her cheek. Then he chuckled. “Just one thing, though. How many o’them British riding coats d’you have?”

“Four… why?”

“I got five in my bag here.” He leered. “That’s nine. You think that’ll be enough?”

“I don't know,” she quipped. “It's a long time till morning.”

They both laughed.

* * * * *

Sunday, June 30, 1872

“I have been asked,” Reverend Yingling began, “if I will relent on my statement that I would not baptize the child… the children of potion girl Laura Caulder. Hebrews 10:26 tells us, ‘For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.’ And yet, Mark 10:14 tells us, ‘Jesus said to them,’ Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ How, in light of our current circumstances, shall we reconcile these words?”

“I suggest a compromise. I will happily baptize the newborn son and daughter of Laura and Arsenio Caulder. But they -- he, Arsenio Caulder, -- must likewise compromise. Let him reverse his own votes on the creation of the committee I had requested. Let him convince the other members of the town council to do likewise, to abolish the so-called advisory committee that they created and establish a proper committee, one that will regulate and control O’Toole’s potion. Once this compromise committee is in place, I shall compromise, as well, and I shall then perform those baptisms.”

“Both sides compromise, and both sides receive what is their due. Surely, this is fair.” He gave the congregation his best “Trust me, I’m your minister” smile.

And some of the congregation did. It was a fair compromise, as far as they were concerned.

But the Judge, who knew an attempt at blackmail when he saw it, didn’t think it was much of a compromise at all. And neither did the rest of the board.

* * * * *

“I have truly died and gone to Heaven.” Luke Freeman leaned back against the pillows, grinning happily in the afterglow of a bout of early morning sex.

Lylah snuggled up next to him, her bare breasts pressed against his side. “Now why do you say that?”

“Why? ‘Cause here I is in as nice a bed as I ever seen, all soft ‘n’ warm, and there’s a beautiful lady angel in this here bed with me – just as soft and just as warm.” He leaned down and kissed the side of her neck, just above her collarbone.

She purred at the compliment. “Mmm, I like that answer.”

* * * * *

Ramon took a sip of his wine. When he set down the glass, he shifted his hand, so that he was holding Maggie’s hand in his. “Now, I think, is the time, Margarita.”

“Sí, Ramon,” she answered nervously.

He gave her a comforting smile and began. “Ernesto… Lupe, may I talk to you about something?”

“Sí, Uncle Ramon,” Ernesto said. Lupe nodded in agreement.

“Ernesto, a short time ago – when you were mad at your Momma – you said that you did not have to listen to me because I was not your Poppa.”

The boy stared down at his plate. “Sí, I am… sorry I said that to you. I was so angry, but it was wrong to say such a thing to you.”

“I accept your apology, Ernesto. It was rude, but it was not wrong. I am not your father.” He took a breath. “But I want to be.”

“Señor?” The boys eyes were wide as saucers.

“I… your mother and I, we want to adopt the two of you.”

Lupe looked confused. “How can Mama adopt us? She is already our Mama.”

“Your legal parents,” Maggie explained, “are Miguel and Guadalupe Sanchez. Yes, I-I used to be Miguel, but now… now I am Margarita de Aguilar, a very different person.”

Ramon gently squeezed her hand. “My much beloved wife; it is very confusing… to some grown-ups. Miguel and Guadalupe would still be the ones who gave you birth, but your legal parents, the people who were responsible for you, would be your Mama and I.”

“You would be our Papa?” the girl asked.

Maggie nodded. “He would. I would be, as I am – and always will be, your Mama, and you two would be Ernesto and Lupe… de Aguilar.

“But we are asking you to accept me into your family, too,” Ramon continued. “Not just as your mother's husband, but your papa in every way. And I will accept you and Lupe as my children in every way, also.”

“Do we have to decide now?” Ernesto asked. He glanced over at his sister, who looked as nervous as he felt.

Their mother smiled. “No, this is too big to decide right now, and you are right to ask for time to think.”

“Very wise… very grown-up,” Ramon added. “You both think about it for a few days. Talk to each other, and if you have any questions, any at all, ask your Mama or me.” He gave them both a broad smile. “Just know that we love you both. Bien?”

Lupe smiled back and came over to give him a hug. “And we love you… Papa.” She winked. “I just wanted to see how it would sound.”

* * * * *

Molly sighed and put down her knitting. With two grandbabies instead of one, more blankets and such were needed. “And that’s the end o’this part of our story. T’my way of thinking, it’s nice that it starts and ends with Maggie and Ramon.”

“So it is,” Shamus added. “They don’t seem t’be playing a big part in things these days.” He chuckled. “And they’ll be playing even less of a role – no role at all, in fact – in the next story.” He shot Molly a quick wink. “Some of ye’ve been wondering why Chris and Ellie didn’t tell ye more about what happened t’Jessie and Paul when they rode off to that wedding.”

“That’s what the next part o’the story is,” his wife continued, “‘Jessie Hanks, Outlaw Queen – The Cameo Murder.’ Chris ‘n’ Ellie have been working on the plot, and they’ll be starting the writing as soon as they rest up a little from the telling o’this story.”

“O’course,” Shamus said, “they’ll be more’n happy t’be hearing what ye thought of this tale. There was certainly enough action -- a rape and a shoot-out, an ambush and a fire.”

“And a wedding -- three weddings, no less -- and a cat.” Molly said.

Shamus glanced around the sitting room. “Speaking o’which, Love; it looks t’me like Sweetums is after yuir ball of wool again.”

* * * * *



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