The Poker Chip
a Short Story by Kellis
“40 dollars is the bet.”
The train rattled and swayed. The oil lamp hanging above Tyler’s head swung back and forth, casting shifting shadows over the narrow-eyed men clustered around the gaming table. Cigarette and fragrant cigar smoke thickened the air. The bettor sat directly across the table, a full-bearded man with hooded eyes and cards held tight against a plum waistcoat, probably a professional gambler. His opening was the largest yet heard in this game. So he was confident, was he? Or had he reached the bluffing stage in his plan for the evening?
The man to his right folded. Tyler thought of studying his own cards again, but he had already decided on his play. His hand consisted of the deuce, trey, four and five of spades, plus the king of hearts: “king high” as it stood, but improvable nine ways into a flush, eight ways into a straight or even two ways into a straight-flush. 19 cards existed that would better his hand.
In the hours of play since departing Placerton he had drawn ahead in the game. Over a hundred dollars in gold, silver and paper, new to him, were tucked into the coat pocket where he liked to hold winnings. He felt a keen anticipation that he was careful to keep off his face. With Lady Luck smiling, a hand so improvable as this one demanded that he have faith, even against a professional gambler.
He peeled the paper out of his pocket and added a gold coin. Gently placing them on his opponent’s gold, he said, “Call 40 and raise you 40.”
“Fold!” immediately declared the man on his left, throwing down his cards disgustedly. This was the dealer, which fact relieved Tyler of one potential concern.
The professional smiled at Tyler. “Think your luck will continue, do you?”
“One way to find out,” Tyler replied.
“Quite right,” the man agreed, shoving the remainder of his stack into the middle of the table. “I call.” With a lot of other gamblers this one apparently believed that keeping his money visible would draw more towards it. Tyler believed it more likely to draw furtive fingers.
“I’ll take one,” the man declared, spinning one card to the dealer, who gravely returned him one before turning his attention to Tyler.
“I’ll also take one,” Tyler announced, slipping the king from the bottom of his hand onto the table beside the dealer and taking the card passed in return.
Before he could weave it into his hand, the professional said smugly, “I’ll give you a piece of advice, Slim. My four beats your four.”
“Thank you,” Tyler replied. “Your concern is touching.”
Chuckles arose from the hovering crowd. Tyler carefully edged the new card past the retained four. It proved to be … god! The six of spades!
Controlling his breathing and expression, he spread out the five cards barely enough to verify their identity, covering them with his free hand so that only his eye could perceive them. Indeed he held a six-high straight-flush.
“To show you I’m not just whistling Dixie,” said the professional, eyes twinkling, “here’s a vote of confidence. I bet $100.” He reached into his waistcoat and delivered a small stack of gold to the center of the table.
The crowd sighed in a collective intake of breath, but sulfurous smoke from the distant locomotive, now laboring up a hill, blew into the open windows and converted many sighs to mad coughing fits. Tyler emptied his winnings pocket and felt inside his coat. He laid gold coins on the table top while surreptitiously loosening the revolver holstered at his side. When the coughing had quieted, he declared. “Call your hundred and raise another.”
The professional smile slowly faded. Tyler wished for brighter lights. It seemed to him that the face had paled above its thick beard.
The man took a deep breath and shook his head. “Who would have thought you could buy a pot!”
Losing this money would be painful but not catastrophic. Tyler allowed himself to smile slightly. “I don’t want to buy it. I want to win it. Thought you said your four would beat mine.”
“They will, believe me!”
“Well, what else have you got that might be worth $100?”
The man studied him thoughtfully, eyes narrowing in decision. He squared up his cards, laid them face down on the table before him and stood up. “I’ll be right back.”
“Hold on!” cautioned the dealer. “You know the rules.”
“I’m not going for a loan,” the professional declared. “I’m going to get that else he mentioned.”
“Let him go,” advised Tyler. “If he’s not back in a couple minutes, he defaults.”
“Just long enough to go to the next car and back,” the man explained, pushing his way through the onlookers.
“Money in his carpetbag,” one opined.
“Huh!” doubted another. “He’d keep that beside him.”
Speculation continued as the crowd waited, reaching a consensus that the gambler would produce the deed for a mining claim. Excited voices announced his return. The onlookers parted to let him through. He was leading a woman by the hand.
Her eyes were downcast. She was hatless with chestnut hair pinned up into a chignon. She wore colorful clothing, a lace blouse under a bodice tight enough to compress though not conceal her ample breasts, over a flowing but unstayed full skirt, stained in several spots. Her face was colorless and expressionless. She held a small carpetbag in her other hand.
The gambler took his seat, the woman standing just behind him.
The dealer frowned. “You can’t borrow money from her, either, ’less she’s your wife.”
“She’s not my wife,” the man explained, staring into Tyler’s eyes. “She’s the else.”
A burst of questions arose. “What?” “What’d he say?”
Tyler raised a hand for silence, which was immediately granted. He asked, “What do you mean?”
“I won her in Placerton,” said the gambler, unsmiling. “She covered a $200 bet.”
Again exclamations rose among the spectators. “Is she part nigger?” “No matter; slavery’s been illegal for ten years.”
“If this is a joke,” said Tyler, “I don’t see the humor.”
The man shook his head. “No joke. I offer her to call your bet plus a raise of $100.”
“You must take me for a fool, sir.” Tyler pushed back his chair. “Do you admit to being in default?”
“One moment, please!” The man held up his palm. “Look at her. I’m perfectly serious about this. If you win, she’s entirely yours, body, soul and carpetbag. She answers to the name, Sal LaTour. Sal, look at the man across the table. If he wins, you’re to go with him and do whatever he tells you. Do you understand?”
The woman raised her eyes to study Tyler. They were green and penetrating. And lost. That word rose in Tyler’s mind but settled somewhere around his heart. Unconsciously his mouth fell open. Momentarily a smile flickered under the gambler’s beard.
“I understand,” said the woman softly into a sudden silence marred only by the creaking of the rail coach and the clacking of its wheels. Her voice was a melodious contralto most agreeable to Tyler’s ear.
“And do you agree,” the gambler continued, “to be his woman and obey him exactly if he wins?”
“I do,” she added, a bit more firmly. Tyler caught his breath, realizing that her unpainted face was nevertheless the most beautiful he had ever seen.
“Not that I expect him to win,” added the gambler with a smirk. “Well, Slim, what about it? Still want me to default?”
“This is crazy,” declared the dealer. “You can’t treat her like property.”
“I can if she’s willing,” riposted the gambler. “You heard her.”
Tyler knew that he had $85 left. To transact his business in Kellens he needed to rent a hotel room and a horse and to feed the two mouths for a few days. Suppressing the sudden emotions in his breast, he declared firmly, “I’ll accept her as a call to the hundred outstanding but not as a raise.”
The gambler grinned, but his mirth faded as he appreciated the determination in Tyler’s eyes. “Come on, man! She’s worth more than that! Just look at her. This is a pretty woman. And a willing one.”
“You know that for a fact, do you?”
The man shrugged. “Well, no. We caught the train right after the game in Placerton. But she says she’s willing — in front of witnesses!”
Tyler dared not look at her again. He sighed. “I’ll allow $125.”
“$150!” countered the gambler.
Tyler stared tight-lipped, strongly tempted to offer $140. Would a professional gambler wager a beauty like this if he had any other resource? The man was most likely in desperate straights. But another fact was more important. He, Tyler, wanted this woman. He knew it in every part of himself, from heart to testicles. The more fool, he!
“All right. $150.” He reached into his coat, identified the three proper coins by their size and brought them out onto the table. “I’ve called you.”
“So you have.” The gambler grinned. “I warned you. You can’t beat these four.” He turned his hand over to reveal four aces and the king of spades. His eyes stared hungrily at Tyler, a triumphant laugh already forming in his throat.
The crowd of spectators breathed, “Aces all!” “God, what a hand!”
Tyler cut the noise short. “Oh yes, I can beat those four!”
The man froze. The crowd held its breath. Slowly Tyler laid his cards on the table and spread them apart.
“The next higher hand!” someone called. Pandemonium ensued. The gambler sat back in shock. Unquestionably his face was whiter now. He stared at Tyler in the manner of a wounded animal, unable to escape.
Tyler waited, right hand near his revolver butt. He allowed himself one glance at the woman. Her huge eyes were watching him. One corner of her mouth was pulled up — in a crooked smile? Her hand, which had rested on the gambler’s shoulder, now hung limply at her side.
The man took a deep breath and watched with both palms on the table edge while Tyler’s left hand raked in the bills and coins, transferring the lot to the side pocket of his coat as the noise around them subsided.
When the table was clean, he stood up. “Deal me out,” he told the man with the cards.
“But you’re winning!” the man noted with a frown.
“Damn right!” Tyler moved around the player on his left and stood beside the watching woman. His left hand came out of his pocket. He leaned past her and gently placed a golden double eagle on the table before the gambler.
“I don’t like to clean a man out,” he explained, “so do me a favor and accept this.” Murmurs of approval rose around him.
Rising up, he asked the woman, “Will you take my hand?”
Her answer was to offer her own. He took it in his left, looked around at the staring company and pulled her after him toward the doorway to the next car. The noise behind him, which had nearly died away, swelled in volume. “Shove in my regards!” someone called enviously, leading to a crash of laughter and further obscene suggestions.
In the day coach her carpetbag bumped against the baggage other riders had stacked inconsiderately in the narrow aisle. He took it from her, though she was reluctant to release it, and held it high in his right hand as they continued on to the next coach. Being closest to the odorous and noisy engine, it was less popular. He gestured to the first unoccupied bench they reached and returned her bag as she took the seat closer to the window.
The train was now over the hill and plunging ever faster into the black night. The cool breeze of its passage fluttered the wisps of hair that had escaped from her bun. In the feeble light of the flickering oil lamps he saw her large eyes studying him.
“If you’re wondering what I’m going to do with you,” he said wryly, “that makes two of us.”
She only stared. She seemed to be biting her lip.
“My name is Tyler, Marknell Tyler. My close friends call me Mark.”
“Marknell Tyler,” she repeated. Her tongue wet her lips.
“And you are Sal LaTour?”
Her mouth twisted. “Phyllis.”
“My name is Phyllis.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know your last name?”
“Who named you LaTour? Your husband?”
“Husband!” She shook her head. “The first man who lost me called me that.”
“The first man? How many times have you been lost?”
“Three, so far.”
“You’ve been lost at cards three times?”
“That I can remember.”
“What the hell, Phyllis! You’re not a slave, you know. This train will get to Kellens in another hour. You can get off it and go anywhere you want and nobody can stop you.”
She stiffened. Her eyes bored into his. “You don’t want me?”
“Huh? I never said that.”
“I have to do what you say.”
The words, No, you don’t! rose hotly to his lips, but staring at her, he held them in check. The lost look had reappeared in her eyes. Again she licked her lips.
“Are you thirsty, Phyllis?”
“Oh, I am so thirsty!”
He looked around the car. It was about half occupied, mostly with bearded men who appeared to be asleep.
“Wait here,” he told her, getting to his feet. In the next car back he found the snack boy asleep, lying protectively half upon his pack of remaining food and beverages. Tyler returned to the woman with filled arms.
“I’ve got two bottles of beer and one of sassafras tea. What’s your choice, Phyllis?”
“The beer, please.”
“But no glasses,” he added, unscrewing a lid for her. She drank thirstily and smiled when she lowered the bottle at last. “How I hate warm beer! But how wonderfully wet it is!”
He sampled the other bottle of beer. “It is wet. So you remember that you don’t like sassafras, eh?”
“No. I don’t remember anything at all about sassafras. Beer is all my … all I’ve had to drink lately.”
“I also have some dried beef on sourdough.” He was unwrapping greasy paper. “Are you hungry?”
He handed her the irregular sandwich. “Be careful. I don’t know how fresh it is.”
She sniffed it and took a huge byte. Chewing vigorously, she made sounds of pleasure through her nose.
“When we get to Kellens, I’ll feed you a good breakfast.” He sat back and watched her consume the entire hunk of bread and meat and drink most of the bottle of beer. When she took it down from her lips, she burped explosively. Her eyes widened. Her hand rose to cover her mouth and she murmured, “Oh, please excuse me.”
He smiled, sipping his own beer. “Where are you from, Phyllis?”
“I don’t know.”
“How can you not know that?”
“The first thing I can remember in my life is waking up in a bed in a hotel in Charon three weeks ago.”
He stared at her, asking weakly, “You did what?”
She took a breath. Words poured from her, obviously familiar words. Her contralto voice was musical in his ears, but her message was incredible. “I knew how to dress and eat, how to behave in polite company, and how to speak, read and write English. I knew my name was Phyllis. I knew I had a dreadful headache. But that’s all. I had no memory of my past life or how I came to be in that hotel room.
“I was naked. One calico dress hung in the wardrobe. It was too big for me. I put it on anyway and went barefoot down to the saloon. According to the barkeep, also the concierge, the room in which I awoke had not been rented in a week. He claimed never to have seen me before. He was a horrid man, not friendly at all. He thought I was a prostitute and offered me a job. I knew enough to be offended by his offer. He would have thrown me out into the street except that a well-dressed man stopped him.
“That was Richard Gandy, a gambler, fortunately flush. He fed me, took me to the Charon emporium and bought me clothing and this carpetbag. Then he brought me to his hotel room, had a bathtub fetched, bathed me and made love to me several times. I was not a virgin. He named me Sal LaTour, after a shill he once kept, or so he said. The next day I was sore where a prostitute would not be, which I think is significant.”
When Tyler only nodded, she continued, “He meant to train me as a shill, too, but his luck changed for the worse. In a week he was broke. He used me to cover a bet and lost to Perry Jones, another lucky gambler. Perry bought me a ring and a bracelet and bedded me twice a day for a week. Then luck left him, too. He brought us to Placerton, where he began by winning. But after several days he went broke, lost my jewelry, then lost me to Anson Caliver.
“But Perry didn’t want to give me up. Caliver killed him in a gunfight. We had to leave immediately. Caliver is the only one of the three who never bedded me. He never had time. And now you, Marknell Tyler. I guess your bad luck has just started.”
“Except I’m not really a gambler. I’m a railroad surveyor. But this is incredible, Phyllis. None of those men ever tried to find out how you arrived in that hotel?”
“No.” She smiled ironically. “Perry said it would be like questioning fate for dealing you a royal flush.”
“He thought a lot of you, did he?”
“I guess so. He said he did, anyway, and he certainly loved to love me.” She looked away. “He was exciting. I’ll miss him.”
“I guess so,” Tyler agreed sympathetically. “Well, as pretty as you are, somebody somewhere must be frantic with worry about you. When we get to Kellens, I’ll send some telegrams.”
“Will you? Oh. Caliver bought us tickets clear through to Kansas City.”
“Did he! Well, it’s up to you. You can get off with me in Kellens and I’ll do whatever I can to find out who you are. That’s more than you might think. I know a few marshals and even some newspapermen. Or you can go on to Kansas City. I’ll be very disappointed if you do, Phyllis, but you really aren’t my slave, you know.”
She studied him in the flickering light. Again her slight, crooked smile was evident. “Do you truly think I’m pretty?”
“You’re just slightly too pale, Phyllis, but I think with a little paint or a week of better food you could be the loveliest woman in the world. As far as I’m concerned, anyway.”
“How extravagant!” Her hand settled over his and she leaned her head against his shoulder. “Thank you, Mark. And thanks for the food and drink. It’s the first I’ve had of either since noon yesterday.”
“You’re welcome. That bastard!”
“We had to leave in a hurry.”
“He could’ve bought it for you as I did.”
“Could he? I didn’t know you could buy food on trains.”
“Well, he did! Hmph! Had he been gambling all evening?”
“Then you’re well rid of him. He doesn’t understand responsibility.”
“He lied to you, you know.”
“Perry used me to call only an $80 bet.”
“Is that a fact! Well, Caliver was right about one thing. You’re worth a lot more than that!”
“Oh, Mark! I do hope your luck stays good.”
* * * *
The woman left the train with him at Kellens and waited while he retrieved his property from the baggage car. Shouldering the trunk, he led her to the Madrid Hotel, the better of two according to a friend’s advice. In the bar, opened at that early hour strictly for the train’s business, he rented a room for a week, paying three days in advance. The bartender looked at the woman standing beside him but said nothing about her. She followed him up the stairs, opened his door, struck the lucifer the bar had issued, lit the oil lamp on the little table and closed the door behind him as he set the trunk in the middle of the floor. She regarded the double bed longingly.
“Tired, are you, Phyllis?”
“Oh, god, I am tired!”
“Well, I promised you breakfast, but no place is open at this hour. Why don’t I run back downstairs and tell them to knock us up at eight o’clock? That’ll let us sleep nearly four hours. Think you could eat breakfast them?”
“Oh, yes, Mark. That would be lovely.” Her hands went behind her neck to the buttons on her bodice.
“Need help with that?” he asked.
She smiled self-consciously. “That would make it easier.”
In two strides he stood behind her, fingers untwisting the long row of tiny buttons. “This garment is too small for you,” he suggested.
“I know it. My … chest is too large, but it was the closest fit the Charon emporium had in stock.”
“When the sun comes up, we’ll see what we can do about that, too. There! I’ll be back shortly. You know the rule, don’t you? I’ll lock the door behind me. Don’t open it for anyone!”
She smiled. “Everyone says the same thing.”
“Meaning all your men have told you the same?”
“Meaning all my owners.”
“Hurry back, won’t you, Mark?”
He caught the bartender relocking the bar. For $0.25 in advance the man agreed to send his boy to knock at eight. For another quarter he served Tyler a rotgut nightcap while answering questions about the livery stable’s hours of business and the locations of the sheriff and telegrapher’s offices.
When Tyler returned to his room, he found the woman in bed, her clothing out of sight, presumably hung in the wardrobe chest. Her head was propped up on a pillow. The chestnut hair streamed richly around her shoulders, gleaming in the lamplight. The top sheet was pulled up under her chin. Her eyes were luminous. She smiled at him as he locked the door behind himself.
“I like lying in bed, waiting for my man.” Her contralto was soft as silk in the silence of the sleeping town.
He returned the smile. “You said you were tired.”
“I was until I thought about you coming to me.”
Tyler froze suddenly in realization. He cleared his throat. “Old habits. I’m sorry, Phyllis. I wasn’t thinking. I should have ordered two rooms.”
Her smile vanished. She stared at him.
“But it’s too late now. The bartender’s gone back to bed.” He spread his hands. “Will you forgive me?”
“Why do you say that?” she inquired. “You won me, for heaven’s sake!”
“Yes, I did.”
“I’m your property. You can do whatever you like with me, you know.”
“Phyllis, you know better than that. Have you forgotten the Civil War?”
She sniffed. “Abraham Lincoln said nothing about freeing Phyllis Nobody.”
He took a deep breath. “I’m not your owner, Phyllis. But I am your friend. I’m going to find out where you belong and help you return to it.”
“Not tonight, you aren’t.” She frowned. “What did you mean, ‘old habits?’”
He coughed. “I was married.”
“She died last year. In childbed.”
“And the child?”
“Did you love her, Mark?”
“I’m so sorry!”
“Thank you. Go to sleep, Phyllis.” He turned away toward the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I noticed a settee in the game room.”
“Mark!” Her voice was sharper.
He turned back to her. She had sat up and let the bedsheet fall to her lap. Indeed her breasts were large and pendulous, tipped with pink nipples distinctive in the yellow lamplight. The dark, curving shadows caught his breath.
“It’s ridiculous for you to leave. Please don’t.”
He took a shaky breath. “Phyllis, what if it turns out that you are married?”
She answered promptly, “If so, I am already a faithless wife.”
He grunted. “You’ve thought about this, too, I see.”
She shrugged with delightful effect upon her breasts. “Of course.”
He stared at her in indecision. Her eyes narrowed, then widened in a twinkle. “For a surveyor, you’re slow to look over your property.” Her hand grasped the corner of the bedsheet and threw it off, revealing shapely legs crossed before her. The top of the pubic thatch peered above her calves. Her hips flared on either side of a narrow waist.
He drew breath. “Phyllis …”
She got languidly out of bed, pale limbs flexing in the lamplight, and came around the bed to confront him. Her hands reached between his coat lapels to the button at the top of his shirt. She smiled as she opened the garment. “I can be very helpful to you, Mark, if you’ll let me. I meant what I said on the train. I’ll do anything you want me to.”
He stepped back a pace. “Then return to bed.”
She stared at him and sighed. “Very well.” She slipped away to the edge of the bed, sat on it and leaned back on her elbows, breasts rolling sideways. Her chestnut hair was fiery in the matching light.
She watched him take off his coat and hang it over a chair back. His eyes returned often to hers as he continued undressing. She studied his every move intently. He paused at his long handle underwear. “Should I continue?”
“I hope you will,” she answered gravely.
“If I do, I’ll make love to you, Phyllis.”
“I hope you will,” she said again.
“But with me you have a choice. You do know that, don’t you?”
“Then I choose you.”
He smiled. “That’s all I want to hear.”
The long handles joined the other clothing in the chair. He took her hand and pulled her to her feet. His arm gathered her lush body against his chest. They kissed for the first time, deeply and passionately. Still holding her when their lips parted, he leaned past her and blew out the flame in the oil lamp.
In the stygian darkness of a town without street lights he pushed her back upon the bed. Lying poised between her legs, he asked, “Are you ready for me, Phyllis.”
“I’ve been ready for you, Mark, since you showed your straight-flush.”
Apparently the claim of readiness, at least, was true. She gasped as he penetrated her body, first with short strokes then longer and slower ones. Her hips matched his rhythm flawlessly.
“Oh, god, Phyllis, it’s been so long!”
“Love me, Mark, love me! But take my heels in your hands, will you, please?”
The effect of that was to raise her hips under his belly and to maximize his penetration. He struck her womb and she squeaked at each touch. Shortly her squeaks blended into contralto screams. At the height of their frenzy he pulled out of her but continued to thrust into her nest of hair.
The screams ceased instantly. “What are you doing?” she demanded.
“About to come,” he admitted through clenched teeth.
“I want it!” She twisted her heels out of his hands. Her whole body writhed. In the pitch darkness he fell forward upon her before he could catch himself — except she was no longer there! Nevertheless something warm and wet enclosed his straining manhood just as the flood began. He groaned aloud as her arms went around his hips. She did not flinch from the copious discharge.
“My god, Phyllis!” he breathed when he could talk again. She had slithered out from under him, pulled the sheet over them both and lay against his side, her head on his shoulder.
“I feel that way, too,” she whispered and kissed his chin. “You need a shave.”
“In the morning.”
“I’ll shave you. Perry was always clean shaven.”
He chuckled slightly. “Let a woman shave me?”
“Who can a man trust better not to cut his throat?”
“That is a pretty good point! Ah, Phyllis, that bit at the last …”
“In my mouth?”
“Ye-es. Why did you do that?”
“Wasn’t it better than the outside of my belly?”
“Oh, god, yes!”
The room was silent for a while. When he spoke again, his voice was sleepy but sincere. “I hope you aren’t married, Phyllis.”
“So do I, Mark. So do I.”
* * * *
At eight he donned his outer britches and ordered up an extravagant one-dollar double bathtub, delivered along with towels, soap and steaming pails of water by a family of mestizo servants, while Phyllis remained asleep in the bed with the covers up to her ears.
They spent a delightful half hour bathing each other. In the morning light her pale body with its underlying network of veins drew his eyes, hands and tongue irresistibly. She was flawless. Her contralto giggle, often heard as his hands roamed over her and she returned the favor, was music in his ears. By the time they were out of the tub and had dried each other, they could only fall together passionately on the bed, where again she served him finally by mouth.
He ended up on his back with the woman propped on her forearms above him, breasts dangling against his chest.
She smiled down at him. “Do you like me a little, Mark?”
He sighed. “You know I do, Phyllis. I think you’re the most marvelous creature I ever …”
“Had?” she inquired sweetly.
“I was meaning to say, ‘knew.’”
“In the biblical sense, perhaps.”
“Ah, you know your bible, do you?”
She shook her head. “Not exactly. But I know I was educated.”
“Yes, you were. You don’t speak like a common wench.”
She giggled. “I only behave like one.”
“I wonder who educated you to that?”
“Perry encouraged me, but I think it’s a natural inclination.”
“It’s wonderful, wherever you got it! … Phyllis, can you remember nothing at all before you awoke in Charon?”
“Nothing, Mark. It’s as if I was born, full grown and educated, three weeks ago.”
“With a headache, you said.”
“Yes. A terrible headache that almost blinded me until I had eaten and bathed. My neck was sore, too, when I bent my head a certain way.”
He mused, “I’ve read of a condition called amnesia, or loss of memory, that can result from an injury or blow to the head. Did you find blood in your hair?”
“No, but I had a swelling here.” She put a hand to her left temple. “Richard called it a ‘goose egg.’ It’s gone now.”
“Someone struck you,” he declared, gritting his teeth. “If I find him, he’ll regret it.”
She smiled. “I don’t hate him so much.”
“If he hadn’t done whatever it was, you would never have owned me.”
“Owned you! Phyllis —” Suddenly he smiled in return. “What a nice thing to say!”
She leaned down to kiss him but soon raised up and got out of bed. “Now I’ll shave you,” she declared. “Did they bring a razor?”
“In that towel on the table. Are you serious, Phyllis?”
Indeed she was. He reflected that any town would have a barber shop, so with some little trepidation let her proceed upon his tender skin. But she competently sharpened the razor against the strop, then proved comfortable and quick on his face. When she had wiped him dry and gently slapped him with cologne from her carpetbag, he felt only smooth skin — except on his upper lip.
“You missed this part, Phyllis.”
“No, I didn’t. You’ll look dashing with a mustache.”
“Huh! You think so? My wife made me shave it off.”
“She did what? Did she say why?”
“Something about an odor, I believe.”
“Oh?” The woman’s eyes brightened. “You did that for her, did you?”
He chuckled sheepishly, blushing.
She added thoughtfully, “I think you did love her.”
“I’ve already told you so. Have you about worked up an appetite?”
* * * *
They ate a hearty breakfast in the “gaming room,” which doubled as the hotel restaurant. Over final coffee he studied her thoughtfully. “We have a lot to do today.”
She grinned. “More in the bedroom?”
He chuckled. “I’m coming to believe you love that, Phyllis.”
She took a deep breath and nodded. “I’ve already discovered I’m a person of simple pleasures.”
“I do admire your idea of pleasure,” he said with feeling, “but unfortunately one has to get up and attend to his errands.”
“Errands,” she repeated distastefully. “Such as new card games?”
He shook his head. “You don’t have to worry about me putting you in a pot.”
“No, Phyllis. I told you: I’m not a gambler. I play poker when there’s nothing else to do, such as on train trips at night when the lamps are too dim to read by.” He leered at her. “But when you’re nearby, I can think of much sweeter things to do.”
She nodded. “In the bedroom. But everyone needs money.”
“That’s one of the errands. As to some others, let’s see… I promised you a new blouse. I need to rent a horse and saddle. I need to send some telegrams about you. Hmm. First we should go to the sheriff’s office and see if he has a bulletin on you.”
He grinned sadly at her and shook his head. “I sure am reluctant to do it.”
“Phyllis, you can’t mean that. Aren’t you curious, at least?”
Her eyes were steady. “At this moment I’m quite content, my dear Mark.”
Tyler shook his head. “We have to do the right thing, Phyllis. I’ll bet there’s a bulletin. A woman of your quality can’t disappear without someone, somewhere, raising the roof.”
“You’re a lady, Phyllis, and a talented one. I’ve never had a better shave or a better …”
He twitched. With elevated eyebrows he demanded, “Did you have to use that word?”
“I’m not a lady, Mark. I’m a poker chip who likes to be poked. By you.”
“Why do you insist on taking that view of yourself?”
She shrugged. “Because it’s the correct one.”
He nodded slowly. “I think I see. Because that’s all you can remember. Well, we’ll get you some help on that.” He raised his hand. “Waiter!”
The waiter, busy with a table of miners, raised a finger to acknowledge the call. Phyllis asked, “Why do you need a horse?”
“I’m also a civil engineer. Another mine has opened next to the Silver Nugget, which makes a spur line profitable for the railroad. They’ve already surveyed the route. I’ve got to take some measurements in Lazy Canyon and design a long trestle.”
“Yeah, made of native timber.”
Her eyes lit. “That sounds interesting.”
He smiled tolerantly. “Do you think so?”
“I love rugged, natural settings. They are so masculine! Would you …” She hesitated, lowering her eyes.
“Would I what?”
“Rent two horses?”
“Phyllis, you can’t be serious! It’s off the wagon road. It really is a rugged wilderness with no facilities for a lady. And how do you know you can ride?”
She raised glowing eyes to his and responded softly, “Somehow I know it. And you’ll be with me, Mark. That’s facility enough for anyone.”
He stared at her beauty and slowly took a breath. “We’ll have to get you some Levis.”
Her whole face brightened in a smile. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll love Levis. They’re masculine, too!”
* * * *
They went to Jones Equipage Emporium and bought her a new bodice, along with a Stetson hat, a set of Levis and at the proprietor’s urging, a so-called “western skirt” that was divided into two full halves, one for each leg. It was the only such skirt in his stock. Tyler detected an air of relief in the man’s wink to his assistant as he bagged the garment. They returned to the hotel, where she donned the new skirt and bodice and smiled at him. “I feel so much freer,” she declared. Of course he insisted on gauging her new freedom by lifting the heavy breasts through the cloth.
“That looks like a regular skirt,” he said admiringly when he stood back.
“And it will go over a horse’s back without creeping up,” she agreed.
“You do remember riding!”
She frowned. “No. It’s just logical.”
Perhaps not, but her body remembered. They rented horses, mustang geldings, with saddles and saddle bags for his equipment plus a picnic lunch. He saw from her confident seat on the well-cinched saddle and easy hold on the reins that she was more than familiar with riding, even astride. When she had mounted, her horse bent far around to study the full skirt halves that covered its rear flanks, then tossed its head, perhaps in approval of this defense against the biting flies.
From the livery stable they trotted northeast out of town on the mining road. Neither mentioned the sheriff or the telegraph office.
* * * *
Tyler located the near bench marker left by the route surveyors and erected a ranging rod at a known offset nearby, visible from the bottom of the chasm. He allowed the range-wise Mustang to pick its own path down to the stream at the bottom. The woman’s horse followed close behind. At the stream they dismounted and let the animals drink.
“How lovely!” Phyllis exclaimed. The rushing waters of the spring floods had deposited a level strip of loam beside the narrow stream, now lushly covered in bright green grass that rippled in the breeze. Tall cottonwoods farther up the bank cast dappled shade over all. Their leaves clattered when the wind gusted.
He said, “I have to find the far bench. Would you like to wait here?”
She only smiled, knelt and dangled her hand in the swiftly running water. Her eyes widened. “Very cold!”
“It’s probably snow melt. That’s the place to put our beer bottles. Here’s a tagline.” He drew a loop of heavy cord from his pocket. “Tie it around their necks and let them dangle in the water. I’ll be back in just a few minutes.”
“You’re going up the other side?”
“Right. Holler if you need me.”
He found the second marker easily after sighting on the two peaks described in the surveyor’s report. Again he set out a rod, then paused to study the lay of the land on the chasm banks. A four-level trestle would be needed, he thought, with two footings part way up the sides. If the route was shifted about 200 yards north, natural projections in the bedrock could be utilized for a considerable savings in timber. He made notes on his pad, drew a quick sketch and set up his theodolite to measure the angles precisely.
The 200 yard route shift caused him to ride down into the chasm and up again to the lip closer to town. He waved to her as his horse jumped the stream some distance away. From her seat in the grass she waved back. Her white legs gleamed. Had she taken off the divided skirt?
Again he set up the theodolite, measured angles and carefully noted the results. Drawing near on the subsequent descent, he saw that indeed she had removed the skirt — along with the rest of her clothing. She had spread the horse blanket from her saddle bags and lay on her belly, propped up on her elbows, watching him with her crooked smile.
He dismounted and looped his reins over the same tree limb as hers. She rolled to her side and raised one knee, watching him silently. The stream burbled over stones in its bed. Above them the cottonwood leaves clattered lightly. Behind him one of the horses nuzzled the other and nickered. The woman and he might have been the only two people in the world.
He had several other measurements to make, but they could wait. He sat on a boulder and tugged off his boots. Shirt, britches and long handles followed quickly. Her eyes never left him. He stood over her a moment, drinking in the lush spectacle of her pale body.
Squinting up at him, she murmured, “You’re beautiful.”
“And you’re crazy,” he retorted, sinking to his knees. “God, Phyllis! I’ll never get enough of you.”
They coupled protractedly in the cool shade. She moaned and stiffened several times before his own crisis neared.
“Mark, don’t pull out.”
“But … I don’t want to put a babe in you.”
“You won’t. This time I remembered to fill the douche bag.”
“Oh, god, Phyllis. Oh, god!”
She screamed as she felt his discharge. When he rolled off her, she crawled away into the grass and took up a rubberized bag that gurgled between her legs. She rose tiredly to her feet and went to her saddle bags. He lay in complete contentment, propped on an elbow, watching her lithe body reel in the beer bottles and fetch out the sack of sandwiches. She brought him the cold bottles to open, gave him first choice of the sandwiches and ended up leaning against him to take her lunch. With her breasts so close he could hardly eat for fondling them.
She asked surprisingly, “How do I compare to your wife, Mark?”
“What a question!”
“I mean her no disrespect. She would have born you a child. No woman can do more for a man than that. But I’d truly like to know, if you’ll tell me.”
“She was younger than I, Phyllis, hardly more than a slip of a girl. But she loved me.”
“You’re easy to love. Did she please you, Mark?”
“Yes, but not the way you do. You are the most passionate lover I’ve ever known.”
“Was she pretty, Mark?”
“A woman cannot help being pretty to the man she … gives herself to. But I knew you were beautiful when I first laid eyes on you.”
“Did you play with her boobs as you do mine?”
“She had small ones. We thought they would grow larger after the baby. Have you born one, Phyllis?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t have the marks.”
“I would bear one for you.”
“I’d do anything for you, Mark. I know I keep saying that, but it’s true. Things you’d never imagine me doing. Your work, for example. It’s fascinating. When you are finished, this lovely spot will look very different. A heavy railroad train will fly through the air high over this stream. The thought of that accomplishment thrills me. I wish I could help you do it.” Her head turned to regard him. “I believe I could.”
He smiled tolerantly. “Phyllis, the math, the training —”
“Don’t you have assistants or apprentices? As to the math, it’s mainly just trigonometry, isn’t it?”
“What do you know of trigonometry?”
She blinked. “If you give me the angles from here to all the markers, and a table of trig functions … and I guess a table of common logarithms, I can tell you the width and depth of this gorge.”
“Good god! How can you know all that?”
Slowly she shook her head. “I don’t know. But I do know it. ‘The sine of an angle is the opposite side divided by the hypotenuse.’”
“My god! Were you a professor’s daughter?”
“Maybe. I can also read music. For the piano, at least. I spelled the regular player several times in Placerton while Perry was gambling.” She smiled. “He wanted to be sweet on me until Perry offered to kill him.”
“Phyllis, this is absolutely amazing! What else do you know?”
She chuckled wryly. “I don’t know! I can’t tell until it comes up. I didn’t know I knew math until just now. ‘Pi is four times the arctangent of unity.’”
She chuckled again. “The old boy who discovered that about pi must have been absolutely astonished, yet it is so obvious when one understands.”
Suddenly her expression was fearful.
“What is it, Phyllis? Are you remembering?”
“No, Mark.” She turned around and pressed herself against him, her face buried in his neck. “But I’m afraid I will.”
* * * *
Sundown was nearing when they rode back into town. The chaparral bushes beside the road shaded the bodies of the horses but left the riders’ faces in orange sunlight. They glanced often and admiringly at each other, both clearly pleased by their sojourn in the wilderness, though Tyler had not completed half the necessary measurements.
After dismounting he helped her transport their saddle bags up to the hotel room, endured the bartender’s leer as he ordered the double bath again, and went off to stable the horses. She enjoyed a long soak but was out of the tub and drying herself when he returned.
“What kept you?” she asked. “The water is hardly tepid.”
“I know. Let me get right into it and knock some of this dust off. I brought you a cold beer.”
“Oh, Mark, you are so thoughtful!”
He opened the brown bottle, covered with condensed moisture, and passed it to her before attacking his buttons.
“Ooo, it is cold!” she exclaimed after the first long pull. “I know about decompression from kegs, but how do you suppose they cool bottles? I didn’t think an ice plant existed between St. Louis and Kansas City.”
He studied her. “Who told you that?”
She shrugged. “I don’t remember. Am I wrong?”
“Maybe not. I asked the bartender about it. He cuts ice from a lake in the winter the old-fashioned way and stores it in his cellar. He even has some ice cold champagne that I’ve reserved for supper.”
Her eyes lit. “I see what took you so long. I’m looking forward to supper, but this beer is wonderful. Thank you, Mark.”
The sun had set but bright twilight suffused the room, whose windows faced the western sky. She happily scrubbed his back for him when he entered the tub. “I’d wash you all over if you’d let me,” she admitted. “I love to feel a man’s hard body. It is so different from a woman’s almost everywhere.”
“The French have a toast for that.”
“I know. Vive la difference!”
“Yes,” he agreed, looking around at her. “There you go again.”
“Je connais aussi la langue français.” Her voice conveyed surprise at the evident fact.
“Quit that,” he growled.
She nodded. “I must indeed quit that.” She backed away. “When you finish I’ll help you dry off, then I have a surprise for you.” She smiled. “I think you’ll like it. It’s from Vienna.”
“Vienna? Austria or Pennsylvania? Have you remembered something important?”
“Austria, I think. This is not a question of memory. You’ll see.”
When he emerged from the tub, she was ready with towels and dried his back vigorously. Her hands lingered between his legs, even after the towel had fallen to the floor. He winced as his manhood came erect.
She chuckled. “Have I made you sore, Mark?”
“Yes,” he admitted, “but you won’t hear any complaint.”
She kissed his upper arm, at that moment the part of him closest to her mouth. “You are not what they call a womanizer, are you, Mark?”
“No. Not until I met you. But I think if I could do it, I’d make love to you every minute we’re together.”
She chuckled again, deep in her throat. Her hand cupped his testicles gently, feeling for the contents. “If it’s any consolation to you, Mark, your obsession is mutual.”
“I’m beginning to see that.” He took a deep breath. “Show me your surprise, then we’ll go to supper — else we might just skip it.”
“I hope you’re not too hungry. I want to show you while the light lasts.”
“Then go ahead.”
She swept the top covers off the bed to its foot then laid herself full length upon it, head propped on a pillow. With a wide smile on her face, she parted her legs and raised her heels, higher and higher, drawing them back above her shoulders. Her buttocks rose into the air as her heels passed behind her head, where she hooked one foot on the other ankle. She raised her elbows and passed them in front of her thighs, bringing her shoulders out on top of her inner knees and calves. Then she lay still, except for a quiver of her torso — suppressed laughter? — a woman folded back over herself with all her secret parts turned up and gaping to his eyes, exposed as he had never before been privileged to see.
She laughed aloud. “Wonderful, Mark! I wish you could see your face.”
“Oh, my god, Phyllis!” he exclaimed, finally closing his mouth.
“It even has a name, according to Perry: the Viennese Oyster.”
“Oyster? Meaning that one is to …”
When his voice trailed off, she put down a hand on either side, stretching the labia far apart. Her eyes were inviting above the glistening, crimson aperture and wet inner folds.
With a hoarse cry he fell upon the bed and buried his face into the offered delicacy. The woman matched his cry and took his head in her two hands to guide his tongue. She did not long endure his service before screaming his name and tightening her muscles until the bones creaked. When he raised his head at the urging of her hands, her face was almost as red as the very wet area he had vacated.
“Fuck me like this, too!” she gasped.
Nothing loath, he knelt above her and penetrated almost too easily.
“This will hurt you less,” she predicted. But when he touched her womb tip, her heels came up from behind her head and hooked themselves atop his shoulders. “Lean more forward!” she commanded. Her calves and thighs took up much of his weight. Every thrust struck the lump deep within her, eliciting a short contralto groan that stimulated him to faster movement. Her internal sphincters gripped him as her groans merged into a soft scream, continuous except for the necessary gasps of breath. Neither objected when he ejaculated within her body, now almost rigid beneath him.
* * * *
Well after their breathing eased he lay silently on his back in the darkening room. She lay against him with her head on his shoulder, as she had spent their previous hours in bed together. His hand stroked her hip and buttocks. The other brought her hand to his lips. He kissed her fingers.
“Phyllis …” He sighed.
“Do you like me a little?” she asked, kissing his chin as she had done before at such a moment.
“It’s gone beyond that,” he admitted. “I love you, Phyllis.”
“Do you? How long have you known me? Nearly a full day?”
“I know. But you are the most marvelous person I have ever …”
“Thank you, Mark. Of course I love you, too.”
“Why ‘of course?’”
He felt her grin. “I don’t know the ‘why’ of very much, Mark. Except I think you are also marvelous.”
He sighed again, more deeply.
“This displeases you?” she asked in wonder.
“On the contrary … Damn it! How could fate do this to us?”
“Fate?” She raised her head to study him.
“At this point I would ask you to marry me.”
He fell silent. She waited a bit, swallowed and said, “‘Would ask?’”
He spoke in a strained voice. “Your name is Phyllis Hackwood. More accurately, Mrs. Jonathan T. Hackwood.”
“What?” She caught her breath.
He took a deep one. “The sheriff did have a bulletin on you. He loaned it to me; it’s in my coat… Phyllis … I meant to give it to you when I came in, but I got … carried away. You are so beautiful! I had to have you one more time.” Again he took a deep breath. “I knew then I was in love with you. I’m sorry, my darling.”
“For heaven’s sake! Sorry for what?”
“For taking advantage of you. For not telling you immediately.”
“For loving me instead. You owe me no apology, Mark.” She got out of bed, found a match in the lamp table and lit the oil lamp. “Where is that bulletin? I want to tear it up.”
He chuckled worriedly. “You can’t do that, Phyllis. I promised it back to the sheriff. Besides, it wouldn’t do any good. He’s telegraphed your husband by now.”
“He what? You told him I was here?” Her eyes flashed at him.
“Yes, I did.” Tyler got out of bed and came to her. “Do you mean to say you have no interest at all?”
She pulled away. Her contralto voice was suddenly ugly. “You know how it will be! A man that I can’t remember, whom I might as well have never seen before, will claim to own me, will force me to go away with him. And he can make it stick!”
“But if he’s your husband —”
“I don’t give a damn! If I must have a husband, I want it to be you!”
He sighed and reached into his coat. “I think you’d better read this.”
Mrs. Jonathan T. Hackwood, nee Phyllis Maybelle Wayland
on May 14, 1874, from a house near her home in Toltram, Missouri
by two masked white men demanding ransom.
Age 28, Reddish-brown hair, green eyes, avg. height, buxom med. build
Last seen wearing white summer dress with vertical violet stripes
for information leading to her recovery.
Contact Capt. Jonathan Hackwood, Wayland Rd., Toltram, Mo.
She glared up at him. “I suppose you’ll demand the reward.”
He sighed. “That’s not important.”
“Then what is?”
“I mean the money’s not important. I don’t need it, Phyllis. But does any of this joggle your memory?”
“Toltram, Missouri? That’s not too far from St. Louis, if I remember rightly.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Are you sure? How about the white dress with violet stripes?”
“The one hanging in my hotel room was undyed calico. I remind you that I was naked.”
“Well, you were kidnapped, so it says there. Your abductors must have left you in that room, probably because they expected you to die. Somehow you had suffered a debilitating blow to the head. I thought about this walking back from the sheriff’s office. May fourteenth was a little over six weeks ago. You can remember the last three weeks, or a little more now. For three weeks you must have been their prisoner.”
She shrugged. “I don’t remember any of it.”
“Maybe seeing your husband, hearing him, smelling him when he hugs you, will bring your memory back.”
She wrinkled her lip. “Maybe. But I won’t stop loving you, Mark.”
The man sighed deeply. “Nor I you. But we have to do the right thing. You’ll have folks that miss you, too.” He straightened up. “Let’s get dressed and go drink that cold bottle of champagne. You’ll feel better when you eat.”
She stared into his eye. “I’d feel better if we caught the three A.M. train to Kansas City.”
* * * *
He was simultaneously aware of a small explosion on the surface of the boulder beside his face, the instant whitening of a spot in the rock the size of a silver dollar, the tortured scream of a ricocheting bullet and the sting of rock chips on his cheek. He spun around and dropped behind another boulder, but not before he saw the puff of blue-gray smoke between the cottonwoods part way up the western slope. Someone had just taken a shot a him! His experienced surveyor’s eye estimated the distance down from the smoke puff at 100 yards. Probably he faced a rifle. Either the shooter had little skill or else a lot but wanted only to warn him. Phyllis? No! Though she was probably the reason.
A masculine voice shouted, “Stay there and you won’t get hurt!” The miss was deliberate, then, and Phyllis was certainly the objective.
This pile of boulders, chosen to serve as the western footing of the trestle-to-be, formed a slanting chimney that he had never noticed when viewing from a distance. He scuttled backward through it down to the bushes that concealed its entrance. Pausing, he looked out over the grassy strip beside the stream. Phyllis had gotten to her feet near the horses about 80 yards away. Before he left her to take measurements she had redonned the “western” skirt, to keep the flies away from tender spots, but her full breasts dangled enticingly. She was shading her eyes, looking up the side of the gorge. How could she not realize that another man had invaded their privacy?
Above him he heard the irregular sounds of hooves descending a hillside. He took a breath, drawing his revolver. Bushes grew thickly along the edge of the grassy strip, up to the gap where he and the woman had ridden through an hour earlier. Crouching as low as he could, he ran toward the gap, hewing close to the line of bushes, expecting another bullet at any moment.
But he reached the last bush before the gap without incident. The woman, now 50 feet away, had turned to regard him with wide eyes. He raised a finger across his lips. Her eyebrows climbed. She glanced once back up the hill, from which the sounds of descent were ever stronger, took up her blouse and slipped her arms into it.
A second shot crashed, throwing up water in the stream just beyond the woman. Echoes resounded in the gorge. As they died away the same masculine voice cried, “Leave it off, Sal!”
She froze, her hands reaching for buttons behind her head. Slowly she shrugged out of the garment.
Amidst a cloud of dust the horse, another mustang, appeared in the gap directly in front of Tyler. The rider was carrying a lever-action rifle.
Tyler stood up. “Hold it!” he screamed, his revolver extended in both hands.
The rider turned, working the rifle’s lever. Tyler squeezed his trigger. His weapon roared and leapt up in his hands. He cocked it for the next shot before he could see well enough through the smoke to gauge the effect of the first.
The horse shied forward with a lurch. It was riderless. The breeze shifted the smoke cloud to reveal the man face down on his belly in the grass. The rifle, its lever not closed, lay to one side.
Tyler darted forward and captured the rifle. Throwing it aside along with the intruder’s revolver, which had been still in its holster, he turned the man over onto his back. Dazed eyes searched upward until locking on Tyler’s. A handwidth bloodstain was growing low on the man’s left side.
The woman came running up. For once Tyler had no interest in the bouncing breasts. She took one look at the fallen man before turning wide eyes up to Tyler.
“You know him?”
“Richard Gandy, the one who named me Sal LaTour.”
Below them the man coughed and winced, but cleared his throat and managed a leer at the woman. “God, Sal, you still got the best tits in the country!”
“Oh!” she cried, looking ashamedly at Tyler. She turned away toward the fallen blouse.
Tyler asked gruffly, “What are you doing here, Gandy?”
The man grunted and felt of his side. He held up a red hand. “Dark blood! I’ve been liver shot. To answer your question, what I’m doing here is dying.”
“Let’s put a bandage on it. Phyllis, bring me that basket cloth.”
“Don’t bother. I’ve seen it before. I’ll be dead in half an hour. The luck of the draw! So she lets you call her Phyllis, does she?”
“Why not? It’s her name.”
“Ah, but she wouldn’t be Phyllis Hackwood ever again! We had to call her Sal LaTour.”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“You mean she still ain’t got no memory?”
“Why did you come after her, Gandy?”
The man nodded. “You’re right, of course. I came to rescue her if she’d be my woman again. If not I meant to steal her away and fuck her one more time.”
“Then turn her over to her husband?”
“You mean that bulletin. I saw it in K. C.”
“Thought you were in Charon.”
“Well, I was. But I found I couldn’t get along without that big-tittied little trick. She can get under your skin, as you probably know by now. When she and Perry left, I followed along, meaning to win her back. Might’ve done it, too, if Caliver hadn’t beat me to it. Then right away you won her on the train! Talk about changing hands! But I decided it was good luck for me. That Caliver’s a dead shot with a pistol.
“I meant to take her from you in K. C. but you fooled me. I finally found somebody who remembered her getting off in Kellens… God, dying hurts! You ever kill anybody else, Tyler?”
“I was at Gettysburg.”
“Put me a neat notch on your gun butt, will you?”
“I might, if you’ll tell me what you meant a moment ago when you claimed she wouldn’t let you call her Phyllis.”
The woman had returned, breasts demurely clothed. “He said what?”
The prone man coughed and smiled at her. “That gal’s a real pistol, Tyler, with or without her memory.”
“Are you saying you knew her before she lost it?”
“I was there when she was kidnapped — so-called.”
Tyler hunkered down beside him. “What’s your story, Gandy?”
“What’s it worth to you?”
Tyler chuckled grimly. “Nothing you can take with you.”
“A notch shaped like a G?”
“All right. A notch shaped like a G.”
Harris came to me in St. Louis and asked if I’d like to help him kidnap a big tittied woman for half of $500.
I told him, “They hang you for that.”
“Not if she wants to be kidnapped.”
We rented horses and went to the house in Toltram where she was supposed to be: a widow’s place. Mrs. Hackwood was visiting. It was just the two women and a maid. Harris tied up the widow and the maid and let out that hanging didn’t worry him none. He took the time to rape the maid and the widow. I was just going to hold Mrs. Hackwood, but she whispered, “Fuck me, too. It’s got to look good.”
That was my first time with Sal, on the widow’s guest bed, and let me tell you, she loved it. Why fake it when you’re supposed to be getting raped?
Since Harris couldn’t read or write, I wrote the note demanding $1000 ransom and left it on the widow’s table. We rode off with Sal up behind Harris. She had a bag with extra clothes. She gave Harris half of the $500 as soon as we were out of sight of the house.
We caught the train in the next town, her getting on alone to make it look good, and holed up in Charon at a friend of Harris’s. The idea was to lay low until Hackwood got tired of looking. The note I left didn’t say anything about how he was supposed to get us the money. That was deliberate. “He knows I hate his guts,” she said. “Maybe he’ll understand just what this is and leave me alone.”
This woman was hot as a stove lid. I got the idea that Hackwood didn’t much care for fucking, and Sal wanted to make up for lost time. She was after us nearly all day and night, singly and together. I can’t imagine a way to fuck that two and three people didn’t do. Let me tell you, I learned several that were new to me! Even getting her curse didn’t stop her. We still had to fuck!
I guess too much of a good thing is too much, even of that good thing! Harris started staying out more and more. Sal raised hell with him for “endangering the plan” and threatened to withhold the last of his pay. Harris said he didn’t like lippy women and stayed out the four next days. When he showed up, she really lit into him. He slapped her. She picked up a flower pot and threw it perfect. It beaned him, knocked him flat on his ass. He picked himself up along with an overstuffed chair and hit her over the head with it. She went down on the floor and didn’t move.
He rubbed his head, looked at me, back at her. “Goddam bitch!” He drew his gun.
Spoil them beautiful tits? I said, “Harris, you’re about to make your worst mistake.”
He turned the gun on me but mine was already lined up. Just like me and you. Only I shot him in the left eye instead of the liver. Blew out the back of his head.
“Is he dead?” Sal asked, raising up.
“As a door nail,” I said.
She turned on me. “You stupid ass!”
“He was about to kill you.”
“You’re still a stupid ass,” she said.
“I’m beginning to see his point,” I said, gritting my teeth. I turned around and got out of there.
I don’t know what happened to her then. I found her a few days later in the bar of the Charon hotel. The owner was about to throw her out. She was broke — I never saw the $250 supposedly owing to Harris and me — and naked except for one dress that didn’t fit her. She told me she didn’t remember anything before waking up in that hotel. Maybe not, but I sure did! I had got used to them big tits and sweet cunt. So I bought her some clothes, reminded her of her name and moved her in with me.
I had to earn us a living, so I went back to the tables. It was okay at first, but that lucky bastard Perry cleaned me out and like a fool, I covered my last bet with Sal. To my surprise she agreed to it. I figured to hook her back after Perry got a little taste, but I guess she don’t like me as much as I do her. She said that Perry won her fair and square and she was his woman now. One thing I do know: you can’t hold a woman long when she’s ag’in it.
When the man’s voice ran down, his face was drawn in a mask of pain. Tyler put a beer bottle to his lips. “Want something cool?”
He essayed a swallow but coughed it back up, along with blood. His face was gray. He said weakly, “You won’t forget my G?”
“No, I won’t.”
In another five minutes he shuddered his last breath and lay still.
“Do you believe him?” asked the woman, standing back from the body.
Tyler looked up at her apprehensive eyes. “Do you?”
She seemed to consider. “Wasn’t that what they call a ‘deathbed confession?’”
“Maybe. Though I don’t know what will stop a man from telling lies on his deathbed.”
“Isn’t the idea that he’d have no reason to?”
“But he might — the same kind of reason as that silly G he wants me to cut into my gun butt.”
“You mean, what people think of him afterwards?”
“Will you cut it for him?”
“I mean to have a jeweler carve a G so tiny you need a glass to read it.”
She chuckled. “You’re an honorable man, Mark.”
He nodded. “But chinchy. I want you to hold the horse while I throw his body over the saddle.”
“Will we take him in immediately?”
“Poor Mark! You’ll probably have to redo those last measurements.”
He shrugged. “I never really expected to do this job in a couple days.” He smiled. “Especially not with your help.”
She smiled in return.
When the three horses were on the road back to town, Tyler and the woman side-by-side ahead with the dead man following, tied across his saddle, Tyler commented, “That fellow, Richard Gandy, was your lover, by your own admission, too.”
She cut her eyes around to him but said nothing.
“Even after your head got hurt,” he added.
“Are you wondering that I’m not prostrate with grief?” she asked dryly.
He smiled. “I guess not. A man who would risk her at cards can’t be very precious to a woman.”
“You think not? I cried over Perry’s body.”
“He did value me, even if only $80 worth.”
“How much did Gandy want for you?”
“I see. Then if Gandy had killed me, who valued you at $150, you would weep a veritable Niagara!”
“I would have killed him in return, I think. I know about the spare gun in your saddle roll.”
“Can you use one?”
“Phyllis, are you certain you remember nothing before waking up in Charon?”
“Not even now. But I’ve been thinking about Richard’s story. He painted me rather black, didn’t he?”
“According to him, you wanted to be kidnapped, though only to be free of your husband, not to extort his money. It suggests that you have a stash of your own.”
“I noticed that, too. If I remember where it is, I’ll tell you.”
“It’s not your money I’m after, Phyllis. Do you see that grove of trees on the right? I don’t think Mr. Gandy will mind if we pause there a few minutes.”
“Oh, god, Mark, I thought you’d never think of it!”
“In that case why didn’t you remind me?”
“You already think I’m a heartless wench. I didn’t want you to believe I’m also a bloodthirsty one.”
“Even though you are?”
“Even though violent, bloody death leaves me sopping wet, though perhaps for a more fundamental reason than you first imagine. You’ll definitely be sore when we leave that grove, sweet Mark.”
* * * *
When the little procession tied up at the rail before the sheriff’s office, the man himself, a tall and heavy-set one with a florid face and handlebar mustache, came out onto the boardwalk, his eye on the tied-down body. He leaned over the rail and lifted the head by its hair. “I thought so,” he said cryptically. He looked to Tyler. “Got a name for it?”
Tyler got down from his horse and took the woman’s hand to steady her own dismounting. He said to the waiting sheriff, “His name was Richard Gandy. I killed him after he shot at me and Mrs. Hackwood.”
“Where’d you get the cuts on your face?”
“His first bullet struck the rock about four inches from my head.”
“He shot from ambush and you still finished him?”
“Actually, after his two shots he rode down on Mrs. Hackwood. Then I ambushed him.”
The sheriff thought that over. To the woman he said, “You’re Mrs. Hackwood?”
She hesitated, then admitted, “My name is Phyllis.”
“Born Phyllis Wayland?”
She took a breath. “So I’ve been told.”
The man grunted. “Haven’t we all! Lorenzo, go get the undertaker. Mr. Tyler, I want you and your lady to come into my office. We have some talking to do.”
Inside the one-room office lined with empty jail cells on the back wall, he pulled out chairs for his visitors and took his seat behind the great scarred desk under the rifle rack. The midafternoon sun shone brightly through the windows facing the street.
“Miss Wayland, I want you to tell me exactly what happened up in the hills today. Don’t leave anything out. And Tyler, let her do all the talking, you hear?”
When Tyler nodded, the sheriff said, “Go ahead, ma’am.”
Despite instructions, she left out a great deal, Tyler concluded silently. She recounted hearing a shot and seeing the smoke up the hill, thinking it must be Tyler, though she knew he had gone off to take measurements in a rock fall. She heard the man up the hill shout something unintelligible, then she saw him start down the hill on his horse and knew he wasn’t Tyler, who was afoot. About half way down the hill he took his second shot, which struck the stream just behind her and scared her half to death.
Tyler ran towards her along the grass, shielded from the intruder’s view by bushes. When the man reached the grass, Tyler was ready for him and hollered, “Stop where you are!” or something similar. But the man tried to load his rifle and Tyler shot him out of the saddle. The horse ran forward and bent to drink from the stream. It was very thirsty. It’s a shame that people aren’t more thoughtful of their animals.
“Did he fall dead?” asked the sheriff.
“No. He lived for a while. He recognized that he was shot in the liver. He told us his name.”
The sheriff studied her. “Did he say why he attacked you?”
She sent Tyler a worried look. “Something about a … bulletin on me.”
“You’ve seen it,” said the sheriff in a matter-of-fact tone.
She took a breath. Of relief, Tyler thought. “Yes,” she answered. “Tyler showed it to me last night. I know nothing about what it claims, Sheriff.”
The man nodded. “I believe you.”
Tyler exclaimed, “What?”
The sheriff chuckled at him. “If you were counting on that money, you can forget it.”
“What do you mean.”
“I’ve got a reply from Mr. Jonathan Hackwood.”
“So his wife ain’t missing.”
“His … His what?”
The sheriff grunted. He opened the drawer of his desk and removed a telegraph form filled out in large penciled letters.
EAST & WEST TELEGRAPH COMPANY
TO SHERIFF R T HOLLISTER STOP KELLENS KANS
FROM CAPT J T HACKWOOD STOP TOLTRAM MO
MSG BEGINS MY WIFE PHYLLIS HACKWOOD SAFE AT HOME STOP KIDNAP BULLETIN ISSUED IN ERROR DUE TO MIXUP STOP REWARD CANCELED STOP PLS CONVEY MY REGRETS TO INQUIRER STOP MSG ENDS
1115 AM JUL 1 1874 JTW FILE RMO
“‘Due to mix-up!’” repeated Tyler in disbelief. He passed the paper to the woman, who scanned it avidly.
The sheriff chuckled. “I’d like to hear the explanation for that myself.” He took the form back and turned his piercing blue eyes upon Phyllis. “You fit the description, all right. Do you wish to tell me anything?”
She took a breath. “I’m sure Mr. Tyler told you I’ve lost my memory, Sheriff.”
“Do you want me to copy off Mr. Hackwood’s address? You might want to contact him yourself. The train through Toltram leaves here every morning.
“No, thank you.” Her hand stole out and enclosed Tyler’s, resting on his knee. “I’m glad Mr. Hackwood has his wife. I have my man.”
The sheriff nodded. “That’s pretty clear.” He looked at Tyler. “I suspect Hackwood’s bulletin is going to cause you two a lot more trouble.”
“You’re probably right, Sheriff.” Tyler stood up. “If it comes I’ll just have to handle it.”
“Well, don’t litter up the landscape with more dead bodies.”
“I’ll try not to. Coming, Phyllis?”
As they reached the door, the sheriff asked, “How long will you be in town?”
“Another day, two at the most.”
“If Mr. Gandy turns out to be as unidentifiable as most of the fresh corpses around here, you’re the only one with any claim on his traps. You planning to stay where you are at the Madrid?”
“Yes, sir. First off, in the middle of a big bathtub. Give Gandy’s stuff to somebody who deserves it, Sheriff.”
“In that case the undertaker will get most of it. I wish you good luck.”
“The same to you, Sheriff, and thanks.”
Tyler helped the woman dismount in front of the hotel and unbuckled her saddle bags to take with her. But she leaned against him as he worked at her horse.
“Mark, I can’t wait till we get upstairs. Does this mean that you can …”
“Do what you said you would do last night?”
He stopped and turned to study her. “You mean, ask you to marry me?”
She took a breath. “That’s what I mean.”
He said thoughtfully, “You told Gandy that Hackwood was your husband.”
“If you believe Richard.”
“Did you ever catch him in a lie?”
Reluctantly she shook her head. “Not that I could tell.”
“But you’re willing to take a chance?”
“What chance? You saw the telegram. He has a wife.”
Slowly he grinned at her. “Phyllis, I have a dream about that.”
“I always wanted to ask a girl that question when her mouth was full of my dick. What do you think she would do?”
The woman cocked an eyebrow. “She couldn’t say yes or no.”
His eyes twinkled. “She could either nod or shake her head.”
“Now I understand: either way you’d enjoy it!” Her eyes held a promise. “And so would I. Go stable the horses and hurry back to me. Please?”
Copyright © 2000, Kellis
Stories at http://www.dhp.com/~kellis