The Last Slave
a Short Story by Kellis
“All right, you bastards, here it is: free pussy.”
The woman’s high voice carried over the male oaths, clatter of chips, clink of glasses and the twang of the honky-tonk piano. It seemed to arise from the other end of the bar. Branden pivoted on his stool, turning away from the poker game he had been watching, where an optimist had just filled an inside straight, to peer past the shoulder of the adjacent man. He saw white thighs but hairy calves, knees drawn up and parted, ankles and dirty bare feet resting on the edges of the dented bar. But the heavy, dark patch of hair in the center riveted his eyes.
“Something to see, ain’t it?” said the adjacent man bemusedly, barely audible over the ringing cheers.
Branden chuckled. “Hardly anything would get more attention.”
The man spared him a glance and a grin. “And Bart counts on it.”
Which goes a long way to explain it, Branden thought. Bart, he knew already, was the bartender with the suspenders and the drooping mustache. And probably the whoremaster, too, even if the fancily attired old lady at the euchre table did collect the whoregeld.
The woman on the bar was lying on her back, genitals facing Branden. As he watched her hands came forward and parted her pubes. Even in the dimly lit saloon the crimson slit flared wetly. Her upper body apparently was clothed.
“Which one is she?” he asked the adjacent man.
“Lucy,” was the short answer.
Branden’s eyes narrowed. “How many Lucies work in here?”
“Only that one, far’s I know: leastwise, that’s the only one I ever poked.”
Branden downed the last swallow of his drink and slid off the stool.
“Going for it?” wondered his companion. “You’re new in here, ain’t you?”
“It’s free but you gotta strip naked first.” The man’s eyes twinkled. “Bart’ll hold your kit.” He grinned at something he saw in Branden’s face. “Oh, hell, man, go on before you have to follow some gushy kid.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Branden responded sarcastically. He pushed forward toward the woman through the gathering crowd. When he neared her, his path was blocked by a man rising up naked after removing boots and britches: a very young man, he saw, who threw shirt and pants on the bar before climbing atop them.
Another cheer went up from the bystanders. The young man knelt between the woman’s legs, his hand pumping his manhood. The woman raised up on an elbow and reached forward to cup his testicles. She was wearing a pink sleeveless underblouse. The outstretched arm showed a dark bruise near the shoulder. Her face was heavily painted, intent on the hand’s goal but expressionless. She had dark brown hair gathered incompletely into a chignon. The cheekbone below her left eye was blue despite the paint. She looked familiar to Branden, though with all the paint and the bruise not familiar enough for certainty.
“Stick it to her, Bailey!” someone cried. Other cries of “Shove it in!” and “Crawl on her!” rose from either side. Underneath the shouting someone was collecting bets for a pool on how long Bailey would last. Two men were arguing about which of them would be second. They seemed at the point of exchanging blows when a shout, “It’s in!” drew everyone’s attention to the couple on the bar.
The bet collector held up a large pocket watch. “21 minutes and 17 seconds!” he screamed. He called off the time every fifteen seconds thereafter, dividing his attention between the timepiece and the sweating couple on the bar.
The massed crowd made a hot environment. The young man had knelt before the woman, his knees resting on a cushion thoughtfully provided by the bartender, and lifted her hips atop his thighs. He was leaning forward over her, pounding in and out of her with youthful vigor. Sweat dripped off his nose onto her blouse. She did not lie passively; her hips rolled back and forth in the ancient female accompaniment.
Bailey began to snort. The bettors’ encouraging shouts rose to a frenzy. “Damn!” cried Branden’s neighbor when his pool time was exceeded. But the face of the next man lit with glee when Bailey froze at full extension, head turned up, eyes clenched and mouth open in a groan unheard in the general hullabaloo. “Mark the time!” cried the gleeful man. “Mark the time!”
Suddenly the crowd hushed. Bailey’s subsiding moans were heard. The man with the watch declared, “One minute 48 seconds. George Smith is closest!”
“Hooray!” cried the gleeful one, presumably George Smith. “Drinks on the house!” Which resulted in another chorus of cheers.
Soon as Bailey got his kit off the bar, another was thrown upon it. The issue of second place had been decided. A second naked man crawled between the woman’s legs and paused to let her verify his readiness. The air was thick with coin and paper as bets were placed in the second pool. The times were decidedly longer now, perhaps because this man was older. Shortly he stretched himself upon the woman and the time keeper announced a new start.
The man next to Branden was watching avidly. Branden asked him, “How long does this go on?”
The man spared him a glance. “New here, are you? Long as she’ll let ’em. She’ll take a break after four or five, take a piss, have a drink, and then hop back up there.” He stared up and down Branden’s frame. “You don’t look broke.”
“Loan me a cartwheel and you can have my place.”
Branden realized that indeed the watching men had formed a ragged line that wound back and forth toward the woman. The one closest to the straining couple was already naked, holding his clothing in one hand and pumping himself with the other.
“No, thanks,” Branden responded, backing away. He bumped into someone soft, turned around and found himself looking down into large brown eyes set above overly rosy cheeks.
The face smiled and he felt a hand feeling for his genitals through the front of his britches. “You don’t have to wait for Lucy, mister.”
The girl was wearing a gown of such lace and frills that her maturity was uncertain. She was short. Her tightly bunned and powdered hair did not reach his shoulders. His long fingers tilted her chin. “How old are you, about twelve?”
“Twelve!” she snorted. “Does this look twelve?” As she spoke her hand rose and pulled her blouse off the shoulder, exposing a breast: the superimposed cones of a very young breast, though nevertheless a prominent one. She restored the gown to her shoulder. “Well?”
“15,” he guessed with a sneer.
“Huh!” she sniffed. “Lots of men want 15!” She turned away.
He edged further from the bar. His 15-year old was whispering into the ear of an older woman, who wound her way to him, gaudy skirts swaying. She took his arm and shouted above the noise, “I’m Tilly.”
“Hello, Tilly,” he shouted in response. “Call me Branden.”
“Pleased to meet you, Branden. We saw you looking at Lucy. Want to go upstairs?”
“I have a room upstairs.”
“Want to go to your room?”
He regarded her thoughtfully. “Can you go out on the porch?”
Her penciled eyebrows rose. “The porch?”
She thought about it, nodding at last. “Just for a minute.”
He took her hand and together they wove through the press to the swinging doors. The night was moonless, lit only by starlight. He paused beside the doorway, then as his eyes adjusted, led her to a post that supported the porch roof. Light from the interior spilled past them into the dust of the street, glittering in the eyes of horses hitched to the rail. No traffic into or out of the saloon was evident at that moment. Everyone interested in the entertainment was already inside.
She came into his arms, pressing her body against his. As had the 15 year-old, her hand sought the front of his britches. When she had identified his manhood through the cloth, she simpered, “Is this what you wanted to talk about?”
His hand dived into a pocket and came out with the glint of silver. Her hand closed over it immediately. “Let’s go to your room.”
“Tilly, I really want to talk.”
“What’re you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid of anything, Tilly.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be. I’m clean. If you want something special, just name it.”
“I want some information.”
The woman took a sharp breath. He asked, “What’s the matter.”
“You don’t want to fuck?”
She sighed. Her hand released him. “You paid for a quickie. I guess you’re entitled to a few minutes, but Bart watches us real close. If I stand here very long he’ll come looking.”
“It won’t take long. What’s Lucy’s real name?”
“Lucy! What do you need with her?”
“How about you answering my question?”
She sniffed. “Liza. No, Eliza! I don’t remember her last name.”
“Could it be Eberly?”
“Yeah. That’s it. You know her, do you?”
“How long has she been here?”
“About … eight or ten months. She came in with the first railroad crews. They had nearly killed her.”
“Beat her up?”
“Probably that too. Sheriff Calloway put her in jail, but Bart gave her a job.”
“Some job! That on the bar, it happens every night?”
“It’s what Bart calls his ‘live advertising.’ He got the idea when he went to Chicago.” She smirked. “It’s good for business.”
“Just Thursday and Friday.”
“Huh! Nothing’s free on Saturday!”
“Which of you is friendly with Eliza?”
“Huh? … Eliza! Had to think a moment to realize you was talking about Lucy. Well, none of us, really. I guess I’m about as close to her as anybody.”
“Does she ever talk about … Kentucky?”
“Is that where she’s from?”
“Remember, I’m asking the questions.”
“I don’t know. She don’t talk much. I never paid any attention.”
“How much does she owe Bart?”
“You’ll have to ask him.”
“You must have an idea. How much do you owe him?”
She smiled. “Is that it? You want to buy somebody’s contract?”
“I might. What’s typical?”
She shrugged. “Two, three hundred dollars. But the girl has to agree, too. Where’s your place?”
“The idea, Tilly, is to get —”
A gravely voice sounded from the doorway. “Tilly, where the hell are you?”
The woman spoke up. “Right here, Bart, with a paying customer.”
“A what?” The doors creaked as the man pushed through them. “Goddammit, Tilly, if the sheriff catches you fucking out here on the goddam porch —”
Branden interrupted. “We’re only talking.”
The man pushed closer. Branden swung himself around in front of the woman. Bart demanded, “What’re you talking about?”
“Your advertising stunt.”
“Oh, yeah? What you think of that?”
“I think it probably works.”
“You’re damn right, it works! You in the business?”
“I have been.”
“Oh, yeah? Let me give you a piece of advice. This town ain’t big enough for two of ’em.”
“I’ve about reached the same conclusion.”
Bart leaned closer in the dimness. “Just make sure you stick with that opinion.”
“I will. But I have yet to decide who ought to run the one.”
“Eh? Huh?” His voice took on menace. “Just what the hell are you saying?”
“Nothing, yet, except to advise you to get your goddam nose out of my face before I smash it worse than Lucy’s black eye.”
Bart did draw back. “What’s your name?”
“Taylor Branden. Mr. Branden to you.”
“Oh. Branden! You rented a room this afternoon.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Branden. Will you be needing Tilly’s services much longer?”
“Only a moment or two, thank you.”
“Very well. She’ll be glad to visit you upstairs at any time, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
The bartender turned around and re-entered the saloon. The woman giggled. “Bart does respect the paying customer.”
“Wise of him.”
“Ain’t it! What else you want to know?”
“Expose your left breast.”
“Show me your tit.”
A hand rose to her shoulder and pulled the gown straps down her arm. Pale flesh popped free of the cloth and jiggled in the starlight. He cupped it in his hand, gently pinching the nipple as lumps formed in the areola. He bent and sucked it into his mouth. Her indrawn breath squeaked in her throat. “You do want to fuck!” she announced hopefully.
He raised up. “No, Tilly. I told you, not now. But that’s a nice one. Go back inside. I think I’ll stroll down the street.”
“You can’t see anything on a moonless night. Let’s go upstairs.”
“I can see.”
“Why did you suck my boob?”
He chuckled. “I always do if I think I can get away with it. Good night.”
Her mouth wrinkled as he stepped off the porch and vanished into the dark night.
* * * *
“Hoo, boy! Can’t you walk shtraighter?”
It was a woman’s slurred voice rising above the thump of irregular footfalls moving along the porch flooring. Above them on the balcony, whose floor was the porch roof, Branden followed, picking up his feet to walk softly. He leaned over the rail when he reached the end. Below him the boot thumps ceased as their owners stepped off into the dust.
The woman complained, “Argh! You let me fall, you b-bastard!” Branden could faintly see dark entangled bodies below him. They seemed to be struggling.
“Shut up, Lucy,” a man’s deep voice retorted mildly. “You knew that step was there. Help me get her up, Bashford. Lucy, are you hurt?”
“How th’hell do I know? ’M too drunk to — Ow, my knee!”
“Rub her knee, Bashford. Which one, Lucy?”
“Oh, god, sheriff, I don’t know.”
“Shit!” declared a younger masculine voice.
“What’s the matter?” asked the older one. “Can’t find her knee?”
The answer was full of disgust. “She’s smeared with spunk.”
“Spunk won’t hurt you. How many did you fuck tonight, Lucy?”
“I don’t know. All there was. You have a drink, sheriff?”
“We’ll get you a nightcap. Bashford, take her other arm.”
“She’s naked, boss.”
“I know it. Ain’t no moon. Nobody’s gonna see her. You can run back here and find her dress. Now come on. Let’s get her out in the street before we trip over Perkins’ boardwalk.”
The unlikely combination lurched out into untrammeled starlight. Branden could barely make out the lighter body between the two dark ones. His fist clenched in indecision. Where were they taking her?
The female voice quavered, “W-watch out for those spurs!”
The deep voice responded patiently, “We ain’t wearing spurs, Lucy.”
“Well, those boots, then. I don’t want a smashed toe either.”
“Hang on. The jail ain’t much further. Bashford, let’s pull her over here to this horse trough.”
They lurched to one side. Splashing sounds arose and something glittered among them.
“That t-tickles!” complained the woman.
“Well, wash it yourself.”
“You got a handkerchief, sheriff?”
“Give her your bandanna, Bashford.”
“Damn it, boss, it’ll stink!”
“No worse than your dick after awhile. Straddle it, Lucy, and throw the water up in you.”
“Huh! You think I don’ know how to wash a cunt?”
“Wash it, then. What’re you doing, Bashford?”
“Holding her up.”
“By the tits, eh? Lucy, don’t sit in it!”
“Need a good soak.”
“That’s enough. Come on, get out, before Dalton hears you. Christ, you’ve got my whole side wet!”
The unlikely group staggered away from the side of the street. Branden, still leaning over the rail, heard a final comment in Bashford’s high voice: “Sure do pity them horses!”
* * * *
Within an hour after first light Branden had bathed and been shaven in the barber shop, where he left two shirts for the Chinese laundryman, and had eaten a breakfast of bacon and eggs served in the saloon by the old woman he had earlier taken as the whoremistress. He accused her of that as he paid her 40 cents for the food, plus a dime tip. “I understood last night that you were our madam procuress.”
“Our what?” She cackled, displaying the retention of half her upper incisors and both lonely lower canines. “Fancy talk! Tell Bart that, why don’t you?”
“Would a dollar get me Tilly’s attention this morning?”
“Hell, no! Not this morning. Let them as can sleep, sleep.”
“You can’t, I take it?”
“Not more’n two hours at the time.” She cocked an eye at him appraisingly. “Why? You hard up?”
He smiled. “No, just curious.” Tipping his hat, he turned away to the swinging doors.
“50 cents!” she called after him in a beguiling tone.
“I’ll remember that,” he retorted over his shoulder as he passed out onto the porch.
The morning was bright, the sun just peeking into a cloudless sky over the barren hills to the east. Branden proceeded afoot along the side of the street, avoiding the balls of horse manure, until he reached the planking before the building decorated by a shingle crudely lettered, Redpath Sheriff. He stomped up onto the boards and pushed through the unlocked door.
The room was lit by a reflecting oil lamp hung over the desk, now completely overpowered by sunlight streaming through the east-facing windows on either side of the door. A Franklin stove, presently unused, stood across the room from the desk. A rack on the wall behind the desk contained three Winchester lever-action rifles. The board floor had been swept.
The back half of the room drew Branden’s attention. It was subdivided into three small rooms, each with its iron-barred door. He crossed the floor and inspected them one at a time. Two were empty but a cot in the third contained a sleeping woman, naked under a ratty blanket that left one shoulder and its unmistakably feminine breast exposed. Her face was turned away, but he could see enough of her profile to determine that this was Lucy.
He pulled on the iron door, which swung outward on creaking hinges. He slipped into the cell. Her cheek lay in a crusted puddle of partly dried vomit. Her mouth and nose were barely clear of it. She was breathing gently.
He shook his head, grimaced and put out his hand, turning her face toward him. Her eyes fluttered open, then clenched shut. Her arms lashed out and threw the blanket to the floor. The exposed body was shapely, although the numerous bruises, abrasions and scabs marred Branden’s appreciation of it. He backed up a pace, turning his face away from the odor.
“Oh, god!” she breathed. A hand rose to cover her eyes. She stared at him through parted fingers. “Where am I?” Her voice was hoarse.
He grunted. “In jail, Lucy.”
“God, my head! Where’s Bashford?”
“I saw him and the sheriff at breakfast in the saloon.”
“Who’re you? You aren’t supposed to be here.” Without waiting for his answer, she swept dirty feet off the cot and rose to a sitting position. Her eyes widened and both hands went to the sides of her head. She moaned piteously, then snapped, “Guess you’re getting an eye full!”
“A good guess,” he agreed distastefully.
She heard the sound of his voice and eyed him belligerently. “Then look somewhere else. I’ve got to piss something awful.”
He asked dryly, “Are you referring to quantity or quality?” then added with more sympathy, “Think you can make it to the pot?”
She held her head. “Might have to crawl.”
He set the chamber pot before her, spun on his heel and left the room. Behind him water rattled thickly into tin.
He opened a drawer of the desk and found the expected bottle of whisky and two clay tumblers. The water in the pitcher at the washstand looked clear when he poured a sample into the basin. He half filled one of the tumblers and returned to the woman’s cell.
“Eyes not full enough?” she demanded sarcastically, hands still holding her head. She was again seated on the cot.
“Not quite.” His foot pushed the pot well to the side. “Hold this.” He passed her the tumbler then brought a tightly folded paper from his coat pocket.
She took the tumbler and peered into it. “Whisky?” she asked hopefully.
“Water… No, no! Don’t throw it away.”
“No use for water,” she declared, her lip curling.
“You will have in a minute.” Carefully he unfolded the paper, forming it into a flat funnel. “This contains a powder I want you to swallow. Then wash it down with the water.”
“A powder? What for?”
“It’ll fix your head.”
“Huh! Only whisky can do that.”
“This works even better than whisky. And it’s fast. Tilt your head back and open your mouth.”
She stared up at him. Something changed in her expression. She lowered her hands and slowly rolled her head back, opening her mouth expectantly. He didn’t hesitate to place the tapered end of the paper between her lips and tilt it up. The contents hissed into her mouth.
He withdrew the paper. “Now the water.”
She tasted her lips, still staring at him, then raised the tumbler and took a swallow.
“Drink it all,” he ordered.
Dutifully she obeyed, lowering the empty tumbler reflectively. “It tastes sour. Will it kill me?”
He grunted. “Of course not. I have no wish to harm you, Lucy.”
“I decided I didn’t care if it did. If it doesn’t, I can always find some whisky. Just for curiosity’s sake, what was it?”
“It’s an Indian remedy for headache, made from the bark of certain trees. You’ll feel a lot better in five minutes.”
“You’re a doctor?”
“No, not a doctor, but I’ve had my share of headaches.”
“Who are you anyway?”
“My name is Taylor Branden.”
“Do I know you?” Before he could answer she chuckled bitterly. “You’re certainly getting to know me!”
“Everyone knows you.”
“They think so.” She dropped her eyes. “But no one does.”
“Lucy, I know your real name.”
“Do you!” Her lip curled. “Well, keep it to yourself.”
“What are you doing here, Lucy? Or should I say, Eliza?”
She raised one shoulder in a shrug. “I told them my name, but Bart named me Lucy.”
“I understand: your whore’s name. Tell me, why are you waking up in jail? Who did you offend last night?”
“I live here. I’m a prisoner.”
“A prisoner who copulates with all comers on top of a saloon bar?”
“‘Copulates!’” She grinned sarcastically. “An educated man!”
“You were educated, too, Eliza.”
She looked away. Her hands clasped her knees.
“What do you mean, you’re a prisoner?”
“They say I killed a man back east. I’m awaiting trial for murder.”
“In an unlocked cell?”
“Where would I go?”
“If you cleaned up a little, I imagine you could find a man willing to take you anywhere you named.”
She shook her head. “Men!”
“Not too pleased with us?”
“You’re nothing but penises with legs. Everything you do is meant finally to squirt your seed into a woman.”
He smiled. “I can understand how you might reach that conclusion. Isn’t a woman supposed to use that arrangement to her advantage?”
She regarded him sourly, though her lip twitched. “I guess that’s my failure.”
He squared his shoulders. “Well, Eliza, it’s time you learned better.”
“Who plans to teach me?”
“I, to start.”
She laughed unpleasantly. “All I see is a fancier suit of clothes. Are you even armed?”
“Of course, Eliza,” he answered softly. “The west doesn’t get wilder than this territory. But I don’t intend to teach you with a gun.”
“Maybe not, but you’ll need a fast one to get me away from the sheriff.”
“Oh, I think not. If an indictment was actually outstanding on you, it’s quashed.”
“‘Indictment!’” she repeated contemptuously. “There’s 20 dollars a month Bart pays the sheriff for my special services on the bar top. I don’t know how you can quash that! And two hard dicks right here in this office that fuck me every night. They’ve gotten quite accustomed to their ‘prison pussy,’ as they call it. What paper do you have that can quash them?”
“And Deputy Bashford. He sleeps in here, mostly in one of the other cells. He’s a randy little devil. He’s my guard and my greatest lover. He fucks me three times a day, regular as clockwork. In a few minutes he’ll come in here and help me take a whore’s bath, then fuck me unless the sheriff is feeling randy, in which case I get to fuck the sheriff while sucking Bashford. Then I can go back to sleep until he feeds me lunch and more of his spunk. Then I may get to work for the Chinaman, ironing shirts until supper time, which Bashford fucks me before if it’s a saloon night or after if it’s not. Then —”
“Enough.” He raised a hand. “Believe it or not, Eliza, I can quash them, too.”
She sighed. “Talk is so cheap.”
“It is that, but the time for talk is almost over. Who blacked your eye?”
“That was Bart.”
“Because I puked on him.”
“Made you sick, did he?”
“He pissed in my mouth.”
“That’s his favorite trick. He ran off three or four girls with it till he found one he couldn’t run off. But this last time he cut loose in the back of my throat. It strangled me.”
“I see. Can you think of anything men have not done to you?”
She shrugged. “Kill me. That’s why I’m here. I’m waiting for that.”
“And what do you think of it?”
“They say you can get used to anything, but I’ll never care for a mouthful of piss.”
“Perhaps not. I meant, what do you think of your life as a piece of meat, as ‘prison pussy?’ Do you perhaps enjoy your bar top popularity and Bashford’s personal attention?”
She took a deep breath, but kept her eyes lowered.
Her voice was very soft. “Maybe I don’t deserve any better.”
He shook his head. “Another way to put it is, do you want to get out of here?”
“I …” Her eyes grew large. “I don’t see how I can leave.”
“That’s the easy part. The real question is, if I take you out, will you come back?”
She studied his face. “You don’t mean just back to Redpath, do you?”
He nodded. “You’re intelligent, Eliza. How the hell did you ever get in this fix?”
Her lip curled. “It’s a long story. Why should I think you can take me away? The sheriff can get a posse as large as he wants in five minutes.”
“You want to know why you should believe me, is that it? How’s your head feeling?”
Her eyes widened. “It … My god, it’s almost cured!”
“I don’t need to steal you, Eliza. I can take you from here quite legally and while I’m at it make these conniving bastards regret ever laying eyes on you. But do you really want to go?”
She shook her head, eyes again downcast. “I’m no good, Mr. Branden.”
He sniffed. “That may be, Eliza. If it is, you’re right, it would probably be best to leave you here, though not in this exact predicament. If I take you out of here, you’ll have to do exactly as I say.”
“As you say? Trade one master for another, eh?”
He nodded. “That’s right. Until you can hold your head up again.”
Her eyes were wary but showed the beginning of warmth. “You did cure my hangover. Mostly.”
“A little nagging headache just behind the eyes and a queasy stomach.”
“You need to put something in it.”
“No. If you go with me, you’ll drink no more whisky till it’s out of your system.”
“You’ll enforce that, will you?”
“Yes, absolutely. You’ll be a very tightly held prisoner for about a week while I take you to St. Louis.”
“St. Louis! You own a whorehouse there?”
“Not to a whorehouse. A sanitarium. You’ll be its guest until you recover your health.”
She studied him. “Taylor Branden. That name sounds familiar somehow.” When he merely returned her stare, she continued, “What do you want from me, Mr. Branden? What’s this all about?”
He shook his head. “I’ll answer that only if you agree to go with me. If you elect to stay here, it’s better for you not to know.”
“Something shameful, is it?”
“Not shameful to you. You’ll understand when I explain it.”
“How can I go with you?” She looked vainly around the cell. “I must’ve left my dress in the saloon.”
“I’ll take care of that. That’s the deal, Eliza. You surrender your freedom to me and I’ll take complete care of you.”
She straightened up, eyes larger. “You’ll really take me out of here?”
She rose to her feet but staggered, one hand extended toward him. “Ooh, I’m dizzy!”
He took her elbow, steadying her, but raised the other hand. “Hold it! First you have to agree to do everything I say.”
“Everything? I’ll suck your dick three times a day if you’ll really take me out of here.”
“I may ask you to do things a lot harder than that.”
She snorted. “I don’t know how to do anything much harder than that.”
“Yes, you do. Say, I swear to obey you until you say I can quit.”
She took a breath. “I swear to obey you until — How long is that going to be?”
“A couple of months I expect, altogether.”
“Will you promise not to piss in my mouth?”
“I won’t piss anywhere near you, Eliza.”
“Oh … kay. Then I swear to obey until you say I can quit.”
“Very good.” He raised the tattered blanket from the floor and wrapped her in it. “Come on.”
Her hands went to her hair. She grimaced when she felt its content. “I’m not fit to be seen anywhere!”
“We’ll fix that first. Lean on me until you get your balance. I’ll take you to —”
“Just where the hell do you think you’re going?”
The bear-like man with the sheriff’s badge darkened the still open front door. Bashford peered around him.
Branden stepped in front of the woman, a hand pushing his coattail to one side. He answered mildly, “I was about to say, to the barber shop. Do you have some objection, Mister Calloway?”
The man responded stoutly, “I’m the sheriff here, mister, and that woman is a prisoner awaiting trial.”
“Sheriff, you say? That’s an elected office! You’re only a thug whose salary is paid by a few Redpath businessmen.”
“That’s sheriff enough, damn it! Just who the hell are you anyway?”
“I am special agent Taylor Branden of the U. S. Marshall’s office for this territory.” His hand slipped into an inside pocket and came out with a gold and silver star mounted on a leather backing. “This is my identification. I’m glad you arrived, Mr. Calloway. It saves me a trip back here. Show me the paper you have on this woman.”
The man in the doorway stared. His hand twitched toward the pistol holstered on his hip.
“Don’t do it, Calloway,” Branden suggested softly. “You’ll be dead before it clears leather, you and your deputy both.”
He slipped the badge back into his coat as the big man hesitated. “Come on in, Calloway, and show me that paper, if you have one.”
The claimed sheriff sidled across the room to his desk, keeping his body turned toward Branden. Deputy Bashford remained in the doorway, hands and chin dangling. Branden’s left hand pulled that coattail aside, exposing the handle of a revolver reverse-mounted in his waist band.
Calloway took a paper from the top drawer and laid it on top of the desk. “This is it.”
With a glance at the deputy in the doorway, Branden strolled to the desk and took up the paper. The woman held weakly to the open door of her cell, her eyes bright on the men.
Branden sniffed. “I’m surprised. At least it’s for the right woman! But look at these words: ‘Wanted for questioning in the murder of Jason Eberly.’ It doesn’t even charge her with a crime. What’s your excuse for holding her?”
“Well, it … The railroad police said she robbed a passenger.”
“Did they! Where’s the paper on that?”
“They didn’t give me any.”
Branden shook his head. “Mr. Calloway, I could charge you with kidnap and enslavement of this woman, and I can take her out of here with no further explanation. But I knew about that interrogation warrant. I guess you’re the best man to leave this with.” He drew a long folded legal paper from another inside pocket and proffered it to Calloway, who shook his head, saying, “Let the woman read it.”
Branden grinned at him. “It says that the interrogation warrant against Eliza Marion Eberly is quashed, and it’s signed by the same judge whom your paper quotes.” He dropped the paper on the desk. “Any questions, Calloway?”
The man stood silently behind his desk, mouth working indecisively. Branden extended his hand to the woman. “Come on, Eliza. Bashford, stand away from the door.”
The woman took the hand and followed him through the doorway from which the deputy had retreated. She pulled the blanket tightly about her as he hurried her up the street. Behind them they heard Calloway call, “Bashford, go get Bart.”
“Still remember how to ride?” Branden asked her quietly as their feet stirred the dust of the street.
“You mean a horse? Yes, I remember. Why don’t we just wait for the train?”
“I may have to kill some of them if we tarry here too long.”
“Are you really a U. S. marshal?”
“Actually not. I’m a special agent.”
“It’s special. In here.”
He pulled her across the board platform into the barbershop he had earlier patronized. The barber jumped out of his chair and reflexively dusted it with his apron.
“Back so soon, Mr. Branden?” He looked curiously at the woman. “Is that Lucy?”
“Hargett, I want to rent your back room for an hour. Is your water hot again?”
“Should be. I’ve had the fire going. Another bath?”
“For the lady.”
Branden thrust his face close to the wiry little man. “She’s with me, Hargett. You damn well better understand what that means!”
“Yes, sir!” Hargett drew away. “Whatever you say, sir! Do you want to go on back? I’ll start the boy with the water.”
“I want a bottle of that soap, too. Come on, ah, Lucy.”
He led her down the hall past the barber’s living quarters to his bathroom, a rudely finished compartment containing a large tin tub and racks for cloths, towels and clothing. At least the walls were chinked against drafts and, perhaps more importantly, spies.
“You called me Lucy,” she noted, regarding him curiously.
“I want these people to forget your real name.”
The boy entered, straining with the first bucket of water. Steam soon rose from the tub. He grinned at the woman on his way out. “Hullo, Lucy!”
“That shouldn’t be too hard,” she remarked dryly to Branden.
Several buckets later the boy noted, “That’s the last one.”
“I’ve got an errand for you,” Branden told him, passing him a quarter. “Run over to Dalton’s and tell him to bring me two woman’s dresses, size eight. Right, Lucy?” At her acquiescence he continued, “Style and color to suit a brunette. Plus a set of underclothing and a pair of lady’s boots. What size, Lucy?”
“You got that?”
“Size eight dresses, size seven boots. What if he’s busy?”
“Tell him I’ll make it worth his while. Tell him to bring a cowboy’s grub kit, too.”
“You want ’em fetched in here?”
“Right here. You can help him. I’ll have another errand for you when you do.”
When the boy departed, Branden latched the door and gestured toward the tub. “Madam, your bath awaits.”
She looked at it hesitantly. “It’s too hot.”
“Those sores need hot water.”
She sighed and let the blanket fall away. She arched one leg over the rim of the tub, great toe into the water. “God, it is hot!”
“Get into it slowly. Come on. I’ll brace you.”
He held her under the arms from behind and she eased her buttocks into the water, whimpering and moaning, complaining of the heat and the sting of her cuts. But her complaints soon died away and she leaned back in the tub. “Ohhh!” she sighed with the beginnings of contentment. Then she peered at him sharply. “What’re you doing? It’s not big enough for you to get in here with me.”
He was hanging coat and shirt on a rack. “I’m going to wash your hair.”
She studied his well-muscled chest and her eyes widened. “Was that a gunshot wound?”
“Yes. Straight through the shoulder. Lucky for me the bullet hit nothing vital.”
She mused, “Jason was shot clear through, too, but he took infection.”
“I was luckier. Who killed your husband, Eliza?”
“You think I did it, don’t you?”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now. But I am curious. Did you shoot him?”
“No. I never fired a gun in my life.”
“As I said, it doesn’t matter to us.” He uncapped the bottle of soap and poured half of it into her bath water.
“You and me.” He felt of her head and took the pins from her hair without effect. It was too crusty to descend far from the bun. He advised, “Now close your eyes tight.”
He brought up handfuls of water for her hair, then poured on a generous slug of the soap and began to scrub with his fingers. Shortly she was submerged in lather and bubbles. He took care to keep her nose clear. Finally he raised a bucket of rinse water and poured half of it over her head, washing away the soap. Further scrubbing and a second rinse left her hair, now halfway below her shoulders, squeaking between his fingers.
When he applied a scrubbing cloth to her shoulders and breasts, she commented, “I wondered if you’d do that.”
He cupped a breast in his free hand. “You have small nipples, Eliza. Did you ever bear a babe?”
“Jason’s. Would have been. It was stillborn.”
“Only the one?”
“He gave me the clap that killed it. A doctor told me the clap can sterilize a woman.”
“Not just the clap. You have nice breasts, Eliza, except for all these bruises. Who bit the side of this one?”
“I have many bite marks. Men get confused, don’t they? Especially the drunks.”
He grinned. “You mean, about what they’re supposed to do with a woman?”
“Well, they’re not supposed to eat us!”
He was scrubbing her back. “Nor piss in your mouth. The thought of that angers me. If it wasn’t so important to keep this visit quiet, I think I’d give Bart a momento of my visit.”
“He’s rough on all of us, but beating him up does no good.”
“What beating up? I’d shoot off his testicles.”
“You would?” She chuckled then peered around at him curiously. “What would you do to a woman who angered you?”
“Probably stay out of her way. Stand up, Eliza.”
The woman got shakily to her feet, holding tightly to the sides of the tub. “That, too, huh?” she remarked as his bare hands probed between her legs. “Is this bath for me or for you?”
“Surely you don’t object, Eliza. I’m surprised.”
“I don’t feel any warts.”
“Why does that surprise you?”
“Whores’ privates are usually covered with them. Here, I’ll brace you. You take the cloth and scrub yourself. Do a good job of it.”
“I can’t scrub away all the penises, Branden.”
He only grunted and raised up, keeping a tight hold on her upper arm. As she scrubbed, she said, “I’ve only been whoring about a year.”
“What did you do for the first five?”
“When I ran away from Jason’s family, I took up with a humbugger. Most of the time I helped him fleece the marks.”
“The cuckold game?”
“That and some things a lot worse. I’m not proud of it, Branden.”
“Nevertheless I want you to tell me all about it.”
“Do such stories stimulate you?”
“It’s not that. I have to know what to expect.”
“You what?” Her eyes grew large with wonder. “Are you going to tell me what this is all about?”
He shook his head. “Not until we’re more private than this place. Do you think you’re clean enough?”
“Enough for what? Let me sit down and scrub my feet first. Are you really getting me new boots?”
She had one shapely foot raised to the washcloth when a knock on the door announced the arrival of the storekeeper. The man glanced once at Eliza, visible from the nipples up above the soapy water, blushed and thereafter kept his eyes averted. Branden opened the long shoe box and held up a trim gray calf boot. “Does this look about right?” he asked Eliza.
“If it isn’t,” offered the storekeeper, “she can come in and exchange them.”
“Thank you,” responded Branden. “I’ll take it all, including this mess kit. What’s the tab?”
“This should cover it.” Branden dropped two gold coins into the man’s hand. “Keep the change.”
“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir! If there should be anything else, just send Gerry.”
“I’m Gerry,” said the errand boy, hovering in the background with eyes glued to the woman’s bare shoulders.
“No, that will be all, Mr. Dalton, and I appreciate the personal service.”
“Then good day, Mr. Branden.”
“Good day to you. Gerry, stick around.”
When Dalton had departed, Branden took a towel vigorously to the woman’s hair as the boy leaned on a rack and stared. Taking up a bucket of water, Branden said, “All right, Lucy. Time to rinse off.”
She looked at the boy, whose eyes had widened in anticipation, then at the man. “You don’t care about him?”
“Neither should you. He’s only a servant. How old are you, Gerry?”
“16,” was the answer.
“Old enough. Stand up, Lucy.”
She shrugged and holding to the sides of the tub, got to her feet and stood stolidly as he poured two full buckets of rinse water on her shoulders.
“Give me your hand,” he instructed, helping her step from the tub onto the drain boards. The watching boy licked his lips. Branden toweled her back and buttocks, then handed her the towel. “Finish drying off.”
She turned to regard him. “Are you going somewhere?”
“To pay the barber. Gerry, give her any help she asks for, especially with getting dressed.”
Branden grinned at the woman, vigorously drying her legs. She rolled her eyes back at him. “Make the most of your last Redpath admirer,” he told her before spinning out the door.
Standing in the hall, he listened through the closed door and heard the boy ask, “Does he mean you’re leaving Redpath?”
“What if I am?”
“What’s the matter?”
“I was just getting up nerve to go to the saloon.”
“You waited too late, eh? I guess at least that’s a sincere compliment.” The woman’s voice was dry. “Hand me those bloomers, will you?”
“Could I … Could I maybe …”
The woman chuckled. “You’ll have to ask Mr. Branden.”
Suddenly the boy’s voice was all business. “Can I hold them open for you?”
Branden walked up the hall with a grin. He found the barber alone in his shop, standing before the front window. The man turned at Branden’s entrance.
“Something interesting out there?” Branden asked.
“Well, yes, sir, there is.”
“Tell me about it in a moment. First, what do I owe you?”
“About through with the room?”
“Yes, we are.”
“I, uh, I’ve got a room with a bed, if …”
“No, thank you. Just the bath water and the clean towels.”
“The water’s 50 cents. The towels come with the room. That and the soap … Make it a dollar.”
“Make it two, then.” Branden dropped silver into his hand. “Now tell me what’s interesting in front.”
“Thank you, sir. What’s interesting is that Dalton seems to have put an armed guard atop his store with another leaning on the hitching posts.”
“Yes, that is interesting! You don’t mind if the lady and I use your back door, do you?”
“No, sir, not at all. In fact I think I’d prefer it. Window glass is hard to replace out here, even with the railroad running two trains a week.”
“I expect it is, at that. We’ll be leaving shortly.”
Back in the bathroom Branden hurried Eliza into the remainder of her toilet. While she was coiling and pinning up her wet hair, he said to the boy, “Take this cartwheel and grub kit over to the saloon and tell them to fill it up with coffee and a bacon and egg breakfast. Go out the backdoor of the saloon and come straight to the back of the livery stable. You got that? The back of the stable!”
“I’ll have a couple more cartwheels for you when you get there. If anybody asks, tell him Lucy is entertaining me in the barber’s bedroom, that we’ll probably come out in half an hour.”
“The barber’s bedroom.” His eyes swung enviously to the woman. “Is she really gonna —”
“Get going!” Branden interrupted. “You know what to do.”
The boy whirled away. Eliza was standing, booted and dressed in full length dark gabardine, before the small mirror, putting the final shape on her chignon. He folded her second dress, along with an unused towel, into the storekeeper’s bag and straightened up. “Are you ready?”
She turned to face him. “I need some face paint.”
“Only for that black eye. Otherwise you’ve cleaned up nicely, Eliza.”
Her eyebrows rose fractionally. “Thank you.”
“You carry this,” he handed her the storekeeper’s bag, “and stay close.”
Turning the opposite way in the hall, he soon came to the barber’s back door. Drawing the pistol from his waistband, he edged the door open and stepped through it quickly, bent low, eyes scanning the landscape rapidly, pistol thrust forward, free hand holding the woman inside.
“It’s clear!” he said in evident gratification. “Take my hand and come on.”
She closed the door behind them and followed him out into the narrow alley. He led her along it quickly, watching the roof soffits above them and pausing at each gap between buildings. They saw no one else. Passing behind the saloon, they heard a woman or a child bawling inside. Branden looked at Eliza questioningly. She shrugged.
He knocked with his pistol butt against a door in the last building of the line. It was attached to a fenced pasture in which three horses stood with their mouths in the grass. Tall double doors within the fencing allowed horses in and out of the pasture.
A man with a gray beard pulled the door inward and backed away, wiping his hands on an apron. He glanced once at the woman without sign of recognition. Branden hid his pistol, led her inside and closed the door. “You got them ready?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Gray beard looked down his nose at Eliza. “You didn’t mention no woman. Ain’t got no side-saddle.”
“She’ll ride astride. Through here?”
The man followed them out of the tackle room into a large hay-floored area topped by a hayloft and lined with horse stalls. Morning sunlight flooded in through air gaps under the front roof. Two horses, a large bay morgan and a gray-spotted appaloosa mare, stood saddled in the open, reins tied to a centerpost. He led Eliza to the mare.
“Mount up so I can adjust your stirrups.”
“I need riding breeches.”
He grunted. “Sorry. You’ll have to make do in a dress.”
She bent forward, spreading her legs and thrusting her hands low between them, pushing the long skirt high behind her. Over her shoulder to him she said, “Lift it up.”
He cocked an eyebrow but obeyed her, taking the end of the cloth in his hand and raising it up her back. She reached over her head and grasped the pommel of the western saddle with both hands. Her foot fumbled for the stirrup. He aligned it and slipped it under her boot. She pulled herself up, throwing one leg over the horse and falling into the saddle with practiced grace. Her skirt draped on the mare’s hindquarters, riding up her calves only to the boot tops.
He remarked, “I expect you’re accustomed to the English saddle. Can you manage a western?”
She shrugged. “It’s just larger.”
He shortened the stirrups to fit her, looked up at her thoughtfully, then took them up another pair of notches. “That should be more like English style.”
“It is. Thank you.”
He untied her reins. Passing them to her, he asked as a test, “Do you need a curb bit?”
Her lip curled. “A curb bit is cruel.”
“I agree.” He turned to the liveryman. “Did you get everything I ordered?”
“Yeah. All except the hat. You didn’t tell me a size.”
“You got a boy’s Stetson around here somewhere?”
“Give it to me and add it to the bill.”
Branden untied the morgan’s reins and stood holding them until the man returned, bearing a dirty tan hat. Branden took it, examined it with a grunt and passed it up to the woman. “Try that.”
She wrinkled her nose at the stained sweatband but settled it gingerly on her head and slipped the neckband under her chin. “It’ll do.”
“What’s the tab?” Branden asked the liveryman.
“You didn’t say if you wanted to rent the mare.”
Branden shook his head. “I won’t be coming back.”
“Then with saddle and bedrolls, and ammunition and hardtack, and the other —”
“Never mind an inventory. How much?”
The man studied Branden and licked his lips. “80 dollars,” he declared.
Branden chuckled grimly. “That appaloosa had better be a high-stepper.” He took a handful of gold coins from his pocket and counted several into gray beard’s hand. “You got a bill of sale?”
“Right here.” The man took a paper from his pocket. “It’s signed. You can fill in your name.”
After scanning it, Branden stuck it in his own pocket. “I want to go out the back. Open those doors and the fence gate.”
Gray beard suddenly discovered his manners. “Yes, sir.” He flung the rear doors open and proceeded out into the pasture while Branden mounted.
“Follow me,” Branden told the woman, his knees urging the morgan forward. Ducking his head, he walked the horse into the bright light, looking back to observe the woman’s performance. She obeyed without difficulty.
The liveryman stood at the open gate but his face was turned to something beyond the side of the building. Branden drew his pistol as he turned the horse toward the gate. Rounding the corner, he saw Gerry, bearing the grub kit, and behind him Bart, the saloon keeper.
“Leaving us so soon, Mr. Branden?” asked Bart tauntingly. “Williams, is he stealing them horses?”
Branden responded, “Both horses are mine. The pistol is just a precaution.” He returned the weapon to his waist band. “Come along, Lucy.”
He pulled up just beyond the gate and extended his hand to Gerry, who passed up the metal kit, now noticeably heavier. The boy whispered, “He followed me. I couldn’t stop him.”
Branden tucked the kit between the pommel and his belly, then threw two silver cartwheels toward the boy, who caught them handily. “I know you couldn’t,” he agreed. Looking up to the glaring saloon keeper, he said, “Well, a good day to you.”
“Not so fast. Where you going with my woman?”
Branden laughed. “Where you’ll never see her again.”
“Damn your eyes!” Bart gritted his teeth. “Don’t you know you can’t just come into town and steal a man’s stock in trade?”
“Yes, I know that. Don’t you know that slavery was abolished in this country 15 years ago?”
Bart’s hand hovered over his holstered pistol. He declared, “Branden, you ain’t gonna take that woman.”
“Yes, I am, Bart. Does this town have a doctor? For your sake I hope so, because you’re going to need one bad a second after you draw that Colt.”
Bart hesitated. “One shot and the sheriff’s men will be here.”
“They won’t do you any good! I won’t kill you, Bart. I’ll just shoot your balls off. Think of it as a warning not to piss in another woman’s mouth.”
Bart’s eyes bulged from his head. “Don’t tell me where to piss!” He snatched the pistol from its holster.
Branden’s hand moved with the speed and precision of a striking snake. In a blink his revolver was aligned with the crouched saloon keeper. It crashed with an orange flare, filling the air with blue smoke and reverberating echoes. Both horses shied but calmed under tightened reins. The saloon keeper sagged to his knees, pistol thrown aside, hands in his groin. Mouth working, he stared in horror at Branden.
“If you can’t find a doctor,” the mounted man shouted over the ringing in all ears, “cover it with boiling pitch. But get a compress on it quick, before you bleed to death. Come along, Lucy. We have a bit of a run before us. Can you manage a gallop?”
“Just lead on,” she responded in her high voice, hunching over the mare’s mane.
He aimed his horse across a field planted in late corn and leaned forward to urge it to speed. Behind him the appaloosa’s hoof beats matched the morgan’s pace. He glanced back as they pounded away and saw the liveryman bent over a prone Bart with Gerry running toward the street. The woman was also looking backward. She faced forward with a grin of satisfaction.
He held the horses back to a canter and maintained it for a mile and a half until they reached the foothills he had scouted on first arrival. Here on bare rock their dust cloud dissipated. Rounding the hill he reined in his horse, extending a flattened hand to instruct the woman likewise, and turned it to the rocky slope. Up the side of hill they went, both horses snorting for breath, urged on by his knees and heels. He was pleased to see the woman maintaining the pace, her arm loose around the mare’s pitching neck, lips moving in verbal encouragement.
The slope eased as they neared the crest. Keeping the grub kit in one hand, he slipped off the back of his horse and led it into a small depression between two house-sized boulders. The appaloosa followed. “Dismount,” he told the rider and took the reins from her, laying the grub kit to one side. “Fetch me that big stone.”
Straining, she brought a loose rock larger than her head to him and obeying his gesture, dropped it on the gathered ends of both reins. “Will that hold them?” she asked doubtfully.
“Long enough,” he answered shortly. “Come on, but keep your head down.”
She followed him around one of the boulders to a narrow ridge. “Take off your hat,” he instructed her, “and keep your head low enough to barely see.”
“See what?” But the hat came off.
She followed his example and raised her head slowly to peer over the narrow ridge of rock. Below them the little town was spread out in the distance. The sun was well clear of the opposite hills. It limned a fresh dust cloud just beginning to rise in pursuit of the remains of their own.
“They’re slow off the mark. Bet they had to saddle their horses.” He squinted. “I make out … five of them. What’s your count?”
“Sorry. I can’t see any. My distance vision isn’t that good.”
“Maybe your vision isn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
He turned to regard her. “Eliza, damned few men could have followed right behind me up that hill, especially on a strange horse. How in the hell did you ever end up fucking every hard dick on top of a bar?”
At first she turned her face away from him. When she looked back, her eyes glinted. “That appaloosa gets the credit for the hill. It was a woman’s horse. As for me, I’m a good mare, too.”
“You mean you like that bar top?”
She sighed. “I told you before, I didn’t have a choice.”
He shook his head. “Whoever sold you that bill of goods was a champion salesman.”
“I thought of killing myself.”
“But I didn’t for just one reason.” She looked away again. “You’re right: I liked the attention.” She tilted her head toward the approaching dust cloud. “What will you do about them?”
“It depends on what they do.” He backed away from the ridge. She followed him around to the horses, now standing quieter. He rummaged in his saddle bag and came up with a box of rifle ammunition, then lifted a Winchester lever-action from its long holster behind the saddle. Working the lever, he jacked a first round into the breech.
He took his pistol from his waistband and extended it to her butt first. “This is easy to use. All you do is pull back the hammer, this tang right here, as far as it will go, point it and pull the trigger.”
She stared at him, hands remaining at her side. “Why?”
“Just in case. In case our horseshoes scraped a mark on the rock and they notice it. In case I don’t kill all of them before they kill me. In case you’d rather kill or be killed than go back to being a sex slave.”
She shook her head. “Whatever happens to me, I can’t kill a man, Branden.”
She sighed. “No. The sheriff’s office was full of guns.”
He returned the weapon to his clothing. “All right. Hopefully none of my cases will happen.”
“Hopefully.” She stared at him with glistening eyes and added in hardly more than a whisper, “Thank you, Mr. Branden.”
“Call me Taylor, won’t you? You stay here with the horses. Try to keep them soothed. We’ll know in a minute what it’s going to be.”
He disappeared around the boulder. She freed the reins from under her stone and wrapped them around her wrist. She stood between the horses, alternatingly rubbing a bay cheek, then a white one, and began softly to sing a lullaby that her first pony had loved 20 years before. She heard a distant ringing of iron horseshoes on rock and positioned her hands to block either horse’s nostrils in case the animal should want to call out to its brethren below. Neither did. She remembered hearing that only unaccompanied animals feel the need.
The distant hoof beats died away. She waited tensely until footfalls announced the man’s approach. He appeared around the boulder and smiled at her. “They rode on.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” she breathed, daring to relax.
“We’ll wait here a few minutes to let them get through the pass up there, then we’ll head out at right angles, which will get us to the Larraby tomorrow.”
“The Larraby? That’s a silver mine, isn’t it?”
“Was. But it has a water tower for the railroad. We can catch tomorrow’s train.”
He put the reins back under the stone and took up the grub kit. “Hungry?”
He grinned. “A little fresh air is good for the appetite. This is for you.”
“What about you?”
“I had breakfast before I came to the jail.”
“Oh, god, Br— Taylor. You think of everything!”
* * * *
They rode north all day, trotting the horses in the flat valleys and walking them over the ridges. The woman followed close behind the man without complaint. The sun was low when they came to a small wooded dell with a brook winding through it. Branden paused to study the lay of the land, then announced that they would camp there. He set about unsaddling the horses but kept them bridled and tied to a tree on long leads within reach of the water. When he returned to the woman, he found that she had gathered and stacked dead wood creditably over tinder for a fire and was waiting with a lucifer from their saddle bags.
He looked over her work and said, “Go ahead. Where did you learn to do that, Eliza?”
“My father taught me. He and I were very close.” She struck the match on her boot sole and lit the edges of the tinder.
When the fire was well started, she said, “I need to relieve myself.”
He tilted his head. “Squat over the stream.”
An eyebrow rose. “Shall I have no privacy?”
“I should tell you: I was at the other end of the bar last night when you called ‘free pussy.’ But that’s not it. These hills harbor cougar that prey on the elk and deer. You need to stay close to me, if you won’t have my gun.”
She cocked her head. “Did you … take me last night?”
“No. I have never had that pleasure.”
She chose a narrow spot in the brook and squatted with a boot on either side, her skirt about her waist. She sighed in relief. He stared at her frankly.
Her eyes glinted up at him. “I guess you never will get an eye full.”
“Probably not, Eliza.” He came around her and straddled the brook just downstream. She heard his own release.
Wiping herself on the lining of her skirt, she began, “When will you tell me —” But he turned away and took cans and grub kits from their saddle bags. She watched him opening a can of beef stew and one of beans. At his direction she filled the coffee pot from the stream and set it in the flames. Shortly they were able to sit beside each other near the fire and eat their suppers as dusk fell on their campsite.
She said thoughtfully around her mouthfuls of food, “Taylor, you are a most unusual man. I’ve seen a lot of men, men of all kinds, high and low, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the likes of you.”
He chuckled dryly. “When an experienced … courtesan tells a man he’s unique, I suppose he should take it seriously.”
“‘Courtesan?’ Call me what I am, Taylor.”
He shook his head. “You’re not even a courtesan now, Eliza. You’re a lady again.”
“But I’m the same woman.”
“No, you aren’t. As I told the barber, you’re with me now.”
“I’m your woman?”
“In a sense, a very fundamental sense, yes, you are. For the next two months.”
“Two months! What happens after that?”
“Three or four things. You’ll be released from the sanitarium, hopefully cured of any dependence on whisky and stray dicks, though that part is mainly up to you. Also, you’ll be free of me, which other women have on occasion called a consummation devoutly to be wished. Third, your brother-in-law will be elected the territory’s first governor. Or he will not. If the voters do approve him, you will be given the signature card for a St. Louis bank account containing 100,000 dollars as payment for your absence from the governor’s life. He hopes you’ll go to Vienna, as you said you wanted when you were young.”
Her eyes had widened. “Good god! So that’s what you meant by ‘not shameful to me.’”
“Actually I meant, with that warrant against you quashed, which it is, and you removed from your bar top, which you are, you would cease to be a matter of real and potential shame to your sister and her husband.”
He chewed for awhile before continuing, “In fact we didn’t know about your bar top exercises, only that you were working in a saloon in Redpath. But I had followed some of your career with your humbugger — did you know the sheriff in Dodge considers you a suspect in that murder, too?”
“I didn’t kill him!”
“No, I’m confident you didn’t. But when I got here three days ago, I realized just how infamous you might become if word got out about your life here. And it well might. Redpath does have a telegraph operator, when he gets his fist on the right instrument. I saw him fucking you last night.
“That’s why I couldn’t simply blaze our way out of Redpath. It’s too bad Bart lost his nuts, but given the squeamishness of the newspapers, that may go unreported. At least the reason for the gunfight shouldn’t be given. Fortunately I didn’t have to kill that posse. Five dead could never be ignored!”
She thought over his words. “Freddy hired you?”
“Yes. I used to work for Pinkerton. Before that I was a U. S. Marshall. I’ve kept my badge. It’s come in handy once or twice.”
“He said you hated his guts.”
“With reason. He killed my husband.”
Branden raised a hand. “I didn’t hear that. Don’t say it again.”
“Is that a threat, Mr. Branden?”
He took a breath. “Eliza, you need to understand your circumstances exactly. My mission, the minimum requirement, was only to make certain that you could never be a threat to Frederick Mittel’s political career, if he should actually have one. For this I have been paid $100,000 in advance with a second 100,000 promised if Mittel is elected. Do you understand all that this means?”
“Yes, I understand,” she agreed bitterly. “Killing me and hiding my body would discharge your obligation neatly.” Ceasing to chew, she stared at him for a long time. “But nevertheless you’ve risked your life for me? And plan to give me your bonus?”
His eyes were level on hers. “No. Mittel will pay your 100,000 separately. I made him agree to it.”
He took a deep breath but didn’t reply.
“Why would you do so much for the most common whore in the west?”
He stared at her and finally looked away before muttering, “I hate to clean grub kits.”
“Yes. Take care of them, will you?” He put his down, got to his feet and went to open the two bedrolls by firelight, laying them side by side in the thickest grass.
She hung the clean kits on a bush to dry, then came and stood before him where he sat cross-legged between the two sets of blankets. “What else can I do for you?”
He looked up solemnly. “Take off your clothes.”
“My … clothes?”
“All of them.” He got to his feet, went to the saddle bags and returned to her with a small glass jar. She was just stepping out of her bloomers, having laid dress, petticoat and camisole neatly on the grass. The new boots stood behind her.
She turned to him naked, her face expressionless. “How do you want me to lie?”
“I don’t.” He unscrewed the lid of the jar.
“What’s that,” she asked, “another Indian remedy?”
“Exactly. It’s for cuts and abrasions. Heals them without infections.”
He smeared her body liberally with the white salve, which vanished when rubbed into the skin.
She made a face. “Yuck! It has the odor of mold.”
“But it works. The smell soon goes away. Your sores look a lot better tonight than they did this morning. The hot bath was good for them.”
“Yes, it was. Thank you. Ooo! That tickles.”
“Sorry. How did you get this scar?”
“Which one? Oh. Bart did that.”
“He was … pushing a lamp chimney into me when it broke.”
“Bart will have one, too, larger but in about the same place. In his case I am beginning to regret not aiming higher.”
Her voice grew hard. “No, you took the right revenge. I’m sorry I won’t be around to remind him of it.”
“Vindictive, are you, Eliza?”
“I suppose I am. But I can also be grateful. Take off your clothes, too.”
“Eliza, you have abrasions on your labia. I put the salve on them, but they need to rest.”
“So? I know other ways to please a man.”
He sealed the jar, reached down for a blanket and wrapped her in it. “The evaporating salve will make you cold. I’m going to check the horses and look around. When I come back, I’ll take off my clothes. Spread another blanket over yours so the dew won’t wet them.”
* * * *
“My god, Eliza! You can have no conception of what this means to me.”
He lay naked on his back, head propped up by an elbow. The woman bent over his midsection, her scabbed breasts jiggling in the firelight as her head rose and fell. He pushed her loosened hair back over her shoulder to allow himself a clear view of the lips shaping themselves tightly around his turgid member.
She released him long enough to say, “So tell me what it means.” She re-enclosed the knob and tongued it roughly. Slowly her face sank until he felt the compression at the back of her throat.
“You are 34 years old,” he explained almost dreamily. “14 years ago you were engaged to be married to Jason Eberly, a dashing fellow just home from the war. You were to be a June bride, but you wanted to graduate from the Somerville Ladies’ Academy and needed a tutor to help you catch up with all the classes you had missed in your whirlwind romance with Lt. Eberly, the great war hero. My father, Professor Eldred Branden, was the tutor your father hired. I drove my father, whom you may recall had lost a leg, to your mansion every weekday for two months. In the warmth of May you persuaded him to teach you outside. I stood day after day beside my horses, watching nothing but your breathtaking beauty. You usually sat with Father in your arbor swing, but on a few days of splendor you sat with him on the marble bench next to the drive, not six feet away from me. Do you recall the low-cut summer gowns you wore? I do: every stitch of them, and every square inch of the perfect skin of your shoulders and upper breasts — and the hollow between them visible when I stood behind you.
“I listened to your high voice recite as father directed and watched your full lips conform to the words. I dreamed of you in my arms, of kissing your breasts. I pumped the seed from myself every night for months, imagining your lips on mine, your body submitting to me as I submitted to you. But of course any designs I may have formed to achieve that were dashed from the start. In due course you married the famous hero and I ran away to the west.
“I thought I might hope to feel your nipple hanging in my palm as it does now, but I never in my wildest dreams imagined seeing the lovely lips that shaped the words of Tennyson and Swinburne conform instead to the shape of my dick, to feel the head of it in the back of your throat. To release … my seed — oh, god! — past your trilling tongue instead of your cunt lips. Aaah! … Eliza, I don’t care how many others have been here before me, how much spunk you have swallowed, tonight you are mine and I am yours, however briefly that may be so.”
She did not rise up immediately. Instead she simply held him loosely against her palate until he began to shrink. When at last her face turned up to him, no sign of his emission was visible anywhere.
“I did see you beside that surrey,” she reflected. “I remember you. I remember wondering if your father might have been handsome as you when he was young.”
He smiled. “Do you!”
“I had a terrible crush on your father. He was the one I dreamed about in my bed those last weeks. My finger was busy, wishing it were his finger!”
“What? But you were about to marry —”
“I hated Jason Eberly. It was my father that loved him! Jason had already raped me while he was home on leave to recover from that silly wound of his leg that everyone whispered he caused deliberately. He didn’t care for me either and only agreed to the marriage because my sister had witnessed the rape — and because my father was rich, of course. But so was his.
“It was your father I loved! The kindest, sweetest, most patient man I ever knew. You have some of his qualities, Taylor.” She cocked her head. “But you don’t resemble him.”
“I take after my mother’s family.”
“Well!” She regarded him with amusement. “So when you finally realize your dream, it is in my mouth. How ironic! Your father also put things in my mouth, be they only words.” She giggled. “In those days I had never so much as heard of sucking a dick!”
After a pause she added, “But I offered you the other.” She shrugged. “Now I know men well in every part of my body.”
“So I understand,” he agreed dryly.
She smiled wanly. “You’ve rescued me from … something I’d rather forget. This is the first time since I fled Jason’s vengeful family that I can look forward with hope. For your sake I wish I could again be the relatively innocent girl of 20 you loved in my father’s garden, but all of that is long gone: father, garden and girl. As I told you this morning, you can’t scrub away the penises. Still, it has a bright side.”
“I don’t see it.”
“What I just did for you — would you say it was well done?”
“Huh! No one — and believe me the best have tried — ever sucked my dick better. I especially enjoyed your … lingering after.”
“How do you think I learned to do it so well?”
He cleared his throat. “You do have a point.”
She took a blanket from the roll at his feet, lay down beside him and spread it over them both. She laid her head on his shoulder, breast on his side, and lightly stroked the scar on his chest. Her hair glistened in the dying firelight.
She mused, “How long will it take my vagina to heal?”
He chuckled. “That’s for you to say. But let’s at least give it a night’s rest.”
A bit later she murmured, “It’s Friday, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Thinking of the saloon?”
“Want to go back?”
“No.” She strengthened her voice. “I want to go with you.”
“That you will. For the next week the only way you can get away from me is to kill me.”
“And after a week?”
“Then you’ll rest in the sanitarium.”
“After a week you’ll grow tired of me, Eliza.”
“You think I will, eh?”
“Did you never marry, Taylor?”
“Never. What are you doing?”
“Just checking. This bag was truly full.”
“When I’m on a mission, I do without.”
“Not on this mission, you won’t. We have two dreams to fulfill.”
Copyright © 2000, Kellis
Stories at http://www.dhp.com/~kellis