Wednesday, September 20, 1871, Week 9 -- Day 6
"You sure you don't need a hand with that trunk?" Arsenio held the cabin door open, while Laura bent down to walk through with the trunk she carried balanced on her shoulders and back.
She shook her head. "For the tenth time, Arsenio, it ain't that heavy; just my clothes and such."
"In that case, welcome to your new home." He stepped in and closed the door behind him.
"It ain't my home. This is just temporary -- till I can figure out what to do about Jane."
"Which may not be anytime soon. Anyway, it's your home, now and for as long as you want -- or need it."
"Thanks," she looked around. "Not bad though." The room was large and airy, mostly it was a sitting room, filled with old but comfortable-looking furniture, a couch and two chairs clustered around a low table and three cabinets along the walls. She turned and saw with a working kitchen at one end, complete with a stove and sink. A large table with four wooden chairs was a sort of dividing point between the two parts of the room.
Arsenio pointed in the direction she was looking. "Brought that stove with...with me when I came out here, that pump there on the sink, too. I'm...ah...sorry about those dirty dishes."
"Oh, well," Laura sighed. "I've washed enough of them over at the Saloon, a few more won't matter."
"Over there's the couch -- that's where I'll be sleeping. Those're my clothes for tomorrow on the chair next to it." He smiled wryly. "That way, I won't have to bother you in the morning."
"You damned well better not." She looked around again. "Where is the bedroom, anyway?"
"Over there." He pointed to a door at the north end of the far wall. There was a second door at the south end of the same wall. "And that other door leads out to my smithy." Laura noticed a strong-looking latch on the second door. "The necessary's in a corner of the smithy."
"Let's go to the bedroom then, so I can unpack."
"I thought you'd never ask," he said with a grin.
"You keep talking like that, Arsenio, and I'll go back to the Saloon, Jane or no Jane."
"Oh, c'mon, Laura. I was just having a little fun with you."
"You just remember that joking around like that is the _only_ sort of fun you're gonna have with me."
'A man can always hope,' Arsenio thought. Aloud, he said. "I'll remember it if you will."
"And just what does _that_ mean?"
"Laura, sometimes you are the most humorless woman in the Arizona Territory. I was just making another joke."
"A very little one." She opened the door and walked through into the bedroom with Arsenio right behind her. She put the trunk down onto the bed and looked back at him. She noticed that there was a latch on this side of the door. It looked as strong as the one on the smithy door.
"You can put your clothes into that dresser there." He pointed. "I already moved my things into the one next to it. That rack on the other side is for anything you need to hang up."
Laura nodded. It wasn't a bad room, not bad at all. And it was a hell of a lot better than sharing a room with Jane.
"I'll leave you then," he said. "That way, you can unpack your 'unmentionables' in private." He turned and walked out, closing the door behind him.
Laura leaned over the bed and tested the mattress with her hand. Goose down from the feel of it, this was much definitely much better than her bed at the Saloon. She opened the trunk, then opened the top drawer of her dresser.
There was a picture frame stuck in the back of the drawer, wrought iron with elaborate filigree. It was face down. Curious, she turned it over. The picture was a photograph, a young woman with a heart-shaped face and long, darkly colored hair. She was smiling a happy, almost mischievous smile.
Laura picked up the picture and walked back into the cabin dayroom. "Arsenio," she asked. "I found this in the dresser. Who is it?"
Arsenio looked like he'd been pole-axed. "Damnation! I thought I hid that in my dresser."
"What do you mean? Who is she, and why would you hide her picture."
"Laura, please...it's not important."
She'd never seen him like this. From the look on his face she could tell it was very important. "If that's the case, why have you gone white as a sheet? Then she realized she was prying and shook her head. "It's...it's all right. You don't have to tell me anything."
Arsenio hesitated for a moment, then he seemed to get a grip on himself. "No...no, it's...it's something you might as well know about." He took a deep breath. "Her name is...was Eleanor. She...she was my...wife."
"Your wife." Laura sat in the other chair. "I never knew you were married."
"We grew up together in Birmingham. Her brother and I worked in the same steel mill. I married her just after the War."
"What happened? You don't have to tell me if you...you don't want to."
"Consumption. Eleanor came down with it during the War. It got real bad about six months after we got married. The doctors back there said the only chance she had was a drier climate. We left for Arizona less than a month after that."
She reached over and gently took his hand. "But it was...too late."
"No, it worked...for a while anyway. It...she got real sick again about a year after we got out here. She...died three months after that." He closed his eyes, and she could hear the pain in his voice.
"I'm sorry, Arsenio. Like my momma used to say about my daddy, she ain't dead as long as you remember her."
"I know that, and I'll always remember her. She was the best sort of wife, my friend and my partner, as well as my...love."
"Sounds like you're still grieving for her." Why did she feel disappointed?
"I don't dare," he said with a wry smile. "She said if I spent the rest of my life mooning over her, she'd come back and kick my sorry ass."
He paused a beat. "Doc and Whit helped me get through it when Eleanor died." He smiled again, just a little. "I think she'd be glad I was getting on with my life, making a new...friend like you." He took a breath and waited to see her reaction. "You better go back and get unpacked. Shamus expects you to show up for work about noon, and it can't be that far off."
"You're right," Laura said, gratefully letting him change the subject. "I do have a lot of unpacking to do."
"I think this arrangement is going to work out just fine."
* * * * *
"Bridget, how soon will ye be opening yuir table?" Molly asked. "A couple of people have been wondering."
Bridget took a last bite of sandwich. "I'm just finishing lunch now, Molly. Give me another ten minutes or so."
"What are ye talking about?" Molly looked honestly surprised. "Ye can't be running yuir poker table looking like that?"
Bridget stood, so Molly could see her clothes. "What's wrong with how I'm dressed? I've worn this outfit -- or one like it -- every day since I began working here."
Molly looked her critically. "Aye, ye have, and for a waitress or a dealer them clothes is perfectly all right. Only, ye ain't a dealer _now_, are ye?"
Bridget shrugged. "No, I'm running a poker game -- or I will be running one in a few minutes. What difference does it make?"
"What difference?" Molly grabbed Bridget by the arm. "Two whole months as a woman, and she still doesn't understand." She began to walk towards the door, pulling Bridget along.
"What the..." Bridget yelled, stumbling after her. "Hey, Shamus, give me a hand here. Molly's trying to kidnap me."
Shamus looked up from his own lunch at a nearby table. "I don't know what's going on, Bridget, but I do know that look in her eye. Ye might as well go along with her. It's a waste of good breath to be arguing with me Molly when she gets like that."
Bridget was dragged out onto the street before she could reply. "_Molly_! Can you at least tell me where we're going?"
"Over to Rachel's," Molly said. "She should have what we -- what ye need."
"What _I_ need?" Bridget planted her feet, stalling Molly for a moment. "Will you _please_ tell me why you're doing this?"
"Tell me, Bridget," Molly asked, looking exasperated. "Did ye ever see Doc Upshaw, or the Judge, or even Milt Quinlan for that matter -- did ye ever see any of them in thuir shirtsleeves?"
Bridget shook her head. "No, but what has that --"
"Of course ye didn't," Molly said triumphantly. "Thuir professional men, and they know enough to be dressing the part." She yanked Bridget's arm and began walking again, dragging the other woman along with her.
Bridget stumbled after her, trying to pull her arm free. "So they're 'professional men,' so what has that to do with me?"
By now, they'd reached Silvermans' General Store, and Molly walked through the open door, pulling Bridget in with her. "So, ye're a professional, too, ain't ye, a professional gambler is still a _kind_ of professional, ye know, and ye can't be a professional looking like some waitress."
Rachel came bustling over to them. "Molly...Bridget, what can I help you with?"
"You can tell her to let me go," Bridget said.
"Ye can explain to her why she shouldn't dress like a servant to be running a poker game." Molly finally let go of Bridget's arm. She was still blocking the way out of the store. "Now listen to Rachel, will ye."
Bridget sighed. It would be easier to listen than to spend the time fighting. "All right, I'll listen, but I'm not promising to agree -- or to buy anything."
Rachel took a step back and looked Bridget up and down. "Well, now if it's me you're asking, Bridget, Molly is right. A gambler you don't look like. _If_ you want people should treat you like a gambler, _then_ you got to look like you _was_ a gambler."
Bridget laughed. "I don't think that I can quite manage a frock coat and a handlebar mustache these days."
"Not hardly," Rachel said, "but I think that you _could_ manage..." her eyes ran down the rack and shelves of woman's clothing. "...an Eaton jacket."
Molly clapped her hands. "The very thing. What've ye got in her size?"
Rachel slid things along the rack. Five jackets stood together, separated on each side from the rest of the clothes. "This one for today, I think," Rachel said. She took a short, dark green jacket with lighter green embroidered trim from the rack and handed it to Bridget. "It goes with your coloring, and it should work with that black skirt."
"I suppose..." Bridget said, not quite getting the point of it all. She put on the jacket and buttoned it to the collar. It felt a bit tight in the waist and around her chest, but she could get used to it if she had to.
"If it was special made for you, it wouldn't look better," Rachel said.
"Sure'n ye're right, Rachel," Molly said, "but it's still needing something."
"C'mon, Molly...Rachel, I don't have time for --"
"Time!" Molly said. "A lady's pocketwatch on a bob in the pocket, do ye have such a thing, Rachel?"
"Of course," Rachel said. She hurried to a display of watches on a nearby counter and unlocked it with a key from her pocket. She took out a small watch with a gold case and brought it over. She pinned the end of the chain near the lapel of the jacket and placed the watch itself in the pocket. She stepped back and looked at Bridget. "Such a lady," she said with a smile.
"Aye," Molly said, "but her hair needs some work.
"This should do it," Rachel said, stepping over behind Bridget. She gathered Bridget's hair together, then used a tortoiseshell pin to hold it in place. The hair fell down around her shoulders, and Rachel spread it out in a fan around her neck. "Perfect!"
"It had better be," Bridget said in an exasperated tone. "I've wasted enough time here." She started for the door.
"What do we owe you?" Molly asked Rachel as she turned to hurry after her charge.
"I'll send a bill," Rachel called after them.
Bridget was fussing with her jacket as she hurried across the street to the Saloon. "Stop that," Molly ordered. "Don't ye be going and undoing all our good work."
"I still don't see how the way I look like has anything to do with running a poker game," Bridget said. By now they were at the Saloon. Bridget hesitated for a moment. "Damn nerves." She took a breath and walked through the door with Molly right behind her.
Shamus was waiting just inside. "And where in the name of..." he started. Then he cocked an eyebrow and gave Bridget a look from head to toe and back again. "Excuse me, _Miss Kelly_, but there's some gentlemen who've been waiting to be playing poker with ye." He pointed to a table near the corner where five men, regulars from when she was just a dealer, were sitting. At the sight of Bridget, they all smiled and rose to their feet.
"You go over and sit down, Miss Kelly," Shamus said, "and I'll bring over the strongbox and chips."
"I'll walk her over, Shamus." R.J. was suddenly standing next to Bridget. "Miss Kelly, if you please." He offered his arm.
"Only if you stop fooling around and call me 'Bridget' again." The odd treatment was getting her goat.
"'Bridget,' it is then," R.J. said, smiling at her. Bridget frowned uneasily as she took R.J.'s arm.
R.J. walked her over to the table and pulled out a chair. "Bridget," he said, making it sound almost like a question. Bridget avoided the men's stares as she sat down. She almost gasped in surprise, when R.J. gently pushed the chair in to the table.
"Thank you, R.J.," Bridget said with a bemused smile. It was only then that she realized that the other men were still standing. "Please, gentlemen," she said, motioning to their chairs. The others nodded and sat.
'I think I could get to like this,' Bridget thought.
"Do you want anything from the bar before you start?" R.J. asked.
"No, thank you, R.J.," Bridget said. Just then, Shamus put the cashbox down on the table next to her.
"You let me know when you do; same for you gentlemen." R.J. smiled and walked back to the bar with Shamus. He had an odd sort of self-satisfied swagger to his step.
Bridget opened the cashbox and pulled out a pack of cards. Holding it up for the men around the table to see, she broke the seal and took out the cards, removing the two jokers. "Now, gentlemen," she said with a smile of deep satisfaction, "let's play some poker."
* * * * *
Late in the afternoon, Shamus sent Jane around to "bus" the tables. She walked around the room carrying a large tray with a cloth inside, picking up dirty glasses to take back to the kitchen for washing.
"I'll take that, Miss Jane," Sam Braddock said. He picked up the tray from where she had set it down on a table.
"Yeah, you just set yourself down for a bit, and we'll get this nasty job done for yah." Red Tully carried over a couple of empty glasses from a neighboring table and set them in the tray."
"While you relax," Oswyn Pratt said, "may I get you a drink...or perhaps something from the Free Lunch?"
"What the hell are you fellahs doing?" Jane asked. "You making fun of me?"
"Hell, no," Davy Kitchner said.
"Nothing could be farther from the mark," Oswyn said. "We just thought that you might appreciate a short respite from your assigned chores."
"A brief what?" Jane said, looking confused.
"A respite," Oswyn repeated. "A, ah, rest. We'll be most happy to do such things for such a pretty lady as yourself."
"You _are_ making fun of me," Jane said. "Well, I don't like it, so you can stop right now."
"My dear Miss Jane --" Oswyn said, with an oily smile.
"I ain't your dear nothing, Oswyn," Jane said. "And I don't need you all making fun of me...of my being here or the way I look."
"We wasn't making fun, Jane," Davy said. "We's your friends. Carrying around that there tray must be heavy work for you now, and we was just trying, you know, to help you out."
"I don't need no help from any of you," Jane said. "I'm strong, just like my sister, Laura. I can carry this tray and more if I needs to."
"Let us help you anyway," Red said. "We'll be glad to pitch in."
"Yeah," Jane said. "Glad to laugh at me -- or get Shamus mad at me for letting somebody else do my work -- or both."
She grabbed at the tray. Sam pulled it back. Jane's one hand caught a handle and pulled. The tray fell out of Sam's hands and crashed to the floor. A couple of the glasses fell out and broke.
"Shit!" Red said.
"Now look what you done," Jane said.
"Shall I get a broom?" Oswyn asked.
"Maybe we better just get ourselves out of here," Sam said. He reached into his pocket and took out a silver dollar. "This's for the glasses," he said as he tossed it to Jane.
"Later perhaps," Oswyn said, as the men hurried to the door.
* * * * *
Laura stuck her head into the kitchen, where Maggie was braising meat for the evening's stew. "He's here."
Maggie wiped her hands on her apron. She took the meat off the flame and walked slowly into the saloon. Ramon was at the bar having a beer.
"Hello, Ramon," Maggie said. She looked down, suddenly feeling uncertain of what she was about to do.
"Hello, Margarita," Ramon said, smiling. "You look...different. That flower...there in your hair. When a woman wears such a flower, it means she wants a man to...court her." He smiled. "Is that what you want?"
"Let us just say that I want to...consider letting you...court me. Come by my house after dinner tonight, and we shall talk more of it. My dueña and I will await you."
"Dueña?" Ramon looked confused.
Si, my daughter, Lupe." She smiled back. "I am enough of a lady, I think, to require a dueña when a man comes to call." Then she lowered her head, feeling a little shy. "But I am also enough of a woman, to pick one who goes to sleep _very_ early."
* * * * *
Jane was walking back to the bar after bringing drinks to Bridget's poker game. She turned at the sound of her name. "Oh, it's you. What do you want, Red? You come t'make more trouble for me?"
Red Tully stood holding his hat in his hands, trying to look sincere. "No, you got it all wrong, Jane. We...we was just trying to help you."
"Help me? Now there's a laugh."
"No...no really. We didn't want you thinking we was laughing at you now that you's a woman."
"I ain't a woman." She stamped her foot. "I ain't. I ain't. I...I just look like one right now."
Red raised his hands, palms out, in front of him, as if defending himself. "Okay, Jane, okay. You ain't a woman. I'm sorry I brung the whole thing up." To himself, he thought, 'but you sure are acting like one.'
"You should be sorry. Is that really all you guys wanted before, to help me?"
"Well, Davy still wants that money you owes him...Come t'think of it, you owe me a couple of bucks."
Jane hesitated. "I...I can't pay you now. I ain't got no money here at the Saloon, and they won't let me go back up..." She let her voice trail off.
Yes! "That's all right. I'm willing t'wait. So's Davy...probably."
"You are? 'Cause I am gonna pay you." She grinned. "I'm a man what pays his debts, you know."
"I know that," Red said with a smile. This was going to be easy. "After all, you and me is friends."
* * * * *
Thursday, September 21, 1871, Week 9 -- Day 7
The front door was a deep burgundy color with bright gilt edging. Bridget took hold of a small, hinged bronze cherub -- no, a cupid with a bow -- in the middle of the top panel and knocked once.
"Allo," came a French-accented male voice from inside. A slot opened in the door, and she saw a pair of eyes looking at her. "We are not hiring now." The slot slammed shut.
Bridget stiffened at the insult, then looked around in embarrassment. It was mid-morning, and there were only a few people on the street to see her. She knocked again. "I'm not here for a job. I came to see Wilma Hanks."
Bridget heard a lewd chuckle. "We are not opened yet, either," the voice said through the door. "Come back in the afternoon."
"I'm a friend of hers, dammit. My name is Bridget Kelly."
"Mademoiselle Kelly?" The slot slid open again. "The _poquer_ woman?"
"Yes, the...'_poquer_ woman.' Now will you let me in?"
The slot slid shut, but the door opened a few seconds later. "_Certainement_, please come in." The man was tall with a mass of curly black hair. He wore a ruffled white shirt with rolled up sleeves and the top three buttons opened, showing even more hair. He smiled, almost leered at Bridget. It made her feel like he could see right through her clothes. She didn't like it.
The man made an expansive gesture with one arm towards a pair of sliding wooden doors. "Wilma is in the parlor; that way."
"Thank you," Bridget said. As she walked towards the doors, she could almost feel his eyes riding on her hips.
It sounded like he smacked his lips. "Too bad we are _not_ hiring."
Bridget ignored the comment. She took a deep breath and slid open the parlor doors. The room was flamboyantly decorated, paintings -- some of them naked or almost naked women -- hung in gilded frames above comfortable-looking Empire-style chairs and couches. There was a writing desk in one corner near a curtained window. She had been in a lot of rooms like this when she was Brian, but he'd never felt as uncomfortable or out of place as she did now.
Wilma was sitting in a nearby chair next to one of those kalliope music boxes, looking through a stack of the interchangeable metal disks that came with it. She was half-dressed, wearing only a green corset, lacy white drawers, and matching green stockings.
"You'll catch cold sitting there dressed like that," Bridget said with a forced smile.
Wilma looked up. "With what all you got on, I'd say you're wearing enough for the both of us. What brings you around here, anyway?"
"I...uhh...I wanted to come by... after what happened last Saturday night...to see if we were still friends."
Wilma thought for a moment. She didn't want to make things _too_ easy for Bridget. "I suppose we are," she finally said with a shrug. "We got too much history between us to end things 'cause _you_ made one mistake." She paused a beat. "Just the same, you and R.J. had no business butting into things that didn't concern you. You know that, don't you?"
"I...I guess so...."
"Why didn't you two just leave me and Clay alone and go find your own corner of the yard and have your own fun."
"That...that isn't why we came out there, Wilma. Truth to tell, we...uh...we came out there after you?"
"After me? Why? "
"I...we...we didn't know that was what you were doing. We thought you were trying to get away."
"Get away? Well, if that isn't the dumbest...You remember what happened last time I tried to run away from the Saloon? You should. You got stuck by the magic back then the same as me."
Bridget nodded, remembering. "We thought you were gonna have Clay carry you."
Wilma giggled. "Now why didn't I think of that? I guess I had other thinks on my mind. But when you saw that we was just out there to have us a good time, why didn't you just leave me and him be?"
"I guess I just couldn't believe you were actually going to do...something like what you was about to do. Truth to tell, I didn't want you to do anything that you'd regret later."
"Well, 'Miss Know-It-All,' I finally did do it with Clay, upstairs here, last night, and I sure don't feel any regrets. I liked it. I liked it just fine...for a starter." She smiled as if remembering a dream. "We did a lot of other things, too."
"Will! How could you?" She had used her friend's real name for the first time in a long time.
Wilma sighed. "Bridget, we been through this before. I _like_ men, now. I like them a lot." She raised a hand to her breast and began to softly rub it as she spoke.
"The Will Hanks I knew wouldn't touch a man that way, not even if you held a pistol to his head."
"I'd prefer to be called Wilma, if you don't mind...Bridget."
"Can we...umm, stay on the subject?"
I don't think you know what the subject is," Wilma said, suddenly sounding angry. "If you're going to talk stupid, you can just..."
Bridget was used to Hank's outbursts and by now they hardly bothered her. "All right, all right. I'm glad to see that there's still a little bit of Will Hanks' orneriness left in you."
"Oh, Will's here inside me, all right. I _like_ having men inside me."
"Damn it, Wilma!" Bridget said with a shake of her head. "That potion's got you talking crazy."
"Damn it yourself, Bridget. I know it's the potion making me like this, and, you know what? I don't care."
"You like being this way?"
"Sure do. I'm a _woman_; 'cept, back then, I was fighting it, just the way you, all of you, still are. That second dose rubbed my nose in the fact, but then it showed me how good, how _very_ good, it felt to be a woman."
"Anyway, that's what you and Maggie and Laura and Jane, and...hell, even Jessie, wherever she is got to learn. Deep down, you're all women, just like me." She gave a harsh chuckle. "I'd especially like to have a front row seat when Jessie figures it out. That sister of mine would surely get an needed education if a feller got her pinned down in the hay."
"The hell any of us are like you!"
"The hell you ain't! Do you suppose you're just a man in a woman's body? Well, my little quail, it's more than skin-deep. If you took a second dose like I did, you'd _know_ it, too." She ran her hands over her tight bodice. "There's no way out, there's no way back, so why not enjoy it?
"What...what do you mean?" This conversation was getting uncomfortably close to some thoughts she'd been having.
"I mean how good it feels to be a woman with a man. But you've got to do it right. Don't just be teasing him so he acts stupid, like Jessie done with all them men in the bar. No, you get him to kiss you, to touch you. You feel him move inside you. She was beginning to breathe heavily, her hands moving once more along the curves of her breasts.
"Wilma, get control of yourself."
Wilma shook her head, making her curls bounce. "I...I don't want to, Bridget. I like feeling like this." She smiled. Now her hands worked their way down over the lacing and silk towards her waist. "Thinking about being with a man ain't near as good as being with one, but it's a damn lot better than anything else I can think of."
She stopped talking and looked Bridget straight in the eye, as if examining her. "Do you like this outfit of mine? Just what do think R.J or Cap would say -- or do -- if they saw you dolled up in something like this?"
"And you're saying that I...that we should act that way, too." Bridget couldn't help letting out a short, disdainful laugh. "I don't think they're hiring any more...women here."
"Why should they?" Wilma asked proudly. "They already got the best there is."
"In that case, I'll leave you to it."
"I ain't saying you need to come over here t'work. Dammit -- you didn't listen to me half the time when we was riding together. I don't know why I expects any better now."
Surprisingly, Bridget felt better hearing this rebuke. It was something to remind her that this strange-talking good-time girl really was the Will Hanks she remembered. "Okay, Wilma, I'm listening. What are you saying?"
"I'm saying you all got to learn to _be_ women. I been watching all you _ladies_, especially you, old friend, watching you change. You might not want to admit it, but none of you is acting quite like the man you used to be."
"Are you saying that we're acting like women?"
"Not quite. First you gotta accept that you are women. There's men in this town that'd be glad to help bring you around." She laughed again.
"I'll just bet!"
"I don't mean _that_! It'll probably come with time, though -- and so will _you_." She giggled at her own bawdy pun, then gave Bridget a look to say that the redhead was about the dumbest creature to crawl out from under a corncrib. "What I mean is, Arsenio and Ramon going after Laura and Maggie -- hellfire, you got two of your own! R.J. and Cap both've been sniffing after you since the first day Molly laced you into a corset. And you wouldn't be putting up with it if you didn't like it -- at least a little."
"Well, I'm _not_ interested in either of them. They can both give it up. " She tried to sound sure of herself.
Wilma's hard stare softened. "Bridget, let me tell you one last thing -- friend to friend."
"'Friend to friend?' Okay, what is it?"
"You're running your own game now, right?"
"Yeah, I started it yesterday. Doing pretty good, too."
"I expect you would. You always was the best poker player I ever knew." She paused for a moment. "There's just one thing, though."
"Yeah, what's that?"
"A deck of cards and a tall stack of poker chips are wonderful things t'have, but they won't keep you warm in bed at night...not like a man will."
Bridget tried hard not to frown; this wasn't the sort of advice she needed just then.
Wilma sighed. "We'd both've had a lot more fun last Saturday if you'd took R.J. -- or Cap, he's real cute, too -- if you'd taken either of them and found your own private spot in Molly's garden." She pointed a finger at Bridget. "You just think about _that_ for a while."
The truth was, Bridget would have liked to stop thinking about such things.
* * * * *
"Jane," Laura said, "can I talk to you for a bit?" It was late afternoon, and the Saloon was fairly quiet.
"I suppose," Jane said. "There ain't much else t'do."
"Is something wrong? I've been trying to talk to you for a couple days now, and you keep avoiding me."
"Have not," she said with a pout. "Maybe if you was around here more, instead of spending all you time over there with _Arsenio_." She made a face as she said his name.
"What! Are you mad at me for moving out?"
"Now why should I be mad at you? I get to do all the work while you and Arsenio are having fun over t'his place."
"We most certainly are not!" Laura surprised herself at how quickly she denied it.
"You ain't? I heard people saying --"
"Well, it ain't true. I...I just..." Laura hesitated. Hell, how could she tell Jane that the reason she'd moved out was because Jane was driving her crazy?
"Why'd you move out then? If you can't tell me, then you _did_ move out 'cause you wanted to be living with Arsenio."
"No...no. I...uh...just wanted to get out of this place part of the time. It was like...like I was in jail living and working here both. "
"Then why do you even keep working here? You could've left like Wilma did."
"I didn't _want_ a job like Wilma has." She paused. "I suppose that I do enjoy working here. I just don't want to live here, too. It's...jail, and I don't like the idea of being in jail any more than you do."
"Then...that was why you moved out?"
"I just said it was, didn't I?"
Jane threw her arms around Laura. "I knew it. I knew you didn't hate me."
Laura grimaced, but endured the hug. "Who ever said that I hated you?"
"You did; the way you acted, moving out, a lot of stuff."
"Well, Jane, I can't really say that you've done much to make me like you -- not after you kidnapped me and the way you got Shamus mad at me for what you said at the dance."
"I said I was sorry for them things, didn't I? Besides," she ran her arm up and down in front of her, "look what they done to me."
"I know what they did. That's part of the problem."
"What do you mean, 'problem'?"
'How to put this so it doesn't hurt her too bad?' Laura thought. Aloud, she answered, "Look, Jane, it's just that when they changed you, you wound up looking like me."
"Is that so bad? We's sisters now, ain't we?"
"Not really, but, because we look so much alike, everybody, even you -- no, _especially_ you expects me to look after you. When you get into trouble, like you did last Saturday --"
"Saturday? Why do people keep going on about Saturday?"
Laura sighed. "Look, we talked about this some already. What happened at the dance...when you danced with Sam Braddock, I mean."
"You remember...Sam tried to touch my boo...my breasts. I didn't like it, and I told him so."
"Yes, and you also told him that _I_ did like it." She pointed a finger at Jane. "You know I never said that. I don't like it any more than you do."
"You don't...oh, yeah, you just said that you didn't mind it too much when our...breasts touched when you was teaching me to dance." She giggled. "I guess I got it wrong."
"You guess...yes, you got it very wrong." She took a breath. "What else did you tell Sam?"
"I don't know, but I guess it wasn't that good 'cause things got real serious for a while after I said it."
"Try and remember. Was it something about me...about touching me someplace else." Lord, it was like pulling teeth.
"Oh, oh, yeah. I told Sam that you didn't want me touching your ass."
"You told Sam, all right. Only you said it so loud that the whole room heard what you said."
"Why was that a problem? You don't like your ass t'get touched, do you?"
"Of course not." This was going to be the worst part. "Do you remember what you said about _why_ I didn't want my ass touched?"
Jane scratched her head. "I...um...oh, yeah." She suddenly brightened. "I said it was 'cause you was having your monthlies, you and Wilma and Maggie and Bridget was _all_ having your monthlies."
Laura looked Jane straight in the eye. "Now, Jane, tell me what you know about the monthlies."
"I...ah, I know it's something that happens to women, something that they don't like to talk about. It's something kinda messy...smelly, too, I hear."
Laura nodded. "Now...how would you feel if you were a man, and somebody told you that the woman you were dancing with, the woman you was hold up close to you, was having her monthlies?"
"Eeew," Jane said with a shudder. "Who'd say something like that?"
"You did," Laura said. "You told the whole damned Saloon that."
Jane's eyes widened. "I...I think I get you now. That was why things got so quiet, and some of them men stopped dancing."
Finally! "Now do you understand why Shamus got so mad? He makes money from the dance, and you almost stopped that one."
"I guess so, but he was mad at you, too. I heard him say so. You didn't do nothing. Was he mad 'cause you was having your monthlies?"
"No, he knows they're something every woman has." She smiled wryly. "You'll see how he acts when you have yours in a couple of week."
"Mine!" She went white. "You mean I'm gonna...No, no, I ain't a real woman."
"You're as much a woman as any of us are, and you got to be one the same way we did. You'll have them soon enough." She paused a moment. "And the reason why he was mad at me was because he expects me to watch out for you so you don't say or do dumb...do anything like that."
"He does? Does that mean that I got to apologize t'him, too, for what I done."
"You should. He's tried to be fair with you, same as he was to all of us."
"I don't know. Sometimes, I get mad at the way he and Molly treats me. They ain't nice t'me like you are." She stopped for a moment. "You ain't just pretending, are you? You do...you really do want to watch out for me so's I don't make any more...mistakes like that?"
Lord help her, Laura thought, she did. She really did feel sorry for the little idiot. "Of course, I do," she said. "After all, we're..." She took a breath and forced out the words. "...like sisters."
* * * * *
Friday, September 22, 1871, Week 10 -- Day 1
Laura knelt and swept the last of the dirt into the dustpan. "Finished," she said, feeling rather satisfied with herself. She stood and walked over to the window to toss the dirt out into the yard. That done, she put the dustpan and hand broom on their hooks near the door and turned to look at the room.
The day room of Arsenio's cabin hadn't been this clean in a long time, she'd have wagered. The floor was swept, and a red, blue, and green checkered horse blanket was now serving as a rug. Everything else was dusted.
There were freshly cut pale blue wildflowers in a vase on the table -- her sister, Sally, always said that flowers _made_ the room, as well as a freshly washed tablecloth. She'd rearranged the pillows on the couch, so it didn't look like Arsenio was sleeping there. His blanket was folded and draped over the back of the couch. Eleanor's picture was nailed to the wall near the end of the couch where Arsenio put the pillows for sleeping.
"Nice and homey," she said with a nod of her head. It had been a hard morning's work. Keeping house for Arsenio was no different than cleaning up in the Saloon. Hellfire, she'd learned to do housework back in Indiana after momma got sick. At first, none of her sisters had been big enough for some of the harder chores. She'd done it, but it was women's work, and she'd never liked it.
Somehow, though, she didn't mind so much doing it here, making the place livable for Arsenio...and herself, of course. She shrugged and went in to straighten up her bedroom a bit before she had to report to the Saloon for the afternoon shift. Her deal was to do some of the housework for Arsenio in exchange for a place to live, and she was a man of her word.
* * * * *
Maggie felt a tug on her skirt and looked down. "Mama, mama, I want to help with the cooking." Lupe was looking back up at her, an eager smile on her face.
"Let me see," Maggie said. There wasn't much that a four-year old could do, but she was pleased that Lupe wanted to help. She closed her eyes and ran down the list of what had to be done for that evening's dinner. Carrots? Yes, she'd need carrots for the stew and as a side dish with the fried chicken. "Lupe, do you know how to peel carrots?"
"Si, mamma," Lupe said proudly. "Aunt Juana taught me. She said I did it real good, too."
"Bueno. Your Aunt Juana is a good cook. Go put on the apron that Aunt Molly bought you."
Molly had bought the aprons as welcoming presents for both children. Molly had also insisted that she and Shamus be called "aunt" and "uncle." As Molly put it, "I'll not be called Señora O'Toole by two tykes who'll be underfoot here every day."
Lupe quickly put on the apron, turning around so Maggie could tie it. "Now where is that...ah, there it is." Maggie handed Lupe the peeler. "Go get a big bunch of carrots from the cold box and get started.
Lupe got the carrots and put them on the worktable. Shamus had put a bar stool in the kitchen for her, and she moved it next to the table. She climbed up onto it and took a carrot from the bunch. A moment later, she stopped and climbed off the stool.
"What's the matter" Maggie asked.
"I forgot Inez." Lupe walked over to where she'd left her doll and brought it back to the table. She climbed back onto the stool. "Now, Inez, I am going to peel these carrots. You sit there and watch. If you are a good girl, I will tell you a story."
Maggie smiled. Lupe had said that just the way that her late mother would have. "You take very good care of Inez."
"Si," Lupe said, smiling proudly. "I take care of her like Aunt Juana took care of Ernesto and me."
"What about me?" Maggie asked, feeling left out. "Do I not take care of you, too?"
Lupe squirmed. "I guess, mama, but you are still learning how to do it."
Maggie felt uneasy. "Si, and I want to do it very well, so I will watch and learn from you and Inez."
Lupe smiled at the compliment and went back to peeling the carrots. It took Maggie a bit longer to get back to the chicken.
* * * * *
"Hello, Maggie, and hello to ye, too, Lupe." Shamus said, walking into the kitchen. "What're ye cooking for the dinner tonight?"
Lupe looked up from an almost full pot of peeled carrots. "Uncle Shamus, you forgot to say hello to Inez."
"Why so I did. A good afternoon to ye, Inez." He bowed slightly and tipped an imaginary hat, making Lupe giggle. "And what would ye three ladies be up to?"
"Cooking supper," Lupe said. "What else would we be doing?"
"Tonight we are having a beef stew and fried chicken with mixed vegetables, Shamus," Maggie said.
"Sounds delicious," Shamus said. "I was wondering, Maggie, could you be coming in about an hour early on Monday?"
"I suppose," Maggie said. "Is there some sort of problem?"
"No, no," Shamus said, shaking his head. "I'd just like to be teaching you how I do the books for the restaurant. It will take a while, but I figure an hour or so every few days should do it in no time."
"You do not have to take all that time, Shamus. I trust you."
"I'm glad that ye do, Maggie, but ye should be learning them anyways. Ye ain't my employee anymore. Ye're me partner in this restaurant, and ye should be able to be reading the accounts, to know how we're doing, as well as I."
"I thought that all I had to do was cook, and you would do the rest."
"I'll do the accounts, Maggie, but ye need to know _how_ I do them. Ye're a businesswoman now, Maggie, and knowing bookkeeping is as important to this place as getting the right cuts of meat and knowing what seasonings to use on them." He took a breath. "In fact, ye may want to think about setting up books for yuir own accounts, yuir income from the restaurant, the money ye pay to the bank, and yuir household budget. Ye owe it to yuirself and to those wee ones of yuirs to know what money comes in and what goes out."
"I will be here on Monday as you say, Shamus," Maggie said, a bit of sadness in her voice. It seems that I have much to learn to take care of myself and my children. Much, much more than I had thought."
* * * * *
"I don't t'ink you got anyt'ing, Bridget," Hans Euler said looking at her over the top of his cards.
"Maybe not, Hans, but it's going to cost you fifty cents to find out." Bridget smiled just a little, being careful not to give any clue to her hand." It had taken Brian years to get rid of his "tell," the giveaway habit of playing with the chips when he had a good hand.
"What the hell," Hans said. He tossed in two quarters. "Call."
Bridget laid down her cards. "Three sixes, Hans. Can you beat it?"
"Not mit-out a stick." He showed his hand, two pair, sevens and fours.
Bridget glanced around the almost empty room. "Shamus already called 'Last Round.' I guess we're done for the night."
"Just as well, the way mine luck is running," Hans said. "Is a good t'ing Shamus buys so much of beer from me and my brother. I sure ain't gonna get rich playing the poker."
"There's more to life than money."
"Easy for you to say; now that you got some." He tipped his hat and headed for the door.
Bridget drank the last of the beer she'd been nursing for over an hour. Since she was paying for it, she could drink real beer now. Still, she knew better than to drink much of it. Not while she was working, anyway.
Tonight, though, she would have a drink to celebrate. She stored the cards and chips in their tray of the cashbox. Hans Euler's money joined a nice, big pile won earlier in the day. She closed the box and walked over to the bar, cradling it under one arm.
Shamus and Molly had already gone to bed. It was R.J.'s turn to shut the place down for the night. "How'd you do today?" he asked, just making conversation.
"How'd I do?" Bridget smiled and hefted the cashbox onto the bar. "Gimme a whiskey, R.J." She opened the box and began counting out dollar bills. "Thank G-d for those two drummers." She almost laughed out loud as she said it.
"How's that?" He put her drink down on the bar in front of her.
"Two drummers came through town today. They sold a bunch of stuff to Rachel and a whole lot more -- fabric, buttons, and such -- to the Rylands. Then they came over here to celebrate before they headed on to Phoenix." She took a sip. "They _thought_ they could play poker."
Bridget smiled, as happy as a cat overnighting in a creamery. "If they'd spent less time looking at my...chest and more time looking at the cards and chips, they might've had a chance. As it was, I took them for almost $60 before they decided to move on. With what I won today from my...regulars, I got about $75 in here."
"Pretty good for a day's work," R.J. said. "You finish that drink, and we'll go lock it up till morning." Part of Bridget's deal with Shamus was the use of his safe. In the morning, she'd take most of her winnings over to the bank.
Bridget felt a little giddy. She figured that she needed to average between $10 and $15 a day to keep even. So far, she'd been taking in close to $20. Today, she'd earned almost four times that, and done it without the sort of grief she'd gotten from Abner Slocum's little game a few days before. She tossed down the rest of her drink. "Done."
R.J. took the glass and put it in a tray already filled with dirty glassware. Jane would be washing it in the morning. "One gulp, eh," he said. "That'll keep you warm tonight." The way he said it reminded Bridget of what Wilma had said, something about what she _really_ needed to keep warm at night. She stopped herself. Maybe she'd been drinking more than she realized.
Bridget picked up the cashbox and followed R.J. back to the storeroom. As she walked, Wilma's words kept echoing in her head. She felt the whiskey in her stomach, mixing with the beer she'd had, making her even giddier about her winnings. All of a sudden, she felt very...curious.
She watched him put the cashbox in the safe, along with evening's bar receipts. A thought popped into her head. "R.J.," you remember that bet we had...the one about the cards."
"Sure do; I won." He shut the safe and spun the dial. "Why d'you ask?"
"'Cause you never let me pay off." She felt uncertain, but there was something, a part of her had to know. "A gentleman would never force a lady to welch on a debt of honor."
"Oh, so now you think you're a lady."
Bridget took a step forward and put her arms around R.J.'s neck.
"What do you..."
She pulled his head down to hers. "'Right on the lips', you said." She kissed him. R.J. froze for a moment. Then she felt his arms encircle her, pulling her in against his body.
The warmth of the drinks in her belly was forgotten. She felt a new warmth -- down there below her belly and up in her...chest. After -- she wasn't sure how long -- she broke free. "Paid in full," she said playfully, pushing R.J. away.
R.J. reached for her again, but she stepped back, away from him. "That bet was only for one kiss."
"Did you...like it?" R.J. asked, a pleased smile on his face.
"Not so much that you should start getting ideas." She turned towards the stairs. "Just you remember that I'm a man who pays his debts."
"You sure didn't stay a lady very long, Bridget, but then, a lady would never use her kisses to pay off a debt." R.J. grinned to himself, glad that Bridget Kelly was no lady.
Later, in bed, Bridget thought about what Wilma had said. In an odd sort of way, it _had_ been fun. Her last thoughts before she drifted off to sleep were that she'd have to try kissing Cap, too. "Just for the sake of comparison, of course."
* * * * *
Saturday, September 23, 1871, Week 10 -- Day 2
"Here we are," Maggie said. She led Ernesto and Lupe over from the kitchen to near the swinging doors of the Saloon where Carmen Whitney was waiting.
"Buenos dias," Carmen said to the children. "Are you ready to go?"
"Buenos dias, Tia Carmen," Ernesto said. "_Estoy listo._"
"In English, Ernesto," Carmen said. "You both need the practice."
"Si, _Aunt_ Carmen. We had supper, and we are ready to go spend the night with you and Tio...Uncle Whit." Lupe nodded her head in agreement.
"Then say goodbye to your mama."
Maggie knelt down so she could look her children in the eye. "Do you two promise to behave for Aunt Carmen and Uncle Whit?"
"Si, Mama," the pair said almost in unison.
Maggie continued. "No staying up late talking with Jose and no getting into mischief before I come for you tomorrow morning?"
"Oh, no, Mama." They both sounded sincere, but Maggie thought a little extra reminder wouldn't hurt.
"Remember, Carmen," she said, standing up. "You can spank then if you think they need it." She winked.
Carmen smiled and winked back. "I will if I have to, but I do not think I will need to. They are usually very well behaved."
Maggie knelt down again and threw her arms opened. "In that case, come here, my 'usually very well behaved' children and give me a hug and kiss goodbye. I will see you in the morning."
Lupe and Ernesto ran over and hugged their mother fiercely. "Goodbye, Mama." "Goodnight, Mama."
"Come by about 9," Carmen said. "Having you cook Sunday breakfast for us all is more than a fair trade for our watching the children while you work at the dance. We all have a nice meal together, and then we all go to Mass."
"All?" Maggie raised an eyebrow. "Is Whit coming to Mass?"
Carmen shrugged. "I am still working on that one. Someday maybe." Her voice trailed off. "But Aaron closes his store on Sunday mornings. Ramon will also be at Church."
"That...that is nice." Maggie spoke with almost no feeling.
"'Nice'?" Carmen looked closely at Maggie. "Is that all? Margarita, is there some problem between the two of you? Has my brother --"
"Ramon has done nothing," Maggie said quickly. The problem is all...mine."
Carmen put a hand on Maggie's arm. "What is it? Can I do anything to help?"
Maggie shook her head. "No, but thank you. This is a private matter between Ramon and me."
Maggie heard someone step up behind her. "Perhaps then you will tell _me_ what the problem is?"
"Ramon!" Maggie spun around to face him, a broad smile on her face. Then she caught herself, and the smile faded. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough to be thinking of excuses to call on my sister and brother-in-law around breakfast time tomorrow." He smiled until he saw that she wasn't going to respond to the joke. "Long enough to hear that we have a problem."
She shook her head again. "No, the problem is mine, all mine."
He gently took her hand, happy that she didn't pull it away. "Margarita, if you have a problem, then I want it to be my problem, too; you know that."
"Ramon," she said sadly, "that _is_ my problem." She looked away and saw her children staring up at her. "But right now, my problem is that I need one last hug from my little ones before they go away with their Aunt Carmen for the night." She knelt down again. "Come give me another hug, and you can go."
Lupe walked over and gave Maggie a hug and a kiss on the cheek. To Maggie's surprise, she ran over to Ramon and smiled up at him. "I want a hug from you, too, Uncle Ramon."
"I could never refuse a request from such a lovely young lady." Ramon knelt down and hugged her.
Ernesto gave Maggie a hug as well, but he refused to hug Ramon. "Men shake hands," he said stubbornly.
"Si, they do." Ramon reached out his hand. "And I will be proud to shake yours, señor."
Ernesto shook Ramon's hand, a satisfied look on his face. "Now we can go. Come, Lupe...Aunt Carmen." He turned and started for the door. "Goodnight, Mama...Uncle Ramon."
Maggie tried very hard not to laugh. "Goodnight, Ernesto."
Ramon chuckled. "He is in a hurry to be a man, that one."
"He is not the only one," Maggie said ruefully.
"Is that the problem, Margarita," Ramon asked. "You still want to be a man?"
"That will always be true, Ramon," Maggie said, "but that is not the problem. I do not think that there is any way I can ever change back, and I am trying to learn to accept that and to be a woman."
"But you _are_ a woman," Ramon said. "Please let me help you to be one."
Maggie sighed. "No, I am more than just a woman. I have a business to run and my children to care for. I have to learn to be their mama, too. My Lupe --"
"What about her?" Ramon asked. "She seems happy enough."
"No, not her, _my_ Lupe, my wife." She shook her head. "Silly isn't it, that I should have ever had a wife."
"No." Ramon didn't know what to say. Maggie had never talked about her male past. "It is not at all silly."
"No, it is not." She looked down at his feet. "I promised -- just before she died -- that I...I would take care of myself and take care of our children. I cannot...I _will not_ do anything else with my life until I am sure that my Lupe is satisfied that I have kept that promise."
Ramon put his hand under her chin and lifted her head, so she was looking directly into his eyes. "And there is nothing that I can do?"
She shrugged and tried to smile. "There is a dance tonight. You can buy a ticket like anyone else, and I will dance with you." She turned and slowly walked, head down, back to the kitchen.
Ramon rushed after her. "Margarita..."
She kept walking.
He put his hand on her shoulder. Maggie stopped, straightening up stiffly. "Margarita, please, I am your friend. Turn around and talk to me."
She didn't turn. "Si, Ramon, you are my friend, but that is _all_ you are...all you can be until I know that I have kept my promise to Lupe." Her voice cracked. "Now, please, _friend_, please, let me go." She broke free and all but ran for the kitchen.
Ramon started after her, but he heard the latch on the door close. He stopped. He was about to speak, when he thought he heard a soft sobbing through the door. He lowered his head and walked slowly away.
* * * * *
Arsenio stepped into the Saloon and looked around. There was no sign of Laura or Jane. Bridget wasn't at her table, either. 'Must be upstairs changing for the dance,' he thought.
Molly was already at a table near the bar, selling tickets to a short line of men. A couple of them glared at Arsenio as he walked towards the line. He changed direction and headed to the bar. "Beer," he said, catching R.J.'s eye.
"I'll take care of Arsenio," Shamus said. He stepped over and poured a beer. "I've been wanting to gave a word with ye before the dance." He put the beer down in front of Arsenio. "If ye don't mind."
Arsenio shrugged and took a drink. "No. What's on your mind?"
"I wanted to be asking ye not to be dancing with Laura -- or Jane -- for the first couple or three dances."
"Care to tell me why?"
"Tis common knowledge that Laura's living with ye --"
Arsenio gritted his teeth. "We're just sharing my place for a while, that's all. Truth to tell, she's sleeping in a separate room...and behind a locked door." To himself, he added, 'much as I wish it was otherwise.'
"Oh, I have no doubt that ye're the very souls of propriety," Shamus said, "but not everyone has that opinion."
"Yeah, I saw that just now." Arsenio looked back over his shoulder at the men in line.
"Aye, as far as a lot of them are concerned, ye've taken the lady off the market. Thuir not happy about it." He paused a beat for emphasis. "And neither am I."
"What the hell do you mean, _you're_ not happy about it?"
"I'm paying Laura t'be here for them men to dance with. The ones that think ye two are together, some of them don't see any point in dancing with her. They don't buy tickets, and I don't make money."
"You're a greedy man, Shamus O'Toole." He took another drink of beer.
"I'm a _business_man, Arsenio Caulder, the same as ye. Only I deal in beer and dancing, and good times. They may not last as long as yuir iron goods, but thuir just as important in thuir own way."
"Point taken, but what good will it do for me not to dance with Laura...or Jane either, for that matter?"
Jane looks just like Laura, people can't always tell which is which. That's why ye shouldn't dance with her. As for yuir ladylove herself --"
"Who say's she's my 'ladylove'?" Damn! He didn't want anyone to say that, especially anyplace where Laura might hear. She was just stubborn enough to get on her high horse and ride back to the Saloon.
"Ye do -- and ye'll be happy to hear that she does, too, only not in words. Ye're both too mule stubborn for that." He went on before Arsenio could interrupt again. "Anyway, if ye wait a while before ye're dancing with her, it says that ye don't mind if she's dancing with other men."
"I see." He took another drink. "It says -- what'd you call it? -- it says that she's still on the market."
"Aye, and there's men'll be more than happy to be spending money on tickets for the chance t'dance with her."
"How come this isn't a problem with Molly. She dances sometimes, especially now that Jessie's run off, and every _knows_ that she's your wife."
"Aye, she is," Shamus said with a bit of pride in his voice. "But me Molly has the gift of treating men like she was thuir mother or thuir big sister and of getting them to treat her the same way. She's a lively gal with a quick wit, and she's a very fine dancer besides, to my mind. Men dance with her even if she is married, and, ye know what, they enjoy themselves while thuir about it."
Arsenio thought about that. "You're right, Shamus." He finished his beer. "Okay, I'll wait to dance with Laura. Maybe...maybe I'll even dance with Maggie or Bridget first." It might be interesting to see how she reacted to that.
* * * * *
Late in the afternoon, Laura and Jane took a quick break and went up to Jane's room to change for the evening. Jane sat on her bed brushing her hair. "I'm a girl," she repeated with each stroke.
"I'm a...dammit, Jane," Laura said. Could you say that a little quieter?"
"I'm sorry, Laura." Jane's voice dropped to a whisper Laura could barely hear. "I'm a girl. I'm a girl. I'm...finished." She put the brush down. "Now we can talk some," she said in her normal voice.
"I suppose," Laura said cautiously. "What did you want to talk about?"
"About the dance, I guess. Is there anything I need to remember? I...I don't want t'be making trouble like I done last week."
Laura smiled. "Half the battle is knowing that you did make those mistakes and trying not to repeat them. Do you think you can do that?"
"I...I guess so."
"Well," she counted on her fingers, "try not to lose your temper; don't shout at people; and, for heaven's sake, try to remember what somebody really said to you before you go and tell the whole world. Do you think you can do that?"
"I can try."
"Good, then somebody like Sam Braddock --"
"Oh, you don't have to worry about Sam. He promised he was gonna behave."
"He...what? When did he do that?"
"The other day. I was talking t'him and t'some of my other old friends --"
"Sam, Davy Kitchner, Red Tully, and...umm...Ozzie Pratt. Anyway, they said that they was sorry for laughing at me after I changed. They still liked me, and they wanted t'still be my friend."
"I'll bet they did." Laura knew the four men. She wasn't sure which one she trusted the least. She sighed. It was "big sister" time again. "What did they mean, be your friend?"
"Well, they tried to help me bus the tables the other day. I didn't understand what they was doing, and some glasses got broke. They all said they was sorry and tried t'help clean up the mess. Sam even gave me a dollar t'pay for the broken glasses."
"They each come in now 'n' then for a beer or some of the Free Lunch, and they's always saying what a good job I'm doing. Once or twice, when Shamus or Molly or R.J. wasn't watching, they even do some of my work. And they's always asking how I'm doing or what my plans are when I get out of here. Ya know, I owe Red and Sam money, and when I said that I couldn't pay them right now, they didn't seem t'care about it."
"It sounds to me like they're trying to get in your good side for something. You better be careful."
Jane shook her head. "No, no. You got it wrong. They's my friends. They said they was, and friends don't lie t'friends." She was obviously upset.
Laura just sighed. There was no use in pushing her. "Okay, okay, maybe I'm wrong. I...you're still new to being...to looking like a woman, I just want you to be careful, that's all."
Jane smiled. "That's right. Big sisters look after they're little sisters, don't they?"
"They do; they surely do." Laura hoped that she was wrong, but she decided to keep an eye on those men. Jane was just -- no, Jane was more than stupid enough to do something very, very foolish.
* * * * *
"This one's a waltz," Hiram King called. "Gents, get yourselves a partner."
Ramon was ready. He quickly stepped up to Maggie. "You said that if I bought a ticket, you would dance with me." He smiled and handed her a ticket.
"Si, I did say that." Maggie slowly stood up. "And I will." She let Ramon take her hand and lead her out onto the dance floor.
"I waited for a slow dance, so we could talk," he said as the band began to play. "Why have you changed your mind?"
"What do you mean?" Maggie asked. She concentrated on dancing, not wanting to notice how good it felt to be in Ramon's arms.
"Just a few days ago, you wore the flower in your hair. You let me come to court you. Now, you say that we can only be friends. I why to know why."
"I said that I would _think_ about letting you court me, Ramon. When I said it, I was only thinking of myself. A man courts a _woman_, and I did not know -- I still do not know -- if I was ready to be a woman and to be courted by a man."
"But you let me come to your home, even if you did have Lupe for a dueña. We talked. You...you even let me kiss you goodnight."
"Si, but I was still only thinking of myself. I cannot do that. My Lupe, my beautiful Lupe, shared her life with me, and she gave me my two angels as a sign of her love. I owe it to her -- I owe it to them -- to make sure that they are cared for. My first thought must be of _their_ happiness. It is not fair that I think of my own."
"Not fair," Ramon said. "And how long will this go on? Until they are married? Until Lupe or Ernest makes you _la abuela_...a grandmother?"
"Perhaps, I...I do not know." She stiffened in his arms at this possible consequence. "But I cannot betray my Lupe."
"So, instead, you betray yourself."
"No...no! This is something that I _must_ do, Ramon. I let others care for Ernesto and Lupe for too long. It is my duty, what I promised to their mother, and I will do it. I will keep my word to her."
"Your duty," he said wryly. "What a good little soldier you are."
"Ramon, please respect my wishes in this, and be the good friend that I know you truly are."
Ramon sighed. "Very well, Margarita, I will respect your wishes. Perhaps, in time, I will even come to understand them." The music stopped. Most of the crowd walked past them to the bar where Shamus, R.J., and Molly hurried to serve them drinks.
Ramon and Maggie stepped apart. Ramon took Maggie's hand and raised it slowly to his lips, waiting to see if she would pull it away. She didn't. "And I will be your friend. He kissed her hand, then gently released it. "Until the day that you will let me be more."
Maggie stared at him, not certain of what to say. Finally, in a very quiet voice, she answered, "Thank you."
* * * * *
"'Bout time you got around to me," Laura said as she took Arsenio's ticket.
"What do you mean?" Arsenio asked, trying to act as if he didn't know. He took her in his arms just as the music started.
"You already danced with Bridget and Maggie. What's the matter? Couldn't you give Jane your ticket before somebody else did?"
Arsenio chuckled. "Laura, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were jealous."
"Am not," she said quickly. She saw that he was smiling -- no -- grinning at her. "I'm not jealous, and you know it." She wasn't was she? She couldn't be. "I...I was just wondering. You usually dance with me right off, the first dance, and tonight, you...you didn't. I was...I was curious. That's all."
He was still smiling, happy to have gotten such a female reaction out of her. "If you must know, Shamus asked me not to dance with you right off."
"Shamus? Now why the hell did he do that?"
"People are talking. They think that since I'm letting you stay with me --"
Laura looked around, glaring at almost everyone. "Who? Who's saying that?"
"Easy, Laura, easy. People are just talking. They ain't sure. _That's_ why Shamus asked me to wait on dancing with you."
"How's that going to help?"
"If we was...keeping company --"
"Or anything, I'd want to dance first dance with you...and last dance...and as any of the ones in between as I could, right?" He did, but he could hardly admit it to her now.
"Yeah -- oh, I understand. You let me dance all those dances with other men, and in the meantime, you were dancing with Maggie and Bridget."
"Right, we can't be keeping company...or anything, if we're acting like that, now can we?"
"I guess not." Why did she feel just a little disappointed? "I'll just have to be satisfied with dancing with you now." She smiled at what she hoped was only a joke.
* * * * *
"My turn," Davy Kitchner said, handing Jane a ticket.
"It sure is," Jane said with a smile. She took Davy's hand and let hm lead her onto the floor.
"It's amazing," Davy said after they'd been dancing for a bit.
"I don't remember that Jake Steinmetz was so light on his feet. You're a real good dancer, Jane."
"Thanks, Davy. It ain't always easy. I still gotta count steps when we do that mazurka dance, but I'm getting better."
"I think you're doing great. You should be really proud of yourself."
"I am, I guess." She hesitated. "Davy, is we friends?"
"'Course we is. Who says we ain't?"
"Nobody...not in so many words, anyway, but Laura said --"
"Now what did she say?" Had she caught on? 'Hell', he thought, 'she was probably after the money herself.'
"She...ah...she said that you and Red and Sam and Ozzie, you wasn't my friends. You was just up to something."
"And what did you say?"
"I told her that you all _was_ my friends, and she was wrong t'say otherwise."
"That was just the right thing t'say to her."
"Yeah, but she's my friend, too. She's...she's like my big sister. I don't want her t'get mad at me."
"I think she already is...a little. I think she's maybe a little jealous that you got other friends so you don't have t'count on her for everything." Maybe he could drive a bit of a wedge between Jane and Laura.
"No, she likes me. She said she was just being careful 'cause I'm new to this whole thing of looking like her and working in the Saloon and all."
"Maybe...yeah, maybe that's all it is." He lifted her chin so she was looking right in his eyes. "Just so _you_ know that I'm your friend. You do know that, don't you?"
"Sure, sure, I do. You're my friend. You said so yourself that you was."
"That's right," he said. 'You just keep on thinking that, Jane,' he thought. "It'll make things so much easier.'
* * * * *
Bridget sat against the wall, waiting for the next dance. "Gone back to your old, evil ways, have you, Bridget?" someone asked.
She looked up at the sound of her name. "Oh, hello, Cap. What'd you just say?"
"I was wondering what you were doing over here, taking tickets for the dancing, instead of back over at your table running your poker game." He took a breath. "You aren't having any problems or anything, are you?"
"Take a look around. The place is jammed to the gills full of people, dancing and whooping it up. There's a band playing music -- loud music. You think anybody could concentrate on their cards long enough to actually play a hand of poker in all this racket?"
Cap looked. "I see what you mean, but don't it cut into your profits to have to cancel the game?"
"It did, but Shamus gives me a cut of what he makes on each ticket...and on any drink anybody buys for me. It's the same deal as before."
"I'll bet you don't make as much as you would running your game."
"I don't, but there is one thing." She smiled. "Don't tell your uncle, but, what I make doing this isn't 'winnings'; I don't have to give any of it to him."
Cap winked. "Your secret's safe with me. Now...seeing as you are dancing..." He reached into a pocket. "Here's my ticket for the next one."
Bridget took the ticket and put it into her apron pocket. "Where you been anyway, Cap? I haven't seen you all week." They walked onto the floor just as the band began to play.
"Up at Fort Verde with Uncle Abner. He was negotiating a sale with the Army, and he wanted me to sit in on it. If nothing else, I helped fill up our side of the table. There must've been a half dozen men talking for the Army and the Indian Agency."
"How did it go?"
"We got less than we wanted, but they spent more than they wanted, so I guess it worked out fair for both sides. We sold some 400 head. We'll be leaving some time Monday -- Uncle Abner wants me along on this drive, at least till we get back to Fort Verde. Then I come back, and he'll go on to the Apache Reservation near there and on to Fort Whipple and Fort Mojave after that. We're bringing the Army and the Indians cattle to slaughter for the winter. "
"I guess that beats having them go raiding -- or go hungry."
"It surely does. You know, I've heard of one rancher, Henry Clay Hooker, over near the New Mexico border, he rode right into Cochise's camp a couple years ago and told him that his braves were welcome to take a cow from his herd when they needed to."
"A rancher _told_ Cochise to raid his herd? That's crazy."
"Like a fox. Raiders take extra head for the sport of it or because they expect to lose a few while they're running or 'cause they don't have time to be choosy. That rancher said it cut his losses way down, and he didn't have to worry about any trouble starting between raiders and his own men."
Bridget whistled appreciatively, "Now _that_ is playing a high stakes game. I'd dearly love to sit across the poker table from your Mr. Hooker."
"I don't know him that well, but if he ever gets over this way, I'll give him your invitation." He grinned. "In the meantime, I guess you're just gonna be stuck with low stakes players like me."
Bridget smiled back. "I don't mind. I'll be glad to play with you anytime."
"You know," Cap said wryly, "that statement could be taken a lot of different ways."
"I suppose it could." She tried to read his expression. It was the best poker face she'd ever seen him use. "What do you think I meant?"
"Well, now, it could mean that you like to play poker with me. You're a better player than I am, and you don't mind taking my money."
"You're not that bad a player, Cap, and, yes, I suppose that was what I meant." It was, wasn't it?
"_Or_ -- as Aaron Silverman would say -- it could also mean that we're friends, and you enjoy just sitting around talking to me."
"I suppose that's true, too." She was getting curious. What was he driving at? It seemed like he was the one "playing," the way he was teasing her.
"Or, it could mean something...more."
"More? What do you mean 'more'?" She could sense that something was about to happen, something important.
"It could mean...this." He pulled her to him and kissed her.
Bridget froze, not quite knowing what to do. Then something, instinct maybe, took over. She put her arms around him and kissed him back. Before she realized it, a pleasant warmth began to spread through her body. She moved in closer to Cap, hoping the feelings wouldn't go away.
Somehow, they continued to move to the music. It wasn't quite dancing, but it was close enough.
Then the band stopped. Cap broke the kiss at once. "Don't want you to be embarrassed," he explained.
"I...I..." She didn't know what to say. She hadn't remembered to be embarrassed until he mentioned it.
"I know Shamus' rule about two dances in a row, so I'll be going now." He took two more tickets out of his pocket and put them gently in her hand, folding her fingers around them.
"What...what are these for?"
"You look like you might want a drink," he said. Then he smiled a sort of self-satisfied smile. "The second ticket's in case you want to sit out the next dance and, sort of, think things over." He bowed and quickly walked away.
Bridget's eyes followed him until he walked through the door and out of the Saloon. Nobody seemed to have noticed. At least, no one was saying anything. "Now _that's_ a gambler," she said. She touched her mouth where he had kissed her and realized that she was smiling. She was still smiling when she went over to get that drink.
* * * * *
Sunday, September 24, 1871, Week 10 -- Day 3
Laura decided to eat her breakfast in the smithy. 'That way,' she thought, 'I can see what Arsenio is doing to make all that noise.' She walked into the smithy and sat down on one of the barrels of horseshoes Arsenio had put near the door. She used a second barrel top as a sort of table.
Arsenio was welding a new cutting edge onto an ax, hammering the split pieces of the old axe head around the tool steel edge, so the pieces fused together. If he saw Laura sitting there, he made no sign. Instead he continued to carefully hammer the white-hot metal. Laura leaned back against the wall and watched.
It was like being in Mr. Pankhurst's smithy back in Indiana.
When Laura was a young boy, he and his friends would stand in the corners of the smithy -- well out of the way -- and watch Mr. Pankhurst at work. He always insisted on being called "_Mr._ Pankhurst," even adults seldom called him by his given name. He was a magician, Mr. Pankhurst was, at least that's what the boys all thought. Mr. Pankhurst encouraged the belief. The boys were well behaved in his smithy. They seldom spoke, and when they did, it was in soft, respectful tones. They never caused any trouble or made a mess, either, and they were willing, even eager, to do small or unpleasant jobs or to run his errands.
Leroy Meehan had been no different from any of his friends, and Laura still felt very much the same way. The one difference was that she kept noticing the muscles of Arsenio's back and arms and the way they moved under his fire-tanned skin when he worked. It was something that Leroy never had cared about when he was watching Mr. Pankhurst work.
She'd been in awe of Mr. Pankhurst, but this wasn't that mysterious man. This was Arsenio, her good friend. She'd been having this crazy idea for a couple of days, pretty much the whole time since she'd moved in. She finished her coffee and decided. 'Today, I'll try,' she thought, 'if I can just figure out how to bring it up.'
She mopped up the last of her eggs with a bit of bread, swallowed the bread, and began to yell. "Arsenio!" She had to repeat his name three more times before he finally heard her.
"Laura," he said, putting down his hammer next to the axe head on his anvil. "How long've you been sitting there watching me?"
"Not too long." She held up the empty plate and cup. "Just enough time to finish eating. Say, would you like some coffee?"
"Not right now. You sleep okay?"
"Yes, and thank you for not waking me too early."
"You're welcome. I figured you'd be tired what with all that dancing you did last night."
"I was. Shamus let us sleep late on Sundays, too, but after breakfast, we'd have to spend the rest of the morning cleaning the place up."
"That don't sound like much fun."
"It wasn't." She sighed. "And I've got to head over there in a few minutes to help with today's mess."
"Shame you couldn't find another job."
"Oh, I been thinking about just that, the last few days."
"Really, what? You told me how you didn't want to work in no store." He grinned broadly. "You ain't thinking about getting a job with Wilma, are you?"
"No," she said quickly. She felt a blush rise in her cheeks. "And damn your hide for making jokes like that!" Did he really think she could do something like that..._be_ with a man? And why didn't the idea bother her as much as she thought it should?
She took a breath. It was now or never. "I was thinking that I could work here; that is, if you...you'd teach me how to...to be a...blacksmith."
"A smith?" Arsenio said. He closed his eyes. He suddenly imagined her in a leather apron like his own -- the only thing a smith usually wore above the waist -- her body all but revealed, glistening with sweat in the light of the forge, and her eyes full of the same joy that he felt mastering live iron. Lord, what a picture!
"I don't know," he said, hoping she would try to talk him into it. Then another thought hit him. What if she wasn't able? What if she hurt herself? That thought chilled him like an ice bath chilled hot iron. "Do you think you're strong enough. This isn't a job for no weak woman."
"Weak!" She put her hands on her hips and almost glared at him. "I'm the strongest of any of the five of us. You can ask Shamus. I think I'm about as strong as I was as a man...maybe even stronger."
"Let me think about it for a while," Arsenio said. "This ain't a decision I want to make too quick." When she started to argue again, he added. "Besides, you got to get over to the Saloon now, don't you."
It _was_ time for her to leave. "I'll go, Arsenio, but I want a real promise that you'll think about it and give me an honest answer."
"I promise." Arsenio made the old "King's X" gesture over his heart. "I'll think about it. Now are you satisfied?"
Laura stood up. "I'll be satisfied when you start the lessons." She walked back into the house, leaving him shaking his head.
* * * * *
Laura looked around the half-empty Saloon from a chair near the bar. "Sure is quiet, even for a Sunday afternoon."
R.J. sat down next to her. "It's always like this the day before Slocum takes his men out."
"Aye," Shamus said, joining in. "He won't let his men get in any last minute fun before they go. He says most of them have too much work t'do, and them that don't got no business building themselves hangovers."
"Maybe so," Laura said, "but I don't remember things being this quiet before when they was out on that other drive."
"That's the point," R.J. said. "They ain't on it...not yet anyway. They're getting ready. That takes a lot of extra work, even from them that will be staying behind."
"Abner leaves about a third of his men to be watching the ranch and running things while he's gone," Shamus added. "Sometimes even more. They'll be coming in -- some of them anyway -- once he's gone." He looked at the clock on the wall. "In the meantime, I've got something else for ye to be doing, so ye won't be getting bored." He looked around the room, then cupped his hands. "Molly, Jane, get yuirselves over here."
"Ye don't have to be shouting, Love," Molly said coming out of the kitchen. "I wasn't that far away." Shamus pointed to the clock. "Is it that time already?"
"Time for what?" Jane asked walking over from the stairs.
"Time for ye to be going back upstairs, Jane," Molly said. Wrap a clean camisole and a clean pair of drawers in a towel and bring them down. Bring down yuir hairbrush, too...oh, and bring down an extra towel for Laura here."
Laura had been smiling at Molly's orders. So it was time for Jane's first bath. _That_ should be a sight worth..."Wait a minute, Molly," she said at the sound of her name. "I don't want to take a bath."
"Maybe ye don't, and maybe I can't be ordering ye like I used to," Shamus said, "but I would like ye to go over there and to be helping Molly with Jane. Ye did agree to be helping with her, ye know. That's part of what I'm paying ye for."
Laura felt a mix of anger and dismay. "That damned 'big sister' nonsense again, huh. I'll be a lot of help when that bath gets me feeling all...girlie."
"That'd be true," Molly said, "but ye know how to let the bath _not_ get to ye. You learned that the second time we went over there." She cocked an eyebrow. "Or do ye _want_ the bath to get you feeling 'girlie'...for Arsenio, maybe?"
"No," Laura said quickly. "Why would I want some fool nonsense like that?" Had she said it too fast? She saw Jane hurrying down the stairs, one towel rolled up under her arm and waving another like a signal flag. "All right," she said with a sigh. "Let's get this over with."
* * * * *
Cap spent most of the afternoon stocking up on supplies for the cattle drive. Around 3, he and the men with him took a break. Cap headed straight to the Eerie Saloon for a drink. If he was lucky, he might get even a little time to talk to Bridget, to see how she felt about that kiss at the dance.
Bridget was in the middle of a game when he came in. He nodded as he walked past, happy to see her smile back at him, and walked over to the bar. "Beer, Shamus, and I'll probably want another when I finish that one, " he said, putting a silver dollar down. "I won't be getting anything stronger than coffee to drink out on the trail."
"I'll get it, Shamus," R.J. said. "Cap and me need to talk about something."
Shamus nodded as if he knew what R.J. wanted. "All right, and good luck to the both of ye."
"Hi, R.J.," Cap said. "What did you want to talk about?"
R.J. poured Cap's beer and put it down in front of him. "We got a little problem, Cap."
"What d'you mean? What sort of problem?"
"Bridget. I saw you two last night, and I got a problem with you kissing her."
Cap stiffened. "Well, truth to tell, I got a little problem with you stealing my idea about taking her for a buggy ride."
"That's the problem, Cap. We both want her."
"I guess the only thing to do is to be gentlemen about it. No rough stuff, not push her any, and let her make her choice."
"You really believe that?" R.J. studied Cap for his reaction.
"No more than you do." He took another drink of beer.
"You know, Cap, it's been nice being friends with you."
"Same here." He finished his beer and handed the stein to R.J. for a refill. "I hope we can be friends again when this is over."
"Sure." R.J. refilled the stein and handed it to Cap. "Bridget and I will be glad to have you over for dinner some night."
Cap took a drink. "No, but Bridget and _I_ will be glad to accept your invitation."
"Let's shake on it." R.J. stuck out his hand.
Cap shook hands with him. "Done, and may the best man win."
'Which would be me,' they both thought.
* * * * *
Jane slowly lowered herself into the tub. "This here water feels funny," she whined, "smells funny, too. I wanna get out."
"No," Molly said firmly. "Now sit yuirself down and soak in it for a few minutes -- and no more complaining."
"It's just lilac bath salts, Jane," Laura said. "Relax and enjoy it." She settled back in her own tub, so that only her head and the tops of her shoulders were above the water. Her hair was safely tied by a ribbon, up and out of the way atop her head. She sighed, feeling the water soak away the last bit of soreness in her muscles from a night of dancing.
"Mmm," Jane said, stretching like a cat. "This _does_ feel good." She leaned back and watched the water swirl around her half-exposed breasts.
Molly watched the two women relaxing in the water. It did look comfortable. 'If there's time,' she thought, 'I'll have Laura take Jane back to the Saloon and just have a bit of a soak meself.' She waited a while longer, then nodded to Carmen, who handed each of the pair a washcloth and a bar of soap.
"What's this for?" Jane asked.
"T'get yuirself clean," Molly answered. "Jane, I want ye to use that soap and the cloth to be washing every inch of yuir body..._every_ inch, mind ye." She spoke the last firmly. Like the order it really was.
Laura sat up and began to work her own soap into a lather. She'd get clean, but she was going to be very careful as she did.
Jane just sat and played with her soap, poking it under the water and watching it float to the surface. "It ain't a toy," Molly finally said in exasperation. "It's just soap."
"I never seen any soap float like this," Jane said with a giggle as she poked it under the water again.
"Well, this soap does," Molly said. "Now get to washing yuirself with it."
Jane nodded. She picked up the soap and ran it along her arm to start a lather. She raised the arm and soaped underneath. She started to slide it across her chest but paused, uncertain of how to do her breasts.
'Like m'arm, I guess,' she thought. She slid the bar across her breast, not really noticing anything until she touched her now-erect nipple. "O-oh!" The sensation hit her so strongly that she dropped the soap. She grabbed for it and continued to rub the soapy washcloth over her nipple.
Jane moaned as the strange, wonderful feeling grew inside her. Her other breast, her other nipple began to feel that same way. She moved her hand over and began to soap that breast. She felt like she could do this forever.
"Every inch," the voice in her head repeated. Jane tried to fight it, but she couldn't. She muttered a curse under her breath and switched the soap to her other hand to begin washing her other arm.
"Now don't ye be talking like that," Molly said. "A lady shouldn't use that kind of language."
"Who you calling a lady?" Jane asked angrily. "I ain't no woman."
"No?" Laura said with a laugh. "You sure look like a woman." She paused a half beat. "And don't be so upset about the soap. You aren't half finished with it just yet."
Jane put down the soap. "What do you mean?"
"Ye'll find out in good time," Molly said. "Ye can't just be waiting for things to happen. Ye got to work to be making them happen."
"Yeah," Laura said. "And you keep working with that soap and..." She suddenly had an idea. Arsenio had said for her to wait while he thought about whether or not he would teach her to be a smith. Maybe...maybe she could show him that she _deserved_ to be taught.
"And what?" Jane interrupted. "And what?"
"And ye'll be surprised at what happens to ye," Molly finished Laura's original thought. Laura just leaned back in the tub, slowly soaping her stomach, while an idea gradually took shape.
Jane shrugged. She finished her arm and her stomach. She lifted a leg out of the water and rested her ankle on the edge of the tub. She soaped down the leg, then switched and did the same to her other leg. "All done," she said, dipping herself down into the water to rinse off the last of the soap.
"Are ye sure?" Molly asked.
"Every inch," the voice said. Jane looked down at her privates, the one place that she hadn't washed. She wrapped the soap in the washcloth and reached down.
As she ran the cloth along her privates, the feelings that she'd had in her breasts came back, only better. And there was an even _better_ feeling down there. Her hand slowed and its movement became more deliberate. She was breathing heavily. She closed her eyes and let her head roll back. The feelings grew. Jane felt good, so very good, warm, and happy, and so very...
Jane looked up and saw Molly holding an overturned bucket above her head. "I thought ye'd want to be shampooing yuir hair," Molly said innocently, trying not to laugh at Jane's reaction to the cold water. She took the washcloth and soap from Jane's hand and gave her a bottle of shampoo.
Laura sat in her own tub, watching what was happening. She was about to laugh, but she shrieked instead as Carmen emptied a second bucket of cold water over her. "You also should shampoo," Carmen said.
Laura reached up and untied the soggy ribbon. "Might as well," she sighed as her wet hair fell down to her shoulders. "Only I don't have my own hairbrush here with me."
Carmen handed her a bottle of shampoo. "We have spares."
The two women did their hair, then got out of the tub and dried themselves. Molly had to tell Jane three times to pat, rather than rub herself dry. Dressed in their camisoles and drawers. Laura and Jane took the brushes and began to work them through their still damp hair.
"I'm a girl," Jane said with each stroke. Laura caught herself twice repeating the same words. They were a habit that she was still trying to break.
"Jane," Molly said, as Jane continued to brush her hair, "look how Laura is sitting, and look at how ye're sitting."
"She gots her knees together and I don't," Jane said. "Why?" She giggled, still feeling a bit odd from what had happened to her in the tub.
"Because she's sitting how a lady is supposed to sit," Molly said. "And before ye say anything else, that's how I want ye to be sitting from now on. Either like that, or -- show her what I mean when I say it, would ye please, Laura -- ye cross one leg over the other at the knee..." Laura shifted to that position. "...or at the ankle." Laura changed position again.
Laura sighed. 'Big sister, Laura, helps out her idiot younger sister again,' she thought.
"All right then," Molly said, clapping her hands. "Thank ye, Laura. Jane, ye finish with yuir hair and get dressed." She paused, deciding finally to come back for her bath alone another day. "And when we walk back to the Saloon, Jane, I want ye to watch the way Laura walks and to be trying to walk the same way yuirself."
* * * * *
Monday, September 24, 1871, Week 10 -- Day 4
Arsenio happened to look up from his work just as Marty Hernandez walked into the smithy. "What can I do for you, Marty?"
"We had a wheel come off a wagon while we were hauling rocks," Marty said. "Señor Slocum thinks the whole undercarriage got wrecked when it collapsed. He asks if you would ride out and take a look."
"Sure." Arsenio put down his hammer. "Let me get a few things. He walked over to a worktable and began filling an oversized saddlebag with tools. "Do me a favor, would you? Go into the house and tell Laura I'm going out to your boss' ranch, and I probably won't be back for a few hours."
Marty nodded and headed towards the door into Arsenio's house. Arsenio finished packing. He took a sign that said, "Gone on a job. Be back soon." from its hook on the wall and hung it on the smithy door.
* * * * *
It took Laura the best part of an hour to get up the courage to carry out her plan. If Arsenio didn't believe that she could do the work of a smith, she'd show him how wrong he was by doing just that. This job out at Slocum's would be the best opportunity she was likely to get.
She snuck into the smithy -- just in case. It was empty; the front door shut and locked. The fire was still burning in the forge. It had died down some, but there was still plenty of charcoal. She was sure that she could work the bellows. She'd have it going hot enough in no time.
Arsenio had left his long, leather apron draped over a worktable. The apron reached down to his knees, making it impossible to wear while he was riding. Laura put her arms through the straps and reached behind to tie it at her waist.
She had taken the time to change out of her dress and into an old shirt and pants of his. She'd been in dresses and skirts for so long that the male clothes felt odd at first. They felt comfortable now, and she enjoyed the freedom they offered. 'Maybe I'll get myself a pair or two for wearing here around the house,' she thought.
She worked the bellows for a few minutes. The coals glowed brighter and brighter, red hot in color. Laura began to sweat from the heat.
Rods of iron of various lengths and thicknesses were stored in bins against one wall, waiting to be used. Laura walked over to pick one. She stopped as a thought came to her. She wasn't _absolutely_ certain about whether or not she could do what she was about to try. 'Maybe,' she thought, 'it would be better to use a piece of scrap iron.'
There was plenty of that, as well. Rusting tools, oddly shaped pieces of metal that she didn't recognize, even a few pieces of wood with hinges or a lock still attached were piled up all along the walls. Arsenio could use a piece in something he was making or repairing, or melt it down and re-shape it.
She was trying to decide what piece to use, when she heard a voice just behind her. "Laura, just what do you think you're doing?" She turned her head in surprise. Arsenio was standing only a few feet away staring at her angrily.
She spun around. "I...Arsenio! I thought that you were out at the Slocum place."
"I was," he said, looking impatient. "But the job was at the edge of his property closest to town. A rockslide -- look, never you mind that. What are you doing in that apron and why is the forge going?"
She sighed and decided to tell the truth. "I...I was going to try something...try to work a piece of iron. I thought that if I showed you that I could do it --"
"Then I'd agree to teach you." He completed her thought. "Laura, that is the dumbest -- do you have any idea how dangerous it could be?"
"I was just going to take this --" she pulled at a bent and twisted rod, an old section of a hacienda main gate. In her nervousness, she didn't notice that the top of the rod was a long "T" shape. Parts of it stretched for several feet behind other pieces of iron. There was a clattering noise and most of those pieces began falling, mainly towards her.
Laura felt something, a sharp push in her stomach. The next thing she knew, she was sprawled on the floor several feet away. There was a pile of iron pieces lying on the floor right where she'd been standing. The stacked metal was over a foot high.
Arsenio was underneath it.
He wasn't moving.
* * * * *
Wilma sat back in the plush chair and re-read the letter for, maybe, the tenth time.
Angel Montiero wrote me here in prison about how you drunk that potion, and what it done to you. He says you gone to working in a cathouse. I hope it's all true.
I won't say you don't deserve it. You do -- and a whole lot worse.
I truly do wants to see it for myself, though, so you can figure to be seeing me as soon as I can get back there to Eerie after my time's up here.
Count on it.
Wilma smiled to herself. Phil was a big man; kind of handsome, too, now that she thought of it. She remembered his steely eyes and those hands...big, big and rough. Damn! She'd have to wait almost a year.
In the meantime, she could write back and tease him a little. Wilma particularly liked the idea of making Trumbell all hot and bothered while he was stuck there in prison.
She stood up and walked over to the writing desk in the corner, shivering as she sat down near the open window. The draft felt cold against her bare skin. _La Parisienne_ was closed in the morning, but Wilma was already wearing what she called her "work clothes," corset, drawers, and stockings.
She thought for a moment, then picked up the pen and began to write.
Yes, it's true.
In the old days, I'd have taken your letter as a threat, and I'd be waiting for you with loaded pistols.
Now I'll just be waiting with open arms."
She giggled as another thought occurred to her.
"And open legs.
I hope you're thinking about me every day you're in the hoosegow, _Big Man_. I know I'll be thinking about you.
As an afterthought, she pressed her lips firmly onto the paper, leaving their russet imprint there beside her signature, then dabbed the letter generously with perfume from a small bottle there by the inkwell.
She'd never known how much fun it was to tease a man, to make him want her more. Maybe even make him want her enough to do something stupid like try to break out of jail. 'That'd be good for another five...ten years on his sentence.' She smiled at the thought.
'But whenever he gets here -- busted out or 'cause he served his time -- he's gonna want me _so_ bad that he should be good for just _hours_ and _hours_ of fun.'
Then she thought of another possibility. 'He could get shot, of course, trying to escape. It'd be a waste of such a pretty man, but he did try to shoot me first.' She grinned, showing all her teeth. 'Imagine that, teasing a man until he's _dying_ to see me.
* * * * *
Doc was washing his hands at the kitchen pump when Laura came out of the bedroom. She was wearing a dress again. She'd changed her clothes after Doc had chased her out of the bedroom so he could examine Arsenio without her constant interruption.
"Is Arsenio really okay, Doc? I mean _really_?"
Doc dried his hands on a towel. "He's a bit beat up, Laura. Some of those bruises will take a while to heal, but, as far as I can tell, there's nothing worse than that. He has no broken bones, no internal organ damage that I could find. Frankly, I'd say that he was lucky."
"No," Laura said, shaking her head. "I was the lucky one. What happened was my fault, all my fault. And he-he pushed me out of the way and took all that damage in-instead of me. That should be me in there -- me, hurt or...or..." She turned away, her face flushed with emotion.
"It's all right, Laura," Doc said, patting her on the back. "It's all right." He reached into his bag and handed her a brown bottle labeled "Pain Killer." I was going to leave this for Arsenio. In fact, I've just given him some. I find it's also a good nerve tonic, and I think you can use some of it yourself. No more than a tablespoon full at a time for either of you and no more than one dose every six hours. Understand?"
"I speak English, Doc. But what is it?"
"Normally, I prescribe it for muscle aches and pains, which is really all that Arsenio has, but it also has a calming influence." Doc thought to himself, 'it should; that stuff's a mixture of laudanum and cherry syrup dissolved in ninety proof alcohol.'
"You give him some of that as he needs it for the pain, and make sure he stays in bed till at least the day after tomorrow. You might take a dose yourself before you go to bed tonight." He closed his bag. "That should do it. If not, let me know."
"Thanks, Doc." Laura felt reassured. She knew enough about Doc to figure that he wouldn't be leaving if he didn't think Arsenio was all right. He was all right! Thank you, G-d!
"It wouldn't hurt for you to get some rest, as well. I'll tell Shamus that you won't be coming in today." He noticed the hesitant look on Laura's face and shook his head. "Besides everything else, I would think you'd want to stay home just to keep an eye on Arsenio. You just make sure that he stays off his feet and in bed, till Wednesday, at least. That's one pigheaded man you've got there, and you've got to be even more pigheaded to keep him from hurting himself further." He left the cabin, closing the door behind him.
Laura got a tablespoon out of a drawer and walked back into the bedroom. Arsenio was lying back, his head propped up on pillows. He had bandages wrapped around his right arm and his chest. "Is the Doc gone?" he asked.
"Yes," Laura began. "He left this --"
"Good," Arsenio said, throwing back the covers and sitting up. "I want to get into the smithy and check out the damage."
Laura looked at him open-mouthed. The Doc really did know his patient better than she did. Laura hurried over to the bed. "Arsenio, you get back down under those covers."
"Really?" She sat down on the bed and gingerly touched his bandaged arm. He winced and pulled the arm back.
"All right, so I'm a _little_ hurt. I'm a big boy. I can take it."
"A...'a little hurt'? She gritted her teeth to control the tremble in her voice. "I almost g-got you k-k-killed. You'd be smart to boot me out of here."
Arsenio smiled, careful not to show the pain he still felt. "I'd be smart to keep you cooking and cleaning, and far away from my smithy."
Laura made an indignant fist. "What do you think I am, some sort of housemaid?"
"I'm not sure _what_ you are, but I expect that it'll be a lot of fun finding out." He took the fisted hand by the wrist and squeezed lightly. Fire danced in her blue eyes, but the sparks quickly faded and her fingers uncoiled.
He studied her uncertain glance, wondering how much farther he could push things. Tentatively, he brought her hand toward his mouth. He saw her lips purse and felt a slight resistance in the drawing of her arm. But it was too late to prevent his placing of a light kiss on her knuckles.
Now she did pull away. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Has that bump on your head addled your brain?" she exclaimed, standing up.
"I think that little kiss did more for me than anything that comes in a buh-bottle." He yawned and shook his head a quick couple of times. The drowsiness he'd been fighting was finally too much for him. "Duh-damn you, Doc. You got the wuh-worst..." His voice trailed off. His eyes closed and he fell back against the pillows. Seconds later, he was snoring, a satisfied grin on his face.
Laura glared at him and stamped her foot in frustration. "That man," she said. "Why won't he let things be?" She leaned over the bed and pulled the light blanket up around his shoulders. "All I want is..." she stopped in mid-thought. What did she want? A friend? A house mate? Or something...else?
She noticed that her hands were shaking. "Maybe I do need a dose of that medicine." She looked at the bottle then shook her head. "No, Arsenio might wake up and need something." Doc had left a chair near the bed. She sat down to wait. She didn't know how long she just sat there watching him snoring.
'He does look kind of sweet just lying there like that.' It was her last conscious thought before her body relaxed, freed of the stress of all that had happened, and she fell asleep herself.
* * * * *
"Excuse me, Bridget," R.J. said. "I brought you some dinner."
Bridget looked up from her cards. "What'd you say, R.J.? Supper? No, thanks; I can't be breaking up this game just to eat."
"I know that, but I also know how long you've been playing. You couldn't come to the food, so I brought some food to you." He put a large plate down on a folding tray next to her. "There's sliced beef here, some bread, boiled potatoes, and a couple of pieces of fruit, nothing that should get in the way of your game."
"Thanks, R.J.," she said with a smile. "To tell the truth, I was getting kind of hungry." A fork and napkin were in the tray, too. She put the napkin on her lap and used the fork to build herself a sandwich. "Mmmm, delicious."
"I'll be sure to tell Maggie. You want some coffee with that?"
"Hey, R.J.," Joe Kramer said," how about getting the rest of us some food, too?" Joe as a bank teller and handled other people's money all day. He was known -- except when he was playing poker -- for not liking to handle his own any more than he had to.
R.J. shook hi head. "Bridget has a special arrangement with Shamus and with 'Maggie's Place'. I'll be glad to send Jane over if you gents want to order something for yourselves."
"I think I'll just save my money for playing poker with," Kramer said.
"Could you just bring me over some coffee and a couple of them desert cakes?" Tomas Rivera asked.
"I gotta get back to the bar," R.J. said. "We got us a pretty good house tonight considering that Mr. Slocum took more'n half his men out on that drive today. I'll have Jane bring that over." He paused a half second. "With the bill for it, of course."
"If you're so damned busy, how come you had time to bring over food for Bridget?" Kramer asked.
"The Saloon has a special arrangement with her," R.J. said. "Besides, she's my friend. I thought that she'd be getting hungry, so I brought over something." He smiled at Bridget. "I like to take care of...my friends."
"I'd just bet you do," Rivera said with a laugh.
"You'd win that bet, Tomas," R.J. said, smiling again. "I'll see you later, Bridget." He turned and started walking jauntily back to the bar. 'Take that, Cap Lewis,' he thought.
"Yeah, sure," Bridget said returning to the game. Somehow, she was almost as pleased at having R.J. fuss after her as she was at the cards in her hand.
* * * * *
"Another beer, Shamus," Jane said, putting a half-dollar down on the bar. "That kid's thirstier than I ever was."
Shamus looked up from pouring the beer. "What kid? Who ordered the beer; where is he sitting and how many has he already had?"
"Him," she pointed to a table at the far end of the room. A figure sat alone, hunched over slightly, his back towards the bar. "He's had..." she counted with her fingers, "...four beers already."
Shamus picked up the money and walked out from behind the bar. "Ye stay here and help R.J. I'll be wanting to talk with ye some when I get back."
He walked angrily over to the table and looked down at his customer. "Arnie Diaz, I must be getting old. I should have caught ye coming in." The boy had been in and out of every bar in town, trying to get a drink or to get into a card game since he was twelve, much to his parents' despair.
Arnie winced at the sound of Shamus' voice and slowly looked up towards him. "'Lo, Mr. O'Toole." He giggled nervously. "Ya di'n't have t'bring m'beer yurself." He was a lanky boy, tall for his age, perhaps, and wiry with a thick unruly crop of black hair. The carefully nurtured beginning of a mustache was just visible above his lip.
"I told ye more than once; I don't want ye drinking at my bar."
The boy stiffened. "Wuzza matter, a Mex's money not good enough?"
Shamus scowled at the suggestion. "You know that isn't so. I'll happily be taking any _man's_ money, but I'll _not_ be helping a boy learn to be a worthless drunkard; not in my bar, I won't."
"Boy!" Arnie carefully stood up. "I was sixteen last week." He still slurred his words. "That should be old enough."
"Aye, it might of been, if ye'd come in and asked for a drink like a man. But, no, ye sneak in when we're busy and hide from me at me farthest table." Shamus put the money on the table. "Here's yuir money, _boy_. Ye come back when ye're ready to be acting like a man, and I'll be glad to serve ye."
"Keep it," Arnie said angrily. "Give it t'the girl that brought me the other beers." He walked out of the Saloon, a bit shaky, but with all the dignity he could manage.
Shamus watched, shaking his head. "There's surely trouble ahead for that one."
Arnie managed to get one drink at the Lone Star before Sam Duggan threw him out. No other place would serve him. He wandered around town for a while cursing at Shamus and Sam Duggan and throwing stones at buildings. The Sheriff finally arrested him, and Arnie protested loudly all the way to jail
* * * * *
Some noise, she didn't know what, woke Laura up. It was well past nightfall. "What the..." Her eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness, as she looked around the room. She saw Arsenio and remembered what had happened. He seemed to be sleeping comfortably. "At least he isn't snoring," she said softly. "I guess _I_ get the couch tonight.
She stretched, feeling stiff from her hours in the chair, and stood up. She stepped over to the bed for one last check on Arsenio. He looked peaceable enough. "Just like a little boy." Without thinking any more about it, she bent over the bed and kissed him on the forehead.
"Fine thing," Arsenio said. "I go and save your life and that's the best you can do in the way of a good night kiss."
Laura gasped and straightened up. Arsenio was lying there with his eyes wide open and a big grin on his face, "Damn your ornery hide," she said. "I-I thought you were still asleep."
"I know. I figure whatever just woke you up woke me, too."
"Why didn't you say something then?"
"To tell the truth, I was still half asleep. I heard you say you was going to the couch, so I figured I'd just lay here and let you go. I didn't want you to be spending the night sleeping in that chair, and there's but one other place in this room that you could sleep." He grinned and patted the bed with one hand.
"As if," she said firmly. "The couch is fine, thank you. Good night."
"What do you mean, 'No'?"
"You woke me all the way up when you kissed me -- such as it was. Now I want a real kiss good night. One that'll fix me up for a night of sweet dreams, just like when I was a boy."
"I'll just bet you do."
"Aw, c'mon, Laura. It won't be like that. It won't mean anything more to me than if I was kissing my own mother."
"Now you're just being foolish."
"Then do it to humor an injured man." He rolled his eyes and faked a moan. "And one who got hurt because of you, I might add."
It bothered her to hear him say it, mostly because it was true. "All right, I'll do it." She sat down on the edge of the bed. "But if you try anything..."
He held up his right hand as if he was making a pledge. "Like I was kissing my own mother."
Laura puckered her lips and began to lean towards him. Arsenio suddenly put his hands on either side of her head and guided her mouth to his. Her mouth half-opened in surprise. She could taste the sweetness of the medicine on his breath, feel his tongue tickling her lips. Her body moved in close to his. Her arms rose of their own accord and began to wrap around his neck. She felt warm, happy, protected. She...
She jerked back and pushed him away with both her arms. Then she stood up and moved away from him, wiping her mouth with her sleeve. "Like you were kissing your mother!"
"We always was a close family."
"Arsenio Caulder, if you _ever_ kissed your mother like that, your father would have skinned you alive."
He grinned. "That's true enough, but you ain't really my mother, are you?" He paused a moment. "And you liked it, too; I could tell."
"Oh, yeah, how would _you_ know?"
"I've kissed enough girls in my time to know when one of them likes being kissed."
"Who says I'm a girl?" she demanded. "I know what I look like right now, but underneath I'm no different than I ever was."
Arsenio looked her up and down, from the hem of her skirts to the arrangement of her hair. "If it looks like a girl, walks like a girl, and _kisses_ like a girl, in my book, it's a girl."
"If that's what you think, then you got hit harder on the head than the Doc and I figured." She picked up the bottle of medicine and the spoon from the bed table. "I think you need another dose of this, and I mean _right now_."
"Laura, please, can't we talk a little about what just happened?"
"No," she said firmly. "Drink this right now before I start thinking that it was a mistake to ever move in here with you." She opened the bottle and poured some medicine into the spoon. She did it slowly, trying to control the tremble in her hands. "You take this now, and we'll talk later. Maybe."
Arsenio sighed. There was no point in arguing while she was this mad. He opened his mouth and swallowed the medicine.
Laura sealed the bottle and walked towards the door. "Good night, then."
"Don't I get a kiss good night?" He grinned and wiggled an eyebrow at her.
She growled low in her throat and hurried out the door.
* * * * *
Laura unbuttoned her shoes and put them near the couch. She moved the two pillows to one end of the couch and lay down, resting her head on them. "I'll just sleep in my clothes," she muttered to herself. "I won't give him the satisfaction of seeing me walking around tomorrow in my unmentionables."
As she lay there, an image came into her mind. She was standing in front of Arsenio wearing just her unmentionables. He was smiling, and she felt excited thinking of his eyes on her. In her half-asleep mind, she didn't try to cover herself up, but instead put her arms at her sides and turned full around slowly, letting him have a good look, liking the rapt attention in his face.
Then her clothes changed; she wasn't wearing the prim drawers and chemise that she wore every day, but a skimpy rig like she'd seen the sporting girls wearing in that "red light" parlor house back in Dodge City. She imagined a garter around her thigh, and a choker circling her throat. She could almost feel Arsenio's breath on her neck...snapping her suddenly awake. She shook her head a few times and the image was gone. For a while. It came back, and so did those same damned feelings.
"The hell with this," she said. She picked up the bottle of medicine. What had Doc said, "a calming influence"? She poured herself a dose and quickly swallowed it down. In about ten minutes, she was sleeping peacefully -- except for those odd dreams about Arsenio that she kept having.
She even woke up in a sweat once. The dream faded so quickly, though, that she only had a fleeting memory of herself in his arms, his strength controlling her, his mouth pressed so tightly against hers that their breaths came short.
* * * * *
Tuesday, September 26, 1871, Week 10 -- Day 5
"Fetch me some eggs, will ye, Jane?" Molly said. "We'll scramble them up for breakfast." Since Maggie had to stay home and feed her children, Molly was reinstated as the breakfast cook.
"Could we put in some of that left over ham from the 'Free Lunch'?" Jane asked as she took about a dozen eggs from the cold box in the floor.
"I don't see why not. We can heat up the ham first and use the fat that melts off for the cooking of the eggs."
"Good, I like eggs cooked that way." Jane carefully put the eggs into a soup plate. Then she looked directly at Molly. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Seems to me ye just did." Molly smiled, then her expression became serious. "All right, ask away."
"Why...why did you make me take that bath and make me do...what I did t'myself?"
"For the same reason that I had Laura show ye how to walk and sit."
"That...that ain't no real answer."
"_And_," Molly continued, "for the same reason that I have ye brush yuir hair 30 times every day and say 'I'm a girl' while ye were doing it." She paused a half a beat. "Ye got to be learning that ye're a woman now."
"I...I ain't no woman."
"Ye most surely are a woman, Jane, and ye will be for the rest of yuir life."
"No! You're...you're lying. I can change back."
Molly gently put her hand on Jane's shoulder. "No, Jane, ye can't. If thuir was a way t'be changing back, don't ye think that Wilma and the others would've taken it."
"I...I don't know. Wilma, she got all man-crazy. You couldn't pay her t'change back. The others, maybe they got reasons, too."
"All right, Jane. Let's say for now that there is a way. Ye can't be using it till yuir sentence is up, now can ye? That's still almost two months, right."
"Then let's us just be saying that I made ye take the bath just for them two months. Will ye go along with that?" Jane nodded. "Fine," Molly continued. "For them two months -- six weeks t'tell the truth -- ye've got the body of a girl, and I want ye t'be acting like a lady while ye have."
"Ain't I been acting like a lady?"
"Like a lady," Molly said with a laugh. "Ye was lumbering around like one of them big circus bears. I took ye to the baths t'get you to face the fact that ye _have_ a woman's body."
"I don't get what your saying."
"Ye remember the way yuir body felt in that bath...don't deny it. I can see from the way ye're blushing that ye do. That was why, to _force_ ye to accept the fact that ye had the body ye have."
"You mean that's how a woman's body feels?"
"Aye, sometimes it feels that way. Nice isn't it."
"I...I guess. My body still feels a little...funny. And the dreams I been having." Jane blushed again. She was trembling, still feeling bit of an afterglow of that other day's arousal.
"Ye're new to the feelings, so it takes a while for them to go away, but, yes, sometimes that's how a woman feels."
"Do you feel that way, Molly?"
"Sometimes...especially when I'm alone with...but that's me own business." She pointed to the stove. "Yuir business is to be cooking that ham, so get to it. We'll be having us a bunch of hungry people down here pretty soon."
"But what about the hair...and the sitting?"
"Cook now, Jane. We'll talk about the rest later."
* * * * *
"How are you doing with breakfast, Arsenio?" Laura came back into the bedroom just as Arsenio used the last pieces of a biscuit to soak up what was left of the ham gravy.
He swallowed the biscuit in one bite, washing it down with some coffee. "What breakfast," he said with a grin. "I see you changed clothes while I ate. You look nice."
"Thank you," she said with a tight, pleased smile. "I couldn't really wear what I had on yesterday. Not after I slept in it."
"I wouldn't mind."
"You wouldn't be the only one seeing it." She leaned over and took the tray off his lap and put it on the top of the dresser. As she did, she looked at him closely, looking for any sign of pain or stress. "You seem to be a lot better this morning, so I thought I'd go to work -- for a while at least."
"I do feel better. Say, what time is it anyway?"
"Almost 11. I thought you could use the rest, so I let you sleep late."
"Thanks. With the medicine...and everything, I had a pretty good night."
"Arsenio, are you going to start _that_ again?"
"Start what?" He looked upward, as innocent a smile as he could manage on his face. When she didn't react, he frowned. "Oh, come on, Laura. Maybe I did get a little bit out of hand last night, but you liked it, too...just a little."
"I most certainly did not." She suddenly wished that she'd played cards with Bridget more often. If she _ever_ needed a poker face, it was now.
"You most certainly _did_. I could tell from the way you acted. You was even starting to kiss me back."
"That must have been one of your better dreams."
"Then I guess you won't be kissing me goodbye, when you go to work."
"Not likely. You can take a nap and dream about it, if you want. That or elves or dragons or any other sort of fairy story."
"Nap? That's 'not likely' either. I expect to spend most of today sorting out the damage in my smithy."
"No! Doc said you needed to rest in bed for a couple days so your body could recover from what happened."
"Rest? I got a smithy to take care of." He pulled back the blanket and started to get out of bed.
"Arsenio, no. You have to stay in bed till tomorrow to make sure that you're all right." She shifted her body to try to block him from getting up.
"Laura, get out of my way. I've got work to do, and there's no way you're keeping me from it."
Laura knew the only answer to that, and it thrilled and scared her all at once. "Yes...yes, there is." She smiled to hide her fear. "You keep saying that you want to kiss me." She braced herself for what she was about to offer. "You stay in bed all afternoon, and I'll...I'll let you kiss me some tonight."
Arsenio sat there a moment, eyes wide. Then he began to laugh. Laura felt confused -- and _very_ insulted. "Arsenio, you stop laughing like that."
He studied her for a moment. "You know, I believe you'd actually do it." He wasn't laughing now, just smiling wryly.
Laura's hands moved down to her sides. She wasn't at all sure what to say or do.
Arsenio shook his head. "If my staying here in bed means _that_ much to you, then I'd be seven different kinds of bastard not to do it."
"Then...I don't have to..." she let the words trail off. She was relieved not to have had her bluff called, wasn't she? Or _was_ it a bluff? She suddenly wasn't sure herself. Confused and uncertain, she sat down on the edge of the bed.
He gently ran his hand along her cheek. "Laura, I'd be one very lucky man if you'd let me kiss you like I want...even more so if you kissed me back. But it has to be _your_ choice -- when and if you want to -- and not because you got forced into it to keep a pigheaded fool like me from hurting himself by getting back to work before he's really ready."
Laura took his hand in hers, turned and kissed it. She heard Arsenio take a breath as he shifted his body and pulled her to him with his free arm. Without thinking, she put her arms up around his neck and smiled in anticipation. Arsenio pulled her close and gave her a deep, lingering kiss. 'What am I doing?' she thought, but, somehow, she couldn't bring herself to let go of him.
When they separated to take a breath, she wondered if she should ask him to stop. If they went on much longer, she'd be late for work. Then Arsenio began to kiss her again, and she decided that being on time wasn't really _that_ important.
* * * * *
"Ramon," Aaron Silverman said softly. "The store is on fire."
"That's nice," Ramon said. "Just let me know when a customer comes in."
Aaron put his hand on the other man's shoulder. "What's the matter, Ramon? You've been walking around like you was still asleep since we opened on Sunday."
"Is nothing. I...I am fine."
"A man could die from such fine." Aaron looked around; they were alone in the store. "What's the matter?" He stopped and looked his employee and friend in the eye. "It's Maggie, isn't it?"
"No, no, it is...nothing." He slumped. "Yes, it is Maggie. How did you know?"
"Three things a man can't hide, coughing, poverty, and love," Aaron said. "You're in love with her. You have been for some time."
"Have I been that obvious?"
"No," Aaron chuckled, "I'm just a very wise man. So what if you have? Love is a blessing, not a crime."
"When the one you love does not love you, it is not a crime, it is a curse."
"Who says that she doesn't? You think that she comes in here all the time to flirt with me?" He stroked an imaginary mustache. "Besides, wasn't you telling me just a few days ago that she was letting you court her?"
"Si, but she...she changed her mind. She told me so Saturday -- at the dance. Sunday in Church, she walked right past me."
"Did she tell you why? Is she angry about something? If it's something you did, then take the advice of an old married man and apologize."
"It is nothing I did."
"Then _still_ apologize. It may not help, but it couldn't hurt."
"No, it...it is not like that. She says that she has a...duty to her children, something she promised her late wife. She says that she cannot think of anything else until she knows that they are well taken care of."
"Children. As the sages say, 'for children we tear the world apart.' You do have a problem, my friend. If you push her, it'll be like you're asking her to choose between them and you, and you already know what her choice will be."
"Si, and she will hate me for it. It is hopeless."
"As they say, 'a man should not lose hope so long as he breathes.' No, what you need to be is two things, patient and...there."
"What do you mean?"
"Did she ask you to wait?"
"No, but she did say that she still wanted to be my friend."
"Then be her friend. Be some one that she can talk to, some one that she can depend on. 'A good friend,' it is said, 'is like a tower of strength, and to find one is a treasure.' Be patient and don't push, whatever you do."
"It doesn't sound very easy."
"If love were easy, everyone would have some. Me and you are just two of the lucky ones."
"I do not feel very lucky."
"You are, Ramon. Maggie loves you; very much, I think. She's just got some...things she has to settle first. If you're there for her -- as her friend, that is -- she can get them settled that much faster."
"I will try," he smiled, a small smile. "Thank you, Aaron."
"Could you also maybe try to pay a little attention to your job. The way you was acting before, if a cowboy rode in here, I think you'd ignore him and wait on the horse."
* * * * *
Laura was sitting by herself at a table picking at a late lunch and just sort of staring out into space.
Doc felt a pang of concern. Was Arsenio all right? When Doc had examined him yesterday, it seemed mostly that the wind had been knocked out of him, that and a few bruises. Had he missed something?
Doc needed to know. Arsenio was a friend as well as a patient. He walked over and sat down across from Laura. "Hello, Laura."
She looked at him, no, through him. "Oh, uhh, hi...hi, Doc."
No time like the present. "How does Arsenio feel?"
Laura smiled broadly. "He...he feels so...so _very_ good." She blushed as she realized what she'd just said. I...I mean he's feeling okay this morning, Doc. He was when I...uh...when I left."
Doc tried not to smile at her slip. There was no sense embarrassing her. "Glad to hear it." He stood up and walked over to the bar to get a beer and to have a _long_ talk with Shamus."
Wednesday, September 27, 1871, Week 10 -- Day 6
"How are you feeling, Arsenio?" Laura asked as she walked into the cabin.
Arsenio was stretched out on the couch. He looked up from the book he was reading by the light of an oil lamp hanging from the low ceiling. "Pretty good. I'm planning to go back to work tomorrow if Doc says it's okay...and my _nurse_ approves."
Laura smiled. "She will if the Doc says you can."
"He will, I'm sure of it. Say, you're home early." He sat up and pulled a small watch out of his shirt pocket. "It can't be much after 10."
"It was pretty quiet at the Saloon with Slocum and so many of his men out on the trail. Shamus said that he could manage with just Maggie and Jane. He sent me home to look after you."
"I'll have to thank him for that some time." He patted the pillow next to him. "C'mon over and relax."
Laura walked over and sat down, but at the far end of the couch. "Over here," Arsenio said, patting the pillow again.
"I'm just fine here," Laura said. She was beginning to enjoy these little games that she and Arsenio played.
"You'll be more comfortable over here."
"Oh, will I now." She smiled and moved half the distance between them. "Now it's your move."
Arsenio took the hint and moved next to her. "Well, I guess this part of the couch does have _some_ things to commend it." He put an arm around her.
"Some things?" She smiled and let him pull her to him. Their lips met in a long sweet kiss. Laura's arms reached up to circle his neck as she moved in closer, pressing herself against him. Laura felt the warmth of the kiss spread through her body.
It still felt funny kissing a man. It was hard to believe that a few months ago she'd tried out every bawdy house between Indiana and Arizona. Now it was hard to believe that she hadn't been a little crazy in those days. Anyway, being intimate with Arsenio wasn't so bad, as long as nobody knew about it.
Then she felt a sharp twinge in the small of her back.
"Ow!" she moaned. She broke the kiss and sat up straight to ease the pain.
"Laura, what's the matter?"
"Shamus had Jane and me moving boxes around in the storeroom. I guess I lifted one wrong and stained something. It's been hurting on and off all day."
"Were you wearing your corset when you did the lifting?"
"No, why? I never wear it during the day, and with these twinges I didn't put it on tonight."
"You ever see a man wearing a wide belt while he was lifting something heavy? The belt braces him. I'll bet your corset would've done the same with all the whalebone built into it."
"Now he tells me -- ow! There it goes again. I'll never get any sleep tonight."
"Turn around and let me see if I can work it out for you." Laura shifted her body. Arsenio began massaging just below her shoulders. "Does this help or is it lower down?"
"Lower down, but...ooh, that feels good, too." Arsenio began to work his hands down her back, rubbing and kneading muscles as he went. "Oooh, yes," Laura finally said with a sigh. "Right there."
Arsenio began working the muscles in a different way. "This should help a fair bit, but you should put some liniment on it for overnight." Laura sort of half-moaned in agreement. "Good, I've got some in the smithy. I'll get it for you after I finish with these muscles."
After a while, Arsenio felt her tense muscles begin to relax. He worked them a while longer, massaging the pain out of them. "I think I can go get that liniment now," he said. "You just wait here." He stood up and walked towards the door to the smithy. "And no moving around."
When he came back with the bottle of liniment, Laura was sitting exactly where he'd left her. But...
"Laura," he said in surprise.
Laura had taken off her blouse and was holding it modestly in front of her. "I didn't expect you to put on the liniment through my clothes. I...I really can't reach back...there." Her voice trembled, but she wasn't sure if it was modesty, fear, or...or anticipation.
Arsenio tried to lift the back of her camisole. "It's too tight, Laura," he said. Now why was _he_ feeling nervous?
"W-wait a second," she said. Arsenio heard the rustling of fabric. "Try and lift it now."
Arsenio tried, and the camisole moved freely. "What..."
"I unbuttoned a couple of the bottom buttons." Her voice was quiet, soft, like a small child's.
Laura felt his hand against her bare skin rubbing something onto her back. She moaned in relief as she felt the heat of the liniment soaking into her muscles.
Arsenio worked to rub it in. Laura felt the heat on her sore muscles, but, as Arsenio rubbed, she seemed to feel a heat elsewhere. Her breasts felt warm and, when she breathed, she felt the soft muslin of her camisole rubbing against her nipples. It...tickled.
Arsenio's hands were creating the same sort of strong, pleasurable feelings in her body as she had felt in the baths. Could he do more, give her more pleasure? Without thinking, her fingers slowly moved up towards her camisole.
"There, how's that?" Arsenio stopped rubbing her back and lowered her camisole down against her back.
"It makes me feel...hot," she replied. Arsenio thought she had put a funny emphasis on the word "hot." He looked at her closely and saw that she was breathing heavily and her face was flushed. Her camisole was unbuttoned to the waist, showing the generous curves of her breasts. Her nipples pushed out against the fabric, looking stiff enough hang his tongs from.
Laura smiled, a tight and nervous smile, and took his right hand in her two hands. Surprised and curious, he offered no resistance as she lifted it and placed it on her breast. Her voice was barely a whisper. "I think I could use some liniment right here."
Arsenio looked her straight in the eyes to make sure she wasn't just teasing, then gently pushed the camisole aside. "Glad...glad to...oblige," he began, then found he had to clear his throat. Laura's jaw was set with expectation, and she was breathing deeply. "Right here, you say?" he whispered as he began to run his fingers across her bosom. She flinched. She obviously hadn't expected the feelings to be so strong; and she gasped and drew back. She looked so fetchingly nonplussed that he couldn't resist leaning down and kissing her on the lips. She gasped lightly once again, but then calmed. Over the last two days, she had become used to kissing him.
Arsenio suddenly used both hands to pull her to her feet.
"What...what are you doing?" She mumbled, as if he had awakened her from a light sleep.
"What I'm...what _we're_ doing is best done in the bedroom." He shifted his hold on her and scooped her up into his arms. Arsenio walked slowly toward the bedroom, giving Laura plenty of time to say "No" if she really wanted to.
She didn't say a word, though her startled look was like he'd seen on men going to their own hanging, not scared, but quieted by disbelief about what was happening to them. When they were in the bedroom, he put her down. Instead of bolting, she turned and faced him. Her camisole hung loosely, only half concealing her breasts. All of a sudden, her expression seemed to set with resolve. To his surprise, she reached out with trembling fingers and began to unbutton his shirt.
He stood still until she had finished and waited expectantly in front of him. He read in her eyes what she wanted him to do. Things seemed to be taking on a life of their own, moving fast even by his own estimations. He reached out and slipped her camisole over her shoulders. It slid down her arms and dropped to the floor, leaving her naked from the waist up.
"Oh, Laura," Arsenio said, putting his hands on her arms and drawing her in to kiss her lightly on the lips. When her breathing quickened, became eager, he moved his mouth downward, kissing her face, her jaw, her neck. He could feel her shiver when his hot breath tickled her breasts. Not stopping, he took a nipple into his mouth. At the same time, he fondled the other breast in his hand, stimulating the point with the careful friction of his thumb.
Suddenly, Laura clutched his head in her hands, not to push it away, but to steady it in place. Arsenio continued what she obviously found so pleasant, now sucking, now licking.
Laura moaned. She felt something building inside her; a feeling in her loins that grew stronger and stronger and stronger until it just...broke. Laura heard herself crying out and released him. Arsenio looked at her as he straightened, for an instant unsure what the yell had meant. He saw her stagger, look unsteady enough to fall. He swept her up in his arms just as she began to collapse. She felt light as a feather in his arms.
Arsenio carried Laura over to the bed and placed her gently upon the woolen blanket. She looked up at him through half-closed eyes and smiled as if embarrassed "Sorry I yelled" she said weakly.
"H-had enough?" he asked, his throat dry.
"No, have you?" she whispered, her gaze fixed on his.
Steeling himself to boldness, he quickly undid the buttons on her skirt. When she still didn't protest, he lifted her slightly with one arm, while the other slid the skirt down her legs and off over her boots. He tossed it on the floor, taking off his already open shirt and tossing it on top of the skirt.
Arsenio looked at her now, liking the way she looked when half-naked. It was a dream he'd had a thousand times. He felt himself stiffen as he undid his own trousers and stepped out of them. Damn good thing he hadn't bothered to put on his boots.
He saw that Laura's expression had suddenly changed. Now she looked like a chicken on a roost watching the fox down in the straw and wondering what she was in for.
Laura realized that her teeth were clenched. The small part of her that was still Leroy, that would _always_ be Leroy, hated what was happening. 'But I'm Laura now,' she admitted to herself for the first time, 'and she...and _I_ want him -- I need him -- to do this.'
'At least no one has to know,' she added to herself.
Without saying a word, she reached down and untied the ribbon that held her drawers tightly to her waist. When they were loose, she raised herself off the bed and slid them as far as she could down her legs. They got caught on her boot hooks, and she quickly got frustrated in struggling with them. She pouted. "You could help, you know."
Arsenio reached out and freed the drawers, carefully sliding them over her boots. Laura looked over and saw that his drawers were gone, too. She blushed when he saw her looking at his erect manhood, but she didn't look away. It seemed incredible to realize that she could have that effect on a man just by letting him look at her.
"You're no lady," he grinned.
"Wh-what do you mean?" she mumbled.
"A lady takes her boots off first." She laughed nervously and squirmed to one side of the bed as Arsenio climbed onto on the blanket beside her.
They just lay there looking at one another for a minute, as if wondering how they came to be where they were. Wanting to put Laura at ease, Arsenio reach out, put one hand under her head, and kissed her deeply, his tongue moving into her mouth. She passively let it play with her own tongue. At the same time, his other hand reached down to squeeze her breast. Lordy! She thought. But he didn't give her much time to think, for no sooner did he touch her than he heard her moan and slipped down on the bed to kiss her breasts.
At the same time, his hand moved down to her waist, then down to -- ooh! She felt a finger moving slowly through the curls between her thighs. She shivered and moaned again. Nothing had ever felt like this; not even that time when Leroy was with two gals at once.
Before she realized what she was doing, Laura had spread her legs as naturally as sporting girl would have done. His thumb was caressing the entryway into her being. Part of her wanted to roll away and run, but her hips had other ideas. They began to move in time with the motion of his hand. That feeling...down there...was building again all through her body. Then she felt Arsenio shift, and his weight press her down into the mattress. The sensation of it took breath away, even though he was supporting most of his weight on his own elbows and knees.
She felt something else, something bigger than a finger touching her intimately and pressing slowly, gently but inexorably into her body. There was a moment of pain as if something tore inside her and she startled, thinking that she'd been hurt. Then she giggled with realization. Leroy might have been "experienced", but she was -- she had been until seconds ago -- a virgin.
She felt Arsenio moving deeper into her. The pleasure came back, stronger, more wonderful than ever. She reached around him, pulling him to her, telling him by touch of her wish to experience more of this.
He understood. He withdrew slowly out of her, almost completely out, then slid back in. He repeated this motion, setting up a rhythm. Laura cried out again; unable to believe that she was actually feeling what she was feeling. She saw that the pleasure grew greater if she matched his movements with the motions of her own hips. The pleasure grew and grew and grew until, inside her own body, she experienced one of those fireworks things that they'd set off back in Indiana on the Fourth of July when she was a boy.
Arsenio heard her scream and felt her fingers raking his back. This time knew knew exactly what her cry meant.
* * * * *
Thursday, September 28, 1871, Week 10 -- Day 7
They were just finishing breakfast when Milt Quinlan walked into the Saloon.
"Milt," Shamus asked, "and what are ye doing here do early in the morning?"
"Would ye like a cup of coffee?" Molly asked. "Maybe a bit of something to eat as well?"
"Coffee would be wonderful," Milt said. "Nothing more, though. As to why I came, you'd best talk to Jane. She's the one who asked me to be here."
"Jane," Shamus said suspiciously. "What's going on?"
"I...I just wanted to talk to Milt about my claim. I asked him to come early so's nobody would be around t'see. That's...that's all."
"She is entitled," Molly said. "How do you take your coffee, Milt."
"Black with sugar, thank you," Milt said. "I can show you the law on this if I need to, Shamus." He took the coffee cup from Molly and sipped. "Perfect."
"Och, they'll be no need for throwing the law at me," Shamus said. "Molly's right. Ye're Jane's lawyer, and she has the right to talk to ye if she wants." He pointed to a table far across the room. "Ye and her can sit over there for privacy. Just don't ye be taking too long, me girl. Ye've chores to do."
"I won't, Shamus," she said over her shoulder as she led Milt over to the table. She waited from him to sit down, and took the chair opposite him.
Milt took another sip of coffee and pushed his glasses back on his nose. He opened up a leather folder he'd brought with him and took out some papers. "Now what did you want to ask about?"
"I was wondering how it was going. You showed me that thing you put in the paper. Is it working? Is my claim...my claims safe?"
"They are, as far as I know. I haven't been contacted, at least not formally, by anyone. Jerry Dominguez and Mort Boyer, they're a couple of men who work for me, ride out every other day to check on those claims. They haven't said anything about seeing any signs of anybody around either claim." He paused and took another sip of coffee. "Does that answer your questions?"
"I guess so." She thought a moment. "What'd you mean 'not formally'? Did somebody talk to ya or not?"
"A few people asked about the notice when it came out. I don't believe it was more than idle curiosity."
"What do you mean 'idle curiosity'? Did they ask or not?"
"I mean people just wondered why I put the notice in _The Citizen_."
"What'd you tell them?"
"That I did it because you asked me to. You're my client, Jane. A lawyer is supposed to do what his client asks him to do." He put down the papers he was holding. "There's just one thing, though. A lawyer likes to get paid for what he does. Are you going to be able to do that...to pay me for all this work?"
Jane smiled. "I already said I can pay you...once I'm out of here, anyway, and I can get back to my claims."
Milt came alert. "Is there something I should know about those claims?"
"I...I don't think so. I think maybe I told you too much already."
He looked genuinely hurt. "Jane, I'm your lawyer. I take that very seriously, and I won't do anything to betray your trust. If I don't have that trust..."
"Now did I say anything like that? I...I just don't think there's anything else you need t'know, that's all."
"I hope you're right, Jane." He put the papers back in the folder. "I promise to report anything out of the ordinary that happens out at your claims...or if anyone asks me anything about them. Okay?"
"I...I guess so." She stood up and reached a hand across the table. "I guess I should thank you for helping me."
Milt stood as she did and shook her outstretched hand. "Just part of the job." Something told him that this case had just gotten a lot more interesting. Jerry and Mort were going to ride out later that day for a routine check. Milt ran his fingers through his thinning hair. He decided that he'd better ride out with them and get a better look at the two claims for himself.
* * * * *
Something moved on Arsenio's chest. He opened his eyes, lifted his head, and looked down. Laura was snuggled up against him, using his chest for a pillow. He felt her body against his, her _naked_ body. Sweet Heavens, it hadn't been just a dream. Without thinking, he reached down and gently stroked her hair.
His touch woke her. "Mmmmm, good morning." She looked up at him happily, a satisfied smile on her face.
"H-how did you sleep?" he asked, uncertain what else to say.
"Pretty good...once we got around to sleeping, that is."
"You ain't complaining, are you?"
"Hell, no!" She stretched like a cat. Her arms reached out far above his head, her body moved against his. Arsenio felt himself beginning to grow hard again. He'd almost forgotten how good it felt simply to have someone lying next to him when he woke up in the morning. "It is just such a _wonderful_ morning!" She said happily, like she meant it.
"Would you like to...umm...?"
She smiled and ran a finger through his chest hair. "Why, Arsenio Caulder, what sort of a girl do you think I am?"
"I _know_ what sort of girl you are..." He stopped. This wasn't the sort of time for a joke that might be taken the wrong way and spoil everything.
He hadn't felt this happy in years. He liked it, and he wanted to keep on feeling this way. "You're...you're the sort of girl that I want to wake up with every morning." The words had just slipped out, but he couldn't for the life of him find any reason to take them back.
"Arsenio, what do you mean?" She looked stunned. "Are you...?"
The words froze in his mouth. Was he? Yes! Yes, he was. "I...I guess I am. Laura Meehan, will you marry me?"
"M...marry," she said nervously. This was hardly what she'd expected. "Now wait a minute, Arsenio." She started to climb over him and out of the bed. "Last night was...nice; real nice; real, _real_ nice, but..." She stood up and wrapped Arsenio's robe around her.
Arsenio swung his feet over the side of the bed and stood up. "Why not?" He took a step towards her, put his arms around her, and pulled her to him.
"You ain't playing fair," Laura said. She felt herself pressed against him. She hadn't tied the robe, and now she felt her bare breasts mash against his hairy chest. She felt something else, too, something hard against her thigh.
"All's fair in love and war, and this is both." He pulled her head down to his and kissed her, a long kiss with all the feelings he had for her. When he finally broke the kiss, he asked again, "Now, will you marry me?"
"Ooh, yes." Her answer was more a sigh than a word.
She was quite for a moment, then suddenly. Realizing what she had agreed to, looked to the door uncertainly. Her expression reminded Arsenio again of a woman on her way to a necktie party. He'd better to go see the Judge before she had time to say another word.
* * * * *
Arsenio ran into the Saloon no more than five minutes later. He was just wearing a pair of jeans, a wild look on his face. "The Judge," he yelled to no one in particular. "Where the hell's the Judge?"
"I'm right here, Arsenio," the Judge said walking over to where he stood. "What's the matter, man?"
"It's...it's Laura," Arsenio said frantically.
Now Shamus hurried over with Molly and Jane not far behind. "What's the matter with her?" Shamus asked.
Arsenio grinned from ear to ear, the biggest smile anyone had ever seen on him. "I...I asked her to marry me, and she was crazy enough to say, 'Yes.' I want you to perform the ceremony as quickly as possible before she has time to come to her senses." The words just spilled out of him.
"Well, congratulations," the Judge said, shaking his hand. "Let me be the first to say it."
Molly kissed him on the cheek. "Aye, Judge, but I'd have to be saying that she come to her senses when she said, 'Yes' to him."
"We'll have the wedding here this very afternoon," Shamus said. "That should be soon enough."
"Here?" Arsenio said. "I don't know if she'd want a big wedding."
"She ain't got no say in the matter," Shamus said merrily. "I claim the privilege as, well, as father of the bride." He slapped Arsenio on the back.
"I'd better go back and tell her then," Arsenio said.
"Ye'll be doing know such thing," Molly said. "If Shamus is the father of the bride, then I'm the mother -- though I might be getting an argument from Rachel on that. I'll go get --"
Laura was standing in the Saloon doorway. Her hair was wild and uncombed, her blouse was only half-buttoned, her skirt was loose at the waist, and she was barefoot. She stormed over to where he was standing. "What the hell you mean running off like that?"
"I...uhh...I was so happy when you said 'Yes' that I ran over to get the Judge." Arsenio looked nervous. Was she going to back out?
"Of all the...I didn't know what happened to you." Laura said. "I got dressed as...I mean...umm...I came after you as quickly as I could." She looked at him angrily, embarrassed at what she'd just admitted. "You ain't gonna hold me to what I said, are you?"
"Hold you to what?" He had the beginning of an idea.
"Arsenio Caulder, you got me to say that I'd marry you by...well, you did. You asked, and I said I would. But you...got me to say it 'cause we was...Oh, hell, are you gonna make me marry you?"
Arsenio smiled. "Well, now, Laura, why you said 'Yes' is your business, but just the same, you _did_ say it." The smile became a grin. "And just now, you told everybody here that you said it."
Laura sensed a trap. "So?"
"So, Laura Meehan, you just told all these folks that you'd marry me. Are you gonna try and weasel out of it, or are you gonna be a man of your word and do it?"
Laura glared angrily at Arsenio. "You...you dirty...you tricked me."
"Maybe so, Arsenio said, "but I'm still waiting for an answer."
Laura looked at Arsenio, smiling at her, and at the crowd surrounding the pair of them. Say "Yes" to Arsenio, agree to be his...his wife? That was hardly the reason Leroy Meehan had left Indiana all those months ago. But she wasn't Leroy Meehan now, not by a long shot. She thought about what saying "Yes" would mean. It scared her, but then she thought about what saying "No" would mean, and what she'd lose if she said it.
"What about you?" she said angry at him for putting her in this situation. "You took me in a moment when I couldn't think straight. What kind of man would hold me to a promise like that?"
"I'll show you what sort of man." He took her in his strong, blacksmith's arms and kissed her hard on the mouth with the whole saloon looking on. He broke the kiss -- too quickly, she thought -- but still kept his hands on her waist. "Well?" he asked, looking directly at her.
Laura smiled, a small, timid smile, and looked coyly down at her feet. "Well, now...I-I wouldn't want to be known as a man who didn't keep his word."
Arsenio swept her up in his arms and gave her a second kiss that told her she had made the right choice. She knew what kind of man he was. Part of her wanted to kick him in the shins, but a bigger part of her was glad that he was that kind of a man.
"Now that ye're agreed," Molly said as they breathlessly broke the kiss, "ye can say goodbye to each other. Ye'll not be seeing your bride again till the wedding." She took Laura's hand. "Ye come back up to yuir old room, Laura. We've a lot of work to be doing between now and then."
"What?" Arsenio said.
Shamus put a hand on Arsenio's shoulder. "Lad, never try to stop a woman when she's planning a wedding. It just ain't a safe thing to do."
* * * * *
"Hey, Whit," Arsenio called as he walked into the barbershop. "You got time to give me a shave and a trim?"
"Don't see why not." Whit made a broad motion with his arm to show just how alone the two of them were. "There don't seem to be a long line ahead of you."
Arsenio sat down in the chair. Whit tied the barber's apron around his neck. Most men had a personalized shaving cup stored on the barber's shelves. Whit found Arsenio's, white porcelain, with a gold trim, and Arsenio's name over a golden anvil. He added shaving soap and water and began to work up a lather.
"What's the occasion, Arsenio? Seems like you were just in here a week ago. He used a small brush to apply some lather to Arsenio's face.
Arsenio grinned broadly. "Nothing much. I just think a man should look nice for his...wedding."
"Wedding? You mean you and Laura?" Whit asked.
"Well, now," Whit asked, "when did all this happen?"
"Last ni...I...uhh...mean I proposed this morning, and she said, 'Yes.' I'm marrying her this afternoon over at Shamus' place before she can to change her mind about it."
"A-yup, changing their minds is what women do best.
"I hope not, but if she does, you're going to be there to see it."
"What do you mean, Arsenio? You inviting me to the wedding?"
"No, I'm asking you to be my best man."
"Well, now, I am truly flattered, but why me?"
"Because you're my best friend. I wouldn't have made it when Eleanor died without you; I wouldn't have been here to meet Laura either."
"I didn't really do that much."
"The hell you didn't. I was down deeper than I buried the base for my anvil. You were there when I needed somebody to talk to, to scream at, or just to get drink with."
"Don't give me too much credit for drinking with you. I always made sure you were the one to pay for my liquor."
"That's true," Arsenio said with a laugh. "You owe me for all that booze, Whit, and this is my way of collecting. Now will you do it?"
"If I agree, will you stop talking so I can give you that shave you asked for?"
Arsenio laughed again. "Yes."
"Then I will, if only to get you to shut up so I can do my job."
* * * * *
Laura was sitting on a bed in the bedroom she'd shared with the others. She was brushing her hair for the second time when she heard a knock at the door. "Who is it?"
"Ulysses S. Grant," called a feminine voice from outside.
Laura smiled and put down the brush. "Come in, Mr. President."
Wilma walked, almost strutted, in. She wore a red, crushed velvet dress that was cut just a little too tight. It was short enough to show a bit of ankle and low enough that she really didn't need to have left her top button open to show some cleavage. Her dark brown hair flowed down to her shoulders in waves. She held a small package wrapped in pink paper tucked under one arm.
"I see you got my message, Wilma," Laura said.
"Yeah, and it's a good thing you invited me. I heard about what you're doing, and I'd have been there whether you wanted me or not."
"Well, I _do_ want you. In fact, you can be a bridesmaid if you want."
"I ain't nobody's -- hold on. 'Bridesmaid', that's a good thing, ain't it?"
"It is. You want the job?"
"Don't see why not. Who else is there, and what do we gotta do?"
"Bridget's my other bridesmaid, and Amy Talbot is my matron of honor. You just walk up the aisle to where the Judge is standing. Shamus and me'll be right behind you."
Wilma laughed. "Me and the Sheriff's wife standing up together in front of a judge. Who'd've ever thought it?"
"Then you'll do it?"
"Sure will. I always said you'd wind up with Arsenio. Standing up there with you'll show just how right I was." She thought for a moment. "Say -- how come you know so much about weddings anyway?"
"Don't you remember? I had five sisters back in Indian that had to be married out before I could come out here and join up with you."
"Oh, yeah. Do they know what happened to their big brother?"
"No! And I'm not planning to tell them. Shamus sent them a copy of that story Nick Varrick wrote about us all dying in a shootout."
"Yeah, I wanted to talk to him about that story. I read it, and we come off looking pretty stupid, riding into a trap like that."
"He was in town just a couple days ago. Didn't you see him then?"
"Oh, I seen him. He heard I wanted to see him, and he come over to the House." She giggled. "We didn't do much talking, though."
"Well, we didn't. They's other things a man and woman can do together besides talk. That reminds me. I brung you a present, something you can wear for the wedding...or for later. What do they say, 'Something old, something blue...'?" She handed Laura the package.
"Thanks, Wilma," Laura said. "It's 'Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.' She tore at the paper. "Oh, my, it's...it's beautiful. She lifted up a white camisole, trimmed in yellow lace. The left shoulder was completely covered with a mass of slate blue artificial roses.
"You can use it for 'new' or 'blue', then, whichever you want."
"Thank you." As Laura looked at the camisole an odd expression came onto her face. She slowly put it down on bed next to her. "Wilma, can...can I ask you a question?" Her voice seemed drained of any emotion.
"Sure, what d'you want to know?"
"How...how can I get out of this...this wedding?" She looked overwhelmed, desperate.
"What's the matter?" Wilma asked with a snigger. "You got the jitters?"
"Don't I though," Laura said. I feel like doing what my sister Hanna -- she's the next to oldest -- did; she bought herself a train ticket out of town the day before her wedding."
"What's bothering you then...and why are you asking me? I thought Bridget and Maggie were your good friends."
"I just can't bring myself to talk to them right now. Look at me, Wilma." She gestured toward her body. "Three months ago, I was Leroy Meehan, fresh out here from Indiana and loaded for bear. I was gonna make myself a reputation as a gunman -- have me some fun. That's why I joined up with you and the others in the first place."
"So, now I'm..._Laura_ Meehan, a woman sitting here in her unmentionables getting ready to marry some man I didn't even know back then. I...what the hell am I doing? Have I any business, any business at all, pretending that this is who I am, who I want to be?"
Wilma scratched her head and looked at Laura for a minute. "First off, you ain't pretending; you _are_ a woman."
Laura gave a pained grimace. "It's easy to say that; it ain't half so easy to live it."
"Well, I've already come around to the idea that I'm a woman, and don't go saying that that's only because I got a second dose of the potion. Don't you dare say it!"
"I won't; I won't," Laura sighed, still looking at her knees.
"You damn well better not. I'm tired of hearing it from the rest of you." She took a breath. "All that potion did was force me t'see that I _was_ a woman. Maybe it rubbed my nose in it, but then it let me see just how _good_ it felt t'be a woman." She smiled. "That's what you're gonna find out tonight."
"Is that what you're afraid of...having sex as a woman?" She shook her head. "Of all the...look, you wasn't no virgin when you was a man. Hell, didn't you tell me you stopped off at every House between Indiana and Santa Fe."
"Not all of them," Laura said with a tortured smile. I was moving kind of fast on the way out here.
Wilma chuckled. "You shopkeepers who cut loose are the worse kind." Wilma reached down and lifted Laura's chin, so that their eyes met. "Well, I weren't no virgin either. I've walked on both sides of the street now, and, let me tell you, sex is just as good, maybe even better -- no, it _is_ better as a woman. You'll get on to that later, when you're...alone with Arsenio. That's when you'll find out just how good being a woman can get."
Wilma watched to see Laura's reaction. She expected a cringe. She only got a guilty look, and _suddenly_ she knew why. "You already know!" she exclaimed with a burst of laughter. "You already been with him, ain't you?" She laughed again. "You ain't marrying him 'cause you love him. You're marrying him so he'll make an honest woman out of you!"
"I'm marrying him because I gave my word that I would."
"Yeah, you always said you was a man of your word."
"Then why are you asking me how to get out of it?"
"Because I'm scared," she whispered. "More scared than I've ever been in my life...in either life."
"Now what the hell have you got to be scared of?"
"I'm scared of being a woman, of being _his_ woman, for the rest of my life. I don't know how to be a real woman, and that's what he deserves."
"Seems to me that don't matter."
"What do you mean?"
"It ain't a matter of what Arsenio deserves, Laura. It's what he wants, who he wants. And the woman -- yes, dammit, the _woman_ he wants is you. Anyway, you're going to be a woman whether you hitch up with him or not. The only choice you got is trying to be happy or trying to be miserable."
"That's just it. I'm not sure that I am a woman, not deep inside."
"No? Close your eyes."
"Why? I don't --"
"Close your damned eyes!"
"They're closed; they're closed."
"Now, you think of Arsenio, picture him in your mind."
"All right, but I don't see what --"
"He's standing there...naked. His arms are stretched out for you. He's smiling at you. Now...what are you doing?"
"I'm...I'm just standing there feeling scared."
"Keep them eyes closed. What else are you doing?"
"I'm walking over to him."
"He takes you in his arms and kisses you. What are you doing? Are you fighting him? Trying to break away?"
"No, I'm --"
"You're doing what any _woman_ would do with the man she loves." Wilma paused a half breath. "You do love him, don't you?"
"I-I guess I do." She opened her eyes and smiled. "I do; I really do."
"Love him enough to marry him?"
"Whenever a gal says she's not sure, it means she's plenty sure. I knew that even when I was a man. Wilma slapped Laura on the back. "I said you loved him, and now I know I was right. I think you're crazy to settle for just one man, though. You ever _do_ get tired of him..." she nudged Laura with an elbow, "...you come over to _La Parisienne_. There's always lots of men for you t'love over there."
Wilma laughed and slapped Laura's back again. "Gotcha!"
* * * * *
"And so," the Judge continued, "by the power and authority vested in me by the Township of Eerie and the Territory of Arizona, I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride." Arsenio took Laura in his arms, his kiss somehow drowning out the cheering crowd. The Judge finally got them to separate and turn to face everyone. "Ladies and gentlemen...friends, may I present to you all Mr. and Mrs. Arsenio Caulder."
The cheering started up again. The Happy Days Town Band struck up the wedding march. Arsenio took Laura's hand and led her over to the head table.
Maggie and Jane were standing near the table, transferring food from a cart. "Congratulations, big sister," Jane said. "I guess that makes you my brother, Asenio."
"Brother-in-law," Laura corrected. "Sorry about that, Arsenio. I guess Jane's part of the package."
Arsenio squeezed Laura's hand. "That's all right, Laura. I figure you're worth a hundred Janes."
Laura kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you for that," she whispered. Up until now, her stomach felt full of knots. Now that the irrevocable step had been taken, she suddenly felt a strange calm, like a lull in the middle of a storm.
As she said it, she noticed Maggie looking across the room, a tear running down her cheek. Laura looked in the same direction. Ramon sat in a chair looking back at them. "Why don't you go over and say hello to him?" Laura asked.
"I...I have all this work to do," Maggie said. "The food to cook and to serve. There is no time for such things."
"If there's one thing I've learned in the last few days, Maggie. There's _always_ time for such things. You want to stay here and serve the meal, fine, but I expect you to stay for the dancing, too."
"I...I will stay for a while." Maggie smiled, just a bit.
"You better. And you remember one other thing."
"What..what is that?"
"This is my party...mine and Arsenio's, and we're changing the rules. Tonight a person can dance with somebody else as many times as they want."
* * * * *
After the ceremony, the twenty or so guests milled around the bar, talking and helping themselves to the food and liquor. A few sat at the cloth-covered tables, an expanded version of "Molly's Place." Almost a half hour had passed when Shamus gave a yell that quieted the room. "The happy couple will now start the dancing," he announced.
"That's us," Arsenio said. He took Laura's hand and led her to the center of the room. The band began to play a waltz, as he took her in his arms.
"It had better be," Laura teased as they began to move to the music.
Shamus and Molly were the second couple onto the floor in the role of "father and mother of the bride," as Shamus said to someone. He was usually too busy running his business to have the chance to dance with Molly, and he was happy to take this opportunity.
Aaron and Rachel joined them on the floor a moment later. "The _other_ mother of the bride," Aaron said merrily, pointing at his wife. "Go figure."
Bridget and Wilma were standing together, watching more and more people dancing. "You going to dance?" Bridget asked.
"I hope so," Wilma said. "Ain't nothing I like more than being in a man's arm. 'Course, I usually don't have all these clothes on at the time."
Bridget was about to answer when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to see who it was.
"May I have the pleasure of this dance," R.J. asked formally.
"Sure you can," Wilma said, pushing Bridget towards him.
"I'll take that as a 'yes'," R.J. said, accepting Bridget's lack of resistance as consent. He took Bridget's hand and led her through the crowd to the dance floor.
* * * * *
"Care to go again?" Shamus asked Molly, as the band began a second tune.
"I'd love to Shamus," Molly said, giving him a slight peck on the cheek. It was as much affection as she ever showed him in public. "But right now, I'm thinking that there's another one -- out in the kitchen -- that needs to be pushed into dancing."
"Later, then," Shamus said, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. "Ye go get her, and I'll be getting Ramon. We'll meet at the bar."
Molly hurried towards the kitchen. Shamus looked around the room. Ramon was sitting alone at a spare table. Shamus walked deliberately over. "I thought I saw ye over there, Ramon. Come join me over to the bar for a drink in honor of the newlyweds."
"I do not think so, Señor Shamus. In fact, I was just thinking of going home."
"Ye can't do that," Shamus said. "Don't ye know that tis bad luck for anyone to leave a wedding without having themselves a drink to the happiness of the bride and groom."
"I have never heard that. Besides, I...I already had a drink."
"Not with me, ye didn't, and I'm the father of the bride, after all." He grabbed Ramon's arm and tugged. "Now, come on. One drink one hurt ye, and it'll be good luck, I'm sure of it."
Ramon shrugged. "You sound like Aaron. 'Have one,' he would say, 'it could not hurt.'" He got to his feet. "Why not, I suppose. It really would not hurt."
Ramon followed Shamus to the bar. Shamus leaned across and pulled out a bottle of scotch. "Ye don't think I'm going to be drinking the swill I put out for everyone else," he said with a wink. He opened the bottle -- Ramon saw that it was identical to what was on the bar -- and poured.
Ramon was about to drink when he heard a voice. "Molly, I must get back to the kitchen. The soup..."
"Jane and I will take care of the soup, Maggie," Molly said firmly. "And all the rest of it if need be. Laura's yuir friend, and it'll be bad luck for her and Arsenio if ye don't have a bit of a drink now to celebrate the marriage."
"But..." Maggie said.
Ramon chuckled and turned around to face the women. "It seems that these two _casamenteros_...these matchmakers think bad luck will happen if we do not dance together in honor of Laura and Arsenio."
"That is ridículo," Maggie said. "Besides, I have to get back to the meal." She kept looking back and forth between Ramon and the kitchen.
Ramon took her hand and looked into her eyes, reading the nervousness she felt. "Perhaps it is, but Señora Molly says that she has the cooking under control. One dance..." he said wryly. "...it could not hurt."
* * * * *
"Stop the music," Shamus yelled. "They're about to be bringing out the food. Everybody take yuir seats."
Ramon walked Maggie towards the "head" table, the Free Lunch cleaned off and covered with Molly's best tablecloth. She took a seat at the end nearest to the kitchen -- just in case. Every other seat was taken.
"I will sit over there," he said, pointing to another covered table some distance away.
Maggie looked at him for a moment, then stood up. "So will I," she said. She took his hand, and they walked over to the table.
* * * * *
"Not bad," Shamus said, tasting the soup. "Maggie outdid herself on this meal.
"Aye, she did," Molly said, "but she wasn't the only one. Jane fretted and fussed over the food after Maggie went to dance with Ramon. The way she carried on ye'd have thought it was her that cooked it. She said she wasn't going to let anything ruin her sister's wedding supper."
"Jane did that," Shamus said in amazement. "That food isn't 'not bad,' it's truly amazing."
* * * * *
Whit stood up and tapped at his glass. When everyone had quieted down, he began talking. "My friends, there's many good things I could say about my friend, Arsenio Caulder...but you all know him, so how could I get away with lying to you?"
"Laura, you got a hard-working man there. You'll know that in an hour or so, and we'll all know that you know when we see you walking funny tomorrow. That is, _if_ you two decide that you want to leave your bed -- I mean, your cabin tomorrow."
Whit felt a tug on his sleeve and looked down. "Oh, stop frowning, Carmen. The best man is supposed to make a funny toast."
"You better start then," Carmen said with a very straight face.
When the laughter was done, Whit lifted his glass of wine and continued. "Seriously, Arsenio...Laura, you've both had trouble in your lives. It would've broken a lot of folk, but it just made you two better people. And, in the end, it brought the two of you together. You love each other, and we wish you every happiness that the pair of you deserve." He took a drink of the wine and sat down.
"My turn," Wilma said, jumping to her feet. "This here's the damnedest place I ever seen. I ain't sure I want to make a toast. After all, I've had some pretty funny drinks in this Saloon. Laura, you just remember what we talked about this afternoon. Oh...and if you want any advice on what you're going to be doing later tonight, you just let me know."
"Maybe you'll be the one needing the advice," Laura called out. Then she realized what she'd said as the room filled with laughter.
"Well, cock-a-doodle-do," Wilma said, arching an eyebrow in surprise. "Arsenio, you'd better take care of her, or I'll come after you m'self."
"I can't let you do that," Arsenio said. "I'm married now."
"You just remember that. And, if you can't, I suspect Laura will be there to remind you," Wilma said, taking a sip of wine, "and best of luck to the both of you." She sat down to another round of ribald laughter.
* * * * *
The band was playing again, a polka this time. "Enjoying yourself, Mrs. Caulder?" Arsenio asked.
"Yes, I am, _Mr._ Caulder. Why do you ask?"
"Some of the folks have left already. I was just wondering how long we needed to stay here."
"Why, Arsenio," Laura said, looking around. "We are the Guests of Honor. Though, I think we could dance right over to the kitchen door without anyone noticing."
"I knew I married a smart woman," Arsenio said and began moving with her towards the kitchen.
* * * * *
"Dan," Amy giggled, starting to feel her wine. "We really should go back inside." They were in the back yard of the Saloon, sitting on a bench against the side of the building.
"Why?" Dan asked. "Who's really going to notice that we're gone?"
"We might," someone said behind them. Dan and Amy turned. Laura was standing there with Arsenio. "Except, we're sneaking out ourselves, so we can't tell anyone," Laura said.
"Turnabout's fair play," Dan said with a wink. "We won't tell anybody that we saw you leave."
"Thanks," Arsenio said. "Say, as long as you've come this far away from the party, why don't you just head home." He paused a moment. "Or don't you want to bother that little boy of yours?"
"Jimmy," Dan said. "He isn't home. Mrs. Lonnigan, the Doc's nurse, is watching him. She's got him, Whit's two kids, and Maggie's kids all over at Whit's place. We pick him up in the morning."
"You mean _I_ pick him up," Amy said. "You're right, though, Arsenio. Dan will have to go inside for my shawl, but I think that we'll...take advantage of the opportunity."
Dan took the hint and headed back towards the kitchen door. "Best of luck to the both of you."
"I got my luck right here," Arsenio said, putting an arm around Laura's waist.
* * * * *
Sam Braddock walked over to the bar. Blackie Easton handed him a scotch. "No luck for you either, huh?" Blackie asked.
"Same as you," Sam said. "I was just about to dance with Bridget when R.J. came over. Without a by your leave, she just walked away from me, and went out to dance with him."
"That must be six times she's danced with R.J."
"At least. Cap will be back in town in a few days, and I don't think he's gonna be very happy when he hears about it."
* * * * *
Friday, September 29
Another person pounded on the locked door to the Saloon. "Hey, it's 11 AM," an angry voice yelled. "Open up."
"Ye'll have to be opening up the place eventually, Love," Molly said. "Isn't it done yet?"
Shamus looked up from the mixture he was working on. "In a minute or so, Molly girl. I've made me hangover cure hundreds of times, but it's been a long while since I had to make it for meself.
* * * * *
Friday, September 29, 1871, Week 11 -- Day 1
Arsenio looked across the table at Laura. "Enjoying your breakfast, _Mrs._ Caulder?"
Laura smiled at the sound of her new name. "I surely am, _Mr._ Caulder." She was still wearing the fancy chemise that Wilma had dressed her in for the ceremony the day before.
'She is so incredibly beautiful,' Arsenio thought. 'Thank you, Lord. Thank you for this...for Laura.' Then he noticed that she seemed to be picking at her food. Was something wrong? Was she having second thoughts? "We...umm...we got married kinda quick, Laura. I mean, I proposed to you right after the first time we...umm...ahh...then I dragged you off to the Judge before you had time to come to your senses. I was just...I was...wondering if you maybe had any regrets."
Laura blushed and looked down shyly for a moment. Then she raised her head and leered -- actually leered -- at Arsenio. "Only one, Mr. Caulder, only one. I am sorry that we had to stop and get out of bed to have breakfast."
* * * * *
Saturday, September 30, 1871, Week 11 -- Day 2 Epilog
Shamus smiled and looked up at the audience. "And that, me darlin' Readers, is the 'Tale of the Eerie Saloon.' I hope ye --"
"_That's_ the tale?" Molly interrupted. "Not by a half, it is. What about when Paul went into the wilderness after Jessie, or who Bridget finally chose and how she come to choose him, or Maggie and Ramon, or -- whoost -- there's all them people that ye haven't even mentioned yet, all the way down to the Sheriff's little boy, Lieutenant Jimmy, and how he found _his_ true love."
"Quiet, Molly," Shamus said quickly. "There's nobody that likes a Spoiler. I know about all them stories the same as ye do. But for now, though, let's give Ellie and Chris a chance to rest a bit. They've been working on this tale for over a year. They told it -- told it well to my thinking. Now they wants to be seeing what other people have to say about it."
"Besides, they'll be plenty of time for them to be telling the rest of the tales now and then."
The End (For Now)
Coming Soon: "Jessie Hanks: Queen of the Outlaws"