This was written for an invitational on another side. I’d never even considered writing a Western so this was something new. This is very much patterned after Western Dime novels and Western Spicy Pulps. I typically don’t write graphic sex and that remains true here. I normally thank everyone up front, but those acknowledgements at the end of this story, as they are a bit more extensive than usual.
Professor Barnabas Bones and Esmeralda
The Astounding, Incredible, Unbelievable, Traveling Patent Medicine Show
I checked my railroad watch and waited until it struck the top of the hour. I carefully tucked the watch back in my vest pocket, pausing to touch the ornate silver key at the end of the chain fob.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Ladies and Gentlemen! Gather round, gather round!”
I stepped forward from the edge of the gold-trimmed brilliant scarlet wagon, letting the tails of my long blood-red tuxedo coat billow, just a little. I cocked my fine black bowler slightly forward over my right eye for that proper rakish look. For the ladies.
I straightened up, hooking a thumb in my gold brocade vest. Always look the crowd in the eye. For the men.
The crowd stood almost dead silent while I paused. I could hear the discordant call of a lone crow off in the distance.
“I am Professor Barnabas Bartleby Bones, purveyor of fine nostrums: liniments, salves, tonics and tinctures.
“A wide array of patent medicines for every possible illness, flux or pain.
“Rheumatism, Lumbago, Dyspepsia, Ladies’ complaints and...”
Out of the growing crowd, I picked a slightly spinsterish woman in a blue dress, homely enough to almost certainly be single, but not so far gone as to know it. I made eye contact, slightly pinched the end of my thin waxed mustache, smiled a little wider and sent her a wink.
I lowered my voice slightly and arched one eyebrow. “ ... hysterias.”
She flushed bright red and dropped her eyes. Perfect.
I swept the cloth-of-gold curtain back from the un-shuttered side of the wagon.
“Behold! From every dark corner of the globe. Distilled from the mysteries of lost civilizations and secrets of savage tribes! Obtained at great personal risk from the brutal Apache and the cannibals of Darkest Africa.”
Row upon brilliant row of tiny clear glass bottles filled with a rainbow of tinted liquids shining like jewels in the rays of the late afternoon sun. Mostly alcohol, mostly–I hoped–harmless.
I continued through the patter, running down the various cures and their fictional proveniences, words flowing through me naturally in a constant stream. I wasn’t even listening to myself, just scanning the crowd.
I didn’t have to guess when my partner slid around the other side of the wagon; I instantly turned invisible to the crowd. Men sucked in their breath, while women blinked in shock.
“Ladies and Gentlemen: The Amazing Esmeralda de Moliere; Princess of the Gypsies, Seventh Daughter of the Seventh Daughter, Guardian of the Hidden Mysteries of this Vast Starlit Cosmos.”
Smoky-eyed and dusky, with the unblinking stare of a rattlesnake and sinuous movements beyond even theirs, she slithered forward, smooth and liquid until she stood next to me. Her dark red shoulder-baring dress showed more of her than would ever be considered proper outside of a saloon, more even, than most saloons would allow, but a Gypsy Princess and Seer was naturally given a little more leeway by the crowd.
I let them drink her in for a long few seconds, just until wives recovered enough to start taking side glances at husbands. Couldn’t let that go on too long – jealous enough to want to look like her is fine, husband-glaring angry is not.
“Before you, we are Science and the Mystical, working together to provide you with some light entertainment and healing and comfort of Body, Mind and Soul!”
“Gentlemen. It is my regular trade to deceive the eye with the quickness of the hands. I never take bets from paupers, widows or orphan children.”
I began with the classic shell game; three walnut shells and a dried pea. The showman places the pea under one shell, and then moves the shells around. The audience gets to guess what shell the pea is under. Of course, the secret is that the pea is under whichever shell the showman wants. It’s all an illusion, of course, but the biggest part of the illusion is that the audience thinks they have a chance. It’s all sleight of hand, and the ability to distract the audience with entertaining stories and patter. The classic patter of the old con man Umbrella Jim is always a good choice.
“A little fun just now and then,
Is relished by the best of men
If you have nerve and you have plenty
Five draws you ten and ten draws twenty
The little pea is hid beneath the shell
Where it lands few eyes can tell
Pick your shell any one you choose, if right, you win, if wrong, you lose”
I also tell variations of the Ned Buntline stories; full of heroes, villains and noble savages. The crowds out West always love those, even though they live here, and know most of it is just nonsense, tall tales.
I wasn’t taking the shell game too seriously, and I wasn’t taking bets. I’d seen the Sheriff lurking around the edges of the crowd, and some of the more enthusiastic officers of the law would consider bets on a shell game as illegal gambling. These games can make a lot of money in a bigger city with the right crowd, especially if you seed the venue with shills. I certainly would never use it to make money in a small town where it can only cause bad feelings. Besides, this wasn’t really why we were here.
After my audience was suitably awed, I moved on to coins, cards and disappearing, reappearing objects. Very effective, especially with Esmeralda’s able assistance and distracting abilities.
After half an hour of my, if-I-do-say-so-myself, remarkable demonstrations of prestidigitation, followed by half an hour of Lady Esmeralda’s vague-yet-somehow-absolutely-believable mind reading, we settled into the less exciting but much more lucrative pastime of trading thin silver dimes for the thinner promises in the bottles.
Some of it did work, of course. Willow extract in alcohol for headaches and other pains, camphor liniment for joint and muscle pain, and the colicky baby syrup–sugar syrup with tiny amounts of cocaine–were all certainly effective, but most of our wares were simply alcohol tinctured with laudanum and a few herbs for flavoring and color. We mixed them up ourselves between stops.
We finally closed down as our esteemed customers headed off towards their evening repast, locking up the wagon and slipping up to the room we’d procured above the saloon.
I watched as my Esme unhooked her boots. “Did you see her?”
She slid one boot off before answering. “No, but we just got here. We had a pretty good sized crowd, but this town has a lot more people than I expected.”
“I wasn’t expecting it either; it had to have some size to have a full Wells, Fargo stop, but I wasn’t thinking it would be this big. We may have to really look for her.”
“I’ll check the dancehall, I don’t think she’d end up working there, not with her background, but the girls might remember her coming through here.”
Esme had been a saloon and dancehall girl, herself, and would certainly have more luck with them than I.
Besides, she was a bit possessive when it came to me, which showed up when she changed the subject.
“Good choice on the one in the blue dress, she’ll herd her friends in once she gets the hysteria treatment oil. I was afraid you were going to go for that blonde girl with the big blue eyes.” Her tone drifted from mock-complimentary to very disapproving. She’d never been overly-fond of blonde girls with big blue eyes, or brunettes with big brown eyes. Or redheads with any kind of eyes whatsoever, for that matter.
I could see her watching me carefully out of the corner of one of her own big brown eyes. “The one with that huge lunk of a boyfriend looming over her like a mountain? Hardly. I’d rather not be run out of town before we’re ready.” She didn’t look happy with that answer, and I decided it was enough teasing. She’d proven to be a very jealous little thing, maybe more than a little possessive. The Good Lord knew she’d also proven it was very unwise to cross her. “Besides, how could she ever compete with my Gypsy Princess?”
She tried not to look too pleased, but when I turned and began to untie the laces down the back of her dress, I could see her red lips turn up at the corners just enough to know I was safe, for now.
I kissed the nape of her neck. “Woman, you will be the death of me.”
She shivered and arched her neck for more kisses and whispered. “I certainly will, Barnabas. Someday, I certainly will.”
Her dress dropped to the floor and I slipped back onto the bed, watching Esmeralda’s nude form from my resting place as she floated over and lifted a small bottle from the washstand.
“Care for an evening libation?” she looked over her shoulder at me with a sinful smile that was equal parts joyful anticipation and evil malice.
Her eyes gleamed wickedly as she poured two shots of golden liquid and handed one to me, coiling herself on the corner of the mattress.
“And this is?”
“A new mixture. For rheumatism.”
She intertwined her arm with mine, holding her own glass near her red full lips, watching me intently.
I held my glass carefully under my nose, taking my time. “Rye whiskey base with ... anise seed and ... caramel.”
Her eyes glittered a little madly. “And... ?”
I closed my eyes for a second. “A hint of bitters.”
With no warning, I downed the shot, and she immediately downed hers, although that was no comfort at all. She would go wherever I did. We stared intently into each other’s eyes, nose to nose, for a long minute, the hair on my spine crackling electrically.
It seemed to take an eternity before she slid into my arms, kissing me with a devilish fire. We broke apart, breathing heavily.
She pushed me back onto the bed and forked one long leg across my hips. “I’m not the death of you tonight, Barnabas. Tonight just wasn’t that night.”
The next day the Sheriff dropped by the wagon, politely waiting for a lull in my surprisingly heavy flow of customers before stepping in. “Are you running it straight here?”
“Just selling some medical wonders to those in need, Sir.”
“I saw your show, I’m not gonna have any card game problems, am I?”
“I never touch the pasteboards myself, if I can help it. Evil things, they seem to despise me.”
“Let’s just keep it that way, shall we? I’d rather not be cleaning up after a misunderstanding over a bad hand of cards.” He eyed me warily.
“You have my word, Sir. I’ll make you no trouble with cards.”
As he drifted out, Esmeralda drifted in, glancing after him. “The usual warning?”
I sighed. “He’s worried I might make my living as a card sharp.”
“You could, you know, it might be a bit less risky.”
“But not nearly as amusing, my Dear Heart.”
“You might want to drop by the saloon this evening and put his mind at ease while I attend to ‘Ladies sales’.” Esmeralda privately attended to the sales of medications for “Ladies complaints:” spinsters seeking ‘hysteria relief’, cramp medications, and, very quietly, an array of medications to lessen risks for the Soiled Doves.
It’d be worth my life to so much as hint as to how to apply hysteria oil, much less explain it as bluntly as Esme did.
“I’ll do that. You make any headway?”
“No real luck yet, but I’ve set up with the dance hall for the use of their venue. ‘Esmeralda de Moliere’ will be performing the Veil Dance tomorrow night.”
I nodded. “For cultural edification, of course.”
She gave an entirely artificial smile. “Of course.” She sat down on the stool next to me. “He has a competent piano player, I talked to the girls and let them know I’ll get the men spun up, but that’s all. I won’t be dancing with any man there.”
Esmeralda would never let herself be sold so cheaply as that, not now, anyway. She’d often told me that the dream of her intimate company was far more valuable than the company itself, though I disagreed with her on that. Her intimate company is quite beyond compare.
“Does he have competent protection on hand?”
She searched my face for a second. “He does. I will keep my lady gun on me, just in case. But I love that you worry about me. I’d think you’d be more worried about any unfortunate soul that forces my hand.”
“Alas, my concern for humanity only extends to your lithe and wondrous self.”
Her smile was genuine and very, very pleased.
“In that vein, if you do find our itinerant redhead, don’t make any mistakes. She may be very dangerous.”
She looked down grimly and pulled her little Remington derringer, a twin to my own, from the folds of her dress. “I remember.”
Three months prior, just after we’d claimed the bounty for Jack Gilchrist, a card had been waiting at the desk. Jack had been a violent man, wanted for a number of bloody stagecoach robberies. No one else had been able to track him down, but we’d done it. He had, unfortunately, forced our hand as far as the choice of “Dead or Alive” was concerned.
The card was a request for a meeting that evening at the office of Sebastian Graham, Esquire, an attorney, of all unholy things. We went to meet him at his rather ostentatious office.
He glanced over Esmeralda with a bit of trepidation. “And your companion... ?”
“Yes, she is.” I knew damn good and well he was asking for her name, but I’ve learned not to feed lawyers any more than necessary. Esmeralda looked smug, but kept her tongue.
He looked a little disgruntled. Or perhaps constipated; it can be difficult to tell the difference with lawyers. “I’d rather keep this confidential.”
I gave the slightest of condescending smiles. “And so we will.”
He managed to look even more unhappy, but decided to press on. “I have an offer from a client. Mr. Artemis Lodge, of Boston, would like your assistance in locating his niece. Victoria Lodge. You have a reputation for being able to find people.”
“We’re not that sort of agent. There are confidential agents who specialize in locating missing children.”
“She’s hardly a child. She murdered her own brother, apparently in order to inherit her father’s entire fortune rather than just part of it.”
He slid a paper across the oversized desk to me. A warrant for “Victoria Lodge,” of Massachusetts. Two things stood out immediately. The first was that the bounty offered was unbelievably high; five thousand dollars. The same as for Billy the Kid. Esme pointed out the second item even as I saw it.
“Dead or Alive? How did she kill him?”
Mr. Graham looked lost. “I don’t know. Why? Is it important?”
I leaned back in my chair. “Some judges, some territories, will slap that on anyone. The State of Massachusetts is, in my experience, rather more genteel about such things. If they put ‘Dead or Alive’ on a want, it means that the subject is extremely violent and dangerous.”
“It does, and that’s very, very rare for women.”
Esmeralda looked at me out of the corner of her eye, and I swear I saw a quirk of a predatory smile for just a second. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“I don’t really know the details; I represent the Lodge family’s business interests here in Saint Louis. Mr. Artemis Lodge wants this issue settled and the stain on the family honor erased quickly.”
“He certainly does.” He pulled an envelope out of his desk. “Enough to offer five hundred dollars in expense money up front.”
“I don’t take sucker bets, Mr. Graham. I may or may not be able to locate Miss Lodge, and I won’t take money that I might have to pay back.”
“Provided you make regular reports to me on your progress by telegraph, you will not be required to pay any money back at all. The Lodge family will add another thousand dollars on top of the bounty if you are successful.”
Esme reached over and squeezed my hand. The bounty on the unfortunate Mr. Gilchrist had been less than half of the expense money we were being offered.
I accepted her signal. “I believe we can work something out.”
The lawyer smiled, a particularly oily smile, and placed an account book on the desk next to the envelope. “This has everything we know about her movements when she fled.”
When we’d left Saint Louis to start our hunt, we’d been in rather good spirits. We had more money on hand than expected, a full stock of supplies and Esme had found herself a beautiful black and red, silk and whalebone corset that she absolutely adored.
Even then, in the back of my mind, I had to wonder just how dangerous Miss Lodge was. Certainly not as dangerous to me as my Esme, though; at least there was that.
The saloon was larger and more open than the usual institution, the ceilings higher and the drinks a hair less watered down than usual. It was still every bit as noisy as the usual though, as both Esme and I could attest, as our room was directly over the main salon.
I saw the Sheriff sitting near the bar, tracking me, as wise men are sometimes want to do. After our earlier discussion, he’d certainly made his concerns clear, and I certainly wanted to keep on his friendlier side.
Before I could get to him, though, one of the patrons called to me, “Hey, Professor.”
I looked over to see a young man I’d seen in the crowd earlier. He was sitting at a table, with four other men, obviously in the middle of a night of poker. He grinned when we made eye contact. “I was telling these guys about your show earlier.”
“What was your favorite part?”
“The coin stuff.”
That was as good an opening as I could ask for. “You mean this?” I reached down and plucked a silver dollar from in front of him, and began running through the disappearing reappearing coin tricks. Palming and knuckling coins is a staple of a magician’s trade, but it is a skill that has to be kept up.
Their eyes really widened when one coin became two, then three, then four, ending in a stack of ten silver dollars that I gently dropped in a chiming stack in front of him. It was even more of a shock to the young man to discover that the other nine coins were also from his stack, he just hadn’t seen me palm them.
“Coins are lovely things, quite willing to behave as they’re supposed to.” I gave my most gregarious smile. “So are whiskey bottles.” I picked up the whiskey bottle from the middle of the table and began to run through a series of tricks I hadn’t used in my show. Spinning tosses, disappearing bottle and bottle-through-the-table are all fairly simple and effective illusions that require no preparation and seem to be particularly effective on patrons who are as concerned with the whiskey in the bottle as they are with the bottle itself. I finally snatched the bottle back out of thin air, poured myself a scant shot in an empty glass and downed it, dropping two bits onto the table just to avoid any arguments. Several of the customers actually applauded, and the surly looking barkeep even gave a smile.
A face in the crowd caught my eye. Odd for him to be here, now. Maybe it didn’t mean anything, maybe it did. It might represent an opportunity though.
I made a slightly theatrical frown. “Now cards, on the other hand, they’re not so very friendly. They seem to dislike me in particular.” I saw the Sheriff raise an eyebrow at me.
I picked the deck up off the table, over a quickly quelled objection from a man in a faded grey duster.
I began to shuffle, deliberately displaying all the dexterity I had. From their faces I could see that they were impressed.
“Now gentlemen, it is very, very important to remember that I am not good at this, and that the cards hate me.”
I finished with a flourish and began dealing rapidly until five cards were dealt to each man including myself.
“The cards pretend they like me at first.” I tapped the first man’s hand. “Deuces, King high.” I flipped it over to expose the hand, causing a murmur of appreciation.
“Threes, Queen high.”
“Fours, Jack high.”
Now they were staring in shock and a bit of horror as I turned over the cards.
“But as I said, the cards truly, deeply, hate me. It always goes wrong with my hand.”
I flipped my hand over without looking at it.
“Aces and Eights. The Dead Man’s hand. The card truly despise me.” I gave a weak smile to a dead silent audience.
“Gentlemen. It is important to remember that I was being completely honest when I said I’m not very good at this. You should think of that before sitting down to a game with someone who might be.” I made sure I caught the young man’s eye for a second; best he learned this way than when he lost a fortune.
I paused to examine the cards for a second. I already knew from the feel of them what I would see.
“Besides, someone has already clipped and shaved this deck of cards to within an inch of its life.”
Every eye at the table instantly fell on the man in the grey duster.
He was out of his chair instantly, grabbing my lapel and sweeping his duster back from his gun. “Did you just accuse me of cheating?”
“Not very well. If that deck of cards landed on a table in Tombstone, you’d be laughed out of town. Or shot. Possibly both. Though precisely in what order, I hesitate to think.”
His hand twitched towards the butt of his revolver. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the Sheriff move slowly towards us, but he couldn’t do much without triggering violence.
I looked at the would-be card sharp and sighed. “Must you be in such a hurry to depart this stage and shuffle from this mortal coil?”
He looked distinctly put out. “Do you always take ten words to say two words?”
“All due apologies, my verbose nature is a persistent hazard of my chosen occupation. That was terribly misquoted Shakespeare. Allow me to clarify my words.” I looked him dead in the eye. “If you try to draw that gun, I will kill you where you stand.”
He blinked once as that sank in, but suddenly found himself holding very, very still. I had my derringer pressed tight up under his chin.
He looked quite surprised. I have no idea why anyone who’d seen me make coins and whiskey bottles disappear and reappear in rapid succession would be surprised that I could make a derringer appear so quickly, but they always are.
A frisson passed up my spine, like a rustle of feathers, as I felt my finger taking up the slack of the trigger against my will.
For that fraction of a second, I knew he was going to die. Then the heavy silver key on my watch fob gently tapped against me, freeing me.
I smiled at him. “Do be cautious. It would be so very disenchanting for the customers of this fine establishment, were this evening to take a tragic turn. And all I really wanted to do was purchase a bottle of whiskey.”
Slowly, carefully, I lifted his Army Pattern revolver from his holster and extended it to the Sheriff, then stepped back and returned my derringer to its sleeve holster.
“I apologize, Sheriff, I really did not intend to make trouble over cards, though I think this is not really what either of us meant.”
He nodded. “I will have some words with Mister Grace here. He works out at the Hamilton spread, and I think he’d be happier spending the next two weeks there than in my jail.”
I looked at ‘Mister Grace.’ “I would recommend you to a different line of work than cards. I’ve seen ‘good.’ You will not live long enough to get there.”
The Sheriff gave a wry half smile. “You’ve certainly made it clear you’re a poor choice to call to a card table.”
“My design was rather more to put your mind at ease than to make a scene.”
He couldn’t keep amusement from his face. He just shook his head and walked out with the unfortunate Mister Grace.
I glanced around, looking for the face I’d seen earlier. I was sure of him, I just wanted to know if he was alone.
I waited up quite late for Esmeralda.
She seemed very amused when she finally arrived. “Your little spinster was more than a little disappointed that you weren’t available to give her some private treatment for her hysteria.” She gave me a wry look.
“I’d rather not, I think. Any word?”
“The usual gossip, but there’s at least one woman who arrived a year or so ago. Wife of the clerk at the dry goods store. None of the women have a bad thing to say about her. Even though she was a contract bride, if rumors are to be believed.” She seemed a bit disconcerted for some reason.
“It is, isn’t it? I’ll be visiting the dry goods store tomorrow to see what I can find out. Do you suppose they would have Arbuckle’s coffee there?”
“If they do, ask for Folgers’ Golden Gate; that should give you a good start to talk.”
Her dark eyes were staring into a distance I couldn’t see. She seemed distracted. “There are a couple of other possibilities to look into as well, but I think that one sounds the best.” She shook her head slightly as if to clear it. “It’s odd, Barnabas, if a woman has a flaw in her character, other women will always find it, always talk about it. But they all seem to love her. Something feels off about this one.”
“Some people are good at hiding what they are, Esme. You know that.”
She seemed a little disheartened, a little more uncertain than my Esmeralda ever seemed. “We’ll see.”
I shrugged. “I did see something interesting in the crowd at the saloon. The middle Starling brother, Custis, was there. I’d imagine the other two and some of their bunch are here as well.”
“What are they worth?”
“I think Damon and Custis are worth three hundred apiece, Lucius was five hundred dollars last time we picked up paper on him. They usually have three or four men with them, according to the papers. Some of their men have bounties on them as well. But we’ll only look at them if we are unable to locate Miss Lodge, as they are likely quite well armed.”
She looked puzzled. “Do you suppose they’re eyeing the stagecoach?”
“That’d be new for them; they usually do hired gun work.”
“Our fugitive is worth quite a lot of money; do you think they may be trailing her?”
I shook my head. “I can’t see how they’d know; it was near on blind luck that got us here, and I can’t see how anyone else could do it. But I suppose they just might. We’ll want to take her quietly if we can.”
She grimaced. “We could head the Starling brothers off if we warned the Sheriff about them.”
“That’d mean explaining why we know that to the Sheriff, and that might tip our hand. I’d rather he stayed under the impression we just sell Patent Medicines as long as possible.”
“Sometimes...” She stopped, then suddenly smiled, her face softer than usual. “I have a new formulation for dyspepsia, Barnabas.”
A few minutes later, we were perched on the corner of the bed, arms linked for our usual ritual.
“A bit of pure grain alcohol, ginger, lemon peel, a bit of wintergreen, and some honey? This might actually work.” Instead of downing it, as usual, I sipped it and she followed suit.
Instead of her usual explosive heat, she simply melted forward against me, laying her face against my shoulder.
“I will be your Doom, Barnabas, but most definitely not tonight.”
It was well after mid-day before we did anything of consequence, Esmeralda’s engagement at the dance hall would run very late, and she’d wanted to be rested. Still, there was much to do.
While I attended to more formulations and to sales, Esmeralda made the short walk to the dry goods store. That establishment was just a few blocks away, next to the stagecoach stop across from the Sheriff’s office. Normally, I’d have already dropped by the office to see if there were any new warrants out that might be worth pursuing, but I was afraid to tip my hand with a bounty the size of the one on Victoria Lodge at stake.
While waiting for Esmeralda, I actually made up several bottles of her new dyspepsia elixir, adding a bit of yellow coloring to make it more appealing. I thought I’d label it as a secret Gypsy formula, and, since I suspected it would actually work, I didn’t feel bad about raising the price an extra dime.
As I was putting the new bottles out on display, Esme came up with a smug, cat-like smile on her face.
“The clerk at the dry goods store thinks very highly of you. You saved him a great deal of money with your little show last night. He was at the table where you found the marked cards. He’s a young guy with brown hair, Jedidiah Slade.”
“I think he was the one that called me over to the table in the first place.”
“His wife, ‘Kitty,’ was over attending to the birth of a baby of a friend of theirs, but he said they would love to have us visit their home this evening for dinner as a gesture of appreciation.”
“You do have an engagement tonight, so we will have to keep an eye on the time.”
She gave me a very meaningful smile, full of promise. “I remember. And you know how that affects me.”
I returned her smile with equal promise. “I certainly do.”
There was a little extra sashay in her walk when she left to check on the arrangements at the dance hall.
Late that afternoon, I found myself standing alongside Esme at the door to a small clean clapboard house on the edge of town with chickens scratching at the dirt all around it. The young man from the saloon opened the door and beckoned us in.
“Come on in, Sir. Ma’am.”
His wife was standing right behind him, touching his elbow with obvious affection. Red hair, green eyes; she definitely fit the description. “This is my wife, Katherine; she answers to ‘Kitty’ most times.”
She gave a brilliant, broad smile. “Jed says we owe you a huge thanks.”
I gave her my second-best smile. Even if, or perhaps especially if, she really was our quarry, Esmeralda would be a touch put out if I gave any redhead my best smile, and that could be a bit dangerous. “Just a fortunate turn of events. I’m sure your husband would have caught on quickly.”
Jed shook his head with a bit of a self-deprecating smile. “Not before I lost more than we’d have been sorry to lose. Kitty’s pretty tolerant, but she’d have been rightly put out.”
Kitty wrinkled her nose. “I’d have forgiven him after a couple days. Just can’t stay mad at the man.”
“I don’t know; you managed to stay mad at me for three or four months.”
“That’s because I didn’t know you.” She looked at Esme. “We had a kind of rough start.”
We sat down to a dinner of steak and fried potatoes.
Esmeralda smiled at Kitty. “So what did you mean by a rough start?”
“When we first met, I was sitting on my nevermind in a puddle of water, and I wasn’t exactly at my most cordial.”
“I was a contract bride. Third daughter of a milliner in Rhode Island, and I wasn’t exactly the belle of the ball, so I answered a Matrimonial in the newspaper and had six months of correspondence with man in Saint Elmo. I packed up and traveled all the way out there, only to find out he died a month before I arrived. I didn’t have anywhere to stay, I was getting low on money, so I tried to go home and ended up here.”
“And the water?”
“It was pouring rain, I was trying to walk to the hotel, hoping they’d let me do laundry in exchange for a room. I was crying and wasn’t looking where I was going...” She gave a tiny shrug. “Splosh.”
Jed grinned. “So I was coming back from making a delivery and I saw her sitting there and I asked if she was okay. She said she was fine.”
Kitty leaned forward. “So he walked off!”
“She said she was fine.”
I raised my eyebrow. “I think, young man, you fell afoul of the classic riddle of the female of the species. They never say what they mean, until they do. Then they don’t let you know they’ve done it until it is too late. They are the sphinx; no man has ever solved their riddles, and they are not so kind as to simply kill you for failing to answer the question they never even asked.”
I watched a secretive smile pass between Esmeralda and Kitty, but pretended not to notice. “So what happened then?”
Kitty rolled her eyes. “I dragged my case down to the boarding house, but they were full and didn’t need help. It hadn’t stopped raining, so I went into the only place I could, the dry goods store.”
“Where she met my mother, who gave her a job as a housekeeper just to give her a place to stay.”
“Mother Slade was so nice to me, I was a little surprised when I met him at dinner.”
“No more than I was. Mother sat her down right across from me. Her face got as red as her hair.”
I suspected Mother Slade had more or less intended the outcome she’d gotten with the two of them, and from the sidelong look I got from Esme, she’d come to the same conclusion.
Kitty and Jed were too busy smiling at each other to notice our little interchange. Kitty went on. “It was hardly love at first sight. I was still so mad at him for leaving me sit there in the rain, and I had some trouble fittin’ to life out here.”
Jed started snickering. “About a month after she got here, I noticed that every morning I’d see her hiding around the corner of the barn, peekin’ at the yard, then she’d suddenly dash over there. It took me another month to figure out what was going on.”
Kitty laughed softly. “It was that awful goose. I had to go out and get the eggs from the chicken coop every morning, and that horrible thing snuck up on me and bit me right on the canary cage. I was black and blue for weeks, couldn’t hardly set down at all. Geese bite hard.”
“So she was hiding until she saw the goose go to the pond before she’d get the eggs from the chickens.”
“And I had to learn to cook. That was terrible.”
“Just about went through a full jar of burn ointment every week for a while.”
“Wasn’t just me that got burned. We got us a bottle of pepper sauce, that Tabasco juice. I was making beef and beans and didn’t know how much to use, so I just put in the whole bottle.” She smiled. “That’s when I knew he was rusty for me. Everyone else was trying to drink water and eat bread, just to stop it from burnin’ so, and him just sittin’ there, turning redder and redder, eating those beans, pretending he liked them.” She giggled, reaching out to touch his hand fondly.
When she reached forward, I felt a chill settle down my spine. The V-shaped scar just above her right wrist was visible as her cuff pulled back just a little. The same scar described in the paper on Victoria Lodge. Esmeralda saw it, too, but like me, she kept her smile on.
Normally I’d have been thrilled to find my bounty so easily, but damned if they didn’t just seem right for each other, happy together.
I felt distant for the rest of the afternoon, hollow. I smiled when I should, offered pleasantries when I could, but it was all very faded and colorless to me. I could hear the Boston undertones to her adopted accent now, as clear as daylight.
Eventually, as our hour neared, I pulled out my watch to check the time. “I’m sorry to do this, but Esme has an engagement to attend to. We must be going.”
As I started to put the watch back into my pocket, Kitty noticed the silver key dangling from the fob. “Is that the key to your heart, Professor? I’d think Esmeralda would carry that.”
Before I could formulate an answer, Esme answered in a slightly drawn and hollow tone. “I have his heart, Kitty. I carry it with me always. No, that key is the key to Pandora’s Box, wherein lies all the evils of this troubled world.”
Her tone shook Kitty a bit; I could see it in her emerald eyes. I headed off any further questions. “I’d rather think that would be the liquor cabinet, wouldn’t it.”
Jed laughed, but I wasn’t sure Kitty was convinced.
Just as we left, Katherine–or perhaps it was Victoria now—stopped Esme and asked for a private minute of her time, leaving me and Jed to talk on the front walk.
He looked down at the ground. “Kitty’s asking your lady about child birthing, and if there’s medicines to make it a little easier.”
“Does she have another friend with child?” I was hoping for any answer than the one I knew was coming.
“No. She’s with child right now, our first.” He looked both proud to burst and terrified.
“She’ll do fine.”
“Mother says she will, says Kitty has good birthing hips.”
“I hear that helps.”
We talked on about mostly nothing until Esmeralda came out of the house.
Esme and I walked silently back to our lodgings, far more uncomfortable in our success than failure would have left us.
“You know, don’t you?”
“Yes, Esme, but it doesn’t change anything. If not us, it’ll be somebody else. By now, her paper is all over the territories. Somebody will find her. We can at least take her in alive.”
She shook her head. “It isn’t right, it doesn’t feel right.
“Being with child does not absolve her of her transgressions, Esme.” Even as I said that, I wasn’t sure I believed it.
“I know that.” I could feel Esme’s anger there. “You don’t have to be the Reckoning you know.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Somebody will be. If we can find her, so can others.”
“She isn’t a killer. I can tell.” She paused. “Can we wait until tomorrow to take her?”