There were two bathhouses in town. He liked that in a town, showed a proper respect for cleanliness; a lotta towns he'd seen didn't have a one. He hadn't had a good hot soaking bath since Tucson, some weeks ago. He'd been riding north the last three days, stopping just long enough to sleep on the trail, riding hard because he wanted to leave Arizona in the damn dust. Watching that trail behind him all the time. The yella sheriff in Contention was dead, and his deputies with him; but you could never tell if some young fella there would decide to take up the bloody star and come after him; lots a' young bucks thought they'd like to get famous gunning down the notorious outlaw.
All in the name a' justice, o' course. In the name a' the law.
He circled the settlement, some distance from the buildings, reconnoitering; and then rode slowly in from the northeast, past the manure piles, past the smoking trash pit, past the pens of hogs, past the little cemetery, till he reached a street--one of three-running north and south. Just a few people on the main street, as he let the reins drop, let his mount find the feed and water for himself.
He left his horse in a flimsy barn built with cheap, warped lumber. Ribbon nickered as he dragged the saddle bags off and threw 'em over his shoulder.
He ran his hand down the horse's neck, spoke quietly to him. "Don't you worry, old man. I'll be back before too long." To the stableman, a thin rail of a man, with eyes as dark and beady as a rat's, he said, "Make sure he gets fresh hay, not that moldy stuff you got in the rack there; and oats. And my saddle better be right on the rail next to him when I get back." He held out two silver dollars. Let one of them fall in the man's hand. "You get the other one when I get back."
"Oats is scarce right now." The man tucked the dollar in his pocket. "We been feeding barley mash from the saloon. Leavin's from the still."
"I guess that'll be alright. Not too much a' that, now. You be careful with that horse. He's a good 'un."
He'd bring Ribbon in the bathhouse with him if he could. A good horse was worth more than gold. And he probably could use a bath, too. That'd have to wait for a couple days. A river coming up to cross pretty soon. Then he'd get his.
The outlaw's place was south, most of his money was south, it was warm down there....he wanted to go south....but he was going north right now, cause everybody would be expecting him to go south. Had to figure somebody would be waiting for him. Always somebody thinking to keep you from doing what you want.
The first bathhouse he came to had fresh painted windowframes, and a fancy painted sign. Frills and geegaws all over it. He could smell the place before he saw it. Could hear lots a' splashing, lots a' masculine voices drifting out along with the perfume of the fancy soap. And feminine ones, too, laughing and singing. Maybe not just a house for baths....
Across the street, and down a ways, another bath house, not so fancy a sign, just plain letters, not so busy either. Might be better. He could never tell anymore, when he might run into somebody who recognized him....
No customers in the second bathhouse when he stepped through the door, just 3 Chinese women scrubbing down the empty tubs, and a wizened little Chinese man with a long skinny beard getting himself scrubbed down in another one. They all looked up at the sound of the door closing.
Looked surprised to see him. "Sorry, ladies," he said, and backed up. "Mister," with a nod. "I didn't mean to bother you if you're closed. Don't mind me."
It was back to the other place, then. Ordinarily, in the general run of things, he wouldn't mind perfumy soap and some female companionship along with his bath, but tonight....he wasn't wantin' that. Wanted to try and get clean, get something to eat that he hadn't shot himself, and bed down inside a building for a change. And that was all.
Although he allowed it might be the best thing for him. Take his mind off that damn rancher and his boy, that sorry mess. Off his whole sorry life. Remind him what was important. Or at least what was possible. Lots a' things impossible. No point in thinking on them.
One of the women, a little bit of a thing, but older than him by some years, scurried over to him, grabbed his hand, and started chattering. He'd learned a few words of Chinese, picked them up in San Francisco, but that was a long time ago, and she was talking too fast, he couldn't make out a thing. She tugged him toward the tubs, turned back and stood on her tiptoes, reached for his hat.
Maybe she was telling the other women what a big strong fella he looked to be. Maybe she was telling 'em not to let the mark get away. Maybe she was just talking to hear herself talk.
Bathhouses have to be warm, and this one was; three stoves around the outside walls, red hot and throwing out the heat. When another one of the women limped into the back room and came back with a bucket of steaming water, he handed the first woman his hat.
She beamed, stroked it, bowing and chattering away, and set it carefully on a shelf. "I see you understand about a man and his hat," he said and smiled at her, the smile that usually made honest women blush and look away. Before they looked back to see what he might do next. "That's one fine hat. I bought that hat from the premiere haberdashery in Omaha. Culbertsons, I think it was."
She didn't blush. Just bowed some more, and led him to a bench, sat him down, started pulling off his boots.
"Now them boots, I got them from a saddle maker in Fort Worth, Texas. Best damn boots I ever owned." She looked up at him, and nodded.
"You understand English?"
She nodded and spoke, but not in English.
"I suppose you know you got the most famous outlaw in the West right here under your roof."
She nodded. Started unbuttoning his shirt.
"There's a helluva price on my head. Make you a rich woman."
She nodded and smiled. A second bucket of water from the back room splashed in the wooden tub; then a third.
"So you let me bring my horse in here and give him a bath too?"
She nodded vigorously, said, "Bath," and pointed to the sign on the wall.
Bath 25¢ Towle 5¢
"It don't say anything about horses up there, ma'am."
She nodded, started pulling on the sleeve of his coat. He let her take it off him, shrugged his shirt off himself. Another bucket of water dumped in the tub.
"I might as well be speaking Egyptian, isn't that right?"
She nodded. He sighed. Stood up when she wanted him to, let her unbuckle his belt, but took his gun from her when she would have put it on the shelf with his hat. "A man can always get another hat," he said, "but if he gets shot 'cause his gun ain't t'hand, it's powerful hard to get another life."
He looked down at the floor a second and sighed. Wondered if he was getting old. Things didn't use to bother him so much.
Two sets of hands tugged his trousers off. In his longjohns and bare feet, he padded over to a crude square wooden stool, and dragged it next to his tub, pulled the Hand of God out of its holster and set it down there. One of the women began gathering up his clothes.
"You know, I'm gonna be needing them clothes." He grabbed the trousers; the old woman chattered and made brushing motions with her hands. "Awright....but just brush 'em. No washing, 'less you want me here all night." He rescued his money pouch before the clothes disappeared into the back room, dug a silver dollar out of it and gave it to her. Put another one down on the stool next to his pistol. No telling what she meant to do with 'em; foolish even trying to talk to her.
Always a gamble; everything. If the law came in right now, he'd have nothing but his longjohns to escape in. The thought of running down to the stable in his underwear made him smile. An interesting picture he'd be.
The fourth woman, who'd been sitting next to the old man (now out of the tub with a towel around his waist) stood up just then.
He ought to have noticed her before. She was young. Not too young. Old enough. Glossy black hair, almond eyes, in a rosy pink wrapper. She hadn't said a word, hadn't carried water, nothing. Approached him and stood quietly, there by the tub of steaming water.
He expected help with his underwear, but the little woman suddenly turned and shooed the bucket carriers out of the room. The old man grumbled in Chinese and followed them.
Well, alright, then. "I think I can manage from here, thank ye," he said to the fourth woman.
He might as well have been talking to the kettle. There was no reaction in her face, she didn't look like she'd even heard him speak. So he turned his back, and shucked off the rest of his clothes, stepped into the tub.
He let his feet get accustomed to the heat before he sat down. Damn, it felt good. Hot, but not too hot. There was something in the water, not perfume, something else, spicy and subtle. He liked it.
Closed his eyes. Opened them in time to see his longjohns disappear through the door too. "Now hang on, you gotta bring them back," he said, and started to rise out of the water. Imagining himself running for the stable bare nekkid didn't appeal. At all.
The woman in pink put her hand on his chest and pressed. She smiled. Well, hell, maybe he wouldn't run in any case. He could handle whatever came along; he always did.
"The wicked flee when no man pursueth," he said. "Proverbs 28."
She nodded and smiled.
He watched her take off her wrapper and fold it once, lay it neatly on the bench. She was wearing a white shift underneath. Not transparent, not a whore's uniform. Pretty respectable for a shift.
He wasn't interested anyway. Not what he was here for. He wanted to enjoy the hot water and that was all. He lay his head back against the side, and watched through half closed eyes while she dipped a sponge into the water and then rubbed it on the bar of soap. Slightly rough against his skin, the sponge made big circles over his chest. Up his neck. His shoulders. The exotic fragrance in the water mixed with familiar lye soap....his eyes closed all the way. He could feel all his muscles, up to now tight, ready for anything....relaxing one by one as the sponge caressed him.
He took a deep breath and let it out slow. God damn, he was tired. Tired of sitting in the saddle day after day. Tired of riding, and that was saying something....tired of his own damn company....tired of looking over his shoulder.
Stopping was worse. No settling down for him. He'd thought about staying down in Mexico....but when that skinny girl laughed at him, he saw she was right. It was a crazy idea. Maybe he wasn't wanted in Mexico, but if he moved on down there and stayed, it wouldn't be long. Somebody would figure out who he was. Somebody would need killing. Or somebody would try to put him in jail for something.
Or on a train.
Never again. He was never getting in that situation again.
The woman was murmuring to him. He didn't have any idea what she was saying, but the sound of her voice was soothing. The sponge continued in its big circles, down his body under the water, around and around on his thighs, his knees, down his legs....
"You got a name?" he said. He didn't expect an answer. He didn't open his eyes to see if she smiled, or nodded. "I knew a girl with black hair like yours. She wasn't Chinese, but when she took down her hair it hung down to her waist, just like yours does. Her name was Louisa."
The woman put her hand behind his neck, and urged him to sit up. He leaned forward, rested his arms on his knees. She smoothed the dust and grime off his back, soothed the back of his neck.
He looked at her sideways. "I don't think I've ever seen anybody as calm as you, though." He lifted a hand out of the water, touched the back of his fingers to her hair....then let a few strands fall across his palm, rubbed them between his fingers....
She squeezed the sponge out over his head. Lathering the soap in her hands, she moved behind him; he let his hand fall into the tub again.
Her fingers in his hair was close to heaven. "Are you content?" he said. "Squeezing soap on dirty men for a living?" She murmured to him, massaging his scalp almost tenderly. "You don't have the least idea what I'm saying. No more'n I know what you mean. You know you could get hardened criminals in here, outlaws of the worst sort, they could murder you for your earrings, and you wouldn't know it was coming until it was too late."
She leaned closer and whispered in his ear.
He whispered back before he realized it. "Hell. You'd probably give me your earrings as soon as you knew I wanted 'em."
She whispered in his other ear.
"You wouldn't know if you met a good man, either, would you? All you know is clean or dirty."
She finished with his hair; then used her palms against his skull, pushing, rubbing, twisting. "Good ain't all it's made out to be, anyway. I 'spect women put more store in that kinda thing than a man does, though I ain't never met a woman yet who wanted nothing to do with me 'cause I ain't a law abiding citizen." After a second he said, "Well....maybe one or two."
One or two.
He thought of Alice's face, watching him like a child at the supper table, attracted in spite of herself....He could have had her if not for the shackles. His reputation notwithstanding. She was so unprotected, he could have stolen a kiss in the first couple of hours, and it wouldn't have taken long to make her lose her way....if he'd wanted. 'Course, she would have hated herself later. And him. And then there was Dan....
Just as well he didn't get the chance. Alice was a good woman. He didn't really want her....but sometimes he did things just to see if he could.
Hell. He didn't want to think about Alice.
The woman reached for the dipper sitting in the bucket of clean water on the floor, and poured it over his head. The soap ran in his eyes and stung. He didn't mind it, though. He just let it sting.
Another dipper of water followed the first. Then her soapy fingers were on his face, rubbing, cleaning, pulling the skin next to his nose, massaging his cheeks....
"Sweetheart," he said. He didn't know her name, he could call her whatever he wanted, she didn't know the difference. Her fingers were on his forehead, stretching the skin, smoothing out the lines, the wrinkles. She exclaimed, and then he thought he felt....the barest touch of her lips there above his brow....and it roused him, when he thought he wasn't interested....but he had to be wrong, she didn't have any reason to do that. Or did she?
"Which would you rather have, if you had your choice -- a dead good man, or a bad live one?"
He turned his head and looked right in her eyes, a good long look. She didn't look away. Just as guileless a woman as he'd ever seen....but not innocent. Not innocent by a long shot.
She ran her hand down his arm; he was getting chilled, she clucked at the gooseflesh there. Got up and poured a waiting bucket of hot water into the tub. Then some kinda oil from a little bottle. Smelled good, felt better when she used her bare hand to caress his chest. And lower....he watched her face when she found him at the ready.
He didn't expect her to be shocked, and she wasn't. Maybe a little surprised. But then calm right away again. Still calm. A slight smile; her fingers touched him just enough to let them both know what was possible, two fingers slid down his length and back up. He watched her mouth open a little, watched her lick her lips, her pink tongue flicking out and then in again....he was interested in spite of himself. Maybe she was just what he needed. Maybe he needed something to wash the taste of death out of his mouth, something to think about besides one stupid rancher and his boy. And his widow.
"What's your name, sweetheart? I don't suppose you'd answer to Louisa." He touched her check with wet fingers. "Louisa was just about the sweetest natured woman I ever knew. No matter what you said or did, she'd just smile. A man just couldn't do anything but smile back at her." He smiled at this woman; his lips curved slow, the heat in his eyes enough to burn some women....but not this one. She didn't even melt.
He knew she was interested. He could always tell when women were interested. What was she waiting for?
And then she stood, looked toward the stool that held his pistol and the money. Said something....took him a second to decide what she wanted, and in that time she picked up his money bag and shook it, listening to the clink of the coins inside.
Of course. Nothing was free. She wanted to be paid in advance. He was almost ashamed to admit he'd thought anything else. A tired smile on his face, he said, "That was really excellent. You're good." He sat up in the tub, looked around for a towel. She reached for it, leaning across the tub in front of him so he could get a good look down the front of her shift. Two sweet swells of smooth flesh, and a glimpse of one brown nipple.
"What the hell," he said. "I find I am in the mood for some diversion." He reached for the moneybag she held, opened it, looked at what was in there and tossed her a couple of the dollars. "I'm not usually stingy, sweetheart, but I gotta save enough a' this to pay for Ribbon's room and board. Till I get somewhere I can get to my money."
Why was she surprised? He wondered what she usually got paid for a bath and a poke. The bath was 2 bits, cheap enough when you consider the labor. The poke wasn't on the sign.
She asked him a question that he didn't understand, then made eating motions with her fingers.
"Sure." He nodded. "How much is that gonna cost me?" He stood up and stepped out of the tub, the water running off his legs and soaking into the rough wood floor almost right away. She snatched up her Chinese dress thing and wrapped it around her; darted through the doorway to the back, and before he was done drying himself off, returned with a plate of rice and meat and vegetables, followed by the little woman with his pants over her arm.
The food smelled good, and he was hungry, so he took his pants and put them on. They'd been brushed, and the worst of the stains had been scrubbed. The leather inserts on the inside leg had been oiled. And they smelled better.
The two women chattered to each other. No idea what they were talking about. He realized they looked alike. Mother and daughter? Maybe.
It seemed like the woman in the pink wrapper had forgotten about the poke entirely. "I'm gonna need my underwear, too." No one paid the least attention to him.
He sat down with his plate of food; the woman he thought of as Sweetheart handed him a flat wooden spoon. He was hungrier than he thought. And it was good.
The front door crashed open. "Is he in here?" Ben had his gun in his hand before the big man had finished asking his question. "Jake says Ben Wade's in here." He was bigger than Ben, but he stopped short just inside the door; the hammer click of a .45 would give anybody pause.
Big and baby-faced. Young and stupid. Seen his kind before.
The man's mouth dropped open. "Oh my God. There's the Hand a' God. I can't believe it." He seemed excited more than anything else. "I'm pretty damn fast myself. I'll give you time to put your gunbelt on, and then we can draw."
Ben handed his plate to Sweetheart. "I don't have to draw." He gestured with his pistol. "I can shoot you easy enough right now."
"No, I mean to see who's faster. We don't have to actually shoot. I've been practicing for months."
Ben cocked an eyebrow. "Friend, if we ain't gonna shoot, there ain't no point."
The young stud's face fell. "I don't wanna kill you....but if that's what you want...."
He never got to draw. The little woman, climbing up on a chair behind the big dumb cowboy, swung at him with a rag pouch that musta had a cannonball in it. Ben heard the crack when it hit his skull; the fella dropped like a stone.
The two bucket carriers dragged the unconscious hero toward the back room. It was slow, he was heavy. It looked once like he might be gonna wake up; Little Mother hit him again.
Ben shook his head. Sat down and took his plate back from the girl. That fella was gonna have one helluva headache in the morning. If he woke up.
"Good thing I had my pants on. Might a' been a bit uneasy for one of us otherwise." Sweetheart looked at him blankly. "Thank ye for thinking a' that, darlin'." He grabbed his waistband and tugged, then pointed at the door just swinging shut behind the unconscious man.
Aha, there was a grin. She covered her mouth with her fingers and giggled. She reached out and patted his belly. Another giggle.
"You didn't quite get that, did you, darlin'? Wonder what you think I said?"
Little Mother swept back into the room and turned the key in the lock. Put a sign that said Closed in the window. She bowed to him; he bowed back as well as he could sitting down. Sweetheart giggled again.
A full belly makes a man tired. Especially a man who was tired to begin with. He thought about Ribbon, and the rat-faced man. Probably that was Jake. He oughta go see if Jake was doing right by his horse. A good horse was worth more than gold. Every man needed a good horse. A good horse, a full belly, a warm place to put his pecker once in a while. 'Bout all a man needed....
Maybe some whiskey, too. All that other stuff was just useless....just tied a man down. Made him foolish. Made him dead, sometimes.
He opened his eyes--he didn't notice they'd been shut till just then. "I don't suppose you have some spirits about." He motioned drinking. She brought him a dipper of water. He sighed and drank. Smiled at her.
"I need to go check on my horse," he said. "He's stuck with me through thick and thin, I'd hate for him to be less than satisfied." She stared at him, her gaze full and open. "He ran beside that damn train for 5 miles. I shoulda gotten off before that...." He took a deep breath. "Guess I had to think about it a bit. And then I had to convince the guard it was in his own best interest to get outta my way." She spoke, laid her hand on his arm. "And after that I'll have to find a place to sleep. So I'm gonna be needing my clothes." He pantomimed putting on his shirt.
She shook her head.
"Is that, no, you don't understand, or no, I can't have my clothes?"
She spoke again. Looked into his eyes. She sounded earnest. Serious.
'Sweetheart. I got no idea at all what you're saying." He threaded his fingers through her hair, pushed it away from her face, back over her shoulder. "Louisa was a lot like you. Sweet. Calm. Her hair was black satin. I was young. Maybe if I'd been a little older, I'da seen it coming." He touched a jagged scar that skittered across his ribs. "She gave me this. Allowed as how maybe she shoulda practiced on somebody else before she tried to kill me, so she coulda done it right." He smoothed her hair with his palm, like stroking a cat. She moved closer. Touched the scar he'd been talking about with the tip of a finger.
She had tidy little ears. He traced the outside of her ear with one finger, then down, and along the line of her jaw. Rubbed his thumb on her cheek.
"I wonder what you dreamed about when you were a girl." She watched him speak. Watched his mouth. "Surely you didn't aim to be doing this all your life." His voice was low and intimate. "Did you want to get married? Did you want kids? Or do you purely love washing other people up?"
He had her whole attention now. She watched him like she thought she could understand what he said if she just stared hard enough; if she didn't let anything distract her. When her gaze dropped to his mouth, it occurred to him Ribbon would probably be alright for a little while longer....
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