The last of the Whore and the Gunfighter Series. Follows The Scent Of Sandalwood, Green Tussore, With Roses and Melted Into Air, Into Thin Air

 

 

Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
Oscar Wilde





The hacienda isn't anywhere near as fashionable as Miz Ellen's parlour, back in the whorehouse in Silver City. Miz Ellen has the latest mode in chairs and sofas upholstered in ruby red velvet, with curving arms and backs of dark, carved wood that poke into a girl so she can't lounge and laze, but must sit upright with shoulders back and her chest out so her gentleman can see what he's getting that night. But the sofa here in the Lancer great room wraps itself around Polly's aching body, pulling her down into its softness and comfort, wrapping her in warmth. She half-sits, half-lies, with Martha at her breast, blinking at the fire in the wide hearth.

The pictures in the flames soothe and comfort. She's free. She's free of the whorehouse, free of Frank, free of the Foleys. She and Martha can start afresh.

Maybe when she's rested some more, though. She's too tired to start afresh just yet. She still hurts. Heck, but she'd thought the labour of pushing Martha out into the world would be bad enough, but she was prepared, kind of, for that. Every woman knows she must bring forth her children in pain and travail. The curse of Eve, her ma said when she made Polly get rid of the first one Polly might have carried. "You're too young to be bearin' and a man don't want a big belly gettin' in his way."

So, she was prepared for that hurt. What she hadn't reckoned on was how sore she still is, days later, so sore she can hardly bear to sit even on the soft cushions of this big, comfortable sofa. Or for her apples to hurt so bad that every time Martha latches on to drink, Polly has to set her face against whining and crying. Polly doesn't cry. There's no point in carryin' on about it. What can't be cured, must be endured.

But she wishes someone had warned her. Between the soreness and the hurting, and the way her milk gushes out and wets her bodice when she least expects it, being Martha's ma is more woe than weal right now.

Things will get better, she thinks. She doesn't know how, because all she knows is whoring, but they have to get better.

They have to.




"What will you do?" asks Scott.

"I don't know," she answers. "I don't know."

Johnny Madrid never asks her. She thinks he knows what she'll fall back to. She thinks he knows.




Once upon a time, Polly could forget about the here-and-now by pretending about her past. Her whole life was about pretending.

A few times since they brought her here she's started in on telling Teresa about how her daddy was a minister, or a lawyer, or a rich man of business back in New York or St Louis or Chicago. How she went to a ladies seminary or a church school or how she had a French governess to teach her. How she was seduced by her dancing master or the Italian master or the handsome son of visiting diplomat from a court in Europe—Old Spain, maybe, or Paris. How her daddy bought her a dress of pale green tussore, and how the hem was caught up with wreaths of pink roses.

But each time her voice stutters and stumbles into a silence. She can't find the words to spin the stories. Sometimes it's because Johnny Madrid is there, or passing through the room on the edge of her vision, glimpsed out of the corner of her eye. His blue eyes catch her gaze and he shakes his head, and she remembers the feel of him, rolling around on her bed and pounding into her, and the tales dies unspoken. Once it was Scott standing in the doorway as her mouth starts to shape the lies to pour into Teresa's innocent ears. He looks grieved, and she closes her lips with the stories untold. But mostly it's because Martha stirs, moving arms and legs to be free of the shawl she's wrapped in, opens her mouth to mewl out her hunger or opens her eyes, still milky and unfocused, to stare up into Polly's own. That crushes Polly into quiet, hushes her tongue.

She can't lie to Martha. She can't.

The past can't be lied about and the here-and-now won't last until tomorrow. Now she must think to the future. Polly Watson the whore and Polly Foley the wife are both gone and not, she thinks, worth making stories about. They never were. All of her pretending has gone with those past Pollys, is dried up and blowing about like tumbleweed in the desert. But Polly the mother of Martha is a new story, and what that tale will be, she really can't begin to tell.

She can't begin to tell even if it will be a tale worth the telling. She wants it to be. Oh, how she wants it to be.




"What will you do?" asks Maria, the housekeeper, who helped her birth Martha.

"I don't know," she answers. "I don't know."

Johnny Madrid never asks her. She thinks he knows what she'll fall back to. She thinks he knows.




Scott has gone to see what he can find of her things, left behind when she fled from Frank. There isn't much. Just a old tin trunk she calls her treasure box where she keeps a sandalwood fan, a bracelet of glass brilliants that might make Martha smile to see it glitter in the sun, and an old parasol with a deep fringe.

"You'd better take the money Foley offered," says Murdoch Lancer, shaking his head over what little she and Martha have to start their story. "The state will take it, otherwise, when he hangs."

"No," she says, decided-like. "No. I can't see my way to it."

She's never seen as much money as Gant Foley would have given her if she'd birthed a boy, or that his conscience—and who would have thought a man like Foley had such a commodity?—would have given her to support Martha. But she won't take it. She won't.

Like all her past, the money's tainted. It's tainted with sweat, and blood, and the juices of men pawing at her and poking up into her, making the bed ropes creak and sing the way they'd creaked and sung under her and Johnny Madrid, and under her and Frank. She can't taint Martha with that. Martha starts out clean and wholesome, and Polly must keep her that way.

Mr Lancer shakes his head some more, and goes away frowning, like he's figuring on what he can do to help her. She's sorry to disappoint him, but while she won't take his charity, she won't be beholden to a Foley. She has to be beholden to one for getting Martha on her, but she won't be beholden for anything else.

Johnny Madrid looks up from his seat by the fire where he's sat so quiet she forgot he's there. She can't tell what he's thinking, not with him living behind the mask he wears to hide his own taint and stains. But he nods once, his eyes kinder than she remembers.




"What will you do?" asks Teresa.

"I don't know," she answers. "I don't know."

Johnny Madrid never asks her. She thinks he knows what she'll fall back to. She thinks he knows.




When Scott gets back, he brings her little box of treasures, all her clothes and Frank's, and he even has Frank's horse tied to the back of the buggy.

"I found it eating its head off on the livery stable's grain," he says, untying the gelding. "It's not a bad animal, Polly, and you might find a use for it."

Johnny Madrid saunters out of the house and runs a hand down over the horse's neck and shoulders. He eyes it with disfavour, but Polly stands up straighter. Scott is right. She might find a use for it. Sell it, maybe, to give her and Martha a start. It's hers to do with as she wants, now Frank's dead…

Oh. Oh dear lord. She forgot that.

She bites her lip, looking from Scott to Johnny Madrid. "Frank… did the lawman… was there any trouble? Will there be?" She clutches Martha close to her bosom, her heart jumping with fear. They'll take Martha from her if they come for her. They'll take Martha.

Scott glances through the closed glass doors to where Mr Lancer sits at his desk, and from there to Teresa's innocent face, and he chooses his words with care. Polly knows they haven't told Mr Lancer that she shot Frank when he came for her. "Better not to mention it," said Scott, back then, "as Murdoch's an upright man and it would trouble him. No, much better not."

"It's thought he got into an argument with the men who came with him and they shot each other," says Scott, now. "I spun the sheriff a story about how you'd witnessed a robbery and they were trying to ensure your silence."

Polly reflects that she's been a bad influence on Scott. She doesn't think that lies come easily to him. "Did he believe you?"

Johnny Madrid snorts, takes the leading rein from Scott's hand and walks the horse away to the stable. Scott watches him go, and he's trying not to smile.

"Johnny always tells me I can't lie worth a damn," he says. "No, Polly, I can't say he believed me. But when he learned Frank was Gant Foley's boy and that the men were Foley's gang, he said he wouldn't concern himself with how Frank got put underground. He said it was the best place for a Foley."

Polly clutches Martha tighter. Not all of them, she thinks. Not all of them.




"What will you do?" asks Mr Lancer.

"I don't know," she answers. "I don't know."

Johnny Madrid never asks her. She thinks he knows what she'll fall back to. She thinks he knows.




Teresa's almost in tears, pulling at the length of pretty lightweight challis, a pale green printed with soft-coloured flowers, and trying to set the seams straight.

"It's so hard," she says. "I can't get the boning into the bodice right."

It's her first grown up dress, Polly thinks. Up until now, Teresa's only had shirtwaists and riding skirts, and sometimes even wears pants like a man when she's working on the ranch. But she must be sixteen now and it's time for her to tighten her corset and put up her hair, and act like a young lady.

"You should sleep in your corset to make your figure neat," says Polly.

"I couldn't do that!" Teresa shakes her head, real firm. "It sticks in everywhere."

"I know. But you have to do it."

Polly settles Martha into the cradle that Mr Lancer said was first made for Scott, who never slept in it, and then given over to Johnny Madrid, who did. Both of them had stared at him. Scott had looked grieved again, but Polly couldn't tell what Johnny Madrid thought.

Martha throws one hand over her head and gives herself up to sleeping with all her might and main. Her eyes are closed, and there are bubbles of milk at the corners of her mouth. Her skin is so soft that Polly worries that the least touch will bruise it, and her cheeks are flushed the faintest pink. Polly touches Martha's cheek with a fingertip.

Teresa sighs. "This pattern is so hard. I can't get it to sit right."

"Let me see."

Polly is a good seamstress, as good a seamstress as she'd been a whore. The dress Teresa is trying to make is very like the one Polly made for her own wedding: a full polonaise skirt flat at the front and drawn into shirrings and puffs over a bustle behind. The bodice has to fit well and smoothly over the bust to fasten onto the narrow waist under a belt of the same challis. Teresa has a cunning little enamel buckle for the belt and matching buttons for the bodice, all in the same pale pink as the flowers.

"Miz Ellen's… the place where… a place I lived and worked once… well Miz Ellen didn't believe in idle hands. She said there was enough of the devil in the world without tempting him further, and she taught us all to stitch or do something useful. A friend of mine, Clara, used to make bonnets, I remember, as fine as anything you'd see in the best shops. I spent many a day stitching while Miz Ellen or one of the girls read to us. Many a day."

"Was it a school?" asks Teresa, watching Polly's fingers fly with the sharp, bright needle.

"A hard one," says Polly, and shakes her head. She lifts a hand to touch her pearl earrings. "But Miz Ellen was kind to us."

She shows Teresa how to set the curved whalebone stays into the bodice, anchoring each of them into place with tiny whipping stitches that can't be seen on the outside of the dress. Together they baste in the pale pink lining, and she fits and refits the bodice until it moulds around Teresa like a glove. With the corset pulled tight, it gives Teresa quite a womanly, stylish figure, and Teresa's much struck by it. She promenades around the room in nothing but the bodice and her drawers, her hands on her little waist, admiring herself in the looking glass until the housekeeper, Maria, comes in to call her to make supper and is outraged at her vanity.

They can't work on the bodice after supper, when the men are there, of course. It might be doubtful that the men will realise they're working on something to cover Teresa's bosom, but it's best not to get them thinking on it. It's not seemly.

Polly's mouth tries to curve up at the thought of her thinking of something like that, and she has to go and look at Martha, still sleeping in her cradle, to wonder at what the child has done to her.

Instead Polly works on the full skirts while Teresa makes the petticoats. Polly arranges the gathers and pleats under the narrow waistband, setting them into place so that when Teresa pulls the skirt over the bustle, they'll sit perfectly. Teresa's singing Polly's praises, Maria commends their work when she brings in the coffee, and Mr Lancer looks pleased to see Polly so gainfully employed. Scott makes funny jokes about the dress and how it will look, and Teresa likes being teased, Polly can tell. She hopes Scott realises it too and is careful. Teresa's a child, the way Polly herself never was, and children hurt too easily.

But Teresa's right about one thing. This will be a fine dress when Polly's finished with it. Teresa couldn't buy better, anywhere.

So Teresa's pleased, and so is Mr Lancer, and Scott is laughing. Johnny Madrid looks up from the newspaper he's reading, and often over the next hour Polly sees him look from the newspaper to her and back again. His face doesn't show anything, though. He doesn't look pleased and he doesn't laugh much along with Scott. He looks back at the newspaper instead; then back to her, and back yet again to the newspaper.

It gets so she's aching inside to know what it is, what's there on the page that he wants her to see.

When the time comes for everyone to go to bed, he folds the paper. He folds it in half, top to bottom, and then again from side to side. He smoothes it on each fold, and taking the back of his knife, he presses each fold down tight and flat. When he's made a square of newspaper, he lays it carefully on the sofa.




Johnny Madrid never asks her what she's going to do. Never. Not once in all the long days since Martha was born.

She thinks he knows what she'll fall back to. She thinks he knows.




She picks up the newspaper and stares at it. Right in the centre of the folded square sits the advertisement. She'd never thought to see such a thing, and she's seen some strange things in her time. People begging for help, to find a missing son or brother, even throwing off an undutiful daughter… all those things she's seen. But nothing like this.

He taps a finger on it as she holds the square of paper. He doesn't speak. He looks the question at her. Not what will you do , but will you do it?

"Oh," she says. And there it is again, under her breast: the feeling that she is free, that every sinner can be free. Of course. Of course she can do this! She can have a future. Even for this poor sinner, there can be a future where the past can't touch her.

She looks at him, into the dark face that shows so little back to her with its cold blue eyes and the mask behind which he regards her, both whores together.

She nods. "Yes," she says. "Yes. I can do that." She takes a deep breath. "Oh yes! That's a wonderful idea."

Johnny smiles then, and it lights up his face, wiping away the mask and all that lies behind it.

She smiles back, her mouth pulling itself into a shape it had forgotten.

 

 

 

 

From the Sacramento Daily Record Union:

 

 

 

~end~
2927 words.
May 2013