Standard Fanfic Disclaimer That Wouldn't Hold Up in Court 10 Seconds: Based on characters & situations created by Mirisch, Densham, Watson, Lewis, et al.; characters merely borrowed for a not-for-profit writing exercise & will be returned to their owners (mostly) undamaged. Rated M for sexual and racial themes, and for profane language. Originally published in the fanzine I Ain't No Doctor, from Neon RainBow Press.
Susan M. M.
It was a hot July night. The hour was late. The seven men who guarded the town of Four Corners – Chris Larabee and his six riders – had drunk more than they should. As the whiskey flowed down their throats and the clock ticked inexorably on toward midnight, their talk had grown increasingly ribald.
"Gentlemen," Ezra Standish announced, the liquor making his southern accent even more pronounced than usual, "I believe our young sheriff has partaken of sufficient libation this evening."
JD Dunne lay face down on the table.
"Boy's gotta learn to hold his liquor," Larabee said. The blond gunslinger had drunk more than he usually did, but he hadn't allowed himself to reach the point of total intoxication. He had too many enemies to ever allow himself to become that vulnerable.
"I'll take him home," Josiah Sanchez offered. "Another drink or two and I'll be in the same condition myself." Pushing his chair back, the ex-preacher rose. In truth, he could've stayed longer, maybe killed another bottle, but he'd spent too much time over the past ten-fifteen years crawling into a bottle and hiding there. Now that he had something to live for again, he was trying to break the habit. Josiah scooped JD into his strong arms as easily as a father carrying a sleeping child off to bed. Heading for the batwing doors, he called "G'night" over his shoulder.
A ragged chorus of "good nights" followed him.
"Hell, ain't like either of 'em could add much to our discussion," Buck Wilmington pointed out. "Josiah used to be a priest, and I think JD's still a virgin."
"You wouldn't know a virgin if you tripped over one," Larabee countered. "Ain't never been one yourself."
"Can I help it if women can't resist me? It's my –"
" – animal magnetism," all five said in unison.
Buck decided to change the subject. "Nathan, tell us about that pretty Seminole gal of yours. Is it true Indian gals are taught secret tribal love rituals?"
"You show some respect when you talk about Rain. She just might be the future Missus Jackson." Nathan took another slug of whisky. "You wanna know about Indian love secrets, ask Vin about all them Kiowa girls."
"Oh, no," Vin Tanner, a long-haired bounty hunter, held up his hands in a warding off gesture. "A gennelm'n don't kiss and tell."
"You ain't no gentleman. C'mon, tell," Larabee urged.
"Ez, yer too drunk to be a gennelm'n at the moment. Why don't you tell?" Vin coaxed. "Who was the wildest girl you ever tumbled in the hay?"
"Not in the hay, Mr. Tanner. Satin sheets. Perfumed satin sheets. There was a sporting house in Atlanta, during the war," Ezra reminisced. "Zilpah was extraordinary. The sweetest little filly –"
"You show some respect when you talk about women named Zilpah," Nathan remonstrated. "I gotta sister named Zilpah."
"I doubt she was your sister, Mr. Jackson. She was much too pretty to be kin to you," the dark-haired gambler retorted.
"I remember during the war, after I'd been shot up. This one nurse showed me things I didn't know were possible." Buck then began to explain, in rude, crude, and lewd detail, just what the nurse had taught him.
*** *** *** ***
Nathan Jackson stood in front of the hotel. The stagecoach was due soon. He took the letter out of his pocket and read it again.
Dear Mr. Jackson, September 1, 1877
I read about you in Jock Steele's The Magnificent Seven. Are you the Nathan who was the son of Obadiah and Mary, on Clarence Jackson's plantation? My name is Zilpah, and I had a brother named
Nathan who ran north during the early days of the war. Is there any chance that you are my brother?
My family and I are moving to San Francisco, where an old friend has offered me a job. We will come to Arizona on our way to California, and stop at Four Corners, in the hopes that you are my brother, whom I have not seen in so many years. If you are not, then I apologize for bothering you.
As he had a thousand times before, Nathan blessed the army nurse who'd taught him how to read, back when he was "Confederate contraband" working as a stretcher bearer in a Union field hospital. He owed her a debt he could never repay.
A few months ago, Buck had told a tall tale about an army nurse, and the bedroom shenigans she'd taught him. While Nathan wasn't a real doctor, he was the only healer for a hundred miles or more. He knew a fair bit about the human body – though not as much as he wanted to – and he doubted that that half of what Buck had told them that night was anatomically possible. Of the two of them, Nathan was sure he'd gotten more from his nurse than Buck had from his.
The sound of hoofbeats made Nathan look up. He'd been meeting the stage every day for the past two weeks, praying that Zilpah would be on it. Maybe today.
Ezra stepped out of the saloon, hoping the stage brought new pigeons to pluck.
The stagecoach drew to a stop. Nathan hurried to open the door and help the passengers out. Four Negro children, ranging in age from twelve to four, scampered off, glad to be able to stretch their legs after being confined to the coach for so long. They were followed by an attractive Negress, stylishly clad in a blue linen dress and a feathered hat.
"Zilpah?" Nathan handed her down.
"Nathan! It is you!" She hugged him. "Driver, hand down my boxes. Children, this is your Uncle Nathan."
Three girls and a boy clambered about him, eager to embrace their new uncle. The mother introduced them. "That's Essie, she's my oldest girl, and this one is Sally. The boy-child is Isaiah, and the little one is Deborah."
The three oldest children had lighter complexions than their mother or uncle: skin like coffee with plenty of cream bespoke their biracial heritage. The youngest girl had skin like chocolate. All four were neatly dressed and shod, and not one of them wore hand-me-downs.
"I hope the young'uns don't mind sleeping on the floor. My place ain't that big," Nathan said apologetically.
"That hotel take colored guests?" Zilpah asked.
"Then we'll be fine. I can't stay but a week or two – Essie and me have jobs waiting for us in San Francisco."
Ezra witnessed the poignant family reunion. His green eyes went wide in recognition at the sight of Nathan's sister. He immediately decided that the most prudent course of action would be to make a hasty retreat.
"After I read The Magnificent Seven,I was hoping that it was you, and I knew that it had to be," Zilpah glanced at the sidewalk, and saw Ezra scurrying away, "Mistuh Ezra!"
"Mistuh Ezra?" Nathan repeated. How could his sister know Ezra? Unless … his heart sank as he remembered the rest of the conversation the night Buck had told them about that nurse. Ezra had mentioned – but that would mean – no, impossible. He watched as his sister abandoned her luggage and her children to hurry across the street to Ezra. He followed her.
Ezra forced a smile. "Mr. Jackson, this must be your charming sister. How very nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet me? Mistuh Ezra, don't you dare tell me you've forgotten me," Zilpah protested.
Ezra was very tempted to do just that. The way Nathan was eyeing him … if looks could kill, Nathan would be up before Judge Travis on a murder charge. (And probably acquitted, given the judge's feelings toward the gambler.) His innate sense of chivalry warred with the probability of upsetting Nathan. She was only a colored whore; he owed her nothing. She was his colleague's sister; acknowledging their former intimacies could only upset Nathan. She was … Zilpah. "Impossible," he admitted, his voice as gentle as June.
"You know my sister?" Nathan asked, his voice grating like fingernails on a chalkboard.
"Know him? Mistuh Ezra was always one of my favorites."
Ezra started to mutter some gallantry about his good fortune, took one look at Nathan's face, and shut his mouth. He merely nodded.
"You mean he dared to touch you?" Nathan demanded.
"Oh, Nate, he did more than touch. And did it well, too." Zilpah laid a hand gently on the gambler's arm. "Essie, honey, come here. I got someone I want you to meet."
The girl ran up obediently. She was a pretty child, clad in a green gingham dress. Her black hair was braided neatly, and the braids tied with green satin ribbons.
"This is my Esther. Essie, this is your father."
"Father?" said the gambler and the healer in unison.
Essie smiled. "I'm right pleased to meet you, Daddy Standish."
Nathan's hand flew to his knife.
"Really, Mr. Jackson, there is no need for violence." Ezra thought quickly. He reached into his pocket for some change, and handed it to Essie. "You see that store over there?" He pointed. "Go buy yourself and the others some candy."
"Thank you, Daddy Standish." She ran off to her sisters and brother.
"I'm not your daddy," Ezra muttered. Louder, he asked, "I'm not her father, am I?"
Zilpah smiled up at him. "She do favor you a mite, don't she?"
Nathan had not yet removed his hand from his knife.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, don't be ridiculous," Ezra told him. "I suggest we continue this discussion in a less public forum. Perhaps we should get your sister and her family settled at the hotel?"
"Ain't no way you're going anywhere near my sister's bedroom," Nathan growled.
"Nate, that's shutting the barn door long after the horse run off," Zilpah chuckled. Nonetheless, she led the way back to the stagecoach so the men could her fetch her trunks and carry them to the hotel.
Once she was settled in her room, Ezra suggested, "Perhaps I should leave you two alone for a family reunion."
"You ain't getting out of this that easy, you coward," Nathan snarled.
"Nathan, mind your manners. I came here to see both of you."
"You wanted to see this good-for-nothing cardsharp? After he dishonored you?"
"Dishonored? Nathan, he treated me better than any of my other men. That's why I picked him for Essie's father, and named her after him," Zilpah explained. "I wanted to call her 'Ezzie,' but that ain't a real name, so I made do with Essie for everyday and Esther for her baptizing."
"I'm not her father?"
"You might be. Timing's right. Leastwise, I hope she's yours. I always liked you better than the others. With them it was 'wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am', except they seldom said thank you and never called me ma'am. You, you always made sure I had fun, too."
"Zilpah, do you hear what you're saying? Mama and Daddy would be turning over in their graves if they knew you were a – a – " Nathan couldn't bring himself to say the word.
"A harlot, Nathan? The word's in the dictionary. Hell, it's in the Bible."
Nathan just stared at his sister.
"Hell, wasn't like I had a choice. After Massa Jackson sold us south, Massa Winthrop sold me again to Missus Russell."
Nathan's jaw dropped. Mrs. Russell was the most notorious madam in Atlanta; he'd heard of her even when he was a field hand.
"Not all the men were as nice as Mistuh Ezra. But there wasn't nothing I could do about it, so I learned to make the best of it. Now," she touched a feathered hat that cost more than a sharecropper earned in three months, "I make nearly as much as the white girls. More than some of 'em. I'm no streetwalker. I only work in the most exclusive houses."
"You said you and Essie had jobs waiting in San Francisco," Nathan remembered. "My God, you ain't taking her to work in a brothel?"
Zilpah nodded. "One of the girls from Missus Russell's place opened up her own house in California. She says we auction off Essie's first time on her birthday, she'll make more money than I did the first year I was free."
"No daughter of mine is going to have her virginity auctioned off," Ezra protested.
"She ain't more than a baby," Nathan pointed out.
"Gonna be thirteen next month."
Nathan forced himself to calm down. He turned to Ezra. "You claimin' the gal?"
The gambler hesitated. He did not want to acknowledge an illegitimate mulatto child. He could not bring himself to be rude enough to say a whore's child belongs to no one, especially not when he was a bastard himself. After a moment, he admitted, "It's possible she's mine. Whether or not she is, surely it is not in the girl's best interests to become a prostitute at her age."
Zilpah retorted, "It'll better than my initiation into the profession – six men having their way with me and beatings until I stopped complaining."
Nathan asked, "And that's what you want for Esther?"
Zilpah replied, "Of course not, that's why we're going to San Francisco, to a fancy house. Man pays that much for a girl's first time, he'll treat her right, make sure he gets his money's worth. She'll never walk the street, spreading her legs in a back alley for some white trash for pocket change, never pick cotton or scrub someone else's floor." Zilpah smiled. "I ain't scrubbed a floor in over ten years. I pay someone else to do that."
She walked over to her brother and kissed his cheek. "I'm only gonna be here a week or two. I don't want to spend all that time arguing with you."
"You could stay," Nathan told her. "You don't need to be a… a whore. You could find honest work, or get married. There are a few colored men in town, but no single colored women. Ezra will keep his mouth shut about your past; I'll make sure of that."
"Really, Mr. Jackson, I thought you knew me better than that. I am not in the habit of betraying a lady's confidences."
"Why would I wanna marry some colored ranch hand or shopkeeper? Cooking and cleaning, wearing homespun instead of satins and silks, getting old and worn out before my time, tying myself down to just one man, instead of having fun with as many as I want. Why would any sane woman choose that just so she can call herself respectable? Sorry, Nathan, but I decline the 'honor'." She pulled off her gloves and displayed her hands: brown as chocolate, soft as a rose petal. "You know what these hands would look like if I were some dirt farmer's wife?"
Ezra bit his lip to keep from smiling. His former paramour had a great deal in common with his mother.
"I'm glad to visit, Nathan, but I couldn't stay in Four Corners. Ezra's probably the only one in town who could afford me. And as much as I like him, I'd get bored with only one man."
Nathan looked like he was ready to swear, if only he could think of words bad enough.
Just then the door opened, and four children dashed in.
"Where's the chamber pot, Mama? I gotta use it," Isaiah said.
Ezra judged the momentright to make a strategic withdrawal. He thought about raising her hand to his lips to say farewell, but decided it would be wiser by far not to give Nathan any further ammunition. "Later," he mouthed to Zilpah, and slipped out the door without saying goodbye.