Bent Willows: Ⅷ
Friday, 17th July
Mme Doussard, The Argos
My Very Dear Madam V.,
We have a most delicate charge, arriving soon in your locale, and in need of your gentle attentions.
May I trust in your discretion?
Details to follow.
Yet another boisterous song shook the foundation of the Argos Saloon & Guesthouse.
Vivienne barely heard the clock strike midnight as she glanced once more at the cryptic note. She secreted it beneath her ornate Italian Decanter. Though she adored the sophisticated Venture, his re-folded missive was as close as he or any man would ever get to her prized whiskey. She hid a tiny smile at the thought and poured herself a generous quaff. A tiny drop raced down the side of the vessel, marking the paper with its heady musk.
Glancing towards the bar, she murmured, “Press a bit of ham and bread on the girls, won’t you Mason?”
He nodded swiftly and broke away to the kitchen. While the girls danced long into the night, he kept watered-down cider flowing into their cups but sometimes still forgot to feed them.
“Empty bellies work harder,” he had grumbled his first night behind the bar.
That night, his dinner plate was served up with a single limp and soggy potato, graceless without gravy or butter. Brushing close, Vivienne peered into his doleful eyes and gave a delicate shrug, “You like things to be . . . hard, yes?” Her sandalwood scent filled the air, clouding his head and leaving him tongue-tied.
A cowhand hurled his entire fool body into a row of dancers, landing face-up in the midst of their promenade.
“Get off the stage, ya ol’ drunkard!” Rufus shouted from his perch by the stage. His reputation as a pretty fair shot was sufficient to restore a semblance of order and Vivienne felt fortunate to have him as her steady peacekeeper.
“Look up my skirt, you skeever, and ya owe me a dime!”
One of the girls kicked at him with her shoe points. Sudden laughter again gave way to the clamoring fiddle and piano as the other girls tried to drag the man away.
“Give you a half-dime if I can look with one eye closed!” he yelled back.
She flung him a wide, coquettish smile.
“You need both eyes for what’s under here, cowboy! And both hands, too!”
The cowboy almost made it back to the relative chasteness of his seat, when a pair of unlikely dancers, these two feet tall and covered with soft fur, came charging from the side. They butted him in the knees sending him crashing to the floor yet again.
“Somebody get these stinking goats off of me!” he howled.
Aries and Jason — as tame as spaniels and equally spoiled — nuzzled and licked his salty face until he crawled off snorting with laughter. The goats bleated dismay as the girls shooed them backstage.
Vivienne laughed merrily along with the crowd and called out her two cents. “Who stinks? My goats smell better than half the cowhands on the Lazy M Ranch!”
“More righteous than them cowboys, too!” The fiddler answered her cue, and lead the pair back out on a gilded lead. “Show ’em Miss Viv!’
“Who wants to see a trick?” Vivienne polled, her palms outstretched to the rabble.
“Yeah! Woo hoo!” came the response.
Bending at her waist, she affected a stern look and shook her finger at the eager beasts. “Y’all been bad boys, now say your prayers” The goats dropped their front legs and fell to their knees.
Pandemonium erupted as she plucked a pair of apples out of thin air to reward the penitent goats.
Even Mason chuckled at the trick. The piano crashed into another hot reel, prompting the girls to kick up their heels once more.
“Beg yer pardon, ma’am,” Rufus grizzled behind her. “It’s time to secure the till in yer safe.” Patting the wooden box under his arm, he playfully added “Less’n you druther tend yer Mo-hammed-ian baby goats?” His eyes flickered with amusement but he gave no hint of a smile.
She shook her head and sighed. Though she’d told of their origins before, none believed they had been the gift of a dashing Berber merchant, nor that he had sailed his magnificent ship into New Orleans one moonlit night lavishing her with affection, treasure, and many a tale of the sea.
“Not a’tall Rufus. Let us have at it.”
She tucked her hand into one of the cunningly placed slits in the folds of her dress, and aimed her double-shot Derringer directly at his gut.
Rufus did not flinch.
She liked that about him.
How she appreciated the matter-of-fact way he turned his back to her weapon, left her treasure in the office, and waited quietly in the hall while she spun the dials on the safe.
“Thank you kindly, Rufus,” A New Orleans patois crept into her voice. She smiled, resting one soft hand on his broad chest. “Do make sure the fiddlers know — and Pianny Joe, too — tomorrow keep things quiet, ‘least until sundown. Reverend’s got some fancy visitors passing through.”
He cracked a tobacco-stained grin. “We’ll be the picture of a supper house tomorrow, ma’am, nary a drop of debauchery in sight.”
As her hand fell away, she stroked his arm and felt his heart give a little jump. “I don’t know if they’ll need a meal, but have a hen ready to fry all the same.” Rufus grunted, and returned to his place by the stage.
The Reverend kept his Bible in his pocket, not in her face, so she favored the kindly man with a bit of silence when he asked. She’d asked for his indulgence more than once, so she was content to oblige.
She tiptoed up the stairs, pausing at the top to sip deeply from her tumbler of Old Fraser whiskey. The spicy aroma stirred up more of that thrilling night with her secret Berber suitor. She recalled one of his fables with particular fondness — the one that ended with the line:
“Every drop helps,” said the mermaid, as she pissed into the sea.
Such fanciful memories swirling tonight! She lifted her chin and shook them off with determined effort. No use dwelling on the past, when the present held so much promise.
Things on the main floor seemed well in hand.
The eldest girl, bright-eyed but dim, wriggled on the lap of a dusty cowhand. Had he won the last round of whist?
Young and melancholy, the new girl rubbed the banker’s sunken shoulders. Counting and figures had taken a toll on the old man.
A traveling merchant slumped alone against the wall, but the plumpest girl slipped her fleshy arms round his neck, and stole a passionate kiss. Perhaps his heavy purse (and his stout spine) could bear a whole night in her bed.
The Creole dancer leaned back against a stout pillar, red lips parted. A matron’s face pressed to her bosom as a man sat astride, grappling under her skirts.
The farm twins, slender boys with yellow curls and creamy skin, disappeared with their admirers into the alcoves. The limit was 15 minutes; the goal was swift completion.
All-in-all, a profitable Friday night.
There was still plenty of work to be done before dawn — the kitchen to be scrubbed and floors swept, linens refreshed and lamps filled, the stoves laid with firewood, ready to light — she left those to Mason and the scrub girl. The stable hands settled her horses, brushed down her milker, and rounded up the wandering chickens — though they still found her pygmy goats a mite unsettling.
The time had come to attend the Rebel. Had not she tallied already his spent stack of gold?
She pressed the door open slowly, the room glowing in the soft lamplight, and heard his deep sigh of relief.
“What a sweet vision in your silks and lace,” he said hoarsely. “You could surely pass for a white débutante in the finest Southern parlors.” His golden flesh sprawled atop her quilt, naked as a jay and just as brash. He was a big man with thick, defined muscles and arrogant blue eyes.
She knew her near-whiteness wasn’t the source of his lust.
It was the other — that one dark drop of sin — that drove him back to her, again and again.
“I daren’t be so brazen,” she demurred, gliding toward him with a rustle of her skirts, eyes downcast. “Imagine the calamity should my ruse come to light.”
His breath and his body quickened as she nestled in beside him. War-roughened hands loosed her buttons and ties and swept away her delicate chemise. Everything about her inflamed him, from the spicy scent of her skin to the quick bite of her impertinent mouth. He had long ago succumbed to the lure of her wickedness.
“The heart of a true Son of the South . . . the possibility I might ensnare it,” she went on, stroking him languidly. “Oh, that this great Man of Action might seize me, feverish with desire. What then?” She pressed a bold, wet kiss to his hard belly.
And then another.
“He would never know,” the Rebel panted, urging her atop him, coaxing her into the merciless rhythm he craved. “He would fill you again and again and never know he was damned.”
“Oh, I do daresay,” she whispered, her scorn invisible in the dark, as she felt his first, long rush of relief.
When the cool, pink daylight broke through the shutters, she rose from her bed and seized the quiet moment to dispatch a reply to Venture’s secret missive. A single line of words on her finest notestock, signed with a drop of her signature perfume, signaled her fealty to their shared cause:
She returned to her sleeping Rebel and stroked his coarse, dark beard. He would wake soon, perhaps desirous of one last romp before disappearing again over the horizon.
Four days or five it would take him to rejoin the regiment, then a moment or two to reload his weapon and fire again and again, As long as he could stand, proud and true he would fight in defense of his Gallant Pastoral South.
She spared a thought for her dancing girls downstairs. Their safety secured in the Argos, none would ever be at the mercy of flesh-peddlers. None would be made to stand precariously atop a wooden crate, her breasts bared to the chill of dawn. None would bleed at the lash of a capricious whip or hear a foul-smelling huckster blow his horn and call:
“Lively quad and octoroons, heyah! Nubile and fresh, plucked at the peak of perfection! Place your bids ‘gentlemen’”!
There would be none of that iniquity in her realm. Through her oblique, subversive power, a peculiar justice was wrought. Invisible to most, but none the less effective.
Vivienne smoothed back her thick, lustrous hair, fitted again her favorite tortoiseshell combs, and called for the stable boy to polish the officer’s boots.
The Confederate graybacks in his purse were worthless, but she was aware of the existence of two dozen more pieces of gold knotted in a kerchief at the bottom of his haversack. Gold which, until now, had been meant to serve the Cause of the Rebellious States.
A short while later, the heavy coins dripped quietly into her posh reticule.
“Every drop helps,” she told him.
Every drop, indeed.
In case you missed it, here’s the previous chapter:
To read from the very beginning: