Chapter 1 - "Smoke Signal"
I knew it was trouble as soon as I seen the smoke.
Me and Bat had found a stretch of fence that got torn down, and some of our cattle wandered off. I figured it to take less time to chase 'em down on foot than to saddle up Buster, so Bat and me was makin' noise and whackin' brush to get the cows up and movin' back toward the house when I seen the smoke.
It was just a black smudge, but I knew it was trouble. Ma's cookin' fire generally burned fairly white smoke because we didn't use no oily wood like mesquite. Black smoke meant somethin' else was burnin' and for it to show even with the wind blowin' it around meant there had to be a lot of it.
"C'mon, boy," I yelled and Bat's head come up from the brush. He looked at me like I was crazy 'cause the cows was still scattered, but I just took off runnin' for the house. He caught up in no time, of course. He's no special sort of dog - special to me, but not to fancy folk - but he can run down a jackrabbit without breakin' a sweat. We was gonna name him Hank, but the first time he saw a jack he lit out like a bat out of hell, so I guess you could say he named himself.
When I crossed the ridge, I stopped runnin'. There weren't no need. Everything that could burn was burnin', and I could see my ma lyin' on the ground, not movin'. Somethin' 'bout the way she was lyin' there there tol' me that there weren't no need to hurry. It was hard enough just to keep my feet movin' one behind t'other instead 'a just lyin' down like I was dead myself.
Somebody had done it all deliberate. That was clear in a heartbeat. The fence was all broke down. So was the little dam we had to hold back the stream. And there was tracks all through Ma's garden where they stomped it up real good. The fires was just the icin' on the cake.
When I got to her, Ma was gone just as I feared. No last words for her only child. It looked like she'd been kicked by a horse, which figured. Pa had gone that way too, ceptin' with him it had been a accident. He'd been workin' a stone outta Buster's frog and somethin' pinched or somethin' and the horse kicked. Next thing we knew Pa's head was split and he was starin' up at the bright sun. Funny thing was, we never found what was in Buster's foot. I guess it came out when he kicked.
It didn't look like Ma got hit near as hard, but it wouldn't 'a been needed. She'd been ailin' for a while. She was gettin' weaker and couldn't eat hardly nothin', and even though neither of us said so, we both knew she wasn't goin' to get better. That's what made the whole thing so damn stupid.
I knew who done it. There was a few arrows and a lance thrown on the ground, but I knew it weren't no Indians. The tracks showed shod horses, for one thing. And for another some of the tracks was of a horse with the biggest hoof I'd even seen, and I knew whose horse that was.
Hannibal Teach was the big he bull around those parts. He was big, for sure. And he figured he was boss of the whole herd as well. He had this huge horse with shaggy fetlocks that near hid its hooves. He tol' us it was a Perch-on or somethin' like that. Most people called Teach 'the Snowman' because he had a round head with a fringe of white hair, but my Pa had tol' me to call him, 'Mr. Teach.' Snowman wanted our farm for the water rights, particularly since Pa died, but Ma didn't want to sell. It was important to her that she lived out the rest 'a her life on the spread that she and Pa made. But I guess Snowman couldn't wait.
When I turned her over, I saw that her dress was ripped all down the front. Her . . .front looked funny. And I don't mean just 'cause she was a woman. One side was all swollen, with a shape that looked . . . wrong. But there weren't no bruise or anythin' on the lumpy part. In fact, that lump didn't look like it was fresh from the attack. Maybe that was what had made her so sickly. She weren't wearin' her stays neither, which was strange 'cause one night when they thought I was asleep I'd heard her and Pa talkin' about how she always wore them 'cause that's what ladies did.
So there I was, an orphan at fourteen, or maybe thirteen. Ma and Pa tol' me that I was born in the spring of 1875, they thought, and since the date had gotten to half way through 1889, that would make me fourteen. But Pa found that somewhere in there his papers got messed up because there was some missin' dates, and others that looked like they was doubled. So maybe I was born in 1876. But thirteen or fourteen, either one, is big enough to dig a grave. I was medium tall for my age, maybe. A bit taller than Ma, and gettin' close to as tall as Pa was - I wore a lot of his clothes - even though I was a lot thinner than he had been. I was scrawny enough that it was hard work diggin' that grave, and I guess it don't hurt to admit that it was harder 'cause I was cryin' all through it.
By the time I finished, it was gettin' on toward dark. I scrounged some vegetables from the wrecked garden and some jerky from where it was curin' out behind the house - the fire hadn't got that far. A blanket and some other clothes had been hangin' on a line and while they got trampled in the mud they weren't burned so I made a nest in a corner that hadn't burned all the way to the ground and let Bat have half the jerky in return for keepin' me warm through the night.
The next mornin' didn't make things no better. 'Bout the only good thing was that Buster had wandered back durin' the night and was croppin' at the stuff in the garden. I'd ridden him bareback since 'bout the time I could walk so not havin' a saddle was no problem. I found a bridle and used the blanket to make a parcel of the rest of the food and a few odds and ends that survived the fire. Funny thing was that even though fire burnt near ever'thin' up, I found a box of matches, of all things. I also had the shovel I'd used to dig Ma's grave, and I found the older axe with only half a handle, and of course I had my rifle. There weren't nothin' else particular holdin' me to that burned-out rubble, so I had to decide where to go.
Downhill led to town - Springtree - and the Snowman. He owned that town. He for sure owned the sheriff. Pa always said that the U.S. Marshall was an honest man, but he was near on a week's ride away, and I didn't know which way for sure after I got to Springtree because he moved around some. I knew the tracks wouldn't last for more'n maybe a few days, let alone weeks, and if I did manage to bring back the Marshall all he'd see would be the burned out stuff and the fake arrows.
So it didn't take much thinkin' to head uphill, farther in the mountains. I even knew somebody who lived up there. I wasn't sure exactly where his place was, but there was an old guy who rode by our place once or twice a month on the way to town. Pa talked to him some now and then but he never seemed to want to visit or nothin' so mostly we just left him alone - maybe waved when he went by if we noticed. Pa taught me enough 'bout trackin' that I was able to follow his trail - he wasn't hidin' it or nothin' - until Bat started growlin'.
What I saw was a half-cabin/half-cave thing where a shack was built into the side of the mountain. There was a chimney comin' outta the shack part and some smoke, so I figured somebody was home.
That was confirmed a moment later when somebody shot at me from inside.
It was a warnin' shot - or else the ol' hermit was a terrible bad shot - but since I didn't have a saddle it was a problem. Buster tried to rear up and I had to slide off his back, but I managed to keep ahold of the reins so that he didn't run off and break his fool neck.
"Hey!" I shouted. "What ya' doin' that for?"
"Go away," a voice called back.
"Look, mister," I called back, "I ain't got nowhere else to go."
"Go back where you came from," he ordered.
"It ain't there no more," I said. At least, that's what I tried to say. My throat got real tight and I'm not sure it all came out.
"What?" he asked, still yellin'. All I saw was the barrel of a rifle comin' out of a dark slit, but at least it wasn't pointin' too close to me.
"Look, mister, do we have to yell at each other? My ma and pa are dead, and our place is burned to the ground. I ain't got no place to go."
"Go into Springtree," he suggested.
"Can't," I countered. "They're the ones who done it."
"That big bastard Snowman and his gang," I said.
"Did you see them?"
"Close enough," I said. "I saw the tracks of that big Perch-on horse he rides. Ain't nothin' else as big as that."
"Percheron," the voice said, not as angry.
The rifle pulled back but before I could start that way, the voice called out again, "Give me half an hour. Go pasture your horse and wash up in the trough."
I looked at Bat and shrugged, but it was his place so we did what we was told. I slicked my hair back as best I could - it was getting' fairly long since Ma had been feelin' too poorly to cut it for some time - and knocked as much of the mud off my boots as I could. There weren't no way for me to tell if it had been a whole half hour, but I went up to the door, took my hat off, and knocked as polite as I knew how.
"Come in," the voice said. When Bat and me stepped inside I saw the ol' guy I remembered. Kinda fat. Also kinda short - shorter'n me. With those little eyeglasses that stick to your nose somehow. The place was tidy, so maybe that's why he wanted the time. It wouldn't 'a bothered me none if it was a mess, but some people are like that. He had some sort of window in the ceilin' of all places so it was fairly bright inside even without any light comin' in from the front 'cause of the shutters. But when I was inside he opened some 'a them up anyway.
"Tell me what happened," he ordered, but he didn't seem as mad as before.
So I tol' him about seein' the smoke, and all the rest. Or at least, I tried to tell him. Somewhere in there I started cryin' again, and I just couldn't seem to stop. At one point he moved like he was gonna put his arm around me or somethin' but he pulled back and never touched me.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Petey Stone," I said. "And this is Bat. Didn't Pa tell you?"
"He might have," the man said with a shrug. "I'm Gideon Bell. You may call me Gideon."
"Yes sir," I said, which wasn't exactly what he tol' me to say, but it seemed safer.
"So, what do you need from me?" he asked gently when I managed to get my voice under control.
"I don't know," I said. "I can't just go inta town for help. If they was willin' to stomp Ma to death on our own place, I'd get pulled into some dark place and they'd kill me, too. The sheriff won't do nothin'."
"I expect you're right," he said. "What will you do? I can offer you a place for a while, but I'm not sure . . ."
"Oh, mister, I don't wanna move in with you," I said quickly. "If you could just give me a place to stay for a couple 'a days, I'd be real grateful."
"Of course," he said, though he sighed and I knew he wasn't happy 'bout it.
"What are your . . . intentions toward your attackers?" he asked.
The words came slammin' outa my mouth without even thinkin' about them. "I aim to kill that son of a bitch, and I'll do whatever it takes!"
"Indeed?" he said. "Well, you indicated that you were not going to launch your attack tonight. Perhaps we can arrange something to eat."
"Thanks," I said, pulling out my little parcel of vegetables and jerky.
"Oh, no, that won't be necessary," he said. "I have plenty."
He proved his claim by setting plates on the table, followed by a pot of stew and some bread.
"This is real tasty," I said after I tried it. "Real tasty."
"Thank you," he said, smiling a little. There was somethin' funny about his smile, like maybe he was hidin' a secret or somethin'. But I figured it was his business so I didn't say nothin'.
It turned out that there was storage rooms back in the cave part 'a his place. There were a lotta trunks and things in it, but he had me move some stuff outta the way and put some blankets on the floor. There was enough room for Bat to lay down with me and it was a lot warmer than the night before.
Bat's cold nose nuzzled me awake what seemed like just a few minutes later, but I smelled breakfast smells and my stomach growled so loud it sounded like Bat with a 'coon. Mr. Bell was fixin' biscuits and gravy, though where he got the milk I didn't find out until later. The taste tol' me it came from goats, though. Which was okay with me. He also had some porridge and a hunk 'a ham.
"You're a real good . . ," I began, then remembered I wasn't supposed to talk with my mouth full. So I swallowed and finished, ". . . cook."
"Thank you," he said again, still showin' that funny little smile. "Have you decided what you intend to do about Snowman?"
I looked at him for a long time. What had come to me overnight was not somethin' good people do - or even talk about - but it was all I could come up with.
"Mr. Bell," I said, "maybe I shouldn't tell you. I don't want you to get in trouble."
"Why don't you let me worry about that?" he said.
"I'm sorry, sir, but why should you help me? I mean, you shot at me yesterday - or at least, near me - and . . . why?"
"I wasn't, ah, ready to receive visitors when you arrived," he explained, that little smile showing again. "But it happens that I have had occasions to . . . develop a dislike for men like Hannibal Teach myself. I also believe that you're old enough to make your own decisions on things affecting your life. Perhaps there is a way for both of us to gain some satisfaction."
"I ain't exactly after satisfaction," I said. "It's more like revenge, and it ain't likely to be easy."
"No, revenge seldom is," he agreed. "So, what is your idea?"
"Well, I'm a fair shot with my rifle," I said, "but I'd have to get within a hunnert yards or so, and that means I gotta be in town. I'm not sure I could hit him when he's riding that big horse around somewheres on the road."
"I see," Bell replied. "So, you're planning on murder?"
"Um, what if I said yes?" I asked. "Are you gonna turn me in?"
"Goodness no," Bell said. "I'm not about to make value judgments on your choices. I've had that happen too often to me. It's one of the main reasons I . . . removed myself from society."
I nodded, not too sure I knew what all he was talkin' 'bout. Ma learned me some book learnin'. I could read and write, and do some numbers. But even she didn't talk as fancy as Mr. Bell did. But I figured out he meant he wouldn't get in my way, which was good enough.
"I guess I better get to it," I said.
He just nodded, looking thoughtful, but also kinda respectful.
Bat stood as soon as I did, and that was a problem.
"Um, Mr. Bell, I know you don't owe me nothin', and you've already been a big help to me, but . . ."
That ol' guy was sharp. I gotta give him credit for that. Even without my sayin' a word about Bat directly, he knew what I meant. He looked at Bat and sighed again, but he nodded.
"Tell him to stay with me. I won't promise to keep him here against his will, but I will see that he has food and water."
He reached out and touched my shoulder - it was the first time he'd touched me at all - and said, "But Peter . . . come back for him."
"Yeah, sure," I said, but we both knew it weren't likely. I figured I could get my shot at Snowman, but I didn't figure to get away afterward.
I made Bat stay when I rode off. He didn't like it, but he knew I was serious.
It took near all day to ride to Springtree. When I got to the edge of town, Billygoat Owens was standin' in the shade of a tree near the road. Billygoat was the only son of the sheriff, Frank Owens. He was a few years older and quite a bit bigger'n me. Billygoat got his name when he tried to grow a beard and it came in pretty straggly and mostly only on his chin. He didn't much like the name, but since I didn't much like him that didn't bother me none.
"Stop right there, Petey," he said, putting his hand on the butt of his handgun. Billygoat had started carryin' a gun when he was about twelve. At the time I thought it was real neat, but I found out later that his pa didn't let him have any cartridges until he was older.
I also saw that he was wearin' a badge, now.
I pulled Buster to a stop, but I didn't say nothin'.
"If you wanna come into town, you gotta leave your rifle with me," he declared.
"Like hell," I said.
"New town ord'nance," Billygoat claimed. "Nobody goes armed in town 'ceptin' the law," he said, tappin' his badge proudly.
"Because the town says so," Billygoat replied. But he added, "Somebody threatened the Snowman and until the threat blows over, the town council decided no guns."
"When's it gonna blow over?"
"Probably never," Billygoat smirked. "Leastwise, not until you leave for good."
"Me? Why me?"
"Guess they just figured that you was 'distraught' an' all, after the Indians raided your place."
"That weren't no Indians," I said firmly.
Billygoat smirked again. "Indians is what I heard. You got a way to prove anything else?"
I frowned but I didn't say nothin'. Instead, I looked at the sun, which was maybe an hour from goin' down.
"Don't even think about it," Billygoat warned, which showed he wasn't quite as dumb as he looked. "Orders are, anyone found in town after dark and armed is fair game to be shot - no questions asked. Leastwise, anyone 'ceptin' the law."
"You?" I said, snorting.
"Me, and about a dozen other new deputies. Town council decided we needed t' keep the people safe. Why, they's four or five deputies watchin' out for Snowman all the time."
"You ain't takin' my rifle," I said.
"Then you ain't comin' into town," Billygoat said in return. He rested his hand back on the butt of his gun.
Now the funny thing was, I had a gun since I was twelve, too. Only my Pa let me have cartridges for it from the first day he gave it to me. It was a nice little Winchester carbine in .32-20, which was a fairly small shell but I could hit a runnin' jackrabbit 9 times in 10 out to 60 yards - if Bat didn't get it first. I already had it in my hand while I was talkin' with Billygoat since there weren't no other place to carry it with no saddle, and I knew I could put a bullet in the middle of his silly little beard before he could get his hand all the way 'round the grip on his gun.
But if I did that . . . I'd never get to the Snowman. I didn't figure Billygoat was smart enough to think up a lie about all them extra deputies on his own, so that meant it was likely true. If they heard a shot, they'd put Snowman where I couldn't get at him until they found me.
There weren't no reason in the world why it would bother me to shoot Billygoat. He was workin' for Snowman, and so was his pa. And he as much as admitted that he knew Snowman had killed my ma. Hell, for all I knew he'd been one of the riders. But it would keep me from getting' to Snowman. And that's all that mattered.
So I turned Buster around and we started back to ol' man Bell's place. After all that had happened you wouldn'a thought that Billygoat laughing at me as I rode away would matter enough to notice.
But it did.
Chapter 2 - "Not Quite Anything"
Me and Buster slept in a cave that night. Well, I slept in the cave. Buster grazed nearby. It was a good thing I found the cave, 'cause it started to rain not long after full dark. By mid-mornin' when I got to our old homestead, most of the horse tracks already washed away, not that I expected anyone but me woulda cared. It was nearin' sundown again when I got back to Mr. Bell. This time he didn't shoot at me. Maybe it was because Bat started barkin' up a storm as soon as we cleared the last pass into Bell's spread.
"How did it go?" Bell asked. He was real quiet, like he was afraid of spookin' a horse or somethin'.
"It didn't," I said bitterly. "Snowman has that town tied up tighter'n a calf at brandin' time."
"Well, take care of your horse and come inside. We'll talk," he ordered.
Buster was a range horse and he was used to rain, but Mr. Bell had a barn for his own horse Sally, and for her tack. There was an extra stall that would give Buster some shelter and there was hay for a feed trough. So it didn't take long before I was in gettin' dry myself. Mr. Bell had another pot of his really great stew and I have to admit that while I talked I wolfed it down with none 'a the manners my ma taught me. I told him 'bout the new rules, and the new deputies.
"I'd'a killed that Billygoat son of a bitch, too, if it woulda done any good," I concluded.
"Yes, I understand," he said. "Well, nothing more to be done tonight. We'll talk further in the morning."
"Mr. Bell?" I asked. "I don't mean to impose, but . . ."
"Nonsense, boy, sleep in your room. Just as before."
"Thank you," I said, and on a cold rainy night like that I meant it even more than before.
In the mornin' Bat told me breakfast was cookin' even before I caught the smell myself. The rain had stopped, so after I visited the outhouse I used the trough to wash up some, and slicked my hair back. When I walked in Mr. Bell gave me a funny look and for some reason I felt my cheeks get hot. But he didn't say nothin' and neither did I.
The first thing I did was ask if there was any chores I could do to pay for my keep. Mr. Bell smiled at the offer and actually there were, which weren't no surprise. I mean, there's always chores with livestock around. I could tell that he didn't much like muckin' out the stalls even though it was clear he did it since his own horse's stall only showed a couple 'a day's load. There was a few other things as well, most of which my pa had showed me how to do before he died. It turned out that Mr. Bell had a chicken coop I didn't notice when I first rode up, and I found where the goats was kept and cleaned up those places, too.
By then I needed another trip to the horse trough. I thought about climbin' in and washin' my whole self but I didn't have any dry clothes and I didn't want to drip in Mr. Bell's cabin. It might be that I shoulda, though, because his nose wrinkled up when I went inside.
"Sorry about that," I said, knowin' that my cheeks was gettin' hot again.
He didn't say nothin', so it must not 'a been too bad. In fact, he didn't say much 'a anythin' while we ate. I don't think he was mad though, just sorta . . . thinkin' 'bout somethin' else.
"What are you plans now?" he asked as we was finishin' up.
"I don't know," I admitted. "I still wanna get that bastard, but I don't know how."
He nodded, but once again it was like he was thinkin' 'bout somethin' else. He had this stare like he was lookin' at somethin' real intense, but there weren't nothin' there 'ceptin' the wall of the cabin.
After a while it started buggin' me so I had to say somethin'. "Look, Mr. Bell, I really appreciate all you done for me, but I guess I need to be gettin' on."
"Where will you go?" he asked.
I just shrugged. I had the old axe and I figured I could put together a shelter. Maybe some of the wood at the old homestead was usable.
Mr. Bell's eyes changed to look at me direct - and they was real sharp. I had this feelin' he was lookin' inside me somehow, and he'd know whether I was tellin' the whole, real truth - maybe better'n I knew myself.
"Are you serious about doing whatever it takes to kill Snowman?"
"Yes. Sir." I said, real firm.
"Even if it means you die as well?"
"Yes. Sir." I repeated just as hard.
"Wait here," he ordered.
I didn't really have any place to go, but whether I might have argued or not wasn't too important since he jumped up and left as soon as he spoke.
I heard him openin' some trunks. That man had a lot of trunks - lots more'n my parents had between them. At one point I heard a rustlin' sound that put me to mind of my ma's one good dress. She'd get it out every now and then to 'air it out', and it made that same sort of sound. She let me touch it and it had a sorta slickery feel that I never seen on anythin' else. I wondered if Mr. Bell had somethin' in that material, and what a guy would wear made outta somethin' like that.
What he brought back weren't no dress though. Nor anythin' else made outta that slickery material. It was a vest, and it was made out somethin' fairly heavy, like real thick cotton. And it had lots of pockets. The only other vests I seen people wear were either somethin' fancy in leather that some of the hands wore, or somethin' to go with a suit like the preacher wore. But theirs only had one or two pockets. This musta had like twenty or so - some on the back where you couldn't even reach 'em when you was wearin' it.
He sat down heavily in his chair and plunked the vest on the table. He looked real sad for a minute, then he looked sorta . . . tougher somehow. Like he was real fierce about gettin'' somethin' done.
"There was a time," he said, "when I felt as you do. I was willing to do anything to . . . destroy someone because he had wronged me. But unlike you, I wasn't very proficient with firearms. They were not generally available where I was in any event. So I needed a way to do it that did not require marksmanship."
I sorta wished he wouldn't talk so fancy. Like I already said, Ma taught me some letters, and some figurin'. I could read well enough, and write if I had to. But I never was as good at it as she was, and Mr. Bell was miles beyond Ma. I hoped I knew what 'proficient' meant, 'cause if I did then I figured I could puzzle out the whole of what he said - which seemed to be that he had once had the same sorta problem that I was lookin' at and didn't figure he could hit someone with a rifle.
Anyway, I nodded at him to continue. If I was wrong, I'd work it out later.
"Peter," he said. "I ask you for a third time. Are you willing to do whatever it takes to kill Snowman, even if it means you die yourself?"
"Yes, sir," I said again.
He sighed, but he picked up the vest and pointed to the pockets. "This is designed so that each pocket can hold a stick of dynamite. You wear it up to your . . . target . . . and . . ."
"Holy God in Heaven! You mean you . . . blow yourself up?"
"Yes, Peter, that is what I mean," he confirmed.
I looked at the vest like it was a snake with its rattle hammerin'. But like a snake, that thing held my eyes and wouldn't let go. All on its own, my hand reached out to touch it, half expectin' it to snap around my arm and blow up right there. Who would ever even think of such a thing?
Yet, what Mr. Bell said was right on the money. It was a way to get into town with no gun, and still have what it took to kill Snowman. And maybe his 'guards' who were probably in on stompin' my ma anyway.
"Okay, I'll do it," I heard my voice say like it was someone else sayin' it. But it was me, too. Inside I felt this deep, hard, brittle thing that almost wanted to . . . end it all, if I could take Snowman with me. I mean, I figured to get caught, and gettin' hung didn't seem like no improvement over goin' out fast. And bein' in prison, small as I was . . . that struck me as worse than dead.
"I insist that you think about it over another night," Bell said. "If you still feel that way in the morning, we'll set something up."
"Mr. Bell, don't get me wrong. I'm real grateful. But . . . why are you helpin' me?"
"We've already discussed that," he said.
"Well, yeah, but . . . this is . . . more than I was gonna do, by a long shot."
"As I said, there are people who have wronged me, also. I suppose you could say that this is my way of addressing that iniquity."
I didn't have no real idea what 'niquity' meant, but I figured it was some sort of hurt. While I was puzzlin' on it, Bell turned away, leavin' the vest on the table.
"Mr. Bell," I asked another question, "how is it you have this vest? I mean . . . how is it you have this vest and are . . . here?"
He flinched like my words hurt him somehow. But he turned to look at me and said, "I suppose that's a fair question. In answer: I was not brave enough to use it. When the time came, I was . . . too weak."
I felt my shoulders shift and my jaw get tight. "*I* will do it."
"I believe you," he said. "God forgive me, because I do believe you."
It actually took two days before I left. The next mornin' I was still determined to go, but it took a day to get the infernal thing ready. The whole time it was like Bell was two people. On the one hand, he was so darn smart it scared me. He knew more about how to make that thing work - to make it kill as many people as possible - than I ever wanted to know. Except, I guess I did want to know 'cause I stayed right with him as we made it worse and worse. And on the other hand, he seemed like he was sufferin' the fires of hell every minute. I never seen a man with so much hurt in his eyes, when he looked at me in particular.
First off, he tol' me that you had ta have somethin' that would cut people. Just plain blast weren't good enough. So I rode back down to our homestead and gathered up a hunnert feet 'a bob wire. We wrapped that around the outside of all the dynamite, goin' around twenty times or so. Then he cut it in few place, including where the vest opened so I could take it back off.
Second he tol' me that you couldn't let them know you had somethin' fixin' to blow by runnin' a fuse, so he worked out somethin' with a primer from a cartridge and an ol' handgun hammer. We tested it with a little powder and got a real big bang that he said would be enough to set off the dynamite.
I stopped him when he started talkin' about addin' somethin' that would make things burn.
"What? Stop?" he repeated. Then he looked shocked and dropped his head. "I'm sorry, Peter. You are right. That would be too much. Your target is Snowman, not a whole city."
His voice got real tight on the last part of that, but it was like he was so angry he couldn't hardly talk, not like he was sad like I am when my voice gets tight.
He gave me a jacket that was about right on length but a lot too big around - it reminded me of some 'a Pa's things - and it covered the whole thing up real well. He even cut out a pocket of the jacket so that I could reach the hammer from inside my pocket rather than openin' up the catches.
"I guess I'm ready," I said.
"I'm afraid you are, Peter," he said, noddin'.
"Take care of Bat, okay?" I asked.
He nodded. Somehow that ol' fool dog knew what was goin' on. He looked at me real sad, then all on his own walked over to sit by Bell. He laid down with his head on his paws . . . and then he looked away like he didn't want to know me no more.
I had to hop up on Buster right then or I mighta not been able ta' leave at all.
It was near sundown when I made it to Springtree again - 'bout like before. Billygoat was there, but I didn't have my rifle so he just smirked and waved me by. As I was passin' he said, "Don't wander around after dark, Petey. You never know what might happen."
I didn't bother to answer. If things went the way I planned, I wouldn't have to worry about that.
Once I got a little farther into town I saw some of those new 'deputies' that Billygoat talked on. They was hired guns, sure 'nuff. Boots that never seen a real day's work. Hats that never had to run off rain. And shiny handguns in cut down holsters that wouldn't hold for a minute if you were doin' anything but struttin' around.
Then I saw Snowman, right out in the street. He was on his Perch-on horse and that made him too high to just walk up and set it off. All I'd get would be the horse.
"Sorry, Buster," I said, leanin' down to pet the ol' boy's neck. If I was gonna be high enough to do any good, I'd have ta be on a horse, too.
I headed in Snowman's direction, figurin' to ride up beside him even though there was 4 or 5 of his gunmen on horses ridin' near him. Before I could get there he climbed down off his saddle and went into a saloon, though. I figured he owned the saloon since he owned near everythin' else in town, so it wasn't goin' to bother me to set off my vest in there. Except, when I got in there . . .
There was too many people. I knew some of 'em, and they wasn't bad people. They didn't work for Snowman. Didn't particularly like him. They just wanted somethin' to drink, somethin' to eat, and maybe someone to play cards with.
And after a moment, I saw that some few of the crowd in the place was women.
Pa took me out to the pasture one day when the bull was . . . on a cow. Then he took me out behind the barn and 'splained what they was doin', and how men and women did it. He tol' me that good men only did it with their wives, and good boys waited until they was married, just like good girls did. But I figured right off if he was warnin' me like that it meant not everyone was good. And lookin' at those women, I figured they was some of the ones who weren't good. But they was still women. And even more than waitin' for a good girl, Pa had made it clear that you always, always protected women. You didn't hurt 'em, no matter who they was, and no matter what it cost you to protect 'em.
There wasn't a lot of women in there - maybe 4 or 5 - but a couple of them was hangin' around Snowman. I decided to hang back a little, lettin' the crowd move me around a bit so it didn't look like I was just watchin' him while I waited for Snowman to get clear 'a the women.
That didn't work neither. When he left, he went upstairs. And he took two 'a the women with him. I figured out what he was gonna do, even though I felt my cheeks heat up again when I thought on it. It looked like my best option was to get upstairs and wait for him. I figured he'd come back down before the women did since Pa had complained about how long it took Ma to get ready some times. Or maybe he'd just go to sleep after . . . after. In that case the women - or girls, they didn't look a whole lot older 'n me - they'd leave before he did.
I started up the stairs, but one of the other women caught my arm and held me back. She wasn't near as young as the ones with Snowman. Nor near as pretty.
"Honey," she said, "if you're old enough to want to go up there, you're old enough to pay."
"I don't have no money," I blurted out.
"No freebies, hon," she said, then she grinned and put her arm around my shoulders. "Though for someone as cute as you, I might make an exception."
"No, um, no thanks," I said, pullin' away.
"What's the matter, pretty boy?" she said, raisin' her voice and not smilin' no more. "I'm not good enough for you? I'll bet you'd find some money for one of them other girls."
"Sorry," I said, tryin' to make my way back toward the door. "I really don't have no money. I was just gonna . . . meet someone up there."
"Not without money," she snapped, then her face showed a nasty kind of smile and she added, "Not unless you can prove you couldn't do anything if I *did* let you up there. Are you a pretty boy who likes to take it instead of give it?"
"What? No, I don't . . . what?" I said. She wasn't makin' no sense, but when she said that several guys started laughin' and makin' funny faces, like they were offerin' to kiss me. I didn't know what was goin' on, but I knew enough to get outta there.
And then there wasn't nothin' else to do. All through that night every time I seen Snowman he either had a bunch of guys around him - includin' ones that I didn't really want to hurt - or he had women around him. I'd kill him in a heartbeat, but I wasn't ready to . . . murder a whole room full 'a people just to get him. I figured if I done that, I wouldn't be no better 'n him.
Instead I got back up on Buster and headed home. This time we didn't stop when we got to the burned out homestead. I walked a bit after that so that Buster didn't have to carry me, but we kept movin' until I heard Bat's bark. By then I was holdin' on to Buster's mane as much as guidin' him.
Mr. Bell came out, but he never said a word. He just helped me get the vest off, and disarmed it. Then he pointed me toward the cabin.
"I gotta take care of Buster," I mumbled.
"I'll do that tonight," he promised. "You go get some sleep."
I shoulda argued with him. Buster was my horse, and my responsibility. But I was more tired than I'd ever been in my life - even more than when I buried Ma. And I just couldn't argue no more.
It was late when I got up the next mornin'. Bat was out and about, and it bothered me that he seemed to be settlin' in at Mr. Bell's place. I knew that was unfair, since that's what I tol' him to do, but it still bothered me.
I heard Mr. Bell out in the barn doin' the chores that I should be helpin' with, but instead of pitchin' in I decided to wash my clothes so they could dry in the daylight. He had an ol' washtub an' a pump, and after I finished on my clothes I pumped some more water into the tub and washed myself. I was dryin' off on usin' one of the blankets that Mr. Bell had given me to sleep on - I'd saved one for that reason instead of washin' it - when he walked around the barn and saw me.
For some reason he jerked like somebody'd whacked him in the face, then ducked back around the corner.
"What's wrong?" I called out.
"Nothing," I heard. "Let me know when you're dressed."
"Um, sorry, Mr. Bell, I didn't mean to bother you. But all my clothes are hangin' on the fence to dry."
"Oh, of course," he said. After a moment he walked back into sight, but for some reason he was lookin' anywhere but at me. I didn't know why he was bothered by me not wearin' any clothes. After all, we was both men and all. But I'd always known he was from some fancy place back East so I figured maybe they had different rules. In any event, I wrapped the blanket around me so that nothin' showed and it seemed to make him feel better.
It was too late for breakfast, but Mr. Bell put out some bread and cold ham that did fine to make my stomach quit grumblin'. He waited patiently for me to get to the point I was actually chewin' a bit instead of just chompin' and swallowin', then his eyes asked me to explain what had happened. He never even said a word, but I knew he wanted me to talk.
I ran through the story, finishin' up by tryin' to make him believe I tried for real. "Honest, Mr. Bell. I woulda done it. But I just couldn't kill all those other folk to get him. If I could meet him outside 'a town, I'd do it. I promise you."
All through my story he sat there still and calm, 'ceptin' for one time. When I tol' him about the woman makin' fun 'a me, and of the men makin' kissy faces, he twitched and 'bout the most fiercest expression I ever seen showed on his face, but pretty soon his face was back to somethin' so empty I decided I better never play poker with him.
He nodded at my claim that I woulda done it, acceptin' it with somethin' that looked like respect in his eyes. Then he got that strange look like he was studyin' the wall of the cabin again, 'ceptin' it looked like he was seein' somethin' way on the other side of the wall even though there weren't nothing but rock out there.
Finally he looked back at me and asked, "What do you intend to do now?"
It came to me then that he had always been askin' me what *I* wanted to do. He treated me like I was man enough to make my own choices. When I made my choice, he might offer to help, but it was to make *my* choice work, not to make me accept *his* choice. I appreciated it, but it came to me that I was still only fourteen, more or less, and he had been to places I never even heard of. It was clear he had a lot of book learnin', too. I decided I'd oughta take advantage of that.
"Mr. Bell, what do *you* think I should do?"
"Well, for one, I think you should call me Gideon," he said with a smile, the first one I'd seen for a while. "Anyone who is brave enough to do what I could not, yet of sufficient moral integrity to choose life instead of death, has earned my respect."
"Moral integrity?" I repeated, not sure what it meant.
"It means you do what is right, even when it's not what you want to do," he said.
I nodded, figurin' it was fair to say that, even though I didn't figure it was all that unusual. My pa made sure I knew what was right, and that I done it. I just sorta figured everyone did that, but when I thought on it that obviously wasn't true since Snowman did just the opposite.
"So, Mr. Bell - I mean, Gideon - what *do* you think I should do?"
He looked at me with those hard, sharp eyes, but they softened before he asked his question. "Do you still want to kill the Snowman?"
"Yes, sir," I said, right quick and firm.
He sighed, then he looked around the cabin like he was checkin' to see if anyone was listenin', which I didn't understand at all. Then he turned back to me with that deep, deep stare.
"Peter, I'm about to tell you a secret; something known only to me, and to one other person in the entire world. Until now."
I just nodded at him, sittin' real quiet 'cause he was so serious.
Even though he started out lookin' so sharp at me, now his voice got a bit distracted and he started lookin' through the wall again. It was like he was watchin' old memories in his mind, and sort of sayin' what he was thinkin' while he watched.
"When I was about your age, maybe even a bit younger, I realized something about myself. Something that could not be proven, but was so clear to me that I had less doubt about it than whether the sun would rise each morning."
A gentle smile showed on his face, as though a happy memory was dancin'' behind his eyes. "I realized that I was really a woman."
Even though I wanted real bad not to interrupt him, I couldn't help but twitch at that. He noticed, and smiled again, but this time there didn't seem to be any real happiness in it. "I see that you're . . . skeptical. I'm not surprised. It's hard for people to understand."
He waved his hand over his belly, and his eyes showed the same kinda bleak that Ma showed toward the end, when she was feelin' so poorly. "I know this body doesn't look that that of a woman. Physically I am not. But I assure you that inside this shell, my heart is that of a woman. My *soul* is that of a woman."
I wasn't gonna argue with him, but what he was sayin' didn't make no sense to me.
"Still skeptical, I see," he said, smiling a tight little smile that didn't show any happiness again. "Well, for now you'll just have to take my word for it.
Chapter 3 - "A New Path"
He started watchin' his memories again. "From that moment, I set my path toward finding a way to correct my . . . conflict. I studied natural philosophy in all its branches. I started out with life sciences only to find that the best doctors and scientists of Europe had nothing that could address my needs. There were various compounds and elixirs which could mimic some of the attributes of women but all were of limited effect, particularly on a . . . rotund form such as imprisons me."
"Then I moved to the physical disciplines, looking for some parallel between transmutation of elements and transmutation of form. These studies included all the external differences I could identify. I learned about fashion, and about the tools of fashion from clothes to cosmetics. I learned about all the devices that women use to increase their external appearance of femininity, including those which are never seen in public but nonetheless shape those features that are. I bought clothes of more styles and materials than even the most socially conscious dilettante knew existed and took them apart down to each individual component, only to reassemble them once I understood the underlying principles of form and material. All that was even less fruitful though it did teach me laboratory disciplines that I found useful in developing potions of my own."
"The study of the mind, when I turned to that, was both the greatest and worst experience of my life," he said. "The fools who claim to know something of the mind were only interested in 'curing' me, not in helping me to find objective evidence for what I knew to be true. But in the course of my investigations, I found . . . someone."
He sighed, and looked again directly at me. "Peter, I have told you the truth, but I expect you have not understood much of what that truth means."
He stood up and actually moved back from me for a pace, as though he needed the protection of distance. He looked both guilty and firm, as though what he intended to say was a source of shame, yet also a subject which he would not dodge.
"Inside, I am a woman. And as a woman . . . I am attracted . . . to men."
He paused like he was waitin' for me to holler, or jump at him or somethin'. But I was still rollin' all his words around in my head and it took me a minute to figure out what he meant.
"Oh, I'll be damned," I finally said. "That's what that woman was sayin' 'bout me!"
"Yes," he agreed. "Though damnation is more likely to be my fate than yours. There are some men who are attracted to men, yet - unlike me - do not feel that they are women. In fact, I believe this is more common. So I expect she considered you to be of that persuasion rather than mine."
"Damn, now I wish I woulda set off that vest, if that's the sort of people that go there."
Bell frowned at this, but he sighed and sat down in his chair again. "I expect they were merely pretending to have those interests as a way to add to her insults. After all, those who earn their meager living in the upstairs rooms of that establishment are, to the best of my knowledge, exclusively female. But your disdain is all too common."
"All too common," he repeated, real quiet. He shook himself a little, like a horse twitchin' away a fly, and commenced again.
"In Austria I found someone who, at first, seemed to understand. I poured out my innermost thoughts to him. He was receptive, and encouraging, and even - so I thought - accepting of my confessions. Until the day I made the greatest confession of all."
His eyes were shinin' now with tears. "I confessed that I loved him."
Bell's voice dropped until I had to listen real hard to hear, even though things were real quiet. Even the chickens seemed to be waiting for him to say somethin' more.
"He laughed at me."
"He made it clear that I was nothing more than a specimen for him to study; his apparent sympathy no more than an experimental tool not unlike a biologist's microscope. He told me that he also thought I needed to be 'cured' of my condition and that he thought he could help me. But, he said, if I had an emotional attachment to him his experimentation would be compromised."
"Within five minutes of my most heartfelt confession, he was showing me the door and directing me never to contact him again."
With that, he broke down and cried like I never seen a grown man cry. He didn't make no noise to speak of, but his shoulders was goin' up and down like he was on a horse at a gallop, and even though he hid his face in his hands, I could see tears leakin' out through his fingers. I have to admit that I was leanin' to the conclusion that Bell was crazy myself, but it bothered me to see someone hurtin' so bad.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Bell," I said softly. "He shouldn'a treated you that way."
My voice seemed to jar him into bein' aware I was there again, like he forgot or somethin'. He straightened up in his chair, wiped at his face, and his expression changed from sad to firm again. "It is because of him that I have that vest."
After that little bit of sittin' up, he slumped in his chair and started watchin' his memories again. "After my . . . failure to use the vest, I determined to show him how wrong he was by becoming the woman that I knew myself to be. I traveled to India, and to Cathay. I visited shamans of tribes so dark that you would think they had rolled in coal dust, but who had. . . more open attitudes about science than the rigidity that had settled over Europe. In each location, with each bit of lore and ritual, I found an aspect of what I pursued. Yet none was sufficient. I might even gain the external appearance of a woman, but not the true completion I craved."
He looked back at me again. His face showed a smile that was more sad than happy, but it was also relieved, as though he was gettin' to the end of his story and was glad for that at least.
"My travels brought me to the native tribes of this land, and it was here that it was revealed to me how to put all my years of research together into a true cure for the condition of one such as myself - not a change to deny the woman who lived inside, but a change of the external to free that woman from her prison of masculine flesh."
I had to roll that 'round in my mind again, but it wasn't long before I puzzled it out. "You mean you figured out how to change a man into a woman?"
He nodded, but his expression was twisted in anger, not in pride. "Yes, I have. However, the cruelty of the Fates knows no bounds."
He went to one of his cupboards and pulled out a small case like the doctor used when he was makin' a trip to help someone. Openin' it with a fancy move like he was some sort of drummer showin' off a cure for all the ails of the world, he showed me about a dozen little bottles. Some held pills and some held liquids, but they didn't look all that special to me.
I guess he could tell that I wasn't real impressed, but he didn't really seem to care. Droppin' the case on the table with just enough care to keep 'em from breakin', he sat down in his chair like he was too tired to stand.
"Here's the irony," Bell said, and I figured that was a word I was not gonna get. Iron, I knew, but I didn't see no iron nowhere in his case. But I figured I might get his point by listenin' to the rest of it. "I spent a lifetime finding the way to 'fix' my external shell, but it would take another lifetime for me to take advantage of it. One must be old to discover it, but young to use it."
That last part didnít make no sense to me even without that word I didnít know. I imagine my face showed how confused I was, because Bell smiled his angry little smile and explained.
"One of the effects of this . . . treatment is aging. Based on experiments with animals, it appears to add a bit more than half again to the age of the subject. If I were to use it on myself, I would rapidly become so old it would not matter what sex my form displayed."
"Old?" I repeated. It was funny that one of the first things he said where the words seemed to make sense didn't make no overall sense at all.
He nodded, but I hardly noticed. The thing is, I'm not stupid. I just didn't have much book learnin'. I was havin' trouble followin' all his fancy language, but once I figured it out, I could put his two and two together to get my own four.
I rose up out of my chair and nearly took the table with me. "You want to change *me* into a woman!"
He laughed a tight, unhappy laugh to go with his twisted smile. "No, Peter. Actually, I don't. I wouldn't inflict on you the mirror image of the torment which has twisted me all these years. But my whole life has been spent developing a unique capability that I can't use on myself. And in the supreme irony, it would not only be usable on you, it would solve your problem of getting close to Snowman."
He looked directly at me again with that fierceness that seemed to burrow its way deep inside me. "Peter, my recommendation is that you forget your vengeance. I have funds that I will never be able to spend. I can send you on your way to a new life far from here. Forget Snowman. Forget that your mother was taken from you by violence rather than the accident that claimed your father and just accept that you are a young man setting out on his own in the world - an orphan but not destitute. You are healthy, and smart. I can arrange introductions to professors in any field that interests you, with tutors to bring your education up until you can meet your full potential."
He sighed, and looked back through the wall of the cabin again. "But I respect your right to make your own choice. And, if you choose a path of vengeance . . . I can understand. Even if I don't approve of your choice, it is yours to make. And as there is one more ability I have that might aid you, if that is your choice then I will do what I can."
"As a woman," I said.
He nodded, then smiled with a less angry flavor. "As a lady, actually. My recommendation is that we use the time while the various elixirs are doing their work to provide some of that education and polish in the social graces that a lady displays. It may aid in your . . . mission against Snowman, and if you happen to survive it will definitely help you in the rest of your life."
"As a woman," I repeated softly.
"Yes," he confirmed bluntly. "I have nothing else to offer you."
"I gotta think on this for a while," I said.
Bell nodded, and looked thoughtful again. Looked at me, and then got thoughtful, I mean, as opposed to bein' thoughtful on his own account. After he looked at me, I realized that I was still just wrapped in the blanket. I pulled it a little tighter around my shoulders and wondered if my clothes was dry yet.
"Perhaps there is a . . . test we might make," he said, pulling my eyes back to him.
"A test?" I repeated.
"Yes," he said, and this time his smile showed a lot more real. "While your clothes are drying, would you like to . . . experiment a little?"
"With what?" I asked.
"You have lovely hair, a rich, dark auburn that remembers the beauty of your mother. And I think your face offers great potential even without any of my special potions. I am quite skilled as cosmetician and stylist. Perhaps we could see what sort of potential you might achieve - if you choose to embark on this journey."
"You wanna make me look like a woman?"
"A girl, actually," he corrected me. "A young, sweet, flower just budding on the cusp of womanhood."
Then he frowned again, and sighed. "It might be your only chance to see that image. It is possible the aging will occur before any other changes are noticeable, so if we wait you will only see the grown woman and never again the girl."
"How much older will it make me?"
"I would expect that your apparent age will be in your younger twenties when we are done," he said, and I picked up on the fact he was talkin' about it like it was a done deal. Then I remembered that I was talkin' the same way.
"What will you do? I mean, right now?"
"Nothing permanent, my child," he said. "Some paints and powders, a bit of brushing, a few minor things that will disappear with no trace in a matter of hours - days at most."
I was gonna tell him no. The woman at the saloon had done enough to make me feel less than manly. I didn't need to add to it. But Mr. Bell . . . Gideon . . . had seemed so sad for so long while he talked that I just felt the need to do something to cheer him up a little. He done so much for me, took me in when all I had was a ol' horse and a rifle.
And this seemed so important to him.
I shrugged, but nodded.
"Let's get you something better than that blanket to wear," he said, and disappeared back into his trunks again. Since the explodin' vest had come out the last time he done that I was a mite leery. However, when he came back out he had a fancy robe like my ma had sometimes worn - except this one was in that slickery fabric that rustled. Lordy, it felt nice to wear. It was smooth, and soft, and just seemed to flow around me like cool water. I couldn't help runnin' my hand over it after I got it wrapped and tied.
"No, no, no," Gideon said, but he smiled. "It wraps the other way."
That was the start of somethin' that I don't rightly remember signin' up for. Lessons in 'proper' behavior. Includin' language. Who knew that so many words ended up with a 'g' on the end? I also had to walk with good posture, sit with my back straight, keep my head up like there was a string hangin' . . . hanging from the ceilin' . . . cei*ling* over my head. Gideon started making me say out loud all the things I was thinking and every time I didn't hang a 'g' where it belonged, he made me say it over again.
There was other stuff, too. Like a lotta the time the 'a' on the end of a word was really a whole other word. Like outta was really 'out of.' But oughta was really 'ought to.' I think he was making me think about what I was saying to keep me distracted from what he was doing to my hair and stuff.
The first thing he did was wash my hair - even though I done that . . . I had done that already. That's why I didn't have no . . . didn't have any dry clothes to wear. But he got in a wash basin and washed my hair again with some special stuff, and then he washed it again, only he said he wasn't washing it, he was 'conditioning' - with a 'g' - my hair. Whatever he used smelled pretty nice and reminded me of the way Ma smelled after she took a bath. Pa bought her some bead things that came all the way from Denver to put in the tub when she took a bath, and she smelled nice after.
Then he tied my hair up on some thick round pegs while it dried. I thought that might be the end of it, but while my hair was drying he started working on my face. I didn't really have to shave very much - Pa never shaved more than maybe once a week or so - but he spread this hot wax on my chin and yanked out what hairs I did have growing. I started to tell him what I thought about that, too, but he told me that it wasn't proper for a 'lady' to use such language. He did that yank thing in some hairs near my eyebrows too, but by then I had surrendered to his attacks and was just hanging on until they were over.
Which took a while. Once he had yanked out all the hair he thought I shouldn't have, he started painting and powdering and drawing on my face. I seen . . . I had seen the way the saloon girls painted up their faces and I didn't really like it all that much. Ma had been pretty, I thought, and she never did that. But I figured if it made Gideon happy, then I'd put up with it. He said that nothing would last more than a day or so and I didn't figure to see anyone else in that time . . . except maybe Bat, and Buster. I wondered what they would think. Bat would probably turn his back on me again, and I didn't figure Buster would even let me get close enough to explain who I was.
Eventually Gideon got back to my hair, unwinding it from the peg things and running a brush this way and that. He put some combs in it to hold it up, and a couple of dozen little bent wires, and then he pulled back an old sheet he had been using to protect the robe.
Gideon handed me a hand mirror and said, "Voila!"
"Is that a 'vwal of' or a 'vwal to'?" I asked. "And what's a 'vwal' anyway?"
I never heard his answer. By that time I had the mirror up where I could see what was in it. I looked at the image in the mirror and the whole world went dark around the edges.
My ma was looking back at me. Just like she was as far back as I could remember. Before Pa died. Before she started feeling poorly. Only . . . I'd never seen her look so pretty. So . . . alive. So healthy. Not even when she was so healthy for real that she could work in the garden all day and still have the energy to sing to us as she made supper. This was the way that Ma shoulda . . . should have always looked. And the funny thing was, it didn't look like the saloon girls at all. I didn't look like Gideon done anything . . . had done anything at all. Except it did look like I had let a swarm of bees sting my mouth.
But it sure wasn't the way that I should have looked. Well, other than looking surprised. And excited.
It was a good thing that I was sitting down. At some point Gideon's voice started seeping in again, but even though I heard the words they weren't making much sense. Nothing made sense, when I saw that person in the mirror. But I heard the words.
"I used a bit of bronze to bring out the green in your eyes," he was saying. "I didn't want it to clash with your hair, but I think it worked. Don't you?"
"The cosmetics by your eyes. The colors I selected are intended to make your eyes look more green. But sometimes those colors can . . . fight with your hair color if you don't get them right."
"If you say so," I said quietly. I realized I was still staring at myself in the mirror, but I just couldnít put it down.
I really couldn't. Gideon had to take it out of my hand.
"What?" I said.
"You are quite beautiful, you know," he said. "Your youth works to your advantage, and if I may say so myself, I'm quite skilled at cosmetics and other tricks to enhance beauty."
"Yes," I said quietly. Part of my distraction was because Gideon's magic proved that his ability to make me appear female was very real. And more than that, pretty enough to attract Snowman. He always insisted on the best for himself, and looking like I did would almost force him to invite me into . . . where he was alone. I could get close to him looking like this, but I could never do it looking like Petey.
So, did I want to do 'whatever it takes' to get back at him? I already decided I wouldn't kill innocent people to do that, but . . . would I 'kill' Petey Stone and replace him with someone else? Someone else who was female, and pretty?
Even though he had taken it from me, I picked up the mirror again and looked at my ma looking back at me. My ma who was trampled into the mud of her garden, then left for dead.
I figured that Snowman knew I was around. He was usually pretty careful about that sort of thing when he was trying to get someone's land in case there was an adult male relative who might cause trouble. But he didn't really want our homestead. He just wanted the water. And as long as I was just a kid he could keep breaking down any dam I might build, or anything else I might do to control the water. After all, he was willing to burn our place to the ground and kill my ma. What could a kid do that he couldn't undo with an afternoon's ride?
But . . . a woman? Gideon had said that I'd age with his process so I wouldn't be a girl, I'd be a woman. A grown-up woman who could demand her rights. If she had any. And while Snowman might kill a widow who was sickly and not too pretty any more, he might be more . . . friendly to a pretty young woman.
"Gideon," I asked, "can you prepare legal papers? Or at least, papers that look legal?"
"Perhaps," he said. "What did you have in mind?"
"What if I became Petey's older sister? What if I had something - a will, or a deed signed over to me, or something - to establish my claim to our place? Petey may be only a kid, but you said I would age to my twenties. It might be easier for Snowman to terrorize a kid than to buy the property from him. But what if an adult woman showed up claiming her rights? A pretty woman might have a lot more luck getting sympathy - and the aid of the men of the area - to stand up to him than an orphan kid."
"Hmm," he said. "Yes, I think we could do something along those lines, particularly since you have some knowledge about the family lineage that could be used to verify you were part of it."
"Good, how long will it take?"
"To prepare the papers? Not long."
"Good," I repeated.
But Gideon held up his hand. "Sorry, my dear, but the papers are the easy part. Changing you into your older sister will take, oh, a few months at least."
"But . . ," I started, but then I held up. In the end, I might still end up dead after I killed Snowman - shot or hung for murder. Was I in that much of a hurry to die?
"Um, Gideon, if you can make me look this good . . . do I have to do the whole thing? Maybe I just . . . dress up a little?"
"Perhaps," he said. I could see the sadness in his eyes and I knew that he had been looking at me as the proof that he had succeeded in the goal he had been chasing his entire life. But that might not be enough of a reason.
"How smart is Snowman?" he asked. I didn't know where that question came from, but more than that, I didn't know how to answer it.
I shrugged, prompting a wagging finger in my face for a motion that must not have been refined enough. But I didn't know the answer to his question no matter how I showed it.
Gideon motioned me to sit down again, reminding me as I did so to treat the long robe I wore like a dress and keep it smooth under me. He also required that I sit properly with my knees together before he said anything that might follow from his last question. I didn't complain. Even if I was only gonna . . going to dress up a little, I still needed to act like a well-mannered woman.
"My dear," he said, "I am troubled by your report that the woman in the saloon called you a pretty boy. It is, in fact, quite true even without the little . . . enhancements I have made. Oh, I can make you look like a woman so effectively that you could live your life that way and no one would even suspect the truth unless they saw you unclothed. No one that didn't know Peter, that is."
"But for someone who knew Peter? Your hair is cleaner, but it is the same color. It is the same length and could hardly be shortened for the role of a woman. Your voice, while somewhat androgynous - that means neither male nor female - is still your own voice. Your hands are large for a woman, and roughened by work. Hands are often a giveaway on this sort of masquerade. Will simple cosmetics and clothes be enough to fool someone who knew Peter? Particularly if you are asking him for a significant sum of money? Even if that request is merely a ruse to get close enough to him to kill him, it will still make him cautious. Can you take that chance?"
"I don't know," I admitted. "Snowman don't . . . doesn't know me but some of those deputies do. And the sheriff."
I was willing to kill myself if it meant I could take Snowman with me. I really would have set off that vest-bomb if I could have done it without hurting so many other people. Was changing myself into a woman any worse than that?
I had been expecting for a while that Petey Stone would soon wind up dead. I had even accepted that I would be the one to kill him. I just didn't figure it would be quite like this.
Chapter 4 - "Patience Is A Virtue"
I was so shocked by how effective Gideon's cosmetic magic was in transforming my face that I took it for granted all the other changes would be as fast and effective. They were not. And they were way less pleasant - even worse than pulling my whiskers out with the wax (especially since he used that wax on a lot more areas a well). Some of his treatments made me so sick all I could do was sit in the outhouse.
With an extra basin for what was coming out the other end.
Petey was fairly slim to begin with but I was losing a lot of weight even from there. Some days I couldnít even make it to the outhouse and Gideon had to tend me like a little baby.
Not all of his treatments were potions and such. Bat almost headed for the far hills like his namesake the first time Gideon came out wearing a huge, ugly mask and shaking a rattle with feathers and bones tied to it. He made me sit in a sweat lodge with some nasty smelling smoke. He made me pose in strange positions - standing on my head or bending over backward. He took some of my blood, then burned it in a ritual fire with parts taken from a female goat. I didn't understand any of it.
I was recovering from a particularly bad spell one morning when I met my new tutor. Gideon had allowed me a time to lounge around in soft, comfortable robes doing only simple things like undoing the seams on a gown so that I could tailor it to my rapidly evolving shape. I was lost in concentration when I heard the rustle of those 'slickery' fabrics - fabrics which I now knew were called satin and taffeta, woven from silk.
I looked up to see . . . something very sad.
Gideon was walking toward me from the entrance to the storerooms, wearing a long gown, gloves, a wig, and jewelry that sparkled in colors so bright and pure I couldn't believe a stone could shine so. But it was still Gideon underneath, even though he had squeezed himself into a corset tied much tighter than I had ever had to endure. Unfortunately, the tightest corset in the world, and the most careful cosmetics, could not disguise the person underneath. Perhaps if Gideon had been a bit less round, and a bit less . . . old.
"Um, hello," I said carefully.
"Hello," he repeated, using a voice that reflected the techniques I had learned - softer, a bit more breath and less tone, and just a bit higher pitched.
He showed a rather formal curtsey to go with his formal gown, and when he rose he said, "I am your tutor, Jillian."
That began my 'real' girl lessons.
Lessons in 'deportment' which was a word I didn't even know until he explained it. Lessons in grammar where not dropping a 'g' on the end of a word was only the beginning. Lessons in walking which I would have thought I knew how to do - but not according to Gideon. Lessons in girly things like hair and cosmetics and how to get my stays tight enough. Lessons in sewing and cooking. I found out that Gideon was such a good cook because he decided that was something women should do, and he wanted to be a woman in every possible way. Which, of course, meant I had to learn it, too. Unless the occasion required it, as it had the day she introduced herself to me, Jillian own outfits were usually simple dresses such as the preacher's wife might wear. But my own were always a step up from the women I had seen in town, if not two or three steps up.
Jillian functioned as a lady's maid, helping me into my own outfits. That included stays that needed to be tightened three times before she was satisfied.
"Oh, God, I want this to be over!" I snarled again, one of many, many times I'd complained. I had complained so often, in fact, that it had given me a name.
"Patience is a virtue . . . Patience," she said.
Jillian smirked when she said it, and I'd have clocked her one except at the time I was all trussed up in a formal gown that must have weighed as much as I did. Jillian had more clothes back in that cave than the Montgomery Wards catalog. Not all of them fit me - at least, not right away. But as part of my training I had moved from undoing seams to renewing them tailored for my shape.
And retailoring them. My shape was changing. A lot. My mother was a curvy woman - I knew that because Pa used to tease her about it, and I remembered that she had always smiled even as she shushed him. Gideon said that his treatments actually made the patient - Lordy how I hated that word - even more womanly than most natural-born women.
It seemed as though I was under the care of two distinct people. In my 'girl lessons' it was almost always Jillian who instructed me - the exceptions were when I needed to learn how to dance following the lead of a man, or how to allow myself to be helped through a doorway. Yet it was Gideon who administered the potions and performed the rituals of my treatments. And it was always, always Gideon who went outside the cabin, whether that was a simple trip to the barn to care for the horses or his continuing trips into Springtree for supplies his little farm could not provide. It was only in the privacy of his cabin or the cave against which it was built that Jillian could . . . live.
Gideon reported that things were much the same in Springtree. Snowman's guards remained, perhaps a bit reduced but still more than adequate to keep me from returning to one of Petey's attempts with rifle or that demonic vest. By that point it would have seemed pointless. Gideon had made it clear that the changes were irreversible. The only path was forward.
In addition to the physical changes from Gideon's magic, I was getting older. That was not a bad thing. I could see the carved perfection of an adult woman emerging from the undefined roundness of a child, even as those features shifted in other ways. My nose actually got shorter. My chin narrower. But my cheekbones took on a clean, pure line that was both strong and delicate at the same time.
He was doing a lot more than just making me look female - even more than making me *be* female in ways that took from Petey's body parts he'd never really used, and offered a new path he'd never really imagined. He was sculpting me into an image that was more art than science - a 'vision' of beauty that was more than I felt I needed to complete my vengeance. More even than my mother had possessed.
When I pointed this out, Gideon explained his 'vision' for me. He started with a question. "Why weren't you living with your parents on the homestead?"
"I, um, was," I said, confused (as usual).
"No, you weren't," he said. "Peter was. Why was Patience never around? Why didn't they ever talk about Patience?"
I felt a practiced little pout on my puffy lips and a tiny crease between my carefully shaped brows. But behind all that apparent feminine helplessness, my mind was undiminished and I recognized what he was after.
Not that I knew how to answer it. "I don't know."
"We need an explanation for why you were not here before, and for why you're here now. So, what could cause a beautiful young woman to leave her family?"
"If she got married, I guess," I said.
"Yes, or at least engaged," he agreed. "Yet you have no husband, so . . ?"
"So we called it off?"
"Because . . ?"
I could see what he was trying to work out, so I started making up a story to go with his start.
"Let's see . . . I met a rich young man when I was . . . studying back East. No, that doesn't explain why I was East in the first place."
"I have a suggestion," Gideon offered. "Perhaps you were 'discovered' in a medium-large city . . . Denver, let's say . . . before your parents came to Springtree. Instead of coming with them, you pursued your career opportunity as a model for New York fashion magazines."
"Yes. You know they're doing that, now. Photographs or paintings of beautiful women wearing the latest fashions are placed in newspapers, magazines, and on billboards."
"I never heard of such a thing," I said.
"You have, actually," he countered me. "In the Montgomery Ward catalog, for example."
"I just thought those were drawn by artists."
"Well, they are, but they're not made up out of nothing. Models wear the clothes for the artists to draw. And in the bigger cities, they even use photographs printed on new types of printing presses."
I nodded slowly as I tried to get my mind around the image he was crafting with his words. "And you think I'm pretty enough to be a model?"
"Oh, definitely," he said. "Or at least, you will be when we finish. That's why I've been pushing you to be elegant, with refined manners and very stylish clothes that are a bit too much for the frontier."
So that's why I had to study so many elements of fashion, and why he was not satisfied with merely making me female, and different enough from Petey that no one would suspect who I was on the inside. In order to make that story believable, I had to be so pretty that a passing stranger - who happened to be in charge of that sort of thing - would notice me and offer me an opportunity like that.
"You seem to have given this some thought," I observed. "What about the rest of it? Why am I here now?"
While we had been talking, Gideon was preparing another wonderful dinner. I could cook quite competently now, as good as Ma had done. But he was still an artist with food as well as with body sculpting and fashions. He looked at me when I asked my question, then moved the stew off the stove and motioned me to sit down.
"Patience, I know why your mother was sick," he said.
"Yes," he confirmed. "There is a sickness of the body which most call 'consumption.' In medical circles it is known as 'cancer' and it is the result of some inner parts of the body going out of control. They grow much too fast, and instead of contributing to the functioning of the body, they consume it from the inside. You can think of it as a boil or a blister, only on the inside."
I nodded, and didn't need any more explanation to see the application of that to the lump I saw on my mother's bosom after she was killed.
Gideon saw the recognition in my eyes. "Yes," he said. "It was clear from your description that your mother had a cancer. But more than that, she told me."
"She told you?"
"Yes. After your father died, I talked to her a few times when I was riding through to get supplies. I offered whatever help I could with the farm, but I told her that I was not really a farmer or rancher, as you know. But I am a doctor, of sorts, and when she told me that she was not feeling well I examined her. It was something she didn't want you to know."
"Because she hoped it would not take her until you were old enough to care for the farm on your own. And she had no other way to care for you. Until that time, she wanted you free to grow up as happy and as optimistic as you could be."
"But, we both knew she was sickly," I countered.
"Yes," Gideon said with a sigh. "There was nothing I could do. The disease took her much more quickly than we had expected. In some ways, it was almost a good thing that she died so suddenly."
"No, it was not!" I said firmly.
"No, not really," he agreed. "Just . . . in some ways."
He patted my hand and moved back to the stove to finish dinner. "Yet that is our explanation. We can say that she sent a message to you about her illness, asking you to come take care of Peter and the homestead."
"What are we going to say about Peter? Where, um, is he?"
"I think Peter must have died. With a little work, we can create a hut or something in one of the valleys between here and the homestead. It won't take much to make it look like someone was staying there, but died."
"What about . . . a body?"
He looked away, back at the stove again. Speaking over his shoulder he said, "Unless the hut were quite stoutly built, there are any number of predators who would drag a body off."
"You mean Petey died all alone, and coyotes drug his body off and ate him?" I gasped.
"No," he said, moving over to put an arm around my shoulders. "Peter is right here. He is you. But we will tell people that is what happened - or better yet, let them discover it."
So we worked out the plan. By the time all the treatments were over and all the lessons were learned, it had turned to spring again. I stood in front of Jillian's large mirror looking at a beautiful young woman in a stylish green dress. Her waist was nipped into a tiny circle by obvious corset training, yet her bosom and hips swelled to generous proportions that made it clear the person inside those clothes was very feminine. Her hair was done up tightly to the back of her head, from which a cascade of curls showed a deep auburn color that caught highlights of red like the last embers of a still-warm fire.
She was beautiful, and she was me.
"Oh, Gideon, I cannot believe what you have created," I said. My voice tones had not raised from Peter's so much as softened into a bell-like resonance. But, like the appearance, there would be no confusing my voice with that of any man or boy.
"An artist is only as good as his materials, and you had a potential that even I did not recognize," he said.
I turned to him and put my arms around his shoulders. "Thank you, Gideon. Thank you for everything."
"No, my dear, it is I who must thank you," he said. Tears were spilling from his eyes, and it was only the many reminders that I must not ruin my cosmetic enhancements that kept my own from doing the same. "You are the living proof that all my research was not in vain, and I truly do thank you for that."
"Let us each be grateful to the other, then," I said gently, and embraced him again. Then I stood back and looked again into the mirror. "I believe it is time."
"Yes, I expect you are right," he agreed.
In fact, it was three days after that decision before I was actually on my way. And the young woman who left Gideon's little valley was not an elegant lady in green silk and satin. Instead I looked like I had never grown out of the tomboy stage, wearing durable cotton trousers in the style made famous by Levi Strauss and Company - though these were never recorded on any of his sales ledgers. A yoked shirt and bandanna completed the image of ranch girl rather than society lady. I needed those durable clothes because the plan was that I would spend three nights on the road before I slept inside again.
I couldn't just ride into Springtree, particularly not from up the mountain where my homestead and Gideon's valley lay. Instead, my plan was to go to Fort Pike. From there I would ride the train to Sweetwater, and from there hire a carriage to get back to Springtree, but with a backtrail consistent with my claimed persona.
Gideon pulled out an old but serviceable wagon and Buster found himself in harness for the first time in the better part of a year. But he settled down soon enough, only complaining with a few nickers and a grunt or two at the load of trunks that he had to pull up to the pass. Gideon had pressed an impossible amount of gold coins on me as well - quite possibly more than the entire value of our . . . my . . . homestead, but those were held in a small box under the seat of the wagon, not in the trunks.
At the last point I could see his cabin, I turned and waved to Gideon, who waved back with one hand while he held Bat with the other. It was a sad parting, but I was firm in my determination and it was a necessary parting, at least for now.
From there, the plan worked acceptably well. The only concern I had was that I did not have my rifle. I had another rifle - a beautifully inlaid side-by-side weapon that Gideon also provided, made by some English company called Purdey - but it wasn't *my* rifle. Still, it would have been beyond stupid to venture out on the prairie without any weapon. We had another use for my own rifle and within the scale of all the things we had done - all the sacrifices that I had made - giving up my rifle was hardly worth mentioning. But it did bother me.
Fort Pike was a bustling town just on the verge of becoming a city. I arranged to board Buster for an indeterminate time in a pasture on the edge of town and used my newly developed feminine charm to entice a couple of youngsters - actually fairly close to Petey's age - to take all my trunks to the local hotel.
That evening I completed my transformation, emerging from my final chrysalis as the beautiful butterfly Gideon had crafted. As I descended the staircase from the rooms to the main floor of the hotel, a wave of silence flowed out. Men nudged each other, and women whispered behind their hands, but all normal conversation stopped. I just smiled, grandly above such gossiping.
"Can I help you, miss?" the desk manager inquired. When I turned to look directly at him, he twitched and said, "Oh, I am sorry, Miss Stone. I didn't recognize you."
That earned him only a small smile of acknowledgment and an even slighter shake of my head as I turned to the restaurant.
Gideon had explained the potential for an unescorted woman to be approached by young men, and I was mentally prepared to be politely dismissive. But it turned out not to be an issue. At some point I realized that I was a bit too coldly formal to be approached. It made me introspective. Would that deter Snowman, or entice him? My thoughts occupied me through the simple meal - not in any way up to the standards of Gideon's cooking - and it was only near the end that anyone interrupted me.
"Well, pardon me all to he. . . all to pieces, ma'am, but I just gotta say hello," a man said. He was just on the happy side of staggering drunk, excessively careful but not actually stumbling.
"Hello," I said politely, then returned to my meal.
"No, really, ma'am, I gotta tell the hands that I talked to a real princess," he said.
I smiled, but shook my head. "I'm not a princess."
"You gotta be," he insisted. "You're way prettier'n any woman I ever seen before. You gotta be out of one of the stories that mothers tell their children about. I bet you can do magic, and have more money'n any three men can count."
"Hardly," I said dismissively.
Any further intrusion was interrupted by an approach from a different angle. "Tom, let her be," a rumbling voice said. It wasn't harsh or angry - but it also wasn't one to be ignored.
I looked in that direction and saw a tall man with a hard body and a soft smile. His clothes and face showed the signs of long work in a bright sun, but he'd clearly cleaned himself up. His face was clean-shaven, but there was a shadow that showed it wouldn't be long before he'd need to shave again.
"Pardon me for intruding," the man said, tipping his hat. "But it seems to me that a lady deserves her privacy, if that's what she wants."
"Thank you, Mister . . . ?"
"Sam Cody, miss. At your service."
"Thank you again, Mr. Cody," I said, nodding. And then I heard my mouth do the strangest thing.
"If you wouldn't think me too forward, Mr. Cody, could I say that it's not privacy as much as peace that I desire? I was resting from several days of travel. But I had no conversation on the trail, and would not find that objectionable."
The reason I was surprised at my own words was that they were in fact quite forward, for one, but also because the motivation for them was something that I had not expected. When I looked at Cody I felt the strangest sensations. My tummy fluttered within the confines of my corset, and the . . . accents on my recently expanded bosom grew so tight and hard that they almost hurt. But it was a pleasant ache that demanded fulfillment rather than rejection.
There were other, deeper responses that I dare not even mention.
Petey Stone had been a boy whose body was just thinking about becoming a man. There had been some stirrings . . . and curiosity . . . but Petey had never had occasion for those to be fulfilled. He never really missed them when Gideon's treatments made them irrelevant.
But my body - my new body - was stirring indeed, and curiosity would be one of the lesser flavors of that stirring.
"Well, then, that would seem to be a service I could provide, Miss . . .?"
"Patience Stone," I supplied, and then my hand was pointing at a chair at my table. I half expected the restaurant to collapse from the sudden intake of breath at such a bold gesture, but there they were anyway - my slender, pale hand pointing at a chair and his rough, sun-browned hand pulling it back.
"So, Miss Stone, what brings you to Fort Pike?" he asked.
I have to admit that I remember little of the conversation. It's possible that my reputation recovered a bit from my too-bold invitation, because my eyes were no-doubt demurely lowered for most of the time.
But the reason was not at all that I was feeling demure. Instead, I was captivated - a word that had meaning on several levels - by his hands. I found myself unable to stop imagining what those roughly calloused palms would feel like on the itching points of demand on my breasts. My mind formed fantasies that were anything but demure about what those long, strong fingers could do to . . . other places. It was a good thing that he sat at the table with me, for if he had not I know my gaze would have been most improper. I could not have helped looking to see if he showed any signs of arousal to match my own.
And whether his arousal was proportionate to his other . . . attributes.
Gideon had required me to read on a wide range of subjects, including novels that were intended to celebrate the passions of women. I knew what I was feeling was lust, not romantic love. But what I had not imagined was how powerful that lust could be. I was at the same time both grateful that the requirements of polite society protected me from acting on my inflamed desires, and frustrated near to tears by those same restrictions.
That same conflict arose when I had finished what I could eat of my meal and there was no more excuse to remain in the restaurant. I wanted to escape from a challenge to my self control that was so very near to winning . . . and wanted him to sweep me up and take from me what I could not quite allow myself to give freely.
In the end, of course, I did nothing. Mr. Cody helped me with my chair as I rose, and I found myself at the foot of the staircase to the guest rooms above.
"Thank you, Mr. Cody, for a most pleasant evening."
"Thank *you*, Miss Stone. This evening will remain one of my fondest memories for a very long time to come."
"Oh, Mr. Cody, you are too kind."
"No, Miss Stone, it is that you are too beautiful, and so charming that even your beauty is not the keystone to my memories."
I knew I was blushing . . . fiercely . . . but I also knew I was smiling in a way that was not at all proper for such a direct statement. My heart learned new dimensions of conflict as I forced myself to turn and walk to my room. Alone.
It was a very good thing that the train left early the next morning. I feared that I would not be able to resist a second evening in the company of Mr. Cody, and feared even more that despite his flattering words he would not want to spend another evening with me.
There was no shortage of young men the next morning to help me with my trunks. In time, I found myself standing on the rear platform of the train, wondering if Mr. Cody . . . Sam . . would be there to see me off. I was disappointed not to see him on my trip from the hotel to the station, but that disappointment faded to nothing when he appeared just below the landing on which I stood.
"Good bye, Miss Stone," he said, tipping his hat respectfully.
"Good bye, Mr. Cody," I replied quietly. "I fear I am being forward again, but you will remain important in my memories as well."
Important in many ways, not the least of which was wondering just what Gideon's treatments had done to me. Were all women this captive by their . . . bodies? If so, then it is a wonder any man would have to pay for their attention. I didn't know whether I wanted to think that his potions had made more responsive in the same way that they had made me more womanly in shape than most women. Or whether I wanted to believe that all women were so challenged. If most women could control desires as compelling as my own, then I must learn to do the same. Yet if I were uniquely blessed, then . . . ? Then what? Was that truly a blessing? Or a curse?
Whatever it was would have to wait until after I took care of my business with Snowman. To that end, I had an even more compelling reason to complete my revenge.
"Thank you for your kindness," I said. "It is welcome to discover that the men of the West are as gallant as the dime novels claim."
I took the bold step of looking him directly in the eyes and added, "Or at least that some of them are."
He smiled that gentle smile that set my heart to racing and my tummy to quivering, and tipped his hat once again. As though that were a signal, the whistle blew drowning out anything either of us might want to say, and the train started to move.
Chapter 5 - "Petey's End"
The trip to Sweetwater on the train was uneventful, if for no other reason than that it only took a few hours. Among the other skills Gideon had taught me was how to discourage an approach after the first polite exchange of greetings, and I found myself using it no less than four times - once from a man who was obviously in the company of another woman, which was amusing at least. I carefully tried not to think about why I had not used those techniques on Sam Cody.
Arranging a trap to carry myself and my trunks to Springtree did take enough time that I decided to leave the following morning. Another trip to the restaurant resulted in yet more unwanted suitors. This time a devil on my shoulder held sway and instead of discouraging them I encouraged each to sit. It was fun to watch the men beating their chests - metaphorically, and I recognized that a few months before I wouldn't have known what that meant - as they tried to impress the lone woman. In fact, I was not impressed. Sam Cody's easy confidence - without being arrogant - was more impressive just because he didn't feel the need to impress anyone.
And then - again - I reminded myself that I needed to get my mind off Sam Cody.
In accordance with the plan that I had worked out with Gideon, even though I drove myself from Sweetwater to Springtree, I dressed as a proper young lady complete with skirt, petticoat, gloves, and hat. Thankfully it was a cool spring day and it was not only a comfortable drive thanks to moderate temperatures, but largely a dust-free ride thanks to recent showers. So I was reasonably fresh when I arrived at the edge of Springtree. There were no guards, at least on that side of town, so I drove to the only hotel and stopped the carriage at the hitching post.
"Here, let me help you, little lady," I heard.
Billygoat's father, Frank Owen, was there with his hands out. He had all the smug arrogance of his son and more - after all, he'd had years more than Billygoat to practice. Yet his gesture was not improper, particularly since - wearing stays as any modest woman would - I could hardly feel his touch. So, smiling politely, I let him lift me to the ground.
"Thank you, ah, Sheriff?" I said, since I was not supposed to know him, though of course his badge was obvious.
"Sheriff Frank Owen, at your service, Miss," he said, tipping his hat.
Virtually the same words and gesture from Sam Cody had caused my tummy to flutter, but all I wanted now was to get away from this . . . this . . . creature. This animal who had been complicit in the death of my mother, even if he hadn't actively participated.
So much for feeling fresh. Now I couldn't wait to get a wash, even if it were just a basin and a pitcher of water.
And burn the dress.
But I couldn't do that. As of that moment, I was playing a part even within the larger role of portraying an adult woman which was no longer a play at all. My part was to be a lethal one if I could manage it, and my play-acting had to achieve the right balance between sophisticated and innocent. I needed to be an adult woman from the civilized environment of the big cities of the East, yet I needed to be unaware of the evil surrounding Snowman. In this case, so unaware that I couldn't even form the sort of rational opinions on the character of Snowman, Owen, and their associates that any woman of experience would hold.
Instead, he was just the sheriff, a symbol of the rule of law and therefore a safe acquaintance for a woman alone. No matter how much he polluted that rule of law with every breath.
"I am Patience Stone," I said, trying for a casual tone even as I looked carefully at him for any response.
"Stone?" he repeated. "Are you any relation to the late Stone family that lived up the mountain a ways?"
"The 'late' Stone family?" I repeated. "I received a message from my mother that she was not feeling well. That's why I'm here, to take care of her and my little brother Peter."
"Your mother, and brother?" he now repeated. He looked genuinely stricken and he took off his hat to work it in his hands. "I'm very sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, and so abruptly, but your mother died last summer and no one has seen your brother since before winter. I'm afraid we fear the worst."
Believe it or not, Gideon had foreseen this conversation so exactly that we had rehearsed it before I left his valley. So I let those practiced reflexes take over and staggered in apparent shock. One problem with a tight corset was showing just enough shock to make the point, without so much that I fainted from my sharply restricted ability to breathe. As predicted, he caught me before I actually fell and I managed not to recoil from his . . . I hated to use the word 'embrace', even in my mind, but I suppose that's what it was.
After that, it took no real acting on my part to let myself be led to a room in the hotel, the sheriff promising to see to my trap and my trunks, and even to clear my presence with the desk clerk.
Of course, as soon as he left I did have that promised wash, even though it was only a basin and a pitcher. I lay down on the bed as though overcome with grief while my luggage was placed quietly in the room. After they left I changed from my serviceable green woolen dress to a much more elegant black gown that would have been too formal without the excuse of mourning.
If the entrance I made as I descended the staircase in Fort Pike were dramatic, then the one I made that evening in Springtree was a close approximation to regal. I actually saw men bow and women do something that was the next best thing to curtsey. I smiled distantly at anyone who managed to catch my eye, looking around for the restaurant that I had carefully not noticed on my first pass through the lobby.
"This way, Miss Stone," said the clerk, stepping out from around his desk. He led me to a prepared table . . . set for two.
"I hope you don't find me too forward," a deep voice rumbled. "But I feel a sense of responsibility for your . . . situation."
"**As well you should, you miserable . . . dung-eating slug,**" I thought, turning to look at the Snowman as he moved to intercept my path. He was dressed more formally than usual himself, with a dark suit complete with preacher-style vest, and a string tie with an oversized piece of turquoise at his neck. In the greater part of a year since I had last seen him he had changed little, yet I thought I could detect a bit more jowl and girth, and perhaps a bit less to the fringe of white that surrounded his round head.
"I am Hannibal Teach," he said, bowing over the hand I offered out of carefully trained reflex. "I hope you will join me for dinner so that I might explain - and hopefully excuse - my presumption in approaching you."
"**Well, the slug has manners,**" I mused silently. "**I wonder where he rented them from . . . or is that, from where he rented them? Though knowing him, it's more likely he stole them from someone.**"
My silent reflection on one of the many things that Gideon had taught me brought a slight smile to my lips, which was enough of an acceptance for the overbearing man. He escorted me to my seat, helping me with my chair. My inner conversation provided a distracted air that was not out of character for the part I was playing.
When we were seated, I let my eyes look up to meet his briefly. "I think you were mentioned in my mother's letters, Mr. Teach, though in person you are much more . . . impressive than even her letters suggested."
He puffed up like a strutting rooster, smiling smugly at the praise. I didn't bother to tell him in what way I was impressed; ladies didn't use such language.
"That provides me with the opening for which I was looking," he said, "but I would not be so impolite as to press business on you in the very day you learned of your loss. Perhaps we can find a gentler topic for this evening."
That this offer totally undermined his supposed reason for dining with me didn't seem to bother him. He prodded for my background, and while he never asked directly it was clear he was interested in why he had never heard of me. I deflected his questions with a carefully choreographed dance that offered enough truth to be credible, added enough claims of a high-society background to be impressive, yet always remained vague enough to keep an air of mystery. The last included hints that I might not be the prim and proper lady I appeared to be.
"After the spring line that we presented for Harper's," I said, dropping the name of a magazine that he might at least know existed, "I had some free time on my schedule so I started touring the great museums of New York. I had happened to meet a few professors from Columbia, Cornell, and other academic venues. We were able to arrange opportunities to . . . study art."
When I said that, I had let an eyebrow lift with an implication that there was a message behind my words. More than that, I let a small smile twitch on my lips, one that was delighting in private memories. Personal memories. At the same time, I carefully did *not* let a blush form on my fair cheeks so that Snowman - if he were paying attention - might draw the conclusion that those private memories were not something of which I was ashamed. At the same time, they implied memories of which my parents might have been ashamed, and so explain why they never mentioned me.
"However, I left to come to mother's aid as soon as her letter reached me, of course," I concluded. With that, I also pressed him for his own story, wondering what sort of self-rationale such a demon would compile. It was extensive. Nobility oozed from every pore, though even one less sophisticated than I claimed to be would have questioned how such a selfless man could become so much richer than anyone else in the community.
As we were sipping at coffee following our meal, I moved on to the next steps of my strategy. The first was a planned activity with an unplanned initiation. There was a disturbance outside - a gunshot accompanied by shouting. At the sound of the shot, Snowman rose immediately in his chair, reaching for a weapon of his own. Three men (only two of whom I had previously identified, which was a warning to me) rose as well and virtually surrounded him. While everyone was looking outside, I dropped a dissolving pellet in Snowman's coffee. It only took an instant, since I had practiced it many times before. When it turned out the disturbance was a half-drunk cowhand taking a shot at what he claimed was a coyote in town, Snowman sat back down and his guards resumed their places.
The second step was a simple request. With wide eyes that claimed innocence as much - and as falsely - as Snowman claimed nobility, I asked, "Mr. Teach, I wonder if I might presume to ask a favor of you?"
"Of course, my dear. Anything I have is yours," he said grandly.
"**Not yet, you vile creature, but it will be,**" I promised myself. Outwardly, I just nodded gratefully and said, "I need someone who can guide me to my family homestead. Do you know anyone I might ask?"
"My dear Miss Stone, I would be only too happy to do so myself!" he proclaimed.
"Oh, no, Mr. Teach. I could not presume . . ."
"Nonsense!" he interrupted. "It would be my pleasure."
"Thank you, sir, you are too kind. But if I may, I would really beg that you identify someone who is not so . . . critical to this community. I fear I may need to spend too much of your time, for I intend to search for my younger brother once I have a starting point."
"Still, I would be pleased . . ," he began, but this time I was the one to interrupt.
I put just a hint of strength in my voice to show that along with style and sophistication, my sojourn in the greatest city in America had given me a will of my own. "I'm afraid I must insist, despite your generous offer," I said. "I hope you can understand that I would feel rushed if I felt I were keeping you from more important duties."
His eyes hardened for a moment and I could just about hear the 'uppity bitch' label that played behind them. Worse, that moment of hardness was quickly supplanted by a moment of smugness. He actually licked his lips - just a quick flick with the tip that barely showed - at the thought of what he would do to me when the time was right. After all, as the sole surviving member of the Stone family - in truth, though not quite in the way he expected - I had a claim on the property and its water rights that he coveted. So, at some point, he was going to need to do away with me as well. If he chose to accomplish that literally, he might as well take some enjoyment from a body I would soon no longer need. And if he chose to accomplish that through some settlement for my property that would get me out of his life- a settlement he no doubt intended to benefit him much more than it benefited me - then that was a pleasure as well even if more expensive. I wondered if Snowman were arrogant enough to think that he could kill me as soon as he had me alone on the trail and so reduce his cost for the property to that of a single cartridge.
Nonetheless, for now, he could only acquiesce in the face of firm - and public - refusal. Once that decision showed in his eyes he waved at a cowhand seated a few tables away. When the man arrived Snowman said, "Fetch Billy Owen."
"**Oh, joy, a day spent with Billygoat. I wish now I'd have claimed to have a map or something.**"
The deputy arrived in due course and Snowman gave him orders just as though he, Teach, were the sheriff. Of course, he might was well have been. And so we arranged to meet after an early breakfast the next day.
Gideon and I had discussed at some length the attire I should wear for this outing. On the one hand, it was not unreasonable for a frontier woman at work on a ranch to wear trousers, particularly if she were going to be riding a horse, and even more so if she might have to do some physical labor without the direct assistance of a man. On the other hand, genteel ladies never wore anything but skirts, and not even the split skirts that allowed one to ride astride. I, of course, had argued for the tomboyish look, but in the end Gideon had convinced me to hold that aspect of Patience in reserve. So I faced a day in a sidesaddle while wearing long skirts in another black outfit that would show every bit of dust, with the attendant helplessness that required a boost up each time I mounted my horse.
My day was not made more enjoyable when it started out by having Billygoat nearly drop me in his clumsy attempt to offer a leg up into my saddle. I ignored his error, except for an unwilling "eep" of distress that slipped out, despite my best intentions. Of course, Snowman was there to observe and he smirked at the sign that I was not quite as self-controlled as I tried to appear. I was inwardly furious at myself for that show of weakness, but when my temper cooled I realized that it might actually have been useful as a way to lead him to underestimate me. More than he already did, that is.
At least I looked the part of the sophisticated woman from the big city, yet out of place in a working ranch community. The horse I had bought in Sweetwater was a gelding named Drummer, and he looked very impressive with a sleek dark coat and silky mane. But he lacked the depth of chest required for a real running horse, and his gait had a certain roughness that made riding him a chore. Drummer was exactly the sort of horse that a woman who had learned to ride, but not really learned about horses, would choose. My unquestioned insistence on riding sidesaddle just added to the impression that I was a tenderfoot who had no business in the West.
Billgoat - I was going to have to quit calling him that, even in my mind or it would slip out - had always strutted around us younger boys, claiming to have experience with girls he said he had met when he traveled with his father to some other town. None of the girls in town seemed to have fallen for his charms, but there weren't all that many young women in town so that didn't totally undermine his claims. I half expected him to try some sort of seduction as soon as we were out of sight of town, but he barely looked at me. All he did when I asked him about the way was mumble and point vaguely. I thought he might be mad about something, but I soon realized he was just too shy even to look at a truly beautiful woman possessed of sophistication and class. Which was fine with me, but it showed that there was still a lot of boy inside the man, a boy who was not nearly as experienced as his bragging would claim.
Before we reached the farm there was another unpretended reinforcement to my 'disguise.' My lack of comfort with the sidesaddle moved from annoyance to serious distraction. I had practiced a little - Gideon had a sidesaddle among his mountain of unexpected treasures - but I never reached the easy confidence I had as long as I could grip the horse with my legs, even when riding bareback. As a result I was more tired than I would normally have been when we arrived at the homestead late in the morning.
I also didn't have to fake my sadness at seeing once again the burned out remnants of a once-proud farm. When Pa was still alive, we were actually making it succeed. We would never be rich, but we had enough land in grain to feed ourselves and our livestock, and sold enough cattle to provide a little hard currency for things we couldn't make ourselves. We hadn't been doing as well after he died, no matter how much Ma tried. In a few years we would have lost the place anyway, even if she hadn't taken sick. With the distance that came from months in the hidden richness of the environment created by Gideon, I could see how small and poor the little farm had been, even before Snowman burned it. But it had been ours and the very challenges that made success so elusive had made it even more precious to us.
Billy finally said something clear enough to understand. "Your ma is buried over there."
I dismounted and led my horse over to the little wooden cross. It had fallen over sometime during the winter. I had noticed when I came through from Gideon's valley, but I couldn't set it up at that time without making it clear someone was at the farm. Now I could and I picked it up, reaching for a rock - the same one I had used before - to pound it back into the dirt.
"Here, let me get that, Miss," Billy said. To his credit he put it back with some respect, taking his hat off when he was done.
"Thank you, Billy," I said quietly.
Tying off my horse I walked around the stubs of burned and broken timber. "What happened here, Billy?" I asked.
"What?" he said, and he could not have been more transparently guilty. "I don't know."
"Don't lie to me Billy," I said sternly. If my escort would have been one of those mature and arrogant gunmen whom Snowman had hired as guards, I might have used a more seductive approach, but Billy's shyness had led me to a demanding rather than enticing path. To keep it from being all bluff with no substance, I added some observations. "The dam is broken down, not burned. And several of the buildings are too far apart for a single fire to have spread to them all. This was deliberate."
I marched over to him, and despite his greater size the fire of righteous anger - that I didn't have to pretend - gave me power. "Why didn't your father, or Mr. Teach, tell me that the place was burned? They said that Mother had died and the Petey was missing, but not that the farm was destroyed. What are they hiding?"
"I don't know, ma'am," Billy said, elevating me from 'Miss.'
"Guess, Billy," I demanded.
"They was some arrows found here, and a lance. It musta been Indians . . . maybe Comanche."
I knew that wasn't true, but it gave me an excuse to move on. I wanted Billy to be intimidated by me, but not so much that he refused further help.
A few minutes spent walking around the homestead showed nothing else of interest. I moved back to my horse and lifted an eyebrow at Billy. He got the message and moved to give me another leg up, this time without slipping. When he was mounted as well, I said, "Where would Petey have been staying?"
"I'm sorry, ma'am, truly I am. But I ain't got no idea."
"Where would you stay, if you were out here on your own?"
Now he thought about the problem in a personal way. "They's some caves up yonder," he reported.
"Let's give them a try," I said.
Once again he led the way and it took very few hints to lead him to the right cave. It was far enough up the valley to be out of sight from anyone watching the farm, yet far short of Gideon's own homestead. In the cave that Gideon and I had prepared, we found the planted blanket, an old firepit, the tools and box of matches (now empty), and - lying at the edge of the blanket - Petey's rifle.
Once again I didn't have to pretend to emotion. Seeing the pitiful little remnants that would indeed have been my fate if I had not been taken in by Gideon moved me to stagger against the wall of the small enclosure.
"Where is he?" I asked the planned question.
"Um, ma'am . . . I think he's . . . gone."
"But he wouldn't have left his rifle," I said, pointing at it.
Billy looked every uncomfortable - which was less than he deserved so I wasn't a bit sympathetic - and I made him explain the obvious conclusions.
"Ma'am," he said slowly, "I'm sorry, but I think he musta died."
"But there's no body. Not even bones," I protested.
"No, ma'am," Billy said. "But if he couldn't, um, defend hisself with his rifle, then . . . well, they's coyotes up in these parts. Maybe even a cougar or a bear. They'd'a drug his body off. It's the only reason he's not with his rifle."
"Oh, dear," I said sadly. "Oh, dear. I'm very much afraid you are right."
"Yes'm," he said.
The old axe was obviously of little more use than the empty box of matches, and the tattered blanket was filthy. But I picked up the rifle.
"Would you fasten this on my horse, please? I'd like to take it with me."
"Yes'm," he said again, moving gladly to a duty that took him out of the cave. I looked around one last time to make sure that neither Gideon nor I had missed something that might reveal it was all planted evidence, but I had made that same check when we set this up so I wasn't surprised to find the story was clear and compelling.
Billy once again gave me a leg up and we rode back toward town.
"Why didn't Petey come into town after my mother died?" I asked.
"He di . . . um, I don't know, ma'am," he said.
"Billy . . ," I said sternly.
"Well, he did come down a coup Ö um, at least once," Billy said. "It was after the fire, 'cause we seen the smoke a couple 'a days before. But he didn't come into town. He just turned away."
"Why would he do that?" I asked again.
Billy looked down, obviously not willing to answer.
"Did you talk to him, Billy?"
In the face of a direct question - one that didn't require any conjecture on his part, only truth - Billy looked even more uncomfortable, hunching his shoulders and looked to the other side of the trail.
"Billy . . ?" I prompted again.
"Well, he was carryin' his rifle, and they was a ord'nance that said no guns in town. I tol' him he had to leave it with me, but he wouldn't do that."
"He just turned and left, Miss Stone," Billy said, looking at me with eyes that begged me to believe. "Honest."
"I see . . ," I replied. "Was this rifle that important to him, that he would rather die, alone, starving, in the mountains than give it up? He was smarter than that."
Billy hunched down again. That cave told of a terrible way to die and I knew he had contributed to it with his taunting warning that the town was dangerous to Petey - which it actually was, but Billy was a part of that very danger and he knew it. Billy hadn't owned up to me with the fact his taunts had turned Petey away, but I knew he was remembering it.
I didn't prompt him again with words, but I stared at him as we rode along. He couldn't keep looking away forever, and the second time his glance saw my continuing glower, he had to say something. "Well, ma'am, they was some trouble back then - threats to the Snowman - and the town mighta been dangerous for those that didn't belong."
Billy wouldn't meet my eyes and I knew he was remembering the one time that Petey had ridden into town without his rifle, despite the threat. Neither Billygoat Owens nor his father knew just how dangerous the town might have been to Petey that night - nor the true source of that danger. From their perspective that occasion had only served to reinforce the message that there was no place in town for Petey.
It came to me that this was the first time anyone had referred to Teach as the Snowman. It was possible that the fictional letters from mother had provided that name, but unlikely. So I took advantage of the opportunity. "The snowman?" I repeated.
"Mr. Teach," Billy supplied. "He's called the Snowman on account 'a his white hair and sorta . . . his shape."
"I see . . ," I said again. At this point I decided to quit interrogating Billy. I was supposed to be a sharp, capable person - woman or not - and some inferences needed no reluctant confirmation. But I did ride in silence after that, letting Billy know that I was thinking deeply on what he had said. After all, he was certainly going to repeat it all to Snowman and I wanted that monster to wonder what I might have discovered in my visit. The Percheron hoofprints that provided his signature to the attack were long gone of course, but so was any justification for claiming it was a Comanche raid.
Round two was about to begin.
Chapter 6 - "Three Times A Lady"
I wore yet another black gown to dinner that evening. This was the last I had, besides the black day dress I had worn while riding. Eventually I'd have to wear other colors or it would seem like I had known I would be in mourning. But I could be extremely elegant for the second meeting with Snowman.
I was - outwardly - pleasantly surprised when Snowman hosted me for dinner again. It would have been false modesty to seem as though I didn't expect a man would enjoy my company, but it was reasonable that he might not be free for two evenings in a row. We greeted each other with due manners and were soon seated at a pre-laid table. It wasn't all that important what we ate - with my stays I could only eat small portions anyway. What was important was that Snowman moved on to the more critical topic.
"I'm sorry to hear about your brother," he said - a lie so brazen that I considered ducking away from the deserved lightning strike.
I just nodded, letting my mind dwell on how that *would* have been my fate without Gideon's intervention. It was not hard to call up a shine to my eyes, though I could not let any tears fall lest they leave a trail through my carefully subtle cosmetics.
"What do you intend to do now?" he asked.
"I don't believe I'm particularly well suited to working a frontier farm," I observed, waving a pale, delicate hand over my elegant, equally delicate gown.
"No," he agreed. "It would be a sin and a shame to have beauty such as yours wither under hot sun and hard work."
"You are too kind, Mr. Teach," I demurred coyly.
"Please, call me Hannibal," he said. "Or perhaps Snowman, if you prefer."
"Snowman?" I repeated.
"It is a nickname," he said. "Having to do with my, ah, prematurely white hair."
"Oh, indeed," I said with a small titter of refined laughter. "**Lord, give me strength. If I have to keep up this silly flirting with the foul beast, I'll lose what little of this meal I've eaten. Now that I have my rifle back I should have brought it with me and just killed the filthy pig.**"
However, I calmed myself by remembering Gideon's plan for my revenge - a plan that made killing him immediately too much of a mercy.
Snowman returned to his question, "What do you intend to do now?"
"There is really nothing to hold me here. If I could get a good price for the farm, it seems to me that I'd be well advised to take it."
"Indeed," he replied, and I could hear the purr of avarice in his voice. "What sort of price are you asking?"
"**Your manhood, followed by all your worldly possessions, followed by your life,**" I promised myself. However, what I said was, "I think I'll need to find an attorney first. I'll have to establish my title to the property, of course, but I have documentation for that."
"You do?" he asked, frowning. It was so obvious that he had been hoping he could contest my ownership that I had to stifle a real laugh.
"Of course," I confirmed. "After Father died, Mother had a will drawn up that leaves everything to me. Well, Peter is mentioned, but . . ."
I let a shine form in my eyes again so that Snowman had to move on to other topics rather than press on this issue. Gideon had emphasized again and again how - at least in a public setting, incipient tears were a woman's best weapon. On the other hand, in private Snowman would probably be gratified by a woman's fear, shown by tears, so if we did find ourselves alone I would have to suppress them ruthlessly.
He leaned back in his chair and I readied myself for his first offer.
"It so happens that I own a fair bit of the land around here. I don't really need any more up in the hills, but perhaps I can make you an offer in order to help you in your time of need."
I apparently supported his point, before making a counter point.. "Actually, after reviewing it today, I can't see why a large landowner like you would even be interested. Except for someone who wants to work the land - and I don't, of course - the only real value is the water rights. There is a pretty nice spring there and from what Mother's letters said, it flows quite reliably all year round."
"Indeed?" Snowman said, as though this were news to him. His lies would have worked better if I'd truly been as ignorant as I pretended to be, but since I knew he had killed my mother and burned the farm for access to just that water, all his lies did was strain my ability to hide my anger.
"I'll have to check into that," he said. "That might make it worth my while even though the land itself doesn't really meet my needs."
"It might," I agreed easily. With that I gathered up my gloves and began to put them on. "Thank you for your generosity in yet another dinner. I expect we'll be seeing each other again."
In the course of reaching out to pull my gloves up my arms, I waved my hand over his still half-full whiskey glass. Then I made sure to distract him by patting at my hair and beginning to fumble with my seat. He stood to help me, as I expected. I stole a side glance at his glass as I moved away to confirm that the small tablet was fully dissolved.
I had arranged for my black day dress - a durable cotton fabric - to be cleaned as well as possible over night so the next day I wore it again on my visit to the only attorney in town, Jacob Marsten. Peter had never met him, but once again Gideon's foresight was invaluable as this was another conversation we had rehearsed several times. I laid out my artifacts of carefully forged letters (Gideon had used the exercise as a way to train me to write with a feminine hand), an even more carefully forged document he had prepared himself that looked amazingly like a newspaper clipping from the Colorado Springs newspaper announcing my birth to Roger and Amelia Stone, another newspaper clipping listing Patience Stone among the models of the fall line at a private fashion show for the Astors, and finally the (another phrase from Gideon) coup de grace.
"I can't imagine why Mother did not bring these to you, as the most prominent attorney in town," I said with wide, innocent eyes. "I suppose she just had additional errands in Sweetwater and chose to take care of them there. As it turned out, the documents were indeed quite easy for me to acquire when I arrived in this area, so she seems to have been wise."
The first artifact I handed him was Father's will, which was actually legitimate. Father had buried important papers in a strongbox behind the fireplace. I had retrieved that during my long stay with Gideon when it became clear that simply shooting Snowman was not going to be practical. In the will, Father left everything to Mother, or "in the event I am predeceased by my wife, to be divided equally among all my adult children, with the request that any minor children become wards of those who are adult." Frankly I considered that a bit unfair. If the situation I was claiming were true, then Patience would have inherited everything, leaving Peter dependent on her charity. The second artifact was a more-recently dated document claiming to be Mother's will, though this one was forged. In it, she left everything to Patience, with a similar request to care for Peter. Her will used the actual names which provided a direct linkage to me. Gideon considered that not unlikely for a widow woman who had no intention of remarrying and so could identify all the children she would ever have. The third was another real document, this one the deed to the family homestead. With those documents, I thought my ownership of the farm, with its water rights, was unassailable. I had the moral claim to it in actual fact, though since Petey was a minor there were complications that Snowman would be sure to exploit. I had given up seven years of my youth along with my manhood for this revenge. At least there was some recompense for the former sacrifice.
"These seem to be in order," Marsten said. "Though, as you said, it is a bit unusual that your mother did not leave them with me. Or perhaps put them in a safety deposit box at the bank."
"I think Father had a distrust of banks," I said in a musing tone. "Something to do with the unfortunate problems of 1873, though I was too young to remember myself of course. Perhaps he had some reason to . . . avoid placing you in a potential conflict of interest?"
"Are you questioning my integrity?" he huffed.
"**I'm not questioning a thing, you old blowhard. I know for a fact you're Snowman's toady.**"
"Not at all, Mr. Marsten," I said with a little laugh as though the idea were too silly for words. "Though it is really my father's perceptions that matter in this, do they not?"
"Oh, of course, of course," he blustered. "Though I assure you I never gave him any cause to doubt my professionalism."
"Of course," I repeated. "**I'm sure he had no doubts at all.**"
"Well," Marsten said, gathering up my documents, "I'll just give these a good review and then we can see about finding a buyer for your place."
I put a slender hand (thankfully I still wore my gloves - it kept me from actually touching the slimy weasel) on the top of his hand. "I'm sure you understand if I wish to keep these documents in my possession," I said. "After all, they are my provenance. If you wish to examine them further, I'll gladly remain here as long as you think necessary."
"Oh, well, if you insist," he said, not quite snarling.
"I'm afraid I must," I said sadly, giving him my wide eyes of innocence again. After all, I was just a little girl from the big city who didn't know quite what to do in a man's world, and so was cautious to a fault.
He looked through them quickly again, then sighed. "I don't suppose there is anything to be gained from further examination. I'm sorry for your loss, but you do seem to have come prepared with the required documentation to move forward."
"Thank you," I said demurely, keeping my eyes lowered. That was so that he couldn't see the anger in them. His only sorrow was that my loss was not total - including my own life.
"What price were you looking for?" he asked.
"Perhaps you could make a recommendation," I offered.
His eyes took on a predatory gleam, but his lips showed only pensive thoughtfulness.
"Well, it is pretty far up in the hills," he said.
I smiled and nodded, then I added, "But it does have that lovely little spring of clear, reliable water."
"Yes, yes, of course," he said dismissively, but I knew he had gotten the message that I wouldn't be railroaded completely. He said, "I'll ask around and see if anyone is interested."
"Thank you, Mr. Marsten," I said politely, and let him escort me out.
That evening I played the sophisticated lady for the third time, though I changed from my black mourning clothes to a still-somber dark green that set out interesting highlights in my hair. For some reason - about which I had no clue, of course - the Snowman was otherwise occupied that evening so I allowed myself to be joined by a few other men who once again competed in manliness all evening. I also allowed myself to be more cheerful as though I were coming to terms with my grief. It was, in fact, a pleasant evening. I was woman enough to be flattered by their attention, and I was vixen enough to be gratified that my plans were coming together.
In fact, I let myself become caught up in the festive mood to the point that I forgot my disgust at the next step I would have to take.
After dinner I went looking for the Snowman. There were two possibilities. One was that he was tired of me and had decided to spend the evening in his saloon, with his 'regular' girls. The other was that Gideon's pills were working, in which case he would definitely *not* be visiting the girls. I never hesitated. My trust in Gideon's magic was absolute so I left the table as though I were going to my room, but in fact it was Snowman's room that was my target. This time the guards let me by. When I got to his door I knocked.
"Go away," I heard his voice say, though it was not his normal deep boom.
"Mr. Teach . . . Snowman . . . it is Patience. Are you all right? I missed you at dinner."
"Go away," he repeated.
"I'm concerned, Snowman. Please let me help."
With that I let myself into his room. It's surprising what the smile of a pretty woman can achieve. Or maybe no surprise at all. Thanks to Gideon's help I knew I was a very, very pretty woman and that provided me with weapons I could use as surely as Petey's rifle. In any event, I had used a whisper, a smile and a wink to get the key to Snowman's room from the desk clerk as I left the ground floor.
Snowman was lying in bed, and it was not a pretty scene.
"Oh, Snowman, you should have called for help," I said in a motherly tone of voice.
His bed was not quite as fouled as the smell indicated. Apparently he still had enough strength to use the chamber pot . . . several times. At my urging and with my help, he moved to an easy chair and I performed as a maid to get his bed linens changed and to take the stinking vessel down to the privy to empty and then wash out with the pump in that room.
When I came back into the room, I looked down at my skirts. "Oh, dear," I said. "I seem to have gotten something on them. Oh, well, I'll worry about that later."
With that, I took off my skirts, leaving me in a very exposed, highly improper condition.
I had pantaloons of course, so there was little of my actual skin exposed. But the shapes leading into those pantaloons might as well have been exposed for all the good the tight silk stockings did to conceal them. And of course the sense of naughtiness that came from seeing intimate attire - I understood that the French even made postcards about such things - would add spice to the image. I bustled around the room a little, tidying up and pouring Snowman a drink from the bottle on the sideboard. The whole time I had my hat with a discreet little veil, ruffled blouse, high-button shoes, and tight bodice (very tight!) - all of which seemed quite normal and proper - along with long, flowing legs that were anything but.
"You know," I said with a little laugh, "for a model, going around in less clothes than a normal woman wears is quite ordinary. I hope this doesnít bother you."
I said that to distract him as he took a gulp from his whiskey - a libation that included another dissolved tablet. The tablets were from Gideon's transformation potions of course, delivered in small doses over the last few days. I didn't intend to feminize Snowman completely. The full transformation included mystic arts that I didn't understand and according to Gideon couldn't be performed by women in any event. But the tablets were enough to rob Snowman of his virility - a fact I confirmed with discreet glances at the bulge that wasn't there under his nightshirt. If a beautiful half-naked woman in his bedroom wasn't enough to arouse him, then he was close enough to neutered for my purposes.
"Now, you just rest there," I said, pulling my skirts back up around my waist. "I'll get you something to eat."
With that I let myself out of the room with a cheerful wave. In fact, now that I had cleaned up his bed - which was disgusting, but necessary - I was past the worst of what I needed to do. At least in the near term. And Snowman was clearly starting to pay the price for his evil so I was honestly in cheerful spirits. True to my word I asked the desk clerk to have some chicken soup sent up to Snowman's room. It wouldn't do for him to die of thirst before I had achieved my full vengeance.
The next morning I went to Mr. Marsten's office again. I proposed a price for my farm, including the water rights, that I thought was fair.
"Mr. Teach offered this price after a . . . private discussion we had last night," I suggested to Marsten, letting a coy smile imply whatever he wanted it to imply about what sort of inducements I used.
He drew up the appropriate contracts, obviously intending to discuss them with Snowman.
"Oh, just give them to me," I said. "Mr. Teach isn't feeling entirely well, and he asked not to be disturbed except, of course, by me." Now my grin was even larger. It was Marsten who blushed, not me, and it was clear that he felt that I had seduced Snowman into foolishness, but the amount of the sale was small by the standards of the richest man in the area. I could see in Marsten's eyes the moment when he reached the decision that if Snowman wanted to throw away some money on a bit of pretty fluff, it was his choice to make.
After I left the attorney's office I went to the bank to have a bank draft drawn up for Snowman to sign. The clerk was a youngish man - perhaps thirty - and quite vulnerable to a woman's sad smile.
"Please, Mister, um, Hayden," I said, reading his name on the plate, "I'm so very confused by all of this." I batted my long eyelashes at him, then looked down demurely. Speaking to my fingers, I said, "How am I to know - for sure - that Mr. Teach will pay what the, ah, bank draft requires? I mean, it's so very much money. All I have is that little farm. If - somehow - I were to lose that without gaining a fair price . . ."
I looked up at him again, letting a shine in my eyes complete my appearance of distress.
"Rest assured, Miss Patience," he said condescendingly, "if I receive a bank draft signed by Mr. Teach, it will be converted into whatever form you require within the hour - a new bank draft on your own account, wired by Western Union in a funds transfer, or even cash if that is your desire. For that matter, if you presented it at another bank they would honor it since it has our bank seal. In due time they would recover their outlay from us."
"Even for so very much money?" I prodded.
"Even for ten times the amount you have discussed," he said. "Mr. Teach has that much money and more, in this very bank."
"Oh, thank you Mr. Hayden," I gushed. "I feel so much better now."
I watched carefully as Hayden drew up the bank draft. He used a machine that pressed the numbers into a stiff sheet of paper, one that would not allow them to be modified after he finished. I smiled gratefully and nodded my thanks when he handed me the unsigned draft. I smiled even more when I saw that he put the machine that formed the impressions in a simple cabinet without even a lock. And that the stiff paper was placed in the same cabinet.
That night, I ventured out of my room in snug trousers instead of my full skirts. It was the first time I had such freedom of movement since I had entered Fort Pike such a long time before. And, like wearing pants, I had occasion to use one of Petey's skills rather than those taught me by Gideon. In this case, it was on how to break into the bank. I couldn't get into the vault of course, but that as not my objective. However, a piece of bent steel from a carriage spring obtained from the debris of our farm was sufficient to open the door to the bank lobby. Once inside, I carefully took advantage of a nearly full moon by moving the machine and paper to a place where I could work without showing a light. It took only a few moments to create a new bank draft nearly identical to the old complete with bank reference numbers for Snowman's accounts. It did differ in one detail, though. The amount on the draft was for ten times what the previous one had defined.
The next day I rose early, donned an unremarkable day dress of gray cotton, and had the livery place the sidesaddle back on my horse. I checked very carefully, but it became clear that my apparent friendship with Snowman had caused any watchers to be called off. That allowed me to continue straight past my farm up further into the hills.
The first sign that I was reaching my destination was the happy barking of Bat. I rode down in Gideon's valley accompanied by his frolicking welcome. What I found when I arrived at his cabin was not what I expected, however.
"Gideon?" I called cheerfully. "Gideon?"
"Come in," I heard a voice say, though it was not quite the voice I expected.
The cabin was bright with the light from the overhead window as well as the opened shutters. Inside, Jillian was sitting in a comfortable rocking chair by the fire. But it was not the Jillian that I remembered.
"Jillian?" I asked, but it was not really a question of identity.
"Yes," the figure replied. "In fact, I really always was. Now it is just more visible."
"Oh, Jillian, what have you done?" I asked sadly.
The figure in the chair was a distressingly aged version of my friend. But that was not the only change. 'Jillian' was dressed as a proper lady of breeding, complete with stays, hat, lacy gloves, and long, full skirts. I was well aware of Gideon's ability with cosmetics and costuming, but it was clear that more than a corset was providing shape to this woman, even in her seated position. In fact, only a not-quite-natural-looking wig betrayed that anything of her appearance was not ordinary for the fashions of the day.
"What I should have done long ago," Jillian replied. "I am content. Can you not join me in my happiness?"
"Of course," I said quickly, but in truth I could not. I fought to keep tears from marring the occasion, but in my heart I cried at the years that had been added to my dearest friend.
She rose from the chair with some difficulty, but with firm determination. Something in her posture or expression warned me not to interfere, even with an offer of help. Once she was firmly on her feet she moved to the stove, which was glowing with more heat than the afternoon required, and placed a kettle where it would be warmed.
"Join me in tea, dear?" she asked as though my arrival were no more significant than the visit of a friend.
I nodded, moving to take the cups and saucers down from well-remembered cabinets. We worked in companionable silence for a few minutes, then sat at the table as we waited for the kettle to boil.
I didn't know what to say. Jillian noticed, of course, and gave a genteel little laugh. "When I saw the proof that my methods could be successful, well, I just had to try."
"I thought . . . not all of them could be done on . . . by . . . a woman?"
"They cannot," she confirmed. "But enough . . . it was enough. I am long past concerns for fertility or the . . . mechanics of becoming with child. And a crone need not have a perfect figure such as yours."
"A crone," I repeated softly.
"Yes," she said. "Oh, Patience, can you not see it is worth it? Even after living as a woman for less than a year, can't you see how much better it is? Dear Lord, please don't tell me you regret what we did!"
"I don't regret a thing since the day I first rode into your valley," I said firmly. "At least, not about what my own life has become, but . . . oh, Jillian."
"At least it is Jillian," she said.
"What can I do to help?" I asked, trying to change from the too emotional to more practical matters.
"Actually, not much at all," she said. "I have laid in enough supplies to last me as long as I . . . shall need them. The livestock are all turned out to fend for themselves, but this little valley is quite pleasant. I fear the chickens may not survive the winter, but the horse and goats are fine. And of course your Bat is quite self sufficient."
It was clear that she did not expect to survive the winter, either. But that was likely even if she had been moved to a more protected residence.
"So, how goes your plan?" she said, changing the topic yet again.
"Well enough," I said, trying for a cheerful tone without much success. "In fact, I may need only one more day in that vile beast's presence."
"Indeed, tell me all about it," she demanded.
We passed a very strange afternoon. On the surface it was two ladies sharing a pleasant conversation. At the next level there was the extraordinary topic of our conversation - vengeance that would result in the most unpleasant death of a most unpleasant man. And underlying it all was the fantastic circumstance of two who had been born men now seeming for all the world like women. In my case, it was fully true in a physical sense, and had become true enough in the emotional sense. Ironically (and I had learned what that meant) the converse was true for Jillian. Her womanliness was fully true in the emotional sense - had, in fact, been true for her whole life - and had now become true enough in the physical sense.
There was a further undercurrent of sadness. Jillian had sacrificed more years than I had lived in order to achieve her . . . situation. Even though the decision was deliberate and without regret, still the price had been so very, very high. I might have spent the night with her, but she rose again when the afternoon was half gone and made it clear I was to return to Springtree. Something in her manner suggested that she had struggles in the evening that she didn't want to share with me, and while in some ways I was hurt by this, I could easily understand her desire to retain her last vestiges of self-reliance . . . and self-respect.
Even Bat seemed to understand. When I mounted my horse - Jillian, as a proper hostess, of course had a mounting stool - he stood with her rather than with me. He would keep her company, even if my own duties led me elsewhere.
Chapter 7 - "Returned, With Interest"
I prepared myself for another evening with a group of suitors, playing one off against another in a flirtation that was only interesting for the intellectual challenge. I had created a nicely complex persona building on the reputation that 'sophisticates' had of being at the same time impeccably proper in public while outrageously free from traditional restrictions in private. All of the men wanted to bridge that transition, but so far I had been in private only with Snowman. If he had talked with his minions, he might have mentioned how I had brazenly taken off my skirt in his room the night before. If so, then I didn't expect he would have taken pains to protect my reputation by assuring them that nothing had happened, especially since it was because he had been unable to perform.
On the other hand, if the other changes I expected were in process then I did not think he would have been talking to any of his minions at all. A bit of discreet checking had determined that he had summoned the town doctor, Dr. Carmichael, which was not a major risk since Gideon's discoveries (I still thought of that phase of his life as 'Gideon') were so far beyond the experience of a typical physician that there was little chance they would be connected with me. In fact, the local doctor was marginally competent, barely able to set broken bones, sew up gunshots, and deliver the occasional baby if there were no complications. Almost any sickness beyond a common cold was beyond any treatment but prayer. Actually, that's about all they could do for the common cold, as well.
However, Dr. Carmichael could recognize the symptoms of fluid deprivation, so it was not likely that Snowman would succumb to his malady before I was finished with him. If I had my way, that would be accomplished the very next day.
After dinner, I went to my room and changed from my evening dress to a much lighter robe that once again allowed hints of my corset, stockings, and above all my long, slender legs to show. I let my auburn hair down - by that time it reached nearly to my waist - and accented my cosmetics while still retaining a high-class sophistication. I also took with me a bottle of fine whiskey, some glasses, and a few other treats like chocolates and pastries, all of which I had prepared before leaving Jillian's so that no one in the hotel knew I had them.
My look was definitely one of seduction, and the only impediments I received from Snowman's guards were long, slow looks of appreciation that showed about as much envy and lust as those gunmen's rugged faces could display.
Again my knock received a peremptory command to 'Go away' and again I ignored it.
"Why, Mr. Teach, you don't look well at all. I'm quite worried about you," I said as I entered. "I could not possibly allow you to suffer all alone."
He was bundled up in his bed. In fact, he held the covers at his chin as though he didn't want any part of his body exposed to the air of the room. Or perhaps, just not exposed to my gaze. His eyes widened when he saw my tarty attire, but he made no move to loosen his hold on his covers.
"I did need to talk to you in any event, and since you are not feeling well it appears that I must come to you," I said, pulling out the bill of sale for the land and the bank draft. "I took the liberty of consulting with your attorney, Mr. Marsten, and with his help I have prepared the paperwork for you to buy my family farm. I believe the price is fair."
"I'm not interested in your farm right now," he snarled. It would have been more effective if his voice had not risen at least an octave from his normal deep growl.
"Oh yes, I'm quite sorry to intrude," I said, blandly continuing. "But for some reason no one else seems to want to buy the property while it is still possible that you're interested in it. And while I know it's quite rude to bother you while you're not feeling well, I really must resolve this. My funds are limited and I must close out this issue if I am to be able to return to my normal employment. I'm sure you understand."
My breezy brashness was too cheerful to be offensive, yet too inexorable to be denied. I made a point of showing him that the documents were prepared, and established the price.
"You think that's a fair price, don't you? I've wired to Sweetwater to ask a land agent what parcels with good water are receiving on sale, and this is mid-range at best, I assure you."
"Yes, yes, I suppose it's fair, but I'm not interested right now."
"Oh, well, I suppose that's understandable considering your condition," I said. "But I'm sure you will feel better in the morning. I'll return then."
With that promise - or threat - I left his room and returned to my own. I spent the evening packing because I was going to leave in the morning whether I obtained Snowman's money or not. I wanted to get back to Jillian and do what I could to make her life as easy as I could, for whatever time she had left.
In the morning I dressed in the most cheerful dress I had shown since I arrived in Springtree. A sky-blue base color with darker blue accents provided a nice complement for the bright and cloudless day. My blouse was flamboyantly ruffled and for the first time I wore significant embellishments in the form of a tiny cameo on a dark ribbon around my slender neck and a beribboned silk flower in my hair. Just before I left my room I perched a cute little hat jauntily over one eyebrow.
I arranged with the desk clerk to have my trunks sent to the livery, and for my trap to be harnessed to my horse. Then I made my last trip to see the man who had murdered my mother and burned out my home.
"Good morning, Mr. Teach," I said as I entered, this time without even a knock. "Here I am bothering you once again, but I promise you that it is the last time I shall do so." I took off the little hat and placed it on a bedside table.
He was still clutching at his covers to hide as much of his body as possible. Once I finished with my hat, from my position close to him I quickly pushed a hypodermic syringe into his neck.
"That potion is something that a friend of mine discovered in South America," I explained as he started to react, then settled slackly back. "It has the effect of weakening the muscles so that the subject is quite helpless."
I pulled the covers down from his limp hands to reveal a nightshirt that covered contours the Snowman would no doubt prefer to keep hidden. I ripped that covering away as well - deliberately replicating the invasion of my mother's person - to reveal two flaccid but well-defined breasts. Gideon had explained to me the somewhat unromantic science that a woman's bosom was comprised primarily of fat cells, and it was clear that the Snowman's beefy body had provided plenty of material to build a new shape, even as it was eliminating much of his muscle mass. The initial stages of Gideon's transformation process worked primarily on softer tissues. Snowman's face still showed the harsh lines of broad chin and heavy brow ridge. His fingers were bony and thick. Of course, even with the full treatment, the Snowman . . . Snowwoman? . . . would never be anything like pretty.
"My, my, hardly the image of masculine form, are you?" I said.
His lips moved as he struggled to form a word. I leaned close to listen, and managed to make out his plaintive, "Why?"
"Just one moment, and I will explain," I said. I laid out two other syringes on the table beside the bed.
"Very well, let's get to business, shall we?" I said. "I know you killed my mother. Petey could write and among his meager possessions, I found a journal laying out what had happened. He saw the tracks of your big Percheron at the farm the day you attacked. You should not have ridden such a distinctive horse, and one which famously only you are allowed to ride. Not that it really mattered. I know that you control everything that goes on in this valley. Your presence there was only a sign of your arrogant pleasure in seeing the destruction of what a helpless family held so dear."
Again he tried to form a word. I had to be careful not to give him too much of the paralyzing potion for Gideon had explained it might stop his heart or breathing as well as preventing his arms from moving. So he had a limited residual control and was using it to ask questions I was fully intending to answer anyway.
But not right away. I let him struggle until he finally managed to get out an understandable, "What?" Actually, I made him do it three times, just to see his frustration mount.
"What has happened to you? How should I know? Do you think that I had something to do with your current illness?"
He blinked his eyes in his attempt to nod, and I smiled. I don't suppose it was a very friendly smile.
"As it happens, I did," I admitted. "I have found some potions that have the effect of feminizing men." I ostentatiously pulled his nightshirt the rest of the way down to reveal his diminished manhood. It was clear he would not be having much need of the girls at the saloon again.
"That is why you have grown a woman's bosom, and lost a man's . . . parts. It is my price from you for murdering my mother."
My voice was flat and implacable, far from the lilting feminine song that Gideon had taught me to use. He could hardly sag further in his limp condition, but there was still a hint of motion, a wince, perhaps. So I offered him another choice; one that provided another layer of 'proof' for my background even as it diminished my honor. However, that very reduction would make me more like Snowman, and therefore more credible to him.
"There is an alternative," I declared. "You see, there was a reason I never lived with my parents once my beauty was discovered and I had an option. They were farmers! And I could be famous, among people of quality - rich people, who wore all the most beautiful clothes, and lived in the most beautiful homes. Scratching out a living in the middle of nowhere was . . . well, it wasn't for me."
"But I never gained quite enough wealth to be part of that lifestyle in my own right. I was invited as a beautiful decoration to the parties and the shows, but I was always dependent on an invitation. And I knew that as soon as my looks started to diminish, so would my invitations. I might end up in a hole like this grubbing in the dirt for food."
I moved to pull out the contract, and the bank draft. This time, however, the bank draft was for ten times what the bill of sale established.
"But you are rich. You can make me rich enough to live that lifestyle from my own wealth."
I picked up the second syringe and injected it into his right arm near the elbow. For a moment I laughed to myself, thinking that if Snowman were left handed I had just undone my own plan. But I had seen him use his right hand enough in our dinners that I was confident I had chosen correctly.
"In a moment," I explained, "the antidote will free your right arm from its paralysis. Sign the bill of sale and the bank draft and I will get out of your life forever. You will have a bit of additional property and I will have a bit of additional money. Quite a bit of money, actually."
As his hand began to come to life again, he raised it to his fleshy bosom and whispered out another word. "Antidote?"
I laughed gaily as I picked up the final syringe. "Oh, are you asking if I have an antidote for the other effects as well? As it happens, I do! Isn't that wonderful? Sign these documents and I shall inject you with a potion that will end all of the ills that I have inflicted on you. Just as your generous settlement will protect me from the ills that high-society inflicts on those who do not have the wealth for that lifestyle."
My whole story about the high-society lifestyle was a lie, of course. Peter was an infant when the family had arrived in the Springtree area and I'd never in conscious memory been further from our valley than Fort Pike. Even that was only on my one trip from Gideon's homestead, not in some regular way that might provide me with a cosmopolitan outlook. But I needed to make him believe that I was motivated by money so he would think that money might induce me to forego my revenge.
He believed me. He knew all about money-hungry, ruthless people. He could more easily believe that I'd work up this scheme for money than that I would do it for vengeance itself. In the course of that little rant, I had moved from an exotic stranger with exotic interests to a familiar quantity: someone to be bought for cash. I just wanted a little more than most people. His hand was struggling to reach the papers before I even finished my claim to an antidote.
I helped him with that, of course. Even then I played him carefully. The night before I had pointed out clearly the purchase price of the land, and while a bit generous - particularly considering that I was supposed to need to sell it so badly - it was not a ridiculous price. That morning, after he signed the bill of sale I showed him only the signature line on the accompanying bank draft. I probably need not have worried. His eyes were barely on the papers at all. His attention was fully focused on the remaining syringe. Once I had his signature, I picked up the final syringe.
Moving to the other side of the bed, his left side, I raised his budding breast up and pushed the needle in below it. Despite his lack of mobility, I could see the pain of the injection in his eyes, but I just smiled thinly at his distress.
"Good-bye, Snowman," I said. "Now, in the last moment I am here, I'll tell you the truth. I'm a woman now but I was born as Peter Stone, not Patience. I am the one who spotted the smoke from our burning farm and ran back to find my mother trampled in the dirt - trampled with hoofprints that could come only from your Percheron. I buried her myself, a fourteen year old boy whom you left without anyone in the world."
I loomed over him, letting him see my hatred and my rage. "I tried to come into town to shoot you myself but you were too well guarded. Your guard turned me out into the prairie, and if I had not found a dear friend to take me in, I'd have died just like that little scene we set up for Billygoat Owen to find. My friend had the feminizing potions I've used on you, and I took them myself - not because I wanted to be a woman, but because that was the only way I could get to you."
I moved back and picked up the papers. "Do you remember when you asked me what sort of price I was asking for my farm?"
I moved back to him again and waved my hand over the changes in his body. "I told myself that I would take your manhood, your worldly possessions, and ultimately your life. That is still my price."
I put the papers in my handbag and pulled the covers back over him. "The ironic thing is that my mother had a form of consumption - a cancer - in her bosom. In a few months at most she would have died anyway. Petey could never have interfered with your plans. A little patience of your own and you would have had what you wanted, but you couldn't let her die in peace on the land she and her husband loved. Instead, your murderous greed brought you a different kind of Patience."
I carefully picked up the syringes and put them in a small container that would keep the sharp points from poking from my bag. I was going to bury them right next to where my mother was buried.
"There is no antidote, Snowman," I declared. "Not to the feminizing potions. The paralyzing agent will wear off in a few hours and the general weakness that has kept you bedridden will fade in the next day or so with little further change to your body. But that last syringe was not an antidote. Instead, it will cause that same cancer in your new bosom. I promised you an end to all the ills that I have inflicted on you, and so it shall be. Soon - though perhaps not as soon as you would like - you will die the death that would have been my mother's."
As I stood at the door ready to leave, I concluded. "It also had an agent that will make you sleep beyond anyone's ability to wake you for the rest of the day. By then I will be long gone. Good-bye, Snowman. May you suffer every minute of what remains of your miserable life, then rot in hell for eternity."
I saw his eyes close before I left, his face too slack to show emotion. But before they closed, I saw fear in his eyes, fear of a battle his vaunted strength and power could not win. I did not know, of course, what his dreams would be, but I hoped even his worst nightmares would not be as bad as his reality when he woke again.
From the hotel I moved quickly to Marsten's office, showing him the signed bill of sale. That was prelude to the trip to the bank, for which I requested Mr. Marsten accompany me. Mr. Hayden who had showed me how to prepare the bank draft was not on duty, which was part of my plan of course. Instead the bank manager, Mr. Blake, was the one who greeted me.
"Good morning," he said cheerfully. His eyes lit with the pleasure of seeing a pretty woman so cheerfully dressed, and a smirk at the sort of woman he believed me to be. It was, after all, a small town, and even if the Snowman had been silent about what happened in his room, the guards would have talked. "What can I do for you this morning?"
In my mind I played a small game. I wanted to see if I could speak only the truth to Blake, yet within the truth conceal the distinction between the bill of sale price and the amount of the bank draft. Blake had been one of the would-be suitors who had dined with me, and I knew him to be an inveterate gossip. Part of the reason I had dressed as a tart the night before . . . on my way to a man's hotel room - a man to whom I was not married . . . was to provide a basis for a rumor that I was providing more to Snowman than just my farm.
"Good morning, Mr. Blake," I replied. "I have just sold my farm to Mr. Teach. He has been quite generous, really. Mr. Marsten has the bill of sale, and I wanted to see if I could arrange for an immediate conclusion to my business. I must be getting on with my life, and I have interests elsewhere."
"Of course, of course," he said grandly. "What would you like to do with the money?"
"If possible, I'd like to have it transferred immediately, via Western Union, to the bank in Sweetwater. I will be passing through there, just as I did on my way into Springtree. From there I can make further arrangements."
"Ah, yes, of course. That should not be a problem," he said. "May I see the bank draft, please?"
I handed it to him. His eyes widened at the amount, then he looked at Marsten. "This is, ah, quite generous. Are you sure this is correct?"
"Yes," Marsten said, adding a smirk of his own. "It is my . . . impression that Miss Stone . . . convinced Snowman, I mean, Mr. Teach, to be generous."
"Indeed," Blake said with an answering smile, though he was still obviously surprised at the amount.
"Mr. Teach and I had an agreement," I claimed. "And your Mr. Hayden claimed that your bank would honor any draft drawn on his account."
"Yes, of course," Blake said. "Well, if that is your wish, I will see to it."
"Is there anything further you require of me, Miss Stone?" Marsten asked.
"No, thank you. You've been very helpful."
With that the attorney left and it was Blake's turn to be my gallant - at least in his own mind - companion. He escorted me to the Western Union office and made the necessary arrangements. In a matter of only a few minutes, we had confirmation that the bank in Sweetwater had received my deposit. With that I thanked Mr. Blake as well, and watched him as he went on his way.
Instead of leaving the Western Union office immediately, I sent another message to the bank in Sweetwater arranging for them to send the money on to an account in Fort Pike. I would not have thought to take yet another step like that, but I was still following Gideon's plan as much as my own, and I trusted in his judgment that another layer of transfer would help to keep Snowman from reclaiming his money.
Then, finally, I was done with Springtree. I walked to the livery to retrieve my small wagon, already loaded with my trunks of clothing, and clucked at Drummer to set out on the trail toward Sweetwater. Of course, as soon as I was out of sight of town, I made a large circle to intercept the trail leading up into the hills instead. As I had promised myself I buried the syringes that had doomed Snowman next to the grave of my mother. Then I set my course for the even-higher hills that held Jillian's home.
Bat's welcoming bark did not greet me as I drove over the pass into Jillian's valley. If that were not portentous enough, there was no smoke coming from the chimney over the cabin. As I drove closer I could see that the front door was standing open and I knew in my heart what I would find . . . though it would turn out I was only partially correct.
Inside the always-cozy cabin I found Jillian on her bed, with Bat lying beside her. His head came up when I appeared at the door and his tail thumped on the floor, but he didn't leave her side. Yet there was nothing further he could do for her, and only one service I could provide.
Jillian wore a formal gown such as might grace the great ballrooms of European nobility. It had been painstakingly tailored to her matronly form, but it still showed the sweep and flow of the original design. Her arms wore long gloves adorned with jeweled bracelets. Her hair was swept up in a grand swirl accented by more jewels amid soft curls. And her cosmetics showed an artistry that accented her features with such harmony it looked like only her natural beauty.
Or it would have, except this Jillian was much older than even a few days before. No cosmetic magic could cover all the lines of that ancient visage. She was still beautiful, but it was not because of her appearance. She would always be beautiful to me.
I pulled the blanket over her face and it was as though that were a signal to Bat. He didn't show the happy enthusiasm that typically defined him, but with that act he realized his guard duty was completed, and he stood up.
"Are you okay, boy?" I asked.
I won't say that he nodded, but it's only because people would think I was crazy to say that dogs can reply like that. Then he moved past me through the open door and headed toward a trough for a drink. I turned to get one of the trunks from my wagon, one that had the trousers and other durable work clothes. And a shovel. As I turned, I saw a note on Jillian's table.
Dearest Patience, it is clear that I am fading fast. My only regret is that I won't be here for you to tell me how your task was accomplished, though I have every confidence that you will be successful. Or, as you read this, that you were successful. My dear, dear girl, you have made my life so rich, for you have proven that the dream that drove me was not just a dream. It is a wonderful, precious gift to have a life's ambition become real in the form of such a lovely young woman.
On one of my little supply trips last year I had a deed for this little valley and a will covering all my possessions prepared, listing you as owner. In the strongbox under the table you will find the readily transportable items of value. In the course of a long and varied life I had occasion to use my acquired knowledge in the aid of others beside yourself; others who were quite grateful. I suspect you will be surprised - and pleased - at the size of the treasure I leave to you.
Your faithful Bat has kept me company, and even now I cannot convince him to leave my side so I shall leave my door open as escape for him and invitation for you. Hopefully you will be the one to find me, but if not, then know that you still have my blessing and my eternal love,
I cried more when I buried Jillian than when I buried my mother.
Perhaps it was that I was a woman and women are prone to such things. I didn't really care. Jillian was a dear, sweet woman and it pained me more than words can record that I was not there with her when she passed. So be it. I will always love her, and pray that she dances in heaven with handsome suitors, laughing and flirting forever.
Chapter 8 - "Looking Forward, Not Back"
There was a lot of money - most of it gold, not paper - in the strongbox, and a lot of jewels in addition. I did not remove any of the jewels that Jillian wore of course, but my untrained estimate of what was in the box dwarfed even the amount I had extorted from Snowman. I spent a few days in Jillian's valley making sure that all the livestock were at least free to fend for themselves, then I sealed up the cabin as well as I could. I did not expect ever to return, but it pleased me to think that Jillian's rocking chair, and the beautiful dishes, and some small statuary she had accumulated would be held in place as though waiting for her to enjoy them again. In the end, I left most of my gowns as well. The strongbox was heavy enough to burden the wagon even if I only took a few cases of travel clothes. And the treasure it contained would make replacing my wardrobe easy . . . perhaps even fun.
I wasn't too worried about the goats. They were quite hardy and would do well. And I wasn't too worried about the chickens. I never liked the dirty, stupid things anyway. My sympathies would be with the coyotes who pursued them rather than the brainless birds. But I was worried about Jillian's horse, Sally. Sally was as simple as her name, well trained to both harness and saddle, but not wise enough to live on her own. Unless some strong wild stallion claimed her, and there were no wild herds this close to Springtree that I knew of, I thought it likely that she would fall prey to wolves or a cougar, or even the winter weather itself without someone to provide forage.
That problem solved itself as well. On the very day I had decided to leave - a day chosen to allow time for any pursuit organized by the dying Snowman to have made the trip to Sweetwater and return in defeat - Sally was cropping grass in the pasture with Bat on her far side to keep her from wandering off again.
"Good boy, Bat," I said approvingly.
I tied Sally off to the wagon so that she would follow and with Bat gamboling about our steady pace, headed Drummer down from the valley. As soon as I left the hills, I turned in the direction of Fort Pike, which kept me well away from both Springtree and Sweetwater. As it had done before, the trip required me to spend a couple of nights on the trail. It was a bittersweet time, with memories of my first time on that road mingled with the realization that I would not be likely to see again the only homes - our homestead and Jillian's valley - that I had ever known.
My arrival in Fort Pike was in some ways an echo of my previous trip. In this case I first deposited my strongbox in the bank vault, but washing up and changing from my trail clothes was still high on my list. I arrived rather too late for dinner so I put together a simple meal that didn't require cooking from my trail rations and went early to bed.
In the morning, I dressed in a cheerful green dress, complete with another cute little hat that looked so saucy over one eyebrow. There was a day of arranging to sell Drummer - who though a good horse was never *mine* in an emotional way - and to visit Buster to arrange for him to be retired with Sally to pasture for as long as either might need.
And then what?
I spent a day shopping for clothes, but that was merely a way to pass the time. I would wait to restore the majority of my wardrobe for when I arrived in a more cosmopolitan town. That was my dilemma. What town should I select?
I knew I was not really interested in the big cities of the East despite my falsified backstory. I felt I was stalling, but I didn't know for what.
In the end I decided against Denver, but in favor of the town of my nominal birth: Colorado Springs. Arranging tickets and transport of the reduced treasure that was my jewels only - the gold having been brokered for a corresponding amount at my destination - I left the almost-city of Fort Pike for a new path forward.
The train left later that same afternoon. As I sat waiting for it to pull out of the station, I watched out the window at the bustle of people with places to go and things to do, wondering what I was going to do with my new, wealthy, purposeless life.
"What are we going to do, Bat?" I asked softly, reaching down to caress his ears. I had heard that in some of the Eastern states they wouldn't even let you bring a dog on the train, which was another reason not to go there. Of course, I didn't really expect an answer . . . but it turned out he gave me one anyway by looking up and starting to wag his tail in welcome.
A voice said, "Pardon me, Miss, is this seat taken?"
My tummy did an unexpected flutter and I felt an almost delicious tightness in the most prominent portions of a bosom that had become so much a part of me - along with a sharp but inexplicably pleasant itch in a place that once upon a time I didn't even have . . . in a previous life that was growing more dim with each passing day.
Looking up, I saw Sam Cody. Bat always was a good judge of character.
"No, there's plenty of room, "I said, "for the right person."