Authors: Ann Parker
Bridgette’s voice soared half an octave. "Bat Masterson? The
sheriff that was in the railroad wars last spring? You
"Knew him. Only incidentally and long ago." She locked eyes with Abe, silently warning him to say no more. Abe cradled the coffee mug, face unreadable. Inez added, "Abe, Mark, and I met him when we passed through Dodge on our way to
. He owned a bar there at the time."
She glanced down at the cat who’d emerged from the storeroom, looking furtive. "I’ll bet she sleeps all night and never catches a thing."
"Oh, she does all right." Abe dug into a mountain of gravy-soaked biscuits. "Bridgette, you cook ’em like back home."
Bridgette smiled, and the apple peels flew. "Well, now. There’s nothing to biscuits and gravy. I could do them in my sleep."
Inez carried her armful of rags and a broom across the kitchen.
Abe crossed fork and cutlery knife on the gravy-smeared tin plate and stood. "Guess I’ll see what I can save with a hammer and nails."
As she passed him by the door, he said, low-voiced, "Sorry about bringin’ up Masterson. I know you don’t like thinkin’ about Dodge."
She mustered a wan smile. "And I’m sorry I jumped on you about that greenhorn. I suppose we’re both on edge, what with Joe."
Abe followed her into the barroom. "I keep wonderin’ how he ended up back of our place." Abe sorted through the wreckage, lining up repairable chairs against the wall and tossing unsalvageable pieces into a pile.
Inez used the broom to sweep broken glass off the bar. "And I keep thinking about the scene at the card table." She rubbed her thumb over two new gouges in the dark wood. "Joe roared into the room, put his face up close to Harry and shouted, ‘You owe me, you son of a bitch! We had a deal!’ Then he grabbed the table and gave it a heave-ho. Everyone hit the deck. Except Harry. He just sat, cool as a cucumber, as if he was taking in a show at the opera house. But his face."
Inez shuddered. "Harry’s not a man to cross. Particularly in public. Joe knew that. ‘You owe me.’" Inez mulled over the phrase. "Maybe Harry wasn’t paying his bills."
"Maybe." Abe didn’t sound convinced.
Inez gathered the largest pieces of glass and tossed them into an empty crate. "Abe, do you remember that time in
when I dressed up in Mark’s clothes and we all went out on the town?"
"Sure. We made decent money playin’ vingt-et-un and lansquenet. Drank some damn fine cognac. Charmed the ladies. As I recall, you made a passable fine gentleman." Abe set a table leg to one side.
"I went by Cat DuBois’ place this morning and ran into Florence Sweet."
"Frisco Flo?" Abe leaned on his broom and took a good look at Inez. "Don’t tell me you fooled Flo with that getup."
Inez grinned. She tugged her waist-length braid out from under her shirt collar and knotted it at the nape of her neck. "Flo invited me to a private party. Even gave me her card."
"She’s gonna be disappointed when her mystery stranger don’t show."
"Well, it wasn’t intentional. I count on these clothes to help me blend into the crowd. I wasn’t expecting a
hooker to get friendly."
"Flo’s no hooker, Inez. The women in that house don’t come cheap."
"Oh? You’ve priced them?"
He started sorting again. "Fact is, no one gets in without a card and a pocketful of cash. You could probably sell that card for a hefty sum."
"Think I’ll hang onto it. I’ve always wondered what Cat’s house looks like inside. Maybe someday, I’ll pull Mark’s evening clothes from the wardrobe upstairs and find out."
"You go lookin’ without buyin’, Mrs. DuBois won’t like it."
Inez sniffed. "If I buy enough champagne she probably won’t care one way or the other. Speaking of buying," she hefted the crate onto one hip, "you heard she’s trying to buy
Slim McKay’s place?"
"Yep. Offered him plenty, to hear him talk."
"He’s next to her saloon. Maybe she’s thinking of expanding." Inez frowned, an unwelcome memory intruding. "Remember that time she showed up here. After Mark left."
"Not likely to forget," Abe said shortly. "Thought you two’d kill each other. She damn near scratched my eyes out when I showed her the door."
Inez looked down into the crate of broken bottles. Their jagged edges reminded her of Cat DuBois’ cutting words, delivered five days after Mark’s disappearance. Cat had marched into the Silver Queen early in the afternoon, heading straight for Inez. All chatter had ceased. State Street’s leading madam had slammed her closed parasol on the bar, sweeping glasses and bottles to the floor. "Where’s that smooth-talking man of yours?" she’d hissed. "He took my deposit
the contract. I bought this damn business. You honor the fucking deal or give me back my eight hundred dollars. Else there’ll be the devil to pay and you, Mrs. Stannert, will pay in spades!"
For a reply, Inez dashed a glass of whiskey in her face.
Abe interrupted her thoughts. "You, Mark, me, we own the Silver Queen, thirds all around. He wouldn’t of sold without talkin’ to us first."
"Well, she hasn’t mentioned it since, so I suppose you’re right. She was probably just trying to hoodwink us." Still, whenever she thought of it, Cat’s claim raised painful questions.
Would Mark light out and leave us—me, William, Abe— for eight hundred dollars?
Carrying her secret doubts and the glass-filled crate, Inez hurried through the kitchen and dumped the trash in the alley. She returned to find Abe, hands folded over the broom handle, staring reflectively at the backbar.
"How ’bout a painting, Inez?"
Inez followed his gaze to the empty planks framed by the backbar’s mahogany pillars. "A painting of what?"
"Battle scene. Mountains. Don’t suppose you’d cotton to nymphs."
Inez set the crate on the floor by Abe. "I’m not interested in having a painting of scantily clad women behind me as I’m working the bar." She tapped her lower lip as she examined the blank wall. Then smiled.
"What?" said Abe. "I’ve seen that look before. I’m not sure I like it."
I was rereading it last night."
"Most of my readin’ is from the papers or the Bible."
"Well, you’ll feel right at home, then. John Milton’s epic speaks to the ultimate battle between Heaven and Hell, good and evil."
"Inez," Abe moved in front of her. "I think we’re safer with scenery. Or dancin’ girls. Sinners don’t want to be reminded that they’re gamblin’ their souls as they toss their money on the bar. Religion and liquor don’t mix."
"No, listen." Inez grabbed his arm. "You yourself suggested a battle scene. So, make it a battle between God’s heavenly host and Satan’s legions. If the painter’s a fair portraitist, he could include some of Leadville’s citizenry in the fray! Come to think on it, we could sell spots on the wall!"
"I don’t know. When you start talkin’ about real faces up there—"
"I’m certain there’s more than a few that might enjoy seeing themselves portrayed, silver swords held high, on one side or the other."
Abe pondered. "Might keep folks entertained through the winter months. All right. But come May, when the snow melts and we can afford it, we get another mirror hauled in from
She squeezed his arm. "Deal!"
Abe smiled at her. "Inez, sometimes you’re like one of those mountain storms. A force of nature that a man’s just gotta go along with."
"Er-hem." A cough and shuffle from the direction of the kitchen shattered the moment. Inez and Abe shifted away from each other hastily.
Useless emerged from the shadows. "Didn’t mean to interrupt."
"You’re not interrupting." Inez moved behind the counter and began sweeping the debris to one end. "Mr. Jackson and I were talking about what to do with the back wall. A painting, we thought. Classical, on a grand scale."
"A painting?" Useless sounded mystified.
"The fellow who did our signage last summer. Isn’t he also a portraitist?"
Useless looked around as if she might be addressing someone else.
"Come on, Useless. You were working for Cat but you used to drop in with him for a drink. A Cousin Jack, a Cornishman. Short. Dresses like a swell."
Abe tipped a round table on edge and rolled it toward the wall. "Llewellyn Tremayne. Hear he painted Mrs. DuBois real lifelike. Supposed to be hangin’ in her private rooms."
"Uh. I don’t know about that." Useless shifted on his feet, gazing uneasily at the blank wall behind Inez.
"But you remember Tremayne," she persisted.
"Well, he’s the one I want. Useless, after we finish here, find him and tell him I’ve got a business proposition. Now, let’s restock." Inez finished wiping the backbar. Useless disappeared into the back. Thumping ensued from the storeroom, interrupted by the sounds of crates being dragged about. The thudding was echoed by a pounding on the front door.
"Closed!" shouted Inez. "Come back tomorrow!"
The pounding ceased.
"Abe," Inez dropped the rag into the crate. "I promised Emma that I’d go over Joe’s accounts and his assay office."
Lopsided footsteps approached unevenly from the kitchen. Inez reached below the bar to the shotgun. "We’re closed!"
"Now my dear, if I’d said that every time your husband appeared in the middle of the night about your boy.…" Dr. Cramer, leaning on his cane, limped into view.
"She means closed to all but friends, Doc." Abe pulled an unbroken chair close to the bar. Doc waved it away.
"No thank you, Mr. Jackson. I just dropped by for a quick libation before heading on to another case of consumption."
He hooked the silver-headed cane on the lip of the bar and propped his elbows on the surface. He rubbed his long, droopy face with both hands, before looking up with bloodshot eyes. "How about some of your soul-bracing brandy." He stretched his gimpy leg, then bent it tentatively. "The old war wound is acting up again. More precipitation before day’s end."