Issue 22: How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away? Apr 20, 2011 16:21:30 GMT -5
Post by markymark261 on Apr 20, 2011 16:21:30 GMT -5
Weird Western Quarterly
Issue #22: "How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away?"
Written by Susan Hillwig
Cover by Rik Mertens
Edited by Mark Bowers
Issue #22: "How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away?"
Written by Susan Hillwig
Cover by Rik Mertens
Edited by Mark Bowers
Bat Lash had always found the gentle rocking of a passenger car to be rather soothing. He’d long surmised that it stemmed from some distant recollection of infancy and the comfort of being in the arms of his mother, God rest her soul, or maybe it was merely the invention of his genteel mindset. Whatever the reason, Lash had a tendency to nod off during long train trips if he wasn’t attentive to this, and it looked as though his journey upon this train was no exception. His feet were propped up on the seat in front of him as he dozed, a newspaper from the town he’d previously visited laying unread in his lap. Though he was vaguely aware of the other sounds in the passenger car, the majority of Lash’s mind was wrapped up in a dream about a lovely young gal named Marguerite, whom he had met in the same town the paper was from. Sadly, Lash couldn’t take Marguerite along just as easily, but his dreams more than made up for it. A smile played across his lips as his drowsing mind conjured images of her laying next to him in bed, the two of them wrapped in silk sheets and not much else. She ran her hands over his chest and down his torso, and he responded to her probing hands by leaning in for a kiss. To his surprise, a finger was soon pressed against his lips, and Marguerite said, “Why, my dear Bat, even in your sleep, you still can’t resist the presence of a pretty girl.”
This confused Lash, mainly because the Marguerite he knew didn’t speak English. He opened his eyes to see not his lovely French beauty but an equally-lovely gal with dark brown hair and a bad reputation. “Penny Dreadful,” Lash said in a distasteful tone. “If I’d known it was you, I would’ve stayed asleep.”
“Oh, you don’t really mean that.” Penny pushed Lash’s boots off the other seat so she could sit down across from him. “And in case you’ve forgotten, I’m merely Penny Dreasney now. You killed my pen name as surely as if you put a bullet in it.”
“You’ll always be Dreadful to me, my dear.”
If she caught the double meaning of his phrase, she gave no sign, choosing instead to smooth out a crease in her dress. “I would think you’d be happy to see me and know that I’m well, especially after the way you tried to ruin my life.”
“Your life? There you go again, spinnin’ lies outta whole cloth.” He sat up straight and glared at her. “I seem to recall that you tried to ruin mine by twistin’ my words around into a passel of dime novel yarns...without my permission, I might add. Then when I confronted you about it, y’all went an’ told a couple of gorillas that I was mashin’ on you so’s you could make good your escape.”
Penny’s bottom lip pouted out. “I suppose that last incident was unnecessary, but you have to understand how upset I was at the time.”
“Spare me the crocodile tears. The best way you can make it up to me is by relocatin’ your pretty little self to some other car for the duration.” Lash then turned away from her, focusing his attention on the far end of the passenger car. The conductor had just entered, along with a man who carried himself with an air of authority -- a railroad detective, most likely. They were making their way down the aisle, and if Lash had not been so intent on ignoring Penny’s continued presence, he might have noticed how fidgety she became as they drew closer.
When the two men were within earshot, Penny suddenly reached out and took Lash by the hand, saying, “Oh, Bat, I really do wish you would forgive me for wandering away like I did. You know how easily confused I’ve become since Mother died.”
“Penny, what are you...”
“I know you loved her just as much as I did,” she continued, “but such a tragedy affects daughters more deeply than sons.” Lash’s earlier comment about crocodile tears appeared to be coming true, as the woman began to sob rather loudly. “Whatever shall we do, Bat? We spent every last cent we had just to buy passage on this train!”
Before Lash could ask what in blazes she was babbling about, the two railroad men walked right up to them, with the cinder dick saying, “Pardon me, sir, but might I inquire as to the nature of your relationship with this woman?”
“We have no relationship at all,” Lash replied, and yanked his hand free of Penny’s grip.
“Oh, Bat, how can you say such things?” She turned her moistened eyes up towards the detective. “Please understand, my brother is a little sore at me currently, due to my wandering out of his sight for a while.”
“I ain’t your brother, Penny, so quit your fibbin’.”
The cinder dick looked from one to the other. “So, you do know this woman, Mister...”
“Lash. Bartholomew Aloysius Lash. And yes, I do know her, though I’ve been tryin’ to un-know her for some time now. Why do you ask?”
“Because when the conductor here began collecting tickets a few cars back, he noticed this woman kept slipping away before he reached her.” The cinder dick’s expression became very stern. “It’s the sort of behavior a stowaway might exhibit.”
The gambler gave the woman a stern look of his own. “Penny, what did you do?”
“This is all a misunderstanding.” She shrugged her shoulders and smiled up at the men gathered around her. “I was simply looking for my brother here.”
“I ain’t your brother!”
The conductor cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind, there is a quicker way to solve this.” He held out his hand and said, “Your tickets?”
“Gladly.” Lash reached into his inner vest pocket to pull it out, but soon found himself grasping thin air. “Wait a minute...where...” he started to say, then spotted Penny handing over a ticket that looked awful familiar. “You little sneak-thief! You lifted that off of me while I was sleeping!”
“Don’t be absurd,” she told him, “I had this on me all along.”
“Then why’d you keep duckin’ out on the conductor?”
“I wasn’t ‘ducking out’, as you so crudely put it. I already said I was looking for you, dear brother.”
“Call me your brother again, an’ I’ll put you over my knee!”
The argument was beginning to attract the attention of the other passengers, who were rubbernecking over their seats to see what the commotion was about. The detective didn’t look too happy about that either. He and the conductor spoke quietly as Bat and Penny continued to trade barbs, then the conductor departed. A few minutes later, the train lurched to a halt. “What in...are we there already?” Lash said in surprise.
“Not even close.” The cinder dick grabbed each of them by the arm and jerked them to their feet. “But we have reached your stop.”
Bat stared at him. “You’re not gonna...but it’s my ticket! I swear!”
At this point, I don’t give a damn whose ticket it is. You’re obviously in cahoots to some degree, plus you’re disturbing the rest of the passengers.” He snatched Lash’s carpetbag from the floor beside him and shoved it into the gambler’s hands. “Which means the ride ends here for the both of you.”
Bat stared daggers at Penny, who had been passed off to the returning conductor, yet Bat somehow managed to not curse a blue streak over the predicament. He even managed to not throw a punch at the cinder dick as they were escorted to the vestibule at the end of the passenger car, mainly because he knew he’d be risking a sap across the skull if he did so. After they had stepped off the train and onto the sooty gravel that lined the tracks, the cinder dick asked Lash, “You got any other luggage?”
“I prefer to travel light.” He looked at the surrounding landscape: aside from the rail line cutting through it, there were no signs of civilization to be seen, just fields of tall grass and the occasional stand of trees. He then gestured in Penny’s direction as the conductor led her to the baggage cars further back -- despite the growing distance, Lash could make out every plea and promise Penny threw at the man. “Y’all ain’t doin’ me a bit of favor, y’know, dumpin’ me in the middle of nowhere with this woman.”
“Not my problem,” the detective replied, stepping back up onto the train’s vestibule. The conductor joined him roughly ten minutes later and, after waving a hand so the engineer could see they were finished, the two men began to slide away from Lash as the train chugged to life once more, leaving its ousted passengers in a cloud of steam and smoke.
Lash looked up at the sky and noted that it was well past midday, which meant he had about four hours of daylight at his disposal to find a farm or some other refuge where he could wait out the night, because he certainly wouldn’t be arriving at his destination in the timely manner he’d planned. He began to walk in the direction the train had rode off in, then, against all sound judgment, he threw a glance over his shoulder at Penny. She was sitting upon a steamer trunk amidst various other bits of luggage, looking rather forlorn. Don’t pay her any mind, Bat told himself. She made her bed -- and got you kicked off the train in the process -- so let her lie in it. He kept on walking, but only for a dozen or so steps before he stopped with a sigh and changed direction.
Penny waved him off as he approached. “You don’t have to rub it in, I feel bad enough already.” She sniffled, and this time, the tears seemed genuine. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this, Bat, but I knew I couldn’t evade the conductor forever, and when I saw you...”
“Forget the explanation. I know good and well why you did it.” Because you buffaloed me before, he silently added, then looked over all the luggage and said to her, “Just pick outta this mess whatever’s important to you so’s we can get a move-on.”
“You mean...you’re really going to help me? After all I did to you?”
“Couldn’t rightly call myself a gentleman if I left you like this...though I’m sure I’ll regret this act of chivalry later on.”
“Oh, Bat!” Penny leapt to her feet and threw her arms around Lash’s neck. “You won’t regret this, I swear. I’ll do whatever I can to make this up to you.”
“Well, for starters, you can climb down off of me.” He had to admit, though, having her so close reminded him of their one night together. In truth, she was a very lovely gal, with curves in all the right places. It was just her untrustworthy demeanor that gave him pause. “Come on, now,” he said, gently pushing her away. “I’m not rightly sure where we are at the moment, but I reckon the sooner we get movin’, the sooner we can find a place that’s got hot food an’ warm beds. How’s that sound to you?”
“Delightful,” she said with a smile. “Especially the part about the bed.”
Lash tugged at his shirt collar. “Err, well...let’s sort out your luggage, shall we?”
* * * * * *
To his dismay, Lash soon found that his idea of what was important and Penny’s idea were two rather different things. She fussed and fretted over every item she’d been toting across the country, and there were a good half-dozen times when he felt like throwing up his hands and storming off, but he held his temper until, after more than an hour, Penny had condensed the “important” stuff down to three suitcases, each one straining its seams to keep its contents from bursting forth. “Are you sure you can’t...oof...part with maybe a couple of more things?” Lash asked as he hoisted the load, his own carpetbag perched on top.
“What do you expect me to do, leave everything behind?” She picked up a parasol and opened it up to provide her some shade from the sun. “I’m having a hard enough time parting with what I’m leaving behind already.”
“Oh yes, you’re plainly distraught over the whole affair,” he muttered, then carefully stepped over the rails so as to walk upon the crossties. He didn’t even bother to turn around to see if Penny was following: he was having a hard enough time seeing over the bags, and twisting about like that would most likely lead to the whole mess tumbling out of his hands. Instead, he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and keeping his eyes peeled for any houses on the horizon, as well as one ear cocked for any trains possibly heading their way.
Despite the load, Lash was making his way fairly well, which was more than could be said for Penny. “Why are we walking on the tracks?” she asked him after twenty minutes or so of her stumbling across the gravel in her high-button shoes. “The ground alongside here looks much flatter.”
“It may be flatter, but that don’t mean it’s easier to walk through. Hidden beneath all those blades of grass are countless rocks an’ gopher holes an’ snakes an’ God knows what else. Trust me, stick to the tracks.”
“Oh, you’re just being silly.” Penny stepped off the ties and down into the grass. “I don’t see anything wrong here.”
“Suit yourself, but I warn ya, I ain’t gonna slow down. Y’all cost me a day’s worth of travel already.”
Lash continued on down the tracks, while Penny made her way through the grass. About five minutes later, her shoe struck an old, cracked crosstie that had been tossed aside ages ago by a rail crew. She fell forward, arms pinwheeling in the air as she desperately tried to maintain her balance, but she ended up with a face full of dirt anyways. She was about to call out to Bat, but decided to hold her tongue -- asking for help now would mean admitting he was right. So with a very unladylike grunt, Penny managed to get to her feet, but she was down again a few seconds later when she tripped over the torn hem of her dress. She got up once more, gathered her skirts, and kept going, a bit more mindful of her step this time. Then she thought she saw something moving about in the grass off to her left, and recalled what Lash had said about snakes and gophers. “Bat!” she yelled. “There’s something down here!”
By now Lash was a good fifty feet ahead of her, and he yelled back over his shoulder, “I know there is. Why do you think I’m up here?”
The whatever-it-was appeared to be moving closer even as Penny backpedaled. “Aren’t you going to help me?”
“I am helpin’ you,” he answered. “I’m playin’ the porter, remember?”
A pair of beady eyes became visible in between the blades of grass, which caused Penny to shriek to high heaven. She scrambled back onto the tracks, panting like mad, then hollered at the gambler, “What kind of a gentleman are you, leaving a woman in distress like this?”
“I’m the kind that gave you fair warnin’, that’s what kind I am! Now quit lollygaggin’!” His tone was stern, but inside, he was trying not to burst out laughing. When he heard the clatter of Penny’s shoes on the gravel as she tried to catch up, Lash decided to be kind and slowed his pace a touch. “I doubt it was anything dangerous,” he told her after she had closed the distance.
“How do you know? You didn’t even look.”
“I didn’t hear no growl, nor a hiss or rattle. The dangerous stuff tends to make noise...that’s how you know it’s dangerous.”
“Well, I saw it, and it looked dangerous.” Penny glanced behind to see if the creature was following them. “God, I hate the countryside.”
“Says the gal who’s spent the past couple of years gallivanting all around it.”
“I normally travel by train, not on foot. Even stagecoaches are barely tolerable,” she said with a sniff. “I have yet to understand what appeal this filthy, lawless land holds over people. And I don’t just mean those of you who live out here: the people back east seem mesmerized by every nugget of information writers like myself commit to paper.” She poked him on the arm with her finger. “Not that I can even do that anymore, thank you very much. That letter you sent to my editors blackballed me with every publishing company in New York.”
“Then try one not in New York. I hear there’s some fine papers in San Francisco.”
“But Daddy doesn’t know anyone in...”
“‘Daddy’?!?” Both of Lash’s eyebrows shot up. “Well, this explains a lot! I know dime novels ain’t exactly high art, but the stuff you cranked out...I reckon ‘Daddy’ must’ve greased quite a few palms for that horse flop to see the light of day.” He started to laugh, but stopped immediately when Penny brained him with her parasol. The blow was so sudden that he dropped all the luggage onto the tracks, and after a few more blows, Lash dropped as well. “Okay, okay, stop it!” he said, putting his arms over his head in an effort to protect himself.
“Not until you take back what you said!”
“No way in...OUCH!” She’d hit him again, this time hard enough to break the parasol. Lash grabbed what was left of it and yanked it out of her hands, then threw it into the grass. “Y’all need to learn how to take constructive criticism, you know that?”
“And you need to learn how to talk nice to a lady!”
“Soon’s I find a lady to talk to, I’ll be nice as pie.”
Penny turned three shades of red, then pushed past him, saying, “I don’t want your help anymore.” She fumbled with her luggage, trying to pick it all up at once but not getting very far. “If all you’re going to do is level insults at me, then I think I’d be better off on my own.”
“Suits me fine.” He scooped up his carpetbag and kept on walking. “I’m through with actin’ like the Good Samaritan.” Now that he’d been relieved of the burdens on both his body and conscience, Lash moved at a faster pace down the tracks. Occasionally, he’d glance over his shoulder to see Penny still following him, though the distance between them grew whenever she had to stop and pick up a bag she dropped.
An hour passed, and the sun dipped lower in the west, yet Lash hadn’t spotted any farms or towns in the vicinity. That meant a night under the stars...not unheard of for him, but certainly not what he preferred. He decided to set up camp while he still had a decent amount of light to work with, and hopped off the tracks to walk over to a copse of trees about fifty feet away. After taking a look around to make sure he wasn’t setting up camp on anything poisonous, Lash collected up some fallen branches and started a fire, then unpacked his pistol from his bag so he could work on getting something to cook over it. There wasn’t much around to shoot at save for some small birds, but after a good amount of patience and a steady hand, he’d bagged enough to keep the hunger pangs away.
As Lash prepared the birds, he looked over at the tracks to see that Penny had caught up to him. She was sitting next to the tracks, huddled in a short jacket she must’ve pulled out of one of her suitcases. If a train comes by in the middle of the night, it’s gonna suck her right under its wheels, he thought, then yelled in her direction, “I’d move a bit further away if I was you!”
“I’m not anywhere near you!” she yelled back. “You don’t own the whole outdoors!”
“I meant move away from the track, you dunderhead! Not unless you wanna catch the next express the hard way!”
Penny looked at the rails like she’d never seen them before, then at the expanse of tall grass that lay between her and Lash. “Where else am I supposed to go? I can’t sleep out there!”
“Because there’s...things out there! One of them already attacked me, remember?”
He sighed and shook his head, thinking, One of these days, Bartholomew, your better nature is gonna be your undoing. He then called out to her, “If you want to set up camp next to me, I’ll make sure nothing hurts you. Okay?”
She was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Are you going to keep insulting me?”
“I can’t make any promises, but I’ll try to hold my tongue.”
It was a somewhat pathetic olive branch, but Penny took it anyways. She gathered up her bags and, with both eyes fixed intently on the ground before her, made her way across the field to where Lash sat. “What on Earth are you doing?” she asked when she saw the birds.
“Makin’ supper, what did you think?” Lash had cleaned the feathers off their little bodies, and was proceeding to skewer them on a thin branch he’d sharpened to a point with his penknife. “Don’t worry, I’ll share. Reckon you’re probably as hungry as I am.”
Penny’s nose wrinkled up in revulsion. “I...I’m not sure I could eat...what are those? Sparrows?” She shook her head. “No, certainly not. That’s simply barbaric.”
“Barbaric? This?” He pointed at her with the skewer, which already had two birds on it. “This ain’t much different than that duck we had the last time we broke bread together. Smaller, yeah, but a bird’s a bird, darlin’.”
“That was very different. A chef prepared that in a proper kitchen, not...oh my goodness.” She cringed as Lash slid the last couple of birds onto the skewer. “I thought you were a sophisticate.”
“I am, my dear Penny, but I’m also hungry.” He stuck one end of the skewer into the ground so the birds hung over the fire. “Admittedly, I’d rather somebody else get their hands dirty doin’ this, but I plucked a good many chickens back in my boyhood on the Lash homestead, so this ain’t exactly a foreign notion to me.”
Penny had arranged her bags around the fire and was sitting upon one of them, regarding Lash as she took in this new bit of information. “You mean...you’re really just a farm boy?”
“Guilty as charged.”
“That’s impossible! You’re too...too...”
“Too what? Good-looking? Smart? Impeccably dressed?” He rested his chin on his hand. “Please, enlighten me on whatever stereotypical ideas your New York brain holds about rural folk.”
“You just don’t seem the type, that’s all.” She turned away from him, then said, “Despite all your wild tales of gunfighting, I always thought you were like me: a well-to-do person who merely craved something more out of life.”
“Oh, I crave a lot outta life...and yes, you can grow up poor as a church mouse and want those sort of things.” Lash turned the skewer a bit, saying, “Frankly, though, I think you know far too much about me already, while I know very little about you. So how about you do the talkin’ for a change?” He grinned at her. “For starters, what’s this business with your daddy landin’ you a job at a dime novel house?”
Penny’s voice grew chilly. “I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Well, then, I guess you ain’t eatin’.”
“What makes you think I was going to eat one of those disgusting things anyways?”
“Suit yourself.” Lash gave the birds another turn, then dug into his carpetbag and produced a small bottle of bourbon -- there were no creeks or other sources of fresh water in sight, so the booze would have to suffice for liquid refreshment. He took a sip off of the bottle, then got up and began to lay his suit coat and a few other spare clothes upon the ground in an effort to make some sort of bed for the night. Meanwhile, Penny continued to give him the cold shoulder, apparently oblivious to the fact that she should probably do some similar preparations if she was going to sleep comfortably.
It was near twilight when the birds were done cooking, and Lash pulled one of them off the skewer and proceeded to eat. There wasn’t much meat on them, hence the reason he’d killed so many, but it would suffice. He was about to start in on the second one when he heard an odd noise. He looked over at Penny, who was still sitting upon her luggage, and asked her, “Pardon me, but did you say something?”
“No.” She seemed rather embarrassed by the question.
“Are you sure? Because I thought I distinctly heard your stomach ask for a handout.”
“I don’t want...” she began to say, only to be interrupted by a low growl coming from her midsection. “Okay,” she finally admitted, “perhaps I am a little hungry.”
“You ready to try ‘Sparrow à la Lash’, then?” Penny nodded, and Bat held out the skewer with the remaining two birds on it...but when she reached for it, he pulled it away, saying, “First, you gotta tell me about your daddy an’ the dime novel house.”
“Why are you being so mean to me?”
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. It’s a real simple trade: you give me some words, an’ I’ll give you the birds.” Lash smirked. “My, didn’t that sound clever? An’ I ain’t even a writer.”
“No, you’re an ass.” She huffed and looked about, as if making sure no one else was around to hear, then said, “Despite what you think, my father didn’t pay anyone to give me a job. He saw the trouble I was having breaking into the profession, so he introduced me to some people he knew in the publishing industry. One of them worked for National Periodicals, and I was offered a job on one of their dime novel titles.” She gave him a withering look, saying, “Is that enough information to earn me supper?”
“It’ll do.” Lash handed the skewer over, and Penny began to delicately pick off some of the meat. The faces she made as she ate showed that she was struggling to keep it down, so Lash also handed over the bourbon, which Penny took a surprisingly-large swig of. After she was done with it, Lash knocked back a mouthful as well, then asked, “Not to be insultin’...really, this is mere curiosity...but did you ever think that you couldn’t get a job without help because your writin’, well...stinks?”
“I know exactly why I couldn’t get a job: because Daddy had a daughter instead of a son.” She glared at Bat and said, “You have no idea how many publishers turned me down before they even read a sample of my work. All they’d see is that I was a woman, which apparently means that I can’t construct a decent sentence.”
“Hate to tell you this, but you really can’t. Least not on paper.”
She sighed. “That’s not my fault. After my editor read the first story I submitted, I was given a lecture on how to write a ‘proper’ dime novel story...which apparently means that you can’t use any words with more than two syllables.”
“Well now, it’s just one obstacle after another with you, isn’t it?”
Penny’s glare got even harder, then she reached over to one of her suitcases and opened it, pulling out a hardbound journal. “I haven’t shown this to anyone, but since it looks like it’s the only way to change your opinion of me...” She held it out to Lash, who took it with an expression of puzzlement. He was expecting more of the hackneyed dialogue and cliché situations that he’d already seen drip off of Penny’s poisoned pen, but after a few minutes of skimming the pages, his expression went from puzzlement to genuine surprise. “Well?” Penny said. “What do you think of me now?”
“This...this is pretty good. Not great, but it’s leaps and bounds better than that dime novel trash you got my name tangled up in.” Lash looked over at her and cocked an eyebrow. “Who’d you swipe this off of?”
“It’s all mine, I swear. I will admit, the main character is a bit of a composite of some of the men I’ve met out here in the West, but otherwise it’s an original piece.” She gave him a smile, the first since they were stranded by the train. “Do you recall the farewell letter I left for you? Where I said that a writer should challenge themselves?”
Lash held up the journal. “This was your challenge? Writin’ a decent story?”
“One I was proud to have published, instead of merely writing for a paycheck,” she answered with a nod. “The dime novels pay well, especially if you can write fast -- I once wrote a dozen stories in one week and got a pretty sum for it -- but they’re not the most imaginative things. That’s why I came out West.”
“To steal ideas, like how you took what I told you and twisted it all around.”
“It didn’t start out that way. Like I said, you’re paid better if you write fast, and sometimes the fastest way to write is to plagiarize.” A look of sadness came over Penny’s face. “I got greedy, which means I got stupid. I figured that, if men thought all women were idiots, why not exploit that? So I...well, you know the rest.”
“I know enough.” Lash flipped through the journal one more time, then handed it back to Penny. “Reckon I owe you a bit of an apology.”
“And I accept it heartily.” She flipped through the journal herself, saying, “You certainly put me in a bind, though: I finally wise up and let my true talent shine, but my past indiscretions have ruined my chances of anyone else seeing it. No publisher in New York will speak with me, not even the ones Daddy knows personally.”
“Then do like I said before: try a publisher that isn’t based in New York.”
“I’ve tried a few, but it’s the same sort of trouble I originally had. I even asked Daddy for advice, but all he offered was to pay for a train ticket back home.” She rolled her eyes slightly, “As you probably already surmised, the money I had earned has long since run out.”
“I had a feeling, what with your performance on the train.” Lash clasped his hands before him and said in mock-falsetto, “Ohhhh, dear brother, whatever shall we doooo?” He fluttered his eyelashes for effect.
“I oversold it, didn’t I?”
“Just a touch.” They both had a good laugh over it, then Bat said, “In all seriousness, you might want to consider another sort of performance when it comes to sellin’ your work.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s rather simple: Don’t tell these publishin’ fellas you’re a woman. Just cook up a false name...a good manly name, mind you...then mail the stuff to ‘em so’s they never see you. You were already writin’ under one pen name, so what’s the harm in usin’ another one?”
A look of surprise came over Penny’s face. “That never occurred to me.”
“I can tell. Don’t see why not, though, if you really think bein’ a woman is such an insurmountable obstacle.” He waved his hands as if shooing something away and said, “There ya go, no more obstacle. Just your work standin’ on its own merit.”
“I do think you might have something there, Bat. I’ll have to give it a try.” As she said the last couple of words, a yawn snuck out with them. “Goodness, where did that come from?”
“Reckon you done wore yourself out with all that walkin’.” Lash gestured at the twilight hanging above their heads and said, “We should probably turn in. Don’t know how much more walkin’ we got ahead of ourselves tomorrow.”
Penny nodded, then stood up, intent on making some sort of bed for herself. The moment she put weight on her feet, however, she let out a cry and almost fell over. Luckily, Bat was up in a flash to catch her. “What? What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she groaned. “Can’t stand up...hurts too much.”
“I bet I know what it is.” He made her sit down again, then knelt by her feet. “It’s these fancy shoes of yours. You spent all day walkin’ in ‘em when they’re meant for sittin’ around an’ lookin’ pretty in.” Lash undid the shoe buttons, then began to pull them off, which just made Penny cry out again. “I know it hurts, but you’ll thank me once we get ‘em off.” Once the shoes were removed, the stockings came next, and then the truth was revealed: Penny had a few decent-sized blisters on her feet. “Well, this is gonna put a crimp on our travel plans,” Lash said.
“It didn’t hurt that much when we were walking,” Penny said, “it was just awkward.”
“Yeah, but you’ve been sittin’ for a while. Gave your feet just enough time to rest an’ realize how bad a shape they were in.” He pulled out a handkerchief and began to wrap it around one of Penny’s injured feet. “It’ll probably hurt worse tomorrow...might swell a bit too. Ain’t gonna be a picnic tryin’ to get them dainty little things back on.” He nodded towards Penny’s bags, saying, “You don’t happen to have a good sturdy pair of boots in there, do you?”
“No, just more shoes like these.” She pressed her lips into a thin line as she tried to keep from crying. “This isn’t fair! Ever since I straightened myself out, nothing’s gone right for me! I can’t get a job, I have no money, everybody hates me...”
“Everybody doesn’t hate you,” Lash replied. “I may not be overly fond of you, but I’m not sure if I’d use the word ‘hate’.”
“Well, you certainly don’t like me, I know that. You’ve gone to great lengths to tell me so.” She sniffled, then pulled out a handkerchief of her own. “Ever since I found you on the train, you’ve done nothing but make fun of me. I know I did you wrong, but can’t you see that I’ve paid for it in spades by now?” She waved about at her luggage ringing the fire and said, “Look at what I’ve been reduced to!”
Lash sighed. “Okay, I’ll admit that I may have gone a little too far with my ribbin’, but can you blame me?” He moved one of the other suitcases closer to Penny and sat upon it so he could look her in the eye. “I’m not exactly unfamiliar with roughin’ it, but I was rather lookin’ forward to sleepin’ under a roof tonight, so please excuse any harshness that I might’ve tossed your way durin’ our travels.”
“Is that your idea of an apology?”
“Nope, this is.” He leaned over and gave her a quick kiss upon the lips. When she stared at him with disbelief, Lash told her, “Despite the bad blood between us, I have always thought that you’re a very pretty gal. I don’t trust you any further than I can throw you, but you do possess a certain beauty that’s hard to ignore, no matter how much you get on my nerves.”
A slight blush came to Penny’s cheeks, and she turned away from him. “You’re just making fun of me again.”
“When it comes to how I feel about a woman, I tend to be quite serious.” He flicked some dirt off his trousers, saying, “You gave my heartstrings a decent pluck a couple of years back, and I reckon that made your little turncoat maneuver sting a lot worse than you may have intended. Worst part is, I’m still not sure if the way you acted around me was all pretend or if...”
Lash didn’t have a chance to finish his sentence, because Penny suddenly turned back towards him and locked lips with such force that they both tumbled to the ground. It took a moment for Lash to get over the shock, but only a moment, and he soon found himself helping Penny take off more than just her footwear.
* * * * * *
The night passed amicably for the two of them, and eventually led to a restful sleep upon a bed made of discarded garments next to a waning fire. When dawn came, Lash smiled at the warmth of the sun on his face. He still wasn’t pleased about the walk ahead of him, but Penny had at least given him a better attitude in regards to it. He sat up slowly and rubbed the last remnants of sleep from his eyes, silently wondering what sort of breakfast he could scrounge up, then looked over to where Penny lay...or least to where he expected her to be laying. “Oh no, not again,” he muttered. Lash got to his feet, grabbing his longjohns so he could cover himself, and proceeded to take a look about the campsite -- the woman was nowhere in sight, yet her clothes and luggage were accounted for. “Penny!” he yelled. “Stop scarin’ me, girl! If you can hear me, say something so’s I know you’re okay!”
There was no response. Fearing the worst, Lash began to grab the rest of his clothes so he could get dressed and search for her in earnest. That was when he noticed that some of his clothes were missing. His boots and carpetbag were nowhere to be found as well. “What in blazes is goin’ on around here?” he said in exasperation. Then he spotted a piece of paper fluttering against a nearby tree trunk, staked there by Lash’s penknife. He walked over and pulled it off, not surprised at all to see Penny’s fine flowing script upon the page:
Thank you for the wonderful night, and for all the help you’ve given me, both willingly and unwillingly. I know that I’m risking your ire once again by leaving you like this, but I was so taken with your idea, I wanted to implement it as soon as possible. I really don’t know why it never occurred to me before! I do think that I can make it work, and I hope to regain my standing in the publishing community very soon. Once I do, I will make every effort to find you again so I can properly repay you. This is the truth. I don’t want you to remain angry at me forever, despite how this must look. In the meantime, take heart in knowing that my feelings for you are as genuine as my desire to succeed in this world, but the latter shall always take precedence over the former. I hope you understand and forgive me for that.
Lash stood there for close to a minute, trying to puzzle out the meaning of Penny’s letter, then he saw something else at the base of the tree: hanks of dark-brown hair, the exact shade and length of Penny’s lovely locks. Suddenly, it all made sense, even though it was patently ridiculous. “You stupid Yankee!” Bat hollered towards the deserted tracks. “When I suggested that y’all pretend to be a man, I didn’t mean physically!”
The words echoed across the wide expanse, and Lash hoped that they somehow reached the woman’s ears, even though he could see no trace of her -- she must have lit out before dawn in order to put as much distance between the two of them as possible. Real smart of her, he thought, ‘cause if we ever cross paths again, I just might throttle her. There wasn’t much he could do about it at the moment, though, so he did his best to put his rage aside and concentrate on figuring out which of his personal items Penny had deigned to leave in his possession. He found a shirt, a pair of trousers, some socks, and his gunbelt with the pistol still in the holster, but that was it. No hat, no money, and worst of all, no boots. “Oh, now you’re just bein’ plain mean,” he said as he got dressed. “I hope your feet turn into one big, painful blister!”
Using his penknife, he sliced some of Penny’s abandoned garments into strips -- an act which was rather cathartic -- then wrapped them around his stocking feet like a hobo before continuing his journey alongside the tracks. Lash could hardly fathom how he managed to let himself get bamboozled by that woman a second time. His better nature had gotten him into trouble before, but never to such a ridiculous degree. “It’s things like this that can turn a gentleman into a surly cuss,” he mused, “an’ right now I’m a hair’s-breadth from that turn.”
Morning turned into afternoon, then slipped right on into early evening. A few trains passed, but no one appeared to pay him any mind. That didn’t help his mood any. By the time he caught sight of a town, his shoulders were slumped, his empty stomach felt like it had turned inside-out, and his walk had degenerated to a painful shuffle. The only thing that kept him going was the thought of finding Penny and getting even once more...if he could muster the strength.
He stumbled towards the first hotel he saw -- it was a long shot, but perhaps Penny had been dumb enough to get a room. Before he made it through the front door, however, he stopped short at the sight of two familiar faces coming out of the establishment. “Bat Lash? Is that really you?” one of them said in disbelief.
“Out of the way, Scalphunter,” the gambler replied. “I’m on a mission.” He tried to push past his old partner, but he was so exhausted that Scalphunter hooked him by the arm easy. “Dammit, quit holdin’ me back! I’m not gonna let her get away with this!”
“Havin’ trouble with the women again?” Jonah Hex asked as he leaned against the doorframe, a cigar clamped in his teeth. “Glad tuh know Ah ain’t the only one.”
“Like you actually get women,” Lash answered. He then saw something furry moving at Hex’s feet and glanced downward. “Am I that tired, or is that a wolf standin’ there?”
“Thet is indeed a wolf, an’ goin’ by how disheveled yuh are, Ah reckon yuh are thet tired.” Hex flicked some ash, then asked Scalphunter, “This ain’t got nothin’ tuh do with thet business we was discussin’, does it?”
“No...but it might not hurt to ask him along as well,” the Kiowa warrior told him. “We’re going to need all the help we can get.”
“Help? What help? You’re gonna help me?” Lash’s mind was so baked from walking in the sun all day that he was having trouble concentrating on what the two men were talking about.
Scalphunter shook his head, saying, “No, we were wondering if you were up for helping us with a little matter. That is, assuming you can put aside your women troubles for a while.”
Lash sighed, silently admitting to himself that, even if he did find Penny, there was little he could do this time in the way of punishing her. He’d already known she was a con artist, so he had no one to blame for his situation but himself. That, and he was too dang tired to argue with Scalphunter and Hex. Looking up at them, he said, “If you’ll let me sleep for a day, plus buy me a decent meal an’ a new pair of boots, I’ll give you all the help I can muster.”
“Y’all kin have a cheap meal an’ used boots,” Hex told him, “an’ save the sleepin’ fer when we’re on the train.”
“If we’re goin’ on a train, I want two tickets,” Lash countered.
“Whut in blazes y’all need two tickets fer? We ain’t invitin’ guests along on this.”
“Because after what happened to me, I want to hide one of ‘em so’s it don’t happen again. Where we headed, anyhow?”
“California,” Scalphunter said. “A little place called Puerta Del Sol.”
“Sounds like a real garden spot.” Tired as he was, Bat Lash managed a hint of a smile. “Maybe my luck with the ladies will take a turn for the better there.”
TO BE CONTINUED IN WEIRD WESTERN QUARTERLY #25!
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