Hot food was so delicious.
Fran ate with abandon, ignoring the way that the broth burned the roof of his mouth, instead savoring each jaw-mangling wad of beef. He even inhaled the onions and peas, two veggies he normally didn’t take to back home. The beer was foamy. The bread could break windows. But it was all delicious, for none of it was trail food.
He was the only one eating. This establishment, which as far as Fran could tell didn’t have a name, offered not only food and drink, but other means of service. A handful of whores looked down from above, barefoot and smiling, waving with trembling fingers. He marked a few as pleasing enough to the eyes. From time to time the barkeep would bellow up at one of them in whatever manner of tongue they spoke this near the Wastes, and the lady he’d point at would come down, putting on a show like they didn’t know a thing about the bedroom, trying to be prim and proper in the face of new customers. Fran supposed it was a nice thought to think you was gonna lay with a woman that hadn’t never been with a man before, but truth be told, he knew better. After weeks on horseback and under the stars, a woman was a woman. Purity was like the wind.
If the others weren’t cursing and drunk, they were pounding mattress upstairs, and Fran felt a different sort of itch. He looked around for the few here that he knew, and spotted Duke, wobbling and cursing. His other pard, Lou, staggered up the steps behind a woman half his age. Her eyes failed to match her smile as she lured the scrawny, leering goat.
The rest of these men, save one or two, belonged to Fran’s brother. That was more than enough for Fran to keep his distance. He didn’t like the way that they looked at him with their hooded eyes, trying and failing to hide their smiles. He heard the whispers and insults tossed his way. He chewed savagely, and a hot splash of juice ran down his chin and through his meager whiskers.
He felt a hand rest on his shoulder, and he looked up into a wizened, flushed face. Crinkled eyes found and lost focus upon him, and the reek of cheap whiskey filled the air. Fran sucked a piece of meat from between his teeth and sat back, wary. “You need somethin’, Boggsy?”
“Francis, just bein’ brotherly is all,” said the old man. One couldn’t tell from first look, but Emil Boggs was one of the best trackers that Fran’s family had ever hired. That seemed like ages ago, since now he was better at sniffing out a hidden bottle of grog than anything of value. He staggered towards a chair. It scraped against the floor as he pulled it out, and it trembled under his weight as he plopped down. A vacant smile crossed his features as he sighed. Fran’s nose wrinkled; the old man looked like he might be relieving himself.
“There a reason you’re sittin’ with me?”
“Too good for an old feller’s comp’ny?” Boggs cackled. “Don’t be like Hi, Francis. He’s got…whatchercallit…an inflated sense of self.”
“Intellectual words from an old timer tha’ can’t spell his own name,” Fran grumbled. He pushed his stew away from him; the smell from Boggs was killing his appetite.
“Intellect comes from walkin’ this dried out husk of a place for as many years as I,” Boggs replied, winking and wagging his finger in off-kilter loops. “Gotta say, don’t see what these hands see in Hi. Him spendin’ all that time with the magistrate, sippin’ wine and talkin’ mighty fine. Actin’ quite lordly if ya ask an old feller like me.” He smiled, exposing a mottled graveyard of teeth. “I’m a-down here, drinkin’ dregs and sleepin’ with ugly women on mats harder’n the ground…well, it don’t sit right, s’all I’m sayin’.”
Fran wiped his face, holding in a groan. Hiram was the boss: he’d earned it from their Pa. Big Blanchette didn’t waste time hiding the fact that he played favorites, and the older brother was stronger, faster, fearless, and not damaged goods like the younger Fran. It didn’t matter that Hiram was ruthless and just as apt to put a bullet in Pa if it meant a big payoff. Hiram was in charge, and that meant Hiram did as he pleased.
“If you expect me to try and rouse this crowd in my favor, Boggsy, well then…” Fran chuckled darkly and shook his head. He stood from the table and pushed his hat down atop his head. “You’re more drunk’n usual. I’m content with a woman and a hard bed.” He walked away from the table, trying not to focus on the eyes that watched him as he moved.
One foot clomped on the floor, while the other dragged. He felt stares following him. He always told himself that he would get used to everyone watching him as he walked, but he always felt awful. His Pa told him once, in a rare moment of compassion, that childhood wounds wouldn’t bleed a man. But his Pa had been wrong. He heard snickers. He saw the tight-lipped smiles. He hated them, but not as much as he hated his own devolved self.
“Afternoon, sug,” purred a voice, and Fran looked into the pale eyes of one of the younger whores. She might have been seventeen, and her face bore a wicked scar from ear to jaw, but she was pretty enough, with a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks and a tousled nest of brown hair framing her head. She reached out and stroked his bicep, winking. “Been watchin’ you eat for a good while now. You’re a hungry fella.”
“Yep. Still hungry, ya might say.”
Her eyes glowed. “Might be that I could help ya with that, honey.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
She gestured toward the stairs, and he followed her.
He leaned against the bed and tightened his belt. He wobbled as he stood. A thin veil of sweat glowed on his upper lip and forehead. He felt her arms wrap around his chest, and her warmth rub against his back, and he smiled. “You aim to charge me for a second go-round, that the story?”
“I like my work, what can I say?” Her voice coated him like honey, drowning out the shame of those eyes upon him not so long ago. Some of the other riders would whisper about finding their wives in these places, taking them along after a job and making brats in their home. Celeste seemed like the type to him.
He untangled from her grasp and pulled on his shirt. “I don’t know how long we’ll be in town. If it’s too long, you’ll see me soon enough.”
She pouted. Her lips, which tasted like perfection, were plump and rosy, and that look made him want to taste them again, but he fought the urge. She’s just good at her job. Damn good. He offered her a wink, and reached into his fold. She placed a hand over his, shaking her head. “Not here. Pay Delbert. He’ll give us what we need for later.”
“He give you a fair cut?”
Celeste shrugged. “Pays us what we need. Some of us take the money, others take the gaze, if it’s our fancy.” Her eyes flickered at him; she’d notice how he’d stiffened at the mention of the dust. “I got some, if you want it. I’ll have to charge for that, too, and Delbert will take care of it.”
He cleared his throat. “Why would I want any gaze, woman?”
“You’re a might twitchy. I get that way too,” she added quickly, reddening at his stare. “If I ain’t had some in a bit, I mean. If you don’t want it, all’s well, I’d prefer to keep my store. But I got some, all I’m sayin’, and I’m willin’ to part if you want to partake.”
He stroked his wispy beard. “How much?”
She laughed. It was a throaty, seductive noise that made him think of the worst kinds of temptation, and he loved it. “Well that all depends, sug,” she crooned. “On what all you want."
Fran staggered away from the table, his head screaming with a variety of emotions, all tumbling atop one another, none so powerful as purest ecstasy. His arms and legs – even the bad leg – thrummed with tingling energy, and his face felt like it was being fanned in the coolest breeze. Celeste bent over, inhaling deep and long, before jerking erect and shivering with her own cacophony of sensations.
“It’s so true,” she purred, her words echoing in the space of the cramped room, and she tumbled into his arms, gripping him and twitching against his body, laughing and bizarre. His lips trembled before he broke into a fit of laughter, and she joined in.
“Is this…” she breathed. “Is this what you longed for, cowboy?”
“Don’t hold no truck with cows,” Fran corrected, mockingly stern. “I catch criminals. I bring them to places where they can shiver on the gallows.” He pounded his chest and puffed out his lips. “I am the brother of the famous Hiram Blanchette. I am a man feared.”
“I tremble in your presence,” Celeste cooed.
They roared with laughter, and before he realized what she was doing, she was tearing free his shirt. He allowed it with a smile and a luxurious groan. “Be gentle with me…” she was saying, amongst other words of feigned acquiescence, but they blurred together, and Fran allowed them to, feeling so blessed in the high of the gaze and the warmth of the woman. Her face appeared in his vision, and it was beautiful despite the scar. She was kissing him, her lips soft and smooth, and whispering in his ear, her words sultry and subservient.
A phrase struck his hearing, and the joy he’d felt shattered, and his heart seized with betrayal and fury. He snatched her and pushed her away, and he could feel his face burning with darkness. Her face, moments ago so rosy and flushed and beautiful, paled with confused terror. Her sweatstained shift clung to her curvy form, and she held it closer, hugging herself.
“What did you call me?” Fran growled, and he was on his feet. His shirt flapped around him as he advanced on her, his lame foot dragging along the wood floor with grinding speed.
“I don’t…I mean…”
He snatched her under the jaw and shoved her into the wall. “What did you call me, whore?”" he bellowed, spittle flying. He saw only red, and in the midst of it was a scared girl, trembling, a leaf in the wind.
“I said you was my secret hero…” Her voice cracked and tears leaked from her eyes. She held her hands up and shook her head. “I said…I said you was lame but you walked so tall…”
He roared at her, and he swung, his fists crashing down upon her face. She shrieked, and he hit her, again and again, screaming and cursing her, incurring his vengeance upon her cuckolding ways, denying her sweetness. She was a whore; a bitter creature full of venom and poison and lies.