The saloon was visible from halfway down the street. It wasn't only due to the fact that the Rhodes Parlour House stood out at the end of it, alone and stately, but also because it was one of the only establishments still alive and bright in spite of the late hour.
The rest of the town was shrouded in darkness, save for the few dim, curtain-covered windows of upstairs rooms, visible as flickering yellow squares in dark walls. The Parlour House was a rather different story. Light shone out through the uncovered windows like beacons calling out to the rowdy and wakeful, inviting them to join in with the carousing, the muffled noise inside sounding for all the world like a party in a bottle. It all seemed so distant, the tack piano, the occasional raucous singing of the patrons despite the saloon's attempt to look refined, the life inside. A muted cheer went up from within and the music ceased for a second with the tuneless clang of a musician surprised, and then it continued on as if nothing had happened after only the briefest of pauses to catch its breath.
Micah Bell approached it, first on horseback and then, after hitching the reins to a post on the street side of the fence, on foot. Anyone else might have taken the saddlebag inside, but there were precious few horses as ill-natured as Baylock and Micah knew that anyone with a mind for thieving would find themselves stumbling to wake the doctor with a hoof shaped bruise or a vicious bite from equine teeth ... and that was if they came up lucky.
He wasn't in a particularly good mood, but he wasn't in the worst one either. The black bruising around his eye had finally faded -- the last gift of either an overzealous lawman or an O'Driscoll thug, he couldn't quite remember -- and he was feeling better for having re-joined the Van der Linde gang after a leave of absence and a peace offering on his part. Nobody had been particularly pleased to see him, nobody other than Dutch, but that wasn't unexpected. What was unexpected was Sean MacGuire being back. Micah had taken him for dead along with the Callander Brothers, probably with a necklace of rope, for playing his part in the Blackwater job. Instead they'd mounted a four-man rescue, pulled him valiantly from the clutches of some Canadian bounty hunters, and had a big shindig, he'd heard. A real party. Apparently it was common to celebrate returning 'heroes'; it boosted the gang's morale.
His return had happened quietly, and without fanfare. Nobody had suggested a party for him. Instead, there had been Words said, mostly about his conduct in Strawberry and his causing trouble with old friends, though he suspected more had been muttered while he'd been away, either while he was behind bars or after he'd been broken out by just Morgan, who had been pretty clear about wanting to leave him to swing. He'd placated and toadied and it had been put to rest with promises that a repeat wouldn't happen, but the talk of a party had stirred a need for drink and revelry in him, so he'd taken his horse and rode out, seeking it on his own if they weren't inclined to do the providing.
Rhodes seemed as good a town as any, with its red soil, sticky air and lively saloon.
The doors swung open, sending a glistening rectangle of light out across the boards and path beyond them. The noise from inside spilled out with it, the volume rising abruptly. A man stumbled out, clearly in his cups, and stopped, supporting himself one-handed on one of the posts that supported the balcony above. For a moment it seemed as though he was going to fumble himself out and piss where he stood, but instead he righted himself and staggered his way from the door, narrowly missing Micah before he turned off down a path that went around the side of the building.
Micah narrowed his eyes as he approached, not particularly in the mood for starting trouble, especially so late, but relaxed when the collision didn't come.
She idly tracked the other one round the building, knowing he was likely to be seeking the outhouse, but in doing so she lost the newcomer. He wasn't there when she looked back. The sound of a steady stream thudding to the dry packed ground below had taken her attention from the footsteps, but the renewed open-door clamour told her where he'd gone, as if she couldn't guess.
She took a last taste of what passed for cool, clean air in Lemoyne and went indoors, exchanging it for the smell and heat of the saloon.
Inside, the House was alive with the sounds of vice. The clinking of glasses, the dealer at the black jack table and the muffled noises of customers in private rooms with the other girls provided a soundtrack to the evening, one not so readily heard from the outside. It wasn't a weekend, but that hardly mattered. Farms and ranches didn't have down days or short hours like stores and banks, and vagrants didn't work Monday to Friday, so as far as some of the rougher patrons were concerned, no weekend was as good as every day being one. Besides, the Grays liked their money, so they hardly complained.
Most of the men upstairs were regulars. The bank teller, the man who worked the station -- the one who didn't make claims of a wife in spite of his obvious predilections -- and a couple of the classier traders in from Saint Denis were faces she knew. The men at the card table she didn't. She smiled at them all the same, sweeping her fan aside as she turned on the charm while giving them no undue attention. She knew who spent on women and who only had an eye for the dealer's money.
She stepped lightly down the stairs and nodded politely at other men, but she had her target, her mark. Some men, she knew, would never seek her company and she knew them on sight, regular or not. Others would do so, but be embarrassed about it, and furtive, usually on account of a wife, be they a shrew, or strung out due to young children, or just plain not interested in sating the desires of the drunken sot they'd married a decade ago when love seemed real and forever hadn't looked so long and full of heartache. Some, the single men, those with no time for feelings -- at least if you took them at their word -- were more open, both with their flattery and their wealth.
Sometimes she compared her work to that of a bounty hunter, for all their methods differed. You picked a target, you tracked them a while and then you struck when the time was right. Well, cash for flesh was cash for flesh, it didn't much matter which way you cut it.
The one she'd followed inside leaned on the bar, an empty whisky glass in front of him already. Dressed in red, white and black he stood out amongst the other patrons. He had his attention half on the bartender and half on a group of men wearing distinctive blue coats and yellow neckerchiefs that she knew were trouble. They weren't supposed to even be there, but nothing had been said as yet, and nobody seemed to have their back up, so she put to work her talent for redirecting attention before anyone could set off a spark.
"I'll take another," the man said, his voice liquor-hoarse and his manner of talking definitely not local. He waited only as long as it took the glass to be refilled before emptying it into his mouth.
Upon closer inspection, he didn't look much of a ranch hand. Two revolvers and a heavy leather coat quite inadvisable in the Rhodes climate put paid to that assumption. He looked rather more like a vagrant, possibly an outlaw. That was fine. An outlaw's money was just was good as anyone else's, even if the blood was difficult to wash out.
"Evening, cowboy," she said, pitching her voice to cut through the burble of the bar. Even though the guess at his profession didn't ring true, it didn't do to offend with presumption of a man's criminal status.
He turned his attention to her, a somewhat ratty curtain of what was probably oil-darkened blond hair half obscuring his face. She saw blue eyes rake over her from her half fan-concealed face to her waist and didn't miss the questioning quirk of an eyebrow.
"Looking for some company?" She ventured.
He seemed to think on it for a moment and then turned properly, running his gaze over her like a trader assessing the goods, more openly this time. It was a common enough reaction. She wasn't up tight enough to take offense. A good saloon girl was pretty, after all. Prettier girls could demand higher prices.
"Well now," he said, leaning back to get a better look. "I just might be," he sounded interested, like his day had just turned out better than he expected. He wasn't particularly handsome, especially with the scar on his chin and lip, but she'd seen worse faces and uglier scars. "But it depends on your rates, sweetheart."
Straight to the point, then. He wasn't there to dance around the point, that much was plain, nor did he intend to make a show of pretending not to know that whatever could transpire was purely transactional.
"Liza," she corrected, preferring that to 'sweetheart'. It was her working name, but still part of her real one. 'Liza' was for clients and the rather less fancy 'Betty' was for friends. "Four dollars, but three if you bathe first." She could afford that luxury. Most of them took her up on the ultimatum and the ones who didn't paid an extra dollar. It worked for her either way.
"I'll take the bath," he said, after a moment. "How much on top for a room for the night?" One eyebrow went up into the shadow of his hat. A gentleman might have taken it off indoors, but he obviously wasn't one of those.
"A dollar fifty," she said. It was a good enough deal. Four dollars and fifty cents for a room, a bath and pleasant company who would pretend to like you. A bargain, really.
"That," he said, drawing out the word, "sounds just fine."
She gave a nod at the barman's helper, Jerry, who excused himself to find someone to prepare the room and bath.
"So what do they call you?" Liza asked, moving up to join him at the bar. She leaned on it with one elbow, casual enough, but in the same way that a cat was casual as it luxuriated in the sun all the while watching a bird ten feet away.
He laughed, the sound low, uninhibited and dirty, as though at a lewd joke. He sucked in a breath through his teeth, and she could see his grin behind his mustache, his uneven teeth. "They call me a lot of things, most of it not suitable for," another short laugh, this time kept in his throat, "polite company." His voice was abrasive even without the whiskey burning his throat. "Call me Micah."
"Micah it is," she said, folding her fan. Biblical. Interesting.
He tapped his empty glass on the bar and gestured the barman back over. "Same again," and then he turned to Liza. "You shoot whiskey?"
Liza thought about that for a moment. Well, it couldn't hurt to make some extra cash. Men liked to offer saloon girls drinks in exchange for their company and attention. The barmen watered down the girl's drink, or simply switched it with weak tea or coffee of a similar colour, all the while taking full rate, half because it didn't eat into their stock that way and half because it kept her alert and sober when alone with strange men of unknown and probably questionable character. Both of them got a cut of the profit, the girls didn't have to take anything off and the only thing that got stroked was the man's ego. It suited everyone and it was easy work. Some girls in some saloons found that more lucrative than whoring. For Liza... it was a bit of extra pocket money.
"I do," she said.
"And one for her too, then," Micah said, pointing to make clear to whom he was referring.
She gave the barman a smile and he served Micah his whiskey and slid her a glass of what passed for it. She drank it dutifully, realising that today it was well watered coffee as it washed over her tongue, the drink not quite diluted enough to chase away the bitter tang.
She could tell from the bottle that he'd poured Micah's drink from that he'd asked for the good stuff, not the diluted swill they sometimes fobbed the drunker men off with, or the caramel-browned moonshine the less discerning clientele couldn't tell from the real thing.
"You worked here long?" Micah asked, licking the flavour of his drink from his lips. It was fortunate that he'd chosen whiskey over beer, if only because it stopped his mustache getting soaked in the mouth of a wider glass. The question was casual, but the intent was clear enough. 'How skilled are you' or, perhaps, 'how used'.
"About six months," she said, truthfully. Before then she'd worked back home, on her uncle's farm. When that had been sold off, she'd left to find her fortune. A few years working strictly as a saloon girl had given way to this work. One day, she figured, she could even be a Madam, although perhaps not in Rhodes. Maybe Saint Denis. "You ain't from round here, are you?"
"That obvious?" He gave that laugh again. "No, I am not. I'm over from near Valentine."
"Pretty country," she said, having seen it once or twice. "But quite the ride."
"Don't say that just yet," he said, whiskers twitching at his own joke. "There's just..." he lengthened the last word, nearly hissing the 's', serpentine and snakelike, "a better class of saloon out this way. Better class of girl, too, looks like."
Ah, so at least he wasn't above a little bit of flattery. She smiled though; she wasn't entirely above it either. "You're sweet," she told him, and he smiled like that wasn't one he'd heard before.
Small talk came easy. He got himself another drink, she accepted a second, and she put off interest from other men with practiced ease. It didn't take too long for Jerry to return. He gave Liza a nod, and she leaned off the bar.
"Shall we?" She asked.
"Lead the way, Miss Liza," Micah said, abandoning the fourth-time empty glass on the bartop.
She took his hand and took him upstairs.
The room that had been prepared was nice enough, although not the best one. The door locked, the bed was clean and comfortable, and a bath tub stood in one corner, steaming with the promise of hot, fresh water. Liza closed the door behind them and found herself unsurprised to feel Micah's hand on her cinched waist and his breath on her ear once it had clicked into the frame.
"Just so you're aware," she said, turning her head enough to see him out of the corner of her eye. "I don't do anything ... French." It wasn't worth the comments from the other girls, or the indignity of it. Sex was one thing, but putting any part of these cowboys and outlaws into her mouth, bathed or not, was going too far. It simply wasn't done. Not by classier girls, anyway.
His laugh sounded deep so close to her ear, more so than the pitch of his voice. "If that was a dealbreaker, I'd have gone to Saint Denis," his voice softened, but came with the rough sensation of his mustache prickling her neck. "I hear they're all French there."
Liza turned to him and pressed her mouth to his, standing just short enough that he had no need to remove his hat. He kissed well enough, like he'd had just enough practice to know what he was doing, but not quite enough to be good at it. His lips were surprisingly soft, offset by the bristles of his mustache, and he tasted of whiskey and tobacco. Up close, the smell of sweat, pipe smoke and horse was impossible to ignore, but that would wash away easily enough. Besides, she'd seen to worse men.
She pulled away with just the right amount of reluctance and looked up at him, still close enough to feel his breath and see the smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks, all nearly lost in the tan across his face. His eyes, she noticed, were brown in the middle, not the pure blue she'd taken them from downstairs. He met her gaze shrewdly, an unspoken question there. She laid a hand on his cheek, feeling the whiskers under her palm, and felt him lean in to the gesture, seeming almost to relax, and closing his eyes.
When he opened them again, she thought that the look of them lay halfway between that of a snake coiled up, tail rattling, and those of a dog sniffing at the edge of a dinner table hoping for a scrap thrown his way. Sharp, clever and morose all at once.
"Let's wash the dust of the road off, shall we?" She said, phrasing it like a question although they both knew it wasn't.
He cleared his throat and stepped back from her, apparently not in the mood for arguing, or at least knowing better. Proper baths were hard enough to come by on the trail and that was without the added bonus of a woman to help you with it.
He shrugged out of his coat.
He didn't cut a particularly impressive figure. In the light and noise of the saloon he'd looked tough, rough and brash, hat slightly askew, spurs on his boots jangling with every step. Here and now, in the privacy of the room, he looked tired. The scar on his chin stood out, looking more like a haphazard tear than the track of a knife's point, and he stood awkwardly, slightly paunchy and round shouldered, both undoubtedly a result of a lifetime slouching in a saddle. If she had to guess his age, she'd have plumbed for ... maybe forty five, but he could be ten years off that with a hard life behind him easy enough. Crow's feet were seldom choosy about the faces they settled on.
"Looks like they forgot the towels," she said, flashing him a smile that she hoped looked frustrated enough. "I'll be right back." It wasn't really an error, they always did it that way. Most of her clients preferred to undress alone if they'd chosen the bath, or else take advantage of a soiled dove's services half-dressed and without the fuss of re-dressing afterwards.
"Sure thing," he said, drawing the word out in a drawl. She stepped out, closing the door behind her, and heard the soft swish of fabric against wood that told her he'd hung his hat on the peg the landlord had driven into the other side.
Liza crossed the open second floor to the supply room, making sure to walk like a woman on a mission, rather than using the eye-catching, hip-swinging gait she deployed when trying to attract the attention of men with a mind for spending. It didn't put a couple of them off, but she dodged them with a smile and disappeared behind a door marked 'Private'.
By the time she returned, Micah had helped himself to the tub.
She saw that he'd been surprisingly neat with his clothes and belongings. Some customers left their gear in a heap by the bath, some folded it neatly in spite of its need to be laundered. Micah was halfway between the two. His clothes had been left draped over the room's single chair, his rig over the top, one gun in place in the holster and the other on the nightstand with a billfold of blackened leather. His coat alone was hung up over the long mirror, probably because it was the only thing long enough to hang it on without it getting dirty from the floor, though it could easily be so that he didn't have to look at himself full-length in the age-spotted glass.
He sat, hair wet, an outlaw incongruously surrounded by bubbles. He looked up at her, again bringing to mind thoughts of a sullen hound. His soaked hair didn't help matters. He eyed her from the bath, and the faint smell of soap gave away that he'd made a bit of an effort to clean up before she returned. There was a little foam still clinging to his beard.
"Relax," she told him, kneeling beside the tub. The water had lost the clear quality of being freshly poured, no doubt coloured by the dust that no longer dirtied his hair.
"I don't usually take a bath with an audience," he said after clearing his throat, his eyes following her hand as she reached for the washcloth.
That didn't surprise her. Liza hadn't taken him for the sort of man who stripped down to his birthday suit to seek the services of whores. Most didn't. An open shirt and their trousers half down was the furthest most went, though the majority just got their cock out to do the deed. Sensuality wasn't high on the priority list for most of them.
"I'm not an audience," she chided, dipping the cloth into the water and soaping it up. It wasn't strongly scented, but it was certainly an improvement on 'grubby outlaw'.
He snorted, a harsh little sound, but didn't complain while she washed him clean of the dirt. He seemed to enjoy the treatment, not even telling her to cut the smalltalk. He talked about the two scars on his chest when she asked, and seemed to preen when she ran her fingertips over the raised, healed skin, as if she was admiring a medal of honour. Knife fight, to hear him tell it, though they always said that, if they weren't claiming to have fought off a catamount, or a bear. It made for a better story than some alternatives she could think of. He relaxed under her hands when she rubbed his shoulders, and tensed right back up when she stroked his cock under the water.
He gave a laugh, low and dirty, and Liza considered that the perfect time to get down to the real business of her profession, and he didn't need much encouragement, getting out of the tub with rather less hesitation than she expected he'd got into it with. She ran the towel over his skin, not doing much to dry him off, but knowing she didn't need to. The hot Lemoyne night did the work she didn't put in.
Liza straddled him on the bed, guiding him into her with practiced ease. She watched him below her, his mouth slightly open at the sensation of her around him, his eyes half closed.
Men weren't hard to please, not really. A whore didn't have to be his everything, or act like a wife, all obedient, yet demure. They just had to be what he wanted there and then, in that moment. It didn't matter what name he uttered, be it yours or that of a lost love, his enjoyment was what mattered, what he paid for. Taking slips and fantasies personally did nobody any favours.
Micah... he was refreshing. He said no names, brought no lost loves into the room uninvited. He merely groaned at every other stroke, enjoying the here-and-now, the heat, the feeling, the pleasure. It was a means to an end for him, the result his goal, not the reverie that took him there.
Some opted to paw at her breasts, unsurprising with how she wore an outfit that showed them off, but Micah didn't bother. Instead looked up at her, running his hands up her thighs. She felt the snag of his reins-rough palms on the fabric of her stockings, then the callused pads of his fingers on her skin just above them. When he'd had his fill of that intimacy, he rested his hands on her waist, gently shaped as fashion dictated, but made no attempt to unlace her corset. Some did, but she slapped their hands, or their faces if she thought she could get away with it, for their cheek.
She had a feeling Micah hadn't seen many women without one, intimate as it was. If there had been anyone in his life comfortable with showing the imperfections that the girdle concealed, she'd be surprised.
But she wasn't there to judge.
She rode him, making pleasured noises in all the right places, not all of them faked for his benefit.
Men liked to think they were doing a good job, even if they didn't care about the girl's pleasure for the most part. It was an ego stroke for them, and a silent whore was no fun whatever way you looked at it, and so she made the appropriate sounds for him, high and pretty, breaths hitched. It wasn't a bad job, or a difficult one, and sometimes it could be surprisingly fulfilling, but it wasn't the non-stop hedonistic pleasure that married women sometimes thought it might be when they talked about the job, all full of scorn and scandal. Providing a service often meant the server going without.
She leaned forward atop him, adjusting the angle of his cock with it, placing her hands on his chest. He felt hot to the touch, and she could feel the flutter of his heart beneath his ribs. His louder groan gave away his approval, and the ones that followed reinforced it.
"Thaaaaat's enough of that," he said after a few minutes, taking a breath that she was pleased to hear was unsteady. "I want you on your back," he came up short, as if he'd remembered just in time not to call her 'sweetheart' or 'darlin'' but couldn't quite remember the name she'd given him earlier.
It wasn't unusual for the customer to want to control their narrative towards the end. Some of her customers wouldn't allow themselves to be ridden at all, preferring instead to get the deed done quickly and under their own steam from start to finish, though they were usually the same ones that refused the bath. Consideration wasn't their strong point, they simply considered the whore to be there for their use or amusement and their comfort to be irrelevant in the face of their jobs. Micah hadn't argued, though he'd almost seemed the type that would. Something in his step had told of belligerence and an argumentative nature, but in private he'd turned out to be ... not shy, that wasn't the right word, but somewhat unsure of himself. Awkward. She'd wondered if he was more comfortable in a fight than an embrace, if harsh words came more naturally to him than gentle ones. He'd liked the attention from her, the way even a guard dog liked a scratch behind the ears, but in her experience some control had to be taken back eventually, so she got off him to hand over the reins.
He pushed hard into her, the sudden intrusion drawing a sharp sound from her throat, and waited barely a moment before he moved, harder and faster than she had atop him. He wasn't particularly rough, just... intense and intent on finishing.
She ran her hands over his shoulders, looking up into his lust-darkened eyes. This time, she didn't bother to fake pleasured cries, she made enough noise without the embellishment. He, however, stayed quiet for the most part, with only the occasional harsh growl escaping from between his teeth.
She pushed his near-dry hair back off his face with one hand, tucking it behind his ear. He didn't lean into it that time, but he closed his eyes all the same.
He didn't last much longer, and his movements became harder, more insistent. When he stilled, she knew it was done. He hadn't been polite enough to pull out, but that wasn't hers to demand. He panted, resting his forehead on her shoulder instead of breathing in her face, and she stroked his hair until he got off her and lay down on the other side of the narrow bed.
"Well then," she said into the silence of the room, her breath a little fast, a sheen of sweat on her skin. The lively cacophony outside the door seemed ever so distant in that moment.
"Uh huh," Micah said.
The quiet stretched out, the silence broken only by their breathing. Hers was light, but quick, his was heavier, slower, a sign of age, perhaps. Neither moved for a while, until they had caught their breath, and then Micah reached for the bedside table with one hand, groping for his billfold. He touched upon the gun, but ignored it for the leather wallet. She wouldn't deny feeling slightly wary at that moment, but it was for nothing. He opened it and pulled out a five dollar bill. He handed it to her. "There. It's more than I owe, just make sure I'm not woken early and we'll say nothin' else about it."
She took it from him and found herself surprised. Few men tipped, fewer still tipped a that much. Either he was really rather wealthier than his scruffy outlaw-lookin' self suggested, or he hadn't had any decent sleep in weeks and didn't mind paying the price for rising late. The second seemed more likely. The bags under his eyes clearly weren't from one sleepless night, they were ground-in, a result of months and months of wakeful nights and catnaps to get by.
"I'll make sure you're not disturbed," she said, leaning over to press her mouth to his forehead in a kiss. Not darkened with paint, her lips left no print on his skin. "Come see me again sometime, hm?"
It was an honest invitation. She'd had far more difficult customers than him, both salt of the earth types and obviously better-off folk who dressed handsomely and had the faces of angels that rich girls would fight over, but a sort of demanding, entitled nature that made them unpleasant to deal with. She could put up with another turn with him. At least he didn't bite or scratch.
"Might just do that," he said, his lips curving into a smile. "Another time, Miss Liza."
It swayed gently on its nail after Liza closed it and he lay there for a moment, looking up at the stained ceiling, feeling his heart settle to a slower beat in his chest.
He dragged himself up, first to a sit and then to his bare feet, and crossed the room to turn the key in the door. He didn't need to be surprised by anyone in the morning and he certainly didn't need to accidentally waste a bullet on an over-zealous hotelier. A turn of the desk lamp's screw dimmed the light and he lay back down, pulling the thin blanket over him to hide his nakedness from the night air, and made himself comfortable.
Nobody would blink if he didn't return to camp that night. Morgan did it often enough and Charles stayed out for nights at a time, tracking and hunting and whatever else men like him did in the wilds for days. He could have been howling at the moon for all he knew. He wouldn't be looked upon strangely for spending a night out, though he suspected that a few of them would hope that something terrible had befallen him. Like a bear, or a group of trigger-happy outlaws that somehow knew he associated with Dutch Van der Linde.
He'd just have to disappoint them in the morning. No, that could wait until the afternoon. He wasn't going to get up early. He was going to enjoy the security of a soft bed in a nice saloon, partake in a breakfast of whatever they offered their patrons and take a slow, steady ride back to Horseshoe Overlook once the sun wasn't high any more.
He decided, as he felt himself grow drowsy, that he probably would come back to Rhodes. Well, the prices were good, the hotel was nice enough and the whores, or at least the lovely Liza, were pleasant and pretty.