Sophia ran a clean place. Eight women, all with their own rooms. They worked hard but it was the kind of work that did not turn your lungs to soup and the people who came here knew well enough not to raise a hand to any of her girls.
Naomi peered out over the balcony, amber eyes glinted in the evening light and brassy ringlets of hair hung around her face, heavy and soft as petals from an orchid. Her bronzed bosom strained at the partially unlaced corset. Sophia looked up and sighed. She would have been her most popular girl, how she moved, hips undulating, high, firm buttocks and a heavy-lidded arrogance that made men unable to keep her gaze.
She smiled at Sophie and clapped her hands together. The arrogance was a good act, a challenge to the men that they would never be free to answer. They would not be able to see the girlish ways that she expressed herself when men weren’t around.
Except for him.
The door rang and Naomi blew Sophie a kiss before she went back to her room and shut the door behind her.
Ben unlocked the door and walked up the staircase, slipping the key back around his neck. He opened the door at the top of the stairs and looked at her with a quiet hunger. His hat hung from the curled fingers of his right hand and his face beneath shone with perspiration and streaks of dirt across the bridge of his nose and his chin. He came unarmed, his guns stored in a locker. That had been the only thing she had ever insisted upon.
She had ran him a bath and he took off his coat, hung it on a hook on the wall to his left and then stripped off his clothes. He padded through to the bathroom and got in without speaking. Suffused in the hot water, he lifted his chin and she trimmed the unruly knots of beard, then lathered his cheeks, chin and throat before running the edge of a straight razor until his face was smooth. Her hands did not tremble when she shaved him. She had once been offered a large sum of money to slit his throat. She smiled, said that she would consider it. On his next visit, she told him and she never saw the man who had made the offer again.
Naomi had it good and she had it good in ways that she would never tell the other women.
Ben would travel all over, accompanying Mr Pemberton. There was a lot of railroad, dug and hammered and blown into being by broken back chinamen, and all of it needed the cold, paternal hand of Mr Pemberton to keep it all moving along. Mr Pemberton did not acknowledge that it was Ben’s presence, his reputation that made Mr Pemberton a man to be listened to, but he knew. It’s why he allowed Ben to keep a woman without marrying her whilst he broke bread with preachers and politicians.
Sometimes there would be blood beneath his nails, packed in tight like dirt. She would scrub it away without saying anything.
The water was black by the time he was clean and shaven and he led her to the bed without speaking. He undressed her slowly, the only acknowledgement were a few contented sighs and an expression of vacant wonder as he peeled off her corset and snaked his lean, hard arms around her.
What no one knew, what endeared him to Naomi in ways that she would never share, was when he would press his shaven cheek against her stomach and hold her. She learned that he liked his hair stroked as he did this, and that silence was the best course of action. She listened to his silences, knew that there were different textures and weights to each one. Tonight, it was the silence of resignation. Of things done that sat uneasily with him but he would never speak aloud.
When he moved his hands to her hip, she smiled with anticipation. Laid down, with her trembling thighs open as he used his tongue, learned from the squaws who’d been given detailed and amused instruction by the French. He would grunt, breathing through his nose and working her until she was crying out and clutching at her sheets as she bucked beneath his attention.
That was something that she did share with the girls. As much to boast as anything else.
Afterwards, she would kneel in front of him and return the courtesy. She had done it enough to gauge the subtle premonition of his release, a shortness of breath, a trembling hand on the top of her head and then a grunt before her mouth filled with his seed, thick and sweet from the time spent apart.
Ben was loyal to her, and she was loyal to the station that his patronage provided. A good arrangement that did not insult either of them by asking about what the future held. Afterwards she would stroke his hair until his eyes closed and he eased into a deep, restful breathing.
Naomi could have left a long time ago. She had enough saved from each visit to pay for a trip back east, but the thought appalled her. What family she had, were broken-teeth ugly and rattlesnake mean. Her looks had gotten her into trouble but she had known her currency and spent it cautiously. When Mr Pemberton had asked to see her and Sophie, she had hopes of serving him but he laughed and said that his marriage was important to him.
So, however was Ben, and his needs were simple.
They ate when he awoke before he would unpack his belongings, a small but considered collection of gifts from his travels. An entire rattlesnake skeleton, a dress from the tailor in London that pinched at the waist but she would wear simply to walk around in, speaking with an accent that she imagined was English but sounded Australian. She would celebrate him in his absence, but serve him with a focused deference in his presence. He did not attend at a regular time or hour, but she would be sent word and expected to be ready for his arrival.
Here, she knew, was a place of comfort. It paid well, but she had come to look forward to the time with him. It’s absence haunted her, and she found herself crawling with an unspoken need for him.
The money, though, sat in an account, growing damp and fat with interest. Enough, in truth, to leave. San Francisco appealed to her. She made no plans though, read and wrote through the days, took meals with the other girls then attended to her misery, nursing it like the child she would never have.
No, not that. It tempted her though.
One of the girls had reminded her, over dinner, that her currency was in the firmness of her ass and the tightness of her cunny, the big attentive eyes and the breathless repeals of how their cock was the monster to break her pretty ass in two. Flattery, in flesh and protestation, was what a man paid for, and time robbed a woman of that. The food had turned to ashes in her mouth, and it was all that she could do to walk away from the table without slapping her.
That night, though, he had come to her with a limp and his left hand clasped across his right.
‘Doctor.’ he said.
She ran downstairs, found Sophia who sent Eunice to find the sawbones and ran to get hot water and whatever medical supplies were around. Things got out of hand and the treatments were as much for the men as the girls. Jenny had broken the nose of a guy who tried to put it in her ass without paying for it.
He had laid out on the couch, his hat down by his side, a loyal elderly scrap of a thing these days but he held onto it. He gave a pained smile at the sight of her and she knelt before him. He took her hands in both of his and she could see the dirt packed beneath the nails. The scent of his blood rose in her nostrils and she turned away, unable to bear the fright that surged in her belly.
The sawbones was at the doorway, peering over his patchy, dangling beard and adjusting the collar of his shirt. Sophia ushered him in, and he strode forward.
‘Oh dear, let’s get that shirt off you so I can see what I’m dealing with.’
The wound was low, in his hip. The skin was dark and bloated, livid with bruising and the sawbones gave a low, careful whistle.
‘I’m going to need some room to work here.’
Naomi watched it all. Her head swam, watching how his blood soaked into the coach through the towels and smelling it in every breath. His blood was slick and dark in the light, and Naomi fought back a whimper at the first incision.
He endured it, looking at her with eyes that shone with pain and he drew strength from looking at her.
When he passed out, she left the room. The sawbones was conversing with Sophia in the hallway, they stopped when she saw them. Naomi plucked a handkerchief from her corset and held it in her hands.
‘Will he live?’
They looked at one another. Sophia bit her lower lip and fluttered her eyelashes.
‘Yes, but it’s not that simple. No one has asked the important question.’
No one had said about Mr Pemberton. They had gone out together, after all.
Naomi looked back towards the room.
‘I don’t care about Mr Pemberton. I care about him.’
The sawbones gave a dry chuckle.
‘It’s Mr Pemberton that pays the man. What he does with it, mostly, is keep you like a bird of paradise. One that’ll put her mouth on him without a spot of cajoling. So you really ought to be concerning yourself with the health of Mr Pemberton if you’re a woman capable of thinking past her emotions.’
Naomi walked away and pulled the chair over to where he laid. His eyes fluttered beneath his lids and his breathing was even. The sawbones had done a good job, made apparent by the taut bandaging and how he slept.
‘They’re worried about Mr Pemberton.’
He ran his tongue over his lips and sighed.
‘Might’ve pissed hisself but otherwise he’s good. I got him back without a scratch on him.’
I looked at the bandages over his hip.
‘Shame you can’t say the same.’
He put his hand out and opened his eyes.
‘I’m going to ask you to do something for me.’
She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
‘Anything, just you say it.’
He tried to raise himself up but his hip screamed at him and he sagged back against the couch, defeated.
‘I need you to leave.’
It was a slap. His voice was a whisper, a ghost of whatever the wound had taken from him.
‘No, I won’t. You need me to take care of you.’
He shook his head and grimaced as he sought to adjust his position.
‘I can’t protect you, right now, but if you leave, I’ll come to you.’
She was speechless. A slap of terror across her face as she clutched at her hands.
‘What’s happened? Please, I won’t leave without an explanation.’
He sighed and shook his head.
‘Things have changed. Mr Pemberton cannot hope that this is was a single incident.’
‘Then why should I go? You’ll be cold without me.’
He frowned and looked away.
‘I’ll bear it for a while, knowing you’re safe.’
She began to weep, as much for him as herself.
She sobbed until it was all out of her. Then, with stinging eyes and a thin layer of mucus across her upper lip, she nodded and sought to find more grief within herself.
She waited every Wednesday at the coach station for him. On what she swore would be her last day, she watched a man carefully step off with the aid of a stout cane. He had grown out a beard, heavily flecked with grey and the cuffs of his shirt hung loose around his wrists. He looked up, found her with a focus borne of endless contemplation and began to walk towards her.
She brought her hand to her mouth and moved towards him. He leaned on his cane and waited for her to come.
‘What kept you?’
He reached for her, fingers trembling until she took them in hers. The nails were clean, polished and scrubbed. She looked up and frowned at the thick, peppery beard.
‘No one ever shaved it with the same care.’
He looked around, in case anyone was listening before he leaned over and whispered to her.
‘A lesson, Mr Pemberton, failed to learn. Amongst others. Still, we’ll return to the house in the summer and see out the winter here.’
He rested her hand in the crook of his arm. His eyes glittered with a light that spoke to further questions. About what price he had truly paid for her, and what he had done. They walked along, he kissed her on the cheek and they walked into the end of the morning together.