Title: The Deadwood Job
Feedback address: email@example.com
Date in Calendar: 29 June 2007
Pairing: Inara Serra / Alma Garrett; Alma Garrett / Trixie; Joannie Stubbs / Jane Cannary; Kaylee Frye/River Tam
Rating: PG MATURE for Language (this is DEADWOOD, remember) and Sexual Situations.
Summary: Al Swearengen needs a job doing and calls on an old acquaintance to get it done
WARNING: heterosexual acts referred to.
Spoilers: Set early Season 2 Deadwood, and somewhere between the end of Firefly and Serenity.
Advertisement: Part of the FSAC:DD07
Disclaimer: Firefly belongs to the genius that is Joss Whedon and Deadwood belongs to David Milch and the fine people at HBO. I’m just a humble fan. No money is being made from this and no copyright infringement is intended.
Note: This isn’t so much a plot as a series of subplots and vignettes. One day I’m hoping it’ll grow up into a proper story.
The Deadwood Job
1. Al gets himself a Companion
Al Swearengen helped himself to another couple of fingers of Farnum’s rotgut and opened up the base. He hadn’t had himself a Companion for quite some time but things had been good lately in Deadwood and he felt like celebrating. The Gem Saloon was pulling in good trade more people arriving every week to stake their claim and make their fortune. And even those who had failed did good enough trade selling on their claim to the next mark and more often than not drinking and whoring on the proceeds in the Gem.
Inara Serra. Inara… Her name rolled off his tongue, left a taste behind like honey. Her dark eyes stared up at him, her sweet cultured voice listed her attributes and skills. A pretty little thing. Could give a moment or two’s ease to a troubled soul that was for certain. Oh, he wanted this girl. He put in his bid. It was more than he’d ever spent on a woman in his life but he had the sense that she would be worth it. And it did no harm to be seen as a man who could afford the services of a Companion. His wave was answered almost immediately. Inara Serra would be calling on him tomorrow afternoon at fifteen local time if that was convenient. Which of course it was.
Pleasure taken care of, he moved swiftly to business. He had some cargo needed moving, nothing that the Alliance or certain local interests need know about certainly nothing he wanted to pay dues on. There were various ships coming into port in the next day or so, some already broadcasting their readiness, their worthiness. He wasn’t looking for anything fancy. A nondescript freighter with a don’t ask-don’t tell policy for high-profit possibilities…
One took his eye. Firefly class. Serenity. A sweet name with darker overtones. Good enough reason as any to choose her. He looked for her captain’s name to see who he was planning to deal with. Mal Reynolds… another sweet name. Mal Reynolds. The world had turned a time or two since they last met. Swearengen smiled. He wondered if the hole he had left in the man’s shoulder still pained him any.
Reynolds was a fair man, honest in his way. Swearengen could respect that. He recognised that there was a place for honesty. And the man had been something of a hero in certain circles. He was known to be honourable, trustworthy if that could be said for anyone these days. And he had no love for the Alliance and their ways which was fine and dandy in Al Swearengen’s books. Yeah, Reynolds and his ship would do nicely.
2. Mal considers a job
“Where’s the job?” Jayne slid his second best knife into the scabbard in his boot.
“Deadwood,” Mal said. “Nice place… in its way.”
“Isn’t that Al Swearengen’s little fiefdom?” Zoe asked.
“Didn’t he shoot you one-time?” Jayne asked. His best knife went into the wrist scabbard, one flick of his wrist delivering it into his hand.
Mal frowned. “Honest mistake, it was a tense moment.”
“Way I heard, only mistake he made was missing your gorram head,” Jayne scoffed. He caressed Vera one last time making sure she was secure in her holster across his chest.
“Is there anyone out there that you’ve dealt with that hasn’t tried to shoot, stab or otherwise kill you?” Simon Tam asked. The doctor checked the contents of a slim case then slid it into an inside pocket. “What is the job, by the way… more crime, I suppose.”
“A little light smuggling,” Mal said. “Nothing we haven’t handled a hundred times before.”
“And for this little light smuggling, of all the ships in all the ports in all the world, Al Swearengen just happened to pick ours?” Zoe asked. She remembered the man from the War. A dealer in everything to everyone. If you had the currency or the trade goods. Tall, dark, handsome as the devil with a strange streak of sentimentality which meant that you could never guarantee exactly what he was going to do in any given situation. He could give the shirt off his back to help someone and the next day go out and cut their throat to get it back from them again. Not an easy man to deal with.
A lot of old timers had settled Deadwood. There were minerals in the hills that the Alliance wanted. Not enough to warrant them taking over the planet wholesale and stripmining it but sufficient to enable a lot of people to scrape out a living of sorts. People of a certain type tended to gravitate to Deadwood. Which meant that the Alliance usually had a place to start looking if they ever wanted to find them. And everyone would have a secret, a past they were trying to forget. A real home from home.
War stories would be common trade around the campfires and saloon tables, memories of times and places that were engraved in Zoe’s soul, her bones and all the more painful for it. Bittersweet was too kind a word for the way her memories made her feel sometimes.
An arm snaked around her waist, drew her close. Once such an invasion of her personal space would have led to the perpetrator finding him or herself terminally short of breath but now she leant back into the touch, craving it, craving him. “Hey, wife,” Wash breathed, his lips soft against the back of her neck. He pulled away long enough to look around her towards the Captain. “We’ve got all our permissions to dock and a couple of interested parties want to speak to you about carrying some cargo.”
“I’ll follow up on them after I’ve talked to Swearengen,” Mal said. “He has first call on our services.” He hefted his piece, cocked it, checking the clip and then secured it at his belt. “Jayne, you’re with me. Doc, you and your sister should be safe enough from the Alliance here but Deadwood’s got its own dangers. It’s a mite rough. I’ll leave it up to you if you want to keep River on board or not. Shepherd Book already declared his intention to staying on Serenity – Deadwood’s way too godless for his tastes so he can watch her if you’ve an errand or two to run.”
“I’m running low on some basic supplies – weave and universal plasma in particular. I’ve got enough of the more esoteric stuff that won’t get out this far too often to trade for it. There has to be some doctoring going on here even if the medic’s never been Core trained. But you’re right. I don’t think this is any place for River to wander. I’ll ask Book to watch her.”
“Okay… then you go out with Kaylee. I think she’s on a supply hunt as well. You can watch each other’s backs.” Mal knew that the Doc’s feelings for Kaylee meant he wouldn’t let any harm come to the young mechanic. River would never forgive him if he did. And he was getting handier in a fight these days. Between the two of them they could probably manage to hold off any trouble until he and Jayne or Zoe came to the rescue. Probably.
It was a chance they had to take. They needed supplies to do what they had to do. Ship needed to fly.
3. Joannie contemplates the path not taken
Joannie Stubbs knew a Companion when she saw one. Only a few bona-fide Companions worked the boondocks and she thought she knew all of them. This one was new though, pretty as well, her black hair sleek, her dark eyes bright though she kept her expression properly demure. Her dress was fine too, rich scarlet fabric that simultaneously clung to her curves in all the right places and flowed around her as if it was alive. She turned heads all right. She was slumming and it excited her. She wasn’t scared though. The Companion paused at the crossing, fastidiously raising her skirts so they would not trail in the mire, looking up towards the Bella Union with a kind of wistfulness before heading down towards the Gem. So the Companion had business with Al Swearengen. Trixie would have her nose put out of joint though if any of the rumours about her and either or both Sol Starr or the Widow Garrett were anything, the girl had naught to complain over. There were many that wondered what hold she had over Swearengen that he hadn’t killed her yet or put her out on her pretty ass.
The Companion slipped through the doors into the Gem. As Joannie drew back from the window she caught sight of Alma Garrett also watching the Gem’s doorway. Her expression was curiously wistful. Joannie remembered a conversation they had once shared about father’s who treat their daughter’s as commodities. She remembered her saying that her father had taken her out of school to marry her to first husband – had Alma Garrett once trained as a Companion? It explained much about her character and demeanour. She had their grace, their reserve – and their way with men if the smouldering looks of Seth Bullock were anything to go by. Joannie wondered if the still-young woman was remembering better days.
Joannie’s father had sold her services for the first time when she was just twelve years old. He couldn’t trade her as a virgin, daddy had used her as a bedwarmer for most of the previous winter since mamma had died of wet lung. Joannie hadn’t put up a fight so he would keep away from her younger sister Ruthie and he would stay home nights rather than spend his time and money on some whore. At least this way there was food on the table and money for the rent. When he sold her he took most of what she earned to drink himself into a stupor. Some of the men saw the truth of it and gave her a penny or two extra when her father wasn’t paying attention. By the time he died in some barfight she had enough scrimped to see Ruthie boarded with a good family and a job serving in a store and herself a ticket to the port. She was all of sixteen and whoring was the only trade she knew. The Companions wouldn’t touch used goods like she was no matter how pretty the face but six weeks after she got to the port she met Cy Tolliver and he had taken her under his wing seeing the keen mind behind the pretty face and trim body. She might not have Companion status but she did all right. It was only when she saw something like the dark haired woman walking so lightly that she seemed almost to float that she realised how far she had to aspire.
She needed some air.
4. Jayne meets a fellow traveller
Mal told him his time was his own until three o’clock when he had his appointment with Swearengen. So Jayne found himself a bar with the prospect of pussy, a supply of rotgut as long as he had the credits to pay for it and the comforting ambience of barely controlled mayhem. Just his kind of establishment. Someone lurched to stand in the space beside him, catching his arm. Rotgut splashed from the glass onto the blistered veneer of the bar. It sizzled gently. Jayne watched it eat through the surface for a moment before knocking back the remaining contents in the glass in one.
“Whiskey!” his new companion ordered gruffly.
“Jane! You know darn well Al said you weren’t welcome to drink in here no more,” someone shouted from behind them. Jayne turned to face his accuser, aware that his companion also turned round.
“Whut?” they both asked at the same time before turning to stare at each other. “He was talkin’ to me.” Their voices overlapped almost seamlessly. Someone sniggered before covering it with a coughing fit.
Jayne noticed for the first time that his companion was a woman. A fine looking one at that under the dirt and the smell of sweat, whiskey and horse. “He was talkin’ to me,” the woman repeated. “I’m Jane… Jane Cannary.”
“So m’I,” Jayne said. “Jayne Cobb.” He remembered his mother’s manners. “At your service, ma’am.”
“God damn,” she burst out laughing. “If that ain’t the goddam strangest frackin’ thing. Ain’t the name a might girlish for someone as strappin’ as you?” The man who had accosted them grabbed a hold of her arm and she violently pulled away, her small hand automatically cocking into a fist. “Let me the feck alone, you cocksucker! I got credits. Just escorted a train in from Yankton.” She pulled a handful of coin from her pocket and banged it onto the bar. “See.”
A good looking woman with credits to spend. As she turned he got a glimpse of the piece she carried under her coat and it too was fine, mighty fine. Well cared for too, he could tell. Her tits weren’t too bad either. The cocksucker let go of her arm, he was tall but weedy with curly hair and by the way he was looking Jayne up and down no great shakes in the brains department or he’d know better than to stare at him like that.
“You got no business with me other than to keep that rotgut coming,” Jayne said. “And what she don’t pay for I will, so your friend, ‘Al’ won’t lose anything either.”
“You agree to meet her debts, you’re welcome to her then. She’s trouble. Kill ya soon as look at ya, the mad bitch.”
“Ah, go fuck yerself,” the woman muttered, snatching the bottle from the bar and slouching down at a table.
Jayne looked down at his new boon companion and grinned ferally. Yep, his kind of woman.
She matched him drink for drink, story for story, curse for curse. Even taught him some new ones. He told her about Serenity and the sweet set up he had there, being the Captain’s right hand man. “Doesn’t make a gorram move without me by his side,” he grinned. “Without me to watch their backs and keep ‘em all one step ahead of the Alliance they’d all have been dead a thousand times. Not that I get any thanks.”
Jane nodded emphatically. “No thanks. I get that. I do the right thing and everyone acts surprised. And that good feeling, they just pulls it out from under your feet. Everyday takes figuring out all over again how to fucking live,” she said heavily. “Just when you think you’ve got it all fucking figured out everything ups and fucking changes.”
“Knows exactly what you mean,” Jayne said, picking up his glass and throwing back another shot. He found it tasted better if you didn’t let it linger too long on the tongue.
“There’s this woman, see. Joannie… Joannie Stubbs. Chief whore and bottlewasher to that cocksucker Tolliver. Leastways she was. Then she struck out on her own, ran her own women for a while but it didn’t work out. There was murder done and backs stabbed. I stuck up for her when others didn’t cos she was always pleasant to me. Took care of things for her. Stood guard when she feared for her life. And then she goes and kisses me. And not a sisterly kiss either. What the fuck am I supposed to do about that?”
“I know a whore who’s sly,” Jayne said. “Leastwise she’s a Companion. But she takes women as well as men.” He sniggered.
“Well I ain’t sly… leastways…” Jane emptied the dregs into her glass and looked at the empty bottle in bemusement.
“You been with a man though, ain’t ya?” Jayne asked, signalling the man behind the bar to send over another bottle. “I mean… you don’t look like no virgin type and you certainly don’t speak like one.”
“I don’t know you well enough for you to be asking me that. My heart’s true where it lands,” Jane struggled to her feet. “You callin’ me a whore now you cocksucker? Or are you just asking to screw me.”
Jayne grinned. “Well, if the offer’s open.”
The empty bottle hit him squarely between the eyes. Jayne fell backwards, his head bouncing audibly off the floorboards and then he just lay deathly still for a second or two before he started to snore. The room fell silent for a moment as everyone watched Jane lurch to her feet. “Just another fucking cocksucker like all the rest of you,” she announced. They all went back to their drinking and conversing. No one had died it was just that crazy talking she-man again and what poor excitement there had been seemed to be over. Business as usual.
The barman started towards her and Jane backed off, hands raised. “I’m going, I’m going… All you serve is fucking horse piss anyways.” Her grand exit was interrupted by the arrival of a handsome stranger. He blocked the doorway, obviously looking around for someone.
“I’m looking for Jayne Cobb,” he announced. The barman pointed to the slumbering body on the floor and then at Jane.
“She can explain what happened,” he said.
5. Jewel gets a taste of what might have been
Jewel crouched under the stairs, clutching her sweeping brush and watching the world go by. Watching the girl. Watching her shine. This was not a place for her young and sweet as she was. But as she watched the girl changed. Such a power within her though. She seemed to grow taller, older, her kittenish youth transforming into sleek pussycat, prowling amongst the tables, deftly avoiding the drunken hands that reached for her tender body. There was a grace to her that made Jewel’s breath catch in her throat. It was hard to comprehend that something so fluid, so beautiful could exist in the same ‘verse as her gangrel self. She drew into the shadows as the girl swept by then gasped as the girl crouched down, tilting her head to regard Jewel, her dark eyes black, almost doll-like.
“I see you,” she sing-songed, smiling. “Come out and play.”
Jewel crawled awkwardly from her hiding place, her crabbed limbs cramping and wayward. The girl made no attempt to help her to her feet and for that Jewel was glad. She needed no pitying reminders of her infirmity. The boots and braces the doc had fashioned for her helped some with her walking but for the getting up and getting down were just something else to fight with.
“You shine,” she said, by way of conversation. “You… you’ve not been here be… before. I would ‘member.”
“No, I’m very new,” River said. “Like my namesake you’ll never cross my path twice.”
Jewel crowed with laughter at that. “I get it. I get it. Your name. You’re River ain’tchya. River… can’t never cross the same River twice. Water washes away all…”
River giggled. Then, her expression grew dreamy, she reached out and touched her fingers gently to the side of Jewel’s head. And gradually the palsied movements in her arms, the facial tics faded away and Jewel knew a moment of great peace and stillness. She raised her hand, amazed at the smoothness of the movement and reached out to touch River’s face in turn, her actions sure, precise. “Thank you,” she said clearly. River’s expression became strained, beads of sweat broke out on her brow.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I can’t give you forever. Too hard… Too old… The damage… too deep.”
“Born with it. I know. Thank you. Thank you for the moment.” Jewel twitched violently as if she were a puppet whose strings had all been pulled at once, as River snatched away her fingers, nursing her hand as if it had been burnt.
“I’m sorry… sorry… sorry!” River fled as fast as she could. Jewel jerked her head until she could see the girl disappear through the door into the street, tears glistening in her eyes.
6. Al enjoys the profits of his endeavours
Al never made his women swallow. He thought it a kindness. The Companion was no different. Her skin might be softer her smell more expensive but when it came down to it she was just another woman. If he closed his eyes it could have been Trixie or any nameless woman. One warm wet cavern was pretty much like any other. He was slightly disappointed and relieved at the same time. There was no especial mystery here. Just another woman. Just another whore.
The Companion – Inara, he remembered - decorously spat and rinsed out her mouth over by the washstand. He lay on the bed and watched her. She was graceful, moved as if to music only she could hear. My god, the money he could make if she was his… but maybe he would keep her for himself. He thought about that for a moment, weighing up the pros and cons of annoying the Guild that much. Hand in glove with the Alliance as they were it would bring a world of grief down on his head that he did not need right now or ever. And the little lady herself might just object. He’d heard tell that they were trained in more skills than just pillowtalk. Better just to savour the moment. She’d be bound to disappoint sooner or later, they always did. Better to stay with the image, the ideal. He committed the pale perfection of her skin, the dark smooth silk of her hair to his memory. Fantasy was cheaper anyhow and didn’t talk back as much.
And he had business to attend to. Mal Reynolds would be calling on him within the hour to discuss his commission.
He held out his hand to her, she took it, her handshake surprisingly firm for such a slip of a thing as he palmed her the credit chip. Discretion in all things.
“I hope we can do business again,” he heard himself say. To his surprise, he meant it.
7. Doc Cochran recalls the stuff of legend
Doc Cochran couldn’t believe his eyes. The stuff of legend had just walked by his tent. Sergeant Zoe Warren, on the arm of a redheaded man with a deplorable taste in shirts and the expression of the luckiest man in creation. The years had been good to her and she looked happy, content with life and her place in it. Didn’t mean to say she looked any less dangerous. The piece on her hip told its own story. As did the snug fit of her breeches across that delectable backside.
He smiled in bittersweet memory. Sergeant Warren was one of the great might-have-been’s of his life. She’d been a damn good field nurse as well as a soldier and he had worked beside her as she helped out in the battlefield hospital when it seemed she was the only one of her company still standing. She had a good eye, he remembered, plenty of sense about her and a steady hand. He remembered some of them he’d doctored – the Captain Mal Reynolds, a young hothead with a charmed life, the boy, Tracey, hanging on to their coat tails. Others that were just faces, his acquaintance with them had not been long enough to learn their names.
He’d admired her strength, her stoicism, her resilience. She did not flinch or look away even during the most brutal of battlefield surgeries. She watched over her men, sat with them whilst they recovered or died. Often her beautiful face and calming words were the last things those poor souls experienced in this life.
He had heard a few tales of her exploits after the war. She was still running with Reynolds, his partner in a small scale cargo running adventure on a ship called Serenity of all things. He wondered who they had dealings with on Deadwood. No doubt find out soon enough. Reynolds was hardly the quiet type He remembered the man’s battle strategy with a half-smile.
They’d been holed up in an old temple, waiting death or rescue. It could go either way. The Alliance were breaking through in ones and twos, picking off men faster than he could put them together. Warren had just taken out another incursion, silent and deadly as some great cat, saving the boy Tracey yet again. As for the Doc, he’d been over by the wall trying to make six inches of low grade weave enough to hold some poor sod’s innards together, blood spilling over his hands with every beat of the boy’s heart.
“Thanks, didn’t know you were there,” Tracey said.
“That’s sort of the point. Stealth, you may have heard of it…” Warren deadpanned, taking the dead soldier’s rifle and checking his pockets for ammunition and anything else remotely useful.
“I don’t think they covered that in basic,” Tracey said. He was right of course. Basic by the time Tracey had been conscripted consisted of giving the recruit a weapon and pointing out which end should face the enemy.
“Well at least they covered ‘Dropping your weapon so you can eat beans and get yourself shot’.”
Tracey grinned. “Yeah, I got a badge in that.”
Listening in, the doc sighed and shook his head. They thought they were invulnerable, these kids, charmed. Hadn’t figured yet that they bled just the same as everyone else. Which was his current problem. The kid he was trying to help was bleeding out faster than he could pump supplies back into him.
Warren just gave him one of her stone-cold looks. It got through to him. “Won’t happen again,” the boy muttered.
“It does, I’m just gonna watch,” Warren threatened.
“Anything interesting out there, you don’t mind me asking?” Tracey asked.
We all listened to what the sarge had to say. Holed up as we were fresh intel was precious. “’Bout thirty troops behind those buildings. Mortars but no rollers yet. I expect they plan to pick at us a spell before they charge. They had two scouts sniffin, about ten yards out, but I took ‘em down.”
“I didn’t hear a thing,” Tracey said, obviously impressed.
“First rule of battle, little one,” Zoe said. “Never let ‘em know where you are.” Of course at that moment Mal Reynolds came charging in screaming like a banshee and firing back towards enemy lines. The biggest charmed one of the lot. He dived over a wall for some cover, bullets impacting mere inches from his head. They all hunkered down a bit lower.
“Of course, there’s other schools of thought…” Zoe deadpanned.
Mal Reynolds was laughing. “Oh! That was bracing. They don’t like it when you shoot at them. I worked that out myself.”
Their position came under heavy bombardment a few minutes later. Whatever else Reynolds had achieved he had truly pissed off the Alliance. With a bitter taste in his mouth, Doc remembered all his hard work gone to waste, the soldier he was working on died when they moved him. He remembered working on both Reynolds and Tracey later that night both hit with shrapnel. The boy Tracey had been lucky not to lose his leg. And Zoe Warren had been at his side the whole time, an oasis of calm in the tumult.
The red headed fellow said something to her and she turned to face him, a smile wreathing her lips. Doc realised it was the first time he had seen Zoe Warren’s smile and wished for one bitter sweet moment that it had been aimed at him. The red headed fellow was a very lucky man.
8. Alma takes her medicine
For as long as she had been a woman Alma had suffered from this. It wasn’t nerves exactly, or hysteria as one less than sympathetic doctor had put it. Sometimes life was just too harsh, too bright and brittle, too grating and grinding. And then one day she found her medicine. And the world became soft and pure and simple.
She had grown to need it every day, to crave it when she couldn’t have it. Marriage hadn’t solved anything. She merely swapped her father’s lies and machinations for her husband’s. The days were still too bright, the nights too long and too dark.
Her first day in Deadwood she thought she would die. The noise, the stench, the roughness, all the hot little eyes watching her. Her husband was playing a dangerous game with dangerous men. The brutality she was casual witness to horrified her. She took a double dose of her medicine that day and again the next day, content to let everything drift away.
Bram was concerned enough to call the doctor to her and that wily man knew the moment he laid eyes on her what her true affliction was. He begged her to taper off her use but promised to keep her supplied.
Then fate took her husband from her and brought Sofia into her life. And Sofia brought Trixie.
She had been half way through her training as a Companion when her father had taken her out of school and married her to Bram Garrett in settlement of a debt. The kind of wife she was, the kind of woman she had been brought up to be she was one step away from being a whore like Trixie though she was too refined to let even the thought cross her mind. The social divide between them made such distinctions possible. But somehow despite all of that they were kindred spirits. She had her medicine and Trixie her smokes to keep the world and its mendacity at bay.
And as the days wore on, they discovered they had each other. Alma was no stranger to such a sisterhood. At school there had been Inara and Nandi, and they had been as close as close could be which not everyone approved of. Practical training was not supposed to engage the emotions. Love was never supposed to be a factor.
Perhaps she would not have made a good Companion after all.
Yet she did not love her husband. Not from the day they first met – the day they married – to the day he died. Her feelings for Seth Bullock were still fragile. His dark strength excited her, his intensity terrified her. He had a strong sense of justice and something about what they were doing was eating away at it like a worm in the heart of an apple.
There were no such complications with Trixie. It was what it was.
Miss Isringhausen had taken Sophia on a visit to play with some of the other children under the watchful eyes of Mr Utter and Jane. Most of the other denizens of Mr Farnum’s boarding house were out about their own business.
They lay together in the heat of the afternoon, skin to skin, no secrets between them but curtains drawn against the too fierce sun and those hot little eyes that seemed to watch their every move. Trixie took a deep drag of her cigarette; eyes heavy lidded against the soporific smoke and then handed it to Alma, curled into the curve of her arm, who took a more tentative drag. Though she was getting more used to her ‘medicine’ in this form she would never be entirely convinced that smoking was a ladylike pursuit. And in truth, as long as she had Trixie, she did not need anything else.
She remembered something. “Mr Swearengen…” and paused as a finger was laid on her lips.
“Your rules, remember,” Trixie said softly. “No one else exists when we’re in here.”
“I’m sorry,” Alma whispered, stroking her fingers through Trixie’s golden hair. No one would ever mistake Sophia for her birth daughter, their colouring was too different but she could pass for Trixie’s, and Alma knew that Trixie had a real affection for the young foundling. What a family the three of them would make. The success of her gold claim had made her rich enough to do pretty much as she wanted, buy what – and whom – she wanted. Perhaps even placate the hot-eyed devils who wanted to claim or control her – Swearengen and Bullock, her father and her former father in law.
“No one else exists when we’re in here,” Trixie repeated softly, discarding the butt of her cigarette before turning and beginning to kiss her way down the lean lines of her lover’s body, one hand tangling in Alma’s hair, scattering the pins that held it up, deftly untangling the braids and coils so that it fell loose around her face and shoulders. She feasted on Alma’s small breasts, licking and suckling at the dark nipples, glorying in the soft sounds of Alma’s growing arousal. She loved to take her time to allow Alma to let down her guard, lower her natural reserve and fully participate to take her own steps on the journey Trixie enticed her on. It had taken a long time for Alma to regain the confidence to make her own explorations, not only of Trixie’s body but of her own. Though she had begun her training as a Companion, she had never before touched herself ‘like that’ and had rarely seen her own naked adult form before Trixie showed her just how beautiful and precious she was. Now she was shameless, the little reproving voice (that sounded so much like Bram’s mother) said in her head, writhing naked under the touch of a woman who was no more than a common whore. But the voice was quiet and getting weaker by the day. Alma’s primary thoughts now for Trixie were love for the other woman and gratitude that she had helped save herself from herself.
It was a rare thing to find love, rarer still for it to be reciprocated. Both women knew it could not last forever and that the memory of these precious stolen afternoons was to be stored for the darker days ahead. Whatever else fate brought upon them, no one could take this moment away.
Trixie compared her tanned hand to Alma’s breast, white and silky soft to the touch. She always thought that Alma was somehow made of finer stuff than ordinary folk. She rested the pad of her thumb on Alma’s nipple, feeling it pebble and change beneath her firm touch. Alma shifted so that she was somewhat straddling Trixie’s slim hard thigh. As Alma began to press herself against her, rubbing herself Trixie took a deep breath, breathing in the wonderful scent of Alma when she was in heat, thick and hot and spiced. Fuck, if she could bottle it and sell it she’d make a fortune but she’d settle for being the only one to smell it, to know. This was true addiction.
They kept it quiet in case that cocksucking bastard E B Farnum heard them. It was not that he might report what he heard to Swearengen it was that he would think about them, picture them together behind his hot little eyes. And neither woman could bear the thought of that. This was their place, their time.
But all things end some time.
“I gotta go,” Trixie sighed, lifting her head from Alma’s shoulder. “Sol wants me to mind the store this afternoon. He’s got to take an order of engine parts out to Copper Creek.”
“Will I see you later?” Alma asked.
“Sol might want me to stay over a while,” Trixie said, not meeting Alma’s gaze as she fixed her petticoats and shrugged into her dress. “But I’ll try to come over after supper time.”
She couldn’t make demands, she didn’t have the right, not with Seth Bullock’s intense gaze still burning her skin. She might be the richest woman in Deadwood, hell perhaps in the whole district but Alma Garrett would give it all away if it made Trixie happy. But after years of near servitude to Al Swearengen all Trixie wanted was her freedom. And so that was what Alma gave her. She could whine about it the situation or she could be gracious and Alma was trying very hard to be a better person.
“That would be lovely,” she said, kissing her lover goodbye.
9. River counts
It had been easy enough for her to give Shepherd Book the slip. She had been able to sense the mad energy of this place from inside the ship, like a nest of crazed bees. Some backwoods places she had visited seemed to run at half speed nothing changing from year to year but Deadwood, Deadwood seemed to be on fast forward, a zone of flux and mutability.
The Bella Union was a much better place than where she had found the crippled girl earlier. Just about everyone there was too befuddled with drink or lust or hate to be truly interesting. Here, there were pretty girls leaning against the railings on the stairs and on the upper landing and River smoothed her dress down over her small breasts and thin hips. She looked like a child before their voluptuousness. All the pretty made her ache inside. She remembered Nandi’s place. She had liked it there, watching the child being born was still one of the most incredible experiences of her life. It was a pity so many people had died though. She shied away from thinking about that. She was here to have fun and hopefully no one would have to die. She wasn’t taking any bets on that one though.
A tall man was watching her from the entrance to a side room, tall and greyly handsome in a cruel way. He attracted her and repelled her at the same time. As if sensing her interest in him he came over to speak to her.
“Hello, little lady. This is your first time in the Bella Union, isn’t it? I’m sure I’d remember a pretty face like yours.”
“Just arrived,” she said.
“My name is Cy Tolliver, the owner of this fine establishment. There’s drinks and games of all sorts to be had here if you’ve the coin. Poker or Blackjack, Prick or Pussy. We aim to please at the Bella Union.”
Poker. Jayne had showed her how to play Poker. The rules and variations had been easy to assimilate. She had played with him and Captain and Zoe and had won enough off of the mercenary to buy a pretty dress and some candied apple for Kaylee the next time they were planetside. Jayne wouldn’t play with her any more. Said she used her gorram mind tricks on him.
“Poker,” she said firmly, producing her small purse. “I’ll play poker.”
Mr Tolliver smiled and guided her to a table where four men were just finishing up a round. “Got some fresh blood for you here, boys,” Tolliver said with false cheeriness. “I’m sorry Miss… I didn’t catch your name.”
“River,” River said. “You may call me River.”
“There you go… Miss River, can I introduce you to Mr Steuben, Mr Boldron, Mr Vicheaux and Mr Langley. All fine upstanding men with good credit here, I assure you. We play a clean game, don’t we?”
“Sure thing, Mr Tolliver,” Mr Vicheaux smiled. River could imagine the blood on his teeth. She knew that as well as the gun in his belt he kept a second piece in his boot and a shiv in a sheath strapped to his left forearm that would spring to his hand with a flick of his wrist. She smiled at the men. Steuben had killed another man in Yankton in a fight over a horse, Boldron was a claim jumper and a pirate. Small fry compared to the other two but dangerous in his way. And Langley, well Langley might have killed a man over a wager in Yankton and be one step ahead of the Yankton lawmen but inside he just missed his dear old mum. He’d had enough of adventuring for this lifetime. All he wanted was to win enough to buy a ticket on the next transport out.
She was in good company. “Let’s play, shall we?”
The first three hands went with the cards, Boldron won the first pot, River the second and Vicheaux the third. She was counting the cards, the patterns were simple to determine, it was second nature to her but she didn’t use it to her advantage. The fourth hand Vicheaux was the dealer and to River he signalled his intentions to rig the deal as loudly as if he had stood up and shouted them to the rafters. She had a good hand, good enough to tempt her to stay in the game but Steuben had the winning hand: that was the way Vicheaux had dealt it. She folded early, protected herself. Langley dealt fairly and River managed to bluff a win. Then it was her deal. She found the marked cards easy enough. They weren’t being subtle. And so she played them at their own game. She was pretty certain by then that Boldron and Langley were playing a fair game, or as fair as these things went. Vicheaux and Steuben were working together. The only question was - were they working for Tolliver or for themselves?
The second time she dealt Vicheaux realised that the tables had been turned. She could hear his suspicions curling in his mind, scenarios being examined and discarded. Steuben hadn’t caught on yet but something in Vicheaux’s manner alerted him that all was not well. Vicheaux reached for his gun but it was already in River’s hand, pointing between his beady little eyes. She shook her head.
“You don’t play nice,” she said. “The cards want to run one way and you make them run another. I felt the markings and knew. Played you your own game.” To her side Steuben was reaching for his own gun, Boldron and Langley just looked as if they wished they were back on the road.
She felt cold metal rest against the back of her head and heard Tolliver’s cultured voice. “Gentlemen – is there a problem?”
10. Should old acquaintance be forgot
Inara walked out of the Gem outwardly as perfect and unruffled as she had been when she entered. Al Swearengen was a complex man. Undeniably evil but with a spark of redemption in him. He reminded her a lot of Mal, an older darker version of her captain. Her captain… no, not that, never that.
She looked up, met the gaze of a dark haired pale skinned woman standing in the doorway of a lodging house. It took a long moment to place her. It had been almost ten years after all. “Alma?”
“The same… though you probably think me sadly changed,” Alma smiled, coming forward to take Inara’s hands. “I hardly believed I would ever see you again.”
“The ‘verse can be a distracting small place sometimes,” Inara said. “And you look… wonderful.” In truth, the older woman looked tired and sorely distracted. She was also using laudanum, there was an overbrightness to her eyes that was a sure tell. It was a common failing amongst Companions, something to ease the idle hours between contracts.
“If you have time… would you have tea with me?” Alma asked, almost shyly. “I have lodgings here. The rooms are serviceable, but clean.”
“That would be lovely,” Inara smiled. “I don’t have to be back at my ship for several more hours.”
She followed the other woman back into the lodging house and up the stairs. A ratfaced man scurried out of a side room as they passed. “Widow Garrett,” he blustered.
“Mr Farnum,” Alma nodded her head gracefully and passed on without further comment. Inara could feel his hot little eyes on them all the way up the stairs. Her skin crawled and she could not repress a shudder. How could Alma stand it day after day?
Another surprise awaited her inside the room as a little girl ran up to envelop Alma’s skirts in a hug. “I’ve finished my drawing,” she said. “Come and see.”
“We have a visitor Sofia,” Alma said gently. “This is an old friend of mine, Miss Inara Serra.”
The little girl sketched a slightly clumsy curtsey and looked up at Inara with guileless blue eyes under her blonde bangs. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Inara.”
Inara curtseyed low in return, her elegance leaving the little girl wide-eyed. “And I’m very pleased to meet you Miss Sofia. So, you are something of an artist. I would love to see your drawing.”
Momentarily forgetting her awe of the beautiful stranger, the little girl took her hand and almost towed her across the room to the table where she had set up her paper and paints.
“I painted this today,” she said. “This is a horse, and this is me. And this is my mama in heaven and this is my mama here on earth and these is my other mama’s Trixie and Jane.”
“These are, Sofia” Alma corrected.
“These are my other mama’s Trixie and Jane,” the little girl repeated obediently.
“Quite the family you have Sofia,” Inara smiled. “That must make you very happy.”
“I am now,” Sofia said. “And mama’s happy too.”
“I understand.” Inara smiled up at Alma. “Sometimes the families you make are much more bound to your senses and emotions than the family you were born to. That’s how it is for me now, I think.”
“I never believed I could be happy here,” Alma said candidly. “But somehow I am.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Inara smiled. “We all deserve a little happiness sometimes.” She paused. “The man on the stairs… he called you ‘Widow Garrett’…”
“My husband, Bram Garrett was killed last year over his gold claim,” Alma said steadily. Inara noted the lack of grief in her expression. “A few weeks later, Sofia came into my life and the success of my late husband’s claim ensured that I am a rich woman.” She touched the little girl’s hair, smiling down at her adopted daughter. “And Trixie and I found each other… I… think about the old days sometimes. About you and Nandi…”
Inara turned away. “I would have written to tell you… but I had no idea where you were… Nandi died last year. She left the Guild about five years ago to set up her own house. She ran into some trouble with the locals and called on me for help. We saved the rest of her girls but Nandi was shot.”
“Oh,” Alma sat down. “It is difficult to think of it. She was always so full of life.” She smiled. “Nandi was the first person I ever kissed. You were the second.”
“A lifetime ago, my dear,” Inara smiled sadly. The little girl was growing restless with the ‘tall talk’ and Inara sensed that Alma needed a little time with her thoughts. Inara pulled an unused sheet of paper towards her and took up a brush. “I can’t paint as well as you can, Sofia, but I can do something called calligraphy. It’s making a picture with letters. When your mamma and I were just a little older than you are now, we were at school together and we were taught a secret language called Nushu. It’s very old from the days of Earth that Was and is very secret. Only for women. No man has ever learnt to read it or so the legend says.” As the little girl watched she painted the broad precise brushstrokes with a sure hand.
Inara, Nandi and Alma… the three of them had been ‘sworn sisters’ in the Nushu tongue, the bonds of love and friendship between them so strong that they went beyond the physical and emotional. Their foremothers on Earth That Was had used the secret language to preserve friendships when their lives were measured by the so-called ‘three followings’ – the father before marriage, the husband after and the son when he became head of the household. Things might be very different now but the need for a secret language to convey that which could never be said openly would never go away.
“It looks like a flower,” Sofia marvelled. “Not a word. Miss Isringhausen has taught me my letters. They don’t look like that.”
“That is how we keep them secret,” Inara smiled. “You must always write Nushu with a clear mind and a steady heart. That is how we were taught it at school.”
Alma’s hand was resting on her shoulder. “I think I’ve forgotten everything I ever learnt,” she smiled. “You obviously kept up your studies.”
“I find it relaxes me, helps me centre myself again,” Inara said, her brush moving swiftly, sketching out the slender sloping characters. “Especially if a client has been… tiresome.”
“You had a client in Deadwood?” Alma asked. “That’s what brought you here… what am I saying – why would anyone come to Deadwood of their own accord? It is hardly a civilised metropolis.”
“I had a client, and the ship that I am based on got a contract to transport some goods. And we needed to restock. We’ve been in the black a long time.”
“I always supposed you settled in a fine House somewhere in the Core,” Alma said. “I never took you for an adventuring spirit.” She smiled. “You look wonderful, the life obviously suits you.”
“I can’t claim that it has come easily,” Inara said. “But yes, I can’t see myself living any other way now.”
11. Wash and Zoe demonstrate true partnership
“So wo cao,” Wash muttered to himself. “This is so wo cao.” The pigs squealed in their pen and the smell of blood was rank in the already non-too sweet smelling air.
“Too right you’re fucked, flyboy,” the man holding the gun sneered. “So, you got any other comeback or are you gonna cry for your momma.”
They’d split up to do a little private shopping. They had an anniversary coming up soon and Wash wanted to surprise his wife. He’d got himself turned around off the main thoroughfare and in his usual style he’d walked into something without watching where he was going and found himself hip deep in trouble. Though not as much as the hopefully dead man lying face down in the mud with a pig munching on the back of his thigh.
If they stayed in Deadwood long enough to get breakfast, he sure as hell wasn’t eating the bacon.
Wash caught a glimpse of Zoe’s inky curls reflected in the shards of broken glass in the window.
“I’m not crying for my momma,” he said. “But I’ll shout for my wife if you don’t mind. Honey!”
“I’ve got your back sweetheart,” Zoe’s voice came from somewhere above him in the rafters. “Don’t you worry about that.” The man glared upwards, trying to fix the position of the voice. There was the sound of a single rifle shot, and the man fell backwards, a third eye neatly drilled into the centre of his forehead. The pigs squealed, sensing dessert was about to be served. “Now, any of you other fine gentlemen got any part to play in this?”
“Should be ashamed relying on a woman like that. Wears the trousers too,” the man sneered but still laid his rifle on the ground and pushed it away from him with his foot, his hands above his head. Wash bent down to pick it up, careful not to get in Zoe’s line of sight.
“Only when we’re on a mudball like this. Otherwise I trust my life to him every minute of every day we’re in the black. That’s a true partnership. Something you wouldn’t understand,” Zoe said. “Now, turn around.” As he did so, she brought the butt of her pistol over the back of his head and he fell forward into the hay, unconscious. “Honey, you done with your shopping?”
“All done, sweetness,” Wash said. “Let’s just go home, shall we?”
12. Kaylee goes shopping
Kaylee sauntered through the market place. She loved bustling places like this, the energy, the interactions. And she loved a good bargaining session. Her mama had always told her: ‘be hard but fair and people’ll respect you for it.’ She had made a few purchases which Simon was dutifully carrying for her though he didn’t look too happy just standing by as she pawed through racks of transfer cable. Though the Firefly class was pretty flexible in what spares it could tolerate she only wanted the best for Serenity. The stallholder, a full blood Han by the look of him stood nearby, pad in hand.
“It’s top dollar,” he informed her. “No degrade. Guaranteed.”
“Of course,” Simon observed. “If it does fail, then… your customers can’t really come back to complain about it.”
“Simon!” Kaylee hissed. She gifted the stallholder with a brilliant smile. “We’ll take 60 metras. Can you deliver?” The man nodded and she gave him the docking address for Serenity and the credit chips to cover price and delivery.
They headed up the main thoroughfare, Simon stepping delicately over and around the puddles of liquid mud and organic matter. “The doctor’s office is just up at the end,” he said. “I should be able to trade there, stock up on the basics we need. I don’t know what it is about Captain Reynolds and Cobb that they seem to collect…”
Kaylee was no longer listening. She pretty much had her nose pressed to the glass frontage of a shop, gazing in delight at the wonders beyond.
“Kaylee?” Simon tried again. “Kaylee, you promised once we’d finished at the market…”
“Just look at the gearing on that cylinder,” Kaylee whispered. “And the tools. Triple gauges and a dozen types of wrenches and there! Oh the sweetest multilock that you ever did see…”
Simon looked inside. The shop looked reputable enough, and there was actually a woman behind the counter. Kaylee would be safe enough here whilst he checked out the doctor’s place. “Kaylee – how about you wait for me in here. I won’t be too long, I promise.”
“I’ll be fine, Simon. You go on ahead. I’ll just… oh, look at that optic set… and the calibration unit.”
“Well, I’ll see you…” Simon’s voice tailed off as he realised he was talking to the air. Kaylee was already gone.
Sol Star’s hardware store was the kind of place that Kaylee adored. She felt the same about somewhere like this as her mama had felt about chapel. She could tell as soon as she walked through the door that this man felt about machines the same way as she did. She was almost singing to herself as she walked up and down the aisles stopping here and there to pick up a valve or a coil and examine it, not because she necessarily needed it because something about it spoke to her. One day, if travelling the black got too much, she would be happy running a place like this, a place where people came to get things fixed. And lately, when she had daydreamed such things it had been River who was by her side in this future life, a River who was healthy and happy and who was the dancer she had always wanted to be before the Alliance had stolen that life from her.
Just the thought of it made her warm inside and she smiled. The woman behind the counter smiled back.
“It’s not everyone who gets such pleasure from the sight of a second hand induction coil,” she said.
“Oh, it’s not that… though it’s a nice enough set. I was thinking about someone…”
“The young man who was with you outside?”
“Simon? Oh… no, not him… his, erm, well his sister.”
“Ah,” Trixie grinned. “A sweetheart, eh?” Always one to make a sale, she drew out a case from under the counter. “There’s some special items we keep you might be interested in… you and your sweetheart.” She opened the case. Kaylee’s eyes widened and she took a step back. She knew about toys like this; Inara kept a few in her shuttle for use with some of her more… creatively inclined clients. The thought of approaching River with one of those… River would scream, or burst out laughing or think she was being attacked.
“No… er, we’re fine as we are, thank you,” Kaylee shut her eyes and turned away slightly until she was sure the case was closed and out of sight again. The saleswoman’s eyes danced with amusement.
“Something a little less… direct then,” she said, bringing out another box. “The miners collect these up in the mining camps. Along with the gold and precious stuff there’s other rocks and crystals that might not be worth as much but shine up just as pretty if you ask me.” The box was full of pieces of rock and crystals of all shapes and sizes. “There’s those that say these things have a healing way about them, bring peace to a troubled soul. What’s special to you you’ll know when you see it. That’s what they say anyway.”
Kaylee picked up an arrowhead shaped piece of crystal, long enough to sit in her palm. The colour was an electric blue shading into dusky pink. She had never seen anything like it before and knew it would fascinate River. The cool surface smoothness hid a more complex interior when she held it up to the light, all facets and angles, shapes within shapes. “I’ll take this piece,” she said. “And… this one.” The second crystal she picked up was roughly heart shaped, nestling in the centre of her palm, a darker pink with veins of darker red and gold running in a flaw almost through the centre of it. It would look fine on the shelf above her bed along with her other pretties.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?” Trixie asked. She might share her self with Alma and with Sol but there was always room in her heart for a sweet face like this one.
Kaylee looked around. Shelf after shelf of wonders beckoned. “I’ll let you know,” she said.
13. Mal gets a new sidekick
“I’m looking for Jayne Cobb,” he announced. The barman pointed to the slumbering body on the floor and then at Jane.
“She can explain what happened,” he said.
A bucket of water in the face didn’t wake Cobb from his drunken slumber. The barman did him the kindness of kicking him onto his side so if he did puke at least he wouldn’t choke on it.
“He made a suggestion that I didn’t care for,” the woman explained. “I only hit him the once – and the bottle was empty. Didn’t realise the fella had a glass skull.”
Mal regarded her sourly. There was no way he was going to see Al Swearengen in his own place without some kind of back up. “Looks like I’m in the way of hiring someone to watch my back whilst I have a meeting...”
“Hell, I can do that,” the woman puffed herself up. “I’ve faced off injuns and claimjumpers and land pirates and reivers and all manner of cock…”
“…with Al Swearengen,” Mal finished.
The woman picked up a nearly full bottle from the table and took a long swallow. “Swearengen… what’s the fee?”
“Seeing as how you took out my man… ten credits for an hour of your time,” Mal said.
The woman grinned. There was a pretty face somewhere under the grime. “Done.” She spit on her palm and held it out to Mal to shake on it. “I’m Jane… Jane Cannary. Most call me Calamity.”
The name rang a bell. He spat on his own palm and shook her hand. She had a grip stronger than most that left his fingers smarting. “You ran with Hickok’s crew near the end of the war,” Mal remembered. “You were his tracker.”
“That I was. Bill, rest his soul, and I came here a couple of years back,” Calamity said. “Some cocksucker took him down for the fame of it. Shot him in the back whilst he was playing cards in this very room.”
“Now that’s a shame,” Mal said sincerely. “He was a good man. Never did meet him in person but he was an inspiration.”
She smiled at him again, pushing back her hat to reveal more of her face. She was younger than he expected. A kind recollection of Wild Bill obviously did a lot to warm this one towards a person. “Is your business with that no-good fucking cocksucker Swearengen likely to lead to bloodletting?”
“Anything’s possible given our past dealings,” Mal said. “But as far as it goes it’s purely a business transaction.
Jane nodded. “Best get on with it then.”
Mal turned to the barman and indicated Cobb’s recumbent form. “If he comes to his senses before I get back, tell him to get back to the ship and wait for me there. I’ll settle with him later.”
Swearengen’s right hand man was the taciturn Dority who’d run with Swearengen for years. He leered at Jane and she scowled back at him.
“Mr Swearengen’s expecting you, Reynolds.” Mal nodded and moved past him, pausing as Dority’s meaty hand smacked Jane in the shoulder, pushing her back against the wall. “Not you. Had no word to let you in.”
“She’s with me,” Mal said. “My regular second is… indisposed.”
“And this was the best you could do! Swearengen’s gonna eat you for breakfast on this deal. Hell, if that’s your judgement you’re gonna end up paying him to move the goods!” Dority laughed but stood back. Jane straightened up, stared up at him, eyes narrowed.
“I never forget. You best remember that,” she hissed.
“Yeah. I’m terrified,” Dority said laconically. “Best not keep Mr Swearengen waiting.”
Swearengen smiled “Captain Reynolds. It’s been a few years. How’s the shoulder?”
“Fine, just fine. I see your nose took no permanent hurt?” Mal said pleasantly.
“It’s had worse since and I can still stand to look at myself in the mirror,” Swearengen said. He glanced at Jane. “Still collecting waifs and strays, I see. Tell your hired dog… or bitch rather to stand over by the door and keep a civil tongue in her head for a change.”
Mal glanced at Jane and she took a step back to lean against the wall by the door. The look in her eyes told him just how far up Swearengen was on her personal shit list.
“So, what’s this job you wanted to talk to me about?” Mal asked, sitting down opposite Swearengen.
“My regular supplier in Yanktown has disappointed me. I don’t know if you’ve tasted the whiskey on offer downstairs but the quality has suffered and the price has doubled in recent months. For someone who claims to offer ‘the finest wines known to humanity’ Mr Withnail seems to have resorted to bleeding off the effluent from vessels such as yours, Captain Reynolds – no offence meant.”
“None taken,” Mal said steadily. “I gather you’ve secured an alternate source.”
“I have… in Casquedero. However, as you are no doubt aware there are certain… difficulties inherent in trading with that community and the level of taxation and extraneous penalties… well, let us just say that I’m anxious to avoid them.”
“I think we can offer the kind of service you’re looking for, Mr Swearengen,” Mal said. He had his own contacts on Casquedero and had done business there a couple of times.
Swearengen pushed a small stack of high-end credit chips across the desk towards him. “There’s half the fee. The rest on delivery.” A data pad joined the chips. “That’s details on the set up in Casquedero and your contacts and timescale.”
Mal picked up the pad and activated the screen, swiftly reading through the details. “Seems plain enough to me,” he said. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Mr Swearengen.”
“Usual terms and conditions apply of course, Captain Reynolds. Double cross me and life will become extremely problematic. Your previous difficulties with Mr Niska will pale by comparison.”
“All things being equal, Mr Swearengen, I’ll see you in two weeks with your merchandise,” Mal said steadily. Swearengen didn’t scare him that badly. After all, Niska was dead and he was still very much alive. He stood up. Neither man offered to shake hands. Jane shot Swearengen another dark look and followed him out.
14. Joannie falls in lust
Joannie stared at the young woman with a kind of raw hunger that surprised her. This was no Flora – the fresh innocence was no artifice. This child-woman knew no other way to be. Kaylee, the young man had called her.
She had first seen her in the market place as she was buying some linen to make Jane a new shirt. If she couldn’t get the other woman to contemplate wearing a dress or skirts then at least she might get her to wear something other than buckskin once in a while. And it was a way to thank her for her kindness and attention without raising the woman’s defences again. Maybe she’d get more than a kiss next time.
The girl’s excited chatter had drawn her attention – and the fact that her excitement was directed not at cloth or other fripperies but at bits of wire and greasy metal – bits of engine that Joannie didn’t even know the name of. The young man who stood with her was attentive but aloof in a way that made her question her initial assumptions about their relationship. Friends but not lovers. Like Jane, this girl was wearing trousers, work clothes, with a tool belt and pockets to keep handy things close by. Another one who could turn her hand to most things. And of a sunny disposition if the playful decoration on her clothes was anything to go by. Her long hair was held up in a simple twist by what looked like a pair of chopsticks. Joannie felt… artificial in the face of such artlessness. She’d even got Trixie smiling which was a rare thing these days. The woman took her new lifestyle far too seriously sometimes. Joannie wished her nothing but good wishes. She knew how hard it was to break free of the lifestyle they had both once shared. Born a whore, die a whore she’d heard Cy say more than once.
The girl was sweet on someone she was sure of that.
And she had feelings for Jane. It was a small and uncertain thing as yet and some days she wasn’t sure whether Jane would just up and shoot her. It was like tempting the most skittish wild thing to eat from your hand. But she had nothing but time these days. And she had the feeling that Jane Cannary might just be worth the wait.
15. River meditates on the Bad Thing
She slides between their surface thoughts that skim and dart like butterflies or musical themes around her, some in harmony or counterpoint others dissonance. She tries not to she knows its wrong but its so hard to resist sometimes. Simon is clear on the wrongness of it so is Captain Reynolds. It is not the Bad Thing, but it is close.
Their minds are like books to her new pages constantly being written. Jayne is always the hero of his own story, the colours broad and brash, other characters mere shadows, glimpsed as something to hit or to mock or to fuck. He is The Man. He has a Big Gun. And he is not afraid to use it. By contrast, Wash barely appears in his own story, the harmonics of flight and the beauty and spirit of wife are the twin themes that rule him.
The Shepherd is the hardest to read. His mind is outwardly serene but built on a framework of rigid discipline. Beneath she sometimes glimpses the maelstrom. He was a soldier once, not afraid to give the order not too proud to carry them out himself if needs be. Of all of them his depths are the darkest and his shallows filled with light and faith.
This man Tolliver is somewhere between Jayne and the Shepherd. She does not fear the dark places inside him; she could show him things in her own mind that would make him weep for his mama if only her talent worked that way.
He stared at her unblinking for a long moment. “You realised the cards were marked and you played them at their own game,” he said. “A dangerous strategy.”
“You said you played a clean game,” River said. “I wasn’t the one muddied the waters. The cards were marked before I sat at the table. I was just fresh meat to them they already had their teeth in the other two.”
“The two gentlemen in question have been shown the error of their ways and the innocent parties have been recompensed,” Tolliver said. “Now, as for you…”
“My friends and my brother will be looking for me,” River stood up. “I should go.”
“Perhaps that would be for the best,” Tolliver said. “There’s times and places a reader is a useful thing… but not in a gaming house. Best you remember that and next time you’re in Deadwood, just pass on by.”
Simon could not believe it. He had left River on board Serenity and here she was stepping out from a gambling den and brothel of all places. River could feel his astonishment and frustration from the other end of the main street. She sincerely did not intend to cause Simon any pain or embarrassment. It just happened. Over and over again. She caused him such turmoil and he knew that she could read him so clearly so he tried to press it all down and hide it away. And she loved him for it. For hating her a little because in finding her he had lost everything that had made his life civilized. For fitting in to Serenity where he could not. For winning Kaylee’s love where he could not.
And Kaylee did love River. That much she was sure of. It shone from her so brightly that River was surprised not everyone could see it. And River loved her back in her way. Kaylee tried hard not to see River as something else to fix. But River was undeniably broken and Kaylee wouldn’t be Kaylee if she didn’t try. Ever since…
“It’s just an object… it doesn’t mean what you think…” River said. She sounded dazed, lost, even to herself.
Kaylee stepped up to her. “River, what’s wrong?” She craned her head to see past the younger girl into the room and gasped. The room was a mess. Their stuff was all over the floor as was the bedding, furniture had been moved, drawers opened. And then there was the body.
He was sprawled bonelessly at the foot of the bed. The neat hole between his eyes was eloquent of his death. Kaylee pulled River back with her out into the corridor, turned her to face her looking deeply into the dark, lost eyes.
“I… it doesn’t mean what you think,” River stuttered.
“I know, honey. I know you didn’t kill him, didn’t have nothing to do with this. One of us has been with you the whole time.” She wrapped her arms around River, feeling the tension that thrummed through her, the rigidity of her stance. “You did not do this.”
“With my mind… I could have done it with my mind,” she gabbled. “I can do the math, you know I can. You don’t know what I can do. I don’t know what I can do…” Kaylee held on to her until she felt the rigidity pass a little and River moulded herself to her side. “Sorry… sorry… sorry…” she whispered.
“It’s okay my love. It’s okay. But we need to find the others.”
River peered up at her through unruly strands of her. “My love?”
Kaylee smiled. “Well this wasn’t actually how and where I wanted to let you know, but yes. You are my love, River. You have been for a long time.” River just stared up at her. “Are… are you okay with that?”
And she was.
Simon reached her side. “Nothing’s broken,” she said defensively. “Just wanted to see, to feel. All the energy, all the busy bees.”
“Some of these busy bees have quite the sting,” he observed. “I thought we agreed you were to stay on board with Shepherd Book.”
“You agreed. I made no comment,” River turned away from him, affronted.
“You’re right,” Simon sighed. “I should have made sure that you agreed before I just… presumed.”
“Where’s Kaylee?” River asked. “You were her escort in this oh so dangerous place.”
“She found her version of a magic shop,” Simon grinned. “Engine parts and valves and gears and tools. She was in heaven. I left her to it. So what have you been doing with yourself.” He paused, noticing the gun stuck in her belt. “And where did you get that?”
“It fell in to my hands,” she said. “Providence. And everyone else here has one. It’s quite the fashion accessory.”
She was right. And she seemed otherwise unhurt so Simon decided not to enquire too much deeper into his sister’s exploits. It was probably safer that way. She slipped her arm through his and pressed herself against his body for a moment. “Did you get what you came for?”
“Yeah, Doc Cochrane’s fixed me up with weave and plasma to last us a while. Swapped out with some of the smoothers and that sedative you turned out to be allergic to,” Simon said. “Turns out he knows the Captain and Zoe from the war days. Asked to be remembered to them.”
“The ‘verse is small and spiderwebbed with connections,” River said. “Everyone knows everyone else somewhere along the line. Fate and Destiny are big black spiders…” she clutched at his hand. “Never did like spiders.”
“I know. But you would never let the servants kill them either. They had to be caught and released in the garden,” Simon remembered. “You always were a funny little thing.”
“Not anymore,” she sighed, then visibly brightened up. “I know. Let’s go find Kaylee and buy her something pretty.”
16. Jane takes a leap
The other Jane, the big guy had been conscious but wishing he wasn’t when she got back to the bar with the Reynolds fellow safe and sound as per their agreement. He paid her the ten credits without a murmur, slapped the big guy on the shoulder and they headed back to their ship. The big guy scowled at her but didn’t try anything. He knew she would just put him down again.
It had been a good day all round, drinking and fighting done, paid twice for jobs done and taken no hurt from any of it. Jane swaggered out of the bar and wondered what to do with herself for the rest of this fine day.
Jane turned. Joannie Stubbs was picking her way across the mired street towards her, her skirts held high to avoid the clarts, showing off her pretty ankles. Jane felt her cheeks start to glow and tilted her hat further over her eyes to shade her face. No sense in broadcasting to the world that she was fool in love with the woman.
“What can I do for you, Joannie Stubbs?” she asked, her voice gruff.
“You can walk me back to the lodgings if you like,” Joannie smiled. “And I’ll make us some dinner and you can tell me of your day.” To be honest she was surprised to see the other woman coherent. Normally by this time of day the woman was lost in a drunken stupor, especially if she had coin. Joannie knew the Yankton job had paid well.
“I’ve been acting as security to some trader fellow,” Jane said. “Stand in when his own guy couldn’t stand up,” she laughed at her own joke. Joannie smiled and edged closer to the other woman, taking advantage of her good humour. “Went to see the cocksucker Swearengen. And I remembered… you remind me on not to drink at the Gem for a while. His liquor’s bad… poison like as not. The trader fellow’s contracted to bring in more from a better establishment. Gave the cocksucker and his arselicker the evil eye but got out safely and got paid for the privilege.” She paused. “So I tells you this, Joannie Stubbs. How about you let me go home, get a wash and put on a clean shirt and then I’ll take you out to dinner.”
“That sounds like a wonderful idea, Jane,” Joannie smiled. She hadn’t felt this happy for a long time.
“Okay… that’s damned fine okay…” Jane said. “I… fuck me he’s gonna shoot her… get behind me and get down!” Joannie felt herself pushed hard towards the wall of the building and hunkered down by some barrels. Jane had her rifle in her hand and was squinting up at the rooftops over the way where something had caught her keen eye. Joannie saw it too, the flash of reflected sunlight on something metal, and the group of strangers standing on the corner, amongst them the girl she had been watching earlier, all oblivious to the danger.
Then all hell broke loose.
17. Kaylee consults an oracle
Kaylee often wondered how it was possible that nine people living in such close proximity could be so isolated. Oh, they were friendly (most of the time), they worked well together (most of the time), they had a laugh. There was a level of trust, of expectation. But barring Wash and Zoe, they were alone in this world. Even the Tam siblings were alone, one because of what had been done to her, the other because of his guilt at not doing everything he could to rescue her sooner. Only she and Jayne still really had contact with their families, their lives before, but that contact was infrequent, a letter here and there, a wave on a special occasion. Sometimes she wondered if she was doing the right thing being on Serenity away from those who loved her. And then she would catch River’s smile or Wash or Jayne would pay her some small kindness and she would realize again that she was loved and that these folks were her family as much as any she had left behind.
There was no sign of Simon when she finished in the hardware store, the young woman who had served her promising that her purchases would be delivered to Serenity by Mr Starr himself. The crystals had been wrapped in tissue to protect them and currently nestled in her bag. Kaylee gazed around the street for a moment. Deadwood wasn’t the place for finery so there were no dress shops where she could dream away a few minutes. Then she saw the sign of the eye. It was hand drawn on a piece of board propped up against the wall but the meaning was clear. There was an oracle in town.
Kaylee’s mamma hadn’t held with such nonsense but her nana was another matter. The spiritual world was as real to the old lady as the physical and consulting the spirits on a regular basis was only sensible. It had been a long while since Kaylee had had the chance.
The room was ramshackle but clean as it had to be. Spirits did not hold with dirt. The oracle herself seemed ancient, even older than her nana the last time Kaylee had seen her. She wore layer upon layer of clothing though the weather was warm enough for Kaylee to be in short sleeves and glad she had put her hair up for once.
“What’s your will?” she asked.
“A reading,” Kaylee said, sitting down opposite her at the small table and holding out her hand palm upwards. “Is my path true?”
The old woman took hold of her hand and brought it closer to her face, studying it intently and murmuring to herself in a language Kaylee did not recognize.
“Your path is true,” she said at last. “You are where the great spirits mean you to be and the work you do the life you lead is pleasing in their eyes. You are a light in the lives of those around you. And their hands will surely catch you if you fall. Your dreams will all come true it seems. My, my, It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone so favoured. Hmmm!”
“What is it?” Kaylee asked anxiously, as the woman’s brow furrowed deeper.
“You travel with a fox spirit,” the old woman said. “That is brave. Or foolhardy.”
Kaylee knew instinctively who the oracle meant. “She’s no fox spirit,” Kaylee said hotly. “She’s just… special.” Kaylee knew about fox spirits, nana had counseled her against them. Beautiful beyond endurance, elusive, powerful, mischievous and vindictive. Trickster and seducer. A child of the moon and the sun. They consumed the spirit and energy of those around them. But River wasn’t like that. Not really.
“So special there’s a price on her head that would buy this shop, this street, this township several times over.”
Kaylee stood up, alarmed by the turn of conversation. River was not safe, they had to get away, had to warn the others. The old woman grabbed her hand, held on to her with surprising strength. “It’s all right, girl. I’m not interested in the money though there are those who will be. The Core has many eyes and ears even in a place so far from civilization as Deadwood. Money like that has a way of diverting the best of intentions. You’ll need to be on your guard. Don’t attract any more attention than you have to.”
“You say that you can tell the future,” Kaylee said. “What’s going to happen to her?”
“Don’t know. She ain’t here. You are. I can tell you your future, tell you whether she’s in it or not. I know you’d like her to be, that you have real feelings for her. And don’t have to be no fortune teller to know that. Just looking at you when you speak her name tells me more than you can imagine.”
Kaylee blushed. “What do I do?”
“Cross my palm with silver… or any denomination credit chip,” the woman smiled. “And then hold out your hand again.”
18. The crew that fights together stays together
Mal craned his head to see over the heads of the other people on the street, certain he had spied Inara somewhere ahead of them. Yes, there she was, on the steps of a building, talking to a dark haired woman, a little blonde girl clinging to her skirts. The two women kissed… not on the cheek, he noted, then Inara walked down the steps onto the street, opening her parasol to shade her face from the late afternoon sun.
And he thought her commission had been with a man. Unless this was a private visit. Inara seemed to have friends everywhere. He had seen one or two ghosts himself today. A lot of old soldiers had settled around Deadwood.
Jayne had disappeared into the noisome alleyway behind the main row of buildings to take care of a little personal business. He swore that the liquor he’d drunk was tainted “because no way I’d feel this way after just one bottle that scumbag barkeep must have poisoned it.”
Zoe Warren was one of the few people in creation who could sneak up on him. She was arm in arm with Wash who looked a little pain.
“He’s not been drinking as well as he?” Mal asked.
“I’m not drinking or eating anything in this place,” Wash said, a slightly hysterical tone to his voice. “Especially not anything… pork related.”
“Long story,” Zoe said. “But it’s a good health pointer, sir.”
“Jane found out the hard way that the liquor’s none too healthy either,” Mal said.
“Either that or the canary woman spelled me. Fuckin’ witch,” Jayne grumbled, easing his shirt tails back into his pants.
“Met an old soldier,” Mal explained. “Jane Cannary – Calamity Jane. Used to run with Wild Bill Hickok.”
“She’s still alive?” Zoe was genuinely surprised. “Must have pickled herself by now. She always could drink.”
“She backed me up with Swearengen when Jayne here was indisposed,” Mal said.
“Jane and Jayne… that must have been a conversation stopper,” Wash sniggered but stopped abruptly at the look on Jayne’s face. “I only meant… oh, never mind.”
“Looks like the Doc was successful,” Zoe pointed out the young man and frowned. “I thought River was staying on the ship.”
“Looks like no one thought to inform River,” Mal said lightly. “She looks happy enough. Stands to reason. Crazyassed place like this should suit her down to the ground.” Simon caught sight of them and waved a greeting. He moved towards him but River was impatiently pulling them in another direction. Kaylee had appeared from a building across the street. She looked upset about something.
“Li’l Kaylee’s been at the hoodoo again,” Jayne scoffed. “Bout time she figured that out for the nonsense it is. Best go see what’s got her all ruffled up.” He started to cross the street towards her; Simon and River were already heading that way. For one of anything better to do the others followed him.
“… and she said something’s gonna happen soon, something bad. The wrong card turned,” Kaylee said. “I don’t…” she paused as River suddenly went on the alert. “What is it… what’s wrong.”
“Card sharpers showing their true colour, playing the Ace of Spades,” River said. The pistol stuck so jauntily in her belt was now in her hand, cocked and primed. Kaylee knew with dread certainty that River never missed. “Simon…”
“I’m not certain, but I think we’d better get out of the street,” Simon said. He turned hurriedly, almost walking into the solid bulk of Jayne’s chest. “River thinks there’s trouble.”
There was a cry from over by the livery offices, a woman holding a rifle and aiming somewhere on the rooftops. Without prior thought or arrangement the dance began. Simon. Wash and Kaylee found themselves in the centre, surrounded on four sides by Mal, Zoe, Jayne and River, all armed and alert. A shot rang out, the bullet impacting in the soft mud a few inches from River’s boots. There was the crack of rifle fire from across the street and then Kaylee’s hands were over her ears as River fired twice in succession, mind and body as one with the weapon, targeting and destroying. All the others could do was stand by and watch.
There was a scream and a scrabbling sound from the rooftop. Seconds later a man’s body pitched off the roof landing half in half out of the horse trough a few feet away. What the bullet had started the fall had finished. River recognized him as Vicheaux whose play she had spoilt. As they watched, a second man, probably his cohort Steuben appeared from round the side of the building, clutching his shoulder, blood spilling over his hand. Two men grabbed him and pushed him face down on the ground. Mal saw the silver star on their shirts and realized that local law enforcement had arrived on the scene.
“Friends of yours, mei-mei?” Mal asked.
“Bad losers,” River sniffed. “Luck ran out.” She couldn’t say anything else as a tearful Kaylee enveloped her in a bear hug.
“Oracle saw… said… they were trying to kill you!”
River laughed. “Take more than that.” She realized that Kaylee was really upset and rested her forehead against her. “I’m fine. I knew what was going to happen just as much as that oracle did. Saw their deaths coming from a long way away. Stupids like them aren’t going to be the ones to come between us, my sweet Kaylee.”
Inara came running over elegance forgotten in her concern for her friends. “I saw what happened. Is everyone all right?”
“For now,” Mal said. “Thanks to River and Miss Cannary over there.” He nodded to the plainswoman, she touched the brim of her hat in salute, a pretty blonde haired woman staring wide eyed at them, clutching at Jane’s hand. “And now I think we’d better be going about our business and getting back to Serenity before the men with the badges over there make us their business. We got a job to plan.”
TBC in “The Casquedero Caper”