They say you can work nothing with dancing by itself—nothing at all, most likely, and surely nothing as will stick. Deena says it is because they ain't never tried believing it will, whoever they are.
All Lily Mae knows is when she dances with Deena, really dances—feet stomping, skirts twirling, too breathless-glad to laugh but full up with wanting to, like there ain't nothing in the world but the two of them—it feels like a true working, like the best and deepest magic. Even with no music at all.
Also sometimes when they dance like that, it makes the saloon's new ætherlight bulbs flare up and then shatter. Which might be considered by some to be evidence of a somewhat more compelling nature.
It is down mostly to luck—for them and for their purses, which have neither of them ever had much heft to them—that the cost ain't come out of their pay. The ætherlights are a newfangled thing, shipped from back east by airship. (There are no trains, of course, not since the Gap. And crossing is still a risky proposition. Even airships are sometimes taken by the things that come out of the Gap, though that is less common these days.) You need only a line or two to make the æther glow: half a bar from any hymn to the Sons of Morning will do it, if you have voice enough or can hum it steady. They ain't struck out by wind or rain like candles or a lantern, and in principle they need no replacing.
But Old Henry can hum nothing steady, and when he goes too sharp they have a tendency to explode.
So he finds nothing suspect in a burst bulb or two here and there, only sighs and goes to dig another from the crate he keeps round back; and as long as Lily Mae has the glass swept up by the time of his return, he is not too sorely discontented.
The Diamondback is the only establishment in Black Water to boast ætherlights at all. Deena and Lily Mae have been working there near six months, and in fact the news that the bulbs sometimes cause some excitement seems to have improved business rather than diminished it. Which Lily Mae can only be glad of. Probably she and Deena will not be in Black Water much longer, and when they go they will be better off if Old Henry is inclined to feel generous toward them.
But they ain't gone yet. And until they are they shall do as they has always done and keep their heads low. Black Water is a decent and quiet place, and Deena and Lily Mae make a decent and quiet living in it, which is surely all a body may hope for and more than most shall ever find.
And Lily Mae might have gone on believing so, if the lady fiddler had not come to town.
It is a day like any other in Black Water. Lily Mae wakes in the dark of morning with Deena's arms still warm around her; and she presses kisses to Deena's neck, her mouth, her soft sweet cheek, until Deena makes a sour noise and swats Lily Mae away. (Her eyes are narrowed as though in anger, her face grim and grimacing—but she ain't displeased, not truly. Deena's ways require learning; but Lily Mae has learned them, and does not begrudge them either.)
There is no ætherlight in their room. But they do have a tap, and it is spelled for warm and cold water both—when Lily Mae leans down to splash her face, she can hear the low murmuring magic that was sang into the pipes. Metal always holds a working well, it sings so easy; wood is not bad either.
Stone is harder, which is why the kitchen floor in back of the saloon is always so cold. But if nothing else it does serve to keep Lily Mae light on her toes. There is a bulb in there and it answers when she hums to it, all fair within those children of the light, the glass picking up the tones and ringing them back until the æther starts to glow.
And if it should get brighter still when Lily Mae spins around and lifts her hand, well, there is no one there who sees.
The Diamondback prides itself on the variety, if not the quality, of libations it has to offer any person with a thirst as needs satisfaction: there is gin, bourbon, whiskey, and the moonshine made by Miss Jubilation Jones, which is over-proof by any measure and is sometimes bought by the gallon for the purpose of cleaning engine rods. Old Henry also keeps a great barrel keg of beer.
Lily Mae pulls three mugs before she sets foot in the saloon; six months in Black Water, and there has yet to be a morning when Doc Myers, the Widow Bell, and Josiah Kearney are not already seated and grousing over the slowness of the service as soon as there is any service to be had.
Doc Myers grunts her thanks, as she always does, and the Widow Bell snatches up her mug and drains a third of it in one pull, as she always does. Josiah nods at Lily Mae, blinking slow, and then hums down into his beer as if to scry with it—and perhaps he does. Lily Mae has never asked.
Deena has come in and is wiping down the counter by the time Lily Mae is done, and by then it is about time for Davy Bartlett to stumble in, cussing—and yes, there is the creak of the saloon's swinging door. Lily Mae has never seen another person so timely, while at the same time so impressively deep in their cups. And at such an early hour.
Davy mutters something in Josiah's direction, as he does two or three times a week; it is unintelligible to Lily Mae but almost certainly insulting, because it is Davy Bartlett and he is saying it to Josiah. And Josiah lurches up out of his seat, as he does two or three times a week, and then Deena ducks easily beneath the counter as Josiah's mug misses Davy entirely and clanks off the wall over Deena's head.
They rarely fight for more than a few minutes, and will probably only knock over one or two tables. And they will buy enough liquor after that Old Henry will be more than willing to call it even, though he will be grudging about it if they should break a chair.
Lily Mae sidles back into the kitchen to wet a couple of rags, so they will have something to soothe their bruises with when they are finished. (It has occurred to her that perhaps Davy Bartlett does this so regular because it is the only way his face ever gets cleaned.)
But when she comes back out, she is set on her heels in surprise.
For Davy and Josiah have quit, at least for the moment; and they are prone on the floor and blinking up in startlement at the lady fiddler who is standing in the doorway.
She is not so very much older than Lily Mae, who is still as like to call herself a girl in her own head as not—but there is something about how she stands that makes Lily Mae want for a different word, and "lady" will do. There can be no doubt that she knows her work: her fiddle must be a rig she has done up herself, the way that horn is worked up through the body to help direct her sound. She has certainly been traveling the dust flats, by airship or by steamer carriage—she would not have invested in such a fine pair of goggles otherwise.
And she is—she is lovely. Her hair is done up in braids and ribbons, a glorious wild waterfall of them, and of course it is only right that her gloves do not cover her fingers, not when she needs them to work, but something about them drags Lily Mae's eyes to her hands, to those slender clever fingertips—
"Begging your pardon," the lady fiddler says, very clear and pleasant, and then politely steps over Davy and Josiah where they are on the floor, holding her skirt up so it does not tangle in their legs. "Where is the owner of this fine establishment?"
Lily Mae, staring, cannot on her life recall the answer to that question, nor could she speak it if she knew it. So it is best for all concerned that she is still standing on the back threshold, and it is Deena who is facing the lady fiddler.
"You will want Old Henry there, miss," Deena says, cool, still swiping at the counter, and she nods toward where Old Henry is sat on a crate, smoking.
That is to say he was—once the lady fiddler came in, he began not so much smoking as sitting gobsmacked with a pipe hanging from his slack mouth.
"My thanks," the lady fiddler says, and then without further ado steps round to Old Henry, bootheels tap-tap-tapping on the floor. "I would like to seek employment from you, sir, if there is labor here needs doing and you have no one already."
"There is," Old Henry says, removing the pipe from his mouth, "and I do not."
"I do my work well and quickly, sir," the lady fiddler says, "and I have never yet had a spell fail. And of course I am not too proud to entertain, either, for to raise a person's spirit and gladden a house of rest a while is no less high a calling."
Old Henry sits and thinks, and the lady fiddler does not rush him. "And how much would you be wanting for this fine quick work of yourn?" he says.
"Whatever it is worth to you once I have done it, sir," the lady fiddler says promptly. "If there is dispute over the quality of my playing or if you should prove miserly, I will take myself away just as I came, and will not cause you any trouble beyond what time of yours I have taken up."
"You are a stranger to me and so I have no cause to doubt your word," Old Henry murmurs; "and yet I would be a fool if I did not ask you for some demonstration of this skill you hope to exercise on my behalf."
"And I would be a fool to refuse to give it," the lady fiddler says gracefully, and then without another word sets bow to strings.
There is plenty of working done in tunes that have no words, but like all things it can be done well or poorly, and the lady fiddler does not do it poorly. The song that reels off her fiddle is nothing Lily Mae has ever heard before, but it has a sense of movement and of order both, bright and breezy strains that call out rise and follow me with a steady repeating refrain woven in, predictable and settling.
All the air around the lady fiddler is listening, and so are the mugs, the tables, the chairs—and then Josiah's mug rises up from where it fell to the floor behind the counter. The one table that Josiah and Davy have managed already to knock over rights itself with a bit of a flourish, its feet striking the floor just on the beat of the lady fiddler's tune; and the empty glasses that had slid from its surface and broken lift up in a glittering cloud and dance themselves back together—when they have formed up Lily Mae can spot no chip or divot where any piece is missing, nor even any leftover cracks along their sides.
The lady fiddler plays until the glasses have set themselves back down upon the righted table with a ring, and then she winds down to an ending and stops. Even Josiah's chair has righted itself—and the painting of the lady in red on the far wall has been crooked as long as Lily Mae can remember, but it is as square to the lines of floor and ceiling now as if it were nailed that way.
"Well," Old Henry says. "I suppose that will do."
Within a week it is as though Miss Vi has always been at the Diamondback. Lily Mae is too dove-shy, too dazzled-eyed, to even think of speaking more than two words to Miss Vi during that time—and Deena is too Deena, never dazzled by anything in her life and entirely unwilling to start now.
("I am sure she has breath like the breeze off a horse's backside in the morning, just like everyone else."
"Oh, Deena," Lily Mae scolds. Deena is dear and sweet and might as well be Lily Mae's own heart walking round outside her chest; but she does sometimes lack a sense of romance.)
Miss Vi does all manner of good work for Old Henry, and did not lie: she is not too proud to entertain. She fiddles up small things as she can, repairing the holes in the roof upstairs and coaxing up the cold-spell that keeps the Diamondback livable as the weather grows hot—it was set in place many years ago, and sometimes now forgets its notes, but Miss Vi sits by the walls for hours and plays to them until they remember how the spell goes.
And then in the evenings she plays for everyone.
There is no will put into the jigs and reels Miss Vi plays in the evenings, but nevertheless they come out so fine and bright even Lily Mae tapping her toes to them can lift glasses of gin and whiskey off the countertop if Lily Mae ain't careful. And they make everybody glad—which is not a working, for there is no magic on earth that can change a person's temper or will, or make them kind who are not kind already; but nevertheless it is lovely of Miss Vi to do.
And it goes on like this all week, Miss Vi a boon to Old Henry and the Diamondback both but nonetheless kept a bit apart, a bit away. Until one evening Blue Jenny comes in.
Blue Jenny is not much for town, nor her girls neither—they are not a gang, not such roughs as one may see on the posters the sheriff sometimes nails to the door. But they are not to be trifled with, when they do come into Black Water for supplies.
Blue Jenny herself is a cattle-handling woman, strong-shouldered, and she carries a harmonica which Lily Mae has seen used to throw grown men through windows. So when she grabs Lily Mae's wrist as Lily Mae leans in to replace her whiskey—well. Better to smile, and sit on her knee when she pulls, and wait for the drink to need replacing again.
The round goes quickly enough, and Lily Mae reaches for the empty glasses with a grin and a wink, because it is not her aim to cause trouble—
Blue Jenny catches her waist; and Lily Mae has not even the time to brandish the glasses at her, to make light and ease away, before Miss Vi is there.
Blue Jenny turns her head, one scarred eyebrow raised inquiringly. "Perhaps you have confused me for some fair soldier girl," she says to Miss Vi, very low. "I follow no one's orders."
Her free hand is dangling close to the harmonica in her belt—but Miss Vi's fiddle is already at her shoulder, the bow leaned idly against the strings.
"Then you may consider it a suggestion," Miss Vi says, "which it would be in your best interests to heed."
Lily Mae stares at her, heart pounding, and wonders how long it will take Deena to pick the glass out of her face if Blue Jenny flips the table while Lily Mae is still sitting here.
And then Blue Jenny's eyes narrow, and she slides her hand off Lily Mae's waist and reaches for one of the glasses, tipping back the very dregs. "No one will cheat me out of the full glass I have paid for," she says mildly, as if that were all she had ever meant to do; and Lily Mae takes the glass back from her and stands.
When the Diamondback begins to empty out, Old Henry leaves them three to close up, as is his habit; Lily Mae waits for the door to swing shut behind him, and then she rounds the counter and clasps Miss Vi's hands. "Oh, but that was brave!" she says.
Miss Vi looks startled, and then her eyes narrow like Blue Jenny's. "It was not," Miss Vi says, sounding so sure and decided on the subject it makes Lily Mae almost feel like she ought to apologize for her error, though she cannot understand why it is one. It was brave. Surely Miss Vi could not have missed the harmonica that Blue Jenny had slung at her hip.
Confronted with this fact, Miss Vi still shakes her head.
"It was not brave. It was only right, that is all." Miss Vi tilts her chin up, and her face, her eyes, are full of such a fire Lily Mae could near mistake her for a falling star. "Times are hard, the west is hard, there is little enough to go around—there is always reason aplenty to take, for those as wish to find it. I do not hold with such thinking: if decency is scarce then we had better learn to be more generous with it."
She stops there and for the first time looks uncertain, as though she expects Lily Mae to find her shrill and sanctimonious; Lily Mae laughs instead.
"What a lovely thing to say," Lily Mae tells her gently. "Oh, you ought to be a preacher girl, Miss Vi."
And what Miss Vi says is lovely—even if it ain't likely. It is all of a piece with the rest of Miss Vi, her braids and her ribbons and her pale pretty fingers, the sweet bright singing of her fiddle: lovely like a good dream.
But Lily Mae knows better than most—you always do wake up in the end.
After that it is easier to be friendly with Miss Vi, for Lily Mae and for Deena too. Deena, Lily Mae suspects, is grateful to Miss Vi, though of course she would not say so. (She would not have liked Blue Jenny touching Lily Mae, but she could have done nothing about it. They will be leaving Black Water soon enough, and they need no one talking about them after they have gone. Deena knows it as well as Lily Mae, and would have looked away and wiped the counter until it shone, however it might eat her up inside to do it.)
They dance to Miss Vi's fiddle sometimes, though of course they must be careful—it is easy with Miss Vi, easy to find a rhythm and easy to feel what will come next, whether Miss Vi will speed up or slow down and how she will do it. Sometimes Lily Mae and Deena dance things they have practiced together; but sometimes they find themselves in the middle of something new, perfectly in time with each other and with Miss Vi's fiddle, all thought beyond the dancing swept away. Lily Mae likes that best of all.
They discover that Old Henry made no inquiries into Miss Vi's lodging, and so she has been stowing the fiddle under the counter with the bourbon and then going out back to sleep in the stable with Winona the old bay mare. With a little spare ticking and some cloth it is easy enough to make Miss Vi a mattress, Deena's sure hands at the needle, and they offer it to her along with space on the floor of their room to fit it into.
"But only if you do not mind us," Lily Mae adds belatedly. Not that they will do anything—well, anything much, not if Miss Vi can hear; but surely Lily Mae cannot be expected to not kiss Deena at all—
Miss Vi's face is a picture of bewilderment. "I—it is your room," she says uncertainly.
"Yes," Deena says—and she says it very patiently, for Deena—"and if you are in it then you will see a little more."
"More," Miss Vi echoes.
"Of us," Lily Mae tries. "Of me and Deena." She takes Deena's hand, in the hope that this will elucidate matters.
"Of—?" Miss Vi repeats, and then Lily Mae sees a dawning. "Oh," Miss Vi says, and though her face is very placid there is a blooming redness that unfurls over her cheek. "Oh, I—of course, that is—that is fine," she adds, and her ears turn red too.
Lily Mae cannot help it: she bursts out laughing. "Oh, Miss Vi," she says, and then, wickedly, "We will try not to be too loud," just to see whether it will make Miss Vi turn redder.
It goes on like this for a little while, all pleasantness, and Lily Mae knows that when she and Deena leave Black Water at last, she will be sorrier to go than she had ever expected.
The pleasantness should soothe her; she should be warmed to think they will have such sweet memories of a place, when sweet memories have so often been a starving rarity. But pondering on it, she finds, only serves to make her feel odd and fragile: like those glasses Miss Vi mended on her first day in Black Water, just before they settled; like she is only a cloud of glittering edges that is spelled up into the shape of a girl.
It makes her feel further than she ever has from Miss Vi—lovely bright Miss Vi, with her sweet smile and her slim pretty hands, her righteous shining heart. Further, and smaller, and sadder; until one day it does not.
The thud is loud enough to be heard through the wall of the Diamondback, and Miss Vi falters in her playing out of startlement—Lily Mae is pouring gin and spills a puddle onto the countertop.
"What in the seven hells," Old Henry mutters, and then there is another thump a bit more muffled, and Josiah and Davy and the Widow Bell stand and glance at each other and go out the door.
Miss Vi's fiddle stills, and everyone still in the Diamondback has quietened: it is easy enough to hear two more thumps, and then a shout, someone shouting back, the Widow Bell's sharp strident voice.
And when Josiah and Davy and the Widow Bell come back in, they are carrying—
"Oh, Zachariah," Doc Myers mutters, and begins to roll up her sleeves. "All right, come on—you, clear off a table."
Lily Mae does; and Josiah and Davy and the Widow Bell lay down Zachariah, who is groaning and blubbering and bleeding.
Zachariah is Black Water's town beggar—not that there are not others, but most come and go, or pass through following the steam carriage routes. Zachariah stays. He is not right in the head, Lily Mae knows, but the sheriff told her once over a whiskey that it was because of the war, that he was struck down and had lost his sense by the time he woke. Most folk slip him a little tin here and there, and if he comes to sleep on the verandah of the Diamondback when it is raining, Old Henry does not make him move.
But of course there are always those who would rather have a little amusement than pass by.
Doc Myers ascertains quickly that Zachariah's nose is broken, that that is where most of the blood has come from, that the rest of his poor head is no worse off than usual. "Shh," she murmurs to him as she feels for his ribs, "you will be all right," and Zachariah whimpers a little but lies still enough.
Lily Mae nearly jumps. She had backed up nearly to the counter to let Doc Myers work, but not so far there is not space at her shoulder. It is Miss Vi has come up behind her, clutching her fiddle and her bow so tight her knuckles have gone white; and she is looking at Lily Mae with huge dark eyes, and at Deena beyond her.
"He has been beat a little," Lily Mae says, endeavoring as best she is able to be gentle about it. "Some of the rancher folk who do not spend much time in town, I wager, as most of us who live by him do not trouble Zachariah."
"Was it—to thieve from him, or—"
"Not likely," Deena says, low. "Zachariah has only what coin is given to him, and that adds up to very little."
No, they did not do it to steal Zachariah's begging money—they did it because they could, Lily Mae thinks, because Zachariah was there and because they could and because no one stopped them, which west of the Gap is reason enough to do most things.
But Miss Vi looks—Miss Vi looks bewildered, Miss Vi looks lost. Miss Vi looks like the preacher's daughter in the desert from the parable: in the middle of a wide bare place, alone. "But why?" she says. "Why? Why should anybody want to be so—so cruel?"
She says it with none of the shining fire, none of the good dream; she is a girl like Lily Mae, and she is kind and brave but she is the only one—even Lily Mae and Deena are not like her, not truly, because they have lived quiet in Black Water only for their own benefit, so it will be safer for them when they leave. Oh, poor Miss Vi, Lily Mae finds herself thinking, and she puts her arm round Miss Vi's shoulders and presses her cheek to Miss Vi's. "If they knew how to be better, they would be," she murmurs, "they would be," because it makes Miss Vi sigh, loosens her fingers and the yoke of her shoulders.
Even if Lily Mae is not sure it is true.
After that it is even harder for Lily Mae to keep herself to herself—because Miss Vi is not a photograph, not a good dream, but real and tired and troubled, and it makes Lily Mae's heart ache.
Which she would feel guilty for, except Deena keeps catching her at it and does not get angry; she only raises an eyebrow and then teases Lily Mae until Lily Mae swats at her and scolds her.
"It does not prick at you, though, truly?" Lily Mae asks her once, because the last thing she wants is to be unkind to Deena or to make Deena sorry.
"If it pricked at me then I should not have invited her to sleep in our bedroom," Deena says, easy.
"Oh, Deena," Lily Mae says, because that is and is not an answer, which is a thing Deena is very fond of giving.
Deena does not quail beneath Lily Mae's regard, though it is as stern as Lily Mae can make it. She only shrugs—and then Lily Mae sees that there is a hint of pink easing up the side of Deena's throat. "She is very fine," Deena concedes. "If she—asked, I would not refuse, whether on your account or on mine. Or both, if that is her way."
"Oh, Deena," Lily Mae says, in a very different tone, and presses a kiss to Deena's temple just because she is able. "And—do you suppose she might? Ask?"
"I cannot conceive of any reason why she would not," Deena says, and her tone is brisk in a way that is thoroughly at odds with the warm palm she sets to Lily Mae's cheek before she kisses Lily Mae firmly on the mouth.
She pauses after she has pulled away, and looks at Lily Mae so long and intent that Lily Mae has started to blush herself.
And then she says, quiet, "I will tell you that sometimes—sometimes Miss Vi seems very lonely to me, Lily Mae. And I do not know as I would do her any good; but I know you would, and I would not mind the trying."
(Sometimes there is more romance in Deena than Lily Mae rightly has words for.)
"Oh, Deena," Lily Mae says, very gentle, and pulls Deena in again.
The rumors of the Pickett Gang's arrival reach Black Water the next day.
This time at least there is some warning that the day will not go ordinary. When Lily Mae comes out in the morning with three mugs of beer, there are only two hands to put them in; Doc Myers is nowhere to be seen. And Miss Vi is already down by the time she does come in, which Lily Mae quickly has cause to wish were not so.
But it is so; and Miss Vi looks up from her fiddle when Doc Myers comes in, and surely cannot fail to hear her say, "The Pickett Gang has crossed the river and is riding for Black Water," just as clear as Lily Mae hears it.
Deena hears too, and her eyes meet Lily Mae's, and Lily Mae feels dread settle dark over her like a shadow.
"The Pickett Gang?" says the Widow Bell. "Are you certain?"
"As certain as can be," says Doc Myers grimly. "Jimmy Trent has rode from his place breakneck to fetch me, for he says they have left his mother bleeding from the head after she spotted them coming."
"Lords," says Josiah, which is the first word Lily Mae has ever heard him say that is not a cuss for Davy Bartlett.
"Yes," Doc Myers agrees. "I will be off to the Trent place and that will take me out of their way; and as for the rest of you—" She pauses to look at Old Henry, at Deena, at Lily Mae. "You are least likely to need my services, or for that matter the undertaker's, if you are out of town by afternoon."
It is good advice. The Pickett Gang prefers to swoop in on a town of a morning, and if they are only at Trent land or a little beyond, they will not come today; they will wait and hit Black Water first thing tomorrow.
It is good advice, and everyone in town seems to plan to heed it, for they come into the Diamondback one after another for spirits to take with them—which will serve them the dual purpose of calming their nerves and helping them to tend any wounds they will have if the Pickett Gang should catch them.
Any wounds they survive the having of, that is.
And Miss Vi—Miss Vi asks every last one of them what they know of the Pickett Gang. Surely it does not pass beyond Miss Vi's notice that everyone she speaks to concludes their answer with some variation on, "And I shall be long gone when they do arrive, praise heaven." But if anything this only serves to stoke the righteous fire in Miss Vi's face. The whole of Black Water is scattering before the Pickett Gang like chickens who have spotted the shadow of an eagle, but Miss Vi—
Miss Vi will not run. Lily Mae knows that like the back of her own hand; and she is wretched enough with hearing of the Pickett Gang at all, but the knowing makes her more wretched still.
All the day they are too busy for idle chatter, until at last in the evening their business thins—many people already gone, and more now too busy in the leaving to come through the Diamondback.
And then as they clean up, it happens, just as Lily Mae had feared it would: Miss Vi brings a last pair of empty glasses to Deena at the counter, and smiles at them both. "Oh!" she says, "I think we can do it, truly I do. As best anyone is able to tell me, they carry two guitars and a banjo, and one of their boys plays a harmonica—but they only dance a little, their casting is not so strong as it could be, and if they are even a little out of tune then we shall have them."
Deena takes the glasses without looking at Miss Vi, turns and reaches for the rag to wipe them; and Miss Vi looks at her and stops smiling, and then at Lily Mae.
"I—I understand if you are frightened," Miss Vi adds, uncertain. "I know a very good shielding song, I think—that is—"
She trails off into silence when they do not help her, when they do not reply—and it is a terrible cruelty, it is leaving Zachariah in the street to bleed, that Miss Vi is reaching out to them and they know it and do not lend her their hands. It is all the things Miss Vi hates most, and they are doing it right to her face.
They did not deserve her anyway, Lily Mae thinks, squeezing her eyes shut.
"They have a score with us," Deena says quietly, because she knows Lily Mae cannot bear to and she has always been the stronger. "They have a score with us that lies unsettled, and they will not leave it so. I doubt they came here for us in specific. But they will not go without that we are dead or they are put away in gags."
"We killed one of them," Lily Mae blurts. "We danced him down, Miss Vi, and they have sworn revenge. Oh, I am sorry—we should have been gone from Black Water weeks ago, except—"
—except we did not want to leave you, but Lily Mae clamps her teeth down upon the words before they can get out. What use is it to say that they stayed for her, that they stayed for her because they wanted to—but now that she has need of them, they will light out? It is no use at all, and unkind besides.
Miss Vi takes it on the chin, because she is herself and cannot do otherwise: she gazes at Deena, face pale and eyes huge, and then she nods like a queen, ribbons fluttering. "Of course," she says, very calm. "Of course—it is not right that any person be asked to risk their life in such a way. You should go while you still can, for if they realize you are here they will be after you when—when they are done."
"We will go before dawn," Deena says, "while it is still dark," and Miss Vi nods; and Lily Mae says nothing, can say nothing, at all.
They cannot be said to wake, because they do not sleep—or at least Lily Mae does not, and Deena's breath never eases, her shoulder never softens beneath Lily Mae's cheek, so probably she does not either. But it gets darker and darker and then lighter, gray instead of midnight blue, and at last Deena reaches up and touches Lily Mae's face.
They rise and gather up what little they have that they cannot do without; and when Lily Mae turns to collect the last of it, she thinks she sees Miss Vi's eyes open.
She looks away without speaking, and Miss Vi does not stop her. Perhaps it was only a trick of the light.
They creep down the stairs of the Diamondback and out the front, and then circle round in the dimness toward the stable. It is a sad, sick, sorry feeling that wells through Lily Mae; it is like carrying a stone, a stone she cannot set down, and every step it grows heavier.
"Move," Deena snaps at Winona, under her breath, and Winona whickers and steps out of her stall. Deena looks at Lily Mae and jerks her head, impatient—which means Deena is sad and sorry, too, for she would not be harsh without cause otherwise.
They have rode Winona before, though never very far—most often to Jubilation's for a barrel of her moonshine, which Winona must pull a cart for. They follow the road that leads out of town, east and a little south; and the dawn creeps nearer and nearer, and Lily Mae closes her eyes and winds her fingers in Winona's mane and tries to think of nothing.
And then they come to the ford for crossing the Black River, which curves around Black Water—which somewhere in its western stretch had Pickett boys splashing through its waters not a day ago—and Lily Mae cannot help but reach down to grip Deena's knee. And Deena—
Deena turns Winona, sharp, and Winona whuffles in protest but slows, maneuvers to a halt.
Lily Mae risks a look over her shoulder: Deena is squinting east at the rising sun, at the river water, and Lily Mae can find nothing in her face but surely there is only one thing she can be thinking of.
"Deena," Lily Mae says, and Deena keeps looking at the river but that does not mean she did not hear.
"We would do better to keep riding," Deena says, very low.
"We—we would live longer," Lily Mae says slowly. "I do not know as we would be better for it."
Deena swallows, and her hand tightens where it lies on Lily Mae's waist. "They will kill us."
"They will kill her," Lily Mae says; and Deena stares at the river and holds onto Lily Mae and draws in a long breath, and then all at once wheels Winona around.
Winona gallops and the sound is like thunder, like drums—like dancing, Lily Mae thinks, like bare feet on dirt that is packed down hard.
They can hear it all the way from the farther end of the main street in Black Water: Miss Vi must have played herself that shield song, for everything that is coming from the guitars and from the banjo of the Pickett boys is pounding, steady and thrumming, set to drown Miss Vi right out—
Deena leaps off Winona and grabs for Lily Mae's arm, swinging her down safe with only a glance to make sure she has not turned an ankle; and then they run until they are close enough to see, because what the Pickett boys are playing is kicking up a billow of dust.
Miss Vi is cornered, because there is only one of her and there are a good half-dozen Pickett boys. And they are barely moving their feet, only advancing on her at a slow solid beat, because that is all they need for what they are working. They have not broke through, not yet—but Lily Mae can see Miss Vi is straining, can feel that there is some invisible pressure coming down against her and she is only just holding it away.
And Deena and Lily Mae cannot hear her. But they can see her, her hands and her bow; and they can see each other.
They do nothing complicated, for this is not the moment. They only want to give Miss Vi some breathing room—so they look at each other and then they look at her bow, and on Miss Vi's downstroke they stomp. It is all force, the dancing; they push with their arms, swing with their elbows, and with every limb and muscle they make space, as insistent as they can manage.
And Miss Vi's face eases—she does not stand so much braced anymore as simply straight, proud. She gulps a breath, Lily Mae can see her do it; and then she lifts her chin to play still harder, and that is when she sees them.
Her bow slides, and she winces at the harsh noise and settles to her playing until she has the way of it again—and then she looks back at Lily Mae, at Deena, and her eyes are brilliant. She turns her gaze to the Pickett boys and glares fierce, and her hands move faster, faster, the fiddle singing loud as it can, and now Deena and Lily Mae can hear it over the Pickett Gang's casting.
Compared to the light pretty reels Miss Vi used to play at the Diamondback, the spellwork she is sawing now is harsh, a shout; but in that it matches what Lily Mae and Deena are dancing, the sharp hard movements of their hands and arms, the thumps their bare feet make striking the ground.
The Pickett Gang has noticed Deena and Lily Mae now, too, but there is nothing they can do about it—they were turned all toward Miss Vi, and now that there is working coming at them from two directions, it is all they can do to hold steady.
In fact it is more than they can do: the one nearest Miss Vi, in the brown hat, tries to hold his ground but must step back.
And as though it is a signal, as though they had agreed upon it beforehand, Lily Mae and Deena's dance and Miss Vi's music both change. The fiddle eases up, turns wicked and clever, rapid falls of notes weaving spellshape like a net; and Deena and Lily Mae move apart and turn, surrounding, arms reaching out as though to gather. The magic presses in up close around the Pickett boys, and then all at once whatever they had played out to keep Miss Vi at bay collapses, giving way to Miss Vi's melody. The Pickett Gang flies backward, tumbling into the wall of the general store that is behind them; the guitar flies from the hands of the man in the brown hat as he falls, and the man beside him comes down awkward and snaps the neck of his banjo when he lands.
Miss Vi goes on a few measures more until they are bound up tight, pressed down onto the ground as though by a weight—they will not get up until she undoes it, or until they can sing the air around them into letting go, either of which will be a while. And then she ties it all up with one last run and a flourish of the bow; and Deena and Lily Mae press their feet down hard and flare their hands and then are finished.
They all three stand there for a moment like trees, rooted down.
And then Miss Vi drops her fiddle in the dirt and runs to them, slings her arms around their shoulders, and she is laughing and crying at once. "Oh, thank you," she says, "thank you, I knew you would come back, I knew—"
"Of course we did," Deena says, businesslike, and without hesitation kisses Miss Vi quick and hard and square on the mouth.
Miss Vi blinks and stares at her, apple-cheeked and round-eyed; and then she swallows hard and darts an uncertain glance at Lily Mae.
And Lily Mae cannot hold it in any longer: she laughs, helpless and delighted. It takes only a lean in to press a kiss of her own to Miss Vi's cheek; and then she can just stay there, lean her forehead against Miss Vi's temple and clasp hands with Deena round Miss Vi's back and hold on.