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"Velly solly, honorable sirs," he said, all the while thinking, fuck your mothers.

The posse was six men strong, and he recognized all of them from one poker game or another. He'd only been in Amarillo four days, but with a town that small and a saloon that big, it was almost a guarantee that any observant eye would see the entire adult male population wander through. And his eyes were more observant than most. The eldest of the bunch, a hothead with an expensive hat, pulled his mount a little closer to the front of the wagon while two younger riders circled the back. "Maybe you heard something, then. A rider, or someone on foot."

Wu shook his head, and that was the honest truth. "No, honorable sirs. Listen, but no. Quiet, and then honorable sirs here."

It wasn't the answer any of them had been looking for, that much was clear from their faces, but Wu didn't flinch under what they surely thought were their hardest stares, and presently the lead man lowered his lantern. "There's a reward for her. You understand 're-ward', don't you? Money. Cash money, you bring her back."

"Cash money, yes, sirs." About then, Wu would've agreed to anything to get rid of them and be on his way. They didn't seem to bear him any particular ill will, but he had puckered circles of scar tissue on either side of his right calf, twin entry and exit wounds, living proof of how quick that sort of thing could change. He would have fucked their mothers, though, and given them a nice time, because women deserved some compensation for having idiot sons like that. "But no girl. I see, I bring back."

There was a heavy fluttering sound as one of the oilcloth flaps that covered the rear of his wagon got dropped back into place. "Smells like dog shit in there," said one of the young boys, a damn fool who'd lost a pretty penny at the table the night before. "Ain't nobody could stand being back there what weren't a Chinaman."

Wu kept his face blank, as though he didn't understand, and the leader of the posse nodded again before reining his horse back toward the path. "Cash money," he repeated, and then he and his boys were gone off down the trail toward the last violet lights of the evening. High summer meant long days and late dark, but everything still faded.

He rode on another hour or so before pulling the wagon up next to a sheltering rock formation by a small creek; he liked travelling after dark, but the new moon meant he couldn't do much of it safely at the moment. He tethered the mules so they could drink up and eat what they could find in the way of scrub grass. Lucky for them all they weren't picky. He walked a short ways away and relieved himself, then walked around the wagon a few times to get the stiffness out of his legs. The cloudless night sky robbed the air of warmth, but heat still baked up from the rock. He took a deep breath with his mouth and tasted alkali on his tongue; rain, maybe, or more likely just a wind down from some distant snowy peak, too far off to be seen from here even in the daylight. The posse must have taken some long loop, because they hadn't doubled back and he didn't figure they'd stray too far off on account of a whore and some hurt pride.

Well, there was no getting around it, at least not if he wanted some supper. He hung his lantern on a hook just under the lip of the roof, unlocked the wagon door, and pulled back the flap behind it. "All right, come on out now," he said to the dark interior, and he wasn't at all surprised when something behind his crate of provisions stirred.

 

~*~

 

She was a pretty little thing, and she was a mess. Her curly brown hair was wild around her bare, pretty shoulders, half-hiding the mascara run down her cheeks, which in turn did a good (but not good enough) job of hiding the ghost of a black eye. Her eyes were dark and her skin was darker than white, but whiter than Negroid, and too light to be Indian but too dark to be Oriental. He didn't know what she was or where she'd come from, but he gave her a good five minutes' worth of her crocodile tears and blubbering into his handkerchief, mostly to see how long she'd keep it up. At last, when she paused to take a breath, he held up his hand and waited until she looked up at him and nodded. "You don't have to tell me what happened," said Wu, "and I won't take you back either way, but if all you're going to say is bullshit, you can save your breath."

Her pretty little mouth quivered for a minute, then rose into a wry smile. "Well, good," she said, rubbing the square of cloth over her cheeks until the black was gone. She could keep it; he'd never get that makeup out. She cleared her throat and took another long, slow breath. "What's to eat?"

Well, he had to admire her nerve. "You cook?"

"I whore," she said, and though it hadn't been hard to figure that out just by looking at her, he hadn't expected her to be so up-front about it. Well, if she'd expected to be shocking with that, she'd picked the wrong man; he had great respect for whores, both as people and as professionals. "So, no. I don't cook."

"Then what's to eat is in there." He pointed to the crate she'd taken to sitting on, and she scooted off it, tugging her skirts up as she went and exposing her bare legs to her knees. They were trim and shapely and downed with light brown hair to her ankles. He could see how she'd be popular at her job.

He opened a tin of beans and poured half of it onto his one plate before adding two biscuits to it and handing it, with his one fork, to her. She'd made herself comfortable on the pile of sacks and linens that he used as his bed, and though she didn't have a very ladylike way of sitting, he supposed there wasn't much point in it, considering. She ate up with obvious hunger, so much so that when she'd cleaned her plate, he gave her whole the tin and told her to have at it. She didn't refuse, not even politely.

While she ate, he watched her and chewed on a long stick of jerky. The lantern wasn't much in the open dark, but it lit up the inside of his medicine wagon well enough that he could read inside it at night, which meant well enough he could see her just fine now. With her makeup all but gone, she looked young; Wu himself was fifty-two, and he guessed she was less than half that. They made no conversation until she finished the last of her supper and let out an enormous belch, then giggled and covered her mouth with her hand. "Pardon me," she said, looking at Wu through her long lashes.

"Pardoned," he said, taking the plate and fork back; he put them on a shelf so he'd remember to wash them in the morning. "So, are you going to tell me the real reason those men were looking for a runaway saloon girl?"

She wrinkled up her nose. "The other girls didn't like me. They got jealous. One of them got her beau to say I'd stolen a watch from him. I escaped with the clothes on my back and one tiny suitcase."

Wu glanced over to the valise by the door, which looked to him anything but tiny. "I can see why they were jealous."

"Oh, smart man."

"People like me tend to be," he said with a shrug. "Else we wind up dead."

"That we surely do." She lay back against a pile of pillows, letting her dress fall off one of her shoulders, exposing more of her pretty collarbone and throat. Ruffles on the front of her dress had given her the illusion of some generous endowments, but the more skin she showed, the flatter she appeared. That was all right as far as Wu was concerned, though; he'd lived too long to be picky about the shapes of women.

"So," he said, leaning back against a chest-of-drawers and putting his feet up on a trunk, "where's a smart lady like you headed?"

"I don't know," she said, drawing her long, thick hair away from her neck. "Where am I headed?" She looked around at the cart's interior.

Wu gave a shrug. "East at the moment. When we get to the river, south."

"I like south," she said. "Nice and warm for the winter."

"Well, then, when we hit a town, you can stay there." Wu stretched his arms behind his back, feeling his spine pop. "If you're planning on taking me for something, though, go on out and say it. I don't mind treachery, but I don't forgive treating me like a fool."

"If I'd wanted to rob you, you'd be robbed already," she said, and Wu had to concede how she'd had ample opportunity and access to the interior of his wagon, but everything seemed in place. He doubted she knew where the real valuables were, but he wasn't going to call attention to it by pointing that out.

"Fair, fair." He stood and took off his outer jacket, hanging it up on a hook by the door. "Don't suppose you have a name."

"Belladonna," she said.

It was all he could do to keep from laughing in her face. "Belladonna?"

She shot him a look devoid of amusement. "And you speak far better English than you let the men in that posse believe. So we've all got secrets."

She had a point. "Call me Woo," he said, pronouncing it the way it was spelled on the side of his wagon: Doctor Calvin J. Woo, the faded calligraphy read, Mediciner and Purveyor of Oriental Remedies. That was just one of the many hats he wore. "And that is my real name, or at least part of it and close enough."

"Well, thank you, Mr. Woo," she said with a smile. "You've brought great aid to a lady in distress."

Pointing out how little of a lady she was seemed rude, so Wu shut his mouth and smiled. "My pleasure. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to tend to some things before I bed down for the night."

That was as much of a lie as it was truth, but it worked as an excuse to get him out of the wagon again, freeing her up to do whatever it was women needed to do before they went to sleep. As he lit a cigarette, he thought about fucking her. He wouldn't insist on it, of course -- it seemed beyond rude to provide rescue and then charge for the service, especially without agreed-upon terms before -- but maybe they could work out some other arrangement. He had money, of course, not a lot but enough, and he had plenty of good-smelling things in bottles whose labels promised hair regrowth, erectile stamina, youthful vigor, and host of other cures that ranged from efficacious to garbage. Something in there had to be worth dipping his wick in her.

Or more likely, with his luck, she'd be sound asleep and the most he'd get from her would be a feel of her back as he pushed her over and made room on the bed for the both of them. Women were great in bed when they were awake, but when they slept they became tyrants, making empires out of men's mattresses. He secured the blocks beneath the wagon wheels one more time before deciding he'd given her enough time to make up her mind, then pinched off the lit end of the cigarette and climbed back inside.

She was still awake when he got there, though she'd switched her dress for a plain white shift that left her pretty neck and shoulders bare. "All set?" she asked, her voice husky and pretty.

"Seems so," he said, kicking off his boots by the back door and hanging up his hat. "Bed all right for you?"

"Bed's going to be fine." She patted the sheets beside her and scooted over, in the process baring her legs all the way to midway up her thighs, until the fabric of her shift bunched all up in her lap. "You ever had a woman in here before?"

"Can't say as I have," said Wu, taking off his shirt and trousers and folding them atop a low, carved chest. He didn't tend to get much of anyone in his wagon, with the exception of the Chinese he met here and there who wanted the real goods he brought out from San Francisco, not the snake oil he sold credulous whites. The sensitive-nosed jackass from the posse hadn't been all wrong.

She waved him close, and when he got there, she rose up on her knees. "Been a while since I've had some Chinese meat," she said, rubbing her pretty, knobby hands up his thighs.

Wu was hard now, and his cock poked out of the slit in the front of his longjohns. "And how much is this going to cost me?" He leaned back against a stack of boxes, getting his balance.

She laughed and tossed her hair back from her face. "A prick this pretty on a man this sweet?" she asked, kissing the tip. "I should be paying you."

He'd never considered whoring before as a profession for himself, but if women were going to start reacting the way she was, he might have to look into a change of career. She opened her pretty little mouth and took him deep, closing her lips near the root of his cock, then drawing her head back in a long, wet swipe. He could definitely see why the other girls were jealous. With a smirk, she went in for a second taste, this time taking much longer to let him slip from her mouth. One of her hands was between her legs, pushing and kneading in a way he couldn't quite see from his angle, but her bliss was apparent. The third time she took his cock into her mouth, he reached down to hold her there, and in doing so, brushed a lump in her throat he'd never felt in a woman before.

It wasn't that he hadn't noticed. In all honesty, he'd been trying not to notice, doing his best to put aside all the little clues so that he could keep thinking of her as a girl. But the adam's apple was too much, and when he gripped her chin to push her back, he could feel the slightest pricklings of an untended beard. "You're no lady," Wu said, his voice even. He wasn't mad, not even slightly; at best he was confused, and he wasn't even very much that. It just wasn't where he'd expected to end the day when he'd woken up that morning.

She sighed -- he sighed, more accurately, and brushed his lips along the side of Wu's cock. "Does it really make that much of a difference?" he asked, fluttering those long, dark eyelashes.

A man couldn't argue with that. Wu knotted his hands into the boy-and-girl's long hair and shoved him back forward on his cock, and the little whore went wild, licking and sucking with abandon. Wu'd had plenty of blowjobs in his life, but couldn't remember when the giver before him had been so obviously glad to do the work. The whore pulled up the hem of his shift and stroked himself off as he sucked Wu deep. He didn't cover half Wu's cock with his hand, either; he sucked so deep that Wu could feel the tip of his cock hit the back of the whore's mouth. That was some enthusiasm.

Faced with that, it was all Wu could do to hold out as long as he did, and when he came, the whore sucked him dry, keeping his lips pressed tight to the base of Wu's cock until Wu had nothing more to give. When Wu had gone all but soft in his mouth, the whore withdrew and sprawled on his back across the bed, his own cock slick with seed and limp between his dusty brown thighs. "God, that was good," he said with a sigh.

In the grand scheme of things, a mouth was a mouth, and Wu was too comfortable and relaxed to do much complaining. Instead, he deemed the night warm enough, shucked off his longjohns entirely, and lay down beside the whore, whose name, he was even more certain now than he had been before, was not Belladonna.

As soon as Wu had settled in, the whore curled up next to him and drew blankets over both of them. "I love sucking cocks," he sighed as he pillowed his head on Wu's shoulder. His voice was not much lower now, but some unidentifiable quality to it had changed, such that he sounded nothing like a woman and everything like a man. "In case you were going to ask how I got into this line of business. I love sucking cocks and getting fucked by them, and the only thing better than doing that is getting paid to do that."

Wu ran the ends of the kid's curls through his fingertips. "And you're dressed as a woman because...?"

"Makes things easier," said the kid, petting Wu's soft, bare belly. "Not so much room for boys in this line of work. Plenty of room for girls."

"I guess you've got it all sussed out, then."

"I guess I do." The whore shrugged. "And when I don't, I improvise."

Wu opened his mouth to make some smart comment, but a yawn caught him instead, and the kid giggled. "Shut your face," said Wu, though neither his tone nor the gentle shove he punctuated his words with were unkind. Despite his best efforts, he was becoming rather fond of this strange kid with the amazing mouth. He must be going soft in his old age.

"Go to sleep, old man," said the kid, kissing the underside of Wu's jaw. "We've still got a ways to go."

 

~*~

 

Wu woke up the next morning with the kid's mouth around his dick again, bobbing up and down as he had a fine time of himself, and Wu was so sleepy and comfortable that this time he managed to last a good long while. The whore came twice during the process, once while he was sucking Wu's cock, and the next time right after Wu had come in his mouth; he lay back, spread his legs wide, and made quite a show of stroking himself to climax. Wu had never before in his life felt any desire to bed men, but he had to admit, this was no ordinary man.

After they'd eaten breakfast, Wu dressed and hitched up the mules, then started the wagon down the trail. He stopped just before midday near a stream to let them drink from the thin, muddy trickle. The wagon's back door opened, and he was shocked to see a lady emerge -- a full Southern lady, with long curls and a tight lacy bodice and apple-red lips and as many skirts as stars in the sky. "Hope you didn't get all dolled up for me," he said, not bothering to hide his stare.

Belladonna -- it was a ridiculous name, but Wu didn't have a better one for his unexpected companion -- laughed. "A lady always has to look her best," he said in his higher, breathy voice, then let his tone darken to add, "and truth be told, if we meet up with anyone else, it'll be easier to explain me looking like this than me looking like you left me this morning."

"Smart again," said Wu, digging around in his crate of provisions until he pulled out enough hardtack and jerky for the both of them.

"So if anyone asks, I was robbed by terrible men who ransacked my carriage, killed the driver, took the horses, and left me by the side of the road, and only through the serendipity of your passing and the kindness of your inscrutable Eastern heart was I saved from a certain death at the hands of thirst and carnivorous desert fauna." He took a bite of the hardtack and grinned. "What do you think?"

Wu had to admit, it was better than he could have thought up on short notice. "In that case, who are you and why are you out here?"

The kid shrugged. "I've been lots of people for lots of reasons. Are there lots of Irish where we're going?"

It was an odd question, but Wu tried anyway to think back on the last time he'd been through the New Mexico Territory. "A fair number. Why?"

Sighing, the kid stuck out his tongue. "It's easiest for me to be Irish," he said, picking up a musical lilt to his voice that had certainly not been there before. "That is," he said, sounding again as he had earlier, "right until I'm surrounded by a bunch of other Irish. Then they want to ask me what I miss about the home country and whether I'm from the north or from the south, and it's just too much pressure and politics to keep straight when I'm trying to bed someone for money."

Wu thought back on the description of their runaway whore that the men from Amarillo had given: slender, young, dark-haired, and Italian. "So now if that posse does care enough to get your description to the law elsewhere...."

"They'll be looking for a little signorina and not paying any mind to a gypsy girl, or an Indian princess, or a half-Chinese runaway, or whoever else it is that pulls up into the next town." Belladonna gave his skirts a little shake. "I'm thinking maybe a little Georgia peach this time, though. What do you say?"

Wu looked him up and down. "I'd say you'd make a more convincing Confederate widow than Chinese girl."

"Half Chinese." With a smile that pinched his eyes to squinting, Belladonna gave Wu a bow that looked little like anything Wu had ever see a real Oriental do. "Raise by mama-san, honorable white father leave us when I small child, but before mama-san die of broken heart, she teach me many ancient mysterious pleasure arts--"

"For the love of God, stop," said Wu, who was laughing so hard he was having trouble breathing. He leaned against the wagon and howled for a minute, and as he did, the whore stole his cigarette and stuck it in the corner of his mouth like a man who had no intention of giving it back. He was such a lovely contradiction like that, dressed and painted like a woman, but no more a woman than a dog in a hat was a parson. "That was the worst Chinese I've ever seen someone be."

The kid grinned. "And that's because you're Chinese. If you're Irish, you don't know better. If you're a Swede, you've maybe never seen a real Mexican. If you're miles from Apache land, you wouldn't know a squaw if she sat on your face." He took a deep drag from the cigarette and leaned up against Wu's body, letting a little trickle of smoke slip from his lips. He moved his mouth close to Wu's, but when Wu turned away before they made contact, the kid backed off. "...Sorry."

"Fine, it's fine," said Wu, taking advantage of the moment to pull himself upright again and head for the front of the wagon. He put his hand on the reins and stopped, his back to where he'd left the kid standing. He took a long, deep breath. "Just no. Fair?"

"Fair is fair," said a voice from the other side of the wagon, and Wu looked over just in time to see a flurry of skirts hop up onto the far side of the driver's bench. "I've met men before who wouldn't kiss me even when they thought I was a proper lady." Belladonna straightened his dress and folded his hands in his lap, facing forward with stiff-jawed determination. "Didn't die of a broken heart then, won't now."

Wu climbed up alongside his well-dressed companion, though he had a harder time getting into the seat with his older legs. Belladonna waited patiently for him to get there, though, and when Wu had settled in, he clasped his hands together around Wu's right elbow. That contact, Wu didn't fight.

 

~*~

 

Just before sundown and just inside the city limits, Belladonna had Wu stop the cart and jumped off, explaining that it might be easier for both of them if they were seen without the other. Wu promised to hold the kid's suitcase so he could come back for it later. "I'll see you around, then," Belladonna promised, blowing a kiss, and Wu stirred the mules onward toward the lights of civilization.

Monterey wasn't a small town, but it wasn't too large either, meaning it was the perfect size, so far as Wu was concerned. If a city was too small, it wouldn't give him enough business to make the stop worthwhile; if it was too too small, too many eyes watched and too many questions got asked. Too big was its own problem, though, because too big meant too suspicious in the other direction, too organized, too likely to have a plan for dealing with what it considered undesirables. And Wu was about as undesirable as they came.

He parked his wagon in an alley by the livery and paid to have his mules fed and boarded, then wandered over to the nearest saloon. His mind, though, was on Belladonna. The West had odd folk aplenty populating it, and Wu counted himself in their number. To the best of his knowledge, though, he'd never met someone like Belladonna before. A smart, sweet, strange boy who liked to dress like a woman to get fucked by men? They were as rare as diamonds in the places Wu traveled.

The saloon was packed enough that no one noticed him walk in; the room's sole ratty piano kept playing away and the drunk conversation kept up its dull roar. Wu scanned the room and saw some Mexicans at a table by themselves, but no Chinese. Monterey was far enough from most major railroad arteries that he hadn't expected to find many, but the lack still put his mind at ease. That would make his sell easier.

At the bar he ordered a beer, which the bartender gave to him without fuss or question, though only after Wu had put his dime on the bar. It tasted like horse piss, but men who were drinking didn't trust a man who wasn't. He nursed it as he stood by a table where seven men sat around a pile of chips and cards. Poker wasn't so much his game -- shuffling the deck after every hand rendered what card-counting skills he had null and void -- but he had his well-practiced neutral grim expression down to an unflappable art, and that was better than nothing. He waited until one of them tossed down his cards and stormed off in a huff, then slipped right into the vacated chair. The dealer, a white man with a blond handlebar moustache, fixed Wu with an unfriendly glare. "You speak English?"

"English, yes." Wu nodded with what he knew looked like nervous enthusiasm. "Velly good English I speak."

That brought the table enough mocking laughter that he knew he was in. "We play for money here," said the dealer. "Real American money. Not trading for chickens or whatever sticks and beads you used for money back in China. Got that?"

Wu knew this wasn't the time to point out he'd been born just outside Topeka and had never crossed more of the Pacific than he could wade into. "American money, yes." To prove his claim, he pulled his dark blue coat back to reveal the billfold inside his breast pocket, then took a mouthful of beer so large the table laughed again. That was good; the less they thought of him, the better off he'd be.

He lost the first hand honestly, folded early on the second despite having a promising start to at least two pair, and lost the third one honestly as well. That was usually how long it took for the players at any given table to decide he wasn't a threat, relax, and forget that he was there. The fourth hand he was dealt had nothing of consequence in it, but nothing was a good enough start. Instead of folding, he raised without comment and set his jaw, all the while watching his drunker opponents for their tells.

If asked, he'd swear on any given holy object that he'd never cheated at cards a day in his life. In fact, he cheated all the time, and not just by counting, which he thought of not as cheating but just as being smart. He knew how to shuffle a deck so cards he wanted wound up where he wanted them, more often than not, and the long sleeves of his coat could hide a multitude of sins. He was smart about other things too, though, and one of those things was how he never cheated his first night in town. In fact, more often than not, on his initial night in any given place, he walked out of the local watering hole down a fair chunk of change. Few men ever expected a poker player's bluff to stretch over several rounds, much less over several days.

He took that hand and the next one, and took them big, then went back to losing quietly so that no one paid his luck much mind. Around the time he finished his beer, he was frowning at a hand made all from hearts and adding up his odds, when he heard a laugh from the bar that stopped him cold.

Luck was still with him there, though, as the pretty thing seated there had stopped everyone else in the saloon as well. Wu hadn't expected to see Belladonna again until he came for his trunk, but here he was -- only she wasn't Belladonna now. "Dahlia Jean," Wu heard him say in a perfect lazy southern drawl as he offered up one dainty gloved hand to a gentleman caller. "A handsome man like you can just call me Dahlia, though." He put a cigarette to his red-painted lips, and the man seated next to im couldn't strike a match fast enough.

"Ain't seen her around," said one of the card players, looking "Dahlia" up and down with a wolf's hungry leer. "What'd you figure she sees in ol' Dickie there?"

The man called Dickie was round about the middle and had on a grey bowler hat that tilted back, exposing his retreating hairline. He didn't look like much, but he looked like he could pay. There were plenty of other girls in the saloon too, all of them working their trade with their weary, fixed smiles, but this new girl was what grabbed every eye in the place. Well, Wu hadn't planned to have them both in the same place, but they were in different trades and would have no trouble coexisting. He'd keep his head down and try not to get in the way.

That was, until he heard that dainty southern voice call out, "Mister Woo! Is that you?"

Wu just about dropped his cards in his lap. Dahlia sauntered over, putting her -- and it was hard not to think of the kid as her, not just all dolled up but in full character now -- hand on Wu's shoulder while clutching the other to her breast. "I wanted to thank you," she said in a voice loud enough to carry to the rafters, "for that powder you sold me! Oh, I do declare, I have never had such a time in all my life!" With a blush that shaded those pretty brown cheeks all the way to plum, Dahlia produced a lacy white fan and began fluttering it back and forth. "Of course a lady such as myself is not the type to have any trouble keeping a man going, but there's a difference between keeping him going and keeping him going, if you hear what I'm saying!" Certainly Wu heard it; everyone in the saloon heard it, and probably a few passers-by on the street besides. "Do you have more? I'm going to have to stop by tomorrow and get some if you do, so be sure to save it for me, all right?"

A pause followed in which the only sound in the whole saloon was that every head made as it turned toward Wu so that its owner could better hear Wu's reply. "Yes, Miss Darria," said Wu, standing up from his chair just so he could give her the respectful Oriental bow a classy whore such as she surely deserved. "For you, I have plenty."

"Oh, my," laughed Dahlia as she fanned her flushed cheeks. "I am looking forward to it, I tell you. And you'll be open for business tomorrow?"

Wu half-nodded, half-bowed. "Yes, Miss Darria. I park wagon by stables. You come see?"

"I will come see, I will!" She laughed, tossing her hair back from her smooth, bare throat, then brushed the tip of her lacy fan across Wu's nose. "It takes a lot to satisfy a good southern girl, and I don't say there's any shame in getting a little boost wherever it comes, do you?" Without waiting for a response, she winked at him and sauntered back toward the bar, swaying her hips all the way. Wu would've staked all his winnings that there wasn't a soft dick in the place right then, his included.

The next dozen hands were accompanied by all manner of discussions and questions, some from the other players and more from the spectators, and all directed at Wu. What was this powder made of? Did he have enough to sell it to others? How much was it? Did he have other ointments? Did he have something to treat a rash? How about something to prevent baldness? When would he be open? Wu answered them all as best he could while keeping up his facade of broken English, and no one seemed to notice how many times the pot wound up going into Wu's wallet.

When he quit an hour later, he had a hundred more dollars than he'd walked in with, and five times that promised from customers who'd announced their intentions to visit his wagon come morning. He even shook hands with a few of the men, which was something of a first for him. On his way out, he cast one last glance toward the bar to see if his co-conspirator was still around, but though several lovely ladies in bright dresses fluttered amongst the patrons, the one called Dahlia was nowhere to be seen.

 

~*~

 

The first half-awake thought he had as the door to his wagon swung open was that he'd locked that damned thing. The kid, it seemed, was just better than that lock. He closed the door behind him, leaving the wagon shrouded in pitch darkness. Wu listened and pretended to be asleep as he heard the sound of the latch's being refastened, followed by the great rustling as several layers of women's clothing fell to the floor.

Hands were on his thighs a minute later, tugging down Wu's pajamas and revealing his cock, which woke up far faster than Wu himself did. The kid's mouth was right on him, sucking hard and making Wu groan. "Your 'date' didn't go so well?"

The kid withdrew his mouth from Wu's cock with a loud pop. "Went quite well," he said, and Wu felt the kid change position. "He had a thick cock and even offered to pay me extra if I let him have my 'secret hole.'" The kid stroked Wu's cock; his hand felt slick and cool. "Pay me extra to bend me over, push wide the seam in my bloomers, and shove that thick cock up my ass." He laughed. "You like hearing about this?"

Wu knew the answer to that question was clear from how hard his own prick was in the kid's hand, but he didn't want to give the kid any excuse to stop. "Seems I do," he said.

"He spanked me, too. With his hand, right across my backside. Spanked me and told me what a dirty little girl I was." There was a pause as the kid resettled himself across Wu's body, and then Wu felt something tight and hot engulf his cock, tighter and hotter even than the kid's mouth. Flat on his back, he reached to either side of his hips and felt powerful thigh muscles shift beneath skin as the kid rode him hard. "Dirty little girl, letting a big bad man like that fuck me in my ass. Bad little whore. Dirty little slut. He was rough, too. He reached around inside the top of my dress and squeezed my nipples hard with his hands."

"You like that?" asked Wu, who was so overwhelmed by sensation and motion that he couldn't put together much more of a sentence than that.

"I love it," said the kid with a low growl. No one hearing him now would have mistaken his voice for a woman's. "I love getting fucked. He made me hard, when he slapped my ass, when he shoved his dick in me. But that thick cock of his gave out so quick. He couldn't make me come."

Large parts of this arrangement, Wu didn't know quite how to feel about: he'd never had sex or even wanted to have sex with another man before, he wasn't sure where he drew the line between the kid as a boy and the kid as a girl, and he certainly didn't know what to make of how this whore had become so attached to him so quickly. But he did know a challenge when he heard it. He let one of his hands follow the path of the kid's body up his side and toward the front of his chest, until his fingers found a little hard rise against otherwise smooth skin and twisted hard. The kid gasped as he slammed his hips back down on Wu's cock with new fervor. "Fuck!" he gasped, loud enough that Wu was glad their only neighbors were horses. "Oh, you feel so good, I want you to come inside me...."

Wu had no problems with that suggestion, but as close as he was to blowing his own top, he'd be damned if he gave out first. His other hand moved up the kid's other thigh, but instead of continuing up his trunk, Wu slipped his hand to the center and wrapped it around the kid's cock. The kid hissed and clawed at Wu's chest, but Wu grinned as he held tight. It was a small, skinny dick, perfect for a small, skinny kid like that, and Wu tugged it as hard as he had pinched the kid's nipple. Stirred on by his own pleasure, the kid rode Wu so hard the whole cart shook on its wheels, until at last he tensed and dug his nails deep into Wu's biceps, then came all over Wu's hand and chest with a wordless yowl.

Wu took advantage of the break in the kid's defenses to roll them both over, still joined in coital embrace. Once the kid was on his back on the sheets, Wu grabbed his hips and started fucking him as hard as his old body would allow. The kid clawed at Wu's back and neck, and even sucked a little at his earlobe, but never made a move for his mouth. They weren't like that long anyway, though, and after barely more than a minute of such activity, Wu shot his seed right where the kid had wanted it and collapsed atop the sheets in a sweaty, breathless heap.

The kid stroked Wu's body as they lay there together, running soft fingertips over the skin his fingernails had scored. "Oh, Mr. Woo," he gasped in Wu's ear, sweet and soft and low, "you can fuck me like that anytime."

 

~*~

 

When he opened his eyes again, it was morning and he was alone. Wu got dressed as quick as he could, slicked his long braid with oil so it wasn't such a mess, tossed a hat on top, and stepped out the back of his wagon. Several people had already begun to gravitate toward his location, milling about in the manner of people who didn't want to seem too interested but couldn't bear to let a bargain like that pass them by.

One broad side of his wagon opened to reveal a flat, stage-like platform, and he dragged three large, ornate chests-of-drawers out onto its surface. Not everything he peddled was horseshit, but the horseshit needed some extra shine to sell. He left two smaller, plainer cabinets back in the wagon; those he kept for the folk, most but not all of them Chinese, who knew what they wanted and why they wanted it long before he ever pulled into town. It would have been a fuss to make a fire, but he had cold tea he'd left steeping since the night before, and he poured himself a cup. It was strong and bitter, just as he liked it.

The first man who came up to him was a fellow about Wu's age, though his wiry yellow hair had gone far whiter than Wu's black hair had gone silver. "Howdy," he said, tipping his hat to Wu.

"Good morning to sir," said Wu, who had a pretty good idea already what the man was coming for. Men looking for cures for their baldness and women seeking tonics for their nerves came right out and said their needs. A man whose equipment wouldn't work, though? He'd say every other word in the dictionary before he out-and-out admitted that. "How may I help honorable customer?"

The man shuffled his boots a little and glanced around, but no other potential customers had yet made the approach. "Heard that lady in the saloon last night," he said, sticking his hands in his pockets.

Making the man go on much longer than that seemed cruel, and at the very least might have lost Wu a sale. Looking as though the thought had just occurred to him, Wu slid open one of the narrow drawers to reveal several rectangles of folded paper, each stamped with a red character. He shook it so that the man could hear that there was an amount of powder inside. "Just the thing," said Wu. "One dollar. Take and pour in drink. Pour half at morning, half at night."

With a skeptical frown, the man took the packet from Wu's hand and gave it a little shake himself. He brought it to his nose and sniffed it, then pulled a face. That would be the sulphur. "You, uh, sure this will work?"

"Ancient Chinese secret." Wu nodded. "Velly powerful. It no work, you come back. Full refund." In all the years he'd made that offer, Wu'd never had a single purchaser of his aphrodisiacs come back to him with a complaint. It was bad enough for a man to admit his pecker wasn't rising to the occasion; Wu'd yet to meet the man who'd double his humiliation by, in the face of successful testimony from others, admitting defeat. And for all Wu knew, the powder -- which he pedalled under most circumstances as a headache cure -- might actually work.

The price was steep, maybe, but if Wu knew one thing about human nature, it was that most men would hock their whole lives for a fuck of their choosing. Perhaps that was why he'd always gotten on with whores: he understood their business model. Without further comment, the man put a five-dollar bill into Wu's palm and held out his own hand, and Wu put four more packets into it, then paused and added a sixth. "For honorable sir," he said, and the man smiled at him, his nervousness shading into relief. His profit margin was high enough on the powders -- made mostly of ginseng and ground aspirin -- that he could afford to make a gesture like that here, which was nice. All his customary aphrodisiac offerings were oils and creams, but he didn't blame the kid for not knowing any better about his stock. At least he'd had plenty on hand to back up the kid's bluff.

That sale opened the floodgates, bringing up a steady stream of customers looking for all manner of remedies. Eight more men wanted their sexual stamina improved, no matter how they went about asking for it. One of those and four others besides wanted tonics to induce growth in hair and moustaches. Most of the rest had various aches and rashes that required topical solutions. One young woman even wanted a love potion, which Wu improvised on the spot by instructing her to make tea from half a ginger root and bury the rest with her beloved's sock beneath a full moon.

Only once did he have to dip into his back stash, and that was when a well-off woman with a slight tremor in her hands came asking for laudanum, which he kept plenty of, but packed tight in bottles that weren't for show. She purchased five bottles from him at considerable expense, then thanked him coolly and went on her way. He'd long since passed the point of having any moral quandaries about what he distributed. When they had real aches and woes, he carried enough things with real medicinal value so as not to leave the truly needy stranded; when folk just wanted easy cures for petty problems, he felt anyone who trusted a quick fix got what they deserved; and when it came to opium and tinctures of it, well, a woman didn't ask for that without knowing what she was getting into.

He'd gotten so caught up in the flurry of activity that he paid little mind to a grey-suited young man in a bowler hat who stood amongst the rest of the crowd. He lingered until the rest had dispersed some, though, and Wu was just about to pre-empt him by reaching for some of his aphrodisiac supplies when he heard a familiar voice say, "Looks like business is booming, Mr. Woo."

Started wide-eyed, Wu snapped his head around to look at the man -- then couldn't stop staring at how much of a man he was. It was the kid, all right, but in a tailored pinstripe suit, with his hair pinned up under his hat, he looked as male as any other who'd found his way to Wu's wagon that morning. "Suppose I have you to thank for that," said Wu, dropping his voice low enough that their conversation wouldn't be overheard.

"Suppose you do," said the kid, tipping the brim of his hat toward Wu. "Mr. Reuben Hawthorne."

Wu's very practiced poker face didn't budge. "Pleasure meeting you, Mr. Hawthorne."

The kid -- Reuben, at least for now -- lifted one corner of his mouth in a wry grin. "Pleasure's all mine."

Any response Wu might have made to that was pre-empted by the approach of another customer -- one whose face, familiar now to Wu, gave him a bit of a shock. He thought he might try to create some distraction, just enough flurry to let Reuben get away, but when Reuben saw his previous evening's companion coming and stood his ground, Wu followed suit. Sweaty in the midday sun and wearing a banker's nice clothes and watch fob, Dickie gave a nod to Wu and a glance to Reuben -- then looked away without a hint of recognition. "This here's been my first chance to step away all day," Dickie said to Wu, rubbing his hands together. "Been fixin' to stop by, though, ever since last night."

Before Wu could ask what the customer wanted, Reuben turned to the man who'd been spanking and fucking him barely twelve hours before. "Quite a set of marvels he's got here, indeed," Reuben said, and now his voice was flat and nasal, and all his vowels had gone bright. "Quite a set indeed. We don't get many Orientals up in Boston, which is where I hail from. My, the West certainly is an experience."

"Oh, Boston, you say?" Dickie straightened his waistcoat. "What brings you all the way out here?"

"Cattle futures!" Reuben clapped his hands together, never missing a beat. A mischievous glint shone in his eyes. The little brat was enjoying himself. "The future's in cattle, as any man worth his salt can see. Why, the war is done, the railroads are laid, and the hungry mouths of the eastern seaboard are already watering for the taste of some fine King Ranch beef. Came into some money when my father died, rest his soul, and wanted to make good use of it, but wouldn't dream of buying sight unseen."

Dickie's eyes went bright to hear about money, the way all bankers' tended to do. "Oh, well, some small amount, I take it?"

"Oh, no, quite large, quite large indeed. Say!" He clapped Dickie's shoulder as though an idea had just struck him, though Wu didn't believe for a moment anything about this whole routine was spontaneous. "Do you know of a banking establishment around here? A trustworthy one, mind you; I'd hate to fall to unscrupulous folk."

"Why, it just so happens that I'm a banker!" said Dickie, puffing up as he identified his trade. "Richard Bennett, owner of First Monterey Bank and Trust."

"Are you, now? Well, heavens, bless my luck." Reuben pulled a watch out of his own pocket and looked at its face. "Say, I've got to make an appointment, but would you be around tomorrow? Might I stop by and have a word with you then?" Without waiting for an answer, he tipped his hat to both gentlemen. "Wonderful. Have to be off with myself, but you two take care, now, and I'll be seeing you soon. Good day!" With pure yankee efficiency, he stepped around the corner of the stables and disappeared from sight.

A rather stunned Dickie -- or Mr. Bennett, Wu supposed the man might have preferred, but he didn't care -- wound up buying nearly fifty dollars' worth of powders and tinctures from Wu's cart, no doubt thinking all the time of the promise of all that Boston money in his safe. Wu kept a smile plastered to his face the whole transaction through so that he didn't bare his teeth at the man. He didn't know what he was sorer about -- that the balding bastard had gotten to have the kid at all the night before, or that he'd considered his time with Miss Dahlia so forgettable that he didn't recognize her face by the light of day.

He didn't know where that streak of protective jealousy had come from, and he didn't like it, so he filled a small sack with everything one Richard Bennett, owner of First Monterey Bank and Trust, might need, then sent the banker politely but firmly on his way.

Half an hour later, when things had slowed enough that Wu could grab a mouthful of lunch at the back of the wagon, Reuben came strolling back along. He made as though he were just passing by, but he doubled around through the alley behind the stables and came to stand in the shade of the building's far side, just out of view from the street. "Do you have a goal in mind, or are you just giving him hell?" asked Wu, stirring bits of dried beef into a cup of cold rice.

"Mostly giving him hell," said Reuben, who brought out a cigarette from a fine silver case in his breast pocket; Wu didn't assume that had been acquired legally or morally. "Though there's a thought. I've met con men, but rarely considered being one."

"Why not?" asked Wu, taking a cigarette from the case as Reuben held it open toward him. Good thing he didn't have many qualms about legality or morality either.

Reuben struck a match off the head of a nail in the stables' side. "Too busy making money by fucking, for one." He started his own cigarette before offering the flame to light Wu's. "Besides, never had a partner."

"You don't need a partner to be a con man," said Wu, who'd met more than his fair share of unscrupulous loners, and he wasn't even counting himself. He exhaled a puff of white smoke into the dry air.

"Suppose not." Reuben folded his arms across his chest. He was a handsome little thing, and Wu might never have had that thought if they'd first met like this, on a street in broad daylight, both in suits, one of them a 'sir' and the other a heathen Chinee who barely spoke the language. Catching Wu off guard had been the first step to the kid's getting under his skin. "It always been just you?"

Wu nodded. "Since I left home at twelve. Just me."

"Twelve? Least I waited to sixteen to get the hell out."

"You telling me you're over sixteen now?"

"Why," asked Reuben with a grin, "how old do you think I look?"

Wu looked him up and down as though taking the question under deep consideration. He tapped his lips with his chopsticks and made a thoughtful humming sound. Reuben raised his eyebrows and gestured Wu on, but Wu remained quiet for a good long while, the very face of contemplation, before he shook his head and went back to his lunch. "You take me for a man who doesn't know better than to guess a lady's age?" he asked, and when Reuben laughed and swatted Wu's shoulder with his bowler hat, Wu couldn't quite force his practiced poker face to hold back a smile.

 

~*~

 

"You asleep?" Wu asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.

"Yes," mumbled the kid, his face pressed into Wu's bare chest. As would often happen in the desert, the midday heat had turned into a nippy night, and the sweat they'd worked up from fucking had dried cold. They were tangled up in all of Wu's blankets, with only Wu's clothes between them. For all that he had the passion and energy to turn a couple tricks and come back to Wu's for even more, the kid was skinny enough that he chilled easy, and he seemed to think the best way to remedy his condition was by cleaving tight to Wu -- who, for his own part, couldn't find much cause there to complain.

Wu buried his nose in the sweet-smelling curls of the kid's hair. "What are you when no one's watching?" When the kid didn't answer right away, he clarified, "I mean, woman or man?"

"Oh. Man." The kid nuzzled upward until his cold nose was pressed against the side of Wu's bare neck.

After a moment's silence, Wu asked, "...It's that easy?"

The kid nodded. "It's really that easy," he said, kissing the underside of Wu's jaw. "I like the dresses and I like being pretty and soft and I like smelling good. But if I could dress like Reuben Hawthorne all the time and still get men lining up to fuck me? I would."

Wu's hand found a mole right in the middle of the kid's lower back. He traced it with his thumb, liking the way it stuck up like a little fleshy mountain from the smooth, taut skin around it. "Has anybody ever known? Besides me, that is."

"Sure. Worked in a place where that was actually a selling point for me. Not something advertised at the door, but all the girls and some of the regulars knew." The kid chuckled against Wu's skin, a warm little laugh that felt like butterflies. "They'd fuck me with my bodice undone and my skirts hiked up to my waist. I'd even get to charge extra if one of them wanted to get a taste of what I was hiding under my petticoats."

"Sounds nice." Wu didn't think he'd ever before been in the kind of whorehouse that offered that kind of service -- but then again, he'd never asked. Or even thought that might be worth asking about, more to the point, at least not before now.

The kid put his palm flat against Wu's chest, just over his heart, his long fingers splayed. "Mm, it was."

"Then why'd you leave?"

"That...." The kid sighed and brought his cheek to rest against Wu's shoulder again. Wu could feel the soft flutter of eyelashes as the kid closed his eyes. "Lots of reasons. No reason. It was just time to go. Don't tell me you don't know how that is."

"So, you got a real name I should call you by?" Wu asked -- or started to ask, because the kid's fingers over his mouth garbled the latter half of his sentence. He tried again, and the kid just pressed harder, making it so Wu's lips couldn't form the words.

"I will suck you off tomorrow and suck you dry," purred the kid, "if you shut the fuck up right now and let me get my beauty sleep." He released some of the pressure in his hand, but kept his fingers over Wu's mouth, light and warm as though they were his lips instead. The offer was good enough that Wu said nothing else, and presently they fell asleep just like that, curled against one another beneath the rough blankets, not quite skin-on-skin, sharing the closest they'd come to a kiss.

 

~*~

 

Sunday morning came, and Wu stayed hunkered down in his wagon as all the other God-fearing folk shuffled themselves off to church. Wu didn't not believe in God, but he didn't believe he owed Him any favors, either.

The kid stayed in too, and by the daylight that came through the gaps between the wagon slats, Wu could see him now as well as feel him. He was as pretty as a girl, but he had a different shape to his body, an angular skinniness in the places Wu associated with ladies and curves. He didn't have much hair on his body to speak of, at least that wasn't on his head, and though he'd gone at least a whole night without picking up a razor, he didn't have so much as the ghost of stubble on his cheeks. He said he was a man, but he didn't seem much like one of those either. Maybe he was some strange third thing, a neither-nor or a both-and, something straight out of a fairy tale come to life. Only in America.

When the kid at last yawned and began to stir, Wu grabbed for a book he'd left beside the bed and tried to pretend he hadn't been watching his odd little guest sleep. If the kid noticed, he didn't say anything. He kissed Wu on his neck just above the collar of his nightshirt before knotting his hair back into a ponytail, putting on the most basic parts of his masculine apparel, and stepping out of the wagon to relieve himself against the side of the stables.

As the kid got dressed a second time, Wu kept reading -- or kept up the pretense of reading, anyway, because he didn't get more than a few pages into the trashy Chinese novel he'd picked up the last time he was in San Francisco. The nice thing about reading in a language no one around understood was that he felt it made him look erudite. When the kid reached for the makeup he'd left scattered atop one of Wu's dressers, though, Wu felt compelled to ask, "Where on earth are you going?"

"Out," said the kid, painting his lips a lovely scarlet. "Town this size is bound to have at least one store with ladies' clothing open on a Sunday. And somebody ripped my stockings last night."

Wu glanced at the floor of the wagon, where two torn pieces of cloth that might indeed have once been stockings lay. And here he thought he'd been so gentle. "You want me to come with you?"

The kid turned to look at Wu, and really looked at him, staring with a strange little frown. "Can you think of a reason for a whore and a Chinaman to be out shopping together?"

Wu shrugged as he put down his book. "She hired a strong, handsome man to carry her purchases?"

She screwed up her pretty little mouth to one side before breaking into a grin. "Might do indeed," she said, and now she was Dahlia Jean again, from the top of her head to the tips of her toes, wickedly, deliciously southern. "Such a gentleman, Mr. Woo, to agree to be the porter of a poor girl all on her own, trying to make her way in the West."

"If poor Miss Darria think she get porter for free," agreed Wu, slipping into his own exaggerated accent with a roll of his eyes, "poor Miss Darria have other think coming."

They didn't walk arm-in-arm down the road, nor even side-by-side; Wu hung a step or so back, hands folded in his sleeves, the picture of the honest but struggling merchant willing to do anything for another dime. They met a few odd stares, but for the most part the eyes of passers-by slid right over them. They were a curious pair, to be sure, but no more curious than what they appeared on the surface to be. Wu recognized a few faces from the saloon and the previous day's business, but the majority were as unfamiliar to him as he was to them. Maybe a Chinese porter was a common thing in the Deep South. They surely had no way of knowing.

The kid's instincts were good, and there were not one but three stores open on that Sunday -- excepting the saloons, of course, which looked to never close, but where a new dress wasn't on the menu. One of the stores was a very exclusive-looking boutique with glass-front windows featuring extravagant dresses and signs declaring that all the latest French fashions could be found here and nowhere else within a hundred miles. Wu was hardly surprised at all when Miss Dahlia declared it their first stop.

The woman behind the counter looked to be a hundred if she was a day, and her facial features were almost lost amongst the piles of wrinkles on her face. When she saw customers enter, though, her white eyebrows rose and she stood. "May I help you?" she asked, her voice thick with an accent Wu couldn't identify.

With a smile, Dahlia turned to her and began speaking what Wu only recognized after several seconds as French. The woman, obviously startled to hear the tongue, responded in kind, and then the two were all at once laughing and chattering as though they'd known one another for years. Wu, who wasn't even really supposed to understand the English around him at any given time, just smiled and let the sounds of the language flow over him. It wasn't long before one stiff cardboard box found its way into Wu's arms, then two more, all filled with lace and petticoats and dresses and other items of women's clothing Wu knew best from taking off, not putting on.

The kid was a sight to see in full character like this, even if Wu couldn't understand a word of it. His body language was some strange middle ground, not the slinky seductive of the saloon girl or the prim efficiency of the Boston heir, but a quiet fussiness that mirrored the old shopkeeper's. She was still every inch the southern belle here, of course, but in a way that didn't have to have the rest of the world revolve around her. When she laughed at the old woman's jokes, her amusement was genuine, and when the woman went into the back of the shop for a moment, Wu let out a low whistle. "Impressive."

Miss Dahlia gave a smug little shake of her rear in his direction. "We had a Belgian landlord for a while when I was growing up, a foul old man. Fortunately, Madame Lafreniere here has a mouth like a sailor as well."

Wu frowned over the boxes. "You're making that up."

"Am I?" She winked as the woman emerged from the back of the shop with yet another box for Wu's stack.

Though Wu had brought his wallet, just in case, the kid paid for the entire considerably expensive order without asking for a cent's loan. Whoring must have been a more lucrative prospect than Wu had previously thought, or perhaps the kid was just that good at it; either of those, or even both, he could believe. Satisfied, Miss Dahlia gave the old shopkeeper a kiss on either cheek before stepping back out into the street, her loyal porter in tow.

Wu began to walk back toward the wagon, but when Miss Dahlia turned the other direction and began to venture deeper into town, Wu had no choice but to follow her swishing skirts. He didn't know why he'd asked to come along with her, except for the part where he couldn't take his eyes off her, and anyway, it was better than sitting alone in a smelly wagon on a nice day like today.

Along the way, something in the window above the general store caught her eye, and when Wu stopped and followed her line of sight, he could see it was a sign advertising a room for rent and telling interested parties that they should inquire within. Dahlia stared at it a long moment, putting her hands on her hips as she thought, while Wu waited patiently by. At last, she turned to him. "Not a bad location," said the kid, and this time it was the kid again, and not Miss Dahlia with her flowery drawl.

It made sense, of course. Wu had said he'd take her as far as the next town, and he'd done just that. Everything else had been borrowed time at best. "If you like dried goods."

"Maybe I do," the kid said with a smile. "Maybe if I get real lucky, the owner won't mind an alternative rent payment system."

"Do you ever think about anything but sex and dresses?" Wu teased.

"Shoes," answered the kid with a sly grin, which startled Wu to a laugh. The kid drummed on the lid of the topmost box with his fingertips. "My life is sex and clothes. Each one gets me more of the other. So you'll forgive any preoccupation."

As much as he could with his arms full of boxes, Wu gave a conciliatory bow, and he smiled when Miss Dahlia glanced around to make sure that no one was watching, then blew him a tiny kiss. When she set off again in search of more things to fill her wardrobe, Wu followed along behind without missing a step.

 

~*~

 

He'd heard the gambling saloon on the far side of town had blackjack tables, so that was where Wu went that Sunday night, after bringing back all Miss Dahlia's purchases to his wagon. He knew he was always on the verge of overstaying his welcome in any given town, so he figured now was as good a time as any to go and make some money the old-fashioned way: mathematics.

He'd mentioned to the kid where he was intending to be, but he hadn't asked about the kid's plans, and the kid hadn't offered them. When he'd left, Miss Dahlia had been halfway through putting on one of her new dresses, a pretty lavender thing that showed off the curves of her smooth shoulders and had enough ruffles around the neckline to create the illusion there was more beneath the bodice than was really there. She'd been so tangled up in the laces that ran up the front of the dress then she hadn't even looked up to wish him luck or tell him goodbye.

Little saloons of almost any stripe could be counted upon for a poker game or two, but any gambling saloon worth its salt had a number of games and enough activity that Wu's winning streaks looked like nothing more than a lucky night. He lost small at the roulette wheels and won big at twenty-one, sitting down only after he'd watched the first half of any given deck played out and added up what was left. A few saloon girls approached him, trying to see if he'd be willing to spend some of his winnings on their company, but while he bought them drinks for their effort, he politely declined; he had other company lined up for the evening.

At least, he thought he did. He wasn't surprised to find the wagon locked when he came back with pockets stuffed full of the house's money, but he was surprised when he opened the door and found it even emptier than he'd imagined -- the kid was missing, and so was his suitcase. Miss Dahlia Jean, Reuben Hawthorne, Belladonna, and whoever it was beneath them all were gone.

Wu stood there in the doorway of the wagon for a long, long time, not knowing what to say or what to think or even how to feel.

 

~*~

 

Business the next day came and went at a steady stream, with scarce few minutes between customers and no sight of anyone who looked like the kid. Wu swore he'd try to think about something else, but every time he left his brain alone for a moment, he found his thoughts drifting right back to the empty space on the floor of his wagon where a runaway whore's valise had once stood.

He never expected to be welcome wherever he went, but he found that he had an easier time, strangely enough, in cities with no other Chinese. Places with large communities knew already what they thought about Orientals in their businesses, and those thoughts weren't often friendly. But being a singular creature meant that few places had developed clear policies about his presence, and thus when he walked into a restaurant in places like Monterey, he might could finish his meal by the time the proprietors figured they didn't want his kind here. Thus, though the waitress at the cafe looked surprised to see him at her table, she took his supper order without objection.

Before she could return with his beef stew and cornbread, though, the chair at the other side of the table pulled back, and a grey-suited man sat down in it. "Shame to see a handsome man eating alone," said Reuben, low enough that no one else in the noisy establishment might have overheard.

Wu put down the book he'd been reading. "Thought you might be gone for good."

A little twinge pulled at the corner of Reuben's mouth, but it was gone as fast as it had appeared. "Reckoned I'd get out of your hair."

"Did you," said Wu, making no question of the question.

"Said I would." Reuben pointed off in the general direction of the center of town. "Turns out the room over the grocer's is just the place for me. Little back entrance by a busy store and a busy street, no one notices who comes and goes, nobody cares if a man walks in and a woman walks out again later."

"That's good, then." The waitress came to put a bowl and plate down in front of Wu, then walked off toward the kitchen again when Reuben told her he'd be having the same for his meal. "That why you found me here?"

"Found you here because I thought you might like to have supper with me," said Reuben. "I can go if you want, though you're going to have a bit of a time finishing two of those."

The kid had a point; the portions here were generous. "Stay." Wu crumbled part of his cornbread into his stew, then stirred it around until it was the same red-brown color as the liquid.

"So, how was business today?" Reuben leaned back and rested his elbow atop the back of the chair, looking somehow older than Wu was used to seeing him.

"Fine." Wu chewed through a whole chunk of the stewed beef before asking, "What did you do with your day?"

"Rented a room. Got a suit fitted. Boring, really. I meant to stop by, but...."

"You're busy. I understand." The beef was tough and the vegetables had gone to mush, but it was hot and it tasted good and someone else was going to clean up after him when he was done, and sometimes that was all Wu needed out of a meal.

Reuben frowned at him. "Are you upset?"

"No," Wu lied. "Just tired. Long day." He left out the part where he'd stayed up half the night, hoping more than a little that it might all have been a mistake, waiting for the creak of the wagon door and the flap of the oilcloth behind it and the swish of heavy skirts. He'd woken twice during the night thinking he'd heard something, but both times it'd been nothing more than his imagination.

Whatever Reuben might have said in response was preempted by the waitress' return, and they both ate in silence for several minutes. Wu wondered what the rest of the patrons made of the two of them. He didn't want to care, but he had to care, because for people like him, other people's opinions sometimes meant the difference between life and death. A little stubble had started to form across the curve of Reuben's top lip, just a little prickling of dark hair. Wu wondered if it was intentional.

When he'd finished his bowl down past the halfway point, Wu said, "I'll probably be leaving the day after tomorrow." He didn't look up to see Reuben's reaction; he didn't want to know. "Looks like rain tonight. I'll give the trails a day to dry."

"That soon." Reuben's voice would have been soft even in an otherwise-silent room. He took a bite of his cornbread, chewed it, and swallowed before asking, "Where will you go?"

"West. North." Wu wished he'd thought to ask the waitress for something to drink; even with the stew, his mouth felt dry. "Some combination of the two."

"Back to California?"

Wu nodded. He kept his eyes fixed downward toward the table. "Can't be a purveyor of genuine Chinese herbal remedies without genuine Chinese herbs. They don't sell those at your new downstairs neighbor's."

Reuben's spoon made lazy circles around inside his half-eaten bowl of stew, making only occasional journeys up to Reuben's mouth, only to come down clean again each time. "Never seen the Pacific."

"Seen a bathtub? Same thing, only more so. And with fish." Wu didn't mean to be unfriendly, not at all, but every time he opened his mouth, everything that came out sounded clipped and angry. He'd always prided himself on what little of a temper he had, and it made him even madder to find him making a liar of himself.

"Always wanted to go."

"West, then north. Get you there eventually."

Reuben sighed and sat back in his chair, and when Wu finally looked up to see his face, he was wearing a sad little smile and his pretty dark eyes looked as far away as the coast itself. "Maybe once I make my fortune I'll come find you there."

"Your cattle fortune?" asked Wu with a smirk, and when Reuben's smile brightened into a look of genuine pleasure, Wu felt his frustration and hurt start to evaporate like dew on a hot morning.

"Majestic creatures!" exclaimed Reuben in his flat, nasal Bostonian accent. "Great beauties of the Great Plains! Silken hooves and golden horns!"

Wu cocked an eyebrow, pausing his spoon on its way to his mouth. "Son, you ever met a cow?" Reuben pointed to the remnants of the stew in his bowl, and Wu nearly choked himself with laughter.

The waitress came to take their dishes then, ushering them both into a comfortable silence as she gathered the empty plates and bowls in her arms. When she left, Wu piled atop the table coins enough to take care of both their meals. "Until you come into your great cow-based wealth," Wu said, making Reuben laugh again. Decades leading a solitary, nomadic life, and now the kid he'd known for a little over four days could make Wu live and die by his smile. What the hell was wrong with him? If this was what getting old was like, he'd just as soon not.

By the time they stepped out of the restaurant, the overcast evening sky had started to spit rain, giving the air an earthy smell. They stood their on the porch for a moment, standing close but not together as other patrons of the restaurant came and went around them. Wu reached into his pocket and lit two cigarettes, then handed one to the kid. It was a good little place they'd found here, a town that was not too good for men like them, but not too bad either. The kid would probably be happy here, living in the little room above the grocery, turning tricks and buying dresses and speaking French. It was good, to have a place to belong. At least, that was what Wu had been told.

A distant rumble of thunder sounded, and Wu stepped down the stairs of the porch to the sodden street, ready to head back before the skies really opened. His were the only footsteps he heard, though, and when he turned back, the kid was still standing by the railing, looking toward the center of town. "Working tonight?" asked Wu.

Reuben shook his head. "Even I get an evening off from time to time." He nestled his cigarette in the corner of his mouth and stuck his hands in the pockets of his trim, tailored trousers.

It was a long shot, Wu knew, but he'd hate himself if he didn't try: "Headed my way?"

For a moment -- a real, solid moment -- the kid looked like he was going to say yes, like he wanted nothing more but to throw himself into Wu's arms and run against the rain all the way back to Wu's wagon and inside, tangling against one another in the safe, warm dark. But that was just wishful thinking on Wu's part, laid bare when the kid just shook his head. "You don't want me like this," he said, tugging at the lapels of his very masculine pin-striped suitcoat.

The hell of it was, Wu didn't know if the kid was right or not. Whenever the kid had come to him, he'd been either in skirts or recently out of them, and they'd only ever fucked in total darkness, where if Wu kept his hands in certain places, he could pretend not to know the difference. He had no issues stroking long curls and ripping stockings, and there'd been no question of how pretty those red-stained lips had looked wrapped around his cock. Even seeing the kid naked by filtered morning light had been a fine experience, just another confirmation that the kid was something different, neither male or female enough to trouble his mind. The man before him, though, had stubble and a tie and a sweet but clearly male tenor, and when confronted with the question, Wu had to admit that he didn't know what he wanted at all.

His uncertainty and the hesitation that came with it were soon answer enough. The kid tipped his hat. "Thank you for dinner, Mister Woo," Reuben said, and clutching his coat tight around him against the weather, he set out at a jog down the road in the other direction, out of the coming storm.

Wu didn't follow, but stayed still by the porch and watched as the kid ran out of sight, hoping right up until he vanished along some distant side street that it was all wrong -- that the kid would turn back any minute now, something would flinch, something would give. Nothing did, though, and by the time Wu gave up altogether, the rain had started to come down in sheets, churning the street into a sloppy mess of horseshit and dirt and distances he couldn't take back, no matter how hard he tried.

 

~*~

 

Dawn was grey beneath an overcast sky, but the clouds had done all the raining they'd had to do during the night, and by morning the earth was wet but the heavens were dry. Wu opened up the side of his wagon and set out his wares, not expecting many people to come by but nonetheless prepared. Hung up on the far side of the wagon, the one not so easily visible from the street, the clothes he'd worn the previous evening dripped themselves dry.

He'd passed another restless night beneath the driving rain against the roof of his wagon, and not for the first time he'd found himself wondering if he'd passed the point of being cut out for this life. He'd seen nearly three decades on the road with his wagon, making a good enough living to keep himself in the lifestyle to which he'd grown accustomed, but every year the distances between cities seemed to get a little bit longer and the cracks in the roof of his wagon seemed to let a little more water in.

The last dozen times he'd headed to San Francisco, he'd sworn he'd stay, and every one of those dozen times, he'd found his wagon pointed east no less than a month later. Stopping was fine enough in theory, but when there was nothing to stay for, Wu figured, he might as well keep moving on. He tried not to take the same trajectory twice; best not to get too familiar with a place, or let it get too familiar with him.

The kid would never make it out to San Francisco and Wu'd never make it back to Monterey, and there were no tears to be shed over the way things were.

He short-changed a particularly nasty customer and was sneering at the man's retreating back when he heard a soft voice from over his shoulder: "Doesn't it just kill you to play dumb when you've twice the brains they do?"

Wu smiled as he folded the bills into a hidden pocket in his sleeve. "I could ask the same of you."

"Oh, that is a question asked from experience," said Dahlia, bringing one delicate hand to her bosom. She was a picture today in a sapphire blue, an outfit Wu thought he remembered from the window of the French woman's boutique, though truth be told, he wasn't much for telling one dress from another. Her jawline was smooth and pale now, and bright rosy swatches lit up her cheeks. "If God does exist, and I'm not saying He does, but if He does, when I die and go to Heaven, I want to be given credit for all the hours I've spent listening to some idiot or another try to impress me by explaining what little he knows about simple things, like steam engines or fermentation or the Negro Problem."

It was strange to converse like this, especially after they'd parted on such strained terms the night before, but if this was how the kid wanted to spend the last day they'd have in proximity to one another, then Wu wasn't going to object. "Then I want back all the hours I've spent being a heathen Chinee."

"I'll see what I can do." The kid smiled and hopped up on the back of the wagon, sitting just in front of the back door and kicking his high-booted feet as they hung over the edge. He wasn't sixteen, Wu knew, but he couldn't have been too far past twenty; he'd had to grow up fast, that much was obvious, but traces of his youth still hung around the edges, visible only when no one was looking. "Though I won't have much room for negotiation, I'm afraid. By all accounts I'm going to Hell, where I'll service the Devil and his minions for the rest of eternity with all of my various holes."

Wu quirked his mouth into a sly smile. "In other words, you're looking forward to it."

The kid tossed his hair about his shoulders. "One might even say it sounds heavenly."

"Sounds like the Bible-criers need new material scare you to Jesus, then." Wu walked over in front of where the kid sat, then put his hands on top of the kid's knees, feeling those pretty, slender legs even under what must have been half a dozen layers of fabric. The mud had kept casual traffic off the back streets especially, keeping scarce suspicious eyes. He didn't want to make life difficult by association for Monterey's newest inhabitant, or at least any more difficult than it would already be.

Dahlia put her pretty hands in her lap, her fingertips just inches from Wu's. "Do I look like a man afraid of Hell?"

"No," Wu had to admit, "but then again, you don't look like much of a man right now, period."

That made the kid laugh, clear and bell-like. "Your point is made." He sighed as he leaned back against the wooden wall of the wagon, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. "You ever thought of opening a shop? I mean, one not on wheels?"

"From time to time." Wu brushed his fingertips along the brocade pattern that curled its way up the skirt, twisting into tendrils like dark blue fire against the lighter fabric behind it. "Along the coast. Near enough to where the ships dock. Where the air smells of salt and dead fish and bird shit."

"Sounds lovely," the kid said, rolling his eyes but smiling all the same. "You mean San Francisco?"

Wu nodded. "Always thought if I lived long enough to be old, I might."

"You think I'd like it there?"

It was a casual enough question, but it still clicked in Wu's ear as though he'd stepped on a trap and now needed a stick to get his foot free before it snapped shut. "I don't know," he said, and that was the truth. "It's grey and wet and foggy almost every morning. Sometimes the weather makes it hard to tell summer from winter. But there's a lot of men -- a lot of men. Lonely sailors, old miners, tired pioneers. Maybe even enough to keep you happy."

"You know me so well," said the kid, reaching for the long braid thrown over Wu's shoulder and running his fingers over the woven strands. The ends of his hair were still uniformly black, but threads of silver had begun to sprout from his temples, and it wouldn't be long before they too made the journey all the to its inevitable conclusion.

"Not that well." Wu leaned in closer, letting the kid move hand over hand up his braid like a rope, all the way to the back of Wu's neck. "I still don't know your name."

The kid stuck out his tongue. "Still don't know yours."

"Or where you're from."

"Trust me, you've never heard of it."

"Or what you want to do with your life."

The kid laughed, surprise evident on his face. "By which you mean, something other than I'm doing now?"

"Exactly." Wu slid his hands up the kid's legs until they were resting on either side of his thighs and the kid's knees were pressing against Wu's belly. "If you didn't have to whore for a living, what would you do?"

With another laugh, though this one with a bitter little edge, the kid sat up straight again and poked Wu right in the middle of his forehead. "I don't have to whore. This is my choice. A lot of girls don't get a choice, but I did, and this is mine. I'm not looking for someone to save me from my life of sin. Trust me, if that were my goal? I would've gone with the Methodists years ago."

"...My apologies." Wu took a step back and let his hands slide back along the kid's legs, but the kid caught them before they could go too far, trapping Wu's hands beneath his own with a strength Wu wouldn't have suspected just from looking at his delicate frame. In so many ways, Miss Dahlia was more than met the eye.

"Wait," said the kid, tugging Wu back until his hands were all the way up on either side of the kid's waist. He ran his thumbs over the backs of Wu's wrists and leaned forward enough to plant a kiss on Wu's forehead, just beneath the brim of his soft black hat. "Sometimes I do need saving. You got me away from that small-dicked posse, and I appreciate that, plain and simple." With a smile, he planted a kiss right on the bridge of Wu's nose, then gave a little sigh as he brought his lips lower, letting their faces align until they were only inches apart. "And I ... well, I suppose I don't want you to--"

What it was he didn't want remained unspoken, though, as the sound of approaching footsteps drew them apart as quick as if they'd both turned into north ends of magnets. It had been so easy to forget that anything else in the world had existed but the two of them, but that only served to make the sudden reminder of their public location even harsher. Wu stepped out in front of the wagon as Miss Dahlia picked up her skirts and scooted on inside, out of sight. Three customers came to Wu in succession: a young mother with a fussing baby on her hip, an old cowhand with no more than a handful of teeth still in his head, and a nervous, bookish man who couldn't stop talking about his hopes for performing well on his upcoming wedding night. Each of them took a great deal of time and explanation, and more than once Wu wished he'd been able to drop the fake accent and broken English in favor of just plain saying what he meant. He persevered through all three sales, though, sending each away a little happier and lining his own pockets a little more to cushion the long trip west.

He wasn't at all surprised to find that Miss Dahlia had slipped away in the interim, but he couldn't make sense of the little bundle of lace left in her place until he picked it up. It was a white handkerchief, embroidered with a pretty S., folded in such a way that it couldn't have been left there on accident. He unfolded the fabric to reveal a pair of torn stockings, one of which was marked with the imprint of a red-lipsticked kiss. Well, he thought as he stared at the familiar shapes, that was easier than saying goodbye.

 

~*~

 

Wu wasn't a stubborn man, or at least he didn't tend to think of himself that way, but from time to time he could have a pig-headed streak that would stare down a tornado or die trying. And if Miss Dahlia thought she was going to get the last word on this or anything else, Miss Dahlia had another think coming.

He tried ten different saloons, but in the end he found her in the one where they'd first met, where he'd first laid eyes on the Georgia peach who'd proceeded to become the source of so much of his joy and so much of his agony in every moment since. She was sitting at the bar, chatting up a prospective client, but their eyes met as Wu walked in. She was good, but she wasn't good enough to cover over the little start she gave as he walked in. Another think coming indeed.

He lingered for a while by the poker game but didn't step in, not even when one cranky player made some hollow accusations of cheating and stormed off in a huff. Under other circumstances, he might have taken the seat and gone for one last burst of cash before leaving town, a little travel money acquired as semi-legally as it ever was. But he was in no place to bluff right now -- he had other things on his mind. He waited and nursed his beer until the man she'd been talking to wandered out in the direction of the outhouse, then sidled up to the bar. "Two whiskey," he told the bartender, holding up two fingers as though he didn't trust his own enunciation.

"Two?" asked Miss Dahlia, looking at Wu with a cautious frown. "Why, you shouldn't have."

"Oh, you want drink too?" Despite the tease, though, when the bartender set the two glasses down in front of him, he pushed one toward her. She perched her fingers around the rim, bony and sharp-jointed, her hand a patient spider poised above the liquid far below. Without waiting for her to join him, Wu took his glass and downed the contents in a single gulp. It was weak, watery shit. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as the bartender poured him a refill.

Dahlia glanced around and dropped her voice to a whisper, keeping the accent but letting her pitch sink. "Didn't expect I'd be seeing you again," she said, looking up at him through dark, full eyelashes.

Wu shrugged, as though he didn't care, as though he were bolder than he felt, as though he were confident at all about how this would turn out. He pointed to the glass. "You drinking?"

She frowned again, but took the glass and sipped from it, leaving a bright red lip print on the rim. "What brings a man like you here?" she asked, this time loud enough to be heard by anyone nearby who had a mind to hear -- and there were more than a few minds just like that, set to make sure a good American lady like herself wasn't in danger of being molested by some foul Eastern barbarian.

Wu reached into his pocket and drew out the monogrammed handkerchief. "Miss Darria drop. I bring back."

A telling fraction of a second passed before she spread those painted lips wide into a stiff, carefree smile. "Oh! Well, look at that. Look ... at that." She brushed the lacy edge of the cloth with her fingertips, then let her hand drop away. "Clumsy little me, why, I'd lose my head if it weren't fixed on, now, wouldn't I just? But I suppose by the laws of finders-keepers, it's yours, now, wouldn't it be?"

"Oh, no, Miss Darria." Wu shook his head and extended the handkerchief toward her again. It was an odd gambit, perhaps even a foolish one, but he'd wanted her attention, and now he had it. "For you."

"Why ... aren't you sweet?" She took the fabric from him and folded it into a little square, then tucked it down the front of her dress, frowning all the while; the kid was smart, though, so Wu wasn't surprised when that pretty painted face moved from confusion to understanding. With a single fluid motion, she tossed back the whole rest of her glass in one swallow. It was among the most arousing things Wu had ever seen. "But where are my manners? A kind Christian gesture like this deserves a reward, but I haven't even a nickel on me. My purse is back up in my room, so come with me and I'll get you a token to show you my gratitude."

A man Wu didn't recognize leaned in and put his hand on Miss Dahlia's shoulder in a possessive way that Wu didn't like at all. "Is this here Celestial bothering you, ma'am?"

"Not at all." A small sneer trembled her upper lip and she stepped away from the other man's grasp to take Wu's arm. "He's clean, he's decent, and he knows how to treat a lady," she said loud enough to be heard to the back of the room; the same southern lilt shone through every word, but the sugar-sweetness was all but gone. "Seems like the most important mysterious Oriental love secrets he's got are right out in the open, hmm?" And without waiting for Wu to finish his second drink -- or, he noticed on the way out, pay for either -- she hooked both hands around his elbow and shuffled them both right on out of the saloon.

When the door had shut behind them and they were more or less alone, Dahlia leaned closer. "You have my attention, Mister Woo," she said, though she sounded far less displeased than she had at the bar.

Wu held his arm stiff like a proper escort. "I didn't like the way we left things."

"How did we leave things?" she asked with a frown.

Wu kicked a rock from their path. "...Not in a way I liked them." He took a roll of cash from his pocket, a considerable sum, and with a swift gesture tucked it down the front of her dress, just behind the handkerchief. "I'm not stupid enough to think you'd want a reputation for bedding Orientals in a town where you have to stay and make your trade, but I want to hire you for tonight."

She scowled, and Wu suspected only their public setting kept her from digging down the front of her bodice to return the cash to him. "I don't fuck you for money," she said, stopping in the street and turning so they faced one another. She kept her voice low enough that no passers-by might be inclined to step in and break up the argument. "Not you."

"Take it anyway. Save it for a rainy day. I don't care. If you don't want to, we don't have to do anything. We can talk."

Dahlia thumped her chest. "That's a hell of a lot of money for a man who only wants to talk." She started walking again, but instead of leading them toward Wu's wagon, she turned down the alley behind the grocery.

Wu shrugged. "There were some things I didn't make clear when last we spoke." He thought about those words and shook his head. "Maybe the last few times we spoke."

"Then that's your fault for being inscrutable. I can't scrute you at all."

"I accept that about myself." Wu grew quiet as they passed another couple on the way, then waited until they were out of earshot to ask, "Is it so bad that I wanted to see you one more time?"

A little staircase ran up along the outside of the building, and she hiked her skirts up, showing a truly indecent amount of shin and knee, then began her ascent. "I simply don't like good-byes," she said over her shoulder, "and thus strive to make as few of them as possible." She walked up the stairs one swished hip at a time, and in the dark like this, Wu didn't bother pretending not to stare. He tried not to think about how many men she might have brought up here like this before, not because he was jealous -- well, no, that wasn't quite true, he was jealous and it did him no good to feign otherwise. But what he was jealous of was how they, and not he, had been the last people the kid had talked to and touched before falling asleep.

The room was small, with just enough room for a bed, a dresser, an end table, and a larger table with two mismatched chairs; Wu guessed the furniture had come with the room. He kicked off his shoes just at the door -- some old habits died hard -- then held her hand for balance as she unlaced her own muddy boots. "It's a nice place," he said, for lack of other conversation to be had.

"It should be, for what I've been charged for it." Out of her heeled boots, she was no longer Wu's height, which Wu found somewhat novel; he'd met few non-Chinese men in his life the same height as he, much less a few inches smaller. She took off the shawl she'd draped around her shoulders and hung it on a hook by the door. "Still, it's a good place to do business."

Wu brushed a curl of dark hair from the kid's face. "Is that what you want to do now?"

Without answering, the kid lingered a moment, eyes shut and cheek resting against Wu's hand. She took that hand in her own and led him over to the small bare patch of floor just at the foot of her bed. "Well, let me help you get what you paid for," she said with an undisguised sigh, starting to kneel.

Wu shook his head and gestured upward until she stood upright before him. "I want you to stand there," he said, brushing a stray lock of hair from her face.

"Just ... stand here?" She laughed, but the sound had a nervous edge to it, and her hands fidgeted where they hung by her sides.

Wu nodded. "And don't say anything. Just..." He brushed his knuckles down the side of her cheek. "Trust me."

After a clear moment of hesitation, the kid nodded, and Wu began.

He took a washcloth from the basin by the bed and wetted it, holding the damp fabric between his hands for a moment to make sure it wasn't too cold. Satisfied at the temperature, Wu walked back before the kid. "Close your eyes," he said. "And your mouth."

Giving him one last wary look of protest at this strange arrangement, the kid nodded and shut his eyes. Wu took the washcloth and ran its corner over the one of the kid's eyelids, smearing and half-removing the dark blue powder that stretched from his eyelashes nearly to his neat, narrow eyebrows. He ran the cloth over that skin again, and then a third time, and then once more before he was satisfied with the effect. A faint shadow hung around the kid's eye, about the same as might be found of a near-healed bruise, but no longer feminine. Wu moved to a cleaner patch of the cloth and did the same for the other eye. The kid's lid fluttered at the touch, but he kept his promise and held them shut. His breath came in long, slow washes of air, the controlled pace of someone trying to remain calm. Wu didn't expect anyone had done this to the kid before.

Next, Wu took to the kid's cheeks, rubbing with less delicate care here, until the pink of rouge had been replaced with the deeper pink of scrubbing. His skin was less perfect at this level of inspection, textured with infrequent pockmarks and hair-thin wrinkles, but that was its own kind of comfortingly real. Wu brought the cloth across the kid's lips, drawing away what of the red stain hadn't been left on the drinks at the bar. His real lips were thinner and browner than Miss Dahlia's, and they looked soft.

That done to his satisfaction, Wu draped the cloth back over the edge of the basin and set about the business of the kid's hair. Miss Dahlia liked to keep it done fancy, with pins and combs, but Wu figured if they'd gone in, they had to come out just the same. He pulled out a dozen smaller pins before removing a silver comb with a shell design along the top, and the rest of the kid's dark hair came cascading down around his shoulders. A few more small pins near his temples held his mane away from his face, and Wu removed them all one by one, slipping them out so as not to pull. He understood the trials of long hair.

Miss Dahlia didn't wear much jewelry, but not much wasn't the same as none. Two small gold loops dangled from the kid's earlobes, and Wu eased them off, flicking back the little hinges before slipping the posts through the holes there. The thin gold chain that circled the kid's neck came unclasped with little effort, and the matching bracelets around each wrist gave up their stations in much the same way, until all three pieces were piled together on the top of the dresser. A gaudy ring with a red glass stone sat on the middle finger of her right hand and gave only the slightest protest as Wu slid it off.

Having finished with the kid's hair, Wu found himself wishing he'd left it until later, because the long, thick curls obscured everything they curtained. With a slight nudge, Wu turned the kid around until they were both facing the same direction. A ribbon threaded back and forth across the back of the dress, but untying it revealed that it was not the structure that held the dress closed; instead, a row of little metal hooks joined both sides of the dress' stiff bodice. They came apart with only the gentlest of tugs, and when that was loosened, the whole dress fell down around the kid's feet. Wu took his hands and led him a step forward, helping him step out of the fabric pooled at his feet. It was a nice dress, so as soon as the kid was free of it, Wu picked it up and hung it over the back of the room's one chair. He had nothing against the dress, pretty and probably expensive as it was; right now, though, he wanted something else.

What was beneath the dress was less complicated than some infrastructure he'd met before, probably because the kid had less to keep up and in, but that didn't mean it was easy. He unlaced and took away the plain white corset that did nothing to support the breasts the kid didn't have, then pushed the chemise from the kid's shoulders and down to his waist. His chest was skinny and lovely, and two dark brown nipples stood out stark relief from the rest of his dusty olive skin. Wu brushed his thumb across one, flicking its tip with his nail, and the kid gasped and bit his lower lip.

Down, down, Wu pushed the chemise and the drawers beneath it until they were a pool of white cloth on the floor and all the kid had left on were white stockings held up by a garter belt. Despite this last vestige of feminine apparel, though, there was no mistaking that what stood before Wu now, flushed and hard, was a beautiful young man. Wu pulled both ribbons that held the stockings in place, and they too let go, falling away.

The kid took a deep breath and opened his eyes, and even though Wu hadn't told him he could, he wasn't in the mood for chastising at the moment. He had more important things to attend to. Taking the kid's hands again, Wu led him forward another step, then swept up the discarded women's garments and placed them atop the chair. Wu was hard now too beneath all his own clothing, but that would just have to wait. They were only halfway.

Wu tapped the kid's lips once, cautioning him to keep silent, then flipped the latches on a grey trunk at the side of the bed, the only object in the room without a feminine touch. Pleased that he'd guessed right, Wu pulled out one stack of the folded clothes kept therein and placed them on the bed. A pair of plain blue drawers sat atop the pile, and Wu unfolded them with a snap and held them open around knee level. The kid gave him a long, hard look at that, but when Wu didn't budge, the kid took a cautious step in. Wu pulled them up around the kid's waist and buttoned the fly, despite the extra effort it took to tuck back the kid's stiff cock behind the fabric. His long-practiced poker face betrayed nothing of the way he was smiling inside, and slow, deep breaths kept his heart from fluttering out of his chest.

Next came a crisp white shirt. At Wu's urging, the kid reached for the sky and let Wu slip the shirt on over his arms and head, then he watched as Wu fasted the last three fine shell buttons all the way to the kid's throat. The kid held on to Wu's shoulder for balance as Wu helped him into a pair of dawn-grey trousers, then moved first one arm and then the other to let Wu add both vest and then jacket to complete the suit. Wu didn't bother with socks or shoes, the latter being all the way over by the door and the former being all but pointless on their own, and he considered suspenders but decided the effect could be achieved without them. At no time did he meet the kid's eyes; he couldn't have held up to that kind of scrutiny, not now. Momentum would have to see him through the end of this.

At last, a tie knotted just below the kid's adam's apple and a bowler hat completed the look, and Wu stood back to consider what he had before him. It was almost Reuben Hawthorne who stood there, except Reuben Hawthorne was as much a fiction as Miss Dahlia or Belladonna or any other Indian Princess or Wild Irish Rose in the kid's repertoire, and what Wu had right there was real. The kid's long hair flowed out from beneath his hat and down his back, and the illusion of his gentlemanly attire lasted only down to his delicate bare feet. Wu gave the whole effect one final nod, then placed his hands on either side of the kid's face and kissed him.

So far as Wu was concerned, it was the finest kiss in all of history, catapulted straight into first place by how he'd managed to get one over on the kid good and proper. The kid sputtered for a moment, but Wu didn't let go. He opened his mouth and parted the kid's lips with his tongue, and that was the melting point -- the kid fell into Wu's embrace, throwing his arms around Wu's neck with such a force that he knocked off his grey hat. It had served its purpose, though, so Wu let it lie where it fell. The kid tasted like gin and his lips were as soft as they looked, and where he got off being so perfect, Wu had no idea, but he wanted more of it, all of it, all to himself.

When Wu at last pulled back from the kiss, he saw the kid's face was startled and flushed and sporting a grin a mile wide. The kid took a deep breath and let it out in an airy laugh. "Why, Mister Woo--"

Wu cut him off with a sharp shake of his head. "Calvin Woo sells herbs and horseshit from the back of a wagon. Wu Yingxing couldn't leave town without seeing you one last time. You should at least know who it is who's got you tonight."

The kid laughed and kissed Wu again. "Wu Yingxing," he repeated, the words warm against Wu's lips.

Unfortunately for the kid, his attempts at being seductive fell flat as he garbled the sounds through his English-speaking mouth, rendering them anything but Wu's name. "Wu Yingxing," Wu said one more time, this time making the shape and pitch of every syllable as clear as he could.

"Wu Yingxing," repeated the kid again, this time nailing every sound like the terrific mimic he was. It'd been so long since Wu'd heard his name said properly by anyone but himself, and the kid's voice made such a beautiful little song of it. "Şehzade."

Wu frowned. "Come again?"

The kid laughed and kissed Wu again, sucking on his lower lip for good measure. "My name is Şehzade. My real name. Şehzade Fergus O'Malley -- Turkish mother, Irish father, born on the boat from Galway." He laughed and looked bashfully down toward the floor. "You're the first person I've told that since I left home. You're probably the only one west of the Mississippi who knows."

"Şehzade?" said Wu, trying to match as best he could all three syllables of the strange, beautiful name, from the soft hiss at the beginning to the bright vowel at the end.

Leaning close until his cock poked Wu's thigh even through all the fabric between them, Şehzade grinned and kissed the side of Wu's jaw. "Mm, say it again."

"Şehzade." Wu tightened his arms around Şehzade's slender waist. "Şehzade."

"Eh, close enough," said Şehzade, who then laughed with delight as Wu gave him a dry, comic scowl and pushed him back onto the bed. The springs creaked first as Şehzade fell and then as Wu fell on top of him, but Wu didn't care who in town knew what they were up to. This was Wu's last chance to get his hands on the beautiful young man who'd stumbled into his life less than a week before, and he wasn't going to waste it worrying what other people might think.

Off came Şehzade's tie and Wu's hat as they kissed, the first casualties of their lovemaking -- and that was what it was, Wu knew now, though he didn't dare say it aloud for fear he might scare it all away before he could have his fill. The buttons on Şehzade's vest and shirt slipped open as Wu's fingers, long-practiced at lifting cards and money from plain sight, never even snagged a loose thread. Wu rolled them both over on the lumpy mattress until he was on his back and Şehzade was astride his thighs. With a tug, shirt, vest, and jacket all came off together, tossed away to some far corner of the room. Wu ran his hands up Şehzade's bare chest, twisting hard at his nipples, and Şehzade gasped. "Fuck, you're going to make me come in my clothes."

"Then take them off," Wu said, more commanding than suggesting.

With a grin, Şehzade slipped off the end of the bed and divested himself of both the trousers and the drawers Wu had put on him with such care. Naked now and obviously hard, he knelt over Wu's knees, posing in all his rare male beauty. "You like what you see?"

Wu nodded as he stroked Şehzade's thighs. They'd been together like this before, of course, and even in this very configuration, but being able to see made a world of difference in their situation. He had no more room to pretend or rationalize here. What he had was what he wanted. "You're beautiful," he said, looking at the smooth skin of Şehzade's chest and belly.

Şehzade smiled as he began to unlace the ribbons that held Wu's shirt closed at his collar. "I want to see you too," he said, working from there to the buttons that closed Wu's long leather vest.

Wu frowned; that wasn't a request he'd ever heard before. "Can't imagine why," he said. He had no qualms about going bare, but had never thought of what he looked like naked as being one of his selling points.

Şehzade nudged Wu into a sitting position so he could pull off Wu's shirt and vest. "You understand, I would have sucked your cock that first night no matter what you'd looked like," Şehzade said, and Wu nodded; especially at that point in their acquaintance, that would have been only fair. "And you could've gone to bed and woken up and let me go without ever knowing the truth about me." Having rendered Wu shirtless, Şehzade went next for his trousers. "But you made me hard. And then you made me want to come back. That sweaty banker was plowing into me and all I could think of was how I was going to come back and tell you about it."

"Just your luck I'm partial to hearing tales." Wu was thicker in the middle than Şehzade was, though that wasn't saying much, but he'd always had a little pouch of a belly that he'd never felt much about one way or another. Şehzade put his hands all over Wu's stomach and sides, though, grinning all the while, and that did a man's ego good. "All right, I know you'll take it however you can get it, but how do you like it?"

With a laugh, Şehzade leaned over to kiss Wu lightly on the lips. "This must be my lucky day," he said, petting Wu's chest, and though he still smiled, there was something in the color of the expression that was more melancholy than merry. He rolled onto his side next to Wu, getting within arm's reach of the bottle of oil by the bedside table. He poured a small amount into his hand, then reached between his legs, slicking himself up with his fingers in a contortion act that impressed Wu's old bones. "I want you in me now, on top of me, my legs over your shoulders. I know you know how to fuck, but I want you to prove it again."

Far greater men than Wu would have fallen to a demand like that. He moved himself between Şehzade's thighs, then got his arms beneath Şehzade's knees, pulling him into position as directed until Wu could feel Şehzade's ankles meet behind his back. "Like this?" he asked, letting his cock brush against the inside of Şehzade's thigh but pressing no further.

Şehzade squirmed, grabbing the sheets on either side of him. "Stick in it," he begged, lifting his hips as best he could given their relative positions. "I'm going to come as soon as you do."

"Is that so?" Wu grinned and looked down at Şehzade's bare body, paying special attention to the way Şehzade's cock bobbed against his belly, leaving slick little patches of precome smeared there. Wu was just as hard, but he held steady anyway. "You are a good little whore."

Şehzade groaned as he writhed against the bed. "Fuck you, I'm the best little whore," he said, eyes shut, hair spread like dark water across the pillows.

Bending down, Wu kissed him again; the more he did, the less he could believe they hadn't been doing it all this time. Before, he had justified it as proper brothel etiquette, even though Wu had met many lovely painted ladies who could do amazing things with mouths on mouths and knew from experience that any prohibition on kissing was a rule honored more in the breach than in the observance. It had been a good distance to keep, though, back when he'd been concerned about things that no longer seemed to matter. Now he was concerned only with having sex with Şehzade, and kissing him was a vital part of that. "The very best," Wu agreed, because it was true. He shifted his hips and pressed the tip of his cock against Şehzade's slickened ass, then slid it all the way in.

Şehzade had exaggerated a bit; he didn't come right away, though not for any lack of enthusiasm on his part. He yowled and grabbed at Wu's arms, digging in with his short nails and making damn sure Wu couldn't go anywhere, even if he'd wanted to -- not that he did, of course, not with a sight like this in front of him. "That all you got?" Şehzade asked, though the way he was gasping left no questions about how good he was already getting it. Still, Wu hated to disappoint, so he shifted his hips to get leverage and thrust in hard enough to make the headboard smack against the wall. He sure hoped the landlord had known what he was getting into with his new tenant, because anyone who could hear now was getting it good.

With one hand wrapped around Wu's braid, Şehzade pulled him in for another kiss, though this one dissolved soon after into gasping and panting. "It's like you were built to fuck my ass," Şehzade said with a grin, nipping at Wu's lower lip.

Wu didn't break his rhythm, but he allowed himself a frown. "You can cut the acting. I'm not one of those other men."

Şehzade's grip on Wu tightened into claws that pulled him close until they were forehead-to-forehead and the kid's dark eyes burned in the lamplight. "You think I talk this way with them?" he asked in gasps between thrusts. He tightened his legs around Wu's neck. "You should hear me with them. Oh, yes, sir, you're so big! You big strong man! Me want your big ding-ding!" He cleared his throat and dropped the falsetto, then let his voice settle into an even deeper register, down into a chesty growl Wu hadn't known he'd had. "You're fucking me. And you do it better than anyone. So make me feel it tomorrow. Give me something to remember you by."

Wu hitched Şehzade's hips upward until he hit deeper every time, until his cock brushed against some sweet spot the kid had that made him moan with each thrust. They could've sold tickets to this show and had every man in a hundred miles throwing money at them to get in, to see in the light what was underneath this beauty's skirts. But this wasn't for them; it was for Wu, and he intended to make good use of it. He pumped his hips once, twice more in the same direction, until Şehzade was coming hard and fast, spilling his seed all over his belly and chest and even to the underside of his jaw in one delightful, noisy, beautiful mess.

Wu flattered himself to think he might have been able to last long beyond that, but just watching the kid yowl and claw at the sheets like some well-fucked cat was in the end too much. He gave a few more thrusts before he, too, was coming, filling the kid's ass with his own seed until it brimmed over and dribbled down on the sheets. He pulled out his cock and let the last few spurts land on the kid's thighs, then slumped forward and sandwiched Şehzade between his body and the sheets. The room smelled like sex and sweat and it was heavenly.

They lay like that only a moment, though, before Şehzade swatted at Wu's backside until Wu rolled off him. His legs reclaimed, Şehzade stretched out along the bed and curled on his side away from Wu, then grabbed Wu's arm and pulled it over his waist. Wu kissed the back of Şehzade's neck and could hear Şehzade's satisfied sigh in response. "Wu Yingxing," he said softly, forming each syllable with great care. "...How the hell do you spell that in English?"

"You ... don't," said Wu, leaving a trail of kisses down Şehzade's shoulder.

Şehzade laughed. "Fair enough. But however will I write you in San Francisco if I don't know how to spell your name?"

The tone of his voice sounded light and sweet, but there was a sorrow beneath it that Wu could hear because he was feeling it himself. Always more layers with the two of them; always something present but unseen. "Keep the letters here. I'll come back for them."

Şehzade shifted in Wu's arms until they were forehead-to-forehead. "Promise?"

A lie would have been so easy right there, but they would also both have known it for a lie, and he wasn't going to leave like that. "No," said Wu at last. "No more than you can promise you'll be here if I get back. But I'll look for you. And I don't think I'll be forgetting you anytime soon."

"I guess that'll have to do." Şehzade smiled, but the force behind the expression drew the skin around the corners of his mouth into tight lines, and he lay there only a second more before rolling away and reaching for the washcloth beside the bed. "You should probably get going. Ought to get an early start tomorrow. It's a long way to the Pacific, or so I hear."

With a nod, Wu sat up and went for his discarded clothes, which by some miracle had escaped their tryst more or less clean. "I bet you'll make it there someday."

"Well, keep it wet for me." Şehzade drew a brush through his thick, lovely hair, then twisted it up at the back of his head and slipped a polished wooden stick through it to hold it in place. He was a creature of effortless beauty, and Wu knew then that on his deathbed, he'd still be thinking of this rare, beautiful thing.

But their ways were parting, and Wu didn't intend to make any more of a scene about it than he had to; the last last impression he wanted to leave was an embarrassing one. So he tugged on his cap and he buttoned up his vest and he extended his hand. "Pleasure meeting you."

Şehzade took it and gave it a long, considered shake. "I'd say it was all mine, but we know that's not true," he said with a wink. For a moment, Wu thought they might kiss again, but Şehzade drew his hand away and gave a little wave instead, leaving Wu with nothing else but leaving. He gave one last glance back over his shoulder as he slipped out the door, but the kid was already picking up clothes from the floor, paying no mind to the last glimpse they might have of one another. With lives like theirs, it was stupid to get attached. One more thing he didn't need.

On his way down the street back to his wagon, Wu found the money he'd given the kid was back in his own pocket, wrapped up inside the handkerchief he'd tried to return before. He had no idea when the kid had made the swap. He looked back up to the window of Şehzade's room, but the room behind the curtains was dark and nothing, so far as he could see, moved inside.

 

~*~

 

Waking found him sore and stiff but still all in one piece. He didn't waste time, and in the thin grey light before sunrise, he started to get his affairs in order.

He'd stocked up on provisions the day before, enough to get him to the next town and then some. He'd even indulged in the luxury of a bottle of whiskey, in case his next stop wound up being in a dry county; few things cut the solitude better, and he had a lot of solitude before him. Everything was packed away, but he double-checked the fragile objects before going over to the livery and retrieving his well-fed, well-rested mules. They gave a token protest at being dragged from their temporary lives of relative luxury, then let themselves be led to their posts and hitched up. They were dumb animals, but loyal, and when it came to companionship, he supposed could do a lot worse.

This hadn't been such a bad town. He climbed into the driver's seat of the wagon and looked around as he took up slow slack on the reins. Not such a bad town at all. Not friendly to him, to be sure, but not hostile either, and sometimes that was more than he could hope for. Someone with half a mind to settle down here could make a good life for himself, no matter his occupation. Maybe someday they'd even build a railroad through here. Maybe someday Wu'd even come back through. There was no telling about such things.

He turned the wagon around the corner onto the main road that led out of town. Reuben Hawthorne stood there in the middle of the street, four trunks stacked beside him.

Wu led the mules up until their big, soft noses were only an arm's reach from the man in the road, then pulled them to a halt. A few folk moved around in the buildings and alleys around them, but the early hour meant they might as well have been alone. The mules snorted and a mourning dove cried from the rafters of a nearby store.

"How much to San Francisco?" asked a man who might have looked like Reuben Hawthorne to anyone who didn't know better.

Wu looked at him -- looked at him, reading his face, trying to see what the game was here. But there was no game, and he'd known better from the minute his eyes had seen that grey bowler hat beneath the pink morning sky. "Figure we could work something out--"

"No." Şehzade shook his head. "How much to San Francisco?"

Maybe this wasn't really happening; maybe Wu had died in his sleep the night before and was still waiting to realize it. "I'm not going to charge you to--"

"No," Şehzade repeated, this time with more force; his hands were balled into tight little fists next to his thighs. Though the nearest other person on the street was still far beyond earshot, Şehzade walked up beside the mules until he was almost nose-to-toe with Wu's boot. "You're not my client. Not you. And I'll steal from anyone but I'll never take charity. So you tell me how much, and I'll work when we stop at cities and pay my own way, and the sooner you name a price, the sooner we can both be heading west."

"I may not be going straight to San Francisco."

"Don't care."

"Going to be a long road."

"Don't care."

"Never ferried a passenger before."

"Care even less."

Wu had so resigned himself to the idea of leaving alone that despite the actual, practical reality of the kid in the street before him -- packed and ready to go, if those steamer trunks were any indication -- he still couldn't quite make his brain believe what he was hearing. "But what about your place here? Did you put down a deposit? Can you--"

Şehzade held up a hand and stopped Wu mid-sentence. "Simple question: Do you want me to come with you?"

"Yes." There was no hesitation, not even a pause for consideration to find that answer. Now that it was possible, he wanted it more than anything else he'd ever been offered.

"Then help me load these." Şehzade pointed to the trunks, and though he had the same frosty, determined air as before, a little smile was beginning to peek up at the corner of his mouth. "Because I got them down those stairs all by myself, and they are not light."

Wu wound up doing most of the heavy lifting, hauling the luggage over to the back of the wagon as Şehzade stood inside and dragged them in the rest of the way. More people were up by now, and those that passed gave the pair strange looks, but Wu didn't even dignify their curiosity by glancing in their direction. Let them think what they thought; they would anyway. For his own part, it was time to go.

He expected Şehzade to stay in the back, but before Wu could set the mules to travel again, Şehzade hopped up on the bench beside him -- wincing a little as he hit the seat, Wu noticed with no small degree of pride -- and sat just far away enough that they weren't touching but just close enough to let Wu know that Şehzade wanted to. He reached over and tipped Wu's hat back with a push of his finger, and as they made that brief contact, Wu could feel that Şehzade's hands were trembling. He would've been a liar if he'd claimed his own were any steadier. "Five cents a mile," Wu said as he gripped the reins.

"Three."

"Four."

"Deal." Şehzade extended his hand and Wu shook on it, and if they didn't let go for quite some time after, staring into one another's eyes as the cart stood still in the middle of the street, it was no business of anyone's but the two of them. At last, Şehzade laughed and dropped the handshake, but left his hand on the bench just against Wu's thigh. "Now we have to figure out who I'm going to be in the next town."

Wu snorted a laugh as he started the mules on their journey out of town. "What do you mean, 'we'?"

"We're partners now," said Şehzade, as though that had been clear as day. "I won't take charity, but I will accept a discounted rate based on the extra business I bring you."

"Extra business?" The first rays of daylight began to creep over the far horizon, casting their shadow out long before them and painting the wooden buildings gold.

With a thoughtful look, Şehzade nodded. "The grateful customer routine has promise, and I can come up with several places to go from honest people returning 'lost' objects, but I think we can do better than that -- especially in small towns where we can't pretend our arriving on the same day is a coincidence. Any idiot can see you're good at cards all on your own, but don't pretend a distraction wouldn't make you better. As for bigger schemes, I've got one really good idea brewing already, but we'll need to be in Denver, I'll need a violin, and you'll have to teach me Chinese, just in case."

It was all so absurd, so delightful, so improbably wonderful that the highest stakes in the world couldn't have pulled a poker face down over Wu's smile. "This is what I get to put up with all the way to San Francisco?"

"And if you play your cards right," said Şehzade with a wicked grin, "maybe even all the way back," and all Wu could do in the face of that was throw his head back and laugh and laugh into the clear blue morning sky.

 

 

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