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California's First

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“I’ll be goddamned,” Pat muttered.

The bond-thief Pat had traveled across the border to find was riding straight into the Sonoran Desert. “That’s a level of desperate I can’t be troubled with,” she said, and started to roll a cigarette.

She returned to San Diego with the prickling feeling of wasted time. If she were a less stubborn woman, she would have cut her losses and headed back to the States. But deeply stubborn as she was, she hung around the saloons and waited for more business. The fact that she could barely string two words of Spanish together didn’t hurt much, with all the immigrants around. Still, her wallet was starting to develop an awful hole in it.

It took a few days, but a man finally sidled up to her at the bar. “Mr. Dubois?” he asked. “I heard that you are an investigator of some reputation, your recent failure notwithstanding.”

“I found him,” Pat replied. “He just preferred dying in a desert to being caught.” 

“My apologies. I have a delicate request—can I trust you to leave a woman’s honor intact?”

“I am a perfect gentleman,” Pat replied, holding back a wink. Her papa, a voyageur, had needed a helper more than a daughter, so he’d encouraged little Patricia’s fondness for trousers. The man looked at her doubtfully, then told her about General del Mora’s beloved daughter, who had abandoned her family to be a singer along the California coast.

“She is still a well-bred young lady,” the man said. “Her father wants her to return before she comes to disgrace. And it’s not safe for her in Baja California anymore. The general will be very generous to whomever gently brings her back to Mexico City. I hope that’s you, Mr. Dubois.”

“For two hundred bucks, it’ll be me,” Pat replied.

The man pursed his lips. “You are not the only person the general is tasking to return with his daughter.”

“Oh, so he trusts lots of people with his daughter’s virtue?”

“We can offer you fifteen dollars just to set out,” he said, with no appreciation of Pat’s sense of humor, “and one hundred and twenty-five more when Guadalupe is back in Mexico City.”

Fifteen dollars about paid Pat’s tab at the boarding house. “Fifteen dollars is not going to motivate me to run across California just to get beaten out by someone else. I want fifty to set off, and one seventy-five after I’m done.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Thirty now, one-fifty later.”

She could tell by the man’s expression she’d tapped him out. At least it was enough to get her nearly out of Mexico. Pat took the thirty, looked at the daguerreotype of the ravishing Guadalupe del Mora, and set out. She scoured the coast for weeks, walking into every saloon and asking if there were pretty women about who liked to sing. Frontier towns were the same everywhere: they had very flexible ideas about ‘singing’ and ‘pretty.’ The string of false leads brought her up to Monterey, where California’s First Theater (which Pat would eat her hat if it really was the first) hosted a beautiful young woman named Lupita Larosa.

She reached Monterey just before sunset. As she rode in, she passed by Mexican soldiers riding out. “That’s not a good sign, old lady,” Pat muttered to her horse. “War’s coming faster than I can find this girl.”

Pat tipped her hat to the nearest soldier. “Buenas noches, señor. ¿Dónde vas?” she asked.

“Los Angeles,” he replied. “Your accent’s shit,” he added in English, drawing his horse to a halt. “What brought you here? You’re no soldier.”

“From what I can tell, it’s a bad time to be soldiering in Monterey.”

“Not if you’re American. Your navy’s in the bay. You are American, aren’t you?”  

“Got a little French floating around,” Pat said.

He gave her a measured look. “Ah well, there’s worse.”

“Odd hour to be leaving town.”

“We’re the last out. Bon chance, mon ami.

Monterey was quiet. Underneath the smell of the horses was the now familiar odor of low tide. The soldier had left Pat unsettled. A man with a mustache big enough to sell as a pelt gave her directions to the theater, with an added sigh of admiration for Lupita. The theater was close to the ocean, a little adobe building that served as lodging house and saloon. No theater though, which struck Pat as a terribly misleading way to name something.

No one looked up when she stepped inside. Long-faced to a man, the patrons were set on getting to the bottoms of their drinks. She took a seat at the bar, listening to the mix of English and Spanish in the background.

“Rye, please,” she told the bartender.

“You need a room with that drink?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“That’ll be six dollars.”

A room at California’s First shouldn’t have been more than four. “You’re shitting me.”

The bartender frowned as he set a glass in front of her and poured. “You saw all the soldiers leaving town. I’m cutting you a discount because the U.S. Navy’s in the bay, and that stretches a dollar farther than a peso.”

“Fine.” Pat slowly put the coins on the bar, sipping at her rye. “Is Lupita singing tonight?”

“She’ll be on as soon as the pianist gets here. Bastard’s always late.” Raising his eyebrows, the bartender said, “How’d you hear of her already?”

He turned suspicious awfully fast. Had others come looking for her? “I asked around for a place with decent entertainment.”

“Well, she’s a better class of woman than Monterey deserves. If you so much as look at her wrong, you’ll have three men ready to break your arm.”

Then she’d been here a while. “I promise I’ll behave.”

“Not everyone does,” the bartender replied. Pat would have to be sneaky with this.

The street was dark by the time the pianist arrived and plonked himself down at the piano. A couple of men clapped and the bartender handed him a glass of gin. Pat settled in for somebody, maybe a little better than usual, to walk through the haze of tobacco smoke.

When the pianist played the first few notes, the room fell silent. Lupita came in from the back of the room, walking on light feet. She had gathered up her skirts so they wouldn’t brush the sawdusted floor, and it seemed to Pat to be the most lovely gesture of femininity she’d seen in years. Lupita leaned against the piano, taking in her audience as she adjusted one of her hairpins.

“I’m feeling a little melancholy tonight, Bob,” Lupita said.

“Gotcha,” he replied, the tune turning mournful. “Make us cry, sweetheart.”

Lupita’s voice was made for more than a little town like Monterey. It was beautiful enough for an audience of thousands, and the mere dozens around her now were enraptured. “Tell me the tales that to me were so dear,” she sang, holding out her hand, “long long ago, long long ago…

Sing me the songs I delighted to hear,

Long long ago, long ago:

Now you are come my grief is remov’d,

Let me forget that so long you have rov’d,

Let me believe that you love as you lov’d,

Long long ago, long ago.

Pat had heard the song before, in a music hall in Cincinnati. But it was a man singing it about a woman, not the other way around. Lupita caught Pat’s gaze and held it, directing the next verse at her.

Do you remember the path where we met,

Long long ago, long long ago.

Ah yes, you told me you ne’er would forget,

Long long ago, long ago.

Then to all others my smile you prefer’d,

Love when you spoke gave a charm to each word,

Still my heart treasures the praises I heard.

Long long ago, long ago.

Pat had to look away as Lupita went into the last verse. Lupita’s father wanted her back home, doubtlessly to marry her off to another rich fellow who wouldn’t let her sing for an audience ever again. Pat’s life hadn’t been easy, but Lupita’s struck her as the harder one. But what did Pat know—being wealthy probably made everything a lot more bearable.

The song over, Lupita slid into the seat next to Pat. She could feel the regulars bristling with jealousy.

“Buy me a drink,” Lupita asked, her gifted mouth curving into a smile. 

“Whatever you want, senorita.” 

She ordered an old-fashioned, which the bartender topped off with honest-to-God fresh orange rind. “Where are you from?”

“Detroit,” Pat replied.

Parlez-vous français?

Ouin. But I don’t think I learned it quite like you did, in some fancy drawing room.”

Lupita raised one eyebrow. “You think I’m a lady?”

“Ain’t you?”

“That depends on who’s asking.” She pouted. “Good-looking young man like you? Maybe.”

“Easy there,” Pat lied, feeling like she was already wound around Lupita’s finger. “The bartender already warned me about admirers ready to defend your honor.”

“That ship sailed.”

Pat burst out laughing before she could stop herself. Her laughter always came out too high-pitched. As Lupita leaned scandalously closer, Pat asked, “And what if I’m waiting until marriage? Good Catholic boy that I am.”

“We just met and you’re already scheming to sleep with me? Señor, I am appalled.” Lupita backed away, pulling a fan out of nowhere to cool her face. Pat needed it a hell of a lot more than Lupita did. “I like how you blush.”

“You’re not exactly what I expected.”

“Aha!” Waggling her finger, Lupita said, “So my father did send you.”

“Damn—I mean darn it—I don’t even know your father. Only thing that sent me here was a mustache with a man attached to it telling me there was a fine singer at California’s First.”

She smirked. “I am a fine singer. And I’m not returning to Mexico City, even if you point that gun in my face and kidnap me. Tougher-looking men than you have tried.”

“You think I’m just going to fling you over my shoulder?”

“It’s been attempted,” she replied with a huff and a flick of her fan.

“Then I am very sorry, senorita, that you haven’t been kidnapped by Pat Dubois before. It’s quite the highly regarded experience.”

There was a lull in the saloon chatter. Pat listened in out of habit, and she could tell Lupita was doing the same.

“Is that General del Mora’s daughter?” someone asked behind them. “We could get him over a barrel.”  

Eyes widening, Lupita grabbed Pat’s shirt. “Mr. Dubois, I need you to kidnap me. Immediately.”

Three men were rising to their feet, every one of them armed. “Hope you run as well as you can sing,” Pat whispered, pulling Lupita out of her chair.

Pat threw her glass on the floor, bringing the whole room’s attention on them as the men closed in. Someone shouted for them to settle down as the bartender reached for what had to be a pistol, and Pat took Lupita by the hand as she broke into a run. It sounded like chaos behind them, everyone trying to get out of the fight or join it. Heels clacking loudly, Lupita nearly stumbled into Pat twice by the time they got to the door. But when they hit the street, she ran like she made a habit of it. She took the lead, giving directions in French to confuse their pursuers.

The fastest of them caught up. Lupita yelped as he caught her by her elbow-length hair and tried to yank her to a stop. Pat clocked him in the gut at the same time Lupita went for the crotch, dropping him so fast Pat nearly felt bad for the guy. It was pure good luck that they ran into a wagon carrying chickens. One push at the cages and the birds made the racket they needed to lose their tail.

Breathing hard, Lupita brought them behind a house and bent over, clutching at her side. “I have to rest,” Lupita whispered.

“That’s fine,” Pat replied, but then she caught sight of four new men up ahead, loitering at a street corner with interest. “Think they’re with the others?”

“Goddammit.” Lupita had clearly picked the delivery of that word at the bar.

Pat drew Lupita into the nearby shed with her, shutting the door behind them. What kind of town was Monterey that the place wasn’t even locked? It was dark inside, and Pat felt what was probably pliers digging into her back.

“I’m afraid they are.”

“Alright,” Pat said, starting to undo the buttons of her shirt. “Let’s switch clothing.”

“Are you mad?”

“Those toughs down the street are looking for a beautiful Mexican woman and a weedy-looking American man, not the opposite. Just walk with a swagger and no one will question it. Trust me.”

Pat had barely gotten her shirt untucked when she heard Lupita’s dress hit the floor. She tried not to look up as Lupita fought with her corset.

“My lord,” said Lupita, as Pat put her shirt and trousers in Lupita’s hands. Her eyes were fixed on Pat’s modest chest. “You’re a woman.”

“You got me,” Pat replied. “Still think I’m good-looking?”

“Now isn’t the time,” Lupita hissed, which was a promising way to respond when being pursued by seven armed men. “Turn around so I can help you with my underwear.”

Biting her tongue, Pat obeyed. “You’ll want this, to get your girls under control,” she said, unwrapping her loose binding and passing it back to Lupita.

“Who are the—oh. Hold yours up, by the way.”

Lupita had her corset slipped around Pat’s front before she could even remark on how strange it was to be holding her own tits. “Now let them go,” Lupita said, and started to tighten the stays with quick fingers. “It keeps them sitting naturally instead of getting squeezed. Have you never worn a corset?”

“Not since Christmas mass when I was twelve.”

“How strange. Now help me get your sweaty bandage on.”

It was impossible to help Lupita without staring straight down at her breasts. “It’s not that sweaty. I washed it last spring,” Pat said. “Kidding,” she added, when Lupita recoiled. She carefully pulled the bindings around Lupita, but there was no getting her gorgeous chest flat. Luckily, it was probably too dark for anyone to notice. Everything else went on easily, though Lupita wisely treated Pat’s gun belt like it was made of snakes.

Lupita stood nervously, the bottoms of Pat’s trousers trailing along the floor. Pat kneeled so she could roll them up to Lupita’s ankles. The corset kept Pat’s back straight, reminding her that she slouched altogether too much.  

“Thank you,” Lupita whispered. She took out a few hairpins and twisted her hair around, repositioning each pin until her hair was in a tight arrangement on top of her head. Lupita somehow managed to cram Pat’s cap over everything, then she wrapped her shawl around Pat’s head to hide her short hair.

“And thank you, Mr. del Mora,” Pat said.

“My dress suits you.”

Pat grinned. “I appreciate that. I hope you don’t mind if I tell you that you are not similarly complimented by squeezing yourself into men’s clothing.”

“Is this about—” Lupita began, holding her hands over her chest, “—the girls?”

“The lovely ladies.” Pat reached for Lupita’s hand again. “We need to lie low for the night. Know of another boarding house nearby?”

“Follow me,” Lupita replied, squeezing Pat’s fingers as she led her out of the shed. The men were still looking around, but didn’t take any interest when they turned down the street. To Pat’s relief, the boarding house was almost good enough to call itself a ‘hotel,’ and a private room was arranged for the properly married couple.

“Aren’t you a little young to be wearing your hair like that?” the clerk asked Pat.

“We’re Mennonites,” Pat said.

“Fair enough,” the clerk replied, still puzzled, and handed her the key. “Don’t break anything doing your Mennon nights.”

Once they were safely inside the room, Pat propped a chair up against the doorknob. “It won’t stop anyone with a gun, but if it comes to that, we’ve got worse problems than a break-in.”

Lupita peered out through the shutters. “They’re coming in from the street.” She chewed on her lip, looking back to Pat as she lit the single lamp by the bed.

“I’ll keep you safe,” Pat said. She took out her gun and checked that it was loaded; of course it was, but she wanted Lupita to see her do it. “They’re just going to ask the clerk if a couple that don’t look like us is here, and the clerk will say no, and then they’ll go on their way. We can leave in the morning.”

Both of them held their breath as they waited for the sound of heavy boots on the stairs. But none came, and Pat found herself smiling in relief at the silence.

“I don’t know why I’m happy,” Lupita said. “You’re going to take me back to Mexico City, just like they would have.”

“Not like that. Not against your will. For one thing, it’s damned difficult for one person to drag a prisoner around. But there’s no hiding from your birth forever.”

“Haven’t you?” she replied acidly.

“That’s different. My father wasn’t a rich, important man. Yours is. Are you saying you want to run around dressed like me for the rest of your life?”

“No. I want to sing, and I don’t want to be married.” She sighed. “Do you?”

“If I found the right girl,” Pat joked.

“One who favored what’s between your legs?”

“Not just that.” Pat adjusted herself in her seat, unused to being corseted and wearing a skirt. “She’d have to enjoy being on the road, and sleeping rough, and lying when you had to. I don’t plan to settle down unless my body makes me.”

“Where are you going next,” Lupita asked quietly, the lamplight reflecting off her brown eyes, “if I won’t go back with you to Mexico City?”

“Away from the war. It’s easy to get work; people are always fleeing with something they shouldn’t have.”

“Or just living a way they shouldn’t.” She stretched out on the bed, letting her hair down out of Pat’s cap and tossing it across the room. “Are you planning to guard the door all night?”

“There’s probably no need.”

“Then come over here. I’ll help you out of my clothes, because I doubt you can do it yourself.”

Pat left her gun on the nightstand, then sat next to Lupita on the bed. “Do you want privacy?” Lupita asked, her fingers under the corset’s stays. There was a screen in the corner that could do for modesty.

“No,” Pat replied, breathing in as she felt Lupita’s lips brushing against her neck. “You ever done this before?”

“I already told you that my honor’s ship has sailed. This is the best way to pass the night together, don’t you think?”

“Always thought so.” Pat kissed Lupita, thinking a little of how strange it was to be unbuttoning her own shirt on another woman. But that distraction faded as their clothes came off, and Pat pressed Lupita down against the mattress.

~

The sound of cannons startled Pat out of sleep. She gently disentangled herself from Lupita’s arms so she could pull her shirt on and peer out the window. Warships had filled the harbor, firing the twenty-one gun salute while the American flag hung from the Customs House.

“Shit.” Monterey hadn’t resisted; the Mexican forces had gotten out while they could. Still, having no one nearby to fight didn’t mean that war hadn’t started.

“The Americans are attacking, aren’t they?” Lupita asked, groggily sitting up in bed. “I hate them.”

“We’re not so bad, if you go inland.”

“An unaccompanied lady couldn’t travel so much without attracting trouble.”

“Not if you had me for company,” Pat said. She’d barely had time to think about it, and they had just met, but Lupita had already proven herself one of the gamest girls Pat knew. “I can pose for a husband in any pinch. Hell, you wouldn’t have to stay with me forever, either. I know of at least four music halls that’d take you on in a heartbeat.”

“Why would you do that?” Lupita replied, her eyebrows knitting together. “Don’t you have to make money?”

“I bet you’ve got enough sewn into your skirt to bring us all the way to Boston.”

“How did you know?”

“It clanked when it hit the floor.”

Lupita smiled. “Then I can start my tour of the continent.”

“Whatever you want,” Pat said, drinking in the joy on Lupita’s face. “Within reason. I can’t make you the Queen of the Mississippi, for one thing.”

“I want you to come back to bed, then bring your wife some breakfast. Marriage and travel both make me hungry.”

Pat was more than happy to provide. She’d even try on the Queen of the Mississippi, if Lupita kept looking at her like that.