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For Thou Art A True Love Of Mine

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The crash of a solid body contacting with and breaking a table could be heard outside the tavern. Howls of rage followed. Then came the thud of fists against flesh, and men scattered in all directions to escape the wrath of the brawlers inside. One was dark and wild of hair with broad shoulders and a dimpled chin, a beast of a man with the attitude of a bear whose paw was stuck clean through by a thorn. The other was lean and wolfish.

With one twist of his impressive body, the bear slung the wolf across the tavern again, this time sending him over the bar with a crash of broken glasses and bottles. The hapless aproner squealed in irritation and cracked the wolf over the head with a bottle of his finest stout, shouting for them to take it outside.

They did not take it outside. Rather, the wolf lunged at the bear, ducking low at the last moment in order to take the bear's legs from beneath him. Both tumbled to the floor in a flurry of limbs and hair where the wolf came out on top. He rammed the bear's head into the floorboards. Once. Twice. A third time before the bear bucked hard enough to unseat his opponent and went on the offensive.

Dum Dum, meanwhile, finished the last dregs of beer in his tankard, looked to his companions, a British farmer, an African fleeing enslavement in America, and a Japanese whaler, and rose to interject himself between the fighters before they all got banned from the tavern for life. He received an elbow to the face for his efforts but managed to haul a kicking and snarling Bucky Barnes from the dog pile.

“You fucker!” Bucky spat. “One of these days, they'll be mopping your teeth off the floor.”

“Put your bear on his leash, Dum Dum,” Brock said while wiping dribbles of blood from his chin. “That one shouldn't be allowed out in public until he learns proper manners.”

“You'll excuse us, Your Holiness,” Jim Morita said, his words dainty as he dropped into a curtsey. His fingertips held an imagined skirt pinched between them. “We be men of the sea and the land. Our mothers ain't given us proper manners. We grew up suckling from the bosom of the ocean, good sir.”

The Howling Commandos broke into guffaws.

Their escape didn't happen fast enough. Bobbies turned up to evict everyone before the fight could spill into the muddy lanes outside the tavern. Chester Phillips, the newly minted commissioner of the Mackenzie District, had been quick to build up a police force throughout the whole of the district to control civil unrest. The bobbies were made up of rough men who likely had little regard for the law before being given badges and told to act upon his orders.

Spending a night in the local jail was the least the Howling Commandos would do in the name of Bucky Barnes, so while they grumbled and spent the night poking fun at him, none considered abandoning him in his hour of need. Not even when Pierce came by that morning wearing his Disappointed Face, the one he reserved for people who didn't heave to when he cried “pull” to bail out Mr. Rumlow. The two were in deep cahoots.

“One would think, Mr. Barnes, that as a man with something to lose, you would tread more carefully in polite society.” Pierce tugged his waistcoat into proper alignment and smoothed back a tendril of hair.

“Me?” Bucky scoffed. “I ain't got nothing I'm gonna lose to you.”

“How much do you owe on your bank loan, Mr. Barnes?”

Bucky stiffened.

“Here now,” Dum Dum interrupted. “Ain't no call for threatening a man's livelihood, Mr. Pierce. Nothing happened last not 'cept a couple of lug-heads having a disagreement.”

“The way Mr. Rumlow tells it, Mr. Barnes attacked him for no just cause.”

“Brock can--” The remainder of Bucky's comment was muffled behind Gabe's hand.

“Now, we saw it a different away, Your Grace,” Jim added. “'Cause it looked to us like Mr. Rumlow was casting excursions-- Is that the word?” He glanced to Gabe for confirmation.

Gabe corrected, “Aspersions.”

“Looked to us like he was making aspersions about what Bucky here gets up to with his sheep. She ain't called Maggie 'cause o' her tender nature, you know.”

Pierce's nose wrinkled when a fellow inmate hiked down his trousers to take a shit in a nearby bucket. He whipped out a handkerchief with which to cover his nose and mouth. “Mr. Rumlow is an upstanding member of this community, and if I hear of one more attack, I will be forced to take actions that would result in your ruination, Mr. Barnes. Heed my warning.”

Pierce made haste from lock-up.

Gabe removed his hand from Bucky's mouth, who huffed and offered them all a look of fond amusement. One that ended in a cough and him complaining, “Christ, Jacques. What'd you eat last night, you nasty fucker? My eyes are watering from that stench coming out of you.”

No one understood a single word that came out of Jacques' mouth. He was French and fresh off the boat. For all anyone knew he was having a go at their mothers in his native tongue, not that a single one of them had a mother worth more than a single damn.

They were released from lock-up later that evening when Gilmore Hodge, chief of the unboiled lobsters, pronounced them sober enough to return to civilized society. Dum Dum wanted to laugh in his face. There wasn't nothing civilized about the Mackenzie District outside of Pierce's verdant piece of land, land that just so happened to border the property of one James Buchanan Barnes.

Rather than returning to the tavern—Dum Dum's pockets were empty until next payday at the dock where he worked loading and unloading cargo—they all piled into Bucky's wagon. A team of the meanest horses in existence—Chomper, known for her penchant for biting, and Stomper, named after the frequency with which he clipped their toes when leading him from the barn—awaited them in the livery. They harnessed up and headed back to Bucky's property.

The driveway was demarcated by a pair of posts over which a sign hung. The sign read “Nowhere.” Bucky had been drunk after signing the bank loan and receiving the deed and had thought the name terribly funny at the time. Probably regretted it now. As they pulled up to the cluster of buildings, a dog came tearing from inside the barn yapping with excitement.

Bucky put on the brake and jumped down, crouching and opening his arms so Winter could throw herself into them. She was a black and white border collie who had come over from Australia with him as a pup, and sometimes Dum Dum figured she was the only reason Barnes was still sane.

They all tromped inside, everyone except Bucky and Dum Dum. Bucky made his way toward the barn, fingers digging into the muscle of his left arm. When he flexed the fingers of his bad arm, he cringed, so Dum Dum caught up with him and slapped him on the shoulder.

“Gonna be shearing season soon. You want we should take some time off and come out to help?”

“Nah. Figure I can handle it this season.” Bucky's flock had been larger at one point, but he'd been forced to sell off fifty percent of his flock after late rains had ruined a significant portion of his winter feed. He was still recovering.

“You don't have to.”

“Dum Dum.” There was that warning tone, the one that said he was stepping on an exposed nerve and had better back off unless they wanted to watch some fireworks.

“Sometimes you're a rotten fucker, Barnes.”

“And someday your mustache'll catch fire from all those cigars your smoke.”

He left Barnes to it and went inside the house to check on the others, who were gathered around a scarred table engaged in serious conversation. He dragged a chair over and plopped down to accept the flask that was making its rounds.

“What are we talking about?”

Just so happened the topic of conversation was their snarling bear currently brooding in the stables. Everyone knew Bucky wasn't the sunniest day of spring. Hell, everyone knew he had one of those histories nobody talked about. There were rumors, of course. Whispers of murder. Of a body so badly disfigured the bobbies back in Britain hadn't been able to identify the victim by anything but the signature cravat wrapped around a noble neck.

But no one knew for sure. That was the benefit of a place like New Zealand. Long as a body worked hard, nobody gave a shit about anyone's past. 'Cept for men like Pierce, who thought their britches were bigger than they actually were.

So they all agreed they had a problem on their hands. Bucky Barnes was not a nice man, and most days, he was alone out here on his property with nothing but a bunch of sheep and a dog named Winter. What he lacked was that feminine touch. What he lacked was the civilizing influence of a woman to keep him warm at night, a partner he could have children with, a family he could invest in.

Not that Barnes would ever admit to needing any of those things. Hell, they'd never even seen him visiting any of the unmentionable places, those houses no one spoke of but every man knew about where the comfort of a warm pair of a thighs and a willing cunt could be purchased for a paltry sum.

But Dum Dum figured that even bears got lonely. They might live solitary lives, but they still met up once in a blue moon to make babies and be tender toward one another.

Ultimately, it was Monty's idea. James Falsworth had been disinherited by his father and left England in disgrace for marrying someone of lower birth. Together with his wife and daughter, Jacqueline, they lived a comfortable life in New Zealand and worked a large tract of land in the Ashburton District of Canterbury. Monty was the oddball of their group. Neither an ex-convict nor a man of the sea, but he was fleeing something the way the rest of them were.

The plan was simple: run an advert in Ireland offering to pay passage for any woman of good reputation to the colony in New Zealand. It was an attractive offer. Food and opportunity were becoming scarce in Ireland, especially for unmarried women, and only the poorest and most desperate came over on one of the unpaid ships where dysentery and scarlet fever could wipe out twenty percent of the passengers before arrival.

Finding a good candidate in New Zealand was also improbable. Few unmarried women had made the journey as of yet, and those who had were quickly snapped up by a male population hungry for female companionship. So importing a woman was the most feasible idea.

All they needed to do was get her there and get her married to Bucky before she found out how much of a crabby fucker he could be. Then, they would hope for the best.

They wrote out the advert in a scrap of paper.

Wanted: A woman of good virtue, hardy nature, and calm demeanor to marry one James Buchanan Barnes of New Zealand. Mr. Barnes owns his own land and is in a position to provide a comfortable life for the woman willing to make the journey to become his wife.

If interested, contact Timothy Cadwallader of Invercargill, Southland, New Zealand, sending a portrait, a brief description, and any special travel requirements.

*

Stevie's face was flushed red from heat. Steam poured off the vats of hot water in which laundry soaked, causing her to feel faint, but she pushed on, slight body rising to meet the challenge of dragging cloth heavy with water to the wringer to being the drying process.

Her hands ached. The joints of her knuckles were swollen, but she couldn't take a break. The factory owner, Johann Schmidt, was due for an inspection any day this week, so their manager leaned heavier on them than normal. The piggish little man was good at barking orders but bad at providing them adequate help to get the jobs done on time.

She grabbed the cloth as it emerged from the wringer and put it through a second time before passing it off to Maggie, who would be in charge of taking it to the ironing girls. Better the wringer than the heavy irons, she thought. Her back wouldn't tolerate the strain.

Some might call her too delicate for this sort of work. It was labor-intensive and back-breaking. She went home to a room she rented with several other girls exhausted and collapsed into bed at the end of every night before rising to begin the process anew the following morning.

Polly and Maggie were two of her roommates, both stout women who weren't afraid of what the gossip mongers said about them entertaining men at all hours of the night. They drank. They cursed. They had reputations that would make cultured women have an attack of the vapors.

And Stevie counted herself lucky to live with them. Fading into the background was easier when surrounded by women who stole the spotlight, and she desperately wanted to blend in.

“We're going out tonight, Stevie, and you're coming with us,” Polly called from across the warehouse.

She opened her mouth only to be talked over.

“We won't take no for an answer.”

“It's not natural,” Maggie said, “for a woman your age to not be out and about. Don't you want to find a good lad and settle down?”

“Motherhood isn't for me,” she claimed.

“That's silly. Motherhood is for all women.”

A pang of regret made her heart skip a beat because she would love to be a mother. She would love to carry a child, to give birth, to hold a baby in her arms, but it was biologically impossible, one of those dreams no amount of prayer could answer. Even if God were willing to listen to the pleas of a deviant.

Polly's expression shifted into one closer to regret, and she came over to rub a meaty hand across Stevie's back. “Och, darlin'. Can you forgive us for being so heartless?”

“Of course.”

The reality was that even though she had the necessary parts for children, it wouldn't make a difference. Who knew what went on inside her body, whether or not her internal structures were capable of producing children even if she ever found someone who wouldn't report her to the church or a hospital for being the way she was. So what if her outside parts couldn't decide if she were meant to be a woman or a man? She will wouldn't survive childbirth, not with her size and many ailments. It was a sore subject often mentioned by people with clumsy mouths and even clumsier minds.

They collected their wages at the end of their shift at six of the clock, and while the girls went out to spend their money on booze and other pleasures that might numb the grinding poverty, Stevie went home, stopping along the way for a meager bowl of soup and crust of bred at the chapel where nuns took it upon themselves to help feed the hungry.

Their room at a tenement building was small, had a lockable door, and contained four tiny beds. Washing hung in front of the windows and over radiators that put out substandard heat.

Shannon, their fourth roommate, was already home from the tailor where she kept shop.

Stevie collected her night shirt and a clean pair of knickers from the line stretched across her side of the room in preparation for visiting the single water closet in the building.

“Don't know why you don't just change in here,” Shannon said without looking away from her embroidery. “Seems a waste of effort. You shy, Stevie?”

“Aye. Shy as a mouse,” she responded.

Shannon didn't remark on the eccentricity again, so Stevie hurried to the bathroom. Beneath her chemise, she wore a tightly laced corset, a hand-me-down from her mother, God rest her soul. Stiff whalebone dug painfully into her skin, and when she released the hooks and eyes, a deep breath filled her lungs. Aching hands gripped the sink's edge until her knuckles were white as the porcelain.

The corset enhanced what little breast tissue she possessed. It was painful, wearing it while working all day, but the penalty of being discovered far outweighed any physical misery. So was pricking her inner thigh and smearing a bit of blood on her knickers to produce the effect of a cycle so irregular she never knew from one month to the next if she would have one.

Finally ready for bed, she returned to the room to find Shannon still squinting at her embroidery in the fading light. Stevie didn't bother warning her that her eyes would go bad that way. Hell, her own eyes weren't all that great either. The thing was that Shannon worked grueling hours just like the rest of them and often brought home extra work. It was the way life worked for people existing at the bottom of the social stratosphere.

The following morning began before the sun rose. All four girls got up. They fought over the bathroom, so to jump ahead, Stevie got up extra early to change back into her chemise, woolen dress, and apron. Getting out early also meant she could stop at the cathedral again where nuns served slices of bread and cups of hot tea to people queued up around the block.

Then it was back to the laundry factory. Stevie stopped on the way to tie her wheaten hair up with a scarf so it would stay out of her face. Other workers were already arriving for their shift, and overnight employees had kept the fires beneath the cauldrons going, so it was warm water she plunged her hands into for the first bed sheet of the day.

Someone started up a song. The rest of them joined in. It helped pass the day, helped keep their minds off the drudgery of their lives, and brought a certain amount of cheer.

Johann Schmidt's arrival killed the cheer dead.

He appeared outside Little Piggie's office in a black, wool-lined coat with a walking stick and a top hat. Stevie, a recent hire, hadn't seen him before. She was struck immediately by the redness of his face. Be it a birthmark or his natural complexion, it made him look ghastly, a horror dreamed up from the depths of a depraved mind. She found herself unsettled.

Johann moved through the various areas to watch them work. Now and then, Little Piggie took notes on a sheaf of paper or issued orders to the women to correct their form or to urge them to go faster.

They were nearing Stevie's section when she overheard Johann say, “Double the output.”

Little Piggie responded, “These women, I am not sure they have the strength.”

“Then use up what strength they have left, Doctor. There are always more workers.”

Which was disgusting enough. They were people, not workers, and despite her precarious situation, she turned to say just that, drawing the attention of Mr. Schmidt, Little Piggie, and every other woman in the factory, and when would she learn to keep her damn mouth shut?

Schmidt approached, smart boot heels clicking against the stone floor. “You are unsatisfied with your position, Miss...”

“Rogers,” supplied Little Piggie. “Stíofáinín Rogers.”

“Stevie,” she corrected, chin jutting out. “And you can't do that. We're people. Only evil men use up what strength we have left and cast us aside like refuse.”

Polly and Maggie murmured something nearby, but neither dared intervene.

They hadn't have bothered anyway, as Mr. Schmidt took Stevie by the elbow and moved her toward Little Piggie's office, saying, “Perhaps we will talk more about your insubordination.”

By “talk more,” she figured he meant “beat you into submission,” and that was fine. Stevie Rogers knew how to take a beating. She'd been taking beatings most of her life.

Mr. Schmidt pushed her hard enough through the door that she fell into a giant desk inside.

“What you do not understand,” he said in his German accent, “is that you are refuse, little one. You exist to serve the pleasures of those of higher status than you, a world I helped create. Perhaps you need a reminder of your place.”

True fear spiked through her guts. Shaking her head frantically, she stepped away from him, but there was nowhere to go. There were no other exits from the office, and he stood between her and freedom. All she could do was dodge, which she did when he came at her the first time.

Her life only lasted so long as it took him to catch her, and that was a laughably short amount of time given her lungs and his health. Breath wheezed in her chest when he caught her and pushed her down against the desktop. She struggled despite how her throat thinned, but nothing helped.

Nothing stopped him from fumbling with the lengths of her skirt and dragging it up over her hips. Thin knickers were no protection at all against his hands tearing the cloth and revealing the body she was born into. Hot tears joined the struggle for breath.

“What is this?” he hissed.

Her genitals were on full display.

Fingers covered in black gloves closed around the nape of her neck. He lifted her. He turned her. He slammed her against a wall, fury deepening the red of his complexion and contorting his features.

“What are you? You're a deviant. You're unholy.”

Both hands gripped her neck this time, and she brought her own up as a feeble defense, pushing against his face in an attempt to turn his head or somehow dislodge the grip cutting off what remained of her airway. Her chest burned. Her vision darkened.

She was going to die.

Then a hand brushed against something metal in his front coat pocket. It was a pen. A simple fountain pen with a sharpened nib, and she didn't hesitate. She snatched it from his pocket and rammed it into his eye. He screamed. His hands dropped from her throat, but she didn't stop. She stabbed him again. And a third time with such finality the pen became buried in his eye socket.

Mr. Schmidt slumped to the floor.

Little Piggie called from outside, “Is everything all right?”

No, she wanted to scream. Nothing was all right. She was covered in Schmidt's blood. Any peeler worth his badge would take one look at the scene and condemn Stevie to hanging, and when they inevitably found out about her unusual conformation, she would be drawn and quartered and put on display as a warning to other deviants like her.

So she did the only thing she could. She ran. She exited the office at a dead sprint, and Little Piggie was surprised enough he didn't immediately go after her. In fact, there weren't even any calls for alarm until she was outside the factory and heading into the slums where the buildings were cramped and the tight press of humanity allowed some small notion of anonymity.

But the peelers pursued, forcing her to stay on the run, and she knew deep down that she would never be safe in Ireland again. The only way to stay alive would be to leave, not just Ireland, but England and Scotland as well.

Exhausted and filthy, she paused beside a mail room whose windows were plastered with various notices. One such advert caught her attention.

Wanted: A woman of good virtue, hardy nature, and calm demeanor to marry one James Buchanan Barnes of New Zealand. Mr. Barnes owns his own land and is in a position to provide a comfortable life for the woman willing to make the journey to become his wife.

If interested, contact Timothy Cadwallader of Invercargill, Southland, New Zealand, sending a portrait, a brief description, and any special travel requirements.

Stevie gripped a locket around her neck. It was the only thing she had left of her mother, and inside, she kept a lock of her mother's hair and a miniature portrait of the two of them from better days, days when Stevie's father still lived and their cobbler business prospered.

Before the day was out, the picture, along with Stevie's general description, were on its way to one Timothy Cadwallader.