#FLESH & GRASS
Rise now: rise as one, as a great curling, shifting cloud of dark brown wings. Rise with a ringing ululation from the tundra of the Northwest, and fly east across the empty wilderness of Canada, until you reach the storm-tossed coast of Labrador. Sweep south, over the roiling Atlantic, growing steadily warmer until you alight upon the tropical havens of the Caribbean. Then south again, gradually drawn by the massive gravitational pull of the Americas towards Argentina and Chile. Rest now: your year is half over; your journey half complete.
Then, when you feel the pulse of the spring and all its diversions, rise once more with renewed, ardent vigour. Surge northwards, up through the vastness of Texas, until you spill out over the seething, sighing Sea of Grass. Soon, you will be back upon the sacred tundra, but here is food aplenty and space to rest. Look down now, from your aerial element look, and see what dramas unfold below
The prairie shimmered: feathered fronds of pale green whispering in the restless air. The lifting Sun was a magenta smear at the furthest edge of an indigo sky that arched like eternity above the world of grass. A wolf pack flowed like grey smoke across the landscape, fleeing the encroaching daylight. They skirted herds of buffalo, the bison looming in the pre-dawn light like monoliths draped in ragged umber furs. Sensing no immediate threat, the massive browsers merely stared, grunting uneasily.
Abruptly, the pack stopped. Before them lay an obstacle they had encountered before, but still found unfamiliar. A raised bed of stones, and laid upon it slabs of unnaturally squared timber. And laid upon the timber, two sinuous steel ribbons that stretched from horizon to horizon; oxidised red along their sides but burnished to dazzling brilliance on top. The alpha female crouched, sniffing cautiously, for the ribbons were singing: a discordant, grinding dirge that grew inexorably louder. With sudden alarm the pack turned as one, racing back across the green. The bison, unconcerned, looked on.
The train was a dilapidated, wheezing Mogul hauling a brace of parlour cars that had long seen better days and better roads, plus a trio of sagging boxcars. It moved with glacial slowness, as if trying to be inconspicuous. The buffalo herd shifted, retreating slightly from this strange intruder, but they did not flee. For if wolves could not scare them, how could this apparition?
Men disgorged from the train even as it slithered to a stand; men with powerful rifles. Some endeavoured to pick their way through the grass, approaching the buffalo as near they could. Most were content to remain by the train, while a particularly indolent few poked the barrels from the louvre windows of the cars. There was no special signal, but as the sun broke across the prairie the shooting began, a thunderous cannonade that rattled out, scattering the buffalo before it. Liquid poppies bloomed on weathered hides, sudden scarlet splashing onto the green. Moaning piteously, mighty beasts became staggering, stranded islands of flesh that sank to the earth, shivered briefly, and then were still. The shooting continued until the ammunition was exhausted and the last fleeing bison was beyond range.
Silence fell, the sort of silence that often follows slaughter. As the dust and gun smoke cleared, a new group of men disgorged from the boxcars, scattering into the arc of corpses that surrounded the train, setting skilfully to work with blades, peeling off the leathery pelts which were briskly loaded. More casually, some of the shooters also wandered out, some to claim souvenirs, others to pose awkwardly for slow-exposing photographs. And as they did so, they became aware of a growing sound supplanting the silence, like a distant tinkling of chimes. Looking up, the men beheld a serpentine river of small, dark-brown birds winding overhead, dimming the newborn Sun with the number of their wings. The flock shifted and pulsed with internal currents as it surged over like some gently ringing storm, and the men cursed the fact that they were out of bullets.
At length the train, with a mournful whistle, moved off. And from a distance, the wolf pack watched and waited. They sensed meat aplenty, and close at hand, but they also sensed trouble coming from the east. Trouble always came from the east.
She was tall, and quite strikingly beautiful, but having seen how the other one scrubbed up, Brigadier Wentworth had expected that. He had not anticipated her looking quite so trail-weary, but reasoned that she was, after all, a city woman, in chic city clothing unused to the rigours of the frontier. He proffered his hand, and she took it nervously.
Miss Hanssen. I didnt expect you quite so early I had no idea youd be on the Buffalo Train.
She looked at him, a trifle strangely. Hers was a slender, serious face marginally flawed by a fleshy, prominent nose. Her brow was high, her mouth miniature but full, her chin narrow but firmly chiseled. It was, he thought, a face unused to smiling, though two key features softened the effect: beneath pencil-soft brows small but vivid pale blue eyes glowed intelligently, if made rheumy by tiredness and travel. And there was the hair, which even slightly dishevelled was a glorious, golden crown. Once he saw the hair, any lingering doubt vanished.
Are you alright, Miss Hanssen?
She smiled feebly.
Yes, I... I think so. Im sorry, I didnt sleep well last night. And that Buffalo Train, well, it was such a shock, on top of everything...
I understand. Our ways out here must seem very strange to you, Miss Henson. I wont deny, this is harsh country, and perhaps it attracts a certain harsh temperament, but the people here are as good as youll find. Theyve weathered droughts, storms, famines, even a plague of locusts, and theyve thrived. The frontier is a New World, in many ways, and it has required a new morality. Though it may not seem immediately obvious, the Buffalo Train brings many benefits, just as the railroad does to Chicago.
He ushered her to his office window, and they looked out upon the sturdy white buildings of Fort Randall. On the central greensward dark-blue soldiers drilled with chess like precision, Old Glory billowing above.
Were fighting a war here, Miss Hanssen the war between wilderness and civilization. Weve fought the Lobo driven him to the point where his depredations are no longer a factor; and now we fight the vermin that walks on two legs and calls itself the Niobra nation. The Buffalo Trains are part of that fight: take away the buffalo, and you take away the basis of the Savages existence, forcing him to conform. Our enemy is as wild and ruthless as the wind, and to defeat him we need to be as unforgiving as he. Please do not judge us until you have the full story.
Judge them? How could she judge anything now, in her addled state? Her mind was still rocking with the motion of the Buffalo Train, indeed still with the motion of that other train, the one with the spanking new Ten-Wheeler up front and the massive cars lettered for Union Pacific; the one that had brought her out from Chicago. Boarding that train was her last clear memory the rest was a blur.
Perhaps youd care to rest awhile, the Brigadier suggested. Weve plenty of time to attend business.
No, she replied, and for the first time, her voice was firm and clear. Ive come a long way, and I want to get this over with.
Very well. You understand there are certain formalities before I take you to her. Itll only be a few minutes.
He motioned her to sit at his imposing oak desk, while he shuffled official-looking papers.
You may be aware that this is not the first incident of its type, but they are quite rare and there isnt any fixed protocol. So I hope youll bear with me, and not find these questions too impertinent. Your full name?
Kirstina Parker Hanssen.
Hanssen is your original family name, and Parker that of the couple who adopted you?
That is correct.
His big hand scratched out words with surprising neatness and economy. It was mid-morning, and heavy sunlight bathed the room. She could see tiny, sparkling beads of sweat in his beard.
And your age?
Her age: she had told the woman her age. The woman whod boarded the train, where? Omaha yes, that was it. She called herself a business woman; shed had business in Omaha. The woman whose age was difficult to determine, but was definitely older than herself. The woman with night-dark, faintly greying hair, sloe eyes, high cheekbones and a thin, sensuous mouth. She had browned, weather-beaten skin and a sly, mocking edge to her voice that was both engaging and mildly offensive. Shed engaged Kirstina in conversation by asking why she was staring out the window at miles of grassy nothing. And when Kirstina told her she was trying to remember something that had happened long ago, the woman had countered that she didnt look old enough to have a past, and it was both flattery and mockery. Thus it was the woman questioned Kirstina, until at last she told her story, the one she was about to tell the Brigadier. The woman on the train: she had met her but yesterday, yet could not, would not recall her name.
What can you tell me about your family?
Very little. My memories of our mother and father are just vague impressions, coloured by time. You must appreciate that I was only five when - well, when it happened. What I can tell you is that they were of northern European stock, and we lived somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard. I suppose I was about three years old when we first struck out for the heartlands. I think that when my sister was born, our poverty became too much for my father. He determined to make a fresh start out west.
If its not too distressing for you, can you tell me about the event itself?
Distressing? No. After all, shed told the woman on the train; told her mechanically, as if reading a script. For it was little more than a campfire yarn, a tale of the Old West only now was it beginning to take on a disturbing reality. They had joined a waggon train, one more creaking Conestoga in a long, crawling line etching across what she now knew to be Nebraska. Day upon day of boredom, discomfort, hunger and urinating in the grass. Marelda was constantly crying, or perhaps that was merely part of the embroidery twenty years had added to scant memory. At some point, on a patch of nothing that one day would be the railroad town of Concordance, her father had a major falling out with the other waggoneers, and struck sharply off the established trail. It was a foolish and fatal move.
Unseen, unsuspected, the Savages had watched from the prairie. They would never have attacked the mass of waggons, but this lone vehicle was too tempting a target. A small band of so-called Braves struck without warning or mercy in a frantic chase her father loosed off a couple of desperate volleys before losing control of the waggon, which overturned in a holocaust of rending wood and shrieking, crippled mules. The raiders slaughtered her father and mother like cattle, mutilated them, and then fled. Her fathers futile shots had alerted outriders from the train, who arrived in time to rescue the five-year-old Kirstina from the slewed, splintered wreck. Marelda, who had been beside her, was never found.
I wound up in an orphanage in Chicago, and thats where the Parkers found me. They adopted and raised me as their own, even though they let me retain my family name.
A good thing, too, Wentworth mused. It made you much easier to trace. Very well: I think that just about covers everything. As I mentioned in my letter, we made the discovery during a punitive raid following some Niobra incursions into local homesteads. We attacked and razed a settlement in the Platte Valley, and one of our officers was luckily sharp enough to spot a squaw that didnt quite ring true. It didnt take much digging in the files to turn up the Hanssen incident, and the more I thought on it the more convinced I became that wed found Marelda. But since shes been here shes refused to say a word in Niobra, never mind English, so youre my only hope. Kirstina, do you think you could still recognise your sister after all this time?
She tried to ponder the question, but heat and fatigue were taking hold again. The shots of the dawn still rattled in her skull, the sight of blood-spattered hide still in her minds eye. Marelda drifted through it all, a pale ghost in white smock, her features formed mainly by nightmares and nostalgic fantasy. How could she possibly recognise a phantom from twenty years ago? But even as she shrugged helplessly, another more recent memory forced itself unbidden onto centre stage.
The big train glided to a stop at Concordance, gleaming in the late afternoon sun. The men spilled out onto the depot platform like beans from a torn sack. They had come to ride the Buffalo Train: thats what the woman had told her. She had told her other things , too: that her best route to Fort Randall was via a Buffalo Train; that Buffalo Trains were good for her business, as indeed was Fort Randall. She never at any point articulated what her business was that came later. Just as she was gathering up her meagre luggage, the woman had inquired where Kirstina intended to stay. The news that she had sent ahead to reserve a hotel room seemed to cause the woman great amusement. She merely fished in her pocketbook, presenting a gilt-edged business card.
In case things dont work out, shed said, you can always find my place.
And Kirstina had thanked her, briefly glancing at the card, which carried an address and above it in flowing, ornate script
Jett & Bellas. For gentlemen.
Excuse me? said the Brigadier, and it seemed as though hed started slightly.
I almost forgot. Someone at Concordance asked to be remembered to you. Her name is Jett.
Thered been no reservation, as Jett must have known when shed proffered her card. The hotel was little more than a rabid saloon with rooms above, stinking of sweat and liquor-soaked sawdust. And when the landlord leeringly offered her a place in his own room, eliciting raucous laughter from the boozers swarming the bar, she had turned on her heel and fled with molten cheeks out into the early evening. Tired, stressed, alone in a strange town - suddenly all her hopes were compressed onto that tiny card.
In the pink glow of sunset she found it, an imposing clapboard structure discreetly off the main thoroughfare. At her knock a window shot up, and a face appeared. For a moment she mistook it for Jetts, but it was younger, less weathered. This, Kirstina surmised, must be Bella: she had rich chestnut hair, and a strikingly sculpted jaw line that ended in a delicately dimpled chin. Above a regal nose piercing blue eyes regarded her with bewilderment.
Dunno what you want, but we aint open for two hours.
Im sorry, I... Im looking for Jett, she pleaded, pitifully.
The face disappeared, and moments later the door was opened, to her relief by Jett. She looked very different from the train, in a sumptuous, low-cut dress and with her face heavily powdered and rouged. But still there was that kindly yet mocking smile.
Had a feelin Id be seein you again, she said, pleasantly enough. Cmon in.
But Kirstina remained rooted on the step, staring mutely. For now she saw beyond Jett, through into an elegant parlour where a motley collection of women, mostly young, were gathered. All wore dresses that revealed as much as they covered, and terminal quantities of rouge. Jett gave a laugh.
That ringin yall can hear is the sound of a penny droppin. Thats right, Sugar Jett & Bellas is a bordello, a brothel, a house of ill re-pute. And you are most welcome.
He escorted her across the greensward to a tiny interrogation room annexed to the gaol. The Brigadier had gone very quiet and formal, deeply embarrassed by her outburst. It was hard to tell what had disconcerted him more: her knowledge of his connection to Jett, or the fact that she herself had encountered the woman. To his credit, he didnt deny knowing the Madame, but neither did he elaborate on what their link might be. She in turn gave no hint that her acquaintance with Jett ran any deeper than a chance meeting on the Omaha train. It was an elegant little gavotte that kept her from dwelling on the immensity of what was about to happen.
At the door he urged her to spend as much time as she wished, and added that his personal sleeping quarters had been cleared and placed at her disposal for the duration. He further added, a trifle defensively, that he would be sleeping in the barracks. She thanked him, taking a deep breath as he opened the door and ushered her inside.
She was seated at a tiny table, disinterestedly regarding a meagre meal of thin stew and tack. The military had done their best with her corn-yellow hair, which hung straight down before splashing like water over her shoulders. They had dressed her incongruously in a hand-me-down uniform, two sizes large. She didnt look up until Kirstina seated herself opposite, and when she did her cool gaze hit like a hammer to the stomach. Eyes of blue-green, like a warm sea, floated above subtle yet prominent cheekbones, and beneath a high brow almost identical to her own. Nose and mouth were delicate, precise; the chin firm and squared. Just for a moment, in that face, she fancied she saw her father. She tried to speak, but something was crawling in her throat, something with spines. Her eyes welled in a helpless torrent, but she clenched her jaw, forcing out the single word Marelda. Then the dam broke, and she cried and cried until it felt like her head was imploding from the pressure.
Marelda watched her with clinical detachment, remaining mute. Presently Kirstina settled, dabbing her eyes and blowing her nose and trying to crack a smile.
Marelda, its me. Its Kirstina, your sister. Dont you remember?
The eyes remained blank, a turquoise enigma. Disconcerted by the lack of response, she began to gabble, trying to bounce one-way snatches of conversation against the wall of Mareldas indifference. She started to talk about Chicago, but somehow that life seemed as remote as the incident that had separated them. Hazed by dislocation, her memories lost definition beyond the traumas of this morning and the previous day in Concordance. All at once she found herself babbling about the whorehouse; unable to stem the onrush of recollection.
What made it worse was that they were kind to her. Even as they preened and puckered in preparation for the nights exertions they still found time to bring her sustenance. Jett had arranged for her to sleep in a tiny box room just wide enough to accommodate two camp beds. Her sister Bella would also be sleeping in the room: it transpired she had a womanly indisposition that would prevent her from entertaining that evening. This room, Jett was keen to point out, was the only one in the building not equipped with peepholes. Jett was inordinately proud of her peepholes, which were discreetly and multifariously positioned, not just in the doors but in the walls and even between floors. She claimed to have borrowed the idea from the fleshpots of Paris, and that her girls liked the idea of performing to an audience. She advised Marelda to take to her bed before proceedings opened in earnest, but added slyly that if she couldnt sleep, there was always a nearby peephole to provide amusement.
Of course she couldnt sleep. From the moment darkness finally fell the building was alive with bawdy activity. Doors slammed; feet thumped on stairs; there was giggling, shouting and the occasional incongruous song. And all the while, there was the business. At times the very walls seemed to resonate with it: a panting, sighing, screaming cacophony of illicit and depraved activity. She buried herself in the blanket and tried to shut it out. Hours crawled by in sweating, stultifying darkness, and she wondered how in Heaven shed come to this.
And then, slowly but inevitably, like an ebbing tide, the place quieted. Bella, who had been dealing with the accounts, came up. While Kirstina feigned deep sleep she undressed with brisk efficiency and slipped into the other bed. Within minutes she was snoring softly. The last few sounds filtered through the floorboards: snatches of conversation and laughter; doors being closed and locked, like the backwash of a polite social function. Then silence.
Kirstina stopped abruptly. For one thing, she had no idea what had made her recite this in such detail. For another, her memories were leading her to a story she could not tell aloud. Not to her sister, even if that sister seemed utterly disinterested, returned to studying the cold remnants of her food. Even if she was mute, or no longer understood English, it was Marelda: of that she was certain. Fighting back a fresh wave of tears she said,
I have to go now. Ill come and see you again tomorrow.
Lightly she placed her hand upon Mareldas. Marelda studied the conjunction for a moment, as though it were a puzzle. She looked into Kirstinas eyes, and for a moment Kirstina thought there was a flicker of recognition. Then shutters fell, and the hand was snatched away. With a sudden drop of the head, Marelda dismissed her from her presence.
She sat upon the Brigadiers comfortable iron bed. Through a partly-opened window she could see the onrushing twilight, feel a welcome evening breeze, and hear the mournful tones of the bugler sounding Barracks. Without conscious bidding, her hands began to unfasten the bindings of her nightdress, exposing her breasts and belly to the cool air. Laying back, she drew up her knees and idly slipped her right hand between her long, lean thighs. She would sleep soon, when she had done this once-unimaginable thing. With two joined fingers she traced the warm, wet outline of her labia, closing her eyes and shivering softly. Pressing against the yielding inner flesh she teased out nuances of sensation, fighting to keep her breathing even. And as she probed and quivered in a moist melange of shame and delight, her mind slipped helplessly back to Concordance, and the loss of all her innocence.
Shed wanted something to drink; that was all. While Bella slept soundly she crept from the room, descending the stairs in pale lamplight. At the bottom she became a touch disoriented, but then to her surprise she heard soft voices, plus the sound of water. She found herself in the candlelit parlour, where a generous tin bath had been placed in the middle of the floor. It was being filled by a striking young woman with deep indigo eyes and shoulder-length, silken sandy hair styled almost boyishly. To the side, sipping liquor, sat two more of Jetts harem: one a noble-visaged blonde with pale blue eyes and a surprisingly stately mien; the other a broad-faced, dark eyed brunette with a tired but kindly expression. Shorn of their makeup, both of them appeared somewhat matronly. All three were night shirted as she, and turned curious eyes at her entrance. Mumbling an apology, she decanted some soda water, and was about to leave when Jett entered the room, utterly naked. Flushing scarlet, Kirstina had a vivid impression of a bronzed, surprisingly muscled body; high breasts and a vivid shock of black hair at the crotch, just before she forced herself to look away.
Oh, my achin back, said Jett. Goddam out-of-towners, they always... she stopped short. Well, look whos here our Guest of Honour. Whats the matter, Sugar? Couldnt sleep cause of too much rockin & rollin? Well, were done now, so you just sit yourself down here with us for a spell bout time we had some respectable company.
Without knowing quite why, Kirstina did as bidden. She allowed herself to watch as Jett stepped into the gently steaming bath, her dark eyes as ever glittering with amusement.
Now I dont know why youre sat over there, when you could squeeze in between our Hattie & Trina here. Theyre real friendly girls, an could show you our best hospitality.
Kirstina glanced to her left. The women were looking at her with wide smiles, but there was something else in their expressions she couldnt quite read a kind of hunger. Feeling deeply uncomfortable, her cheeks reddened evermore.
The girl stepped to the bath, dipped a cloth, and began tenderly to wash Jetts back and shoulders. Jett purred her appreciation.
Mm. Now this heres Zelda, our youngest and freshest. She was sposed tbe a mail order bride in KC, but I got her first. We keep her back for our most special clients so she dont spoil like those two warhorses there. Yknow, Im wonderin if your pen-friend, dear ol Brigadier Wentworth, might fancy takin Zelda for a spin? But then again, the poor fool only has eyes for yours truly. Be sure to give him my fondest regards when yall get to Fort Randall.
She leaned back in the tub, turbid water forming transient lakes and rivulets in the landscape of her bosom and collarbone. Nonchalantly, the girl began dabbing Jetts breasts.
Ooh, thats a naughty girl. Tell ya what, Zee why dont you show Mizz Hanssen here your qualifications?
With no hesitation the girl slipped the bow of her chemise and let it fall, to sighs of appreciation from the others. Her breasts were full and pendulous, with vast areolae the colour of winter sunsets. Again Kirstinas eyes were helplessly drawn to the lush thicket of black curls below her stomach. Her mouth had gone bone dry, and she was vividly aware of the pulse in her temples. Jett rose from her bath, reaching around to cup the unprotesting Zeldas breasts in her dripping hands.
Hows this for a place to rest your head, hm? An thats just for starters.
She slipped one hand down, over the girls belly and into the thicket of hair. Zelda gave a tiny squeak of surprise, but still did not resist. Mortified, Kirstina tore her gaze away, but all it found was the two other women. They were now locked in a passionate embrace, kissing fervently while pulling at their nightdresses to expose breasts and thighs.
Looks like the moods catchin, said Jett. Her hand was working freely between Zeldas legs as the girl leaned into her embrace, eyes closed and mouth open in ecstasy. Jett fired a dark glance directly at Kirstina.
Its a free house after hours, Miss Hanssen youre welcome tjoin in.
Kirstina sprang to her feet, and bolted from the room. As she sprinted up the stairs she could hear a chorus of raucous laughter. In the blackness of the box room she sat on her tiny bed, shaking uncontrollably; knowing now that sleep could never come, not after this. She put her head in her hands and began to sob uncontrollably.
All at once Bella shimmered out of the dark, slipping long thin arms and legs around her like a cloak. Just for a moment, Kirstina was grateful for the human warmth.
Shh, cooed Bella, its alright. Let me guess: Jetts bin puttin on one of her little shows, huh?
Kirstina nodded dumbly. She was perturbed by the closeness of Bellas embrace, and the whispered breath in her ear made her feel slightly unreal.
My sisters a shameless slut, Bella continued. She loves to go with women, an she cant keep her hands off that little minx Zelda. Would you believe, theres bin times Ive hadta bar my door t stop her tryin t climb in my bed?
Kirstina froze. Bellas hands were active: the one skilfully unfastening the top of her nightdress; the other gradually drawing up its hem.
Please... she whimpered, dont...
Hush, came the response, itll help you sleep.
With great tenderness she brushed back Kirstinas hair, lightly kissing the soft skin at the nape of her neck. As Kirstina fought to control her breathing, Bella gently but firmly took her wrist, guiding it down between her thighs. As her fingers brushed the yielding curls of her own pudenda Kirstina shivered in fear and anticipation. Bella teased out two of her fingers and manoeuvred them lower, guiding with innate precision. Kirstina gasped as she touched her own vulva for the first time, partly at the white-hot surge of sensation, partly in surprise at the molten wetness she found.
Thats it, sighed Bella, slowly running her tongue around the edge of Kirstinas ear. Just keep pushin in an out, like so.
She slowly oscillated Kirstinas wrist, and Kirstina moaned helplessly as her body opened. The pace gradually quickened, her fingers working seemingly independent of her will; her breath coming in ragged gasps as something that felt like a huge bubble swelled and glistened inside her. Bella took her earlobe between her teeth and murmured incomprehensible imprecations. As the pressure built she realised Bella was no longer guiding her: instead her hands now cradled Kirstinas exposed breasts, which felt heavy and rigid and agonisingly inflated as the rest of her. The image of Jett caressing Zelda flashed briefly in her minds eye, and now she understood why Zelda did not resist.
When at last the bubble burst, it felt like a blow to the pit of her stomach; an explosive tidal surge that made her exhale violently as though winded. Tremors rippled through her body, leaving her lifeless as a rag doll. She hung limp and shuddering as Bella lowered her onto the bed, softly kissing her cheek. Within seconds, or so it seemed, she had fallen into a black, leaden sleep.
Now she arched her back as the crisis came, biting on the knuckles of her free hand to prevent herself crying out. This time it was not so violent, her body vibrating like a plucked harp string. She realised in a lucid moment that she could easily prolong the anticipation by adjusting the angle and intensity of touch. For a moment she was blissfully relaxed, and then the shame flooded in, as it had before, once shed reawakened in pale pre-dawn light. It was a shame that had forced her out of bed, desperately gathering up her clothes and luggage and fleeing the sleeping house of ill repute; running like a fugitive down to the depot, there to catch the Buffalo Train.