Main Characters: Ezra, Nathan, Nathan's sister Zilpah
Originally published in I Ain't No Doctor #2, Neon RainBow Press 2005
Standard Fanfic Disclaimer That Wouldn't Hold Up in Court 10 Seconds: Based on characters & situations created by Mirisch, Densham, Watson, Lewis, et al.; characters merely borrowed for a not-for-profit writing exercise & will be returned to their owners (mostly) undamaged.
NOTE: Contains racial and sexual themes intended for mature readers.
It was a hot July night. The hour was late. The seven men who guarded the town of Four Corners - Chris Larabee and his six riders - had drunk more than they should. As the whiskey flowed down their throats and the clock ticked inexorably on toward midnight, their talk had grown increasingly ribald.
"Gentlemen," Ezra Standish announced, the liquor making his southern accent even more pronounced than usual, "I believe our young sheriff has partaken of sufficient libation this evening."
JD Dunne lay face down on the table.
"Boy's gotta learn to hold his liquor," Larabee said. The blond gunslinger had drunk more than he usually did, but he hadn't allowed himself to reach the point of total intoxication. He had too many enemies to ever allow himself to become that vulnerable.
"I'll take him home," Josiah Sanchez offered. "Another drink or two and I'll be in the same condition myself." Pushing his chair back, the ex-preacher rose. In truth, he could've stayed longer, maybe killed another bottle, but he'd spent too much time over the past ten-fifteen years crawling into a bottle and hiding there. Now that he had something to live for again, he was trying to break the habit. Josiah scooped JD into his strong arms as easily as a father carrying a sleeping child off to bed. Heading for the batwing doors, he called "G'night" over his shoulder.
A ragged chorus of "good nights" followed him.
"Hell, ain't like either of 'em could add much to our discussion," Buck Wilmington pointed out. "Josiah used to be a priest, and I think JD's still a virgin."
"You wouldn't know a virgin if you tripped over one," Larabee countered. "Ain't never been one yourself."
"Can I help it if women can't resist me? It's my -"
" - animal magnetism," all five said in unison.
Buck decided to change the subject. "Nathan, tell us about that pretty Seminole gal of yours. Is it true Indian gals are taught secret tribal love rituals?"
"You show some respect when you talk about Rain. She just might be the future Missus Jackson." Nathan took another slug of whisky. "You wanna know about Indian love secrets, ask Vin about all them Kiowa girls."
"Oh, no," Vin Tanner, a long-haired bounty hunter, held up his hands in a warding off gesture. "A gennelm'n don't kiss and tell."
"You ain't no gentleman. C'mon, tell," Larabee urged.
"Ez, yer too drunk to be a gennelm'n at the moment. Why don't you tell?" Vin coaxed. "Who was the wildest girl you ever tumbled in the hay?"
"Not in the hay, Mr. Tanner. Satin sheets. Perfumed satin sheets. There was a sporting house in Atlanta, during the war," Ezra reminisced. "Zilpah was extraordinary. The sweetest little filly -"
"You show some respect when you talk about women named Zilpah," Nathan remonstrated. "I gotta sister named Zilpah."
"I doubt she was your sister, Mr. Jackson. She was much too pretty to be kin to you," the dark-haired gambler retorted.
"I remember during the war, after I'd been shot up. This one nurse showed me things I didn't know were possible." Buck then began to explain, in rude, crude, and lewd detail, just what the nurse had taught him.
Nathan Jackson stood in front of the hotel. The stagecoach was due soon. He took the letter out of his pocket and read it again.
Dear Mr. Jackson, September 1, 1877
I read about you in Jock Steele's The Magnificent Seven. Are you the Nathan who was the son of Obadiah and Mary, on Clarence Jackson's plantation? My name is Zilpah, and I had a brother named Nathan who ran north during the early days of the war. Is there any chance that you are my brother?
My family and I are moving to San Francisco, where an old friend has offered me a job. We will come to Arizona on our way to California, and stop at Four Corners, in the hopes that you are my brother, whom I have not seen in so many years. If you are not, then I apologize for bothering you.
As he had a thousand times before, Nathan blessed the army nurse who'd taught him how to read, back when he was "Confederate contraband" working as a stretcher bearer in a Union field hospital. He owed her a debt he could never repay.
A few months ago, Buck had told a tall tale about an army nurse, and the bedroom shenigans she'd taught him. While Nathan wasn't a real doctor, he was the only healer for a hundred miles or more. He knew a fair bit about the human body - though not as much as he wanted to - and he doubted that that half of what Buck had told them that night was anatomically possible. Of the two of them, Nathan was sure he'd gotten more from his nurse than Buck had from his.
The sound of hoofbeats made Nathan look up. He'd been meeting the stage every day for the past two weeks, praying that Zilpah would be on it. Maybe today.
Ezra stepped out of the saloon, hoping the stage brought new pigeons to pluck.
The stagecoach drew to a stop. Nathan hurried to open the door and help the passengers out. Four Negro children, ranging in age from twelve to four, scampered off, glad to be able to stretch their legs after being confined to the coach for so long. They were followed by an attractive Negress, stylishly clad in a blue linen dress and a feathered hat.
"Zilpah?" Nathan handed her down.
"Nathan! It is you!" She hugged him. "Driver, hand down my boxes. Children, this is your Uncle Nathan."
Three girls and a boy clambered about him, eager to embrace their new uncle. The mother introduced them. "That's Essie, she's my oldest girl, and this one is Sally. The boy-child is Isaiah, and the little one is Deborah."
The three oldest children had lighter complexions than their mother or uncle: skin like coffee with plenty of cream bespoke their biracial heritage. The youngest girl had skin like chocolate. All four were neatly dressed and shod, and not one of them wore hand-me-downs.
"I hope the young'uns don't mind sleeping on the floor. My place ain't that big," Nathan said apologetically.
"That hotel take colored guests?" Zilpah asked.
"Then we'll be fine. I can't stay but a week or two - Essie and me have jobs waiting for us in San Francisco."
Ezra witnessed the poignant family reunion. His green eyes went wide in recognition at the sight of Nathan's sister. He immediately decided that the most prudent course of action would be to make a hasty retreat.
"After I read The Magnificent Seven, I was hoping that it was you, and I knew that it had to be," Zilpah glanced at the sidewalk, and saw Ezra scurrying away, "Mistuh Ezra!"
"Mistuh Ezra?" Nathan repeated. How could his sister know Ezra? Unless . . . his heart sank as he remembered the rest of the conversation the night Buck had told them about that nurse. Ezra had mentioned - but that would mean - no, impossible. He watched as his sister abandoned her luggage and her children to hurry across the street to Ezra. He followed her.
Ezra forced a smile. "Mr. Jackson, this must be your charming sister. How very nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet me? Mistuh Ezra, don't you dare tell me you've forgotten me," Zilpah protested.
Ezra was very tempted to do just that. The way Nathan was eyeing him . . . if looks could kill, Nathan would be up before Judge Travis on a murder charge. (And probably acquitted, given the judge's feelings toward the gambler.) His innate sense of chivalry warred with the probability of upsetting Nathan. She was only a colored whore; he owed her nothing. She was his colleague's sister; acknowledging their former intimacies could only upset Nathan. She was . . . Zilpah. "Impossible," he admitted, his voice as gentle as June.
"You know my sister?" Nathan asked, his voice grating like fingernails on a chalkboard.
"Know him? Mistuh Ezra was always one of my favorites."
Ezra started to mutter some gallantry about his good fortune, took one look at Nathan's face, and shut his mouth. He merely nodded.
"You mean he dared to touch you?" Nathan demanded.
"Oh, Nate, he did more than touch. And did it well, too." Zilpah laid a hand gently on the gambler's arm. "Essie, honey, come here. I got someone I want you to meet."
The girl ran up obediently. She was a pretty child, clad in a green gingham dress. Her black hair was braided neatly, and the braids tied with green satin ribbons.
"This is my Esther. Essie, this is your father."
"Father?" said the gambler and the healer in unison.
Essie smiled. "I'm right pleased to meet you, Daddy Standish."
Nathan's hand flew to his knife.
"Really, Mr. Jackson, there is no need for violence." Ezra thought quickly. He reached into his pocket for some change, and handed it to Essie. "You see that store over there?" He pointed. "Go buy yourself and the others some candy."
"Thank you, Daddy Standish." She ran off to her sisters and brother.
"I'm not your daddy," Ezra muttered. Louder, he asked, "I'm not her father, am I?"
Zilpah smiled up at him. "She do favor you a mite, don't she?"
Nathan had not yet removed his hand from his knife.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, don't be ridiculous," Ezra told him. "I suggest we continue this discussion in a less public forum. Perhaps we should get your sister and her family settled at the hotel?"
"Ain't no way you're going anywhere near my sister's bedroom," Nathan growled.
"Nate, that's shutting the barn door long after the horse run off," Zilpah chuckled. Nonetheless, she led the way back to the stagecoach so the men could her fetch her trunks and carry them to the hotel.
Once she was settled in her room, Ezra suggested, "Perhaps I should leave you two alone for a family reunion."
"You ain't getting out of this that easy, you coward," Nathan snarled.
"Nathan, mind your manners. I came here to see both of you."
"You wanted to see this good-for-nothing cardsharp? After he dishonored you?"
"Dishonored? Nathan, he treated me better than any of my other men. That's why I picked him for Essie's father, and named her after him," Zilpah explained. "I wanted to call her 'Ezzie,' but that ain't a real name, so I made do with Essie for everyday and Esther for her baptizing."
"I'm not her father?"
"You might be. Timing's right. Leastwise, I hope she's yours. I always liked you better than the others. With them it was 'wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am', except they seldom said thank you and never called me ma'am. You, you always made sure I had fun, too."
"Zilpah, do you hear what you're saying? Mama and Daddy would be turning over in their graves if they knew you were a - a - " Nathan couldn't bring himself to say the word.
"A harlot, Nathan? The word's in the dictionary. Hell, it's in the Bible."
Nathan just stared at his sister.
"Hell, wasn't like I had a choice. After Massa Jackson sold us south, Massa Winthrop sold me again to Missus Russell."
Nathan's jaw dropped. Mrs. Russell was the most notorious madam in Atlanta; he'd heard of her even when he was a field hand.
"Not all the men were as nice as Mistuh Ezra. But there wasn't nothing I could do about it, so I learned to make the best of it. Now," she touched a feathered hat that cost more than a sharecropper earned in three months, "I make nearly as much as the white girls. More than some of 'em. I'm no streetwalker. I only work in the most exclusive houses."
"You said you and Essie had jobs waiting in San Francisco," Nathan remembered. "My God, you ain't taking her to work in a brothel?"
Zilpah nodded. "One of the girls from Missus Russell's place opened up her own house in California. She says we auction off Essie's first time on her birthday, she'll make more money than I did the first year I was free."
"No daughter of mine is going to have her virginity auctioned off," Ezra protested.
"She ain't more than a baby," Nathan pointed out.
"Gonna be thirteen next month."
Nathan forced himself to calm down. He turned to Ezra. "You claimin' the gal?"
The gambler hesitated. He did not want to acknowledge an illegitimate mulatto child. He could not bring himself to be rude enough to say a whore's child belongs to no one, especially not when he was a bastard himself. After a moment, he admitted, "It's possible she's mine. Whether or not she is, surely it is not in the girl's best interests to become a prostitute at her age."
Zilpah retorted, "It'll better than my initiation into the profession - six men having their way with me and beatings until I stopped complaining."
Nathan asked, "And that's what you want for Esther?"
Zilpah replied, "Of course not, that's why we're going to San Francisco, to a fancy house. Man pays that much for a girl's first time, he'll treat her right, make sure he gets his money's worth. She'll never walk the street, spreading her legs in a back alley for some white trash for pocket change, never pick cotton or scrub someone else's floor." Zilpah smiled. "I ain't scrubbed a floor in over ten years. I pay someone else to do that."
She walked over to her brother and kissed his cheek. "I'm only gonna be here a week or two. I don't want to spend all that time arguing with you."
"You could stay," Nathan told her. "You don't need to be a. . . a whore. You could find honest work, or get married. There are a few colored men in town, but no single colored women. Ezra will keep his mouth shut about your past; I'll make sure of that."
"Really, Mr. Jackson, I thought you knew me better than that. I am not in the habit of betraying a lady's confidences."
"Why would I wanna marry some colored ranch hand or shopkeeper? Cooking and cleaning, wearing homespun instead of satins and silks, getting old and worn out before my time, tying myself down to just one man, instead of having fun with as many as I want. Why would any sane woman choose that just so she can call herself respectable? Sorry, Nathan, but I decline the 'honor'." She pulled off her gloves and displayed her hands: brown as chocolate, soft as a rose petal. "You know what these hands would look like if I were some dirt farmer's wife?"
Ezra bit his lip to keep from smiling. His former paramour had a great deal in common with his mother.
"I'm glad to visit, Nathan, but I couldn't stay in Four Corners. Ezra's probably the only one in town who could afford me. And as much as I like him, I'd get bored with only one man."
Nathan looked like he was ready to swear, if only he could think of words bad enough.
Just then the door opened, and four children dashed in.
"Where's the chamber pot, Mama? I gotta use it," Isaiah said.
Ezra judged the moment right to make a strategic withdrawal. He thought about raising her hand to his lips to say farewell, but decided it would be wiser by far not to give Nathan any further ammunition. "Later," he mouthed to Zilpah, and slipped out the door without saying goodbye.
When Ezra saw Nathan the next morning, he was more than a little tempted to hasten his steps in the opposite direction. However, that would merely postpone the inevitable. "Good morning, Mr. Jackson. I trust the rest of your family reunion proceeded more calmly?"
"I will kill you if you touch my sister."
"You have already made your feelings on the matter quite clear. Repetition is not only unnecessary, but redundant. Besides, giving the inherent dangers in assisting Mr. Larabee, I would have to be a complete idiot to annoy the only healer in the county."
"It's all practicality for you, ain't it? Never what's right or wrong. When she was a whore, you had your way with her. Now that you know she's my sister, you'll let her be, but not because you respect her. Just because you wanna make sure the next time there's a bullet in your good-for-nothing carcass that I'm willing to take it out instead of letting it fester." Nathan shook his head. Dealing with Ezra always lowered his faith in human nature.
"Have you ever been to a cathouse?"
Reluctantly, Nathan admitted he had.
"Did you ever interrogate the lady whose company you'd hired as to her genealogy? Or did you have other things on your mind at the time?"
Nathan relaxed just a trifle, although he was unwilling to admit aloud that Ezra had a point.
"At the moment, our main concern is your niece, not your sister. I think we are agreed that your sister's plans for Esther are ill-advised?"
"Zilpah, she's not the girl I knew. She's convinced being a - that what's she's doing is better than being a respectable wife and mother. I don't know how to change her mind."
"Nor do I," Ezra confessed.
"If Essie's yours, then you got some say in what happens to her."
"There's no way to know whether or not she's mine. I was not the only man to find your sister attractive." When Nathan glared at him, Ezra hastily assured him, "My word on it, in deference to your wishes, my professional acquaintance with Zilpah is over. I will not see your sister unchaperoned." He glanced across the street. "Perhaps you would be wise to extract a similar pledge from Mr. Wilmington."
Nathan turned his head to see what Ezra was looking at. Zilpah and Buck stood in front of Mrs. Potter's shop. Buck was flirting with her, and she didn't appear to be objecting in the least.
Nathan Jackson and Zilpah LaBelle kept an uneasy truce for the next few days. He took her to their father's grave, so she could pay her respects. He hired a buckboard and drove her and the children out to the Seminole village, so the kids could see real Indians . . . and so Zilpah and Rain could meet. He introduced her to every colored family in the county, hoping some handsome bachelor could change her mind about being a white man's whore instead of a black man's wife.
Ezra treated Zilpah and her offspring to a picnic luncheon outside town, but true to his word, invited Mary and Billy Travis along for chaperonage. He discreetly worded the invitation in such a way that Mary thought he was inviting her on a picnic, and including Zilpah as chaperone, and her children as playmates for Billy.
"You have a lovely family, Zilpah," Mary complimented her.
"Thank you. You just have the one boy?"
Mary nodded. "Steven and I had hoped to have more, but he died before we could give Billy any brothers and sisters. Billy's nearly seven. How old are yours?"
"Essie's gonna be thirteen in a month. Sally's eight, nearly nine. Isaiah is five, and Deborah's four." She sighed. "Noah would be fourteen by now, but he was sold away and I wasn't able to find him after the war. Ruth would've been seven, if she'd lived. Fever took her, five years back."
Ezra said nothing as he poured mugs of lemonade. He had never stopped to think what life was like for a colored prostitute, after the men had gone home. The first time he'd claimed her company for an hour, he'd chosen her at random, because the darky wenches were cheaper than the white women at Mrs. Russell's bordello. He'd gone back to her, as often as he could afford, because she made it clear she enjoyed her work and she did her best to make sure her partners enjoyed themselves, too.
He handed Mary a mug. She thanked him as she took it. He couldn't help noticing that the respectable widow had hands that were worn by washing dishes and laundry, callused from running a printing press. Whereas, Zilpah, a fallen woman, had hands as soft and dainty as any European aristocrat's pampered daughter. Perhaps she was right in thinking the path she had taken was better than working in a shop or as a maid.
Mary called to the children: "Lunch is ready!"
They weren't quite ready to give up playing tag. They continued running around, ignoring the invitation to eat.
"Esther! Salome! Isaiah! Deborah! Y'all get over here!" Zilpah yelled.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra knocked on the hotel room door. "Zilpah?"
Esther opened the door. "Hey, Mistuh Ezra."
"Hello, Essie. May I speak to your mother?" He had finally managed to get Zilpah to drop the 'mister' when she spoke to him, and Esther, to his immense relief, had adopted her mother's former way of addressing him rather than calling him 'Daddy Standish.'
"Yes, suh." She opened the door so he could step inside.
"Ezra! I was hoping you'd come visit," Zilpah greeted him.
He kissed her cheek. "You are as lovely as ever. May I impose on you to come to the clinic? I have something I'd like to discuss with you."
She sat down on the bed and patted the space next to her. "Why not discuss it here and now?"
"Because I promised your brother that I wouldn't see you unchaperoned," he reminded her. He remained standing. "Besides, I think he'd like to hear this."
"You aren't afraid of Nathan, are you?" she asked teasingly.
"It's important that he trusts me to keep my word. You read that piece of tripe Jock Steele wrote. The only thing he managed to get right is that the seven of us depend on each other. Given the disparity of our backgrounds, it's taken some time for Nathan and I to develop an amiable working relationship. I don't want to risk that relationship; I have to continue working with him after you've gone on to California."
"Nate's right. With you it's all about what's practical. Is practical more important to you than I am?"
He took her hand and raised it to his lips. "How could anything be more important than the most beautiful woman, black or white, in Atlanta?"
"Ezra, you always did say the sweetest things."
"Will you come to Nathan's clinic? If I stay here, in your bedroom, much longer, I may forget my promise to your brother."
She smiled at the compliment. "Let me get my hat."
"You'll forgive me, I hope, for not escorting you there."
"Oh, yes, a southern gentleman's word of honor and all that nonsense. Go on. I 'spect I can walk that far all by myself," she told him. After he'd shut the door behind himself, she told her daughter: "Of all the 'gentlemen' who came to Mrs. Russell's in Atlanta, and Madame De La Croix's in New Orleans, your daddy was one of the few who actually acted like a gentleman. If you gotta be kin to a white man, honey, you could do worse than him."
Ezra opened the door to the clinic without knocking. "I hope you're not busy, Mr. Jackson."
"And if I am?" Nathan eyed the man he'd considered a friend (until a week ago) suspiciously.
"I've just invited Zilpah to join us. She should be along in a moment."
Nathan raised an eyebrow, silently inviting the gambler to continue.
"I think I've come up to a solution for Esther's situation."
Just then they heard footsteps coming up the stairs.
"That's probably her." Nathan put the coffeepot on to boil.
A minute later, Zilpah knocked on the door. "Lordy, Nathan, what do you do for patients with broken legs?"
"It was all I could afford when I came to town. Now," he shook his head, "I'm too settled to move."
"All right, just what is it you wanted to talk to both of us about?" Zilpah turned to face her brother. "He wouldn't even escort me to your door, for fear of breaking his word. You two are like a pair of little boys playing cross-my-heart. Never occurred to either one of you to ask what I want, or that a grown woman could make her own decisions."
"You are still determined that Esther follow in your footsteps?" Ezra asked.
"She's a black girl in a white man's world. Best thing she can do is get herself in a good house, a fancy house. Laying on your back and opening your legs for white men is a helluva better than picking their cotton and scrubbing their floors."
"We are agreed that she deserves better from life than picking cotton or a career as a domestic servant. Nathan and I disagree with you that auctioning off her virginity is the best way to begin her career."
Nathan gave Ezra a sharp look. The southerner rarely called him by his first name.
"She's my daughter."
"She might be mine. And if she is, then I am responsible for her welfare. How much do you expect to get at this auction?"
"A hundred dollars, easy," Zilpah replied without hesitation. "Maybe more. Some men at an auction get so caught up in the bidding, they think more about winning than how much they're spending."
"I'll give you two hundred dollars if she stays a virgin."
"I'll pay you two hundred dollars for her to keep her legs shut." Ezra hoped the vulgarity would shock her into paying attention.
"Might get more than a hundred dollars. Maybe two hundred, maybe five hundred. And that's just for her first time. She'd be working regular, earning money. Making lots more than two hundred dollars."
"Zilphah," Ezra said gently, "no decent man, no normal man, would be interested in a child Esther's age. The sort of man willing to buy her virginity, the sort of man who'd deliberately seek out a child-whore, that's not the kind of man you want touching your daughter. It's certainly not the sort of man I want touching my daughter."
Zilpah flinched, hearing the truth in his words.
"And another two hundred dollars every year she stays virgin."
She looked up. "You'd be wanting a note from a doctor once a year?"
He shook his head. "I would never insult you by suggesting your word was insufficient. I know she might make more in a high-class house. She might die young of syphilis, too. Two hundred dollars is nearly a year's pay for a cowboy - more than enough to pay for her room, board, and schooling, as well as her siblings'."
"Nearly a year's pay for us, too," Nathan said, shocked that Ezra was willing to put his money where his mouth was. Judge Travis paid them seven dollars a week to keep the peace in Four Corners.
"Then I shall endeavor to be as successful as possible at cards. If you wanted to contribute to the girl's stipend, I shan't stop you," Ezra suggested. "She's your niece, after all."
Nathan nodded. "I'll give what I can afford." He was paid in barter more often than he was in cash for his doctoring, so he depended on his salary from Judge Travis more than Ezra did.
Zilpah made a pretense of thinking the offer over, even though Ezra's argument over the type of men who would request Essie's services had already convinced her. "All right. Two hundred dollars a year."
Ezra reached into his boot and pulled out the money.
"Hell, if I'd known you had that much, I'd have held out for more."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra looked both ways to make sure no one was looking, then kissed Zilpah on the cheek. "It was good to see you again."
"Would've been better if you hadn't been too afraid of my brother to do more than look," she replied.
He refused to dignify that comment with a response. "Permit me to take this trunk for you." Nathan already had the rest of her luggage and the children loaded on to the stagecoach.
Ezra walked her across the street. Nathan eyed the pair suspiciously.
"Have a safe trip," Ezra said. He slipped a scrap of paper into her hand as he helped her into the coach.
"Bye, Uncle Nathan! Bye, Mistuh Ezra!" the children called.
"Goodbye, Nathan." Zilpah blew a kiss to her brother.
"Goodbye, Zil." Nathan shot Ezra a dirty look, almost daring him to say goodbye. "Send word when you reach California."
The driver cracked his whip above the horses' heads, and the stagecoach pulled out of town.
Zilpah opened the note.I hope to visit San Francisco in a month or two. E. S.