I looked around desperately for a place to hide.
Could I crouch unseen behind that mirror leaning against the wall?
No, it was not big enough.
There was a pair of camp cots but you could easily see the wood plank floor beneath them.
There were three wooden chairs & a stool & a sugar crate with a calico tablecloth over it & that expensive sewing machine in the center of the room.
Then I spotted Zoe’s old travelling trunk near the dimmest corner of the room. On it were two hair-brushes & a comb & some folded towels & a pitcher & basin. It was her Toilette Trunk. Quick as a streak of chalk I nipped behind it, nearly kicking over a half-full chamber pot as I did so!
My Injun ma once told me about the Bush Trick: if you crouch behind a bush and imagine real hard that you are that bush, you become invisible to your pursuers. I tried the Toilette Trunk Trick. I crouched behind that toilette trunk and imagined I was part of it. But I knew that being dressed like a giant daffodil in a pink poke bonnet would not help my ruse.
My eyes were squinched shut but I heard Miz Zoe lift the latch and open the door.
A man’s voice said, ‘You been hiding from me, Miss Zoe?’
‘Of course not,’ stammered Miz Zoe. ‘I always keep the bolt down against intruders.’
‘You got visitors? I told you I would not tolerate no gentlemen callers.’
‘I have not entertained a single gentleman caller since I arrived in this city,’ said Zoe.
‘What about me?’ he said.
‘You are my landlord.'
That was when I realized the man was after her, not me.
I opened my eyes and peeped over the edge of the trunk.
‘Who is that in the corner?’ asked the fat & bald man standing in the doorway.
‘It is just my friend Pinky from Virginia City. Come out, Pinky,’ she added. ‘This is my landlord, Mr. Nasby. He will not hurt you.’
I stood up. Mr. Nasby was a fat man with a cigar stub in his mouth. He was not wearing a hat nor coat nor jacket and I could see sweat stains on the armpits of his shirt. His head was as bald & shiny as a billiard ball.
Mr. Nasby pushed past Zoe & came over to me & looked me up and down. He licked his lips. They were kind of blubbery.
‘Your name Pinky?’ he said. ‘It should be Buttercup: you dressed all in yellow like that.’ He turned back to Zoe. ‘You still have not paid me the last six weeks’ rent. Five dollars.’
‘I can pay you tomorrow,’ said Zoe, her hand covering the base of her throat.
‘You will pay me today, one way or the other.’ He gave her Expression No. 2 – a fake smile.
I stepped forward & said, ‘I got five dollars,’ I pulled out my medicine pouch & fished around in it. My fingers froze as they touched my four-shot Deringer. For a moment I was sorely tempted to pull it out & draw down on him & tell him to vamoose, but that would accomplish nothing so I resisted that wicked impulse. I dug deeper and brought out fifteen paper dollars.
‘I don’t much like them greenbacks.’ Mr. Nasby wrinkled the side of his nose to make Expression No. 3 - disgust. He looked me up & down in a way that made my skin prickle like when my pet tarantula Mouse perambulates on my arm.
Then he said, ‘But I will make an exception for you.’
He took the fifteen ‘greenbacks’ & licked his fingers & carefully counted them.
Then he took them over to the window and held each one up against the light.
Finally he stuffed them in his trowser pocket & wiped his nose with his forefinger.
He did not thank me but turned to look at Zoe with heavy-lidded eyes. He said, ‘Next time, make sure your rent is on time or I will have to take my payment in other ways.’
When he had gone, Zoe kind of slumped down on one of the wooden chairs. She was a bit trembly.
‘Oh, P.K.,’ she said. ‘I feel so bad that you had to pay our rent.’
I tipped the remaining coins in my medicine bag out onto into my hand. There were 3 silver dollars and 25cts. ‘Here,’ I said. ‘Take it. It is not much but it is enough for food and coffee.’
‘Oh, P.K.!’ she cried. ‘Only give me a dollar.’ She handed back the quarter & two of the silver dollars & kissed the coin in her hand. ‘This is enough for a feast. We will celebrate. You wait here. I will be right back.’
But Martha was back first. I thought it was an old woman coming to visit by the sound of her slow stumping up the stairs but then she appeared in the doorway. Dressed in a long black shift with a white pinafore, collar and cuffs, she looked tired & thin. But there was no mistaking her.
She recognized me, too, and her dark face lit up with Expression No. 1 - a genuine smile. ‘P.K.!’ she cried. ‘You have come to see us at last!’
She ran to me & then stopped. I reckon she remembered I do not like to be touched. Instead of hugging me, she looked me up & down. ‘What on earth is you wearing?’
‘I know,’ I said ruefully. ‘I got some buckskin trowsers in there.’ I pointed at the parcel Minnehaha had given me. ‘But I need to get a shirt to wear with them. I don’t suppose you have any spare shirts around here?’
‘We sometimes mend men’s’ shirts,’ said she. ‘But today we only got dresses.’
‘Oh,’ I said. And then, ‘Is that your uniform?’
She nodded. ‘I am a chamber maid at the finest hotel in Frisco.’
I said, ‘The Occidental Hotel?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘The Lick House Hotel.’
When she said that, I thought of a giant leaning down out of the sky and licking a house. (My mind is peculiar like that sometimes.)
Martha had a drawstring calico bag and she put it on the table. ‘I got some fruit and cold bacon. A rich lady left them on her breakfast tray. She hardly touched them at all. Where is Miz Zoe?’
‘She has gone shopping,’ I said. ‘I paid your rent and gave her a dollar for food.’
‘Oh, P.K.,’ she cried, and this time she did throw her skinny arms around me. ‘You always been so good to us.’
I stood still & endured her embrace & after a spell she let me go. She went smiling to the little camp stove & commenced to brewing the pot of tea. She poured me some and dropped in a slice of lemon. It looked like a little yellow wagon wheel floating on top of a brackish pond. She also gave me a cinnamon roll on a saucer.
‘Ain’t you having one?’ I said.
‘I ain’t hungry,’ said Martha brightly. ‘This lemon tea is enough for me.’ I looked carefully at her face. I was almost certain it was Expression No. 2 – a fake smile.
Then I noticed there was only one roll left on the plate.
Some detective I am. I had not even realized they were so poor they could only afford one day-old cinnamon roll apiece!
‘Shall we split this one?’ I said.
‘No need!’ cried Mrs. Zoe Brown, coming through the door with a brown paper bag. ‘I got fresh ones! And a whole chocolate layer cake because I know it is your favorite, Pinky. And a nice plump lemon for you, Martha! It is her passion,’ she said to me.
‘Did P.K. really pay our rent?’ Martha asked Zoe.
‘Yes, indeed,’ said Zoe. She was cutting the chocolate layer cake. ‘So we are safe for another month or two. Anyways, I expect Mrs. Prendergast will pay me soon for that fine ball gown I made her.’ Zoe pointed to a pale blue ball gown hanging on the flour-sack-covered wall of the room.
Martha shook her head. ‘She should have paid you by now. What if she wears it and then returns it for alterations like she did last time?’
‘Hush, Martha,’ said Zoe. ‘We do not want to burden P.K. with our troubles.’
As I sipped my lemon tea, I realized I would have to come clean with Miz Zoe and Martha and tell them I was a gal. Would they be mad when they discovered I had been pranking them? Would they tell me to skedaddle?
I did not know how to begin, so I tried to make Small Talk.
‘This lemon tea is mighty fine,’ I said. ‘My friend Stonewall likes lemons. Have you met him?’
‘No,’ said Martha. ‘I don’t believe I have.’
But Miz Zoe flushed prettily. ‘Is he a friend of your handsome gambler friend, Mr. Jason Francis Montgomery?’ she asked.
‘Yes, that is the one,’ I said. ‘He calls himself Stonewall on account of he idolizes General Stonewall Jackson. Jace does not gamble so much these days,’ I added. ‘He and Stonewall bought themselves a little ranch in Steamboat Springs. They raise mustang horses and have some beef cattle, too.’
‘It sounds lovely,’ said Mrs. Zoe Brown. She gave a sigh and a smile.
The talk of mustang ponies made me think of Cheeya, my own mustang. I felt my throat go tight. Would I ever see my beloved pony again?
Miz Zoe handed me a plate of chocolate layer cake and a fork. ‘You said you were in trouble and needed a place to lay low?’
I said, ‘Yes. I am in trouble and need a place to lay low. I was lured into a scheme to help stagecoach robbers and now I am on the run. I have got to get proof of my innocence before the authorities get me.’
‘Will you tell us all about it?’ said Martha. ‘Maybe we can help.’
‘I will tell you everything,’ I said, ‘but first I have a confession to make. It might make you angry at me.’
‘Confession?’ Martha cried. ‘Like folk do after they commit a crime?’
Miz Zoe said, ‘You are a dear friend and nothing you can say will change that.’
I could not face them, so I stared at the piece of cake on my lap. I took a deep breath and said, ‘Here is my confession. I am not a boy. I am a girl.’
There was an awful moment of silence.
Then Miz Zoe and Martha burst out laughing.