Come morning, Yule Sherwin was a steam engine operating on whiskey fumes. Rain dripping from the brim of his derby, he stirred a smoldering burn barrel. At that early hour there was no one to see him in the alley behind the workshop – no one to catch wind of the noxious accelerant. Embers spooked up lighter-than-air before the rain smote them. Yule squinted into the rusty drum's belly where blue tongues of flame feasted. Despite having quit the chew some years earlier he spit in the mud. He turned the coals with an iron poker and the dead boy's stovepipe was finally becoming damp ash.
“Rain be damned,” he whispered.
Back inside the workshop, he stowed the cask of lacquer and laid out vittles for Dude. He had some anxious hours to while before the bordello would open its doors, and he did not cotton to sleep – so he occupied himself with carpentry. There was a calm in the craft, and without perspiration he built a discreet cabinet which could innocuously house a piss-pot. Its fabrication was automatic and he wondered if perhaps he had napped a spell with his eyes open. The workshop was crammed with his creations: trunks, tables and chairs, tall wardrobes – all commissioned pieces. The casket for Madame's boy was stark, stashed amidst Yule's weirder inventions. He devised collapsible, transforming furniture which could be neatly stowed beneath the canopy of even the most bulging wagon – multipurpose doohickeys of exquisite design. At the foot of the stairs lay a telescoping ladder he had devised for the fire brigade – one which could extrapolate to the lengths of three ladders. The brigade had been less-than-excited, on account of Red Junction consisting mainly of single-story dwellings.
“Well folks ought see it back in Atlanta,” he said. “Where folks build upward some.”
Yule heard the whiskey on his voice and knew before long he'd better sop it up with biscuits and coffee. The rain had ceased its pattering and outside carts creaked along the ruddy thoroughfare. He heard hooves and boots stomping loose the hard-caked mud. Layered beneath those rough percussives, the piano rippled whimsically out from the Sleeping Bare – beckoning as it did every morning.
“You hold down the fort,” Yule said to his sleeping dog.
Though the sun had barely risen, the bordello nevertheless lured erections from all-abouts and men staggered in unashamed. Yule went in without his hat, even. The parlor reeked of coffee and peppered gravy. The first-come were the first-served at the bar-top and they hunched over plates of biscuits and bacon. It was too early yet for anyone to be mean-drunk; thus the joint echoed with belly-laughter and the prurient chorus of morning intercourse. The piano was a mellowing influence.
Isaac the bartender greeted Yule with a nod and said:
“What'll have ye?”
“One coffee and a plate if you'll please.” Isaac assembled Yule's breakfast and exchanged it for a coin.
“Would ye come to know if fair Misty is in order?”
“Do you mean is she fuckin'?”
“Reckon as much.”
“She just got done. You're good to go on up.”
“Another coffee then for the lady – if you'll please.”
At Yule's familiar knock, Misty opened the door and rushed him inside her chamber. She spirited breakfast from his clutch and deposited the mugs and plate upon her nightstand. Squeezing him, she pressed her cheek to his chest – and his heart beat more loudly so she could hear.
“You sure are a sight for sore eyes.” She patted his arms and trunk – inspecting him for injuries. “You are unharmed?”
“On the surface – and you?”
“Do I smell whiskey?”
“Sleep last night did prove elusive even with the elixir,” Yule explained, “and I had but a nip this morning to soothe mine nerve.”
“Bring any with you?” Misty asked.
“Do please forgive,” he said. “Naught but coffee awaits us in yonder mugs.”
“Oh well. I guess it don’t matter,” Misty said. “Don’t reckon there’s enough whiskey in the whole wide world, any-fuckin’-how.”
She sat upon the mussed bed and Yule joined her. The yellowed sheets were still warm. He hugged her shoulders with one arm. Her eyes brimmed with water. Her mouth opened but her voice was reluctant. She stopped short of speaking and turned away.
“It’s alright,” Yule whispered.
“No it ain’t.” She shrugged off his embrace and regained her feet. “It ain’t alright to die in a backwoods whorehouse; to spend your last few days knowin’ unwanted erections.”
“But you are not dying,” Yule said. He rose, poised to console her, but before he could act she whirled around. Her eyes were wet and wide and her lips ranted in a gush:
“You’re wrong,” she said. “We’s dead. You just ain’t knowin’ it, yet – but I am knowin’ it deep down in mine guts. You ain’t never seen a sick same as Madame’s boy’s – but I have, Yule. I sure fuckin’ have! And let me tell you, Mister – we ain’t long for Boot Hill.”
She shoved Yule back against the bed before he could muster a response. Suddenly he was seated again upon the mattress and Misty was kneeling on the floor before him. She spread his knees apart and waded in. This was a professional maneuver. Her thumbs hooked inside his belt-loops and her finger-tips kissed the sensitive skin above his loins. He squirmed. She pressed her cheek against his thigh and sighed. Yule felt her warm breath through his trousers. He stirred.
“Misty,” he said. “I’m sorry – I can’t. I still can’t.”
“Don’t fret, Yule,” she answered without ever lifting her face from his lap. “I don’t aim to force mine head upon thee. I got somethin’ to say to you, is all – but I got some thoughts need arrangin’ first – and sometimes mine best thinkin’ is done down here.”
She closed her eyes and her breathing was slower. Yule’s own exhalations had stopped altogether. He sat stiff-backed, clutching fistfuls of bed-sheet while Misty collected her thoughts. With her face so near his member, it was only by conjuring masochistic imagery that Yule managed to stifle his impure impulses. For him it was a tense interlude till finally she turned her face up from his crotch and spoke the words:
“Make me a promise, Yule.”
“Promise you ain’t gonna think I’m loco when I say what I know.”
“I promise I won’t think you’re loco.”
“Alright then,” she said. She laid her cheek back upon his thigh. “Do you believe in ghosts, Yule? Would you know it if you seen one?”
He didn’t answer right away.
“Yule,” she pleaded. “You just promised not one minute ago—“
“Do please forgive,” he said. “Your query caught me flat-footed. To answer, I can’t say whether I believe in them, but I reckon I know enough about ghosts to recognize one if I saw it – and Madame’s boy matched none of the familiar criteria.”
“Naw,” she said. “Not he, himself. He were somethin’ else. He done brought them old ghosts up with him, though.”
“Misty,” Yule began, “I don’t follow—“
“All night I been haunted,” she said. “What I ain’t sure of, though, is just what is a ghost? Are they dead folks’ spirits? Or mayhap nightmares you can see even when you ain’t sleepin’?”
“Have you been suffering visions?” Yule asked.
“More I try and suss it,” she said, “more I figure these ghosts ain’t nothin’ but restless memories.”
“Misty, I don't—“
“Yule, you ever heard of Oregon? Way, way out west?”
“Of course, but—“
“Your biscuits are gonna be cold,” she said. “Better get ‘em et.”
“Et them silently,” was her demand. She rose from the floor and passed him his plate from the nightstand. “Et them and just listen, Yule, and don’t call me loco. I’m gonna let loose a doozy of a ghost story but I swear it is pure truth.”
She had a commanding way about her just then and Yule obediently et the lukewarm biscuits.
She began the story by rhetorically asking, “I weren't always a whore, alright?”
“I know you ain’t fond of that word, but we ain't gonna quibble over what to call my job today. It ain’t what’s vital. What’s vital to my telling is that I weren't always a saloon girl. I ain't always laid under men for wages. Way back when, I were just a little girl with a Ma and a Pa and even some brothers and sisters – real honest sisters; kin sisters, Yule – bound by the blood of our family and not by the ejaculate of strange men.”
“You've never told me of your folks.”
“Well they ain't been my folks for a long while now – six or seven winters.” Misty paced the meager chamber. She drank from one of the mugs. The coffee quickened her and the padding of her feet upon the planked floor became more rapid as she percolated. “I were twelve years-aged when we set out for the Oregon Territory. Pa loaded us all in the wagon. We rolled merrily 'cross the whole blamed continent; dodgin' Injuns and cougars; floatin' the wagon to forge rivers and gettin' burnt somethin’ crispy beneath the sun. Ma and Pa were always workin' real hard to keep us kids from gettin' killed – and they done real good for the most part. But when we crossed into Oregon Territory, in the last days of our voyage, I turned up unwell and right violently so. Pa stopped the wagon beside the Clackamas River and laid out a blanket. He left me upon it to die alone. He didn't have no choice. I heard Ma call it 'typhoid'. And Yule, what I seen there after I died on the banks of the Clackamas is what Madame's boy—”
“Madame's kid was not afflicted by typhoid,” Yule interrupted to assure her.
“I ain't ever said he were,” Misty shot back. She downed the rest of her coffee in a single gulp. “You et your biscuits if you’ve a need to move your lips. Just listen. My mind ain't wantin' to dig up these old ghosts. It’s a trial to look them in the eyes. Do you understand? Quit yappin' a minute so I can tell you what the fuck I remember. Shut up so’s I can tell you about the ghosts Madame’s boy dug up.”
She remembered perishing in the mud beside the Clackamas, feverish and hopelessly wrung out by watery bowels. On the trail when the diarrhea presented it was a nuisance, but then days passed with no relief and Misty was forced to ride in the back of the wagon. The rest of her kin walked alongside. Two days after they breached the Oregon Territory she woke to find her chest and sides riddled with a rosy red rash. A rush of blood accompanied her stools. The next morning her youngest brother, Jules, also wore the scarlet rash. Wasn't long and they stopped the wagon to bury him beside the trail. They put her brother directly in the dirt, without the benefit of a box. Father dug a little hole while Momma screamed at God.
“I reckon for the good of our remaining spawn we must leave her here with Jules,” Misty heard Father tell Momma when they thought she was asleep. “Her condition is catching and it will take our whole brood.”
“Lend not a thought – let alone your voice – to such ruthless pragmatism!” Momma had countered.
The next morning Misty's clan repacked their wagon but without her. Father said a prayer and Momma did not tempt her own resolve and so her final maternal gesture had occurred the night before – that last lullaby. With the wagon moving out, Misty's baby sister waved her pudgy hand to say goodbye.
“Lily – we called her,” Misty remembered. “Do you know, Yule – I cannot recall my own surname? Or even what Momma and Father were called by but those impersonal words? 'Momma'? 'Father'? Nor even can I recall their faces, factually. Momma mayhap were blonde, same as I – or were that Lily? I don't right know.”
“I have not words to express my sympathy,” Yule said.
“That's well enough,” she said. “Any sympathy ye could offer would be a mite early yet, I do reckon – so I hope it keeps awhile. Things went sourer still and my death drew on beyond the scope of clocks. Whole wagon trains passed without lending aid. Folks with families of their own, to excuse them – already toward the end of a hard fuckin' crawl across America. Might've spared a bullet though, from a distance – to cure mine fever.”