No More, No less
The new arrival in town strolled into Grace’s Café just in time to hear some of the townsmen arguing about their embarrassing secrets having been revealed in Dorothy’s book.
The reverend was saying irritably, “I don’t appreciate folks knowing that I used to be a…a….”
“A gambler?” Hank grinned. “You-all’re just mad ‘cause she printed the truth.”
The reverend flared. “Well, you didn’t exactly come off as a saint, Hank! She told the world about how you water-down your whiskey, how you keep prostitutes…!”
Hank smiled in genuine pride. “My reputation speaks for itself.” His hands flourished as if taking a bow and expecting applause.
The visitor paled noticeably. “You…do?? You…do that??? And you’re…Hank Lawson??”
He noticed her for the first time, and looked her over appraisingly. “That’s right,” he said smoothly.
“You keep p…p…p…?!”
“Whores.” Hank rose, grinning.
She took a step backward and looked incensed. “Oh that horrible man! That terrible Mr. Preston Lodge!”
“Huh?” Hank’s grin faded in his confusion.
Jake stirred from where he was leaning against a table. “What’s Preston got to do with it?”
“He must’ve been playing a practical joke on me! A most unfunny one!” she declared indignantly, clearly rattled.
“Calm down, Miss.” The reverend tried to reassure her. “Whatever it is, it’ll be all right.”
She glanced at him and was not mollified.
Jake urged her, “What’d Preston do?”
“He…he…suggested…dared to suggest…that I seek out Hank Lawson, and ask him for a j…j…j…!!” She was flustered, as the implications were hitting her.
“Job?” supplied Jake.
“Yes!” she hurled, as if completing a sneeze.
Hank grinned broadly, and looked her up and down thoroughly. “Well, you might be a possibility.”
“No!! I mean yes! I mean…!” She started to back away from him.
“Easy, Miss.” The reverend rose in concern. “You’re in no danger here. Just tell us all about it.”
She took a deep breath, and the tale came out in a shivery blur. “I applied to Mr. Lodge for a job at his hotel. He turned me down and suggested you!” She saw Hank’s look, and added hastily, “Not like that! I’m a singer! No more, no less!”
Hank chuckled and shook his head. “The saloon don’t have singers.”
“That’s probably why he thought that you could use one. Employ one!” she corrected herself quickly, blushing furiously and muttering under her breath.
“Maybe I could…use one.” He deliberately selected the word-choice that she had rejected. That emphasis and his Cheshire-cat-grin discomfited her all the more.
She shuddered, and had to make a great effort to speak at all. “Perhaps an audition? No obligation? If you don’t like me, I…move on, and trouble you no further.”
His eyes twinkled. “Or maybe we could find you another job.”
“No!” She was frantic. “I’m a singer! No more, no less! I don’t…! I mean I can’t…! I mean…!”
Hank laughed and rolled his eyes. “Oh no. Another Michaela!”
“Another innocent,” Jake explained. “Another virgin.”
“Well, of course! I…!” Fury suddenly filled her face. “That’s none of your business!”
Hank was still laughing. “Well, come on; let’s audition you.”
She looked at the reverend in alarm. “Is it…? Is he…? Am I safe??”
He looked uneasy. “I…don’t believe Hank would harm you.”
“All right.” She faced Hank stiffly. “But just remember, please, sir, that I’m just a singer…!”
“No more, no less; yes I know.” Hank clearly found her highly entertaining. He motioned exaggeratedly toward the saloon.
She reluctantly began to follow. Jake Slicker followed her, and she stopped and turned on him, deeply suspicious. “Why you, too, sir??”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “I own half the saloon.”
“Reverend!” She sounded almost panicky. She clearly did not trust either of the two of them, and now felt doubly in danger.
“I’ll go along with you,” the reverend offered accommodatingly.
Hank and Jake looked at him.
“I’d…like to hear her sing,” he improvised lamely.
They regarded him ruefully, not fooled for a minute.
“Look, I know you won’t hurt her, but she’ll feel better.”
“Yes!” she insisted. “I wonder if I can sing, this scared!”
Hank regarded her in mild disbelief. “You got a name?”
“Yes, sir. Sarah Danvers.” Somehow, she suddenly looked and sounded almost like a child.
Hank shook his head. “Well, come on, Sarah Danvers.”
“She sounds like an angel!” the reverend said…reverently.
Hank and Jake looked at him, perplexed, but they couldn’t deny it.
Sarah approached them shyly. “Well, sirs? Am I…hired?” She twitched at the word, but could think of no substitute.
Hank nodded reluctantly. “We’ll try it tonight. We’ll have to see if the customers like you…like your singing,” he corrected when her eyes widened in alarm.
Jake sighed. “One problem we’re gonna have. The customers always assume that any girl they find in here is…available.”
The reverend said indignantly, “Well, you’ll just have to explain it to them!”
Sarah tried to be helpful. “Sure! Just tell them I’m a singer….”
“No more, no less,” Hank and Jake chorused.
The customers adored her. Her voice charmed them. And they thought that she was lovely. But that was the problem.
“Come’ere, Honey,” said one who was obviously inebriated. “Sit at my table.”
Sarah eyed Hank nervously, appealingly. He looked back at her, waiting to see how she’d handle it.
“I…I can’t, sir. I’m supposed to be singing. I must do my job.”
“You can have a break. Hank’s not inhuman; he’ll letcha.” He eyed her lecherously.
“I…only take breaks to…powder my nose. And only for a moment. I’m new here. I must be careful.”
The drunk looked at Hank. “She’s been singin’ for more than an hour now. Don’t be a slave-driver; let her have a break.”
Sarah’s eyes begged Hank for help. Strangely, in only one day, she’d gone from thinking of him as a dangerous potential rapist, to seeing him as her protector, to stand against far more dangerous men for her.
While she silently pleaded with Hank, Jake also watched Hank, to see what he’d do. Jake had known that this would happen, and he’d warned Hank. Now were they going to lose customers over this?
Calmly, Hank reached a decision. He casually walked over to Sarah and slid an arm around her, warning her with his eyes not to resist. Uncomfortably, she let him, fearing the drunk more.
“Sorry, friend,” Hank said mildly. “This one’s private property.”
All too private, Jake clearly thought, his rueful expression plain. But the drunk took the meaning that Hank meant for him to take, and winked at Hank. He grinned, turned away unoffended, and grabbed another woman.
Sarah sighed heavily. “Thank you!” she murmured almost tearily to Hank.
He smiled ruefully at her.
Jake went close to them. “What’d I tell ya? And this problem is not gonna go away; it’ll keep happenin’. And if that drunk is still here at the end of the evening, he’ll expect to see you take Sarah into your room with you.”
Sarah looked at Hank, terrified.
“One problem at a time,” Hank answered casually, simultaneously smiling at some customers who’d caught his eye.
“Another thing,” Jake continued. “The other girls’ll soon catch on, and want to know why they have to, and she doesn’t.”
She turned wounded eyes on him.
“What d’you suggest?” Hank asked mildly, never losing the smile that he exhibited for the room.
“Do you wish to fire me, Mr. Slicker?” Sarah asked in a hurt tone.
“No.” He faced her bluntly. “The solution is for us to straighten you out, so there won’t be a problem.” His eyes pierced her, making her gasp and whimper.
“Stop it you two,” Hank said deceptively blandly, still flashing his smile around the saloon. But then he gently took her chin in his hand to make her face him, and his eyes bored into hers. “But I won’t lie to you, Sarah. I intend to try, until I gradually wear you down, bit by bit.”
Sarah was frozen, too frightened to move or make a sound. But when he let go of her, her eyes darted rapidly between the two of them, and she shivered convulsively.
“That’s how we’ll solve the problem,” Hank told Jake matter-of-factly.
“Hopefully fast enough.” Jake eyed her dispassionately. “Before we lose customers.”
Sarah realized with a sinking heart that she was now as afraid of both of them as ever, and that she’d been right to fear them, as she had in the beginning.
“I’ll work on her, too, if you don’t mind,” Jake said to Hank. “Maybe two of us can wear her down faster.”
“Fine with me.”
She teared up and glared at them, finding them both positively foul. She feared Jake more, of the two. Hank was a lech, but Jake was the more cold-blooded. Both wanted to deflower her, dishonor her, for their unfeeling profiteering purposes. And probably to use her for their own fun whenever they felt like it, too. Their unsentimental hearts made her flesh crawl. She sadly realized that the inevitable outcome of this fiasco was that she would lose this job, and soon, and after being pawed inappropriately by both bosses, to add to the affront. It made her sick.
Into her black mood walked Preston Lodge. She took one look at his phony smile, and lost any inclination to be polite.
He joined the group and said, “I see you found a…ahem…position…for Miss Danvers: between you!”
Hank and Jake laughed heartily at his triple-entendre.
Sarah glared venomously at Preston. “You snake! You didn’t even warn me about what goes on here, before you sent me to them!”
“Why fair maiden!” Preston feigned righteous indignation, complete with a hand over his heart.
“You got the maiden part right,” Jake murmured ruefully, brushing at something in his eye with a well-manicured hand.
Preston leered. “Ah, but isn’t the maiden voyage the most exciting?”
Hank smirked. “I always thought so.”
Preston nodded enthusiastically. “And you’ve sailed on so many of them, haven’t you, Hank? Dear girl, you couldn’t have a more experienced pilot.”
“You’re disgusting, all of you! And don’t you ‘dear girl’ me, Mr. Lodge!”
He ignored that. “Of course I gladly offer my own services, as well, if a more genteel approach is warranted.” He grinned toothily.
“Genteel? You?” said Jake. “More like slippery as an eel. And I already have dibs, if Hank needs any help.”
Sarah’s temper snapped.
“Slippery as an eel?! More like slimy as one, and that goes for all
of you!” She prepared to storm toward the door.
Hank and Jake each grabbed an arm and stopped her.
“Don’t go out there,” Hank said sensibly. “It’s the middle of the night. You won’t be safe.”
“I’m not safe in here!”
“It’s all relative.” He glanced around the room. “Right now, you’re being watched by at least three customers. If you go out that door you’ll be followed.”
Terror filled her eyes. “B…but there’re plenty of women for them in here…!”
“That have to be paid for; freebies are always preferred,” Jake finished smoothly.
They watched her panic grow, and she was horrified to see that they were enjoying it. She stammered, “But I don’t, …I’m not….”
“They don’t care,” Jake said flatly.
Preston grinned like a shark. “They’ll be surprised when you bleed, but they’ll just figure it’s an added bonus.”
Sarah’s face crumpled. For lack of a better alternative, and for the second time in one night, she turned to Hank for rescue. “Help me, please! Protect me! Save me from all of them! And then protect me from you, too!” She dissolved into tears.
Hank observed her tolerantly. Then he told Jake and Preston, “We won’t get anywhere with her this soon, anyway. Not the first night.” He addressed Sarah, “You’ll stay here, as long as you work here. We’ll find you a room.”
Gallantly, Preston teased, “Are you quite certain that there is nothing else that you desire from any of us at this time?” His eyes twinkled.
“As a matter of fact, there is,” Sarah said dully. “A good strong door with a solid lock, to which only I have the key.”
Sarah descended the stairs quite early the next morning.
“Did you sleep well?” Hank asked indulgently.
She made a rueful face.
He looked disappointed. “Were you awake and scared all night?”
“Most of it.”
He shook his head. “Let’s have some breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry. Am I allowed out during the day?”
He nodded. “But don’t you want to wait and meet some of the other…that is, some of the girls?”
“No. From what Mr. Slicker said last night, they won’t like me anyway.”
He shrugged. “Well, they did ask why your…dress…was very different from theirs.”
She couldn’t have cared less. “I just want to go out for a walk.”
Hank looked resigned, and motioned toward the swinging doors of the saloon.
Once outside, Sarah rushed to the first woman that she saw. “Excuse me, please! Do you know where I can find someone named ‘Michaela’?” She remembered Hank’s having compared the person to her.
“Why that’s Dr. Quinn! I’m her friend Dorothy Jennings. Do you need a doctor, dear?”
“No, I just hoped to talk to her. Mr. Lawson mentioned her.”
A cloud crossed Dorothy’s face. “Oh. Hank. Well, right this way.” She escorted Sarah into a clinic, and then politely excused herself.
This new lady exuded warmth and protectiveness; Sarah instantly felt like hiding behind her forever.
“How can I help you?”
“I don’t know quite how to say this, Ma’am, er, Doctor, but Mr. Lawson and Mr. Slicker compared me to you, called me ‘another innocent,’ and laughed.”
Michaela rolled her eyes. “Hank and Jake.” She sighed.
“That’s the same way that Mrs. Jennings reacted.”
The other smiled lopsidedly. “Many people do. Those two men tend to inspire that sort of response. And knowing them as I do, I imagine that I know to what sort of innocence they refer.”
Sarah blushed. “Yes, and they…want me to…stop…being innocent.”
“What?!” Michaela was stunned. “It’s not up to them!”
“No, except, …well, …I work for them.”
The doctor managed a cross between revolted and confused.
Sarah rushed to clarify. “Oh, not like that! I’m a singer! No….” She hesitated, remembering how the men had made fun of her standard line. But then, she mentally shrugged and finished softly, “No more, no less.”
“I see. I think. But then, why do they…?”
“Because they want me to be more than a singer. Or less than one.”
The beautiful doctor looked disgusted. “Why on earth?! Doesn’t Hank have enough girls?? Of…of that type?”
“They said that the customers would misunderstand.”
She was indignant. “Well, that’s just too bad!”
“Well, it…did seem to cause problems,” Sarah admitted miserably. “But I don’t want to; I’m frightened!”
“And you don’t have to, either! You have a different job!” Michaela was incensed.
“But last night, I was afraid that they were going to…to….”
“It seemed so. Plus they talked rather dirty to me, and threatened to keep trying to persuade me, to wear down my resistance.”
“Hank and Jake both treated you like this?!” Michaela’s temper kept rising.
“Yes, and…and…Mr. Lodge.”
“Preston is in on this, too??!”
The girl nodded mutely.
The doctor reached a decision. “Stay here. You’ll be safe. Stay right here ‘til I return.”
When Michaela reached the saloon, Preston was conveniently out in front of it, conversing casually with Hank and Jake. The three were laughing together about something, and with a sinking feeling, Michaela was suddenly certain that Sarah was again the victim.
“Well, if it isn’t the three partners in crime,” she addressed them coldly.
They regarded her uncertainly.
“I’d like to remind you…gentlemen…of what we did to the last rapist in this town! We hanged him! Hank, you helped Matthew perform the execution.”
“Rapist?” Jake wondered. “What…?”
“We haven’t raped anyone!” Preston protested in disbelief.
“Perhaps not yet, but there is someone who fears that you might, and soon.”
They exchanged glances.
Hank asked suspiciously, “Did Sarah…?”
“Ah, then you do know something about this.”
“We’re not gonna rape her,” Hank insisted.
“Oh, but what about all the talk of wearing down her defenses?” Michaela folded her arms and regarded them imperiously.
The three men’s shared glances turned from somber to angry.
“Now don’t you dare to take this out on her! She had a perfect right to come to me! She’s terrified! And she’s a lady! She’s not one of ‘your girls,’ Hank! She’s a singer, no more, no less!” Michaela watched, puzzled, as Hank and Jake rolled their eyes dramatically at her wording.
Jake was disgusted. “How’d she find out about you so fast, anyway?”
Michaela smiled sweetly. “From you. You and Hank told her about me, Jake. And she came straight to me.”
Both saloon owners sagged.
Hank said, “We did, didn’t we?”
“She has a right to guard her innocence for as long as she wishes. And if you gentlemen take even the slightest inappropriate liberties with her, I’ll go straight to the sheriff and the town council!” Michaela spun on her heel and hurried back to comfort Sarah.
“You sicced Michaela on us!” Hank complained resentfully, hours later, when Sarah finally found the courage to return to the saloon.
The girl timidly kept her distance from the three men who regarded her so sullenly. Her voice was barely above a whisper. “I’m sorry, but I….”
“We weren’t gonna hurtcha!” Jake declared bitterly. “We were mostly teasin’!”
“We were just having a little fun with you!” Preston said expansively.
“At my expense! You were beasts! And you threatened to wear down my defenses!”
“That’s something every woman has to face from men,” Hank said, tight-lipped. “As long as we don’t rape you, as long as we give you a choice, you’re responsible if it happens to you!”
“I couldn’t be sure that you weren’t going to force me, now could I? And it would be a little too late to run to Dr. Quinn after you already had me helpless!” Tears had formed in her eyes and were beginning to flow.
Jake glared at her. “Go on, cry. I guess none of us’ll offer to hold you and comfort you; you’d be sure we were trying somethin’.”
“Do…I…still…work here?” she asked uncertainly.
“Yeah, I guess you do!” Jake replied harshly.
“And you’ll…protect me…from the customers?”
“We have so far, haven’t we?” Hank responded sharply.
“Yes, sir. But you…tormented me….”
“Oh go get ready!” Hank dismissed her in disgust.
Sarah didn’t know how she would manage to keep her voice steady and clear for singing, when all that she wanted to do was cry. But at least, she needn’t’ve worried about keeping her distance from the three men; they were avoiding her. They were avoiding even looking at her. The drunk from the previous night was there, drunk again, and he noticed that Sarah and Hank were staying away from each other.
“Lover’s quarrel,” he announced loudly enough for both to hear him and be startled.
Involuntarily, Hank’s and Sarah’s eyes met. She blushed hotly, and he looked askance.
Everyone somehow coped, however, until very late in the evening, when a far more obnoxious drunk grabbed Sarah. She screamed shrilly and smacked his hands away from her. Frightened out of her wits, tired, and irritable from a long period of tension, she began to cry. Looking toward the bar, she saw Hank and Jake glaring murderously at her, and Preston staring at her in stunned disbelief at her inept handling of the predictable problem. Sarah fled up the stairs.
As she ran into the room assigned to her, her worst nightmare seemed about to come true: heavy footfalls were pursuing her up the steps. Nearly out of her mind with fright, she began screaming uncontrollably. Too late, she remembered that she could lock the door. Hank, Jake, and Preston burst into the room, and the girl shrieked more piercingly than ever.
Clearly alarmed at the racket that she was causing, Hank and Jake tackled her onto the bed, as Preston hastily closed the door to at least muffle the noise. Hank clamped a hand over her mouth.
“SHUT UP!!!” he shouted into her face. Instantly, his hand was wet with her tears.
Certain that she was about to be gang-raped, Sarah sobbed heartrendingly, but obediently more softly. Hank removed his hand reluctantly, unsure of how long the quiet would last. The men watched her in exasperation. But at least the two who had jumped her rose and stood merely looking at her on the bed.
“That damned screamin’ upset everybody in the place!” Jake declared.
“I only screamed because you chased me!” she whimpered.
“You screamed downstairs, too!” Hank reminded her savagely.
“That man touched me!”
“Women get touched in a saloon!” Preston said tensely.
They let her cry for a few moments, watching dispassionately. Then, to their utter astonishment, Sarah looked up at them blearily, and said, “You’re right. This is hopeless. I might as well face the inevitable.”
Suddenly daring to hope, Jake enthused, “I’m proud of you, Honey, and whichever one of us you choose will be kind and gentle; you’ll see!”
She stared at him, outraged, and shocked silent.
Hank misunderstood. “He’s right! Now, don’t be afraid; we know how to be careful with virgins!”
With what little dignity she had left, Sarah stated firmly, “I mean that this problem is indeed unsolvable, and that I am, regretfully, forced to resign. Please be decent enough to let me remain here tonight, with the door locked and you three on the other side of it, and I’ll be gone the first thing in the morning.”
Hank, Jake, and Preston regarded her sullenly for a long moment, and then walked out of the door, closing it behind them.
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