I don’t normally share early drafts, but Chuck Wendig’s writing prompts are so damn irresistible. This week’s flash fiction challenge was to share the bounty of words from the first day of NaNoWriMo. And here they are, from the novel coming in 2014. A break from the usual medievalist style, it’s a work of historical fiction set in 1880s Tombstone. While in Arizona in 2008, I found a story I couldn’t let go of, and it’s a weird mash-up of influences, from Cormac McCarthy to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and fueled by the tunes of Tom Waits, Cat Power, and Nick Cave.
May sat in the barber’s chair, cigar in hand, with the heels of her boots resting on the counter. Her smoke rings drifted toward the ceiling. The particles of dust glowed from within the haze of the sun’s fading light. Lost in thought, May paid no mind as the door opened and the bell jangled. The sudden breeze caused her perfectly formed smoke rings to disperse, reminding her of watching shapes in the clouds when she was a child.
Just as her imagination spotted a rattlesnake’s head emerge from a breaking smoke ring, the loud slap of a newspaper smacking the counter shook her from her reverie. Confronted with her lover’s fury, the smoke rings were forgotten. Billy pointed to an ad in the Epitaph. “When were you going to tell me about this?”
As disconcerted as she felt, May tried to hide her sinking mood behind a shrug and another puff on the cigar. “The Epitaph is full of lies. Everyone knows that.”
Billy pointed to the ad again. “Tell me this is a lie! Go on, read it.”
May knew what it said. Will Barron, owner of the barber shop, showed her the paper that morning.
“To Whom It May Concern: I hereby warn all persons against giving my wife, May Woodman, any credit on my account as I will not be responsible for any debts contracted by her, she having left my bed and board without just cause or provocation. Signed, Lewis C. Woodman.”
This time was supposed to be different. He hunted her down when she first settled in Bodie. When she heard he was coming for her, she found her way to Tombstone, and several months passed before he found her again. She prayed Lewis gave up the actual chase, choosing to print an ad rather than come find her. And the money she took.
May sniffed and gave the ad a dismissive glance. “What of it?” She tossed the paper back onto the counter.
Will Barron picked up the broom and swept. The brush of the hard straw diminished as Will began to sweep the dust into the far corner in the back of the shop. The barber shook his head while he retreated.
“What of it? You don’t tell me you’re married, and you ask me what of it? Don’t bother coming home, May. Why don’t you go stay with your friend Eliza Lee? You belong in a whorehouse anyway!” Billy slammed the door behind him. May stared hard at the jangling bell.
Billy kicked an empty bottle off the wooden sidewalk before heading toward Fifth Street. She handed the discarded newspaper to Will as he made his way back into the main room of the barber shop, broom in hand. She snuffed out the cigar and balanced the stub on a pewter ashtray. “Guess I’d better avoid the Oriental Saloon tonight.”
May strolled through Hoptown, enjoying the scent of garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. The residents of the Chinese neighborhood had few visitors from the other parts of town. Sometimes for the food, but mostly in the name of debauchery, according to the Epitaph’s editorials. Despite suspicion levied at the residents of Hoptown, a few people in Tombstone didn’t care. The Earps frequented Sam Sing’s restaurant from time to time, thereby drawing others to it out of curiosity. Those self-righteous bastards, May thought as she turned onto Allen Street. The Earps think they rule as kings. Hoptown, named for moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, hopped once again after fire swept through Tombstone that June. Fights between squatters and business owners made the whole damn town hop.
Opium smoke hung in the air. The cloying scent lured May for a few steps in the direction from the place from which the low clouds of smoke blossomed. May stopped and breathed deeply, nearly seduced. A man in a long button-down robe watched her from a doorway. Two orange dragons entwined in battle on a paper lantern hanging by his head. The orange glow made May think of the recent fire. The two stood, staring at each other with an air of confusion. May pondered telling him that people were nervous about another fire. Burned cinders and the smell of smoke still lingered.
May tasted the opium smoke in the air. Tantalized, frozen in place, she closed her eyes for a moment and sighed. When she opened her eyes again, the man muttered and went back into the building. May reached out to steady the paper lantern as it swung. She moved on. Away from exotic temptation and toward another—more familiar, and much louder.
May stamped the dust from her brown leather boots on the walkway before entering the Alhambra Saloon. Cigar smoke replaced opium. She scanned the crowd for friendly faces. In the corner, near the faro tables, sat a man May’d gladly replace Billy with on any given day. Johnny Ringo was surrounded by friends from the Cienega Ranch in Animas Valley—the boisterous Clantons and other ranchers, including Frank McLaury and Curly Bill Brocious. No women perched on their laps. Sporadic laughter broke through their debate.
May watched them from behind an unseen barrier, waiting for the right moment. To them, she was lost in the crowd. How to make a grand entrance? Sheriff Behan’s lady Josephine Marcus never thought about it. She was born to put on a show. And then again, I’ve never looked good in fancy gowns. Unconsciously, her hands moved over her hips to feel the leather leggings she preferred to wear. She relished the roominess of Billy’s old coat with enough room in the pockets to carry several packets of cigars.
She knew if she lingered too long, she’d freeze like a victim of Medusa’s gaze, and when the men got around to noticing her, they’d see the awkward statue lurch to life. Her brazen child-soul burst forth.
“Gentlemen,” she said, leaning forward to rub Nick Crane’s shoulders. The Clanton’s young ranchhand looked up at her and beamed. Her gaze fixed on Johnny, who sat across from Nick.
The Clantons swiped hard glances toward May. Curt smiles were icy and brief. Ike shook his head at Nick, whose smile crashed. The Clantons didn’t matter. Johnny’s response was the only one that counted. Realizing her gaze lingered too long, May looked down and fixed on the top of Nick Crane’s short blond hair.
Johnny cocked his head, the left side of his mouth curling into a small grin. His expression was one of sympathy. May perceived the silent groan of his friends as he spoke. “How do you do, Miss Woodman?”
“Call me May, please.”
He tilted his head back and laughed. “All right, May Please. How do you do?”
His sharp eyes brightened her heart. May reached into her satchel and pulled out a packet of cigars.
“I have a treat for you gentlemen. A free sample of my wares—”
Ike’s booming laughter hurt her ears and made her blush before he even spoke. “Now there’s a proposition I can go along with. Come on over here, Red. Let me taste those strawberries and cream.”
May tried not to wince. Her shoulders twisted while she turned in what might have been a dance move. “Owl brand. One of my best. I have a new stand in Barron’s Barber Shop. I guarantee the best brands at the lowest prices. Come on by and call yourself a friend.”
Johnny’s wink made her heart jump. “Much obliged, May Please. Join us for a moment and I’ll treat you to a whiskey punch.”
May ignored Ike’s groan. She was too absorbed in Johnny’s dark almond-shaped eyes to care. She was paying attention to him, and him only. For the others, it was a marketing tactic, for him, it was a plea for attention. She grabbed a chair from the next table over without asking. She turned it back-to so she could wrap her arms over the back of the chair. She grinned while they lit up the cigars.
“Good flavor, huh?”
Johnny nodded. “Appreciate the gesture, May. These are fine cigars.”
“Glad you enjoy. Where’ve you been lately? Haven’t seen you around town,” she said.
“Over in Galeyville,” Johnny said.
May smiled as the whiskey punch was placed in front of her. “Generous of you, thank you.”
“Johnny won big in Galeyville,” said Frank.
Ike’s laughter was fraught with sarcasm. “That’s one way to put it.”
May regarded them quizzically. They kept the secret of the joke to themselves. She shrugged it off and downed the drink. “Love these. Good for summer.”
Johnny grinned. “There’s plenty more where that came from.” Whiskey punch sloshed around her glass. She moved it under the pitcher to collect the liquid, then wiped her hand on her leather breeches. Johnny muttered an apology, distracted by something happening behind her. The other men glanced over and then back at him. When Johnny sat back and crossed his arms over his chest, staring intently toward the bar, Curly Bill leaned over and whispered. Johnny relaxed, albeit with an annoyed expression.
May craned her neck to see Virgil Earp making his way to the center of the bar. When she turned back to the men, Curly Bill shook his head. “Can’t draw attention over here.”
She knew enough about the grudges. In Tombstone, there was an undercurrent of rumor threatening a flood as big as any wash-out from the worst of storms during monsoon season. Virgil’s brother Wyatt forced Curly Bill to admit to vote-rigging in the election for Pima County sheriff earlier that year, in which he and Johnny served as officials for their area. Twice as many votes came in as residents who lived there. The lawsuit over the results was long-lasting and tempers still simmered.
While Johnny conferred with his friends, May helped herself to another glass of punch. Their restlessness was palpable.
“Why are you shushing us down?” Ike asked. The glasses jumped when he smacked the table with the flat of his hand.
Curly Bill shot him a hard look. “I just think Johnny’s money would be best spent elsewhere.”
Ike scowled. “We’re to go where—the Oriental? The brewery? Campbell and Hatch’s? We’re just as likely to run into Wyatt or one of the other Earp bastards. Or worse, still, that rabid dog they keep with them, Holliday.”
May spun her glass, heedless of the amber splash lurching out of it. “Did I ever tell you about him?” Her voice raised to a pitch that made heads turn. “He thought I was a whore!” Oblivious to the sour looks around her, she waited for allegiance to her indignation. It didn’t come.
Curly Bill’s eyebrows cocked upward. “Now there’s an idea. We won’t find Wyatt at Dutch Annie’s.”
“Don’t be so sure,” muttered Frank. He stood up and put on his hat. “I’m going back to the hotel.” Without much of a farewell, he disappeared out of the Alhambra’s front doors.
Ike sneered. “And what about you, kid? Gonna go back to the Grand and hide like a mouse, or show them high and mighty bastards we own this town more than they do?”
Nick puffed up his chest and smiled. “I’m game for a visit to Dutch Annie, as long as Johnny’s buying.” His apple-cheeked smile struck May as especially childish.
Johnny’s good-natured laugh cut through the buzz of the crowd. “You just want to get your hands on that new girl again.”
“Damn straight. Race you there.”
Johnny tipped his glass. “I don’t race.”
When he sat back to drain the drink, May’s tension subsided. Her face flushed when she got shrill. Her oft-repeated story about Doc Holliday was untold at this time, and she stewed in desperate need to remain visible. Her opportunity had faded. At the mention of the brothel, she had little time to find asylum from the wrath laying in wait at home.