In honor of the passage of the transgender non-discrimination bill in Massachusetts, I’ve been wanting to share this story I wrote (under my alter-ego’s name) for my first anthology, Rode Hard, Put Away Wet. Not a winter holiday story, although there is certainly snow.
A bit of background first: it’s estimated that as many as 400 women served as soldiers in the Civil War in the US, on both sides. Some went to be near husbands or lovers, but many seized the chance to live, however dangerously, as men. Some were exposed when they were wounded, some long afterward when they died after maintaining a masculine identity for the rest of their lives, and some must have gone on to live life on their own terms and never be questioned. This is a story of one who went west and found everything he needed.
The lamps of Dutch Flat shone through the swirling snow as we rounded the last curve of the Bear River. Old Ulysses picked up his gait, not needing the lights to know that shelter and feed and the company of his own kind lay close ahead.
As for me, hunched against the cold in my sheepskin coat, hat brim pulled low to keep the snow clear of my eyes, I'd be happy enough for shelter, too, and a good meal. The company of my own kind was a more questionable matter. I had acquaintances in town, some who counted me as friend, but only one who understood the resolve it took for me to put on the face and manner that the rest took for granted.
The early snow lay a foot deep in the open, deeper where it drifted against outcroppings of boulders and scrub pine and juniper. Ulysses was the first to notice something different about the long, white mound at the edge of one such thicket, partly obscured by weighted branches.
I might have missed it altogether, being inwardly focused on reassembling my go-to-town identity. Jack Elliott, miner, trapper, supporter of civic projects and worthy charitable endeavors; a sizable man, good for back-up in a fight, known to crack heads together in the quelling of drunken brawls, and a sharpshooter from his days in the Union Army.
All this was, on the whole, true. A role I could live with. It was the frequent whispers, meant kindly enough, in general, that made my innards shiver. Some newcomer on the porch of the general store or in a saloon would lean close to an old-timer to hear about poor Jack Elliott, wounded so bad at the Battle of Chickamauga that his beard never grew again and his voice had gone up to about the pitch of an adolescent boy's.
Then they'd shift uneasily in their chairs until somebody commented that Jack surely had an eye for the ladies, at least, and would buy a girl a drink and even dance with a good deal of enjoyment, though nobody'd ever seen him go upstairs at the whorehouse. That'd bring a chuckle, and more uneasy shifting, but if I came close enough for hailing there'd be genial enough greetings and invitations to sit in at a poker game.
My ruminations had begun to drift back toward the girls in the dance hall, all curls and red lips and waists laced up tight to make their bosoms swell above their low-cut gowns. Ulysses' sudden halt jolted me. I looked where the horse was looking, and saw a twitch of movement. Just a juniper branch springing loose from its weight of snow, I figured, maybe triggered by some small creature sheltering beneath.
I urged Ulysses onward, but he stopped again when we'd drawn about level with the suspicious mound. My horse was not of a temperament to shy at trifles. Half Morgan, half Clydesdale, he had strength enough to fear little, wit enough to know what needed fearing, and courage enough to face the latter if I asked it of him. From Vermont to the war in the South to the Sierra Mountains he'd carried me, through the hellfire of battle and the solitude of wilderness. It wasn't fear, but more likely curiosity that halted him now, or perhaps his judgment that I ought to take notice of whatever this was.
Another twitch, more shedding of snow, and I saw that he was right. Jet-black hair lay beneath a powdering of white. I dismounted, my Sharps carbine at the ready, and gently prodded a snow-covered shoulder with the toe of my boot. No response.
I knelt, still cautious, and turned the body on its side. The face revealed was pale as ivory, eyes closed, with a knife slash and swelling purple bruise extending from the narrow jaw up over a delicate cheekbone.
A child? A female child? I dropped my carbine and brushed away snow with both hands. She wore a quilted jacket and cotton trousers, much too thin for the weather. I shed one elkhide glove and slipped a hand under the flimsy covering, looking for a heartbeat. The curve of her breast told me that she was, in fact, no child. I looked closer at her face and realized that she must be from the Chinatown section of Dutch Flat, populated by immigrants who had come first for the mining, then for the building of the railroad.
I touched a finger to her exposed throat. Cold. Cold as death. But not dead, not quite, not yet. A tremor of a pulse still stirred the smooth skin.
Dusk was deepening into night, and the swirling snow had intensified. There was no time for any but the most cursory search for other injuries. I lifted her slight form across my shoulder, retrieved my carbine, and contrived to mount one-handed. Ulysses started forward, needing no more direction than my knees and heels provided.
She was so pale, so cold... With only a moment's hesitation I pulled open my coat and hugged her to my chest, closing the sheepskin around her. She stirred a bit, curling instinctively closer to my warm body. Then, eyes still tight-closed, she slipped her arms around me as far as they could reach and nestled her uninjured cheek against my breast.
Some strange force leapt inside me. Beneath my woolen shirt my flesh stirred and swelled under the pressure of her head. Lust, tenderness, perhaps some vestigial instinct for nurturance, warred with fear of discovery.
In spite of sore temptation I had never trusted even the most appealing of whores with my secret. I knew some would have been as glad of my attentions as of my money; other women had been, from time to time, even in the War. I had not been the only female-born to take on a man's role and enlist. Not all of us had been following male sweethearts, either, and some of us had found each other and taken brief comfort amidst the hell of war.
By the time we reached town I had decided that my fears were unfounded. She was still unconscious, and, in any case, might well not even speak or understand English. Once I had taken her to safety, it was unlikely that I would encounter her again. My arms felt strangely reluctant at the thought of releasing her, though, and I began to consider where, after all, she would be safe.
Ulysses had headed out of habit toward the one place where we were always welcome. Doc Warren was the only inhabitant of Dutch Flat, or California, or anywhere west of the Hudson River, who knew my full identity, having nursed me through a fever when I'd first come west. He'd been willing to keep my secret, whether from some sense of medical ethics or an inclination toward solidarity with a fellow soldier. As a military doctor he'd seen as much of the horrors of the war as any rifleman. Maybe more.
We'd become friends, having more in common than not in spite of the twenty years difference in our ages. I often stayed with him when I came to town for supplies. In any case, where better to take an injured girl than to a doctor's house? But the Chinese, I knew, had doctors too, with their own strange medical ways. And someone in Chinatown might well be searching for this girl.
I very nearly turned Ulysses away from his accustomed route and toward the settlement across the tracks, with its Joss house temples, Chinese merchandise stores, gambling halls, restaurants, laundries, apothecaries, brothels, and opium dens. Then I looked down at the ravaged face so close to mine and realized that someone had slashed her, had committed mayhem, quite deliberately. And that either she had been running away, or someone had dumped her outside of town in the bitter cold with night and a snowstorm coming on. I would not deliver her back to that former life without finding out more.
She moved a little in my arms and gripped me harder, though her eyes were still closed. I felt a surge of protectiveness; no more, I told myself, than anyone might feel for some kitten or pup plucked from destruction. But a tingling in my body, a stab of longing where the weight of her hips pressed against me, told me that I lied.
Doc had rooms and an office at the back of the building housing the post office. To my relief, there was a lamp lit in his window. I'd worried that he might be off tending to injuries or delivering babies.
He was slow to answer the thump of my boot against his door. Once inside I could see by the dilated pupils of his eyes that he had been dosing himself with laudanum or some such pharmaceutical. I'd be the last to blame a man for trying to dull recurring dreams of the horrors of war, or the other miseries doctors must witness, but it was still early in the evening, and somebody might have needed him. Somebody did need him.
"What's all this, Jack?" he said, his words only a little slurred. I lay my burden on his sofa and turned to see him shaking the fog from his head. An odd look passed across his face as he focused on the girl, and he hesitated for a long moment, but his hands seemed steady enough when finally he bent over her to explore her injuries.
"I found her about a mile out along the Bear River trail," I said. "Or you might say Ulysses found her. She was covered in snow, lying where she'd either fallen or been dumped." The rough anger in my voice might have been roused entirely by those who had done such a thing, or a little may have been aimed at Doc himself.
He straightened up wearily. "You go get Ulysses settled in while I make us some coffee. Might have a bit of tea around here for the girl, too. A hot drink inside her is the first thing she needs."
I nodded, then wished I hadn't when snow melt dripped from my hat. Fifteen minutes later, back from Ed Sawyer's livery stable two streets away, I left my hat and coat on the stand by the door after shaking off the snow on the doorstep.
Coffee was brewing on the black iron stove, beside a great kettle of steaming water. Doc had spread a blanket over the girl and was kneeling by the sofa applying unguent and bandages to her injured face.
I hauled my gear into Doc's spare room. My shirt was wet from clutching a snow-covered body against it, so I dug a dry one from my pack, and, as was my habit in adjusting to the role of an upstanding male member of the community, I dealt firmly with the most obvious evidence to the contrary by binding my chest tightly with cotton bands.
"Give me a hand here, Jack," Doc said when I emerged. "She's coming around. You sit there and prop her up."
At first glance it looked to me as though she was still out cold, but then I detected a glint behind her long lashes, and felt her gaze track my movement across the room. I edged onto the sofa, raising her shoulders just enough to slide my thighs beneath them. When she didn't seem to object I pulled her higher against me until she was sitting on my lap. Her uninjured cheek lay against my collarbone and her black hair brushed my throat and chin.
It seemed somehow so natural a position, restful and stimulating both at once, that Doc's return with the tea felt almost like an intrusion. But faint spasms of shivering swept her body every few seconds, and I knew he was right about the need to warm her. Not that alternative methods of doing so didn't occupy my mind.
"Drink this," Doc said with firm authority. I noticed that his hand holding the cup wasn't altogether steady. The girl's nostrils twitched as she inhaled the steam suspiciously, and her lips remained stubbornly closed. Even I could detect the scent of some herbal soporific.
"Let me," I said, taking the cup. "Open up, now."
She tilted her head back until she could gaze up into my face. Her dark almond-shaped eyes were intent with some emotion I couldn't decipher, but whatever she saw seemed to satisfy her. She lowered her mouth to the rim of the cup and drank as I tipped it toward her.
"You make a fine nurse, Jack," Doc said. "Now see if you can get her clothes off."
I looked sharply at him to see whether this was some sort of joke. There was a wry sort of smile on his face, but when he went to the kitchen pump to half-fill a copper hip-bath with buckets of water and then turned the contents of the steaming kettle into it, I understood what he was about.
She let me unfasten her jacket and slide her cotton trousers down her hips, not merely placidly, as the herbs might dictate, but with an appearance of languid pleasure. A little smile curved her lips very briefly, though she winced at the pain this caused her cheek. When she lifted her small round buttocks to let me ease the fabric past them her fragrance was so inviting that I was hard put to resist lowering my face to taste the musky sweetness between her thighs.
Doc Warren kept his back discreetly turned until I had her in the bath. When he turned back he his demeanor was professional enough. I tried to follow his lead, though the slender grace of her body and the smoothness of her honey-hued skin had my pulses pounding. Her breasts above the water were small but beautifully shaped, rounder than I would have expected from such observations as I'd made of the few Chinese women seen on the streets of the town.
Doc shot me a sardonic glance, appreciating, I knew, the irony that my presence bolstered the proprieties in a literal sense, since I had a woman's body, but smashed them to bits in terms of a lustful gaze.
"Is she going to be all right?" I asked gruffly. "No frostbite?" Her feet had been blue-tinged, but were now turning bright pink in the hot water, and her color in general seemed to have improved.
"I'd say you and Ulysses found her just in time," he said. "I think she'd been running away, not dumped, and fell not long before you happened by. The snow was building up fast just then. She'll do fine in that respect."
His tone warned me of some deeper concern. "How about her face?" I asked. "She'll be scarred, I know, but..."
"The face will heal, more or less," he said. "The slash isn't all that deep. But yes, there'll be scarring. She'll never work again in Madame Yee's House of Flowers, or any other."
Well, I couldn't say I was much surprised. "So you know she worked in a brothel?"
"Jack, I know all too much about her, and you'd better know it, too." Doc rubbed his face wearily. "It was a fine thing you did, saving her from freezing to death, but I'm not sure you did her any favor at all."
He reached for a blanket left handy over a nearby chair. "Let's get her dried off and bedded down. She's about asleep as it is. Then we'll talk." As I rolled her in the blanket and then unrolled her into dry quilts on the bed, I saw half-healed lash-stripes across her back and flanks, and wondered angrily how any brothel proprietor could have allowed such damage, if only because it would decrease her value.
When we sat by the stove with cups of hot coffee and a plate of cold ham and biscuits, Doc was silent for a while. I was on the verge of pushing him for an explanation when he said abruptly, "Did anyone see you carrying her through town?"
"Not that I noticed," I said. "Ulysses did all the navigating. If there were folks about they'd have had their hats pulled down against the snow just as I did. And if they did see me, I'd guess I only looked about as bearlike as usual, hunched against the cold and wind with her close inside my greatcoat."
"That's just as well, then," Doc said, "or she'd be lucky to see another dawn. And so would we, if I'm any judge of how you'd react when they came to get her."
"Who'd be after her?" But I knew part of the answer. Someone who had tried to ruin her face. Someone who wasn't going to touch her again, not without going through me first.
Turned out, of course, there was more to it than that. The Tong Wars of San Francisco's Chinatown had spread to the Sierra gold fields. Business owners in thriving towns like Dutch Flat could be coerced into paying "protection" money as readily as those in the city, and a town official might take the opportunity to get his share of what was going in return for turning a blind eye toward illicit activities.
Hong Lian, Red Lotus, had been part of one such arrangement, a "gift" from a Tong chief to the sheriff who had taken a fancy to her at Madame Yee's. Reportedly he'd taken a few other things to her as well, and when it came to spurs she'd rebelled. Doc Warren had spent the day working on the sheriff, trying to repair injuries caused by sharp fingernails and teeth so savage they'd come close to inflicting the kind of wounds rumored to be the cause of my own minor deviations from standard manhood.
"So both the law and the Tong are after her," Doc said. "The Tong has already marked her, as a lesson to others, but they've by no means finished with her. Running may have been her only chance to choose the manner of her death. She might even try to run again."
"Then I'd better watch close to be sure she doesn't," I said curtly.
Mind and body too tired and conflicted for useful thought, I went and lay beside her on the bed, fully clothed. Near morning I woke to find that a blanket had been laid across me, but I was still cold, and burrowed quietly under the rest of the quilts. When sun slanted through the window I found a slim, naked body wrapped in my arms and a knee nudged against the damp crotch of my Levi Strauss canvas trousers.
Doc had left coffee and cornbread in the kitchen, along with a note. "Think hard and fast, Jack. And keep her quiet. We're in deeper than a bull in a heifer."
I blessed him for that "we're" and for his wry humor. I'd brought trouble to his doorstep, and he'd taken it in, both as doctor and as friend.
A tin of tea leaves sat on the table. I did my best to brew a cup, thinking to take it to the invalid, but before I got to the bedroom door she was standing there, wrapped in a quilt, long dark hair tousled about her face and shoulders.
"Jack?" she said experimentally. Her voice was high and sweet.
"Jack," I agreed, nodding.
She put a hand to her own chest. "Hong Lian", she said, or at least it sounded close enough to the way Doc had pronounced the name last night. I didn't think I could get my mouth around it just yet.
"Red Lotus?" I asked, and she nodded back at me.
"Lo-tus," she said, coming forward to take the cup from me. For all that she drank daintily, and was somewhat impeded by her injury, the tea seemed to disappear in a flash. She walked to the kitchen table, set down the cup, and turned back to me, loosing her grip on the quilt a bit so that it fell open to show her nakedness.
Thinking what to do—thinking rationally about anything at all—was about to get harder than ever I'd dreamed. And the voice in need of quieting would turn out to be my own.
Lotus raised the edges of her covering like wings, and came toward me. Her warm scent flooded my senses. She got so close she had to tilt her head back to look into my face. "Jack," she said again, and raised a hand to my cheek, letting go one corner of the quilt. Her stroke on my skin felt like the taste of warm honey. "Mei-lai," she whispered.
I had no time to wonder what the word meant. Her hand descended over my jaw, my throat, across my breasts, making them surge as though they'd burst their bindings. Then she was kneeling before me, both hands on my belt buckle, murmuring more words I couldn't have understood even if blood hadn't been pounding in my head so loud I could scarcely hear.
A few panicked thoughts still pierced through the turmoil. What was she expecting to find? Did she know by now who, or what, I was? Or did she plan to use me as she had the sheriff, in order to escape? The thought of her sharp little teeth in my flesh made me wince even as my wetness flowed.
Then her fingers slid inside the unbuttoned fly of my trousers, and found me, and I barely stifled a yelp. The busy post office was a thin wall away, and the clop of hooves and stamp of boots, slightly muffled by last night's snow, came in from the nearby street. I could hear an indistinct buzz of voices; mine would surely be heard as well if I raised it.
But her fingers moved more insistently, and her little red tongue thrust its way in beside them. Her other hand still worked at my belt buckle. Any minute I would be in a state of helpless glory, hobbled by pleasure and my trousers about my ankles.
With a low growl I lifted her to her feet, and then so high along my body that her soft throat was against my hungry lips. Her laughter vibrated right into my mouth. She wriggled, but not in resistance, as I carried her back to the bed.
My clothes were off before I knew it, and we were rolling naked together. She looked so small and fragile, in spite of her full round breasts and gently curving belly, that I was afraid I might crush her with my bulk. But she seemed infinitely resilient, thrusting her hips upward toward the pressure of my thigh between her legs, arching her neck to grasp one swollen nipple and then another in her hot mouth. When she sucked hard, then harder, with a hint of grazing teeth, I groaned, and bucked until the creaking of the bedstead might have been heard in the street. It took only a few thrusts of the fingers she had worked between us to send such stabs of pleasure coursing through me that my teeth clenched in my own forearm to stifle cries that would have resounded like the roar of an angry grizzly.
In a state of gasping collapse I rolled from her body, and suddenly she was on top of me, all over me, kneeling astride at one moment to streak my belly with her juices, then sitting beside me, leaning to plant little kisses from knees to swampy crotch to breasts and chin and lips.
"Mei-lai," she murmured, again and again. I wondered whether it was some former lover's name, but then all thought fled as she shifted her body upward and straddled my face. I steadied her small round buttocks with hands that encompassed the whole of their curves. My lips worked against her nether ones, and her hips wriggled wildly as I thrust my long tongue up into her streaming heat, until the spasms sweeping her shook my head from side to side in the fierce grip of her thighs. Her rapid cries, though no louder than a mewling kitten's, still pierced me to my core.
We had barely time to recover before Doc Warren returned from his rounds. We were clothed, but the air must have reeked of what we'd been up to, even though we'd managed to heat water and wash up a bit.
"No need to ask," Doc said dryly, "What kind of thinking you've been doing." He went to the cupboard for sticking-plaster to repair the bandage that had loosened a bit from Lotus's cheek. "Whatever you're going to do, you'd better do it fast. Snow's not all that deep from yesterday's storm, but Many Bearclaws over at the livery stable says there's a big one brewing, due by morning."
The old Indian was seldom wrong about the weather. And mention of the stable reminded me that there was no point in my staying hidden, since Ulysses' presence there was advertisement enough that I was in town. The sooner I was seen out and about the less suspicion there'd be, and, in any case, I needed to pick up the provisions I'd come for. As well as a few more.
Doc would be holding office hours in the room next door. "Stay in the bedroom," I ordered Lotus, who pouted a bit and then grimaced at the pain it caused her cheek. Whether she understood the words or not, she clearly understood their meaning when I bound her leg to the bedstead with my belt. She could easily enough get free, but she could also count on my returning for the belt. And for her.
I went off into town, hoping my coat hid the rope holding up my trousers. A stop at the bank with my little sack of gold nuggets and dust came first. Then I lugged my sacks of cornmeal and beans and a bit of salt and sugar from the general store along the wood plank sidewalk, returning greetings from acquaintances ranging from gamblers to church ladies. Once back at the livery stable, I deposited my supplies next to Ulysses' stall. "A couple more parcels will be delivered from the store," I told Ed Sawyer. "I'll be packing up tomorrow morning at first light to get ahead of the worst of the storm." Old Many Bearclaws, tending an injured horse a couple of stalls away, grunted skeptically.
Then, instead of going toward Doc's place, I found myself veering toward Chinatown. I'd been there before, out of curiosity; now I went right for a general merchandise store and picked up a big sack of rice and a few tins of tea. I waited to pay while the old woman at the counter stroked a length of embroidered silk a customer was considering. "Mei-lai, mei-lai," she said, over and over. My skin tingled. "Mei-lai?" I asked, as well as I could manage, when the potential customer had left without purchasing. "What does that mean?" She gave me a shrewd, considering look. "Beau-ti-ful," she said at last.
My parcel, when I departed, contained the silk fabric tucked beneath the rice and tea. Beautiful. Never, even in the days when I'd been young and generally acknowledged to be female in spite of my size and gawkiness, had anyone thought to call me beautiful.
It was still three hours until first light when I fetched Ulysses at the stable and loaded him. The snow was just beginning. Doc helped me add on what was still at his place, largely in silence, having done his duty the night before by trying, without conviction, to deter me.
"How much do you really know about this woman?" he'd asked. "How can you be sure she won't knife you in the back and take off with your horse?"
"I know my horse," I'd said shortly. He hadn't bothered to point out that there could still be a knife in my back before she found out that Ulysses wouldn't cooperate.
When we'd about finished loading, though, he played his trump card. "Know anything about birthing babies?" he asked, with studied casualness.
I thought about Lotus's rounded breasts and curving belly, and understood what he meant. I won't deny that a pang of anxiety struck me, along with a pang of something else made up of both joy and sorrow. I tucked those thoughts away for future reflection. "I've helped deliver foals, and been with my sisters for a few of theirs. I can manage." There was no point worrying about it now, at any rate. The choice was clear.
"Well," Doc said, "if this can all be smoothed over in time, with people moving on and enough money in the right hands, maybe you'll be able to come back. Let folks see Jack Elliott with his woman and child. Stir ’em up a bit." He slapped my flank companionably and grinned.
When we were mounted on Ulysses Lotus was wrapped again inside my coat. I was the one who must have looked to be with child, but there was nobody about yet to see.
Ulysses shifted a bit, getting the feel of the heavy load of passengers and supplies. If need be, once we were safely away and snow covering our tracks, I'd dismount and walk a good deal of the way to my cabin in the distant hills, but I trusted him to get us that far. He'd been the one to get me into this, after all.
Doc walked beside us for a few paces. "You're sure, Jack?" he said one last time.
"I'm sure," I said. "This is what I want. I keep what I find." Lotus tightened her grip on me under the coat. Her voice still whispered through my mind. "Mei-lai," she'd said, and shown how she'd meant it. And I keep what's found me, I thought. With scarcely a signal from reins or heels, Ulysses quickened his pace, and we were on our way home.
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