Miss Elizabeth Smith adjusted the buttons on her dress. She patted her neat, practical skirt releasing a billow of fine dust. It was everywhere. It was from the road, and the hills behind the town; it swept in with each breeze, it covered windows and fresh laundry and food just laid out for supper. It was always in your teeth and nose and eyes. It swirled in just-drawn well water.
Elizabeth decided to finally cross the road. A loose horse wandered across her path, with bridle and saddle, and with reigns dragging up yet more dust. It's owner was sleeping a few feet away, besotted drunk and snoring in a dry water trough. Elizabeth found a small sense of self-satisfaction when she thought of him waking up to find himself rather badly sunburnt from his lengthy midday nap. There was no other traffic. She headed towards the tinny player piano music coming from the saloon. When she reached the boards her smart leather boots echoed like a ticking grandfather clock in an empty room just after midnight. She stopped at the swinging doors, stood in silhouette. Shrill and deep voices laughed out from within. She pushed in.
It took a moment for anyone to realize she was there.
"Ahem," she said. She wasn't sure how to address the saloon occupants, and they paid her no heed in any case, so she settled on "Dear neighbors," again no one looked her way, so louder she said, "Dear neighbors!" but found no response. Finally she put fingers to her lips and whistled as loudly as she could, as if she were summoning the pigs to their slop back at the farm in Liberty.
Everyone looked her way. There was the Reverend Stokes, red-faced and slumped at the bar, who looked up at her blearily, licked his lips, and wiped his grubby fingers on his severely stained shirt. The barman who stood beneath a large painting of two very naked and very well-endowed women lounging an a capacious divan, glared at her and narrowed his steely eyes. Elizabeth did not know his name, but he was an imposing, muscular fellow with an impressive handlebar mustache. There was a card game in progress at a felt covered table. The players were mostly shady-looking passers-through that Elizabeth did not recognize. The dealer was the man who ran the general store, a Mr. Pike, if that was his real name, and he was known to shamelessly cheat passers-through, whether through cards, buying their goods at dirt-bottom prices, or selling them goods at exorbitant rates that fluctuated with the perceived gullibility of the particular passer-through. He even took bets from the other townsfolk on how gullible the strangers were, and won most of them. There was Nell, a prostitute, who had failed to dress beyond her dusty underthings who stood close behind one of the card players, giving hand signals to Mr. Pike. She took a puff on her large cigar, then put her hands on her hips and smirked condescendingly at Elizabeth. There was also Amy, another prostitute who sat at the player piano, at least clothed in a gaudy pink satin dress. She had a sour look on her face, as if her focus had been severely inopportuned upon, even if all she did (at least in the saloon) was crank the piano. She laid her hands on the paper roll in the piano and stopped it's cylindrical progress. The music slowly died out. Reverend Stokes hiccupped. Elizabeth could hear the barman's pocket watch ticking. A bird cried out ominously in the distance.
"Looky here! It's our school marm! Miss Betsy!" belched out Reverend Stokes. Nell and Mr. Pike guffawed. "To what, ma'am, do we owe the honor of your presence in this fine establish-establish-establishm--this saloon?" He looked at her with a sickly grin on his face. The barman crossed his arms, flexed his chest muscles, and looked at her expectantly.
"It's Miss Smith, Reverend, sir. I would thank you to remember it," said Elizabeth.
"Betsy, Betsy, Betsy!" taunted Nell before laughing shrilling once more.
"Oh my dear, Miss Smith, please forgive me," said the Reverend, managing a tottering bow from his seat.
"Why are you here?" asked the barman impatiently, in baritone hiss so deep that Elizabeth could feel it tickle her jawbone. It was disconcerting.
"Well, to get to the point," she wavered, hesitated, and started sweating. She continued with, "dear neighbors, I've come to ask for your support for building the schoolhouse."
"Ain't you just did that at church?" asked Amy. This particular selection and order of words grated against Elizabeth's brain, sending a shiver down her spine.
"Well, since no one actually comes to church that's been rather difficult to do," said Elizabeth, uncomfortable and exasperated. "Not even the Reverend." She looked over at him with raised eyebrows.
"Yeah," said Nell, "he's usually under the sheets with fat Maggie on Sunday mornings!" Nell and Mr. Pike guffawed again.
"It's true!" said Reverend Stokes, giggling. He clapped his hands together and gazed upward, suddenly solemn. "Yes, Lord, I have sinned," he looked back at Elizabeth with a grin, "but damn has it been worth it!" Laughter peeled out of the saloon again.
"Well, be that as it may, the children deserve to have a proper place in which to learn--"
"What's wrong with the drawing room at our cathouse?" asked Amy.
"It's not appropriate, what with, uh, gentlemen coming in and out," there was a spattering of giggles throughout the room, "at all hours of night and day. Honestly I don't even know how any of them get a full night's rest with all the constant commotion."
"What do you care about those brats? We just pay you to teach 'em to read and write and count. What does it matter where you teach 'em?" asked Mr. Pike.
"They are my pupils Mr. Pike, and I care very deeply about them. They are also this town's children, even if no one is willing to officially claim them. They are the future of this town and you too should care about their intellectual development."
Nell laughed out again. "Miss Betsy, dearest dear, perhaps you don't realize the future of this town. It's always gonna be a dust-clogged little pimple of civilization. Those little girls will be working the beds, and those little boys will being buying up their hours, just as we all do now. You're delusional if you thinks it's gonna be any other way." She took another puff on her cigar. "And I'm a little insulted that you would think this isn't a perfectly fine way to live."
"Yeah," seconded Amy. "We ain't hurting nobody. We ain't even breaking the law!"
"Well," said Elizabeth, shaking with anger, "I don't wish to disrespect your perspective, or your, uh, profession. However, I'm sure if you gave the children more time and opportunity, and a proper place to study you would see them blossom into--" She was drowned out by laughter. When it died down, Mr. Pike spoke.
"I tell you what, Miss Smith, I will pay for the cost of the construction of a schoolhouse, if," he paused, "you accept and win a wager of my choice, sight unseen."
"Ooh," said Nell, "this should be good!"
"Mr. Pike, What is your wager?"
"Oh no, you have to agree to it before I tell you what it is."
"That's not fair at all sir!"
"I promise, it won't be so bad, and if you lose, you will come to no physical harm," said Mr. Pike. Nell laughed out again. "And it won't be that, I promise. I would never want to be the one responsible for the ruination of your virtue," everyone laughed again, except of course Elizabeth.
"I don't trust you," she said.
"Well, think of it this way, Miss Smith, you have the chance to pay for your schoolhouse without having to ever bother any of us about it again," he said. Elizabeth thought a moment. Her stomach flopped over.
"Alright Mr. Pike, I accept your wager, whatever it is, and I will hold you to each of your promises." A cheer went through the room.
"Excellent choice Miss Smith. All we need do is flip a coin. If it's tails, you win. If it's heads, you have to disrobe, and stand naked in the middle of this table for one full hour while we finish our game." Everyone laughed again.
"An hour's not bad," said Reverend Stokes, undressing Elizabeth with his eyes.
"And it ain't nothing we've never seen before!" guffawed Nell. More laughter.
"Fine. If it's for the children," said Elizabeth. Mr. Pike withdrew a coin from his pocket.
"Wait!" bellowed the barman in baritone. Everyone turned to look at him as he stepped from behind the bar. "I happen to know you have a two-headed nickel," he rasped. He walked over to the table and slapped down a silver dollar. "Use this instead." He turned to Elizabeth and winked.
"Hey!" said one of the passers-through, slapping down his hand of cards in indignation.
"I assure you sir, I have never cheated you!" said Mr. Pike, carefully replacing the nickel to it's usual resting spot in his vest pocket. The passer-through lunged at Mr. Pike while simultaneously and expertly drawing his gun and pointing it against Mr. Pike's temple. The other men at the table all stood up, and Nell retreated to the relative safety of the piano. The passer-through ripped the nickel from Mr. Pike's pocket and examined it, before throwing it down on the table.
"It does have two heads! I want my twenty dollars back!"
"Sir, please, I assure you--"
"No! I am not satisfied. You're going to give me my money back, and you're going to let the little Miss flip that dollar, and you're going to honor the outcome, or me and my brothers will be back with a rope just long enough to hang you! We're just in the next county so we ain't got long to ride to come find you again!"
"Sir please! You're getting spittle on my shirt!"
"Miss, come flip it!" yelled the passer-through. Elizabeth approached with trepidation. She picked up the coin from the felt, and examined it to make sure that this one possessed both a head and a tail. She looked around at all the faces in the room, and they all looked back at her expectantly.
"I will hold you to your word as well Mr. Pike," she said.
"Okay," grunted Mr. Pike reluctantly. "Let's just get this over with. This gun barrel is itching at me." Elizabeth placed the coin over her thumb and flicked it tumbling upward. All eyes followed it up, then down. Elizabeth looked at the result impassively.
"So, what is it?" asked Amy.
"Tails," said the barman as he picked up his dollar. A grin broke over Elizabeth's face. The passer-through released Mr. Pike, throwing him to the ground. "I think it'd be best if you left now Miss."
"I think so too," said Elizabeth. "And thank you for helping me sir."
"Yeah, I don't like him either. It was fun to see him wriggle like the worm he is." The barman laughed deeply. Elizbeth nodded to him, and left the saloon. As she walked back to the cathouse and her waiting charges, the player piano started up again, dust eddied in the air, and all was as it was before.
Someone's rather happy dog video, employing this song