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A half hour later Court had again halted his horse, this time in the middle of Copper Street. As he leaned forward to pat the trembling muscles of the animal's shoulder, he stared at the remains of the building that had housed his office. The sign "Aaron Court, Attorney at Law" lay in the street, blackened, half devoured by the flames; the building was a skewed shell with a few tongues of fire licking indifferently at what remained of the frame; in the center among the ashes was his safe, glowing red with a lifeof its own, blackening the papers inside, no doubt. Court made no move toward the legal records of his clients. Time enough tomorrow to see to that, and in the interim there was little likelihood that anyone would try to haul off or break into that uninviting piece of incandescent metal.
All around him his fellow citizens milled frantically; they called out commiserations to one another and to him; they threw futile buckets of water at doomed structures; they sweated and cursed and scrubbed ineffectively at soot-blackened faces. But Court rested calmly in his saddle, an island of cold philosophical acceptance in the midst of frantic emotion. He gentled his nervous horse with one hand and unbuttoned his sheepskin jacket with the other, for the air on Copper Street rippled with heat, although the night was chill. Once he had calculated what it would cost him to rebuild the structure devoured by the fire, Court nodded absently to several people who had spoken to him, and then he turned his horse toward the sound of dynamite. He presumed that someone was attempting to create a firebreak and save the southern end of the town before the icy spring wind drove the fire on. Two blocks down he spotted the town's one Silsby fire engine spraying water on a hardware store whose stock had been bought with Court's money. He added the hardware inventory to his losses since that battle, though still being fought, was hopeless.
To his left on the next block he could see that the Fallen Angel was in flames. He remembered well enough the arrival in Amnonville of Lilith Moran some years back, not so many months after he had followed a gold strike there from Denver himself. She had built the first Fallen Angel and announced that although she preferred to be paid in gold, a man who wished to avail himself of the pleasures of her establishment could also pay in real property, and she had named the place accordingly. "Moran's Land, Cattle, Claim and Fallen Angel Company" could be seen still in ornate gold script across the burning exterior, and many a male resident of Amnonville, temporarily out of funds, had left a valuable title in her safe in exchange for the ministrations of her "fallen angels." Although Court owned no stock in her "company," he mourned its loss, for Lilith Moran was a beautiful woman--a madam with a head for business, some strange preferences in bed, and a lively sense of humor when she chose to give it rein, and her Fallen Angel Company was the town's most elegant saloon, dance hall, gambling parlor and whorehouse. Its demise would be an incalculable loss to the social life of Amnonville, at least that portion which Court found worth pursuing--not that Lilith wouldn't open up in a tent as she had after previous fires, but a tent, especially with winter still lingering into spring, would not, could not provide the same atmosphere and comfort that--
Court reined his horse sharply as he drew even with the whorehouse. The first floor was completely aflame inside and out, and fire was climbing the white columns and leaping into the balcony where the prostitutes had displayed themselves and their finery on sunny days. In the middle of this balcony appeared one slender girl, wearing a long white nightgown--her hand covering her mouth, her eyes wide with terror, and her long black hair flowing around her. She stood transfixed about six steps from the railing with the fire a menacing backdrop.
Court jammed his black hat over the new horse's eyes, dragged the animal's head toward the building, and applied his spurs. "Jump!" he called out sharply to the girl. She stared at him, but she did not move. "Come on," he commanded again as he maneuvered the terrified horse toward the balcony. She edged closer to the railing, staring fearfully down at him with huge blue eyes. The flames behind her and to the sides of her framed her in a pulsing red glow, making her hair gleam and seem to flicker. Except for the small fingertips peeking from beneath lace ruffles at her wrists, the bare toes beneath the embroidered hem, and the lovely frightened face above the high lace at the neck, her gown covered her completely in modest white. Then a sudden gust of wind molded the fabric to her body. Court caught his breath in surprised admiration as he looked up at her; she was the most beautiful girl Lilith had ever brought to the brothel, more beautiful than Lilith herself.
"You have to jump," he called to her. "The balcony won't hold much longer."
The girl glanced fearfully to either side and saw the flame fingers edging closer, reaching out for her. Again she moved a few steps and touched the railing, measuring the distance of the fall. "I'll catch you," Court assured her, but she seemed not to believe it possible. Instead of jumping she climbed over the rail, planting her toes carefully between the spindles and clinging with one hand as she clutched the skirt of her nightgown around her legs at knee level. "For God's sake, girl, hurry," he shouted urgently. The fire to her left was now eating along the railing toward her. The young woman let go of her skirt and lowered herself hesitantly with both hands, releasing her foothold just as the flames curled into the lace at her wrist. The sudden pain brought a scream, and she let go abruptly and plummeted into his arms.
Because Court had seen that she was afire, he whirled his frightened horse and dumped the girl within seconds into the water trough in front of the blazing building. That instant reaction effectively put out the flames that seared her arm, but her screams had been cut off a second before when her head hit the hard wooden edge of the trough. Cursing, he dismounted and lifted her from the shallow water; then kneeling in the street with her wet body limp in his arms, he leaned close to her face and felt her warm breath on his cheek. She was unconscious; her arm was burned, how badly he could not tell; but she was alive. Court struggled up, managing to lift her with him into the saddle, and headed toward the doctor's office, which, when he finally worked his way through the milling, panic-stricken crowds of people and animals in the street, proved to have suffered the same devastation as his own office and the whorehouse.
"Where's the doctor?" he shouted to a man standing at his stirrup, staring at the flaming collapse of Amnonville's one medical facility.
The man looked up, first at Court, then at the girl. "Been doing a little looting over in Crib Alley?" he asked, grinning.
Court ignored the implication that he had abducted a whore for himself while the city was burning down. "The doctor?" he again demanded.
"Dead most likely," replied the man who, having lost interest in Court and his unexplained, bedraggled female companion, had turned back to the fire.
"It's a hell of a time for him to pick to die," Court muttered.
"Building collapsed on him when he went back in after a patient," said the man.
Court turned his horse around and headed toward his own house, which was just beyond the town on the south side and, therefore, presumably still standing. The girl's wet body was growing cold in his arms despite the heat all around them, and in fact his own clothing, where it was damp from contact with her, was uncomfortably cold. He decided to do what he could for her himself and then to come back to town to find help if she seemed to need it, although where help could be found with the town's one doctor dead--Court snapped his fingers. All he had to do was find Lilith; the girl was her responsibility, after all. In fact, Lilith would owe him a favor for saving such an obviously valuable business asset.
He spotted a friend in a water bucket line and shouted to him, "Henry, have you seen Lilith Moran?"
The man had just filled his bucket from a cistern sunk in the street for fire-fighting purposes. When he heard Court, he passed the bucket to the next man and stepped out of line, pausing to wipe sweat and ash from his forehead and clap his hat back on his head. "By God, Aaron, you're a cool one," he remarked. "Here the whole damned town's burning down, both cisterns are running low, the river's too far from the fire to do much good, and you're out looking for a woman. Ain't one enough for you?" He gestured to the girl that Court was holding across his saddle.
Court frowned. "That's not--"
"Won't do you no good anyway. Lil's out of business--at least for tonight. Her place was burning down last I--"
"I know that."
"And I ain't seen her."
Where Court's hand rested on the girl's ribs, she felt icy, and he was afraid to waste any more time looking for Lilith, so he turned his horse south again and rode into the undamaged section of town and finally into the outskirts where he owned a substantial log house in which he lived when he was in Amnonville. The outside of the house was dimly lit by the lurid red glow of the fire, but the inside was dark, and Court had to tread carefully in the central hall and through the door to his bedroom, where he laid the unconscious girl gently on his bed. After spreading a blanket over her, he hurried back out to stable his horse. Finally he returned, lit lamps in the house, and frowned thoughtfully at the girl as he stripped off his damp clothes and put on a heavy woolen shirt and a pair of trousers that would be more comfortable and more serviceable than a black suit for lighting fires, tending the injured, or escaping to the mountains--whatever the night had in store for him.
The girl was still unconscious when he went over to inspect her injuries, and she failed to stir as he moved his fingers carefully through her tumbled black hair until he located the swelling on the side of her head where she had hit the water trough with a jarring impact. Next Court removed the cover and carefully cut the white, wet nightgown away from her body with his knife, taking special care when he was removing the remains of the sleeve from her burned arm. The gown, he noticed with interest, was of fine linen, intricately embroidered and edged with delicate lace at wrist and throat. It was a very modest and expensive piece of clothing for a whore to be wearing, especially since Lilith's fallen angels never bothered with nightgowns--at least when entertaining customers. Court's eyes twinkled as he reminded himself that Lilith was an innovative madam and perhaps had decided that this girl might bring in more money and intrigue her customers more in her virginal white gown than in the revealing and gaudy clothing usually worn by her colleagues. Lilith was probably right. The girl was special--not only because of her great beauty, but because she had a fresh unused look about her face and body.
He turned his attention to the arm, which had a nasty burn from the wrist upward. She was lucky at that; her hand was almost untouched, and the flame had only moved six inches up the arm before he had dropped her into the water. Had her hair caught fire--he shook his head and went to a medicine chest where he had a burn salve that had been given to him by a Mexican friend who ran sheep in the mountains. Court covered the burn with a thick coating of the salve and wrapped the arm in clean linen handkerchiefs. Then he put the girl, naked, under the covers of the bed and went into the dining room to get himself a drink. He had no smelling salts with which to revive her, if that was possible, and was not sure that he would be doing her a service if he could revive her. Both the burn and the head injury were likely to be painful. In fact, he had no idea how serious the head injury might be. For all he knew, she might never regain consciousness. Again he wished that he had been able to find Lilith, and he considered leaving the girl to go back into town to--his thoughts were interrupted by a trace of sound from his bedroom. Court took his drink down the hall and found her stirring, her eyelids opening slightly and then falling closed again, the lashes a black smudge on pale cheeks.
He drew a chair up to the bed and sat there for perhaps five minutes, drinking, watching her, and speaking to her occasionally until at last she opened her eyes fully and seemed to be at least marginally aware of his presence, but even then she did not respond when he asked her name. "Do you remember what happened to you?" he persisted.
"No." Her voice was a soundless whisper, and she accompanied the answer with a shake of the head that caused her eyes to open wide and fill with tears.
"Better not move your head again," Court advised. "I pulled you off the balcony at Lilith's, and because you were afire, I dropped you in the horse trough. You hit your head." The girl did not seem to understand. "Does your arm hurt?"
"Yes," she whispered.
"What's your name?"
Again she gave no answer. The tears were slipping down her cheeks, and she began to toss fitfully, rolling her head on the pillow and whimpering unintelligibly to herself. She paid no attention when he told her to hold still. Not knowing what else to do, Court sat down on the bed beside her and held her shoulders down. Still her head rolled restlessly, so he transferred his left hand from her shoulder to her hair and held her head still in that fashion. Immobilized, the girl then looked up at him with vague, tear-filled eyes as if he were her tormentor, the cause of her pain, and Court stared back at her, disturbed and resentful. He could not see himself spending the night holding a weeping prostitute pinned to his bed, not for humanitarian purposes at any rate. Consequently, he decided that the decent and practical thing to do was to give the girl a good dose of opium, which would relieve her pain and probably put her to sleep as well so that he could go back to town and get Lilith to take her away.
He released her and went to the medicine chest for the bottle and then into the next room for a spoon, and all the time he was gone, the girl tossed and whimpered. But then his plan, designed to save himself as much trouble as possible, proved to be difficult to execute, for he had the very devil of a time getting the bitter dose into her, and when that was accomplished he had to hold her down again until the drug took effect. To avoid observing her pain, he stared at the wall and listed in his mind the properties he would need to check when he finally got back to town. That inventory could be accomplished while he searched for Lilith.
The soft skin and fragile bones of the girl's left shoulder under his hand were distracting, and the silky tangle of hair in his fingers, the fluttering pulse in her temple under his thumb, made him look at her from time to time. "We'll have to get together some night," he murmured to her. "What's your price?" The girl looked back, uncomprehending, but her restlessness was subsiding as the opium soothed her, and she gave him a dreaming smile. Court smiled back, and releasing her hair, he stroked her cheek and neck. "I reckon you're going to be just about the most popular girl in town," he told her. "You might just bring in enough to build the new Fallen Angel all by yourself." The girl's lashes drooped and rested on her cheeks, a last tear forced from underneath the lids; then she was asleep. Within five minutes Court left for town, locking the door behind him.
Posted December 2, 2012
Posted March 29, 2010
Once you get past the improbability of this story where everything is exaggerated to cartoon proportions, there really is a plot with characters and a storyline. The Hero is the gun slinging Dudley Duright type of always being there to rescue the maiden in distress. The heroine, perpetually innocent, and the criminal gang unbelievably bad and evil. I have read other stories by Elizabeth Chadwick and expected more from this oneWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 17, 2005
Posted March 26, 2010
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Posted June 21, 2010
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