Delia asked, “Do you have to work tonight Daniella?”
“No. It’s my night off. Cindy Brewster is on; you won’t know who she is as she’s only been in the area a few months. I’m just on call in case there is an unexpected crowd or some extra travelers to stop in. Been pretty quiet though so they shouldn’t need me.”
Emery nodded and said, “That Pinder guy made it seem like there’s been trouble. But Tito just shrugged it off and said there’s always trouble.”
“Yes and no. Trouble isn’t unusual here at the crossroads but this has been a busier month than usual. The militia, military, and a couple of other agencies got wind of … I guess some group thought they’d set up a sort of … well … it sounds really stupid but basically someone thought they were king and was going to do what they wanted to do … and what he wanted to do was run an illegal smuggling ring. He was bringing in drugs and other stuff down in Miami and transporting it up into Georgia where he apparently had contacts that would feed it out into other regions. I really don’t think it was the drugs that got him though … no one really cares these days if you want to pollute your mind so long as they don’t have to pay for your upkeep and any dopers that become a nuisance get assigned to work crews outside of their home area. The warrior king wannabe got on the radar because he was into human trafficking … bringing in girls from Central and South America … and the islands so I heard … and selling them as slaves. Taking white girls and selling them to overseas buyers. The thing that was the final straw was he brought in some girls that were carrying some kind of virus and there was a bad outbreak in Daytona as a result; about a hundred people ended up dying and maybe more as they are still trying to comb the ‘Glades where the girls were packed off to. We can’t afford to let other countries think they can just swarm our shores with their cast-offs or excess population or reclamation project. We’ve barely got the infrastructure for the people already here.”
Emery sighed. “It didn’t look that bad around here. Maybe I should …”
“If you are going to try and talk to someone about me or convince me to go live like a lady someplace else you can forget it. This is my home and until I have to find a different place to live this is where I will stay. Like I said, I’m not the kid I was when Delia left to marry you. And I’m a lot tougher than I look. But I’ll never forget that you cared. Just because I won’t do what you want doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the effort or thought.”
Then the boys came back before more of a fuss could be made and from that point onward time went so fast Danny could hardly believe it.
Before she knew it the boys had left for Gainesville, Delia and her family had left to return to their home near Pensacola taking Nita with them, and with the blink of an eye it was a month and then six months later. She didn’t hear from anyone as often as she wished but sending things by mail wasn’t cheap or very fast. Those areas that got their mail off the train had better service but it took forever and a blue moon for the mail to get from Leesburg to Wildwood and there was no pushing it faster with complaints or it was liable to take even longer.
Danny filled her days and nights with as much work as would fit. She’d never been alone before … felt alone yes, been alone no … and it was a feeling difficult to deal with constructively. Earning money to keep Joey in school and to give the others something to start off their lives with became her only reason for getting out of bed or for going to sleep; if she’d had her wish she would have lived on toast and yerba mate tea but she knew she couldn’t if she was going to still help her siblings.
Her garden was her one luxury and one pleasure but even it was a source of income. Her mother had been an accredited master gardener and taught classes at the community college and for the extension program. Danny was the only child that had inherited her love of growing things and after her mother’s death it was almost a shrine to the memory of the family to continue what her mother had started.
Then there were tips and she’d managed to invest a little and start her own line of sodas that she sold at Danner’s under an assumed name to keep people from saying their kids wouldn’t be drinking anything that a barmaid produced. Finding bottles was the most expensive part, and getting them back was even harder so she had to add a deposit to the price of each bottle. Danner agreed to take bottles in good condition in trade and since he made a little on the mark up when he resold them to Danny it hadn’t taken that much arm twisting to set the deal up.
It was during all of this wheeling and dealing that Danny discovered she had another talent and she began to dream of one day having a small wholesaler business where she could play middle man between those that had something and those that were looking for something … even if that something was merely information.
Danny still kept her ears open and heard things. She’d filter what she heard through Butch Pinder who only paid her in lectures until he was filled in by Mr. Hunter who, surprise-surprise, had always known where Father Brannigan had gotten his information from. They’d finally come to an understanding though Butch still didn’t like having a female as a paid informant. More than once he said that people that had to be paid to give information likely weren’t trustworthy. The third time he said it she stopped volunteering information. Eventually Butch had to come to her over something and she told him to shove it sideways. It took Mr. Hunter to sort it out and afterwards Danny and Butch were even testier with each other, so much so it became a bit of a running joke with the tavern crowd.
Mrs. Maddox tried to take the sting out of the way that Butch acted but Danny told her, “There’s just no changing the way things are Mrs. Maddox though I appreciate you trying. Butch respects you and Mr. Maddox, I know he does, but he doesn’t respect us girls; never has, never will. He paints us all with the same brush he paints the whores that come out after the sun goes down, at least the ones the decency committees haven’t been able to run off. Butch is just … just …”
“Thick headed?” the older woman asked with an arched brow. “A bit of a hypocrite considering what he has to do in his line of work? Too proud for good sense?”
Danny sighed and shook her head but she also gave a small smile. “And I’m just as bad for caring what he thinks. It doesn’t matter either way in the long run. He got to choose his life; mine was handed to me. We both are making of our lives what we can. If he can’t at least respect me for that then that is his problem.”
“There’s my girl. You show him. You’re doing a mother’s work on a sister’s pay which means you will do whatever it takes to keep the boys in school without getting the cards and flowers in return. How are they by the way?”
And the conversation turned and Danny told what she knew and tried to let the unreasonable hurt she always felt at Butch’s attitude fall off of her like water off of a duck’s back. It didn’t always work. In fact there were a lot of times it didn’t work. Just recently he’d accused her of flirting with a customer when it was actually the customer who had cornered her out in the dark yard when she’d gone to the smoke house to bring in another ham. She was nearly raped and still Butch made it out to be her fault. She’d slapped him and promptly burst into tears, something she never did which only made her more furious so she kicked him in the shin and ran back to the kitchen and refused to speak to him afterwards. Not even Mr. Hunter’s coaxing could make her speak to him and then he left for some deposition in Tallahassee and all she could hiss was “good riddance” when people tried to kid her about it. They finally realized that Butch had somehow stepped over some line and if they wished their drinks served cold and their food warm they would lay off the teasing.
Lunch time about a month after Butch left Danny was doing sheets, a never ending task at the tavern, when shots rang out and she heard Mrs. Maddox and Cindy Brewster both scream. Not knowing what was happening Danny ran to the back of the tavern and into the kitchen and looked out into what was called the tap room.
The first thing she saw was an overturned table and poker chips littering the floor. Then she saw three men stood in there all of them with guns drawn. Other men in the tavern also had their guns out. It should have been at worst a draw but two of the three baddies had Cindy and Mrs. Maddox in a death grip and though they insisted on sounding like something out of an old west cowboy movie, it was obvious to everyone they were deadly serious.
“Nobody make a move or these two get it. We’re leaving. As soon as we get far enough away we’ll let ‘em go … but not if anyone follows us.”
The men started backing towards the kitchen door and that was to be their last mistake. Danny grabbed the meat cleaver from the butcher’s block and as the first man came through she struck from behind … literally. The cleaver was so sharp and Danny so strong from all the years of washing sheets and wringing them out, from all the years of carrying heavy trays of drinks, that with one chop she severed his spinal column and he dropped like a rock releasing Mrs. Maddox who promptly grabbed the meat fork that matched the cleaver and stabbed the next man through the door in the temple. Danny’s loud “safe” whistle startled the last man and he hesitated just long enough to get riddled with bullets from over a dozen guns.
“Hellooooo … don’t forget we’re still in here. If you are going to shoot the fool at least make sure your bullets hit him will you?!”
Mr. Maddox rushed in and took his wife of nearly 40 years in his arms and Cindy and Danny looked at each other then walked out of the kitchen to give them a moment of privacy. Cindy leaned over and whispered, “Whatever it is that Ol’ Maddox has, I hope I find me one a little younger to keep for my own one of these days.”
Danny snorted and thought to herself that Cindy had about every flavor of man as often as she wanted now, she’d probably ran across the Maddox type at least three times but hadn’t even noticed she was so busy rushing onto the next one.
When Danny got a good look at the mess in the tap room she growled, “Well the least you could do is pick up your chairs and set them right. Honestly. And kick that broken one off to the side before someone trips over it. Ronnie!”
A young boy about ten years old came running like he was scared not to. Danny told him, “Run and fetch someone from across the ramp … preferably someone with a badge. And tell them they better hurry or they’ll miss taking enough depositions to fill up their report and they’ll wind up having to make it up as they go. And also tell them we need three bodies carted off and if they aren’t quick about it I’m going to drag all three outside in the heat so they can draw flies out there and get nice and squishy. Now move it.”
Men looked like they were starting to leave. Danny asked them, “Where are you lot going? You helped save Mrs. Maddox. There’s a cold pint in that and surely on a hot day like today you’ll enjoy it.”
They looked at each other and then a few smiles started to show as Cindy and Danny refilled the chip and popcorn bowls and even added jars of pickles and salsa that normally didn’t come out until the dinner crowd. Enjoying their cold beverage and snacks the men sat back down to await the law. And unwittingly wound up buying more drinks after all of the salty snakes had been consumed.
A few hours later the evening crowd started arriving and none of them would have even guessed that there’d been an incident earlier in the day. Oh Mrs. Maddox still looked a bit flustered and Cindy had some bruises but that wasn’t unusual. Mrs. Maddox always seemed a bit flustered and Cindy’s usual taste in men meant the occasional bruising. It was Danny who was a bit off. Mr. Maddox put it down to reaction from having to kill a man. Mrs. Maddox assumed she was worried about how it would affect the tavern and her place in it if one day there would be one too many instances and Mr. Maddox decided to retire. Cindy thought she might be on her period as Danny could be death on wheels a couple of days out of the month if you weren’t careful to step lightly. The truth was it was none of those things.
Danny had been forced to do as threatened and drag the three corpses out into the back lot so that the kitchen could be sanitized when the undertaker balked at taking corpses when he didn’t know who was going to pay for their burial; and on top of it, had refused to arrive until he got an official form that the district would pay to put them in the pauper’s yard if relatives didn’t claim them within a couple of days. While she had been dragging them she realized she recognized two of them – Claudio Ocampo and Johnny Bryan - both used to have family in the area six or seven years ago though she didn’t know where they were these days. She’d also stripped the corpses of all valuables because she knew the local undertaker and he considered anything left on a corpse as found gain never bothering to report it. She knew for a fact he saved it up and then took it to Ocala to pawn it or sell it in his brother’s store. And after what she found in these men’s pockets she decided he might be able to heave off to someplace else and she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction, the disgusting rat. He rarely tipped and when he did it was so small it was insulting.
As a result she had taken three burlap bags and put the belongings in them and placed them in the laundry shed. She’d missed her chance to tell the lawman that had come and was wondering how to catch the attention of another so she could explain before she got into trouble.
Danny stepped outside to throw out a bucket of dirty water when she stopped. “Your angel must have to work overtime to keep you amongst the living. I ought to skewer you. Butch, out of the shadows. This is no time for … Madre de Dios!”
“Not so loud. Just tell me, is the tavern full up tonight?”
“To overflowing. They’re doubled and tripled up. Have you at least seen a quack?!”
“Yeah. Give me a boost to get up on my horse, looks like I’ll be sleeping at the offices.”
With a sigh Danny told him, “Not tonight you won’t. That place is packed too. We had an incident and there is also a crap ton of lawmen in town for some kind of meeting or convention or something. You’d likely have to pick your way across the floor to avoid sleeping bodies and you know someone with plenty of stripes will already have commandeered the sofa in the office.”
“Don’t curse,” Danny said although she was tempted to do it herself. “Look, I’ll make those bruises ten times worse than they already are if you make a single thing out of this.”
“Out of what?”
Reluctantly despite being sure it was the right thing Danny growled, “C’mon. I’ll pour you onto Tito’s bed, you won’t hang off much. I’ll be working most of the night anyway. I’ll tell Mrs. Maddox and if she really wants to give me grief over it I’ll sleep in the kitchen.”
Butch’s next statement could have been mistaken for a squawk. “Now just wait …”
Still growling Danny told him, “Shut up Butch, I’m not in the mood for an argument. It’s been a long day and looks to be a longer night. And besides, you’re handy and I can dump off that stuff in your lap and lighten my load.”
“You realize nothing you said made a bit of sense.”
“Butch … oh …” Danny nearly stamped her foot in frustration as Butch Pinder slowly did a face plant in the mud from the bucket of what she’d just thrown out. “Conyo … I should leave you there,” she snapped at his unconscious form.
Instead she marched into the kitchen, had a quick conference with Mrs. Maddox who agreed that men – in particular hard headed men that only seemed to want to create more work for the women around them – sometimes appeared to have so little sense as to be a danger to themselves and others.
“Just be careful. Butch does not wake up a sunshiny personality.”
“That makes two of us. If he growls I’ll cut his tongue out of his head then nail it to the wall for target practice.” Danny shook her head in irritation. “I can hear the gossips now.”
“Then why do it Dear? We can roll him up in a corner some place.”
“Because despite everything Butch is, I pay my debts. I owe him for helping Eddie get … get Momma out.”
“As I remember they didn’t do her no favors.”
Fatalistically Danny nodded and said, “Hindsight that might be true but … but at the time we needed to be able to say goodbye and she said it for both her and Poppy. And since it’s already happened there’s nothing more to be said. Are you sure you can spare me? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Oh go on. Cindy and that new girl Nancy need to carry more of their own load instead of expecting you to constantly pick up tables they drop or forget about. Time for them to learn. There’s lots more girls where they came from if they can’t. And Cindy needs to keep her eyes on her work and off all the pretty men and Nancy to keep her fingers out of the chip bowls.”