Frankie and Johnny, and Nellie Bly
As Related by Susanna Entwhistle, Who Witnessed Every Minute,
Including the Stimulating Spellfight to the Death!
Arranged and Edited by Richard Wolkomir
I always ran down to the Depot at 3:37 p.m. to see if the Central Florida Express
brought persons of interest to Duster. Also, I liked to visualize myself boarding a
Pullman and steaming out into the world -- I would achieve éclat, then extricate
my mother from the Ascending Angel and provide her with fine dining and
Éclat, if you've never looked it up, means "brilliance of success or reputation." I
imagined crowds at newspaper kiosks clamoring to read the latest scintillating
dispatch from Budapest or Marrakech or Rangoon or Cincinnati, penned by the
lustrous Susanna Entwhistle, who is I.
So, that momentous afternoon, guess who disembarked! Nellie Bly! The most
famous reporter in the world!
She was precisely as attractive as in her pictures, with her hair pulled back at the
sides, but down over her forehead, and her eyes set wide apart and intensely
observant. Her plush blue dress had a white embroidered collar, like a many-rayed
star. She stood beside her two valises, deciding which way to go, so I ran right up
and told her I would be enthused to proffer my assistance.
She said: "Why do you dress like a boy?"
"It is my idiosyncrasy," I said. "I am eleven, but I know everything about Duster,
including an impending crisis involving a spellslinger-for-hire, so I can help you."
"Where did you learn a word like idiosyncrasy?" she asked.
"I read lots of books, in preparation for my future career, which will be of a literary
nature," I told her.
"Fewer words are better," she said. "I'm seeking a reputable hotel -- what do you
I told her Duster had four hotels, all owned by Phosphate Extraction Enterprises,
meaning Daryl "Sweetie" Hieronymus, and that the least disreputable, in terms of
bowie knifings and smashed glassware, also profane shouting, was the Ascending
Angel, in which I resided myself.
"Lead the way," she said.
I made sure her room had laundered sheets, and a good view -- she looked out on
Main Street, and the Okie Livery Stable's corral. Then I ran to my own room, since
I did not share quarters with my mother, Marigold. I had borrowed books piled
everywhere on the floor, and newspaper clippings tacked onto the walls. I untacked
one and rushed back to her room to show her.
"What's this?" she said, looking at the clipping.
"That," I said, "is you!"
On top was her picture, just under the headline: "Ace Reporter Nellie Bly Bests
Jules Verne's fictional Around the World in Eighty Days, Performing the Same
Feat in 72 Days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 Seconds."
She rode, the story said, ships, trains, jinrikishas, sampans, horses and burros. And
it recapped her previous scoops for The Pittsburgh Dispatch and the New York
World, such as reports on divorce, slums, and the situation in Mexico. Once, she
pretended to be insane to get committed to the Blackwell's Island asylum, her
exposés leading to reforms. She wrote about tenement conditions. Also -- this was
particularly relevant to subsequent events during her Duster stay -- she exposed
the techniques of mashers!
"What will it take for you not to give me away?" she asked.
"I'll be your secret assistant," I said.
"Done," she said.
Nellie and I conferred, in her room and mine, for her exposé of conditions in
Duster's mines. She took notes while I explained how Sweetie Hieronymus had
gripped the town so tight. For one thing, besides the saloons, Phosphate Extraction
Enterprises owned the general store and every other store, and their prices sank
workers ever deeper into the company's debt.
Nellie: "Why don't they just run off in the night?"
Me: "Because of Sheriff Fitzpatrick Duprey and his three deputies."
Those "deputies" actually were gunslingers, and Fitzpatrick Duprey was a
spellslinger-for-hire, and the whole sorry bunch really worked for Sweetie, just like
the "mayor" and practically everybody else in Duster. And this is a solemn fact: if
you irritated Sweetie Hieronymus, you'd wind up dead in the dirt on Main Street,
because I've seen a lot of that.
Nellie took notes on everything I told her. But I wanted to maintain my usefulness,
so I kept back about Sweetie's brother, Placido Hieronymus, a story breaking even
as Nellie and I conferred.
That very next afternoon, when I ran down to the Depot to perform surveillance
upon the incoming train, two strangers disembarked.
First, a woman stepped onto the platform: a short thing, shapeless in her baggy
gray dress, face pear-shaped, with a curtain of dark hair hanging down on either
side. Her only interesting features were a lack of expression and smoked glasses.
From inside the train, a long arm handed down her valise, and then a man stepped
down, looking around and seeing me.
I was unenthusiastic about the male gender, based on what I saw in Duster, but he
was lean, with slicked-back yellow hair and a trimmed yellow mustache and sky-blue eyes, and he looked glowingly elegant and urbane. Also, he had stunningly
long legs. He reached into the train and pulled out his own valise, and then a guitar
case. I guessed right away who he must be.
He said, "Hey, gorgeous -- that's right, you, the little cutie in pants -- will you
I worried his mousy companion might create a jealous scene, but she just stood
there, saying nothing. What, I wondered, did so handsome a man, quite charming,
actually, see in such a clot?
He was, he told me, seeking work as a musician, ideally with the possibility of off-hours poker. I said I might know of an opening, but I couldn't recommend him
without hearing him perform.
"I must evaluate your suitability," I told him.
"Hey," he said, giving his silent lady friend a wink. "She's sharp -- will she give
me good marks?"
With that, he opened his guitar case, which seemed empty. But he reached in and
carefully took out his invisible instrument. Then I saw that it had one visible
component, which was a mouth, complete with lips, teeth, and a pink tongue.
It was the first air guitar I'd ever seen. He put the invisible strap over his shoulder
and got a grip on the invisible neck, and started to move his fingers over the
invisible strings: first that mouth yawned, like it was just waking up. Suddenly its
lips puckered and let out a clear note, like a thrush at dawn, and then -- in
response to his fingers strumming and plucking its invisible strings, that air guitar
made soulful music, to which he sang in a thrilling baritone, looking into his
companion's eyes, or at least into her smoked glasses. He sang about how every
morning he saw her face on the pillow beside him and fell in love all over again,
and so on, and she looked up at him, now quietly smiling, until the air guitar hit the
song's last note and he stopped singing.
"Frankie, you're my only love," he whispered to her.
"You're my man, Johnny," she said. "You are my man."
I found this public display of affection moving, but also -- to be honest --
annoying. What did he see in this troll, hiding behind smoked glasses? I also
thought I'd never heard such music, being accustomed to tinny pianos and the
"Here's how it is," I told him. "Last night, at the Ascending Angel, there was a
disagreement over too many aces, and the aggrieved person hurled his beer mug,
but the cheater ducked, and the mug beaned the Ascending Angel's elderly piano
player on the forehead, and he dropped dead, face-down on the keys, so there's a
"Lead the way, gorgeous," he said.
Frankie and Johnny got settled in their room, a few doors down from mine and
across the hall from Nellie Bly's, and that evening there was an ill-starred
encounter as Nellie and I left her room so I could show her Duster's nighttime
dangers, which resulted from the miners' grumpiness over their virtual
enslavement, plus lots of them were on the run, anyway, from sheriffs in other
states, and -- being naturally hot-tempered, and willful -- they tended to settle
their disputes with fists or bullets, although bludgeoning also was popular, and I
did once see a man murdered, quite completely, by the tossing of a lit dynamite
Nellie meant to take notes on all that, from safe vantage points I would show her.
But just as we left her room, the opposite door opened and Johnny stepped out,
smoking a cheroot. I saw his sky-blue eyes fasten right on Nellie Bly, who looked
away and started to walk along with me toward the stairs.
"Say, Miss," Johnny said to Nellie, stepping fast so he could walk beside her. "You
inspire me, and I mean to compose a song just for you, downstairs in the cabaret."
"Cabaret?" Nellie said. "That's a saloon."
"Sweet music," he said. "Either way."
All the way down the stairs he talked to Nellie, clearly taken with her,
understandably, especially since his own Frankie was such a donkey. However, I
did not find it edifying. Also, considering I was right there, given our previous
involvement, he might at least have said hello. Besides, I caught Nellie looking at
him out of the corner of her eye, which disappointed me.
Outside on the streets, Nellie and I saw no shooting that evening. But we did, at
least, witness five fistfights, and an instance of one drunk accusing another of
wearing a "cess-pool-smelling bandana around his chicken neck," causing the
slandered man to snatch up a stray tomcat to hurl at his opponent's face, claws out,
with results gratifying to the tosser.
Finally we returned to the Ascending Angel, passing through the saloon, where
Johnny Duncan stood on the little stage, strumming his air guitar and tapping his
foot and singing, while the hotel's women employees -- it being too early for their
business to pick up -- stood in back in a row, clapping in time and laughing,
among them my mother, Marigold. I was glad to see her having enjoyment, since I
knew her current work mostly made her melancholy. She had taught school in
Ohio, but -- because of events leading to my existence in this world, involving the
school's cad of a principal -- she lost that profession and drifted until she finally
found the only way to support herself and me, and I have never reviled her in my
heart, although I did often wish her life took a different road. However, I disliked
the way Johnny, even while he sang, grinned at the various ladies, including
Marigold, and winked at them.
As soon as Johnny saw us come into the saloon, he ended that song and started
another, now gazing soulfully at Nellie Bly. It had a lilting tune, and it told of an
irresistible stranger who set a fire smoldering in his heart, and so on, quite
nauseating. Nellie pretended not to hear, but I could see her peeking sideways at
Johnny and looking amused. Just then, Frankie came down the stairs and stopped,
taking it all in, but showing no expression. I was glad Nellie did not stop in the
saloon but walked directly upstairs past Frankie, whose smoked glasses hid her
eyes and whatever they might have revealed.
"I'll say goodnight, Susanna, and thank you for being my guide," Nellie said at her
door. "I have to transcribe my notes."
"I plan to be an ace reporter myself," I confided. "It will, I'm sure, be a thoroughly
She looked at me, and sadness came over her features.
"Yes, it is stimulating, Susanna," she said. "But it is lonely."
"Do you find Johnny Duncan attractive?" I blurted out.
She stopped, with her door open, and looked at me.
"Yes, he's handsome," she said. "But he has a wicked wandering eye, Susanna,
and attractiveness, in itself, including long-leggedness, doesn't mean a man isn't a
Usually in the evening I roamed Duster, to absorb information and insights.
Tonight, though, I lay on my bed staring at the ceiling and pondered: if I dwell on
yellow hair and long legs, am I shallow and feckless? I decided, finally, to put
myself under observation and, if necessary, to institute a program of character
strengthening. With that resolved, I thought about how things in general were
trending, which was toward extreme violence.
I had not yet told Nellie Bly that my mother's sole patron these days was Placido
Hieronymus, younger brother of Sweetie, a revolting sniveler, who constantly
whined that Sweetie stole his share of the family business, and that Sweetie was
their mother's favorite, although you'd think Placido would exult she nicknamed
his brother Sweetie and not him! But I kept mum, just a big ear, which is how I got
my sensational scoop: Placido had sent out word for the notorious spell-slinger J.F.
Payne to come to Duster and cut down Sheriff Fitzpatrick Duprey and his deputies.
Then, with Sweetie defanged, Placido would get back his "fair share," meaning
he'd get to do all the rotten stuff Sweetie did.
Of course, when Johnny Duncan stepped off that train, I assumed he must be the
spellslinger J.F. Payne, because he looked so dashing. You, no doubt, figured it
Noon, the following day, in the Ascending Angel's saloon, Nellie Bly and I sat at a
table, lunching on terrapin stew. Across the room, Frankie and Johnny sat at a table
of their own, not talking. I could see Johnny looking across the room at us, and
Nellie avoiding his eye, and Frankie watching, expressionless. Then my mother
walked into the saloon, to pick up some lunch to bring upstairs, and I saw Johnnie
wink at her. I believe I mentioned my lack of enthusiasm for the male gender.
"That man currently gives me gallstones!" I told Nellie.
But just then the saloon's conversational hum stopped because the doors swung
open and in walked Duster's three deputies followed by Sheriff Fitzpatrick
Duprey, all four stepping back against the wall, two on one side of the door and
two on the other. After that, Sweetie Hieronymus slithered in, darting out his
forked tongue and hissing, which is a metaphor expressing his character with
precision. He probably meant to calculate the lunch-hour take, but he saw Nellie
Bly right off, she being a stranger, and came to our table and made a show of
doffing the porkpie hat he always wore to hide his scalp, bald as a white egg, with
the red hair on his head's sides clipped so short you could see white skin through
"Who might you be, Miss?" he said.
"Why that matters to whoever you are, I don't know," Nellie told him.
"Incidentally, that is the greenest suit I've ever seen on a man."
Sweetie stared at her, but she didn't look away.
"I'm proprietor here," he finally said. "I noticed your pad and pen, and wondered
what you might be jotting down, here on my premises?"
"It is my pastime to study local attractions, as I travel, and Susanna is being so kind
as to tell me about Duster's phosphate mines, which I find fascinating," Nellie said.
"Perhaps you and I could talk about that subject, at your convenience?"
Again he regarded her, and I could almost see gears in Sweetie's head turning.
"Alas, business presses," he said. "In any event, I expect you'll be traveling on
directly because . . ."
He never finished that thought, probably what is termed a "veiled threat," because
just then his brother, Placido Hieronymus, came in through the swinging doors
and, seeing Sweetie, let out a sort of bleat. His face turned as red as his messy hair
and his raggedy mustache, and he waddled over -- he and Sweetie shared red hair,
but nothing else, Sweetie's proportions snakelike, Placido a lard bag.
"You'll be sorry!" Placido said, putting his red face close to Sweetie's and trying
Sweetie regarded his brother as if he were a fly in the soup.
"There's your lovey-dovey," Sweetie sneered, pointing at my mother, just then
starting up the stairs with her bagged lunch. "Go sit in her lap and don't trouble
yourself with big-boy things."
Placido's eyes swam, maybe because of his allergies, but also because eyes reveal
the inner person, and Placido's insides consisted of whiny self-pity mixed with
petulance, along with a sense of grievance, and it all made him prone to tear up. I'd
certainly heard enough of it all to know what I'm talking about. At any rate, his
face got redder and redder, because he wanted to say something to cut Sweetie to
the core, but he couldn't think of anything. So he partially showed his hand.
"I've got a party coming who'll fry your beans!" he finally sputtered.
Sweetie's cobra eyes chilled, and I could see he was considering what sort of
nuisance Placido had planned. Then his face turned even meaner than usual,
because he did not like being crossed.
He pointed across the room at my mother. On her way upstairs, she had stopped on
the landing to view the fraternal argument.
"I'll be visiting you later, Dearie," Sweetie hissed at her, loud enough for everyone
in the saloon to hear him.
That dropped Placido's jaw, since he paid my mother to be his personal
companion, and he stood gulping at Sweetie. I was upset, too. Actually I was so
sick in my stomach that I shouted at Sweetie: "Do you ever do one decent thing?"
That was a mistake on my part, because Sweetie, as I mentioned, didn't like being
crossed or defied. He stared at me with those snake eyes, which seemed to have
fumes inside them.
"Higher fees -- that's what young ones bring," he hissed, looking me up and
down. "Not quite ripe yet, but next year? And I'll be first, Missy."
I did not cry. What I did was Divert, which is a technique I invented for dealing
with woe: you simply forget the woe exists by focusing on Precise Observation.
For instance, I noted that Frankie had turned her smoked glasses toward Sweetie,
but also past Sweetie, at the sheriff and deputies standing on either side of the door.
Johnny leaned back in his chair, enjoying the show. He even got in a wink at Nellie
Bly, but she hardly noticed because she had her pad in her lap, hidden under the
tabletop, and she rapidly jotted notes, suppressing jubilation over her windfall of
I posed this question to myself, to ponder later: does a journalist's participation in
life consist solely in reporting on it?
Placido finally spoke.
"You'll be sorry!" he told Sweetie, returning to his original theme, and he poked
Sweetie's skinny chest with his fat finger.
Sweetie looked down at the finger with revulsion. Then he glanced over at
Fitzpatrick Duprey, leaning against the wall, and barely nodded.
Without hurrying, the sheriff straightened and walked toward Placido, who had his
back turned and did not see him coming. Fitzpatrick Duprey had a wiry black
mustache and always wore a black suit, today over a red vest embroidered in gold.
He habitually sneered, one side of his mouth drawn up, and right now his sneer
looked more awful than usual. But all he did, at first, was rest one long-fingered
hand on Placido Hieronymus's shoulder.
Placido turned, and his red face whitened.
"Call him off," he told Sweetie.
But his brother only smiled and said: "You've been naughty again, Placido --
remember how that irritated Mother so profoundly?"
Then he nodded at Sheriff Duprey. I saw Duprey raise his eyebrows, a silent
question. Sweetie considered. Then he shook his head.
"Just a little discipline," he told the sheriff. "No more."
Duprey grinned. He stepped back, regarding Placido, deciding what to do to him,
and I actually felt almost badly for that sorry sniveler, because I saw his legs shake.
He tried to leave, but Fitzpatrick Duprey put his hand back on his shoulder and
held him. Now the sheriff began to mumble silently to himself, pointing his free
hand's long, bony index finger.
Placido, suddenly, stood in the middle of the saloon wearing only his shoes and
argyle socks, held up with garters. Otherwise, he was starkers, looking like a fat
groundhog with its pelt shaved off.
Placido bleated, then ran up the stairs with his huge buttocks jiggling. Most
everybody in the saloon laughed, except for Sweetie, who already was on his way
out, and Nellie Bly -- who jotted notes furiously -- and Fitzpatrick Duprey, who
stood staring across the room, looking at the table where Frankie and Johnny sat, as
if he were sniffing the air, catching a scent.
Johnny, seeing the sheriff looking at him, straightened up and clasped his hands,
like a good little boy in school. Frankie, expressionless, seemed to look
everywhere and nowhere from behind her smoked glasses.
Abruptly, frowning, the sheriff strode out of the saloon, jerking his chin at his three
deputies to follow. Once they were gone, the saloon hummed again, everybody
chortling over how humiliated Placido had looked.
I bolted from the table and ran upstairs to tell my mother: we'll pack and go! Even
if we have to walk all the way to Tampa or Jacksonville!
But when I got to the top floor -- where Marigold had her quarters, along with the
hotel's other working women -- and I pushed open the door, there sat Placido on a
hassock, a bath towel wrapped around his blubbery belly and hippopotamus
behind, sniveling. My mother sat beside him in her chair, stroking his hair.
Woe overcame me, and I meant to hurry away. But somebody knocked on the
door. It's Johnny Duncan, I thought. He's come to announce his true identity and
begin his mission of bringing down Sweetie Hieronymus. Of course, it was not
"I'm Payne," she told Placido.
He looked at her stupidly.
"I thought . . ."
"Juno Frankie Payne," she said. "A thousand each for the three deputies, and two-thousand for Duprey."
"Too much!" Placido said. "I couldn't . . ."
Frankie shrugged and started out the door. She had it opened when Placido cried
out: "I'll pay -- out of the pittance my mother left me!"
"Go do it now," he told her, "and then we'll force Sweetie to make me his vice
"A thousand more for that," Frankie said.
I thought Placido might faint. But he nodded, with his eyes shut against the fiscal
trauma, and Frankie shrugged again and walked out the door.
After that, I shot out of my mother's room and down the stairs, to see the action.
In the saloon, Johnny had now moved to Nellie Bly's table, leaning towards her to
talk, making moony eyes. Nellie ignored him, still furiously jotting notes.
Johnny suddenly hushed and looked up. On the landing stood Frankie, staring at
She still wore her smoked glasses. But now she had on black leather trousers and a
leather jacket, also black. She took in Johnny and Nellie Bly, her blank face scary.
"Hey there," Johnny said, with a canary feathers look. "I was just asking Miss Bly
if she knew. . ."
But he trailed off, as if Frankie's stare wilted him.
"Go to the sheriff's office," Frankie told him. "Tell them they can live if they leave
Duster right now. Say I said so."
Johnny probably didn't want to cross Frankie just then. I could see him biting his
lip, with those sky-blue eyes darting around, as if her were looking for an exit.
"Frankie, you know they'll just shoot me or something," he said. "Why give them
an out anyway?"
"It's the code," Frankie said. "Like being true, you know?"
Johnny sat looking down at the table, miserable. It was disgusting.
"I'll go," I told Frankie. "They won't shoot a little girl."
So I went.
When I got there, the three deputies were playing poker and Fitzpatrick Duprey sat
with his shoes up on his desk watching them, but looking distracted.
"Get out of Duster right now," I told them. "J. F. Payne says she'll kill you all."
Those deputies laughed.
I called them Big, Medium, and Small, because of their different proportions. But,
to a man, they were mad-dog nasty. Small unholstered his revolver and aimed it at
me, pretending to shoot, after which he blew away imaginary smoke from the
barrel. They argued over what to do with me, such as fricasseeing me like a capon
and sending me back to J. F. Payne on a crockery platter.
"Shut up," Fitzpatrick Duprey told them.
He stood up and looked out the window.
"You don't know what we're up against," he said.
J.F. Payne, he told them, had taken out top gunslingers all the way from
Evansville, Indiana, to Santa Fe. No spellslinger ever survived her, either. In
Chicago, she even turned the O'Ditherty gang's powerful Hiram Glott into ashes
and smoke before he got past his strongest spell's second syllable.
Big, Medium, and Small took that in. Big finally snorted.
"We're four, she's one," he said. "And we're quick -- while she's muttering her
spell, bang, bang, bang!"
Fitzpatrick Duprey looked at the ceiling and silently sighed.
"Besides, you can take her, can't you, Fitz?" said Medium. "You ain't afraid of
her, are you?"
Sheriff Duprey looked out the window. But then he turned, grinning, the evilest
grin I'll ever see. He opened his desk's drawer and pulled out a long wooden case.
"This cost me plenty in Macao," he said. "I've saved it for something like this."
From the case, he extracted a long, thin ivory wand, with golden Chinese
characters inscribed along its white length. He held it up between his right hand's
thumb and forefinger.
"Casting spells bare handed, that's like shooting a derringer," he said. "This
wand's a cannon."
Then he told them, "Let's go get her, boys."
I burst out of there and ran back to the Ascending Angel, where I found Frankie in
her black leather suit standing on the street in front of the hotel's porch, with no
expression at all on her face. Gasping after my run, I told her everything.
"He says it's like a cannon," I told her.
I couldn't see her eyes behind those smoked glasses, but I could tell she looked
back at the Ascending Angel. Most of the patrons peered out the windows, their
faces pressing against the glass, on all three stories. A few braver people stood on
the porch. And right in the doorway stood Nellie Bly with her pad, jotting. Johnny
Duncan came up behind her, and I saw him put his hands on her shoulders and
whisper in her ear. I just knew what he thought: Frankie would die, and Nellie
would be his new love.
Nellie didn't even notice him at first, she scribbled so furiously. But then she
frowned and stepped away, giving Johnny a severe look over her shoulder, which
inspired him to wink. I could see that Frankie saw it all.
"Go inside," Frankie told me.
But I only stepped back a few paces, meaning not to miss a single thing, and I
watched Frankie walk across the street to stand with her back against the corral of
the Okie Livery Stables, founded by Pete the Okie, who came to Duster to escape
those awful Oklahoma winters and an overbearing uncle. No horses were in the
corral just then, which gladdened me, because I could not bear hearing a bullet-struck horse whinny in pain.
I hoped the sheriff and his crew had yellowed out and left town. But then I saw
Fitzpatrick Duprey walking up the street, the heat shimmering the air around him.
It looked as if he meant to man up and face Frankie alone. But then Big stepped out
of the alley beside the Ascending Angel and leaned against the building,
pretending to study his fingernails. Next, I saw Medium peering down from the
roof of the Duster General Store, holding a repeating rifle. And then, on the far side
of the corral from where Frankie stood, with her back turned, Small peeped over
the railing, then ducked down.
I ran across the street and told Frankie they had Small at her back.
"You go inside now," she said.
I went no farther than the hotel's porch, standing beside Nellie Bly, to witness what
would happen and feeling contrite because, at a moment of temporary infatuation
with a shameless masher, I had called Frankie a "clot" and "donkey." Seeing her
standing by that corral, all alone, I felt remorseful indeed.
Taking his time, Fitzpatrick Duprey eased up the street, wearing a new suit for the
occasion -- white, with a white shirt, and a white sombrero, and white shoes, and a
turquoise bolo tie. He finally stopped just far enough down the street that he had to
shout a little.
"Hey there, Frankie, no bonnet!" he said. "You'll get sunburned!"
From the alley alongside the hotel, Big yelled out: "Hey, little lady, where's your
Up on the store roof, Medium peered down, wanting to get in a jibe, too, trying to
think up a good one, and finally telling her: "Say, wearing those trousers like that, I
can see your butt!"
Small kept hidden behind the corral. Frankie, standing there silent, looked awfully
small to me, and alone. None of them spoke now, all waiting. I could not tell where
Frankie looked, because of her smoked glasses. Then my throat tightened --
behind the Okie Corral, where he hid, Small rose up and rested a carbine on the top
rail and aimed at the back of Frankie's head. I ran out into the street.
I yelled. "Look out, Frankie, behind you!"
She pointed her right hand's index finger back over her shoulder, never even
looking. Small was gone. Just a smoke wisp hung in the air.
It got solemn. I could see Big and Medium looking at where Small had formerly
been. Then Big cursed.
"Hey," he yelled up to Medium, on the roof. "Remember Abilene? Together --
He whipped up his revolver, and at the same time Medium, on the hotel roof,
aimed his repeating rifle at Frankie. Everything went fast and slow at the same
time: Frankie brought up both hands, pointing an index finger at each of those
gunslingers, and two guns fired, then fired again, and fired again.
When I opened my eyes, the guns were still going off, and Frankie still stood
pointing her fingers. But, in the alleyway and up on the roof, there were only
smoke wisps, iridescent in the sun. Big's revolver had fallen onto the dirt street and
Medium's rifle had fallen down onto the street, too, and both those guns writhed as
if in pain, shooting off bullets, some of which went into the ground and some hit
the sides of buildings and one broke a window in the Post Office, until there were
no more bullets in those guns and they just lay there.
"Those three were hacks," Fitzpatrick Duprey said.
From a pocket inside his coat he drew out the wand. He contemplated Frankie,
looking like a man about to enjoy a broiled t-bone, and savoring the anticipation.
Frankie, expressionless, waited.
"I brought down Chin Poo Ling with this, up north of San Francisco," Duprey said.
"And down in El Paso, or just east of there, Hoover Semprebond called me out,
and he's ashes now."
He wanted to get Frankie on edge. But she just looked blank, like always. I
wondered if she'd killed so many men she'd gone dead inside herself. Meanwhile,
the sheriff kept on talking trash, and I hoped Frankie could see he meant to get her
"The thing is, Frankie, taking you out, that'll be a feather in . . ."
Exactly then, in mid sentence, he whipped up that wand and it shot out a lightning
bolt, streaking toward her throat. Frankie threw up a hand and caught the bolt on
her palm. She looked like a reflection in water, when you drop in a pebble and the
waves make the image waver. But then she got clear again, as if the waves ran
themselves out, and that lighting bolt drooped. Its tip touched the dirt. Then it
collapsed altogether, writhing on the street while it faded away.
"That was the easy one," Duprey said. "Try this."
He waved the wand, and a spear hurtled at Frankie, shrieking -- it stopped two feet
from her upraised hand, and quivered, as if struggling to finish its job. I could see
her lips moving, as if she and the spear argued. It went on a long time. Then I saw
her straining: as if against powerful resistance, she forced up her fist, thumb up,
and the spear shuddered. That went on a while. Then the spear moaned and turned
to bendy rubber. Frankie twisted her fist and the rubber spear tied itself into a knot,
flared, and only ash sprinkled down. Frankie still had her fist out, twisted now with
her thumb pointing down.
"Tired?" Duprey asked.
"Leave," she said. "You'll find other jobs."
He looked at her, thoughtful. Then he grinned, and touched his hat brim,
pretending to doff it to her. He turned his back to her and walked toward his
sheriff's office. I could see what Frankie couldn't, because of his turned back: he
had that wand held up by his chest, mumbling to it.
I ran to her, yelling: "He's working that wand!"
Just then Duprey spun around, and the wand sent a dozen bowie knives screaming
toward Frankie, from a dozen different angles, whizzing so fast you could hardly
see them, and one came toward my left eye, too fast to duck, so I shut my eyes and
waited to die. I suppose I screamed.
Everything went quiet. I opened my eyes.
Frankie had both arms out, sweeping them through the air, and that knife stood
frozen just an inch from my eye. All eleven of the other knives stood frozen, too,
trembling. I thought Frankie's face looked terribly weary and strained. But she
made another pass with her hands: in unison, all those knives, including the one in
front of my nose, turned around, pointed back the way they had come. Frankie
looked as if she were lifting a huge weight, maybe too heavy for her. Those knives
struggled to turn back toward her, and she moaned, sweeping the air with her
hands. Suddenly, all twelve knives shot back the way the came, at Fitzpatrick
Duprey. Twelve hilts stuck out of him, at various spots.
He looked down at his white suit, which was beginning to redden. Then he shook
his head at Frankie.
"This new suit's ruined," he said.
He fell onto the dirt, dead.
Frankie collapsed back against the Okie Corral's boards, sinking down, until she
sat in on the ground. I ran up to her, crying, and asked if she were hurt. She
breathed hard, like after a race. Finally, she turned those smoked glasses toward
"Become a school teacher," she told me. "Librarian is also good."
Just a few minutes later, we all were in the Ascending Angel's saloon. Placido sat
at a table, grinning like a chimpanzee. Every so often he'd peek at Frankie, sitting
alone at the next table, counting the five-thousand dollars he'd just paid her. His
lower lip would tremble, seeing all that money going away. But then he'd
remember the scary sheriff was dead and cheer up again. Marigold stood behind
his chair, her hands on his shoulders, as if they were posing for the official picture
marking Placido's inaugural as Austro-Hungarian emperor. I felt wretched, seeing
my mother betting our future on that human junk. I think she'd convinced herself
that Placido actually cared about her as a person and I was about to speak up when
Sweetie Hieronymus slithered into the saloon, doing damage assessment.
"What did he pay you?" he said to Frankie. "I'll double it, just as a signing fee,
annual salary and benefits to be negotiated."
"She's mine!" Placido yelled, eyes popping.
Because of her smoked glasses, and her blank expression, I couldn't tell what
Frankie thought. She just folded her fee from Placido and slid the bills into the
pocket of her leather trousers. Then she sat back in her chair. Two tables away,
Nellie Bly furiously scribbled on her pad. Only one person spoke, and I realized it
was me, looking at Nellie Bly.
"Take us with you," I pleaded. "Marigold and me -- take us away from these
Nellie barely looked up, she was so busy with her notes. But I did get a response
from Sweetie Hieronymus.
"Shut up, you little whore," he said, and he raised his hand to swat me.
And then he wasn't there. On his chair lay a dusting of ashes.
Nobody said anything. Frankie finally got up. She walked upstairs, still looking
weary. I thought Johnny might go after her, but then I noticed he wasn't around.
All at once, Placido wailed.
"Sweetie!" he sobbed. "My big brother!"
That outburst certainly surprised me, and gave me much to contemplate.
Meanwhile, though, Johnny Duncan came in from the back rooms, with his arm
around Dee Dee Wister, a barmaid. He looked around, as if he wondered what was
going on, but then he leaned down and nuzzled Dee Dee's cheek, which is the
exact moment that Frankie came back down the stairs, wearing her shapeless gray
dress again, carrying her valise. She turned those smoked glasses on Johnny and
Dee Dee. Nellie Bly also saw them, and she looked stunned, I thought, and hurt,
Frankie walked out the saloon's door and left it swinging behind her. Johnny
hurried over to the door and looked over the top. "Damn it, Frankie," he said.
"Sometimes a man needs the company of a woman who doesn't scare him half to
From the other side of the door, I heard her voice: "You done me wrong, Johnny,"
she said. "You done me wrong."
And he was changed. I believe she still loved Johnny, despite his being untrue,
loved him too much to make him ashes and smoke. So she only made those long
legs of his a lot less long, and right away he got a new nickname, which was
Shorty Duncan, and I do believe his new physical stature matched his moral
stature. From the way Frankie stood taking a last look at him, I think she did, too.
After that I helped Nellie Bly carry her valises down to the Depot, where Frankie
Payne also stood waiting for the afternoon train.
"Help us, please?" I said to Nellie.
"I have appreciated your assistance, Susanna," she said. "When I get back to New
York, I'll definitely see what I can do."
When I last saw her, she was boarding the train with Frankie. They were deep in
conversation. And she had her notebook out, and her pen.
A few weeks later, when Nellie Bly's story finally appeared in the New York
World, I read it raptly. She wrote that Juno Frankie Payne came from Hoorn, New
York, where her father worked at a plant making boats for Hudson River shad
fishermen. His wife, Nellie wrote, had a broken nose, and one or the other of her
eyes always was blackened. Also, the father went after his daughter, until one
drunken night he backed the teenaged Frankie into a corner and ripped at her dress
-- she reached deep into her soul, willing him to burn, and he did, Nellie wrote.
And she had a quote from Frankie Payne: "I guess sometimes it's your career that
Other than that, her entire story about the phosphate mines and what happened in
Duster was mostly based on what I had told her and showed her, and I can testify
that it was accurate. However, she never mentioned me. I confess to feeling
At the end of her New York World story about the Duster incidents, Nellie Bly
asked Frankie what she considered the moral.
"This story has no moral," Frankie said. "It doesn't even have an end, all it goes to
show is that there's no good in men at all."
I'd extend that to both genders, personally. I do believe, however, that sometimes,
especially if you practice Precise Observation, you will see glimmers of decency,
and that is redeeming.