Notorious in the West(7)

By: Lisa Plumley

 He startled her by clasping his hand, warm and weathered, atop hers. “There is no need for this pretense. I am here! You have captured my attention.” Like magic, the bagman deftly withdrew the curative she’d held. “You do not care about this.”

 Momentarily captivated by the sleight of hand he’d performed, Olivia stared. Then she blinked. “Yes, I do.”

 His wave dismissed her. “Women do not think of such things. You were pretending, to make me see you. And I do see you.”

 With a charming manner, he gave her a bow to prove it. But this time, Olivia belatedly noticed he was using that chivalrous gesture to sneak a peek at her ankles. The rogue!

 “Never mind. I’ll ask your employer for the information.”

 Staunchly, Olivia marched to the peddler’s wagon and the circle of townspeople. She waited, feeling—and ignoring—the bagman’s flirtatious gaze on her all the while. When finally the peddler turned his attention to her, she was prepared.

 “Good afternoon,” Olivia said firmly. “I do not want a proposal or a proposition from you. All I want to know is—”

 “Yes!” The peddler widened his eyes. “You!”

 “—how your curative with the bottled extractive magnetism was created. Are you the inventor? Or did someone else—”

 But the peddler only cast out his arm to silence the waiting crowd. He stared raptly at her. He nodded.

 “You are perfect!” he cried dramatically. “Perfect!”

 Fully out of patience now, Olivia put her hands on her hips. “Unless you mean I’m perfect at asking questions you can’t wait to answer, I honestly don’t see what that has to do with—”

 “You must agree to pose for me,” the peddler interrupted. He stepped nearer, then chuckled. “I mean, for a lithographer, of course. I need a model to grace the bottles of my forthcoming Milky White Complexion Beautifier and Youthful Enhancement Tonic. With your face on the label, I’ll sell thousands!”

 She stared at him, astonished. A model? Her?

 Rudely, he reached for her jaw. He turned her face to the sunshine. He gave an evaluating sound, then turned her face in the opposite direction. He laughed with outright glee.

 Olivia jerked away her face. “Sir! I am not a horse.”

 “Well, you are a mighty fine filly.”

 She frowned. “And you are a rude man. I will not—”

 “I’ll pay you,” he persisted, annoying her further by talking right on top of her. “I only need a few sketches.”

 Olivia crossed her arms, feeling frustrated. Could no one see that she had a mind as well as a face and figure? Could no one understand that there was more to Olivia Mouton than frilly skirts, blue eyes and embarrassingly burgeoning bosoms?

 She was accustomed by now to miners and railway men leering at her. But those men were outliers. They scarcely saw another living soul for weeks at a time while they were working. They could be forgiven for their resulting lack of social graces.

 But this had been her chance—this medicine show and these well-traveled, experienced men—to be recognized as a kindred spirit, as a person who was interested in scientific progress, miraculous medicine and the world beyond her own small town.

 “I’ll pay you handsomely,” the peddler persisted. “All I want is your likeness.” He spread his hands in the air as though envisioning rows of labeled bottles, an enraptured expression on his face. “In my line of work, a beautiful girl is...priceless.”

 “If that’s the case, then you can’t afford me, can you?”

 For the first time, the peddler seemed exasperated.

 Olivia didn’t care. “I don’t think you know what’s in your remedies. I don’t think you are a man of science at all.”

 The peddler frowned. “Watch your mouth, girl.”

 “I was trying to give you the benefit of the doubt,” Olivia went on, refusing to be cowed. “But the truth is, Mary Fairfax Somerville’s published work proves that magnetism cannot be used in extractive form. It cannot be bottled. So your remedy—”

 The peddler stepped nearer, appearing ready to spit nails.

 “—is nothing more than sheer quackery, sir!” Olivia finished bravely, fired up now. “And I would rather die than allow my image to grace bottles of your do-nothing ‘cures.’”

 The crowd of her friends and neighbors gasped. But Olivia finally felt satisfied. She’d said her piece. She’d made sure the people of Morrow Creek would pay attention to her mind for once, instead of her face and figure. She was proud of that.

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