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Old family photo. That’s a small whiskey barrel and a bottle on the ground.

Well, it’s Fiction Friday and I’ve decided to embrace it  if for no other reason than I don’t want to write about any of the serious stuff that has hijacked my every thought as of late. I’ll eventually get back to my blogging when I feel I’ve met my personal responsibilities and have cleared some of the angry fog from my brain.

So, until then, here is the first chapter from my first Wild West Steampunk novel, Moonshine Ministry. I created that title years before I even had a story to go with it. It was inspired by a photo taken of my great-grandfather and his brother in the early 1900’s. They were holding guns and standing over bottles of moonshine. My great-grandfather later became a minister, so there you have it. I’ll probably have to change the title before publication just simply because there are several steampunk works that use “ministry”, but until then…enjoy. Wicked wishes- Ash

PS- For some reason my WordPress theme doesn’t believe in indentions, so don’t blame me for that (the rest of the grammar and spelling errors I take full credit for).

Moonshine Ministry: The Cleo McCath Chronicles

Cleo liked that look in a man; she always had. It was the way his skin slowly paled and eyes widened just as he realized he wasn’t the one in charge anymore.

“You won’t be leavin’ without payin’ the lady what you owe her.” Cleo smiled politely from behind her shotgun, keeping her sight steady on the digger’s Adam’s apple rolling in his throat as he swallowed.

“I done paid her what it was worth,” the filthy miner growled, leaning against the rickety banister for balance while clutching his tattered clothes and boots in his arms.

“No! He’s lyin’, Miss Cleo. He ain’t paid me but one pence, and I told him it was three!” Sweet Potato stomped her foot like a child, her squeaky voice rising to an even higher octave.

Cleo nodded. She thought the girl was about as sharp as a turnip; but she followed the rules, and that meant a lot in Cleo’s books. “Sir, if she says you owe her money, I believe her.” She followed the man with her gun as he continued to wobble towards the stairs. “I have strict rules in my house that must be obeyed.” Cleo nudged her head towards the small group of barely dressed girls gathered on the balcony. “Can any of you ladies tell this gentleman what my first commandment is?”

“Speak no evil,” chorused the women, staring smugly at the transgressor as they waited anxiously for their madam’s deliverance of justice.

“And in my books, lies are evil,” Cleo explained calmly, concentrating hard on the single bead of sweat trickling down the miner’s crooked nose and not the steady burn of anger rolling under her skin like steam.

The man sneered. He’d heard rumors about this little trollop. She needed to be put back in her place and he didn’t mind being the one to do it. The corner of his dry mouth cracked as it curled into an instigating grin. “Don’t that beat all; a whore preachin’ about evil.”

“Well, that whore has your leg; and if you want it back, I suggest you pay her.” Cleo cocked back the hammer of her gun, the click sending a small thrill down her spine. Sweet Potato smiled with satisfaction, raising her hand to display the mechanical leg she’d managed to pry off the miner in his attempt to flee.

“That leg’s worth more than she’ll make her whole life!” The miner continued to stagger on one leg, the stump of his other concealed under his dingy, unbuttoned woolens.

“Well then, it sounds like you’re a man who can afford to pay the two pence you owe,” Cleo countered. She figured word would have traveled that she wasn’t one to put up with horse shit, but there was always a couple too dumb to listen.

“This is robbery,” he growled.

“The only thief I see around here is you.” Cleo could feel the heat building on the back of her neck. She had to control herself, especially in front of her customers. She glanced down at the crowded saloon below the balcony and spoke with the cool firmness of steel. “Just pay what you owe and you’ll get your leg back…if not…I’ll have to introduce you to my collection service.” She cocked back the second hammer.

The miner’s eye twitched and Cleo took a deep breath, her ribs pushing against the hard bones of her corset. She silently prayed the digger was smarter than he looked. The digger still wasn’t convinced the pint-sized girl was capable of pulling the trigger, but he was damn sure he wasn’t going to keep letting her belittle him in front of a bunch of worthless whores and the men he could feel watching him from the bottom of the stairs.

“Hell, the way I see it, that girl should pay me for what I gave her.” Wickedness tainted his smile, matching the vileness of his rotting teeth.

Cleo raised an eyebrow, glancing briefly at the man’s exposed crotch. “Sir, that would be like asking a horse to pay a fly for lighting on its rump.” Sweet Potato and the other girls broke into giggles.

The digger’s cheeks seared pink and his black, marble eyes shifted about the balcony.  “Ain’t no whore takin’ nothin’ from me!” the man roared and spat a thick wad of phlegm at Cleo before lunging at Sweet Potato. He grabbed a fistful of her ginger hair with one hand, using her to keep himself standing as he clawed for the leg she was holding.

Dammit! Cleo had to adjust her reaction now that an innocent was in the crossfire. She quickly cranked the rotary of her gun; clicking a different barrel into the firing position and pulling the trigger. The miner staggered back, his eyes and mouth frozen wide as he teetered at the top of the stairs, his entwined hand pulling Sweet Potato with him. She screamed and tugged at his hand as another girl, Myrtle, ran and wrapped her arms around her friend’s waist, digging her heels into the tattered rug that began to buckle and fold under the strain.

Cleo rushed forward, pulling her gun up and swinging it down on the man’s arm with a grisly crunch. His hand released the mane of hair and he tumbled backwards, rolling head-over-heels until hitting the landing with a final thud.

“Son of a bitch,” Cleo seethed under her breath as the plumes of sawdust and dirt settled around the digger. She glanced over her shoulder at her girls. “You alright?” Sweet Potato nodded, crying in her soft baby voice as Myrtle cradled her.

Cleo gathered up her long skirt and rustled down the stairs to the broken lump of flesh. The digger moaned as some of the more curious patrons surrounded him like a side-show exhibit. Cleo stood over him, keeping her gun close. Tin can bastard, she thought. She’d never liked tinnies; something about their metal limbs just made her toes curl. She’d forced herself to work around them because many of her customers were diggers; and the more dangerous the mines got, the more arms and legs were lost.

“Did he hurt ya’, Miss Cleo?” asked one of her regulars.

“No, I’m good. Just sorry he had to disturb your evening.” Cleo brushed a pale strawberry curl away from her face as her breathing gradually slowed.

“Need us to call the meat wagon?”

“No, he’ll live.” Cleo examined the tinnie’s wounds. His arm was smashed bad enough that it looked like he had two elbows. Small spots of blood seeped through his woolens from his chest; but she knew the shot wouldn’t kill him, she’d set her gun to a non-lethal load. Cleo turned to the bar. “Topper, will you collect this trash off my floor and deposit it on Doc Gill’s doorstep?”

Topper left his post and the crowd parted as they always did when he moved through. He was by far the largest man in town, and he considered Cleo his ward. He squatted down and scooped up the body, slinging it over his shoulder. A pouch fell from the unconscious man’s pocket, spilling several coins across the floor.

Cleo leaned down and picked up the bag of money. She gathered the change, dropping all but two pence back into the pouch and pulling the drawstrings tight. She stood and moved closer to the miner hanging limp over Topper’s massive back. She patted his cheek and he moaned, his eyelids parting into slits. Cleo held up the coins.

“I told you that you wouldn’t be leavin’ without payin’.” She gave him one last hard pat on his shoulder, jarring his severed bones. The man yelped and Cleo smiled. “Thank you, Topper. Make sure he gets this back.” She pressed the bag of money into Topper’s broad palm.

He turned and walked out the doors of the saloon; ducking to keep from hitting his own head, but allowing the miner’s face to rake across the rough wood of the door frame. Cleo put her business smile back on and turned to her customers. “Now, it wasn’t the singing you’re used to, but you can’t say I let you leave without seein’ a show.”

The crowd of diggers, drovers, and townies laughed, some wandering back to their tables and others heading out the doors into the evening air. Cleo turned and walked to the bar, laying her gun on the counter and moving around to the other side. She shifted the bottles of moonshine over and found the jug of her own personal libation. There was no alcohol in this mix. She had to keep her head clear if she wanted to survive in this world; so she kept to her thistle root tea and let others make their own conclusions about what she was sipping.

Cleo tipped her glass to the fading, tin picture of her father she kept behind the bar. “I know, Daddy,” she whispered. She could practically hear him lecturing her about controlling herself; but she couldn’t afford to turn the other cheek. It was hard enough for men to respect her just because she was a woman; but if they knew she was barely seventeen, they’d drive her out of town. So as far as most people knew, she was a twenty-something spinster with a bad temper. It was one fib she had no problem telling, especially since it was only a half-lie.

She sat her glass down beside her gun and ran her fingers over the hand-carved stock she’d taken from her father’s own gun. She loved mechanical things and had a penchant for designing weapons. This particular gun had four double barrels that could be rotated into the firing position. Each barrel had a chamber filled with its own unique shot. The miner had received a peppering of specially prepared Rosary Pea seeds. They barely broke the flesh, but they released a toxin that would have him sitting in the outhouse for a week. It was Cleo’s compromise to her father and why she had named the gun “Mercy.”

Just one more season, Daddy. Just one more.

“Miss Cleo?” Sweet Potato interrupted her madam’s thoughts. “I’m sorry I caused such a ruckus. Please don’t turn me loose,” she begged, blinking back tears. She’d have no place to go if she was thrown out. Her mother’s new husband hadn’t been able to keep his hands off his stepdaughter, so Sweet Potato had fled west to the dry lands of the Barrens. She’d been close to starving when she’d come to Miss Cleo for work at The Pulpit.

“I’m not gonna turn you loose.” Cleo sipped her tea.

“Thank you,” Sweet Potato whispered. She unfolded her hand and placed the single pence she’d received from the miner on the bar. It was her tithe, the portion she would have owed if the tinnie had paid full price.

Cleo paused, looking at the coin. She reached into the pocket hidden inside the folds of her sage green skirt, her fingers turning the two pence she’d collected from the digger. The new “business” Cleo knew it was two pence closer to her goal, but the old “church-raised” Cleo still had a strong claim on her.

She pulled the coins from her pocket, placed them on the bar and pushed them towards her girl. “He decided it was best to pay his bill after all.”

Sweet Potato grinned. Miss Cleo was the only person she could remember that had ever fought for her, so she placed her one pence on the counter for a second time, figuring it was the thing to do now that she’d been paid in full.

“You’re even with the house.” Cleo pushed all three coins away again, cutting her girl off when she started to protest. “Just consider it for your pain and sufferin’.”

Sweet Potato touched the bald spot near her temple. She would have rather the miner broken her nose than pull her hair out; it was the only thing she thought was pretty about her. “It did hurt, but I guess it’ll grow back.”

“I wasn’t talkin’ about your hair.” Cleo winked. The freckled girl smiled and nodded in agreement. There were times the touch of her customers still made her sick, but at least now, they had to pay her for the privilege. She figured Miss Cleo understood.

“Well, what should I do with this?” Sweet Potato picked up the mechanical leg she’d sat on the floor beside her. She watched Miss Cleo’s eyes twinkle at the sight of it. It was the reaction she’d hoped for.

“Well, if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to hang onto that,” Cleo answered, reaching for the machine. “In fact, you can consider it your tithes for the rest of the week.” She wrapped her hand around the contraption and sat it on the bar next to her gun. “Now, would you mind checkin’ on my brother for me?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Sweet Potato excused herself with a clumsy curtsy.

Cleo began turning the leg over, looking for what she could salvage from the prosthetic. This machine was more intricate than any she’d seen before, and only a few of the parts were made of tin. The main skeleton was iron; but the rest of the gears and workings looked like silver, copper, and the coveted bismitine that lured the miners to their town in droves. Excitement plucked at her just thinking about the possibilities and she caught herself smiling like a school girl.

“Yes, sir, I think I’ll be introducin’ you to a friend of mine first thing in the morning.”