Southern Comfort
By Staci Faulkenberry

Part 1

Land’s End
January, 1927

The night was clear and cold with the promise of a hard frost by morning—unusual for the tiny south Pacific town.  Jons LeRoux shivered beneath his red flannel jacket as he hurried to the back door of his apartment behind Ferret’s Folly, the bar and dancehall he owned, key in hand.  Having no extra fat on his small frame, he felt the cold keenly and was eager to get into his apartment, turn on the radiator, and huddle under a mountain of blankets.

As he was fumbling with the lock, he heard a sneeze from his left and slight rustlings from behind the trashcans.

No way is someone going to get the jump on me.

"Come out where I can see you!" he called, taking care to conceal the key in his hand and grip the handle of his suitcase more tightly.  If the prowler hadn't seen it, he could use the key to his advantage.  The suitcase wasn’t exactly easy to hide, but he could still use it as a weapon if he had to.

When whoever it was did not respond, Jons hastily unlocked the door and hurried inside.  Slamming and locking it behind him, he flicked on the lights and took quick stock of the kitchen.  It wasn’t cold, as he’d expected it to be.  Apparently, one of his employees had come over and turned on the radiator when he’d called and told them that he was coming back.  Everything else seemed to be in place. He dropped the suitcase and raced through the room and into the bar where he kept his rifle.  The big room was dark, but the ferret had long since memorized his way around, and everything was just as he'd left it when he'd locked up and gone to his father's funeral three weeks ago.  He made a beeline for the bar where his rifle hung on pegs beneath the counter.

Loaded.  Good.  If whoever that is wants trouble, I'll give it to 'em.

Lips compressed, he went to confront the intruder.  Light from the open door flooded the street as he aimed at the interloper’s hiding place.

"I'm armed. Come out where I can see you."

Silence.

Then, the prowler sniffled and coughed.  Two furry ears peeked over the edge of the can.  Then, matted hair of an indeterminate color emerged followed by two watery eyes.

It was a young vixen. Jons wasn't good at guessing children's ages, but he didn’t think she was in her teens yet.

Jons lowered his weapon.  Just an urchin. 

"What’re you doing here?"  he asked roughly.

"Tryin' to get warm."  Her voice was raspy with congestion and she had a heavy Southern accent that made him feel as if he were back home.

His voice was gentler as he said, "I don't think you're going to get warm back there, darlin'. Don't you have anywhere to go?" 

She started to reply, but was overcome by a spate of coughing.  Jons eyed her with concern.  The girl could hardly take a breath, but managed to shake her head.

I can't leave her out here on a night like tonight. She'll be dead by morning!

Shouldering the rifle, he beckoned to the girl, who came forward reluctantly.  Her clothes, a ruffled blouse that may have once been white and pleated pink skirt, looked as if they had been high-quality stuff, but were now threadbare and sported more than a few stains and tears.  Her nose was crusty with dried mucus and she wiped it on the ragged end of one sleeve.  Jons hesitated a moment before he put an arm around her shoulders and tried to lead her inside.  The instant he touched her, she stiffened and jerked away.

"I ain't goin' back.”  She glared at him defiantly.

"Kid, you stay out here much longer and that's not going to be a problem.  C'mon. I'm not going to turn you in.  Don’t you have any parents?"

She hesitated and shook her head.  As she took a step, she stumbled and fell heavily against him.  He steadied her, taking note of the fact that he could feel every rib and that her elbows were as sharp as knives.

Bet she hasn't eaten in days.  He sniffed.  Or bathed, either.

Frowning, the bartender led her inside.  As he leaned his rifle against the kitchen counter, she stood with her back against the closed door, looking at him fearfully.  Ignoring the look, he bustled around the warm kitchen, heating up soup and getting a bowl and glass from the cabinet.  Jons wasn't sure quite what to say to the child.  He was much more accustomed to dealing with cutthroats and drunks.

"I'm Jons. What's your name?" he asked finally.

She didn’t answer, and he turned to find himself staring at the business end of his own gun.  His heart began to pound.

“Easy, there, darlin’,” he said quietly.  “Just take it easy.”

The little girl’s watery red-rimmed eyes were wary and her hands trembled as she held the gun.  His eyes, however, were glued to her finger, which shook a little too much too close to the trigger for his liking.  If she shivered too hard, she could accidentally...

“What do you want?” she asked.

He looked at her, bewildered.  “To help you.”

“Help me?” she echoed with bitter cynicism that belied her youth.

“Look, kid, I haven’t had the best day, okay?  I just drove for twelve hours straight.  All I want is to go to bed.  But you’re sick and I wouldn’t feel right leaving you out there on a night like tonight.” He kept his gravelly voice reassuring.  “I’m not forcing you to stay.  If you want to take your chances behind the trashcans, you’re more than welcome to it.”

She was obviously exhausted as well as malnourished, judging from the way she swayed and blinked owlishly at him.  The gun slowly lowered as if her arms didn’t have the strength to hold it up any longer.

“That’s it.  Put the gun down.  Nobody’s gonna hurt you here.”

Then, she sneezed.  The gun fired and Jons hit the deck as glass shattered and wood splinters rained down on him.

There was a long, tense moment of silence.  Then, Jons raised his head and saw the girl slumped against the counter, gun beside her.  Quickly, he got to his feet and went to her.

“Kid?”

She didn’t stir.  Worriedly, he checked her pulse and sighed with relief.  Whether it was the kick from his gun or whether she’d passed out from her illness, he wasn’t sure.  But an unconscious angry girl was easier to deal with than a conscious one.  He snatched up his gun and quickly returned it to its place beneath the bar.

When he came back into the kitchen, the girl was still passed out, her hoarse, raspy breathing audible even across the room.  He hesitated in the doorway, staring at her as he tried to decide what to do with her.  After being held at gunpoint, he wasn’t nearly so enthusiastic about letting her spend the night.

But she was just a little girl and she hadn’t seemed malicious, exactly.  She had been more frightened and wary, as if she were expecting him to do her harm instead of the other way around.

Mama’d kill me if I tossed her out.

With that thought, he moved towards her and knelt to feel her forehead.

She’s burning up!  Without hesitation, he picked her up and his heart went out to her completely.  She was like bones desiccated by the desert sun, hollow and forsaken.

She didn’t awaken until he’d gently laid her on the couch, which was made of some itchy dark purple upholstery.  It made for uncomfortable sleeping, but he really didn’t want her messing up his bed.  If she ruined the couch, it was no big deal.  He’d been meaning to get a new one for a while, anyway.

The girl’s eyes fluttered open and she shook so hard her teeth rattled.  “D-d-don’t h-hurt me.  Please.”

Jons looked down at her in surprise.  “No one’s going to hurt you, darlin’. It’s okay.”

“I’m s-s-so c-c-cold.”

“Hold on.”

He went down the hall to his linen closet and pulled out a few warm woolen blankets, which he piled on the girl.  After a moment, she stopped shivering and began to snore. 

He regarded her, questions racing through his mind. How long has she been on the streets? Had to have been a while.  She’s a mess. Why didn’t she just go back to wherever she came from?  That has to be better than slowly dying on the streets.

With a sigh, he turned out the lights and retired to his bedroom at the end of the hall.  It had been a long bus ride from his hometown of Baton Noir, and he was exhausted.  All he wanted right now was his own bed.

It was late the next morning when he woke up.  He lay there for a moment, enjoying the warmth and the quiet, before he reluctantly rolled out of bed and went to check on the vixen.

Still sleeping and that fever’s worse.  Why did she have to come here?  Why not Bob's or Big Lola's?  What on earth am I supposed to do with her?

After he showered and dressed, he looked in on her again.  She was still sleeping, and when she didn’t awaken when he called to her, he became worried.  He considered the problem as he cleaned up the glass and wood from the kitchen floor, spackled the bullet hole, and painted over it.  As he ate a light breakfast, he thought about going for a doctor.   Her fever seemed high to him, but was what was high for an adult high for a kid?  He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to look like an idiot if he called the doctor and it turned out to be nothing. 

While the bartender was debating, he heard a door slam.

"Jons?  Are you back yet?  There's a schmuck here with that shipment of tequila and rum!"  It was Tony, one of his waiters.

"In here!" he called.

"By the way, how was the funeral?"  Tony's voice drew closer and presently, the bulldog's face popped around the corner.  His jaw dropped when he saw the vixen.  "Holy crow!  What's that?"

            "It was a funeral.  How do you think it was?” Jons said tartly.  “And it’s a girl, you idiot.  I’d think you, of all people, would recognize one when you saw her."

Tony looked at the girl.  Only her face was visible above the covers, but he could tell she wasn’t more than thirteen.  "Robbing the cradle, aren't you?"

Jons rolled his eyes.  Tony rarely ever had his mind out of the gutter.  "I found her hiding out in the trash last night.  She was sick and I couldn't very well leave her, could I?  Listen, you or one of the others go and find a doctor."

“But… are you sure she’s alive?”  Tony cast another dubious glance at the girl.

Jons, who had had quite enough of death lately, rounded on him.  “Of course she’s alive!” he snapped. “And she’s going to stay that way, too.”

“Sure.  Okay.  Take it easy, Boss Man.   Tony backed away from him and went to the barroom where Jim and Buckteeth looked up questioningly.

“Is he back?” Jim asked.

The bulldog nodded and absently signed for the shipment of liquor.  After helping the deliveryman unload the crates, the three waiters began to stock the shelves.

“So…?”  Buckteeth, a gangly brown rabbit who sported a few patches of white fur, pried off the top of one crate and quickly counted the bottles.

Tony’s brow furrowed and he frowned.  “He’s got a girl back there.”

Jim snickered.  “Then he’s doing much better than we thought.”

“Noooo,” Tony said slowly. “It’s a little girl.  I swear she’s half-dead.  He wants one of us to go get a doctor.”

“Where did he get a little girl?” Buckteeth asked incredulously.

The bulldog shrugged.  “Found her last night, he said.”  He looked longingly at a bottle of tequila before putting it on the shelf.  I think he ought to just turn her over to the orphanage.  Let them deal with her.”

“Hmm….” Looking thoughtful, Buckteeth stood up.  “I’ll go get a doctor. I know a good one.”

He’d just left when Jons emerged from his apartment.  The bartender stood for a moment, watching as they stocked the counter.

"Buckteeth went to get a doctor,” Tony said.

"Running an orphanage now, Boss Man?" Jim, a young tan bear, asked.

"Come on, what is this?  How many times do I have to tell you clowns to turn the labels forward?" Agitated, he turned the bottles so that his patrons would be able to see the gold-foiled labels.  "And no.  You know I don't like kids.  As soon as she's well, she'll be on her way."

He looked around the room to make sure everything was in place and ordered Jim to sweep the dance floor.  Then, he got a rag from behind the bar and began polishing the smooth wooden surface as Tony set the chairs around the tables.

Within moments, Buckteeth entered with a short, officious-looking hippo who carried a black doctor’s bag.

"I’m Doctor Brown. I hear you've got a sick child here," the hippo said.

"She's in the back." Jons tossed his cloth under the bar and gestured for the doctor to follow him.

The hippo took one look at the girl and shooed Jons out.  The bartender started to protest, but changed his mind and returned to the barroom where he was confronted not only by his three waiters, but by his five-member band as well.

"What gives? Tony here says you're opening an orphanage," David, the trumpet player, said indignantly.

"Yeah, are we out of a job, Jons?" Kevin, the drummer, asked.

Jons waved them to silence and glared at Tony.  "I think you've been hitting the sauce a little too hard, pal.  I found a little girl behind the bar last night.  I guess she ran away from the orphanage. She’s sick and I couldn't leave her out there when it was freezing.  Doctor Brown’s looking at her now, and she's staying here until I figure out what do with her. You are to keep customers away from my apartment."  He looked hard at the bulldog.  "Got it?"

Tony grinned.  "No problem, Boss Man. "

"Does this girl have a name?" Buckteeth asked.

Jons shrugged.  “I’m sure she does, but when you’re being held at gunpoint, you really don’t worry about that too much.”

Buckteeth and Tony exchanged startled glances.

Gunpoint?”  Tony was incredulous.

“I found her behind the trashcans and brought her into the kitchen.  I put the rifle against the counter and she got a hold of it.”

Tony thought about it for a moment, then guffawed.  “Little spitfire, huh?”

Even the band tried to suppress snickers.

What?”  Their boss glowered.

“That little thing snoring on your couch,” Tony chortled, “held you up.  With your own gun!”

Even Buckteeth had to smile at that.  Jons flushed and wondered briefly if they’d still think it was so funny if he held them up.

“How’d you get it away from her?” The rabbit struggled to keep his expression one of serious concern.

“She was putting it down.  Then she sneezed.”

They looked at him blankly and he exhaled noisily, rolling his eyes.  “That’s a twelve-gauge shotgun.  It’s got a kick.  Even if she’d been meaning to fire it, she couldn’t have handled it.  I don’t know whether it was the gun that did it or if she passed out from something else, but when the dust cleared, she wasn’t awake anymore.”

“Passed out?”  Buckteeth frowned.  “She must be pretty sick.”

The ferret nodded.  “I think she’s been out on the streets for a while.  Probably hasn’t eaten a decent meal or gotten a good night’s sleep in I don’t know how long.  And who knows what she must have seen, to act the way she did.”

The men were silent for a moment.  Then, Jons ordered everybody to get to work. "We open in an hour and y’all haven't warmed up and the floors aren't swept."

His employees returned to their tasks.  As the band played a few scales, Tony sidled up to his employer, who was cleaning an already spotless counter.

"So… what are you going to do with her?"

Jons shrugged.  "After she gets well?  I’m not sure.”

“You could keep her, you know.”

Keep her?  A bar isn’t exactly the best place for a kid."

"What else is she supposed to do?  Where do you think she's going to go?  If she did run away from that orphanage, like you said, if you send her back she'll probably just run again.  Next time she gets sick, she might not be so lucky."

Angrily, Jons threw down his rag.  "Shut up, Tony."

The door opened and Doctor Brown gestured to Jons.  The bartender followed him back to the living room where he glanced at the vixen, who was still asleep, but was muttering something.

The doctor crossed his stubby arms over his chest and asked dubiously, "Is she yours?"

"Mine?"  Jons was startled.  He'd never thought of himself as the fatherly type—and he certainly didn’t think he was old enough to have fathered a girl almost in her teens.  What kind of answer was the doctor looking for?

"Young man, either she is or she isn't."

"Uh… yes, yes, she's mine."

The hippo glared at him.  "I should call social services.  That girl has been shamefully neglected. On top of pneumonia, she's seriously undernourished and I haven't seen a child that filthy in a long time."

The bartender thought quickly.  "Well, she’s actually, uh, my niece.  You may have noticed my bar's been closed for a few weeks?  Her, uh, mother was having problems and I had to go get the girl."

The doctor was silent for a moment.  Then, he patted Jons on the shoulder.  "Well, if you ever need any advice, don't hesitate to call me.  As for her current condition, she’s half-starved and won’t be able to handle any real food for a while so if she wakes up, give her liquids.  Lots of liquids."  The hippo turned to go.  He was at the door when he added, "I'll be back tomorrow to check on her."

As soon as Doctor Brown left, Jons pulled a chair close to the couch and put his hand to her forehead.  She was still burning up, so he filled a compress with ice and carefully placed it on her head.  She often awakened, delusional and raving as she looked at Jons with fever-bright eyes.  He calmed her best as he could, though he didn’t understand half of what she said.  Though he tried to wait tables, he was so preoccupied that after he botched a few orders, Buckteeth kicked him out and took over.

The ferret spent the night in a chair beside the couch, soothing her when she became too agitated. Unknown to him, Buckteeth, who had spent countless nights tending to his own children when they’d been ill, checked on him frequently to see if he needed help.  When Jons fell asleep in the chair, shivering with his chin on his chest, Buckteeth carefully propped his feet on an ottoman and covered him with a thick blanket.

The girl was about the same the next day.  Doctor Brown came late in the afternoon with medicine, and he managed to wake her up long enough to pour it down her throat, but she fell back to sleep as soon as she swallowed it.

“If she’s worse tomorrow, I’m admitting her to the hospital,” he said tersely.

Jons was taken aback.  “She’s that bad?”

Doctor Brown nodded grimly.  “Quite frankly, she should be there now, but I don’t want to risk moving her in this cold.  Pneumonia’s nothing to fool around with.”

“But…” The bartender looked at the girl with concern.  “But she will get better, right?”

“I think so.  If you keep her warm and in bed.  I don’t think the last will be much of a concern.  She’s going to be a very sick girl for a while and it will take her some time to get her energy back once she’s on the mend.”  He bathed the vixen’s forehead with a cold washcloth.  “And we need to get this fever down, too.  It’s high enough to cause delirium, which is the last thing she needs.”

Jons refrained from telling him that he’d spent most of the previous afternoon and night soothing her ravings.  Instead, he thanked the doctor, piled another couple of blankets on the girl, and again kept a cold compress on her forehead.

She got no worse, for which Jons was thankful.  The next day, he was folding a load of laundry and wishing that he’d never taken her in when she coughed and he heard the springs on the couch creak.  Glancing up, he saw that she was awake—truly awake.  Her gaze wasn’t focused on him, however.  Instead, she was staring with fascination at the gun rack on the wall, which held not only his back-up rifle, but a double barrel shotgun and two revolvers as well. 

“They ain’t loaded,” he told her.

With a start, she turned her attention to him.  Her eyes were sunken, haunted, and more than a little fearful, which made her look more like a wild thing than a little girl—an image enhanced by her dirt-streaked face and badly tangled hair.  As he folded the last shirt, he shivered.

“How long… out?”  Her voice was barely above a whisper and she sounded like an old woman.

“A few days.”

“Who?”  It seemed to hurt her to talk and she didn’t use any more words than necessary.

“Who am I?  I’m Jons.  You have a name?”

The girl tilted her head to one side and looked him over from head to toe. 

Because he was short and slim, he had learned to use other methods of intimidation over his many years spent working in bars.  When he chose to, his dark eyes could be hard and forbidding and with his tousled dark hair overdue for a trim, some would have considered him downright dangerous-looking under the right circumstances. 

But he was hoping these weren’t the right circumstances.  He was only twenty-five, after all, and diminutive.  And the little girl wasn’t a large, drunken man he needed to bully out of his bar for disrupting business. 

He had no cause to worry.  With his rumpled white shirt, dark gray pants and bloodshot eyes, he looked more like a man badly in need of a good night’s sleep than one who wanted to do harm.  She stared at him for a long time, and he kept his expression pleasant, as though he were dealing with an irate customer.

Finally, she seemed to decide that he wasn’t a threat.  “Cody Hawkins.”

"Feeling better?" he asked.

She groaned and shook her head, which dispelled the feral illusion slightly.  "Throat hurts!"

“Hmmm…” Jons went to the kitchen and made some hot tea.  After spooning in a generous dollop of honey, he took it to the girl.  Her thin hands shook so badly that she nearly dropped the heavy mug.  Hesitating for a moment, he sat beside her and lifted the mug to her lips.

She finished the tea and looked at him curiously as he set it down on an end table.

“You were here?”  Her voice was getting steadier, more youthful.

“Was I here the whole time?” he asked, and she nodded. “Yeah.  Slept in that chair over there.”

She just looked at him suspiciously.

Disconcerted, he cleared his throat and jammed his hands in his pockets. “Do you need anything else?  Are you hungry?”

She shook her head.

“Well, you need to eat something, anyway.”  Without another word, he went into the kitchen and returned in a moment with a tray.  She looked askance at the sandwich, but he pushed a bowl of soup towards her.

“Eat what you can.”  He took the sandwich for himself and wolfed it down, watching her out of the corner of his eye and hoping he wouldn’t have to feed her.  He didn’t like nursing in general and tending to a strange girl made him nervous.

She was asleep before he finished eating, but her fever had broken and it wasn’t the delirious, fitful sleep in which she’d been for the past few days.  He removed the tray, noting that she hadn’t managed more than a few spoonfuls. Doctor Brown came when he was cleaning up the kitchen.

“Her fever’s broken,” Jons said.

Doctor Brown nodded and awakened the vixen, who started when she saw him.

The bartender hastily stepped into the room.  “Cody, this is Dr. Brown.”

“Hi there, little lady. You gave us quite a scare.” The hippo pulled a thermometer out of his bag.  “I’m just going to take your temperature.”

She rolled her eyes, but allowed him to put the thermometer in her mouth.  When he pulled out the stethoscope and tried to unbutton her shirt, she spit out the thermometer and scrambled away from him with surprising agility.  Jons just barely kept her from falling off the end of the couch, and she jerked away as if he’d touched her with a branding iron, her body trembling.

“Go ‘way,” she croaked.

“Sweetheart, this is called a stethoscope.  It won’t hurt.  It just lets me listen to your heart and lungs.”

“Don’t call me sweetheart.” She glared at him. “And I know what a stethoscope is.”

Jons barely contained a smirk as Dr. Brown looked at him.  The hippo’s gaze was accusing, as if asking why Jons could not keep the girl in line.  It was clear that if he didn’t want the scene to get any uglier, he would have to calm her down.

“Dr. Brown’s been checking on you for the past few days, honey.  I promise he won’t hurt you.” He leaned close to the girl and whispered, “If he does, I’ll shoot him.”

She muttered something under her breath, but allowed the hippo to continue his examination.  Jons noted that she flinched when Dr. Brown pressed the stethoscope against her chest, but decided it was probably because the thing was cold.  He didn’t blame her. He wouldn’t want the doctor coming near him with a cold stethoscope.

"She's still got a lot of congestion in her chest," the hippo observed.  He checked her throat, gave her a smile, and turned to Jons. “She’s going to be okay.  I want you to keep her quiet for a while.”  He handed Jons a bottle of medicine.  “Give her this every four hours for the next week.  It should help clear up her congestion.  She needs to stay in bed and…” He glanced at the girl, then leaned close to Jons.  “She needs a bath.”

The bartender nodded and pulled out his wallet.  “How much?”

Dr. Brown considered for a moment.  “Fifty should do it.”

After the doctor left, the ferret turned to the vixen, who was listlessly staring at the ceiling.

"Well, sweetheart, I think you need to get cleaned up.”

Her eyes blazed as she rasped, "Don't call me sweetheart."

The bartender was a little taken aback.  She seemed a bit young to be that sassy.  "How old are you?"

"How old are you?" she countered.

He smiled slightly.  "Come on. While you bathe, I'll see what I can find for you to wear."

And I'm washing those blankets, too. 

She looked at him for a moment.  Then, she slowly got up as if it hurt her to do so and clung, trembling to the arm of the couch, sweat beading her forehead.

He eyed her worriedly.  “You okay?” 

The look she gave him was contemptuous, though he noted fear in her eyes as he stepped towards her.

“Do you think you can bathe by yourself?”

She met his eyes, but didn’t say anything.  She didn’t have to.  He could see the answer plainly enough. 

“Then stay right there.  You’ll have to get cleaned up… later.”

Somehow, she dragged herself back onto the couch.  He was at a loss—again.  He knew she’d feel better if she were clean, but she was so weak that she couldn’t even manage to get to the bathroom.  Biting his lip, he considered his options.  Cody sighed heavily and tucked her legs up under her, her head sinking wearily into one arm propped on the armrest.  Within moments, her eyes drooped closed. 

“She okay?”

Startled, Jons jumped and whirled around, his elbow catching Tony’s jaw.

Ow!

Jeez, Tony!  Give me a heart attack, why don’t you?”

“I think you broke my jaw!” The bulldog wiped his lower lip with the back of his hand and looked at it to see if it was covered with blood.

Shh!  Cody’s trying to sleep.”

“Cody?  Please tell me you didn’t name her.”

Jons punched him.  “Of course not, idiot.  She woke up today.”

Tony smirked.  “She hold you up again?”

“Oh, shut up.”

            Tony looked down at her. “So what are you gonna do with her?”

The bartender waved his arms in agitation.  “How should I know?  Do I look like a nurse?  I don’t--!”

Buckteeth’s voice interrupted them.  “Anybody here?”

“Back here!” Tony called.

Shhh!” Jons hissed.

“Huh, wha--?” Cody jerked awake.  When she caught sight of the three men, her eyes widened.  Coughing violently, she huddled against the back of the couch, clutching the blankets to her chest.

They looked at her in surprise.

Jons hastened to reassure her.  “Cody, these are my employees.  This is Tony…” The bulldog gave her a weak wave.  “And this is Buckteeth.”

She didn’t say anything, but her expression was one verging on panic.

“How are you feeling, honey?” Buckteeth asked kindly.

No response.

Uncomfortable, Tony coughed, mumbled something under his breath, and hurried away. 

Buckteeth moved over to Cody and knelt so they were nearly at eye level.  “It’s good to see you awake.  Is there anything I can do for you?”

Her gaze flicked to Jons briefly, then she leveled her gaze on Buckteeth.  “No,” she whispered.  “Thank you.”

Then, Jons’s face lit up.  “Teeth, what’s Pat doing today?”

“Oh, the usual.  Cooking.  Cleaning.  Fighting the masses.”  He rolled his eyes heavenward.  “Lord help her.”

His boss motioned for him to go into the kitchen.  Curiously, Buckteeth got to his feet and followed the bartender.

“What’s up?” the rabbit asked.

“I was just wondering… that is, if it’s not too much trouble…” Jons bit his lip.  “Cody really needs, that is, she’d feel so much better if she were, ah, clean.”

“You’ve got a bathtub, Jons.  She won’t drown in it.”

The younger man glared at him.  I know that, idiot.  But she’s so… she can’t walk very far.  She’s just so sick.  Now, I obviously can’t help her bathe, but I thought that maybe if…”

“Hold on.”  Buckteeth disappeared.

Jons went back into the living room and perched uncomfortably in the chair across from Cody.  They were silent until Buckteeth returned a few moments later.

“She’s on her way.”

“Thanks, Teeth.  I owe you.”  Relieved, Jons turned to the vixen.  “A lady’s on her way to help you.  She’ll get you cleaned up and feeling better in no time.”

“I… thanks.” The girl looked both surprised and grateful.

Ten minutes later, a matronly-looking rabbit hurried into Jons’s apartment.  Cody saw her and relaxed completely, obviously deciding she was no threat at all.  One look at Pat and nobody would think she was a threat.  Petite and pleasantly plump, the brown-furred rabbit wore a plain, faded blue dress and a darker blue sweater.  Her graying blonde hair was still done up in curlers and her expression was one of benign motherly kindness.

“Hello, Jons, dear.  How are you?”  She peered at him closely and tsked.  “You haven’t been eating or sleeping like you should, have you?  And how is your family holding up?”

“Everyone’s as well as can be expected.  Thanks for asking.” The bartender gestured to Cody.  “Pat, I’d like you to meet Cody Hawkins.”

“Hello, dear.”  Pat reached down to smooth back dirty tangles of hair from the girl’s face, her dark gray eyes sympathetic.  “Don’t you worry about a thing.  We’re going to get you feeling better in no time.”  She looked up at Jons.  “Teeth told me to bring some of the kids’ old clothes, but he sounded kind of urgent on the phone, so I didn’t bother to root them out.”

“That’s okay.  I’ll find something for her.  I sure do appreciate your coming.”

Briskly, the rabbit stood up.  “I’ll go get the tub ready for you, Cody.”

“And I’ll go find something for you to wear.”  Eager to get away from the girl, Jons followed Pat down the hall.  Something about the child’s feral stare was downright unnerving.  While the rabbit ran water in the tub, Jons rooted through his closet till he found a soft blue flannel shirt.  It would be huge on her, but at least it would be warm.  He handed it to Pat, then went to get the girl.

She was still sitting there on the couch, her expression thoughtful.  When he reached for her, however, she tensed and gave a strangled cry.

He froze.  “What?  Are you hurt?”

“Stay away!”

The ferret blinked.  “I was just going to get you to the bathroom so you can take a bath.”

“I can walk!”

Dubiously, he crossed his arms over his chest and watched as she slowly got to her feet again.  She managed to take a half a dozen steps before she faltered.  He caught her as she swayed, ignoring her weak attempts to push him away as, with a barely contained grimace, he lifted her and carried her to the bathroom where Pat was running hot water in the tub.

I hate this.  I really, really hate this.  Good grief.  Why is she so stiff?  And when was the last time she bathed?

He was so wrapped up in trying not to breathe and his own self-pity that he didn’t really pay much attention to the girl until they were almost to the bathroom.  Her rigid muscles had relaxed slightly, but she kept her scrawny arms braced against his chest, as if pushing him away and she refused to look at him.

Gradually, he became aware of her annoyingly loud breathing and he couldn’t help but feel sorry for her.  Every breath seemed to be an effort and it made his chest hurt to hear her rasping.  Feeling slightly ashamed of himself for his less than charitable thoughts, he handed her off to Pat’s capable hands, much to her obvious relief.

“Don’t worry, Jons,” the rabbit said softly. “I’ll take good care of her.  Poor little thing.”

Cody coughed up some phlegm and Pat hastily dragged her over to the sink so that she could spit.  Jons left them alone and went to strip the blankets off the couch and remake it with fresh sheets and better, warmer blankets.  He thought for a moment about letting her have his bed, since it was closer to the bathroom—not to mention much more comfortable than the couch.

But if she needs something, I won’t be able to hear her.

His bedroom, which shared a wall with the bar, was well insulated and he could hear only the loudest sounds.  He’d had that done the previous year after he’d had a bad bout of the flu and had been kept awake by every little noise in the bar.

Then he realized that didn’t matter.  He would be checking on her constantly anyway, just to make sure she was still breathing.  The doctor’s assertion that she should be in the hospital had worried him more than he wanted to admit.

The least I can do is make her comfortable till she’s well.

Besides, letting her have his bed meant that she would have a shorter distance to the bathroom, which had two entrances: one to the hallway and one to his bedroom.  Maybe he wouldn’t have to carry her as often.

Having made that decision, he went into his bedroom, piled a couple more blankets on his bed, and carefully turned down the covers.  Then, he stood back and surveyed his room, wondering what she’d think of it.  She seemed so skittish and he didn’t want her jumping out the window, so he turned in a slow circle, taking in his spartan room.  A white iron double bed with covers in nondescript shades of gray and brown sat under a window hung with a thick blanket to block out the brightest light.  Two nightstands stood to either side of the bed.  A stack of books was piled on one, a lamp on the other.  On the wall opposite the door stood a battered bureau with a single framed picture of his family on it and butted against the dresser was a battered brown leather chair that had once belonged to his father.  To him, it was hardly an intimidating room.  He just hoped the girl would see it the same way.

While Jons prepared his room, Pat helped Cody to bathe.  The girl insisted on undressing herself and while Pat’s back was turned, she wrapped a towel around herself and slowly stepped into the tub. 

At Pat’s gasp, she looked up to find the rabbit staring at her exposed thigh, which was liberally striped with white scars.  Guiltily, Cody yanked the towel over it, stepped the rest of the way into the tub, turned her back to the woman, and removed the towel.

Pat hesitated, obviously torn between satisfying her curiosity and keeping her mouth shut.  She busied herself with rummaging in Jons’s medicine cabinet until she found a comb.

“I’ll try to untangle your hair while you wash.”  She handed Cody a washcloth and lifted dripping strands of snarled hair from the water.  “Let me know if I pull too hard.”

They were silent for a moment as Cody began to bathe and Pat concentrated on combing her hair without ripping half of it out.  The rabbit wondered briefly how long it had been since she’d been cared for before her attention returned to the scars on her thighs.  Though Cody tried to hide them, Pat caught glimpses of both thighs and saw that they were marred by at least a dozen scars each.

What happened to her?  Who would have done this to a little girl?

“Don’t tell anyone,” Cody spoke up quietly.  “Please.”

            “Who did this?”

The girl just shook her head.  She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, shivering, as she waited for Pat to finish untangling and washing her hair.

“You have such pretty hair,” Pat said.  She grunted a little as she encountered a particularly stubborn knot.  “And so much of it.”

Cody shrugged, wishing the rabbit would hurry up.  The water was quickly becoming tepid and her body felt chilled from more than just cooling water.

It took a long time and two refills of hot water before Cody was clean.  The girl nodded off a couple of times as Pat washed her hair, but she woke up when she heard gurgling and felt water drain.  Pat helped her out of the tub, dried her off, and slipped Jons’s shirt over her head.  Cody sighed with relief.

“You’ve come to a good place, y’know.” The rabbit gave Cody a hug, which she stoically accepted, but didn’t return.  “Jons is a good boy.”

The vixen made a face.

“He is,” Pat said firmly.  “He gave my husband a job when most people wouldn’t have.”

“Why not?”

“His age.”

“Oh.”  Her legs felt rubbery and her head was beginning to hurt, but she had to admit that the bath had made her feel a lot better.

“Jons!  We’re finished!”  Pat called.

Cody looked up at her with sudden intensity.  “You won’t tell, will you?”  She crossed her arms over her chest.  “You won’t tell about… about…?” She indicated her thighs.

Pat smiled sadly.  “Not if you don’t want me to, honey.”

The door leading to Jons’s bedroom flew open and both Pat and Cody looked at him in surprise.  They’d been waiting for him at the other door, obviously expecting that he would carry the girl back to the couch. 

He nearly laughed when he saw her.  His shirt was like a dress on her—it hung nearly to her ankles and he was hardly a large man.  But she was clean and her aqua eyes, though fatigued, were a little brighter.  Her fur was a vibrant red-orange and white and her hair hung in damp, heavy strawberry blonde waves nearly to her backside.  She gave him a small, shy smile, which he tentatively returned.

“Feeling better?”

“Yeah,” she said softly.

Pat must have told her I’m not some kind of kid-eating monster. 

This time, she didn’t balk when he bent to pick her up, but he figured it was probably due more to exhaustion than anything else.

“Now I want you to get some rest, Cody,” Pat said sternly, hands on her hips.  “And if this lazy lout gives you any trouble, you just give me a call and I’ll handle him.”

The girl actually chuckled.  “Thanks.”

“Now, Jons, if you need anything, you be sure to call me.  I’m gonna make sure Miss Cody here’s tucked in good, then I’ve got to run home.  I left a couple of loaves of bread rising and they’re probably ready by now.”

“Thanks, Pat.  You’re a lifesaver.”  He turned and deposited Cody in his bed.

“What--?” She looked at him with surprise.

“You’re sleeping here for the time being.  It’s a lot more comfortable than the couch.”

Instead of being grateful, Cody became agitated and tried to get out of bed.  “No.”

“It’s okay.  I don’t mind,” he assured her as Pat gently eased her back onto the bed.

No!  She struggled in the rabbit’s grasp while Jons stared at her.  “No, I don’t want to sleep with him.  No, let me go.  Let me go!  I don’t want to!”

She was practically in tears.  Pat held her firmly, finally pulling her onto her lap.  “Shhh… it’s okay, it’s okay.  He’s not going to be in here.  You’ll have the bed to yourself.”

After a moment, she settled down, though she still trembled.  Furtively, she glanced at Jons and was reassured by his stunned, disgusted expression.

“Look, kid, I’m letting you have my bed, not share it” he snapped.  “I’ll be sleeping on the couch.”

“Jons!” Pat said sharply.

“What?”

“That was absolutely uncalled for.”

“It’s true.”

“Well, you could be nicer about it,” she retorted.  Then, she hugged Cody and helped her to get beneath the covers.

The girl looked at Jons, terrified.  Then, she gulped and whispered, “Sorry.”

He wondered again what she’d seen on the streets to make her so afraid of him.  Then, he said wearily, “Me, too.  I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

Pat nodded approvingly and busily arranged the covers, tucking Cody in with the deftness of a woman accustomed to dealing with children.

“You go to sleep now.  Be sure you get plenty of rest.”  Pat smoothed the covers and stood for a moment, looking down at the vixen.  Then, she whirled to face Jons.  “And if your customers get so loud they keep her up, you’d better get rid of them.”

“Uh, sure.”  Jons, who had no intention of doing so, hid a smirk.

Pat left and Cody fell asleep soon after, so Jons went out to the barroom.  Buckteeth and Tony were busy setting chairs on the floor on the far side of the room, so Jons picked up a broom and began to sweep behind the bar.  As the broom bristles swished across the floor, his employees looked up, then ambled over.

 “Hey!”  Tony was unable to hide his surprise at seeing Jons working. 

Jons arched an eyebrow and leaned against the broom.  “What’s the matter?  You’ve never seen a man sweep a floor before?”

“How’s the girl?” Buckteeth asked.

Jons shrugged.  "Compared to what?  But she’s clean.  I really owe Pat one for that.  Doc said to keep her quiet." 

Buckteeth looked the younger man over critically.  Jons had always been slim, but he looked as though he’d lost weight—a little too much in the rabbit’s opinion, and his face had a careworn expression that hadn’t been there a month ago.  Now that she was on the mend, maybe this girl would give him something to think about besides his father’s death.  "So, you keeping her?"

The bartender blew out impatiently.  "Look, Teeth, you know I don't get along with kids."

"Haven't been around them, you mean."

"The point is, I run a bar.  That's no place for a little girl!" Under his breath, he muttered, “Especially that one.”

"I’ve worked in bars for years and my kids turned out fine."

"But you don't live in the bar," Jons said.  "I don't know why everyone's so keen on me keeping the brat!"

Buckteeth gave a short bark of laughter.  “I guess you want to make sure she’s housebroken before you decide to keep her, huh?  Maybe you ought to call the pound.”

            His boss looked hopeful.  “You think they’d come pick her up?”

“Jonathan LeRoux!”  Buckteeth said severely, sounding more like a father berating a son than an employee speaking to his boss.  “She’s a little girl in dire need of help and you’re telling me that you’d get rid of her just like that?”

“Why me?” Jons whined.  “I don’t even like kids.”

The rabbit sighed heavily.  “Look, Jons.  I’d take her myself, but Pat threatened to leave me if we had any more.  For Pete’s sake, we’re too old!”

“But… what do I do with her?”

“Just get her well and worry about the rest later.”

“But I’m no good with kids!  I don’t even know how old she is!  What do I do when…!”

The look on Buckteeth’s face made him swallow the rest of his protests.

“You,” the rabbit said, “are a real piece of work.  That little girl needs you and you’re being an ass.”

“I didn’t ask for this.”

Jaw set, Buckteeth advanced on him.  “So what?  We didn’t ask for half our kids, but we sucked it up and raised ‘em anyway.  And you know what?  We don’t regret it at all.  You’ve got it easy.  She’s not an infant.  You don’t have to change any diapers or get up for midnight feedings.  All she needs is a friend, and, like it or not, pal—you’re it!”

I can’t!  What part of that don’t you understand?”

“I saw you in there with her and the doctor.”  Buckteeth towered over his boss by several inches, and he made the most of his height now, glaring down at the younger man.  “And I kept checking on you that first night, too, just in case you needed help so don’t give me any of that crap about not knowing what to do or that you can’t.  You can.  You are.  You’re doing just fine, so I don’t want to hear any more about it.”

Jons scowled.  “You’re fired.”

Tony and Jim took one look at their boss’s face and busied themselves with tasks on the other side of the room, leaving the two men glaring at each other.  Something in Jons’s implacable expression warned Buckteeth that he’d pushed the bartender a little too far. 

Breaking eye contact, he sighed heavily and massaged the back of his neck.  “Look, Jons.  I’m sorry, okay?  You’ve just been going through hell lately and--!”

“As far as I’m concerned…” He cast a pointed look towards his apartment.  “I still am and it’s not going away.”

The rabbit said quietly, “I was just thinking that this little girl might give you something to think about besides… besides…”

Again, Jons interrupted him.  “Besides losing my father.  You don’t need to worry about me.  I’m fine.  Or will be once I get rid of that kid.”

Buckteeth was silent for a moment.  Then, he looked Jons squarely in the eye and said, “If you don’t want to take her in, that’s your business, but do me a favor.  Don’t kick her out until she’s better, okay?”

The bartender heaved an exasperated sigh.  “Well, I’m not about to leave her on the streets, all right?  Just… just leave me alone about it.”

“Am I still fired?”

Jons smiled grimly.  It was good to be the boss.  “No.”

He decided that his staff could handle the rest of the cleaning and went to check on the vixen.  She could not stay, of course.  He ran a bar patronized by all types of unsavory characters, none of which would be good influences for a little girl. 

But what Tony had said the other day made sense.  If she had run once, she must have had a good reason, and she wasn't likely to go back willingly.  No doubt she'd slip away again and she might be in an even worse fix than she was now.  But what else could he do with her?

I can't keep her.  I don't know anything about kids!  She needs a woman to look after her, for goodness' sake!  If Andrea was still around, I’d think about it, but she’s probably facedown in some gutter by now.  Or married to some rich sap who doesn’t care how much she drinks.

After high school, he’d fallen in love with Andrea Larson.  He had attended the college in her hometown and they’d met when she’d taken dance lessons from him.  They’d gotten married and lived in an apartment a block from the campus.  The marriage had lasted all of three years, until she came to care more for booze than him.  It had been partially his own fault.  Before they’d gotten married, she’d never had so much as a sip of alcohol.  He, having been raised in a bar, hadn’t seen anything wrong with the occasional drink.  Andrea, however, had taken it to the extreme.  She had come from a rich family, and didn’t take kindly to having to perform such menial tasks as cooking and cleaning.  So she’d resorted to alcohol as an escape. 

One night, after he’d found her in bed with his then-best friend and she’d chased him with a butcher knife because he’d tried to kill her lover and poured her liquor down the drain, he’d left.  He’d kept on going until he came to the tiny Pacific town of Land’s End where he set up his bar and dancehall. He’d filed for divorce, but no one except his family knew about that fiasco.

That had been three years ago. 

Divorce was something scandalous, whispered about at parties and Jons cared just enough about what people thought of him to want to keep it a secret.  His employees just thought he was a loner who cared more for his business than anything else, and he saw no reason to enlighten them, though he hated Tony’s unsubtle attempts to push women on him so he could ‘lose his virginity.’ 

He shook away the unpleasant memories and poked his head around the door.  The vixen was sitting up on the bed, leafing through one of the books from his nightstand.  She looked incredibly waif-like and lost amid the blankets and the sleeves of his shirt completely hid her hands.  He felt a wave of compassion, which he quickly stifled.

Careful.  You let yourself pity her and you'll end up like Elise.

His younger sister had recently gotten married and had a baby.  He’d thought at one time that he wanted kids.  Now, for more reasons than one, he was just as glad he and Andrea hadn’t had any.  The three weeks that he’d spent on the old family plantation had been sleepless and miserable not only because of his father’s death, but also from his niece crying all night.  The last thing he wanted was a kid around to disrupt business and cause more sleepless nights.

"Better?"

Guiltily, she put the book back.

“You can read that if you want,” he said.  “Or would you like something else?”

She stared at him.

He cleared his throat. "You hungry?"

She nodded.

He reheated the soup, placed that and a glass of tea on a tray, and carried it back to his bedroom where he found the girl slowly making her way around the bed.

“What are you doing?”

She jumped and clung to the white iron rail.

“Sorry.  I didn’t mean to scare you,” he apologized. “But you should be in bed.  That doctor would skin me if he knew you were up and about."

She made a face.  “Aww, I’m all right. I already feel better.”

Jons refrained from telling her that she’d looked to be at death’s door, and that just about anything was an improvement over that.  Instead, he waited till she’d settled back in the bed before he set the tray on her lap and watched as she slowly sipped the broth.  "Listen," he said carefully. "It's going to get a little… rowdy tonight.  You are to stay in bed no matter what you hear."

"You expectin' a fight?" she asked with more interest than she’d shown in anything else.  "This's a bar, ain't it?"

"Well, bar and dancehall.  And no, I'm not expecting a fight.  Anyone starts trouble, they get shot."

She peeked at him to see if he was joking and looked a little surprised at his serious expression. "You… you really would've shot me?"

"Honey, if you hadn't come out when you did, you’d be in the clouds plucking a harp."

Silently, she took a few more sips of the soup before she pushed the bowl away.

"You can't eat anymore?"

She shook her head.

"Kid, you're nothing but skin and bones!" Jons protested.  He studied the girl's pale, pinched face. There were dark smudges under her bloodshot eyes and she blinked at him sleepily.  "Well, we'll worry about putting some meat on you later.”

She looked at him curiously for a moment.  "Thank you."

Jons nodded and she gave him a wan smile as he took the tray out of the room.  After cleaning up the kitchen, he returned to the main room just as Buckteeth unlocked the door.  The band was playing a soft, slow number—nothing like the raucous music they'd be playing later in the night.  He just hoped the vixen was a heavy sleeper.

For the next hour or so, he needlessly polished the counter to avoid his employees' questioning looks.  Then, patrons poured in and all of them were busy until the end of the night.  Jons had to bring out the rifle once when a pair of inebriated mercenaries tried to do each other in over an argument about the best way to kill a banker, but the rest of the night was uneventful, if loud.

Just before dawn, he and his waiters shooed out the few who remained while the band packed up their instruments.

"Don't worry about the mess," Jons said wearily.  "We'll clean it up before we open."

The men exchanged glances.  Jons was never one to put off cleaning the bar, no matter how tired everyone was.

"Jons?" Jim asked.  "You okay?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"Well, you've always made us clean up before."

"The mess isn't going anywhere.  But I'm going to bed.  Tony, you lock up.  Good night, boys."  The ferret pushed through them and went to his apartment.  His employees watched as he shut and locked the door.

"That man needs a good lay," Tony said crudely.

“Shut up, Tony,” Buckteeth snapped.

As they turned the lights off and prepared to leave, he asked, "You guys don't think he's, uh…"

He made a lewd gesture and Jim cuffed him sharply.  "Shut your mouth, you pervert. Even if you would, Jons isn't the type."

"I would not!" the bulldog protested indignantly.  "I like 'em young, but not that young!"

 

***

 

Over the next few weeks, Cody began to recover.  Her appetite gradually returned and she began to put on weight, which improved her appearance dramatically.  She didn't talk much or demand attention, for which Jons was profoundly grateful.  He was busy trying to get things straightened out after his hiatus. 

He did, however, get the basics on her: she was eleven and her parents had been killed in a plane crash off the Land’s End coast two years earlier.  She and her brother had survived.  They’d been taken to the orphanage where her brother, a cute toddler, had been quickly adopted, but Cody had not been so lucky.  She wouldn’t go into any more detail than that, but he didn’t care.  He had too much else to think about.

His other employees introduced themselves to the girl when they had time, and she was shyly polite to them.  Buckteeth had brought the girl some clothes that his kids had outgrown.  She’d quickly tossed aside the skirts despite the fact that she’d been wearing one the night Jons had found her.  The pants were more graciously accepted.  Some of them were a little short and tight, some of them were long and had to be belted to keep them up, and she had quickly discarded snug shirts in favor of the looser ones, but they were better than having her run around the place in Jons’s old shirts or the rags she’d been wearing the night they’d met.  Those she’d thrown away without regret. 

As her strength returned, Jons found himself having to chase her out of the bar late at night.  The dancers fascinated her, and Tony wasn't helping matters.  Jons had caught the bulldog giving the girl dance lessons in the early evening before business picked up.  The girl was a fairly apt pupil. Then again, he’d found that most kids caught onto dances more quickly than adults.  He had to grin when he saw them dancing.  They made a peculiar couple.  Tony was short and middle-aged with a serious beer belly and Cody was still more whipcord over bone than anything else.  She’d also hacked her long hair off to chin-length, which made her look rather boyish.

One night, he saw the dog teaching her to mambo.  But Tony was teaching her the wrong steps.

            “That’s not how you do it,” Jons called from his customary post behind the counter.

Bulldog and vixen had looked at him in surprise.

“Sure it is,” Tony said.  “This’s how that cute secretary taught me to do it.”

“I’m telling you, that’s not the way the dance goes.  She does that on the floor and they’ll chase her off like they do you.”

Offended, Tony stepped back, arms crossed over his chest.  “All right, Boss Man.   Show us how it’s done.”

Suddenly sorry he’d gotten involved, Jons industriously straightened bottles.  “Can’t.  I’m working.”

“It’s not busy.  Come over here for a minute.  Heaven forbid I teach the kid the wrong dance steps.”

He shook his head.

“C’mon, Jons,” Cody said.  “You can dance, can’t you?”

The bartender turned and saw that her eyes were twinkling mischievously. “All right.”  He tossed aside his apron and stepped over to the girl and waiter, who exchanged grins.

With a dirty look at Tony, he said, “First of all, you do not leech onto your partner so you need a crowbar to separate you.  You need to have a little room to move.”

“Hey!” the bulldog protested, but Cody looked relieved.

Quickly, Jons showed her the correct steps.  Then, he slowed down so that she could mimic him. Pretty soon, she was performing the basic mambo at full speed and with considerable enthusiasm.

“Glad to see I haven’t lost my touch.”  Jons released Cody and returned to the counter.  She and Tony followed.

“Where’d you learn to dance?” Tony asked.  “I never saw you do so much as a waltz.”

“Ma was a dance teacher.  And I taught dancing to pay for college,” Jons said.

Cody smirked. “For an old man, you’re not bad.” 

“Watch it, kid,” he growled.

Then, he smiled and tousled her hair.  He was beginning to like the smart-mouthed little vixen, and he often had to sternly tell himself not to become attached to her.  She’d soon be on her way to… wherever. 

From then on, he kept his mouth shut about the dance lessons and refused to let himself be talked into participating again.

One night, he saw Tony offer her a shot glass of some of the most rotgut liquor he stocked.  Before he could stop her, she tossed it back just as she'd seen the bulldog do.  Eyes watering, she coughed and spluttered while Tony laughed.

"Don't worry, kid. You'll get used to it."

"Tony!"  Jons hastily filled a glass with water and stormed over.  "What did you think you were doing?"

"Relax, Boss Man.   She's fine."

Cody managed a weak grin.  "Yeah.  Fine."

Jons handed her the water and turned to scowl at the suddenly worried bulldog.  "She's just a kid, Tony!  You don't give hard liquor to kids!  Bad enough you're teaching her to dance!"

"Well, if she's staying, she's got to learn, doesn't she?  And I don’t think I was the only one teaching her."

"She's not staying, Tony!  You know that!"

"Oh, so you're just going to turn her out in the street?  Nice, Jons, real nice."

Cody hiccupped and the men looked at her in surprise.

“I… I didn’t mean for you to find out like this.”  Jons shifted uncomfortably.  “But… I figured you knew you weren’t staying.  I mean… this isn’t… you can’t… this is a bar, for goodness’s sake!”

"Don't worry about me," she said roughly.  She slid off the barstool and stumbled towards the back.  "Don't know where y’all got the idea that I was planning on staying.  All I’m worried about is payin' you back."

Jons was confused.  "Pay me back for what?"

Cody looked at him as if he were an idiot.  "Taking care of me.  Daddy always told me to not to get into debt, and I don't mean to."

"Look, sweetheart, you don't owe me a thing."

"Don't call me sweetheart," she snarled. 

Turning on her heel, she stalked away.  Jons gave Tony a disgusted look and followed her.

"Don't go out that door! It's pouring and you're still sick!" he yelled.

He found her curled up on the couch.

She gave him a withering look.  "I ain't stupid.  I know it's raining, but it's late and I'm tired.  Now go away and leave me alone."

Jons paused awkwardly in the doorway and stared at the small girl—or more precisely at the back of her head, since she’d resolutely turned away from him.  Then, at a complete loss, he turned and went back to the bar. 

Buckteeth was at his side in a flash.  “What happened?”

Jons’s brows drew together and he frowned.  “Nothing.”  He shrugged.  “She found out she’s not staying.”

“Is that what you and Tony were fighting about?”

“Guess so.”

“Well, is she okay?”

He shrugged again and said carelessly, “I don’t know.  She told me to leave her alone.”

The rabbit shook his head.  “And you listened?  Did you at least try to explain things?”

“Back off, Teeth.  It’s between me and her.”

“Jons, I told you that if you want to let her stay, that’s your business.   Fine.  But just… just don’t get her hopes up, okay?”

The bartender looked at him curiously.  “What do you mean?  I’ve never given her the idea that she could stay.”

“Maybe not.  But…” Buckteeth paused, choosing his words carefully.  “There’s something strange about that girl, Jons.”

“Strange?  How?”

The rabbit shrugged.  “Well, she’s a little, um… jumpy when you get too close to her.  Have you seen her when Tony’s teaching her to dance?  Poor kid looks like she’s about to jump out of her skin.”

Jons arched an eyebrow.  “If you had Tony teaching you to dance, wouldn’t you be a little jumpy?”

With a chuckle, Buckteeth placed his tray on the bar.  “I guess so.  But…” Again, he hesitated, unsure of how to say what he wanted to say.  “Jons, I’m going to be blunt and you can take this for what it’s worth.  I think Cody was planning on staying.”

“Well, that’s her problem, isn’t it?  And I thought you were through trying to persuade me to keep her.”

“Please listen.  I’m not trying to get you to keep her.”

Jons looked skeptical.

“Really, I’m not.  I’m just saying that I think she’s been through something terrible and, well, she’s gotten attached to you… trusts you.  When you do find someone willing to take her in, just… make sure they’re all right.”

With a snort, Jons rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, I’ll ask for resumes and do full background checks.”

Buckteeth sighed and dropped the subject.  “You mind if I go look in on her?  Just to make sure she’s okay?”

“So my opinion suddenly matters?”

The rabbit shook his head and made his way to Jons’s living room.  The girl was huddled on top of the blankets, shivering.

“Cody?” 

She didn’t answer, so he tiptoed over and peered at her.  Her eyes were closed, but he could see telltale trails of moisture on her cheeks.  Carefully, he eased the top blanket out from under her and tucked it around her firmly.  Then, he brushed her unruly hair from her face and gently touched her cheek.  She shivered in her sleep and shied away from his touch.

            

End of Part 1

 

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