Hunching her shoulders, Ducia Smith quickened her stride, but the hoots and hollers, catcalls and whistles, persisted.

"Whore, whore," the ragtag gang of ruffians taunted, "two-bits for a rut, filthy slut."

Ducia ordinarily confined her wanderings to daylight hours, when folks heading in and out of town provided an element of safety from molestation, at least when she cried out for help.

You got yourself a fine set of lungs on you there, Ducia, honey, Aunty always said. Gents respond real well to screamers.

Words to live by, she reckoned. And time and time again, those words had proven true. The minute she set to caterwauling, some gent or other would come running to her defense and drive off the bullies bedeviling her. But darkness had fallen, and only thieves and Aunty's customers -- sometimes they fell into the same category -- frequented this deserted stretch of road. Generally speaking, those sacks-of-shit were the ones perpetrating the violence in these parts, not the ones doing the rescuing.

Tonight, she would just need to do her own rescuing.

A rickety old gate at the edge of a wildflower meadow led directly to Happy Hollow, the ramshackle poorhouse where she lived with Aunty. If she reached the shortcut unscathed, she would be home free.

A toss of the dice if she made it. No telling what this no-account gang would do if they caught her. Rape her more than likely.

Huddled in on herself, Ducia broke into a run, her too-long hem dragging in the dirt and tripping her up. Modesty be damned, she hiked her gown to the waist and kept plowing ahead.

Ducia had some familiarity with man/woman relations. With that said, she counted a half-dozen men chasing her skirts. As a rule of thumb, Aunty never took on six customers at a time, not even for an additional fee. Would the men take turns getting on her?

Cringing at the thought, Ducia ignored the gate and jumped the post-and-rail fence that surrounded a meadow filled with Queen Ann's lace. Though many considered the plant a weed, she dearly loved the lacy white blossoms. Resisting the temptation to pick a few, she continued her headlong dash for the poorhouse.

Whores never took time off. On the wrong side of sober or not, Aunty left the rear window of her tiny pauper's room open for customers to climb through. Not near tall enough to boost herself up over the sill, Ducia used a loose wooden slat beneath for a toehold. Of course, if Aunty were entertaining, Ducia would sleep under the side porch. No one would think to look for her there. But if these rapists did, the smell of cat piss would surely keep them from crawling in after her.

All her speculating was for not. Before Ducia ever neared the window, the swiftest of the group, a big-jawed man, tackled her and down she went.

He snarled, "Resist and get a licking."

Playing possum, she held still. But when his hold eased up on her a mite, she bit into his thumb. Clamping down, she refused to let go, despite hitting bone and tasting copper in her mouth.

The jig was up when the other men caught up with the first. Just as she did when Aunty was riled up on drink, Ducia braced herself for the blows that were sure to fall.

None did. Instead, a second lout, ugly and mean of countenance, pointed a knife at her throat. "You are about to get laid, sugar."

What she had between her legs belonged to her and only to her, to give freely as she saw fit. To a husband. To a lover. To her first customer, if she decided to follow in Aunty footsteps. But the blade's gleam under the moon narrowed her choices to one.

Ducia unclamped her jaws. "No need to cut me. I aim to do everything you say."

The knife-wielding bully sheathed his weapon and backed off a piece. "Take that rag off your back. Try anything and my knife is but a pull away."

As Ducia undid that first button under her frayed collar, she repeated one of Aunty's oft-said phrases, "Three bucks for three holes, and by that I mean greenbacks not stags."

"Service these animals for that pittance? Where is your business sense? Demand more, girl."

Before she figured out exactly who had spoken, all hell broke loose. Fists pounded against flesh, grunts and curses accompanying them. At the end of the scuffle, two of her would-be attackers lay crumbled on the ground. Dead, maybe, badly injured for a certainty. The rest of the gang stumbled off into the night, all to a one clutching his testicles.

Her rescuer approached. As if she had vermin, he stood far afield from her and clapped his thick black leather gloves against a callused palm. The fight had hardly winded him at all.

"What are you doing out so late, girl?"

"I lost track of the time."

"This is outrageous. Where are you parents?"

"Got none. And I know where you are heading with this line of questioning, mister, but the truth is, ain't no one to blame for this mess of trouble but myself. My own fault I got myself caught with my drawers down and my arse hanging out."

Not literally. Drawers were a luxury she could ill-afford. Under homespun brown calico, a hand-me-down from Aunty that hung loose on Ducia's skinny frame, she wore not even a single muslin petticoat. Just skin. The point was, she knew better than to tell her rescuer that Aunty was feeling poorly. Again. That stale whiskey soured her breath. Get too close and the foul bouquet knocked a body back a pace or two. To escape the stink for a spell, she had taken off.

She would say nothing about any of that to him. She would, however, admire him from afar. Because he was blue-eyed handsome, the kind of well-put together sort Aunty would fuck for free.

No lie, he had a powerful impact on her. She could scarcely think, never mind speak, he bothered her so. Which was why, when she did work up the gumption to open her mouth again, she said the first thing that sprang to mind. "Preacher's prick! Those varmints scared the bejesus out of me. But not as much as wearing these shoes as a corpse."

In a daze, she pulled up her skirts and exposed her shame to the blue-eyed stranger. "Will you look at these? Dilapidated leathers, with worn-down soles. Pauper's footwear. I ain't no pauper. I just happen to be penniless. And destitute or not, I hate ugly shoes. Someday, I mean to be well-heeled, like Marie Antoinette."

He tilted his bristled jaw. "What would you know of French royalty?"

Heaps," she spat, trying to figure him out. His duds -- black twill trousers with studded seams, a plain dark waistcoat over a white cambric shirt, and no obligatory tie or outer coat -- bespoke a hard-living roughneck given to swilling rotgut straight from the bottle while loose women draped themselves across his lap. However, his manner said high-living gent used to fine brandy and even finer ladies. Which was he?

Aunty could size up a man's bankroll at a glance. She never sold pussy on the cheap when a customer could afford to pay more. A singular talent that Ducia lacked. To her, the measure of a man's worth lay in his heart, not in his money belt.

Despite all outward appearances to the contrary, her rescuer was pure gold.

Ducia folded her arms under her pointy bosom, "I may not have a formal education, but I have ambitions. And I read. Lots. And not just dime novels neither. History and such. Fascinatin' stuff."

"Fascinating, eh? Then, you will recall Marie Antoinette lost her head," her darkly handsome gentleman rescuer replied.

"Yes, but with dignity, owing to the fine fettle of her shoes."

Her hero gave a ghost of a smile. "Shoes aside -- did those thugs harm you?"

"No. You never gave them the chance, mister. Although, my knees are sure knockin'."

And not because of her would-be attackers. This man frightened her. She could not rightly say why, other than he was brooding and mysterious, and she should stay away.

Ducia took a step toward him and clasped a hand over her heaving breasts, both of them at the same time. Her bosom was lamentably small.

His cutting-blue gaze landed on her chest. Goodness. He was staring at her nipples. Then his sights leveled out at the vicinity of her arse. His heavy-lidded glance did strange things to her belly. Made her all woozy. Damp down below as well. Did that make her bad? Worse still, did that make her like Aunty?

"How old are you, girl?"

Shaken up a moment before, she was near to swooning now. She needed someone to hold her until the trembling stopped.

Him. She needed him to hold her. And she knew of only one way to accomplish that end.

The same way Aunty did.