DISCLAIMER: Characters and situations are actually mine for a change!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
After Echoes From a Gun
April 21, 1889. Purcell, Oklahoma.
Rose Skinner slipped her rucksack off her shoulders and let it hit to the ground with an explosion of loose earth. She rubbed her neck where the strap had been riding for god-knows miles and felt the muscles finally begin to relax. The pack at her feet contained her every worldly belonging, clothing and tools and one single pair of nice shoes crammed into an infinitely tiny space. Her back and legs ached from the trek to cross the Red River, but now she was here; the starting point.
Ezekiel nickered, apparently joining her in rejoicing the end of their trip. She patted the horse's thick neck and smiled. "You did good, boy. You did good." She pulled an apple from her coat pocket and held it up to him. The horse greedily worked his lips over it and sucked the treat between his teeth.
As Ezekiel reveled in his reward, Rose stared into the night and tried to find where the sky met the horizon. The land stretched out in front of her, dark and mysterious and so untouched it looked like no man had ever set foot there. It was Oklahoma Territory, her future home, the place she would finally break away from everything in her past life.
When she'd started out, her mind had been awash with poetic thoughts of what the Land Run would be; mighty steeds lined up at the starting line, proud cowboys sitting high in the saddle waiting for the starter pistol, proud men and women with stars in their eyes. But as soon as she entered into Purcell, she knew that she'd been foolish. She was immediately confronted by two fights and had seen a US Marshal returning from the Territory with a sooner in tow.
The men and women waiting to begin the run were all but straight-spines and dreamy eyes. They sagged in their saddles or, more often, in piles on the ground. They reeked of alcohol and seemed ready to use their guns on a mosquito if it struck their fancy. It was madness, insanity given validation. But she would only have to deal with it for fifteen or sixteen more hours. At noon, the starter pistol would sound and they would all be off.
As twilight became night, several people in the makeshift camp began strumming instruments. A few of the hopefuls making the run in the morning were bunched along the embankment of the Canadian River. Behind them, the ramshackle town of Purcell continued with business as usual. The town was newborn, established and populated before the Territory had opened up. And, as with any small town, troublemakers were quick to make themselves known. Fights occasionally broke out in one barroom or another, and a couple of hucksters set up card games in the street to lure runners out of what little cash they actually still had.
The vast majority of Purcell residents, though, were camped out themselves; they were on the hill, already picking out the best spots from which to watch the Land Run in the morning. Rose looked up at the campfires and lantern lights that dotted the hillside felt her lips pull into a smile. She was going to be a part of history in the morning.
Discontent with standing still, Rose picked up her rucksack and slung it over one shoulder. Ezekiel was tied to a hitching post with a half dozen other horses, all of which were being watched over by a pair of US Marshals. She ran her hand along her horse's back before stepping away into the crowd. She moved toward the river in the hopes she'd find someone willing to share their fire. The din of small talk was almost a small roar, everyone telling a story about how they'd come to be in this tiny town on the edge of a vast unclaimed prairie.
One of the first groups Rose passed had a lean, dark-haired woman dealing cards. She wore no shirt under her vest and every time she leaned forward to deal to the man across from her, the material strained to earn its keep. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head and she was chomping on a cigar, barking out the rules of the game to the men gathered. Most of them were focused on the low neck of her vest, eyes on her prize rather than their money. Judging by the stack of chips in front of her, distraction had been the dealer's plan all along.
"Ante up, gentlemen," the dealer said around her cigar. Her voice was tinged with some sort of accent; Rose couldn't tell if it was Australian or British. The dealer breathed out a white plume of smoke and squinted up at Rose. "You want to play?"
"I don't know how," Rose lied. She really didn't want to admit she'd fall prey to the dealer's trick just as easily as the men.
The dealer saluted with her cigar and turned back to her victims. Rose walked on through the crowds, seeing people chattering as if they couldn't control their mouths seated next to sullen, silent people who were apparently afraid of giving anything away. These probably had inside information about what lay inside the territory and didn't want to risk losing their future homestead due to loose lips. Oklahoma Territory was big, but it was not infinite.
Near the banks, the crowd seemed to disperse some. Families were crowded into small dugouts on the sandy shore, still others already turned in for the night in makeshift sleep palettes. Rose offered a smile to everyone she passed, but few deigned to return it. Everyone here was a potential enemy, someone you may have to fight in order to keep land you'd chosen for yourself.
Following a rutted path through the sand, she paused beside a tree and looked up at the stars. The night was clear, hardly a star in the sky, and for a moment she forgot about the push of humanity that enveloped her on all sides. She was about to walk on when the quiet strumming of a banjo drifted across the noise and confusion. She followed the music like a Hamelin child and found herself at the back of a small green tent.
At first, Rose thought the musician was a man. She wore britches with suspenders, a starched blue shirt under a black vest and had her short hair hidden under a bowler cap. Rose only realized her mistake when the woman began singing. Her voice was soft, melodic, hypnotizing. She was sitting cross-legged on the ground, bent over the instrument and picking a slow song out of the strings.
The song didn't seem to have any structure, the words didn't rhyme and sometimes faded into a quiet hum, but Rose was entranced all the same. When the strumming stopped, the player stood and turned around to return the instrument to its case. She jumped when she saw her audience, putting a hand to her chest. Sky-blue eyes blinked behind round glasses, the rims seemingly aflame with reflected campfire light.
"I didn't mean to startle you," Rose said.
"Hi," the musician said.
Rose could see the woman was embarrassed about being overheard and didn't want to compound the problem. She tucked one auburn curl behind her ear and stepped away from the tree and moved toward the main drag. "I'll see you around," she said quickly. She raised her hand in farewell, kicking herself for being such a coward, wishing she hadn't even stopped. She was so busy chiding herself and trying to make a graceful exit that she didn't bother to look over her shoulder and see the woman was watching her go.
April 22, 1889. 11:22 am.
"Do you have the time?"
"Twenty-two past eleven," Rose replied. She had her grandfather's gold pocket watch cradled in her palm rather than her pocket because she knew, before long, someone else would be asking. The latest man to ask pulled back and checked his own watch with a nod. All across the encampment, the same question was being repeated over and over again. From the Marshal's positions to the very edge of the town, no one was willing to trust their own watches.
"Astrological noon is when the sun is straight overhead, right?"
"Will the race start straight up at noon or just whenever the sun was straight up over us?"
"What if the marshal's watch stops?"
Rose saddled Ezekiel and smoothed her hand over his flank. She whispered quietly to him as she guided him away from camp and moving to a position to start the race. "Ready to run, baby? Gonna get us a nice, prime piece of land. Yes." She smiled as the horse nickered and stomped his foot on the hard ground.
She released the reins with one hand and reached up to adjust the shoulder strap of her burden. It was threatening to pull her backward, but a quick tug settled the weight more evenly across her shoulders. The pack contained her secret weapon, rescued from a dust bin behind a clothing store in Houston. It wouldn't actually help her in the run, but with any luck it would help her keep any land that she happened to claim.
She joined the line-up, settled next to a wagon. The man seated behind his team nodded to her and she lifted her hand in a shy wave. Couldn't afford to be too friendly. She hunched her shoulders forward and scanned her surroundings. Dozens of Purcell residents had set up camp on rooftops to watch the spectacle. The ones who had been camping on the hillside the previous evening were now awake and cheering.
They were the people who had already found a home in Purcell, those who were merely witnesses to the whole debacle. The Purcell spectators were joined by the families, loved ones and friends of people in the race. Rose pondered waving to them, but figured she'd never be spotted amid the sea of the hopeful.
Those on foot pushed past covered wagons and mounted horses to lay their feet directly on the line. The US Marshals kept a watchful eye, spaced so they could be seen from any point along the starting line. She'd heard of other, less guarded, entry points where sooners and moonlighters were getting in ahead of time, but she wanted nothing to do with that thievery. She'd have her land legally or not at all.
She joined the throng at the line and looked again at the watch cradled in her hand. The minute hand ticked every slowly towards noon, the sun glinting off the glass face. Her heart froze when the minute hand appeared to freeze for a handful of seconds before ticking over.
Biting her bottom lip, she looked at the man next to her and asked, "Pardon me. Do you have the time?"
The next half hour passed excruciatingly slow. Rose held the reins of her horse tightly, tightening and loosening her fists, keeping an eye on the other racers. Once or twice, a US Marshall left his post to move deeper into the territory and returned with a sooner. The erstwhile cheaters were taken back across the line and, against a few protests from those who were observing the rules, were allowed to race with everyone else.
After an eternity, excited whispers of "Two minutes to noon" began to circulate. The Marshals were seen to constantly check their watches. Finally, a man named Adair lifted an arm over his head. Rose bent down and smoothed her hand over Ezekiel's neck. She ticked in his ear and tightly gripped his mane with one hand. Ezekiel bobbed his head up and down and she smiled.
The starter pistol went off with a loud "SNAP!" and a roar went up. The racers surged forward like a mighty breeze, the thunderous beating of their horse's hooves echoing across the land. They stormed and splashed across the South Canadian River, most likely tossing every single drop of water in the river up into the air and letting it fall over them in a cooling rainstorm.
Rose immediately realized that not everyone had been eyeing the far horizon. Several people dropped from their horses as soon as they were over the line and began hammering their claims into the hard ground as the rest of the racers surged around them. Rose laughed, giddy at the thought; so many people racing forward when it was just as easy to stop right here! She bellowed a congratulations to one of the men as she rode past him, glancing back to see how many others were stopping just over the line.
Her eyes were instead drawn to a horrific sight. A man's horse had apparently stumbled in a quicksand along the opposite bank of the river. It had stumbled and tossed its rider into the water. The panicky horse was reared back, kicking with its front legs and screaming loud enough for her to hear above all the chaos. Rose slowed her own horse, torn between helping the man and sacrificing her own claim.
As she was debating whether to help the injured man or follow her own selfish goals, the solution appeared in the form of the blonde musician. She dropped from her own horse on the bank and headed fearlessly into the water. She bent down to help the man up, grabbing the horse's reins with her free hand. Rose was awe-struck by the display of courage and selflessness. The horse was quickly calmed and the musician led it and the rider back to the shore. Even at this distance, Rose could see the man was bleeding and dragging his left leg behind him.
The blonde woman put him down on the bank and immediately began tending to his wounds. Rose couldn't fathom what she was seeing. They hadn't been riding together, so it stood to reason they didn't know one another. So why in the world would the banjo-strumming woman be willing to sacrifice everything - her dreams, her land, her future - just to help a stranger?
Although intrigued, Rose knew her own chance at land was slipping further away with each second she watched and questioned. She tugged on the reins and spurred Ezekiel forward with renewed energy. Whatever the musician's motivations, her morals would likely cost her a homestead. Rose would not give up something like a home so easily.
Forty-five minutes later, Rose dismounted and dropped to one knee. She'd spotted this section from nearly a mile away; a bell-shaped area of open land, dotted with white and purple flowers. The trees that rose up like a wall on the west and south borders, a culvert that ran along the northern edge and the open sky forming a ceiling over it all... everything seemed to be just waiting to enclose a home.
So many people in the run were looking for farmland, still others for enough land to separate into plots and start a town. All Rose wanted was a home with a pretty backyard. This was going to be more than enough for her.
She felt like she hadn't breathed since spotting the land, positive someone would explode from the trees and take it from her. She knelt down and pounded a stake rhythm with the beating of her heart. The claim read "This tract of land claimed by Rose Skinner at 12:44, April 22, 1889." She stood and brushed the dirt off her britches. She took a moment to admire the sign, finally looking down at a claim of her own, and then got to moving. She slipped the pack from her shoulders and dropped it in front of the wooden stake. A pale white hand flopped out of the top and landed in the dusty ground.
She worked the mouth of the pack wider and took the hand as if to shake it. Instead, she tugged the mannequin free and unfolded him as he birthed from the canvas pack. As soon as she'd seen him sticking out of the trash dumpster, her plan had appeared fully formed in her mind.
Her heart pounded as she set up the mannequin. She made sure he wasn't bent or broken or oddly contorted in any way before placing him upright on a stump. She paused and turned in a slow circle to make sure there were no witnesses to her ruse. The hill directly in front of her - which, she realized, would be the view from her front porch - was clear. The trees flanking her new land provided a bit of cover as well as potential hiding places for claim-jumpers.
She finished her work quickly, her back to the culvert so she could spot anyone approaching. She'd already examined the trench and found no one hiding there.
She padded the wooden man's chest with extra shirts and buttoned a black shirt on top. She covered his head with a cowboy hat and laid a Winchester rifle across his lap. She started a fire in front of him before pitching a tent behind. With her "husband" in place, she took a wagon wheel and began marking off the boundaries of her claim. Her little slice of the Territory wasn't large by any means; she'd have enough for a house and the yard she'd been dreaming of, but no crops, no acres to work... which was just fine with her.
As she rounded the southwest corner of her property, two men rode up on horses. One had a gun on his hip and the other was carrying a length of rope. Rose had been warned of people literally being dragged from their claims, but prayed her ruse would work. She looked over her shoulder at the mannequin. The plot was small, but he was far enough way to fool the eye. "Stay down, Michael," Rose said over her shoulder. To the men, Rose said, "Can we help you gentlemen?"
The gunman looked at the mannequin and chewed the inside of his cheek. "Just lookin' for a claim, miss," the man with the rope said. He glanced at the gunman.
The gunman nodded. "Yes, ma'am. Mighty fine plot of land you got for yourself."
"Thank you," Rose said softly. She bowed a bit to them and gestured over her shoulder. "My husband near ran himself ragged getting here... so you'll understand if he's a bit tetchy about claim-jumpers."
"Understandable," the gunman said. "You folks have yourself a nice afternoon. Congratulations." They turned their horses away from the claim and trotted off into the distance.
Rose didn't breathe until they were gone. When the sound of their hooves had faded and the valley was silent again, she finally released the breath she'd been holding. "Looks like you were right," she said quietly to the sky. "People see what they want." The guys would probably swear up and down in the morning that the man had looked at them, maybe even that he'd lifted his rifle. The mind was a funny thing, but she wasn't going to question its power.
She finished marking off her land and left the wagon wheel at the eastern border and returned to her supply pack. She was mighty hungry and was ready for her first meal in her new home. She'd spend the night here, protecting her claim from those too mean or stupid to get their own claim and then head to the land office in the morning.
Two months of selling everything that wasn't nailed down, everything in the house she had called a home for so long. Two weeks waiting for the starter's pistol... and it was all over in less than an hour.
Chapter One -
April - August, 1889. Paradise, Oklahoma.
The day following the land run, Rose spent two days waiting to make her claim official at the land office. The confirmation in hand, she returned to her land and immediately began clearing the land. She saved as many of the purple and white flowers that dotted what she'd one day call her backyard as she could, loath to destroy the natural beauty that had first drawn her to this land.
She worked all through the summer. At first, she'd been forced to rent a wagon and ride thirty miles to the next town to buy lumber. In June, a new town began to form not two miles from her homestead. They had a lumberyard and a nice young man willing to deliver. When summer began to beat down on her with all its might, she started sleeping during the hottest hours so she'd be rested for twilight and evening.
As she worked, her wooden husband had slept next to the tent in full view of anyone who passed by. While reports flowed non-stop of others who were forced from their rightful claims, it seemed no one dared bother the pretty young lady when a man that large was laying in wait to stand up for her. A passing US Marshal had assured her that no one would contest a woman, but she was taking no chances.
After two months of backbreaking labor, frustrating setbacks and one - only one - fit of crying, she sat on her front porch and exhaled. The breath carried with it all the pain and suffering from the last few months. Her fingers proudly wore bandages as a result of her amateur craftsmanship and the muscles in her back screamed from the constant exertion.
Her home wasn't beautiful, but it was her home. She'd built it with her own two hands, on land she herself had won. She brushed the tears out of her eyes and stepped off the porch. Her moment of victory was over. She'd spent the last few months obsessed with finishing her house; there was an entire town budding up a hair away that she didn't even know the name of.
She saddled Ezekiel and took one last look over her shoulder at her home. She clucked her tongue and tapped Ezekiel with her heels, guiding him away from the yard and towards the town.
A small wooden placard on the edge of town announced it was called Paradise. The first building she passed was a stable, a young black man sweeping hay from the wooden street back into the wide maw of the building. "Howdy, ma'am," he said, pausing in his chores to watch her ride by. "Nice horse!"
"His name's Ezekiel," Rose said with a smile.
"Howdy, Ezekiel!" the boy said. He doffed an imaginary cap and went back to sweeping.
She was surprised to see a handful of buildings had already gone up. The jail, obviously, stood at the head of the next street. A barber shop, a general store, a post office and several small one-room houses here and there. There were far more buildings in progress than there were finished, but the town had already taken its shape. A makeshift wooden sidewalk marked out the streets so she could see the silhouette of the potential town.
The city hall was by far the grandest building she'd seen so far. It stood two stories, polished and sturdy like buildings she'd seen in Houston and Dallas. She could hardly believe it was less than two months old, but it couldn't have been here before. The twin front doors had been left open for surcease from the dreadful heat and Rose paused to look inside.
The bottom floor was a wide single room, rows of folding chairs lining the far wall. It took her a moment to realize this was a town hall, a place where people could meet with the officials and change things for the better. She felt a swell of pride in her breast and realized that she was already proud of her little hometown. She spurred Ezekiel on, eager to continue their tour.
Her main goal was to find paying work. The few places she saw that looked like they could use help gained a certain look when she approached. "I can't afford much," the look said, "but I ain't gonna waste what I can pay on hiring a woman." So she rode in a circle and eventually ended up back near the stables. She was about to cut across an empty lot when a man stepped from a tall, two-story building and smiled at her approach.
"Afternoon," she said.
He tilted his chin at her and pulled a crate against the wall. He put down a bottle of whiskey and sat on the top of the crate before squinting up at her in the sunshine. He produced a small switchblade and an apple from the pocket of his coat and gestured at the horse. "Fella like apples?"
"More than he likes me," Rose smiled.
The man sliced off a generous quarter and stood. "Will he take it from--"
Ezekiel closed his lips over the man's hand and snatched the apple away from it. The man laughed and said, "Well, hell, I'm lucky I still got my wedding ring." He took off his Stetson and revealed a thinning mat of salt-and-pepper hair. "Wilbur Davies."
"Rose Skinner," she said. "The apple thief here is Ezekiel."
"I'll be sure to keep my apples locked up when you and he are around, then."
Rose nodded at the door Wilbur had stepped through. "You own a... restaurant?"
"No, ma'am," Wilbur said. He puffed his chest out and said, "Bar. Tavern, more accurately. No name yet, no employees and just the four chairs... but we got the alcohol part down pat."
"Priorities," Rose smirked.
"Well, if there's one thing that will never dry up, it's a man's thirst for spirits."
Wilbur laughed. "From your lips to my pocketbook, ma'am."
Rose bit the bullet. "Need a bartender?"
Wilbur hesitated and scratched the back of his neck. He looked uncomfortably down the street and quietly said, "No offense, ma'am..."
"...but I'm a ma'am," Rose smiled. It wasn't hard to guess his complaint; men came to bars to be men, to get away from women. She sat up straight in the saddle and held her shoulders back proudly. "I've served more drinks than I care to count. I can pour as good as any man. I can keep multiple orders in my head, I know how to count change, I'll be amiable with the customers... odds are any man in town able to do all that for cheap is starting up his own business. And, let's be perfectly honest here, Mr. Davies. A pretty bartender would be reason enough to keep people comin' back."
Wilbur was obviously beginning to come around. He scratched his stubble-marked chin with a long thumbnail and squinted up at her. "You schooled?"
"No official school," Rose said. "I just called it a marriage."
Wilbur tilted back on his crate. "Well, I'm sure you'd be just fine, I just..."
"I'm also a non-drinker," Rose interrupted. It was her trump card. If this didn't work, she'd wish Mr. Davies a good day and ride on. "Never touch the stuff myself. Tell me you can find a man who won't threaten to drink you into the poorhouse to run your bar and I'll bid you a good day."
Wilbur bent down and picked up his whiskey bottle. "Ma'am... this bottle here is part of my stock. Ain't supposed to be drinkin' it... that's money lost." He rested the bottle against his thigh and said, "If I can't trust myself, I s'pose I'll have to trust you, Ms. Skinner."
He extended his hand and Rose took it. "You won't be sorry, Mr. Davies."
She smiled. "Then I'm Rose. Now, Wilbur. Let's see this bar of yours."
Rose spent the rest of the day helping Wilbur and his brothers set up the bar. Just before twilight, a man named Anson Payne arrived in a wide, low-riding wagon. He was a hugely fat man, the bottom half of his face hidden behind a gray mustache, and it twitched with laughter when he was introduced to Wilbur's new bartender. He slapped Wilbur on the back and said, "Well, if the bar goes under, at least you'll have something pretty to remember on the way to the poor house."
As they unloaded Payne's wagon - full of chairs, tables and crates of beer mugs - Wilbur's brother explained that Payne was a financier from Arkansas City. He had been friends with their father and had been eager to get a foothold in "a whole new world." At Payne's insistence that it wasn't 'woman's work,' Rose didn't help them unload the supplies. Instead, she took the things they unloaded into the bar and set them up.
Wilbur's wife Katie arrived with supper. She was a prim, proper woman with her dark hair held in tight curls that trailed to her shoulders. She eyed Rose warily but warmed somewhat as introductions were made. At one point, they were alone in the soon-to-be barroom and Rose quietly said, "You're husband is your husband. I don't mess around."
"And neither does he," Katie said with a tremulous sigh. She finally smiled and said, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Skinner."
"Rose. And it's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Davies."
Katie left before nightfall with a kiss for Wilbur and an admonishment to be home before morning. She waved shyly to Rose and the other men before she bid them farewell. By the time she left, a handful of lanterns lined up on the bar revealed an actual, honest-to-goodness drinking hole. Anson undid the buttons on his vest and joined the Davies brothers at one of the biggest tables. He leaned back, his belly digging into the side of the table as he exhaled and mopped the sweat from his brow. "Lord," he sighed. "Will, I do believe you have a bar here."
Rose unloaded a couple of bottles of whiskey from behind the bar and carried a tray of mugs to the men. "And what's a bar without a tender?" she asked. She handed the drinks out and tucked the tray under her arm. "That'll be twenty-five cents, gents."
Payne smirked at Wilbur and fished two quarters from his vest pocket. "What the hell," he said as he placed them both in Rose's palm. "Might as well make your first tip a good one."
"Have a seat, Miss Rose," Wilbur said. "You deserve it as much as we do."
She put the tray aside and sat next to Wilbur. Payne stroked the corners of his mustache and said, "Maybe she'll have an opinion."
"Women have been known to form one or two on their own," Rose smiled.
Wilbur said, "We've been talking about names for the bar. I like The Watering Hole..."
"But we," Payne interrupted with a gesture including him with the other Davies brothers, "figured it'd be best to pick a name that wasn't stupid."
Wilbur's brother Tom said, "I'm partial to Paradise Bar."
"Kind of generic, ain't it?" Wilbur said.
"Unlike the Watering Hole?"
"Now, boys, boys," Payne said. "It suddenly appears to me we're missing a golden opportunity. See... as far's we know, there ain't no other woman bartender in this state."
"No one else dumb enough to hire a broad," Mark, Wilbur's youngest brother, groused. He caught Rose's raised eyebrow and held up a hand. "No offense, ma'am."
The rest of the room ignored him. Payne continued, "It'd be a mite stupid if we ignored that fact. I suggest we call the bar 'Paradise Rose' in her honor, we'd be advertising her pretty face at the same time."
Rose was thrown for a moment and finally said, "Mr. Payne, I'm touched. I would be honored to have the bar named after me, but I don't deserve..."
Wilbur smiled and said, "No, Rose, wait. Paradise Rose is kinda pretty. Sounds kind of serene. Peaceful."
Tom Davies lifted a glass. "Well, serene and peaceful does sound mighty nice. I'll go along with that."
"Miss Skinner?" Anson Payne asked. He leaned forward and his gut dug even deeper into the edge of the table.
Finally, Rose smiled. "I would be a fool to say no twice. And I am not a fool, Mr. Payne."
He laughed and said, "Then it is settled. Miss Skinner, one more round at the Paradise Rose! On me, one more time." They all touched glasses and toasted to the new name and to their new bartender.
Midnight found three more rounds of empty mugs and Payne preparing to show off his singing skills. He started to get on a chair, remembered the extra weight he was carrying, and instead performed in front of the bar. He held up his half-empty glass and bellowed the opening refrain of a song: "Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sup sorrow with the poor; There's a song that will linger forever in our ears; oh, hard times come again no more!"
Rose, bending down to his ear to be heard over what Anson Payn called singing, bid farewell to Wilbur and slipped out before the risqué songs and jokes began. As she unwound her reins from the hitching post, she heard all four men inside bellow, "Hard times, come again no more!"
She laughed and patted Ezekiel on the side of his face. "If I ever start understanding men, you slap me a good one, hear?"
She wrapped his reins around her hand and stepped off the sidewalk. The night was crisp and clear, with just a hint of clouds in the northern sky, so she clucked her tongue and walked Ezekiel towards home. The town of Paradise, though small and infantile, was undeniably *alive</i> that night. Singing, not all of it echoing from the newly-christened Paradise Rose, lanterns, people walking down the wooden sidewalks on a tour of their brand-new hometown. Rose passed the stable and saw the young black man had shut it up for the night.
Paradise ended abruptly, but she found a trail easy enough. It was nowhere near permanent yet; given enough time, the grass would grow and cover it. But as long as people kept coming and going from town, the trail was as good as permanent. She hummed quietly under her breath and lifted her voice only when she was well out of town. "Aura Lea, Aura Lea, Maid of golden hair; Sunshine came along with thee, and swallows in the air..."
Ezekiel lifted his head and Rose patted his neck. "You like my singing, boy?"
He jerked away from her hand and pulled her to the right, off the trail. Rose frowned, prepared to chide him for being stubborn, when she heard another pair of boots shuffling along through the underbrush. She froze and led Ezekiel into a hedge, hoping he would disappear in the darkness. Praying the horse would keep silent, she unfastened his saddle bag and reached inside. A loathsome weight fell against her palm and she pulled the gun free. A Colt Peacemaker, the butt cold in her hand. She checked the load and moved back to Ezekiel's head.
Seconds later, she heard a woman's voice: "When the mistletoe was green, Midst the winter's snows, Sunshine in thy face was..." The song and footsteps stopped simultaneously. "You get outta there!" she said. "I see your horse, I know you're there!" Her voice was trembling, but she was courageously standing her ground. Rose could now see the woman's outline, but nothing else; she was holding a lantern in front of her, blocking her face.
The woman was alone, apparently unarmed and the tremor in her voice was unmistakable. Rose put the gun in her belt and stepped forward. "Hello, there."
The other woman approached and held out the lantern. "Are you alone?"
"I am," Rose said. Ezekiel snorted and she corrected herself. "Well, excuse me, I'm alone save for my horse. He's harmless... and he'll fall in love with you for an apple." She patted the horse's flank and said, "My name's Rose Skinner."
"Ada Odell. I'm sorry, I don't have any apples..." She lowered the lantern and became a silhouette against the darkness. "You frightened me. I... well, I've been told not to walk around this late on my own."
"It's very sound advice. Some I should follow myself... Would you mind walking with me? That way we'll both be covered."
There was a moment's hesitation and then Ada said, "Yes, I think that would be fine."
The lantern moved closer and Ada approached Ezekiel from the other side. "He's a beautiful animal," she said.
"He was my... m-my husband's. The only thing I kept from the marriage." She touched Ezekiel's neck and felt her face burn at the lie. She was grateful it was night. She cleared her throat and continued, "I sold our furniture, part of our land and the rest of our livestock to finance the land run."
"You were part of the run?"
Rose nodded. "Yeap." She looked over and said, "Did you run?"
Ada laughed. "Yes and no. Planned it, started from Purcell, too. Financed it just like you; sold my old life to pay for a brand new one. Then, the starter pistol went off and this old fellow in front of me was thrown from his horse. Broke his leg, hurt 'im bad. I was afraid he'd get trampled, so I... took myself out of the race. Helped him, got him to safety. By then, Purcell was a ghost town and I'd pretty much missed my chance at getting a good parcel."
Rose stopped her horse and moved around to the other side of his head. She lifted the lantern until her companion's face was lit. "You!"
The blonde blinked at Rose through her glasses. "Hey... you're..."
"I saw you at the camp!" Rose smiled. "You played the banjo."
"I still do," Ada grinned. "Wow, I never thought I would see yo... a-any of the people I met in Purcell again."
Rose shook her head. "It was so insane. All those strangers... Did you end up finding some land nearby?"
Ada shook her head. "Every claim I got to was either occupied or someone came up to tell me they were there first before I could bury a stake. I finally just took my belongings and bought a piece of land from someone trying to start a town."
"Paradise?" Rose asked. "You live in Paradise?"
Ada nodded. "Yeah, on the very outskirts. Couldn't afford a place in town."
"That is amazing," Rose smiled. "But..." She looked around and said, "You're going the wrong way. I'm coming *from</i> Paradise."
"No," Ada said. She lifted her lantern and slowly looked around. "I followed the south fork of the path from--"
"You were on the south fork."
"Just now, when we crossed paths. I was heading west. You came from the south."
Ada bit her bottom lip and closed her eyes. "So I've been walking in the wrong direction for, what, three hours?"
Rose smiled. "Happens to the best of us out here in the wild lands. Anything important you need back in town?"
"No. I was just heading home to get some rest."
Rose motioned the way they had been walking. "Well, Ada Odell. Why don't you just come home with me, sleep on the couch and head out in the bright light of morning? Be a lot better than wandering around half-lost in the darkness."
Ada nodded. "Sure, sure. Long as you're sure you won't mind the company."
"I'm starved for company, believe me."
Rose moved back to the other side of the horse and they started walking again. "I can't believe it's you," she said with a laugh. "Of all the people in Oklahoma to run across..."
Ada smiled in the darkness and said nothing.
Ada followed Rose through her fence and to the small stable at the back of the house. It was only large enough for Ezekiel and the roof was just a tarp, but that was just fine for the time being. In the darkness, Rose waited for Ada's back to be turned before she removed the gun from her belt. She tucked it under one of Ezekiel's feed bags and carried a bag of oats to him. Ada brushed him down as Rose fastened the oat bag to his snout. "If you don't mind me asking..." Ada gestured that it was okay and Rose continued. "Why were you walking all by yourself? You obviously know how to handle a horse..."
"Yeah," Ada smiled. "But, like I said, I didn't get a claim. Had to sell whatever I could to buy some land."
"Oh," Rose said quietly. She watched sadly as Ada continued to brush Ezekiel and took note of the loving way her hands worked his mane. "You know, if you'd like a ride sometime..."
Ada's face lit up, but the excitement faded in the blink of an eye. "Oh. But... no, I couldn't."
"You could. You will." She rubbed her horse's nose and said, "He'll need someone to keep him company while I'm at work."
"You found work? That's wonderful!"
Rose smiled. "I'm a bartender."
"A bartender? Who would hire a..." Ada stopped herself short, snapping her teeth shut on the last word.
"Woman?" Rose finished with a raised eyebrow. "I can be very persuasive when necessary. And since I can't farm, it's the next best way to start a life here."
Ada shook her head. "Amazing. Every time I think I've accepted one amazing thing about you, there's something else."
Rose laughed. "Stop it. If you keep complementing me like that, I'll add a room and force you to move in just so you can stroke my ego every night."
Ada blushed and moved to the back of the horse.
"So what do you do?" Rose asked, hoping to break the tension.
"I'm a doctor."
Rose blinked and rounded Ezekiel so she could see Ada's face. "I'm sorry, a doctor?"
Ada smiled. "Now you know how I felt when you said bartender."
"So you're not really..."
"No, I'm not." She seemed embarrassed to admit it. "My *husband</i> was a doctor. I worked in his office, mainly making appointments and fillin' out patient files. But I paid attention, kept so many notes I thought I was losing my mind. When he died, the patients kept coming. They were so desperate and I... well, I knew what to do."
"Do you have a license? I mean, you didn't go to school..."
Ada shrugged. "No. That's why I didn't try to get any new patients and I ain't hanging a placard out in front of my house advertising myself. I'm doing lessons from home, mail-order and the like. It'll really take off once we have a... you know..."
"Post office?" Rose smiled.
Ada laughed and said, "Precisely. Yep... but 'til then... I'm happy to just work in my garden."
"You have a garden?" Rose gasped. "Oh, I love gardens."
"Mostly, I have a patch of dirt with seeds in it right now. But come on by sometime. After it's had a chance to really sprout, I mean."
"Why wait?" Rose said. "I'll come by, give you a hand tending to it." She hesitated and added, "I-if you want, I mean..."
Ada nodded. "Will you bring Ezekiel?"
"If you have the apples."
Ada grinned. "Then it's a deal. Now... if we're done grooming your horse and amazing each other... have you any tea?"
"I just may," Rose smiled.
They sat on the porch, watching the stars in the sky until Rose realized how late it was. She excused herself from the porch and told Ada that she could retire whenever she pleased. She retrieved the spare blanket and pillow from her still unpacked satchel and left them on the couch. She looked over her furniture and felt an uncommon wave of shame fall over her. She'd loved the house that morning. Why would Ada's presence make her self-conscious about it? *I ain't falling for her,</i> Rose told herself. *I just met the damned woman.</i>
But like a child told how a magician did his tricks, the splendor was washed off and she now saw how thrown-together everything looked. She had salvaged the couch and chairs from an abandoned wagon that had lost both wheels. The owners had been long-gone, grass growing between the body and axel of the wrecked cart. Others had made off with the clothes and cooking supplies, but Rose had been able to rope the couch to Ezekiel and drag it home.
The bedroom and bathroom shared the back wall of the house, both of them opening onto the main room and kitchen. An ingenious use of space, she thought. Now, all she saw was the mismatched doors and the uneven doorjambs.
She'd been so proud of herself for building this place all on her own. Now, she was hosting her very first guest and she was ashamed of it all. She spread the blanket out over the cushions and hoped Ada didn't judge her too harshly. She called good-night to the other woman and went into her bedroom.
Rose undressed and pulled on a nightshirt that reached nearly to the floor. As she climbed under the quilt, she heard the backdoor open and close. Ada sighed as her shoes were removed and then the squeak of springs announced she had stretched out on the couch.
"Sorry it's not much," Rose called.
"It's perfect," Ada assured her.
Rose closed her eyes and, after a moment, said, "Oh, Joe! Here's your mule."
Ada laughed. In Purcell, the call had gone up just before bedtime. When Rose asked about it, a man told her it was done every night. No rhyme, no reason, just something to tie you to the man sleeping across the dirt from you. Ada called back, "Oh, Joe, here's your mule."
Rose smiled and settled down into the mattress.
It had been a long, fortuitous day.
Rose woke the next morning to her couch vacated. A note was propped against the coffeepot: "Rose, thank you for the tea and kindness last evening. It was a much appreciated bit of civility. Thank you again, Ada." Rose smiled, folded the note and carried it over to her pack. She withdrew a hardback novel and hid Ada's note between the pages. She resisted the urge to immediately withdraw it and read the passage again and focused on getting ready to work.
As usual, she rode in slacks and changed into a dress in the small, empty room at the back of Paradise Rose. It was basically a closet with a staircase leading to the half-finished second floor. She'd come in to work despite the fact the bar wasn't technically open for business; she wanted to help Wilbur get the word out. The bar still had no advertising, no placard identifying it, but someone had apparently witnessed the delivery of kegs and crates of whiskey bottles the day before. By the time Wilbur opened the door to combat the heat, a crowd of people were milling about on the street outside.
Wilbur invited them in, greeting each patron with the bar's name, and told Rose to 'hop to it.' She hurried to her new station and began taking orders immediately. Unfortunately, most people coming to the territory did so with only the clothes on their backs and whatever fit into a canvas bag. Every spare dime was still going towards building a home and a future, so the most-requested drink was water. Still, liquor did flow and the bar was seldom empty the first day.
When the chaos died down a few hours before closing, Rose returned to the back room and found Katie Davies folding her riding clothes. "Oh, hey, you don't have to do that..."
"It's no trouble," Katie said. "I do it for my husband all the time." She smiled and craned her neck to look past Rose. "Is it as busy as it sounds?"
"Better," Rose said. "The ones who're really drinking aren't taking the time to talk."
Katie flushed and said, "I was so nervous. I mean, Wilbur worked in a bar for years. But operating one by himself..."
"He's doing a wonderful job," Rose said.
"Anyone can do a wonderful job in one day."
Rose turned at the sound of a new voice. The brunette woman was carrying an empty crate down the stairs. The second floor was still technically under construction but their supplies were already beginning to stack up in the corners. "And who might you..." She squinted and said, "No, wait. I know you, don't I?"
The brunette glanced at Katie and rolled her shoulders. "Maybe."
"Purcell," Rose said as the memory snapped into place. "Good Lord, you were in Purcell, too! You had a cigar then... and a significantly lower neckline."
"Oh!" the woman said. "You're the coward!"
"You say coward, I say I like my money." She extended a hand. "Rose Skinner."
"Valerie Monroe. My husband and I run the general store down the street. Feel free to stop in some time..." She paused and looked Rose over, then added, "If you think you can spare the money, that is." She turned to Katie. "Tell Wilbur the last of his mugs are up there. If he needs anything else, give a holler."
"My pleasure." She gestured at the small room. "Is this place being used for anything at the moment?"
"Not much," Katie admitted.
"I may have an idea for it if Wilbur is willing." She pursed her lips and then shook her head to dispel whatever fantasy had been forming. She turned her smile to Rose and said, "See you around, Rose Skinner the Coward."
Rose pursed her lips and watched Valerie walk out. She laughed a little and Katie said, "I know how you feel. I hated her at first, too, but... she..."
"Grows on ya?"
"Mm," Katie said.
A man at the bar waved to get Rose's attention and she clapped her hands together. "Back to the grind... Make your husband a little more money before closing."
"Yes, please, don't let me stop you."
Chapter Two -
The town of Paradise, they would discover later, was already 350 citizens strong. The booming little town would explode, it was hoped, once the railroad came through. It was all but a done deal; the railroad had revealed plans that showed their new line heading through Paradise, over to Reno City and then into Oklahoma City from there.
Malcolm Scott, the town's founder and mayor, had gotten hold of the plans through less than honest means and placed his town smack dab in the way of railroad construction. Rose spent much of the first week fending off advances with a smile and a flutter of eyelashes, only resorting to a foot stomp in one extreme circumstance. She was more than willing to flirt for a little extra in her tips, but no way was she going to let someone grope her.
When Ada first came into the bar, Rose didn't notice her. She swept a rag over a clean spot of mahogany and said, "What can I get for you, sweetheart?" before she registered the customer's face. "Ada!"
"Sweetheart," Ada repeated. She adjusted her glasses and shifted on her stool.
Rose blushed and said, "What, ah... I haven't seen you in a week."
"There are three bars in town," she said. "And yours doesn't have a sign."
Rose smiled and realized Ada had been searching for her. "Well, I apologize. That kind of dedication deserves a drink. On me." She poured a glass and pushed it to Ada.
"You giving out free drinks?" a man to Ada's left slurred.
"You turn back around, Joe Ivy."
He murmured and looked back into his own drink.
Rose looked around the bar and gestured for Wilbur to come over. "I'm gonna take a fifteen minute break, Will. Don't serve Joe any more. He's three sheets to the wind."
"I ain't drunk," Joe Ivy protested. He nearly fell off his stool then and muttered that *maybe* she had a point.
Rose guided Ada to a table in the back and sat with her. "It's nice to see you again."
"You, too," Ada said. "I..."
The front doors slammed open and Anson Payne stepped inside. The effect was like a wrecking ball taking down the whole front side of the bar. Every head turned to the portly banker taking up most of the front door. "Mister Davies! I suggest you come take a look outside, son!"
Wilbur came out from behind the bar and Rose returned to duty with an apology to Ada. Katie hurried from the back room, crossing the bar in a flash before disappearing outside with Wilbur and Katie. No one spoke, no one drank, everyone was looking towards the front window. When no one could take the suspense any longer, they stood and migrated outside as well.
Rose was the last one out, being entrusted to make sure no one stole drinks. She walked out right behind Ada and saw Wilbur, Katie and Payne standing in the back of a wagon parked in the center of the street. Everyone was looking up at the building, so Rose turned and cupped a hand over her eyes.
The words Paradise Rose scrolled lazily over a painting of a rose. It was being installed while they watched, the last screws being put in place as Wilbur whooped. "It's official, boy, it's o-fficial!" He clapped hands with Anson and grabbed Katie in a tight hug. Rose felt a surge of pride and hugged herself.
Paradise Rose was official.
She looked to her left and saw Ada watching her. She smiled and Ada looked away shyly, first at the ground and then back up at the sign.
Rose covered her mouth to hide her smile.
Valerie Monroe's idea was a simple one; the back room was wide enough for a card table with four places. When Paradise Rose closed the night of the sign's unveiling, she carried in her table and set it up with Rose and Katie's help. They retrieved chairs from the main room of the bar and stood in the doorway to examine their handiwork. Valerie sat on the bottom stair and held an unlit cigar between her lips. "There're three of us," she said needlessly. "Katie, your husband mind playing poker with women?"
"He already has a game."
"We need a fourth?" Rose asked.
"You know someone?"
Rose nodded. "I know someone."
The next time they crossed paths, Rose invited Ada to join them in a game. In the tiny back room, under a cloud of Valerie's cigar smoke and over a losing hand, Rose jokingly called them the "Eves of Paradise."
They had all laughed, but the name somehow stuck. By the time they were seriously using it as a name, they had become the Eves of Paradise Ladies Social Club.
Most days, by the time Rose shuffled the last customer out the door, Valerie, Katie and Ada were sitting station in the back room. Valerie usually shuffled and almost always had a cigar. As Rose came in, Ada waved a hand in front of her face and wrinkled her nose at the smoke. "Your husband don't mind if you smoke?"
"Nah," Valerie said, shifting the cigar to the other side of her mouth.
"Where is that husband of yours?" Rose asked. She took her seat next to Ada and picked up the cards she'd been dealt. "I don't remember seeing him in Purcell."
Valerie hesitated with her cards and shook her head, "Ah, no. You... wouldn't have."
"Didn't he run the race with you?" Katie asked.
Valerie put down her cards and leaned back in her chair. "My husband wasn't in Purcell because he didn't run the race with me. He was... already in the Territory."
Ada paused and looked up.
"He slipped into the Territory about a week early and set up camp on a great parcel. He chased off anyone who tried to take it from him. I ran the race from Purcell and we used my arrival time when we made the claim." She coughed quietly into her hand, aware of the deathly silence that had fallen on the room. "And then we sold the land. Made enough to buy land for a home and our general store. It's the only way we could have afforded to do both. So I'm... not ashamed."
She finally looked up and met her friend's gazes.
Ada was the first to speak. "You were a sooner?"
"I'm as guilty as my husband. Yeah."
Ada stood so fast her chair banged against the wall with a hollow crack. She squeezed behind Rose's chair and hurried from the room.
"Excuse me," Rose said quietly. She stood and followed Ada through the dark bar. She found Ada on the porch, hugging herself and looking towards the edge of town. "You okay?" she asked.
"Moonlighting sooner cheat," she whispered. She wiped furiously at her face and put her glasses back on before turning to face Rose. "I gave up my dreams and ended up losing almost everything I owned. I played by the rules, Rose. And it cost me so much. And she... she cheated and..." She broke down and Rose embraced her.
"I know, Ada," she whispered.
Ada wept quietly into Rose's shoulder and eventually the sniffling stopped. She pulled out of Rose's embrace and wiped her cheeks. "Please stay," Rose said softly. "I'll help you kick Valerie's ass."
Ada laughed and shook her head. "Thank you, Rose."
"Come on inside," Rose said. She hooked her arm around Ada's waist and led her back into the room. Valerie looked up in obvious concern and Rose said, "She'll be fine."
"Yeah," Ada said, all trace of tears gone from her voice. "But I'm gonna stop letting you win now."
Valerie smiled. "Fair enough." She cut the cards and handed the deck to Rose. "Deal 'em up, Skinner."
The games usually broke up around midnight. Rose stayed behind, as usual, to help Katie clean up the back room. Katie wasn't like the rest of them; she was far more quiet and timid. She usually just took her cards, made her bets and laughed quietly whenever someone else made a joke. "You don't always have to be the wallflower, Katie," Rose said as they returned the chairs to the main bar room.
"I know," she said. "I just feel so out of place with you and Ada and Val. I feel like an outsider, so... the less noise I make..."
"The less likely we are to notice and throw you out."
"No worries on that front, Katie."
Katie brushed her hands on the front of her dress and said, "Will you lock up?"
"Of course." She pecked Katie on the cheek and said, "Be sure to tell your husband good night for me."
"I will. Good-night, Rose."
Rose went behind the bar as Katie left. She retrieved the broom and gave the floor one last going-over before calling it a night. By the time she returned the broom to its cubby and locked the front door, it was almost half past twelve. "Lordy," she breathed. As she was turning the key, a shadow broke away from the rest of the porch and moved towards her. She caught the movement from the corner of her eye and spun around, one hand going to the pocket of her dress. "Who's there?"
"It's just me," Ada said. She held her hands up in surrender and said, "You ain't packing, are ya?"
"No," Rose said. She pulled her hand away from the pocket and casually smoothed down her skirt. "You just startled me. I thought you left half an hour ago."
"I did. But I realized that you would have to go home all by yourself in the dark and, well... I was just wondering if you wanted some company."
"You'll be heading the wrong way."
Ada shrugged. "Could stand to spend one more night on that godawful couch of yours, I suppose."
Rose laughed. "Well, thank you. And if you insist on insulting my poor little couch, I could make up a bed for you in Ezekiel's stable."
"I love the couch."
"Well, then. Shall we?" She gestured at the stable and they walked over together. The stable boy, Tommy Dawes, saw them coming and opened the front gate. "Miss Rose! You know I ain't supposed to let you in this late."
"Aw, Tommy, I know you'll be here anyway. You love this stinky old barn."
He smiled brightly and said, "You know me too well, Miss Rose." He turned to Ada and held out a hand. "Tommy Dawes, ma'am."
"Ada Odell." She shook his hand and said, "Has old Zeke been behaving himself?"
"Only so long's we don't run out of apples."
He led Rose and Ada into the stable and opened Ezekiel's stall. He was near the back of the stable, underneath a trapdoor that was open to the night sky. Tommy motioned at the opening and said, "He likes to look at the moon some nights."
"Who doesn't?" Ada said.
Rose gathered the reins and led Ezekiel out of the stall. "I'll settle up with Mr. Clay tomorrow, all right?"
"No worries, Miss Rose. You ladies be safe out there."
They walked out of town on either side of the horse talking quietly. Rose sang a few bars of 'Aura Lee' before Ada said, "I don't wanna kick her out of the game."
Rose looked over at her. "How's that?"
"Valerie. At first, I couldn't stand being in the same room with her. But. You know..."
"I do," Rose said softly.
Ada said, "Thank you for coming after me. I didn't think anyone would. And if you hadn't... I'd've... probably left."
"I would have hated that," Rose said. "I would have missed you something terrible."
Ada shuffled her feet a bit and they walked on in silence until she said, "You grabbed for your waist."
"When I scared ya. Back on the porch, you reached for your waist. You carry a gun or something?"
Rose thought before answering. "I used to," she said, keeping it safely ambiguous. "During the land run, it was shoot, be shot or go home empty-handed." She suddenly realized that Ada had failed to find a claim of her own and said, "Oh. Ada, I'm sorry, I..."
"Don't be," Ada said. "I made a promise to only feel sorry for myself once an evening; I'm full up. Besides, I got a home I love and I don't feel guilty about taking nothing from nobody. I might've paid for what I got, but I got it fair and square."
Ada laughed. "Someday, though, you're gonna have to tell me the story of you running that race. Boy, that would've been something to see. Rose Skinner, fighting off all comers to win a beautiful parcel of land for her home."
Rose smiled. "Well, I did have a secret weapon. As for someday... well, we've got tonight, don't we?"
"Yes, ma'am," Ada said.
As they approached the crossroads where they'd first met, Rose held up her hand and tilted her head toward the trees. "Quiet, quiet." Ada stopped and put a comforting hand on Ezekiel's snout. She watched nervously, waiting for Rose to let her in one what she'd heard. Suddenly, Rose ushered both horse and woman into the trees and put a finger to Ada's lips. "Keep quiet."
A few seconds later, Ada heard what had gotten Rose's attention; two men were singing quietly, out of harmony with one another and swinging beer bottles. Their song didn't seem to have any set lyrics; they were apparently just singing words that happened to slip out of their mouths. Rose felt Ada's hand settle in the small of her back, cold and trembling.
Rose moved her hand to the saddle bag and unlatched the cover. She withdrew her Colt and pressed her hand into the folds of her skirt.
One of the drunks slowed as he came up even with their position and turned to look into the darkness. Rose stepped back and felt Ada at her shoulder. She urged Ada back with one hand and hoped the shadows were deeper than they were that night she met Ada. The drunk sniffed and said, "You smell perfume?"
His partner slowed and looked around. "Huh?"
"Perfume." He sniffed loudly and turned to face the woods. He bent at the waist and waved the beer bottle in front of his face. "Hey. Hey. Come on outta there. We'd treat you nice."
Ada's hand curled into a fist against Rose's back and then a weight dropped onto her. Rose stepped back in surprise and Ada hit the ground. She had fainted.
"Ooh, I hear 'em now. I hear 'em. Moving around. Maybe there's one for each of us, Bo."
Rose checked Ada's pulse to make sure she was definitely just unconscious and then stepped forward. "You fella head on into town," she said, puffing out her chest and trying to make herself sound bigger. "We don't want no trouble."
"Well..." one of the drunks said. He smiled and held his hands out. "Well, Bo, looks like you'n me are gonna have a nice night after all."
"I wouldn't," Rose said. Until now, she'd kept her gun hidden in her skirt. Now she brought it out and held it with both hands in front of her.
The other drunk moved closer, hand on his belt as he moved to her side. They were flanking her, trying to make sure she couldn't watch them both at the same time. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, her entire body tense. *Please,* she thought. *Don't make me do this. Not again, please don't make me do this again.*
"It ain't gonna hurt, sweetheart," the first drunk said as he moved to the other side. "Unless it's yer first time. You ever been touched 'fore, pretty lady?"
"Yep," Rose said. She steeled herself and cocked the hammer on her gun. "Have you?"
She brought the gun up and fired, purposefully missing the man but winging his arm. He howled and fell back as she spun and pressed the gun against his partner's chest. "Hi, sweetheart."
The drunk looked down at the gun with fear in his eyes and held up his trembling hands. "H-hey, no trouble, no trouble."
"Run. Go on, git."
The two men turned and kicked up dust into the darkness. Once they were gone, Rose returned to the brush and knelt down next to Ada. She smoothed the hair from Ada's face and adjusted her glasses, getting them straight just as she began to stir. When she felt hands on her shoulders, Ada gasped and began struggling to get away. "No! N-n-no!"
Rose tightened her grip. "Hey, hey, Ada. Ada, it's Rose. It's just me. It's me."
Ada gasped and looked around. "Those men... they were..."
"Zeke scared 'em away. Can you stand?"
"I think so." She stood with Rose's help and put a hand on Ezekiel's flank. "Good boy. I owe you a bushel of Baldwin apples."
"Whoa, hey, don't go spoiling him now," Rose said with a smile. She took Ada's hand and held it for a moment before she nodded at the saddle. "L-let me give you a hand up. You can ride the rest of the way home."
Ada nodded slowly. "I think that'd be a good idea. Thank you."
As Ada mounted Ezekiel, Rose slipped her gun back into the saddle bag. Hopefully, Ada would hadn't even seen the weapon. But if she did, Rose prayed she would forget it soon enough.
Rose was just as hopeful she would forget how quickly she had gone for it when the going got rough.
A few days and a few games later, tempers had calmed in the Eves of Paradise group. On the day everything started, Ada was sitting at a table in the back of Paradise Rose with her banjo. The crowd was small for a hot afternoon, with only a few people hanging onto the bar and a scattering at the tables. Rose handed the bartending duties over to Wilbur and made her way over to Ada's table.
"What's it called?" she said.
Ada looked up, surprised at the interruption. She'd been focused on a spot on the opposite wall. "Pardon?"
"The song," Rose said as she took a seat. "What's it called?"
Ada smiled and stopped strumming. "Oh, it's not called anything yet." She self-consciously rested the instrument against the wall next to her chair and turned to face Rose. "Good day?"
"Decent," Rose admitted. She untied the purse from her waist and pulled out a dollar bill. "Decent enough I can buy both of us a nice, tall glass." She waved at the front window, bright and yellow with the summer sun. "Ice-cold, of course. How about it?"
Ada exhaled and fanned herself. "Ooh, yes, please. Ice-cold would be wonderful."
Rose stood and headed for the bar. Wilbur smiled when he saw her coming and said, "Oh, trying to see how the other half lives, huh?"
"I put two glasses in the ice box. Get 'em out and fill them, one with beer and one with iced tea." She put the dollar on the counter and batted her eyelashes before adding a sweet, "Please, boss?"
His laugh turned into a whistle when he saw her dollar. "You ain't been bilking my customers out of their hard earned dollars, have you now, Miss Rose?"
She winked and said, "Well, why else would you hire me?"
He took the dollar off the counter and returned ninety cents to her palm. She raised an eyebrow and juggled the coins a bit. "Will...?"
"What?" he said. He turned his back on her to get the glasses from the ice box. "You gonna tell me what to charge my favorite customer?" He winked and handed her the glasses. "Take them and all your change before I force you to take the dime back, too."
She sighed and took the glasses. She made a mental note to slip the remainder into the register the next time Wilbur wasn't looking. She hoisted the glasses in thanks and carried them back to the table. "Beer?"
"Thank you," Ada said. She took the glass and hissed at the ice on the handle. "Ooh, you weren't kidding."
Rose took a sip of her iced tea as the door to the bar swung open and impacted the wall with a heavy thud. Every head turned and faced the new arrival.
His wide shoulders blocked most of the doorway, eclipsing the sunlight and creating a void in his shape. When he stepped into the darker bar, it took Rose's eyes a moment to adjust to see his features. He was completely bald, his naked skull not protected by hat or bandana. Two long scars ran from his brow over the crown of his head. He was wearing a tailored black shirt and jeans and a pair of boots that had never met a cow pie. His mouth curled into a tight smile underneath his thick mustache.
He lifted two fingers in greeting and said, "Howdy, folks. Par-o-dice, Oklahoma. Yes, sirree, name a town that and you got some kinda pride." He ambled forward and paused by the bar to take a look at his fellow patrons. Without looking, he slapped his palm down on the wooden bar top with a resounding slap. Wilbur jumped away from the sound and the man guffawed. "Jumpy squirt. Pour me one. Keep 'em comin'."
Rose glanced at Ada and saw her eyes wide behind the frames of her glasses. Their eyes met and Ada mouthed the word "Trouble." Rose nodded, even though it wasn't a question, and pressed her lips into thin white lines.
*Someone else will take care of it. Don't worry. Someone else will take care of this joker if need be.*
When he got his drink, the newcomer turned and hooked his elbows on the bar as he looked toward the front door. His dark eyes turned from that bright escape route and he panned across the bar room. He gave every customer a chance, every one of them squirming uncomfortably until he moved on to the next person.
Finally, he sucked his teeth and looked over his shoulder. "Hey, barman."
Wilbur nervously cleared his throat. "Yes, sir, Mister..."
"Ball," the man muttered. "This hellhole got a hotel?"
"Yes, sir," Wilbur said. "End of this main road. Kind of small, but it's cheap."
Ball snorted. "Yeah, well, it'd kinda have to be, wouldn't it?" He downed his drink and tossed a coin onto the bar. "Thank ya for your hospitality, Mr. Jumpy."
As Ball sidled back towards the door, Wilbur cleared his throat, "Um, Mr. Ball, I'm sorry..." Ball turned so slowly some spectators weren't sure if he was really moving. Wilbur held up the coin. "T-this isn't enough for your drink..."
"I'll take care of ya next time," Ball promised. He flicked a salute off his forehead and headed for the door again. "Start me a tab. John Ball." He scanned the room and hesitated on Rose and Ada's table. "Yeah. I'll be comin' back plenty. You count on it."
Wilbur closed his eyes and turned back to the register. He was just in time to see that Rose had come up and was putting the rest of Ball's tab into the register. He sighed and her eyes snapped over to him, fierce determination burning inside the deep brown irises. "Don't even try to tell me no, Wilbur Davies."
Wilbur sighed and nodded in defeat.
The Eves of Paradise didn't meet again until two nights after Ball's noisy arrival in town. Valerie was the first to show up, while the bar was still open, and set everything up. When the bar closed for the night, Ada got up from her table in the back and joined the others at their regular seats. Katie and Valerie flanked Rose's position and Ada looked longingly at them before sitting across from her.
Valerie shuffled and dealt the cards. When she spoke, she pulled her lips around her cigar. "I figure you guys've heard of this John Ball character?" Rose and Ada looked at each other and Katie nodded slowly. Valerie sneered. "I can't believe bastard's only been 'round two days and already I can't get him outta my head."
"His name is *John* Ball?" Katie asked as she took a peek at her cards. "Like the golfer?"
Valerie frowned. "Golfer?"
"He's... British... he won the..." She scanned their blank faces and cleared her throat. "Probably not t-the same man. Go on, Valerie."
Valerie puffed on her cigar and examined her hand. "He waltzed into the supply store, plopped down a five-dollar bill and proceeded to manhandle everything in the room. Including me! He picked at every shirt, plucked a button off-a one before he put it back... I swear, the man's sole purpose in this town is to see how much he can get away with."
"The answer is 'anything'," Rose grumbled. "He can get away with anything in this town. Man practically steals three beers a day from Wilbur and no one says word one to him 'bout it." She put a hand on Katie's arm. "I ain't bad-mouthin' your man, Kate. But *no one* in this town is doing a damned thing to stop John Ball and I'm more'n a little sick of it."
Ada cleared her throat and softly said, "I think you could do somethin' about it, Rose."
Valerie arched an eyebrow and looked between her two friends. "You know something about our Rosie?"
Ada looked shyly at Rose and then shook her head. "Those guys a few days ago, the ones who passed us on the road? I know Ezekiel didn't spook 'em. Next day a fella came into my house lookin' to get his arm patched up. Gunshot wound. Said some crazy man shot at him."
Katie's eyes widened until Rose thought they would pop out of her head. "You shot a man?" she gasped.
"Nope," Rose said. She put down her cards and calmly said, "Don't know what happened to your patient, Ada, but it wasn't me." She cleared her throat and pushed her chair back. "I'm sorry, Valerie, I'll have to call it quits early tonight." She stood and hurried from the room. She moved quickly and hoped Ada wouldn't try to...
She stopped at the front door, hand on the knob and looking through the glass onto the deserted street. Ada's boots fell softly on the wooden floor and stopped a few feet shy of her. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you or..."
"I'm not embarrassed," Rose said, keeping her back turned. "I'm ashamed." She turned and bit her lip. Ada looked so sad and alone that Rose nearly broke into tears. She moved her eyes so they were focused on the dark wall over Ada's back shoulder. "If you don't mind... I don't want you to think I'm mad at you, but... do you think we could skip walkin' home together tonight? I just... need to be alone for a while."
Ada nodded. "Yeah. Sure. I'll see you tomorrow sometime?"
"Yeah," Rose said. She brushed a curl of hair behind her ear and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
Ada moved to the door and watched until Rose was out of sight before she returned to the game.
"Tommy?" Rose asked. The stable was dark and abandoned. She checked her watch and wondered why Tommy would have left so early. She hated the idea of leaving Ezekiel in a strange place all night; he would never forgive her. She tried the front door and found it locked tight. She cursed and moved around to the side where she'd seen Tommy sneak his herbal cigarettes on more than one occasion.
She tested the door and was relieved to find it unlatched. She pulled it open and ducked into the dark, hay-scented cavern of the stables. Ezekiel nickered when she appeared and she walked to his stall. "Hey, boy," she said. "Did you..."
A door at the back of the stable slammed shut and she froze. She pressed against Ezekiel and listened for any further sounds.
*It's just Tommy,* she told the pounding heart under her breast. *He locked up because he was reading a girlie magazine. Oh, he is going to get it when...*
"It's a Podunk town in the middle of nothing and nowhere."
She recognized that voice, she realized with a mixture of fear and dread. The man at the back of the stable was John Ball.
"Think people will care about a town like this? Or notice? These people have a little bit of scratch, sure, but when the railroad changes routes, it'll dry up like No Man's Land after a drought. Ain't nothing but a ghost town waitin' to happen."
Rose ran her hand down Ezekiel's side and put her hand into the saddle bag. Her fingers wrapped around the gun once more and she closed her eyes. Just that morning she had stared at the damn thing and wondered why she bothered to carry it anymore. No fight won with a pistol was ever won fairly, so her Daddy had always said. But sometimes, the other side was unfairly stacked against her. And sometimes, the gun was the only way to even things out.
The first time she'd shot a man had made her vomit. The second time made her cry. The third hadn't caused any reaction, causing her to throw her gun into the river in disgust. It had become nothing to her. Murder was common. She hated it and the gun... but she could never really separate from it, no matter what she did.
John Ball's companion was talking now. "--if these people could pull it together? Making something outta this town without the railroad?"
Ball's laugh was harsh and mean. "They can't and won't. Tomorrow, I go through town, fill my pockets... maybe leave a li'l something for you and Mr. Mayor so's no one follows me."
The stall door next to Ezekiel's rattled open and Rose tensed. She dropped to her knees and pressed tighter against the muscles of Ezekiel's belly.
"I've had 'nough of this damn town. Mr. Dearborn is starting to get antsy, so I'm finishing the job tomorrow."
"Where to then?"
"Home. Haven't been in a good long while. Might be nice to see familiar towns. The kind that don't stink like horse shit. So I won't be havin' no trouble from you tomorrow?"
"Mayor Scott was kinda firm on that point. We'll be... otherwise entangled, promise."
Ball laughed and led the horse from the stall. The lock rattled and the door swung open a few seconds later. "Sleep well," Ball said. He muttered something to his horse and it galloped away. Rose hazarded a look over Ezekiel's back and confirmed what she'd been afraid of: Ball's friend was none other than Sheriff William Jones.
After a while, the sheriff snorted and spit and headed out of the stable into the night. He left the front door wide open behind him. Rose patted Ezekiel and said, "Sorry, boy. I'll be back, I promise."
She slipped out of the stall and hurried to the door. She peeked out, making sure the street was empty before she exposed herself. She ran back to the bar, her mind already working on a plan of action. She didn't like it, but the odds were she was the only chance Paradise had. She burst through the front doors and ran to the back room.
Valerie was shuffling the cards and looked up with surprise when Rose exploded through the door. Ada's chair was vacant which left Valerie and Katie alone. "Rose!" Valerie said. "Thank God. We were just 'bout to resort to a riveting game of Go Fish."
Rose pushed her empty chair out of the way and leaned against the table. "I ain't here for cards. Where's Ada?"
"She left right after you did," Valerie said. She frowned and pulled the cigar from her mouth. "Honey, you look as paler than a three-day cold corpse. What's wrong?"
"John Ball is gonna rob this town to death tomorrow."
"What?" Katie gasped.
"I overheard him in the barn. He's headin' out tomorrow, but he's going to bleed the town dry as a good-bye party. He wants to turn us into a ghost town overnight."
Valerie opened and closed her mouth a few times, her fingers tightening on her cigar. When she finally spoke, her voice was veritably vibrating with anger. "We cannot let that happen."
"And we won't," Rose assured her. "But on your life, Valerie, you cannot tell Ada what we're gonna do. This is between the three of us."
"I'm not sure I like the sound of this," Katie said.
Rose knelt next to her and took both of Katie's hands. "Sweetie, you're gonna have to get on board with this. Because I'm gonna need to borrow some of your husband's shirts."
Chapter Three -
"I'll be there for you," Katie promised. "Whatever the plan is." She squeezed Rose's hands and they both looked to Valerie.
"Trust me. I'll explain everything once I have a few props to outline what I'm thinking." She smiled and looked at Valerie. "Val? I'm gonna need all the help I can get if I'm gonna pull this off."
"You know I'm here for you," she said. "But whatever it is you're planning, we should get Ada. It's only right to--"
"No!" Rose interrupted. "Not Ada. I don't want her involved. Hear me?"
Valerie set her jaw firmly and closed her eyes. "All right," she said softly. "We'll be ready when you get back."
Rose left them and ran back to the stables. She saddled Ezekiel and rode home faster than ever, pushing Ezekiel hard. She leapt from his back at her front porch and ran inside. Her heart was pounding, her hands trembling as she knelt in front of the memory chest she kept in her closet. The mannequin was broken in half with his feet straddling his head.
She withdrew the body and tossed it onto the bed, staring at him with contempt. He had helped her keep the land she now called home. She thought she'd been done with him. She pushed aside the dark thoughts threatening to overwhelm her and began to undress the wooden man.
She folded his clothes carefully and stuffed them into a knapsack. She reached deeper into the memory chest and pulled out her gun belt. It was heavy in her hands, like it was trying to pull her down to the floor. She refused to let it take her over, tightening her fingers on the leather and dumping it on top of the mannequin's clothes. Next, a pair of leather gloves. Last, but not least, the wide-brimmed black cowboy hat from the mannequin's head. She put it on, not trusting the knapsack to keep the shape.
Taking one last look around, she hoisted the bag over her shoulder and headed back out.
The town was dark, asleep, when she rode through again. She tied Ezekiel to the hitching post in front of the bar rather than dealing with the stables again. Katie and Valerie were already waiting for her in the game room. They stood when she entered, questions written all over their faces. Rose nodded to them as she slipped her pack off her shoulders and dumped the contents onto the table. "No one in this town is willing to stand up to John Ball. So we're gonna have to do something."
Valerie scoffed. "Yeah. He's gonna be real intimidated by the three of us."
"Not the three of us," Rose corrected. "Me."
Valerie's eyes widened and she smiled. "No offense, darlin'..."
Rose held up a hand and said, "He won't see *me.*" She pointed at the clothes and said, "He's gonna see *him.*"
Katie picked up one of the sleeves. "Won't he notice he's awful... thin?"
Valerie laughed and even Rose smiled. She shook her head and said, "Not if we do it right. Did you get your husband's shirts?"
"I managed to get three of 'em out of the hamper," Katie said. She stood and withdrew the shirts from her own pack. She lay them out on the table and said, "Are these okay?"
Rose took the shirts and looked them over carefully. One was plaid, made with thick wool. It would be itchy, but bulky enough for her purposes. "Yeah, these will be perfect. You did good, Katie." She put the shirts down and started to unbutton her blouse.
Katie looked away and Valerie laughed. "Don't blush, Katie Davies; they're nothing you ain't seen before."
Katie blushed deeper and compromised by arranging the clothes on the table. Rose shrugged out of her blouse and picked up a towel and folded it twice. She pressed it to her chest and turned her back to them. "Val, tie it tight."
"How tight?" Valerie asked, taking one end in each hand.
"Tight as you can," Rose said. "I need to look as mannish as possible."
Valerie glanced at Katie and shrugged. She pulled the towel until Rose coughed and held a hand up. "Okay. I think that's as far as we can go while I'm still breathing."
Valerie tied off the towel and Rose picked up the thinnest of Wilbur's shirts. She pulled it on and worked her arms back and forth to test the tightness of it against her shoulders. "Good, good," she murmured. She started on the second shirt and said, "I put on these clothes, challenge Ball to a gunfight... hopefully he'll be intimidated and leave."
"What if he wants a fight?" Katie asked.
Rose's eyes darkened. "Then I'll have to kill him."
Katie and Valerie didn't leave until two that morning. Rose, almost fully in costume, went upstairs to the storage room. She practiced breathing with the towel pulled almost to its maximum tightness, paced to get used to the weight of the guns on her hip and drew the weapon several times to make sure nothing came loose. She walked to the small window and looked at her reflection in the glass.
Her arms and chest were bulky. Maybe not muscular like a real man, more like the result of overstuffing. She looked fat. She turned sideways and smoothed a hand over the front of her stomach. There was a definite paunch. She shook her head; it didn't matter if she shoved a pillow under there. By tomorrow, her true appearance wouldn't matter.
*No one will remember your face. They'll remember their terror.*
"Shut up," she breathed before realizing no one had actually spoken. She closed her eyes against the memory.
The gun felt twice as heavy as it actually was. She remembered vowing to never hold it again, to never again fire it in anger. This was different. This was for the town, for the good of everyone. She settled the gun into the holster and closed her eyes, willing the voices in her head to be quiet.
When the past had been silenced, she opened her eyes and continued practicing her quick-draw.
It was still dark at five when Valerie returned. "I thought I told you to get some sleep," Rose said.
"I did. Nearly three hours. My husband just left for New York for a business meeting, so you can hide out in the store until it's show time." She gestured at Rose's chest. "How is the towel holding up?"
"Well enough," Rose said.
"Can you still breathe?"
Rose chuckled and repeated, "Well enough." There was a knock on the door and Rose ducked into the back room as Valerie crossed to answer. The lock turned and Valerie said, "It's just Katie."
Rose came out of hiding and gave Katie a hug. "Is Wilbur on his way?"
"He's still sleeping. I wanted to come by and see if there was anything I could do."
"As a matter of fact," Rose said, "I can't lift my arms over my head. I need you to put my hair into a bun."
She took a seat and Katie moved behind her. Valerie watched the street while Katie bundled Rose's curly auburn hair into a loose ponytail. She tied it with a string and piled it on top of Rose's head. She stepped back to admire her handiwork and retrieved Rose's black hat from the table. It took a fair amount of mashing, but she managed to get it to sit right.
Valerie turned and laughed. "Boy, Rose. You sure make a pretty fella."
Rose smiled and said, "That's where the bandana comes in." She pulled a black bandana from the pocket of her jeans and wrapped it around the lower half of her face. Her eyes were the only things that were still exposed. "Val, your ashtray..."
Valerie went into the back room and returned with the tray she'd used the night before. Rose dug her fingers into the gray-white ash and rubbed it onto her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. The bandana, the ash and the shadow of her hat brim cast her eyes into deep darkness. "I think it's fair to say no one's gonna recognize you," Valerie said. "Those boots give you about three inches, and the padding makes you look a little wide in the waist. You're only missing one thing."
"My guns, yeah, they're..."
"No," Valerie interrupted. She pointed at Katie and said, "Bring me a pair of socks."
"I'm wearing socks..."
"Not where it counts," Valerie said. Katie returned with a rolled-up pair and Valerie explained, "You look like a fella in most places... but here." She unzipped Rose's jeans and shoved the socks into the crotch.
"Valerie!" Katie and Rose gasped in unison.
"Just minding the details," Valerie said, winking up at Rose.
Rose adjusted her new bulge and nodded. "All right." She looped her gun belt around her waist and fastened the buckle. She worked the belt back and forth a few times until it lay right on her hips. The guns felt as heavy as they did last night, but at least they were comfortable.
"How're you gonna call him out?" Katie said. "Even if you could, you know, sound like a guy... most people in town might recognize it was your voice. John Ball himself might recognize you."
"I ain't gonna talk," Rose said. "That's where you come in, Katie."
Katie's eyes widened. "Here I was hopin' I'd just be the costumer of this little play..."
John Ball surveyed the crowd at Paradise Rose, disappointed to see his favorite little bartender had apparently vanished. When he woke that morning, he'd had a powerful thirst. So he'd amended his plan; he would grab a quick pint before he did what he was being paid for. A half hour ago, he'd dropped into his favorite chair and started scanning for that pretty little bartender with the curly hair. No rules that said he only had to steal money.
He was chuckling into his mug when the twitchy owner came over with a refill. Ball saw him coming and straightened. He put down his drink and motioned Wilbur over. "C'mere a minute, Mr. Jumpy. Mr. Twitch. Come on, come here a minute."
"Add it to your tab. I know, Mr. Ball," Wilbur sighed. "It's fine."
Ball shook his head. "Nah, nah. I just wanted to let you know that I'm not going to be around this hellhole much longer, so I might as well pay what due ya." He dropped a few folded bills onto the table. "Oughta take care of it and then some."
Wilbur eyed the money suspiciously, as if afraid Ball would jab a knife into his hand if he tried to take it. He finally snatched the cash away and let a smile break out across his face.
Ball said, "That smile is because I settled up... not 'cause I'm leaving town. Right?"
Wilbur nodded quickly. "Oh, yes. Yeah. Definitely, Mr. Ball."
Ball laughed and leaned back in his chair. He crossed one leg over the other and shook his head at the rest of the room. Might as well pay the guy. He'd be getting it all back by the end of the day. He downed his drink in one quick swig and shoved the mug away from himself.
This job was going to be so easy. That land run, opening up the territory so any half-wit could start a town, had been a stroke of genius. The problem being that maybe not every halfwit *could* run a town. He'd make his way through the rest of the territory, head home with a nice little fortune in his pocket... maybe take a few years off. Travel, see the world.
He had withdrawn a cigar from his shirt pocket when he noticed a sheepish woman standing a few tables away. She was watching him and kept glancing towards the door as if debating whether or not to run. He lit his cigar and said, "Hey, darling. No need to be shy. Come on over and talk to John Ball a minute."
"You're John Ball?"
He puffed on his cigar and held out his arms in a 'who else?' move.
The woman smoothed her hands over her skirt and said, "B-Black Jack is sick of... you usin' this town and he's gonna make you stop."
Ball squinted at her. "Black who?"
Wilbur rushed over and grabbed Katie by the shoulders. "I'm sorry, Mr. Ball, I shouldn't have..."
"Nah, I wanna hear," Ball said. Ball exhaled slowly and put his hand flat on the table. He pushed himself up to his full height and approached Katie. "Who the hell is Black Jack?"
"No one I've ever heard of, I assure you," Wilbur said quickly.
Katie pulled away from her husband and said, "He's a gunfighter. From Topeka. H-He just come through town, heard about how you're running people like my husband dry and he's sick of it."
Ball twisted his lips under his mustache and glared balefully at her. He then turned his gaze to Wilbur and crossed his arms over his chest.
No one in the room spoke, every eye riveted to the drama in the corner. Ball's eyes narrowed and he leaned down close enough for Katie to smell the liquor on his breath. Katie's eyes were wide with fear, but she stood her ground. Her lower lip was desperate to tremble, but she managed to hold it steady. When Ball finally spoke, his breath washed over her like a fetid wave. "You tell Black Jack that John Ball ain't goin' nowhere."
"Tell him yourself. H-He's gonna b-be on Main Street. Waitin' on ya."
"Good ol' fashioned gun fight, huh?" Ball said. The corners of his mouth ticked into a smile. "Well. Ain't had one of them in a long while. You tell Black Jack I'll be there." He smirked at Wilbur and hitched up his belt. "Guess I oughta go and wait for this guy to show."
Once he was gone, the tension in the room dissipated quickly. Katie walked as confidently as possible back to the bar, but Wilbur was frantic. He pushed her into the back room, ironically the same place where Black Jack had been born the night before, and grabbed her shoulders. "Katie!" he hissed. "What in the blue hell do you think you're doin'?! He's leaving town today! You had to go and lose your sense on today of all days?"
Katie pulled away from her husband and said, "He ain't just gonna leave town, he's leaving town with all the money he can shove into his pockets."
"He just paid his tab!" Wilbur said.
"And why would John Ball part with any money 'less he figured he would be getting it back real soon?"
Wilbur glanced through the door at John Ball's empty table and shook his head. "Damn it, Katie, I hope you're right about this." He put a hand on the small of her back and guided her back into the eerily quiet bar. John Ball was gone, but his presence was still felt. Wilbur knew exactly what they were thinking; who would stand a chance against someone like John Ball?
In the midst of the awed silence, the doors opened and Ada strode in. She nodded to Wilbur and then slowed as she took a curious look around. She finally reached the bar and motioned Katie over and asked, "Where's Rose?"
"Called in sick today," Katie said, following the story Rose and Valerie had concocted.
"Damn," Ada sighed. "I wanted to apologize for shooting my mouth off last night. Think she'd mind if I stopped by her house?"
"Uh, s-she said it was real contagious," Katie said. "Didn't want anyone coming by for anything." She reached across the bar and touched Ada's arm. "But she wasn't mad at you. I'm sure she ain't."
Ada smiled and said, "I still was kind of hoping I could see her." She patted Katie's hand. "Thank you anyway." She looked around again and finally got curious enough to ask, "What the hell is goin' on?"
"Someone finally called John Ball out."
Ada's eyes widened behind her glasses. "Not Rose?"
"No," Wilbur said, clueless why Ada would jump to that conclusion. "It was some fella named Black Jack."
As if on cue, the door slammed open and John Ball returned. The air seemed to be sucked from the room as everyone focused on him. He moved to the bar, his boots loud and hollow on the wood floor. As he passed behind her, he ran his hand over Ada's ass and gave it a squeeze. She gasped and moved quickly away.
Ball laughed and leaned against the bar. To Katie, he said, "You tell Mr. Black Jack to get this show on the road. I'm tired of waiting." He sniffed and said, "Ever since you told me about him, I've been itching to kill something."
He turned and examined the bar. "Can you hear me, you coward? Haveta send a woman to call me out?! I'm ready for ya! I'm lookin' forward to putting a hole in your heart!" He laughed and turned to look at Ada. "Grow your hair out and lose the eye-windows. You might actually be worth the trouble."
He hitched his belt up and left the bar again.
Ada glared after him and waited until he was gone to speak. "Who *is* Black Jack?"
"Gunfighter from Topeka," Wilbur answered. "Never heard of him 'fore now."
"Let's hope he's not just blowing smoke," Ada said. "Or worse, just getting rid of Ball just 'cause he wants the town to himself."
Katie shook her head. "I'm sure that ain't the case. Seemed real genuine."
"You spoke to him?" Wilbur asked.
Katie's eyes widened and she said, "No. N-not really. He just grabbed me out in the alley, told me what to say. I-I didn't even get a good look at his face."
Ada moved towards the door. "Well, come on. We may as well go and see what's going on."
Every other person in the bar stood and followed, obviously thankful not to be the first one to go and look.
The back room of Valerie Monroe's general store ran up against the alley, blocked from the street on three sides by garbage containers. Rose stood in the doorway, dressed as Black Jack, and stared at the gun resting in her hands. Running her hands over the cold metal, feeling it even through her leather gloves, she closed her eyes and fought back the memories.
One time. She'd fire the gun one more time and that would be it. Her biggest mistake was bringing it with her into Oklahoma. When Ball was gone, she'd ride back to the South Canadian River and give it to the quicksand. Quick, painless, gone. She slipped the gun into her holster and rearranged the sock Valerie had shoved down her pants. She made sure her hat was sitting straight and looked down the alley just as Valerie appeared in the store room. "Ball is ready. He's waitin' out there for ya." She put her hand on Rose's shoulder and said, "You sure you're up to this, darlin'?"
"I have to be," Rose sighed and straightened her bandana. "How do I look?"
"Manly," Valerie smirked.
Rose smiled behind her mask and leaned in to kiss Valerie's cheek. "Thank you for your help."
"My pleasure," Valerie said.
Rose sighed and turned. Her boots felt like they were filled with dead weight, but she finally managed to start walking.
John Ball put one foot in front of the other and slid forward until his boot had drawn a line in the dirt road.
He sighed and ran a hand over his bald head. He sighed impatiently and turned his attention to the crowd that had gathered on the sidewalk. The entire town, it seemed, had come out for the show. He scratched the stubble on his cheek and spotted Katie in the crowd. "I hope this ain't just some trick to get me outta your husband's bar!"
"He'll be here," Katie said. She kept her head down and refused to meet Ball's gaze, hugging herself tightly as she looked toward the head of the street. She spotted Valerie weave into the crowd in front of the general store and they exchanged subtle nods.
Ball shouted again, "Maybe Black Jack means to kill me with boredom!" There were a few nervous chuckles from the onlookers.
"Look!" Valerie called out. "Here he comes!"
Rose was sweltering under her layers of shirts, Wilbur's plaid indeed itching against her back and shoulders. The bandana was pressing against her lips and her breath was trapped between it and her skin. After a quiet approach, Valerie's call had made her the center of attention. Every eye in Paradise seemed to be locked on her. A river of sweat poured down the center of her back and she waited for someone to laugh. "Why, that's just Rose Skinner!"
But no one said a word. John Ball turned to face her, his hands hooked in his gun belt. His face tightened and he ran his eyes down Rose's body. He was sizing her up, taking a few extra seconds to eye the weight on her hip. She stopped walking a dozen paces from where Ball stood and assumed the position. She rested her hand on the butt of her Colt and relaxed. The muscles in her arm screamed to go, her legs hissing in sweet agony.
"Well, well, well," John Ball whispered with a smile. "Looks like we might have a showdown after all... You wanna count it down, Blackie?"
Rose raised her left hand and motioned at the crowd. Valerie took her cue. "Are you both ready?"
Ball frowned and looked at Valerie. "What the hell? Don't he even talk? What's a-matter, boy? You got a sissy voice? Kind of quiet, kinda like a chipmunk or..."
Rose dropped her hand and he jerked. He apparently thought she was going for her gun. She smirked behind her mask and nodded to Valerie.
"Are you ready, Ball?" Valerie asked.
Ball sneered. "Oh, hell yes."
"Fire when ready," Valerie said.
The entire street fell silent. No one dared blink, afraid they would miss the climax. Neither fighter moved, staring each other down from ten yards away. Rose lifted her shoulders and rolled her neck, never taking her eyes from where Ball stood. Ball had a kind of lazy assurance in his eyes, his cocked smile giving away just how cocky he was. Rose didn't bother putting up a front. Everything she needed to know was in John Ball's shoulder.
A muscle twitched under his shirt and his hand went around the butt of his gun. As it cleared his holster, a shot rang out.
He managed to get the gun up, but the barrel wavered as a wave of red poured into his eyes. Someone on the sidelines screamed and John Ball tottered on the heels of his boots. He managed to take one step backward before his knees buckled and he cascaded to the ground as if every bone in his body had liquefied.
When the echoes from the gunshot had finally faded, someone in the crowd whooped loudly. There was a spattering of applause that quickly rose into a crescendo. The crowd rushed forward and surrounded Ball's body as if to make sure he was really dead. By the time someone thought to congratulate Black Jack, he had disappeared from sight.
Among those gathered was Sheriff William Jones. He hung back near the stable, unable to be very inconspicuous due to the size of his gut. He pushed his bottom lip out and toyed with the hairs of his thick mustache as he watched the conclusion of the gun fight. The crowd had blocked Black Jack's exit, but that didn't matter. They'd find him soon enough.
The big problem now was lying in the middle of the road. He took off his hat and moved forward to join the crush. People saw him coming and stepped out of the way with respect for his badge. When he reached Ball, he paused and put both hands on his hips. "Well, hell," he muttered. He grabbed the nearest person, who happened to be Tommy Dawes and said, "Run to my office. Find my deputy and tell 'im to get the coroner."
As Dawes ran off, Jones turned to address the fast-disappearing crowd. "Thought we left gun fighting back in Arizona, where it belonged!" He spit and hitched his belt up as he circled to the other side of the corpse.
Ball hadn't even cocked the hammer on his own gun. Jones shook his head; Scott was going to be mighty peeved about this. He kicked his boot through the dirt and gave a heavy sigh. Nothing to be done now but wait for the coroner and hope Scott had come up with a Plan B.
Rose had slipped away easily in the confusion. She'd cut through an alley and ended up behind the general store without being spotted. She pulled open the back door and tugged off her bandana and hat. She watched them fall from her limp fingers, her entire right side numb. Just before the urge became too strong to deny, she turned and ran back into the alley.
When Valerie arrived, Rose was wiping her sleeve across her mouth. She coughed and turned to face Valerie with one hand cradling her stomach. "You all right?" Valerie asked softly.
Rose nodded weakly. "Thank you."
She followed Valerie back into the store and took a seat in a high-backed wooden chair. "Thank *you*," she said, "for using the alley instead of my store room." She pushed Rose's hair out of her face and looked into her eyes. "You're sure you're all right?"
"Yeah," Rose whispered hoarsely.
"Good thing we already said you was feeling under the weather. You need something? Seltzer? Aspirin? A few dozen shots of tequila?"
"No," Rose said. "It's nothing medicine will help. But thank you. And I may take you up on those shots later." She put a hand on Valerie's shoulder to steady herself and said, "Help me change... can't exactly ride home like this."
"You sure? You could just rest here."
"No. No, if someone comes by..."
Rose looked at her. "Ada?"
Valerie nodded. "Katie told me that Ada stopped by Paradise Rose looking for you. Wanted to apologize."
Rose closed her eyes and smiled. "Ah, she's got nothin' to apologize for."
Valerie closed the door and opened the trunk where they'd stowed Rose's dress. As Rose undid the buttons on her shirt, she asked, "What are they doin' with Ball?"
"Sheriff stopped by, they're waitin' for the coroner now, I think."
Rose scoffed. "Sheriff probably had a fit."
"Mad about the gunfight," Valerie nodded.
"No," Rose said. She pulled off the last shirt, Wilbur's heavy plaid, and used it to mop the sweat off her chest and shoulders. Valerie moved behind her and loosened the towel. Rose immediately sucked in a deep breath and said, "Oh, God. That should've been the first thing I done." She took another few deep breaths and felt the tingling in her hands fade. "No, the sheriff is part of it. I think either he or the mayor is the ones who hired Ball to come in and clean us out."
"I still don't buy that, Rose," Valerie said. "Why would they hurt their own town like that?"
"All I know is what I heard last night. Ball was talking with the sheriff and it sounded like he and the mayor were both getting a little something extra to look the other way." Down to her underwear, she took her dress from Valerie and stepped into it. "From what you saw, you think they'll form a posse? Come lookin' for Black Jack?"
"Dunno," Valerie said. "I did think it kind of odd how the sheriff was acting. Like he'd bet on the wrong horse in a derby. I just can't imagine why he and the mayor would do something like siccing that dog John Ball on us." Rose turned and Valerie helped fasten the dress at the back. "As for you being in danger... half this town will stick up for ya because John Ball was a thieving ass. But I don't think you could prove he was planning that town-wide spree you heard him talking about."
"Should I have let him go through with it?" Rose asked angrily. "Shot 'im outside of town and just brought the money back?"
Valerie shook her head and took down Rose's hair. "You didn't have a guarantee he wouldn't kill anyone during his spree. How would you've lived with yourself if he had?"
"How am I going to live with myself now that I killed him?" Rose asked quietly.
Valerie walked around in front of her and looked Rose in the eye. "You've done it before, right? No one shoots that good the first time."
Rose closed her eyes.
Valerie squeezed her shoulders. "It's all right, Rose. You'll be fine. Now, finish getting dressed and ride outta town 'fore anyone sees ya."
Rose nodded and sat down to put on her boots.
When Black Jack had been folded and stuffed into her pack, Rose thanked Valerie and climbed onto Ezekiel's saddle. She took the back roads out of town, praying the entire way that she wouldn't run into anyone that knew her. The circular route cost her a few extra minutes, but she dismounted at home without any witnesses.
She led Ezekiel into the barn and took a moment to stroke his neck and pour him some clean, fresh water. She whispered her gratitude to him, thanking him for getting her home unseen before heading back up to the house.
She emptied her pack in her bedroom, shoving Black Jack's clothes as deep as possible into the memory chest. She used blankets and a pillow to bury them in every sense of the word. She closed the lid and changed into her night clothes. The way she felt, it wouldn't be too hard to make the sick alibi convincing.
On her way to the outhouse she glanced in her mirror and saw why Valerie had been so concerned; her face was pale underneath the cigar ashes she had forgotten to wash off and her hair was a stringy mess. Her hands, she noticed now, were still shaking. Something twisted in her stomach and she gasped, barely making it to the porch before the surge started. She dropped to her knees and vomited in the grass, tears rolling down her cheeks as she purged.
Clutching her stomach, she stayed bowed until the spasms passed. Gasping, she wiped her mouth and used the porch rail to pull herself up. She clung to the post, wrapping her arms around it and resting her head against the rough wood.
The image was burned into her brain; John Ball's head snapping back, the blood pouring down his nose as he fell. He wasn't the first man she'd murdered; she just prayed that this time was finally the end.
Mayor Malcolm Scott didn't like being or feeling disheveled. He preferred his clothes to be crisp and clean, with shirts buttoned up to the throat, cufflinks polished and fastened, trousers with a crisp ironing line running down the legs. To his dismay, at the moment his hair had been raked-through so many times it was standing on end. His shirt collar was unbuttoned and he had a ring of sweat darkening underneath his arms. He leaned forward and stared hard at Sheriff Jones. "You'd better be lying to me," he said with a rough and tired voice. "Who in this town would stand up to someone like John Ball?"
Jones nervously tugged at his vest. He was standing in front of the mayor's desk, unable to meet the younger man's eyes. "Dunno the fella... 'Cording to the witnesses, he was wearing a mask. But John Ball is dead."
"Goddamn it," Scott muttered as he stood up. He looked out the window and rubbed his face.
"You tried, Mr. Scott. That's all anyone can ask of ya."
Malcolm waved over his shoulder. "Get outta here."
"You want I should try and find a replacement for Ball?"
Malcolm smiled ruefully. "Nah. Nah, just get outta here, Bill. I'll take care of it." He turned and saw Jones still hadn't moved from his position. "Get out of here. Go!"
Jones turned and hurried from the room. Malcolm massaged the bridge of his nose and released a heavy sigh. The town was going under. The only question was whether he was going to go down with the ship.
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