DISCLAIMER: Characters and situations are actually mine for a change!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
After Echoes From a Gun
Chapter Four -
Rose was asleep on top of the comforter when the door slid open. The intruder paused outside the bedroom and looked at her for a moment before continuing deeper into the room. Rose woke when the floorboards creaked under a stealthy foot. She didn't stir, didn't even open her eyes, and waited until the person was close enough. Wishing she'd kept one of her guns out just for safety purposes, she cracked one eyelid and turned her head towards the sound. When her vision focused, she sighed and said, "Ada."
Ada gasped and spun around, nearly spilling the bowl she was carrying. "Damn, Rose. You nearly scared me to death."
"Funny, coming from the person sneaking into my bedroom." Rose sat up and clutched the blanket to her chest. "What are you doin' here, Ada?"
"Wilbur told me you weren't feelin' well, so I brought you some broth." She tilted the bowl a bit so Rose could see the clear yellow soup within.
"You brought broth all the way out here? On a horse?"
Ada smiled as she sat the bowl on the windowsill. "I borrowed a wagon. I'm not that good a rider."
Rose moved to the edge of the bed and closed her eyes. She inhaled deeply and nearly fell back onto the bed. "Oh, that smells delicious..."
Ada put the dish down. "I can get us some bowls... where...?"
"In the kitchen. There's a wooden box on the floor by the back door." As Ada went to get the bowls, Rose slipped out of bed and quickly covered herself with a thick robe. When Ada returned, Rose was wrapped in a dressing gown and sitting on top of the memory chest.
"I hope you're not angry that I'm here," Ada said.
"Wilbur told me you were worried about being contagious. I decided... well, I may not be a doctor, but I'm close enough to tend to a sick friend. And I'm close enough that I get to decide when people are contagious. 'Sides, you shouldn't have to be out here all by your lonesome."
Rose smiled and said, "Thank you, Ada. That means a lot."
Ada served up the broth and took a seat in the rocking chair next to the bedroom door. Rose took a sip of broth and closed her eyes. "This is exactly what I needed today. Thank you."
"Well, I *am* a sort-of doctor," Ada said.
Rose laughed and said, "Is everything in town running smoothly without me?"
Ada coughed on her broth, covering her mouth and waiting until she could speak before looking up.
"Are you okay?" Rose asked. "Did I say something or...?"
"No, it's fine. You're fine." She cleared her throat and hesitated before she said, "John Ball was killed today."
Rose hoped her acting skills were up to par. "What?" she gasped. She pressed her hand against her chest in what she hoped was a convincing display of shock. "How?"
"Some gunslinger came into town, shot Ball and," she waved towards the window, "disappeared again."
"You didn't recognize him? T-the gunslinger?"
"No, he was wearin' a mask. Never said a word. Just grabbed Katie, tol' her to get Ball out for a gunfight and... In just two seconds, the whole thing was over."
Rose shook her head. "That's amazing. I miss work one day and look what happens."
Ada laughed and sipped her own broth. "Mm, this *is* good."
Rose watched her for a moment and then said, "Thank you."
Ada scoffed and playfully said, "*You* didn't make it."
Rose laughed. "No, not about... thank you for coming to see me. It means a lot."
Ada smiled shyly and swirled her spoon in her broth. "It was my pleasure."
They ate the rest of their broth in companionable silence, speaking only to comment on a noisy bird that was apparently tracking something in Rose's backyard. "I'm starting to get all kinds of birds in my garden," Ada said. "Mockingbirds are my favorite. Noisy, but they're beautiful. You should come by and see it some time."
"Try to keep me away," Rose smiled.
When they finished the soup, Ada took the bowls into the kitchen and rinsed them in the basin of well water. She left the bowls on the counter and returned to the bathroom.
"Dishes are drying... I'll leave the rest of the broth for you, in case you get hungry later." She helped Rose stand and helped her towards the bed. "Now I want you to get some sleep."
"Ada, I'm fine. Really."
Ada smiled and forced Rose to sit. "I saw just how fine you were next to the porch 'fore I came in here. You always throw up that much when you're fine?" Rose closed her eyes and Ada brushed the hair from her eyes. "It's okay, Rose. You're not invincible. No one else has to know, but don't lie to me."
Rose smiled and said, "Okay."
"Now, lay down." Rose did as Ada asked and let herself be covered by the quilt. Keeping one hand on top of Rose's head, Ada bent down and kissed just above her eyebrow. "Do you want me to come back tomorrow?"
"No," Rose said. "I'll be fine by tomorrow, I'm sure."
"I don't want you rushing anything. If you still feel..."
Rose clutched Ada's hand and said, "Trust me. I know my body. By tomorrow, I swear, I'll be a hundred percent. After that broth, I may be better by tonight."
Ada smiled. "My Grammy's recipe. It ain't failed anyone yet."
Rose smiled and closed her eyes. Ada waited until she was asleep before slipping out of the house.
<i>The X was carved at eye-level, just a crude carving done with a hunting knife. Rose stood across the lawn, holding the gun with both hands as if afraid to take the step of actually aiming it. Finally, she tightened her fingers around the butt of the gun and brought it up. She could see the X in front of the barrel, knew she would hit it if she could just shoot straight. She slipped her tongue between her lips and squeezed one eye shut. She brought her other hand up to steady the weapon.
She bit down on her tongue as she pulled the trigger. The shot went wild and she backpedaled several steps as the bullet dug into the trunk of a nearby tree.
She dropped both arms, her elbows aching, and shook her head angrily.
"You're pulling," Jeremiah said. He stepped behind her and covered her hands with his own. "You need to squeeze the trigger. Nice and slow."
Rose pulled away from him and shoved the gun against his chest. "I changed my mind. I don't want nothin' to do with this. I can't do it anyway!"
"You just need practice."
"I bit my tongue," she said, wiping her lip and checking for blood. "'Sides, where'm I gonna put a gun, Jeremiah? Stick it in my apron?"
Jeremiah followed her as she stalked back to the house. "Look, all it takes to shoot a gun is fingers and a strong arm. You got both."
"I'm a woman, Jeremiah. You think anyone's gonna take a woman with a gun seriously?"
"A lot more seriously than they'll take a woman </i>without<i> a gun," he said. "We need you, Rose. You promised to be there for us. If we can't trust you..."
"For God's sakes," she hissed. She raised the gun and turned around. As she fired at the X-marked tree, the world suddenly shifted. Instead of splintering bark, she saw an image of a man's bloody face falling away from her. </i>
Rose screamed as she sat up and groped at her bedclothes. As the remnants of the nightmare faded, she stilled her hands and pushed the hair out of her face. Just the nightmare. Nothing more, just the same damned nightmare that had haunted her ever since she picked up a gun.
Still feeling uneasy from the dream, she rolled from bed and bumped Ada's dish from the windowsill. The now-room temperature broth spilled over the front of Rose's nightgown and splashed on her bare feet. She dropped to her knees in the puddle and folded her trembling hands in her lap. She should never have picked up that gun. She had sworn to herself that she would never kill another person and she'd broken that vow to herself. Now... she was paying for it.
The nightmare was back and now, she had a new face to add to her rogue's gallery: John Ball. Her latest victim.
Ada returned the wagon and walked the rest of the way into Paradise. As soon as she passed the first building, she saw that someone had been busy in her absence; posters had been nailed up on practically every vertical surface. She stopped and pulled one down. "Town Meeting! City Hall, 7pm. All Concerned Citizens are asked to attend. Mayor Scott."
She frowned at the announcement and spotted Katie leaving Paradise Rose with her husband. She hurried towards them and called out to Katie. Katie paused and waited for her to catch up. "Hi, Ada! Wilbur, this is Ada Odell. She's one of the women I play cards with. Ada, my husband, Wilbur."
"Nice to meet you," Ada smiled. She held up the notice. "What's this all about?"
"The mayor wants to discuss the gunfight earlier," Wilbur said.
"Did they catch Black Jack?"
"Nope," Katie said. She looked like she wanted to say something else, but Wilbur spoke up before she could go farther.
"From what we hear, he's pretty up in arms about it. But everyone I've talked to is planning to stand up for Black Jack. John Ball was bleeding the bar dry and the mayor needs to realize Black Jack did us a favor."
Katie shook her head. "Not just our bar. The whole town."
Wilbur patted Katie's hand. "If the man can't see that, he's a damned fool."
The ground floor of the city hall had been filled with wooden folding chairs. There was a podium at the front of the room and a slightly-ajar door revealed stairs that led to Mayor Scott's office.
As Katie, Ada and Wilbur took their seats, Valerie arrived and sat behind them. Katie introduced her to Wilbur and asked after her husband. They exchanged pleasantries for a bit before Ada said, "I went to see Rose this afternoon. Took her some broth, made sure she was all right."
"Was she?" Valerie asked. She quickly glanced at Katie.
"She was fine. Getting better," Ada said, despite how Rose had actually looked. <i>Just between you and me,</i> she had promised. And she was a woman of her word. But inside, she was worried Rose might be sicker than she wanted to admit.
The stairway door pushed open and Malcolm Scott stepped out. He was trailed by Sheriff Jones, who was wringing his hands together as he took his seat. Scott stood at the podium and banged the heel of his boot against the base to call for silence. The noise in the room faded and, when he could speak without raising his voice, he said, "It's not exactly seven, but I think we might's well get started," he said.
"We came to this territory to start a new life, to... escape the lawlessness that had become a part of our everyday lives. We came to this land to bring civility to our world. And what do we get for it? Gunfights. Murder in the street. Well, I for one will not have it. This... Black Jack... hid his face for one reason and one reason alone. He knew he was a criminal. He knew what we would do if we knew what he looked like. We would bring him to justice for cold-blooded murder!"
The tone of his voice implied that he expected the crowd to jump to their feet and applaud him. Instead, what he got was one tired, gravel-filled voice calling out, "That's bull and you know it."
Everyone turned to see the town barber, Winston Orr, getting to his feet. Orr was an older black man, his eyes nearly overwhelmed by the wrinkles that surrounded them. He had a wispy white mustache and his back was hunched. He curled his gnarled fingers around the head of his cane to keep from tipping over as he stood to address the crowd. Despite his resemblance to an ancient oak tree that had seen too many storms, he was a maestro with a pair of clippers in his hand.
"Black Jack saved us all," Orr said. "That John Ball bastard come inta my store, ask me for a haircut and shave. Tol' me to 'put it on his tab.' He done the same thing, the *exact* same thing, in every store along this main road."
He looked back at Scott and said, "You wanna know who Black Jack is, and that's your right. But me and half the people in this room, I'll bet, wanna know, too. I would shake that man's hand and buy him a pint."
A few people called out, "Me too!" and "That's right!" after Winston was done speaking.
Scott pursed his lips and crossed his arms over his chest. "Now, folks, I understand Mr. Ball was not an... ideal customer. I understand that he was an annoyance. But 'cording to Mr. Wilbur Davies, he was on his way out of town the very day he was murdered."
Katie, Valerie and Ada all looked at Wilbur. He looked down at his hands and shook his head apologetically.
"However much a burden Mr. Ball was, he was still a citizen. And whoever Black Jack is, *he* has done more wrong than Mr. Ball ever did. Black Jack has taken the law into his own hands. That, my friends... is a dangerous precedent. What are we going to draw the line? Someone takes your seat in a bar... shoot him. Someone trespasses on your property... shoot him. We have got to take a stand, else this will again become a fact of life. We will become a town where the outlaws rule and law and order is set aside. I say no. We are on the verge of a new century, people. It is time to put aside the old ways and make room for a civilized way of life."
Katie nudged Wilbur and whispered, "Say something."
"Why would he listen to me?" Wilbur said.
"You said all the way over here you were going to make a stand. Come on, Will."
"It wouldn't do any good. Now, hush, Katie."
Katie's face grew beet red and, before she could stop herself, she was on her feet. "Mayor Scott!" she shouted. "How are we supposed to 'put aside the old ways' when men like John Ball are allowed to run this town, bleed us dry, while you and your lackeys do nothing?"
Scott waved a dismissive hand to her. "Please, Mrs. Davies, have a seat and..."
<i>"No!"</i> Katie barked.
Ada and Valerie looked at each other, stunned by their usually timid friend's outburst. Her face was red, her hands balled into fists at her sides. She looked fit to burst, and everything was aimed directly at Mayor Malcolm Scott.
"No," Katie repeated as she moved to the aisle. "I ain't hearin' another word. Black Jack is a hero for what he done. If anyone deserves to be in jail, it is your incompetent sheriff who sat on his big... r-rear end and did nothin' while John Ball was robbin' every single person in this town in broad daylight. You want your civilization, Mr. Scott? Ya want your peace? Sometimes that peace comes at the end of a gun. Black Jack was smart enough to realize that and I thank the day he came to this town. I ain't listening to no more of this nonsense." She turned on her heel and stormed out.
Valerie and Ada stood to follow her and inadvertently caused a mass exodus from the town hall. By the time things had settled, only Malcolm Scott, Jones and a few scattered supporters in the meeting hall.
The sheriff hitched up his belt and looked at Mayor Scott. "Well. That could'a gone better."
Scott glared at the sheriff before he stormed back up the stairs.
Outside, Valerie and Ada caught up with Katie as she stalked towards home. "Katie!" Valerie called. She grabbed her by the arm to slow her down. "Hold on! What was all of that?"
Katie was crying, tears streaming down her face. "That bastard John Ball could'a destroyed this town. He would've ruined us all if..." She saw Ada and stopped herself short. "I-If Black Jack hadn't done something. Now Malcolm Scott is acting like he's some kinda monster. I wouldn't listen to that man anymore. I'm sorry, I just wouldn't."
Valerie embraced her and Ada looked down the street. The rest of the townspeople were flooding the street. "Looks like we started something when we left," she said.
"Maybe Katie can run for mayor against Scott next election," Valerie winked.
Katie sagged. "God, I'd be petrified. No, thank you."
"Come on," Valerie said. "Let's get out of the street before we're trampled by these angry citizens."
Scott slammed his office door and stormed around his desk. He had dropped into his chair before he realized there was someone standing in the shadows. "Who...?"
"Relax," the man said simply. He stepped forward and took the seat in front of the desk.
Scott sagged. "I didn't think you were coming."
The man shrugged. "I don't like my horse. I kicked him a lot. Got here early. Had to, once I heard how everything had gone to hell here."
"Your boy changed the plan," Scott said. He didn't like the man across the desk from him, but he wasn't about to sit here and get blamed for this. "He was not supposed to set up camp, spend a week fleecin' this town before the big day. It was his own damn fault."
"John Ball was an idiot," the man said. "I sent him because he was expendable. Wanted to make sure you weren't just trying to trick me. Now... I don't know about you, but finding my man dead is a bad sign."
"I swear to you, we had nothing to do with that... madman trying to take matters into his own hands."
"Oh, I believe ya. I heard that pretty little speech you just gave. Very helpful. Very persuasive." He chuckled and said, "You always let old men and little tiny women show you up, Mr. Scott?"
Scott blushed and turned away. "I don't blame you for the Black Jack problem. But it *is* a problem. Added risk and all that. I'm still willing to do the job for you. But the price has gone up."
"What do you mean?"
The man ticked off the original terms, "Take the money, damage any buildings you see fit, don't hurt no one. As far as I can see, the first two are still doable. But I'm going to have to hurt some people if that Black Jack decides to show his face again."
Scott closed his eyes and reluctantly said, "Fine."
"Good, good. Oh, and uh... just to keep everyone else in line, I'm gonna have to shut up that loudmouth from the meeting tonight."
"Winston Orr?" Scott asked.
"Nah," the other man smiled. "The pretty one. Where might I find that little firebrand?"
Scott's eyes widened. "Shut her up as in..."
"I'll give you the details if you want."
"No," Scott breathed with a shudder. He closed his eyes. "Her name is Katie Davies. I can show you where she lives."
The next morning, Wilbur was going over the books when Rose stepped into the back room. He looked up and smiled when he saw her. "Oh, well now, there is a sight for sore eyes." He rose and kissed her on the cheek. "Are you sure you're feeling a hundred percent?"
"I'm fine, Wilbur," Rose assured him. "Just needed a little bed rest is all." She looked down at the books and said, "What's this?"
Wilbur sighed and ran a hand through his short, graying hair. "Just trying to figure out just how bad off I am."
"Bad off? I thought you were making a profit."
"I was. For a while. Then John Ball comes along..."
Rose gasped. "He took you for that much?"
"No," Wilbur sighed. "I wish I could blame all my problems on him, cause then I could say things might start lookin' up now that he's gone." He shook his head. "I don't think that's the case, Rosie."
Rose reached over and squeezed his shoulder. "If there's anything I can do to help you, Will, let me know. All right? If you wait a week to pay me, I'd understand."
Wilbur smiled. "You work, you get paid, end of story. Truth is, half the customers I do have are here 'cause of you. I'd fire myself before I got rid of you."
"Well, if that happens, I'll be sure to throw you a very nice going-away party," Rose said with a pat on his shoulder. She bit her lip and looked across the room at the stairs that led to the second floor. "How much space is upstairs, you think?"
Wilbur shrugged. "I don't know. Enough to store what we can't hold down here. Why?"
"Well, you let my friends and I play cards here free of charge. Why don't you open the upstairs, too? Charge people a little to rent that space. Get a little extra income without costing you anything. If you still need storage, I've got some room free in my house."
Wilbur blinked at her and adjusted his glasses, moving to the stairs. "Damn, Rosie, I think you just..." He laughed and rubbed his forehead. "I've been nearly killin' myself for two weeks trying to think of ways to get my head above water and you walk in..." He shook his head and leaned forward to kiss her cheek.
Rose laughed. "It's all self-serving, believe me. I wanted to ask about a raise..."
He laughed and said, "Believe you me, the first profits from this room-rental thing is going straight into your pocket."
"Room-rental and..." She bit her bottom lip and moved closer. "Will, I know you're not gonna want to hear this. But you gotta be more firm with people. You hate making friends pay full price."
"Well, I just..."
"I know. Ya give 'em a discount because they're your friends and because times are tough. But you gotta be firm. Be a businessman. They'll understand."
Wilbur closed his eyes and nodded. "Yeah. I'll take your advice. Swear on it."
Rose smiled. "You know, pretty soon it'll be easier to just sign the deed for this place over to me."
He scoffed. "Rosie. Please. A woman, running a business like this? Lord knows women don't have any business sense."
He ducked out of the office before the tin cup she threw could hit him in the head.
Noah Dearborn wouldn't make the same mistakes his predecessor had made. He wouldn't become a part of the town. No one would no his name and, with luck, no one would know his face until it was too late. Black Jack had managed to be a faceless hero; why not a faceless villain to go along with him?
He leaned against the brick wall, biding his time, and made sure to keep his hat pulled low over his face. He'd walked the streets the night before with Mayor Scott, getting to know the alleyways and by-ways of the town without drawing attention to himself. It was pathetically small, just a few tangled intersections and a couple of scattered homes and businesses. Easy pickings.
A woman came around the corner and walked fearlessly towards him. She casually said hello and nodded her head to him. Once she was past, he stepped away from the wall and moved to catch up with her. "Katie."
She turned, eyes wide with surprise at the use of her name. "I'm sorry, do I...?"
"Not yet," Dearborn said. He brought one gloved fist up, lightning-quick, and jabbed it in her face. Katie dropped to her knees, Dearborn managing to catch her before she fell in the mud. He hoisted her up and into his arms like a newlywed husband carrying a bride over the threshold. He looked to make sure no one had seen his little display and started back down the muddy street.
By the time the lunch crowd rolled in, Rose had been treated to eight different variations on the previous day's events. In one, Black Jack was a wide-shouldered, barrel-chested ruffian with a rough red beard. In another, he had called John Ball a coward before shooting him. Rose hid her amusement, grateful her ruse had worked so well. If the stories kept growing, eventually no one would ever believe she was Black Jack, even if she ever tried to admit it.
Just after one, Ada strolled into the bar and broke into a smile at the sight of Rose. "Want a table?" Ada asked as she gestured to their normal place in the back.
"Bar," Rose said. As Ada took an empty stool, Rose walked behind the bar and explained, "Katie hasn't shown up yet. I've gotta stay here and man the bar."
Ada checked her pocket watch. "Is she usually this late?"
"Nah. She's probably sleeping in since I forced her to work all by her lonesome yesterday. Turnabout is fair play."
"You're not still sick, are you?"
"No, it was just like I told you. Just a twenty-four hour bug. What can I get you?"
"Just an ice water."
Rose cocked her hip and playfully asked, "Now, sweetie, will you be wantin' a *nice water* or a water with some ice in it?"
Ada laughed and said, "Water, on the rocks."
Rose grinned and poured the water into a glass. She bent down under the bar and chipped off a piece of ice. "Here you are. I'll be right back. Have to go refill a couple of rowdy drunks."
Rose and Wilbur crossed paths at the end of the bar. If she hadn't sidestepped him, he would have run into her. "Whoa, Wilbur," she laughed. She put her hands on his shoulders and he blinked up at her. "Oh. Sorry."
"It's all right, Will," she said. "Just be a little more observant, huh?"
"Yeah. Yeah, surely will," he nodded.
Rose continued on, but Ada watched as Wilbur sank back into a contemplative shuffle. She turned her head to watch him leave and finally slipped off her stool to follow him into the bright afternoon sun.
He was standing next to the hitching post, alternating between looking down the street and down at the pocket watch in his hand. She cleared her throat and he spun around. "Oh," he said. He clasped the back of his neck and smiled sheepishly. "Good afternoon, Miss Odell."
"Hi, Mr. Davies. What's up?"
"I'm just a... a bit worried about my wife. She was supposed to have come in to help Rose by now."
"Oh, Rose said she didn't mind. Payback for making Katie work all alone yesterday."
"I understand that. Still... I know Katie. She would still have shown up, if just to be turned away. If she *could* be turned away, that is."
Ada smiled and said, "After that display of hers last night, I'd be afraid to deny that woman anything."
Wilbur laughed weakly and sighed. "Could ya let Rose know I'm going to head home and check on her? I just wanna make sure she didn't catch whatever Rose had."
"Sure, no problem."
He stepped off the wooden sidewalk and headed towards home. Ada watched him for a moment, smiled when he paused to hitch up his trousers, and went back into the bar.
The Davies lived in a squat house in a row of identical squat houses. They'd bought their parcel with a fabricated house already standing a week after the Land Run. Wilbur was so lost in his thoughts that he almost walked past their house, thrown by the fact that there was a man seated on the porch.
He stopped at the edge of the porch and blinked at the intruder through his glasses. The man was lanky, folded into Wilbur's rocking chair and pushing himself with one boot that was resting against the railing. He had a wicked-looking knife out, picking at a fingernail with it. He casually looked up, his lank blonde hair falling into his eyes as he stilled the chair and leaned forward.
"Hello," Wilbur said. He cleared his throat. "Can I help you?"
"Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Davies. My name is Noah Dearborn."
"Mr. Dearborn, you mind... telling me what you're doing on my porch?"
Dearborn shrugged. "Good question. A man has a right to know something like that." He leaned back again. "It seems your pretty little wife didn't wanna leave the place unattended."
Wilbur looked at the front door. "Katie?"
Dearborn smiled and looked down at his knuckles. "It's my understanding your little Katie met the fellow everyone is calling 'Black Jack.' As far as I can see, she's the only person in this whole little town to have spoken with him 'fore the big gun fight. Little suspicious, yeah? So. Here's what I'm thinking. Your Katie tells me who Black Jack is, how I can find the fellow... I let her go. Relatively unharmed." He stepped off the porch and patted Wilbur on the back. "Just wanted to let you know dinner won't be waiting when you get home."
As Dearborn stepped off the porch, Wilbur turned and slammed into him with a primal yell. Dearborn stumbled more out of surprise than anything else, and grabbed a handful of Wilbur's shirt. He hoisted Wilbur off the ground and shoved him away. Wilbur fell to the ground in a rising cloud of dirt, coughing and cradling his stomach. Before he could even try to stand, Dearborn planted a boot on his neck.
"Stay down, boy," Dearborn hissed.
Wilbur blinked, eyes wet behind his glasses, red-faced and panting. Dearborn's demeanor brightened again as he lifted his boot. "Gotta admire the spirit, though. Gotta tell Miss Katie her husband was willin' to die for her." He winked and ambled down the street as if he were a man out for a Sunday stroll.
Chapter Five -
Once Rose had tended to everyone's half-empty mugs, she grabbed a washrag and headed for the back of the room to clean up a spill. She'd never before realized just how much Katie and Wilbur helped her out until they were gone; she made a mental note to never take them for granted again as she motioned to a customer that she'd be there in a minute. She'd only started to wipe up the spilled beer when the door of the bar slammed open.
Everyone jumped at the gunshot sound, but Rose was the only one who clutched her hip. She cursed herself and focused on the disheveled outline in the doorway. He was hardly recognizable as Wilbur; his normally immaculate clothes were wrinkled and dirty and his glasses sat skewed on his face. The top few buttons of his shirt were undone and he looked completely lost.
She hurried to the bar and dipped her towel into a pitcher of water. She went to Wilbur and guided him to a stool with the towel pressed to his forehead. "Wilbur? Will, what happened? Who did this to you?"
"Katie..." he gasped.
"What is it?" Rose asked. Dread was beginning to claw at her. "Is she sick? Hurt?"
Wilbur shook his head as if in a dream. His eyes were locked on a spot on the ground and he stumbled over his words when he finally spoke. "Some... m-man... has her. Some man took her. Because she talked to Black Jack."
Rose's throat tightened and she felt the blood drain from her face. She tightened her trembling hand on his shoulder and lowered her voice. "Did he... hurt her?"
"He promised he wouldn't hurt her if she tells... if she tells him how to find Black Jack."
Rose felt her chest tighten and closed her eyes. She slipped off the stool and put the rag in Wilbur's hand. "I need you to take charge, Wilbur, okay? I need you to take over for me here."
"What?" He blinked out of his daze and finally looked at her. "W-why? What's the point? I... Katie is..."
"I know how to find Black Jack. I'll get him here and..."
"No!" Wilbur said. His eyes came to life and he rose from the stool like he'd been possessed. "No. I won't have you putting yourself in danger, too, Rose."
"Katie wouldn't want you to put yourself in harm's way, either. Please, Rose."
Rose turned to face Wilbur and put both hands on his shoulders. "Whoever this bastard is, there is no way I'm going to let him hurt Katie. If getting Black Jack to town is what it takes to help her, then that's what I'm going to do." She kissed his forehead and stood. "Call your brother. Have him watch the bar and you get some rest."
He nodded and suddenly began sobbing. He bowed his head and covered his face with his hands. Rose touched his back and scanned the crowd for someone to comfort Wilbur. Everyone in the bar was standing and staring at the broken man at the bar. "Let the man alone," she said. "Go back to your drinks."
The crowd slowly dispersed and Rose led Wilbur into the back room. "I want you to stay here, Will. I'm going to go and get Katie back, you hear me? You have my word."
He nodded and put the washrag back against his face, back in his daze. Rose reluctantly left him and returned to the bar. She scanned the crowd and spotted Albert Green, the town deputy, sitting at a corner table. No matter what the sheriff might be up to, Albie was still the law. She grabbed him by the vest and dragged him behind the bar. "Don't sell anyone any more beer. When these fine folks are done, make sure they leave. When the bar is empty, shut and lock the front doors. Got it?"
"Yes, ma'am," Albie said, apparently unaware he was supposed to be the authority figure.
Rose hurried from the bar and ran down the street to the general store. The front door was standing open and Rose rushed in like tumbleweed. Valerie was finishing with a customer, bundling their purchase in a cloth sack, and smiled when she saw Rose. "Hey, there!" Her smile wavered when she got a good look at Rose's expression. "What's wrong?"
Rose shook her head and stepped to the side as the customer left. When they were alone, she shut the door and turned the lock. "I need your help, Val. Someone grabbed Katie."
Valerie's smile widened and she winked. "Did ya have to give him the ol' one-two?"
Rose grabbed Valerie's wrist and squeezed it hard enough to let her know this wasn't a joke. "No, Val. Someone *took* her."
Valerie's face fell. "Took her? What do you mean someone took her?"
Rose closed her eyes. "He's holding her hostage because..." She hesitated and touched her lips with the back of her hand. "He's holding her because she spoke to Black Jack."
Valerie's eyes widened. "John Ball had friends besides the sheriff."
Valerie lifted a section of the counter and motioned for Rose to join her on the other side. Rose massaged the back of her neck and began pacing between the counter and the door to the back room. Valerie chewed her thumbnail and asked, "What are we going to do?"
"Not us," Rose said. "Me. I'm riding home to get the outfit. Black Jack will be here to get Katie released."
"Rose... last time was pushing it. How long do you think you can go on before someone gets wise?"
Rose stopped pacing and stared Valerie down. "And if I do nothing and Katie gets killed? It's my fault she got took. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if something happened to her because of me. Just... be ready if I need a hand. Okay? I'm gonna think of a way to let this asshole know Black Jack is in town to stay without putting anyone else in danger."
Valerie nodded. "I'll be here for anything you need."
"Thank you, Valerie." Rose squeezed her friend's hand before she ran from the building. They didn't have much time to get ready.
After confronting Wilbur, Dearborn had returned to the small house next to the post office. From the front window of the living room, he could see the road into town as well as the front of Paradise Rose. Whenever someone walked past the window, he would look up and watch them until they disappeared from sight. He had a guitar laid across his lap and occasionally attempted to strum out a song. "Your husband reliable?" he asked. He waited and, when he didn't get an answer, turned to look at the couch. "I asked you a question, darling."
Katie was on her back on the couch, hands tied behind her back. She was staring at the ceiling, her tears trailing down her cheeks. She softly replied, "Yes."
Dearborn shook his head and went back to the guitar. "I don't want to start hitting you just to get an answer out of you. Understand me?"
"I'm sorry," Katie said. "I'm not used to being held hostage."
"Yeah," Dearborn sighed. "Yes, you must take that into account, I suppose." He pursed his lips and sat forward. He put the guitar against the wall and folded his hands in his lap.
Katie turned her head slightly and hazarded a question. "Who does that belong to?"
"Me," he said. He checked his watch and stood up to begin pacing. "Come on, Davies. I don't have all day..." He hooked his thumbs in his pockets and looked out the window.
"You didn't tell Wilbur where I was. How is he supposed to..."
"He'll get Black Jack. When Black Jack gets to town... I'll hear about it."
"Wilbur doesn't *know* Black Jack!" Katie said. "That's what I've been trying to tell you. If you'd let me go, I could find him and..."
Dearborn turned and faced her. "You're not going anywhere. If Black Jack doesn't show, you'll have to be my little... insurance policy."
"Then... l-let me talk to Rose. Rose Skinner, my husband's bartender."
"Is she another of Black Jack's whores?" Dearborn smirked. "What, does the man have a stable around here someplace?"
Katie closed her eyes. "No."
Dearborn sat down next to her chair and patted her shoulder. "Don't worry, sweetheart. This'll all be over soon. Promise you that."
Rose dismounted Ezekiel at the outskirts of town and guided him off the main path. She had changed at home and couldn't risk being seen on Ezekiel in her Black Jack outfit. She brushed his mane and whispered in his ear. "I'm going to have to leave you here for now, boy. But I'll be back. Don't I always come back for you?"
He nickered and turned his head until he hit the brim of her hat. She smiled and said, "Good boy. Now here..." He stopped under an apple tree and said, "Try not to get sick." She patted him on the flank and returned to the path. With one more look over her shoulder at him, she hitched up her belt and walked confidently towards town.
*"You swing your hips too much,"* a ghost told her. *"Men don't walk like that."*
She silenced the voice of her past, but didn't ignore it. She changed her stride, moving with her shoulders instead of her hips. She tugged the bandana up over her nose and kept her chin raised defiantly.
Storm clouds were threatening from the west and she was stifling in the outfit. Sweat was beginning to pour down her back and was beading on her upper lip. She fought the urge to wipe it away and focused on the street ahead.
The walk to town only took five minutes, but in that time her feet had started aching and she felt like she'd been dipped into a lake. She passed the barbershop first and saw Winston Orr sweeping his front stoop. He paused and leaned against his broom. His jaw dropped and he breathed, "My lord." He stepped back into his shop and slammed the door behind him.
Rose continued on, seeing people out of the corner of her eye but paying them no attention. They were people she'd served drinks, people who had leered at her and left her coins to 'buy something pretty.' Now, they were running in fear at the very sight of her. She passed Valerie's store, but didn't see the dark-haired woman at the door. Finally, she reached city hall and stopped in the center of the street.
She rested her hand on the butt of her gun and waited.
The front door opened and one of Dearborn's lackeys stuck his head in. "Boss. Some kind of commotion going on down at city hall."
Dearborn got to his feet and parted the curtain with one hand. "It's about time," he muttered. He grabbed his hat and turned to Katie. "You sit tight. I don't care what happens to you and, so far, that's worked in your favor. But I won't bat an eye if my boy has to kill you."
"Wait, I'm staying here?" the lackey said. "I thought..."
"You stand guard. I'm taking Pauley."
"Ah, hell," the other guard said. "Can I at least have a little fun with her while you're gone?"
Dearborn shook his head. "Kill her if you have to. But don't defile her. I don't stand for that sort of thing."
He opened a cabinet and withdrew a gun belt. "Be back in a few minutes."
Pauley was sitting on the porch with a hat pulled low over his eyes. Dearborn kicked his foot. "You ready?"
"Ah yeah," Pauley muttered. He stumbled to his feet and coughed before following Dearborn from the porch.
"A couple of these buildings have ladders on the back side," Dearborn said. "Find one, climb it and find a good vantage point for the gunfight."
"What's the plan?" Pauley asked.
"Cheating, my boy." He smiled and said, "I didn't stay alive by playing fair. Creative strategy is just another skill."
The crowd was already gathered when Dearborn strode into the center of the street. They had appeared on the sidewalks as the skies filled with heavy, dark clouds. He stopped a few paces from Black Jack and sized up the other shooter. "The infamous Black Jack. You ready for this?" He planted both hands on his hips and tilted his head. When no reply seemed forthcoming, he said, "Cat got your tongue, son?"
Rose licked her lips, tasting the salty sweat that had gathered there, and lifted her hand. She dropped it in a slashing motion in a pre-arranged signal to Valerie. From the sidelines, Valerie called, "He wants to know where Katie Davies is."
"Who might you be?" Dearborn asked as he searched for the translator.
"Valerie Monroe," Dearborn repeated. "How you know what he's asking?"
"Because Katie Davies is a friend of *mine,* you bastard! Where is she?"
Dearborn smirked. "Well, if your friend here loses, you'll find out. But if he wins... well. Darn the luck, I don't know how you'll ever find her." He pursed his lips at Rose and said, "What do you say, count of ten?"
Rose nodded once.
A nervous man with a gold pocket watch stepped out of the crowd and held it up with a shaking hand. "Okay, um... I-I could do the count."
"Mighty kind of you, sir."
The man began counting down. The sweat was beginning to sting her eyes, her palms slick against her gun. She focused on Dearborn's shoulder. She saw that his eyes were locked on the sliver of skin visible between her hat brim and the edge of her bandana. She mentally planned out her movements; gun out of the holster, shoulder back, fire twice, straighten. She'd go for a debilitating shot, not a kill. The town may be small, but they had to make him give up where he was hiding Katie. It would be a strike to his ego. Maybe if she humiliated him, it would keep others from...
Something slammed into her from behind and she hit a knee, bringing a hand to her right shoulder to see what was causing the pain. Another gunshot rang out and a hot poker ripped through her side. She dropped down, heart pounding, shoulder now throbbing. There was a new stream of warm liquid inside her shirt and she realized she'd been shot at least twice. But how? Dearborn had never drawn his gun. He'd never even...
He'd set her up. That's what the delay had been. She tightened her jaw and lifted her head, watching as Katie's kidnapper walked towards her. He had finally drawn his weapon and was tapping it against his thigh. He towered over her, drowning her in his shadow. "Well, now. Mighty sorry about crushing your whole hero thing. But you understand that we..."
Another gunshot roared and Rose cringed. When the pain didn't come, she lifted her head and saw that Dearborn was kneeling in the dirt next to her. His face was twisted with a mixture of pain, anger and confusion and he was gripping his left shoulder. Rose slid backwards through the dirt, half-sitting, one hand pressed to her bloody shoulder. Valerie walked up and kicked Dearborn down, forcing him to lie on his back in the dirt.
Valerie's bullet had torn a hole in the man's shoulder. She leveled the barrel at his face and said, "You shot Black Jack. Big deal. Town doesn't need him no more. Town's got a backbone of its own." She looked at Black Jack and sneered, "Get on outta here. We don't need you to protect us anymore. We're not *children.* Go." Her eyes softened slightly and Rose saw the concern behind the angry words. "GO."
With an effort that almost knocked her out, Rose got to her feet. Blood and sweat pooled inside her shirt, sticking her flesh to the cloth. Her entire right side felt like it was on fire, but she somehow managed to turn on unsteady feet and start walking. Her vision was blurring and her knees felt like they wanted to bend in every direction at once. But she could walk. She could walk, if the horizon would just stop tilting every thirty seconds...
She slipped into an alley and weaved between the buildings in the hopes she wouldn't be spotted. It felt like someone had dropped a weight into the center of her back. Every few steps, she had to fight the urge to drop to the sand and sleep. She lost her balance and slammed her shoulder into the wall, a surge of nausea rising in her chest. She fought it down just as the snake-thin man reached the bottom of the ladder a few feet away from her.
There was a revolver stuck in his belt and he was giggling like a child. He turned and spotted her, eyes wide and lower lip dropping. Rose knew who he was immediately and realized how Dearborn had managed to get the drop on her. She pulled her gun free with her left hand as the second shooter reached for his weapon. Her reaction time was delayed enough that he was able to bring the gun up before she fired.
He dropped his gun and dropped to his knees, blood tainting the collar of his shirt. He fell backward and Rose let her gun drop. The strength had gone out of her arm and she let it hang by her side like a limp rope.
Drenched with sweat, blood now dripping from her clothes, she wearily continued on her journey. Couldn't go to the town doctor. Anyone getting treated for a gunshot wound the same day Black Jack got shot, even if she was a woman, would be a little too easy for people to put together. She needed a doctor, a doctor no one would be likely to question. A doctor whose silence could be bought or coerced.
She only had one option.
Ada Odell's house was on the northern edge of town. It was a simple, square house with a porch running along the north and western side. The house had a low roof, the eaves hanging over the window and door, and bore the mark of shoddy workmanship. But Ada had taken care, planting a garden that dominated the fenced-in back yard and painting the old, gray wood white.
The storm clouds hung heavy but refused to spill and ended up drowning everything with humidity. The heat was unbearable inside, even with all the windows open, so Ada lounged on the porch and watched the butterflies and birds swarm in her little slice of heaven. A pewter-colored mockingbird perched on the waist-high picket fence that bordered her property. He looked at her, shrugging his wings in a flashy display of white feathers.
Ada gathered a handful of seed in her hands and tossed it lazily onto the footpath that ran between her budding flowers. The bird dove for it, chirping incessantly as it gathered the spilled food. She'd been in Paradise Rose when she heard of all the drama unfolding; Katie kidnapped, the man who'd stolen her demanding to see Black Jack. It seemed unreal, like something in a dime novel, so she had retreated here, to her sanctuary, in the hopes the peace and quiet would calm her mind.
She was reaching for the seed to toss another handful to the birds when something crashed loudly against her fence. She was on her feet as the mockingbird took flight with an irritated cry for his unfinished lunch. As Ada stumbled off the porch, she tried to understand what she was seeing. A man, dressed all in black, was struggling with bloody hands to undo the latch on her fence door.
"Get out!" Ada shouted. She prayed for some kind of weapon, but all she had was her birdseed and her rocking chair. "Go!"
"Ada," the man in black rasped, his voice... her voice? That couldn't be right... weak and pained. Ada approached cautiously as the intruder collapsed outside the fence. Against her better judgment, she unlatched the gate and knelt next to the broken body. She tugged the mask away and froze.
Rose's face was pale, her eyes half-lidded and swimming unfocused. She was panting, sweat making her pale face shine like a moon through the clouds. Ada had seen faces like this in her husband's office. Usually, they prompted a call to the undertaker. Rose's eyes finally focused on Ada's face and she whispered her name.
The spell cast by her shock finally broken, Ada tugged the bandana away with trembling fingers and felt Rose's throat for a pulse. She found one and tried not to look stricken at how slow it was. "Rose, why are you dressed like this?" Ada whispered. There was no answer; Rose had already gone slack in her arms. She wrapped an arm around Rose and half-carried, half-dragged her towards the house.
Katie closed her eyes and hunched her shoulders up in the hopes it would drown out the sounds. Dear God, why weren't they stopping? There had been three gunshots already, all of them coming from the direction of downtown. The last time, Rose had just drawn and fired. Three shots meant something had gone wrong. What if Dearborn really was as good as he claimed? What...
She was trembling now. The man Dearborn had left with her seemed overanxious to get out and see what was going on. He moved from the window to the open front door and kept moving towards the couch. Katie cringed every time he got close, but he seemed to remember Dearborn's admonishment before he ever got too far. He pushed the curtain aside and laughed. "Ah, I knew it. I knew it."
He hurried to the door and yelled, "Mr. Dearborn!" He whooped in victory and ran down the porch.
Katie began to sob.
"What's going on?"
"Get back inside, Tom," Dearborn said.
"Who are all these people?"
"Damn it, Tom, get back inside the house!"
She heard boots on the porch and pressed against the back of the couch. Dearborn sounded mad, sounded fit to kill. So Rose had shot him, probably just made him mad and then he'd killed her. Rose was dead. Oh, God, Rose had died for her.
"Get up," Dearborn hissed. He sounded like he was right on top of her and she squeezed her eyes tighter.
Another voice said, "You heard the man, Katie. Stand up."
Katie's eyes opened and she peered skeptically over her shoulder. Valerie was standing in the doorway with two handguns, both apparently brand-new from the stock of her store, aimed at Dearborn and his lackey. Katie gasped and rolled off the couch, rushing to Valerie's side. She saw out the front door that the entire town seemed to have followed Valerie from the shootout.
"Katie!" Wilbur called.
Katie broke away from Valerie's side and rushed out of the house. As soon as Wilbur appeared at the front of the crowd, she leapt and was caught in his arms. Valerie backed out of the house and motioned at the edge of the porch. "You fellas sit down there. Nice and calm. And we'll wait for the sheriff to show up."
"Sheriff?" Tom asked.
"That's right," Valerie said. She lowered her voice so only Dearborn and Tom could hear her. "I'm sure he'd be hard-pressed to find a reason not to arrest you. What with all these witnesses."
"You said we couldn't get arrested," Tom hissed at Dearborn.
Dearborn ignored him and pressed his hand tighter against the bullet wound in his shoulder.
Wilbur untied Katie's hands and embraced her properly. Valerie leaned against the doorframe of Dearborn's house and waited patiently for the sheriff to wander by.
Sheriff Jones checked his watch as the doctor stumbled up the steps of the jailhouse. Ben Tyler was ancient, his curly white hair clinging to his skull like an unruly wool cap. He wore a bushy mustache, his beard allowed to flourish in fits and spurts on his cheeks in places the razor never really reached. His cotton shirt and vest tried valiantly to cover a hunch in his left shoulder, but he didn't let the deformity slow him down. The liquor did a good enough job of that. The collar of his shirt was dark from sweat and he clutched a soiled handkerchief that he kept touching to his forehead.
As the hunchback doctor shuffled through the door, Jones sniffed and checked his watch; 10:32 in the morning. "Bit early to be drinking, don't you think, Tyler?"
"Beer's there and the beer's cold," Tyler sighed. He ran a hand through his hair, only contributing to the mess. He turned. "You gonna start arresting people for drinking now, William?"
"Nope. Not *just* for drinking."
The doctor grunted and spit, shaking his head as he moved towards the open cell door. "How's the patient doing?"
"Still shot," Noah Dearborn said.
Sheriff Jones let Tyler into the cell and stepped back. He was as pissed off as Dearborn looked. He'd stumbled over the impromptu mob and his hand had been forced. If Black Jack was to be considered a criminal, so must Noah Dearborn. He cuffed the man and his accomplice and brought them to the prison.
The newspaper had already gone into special printings, hailing Valerie as a true hero while Black Jack was a mere coward; a gunslinger with a bit of skill and a lot of ego who liked to throw his weight around. No one knew where he'd gone after he was shot by an unknown third man, but good riddance to him.
He still couldn't understand Valerie Monroe and Katie Davies. They'd slipped away as Dearborn was being arrested and looked distraught over something. He knew they'd both been attached to Black Jack. He wondered if they knew where he'd run off to. He made a mental note to question them further as he watched Tyler tend to Dearborn's shoulder.
They had found Dearborn's other accomplice shot dead in one of the back alleys of the town. The consensus was that Black Jack, on his way out of town, had found the man and dispensed quicker justice than the law would have allowed. Desperate for direction, Scott had contacted the man they had been sending payments to, a crime boss in Chicago that had given them Dearborn's name. They hadn't gotten past a secretary who claimed absolute ignorance. "No, sir, no Dearborn on our payroll. Must be someone else. Have a nice day, thank you."
Once he was safely locked away in his cell, Dearborn had calmly and quietly turned the tables. He casually explained to Jones everything that he knew. He listed it all out, names and dates and plots. He had enough to take down both Jones and Mayor Scott. He calmly detailed how he would tell anyone and everyone, at the top of his lungs, just why he had targeted their town. "These fine folks led me through town at gunpoint," Dearborn wondered idly. "I wonder what they would do to you and your boy Scott."
Jones had immediately become accommodating, offering to call the doctor and bring him by as soon as possible. Dr. Tyler was the only man inside of sixty miles even halfway qualified to deal with a wound of this nature. Despite Tyler's love of drink, he had sure hands and a confident manner.
Jones was snapped from his reverie by Tyler knocking on the bars. "All right, he's all wrapped up."
"You aren't leaving yet!" Dearborn snapped. "I need more pills. These aren't doing anything."
"You gotta give it time, son," Tyler said. He barely moved his lips when he spoke, his eyelids hanging so heavy Jones kept thinking he was about to fall asleep. Tyler gathered his things and headed for the exit, stopped by a hand on his shoulder. Jones stepped close, so Dearborn wouldn't overhear, and said, "You treat anyone else like this lately, Doc?"
"Anyone else with a bullet or anyone else who's a pain in my ass?" He scoffed and shook his head. "Nope. Ain't had one since the Land Run. Been kind of nice." He thought for a moment and said, "That Black Jack feller, if he's still alive, most likely headed to Guthrie."
Jones shrugged. "Could be. Or he could've headed to Fort Reno."
"And explained to all them government doctors and US Marshals how he happened to get a bullet in his shoulder? Sure, son. Sure. Trust me. Black Jack headed towards Guthrie, if he has any sense in his head. He either found a doctor there, or a vulture will find him between the two places. But the one thing I'll tell you for free is that you will not find the man in my office." He pushed Jones' hand off his shoulder and said, "Now, I have to go pick up my patient's medicine."
"The scotch and whiskey?"
Tyler tapped his watch. "Pharmacy ain't open all day!"
Jones shook his head and watched Tyler shuffle out the door.
Ada managed to get Rose into the house and onto the bed, already sweating from exertion. She wiped her sleeve across her forehead, leaving smeared blood in her wake. She tore Rose's shirt open with her bare hands and revealed the wound. The first shot had come from above; the bullet had entered her shoulder at a sharp downward angle. Judging from the angle of the second bullet wound, there had either been a second shooter or Rose had twisted after being shot the first time. Ada was betting on the latter.
Ada put pressure on the second wound and felt a slight suction. She kept one hand on the wound and started digging in her night stand for anything that she could use as a compress. She'd watched her husband do the same thing countless times, had even assisted him once. But now, with Rose's blood seeping between her fingers...
She gave up her search and grabbed a handful of the sheet. She pressed it against the bloody hole and used her free hand to gently slap Rose's cheek. "Rose? Rose! I need you to hold this tight. Okay?" Rose's eyes fluttered and Ada slapped her harder. "Rose!"
Rose's eyes opened and her fingers tightened against Ada's.
She took Rose's hand and pressed it against the compress. "Hold this tight! Okay?"
Rose nodded and squeezed her eyes shut from the pain.
Ada stood and ran from the room and tried desperately to remember where she'd put her husband's medical bag. She ignored the pounding of her heart in her ears and focused, finally finding the bag next to the back door. She bent down and snatched it up, not missing a step as she turned and darted back towards the bedroom. A slick, thin trail of red led from the back door into the bedroom. Ada, knowing the blood was from Rose, swallowed her fear and forced herself back into the bedroom.
She resisted the urge to scream at what she saw. Rose's hand had gone limp and the blood was flowing freely from her side. "No, no, no, no," Ada gasped. She practically flung herself at the bedside and pressed her own hand against the bloody sheet.
Rose groaned and tossed her head to the side. "No."
"What?" Ada said.
"Duh-on't," Rose gasped.
"It's all right, Rose," Ada said. "I know it hurts. It'll get better once I..."
"Don't... save me..." Rose said. Her face was pale and drawn, her features pulled tight in pain. Her eyes flashed and Ada saw that Rose was definitely lucid. "I don't... deserve it..."
Ada opened her bag with one hand and said, "You wanna die? Well, then you shouldn't have come to me."
Rose's eyelids fluttered and her body sagged against the mattress. Her reluctant patient unconscious, Ada went to work at dressing the wound.
Chapter Six -
When Rose was stable, Ada left her and headed outside. The clouds were making good on their threat and the world was flooding. She stood on her porch and gazed at the heavy black cotton clouds. Thunder rumbled across the plain like an explosion and shook the windows of her house. She could see some patches of sunlight through the rain and stepped out of the shelter of her porch.
She was drenched in an instant, Rose's blood washing from her hands and clothing. Her glasses fogged and she began to shiver, but after a summer of hundred and five degree days, it felt remarkable. She opened her mouth and caught some of the rain on her tongue and soon, she was laughing.
Rose, she knew, would have been right there with her. Gathering up her dress and splashing in puddles like a little kid.
Thinking about Rose caused the inevitable knife-twist in her chest. There was no guarantee about Rose's survival. All she knew was what she'd observed in her husband's office and he'd hardly ever dealt with gunshot victims. If she'd done something wrong, if her hand had slipped and she didn't realize it...
She was shaking harder, but the rain didn't have anything to do with it. She took off her glasses and dropped to her knees in the mud. "God," she breathed. She wrapped her hands together around her glasses and squeezed her eyes tight. "God, I'm Ada Odell. I ain't talked to you since Missouri, but I figure... you'll still remember me. I know we ain't exactly been on speaking terms, but I can't rely on myself for this one. Please, God. Don't let Rose die 'cause of me. Please."
She started to rise and then dropped back down. "I mean, Amen." She crossed herself and stood again. As she headed back inside, lightning flashed nearby. Ada turned and heard a rising wave of thunder sweeping towards her. The windows shook again, this time reminding her of the tin ballad of her mother's music box. She looked up at the sky again and said, "Thank you very much."
Rose faded in and out of consciousness, getting fevered glimpses of the real world before succumbing again to blissful nothingness. In her fevered mind, she could vaguely recall being half-dragged through Ada's house, of being in a soft bed and feeling a constant pressure on her right shoulder. Pain in her abdomen brought her around once and she came to gasping and feeling sweat pouring down her face. It felt like her arm had been ripped off and someone had set fire to her flesh. She babbled at Ada, who looked afraid and concerned, and saw blood all over the sheet.
She woke once or twice to see Ada planted at her side, her blouse open to reveal a bloody undershirt, her brow furrowed as she concentrated on Rose's side. Rose's shoulder was still burning and she thought she could feel something moving inside of her chest. She tried to mutter 'Dear God,' but could only manage to open her mouth and issue forth the quiet gasp that had been waiting in her lungs.
"Rose?" Ada said.
Rose turned her head to look at her again, but the move sent her reeling. She was unconscious again before she realized it.
She woke once in darkness and faded before she could ask why it was so dark out.
When she woke again in sunlight and felt stillness rather than pain and felt no urge to pass out again, she wondered if she was really awake. Her right side felt stiff, as if half of her had been petrified in her slumber. She reached up with her left hand, tentatively probing to see if she was still whole. The slight touch of fingertips to her injured side caused her entire body to hitch. She gasped and stopped the exploration then and there.
She felt eradicated. She could feel the sweat on her skin, sticking her clothes to her body and sending up a stench that was almost unbearable. Sometime during the night, she had wet herself and felt humiliated at the realization.
Rose let her head fall back to the pillow and scanned the room as slowly as her pained head would allow. Her life-saver was slumped in an easy chair that had obviously been brought to the room from elsewhere. A book lay open against her chest, her chin tucked against her shoulder in a position that told she had passed out from exhaustion rather than merely falling asleep.
Rose watched her for a few moments, the rise and fall of her chest and each flutter of her eyelids. She was gorgeous; her short blonde hair standing in spikes from the repeated raking pass of a frenzied hand. Dried blood smeared her temple, war paint from what had obviously been a very long surgery. Her feet were bare and tucked up underneath her. She had almost lost her glasses, the frames resting on the end of her nose and aimed more at the floor than her book.
Working up enough moisture in her mouth to speak, Rose rasped, "Ada." The word sounded like nails on a blackboard and Rose winced, forcibly swallowing to get more saliva into her mouth and throat. She started to speak again, but when she opened her eyes, Ada was already sitting up and adjusting her glasses.
Rose nodded slowly. "You saved me."
Ada took a seat next to the bed and examined the dressing. "Yes, I did." She looked into Rose's eyes. "You're not mad, are ya?"
Rose frowned. "Mad? Why..."
Ada hesitated and searched Rose's face. Finally, she shook her head. "No. Never mind."
Ada looked down at the bed. "When I was tendin' to your wounds, you... asked me not to save you."
Rose closed her eyes. "Oh."
Ada played with the exposed edge of the bandage. "Your lung collapsed."
"My lung?" Rose said, looking down at herself. She finally noticed that her shoulder was lightly bandaged, but most of the blood was dried on her right flank. A second bandage had been applied just under the swell of her breast. "What the hell...?"
"The bullets came from above," Ada explained. "The first one cut through your shoulder and..." She stood and twisted at the waist, demonstrating as best she could. "You must have twisted after you were hurt, probably lifted you arm to return fire. The second one hit you here." She waved her fingers over a section of bandage. The force caused your lung to collapse. I managed to get the bullet out. Got you stitched up... you'll have to be careful with it, but you'll survive. I wanna recommend you staying here. At least for a few more days, until I'm comfortable letting you go home."
"Thank you..." Rose breathed. Her eyes snapped open and she lifted her head. "A few *more* days..."
Ada nodded. "The surgery took me most of the first night. You've..." She stopped herself when she realized Rose had no way of knowing how much time had passed. "You've been here for three days already."
The past three days had been rough on Valerie Monroe's skin. Since leading Dearborn through town in their now-infamous tour, she had immediately saddled up her horse and headed in the direction Rose had taken out of town. The first day, during the rainstorm, she had found Ezekiel in a field not far from where the gunfight had taken place. He was happily lunching on green apples taken directly from a tree and nickered happily when he saw her. She rounded him up and led him back to the stables.
Since then, the sun had returned in full force to bake the moist ground. The humidity sky-rocketed and every temperature mark seemed to add ten degrees. Despite the overbearing heat, Valerie searched farther and farther each day, incrementally widening her search area. She stopped and search for her friend's body at each ditch that was overgrown with weeds and each culvert flooded with brackish water. She came back to town only to check on Ezekiel, refill her canteen and sleep.
On the third day, she dropped onto a rock and stared at the town limits of their closest neighbor. There was no way Rose could have made it this far on her own, not after she'd been shot twice. To be honest, there was no way Rose would have left Ezekiel unless she'd had no choice. Unless she was...
She closed her eyes and filled her cupped hand with a little water from her canteen. She poured it over her face and then covered her eyes with her wet fingers. She hoped anyone passing by would just see someone trying to relieve the heat and not see her tears.
Rose slept in fits and starts during the day, occasionally opening her eyes to wonder if she'd really been asleep. The windows were all open in the bedroom, but the light breeze did little to beat back the hundred-degree temperatures. Ada was there and gone, moving about the house and always stopping by the bed to check on her.
Now and then she had a washcloth in her hand, blissfully wet and cold. She pressed it to Rose's forehead, pressing hard and letting the cold water seep out and trail down her temples to wet her hair. She fed Rose small pieces of food, spooned her tiny servings of apple sauce and oatmeal. Rose took whatever she was offered and stopped only when she felt she couldn't stomach any more.
When she woke from one of her spells, she saw Ada sitting in the armchair again. She had a book open in her lap and was staring across the room at her. "What?" Rose asked sleepily.
"Nothing," Ada said softly.
"How long have I been here?"
"About four days now," Ada said, closing her book on her thumb. She rose from her seat and moved to the bed.
Rose swallowed. "Ezekiel. I left him outside of town, I let him go and..."
"Valerie found him," Ada said. "I saw her when I went into town for supplies. She has him at the stable. Don't worry."
Rose's eyes widened. "Valerie. Does she know I'm here?"
Ada shook her head. "No, hon. I didn't tell... People are kind of worried, since you were sick and then just up and vanished, but I didn't tell. No one knows you're here."
"Valerie... a-and Katie..."
"I wanted to tell them. Sure," Ada nodded. "But... how could I explain it?"
Rose shook her head. "No, they already know."
"Yes, they know!" Rose said, a little angry now. "They've known the whole... you have to go. Tell them I'm all right. God, they have to be worried sick by now." She rubbed her forehead and finally looked over at Ada. "What's... wrong?"
Ada was standing, staring at the bed. "Nothing," she said quietly. "I'll go tell 'em." She walked out of the room and retrieved her hat from the wooden peg by the door. She didn't look back as she headed out.
"Ada?" Rose asked. She sat up as far as she could, wincing as she put weight on her injured arm. "Ada!"
By the end of the fourth day, Valerie's skin was red and dry, her lips chapped and her hands raw from the reins and from digging through briar patches hoping she wouldn't find a corpse. She'd gone all the way from Paradise to the next town over and there was no sign Rose had made it that far. Doctor Tyler hadn't treated any gunshot victims other than Dearborn.
She rode into town just past noon when her canteen had run dry. She was walking her horse to a trough when she spotted Ada coming down the street.
She had barely seen Ada since the shoot-out, had honestly been hoping to avoid her. She had no way to explain Rose's four-day absence and she knew Ada would be worried sick. She hitched her horse to the post and put on a happy face before she turned to face her friend. "Ada! It's been a while!"
"What happened to you?" Ada asked in a curiously flat voice.
Valerie tipped her hat and ran her tongue over her raw bottom lip. The night before, she'd scared herself in the mirror. Her lips were cracked and bleeding from all the sun and her skin was badly burnt. She cleared her throat and said, "Well, you know, out riding and I start to lose track of the time. What've..."
"Rose is fine," Ada said bluntly.
Valerie froze, her hand halfway to the brim of her hat. She raised her eyes to Ada and stared at her for a moment before she spoke. "What's that?"
Ada looked away. "She's fine. She knew you and Katie were probably worried about her, so she wanted you to know." She turned on her heel and started back the way she'd come. Valerie caught up with her and grabbed her by the arm. "Get your hands off me," Ada snapped. She stumbled a little pulling her arm loose, but she succeeded in getting out of Valerie's grip.
"What do you mean Rose is fine? She's been there all this time?"
"Since the shoot-out."
Valerie's eyes widened and she looked around, suddenly uncomfortable with how exposed they were. She looped her arm around Ada's shoulder and guided her towards the Paradise Rose. Ada allowed herself to be led quietly this time, her head bowed and her teeth working her bottom lip.
The bar was almost empty due to Wilbur being the bartender. Most customers only hung around for two, three, four refills just to spend more time in the lovely Rose's presence. Now... the impact she'd made was being felt. Wilbur looked up as Valerie and Ada entered and his eyes brightened. "Ladies," he said. He came around the corner of the bar, blocking their path. "I... Look, if Rose is really holding out for a raise, let her know that... whatever I can spare is hers."
Valerie forced a smile. "I swear, Wilbur. Rose isn't holding out for more money. She'd be here if she could." She rubbed his arm and said, "Is your wife around, by chance?"
"In the back room," Wilbur sighed. He seemed to deflate a little farther and said, "She's doing the books, such as they are..."
Valerie thanked him and guided Ada into the back room. Katie was seated behind the accounting table, her hair down and the top two buttons of her dress open. The back window was open and small wind-up fan sat on the table blowing air, but the room was still stifling. Katie's hair stuck to her cheeks and forehead and she dabbed at her throat as she looked up.
Before Katie could speak, Valerie tilted her head at Ada. "Rose is fine. Ada knows everything."
Katie looked at Ada, now understanding the hard look in her eyes. "Oh," she said quietly.
Valerie motioned at the stairs with a tilt of her head and all three women headed to the second floor. It was hotter than downstairs, cramped and small as it was. The heat seemed to be trapped between the rafters, making heat waves dance with the dust mites. Katie crossed to the small window and pushed it open to allow some dry air in. Wilbur had already started cleaning the room out for potential tenants, so there was plenty of room to move around. A queen-sized bed had been donated and Wilbur had fought it upstairs with the help of his brother.
As soon as they reached the main room, Ada broke from Valerie's grip and moved to the other side of the room. She crossed her arms over her chest and kept her back to her friends and looked out the window at the street below.
Valerie broke the silence. "Ada, I know you're angry with us, but we've been dying the past four days. Is Rose...?"
"She's fine," Ada said softly. "She was unconscious for three days... had a collapsed lung and got a little infection. But she's fine now."
"Thank God," Katie sighed.
"Could we see her?"
Ada turned and said, "How 'bout you take her? I could put her in the wagon, bring her back. Three of you could take care of each other and I'll just head back home and wait for someone to wander by and..." She stopped mid-sentence and shook her head angrily. "Shit," she breathed, her voice wet with tears.
Valerie moved closer and put her hands on Ada's shoulders. "You hush. You think Rose kept you outta this, think she left you out cause she don't care about you? Katie and me have been in it from the beginning and she had us swear we wouldn't tell you. I didn't understand, either, I was a little nervous about excluding you. But now that I've seen Black Jack, I understand. I saw Rose before and after the shooting and, honey, she can be hard. Rose murdered a man and it hurt her bad. I could see it. And after that first day, I knew why she wanted you kept out of it.
"You look at Rose and you see a sweet, loving lady. You see her smile and the way her accent gets thicker when she's teasing. You've had soda waters with her. You've played cards with her and you've walked with her. But once you see her as Black Jack... you'll see hardness in her. You'll see the Rose who can shoot, who can kill. And it darkens her some. She didn't want you to see her like that. She'd have killed to keep you from seeing her like that."
Ada pulled off her glasses and covered her eyes. Valerie embraced her and looked back at Katie. "Ada?" Katie said softly.
Ada sniffled and looked up, blinking through her tears and biting her bottom lip.
Katie was fiddling with the top button on her dress and softly whispered, "I think she just left you out 'cause she loves you the most."
Ada stepped out of Valerie's arms and wiped her face. "God, I'm a mess. I spent the whole time coming to town just... hating you all..."
Valerie pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and found a spot she hadn't already moistened with sweat before she touched it to Ada's cheek. "Well, we can forgive that, I suppose. Given the circumstances."
Ada smiled and hugged Valerie. She sniffled and stepped back to compose herself. "The man who shot her... Dearborn, I think they said..."
"No," Valerie said. "He was the one who grabbed Katie, but he wasn't the one who shot her. Snake had a sniper on the roof. Got her from behind."
"Bastard," Katie hissed, her voice colder than Ada had ever heard it. Despite the heat, Katie hugged herself and shivered.
"They found the sniper dead not long after the shoot-out. We think he and Rose crossed paths on her way out of town and she dealt with him. As for Dearborn, he's in jail," Valerie said. "And properly ventilated for what he did to Rose."
"He's been seeing the doctor?"
Katie nodded. "That's why we were so worried. The only doctor in town was going back and forth to the jail. From what I hear, Sheriff Jones keeps asking if the doc's been seeing any other gunshot wounds and the doc keeps saying no. We thought... I mean, Rose just vanished. And Valerie found Ezekiel just wanderin'..."
Ada was still dabbing at her eyes. "I guess I was being... selfish. You guys, the past couple'a days..."
"It's all right now," Valerie interrupted. "Don't worry about it."
Ada nodded and squeezed Valerie's hand. "I'm going to pick up some groceries, restock my pantry. Then I'll head back. If you two want..."
"Yes," Katie said.
Ada smiled. "I was gonna say... if you wanted, you could come back and see Rose." She smiled and said, "Guess I got my answer."
"From both of us," Valerie said.
Ada rented a wagon and loaded it with supplies donated from Valerie's shop. Ada was willing to pay, but Valerie insisted on charity. They rode the wagon back to Ada's house and parked it in the shade. It was mid-afternoon, the sun bearing down on them and beating the triple-digit heat into the skin. Valerie looked near exhaustion, having already spent most of the day on the trail, and Katie had sacrificed her folding fan to her.
They climbed down and Ada said, "I'll get some water for these horses." She helped Valerie down and put a hand on her forehead. "And you go on inside and get yourself some water. I can barely manage one patient, let alone two."
"Yes, doctor," Valerie said, smiling weakly.
Despite the joke, Ada was worried about the sheen on Valerie's forehead. She'd kept an eye on her during the wagon ride and, as far as she could tell, Valerie had stopped sweating ten minutes ago.
"Go in through the front door," Ada said with a nod to the near side of the house. "Wait for me... I want to make sure Rose is up to seeing visitors before I spring you guys on her."
They agreed and went in through the front door. Ada quickly pumped some water for the horses and poured out some oats before she went around to her back door. The bedroom was immediately to the right of the back door and she knocked lightly before stepping into the room.
Rose was sitting up, her hand to her shoulder and her face was twisted in pain. "Rose!" Ada gasped. She rushed to the bedside and eased Rose back down to the mattress. She eased Rose's hand away from her shoulder and examined the bandage. "What in the world were you trying to do?"
"Hot," Rose gasped.
"Oh, honey," Ada sighed. She picked up the towel that had fallen onto the floor and dipped it in the ice water she'd put on the night stand. The block of ice had melted and the bowl had overflowed. She dipped her rag in the now-tepid water and used it to mop the sweat on Rose's forehead and upper chest. "Normally, I'd say you should lose some clothing, but 'less you're wearing something mighty thin under that undershirt..."
"I don't mind," Rose said. "Take it off."
Ada bit her bottom lip and pulled the hem of the shirt up. "Lean forward," she said quietly, "and put your head down." She peeled the shirt off Rose's sweaty back, the material sticking like it had been glued to her flesh. She pulled the shirt over Rose's head and slid it down her arms and looked away immediately to avoid seeing anything more than she already had.
She turned back to the bowl and dipped the rag again. She frowned at the temperature of the water, but dipped the cloth anyway. She directed Rose back onto the mattress and spread the towel out over her breasts. She picked up the water dish and said, "Stay here. I'll be right back."
She had just stood when something hit the floor in the kitchen. Rose's eyes snapped open and she grabbed Ada's wrist. "Who's here?"
"Just Valerie and Katie. They were worried about you."
Rose nodded and parted her lips and used the tip of her tongue to wet the corners of her mouth. "I, uh... realized... why you were mad."
"It's okay," Ada said. She knelt down next to the bed again and brushed Rose's sweat-limp hair away from her forehead. "Val explained it to me. I'm not angry anymore."
"I didn't want to hurt you."
Ada smiled. "I know. If you don't feel up to visitors, I'll..."
"No," Rose said. "I want to see them."
She leaned in and kissed Rose's forehead, alarmed at how hot it was. "All right, I'm going to get some more ice. Don't try to get up again!"
Rose sighed her compliance and sagged against the mattress. She brought her hand up and pressed the wet towel into her chest. Ada was only briefly distracted by the rivers this sent down Rose's dark, tanned stomach.
She turned away before she was caught staring and went to the kitchen. Her house was small and fit only three rooms; the bedroom, the parlor and the bathroom. Her kitchen was a stove and counter along the back wall of the parlor. She completed the trip from bedroom to kitchen by stepping out one door and taking five steps.
She took a quick glance at the floor to see what had fallen and was relieved to see it was the cabinet door and not Valerie. She and Katie were both standing at the counter, Valerie's face hidden behind a wet rag. She'd unbuttoned her shirt, revealing an undershirt similar to Rose's. *Hell,* Ada thought. *Katie and I might as well start stripping down. Really live up to the Eves of Paradise vision.* She pushed the idea out of her head and said, "The cupboard door...?"
"It came loose from the hinges," Katie said. "I tried to catch it so it wouldn't be so loud, but..."
"That's all right," Ada said. "It's been loose ever since I got the place." She dropped to her knees and opened the ice chest and took a pick to the corner of the largest block. She gathered the chips in a cup and walked over to Valerie. "Here," she said softly. Valerie let the cloth be removed from her face and Ada filled it with chips.
Valerie smiled and pressed the ice pack to her throat. "Thank you," she groaned.
"Katie," Ada asked. "You all right?"
Katie nodded. "I'm fine."
Ada exhaled and dropped down to her knee again and chipped some more ice for Rose. "She says she wants to see you, but don't dawdle. She's awful weak, but I'm sure it'll be okay if go in and say hello."
They all went into the bedroom together, with Ada leading the way. Rose had fallen asleep in her absence and, as Ada moved to the bed, she looked at Rose as Valerie and Katie were sure to see her; her face was pale and drawn and dark circles had taken up residence under her eyes. Her hair, normally vibrant and curled like an auburn mane around her face, hung limp and dry. It looked like maybe she hadn't survived after all.
Ada picked up a shirt, fast running out of towels, and poured the ice into it. She made a pack and wound the shirt tails together before she sat on the edge of the bed and placed it against Rose's throat. Rose leaned into the cool caress, whimpering softly as she brought her hand up to cover Ada's. "Rose," Ada said softly.
"Ada..." Rose sighed.
"Rose, Valerie and Katie are here."
Rose's eyes opened and focused on Ada for a moment before they swung around to the door. She smiled weakly and said, "The Eves of Paradise Ladies Club's first annual summer picnic," she rasped. "Sorry there's no food. And that I'm practically naked."
Valerie smiled and said, "It's all right. I'm not hungry and Ada ain't drooling too much."
Ada blushed and wiped her thumb over her bottom lip. "I, uh, oughta go. Well water." She slipped past Katie and out of the room.
Valerie watched her go and turned back to smile down at Rose.
Rose arched her eyebrow at Valerie and soon, both women were laughing.
Katie stood by the door, wondering what was so funny.
Noah Dearborn dabbed the cuff of his shirt against his lips and leaned back. He pushed the tray back and said, "My compliments to the chef." He regarded the sheriff through the bars and twisted a toothpick between his thumb and forefinger. For the past fifteen minutes, Jones had been sweeping the floor in front of his desk. "You have a real knack this stuff. Cooking, cleaning... you ever think of giving up this law and order nonsense and making some man real lucky?"
Jones glared at him and kept sweeping.
"Now, now," Dearborn said. "Let's not get ugly. That was some mighty fine grub you whipped up. I was just trying to compliment you."
Jones sighed and said, "Sweeping takes my mind off the heat, all right?"
"Sit down and relax," Dearborn said. "All that moving around, you're gonna get all hot and bothered that much faster."
"If I sit, the heat beats me down."
"All that extra padding around your waist, I assume."
Jones slammed the broom against the floor hard enough to make the handle crack loudly. "Look, I'm still the sheriff and you are still my prisoner. Until that changes, you will treat me with some respect!"
Dearborn straightened his spine and tucked the toothpick into the corner of his mouth. "Respect," he whispered, as if testing the word. He pushed his dinner tray aside and stood. He unfolded himself from his chair and walked casually over to the bars. He draped his arms over the crossbar and motioned for Jones to come over. "Come over here a minute."
Jones sighed and moved over to the cells. When he was near enough, Dearborn's arm lashed out like a cottonmouth. He grabbed the lapel of Jones' vest and snapped him forward like a piston. Jones hit the bars face-first, blood spurting from his nose and spotting on Dearborn's sleeve. The sheriff hit the floor and began wailing like a child, hands cradling his face as the blood dripped off his chin. "You psychopath!" he gasped through the tears and the broken bones of his face.
"You and your boy, Scott," Dearborn hissed, his long, lean body rising above Jones like the devil himself. "You called me to this godforsaken town. Easy-pickings, you said. John Ball got himself killed. No worry, John Ball was thick as a post. But when *I* come down and get shot, when *I* am locked in your cell, Mr. William Jones, then I start to get a mite ornery. I start to lose control of my senses. So you will forgive me if I don't show respect to some simpering weakling who tries to bleed his own town dry. You don't deserve my respect, boy. I'd sooner bow to a whore."
He twisted his arm and inspected the sleeve. "You bled on my shirt, you son of a bitch." He flicked his wrist and walked back to his tray. He ran his fingers through the remaining brown sauce and tasted it. "If you were going to make some more of those black-eyed peas to make it up to me, I'd sure be obliged."
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