DISCLAIMER: Characters and situations are actually mine for a change!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
After Echoes From a Gun
Chapter Seven -
The tub was in the parlor between the sitting area and the kitchen. Ada filled it one bucket at a time - from well, to the stove to boil and into the tub. It was extremely hard on her arms, but she'd gotten used to it, having done the same routine once a week on Saturday. Still, she wished there was an easier way to get clean. She filled the tub three-quarters full, boiling an extra bucket and leaving it next to the tub.
She rested for a moment and ran her hand through the water to make sure it was cool enough for a bath. She rubbed the weariness from her arms as she walked back into the bedroom to retrieve Rose.
Katie was sitting on the bed, holding Rose's hand and laughing about something. Valerie was slumped in Ada's chair, fanning herself. Her skin had been threatening to turn a deep red tint on the ride from Paradise, but now it seemed to have returned to a more healthy pink. Ada was happy to see a bright sheen of sweat had also appeared on her friend's forehead. Valerie saw her staring and toasted her with a glass of water. "Here's the good doctor now."
Ada smiled and said, "You ladies hassling my patient?"
"Sorry, Doc," Rose said with a smile.
Katie smiled and said, "We should probably get outta your hair."
The two women took turns carefully embracing Rose and offering quiet well wishes before they headed to the door. As Valerie passed the door, Ada stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Take the wagon back to town. I need to return it anyway."
"We can walk. You may need the wagon, Ada," Valerie said.
"I'll make do. I don't want you walking that far so soon after your little incident."
Rose said, "Incident?"
Ada and Valerie hesitated but Katie replied, "Valerie here almost killed herself going out every day, searching for..." She realized why the others hadn't said anything, but she couldn't stop now. "Searching f-for your body."
Valerie shook her head dismissively, but Rose said, "Thank you, Valerie. That... means a lot to me." There were tears in her eyes and she exhaled sharply to steady her voice. "Get out of here, 'fore you see me crying."
"Stay well," Valerie said.
"We'll see you soon. I'll let Wilbur know you're definitely not bucking for a raise."
"Well, I wouldn't say that," Rose said.
When their friends finally left, the sun was burning the sky red at the horizon. Rose wiped her cheeks and plucked at the towel covering her breasts. "This is starting to feel more heavy than comforting," she said.
"You're in luck," Ada said. "All that running I was doing, your tub is ready and waiting for you."
Rose's eyes widened. "Tub?"
"You ain't got a tub?"
"Doesn't seem very prudent, is all," Rose said. "I usually just wash at the pump or, if I really need it, at Paradise Rose. Wilbur got indoor plumbing there, so..." She glanced at the door. "A tub?"
Ada laughed and held up a robe. "Can you sit up?"
Rose used her uninjured arm to push herself up, tucking her right arm against her chest to hold the towel in place. Ada draped the robe around Rose's shoulders like a shroud to cover her breasts. She helped Rose get out of her jeans and then helped her stand. Rose looped her good arm around Ada's neck and nearly hung from her friend as they walked together into the living room. "You sure you're okay?" Ada asked.
"Yeah," Rose assured her. "Just... my legs are a little weak from laying down for the better part of a week."
Rose turned and spotted the tub sitting behind the couch. "Oh, no, Ada! This is far too much," Rose said. "Really, a moist towel would've been..."
"It's Saturday," Ada interrupted. "I would've filled it up anyway."
Rose sighed. "So you don't get a bath?"
"Will you hush and get undressed?" Ada said.
Rose smirked and pulled her arm free. Ada dipped her hand in the water and kept her back turned as Rose finished undressing. "I think it's cool enough." She turned and saw Rose's bare back, the muscles and narrow dip that ran down the center. She almost gasped in shock at the ragged scar running across her shoulder blades. Dear God, that couldn't be a whip scar, could it? She lowered her eyes from the blemish and found the edge of the robe, slung low enough around her waist that Ada could see the dimpled top of her ass. She cleared her throat and said, "Ready?"
"Mm-hmm," Rose said. She covered her breasts with her arm and lifted her leg to step into the tub. She nearly stumbled and Ada wrapped an arm around her waist to keep her steady.
"Here, let me help," Ada whispered.
Using Ada for balance, Rose lifted one leg over the lip of the tub and sank the foot into the water. "Oh," she whispered, hand curling into a fist against Ada's back. Ada, very aware of the naked skin against her palm, tried to focus on anything else in the room. She chose the front window and stared at the twilight sky. Rose spent a moment straddling the edge of the tub, getting acclimated to the water, before she put the other foot in and sank out of Ada's grip. When she was seated, she pulled her legs up and hugged her knees to her chest.
Ada knelt next to the tub. "Is it too hot?"
"No," Rose whispered. She leaned forward and put her head down on her knees. Ada picked up the sponge and wet it in the spare bucket. The water was ice cold and she squeezed some out before she brought it up and touched it to Rose's shoulder.
Rose's body jerked slightly and she made a hitching noise, a brief gasp at the sensation before she relaxed again. Gooseflesh rose in waves behind Ada's hand, the tight muscles almost visibly relaxing under the brush of water. "How is that?" Ada whispered.
"Mm," Rose sighed.
She rewet the sponge and put it on the back of Rose's neck. She squeezed and let the water fall down the curve of her spine and over the mysterious scar. Rose shivered again. "Is it too cold? I could..."
"No," Rose interrupted. She turned her head and revealed her eyes were closed. "It feels wonderful. Don't stop."
Ada swallowed and said, "Look up."
Rose did as instructed and Ada touched the sponge to her cheek. She carefully brushed away the grime and sweat. Slowly, Rose's skin turned pink and her hair, where it had been darkened by the water, was nearly black. Ada glanced at Rose's shoulder where the bandage was starting to come loose. She used her free hand to peel up a corner and examine the wound. "Does it hurt?" she asked.
"No, not right now," Rose said. "But my side feels sore... constantly."
"I can get you something for that," Ada said. "Valerie and Katie sure seemed relieved to see you..."
Rose laughed quietly. "I don't know why. I look like Hell warmed over."
"It's the warmed-over part they're happy about. And you look better now than most of us do at our best."
"Hush," Rose said. She shyly pulling her knees tighter against her chest and closed her eyes again.
Ada washed around the bandages on Rose's right side. "I was really worried about Valerie. What she put herself through... it's really courageous."
Rose looked over her shoulder and said, "Remember the first time you met her? You threw down your cards. Refused to play another second with such a low-life, cheating scum."
"She was a sooner," Ada said. "And I'll be honest, knowing she was a sooner with a home and a business, when I had to shell out my last few dollars just to buy a home... just 'cause I played by the rules..." She sighed and said, "It irritates me some. But I know Valerie well enough to know she's good people. What she did for you more than makes up for whatever she did in the past."
Rose tensed under the sponge and Ada could feel her muscles tighten. She opened her eyes and looked at Ada over her shoulder. Quietly, she asked, "You really believe that?"
"Someone can... make up for something they done wrong?"
Ada stilled the sponge on Rose's left shoulder and thought for a moment. "Well, yeah. Every day we're breathing is a chance to make right." She slowly dragged the sponge over Rose's neck and said, "Is there... something you need to make right?"
"Yeah," Rose said quietly. She was staring at the front window into the darkness, her eyes focused on something far beyond the door.
"Rose," Ada said. "How did you learn to shoot like that? Like... Black Jack?"
Rose blinked, shaken from her memories as she resettled against the back of the tub. "Another time," she said, trying to keep her voice light. "I think I'm naked enough for right now."
Ada managed to smile, but still couldn't help wonder how the woman in front of her could possibly be Black Jack.
When Doc Tyler arrived to change Dearborn's bandages, he also examined Sheriff Jones' broken nose. "Got a little too close to the cage at feeding time, huh?" Tyler joked, playfully jabbing Jones in the ribs with a crooked finger. "Gotta be careful, gotta watch out. Never know when they might bite ya." He chortled and walked to the cell and waited patiently for Jones to unlock the door.
As Dearborn stood, Jones slipped his revolver from the holster. Dearborn smirked. "Oh, that hurts, sheriff. Thought we had a kind of understanding. Then you go and pull your gun on me?" He looked down at the hunchbacked doctor. "Wouldn't that offend you, doc?"
"I'm a deformed drunk," Tyler scoffed. "I don't know what offended means."
Dearborn laughed and shrugged out of his shirt and turned so Tyler could inspect the bandages. "Good one, Doc."
Tyler said, "I reckon you're the one who broke Mr. Lawman's nose?"
The doc covered his mouth and covered his laugh with a rheumy cough. "Oh, lawsy. If the paper weren't still stuck on Valerie Monroe leading you through town like a whupped puppy, I'm sure they'd..."
Dearborn had turned and grabbed Tyler so fast, the doctor was still trying to speak even as his air supply was cut off. Fire sparked in Dearborn's eyes and he spat, "We don't... talk about that... ever. Clear?"
Tyler managed to nod.
Dearborn let him go and the doctor staggered slightly. His boots slipped when they found the floor and he had to grab hold of the cell door to keep from sprawling onto his ass. He coughed and rubbed his throat, staring in wide-eyed terror up at Dearborn. "The, uh..." he coughed violently and bent his entire body in half until the fit was done. When he finally quieted, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the blood on his lip. "The bandages look fine. If you'll 'scuse me, I'll... be back in the morning."
When the doctor was gone, Dearborn stood in the open door of his cell. He reached up and hooked his fingers over the crossbar. "I'm sorry," he said. "Should I not have hurt the poor freak?"
"Doc Tyler is a good man."
"And yet, you and Mayor Scott were willing to steal out of his pocket." He tsked. "I must tell you, Jones. You and Scott made such a fuss about fleecing these people and ruining this town, but you seem to have a soft spot for every damn person here." He looked towards the door and casually said, "Let me kill one of 'em."
Jones' eyes widened. "What? Killin' and robbin' are two very different..."
"You care too much!" Dearborn snapped. The demon had returned to his voice and Jones already knew enough to shut up when the man was like this. "I was hired to come here, clean up a mess and make you and your boy a little richer in the process. I was happy to help; always willing to lend a hand to a fellow businessman. But I am not dumb. Someone says 'come rob us,' and I immediately get suspicious. So I sent John Ball. Smart enough to do the job, disposable enough I won't mind losing him if it is a trap. So he gets killed. I'm... annoyed more than angry.
"But when I come down to finish the job myself and all I get is a bullet in my shoulder? That's when I start to get steamed. When my reputation is on line, when a goddamn *woman* leads me through town at the tip of a gun? That's when I start to get furious. And when I get furious, I give up the job."
Jones looked up, hopeful. "You're... leaving, then?"
"No," Dearborn said. His voice was lower now, like rock sliding against rock, like a headstone being lowered into the ground. "I give up the job." He stepped out of his cell, his boots echoing hollowly on the wooden floor. "Meaning... I ain't working for you no more." He pinched the dark red tip of Jones' nose between the knuckles of his index and middle fingers. When he twisted, a fresh trail of blood began to spill towards Jones' lips. "You and Scott work for me. From now on, I call the shots. Do we have an understanding, Mr. Jones?"
"Yes," Jones gasped.
Dearborn released him and wrinkled his nose at the wet blood on his fingers as Jones crumpled to the floor. He knelt down and draped his arms across his knees. He made a fist and used it to raise Jones' beaten face until they were looking one another in the eye. "Good. Now, here's what I want you to tell Mayor Scott."
When the bath was done, Ada held up a towel and Rose stood up into it. Ada dried Rose's shoulders and hair while Rose tended to more personal areas. Ada helped her out of the tub when she was dry and acted as a crutch back into the bedroom. She sat Rose on the edge of the bed and knelt down to open one of the dresser drawers. "I doubt you'll want to get back into those sweaty clothes, so you can borrow one of my nightgowns." She pulled out a long white gown and held it up, looking it over for worn spots or torn lace. "This shouldn't be too baggy on you."
"Thank you," Rose said quietly.
Ada silently redressed Rose's bandages, taking care to examine the wounds and make sure they were healing properly. She wrapped new gauze over them and helped Rose pull the nightgown over her head. When she was settled, Ada said, "I'm gonna go take my bath now. Will you be all right...?"
"Yes, of course," Rose smiled. "Go. After all this pampering, I'll probably just fall asleep."
Ada nodded and said, "All right. I'll see you in the morning." She stood and kissed the top of Rose's head. She helped Rose lay down and pushed the covers down to the foot of the bed. "Night, Rose."
"Night, Ada," Rose said. She settled into the mattress and closed her eyes.
<i>The man coming had a gun.
Blood was on her dress, on her face, on her hands. She couldn't stop shivering, knew that he could hear her teeth chattering and her heart pounding. She hid, she tried to disappear into the side of the wagon, but she knew he was coming.
She could hear his boots on the wooden surface of the wagon. She could smell the stench of whiskey on him and the stale smell of old cigarettes. And suddenly she saw him and her heart skipped and it was just like it had been in real life, just like it had been in countless nightmares since. His eyes had been blue or green in real life, but in the nightmares they were devil-red.
And suddenly, it wasn't a dream anymore. She was huddled in a bloody wagon in a bloody dress and he was there, and he was standing right in front of her, like a demon, like a dirty, sweaty demon with a gun. He saw her and pushed his hat away from his face. He knelt next to her and his hand went to his belt.
"Well, well," he said as he reached out to touch her. His fingers closed around her throat.</i>
"Get your hands off of me! Get them off!" Rose screamed. She lashed out with both fists and felt them both make contact. Her knuckles glanced off soft flesh and hard bone and she was free. She squirmed to get away from his hands and felt him climbing on top of her, trying to hold her down. "God damn you, get off!" She brought her knee up between his legs like Daddy had told her to, but it didn't have any effect and...
Rose's eyes were wide, her skin clammy and hot. Something wet was running down her side and reality slowly began to solidify around her. She looked up into Ada's face, her glasses sitting askew on her nose. In the dim light, Ada's face was ghostly pale save for a dark red line of blood seeping from her lip. "Ada," Rose gasped. She looked around the bedroom and slowly realized it had all been a dream.
"Honey, you were screaming," Ada said as she smoothed Rose's hair.
Rose swallowed hard and lay back onto the mattress. She closed her eyes and felt Ada's fingers gingerly probing her side. As she brushed over the bandage, Rose hissed and pulled away. "Ow," she whispered.
"You popped your stitches," Ada said. She got off the bed and picked up her medical bag.
Rose looked down at herself and saw the blood staining her borrowed nightgown. She looked over at Ada, who was dressed for bed in a similar, sleeveless gown and said, "I'm sorry." Ada turned around.
"It's a nightgown," Ada assured her as she walked back to the bed. "It'll wash."
"No. I'm sorry for hitting you."
"Way you were screaming," Ada said, "I'm just happy you didn't shoot me." She picked up the scissors and prepared to cut a hole in the nightgown.
"Don't ruin the gown," Rose said. She grabbed handfuls of the material and pulled it up, twisting her hips so she was lying on her side.
Ada swallowed and tried not to look any further south than necessary as she removed the bandages. She cleaned Rose's skin, put down towels so she wouldn't have to sleep in a puddle of blood and re-stitched the wound in her side. When she was done, she put on a fresh square of gauze. Rose stripped off the bloody nightgown and Ada replaced it with a clean one. "All set."
Rose rolled onto her back and watched Ada put the bloody nightgown in the hamper. When she crossed to the armchair, Rose sat up. "Ada, wait... You're sleeping in the chair?"
"I don't mind."
"I do," Rose said. She slid over and gestured at the mattress next to her. "There's more than enough room up here for the two of us."
Ada looked longingly at the soft mattress but shook her head. "No, the chair is..."
Rose interrupted a fierce, "Ada Odell! I took your time, I took your food and I took your bath. Everything you've done for me the past few days, everything that I've taken from you the past few days, I will not take your bed. Do you hear me?"
Ada smiled weakly and finally relented. She abandoned the armchair and rounded the bed. "I suppose, if you put it like that..." She drew back the blankets and lay down. As she pulled the blankets up, she smiled at Rose and said, "Got enough room?"
"Yeah," Rose said. She looked at Ada in the darkness and reached over, gently brushing her wounded lip. "Should you do something about that?"
Ada touched her lip and her finger came back dry. "The bleeding has already stopped. If it still looks bad, I'll put something on it in the morning."
"All right," Rose said. She leaned towards Ada and lightly pressed her lips against Ada's cheek. She smiled in the darkness and lay back. In a few seconds, her chest was rising and falling in deep slumber. Ada, on the other hand, was wide awake, focused on the rise and fall of Rose's chest and wondering how the hell she'd gotten herself into this.
Malcolm Scott carefully poured each glass half-full with Scotch and pushed one across the desk with his knuckles. Every candle and lantern in the office was extinguished, the only light coming through the window from the moon. "I remember when I used to stare at the moon as a kid," he said quietly. He sniffed his Scotch and then looked back at the hazy blue glow. "Wondering how far away it really was, how big it really was... stuff like that. Stupid kid stuff."
William Jones sat across from him. He was ignoring the glass of Scotch Scott had poured for him, hands folded in his lap and eyes downcast as he waited to hear Scott's reaction to the news.
Finally, Scott smacked his lips together and turned in his chair to face the sheriff. "How'd it get so wrong?"
"Railroads," Jones suggested.
Scott raised an eyebrow and downed his drink. It burned his throat, but he didn't care. Few things were moving him anymore. He sighed and rolled the edge of the glass on his knee, watching the moonlight hit the beveled edges. "Railroads," he repeated. "Course, it could just be that I'm the dumbest prick to ever try and run a town." He turned his chair and faced Jones. He regarded the other man's broken and blood-red face and asked, "What did Doc Tyler have to say about your nose?"
"Broke," Jones said. His voice was pinched, the center of his face marred by a deep red blush. His hair was mussed and his clothes looked like they'd been slept in. He'd called his deputy to sit with Dearborn, making the man vow not to get too close, in order to have this emergency meeting with the mayor. "Dearborn broke my damn nose, Malcolm," he repeated with a sharp bite of venom.
"Could'a done a lot worse, Will." He smelled his drink and whispered, "Lot worse... You know, I got a couple wires from people up in Illinois. Heard a rumor we had Mr. Dearborn locked up down here. Wanted to know if we'd be so kind as to send him up so they could try him for a couple murders."
"What'd you say?" Jones asked with hope glimmering in his eyes.
Scott laughed. "I had to tell 'em no. 'Yeah, we got him, but wouldn't ya know it, he slipped away from us a couple nights ago.'"
"Ah, hell, Scott..." Jones sank back into his chair, lip curled with disgust.
"Dearborn could've escaped. He could'a been on the loose and how long you think it would take him to get back down here? Dole out a little revenge? Or hell, son... what if he made it up to Illinois? Got put on trial and decided to tell a little story about corrupt officials down here in the Territory? I can't risk letting Dearborn out of my sight and I'm getting worried that I can't risk keeping him here."
"Noah Dearborn owns us, don't he, Mal?"
"You're here to deliver *his* orders to *me.* Orders from Noah Dearborn. I would say the man certainly has us over a barrel. Him, the railroads, the people of this town if they ever find out what we did to 'em." He waved his glass at the man in the moon. "We wanted to rule the world, but somehow we're the puppets."
Jones picked up his glass and emptied it with a swallow. He coughed as it went down and wiped his sleeve across his lips. "I should be getting back. Town meetin' is tomorrow, yeah?"
Scott nodded slowly.
Jones brushed his hands down the front of his shirt, trying in vain to smooth the wrinkles out. He finally gave up and struggled out of his chair. "Malcolm?"
Jones twisted his lips and put his hands down on the desk. "I figured I oughta say something. Try 'n' make sense of all this mess."
Scott laughed ruefully. "Come up with much?"
"Nope," Jones said. He turned and headed for the door. "Not a damned thing."
When the sheriff had left, Malcolm stood and went to the bar. He opened a fresh bottle of Scotch and sloshed the amber liquid against the neck of the bottle. "Yeah, Will. Me neither." He left his empty glass behind on the bar and carried the bottle back to his desk.
Ada felt a strong arm around her waist, a soft breath ruffling her hair from behind. Half-asleep, she slid her hand down the arm and found the fingers, interlocking them with her own. She shifted, rolled onto her back, and finally opened her eyes to the early morning sun. With wakefulness, however, came remembrance. She looked down at her hand, so intimately intertwined with Rose's, and followed the length of her arm up to her face. Rose was still fast asleep; her face untouched by whatever horrors had been visited upon her the night before.
Ada's first instinct was to get out of bed, push the blankets away, and get dressed before Rose woke. Instead, she tightened her hand and rolled onto her side. She watched Rose sleep and reached up to brush a few stray hairs out of her face. Her hair had been too far away from a curling iron and lay limp against her cheeks and forehead. It made her look younger, more innocent... smaller.
Before long, she decided that she'd indulged herself long enough. If she tarried too long, Rose would wake and catch her. The flush of embarrassment that would have caused got Ada moving. She reluctantly took her hand from Rose's and slipped out of the bed. Rose murmured and shifted, her hand falling to the now empty pillow. Ada gathered some clothes from the dresser and snuck out of the room to get dressed.
A few minutes later, Rose tightened her hand against the pillow. It slid further south and then stretched out until Rose felt the restricting pull of her bandages. The small tug was all she needed to wake up. She blinked at the empty pillow and took a moment to remember why she expected someone to be there. When she remembered the night before, she slowly sat up and held her side as she eased her legs over the edge of the bed. So far, so good. She tested her balance with one hand against the nightstand and hovered over the side of the bed until she was sure she wouldn't fall.
When she decided her feet were trustworthy, at least for the distance she needed, she walked to the bedroom door. She waited before stepping out to catch her breath and tried not to be embarrassed that she needed the rest after such a small trip. She exhaled and looked into the kitchen.
Ada was seated at the kitchen table and staring out the open front door. There was a cup of coffee between her hands, but she seemed more focused on things in the yard. She was wearing her customary shirt and trousers, but her suspenders were hanging in loose loops at her waist. Her hair was uncombed and the bangs reached the top of her eyeglasses.
Rose stood, transfixed. She'd seen Ada at work, seen her half-drunk, delirious with laughter and red-faced angry... She'd never seen Ada just... being. If pushed, she would have been hard-pressed to explain what she found so intriguing, but she was disappointed when Ada turned and saw her standing a few feet away. "What are you doing up?" she asked as she stood.
"Outhouse," Rose said as she finally continued her exodus from the bedroom.
"You have the chamber pot for that," Ada said. She hurried to Rose's side and put an arm around her waist.
Rose smiled. "Forgive me, Ada, but every day I don't have to piss in a jar is a good day."
Ada smiled and said, "Well, come on then. I'll help you out there. You know you're my most difficult patient, right?"
"Yeah, I figured," Rose chuckled.
Valerie carried another crate from the back of the store and sat it on the back of the wagon. She lifted the tarp and took another look up at the steel-gray sky. Clouds had been threatening all morning, but other than a few stray growls of thunder, it had all been quiet. As she tied it down with a heavy-duty rope, she spotted Katie passing the head of the alley. She stuck two fingers into her mouth and whistled. When Katie looked over, Valerie waved her over. "Morning, Katie," she said. "You tell your man about Rose being okay?"
"He's still worried she wants a raise, but I think I managed put his mind at ease." She absently stroked the mane of Valerie's horse. "Heading out?"
"Ayup," Valerie said as she pulled the tarp back into place. "I renewed Ada's rental myself. Might have to invest in one of these things myself." She walked to the seat and climbed up to straighten the reins. She glanced out to the street and noticed that everyone in the street seemed to be flowing in the same direction. "Where's everyone headed?"
"Mayor Scott called a town meeting. Hung a bunch of signs all over town... didn't you see them?"
Valerie shook her head. "I've either been in the store or in bed most of the morning."
"Your headache?" Katie asked, wincing sympathetically.
"Mm," Valerie said. "It's better, but I'm not taking any chances." She picked up the canteen off the seat and said, "Full and ice-cold. Besides, weather being the way it is, I probably shouldn't have too much trouble."
"Still, take it slow," Katie advised. She patted the horse's side and waved good-bye as she left the alley.
Valerie climbed into the wagon, adjusted her hat, and looked up at the sky. Fat black rain clouds were smothering the town like a blanket, their edges seemingly caught on the corners of the tallest buildings in town. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and flicked the reins. The horse nickered in response and began pulling her from the alley. She bowed her head against the impending rainstorm and aimed the horse out of town.
Chapter Eight -
The majority of the town had already taken their seats. The din was rising with each new arrival, mostly discussing what the topic of the meeting should be. When Sheriff Jones stepped out of the staircase, the conversation soon shifted to what the hell had happened to his face. Winston Orr could barely keep himself from laughing. "Maybe he had a run-in with a jealous husband," the old barber suggested to Wilbur.
"More likely a jealous door frame," Wilbur smirked. "You haven't seen the way he walks after half an hour in my bar."
Tommy Dawes, the stable hand, leaned forward and tapped Wilbur on the shoulder. "Couple of fellas came into the stable for their horses this morning, said Sheriff Jones got into a dust-up with Noah Dearborn last night. Said they hadda clean the blood off the floor and the cell bars."
"Think that's right?" Winston asked.
Wilbur nodded at tilted his chin at the stage. "If anyone was dumb enough to cross that maniac..."
Winston laughed so hard he began to cough. He covered his mouth with his fist and Wilbur slapped him on the back a few times. When the coughing had died down, Wilbur leaned back just as Katie slipped into the folding chair next to him. Wilbur smiled at her and glanced over her shoulder. His smile faded. "Where's Ada? Valerie? Your whole little club's gone missing lately."
Katie smiled. "Ada's holed up at home. Probably getting that bug Rose has... Valerie went to take her some supplies."
"And Rose is still..."
"Sick. Getting better though. I saw her yesterday."
"Good," Wilbur sighed. He patted his wife's arm and said, "I hated the idea of hiring a woman as my bartender, but I really don't want to explore the alternative."
Mayor Scott finally appeared. He crossed in front of Sheriff Jones and leaned on the podium. He took a moment to scan the crowd and said, "If I could have everyone's attention, please?" The room quieted. "Thank you. Before we begin, is Mrs. Valerie Monroe in attendance today?" He paused for a reply and, when he didn't get one, muttered, "All right. As I'm sure you're all very aware, we've had a bit of a problem in this town lately. Problems with lawlessness, vigilantism... gunfights in the middle of Main Street in broad daylight.
"This must end. It must end before it gets out of control. Before Paradise, Oklahoma, becomes synonymous with outlaws and gunfights. Do we want to become the next Tombstone? No! We have to nip this thing in the bud if we, as a town are to... a-are to survive." He lowered his head briefly. When he'd regained his composure, he looked back out over the crowd.
"So in order to prevent further situations like this, starting today, Sheriff Jones will be enforcing a new law. Anyone seen carrying a weapon within town limits will be fined fifty dollars." A gasp went up from the crowd, but Scott merely raised his voice and continued speaking. "Anyone discharging a firearm will immediately be arrested. This law will be enforced retroactively... which means I am calling for the immediate arrest of Mrs. Valerie Monroe and the man known as Black Jack."
The crowd revolted.
"Are you insane, man?" Winston Orr shouted.
"Please, everyone, please," Scott said. He held his hands up and tried to wave people back into their seats. "This is the best solution for everybody. If we show that we're serious, then there won't be a problem with gunslingers like Black Jack..."
"You take our guns, you take our freedom," Winston Orr said. "If I pull my shotgun 'cause someone is tryin' to rob my store, I'm gonna have to pay fifty dollars? Hell, I might's well give the guy my cash drawer. It'd be cheaper!"
A few others shouted their support of Winston.
Scott massaged his brow and leaned against the podium. "Ladies and gentlemen, please..."
"We refuse to have our hands tied by..."
"All right!" Scott barked, slapping his hand repeatedly on the podium. "Please. Ladies and gentlemen, please. Exceptions will, of course, be made in certain cases, Mr. Orr. Self-defense will be allowed. The law only pertains to those *carrying* guns on their persons. What you describe would be protecting yourself and your property. We would not fine you for that."
"Mighty fine line, if you ask me," Orr grumbled.
Someone said, "What good is having guns if we can't use them? Might as well just outlaw bullets!"
"Valerie Monroe was protecting herself and... a-and Black Jack when she shot Dearborn," Katie yelled. "Why isn't she exempt?"
"Valerie Monroe shot Noah Dearborn in the back. She was in no immediate danger and..."
Winston laughed loud enough to interrupt Scott's explanation. "Your ice is getting thin, boy. No one's gonna follow this crazy--"
"With every new law, there is an adjustment period. And until the kinks are worked out, fines will be issued *judiciously.* Exemptions will be decided on a case-by-case basis. As of right now, only two people are being called for; Valerie Monroe and Black Jack. You will follow this order or you will be arrested. That's all." He turned and got off the stage as quickly as possible. Jones followed him, leaving the hall behind them in an uproar.
Wilbur shook his head. "Can you believe that, Katie? Who does...?" He realized he was speaking to an empty chair and looked around for his wife. "Katie?" He sighed and shook his head. "Eves of Paradise Social Club. Escape Artist Club is more like it..."
Katie ran from the town hall and startled a man who was rooting through saddle bags in search of hidden treasures. He gasped when she stormed down the stairs and raced down the dirt street with her skirt gathered in one hand. A few seconds after she disappeared into the stable, she reappeared on horseback and headed towards the edge of town.
Katie, in her rush, hadn't even noticed the thief. She was spurring the horse harder than he'd ever been, praying it would be fast enough. Ada's house was on the very edge of town, out of sight and facing a wild hillside. If she got there before Valerie left, there was a very good chance they could get away without anyone from town spotting them.
As she rode up, she saw Rose and Valerie standing inside Ada's low picket fence. Rose had a revolver in her left hand and was holding it steady. She held it for a few seconds and then dropped it like a lead weight and began rubbing her arm. She twisted her shoulder to loosen it up and brought the gun up again. Valerie turned away from Rose's practice when she heard the horse's approach. She smiled and walked to the gate. "Katie!" she called. She waved and motioned at the door. "Now that you're here, the club can play a hand."
"No, we have to go, Val. Now!"
Katie stopped the horse behind the wagon and leapt down. She rushed to Valerie's side as Rose holstered the gun. She was wearing Ada's clothes, which made her look like a little girl playing dress-up, but she looked miles better than she had the day before. She leaned against the fence, obviously still weak. "What's wrong, Katie?"
Katie paused to take a breath, her face stinging from exertion. "Mayor Scott... instituted a new law. Anyone seen carrying... a weapon in town limits will be fined, anyone discharging a weapon... will be immediately arrested. The law is retroactive, so he has a warrant out for your arrest, Val. And another for Black Jack."
"I'm wanted?!" Valerie gasped. She looked over her shoulder at Rose and shook her head. "This is ridiculous!"
Rose shook her head. "There's no way you'd get convicted," she said. She reached out and put her hand on Valerie's shoulder. The move was half-comfort, half-necessity. "Most everyone in this town would testify you shot Dearborn to save someone else."
"That ain't the point," Katie said. "Don't you get it? The jail only has two cells, Val. If you get locked up, Jones will put you in a cell with Dearborn."
"Oh, hell," Valerie muttered. Her face went white at the implication.
"It's not law and order," Rose gasped. "It's an execution."
Katie grabbed Valerie's sleeve. "We have to go. Now. Before anyone figures out where you are."
"Where will I go?"
"The train station," Katie said. "We'll put you on a train to New York, say you're just going up to see your husband for a while. No one will question it. We'll say you left this morning and that's why you missed the town meeting. But we have to go *now.*"
Valerie nodded quickly. "Okay. Okay, let's go." She turned and squeezed Rose's good shoulder. "Be well."
"We'll send you a wire when everything's settled," Rose promised. She embraced Valerie as the sky rumbled with thunder. "Better get going," she said.
Ada came out onto the porch as Katie and Valerie walked back to the horse. "What's going on?"
Rose said, "Sheriff is calling for Valerie's arrest. Discharging a firearm."
"Ah, hell," Ada breathed. "Hold on." She ran back into the house and returned a few seconds later. She was carrying two slickers and a wide-brimmed hat. She hurried down the path and handed them each a slicker. "If this storm is as bad as it looks, you're gonna be wanting these. Ride fast, Katie." She put the hat on Katie's head and pecked her cheek.
She moved to Valerie and hugged her tight. "Where're you gonna be?"
"New York," Valerie said. "We'll just tell anyone who looks for me that I'm joining Max."
"Be safe." Ada hugged Valerie and then helped her get into the slicker. They mounted Wilbur's horse and waved good-bye before heading towards the train station. Ada watched them go, eyes brimming with tears.
Rose brushed Ada's arm and said, "It's not permanent... she's just going away until we can get this all sorted out."
Ada scoffed. "Assuming we *do* get it sorted out."
Rose smiled sadly. "Yeah. Assuming that." They waved again as the horse rounded a corner and dropped out of sight. A few fat droplets of rain splattered against the wooden porch, a preview of what they were in for later in the night. Ada went inside first and Rose glanced at the sky for a long moment before she followed.
With the bounty from Valerie's supply run, Ada and Rose decided to combine lunch and dinner into one large meal. They raided the bags for the most desirable foods and ended up with a feast of chicken fried steak, cornbread, black-eyed peas, okra and hominy with sweet tea. Ada did most of the cooking, Rose shuffling around as her assistant. As they fried the beef for the steak, Ada began humming quietly. Rose picked up the tune and, before long, both women were singing.
They sang 'Little Old Sod Shanty on My Claim' together and Rose sang 'A Fair Lady of the Plains,' but cut off the final verse wherein the six-shooting woman was killed by Indians. Ada sang, "In a canyon, in a cavern, excavating for a mine."
Rose laughed, "Live a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter, Clementine."
They joined together, singing about the poor miner's lost daughter. When Rose sang, "Herring boxes without topses," she kicked her right foot up and tapped her heel with the fingers of her left hand. Ada laughed so hard she lost the tune and had to lean against the stove for support. The singing stopped only when the food was ready. They carried their plates, heavy with food, to the table and sat across from each other.
By the time they started eating, the darkness in the windows had grown to midnight-blackness, occasionally cut into by flashes of white-hot lightning. They ate slowly, taking long pauses to watch the window and wait for the rain to start. Ada watched Rose fumble to use her fork with her left hand. "How is your arm? Your side?"
Rose looked up, surprised by Ada's speaking voice after all their singing. "It's a bit sore. Both arms, actually."
"Why're you even trying to shoot with your left hand?"
"It's my weak hand," she said. "I can't handle a gun with my right arm at the moment. I'd like to be able to go up against Dearborn again if necessary."
"You think you could take him?"
"In a fair fight?" Rose said. "I got no doubt."
Ada smiled. "Seriously. The gunshot...?"
"Better than it has been in a week." She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin and leaned back in her chair. "I want to thank you, Ada. For... hell. You know." She ducked her head, suddenly bashful. "If it weren't for you... I would've... well..."
"We don't have to talk about that," Ada said, as much from embarrassment as fear of what might have happened.
"Still," Rose said. "Thank you, Ada."
"You are welcome, Rose."
Rose turned her glass of sweet tea to make rings on the wooden table. She looked out the window again and said, "Looks to be quite a storm."
"Mm. Epic," Ada agreed. "I'm prayin' we don't get a tornado."
"We had a couple down in Texas a few months before the Land Run," Rose said. "Lotta piss and vinegar, big noises and such, but nothing to worry about."
"Still... mind if I leave a lantern next to the bed tonight?"
Rose shook her head. "Next you'll be wanting to eat cookies in bed."
Ada ducked her head shyly and began to idly push her cornbread through the juice of her beans. She looked out the window as droplets began to pelt the glass, each exploding with a loud thwap. "I don't like the rain," she said. "I'm not scared of it anymore, mind you, but... Whenever a storm starts up, I get flashbacks to when I was a little girl... hiding under my blankets..."
Rose smiled. "I always climbed out my bedroom window and sat on the rooftop. I got soaked, usually got sick for my troubles, but... it was worth it." She looked down at her food and then looked up to see Ada smiling at her. "What?"
"Just picturing young Ms. Rose, sitting on her roof, soaked to the bone and laughing her fool head off."
Rose blushed and shrugged. "It was cold. And amazing. And when the lightning flashed and it made the whole world look white and gray..."
Rose stopped and looked across the table. Ada was studiously ignoring her, focused on stirring her hominy and okra together. Rose waited to see if there would be any follow-up to the statement. When Ada stayed quiet, Rose cleared her throat and said, "Um... t-thank you, Ada. Thank you." She sipped her tea and watched Ada carefully. "Sometimes I feel like I'm on display for Paradise Rose. Like I'm just a pretty face."
"I'm sorry... I didn't mean to..."
"No, no, it's okay. It's different coming from you. Because you liked me and not... my face. But now that we've been friends for a while, i-it's nice to know that you..." She dabbed her lips with a napkin and settled for a simple, "Thank you, Ada."
Ada shrugged, obviously embarrassed that she'd let the compliment slip out. She finished her cornbread and looked down at the remnants of her meal. "I don't think I could eat another bite."
"I think I'm throwing in the towel, too," Rose said, despite her plate being clean save for a few crumbs and sauce. They stood and carried their glasses to the couch, where they sat on opposite ends. Ada tucked her legs up underneath her and watched the rain trace wild patterns on the glass. Rose watched Ada more than the window. "If you get scared, we can grab some blankets off the bed."
Ada smiled. "I'm just here to make sure you don't go running out there and add pneumonia to your bullet wounds."
"I'll be good, Doctor Odell," Rose said.
They sat in silence and listened to the rain patter against the walls and roof. Before long, the dim light and the hypnotic rhythm had dropped Rose's eyelids like anchors. She was still awake, but only just barely. As she slumped against the cushion, Ada hazarded more lingering looks at her patient, houseguest... friend.
Her eyes caught on the glow of Rose's profile and the way the candles seemed to light her hair on fire. In the dark, in a rainstorm, surrounded by candles, Rose became a goddess... something out of a fairy tale book. When Rose turned her head, Ada caught reflections of candlelight in her wide brown eyes, dancing back and forth as if they truly lived in her eyes. And when Rose opened her eyes and looked right at Ada, she turned away, embarrassed, and watched the window until the blush in her cheeks faded.
"What happened to him?" Rose said, so quietly her voice was almost lost in the storm.
Ada looked at Rose and found herself to be the object of examination. "Who?" she managed.
"The man," Rose asked. She settled against the back of the couch and rested her head on her hand. "The day of the Land Run, you... I looked back. There was a man who'd fallen from his horse into the river. And you stopped to help him."
"Oh," Ada said. She looked into her drink and furrowed her brow. "He and his horse both broke a leg. They had to put down his horse, poor fella. I stayed with him until the Purcell doctors took over and, by that time... well..."
"You missed the run."
Ada nodded. "Yeah. Well."
"No, no 'yeah, well,'" Rose said. "You stopped. A man was hurt, maybe could've died, so you... gave up and helped him. You sacrificed to help someone else. I thought about that so many times since you first told me that story, Ada. The strength it took. While everyone else was lying and stealing to grab a little piece of dirt and rock, you saved a man. I felt so ashamed about riding on. That day and every day since."
"You're not a doctor," Ada said. "Well... truth be told, I ain't a doctor, either. But... still, there wasn't anything you could've done."
"Could've helped you. Couldn't have been easy, getting the man out of the river all by yourself, let alone a lame horse."
Ada shrugged. "I was impressed with *you.* Grabbing and holding a plot of land... I think I was so willing to stop because I was scared. Everyone racing, like there was only one tract of land and they were all willing to kill for it. Even if I had found a place to make my home, I don't think I would've been able to keep it. And if I had..."
Rose smiled. "No, what?"
"I... don't know where it would have been. Maybe I'd have ended up in Guthrie or Tulsa or something... And then, I never would have met you." There was a pause and she quickly added, "Or... or Valerie. Or Katie or anyone."
"You wouldn't be in this whole Black Jack mess, either."
"It's worth it," Ada said, her words swallowed by her glass.
Rose watched her for a minute and then bit the bullet. "Ada... you always sit next to me at the card game. Or, if you can't, you act disappointed all night and watch me from across the table. You walk home with me most nights. You come into Paradise Rose every day, even though you never drink when I'm not at work." She motioned at the kitchen. "You haven't got a single bottle of liquor here. You're not a drinker."
Ada shrugged. "So I like your company."
"Is that it, Ada?"
"Mm-hmm," Ada said. She'd finished her tea and was staring down at the empty glass in her lap. She twirled her fingers together and sucked her bottom lip. She gestured with the glass and stood quickly. "I should... I-I have to soak the dishes."
Rose stood and hurried after. The stitches pulled on her side and she winced, slowing to keep from aggravating her injury. She kept her movements slow and easy and caught up with Ada at the sink. "Ada. Wait." She put her hand on Ada's arm and, when she turned, there were tears fogging up her glasses. "I just wanted you to know that I know. Valerie's been ribbing me about it for a while and..."
"I'm sorry," Ada said quickly. "You gotta know, Rose, I'd never... act on it."
"My... m-my crush," Ada said. "How I feel about you, damn it. I... sometimes I feel like you're the only thing I get up for in the morning, but... that's as far as it'll go. I won't lose you as a friend, so I'm not gonna... risk it by being stupid. Okay? You don't have to worry."
Rose quietly said, "You like me?"
When Ada closed her eyes, a tear broke away and cut quickly down her cheek.
Rose touched Ada's cheek and brushed away the tear with the pad her thumb. She turned her hand to brush her knuckles against the wet flesh and stretched up on her toes to kiss the moisture away. Ada recoiled from the touch of Rose's lips and hissed like she had been burnt.
Rose moved her hand to Ada's chin and turned her head slightly. In the darkness, Ada's eyes and her glasses combined to flicker with a life of their own. Rose brushed her thumb over Ada's bottom lip and leaned in to lightly touch their mouths together. Ada exhaled a shaky sob, and she brought up one trembling hand to touch Rose's face. Mindful of Rose's wounded side, Ada rested her other hand low on Rose's hip and pulled her close. The house was freezing and they could feel each other's body heat through their layers of clothes.
Their lips parted and Rose sank back to the ground. Ada embraced her and kissed the curve of her cheek, sliding her lips up into her hair. Lightning flashed through the window like a flashbulb catching them in the act.
A few second later, thunder shook the house and Ada jumped. Rose caught her.
Ada caught Rose's eye and bent down to find her lips again. This time, there was no exploration in the kiss, just hunger. The rain, the thunder, everything stopped as Rose's tongue slipped into Ada's mouth. The rain pounded, the thunder roared above them, but all that mattered at the moment were pressing lips and fingers searching across tightly-fastened clothes.
When they separated, Ada ran her tongue across her top lip and took a deep breath. She kept her eyes closed and brought both hands up. She flattened her fingertips against Rose's forehead. Slowly, she brought her hands down and traced Rose's features. She whispered, "I've wanted to do this for so long."
She let her fingers hesitate over Rose's eyes and felt the flutter of her butterfly-wing eyelashes against her palm. When she ran her fingers over Rose's mouth, Rose parted her lips and let the fingers slip inside. Ada gasped and withdrew her hands. They looked at each other and Ada whispered, "How far...?"
"As far as it goes."
Ada nodded, her breath catching in her throat. Rose stepped back and slipped her hand into Ada's. She squeezed her fingers and calmly guided her into the bedroom. As they crossed the threshold, Ada gently took control and guided Rose forward to the bed. "Sit here," she said quietly. Rose obediently sat on the edge of the bed where her body had so recently been mended and watched Ada circle the room and light candles. As a golden glow slowly began to fill the room, Rose undid the buttons on her dress and pushed the material apart.
When Ada walked back to the bed, Rose had the top half of her dress unbuttoned and quickly shrugged out of it. Ada knelt in front of her, eyes glued to Rose's lace chemise. As Ada sat transfixed, Rose reached out and brushed her bangs away from the rims of her glasses. Ada looked up at her, eyes brimming with tears as she finally cupped Rose's breasts with both hands. They both shivered at the touch and Ada leaned forward. She squeezed with both hands as she kissed Rose's collarbone.
Rose sighed and whispered, "I've never been with a woman before."
Ada moved her lips over Rose's flesh, tasting her sweat and flicking her tongue into the hollow of her throat.
Rose's eyelids fluttered and she pushed her hand through Ada's hair. "Uh," Rose grunted, leaning into the touch. Ada slipped her hands into the bottom of Rose's dress and slid her hands over the silky material of her chemise. Thunder growled outside and Rose whispered Ada's name. Ada looked up at her, eyes wide, and lifted herself high enough to kiss Rose again. Their lips met roughly and their teeth clacked together as Ada pushed Rose down onto the mattress.
Their tongues met again and Ada climbed completely onto the bed to straddle Rose's prone body. "Rose," she gasped. "Rose, my Rose."
Rose pressed her hand against Ada's hip and followed her curves from the thigh to the swell of her small breast. She squeezed and ran her thumb over the hard nipple, feeling the bud even through her thick shirt and underwear. Ada yelped and arched her back, her eyes tightly shut behind her glasses. She sucked in a hitching gasp and then wept, "Oh, no. No, no."
"What?" Rose whispered. She kept her hand heavy on Ada's breast and squeezed gently.
"I... I-I climaxed," Ada whispered. She bowed her head and sobbed quietly. "I climaxed already, Rose."
Rose moved her hand to cup Ada's cheek and sat up to kiss her tenderly. She let the kiss linger, still getting used to the sweet silkiness of another woman's touch. "It's all right," she breathed against Ada's cheek. "It's all right." She moved her hand to the small of Ada's back and gently pushed her back. As Ada fell away from her, Rose used her free hand to undo the buttons of Ada's shirt. She parted the material and kissed each newly exposed inch of warm flesh. She ran her tongue over freckles and pulled back only to push the blouse off Ada's shoulders.
Ada unfastened her own trousers and took Rose's hand. "Touch me here," she whispered, half-pleading. Rose allowed her hand to be guided and slid her hand into Ada's underwear. The material was wet and Ada keened when Rose brushed her fingers through the thick hair.
"We can go slow," Rose assured her. She withdrew her hand and kissed Ada's neck. Ada lifted off Rose and rolled to the edge of the bed. Her entire upper body trembling, she pushed her trousers and underwear down and turned to face Rose completely naked. She instinctively covered her crotch with her hands and then said, "Well...?"
Rose didn't respond aloud. She lifted her hips and pushed the dress down, kicked it to the corner. Ada watched Rose strip, unable to blink, unwilling to miss anything. Rose reached down and touched the bottom of her chemise, wincing when she felt her stitches pull. "You're going to have to help me," she said.
Ada scrambled over and took the hem in both hands. She pulled the gown up and over Rose's head. Rose pushed her hair out of her face and smiled when she saw Ada had her eyes closed. "Ada," she laughed. She took Ada's hand and pressed it against her bare breast. Ada's breath hitched and she opened her eyes, experimentally squeezing her fingers. She pulled, closing her fingers around the naked nipple and pinching gently.
"Oh," Rose gasped. She closed her eyes and said, "Yes, Ada."
Ada covered the other breast and squeezed them both, leaning in and kissing Rose's lips. "You're beautiful," she breathed against Rose's mouth. "Don't wake me."
Rose arched her back into Ada's caress and moaned into her mouth. Ada broke the kiss and looked at Rose's bandages. She traced each square with a fingertip and said, "You don't think you'll be hurt?"
"I'll be careful," Rose assured her.
Ada looked lower and saw Rose's creamy thighs, the triangle of nearly red hair settled between them. She cried out and felt a new wave of tears beginning. "Oh, Rose."
"Shh," Rose whispered. She angled them both towards the bed and lay down, pulling Ada down on top of her. The crush of the taller woman pinned Rose to the mattress and she could feel Ada against every inch of her. She spread her legs and hooked her ankles together in the small of Ada's back. She realized Ada was crying and cupped the back of her head, whispering quietly that it was all right, that she was okay, that it was fine.
Ada lifted her head and assaulted Rose's lips, pushing her tongue deep into her mouth and thrusting her hips wantonly against Rose. She dug her knees into the mattress, rocking the entire bed with her frenzied motions, gasping into Rose's mouth as she held on. Rose threw her head back and sighed, tightening her legs around Ada's hips as she climaxed. Ada moved her hand between Rose's thighs and cupped her sex. Rose sighed and rocked languidly against Ada's fingers. It was no longer sex, just idle masturbation.
Ada's lips, freed from the need for orgasm, began to lazily explore Rose's face, neck and shoulders. Rose whispered, "Ada," and came on her fingers. Ada slowed her hand and drew it back, wiping the wet fingers on the mattress. She stretched her body over Rose's and hooking her leg over Rose's thigh. Coiled together like snakes, Ada looked into Rose's deep, brown eyes and traced the line of Rose's bottom lip with one finger. "My God. I'm awake, aren't I?"
Rose slipped a hand between their bodies and between Ada's legs. Ada's eyes closed and she began to rock against Rose's invading fingers. First just one, circling as if to explore the territory, and then two, becoming more insistent. Ada bit her bottom lip and rocked in rhythm to Rose's thrusts. "Yeah, Ada," Rose whispered. "You're awake. You're wide awake."
Ada came on Rose's fingers. Her mouth formed a wide O as she bowed her head, kissing Rose's neck until her body stopped trembling. She pressed her face against the curve of Rose's neck and quietly admitted, "I don't think anyone's ever made me... do that before. Thank you, Rose. My Rose."
They held each other, Rose stroking Ada's hair until she fell asleep.
Chapter Nine -
The rain had hit them a few miles outside of Paradise and they'd had no choice but to ride deeper into the storm. The light from the train depot burned like a lighthouse through the steel-blue sheets of rain. Katie held tight to Valerie, her eyes squeezed tight and her fingers digging into her friend's stomach in a death grip. When they finally reached the building, they leapt from the horse and ran into the depot.
The light was nearly unbearable and the warmth from the fire made their skin tingle. Valerie pulled off her hat and flicked it towards the open door. She ran a hand through her hair, the tail of which hung to the center of her back like a drowned rat. She looked out at the storm and saw only a sheet of blue occasionally interrupted by a sky-wide streak of lightning. "Damn," she muttered. She shed her slicker and helped Katie off with hers.
Katie hugged herself, having gotten the worst of the rain. "Think anyone's here?"
"They wouldn't have left the lanterns burning if they left," Valerie said. She crossed the wide-open room, passing a sea of vacant benches, and put her hands on the counter. She leaned forward to peer into the back. "Hello? Is anyone still here?"
A door at the far end of the building and a white mop of hair poked out. "Hellfire!" the man screeched. He stepped out and hitched up a pair of ratty pants, slipping his arms back through the suspenders. His white hair was combed forward into his face and his mouth was obscured by a fluffy white beard. He waddled up to the front and squinted over the counter at his customers. "What're ya two ladies doon oot, naht like thayis? Surely cain't be nothin' thayit 'mport'nt."
"She's meeting her husband in New York," Katie said.
The man's smile split his beard and he wagged a finger at her. "Oh, lucky feller. Lucky feller indeed, have a woman like you brave nature isself jest to get ta him." He picked up a magnifying glass and hunched over a schedule book. "Two tickets ta New Yawk..."
"No, just one," Katie said. "I was just... escorting her here."
"Oh, well. Oh, well," the ticket agent said. He scribbled out the two and laboriously replaced it with a one.
As Valerie and the little man went over the price, Katie wandered across the room to a map of Oklahoma Territory. It had dark lines crossing where the Land Run had started and pushpins denoting all the newest towns. She found Paradise and smiled the way someone does after finding a relative's name in the newspaper. She touched the town with her thumbnail and was about to turn away when she noticed something.
"Hold on, Katie, I'm about to..."
"Valerie, come over here!"
Valerie sighed and excused herself to the little man. She walked over to Katie and sighed, "What is it?"
"The town. Our town, Valerie, look."
Valerie sighed. "I know, Katie, I've seen maps before." She glanced up at the faded yellow paper and realized what Katie had seen. "That can't be right." She looked over her shoulder. "Is this map to scale?"
"Mm-hmm," the old man nodded. He was still hunched over the counter, gnarled fingers guiding the pencil to spell Valerie's name in the ledger.
"But if that's so..." She traced the new line of the Rock Island Railroad. "If that's so, then the new rail line will cut more than five miles away from Paradise."
Katie said, "The railroad was supposed to bring business to the town. I mean, the jobs alone..."
Valerie punched the wall and knocked some pins loose. The little old man yelped at her and she turned to look at Katie. "This is it! This is what Scott was up to!"
"What do you mean?"
"I haven't got it all figured out yet... but I'll work it out on the road."
"On the road?" Katie said.
The old man said, "What about your ticket?"
Valerie was already squirming back into her slicker. "Keep it. I ain't going to New York... I've gotta get back to Paradise."
Sheriff Jones bent down and shook the water from his slicker. His boots were caked in mud from the long walk from the mayor's office and he did his best to stomp them clean on the front stoop. He pulled off his slicker and hung it by the door, ignoring the puddle that was already forming around it as he headed to his desk. The room was utterly silent and he was grateful. Hopefully Dearborn was asleep and he wouldn't have to deal with the man.
He tossed his keys onto the desk and searched for Albie, his deputy. "Albert!" he called. "He give you any trouble?"
When he got no answer, he paused and scanned the small office. "Albie?" he said. He glanced into Dearborn's cell and saw him on the cot, covered with a blanket. For a change, he seemed to be sleeping quietly. Jones reached down and touched the butt of his gun. It'd be so easy, really. And it's nothing Dearborn wouldn't do himself...
He moved his hand from the weapon. It was exactly what Dearborn would do. He wouldn't let himself become that. He went to the back door and peered at the small outhouse that stood against the back of the opposite building. "Albie! You takin' a piss break?" No reply.
Dearborn's cell was dark, the lantern blown out either by the occupant or by the storm gusts coming in through the barred window. A pool of rainwater had gathered on the floor and was trickling slowly towards the bed. Dearborn would wake up to wet feet and Jones chuckled at the thought. "Hope you're wearing socks," he told the lump on the bed. "Nothing like going through the day with wet socks."
He unfastened his gun belt and began to mentally prepare a speech about responsibility that he'd recite when Albie returned. 'The prisoner may be asleep, but that's no reason to abandon your post, son.' He was about to sit when something started nagging at him. It was only a tiny suspicion, but... Dearborn snored. He never slept peacefully; he snored like a thoroughbred, snorted, huffed and kicked at his blankets.
Drawn by his suspicion, he put his gun belt on the desk and walked back to the cell. He leaned on the bars and stared at the lump under the thin wool blanket. "Dearborn!" he snapped. No response. He slapped his hand against the bars and shook the door so the lock clanged and echoed like the chains of Marley come back to haunt them.
The body on the bed remained motionless.
He felt his heart kick up. Hopeful their prayers had been answered, he grabbed the key ring and let himself into the cell. He jabbed the key into the blanket and kept up the pressure until he was sure no one could sleep through it. Infection, he thought. The bullet wound had taken its effect, or maybe Dearborn had overdosed on the pain medication. All that mattered was he was *gone.* He rolled the body over and whipped the sheet away. The dead man stared back up at him.
Albert, the missing deputy, was already pale blue. His eyes were wide with shock and his head was tilted at an odd angle. It almost seemed as if he were saying, "What the hell happened, sheriff?"
A gun barrel slid into Jones' ear and Dearborn, his voice low and seductive, said, "Albert was a piss-poor deputy. And you, William Jones? You are just a piss-poor sheriff." He looked towards the window and said, "Now. We just gonna wait... until the time is right..." Lightning flashed and the cell illuminated briefly. Frozen with terror, Jones looked down and clearly saw the fear in Albie's wide, dead eyes.
"Did you know that your young deputy was homosexual?" Dearborn asked. "It seems the boy was kinked. He had some kind of fantasy about being with a prisoner." He scoffed and muttered, "Thousand-two, thousand-three..." He continued, "I think it was a power trip. Thousand-five, thousand-six... Sounds like the storm is about eight miles away, Sheriff Jones."
At the moment Dearborn would've said 'thousand-eight,' thunder began to roll through the town. The loudest boom of the thunder was enough to cover the gunshot.
Ada was startled from a deep sleep and heard the dying rumble of the thunder that had awoken her. She rolled onto her side and tried to slip back into sleep before her body truly woke up. It took her a moment to realize that she was alone in bed, the mattress under her hand heartbreakingly cold and barren. She fumbled for her glasses on the nightstand and held them up to her eyes.
Rose stood at the window with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She was framed by the violet night sky, her silhouette dancing with the rhythm of lighting. Rain was still falling in sheets, silver waves against a velvet background. Lightning flashed now and then, making the world silver and clean for a brief moment.
"Rose," Ada whispered.
She turned from the window. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to wake you." It was only then Ada heard Rose's crying over the rain. She dabbed her cheeks and turned back to the window. "Please go back to sleep."
Ada slipped out from under the covers and walked naked across the room. She pressed against Rose from behind and pressed her face into the sea of her hair. She kissed the curve of Rose's neck and felt Rose sag against her, molding against Ada's solid warmth. Ada touched Rose's stomach and pulled her back into an embrace. "God. I'm really here."
Rose smiled and covered Ada's hands with her own.
They watched the rain silently for a long time. Rose brushed her fingertips over Ada's forearm and finally said, "You gotta tell me something about you."
"I don't care. Anything." She turned in Ada's arms and pressed her lips against her collarbone. "I just want you to tell me something because I want... I need to tell *you* something. But I don't think I can go first."
"Okay," Ada whispered. She hesitated and chewed her bottom lip as she considered what to reveal. Finally, she said, "My husband never loved me."
Rose blinked. "That's... bigger... than I expected."
Ada smiled sadly. "I never loved him, either. But we both knew what we were in for when we said 'I do.' He was a little effeminate."
"He was queer?"
Ada nodded. "We knew. I guess... I don't know, there were signals that we sent to each other and... he was an unmarried man in his thirties. I was just a girl, and... it was just easier than answering all the 'why' questions. For both of us."
"He met someone. Decided they'd travel, maybe go to Europe or someplace. And I was out in the open. Alone. But I kept telling people I was married or widowed or... anything to keep them from asking why I had never settled down." She closed her eyes and looked down. Brushing a hand under her glasses, she meekly asked, "Is that, uh... enough? I mean, I don't wanna..."
Rose kissed Ada's lips and curled her fingers in the short hair at the back of her neck. When the kiss broke, Rose whispered, "I was raped."
Ada blinked behind her glasses. Three little words and she felt sick, angry and distraught all at once. The idea of anyone putting Rose down, tearing at her... she bit her bottom lip and closed her eyes tightly. "I'm so sorry."
"My husband and I were married out of love... at first. We grew apart and then together and... it was a cycle. One day we were out on a supply run. We were between towns, about ten miles from civilization in any direction. I was in the back of the wagon, but I heard them call for my husband to stop. He told me to stay hidden while he talked to them, so I climbed down behind some of our crates, kept my head down and prayed for it to be over. I prayed a sheriff or a marshal would wander along and save us. I prayed right up until they shot my husband."
Ada's hands tightened on Rose's back. She wanted to hear more, but was desperate not to know the rest. She closed her eyes, swore to herself that she'd listen to the rest.
"At first, they didn't know I was there. They just hopped in the back and started going through the groceries and supplies we had stacked there. When one of them found me, I started crying. Wailing, screaming, begging them not to hurt me. They led me out of the wagon to their leader and I knelt in the dirt before him and he... asked what I'd do... to spare my life."
Ada whispered a prayer, but knew it was hopeless. The damage was done and there was no way to undo it.
"He liked to hurt. At one point he made me face the wall and... w-whipped me."
Ada remembered the scars on Rose's back and cringed. "Rose," she breathed.
"It took most of a night, but he got his fill of me." She clung to Ada's shoulders, tears burning hot trails down Ada's chest. "He let me go. Sent me walking in the middle of nowhere. Guess he figured Indians or coyotes would get to me. Instead, I found a man named Jeremiah Stone. Have you ever known anyone who you... adored, but were scared to death of?"
"Yeah," Ada nodded. "My father."
Rose sniffled and stepped back. She looked down at Ada's naked body and ran her hands over Ada's chest. She touched her nipples, the spate of freckles that hugged the curves of her breasts. "I didn't want you to know this. Any of this. I didn't want you to see the darkness I have."
"It's okay," Ada whispered. She kissed Rose's lips and slid a hand around her waist. "I ain't running. I finally got you in my arms, I ain't running."
Rose bowed her head and pressed her face into the sweet hollow of Ada's neck, below her chin. She flattened her hands in the small of Ada's back and said, "I told Jeremiah what had happened to me. By then, just... t-the fury in me was so... righteous. I wanted vengeance. So he taught me how to fire a gun. Taught me how to hold a gun, for Christ's sake. He created Black Jack. Made me part of his gang."
"Gang?" Ada said.
"We robbed banks. Nine in just the first year. I was always assigned to watch the back door, stay with the horses. Jeremiah told me that no one would see a woman playing dress up; their minds would turn me into whatever monster they wanted. It was true. The newspaper reports said it was a gang of three, four, five men. The witnesses couldn't even get the number right, so it wasn't a surprise they didn't notice a woman. That gang is where I learned how to walk like a man, be manly in the way I sat on my horse.
"Everything was going fine until one night we ended up in the bar with another gang. I was in my Black Jack outfit, to keep from drawing attention, and Jeremiah started trading war stories with the other gang's leader. The other guy... told about the... man he'd killed. And how he'd spent time with the guy's wife. All night, he said." She wiped at her face again and inhaled sharply.
"Jeremiah laughed about it. But I was frozen. I stared at the man and realized I didn't even recognize him. I'd blocked his face from my mind entirely. So I waited until he went to the outhouse and I followed him. He was scared when he saw Black Jack, but... he smiled when I pulled down my mask and he saw who I really was. Guess he figured he wasn't in no danger. He turned around and had his... pants undone. I shot him once down there, then twice in the chest."
Ada stroked Rose's hair and mouthed, "Good girl" where Rose couldn't see her.
"His gang came after me, a'course. We shot our way out of the town and I got the blood of four men on my hands. When we were safe, Jeremiah slapped me down off my horse, took my money and my guns and told me to run. I'd... never seen him so furious. But I'd blown our chances at that town, so... he wanted me gone.
"With the man who'd... done that... to me dead, I finally looked at myself. Saw what I'd become. I was a thief, a murderer, a criminal. Instead of facing it, I faced a bottle and... spent a good year piss drunk in one corner or another. And I guess, in a brief moment of sobriety, I got lucky. I saw an honest-to-God sign."
"For the Land Run?" Ada whispered.
Rose nodded. "'Build your new future in Oklahoma Territory.' Like the past didn't matter no more. I sobered up. I swore to never fire another gun and I sold everything I still had to my name. I used the savings I had from my jobs with Jeremiah and went to Purcell. A new life. A new... everything."
"But you're a bartender," Ada said with a small, ironic smile.
Rose grinned. "I had experience being a wife, a thief and a drunk. Who better than a drunk to pour for other drunks? 'Sides, I figured it was the ultimate temptation. Surround myself with the devil's candy and see if I bit. I'm still dry."
"That's why you never drink?"
Rose nodded. "And... John Ball... hell, the bastard. He might as well have been Jeremiah. I saw a chance to make up for one last sin. If I'd known where it would lead, I'd... I can't lie to you, Ada. I'd have probably done the exact same thing." She looked up at Ada and said, "We gonna get out of this?"
"Yeah," Ada said. She brushed Rose's hair out of her face. "At the very least... we can run. To Canada, to... anywhere."
"Running," Rose whispered. "I'm sick of running. But... if I have to... at least it'll be with you."
Ada hooked her finger under Rose's chin and drew her into another slow kiss. "Let's go back to bed," she whispered against Rose's lips. Rose nodded and allowed herself to be led back across the room.
"Rose! Ada!" Valerie burst into the house and paused on the threshold as she scanned for her friends. Her slicker was dripping wet from their all-night trek through the storm. She saw the remnants of dinner on the table as she rounded the couch and headed for the only closed door in the house. She started inside and froze when she saw the bed.
Ada was spooned against Rose's back, both women obviously nude underneath the covers. Rose and Ada's left hands had slipped free of the sheet and their hands were clasped together in a loose caress. Ada woke at the sound of the door opening and sat up. Her eyes widened when she realized they'd been caught. She clung the blanket to her chest and opened her mouth in shock.
Valerie held her hands up in apology. "We'll... just wait outside. Take your time, ladies. Take your time."
She covered her mouth and turned on her heel. Behind her, she could hear Ada curse and hiss, "Rose... wake up."
Katie was in the front yard feeding the horse oats in exchange for his strenuous night. She turned at the sound of Valerie's boots on the porch and blinked in surprise when the other woman started laughing. "What?" Katie asked. She gave the horse a final pat and joined Valerie on the porch. "What? What's so funny? Valerie?"
Valerie put a hand on Katie's shoulder and said, "Nothing, Katie. Don't worry about it. Just, ah... when Rose and Ada get out here? Tell 'em how... refreshed they look." She leaned against the post to support herself as she started laughing again. Katie just looked into the house and wondered what the hell was going on.
Despite the secluded location, Valerie was still a fugitive. They couldn't risk a random passer-by to spot her and report back to the sheriff. Valerie and Katie moved the horse to the back of the house and set him up with a feed bag. Ada and Rose joined them there a handful of minutes later, Rose's usually loose, curly hair pulled back in a ponytail. They were both wearing long johns and Ada had covered her's with a long men's shirt. Katie smiled brightly and said, "Rose! Ada! You two sure look refreshed."
Ada blushed bright red and Valerie erupted in another fit.
"What?!" Katie hissed over her shoulder.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but what are you two doin' back here?" Rose said. To Valerie, she said, "Shouldn't you be on a train to New York right now?"
Valerie sobered and stepped up onto the porch. "Yeah, well, we found something mighty interesting at the train station."
"There was a map of the territory," Katie said. "It showed all the railroads through the state and it had drawn in prospective new branches."
Rose nodded. "Well, stands to reason. It *is* a train station..."
"No," Valerie sighed. "The thing that grabbed our attention was where the new branches were. Or, more accurately, weren't. There's no railroad coming through Paradise."
Rose glanced at Ada. "That's impossible. They've been planning that branch since before the Land Run. If it don't come through..."
"The town will dry up and die," Ada said quietly. "People will go where there're jobs. Wilbur will have to leave, 'cause no one will be able to afford drinks at the prices he'll have to charge. Paradise Rose will shut..." She looked at Rose with panic in her eyes.
Rose reached out and touched Ada's arm. She breathed, "Okay." To Valerie, she said, "What are we gonna do?"
"Short of hijacking some train company and dragging them down here," Valerie said. "Not a helluva lot of options."
"But how could this happen? We all saw the newspaper with their proposed route. It's why Paradise was founded here, for Christ's sake. Why would they change?"
Rose sat in Ada's rocking chair and said, "We charge thirty cents a drink."
Everyone turned to look at her.
She shrugged and said, "Thirty cents a drink. Know why? 'Cause it costs us for the liquor, sure. But there's other reason. The reason we mark the prices up a little bit is because of profit, sure. But also supply and demand. Everyone wants a drink... if we didn't charge extra for it, the bar would be filled to the rafters."
Valerie said, "What does this have to do with anything?"
"The railroads charge a fee," Katie said, glancing at Rose. Rose nodded, so she continued. "Every town in the territory wants the railroad to come through. So they charge a fee. If you can't pay the fee, the railroad passes you by."
Ada said, "Seems a bit unfair."
"It is," Rose agreed. "But it isn't. The railroads can't cut across the entire territory, passing each and every town that wants them. So they charge a fee."
"And the only reason the railroad would change its route..."
"Is because Paradise didn't pay the fee."
Valerie hissed, "God damn Malcolm Scott."
"He got greedy," Rose said. "Refused to pay. Figured that since the paper had printed the route, Rock Island wouldn't change their routes just because he hadn't paid. The railroad called his bluff and now we're a town on the verge of disappearing."
They sat in silence for a while to consider the implications of that. Ada took a seat next to Rose and clutched her hand. Rose suddenly slapped her right hand against the wooden arm of the chair and winced as the shockwave reached her shoulder. She shot to her feet and growled, "John Ball!"
Valerie frowned. "What? John Ball is dead. What's he got to..."
"As soon as you said the railroad was changing routes, I knew I'd heard it somewhere before. It didn't sink in, but I could vaguely remember hearing it. God damn it, John Ball mentioned it that night in the stable! The night I overheard him and the sheriff, the night this whole damned mess started. He said the railroad was going to leave and Paradise would turn into a ghost town."
Ada said, "Okay, let's try and make sense of this. The railroad announces it's coming through Paradise. Mayor Scott refuses to pay the fee and the railroad moves. So then, Mayor Scott and Sheriff Jones call in John Ball and Noah Dearborn... why?"
"To fleece the town," Rose said. "Rob us all, split the take."
"It probably won't be much, but maybe enough to give Scott the edge in another town. Give him a chance to start over and screw all us little people."
Katie shrugged. "So what're we gonna do?"
Rose sat back down, taking Ada's hand in her own. She stroked Ada's knuckles and softly said, "Against Scott, Jones, Dearborn and a railroad company? Nothing, Katie. There ain't a damn thing we can do."
The other three women stared at her in shock. Valerie stepped onto the porch. "'Nothing we can do'? I can't believe those words just came out of Rose Skinner's mouth. 'Nothing we can do.'"
Rose sighed and shook her head. "Val, if there was a way to fight the railroad, trust me, I'd..."
"You ain't even trying. I don't know who you are, but it ain't the Rose Skinner I know. It definitely ain't Black Jack. Where's the woman who once took twenty-three dollars off me in a single night? What happened to the woman who poured cold beer in the lap of a drunk who got too grabby?"
Rose sighed. "Valerie, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but... that's different. What do you want me to do? Go down to the train depot dressed up like Black Jack and look threatening until they agree to change the route back?" She reached up and touched her shoulder, lifting the arm as high as it would go. "I can barely get my arm all the way up. Even if I go with my weak hand, I'm nowhere near as good as I was as Black Jack."
Valerie shook her head. "Okay, then, forget Black Jack. We'll find a way to fix this, just the four of us. The Eves of Paradise. We'll get Mayor Scott out of the way and then... I don't know... form a committee to run the town for a while."
Katie spoke up. "We'll pass around a bucket. A collection, like in church. If everyone in town pays just a little bit, then we should be able to raise the amount the railroad is asking for. As long as construction hasn't started... I mean, there's a chance they'll move it back, right?"
Rose couldn't stand the near desperation in Katie's eyes, so she nodded. "Yeah, Katie, there's always a chance. But... it'll be dangerous. The mayor set Noah Dearborn on this town like a plague; there's no telling what he'd do when he's got nothing to lose." She glanced at Ada, who was smiling at her. "I don't want you to get hurt."
"I'll be fine," Ada assured her. She squeezed Rose's hand and looked at Valerie. "Besides Katie's bucket idea, which I think is really a great suggestion, what else does your plan involve?"
Valerie shrugged. "Dearborn is in jail, so all we have to do is turn the town against Scott and Jones. It should be easy enough if we have proof of the railroad's new plans."
Rose nodded. "Can you get a copy of the new map?"
"Probably at the depot," Valerie said.
"Okay, you ride on out there since you're the only fugitive in the group. Get the map and bring it back here. It's the only hard evidence we have of what Mayor Scott was up to. When you've got it, we'll ride into town together and call a special town meeting."
"And Dearborn?" Katie said.
"As soon as Scott and Jones are outta the way, we'll bring in the US Marshals to deal with him. I'm sure he has some kind of warrant out on him somewhere." Rose winced and said, "Valerie, are you up to another ride?"
She smiled. "This? This is nothing. When everything settled down, I'll tell you how I got the worst case of saddle sores ever. And it has nothing to do with a horse." She winked and tipped her hat before heading back down the walk.
Katie watched as Valerie mounted Wilbur's horse. "Sorry, baby. You're gonna have to ride again." She patted him on the neck and tugged on the reins to lead him out of the yard. The other three watched her ride away until she disappeared around a bend in the road.
When they were alone, Katie turned and looked at Rose and Ada. "What's so funny about being refreshed?"
The cell reeked of death, of blood and piss and evacuated bowels. Dearborn hardly noticed it anymore. He had already spent most of the night sitting there with the dead body of the stupid deputy, a little extra stink never hurt anyone.
He dumped Jones' body into the bunk with Albie and searched the office. He found a bottle of whiskey stuffed in the back of the lowest desk drawer and helped himself to it. It was his first drink since he'd been imprisoned and it tasted sweet, clear, like ambrosia. He held the bottle up to the sky and tilted it this way and that to watch how the sun reflected off the beveled glass. He shook his head and leaned back in the sheriff's desk chair. He admired the bright blue sky through the barred window and waited for the alcoholic buzz to wash over him.
"Damn weather. Last night it's blowing like the hounds of hell, spitting ice water at me when I'm trying to sleep. Now, morning, birds are chirping, sky is blue... Doesn't make sense, does it?" He looked at his audience and sighed. "You guys are the worst conversationalists, I swear."
He let his chair drop to the floor and stretched his good arm over his head. The wound in his shoulder had crippled one arm, but the other would do him just fine. He'd done his fair share of weak-hand shooting when the need arose. He scratched his stomach and walked into the cell. He patted Sheriff Jones' pasty, slack cheek and said, "You let me know if anyone comes in, Will. I'm counting on you."
William Jones' lifeless body fell back and his head hit the wall with a hollow 'thock.' Dearborn chuckled and searched for a bathroom. "Ah, hell. You guys don't even get to piss inside, do you? Give me a hole in the ground in my cell and expect me to do my business out in front of everybody." He sighed and tugged on his belt, deciding he could hold it.
"All right, Will. Hold down the fort for me. I have a couple of errands I have to run. I'll be back when I can. Save me some coffee and I'll try and bring back some more whiskey." He paused at the door as if expecting an answer and peered over his shoulder into the cell. When he saw Jones' bloated and bloody face, he shook his head. "Oh. Right. I killed you. No wonder you're being so quiet. Well. Still, keep your eyes open."
He stepped out into the sunshine.
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