DISCLAIMER: Characters and situations are actually mine for a change!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
After Echoes From a Gun
Chapter Ten -
Malcolm Scott had never been an early to bed, early to rise, kind of guy. He was a firm believer in early to bed, late to breakfast. Lately, however, he was fortunate to get even an hour's worth of restful sleep. He stood in front of the bathroom mirror and stared at his reflection as if it had betrayed him. In the past few months, since hearing that the railroad company had called his bluff, his cheeks had become sunken and his eyes were surrounded by thick, dark bags. Every muscle felt weary and it was a struggle to keep his arms braced against the sink.
The straight razor was in his left hand. He had yet to apply shaving cream to his face. To tell the truth, he was still trying to decide what he was planning to do with the blade. After all, one quick swipe and it'd all be gone. Just ear to ear. Make it one motion and have it done with. He was a puppet mayor, following the orders of a man who was in prison. He had sold out an entire town, just to line his pockets with a few extra bills.
He splashed some of the now-cool water on his face and straightened. Over the shoulder of his reflection, Noah Dearborn had filled the door of his bathroom. He spun around and swung his razor like a knife. Dearborn anticipated the move and grabbed Scott's wrist as it came towards him. He twisted and slammed Scott's wrist against the door jamb. The razor clattered uselessly to the ground and Dearborn shoved Scott against the sink. "Morning, Mayor," Dearborn said. He slammed his head forward and into Scott's face.
The back of Scott's head cracked against the mirror and he crumpled to the floor in a rain of broken glass.
Dearborn glanced up and saw the toilet in the corner. "Man alive. Indoor plumbing. You really are living it up, ain't ya, Mayor?" He stepped over Scott and walked to the toilet. He unzipped his trousers and sighed. "Only take a minute. If I'd known this was waiting for me, I wouldn't have stopped at the outhouse on my way in."
Scott cringed and covered his head as Dearborn used the facilities. When he finished, he exhaled and stretched his left foot out. "Man. This is the life, I tell you." He knelt next to Scott and frowned. "What's wrong with you? I didn't hit you that hard." He reached behind the mayor's head and felt wetness, surprised to see blood on his fingers. "Hell, boy. Just a little of the red stuff. Probably do you good. You ever get bloody? Ever get in a little fight? Get a little--"
"What the hell do you want?"
Dearborn stood and kicked Scott in the stomach. "Don't interrupt me," Dearborn hissed. "But, hell, since you're so impatient." He grabbed a handful of Scott's hair and lifted until he could see into Scott's eyes. "I still want Black Jack. I want to kill him or I want to see his corpse. But that can wait. First, I want the bitch that shot me."
"Valerie Monroe? We've been looking for her," Scott insisted. "But she ain't shown hide or hair since we put out the warrant for her arrest. I swear to you, we've been looking, but... Please!"
"Yeah, I know how hard you been looking. About as hard as that fat waste of space Jones was looking for Black Jack?"
Scott coughed, a thick drop of blood spilling from his mouth and down his chin. "Looking after you... was a full-time job. If we could've spared the men, we'd..." He raised his eyes, suddenly realizing what Dearborn's presence in his house meant. "What'd you do to William?"
Dearborn stood and looked at himself in the mirror. "I look pretty good, considering. Right? I mean, hell, I look worlds better than you and I spent the better part of this week bleeding in a jail cell." He sucked in his gut and turned sideways to observe his profile. "Does the bitch that shot me have friends?"
Scott hugged his stomach, rolling onto his knees and spitting blood onto the floor. "I guess. I-I guess she hangs around at, uh, at Paradise Rose."
"Yeah. So... I guess she'd be friends with Rose Skinner, Ada Odell, Katie Davies..."
Dearborn turned. "Katie Davies?"
"Her husband owns Paradise Rose."
"And she's friends with the bitch that shot me?"
Scott rasped, "I guess."
Dearborn grabbed a handful of Scott's hair and rammed his head into the sink. Scott crumpled to the floor and Dearborn let him fall. "I hate people who say 'I guess.' Know something, for Christ's sake." He wiped his hands and walked from the bathroom.
Wilbur turned the bottle upside down and tapped it against the rim of the half-empty glass. "Sorry about that. Let me go get a fresh bottle." He wiped his hands on his apron as he passed through the curtain into the back room. He paused and looked at the card table. It seemed like months since he'd seen his wife and her friends sit around that table after closing, Valerie Monroe chomping on that cigar and Rose helping Ada read her hand.
He unlocked the liquor case and knelt down to retrieve the extra bottles of whiskey. As he was rising, a shadow blocked the light coming from the main room of the bar. He had just enough time to be scared before the hard butt of a rifle came down and cracked against his jaw.
Wilbur collapsed and brought both hands up in a futile attempt to ward off further attacks. "What are you doing? What are you doing?!"
"Your wife talks to Black Jack," said Noah Dearborn. Wilbur was effectively shielding his face, so Dearborn stomped on his foot. Wilbur yelped and curled into a ball, rolling over and exposing his back. "Your wife's friend shoots me to save Black Jack," Dearborn continued. He dug the toe of his boot into Wilbur's kidney. "It got me thinking."
The curtain pushed aside and a patron stuck his head in. "Wilbur, I... oh, shit."
Dearborn lifted the rifle and aimed the barrel at the man. "Care to die, fella?"
"No, sir," the man said quietly.
"Go back out there. Make sure the bar is empty next time I come through or I'm gonna have to... eliminate witnesses."
The curtain quickly fell back into place. Dearborn went back to his assault. "Now, apparently your wife and the bitch that shot me are both suspiciously missing. What is a fellow like me supposed to think about that?"
He dropped to his knees and wrapped an arm around Wilbur's neck. Tightening it until he knew the whimpering barman could no longer breathe. He dropped his rifle and yanked the revolver from his belt. Pressing the cold steel into the soft flesh under Wilbur's chin, he softly whispered, "Where... is your wife?"
"I... I don't know. She ain't the only one who's missing, though. I swear it ain't anything to do with you!"
"Tell me the truth, Wilbur. Are you Black Jack? Maybe you never talk when you're in costume because you know your voice would be shaking. Show everyone what a coward you really were beneath that mask."
Wilbur was shaking his head as much as possible, his face turning purple. "No. No, I a-ain't never even shot a gun! I swear to you, Mr. Dearborn!"
Dearborn looked down at Wilbur's hands; soft and delicate, the kind that a man got from dealing with money and liquor all day. Not the hands of a shooter. He frowned and tapped the barrel against Wilbur's cheek. "Okay, Wilbur. We'll play it your way. Who else is missing?"
Dearborn smacked Wilbur in the temple with the gun. "You pay attention, son, or I may lose my patience with you! Now, you said your wife and the bitch that shot me weren't the only people missing. Who else?"
"Um, uh, m-my bartender. Rose Skinner. She's been missing for a long while."
"Really," Dearborn said. "And your wife, she and the bitch that shot me are friends with Rose Skinner?"
Dearborn smiled slowly and released Wilbur's throat. Wilbur gasped, grateful for the fresh air, and fell forward with a hand around his bruised neck. Dearborn was chuckling low and wiping at the spittle on his sleeve. "Well, well. Nice little hero you got there, Will."
"What?" Wilbur gasped. "Whadd'you mean?"
"Your wife, Valerie Monroe, Rose Skinner... I could never figure out why the hell Black Jack was risking his neck for this piece of shit backwater. I mean, he wasn't getting anything in return. But now I know. Now I know. He wasn't getting paid coin. It was more of a..." He chuckled and thrust his hips lewdly. "More of a barter system."
"You shut your mouth," Wilbur hissed. He struggled back onto his feet.
"Or you'll do what?" Dearborn asked, deadly serious again.
Wilbur didn't back down. "Don't you talk about my wife that way."
Dearborn stared him down for another moment and then said, "Standing up for your woman. I didn't think you had it in you, son. I'm proud of you." He picked up his rifle and leaned against it like a walking stick. "But it does beg the question. If they ain't involved with Black Jack, why the hell is their whole little group suddenly gone missing?"
"It's not their whole group," Wilbur muttered, wiping his lip and refusing to meet Dearborn's eyes.
"What was that, then?"
Wilbur, accepting that he wouldn't get away with a lie, gestured to the round table in the corner. "It ain't their whole group."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Their card group. They... they play cards here all the time. Rose, Valerie, Ada and my Katie. Ada ain't missing, so it ain't their whole group."
Dearborn chewed the inside of his cheek and said, "Who is Ada?"
"Ada Odell. She's a wannabe... doctor or banjo-player or... hell, I don't know."
"You said she's not missing?"
Wilbur shook his head. "Nah. She came in for some..."
Dearborn arched an eyebrow. "For some...?" he prompted.
"Ice," Wilbur said. "Some ice and a couple jugs of water."
Dearborn looked at the empty card table. "You got four women. Three of them vanish without a trace and one of them bought supplies for several people? That doesn't strike you as odd, Mr. Davies?"
"I guess I didn't think about it."
"I'm gonna give you the benefit of the doubt for the moment, Mr. Davies. Because you stood up against a man like me for the honor of your wife." He gestured at the seat and said, "But I am gonna have to make sure you don't follow me or nothing." He knelt down and began fastening Wilbur's hands behind his back. "While I'm working, I want you to tell me real clear how I can find Ms. Odell's house."
Ada, Katie and Rose sat on the living room floor with a deck of cards shuffled and dealt out between them. Rose adjusted her hand and straightened her back to peer through the window to the road outside. "Come on, Valerie," she whispered.
"Rose," Ada shushed. She reached over and pat Rose's knee. "Relax."
She looked at Ada, glanced at Katie and then looked down at her cards. "Sorry. Sorry, Katie, ah... give me your sevens."
"Sorry, Rose. I don't have any."
"You don't have to be sorry, Katie."
Katie blushed and said, "I'm sorry. Go fish."
Rose reached into the deck and withdrew a card. She added it to her hand and Ada said, "Okay, Rose. Do you have any threes?"
"No," Rose said with an absent look towards the window.
"Rose," Ada said.
Rose looked at Ada, looked at her cards and then frowned at Katie. "Is she looking at my cards? Is there a mirror behind me or something?"
"My threes, please," Ada asked as she held out her hand.
As Rose handed the cards over, Katie explained, "You asked me for threes a couple hands ago. I didn't have any, but... apparently Ada did."
Rose quirked her lips and sagged.
Katie smiled and said, "Okay, Ada, do you have any..."
"How long did it take you to get there last night?" Rose interrupted.
"Jacks," Katie finished quietly.
Ada glared at Rose. "Will you settle down? Valerie's going as fast as she can, I'm sure. What with no storm to contend with and traveling in the light of day, she's probably making better time than she did last night. So just hush and play cards."
Rose leveled her eyes at Ada and set her jaw. She tightened her hands on her cards and... gave in. She shook her head and said, "Sorry."
Katie looked nervously between the two, still unsure if they were about to come to blows. She cleared her throat and said, "If you guys need to get refreshed again, I could step outside..."
Rose looked at Katie with her eyes wide, her jaw dropping at what the girl had suggested. Ada laughed and, before long, Rose had joined her. Katie chewed her bottom lip, wondered what she'd done to break the tension, and eventually began to laugh nervously along with them. Rose wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and patted Katie on the knee. "Katie, honey, Valerie was being a little mean when she told you to say that. You should probably drop it."
"Oh," Katie said.
Ada rested her cards face-down in front of her and stood to stretch her legs. "I'm gonna get us something to drink. Katie, you want anything?"
Rose got herself to her feet and said, "I'll come with... should probably exercise a bit anyhow." She followed Ada into the kitchen and checked over her shoulder to make sure Katie was distracted looking out the front window. She touched Ada's hip and drew her aside. "I'm sorry. I tend to get a little tunnel vision and I hate sitting, waiting..."
"I know," Ada said softly. She brushed her knuckles across Rose's cheek and said, "Sorry I snapped at you. You're just worried is all."
Rose leaned into Ada's body and realized she was already accustomed to the way they fit together. She brushed her nose against Ada's and whispered, "Keep me sane, all right?"
"I'll do my best," Ada promised. She squeezed Rose's hand and looked back into the living room at Katie. As they separated, Ada called, "You sure you don't want no lemonade, Katie? Got plenty."
Rose looked over at the window. Katie had stood up and was standing to the side of the window, pressing her face against the curtain. "Katie? What, you takin' over my spot as watchdog?" When Katie didn't reply, Rose went back into the living room to see what was wrong.
As she got closer, she could hear Katie's voice chanting in a quiet, desperate whisper: "Rose. Rose... Rose... Rose."
Rose put a hand on the small of Katie's back and looked out the window.
Noah Dearborn was standing just outside the white picket fence. He had his thumbs hooked in his gun belt and had a charming smile plastered on his face. When he spotted Rose, he arched his eyebrows and waggled his fingers in a friendly wave.
"Ada," Rose said, not daring to break eye contact with the man.
"Is the mockingbird back?" Ada asked as she carried two glasses of lemonade in from the kitchen.
"It's Noah Dearborn."
Ada froze where she stood.
Noah raised his hand above his head and waved again. He cupped both hands over his mouth and shouted, "Hello, in there, Ladies of Paradise. I think I know all of your names, but let me know if I left anyone out: Ms. Ada, Ms. Rose, Mrs. Valerie and my old dear friend Mrs. Katie. You all have quite the reputation, you know... took me a while to put it together. But I think you ladies know where Mr. Black Jack is hiding. If you do, and if you tell me, I might be persuaded to let you off with a warning.
"But if you decide you want to be stubborn... well..." He shrugged.
"What're you gonna do," Rose called. "Kill us?"
Dearborn squinted. "Now, I don't believe I know you. Are you Ada or Rose?"
"I'm Black Jack," Rose called.
Dearborn laughed and slapped his hip. "Okay, Ms. Jack. I'm looking for your husband, then."
Rose glanced at Katie. She still seemed to be frozen, her face pressed against the lacy curtain. "Katie, honey. Can you walk away?"
Katie nodded slowly.
"I want you to get out of sight and go get my Black Jack clothes. They're in Ada's bedroom, in the corner. When you come back, stay away from the window. Don't let him see you again."
"Lot of whispering," Dearborn loudly noted.
She pushed Katie gently away from the window and pushed the curtains the rest of the way open. "We ain't giving anybody up, Dearborn. You're gonna have to make good on your bluff."
Ada walked up and flattened her palm against Rose's back. She spotted Dearborn for the first time and sneered. "Momma said the devil would be handsome."
Rose arched an eyebrow. "She right?"
Ada shrugged. "Ain't my kind of tea," she said. She let her hand dip down to the curve of Rose's ass.
Rose blushed and tried to keep her face neutral.
Dearborn walked back to his horse and angled his face to the sun. "I got time, ladies. I got lots of time." He pulled out a pocket watch and said, "We'll go with waiting each other out first. I'll give you an hour to give up Black Jack. If we can't reach a solution by then, well... we'll try something new."
Rose glared back at Dearborn. She didn't take her eyes off of him as she said, "Get comfortable, ladies. We're gonna be here awhile."
An hour passed with them taking turns at the window to keep watch. Dearborn, true to his word that he was waiting them out, stayed on the opposite side of the fence. He stroked his horse, ate handfuls of nuts from the saddle bags, and stared at the house as if admiring the architecture. He paced back and forth, trailed his hands along the tops of the picket fence and practiced quick-draws. Rose watched each draw carefully and looked for tells. It could come in handy very soon.
He whistled tunelessly and checked his pocket watch, announcing the time at fifteen minute intervals.
Meanwhile, inside the house, Katie and Rose tried to create Black Jack in such a way that it wouldn't be obvious from the window. While Ada stood at the window, Katie helped Rose into her jeans. She kept her dress on, so she could still make an appearance at the window if necessary.
When the allotted hour ran out, Rose was at the window. She watched Dearborn check his pocket watch, walk calmly back to his horse and fuss with one of the saddlebags on the far side. "He's up to something," she said quietly.
Katie and Ada came up to the window in time to see him slash at the stubborn bag strap. It came loose and fell at his feet. As he bent to pick it up, he called out, "Ms. Ada, you may wanna pay attention."
Ada took a deep breath and felt Rose's hand on her hip. She took strength from Rose's hand and kept her jaw tight. Dearborn unlatched the gate and stepped into the front yard for the first time with the saddlebag hanging by his side. "When I asked how to find Ms. Ada Odell's place, I got one answer. 'The garden. Just look for the house with the garden. Ada's got a lovely garden started.'" He looked around and nodded. "And it's a mighty fine start. I've been admiring it this past hour, just so you know.
"Now I got a couple of options here. I could just start shooting. Hope I get lucky digging through the corpses when I'm done. But that seems tiring. And I'd hate to think I rooted through all them store rooms for nothing. Ms. Valerie, you too busy to come have a look?" He waited and then shrugged. "All right then. I'm a little disappointed. See, when I was robbing your store, I kind of pictured someone stronger. But that's all right."
He scanned the yard again and Ada hissed, "What is he gonna do, Rose?"
Rose had an idea, but she didn't want to put it into words.
"Getting back to your garden, Ms. Ada, now that I've had a chance to really examine the work you put into it... my, my. It almost pains me what I have to do."
He withdrew a large white bag and used the tip of his knife to cut the top open. "Anyone in there like history? Katie? Valerie? Mr. Black Jack?" He smiled. "You know, the Romans were kind of blood-thirsty. Always admired that about them. I heard in the Third Punic War, they salted a fifty-mile area around the city." He turned the bag upside down and began to pour salt onto the dirt. "Made sure nothing ever grew there again."
Ada's fingernails dug into Rose's arm.
"I ain't much for reading," Dearborn said. He flicked the bag so he would get the best coverage as he kept speaking. "But when I hear something I can use to my advantage, well... I like hurting someone's mind almost as much as I like hurting their bodies." He looked up at the window and smiled brightly, almost jovially. "Well, now, I guess the lovely lady with the tears in her eyes is Ada."
Rose glanced at Ada and saw the tears streaming down her cheeks. She squeezed Ada's hand and looked back outside.
Dearborn had pulled another bag of salt from his pouch. "Don't worry, ladies. You just bought yourselves another hour inside the house. I got a lot of salt here, gonna try and make sure it lasts. Make sure it gets nice and deep." He winked and said, "Take your time. I know I will."
He cut open the next bag of salt and began pouring.
Ada's eyes were closed and she was sobbing openly. Rose looped an arm around her waist and said, "Katie. Help me." Katie took Ada's other arm and together they guided her to the couch. They eased Ada onto the cushion and Rose sat next to her. Ada trembled against Rose's arm and opened her eyes. Behind her tears, her eyes were flat and cold. "I want that son of a bitch dead."
"I know," Rose whispered. "The line forms behind me. The bright side is we get another hour to think up some way to get out of this." She looked to the back of the house and said, "I'm assuming he doesn't have friends watching the back. Could we..."
Ada shook her head. "There's a culvert back there. Deep, brambles, overgrown bushes... it's hell. Sticker weeds all over the place." She sniffed, lifting her glasses to wipe her eyes. "We could probably make it out, but not quietly."
Rose bit her lip and glanced at Katie.
"Valerie's been gone a long time," Katie said quietly, hugging herself.
Rose frowned. "Yeah, Katie." She sighed and looked at the window, suddenly realizing what Katie meant. "Yeah. Valerie *has* been gone a long time."
"What does that mean?" Ada asked.
"It means she should've made it back by now." Rose got up and went to the window. She stayed low and peered over the sill. She saw Dearborn standing by his horse, his back to the house, and she risked lifting her head a little more. She scanned the trees, the bushes, the hills around Ada's property. There were plenty of places to hide. The only problem was... "There!" Rose hissed, as if Dearborn could hear her through the glass.
"What?" Ada asked. She moved to the window with Katie and scanned the hillside in front of her home.
Rose gestured for them to stay down and gestured at the hill. "Behind a tree up there. Valerie's horse. She must've been on her way back when she spotted Dearborn outside. We have an ace now, Katie. He thinks Valerie is in here."
"How do we use that to our advantage?" Ada asked.
Rose glanced at the black jeans she was wearing and said, "Help me get these off. I'm going out there."
"I'm going out there as me. Hopefully, Valerie's better at picking up my hints than she is at calling my bluffs."
Dearborn checked his watch at the forty-five minute mark and shuffled the toe of his boot through the salted ground. Before long, the flowers that were already sprouting would wilt and die. The ones that were still in the ground would never see the light of day. He'd been thrilled when he heard Ms. Odell had a garden; he'd picked up that Roman garbage from a book he'd read in the back of a wagon. Bored enough to read, but by gum if it hadn't come in useful. The look on those women's faces...
He cut short his victory laugh and faced the house. The windows were all empty, but the door was open a crack. Now that *was* disappointing. He had hoped the ladies would hold out a little longer. Giving in just because he'd stomped a few flowers? It was almost embarrassing. He hitched up his belt and said, "You can come on out, darling. Or send Black Jack out. Either way, I think you're making--"
"Shut your mouth. I can smell your breath from up here."
Dearborn blinked in surprise. Okay. So maybe *not* surrendering.
"You unhook your gun belt right now. Lay it at your feet."
"Now, why would I want..."
"Do it or die where you stand. I just wanna come out and have a nice little chat with you, don't wanna risk you blowing me away. I swear to you, I ain't armed. Couldn't shoot you if I wanted to. So just drop your belt and take one step back from it."
Dearborn smiled and unlatched the buckle. "Well. Never could resist a woman telling me to drop trou."
He dumped the guns on the ground and took exactly one step back. He held his arms out to his sides and said, "All right. You're about as safe as you're gonna get."
The door opened a little wider and a woman peered out. She looked at his guns and stepped out onto the porch. She stood in front of the door and stared at him with her arms at her sides. Her auburn lion's mane hung loose around her head to frame her face like a halo. She kept her right hand tucked behind her back and her left hand was tucked into the fold of her gingham and lace dress. She wasn't wearing any make-up and her dress looked like it could use a good washing... but still, the woman was a beauty.
Dearborn whistled and said, "I don't believe we've been properly introduced. Are you Rose or Ada?"
"Rose Skinner. You can call me Miss Skinner."
"Never let it be said Noah Dearborn disrespected a lady," he smiled with a tip of his head. "What can I do for you, Miss Skinner?"
"Turn around and ride outta here."
He laughed and slapped his stomach. "Oh! Oh, I have got to respect you asking. Sorry, Miss Skinner, but I can't do that. I do respect you, though. Mighty fine try."
"I'm not asking. I'm telling."
Dearborn's smile wavered. "I want you to be aware... very aware... that I will shoot you. I respect women, but I'll shoot one if she gets in my way. We have an understanding?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Dearborn. How terribly open-minded of you. But I'm not asking you to spare us out of the goodness of your own heart. See... we have cross-hairs on you right now."
"Ha, okay." He waved at the windows and said, "Little Katie Davies behind the sheer curtain with a little Derringer? Huh? You in there, Katie, dear?"
"You're looking the wrong way. See, you made a mistake. You cornered a house with a bunch of frightened women... and no Black Jack. But he's here now. He's behind you."
Dearborn's cobalt eyes flicked to the right. Not much, but enough to make Rose smile.
"Not directly behind you, you cowardly son of a bitch. You won't see him. You snuck up on him last time, so I guess it's *his* turn to play hide-and-seek."
Dearborn's smile returned in full force. "Aw, hell, Miss Skinner. You almost got me." He slapped his thigh and said, "Shee-oot. I will admit... I will admit you had me going. I'm a big enough man to admit when I've been gotten. I'll even let you go back into the house. Come up with a Plan B."
"Figured you wouldn't buy it on my word alone." She cupped both hands over her mouth and called, "Black Jack! You ready?"
Dearborn laughed. He cupped his hands over his mouth and called, "Yeah, Black Jack. Better get good and ready!"
Rose ignored his jeering. "On my mark, send one right over the top of his pretty hat."
"On her mark, you hear?" Dearborn called. He turned at his waist to scan the trees and pointed at his hat. "Right here!"
Rose smiled. "Now!" she called. She hoped and prayed that Valerie had a gun and knew what she was--
A gunshot echoed through the hills and Dearborn's hat was knocked off his head. He dropped to his knees, fumbling to catch his hat before scrambling for his gun. As he was about to close his hands around the butt of his weapon, Rose freed her left hand and snapped her whip across his wrist.
Dearborn howled in shock more than pain and recoiled from the whip. "Get out of here!" Rose sneered. "You shouldn't have destroyed these flowers, you son of a bitch. Even animals know well enough to respect flowers."
When he'd backed up far enough, Rose walked to the gate and picked up his gun belt.
"Oh, you're gonna be sorry," he growled, still scanning the trees for signs of his adversary. He leapt onto his horse and aimed a finger at her. "You are all gonna pay." He snapped the reins of his horse and turned back towards the town.
When the dust from the trail settled and she was sure that he wasn't coming back, Rose knelt down and touched the ground. He'd worked the salt into the loose dirt with the toe of his boot while he'd been pacing. It would take a miracle or, at least, more smarts than she had to save the garden. She closed her eyes and wondered how a lead slug in her shoulder could hurt less than seeing Ada lose her garden.
By the time she stood, Valerie was walking down the dirt road towards the house. She was leading her horse, rifle resting on one shoulder. "I get to be Black Jack now?" she asked when she was close enough. "Is this gonna be a rotating thing in our group? Cause I could get used to it, but I don't think Katie would be very convincing..."
Rose smiled and said, "Glad you were paying attention." She hugged Valerie and guided her up to the house.
"What else did I have to do? Watching Dearborn pace like a dumb mule." She looked down and whispered, "Oh, Rose. Tell me he didn't salt this garden." Rose tightened her hand on Valerie's shoulder and felt the taller woman tense. "Shoot him all you like. Just let me break his fingers before he dies."
Rose shook her head. "Ada called the fingers. You can break his toes."
Valerie nodded. "Deal."
Back inside, Rose dumped Dearborn's gun belt on the table as Valerie dealt hugs to Katie and Ada. She pulled the train route map from her back pocket and handed it to Rose. "Main reason we didn't bring it back last night, other'n the storm... the guy wanted a near king's ransom for this piece of hide." She put her hands in the small of her back and leaned into them until she heard a pop. Her hair hung in limp strings around her face and the sunburn on her nose was now starting to peel over pink flesh. She wiped her sleeve over her top lip and said, "What's the plan now?"
"We take this into town," Rose said as she examined the train routes. "All four of us. We walk it in, call a special town meeting and tell everyone what we know. With the evidence right in front of them like this, there's no way they can refuse it. No way Scott and Jones can deny it."
Ada stood and touched Rose's shoulder. "You sure you're up for riding?"
"It ain't that far into town," Rose assured her, putting her hand on top of Ada's. "I'll be fine. But I need to change into something more appropriate if I'm gonna ride." She stepped aside and started to undo her dress. She picked up the jeans and ducked behind the bedroom door to get changed.
"It don't matter if she's injured or not," Katie said. "She can't ride 'cause Ezekiel is in the stable back in town."
"Oh, God! Ezekiel!" Rose gasped from behind the door. She walked back into the room in her black jeans and wearing the undershirt she'd had on under her dress. She grabbed Valerie's hand and said, "I never said thank you. If you hadn't..."
Valerie shook her head and said, "Don't worry about it. You can ride with Ada." She slapped her hip and said, "Come on. I'm ready to bury some corrupt politicians, how 'bout you ladies?"
Ada forced a smile and Rose slipped her good arm around her waist. They headed for the door with Valerie and Katie leading the way. As soon as they were alone, Ada stopped Rose and pressed her against the wall. "You're sure you're okay?" she breathed. "Forget looking tough for Katie, forget Valerie..."
Rose kissed Ada's lips and slid her hand over Ada's back.
When they parted, Rose whispered, "I'm okay." She pressed her cheek against Ada's for another moment before they pushed away from the wall. Ada went outside and Rose picked up Dearborn's weapons. No reason to think it would be anything but a nice, peaceful meeting, but one could never be too careful. She took the guns and headed outside. "Hold up, ladies."
They paused at the gate and Rose held up the guns.
"I don't know how to shoot," Katie said.
"Don't matter," Rose said. "We're all taking one. Jones, Scott, Dearborn... they all got a reason to stop us. I ain't gonna get caught with our pants down." She and Valerie had their own guns, so she gave Katie one of Dearborn's revolvers. She turned to Ada and hesitated.
Ada pressed her lips into a tight line and took the gun from Rose. "We're all in this together. All the way, Rose."
All the way. Wherever that might take them.
Chapter Eleven -
Noah Dearborn flung the door open with such force that it left a mark in the wall before swinging back towards him. He stopped it from hitting him in the face with one hand and stormed to Mayor Scott's desk. Scott was half out of his chair when Dearborn rounded the edge of the desk and shoved him back down. "Sit." He shoved the chair out of his way and began rifling through the drawers, dumping the contents onto the desktop.
Scott stared wide-eyed at the carnage and finally managed to say, "Wh-what in God's name are you doing?"
"Gun," Dearborn hissed.
Scott frowned and looked at Dearborn's waist. For the first time since he'd known the psychopath, he wasn't wearing his gun belt. Dearborn pulled a drawer out and tossed it at the wall over Scott's head. "Gun!" he growled.
Scott aimed a trembling finger and said, "Bottom drawer."
Dearborn pulled open the drawer and withdrew a revolver. He spun out the chamber and said, "Single-action?"
Dearborn sneered and stuck the gun into the waistband of his trousers. He grabbed a handful of Scott's vest and lifted him out of his chair. He slammed him against the wall and got close enough that Scott could smell his alcohol-soaked breath when he spoke. "I need a rifle. And I need bullets. I only need four bullets. No..." He thought for a moment. "Eight bullets. I'm gonna make that Skinner bitch suffer."
"Skinner?" Scott said. "Rose Skinner?"
"She humiliated me," he sneered. "Outsmarted me. I'm gonna kill her slow. The other bitches, they can go quick, I could give a rip." He dropped Scott from the wall and wiped a hand over his bottom lip. "Rifle. Bullets. Tell me now."
"They should have some a-at the supply store."
Dearborn tilted his head.
"Or, ah... or I could get a hold of one."
Scott frowned and said, "Even you can't... can't fire two rifles at the same..."
Dearborn cut Scott off by backhanding him. Scott crumpled, held up only by Dearborn's fist in his vest. He forced Scott back onto his feet and slammed him into the wall again. Blood was seeping from the corner of his mouth and his eyes were wide with fright. "The second gun is for you, you dumb son of a whore."
"What?" Dearborn gasped. "I ain't gonna shoot no one! I draw the line at..."
Dearborn slapped him again, but this time let him fall completely to the ground. When he knelt, he blocked the sunlight with his broad shoulders. In a low hiss, he said, "This is your goddamned mess, Malcolm. I was happy to expend a little energy, come down here and make a little coin. But this Black Jack fellow wasn't part of the equation. Now he has these little bitches doing his legwork and I'm starting to wonder if this town is going to roll over and let itself get robbed like you promised." He grabbed Scott's shirt and pulled him back to his feet. "Now you're gonna help me clean up this mess, you son of a bitch."
"I can't kill..."
"You will," Dearborn said. He pulled the revolved from his belt and pressed it against Scott's forehead. "Or I will."
Scott swallowed and slowly nodded his head. Dearborn withdrew the gun and returned it to his belt. "Glad you decided to come around. Now let's go. We don't have much time."
Rose and Valerie went into the stables while Katie and Ada waited outside with Val's horse. Tommy Dawes was sweeping loose hay from an empty stall and looked up at the new arrivals. He broke into a smile when he saw Rose. "Miss Rose! You sure are a sight for sore eyes."
She smiled and said hello before hurrying over to Ezekiel's stall. He saw her coming and rocked his head from side-to-side with elation. Rose dipped down and grabbed a bright green apple from the barrel next to the door. "Zeke," she said. She let him snatch the apple from her hand and hugged his neck. "Hey, gorgeous. Hey. I'm sorry I worried you. I won't leave you again, sweetheart. I promise."
"Rose," Valerie softly prompted.
Rose nodded and picked up the saddle. She examined it and said, "Tommy, you clean this?"
"Yes, ma'am," Tommy said. "Two days ago with saddle soap and, uh, neatsfoot oil."
Rose nodded and attached the bridle while Valerie quickly put the saddle in place. Rose looped the reins around her hand and settled her foot in the stirrup. Valerie put her hand on Rose's rear end and pushed her into place.
"You hurt your arm, Miss Rose?" Tommy asked. He had been watching them from the corner stall and noticed she wasn't raising her right arm any more than necessary. She turned her body slightly and hoped he hadn't also noticed she and Valerie were both armed.
She forced a smile and nodded. "Yep. I'll be fine, though. It's already healing up nicely."
"Good to hear it. Have a good afternoon, Miss Rose. Miss Valerie." He straightened his broom and resumed sweeping. Valerie led Ezekiel from the stable and they rejoined Katie and Ada outside. Valerie mounted her own horse and Ada said, "You sure you're up for this, Rose?"
Rose nodded and drew her gun with her left hand. "I ain't half the shooter I used to be," she said.
"You ain't alone this time," Katie said.
Rose smiled. "No, I guess I'm not." She smiled at Ada and holstered the gun. "Come on, ladies."
Valerie rode out first, followed by Rose, then Katie and Ada brought up the rear. They spread out shoulder-to-shoulder with Valerie slightly ahead of the rest. She called out to the first person they passed, "Special meeting at the town hall. Half an hour from now. Let everyone know. Special meeting."
"Special meeting at the town hall," Katie said to a man on the other side of the street. "Half an hour."
When they were in front of Paradise Rose, Valerie said, "You got the route map?"
"In my back pocket," Rose said. She smiled. "You think I lost it already?"
Valerie smirked and shook her head. "As much as I paid for that damn thing, I'm just a little paranoid." She faced forward again and said over her shoulder, "Rose. There's something else I should tell you while I have the chance. I want you to know that... thinking about everything you've done... I'm in awe of you."
Rose ducked her head and said, "I didn't do anything that..."
At first, she thought that she'd been shot. The blood splattered into her eyes and she pulled up on Ezekiel's reins in surprise. When she managed to blink the red out of her eyes, she saw Valerie fall forward and limply slip from her horse's saddle. She hit the ground like a lead weight, her body collapsing in the dirt like a rag doll. Her horse reared up and snorted angrily before taking off down the street.
People on the sidewalk scattered as the echo of the gunshot finally died down. Ada had pulled her gun but was focusing mainly on trying to keep her horse calm. Rose pulled her own gun and shouted to the others, "Down! Get off your horses!"
They got to the ground and Rose slapped Ezekiel on the rump. "Get them somewhere safe, Zeke!" He snorted and raised both feet off the ground. Katie and Ada's horses took off after him as their riders dismounted. Rose grabbed Ada by the collar and dragged her towards the cover of the sidewalk. As they passed Katie, Rose looped an arm around her waist and dragged her along as well.
They hunkered down in front of the blacksmith shop, Rose checking to make sure Ada hadn't been hit. "I'm fine, I'm fine," Ada whispered. She took Rose's hands in her own to keep them still and looked out at the street at their fallen friend. "Valerie!" Ada called. "Valerie!"
Rose bit her tongue. Ada obviously hadn't seen the blood on Valerie's shoulder. She grabbed Ada by the shoulders and said, "Ada! Ada, calm down." She pulled the route map from her pocket and stuffed it into the belt of Ada's pants. "Take this and get Katie someplace safe."
"Ada, don't. Don't." Rose locked eyes with her and set her lips in a firm line.
Ada saw the resolve in Rose's eyes and exhaled a shaky breath. "Damn it, Rose. Don't get yourself killed."
Rose pulled Ada close and kissed her, long and hard, and slipped her hand over Ada's hip. She smelled the leather of Ada's chaps, smelled the wood chips that she used in her stove, tasted the sweet tea they'd had earlier. She tasted salty tears on her lips and pulled back. She brushed her thumb over Ada's wet cheek and said, "Keep Katie safe."
"I love you," Ada whispered.
"I love you, too," Rose said. She glanced at Katie, who was staring at them in wide-eyed shock. "Come on," Rose said with a smile. "You had to have suspected something." She turned away from Katie's dropped jaw and patted Ada on the hip. "Go on. I'll deal with Val and the bastard who shot her."
Ada closed her eyes and touched Rose's face one last time. She took the gun from her holster and pressed it into Rose's hand. "Double your chances," she said. Rose nodded. Ada turned to Katie and tearfully said, "C'mon." They ducked into the blacksmith's shop and Rose wrapped her fingers around the butt of the gun.
She dropped into a crouch and searched the rooftops for signs of the sniper. Valerie had fallen forward, but the blood had sprayed backwards into Rose's face. She was still trying to determine where the shots may have come from when movement on the general store caught her eye. Someone was up there with a gun. Rage boiled inside of her and she hissed, "Bastard shot Valerie from on top of her own store..."
The gun she had taken from Ada was nestled between her jeans and belt. She tested the grip of her left hand on the other gun, trying to get used to the backwards way it felt. The shooting had stopped after Valerie fell, so there was little doubt as to the gunman's target. She licked her chapped lips and moved into the street.
Immediately, a gunshot rang out. She dropped and felt the wind from the bullet move through her hair. She twisted at the waist and brought up the gun with her left hand. She felt sweat burning in her eyes as she pulled the trigger and felt the weapon jump in her weak hand. She hissed at the recoil and had to bite down on her tongue to keep from grabbing the shoulder.
She bent over and ran to Valerie's prone body. Keeping her gun trained on the shooter's position, she hooked her hand under Valerie's arm and dragged her through the dirt to the opposite sidewalk. Another shot rang out, but a dust plume kicked up by Valerie's boots gave them a smoke screen. She got Valerie onto the sidewalk and hid her behind a trough overflowing with dirty rainwater.
She knelt next to Valerie's head and pressed her hand against her friend's wound. She ducked her head down and watched the general store roof for any more signs of movement. Valerie groaned and shifted on the wood, her hand going to her shoulder. "Rose," she breathed. "Rose, you there?"
Rose ducked down and stroked Valerie's hair. "I'm here."
"They got away," Rose said. "They're okay."
Valerie nodded. She swallowed and said, "Guy shot me, Rose."
"I know," Rose smiled.
"You... this happened to you twice?" She gasped and said, "Damn, Rose."
Rose laughed and took Valerie's hand. She placed it on her shoulder and said, "Keep pressure on this, okay?"
"Where... you going?"
Rose looked up in time to see someone hunched over, running down the length of the general store. There was a gun in the man's hand, a rifle judging by the length of it. "I'm going to get the guy who shot you."
"Shoot him three times if... you can spare the bullets."
"I'll do what I can," Rose smiled. "You just stay here and keep pressure on that wound. I promise I'll get you to Doc Tyler when I'm done with Dearborn."
Valerie nodded weakly and closed her eyes.
Rose reluctantly stood and ran across the street. As she passed the point where Valerie had gone down, another shot rang out. It hit the dirt near her and she ducked her head down. She twisted her hips and jumped with the same motion, bringing the gun up and firing blind. She shot twice, her bullets tearing into the wooden Paradise Rose sign.
She ran backwards, knowing the man on the general store was on the run, and kept an eye open for the second shooter. She fired once more just as the nose of a rifle was starting to crest the sign. 'They're shooting at us from Valerie's store and Paradise Rose... They definitely know who we are,' she thought. She fired once more, using the tip of the rifle as a guide, and was rewarded with a shouted curse.
The second gun was withdrawn and she ducked between two buildings. She raced down the alley and scanned the rooftops. Ladders ran up the back side of several buildings and were the first shooter's only logical escape route. She turned in a slow circle, waiting for the man to make an appearance.
When he finally did show, she only caught a glimpse of his hat brim before he pulled back. She followed the tell-tale pounding of his boots on the rooftop all the way to the stables. She cursed when she remembered the skylight that she loved so much. She pushed open the back door and spotted Tommy Dawes standing at the opposite end of the building. Sweeping had apparently been forgotten in order to investigate the gunfight he was hearing.
He turned at the sound of the back door opening and his eyes widened when he saw the gun in her hand. Her hair had come loose in several places and her left hand was covered in blood. Tommy gasped, "Miss Rose?"
"Run, Tommy!" she called.
He was gone before the broom clattered on the ground. She turned her attention to the upper level of the stable. A loft filled with hay circled about six feet below the roof. The first gunman - she could see now that it was Mayor Scott and not Noah Dearborn - scrambled through the skylight. He hit the landing and turned to see her waiting. He brought the rifle up at the same time she squeezed off two shots.
They both shouted and dropped, Scott's movements taking him off the edge of the landing. He hit the ground inside of one of the stalls, sending up a wave of hay and horse dung. He wailed plaintively and then fell quiet.
Rose kept her gun trained on him and leaned against the door of the next stall. "I hit you?" he finally asked.
"Nope," Rose said. "Did I hit *you*?"
There was a pause and he admitted, "Yeah. You did." He coughed and wheezed, but he didn't move. "Got me good, too."
Rose slid down the post and rested the gun in her lap. She had one bullet left in her gun and she was planning to use it on Noah Dearborn. She sighed and looked over her shoulder into the next stall. Scott was laying flat on his back, hand clamped to his neck and staring at the ceiling. The muscles of her left shoulder were burning. All the practice in the world wouldn't have prepared her for this much activity. She sighed and asked, "Did Dearborn tell you to take us out?"
"He said to take *you* out. I missed."
Rose smiled bleakly. "I won't hold it against ya. Valerie might." She heard Scott's head thump against the ground. "How's the wound?"
"Soaking through my... clothes pretty bad. I think... I'm gonna need help."
"No. Let him... get him to take care of Mrs. Monroe first."
Rose closed her eyes and rested her head against the wall. She saw herself astride a horse, outside some bank while Jeremiah and his men were inside emptying the vaults. How many towns did she have a hand in ruining? How many lives and fortunes had she helped steal? How was she any better than Scott or Jones? She reached up and pushed her hair out of her face and left a streak of Valerie's blood on her forehead. "Damn it, Scott. You're not a bad man."
He was quiet for a while and then said, "I was just... doing what I thought was best. For my town."
"No," Rose snapped. "Do not say that. Paradise is *not* your town, Malcolm Scott. Me and Valerie poured our blood into these streets. Ada broke her back planting and tending her garden and Katie... hell, Katie can brighten anything just by sitting down. This is *our* town, Mr. Scott."
He sighed heavily and she looked over her shoulder. "Hell with this," she muttered. She wasn't going to sit here as his confessor. "Hell with you. Good-bye, Mr. Scott." She pulled herself up and walked to the door. As she was about to step back into the sunlight, another gunshot echoed through the barn. Terrified Dearborn had found her, she dropped and covered her head with trembling hands. She hazarded a look over her shoulder and didn't see Scott or Dearborn lurking with their weapons drawn.
She withdrew her gun and moved carefully back to the stall she'd just vacated. When she saw Scott's body, the rifle now lying on his chest, she knew what he'd done. "Aw hell," she gasped. She gripped the petition with both hands and hung her head. "Damn it." She refused to cry for him, refused to feel it was anything but his own fault. She pushed away from the wooden wall and saw her handprint in blood.
She left the stable and walked wearily back to the place she'd left Valerie. She kept her gun drawn, eyes locked on the Paradise Rose sign and surrounding rooftop. Her previous shots had left dark blemishes inside the second 'a' and the capital R. Before stepping into the street, she took a hard look at the town to make sure Dearborn hadn't changed positions. People were cowering behind doors, frightened but unable to ignore the spectacle. The town seemed simultaneously deserted and packed with life.
She walked across the street, daring Dearborn to open fire and give away his position, as she returned to the trough where she'd left Valerie. She ducked behind the barricade and felt her stomach drop into her boots.
Valerie was gone.
The Skinner woman ran from cover and Scott opened fire on her. Dearborn cursed at the man's piss-poor accuracy. He could've hit her twice, but he was waiting until the opportune moment presented itself. She ducked down and rescued her friend, the one Scott had managed to hit by accident, and dragged her under the eaves. He waited patiently and, before long, Skinner started running across the street towards Scott's position.
Scott had seen her and was on the run himself. "Stupid, poor excuse of a..." Dearborn muttered. He readied his weapon and took aim. He fired... and missed. Fury turned his field of vision a deep crimson and he racked another bullet. Unfortunately, the bitch knew where he was now. She had spun around and was running backwards. She fired a shot blind and got lucky; the bullet pushed through the wooden sign and grazed his upper arm.
He shouted a curse and dropped down and clasped a hand over his bleeding wound. "She's gonna pay," he hissed. "Damn woman. Humiliates me, makes me put down my gun, makes me out to be a fool... she'll pay. She's gonna pay." He held onto the rifle with one hand and used the other to guide himself down the ladder. He reached the ground and stormed to the corner. He got there in time to see Skinner disappear into the stable. Another round of gunfire and then silence. He could hear his heart pounding, could feel it in his torn arm, as he waited to see who the victor would be.
The town was ethereally still, the wind howled between the buildings like a vengeful ghost. He was a breath away from stepping out and exposing himself when there was one final explosion. A rifle blast, he was positive. His skin tingled at the thought that Scott had finally come through for him. He broke into a smile and felt it vanish as Rose Skinner appeared in the stable door. There was a new shock of blood on her forehead, but it was easy to see she had won.
Dearborn bit back a howl of rage and frustration. This damnable woman was proving all but impossible to kill. The red tinge completely filled his field of vision and he tightened his hand on the butt of his rifle.
He was going to kill Rose Skinner very, very slowly. Knives, maybe. He hadn't killed anyone with a knife in a long time. A million tiny cuts before he finally let her bleed to death. Trembling with anticipation, he turned around and stepped into the cold barrel of a gun. He paused and looked up, the gun pressed against his forehead.
He followed the long length of steel down to the pale hand wrapped around the butt. Valerie Monroe stared at him with dark, red-rimmed eyes. Her skin was ghostly, leeched of the blood that now stained her blouse and pants. Her hair stuck to her cheeks and forehead, her teeth bared in anger. "Rose Skinner was Black Jack," she hissed.
He managed to say, "What the--" before Valerie pulled the trigger.
Rose found Valerie standing over the dead body of Noah Dearborn. The gun was hanging by her side, her eyes locked on his body but looking far past it. Rose gently pulled the gun from Valerie's hand and wrapped her in a hug. She bent her hand and pressed it against Valerie's bleeding shoulder. The pressure was enough to snap her out of her daze. "Rose," Valerie gasped, as if she'd been drowning.
"It's okay," Rose said softly. "It's over."
When Valerie had regained her composure, they walked together down the street to Doctor Tyler's office. He had been watching from the window and met them at his front door. "Epidemic of gunshots," he said as he guided Valerie to the exam table. Rose touched Valerie's face and said, "I'm going to go find Ada and Katie. Make sure the news about the railroad gets out."
Valerie nodded and closed her eyes as Tyler cut open her dress around her wound.
Rose, starting to feel the weight of the day bearing down on her, dragged her feet through the dirt as she returned to Paradise Rose. Katie and Ada were standing at the bar and explaining the map to Wilbur. He looked up as she walked in and stared slack-jawed at her bloody hand. "Rose?" he gasped.
Ada looked up and whispered, "Oh, no."
Rose forced a smile and went immediately to Ada. "I'm fine," she whispered. "Valerie is at Doc Tyler's. We made it. Dearborn's... gone." They hugged each other before Rose looked down at the map. "You explain everything to him?"
"I still don't believe this. I mean... I *know* Malcolm Scott. He's a bastard, but this is beyond the pale!"
Rose scanned the room. "Are we ready to head over to the meeting?"
"Yeah," Katie said. They filed out the door and, after a few seconds, the rest of the bar followed them out.
The townspeople were nowhere near as animated as they'd been during Scott's speech. Half of it was due to the shock of the gunfight, half of it was due to the subject matter. The route map slowly made the rounds, everyone staring at their ignored little spot of ground. Several people covered their eyes with handkerchiefs, while others stood and stormed from the room.
Katie again suggested taking a collection, but no one was interested. It was too little, too late. One man at the back of the room told them it was hopeless; the railroad had already started construction. The main room of City Hall slowly emptied until the three Eves were the only ones left. Rose and Ada sat on the edge of the platform while Katie took a seat in the front row.
They were quiet for a long time, Ada holding Rose's hand as if she was afraid she'd run off and get into another gunfight. Katie fiddled with the hem of her dress and softly said, "I think Wilbur wants to stay. But..."
"Liquor prices would go through the roof," Rose said. "He's struggling as it is."
Katie nodded sadly. "Anson Payne said he would give Will another shot in another town. But I... don't..." She closed her eyes and covered her face with her hand as she began to sob. "I don't want to leave you girls. You're my best friends."
Rose smiled sadly and squeezed Ada's hand. "Well, we ain't doing any good sitting here and crying. Let's go see Valerie."
She pulled Ada up and wrapped an arm around Katie's waist as they walked out. The train schedule was left behind on a vacant seat. It wasn't any good to anyone anymore.
The morning after the final shootout, Winston Orr's barber shop had a closed sign in the window. The stables had been locked up tight. No one wanted to keep their horses in the place where Malcolm Scott had committed suicide - although rumors were circulating about the amount of blood on Rose Skinner's hands, both literally and figuratively - and Tommy Dawes had been told he was no longer needed. The migration had begun.
After a few more weeks, Rose's arm was back to normal. She had regained her full range of motion, according to Dr. Tyler, with no adverse affects. Rose credited her lovely doctor for the speedy recovery and paid her bill by planting a row of flowers in front of her house. Ada had, after all, basically moved in with her by that point.
Valerie survived her wounds beautifully. Doctor Tyler's examination revealed that not only that the bullet had missed all major arteries, but that the blood loss had done no damage whatsoever to the fetus. It had taken Valerie a moment to understand what fetus he was talking about. She headed to New York to break the news to her husband, who had an announcement of his own. He'd been promoted to full-time manager. With Paradise fast becoming a ghost town, he told her they might as well set up house in New York. Valerie was reluctant, but had no feasible reason to decline. So she climbed back on the train to Oklahoma, this time with sad news to report.
She was the first member of Eves of Paradise to defect.
Katie and Wilbur closed up Paradise Rose and left on the very next train. Katie bid Rose and Ada a tearful good-bye before Wilbur finally pulled her off the platform and onto the train. "She'll write," he promised, "soon as her eyes clear up enough she can read the paper."
Rose hugged him around the neck and thanked him for taking a chance on her. He swore she was the one who was due thanks and extended an invitation to join him in St. Louis once he had his bar set up. She promised to think about it and joined Ada on the platform. They waved until the train was out of sight and then climbed aboard their wagon for the long trek back home.
By the time Doc Tyler closed his practice and rode out of town, Rose and Ada felt like the last people on Earth. They wandered the streets on foot and passed the boarded windows and empty buildings.
Seeing the isolation of the town, they reluctantly packed up their house in anticipation of the inevitable. They loaded everything onto the wagon, but Rose couldn't bring herself to leave town just yet. Something was holding her there, something she couldn't quite grasp. Ada didn't quite understand, but decided they would stay as long as necessary until it felt right.
They broke into Paradise Rose's back door and went upstairs to the small storage room Wilbur had never managed to rent out. The small bed remained and that was where they slept. They often slept the morning away and would sit at the bar all afternoon to talk, laugh and drink. Ada would play songs on her banjo and then they'd go upstairs to watch the sunset.
Rose undressed one night and stood naked at the foot of the bed. Ada knelt in front of her and traced each healed bullet wound with her tongue. Rose turned and Ada kissed the length of the whip lash. With each gentle brush, Rose felt the age-old pain fade. When she stretched over Ada's naked body in the mattress, she felt whole for the first time in ages. She felt real.
They made love slowly, keeping their eyes open through kisses and as much as possible during orgasm. They poured sweat and wept quietly, but didn't slow until the sun began to brighten the small window. "This room," Ada whispered as the pad of Rose's thumb circled her. "I learned you loved me."
Rose kissed Ada's neck. "Who told you?"
"Now I'm telling you," Rose said as she slipped two fingers into her lover. "I love you, Ada Odell. I love you."
"I love... you... Rose!" Ada cried in climax.
In the afterglow, Ada let herself be cradled in Rose's embrace. She pressed her face against Rose's bare chest and listened to her heartbeat. Her glasses were resting in a chair next to the bed, so she saw only hazy images of everything. She ran her fingertip over Rose's collar bone, up the lines of her throat and brushed the pad of her thumb over Rose's closed eyelids. She rested her chin on Rose's shoulder and admired how gorgeous she looked bathed in the glow of the new day's sunlight. She traced a finger over Rose's bottom lip and smiled when Rose sucked it into her mouth. "Rose," she whispered. "Do you remember that first night?"
Rose smiled. "The thunderstorm?"
"No," Ada said, blushing slightly. She circled the same spot on Rose's upper arm with her fingertip, trying to mark that spot as her own. "Not *that* first night. The night you and I met. On the road, outside of Paradise."
"Oh," Rose said. "Yes, I remember it very well."
"I was wandering in the dark. I don't remember where I was even going, how I ended up on the wrong road. But I remember feeling safe with you. Walking on the other side of your horse, I didn't know you. I'd never met you, or so I thought at the time. But something about the way you spoke. It made me believe whatever you said."
Rose brushed Ada's hair out of her face and kissed her forehead.
"I just want... you... to know that..." She bit her bottom lip. "I mean, I think it's implied, but since neither of us have said it right out, I want to be sure..."
"Ada," Rose interrupted. She tilted Ada's chin up until they were looking each other in the eye. "I want you to come with me when I leave Paradise. I want to live with you. Be your lover. Be your friend. I can leave behind Paradise Rose, the town, everything I have, I'll sacrifice. But not you. Not you." She punctuated this with another kiss before pressing her body against Ada's and pinning her to the mattress.
Afterward, they slept the rest of the day in silence. Rose woke Ada with a gentle shake and smiled when her eyes opened. "I know what I have to do. I know why I couldn't leave before."
They dressed quickly and left the bar, taking their belongings with them. Although neither had said it, they both knew they wouldn't be coming back. They rode out to Ada's house and Rose ran inside. When she came out, she was carrying her Black Jack costume. They loaded it up and led the wagon to the outskirts of town.
With Paradise a shimmering mirage to the west and the open prairie to the east, they jumped down and took shovels from the back of the wagon. Rose stared at the ground and said, "I think I could do this alone. But if you wanted to help me..."
She was interrupted with the sound of the other shovel striking dirt. She looked over and saw Ada was already digging. "Come on, slow poke," Ada smiled. "We ain't got all day."
Rose smiled and started digging. Two weak backs, two hours and a bucket of sweat later, they had a hole that Rose felt was deep enough. She ran the back of her hand across her forehead and helped Ada from the grave. She walked to the back of the wagon and unfolded the clothes.
The shirt was stiff with dried blood, two irregular holes burnt into the right side. Rose's heart leapt at the sight of all the blood she'd lost, how close to dying she'd actually been. She felt a tingle in her shoulder and side, the healed wounds reliving their own bad memories. She bit her lip and carried the entire bundle to the hole. "Good bye. Good riddance. Never again."
She dumped the clothes into the hole and took her gun from Ada. She dropped it on top of the pile and bent to pick up her shovel again.
Together, they filled the hole. By the time it was done, the sun had gone down and both women were exhausted. Rose leaned on her shovel and took a deep breath. Instead of the sigh she'd expected, it became a strangled sob. Before she could stop herself, she was on her knees, sobbing into her hands.
Ada came to her, embraced her and rocked her gently next to Black Jack's grave. Rose hadn't lived since that night in the wagon, since the night her husband was murdered. She'd become someone else. First, a formless shape that had allowed the first person she came across to mold her. Then, Black Jack. No matter what she answered to in the interim, she had always been Black Jack.
Now, he was dead. All that remained was Rose Skinner, the woman who'd been hurt so badly and never given a chance to cry. She clung to Ada and wept for everything she'd lost and everything that had been done to her.
When the tears ran dry, Rose looked at Ada and touched her face. Ada stood and helped Rose up, walking to the wagon with her. They sat side-by-side and Ezekiel turned to look back at them. He nickered and Rose flicked the reins. "Come on, boy," she said. She hooked her arm around Ada's elbow and said, "We're going north."
Ada looked back at the town one last time, her eyes swimming past the familiar place she'd called home. She closed her eyes and put her head down on Rose's shoulder.
Montana, November 16, 1907
Valerie dealt out three hands and tapped the corner of the deck against the table. She set the deck off to one side and picked up the hand she'd dealt to herself. She rearranged her own cards and then leaned to the left to examine the other player's hand. "Okay," she said, "you want to take that one and that one," she pulled two cards from the girl's hand and laid them facedown next to the deck, "and throw them away for two new cards." She peeled the replacements off the deck and added them to the player's hand. "Next time, just put down the cards you don't want and say 'Give me two.'"
"Okay," the girl said. Anyone looking at the table would have immediately identified the tiny girl as Valerie's daughter.
Valerie smiled and looked at the third player in their semi-circle. "Katie?"
Katie shook her head. "I'm good."
"Now we bet," Valerie said. She peeked at her cards again and said, "I will bet four cents." She reached to her daughter's pile and said, "You want to stay or see my bet?"
"I'll... raise?" the girl asked.
"Good girl," Valerie said. "How much?"
Valerie put six cents into the pile. "Katie?"
"See you. Raise you... five."
"Whoa," Valerie said. "You best watch your allowance there, Miriam..."
Miriam frowned at her cards as if trying to make them make sense. Valerie leaned in and whispered something to her. After a moment, Miriam plucked two chips from her stack and dropped them in the center of the pile. "I call... and raise?" She looked at her mother, who nodded. "I raise ya five more."
Katie whistled and shook her head. "Too rich for my blood," she said before tossing her cards down.
"So...?" Miriam asked her mother.
Valerie squeezed her daughter's shoulder and smiled. "You win!"
Katie smiled as Miriam's face brightened. The girl leaned forward and pulled the sea of chips over to her. As the girl played with her newfound wealth, Katie looked up at Valerie. It had been almost three years since they'd all been together, the longest time they'd spent apart since leaving Paradise.
The first reunion had been at Rose and Ada's invitation. They'd settled into their new Montana home and felt it had been long enough since they'd played cards. They sat at the table, two of them wounded and all of them completely changed, but it was like no time had passed. Since then, it had been almost tradition; whenever they could all arrange a visit, they would gather in one home or another and have a weekend-long tournament.
Valerie, nearing fifty and with three kids in tow, no longer smoked her stogies at the table. Katie, who had always complained about the smell and wrinkled her nose as soon as Val pulled one out, missed them the most.
Rose and Ada lived quietly in Montana. Everyone in their town knew, though, that Ada Odell grew the most beautiful flowers in the state. They seemed to live longer and be more radiant, too. Ada's garden was adored by enthusiasts and envied by other florists.
And everyone knew that Ada's... sister? Friend? Cousin, most likely, since they looked nothing alike... Rose Skinner was a real draw to the store. She worked the counter while Ada was tending to the greenhouse. It was easy to see why Ada had put her front and center; Rose seemed able to befriend everyone who walked in the door, made them feel welcome. Most people spent more money than they had planned to and still walked out the door with a smile on their face.
Wilbur had indeed opened another bar in St. Louis. He called the new venture Rose's, in honor of his first bartender. Katie worked the bar in Rose's stead and quickly overcame her shyness. She'd since become so popular she could barely afford the vacation time to go see her friends.
Somehow, it had gotten to the point where none of them were free anymore. Valerie was becoming more and more involved with running her husband's stores and business slowed at the bar every day that Katie was absent. Business, children, the long distances between them all led up to the group unofficially breaking up. It seemed like such an inconvenience to stop everything just to play cards for a couple of days. They kept in touch by letters and the occasional phone call when they could afford it.
When news had spread that Oklahoma Territory was going to ratify the Constitution and become the forty-sixth state of the union, all four had agreed to a celebratory meeting of the Eves of Paradise. Valerie had, of course, brought along two of her kids to meet "the greatest women she'd ever known." Her oldest, Elizabeth, had decided not to take the trip. The other two were taking turns at the poker table, learning the ins and outs of five-card draw. Miriam was the one currently being schooled, while her sister Lucy was running around on the porch chasing butterflies.
Rose was stretched out on the couch with a dime novel lying open on her chest. She had started out reading and then became engrossed with Miriam's poker lesson and was now watching Lucy through the front window. Katie caught Valerie's eye and motioned at the couch. Valerie nodded and handed her cards to Miriam. "Honey, why don't you play Go Fish with Aunt Katie for a little while, okay?"
Valerie went to the couch and knelt next to Rose. As expected, her face was wet from the tears she'd been quietly shedding. Valerie picked up the novel and took a peek at the cover. She couldn't help smiling at the picture; Black Jack was standing, arms akimbo, at the top of a street. Another gunfighter was at the foreground of the cover, glaring at Black Jack while a barmaid standing on the sidelines appeared ready to faint. The tagline declared, "HAS BLACK JACK FINALLY MET HIS MATCH?!"
"You still read this trash?"
Rose jumped, unaware that Valerie had crossed the room, and closed the book on her thumb. "Guilty pleasure," she admitted. She looked down at the cover and pointed at the author's name. "Tommy Dawes. Wasn't there a boy in Paradise named Tommy Dawes?"
Valerie shook her head. "Couldn't tell ya. Lots of things that happened in Paradise still feel kind of like a dream to me." She rubbed her left shoulder. "Not everything, though..."
Rose glanced over at Miriam and checked the grandfather clock on the corner. "Oh, damn. I should go check on Ada."
"You sure you're okay?"
Rose smiled and covered Valerie's hands with her own. "I love your kids. It's always just a little bittersweet for us, you know?"
Valerie nodded and kissed Rose's forehead. "I could leave one of them behind when I go back to New York. It would be no trouble."
Rose laughed and stretched her arms over her head.
"Bring that girl of yours down," Valerie said as she helped Rose off the couch. "We can show Miriam how the game is really played."
Rose laughed. "I'll see if she's up to it."
She put her book on the end table and went upstairs. Ada was standing at the bedroom window with her back to the door. Rose approached slowly and slipped her hands around Ada's waist. Ada sighed and relaxed into Rose's embrace. They'd had nearly twenty years together and they had long ago learned how they fit together. Rose, despite being shorter, rested her chin on Ada's shoulder and kissed her neck. "What are you doing?" she whispered.
"Billing," Ada said.
"Mm-mm," Rose said. "That's what you're *supposed* to be doing. Looks to me like you're watching Lucy Monroe."
Ada sighed. "I must admit, it's a lot more fun that dealing with money and bills."
Rose laughed and kissed Ada's neck again. She turned her head and pressed her face into Ada's hair to smell her shampoo.
"Look, Rose," Ada whispered. She pressed her finger to the glass and pointed towards the bird feeder. A lush garden spread out on either side of the brick walkway, the home to the butterflies little Lucy was currently terrorizing. Rose immediately spotted the gray and white object of Ada's affection. "Mockingbird."
The little bird leapt from the bird feeder and landed on the eave of the house. He tilted his head up at the window and peered over his shoulder at them. He ducked, looked over his shoulder again and took off in a flash of white and gray feathers. Rose smiled and said, "You never told me why you love mockingbirds so much."
Rose shook her head.
"'Cause you only see the white feathers when they take off. It's so mysterious and beautiful and unexpected..." She turned in Rose's arms and pushed her curly hair out of her face. "Like you."
"Yeah. Rose Skinner. The one no one else gets to see. The one you hide." Rose tried to look away, but Ada whispered, "No." She bent down and kissed Rose's lips, slipping her tongue across Rose's teeth before withdrawing. "I love the public you. But I couldn't live without the Rose I get to see in private."
"You've told me that before."
"I know," Ada smiled.
"Lots of times."
"I know," Ada laughed.
Rose kissed Ada and whispered, "Valerie wants us downstairs to play a hand."
"Oh, yeah?" Ada said. She gathered Rose's dress with both hands and bared the backs of Rose's knee-high white stockings.
"Ada Odell!" Rose gasped. She batted at her lover's roving hands and tried to look offended. "There are *children* in the house."
Ada kissed Rose's neck. "Then we're gonna have to be very quiet."
Rose said, "Oh, you used to be such a timid little thing..." Ada growled and pushed Rose onto the bed.
Miriam was peering over the back of her chair at the stairs. "Momma, where'd Aunt Rose and Aunt Ada go?"
Valerie and Katie exchanged a look and Valerie smirked. "They had to take care of something real quick, hon."
"Had to get refreshed, you could say," Katie smiled.
Valerie slapped a hand over her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut, as if physically holding the laugh back. She faked a cough, glared playfully at Katie and shuffled the cards. "Turn around here, babe. I'll show you how to play rummy."
Rose and Ada came downstairs as Valerie was dealing the cards. Rose's hair was down and Ada was still tucking her shirt into her trousers. Katie chewed her bottom lip to hide her smile and brushed her hand over the bottom of her face. As they approached the table, Valerie gathered the cards she'd just dealt and tapped Miriam on the arm. "Why don't you go and play with your sister on the porch for a while?"
Miriam jumped from the table and hurried to the door, pausing to wave hello to Ada as she passed. When the adults were alone in the living room, Valerie went into the kitchen while Rose and Ada took their customary seats next to one another. "Did you gals get lost on your way down the stairs?" Katie asked innocently.
Ada blushed and Rose said, "You know, Katie Davies, there was a time asking that question would've made *you* blush."
"Times change," Katie winked.
Valerie came into the room with four glasses and a bottle of wine. She placed the glasses in the center of the table and poured the wine for each of them. As they took their glasses, Valerie held hers aloft and said, "To Oklahoma."
"To Paradise," Rose said. "It died before its time."
"I think it was around just as long as it needed to be," Ada said, touching Rose's arm. She raised her own glass and gestured at the table. "To the Eves of Paradise."
"To Black Jack," Katie said. "May he rest in peace."
They tapped their glasses together and they all took a drink. Valerie drained her glass and put it down next to her cards table. "Now," she said, clapping her hands together and returning to her seat. She grabbed the deck of cards and fanned them from one hand to the other. "How about the Eves of Paradise play a hand while the little ones are occupied with their butterflies?"
"Sounds like an offer I can't refuse," Ada said.
Valerie pulled a cigar from her pocket and smiled at Katie. She tucked it into the corner of her mouth without lighting it and leaned back in her chair. "All right, ladies. Game is five-card draw. Black-suited Jacks are, as always, wild."
"Naturally," Rose laughed.
Valerie winked at Rose and dealt the cards.
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