Chapter One -
April - August, 1889. Paradise, Oklahoma.
The day following the land run, Rose spent two days waiting to make her claim official at the land office. The confirmation in hand, she returned to her land and immediately began clearing the land. She saved as many of the purple and white flowers that dotted what she'd one day call her backyard as she could, loath to destroy the natural beauty that had first drawn her to this land.
She worked all through the summer. At first, she'd been forced to rent a wagon and ride thirty miles to the next town to buy lumber. In June, a new town began to form not two miles from her homestead. They had a lumberyard and a nice young man willing to deliver. When summer began to beat down on her with all its might, she started sleeping during the hottest hours so she'd be rested for twilight and evening.
As she worked, her wooden husband had slept next to the tent in full view of anyone who passed by. While reports flowed non-stop of others who were forced from their rightful claims, it seemed no one dared bother the pretty young lady when a man that large was laying in wait to stand up for her. A passing US Marshal had assured her that no one would contest a woman, but she was taking no chances.
After two months of backbreaking labor, frustrating setbacks and one - only one - fit of crying, she sat on her front porch and exhaled. The breath carried with it all the pain and suffering from the last few months. Her fingers proudly wore bandages as a result of her amateur craftsmanship and the muscles in her back screamed from the constant exertion.
Her home wasn't beautiful, but it was her home. She'd built it with her own two hands, on land she herself had won. She brushed the tears out of her eyes and stepped off the porch. Her moment of victory was over. She'd spent the last few months obsessed with finishing her house; there was an entire town budding up a hair away that she didn't even know the name of.
She saddled Ezekiel and took one last look over her shoulder at her home. She clucked her tongue and tapped Ezekiel with her heels, guiding him away from the yard and towards the town.
A small wooden placard on the edge of town announced it was called Paradise. The first building she passed was a stable, a young black man sweeping hay from the wooden street back into the wide maw of the building. "Howdy, ma'am," he said, pausing in his chores to watch her ride by. "Nice horse!"
"His name's Ezekiel," Rose said with a smile.
"Howdy, Ezekiel!" the boy said. He doffed an imaginary cap and went back to sweeping.
She was surprised to see a handful of buildings had already gone up. The jail, obviously, stood at the head of the next street. A barber shop, a general store, a post office and several small one-room houses here and there. There were far more buildings in progress than there were finished, but the town had already taken its shape. A makeshift wooden sidewalk marked out the streets so she could see the silhouette of the potential town.
The city hall was by far the grandest building she'd seen so far. It stood two stories, polished and sturdy like buildings she'd seen in Houston and Dallas. She could hardly believe it was less than two months old, but it couldn't have been here before. The twin front doors had been left open for surcease from the dreadful heat and Rose paused to look inside.
The bottom floor was a wide single room, rows of folding chairs lining the far wall. It took her a moment to realize this was a town hall, a place where people could meet with the officials and change things for the better. She felt a swell of pride in her breast and realized that she was already proud of her little hometown. She spurred Ezekiel on, eager to continue their tour.
Her main goal was to find paying work. The few places she saw that looked like they could use help gained a certain look when she approached. "I can't afford much," the look said, "but I ain't gonna waste what I can pay on hiring a woman." So she rode in a circle and eventually ended up back near the stables. She was about to cut across an empty lot when a man stepped from a tall, two-story building and smiled at her approach.
"Afternoon," she said.
He tilted his chin at her and pulled a crate against the wall. He put down a bottle of whiskey and sat on the top of the crate before squinting up at her in the sunshine. He produced a small switchblade and an apple from the pocket of his coat and gestured at the horse. "Fella like apples?"
"More than he likes me," Rose smiled.
The man sliced off a generous quarter and stood. "Will he take it from--"
Ezekiel closed his lips over the man's hand and snatched the apple away from it. The man laughed and said, "Well, hell, I'm lucky I still got my wedding ring." He took off his Stetson and revealed a thinning mat of salt-and-pepper hair. "Wilbur Davies."
"Rose Skinner," she said. "The apple thief here is Ezekiel."
"I'll be sure to keep my apples locked up when you and he are around, then."
Rose nodded at the door Wilbur had stepped through. "You own a... restaurant?"
"No, ma'am," Wilbur said. He puffed his chest out and said, "Bar. Tavern, more accurately. No name yet, no employees and just the four chairs... but we got the alcohol part down pat."
"Priorities," Rose smirked.
"Well, if there's one thing that will never dry up, it's a man's thirst for spirits."
Wilbur laughed. "From your lips to my pocketbook, ma'am."
Rose bit the bullet. "Need a bartender?"
Wilbur hesitated and scratched the back of his neck. He looked uncomfortably down the street and quietly said, "No offense, ma'am..."
"...but I'm a ma'am," Rose smiled. It wasn't hard to guess his complaint; men came to bars to be men, to get away from women. She sat up straight in the saddle and held her shoulders back proudly. "I've served more drinks than I care to count. I can pour as good as any man. I can keep multiple orders in my head, I know how to count change, I'll be amiable with the customers... odds are any man in town able to do all that for cheap is starting up his own business. And, let's be perfectly honest here, Mr. Davies. A pretty bartender would be reason enough to keep people comin' back."
Wilbur was obviously beginning to come around. He scratched his stubble-marked chin with a long thumbnail and squinted up at her. "You schooled?"
"No official school," Rose said. "I just called it a marriage."
Wilbur tilted back on his crate. "Well, I'm sure you'd be just fine, I just..."
"I'm also a non-drinker," Rose interrupted. It was her trump card. If this didn't work, she'd wish Mr. Davies a good day and ride on. "Never touch the stuff myself. Tell me you can find a man who won't threaten to drink you into the poorhouse to run your bar and I'll bid you a good day."
Wilbur bent down and picked up his whiskey bottle. "Ma'am... this bottle here is part of my stock. Ain't supposed to be drinkin' it... that's money lost." He rested the bottle against his thigh and said, "If I can't trust myself, I s'pose I'll have to trust you, Ms. Skinner."
He extended his hand and Rose took it. "You won't be sorry, Mr. Davies."
She smiled. "Then I'm Rose. Now, Wilbur. Let's see this bar of yours."
Rose spent the rest of the day helping Wilbur and his brothers set up the bar. Just before twilight, a man named Anson Payne arrived in a wide, low-riding wagon. He was a hugely fat man, the bottom half of his face hidden behind a gray mustache, and it twitched with laughter when he was introduced to Wilbur's new bartender. He slapped Wilbur on the back and said, "Well, if the bar goes under, at least you'll have something pretty to remember on the way to the poor house."
As they unloaded Payne's wagon - full of chairs, tables and crates of beer mugs - Wilbur's brother explained that Payne was a financier from Arkansas City. He had been friends with their father and had been eager to get a foothold in "a whole new world." At Payne's insistence that it wasn't 'woman's work,' Rose didn't help them unload the supplies. Instead, she took the things they unloaded into the bar and set them up.
Wilbur's wife Katie arrived with supper. She was a prim, proper woman with her dark hair held in tight curls that trailed to her shoulders. She eyed Rose warily but warmed somewhat as introductions were made. At one point, they were alone in the soon-to-be barroom and Rose quietly said, "You're husband is your husband. I don't mess around."
"And neither does he," Katie said with a tremulous sigh. She finally smiled and said, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Skinner."
"Rose. And it's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Davies."
Katie left before nightfall with a kiss for Wilbur and an admonishment to be home before morning. She waved shyly to Rose and the other men before she bid them farewell. By the time she left, a handful of lanterns lined up on the bar revealed an actual, honest-to-goodness drinking hole. Anson undid the buttons on his vest and joined the Davies brothers at one of the biggest tables. He leaned back, his belly digging into the side of the table as he exhaled and mopped the sweat from his brow. "Lord," he sighed. "Will, I do believe you have a bar here."
Rose unloaded a couple of bottles of whiskey from behind the bar and carried a tray of mugs to the men. "And what's a bar without a tender?" she asked. She handed the drinks out and tucked the tray under her arm. "That'll be twenty-five cents, gents."
Payne smirked at Wilbur and fished two quarters from his vest pocket. "What the hell," he said as he placed them both in Rose's palm. "Might as well make your first tip a good one."
"Have a seat, Miss Rose," Wilbur said. "You deserve it as much as we do."
She put the tray aside and sat next to Wilbur. Payne stroked the corners of his mustache and said, "Maybe she'll have an opinion."
"Women have been known to form one or two on their own," Rose smiled.
Wilbur said, "We've been talking about names for the bar. I like The Watering Hole..."
"But we," Payne interrupted with a gesture including him with the other Davies brothers, "figured it'd be best to pick a name that wasn't stupid."
Wilbur's brother Tom said, "I'm partial to Paradise Bar."
"Kind of generic, ain't it?" Wilbur said.
"Unlike the Watering Hole?"
"Now, boys, boys," Payne said. "It suddenly appears to me we're missing a golden opportunity. See... as far's we know, there ain't no other woman bartender in this state."
"No one else dumb enough to hire a broad," Mark, Wilbur's youngest brother, groused. He caught Rose's raised eyebrow and held up a hand. "No offense, ma'am."
The rest of the room ignored him. Payne continued, "It'd be a mite stupid if we ignored that fact. I suggest we call the bar 'Paradise Rose' in her honor, we'd be advertising her pretty face at the same time."
Rose was thrown for a moment and finally said, "Mr. Payne, I'm touched. I would be honored to have the bar named after me, but I don't deserve..."
Wilbur smiled and said, "No, Rose, wait. Paradise Rose is kinda pretty. Sounds kind of serene. Peaceful."
Tom Davies lifted a glass. "Well, serene and peaceful does sound mighty nice. I'll go along with that."
"Miss Skinner?" Anson Payne asked. He leaned forward and his gut dug even deeper into the edge of the table.
Finally, Rose smiled. "I would be a fool to say no twice. And I am not a fool, Mr. Payne."
He laughed and said, "Then it is settled. Miss Skinner, one more round at the Paradise Rose! On me, one more time." They all touched glasses and toasted to the new name and to their new bartender.
Midnight found three more rounds of empty mugs and Payne preparing to show off his singing skills. He started to get on a chair, remembered the extra weight he was carrying, and instead performed in front of the bar. He held up his half-empty glass and bellowed the opening refrain of a song: "Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sup sorrow with the poor; There's a song that will linger forever in our ears; oh, hard times come again no more!"
Rose, bending down to his ear to be heard over what Anson Payn called singing, bid farewell to Wilbur and slipped out before the risqué songs and jokes began. As she unwound her reins from the hitching post, she heard all four men inside bellow, "Hard times, come again no more!"
She laughed and patted Ezekiel on the side of his face. "If I ever start understanding men, you slap me a good one, hear?"
She wrapped his reins around her hand and stepped off the sidewalk. The night was crisp and clear, with just a hint of clouds in the northern sky, so she clucked her tongue and walked Ezekiel towards home. The town of Paradise, though small and infantile, was undeniably *alive</i> that night. Singing, not all of it echoing from the newly-christened Paradise Rose, lanterns, people walking down the wooden sidewalks on a tour of their brand-new hometown. Rose passed the stable and saw the young black man had shut it up for the night.
Paradise ended abruptly, but she found a trail easy enough. It was nowhere near permanent yet; given enough time, the grass would grow and cover it. But as long as people kept coming and going from town, the trail was as good as permanent. She hummed quietly under her breath and lifted her voice only when she was well out of town. "Aura Lea, Aura Lea, Maid of golden hair; Sunshine came along with thee, and swallows in the air..."
Ezekiel lifted his head and Rose patted his neck. "You like my singing, boy?"
He jerked away from her hand and pulled her to the right, off the trail. Rose frowned, prepared to chide him for being stubborn, when she heard another pair of boots shuffling along through the underbrush. She froze and led Ezekiel into a hedge, hoping he would disappear in the darkness. Praying the horse would keep silent, she unfastened his saddle bag and reached inside. A loathsome weight fell against her palm and she pulled the gun free. A Colt Peacemaker, the butt cold in her hand. She checked the load and moved back to Ezekiel's head.
Seconds later, she heard a woman's voice: "When the mistletoe was green, Midst the winter's snows, Sunshine in thy face was..." The song and footsteps stopped simultaneously. "You get outta there!" she said. "I see your horse, I know you're there!" Her voice was trembling, but she was courageously standing her ground. Rose could now see the woman's outline, but nothing else; she was holding a lantern in front of her, blocking her face.
The woman was alone, apparently unarmed and the tremor in her voice was unmistakable. Rose put the gun in her belt and stepped forward. "Hello, there."
The other woman approached and held out the lantern. "Are you alone?"
"I am," Rose said. Ezekiel snorted and she corrected herself. "Well, excuse me, I'm alone save for my horse. He's harmless... and he'll fall in love with you for an apple." She patted the horse's flank and said, "My name's Rose Skinner."
"Ada Odell. I'm sorry, I don't have any apples..." She lowered the lantern and became a silhouette against the darkness. "You frightened me. I... well, I've been told not to walk around this late on my own."
"It's very sound advice. Some I should follow myself... Would you mind walking with me? That way we'll both be covered."
There was a moment's hesitation and then Ada said, "Yes, I think that would be fine."
The lantern moved closer and Ada approached Ezekiel from the other side. "He's a beautiful animal," she said.
"He was my... m-my husband's. The only thing I kept from the marriage." She touched Ezekiel's neck and felt her face burn at the lie. She was grateful it was night. She cleared her throat and continued, "I sold our furniture, part of our land and the rest of our livestock to finance the land run."
"You were part of the run?"
Rose nodded. "Yeap." She looked over and said, "Did you run?"
Ada laughed. "Yes and no. Planned it, started from Purcell, too. Financed it just like you; sold my old life to pay for a brand new one. Then, the starter pistol went off and this old fellow in front of me was thrown from his horse. Broke his leg, hurt 'im bad. I was afraid he'd get trampled, so I... took myself out of the race. Helped him, got him to safety. By then, Purcell was a ghost town and I'd pretty much missed my chance at getting a good parcel."
Rose stopped her horse and moved around to the other side of his head. She lifted the lantern until her companion's face was lit. "You!"
The blonde blinked at Rose through her glasses. "Hey... you're..."
"I saw you at the camp!" Rose smiled. "You played the banjo."
"I still do," Ada grinned. "Wow, I never thought I would see yo... a-any of the people I met in Purcell again."
Rose shook her head. "It was so insane. All those strangers... Did you end up finding some land nearby?"
Ada shook her head. "Every claim I got to was either occupied or someone came up to tell me they were there first before I could bury a stake. I finally just took my belongings and bought a piece of land from someone trying to start a town."
"Paradise?" Rose asked. "You live in Paradise?"
Ada nodded. "Yeah, on the very outskirts. Couldn't afford a place in town."
"That is amazing," Rose smiled. "But..." She looked around and said, "You're going the wrong way. I'm coming *from</i> Paradise."
"No," Ada said. She lifted her lantern and slowly looked around. "I followed the south fork of the path from--"
"You were on the south fork."
"Just now, when we crossed paths. I was heading west. You came from the south."
Ada bit her bottom lip and closed her eyes. "So I've been walking in the wrong direction for, what, three hours?"
Rose smiled. "Happens to the best of us out here in the wild lands. Anything important you need back in town?"
"No. I was just heading home to get some rest."
Rose motioned the way they had been walking. "Well, Ada Odell. Why don't you just come home with me, sleep on the couch and head out in the bright light of morning? Be a lot better than wandering around half-lost in the darkness."
Ada nodded. "Sure, sure. Long as you're sure you won't mind the company."
"I'm starved for company, believe me."
Rose moved back to the other side of the horse and they started walking again. "I can't believe it's you," she said with a laugh. "Of all the people in Oklahoma to run across..."
Ada smiled in the darkness and said nothing.
Ada followed Rose through her fence and to the small stable at the back of the house. It was only large enough for Ezekiel and the roof was just a tarp, but that was just fine for the time being. In the darkness, Rose waited for Ada's back to be turned before she removed the gun from her belt. She tucked it under one of Ezekiel's feed bags and carried a bag of oats to him. Ada brushed him down as Rose fastened the oat bag to his snout. "If you don't mind me asking..." Ada gestured that it was okay and Rose continued. "Why were you walking all by yourself? You obviously know how to handle a horse..."
"Yeah," Ada smiled. "But, like I said, I didn't get a claim. Had to sell whatever I could to buy some land."
"Oh," Rose said quietly. She watched sadly as Ada continued to brush Ezekiel and took note of the loving way her hands worked his mane. "You know, if you'd like a ride sometime..."
Ada's face lit up, but the excitement faded in the blink of an eye. "Oh. But... no, I couldn't."
"You could. You will." She rubbed her horse's nose and said, "He'll need someone to keep him company while I'm at work."
"You found work? That's wonderful!"
Rose smiled. "I'm a bartender."
"A bartender? Who would hire a..." Ada stopped herself short, snapping her teeth shut on the last word.
"Woman?" Rose finished with a raised eyebrow. "I can be very persuasive when necessary. And since I can't farm, it's the next best way to start a life here."
Ada shook her head. "Amazing. Every time I think I've accepted one amazing thing about you, there's something else."
Rose laughed. "Stop it. If you keep complementing me like that, I'll add a room and force you to move in just so you can stroke my ego every night."
Ada blushed and moved to the back of the horse.
"So what do you do?" Rose asked, hoping to break the tension.
"I'm a doctor."
Rose blinked and rounded Ezekiel so she could see Ada's face. "I'm sorry, a doctor?"
Ada smiled. "Now you know how I felt when you said bartender."
"So you're not really..."
"No, I'm not." She seemed embarrassed to admit it. "My *husband</i> was a doctor. I worked in his office, mainly making appointments and fillin' out patient files. But I paid attention, kept so many notes I thought I was losing my mind. When he died, the patients kept coming. They were so desperate and I... well, I knew what to do."
"Do you have a license? I mean, you didn't go to school..."
Ada shrugged. "No. That's why I didn't try to get any new patients and I ain't hanging a placard out in front of my house advertising myself. I'm doing lessons from home, mail-order and the like. It'll really take off once we have a... you know..."
"Post office?" Rose smiled.
Ada laughed and said, "Precisely. Yep... but 'til then... I'm happy to just work in my garden."
"You have a garden?" Rose gasped. "Oh, I love gardens."
"Mostly, I have a patch of dirt with seeds in it right now. But come on by sometime. After it's had a chance to really sprout, I mean."
"Why wait?" Rose said. "I'll come by, give you a hand tending to it." She hesitated and added, "I-if you want, I mean..."
Ada nodded. "Will you bring Ezekiel?"
"If you have the apples."
Ada grinned. "Then it's a deal. Now... if we're done grooming your horse and amazing each other... have you any tea?"
"I just may," Rose smiled.
They sat on the porch, watching the stars in the sky until Rose realized how late it was. She excused herself from the porch and told Ada that she could retire whenever she pleased. She retrieved the spare blanket and pillow from her still unpacked satchel and left them on the couch. She looked over her furniture and felt an uncommon wave of shame fall over her. She'd loved the house that morning. Why would Ada's presence make her self-conscious about it? *I ain't falling for her,</i> Rose told herself. *I just met the damned woman.</i>
But like a child told how a magician did his tricks, the splendor was washed off and she now saw how thrown-together everything looked. She had salvaged the couch and chairs from an abandoned wagon that had lost both wheels. The owners had been long-gone, grass growing between the body and axel of the wrecked cart. Others had made off with the clothes and cooking supplies, but Rose had been able to rope the couch to Ezekiel and drag it home.
The bedroom and bathroom shared the back wall of the house, both of them opening onto the main room and kitchen. An ingenious use of space, she thought. Now, all she saw was the mismatched doors and the uneven doorjambs.
She'd been so proud of herself for building this place all on her own. Now, she was hosting her very first guest and she was ashamed of it all. She spread the blanket out over the cushions and hoped Ada didn't judge her too harshly. She called good-night to the other woman and went into her bedroom.
Rose undressed and pulled on a nightshirt that reached nearly to the floor. As she climbed under the quilt, she heard the backdoor open and close. Ada sighed as her shoes were removed and then the squeak of springs announced she had stretched out on the couch.
"Sorry it's not much," Rose called.
"It's perfect," Ada assured her.
Rose closed her eyes and, after a moment, said, "Oh, Joe! Here's your mule."
Ada laughed. In Purcell, the call had gone up just before bedtime. When Rose asked about it, a man told her it was done every night. No rhyme, no reason, just something to tie you to the man sleeping across the dirt from you. Ada called back, "Oh, Joe, here's your mule."
Rose smiled and settled down into the mattress.
It had been a long, fortuitous day.
Rose woke the next morning to her couch vacated. A note was propped against the coffeepot: "Rose, thank you for the tea and kindness last evening. It was a much appreciated bit of civility. Thank you again, Ada." Rose smiled, folded the note and carried it over to her pack. She withdrew a hardback novel and hid Ada's note between the pages. She resisted the urge to immediately withdraw it and read the passage again and focused on getting ready to work.
As usual, she rode in slacks and changed into a dress in the small, empty room at the back of Paradise Rose. It was basically a closet with a staircase leading to the half-finished second floor. She'd come in to work despite the fact the bar wasn't technically open for business; she wanted to help Wilbur get the word out. The bar still had no advertising, no placard identifying it, but someone had apparently witnessed the delivery of kegs and crates of whiskey bottles the day before. By the time Wilbur opened the door to combat the heat, a crowd of people were milling about on the street outside.
Wilbur invited them in, greeting each patron with the bar's name, and told Rose to 'hop to it.' She hurried to her new station and began taking orders immediately. Unfortunately, most people coming to the territory did so with only the clothes on their backs and whatever fit into a canvas bag. Every spare dime was still going towards building a home and a future, so the most-requested drink was water. Still, liquor did flow and the bar was seldom empty the first day.
When the chaos died down a few hours before closing, Rose returned to the back room and found Katie Davies folding her riding clothes. "Oh, hey, you don't have to do that..."
"It's no trouble," Katie said. "I do it for my husband all the time." She smiled and craned her neck to look past Rose. "Is it as busy as it sounds?"
"Better," Rose said. "The ones who're really drinking aren't taking the time to talk."
Katie flushed and said, "I was so nervous. I mean, Wilbur worked in a bar for years. But operating one by himself..."
"He's doing a wonderful job," Rose said.
"Anyone can do a wonderful job in one day."
Rose turned at the sound of a new voice. The brunette woman was carrying an empty crate down the stairs. The second floor was still technically under construction but their supplies were already beginning to stack up in the corners. "And who might you..." She squinted and said, "No, wait. I know you, don't I?"
The brunette glanced at Katie and rolled her shoulders. "Maybe."
"Purcell," Rose said as the memory snapped into place. "Good Lord, you were in Purcell, too! You had a cigar then... and a significantly lower neckline."
"Oh!" the woman said. "You're the coward!"
"You say coward, I say I like my money." She extended a hand. "Rose Skinner."
"Valerie Monroe. My husband and I run the general store down the street. Feel free to stop in some time..." She paused and looked Rose over, then added, "If you think you can spare the money, that is." She turned to Katie. "Tell Wilbur the last of his mugs are up there. If he needs anything else, give a holler."
"My pleasure." She gestured at the small room. "Is this place being used for anything at the moment?"
"Not much," Katie admitted.
"I may have an idea for it if Wilbur is willing." She pursed her lips and then shook her head to dispel whatever fantasy had been forming. She turned her smile to Rose and said, "See you around, Rose Skinner the Coward."
Rose pursed her lips and watched Valerie walk out. She laughed a little and Katie said, "I know how you feel. I hated her at first, too, but... she..."
"Grows on ya?"
"Mm," Katie said.
A man at the bar waved to get Rose's attention and she clapped her hands together. "Back to the grind... Make your husband a little more money before closing."
"Yes, please, don't let me stop you."
To be continued in Chapter Two
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