By Geonn Cannon

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 gun 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."

"The bar?"

"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?"

Wilbur nodded.

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?"

"I'm fine."

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...

"Noah Dearborn!"

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."

Rose nodded.

All the way. Wherever that might take them.

To be continued in Chapter Eleven

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