By Geonn Cannon

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."

"Get two."

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."

"Rose, no..."

"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."

"Katie... Ada?"

"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 <i>you</i>?"

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 <i>you</i> 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."

"Doc Tyler?"

"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 <i>not</i> 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 <i>our</i> 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?"

Katie nodded.

"I still don't believe this. I mean... I <i>know</i> 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 <i>that</i> 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.

To be concluded in the epilogue

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