AFTER ECHOES FROM A GUN
By Geonn Cannon
Montana, November 16, 1907
Valerie dealt out three hands and tapped the corner of the deck against the table. She set the deck off to one side and picked up the hand she'd dealt to herself. She rearranged her own cards and then leaned to the left to examine the other player's hand. "Okay," she said, "you want to take that one and that one," she pulled two cards from the girl's hand and laid them facedown next to the deck, "and throw them away for two new cards." She peeled the replacements off the deck and added them to the player's hand. "Next time, just put down the cards you don't want and say 'Give me two.'"
"Okay," the girl said. Anyone looking at the table would have immediately identified the tiny girl as Valerie's daughter.
Valerie smiled and looked at the third player in their semi-circle. "Katie?"
Katie shook her head. "I'm good."
"Now we bet," Valerie said. She peeked at her cards again and said, "I will bet four cents." She reached to her daughter's pile and said, "You want to stay or see my bet?"
"I'll... raise?" the girl asked.
"Good girl," Valerie said. "How much?"
Valerie put six cents into the pile. "Katie?"
"See you. Raise you... five."
"Whoa," Valerie said. "You best watch your allowance there, Miriam..."
Miriam frowned at her cards as if trying to make them make sense. Valerie leaned in and whispered something to her. After a moment, Miriam plucked two chips from her stack and dropped them in the center of the pile. "I call... and raise?" She looked at her mother, who nodded. "I raise ya five more."
Katie whistled and shook her head. "Too rich for my blood," she said before tossing her cards down.
"So...?" Miriam asked her mother.
Valerie squeezed her daughter's shoulder and smiled. "You win!"
Katie smiled as Miriam's face brightened. The girl leaned forward and pulled the sea of chips over to her. As the girl played with her newfound wealth, Katie looked up at Valerie. It had been almost three years since they'd all been together, the longest time they'd spent apart since leaving Paradise.
The first reunion had been at Rose and Ada's invitation. They'd settled into their new Montana home and felt it had been long enough since they'd played cards. They sat at the table, two of them wounded and all of them completely changed, but it was like no time had passed. Since then, it had been almost tradition; whenever they could all arrange a visit, they would gather in one home or another and have a weekend-long tournament.
Valerie, nearing fifty and with three kids in tow, no longer smoked her stogies at the table. Katie, who had always complained about the smell and wrinkled her nose as soon as Val pulled one out, missed them the most.
Rose and Ada lived quietly in Montana. Everyone in their town knew, though, that Ada Odell grew the most beautiful flowers in the state. They seemed to live longer and be more radiant, too. Ada's garden was adored by enthusiasts and envied by other florists.
And everyone knew that Ada's... sister? Friend? Cousin, most likely, since they looked nothing alike... Rose Skinner was a real draw to the store. She worked the counter while Ada was tending to the greenhouse. It was easy to see why Ada had put her front and center; Rose seemed able to befriend everyone who walked in the door, made them feel welcome. Most people spent more money than they had planned to and still walked out the door with a smile on their face.
Wilbur had indeed opened another bar in St. Louis. He called the new venture Rose's, in honor of his first bartender. Katie worked the bar in Rose's stead and quickly overcame her shyness. She'd since become so popular she could barely afford the vacation time to go see her friends.
Somehow, it had gotten to the point where none of them were free anymore. Valerie was becoming more and more involved with running her husband's stores and business slowed at the bar every day that Katie was absent. Business, children, the long distances between them all led up to the group unofficially breaking up. It seemed like such an inconvenience to stop everything just to play cards for a couple of days. They kept in touch by letters and the occasional phone call when they could afford it.
When news had spread that Oklahoma Territory was going to ratify the Constitution and become the forty-sixth state of the union, all four had agreed to a celebratory meeting of the Eves of Paradise. Valerie had, of course, brought along two of her kids to meet "the greatest women she'd ever known." Her oldest, Elizabeth, had decided not to take the trip. The other two were taking turns at the poker table, learning the ins and outs of five-card draw. Miriam was the one currently being schooled, while her sister Lucy was running around on the porch chasing butterflies.
Rose was stretched out on the couch with a dime novel lying open on her chest. She had started out reading and then became engrossed with Miriam's poker lesson and was now watching Lucy through the front window. Katie caught Valerie's eye and motioned at the couch. Valerie nodded and handed her cards to Miriam. "Honey, why don't you play Go Fish with Aunt Katie for a little while, okay?"
Valerie went to the couch and knelt next to Rose. As expected, her face was wet from the tears she'd been quietly shedding. Valerie picked up the novel and took a peek at the cover. She couldn't help smiling at the picture; Black Jack was standing, arms akimbo, at the top of a street. Another gunfighter was at the foreground of the cover, glaring at Black Jack while a barmaid standing on the sidelines appeared ready to faint. The tagline declared, "HAS BLACK JACK FINALLY MET HIS MATCH?!"
"You still read this trash?"
Rose jumped, unaware that Valerie had crossed the room, and closed the book on her thumb. "Guilty pleasure," she admitted. She looked down at the cover and pointed at the author's name. "Tommy Dawes. Wasn't there a boy in Paradise named Tommy Dawes?"
Valerie shook her head. "Couldn't tell ya. Lots of things that happened in Paradise still feel kind of like a dream to me." She rubbed her left shoulder. "Not everything, though..."
Rose glanced over at Miriam and checked the grandfather clock on the corner. "Oh, damn. I should go check on Ada."
"You sure you're okay?"
Rose smiled and covered Valerie's hands with her own. "I love your kids. It's always just a little bittersweet for us, you know?"
Valerie nodded and kissed Rose's forehead. "I could leave one of them behind when I go back to New York. It would be no trouble."
Rose laughed and stretched her arms over her head.
"Bring that girl of yours down," Valerie said as she helped Rose off the couch. "We can show Miriam how the game is really played."
Rose laughed. "I'll see if she's up to it."
She put her book on the end table and went upstairs. Ada was standing at the bedroom window with her back to the door. Rose approached slowly and slipped her hands around Ada's waist. Ada sighed and relaxed into Rose's embrace. They'd had nearly twenty years together and they had long ago learned how they fit together. Rose, despite being shorter, rested her chin on Ada's shoulder and kissed her neck. "What are you doing?" she whispered.
"Billing," Ada said.
"Mm-mm," Rose said. "That's what you're <i>supposed</i> to be doing. Looks to me like you're watching Lucy Monroe."
Ada sighed. "I must admit, it's a lot more fun that dealing with money and bills."
Rose laughed and kissed Ada's neck again. She turned her head and pressed her face into Ada's hair to smell her shampoo.
"Look, Rose," Ada whispered. She pressed her finger to the glass and pointed towards the bird feeder. A lush garden spread out on either side of the brick walkway, the home to the butterflies little Lucy was currently terrorizing. Rose immediately spotted the gray and white object of Ada's affection. "Mockingbird."
The little bird leapt from the bird feeder and landed on the eave of the house. He tilted his head up at the window and peered over his shoulder at them. He ducked, looked over his shoulder again and took off in a flash of white and gray feathers. Rose smiled and said, "You never told me why you love mockingbirds so much."
Rose shook her head.
"'Cause you only see the white feathers when they take off. It's so mysterious and beautiful and unexpected..." She turned in Rose's arms and pushed her curly hair out of her face. "Like you."
"Yeah. Rose Skinner. The one no one else gets to see. The one you hide." Rose tried to look away, but Ada whispered, "No." She bent down and kissed Rose's lips, slipping her tongue across Rose's teeth before withdrawing. "I love the public you. But I couldn't live without the Rose I get to see in private."
"You've told me that before."
"I know," Ada smiled.
"Lots of times."
"I know," Ada laughed.
Rose kissed Ada and whispered, "Valerie wants us downstairs to play a hand."
"Oh, yeah?" Ada said. She gathered Rose's dress with both hands and bared the backs of Rose's knee-high white stockings.
"Ada Odell!" Rose gasped. She batted at her lover's roving hands and tried to look offended. "There are <i>children</i> in the house."
Ada kissed Rose's neck. "Then we're gonna have to be very quiet."
Rose said, "Oh, you used to be such a timid little thing..." Ada growled and pushed Rose onto the bed.
Miriam was peering over the back of her chair at the stairs. "Momma, where'd Aunt Rose and Aunt Ada go?"
Valerie and Katie exchanged a look and Valerie smirked. "They had to take care of something real quick, hon."
"Had to get refreshed, you could say," Katie smiled.
Valerie slapped a hand over her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut, as if physically holding the laugh back. She faked a cough, glared playfully at Katie and shuffled the cards. "Turn around here, babe. I'll show you how to play rummy."
Rose and Ada came downstairs as Valerie was dealing the cards. Rose's hair was down and Ada was still tucking her shirt into her trousers. Katie chewed her bottom lip to hide her smile and brushed her hand over the bottom of her face. As they approached the table, Valerie gathered the cards she'd just dealt and tapped Miriam on the arm. "Why don't you go and play with your sister on the porch for a while?"
Miriam jumped from the table and hurried to the door, pausing to wave hello to Ada as she passed. When the adults were alone in the living room, Valerie went into the kitchen while Rose and Ada took their customary seats next to one another. "Did you gals get lost on your way down the stairs?" Katie asked innocently.
Ada blushed and Rose said, "You know, Katie Davies, there was a time asking that question would've made <i>you</i> blush."
"Times change," Katie winked.
Valerie came into the room with four glasses and a bottle of wine. She placed the glasses in the center of the table and poured the wine for each of them. As they took their glasses, Valerie held hers aloft and said, "To Oklahoma."
"To Paradise," Rose said. "It died before its time."
"I think it was around just as long as it needed to be," Ada said, touching Rose's arm. She raised her own glass and gestured at the table. "To the Eves of Paradise."
"To Black Jack," Katie said. "May he rest in peace."
They tapped their glasses together and they all took a drink. Valerie drained her glass and put it down next to her cards table. "Now," she said, clapping her hands together and returning to her seat. She grabbed the deck of cards and fanned them from one hand to the other. "How about the Eves of Paradise play a hand while the little ones are occupied with their butterflies?"
"Sounds like an offer I can't refuse," Ada said.
Valerie pulled a cigar from her pocket and smiled at Katie. She tucked it into the corner of her mouth without lighting it and leaned back in her chair. "All right, ladies. Game is five-card draw. Black-suited Jacks are, as always, wild."
"Naturally," Rose laughed.
Valerie winked at Rose and dealt the cards.
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