Chapter Two -

The town of Paradise, they would discover later, was already 350 citizens strong. The booming little town would explode, it was hoped, once the railroad came through. It was all but a done deal; the railroad had revealed plans that showed their new line heading through Paradise, over to Reno City and then into Oklahoma City from there.

Malcolm Scott, the town's founder and mayor, had gotten hold of the plans through less than honest means and placed his town smack dab in the way of railroad construction. Rose spent much of the first week fending off advances with a smile and a flutter of eyelashes, only resorting to a foot stomp in one extreme circumstance. She was more than willing to flirt for a little extra in her tips, but no way was she going to let someone grope her.

When Ada first came into the bar, Rose didn't notice her. She swept a rag over a clean spot of mahogany and said, "What can I get for you, sweetheart?" before she registered the customer's face. "Ada!"

"Sweetheart," Ada repeated. She adjusted her glasses and shifted on her stool.

Rose blushed and said, "What, ah... I haven't seen you in a week."

"There are three bars in town," she said. "And yours doesn't have a sign."

Rose smiled and realized Ada had been searching for her. "Well, I apologize. That kind of dedication deserves a drink. On me." She poured a glass and pushed it to Ada.

"You giving out free drinks?" a man to Ada's left slurred.

"You turn back around, Joe Ivy."

He murmured and looked back into his own drink.

Rose looked around the bar and gestured for Wilbur to come over. "I'm gonna take a fifteen minute break, Will. Don't serve Joe any more. He's three sheets to the wind."

"I ain't drunk," Joe Ivy protested. He nearly fell off his stool then and muttered that *maybe</i> she had a point.

Rose guided Ada to a table in the back and sat with her. "It's nice to see you again."

"You, too," Ada said. "I..."

The front doors slammed open and Anson Payne stepped inside. The effect was like a wrecking ball taking down the whole front side of the bar. Every head turned to the portly banker taking up most of the front door. "Mister Davies! I suggest you come take a look outside, son!"

Wilbur came out from behind the bar and Rose returned to duty with an apology to Ada. Katie hurried from the back room, crossing the bar in a flash before disappearing outside with Wilbur and Katie. No one spoke, no one drank, everyone was looking towards the front window. When no one could take the suspense any longer, they stood and migrated outside as well.

Rose was the last one out, being entrusted to make sure no one stole drinks. She walked out right behind Ada and saw Wilbur, Katie and Payne standing in the back of a wagon parked in the center of the street. Everyone was looking up at the building, so Rose turned and cupped a hand over her eyes.

The words Paradise Rose scrolled lazily over a painting of a rose. It was being installed while they watched, the last screws being put in place as Wilbur whooped. "It's official, boy, it's o-fficial!" He clapped hands with Anson and grabbed Katie in a tight hug. Rose felt a surge of pride and hugged herself.

Paradise Rose was official.

She looked to her left and saw Ada watching her. She smiled and Ada looked away shyly, first at the ground and then back up at the sign.

Rose covered her mouth to hide her smile.


Valerie Monroe's idea was a simple one; the back room was wide enough for a card table with four places. When Paradise Rose closed the night of the sign's unveiling, she carried in her table and set it up with Rose and Katie's help. They retrieved chairs from the main room of the bar and stood in the doorway to examine their handiwork. Valerie sat on the bottom stair and held an unlit cigar between her lips. "There're three of us," she said needlessly. "Katie, your husband mind playing poker with women?"

"He already has a game."

"We need a fourth?" Rose asked.

"You know someone?"

Rose nodded. "I know someone."

The next time they crossed paths, Rose invited Ada to join them in a game. In the tiny back room, under a cloud of Valerie's cigar smoke and over a losing hand, Rose jokingly called them the "Eves of Paradise."

They had all laughed, but the name somehow stuck. By the time they were seriously using it as a name, they had become the Eves of Paradise Ladies Social Club.


Most days, by the time Rose shuffled the last customer out the door, Valerie, Katie and Ada were sitting station in the back room. Valerie usually shuffled and almost always had a cigar. As Rose came in, Ada waved a hand in front of her face and wrinkled her nose at the smoke. "Your husband don't mind if you smoke?"

"Nah," Valerie said, shifting the cigar to the other side of her mouth.

"Where is that husband of yours?" Rose asked. She took her seat next to Ada and picked up the cards she'd been dealt. "I don't remember seeing him in Purcell."

Valerie hesitated with her cards and shook her head, "Ah, no. You... wouldn't have."

"Didn't he run the race with you?" Katie asked.

Valerie put down her cards and leaned back in her chair. "My husband wasn't in Purcell because he didn't run the race with me. He was... already in the Territory."

Ada paused and looked up.

"He slipped into the Territory about a week early and set up camp on a great parcel. He chased off anyone who tried to take it from him. I ran the race from Purcell and we used my arrival time when we made the claim." She coughed quietly into her hand, aware of the deathly silence that had fallen on the room. "And then we sold the land. Made enough to buy land for a home and our general store. It's the only way we could have afforded to do both. So I'm... not ashamed."

She finally looked up and met her friend's gazes.

Ada was the first to speak. "You were a sooner?"

"I'm as guilty as my husband. Yeah."

Ada stood so fast her chair banged against the wall with a hollow crack. She squeezed behind Rose's chair and hurried from the room.

"Excuse me," Rose said quietly. She stood and followed Ada through the dark bar. She found Ada on the porch, hugging herself and looking towards the edge of town. "You okay?" she asked.

"Moonlighting sooner cheat," she whispered. She wiped furiously at her face and put her glasses back on before turning to face Rose. "I gave up my dreams and ended up losing almost everything I owned. I played by the rules, Rose. And it cost me so much. And she... she cheated and..." She broke down and Rose embraced her.

"I know, Ada," she whispered.

Ada wept quietly into Rose's shoulder and eventually the sniffling stopped. She pulled out of Rose's embrace and wiped her cheeks. "Please stay," Rose said softly. "I'll help you kick Valerie's ass."

Ada laughed and shook her head. "Thank you, Rose."

"Come on inside," Rose said. She hooked her arm around Ada's waist and led her back into the room. Valerie looked up in obvious concern and Rose said, "She'll be fine."

"Yeah," Ada said, all trace of tears gone from her voice. "But I'm gonna stop letting you win now."

Valerie smiled. "Fair enough." She cut the cards and handed the deck to Rose. "Deal 'em up, Skinner."


The games usually broke up around midnight. Rose stayed behind, as usual, to help Katie clean up the back room. Katie wasn't like the rest of them; she was far more quiet and timid. She usually just took her cards, made her bets and laughed quietly whenever someone else made a joke. "You don't always have to be the wallflower, Katie," Rose said as they returned the chairs to the main bar room.

"I know," she said. "I just feel so out of place with you and Ada and Val. I feel like an outsider, so... the less noise I make..."

"The less likely we are to notice and throw you out."


"No worries on that front, Katie."

Katie brushed her hands on the front of her dress and said, "Will you lock up?"

"Of course." She pecked Katie on the cheek and said, "Be sure to tell your husband good night for me."

"I will. Good-night, Rose."

Rose went behind the bar as Katie left. She retrieved the broom and gave the floor one last going-over before calling it a night. By the time she returned the broom to its cubby and locked the front door, it was almost half past twelve. "Lordy," she breathed. As she was turning the key, a shadow broke away from the rest of the porch and moved towards her. She caught the movement from the corner of her eye and spun around, one hand going to the pocket of her dress. "Who's there?"

"It's just me," Ada said. She held her hands up in surrender and said, "You ain't packing, are ya?"

"No," Rose said. She pulled her hand away from the pocket and casually smoothed down her skirt. "You just startled me. I thought you left half an hour ago."

"I did. But I realized that you would have to go home all by yourself in the dark and, well... I was just wondering if you wanted some company."

"You'll be heading the wrong way."

Ada shrugged. "Could stand to spend one more night on that godawful couch of yours, I suppose."

Rose laughed. "Well, thank you. And if you insist on insulting my poor little couch, I could make up a bed for you in Ezekiel's stable."

"I love the couch."

"Well, then. Shall we?" She gestured at the stable and they walked over together. The stable boy, Tommy Dawes, saw them coming and opened the front gate. "Miss Rose! You know I ain't supposed to let you in this late."

"Aw, Tommy, I know you'll be here anyway. You love this stinky old barn."

He smiled brightly and said, "You know me too well, Miss Rose." He turned to Ada and held out a hand. "Tommy Dawes, ma'am."

"Ada Odell." She shook his hand and said, "Has old Zeke been behaving himself?"

"Only so long's we don't run out of apples."

He led Rose and Ada into the stable and opened Ezekiel's stall. He was near the back of the stable, underneath a trapdoor that was open to the night sky. Tommy motioned at the opening and said, "He likes to look at the moon some nights."

"Who doesn't?" Ada said.

Rose gathered the reins and led Ezekiel out of the stall. "I'll settle up with Mr. Clay tomorrow, all right?"

"No worries, Miss Rose. You ladies be safe out there."

They walked out of town on either side of the horse talking quietly. Rose sang a few bars of 'Aura Lee' before Ada said, "I don't wanna kick her out of the game."

Rose looked over at her. "How's that?"

"Valerie. At first, I couldn't stand being in the same room with her. But. You know..."

"I do," Rose said softly.

Ada said, "Thank you for coming after me. I didn't think anyone would. And if you hadn't... I'd've... probably left."

"I would have hated that," Rose said. "I would have missed you something terrible."

Ada shuffled her feet a bit and they walked on in silence until she said, "You grabbed for your waist."


"When I scared ya. Back on the porch, you reached for your waist. You carry a gun or something?"

Rose thought before answering. "I used to," she said, keeping it safely ambiguous. "During the land run, it was shoot, be shot or go home empty-handed." She suddenly realized that Ada had failed to find a claim of her own and said, "Oh. Ada, I'm sorry, I..."

"Don't be," Ada said. "I made a promise to only feel sorry for myself once an evening; I'm full up. Besides, I got a home I love and I don't feel guilty about taking nothing from nobody. I might've paid for what I got, but I got it fair and square."

Rose smiled.

Ada laughed. "Someday, though, you're gonna have to tell me the story of you running that race. Boy, that would've been something to see. Rose Skinner, fighting off all comers to win a beautiful parcel of land for her home."

Rose smiled. "Well, I did have a secret weapon. As for someday... well, we've got tonight, don't we?"

"Yes, ma'am," Ada said.

As they approached the crossroads where they'd first met, Rose held up her hand and tilted her head toward the trees. "Quiet, quiet." Ada stopped and put a comforting hand on Ezekiel's snout. She watched nervously, waiting for Rose to let her in one what she'd heard. Suddenly, Rose ushered both horse and woman into the trees and put a finger to Ada's lips. "Keep quiet."

A few seconds later, Ada heard what had gotten Rose's attention; two men were singing quietly, out of harmony with one another and swinging beer bottles. Their song didn't seem to have any set lyrics; they were apparently just singing words that happened to slip out of their mouths. Rose felt Ada's hand settle in the small of her back, cold and trembling.

Rose moved her hand to the saddle bag and unlatched the cover. She withdrew her Colt and pressed her hand into the folds of her skirt.

One of the drunks slowed as he came up even with their position and turned to look into the darkness. Rose stepped back and felt Ada at her shoulder. She urged Ada back with one hand and hoped the shadows were deeper than they were that night she met Ada. The drunk sniffed and said, "You smell perfume?"

His partner slowed and looked around. "Huh?"

"Perfume." He sniffed loudly and turned to face the woods. He bent at the waist and waved the beer bottle in front of his face. "Hey. Hey. Come on outta there. We'd treat you nice."

Ada's hand curled into a fist against Rose's back and then a weight dropped onto her. Rose stepped back in surprise and Ada hit the ground. She had fainted.

"Ooh, I hear 'em now. I hear 'em. Moving around. Maybe there's one for each of us, Bo."

Rose checked Ada's pulse to make sure she was definitely just unconscious and then stepped forward. "You fella head on into town," she said, puffing out her chest and trying to make herself sound bigger. "We don't want no trouble."

"Well..." one of the drunks said. He smiled and held his hands out. "Well, Bo, looks like you'n me are gonna have a nice night after all."

"I wouldn't," Rose said. Until now, she'd kept her gun hidden in her skirt. Now she brought it out and held it with both hands in front of her.

The other drunk moved closer, hand on his belt as he moved to her side. They were flanking her, trying to make sure she couldn't watch them both at the same time. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, her entire body tense. *Please,</i> she thought. *Don't make me do this. Not again, please don't make me do this again.</i>

"It ain't gonna hurt, sweetheart," the first drunk said as he moved to the other side. "Unless it's yer first time. You ever been touched 'fore, pretty lady?"

"Yep," Rose said. She steeled herself and cocked the hammer on her gun. "Have you?"

She brought the gun up and fired, purposefully missing the man but winging his arm. He howled and fell back as she spun and pressed the gun against his partner's chest. "Hi, sweetheart."

The drunk looked down at the gun with fear in his eyes and held up his trembling hands. "H-hey, no trouble, no trouble."

"Run. Go on, git."

The two men turned and kicked up dust into the darkness. Once they were gone, Rose returned to the brush and knelt down next to Ada. She smoothed the hair from Ada's face and adjusted her glasses, getting them straight just as she began to stir. When she felt hands on her shoulders, Ada gasped and began struggling to get away. "No! N-n-no!"

Rose tightened her grip. "Hey, hey, Ada. Ada, it's Rose. It's just me. It's me."

Ada gasped and looked around. "Those men... they were..."

"Zeke scared 'em away. Can you stand?"

"I think so." She stood with Rose's help and put a hand on Ezekiel's flank. "Good boy. I owe you a bushel of Baldwin apples."

"Whoa, hey, don't go spoiling him now," Rose said with a smile. She took Ada's hand and held it for a moment before she nodded at the saddle. "L-let me give you a hand up. You can ride the rest of the way home."

Ada nodded slowly. "I think that'd be a good idea. Thank you."

As Ada mounted Ezekiel, Rose slipped her gun back into the saddle bag. Hopefully, Ada would hadn't even seen the weapon. But if she did, Rose prayed she would forget it soon enough.

Rose was just as hopeful she would forget how quickly she had gone for it when the going got rough.


A few days and a few games later, tempers had calmed in the Eves of Paradise group. On the day everything started, Ada was sitting at a table in the back of Paradise Rose with her banjo. The crowd was small for a hot afternoon, with only a few people hanging onto the bar and a scattering at the tables. Rose handed the bartending duties over to Wilbur and made her way over to Ada's table.

"What's it called?" she said.

Ada looked up, surprised at the interruption. She'd been focused on a spot on the opposite wall. "Pardon?"

"The song," Rose said as she took a seat. "What's it called?"

Ada smiled and stopped strumming. "Oh, it's not called anything yet." She self-consciously rested the instrument against the wall next to her chair and turned to face Rose. "Good day?"

"Decent," Rose admitted. She untied the purse from her waist and pulled out a dollar bill. "Decent enough I can buy both of us a nice, tall glass." She waved at the front window, bright and yellow with the summer sun. "Ice-cold, of course. How about it?"


Ada exhaled and fanned herself. "Ooh, yes, please. Ice-cold would be wonderful."

Rose stood and headed for the bar. Wilbur smiled when he saw her coming and said, "Oh, trying to see how the other half lives, huh?"

"I put two glasses in the ice box. Get 'em out and fill them, one with beer and one with iced tea." She put the dollar on the counter and batted her eyelashes before adding a sweet, "Please, boss?"

His laugh turned into a whistle when he saw her dollar. "You ain't been bilking my customers out of their hard earned dollars, have you now, Miss Rose?"

She winked and said, "Well, why else would you hire me?"

He took the dollar off the counter and returned ninety cents to her palm. She raised an eyebrow and juggled the coins a bit. "Will...?"

"What?" he said. He turned his back on her to get the glasses from the ice box. "You gonna tell me what to charge my favorite customer?" He winked and handed her the glasses. "Take them and all your change before I force you to take the dime back, too."

She sighed and took the glasses. She made a mental note to slip the remainder into the register the next time Wilbur wasn't looking. She hoisted the glasses in thanks and carried them back to the table. "Beer?"

"Thank you," Ada said. She took the glass and hissed at the ice on the handle. "Ooh, you weren't kidding."

Rose took a sip of her iced tea as the door to the bar swung open and impacted the wall with a heavy thud. Every head turned and faced the new arrival.

His wide shoulders blocked most of the doorway, eclipsing the sunlight and creating a void in his shape. When he stepped into the darker bar, it took Rose's eyes a moment to adjust to see his features. He was completely bald, his naked skull not protected by hat or bandana. Two long scars ran from his brow over the crown of his head. He was wearing a tailored black shirt and jeans and a pair of boots that had never met a cow pie. His mouth curled into a tight smile underneath his thick mustache.

He lifted two fingers in greeting and said, "Howdy, folks. Par-o-dice, Oklahoma. Yes, sirree, name a town that and you got some kinda pride." He ambled forward and paused by the bar to take a look at his fellow patrons. Without looking, he slapped his palm down on the wooden bar top with a resounding slap. Wilbur jumped away from the sound and the man guffawed. "Jumpy squirt. Pour me one. Keep 'em comin'."

Rose glanced at Ada and saw her eyes wide behind the frames of her glasses. Their eyes met and Ada mouthed the word "Trouble." Rose nodded, even though it wasn't a question, and pressed her lips into thin white lines.

*Someone else will take care of it. Don't worry. Someone else will take care of this joker if need be.*

When he got his drink, the newcomer turned and hooked his elbows on the bar as he looked toward the front door. His dark eyes turned from that bright escape route and he panned across the bar room. He gave every customer a chance, every one of them squirming uncomfortably until he moved on to the next person.

Finally, he sucked his teeth and looked over his shoulder. "Hey, barman."

Wilbur nervously cleared his throat. "Yes, sir, Mister..."

"Ball," the man muttered. "This hellhole got a hotel?"

"Yes, sir," Wilbur said. "End of this main road. Kind of small, but it's cheap."

Ball snorted. "Yeah, well, it'd kinda have to be, wouldn't it?" He downed his drink and tossed a coin onto the bar. "Thank ya for your hospitality, Mr. Jumpy."

As Ball sidled back towards the door, Wilbur cleared his throat, "Um, Mr. Ball, I'm sorry..." Ball turned so slowly some spectators weren't sure if he was really moving. Wilbur held up the coin. "T-this isn't enough for your drink..."

"I'll take care of ya next time," Ball promised. He flicked a salute off his forehead and headed for the door again. "Start me a tab. John Ball." He scanned the room and hesitated on Rose and Ada's table. "Yeah. I'll be comin' back plenty. You count on it."

Wilbur closed his eyes and turned back to the register. He was just in time to see that Rose had come up and was putting the rest of Ball's tab into the register. He sighed and her eyes snapped over to him, fierce determination burning inside the deep brown irises. "Don't even try to tell me no, Wilbur Davies."

Wilbur sighed and nodded in defeat.


The Eves of Paradise didn't meet again until two nights after Ball's noisy arrival in town. Valerie was the first to show up, while the bar was still open, and set everything up. When the bar closed for the night, Ada got up from her table in the back and joined the others at their regular seats. Katie and Valerie flanked Rose's position and Ada looked longingly at them before sitting across from her.

Valerie shuffled and dealt the cards. When she spoke, she pulled her lips around her cigar. "I figure you guys've heard of this John Ball character?" Rose and Ada looked at each other and Katie nodded slowly. Valerie sneered. "I can't believe bastard's only been 'round two days and already I can't get him outta my head."

"His name is *John* Ball?" Katie asked as she took a peek at her cards. "Like the golfer?"

Valerie frowned. "Golfer?"

"He's... British... he won the..." She scanned their blank faces and cleared her throat. "Probably not t-the same man. Go on, Valerie."

Valerie puffed on her cigar and examined her hand. "He waltzed into the supply store, plopped down a five-dollar bill and proceeded to manhandle everything in the room. Including me! He picked at every shirt, plucked a button off-a one before he put it back... I swear, the man's sole purpose in this town is to see how much he can get away with."

"The answer is 'anything'," Rose grumbled. "He can get away with anything in this town. Man practically steals three beers a day from Wilbur and no one says word one to him 'bout it." She put a hand on Katie's arm. "I ain't bad-mouthin' your man, Kate. But *no one* in this town is doing a damned thing to stop John Ball and I'm more'n a little sick of it."

Ada cleared her throat and softly said, "I think you could do somethin' about it, Rose."

Valerie arched an eyebrow and looked between her two friends. "You know something about our Rosie?"

Ada looked shyly at Rose and then shook her head. "Those guys a few days ago, the ones who passed us on the road? I know Ezekiel didn't spook 'em. Next day a fella came into my house lookin' to get his arm patched up. Gunshot wound. Said some crazy man shot at him."

Katie's eyes widened until Rose thought they would pop out of her head. "You shot a man?" she gasped.

"Nope," Rose said. She put down her cards and calmly said, "Don't know what happened to your patient, Ada, but it wasn't me." She cleared her throat and pushed her chair back. "I'm sorry, Valerie, I'll have to call it quits early tonight." She stood and hurried from the room. She moved quickly and hoped Ada wouldn't try to...


She stopped at the front door, hand on the knob and looking through the glass onto the deserted street. Ada's boots fell softly on the wooden floor and stopped a few feet shy of her. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you or..."

"I'm not embarrassed," Rose said, keeping her back turned. "I'm ashamed." She turned and bit her lip. Ada looked so sad and alone that Rose nearly broke into tears. She moved her eyes so they were focused on the dark wall over Ada's back shoulder. "If you don't mind... I don't want you to think I'm mad at you, but... do you think we could skip walkin' home together tonight? I just... need to be alone for a while."

Ada nodded. "Yeah. Sure. I'll see you tomorrow sometime?"

"Yeah," Rose said. She brushed a curl of hair behind her ear and stepped out onto the sidewalk.

Ada moved to the door and watched until Rose was out of sight before she returned to the game.


"Tommy?" Rose asked. The stable was dark and abandoned. She checked her watch and wondered why Tommy would have left so early. She hated the idea of leaving Ezekiel in a strange place all night; he would never forgive her. She tried the front door and found it locked tight. She cursed and moved around to the side where she'd seen Tommy sneak his herbal cigarettes on more than one occasion.

She tested the door and was relieved to find it unlatched. She pulled it open and ducked into the dark, hay-scented cavern of the stables. Ezekiel nickered when she appeared and she walked to his stall. "Hey, boy," she said. "Did you..."

A door at the back of the stable slammed shut and she froze. She pressed against Ezekiel and listened for any further sounds.

*It's just Tommy,* she told the pounding heart under her breast. *He locked up because he was reading a girlie magazine. Oh, he is going to get it when...*

"It's a Podunk town in the middle of nothing and nowhere."

She recognized that voice, she realized with a mixture of fear and dread. The man at the back of the stable was John Ball.

"Think people will care about a town like this? Or notice? These people have a little bit of scratch, sure, but when the railroad changes routes, it'll dry up like No Man's Land after a drought. Ain't nothing but a ghost town waitin' to happen."

Rose ran her hand down Ezekiel's side and put her hand into the saddle bag. Her fingers wrapped around the gun once more and she closed her eyes. Just that morning she had stared at the damn thing and wondered why she bothered to carry it anymore. No fight won with a pistol was ever won fairly, so her Daddy had always said. But sometimes, the other side was unfairly stacked against her. And sometimes, the gun was the only way to even things out.

The first time she'd shot a man had made her vomit. The second time made her cry. The third hadn't caused any reaction, causing her to throw her gun into the river in disgust. It had become nothing to her. Murder was common. She hated it and the gun... but she could never really separate from it, no matter what she did.

John Ball's companion was talking now. "--if these people could pull it together? Making something outta this town without the railroad?"

Ball's laugh was harsh and mean. "They can't and won't. Tomorrow, I go through town, fill my pockets... maybe leave a li'l something for you and Mr. Mayor so's no one follows me."

The stall door next to Ezekiel's rattled open and Rose tensed. She dropped to her knees and pressed tighter against the muscles of Ezekiel's belly.

"I've had 'nough of this damn town. Mr. Dearborn is starting to get antsy, so I'm finishing the job tomorrow."

"Where to then?"

"Home. Haven't been in a good long while. Might be nice to see familiar towns. The kind that don't stink like horse shit. So I won't be havin' no trouble from you tomorrow?"

"Mayor Scott was kinda firm on that point. We'll be... otherwise entangled, promise."

Ball laughed and led the horse from the stall. The lock rattled and the door swung open a few seconds later. "Sleep well," Ball said. He muttered something to his horse and it galloped away. Rose hazarded a look over Ezekiel's back and confirmed what she'd been afraid of: Ball's friend was none other than Sheriff William Jones.

After a while, the sheriff snorted and spit and headed out of the stable into the night. He left the front door wide open behind him. Rose patted Ezekiel and said, "Sorry, boy. I'll be back, I promise."

She slipped out of the stall and hurried to the door. She peeked out, making sure the street was empty before she exposed herself. She ran back to the bar, her mind already working on a plan of action. She didn't like it, but the odds were she was the only chance Paradise had. She burst through the front doors and ran to the back room.

Valerie was shuffling the cards and looked up with surprise when Rose exploded through the door. Ada's chair was vacant which left Valerie and Katie alone. "Rose!" Valerie said. "Thank God. We were just 'bout to resort to a riveting game of Go Fish."

Rose pushed her empty chair out of the way and leaned against the table. "I ain't here for cards. Where's Ada?"

"She left right after you did," Valerie said. She frowned and pulled the cigar from her mouth. "Honey, you look as paler than a three-day cold corpse. What's wrong?"

"John Ball is gonna rob this town to death tomorrow."

"What?" Katie gasped.

"I overheard him in the barn. He's headin' out tomorrow, but he's going to bleed the town dry as a good-bye party. He wants to turn us into a ghost town overnight."

Valerie opened and closed her mouth a few times, her fingers tightening on her cigar. When she finally spoke, her voice was veritably vibrating with anger. "We cannot let that happen."

"And we won't," Rose assured her. "But on your life, Valerie, you cannot tell Ada what we're gonna do. This is between the three of us."

"I'm not sure I like the sound of this," Katie said.

Rose knelt next to her and took both of Katie's hands. "Sweetie, you're gonna have to get on board with this. Because I'm gonna need to borrow some of your husband's shirts."

Katie frowned.

To be continued in Chapter Three

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