AFTER ECHOES FROM A GUN
By Geonn Cannon
Chapter Four -
Rose was asleep on top of the comforter when the door slid open. The intruder paused outside the bedroom and looked at her for a moment before continuing deeper into the room. Rose woke when the floorboards creaked under a stealthy foot. She didn't stir, didn't even open her eyes, and waited until the person was close enough. Wishing she'd kept one of her guns out just for safety purposes, she cracked one eyelid and turned her head towards the sound. When her vision focused, she sighed and said, "Ada."
Ada gasped and spun around, nearly spilling the bowl she was carrying. "Damn, Rose. You nearly scared me to death."
"Funny, coming from the person sneaking into my bedroom." Rose sat up and clutched the blanket to her chest. "What are you doin' here, Ada?"
"Wilbur told me you weren't feelin' well, so I brought you some broth." She tilted the bowl a bit so Rose could see the clear yellow soup within.
"You brought broth all the way out here? On a horse?"
Ada smiled as she sat the bowl on the windowsill. "I borrowed a wagon. I'm not that good a rider."
Rose moved to the edge of the bed and closed her eyes. She inhaled deeply and nearly fell back onto the bed. "Oh, that smells delicious..."
Ada put the dish down. "I can get us some bowls... where...?"
"In the kitchen. There's a wooden box on the floor by the back door." As Ada went to get the bowls, Rose slipped out of bed and quickly covered herself with a thick robe. When Ada returned, Rose was wrapped in a dressing gown and sitting on top of the memory chest.
"I hope you're not angry that I'm here," Ada said.
"Wilbur told me you were worried about being contagious. I decided... well, I may not be a doctor, but I'm close enough to tend to a sick friend. And I'm close enough that I get to decide when people are contagious. 'Sides, you shouldn't have to be out here all by your lonesome."
Rose smiled and said, "Thank you, Ada. That means a lot."
Ada served up the broth and took a seat in the rocking chair next to the bedroom door. Rose took a sip of broth and closed her eyes. "This is exactly what I needed today. Thank you."
"Well, I *am* a sort-of doctor," Ada said.
Rose laughed and said, "Is everything in town running smoothly without me?"
Ada coughed on her broth, covering her mouth and waiting until she could speak before looking up.
"Are you okay?" Rose asked. "Did I say something or...?"
"No, it's fine. You're fine." She cleared her throat and hesitated before she said, "John Ball was killed today."
Rose hoped her acting skills were up to par. "What?" she gasped. She pressed her hand against her chest in what she hoped was a convincing display of shock. "How?"
"Some gunslinger came into town, shot Ball and," she waved towards the window, "disappeared again."
"You didn't recognize him? T-the gunslinger?"
"No, he was wearin' a mask. Never said a word. Just grabbed Katie, tol' her to get Ball out for a gunfight and... In just two seconds, the whole thing was over."
Rose shook her head. "That's amazing. I miss work one day and look what happens."
Ada laughed and sipped her own broth. "Mm, this *is* good."
Rose watched her for a moment and then said, "Thank you."
Ada scoffed and playfully said, "*You* didn't make it."
Rose laughed. "No, not about... thank you for coming to see me. It means a lot."
Ada smiled shyly and swirled her spoon in her broth. "It was my pleasure."
They ate the rest of their broth in companionable silence, speaking only to comment on a noisy bird that was apparently tracking something in Rose's backyard. "I'm starting to get all kinds of birds in my garden," Ada said. "Mockingbirds are my favorite. Noisy, but they're beautiful. You should come by and see it some time."
"Try to keep me away," Rose smiled.
When they finished the soup, Ada took the bowls into the kitchen and rinsed them in the basin of well water. She left the bowls on the counter and returned to the bathroom.
"Dishes are drying... I'll leave the rest of the broth for you, in case you get hungry later." She helped Rose stand and helped her towards the bed. "Now I want you to get some sleep."
"Ada, I'm fine. Really."
Ada smiled and forced Rose to sit. "I saw just how fine you were next to the porch 'fore I came in here. You always throw up that much when you're fine?" Rose closed her eyes and Ada brushed the hair from her eyes. "It's okay, Rose. You're not invincible. No one else has to know, but don't lie to me."
Rose smiled and said, "Okay."
"Now, lay down." Rose did as Ada asked and let herself be covered by the quilt. Keeping one hand on top of Rose's head, Ada bent down and kissed just above her eyebrow. "Do you want me to come back tomorrow?"
"No," Rose said. "I'll be fine by tomorrow, I'm sure."
"I don't want you rushing anything. If you still feel..."
Rose clutched Ada's hand and said, "Trust me. I know my body. By tomorrow, I swear, I'll be a hundred percent. After that broth, I may be better by tonight."
Ada smiled. "My Grammy's recipe. It ain't failed anyone yet."
Rose smiled and closed her eyes. Ada waited until she was asleep before slipping out of the house.
*The X was carved at eye-level, just a crude carving done with a hunting knife. Rose stood across the lawn, holding the gun with both hands as if afraid to take the step of actually aiming it. Finally, she tightened her fingers around the butt of the gun and brought it up. She could see the X in front of the barrel, knew she would hit it if she could just shoot straight. She slipped her tongue between her lips and squeezed one eye shut. She brought her other hand up to steady the weapon.
She bit down on her tongue as she pulled the trigger. The shot went wild and she backpedaled several steps as the bullet dug into the trunk of a nearby tree.
She dropped both arms, her elbows aching, and shook her head angrily.
"You're pulling," Jeremiah said. He stepped behind her and covered her hands with his own. "You need to squeeze the trigger. Nice and slow."
Rose pulled away from him and shoved the gun against his chest. "I changed my mind. I don't want nothin' to do with this. I can't do it anyway!"
"You just need practice."
"I bit my tongue," she said, wiping her lip and checking for blood. "'Sides, where'm I gonna put a gun, Jeremiah? Stick it in my apron?"
Jeremiah followed her as she stalked back to the house. "Look, all it takes to shoot a gun is fingers and a strong arm. You got both."
"I'm a woman, Jeremiah. You think anyone's gonna take a woman with a gun seriously?"
"A lot more seriously than they'll take a woman *without* a gun," he said. "We need you, Rose. You promised to be there for us. If we can't trust you..."
"For God's sakes," she hissed. She raised the gun and turned around. As she fired at the X-marked tree, the world suddenly shifted. Instead of splintering bark, she saw an image of a man's bloody face falling away from her. *
Rose screamed as she sat up and groped at her bedclothes. As the remnants of the nightmare faded, she stilled her hands and pushed the hair out of her face. Just the nightmare. Nothing more, just the same damned nightmare that had haunted her ever since she picked up a gun.
Still feeling uneasy from the dream, she rolled from bed and bumped Ada's dish from the windowsill. The now-room temperature broth spilled over the front of Rose's nightgown and splashed on her bare feet. She dropped to her knees in the puddle and folded her trembling hands in her lap. She should never have picked up that gun. She had sworn to herself that she would never kill another person and she'd broken that vow to herself. Now... she was paying for it.
The nightmare was back and now, she had a new face to add to her rogue's gallery: John Ball. Her latest victim.
Ada returned the wagon and walked the rest of the way into Paradise. As soon as she passed the first building, she saw that someone had been busy in her absence; posters had been nailed up on practically every vertical surface. She stopped and pulled one down. "Town Meeting! City Hall, 7pm. All Concerned Citizens are asked to attend. Mayor Scott."
She frowned at the announcement and spotted Katie leaving Paradise Rose with her husband. She hurried towards them and called out to Katie. Katie paused and waited for her to catch up. "Hi, Ada! Wilbur, this is Ada Odell. She's one of the women I play cards with. Ada, my husband, Wilbur."
"Nice to meet you," Ada smiled. She held up the notice. "What's this all about?"
"The mayor wants to discuss the gunfight earlier," Wilbur said.
"Did they catch Black Jack?"
"Nope," Katie said. She looked like she wanted to say something else, but Wilbur spoke up before she could go farther.
"From what we hear, he's pretty up in arms about it. But everyone I've talked to is planning to stand up for Black Jack. John Ball was bleeding the bar dry and the mayor needs to realize Black Jack did us a favor."
Katie shook her head. "Not just our bar. The whole town."
Wilbur patted Katie's hand. "If the man can't see that, he's a damned fool."
The ground floor of the city hall had been filled with wooden folding chairs. There was a podium at the front of the room and a slightly-ajar door revealed stairs that led to Mayor Scott's office.
As Katie, Ada and Wilbur took their seats, Valerie arrived and sat behind them. Katie introduced her to Wilbur and asked after her husband. They exchanged pleasantries for a bit before Ada said, "I went to see Rose this afternoon. Took her some broth, made sure she was all right."
"Was she?" Valerie asked. She quickly glanced at Katie.
"She was fine. Getting better," Ada said, despite how Rose had actually looked. *Just between you and me,* she had promised. And she was a woman of her word. But inside, she was worried Rose might be sicker than she wanted to admit.
The stairway door pushed open and Malcolm Scott stepped out. He was trailed by Sheriff Jones, who was wringing his hands together as he took his seat. Scott stood at the podium and banged the heel of his boot against the base to call for silence. The noise in the room faded and, when he could speak without raising his voice, he said, "It's not exactly seven, but I think we might's well get started," he said.
"We came to this territory to start a new life, to... escape the lawlessness that had become a part of our everyday lives. We came to this land to bring civility to our world. And what do we get for it? Gunfights. Murder in the street. Well, I for one will not have it. This... Black Jack... hid his face for one reason and one reason alone. He knew he was a criminal. He knew what we would do if we knew what he looked like. We would bring him to justice for cold-blooded murder!"
The tone of his voice implied that he expected the crowd to jump to their feet and applaud him. Instead, what he got was one tired, gravel-filled voice calling out, "That's bull and you know it."
Everyone turned to see the town barber, Winston Orr, getting to his feet. Orr was an older black man, his eyes nearly overwhelmed by the wrinkles that surrounded them. He had a wispy white mustache and his back was hunched. He curled his gnarled fingers around the head of his cane to keep from tipping over as he stood to address the crowd. Despite his resemblance to an ancient oak tree that had seen too many storms, he was a maestro with a pair of clippers in his hand.
"Black Jack saved us all," Orr said. "That John Ball bastard come inta my store, ask me for a haircut and shave. Tol' me to 'put it on his tab.' He done the same thing, the *exact* same thing, in every store along this main road."
He looked back at Scott and said, "You wanna know who Black Jack is, and that's your right. But me and half the people in this room, I'll bet, wanna know, too. I would shake that man's hand and buy him a pint."
A few people called out, "Me too!" and "That's right!" after Winston was done speaking.
Scott pursed his lips and crossed his arms over his chest. "Now, folks, I understand Mr. Ball was not an... ideal customer. I understand that he was an annoyance. But 'cording to Mr. Wilbur Davies, he was on his way out of town the very day he was murdered."
Katie, Valerie and Ada all looked at Wilbur. He looked down at his hands and shook his head apologetically.
"However much a burden Mr. Ball was, he was still a citizen. And whoever Black Jack is, *he* has done more wrong than Mr. Ball ever did. Black Jack has taken the law into his own hands. That, my friends... is a dangerous precedent. What are we going to draw the line? Someone takes your seat in a bar... shoot him. Someone trespasses on your property... shoot him. We have got to take a stand, else this will again become a fact of life. We will become a town where the outlaws rule and law and order is set aside. I say no. We are on the verge of a new century, people. It is time to put aside the old ways and make room for a civilized way of life."
Katie nudged Wilbur and whispered, "Say something."
"Why would he listen to me?" Wilbur said.
"You said all the way over here you were going to make a stand. Come on, Will."
"It wouldn't do any good. Now, hush, Katie."
Katie's face grew beet red and, before she could stop herself, she was on her feet. "Mayor Scott!" she shouted. "How are we supposed to 'put aside the old ways' when men like John Ball are allowed to run this town, bleed us dry, while you and your lackeys do nothing?"
Scott waved a dismissive hand to her. "Please, Mrs. Davies, have a seat and..."
*"No!"* Katie barked.
Ada and Valerie looked at each other, stunned by their usually timid friend's outburst. Her face was red, her hands balled into fists at her sides. She looked fit to burst, and everything was aimed directly at Mayor Malcolm Scott.
"No," Katie repeated as she moved to the aisle. "I ain't hearin' another word. Black Jack is a hero for what he done. If anyone deserves to be in jail, it is your incompetent sheriff who sat on his big... r-rear end and did nothin' while John Ball was robbin' every single person in this town in broad daylight. You want your civilization, Mr. Scott? Ya want your peace? Sometimes that peace comes at the end of a gun. Black Jack was smart enough to realize that and I thank the day he came to this town. I ain't listening to no more of this nonsense." She turned on her heel and stormed out.
Valerie and Ada stood to follow her and inadvertently caused a mass exodus from the town hall. By the time things had settled, only Malcolm Scott, Jones and a few scattered supporters in the meeting hall.
The sheriff hitched up his belt and looked at Mayor Scott. "Well. That could'a gone better."
Scott glared at the sheriff before he stormed back up the stairs.
Outside, Valerie and Ada caught up with Katie as she stalked towards home. "Katie!" Valerie called. She grabbed her by the arm to slow her down. "Hold on! What was all of that?"
Katie was crying, tears streaming down her face. "That bastard John Ball could'a destroyed this town. He would've ruined us all if..." She saw Ada and stopped herself short. "I-If Black Jack hadn't done something. Now Malcolm Scott is acting like he's some kinda monster. I wouldn't listen to that man anymore. I'm sorry, I just wouldn't."
Valerie embraced her and Ada looked down the street. The rest of the townspeople were flooding the street. "Looks like we started something when we left," she said.
"Maybe Katie can run for mayor against Scott next election," Valerie winked.
Katie sagged. "God, I'd be petrified. No, thank you."
"Come on," Valerie said. "Let's get out of the street before we're trampled by these angry citizens."
Scott slammed his office door and stormed around his desk. He had dropped into his chair before he realized there was someone standing in the shadows. "Who...?"
"Relax," the man said simply. He stepped forward and took the seat in front of the desk.
Scott sagged. "I didn't think you were coming."
The man shrugged. "I don't like my horse. I kicked him a lot. Got here early. Had to, once I heard how everything had gone to hell here."
"Your boy changed the plan," Scott said. He didn't like the man across the desk from him, but he wasn't about to sit here and get blamed for this. "He was not supposed to set up camp, spend a week fleecin' this town before the big day. It was his own damn fault."
"John Ball was an idiot," the man said. "I sent him because he was expendable. Wanted to make sure you weren't just trying to trick me. Now... I don't know about you, but finding my man dead is a bad sign."
"I swear to you, we had nothing to do with that... madman trying to take matters into his own hands."
"Oh, I believe ya. I heard that pretty little speech you just gave. Very helpful. Very persuasive." He chuckled and said, "You always let old men and little tiny women show you up, Mr. Scott?"
Scott blushed and turned away. "I don't blame you for the Black Jack problem. But it *is* a problem. Added risk and all that. I'm still willing to do the job for you. But the price has gone up."
"What do you mean?"
The man ticked off the original terms, "Take the money, damage any buildings you see fit, don't hurt no one. As far as I can see, the first two are still doable. But I'm going to have to hurt some people if that Black Jack decides to show his face again."
Scott closed his eyes and reluctantly said, "Fine."
"Good, good. Oh, and uh... just to keep everyone else in line, I'm gonna have to shut up that loudmouth from the meeting tonight."
"Winston Orr?" Scott asked.
"Nah," the other man smiled. "The pretty one. Where might I find that little firebrand?"
Scott's eyes widened. "Shut her up as in..."
"I'll give you the details if you want."
"No," Scott breathed with a shudder. He closed his eyes. "Her name is Katie Davies. I can show you where she lives."
The next morning, Wilbur was going over the books when Rose stepped into the back room. He looked up and smiled when he saw her. "Oh, well now, there is a sight for sore eyes." He rose and kissed her on the cheek. "Are you sure you're feeling a hundred percent?"
"I'm fine, Wilbur," Rose assured him. "Just needed a little bed rest is all." She looked down at the books and said, "What's this?"
Wilbur sighed and ran a hand through his short, graying hair. "Just trying to figure out just how bad off I am."
"Bad off? I thought you were making a profit."
"I was. For a while. Then John Ball comes along..."
Rose gasped. "He took you for that much?"
"No," Wilbur sighed. "I wish I could blame all my problems on him, cause then I could say things might start lookin' up now that he's gone." He shook his head. "I don't think that's the case, Rosie."
Rose reached over and squeezed his shoulder. "If there's anything I can do to help you, Will, let me know. All right? If you wait a week to pay me, I'd understand."
Wilbur smiled. "You work, you get paid, end of story. Truth is, half the customers I do have are here 'cause of you. I'd fire myself before I got rid of you."
"Well, if that happens, I'll be sure to throw you a very nice going-away party," Rose said with a pat on his shoulder. She bit her lip and looked across the room at the stairs that led to the second floor. "How much space is upstairs, you think?"
Wilbur shrugged. "I don't know. Enough to store what we can't hold down here. Why?"
"Well, you let my friends and I play cards here free of charge. Why don't you open the upstairs, too? Charge people a little to rent that space. Get a little extra income without costing you anything. If you still need storage, I've got some room free in my house."
Wilbur blinked at her and adjusted his glasses, moving to the stairs. "Damn, Rosie, I think you just..." He laughed and rubbed his forehead. "I've been nearly killin' myself for two weeks trying to think of ways to get my head above water and you walk in..." He shook his head and leaned forward to kiss her cheek.
Rose laughed. "It's all self-serving, believe me. I wanted to ask about a raise..."
He laughed and said, "Believe you me, the first profits from this room-rental thing is going straight into your pocket."
"Room-rental and..." She bit her bottom lip and moved closer. "Will, I know you're not gonna want to hear this. But you gotta be more firm with people. You hate making friends pay full price."
"Well, I just..."
"I know. Ya give 'em a discount because they're your friends and because times are tough. But you gotta be firm. Be a businessman. They'll understand."
Wilbur closed his eyes and nodded. "Yeah. I'll take your advice. Swear on it."
Rose smiled. "You know, pretty soon it'll be easier to just sign the deed for this place over to me."
He scoffed. "Rosie. Please. A woman, running a business like this? Lord knows women don't have any business sense."
He ducked out of the office before the tin cup she threw could hit him in the head.
Noah Dearborn wouldn't make the same mistakes his predecessor had made. He wouldn't become a part of the town. No one would no his name and, with luck, no one would know his face until it was too late. Black Jack had managed to be a faceless hero; why not a faceless villain to go along with him?
He leaned against the brick wall, biding his time, and made sure to keep his hat pulled low over his face. He'd walked the streets the night before with Mayor Scott, getting to know the alleyways and by-ways of the town without drawing attention to himself. It was pathetically small, just a few tangled intersections and a couple of scattered homes and businesses. Easy pickings.
A woman came around the corner and walked fearlessly towards him. She casually said hello and nodded her head to him. Once she was past, he stepped away from the wall and moved to catch up with her. "Katie."
She turned, eyes wide with surprise at the use of her name. "I'm sorry, do I...?"
"Not yet," Dearborn said. He brought one gloved fist up, lightning-quick, and jabbed it in her face. Katie dropped to her knees, Dearborn managing to catch her before she fell in the mud. He hoisted her up and into his arms like a newlywed husband carrying a bride over the threshold. He looked to make sure no one had seen his little display and started back down the muddy street.
By the time the lunch crowd rolled in, Rose had been treated to eight different variations on the previous day's events. In one, Black Jack was a wide-shouldered, barrel-chested ruffian with a rough red beard. In another, he had called John Ball a coward before shooting him. Rose hid her amusement, grateful her ruse had worked so well. If the stories kept growing, eventually no one would ever believe she was Black Jack, even if she ever tried to admit it.
Just after one, Ada strolled into the bar and broke into a smile at the sight of Rose. "Want a table?" Ada asked as she gestured to their normal place in the back.
"Bar," Rose said. As Ada took an empty stool, Rose walked behind the bar and explained, "Katie hasn't shown up yet. I've gotta stay here and man the bar."
Ada checked her pocket watch. "Is she usually this late?"
"Nah. She's probably sleeping in since I forced her to work all by her lonesome yesterday. Turnabout is fair play."
"You're not still sick, are you?"
"No, it was just like I told you. Just a twenty-four hour bug. What can I get you?"
"Just an ice water."
Rose cocked her hip and playfully asked, "Now, sweetie, will you be wantin' a *nice water* or a water with some ice in it?"
Ada laughed and said, "Water, on the rocks."
Rose grinned and poured the water into a glass. She bent down under the bar and chipped off a piece of ice. "Here you are. I'll be right back. Have to go refill a couple of rowdy drunks."
Rose and Wilbur crossed paths at the end of the bar. If she hadn't sidestepped him, he would have run into her. "Whoa, Wilbur," she laughed. She put her hands on his shoulders and he blinked up at her. "Oh. Sorry."
"It's all right, Will," she said. "Just be a little more observant, huh?"
"Yeah. Yeah, surely will," he nodded.
Rose continued on, but Ada watched as Wilbur sank back into a contemplative shuffle. She turned her head to watch him leave and finally slipped off her stool to follow him into the bright afternoon sun.
He was standing next to the hitching post, alternating between looking down the street and down at the pocket watch in his hand. She cleared her throat and he spun around. "Oh," he said. He clasped the back of his neck and smiled sheepishly. "Good afternoon, Miss Odell."
"Hi, Mr. Davies. What's up?"
"I'm just a... a bit worried about my wife. She was supposed to have come in to help Rose by now."
"Oh, Rose said she didn't mind. Payback for making Katie work all alone yesterday."
"I understand that. Still... I know Katie. She would still have shown up, if just to be turned away. If she *could* be turned away, that is."
Ada smiled and said, "After that display of hers last night, I'd be afraid to deny that woman anything."
Wilbur laughed weakly and sighed. "Could ya let Rose know I'm going to head home and check on her? I just wanna make sure she didn't catch whatever Rose had."
"Sure, no problem."
He stepped off the wooden sidewalk and headed towards home. Ada watched him for a moment, smiled when he paused to hitch up his trousers, and went back into the bar.
The Davies lived in a squat house in a row of identical squat houses. They'd bought their parcel with a fabricated house already standing a week after the Land Run. Wilbur was so lost in his thoughts that he almost walked past their house, thrown by the fact that there was a man seated on the porch.
He stopped at the edge of the porch and blinked at the intruder through his glasses. The man was lanky, folded into Wilbur's rocking chair and pushing himself with one boot that was resting against the railing. He had a wicked-looking knife out, picking at a fingernail with it. He casually looked up, his lank blonde hair falling into his eyes as he stilled the chair and leaned forward.
"Hello," Wilbur said. He cleared his throat. "Can I help you?"
"Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Davies. My name is Noah Dearborn."
"Mr. Dearborn, you mind... telling me what you're doing on my porch?"
Dearborn shrugged. "Good question. A man has a right to know something like that." He leaned back again. "It seems your pretty little wife didn't wanna leave the place unattended."
Wilbur looked at the front door. "Katie?"
Dearborn smiled and looked down at his knuckles. "It's my understanding your little Katie met the fellow everyone is calling 'Black Jack.' As far as I can see, she's the only person in this whole little town to have spoken with him 'fore the big gun fight. Little suspicious, yeah? So. Here's what I'm thinking. Your Katie tells me who Black Jack is, how I can find the fellow... I let her go. Relatively unharmed." He stepped off the porch and patted Wilbur on the back. "Just wanted to let you know dinner won't be waiting when you get home."
As Dearborn stepped off the porch, Wilbur turned and slammed into him with a primal yell. Dearborn stumbled more out of surprise than anything else, and grabbed a handful of Wilbur's shirt. He hoisted Wilbur off the ground and shoved him away. Wilbur fell to the ground in a rising cloud of dirt, coughing and cradling his stomach. Before he could even try to stand, Dearborn planted a boot on his neck.
"Stay down, boy," Dearborn hissed.
Wilbur blinked, eyes wet behind his glasses, red-faced and panting. Dearborn's demeanor brightened again as he lifted his boot. "Gotta admire the spirit, though. Gotta tell Miss Katie her husband was willin' to die for her." He winked and ambled down the street as if he were a man out for a Sunday stroll.
To be continued in Chapter Five
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