Chapter Six -
When Rose was stable, Ada left her and headed outside. The clouds were making good on their threat and the world was flooding. She stood on her porch and gazed at the heavy black cotton clouds. Thunder rumbled across the plain like an explosion and shook the windows of her house. She could see some patches of sunlight through the rain and stepped out of the shelter of her porch.
She was drenched in an instant, Rose's blood washing from her hands and clothing. Her glasses fogged and she began to shiver, but after a summer of hundred and five degree days, it felt remarkable. She opened her mouth and caught some of the rain on her tongue and soon, she was laughing.
Rose, she knew, would have been right there with her. Gathering up her dress and splashing in puddles like a little kid.
Thinking about Rose caused the inevitable knife-twist in her chest. There was no guarantee about Rose's survival. All she knew was what she'd observed in her husband's office and he'd hardly ever dealt with gunshot victims. If she'd done something wrong, if her hand had slipped and she didn't realize it...
She was shaking harder, but the rain didn't have anything to do with it. She took off her glasses and dropped to her knees in the mud. "God," she breathed. She wrapped her hands together around her glasses and squeezed her eyes tight. "God, I'm Ada Odell. I ain't talked to you since Missouri, but I figure... you'll still remember me. I know we ain't exactly been on speaking terms, but I can't rely on myself for this one. Please, God. Don't let Rose die 'cause of me. Please."
She started to rise and then dropped back down. "I mean, Amen." She crossed herself and stood again. As she headed back inside, lightning flashed nearby. Ada turned and heard a rising wave of thunder sweeping towards her. The windows shook again, this time reminding her of the tin ballad of her mother's music box. She looked up at the sky again and said, "Thank you very much."
Rose faded in and out of consciousness, getting fevered glimpses of the real world before succumbing again to blissful nothingness. In her fevered mind, she could vaguely recall being half-dragged through Ada's house, of being in a soft bed and feeling a constant pressure on her right shoulder. Pain in her abdomen brought her around once and she came to gasping and feeling sweat pouring down her face. It felt like her arm had been ripped off and someone had set fire to her flesh. She babbled at Ada, who looked afraid and concerned, and saw blood all over the sheet.
She woke once or twice to see Ada planted at her side, her blouse open to reveal a bloody undershirt, her brow furrowed as she concentrated on Rose's side. Rose's shoulder was still burning and she thought she could feel something moving inside of her chest. She tried to mutter 'Dear God,' but could only manage to open her mouth and issue forth the quiet gasp that had been waiting in her lungs.
"Rose?" Ada said.
Rose turned her head to look at her again, but the move sent her reeling. She was unconscious again before she realized it.
She woke once in darkness and faded before she could ask why it was so dark out.
When she woke again in sunlight and felt stillness rather than pain and felt no urge to pass out again, she wondered if she was really awake. Her right side felt stiff, as if half of her had been petrified in her slumber. She reached up with her left hand, tentatively probing to see if she was still whole. The slight touch of fingertips to her injured side caused her entire body to hitch. She gasped and stopped the exploration then and there.
She felt eradicated. She could feel the sweat on her skin, sticking her clothes to her body and sending up a stench that was almost unbearable. Sometime during the night, she had wet herself and felt humiliated at the realization.
Rose let her head fall back to the pillow and scanned the room as slowly as her pained head would allow. Her life-saver was slumped in an easy chair that had obviously been brought to the room from elsewhere. A book lay open against her chest, her chin tucked against her shoulder in a position that told she had passed out from exhaustion rather than merely falling asleep.
Rose watched her for a few moments, the rise and fall of her chest and each flutter of her eyelids. She was gorgeous; her short blonde hair standing in spikes from the repeated raking pass of a frenzied hand. Dried blood smeared her temple, war paint from what had obviously been a very long surgery. Her feet were bare and tucked up underneath her. She had almost lost her glasses, the frames resting on the end of her nose and aimed more at the floor than her book.
Working up enough moisture in her mouth to speak, Rose rasped, "Ada." The word sounded like nails on a blackboard and Rose winced, forcibly swallowing to get more saliva into her mouth and throat. She started to speak again, but when she opened her eyes, Ada was already sitting up and adjusting her glasses.
Rose nodded slowly. "You saved me."
Ada took a seat next to the bed and examined the dressing. "Yes, I did." She looked into Rose's eyes. "You're not mad, are ya?"
Rose frowned. "Mad? Why..."
Ada hesitated and searched Rose's face. Finally, she shook her head. "No. Never mind."
Ada looked down at the bed. "When I was tendin' to your wounds, you... asked me not to save you."
Rose closed her eyes. "Oh."
Ada played with the exposed edge of the bandage. "Your lung collapsed."
"My lung?" Rose said, looking down at herself. She finally noticed that her shoulder was lightly bandaged, but most of the blood was dried on her right flank. A second bandage had been applied just under the swell of her breast. "What the hell...?"
"The bullets came from above," Ada explained. "The first one cut through your shoulder and..." She stood and twisted at the waist, demonstrating as best she could. "You must have twisted after you were hurt, probably lifted you arm to return fire. The second one hit you here." She waved her fingers over a section of bandage. The force caused your lung to collapse. I managed to get the bullet out. Got you stitched up... you'll have to be careful with it, but you'll survive. I wanna recommend you staying here. At least for a few more days, until I'm comfortable letting you go home."
"Thank you..." Rose breathed. Her eyes snapped open and she lifted her head. "A few *more* days..."
Ada nodded. "The surgery took me most of the first night. You've..." She stopped herself when she realized Rose had no way of knowing how much time had passed. "You've been here for three days already."
The past three days had been rough on Valerie Monroe's skin. Since leading Dearborn through town in their now-infamous tour, she had immediately saddled up her horse and headed in the direction Rose had taken out of town. The first day, during the rainstorm, she had found Ezekiel in a field not far from where the gunfight had taken place. He was happily lunching on green apples taken directly from a tree and nickered happily when he saw her. She rounded him up and led him back to the stables.
Since then, the sun had returned in full force to bake the moist ground. The humidity sky-rocketed and every temperature mark seemed to add ten degrees. Despite the overbearing heat, Valerie searched farther and farther each day, incrementally widening her search area. She stopped and search for her friend's body at each ditch that was overgrown with weeds and each culvert flooded with brackish water. She came back to town only to check on Ezekiel, refill her canteen and sleep.
On the third day, she dropped onto a rock and stared at the town limits of their closest neighbor. There was no way Rose could have made it this far on her own, not after she'd been shot twice. To be honest, there was no way Rose would have left Ezekiel unless she'd had no choice. Unless she was...
She closed her eyes and filled her cupped hand with a little water from her canteen. She poured it over her face and then covered her eyes with her wet fingers. She hoped anyone passing by would just see someone trying to relieve the heat and not see her tears.
Rose slept in fits and starts during the day, occasionally opening her eyes to wonder if she'd really been asleep. The windows were all open in the bedroom, but the light breeze did little to beat back the hundred-degree temperatures. Ada was there and gone, moving about the house and always stopping by the bed to check on her.
Now and then she had a washcloth in her hand, blissfully wet and cold. She pressed it to Rose's forehead, pressing hard and letting the cold water seep out and trail down her temples to wet her hair. She fed Rose small pieces of food, spooned her tiny servings of apple sauce and oatmeal. Rose took whatever she was offered and stopped only when she felt she couldn't stomach any more.
When she woke from one of her spells, she saw Ada sitting in the armchair again. She had a book open in her lap and was staring across the room at her. "What?" Rose asked sleepily.
"Nothing," Ada said softly.
"How long have I been here?"
"About four days now," Ada said, closing her book on her thumb. She rose from her seat and moved to the bed.
Rose swallowed. "Ezekiel. I left him outside of town, I let him go and..."
"Valerie found him," Ada said. "I saw her when I went into town for supplies. She has him at the stable. Don't worry."
Rose's eyes widened. "Valerie. Does she know I'm here?"
Ada shook her head. "No, hon. I didn't tell... People are kind of worried, since you were sick and then just up and vanished, but I didn't tell. No one knows you're here."
"Valerie... a-and Katie..."
"I wanted to tell them. Sure," Ada nodded. "But... how could I explain it?"
Rose shook her head. "No, they already know."
"Yes, they know!" Rose said, a little angry now. "They've known the whole... you have to go. Tell them I'm all right. God, they have to be worried sick by now." She rubbed her forehead and finally looked over at Ada. "What's... wrong?"
Ada was standing, staring at the bed. "Nothing," she said quietly. "I'll go tell 'em." She walked out of the room and retrieved her hat from the wooden peg by the door. She didn't look back as she headed out.
"Ada?" Rose asked. She sat up as far as she could, wincing as she put weight on her injured arm. "Ada!"
By the end of the fourth day, Valerie's skin was red and dry, her lips chapped and her hands raw from the reins and from digging through briar patches hoping she wouldn't find a corpse. She'd gone all the way from Paradise to the next town over and there was no sign Rose had made it that far. Doctor Tyler hadn't treated any gunshot victims other than Dearborn.
She rode into town just past noon when her canteen had run dry. She was walking her horse to a trough when she spotted Ada coming down the street.
She had barely seen Ada since the shoot-out, had honestly been hoping to avoid her. She had no way to explain Rose's four-day absence and she knew Ada would be worried sick. She hitched her horse to the post and put on a happy face before she turned to face her friend. "Ada! It's been a while!"
"What happened to you?" Ada asked in a curiously flat voice.
Valerie tipped her hat and ran her tongue over her raw bottom lip. The night before, she'd scared herself in the mirror. Her lips were cracked and bleeding from all the sun and her skin was badly burnt. She cleared her throat and said, "Well, you know, out riding and I start to lose track of the time. What've..."
"Rose is fine," Ada said bluntly.
Valerie froze, her hand halfway to the brim of her hat. She raised her eyes to Ada and stared at her for a moment before she spoke. "What's that?"
Ada looked away. "She's fine. She knew you and Katie were probably worried about her, so she wanted you to know." She turned on her heel and started back the way she'd come. Valerie caught up with her and grabbed her by the arm. "Get your hands off me," Ada snapped. She stumbled a little pulling her arm loose, but she succeeded in getting out of Valerie's grip.
"What do you mean Rose is fine? She's been there all this time?"
"Since the shoot-out."
Valerie's eyes widened and she looked around, suddenly uncomfortable with how exposed they were. She looped her arm around Ada's shoulder and guided her towards the Paradise Rose. Ada allowed herself to be led quietly this time, her head bowed and her teeth working her bottom lip.
The bar was almost empty due to Wilbur being the bartender. Most customers only hung around for two, three, four refills just to spend more time in the lovely Rose's presence. Now... the impact she'd made was being felt. Wilbur looked up as Valerie and Ada entered and his eyes brightened. "Ladies," he said. He came around the corner of the bar, blocking their path. "I... Look, if Rose is really holding out for a raise, let her know that... whatever I can spare is hers."
Valerie forced a smile. "I swear, Wilbur. Rose isn't holding out for more money. She'd be here if she could." She rubbed his arm and said, "Is your wife around, by chance?"
"In the back room," Wilbur sighed. He seemed to deflate a little farther and said, "She's doing the books, such as they are..."
Valerie thanked him and guided Ada into the back room. Katie was seated behind the accounting table, her hair down and the top two buttons of her dress open. The back window was open and small wind-up fan sat on the table blowing air, but the room was still stifling. Katie's hair stuck to her cheeks and forehead and she dabbed at her throat as she looked up.
Before Katie could speak, Valerie tilted her head at Ada. "Rose is fine. Ada knows everything."
Katie looked at Ada, now understanding the hard look in her eyes. "Oh," she said quietly.
Valerie motioned at the stairs with a tilt of her head and all three women headed to the second floor. It was hotter than downstairs, cramped and small as it was. The heat seemed to be trapped between the rafters, making heat waves dance with the dust mites. Katie crossed to the small window and pushed it open to allow some dry air in. Wilbur had already started cleaning the room out for potential tenants, so there was plenty of room to move around. A queen-sized bed had been donated and Wilbur had fought it upstairs with the help of his brother.
As soon as they reached the main room, Ada broke from Valerie's grip and moved to the other side of the room. She crossed her arms over her chest and kept her back to her friends and looked out the window at the street below.
Valerie broke the silence. "Ada, I know you're angry with us, but we've been dying the past four days. Is Rose...?"
"She's fine," Ada said softly. "She was unconscious for three days... had a collapsed lung and got a little infection. But she's fine now."
"Thank God," Katie sighed.
"Could we see her?"
Ada turned and said, "How 'bout you take her? I could put her in the wagon, bring her back. Three of you could take care of each other and I'll just head back home and wait for someone to wander by and..." She stopped mid-sentence and shook her head angrily. "Shit," she breathed, her voice wet with tears.
Valerie moved closer and put her hands on Ada's shoulders. "You hush. You think Rose kept you outta this, think she left you out cause she don't care about you? Katie and me have been in it from the beginning and she had us swear we wouldn't tell you. I didn't understand, either, I was a little nervous about excluding you. But now that I've seen Black Jack, I understand. I saw Rose before and after the shooting and, honey, she can be hard. Rose murdered a man and it hurt her bad. I could see it. And after that first day, I knew why she wanted you kept out of it.
"You look at Rose and you see a sweet, loving lady. You see her smile and the way her accent gets thicker when she's teasing. You've had soda waters with her. You've played cards with her and you've walked with her. But once you see her as Black Jack... you'll see hardness in her. You'll see the Rose who can shoot, who can kill. And it darkens her some. She didn't want you to see her like that. She'd have killed to keep you from seeing her like that."
Ada pulled off her glasses and covered her eyes. Valerie embraced her and looked back at Katie. "Ada?" Katie said softly.
Ada sniffled and looked up, blinking through her tears and biting her bottom lip.
Katie was fiddling with the top button on her dress and softly whispered, "I think she just left you out 'cause she loves you the most."
Ada stepped out of Valerie's arms and wiped her face. "God, I'm a mess. I spent the whole time coming to town just... hating you all..."
Valerie pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and found a spot she hadn't already moistened with sweat before she touched it to Ada's cheek. "Well, we can forgive that, I suppose. Given the circumstances."
Ada smiled and hugged Valerie. She sniffled and stepped back to compose herself. "The man who shot her... Dearborn, I think they said..."
"No," Valerie said. "He was the one who grabbed Katie, but he wasn't the one who shot her. Snake had a sniper on the roof. Got her from behind."
"Bastard," Katie hissed, her voice colder than Ada had ever heard it. Despite the heat, Katie hugged herself and shivered.
"They found the sniper dead not long after the shoot-out. We think he and Rose crossed paths on her way out of town and she dealt with him. As for Dearborn, he's in jail," Valerie said. "And properly ventilated for what he did to Rose."
"He's been seeing the doctor?"
Katie nodded. "That's why we were so worried. The only doctor in town was going back and forth to the jail. From what I hear, Sheriff Jones keeps asking if the doc's been seeing any other gunshot wounds and the doc keeps saying no. We thought... I mean, Rose just vanished. And Valerie found Ezekiel just wanderin'..."
Ada was still dabbing at her eyes. "I guess I was being... selfish. You guys, the past couple'a days..."
"It's all right now," Valerie interrupted. "Don't worry about it."
Ada nodded and squeezed Valerie's hand. "I'm going to pick up some groceries, restock my pantry. Then I'll head back. If you two want..."
"Yes," Katie said.
Ada smiled. "I was gonna say... if you wanted, you could come back and see Rose." She smiled and said, "Guess I got my answer."
"From both of us," Valerie said.
Ada rented a wagon and loaded it with supplies donated from Valerie's shop. Ada was willing to pay, but Valerie insisted on charity. They rode the wagon back to Ada's house and parked it in the shade. It was mid-afternoon, the sun bearing down on them and beating the triple-digit heat into the skin. Valerie looked near exhaustion, having already spent most of the day on the trail, and Katie had sacrificed her folding fan to her.
They climbed down and Ada said, "I'll get some water for these horses." She helped Valerie down and put a hand on her forehead. "And you go on inside and get yourself some water. I can barely manage one patient, let alone two."
"Yes, doctor," Valerie said, smiling weakly.
Despite the joke, Ada was worried about the sheen on Valerie's forehead. She'd kept an eye on her during the wagon ride and, as far as she could tell, Valerie had stopped sweating ten minutes ago.
"Go in through the front door," Ada said with a nod to the near side of the house. "Wait for me... I want to make sure Rose is up to seeing visitors before I spring you guys on her."
They agreed and went in through the front door. Ada quickly pumped some water for the horses and poured out some oats before she went around to her back door. The bedroom was immediately to the right of the back door and she knocked lightly before stepping into the room.
Rose was sitting up, her hand to her shoulder and her face was twisted in pain. "Rose!" Ada gasped. She rushed to the bedside and eased Rose back down to the mattress. She eased Rose's hand away from her shoulder and examined the bandage. "What in the world were you trying to do?"
"Hot," Rose gasped.
"Oh, honey," Ada sighed. She picked up the towel that had fallen onto the floor and dipped it in the ice water she'd put on the night stand. The block of ice had melted and the bowl had overflowed. She dipped her rag in the now-tepid water and used it to mop the sweat on Rose's forehead and upper chest. "Normally, I'd say you should lose some clothing, but 'less you're wearing something mighty thin under that undershirt..."
"I don't mind," Rose said. "Take it off."
Ada bit her bottom lip and pulled the hem of the shirt up. "Lean forward," she said quietly, "and put your head down." She peeled the shirt off Rose's sweaty back, the material sticking like it had been glued to her flesh. She pulled the shirt over Rose's head and slid it down her arms and looked away immediately to avoid seeing anything more than she already had.
She turned back to the bowl and dipped the rag again. She frowned at the temperature of the water, but dipped the cloth anyway. She directed Rose back onto the mattress and spread the towel out over her breasts. She picked up the water dish and said, "Stay here. I'll be right back."
She had just stood when something hit the floor in the kitchen. Rose's eyes snapped open and she grabbed Ada's wrist. "Who's here?"
"Just Valerie and Katie. They were worried about you."
Rose nodded and parted her lips and used the tip of her tongue to wet the corners of her mouth. "I, uh... realized... why you were mad."
"It's okay," Ada said. She knelt down next to the bed again and brushed Rose's sweat-limp hair away from her forehead. "Val explained it to me. I'm not angry anymore."
"I didn't want to hurt you."
Ada smiled. "I know. If you don't feel up to visitors, I'll..."
"No," Rose said. "I want to see them."
She leaned in and kissed Rose's forehead, alarmed at how hot it was. "All right, I'm going to get some more ice. Don't try to get up again!"
Rose sighed her compliance and sagged against the mattress. She brought her hand up and pressed the wet towel into her chest. Ada was only briefly distracted by the rivers this sent down Rose's dark, tanned stomach.
She turned away before she was caught staring and went to the kitchen. Her house was small and fit only three rooms; the bedroom, the parlor and the bathroom. Her kitchen was a stove and counter along the back wall of the parlor. She completed the trip from bedroom to kitchen by stepping out one door and taking five steps.
She took a quick glance at the floor to see what had fallen and was relieved to see it was the cabinet door and not Valerie. She and Katie were both standing at the counter, Valerie's face hidden behind a wet rag. She'd unbuttoned her shirt, revealing an undershirt similar to Rose's. *Hell,* Ada thought. *Katie and I might as well start stripping down. Really live up to the Eves of Paradise vision.* She pushed the idea out of her head and said, "The cupboard door...?"
"It came loose from the hinges," Katie said. "I tried to catch it so it wouldn't be so loud, but..."
"That's all right," Ada said. "It's been loose ever since I got the place." She dropped to her knees and opened the ice chest and took a pick to the corner of the largest block. She gathered the chips in a cup and walked over to Valerie. "Here," she said softly. Valerie let the cloth be removed from her face and Ada filled it with chips.
Valerie smiled and pressed the ice pack to her throat. "Thank you," she groaned.
"Katie," Ada asked. "You all right?"
Katie nodded. "I'm fine."
Ada exhaled and dropped down to her knee again and chipped some more ice for Rose. "She says she wants to see you, but don't dawdle. She's awful weak, but I'm sure it'll be okay if go in and say hello."
They all went into the bedroom together, with Ada leading the way. Rose had fallen asleep in her absence and, as Ada moved to the bed, she looked at Rose as Valerie and Katie were sure to see her; her face was pale and drawn and dark circles had taken up residence under her eyes. Her hair, normally vibrant and curled like an auburn mane around her face, hung limp and dry. It looked like maybe she hadn't survived after all.
Ada picked up a shirt, fast running out of towels, and poured the ice into it. She made a pack and wound the shirt tails together before she sat on the edge of the bed and placed it against Rose's throat. Rose leaned into the cool caress, whimpering softly as she brought her hand up to cover Ada's. "Rose," Ada said softly.
"Ada..." Rose sighed.
"Rose, Valerie and Katie are here."
Rose's eyes opened and focused on Ada for a moment before they swung around to the door. She smiled weakly and said, "The Eves of Paradise Ladies Club's first annual summer picnic," she rasped. "Sorry there's no food. And that I'm practically naked."
Valerie smiled and said, "It's all right. I'm not hungry and Ada ain't drooling too much."
Ada blushed and wiped her thumb over her bottom lip. "I, uh, oughta go. Well water." She slipped past Katie and out of the room.
Valerie watched her go and turned back to smile down at Rose.
Rose arched her eyebrow at Valerie and soon, both women were laughing.
Katie stood by the door, wondering what was so funny.
Noah Dearborn dabbed the cuff of his shirt against his lips and leaned back. He pushed the tray back and said, "My compliments to the chef." He regarded the sheriff through the bars and twisted a toothpick between his thumb and forefinger. For the past fifteen minutes, Jones had been sweeping the floor in front of his desk. "You have a real knack this stuff. Cooking, cleaning... you ever think of giving up this law and order nonsense and making some man real lucky?"
Jones glared at him and kept sweeping.
"Now, now," Dearborn said. "Let's not get ugly. That was some mighty fine grub you whipped up. I was just trying to compliment you."
Jones sighed and said, "Sweeping takes my mind off the heat, all right?"
"Sit down and relax," Dearborn said. "All that moving around, you're gonna get all hot and bothered that much faster."
"If I sit, the heat beats me down."
"All that extra padding around your waist, I assume."
Jones slammed the broom against the floor hard enough to make the handle crack loudly. "Look, I'm still the sheriff and you are still my prisoner. Until that changes, you will treat me with some respect!"
Dearborn straightened his spine and tucked the toothpick into the corner of his mouth. "Respect," he whispered, as if testing the word. He pushed his dinner tray aside and stood. He unfolded himself from his chair and walked casually over to the bars. He draped his arms over the crossbar and motioned for Jones to come over. "Come over here a minute."
Jones sighed and moved over to the cells. When he was near enough, Dearborn's arm lashed out like a cottonmouth. He grabbed the lapel of Jones' vest and snapped him forward like a piston. Jones hit the bars face-first, blood spurting from his nose and spotting on Dearborn's sleeve. The sheriff hit the floor and began wailing like a child, hands cradling his face as the blood dripped off his chin. "You psychopath!" he gasped through the tears and the broken bones of his face.
"You and your boy, Scott," Dearborn hissed, his long, lean body rising above Jones like the devil himself. "You called me to this godforsaken town. Easy-pickings, you said. John Ball got himself killed. No worry, John Ball was thick as a post. But when *I* come down and get shot, when *I* am locked in your cell, Mr. William Jones, then I start to get a mite ornery. I start to lose control of my senses. So you will forgive me if I don't show respect to some simpering weakling who tries to bleed his own town dry. You don't deserve my respect, boy. I'd sooner bow to a whore."
He twisted his arm and inspected the sleeve. "You bled on my shirt, you son of a bitch." He flicked his wrist and walked back to his tray. He ran his fingers through the remaining brown sauce and tasted it. "If you were going to make some more of those black-eyed peas to make it up to me, I'd sure be obliged."
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