AFTER ECHOES FROM A GUN
By Geonn Cannon
Chapter Seven -
The tub was in the parlor between the sitting area and the kitchen. Ada filled it one bucket at a time - from well, to the stove to boil and into the tub. It was extremely hard on her arms, but she'd gotten used to it, having done the same routine once a week on Saturday. Still, she wished there was an easier way to get clean. She filled the tub three-quarters full, boiling an extra bucket and leaving it next to the tub.
She rested for a moment and ran her hand through the water to make sure it was cool enough for a bath. She rubbed the weariness from her arms as she walked back into the bedroom to retrieve Rose.
Katie was sitting on the bed, holding Rose's hand and laughing about something. Valerie was slumped in Ada's chair, fanning herself. Her skin had been threatening to turn a deep red tint on the ride from Paradise, but now it seemed to have returned to a more healthy pink. Ada was happy to see a bright sheen of sweat had also appeared on her friend's forehead. Valerie saw her staring and toasted her with a glass of water. "Here's the good doctor now."
Ada smiled and said, "You ladies hassling my patient?"
"Sorry, Doc," Rose said with a smile.
Katie smiled and said, "We should probably get outta your hair."
The two women took turns carefully embracing Rose and offering quiet well wishes before they headed to the door. As Valerie passed the door, Ada stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Take the wagon back to town. I need to return it anyway."
"We can walk. You may need the wagon, Ada," Valerie said.
"I'll make do. I don't want you walking that far so soon after your little incident."
Rose said, "Incident?"
Ada and Valerie hesitated but Katie replied, "Valerie here almost killed herself going out every day, searching for..." She realized why the others hadn't said anything, but she couldn't stop now. "Searching f-for your body."
Valerie shook her head dismissively, but Rose said, "Thank you, Valerie. That... means a lot to me." There were tears in her eyes and she exhaled sharply to steady her voice. "Get out of here, 'fore you see me crying."
"Stay well," Valerie said.
"We'll see you soon. I'll let Wilbur know you're definitely not bucking for a raise."
"Well, I wouldn't say that," Rose said.
When their friends finally left, the sun was burning the sky red at the horizon. Rose wiped her cheeks and plucked at the towel covering her breasts. "This is starting to feel more heavy than comforting," she said.
"You're in luck," Ada said. "All that running I was doing, your tub is ready and waiting for you."
Rose's eyes widened. "Tub?"
"You ain't got a tub?"
"Doesn't seem very prudent, is all," Rose said. "I usually just wash at the pump or, if I really need it, at Paradise Rose. Wilbur got indoor plumbing there, so..." She glanced at the door. "A tub?"
Ada laughed and held up a robe. "Can you sit up?"
Rose used her uninjured arm to push herself up, tucking her right arm against her chest to hold the towel in place. Ada draped the robe around Rose's shoulders like a shroud to cover her breasts. She helped Rose get out of her jeans and then helped her stand. Rose looped her good arm around Ada's neck and nearly hung from her friend as they walked together into the living room. "You sure you're okay?" Ada asked.
"Yeah," Rose assured her. "Just... my legs are a little weak from laying down for the better part of a week."
Rose turned and spotted the tub sitting behind the couch. "Oh, no, Ada! This is far too much," Rose said. "Really, a moist towel would've been..."
"It's Saturday," Ada interrupted. "I would've filled it up anyway."
Rose sighed. "So you don't get a bath?"
"Will you hush and get undressed?" Ada said.
Rose smirked and pulled her arm free. Ada dipped her hand in the water and kept her back turned as Rose finished undressing. "I think it's cool enough." She turned and saw Rose's bare back, the muscles and narrow dip that ran down the center. The robe was slung around her waist, but it hung low enough that Ada could see the dimpled top of her ass. She cleared her throat and said, "Ready?"
"Mm-hmm," Rose said. She covered her breasts with her arm and lifted her leg to step into the tub. She nearly stumbled and Ada wrapped an arm around her waist to keep her steady.
"Here, let me help," Ada whispered.
Using Ada for ballast, Rose lifted one leg over the lip of the tub and sank the foot into the water. "Oh," she whispered, hand curling into a fist against Ada's back. Ada, very aware of the naked skin against her palm, tried to focus on anything else in the room. She chose the front window and stared at the twilight sky. Rose spent a moment straddling the edge of the tub, getting acclimated to the water, before she put the other foot in and sank out of Ada's grip. When she was seated, she pulled her legs up and hugged her knees to her chest.
Ada knelt next to the tub. "Is it too hot?"
"No," Rose whispered. She leaned forward and put her head down on her knees. Ada picked up the sponge and wet it in the spare bucket. The water was ice cold and she squeezed some out before she brought it up and touched it to Rose's shoulder.
Rose's body jerked slightly and she made a hitching noise, a brief gasp at the sensation before she relaxed again. Gooseflesh rose in waves behind Ada's hand, the tight muscles almost visibly relaxing under the brush of water. "How is that?" Ada whispered.
"Mm," Rose sighed.
She rewet the sponge and put it on the back of Rose's neck. She squeezed and let the water fall down the curve of her spine. Rose shivered again. "Is it too cold? I could..."
"No," Rose interrupted. She turned her head and revealed her eyes were closed. "It feels wonderful. Don't stop."
Ada swallowed and said, "Look up."
Rose did as instructed and Ada touched the sponge to her cheek. She carefully brushed away the grime and sweat. Slowly, Rose's skin turned pink and her hair, where it had been darkened by the water, was nearly black. Ada glanced at Rose's shoulder where the bandage was starting to come loose. She used her free hand to peel up a corner and examine the wound. "Does it hurt?" she asked.
"No, not right now," Rose said. "But my side feels sore... constantly."
"I can get you something for that," Ada said. "Valerie and Katie sure seemed relieved to see you..."
Rose laughed quietly. "I don't know why. I look like Hell warmed over."
"It's the warmed-over part they're happy about. And you look better now than most of us do at our best."
"Hush," Rose said. She shyly pulling her knees tighter against her chest and closed her eyes again.
Ada washed around the bandages on Rose's right side. "I was really worried about Valerie. What she put herself through... it's really courageous."
Rose looked over her shoulder and said, "Remember the first time you met her? You threw down your cards. Refused to play another second with such a low-life, cheating scum."
"She was a sooner," Ada said. "And I'll be honest, knowing she was a sooner with a home and a business, when I had to shell out my last few dollars just to buy a home... just 'cause I played by the rules..." She sighed and said, "It irritates me some. But I know Valerie well enough to know she's good people. What she did for you more than makes up for whatever she did in the past."
Rose tensed under the sponge and Ada could feel her muscles tighten. She opened her eyes and looked at Ada over her shoulder. Quietly, she asked, "You really believe that?"
"Someone can... make up for something they done wrong?"
Ada stilled the sponge on Rose's left shoulder and thought for a moment. "Well, yeah. Every day we're breathing is a chance to make right." She slowly dragged the sponge over Rose's neck and said, "Is there... something you need to make right?"
"Yeah," Rose said quietly. She was staring at the front window into the darkness, her eyes focused on something far beyond the door.
"Rose," Ada said. "How did you learn to shoot like that? Like... Black Jack?"
Rose blinked, shaken from her memories as she resettled against the back of the tub. "Another time," she said, trying to keep her voice light. "I think I'm naked enough for right now."
Ada managed to smile, but still couldn't help wonder how the woman in front of her could possibly be Black Jack.
When Doc Tyler arrived to change Dearborn's bandages, he also examined Sheriff Jones' broken nose. "Got a little too close to the cage at feeding time, huh?" Tyler joked, playfully jabbing Jones in the ribs with a crooked finger. "Gotta be careful, gotta watch out. Never know when they might bite ya." He chortled and walked to the cell and waited patiently for Jones to unlock the door.
As Dearborn stood, Jones slipped his revolver from the holster. Dearborn smirked. "Oh, that hurts, sheriff. Thought we had a kind of understanding. Then you go and pull your gun on me?" He looked down at the hunchbacked doctor. "Wouldn't that offend you, doc?"
"I'm a deformed drunk," Tyler scoffed. "I don't know what offended means."
Dearborn laughed and shrugged out of his shirt and turned so Tyler could inspect the bandages. "Good one, Doc."
Tyler said, "I reckon you're the one who broke Mr. Lawman's nose?"
The doc covered his mouth and covered his laugh with a rheumy cough. "Oh, lawsy. If the paper weren't still stuck on Valerie Monroe leading you through town like a whupped puppy, I'm sure they'd..."
Dearborn had turned and grabbed Tyler so fast, the doctor was still trying to speak even as his air supply was cut off. Fire sparked in Dearborn's eyes and he spat, "We don't... talk about that... ever. Clear?"
Tyler managed to nod.
Dearborn let him go and the doctor staggered slightly. His boots slipped when they found the floor and he had to grab hold of the cell door to keep from sprawling onto his ass. He coughed and rubbed his throat, staring in wide-eyed terror up at Dearborn. "The, uh..." he coughed violently and bent his entire body in half until the fit was done. When he finally quieted, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the blood on his lip. "The bandages look fine. If you'll 'scuse me, I'll... be back in the morning."
When the doctor was gone, Dearborn stood in the open door of his cell. He reached up and hooked his fingers over the crossbar. "I'm sorry," he said. "Should I not have hurt the poor freak?"
"Doc Tyler is a good man."
"And yet, you and Mayor Scott were willing to steal out of his pocket." He tsked. "I must tell you, Jones. You and Scott made such a fuss about fleecing these people and ruining this town, but you seem to have a soft spot for every damn person here." He looked towards the door and casually said, "Let me kill one of 'em."
Jones' eyes widened. "What? Killin' and robbin' are two very different..."
"You care too much!" Dearborn snapped. The demon had returned to his voice and Jones already knew enough to shut up when the man was like this. "I was hired to come here, clean up a mess and make you and your boy a little richer in the process. I was happy to help; always willing to lend a hand to a fellow businessman. But I am not dumb. Someone says 'come rob us,' and I immediately get suspicious. So I sent John Ball. Smart enough to do the job, disposable enough I won't mind losing him if it is a trap. So he gets killed. I'm... annoyed more than angry.
"But when I come down to finish the job myself and all I get is a bullet in my shoulder? That's when I start to get steamed. When my reputation is on line, when a goddamn <i>woman</i> leads me through town at the tip of a gun? That's when I start to get furious. And when I get furious, I give up the job."
Jones looked up, hopeful. "You're... leaving, then?"
"No," Dearborn said. His voice was lower now, like rock sliding against rock, like a headstone being lowered into the ground. "I give up the job." He stepped out of his cell, his boots echoing hollowly on the wooden floor. "Meaning... I ain't working for you no more." He pinched the dark red tip of Jones' nose between the knuckles of his index and middle fingers. When he twisted, a fresh trail of blood began to spill towards Jones' lips. "You and Scott work for me. From now on, I call the shots. Do we have an understanding, Mr. Jones?"
"Yes," Jones gasped.
Dearborn released him and wrinkled his nose at the wet blood on his fingers as Jones crumpled to the floor. He knelt down and draped his arms across his knees. He made a fist and used it to raise Jones' beaten face until they were looking one another in the eye. "Good. Now, here's what I want you to tell Mayor Scott."
When the bath was done, Ada held up a towel and Rose stood up into it. Ada dried Rose's shoulders and hair while Rose tended to more personal areas. Ada helped her out of the tub when she was dry and acted as a crutch back into the bedroom. She sat Rose on the edge of the bed and knelt down to open one of the dresser drawers. "I doubt you'll want to get back into those sweaty clothes, so you can borrow one of my nightgowns." She pulled out a long white gown and held it up, looking it over for worn spots or torn lace. "This shouldn't be too baggy on you."
"Thank you," Rose said quietly.
Ada silently redressed Rose's bandages, taking care to examine the wounds and make sure they were healing properly. She wrapped new gauze over them and helped Rose pull the nightgown over her head. When she was settled, Ada said, "I'm gonna go take my bath now. Will you be all right...?"
"Yes, of course," Rose smiled. "Go. After all this pampering, I'll probably just fall asleep."
Ada nodded and said, "All right. I'll see you in the morning." She stood and kissed the top of Rose's head. She helped Rose lay down and pushed the covers down to the foot of the bed. "Night, Rose."
"Night, Ada," Rose said. She settled into the mattress and closed her eyes.
<i>The man coming had a gun.
Blood was on her dress, on her face, on her hands. She couldn't stop shivering, knew that he could hear her teeth chattering and her heart pounding. She hid, she tried to disappear into the side of the wagon, but she knew he was coming.
She could hear his boots on the wooden surface of the wagon. She could smell the stench of whiskey on him and the stale smell of old cigarettes. And suddenly she saw him and her heart skipped and it was just like it had been in real life, just like it had been in countless nightmares since. His eyes had been blue or green in real life, but in the nightmares they were devil-red.
And suddenly, it wasn't a dream anymore. She was huddled in a bloody wagon in a bloody dress and he was there, and he was standing right in front of her, like a demon, like a dirty, sweaty demon with a gun. He saw her and pushed his hat away from his face. He knelt next to her and his hand went to his belt.
"Well, well," he said as he reached out to touch her. His fingers closed around her throat.</i>
"Get your hands off of me! Get them off!" Rose screamed. She lashed out with both fists and felt them both make contact. Her knuckles glanced off soft flesh and hard bone and she was free. She squirmed to get away from his hands and felt him climbing on top of her, trying to hold her down. "God damn you, get off!" She brought her knee up between his legs like Daddy had told her to, but it didn't have any effect and...
Rose's eyes were wide, her skin clammy and hot. Something wet was running down her side and reality slowly began to solidify around her. She looked up into Ada's face, her glasses sitting askew on her nose. In the dim light, Ada's face was ghostly pale save for a dark red line of blood seeping from her lip. "Ada," Rose gasped. She looked around the bedroom and slowly realized it had all been a dream.
"Honey, you were screaming," Ada said as she smoothed Rose's hair.
Rose swallowed hard and lay back onto the mattress. She closed her eyes and felt Ada's fingers gingerly probing her side. As she brushed over the bandage, Rose hissed and pulled away. "Ow," she whispered.
"You popped your stitches," Ada said. She got off the bed and picked up her medical bag.
Rose looked down at herself and saw the blood staining her borrowed nightgown. She looked over at Ada, who was dressed for bed in a similar, sleeveless gown and said, "I'm sorry." Ada turned around.
"It's a nightgown," Ada assured her as she walked back to the bed. "It'll wash."
"No. I'm sorry for hitting you."
"Way you were screaming," Ada said, "I'm just happy you didn't shoot me." She picked up the scissors and prepared to cut a hole in the nightgown.
"Don't ruin the gown," Rose said. She grabbed handfuls of the material and pulled it up, twisting her hips so she was lying on her side.
Ada swallowed and tried not to look any further south than necessary as she removed the bandages. She cleaned Rose's skin, put down towels so she wouldn't have to sleep in a puddle of blood and re-stitched the wound in her side. When she was done, she put on a fresh square of gauze. Rose stripped off the bloody nightgown and Ada replaced it with a clean one. "All set."
Rose rolled onto her back and watched Ada put the bloody nightgown in the hamper. When she crossed to the armchair, Rose sat up. "Ada, wait... You're sleeping in the chair?"
"I don't mind."
"I do," Rose said. She slid over and gestured at the mattress next to her. "There's more than enough room up here for the two of us."
Ada looked longingly at the soft mattress but shook her head. "No, the chair is..."
Rose interrupted a fierce, "Ada Odell! I took your time, I took your food and I took your bath. Everything you've done for me the past few days, everything that I've taken from you the past few days, I will not take your bed. Do you hear me?"
Ada smiled weakly and finally relented. She abandoned the armchair and rounded the bed. "I suppose, if you put it like that..." She drew back the blankets and lay down. As she pulled the blankets up, she smiled at Rose and said, "Got enough room?"
"Yeah," Rose said. She looked at Ada in the darkness and reached over, gently brushing her wounded lip. "Should you do something about that?"
Ada touched her lip and her finger came back dry. "The bleeding has already stopped. If it still looks bad, I'll put something on it in the morning."
"All right," Rose said. She leaned towards Ada and lightly pressed her lips against Ada's cheek. She smiled in the darkness and lay back. In a few seconds, her chest was rising and falling in deep slumber. Ada, on the other hand, was wide awake, focused on the rise and fall of Rose's chest and wondering how the hell she'd gotten herself into this.
Malcolm Scott carefully poured each glass half-full with Scotch and pushed one across the desk with his knuckles. Every candle and lantern in the office was extinguished, the only light coming through the window from the moon. "I remember when I used to stare at the moon as a kid," he said quietly. He sniffed his Scotch and then looked back at the hazy blue glow. "Wondering how far away it really was, how big it really was... stuff like that. Stupid kid stuff."
William Jones sat across from him. He was ignoring the glass of Scotch Scott had poured for him, hands folded in his lap and eyes downcast as he waited to hear Scott's reaction to the news.
Finally, Scott smacked his lips together and turned in his chair to face the sheriff. "How'd it get so wrong?"
"Railroads," Jones suggested.
Scott raised an eyebrow and downed his drink. It burned his throat, but he didn't care. Few things were moving him anymore. He sighed and rolled the edge of the glass on his knee, watching the moonlight hit the beveled edges. "Railroads," he repeated. "Course, it could just be that I'm the dumbest prick to ever try and run a town." He turned his chair and faced Jones. He regarded the other man's broken and blood-red face and asked, "What did Doc Tyler have to say about your nose?"
"Broke," Jones said. His voice was pinched, the center of his face marred by a deep red blush. His hair was mussed and his clothes looked like they'd been slept in. He'd called his deputy to sit with Dearborn, making the man vow not to get too close, in order to have this emergency meeting with the mayor. "Dearborn broke my damn nose, Malcolm," he repeated with a sharp bite of venom.
"Could'a done a lot worse, Will." He smelled his drink and whispered, "Lot worse... You know, I got a couple wires from people up in Illinois. Heard a rumor we had Mr. Dearborn locked up down here. Wanted to know if we'd be so kind as to send him up so they could try him for a couple murders."
"What'd you say?" Jones asked with hope glimmering in his eyes.
Scott laughed. "I had to tell 'em no. 'Yeah, we got him, but wouldn't ya know it, he slipped away from us a couple nights ago.'"
"Ah, hell, Scott..." Jones sank back into his chair, lip curled with disgust.
"Dearborn could've escaped. He could'a been on the loose and how long you think it would take him to get back down here? Dole out a little revenge? Or hell, son... what if he made it up to Illinois? Got put on trial and decided to tell a little story about corrupt officials down here in the Territory? I can't risk letting Dearborn out of my sight and I'm getting worried that I can't risk keeping him here."
"Noah Dearborn owns us, don't he, Mal?"
"You're here to deliver <i>his</i> orders to <i>me.</i> Orders from Noah Dearborn. I would say the man certainly has us over a barrel. Him, the railroads, the people of this town if they ever find out what we did to 'em." He waved his glass at the man in the moon. "We wanted to rule the world, but somehow we're the puppets."
Jones picked up his glass and emptied it with a swallow. He coughed as it went down and wiped his sleeve across his lips. "I should be getting back. Town meetin' is tomorrow, yeah?"
Scott nodded slowly.
Jones brushed his hands down the front of his shirt, trying in vain to smooth the wrinkles out. He finally gave up and struggled out of his chair. "Malcolm?"
Jones twisted his lips and put his hands down on the desk. "I figured I oughta say something. Try 'n' make sense of all this mess."
Scott laughed ruefully. "Come up with much?"
"Nope," Jones said. He turned and headed for the door. "Not a damned thing."
When the sheriff had left, Malcolm stood and went to the bar. He opened a fresh bottle of Scotch and sloshed the amber liquid against the neck of the bottle. "Yeah, Will. Me neither." He left his empty glass behind on the bar and carried the bottle back to his desk.
Ada felt a strong arm around her waist, a soft breath ruffling her hair from behind. Half-asleep, she slid her hand down the arm and found the fingers, interlocking them with her own. She shifted, rolled onto her back, and finally opened her eyes to the early morning sun. With wakefulness, however, came remembrance. She looked down at her hand, so intimately intertwined with Rose's, and followed the length of her arm up to her face.
Rose was still fast asleep; her face untouched by whatever horrors had been visited upon her the night before.
Ada's first instinct was to get out of bed, push the blankets away, and get dressed before Rose woke. Instead, she tightened her hand and rolled onto her side. She watched Rose sleep and reached up to brush a few stray hairs out of her face. Her hair had been too far away from a curling iron and lay limp against her cheeks and forehead. It made her look younger, more innocent... smaller.
Before long, she decided that she'd indulged herself long enough. If she tarried too long, Rose would wake and catch her. The flush of embarrassment that would have caused got Ada moving. She reluctantly took her hand from Rose's and slipped out of the bed. Rose murmured and shifted, her hand falling to the now empty pillow. Ada gathered some clothes from the dresser and snuck out of the room to get dressed.
A few minutes later, Rose tightened her hand against the pillow. It slid further south and then stretched out until Rose felt the restricting pull of her bandages. The small tug was all she needed to wake up. She blinked at the empty pillow and took a moment to remember why she expected someone to be there. When she remembered the night before, she slowly sat up and held her side as she eased her legs over the edge of the bed. So far, so good. She tested her balance with one hand against the nightstand and hovered over the side of the bed until she was sure she wouldn't fall.
When she decided her feet were trustworthy, at least for the distance she needed, she walked to the bedroom door. She waited before stepping out to catch her breath and tried not to be embarrassed that she needed the rest after such a small trip. She exhaled and looked into the kitchen.
Ada was seated at the kitchen table and staring out the open front door. There was a cup of coffee between her hands, but she seemed more focused on things in the yard. She was wearing her customary shirt and trousers, but her suspenders were hanging in loose loops at her waist. Her hair was uncombed and the bangs reached the top of her eyeglasses.
Rose stood, transfixed. She'd seen Ada at work, seen her half-drunk, delirious with laughter and red-faced angry... She'd never seen Ada just... being. If pushed, she would have been hard-pressed to explain what she found so intriguing, but she was disappointed when Ada turned and saw her standing a few feet away. "What are you doing up?" she asked as she stood.
"Outhouse," Rose said as she finally continued her exodus from the bedroom.
"You have the chamber pot for that," Ada said. She hurried to Rose's side and put an arm around her waist.
Rose smiled. "Forgive me, Ada, but every day I don't have to piss in a jar is a good day."
Ada smiled and said, "Well, come on then. I'll help you out there. You know you're my most difficult patient, right?"
"Yeah, I figured," Rose chuckled.
Valerie carried another crate from the back of the store and sat it on the back of the wagon. She lifted the tarp and took another look up at the steel-gray sky. Clouds had been threatening all morning, but other than a few stray growls of thunder, it had all been quiet. As she tied it down with a heavy-duty rope, she spotted Katie passing the head of the alley. She stuck two fingers into her mouth and whistled. When Katie looked over, Valerie waved her over. "Morning, Katie," she said. "You tell your man about Rose being okay?"
"He's still worried she wants a raise, but I think I managed put his mind at ease." She absently stroked the mane of Valerie's horse. "Heading out?"
"Ayup," Valerie said as she pulled the tarp back into place. "I renewed Ada's rental myself. Might have to invest in one of these things myself." She walked to the seat and climbed up to straighten the reins. She glanced out to the street and noticed that everyone in the street seemed to be flowing in the same direction. "Where's everyone headed?"
"Mayor Scott called a town meeting. Hung a bunch of signs all over town... didn't you see them?"
Valerie shook her head. "I've either been in the store or in bed most of the morning."
"Your headache?" Katie asked, wincing sympathetically.
"Mm," Valerie said. "It's better, but I'm not taking any chances." She picked up the canteen off the seat and said, "Full and ice-cold. Besides, weather being the way it is, I probably shouldn't have too much trouble."
"Still, take it slow," Katie advised. She patted the horse's side and waved good-bye as she left the alley.
Valerie climbed into the wagon, adjusted her hat, and looked up at the sky. Fat black rain clouds were smothering the town like a blanket, their edges seemingly caught on the corners of the tallest buildings in town. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and flicked the reins. The horse nickered in response and began pulling her from the alley. She bowed her head against the impending rainstorm and aimed the horse out of town.
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