This is an unedited first draft not meant for publication.
“Ouch!” Amanda Dayton exclaimed, her feet protesting her every step. For the umpteenth time, she glanced back over her shoulder at a distant town barely visible through a shroud of mirage waves rising in the afternoon heat. She gazed pensively at the unordered collection of sun baked buildings… Durango, a town she called home for the past few months.
While Amanda took a moment to lift her canteen to her dry lips and swallow a sip of water, she peered about at the wide, flat, high desert plain surrounding her. Barren except for copious sagebrush, scattered thorny scrub cactus, and an occasional water-lacking creek bed, she could see nothing on the desert floor that rose above waist height. Nothing that is, except for a leaky, wooden water tower and an adjoining ramshackle structure forlornly keeping watch over a pair of shimmering rails that snaked through the mostly uninhabited land.
Mentally measuring the distance between where she stood and the isolated depot, Amanda began to doubt she’d reach her objective before nightfall. But unwilling to give up, she gritted her teeth against the pain she was about to endure. Setting her gaze on the rocky ground, she doggedly set off toward the unmanned station where, sooner or later, a train would pull to a stop to take on water and any passengers crazy enough to be waiting for it out in the middle of this desolate country.
After a self-imposed non-stop march of almost an hour, Amanda found herself limping alongside the train’s right-of-way. With her goal still some distance away, she paused for another drink of water and tossed another look back at the town. “Oh, damn,” she snapped spying a growing cloud of dust rising in the distance. She quickly corked her canteen before carefully shuffling down a slope of loose sand and gravel before stumbling across another dry creek bed.
“Damn, I don’t have time for this,” Amanda grumbled hearing a hissing sound. Without breaking stride, she snatched a long piece of sun-dried wood off the ground and began smacking it against any bush within range of her arm. “Go on with you, snake,” she ordered to her unseen adversary.
Amanda froze hearing the ominous sound repeated, only louder and, seemingly, right behind her. Jumping to the side, her head swiveled around to locate the source of the noise. “I’m not going to hurt you so just let me pass,” she said as she slowly examined the ground. Only after turning completely about did she notice a depression under the tracks formed by a short, low bridge spanning the dry creek bed. Bending at the waist, she thrust her stick into the deep shadows of the culvert.
“You’re not a snake,” Amanda exclaimed.
“You don’t say,” the person was clearly annoyed but the response also held a touch of amusement.
Amanda continued to jab into the dark opening. “Who’s under there?” she demanded
“Quit poking me with that damn stick,” the voice insisted.
“Why are you hiding in there?” Amanda asked struggling to see anything in the blackness.
“Never mind that… you looking to avoid that posse?” the voice asked.
“What if I am?”
“Then I would suggest you stop standing out there in the sun and get in here where they can’t see you.”
“Why would I crawl under there with you? I don’t even know your name.”
“What say we hold the introductions until that posse is gone.”
“How do I know you’re any safer than them?”
“Hey, make your choice,” the voice said angrily. “Either get in here or keep moving. I don’t need you giving me away.”
Straightening back up, Amanda looked toward the dust cloud. Able now to easily make out the approaching riders, she reluctantly made her decision. “You better not try to hurt me,” she warned dropping onto hands and knees then scrambling inside.
“Over there… as close to the side as you can get.”
Amanda squirmed back until she was pressed against the dirt embankment. “What are you doing?” she cried out when a body shoved against her and sage bushes were packed in around them both.
“You want them to look under here and see us? Keep quiet.”
“Won’t they just ride past?” Amanda whispered.
“If we’re lucky… unfortunately, my luck seems to have run dry lately.”
Amanda heard the distinctive sound of a revolver being cocked. “What are you doing?” she hissed. “Do you know how to use that?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“You’re a woman.”
“So you think I’m incapable of protecting us?”
“No, that’s not what I…” Amanda stopped speaking when a second revolver was cocked.
“Good, because I’m all that’s between you and that posse. So, just keep quiet and stay out of the way.”
Amanda pondered if she should fear for her life or feel safe considering her present predicament of being protected by an armed stranger who had her shoved against a dirt wall and covered by a mound of sage brush. But being unable to move and barely able to see, she didn’t have much of a reason to disbelieve either option. Suddenly, her ears picked up the sound of something slithering through the dry bushes encasing her. “Uh… uh… uh,” she stammered when a diamond shaped head rose up directly in front of her face.
Amanda watched in horror as the head slowly rotated until two yellowish eyes were staring straight at her and a long forked tongue darted out almost touching her nose. She opened her mouth to scream only to see a flash of movement come out of the darkness and strike at the snake’s head. It took a few minutes for Amanda’s brain to comprehend what had just happened until she realized the deadly rattler’s head was now impaled against the embankment by a rather large knife. “Um,” she started then swallowed hard when her words were stopped by a dry knot of fear in her throat. “It’s still moving,” she finally forced out a weak whisper while watching the long, muscular body whipping about as the animal struggled to free itself.
“Oh, for pity’s sake.”
Another rapid movement and, a second equally large knife, efficiently detached the head from the snake’s body.
“Now, will you shut up?”
Staring at the gruesome scene inches from her eyes, Amanda silently nodded, her head bopping up and down earnestly.
Amanda felt the ground start to tremble as the posse’s horses thundered closer. Looking through a tangle of sage bushes, she was relieved to see most of the horses run into the dry creek bed then continued up the opposite bank without stopping. “Keep going,” she softly encouraged the riders. But, to her disappointment, the final pair of horses slowed to a stop just outside her cramped hiding place.
“Get down and take a look,” a deep voice ordered.
“Hasn’t been water in this creek for months, Sheriff,” a second voice responded. “Ground is too dry and rocky… even our horses aren’t leaving tracks.”
“Check the culvert,” the sheriff barked. “Though I doubt she’s the type to crawl in there.”
Huffing in disgust at the man’s rude comment, Amanda quickly found her mouth covered by a calloused hand. Realizing it was not the time to protest the rough treatment by her protector, she wisely decided to relax against the dirt at her back and hold her objections for later. Her eyes nervously watched as one of the riders dropped off his horse and approached. Fearing the worse, she pressed further back into the dark shadows.
“Can’t see anything but sage brush.”
Amanda felt the hand slip from her face and, a moment later, the snake’s body was pulled across her own. It took all the will power she could dredge up to keep from screaming when the snake’s rattles began to shake.
The deputy jerked back from the culvert. “Damn, there’s a rattler in there,” he cried out scrambling to his feet and quickly retreating to his horse. He reached for the rifle hanging in a scabbard on his saddle.
“We don’t have the time,” the sheriff stopped him. “If she went in there, she’s probably dead already,” he commented standing in his stirrups to see over the top of the creek’s banks. “If not… train’s coming,” he said spotting the characteristic gray-black cloud belching from a steam locomotive’s smoke stack on the far side of the plain. “Only place for her to go out here is the depot. Come on, let’s get moving.”
It took several minutes for the body beside her to relax. “Are they gone?” Amanda asked once it had.
“I don’t suppose you could ease off a bit,” Amanda inquired feeling the protesting muscles in her back after maintaining her cramped position for so long. “And move the snake.” She was answered by the lifeless body being lifted off her and tossed to the opposite side of the culvert. Then the thorny bushes were shoved aside and the body pressed against hers shifted. Sighing in relief, she was finally able to stretch her body into an awkward but, somewhat, comfortable position.
“Careful of its head… you rub against the fangs and it can still poison you.”
Squinting against the shadows, Amanda attempted to distinguish the features of the woman now sitting cross-legged on the opposite side of the depression. “Thank you,” she said sincerely.
“Rosie Handler,” the woman responded returning her revolvers to the pockets on the holster around her waist. She leaned across the short distance between them to retrieve her knives.
Rosie flipped the snake’s head out of the culvert then pulled a kerchief out of her back pocket and set to work cleaning the bloody blades. “Introductions,” she explained. “My name’s Rosie Handler.”
“Ah… Amanda Dayton.” After a moment, she asked, “Why did you think that posse is after me?”
“Didn’t… at least not at first. I figured they were after me.”
“Why do you have a posse chasing you?”
Rosie examined her knives; satisfied with the job she had done, she slipped them back into the sheaths hidden inside each of her boots. Then, placing her hands behind her head, she leaned back against the dirt wall. “Funny thing about men,” she said wryly, “they hate when a woman can do what they can. Even more so when a woman does it better. A few of the local boys back in Durango accused me of cheating at cards. Decided they wanted their money back. I wasn’t in the mood to give it.”
“Didn’t have to,” Rosie boasted with a chuckle. “They were really bad poker players. Dumb fools thought because I was a woman, I must be bluffing when I put everything I had in the pot. Wasn’t my fault I was holding twos and fours while they were holding a bunch of nothing. I won fair and square… they saw it differently.” Nudging closer to the opening, she cocked her head to listen. “What about you?” she asked returning to her spot after several minutes.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Amanda said firmly.
Rosie eyed the reluctant woman. “Suit yourself. Just thought if we’re going to be traveling together, might be better to know than not.”
“I never said I was going with you.”
“You plan to take on that desert and posse by yourself?” Rosie asked skeptically.
“I got myself this far,” Amanda declared angrily. “Are they gone?” she asked of the posse.
“Hard to say. Could be gone… could be sitting out there waiting for us to come out.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Amanda stated crawling toward the opening. “I thank you for letting me share your culvert,” she said gingerly straightening up to stand on her blistered feet. “I’ll just be on my way now.” She managed three steps before collapsing to the ground groaning in pain and clutching her feet.
“Problem?” Rosie asked casually.
Amanda glared at the woman still sitting in the shadows of the depression. “No,” she insisted. “My legs are just cramped from being shoved against that wall for so long.”
Rosie shook her head. “Those shoes,” she said pointing a twig at the offending items, “might be fine for sitting in a fancy house but they aren’t exactly appropriate for wandering about out here.”
Amanda glared at the narrow, buttoned-up, high-heeled boots her feet were crammed into. “Well, I didn’t exactly have time to change them before leaving town,” she huffed angrily.
“Wish I had an extra pair of these,” Rosie said tapping the twig against her own leather booted feet, “to give you. But, sad to say, these are my only pair.”
“Are you staying in there?” Amanda asked.
Rosie nodded. “Much cooler in here. And, I suspect, that posse will be riding past again soon. Once they get to the depot and find no one there, they’ll be heading back home. They aren’t about to figure either one of us is worth them sweating out in this sun any longer. But, you can be on your way. I’ll wait a bit longer before I mosey out,” she said.
Amanda glared at the amused woman. She was about to force herself up onto her painful feet when her ears caught the sound of men shouting. “Damn,” she muttered.
Rosie had already pulled her revolvers free by the time Amanda scurried back into culvert.
A steam whistle announced the train’s approach.
Her face twisted into a grimace, Amanda pressed her hands against her ears in a futile attempt to block out the piercing sound.
Racing toward its destination, the train rumbled over the culvert. Vibrations from the heavy steam locomotive and following passenger and freight cars shaking bits of dirt and other unrecognizable debris loose; causing it to rain down on the women huddled below.
Moments later, Rosie recognized the squeal of the train’s brakes and then a loud watery hiss as the engineer released pent up steam once the train was stopped. “Won’t take the sheriff long to figure out you’re not there,” she whispered shifting her cramping legs. “Now all we have to do is wait until the posse heads back to Durango.”
Several minutes had passed after the posse thundered by; their horses raising a thick cloud of dust that floated into the culvert nearly choking the hiding women.
Amanda opened her mouth to speak but abruptly decided otherwise when she saw Rosie was silently shushing her by raising a finger to her lips then tapping her ear. Tilting her head, she listened intently. Hearing nothing, she shot Rosie a questioning look and saw her tap her ear again.
Re-focusing her ears, Amanda concentrated on the noises around her. Suddenly, she caught the sound of something hard bouncing off one of the iron rails above the culvert. Cautiously, she quietly forced herself deeper into the shadows.
Grinning, Rosie lifted the lifeless body of the rattler up near the top of the culvert’s opening then gave the tail a shake.
“Son of a…” a male voice exclaimed. “Forgot that damn thing was down there.” Boots thumping on the wooden ties exposed his haste to get away from the culvert and its resident rattler.
It wasn’t long before the women watched a solitary horse and rider gallop by heading toward Durango.
Once the dust settled, Rosie moved to squat near to the edge of the culvert then paused to allow her eyes to adjust to the bright late afternoon sun. “Stay put,” she warned before making her wary exit then and forcing herself upright to stand on protesting legs. Looking toward the depot, she was relieved to see no evidence of any remaining posse members. Slowly, she turned to scan the distance between where she stood and Durango. Releasing a half-held breath, she relaxed for the first time since taking refuge in the culvert hours earlier. “They’re gone,” she finally said stretching out painful muscles. “You can come out.”
“Are you sure?” Amanda asked, nervously poking her head out from the shadows.
“Come on,” Rosie urged. “It’s getting late and I want to get away from here before dark.”
Crawling free of the culvert, Amanda accepted the unspoken offer of assistance and took hold of a calloused hand. “Thanks,” she said after being helped to her feet. She glanced toward the depot. “I guess I’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s train,” she muttered dolefully.
“You can go on to that depot,” Rosie told her, “but it sure wouldn’t be my choice.”
“More than likely, that posse is going to be back to meet the train.” She placed two fingers in her mouth then blew out a sharp whistle.
“Well, just what do you expect me to do?” Amanda asked trying to determine the reason for the whistle.
“You can ride with me. Won’t be too comfortable but it’s better than walking.”
“Ride on what?” Amanda demanded.
Rosie chuckled. “Come on, Jade,” she called out. “Hurry up, it’s hot out here.”
Amanda was surprised to spot a beautiful cinnamon colored mare appear around a bend in the creek bed; her head hanging low as she gingerly favored her right fore leg.
Amanda glared at her companion. “She’s lame,” she objected. “How am I supposed to ride a lame horse?”
“Hey, girl,” Rosie murmured at the approaching mare. “It’s okay… you can stop the act now.”
The mare whinnied, took another troubled step then raised her head to walk without any evidence of her prior injury.
“You trained her to limp?” Amanda asked incredulously.
Raising her arms to give the mare a good scratch behind her ears, Rosie smiled. “Sure. How many people do you know would waste their time stealing a lame horse?”
Amanda frowned. “I’ll have you know, I don’t keep company with horse thieves… lame or not,” she said.
Gently tugging on the bridle, Rosie urged the mare forward to check her saddle. “If you say so,” she replied adjusting the cinch under the mare’s belly. “Sorry, Jade,” she said patting the mare on the neck. “We need to put distance between us and Durango. That means riding double,” she continued placing a booted foot into a waiting stirrup to swing up into the saddle. “Dang,” she mumbled dropping back onto the ground. “Almost forgot…”
“What?” Amanda asked when Rosie walked back to the culvert and ducked inside.
“Supper,” Rosie explained reappearing holding the rattlesnake.
“Are you crazy?” Amanda blurted watching Rosie drape the lifeless body over the mare’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Jade,” Rosie soothed the suddenly agitated mare. “It’s dead,” she assured stepping again into the stirrup. Settling into the leather saddle, she told Amanda, “Come on, I’ll give you a boost.”
Reluctantly, Amanda took a step. “Ouch!” she cried out reaching down to her blistered feet.
“Might be better to take off those shoes,” Rosie suggested wincing in sympathy as she nudged Jade closer.
“Give me a minute,” Amanda implored then straightened. “I’ll be fine once I get up there.” Taking a moment to steel herself against the anticipated pain, she took the offered hand.
Freeing up a stirrup, Rosie made sure her leg was out of the way.
Grabbing hold of the saddle horn with one hand, Amanda lifted her dress with her other then placed her shoe into the stirrup.
Leaning down, Rosie hooked her hand around Amanda’s upper arm in support.
Amanda swung her free leg over Jade’s back. Pulling her foot out of the stirrup, she squirmed about on the back of the saddle, trying to find a comfortable position.
“Told you, it wouldn’t be comfortable,” Rosie reminded her passenger. “Just relax and don’t think about it,” she advised.
“That’s easy for you to say,” Amanda muttered.
“Ever eat rattler?” Rosie asked turning the mare around. She pressed her heals against Jade’s flanks then smiled when the mare shifted from walking to trotting back down the creek bed.
“No. And I don’t intend to start now.”
Rosie grinned. “Too bad,” she said patting the snake’s thick body. “It’s pretty tasty when cooked properly.” She glanced over her shoulder at the unhappy woman behind her. “Hey, do me a favor... take care of this.”
Pure instinct made Amanda grab for the snake. “No,” she screamed, her surprised brain taking a moment to recognize what she now held.
“Tastes a lot like chicken,” Rosie told her. “Hang on!” she warned.
Amanda barely had time to do as she was instructed before Jade transitioned from a trot to a full gallop. With one arm wrapped around Rosie, she stared disgustingly at the dead creature in her other hand. “A crazy woman, a lame horse, and a dead snake,” she grumbled. “What have I gotten myself into?”
It was close to dark when Rosie felt the ground start to tilt upward. Jade, now trotting, easily adjusted to the change as they began to leave the desert behind them. Patting the mare on the shoulder, she studied the terrain to judge their location. After a moment, she turned Jade to follow a long unused trail barely visible in the fading light.
“Are you planning to ride through the night?” Amanda asked unenthusiastically. It had been a long time since she had ridden a horse and her leg and back muscles were in agony; almost to a point of making her forget about her aching feet. All she wanted was to find someplace to lie down and close her eyes.
“It would be a lot easier on Jade, if we did,” Rosie responded. “It’s a lot cooler at night. But she’s tired… and so are we,” she acknowledged. “Hang on, we’re almost to a place we can make camp. It’s not far… I promise.”
Sighing, Amanda laid her head against the back of Rosie’s shoulder.
Walking before the mare, Rosie led Jade up the slope of a foothill, the incline growing steeper with each step. The scrub and sage bushes of the desert had given way to meager summer grass and an occasional evergreen. “Almost there,” she told Amanda, now riding alone in the saddle. “You doing okay?” she asked.
Fighting against the pain of both her feet and her numb backside, Amanda managed to scrap together enough energy for a weak smile. “Yeah,” she murmured knowing her assertion was likely not going to be believed.
Doubling her effort, Rosie quickly covered the remaining distance to where the slope crested onto a narrow plateau which the trail crossed before starting to climb again. The plateau wasn’t too spacious but the ground was relatively level and a small thicket of aspen trees provided some protection from the cool night winds common at this higher elevation. “There’s a spring over there,” Rosie said pointing toward the trees. “Good spot for a camp.
Looking where Rosie pointed, Amanda saw a jumble of boulders that had tumbled down from the higher slope. “Is it safe?” she wondered out loud looking up to the bluff where the boulders had toppled from.
“Sure, Rosie replied confidently. “I’ve camped here before.” She led Jade into the copse of trees then stopped her next to a trio of larger boulders that formed a natural shelter. “Let me get this blanket put down then we’ll get you settled while I gather up some wood for a fire,” she said untying her bedroll from her saddle.
Amanda shifted. “I can get down—”
“Don’t,” Rosie barked stopping the woman from dismounting.
“I’m capable of getting off a horse,” Amanda angrily retorted preparing to do just that.
“Dammit, stop!” Rosie snapped spreading the bedroll on the ground. “Just do this my way,” she insisted stepping back beside Jade. Tilting her head up to face the angry eyes glaring back at her, she softened her tone, “Please.”
Amanda huffed then considered it probably wasn’t the best idea to jump off the tall horse and land on the hard ground with her injured feet. She sighed. “Alright, your way… this time,” she conceded with a smile.
Rosie returned the smile. “Swing your leg over Jade’s head,” she instructed then waited for Amanda to comply. “Good, now drop off,” she said reaching her arms up to aid the insured woman.
“You’ll hurt yourself,” Amanda protested after realizing the Rosie was planning to catch her as she did.
“Nah… I’ll be fine,” Rosie assured the hesitate woman. “Any time you’re ready,” she said placing her hands on either side of Amanda’s waist.
As soon as Amanda started to slip off the saddle, Rosie tightened her hold to prevent Amanda’s feet from slamming into the ground. Gently setting the injured woman onto the feet, she slipped an arm around her waist to help her sit on the bedroll.
Her surroundings faded as a flood of memories rushed through Rosie’s thoughts. The softness of the body she held causing oddly familiar sensations to course through her, filling her heart with repressed longings. The simple act of holding another woman was almost too much to bear and she clamped her jaws shut to prevent a cry of happiness from escaping her lips.
Alarmed by her companion’s unfocused eyes, Amanda lightly shook Rosie’s shoulder. “Hey… are okay?” Receiving no answer, she shook a little harder.
“Huh,” Rosie mumbled at the concerned face inches from her own.
“Um, nothing,” Rosie replied attempting to push the lingering visions back into the dark corners of her brain where they could be more easily forgotten. “Come on, you need to get off those feet,” she said before gently easing Amanda onto the bedroll. “You best get those shoes off,” she suggested backing away. “I’m going to get some firewood,” she explained removing their canteens from Jade’s saddle, “and water.” Then she turned and hurried away.
Puzzled, Amanda watched the retreating woman disappear into the boulder field. “I wonder what that was all about?” she murmured reaching for her shoes. “Ugh… I bet this is going to hurt,” she grunted untying the boot laces.
Approaching the spring, Rosie slowed her steps to kneel at its edge. Tossing the canteens aside, she cupped her hands together then thrust them into the water. After splashing several handfuls of the cold liquid on her face, she felt her churning emotions begin to calm. She stilled, staring at the surface of the spring. Wearing themselves out, the ripples soon dissipated leaving a reflection floating on the water and gazing sadly up at her… a reflection that was not her own. “Damn, you always seem to find a way back into my thoughts. Why do you insist on doing that?” Rosie questioned the familiar image. Picking up a canteen, she uncorked it then pushed it under the spring’s surface reviving the ripples. She sighed when the reflection began to dissolve from the disturbed surface. “Why can’t I forget you?” She asked sadly. “I’ve tried so hard to do so,” she added pulling the canteens out of the spring.
The ripples stilled and the image returned.
Rosie gazed at the image. After several moments, she smiled pensively. “Seems you were right about that… you said I never would.”
Returning from the spring, Rosie carried an armful of fallen branches as well as the re-filled canteens. Dumping the wood at the side of a ring of rocks left from previous campers, she quickly started a fire before retrieving the snake. It didn’t take her long to skin and clean the animal. Draping it over a makeshift spit formed by three stripped branches, she left it to cook. Then she set to work tending to Amanda’s feet.
“Best I can do,” Rosie murmured wrapping strips of one of her spare shirts around the wounds to keep them clean.
“I appreciate your efforts. They feel better already.”
“Supper should be ready soon,” Rosie commented standing then eyeing the roasting snake. Stepping around the fire, she settled against a boulder to wait for the fire to finish its job.
Amanda studied her intriguing companion.
Rosie was taller than most women; in fact, she was taller than many men, her movements smooth and agile for one of her stature. Her body was trim making it easy to discern the well formed muscles under her deeply tanned skin. Light brown hair hung below her shoulders in an unruly braid. But considering what they’d been through the past several hours, that wasn’t entirely unexpected.
“You want to talk about what happened earlier?” Amanda asked warily.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” she inquired after a few minutes of silence.
“You’re a woman.”
“Yes… we’ve already determined that.”
Amanda smiled. “Yes, we have; but that wasn’t my question. You obviously have nothing against hard work… your hands are rough…” she paused when Rosie folded her arms across her chest to hide her hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend. I just wondered—”
“Why I’m not civilized, like you,” Rosie offered with a tinge of bitterness.
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Amanda quickly responded. “I’m just wondering,” she started again in a softer tone, “what… I mean, how you…” She sighed. “I’m making a mess of this.”
Rosie couldn’t help but grin at the woman’s frustration. “Why don’t you just come out and ask your question.”
Taking a breath then releasing it, Amanda nodded. “Okay, what exactly is it you do, Rosie Handler?”
Laughing, Rosie leaned forward to check on the snake. Pulling a knife from her boot scabbard, she cut a bite-size piece off the cooked snake to test its readiness. With a nod of approval, she pulled the snake free from the spit and set to work cutting it into pieces. “Here,” she offered her knife with a chunk of the snake stuck on its blade.
Amanda hesitated but, after listening to her empty stomach’s complaints for the past hour, she finally gave in and accepted the meat. “Thanks… I think,” she said as she looked suspiciously at the offering.
“Just eat it,” Rosie said then laughed when Amanda held her nose and took a nibble.
Grinning, Amanda released her nose. “Hey, it’s not too bad.”
“Just like chicken.”
“Not quite but passable,” Amanda agreed.
Rosie returned to her relaxed position against the boulder. As the women quieted to enjoy their sparse meal, she studied her unanticipated traveling companion.
Compared to herself, Amanda was shorter in stature and much thinner. Curly reddish blond hair framed a round face with hazel eyes and delicate pair of lips. Her lightly sunburned but normally pale skin indicated a life spent mostly indoors.
“To answer your question,” Rosie said after several minutes, “Isn’t much to do with ranching that I haven’t done. And I’m not disinclined to plowing a field if there’s a good meal to be had when I’m finished.”
“Why do that kind of work when you could clerk in a mercantile or…”
“I never took a liking to being inside all day. Much rather be sitting on a horse then sitting behind a counter.”
“So you just drift from place to place?”
Rosie nodded. “Mighty fine way to live, don’t you think?”
“Except when you’re running away from a posse,” Amanda noted.
Rosie smiled. “Seems we decided that posse was after you.”
“You were hiding in the culvert first.”
“Ah… so I was. My turn to ask questions,” Rosie said offering a second piece of snake.
Amanda peered across the fire. “I suppose that’s only fair,” she agreed halfheartedly. She was pretty sure what question would be asked and she wasn’t anxious to answer it.
Pointing her knife at Amanda’s dress, Rosie asked, “You want to tell me about that?”
Frowning, Amanda glanced down at her dress. Even by the low glow of the fire, she could see the blood splatters staining the fabric.
“It was an accident.”
“Appears someone got hurt… bad.”
Amanda sighed. “In Durango, I work in a dress shop. Shortest way to get from where I live to the shop is down an alley. I don’t like using it but I was late and…” Amanda paused trying to remember the exact chain of events that brought her to her present predicament. “A cowboy was sleeping off a drunk halfway down the passage. I thought I could sneak past without waking him. I was wrong. He grabbed my leg. I tried to kick free but he wouldn’t let go.” Her brow creased as she struggled with her memory. “It all happened so fast. One minute I was trying to step over him… and the next, he was pinning me to the wall.” She forced her eyes closed against the memory. “I… I’m really not sure what happened. He was trying to kiss me… then he was on the ground screaming in pain. And the blood… it was everywhere.”
“I’m sorry,” Rosie murmured placing a comforting hand on the distraught woman’s shoulder.
Amanda jerked away from the unexpected touch. “Damn, you scared me,” she snapped realizing Rosie was kneeling beside her. “How?”
“I’m sorry,” Rosie apologized withdrawing her hand. While Amanda had been telling her story, she had moved from the opposite side of the fire to offer comfort to the upset woman. “I just thought…” she muttered standing and backing away.
Closing her eyes to settle her racing heart, Amanda shook her head. “No, I’m the one who should be sorry. I just didn’t hear you move… I wasn’t expecting it when you touched me.”
Unsure if she should return to her prior spot or stay to offer the intended comfort, Rosie fidgeted. After a moment, she decided to split the difference and dropped to the ground to sit cross legged near but not next to Amanda. “What happened?” she asked softly.
“I panicked,” Amanda continued. Now more than anything, she needed to tell her story to someone else. “I just turned and ran. Next thing I knew, I was in the desert. I couldn’t go back.”
“Why not? You could have told the sheriff what happened. It wasn’t your fault.”
“There was so much blood,” Amanda shrieked. “I thought I’d killed him.”
“You were protecting yourself,” Rosie said in defense of Amanda’s actions. “The sheriff—”
“Damn it,” Amanda screamed. “I never stabbed anybody before. I didn’t know what to do,” she moaned raising her hands to her face.
“Are you okay?” Rosie asked watching the color suddenly drain from Amanda’s skin.
“I think I’m going to throw up.”
Pressing a wet cloth against Amanda’s forehead, Rosie offered, “This should help.”
Able to stretch out on her back for the first time in several minutes, Amanda reached up to hold the cloth with one hand while rubbing her upset stomach with her other. “I guess the snake wasn’t as good as you thought,” she stated worriedly while hoping she had no more of her meager meal to lose.
“Wasn’t the snake,” Rosie replied using a recently fallen pine branch to brush the campsite clean.
“Sure it was,” Amanda moaned. “I knew I should have just gone hungry.”
“You’d been sick either way,” Rosie said with certainty. “You aren’t used to the sun,” she explained to the skeptical woman after tossing the branch onto the fire. “You don’t spend much time outside, do you?” she asked.
Amanda squirmed on the bedroll. Rolling partially onto her side, she reached under the blanket. “I try not to,” she said tossing an offending pebble aside.
“Thought so… most ladies don’t,” she stated wryly. “Good thing you were riding behind me.” Observing Amanda’s quizzical look, Rosie smiled. “Being bigger than you, I do a good job blocking the sun,” she explained. “Otherwise, you’d be cooked as well as that snake was.”
“Ah,” Amanda sighed in understanding.
Rosie uncorked Amanda’s canteen then paused. Gazing thoughtfully at the canvas object, she considered a question that had briefly jumped to the front of her thoughts before casually dismissing it. She handed the canteen to Amanda. “You need to get some water in you… and some more of that snake.”
“Oh, no,” Amanda protested shaking her head.
“You have to get some food in you,” Rosie insisted. “Until we can find something else, snake is all we have.” Retrieving a piece of the cooked meat, she carried it back to Amanda. “How are you feeling?” she asked holding the meat out.
“The trees have stopped spinning,” Amanda answered refusing to touch the offering.
“Nibble it,” Rosie instructed setting the meat on the blanket beside Amanda. “Drink a swallow of water with each nibble and it should stay down.”
“Ugh,” Amanda grunted before slowly pushing herself upright then shifting back to lean against a boulder. “No promises,” she declared lifting the canteen to her lips.
Rosie settled down opposite the fire. “You’ll wish you had come tomorrow,” she said reaching for a piece of supper for herself. She took a few minutes to chew and swallow a bite. “I think it best that you head back to Durango in the morning—”
“You can ride Jade,” Rosie continued ignoring the angry protest. “Send her back when you can and she’ll come find me. If you leave before dawn—”
“I said no,” Amanda repeated.
“Look, just go tell the sheriff what happened… no one will find fault with what you did,” Rosie said logically.
“What if I killed him?” Amanda asked in a shaky voice. “It’ll just be my word.”
Annoyed that Amanda refused to listen to reason, Rosie let her head fall back. “Ow,” she muttered reaching up to rub the spot that had connected with the hard stone. “What did you stab him with?” she asked as her head started to throb.
“What did you stab him with?” Rosie repeated gazing across the fire.
Catching her off guard, Amanda took several moments to ponder the unexpected question before lifting her hands up, palms skyward, and shrugging her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she said uncertainly.
“Did you have a knife with you?”
“The knife had to come from someplace. Did he one?”
Amanda gave the question some thought. She tried to recall every detail of the man she had fought in the alley’s morning shadows. “I think… he had a knife in his belt,” she said uncertainly.
“Did you grab for it?”
“I don’t remember… I don’t think so. I just remember I was trying to push him away. Then he started screaming and fell down.”
“Oh, hell,” Rosie sputtered.
“He was drunk. Folks don’t act too smart when they’ve got a gut full of whiskey. You were fighting… he most likely tried to grab his knife to scare you. The damn fool probably stabbed himself trying to pull his knife free,” she said in disdain.
“I suppose,” Amanda conceded. “But, all I remember is seeing blood and him screaming.”
Rosie chuckled. “My experience is men don’t handle pain very well… most scream like babies when they get hurt.” She paused to enjoy another bite of snake. “Well, if he was screaming then he was still alive. Folks probably found him and took him to the doctor. Most likely he got patched up and he’s back to being a pain in the ass already.”
Chewing on her lower lip, Amanda felt tears slipping down her cheeks. “What if he’s not?”
“Dammit, woman,” Rosie grumbled picking up a rock then throwing it away from the campsite. Both women reacted when the stone struck the trunk of an unseen tree before bouncing off to loudly clatter against some other stones on the ground. “He deserved what he got, if you asked me,” she said once the unexpected intrusion stopped.
“Oh, damn,” Amanda moaned. “Don’t say that… please…” She hesitated. “Please, Rosie… I just can’t know that I killed someone,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper.
Rosie reached for another rock then stopped. “I suppose I could throw rocks all night,” she muttered, “but it won’t make your problem go away.”
“Can’t I go with you?”
This time being careful not to let her head slam against the boulder, she leaned back to consider their predicament; eyes closed as she thought.
“What’s that?” Amanda asked nervously when far in the distance howls and yips could be heard.
“Wolves,” Rosie answered without opening her eyes.
Suddenly feeling very fearful of the night’s unseen threats, Amanda gathered the bedroll around her in a semblance of protection.
Hearing the rustle of cloth, Rosie cracked an eye and peered across the fire. “They’re too far away tonight to bother us,” she assured her anxious companion then returned to thinking. “Well,” she started, “if you’re sticking with me, first thing we need to do is get you some clothes and a pair of walking shoes.”
Peeking out from her tightly wrapped blanket, Amanda listened as Rosie formulated a plan.
“Goose Creek is about a day’s ride south but we can’t go there.”
“Does it have a telegraph office?”
“Yes,” Rosie answered gazing quizzically at Amanda.
“Will you take me there?”
“That’s not a good idea.”
“Because Goose Creek has a sheriff and as soon as the folks in town see you and that dress, he’ll be asking questions,” Rosie explained. “And you not wanting to go back and talk to Durango’s sheriff might seem more than a little suspicious.”
Amanda frowned. “I just need to send a telegraph,” she stated. “Can’t you go into town and send a telegraph?”
“My sister lives in Santa Fe. She could arrange for a train ticket for me.”
Rosie shook her head. “That’s trouble.”
“Why?” Amanda asked surprised that the simple act of sending a telegraph would be a problem.
“Two reasons,” Rosie said holding up her hand with her index finger pointing upward. “Telegraph operators read the messages they send. Message saying you’re in trouble and need a ticket to Santa Fe is going to raise concerns… he’ll go straight to the sheriff as soon as I walk out of the office.”
“What’s the second reason?”
“All I have is what I’m wearing and Jade. I don’t suppose you have any money.”
Sighing, Amanda slumped in defeat. “I dropped my handbag in Durango,” she muttered.
“I guess we could head for McDougall’s.”
“Two days ride up and over this mountain. McDougall runs a trading post in a valley over the ridge; trades tobacco and such to the Indians for hides. We probably can find you something to wear there. Won’t have any dresses… you’ll have to make due with a pair of trousers and a flannel shirt. Hopefully, he’ll have a pair of boots that fit. Might even luck out and have a spare horse. Once we’re there, we can decide how to get you to Santa Fe.”
“Okay,” Amanda agreed even though she didn’t feel as confident as she thought she sounded.
Rosie smiled. “Now that we got that figured out, let’s get some sleep.” Scooting down to lay flat at the base of the boulder, she tucked her arms under her head. “Night,” she said closing her eyes.
Too fearful to sleep, Amanda watched Rosie for several minutes. When it became apparent that the other woman was sound asleep, she let her eyes roam about the campsite looking for but hoping not to see any intruders hiding in the shadows. Feeling a rumble deep in her stomach, she eyed the forgotten chunk of snake meat within her reach. Having fallen from the blanket when she wrapped it around her, the meat was now resting in the dirt. “Oh, damn,” she grumbled picking up the piece of snake. Gently swiping it against her blanket, she tried to brush it clean of dirt. “Guess it can’t make it any worse,” she muttered taking a bite.
After finishing off the snake, Amanda took a long drink from her canteen; then readjusting the blanket, she tilted her head back to look at the mantle of twinkling stars above the campsite. It wasn’t long before her eyes closed.
It was still very dark when Rosie’s eyes blinked open. At first, she remained perfectly still trying to discern what had awakened her. Able to see very little since the fire had burned out during the night, she focused on what she might be able to hear. After a few minutes, she decided nothing was amiss in the camp. “Probably just another stupid dream,” she told herself as she shifted into a sitting position. Yawning, she rubbed her eyes hoping that might help clear her sleep muddled brain. “I sure hope McDougall has coffee,” she muttered forcing herself upright. Moving carefully, she circled the rock ring that formed the fire pit. Kneeling beside Amanda, she took a moment to watch her sleep and let old memories filter back into her thoughts. “No,” she whispered after a few minutes. While reaching a hand out, she forced the memories back into the dark corners of her brain. “Hey, time to get up,” she said gently shaking Amanda’s shoulder.
Peering through half-closed eyes, Amanda groaned. “It’s dark,” she protested.
“Yes, it is,” Rosie agreed. “I’m going to fill the canteens and saddle Jade… then you can mount up.”
“Ugh,” Amanda grimaced throwing the blanket aside. She quickly discovered that falling asleep in a sitting position had provided little rest for newly stiff muscles already sore from the prior day of riding. “I may need some help.”
Rosie gathered up the bedroll and neatly rolled it up. “I expected as much,” she said walking toward the mare grazing contently in the deeper shadows of the aspen trees.
Gingerly, Amanda stretched her legs and arms. “Oh, that hurts,” she exclaimed when her body objected to the activity. Making good use of the time until Rosie returned with Jade, she massaged her legs hoping to relieve some of their stiffness. Though disappointed when Rosie returned sooner than expected, she gamely pulled her right leg back to place her foot flat on the ground. “Ow,” she cried at the stabs of pain emanating from her sore legs. “I could use a few more minutes to try to work on these muscles,” she stated dourly.
“Sooner we get started, sooner we make it to McDougall’s,” Rosie replied leading Jade to stand next to Amanda. “You can rest there.” Bending down, she slipped her arm around Amanda’s waist. “Put your weight on me,” she instructed.
Getting Amanda upright and into the saddle turned out to be more of a struggle than either woman anticipated. Her injured feet made it almost impossible for Amanda to stand and Rosie wasn’t strong enough to easily lift her onto Jade’s back.
“I’m sorry,” Amanda apologized once she was sitting atop the tall mare. “I’m not making this easy, am I?”
“Can’t be helped,” Rosie replied taking a moment to regain her breath. “You good?” she asked grabbing Jade’s reins.
“Scoot back so I can get up there with you.” Rosie waited for Amanda to comply then, taking hold of the saddle horn, she prepared to mount. “Well, that was something,” she grumbled moments later after having had to awkwardly balance on one stirrup while swinging her other leg up and over Jade’s head to complete the movement.
“Would have been easier if you got on first,” Amanda suggested trying to hide her amusement at the woman’s graceless actions.
Looking over her shoulder, Rosie grinned. “Where’s the challenge in that?” Turning back around, she urged Jade away from their campsite.
Detouring around another large rock, Rosie walked ahead of Jade as they traversed a particularly steep section of trail. Midday was behind them and the afternoon sun was thankfully blocked by the cliff rising high above the trail. “Hang tight,” she called back to Jade’s solitary rider.
“Why Jade?” Amanda asked, her fingers tightly gripping the saddle horn.
“What?” Rosie asked surveying the ground in front of her for the easiest route to guide the mare.
“Why Jade?” Amanda repeated. “It’s not like she’s green,” she stated the obvious.
Rosie chuckled. “No, she’s definitely not green.” She shifted her steps again, this time leading Jade a little uphill of the trail to avoid a tree trunk that had slid down some time earlier; its jumble of roots not quite having cleared the trail as it fell. “Seemed fitting at the time,” she continued after regaining the trail.
“I needed a horse.”
“Does it matter?”
“Lost mine in a poker game.”
Amanda grinned. “Of course. Have you ever thought that playing poker might not be good for you?”
“Have you ever thought that walking down alleys in the dark might not be good for you,” Rosie shot back.
“Point taken,” Amanda gracefully conceded. “So, you needed a horse…”
“I was walking past a farm and saw Jade in a corral. Farmer who owned her said she wasn’t much good to him since she wouldn’t take to a plow. Even with that, he still wanted a fair sum for her.”
“Which, I’m guessing, you had lost your money in the same game you lost your horse,” Amanda teased.
Rosie ignored the playful jab. “Night before, I’d spent in an abandoned mining camp… sleeping in the old shacks was better than sleeping outside. I decided to look around in case any of the miners might have forgotten a gold nugget or two.”
“Not too likely.”
“You’d be surprised,” Rosie said knowingly. “Anyway, I got lucky and found a piece of carved jade. Wasn’t much bigger than my thumb so I didn’t figure it was worth much… but it was pretty.”
“And you thought it would be good enough to trade for the horse?”
“I figured it couldn’t hurt to make the offer… I was tired of walking.”
“The man obviously agreed,” Amanda observed since she was riding said horse.
“He thought it would make a nice gift for his wife.”
“And you decided to name her Jade.”
“Seemed fitting at the time,” Rosie repeated.
“So you said.” Amanda smiled. “Then you trained her to limp… because?”
“Next winter, storms stuck us at McDougall’s for several weeks. Training her passed the time. She’s a quick learner… she can limp and bring me my hat, if I whistle.”
“What hat?” Amanda asked knowing she had never seen Rosie wear one.
“Fell off when we were crossing a river. I whistled… but for some reason, she refused to swim after it,” Rosie said glumly.
“Well, you did say she was smart,” Amanda sniggered.
Rosie turned to glare at the grinning woman. “Come on, you old nag,” she scoffed giving a swift tug to Jade’s reins.
Bracing her legs, Jade balked; the leather reins stretching as Rosie stomped up the trail. With a toss of her head, Jade jerked the reins out of Rosie’s hands.
“Oh, crud,” Rosie cried out feeling her boots lose contact with the uneven footing. Arms flailing about, she dropped butt first onto the stone covered trail. “Dammit, Jade,” she bellowed.
Her lips twitching, Amanda gazed compassionately at the humiliated woman. “Seems Jade learned a few more tricks that winter,” she observed.
Frowning, Rosie stood then reclaimed the mare’s reins. “I suppose you thought that was funny,” she grumbled.
Neighing, Jade lifted and dropped her head a couple of times.
“Damn crazy horse… and damn crazy woman,” Rosie muttered starting up the trail as Jade calmly trailed behind her.
Chuckling, Amanda patted Jade on the neck. “Good girl.”
Sunset found the women camped in a small meadow beside a creek near the summit they planned to crest the following day. The meadow was surrounded by a thick pine forest that protected the camp from the winds blowing over the ridge. Jade was happily grazing on the meadow’s sweet grasses and few remaining wildflowers.
“Looks like,” Rosie said adding a broken branch to their campfire, “we go hungry tonight.”
“I thought that would be the case,” Amanda replied knowing they had finished off the remains of the rattlesnake earlier in the day. She was laying on the bedroll too tired to utter even a mild complaint.
“I was hoping to see something on the trail I could shoot,” Rosie said lifting a canteen to her lips. “Or something around here but…”
Trying to ignore her rumbling stomach, Rosie turned her attention to her companion. “How do you feel?”
“I ache all over. My rear end is numb. And my feet hurt,” Amanda replied candidly.
“I can’t do much for the aching or your backside… but I could take a look at your feet,” Rosie offered.
“Are they bleeding?” Amanda asked being unable to bend her stiff legs in order to see the bottom of the wrappings.
Amanda considered the offer then concluded that she really didn’t want to suffer any more discomfort after the day she’d experienced. After the morning’s difficult attempts at mounting Jade, it had been decided she should just stay in the saddle whenever they stopped to rest. It hadn’t been very restful and right now all she wanted to do was remain stretched out on the bedroll and not move until morning. “I think I’d rather leave them be for now,” she finally admitted remaining in her prone position.
“McDougall can take a look at them when we get there.”
“Is he a doctor?”
“Best you’ll find in the mountains. Learned a lot about healing from the Indians he trades with.”
“Will there be Indians at the post?”
“Might be.” Jesse shrugged. “You never know who might ride in.”
Amanda lifted up onto her elbows. “Are they dangerous?” she asked solemnly.
Jesse shook her head. “They’re just people,” she said. “You treat them with respect and they’ll treat you the same.”
“I thought you said McDougall takes advantage of them,” Amanda commented lying down again.
“He does… doesn’t mean I have to do the same.”
“No, I suppose it doesn’t.”
“Truth is… I have more problems dealing with the trappers then the Indians.”
“Men that live in the mountains. Spend most of the year alone unless they’ve taken an Indian wife. When they come in to trade their pelts, they’re looking for more than just a fair deal.”
“Liquor, gambling… and women. I’ve found it better to skirt around McDougall’s when any trappers are there.”
Alarmed by the information, Amanda forced herself up to sit facing Rosie. “Will we be safe?” she asked nervously.
“I don’t carry these for show,” Rosie asserted patting the revolvers resting in the holster around her waist.
A quizzical look on her face, Amanda looked at Rosie… then the revolvers… then back at Rosie. “Do you really know how to use those?”
Slowly, Rosie pulled the revolvers free. “Choose a target,” she urged, “one for each.”
“Well, I am trusting you to protect me,” Amanda accepted the challenge. “See the two pinecones hanging from the same branch,” she asked pointing out a tree fifty feet away. “If that’s too far, I can pick something closer.”
Rosie whistled. “It’s going to get noisy, Jade,” she called out to the mare. “Don’t want her running off,” she explained to Amanda as she raised her guns and fired.
Amanda barely had time to focus on the pinecones before they both exploded simultaneously.
Rosie returned the revolvers to the holster then casually laid down. “Satisfied?”
“I, uh… that was impressive,” Amanda declared more than a little surprised at Rosie’s display of proficiency.
“Go to sleep.”
The sun was still low in the eastern sky when the women crested the ridge and started to make their way down a narrow ravine. The steep walls of the chasm stretched downward for some distance before the ground began to level and entered a bowl-shaped mountain valley that beckoned the exhausted travelers.
Not far from the bottom of the ravine, a windowless log structure sat beside a meandering creek. Piles of dried pelts were stacked along the front of the trading post on either side of its single door. Behind the cabin a lean-to provided a semblance of shelter for the assortment of animals enclosed by a split post corral. Though no people were visible, smoke rising from the chimney at one end of the cabin indicated someone was probably inside.
“Is that McDougall’s?” Amanda asked when Jade slowed to pick her way around another bad stretch of trail.
“Sure be nice to get down there and away from these damn rocks,” Rosie grumbled in lieu of an answer. The uneven footing having caused numerous mis-steps leaving her ankles and knees tender from being twisted repeatedly.
“I thought it would be bigger,” Amanda commented studying their intended destination.
“It’s plenty big for what we need,” Rosie noted.
“Sheep,” Amanda began to list the animals in a variety of enclosures near the cabin. “Goats, a cow, chickens. Seems like an odd mix.”
“He gets them in trade then he’ll trade them for something else,” Rosie explained. “Or eat them.”
“Looks like he has a horse.”
“Let’s hope it’s not lame.”
“What do you plan to trade for it?” Amanda asked.
“Haven’t figured that out yet,” Rosie replied frowning. “Come on, Jade,” she encouraged the tired mare, “we’re almost there.”
Two hours passed before Rosie led Jade up to the front of the trading post. “Let’s get you down,” she told Amanda, “then I can let her loose to graze.”
Amanda was about to swing her leg over Jade’s head when the cabin’s door burst open.
“Dammit, Rosie… what the hell are you doing here?”
“What’s the matter, Daniel,” Rosie tensely asked the stocky man standing in the doorway.
McDougall turned his attention to Amanda. “Who’s she?”
“Picked her up on the way… she needs some doctoring.”
McDougall’s eyes traveled up the ravine to the ridge. “Get her inside and be quick about it,” he ordered after a moment.
“I’ll need your help… she can’t walk.”
Shaking his head, McDougall stepped off the small porch. “You can sure pick ‘em,” he muttered reaching up to lift Amanda off the mare’s back.
“It’s not like that,” Rosie protested as the trader carried the injured woman inside. “Don’t go far,” she told Jade after wrapping the reins loosely around the saddle horn. Then she followed the others into the cabin.
“What’s your problem?” McDougall brusquely asked setting Amanda on a counter occupying the center of the room.
“Blisters,” Amanda explained nervously watching the irritable man unwrap the bandages around her feet.
“They’re tore up pretty bad,” Rosie added.
“Shut that damn door,” McDougall snapped. “I’ll need to get a few things,” he told Amanda then walked to a table in the corner of the cabin. “I’ll fix her up best I can,” he said rummaging through several leather pouches on the table. “She probably won’t be able to walk for another few days,” he continued as he selected a few items. “But you can’t stay here.”
“Daniel, what the heck is the matter with you?” Rosie demanded. “You’ve never turned me away before.”
“You don’t know?”
“Know what?” Rosie snapped.
Not understanding the cause of the surliness between Rosie and the trader, Amanda decided to remain quiet and let her eyes travel around the trading post.
Lining the log wall to the right of the door, large barrels held flour, sugar, salt, and other essentials. To the door’s left, traps of various sizes hung off the wall along with a few rifles and a single bow and quiver of arrows. Filling the wall behind the counter were shelves holding a variety of goods including canned foods, ammunition, knives, and candles. A cot occupied a corner next to the fireplace at one end of the cabin; a table and solitary chair sat in the opposite corner. At the other end of the cabin, a pair of shelves displayed leather boots, fur hats, blankets, and gloves while trousers, shirts, heavy coats, and fur lined hats hung underneath. Above the counter, pieces of horse tack and a round, bison skin boat hung from the ceiling.
Amanda wondered the use of a few unusual items she spotted but determined they had probably been obtained in trade and were waiting for someone to wander in and decide they needed to acquire them.
McDougall carried his selections back to the curious woman. Placing the items on the counter, he took note of her bloodied dress. Turning to face Rosie, he asked, “What trouble she in?”
“Misunderstanding in Durango... I tried to get her to go back and talk to the sheriff but she wouldn’t.”
“Like you ain’t in enough trouble,” McDougall huffed walking past Rosie to the fireplace. Lifting a pot of heating water, he poured a generous portion into a bowl.
“What trouble?” Rosie shouted in frustration. “Damn, all I did was beat a cowboy at poker,” she exclaimed as McDougall carried the bowl across the cabin and set it on the counter next to Amanda. “Since when is that a crime?”
“Poker game?” McDougall muttered lifting one of Amanda’s legs to clean her wounds. “No,” he said shaking his head as he worked. “They say you broke into a mine office to steal the strongbox. Shot a guard in the process.” The trader twisted his head to look at Rosie. “Killed him.”
Rosie felt like someone had dropped a boulder on her head. Swallowing the knot in her throat, she declared softly, “I didn’t do it.”
“Hell, I know that, Rosie,” McDougall assured the stunned woman. “Never known you not to ask for work if you needed money,” he added switching to Amanda’s other foot.
On shaky legs, Rosie moved to the only chair in the cabin and collapsed onto the worn seat.
“You been working in a mine, Rosie?”
“Yeah… the Gold Queen in the hills north of Durango.”
McDougall lowered Amanda’s leg then walked around the counter to retrieve a sheet of newsprint hidden inside his ledger book. “Man came by a few days ago and tacked this on my door. Took it down soon as he left,” he said carrying the paper to Rosie.
“What is it?” Rosie asked uneasily.
“Wanted poster,” McDougall explained returning to finish with Amanda.
“I didn’t do this,” Rosie repeated. “Why the hell would I?”
“He said you were looking to get even after the mine let you go.”
Crumbling the poster in her fist, Rosie stood. Her shock was quickly changing to anger as she came to terms with the recent news. Marching over to the counter, she angrily slammed the wadded paper down on the wooden surface. “I don’t do things that way.”
Picking up the discarded sheet, Amanda smoothed it out to read it. “Why would you work in a mine?” she asked shivering at the thought of spending hours in a dark, damp tunnel deep underground.
“I wouldn’t,” Rosie responded. “I was driving one of the mule teams that pull the ore wagons.”
“Look, I’d only been there a few days when the foreman called me to the office and told me I wasn’t needed anymore. He paid me off and told me to clear out. So I did.”
Applying a salve to Amanda’s feet, McDougall wondered aloud. “You have any run-ins with the miners?”
“No. Didn’t have much cause to talk to most. Just drove the wagon from the mine to the mill. Then back for another load.”
“Did you hear anything about trouble around the mine?”
“I don’t think so… but, like I said, I was only there a few days.”
“Sounds suspicious to me, Rosie,” McDougall said.
“Maybe I should go back to Durango and talk to the sheriff,” Rosie thought out loud.
“Wasn’t the sheriff that left the poster,” McDougall said wrapping clean bandages around Amanda’s foot. “It was a Bentley agent.”
“Bentley?” Rosie sputtered. “The detective agency?”
The trader nodded. “Said he’d be back, too. That’s why you can’t stick around here.” He let Amanda’s foot down before starting on the other. “Rosie, Bentley agents don’t talk… they just arrest you.”
“That’s not true,” Amanda blurted out.
Rosie and McDougall glanced at Amanda.
“And you know that how?” the trader asked.
“I… um… just know they say they seek the truth,” Amanda explained weakly. “I read one of their ads… some place.”
“Truth don’t matter to the Bentley’s,” McDougall growled. “They’ll just arrest you and take you back… to hang.”
Rosie chewed her lip. “Damn.”
“These should fit,” McDougall told Amanda handing her a pair of trousers and a denim shirt. Don’t have any boots your size but these will work,” he added setting a pair of doeskin moccasins on the counter beside the woman. “They’ll be a lot easier on your feet.”
“I can’t pay you, Daniel,” Rosie stated truthfully.
The trader smiled at the distressed woman. “You’ve done enough favors for me over the years.”
With the trader’s help, Amanda slipped off the counter and stood gingerly on her newly bandaged feet. “They feel a lot better, Mr. McDougall. Thanks.”
McDougall acknowledged the woman’s gratitude with a curt nod then walked toward the door. “Let’s talk, Rosie. Give your friend some privacy to change.”
Rosie pulled the chair over to Amanda. “Once you get out of that dress… sit down to do the rest,” she said then turned to follow the trader outside.
“Who’d she kill?” McDougall asked as soon as Rosie pulled the door shut.
“I don’t know that she did. But if she did, he deserved it. Attacked her in an alley, tried to… you know.”
“You don’t need her kind of trouble right now, Rosie.”
“I’m just taking her far enough to find a telegraph where she can send word to family and arrange for a railroad ticket home.”
“If you came from Durango, the closest telegraph would have been Goose Creek. You could have gone there instead coming over the ridge to here,” McDougall said casting a questioning look at his friend.
“I couldn’t take her there… not looking the way she did.”
“Rosie, you don’t need her trouble. The law’s probably looking for her.”
“They are. We had to hide from a posse already.”
“Damn,” McDougall said shaking his head. “Leave her here,” he offered. “I’m expecting a tanner to show up any day to inspect my pelts. I can send her back with him.”
“I can’t do that,” Rosie responded. “It isn’t fair to make her your problem.”
“Come on, Rosie. The law won’t do anything to me… I’ll say she wandered in and all I did was give her a place to sleep until her feet healed. How could I know she was wanted in Durango?”
“Daniel, if she did kill the guy… I can’t let her go back and face that alone.”
“What’s the matter with you,” McDougall exclaimed angrily. “You’re always picking up strays.”
“Don’t!” Rosie glared at the trader. “She wasn’t like that.”
“This one or the last one?”
Rosie glared at the man. “Drop it, Daniel,” she insisted in a low, threatening tone.
Realizing he had said too much, McDougall stepped back. He had witnessed Rosie’s pain and her long struggle to get past the events that had caused it. As much as his heart ached for his friend, he knew now was not the time to continue what he had just started. “What are you going to do?”
Shaking her head, she slowly walked to a small pen where a bored dog lay in the shade of a lean-to. “I should go back to the Queen and tell them my side,” she said when McDougall joined her.
“They don’t want to know your side,” McDougall muttered. “Rosie, they pinned a murder on you… damned if they didn’t set you up for it.”
Puzzled by the statement, Rosie asked, “Why me?”
“I don’t know. But if they did and you go back, you won’t get a chance to tell your side before they hang you.”
“I don’t have a choice.”
“Go to Mexico.”
“Won’t solve my problems.”
“At least you’ll be alive to figure something else. The law can’t follow you across the border; Bentley agents can’t cross it either. Take the horse,” McDougall said. “Jade can’t carry the both that far.”
“I don’t know, Daniel—”
“Rosie, you’ve got to get out of here. I don’t know when that Bentley agent will return. If he finds you here…”
Rosie turned to face her friend; it wasn’t hard to read the concern on his face. “All right,” she finally agreed. “But I’ve got to do something first.”
“I expected you would. I’ll go check on…” McDougall paused when he could not recall a name and was pretty sure he had never given Rosie a chance to supply it.
“Amanda,” Rosie told the trader having guessed the reason for his hesitation.
“McDougall nodded. “I’ll sack up some supplies for you to take. And put a saddle on that horse.”
“You’re a good friend, Daniel,” Rosie said holding out a hand. It was quickly engulfed by a much larger one and, then, just as quickly released. A moment later, strong arms closed around her in a hug.
“Take care of yourself, Rosie,” McDougall mumbled as a tear slowly rolled down his cheek. Releasing his friend, he turned toward the cabin and wiped at the tear.
“I’ll send you the money when I get it,” Rosie called after the trader.
“Bring it back with you next time.”
Rosie smiled. “Okay, I’ll do that,” she agreed even while she wondered if there would be a next time. She waited for McDougall to enter the cabin before starting a slow walk to a solitary ponderosa standing in the middle of the valley.
Amanda looked up as McDougall entered the cabin. “Where’s Rosie?” she asked when it became apparent the trader was alone.
“Had something to do.”
“She left,” Amanda exclaimed rising to her feet in alarm.
“Sit down,” McDougall barked. “She hasn’t left,” he assured the anxious woman as he walked around the end of the counter. “Just needs some time to herself,” he said pulling an empty canvas bag off a shelf. Making his way around the cabin, he stopped occasionally to pack food items into the bag. Placing the bulging bag by the door, he made another circuit of the cabin. This time, he selected practical items such as ammunition for Rosie’s pistols, a small hatchet, and a pair of warm blankets which he placed atop the counter in a neat pile.
“Are you sure she’s alright?” Amanda asked after several minutes.
“I’ve got a horse to saddle.” McDougall ignored the question heading for the cabin’s door. “Stay in here and don’t cause any trouble.”
“You don’t like me, do you?” Amanda asked mystified why a man she just met showed such open hostility toward her.
McDougall paused. “Don’t know you,” he finally answered without turning to face his questioner. “But I know her. There isn’t a more kind-hearted woman on the face of this earth. Problem is, most folks don’t see her that way. They only see someone to take advantage of.”
“And you think that’s my objective?”
“I sure hope not,” McDougall stated then he pulled the door open and walked out.
Amanda sat in silence for several minutes. Then she slowly pushed up from the chair and gingerly placed her weight on her injured feet. Lifting the pile of supplies off the counter, she carried them across the room then outside where she found Jade patiently waiting.
Rosie’s steps slowed as she approached the ponderosa. There was nothing really remarkable about the tree except that it was very tall, indicating a long life; and it stood alone, its closest cousins standing some distance away on the slopes of the valley bowl. Thick needle covered branches spread out from the tree’s trunk providing welcome shade during the hot summer days.
Even from some distance, Rosie had no trouble spotting the flat, stone slab that rested against the base of the ponderosa’s trunk. Or, the carefully formed mound of earth that occupied the ground before the slab. She shuffled to a stop beside the mound and stood for several moments gathering her thoughts.
“Seems like I’m always saying hello and goodbye when I come here,” Rosie spoke softly. “Not sure why that is,” she said with a shake of her head. “Yes, I do,” she smiled wryly. “You still tie me up inside and I’m still not sure what to say when I’m around you,” she admitted kneeling beside the grave. “I keep thinking back on our time; you trying so hard to make me understand and me being too young to trust you. I sure made a mess of things. I’m not sure when my thinking changed but now I understand… I truly do. If only I hadn’t been so hard-headed… if only I’d done what you asked. Let your heart decide… isn’t that what you always said.”
Rosie paused to remove a few pine needles that had fallen onto the blank slab. “I meant to carve your name on this,” she noted sadly. “But I can’t stay long enough to do it. I’m in a bit of trouble. Nothing I did caused it and I’m not sure how to fix it. So I’ve got to leave here… and fast. Daniel says to head to Mexico. For now, I can’t think of any reason not to. I’m not sure when I’ll be back… or even if…” Her words caught in her throat and she was forced to stop speaking. Trying to settle herself, she stood. “I’ll ask Daniel to do the carving. That’s the least you deserve.”
Rosie backed away from the grave for several steps before turning to return to the cabin.
“I’ve put enough in there for several days,” McDougall told Rosie as she tied the canvas bag to Jade’s saddle. “And I tucked some bullets into your saddlebag. Put the rest of the supplies on my horse.”
“Thanks, Daniel,” Rosie said tying the extra blankets to her bedroll. “You ready?” she asked Amanda already seated on the borrowed horse.
Rosie mounted Jade. “You do know how to ride right?”
“As long as you don’t go too fast,” Amanda replied nervously.
“Just my luck,” Rosie muttered nudging Jade to start walking. She glanced back to see Amanda’s horse was following willingly.
“You take care,” McDougall said when Rosie guided Jade away from the cabin. “And stay the hell away from any Bentley agents.”
“I will,” Rosie agreed with a wave of her hand. Allowing one final glance toward the ponderosa, she bit back tears and urged Jade into a trot.
Rosie pulled Jade to a stop beside a creek, its clear water tumbling over rocks and flowing under a jumble of fallen trees and branches. Dropping to the ground, she patted the mare on the shoulder before wrapping the reins around the saddle horn.
Pushing the brim of the sombrero she now wore up from where it rested just above her eyes, Amanda watched Rosie approach. “McDougall was right,” she commented.
“Wearing this hat.” Amanda smiled remembering the trader carrying the wide brimmed head covering out from his cabin as they waited for Rosie to return from her walk to the ponderosa. “It does keep the sun off.”
“You want to get down?” Rosie asked watching Amanda adjust her position as her horse dropped his head to creek level.
“We staying long?”
“Just long enough for them to get their fill,” Rosie answered looking up into the clear blue sky. “We’ve got some ground to cover.”
“It’s a long way to Mexico,” Amanda commented being careful to stay balanced on her horse’s back. “That is where we’re heading, isn’t it?”
Rosie remained silent for some minutes before shaking her head, her decision made. “No. I’ve never run away before,” she started then hesitated. ‘Except for you’, she admitted thinking of the woman she had visited that morning. “Come on,” she told the horses giving a soft tug to Jade’s reins. As soon as the mare lifted her head, she swung up into the saddle. “I’m taking you to Adobe Wells… we should get there by nightfall. There’s no train but the stage goes through town twice a day… the driver will carry a message to the closest telegraph for you.”
“No,” Amanda protested. “You can’t go against the Bentleys alone.”
Rosie urged Jade into motion. “You best worry about yourself,” she told her companion.
“Let me help… please.”
“Did you forget the law is after you, too?”
“No. But the Durango sheriff will forget about me soon enough.”
“Maybe… maybe not. For all you know, he’s sent word out to every lawman in a town with a telegraph.”
“Rosie, please. I can help.”
Pulling Jade to a stop, Rosie turned in her saddle to face Amanda. “How?” she asked. “A seamstress from Durango can help get a noose from around my neck?” She glared at the startled woman peering back from under the sombrero. “Sorry,” she muttered softening her tone, “that was uncalled for. I just… I just don’t know what to do and having to worry about you too has got my head spinning. Just let me get you to Adobe Wells… where you’ll be safe. And let me worry about me after that.”
Amanda chewed on her lower lip. It wasn’t difficult to hear the undercurrent of fear in the distraught woman’s voice. “Okay,” she agreed. “Let’s go to Adobe Wells. I’ll send my message then we can talk.”
Rosie grinned. “You don’t give up, do you?”
“It seems to be a trait I’m picking up from you.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it is,” Rosie laughed.
Guiding their horses down Adobe Wells’ single dirt packed street, Rosie nodded a greeting to the wary town occupants they passed.
Amanda curiously inspected the rough collection of a poorly constructed buildings scattered along both sides of the stage road. None of the structures rose above a single level and most appeared to have been built from locally hand-cut and shaped timber with mud chinking. A few had been constructed by stacking adobe bricks into a somewhat square building topped with a wooden roof. “I get the Adobe but where did the Wells come from?” she asked seeing nothing resembling a typical well.
“Over there,” Rosie lifted her chin in the direction of a large horse corral. “It’s really a spring… they built the wall around it to protect people from falling into it,” she explained the knee-high adobe brick structure encircling the source of water. “The spring is the reason for the stage stopping here,” she added when Jade slowed her steps in front of one of the buildings. “This is the town’s hotel,” she told Amanda.
“Swanky,” Amanda commented on the unwelcoming façade.
Rosie paused at the use of the sophisticated term. “That’s a lot of word for a girl from Durango,” she said swinging her leg over Jade’s back.
“Never said I only lived in Durango,” Amanda retorted.
“No, you never said,” Rosie agreed moving to help her companion down. “Fact is, you never said much about your life.”
“I could say the same about you,” Amanda groused before accepting the offered assistance. She braced for the moment her feet would touch the ground and take her full weight.
“How are they?” Rosie asked seeing the woman grimace.
“Actually,” Amanda said shifting her weight to test the effects, “they feel a lot better. I don’t know what was in that salve McDougall used but it sure seems to have really helped.”
“It’s a mixture the Indians use,” Rosie explained. “Let’s see about getting a couple of rooms and something to eat,” she suggested motioning toward the hotel’s door.
“Can we afford that?”
“Guess we’ll find out,” Rosie responded pushing the wooden plank inward.
Stepping through the doorway, the women entered the hotel’s lobby that doubled as a dining room and bar. The daylight filtering through the dirty windows on the front wall was bolstered by a few gas lanterns hanging from ropes attached to open rafters.
Frowning, Amanda glanced around at her surroundings.
At the back of the lobby, a counter stretched half the length of the wall. Behind the counter, shelves held a variety of liquor bottles and glasses; as well as a panel of randomly spaced nails holding room keys. Between the door and the counter, a dozen tables with chairs were scattered about. The wall to their left had a single opening allowing access to a hallway; while the wall to their right was solid with no openings for windows or doors. Occupying the corner at the end of the counter, a rock fireplace provided heat and a place to prepare food on its skewers and pot hangers.
Though the room was dingy, the aromas coming from a simmering pot smelled wonderful and Amanda felt her stomach gurgle in anticipation of the prospect of enjoying a decent meal. “You did say we could afford this,” she reminded Rosie.
“I sure hope so.”
“Well, as I live and breathe.”
Startled by the robust voice, Amanda spun around to find its source.
Smiling, Rosie greeted the woman charging out of the hallway’s opening. “Evening, Elizabeth.”
“It’s good to see you, my friend,” the woman bellowed as she scurried across the room. Though she succeeded in avoiding the poorly placed tables in her rush, she did bump into a few chairs, sending some crashing to the floor. “Let me get a good look at you,” she demanded upon reaching Rosie. “You’re too skinny,” she announced after several moments of poking the woman’s lean body.
“I was hoping to talk you out of a bowl of stew,” Rosie replied grinning.
“Bowl? Darn it, girl… sit down and I’ll bring over the whole pot.” The woman glanced at Amanda. “After you’ve done some proper introductions,” she said then waited expectedly.
“Elizabeth,” Rosie started reaching an arm out to urge her companion closer, “this is Amanda. Elizabeth owns this place.”
“It and half this worthless town,” Elizabeth said shaking her head. “Sit, sit… I’ll get some bowls and spoons. Took some fresh bread out of the Dutch oven not long ago. You thirsty?” she asked leaving the women to pick a table while she retrieved the makings of a meal.
“Yes,” Amanda quickly answered.
“None of that rotgut you serve the stage passengers,” Rosie told Elizabeth reaching for a dusty bottle on a shelf behind the counter. “We’ll stick with spring water.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Suit yourself.”
It didn’t take long for the Elizabeth to set eating bowls, glasses, and utensils along with a pitcher of cold water, a pot of stew, a loaf of sweet bread, and a freshly bake apple pie on the table. “Go on,” she encouraged the pair of women, “eat. I’ve got some chores to finish up,” she told them before disappearing out the front door.
“This is really good,” Amanda declared after swallowing a spoonful of stew.
Rosie nodded digging into her own bowl.
By the time Elizabeth returned, Rosie and Amanda had devoured three bowls each of stew, the entire loaf of bread, and half of the apple pie.
“What’s the matter?” Elizabeth asked sitting down at the table. “You not hungry?”
“Not any more,” Amanda stated grinning. “That was delicious.”
“Thank you kindly,” Elizabeth acknowledged the compliment. “What brings you back to Adobe Wells, Rosie? Seems you was talking about going to the coast the last time you were through.”
“Things change,” Rosie muttered.
“If you don’t mind me asking… where’s that gal—”
“I mind,” Rosie snapped. “Sorry,” she apologized seeing the puzzled look on her friend’s face. “It’s a long story and we don’t have the time. Amanda needs to get a message out on the next stage.”
Elizabeth cut the remaining pie into three equal pieces then placed one on each of the women’s plates while she prepared to eat the last piece right out of the pie pan. “Afraid the next stage isn’t for a couple of days, Rosie.”
“What? They come twice a day.”
“Not any more. Since they pushed the railroad further west, stage only runs through here twice a week. Baylee, over at the stage station, figures it won’t be long before even those stop coming.”
“What about the town?” Amanda asked.
“A lot of the folks have left already. The rest will leave after the last stage… there won’t be any reason to stick around after that.”
“Damn,” Rosie muttered. “I’m sorry to hear that. What are you going to do… stick around?”
“What for? I may own half the buildings in town but once the stage stops running, they won’t be worth the dirt they’re built on. Way I look at it… gives me an excuse to find another place to call home,” Elizabeth said. “Maybe somewhere the winters aren’t as cold. My old bones don’t take much to the cold any more.” She took another forkful of pie. “Next stage is due in two days. Might come a day early or late… they don’t keep a good schedule any more.”
“So, one could come tomorrow?” Rosie asked hopefully.
“Could. What’s so important about your message?” Elizabeth asked Amanda.
“I’m… I’m in some…” Amanda stammered not knowing how much she should tell the innkeeper.
“She’s in a bit of a bad spot,” Rosie interjected. “Trouble with a drunk cowboy in Durango,” she said without giving away too many details.
“And you?” Elizabeth asked pointing her fork at Rosie.
Rosie peered at her friend. “What have you heard?” she asked nervously.
“A load of poppycock from a Bentley agent who showed up here about a week ago.”
“Dammit,” Rosie exclaimed leaping to her feet. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me this sooner? Amanda, you can stay here until the stage shows.”
Amanda shot up from her chair. “Rosie, you are not leaving me here,” she insisted.
“Would the two of you sit down,” Elizabeth barked lifting a piece of pie to her waiting mouth. After swallowing, she suggested, “Let’s get this talked out so you can get a good night’s sleep.”
Still standing, Rosie anxiously glanced at the door leading outside. “I can’t let the Bentleys catch me,” her tone was determined.
“I’ve got the boys keeping an eye out for any riders heading for town. And we’ve got plenty of places to hide you if we have to. Sit down, will you… please,” Elizabeth urged.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Rosie asked returning to the table.
“Because you looked exhausted. And with things in town being the way they are, it isn’t easy for a stranger to show up without being noticed. You could at least get a hot meal and a night’s rest before you set out to face the trouble you’re in.”
Rosie blew out a long breath then resumed her seat. “Damn,” she muttered. “What did he tell you?”
“You killed a man for some gold,” Elizabeth replied. “I told him he was a damn fool for believing that. He wanted to look around so I told him to go ahead. What could it hurt,” she shrugged. “I knew you wasn’t here. And I knew that no one in town would speak against you. So, I figured I’d let him waste a day. And he surely did.” She smiled at the memory. “Came dragging his sorry behind in here that night looking for a room… charged him three times normal, I did.”
“He leave a flyer?”
Elizabeth nodded. “Burned it right after he left.” She ate her last forkful of pie then asked, “You saw one?”
“We stopped at Daniel’s before heading here. He showed me.”
“I know you didn’t do it, Rosie. But that Bentley agent is sure as heck that you did. I tried to set him straight but he wouldn’t listen.”
“Mr. McDougall said the same,” Amanda told the innkeeper.
Elizabeth nodded then stood. “Let me give you a couple of beds for the night.”
“Maybe it would be better if we left now,” Amanda offered.
“A good night’s sleep won’t hurt you any. Don’t worry, the boys will keep watch all night. Any Bentley agents come looking... I’ll wake you. Now, come on, let’s get you settled.”
Elizabeth led the women to a private bedroom at the end of the hall. Sparsely furnished, the room offered two cots, an unsteady bureau with three drawers, and a low table holding a china bowl and matching water pitcher. It wasn’t fancy but the floor was swept clean and the linens on the cots freshly washed.
“Expected separate rooms,” Rosie muttered.
“This one is one of the few rooms that still has a working lock,” she explained handing Rosie a key. “Figured you’ve been sharing a campsite so sharing a room shouldn’t bother you any. Good night.”
“Can you trust her?” Amanda asked after Elizabeth left them alone.
Rosie walked to the room’s single window that overlooked the stage road. “Yes,” she answered tugging the heavy curtains across the window. Once satisfied no one could peek through any gaps, she walked over to the nearest cot and sat down. “I’m leaving you here in the morning—”
“No,” Amanda instantly snapped shaking her head. “I’ll write my note and leave it with Elizabeth. She can give it to the stage driver when he shows up. I’m sticking with you.”
“Amanda, you can’t… I won’t let—”
“I can… and you will.” Amanda paused to gather her thoughts. “Rosie, I know we haven’t known each other for very long but I have this feeling that I’ve got to stay with you. Together we’ll figure this out. Wait,” she pleaded when Rosie started to protest. “I know it makes no sense. But I just feel we met for a reason and staying together is the right thing to do.”
Rosie sighed. “I can’t ask you—”
“You’re not,” Amanda interrupted. She smiled. “It’s what a friend would do,” she said bending over to remove the moccasins covering her tender feet. Lying down, she rolled onto her side pulling the wool blankets over her.
After a few minutes, Rosie removed her boots. Standing, she padded over to the candle on top of the bureau and blew out the flame. Then she padded back to her bed. Unbuckling her holster, she placed her pistols on the cot then lay down beside them.
Peering into the darkness, Amanda could just make out the silhouette of the prone body on the opposite cot. “Who was she?” she asked quietly. Silence was her only answer.
For most of the following day, Rosie wandered aimlessly about Adobe Wells; pausing randomly to peer into dirty windows of abandoned businesses. She smiled remembering shopping at the mercantile, spending an evening with friends enjoying a meal at a restaurant, and even the time she had her hair cut at the barber shop when it had grown too unruly. “It’s sad,” she muttered gazing through a cracked pane of glass in front of what had been the town’s only bank.
“You can say that again.”
Rosie knew the identity of the man addressing her; having watched his reflection in the dirt-streaked window while he walked up the road behind her.
The stage station master was a tall, yet stocky man who walked with a slight limp on his right leg. His face, arms, and hands bore the scars of an unfortunate encounter with a knife welding stage passenger. Baylee had almost died attempting to stop the drunken man from attacking a young traveling salesman who had made the deadly mistake of asking the drunk to stop leering at his wife. Only a pair of bullets fired from Rosie’s pistols had stopped the drunk’s rampage. Unfortunately, it was too late to save the salesman and his wife. But she had prevented the wounded station master from the same fate— a debt she had no intentions of ever seeking payment for, even though Baylee insisted on doing just that.
“Morning, Baylee,” she greeted her old friend with a smile. “Nice to see a few friendly faces left in town.” Though Rosie knew Baylee to be not much older than herself, the weight of that murderous night haunted the station master and had aged his features well past his years.
“Sad to remember all the friends who have left,” Baylee stated leaning close to the window to peer through it. “Good friends,” he added forlornly. “Bad ones, too,” he said easing back from the window. “Damn banker left owing me twenty dollars.”
Rosie grinned. “Sounds like him.”
Baylee chuckled. “Don’t it, though.”
“Hear you’re planning on leaving, too,” Rosie repeated what Elizabeth had told her.
“Soon as the last stage goes through. Don’t really want to leave,” Baylee admitted, “but can’t figure out what I’d do if I were to stay… won’t be much call for a livery after that. Besides,” he continued, idly rubbing a particularly jagged scar on his cheek, “too many bad memories here.”
Rosie just nodded. Understanding the reason for the man’s comment, she didn’t feel there was anything to add. Stepping away from the bank to continue her walk, she wasn’t surprised when the station master joined her.
“Is it true…” Baylee spoke after several moments. “The Bentley Agency looking for you?” he asked.
“Any truth to their claims?”
“No.” Rosie responded calmly, hearing no uncertainty in the question.
“Didn’t think so… just had to ask.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Find a way out.”
“It’s going to be hard to convince the Bentleys.”
The pair continued their slow walk in silence.
Carrying a pot of coffee and two cups, Elizabeth approached the table nearest the fireplace. As she poured steaming coffee, she studied the young woman sitting beside the table but staring out the window. “You look to have the weight of the world on your mind,” she said carefully pushing one chipped cup across the uneven wooden surface.
Amanda had attempted to accompany Rosie on her walk around town but, shortly after leaving the hotel, her still tender feet protested the effort forcing her to regretfully give up on the idea. She’d laid claim to an empty table by a window and settled in for a long day of watching her traveling companion wander about the town’s mostly abandoned structures. She shifted on her chair. “Thanks,” she acknowledged the offering. “Just thinking,” she said indifferently.
“Nothing really,” Amanda responded reaching for the bowl of sugar.
Pondering what approach to use to get the younger woman to talk, Elizabeth sipped from her cup. “How did you and Rosie come to be together?” she finally asked.
“We just… we crossed paths in the desert outside Durango,” Amanda replied nonchalantly.
“Seems to me,” Elizabeth paused to enjoy another sip of coffee, “the last time I was in Durango, there wasn’t much out in that desert except the water stop for the trains.”
“Still that way.”
“Mighty funny place to be crossing paths.”
Amanda glanced at the hotel owner over the lip of her cup. “It happened.”
“Hmmm.” Elizabeth smiled. “I have another apple pie just about ready. Give me a minute to go check on it,” she said rising from her chair. “We’ll continue this chat when I get back.”
Chewing her lower lip nervously, Amanda watched the older woman leave. “Damn it,” she muttered. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
Sitting at a table in a deserted restaurant, Rosie and Baylee were waiting out the afternoon heat. She had pulled their chairs close to a front window where she could keep watch for riders entering town.
“Any chance the stage will arrive this afternoon,” Rosie asked, restlessly peering out the window.
Baylee pulled out his pocket watch. “Getting late,” he said returning his watch to its pocket. “But I guess there’s always a chance. If you’re in a hurry to leave, go. I’ve got your friend’s note. I’ll make sure the stage driver gets it sent off first chance he has.”
“Thanks,” Rosie said swinging her head away from the window long enough to smile at her friend. “But,” she started as she swung her head back, “I’d like something else to be on that stage, too.”
Rosie didn’t answer for a moment then she shifted her body to face her friend. “Amanda. And I may need your help in that.”
Warily, Baylee gazed at the woman. “You aren’t asking me to force her onto the stage…”
Shrugging, Rosie shot him a wry grin. “Maybe.”
True to her word, Elizabeth returned with a freshly baked pie and two plates. “Now… where were we?” she asked setting the pie on the table. “Oh, yes… you were about to spin me a yarn about how you and Rosie crossed paths.”
Amanda laughed. “Why don’t you just ask me what you want to know?”
“I thought I had,” Elizabeth said placing a plate of pie and a fork in front of the reluctant woman.
“You think apple pie will induce me to talk?”
“Can’t hurt. Is there some reason you don’t want to tell me?”
Amanda lifted a forkful of pie to her mouth. “Yes,” she said before removing the pie from the fork. “But I’ll make you a deal,” she offered after swallowing. “I’ll tell you about Durango, if you tell me about the grave at McDougall’s.”
“That’s touchy territory. I’m not sure Rosie will want me telling.”
“I promise I’ll never mention it to her. I just… I want to understand what it means to her and why she won’t talk about it.”
“She has her reasons,” Elizabeth said harshly. “And I’d suggest you respect that.” The hotel owner stood. “Enjoy your pie. Hopefully, the stage will be here in the morning,” she snapped then abruptly spun around.
“One thing about Rosie Handler,” Amanda muttered after Elizabeth stormed out the front door, “her friends are loyal… too damn loyal.”
“Baylee, I just don’t think it’s safe. I’ve got enough trouble facing me and trying to avoid Bentley agents is going to be hard having her with me.”
“Tell her that.”
“I have,” Rosie exclaimed in frustration. “She refuses to go.”
“Maybe she’s afraid. You’ve got to admit, Rosie, not too many women ride head-long into trouble like you.”
“Just means most women are smarter than me,” Rosie mumbled.
“I don’t believe that… and I know you don’t.”
“I’ve got to get away… alone, to think. Something isn’t right about all of this. I’ve got to figure it out.”
The station master thought for a moment. “Maybe she’s just what you need,” he cautiously suggested.
“What do you mean?”
Choosing his words carefully, Baylee began, “Rosie, you’ve got to admit... you’ve been a little lost since—”
“Don’t say it,” Rosie hissed through gritted teeth. “Don’t mention her… ever!” she warned slamming her fist down on the table making the dried wood crack in protest and leaving it tilting awkwardly.
Attempting to straighten the table, Baylee tried to appease his angry friend. “All right… calm down. I’m just saying… maybe having her around could give you some grounding. You’d have someone to talk things over with and she could help you figure out what’s going on. You have to admit, it would be better than trying to talk it out with Jade.”
Settling back onto her chair, Rosie huffed.
“Just saying… Jade doesn’t offer up too many answers.”
Rosie grunted but remained otherwise silent as she considered the advice.
Yarning in the dim light of morning, Rosie peered through the bedroom window at the town’s empty street. Already dressed and ready to get the day started, she was disappointed to see no evidence of the anticipated stage.
“Anything going on?” Amanda asked. Sitting on the room’s only chair chair, she bent over to carefully slip her moccasins onto her bandaged feet.
“No,” Rosie answered turning away from the window. “Quiet as a tomb,” she muttered. “How are your feet?” she asked watching her companion warily push up from the chair.
Amanda stood then took a moment before answering. “Much better,” she finally replied, being pleasantly surprised that the discomfort of the previous days had greatly lessened overnight.
Rosie nodded in approval.
“I’ll have to send a note to Mr. McDougall thanking him for his salve.” Amanda sniffed at the pleasant aromas wafting into the room through the gap under the door. “Is that bacon I smell?”
“Elizabeth is fixing up breakfast.”
Amanda smiled. “It’s so nice of her to do that. She must think a lot of you.”
Rosie waited for Amanda to join her before unlocking and pulling the plain wood panel open.
“Thought I heard the two of you moving about,” Elizabeth said when Rosie and Amanda walked out from the hallway. “Go on… sit down. I just need to grab some cups and plates.”
Amanda looked across the dining room to the table nearest the cooking area where platters of scrambled eggs, fried bacon and potatoes, flapjacks, fresh bread, and a large pot of coffee were arranged. Suddenly very hungry, she quickly made her way across the dining room and sat in the chair nearest the hearth. The morning air was chilly and the heat from the fire would be a welcome comfort.
Rosie followed her companion then sat in the chair opposite her.
Joining the pair, Elizabeth set plates, cups, and eating utensils on the table before sitting between the two. She chuckled when neither woman made any effort to fill their plates. “No need to be polite,” she told them lifting the coffee pot to fill the cups. “It tastes better when it’s hot.”
Accepting the invitation, Amanda scooped a generous portion of scrambled eggs on her plate then passed the large serving spoon to Rosie. “Thank you, Elizabeth,” she said plucking a couple of pieces of bacon off the tray with her fork. “It was nice of you to prepare this for us.”
“Same as I do every morning,” the older woman answered cheerfully. “Never know who’s going to come looking for a hot meal… always best to have something ready when they do.”
Rosie laughed reaching for a second slice of bread. “Admit it, Elizabeth… you’d have no clue what to do with yourself in the morning if you weren’t fixing up something.”
Elizabeth slapped Rosie’s hand. “Finish what you’ve got on your plate… might need that slice for the next hungry smart mouth to wander in,” she retorted teasingly.
“Seems like I hear someone headed this way,” Rosie stated innocently. As soon her friend’s attention switched to the front door, she snatched another piece of warm bread. Winking at Amanda, she started to spread a liberal helping of butter on the slice.
Rosie had just scraped a last bite of scrambled eggs off her plate when she heard boot steps on the boardwalk that fronted the hotel.
“Someone’s coming,” Amanda said also hearing the boot steps.
Rosie identified the rhythm of a pronounced limp. “Baylee… hope that means the stage is on its way,” she added turning her head toward the hotel’s front door.
A moment later, the door was pushed open and the stage master stepped through the opening. “Morning,” he nodded a greeting to the women.
“Sit, Baylee,” Elizabeth welcomed the man then stood. “I’ll grab you a fork and plate soon as I check on my apple pies.”
“The stage?” Rosie asked anxiously when Elizabeth went out the back door where her Dutch ovens were kept.
Baylee nodded. “I sent a rider out a couple of hours ago to see if he could spot it. He just got back… the stage was coming through the notch,” he informed the women as he claimed an empty chair at the table.
“The notch?” Amanda asked.
“It’s a pass through the hills,” Baylee explained picking a couple of bacon slices off the serving tray. “From a distance it looks like someone drove an axe down through the rocks just like you’d do when notching a log.” He paused to enjoy a bite of bacon. “Stage should be here in an hour. Thought I’d let you know.”
“I’ll have Amanda at the station when it arrives,” Rosie told the station master.
Puzzled, Baylee peered at Rosie. “Thought that was in contention.”
“It is,” Amanda confirmed. “I still say I can do some good staying with you,” she directed at her reluctant companion.
“Rosie, I think she might have—”
“No!” Rosie barked pushing her chair back from the table. Standing, she turned to return to the bedroom where their few belongings waited. Striding across the dining room, she paused before entering the hallway. “I’m going to get Jade saddled,” she said after turning to face Amanda and Baylee.
“You do plan to see me off?” Amanda demanded.
Rosie started to refuse but hesitated. “I’ll wait until you’re on the coach,” she finally responded. “How much to stable McDougall’s horse?” she asked the stage master. “Just until you can send him back,” she quickly added knowing she had no money to pay for the service.
“I’ll take care of him,” Baylee offered. “I might even head up that way myself after the stage line shuts down.”
“Thanks,” Rosie smiled at her friend. “Amanda will be ready to board soon as you’ve changed out the team,” she declared in a tone that left no room for disagreement.
“Hard headed horse’s ass,” Amanda muttered after Rosie disappeared down the hallway.
Baylee laughed. “You aren’t the first to call her that.”
Amanda smiled wryly.
“Probably won’t be the last either,” Elizabeth stated having heard Rosie’s angry words as she re-entered from outside.
“Probably not,” Baylee agreed refilling Rosie’s empty coffee cup.
“I’m sure I could find you a clean cup,” Elizabeth offered.
“No need,” Baylee said lifting the cup to his lips. “Are you going to get on the stage?” he asked after swallowing a mouthful of hot coffee.
Amanda sighed. “Doesn’t appear I have much of a choice, I sure can’t force her to let me go with her.”
“It’s not that she doesn’t want your company,” Elizabeth said reaching over to place a comforting hand on Amanda’s arm, “she’s scared more than anything. And she doesn’t want to pull you into whatever might happen.”
“For what it’s worth,” Baylee interjected. “I think she’s making a mistake thinking she can take on the Bentley’s alone.”
Amanda nodded then shrugged. “Yeah,” she murmured resigned to knowing there was likely no way to convince Rosie of the same.
Baylee found Rosie in the stage station’s barn saddling Jade. “Need to talk to you,” he told his friend.
“Talk,” Rosie responded harshly, still upset over Amanda’s refusal to board the stage.
“Can’t do that thing you were asking me to do,” the station master said after glancing about to ensure they were alone in the barn.
“About Ms. Amanda.”
Rosie finished tying her bedroll behind her saddle then turned toward him. She studied the uneasy man for a few moments before shrugging. “Okay… guess I’ll just have to do it myself.”
“You can’t do that,” Baylee informed her.
“Sure I can. I’ll shove her on the stage just as the driver gets the horses moving. By the time she gathers herself, she’ll be too far down the road to do anything about it.”
Baylee shook his head. “Rosie, there’s a passenger on the stage. He might not take kindly to a woman being treated that way.”
“Passenger?” Rosie was suddenly interested in the unexpected information. “Who is he?”
“Don’t know. But it’s not a Bentley agent, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“How do you know?”
“Jake… that’s the rider I sent out this morning; he said he wasn’t dressed as fancy as the Bentley agent. He’s probably just a traveling salesman heading west.”
Grabbing Jade’s reins, Rosie led the horse through the barn door and tied her to the hitching post beside the water trough. “Could still be a Bentley man,” she grumbled.
“Could be,” Baylee agreed. “Doesn’t really matter… either way, she’ll have to get on the stage herself… or not.”
“Then I’ll just have to make sure she does,” Rosie muttered walking away.
Rosie was pacing around the waiting area inside the stage station. “I mean it, Amanda… you are not going with me,” she angrily insisted.
“Alright,” Amanda snapped, “I’ve heard enough… I get it.”
Stopping beside the station’s only window, Rosie observed a dust cloud forming at the far end of town. “Stage is almost here.”
Sitting on a hard wooden bench, Amanda squirmed hoping to find a more comfortable position. Finding no relief, she stood preparing to part ways with her stubborn companion. “You’re just too damn pig-headed to accept help… aren’t you?” she accused. Receiving no response, she glared at the woman intently watching the approaching stage. “All right, fine by me. If you want to go alone, be a fool.” She started her own pacing around the small room. “You don’t have a plan… you have no idea how to prove your innocence… and you definitely don’t know how to outsmart the Bentley’s. But you just go right on out there… alone. See if I care.”
“It’ll take a few minutes to switch out the teams and unload any freight for the town,” Baylee said as he stepped out of his office at the back of the station. He hurried across the waiting area toward the front door. Having overheard the heated argument between the women, he had no desire to spend too much time in their presence. “I’ll let you know when you can board,” he quickly added before disappearing outside.
“Baylee says there’s a passenger on board,” Rosie said peering at the stage cabin as the driver pulled the horses to a stop. “I better get out of here… could be a Bentley agent.”
“You really think so?” Amanda asked anxiously, rushing to the window.
“Baylee said he wasn’t dressed fancy but…”
Amanda turned toward the nervous woman. “Rosie, please let me stay,” she implored.
Rosie sighed then turned away from the window. “I’ll wait behind the barn until you’re out of town.”
“Be careful,” Amanda quietly urged tucking a slip of paper into Rosie’s hand.
“My sister’s information… let me know what happens. Please.”
Rosie stared at the carefully folded square of paper. Slowly, she closed her fist around the note and nodded. “I better go,” she said stepping toward Baylee’s office where a rear door would give her access to the corral and barn. Seeing movement outside, she glanced out the window and spotted a man climbing down from the coach. Her eyes grew wide in disbelief.
“What are you doing?” Amanda squawked after being pushed away from the window and slammed against the log wall of the station.
“Rosie, what the—”
“Shhh!” Rosie had pressed herself against the wall next to Amanda. “Damn,” she hissed. “I don’t believe it.”
“What?” Amanda demanded through gritted teeth, shifting to try and peek out the window.
“Don’t,” Rosie ordered grabbing the curious woman’s hand then tugging her across the room and away from the window. As soon as they were inside Baylee’s office, she pushed the door shut and slid the locking bolt into place. “Come on,” she urged moving to the rear door.
“I’m not going anywhere until you explain what the hell is happening,” Amanda growled, planting her feet and refusing to budge.
“There’s no time… we’ve got to get the horses and get out of here. You can’t get on that stage.”
“What?” Confused, Amanda stared incredulity. “Rosie, you just spent the past few days telling me I had to get on that stage. What the hell changed?”
“I’ll explain later. Let’s just get out of here… please.”
“No,” Amanda said shaking her head to emphasis the point.
“Time to board,” Baylee’s loud announcement carried into the office from the waiting room.
“Tell me or I’m going out there,” Amanda vowed.
“I can and I will.”
“Dammit,” Rosie swore under her breath. “That passenger… he’s the mine foreman.”
“The mine foreman? The one that hired… then fired you?”
“What’s he doing here?”
“I don’t know but I’m going to find out. “I’ll follow the stage… see where he goes. You can stay here and wait for the next stage.”
Baylee loudly repeated his call for boarding then added, “The other passenger has boarded.”
“Better idea,” Amanda said unlatching the door. She pulled it open only a few inches then poked her head through the opening. “Sorry, Baylee,” she told the station master while smiling apologetically, “problem with one of my bandages. I’ll be right out once it’s fixed up.”
“Okay, but do hurry.”
“Oh, yes, I will,” Amanda said then shut the door. Spinning about to face Rosie, she held up a hand to stop the impending protest. “Just listen. He doesn’t know me. I’ll get on the stage and try to get him talking.”
“He can’t be trusted. He could hurt you.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, you proved that in Durango,” Rosie said derisively.
“Shut up and listen. Get the horses and follow the stage. If I learn anything, I’ll give you a signal.”
“I don’t know but I’ll think of something. Just be ready to come after me.”
“Amanda,” Rosie said reaching out to stop her from leaving.
“I’ll be okay,” Amanda murmured placing her hand atop the one on her arm. “Trust me,” she quietly pleaded.
“Ladies… please,” Baylee implored knocking on the door to his office.
Amanda pulled the door open. “I’m terribly sorry. I’m ready now.”
Baylee tilted his head and looked quizzically at Rosie in silent question.
“I changed my mind,” Rosie told the station master as Amanda walked toward the front door. “I’m taking both horses.”
“Baylee nodded then turned to follow his passenger.
The day’s ride had been as unpleasant as Rosie had ever experienced. Even keeping an appropriate distance behind the stage, so as not to be noticed by the driver or passengers, she had still been close enough to spend the day engulfed in the slowly dissipating dust cloud kicked up by the stage’s team of trotting horses. Her only relief came when, not wanting to answer any questions from suspicious station masters, she skirted around the stage depots as fresh teams were exchanged for tired ones.
At each stop, Rosie found a place to conceal the horses then anxiously watched hoping to see a sign, any sign, from Amanda. But, as yet, she had seen nothing unusual in the woman’s behavior.
With the sun sinking in the west, Rosie guided Jade off the stage road to a small glade of aspen trees at the base of a rocky outcropping. “Good a place as any to wait for morning,” she told the mare.
Jade whinnied and shook her head as if questioning the decision to set up camp.
Rosie rubbed upset mare on the neck. “Don’t worry… I’ll slip into town after dark and get close enough to check on Amanda.” She led the horses to a small spring than dismounted. “Stay here,” she told Jade. Patting both horses’ shoulders, she left them to graze on patches of grass growing around the spring.
The climb to the top of the steep outcropping strained Rosie’s legs but provided her an unobstructed view of her objective– the town of White Oaks, where the stage was scheduled to stop for the night. The long, narrow, unbroken spine of rock formed an unbroken barrier around the south and east sides of a tree-less desert valley. Approximately five miles to the north, a series of gullies and ravines scarred the side of a butte that rose high above the valley floor. The valley’s unimpeded west end stretched for miles into the desert. If Rosie squinted against the late afternoon’s harsh brightness, she could just make out the outline of a distant snow-capped mountain range.
By necessity, the stage road was forced to follow the length of the outcropping before circling the end of the spine and doubling back to White Oaks. The town sat near the source of its reason for existing, a silver mine dug deep into the side of the butte. Glancing at the setting sun, Rosie estimated she had some time to wait before the stage would make the turn and start the final stretch into White Oaks.
Settling atop a boulder, Rosie gazed out at an endless sea of shimmering mirages; her eyes tricked into believing she was looking at a vast watery sea. She smiled. “You would have loved this,” she murmured, “looks just like that ocean you always talked about.” She fell silent for several minutes then abruptly closed her eyes against the view and, more importantly, the memories. “Dammit, why couldn’t I have trusted you? I was such a fool,” she whispered dropping her head into her hands to reflect on her wasted chance for happiness.
The sound of rattling harness chains and thundering hoof beats broke Rosie free of her sad thoughts. Raising her head and opening her eyes, she quickly spotted the stage. Having made their way around the hairpin turn in the road, the team of horses picked up speed as they covered the final approach into White Oaks. Swinging her legs around to the back of the boulder, she dropped her feet to the ground then started back down to the horses.
“Whoa!” the stage driver shouted as the stage approached the White Oaks station. Pulling hard on the reins to slow the team of horses, he yelled down to his passengers, “Hang on, folks.”
Amanda grimaced. If the driver repeated his practice displayed at previous stations, the team would be hastily pulled to a stop causing unaware passengers to be unceremoniously dumped on the coach’s dirty floor. Luckily, the coach was fitted with a third bench and she quickly braced her feet against it while also taking a firm grip on the poorly padded bench seat she had suffered on all day. “I do believe, I much prefer travel by train,” she grumbled tightening her grip when she heard the almost painful squeal as the driver applied the wood brake to one of the big iron rimmed wheels at the front of the stage. “Don’t you, Mr. Jenkins?” she asked while struggling to remain in her seat.
The only other passenger on the stage tossed an annoyed glance at the woman before nodding curtly. “I prefer a good horse, myself,” he answered holding tight to his own bench.
“White Oaks,” the stage driver called down to the passengers as soon as the horses slowed. Conveniently for the team, the stage was brought to a stop in front of the station’s barn where the horses knew cold water and fresh oats awaited them. Inconveniently for the passengers, the stage was still some distance from the actual station requiring the tired passengers to walk several feet to their night’s lodging.
“Evening folks,” a burly man greeted as he pulled the coach’s door open. “We’ve got supper cooking inside. Pitchers of warm water and wash bowls are set up on the porch. Clean cots inside for you to spend the night.”
“That’s what they said last night,” the other passenger huffed under is breath.
“Were they not?” Amanda asked, slightly alarmed at the prospect of sleeping on a dirty cot.
“I’ve had cleaner sleeping on the ground,” Jenkins answered. “Ladies first,” he said encouraging Amanda toward the opened door.
Cautiously, Amanda stepped over the unmovable center bench as she prepared to exit the coach. It was quite awkward but, having had to do it several times already, she was well practiced. She smiled at the waiting station master. “Thank you,” she said when the man offered his support as she maneuvered down the coach’s steps.
“Ma’am, if you want,” the stage master offered, “I can make arrangements for you at the hotel for the night. “’Course, the stage company won’t pay for it,” he added apologetically.
Though she carried a lady’s handbag, Amanda knew it to be mostly empty; as was the worn carpet bag secured in the coach’s boot. Thinking it would appear strange for a woman to be riding a stage with no luggage, Rosie had borrowed the bag from Elizabeth. “That’s quite alright,” she answered. “A cot will be just fine.” She started her walk to the stage station but her pace was slow as she preferred to take a few moments to gain a feeling for the town of White Oaks. She stopped and turned back to the stage when she heard the driver call to her.
“Your bag, ma’am.”
“Oh,” Amanda acknowledged her forgetfulness. As she walked back for her bag, Jenkins hurried past clutching his own satchel to his chest. “Thank you,” she said accepting the bag from the driver. Then she resumed her slow walk to the station.
Supper had been a rather odd affair offering a pot of over-cooked beans, a chunk of stale bread, and a slab of under-cooked steak. She was surprised to find herself eating alone when the other passenger had failed to appear. “Is Mr. Jenkins joining me?” she inquired to the station master as he placed the food on the table.
“He decided to spend the money and eat at the hotel,” the station master responded. “You need not worry about tonight,” the man added, “he’ll be sleeping at the hotel. Cots are set up. Room is through that door,” he pointed to a room at the back of the dining area. “There’s a door in there that goes out back to the outhouse… no need to walk through here if you be needing it.”
“Sounds fine,” Amanda said before making the necessary attempt to choke down some of the ill-tasting food set out on the table.
Finishing her meal, Amanda carried her belongings into the cot room. Ten narrow cots, the number of passengers a loaded coach could accommodate without anyone riding on top with the driver, were arranged in three uneven rows. The door leading outside was in the middle of the back wall and she decided to claim the cot nearest to it. Should she need to make a quick get away, that cot seemed to offer her the easiest escape.
After placing her belongings on the floor beneath her chosen bed, Amanda decided to go outside. Looking about the room, she realized only one candle had been provided for the room’s light. She thought for a moment then shrugged her shoulders. “I guess no one will mind if I take it with me,” she told the empty room as she retrieved the candle set on the sill of the room’s only window.
Stepping out into the night, the sky held no moon and Amanda was glad for the candle she carried. She paused to gaze up at the blanket of twinkling stars high above her. Looking up at the sky, she blew out a long breath. “Damn, I didn’t think it would feel like this,” she told herself anticipating the long, lonely night ahead. “I haven’t known her long enough to miss her… have I?” she asked the stars. The hoot of an owl goaded the woman toward the outhouse.
Amanda eyed the outhouse curiously. The larger than normal wood planked building had two doors— one had a sign nailed to it saying GENTS, the other a sign saying LADIES. Cautiously, she pulled open the appropriate door and peeked inside. To her surprise, there were seats for three people to use the facilities at the same time. “Fancy,” she muttered in jest. “Guess it makes sense… have to keep the stage running on time.”
Without thinking, Amanda jumped up onto one of the seats. “A snake,” she squealed.
“Stop that squealing before you bring the whole town out here.”
Amanda turned to look at the wall separating the two sections of the outhouse. “Rosie? Is that you?”
“Who else are you expecting?”
“Damn it.” The oath exploded through Amanda’s clenched teeth. “Just what the hell is it with you and snakes?” she asked stepping down from the seat.
Rosie grinned. “Did I scare you?”
“You are a horse’s ass.”
“Hey, I had to be sure it was you. I figured I’d recognize your voice.”
“What are you doing on the men’s side of the outhouse?”
“Didn’t want to surprise you—”
“That worked out well,” Amanda snapped.
“Can we talk about this later? Have you found out anything?”
“Jenkins talks even less than you… didn’t think that was possible.”
“You ready to do things my way?”
“Saying I failed?”
“I bet,” Amanda said silently patting the separating wall in thanks for blocking Rosie’s ability to see her grinning. “I can’t just disappear.”
“Staying at the hotel.”
“Good. Let’s get your stuff and go. No one will check on you until it’s time to get ready for the stage. Did you get your note back from the driver? Don’t want him adding anything to it.”
“Like you asked him to send it even though you were on the stage. Then you suddenly disappeared in the middle of the night. It all might seem a little strange… don’t you think?”
“Well, you don’t have to worry. I asked him for it but he said Baylee took it back this morning. Said he told him I had changed my mind.”
Rosie frowned. “Now, that’s going to seem strange, too.”
“Let’s just go. I’m tired of talking to a wall and I sure as hell don’t want to spend anymore time in this stinky outhouse.”
“Now you know why I prefer the woods,” Rosie quipped pushing her door open.
“I hate to say this but I have to agree,” Amanda said emerging from her side of the building, “you do have a point there.”
Rosie blew out the candle Amanda held. “Don’t want anyone seeing us.”
Where are the horses?”
“They’re a ways out of town. Let’s get your stuff.”
After sneaking away from the stage station, the women retrieved their horses and returned to the spring where Rosie had set up a camp for the night.
“You spent all day with him and didn’t learn anything,” Rosie said skeptically settling cross-legged onto her bedroll. “He must have said something about why he’s on that stage and where he’s going. Hard as I try, I can’t think of a single logical reason for him not to be at the Gold Queen mine.”
Amanda took a couple of swallows of water from her canteen before answering. “I told you… he barely said a word all day,” she finally responded. “But there was one strange thing,” she added recapping the canteen.
“He’s carrying a satchel.”
Rosie glanced disbelievingly at her companion. “And that’s strange?”
“Normally… no. But he never lets go of it. Even on the stage, he placed it on the seat next to him and he always… always had his hand on it.”
“Maybe he was afraid you were planning to steal it,” Rosie suggested mischievously.
With an un-amused glare, Amanda picked up a cone fallen from a nearby pinon pine and tossed it at Rosie. “I’m sure if I wanted to, it would have been real easy as we were tossed and jostled about,” she said rubbing a sore spot on her arm.
“Pine cone that heavy or are you hurt? You’ve been rubbing that arm a lot.”
“It took a whack against the window frame when the stage hit one of the nastier bumps,” Amanda explained.
“Try some of McDougall’s salve on it.”
“Ah,” Amanda’s mood lightened instantly at the mention of the healing salve. “Good idea,” she said pulling her saddlebag close.
“So, you think he must have something important in that satchel?” Rosie asked watching Amanda rub salve on her bruised arm and a few other sore spots.
“Could be the stolen gold.”
Rosie shook her head. “Unless he stashed most of it someplace else. Did he have any other luggage?”
“None that I could tell.”
“Gold bars are too heavy for one man to carry for long,” Rosie stated.
Amanda considered the information while tightening the lid back on the bottle of salve. “You know this how?”
“I’ve worked around gold mines,” Rosie reminded. “Even had a chance to load some bars in a strong box once. Believe me- you don’t what to be lugging one of them around all day. And if he tried to put a box of gold on the stage, Baylee would have noticed.”
“Maybe he sold the gold and he’s carrying paper. He had enough money to pay for a meal and night’s stay at the hotel.”
“Maybe,” Rosie granted the possibility. “We’ve got to figure out a way to find out.”
“I can try again when I go back to town in the morning,” Amanda said casually.
“Go back to town? You’re not going back,” Rosie exclaimed, astonished the suggestion would even be made.
“Rosie, I have to.”
“If I don’t, they’ll find me missing. Then they’ll start looking for me.”
“Maybe not,” Rosie countered. “People change their minds all the time. Stage runs on a schedule… that’s what’s important. Remember how many times Baylee threatened to send the stage without you in Adobe Wells. And you were right there in the station. Do you really think the stage master is going to care if you aren’t around to board the coach? After all, he knows that you can always catch the next one.”
“What if he does care? And he starts looking for me?”
“He’ll eventually give up on that.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
Chewing on her lower lip, Rosie considered the possibility of the station master taking his job more seriously than most. “It could be a problem,” she grudgingly admitted. “We need a plan.”
“Yes, we do. And I have one. I’ll go back” Amanda started explaining the plan she had concocted. “I’ll be there in the morning but I’ll tell the driver that I’ve decided to stay in town for a bit since today’s ride was so rough. He’ll understand… especially since women are such delicate creatures,” she added with a grin.
Rosie laughed. “Of course, we are.” After a moment, she grew serious. “But that means the stage will leave and Jenkins will be on it. If you’re staying in town, how are we going to follow him?”
“We let the stage go. Then I’ll wander around… aimlessly, of course. And I’ll make my way to where you’re waiting. We can easily catch up with the stage… it has to follow the road so we know where it’s going.”
“I don’t like it,” Rosie objected.
“I have to go back to town anyway… you know I need to contact my sister.”
“I don’t like it,” Rosie repeated as she abruptly stood up. “This is all going wrong,” she said shaking her head and walking away.
“Where are you going?” Amanda demanded.
“Get some sleep,” Rosie called back over her shoulder as she started to climb again to the top of the rocky outcropping. “I’ve got to think.”
“Stubborn ass of a woman,” Amanda grumbled then straightened out her bedroll and stretched out. “But she is right about one thing,” she muttered pulling the blanket over her. “This is all going wrong.”
Rosie turned her head at the sound of pebbles bouncing down the outcropping. “I thought you were sleeping,” she said when a dark shadow took shape on the bluff behind her.
“I tried,” Amanda answered carefully picking her way to the boulder where Rosie was perched.
“Not too smart to climb those rocks in the dark.
“Do tell,” Amanda retorted. “Got room on that boulder for me?”
Rosie shifted closer to the rock’s edge. “Sure.”
“Couldn’t stop thinking about you up here being mad because of me,” Amanda said after sitting down.
“Not mad… at least, not at you.”
Rosie peered down at the town below them where only the saloons were still lit up with drunken men coming and going. The rest of the town was dark except for a handful of lanterns hanging in windows and casting odd shadows on the otherwise dark streets. “Mad at me.”
“No,” Amanda answered misunderstanding the statement.
“Wasn’t a question,” Rosie explained. “I meant… I’m mad at me. Seems I can’t do anything that I don’t mess up.” She paused in her thoughts to look skyward where one star in particular winked back at her. “You’re up there laughing at me, aren’t you?”
“Who?” Amanda asked quietly.
Rosie closed her eyes. “Just memories.”
Debating if she should dare to ask again, Amanda studied the woman sitting beside her. Without a moon and with no light reaching them from either their campfire or the town, she could just make out the Rosie’s profile. But it was enough to know the sorrowful woman was not being comforted by those memories. In a voice as soft as a whisper, she tried again. “It might help to talk about her,” she offered.
Opening her eyes and dropping her head to look at her companion, Rosie sighed. Then she turned away to peer out across the dark expanse of the desert. “I was a kid… barely seventeen and on my own. My folks had a farm in the Dakotas. They worked it hard and it worked them both into early graves. Poppa owed more than the farm was worth so I took his pistols and left the rest to the banker. I wandered around until one day when I found myself in Pine Bluff.” Rosie chuckled. “Fancy name for someplace that wasn’t much more than a wide spot on the road. There were no pine trees to speak of and no bluff. But it had a restaurant and I was hungry. And I just about had enough coin to get me something. She owned the restaurant… took it over when her husband died the year before. She took one look at me and told me to sit down. For an hour, she brought plates of food to me. When I finally ate my fill, she refused to take my coins.”
Afraid to make any sound for fear the story would end, Amanda listened breathlessly.
Rosie sighed again. She was older than me and had lived more of life. What she saw in me I had no idea. She offered me a job and I stayed with her for almost a year. She taught me how to read and work with numbers. She taught me about doing business in a man’s world.” She paused. “And she tried to teach me to love,” she murmured as tears held back for years started to fall.
Amanda found the pain in Rosie’s words almost too much to bear and she fought against every impulse she had to wrap her arms around the tormented woman.
“But I was too young to understand,” Rosie choked out as her voice cracked. Her hands clutched at her shirt, bunching the fabric over her heart. “I was just too damn young.”
Amanda gave up fighting her urges. She reached for the crying woman and her into a tight hug.
Between sobs, Rosie continued. “She told me I would figure it out one day. And she was willing to wait. But I took too long… I took too long.”
With tears streaming down her own face, Amanda held Rosie until her emotions were spent. She wanted to offer words of comfort but she couldn’t think of anything to say that would soothe the woman’s grief. So she remained silent and simply gently rocked the inconsolable woman as the night passed.
Using the back of her hand, Amanda wiped the tears from her face. A few moments before, Rosie had stood and walked several feet away to compose herself. She slipped off the boulder but, unsure she should approach Rosie, she remained standing in front of the rock. “I’m so sorry,” she said softly.
“She taught me how to be myself,” Rosie spoke into the cool night air. “I would have done anything for her. I trusted her.” Rosie turned to face Amanda. “Why?” she demanded. “Why couldn’t I trust me to love her?”
Slowly, Amanda closed the distance between the women. “Rosie, did you even know that two women could love each other?” she asked hesitantly.
“She told me they could. She said it was no different than a woman loving a man.”
“She was right.”
“I loved her,” Rosie whispered. “I loved her. Why couldn’t I have just said so before...?”
“Before what?” Amanda asked thinking of the grave under the tree. “What happened, Rosie?”
“I left but she followed me. She caught up with me in Adobe Wells. She told me she wanted to be together. She said we could go far away.”
Rosie nodded. “Elizabeth liked her. She said I should go with her. Have a life with her. But I was too confused. I needed to think. I said I was going to visit McDougall and I would come back.”
“But you didn’t?”
“I couldn’t. After a few days, she asked Elizabeth how to find McDougall’s. She came after me again. But I wasn’t there. Daniel said it was like the life went out of her when he told her. She never said a word. She just walked out to the tree and sat down. He checked on her at nightfall but it was too late.”
“She cut herself. By the time he found her, she was dead.”
Amanda gasped. “Oh, no.”
Sniffling, Rosie turned toward the eastern sky which was not yet showing any sign of the coming dawn. “We better get going if you’re going back to town.”
Reaching out her arm, Amanda stopped the woman. “That can wait. Are you okay?”
Amanda waited as Rosie turned and gazed at her with the saddest eyes she had ever seen.
“No,” Rosie said with a shake of her head. “No, it can’t wait. And, no, I’m not okay.” With determined steps, she headed for the edge of the bluff and began her descent back to their camp.
For several minutes, Amanda stood rooted in place; the story she had just been told replaying in her mind. Slowly, she lifted her head and let her eyes roam about the star filled sky. “I know your heart was breaking but why… why leave her with that much pain?”
By the time Amanda returned, the horses were saddled and ready to ride.
It was still some time before dawn when Rosie led the horses into a gully a short distance from White Oaks. The bottom of the furrow wasn’t visible from town and a small spring would provide the horses water while they waited. After assuring the horses were secure, the women began their trek to town being careful to avoid missteps in the darkness. The sun was just peeking up over the cliffs in the east when the women slipped through the lingering shadows at the back of the hotel.
“You ready?” Rosie asked sneaking a peek down the narrow alleyway between the hotel and the building next to it.
“Yes,” Amanda twisted her head to gain a look down the passage to the empty street beyond. “You?” she asked turning back to her nervous companion.
“Be careful,” Rosie said in a serious tone. “If anything goes wrong, give out a loud holler.”
“Where will you be?” Amanda asked curiously.
Rosie answered by pointing upward.
Amanda tilted her head back but was unable to see anything but the back wall of the hotel. “Where?”
Rosie grinned. “The roof.”
“You’re going to save me from up there?”
“I’ll be able to see the whole town from up there. If you need saving, I’ll figure out how to do it,” Rosie assured.
Amanda looked unconvinced. “Let’s hope you don’t have to make good on that boast.”
“You let me worry about that,” Rosie said turning Amanda toward the alley. “You better get going. Remember… yell loud,” she added giving a firm nudge to Amanda.
Momentarily resisting the push, Amanda urged, “Be careful.” Then she set off down the alley.
Rosie moved a few feet down the hotel’s wall where a ladder was nailed to the two story building.
It was a common practice in town’s built of wooden buildings that quite possibly would at any time catch fire. Should the regular exits be blocked, ladders served as emergency alternatives. They also served as easy access to the buildings when someone didn’t want to be noticed.
Emerging from the alley, Amanda avoided the boardwalk so her steps would not attract attention, and walked purposefully down the dusty street.
The telegraph office, a single room log cabin, sat at the opposite end of the town’s main street from the stage station. Though the cabin had no immediate neighbors, a short section of boardwalk fronted the building providing a dry landing when the street was thick with mud during the winter and rainy months. Access to the office was through a plain wood panel that didn’t quite fit the frame surrounding it. In the middle of the door, a piece of rope hung down from a roughly carved hole; pulling on the rope lifted a piece of wood on the inside of the door.
Reaching the telegraph office, Amanda stepped up onto the boardwalk then paused. A quick look back toward the stage depot assured her that, as yet, the station master wasn’t looking for his missing passenger. Taking a firm hold on the rope, she tugged the inside board up and out of the bracket it rested in to keep the door shut. As soon as the door started to swing free, she stepped into the office.
Half asleep, having awoken just moments before, the telegraph operator was surprised to have a customer so early in the morning. “Ma’am?” he asked as he struggled to untwist an unruly pair of suspenders while also trying to neaten up his rumbled cot at the back of the room.
“Good morning,” Amanda cheerfully greeted the startled the half-dressed man. “I must send a telegraph.”
Having untangled his suspenders, the operator finished dressing before responding. “Must be important,” he said buttoning his shirt.
“It is. I have already written it out,” Amanda informed him as she withdrew a folded paper from her handbag.
“All right,” the operator said moving to a counter at the side of the room. A telegraph machine rested on the table behind the counter, its wires stretching out the window beside it and to the top of a tall pole a few feet from the cabin. “If I may,” he asked holding his hand out for her message.
“Of course.” Amanda walked to where the man waited. Standing on the opposite side of the counter, she faced the operator but kept hold of her carefully worded message. “You will share this with no one, I presume,” she queried.
“Only the operator at the other end of the line,” the man assured her. “May I?”
Amanda placed the folded paper on the counter top then watched as the operator unfolded and read it.
“You want this sent to Tumbleweed?” he asked.
“’Scuze’ me, ma’am, but didn’t you arrive on the stage yesterday?”
Amanda groaned internally. So much for keeping my business to myself, she thought. “I see the stage arrivals are well attended,” she commented dryly.
“There isn’t much else happening around here except for the mine trains leaving and the stages arriving,” he responded half apologetically. “Just figured you could save a few coins by carrying this message to Tumbleweed yourself,” he continued knowing the town was the next destination for the stage.
“I thank you for your concern,” Amanda acknowledged the offer. “However, it is of great importance that my message arrives before I do.”
“Of course. I’ll get to sending it right away.”
“Three dollars, ma’am,” he replied sitting at a table behind the counter. “Sorry for the cost but company charges by the word.”
“I understand,” Amanda replied as the telegraph operator tapped out her message on the machine. She retrieved the necessary funds from her handbag then waited for the man to finish his task. “Is it sent?” she asked when the loud clicking stopped but the man remained seated.
“Yes. I’m just waiting for Tumbleweed to answer,” he explained. He had barely finished his comment when the return message arrived. “There… all done,” he said rising from his chair.
“Your payment,” Amanda said indicating the coins on the counter. “I would like my message back,” she added. “And a receipt.”
The man gave her a short quizzical look then retrieved the piece of paper and wrote a short note at the bottom of it.
“And your assurance that you will mention this to no one,” Amanda stipulated tucking the paper back into her handbag.
“You have my word.”
From her vantage point atop the hotel’s roof, Rosie could see the entire length of the main street from the stage depot to the telegraph office. So far the only activity in town was the lone figure walking down the center of the street. But, as she watched, lanterns and candles started to be lit in the buildings lining the street and an occasional door slammed.
Rosie turned her attention to the stage station where the barn doors had opened and the stage driver was leading a pair of horses outside. The station’s back door opened and the station master appeared. He called to the driver, who shook his head in answer, then headed toward the station’s outhouses.
Rosie turned her head toward the telegraph office. “Make it quick, Amanda,” she whispered turning back to the depot. The station master stood in front of the outhouses for a few moments before turning away. She grinned, easily deducing that he had received no response to his inquiries.
Voices below her attracted Rosie’s attention. She eased close to the roof’s edge to peer over the verge. Staying as quiet as possible, she watched Jenkins emerge onto a second floor balcony from one of the hotel’s rooms. He was soon joined by a second man walking out from another room.
“It won’t be long now,” the second man said placing his hands on the balcony’s railing and leaning out over the street. “Tumbleweed is only a day away.”
“Are you sure everything has been handled?” Jenkins asked.
“Well, what have we here?” the first man asked in surprise then pointed.
“Dammit,” Rosie hissed after realizing the man was pointed to Amanda who was leaving the telegraph office.
“Did you hear something?” Jenkins asked.
Rosie quickly pulled her head back from the edge.
“I’m not sure.”
“I wish you’d stop jumping at every shadow, Jenkins. It’s getting on my nerves.”
“I have reason to be nervous,” the mine foreman snapped.
Rosie inched forward just enough to be able to see the men.
“Aren’t you going to stop her?” Jenkins asked as Amanda walked past the hotel.
“She knows where that bitch is.”
“You let me worry about Handler. Get your stuff together, the stage is going to leave soon.”
Rosie eased away from the roof’s edge then made her way across the roof to the ladder.
“Ah, there you are ma’am,” the station master said as he spotted Amanda returning to the depot.
Amanda smiled. “Good morning. What a lovely morning, isn’t it?”
The station master glanced about then nodded. “Better than most,” he agreed. “I missed you for breakfast.”
“Oh, I am so sorry. The morning was so nice… I just had to take a walk and enjoy it.”
“You better get back and eat. We’ll be heading out soon.”
“You know,” Amanda paused then turned about in a full circle, “I do believe I will stay in town for a day or two… it is just too lovely to leave.”
“Your ticket is good until Tumbleweed,” the station master explained. “Just let me know when you want to continue on there.”
“I will. Thank you.”
“Ma’am,” the man said raising a hand to touch his brow. Then he left Amanda alone.
“Let’s go,” Rosie urgently called in a low, muted voice as soon as the station master walked away.
Amanda did not show any outward sign she had heard. “What’s wrong?” she asked softly.
“Jenkins is on his way… we’ve got to get out of here.”
Amanda bobbed her head in a subtle nod. “I’ll meet you out back,” she said then she reversed course to walk back to the hotel. She forced her steps to remain slow and measured, but came to an abrupt stop when she met the man walking out of the hotel.
“Miss Dayton,” Jenkins curtly greeted the woman who had shared the stage’s coach the day before. “Shouldn’t you be heading for the depot?”
“Good morning, Mr. Jenkins. No, I’ve decided to remain in White Oaks to recover from being jostled about yesterday. As I believe I said, I so much prefer travel by train.”
“Stage is loading,” the station master called out in a booming voice.
“Then good day to you,” Jenkins said as he brushed past.
“And a good day to you, sir,” Amanda replied to the man in a hurry to get to the depot. As she resumed her walk, another man left the hotel.
The man smiled at Amanda. “Morning.”
“Morning,” Amanda mumbled quickening her steps.
Rosie took a final look behind her then followed Amanda down into the gully where the horses were watching them approach. “Did you see Jenkins?” she asked as they walked.
“Yes. He came out of the hotel when I was walking past.”
“Any trouble with him?”
“No. He just asked why I was going away from the depot. I told him I was going to stay in town,” Amanda explained. “He didn’t seem to care.”
“Was there another man with him?”
“A man came out of the hotel after he left… I don’t know that he was with Jenkins. Why?” Amanda asked.
“I heard Jenkins and another man talking. They said everything would be over when he got to Tumbleweed.”
Amanda spun about to face Rosie. “Over? Over how?” she demanded.
“I don’t know. What’s wrong with you?”
Jade walked over to the women and nuzzled Amanda; the action surprisingly calmed the upset woman. “Rosie, let’s not go to Tumbleweed,” she said stroking the mare’s soft ears.
“What are you talking about?”
Kissing Jade on the nose, Amanda focused her thoughts. “Rosie, you said it yourself, everything is going wrong. Let’s just pick a direction and ride,” she pleaded in a soft whisper.
“You’re not making any sense.”
“The man in town… the man you saw with Jenkins, he gave me a bad feeling.”
“I thought you said he wasn’t with Jenkins.”
“I don’t know if he was or wasn’t… but he gave me the shivers,” Amanda admitted. “Please listen to me. Go find somewhere safe where you can live a good life.”
“Where?!” Rosie demanded. “Bentleys have offices all over the west. No matter where I went, they’d eventually find me. I don’t want that hanging over my head.”
Frustrated and confused, Rosie stared at the distraught woman before her. She shook her head. “I can’t. If it’s going to end in Tumbleweed then I want to be there.”
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - CONCLUSION
Unlike Adobe Wells and White Oaks, Tumbleweed was similar to other towns soon after a rail line reached it… growing in population and wealth. As in most frontier towns, the main street doubled as the stage road and business district; but unlike smaller towns, a pair of shiny rails, resting on a bed of sturdy square-cut timbers, ran down the center of the street. Smaller streets branched off from the main one making room for more businesses as the town grew. And set further back from the non-stop activity of the commercial district, residential neighborhoods enjoyed quieter tree lined avenues. Everywhere about town, buildings stood in various stages of construction and shouts of working men and sounds of hammering echoed throughout.
The women were standing beside their horses in the shade of some trees a short distance from the stage road; a tall knoll providing a perfect view of the stage rolling into Tumbleweed and of the town itself.
A loud whistle drew Amanda’s attention to a steam train chugging toward a recently completed two story brick depot in the center of town. She grinned knowing that all the nicely dressed people waiting on the station’s platform would soon be engulfed by a thick cloud of wet steam when the engineer released the boiler’s built up pressure to help slow the train.
“Damn, even Durango isn’t this big,” Rosie muttered, her eyes darting about as she tried to take in all the activity before refocusing her attention on the stage station where the mine foreman, still clutching his satchel, was stepping down from the coach. “It’s going to be hard to keep track of Jenkins in all of that,” she said referring to the beehive of activity in town.
“Then we better get down there before he gets lost in the crowd,” Amanda noted preparing to mount her horse.
Rosie reached for the horse’s reins. “Hang on… let’s see where he goes first.”
“He needs a place to stay,” Amanda snapped annoyed at being asked to wait. “He’ll obviously go to one of the hotels,” she added. “Let’s just go.”
“There must be a couple dozen of those in town,” Rosie replied. “It’ll be a lot easier if we let him lead us to the right one. And it will give us a chance to check out the town. I don’t want any surprises when we go down there.”
Amanda considered arguing but unable to voice a valid reason for rushing into town, she realized it might be better to compose a plan first. “All right,” she finally conceded before looking around for a place to sit while Rosie led the horses further into the shadows. Settling on a patch of grassy ground, she studied the layout of Tumbleweed.
“Where’s Jenkins?” Rosie asked returning with their canteens.
“Talking to the station master.”
Rosie dropped to the ground then handed Amanda her canteen. “Wonder what he’s talking about,” she said uncorking her canteen. She swallowed several mouthfuls of water then replaced the cork. “Going to be a while before I get road dust out of my throat,” she grumbled setting the canteen on the ground.
“Maybe he’s asking about that man in White Oaks,” Amanda suggested after drinking some water.
Rosie shook her head. “Why ask the stage master? That other man wasn’t on the stage,” she explained.
“But he did say everything was being handled in Tumbleweed,” Amanda pondered. “Maybe he told him to check with at the stage station when he got here for more information.”
Rosie chewed on her lower lip. “Maybe… but I would think it would have been easier just to tell Jenkins what to expect when they were talking.”
The Gold Nugget was one of the newer hotels in Tumbleweed. Standing three stories tall, it offered its guests a restaurant and well-stocked bar on the ground floor and comfortable lodging rooms on the top two floors. In the middle of its top floor a curtain-covered window provided an unobstructed view of the street below as well as the expanse of sparsely treed landscape just outside of town. One tall knoll stood out among the otherwise low gently rolling hills.
A man wearing a recently pressed jacket and matching pants pushed aside the curtain covering his room’s window. Raising his brass binoculars to his eyes, he took a moment to focus the lenses before squinting through the eye pieces. Smiling, he tightened his grip on the leather wrapped barrels and peered at his target. “I can always count on you to get the job done,” he murmured gleefully. “Now you just come on into town while I talk to the marshal.”
“We agree?” Rosie asked. “You go talk to the station master and try to find out what Jenkins was asking about. I’ll follow Jenkins and find out which hotel he decides to stay at. We can meet back up at the train depot… there’s enough people around there that we won’t be noticed.”
“You hope.” Frowning, Amanda grudgingly agreed. “I’m not sure we should split up. But standing here arguing won’t get us anywhere,” she muttered mounting her horse.
“It’s just wasted time,” Rosie said pulling herself up into Jade’s saddle. “We’ll meet up again as soon as we can. Let’s go.” She urged the mare down the slope of the knoll.
The women rode together until they reached the stage road. Then Amanda directed her horse toward the stage station while Rosie continued down the main street toward a block of hotels.
“Be careful,” Amanda called after her companion.
Twisting in the saddle to look back at the worried woman, Rosie smiled and nodded.
Halfway down Tumbleweed’s main street, a square one-story sandstone block building sat dwarfed by the much larger structures adjoining it. A solid overhang provided shade to the section of boardwalk running the width of the front of the smaller building. Access inside was through a thick wooden door with a small window protected by steel bars. Hanging on short lengths of chain off the porch roof, a hand carved wooden plank proclaimed the building as belonging to the town’s marshal.
Wearing a faded black vest with a dented six point star pinned to it, a stocky man sat behind a cluttered desk. He looked up as the door to his office opened. “Something I can do for you?” he asked the man striding toward his desk.
“My name is Donavan… I represent the Bentley Agency,” he announced arrogantly.
“And what brings a Bentley agent to Tumbleweed?” the marshal asked unimpressed by the man’s pompous attitude.
“I have a warrant here,” Donavan said pulling a folded paper from his jacket’s pocket, “signed by the Durango judge.” He tossed the paper onto the marshal’s desk.
“Why didn’t the judge send a deputy to enforce this?”
“The Bentleys were hired to track down the fugitive… which we’ve done. She’s here in Tumbleweed.”
“A woman?” the lawman exclaimed as he unfolded the warrant. “Suspected of murder?” he read the charge.
“Bet you don’t see many of those,” Donavan smirked.
“I’ve seen my share,” the marshal answered dolefully.
Slowing Jade to a walk, Rosie kept one eye on Jenkins as he made his way down the boardwalk on the opposite side of the street; her other eye focused on the people hurrying to and fro across her path. She really didn’t have to worry about running into anyone or anything as Jade would have avoided any possible mishaps on her own. But it was a good way to check out the people in town without being too obvious.
Jenkins stopped when he reached the doors leading into the lobby of the Gold Nugget. After a quick look around, he tightened his grip on his satchel then proceeded inside. It took only a moment for him to spot the hotel’s registration counter and he headed for it.
Seeing Jenkins disappear into the imposing hotel, Rosie dismounted and tied Jade to a hitching post in front of a clothing shop. Moving casually to avoid drawing any undue attention, she made her way across the street. Not wanting to enter the lobby, she entered the hotel’s restaurant and took a seat at a table near the open interior doorway between the two rooms. She had a clear view of the lobby but noise from outside made hearing Jenkins’ conversation difficult. Intended to move to a better listening location, she groaned inwardly when a young woman approached her knowing she would need to respond to her questions.
“Ma’am –” the server started.
“Do you have any apple pie?” Rosie quickly interrupted to stop further inquiries.
“Why, yes,” the server answered smiling.
“I’ll take a slice… a big slice and a cup of coffee.”
“Of course, ma’am,” the server said with a bop of her head, before scurrying toward the kitchen.
As soon as the server left, Rosie scooted her chair back in hopes of hearing Jenkins’ conversation with the hotel clerk.
“If you’ll sign here, Mr. Jenkins,” the clerk was saying. “We have a very pleasant room on the third floor for you. As requested, your room is adjacent to Mr. Donavan’s.”
Jenkins took the offered ink pen and scribbled his name on the register line as indicated by the clerk. “My key?” he demanded holding out his hand.
Holding up a key with attached tag, the clerk motioned to a boy standing at the end of the counter. “Please see Mr. Jenkins to room three sixteen,” he told the boy.
Jenkins snatched the key out of the clerk’s hand. “I can find it,” he snapped brushing past the boy.
Frowning at the man’s rude behavior, Rosie watched the mine foreman hurry toward the staircase. “He definitely lacking in manners,” she muttered.
“Ma’am,” the server asked setting a plate and cup on the table, “did you say something?”
Surprised by the server’s sudden re-appearance, Rosie whipped her head around surprise. “Um… oh, nothing,” she replied. “I was just talking to myself. This looks good,” she said glancing down at the plate of warm pie. “Real good,” she added giving the server a genuine smile.
Stepping out of the day’s bright sunshine, Amanda was shocked by the dark, dingy interior of the stage depot. Cracked and splintered hard wooden benches lined three of the depot walls while the middle of the room was a jumble of boxes of freight, travel baggage, and sacks of dry goods. Goodness, I thought the depot at White Oaks was shabby,” she thought looking around at the uninviting mess.
“Help you, ma’am?” a deep voice asked from somewhere in the room. After a moment, a man rose from behind a stack of crates, “If you be looking for a ticket on the next stage, it isn’t due until the morning.”
“No, I was not but thank you for the information,” Amanda addressed the man. “Actually, I was expecting to find my brother here,” she lied. “He was to arrive on the stage from White Oaks.”
“Only one passenger on that stage,” the man stated walking around the pile of freight. “Unpleasant sort,” he said wiping his hands on a dirty rag.
“I am sorry,” Amanda said sympathetically, “my brother can seem rather rude at times.”
“That he can,” the station master agreed. “He didn’t stick around long.”
“Oh, dear… we were supposed to meet here. I don’t suppose you know where he went off to… this town is so busy, it will be near impossible for me to find him.”
“A feller left him a message a few days ago. After he read the note, he asked for directions to the Golden Nugget. Told him he can’t miss it… it’s the biggest hotel in town. You’ll probably find him there.”
Amanda smiled. “Thank you ever so much… I’ll look for him there.” As soon as she was outside of the depot, she hurried toward the hotel.
“Here you are,” Amanda stated sitting on an empty chair at Rosie’s table. “Enjoying yourself?” she asked spying the plate being scraped clean.
“Thought we were meeting at the depot?” Rosie said after swallowing the last bite of pie.
“I’ve been waiting there for the past half hour,” Amanda explained tensely. “Did you run into trouble?”
Rosie shook her head. “There have some good pie… almost as good as Elizabeth’s. Want a slice?”
Amanda stared at the smug woman. “Did you forget we have no money?” she hissed through gritted teeth.
“No. But I think I can work out a compromise.”
“What do you mean if?”
Smiling broadly, Rosie glanced across the room. Spotting the friendly server, she lifted a hand and wiggled her fingers. “I’ve been charming the young lady,” she explained when Amanda around to see who was receiving the flirtatious gesture. “Hoping she might let me sneak out without asking for payment.”
Amanda slumped back in her chair. “You don’t have that much charm,” she groaned.
Rosie was about to retort when the restaurant door opened and a pair of men, one prominently displaying a badge, entered and looked purposefully around at the seated diners. “We’re in trouble,” she informed Amanda as the men headed straight for their table.
“Damn it,” Amanda swore after glancing over her shoulder. Leaping to her feet, she spun about to face the men. “What the hell are you doing here?” she spat out at the man accompanying the marshal.
“Always a pleasure to see, Amanda,” the man responded smirking. “Another job well done, I see.”
Confused, Rosie looked from Amanda to the stranger and back again.
“Rosie Handler?” the marshal asked.
“It’s her,” the man assured the marshal. “Arrest her.”
“Damn it, Donavan. You can’t do this,” Amanda insisted.
“Yes, I can.”
“Where is he?” Amanda demanded of Donavan.
“Theodore! Where is he?” Amanda repeated more harshly.
“Sorry… haven’t seen him since we left Durango.”
“I sent him a telegram,” Amanda shouted. “He should be here.”
“Amanda?” Rosie asked, her mind beginning to connect some scattered dots, “what the hell is going on?”
“Oh,” Donavan laughed cruelly. “Didn’t she tell you? She’s a Bentley agent.”
SLAP! The sound ricocheted around the dining room like a rifle shot.
Glaring at Amanda, Donavan rubbed his stinging cheek. “You’ll pay for that,” he sneered at the incensed woman. “Arrest that damn woman,” he ordered pointing at Rosie.
“You’re a Bentley agent?” Rosie asked meekly while the marshal placed handcuffs around her wrists.
Tears streaming down her face, Amanda looked into Rosie’s troubled eyes. “It’s not what you think,” she said softly. “I’ll get you out of this. Just let me find Theodore.”
“Theodore?” Rosie asked.
Rosie felt like Jade had kicked her in the gut. Her whole life had changed in the course of the past few minutes. Everything was wrong before but now? Now it was still wrong but in a much different way… a much more painful way. “I…,” she started but stopped having no idea what she wanted to say.
The marshal tugged on Rosie’s arm. “Don’t make me do this the hard way,” he told the bewildered woman instinctively resisting his efforts.
“I’ll go,” Rosie assured the marshal. “I don’t have any reason not to now. Can’t pay for the pie,” she told the server who was inching closer to the unusual activities. “But then… I’m sure the Bentleys will take care of that,” she added, directing the harsh comment at Amanda as she walked across the restaurant with the marshal.
Standing beside the barred window of her jail cell, Rosie looked with unseeing eyes at Tumbleweed’s main street. The sun was dropping in the west, painting the sky with streaks of reds, oranges, and yellows. Any other time, she would have enjoyed watching the changing colors while the sun fell below the horizon. But now her heart had no desire to appreciate the beauty of this moment or any other.
“Your supper will be here soon,” the marshal informed his only prisoner.
“Not hungry,” Rosie muttered.
Walking to the cell, the marshal draped his arms over the iron door’s bars and clasped his hands. “Don’t be so hard on yourself; it’s not easy to outrun the Bentley’s.”
Rosie turned away from the window. Despite his gruff tone, the marshal’s eyes betrayed a kind heart. “Especially when you refuse to believe what’s right before your eyes,” she said leaning back against the rock wall.
“You figured her for a Bentley?” he asked curiously.
“No,” Rosie answered honestly. “Just had a feeling what she was telling me wasn’t the whole story,” she explained.
“Hell, that’s a mistake most would have made. She’s a pretty lady. Don’t expect many would have taken her for a Bentley… fact is, never knew they employed women agents? Probably have good reason to keep that secret,” the marshal suggested.
“Yeah, to catch fools like me,” Rosie agreed. “You got a name or do you want me to call you ‘marshal’?”
“That your first or last?”
“First. Last is a bit much for most to say.”
“Kindershuscht,” the marshal supplied then laughed at Rosie’s surprised look. “Told you it was a mouthful. Grandfolks came over from the old country. Don’t know why they didn’t change it.” Bradley smiled remembering all the times he had considered doing just that. “You guilty?” he asked after several moments.
“That’s the answer I hear most often.”
“For the record, it’s the truth,” Rosie told the marshal then returned to her window and the fading sunset.
Dejected, Amanda walked away from the jail. Her attempts to talk to Rosie had been rebuffed by the jailed woman. “Damn it, damn it, damn it,” she muttered as she walked. “If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll get you out,” she declared having determined that the haunted look of hopelessness in Rosie’s eyes would haunt her forever if she failed. With renewed determination, she redirected her steps. Ignoring the sounds of a horse racing in her direction, Amanda headed for the Golden Nugget to confront Jenkins.
“Amanda,” a male voice carried over the sounds of the hoof beats and the busy town.
“Damn it, Theodore,” Amanda shouted recognizing the voice. “Where in the hell have you been?” she demanded charging toward the rider pulling his horse to a stop a few feet away.
“Whoa,” Theodore Bentley yelled to both his horse and his agent. “Hang on, will you… let me get off this damn thing.”
Stormy eyes glared at the man struggling to control the agitated horse. When it started to buck, Amanda reached out and grabbed the reins. “Why the hell don’t you learn how to ride?” she asked her boss while attempting to calm the animal.
“Because I don’t want to ride,” Bentley angrily shot back. As soon as the horse had all four feet back on the ground, he swung his leg over the saddle and jumped away from the angry animal. “I much prefer trains,” he reminded his agent while brushing dust and dirt off his pants.
“Where the hell have you been?” Amanda repeated tying the horse to a hitching post in front of the hotel. “You left Durango same day I did.”
“My train broke down south of here. Lucky for you, I had another agent with me and he had his horse in the luggage car. I would have been here sooner but the damn thing kept trying to throw me off.”
“Can’t say I blame him.” Amanda shook her head in disgust. “Can’t ride a horse and you own a worthless train,” she muttered. She grabbed her boss’ arm and started tugging him across the street. “Come on,” she growled, “your boy, Donavan, blew the plan up.”
“Wait a minute,” Bentley yanked his arm out of her grasp. “Where are we going?”
“The marshal’s… he arrested Rosie an hour ago.”
“Wait!” Bentley ordered when Amanda continued toward the jail. “Before we go anywhere, we’re going to sit down and you’re going to tell me why you think she’s innocent.”
Amanda turned to glare at her boss. “I laid that all out in my telegram. Didn’t you read it?”
“Yes. But it contradicts everything our client said,” Bentley told the fuming agent.
“Your client—” Amanda broke off as a thought entered her mind. “Just who is your client?” she asked in a calmer voice.
“The mine owner… you know that.”
“What’s his name? I forgot.”
“Oh, my god,” Amanda shouted. “You’ve been taken for a fool,” she screamed at her boss.
“Jenkins is not the mine owner. He’s the foreman. And I’ll bet my life he’s the one who set all of this up… the robbery, the murder. He even set up Rosie to take the blame. And Donavan has been helping him to it.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Amanda started to answer then noticed people on the street were stopping to listen to their argument. “We’re attracting a crowd. Let’s go to the marshal’s office,” she suggested. “I’ll explain it there.”
Rosie watched curiously as Amanda burst into the marshal’s office tugging a man covered in trail dust behind her.
After making sure the office door was closed and locked, Amanda crossed the room to stand at the cell. “You doing okay?” she asked softly.
“As okay as anyone waiting to hang,” Rosie answered with more than a hint of anger in her voice.
“You’re not going to hang,” Amanda confidently told her.
“Amanda,” Bentley said sharply. He was waiting anxiously beside the marshal’s desk.
“Just give me a chance,” Amanda told Rosie before joining the men. “This is what I know… Jenkins is the mine foreman not the owner. He arrived here today on the stage… we’ve been following him since Adobe Wells.”
“Why are you following him?” Bentley asked. “He’s not our suspect.”
“He should be. Just listen, will you… please,”
“We were in Adobe Wells and spotted Jenkins on the stage. Rosie recognized him and wondered why he was so far from the Gold Queen. That’s the mine where Rosie supposedly killed the guard,” she explained to the marshal. “Jenkins was carrying a heavy satchel that he refused to let it loose.”
“Okay, how does this change anything?” Bentley asked.
“First, Rosie is innocent.”
“How do you know that?” Bentley blurted out.
“I’ve been an agent long enough to know when I’m questioning the wrong person,” Amanda shot back. “Jenkins lied to you,” she began counting off each point on her fingers. “He’s the one that hired Rosie at the mine then let her go a few days later just before the robbery… how convenient. His office is where the strong box was kept and where the guard was killed. He discovered the money was gone. And he’s in Tumbleweed hugging onto a heavy satchel like his life depended on it.” She glanced at the cell’s occupant. “Only it’s Rosie life that depends on us seeing what’s in that bag.”
“All right,” Bentley said, “let’s go question him.”
“One more thing,” Amanda said stopping her boss from leaving.
“In White Oaks, Rosie overheard a conversation between Jenkins and another man. I don’t know who he was but I do know he was working with Donavan because he told Jenkins all he needed to do was get to Tumbleweed where everything was ready for him.”
“Meaning what?” the marshal asked.
“I don’t know. But we do know that Donavan arranged for Jenkins’ room at the Golden Nugget and Donavan rushed right to you, Marshal, to have Rosie arrested. And he did that even though I am the senior agent on this case and that is my decision to make.” Amanda’s next words were soft and regretful. “I’m carrying the warrant for her arrest.”
“Donavan had a warrant,” the marshal said holding up the paper the Bentley agent had presented to him.
“I watched the judge sign the real one and I gave it to Amanda,” Bentley said after looking at the page. “This one is a forgery.”
“I’ve heard enough,” the marshal declared moving to a locked cabinet beside his desk. “I don’t like having innocent people in my jail,” he said unlocking the cabinet and removing a shotgun. “And I like it even less to be lied to in order to get them locked up. Let’s go talk to these men.”
With a bemused look on her face, Rosie watched Amanda and the two men leave. She listened to the click of the door’s lock then footsteps cross the boardwalk and walk down the wooden steps. After a few minutes, she stretched out on the cot and folded her arms under her head. “I’ll be damned,” she sighed.
“Come on out. We’ve got a couple of boys who need your cot.”
Rosie wasted no time in complying with the marshal’s instructions after he unlocked the cell door. She quickly stepped out of the way to allow the marshal to shove Donavan and then Jenkins the recently vacated cell. She couldn’t help smiling at the mine foreman when the door’s lock clicked shut.
“You got something to say?” Jenkins snarled at the woman.
Rosie shook her head then asked the marshal, “Where are the agents?”
“They went to the bank… need to lock up the stolen money until arrangements can be made to return it.” The marshal went to his desk and opened a drawer. Pulling a paper out, he wrote a few lines on it then signed his name. “Here,” he said holding the paper out to Rosie, “keep that with you for awhile in case anyone tries to arrest you again.”
“What is it?” Rosie asked taking the offered page.
“Your arrest warrant and my declaration that the charges against have been proven false.”
“Thanks,” Rosie said after reading what the marshal had written. “I’m good to go?”
“Anytime you please,” the marshal assured her smiling.
Rosie returned the smile then headed for the office door.
“You plan to stick around town?”
In the act of pulling the door open, Rosie paused. “To be honest, the sooner I’m out of Tumbleweed the happier I’ll be,” she told the marshal before stepping out into the cool night air. Despite what she had told the marshal, she was unsure as to her next move. Looking down the street, she spotted Bentley exiting the bank. Decision made, she headed in his direction.
“That didn’t take long,” Bentley acknowledged Rosie as she approached.
“Marshal needed my cell,” Rosie replied with a grin. “Thanks for believing Agent Dayton.”
“I’ve learned over the years, she’s usually right. Wish I could say that of my other agents.”
“Um, where is she?” Rosie asked hesitantly.
“Don’t know. As soon as we secured the stolen money, she turned in her credentials and left,” Bentley stated unhappily.
“Just like that?”
“Just like that… I’m sure going to miss her.” Bentley said yawning. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, Miss Handler, I’m going to see if one of these hotels has a nice soft bed for me. It’s been a long day. Good luck to you,” he added as he walked away.
Wondering if someone had arranged for Jade to be cared for, Rosie started down the street in search of her horse. As she walked, her mind raced while opposing thoughts battled inside her head. She had almost reached the stage station when she saw Jade and Daniel’s borrowed horse tied to a hitching post in front of a half-completed building. Moving toward the horses, she could make out the outline of someone sitting in the night’s shadows at the front of the building. Her steps slowed but didn’t stop.
Amanda was sitting on the boardwalk, her legs hanging down over the edge and swinging lazily. She held her breath when Rosie sat down beside her.
“I should be mad at you,” Rosie stated quietly.
“Yes, you should.”
“So why aren’t I?”
Puzzled, Amanda asked, “You’re not?”
Rosie shook her head. “I’ve tried to be… but,” she shrugged, “I just can’t think of a good reason to be.”
“I lied to you,” Amanda provided a reason.
“I lied to myself. I knew you weren’t who you said… at least, I was pretty sure you weren’t.”
“Your canteen. You said you dropped everything while you were fighting with that cowboy… so why did you have a canteen? It didn’t make sense.”
“Ah… guess I didn’t think out my story too well. Not a good thing for a senior agent,” she criticized herself.
“There were other things. Like why you didn’t just talk to Durango’s sheriff and why you seem to know an awful lot about the Bentleys.”
“You’re right… I really slipped up at McDougall’s. I got the feeling he was suspicious from the moment I got there.”
“He treats every stranger that way.”
“I should have been more careful. But by then…”
“Nothing,” Amanda quickly answered.
Maybe a little too quickly, Rosie thought scratching her nose to hide the smile forming on her face. “Bentley told me you quit.”
Amanda nodded. “I did.”
Amanda sighed. “I supposed I should return McDougall’s horse.”
“Good idea,” Rosie said. Slipping off the boardwalk to stand on the street, she stretched her back. “I’ve got some business of my own at McDougall’s.”
“We could head that way together,” Amanda offered timidly.
Rosie remained silent for a moment then offered a hand to Amanda. “I don’t suppose it would hurt any if we did.”
Smiling, Amanda wrapped her fingers around Rosie’s and allowed herself to be pulled upright. “The Gold Nugget has rooms available tonight.”
“No money… remember?”
“Oh, did I forget to mention… I got my final paycheck tonight.”
Still clasping Amanda’s hand, Rosie looked at the brightly lit buildings lining the street emitting sounds of loud music and laughter. “Awfully noisy in town,” she observed. “I don’t suppose you’d like to find a nice quiet spot on the trail?”
Amanda grinned. “I’d love to.”
Few of the night’s revelers took notice of the pair of smiling women riding their horses out of town.
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