by Norsebard

Contact: norsebarddk@gmail.com





This romantic (and romanticized) Western belongs in the Uber category. All characters are created by me though they may remind you of someone.

This story depicts a budding romantic relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.




Written: April 18th - May 5th, 2018.

- Thank you very much for your help, Phineas Redux :D

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D

Description: 1904. At the dawn of the new century, the mythical Wild West has been consigned to the history books. Though some refuse to let go of the romanticized notions of the Old West, others are happy the dark days are over - like the middle-aged, retired outlaw Mollie Hammond. All she wants is to visit a woman she has been pen pals with for a few years, but the fact that she used to be on the wrong side of the law creates unforeseen problems. Soon, she is put under pressure by not only a meddlesome sheriff but by a young gunslinger who wants to make a name for himself…





1904. The passing of the baton from the nineteenth to the twentieth century had swept away the last traces of the mythical Wild West. The old west, like it had been presented in countless dime novels, was long gone as were the thousand-head cattle drives and the mindless, bloody squabbles between powerful, greedy ranchers. The land rush, the prospectors, the gold assessors, the boom towns, the two-bit cathouses, the slick card sharps, and even the rugged lawmen and their legendary outlaw opponents were all a thing of the past - civilization had taken their place.

What remained was the eternal, glorious landscape. The lush plains and high deserts, the monochrome drabness of the bone-dry rocky or salty wilderness, the grandeur of the mountain ranges, and the vast sky where the puffy, white clouds would be chased by their angry, dark-gray relatives until the world would cease to be.

For Mollie Hammond, it was almost like the old days had returned. Riding an appaloosa mare on a dusty trail en route to her destination, the veteran of the Old West closed her tired eyes to shut out the glorious terrain she was going through. She was back there - she could see the vast buffalo herds, she could hear the chants and drums of the Native tribes, and she could smell the cordite as it drifted across the rutted town streets following a shootout or simply a random act of celebration.

A more unpleasant memory was the grit that crunched between her teeth. She opened her eyes once more when she realized the last part wasn't a distant dream but stark reality. Grimacing, she spat out an impressive specimen that appeared to be the size of a boulder.

When her appaloosa mare whinnied, she leaned forward to pat its neck. Plenty of dust flew off the spotted coat, and she knew her own clothes were just as filthy though she wore a long duster over her regular travel fatigues to at least try to keep them in a clean state.

Riding to Sundown Hills to finally meet the woman she had been corresponding with for several years had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the further she had made it into the journey, the more she had come to realize that turning forty-nine had meant her back and posterior had lost a good deal of their stamina. Decades earlier, she would never have thought twice about riding for as much as twenty hours straight on a cattle drive, or as a shotgun rider on a poorly sprung stagecoach, but her advancing years had turned even simple three-hour rides into painful torture - and this particular endeavor had taken far, far longer than that.

She had needed to take so many breaks along the way that her multi-state trip from her home in Buzzard Bait, Arizona to her destination on the edge of the Mojave Desert in south-eastern California had ended up taking twelve days to accomplish; a staggering figure that she could hardly believe was true. To add insult to lingering injury, she had resorted to putting a pillow on the saddle to cushion the blows.

Even that proved not to be enough. Her skinny, bony backside was telling her in no uncertain terms that she needed to take another break, so she pulled her horse to a halt as she entered a small grove of trees. Dismounting - and letting out a long groan - she proceeded to dust herself off and reach for the canteen she had tied to the saddlehorn.

The sun had come out since a front of threatening, dark-gray clouds had rolled by earlier in the day, so the duster she wore created an atmosphere akin to a nice summer day in Death Valley underneath the coarse fabric.

As she walked around the small grove on stiff, creaking legs to rest her back and aching behind, she thought back to the countless times she had used similar groves for purposes of cover, night-time quarters, or even ambushes. Born in 1855, she had been too young to take part in the war between the states, but she had joined the re-formed Alabama militia once she was old enough to do so, which had been as a fifteen-year-old. When her family had moved to Colorado in 1872 to seek greener pastures, she had tagged along though she had really been old enough to start a family of her own by then.

After her parents and her younger sister had died of scarlet fever in 1876, she had inherited the family farm. Her agricultural skills had been too few to get anything out of the land, so she had upped stakes and soon roamed the countryside as a laborer-for-hire. That line of work had seen her do all kinds of jobs: cattle-driving, mining, horse wrangling, even the perilous task of being a stagecoach shotgun rider. The latter had been too dangerous in the long run, even for her, but she had caught the eye of a local sheriff who had appointed her to be a special deputy. It was a title she held for a few years, but the fancy moniker failed to bring in any fancy wages so she had moved on.

When the money had run out and the well of jobs had dried up, she had needed to make a few tough choices. Though she had attempted to make herself more attainable for a potential husband by reducing her boozing, swearing and smoking to a minimum, the eligible bachelors seemed to shy back from her earthy looks and ways. It had left few options open for her. Either she could turn to prostitution like so many other women in financial squeezes, or she could turn to a life of crime.

The first option was no option at all, so she had chosen the latter. It never amounted to much beyond a handful of hold-ups of stagecoaches over the course of the summer of 1884. Her life of crime became a short one when the combined loot from all five hold-ups amounted to thirty-three dollars, two gold cufflinks and a silver pocket watch that had stopped working from being dropped by a pair of trembling hands.

For reasons she had never understood, her reputation as an outlaw had stuck and the name she had been given at birth had been sullied for all eternity. Part of the lore built around her had perhaps come from the fact that she had managed to evade all the posses sent after her, but that had been a result of poor tracking skills among the men assembled for the task rather than anything she had done. When she had found a dime novel chronicling her life's adventures in a drugstore, she had bought it just for a laugh. Though the character carried her original name, it was the one and only thing connected to reality.

That had all taken place twenty years ago. She was long-since retired from that world, but on occasion, her birth name was still mentioned in the same breath as other legendary women of the Old West. Mollie Hammond, the name she had assumed after wanting to get away from the baggage associated with the old one, was merely a nobody in the grand scheme of things, and that suited her just fine.

Sighing, Mollie returned to her appaloosa and put her boot in the stirrup. As she grew older, getting into the saddle turned into a task that became more and more difficult for her. She was so embarrassed by that fact that she flat-out refused to mount any horse in the presence of other people. With a strong heave-ho, she managed to get herself up into the saddle one more time before she nudged her horse into action. Her destination: the town of Sundown Hills and the Southern Belle saloon.


It only took another two hours - and an additional break - for Mollie to reach Sundown Hills. A sigh of relief escaped her lips as she rode past the city limits sign and ventured onto a sandy street that was still somewhat rutted, but far less dusty than the trails she had been following for the past twelve days.

As the appaloosa clip-clopped along the rutted street, Mollie took in the sights of the first proper town she had been in for two weeks since leaving her home. Like so many other western towns in the region, Sundown Hills had grown from modest beginnings into becoming a proper, little city. Brick buildings, many of which were taller than two storeys, lined the streets, and the covered sidewalks had been paved with flagstones rather than untreated planks like in the old days.

Though the ubiquitous Old West hot spots like saloons, dance halls and eateries were still there, they appeared to be far nicer than the hastily slapped-together rat holes of yore, and they had been joined by banks, insurance companies, hotels, schools, churches for various beliefs that were related, though different, and even a vaudeville theater that carried the most extravagant frills on the facade that Mollie could ever remember seeing on a building.

The town's rutted streets saw plenty of well-dressed riders who greeted the stranger by putting a couple of fingers on the rim of their hats. Several single-horse buggies followed, and Mollie nodded a polite 'good afternoon' to many of the upstanding citizens of Sundown Hills. An old-fashioned covered wagon pulled by a pair of mules turned a corner as she went the other way, and for the briefest of moments, she was back inside the one her family had bought when they had made their way across the vast country.

Kerosene-powered lanterns placed at regular intervals all around the maze of streets provided the light for the dark hours. Though it was only three-thirty in the afternoon, the streets led her to the mission hotel that offered soft beds and quiet reflection for weary travelers.

There was no doubt Mollie belonged to that category, so she let out another sigh of relief when she arrived at the hotel. After dismounting and tying her appaloosa to one of the posts out front, she needed a moment to straighten her aching back before she could step up onto the paved sidewalk with stiff, unnatural steps.

A few, well-dressed pedestrians offered her glances of sympathy on their way past, and she replied by smiling through the two weeks' worth of dust that caked on her face. On the trail, water was too valuable a resource to waste on something as trivial as staying clean, so it had been a while since she had enjoyed the sensations of cool water upon her skin.

Just in case anyone had forgotten what kind of establishment they were about to enter, an elaborate rendition of a cross had been hand-painted onto the frosted glass pane in the door to the hotel. Below the cross, the words Sundown Hills Mission Hotel had been written in a far simpler type. Mollie had never identified with any religion, but a cheap, soft bed was a cheap, soft bed no matter the colors worn by the employees.

Stepping inside the featureless hallway and then into an office, she soon found herself at a desk that carried a small metal sign that said Wait here. Female voices were heard speaking on one of the hotel's upper floors, but she was in no hurry so there was no point in raising a fuss about needing to wait.

A mirror had been put on one of the office walls, and she grimaced at the sight that greeted her. The woman in the mirror was filthy, dusty and disheveled, and plenty of trail dust painted her face dark-brown wherever the sweat had captured it - at least it hid the ungainly wrinkles that had seemed to blossom out of nowhere in the past few years. She was still on the short side of five-foot-five, her hair was still mostly blond though it had begun to turn gray, and she still had the same, emerald-green eyes she remembered from years gone by. The rest of her body had changed into something she was less pleased with, but at least her eyes were as sharp as ever though they were framed by ungainly crow's feet now.

Activity behind her made her turn away from the dusty woman in the mirror and shift her attention to the nun who had come down the central staircase. Out of a deeply ingrained reflex, an annoyed expression fell upon her face when she took in the sight of the stern-looking mother superior who ran the mission hotel.

The senior nun, whose habit and headpiece were white and pale-gray, was in her mid-fifties and as such no threat to the adult Mollie. It didn't stop the traveling woman from remembering the many times nuns had scolded her for being who she was, however.

"Good afternoon, Ma'am. Welcome to a house blessed by the Lord. What can we do to help you?" the mother superior said in the kind of toneless voice so common among the ladies of the cloth. To further confirm the stereotype, she folded her hands across her stomach as she spoke.

"Howdy," Mollie said; she needed to clear her throat several times after that to get the last dust out. "Pardon me. Would you happen to have a spare bed for me? I will be staying for a couple of nights at least."

"Oh, we certainly do, Ma'am. You seem to have traveled far."

"All the way from central Arizona. Nearly two weeks in the saddle," Mollie said and smiled at the stern mother superior. When the smile didn't prompt any reaction beyond the somewhat detached look that had fallen upon the senior nun's face, Mollie gave up pretending to care.

"That's quite some distance. Are you in town to visit relatives, perhaps?"

"I am not."

When nothing further came from the dusty traveler, the mother superior harrumphed before she moved on in the conversation. "Ah. I see. Would you prefer a single room, or will a bed in our plenum dormitory suffice?"

"Aw, the dorm is just fine for the likes of me," Mollie said, sticking her hand into the pocket of her duster. The crumpled-up piece of paper she produced was just as dusty as the rest of her, and she created a small pile of grains on the carpet when she unfolded it. "Holy Mother, I need directions to the Southern Belle saloon-"

"Well! My lips shall certainly not help you find such a den of filth, Ma'am!" the mother superior said; her voice had finally gained an emotion - that it was virtuous indignation was unfortunate. "For several years, we have campaigned against the vile consumption of alcohol here in Sundown Hills, and the saloons and eateries form the rotten core of the ungodly problem!"

Mollie needed to digest that tirade for a moment or two before she nodded and broke out in a somewhat fake smile. "Amen. I cannot disagree with you. I too have seen the effect of the evil alcohol on many an innocent soul," she said in a voice that was perhaps a little on the overly-pious side.


"Quite," Mollie echoed, re-folding the piece of paper and putting it away for later. "Holy Mother, can I perchance find a secluded spot to scrub my face and my hands? I do not wish to meet the residents of this fair town looking like a uncouth savage."

"Why, indeed there is. Once your luggage has been brought upstairs, I shall show you our private bathing facilities."

"Much obliged," Mollie said with a smile - this time, it was genuine. "Oh, and my luggage consists solely of my saddle bags. Considering how filthy they are, I better carry them myself. The grime will be less visible on me."

After ringing a brass bell to get one of the novices down from upstairs to help the dusty traveler find her way to the plenum dormitory, the mother superior began to fill out the paperwork needed for the stay.

Mollie would have to find the saloon on her own - and she would most certainly be imbibing to her heart's content once she did.


As it turned out, the Southern Belle saloon was found with few problems. Mollie stayed on the paved sidewalk at first to study the establishment through one of the painted glass panes; as she peeked through the windows, she reckoned the sheer number of guests in there proved it was a popular watering hole for the town's residents.

The saloon had been split into two sections and was thus larger than most of its competitors: the left-hand side of the establishment saw a host of round poker and faro tables that had been placed in a simple, yet effective pattern in front of an old-fashioned bar counter made of polished wood. A large, rectangular mirror graced the wall behind the counter as tradition dictated. Although the floor was made of planed planks, it was spotless and well-kept, and no sawdust had been spread over it meaning there was never a need to soak up blood, urine or vomit.

Mollie moved her eyes to the other side of the saloon where fifteen square tables had been put up in five rows of three. All the tables carried checkered tablecloths and a brass candlestick. An upright piano had been placed against the wall, but nobody was playing it, and a wooden shield had been lowered onto the keys to protect them. Down the back of the large room, a smaller counter in front of an open area seemed to suggest that it was a kitchen which would turn the rows of tables into a unique take on the traditional western eatery.

That section of the establishment saw the highest number of customers, but there were several who were leaning against the old-fashioned counter as well. The poker tables saw no action yet - it was probably too early in the day for any of the gamblers or card sharps to come out.

Mollie's stomach let out a growl at the notion of getting something to eat that didn't involve variations of jerky, but the dust in her throat spoke louder, so after she had moved through the swinging doors, she headed for the polished counter.

She cocked her head when she spotted a pretty, young woman who was busy wiping down a washbowl's worth of empty tumblers. She had corresponded with the owner of the Southern Belle saloon, Georgina Mae Ruddock, for years so she roughly knew her age and even her looks from a faded photograph that had accompanied one of the letters. The photo hadn't been too easy to make out, but she had seen enough to develop a long-distance crush on the well-read widow who owned a popular saloon in Sundown Hills.

The young woman manning the counter didn't seem to be a day older than twenty-two. That didn't match the wisdom brought across by the beautiful handwriting in the many letters, but the woman's familiar looks intrigued Mollie enough to make her move the rest of the way over to the counter.

The hard heels of her riding boots sent out a string of comical clonk-clonk-clonks as she walked across the wooden floorboards, but the sound of the cutlery hitting the plates in the other section of the saloon drowned out the dull sounds.

"Howdy," she said, putting a boot up on the brass rail at the foot of the counter. She pushed her dusty, wide-brimmed hat back from her eyes to take in the sight of the barmaid. The dark hair, the blue eyes, the round face, the high cheekbones and the sculpted lips all pointed to the fact that she had to be a close relative of Georgina Mae Ruddock. Mollie furrowed her brow as she tried to remember if Georgina had ever mentioned a daughter in any of the letters. When it dawned on her that she couldn't recall quite a lot of the contents of at least the oldest letters, she grimaced and once more cursed the changes her mind and body had gone through in recent times without asking her for permission.

"Hello, Ma'am. What can I get ya?" the bar maid said. She put down the tumbler she had been wiping off so she would have her hands free for whatever the customer ordered.

"Whiskey. A smooth one if you have it," Mollie said and took off her hat. She mopped her damp brow on her sleeve. Just to give her a kick up the backside that she most decidedly didn't need, her insides had deemed it necessary to give her a hot flash at that exact moment. Her advancing years meant that her body was changing, and she hated every last part of it with a vengeance. The familiar wave of fatigue rolled over her on the heels of the hot flash as it always did, and she let out a long, heartfelt sigh at her body's dastardly betrayal of her.

"We sure do," the young woman said in a cheery voice. As she grabbed a shot glass and a bottle of quality whiskey, it was clear she hadn't caught the pained look on her customer's face. The small glass was soon put on the counter, and it was filled to the brim with the familiar, amber liquid. "That'll be fifty cents, Ma'am."

Mollie offered the cheery, young woman a half-smile as she rummaged through her pockets for the coins needed to pay for the drink. Once the money had exchanged hands, she took the whiskey and drained it in one gulp like all the old-timers did. It was smooth like she had been promised, and she wished she could afford another one right away. The thought had barely left her mind before a second, less positive one entered: if she had a second drink, the alcohol and the fatigue would band up and make her keel over. Smirking, she put down the glass.

The bar maid hadn't left that end of the counter yet, and Mollie took the opportunity to run her eyes over the young woman's exquisite face and shape. "Say, you wouldn't happen to know where I could find Georgina Mae Ruddock, would you? We had made arrangements to meet here, but I was delayed on the trail."

"Oh, are you an acquaintance of my mother?" the bar maid said as she picked up another tumbler and dunked it into the wash bowl.

"I suppose I am, of sorts," Mollie said and cocked her head. Her suspicions had been proven correct, but the fact that she couldn't remember reading about it irked her. "We have been corresponding for a few years."

"Oh! Oh, then you must be Mollie Hammond!" the maid said and forgot all about the filthy tumbler. "So pleased to meet you! I'm Josephine Ruddock. How do you do," she continued, putting out her wet hand.

"Howdy," Mollie said, shaking the younger woman's hand though it meant the wetness was transferred to her fingers. Chuckling, she wiped it off on her duster.

"Oh my, it's quite exciting to finally get to meet you," Josephine said, leaning forward to rest her arms against the counter. "Mother has told me so much about you."

"Well… that's nice."

"She's down at the drugstore, but I presume she'll return before long."

"I see," Mollie said and looked at the square tables at the far end of the room. Though her skinny backside still hadn't fully recovered from the long ride, her legs were in an even worse shape, so she needed to sit down. "Would it be all right if I took a seat at one of those tables?" she said, pointing at the eatery across the room.

"Why, certainly!"

"Thank ye, Missy," Mollie said, putting a pair of fingers to the brim of her hat before she walked over to the tables on stiff, protesting legs.


A short quarter of an hour tick-tocked past on Mollie's old pocket watch before a middle-aged woman entered the Southern Belle carrying a reed basket over her arm. The woman moved swiftly through the saloon only to return from the rear a few moments later without the basket. Going behind the polished counter, she took an apron that she tied around her waist.

Josephine had been servicing a customer, but once the gentleman had moved away, the younger Ruddock leaned in towards her mother while pointing at Mollie across the room.

Down at the table, Mollie had no doubts as to the identity of the middle-aged woman - it was Georgina Mae Ruddock, that was abundantly clear. She was far more beautiful in real life than what the blurry, faded photograph had shown. Whisks of gray had entered her dark locks here and there, and her features had gained the weathered, lived-in look that all women living at or near the frontier would get after a while, but those insignificant details didn't detract from her attractiveness. A smile spread over Mollie's lips at the sight. It had been far too long since she had clapped eyes on a striking woman, but she certainly did so now.

Observing the woman behind the counter, Mollie couldn't help but think back to some of the things Georgina had shared with her in the letters. A great deal of current news and topics from the past - good, bad and worse - had been relayed in a hand that was so beautiful that it had the ability to sweeten even the most tragic news. Mollie's own hand was less beautiful on the whole. Her parents had taught her to read and write from a young age, but the years of hard, physical labor where literacy wasn't needed had seen her neglect, and thus lose, many of the skills she'd had with a pen. The letters had been a great help in regaining most of those skills, but if she didn't make sure to reserve plenty of time for the actual writing part, her hand would resemble that of a hog scraping a hoof across the sty.

Georgina Mae Ruddock's face displayed a series of emotions flashing across it as the owner of the Southern Belle saloon observed the female guest sitting at the table. Puzzlement, recognition, surprise and finally joy arrived in rapid succession before she zipped away from the counter to head for the table.

Once Georgina had reached her female guest, she pulled out the other chair to sit down opposite the woman in the dusty clothes. A shy smile came to her lips as she put out her hands in an invitation for a small shaking. "Oh my Goodness… Mollie Hammond… after all the letters we have written each other, it is so wonderful to finally meet you," she said in a lyrical voice that still carried a strong trace of her roots in the fair state of Virginia despite spending many a year in California. "Why, I must admit I had nearly lost faith that you would get here!" she added after a short pause.

"You and me both! Howdy, Mrs. Ruddock. I beg ya pardon for my tardiness," Mollie said with a tired grin. She took the saloon owner's hands and gave them a little shaking that she hoped was neither too detached nor too intimate for their first encounter. "The trail was longer and dustier than I remembered it. Took me a while to get here… but here I be."

"Indeed you are… goodness me. And please, call me Georgina." As she spoke, her pale-blue eyes went on a quick tour of her guest's dusty outfit. Several long seconds went by that were filled by the usual racket heard in any saloon anywhere. When she realized she and her guest were still holding hands, a shy smile flashed across her lips as she pulled back.

"Only if you call me Mollie. After all, we've already spent so much time being privy to each other's thoughts… at a distance, granted, but still," Mollie said with a lopsided grin that soon turned into a yawn that she barely had time to conceal. "Oh… beg' another pardon. It was hot out there, and though it pains me to admit it, I don't have the stamina I used to have."

"It's quite all right, Mollie. I know all too well what it feels like. Why, I can hardly even work half the hours I used to," Georgina said, continuing to smile at the woman she knew so well though they had never met. Even after exchanging letters for a while, it was a different thing altogether to meet the other part of the remote conversation in person. To read someone's thoughts as they had been committed to paper was fascinating, but a face-to-face encounter would always trump it. Georgina suddenly realized she was studying Mollie far too intently for the circumstances, so she shuffled around on the seat in a brief fit of embarrassment. "Ah… do you have anywhere to stay?"

"Yeah. I've taken up temporary residence at the mission hotel-"

An expression of surprise, even flat-out shock, flashed across Georgina's face. That Mollie had sought out Mother Superior Magdalene and her associates instead of coming directly to the Southern Belle saloon was a sign of a preference she had not been able to deduce from the correspondence they had shared.

Mollie stopped talking when she noticed the expression on Georgina's face, but before she had time to inquire about it, the owner of the saloon continued:

"Oh… the mission hotel," Georgina said, speaking in a voice that was clearly unsupportive of the entire notion of even staying at that establishment. Her face once more showed a strong emotion, only this time it was embarrassment for trying to impose her own standards on others.

By now, a large question mark had appeared in the air above Mollie Hammond's head. Narrowing her eyes, she offered the owner of the saloon a puzzled stare. "Why… yes? The bed is soft and cheap. My coin pouch is happy for the nature of the former, and, frankly, my back and posterior are in dire need of the nature of the latter."

"Oh… the bed. Ha ha. The soft bed. Of course," Georgina said, squirming in her seat. She had begun to wring her hands, but she stopped abruptly when she noticed what she was doing.

Rubbing her weary brow, Mollie let out a dry, tired chuckle as the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle she had been looking for fell into place all of a sudden. "Ah… all right. I do believe I see the issue that's brought you into such a state. My dear Mrs. Ruddock, I can assure you without a shadow of a doubt that the softness of the bed is the only reason for me to get anywhere near the Cross and the people who have chosen to wear it."

"Ah. Of course… oh, I-"

"The only other hotel in your fair town is far too expensive for the likes of me so the mission hotel was the second-best option. The third-best option would've been to share the stables with my appaloosa, but-"

"Oh, there's no need for that, Mollie… we have a-"

A wide yawn by Mollie interrupted the conversation and thus what Georgina was about to say; when the yawn receded, the weary woman realized she was so tired she needed to lie down before too long or else she would keel over. "Speaking of the mission hotel, I'm afraid I need to break up our enchanting encounter before we've barely gone past howdy."


"Yeah. I need to rest my weary, old bones. I've learned that if I don't follow their every whim, it'll take me several days to recover. It embarrasses me, but I suppose that's how the world turns. I hope it'll be all right with you if we continue our introduction later on this evening?"

"Why, of course, Mollie! I am very much looking forward to it already," Georgina said and rose from the table. As she rearranged the wooden chair, the smile on her face was genuine. "Do you wish me to prepare a solid evening meal for you? Say, when the clock on the town hall chimes six?"

Mollie rose as well; she winced when the muscles in her back objected to being moved before they were ready. She needed to press a hand against her lumbar to appease them; though it made her look old and frail, the gesture worked. "I could use a solid meal. Beef jerky may be every traveler's faithful companion, but it does get really, really old after a few weeks. At six?"


Nodding slowly like she was storing the information into her fatigued mind, Mollie reached for her old pocket watch. She wanted to verify that it was keeping the correct time so she wouldn't be late for supper, but when she looked around for a clock she could use to compare what the hands on the face of the old watch told her, she was unable to find one. Grunting, she rolled up the chain and put it back in her pocket. "You don't have a clock by the counter? Many saloons have that now to call closing time."

"We don't. We just use the town hall clock. There isn't anywhere in Sundown Hills where we can't hear it," Georgina said, reaching out to put a hand on Mollie's elbow.

"I suppose I better give my ears another good scrubbing, then! I wouldn't want to miss supper."

Georgina chuckled at the statement. It seemed she was about to go on speaking, but her daughter came down to the table to interrupt them.

Mollie took that as her cue and mashed her dusty, old hat down onto her locks. "Ladies," she said, putting a pair of fingers to the hat's soft, wide brim before she left the Southern Belle saloon on legs that were no less stiff than they had been before she had sat down.


Mollie Hammond was a brand new woman when she returned to the Southern Belle even before the set of bronze bells on the town hall clock had finished their six strokes. The metal frame of the bed she had been given at the mission hotel had been as creaky as the mattress was lumpy, but she hadn't given it much thought beyond the ten seconds it took her to fall asleep. She had been stirred awake by the infernal sound of a novice beating a gong while touring the plenum dormitory to inform the current residents of the impending supper, but her mind had been far clearer.

Though she had already scrubbed her face and arms when she had arrived at the mission hotel, she had needed no less than three buckets of water to get the last, grotesquely stubborn dirt exorcised from her hair, neck and limbs in her preparations for supper. She could have used a fourth bucketful for the rest since the third had turned just as dust-brown as the first two, but working the pump and carrying the heavy buckets into the bathing room gave her a bad crimp in her back - and she didn't want to strain the hospitality offered by Mother Superior Magdalene and the rest of the nuns at the mission hotel by swearing.

The scrubbing process for the clothes had been just as strenuous as that she had employed for her skin: after having borrowed a carpet beater from the mother superior - who had seemed somewhat offended by the request for some reason; perhaps the surly response had been brought on by the fact that Mollie had only worn an undershirt and a pair of bloomers at the time - she had gone into the back yard and proceeded to beat the worst of the trail dust out of her travel outfit. She had a nicer set of Sunday clothes rolled up in a protective oilskin deep down her saddle bags, but she preferred the well-worn comfort of her daily set.

She had engaged in a lengthy debate with herself on whether or not she should wear the leather gunbelt that carried her trusty, old Colt Frontier Six and her spare cartridges to the supper. Out in the wild countryside where dangers still lurked behind trees and under rocks, the shooting iron was a necessity for staying alive even following the turn of the century; in such a modern town as Sundown Hills, chances were the upstanding citizens would get the wrong notion of her if she was seen carrying a firearm - thus, she had left it in her saddle bags at the mission hotel though the decision hadn't been an easy one to make.

Stepping up from the sandy street that saw plenty of ruts made by heavy wagons and buggies, she marveled at the smoothness of the paved sidewalk. "My my, this is clever. Why didn't we see this years ago? I suppose that's why it's called progress," she said to herself as she knocked a small clump of sticky mud off her right boot.

The light from the many kerosene lamps inside the Southern Belle saloon shone though the painted window panes to create unusual blue and red patterns on the sidewalk. Lively piano music could be heard from inside the saloon: the piano player was a good one who hit most of the correct keys. Now and then, a bum note burst forth from the upright which led to much joyous laughter from the patrons. The player didn't seem to take the jeering to heart since the attack and tempo never wavered.

A well-dressed married couple out for a late afternoon stroll greeted Mollie by nodding and tipping a derby. "And a fine evening to you, too, Sir. Ma'am," she said, putting a pair of fingers to her wide-brimmed hat. By the startled looks in the eyes of the well-dressed couple as they walked past, it appeared they hadn't noticed Mollie was in fact a woman until she had spoken. It made her chuckle - clothes continued to maketh the man, and perhaps even more so the woman.

As she moved closer to the swinging doors, she picked up a delightful scent of warm food. Her stomach responded by growling in eager anticipation which only made her grin grow wider. One of the eternal wisdoms of the Old West said that if the cook prepared the suppers sold in the eatery like they would their own home-cooked meals, it was a place worth visiting. That was the vibe she picked up standing at the doors - not that she had been in doubt. It had only taken her ten seconds to see that Georgina Mae Ruddock ran the Southern Belle with plenty of heart and pride.

Before Mollie moved through the swinging doors, a shudder ran over her when she thought of some of the sawdust-filled dives she had frequented in her younger years on the wild frontier. The grub was typically even worse than the quality of the alcohol. With the exception of the large-scale cattle drives that always saw honest cooks working from food wagons to keep the cowboys appeased, the meals she had eaten then had more often than not been slapped together by careless, drunken or hung-over joes who couldn't tell the difference between a hodge-podge stew and the cigarette they were chomping on while pretending to cook.

She was surprised, but pleased, to see the Southern Belle so full. The round tables were all occupied by men in various stages of playing poker or faro, and the fifteen square ones used in connection with the eatery all saw good business. A young girl wearing a white apron over a polka-dotted dress hurried out of the kitchen at the back of the saloon carrying no less than four plates on her skinny arms.

The line at the bar counter was two deep for most of it, but the well-dressed people there waited patiently for their turn rather than claiming their right to be served at once like some of the riff-raff would have. Georgina and Josephine hurried back and forth behind the bar counter to serve as many patrons as possible during the peak time.

Mollie didn't want to make a nuisance of herself on her very first day in Sundown Hills, so when two customers donned their Stetsons and left the square table they had been sitting at, she made a beeline for it to sit down at once. A motley collection of filthy tin plates and beer mugs had been left behind; several drops of brown gravy had stained the checkered tablecloth. Mollie had seen far, far worse stains in her lifetime, but she still took a napkin and tried to mop up the spillage out of respect for the hard work Georgina put into running her saloon. It didn't really work, but at least the stain was smaller than before.

The piano player continued to hit all the right notes with the exception of a few. Taking off her wide-brimmed hat, Mollie turned around to study the energetic young man who kept pounding the keys with great gusto. He had his back turned to her so she couldn't see his features, but he wore a pale-gray derby, a white shirt and a pair of red suspenders that held up pale-gray britches. Each of his shirtsleeves sported a tight, black armband that resembled those used by card dealers - in this particular case, they were there to prevent the sleeves from getting in the way of the playing.

A few minutes went by until Georgina hurried over to the table where Mollie sat. The disheveled hair and the red blotches on the mature woman's cheeks proved it had been a busy afternoon and early evening so far; of course, the stress would be offset by the solid amount of coins such a busy afternoon would add to the coffer. "Hello again, Mollie! So you heard the town hall clock?" she said with a smile; it didn't take the experienced saloon-keeper long to gather up the dirty dishes and put them onto a tray she had brought along.

"I did, yes. Howdy, Georgina," Mollie said as she turned back from watching the piano player.

"Say, would you care for a plate of fried, salted pork and a stew of sweet peas and white beans? I can vouch for the quality of the pork as I watched the butcher slay the animal."

Mollie grinned and pulled her chair closer to the table so she was ready for the grand feast. "I would very much care for that, thank you. Could there perhaps be a mug of beer to go with it?"

"There could indeed. And a delightful, freshly baked bun, too."

The promise of fresh bread made Mollie's grin even wider. She had brought several packs of hardtack as part of her provisions on her interminate journey to Sundown Hills, but they had lost their attractiveness somewhere around the tenth day. "Why, Georgina, you certainly how know to spoil an old woman! Much obliged! By the way, I insist on paying my dues. What do I owe?" she said, reaching for her purse to find the coins needed.

"Phooey! Now you insult my hospitality, Mollie!" Georgina said in a strong voice that made a few of the patrons nearest the two women shoot her funny looks. When she noticed, she leaned down towards her guest so she could keep the rest to themselves. "You owe me nothing. I insist that you dine here for free… at least for tonight."


"And that's final!"

Chuckling, Mollie knew when she had been defeated. There was a higher power in the universe, and her name was Woman. "Much obliged … I do wish I had some way of returning the favor, though."

Georgina drew a breath to reply to her guest, but before she had time to do so, a crash of glass was heard followed by a long sentence of inventive curses. The crash had caused the piano player to stop from one note to the next, and the Southern Belle saloon seemed curiously silent without the constant accompaniment.

As everyone looked toward the bar counter, it didn't take Mollie long to see that a small situation had cropped up among two of the patrons: the first man - a smart city-type who was clean-shaven and well-dressed - had knocked a full mug of beer out of the second man's hand. The honest look of concern on the first man's face, as well as the absence of any bluster or posturing on his part, pointed at the cause being an accident.

That fact didn't seem to appease the man who had lost his beer. The unfortunate patron - a burly man who had spent much time at the frontier judging by his well-worn, simple clothes, his long, graying beard and his weathered face - could only watch as the golden liquid that had been splattered up against the legs of his britches had already begun to soak through the fabric.

Neither man carried a sidearm, but a seven-inch leather sheath was attached to the belt of the bearded frontiersman. The hunting knife typically kept in such a sheath would be an instrument of quick death if wielded by an experienced knifer, and the frontiersman had that air about him.

If left unattended, small situations like the one at the bar had an unfortunate tendency to grow into issues and subsequently into dramas, so Mollie grabbed her wide-brimmed hat, pushed her chair back and acted on instinct alone.

The Southern Belle was still silent as she stepped between the two potential combatants. Leaning her back against the counter, she possessed all the coolness of the legendary gunslingers of the Old West. She eyed them both before she spoke in a voice that carried a stronger drawl than usual: "Ain't gonna be no fightin' in here tonight, fellas. If ya insist on fightin', I insist ya take it outside. What'll it be?"

The city-type looked even more concerned than he had before; the burly frontiersman let out a grunt but didn't go any further.

"S- Sir," the city-type tried, "pl- please allow me to buy you a new glass of beer…"

Mollie cocked an eyebrow as she turned to look at the bearded man. "Seems to be a fair offer, Mister."

"The beer ain't got nuttin' to do with it," the frontiersman said in a grumble. "It's the stink on them britches. Now mah sista gonna think Ah be drunk off mah ass when Ah git home, but that wus mah first one an' Ah ain't even got a drop down mah gullet!"

After a few moments where everyone held their collective breaths, the burly man grunted again before he spun around on his heel and stomped out of the Southern Belle.

The smart city-type let out a deep sigh of relief and moved to shake Mollie's hand. She shook it without paying him much attention - her eyes were firmly locked onto the swinging doors to be able to react fast in case the burly man returned with a scattergun. The piano player resumed pounding the keys, but a few more bum notes had snuck into his playing after the tense moment.

Mollie kept watching the swinging doors. She clenched her jaw and tightened her muscles the first time the double doors swung open after the burly man had left, but it proved to be someone quite different:

"All right, what the blazes is going on in here?" Sheriff Rory Flannagan said, coming to a halt a mere two paces into the Southern Belle saloon. He slammed his hands onto his hips and shot everyone a dark glare. In his mid-fifties, the rail-thin man - who was the owner of a large handlebar mustache that appeared to have been greased - carried his Star with pride. In addition to his dark-blue denim pants, a checkered shirt and a vest made of black leather, the sheriff wore long-legged riding boots that made him appear he had just been discharged from a unit of the United States Cavalry.

While Georgina hurried over to the sheriff to explain what had happened, Josephine ran out with a broom to sweep up the shards of glass and the pool of spilled beer. Mollie just pushed herself off the bar counter without worthying the smart city-type a second glance. Moving back to the table, she sat down and took off her wide-brimmed hat.

Everyone's eyes were trained on her; she knew that. She also knew she needed to keep a cool facade, so she didn't even try to wipe the nervous sweat off her clammy brow. She hadn't played the part of a bar-room enforcer for years, but her instincts had never asked her if she had wanted to get involved. The chill that raced up and down her spine and the fact her heart hammered in her chest proved her instincts had just caught up with the news that she had grown far too old for pulling such a hare-brained stunt.

The din in the Southern Belle saloon soon returned to the levels it had been at before the incident. A singing girl, on loan from the vaudeville theater, appeared at the piano to warble a ditty or two. She wore a somewhat exaggerated costume in the shape of high-heeled ankle-boots, a tight dress and a huge, feather-adorned hat that wobbled as she moved.

While the other patrons went back to enjoying their suppers and the musical accompaniment, Mollie sighed under her breath and finally wiped her brow. Much to her relief, it wasn't too long before Georgina's daughter Josephine hurried over to her table carrying a tray loaded with a full plate of fried, salted pork and a soup bowl containing a healthy amount of stew made of sweet peas and white beans. Two irregular-shaped buns rubbed shoulders on a smaller plate, and a full mug of beer featuring an off-white head looked tempting for thirsty souls.

The two women exchanged a few pleasantries before Mollie took the offered cutlery and moved the first few slices of fried, salted pork into the stew to make it just right. Digging in, she soon discovered she had rarely tasted better food - she was soon lost to the world.


A short half hour later, Mollie was taking a toothpick to the remains of the pork when Georgina came over to her table once more. "Ah Georgina, I need to complement your cook… that was the best helping of pork and greenery stew I've had for years," Mollie said, offering her hostess a polite smile.

The owner of the saloon wiped her hands on an apron that had been white once upon the start of the working day; the gesture was soon done away with when she sat down. "Goodness gracious me, Mollie… you single-handedly stop a fight from breaking out, and yet you think of the food! That was the bravest thing I have ever seen! And in the face of such danger, too!" she said in an obvious state of wide-eyed marvel at how cool and calm the other woman had been.

A brief smile fueled by pride flashed across Mollie's aged features; it soon faded and turned into a frown colored by realism. "I'd call it the stupidest thing I've done for a long time. I'm not twenty-five any longer, and frankly… I don't know what I was thinking. Had the altercation gone any further, I would have been unable to do a darn thing about it."

"But you stopped it cold," Georgina said and put out her hand.

Mollie's instincts once more took control over her functions and made her reach out to give the offered hand a little squeeze. The reaction embarrassed her since it was by no means a given that such intimate contact had been wanted by Georgina. The smile that came back at her went some way to restore her mood.

"I have a proposition for you," Georgina started, but before she could go on, Mollie said:

"If it involves more of your greenery stew and salted pork, I'll gladly scrub the dirty dishes for two weeks straight!"

The two women laughed at the comment for a few moments; the easy-going rapport between them was tangible though it was in effect their first day of ever meeting the other. A warm smile soon spread over Georgina's mature face as she tried again: "How long are you planning to stay here in Sundown Hills?"

"Ah… well… I cannot say as I haven't really given it much thought. Perhaps a week, perhaps a little more. Why? You aren't wanting to get rid of me already, are ya?"

"Oh no, quite the contrary, Mollie!" Georgina said, wetting her lips, "I wondered if I could persuade you to work here at the Belle for a while? Your wages would include free food and free lodging. There's a small room upstairs-"

Mollie leaned across the table and put her hand on Georgina's once more to make her come to a halt. "Wait, Georgina… work here? And do what, exactly? I can cook, but not well enough to make it worth your while. I can't play the piano, I can't sing worth a hoot, and I sure can't dance. Well, I can, but it would clear out the establishment if I showed up in a tight dress. My back won't allow me to stand up all day behind the counter… and I was only jesting before about being your dishwasher."

"Yes, but-"

"And," Mollie said, cutting off Georgina before she could get going again, "I don't have it in me any longer to be your muscle. That position demands someone younger. Stronger. Someone with a natural air of authority. Not an old woman with wrinkles where wrinkles have no right to be. If that was your proposition, I'm afraid you'll need to rethink it."

Georgina leaned back on the chair and began chewing on her lips. It was clear by the look in her blue eyes that plenty of thoughts churned on in her mind. After a short while, she broke out in a reflective nod. "That was my proposition, yes… but please hear me out, Mollie. I just wish to spend a little more time with you now that we have finally met… we have already shared much through our letters, but I'm certain we both have a lifetime's worth of stories that can only be told in person."

"Ah… that's quite true," Mollie said with a grin.

The smile was mirrored on Georgina's face, and she leaned forward again. "Indeed. So… let us forget the business part of the proposition. I was going to suggest that you moved into the small room upstairs because I cannot, and will not, set foot in the mission hotel if it was the last remaining refuge on earth. I do not see eye to eye with the women wearing the Cross, and I never will. Thus, if we wish to speak but a syllable to each other during your stay in Sundown Hills, you will need to move in here."

Mollie cocked her head as she digested Georgina's words - the second proposition was a different story altogether. She had an inkling that the stuffy mother superior and the sisters under her command would be glad to see the back of her so that part of the equation would not pose any problems. The expenditure created by staying at the only other hotel in Sundown Hills far outweighed the meager contents of her coin pouch, and the stables still hadn't gained any amount of attractiveness. "Why, Mrs. Ruddock," Mollie said as she put out her hand once more, "I do believe you've just found yourself a lodger. My financial status is sorely lacking, but I insist on paying a fair rent while I occupy the quarters. I've never been no damn freeloader and I sure won't start being one now."

"Deal!" Georgina said, giving the other woman's hand a strong shaking.

The exciting moment was broken by a group of well-dressed gentlemen who entered the Southern Belle saloon in high spirits. Another quick shaking was added by Georgina before she needed to hurry back to the bar counter to assist her daughter in servicing the new patrons.

Mollie watched Georgina intently as her tall, mature frame cut through the throng. A lifetime's worth of stories that can only be told in person , Georgina had said. That part was certainly true, and Mollie found herself very much looking forward to doing just that. A smile played on her lips - there was much to enjoy in the fair town of Sundown Hills.

Getting up, she mashed the wide-brimmed hat down onto her graying locks before she strolled out of the Southern Belle to return to the mission hotel. Gathering her shooting iron and the rest of her meager belongings wouldn't take long, and then she would be back at the saloon to properly commence her stay. It had the potential of being a rewarding few weeks, she was sure of that.




A day and a half later.

The upper floor of the Southern Belle saloon was home to four chambers that, while modest in size, offered all the amenities needed by the people staying there. It had been Georgina's plan to start a small-scale bed-and-breakfast for weary travelers who couldn't afford to stay at Sundown Hills' elegant, and far more expensive, hotel, but after a few unfortunate incidents with prostitutes who had rented the rooms under false pretenses, she had closed down the fledgling business. Instead, she and her daughter had moved in so they would be closer to the saloon and thus keep longer opening hours.

Each room was equipped with a soft bed, a tall, two-wing wardrobe, a four-drawer dresser with an oval mirror on top, a small footlocker protected by a heavy-duty padlock, and a roll-front writing bureau that sported an integrated inkwell. The chambers also saw a single chair that could be placed in front of either the writing bureau or the dresser for the occasions where the guest needed to perhaps braid her hair or grease his mustache by the mirror.

The ubiquitous kerosene lamps took care of the lighting: a larger one carrying multi-colored, diamond-shaped pieces of glass around the central casing was suspended from the ceiling like a chandelier of old, and a smaller one made of brass could be moved to where it was needed the most.

Wallpaper held in an old-fashioned, two-toned design adorned all four walls; the fourth wall had a view of the street below through a four-pane window that could be opened when the temperatures would get too uncomfortable. Since the rooms faced east, heavy curtains could be drawn to block out the early morning sun. The four rooms were even equipped with dark-brown or navy-blue floormats that took care of most of the draughty conditions.

Though Mollie was in bed, she was staring at the ceiling rather than sleeping. Her pocket watch told her it was a quarter past six. The bright light that shone through the drawn curtains offered an unequivocal hint that it was in the A.M. A sigh escaped her as she rolled over onto her back once more after having checked the watch that she had put on the chair. She didn't miss much of what she had left behind when her wild youth and even wilder twenties had turned into later decades, but the ability to sleep in was something she dearly wished could be returned to her. Alas, her aching shoulders, hips and knees told her in no uncertain terms it was time to get up.

She let out a small groan as she swung her legs over the side of the bed to get a formal introduction to the new day. Sitting there tired and blurry-eyed, she rubbed her face several times while she listened to the sounds that filtered through the floormats from down in the Southern Belle.

The saloon rarely slept. The mornings, midday, suppertime and the late evenings were all equally busy though each period would see a different clientele:

Among the early birds were the unfortunate cowboys who had spent the night on the street - sometimes slumped-over - after missing their rides back home to the ranches they worked at. Those men always had a final shot of whiskey for their last two bits or fifty-cent coins, even at a quarter to seven in the morning. Other citizens who came at the earliest hour were those who were drawn by the scent of the freshly baked bread. Belonging to the finer echelons of the social classes, they rarely touched alcohol before the clock struck three in the afternoon.

The period around lunch was busy as well with the working people coming over from their perches for a quick meal that could be that smart, new thing just in from the east coast: a white bread sandwich. The sturdy men of Sundown Hills who were engaged in hard, physical labor required something more substantial, and they often bought bowls of steaming hot chicken broth, with rye buns carrying slices of strong cheese, rolled joint roast or spiced baloney on the side. By agreement with several of the town's employers, the Southern Belle would only serve the men easy malt ale to prevent drunkenness before the end of their shifts.

Suppertime would see a good mix of young families and older citizens. The piano player and the singing girl would perform a variety show to entertain the customers while they ate, or waited for their food to be brought to their table.

And finally, once the evening hours would turn dark, the true card sharps and those who merely thought they were would arrive to sit around the poker and faro tables trading cards, chips, dollar bills and the occasional insult. The professional players would make sure to let the suckers win now and then to keep up the spirits of the participants, and to keep the table's flow of money going well.

The warm, delightful smells that wafted through the floorboards and into Mollie's upstairs room offered strong hints that the bread ovens were already in full swing, baking buns, pastries and countless loaves of bread that would soon be sold to the day's first customers.

Sighing, Mollie rubbed her face again to try to get the fatigue to go away. It was the second morning since the point where she had accepted Georgina's proposition of relocating from the mission hotel to one of the chambers above the Southern Belle. Her stay there had been pleasurable enough as such, but Georgina had been so busy behind the bar counter, or in the kitchen, or serving the tables, that their moments of interaction had been irregular and all too brief.

She thought that if she had still been in her twenties or thirties, she would already have succumbed to the antsiness that ran rampant through her back then. Instead of waiting around for the very thing she had come for - speaking to Georgina face to face - she would have taken her appaloosa for long rides on a daily basis to work off some of the energy that would have built up inside her.

Now, she needed peace and quiet more than anything. A steady framework around the entire experience of living was the paradise she didn't know she had been searching for until she had found it through her advancing years. That it turned a little too peaceful and quiet at times in her hometown of Buzzard Bait, Arizona was another story entirely - a lack of something to do had prompted her to plan out the age-long trek to Sundown Hills in the first place.

Getting up, she splashed a little water in her face and elsewhere before she swapped her sleeping clothes for her comfortable everyday set: dark-brown boots, a pair of tan, straight-legged men's britches held up by suspenders, an undershirt and finally an off-white, collar-less tunic known as a Grandpa shirt .

It was high time for breakfast, so she clipped the chain for her pocket watch onto the belt loop of her britches and put the silver heirloom into the pocket. After finding the key to the chamber, she locked the door and ventured out into the narrow hallway - and the new day.


A well-ordered line of customers was already snaking its way past the eatery's many tables. Reaching from the counter at the kitchen and all the way through the Southern Belle saloon to the swinging doors by the street, it consisted of upstanding, well-dressed citizens there for the fresh bread, buns and breakfast pastries. Gray suits and black derbies - or vice versa - formed the order of the day among the men who all carried silver canes on their arm. Corkscrew curls, high-heeled boots and stylish, yet not completely impractical, dresses were seen on most of the women.

Out the back, the boys running errands for the even more well-off citizens of Sundown Hills had a hole-in-the-wall counter all to themselves. It had been cut out of the building's wooden frame so the fine folks inside the eatery would be spared from having their mornings soured by experiencing the tattered appearances and perpetually colorful language of the street urchins.

A harried-looking Josephine manned the counter servicing the finer folks. She was caught in an endless loop of getting an order from the customer, reaching into the bread basket to get a steaming hot loaf or bun, receiving the proper coinage to pay for the bread, saying "Good morning, Sir. Thank you for buying your bread at the Southern Belle, Sir. Goodbye, Sir," and waiting for the next customer to step closer so she could go through her spiel all over again.

Mollie spent a short minute observing the hectic scene. Though she was hungry, she didn't want to make a nuisance of herself by interrupting the important business. When the amount of people waiting in the line remained fairly stable from a constant influx of new customers arriving just as fast as the served ones would leave, she realized she needed to bide her time. Though she was so hungry she could eat a fair-sized heifer all by herself, she shuffled over to one of the round poker tables and picked up a deck of cards that someone had left behind the previous night. A one-person game of 'predict the next card' soon followed.


Half an hour later, it had finally become her turn to get some food. The buns, breakfast pastries and loaves of bread were no longer warm, but they remained freshly baked which offered a marked difference to the bone-dry, stale hardtack that had been part of her diet on the trail. Georgina had still been nowhere in sight, but Josephine had told Mollie that her mother had been busy at the hole-in-the-wall counter at the back end of the eatery.

The fine, green fabric draping the poker tables was far too delicate to eat at, so Mollie carried her plate loaded with four thick slices of bread, a jar of honey, a lump of fresh, dark-yellow butter and a knife to apply it with to the regular tables that were equipped with sturdier tablecloths. Just as she pulled the chair close to the table, a shadow fell over her. Looking up, she locked eyes with the lanky, handlebar-mustachioed Sheriff Rory Flannagan.

"Mary-Anne Huckabee," the sheriff said, sliding an old wanted-poster across the table.

Mollie lost her appetite as she picked up the old poster. A date scribbled onto the top-right corner proved it had been printed and distributed in August of 1884. It had turned yellow and brittle with age, and the ink used in the duplication process had faded. The sketch of the bandit wanted for a string of stagecoach hold-ups showed a fresh-faced youngling; a checkered bandanna covered the nose and mouth, but the eyes were all too familiar.

"It's been twenty years, Sheriff," Mollie said, releasing the poster which slid back down on the tablecloth. Her gut started to churn at the unwanted surprise, and she had to push away the plate with the food. "And my name is Mollie Hammond now."

"So I gather," the sheriff said as he sat down opposite the aged, retired outlaw. "You've grown old but your eyes are still the same. When I was here the other night, I saw you. I spent most of yesterday racking my mind to figure out where I had seen those eyes before… and then it struck me. Our archives of old wanted-posters. Judicially, the crimes you committed back then have gone beyond the statute of limitations so there's nothing I can do. However… mark my words, Huckabee… I'll be watching you during your stay here in Sundown Hills. Old or not, an outlaw is an outlaw."

When Mollie didn't respond to the thinly veiled threat, Sheriff Flannagan pointed at the plate with the slices of bread. "You done with this?"


"I haven't had breakfast yet," the sheriff continued, pulling the plate across the table. It didn't take him long to spread a healthy layer of fresh butter on the top slice, fold it in half and stick it into his mouth. While he munched on it with great vigor - making the wiry muscles in his face move around with a similar amount of vigor - he continued to stare down the woman sitting opposite him. "You don't have anything to say?"

Mollie shook her head slowly. "My entire criminal career lasted for less than three months, Sheriff. From June to mid-August of that year," she said, tapping an index finger against the date in the corner of the wanted-poster, "and I got nothing… nothing at all out of it save for even more trouble than the damned mess I already found myself in. My coin pouch was empty. The only way for me to stay afloat was either to spread my legs-"

Sheriff Flannagan grunted but didn't stop eating.

"-or don a bandanna and hold up stagecoaches. I chose the latter. As you know," Mollie continued, tapping the poster again before she turned it over like she couldn't stomach the reminder - or was embarrassed by it - of that period of her life.

The sheriff let out a "Mmmm!" before he wiped his lips on a folded-up napkin he'd had in the breast pocket of his shirt. Taking the wanted-poster, he rolled it up and rose from the chair. He stayed there for a moment to point the poster at Mollie like a baton. "Like I said… I'll be watching," he said sternly to get the point across.

"I heard you the first time, Sheriff," Mollie said in a voice that had turned a little strained.

After letting out another grunt that could be interpreted as 'goodbye,' the sheriff turned around and headed for the swinging doors.

Mollie kept sitting at the table for a while. The busy saloon faded from her view as her mind returned to the time of her life where the drastic measure of committing hold-ups had been the best, if not only, option for her. It had been a pitiful existence, and an even more pitiful experience.

What the pulp dime novels never mentioned was the terror that coursed through her when she pulled up the bandanna and got ready to risk it all. Waiting for the stagecoaches to arrive was always hot and dusty. Raiding one was never any less than terrifying. Each moment could be her last: she never knew when a passenger would reach for his shooting iron instead of handing over his wallet; she never knew when the shotgun rider would give her both barrels in the chest. Afterwards, she had always vomited her guts out for what had amounted to worthless trinkets and petty change.

Sighing, Mollie returned to the present. The need to get some food into her stomach finally overcame her queasiness from seeing the old poster, and she reached for the plate to give the bread a second chance. Working without much conscious thought, she took the next slice and spread out a thin layer of butter and a healthier layer of honey. She stopped preparing the food to shake her head. That someone had kept her wanted-poster for so long had been a surprise, and not a positive one at that.

The delightful smell of the self-harvested honey convinced her to forget the past and concentrate on the present - and the breakfast.


It wasn't until a quarter to nine that Georgina was able to wrap up the first part of her working day. The owner of the Southern Belle saloon had already gained a flushed, haggard look from the frantic breakfast period, and several locks of hair had escaped the tight bun she kept it in so it wouldn't get in her way when baking bread.

Sitting down at the table occupied by Mollie, Georgina let out a long sigh that came from her very soul. It took her several seconds before she could offer the other woman a tired smile. "Mollie, I am so sorry I haven't had time to chat. I feel guilty for letting you sit here and wait for so long," she said, trying to tuck in a few strands of hair. When they refused to obey her fingers, she gave up.

"Oh, there's no need for that," Mollie said with a smile. While she spoke, she stacked up and put away the deck of cards she had been using to play seventeen hands of solitaire. "Life here at the saloon has not been boring for a second. There's always something going on. I must commend you, Georgina… the Southern Belle is a charming, well-run establishment."

"Why, thank you. I take great pride in keeping my house in order," Georgina said; a blush tainted her pale cheeks. She tried fixing her hair again but gave up as quickly as the first time. "Oh… Josephine told me that you and Sheriff Flannagan had a conversation that looked serious. Not only that, but the rascal ate some of your breakfast!"

A dry laugh escaped Mollie's lips as she thought back to the strange encounter. The laugh had a bitter undertone, but Georgina wasn't aware of the circumstances so she didn't pick up on it. "Yeah, I exchanged a few words with your sheriff. And the long arm of the law did in fact steal a slice of bread straight off the plate."

"Why, that's shocking! What could he possibly want from you? Did the mother superior complain about you moving here?"

"Oh, that battle-ax would have complained had I stayed, I think! No, that wasn't it," Mollie said, but soon fell quiet. She looked the other woman in the eye. Though she had never gone into detail, she had mentioned her colorful life - and her past misdeeds - in one of the first letters she had written. It was better to have something like that be out in the open from the start instead of trying to sneak it past in a dishonest fashion once their connection had been established. Georgina had made a few comments on it at the time, but had never seemed scandalized about speaking to a former criminal.

"Well… the law never sleeps, nor does it forget," Mollie continued. "The sheriff came by to tell me he'd keep a close eye on me during my stay in Sundown Hills. He brought my old wanted-poster. I suspect he wanted to rattle my cage."

"Goodness me, I cannot believe what I'm hearing! That is so out of character for the nice Sheriff Flannagan," Georgina cried, falling against the backrest of her chair. Her cheeks had gained a pair of red blotches that stood out against her fatigued complexion. "Can he not tell you have changed since then? That you have become a law-abiding citizen? How long has it been, Mollie? Fifteen years? Or more?" she continued in a voice that had reverted fully to her native Virginian accent.

"Twenty years. But frankly, he wouldn't have changed his tune had it all taken place forty years ago. Some star-packers are like that."

Georgina shook her head in a clear display of equal measures shock and confusion. "We have never had any problems with him before… he must consider you a terrible threat to society. Oh, Mollie, if you need me to speak on your behalf, I will!" As she spoke, she put out her hands in an invitation for a squeeze.

Mollie looked at the hands for a few seconds before she reached out to accept the unspoken support. A small squeeze followed though part of her still felt it was inappropriate to take such intimate advantage of the woman's friendliness. "Thank you… but it wouldn't change a thing. He's made up his mind. There's nothing you, I, or anyone else could do or say that would make him change it. Oh, save for beating a path out of Sundown Hills. But I don't-"

"Mollie Hammond, you will do nothing of the kind!" Georgina said, thumping her fist into the table. "That would only confirm his ill-conceived notions of your good self! No, I demand that you stay!"

Mollie's response to the unexpected burst of anger from the otherwise so composed Georgina was a wide-eyed stare. After a few moments, a lopsided grin played across her lips as she watched Georgina's cheeks catch fire from the sudden bout of embarrassment that flooded the owner of the saloon - it appeared the burst had taken even the speaker by surprise. Mollie chuckled and gave the other woman's hands another squeeze. "Well, who am I to argue with such a statement, Mrs. Ruddock? I'll return home at some point… but not yet. Oh no. There's plenty of things I've yet to see in this fair town."

Georgina let out a strangled chuckle that proved just how deep the embarrassment ran within her. She was about to speak up once more when they were interrupted by Josephine hurrying down to the table holding a piece of paper. When it turned out to be the list of pre-ordered sandwiches and rye buns they were to make for lunch, she pushed her chair back and got to her tired feet. "I'm so sorry, Mollie… work calls once more. I promise we'll have plenty of time to talk to one another later today."

"Think nothing of it," Mollie said and got up as well. "I have a few errands to run, and I need to visit my appaloosa so she won't forget me. It was an interesting conversation!"

"It certainly was," Georgina mumbled as she hurried away.

Smiling, Mollie turned away from the table to return upstairs. On her way over to the staircase, she cast a long glance at a young fellow who was leaning against the bar counter and thus facing her. Her eye had been caught by his stance - it was far too casual.

In his mid-twenties, the man presented himself well with a small, well-groomed chin beard and neatly trimmed hair. His clothes were clean and smart as well: a short heavy-duty jacket through which a tan, tunic-like shirt with a loose collar was visible. His brown, straight-legged britches were held in place by a leather belt rather than suspenders, and a pair of leather gloves had been stuck inside the belt. Beyond that, he wore dark-brown work boots and a low-crowned cowboy hat of the type that was popular among the youngsters out west. A second belt carrying a leather holster and a shiny revolver sat low on his right hip.

Mollie narrowed her eyes at the sight of the weapon. She recognized it at once: it was a .45 Colt Peacemaker. Regular folks who carried a sidearm preferred to have the holster up on their waist-belt to prevent the heavy weight from slapping against their thigh. Only lawmen and bandits had their firearm positioned in the fashion presented by the young man; if caught in a tight spot, the person wouldn't have to move his hand too far to draw the revolver.

Though the young man had been waiting at the counter for a while, he had yet to buy anything which offered more hints that he wasn't a regular customer. It was clear he was there for a specific purpose, namely to keep track of what went on in the saloon.

He didn't carry a badge or a star marking him out as a deputy sheriff, so it wasn't likely Rory Flannagan had sent him to the Southern Belle to keep an eye on 'Mary-Anne Huckabee.' Getting a closer look at him, Mollie couldn't help but think he belonged to the second group: to the bandits, or at least that he would like to be one - he had that certain look about him that she remembered from days gone by.

They locked eyes. A silent stand-off developed between them that lasted for nearly half a minute where neither individual blinked, budged or even considered backing down. Following the confrontation, the young man grinned, put two fingers to the brim of his low-crowned hat, and strolled out of the saloon.

"Tarnation," Mollie whispered as she tracked her challenger walking through the swinging doors. "That won't have a happy ending… whatever his game is."

After chewing on her cheek for a brief moment, she continued upstairs to get started on the short list of errands she had mentioned to Georgina. A new item had been entered at the top of her agenda - she needed to unpack her revolver and make sure it was clean and ready to fire.


A large part of the reason why Mollie had made a commitment to enduring the strenuous two-week journey to Sundown Hills was her inherent, life-long interest in seeking out new places, new faces and new customs. That she would finally meet the woman she had developed a crush on through the thoughtful prose and beautiful handwriting that had been presented in the letters was icing on the cake - unfortunately, getting an opportunity to actually speak to Georgina for longer than three minutes at a time had turned out to be a rare experience, and something she hadn't counted on happening.

With the hands of time just creeping past noon, Mollie knew there was no point in returning to the Southern Belle saloon right away. Speaking to Georgina would be impossible for a fair while since she and her daughter would be working flat out serving the customers who would line up for their pre-ordered sandwiches or rye buns. Thus, the pleasurable stroll through the busy streets of Sundown Hills that Mollie was partaking in could continue.


The town still saw many of the same types of privately run stores and independent businesses that had been a staple of the frontier since the legendary landrush had begun a century earlier: blacksmiths who toiled away at the glowing hot forges creating plowshares, horseshoes and assorted other iron products; gold, silver and copper craftsmen whose instruments of their trade were far smaller and far more filigree than the blacksmiths' crude hammers and anvils; saloons and eateries where hungry travelers would pay fair prices for filling their stomachs or imbibing to their hearts' delight; seamstresses who could perform magic on any fabric only using needle and thread; carpenters who transformed wood from whole logs or untreated planks to tables, chairs or beds; local newspapers who wrote about the daily events, or manufactured some when there was nothing to report; gun shops that sold firearms and cartridges of all types; undertakers who often dealt with the aftermath of the products sold in the gun shops, and finally country dentists, doctors and nurses who were expected to treat every ailment and medical condition from extracting bad teeth to curing fungal infections and monitoring pregnancies.

All that was familiar ground to Mollie who had visited hundreds of frontier towns in dozens of states and territories over her years in the saddle. New to her were the many lawyers, the insurance companies and the banking giants whose imposing domiciles seemed to take up as much space as entire towns had done back in the old days - she couldn't quite decide on whether or not she appreciated that particular aspect of progress.

The only business in Sundown Hills - apart from the mission hotel - that offered overnight accommodations even had indoor plumbing. That fact was advertised in tall letters on a billboard next to the opulent, gold-plated entrance. A pair of dark-skinned doormen wearing bright-red uniforms seemed to be paid by the smile: each customer who came or went along the red carpet that had been rolled out was treated to a broad, toothy grin and a voiced greeting. They were ignored by most, but a few shot them resentful glares. None smiled back.

It didn't take Mollie long to realize that her Western-style clothing - especially the wide-brimmed hat and the duster that featured a long split at the back to fit around the saddle - made her stand out in a negative fashion. Though comfortable, her clothes made her look like a country rube visiting the bright lights for the first time.

In her home town of Buzzard Bait and the larger settlements close to it, everyone wore such outfits, but in Sundown Hills, hardly anyone did save for the out-of-towners. Shiny patent-leather shoes and black or pale-gray three-piece suits seemed to form the dress code for the men of most classes of society, save for those who only had one shirt to put on their backs. Derbies moved suavely to the side, or top hats sitting arrow-straight adorned most male heads, and they even outnumbered the traditional Stetsons or ten-gallon cowboy hats at a factor of eight to one.

The various types of facial hair had grown considerably lighter and smaller since the heady days of the mid-1800s where every man was expected to wear what amounted to half a bear-skin rug on his face. Mustaches, chin beards, whiskers and full beards were still popular, but they were closely cropped and neatly groomed rather than the wild affairs of yore.

The women wore stiletto-heeled boots, wide-brimmed hats adorned with dried flowers, and extravagant dresses that seemed to be designed for the parquet floors of the well-off. Instead of the metal framework skirts that had been so popular in the past - and that had given the women wearing them an odd, bell-like shape - the current fashion called for tailored waists that were so narrow it took a very specific body type to even fit into them. Many who walked alone carried parasols that were spun around nonchalantly during their strolls; whether or not they did so to catch the eye of potential suitors, Mollie couldn't say, and she didn't care enough to ask.


After she had completed her mid-day tour of the fair, modern city of Sundown Hills, she returned to the Southern Belle and stepped inside. As she had predicted, all fifteen tables were occupied by people in the process of eating lunch. Josephine was behind the bar counter serving easy malt ale to the burly men who were the town's manual laborers. It meant that Georgina would be in the kitchen, probably still making enough sandwiches and rye buns to feed an entire regiment of the US Army.

Chuckling, Mollie took off her old-fashioned cowboy hat to wipe her damp brow. She could do with a regular beer, so she strolled over to the bar counter and waited for her turn. Once she had paid the coins needed to get a mugful of the golden liquid, she shuffled off to find a secluded spot away from the throng where she could rest her legs.


Less than ten minutes later, her eyes grew hard and her lips became thin lines in her face. The loitering youngling who had challenged her to a stare-down earlier in the day walked through the swinging doors with a sidekick in tow. The two men looked around until they spotted her sitting by herself at the back of the saloon nursing her beer.

Instead of approaching her, the men leaned in toward each other to share a comment she couldn't hear - it didn't require much brainpower to figure out who, and what, they were talking about. They remained near the entrance for a brief while before they moved over to the eatery; by doing so, they went out of Mollie's line of sight.

She had barely had time to empty the mug of beer before someone - and she knew just who it would be - began to pound the keys on the upright piano. The unknown player didn't even pretend to know what he was doing: for each correct note he hit, at least a dozen went to a wrong key.

The customers sitting nearest the piano fell silent to look at the two younglings who seemed to be having a ball mistreating the poor musical instrument. A few of the people eating lunch got up and relocated to different tables to be further away from the drama in case the awkward scene would turn heated or even violent.

Mollie pushed away her empty mug and got up from the table. When she had sat down to enjoy her beer, she had put her duster over the backrest of the chair. She left it there so it wouldn't get in the way if she had to draw her Colt. Her nostrils flared in a strong bout of worry as she walked around the corner and into a position where she could keep a close eye on the two men. Like she had expected, the one abusing the piano was the fellow who had challenged her. The other man was dressed in simpler clothes compared to the one wearing the low-crowned hat, but the firearm on his hip was in the same position - down low.

The infernal racket from the poorly-treated upright piano stopped from one key to the next when the men discovered they had a spectator. Turning around, they offered Mollie a pair of identical, rat-like grins.

Before anything had time to develop, Georgina came storming out of the kitchen wielding a half-made fried-bacon sandwich and a butter knife that was coated in plenty of the yellowish substance. She cast puzzled glances at Mollie and the two men before she closed the distance between herself and the troublemakers. "Why, Virgil Clayton Junior, may I ask the meaning of this? Who gave you permission to play my piano? Or to abuse it to be precise?" - Once again, Georgina's voice carried a stronger accent than usual.

The youngling offered a cocky, insincere smile to the woman armed with the butter knife and the fearsome-looking fried-bacon sandwich; then he took off his low-crowned hat and held it to his chest like he was trying to apologize to his old schoolmarm. His hair turned out to be dark-brown and swept back in a slick fashion. The rat-like smile never left his lips as he spoke in a smarmy voice: "Oh, nobody, Mrs. Ruddock. I just felt it was the right thing to do at the time."

"Well, I've never!"

The young man - Virgil Clayton, the son of a rancher who owned a large mansion just north of town - let out a dark chuckle as he plonked his hat back onto his dark-brown locks. After running a finger around the rim to make sure it was on just right, he turned back to Mollie and shot her another, similar smile that never reached his eyes. "So nice to meet you, Mary-Anne Huckabee. Tell me, will you be here tomorrow evening? Let's say at eight or so?"

Hearing the name she had given up so long ago made Mollie's jaw work overtime. She shot the young man and his sidekick a long, dark glare. The weaker friend revealed himself to be a soft-boiled wannabe when he couldn't hold the intensity of the glare; Virgil Clayton had no such problems and gave as good as he got. "I can't see how that could be of any interest to ya, Mister," Mollie said in a steely voice. "And my name is Mollie Hammond."

"That's not what I heard."

"Frankly, Mister, I don't care whatcha heard."

The amount of tension in the Southern Belle ballooned for each word uttered by the people involved in the standoff; the next logical step would be the outbreak of violence. Georgina's eyes darted from Mollie and over to the young men several times before she stepped between the fighting roosters with the half-made fried-bacon sandwich held high. "Enough of this! Mr. Clayton, you have outstayed your welcome in my establishment! Please leave now, or I shall be forced to call for Sheriff Flannagan!"

A few seconds went by with no activity from either the major players or the weak sidekick, but then Virgil Clayton tipped his low-crowned hat at Georgina. "Ma'am," he said before he and his buddy left the Southern Belle saloon at a calm stroll.

It took a while for the regular din to return to the eatery. When it did, the conversations among the customers were dominated by the unusual goings-on in the usually so peaceful saloon.

Mollie let out a long sigh as the adrenaline left her system. Her fingers had turned cold from the mounting tension, but she flexed them to get the blood circulating again. "Damn that young pup… and double damn that blabbermouth sheriff," she mumbled to herself as she watched Georgina hurry back to the kitchen to continue making the sandwiches while the customers were there.

A brief chill ran over her bones; she felt the weight of her forty-nine years upon her aged shoulders. It was clear Virgil Clayton Jr was itching for a fight though she had no idea why. She did have a strong idea, however, that she would not be able to take him down if it came to that. The many eyes shooting her curious glances from around the saloon got to her, and she spun around on her heel. Grabbing her duster, she strode upstairs to her chamber to calm down.


The remainder of the day went by without further drama. Mollie had spent every minute of it in her chamber so she wouldn't continue to draw unwanted attention to herself or the Southern Belle by either the sheriff, Virgil Clayton, or any of the young man's associates.

She had explained her absence downstairs by claiming to be unwell, so at suppertime, Josephine had brought her a tray loaded with a bowl of steaming hot chicken broth, a bun and a mug of easy malt ale. The ale and the broth had vanished without a trace down to the last drop; she could have eaten twice of what she got, but she didn't want to go downstairs to ask for more. Instead, she had gone to bed though she was far from sleepy.

The serving had been exquisite, yet it hadn't lifted Mollie's gloomy mood. In days gone by, she would have reacted to the young man's fighting words and his cocky attitude. She would have been in his face at the very least; perhaps she would even have planted a knee in his groin to punish him for abusing the upright piano like that. Wisdom, patience and thoughtfulness had come to her through her advancing years; her let-the-devil-sort-them-out attitude, her bloody-mindedness and perhaps even her nerve in general had left her. She didn't think the trade-off was too fair.

A twig or some other form of debris that was blown against the window pane made her snap out of her gloomy state. Darkness had fallen while the somber thoughts had churned on in her mind. The evening hours had brought blustery conditions with it adding creaking woodwork, jingling tack and slapping shutters to the nighttime sounds that had taken over from the regular daytime din. Mollie didn't have a light on in the chamber. Although she was lying on her bed, she hadn't drawn the curtains, and she still hadn't changed into her sleeping clothes - instead, she had chosen to remain in her comfortable outfit save for her boots that stood bedside.

Her revolver was perched across her lap just in case. The trusty, old Colt Frontier Six with the walnut-wood handle and the tweaked fore sight had been cleaned, oiled and polished so it was ready for whatever would come her way. Her gunbelt had been oiled as well to keep the leather soft and happy, and the thirty-two slots in the belt had been fully stocked with all the .44-40 cartridges she had, save for the five that were already in the drum - the sixth bay was empty for reasons of safety.

She dearly hoped the childish confrontations she'd had with Virgil Clayton wouldn't go beyond that stage and arrive at a showdown that wouldn't see any winners. It had been thus ever since the Wild West had truly been wild - once the lead started to fly, everyone would lose.

The sounds that filtered through from downstairs gradually died down as the evening's entertainment fizzled out and the last of the poker or faro players left for home or more rewarding pastures elsewhere. Mollie could hear Georgina and Josephine going through the last parts of their chores, like moving the chairs closer to the tables, collecting the last dirty plates, sliding the heavy plank into place at the swinging doors so they couldn't be opened from the outside, and finally closing and locking the inner doors. Soon, the creaking staircase proved that both women went upstairs to their chambers to get a few hours of sleep before the whole thing would start over at a quarter to six the following morning.

Mollie's eyes were slipping shut when a hard, unusual sound reached her ears. The thwonk didn't seem to have been created by debris flung against the building's walls or any of the window panes by a gust of wind. The fact she couldn't determine what had caused it made her wide awake and fully alert.

Her right hand instantly grabbed the revolver; her thumb was ready on the metal hammer but didn't cock it back. Her heart responded to the activity by picking up its pace though no further sounds could be heard from anywhere in the Southern Belle. Sitting up while listening intently, she stuck her feet down the legs of her boots and tightened the laces only using her left hand.

A moment later, Georgina let out a brief cry somewhere downstairs. Another moment after that, Mollie burst out into the hallway with her Frontier Six pointing straight ahead of her. She whipped it around several times, scanning her dark surroundings without seeing anything untoward. When she heard Georgina letting out an uncharacteristic curse, she bolted downstairs to find the cause for the commotion.

"Georgina? Where in Tarnation are you, woman? What's wrong?" she said in a quiet, hoarse whisper as she ran around the empty saloon.

"I am here, Mollie!" Georgina cried from her position at the entrance to the Southern Belle. Since she had already changed into a flimsy sleeping shift upon going to bed, she had swept a long, dark-blue shawl around her shoulders to protect herself from the evening chill. "I heard the strangest noise just now so I came down to investigate… look what some vile being has done to my doorjamb!" she said and moved back to the inner doors that she had just had time to unlock and open before Mollie had arrived - thus, she stood in full view from the dark street. A lit kerosene lamp was held high in her left hand.

It didn't take Mollie but a split second to realize that the well-lit Georgina would present a juicy target for any would-be assassin lurking in the darkness beyond the swinging doors. "Turn it off! Kill the lights! And get away from the doors!" she cried, waving frantically at the lamp and the woman holding it.

"Ohhhh! But… oh… oh, my goodness…" Georgina said, fumbling with the little knob that would strangle the flame. When the task had been accomplished and darkness had claimed the Southern Belle once more, she stepped away from the swinging doors in an almighty hurry.

Running across the wooden floorboards, Mollie soon reached the entrance. Though Georgina had opened the inner doors, the locking mechanism for the swinging doors - a sturdy plank that had been inserted into three cast-iron slots - was still intact and hadn't been tampered with. Peeking into the blustery darkness, she swept her revolver left to right several times to cover every possible angle, but the street beyond the saloon seemed quiet enough save for a few tumbleweeds that came rolling past.

A quick glance at the outer doorjamb proved the nature of the unusual thwonking sound that had alerted them both: a hunting knife had been rammed into the woodwork. The knife carried a piece of paper with several lines of squiggly writing on it. "Get back upstairs, Georgina… make sure your daughter is calm," Mollie said over her shoulder.

"Oh, but that horrible thing there-"

"Please, Georgina. This is over. I'll deal with the knife."

Georgina opened her mouth to ask a hundred questions about the frightening situation, but came to her senses before she could get started. Nodding, she held the shawl tight and hurried back to the staircase.

Once Mollie was alone, she remained stock-still and deathly quiet for several, long minutes to lure any potential opponents out into the open. Nothing happened, so she yanked the hunting knife out of the woodwork and stepped away from the swinging doors. Once the inner doors were closed and locked once more, she turned her attention to the nasty-looking blade.

The piece of paper was still attached to it; she quickly tore it off to see what it said. The darkness inside the Southern Belle made it difficult to read for her tired, old eyes, but she managed. Her lips moved silently as she skimmed the contents of the brief note. Reaching the end of the squiggly lines, she scrunched up her face - and crumpled up the piece of paper - before mouthing a long and impressive barrage of juicy cuss words.




Mollie kept waiting in the dark saloon for ten more minutes before she had convinced herself that nothing further would happen during the night. The gusts of wind that swept through the streets and howled around the corners made the old, wooden buildings let out a non-stop cacophony of creaks and groans that, frustratingly, came at irregular intervals.

Each creak, each groan and each thwonk made her clench her jaw, hold her breath and put her thumb on the revolver's hammer. The constant state of high alert wore her out; she needed to pinch the bridge of her nose to try to arrest the resulting dull headache before it could grow any worse. It couldn't go on, so she holstered the Colt and moved back to the staircase where she waited for a further three minutes just to be sure - then she climbed the steps that seemed twice as steep as they had been when she had gone the other way.

Going past the closed door to Georgina's chamber, she paused and gave it a long, gloomy look. What she was about to do would not be popular among the women running the Southern Belle saloon, but it could not be put off any longer. Stepping up to the door, she tapped her knuckles against the frame.

The door wasn't opened, but a few fumbling noises could be heard through it. 'Mollie?' Georgina said after a short delay.

"Yeah. I'm very sorry, but we need to speak. Now."

'Oh… oh, it's so late, Mollie… perchance it can wait until tomor-'

"It can't, Georgina. We need to speak. Please."

A few seconds went by before the door was unlocked and opened. Appearing in the doorway, Georgina pulled the dark-blue shawl closer around her shoulders. Her face was ashen and haggard; not just from the harrowing experience downstairs, but from the bone-hard slog of the working day she had just finished.

Mollie was hit by a wave of regret when she took in Georgina's rough looks - she wished it wasn't necessary to intrude, but it was. An apologetic smile graced her lips as she stepped inside the chamber.

It was similar to her own in size but equipped with more furniture which made the conditions far more cramped. A bed featuring a cast-iron frame stood at the center of the room surrounded by a wooden bedside table and a large wardrobe. A roll-front writing bureau had been placed up against the far wall, and a heavy, six-drawer dresser leaned against it like it would tip over if it had to rely on its own four legs to keep its balance. A closer look at the underside of the dresser revealed that it only had three legs and a broken-off stump. The swivel-chair that stood at the bureau carried a pile of neatly-folded clothes that had been selected for the following day.

"Mollie," Georgina said in a dead-tired voice as she closed the door behind her guest, "I dearly wish it could wait. I heard the clock on the town hall chime the full twelve strokes just now. It's midnight and there aren't that many hours left before I have to get up…"

Mollie sighed and held up the piece of paper she had torn from the hunting knife. "That damned pup Virgil Junior has challenged me to a duel tomorrow night. Well, it's actually tonight, I suppose."

"He what? Oh… why… that's… that's…" Georgina said as she took the crumpled-up paper. Smoothing it out the best she could, she read the brief message several times before she looked back up at her guest. "I don't understand a word of any of this, Mollie! Virgil Clayton Jr is perhaps the black sheep of Sundown Hills… but… why would he do such a thing?"

"To carve a notch in his handle," Mollie said and ran a hand through her rough, bristly hair that had already turned filthy though it had only been two days since she had washed it. When the puzzled look in Georgina's eyes made it clear she had not understood the reference, Mollie continued: "It's an old tradition among gunfighters. They carve notches in their handles to keep score of the opponents they've brought down. It's also a way to show off among their peers."

"But he isn't one of those people! And… you? Why, he doesn't even know you!"

"He doesn't know me, that's right… but he knows Mary-Anne Huckabee. Or your oh-so-friendly Sheriff Flannagan has told him of her, at least," Mollie said and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"But… who is-"

"I'll explain in a moment. Georgina, please, we need to talk. I know you must be exhausted, but it's vital we finally get a few things squared between us. It cannot wait any longer."

Georgina cocked her head and shot Mollie a long look that was a mix of exasperation and intrigue. The intrigue seemed to win out, because after a few moments, she let out a sigh that made her shoulders slump. "Oh… very well. Let's talk. I suspect I would probably have been too upset to sleep, anyway. Would you like some home-made plum brandy while we converse? It's quite marvelous if I do say so myself."

"I've never said no to brandy of any kind," Mollie said with a tired grin.

While Georgina pulled up the rolling front of the writing bureau to get a bottle and two small glasses, Mollie buttoned the leather strap holding the Frontier Six in place in the holster. "How did Josephine take it?" she said, accepting her glass.

"Would you believe it, she hadn't heard a thing!" Georgina said and uncorked the bottle to pour a sweet-smelling, deep-burgundy liquid into the two glasses. She left the bottle open in case they needed another dose of the good brandy. "She had already fallen asleep. Oh, the joys of youth… Mollie, when are you going to tell me who Mary-Anne Huckabee is? And how she is connected to you?" Georgina continued as she sat down next to her guest.

Mollie paused to take a sip of the sweet brandy. Like Georgina had said, it was marvelous, and the rich taste made her take another sip right away. She was tempted to drain the glass in one go, but she knew the fatigue that had built up inside her would make her get woozy in a heartbeat if she let loose and imbibed too much. Thus, she put the glass on the bedside table so it would be out of reach. "She's me," she said with a wistful smile. "Mary-Anne Huckabee was the name given to me at birth. I told you in our correspondence that I've lived a colorful life… and not always on the law-abiding side of the fence."

"You did," Georgina said and took a sip of her own brandy. "And I told you I will not hold it against you. Dark times call for dark solutions."

Mollie reached out to put a gentle hand on the other woman's elbow. "I'm pleased you hold that opinion, Georgina… truly I am. Trouble is, not all do. Or did. My birth name was ruined when rumors of a female outlaw started circulating. As you probably know, there weren't many female outlaws or bandits back then. Even fewer now, I'll bet."


"The rumors were partly based on facts… like how I always evaded the posses sent after me. The rumors and stories turned increasingly outrageous until they bore no resemblance to the real me. The local and regional newspapers caught on and printed fictional eye-witness accounts of stick-em-ups, bank robberies, train heists, kidnappings and God knows whatever else… all committed by me, Mary-Anne Huckabee. I didn't do any of those things, but nobody cared. Like Billy the Kid or the James-Younger Gang, I was blamed for every misdeed that had taken place from the Appalachians to the Rockies. The reputation stuck… and my birth name became legend. It grew even worse when the dime novels started appearing."

"You were featured in dime novels?!" Georgina said, shaking her head in surprise. "I used to buy them for Josephine to help her learn how to read. Most were so poorly written they were a waste of a dime…"

Mollie let out a bitter chuckle. "Oh, I know that all too well. They wrote about someone called Mary-Anne Huckabee, but it certainly wasn't me. I had done so much in my life… I had been on thousand-head cattle drives, I had worked in a silver mine, I had been a horse wrangler… a shotgun rider for the Milligan Stage Company… hell, even a special deputy for a while… and yet, they chose to print blatant fiction. It caused me endless frustration to find that all my true accomplishments had been cast aside for such lies."

"And that's when you changed your name to Mollie Hammond…"

"Yes. Mary-Anne Huckabee left the stage and was never heard from again. The stories continued for a while until the newspapers and small presses found another hapless victim to prey on," Mollie said in a bitter voice before she fell quiet. The silence lasted for a few seconds, then she smacked her fist against her thigh. "How in Tarnation your sheriff could remember me, not to mention how he could find that ancient wanted-poster, I'll never know. It was just rotten luck. The fact that he couldn't keep his gums still but chose to blather on about it to a pup like Virgil Clayton… well, that just irks me! And look at the damned mess that came out of it!"

Mollie fell silent once more, but the deep sigh that escaped her proved she wasn't particularly pleased with the situation. Reaching for her half-full glass of brandy, she drained what was left down to the last drop. When Georgina held up the bottle, Mollie shook her head and turned the empty glass over so she wouldn't be tempted.

"There must be something we can do," Georgina said as she twisted the cork back into the bottle. Getting up from the bed, she moved over to the writing bureau to put the plum brandy away. "Perhaps… perhaps I should try to speak to the sheriff after all-"

"Flannagan believes the lies, Georgina. Wouldn't do me any good."

"But… we can't just… oh," Georgina said, wringing her hands when it dawned on her the impending duel just might come to be.

Mollie shook her head and let out another sigh. "I don't want to fight anyone, much less a young pup like that Clayton fellow. Unlike the fictional me from the novels, the few fistfights and shootouts I was thrown into in back then were all done to save my neck… never for seeking cheap thrills. I was never that fast of a draw to begin with, or even a good shot although I did generally hit what I aimed at. But now… forget it. I'm sure he thinks the stories were true. That's why he wants to measure himself against me. After all, I'm a legendary outlaw."

"I'm so, so sorry we arranged for you to come, Mollie," Georgina said and shuffled back to the bed. When that wasn't enough, she sat down and reached for the callused hands to hold them tight. "If we hadn't… if we had merely continued corresponding by letter, none of this would ever have happened."

"We cannot say that for certain. I got around back then. If your sheriff has saved those outdated wanted-posters, I'll bet others have too. I'm not sorry at all for coming here, but I am truly sorry for dragging you and your charming daughter into the mess," Mollie said strongly, turning around to face Georgina.

They locked eyes and spent the next few moments just looking at one another. Georgina broke the passiveness by leaning in and claiming Mollie's lips in a sweet, quiet kiss that lasted longer than either of them had thought possible. Closing their eyes, they allowed themselves to simply let go and be swept up by the magical moment.

The physical actions of the kiss itself had been like second nature to the two women, but the immediate aftermath of the sweet contact proved to be a study in awkwardness. At first, they simply stared at each other like they couldn't understand what had just happened or even where the kiss had come from. A pair of embarrassed blotches soon spread over Georgina's cheeks.

Mollie couldn't help but break out in a goofy snicker. Her heart, soul and the rest of her being performed a joyous jig that threatened to tear her apart at the seams. She was ecstatic, shocked, startled, over the moon, and just plain old gobsmacked - and all at once. "Well," she said once she had regained most of her ability to speak and think; she gave Georgina's hands that still held onto her own a little squeeze, "that was surprising. Wonderful, no doubt about that… but surprising."

"I had wanted to do that ever since seeing you for the first time," Georgina mumbled.

Mollie nodded while a broad smile spread over her features. "I know what you mean. Ever since reading your first letter, I hoped we would eventually share a kiss." Another snicker followed before her good mood faded upon remembering the problems that faced her.

Virgil Clayton Jr was a major obstacle that she needed to deal with sooner rather than later. She needed to take the pup and his cronies seriously; the threat was real, she had no doubt about that. The fact that Sheriff Flannagan would be breathing down her neck only made the whole, sorry mess even more difficult to manage. If she wasn't careful, she could find herself either behind bars or permanently perforated by a bullet from a .45 - she wanted neither, but if it came down to it, she much preferred the former rather than the latter.

She looked back at Georgina in the hope she could coax a second kiss out of the blushing widow, but it was not to be. Instead of a kiss, Georgina's face cracked wide open in a yawn that she tried to conceal with the back of a hand. Chuckling, Mollie rose from the bed to give the exhausted woman a little privacy. "I'll see you at breakfast," she said quietly, running a callused hand across a smooth, though aged cheek. "I promise I'll help you in the kitchen today. It's the least I can do for keeping you up so late. In the meantime, I wish you a goodnight."

"Goodnight, Mollie," Georgina said, looking up. They locked eyes once more to shoot each other a silent look of support. The warm gaze contained a simple message: they would try their damnedest to make sure that no harm would come to Mollie Hammond - but whether or not their efforts would be rewarded was another story.


The early morning hours of the new day had seen Mollie participating in the mad rush at breakfast like she had promised she would. She had been the gofer running back and forth between the bread ovens and Georgina who manned the hole-in-the-wall counter serving all the street urchins as she did every morning. The hectic scramble had seen her work harder than she had for years, and the resulting aches in her muscles, bones and joints had left her yearning for a nap she didn't have time for.

She had a few errands to run, so she pulled her gunbelt around her hips and tightened it once more. The Colt was heavy against her thigh, but she wasn't about to go out into a potentially hostile town without protection. The hunting knife she had yanked from the doorjamb the night before sat on her belt in a leather sheath Georgina had found for her in a box labeled Lost & Found.

She had decided not to wear her duster - if she was forced into any kind of situation, she could draw her revolver much faster without having to sweep the heavy coat aside first - so after donning her comfortable, straight-cut denim jacket and plonking her wide-brimmed hat down onto her graying locks, she descended the staircase and left the Southern Belle to head into the bright morning light.

The blustery conditions that had rattled the windows and the woodwork of Sundown Hills during the night had died down, but the results of the gusting winds were still visible in the shape of overturned rocking chairs on porches, fences that had been knocked askew, and tufts of hay or tumbleweed that had been strewn over the streets.

Sundown Hills was bustling even at five to nine in the morning, and the streets saw plenty of people riding tall steeds or sitting on the cushioned benches of two or four-wheeled buggies or wagons. Some offered Mollie a mumbled "good morning" and a tip of the hat when they met, but most just gawked at her - it seemed that word had already gotten around that one of the last remaining legends of the Old West was in town. That it was a middle-aged woman wearing men's clothing only added to the mystique.

The clock on the town hall chimed nine strokes just as Mollie turned a corner onto one of the connecting streets. While the bells were still chiming, she found her pocket watch to verify that it was still showing the correct time. The family heirloom had lost a few minutes since she had checked it last, so she twisted the tiny knob to make the hands move up to nine. "It's getting old," she mumbled as she rolled up the chain and put the watch back into the pocket of her britches. "Just like its owner… Tarnation."

Continuing on, she kept to the even surface of the paved sidewalks until she had to move out into the open to get to where she wanted to go. After crossing one of the streets where the ruts created by the heavy traffic were so deep she needed to pull up her britches to have a wide enough stride to clear them, she plotted a course for the livery stables that didn't involve too much interference from the well-meaning citizens of Sundown Hills.

As she went past the mission hotel, she happened to lock eyes with the mother superior who seemed to be waiting for someone by the frosted glass pane that carried the hand-painted Cross. The senior nun's surly expression when she recognized Mollie - and her prominent sidearm - told a graphic story of wishing fire and brimstone to appear and fall upon the head of the abominable woman who had affronted God simply by visiting the mission.

Chuckling to herself, Mollie didn't let it get her down. Instead, she continued onto the livery stables where she had left her appaloosa in the skilled hands of a grizzled, old geezer and his adolescent helpers. Once she made it there, she let out a long whistle at the surprising sight of one of the large barn doors hanging on by the proverbial final nail.

Irwin Stanford, the leathery-faced old-timer from East Texas in charge of the stables, stood in front of the damaged building while several young men awaited their orders high atop tall ladders that had been placed up against the side of the barn. He wore a greasy, shapeless hat and a pale-brown buckskin outfit like the Cavalry scouts of yore; his salt-and-pepper full beard was long and unkept, and his mouth was barely visible below the wild mustache. It didn't stop him from smoking a cigar which seemed to be a fire hazard considering the jungle-like state of his beard.

When his barked commands to the men were misunderstood or simply ignored, he gained a facial complexion that told a tale of being ready to either tear his hat to pieces and chomp on them, or keel over from a massive coronary.

The young, agile men worked hard to get the flapping door to behave so it wouldn't come crashing down, but the frantic rescue operation didn't seem to be too well organized. The grizzled Irwin alternated between throwing his arms in the air, yelling at the men atop the ladders and scratching his long, unkept beard in a clear display of frustration - none of which added much in the way of offering a solution to solving the problems at hand.

Mollie came to a halt at a safe distance in case the rebellious barn door did in fact have a mind to come down and get acquainted with the ground. Putting her hands on her hips, she let her eyes roam over the mess. "Howdy, Mr. Stanford," she said to the old geezer. "Looks pretty bad. Are the horses all right?"

"A nice mornin' to ya, Ma'am," the old geezer said and put two fingers to the rim of his greasy hat. "Aw, an' ya can call me Irwin. That's what mah momma named me, after all. Yeah, them hosses be jus' fine. They wussen even spooked or nuttin'."

While the old-timer spoke, he took off his old, shapeless hat and wiped his damp brow on his sleeve though the young men atop the ladders did all the hard work. The hat was soon back on his unwashed locks. "Them durn-tootin' gusts o' wind last night done blowed that durn-tootin' door offa them hinges. I dang near browned mah britches 'cos I wus sleepin' up in that there hayloft when it happened," he continued while giving his long beard another thorough scratching like he was trying to get decades worth of hay and varmints out of it.

When he noticed the identity of the woman by his side, he clammed up and gawked at her like everyone else had done.

"So it's safe for me to go in and take care of my horse, Irwin?" Mollie said at once to stop the man from getting the notion of asking any questions.

"Uh… yeah. O' course, Ma'am. There be no problem doin' that, Ma'am. We done took good care o' your hoss like ya asked for. Good feed an' a good groomin', Ma'am," the old-timer said, staring wide-eyed at Mollie and her Frontier Six.

"Much obliged, Mister," Mollie said to end the conversation before it could go someplace she wasn't interested in ending up at. Hurrying past the crooked door, she entered the livery stables and went straight for the bay occupied by her appaloosa.

The horse whinnied when it saw her, and she responded by patting its flank and proud neck. "Hey, girl… old Mister Stanford didn't tell no lies. Your coat and mane look great… and the feed looks new," she said, eyeing the pile of clean hay in the corner of the stall next to a three-legged footstool. A trough at the far end of the stall had been filled with fresh water, and the appaloosa took advantage of that by leaning down to drink from it.

"Yeah," Mollie said as she continued to run her hands across the spotted animal. Sighing, she turned to find a dandy-brush so she had something to do. A good one was soon located on a shelf in the next stall, and she began to groom the horse though it wasn't necessary. "I have too many thoughts rattling around in my skull. If I don't offload to someone, I'll go plum crazy. So… you're it, girl."

The appaloosa responded by whinnying and giving her owner a little nudge.

"Knew I could count on ya!" Mollie said with a grin as she took a short break from running the dandy-brush across the spotted coat. "All right. Here goes. I seem to be finding myself in a bad fix here. Some young pup has got the crazy notion of challenging me to a duel. Tonight. I'd be a damned fool to fight him, girl! I'd only end up on Boot Hill… and frankly, I have no plans on going there anytime soon. But I can't ignore it and I can't run away. Either option would paint me yellow, and my pride won't allow that. Not now. Not after all this time… not after all I've done. Not after finally meeting a woman like Georgina Mae Ruddock. Mercy sakes, girl, we shared a kiss last night… it came out of nowhere but it was the best damned kiss I've had for years. It was heavenly!"

Another whinny followed, this time in a bemused tone like the horse understood the implications of the conversation.

Mollie chuckled and moved her hands up to tend to the mane. "I know… life works in mysterious ways, doesn't it? I've kept all her letters. I didn't bring them, though… they're back home so they could stay safe in case something went wrong on the trail. Yeah… Georgina intrigued me from the get-go. She'd had a rich life and she was willing to share a few stories with a complete stranger… she made me share some of my own experiences, and I don't do that with just anybody, ya know. Yeah. She also intrigued me because I thought there was something there between the lines. After that kiss last night, I guess I wasn't wrong on that account."

Sighing, Mollie stopped working on the mane that couldn't get any shinier if she treated it to a coating of hot wax. She put away the dandy-brush and pulled out the footstool to sit down. Taking off her hat, she wiped her brow on her sleeve though the work hadn't caused her any bother. "I've had a crush on her for a while now, girl. Yeah. Simply from reading the words she committed to paper in that beautiful handwriting of hers. And let me tell you, none of what has happened here has put me off that. If only she wasn't so damned busy the whole time… I sense interest on her part as well. It's there, just below the surface. Tarnation, if we could only get a little time to ourselves. Just an hour so we could… oh… I don't know. Talk. Get to know each other a little better."

A whinny was the only response.

Mollie chuckled and reached up to pat the appaloosa's neck. "I could see myself staying here in Sundown Hills, ya know. With Georgina. At least on a semi-permanent basis. Yeah… staying with Georgina and her daughter, perhaps working in the Southern Belle. I would feel… feel… hmmm. More at home than in that hole-in-the-ground Buzzard Bait. Five hovels and a shared outhouse with a couple of stray dogs and a short-tempered jackass for company. It's a new century, girl… perhaps it's time for me to try something new, too. Am I crazy for thinking so? I mean, beyond the fact that I am looking for answers from a horse?"

The appaloosa seemed to be offended by Mollie's words because it moved away from its owner to concentrate on munching on the fresh hay. "Can't blame ya, girl. If I had to listen to someone flappin' their gums like this, I'd do the same," Mollie said and got up from the three-legged footstool.

A smile played on her lips from thinking about Georgina and the kiss they had shared; her smile faded when her thoughts turned to the worrisome challenge that awaited her. She had no idea what to do about Virgil Clayton Jr. That fact alone created a knot in the pit of her stomach. She knew the knot would grow into the size of a rock formation straight out of Monument Valley when the time came for her and the pup to line up on Main Street.

The outside world intruded upon her somber mood when the grizzled old-timer Irwin Stanford entered the livery stables with one of the younger men in tow - they were still arguing fiercely about something related to fixing the door. Mollie had neither the inclination nor the patience to listen to their heated conversation, so she tipped her wide-brimmed hat at the two men and left the barn to go about her business.


On Mollie's first real stroll through the streets of Sundown Hills the previous day, she had stopped at a seamstress' shop to marvel at a set of handkerchiefs that had a prominent spot in the display behind the storefront window. Returning to the same store, Mrs. Fisher's Fabrics , she was pleased to see the set was still there.

The handkerchiefs appeared to be of exquisite quality. They had been sewn from cloth that had been dyed a delicate shade of faint purple, and a stylized crocus had been added to them in needlepoint using a deep-purple thread that created a striking contrast to the surrounding fabric.

A small, hand-written cardboard note next to the handkerchiefs explained that 'The name or initials of your loved one can be added to the kerchief free of charge.' The set was expensive enough in itself, so the promise of getting it personalized for free was a major one.

Mollie reached into her coin pouch to count what she had left of her money - she had enough for the set, but only just. Nodding to herself, she grabbed hold of the door handle and entered the seamstress' store.


Ordering and paying for the handkerchiefs only took five minutes, but the expert seamstress had a full book of orders she needed to go through on a first-come, first-serve basis, so Mollie would need to wait a day before the personalized set was ready to be picked up. Thus, she exited the shop folding up a signed piece of paper that acted as her proof of purchase.

As she stepped back onto the paved sidewalk while pushing the document into her jacket's pocket, she dearly wished she would still be around the following day to collect the exquisite set. Just in case the day and evening ahead would turn out to be her last, she would leave the proof of purchase in her chamber with a note to Georgina explaining the situation.

The gloomy thoughts of the potential outcome of the evening's events had barely gone through her mind when she stopped with a jerk. A dark mask fell over her features when she found herself face to face with Virgil Clayton Jr and no less than three of his cronies. All four men broke out in their customary rat-like grins when they saw her.

"Out doing some shopping, Huckabee?" Virgil said, cocking his head.

"None o' your Goddamned beeswax, Mister," Mollie replied in a growl. She let her eyes roam across the three supporting players in the grand drama. They were all in their early to mid-twenties, and judging by their cocky posturing and their well-rehearsed spots two paces back from where the action took place, it was clear all three were Virgil's eager lap dogs.

Though they wore similar clothing to their revered leader, they were less stylish on the whole: boots, britches, short jackets, gunbelts, hats - all were of an inferior quality compared to the outfit worn by Virgil Clayton. Two of them were clean-shaven; the final one tried to grow a full beard, but it had yet to go beyond a few whisks of reddish fuzz.

Virgil laughed and put up his hands in the age-old sign of surrendering to a stronger opponent. "Such language from a lady, Huckabee! But of course, you never were a lady, were you? Born with a gun in your hand from what I heard. Used it plenty, too. Wanted in, oh, half a dozen states and territories for various stick-em-ups. And now you're here with us in charming, old Sundown Hills."

"You just love to hear yourself talk, dontcha, Mister?" Mollie said and tried to squeeze past the four-strong living wall. One of Virgil's cronies - the one trying to grow a beard - stopped her by putting a rough hand on her shoulder. Tension built up rapidly as she glared at the hand that had a deformed ring finger. "Hell, you must be even dumber than you look… what's your name, son?"

"Butch Miller. Wots it to ya?" the crony said in a voice that bordered on the amused.

"So we can notify your next of kin," Mollie growled, glaring at the four men surrounding her. When the hand continued to press down on her shoulder, she took a deep breath to try to get her bucking nerves under control. There was no way on God's green earth she would be able to defeat four young men if it came to a knock-down, but perhaps she could get one of them - the fuzzy-bearded Butch Miller - where it hurt the most and then try to make a run for it. "I suggest you remove that hand, Mister. Now."

The rowdy's lips curled up into a sneer that only made him uglier. "Yeah? Or what?" he said and gave Mollie a little shove that was meant to push her back. It didn't - she stood firm.

Before Mollie could answer verbally, Virgil nodded at his eager associate. It did the trick, and the grip on Mollie's shoulder was released at once.

Instead of getting out of there in a hurry like she had planned, her temper got the better of her and she spun around to shoot Virgil Clayton a dark glare. "Look, I don't know what kind of game you think you're playing, Mister… and frankly, I don't give a damn. This person you keep mistaking me for has been dead and buried for decades."

"Come now, Huckabee… I know that's not true," Virgil said and hooked his thumbs inside the belt-loops on his britches. This brought his gun hand dangerously close to the hilt of the low-hanging Colt.

Mollie tore her eyes away from her young opponent's firearm to look back up at his face that was a study in smugness. "Believe it or not, Mister. It's the truth."

A few seconds went by where Virgil's eyes narrowed like he was trying to figure out whether or not he should accept Mollie's words at face value. When an amused twinkle played across them, it was clear he had made up his mind that she was lying through her teeth. "Nice try. Sheriff Flannagan showed me the old wanted-poster. You've grown old and wrinkled, but you're her. You may go by a different name now, but you're Mary-Anne Huckabee."

"I have better things to do with my time than to listen to you flappin' your gums," Mollie said and finally pushed her way through the crowd of four. Stepping off the paved sidewalk, she had to wait for a two-horse buggy to go past before she could cross the rutted street.

Virgil Jr took advantage of that by following her onto the sandy, uneven street. "I was there last night watching you, Huckabee. You're wearing my hunting knife on your belt right now. I know you read my challenge. What's your answer?"

Mollie kept walking.

"So you really have turned into a yellow-bellied coward," Virgil said strongly. He came to a halt in the middle of the street and put his hands on his hips. "Hell, I should have known. Old age will do that to a person."

Growling from somewhere deep in her throat, Mollie spun around on her bootheel and tore back to the man taunting her. "You better listen good, Mister, 'cos I'm not gonna repeat myself. The person you think I am never existed! She was a Goddamned figment of someone's imagination! I didn't do a tenth of what the newspapers or those damned novels said I did. So knock this challenge-baloney straight outta your head! It ain't gonna happen!"

"Now you're insulting me," Virgil Jr said in a voice that had turned into a cross between a hiss and a growl. Leaning forward, he briefly grabbed Mollie's shoulder but found his hand shoved away at once. "When the Sheriff told me about you, I spoke to some of the old-timers here. They remembered you from back in the day… you were the fastest woman in the Old West! Hell, the smartest, too, 'cos you were never caught. When you showed up here, it was like the gift of a lifetime for me… and you can bet your bottom dollar I won't let an opportunity to measure myself against someone like you pass me by. You were one of the very best!"

Mollie let out a sigh that was so deep her shoulders slumped. "Mister," she said, shaking her head in a fit of despair, "you got it all wrong. All of it. Nothing of what you've heard is true. Not a damned word. The old-timers here don't know me from Eve. The Mary-Anne Huckabee they know… and the person you and the sheriff think you know… is nothing but a fictional character."

"So you keep telling me. I know you're lying. And you better listen to me now… I'll make a name for myself by calling your bluff, Huckabee," Virgil said in a voice that had regained all its cocky smugness. "All you old bandits and outlaws… hell, all the legendary lawmen, too. You all retired or got yourself killed before the next generations could earn their spurs by defeating the best… that's how you people became household names back then, dammit! You didn't just edge sideways into the limelight, you grabbed the whole, damned stage from the old folks!"

Mollie rubbed her brow. She had to admit there was some truth to Virgil Clayton's words, and he did have a point to a certain extent, but time had moved on from the rough and tumble boom days of the Old West - seemingly without him noticing it. "If you want to make a name for yourself, Mister, I suggest you sign up for college. Become a Doctor of something and write a damned reference book. The Old West is long gone, and so are the customs of that time. They're not coming back, either. You better get that into your head."

"The hell I will! I've challenged you to a duel, Huckabee… what's your answer?" Virgil Jr growled, poking an accusing index finger into Mollie's shoulder.

A stand-off in the middle of Sundown Hills' Main Street involving plenty of fiery glares developed from nothing at all to a raging firestorm within moments. The two gunhands stared each other down for so long their eyes turned red from not blinking. Mollie's upper lip curled back in a sneer. If the pup wouldn't listen, he'd have to learn the truth the hard way. "I'll see you tonight, Mister," she hissed. "In front of the Southern Belle. No tricks. No traps. Just you, me and our smoke wagons. Whoever remains standing wins."

"I'll be there. And you won't even hear my lead comin'," Virgil said before he took a step back. A final, fiery glare followed before he spun around and stomped away with his three human lap dogs in tow.

Mollie grew lightheaded when she realized what she had just done. Icy tendrils raced up and down her back; they soon spread to engulf her fully. Shivering from the chill that rolled over her, she turned around and shuffled back to the saloon on leaden feet that would hardly obey her commands. And the worst was yet to come: now she would have to break the news to Georgina.




The sequence of expressions that formed upon Georgina Mae Ruddock's face said it all. Surprise, skepticism, a blossoming worry and more than a little annoyance all flashed across the aged features of the owner of the Southern Belle saloon. Although she had been busy making sandwiches and rye buns for the upcoming mad scramble at lunch, she had stopped working from one stroke of the butter knife to the next.

The huge piles of halved buns and slices of freshly baked white bread on the table in front of her, as well as an opened twenty-pound jar of yellowish butter, proved she really didn't have time for any unseen snags or delays. However, it appeared she couldn't go on without trying to stare a hole into Mollie's soul first. "Why, Mollie Hammond… what were you thinking?" she finally said before she went back to preparing the important food.

"I, ah… I'm not sure," Mollie said and rubbed her chin that had turned an embarrassed shade of red. She opened her mouth to continue, but the focused look upon Georgina's face told her to pipe down until spoken to.

Georgina let out a deep sigh as she continued to spread butter onto the halved buns and slices of bread that her daughter had brought her. Her skills with the butter knife stemming from handling tens of thousands of slices over the years she'd owned the Southern Belle saloon saw her get through the piles at an amazing speed - just in time, too, because Josephine soon entered the section of the kitchen where Mollie and Georgina were talking.

The tray the younger Ruddock carried was loaded past capacity with another full round of slices she had cut from freshly baked loaves of white bread. She offered Mollie a quick glance of sympathy while she offloaded the fresh bread. Once the tray was empty, she piled up the buttered slices her mother had just finished working on. The slices were layered in a clever octagonal pattern that wouldn't see much buttery residue transferred onto those close by. Once she had taken the last slice, she picked up the tray and returned to the other section of the kitchen to add pre-cut slices of ham or cheese. Some sandwiches would even get both although that was considered extravagant to the point of being frivolous - to cover the extra expenditure, their price tag was nearly twice that of a regular sandwich.

Georgina let the new slices be for the time being to concentrate on the remaining halved rye buns. After buttering half a dozen of the brown buns with her expert touch - and making sure they were alone once more - she leaned in towards Mollie so she could speak for her ears only. "Last night, in my chamber, you told me you couldn't fight Virgil Clayton. Why, I was under the impression that you would do all you could to avoid fighting him! And yet, practically the first words I hear you speak today… apart from good morning… are, Georgina, I've accepted his challenge!"

As always when Georgina would get agitated, her native Virginian accent bled through her more recent Californian tones. That in itself was a large clue as to the frame of mind she was currently in; the scrunched-up face and the disappointed gaze upon her house guest removed the last doubt.

"Ah, yes… I must admit it wasn't what I had intended to do," Mollie said and broke out in a half-shrug. "You might say Virgil Junior got to me. That smug, young so-and-so… perhaps I felt the pup needed a comeuppance. I cannot say."

Several seconds went by filled with nothing but the faint sounds produced by the pair of beating hearts present in the kitchen; then Georgina shook her head and returned to spreading butter onto the rye buns. "It wasn't wise of you," she said after finishing up a bun.

"No, it wasn't. We both agree on that," Mollie said and pushed herself away from the spot where she had been watching Georgina working on the halved buns and slices of bread.

After coating the final rye bun, Georgina thumped the wooden lid back onto the churn of butter and proceeded to clean the knife. She washed her hands in silence, but it was clear to all involved something was brewing. It came to the surface a short while later: "Mollie, if I may speak frankly…"

"I wouldn't have it any other way."

A brief smile graced Georgina's lips for the determined fashion Mollie's reply had been delivered in; the smile was gone a second later. "It was foolish of you to fall for his juvenile bluster. Or false bravado, even."

"We both agree on that as well," Mollie said with a wistful nod. "I should have known better. I do know better… and yet it happened."

Georgina let out a deep sigh. "Well. You can't renege on your commitment now. A word's a word even in this tumultuous day and age. He would never let it go."


"How often have you been in such a situation?" Georgina continued, offering Mollie a worried glance.

"A one-on-one duel? Never. I've been in a couple of shootouts, but…"

"That I presume you won," Georgina said; a mask of deep worry fell upon her features that made her look older than her years. "Otherwise you wouldn't be here talking about them."

"Well… you don't exactly win a shootout… you either stay alive or you don't. I got nicked in one and got away scot-free in the other. On both occasions, I was trying to escape posses. And besides, the real duels never played out like the dime novels described them. Nobody lined up on Main Street with jingling spurs and silvery Colt .45s and all that nonsense… more often than not, the shootists were just a pair of drunken, rowdy cowboys who emptied their guns at each other at point blank range. Back in the day, I witnessed my fair share of-"

"Dammit, Mollie… is that supposed to make me less concerned about tonight? And what might happen to you?" Georgina said strongly, once again staring into Mollie's soul with her pale-blue eyes.

The profanity and the unusual display of temper behind the words made Mollie acutely aware there was more on the line between them than she had imagined, or even hoped for. Though they had conversed through their letters for a good while, they had only known each other in person for a few days. Such a short period of time would not be enough for anything to develop unless the seeds had already been sown well in advance. Georgina's thoughtful prose and her beautiful handwriting had caused Mollie to crush on the owner of the saloon just from reading - and re-reading - the letters, and it dawned on her from the heated response that the same might be true for the other part of the long-distance relationship.

Before Mollie could offer a reply, Georgina moved up close and put a gentle hand on the retired outlaw's cheek. "You might die tonight," she continued in a whisper that had turned all-Virginian. "Don't you understand that? Well, I do, and it would tear my heart to pieces. I don't want to see you die… we have so much to offer one another. Oh… we've only just met, and we could… we could… oh, please kiss me."

They locked eyes to share some of the burden that had unwillingly been put on their shoulders by the young pup's rude intrusion into their lives. Mollie agreed to the heartfelt request with a faint smile that played on her features as she took in the gorgeousness of Georgina. Closing the distance between them, they let their lips do the talking in the universal language known as kissing.

The kiss was as sweet as the first one had been. It called for many, many more, but one was all they had time for. Georgina stepped back but let her hand linger on Mollie's cheek for a little while longer. "Thank you," she whispered before letting go and stepping back to the long table where she had worked on preparing the buns and sandwiches. Working as an automaton, she scooped up a pile of crumbs and threw them into a garbage can underneath the table.

"Please, Georgina… after being part of the crazy rush at breakfast, I know how hard you're working. Please let me give you a hand today," Mollie said and closed the distance between them once more. "There must be something I can do for you. Chop wood for the bread oven, or… something?"

"Well, I do have a shopping list prepared. If you could take care of it, it would save me a lot of time," Georgina said and opened one of the upper cabinet doors to fetch a long list filled with squiggly lines. She let her eyes run over the list a few times to check that she hadn't forgotten anything. "You'd need to go to Mr. Barker's general store… and also the drugstore."

"I know where they are," Mollie said and reached for the list. When she got it, she skimmed it to see what kind of things she was expected to get. "I'll need a cart or some such… I'm an old, old woman… I can't carry all this on my arm!" she said with a cheeky grin to try to add some humor to the gloomy scene.

Georgina grinned back, though hers faded fast. "There's one out back. And please, Mollie… try to stay out of trouble. Just this once!"

There wasn't anything Mollie could say to counter that request, so she kept quiet - instead, she blew Georgina a kiss and offered her another cheeky grin as she left the kitchen to get started on her shopping list.


A short half hour later, while standing in the middle of Eugene Barker's general store, the cheeky grin had been replaced by a facial expression that carried a thunderous shade of dark-gray. She had a hard time believing her ears after the lengthy, rambling and increasingly improbable speech they had been exposed to by the young sales clerk manning the counter. She shot the lanky, apron-wearing youngster another dark glare that made his bony face turn red and his pronounced Adam's apple bob up and down as he gulped.

Looking at the hundreds upon hundreds of products the general store had to offer on its countless wooden shelves - like bars of soap, brushes, canned foods, round sweets and square blocks of chocolate, self-woven reed baskets, all sorts of firearms and ammunition, hunting knives, feed for even the most choosy jackass, the finest china anywhere in the western United States, wooden ladles, packs of Mexican spices, porcelain chamber pots, step ladders, brass kerosene lamps and the ubiquitous selection of dime novels and other seedy pulp literature - Mollie had an exceedingly hard time believing that every last item on her list was suddenly and mysteriously sold out.

"I didn't catch your name, son?" she growled, pinning the youngster to the spot with a steely glare.

"Jimmie An- An- An- Andrews, Ma'am…"

"Mmmm. Well, Jimmie, I am sure that-" Mollie stopped from one word to the next when a second, closer, glance at one of the shelves nearest her revealed one of the items the sales clerk had told her had been sold out.

Growling, she stomped across the wooden floorboards to pick up a small pack of candles. "I'd like to speak with Mr. Barker, thank you," she said in a low, dangerous voice as she put the candles on the counter. Though she tried to keep everything civil, she couldn't prevent it from being perceived as a threat.

Not only did the Adam's apple of the lanky sales clerk bob up and down like a ship caught in a bad storm, his eyes darted all over the place like he was on the brink of running to safety - or passing out. As he handed back the shopping list, his fingers trembled. "Mr. Barker is- is- isn't here today, Ma'am. He's o- o- o- ver at the church help- help- helping the… oh… he's not h- here, Ma'am," he said in a croaking, stuttering voice.

"Oh. That's too bad," Mollie said while she folded up the shopping list and put it into her jacket pocket.

The youngster behind the counter looked as if he thought he was off the hook, but he froze in place at the next words that came from the older woman's mouth: "That means I only have you to talk to, then, Jimmie. So let's talk. What's the meaning of this?"

"I- I- I- ohhhh," Jimmie Andrews croaked, wringing his trembling hands. When Mollie's steely glare didn't relax for a second, he eventually gave up trying to resist it. "Mr. Barker t- told me not to ex- ext- tend your cr- credit bec- because of t- tonight… the duel… and- and- yesssssss…"

"Oh he did, did he? That's mighty peculiar because I don't even have a credit here," Mollie said in a voice that didn't let up an inch when it came to the dangerous edge it had carried throughout the conversation. A moment later, the frustration finally got the better of her, and she smacked her fist onto the counter which made the sales clerk jump a foot in the air. "Tarnation, this is all for the Southern Belle saloon! What, did you think I was going to buy all this for my own good self? To do what? Start up a new general store?"

"B- but, I thought… I thought… th- that I- th- that if I-"

"Perhaps you think too much, son. You and that nice Mr. Barker. Now…" Mollie said as she retrieved the shopping list from her pocket, "will you sell me these items, or do you want to lose Mrs. Ruddock as a customer?"

Jimmie Andrews blinked several times before he nodded and reached for the list to begin the process of finding the various goods on the countless shelves.


The next stop on Mollie's agenda, the drugstore, offered fewer problems though the stuffy-looking, lab-coat-wearing pharmacist behind the counter - Sherman Cornelius; never call him 'Sherm' - had strong reservations about selling ointments and other, similar items to a woman dressed in men's clothing. The man's discomfort hadn't stopped him from accepting her money, however, and the handcart she had borrowed from a shed behind the Southern Belle was soon loaded to capacity.

Before she would commence the short journey back to the saloon, she took off her hat to wipe her damp brow on her sleeve. In addition to the heartburn she had gained at the general store, her body chose that exact moment to send a hot flash through her system - she had very little use for either.

Using the wide brim to fan her face, she glanced at the people strolling along the paved sidewalks or moving past on the rutted streets of Sundown Hills on horseback or on the cushioned benches of buggies or wagons. The citizens went about their business like they would three-hundred and sixty-five days a year - only this day would have a different outcome to it than most.

The sun had crept past its zenith while she had been shopping. Midday was consigned to history; the afternoon hours were about to begin, and the clock on the town hall chiming a single stroke to mark one P.M. confirmed it.

She felt a knot growing in her stomach when the gloomy images associated with the evening's drama, and potential tragedy, came to her. The cold trickle that swept over her was at least different from the countless hot flashes she had experienced for the past couple of years, but it was no more comfortable.

After mashing her hat back onto her graying locks, she grabbed hold of the cart's handle using her left hand so her right one was free to draw the Colt Frontier Six if need be. On squeaky wheels, she began to drag the heavy load along the paved sidewalk to get back to the safety - and shade - of the Southern Belle saloon.

She nodded and grunted "Howdy" to several well-dressed people on her way back. Many of the citizens she met shot her curious glances, so she reckoned word had gotten around that a duel would take place that evening. Even in a modern city like Sundown Hills, it seemed that the grapevine was still finely tuned and had the ability to spread news much faster than any newspaper could.

'Ah, Miss Hammond! May I have a moment, please?' a man said somewhere behind Mollie. The distinguished voice told her it wasn't the sheriff, Virgil Jr or any of the young man's eager cronies, so she stopped and turned around so she wouldn't appear impolite. Her eyes narrowed down into slits when she took in the sight of the tall, rail-thin man who had called her name. He wore a shiny top hat, a dark suit whose britches carried creases sharp enough to chop wood, a black necktie and a white shirt equipped with a starched collar that pressed into the flesh on his neck - in short, it was Sundown Hills' undertaker.

The elderly man's gaunt, pale appearance and his neatly-groomed white hair and beard made him look like one of his own clients, but since he walked towards her under his own steam, she figured he wasn't quite dead yet. "Oh, you certainly may, Mister," she said, releasing the cart's handle.

"Ah, very good. Very good. I'm J. Samson Ogilvie, how do you do?" the man said, whipping off his top hat as he offered Mollie a hand to shake.

"Howdy, Mister. Mollie Hammond… but I guess you knew that already. And I'm doing just fine, thank ye," Mollie said as she shook the undertaker's hand. As expected, it was cold and limp to the touch.

Once they had completed the traditional greeting, the elderly man reached into his jacket pocket to find a small business card that he offered Mollie. "I've recently learned of your duel with Mr. Clayton Jr. I would like to offer my services to you and your next of kin. We have so many high-quality caskets in stock right now that I am sure finding the right one will not pose a problem."

"Ah- I, ah…"

"We can provide shrouds, silk cushions, grave clothes, quality powdering, et cetera. Also, we own a spotless hearse and a pair of jet black geldings, and can in fact organize the entire funeral procession if you so desire. All at fair prices, of course. My family-run parlor has more than sixty years of experience dealing with-"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa… hold it right there, Mister. That's all I need to hear," Mollie said, putting her hands in the air. Words escaped her in the face of the opportunist undertaker, so she could only shake her head. It took her several tries to get her wits about her for long enough to actually compose a sentence: "Thank you. Thank you very much, Mister. I'll make sure to put your card where it can be found. Thank you. I need to get going now. Good afternoon."

Smiling, J. Samson Ogilvie put his top hat back on and folded his long, cold, limp fingers in front of his chest. "Good afternoon, Miss Hammond. Perhaps we'll meet again later on tonight."

"Ah… yes. Perhaps we will. Thank ye, Mister," Mollie said while displaying a smile that never reached her eyes. As she watched the undertaker walking away, she let out the breath she had been holding - the smile melted from her face like she had snuffed out a candle.

She turned around to grab the cart's handle once more, but she had to look over her shoulder to check if the odd situation had really happened or if it had been her imagination running off with her. When the tall undertaker entered his family-run funeral parlor a short distance further down the street, Mollie shook her head repeatedly. "Oh, boy. Nobody will ever believe that just happened… nobody. Mercy sakes, I need a double-shot of Georgina's plum brandy now…"


Mollie's proverbial wrestling matches with reluctant sales clerks and the opportunist undertaker had meant she had missed nearly all of the mad rush that had taken place at lunch in the saloon, but she had just caught the tail end of it. The terrifying pile of dirty dishes that awaited her upon her return to the kitchen of the Southern Belle told a tale of a day that had been even busier than normal.

Josephine and Georgina were both there, slouching on chairs when Mollie entered from the back door. The two generations of the Ruddock family were ashen-faced and visibly exhausted from the hectic period they had just been through. Georgina could barely smile at Mollie who transferred the various goods from the handcart to their proper shelves in the cabinets. "Goodness gracious me," she said in a croaking voice, "why, I cannot recall ever being so busy… Josephine, can you?"

"Not even at Christmas, mother," Josephine said in a voice that was no less frayed than that of the elder Ruddock.

"That is true… not even at Christmas," Georgina continued, looking back at Mollie who offered her an apologetic smile for being away when she had been needed. "Say, dear Mollie… do you know why the Southern Belle was busy like never before?"

"I do not, dear Georgina," Mollie said, taking off her wide-brimmed hat to wipe her brow. The term of endearment was said with a wink and a lop-sided grin.

"Because, oh, half the population of Sundown Hills came by in the hope to get a glimpse of you. And to buy sandwiches and rye buns. When they failed to find their number one attraction, they bought even more sandwiches and rye buns to cover their disappointment," Georgina continued in a dead-tired voice.


"And most said they would return at suppertime to get a ringside seat for the duel… which means we'll be just as busy then. And look at that dreadful pile of dishes we have to clean now! Ohhh, I can't even ask sweet, old Mrs. Pendergast or her granddaughter Sally to come over and give us a hand this time… Mrs. Pendergast is seventy-seven! She would drop dead the moment she saw the amount of dirty dishes!"

Mollie let out an embarrassed chuckle as she took a closer look at the impressive width, breadth and height of the pile of plates that awaited a good scrubbing. "Well, we sure can't have that…" she said as she rubbed her chin. She hadn't been there when the pile had been made, and that made her even more determined to give a helping hand. Eyeing an apron that was just waiting for someone to wear it, she quickly shed her denim jacket and put it on a nail. "There's no need to risk Mrs. Pendergast's life and limb. Just keep sitting, Georgina… I'll jump to it," she continued, wrapping the apron around herself and tying a knot at her back.

"It was never my intention of doing anything but sit!" Georgina croaked, earning herself another chuckle from Mollie and Josephine.


Later in the afternoon - after cleaning, wiping and storing seventy-four mugs and tumblers, a similar amount of plates, and finally one hundred and forty-eight pieces of cutlery - Mollie took off the water-stained apron and put it back on one of the nails where she had taken it.

The hot water and the suds had made her hands turn red and tender which wasn't the best starting point for a duel. She flexed the fingers on her right hand a couple of times to see if she could still operate her Frontier Six; she could, but her skin did feel a little unnatural.

Life went on as always in the Southern Belle saloon regardless of the evening's unusual highlight. Once the clock on the town hall had finished chiming three strokes, Josephine opened the cast-iron hatch on the wood-burning stove and began to arrange the kindling for the fire that would eventually heat the large pots on top. The dish of the day would be potato soup with onions and chunks of salted pork. Two of the butcher's errand boys would be around before long with the meat, and the three burlap sacks that had already been delivered to the saloon's back door contained sixty pounds of onions and potatoes that awaited peeling and chopping - but that was for later.

With Mollie there to help, Georgina had been able to leave the piles of dirty dishes early to man the bar counter. Excited patrons walked through the swinging doors in a steady stream, and the best way to keep them content was to have them keep drinking: draught beer from the brass taps, or shots of gin, bourbon, rum, brandy or frontier whiskey from the countless bottles that lined the wall behind the counter.

The piano player and the singing girl had just arrived from Sundown Hills' vaudeville theater, but it was still a little too early for them to start performing; thus, they would share the free chamber upstairs for a few hands of poker or blackjack before they would change into their working clothes and head downstairs.

While all that was going on, Mollie left the kitchen and climbed the stairs to get to her own chamber. She needed to evade the constant din that rose from the many people occupying the tables in the Southern Belle: the circus-like atmosphere had begun to grate on her.

The risk to her life was tangible - and sizable - if the duel went ahead, and there was no reason to believe it wouldn't. Though she was pleased the dirty dishes had kept her so preoccupied that she hadn't had time to brood over the big event that loomed ever larger on the immediate horizon, it had started to flood her senses now that she had become inactive.

Inside her chamber, she found her saddlebags to check if the priceless contents of her oilskin were still in good shape. They were, so she stored everything back down the large, leather pouches before she donned her duster and her wide-brimmed hat. Her sturdy riding gloves followed before she swung the saddlebags over her shoulder. A moment of deep reflection seized her. Then she opened the doors to the large wardrobe that stood in the corner of the chamber. It didn't take her long to find and snatch the pillow that would make the riding experience a far softer one for her skinny posterior.


She wasn't surprised at all to see that the broken door at the livery stables hadn't been fixed yet. Several of the tall ladders were still leaning against the side of the barn, but the young men who had been working on it earlier in the day were nowhere in sight. A series of rolling snores from inside the stables proved that the old geezer Irwin Stanford had succumbed to the late afternoon heat - or perhaps the whiskey - and was sleeping it off up in the hayloft.

The appaloosa whinnied when Mollie approached it for the second time that day. The joyful whinnies only grew stronger when the horse recognized the multi-colored, Native American riding blanket that Mollie took from a shelf. The blanket was quickly swept across the horse's back, and the saddle didn't take much longer to fit.

After putting the leather bags across the appaloosa's hind quarters and hooking them to the brass eyes on the saddle so they wouldn't fall off, she leaned down to tighten the belly straps that held everything in place. Once that was done, she stood up straight and dusted off her hands. "Hey, girl… let's go for a little ride while we still can," she said, patting the horse's neck.

When another whinny was the only answer, she led the appaloosa out of the stall and into the middle of the livery stables. Getting into the saddle was still one of her major bugbears, so she was glad she didn't have any interested spectators there to witness her feeble attempts. After inserting her boot into the stirrup, she bobbed up and down a few times before she had gained enough momentum to swing her leg over the proud mare's back. Her posterior was soon in the saddle, but it only took a moment before she let out a sigh and swept the long duster's split tails aside - it gave her room to slide in the indispensable pillow that would cushion the blows.

A yawn from upstairs offered a hint that Irwin Stanford had woken up. A prolonged belch proved that it had most likely been a combination of whiskey and beer rather than the heat that had made him go up there to sleep it off in the first place.

"Whu… whut's goin' on down dere?" the old geezer slurred as he peeked over the edge of the hayloft. He narrowed his eyes like he was trying to focus on the activity down on the floor; it was clear he couldn't quite see through the hazy conditions inside his mind.

"Nothing, Mister," Mollie said, grabbing the reins to turn the horse around so she didn't have to get a crimp in her neck from looking up at the grizzled man - at least he wasn't smoking a cigar while up in the hayloft. "I'm just going to take my horse out for a run. Or do you have a problem with that?"

"Uh… no, Ma'am. O' course not, Ma'am," Irwin said, shaking his head so hard it made specs of dirt rain out of his long, filthy beard.

"Didn't think you would. Git! Git, girl!"

Turning the appaloosa back around, Mollie let it stroll out of the entrance to the barn at a slow, careful pace to avoid the broken door. Once she and the horse had made it out onto the open street, she nudged its flanks to allow it to go a little faster.

Everywhere they went, people stopped to gawk at her. Many put their heads together and whispered while pointing in her direction. She guessed that some - or perhaps most - thought she had grown a yellow streak and was high-tailing it out of Sundown Hills before the duel could take place. Though that couldn't be further from the truth, the opinions of the uninformed mattered less to her than it would have done earlier in her life.

She had several, very specific reasons for riding out of town; all were something she needed to do on her own. Although Georgina Mae Ruddock had come to mean a great deal to her during her brief stay in Sundown Hills, the frantic activity and constant din of the Southern Belle saloon wouldn't allow her to achieve the peace of mind she needed to get her house in order before the evening's ill-fated, and potentially bloody, event. Thus, she kept riding despite the whispers and stares she was exposed to.

The rutted streets of Sundown Hills were soon behind them. As she nudged her bootheels into the appaloosa's flanks again to make it go just that little bit faster, she could already hear the call of the forty miles of desolate wilderness that lay ahead.


Mollie rode into the desert for the better part of an hour until she found a spot that suited her needs: a small grove of boulders big and small that appeared to have been tossed there by a giant who had perhaps grown tired of playing with them. Some of the rocks were round, others were flat, and others again possessed both qualities though at opposite ends. A smattering of Joshua trees stood a short distance from the boulders. A few of them were withered or petrified, and the naked, gray branches would work well for what she had in mind.

Like she had hoped it would, the vast, deep-blue sky above and the magnificent desert landscape surrounding her offered her the quiet solitude she had wanted for what could be her final afternoon on earth if the cards went against her.

Whoa'ing the appaloosa, Mollie remained in the saddle to take in the full, glorious spectacle of the Mojave Desert that was presented to her. Desolate stretches of land had meant a great deal to her for a large part of her life, and continued to do so: all the typical background noises created by the insects, and the strong scents rising from the warm rocks, the Joshua trees and the other vegetation soothed her soul; they filled her senses and sent her back in time to her younger years where she had been a pup trying to find her way in the big, old, mean world.

Sometimes she had been led astray by a wink and a sexy smile. Sometimes she had traveled down that path on purpose. Sometimes she had done the right thing, and sometimes she had done the wrong thing altogether and had paid the price for erring. She had done a thousand things and regretted none of them save perhaps for her brief career as a stick-em-up artist. Still, she had never hurt anyone on purpose. She didn't know if she had wounded people accidentally on the rare occasions when she had been involved in shootouts or trying to escape posses, but that didn't really count since those men were trying hard to bring her down by way of their own shooting irons.

She had always been the odd one out. Never the traditional girly-girl dolled up in corkscrew curls, fancy frocks, high heels, corsets and white socks with pink garters though she had worn most of those things at some point in her life. She had taken to men's clothing from early on. Working in the field on the tiny, independent family farm in Alabama necessitated it, and she had found the looser garments so much to her liking she had rarely worn anything else since those days. Her family had never owned any slaves - not for reasons of ideology, but because of the low acreage they possessed and the resulting, perpetual low tide among their finances.

Because her parents had two daughters and no sons, she had been taught to handle firearms from an early age. Her father's long-barrel Enfield 1853 musket rifle and his 'Navy' Colt revolver were far too large and cumbersome to use for her six-year-old hands, but she had persevered and had become a decent marksman though the hard recoil of the Enfield always flung her onto her rear when she fired it.

Following the War Amongst Brothers and the bitter defeat for the Confederacy, the political landscape of the United States had changed even if the mindset among the various groups of people hadn't. The poverty and the changes forced upon the Southern states by Washington and the Union bluecoats had prompted her parents to move away from their ancestral home in Alabama to seek greener pastures somewhere in the vast expanses of the western states. The move west had set a long sequence of events in motion that had resulted in Mary-Anne Huckabee ceasing to be. Mollie Hammond had emerged in her stead, but the risk that she too would cease to be come nightfall was far too great to ignore.

A hawk shrieking nearby made Mollie snap out of her gloomy thoughts. Glancing around to make sure she was still alone, she nudged her bootheels into the flanks of her appaloosa to make it carry on at a slow tempo. Soon, small puffs of sand and dust were kicked up by the hooves as the horse continued at a slow trot across the desert floor.

Whatever else, her life had always been rich and rewarding, and never boring or same-old. That had all changed eight years ago when she had settled down in Buzzard Bait as a forty-one-year-old whose body felt a decade older after doing so much for so long. Though she had sought out the type of solitude that could only be found in a tiny settlement, the sudden inactivity after such an active life took its toll on her mood and mental state.

The first handful of years had gone by in a blur. She had managed to keep away from the whiskey - mostly - but she knew she would not be able to resist the strong temptation of the firewater for long unless she had something else to do with her life. While on a trip to the nearest fair-sized town, she had bought a weekly publication on a whim and had looked under the pen pal section.

There, among half a dozen similar-sounding classified ads from old Forty-Niners who were all looking for mail-order brides now their days panning the rivers for gold were behind them, she had seen a notice from a widow living in a town called Sundown Hills. The lady was looking for a female pen pal who remembered the glory days of the mid to late-1870s where the world had seemed to be at their feet.

That period had been among Mollie's toughest years following the loss of her parents and her sister to scarlet fever - not to mention the loss of the new farm not long after through her inability to get anything out of the land - but the thoughtful, even poetic, way the notice had been written had filled her with a strong urge to get in touch with the widow.

After jotting down a little information on herself that she hoped would persuade the other woman to choose her from the large pile of requests she would undoubtedly receive, she used the town's mail office to send it to the lady in question.

Lo and behold, a reply had arrived from the widow the next time Mollie had gone to town three weeks later. She was so excited she had almost torn it open with her teeth, and she had needed to read it several times before she understood that the widow - Georgina Mae Ruddock as it turned out - had indeed accepted her request.

The rest was history. Letter after letter had been exchanged over the course of the next few years until the time had finally come for them to agree to meet in Sundown Hills - and now, after only the briefest of moments together, the risk that it would come to an end before it could get started was all too real.

A sense of dread for her immediate future rolled over Mollie. It gave her a rank taste in her mouth that she spat out onto the desert floor with plenty of venom.

"Because of a sheriff who wouldn't quit yapping… and a young pup who wouldn't quit listening," she mumbled as she dismounted her appaloosa. At first, she hobbled around on stiff legs, but the condition soon passed. The long duster was too hot to wear though the sun had entered the next stage of its slow descent toward the western horizon, so she took it off and flung it across the saddle. A quick check-up of her pocket watch told her she had plenty of time for what she had planned to do - it was only a quarter to five.

The leather bags were soon removed from the horse's hind quarters and put over her arm. Once she had what she needed, she began to shuffle closer to the nearest of the round boulders. Waves of heat rose from the large rocks as a result of them having been baked by the scorching sun for the entire day, but what was most likely the only section of shade for dozens of miles in either direction had formed at the base of the round one she was aiming for.

On her way there, she kept her eyes peeled on the dusty ground for some kind of stick she could use. She soon found a good specimen and used it to scrape through the sand and stir up the sparse vegetation that had formed below the round boulders. When no varmints like scorpions, tarantulas or diamondback rattlesnakes came crawling out - she did see a long-tailed lizard, but that didn't matter to her - she put the stick against the rock and sat down cross-legged in the shade.

She took off her wide-brimmed hat to wipe her sweaty brow, but it was soon plonked back onto her graying locks. The saddle bags beckoned, and she took out the rolled-up oilskin that held her Sunday finest. She planned to change into her best clothes for the duel. While the set would not prevent her from catching a slug if that was to be her destiny, at least she would look good in the casket. A shiver ran over her when she thought of J. Samson Ogilvie, the opportunist undertaker she had run into in Sundown Hills.

Snapping out of the dark thoughts about the ghoulish man, she reached into the saddle bags once more to retrieve a cleaning kit that contained pieces of cloth, various pipe cleaners, small vials of polish and oily lubrication for her Frontier Six' metal parts, and a jar of resin that she had seen many old-timers rub into the gun's wooden handle so it would offer a far better grip in a situation involving a fast draw.

She put the cleaning kit in her lap and reached for her sidearm, but before she could get started, she came to a halt to take in as much of the magnificent landscape surrounding the secluded spot as she could. A deep sigh escaped her. Though it made her shoulders slump and the proverbial dark cloud roll over her, she picked herself back up - she had a job to do, and she couldn't do it while in a funk. Taking off her hat, she looked at the deep-blue sky above her.

"I suppose that such an outcome to my life was inevitable. I was given several decades more than some of the good folks I knew back then. Many lost their lives in their twenties. A few made it to thirty. I nearly made it to fifty. But there is one thing I'd like to know, Lord… why in the fiery halls of hell did it have to happen now when I've only just met that wonderful gal Georgina? Can you tell me that? The timing stinks and that makes my blood boil! Goddamn that Virgil Clayton Junior and his dirty, rotten cronies… Goddamn 'em all to hell!"

Mollie's voice grew in intensity until it was a mere notch below all-out roaring. When no answer was forthcoming from any plane of existence, she made a fist and smacked her hand onto the sandy desert floor. Plenty of dust was kicked up, but that turned out to be the only reaction she would get to her highly valid questions. Growling, she mashed her wide-brimmed hat back onto her locks. "Tarnation, now I'm talking to a God I don't even believe in…" she said and shook her head. "Perhaps I should leave it to Samuel Colt instead of some bearded fella in the sky," she continued, picking up the cleaning kit.


Trying to control her breathing, Mollie focused hard on the naked branch of the petrified Joshua tree some twenty paces ahead of her. Her hand hovered an inch above the Colt's handle; it remained there for a few seconds before it moved with the speed of a striking rattlesnake to draw the weapon and fire off a round.

The cracking thunderclap and the puff of pale-gray cordite that escaped the old but well-maintained Colt Frontier Six were the early signs that the lead slug screamed through the air. A split second later, it impacted where it was supposed to: directly on the branch of the petrified tree. Splinters and dust flew off it in all directions which made it easy to see where the slug had hit.

Mollie nodded to herself. "Not too bad," she mumbled, putting the Colt back into the holster to try again. The resin she had smeared onto the handle had done its job well. She was certain Virgil Clayton Jr didn't know about that little trick, so there was a chance it would give her an edge over him when it came down to the speed of the draw itself. The accuracy of fire was another story, and one she needed to practice a little more.


Fourteen rounds later, the petrified Joshua tree cried enough - the naked branch had been perforated by at least ten .44-40 slugs and could take no more without falling to pieces. A success rate of roughly seventy percent was far below what some of the legendary shooting artists of the Old West had managed in their heyday, but it would have to suffice. It was never meant to be perfect, just good enough for her to keep breathing once the foggy patches of cordite had blown clear out in front of the Southern Belle.

Spent brass casings piled up at her feet, but she scooped them all up and put them into the rear pocket of her britches. On her earlier stroll through Sundown Hills, she had read a sign at the gunsmith's workshop that said he would pay a nickel for each used casing - such a deal was too good to pass over.

The winds had picked up again as the early evening hours approached. Mollie needed to hold onto her wide-brimmed hat as a gust caught it unexpectedly and threatened to yank it off her head. Glancing up at the sky that had gained a brownish-red haze against the setting sun, her experienced eye told her a dust storm might be brewing.

Grunting at the unexpected development, she turned to look at the oilskin that contained her Sunday finest. If a dust storm caught her on her way back to Sundown Hills, the set of clothes would be covered in the fine, reddish desert sand. It would make her look like something the cat had dragged in which wasn't the image she wanted to convey.

Another gust of wind that swept around the boulders convinced her to forget about changing clothes until she returned to the town. The hands on her pocket watch had just moved past twenty to six. She needed to clean her revolver again before she could go anywhere, so she shuffled back over to the rocks to carry out the necessary task while she still had enough natural light to see the tiny details on the weapon.


At ten to seven in the evening, the streets of Sundown Hills simmered with tension as the sun crept down to hover near the western horizon. With the special event looming ever larger, the well-off citizens had donned their fine garments and had gone on evening strolls to see and be seen. The well-dressed men and women nodded greetings to each other as they met on the paved sidewalks on their way around town; most of them seemed to gravitate toward the street where the duel was to take place.

The Southern Belle saloon wasn't just simmering, it was on full boil as the establishment was crammed full of so many patrons there wasn't room for all of them at once. The line at the bar counter was four deep at times, and there was another line of people waiting patiently for seats to become available in the eatery. Georgina and Josephine had been forced to tell the card sharps and the other poker and faro players that they needed to go elsewhere on the night since the round tables were going to be pressed into service as dinner tables.

The professional gamblers hadn't been too happy about the change, but they were nothing but ingenious so they had merely adapted their trade and had set up various betting booths just outside the Southern Belle. There, they informed the interested spectators of the relative merits of the two combatants in the upcoming duel. That they only knew little about one and hardly anything about the other made no difference - none of the punters seemed to mind, or even care. Odds were given and adjusted, and plenty of money exchanged hands.

Mollie and her appaloosa rode back into Sundown Hills accompanied by the clock on the town hall chiming seven strokes, and by the final rays of daylight that still carried the brownish-red tone she had seen in the desert. Like predicted by her experienced eye, the dust storm had caught her before she had made it back, and she had been coated by fine grains of sand that had gone everywhere she hadn't had time to protect. Though she had folded up the collar of her duster and had wrapped a kerchief around the lower part of her face, plenty of grit crunched between her teeth and she felt a constant need to sneeze.

She was never short of citizens gawking at her as she rode along the rutted streets. At times, the staring, pointing and whispering became so bad she almost had a juvenile urge to stick out her tongue at them all, but she pushed it aside to maintain a dignified, composed facade.


The damaged barn door at the livery stables still hadn't been fixed, and the tall ladders had even been removed. Though the strong gusts of wind Mollie had encountered out in the open terrain had yet to reach Sundown Hills, it appeared that someone had sensed that the storm that had raged the previous evening and night would make an unwelcome return.

Swinging into the stables, she dismounted and quickly shoved the pillow into the saddle bags so no one could make any smart-alec comments. No snoring greeted her this time and she couldn't smell any cigar smoke, so it appeared Irwin Stanford was busy elsewhere - either that or he had found another bottle of devil sweat and was passed out cold up in the hayloft. Shrugging, she took the reins and steered the horse into the same stall where she had taken it earlier. The pile of hay in the corner was still fresh, and there was still plenty of water in the trough. At once, the horse leaned down to quench its thirst.

What had to be half a pound of fine grains of sand rained down from her wide-brimmed hat and her graying locks as she began to loosen the various garments she had wrapped around herself. The daytime heat had mostly evaporated upon the arrival of the early evening hours, but her brow was still damp from the journey - and the event that was yet to come - and she needed to wipe it on the sleeve of her duster.

She took a step back to look at the sorry state of her appaloosa's spotty coat. Grunting, she reached for one of the brushes and began to give her horse a thorough grooming. "I wonder if this'll be the last time I'll do this, girl," she mumbled as she ran the dandy-brush across the horse's fur. More sand rained down onto the floor, and the whinnies that were produced by the horse proved the grooming was appreciated. She grunted as dark thoughts came to her once more. "I hope it won't be… but… you can never tell. You can never tell with these things," she continued in a voice that trailed off into a long sigh.

The whinny that came back at her seemed to mirror the tone of the sigh; it made Mollie smile though it was a wistful one.


The retired outlaw came to a jerking halt when she realized the street in front of the Southern Belle saloon was awash with people, and in fact resembled one of the vaudeville theater's variety shows that had run amuck. Not in the mood for being gawked at by that many people at once, she slipped around the back of the wooden building and used the rear entrance.

The kitchen was steaming hot from the extra work the woodburning stoves had been pressed into carrying out over the course of the day. A rank odor of hot metal rose from a pile of abused pots and pans that had been put aside to cool off before they could be cleaned, but it was offset by the delightful fragrances of the fresh bread and the potato-onion soup with chunks of salted pork that had been the dish of the day. Though Mollie didn't think she could eat in the face of what was about to take place, her stomach decided that it could eat plenty, thank you very much, and let it be known by growling.

A grin formed on her lips as she moved over to the large pot that held the potato-onion soup. A clean bowl was more difficult to find, but she uncovered a chipped one that had been put to pasture in one of the cabinets. Though the edge carried several nicks and cracks, the rest of the bowl would still hold its liquid contents, so she used the ladle to pour herself a large amount of soup. A bun was soon snatched from the tray. A second one followed a moment later following an urgent prompting by Mollie's stomach.


Once her hunger had been satisfied, she walked into the forward part of the Southern Belle. An ugly grimace spread over her face at the sight of the overcrowded saloon. Young, old, bearded, clean-shaven, men, women, well-dressed or wearing filthy rags - the place was packed, and they were all there simply to see her get blown to smithereens by Virgil Clayton Jr, there were no two ways about that.

She spotted the grizzled Irwin Stanford who still wore his shapeless hat and still chomped on a cigar that was nestled deep within his huge beard. The mayor's first assistant Calvin McClintock was next to him looking very dapper indeed in a dark suit and a pale-gray derby. The elegant man seemed to have a friendly conversation with the stuffy pharmacist Sherman Cornelius. The gunsmith Frank Ormsby downed whiskey shots with the owner of the general store Eugene Barker and the lanky sales clerk Jimmie Andrews although the latter didn't seem old enough to drink. He certainly couldn't hold his liquor judging by the red cheeks he sported. At the far end of the bar counter, the expert seamstress Patricia Fisher was engaged in a conversation with another woman whom Mollie hadn't been introduced to yet, and finally, the meatman Bryce Jackson seemed to be swapping tall tales - or sausage recipes, who knew - with the burly, bearded frontiersman whose britches had been splattered in beer on the very first afternoon Mollie had been in Sundown Hills.

Being the main attraction of such an insane spectacle didn't sit well with Mollie - it gave her a bad case of heartburn - but at least the countless patrons would eat and drink plenty and thus fill the coffers of Georgina and her daughter.

The piano player pounded the keys and the singing girl from the vaudeville theater warbled a popular tune which only added several more layers of noise to the already deafening din. As always, most of the keys struck by the player were on target, but there were a few bum notes here and there. It didn't matter since only a scant few paid any attention to the musical accompaniment; even the singing girl's tight costume could only garner the odd look.

Every poker table and all fifteen tables in the eatery-part of the saloon were occupied, and all had more people sitting around them than they were designed for. Filthy plates and empty mugs littered the tables - and even the floor in one instance - but the customers didn't seem too concerned. The constant din that rose from them was loud, merry and full of giddy expectation stemming from the fact they were about to witness an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned duel between a pair of honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned gunhands. It was even better that one part of the duel was a young, exciting contender, and the other a seasoned pro who had been there and most definitely done that during the glory days of the Old West.

Georgina and Josephine were both working flat-out behind the counter. Standing at either end of the bar so they wouldn't get in each other's way, they poured gallons of draught beer and dozens of shots of whiskey, rum, gin or brandy to the lines of thirsty patrons who stood four-deep on the other side of the wooden counter. The two Ruddocks were so busy they didn't even have time to wipe up the inevitable spillages which proved unfortunate for the patrons who dipped their sleeves into it - the stuffy pharmacist Sherman Cornelius was one, and he had very little good to say about it.

A commotion at the swinging doors made everyone look over there. When Virgil Clayton Jr waltzed into the Southern Belle saloon with all three of his human lap dogs in tow, many of the patrons began to whistle, clap and cheer. On the same token, a good portion of the remaining spectators went about their business like they hadn't yet decided on which of the fighters to support. Only a few of the people present made a point of looking away from the cocksure pup - Georgina and Josephine were among the latter group.

The singing girl found herself completely drowned out, so she stopped right in the middle of the finishing crescendo of a version of You're The Flower Of My Heart, Sweet Adelbert that the song's composers Richard Husch Gerard and Harry Armstrong would never have recognized. It took the piano player a few seconds to catch onto the fact that something was up, but then he came to a halt as well.

Virgil Clayton Jr, the would-be bad boy of the New West, wore a flashy set of clothes that consisted of shiny, long-legged boots and pale-brown britches. Above that, he wore a short, dark-brown jacket over a burgundy vest and a tan, tunic-like shirt equipped with a tall collar. The upper part of the shirt was graced by a bolo tie that carried a silver amulet. The final piece of his outfit was a low-crowned cowboy hat that was different to the one he had been wearing until then - it appeared brand new, so he had most likely bought it for the special event.

Predictably, the young, handsome fellow strutted around the Southern Belle saloon like a peacock. His cronies soon carved a path to the bar counter so their great leader could get something to drink if he so desired. He eventually made it there, but he had made sure that everyone had noticed him.

Mollie felt someone's eyes on her, and she looked away from her challenger. A smile spread over her face when she locked eyes with Georgina's pale-blue orbs across the crowded saloon. Though they were far too far apart to hear each other even through yelling, the brief contact instilled a fighting spirit in Mollie that she perhaps hadn't had before.

Until then, her main goal had simply been to stay alive, but the strongly supportive look that was transmitted between herself and the woman she had exchanged letters with for so long prompted a spark inside her that said she should assume control over the situation - she needed to get the bucking bronco called fate back under foot by grabbing the reins and letting it know just who the boss was around there.

She needed to act, not react. If she employed controlled aggression rather than reacting timidly to what the young pup was doing, she would have a fighting chance of not only surviving the confrontation, but actually winning it.

All those thoughts had raced through her mind within a second. She offered Georgina a broad smile that was responded to in kind before the busy owner of the saloon had to move away to serve another thirsty soul.

The smile on Mollie's face remained; it even turned confident though nothing had changed beyond her frame of mind. After shooting Virgil Clayton Jr a final, disdainful glare, she turned around and climbed the stairs to get to her chamber - it was time to show the young pup and his lap-dog sidekicks that they shouldn't expect to win without a fight.




Mollie let out a dark chuckle as she looked upon the sandy dune she had just deposited on the navy-blue floormat up in her chamber. She needed to wiggle her bare toes simply to break through the impressive pile of reddish desert sand and dust that had rained down from her garments as she had stripped down to her bare essentials.

Intending to change into her fine set of clothes, the vast amount of sand on the nice carpet made it crystal clear to her that she needed to add an extra item to her already busy agenda: namely to find a broom and a dustpan so Georgina wouldn't throw a fit in case the owner of the Southern Belle needed to enter the chamber on her own after the duel. Finding such a pan would have to wait, however, as there were more important things to take care of first.

Moving over to the bed on bare feet, she unrolled the oilskin which revealed her Sunday finest. The set of clothes was nearly twenty years old so it couldn't be counted among the latest trends in frontier fashion, but it was durable and of high quality. It could easily make it through another two decades, but the risk it would end up perforated and bloody in less than two hours was too great to make any long term plans for it.

The entire set was black: the britches, the leather belt, the double-breasted shirt, the four-pocket vest and the short jacket that she had only worn three times in the years she had owned the set - when worn together, the vest and the double-breasted shirt were more than capable of making sure the wearer was warm and comfortable.

Even the undershirt was black, but she had hand-dyed that herself unlike the other garments that had been bought in their present color. A black leather bolo tie had been part of the ensemble at one point, but the strings had been of an inferior quality compared to the rest of the outfit so she had traded it for a quart of whiskey. Given the fact her slender neck allowed her to close the double-breasted shirt's top section with no dramas whatsoever, a decorative scarf or ascot wasn't really needed anyway.

She ran her fingers over the fabric of the straight-legged britches to feel the texture and to think back to the last time she had worn it. It had been a year and a half ago at a friend's funeral. It hadn't been a particularly close friend, but they'd had a good rapport on this, that and everything in between, especially over a glass or two of bourbon. The wake afterwards had been a raucous affair, she remembered that. What she didn't remember was how she had made it home to the boarding house where she had stayed while in the town where her friend had lived - not that it mattered now.

When she had rolled up the set into the oilskin the night before leaving Buzzard Bait, the chilling prospect that its next use could be at her own funeral had never entered her mind. If anything, she had hoped it would see use at a festive occasion of some kind, perhaps a civic event, a cookout or something similar that she and Georgina could have attended together.

Grunting to herself, she reached for the black undershirt to enter the final stage of her evening - and perhaps of her life.


After transferring her gunbelt carrying her Colt Frontier Six and all her spare cartridges from her comfortable britches to her Sunday finest, she tightened the leather strap that kept the holster in place against her thigh by tying a knot on it. The wide-brimmed hat came last. Once it was on, she ran an index finger around the floppy rim to make sure it sat just right. She was ready; or at least as ready as she would ever be given what she was about to do.

A long sigh escaped her. The piano player's music, the singing girl's contagiously enthusiastic warbling, and the general din from the packed saloon rose from the floorboards and wafted around the small, but serviceable chamber. Had she had any say in the matter, she would have preferred to spend what could be her final few hours somewhere quiet, and in the delightful company of Georgina Mae Ruddock.

In a perverse way, she had actually had a say in the matter: she could have said 'no' or 'get lost' to Virgil Clayton Jr when he had issued the challenge. Her pride wouldn't have allowed her to do that, however, so it was a moot point.

She eyed the writing bureau. There were so many things she wanted to say to Georgina before it was too late - personal things that couldn't be shared in a crowded, noisy bar room. With the Southern Belle being so mind-numbingly busy, that had all gone out of the window. The second-best option would be to write a letter. After all, their all-too-brief encounter had been borne from corresponding with each other for so long. It occurred to her that a letter would be a poetic way to end it.

Sobering, Mollie took off her hat once more and pulled the chair over to the bureau. She quickly retrieved a sheet of the saloon's stationery and took a solid-looking pen from the small selection presented to her on a bone tray. The ink in the bureau's integrated well was fresh, so she dipped the pen's tip into it and let the writing tool move slowly across the yellowish paper.

'My dear Georgina Mae.


If you read this, it will most likely mean that I did not survive the duel. I do not regret accepting the challenge, but I do regret not spending enough time with you prior to my untimely end. Alas, it was the hands you and I were dealt.


When I think back to the many letters we wrote each other; to the stories and secrets we shared; to the times I laughed or even shed a tear at your words, I cannot help but think that you and I had a special bond that would have been unbreakable had it been allowed to settle in and blossom - had we been allowed to have more time together beyond these mere days.


I had never been one for any kind of writing, but with maturity came an urge to build connections to like-minded people. When we started corresponding with each other, I was ashamed of my clumsy attempts to commit my words to paper when faced with your insightful comments, your thoughtful prose and your beautiful handwriting. You can imagine my surprise when you said in your letters how intrigued you were by the life I had led and, yes, of how I was able to describe it all so vividly.


Oh, how I yearned to hear from you! On the frequent occasions when the mail was delayed, I paced like a caged animal willing the next letter to arrive. I could not eat, could not sleep, could not do anything until the moment came when I finally held your new letter. Your words would always bring a smile to my face and, on occasion, make me break out in song!


Over time, I realized I had grown so fond of you that it had turned into what the poets have called a romantic love. My discovery frightened me as I did not know how you would react upon being told; after all, you had been married for close to twenty years before your husband had succumbed to illness. Therefore, out of fear of losing you, I abstained from telling you how I truly felt.


The first kiss we shared, in this very chamber, was a severe shock to me. A joyful shock, but a shock nonetheless. To realize that you harbored feelings similar to those deeply embedded in my own heart prompted a wave of relief the likes of which I had never experienced before. Though my heart had soared to the heavens by the sweet contact, it plunged to unfathomable depths when the all-too familiar events transpired that have brought this unfortunate situation upon us. At least we kissed. And for that I am eternally grateful.


And finally to my last will and testament. I wish to be laid to rest here in Sundown Hills if possible. I am not a member of any congregation, so any branch of the church will do. Though I am far from a great believer, being committed to consecrated ground would give you, my dear Georgina, a chance to visit my grave from time to time if you should so desire.


I presume you have already found the business card from the undertaker that I have put next to this letter. An old-fashioned pinewood casket and a simple headstone will suffice; please use the name I chose for myself, Mollie Hammond, with the birth date 5-14-1855. I do not have a favorite flower, so you need not concern yourself with such. I wish to be buried in my good set of clothes; you can do with the remaining garments as you see fit.


As for my worldly possessions: I am sure my appaloosa and my saddle will fetch a decent price at Mr. Stanford's livery stables, or perhaps one of the horse traders on the outskirts of town. My hovel in Buzzard Bait is only fit for tearing down so there is no point in wasting time and effort on that unless you wish to retrieve your letters that I have saved in a leather binder in my bedside drawer. My Colt Frontier Six and the spare cartridges should be worth a few dollars at the gunsmith.


I do not wish to have a public wake as I fear such an event would turn into a vulgar spectacle. A simple, private one attended by yourself and your charming daughter where you reminisce over a glass or two of your exquisite plum brandy will make my soul content.


And with that, my dear Georgina, I bid you farewell. I wish we had been granted more time together. I am sure it would have been a wonderful experience for both of us.



PS. The other envelope here on the bed contains the proof of purchase for a set of handkerchiefs that I bought for you at Mrs. Fisher's Fabrics. The set has been personalized with your initials, but Mrs. Fisher did not have time to get them done right away. She promised they would be ready by tomorrow, and you only need to show her the receipt to have them handed over.



Devotedly yours,

Mollie Hammond, née Mary-Anne Huckabee.'

Mollie leaned back on the wooden chair to re-read the letter a couple of times before she nodded to herself - it was done. Taking two envelopes from a stack next to the stationery, she put the receipt for the handkerchiefs into one and wrote 'For Georgina Mae Ruddock: Mrs. Fisher's Fabrics' on the front.

She re-read her letter to Georgina one more time before she folded it up and slid it into the other envelope. Getting up, she placed the card from the undertaker and the two envelopes on the bed before she put her wide-brimmed hat on once more.

After checking that her Frontier Six sat in the leather holster in the very specific position she needed it to be in - and that the handle was suitably sticky from the resin she had coated it in - she twisted the knob on the kerosene lamp which made the room fall into darkness. Heading for the door, she never looked back.


The Southern Belle saloon fell silent as Mollie Hammond - or perhaps more appropriately, Mary-Anne Huckabee - appeared on the staircase. Though she didn't have any jingling spurs on her boots, she might as well have since her footfalls on the wooden steps were the only sounds heard in the entire establishment. The patrons gawked at her to a man; she didn't care as she only had eyes for her young challenger.

As Virgil Clayton Jr was exposed to the determined and unrelenting glare in Mollie's eyes, the smug, overly confident look upon his face melted and turned into something that could be interpreted as fear. The scene continued to be played out in silence - verbal communication was unnecessary since all had already been said. Virgil couldn't hold Mollie's intense glare but looked down at his boots after a few seconds.

Boosted by the small victory, Mollie sought out Georgina's features behind the bar counter. She presumed the owner of the saloon would be concerned to the point of nearly passing out, and Georgina's ashen complexion seemed to prove her right. The pale-blue eyes had lost none of their strength, however, and continued to send a constant stream of support in Mollie's direction.

The two women offered each other a final, wistful smile before Mollie turned back to her challenger. The hard, unrelenting glare fell over her once more as she took in the sight of the young pup who seemed far, far less cocksure now that the moment of truth was near.

"It's your call," Mollie said, eyeing the young man. When Virgil moved his head in a jerking fashion that was meant to be a nod, she grunted and stepped ahead.

Behind the bar counter, Georgina drew a sharp breath and held it. The brief sentence uttered by the retired outlaw broke the dam and made the countless patrons break out into an excited yapping. Soon, it grew to such levels that it threatened to blow the roof clean off the Southern Belle saloon.

When Mollie and Virgil made for the swinging doors, Georgina could wait no longer: she tore off her apron and hurried after the two combatants to be near Mollie for as long as she could.


Torches had been lit all along the section of the street where the duel was to take place. In the far distance to the west, the fiery ball known as the sun touched the horizon which not only painted the evening clouds a husky red, but cast long, deep shadows between the wooden houses of Sundown Hills. A trio of horses that had been tied to posts across the street from the Southern Belle saloon whinnied like they could sense the mounting tension, or perhaps even the importance of the unfolding event.

The cones of flickering, orange light created by the torches did a good job of illuminating the street. It wasn't long before the final rays of natural light would fade into darkness, but the ninety-by-ninety foot square that had been laid out in front of the Southern Belle would remain well-lit. The early signs of the high winds Mollie had encountered on her ride back to Sundown Hills after practicing her draw in the desert were visible in the fact that the flames never stood still for more than a second or two at a time.

As the retired outlaw stepped off the paved sidewalk and onto the rutted street, her experienced eyes surveyed the condition of the battleground. It wasn't too bad, all things considered. There were plenty of ruts everywhere, but the mounds that had been kicked up by the countless hooves and wheels that traveled the street were made of sand rather than hardened mud - it meant she didn't have to worry about stumbling if she had to move sideways. Of course, it also meant she could land softly in case she caught a slug, but she preferred not to dwell on that particular aspect.

In the distance, the town hall clock could be heard chiming eight strokes. To Mollie, it sounded like the first few bars of the popular funeral dirge, and she couldn't help but wonder if she would be around to hear the next set played out at nine. She grimaced and her heart sped up as the moment of truth came nearer. The adrenaline that began to race through her literally made her hot under the collar, but she wasn't about to spoil her image by opening the top set of buttons on her double-breasted shirt - she would rather suffer in silence.

As she moved around, she flexed her right hand over and over to keep it ready; she also kept an eye on Virgil Clayton Jr who seemed as nervous as a Roman Catholic priest on his first visit to a silver-dollar cathouse.

The three human lap dogs - Butch Miller and the other two whose names Mollie had never learned - did all they could to boost their great leader's confidence by straightening his lapels, helping him take off his jacket so he could move his hands freely, slapping his back, and generally just speaking in a crude, derogatory language about 'that old, wrinkled broad who thinks she's a man.'

At the same time, the merry crowd from the saloon poured out onto the sidewalk to get the best spots by the posts holding up the sloped, wooden roof. The well-dressed, well-off men and women who had spent the entire day gawking at the unusual contender kept up their impolite business, and even compounded it by talking openly about 'that strange Hammond woman and her peculiar ways.'

Mollie shrugged all that off. She didn't care about being the subject of trash talking, and had in fact heard far worse - and from far more dangerous people - over the years. Instead she focused on the task at hand by trying to control her breath. She was hopeful it would arrest the small tremble that had grown into her fingers before it could get any worse and impair her aim.

A commotion in the middle of the colorful nonsense up on the paved sidewalk proved to be Georgina who had used her elbows to bash her way to the front of the overly enthusiastic group of yapping spectators. "Mollie! Please be careful!" she said strongly to be heard over the din of the people nearest her.

"I'll try," Mollie replied calmly.

Another layer was added to the already mind-numbing hubbub when two men on horseback broke into the square created by the torches. Sheriff Rory Flannagan dismounted his bay mare in a hurry and left one of his deputies, Johnny Bickleston, to tend to the horses. "Everybody! Pipe down and pay attention!" the lanky, handlebar-mustachioed sheriff yelled, holding his hands in the air to make the raucous spectators aware of his presence. As always, he wore a pair of long-legged riding boots, denim britches, a checkered shirt and a leather vest that his golden star had been pinned onto.

It took nearly half a minute for the most excited among the crowd to get the message, but an angry glare by the sheriff convinced even the giddiest among the patrons to keep quiet. "Thank you! I am here to inform those directly involved in this duel that such an activity is now considered illegal according to the laws of Sundown Hills and indeed the state of California!"

Someone among the crowd booed the sheriff in the belief that it was all about to be canceled; others let out stern, loud comments at those who had produced the derogatory sounds. Others again laughed at the deep-burgundy color that rolled over the sheriff's face at being the recipient of such rude boo'ing.

Rory Flannagan glared at the crowd, at Virgil Clayton Jr and at Mollie Hammond - especially at Mollie whom he had already warned about not stepping out of line while in Sundown Hills. "Therefore," he continued to regain a modicum of control over the situation, "I'll have no choice but to arrest whomever of the duelists is left standing."

Virgil Clayton let out a derisive laugh that proved the hard work of his three yes-men had paid off - he was back on full song. "Fine by me, Sheriff," he said and tipped his low-crowned hat at the man of the law; the cocky gesture sent a ripple of cheers through his supporters among the spectators. "I have never said no to free supper, and I happen to know that the mammy working the jail's pots and pans is an excellent cook."

Led by the three lap dogs, the crowd laughed long and noisily at his comments - all save for Georgina and Josephine who had come out onto the sidewalk to watch the proceedings next to her mother.

Sheriff Flannagan glared a little more at the two challengers before he seemed to give his blessing for the duel itself to commence. Stepping onto the paved sidewalk, his next set of barked commands was less well received by the spectators: "All right… everyone, off the sidewalk! Back to the saloon. That's a direct order!"

'But Sheriff! We can't see a darn thing from in there!' someone tried, but Rory Flannagan was relentless.

"Keep quiet and do as I tell you! Back inside… back inside. Now!" he said sternly, spreading out his long arms to shepherd the unruly crowd through the swinging doors and into the Southern Belle saloon. A long phase of utter confusion and plenty of elbow-shoving argy-bargy to get the best seats by the windows followed before the scene was finally set for the main event.

Mollie drew a deep breath and let it out slowly through her nose. The time for bluster and bravado had been and gone, so she tried to settle down and simply focus on the young man standing twenty paces away from her. The task was made difficult by her thumping heart and the drops of sweat that trickled down her front and back, but she was able to keep a lid on her boiling self by breathing evenly and shutting everything out.

Everything but the look in her opponent's grayish eyes. They were already so wide he resembled a buck caught in the headlight of an approaching locomotive. Staring into Virgil Clayton Jr's soul offered Mollie glimpses of the same agitation, the same jumpiness, the same raw fear that used to run through her own veins in the days when she had been waiting for the stagecoaches to arrive so she could jump them. It was the raw fear of dying. Although traces of that fear were present within her as well, she had - mostly - come to terms with the potential outcome of the duel. She could use that to her advantage.

Over at the Southern Belle saloon, a drunken man appeared by the swinging doors to yell a few obscenities at the duelists brought on by their apparent passiveness. Mollie shut it out. A twitch in Virgil's left eye proved that he hadn't been able to. The drunken man yelled a few more expletives at the fighters before he was yanked back inside by Sheriff Flannagan and subjected to a hard slapping, a rough shaking and a stern talking to.

A sudden peace fell over Mollie like an old, comfortable blanket on a cold winter night. She didn't have time to investigate whether or not Georgina was in fact looking at her at that exact moment, but she felt the other woman's pale-blue orbs drilling into her soul, offering her plenty of support and even love. A smile briefly graced her lips.

The entire world seemed to come to an eerie standstill as she thrust her right hand down toward the sticky handle of her Colt Frontier Six. Grabbing it, she pulled the revolver out of the holster like she had practiced countless times against the petrified Joshua tree. Her thumb was already cocking the hammer back to have it ready to fire as soon as it was pointing straight.

Virgil Clayton Jr's face contorted into a hideous mask of fear as he responded to his opponent's actions by drawing his own weapon. He was faster than Mollie and already had his Colt Peacemaker .45 halfway up into a firing position by the time the barrel of the Frontier Six had cleared the upper edge of the holster - the difference was a mere blink of an eye, however. His aim wasn't aided by his speed, and especially not by his rampant agitation to get it over with. The latter made him yank back the trigger long before he should have.

As the thunderclaps of the discharging weapons echoed across the street, the world returned to its regular pace. Puffs of foul-smelling cordite escaped the muzzles of the revolvers as the .45 and the .44-40 slugs screamed past each other on an evil quest to find targets to maim or kill.

Because of Virgil's agitation when firing, his shot went wide and disappeared into the darkness of the evening. Mollie's ran straight towards her opponent.

In the first split second after firing, her mind had made her body assume a position that would give her an opportunity to shoot again or run away if need be; neither option was necessary as the burning hot lead from her Colt impacted on Virgil Jr's right forearm.

A cascade of blood that dyed his tan shirtsleeve red spewed from the wound within seconds. The heavy .45 fell from his limp hand as he staggered backward from the impact. Moaning, groaning and doubling over from the fiery tendrils of pain that rose from the raw wound, he clutched his arm with clear shock etched onto his face.

"This is over, Junior!" Mollie roared. Cocking the hammer to let the cylinder turn to the next cartridge, she held her Frontier Six ready in case the young pup would not accept his defeat. The glare she shot at him was just as intense and potentially lethal as the hot lead had been; the shocked look upon his face told her he was done.

With Virgil in no condition to continue the fight, Mollie let out a long sigh of relief and released the hammer to let it rest. It was only then she realized how much she had been affected by the duel: not only was her heart thumping wildly in her chest, her head was swimming and her knees were knocking to such an extent she could hardly walk straight for the first few steps.

Moments later, the paved sidewalk in front of the Southern Belle erupted in a frenzy of whooping and cheering as the patrons poured out of the saloon to celebrate the winner of the duel. That they had treated her like a leper for most of the day seemed to have been conveniently forgotten.

Such unrestrained pandemonium was the absolute last thing Mollie wanted at that moment in time, and she reversed away from the advancing crowd like she would a stampeding herd of cattle. All she wanted, all she needed, all she cared for was to hug, caress and kiss Georgina, but the owner of the Southern Belle was nowhere to be seen in the overly enthusiastic throng that continuously pushed and shoved each other aside to be first in line to meet and greet the winner.

It appeared that Sheriff Flannagan shared Mollie's view of the world for a change as he and Deputy Bickleston tried in vain to keep everybody back from the street - nobody listened to their desperate pleas for calmness to prevail. The mustachioed lawman's frustrations grew to the point where he drew his own firearm to get matters under control, but even the sight of his silvery revolver held high in the air made no impact on the rampant enthusiasm of the patrons.

Caught in the middle of the human equivalent of rough seas, Mollie cracked open the Frontier Six to replace the spent cartridge with a fresh one. It wasn't easy with all the people surrounding her, but she had learned the bitter lesson of always having a full drum of lead a long time ago when she had run out at the worst moment.

Once it was ready, she holstered her Frontier Six and tightened the leather strap holding it in place so nobody would have the chance to steal it as a souvenir. She turned to the spectators swarming her; the sour look upon her face proved how little she enjoyed being the target of the advancing flood of humanity. "People," she croaked in a hoarse voice, "give me some space… I need some space to breathe… please!"

The spectators wouldn't listen and continued to crowd her. Hooting and hollering, the people of Sundown Hills celebrated the winner of the duel like their local team had just won the 1904 World Series.

Mollie grew impatient, then annoyed and finally downright mad at the impolite actions of the citizens who had done nothing but gawk at her the whole day. "I said, let me have some room, Goddammit!" she roared, trying to locate Georgina in the crowd.

When Mollie spotted the other woman stepping out onto the paved sidewalk wringing her hands in worry, she had but one thought in her mind: to quit dilly-dallying around and get to the owner of the saloon on the double. Though she tried shoving her way through the crowd, they were actively holding her back so her efforts had very little effect. "Georgina!" she yelled, waving to get her dear friend over to her instead. Georgina seemed to understand, and she responded by waving back and stepping off the sidewalk.

With no warning, a shot rang out from the deep shadows at the other side of the street. The noisy spectators all froze in place and piped down like someone had stolen their vocal cords. Everyone started looking around, but there was nothing untoward to be seen anywhere.

Then a second shot was heard, and the resulting bullet thumped into the sand not three paces away from Mollie's booted feet. An unstoppable avalanche of shrieking and yelling followed as the patrons fled the scene in a wild panic of flailing arms, lost hats and dropped handkerchiefs.

"Son of a bitch!" Mollie cried, undoing the button for the leather strap in an almighty hurry before she whipped out her revolver and aimed it at the deep shadows across the street. Hunkering over, she ran ahead in a zig-zag pattern to make herself an unpredictable target. A third shot rang out, and the slug kicked up a puff of sand where she had just been.

An angry roar escaped her lips as she took a potshot at the unknown, cowardly assailant who used the cover of darkness to fire upon her rather than face her up front - even the peacock Virgil Clayton Jr had had the guts to do that.

Sheriff Flannagan yelled something from the sidewalk, but Mollie was too busy chasing the crook in the shadows to pay any attention to the fellow with the overly-greased handlebar mustache. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Georgina running back to safety which was a relief to her. Virgil Jr was on the move as well, clutching his bleeding arm and very much looking like he was up to something nasty; the shooter was obviously no threat to him. Virgil's revolver was still on the ground and was of no use to him - or so Mollie thought.

She continued zig-zagging toward the shadows with her Frontier Six aimed dead center. A fourth shot rang out from the darkness, but it was no less successful in finding a living target than the first three had been - the sound of smashing glass somewhere behind her proved the lead had found a final resting place. She replied in kind at once and pulled the trigger to fire off her second round.

This time, a hard thump and a series of increasingly pained groans could be heard as direct results of her actions. Soon after, Butch Miller - one of Virgil's eager lap dogs - stumbled out of his hiding place with blood-splattered clothes and his hands reaching for the sky. The fuzzy-bearded sidekick was no longer a threat to anyone, but even if it had been a ploy to make Mollie let down her guard, Sheriff Flannagan and Deputy Bickleston were already racing across the street to apprehend the bleeding would-be assassin.

Mollie grumbled long and hard as she slowly turned back to Virgil Clayton Jr. Her Frontier Six was still in her hand, ready to fire. She only realized something was wrong when she looked into her defeated opponent's eyes. Gone was the look of raw fear; it had been replaced by equal measures anger, desperation and even a touch of hatred. His bloodied right arm hung limply down his side, but his left was moving upward. It held a small, silver-gray Remington model Ninety-five palm pistol that he was in the final stages of aiming at Mollie. At seven paces' distance, even a blind man couldn't miss - and the young peacock was anything but blind.

The small firearm discharged which sent a .41 slug flying toward Mollie's upper body. As it impacted on her fine suit of black clothes, it pierced the vest, the double-breasted shirt and the undershirt before it continued through to drill an ungainly, black-edged hole in the soft flesh on her upper, right chest.

As the devil poked his fiery, forked tail into Mollie's chest, she let out a prolonged moan and fell backwards onto the sandy street. Her wide-brimmed hat went flying upon landing, but she managed to hold onto her revolver. Virgil Clayton Jr was dead center to her aim, and she used the last strength in her right arm to pull the trigger. Her left hand flew over to fan the hammer which fired off three slugs in rapid succession. The first went wide, but the second and third slammed into Virgil directly at his heart. The tan, tunic-like shirt was torn to shreds across his chest, and a cascade of crimson droplets was sent into the air.

The young pup took a staggering step backward with a look of pure shock on his face; then his eyes glassed over and he fell sideways onto the street.

Mollie's Colt slipped from her numb, unresponsive fingers as she could do nothing but lie there and stare at the late-evening sky high above her. The devil hadn't finished dancing a merry jig in her wound, but at least the red-hot, fiery pain that screamed through her system meant she was still alive.

'Someone fetch Doctor Willoughby!' she heard a female voice cry. It could have been Georgina, but she wasn't sure. After a short while, her suspicions were confirmed when a pair of gentle hands framed her face and caressed her cheeks. Trying to smile, she looked up into Georgina's pale-blue orbs that were wider and more worried than ever before. Every Old West tradition dictated that this was the point where she should have made a humorous, heroic quip, but her ability to compose one had left her along with the blood that continued to seep from her upper chest.

"Lie still, sweet Mollie… just lie still… wait for Doctor Willoughby to get here," Georgina croaked in a strong, Virginian accent. She was already kneeling, but she leaned down even further to pull Mollie into a smothering hug.

"That's about all I can do," Mollie croaked before she tried to turn her head to locate her former opponent. "Junior…?"

Georgina cast a brief glimpse at Virgil Clayton's still body. "He's dead," she said as she turned back to Mollie.

"Damnation. I didn't want that…"

"He left you no choice," Georgina whispered, leaning down to offer Mollie a kiss on the flushed, damp forehead.

While the two women were occupied with each other, Sheriff Flannagan hurried over to the dead body to give it a distinctly non-medical check for signs of life: he simply used his riding boot to shove Virgil Jr onto his back. The glassy, staring eyes proved that the young man had long since departed. "This was a justified killing made in self-defense!" he said loudly, pointing at the body on the street like he needed to highlight which killing he was talking about.

Georgina growled and twisted around to face the sheriff. "And one that would never have happened if you hadn't filled that young boy's head with tall tales and blatant lies!" she roared loud enough for everyone to hear. As always when she was agitated, her old Virginian accent came out to color her pronunciation.

Sheriff Flannagan mumbled something unintelligible into his greased handlebar-mustache before he stood up straight and hooked his thumbs into the loops on his belt. "Virgil Clayton Junior was hardly a boy, Ma'am. He could draw his own conclusions. And the law never lies… after all, we're here to uncover the truth."

"Horse manure," Georgina mumbled as she turned back to Mollie to continue to caress the wounded woman's pale cheeks.

Mollie couldn't stop a husky chuckle from breaking out though it sent a fiery tendril of pain shooting through her chest. "My my, Mrs. Ruddock! What's gotten into you today?" she had time to croak before the pain rendered her unable to do much but smile.

"I've never had any patience with fools. And let's just say this evil business has made me see certain things in a very clear light," Georgina whispered. The two women smiled at each other before Georgina leaned down to offer Mollie another kiss - this time on the lips. It wasn't the right moment, nor the right crowd, for a lengthier contact so a brief one would have to do.

The swarm of spectators surrounding the area framed by the flickering torches had once again resumed their incessant squalling, but at least they kept at a respectful distance from the two women unlike the first time. Virgil Jr's remaining two sidekicks blended into the group of patrons now their great leader was no more. Their sheepish looks and mumbled apologies to all and sundry were mostly ignored, but a few began talking to them.

Sheriff Flannagan and his deputy rounded up the firearms involved in the shooting - including Mollie's Frontier Six - so everything could be catalogued and the details jotted down for posterity. The mustachioed sheriff remained at Mollie's spot on the sandy ground for a few moments like he was trying to think of something to say. Ultimately, a terse "We'll talk later… you, me and Mister Clayton Senior," was all that came from him before he turned away to supervise Deputy Bickleston leading Butch Miller to the prison.

"Can't wait…" Mollie mumbled.

'Stand clear, please! Coming through!' a distinguished male voice said from somewhere beyond the crowd. The spectators slowly fanned out to allow the doctor of Sundown Hills room to approach the scene. As he emerged carrying a large medical bag, he was dressed in pale-gray britches, a white shirt where the sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and finally an unusual accessory in the shape of a bib that had been tucked into the upper hem of his shirt.

Mollie stared wide-eyed at the surprising revelation that Doctor Willoughby was only in his early thirties and thus far younger than she. For some reason, she had expected the town doctor of Sundown Hills to be in his sixties at least - still, if he knew his trade, his age didn't matter. "Howdy, Doc," she said as the younger man knelt next to her. "I suppose I caught one," she added with a tired smile.

"Good evening, Miss Hammond. My name is Spencer Willoughby, fully qualified Doctor of Medicine. Yes, indeed… that is quite a ribbon you have won there. Please lie still for now," the doctor said as he took his first closer look at the seeping wound. He briefly glanced at Virgil's body that hadn't been attended to yet. "I suppose the prize awarded to second place would have been more permanent. Oh, and I must apologize for the curious neckwear. I've been away for most of the day delivering a baby. My wife had just served a late dinner, a delicious pot roast and sweet potatoes, when I was informed of the emergency," he continued as he took off the bib and shoved it into the medical bag.

Mollie chuckled at the unfortunate timing, but she was soon silenced by the fact that she had to clench her jaw hard when Doctor Willoughby began to clean the wound using wads of cotton soaked in pure alcohol.

While that took place, Josephine came running onto the street from the paved sidewalk carrying what appeared to be a large pile of money. "Mother! Mother, look here," she said, spreading out the bills that amounted to several hundred dollars' worth.

"Why, Josephine… where on earth did you get those?" Georgina said, needing to rub her eyes to take in the whole, glorious - but somewhat surprising - picture of the multitude of green bills. Most of them had been issued by various banks in California, but some were from as far away as Maryland, Florida and even Maine.

"The bookmakers! The odds for Mollie were terribly poor because everybody bet on Virgil to win… all but me, I think!" the younger Ruddock said, grinning from ear to ear at her cleverness.

Georgina eyed the money again before she pulled her daughter into a long hug. "Why, that's… that's… amazing! Mollie, did you hear that?"

Down on the ground, Mollie let out a groaning "Uh-huh…" through her clenched teeth. The wound had been painful enough to receive, but the cleaning turned out to be just as awful. It was no longer merely the devil himself dancing a merry jig in the wound, it appeared he had invited the whole, sulfur-stinking family to join him in the celebrations.

Doctor Willoughby leaned away from Mollie while baring his teeth in a concerned grimace. "I'm afraid I have bad news for you, Miss Hammond. Though the bullet that hit you was of a small caliber, it has shattered into three pieces inside you."

"Tarnation," Mollie croaked, staring wide-eyed at the doctor.

"Indeed. I have already retrieved the largest fragment, but I need to dig out the other two. You'll need a shot of morphine before I can go on," Spencer Willoughby continued as he reached for a rag to clean his blood-soaked hands.

Grimacing, Mollie sought out Georgina's support. The owner of the saloon tried to provide it, but it was clear she had turned deeply worried all over again from the bad news. Mollie sighed and focused on the doctor once more. "All right… you have my blessing. Just get it over with, Doc."

"I promise I'll work swiftly." After wiping his bloody hands on the rag, Doctor Willoughby reached into his medical bag to get a syringe and a small vial of morphine. It was the next item he pulled out that made the tough, retired outlaw pass out on the spot: a large pair of pliers.


The first person who entered Mollie Hammond's field of view when she came to a short while later was the ghoulish figure of J. Samson Ogilvie, Sundown Hills' undertaker. The somberly-dressed man hovered over her with his shiny top hat held to his chest like he was about to size her up for a pinewood casket after all. "Oh… crap," she croaked. When the undertaker smiled at her, she was hit by a wave of confusion.

The state of befuddlement was only allowed to last for a second before Georgina ran in between Mollie and the undertaker to put a hand on the wounded woman's face all over again. "No, no… don't worry, sweet Mollie. Mr. Ogilvie is here for Virgil Clayton. You are safe."

"Oh. Of course," Mollie croaked, trying to look past Georgina to get a look at the tall, rail-thin man in the black suit.

"Here, have some bourbon," Georgina continued, holding up a small glass containing a shot of the golden liquid. After Mollie had sipped a good portion of it, Georgina used a piece of cloth to wipe the wounded woman's lips. "Doctor Willoughby was able to dig out every fragment. Your wound has been dressed and he gave you an additional shot of morphine. He says you will be fine, if sore for a week."

The ghoulish undertaker offered Mollie another smile that transformed his face into something resembling a living, breathing human being. "Well, we did meet again, Miss Hammond," he said as he put on his top hat and tapped it with an index finger to make sure it sat just right on his well-groomed white locks. "Now if you will excuse me. I am needed elsewhere. Good evening."

" 'Evening, Mister," Mollie croaked, tracking the undertaker as he walked away. She smirked as she looked back at Georgina. "Sore for a week, huh? I can attest to that. Rather sore than saintly, though. Please… let me sit up. I've had about all the sand I can handle today."

Working in unison, Georgina and Mollie were able to get the latter into an upright position. Doctor Willoughby - who came over from treating a few cuts and bruises among the patrons who had been bumped around during the wild panic - offered a helping hand as well, and they were soon able to get Mollie back onto her feet.

It was with faltering steps that the wounded, retired outlaw staggered back to the Southern Belle saloon that she had come to be quite fond of during her stay in Sundown Hills. As she walked through the swinging doors with Georgina by her side offering her plenty of help by supporting her good arm, she was startled to see the chronically bustling establishment empty. Not a soul was in sight save for Josephine, and even she withdrew to the kitchen when the two older women entered. The poker and faro tables were empty, the bar counter was devoid of the usual throng of patrons, and the fifteen square tables in the eatery were all abandoned. Even the piano player and the singing girl had left. "What in the world… where is everybody?" Mollie said, fighting an urge to rub her eyes.

"Outside," Georgina said and steered Mollie over to the nearest chair. Once the wounded woman was seated, the owner of the establishment hurried back to the main entrance to lock the swinging doors by sliding the sturdy plank into the cast-iron slots. After making sure the plank was in place and impossible to manipulate from the outside, she slammed the two inner doors shut and twisted the brass key to lock the whole thing. "Because we're closed," she said, slipping the large key into one of her pockets as she moved back to Mollie.

Mollie nodded in understanding though the gesture tugged on her wound despite the shot of morphine she had received. The small tendril of pain that rose from the tender wound reminded her of something she needed to check out. "Oh, damnation… look at the state of my Sunday finest!" she croaked as she stared at the ugly, bloody tear that went all through her garments. "Virgil Clayton Junior, you low-down, dirty, rotten, no-good son of a so-and-so… Perhaps Mrs. Fisher's expert needle and thread can-"

"Phooey! There's no need to pay for what I can do for free," Georgina said vehemently. "I'll mend it for you later. Now-"

"Oh… would you do that?"

The innocent question caused Georgina to slam her hands onto her mature hips and stand up ramrod-straight in a mock display of hurt. "Why, Mollie Hammond! It insults me that you even have to ask!"

A few moments went by before Mollie broke out in a warm smile. Reaching out with her good hand, she pulled Georgina closer to her and once more marveled at the pale-blue orbs and the magical luster she found there. It didn't take long for the mock hurt in those orbs to melt and be replaced by warmth, friendliness and relief once more.

The two women were content with gazing at each other for a few moments - it was clear they were both thinking about what might have happened had the bullet from the palm pistol hit closer to the heart. Mollie sighed and let her callused fingers run down Georgina's aged cheek; the wistful smile it produced soothed her soul. "My second career as a gunslinger is over," she said quietly.


"But I think I'll stay here in Sundown Hills… at least for the time being. Oh, say thirty, thirty-five years or so. Maybe more. Unless you don't want me to…?" Mollie said and cocked her head as she awaited the reply.

"I very much want you to," Georgina husked before she closed the distance between them to hardly anything at all. Warm smiles were exchanged; then their eyes slipped shut and their lips met in a kiss that left no room on Planet Earth for anything, or anyone, but Mollie Hammond and Georgina Mae Ruddock…





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