Disclaimer : The two leading ladies in this story might bear a strong resemblance to a certain warrior princess and bard. The Elijans referenced in this story are followers of Eli, a character I borrowed from Xena: Warrior Princess, whom Tapert and Co. may or may not have borrowed from a prominent figure in The New Testament.
Sexual Content : This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal where you live, please do not read it. If depictions of sex, attraction, and/or love between adult women offends you, you might not want to read this story.
Summary : It's 1854 in the American West. Cora McCarty is a sheriff in the town of Redemption and she has a penchant for being the judge, jury, and executioner in her little piece of the frontier. Abigail is traveling with a group of missionaries. When she and her companions pass through Redemption, she challenges the sheriff's ways. Despite their differences, they seem drawn to one another .
(by Annazon Fox, February 2011, email@example.com)
With her boot on the man's chest, Cora aimed her rifle at his face. "I told you and your boys to stay out of my town, Walter."
Now that it was safe, the crowd of men and women huddled closer to the pair and murmured in agreement. They seemed to be emboldened watching the criminal writhe under the boot of their tall, strong sheriff.
"Murder. Kidnapping," Cora said, pressing her foot down a little harder with each crime. "Robbery."
"Hang him," a man yelled from the crowd.
Others echoed their approval of the suggestion.
Behind her, Cora heard the sound of horses approaching. By the sound of the creaking wheels in the dirt, she surmised they were pulling wagons. At least five of them.
Martin, her deputy turned and raised his rifle in warning at the approaching visitors.
"You kill me," Walter gasped, from the ground. "My men'll burn this shit-hole town to the ground."
Cora arched an eyebrow at him and pulled the rope tighter around his legs. "So I'll let you live. Maybe in the bottom of the well?"
The wagons grew closer and came to a stop near the crowd of townspeople. The bystanders anxiously shifted and parted for the wagons.
"Sheriff..." the deputy started, still holding aiming his rifle in the direction of the wagons.
"Hold your fire, Martin," Cora said softly, placing a hand at his back. "Get this criminal out of here."
The door to one of the wagons opened, with a creak. A sandal peeked out and then gingerly stepped to the ground.
Walter, lying in the dirt, spoke again. "I said, my men will set this shit-hole-"
"Shut up," Cora said, cracking the butt of her rifle across his jaw toward the direction of the wagons. She watched as strands of blood and saliva whipped out of the criminal's mouth and splattered on the sandal of the woman who had just exited the wagon.
The woman, wearing white robes, looked down at her foot in shock.
Cora took the small cigar from behind her ear and placed it between her lips, taking in the sight of the newcomer. Although the woman's mouth hung open, as though she were disgusted, she was attractive. Her hair was short and blond, and her eyes a piercing green. She wore a silver chain around her neck.
The crowd stared at her. Someone coughed and a few children snickered.
Looking away from the blood on her foot, the woman smiled and addressed the crowd. "Hello there. My name is Abigail. We are disciples of Eli."
Cora crossed her arms, the unlit cigar still hanging from her lips.
A bearded man poked his head out of the coach and the woman named Abigail smiled at him. "And this is Samuel. We are a family of missionaries, sent to teach the Way of Love."
Lighting her cigar, Cora considered these newcomers and then turned to her deputy. "Martin, put Walter in the jailhouse. Now. Tomorrow we hang him."
The deputy nodded, heaved the unconscious criminal over his shoulder, and began hauling him away.
"Miss," Cora said, turning back to the newcomers. "If ya'll insist on staying in Redemption, you're gonna need some boots." Tipping her wide-brimmed hat over her eyes, Cora hitched her rifle over her shoulder and walked toward the jailhouse without looking back.
"If Walter's thugs want a battle," Aaron said, as he poured whiskey into a tumbler. "They can have one. I say we take the war to them."
Cora rolled up the sleeves of her long jacket and reached for the tumbler, raised it to her lips, and closed her eyes as she swallowed. The liquid warmed her stomach before traveling nicely to her head. It was early evening and about a dozen people sat drinking, talking, and playing poker in the saloon.
"I'm not sending the people of this town to war," Cora whispered. It was early yet, so the saloon was quiet. The last thing she wanted was for the townspeople to start wagging their tongues about a potential skirmish with the Dixon bandits.
"Then let me send them," Aaron said, leaning in. "I know you want this."
"Aaron..." Cora said, shaking her head. Not anymore. She turned her back to the bar, not in the mood to have this conversation again.
"It's inevitable. Those men are going to destroy this town and kill hundreds of people. You may be on an extended guilt trip these days, but you know I have a way of inspiring a certain lust... for battle."
"And by inspiration you mean 'get people drunk and promise them gold for fighting,'" said a high-pitched voice. Rose waltzed out of the saloon's kitchen. "Sorry to interrupt, brother," she continued, kissing Aaron on the cheek. "But I heard we have a whole mess of new folks headed over."
"The people will fight," Aaron said, wiping his cheek and ignoring his sister's comment. "They want to defend their town."
"And that's what they'll do," Cora said. "Defend their town. And only defend it. No wild-goose chases over to the Dixon ranch. After we hang Walter, we're going to post sentries at all entrances to the town. Just like we talked about."
"Here they come," Rose said, looking out of one of the saloon's few windows. "I can't say those robes they're wearing are the most flattering or practical clothes around these parts. I suppose they'll want to eat. Probably drink too."
"Probably not," Cora said. "They're missionaries."
"Sentries," Aaron said flatly. "Whatever you say, sheriff." He turned to a customer who approached the bar and then abruptly turned back toward Cora and Rose. "Did you say they're missionaries?"
Cora nodded. "They rolled in this morning." She took a pull of whiskey as the saloon doors swung open and the blond woman from the wagon entered, followed by a dozen other people wearing similar robes.
"Oh Tartarus," Aaron said, rolling his eyes and turning away.
"How exciting," Rose said brightly. She then walked over to the visitors. "Hi there. Welcome to the Babbling Bard Saloon. My name's Rose. My brother Aaron and I run this establishment. He's that good-lookin' fella at the bar."
After the proper introductions, Rose looped her arm in Abigail's and began leading her around the saloon, introducing the missionaries to various patrons.
Aaron whispered angrily to Cora. "You know what these people do, don't you? Try to bring us what we left behind. Civilization. Rules. Judgment." Aaron continued muttering under his breath, but Cora mostly just kept her eyes on Abigail. The man, Samuel, was not with them. The group seemed to defer to Abigail, as though they respected her. Abigail smiled often, as Rose introduced her to people. It was a smile that lit up her whole face. That was something Cora wasn't used to. Not in Redemption.
The group finally approached Aaron and Cora, near the bar. "And here is my infamous brother, Aaron. Part-owner of the saloon and financier of the Redemption militia."
"Finance-a-what-a?" Aaron said, as he wiped a glass with his towel.
"And this tall, dark, and brooding lady is our sheriff-" Rose started.
"Cora McCarty," Abigail said, holding Cora's gaze. "I know."
Cora nodded her head once in greeting.
"Oh don't be such a barbarian," Rose said. "Greet her proper."
Cora rolled her eyes but slid off her bar stool and extended her hand to Abigail. When the blond woman's eyes creased as she began to smile, Abigail suddenly felt embarrassed about their earlier awkward introduction.
Their hands touched. Abigail had a surprisingly strong grip. It was firm, without trying to dominate. Her hand was warm and calloused, indicating that she had not lived a pampered life. Perhaps these missionaries would last longer here than Cora had first thought.
"Welcome to Redemption, ma'am," Cora said. "What's your business here?" Even Cora winced a little as she said it.
Rose slapped her on the back. "Really, sheriff. Let these kind folks get settled in first before you start interrogating them."
"No, it's okay," Abigail said. "We understand. You don't want any trouble. Neither do we. We're traveling the Zion Trail. If you'll have us, we're looking to replenish our supplies, repair our wagons, and rest. We don't have much in the way of currency, but some of us are skilled in trades, so we can barter. And, as missionaries, we want to serve your town where needed and offer spiritual guidance to your people."
"You staying in Redemption long then?" Aaron said, inserting himself into the conversation.
Rose shot him a dirty look. "Brother, why don't we let Abigail speak with the sheriff while we seat the kind missionaries for supper."
Aaron rolled his eyes, but helped Rose lead the missionaries to their seats.
"We leave when we are called to leave," Abigail told Cora as the others left the two women alone at the bar.
"We don't mind you here," Cora said, and then shook her head. "I'm sorry, that came out rude. We're glad you're here." Her face red, she began fidgeting with her tumbler. "People like...you don't usually stop in Redemption. Elijans usually take the north pass to Zion. We get more miners and riff-raff than anything to tell you the truth."
"Then it sounds like we're needed here more than ever."
"We do pretty well with maintaining civility around here, if that's what you mean."
"I meant no offense, sheriff. We are excited about spreading the Way of Love in new settlements. What better place than the frontier to teach non-violence and love?"
Cora continued to fidget with her tumbler. She eyed the missionaries seated at the table. They were talking and laughing with one another. "I admire what you people are trying to do," she said, and took a drink of her whiskey. "But sometimes the frontier needs a backup plan to your ways."
"And your way is the backup plan?" Abigail smiled as her hand reached toward Cora's. "May I?"
Without explanation, Abigail picked up the tumbler and tossed the last of the whiskey down her gullet.
Cora's eyes widened. "I... wow. I didn't know you people drank."
"There's a lot you don't know about people like me, sheriff," she said, closing her eye. "And there's a lot I don't know about you other than that you're a powerful woman in this town whose violent reputation precedes her."
Now Cora began feeling defensive. "Now wait a minute-"
"We are on your side," Abigail said, putting up a hand. "But I can't promise you that we're not going to challenge your way. You are law and order around here, I saw that with my own two eyes yesterday. But as a missionary, I cannot render unto Caesar what is Eli's-"
"Walter Dixon is a murderer. Innocent lives are at stake-"
"You just let us know when we've worn out our welcome, sheriff," Abigail said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I believe the ham and fried potatoes have arrived at our table so I'm going to join my companions now." She then abruptly turned and left Cora standing open-mouthed and speechless at the bar holding an empty tumbler.
The next morning, Cora calibrated the rope and fixed the noose around Walter's neck as she stood on the wooden platform. "You have any last words?"
"Just hurry up." Despite his attempted bravado, the man seemed shaken. His skin was a pasty pale. Although he was known for being a particularly brutal member of the Dixon gang, he didn't seem to care much for being on this end of the rope.
"I'll be happy to oblige."
Dramatics were unnecessary, Walter at least seemed to know that much. Unlike in some towns, executions in Redemption were not a public affair. It was something Cora did alone. The point of hangings was to keep people safe, not serve as a spectacle. The body was left hanging for several days to serve as a warning to outsiders who might come and stir up trouble.
"How much you getting for me?" Walter asked.
"There a bounty on your head?" Cora tied the rope. Honestly, she didn't know.
"There better be."
Cora chuckled. As she descended the platform, she scanned the horizon. Miles of empty land lay between the mountains in the distance and the small billboard welcoming folks to Redemption. It was the last stop for many travelers before they reached the mining villages or other more exciting destinations. Of course, some chose to stay here indefinitely.
Taking hold of the trapdoor lever at the base of the platform, Cora closed her eyes. Maker help me, she thought.
"What are you waiting for?" Walter yelled.
Cora seemed to feel the thumping of the hooves before she actually saw her deputy, Martin, approaching on horseback. She looked up from under the brim of her hat and saw that he came from the direction of the town, dust following his trail. Squinting, Cora stepped in front of the platform. This had better be important.
"Sheriff," Martin started, pausing to catch his breath. "Thought I should warn you."
"The Dixon brothers?" Cora asked. They might have approached from the west end of town.
"No, it's..." he said, shifting uncomfortably on his horse.
"Spit it out, Martin."
"Well, it's not them-"
Cora heard the sound of more horses galloping toward them. She looked past Martin, in the direction from which he came. "They get past the sentries?" Cora asked, reaching over her shoulder for her rifle. Cora noticed that Martin wasn't reaching for his rifle and, while he seemed anxious, he did not appear frightened. The sheriff narrowed her eyes as the figures approached. "What in the..." she said, taking notice of the white robes flowing from the figures who rode the horses.
"That's right," Martin said. "The missionaries."
Cora re-holstered her rifle and stood in front of the platform, crossed her arms, and raised her eyebrows at Martin.
"I believe they're coming to... protest," he said.
Cora exhaled loudly and watched the missionaries approach and then stop once they were about 10 feet from the platform. There were ten people, in all. Abigail was sharing a horse with the man from the wagon, Samuel, and they led the group.
"Elijans," Cora said with a nod. "I'm afraid this execution isn't a public event."
"We're not here to observe," Abigail said, jumping down from the horse.
"No?" Cora said.
"We're here to request this man's pardon."
"On what grounds? He's guilty."
Samuel dismounted the horse too and stepped forward. Abigail stepped back and an air of expectation hung in the air, as the other missionaries waited for him to speak.
"Eli said to love your enemies. To do good to those who do evil," he said.
From the platform, Walter snorted.
Cora scratched her head, annoyed. "It's not that simple."
"Sometimes, when we pardon others. We are pardoned ourselves."
"Sometimes, when we pardon others, they come back and kill innocent people," Cora said.
Samuel stepped back, and nodded solemnly to his companions, who began to dismount their horses.
"So you are refusing our request, sheriff?" Abigail asked.
"This man has murdered and robbed countless innocent people. Travelers on their way to the mines. Two citizens of Redemption. Our people are afraid to leave town."
"So you are refusing?" Abigail repeated.
"I believe I am, miss," Cora said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, this is not a public event."
Abigail stepped back and looked at Samuel. They seemed to have a conversation without words. They then nodded to the men and women in their group. Immediately, the missionaries joined hands and formed a semi-circle in front of the platform. Samuel approached the platform and began climbing the steps.
Martin slid off his horse and looked at Cora with his eyebrows raised.
"Sir, you're going to have to step down from there," Cora said.
Ignoring her, Samuel stood upon the platform, near Walter. He closed his eyes and began whispering, as if praying, to the criminal.
Walter merely looked at the man with a mixture of amusement and curiosity.
Cora walked toward the steps. "Sir..."
But Samuel wouldn't budge.
The missionaries, holding hands, eyed their leader.
"You people are going to have to leave," Cora said, addressing them.
"All I asked was for this to be quick-like," Walter chimed in, standing on the trapdoor of the platform.
"You heard the man," Cora said to Samuel. "Now get out of here."
"We're holding a vigil for this man's soul," Abigail said, with tears in her eyes. "We have that right at least."
Cora exhaled and looked again at Samuel. She closed and opened her hands, the looked at Martin, who shrugged. Damn these people. And that woman. She was trouble. "Martin," Cora said. "Arrest him."
"Sheriff?" Martin said.
"Take him in," Cora said, nodding toward Samuel. She walked toward the base of the platform and took hold of the lever again.
Martin nodded, walked up the platform, and tentatively touched Samuel on the back. He took out a crude pair of cuffs and put them around Samuel's wrists. The missionary offered no resistance.
"Arrest him?" Abigail said stepping toward Cora, her voice rising. "What for?"
"Disturbing the peace," Cora said.
"You can't be serious-" Abigail said, putting her hand on the sheriff's arm.
The missionaries began murmuring.
"Abby," Samuel said, looking at her. "Everyone. It's okay."
"You people are interfering with criminal procedure," Cora said, looking at Abigail's hand on her arm.
"Procedure?" Abigail said. "I haven't seen much procedure happen."
"Abby..." Samuel warned, shaking his head and looking at her hand on the sheriff's arm. He looked at Cora. "Do what you have to do to me, sheriff."
Still holding the sheriff's arm, Abigail tried to plead with her eyes.
"You're under arrest too, ma'am," Cora said, yanking her arm from Abigail's and turning away from the missionaries. "For public nuisance."
Less than a minute later, Martin had Samuel on horseback and the two were headed back toward town. Before they were even out of sight, Cora pulled the lever. In dry air, the trapdoor fell open and the sickening crack of a neck breaking could be heard.
Some of the missionaries gasped in horror while others turned away as Walter's body swung on the rope.
"You did it," Abigail said quietly, looking sadly at Walter's limp body.
"Show's over, folks," Cora said, taking out a cigar.
"We don't have separate cells for men and women," Cora said, from behind Abigail. "So you're going to be put in with your husband. No hanky-panky either." They were riding Cora's beloved horse, Danos.
"Right," Abigail said under her breath.
"I assume your companions are staying at Hestia's?" Cora said, speaking of the inn. They'd probably filled it to capacity.
"I'll only keep ya'll overnight," Cora said. Just enough to show everyone that these missionaries wouldn't undermine her authority in the town. "You can even do your noble prayer thing, and I won't mind. Jax, might though. He's the town drunk, in for petty theft again."
The two rode on in silence. It was probably unnecessary, but Cora had put cuffs on Abigail as well. It was a formality. Although, now she now had to support much of Abigail's weight as they rode. Abigail's body rocked into Cora's with each step. With the rising temperature and their closeness, Cora was starting to sweat.
"We're not married," Abigail said, breaking the silence.
"Samuel and I."
"Well, we don't care if two people are in wedlock around here," Cora said. "What you do in the privacy of your bedroom is nobody's business."
"You think we..." Abigail said, chuckling. "No. It's not like that."
"Not like what, exactly?" Cora said, trying to bait the missionary. Cora knew how flustered this topic could make people like-
"We don't have intercourse," Abigail said, abruptly. "That's what you're implying, right?"
"Wha- I see," Cora tried to cover up her surprise at the woman's openness. "I couldn't do a vow of chastity myself. But good for ya'll."
"We have talked about being together romantically. But Samuel is a prophet of Eli's. It wouldn't be appropriate. We love each other, but it's not a physical love."
Cora was, again, left speechless.
"You aren't used to such frank discussions, sheriff?"
"You just surprise me," Cora said. They passed the two sentries stationed near the general store at the edge of town. Cora tipped her hat at them and they nodded back.
"A lady sheriff," Abigail said. "I didn't completely believe the rumors, to tell you the truth."
"That right?" Cora said, herself starting to feel baited into a conversation she didn't particularly want to have.
"They seem to respect you," Abigail said. "The people in Redemption."
"I only care about keeping them safe."
The two were silent as they passed the inn and then the saloon.
"And we, I mean I... can respect that. Even if I don't agree with how you go about doing that."
"I get it. You would be okay with letting innocent people die as long as you don't come away with blood on your hands."
Cora felt Abigail stiffen. But, it was true. Cora saw it with people like her all the time. Some people did the dirty work, and others got to be self-righteous about not having to do it.
As they passed the saloon, Rose hollered out the window, "Hey you two, come and get some lunch."
"Sorry Rose," Cora said, trying to sound cheerful. "Gotta take the criminal in."
Abigail smiled and held up her manacled wrists.
Rose looked like she was about to lay into Cora, but the sheriff shot her a look telling her to keep her mouth shut.
Aaron poked his head out the window and chuckled.
"That's how you see us?" Abigail said, as they continued on to the jailhouse. "As people who sit by and watch others be killed?"
"Look," Cora said, she hadn't wanted to get into this. "I'm not good at debatin'. But I can tell you that the Dixon gang, the one that Walter was a part of, killed my brother..."
"I'm sorry," Abigail said, turning. Her face rested close to Cora's neck. "I didn't know..."
"Don't be," Cora said softly. "It was my fault."
"I'm sure it wasn't-"
"It was," Cora said. "I went down the wrong path when I was younger. I was part of the Dawes' gang. A big part, actually." As she opened up, it felt okay to be talking about this. "The Aaron Dawes' gang."
"Aaron. From the saloon?" Abigail said softly.
"That's right," Cora said. "Fighting, shooting, riding. I learned most of it from him. He and I were...well, we led the gang."
"The Dixon bandits killed Lucas, my brother, in this town. He was innocent. But they did it because they were feuding with my gang. They did it to hurt me."
"And then you just stayed here?"
"Yes," Cora said. "I owe this town a debt. I owe a lot of people a debt. But whatever else happens, I will keep these people safe."
"That's not all on you."
"Two years after my brother was killed," Cora said, her mind already made up about her obligations. "Aaron followed me. Said he had a falling out with his gang. Together, we protect the town. From bandits, from the Dixons..."
"From missionaries." Abigail smiled and looked up at Cora.
Cora chuckled as they pulled to a stop in front of the jailhouse. "That's right. There's all kinds of dangerous folk in the frontier." She jumped down from her horse and extended her arms to help Abigail down. She easily guided the missionary to the ground, their bodies inches from one another.
Abigail looked into Cora's blue eyes as the sheriff continued to hold her waist. "You're... not exactly what I thought you would be, sheriff."
"I don't know if that's good or bad, ma'am," Cora said, looking away. She let go of the missionary's waist.
"It's good," Abigail said, continuing to study Cora. "It's good." She lifted her hands and brushed a strand of the sheriff's dark hair from her face. It had come loose from her long braid. As she did so, the sun glinted off her handcuffs, causing both women to laugh.
Flustered, Cora remembered her purpose. "Well, I should-"
"Right, right," Abigail stammered, and held out her hands.
Cora led the missionary into the jailhouse, not sure what to think.
xxxx Chapter Two xxxx
"They want to what?" Cora asked, a week later, in the saloon.
"Build a temple," Harriet said.
"I thought they were just passin' through," Aaron said, from his place behind the bar.
Cora felt a tightening in her gut, thinking of the missionaries leaving. After Abigail and Samuel spent an uneventful night- well unless Jax's drunken, incoherent ramblings counted as eventful- in the jailhouse, Cora started getting used to seeing the gentle souls around Redemption. They had a soft presence about them. One that was welcome in this hard terrain.
"They are just passing through," Harriet said. "Some of us just think it would be... nice. You know, to have a temple in town."
Aaron rolled his eyes and tended to a customer.
"And they're having you ask me for permission... why?" Cora asked.
"Well, they think it would be good to get your approval. What with your arrest of them and all, they don't want to step on any toes."
Oh sure, rub the jail thing in. It was smart of them though, Cora had to hand it to them, to persuade Martin's wife first. "And who's going to lead this temple once they're gone?"
"I thought I might," Harriet said, straightening up.
Cora laughed. "You realize you're married to my deputy, ma'am? And that he doesn't exactly follow this Way of Love?"
"I do realize that," Harriet said. "And I don't expect that to interfere with anything."
"Does he know about this plan of yours?"
"He does," Harriet said. "Not that I need his permission anyhow."
"Come on, sheriff," Rose added, having apparently been eavesdropping. "This town could use a little more love." She ran her hand down Cora's back as she passed by, causing Cora to straighten.
"Aaron," Cora said, nodding to her tumbler for a refill.
He quickly obliged. "You're not seriously considering this are you?" he whispered.
Cora took a shot of the whiskey and looked around the saloon. At one table were the Cahill brothers, playing poker again. They'd surely end their game with a fistfight, like they always did. Rose flirted with all four of them as she carried a platter of her trademark fried potatoes. At the piano, Johnny was playing a tune and looking annoyed as Jax tried to put words to it in his screechy voice. Doc Catherine was sitting at the bar, chomping on a cigar by herself, no doubt ogling Rose every time she passed by.
"I'll tell you what, Harriet, " Cora said. "Those people stay out of my hair, they can build their temple."
"Cora?" Aaron said, appalled. "What the-"
"People around here need something to do besides make trouble," Cora said.
Harriet let out a squee and hugged Cora tightly. "Thank you sheriff. Just thank you. We're going to get started right away. I'll let Samuel and Abby know."
Cora felt her mood lift as she thought of Harriet putting in a good word for her with the latter of that pair.
Sitting atop her horse, Cora arrived just as one of the missionaries finished instructing the group on where to place some of the wooden planks. At first sight, this temple-raising looked to be a pretty orderly affair. The men, women, and children alike had rolled up their sleeves and had been working hard for the past week. A dozen or so folks from town had joined in, clearly excited about the new temple. It looked like it was coming along nicely.
Redemption had two long strips of buildings, with homesteads scattered here and there between the few businesses and surrounding the strips. The temple would be located at the far end of town. The frame of the multi-roomed building was already standing. Walking out from behind one of the frames, Cora spotted Abigail. She was carrying a long board with another missionary, and was apparently in the middle of telling him a story.
"Sheriff," Cora heard a familiar voice. Turning, she saw that it was Harriet, smiling. "Thanks for stopping by. We're about to break for lunch. Join us."
"I can't stay long," Cora said, tipping her hat. "Just thought I'd see how things were progressing." Truth was, she had been seeing how things were progressing every day. At least from afar. She and the missionaries had a truce. She didn't much bother them, and they mostly stayed clear of her.
"Nonsense," Harriet said. "You can take a short break."
"I'm busy, ma'am, but I will take a look around if you don't mind."
Dismounting her horse, the sheriff began walking around the perimeter of the structure, dodging the busy missionaries and smiling at their friendly banter. The frame looked sturdy. She'd certainly helped with enough buildings to know that much. Turning a corner, she saw Abigail again, now hammering a nail into a board. The woman was shorter than Cora, but she was strong nonetheless. The sun had darkened her skin and somewhat lightened her hair. She was still wearing one of those robes, although her footwear was different now.
Cora smiled. "Those are some nice boots."
Abigail turned abruptly, and smiled. "Sheriff."
"Good to see you," Cora said, tipping her hat.
"You were right about the boots. Sandals don't make much sense out here."
They both intently studied Abigail's boots, unsure of what to say next. "You know-" they both started, then stopped, awkwardly waiting for the other to continue.
Cora gestured for Abigail to continue.
"I just wanted to thank you," Abigail said. "I think this temple will be good for the town."
"I think so too," Cora said. "I just hope the people don't disappoint you."
"What do you mean?"
"Things are just different out here than they are back east," Cora said. "But it seems you're catching on to that."
"Yes, we are. But Eli said that when people learn of his teachings, the wolf will live with the lamb, and the calf with the lion. We have hope."
"I believe you do."
The two remained silent for what seemed like minutes, watching the others scurry about. Cora felt strange, wishing she somehow had something profound to say.
"How are you doing, sheriff?" Abigail said. "You are still having difficulties with the Dixon gang, I believe...?"
"It's fine, ma'am."
"Please, call me Abby. When you call me 'ma'am' I keep thinking you're addressing my mother."
Cora chuckled. "Will do."
"Well," Abby said. Noting the sheriff's uneasiness, she held Cora's gaze. "I hope you can at least talk to somebody about your troubles."
Cora looked at Abby suspiciously, wondering what her motives were. She had heard of the concept of killing one's enemies with kindness, and she reckoned that was maybe what this missionary was up to.
"Oh, don't look at me like that," Abby said. She then leaned in and more softly added, "Well, I have been thinking about you. And praying for you."
Cora blushed and began fidgeting with a nail that was sticking out of a plank. "Well, I... we've been sending scouts to check up on the Dixon gang. They haven't been mobilizing yet in response to the... execution. We're keeping an eye on the situation." In truth, it had been Cora mostly who had been checking on the gang around the clock for the past two weeks, getting as dangerously close to their ranch as she could without being seen.
"That sounds stressful," the missionary said, putting a hand on Cora's arm. It felt warm. Gentle. "I'm sure the citizens of Redemption are very grateful."
"Thank you," Cora said, her heartbeat speeding up upon Abby's touch. Her uneasiness seemed to leave her, trumped by something more primal. She felt drawn to this kind woman. She looked at Abby's hand on her arm, and then made eye contact with her.
Abby's pupils dilated and her lips parted.
Certain she wasn't misinterpreting the situation, Cora leaned in. She was sure she felt the missionary even pull her in a little.
"The sheriff's going to kiss Abby," hollered an annoying voice.
Startled, Cora pulled away.
Rounding the corner was Jax, drunk in the middle of the day like always. Laughing, he walked right past the two women and tripped over a board. That, at least, shut him up.
However, the other missionaries and builders had stopped what they were doing and were now staring in the direction of Cora and Abby, talking in hushed voices.
The sheriff and an Elijan missionary. Oh boy. That gossip was going to travel around Redemption faster than quicksilver.
Never good at talking on the spot, Cora stood speechless, mouth opening and closing like a codfish. Even the talkative Abby didn't seem to know what to say. Her hands were folded gently in front of her and she looked down.
"Alright everyone," Samuel said, breaking the silence. "Let's break for lunch."
The tension broke as people cheered, eager for a meal. Cora looked gratefully at Samuel, who winked at her before turning away.
The sheriff immediately turned to Abby. "I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head. "I misread. Hades, you're a missionary. I-"
"Cora," Abby said, taking hold of Cora's hand as she tried to turn away.
Cora exhaled. Even though she wanted to get on her horse and get as far away from here as fast as she could, she stayed put. She had known this woman would be trouble.
"In two days, we're having a feast in celebration of the new temple."
Cora nodded, not understanding. "That's fine. You don't need my permission for every-"
"I'm not asking you for permission."
"Oh," Cora said.
"I'm asking if you will come to the celebration."
"Oh," Cora said.
"Oh," Cora said. "Yeah. Um, yes."
"Great," Abby said, smiling. "It was a pleasure talking to you, sheriff." She squeezed Cora's hand and turned to join her companions.
"The pleasure was mine." As Cora walked to her horse, she found a little strut in her walk. The beautiful missionary had just invited her to dinner. That meant she might not have minded what had almost happened.
Sweet baby Eli, maybe there was a god.
"Party with a bunch of Elijans?" Aaron said, sitting on the porch of the saloon. "How exciting."
"So don't go," Cora said. Leaning against a post, smoking a cigar.
"Don't plan on it," Aaron said, rising. "You know, wasn't too long ago you wouldn't have either."
Cora didn't answer, as she looked at the townspeople passing by. Rose was down the street, carrying two large sacks of potatoes.
"Don't tell me they're getting to you," Aaron said. "Last thing this town needs is a sheriff who's into that Eli shit."
"You don't have to tell me that."
"Don't I?" Aaron said, standing. "We should have attacked the Dixon bandits a fortnight ago. So why haven't we?"
"We're not going looking for trouble," Cora said. "We've been down that road before. I won't risk any more of the militia right now."
"Hey ya'll," Rose said, as she walked up the steps of the porch. "Give me a hand will ya?"
Aaron and Cora quickly took the bags from her and followed her into the saloon.
"Thought we got potatoes yesterday," Aaron said, once they reached the kitchen.
"Abby stopped by earlier and put in an order," Rose said. "For their celebration." As Rose put the potatoes in the bin, she looked at Cora. "She really is a sweet gal, you know."
"That right?" Aaron said, watching Cora.
"You going?" Cora asked Rose, ignoring Aaron. She knew full well Rose wasn't one to miss a party.
"Of course," Rose said. "I have a dress order in with Sally. Thought I'd wear something special. You should try it, sheriff."
"Dresses aren't exactly suitable for law enforcement, Rose," Cora said. She'd already planned on wearing her nice black trench coat, with the matching vest and pants.
"And trench coats aren't fit for parties," Rose said.
"I'll take it under advisement," Cora said, wanting to get out of the conversation. "Now, if you'll excuse me, Rose, I have some patrolling to do before the sun goes down." She tipped her hat in Rose's direction and walked out of the kitchen.
"Stay safe," Rose hollered after her.
As the sheriff walked toward her horse in front of the saloon, her heart was beating quickly and she wasn't entirely sure why. Preparing to hitch herself onto her horse, she felt a presence behind her. Exhaling, she turned.
"Does she know you're a cold-blooded killer," Aaron said, his arms crossed.
"That's not what I am anymore."
"Don't deny what you are, Cora. You may be able to fool her for a while, but she'll find out one of these days. You're just going to end up hurting her."
"Stop it, Aaron." Cora pulled herself into the saddle. "She knows what I was."
"Does she, really? The villages burned? The men, women, and children beaten and robbed? She knows all of it?"
"Stop," Cora said, her face red.
"You have a lot in common with the missionary?" Aaron said, chuckling.
Cora pulled on Danos' reigns, urging the horse onward.
"I tell you what, Cora. You have your fun with her and then you come back to me when you want someone you can really connect with."
Red with anger, Cora pulled harder on the reigns, urging the horse into a trot. Fighting back tears, she brought Danos to a sprint, riding like hell to forget Aaron's cruel words. Riding like hell to make them feel less true.
Smoothing her long jacket and fidgeting with the buttons, Cora waited for someone to answer the door to Hestia's. Coming from within the inn, she could hear voices talking excitedly. She went back and forth in her head between wanting to get out of town and wanting to stay put. Before she could make up her mind either way, she heard the sound of footfalls approaching the door.
"Sheriff," Abby said, smiling. Instead of her missionary robe, she was wearing a long black skirt with a red tunic. She wore a silver chain and pendant around her neck. On her feet were her new boots. Her face was flushed and tan from her work outside. She was stunning. Despite being in Redemption for a little more than two weeks, she was wearing that combination of ruggedness and vulnerability well.
"You look...." Cora started. "Very nice."
"Thank you," Abby said.
"I didn't realize you were allowed to wear other clothes."
"We do for special occasions," Abby said. "But yes, we do live a simple life. I see sheriffs in Redemption aren't allowed formal wear?"
Cora blushed, regretting not having taken Rose's advice.
"Sheriff," Abby said, smiling, "I was teasing you." She hooked her arm into Cora's. "You look very... handsome. Like always."
"I... thank you," Cora said, the red fading from her face. "Shall we? I thought we could take a stroll through town before the party. There's something I want to show you."
Hestia's Inn was located in the middle of town. Walking arm-in-arm, Cora led Abby to a trail in the brush, behind the building facades.
"Are we going wading in Styx Creek?" Abby asked, chuckling and unsure.
"No, come on," Cora said, holding aside some branches so Abby could pass.
Although it was twilight, a fully moon was in the sky, lighting their way. Besides, Cora knew this path very well. When a coyote howled in the distance, Abby took Cora's hand.
"Do you want to turn back?" Cora asked.
"No," Abby said, shaking her head. "I have a feeling what's at the end of this trail is worth it."
After about a quarter-mile of walking, Cora veered off the path and tramped through the tall grass. "Watch your skirt," she said, watching Abby pull her skirt up to her knees.
A critter scampered in front of them, clearing out of their way.
"Close your eyes," Cora said, hooking her arm into Abby's. "It's okay."
Abby did so and let Cora guide her through the grass. After a few minutes of walking, they reached a clearing overlooking the creek.
"Okay, open your eyes now," Cora whispered. Standing next to Abby, she admired the view down below. In the moonlight, below them, was the creek. To their left was a small waterfall, about four feet tall. It wasn't much, but Cora liked to think that it was her secret.
"It's beautiful, Cora," Abby said quietly. "How did you find this?"
"Patrolling. I like to come here sometimes. Just sit and think."
They stood in silence for several minutes, taking in the sound of the water. The sun had completely set and taken with it most of the day's heat.
Abby turned to Cora, putting a hand at her waist. "Thank you... for showing this to me."
"You're welcome," Cora said, feeling nervous. "I thought it'd be nice for you." She looked away, feeling Abby trying to look into her eyes. She had been trying to get Aaron's words out of her head for days. Yet, despite her differences with Abby, she felt undeniably drawn to her.
"What is it?" Abby asked, placing a hand at Cora's face.
Cora exhaled and pulled her face away. "I'm not sure what your intentions are," she said. "With me. You're an Elijan..."
"And the Elijan way is of love," Abby said, turning Cora's head to look into her eyes. "Maybe it's that simple."
"Don't you have vows and all that?"
Abby chuckled, "We can cross that covered bridge when we come to it."
Cora blushed, trying to turn her head away. "I'm sorry, I wasn't implying-"
"It's okay," Abby said, making Cora look into her eyes. "Those are fair questions."
"There's a lot you don't know about me," Cora said, abruptly.
"I know enough," Abby said.
"I doubt it."
With her hand still on Cora's face, she moved her thumb toward Cora's mouth. Cora took the thumb into her mouth and sucked it gently, closing her eyes. With a sharp intake of breath, Abby replaced the thumb with her mouth, touching her lips to the sheriff's. She pressed into Cora's body, looping her arms around her neck.
As her lips made contact with Abby's, something long dormant awakened in Cora. Tentative at first, she used her tongue to slightly open Abby's mouth while she pulled her closer. She felt hungry for this woman. Moving her hands to Abby's waist, she thought about slipping them inside the tunic. Damn thing had so many buttons.
She felt Abby's warm tongue softly touching her own and she began to feel a sense of urgency. It had been years, really, since she had touched another person like this. Cora tried moving her hands higher to caress Abby's nipples through her tunic, but the missionary stopped her, intertwining their fingers instead.
Letting that plan fall by the wayside, at least for the moment, Cora contented herself with kissing Abby. She felt Abby's breath quicken as Cora's kisses became more aggressive, purposeful. Deep within her body, she yearned for more. Judging by the moans she was hearing, she believed Abby did too.
Yet, slowly, Abby pulled away and opened her eyes. "Does that make my intentions clear enough for you, sheriff?" Abby's face was flushed with desire. That pure look in her face had been replaced by something far less timid.
Cora nodded, breathless. "Very clear. Yes." She moved back in, seeking Abby's lips, but Abby put a hand to her chest, gently but firmly stopping her.
"I want this with you," she said, pecking Cora on the lips and then quickly pulling away. "But..."
Cora searched Abby's eyes, waiting, breathing hard.
"I need to take this slow," Abby said, finally.
Inhaling sharply and trying to calm herself down, Cora nodded. "It's complicated, I know..."
"In a way, yes," Abby said, still touching Cora's chest. "But in other ways, no."
"It's fine," Cora said. She suddenly began feeling foolish for letting herself get her hopes up. As if this beautiful woman would love her. Maybe even stay in Redemption. Abby was on a pilgrimage. Her spiritual life was more important than any passing feelings. "We should get going to the party."
"Come on," Cora said. Despite feeling let down, she smiled and held out her arm for the missionary to take, promising herself to try to just have a pleasant time tonight. Tomorrow she would let herself think about Abby leaving.
"The physical foundation of this building is wood," Samuel said, standing in the open-air sanctuary in the middle of the temple. "But the spiritual foundation is love." Samuel, Abby, and Harriet stood on a small podium in the middle of the sanctuary. The missionaries and townspeople had gathered and were listening intently to his dedication.
"She's beautiful, Cora," Rose whispered, nodding at Abby."You think they're allowed to... you know..." She continued, raising her eyebrows suggestively.
"Rose, stop it," Cora whispered sharply.
"What?" Rose said, feigning innocence. "Eli help you if she's taken a vow of chastity."
Indeed, thought Cora.
"And even though we are departing soon," Samuel was saying. "I urge you to remember that a temple isn't where you show you are an Elijan. It is easy for us to love each other and those like us, but you show you are an Elijan in those places in the world where doing so would be difficult."
The crowd murmured their agreement.
"And Eli help you if you're in love with that woman," Rose whispered.
As Cora watched Abby stand on the platform, Cora's shoulders slumped a bit and her smile faded.
"You are," Rose said excitedly. "I knew it."
Several townspeople turned and hushed Rose.
"Sorry," she whispered to them. "Cora...you can't let her leave."
"Can't let her? I can't ask her to choose Redemption over Zion. This Elijan thing is her path."
The audience began applauding. Samuel's speech had ended and people began milling about, mingling with one another and drinking wine.
"You'd let her go that easily? You can't be serious," Rose said.
"Serious about what?" Abby said, appearing next to Cora.
"I contend that the sheriff of Redemption is a coward," Rose said.
Cora shot her a warning look, telling her to drop that line of conversation.
"I think she's been plenty brave," Abby said, winking at Cora. "So far tonight, anyway."
"Do tell," Rose said, always eager to hear lascivious gossip.
"Coming to Elijan party," Abby said. "I mean."
Rose laughed. "Nicely played, Abigail."
Harriet approached the group of women and Cora tipped her hat in greeting.
"Abby, it's going to break my heart when all of ya'll leave," Harriet said.
Abby smiled. "The temple will be left in good hands.."
Harriet blushed. "Thank you. I won't let you down."
"Martin here with you?" Cora asked.
"He was earlier," Harriet said. "But he left before the speeches. Said he had some business to take care of?" She looked at Cora.
"Business?" Cora asked, frowning. An uneasy feeling lodged in the pit of her stomach. She always knew the comings and goings of her deputies.
"Anyway," Harriet continued, addressing Rose and Abby. "You think I sounded okay up there?"
"Definitely," Rose said.
As the women chatted, Cora began surveying the party. Something was off. Near the wine table, Samuel and a group of missionaries were talking to Sally and her two grown daughters. Running amok around the chairs, playing tag, were some of the children. Several teenagers were trying to herd them into a more organized circle. Scattered throughout the sanctuary were groups of older adults, talking and laughing.
"Cora," Abby said softly. "Is everything okay?"
It was the militia. None of the men and women in it were at the party.
"It's," Cora said, her voice feeling very quiet. "Probably nothing. I just..." Heart racing, Cora took a step back.
"Cora...?" Abby said, taking hold of the sheriff's arm.
She'd made a mistake. Had let herself get distracted. "I'm sorry Abby," she said, touching Abby's hand. "If you'll excuse me."
"What is it?" Abby said.
"I have to go. Sheriff business."
"Yes," Cora said. She took Abby's hand more firmly and looked into her eyes. "I'm so sorry. Don't leave this temple until I get back. Keep everyone here, okay?"
"Please," Cora said.
"I will," Abby said. "I promise."
Cora nodded and then bent forward, kissing Abby on the side of her mouth. Without a word to anyone else, she ran through the temple doors. With her dark coat flapping behind her, she ran to the stables, quickly saddled Danos, and headed out of town as fast as she could.
xxxx Chapter Three xxxx
Cora reached the Dixon ranch in less than 20 minutes. Leaving Danos about 50 yards away, hidden behind brush, Cora ran as silently as she could to the large wooden gates. The ranch had a strange silence to it. The gang's horses weren't roaming in front of the ranch house, as they usually were. Under the moonlit sky, Cora saw some shapes in the field and, faintly, heard moaning. It sounded almost human.
Climbing the large gate and dropping to the ground, she ran toward the sound. In her hand, she aimed one of her revolvers at a figure. As she approached, the moaning grew louder. Squinting, she saw that it was a man. Worse, she recognized him.
"Matthew?" Cora said softly, kneeling.
"Sheriff...?" he said, wincing. He was lying on his side, clutching his gut.
"What happened here?" she asked.
He tried to answer, but coughed blood.
"Shhh," Cora said. To the right, she made out another shape lying on the ground. She touched Matthew's arm gently and then ran over to it. "Martin?"
"Sheriff," he said. He was holding his leg.
"Are you okay?" she asked, kneeling beside him.
"It's just my leg," he said, grimacing. "I've been shot."
"What did you do?" Cora asked.
"Aaron," he started, sharply inhaling. "He wanted to strike first."
"I see that," Cora asked, not quite hiding the rage that was rising up. "Behind my back?"
"I'm s-sorry, sheriff," Martin said. "He had us convinced that you'd changed..."
"Martin," Cora said angrily, taking out her knife. She grabbed his shirt and cut a rope-like swath of fabric from it. Shaking her head, she tied the rope around his leg, slowing the blood loss. "Loyalty's an under-rated commodity out here. You, of all people."
"I'm sorry," Martin said, tears in his eyes. "I just want to go back to my wife."
"How many men and women have we lost?"
"At least half a dozen," Martin said. "But we got at least a dozen of them. Please, don't let me die out here."
At least a dozen. That meant there were another dozen bandits left.
"I'll send Doc Catherine out as soon as I get back to town," Cora said, wondering where the rest of the Dixon gang was.
"Town," Martin said, suddenly. "I heard something about them finally having an excuse to set that shit-hole town on fire."
"But we didn't cross paths," Cora said, knowing as she said that they must have taken the south pass into town. The sentries would stop some of them, but certainly not all.
"Cora," Martin said. "Go. You have to go."
Nodding, she rose to her feet and ran to Danos. In minutes, she was back on the road, sprinting toward Redemption. As the town came into view, she saw the smoke, rising in the moonlight.
When she arrived in town, she saw where the smoke was coming from. The temple. Leaving Danos at the stable, Cora took off on foot. She wanted to stick to the shadows.
Running quietly through the town she quickly reached the general store, the building right next to the temple.
She saw that the gang had stuck torches into the ground, which they had undoubtedly used to set the temple ablaze. Cora could hear shrieks coming from within. One man, a member of the Dixon gang, was standing out front as guard.
She crept behind a bench on the porch of the store about 15 feet from the man, pulling a knife from its holster in her ankle. The guard slowly paced in front of the main temple door, holding a shotgun in both hands. Three steps, with his back to Cora, three steps facing her. She had the timing down.
One, two, three, back.
One, two, three, front. The instant he turned toward her, exposing his lethal targets, Cora rose to her feet and threw the knife into the man's chest.
He looked at down at the knife sticking out of his chest and then looked up at Cora, who stood in front of him. He cocked his gun at her and then promptly fell backwards.
Cora quickly ran to him and kicked the gun away from him. If he wasn't dead already he would be soon enough.
She then crouched and peered into a window of the temple. Inside, two men seemed to be holding the missionaries and party-goers hostage. They must have moved the people from the open-air sanctuary into the building. Several injured people were lying on the floor while others were tied to furniture within the burning building. Smoke was starting to seep into the room.
A man she recognized as Billy Dixon, the purported leader of the gang, held a knife to Samuel's neck. Another held Abby's hands behind her back.
Cora clenched and unclenched her fists, thinking briefly about aiming her rifle at the bandit. Abby was too close to the man. Cora didn't trust that the bullet would hit its target if she fired her gun through the window from her current distance.
Cora knew what she had to do. Two against one. No problem. Taking a deep breath and exhaling, she stood and kicked the front door of the temple down.
As soon as they heard the crashing of the door, all heads turned toward Cora.
"Howdy," she said, tipping her hat. "Ya'll are going to let these people go now."
"Howdy, sheriff," Billy said, tipping his hat and spitting a large wad of tobacco on the floor. "Why we going to do that?"
"Because these people are just passing through," Cora said. "So let them."
"Look's like they've been settling in to me," Billy said, gesturing around the temple.
"I'm going to warn you once, Billy Dixon," Cora said, her hand wavering above her revolver.
Billy, despite his cocky demeanor, briefly looked afraid as he intently watched Cora's hands.
"Cora," Samuel said, shaking his head. "Don't do this. I ask that you not use violence to help us ."
At this, Billy and the man with him laughed. "Looks like you're in a real pickle, sheriff."
Cora looked at Samuel and then at Abby. Neither of them offered resistance to the bandits. Rose and the others looked on, fearful.
"Let them go, Billy," Cora said. "Take me. What do you want with a bunch of missionaries anyway?"
"Bet we can find some uses for them," the one holding Abby said, putting a grubby hand on her stomach.
Cora clenched her teeth, drew her revolver, and held it in the direction of the man.
"Cora..." Samuel said, warning her.
Cora made eye contact with Abby as she aimed the gun at the bandit's head. She read fear in Abby's eyes, but something else too. Anger.
"Cora, please," Samuel said.
Slowly, Cora bent down and gently placed her revolver on the ground. She took the rifle from the holster at her back and did the same with it. Then, she put her hands in the air. "Take me. Let these people be."
The man holding Abby looked at Billy, waiting for instruction.
Billy considered it. "Cuff her," he ordered.
The man holding Abby threw her to the ground and approached Cora. "Easy now," he said, noticing her scowl. He reached for the cuffs at her hip, quickly grabbed them, and slapped them on Cora's wrists.
"Good," Billy said, still holding the knife to Samuel's throat. "I tell you what. You folks stay in this burning temple of yours 'til we get out of town, and we let you live. We'll try to be quick with the looting. Tomorrow at dawn, you leave town. Don't ever come back."
Cora nodded, stiffly. "Give me your word you won't chase them," she said.
"You're not in much of a position now to be making demands," Billy said. "But I'll give them my word. Us being in a house of Eli and whatnot."
From the ground, Abby spoke. "Samuel...." She shook her head, looking pained.
"Take her away," Billy said, nodding to the man who had just cuffed Cora.
"Sam, we can't just let them..." Abby said, her voice rising.
"Abby..." Samuel said. Tears were in his eyes. He looked to the roof. "Help us, Eli."
During the building of the temple, Cora had sometimes seen the missionaries carrying water from the well to the temple. They would sling a long wooden pole across their necks, attaching a pail at each end of it. In these simple chores, they had all taken turns.
It was with much surprise, though, that as she was pushed toward the temple door, Cora saw Abby reach for one of these poles. Perhaps it had been knocked over, during the ruckus. Whatever had happened, the bandits were not prepared for this gentle missionary to begin wielding it, with a shocking amount of skill and power, like a weapon.
As the bandits left the temple, one in front of Cora and one behind, Abby first swung the pole at Billy's feet, knocking him to the ground. His knife flew out of his hand. Before he could rise, Abby struck him in the temple with one of the blunt ends of the pole. His head cracked against the wooden floor and he seemed to lose consciousness.
The other man raised his knife and started swinging it in Abby's direction.
With her hands still cuffed, Cora kicked him into a wall.
Abby finished the job, spinning and using her momentum to strike the man in the head with the side of the pole. He screamed in pain and dropped to the ground. Cora watched with raised eyebrows as Abby knocked the man in the head one final time, rendering him motionless.
Both men on the ground, knocked out, Abby stared at them, breathing hard.
"Abby...?" Samuel said, in a small voice.
Looking at the human carnage around her, Abby let the pole fall from her hands and ran to Samuel.
Free, Cora sprung into action. Kneeling beside the bandit, she reached into one of his pockets and retrieved the keys to her handcuffs. After undoing her cuffs, she began untying the missionaries and townspeople. "Get out of here."
"Is it safe? What about the bandits?" a missionary said.
"I reckon it's safer than burning to the ground," Cora said. "Head to Hestia's." After herding the people out of the temple, she noticed that Abby was kneeling beside Samuel and that they were hugging.
"Samuel..." Abby said softly, tears in her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry..."
Samuel remained silent, caressing her hair.
"Come on," Cora said, walking up to the pair. "We have to get out of here."
Abby turned toward Cora and nodded without speaking. She rose and held a hand to Samuel, who took it and rose to his feet.
"What now?" Abby said.
"For now, go to Hestia's. With the others."
"I mean after that," Abby said, looking first at Samuel and then at Cora.
"I'm afraid I can't answer that for you," Cora said.
"Nor can I," Samuel said.
After leading Abby and Samuel to Hestia's Inn and securing them in the cellar, Cora retrieved Danos and rode through town. It was eerily silent. She wasn't sure how many of the Dixon bandits had been in Redemption, but the streets were clear. About a third of the buildings in town were ablaze.
She noticed that the saloon was empty. Aaron must have closed it for the night in preparation for his mission. Two buildings down, she stopped at Doc Catherine's place and began banging on the door. "Doc, open up."
Cora saw a lantern switch on, heard some muffled swears, and then felt footsteps approaching the door.
Doc Catherine opened the door, eyes half closed, holding her robe shut. "That you, sheriff?"
"Doc, I need you to go to Hestia's," Cora said. "There are some wounded citizens. In about an hour I'm going to be bringing some wounded militiamen there."
"I miss a war or something?"
"Yes," Cora said, tipping her hat.
"No shit?" Doc said. "I was joking."
"Just get over there," Cora said. She got back on Danos, intending to round up some able-bodied people to help her retrieve the wounded at the Dixon ranch.
Riding toward the town's border, she saw a figure approaching in the moonlight. It looked to be a person on horseback, racing toward her. Inhaling sharply, Cora stopped and pulled the shotgun from the holster at her back.
The figure kept coming at her. She heard the familiar sounds of the rider urging his horse along. Aaron. He appeared to be unhurt.
"Sheriff," he said, breathlessly stopping his horse just short of Cora. They faced one another. "I chased the last of the bandits out of town. They won't be giving us trouble anytime soon."
"Other than the trouble they gave us tonight?"
"Cora, it had to be done."
"We lost a lot of people," Cora said. "We might well lose Redemption."
"You're not attached to that pit are you?" Aaron said. "So we rebuild. Maybe somewhere new."
Cora reached into her long black coat and slowly pulled out one of her thin cigars. "You go do that then, Aaron."
"I came here for you..."
"I never asked you to," Cora said. "Now get the hell out of my town, Aaron Dawes." She bit down on her cigar and pointed her shotgun at him.
Aaron's laughter turned angry. "Hey I have a business here."
"And I reckon your sister's about to inherit your half of it if you don't get out of Redemption city limits."
"At least let me get my property," Aaron said.
"Consider it payment to the families of those who were killed tonight."
"Damn it, Cora."
Cora took aim and pulled the trigger, shooting just above Aaron's hat.
He cursed, but kicked his heels into his horse and turned to leave.
Cora watched him as he shook his head and brought his horse to a gallop. Just as surely as he came, his form grew smaller and smaller in the distance, until he ultimately vanished from Cora's sight.
It was well past midnight when Cora finally reached her small cabin in town.
The Dixon bandits, like Aaron, had disappeared from the land. At least for now. Many of them were dead, some wounded, and others had just fled. Whatever their fate, their lack of a presence had allowed Cora and several townspeople to transport the wounded militamen back to town where Doc Catherine was giving them a fighting chance to survive their wounds.
After Aaron had confirmed that the bandits were gone, Cora had given the townspeople the go-ahead to begin trying to put out the fires. With the missionaries help, all the buildings were not lost. Several homes would have to be rebuilt, but the temple, miraculously, was left standing with only superficial damage to the exterior.
Cora peeled off her jacket, setting it on the chair in front of her wash basin. She splashed cold water on her face and then patted it dry with a towel. After setting a couple of logs on fire, she sat on her bed and removed her boots, wiggling her tired toes.
As she began to unbutton her shirt, she heard footsteps on her front porch. Jumping up, she grabbed the knife on her nightstand and approached the door. Knife in hand, she heard tentative knocks. Cora slightly opened the door.
Abby stood on the porch. She looked tired and her clothes were smudged with ash.
"Hey," Cora said, quickly resting the knife back on the stand near the door.
Cora opened the door a little wider. There seemed to be so much to say, but she was unsure how to say it all. "Come in," she said, figuring that was a good start.
Abby nodded and brushed by Cora.
"About tonight," Cora said. "I'm sorry ya'll had to be involved in all of that." She gestured for Abby to sit on the bed. "I'm sorry, my place is small."
Abby smiled, but her smile quickly faded. "When I started traveling with Samuel and the others three years ago," Abby said. "I thought I was going down a new path."
Cora sat beside Abby, waiting for her to continue.
"Tonight wasn't my first battle," Abby said.
"I kinda figured that."
"I've been incredibly happy with Samuel," Abby said. "I have thought, for so long, that I've known some sort of ultimate truth."
"That love is the way?"
"Yes," Abby said, nodding. "But I'm not sure what that means anymore."
"What does Samuel say about it?"
"He has his opinions, although he's less sure after tonight. But I'm learning that maybe I have some things I have to figure out on my own."
"Oh," Cora said, her heart dropping. It seemed as though the missionary had come to say goodbye.
"I thought love meant living without harming others," Abby said. "But when I saw those men start to take you away, I started thinking it could also mean defending those we love."
Cora's gaze met Abby's. Could she be saying...?
"I guess, what I'm trying to say is," Abby said. "I think my path with Samuel has ended. At least for now. There is something in Redemption that is pulling me to stay."
Abby smiled. "You, Cora. I love Samuel, but had I followed his way tonight, you could be dead. You challenge me to see that sometimes situations aren't so simple. I need to explore that."
"Abigail," Cora said. "Redemption would be pleased if you stayed. I... would be pleased as well."
"I'd like to rebuild the temple," Abby said, taking Cora's hand. "As a hospice. I think that's more what this town needs right now. Doc Catherine has offered me an apprenticeship."
"That would be nice," Cora said, gently squeezing Abby's hand in her own.
"I... just wanted to tell you," Abby said. She rose, as if to leave.
"I had a nice time with you tonight," Cora said, rising. "Up until about halfway through the party. And, I'm glad you're staying." Cora touched Abby's arm lightly. "Very glad."
When Abby turned back toward Cora, Cora pulled Abby to her. Their lips met. Immediately, Cora felt the warm wetness of Abby's tongue already seeking entrance. She softly caressed the back of Abby's head, smelling a floral scent mingling with the smell of smoke. She could feel the missionary's body straining against her own, intentions entirely clear.
Abby began unbuttoning Cora's shirt, while Cora helped her. After throwing her shirt and bra to the floor, Abby began unbuttoning her own shirt.
Cora leaned in, kissing her neck. When she tried to help Abby with her buttons, Abby pushed her hands away.
"Patience, sheriff," she said, smiling.
"I've waited plenty long," Cora said, whispering.
"Bet I've waited longer," Abby said, pulling her shirt off and sliding out of her skirt.
Cora looked in awe as Abby, completely naked, stood in front of her. Her face was flushed with arousal and her small but firm breasts rose and fell with her breath.
As though unleashing all of the pent-up tension of who knows how many years of chastity, Abby pulled Cora close. She began aggressively kissing and nipping the sheriff's neck, her hands rising higher and higher to reach nipples already hard. She replaced a thumb and forefinger with her mouth, gently licking and then pulling a nipple.
Cora moaned. She felt wet already and wanted to get out of her pants. She felt Abby's hands at her belt, fingering the the buckle. With a clink, Abby had the belt off, and was holding it in one hand, while Cora stepped out of her pants. Cora moved in, reaching for Abby's waist. Closing her eyes and bent forward, intending to kiss Abby again.
Before she could, Abby grabbed both of Cora's hands.
Cora's eyes shot open when she heard another familiar clink. Before she could protest, the sheriff realized she had just been manacled with her own pair of handcuffs.
"Well played, Elijan," Cora whispered. Holding Abby's gaze, she smiled confidently. Somehow she still managed to project an air of authority even while handcuffed. Cora stepped back and sat on the bed, hands in front of her, waiting for Abby to come to her.
Abby stood in front of Cora, letting the sheriff look at her, before slowly approaching. When she reached Cora, Abby placed a hand on the sheriff's shoulder and gently pushed her back so that she was lying down.
"I confess," Abby said, sliding on top of Cora. "After you arrested me. I started having fantasies." She slid her wetness along Cora's thigh, causing Cora to moan. "Fantasies like this," she said, placing Cora's hands over her head and holding them with one hand. Abby leaned down to kiss Cora, while she continued to slide along her.
When Cora tried to enter Abby's mouth with her tongue, Abby pulled back. Sliding down Cora's body, Abby began softly biting Cora's nipples. She slid lower, kissing and licking her stomach. Ultimately, she positioned herself between Cora's legs.
As Abby kissed Cora's inner thighs, Cora arched her back. With her body she begged for release, too proud to ask.
Abby playfully licked, one excruciatingly slow time, between Cora's thighs. Seeming satisfied with the moan it produced and eager for more, she returned, continuing to use her warm tongue to bring pleasure to Cora. With one finger, she circled Cora's wet opening, teasing. When Cora's hips began moving more urgently, Abby pulled back and moved up Cora's body.
As they kissed again, Cora looped her cuffed hands over Abby's body and pulled her close. She slid a thigh between Abby's legs while wrapping her legs around one of Abby's. Slowly at first, she began rocking.
Abby pulled up, looking into Cora's eyes. Speaking without words, they began sliding together. Closing their eyes, enjoying the feeling of their bodies connecting in this way. Even though she was on the bottom, Cora pushed into Abby and pulled her closer.
"Please, don't stop-" Abby said, moaning.
Cora didn't plan on it. As they moved faster, Cora had reached the point of no return and it seemed as though Abby was right there with her. "Are you ready?"
Abby nodded, sliding faster above Cora.
Cora closed her eyes at the moment of release, the sound of Abby moaning increasing her pleasure. She pressed Abby's body into her, holding her while they both finished. Finally, Abby collapsed, falling onto Cora with one final moan.
Bodies still intertwined, they laid together, catching their breaths. With her hands still cuffed, Cora lightly ran her fingers along Abby's back.
Abby pulled herself up to one elbow and kissed Cora deeply and then rested her head on the sheriff's chest.
"Hmm?" Abby said, contentedly.
"Whenever you feel like unlocking me...."
"I'm not sure I'm ready for what you might do to me when I do," Abby said, looking mischievous.
"I can wait," Cora said, finding Abby's lips again.
"I'm also not sure that I want to wait," Abby said, chuckling and pulling away. Slowly sliding out from Cora's embrace, she rose and walked to Cora's belt lying on the ground. She found the key to the handcuffs.
Holding out her hands, Cora once again admired Abby's beauty, the way she was soft in some places, muscular in others. She watched Abby's nimble fingers slip the key into the lock and set her hands free. The handcuffs fell to the floor, and Abby joined Cora in bed.
"When you decide you're ready," Cora said, turning on her side to make room for Abby on the bed. "I'll be here." She pulled a blanket over them and put a protective arm around Abby.
They were exhausted. Despite their tiredness, they laid awake until dawn, both anticipating the new lives that awaited them in Redemption.
xxxx The End xxxx