Racing through the night on the back of a stolen horse, Annie gained distance from her pursuer until weak with the loss of blood, she drifted into unconsciousness and slipped from the animal’s back, floating freely, until the slam of the ground jolted her awake, ringing through her head and splitting the clot over her wound. She gritted her teeth to hold in a scream. A small town blinked and wavered with small orange lights in the distance. If she could make it, she could hide before he found her.
One set of hoofbeats fell away to silence, and she expected at any moment to hear another set faintly whispering over the ground, telling her that time slipped away. She struggled to her feet, pushing against the mind-numbing tear in her side, but her legs couldn’t hold her, and she tumbled back down. Clawing at the ground, she crawled toward the town.
Echoes of daylight filtered through the falling night, growing dimmer and dimmer as the drips of sunlight slowly disappeared over the horizon, to the ringing chorus of grasshoppers. Black masses of houses and shops stood out against the darkening desert. Pricks of light on the outskirts of the dusty little town lulled the world to sleep and down by Sin Corner- so named by the pious band of churchgoers- lanterns had long since been lit to combat the graying world. Shouts of laughter, the dismay of disgruntled gamblers and a tinny piano spilled ragtag through the open batwing doors of the twin saloons and playhouse.
A figure melded into the shadows keeping a vigil on the descending night, a rifle propped against the wall nearby. Bull Bronson was the law in Stillwater and as Bull’s younger brother, the man in the shadows commanded secondary. He wasn’t worried about trouble, but all the same, losing money at cards didn’t suit him, and heavy drinking with the boys wasn’t his poison, however, studying the night gave him the security of being alone. Lounging on a porch chair, deceptively alert, rubbing his fingers against the carved wood stock of the rifle, Jack enjoyed the cool of night on his face after the hot blaze of the desert sun.
The stringed swarms of crickets faded slowly replaced by distant rumble of hooves, steady in measure and unwavering so there must be a rider. Jack snatched up his rifle and moved deeper into the shadows, hand poised against the smooth, cool metal of the lever, ready to jack in a cartridge. The hoof beats grew louder, signaling an approach from the east.
Then another, closer sound pervaded Jack’s hearing: scraping dirt, a painfully slow cadence by the schoolhouse as a dark form half-dragged, half-fell onto the boardwalk with a jarred sigh and broken moan. Peering through the darkness of the almost risen moon, Jack could just make out the outline of a body.
An animated whoop cut through the other sounds as the rider appeared through the alley behind the figure.
“Well lookee here. Thought you could escape?” the rider crowed, pulling the rifle from his scabbard and working the action with a sharp click-clack. “It’s a shame, but I can’t have you running your mouth so…”
From the boardwalk, a flame stabbed the darkness with a sharp bark, surprising the rider who jerked, grunted, and doubled over the saddle as the horse skittered, shying away. Another flame retorted from the rifle in the dying rider’s hands, ricocheting off a water trough as the man melted off the fleeing horse plopping into the dusty street. The horseless rider groaned heartily and wiped at the blood on his chest before sliding slowly into limpness.
Jack heard the solid thud of a pistol falling on the boardwalk in reply to the rider’s demise.
A fresh burst of laughter bawled from the saloon, a distinct modifier of the general feeling of Bull Bronson’s men, completely ignorant (or uncaring) of what happened in the street.
Jack rose slowly, listening carefully, aware that the wounded figure on the boardwalk still had a gun within reach and might not welcome his presence. Silently, moving with the shadows, he crept through the street, rifle still up and ready. Cautiously, because mistakes cost lives, Jack watched the turfed rider who lay in the street, waiting to see if his chest would rise and fall with breath. It didn’t. However, labored breathing defied the dead look of the being on the boardwalk, who shifted a little as if trying to rise. The graying haze of moon barely shed enough light for him to see the woman holding her side as if her life poured out of it, pistol still laying in her limp hand as her elbow propped underneath her for leverage.
Jack stopped, the barrel of his rifle nosing down, not wanting to frighten her by announcing his presence. Fear made her dangerous, and she had just shot a man. She might not hesitate to shoot him too. As he stood back, thinking of how best to handle the situation, her body went slack, and she fell back as a sigh drug itself from her lungs. Safe enough to approach, he kept his gun trained on the downed rider, just in case as he hopped up on the boardwalk and removed the pistol from the woman’s hand, tucking it into his belt. He could hear shallow breaths working through her throat, but her wound was beyond his medical prowess. So much the worse for her, whoever she was. The destruction of the couple’s dispute had left neither of them unscathed.
He stepped back into the street, approaching the man slowly, carefully. But the man was indeed dead, enduring a test kick or two with no protest. No breath filtered through his nostrils. Jack hefted the dead man’s Henry, checking the magazine and popping out the used case. Liking the smooth action, he decided to keep the gun.
Sandpaper eyelids scraped slowly open against the gray-white haze of morning that filtered through dust motes, striking the stark sheets where Annie lay. The biting in her side intensified with her waking, throbbing stabs with each heartbeat. Pain reverberated from the base of her skull settling into a pounding rhythm in her temples, stinging her eyes as she looked around.
A wood ceiling floated unsteadily above her, and a rough, hefty burlap sack kept her from turning either way. Floral-patterned curtains blocked most of the sunlight in the window.
Where was she?
How had she gotten here?
Instantly sorry that she’d wondered, she lifted her hand to her head and gritted her teeth against the images that broke forth, flashing like lightning against the dark of last night, catching her in a vicious stranglehold until she could hardly breathe. Struggling for air against the pain in her wound and burning in her chest, she shrunk into the bed, hoping it would swallow her whole. Two small tears slipped from the corners of her eyes, and finally, when she was ready to succumb to the world beyond this one, a voice called her back.
“Good morning. How fares the patient?” a cheery, age-haggard voice inquired, hobbling into the room, stirring the contents of a small cup. She croak-moaned in response, trying to unstick her tongue from the roof of her mouth and swallow past the large lump in her throat.
“This oughtta help. Open wide,” the voice directed. Not knowing if she should trust the man, she struggled to sit up. Vertigo wrapped around her mind and she struggled through a foggy haze, feeling like a child when he took her chin in his hand and opened her mouth for her. A draught of bitter medicine washed the dry from her mouth, but choked her, breaking against her constricted throat, leaking down her windpipe. She coughed violently, raising off the bed, struggling to breathe again through the incessant coughs and liquid still caught in her throat.
“Easy there. Don’t you go ripping that hole open, you hear? Had my wife stitch you up. Best seamstress in town.”
Finally, she quit coughing, throat seared and lungs heavy. They tried again, and she focused hard on getting the bitter liquid down. Her stomach snatched greedily at the facsimile of food, having been empty since…well, she wasn’t sure.
The old man took the cup away.
“There, all done. Now you just lie quiet and rest now,” the voice soothed. Annie heard the creak of floorboards under his weight and the squawk of the door behind him. Then stupor reigned.
Some men never stopped fighting the Civil War, themselves, some tyrannical unknown force, maybe all three, but they were driven onward never satisfied with the world they resided in. Such men had a way of finding like minds. Lieutenant Bart Callahan was such a man and his platoon, a ragged band of ex-Confederate soldiers, took their mission very seriously. Collectively called ‘Callahan’s Army,’ they pushed into the western territories looking for any opportunity to empty their rifles in the name of justice, the Confederacy and a supposed moral high ground.
After the war, the Union had paraded through Southern towns, collecting Confederate ire, enforcing a stricter code of conduct and a more Northern approach to life. At first, Callahan’s Army had taken pleasure in harassing small squads of these enforcers, taking nation-aged frustrations out on their blue-clad counterparts. Flat-footed, toe-to-toe Callahan was out-gunned, and his band had been targeted. Opportunity was blossoming out west and empty land awaited an empire. An empire that had the potential to rival the United States herself. So, Lieutenant Callahan and his band sauntered west, driving deeper into the wake of a blazing desert sun, causing havoc: killing, plundering and laughing at the destruction of their wake.
Brushing his horse’s hindquarters against bone-white stone cliffs, he inspected the cattle sifting cheatgrass from the rocky outcroppings with his spyglass. Squinting against the heat waves, he mopped the sweat from his brow, he gestured for his second in command to join him. He swept his gaze over the crude, clap-wood house nestled into the far hills with smoke lifting from the chimney. Slapdash corrals fenced in a sway back gelding and a long-toed, scruffy mare. How simply these ranch folks lived, how utterly insignificant their lives were. What made humans believe they could etch out a living so pathetically meaningless?
“Well, I wonder if they have the courtesy to treat us dusty, trail-worn soldiers with dinner,” the Lieutenant’s Georgian drawl slipped lazily from his lips.
“I hope they gots it ready,” Callahan’s right-hand man grumbled, “We ain’t had decent vittles since a’fore my stomach can ‘member.” His worn glove scrubbed at his tobacco-stained beard.
“Well, we shall dine on fresh steaks tonight! Dobson, take your men south and work your way back to the house. You know what to do with any resistance you encounter.”
Dobson grinned wickedly, snapping a quick salute, “Yessir. You heard the Lieutenant! Fall in line!”
Arliss Johnston joined the flanks in time to see Dobson’s unit duck a hill and continue across the flat at an easy gallop.
“What are they doing?” Johnston asked the Lieutenant.
“Ah, Private Johnston,” Callahan greeted, ignoring the question, “Report.”
“Ain’t nobody following us from the ferry. The blacksmith said there’s a little town west o’ here we can resupply at.”
“Good, but first let us taste the bountiful fruit of another man’s labor. Come on all. Dobson’ll be awaiting us on the other side.”
Spurred mounts dove through the space between them and the little ranch’s set up, thunder across the dry land. Cattle scattered before the army as small contingents broke off to give chase. Loud whoops let loose the pent-up rage of the dusty travelers as they descended on the rancher’s home in mayhem. Two men whooped and hollered as they foxed the henhouse, dragging flapping chickens out by their legs. The rancher himself fell, cut down in the garden, hoe in one hand, half-empty pistol in the other. A woman screamed as a teenage boy emptied a shotgun and a Confederate saddle before being struck twice in the chest, twisting as he fell against the house, leaving a bloody streak against the wood.
“No! Richard!” the woman sobbed, struggling to comprehend the pandemonium ripping her life to shreds. She gathered her bloodied, limp son to her and cried, rocking back and forth, watching the swarm of men descend upon her husband and garden. They shoved the dead man out of the way and cleaned out every ripe squash, potato, and beet, ravaging and trampling the rest. The pigs were duly laid to rest and carved for the dinner table.
Tears sopping her cheeks, the rancher’s wife stood and darted for her dead husband. Dodging horses and men, skirts in fist, she ran, struck hard by a horse, slamming to the ground and her head hitting a rock. Stars engulfed her vision, blood dripping from a gash. She staggered back to her feet and stumbled till she collapsed at her husband’s side shaking him. Trying to wake the un-wakeable.
Fires bit into the sky and raucous nature abounded. Kord Whitney breathed the scent of roasting ham, hearing bawling laughter far before he rode slowly into the midst of men and carnage with a heavy heart, barely able to trace signs of the peaceful life that had once flourished. The things men were capable of… it wearied him. He searched for the answer to a riddle mankind will never solve. Why?
“Ah, Kord! You missed all the fun,” a man called. Kord ducked his head in what could have been considered a nod, hiding the emotion behind his eyes and the frown pulling at his lips. He gave his report to Lieutenant Callahan. All quiet on the Northern front. Then Kord took himself apart from the group under the guise of keeping watch.
The night passed in merry-making beneath the stars. Then morning blazed into bleary faces. The house and barns were set ablaze as the platoon, bid farewell to the little haven, setting sights again on the trail before them.
The pain refused to release Annie, slashing at her side over and over, cutting into her mind and visiting over and over the images that haunted and tore at her. Sleep wasn’t restful. Rest wasn’t healing. Healing was only pain.
When the door squawked open, Annie could push back the demons, accosted by the physician or his chatty wife, who fed and cleaned her, brushing out her honey hair. In general, they took their time healing her.
She couldn’t pay them.
They didn’t ask for money.
Instead, they kept her occupied while they changed her bandages, asking questions about home, but when they sensed her pain, they left the subject alone and instead told her stories of their children and grandchildren.
Thoughts of home haunted her. Her family didn’t know where she was, what she’d done or why she’d run. What would they think of her if they knew? Would she be welcome home?
Tears accompanied these thoughts as she hid her face in shame and convinced herself that staying away was for the best.
A week of lying sandbagged intensified Annie’s gratitude for health and finally, she could sit up, but very slowly, leaning heavily on the old physician’s arm. He still held the bowl of broth, but he let her feed herself. Brow puckered and sweating, she lifted the spoonful’s, spilling only a little, but the old man decided she shouldn’t try again till the wound was fully healed. Encouragements to save her strength wafted through the door as they took the empty bowl away, but since when were doctors listened to?
She needed to get on with life and find occupation. To do so, she needed to stand. Timing her attempt when the old physician would be taking his afternoon nap, she determined she was ready despite the pain still ravaging around the bullet hole.
The devil himself tore her side with his pitchfork as she pulled herself up into a sitting position. A fountain of sweat sprung from her temples and her cheeks flushed. Vertigo enfolded her in its playful embrace and she almost fell back, expelling all her effort, but she’d gotten this far, and she fought to hold on, focusing on fixed points around the room and struggling to convince herself that they weren’t moving. The dizziness left her muscles aching and her side throbbing. She slid one leg off the bed and then the other, gritting her teeth against the urge to scream.
Was the agony even worth getting up?
She paused, considering the question and then decided it was worth it for no other purpose than to know she could. In which case, it was best to just get it over with. She pushed herself off the bed and felt a small moment of elation when her legs caught her. She stood only a moment before the pain bore down on her with the fury of a Texas lightning storm, the dark clouds of which gathered all too swiftly before her eyes. Losing to the darkness, suddenly adrift in a dark sea, she swam for her life.
The doctor awoke suddenly from the sound of a thump. He tore the covers from his body and rushed into the room where his patient lay on the ground in a puddle of her own blood.
“Foolish girl!” the man cursed as he lifted her back into the bed and set about stopping the bleed.
Lieutenant Callahan glassed the little town from his perch on a large, battle-scarred bay.
Dobson spat a lazy stream of tobacco and scratched his beard. “Don’t look like much,” he commented, “Any Yanks?”
“They’re not going to be wearing uniforms, Dobson,” Callahan drawled easily.
“Wish’t they still did. I like seeing a man in blue dying with my bullet in him.”
“We’ll just have to work with what we’ve got.” The Lieutenant lowered his spyglass and grinned sideways at his companion.
“Have Johnston and Whitney get ready for reconnaissance behind enemy lines. I want the names of every man in town who served in the Union and any ex-Confederates who abandoned the cause. If our compatriots won’t re-join the cause, they’ll have the same reward as any Yanks we find. As for the Union soldiers, we’ll give them back tenfold what they gave.”
“Yes, Sir!” Dobson saluted and then spurred his mount whooping down the hill to where the platoon waited.
Only a few days past her first attempt, Annie limped down the dusty street against Doctor's orders and regretting her decision. The old man had been right about her needing rest and time to build her strength, but she was running from the shadows of her mind. So still pained, but healing and able to walk, she kicked up spurts of dust in what used to be her Sunday Shoes. Her Sunday Dress sported a new patch over the scarred hole courtesy of the doctor’s wife who had also done her best to remove the large blood stain. A long cold soak had done wonders for the faded, blue dress coupled with the lye soap.
Dull eyes, pale lips, staggering limp, Annie wandered, looking for a place to work and possibly a place to live.
It was time to earn her keep.
The owner of the general store told Annie his business was family owned and operated as his gaze swept distastefully over her haggard appearance.
“I’m new in town and could use a job,” she spoke, trying to keep the pain from her voice as her hand strayed to the new patch in her dress above the wound.
“You shouldn’t even be walking, ma’am,” the owner said, flicking ash off his cigar.
“I shouldn’t be living, Sir,” she countered, wearily.
Arliss Johnston and Kord Whitney trotted their horses down the dusty street, the stolen ranch getup they both wore letting them blend into the crowd as drifters or cowboys for hire. Kord uncomfortably fingered the rancher’s handkerchief tied around his neck. He wore a faded button-up shirt and wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off his face. He felt like an imposter, but his opinion hadn’t been asked for when Lieutenant had given orders.
As for Arliss, it only reminded him of why the Yanks had to pay.
Red rocks rising like sand drifts met the cliffs on the southern side of town. The cliffs ran the length and then opened to the craggy, sage-covered desert which encased the town of Stillwater. Within the town itself, there were two saloons; and such places where people went to get rowdy and drinks flowed, were the best places to gather information. Arliss and Kord pulled up and tied their mounts to the hitching rail in front of the larger establishment. Arliss eyed the peeling, faded sign that announced Dancing Delilah and then surveyed the masses of people passing by, wishing he could pick out the union soldiers by scent alone. Dissatisfied, he pushed open the batwing doors. A couple slovenly daytime drunks lay snoring on the bar, smoke clouded the card table and tobacco stained the floor. Kord had as much desire to be there as being bit by a rattlesnake, but he followed Arliss’s cue and strode up to the bar, plopped himself down by one of the snoring drunks and signaled the bartender.
A man sauntered into Hickory Ben’s Dry Goods a little past noon. The proprietor, Hickory Ben, had returned home for lunch with his wife and the shop boy was dropping off old yokes at the Blacksmiths for mending, leaving Annie alone to run the store. As she finished the transaction for the mother and son at the counter, the freckle-faced, red-haired imp aimed his empty slingshot at the cowboy and imitated shooting noises. His mother grabbed his arm, shot a glance at the cowboy and hurried her offspring from the small establishment.
Annie pretended to wipe dust from the counter as she eyed the man. He ambled along the walls, passively marking the merchandise. He paused and took up a buckskin colored slicker, then slipped it over his shoulders, testing the fit.
A flash of night tore at Annie’s memory darkening her mind for a moment, as the pain in her side returned with full force and she remembered the sluggish, weakness that bore her down physically, mentally when she’d collapsed on the boardwalk. In that moment, she almost wished for death, especially after she’d raised the pistol and… Then darkness had descended over her mind and an overwhelming feeling of weightlessness bore her up. Heavenward? No… through the fog and pain, her eyes had slid open and she just made out the set jawline and cutting eyes of a man who carried her.
Drained and powerless, the black void had called for her again.
Pounding reached her conscious from the world from which she’d been hiding. A door creaking and a lantern and an old man hovering over her wound, then the stranger laying her on a bed. Blackness met her attempts to remember anything more from that night.
Sunlight pouring through the store’s window impaled the night of her memory causing it to fade suddenly. The potential customer must have liked the slicker because he had draped it over his arm and moved on to scrutinize the guns. She was certain he was the same man from her memory.
After a long pause, he took up a box of cartridges and made his way to the counter, where Annie stood awkwardly. Painfully insecure about her newness to the job, she priced the items from a cheat sheet Hickory Ben had made for her, cheeks flaming and wanting to fill the silent void with a ‘thank you,’ but not knowing exactly how. The man paid without a word or even a flicker of change in his demeanor and then took his items. She didn’t know when she’d get another chance to say it and being too bashful seemed childish.
Just as his hand met with the door, she blurted, “You could have left me on the street to die. I’m grateful you didn’t.”
Jack half-turned as if he considered giving a reply but didn’t even bother to meet her gaze. Instead, he pushed the door open and tugged the brim of his hat a little lower against the sun before disappearing into the street.
Hickory handed Annie her first wage draw, “If you’re looking for a place to stay, Stella’s got an extra room. Might be better for you than living with the physician. She lives in that little house just yonder. Tell her I sent you and she’ll work out a deal for room and board.”
Surprised, Annie caught his gaze and thanked him. He just waved her away and closed the shop.
Annie knocked on the door of the little house Hickory pointed out. A cheery, robust Italian woman answered the door, nearly bowling Annie over with a warmth that felt like a bear hug.
“Come in! Come, sit down. Would you like water?” booming and heavily-accented the words tumbled out. Still dark-haired despite being around forty, she was underdressed, and her hair spilled around her shoulders, but she didn’t seem unkempt. The woman opened the door wider and gestured to a seat. Overwhelmed, Annie stepped inside, wondering if people would be so kind if they knew what she’d done.
“Thank you,” she managed in reply. A tin cup slid into her hands, courtesy of the big woman.
“We have two rooms. Not very big, but cozy. Two other girls and myself. They’ve already gone ahead to work so introductions will have to wait. I’m Stella by the way, and sort of the adopted mother of the working girls here. I sing and entertain at Dancing Delilah.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Annie smiled, “I’m Annie.”
She didn’t offer, and Stella didn’t ask about where she came from. They came to an agreement regarding rent and Stella set about readying a place for Annie to sleep that night while Annie went to see the physician. When he opened the door to her, he smiled, but that smile dropped when he saw the money in her outstretched hand.
“I won’t be needing payment,” he waved it away, gruffly. “You just got the job. Why don’t you save your money for a while?”
“Stella will take me in,” she informed him. “And I’d like to repay you.” She tucked the money into his hand.
He nodded. “At least stay for supper?”
Stella featured nightly on Sin Corner singing Spanish and Italian lullabies to dreamy-eyed gamblers. Collette and Maria were the other two who lived in the little house, and they also entertained at the duel establishments. Working odd hours, they came and went, always courteous. Annie helped with cleaning the little house and took over cooking. It was Stella who suggested that Annie should open an eating house over breakfast one morning (dinner for Stella and the girls).
“Any woman that cooks like this could do well for herself. As a working woman or to find love.” She winked as she gently encouraged. Annie nodded politely but didn’t say anything.
The effort might be worth wearing herself out every day, she thought as her inward gaze watched the walls around her for any sign of weakening. Work was an antidote and physically she was healing well, able to take on more taxing tasks soon.
She cleaned the kitchen and scrubbed the breakfast dishes before heading to the store for work.
Hickory Ben rocked on the chair by the door of his establishment when Annie arrived for work. The sun threw a yellow-blue glow over the town and its people were just awakening. Annie yawned. Hickory Ben sighed in absent-minded reply as he stared intently at two cowboys, hanging out front of Dancing Delilah’s the more prominent saloons on Sin Corner.
“What is it?” Annie broke into his thoughts.
“I ain’t ever seen them two in town before and I don’t believe they’re any good,” he said gesturing. Annie studied the men briefly. They only seemed more vigilant, glancing at and seeming to consider the comings and goings of the usual vagrants and scoundrels that haunted the town. Other than that, she wouldn’t have set them apart from the crowd. Hickory Ben would know better about his town than she did, so she remained silent.
“Floor needs scrubbing. Matthew will be ‘round in just a moment but get a wash pail started for him.”
Annie went inside to fetch a water pail and scrub brush.
Dobson met Whitney and Johnston around noon at Dancing Betty’s, the little sister to Dancing Delilah’s. They recognized the long thick scar and mismatched brown and blue eyes and the ever-present deerskin duster despite the heat. He leaned in close like he was sharing a secret.
“Lieutenant wants an update. You found any Yanks to kill?”
“Keep it down, Dobson,” Whitney hushed, sliding a glass over to his commanding officer.
“We ain't found none yet,” Johnston added.
“What about him?” Dobson pointed to a dealer with a tufted mustache.
“He’s a dandy, but he ain't a Yank,” Johnston answered. “Just ain't no Yanks here.”
“Damn! Wait. If they ain’t no Yanks here, what about lawmen? They’s as good as shooting Yanks.”
“No lawmen neither. Just a rancher who runs the town. Everyone calls him Bull,” Kord informed.
“We kilt ranchers a’fore. Might be a good spot to set up headquarters once we clear him out,” Dobson concluded. Johnston scrubbed his fingers through his beard like Dobson was in the habit of doing.
“Bull and his men will put up a fight,” Kord warned. Neither he nor Johnston had gotten a look at the man yet, but from what he’d heard tell, no one messed with Bull and lived to tell about it. He wouldn’t go down easily and a fight that bloody might not be worth the trouble.
“We could declare this town our new Capital of the Confederacy,” Johnston suggested as if Bull was already in a grave.
“Yeah! Spread out from here. We’d best let Lieutenant know. He’ll decide for sure,” Dobson rejoined.
Whitney slung back his whiskey, uncertain, but unwilling to challenge Dobson’s superior rank. His compatriots were busting for a fight and nothing he said would give any of them pause. Besides, whatever Lieutenant Callahan said would be final.
Kord followed his companions from the saloon, mounted up and dusted town.
Pruned, red hands shakily dumped blackened water from the wash bucket. A dull thump rapped at Annie’s side like someone insistently knocking at a door. She pressed a fist to the flesh above the puckered and pink skin; the pressure helped a little. Healing created pain in itself.
“Miss Annie?” guessed a high-pitched, frilly voice. Annie turned to a pretty woman in her early thirties. The petite woman stuck out her hand with a friendly smile.
“Hi! I’m Susie Petterstone. I’m the organist for the church. I’ve never seen you there, so I thought I’d invite you. It sure would be lovely to have a newcomer. Heaven knows this place is dreary. Us good, God-fearing people should bind together to keep from being drug into the depths of sin.” She gave Annie a knowing look with eyebrows raised.
“Uh well…” Annie began, flashing back to a darkened street, the gun bucking in her hand and blood. The image singed her nerves and she flushed with heat. If anyone understood, this woman certainly wouldn’t.
“We have a monthly social that we hold in the church there’s dancing and a potluck. I’m sure you’d enjoy that, huh? Meeting new people?”
“I don’t know…” Annie replied trying to push down welling panic.
Susie took her hesitancy for shyness, “Oh dear me! But it would be lovely to have you.”
“I don’t think Church is the right place for me,” Annie offered. Shock penetrated Susie’s stolid smile and she stared.
“Oh…. I thought you just lived with Stella’s girls. I didn’t know you… Shared their occupation.”
“No... I mean they really are nice girls,” Annie offered, but Susie couldn’t see past her own embarrassment and reddened cheeks.
“I must go…excuse me,” Susie said and turned briskly on her heel, her dress flapping around her legs. Annie didn’t attempt to call back the hurriedly retreating figure to explain. There was nothing better to say.
Annie shook her head against dark flooding memories. An insistent, too friendly, preacher man, a terrified refusal and the violent repercussion.
Callahan’s Army rode into town dirty, unshaven and sitting tall in their saddles. Lieutenant Bart Callahan rode pillar straight and meaning business. He pulled up on Sin Corner. Sensing the ceremonious nature of the place, he motioned for his men to stop.
“Men! Eat, drink and be merry for I declare this land for the New Confederacy,” he proclaimed and with a hearty whoop, his soldiers dispersed like the four winds. He himself dismounted in front of Dancing Delilah’s and stepped inside to wet his parched throat.
War would have erupted in the streets had Bull Bronson heard this declaration, but he’d taken Jack and a few of their hands to handle a dispute between local sheepherders and cattle grazers at Hawley’s Butte, not suspecting so brazen an attack. Thus, with territory severely undermanned and undefended, one of Bull’s cowboys slipped out of the bar and slung aboard his mount, riding like a bat out of Hell to inform his boss of the new development.
Annie and Hickory Ben were going over accounts as they watched the gray-clad soldiers wreak havoc first in the saloons, dashing from one to the other like children. Then Hickory saw one man pointing excitedly to the general store.
“Get under the counter, Annie,” he snapped and shoved her to the floor, tossing a burlap sack over her head. The butt of a gun stared her in the face. Terror faded with the plunge of her hand into the shelf and the weight of the pistol as she checked to be sure it was loaded. Hickory snatched the rifle from the same shelf and called the shop boy. Matthew understood. He took a rifle from the wall at the back and a box of cartridges, stepping out of sight just as a few soldiers converged on the shop.
“Howdy boys, anything I can get for you today?” Hickory Ben asked politely, but firmly.
“Takin’ stock of your merchandise. We’s gonna need some,” a red-faced squatty man replied.
“You’re welcome to look. If you have any questions about pricing just let me know.”
“Talks cute, don’t he?” one giggled as the others began to fan out and stalk the aisles.
“Mister, we don’t need no help pricing. All this is requisitioned by the army. It belongs to us now.”
“The Army? The war’s over, gentlemen. Y’all should go home,” Hickory said, remaining calm despite the soldier’s pawing his wares. Suddenly he was looking down the barrel of a pistol. The greasy man behind it eyed Hickory with an unhinged look.