A Note From Your Author: This story is meant for an adult audience. There may be (will be) offensive language and themes.
That night, Zetti and Dove lay side by side in the attic room staring at the ceiling. Zetti had returned without a scratch. Still, every muscle in her body felt exhausted, and she was happy to be in bed. Dove hadn’t asked many questions yet, but she could tell that they were on the tip of her tongue.
“I reckon he’s bled out by now,” Zetti said, voice flat.
“You didn’t make sure he was dead?”
“He’s dead alright.”
“Anyone see you?”
She thought for a moment. “Don’t matter. Everyone knows Cassidy Moraday was crooked. I did Little Gulch a favor.”
“Not everyone might feel that way,” Dove reminded her. “Specially his brothers.”
“I’m comin’ for them too.”
The glow of the oil lamp cast long shadows on the ceiling and walls. There wasn’t a sound except for the faint creaks and pops that a home sometimes makes at night. A few minutes of silence passed in that way before Dove rolled over on her side and stared hard at her. “What they do to you, Zetti?”
“No. To you. I know what they did to Teru.”
Zetti rolled on her side to face her. “You saw what they done to me.”
“I known you a long time. It’s burnin’ you up. I can see it.”
She let out a big sigh. It wasn’t the first time Dove asked what happened, but she had danced around it up until then. “When they came for him, I went wild like a dog. I tried to pull Nels off of him, but he caught hold of me quick.” She paused to rub her nose with her sleeve. “I couldn’t stop ‘em.” That’s all she would say.
Dove wiped a tear away from Zetti’s cheek with her thumb. “Where we goin’ next?”
“Hot Springs, I think. That’s where Nels is.” Her brow creased. “Dove, Cass said somethin’ ‘bout a bounty. That the bounty for Teru was good.”
“He say what the bounty was for?”
Zetti shook her head. “I’m gonna find out, though.”
The two women fell asleep curled into one another like they did when they first became friends. That was back when Zetti first came to Onkawa. She had been wandering up north for a long time but missed the deserts. She showed up on the back of a strong gray mare with everything she owned. She liked Onkawa right away. It was high desert, and she could still look up at the mountains.
Back then, Dove helped out at Onkawa’s one and only saloon: Bur’s Fine Fare and Gambling House. The man who ran it, old Rolphe, didn’t much care what went on in the saloon as long as it brought in plenty of money. “Fine Fare” could mean many things, and there were plenty of rooms upstairs. They had a polished grand piano where a fellow played most nights. Sometimes a fiddler showed up. They served the best oyster pies and mutton (when they could get it). They had every kind of liquor a man might want, but Rolphe made the tequila himself. Occasionally, he managed to get a case of absinthe, which he mostly kept for himself.
In a big kitchen at the back of house, Dove made the food and patched folks up. She had a giant wooden table in the middle of the kitchen, a big window that looked out over the desert, and a little quiet space in the otherwise rowdy saloon. Her own mother taught her how to dress wounds and set bones, which she did at the back door.
A few drinks in, Zetti stepped out back to smoke a pipe and stare at the landscape. She liked that big quiet and the mountains dressed in their evening blue. There was a bench at the end of a little path through the brush. It sat by a pinyon, and she figured it was a good spot to lay for a while. Though she appreciated places like Bur’s and the towns she passed through, she still liked to keep to herself for the most part.
Cicadas made their otherworldly hum in the dying light. Zetti nearly fell asleep on the bench with the pipe in the corner of her mouth and her hands beneath her head. Then, she thought she heard shouting. She sat bolt upright. Her pipe fell to the ground. “What the—” she swung her head around just as the sound cut through the open back door of Bur’s a second time.
Cautiously, she went up to the porch, and the shouting became all the clearer. It was a woman. She sounded furious, desperate. “Stay off me!”
She ran inside at that. A man had pinned the cook to the big table and was working at his breeches. He had her wrists held tight with one hand. A knife was just out of her reach. Had he pried it from her grip? Had he threatened her with it?
“Hey!” Zetti shouted.
The man looked up, startled to hear another woman’s voice from the back door. “Ya get lost or somethin’?” He laughed at her. “Go back upstairs where you belong, ya whore.”
She jutted her chin up. “Call me that again.”
The woman took the moment of distraction to twist her hands out of his grip. Without blinking, the man slapped her hard across the face. Then, Zetti charged him. Forgetting about the woman, he went to swing a punch at the mad, dark-skinned woman that rushed him. But she ducked, catching hold of his arm and twisting it up. His shoulder cracked, and they stumbled together for a moment. Then, a knife came up out of nowhere in three swift movements. She slid out from under his weight, and he dropped to the floor in a pool of red. She held the knife out to her side, wrinkling her nose in an irritated way at the blood that dripped from it. The woman backed up, pale and shaking. She hadn’t seen Zetti grab the knife off the table to begin with.
“You okay?” Zetti asked.
“Mmhm.” The woman drew in a deep breath, her eyes were still bulging. “What are we gonna do with him?”
Zetti nudged him with the tip of her boot. He groaned. “Don’t suppose he’ll make it. Think you and me could carry ‘im?”
The woman nodded her head slowly. “Where?”
Using the knife, she pointed out past the bench.
“Okay… um, what’s yer name?”
“I’ll grab his arms; you grab his legs. Come on.”
While Zetti set down the knife, Dove ran over to a peg on the wall and took down a leather apron. “I ain’t gettin’ his blood on my dress,” she said as she tied it around her waist.
They hoisted him up. When he gave a little moan, Zetti kicked him hard in the head. His nose cracked, and his head drooped. Dove nearly dropped his legs. “You ain’t scared of much, are ya?” she asked.
Zetti shook her head.
They had barely reached the little path when another man appeared at the back door. He had a dark beard, pale blue eyes, and he wore an unbuttoned cotton shirt. In one hand, he held a dark brown glass bottle. He met Zetti’s gaze first and then called for Dove. Her head snapped around, and she gave a cry of fright. “Rolphe!”
“Who you got there, Miss Speller?”
She let go of the dead man’s legs and turned to him, clutching at her heart. “Some feller who mistook me for one of the girls,” she said.
He staggered down from the porch, only pausing to set the bottle down on one of the steps. “He dead?”
Dove looked back at Zetti with a strained expression and then turned back around again to nod at Rolphe. “Yeah, um, he might be.”
“Well he ain’t local, and he looks pretty dead to me,” said Rolphe. He squatted down to look at the fellow and shook his head. “Serves a man right for tryin’ to lay a hand on you, Dove. You girls need a hand?”
The two women looked between each other and then nodded. Rolphe and Zetti carried the body out behind a boulder while Dove made sure to keep business going as usual inside. The patrons wouldn’t be bothered with what went on out back so long as the food and entertainment kept up. Besides, he was an out of towner. Most folks wouldn’t care about his fate.
The two undertakers buried the body by moonlight without saying much. Once they finished the job, Rolphe sat down on a rock and nearly wobbled over backwards. “You help Dove?” he asked, words slurring.
“She’sa—good woman. My old frin’s daughter. Takes care of us’all jus’ like her ma.”
“You won’t tell no one, will ya?” Zetti would have hit him over the head with a rock right then and there if he didn’t swear to it, but he did, even if he could barely keep his words straight.
“No one,” he said, swiping his hands out and shaking his head. “No one tells.”
“Let’s get back.”
But he could hardly stand. She had to help him stumble back with one arm draped over her shoulders. He reeked of alcohol and sweat. By the time she got to the bottom of the porch, she was nearly ready to dump him on the steps. “Dove,” she called out instead. “I could use a hand.”
She appeared quick at the back door and helped Zetti walk him upstairs. He kissed them both on the cheek before they shoved him down on his own bed and left him there. As they shut the door softly behind them, Zetti let out a tired sigh and wiped her cheek with her sleeve.
“I’ve about had it with carryin’ men around, dead or otherwise,” Zetti said.
“You need somewhere to sleep tonight?”
Zetti nodded. She slept in a chair in the kitchen corner until Dove finished up, her head nodded against her chest. Then, they walked arm and arm in the dark. The town was dead quiet aside from the crunch of their own footsteps. Finally, they came to a little house about as far away from the saloon as it could be.
“My pa built this house,” Dove said softly as they went inside. She lit a gas lamp and took Zetti upstairs. She paused outside a door, then turned. Her face glowed in the lamplight. “Would ya… would ya sleep in my bed with me? I’m just a little shook up is all. I…”
When her voice trailed off, Zetti nodded. Dove led her across the hall instead and into a room with a moonlit window. They stripped down to their undergarments and slipped beneath the quilt. Though they were both exhausted, neither could sleep, so Zetti gently drew circles on Dove’s back and told stories about the forests up north.
How they were tall, deep and dark. How moss grew like hair from branches and giant yellow slugs glided on the forest floor. How she couldn’t wrap her arms around the trees.
“You like it up there?”
Zetti didn’t know whether she did or didn’t. She shook her head anyway as Dove rolled over. “There’s always a cloud in the sky up there. Here, there’s always sun.”
For a long time, neither one said anything. They looked into each other’s eyes instead. Both women saw a strange mixture of strength, love, and fear in each other. In that moment more than any other, they knew they would be friends for a long time. That night, they fell asleep curled into each other and slept well into the next day.
Chapter five will be released Tuesday, October 15.
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