Jules Starrett walked over to the still form and looked down at the open eyes that were staring up into the hot sun. Except for the gouges his heels had dug into the dirt road and the red splotch on his chest, Jared McCrea looked surprisingly peaceful. She found herself resenting the rest that he had found at the barrel of her gun, especially considering that it was he who had made her a killer.
She stood there staring for several minutes, until a puff of dry wind blew dirt into her eyes. Blinking, she looked around at the people who had lived cheek to jowl with this man and had come to see her die at his hands. There was a small crowd in the shadow of the hotel and across the street at the general store.
Wiping a trembling hand across her mouth, she tried to work up enough saliva to spit. Jules hated that the townsfolk cared nothing for justice. She had not been able to garner any support from them when she publicly accused Jared of murder. They were quick, however, to gather when he demanded satisfaction for her challenge of his honor.
Her shoulder had begun throbbing and she slid her Colt into her holster. With a sigh, she hooked her thumb in her belt and headed over to her horse. She had saddled her mare up this morning after paying her bills. She wanted an easy way out if the crowd turned ugly and hadn't wanted to leave debts behind her if things went badly for her.
She had come to Macintosh because she knew that Jared had settled down here. Their first fatal meeting happened at the end of another summer, nearly a lifetime ago. He had heard about her mother's recent inheritance? and came to their homestead with two men after her father had ridden out to mend fences. Jules was just thirteen and was able to escape the brutality of the gang by hiding in the creek. She had stayed in the chilly water for five hours. Her father had returned and set out after them, hardly pausing to tend to the only surviving member of his family. He killed one of the thieves and was killed by another less than two weeks later.
The schoolmistress of the town near her family's ranch had taken her in after her parent's deaths. The woman had tried to turn her mind from vengeance. Little did she know that it was only Jules' desire to bring down the men who had destroyed her life that kept her alive.
She had kept all the guns from her father and practiced for hours every day, killing cans and small animals until her aim was deadly. After three years, she had begun to forget what her mother and father looked like. The image of their killers was burned in her retinas and that's who she saw whenever she pulled the trigger.
On her sixteenth birthday, she set out to find Jared and the remaining member of his band. Taking only the weapons and a horse, Jules rode off to do unto others as they had done to her.
Purely by luck, she had found her father's killer four months ago. The man had not remembered the particulars of that murder but he had blubbered like a baby when it was his turn to die. In desperation, he offered her all the information he had on Jared's whereabouts. Jules thanked him and then shot him twice. She made camp that night with only the dead body for company. When she rode off the next day, she left his remains for the scavengers.
Her hate had stripped all the veneer from her manner and the hard riding she had done had stripped her frame of any residual baby fat. Tan and lean, with hair cut short by her own knife, Jules created a sensation when she slammed into the Macintosh town council meeting and demanded that the mayor face justice for his past crimes.
The sheriff had wanted to arrest her but Jared was magnanimous. He had parlayed his ill-gotten gains into controlling interest in the town and felt invincible in the face of her grief. Confident also in his skill with a gun, he figured a duel would silence both her and all of his other critics.
There was certainly silence now. The watching crowd was eerily quiet. Jules shook her head and winced at the pull from her wound. That physical pain was all she felt. She thought that her six-year campaign would bring satisfaction. Instead, all she had was a film of dust coating her tongue.
Light-headed from the heat and pain, Jules walked over to her mare. Gritting her teeth, she was able to climb aboard her mount without passing out. When she moved to kick her horse into motion, a hand on her boot stopped her.
Looking down, she saw that one of the hotel's evening women had a grip on her ankle. The woman was dressed in a flowing green gown and had her red hair pulled up under a wide-brimmed hat. Jules thought absently that she had never seen a more beautiful creature.
The woman smiled at her. "Come down from there and get that injury tended to."
"I'll be fine."
"You'll be dead from infection and blood loss."
"What do you care?"
"I don't know that I do. I just know that I'm not going to allow you to kill yourself."
"There's been enough death."
"You'll see more if you don't let go of me," Jules threatened.
"You are hardly in any condition to make me," the woman replied. "Dismount or I'll pull you off."
"The hell you will," Jules responded before trying to twist her foot out of the woman's hands. Her movement caused her horse to dance around, jarring her shoulder. She doubled over, cradling her arm to her chest.
Taking advantage of the distraction, the woman pulled the reins from Jules hands and secured the horse to the rail. Returning to Jules' side, she reached up and took a hold of the wounded arm. Tugging steadily, she got the woman back on the ground.
"Release me, lady!" Jules growled.
"I'm hardly a lady. My name's Peggy Lancer. What's yours?"
Jules ignored the question and, instead, muttered curses as she was half-carried her into the hotel. After a few steps Jules realized that every time she pulled away from the woman, her arm seemed to catch fire. By the time they made the first landing, Jules was following Peggy's lead.
The woman took Jules into her room on the third floor and pushed her down on the big bed. "Sit there while I get these things off you," she said as she started to unbutton Jules' shirt.
"Take your hands off me."
"You'll know it when my hands are on you."
"Leave me alone." Jules attempted to shrug her off.
Peggy shook her head in exasperation and grabbed the recalcitrant youngster by the shoulder. Quickly, she put a hand behind the now unconscious woman's head and eased her back against the pillows. Years of practice got all the young woman's clothes off before the doctor, who had been trailing behind them, knocked on the door.
"Come in, Doc. She's ready for you."
The old man wheezed a bit from the climb. "Not as ready as I am for you," he replied with a leer.
"Shut up and get cutting," she retorted. "I don't have time for your foolishness."
Doctor Simpson pulled out a bottle of alcohol and a pair of long tweezers from his ever-present bag. He bent over the girl and poured the liquid into the bullet hole. "There she blows," he laughed as Jules nearly jerked upright in sudden agony.
"She's already out, Doc. There's no need to torture her."
"Best way to clean out the dirt."
Peggy glared. "Just get on with it."
He hacked and spit into the spittoon by the bed before leaning forward on one knee and spreading the wound with his left hand. Using his other hand, he proceeded to dig in with the tweezers, feeling around for the bullet. It had flattened as it entered, so he was able to easily follow its path. He admired the vicious beauty of the spent slug for a moment before dropping it into Peggy's hand. He poured on more alcohol and then packed some cotton into the wound.
"That should do it," he said as he wiped his hands on his handkerchief.
Peggy handed him two dollars. "Will this be enough?"
"Enough for me to come back if you call."
"Will I be calling?"
"She could get feverish." He repacked his bag. "How quickly she recovers will be tied to how much she wants to get better."
"What do you mean?"
"I heard what she said at the meeting. Her whole life has been dedicated to tracking him down. Now that she doesn't have that to keep her going, who knows what she'll do."
"She's got moxie. She doesn't strike me as a quitter."
"Doesn't matter when what's been riding her is gone."
Peggy sat down on the side of the bed and put her hand on Jules' cheek. She ran her thumb over the full lips. Her gaze softened as Jules turned her head into her touch.
The Doctor stood in the doorway, watching her watch his patient. "I have never seen you like this before," he observed.
Peggy looked evenly at him before sweeping off her hat and loosening her hair. "Like what?" she demanded.
Realizing that he had no words for the tenderness in her eyes, he shrugged uncomfortably. "Nothing," he said finally. "Call me if she worsens."
"I'll do that, Hamish" she replied. "Thank you."
"It was nothing." He took a step out of the room. "Shall I tell downstairs that you'll be occupied tonight?"
"Yes. I've got better things in my bed than smelly cowboys." She smiled at him. "You're a good man."
"Now, don't try and turn my head, woman. You know that flattery corrupts both the giver and the receiver."
"Not flattery. Just the truth."
"Just don't spread it around."
"Your secret is safe with me." Peggy stood up and began to unlace her jacket. "Good night."
He nodded his head again and closed the door softly behind him. Walking down the stairs, he wondered how much longer Peggy would be staying in town now that her heart had woken up.
Peggy changed her clothes and set to cleaning the girl up. The prairie dust made its way into everything and the girl was grimy and bloody from the days adventure. Tired too, as she continued to sleep through the afternoon and into the early evening.
Peggy had some stew brought up and finally woke the youngster up. She kept both hands free and needed them to keep Jules from getting out of bed. "Damn it, stay down. I paid good money to get you worked on and I am blessed if you are going to undo everything."
"Don't touch me."
"I'll let you go, if you promise to stay still."
"Just leave me alone."
"Why? Why are you doing this?" Jules cried.
"Because you're not going to get away so easy."
"You call this easy? I was shot!"
"I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about life."
Too dazed and confused to make sense of the statement, Jules tried to sit up again. "Let me go and I won't bother you anymore."
"You're not bothering me."
"Then why are you so mad?"
"I'm just upset because I don't want you to throw away this chance."
"Now that you've gotten your revenge, you have a choice to make."
"What do you mean?"
"You can lay down and die?"
Jules interrupted. "Or what? Not die?"
"The word is live, you idiot. You have a choice to live or die."
"What do I have to live for? My folks are dead and I'm a killer. There's no going back for me."
"Then go forward."
Jules shook her head. "To what?"
"How should I know? You've traveled over hell and half the country. Surely, there is something you can do."
"I'm too tired to fight with you now."
Deciding to stop pushing for the night, Peggy sighed. "Why don't you at least have some supper and I'll let you sleep." Peggy helped her sit up and slid another couple of pillows behind her back. Taking the bowl off the nightstand, she held the spoon to Jules' lips.
Initially reluctant to take anything from Peggy, she quickly realized how hungry she was. The stew was delicious but her injury had taken a lot out of her. Jules barely finished the meal before her head was nodding.
Peggy eased her down and pulled up the covers. She watched Jules sleep for several hours before she decided to join her in the bed. She rarely slept with any of her clients and it took her a while to relax enough to drift off.
The next morning, Jules woke up in a panic. She felt the warmth of another body beside her and could not for the life of her remember how that had come to be. Sitting up, the covers lifted off the pale limbs of the woman who had helped her. Once again, Jules was struck anew by her beauty.
Her eyes stinging from unshed tears, Jules got up from the bed. There was no way that such a vision would want her around for one minute longer than necessary.
In a far corner, she found her clothes in a wad. It was a struggle to pull on her filthy pants and blood-encrusted shirt. Jules was panting by the time she was dressed. She turned to find a place to sit down and put on her shoes and realized that Peggy's green eyes were watching her.
"What are you doing?"
"I have to go."
"Really? You're late for an appointment? You need to see a man about a horse?"
"Uh," Jules could not think of a response. She reacted defensively to the sarcasm. "You can't keep me here."
"No but you are free to stay anyway."
"Why would you want someone like me to hang around?"
"You don't have a monopoly on sin, girl." Peggy sat up, the covers pooling around her waist. "I've sold myself for the price of a meal." At the pointed look, she laughed. "Okay, a really good meal. The fact is that I've seen and done things far worse than your sending a few killers to their justly deserved end."
"You want me here?"
"No one on the planet has enough money to put themselves in my bed in your place."
"You've got the pick of anyone to be in your bed. Why me?"
"Because I see something in you." Peggy combed her fingers through her hair and smiled to herself when the other woman's eyes were drawn to her assets. "I'm soul sick from the life I've lived. I'm ready to make a change and I think we can help each other."
"I don't know. I hear there are a whole lot of opportunities out in San Francisco. It's booming now that the rush is on for gold. In a city like that, I can find something to do that I don't have to do on my back."
"Whatever you want, sweetie. You've already proven that you can do anything you put your mind to. The world is yours for the taking."
Jules had a far away look in her eyes. "You really want to do this? I mean you want to go there? With me?"
"Without you, I wouldn't be able to go." The older woman looked bleakly out the window. "I'll die here, no better than I am right now."
"You could die on the way. Or once we got there."
"True but, at least, I would have tried something different."
Jules nodded. Her life needed a new direction now that the men she hunted were all dead. "Okay."
"Does that mean that you're staying?"
"Until you're ready to go." Jules dropped her boots to the ground and walked back to the bed. Almost gingerly, she sat down on the edge. Raking her glance over the naked woman, she blushed a deep red.
"Are you shamed or just shy?" Peggy asked quietly.
"I've never seen a woman in her altogether before."
"Not even yourself?"
"You can look." Peggy smiled when Jules' head lifted eagerly. "But only if I get to look, too."
Jules' eyes immediately began to stare a hole in the floor. "I'm not used to being looked at," she whispered.
"Hmmm," the woman murmured as she began to unbutton Jules' shirt. Peggy slid the shirt opened and then pulled Jules' head up until she made eye contact.
The two women locked glances for a few minutes before Peggy dropped her gaze to Jules exposed breasts. Smiling slightly, she looked back into Jules' dark eyes. "I like what I see."
Blushing furiously, Jules attempted to pull her shirt back up.
Peggy laughingly stopped her. This time when Jules lifted her head, Peggy's mouth was there. Both of their breathing became ragged as Peggy held still, inches from contact. "I also like what I see here," she added before closing the distance and kissing Jules.
Jules was shocked at how soft Peggy's lips were and she kissed back with enthusiasm. Peggy teased her with brief flicks of her tongue. Jules was almost queasy, feelings were stirring in her like she had never experienced before.
Leaning back slightly, Peggy smiled again as Jules moved toward her, reluctant to break contact. She bent forward again and kissed the younger woman, walking her lips across Jules' cheek and along her jaw to her ear. "Do you like this as much as I do?" she whispered before sucking the lobe into her mouth.
Jules could the feel the blood rushing through her veins. For so long, her heart had only beat for revenge. Now, it was pounding out a message of longing and of hope. She raised her hand and stroked Peggy's neck. She could feel the answering pulse under her fingers.
Kissing deeply, their tongues playing together, Jules barely had the breath to reply, "Yes. Oh, my God, yes."