|Angel of Death
Author: Cosmic-Star-Dust PM
Jake Hart is called to a nearby town to deal with the new bounty hunter. Will he find out this bounty hunter is more than he can handle?Rated: Fiction T - English - Words: 14,835 - Published: 01-27-13 - Status: Complete - id: 3096038
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Angel of Death
The day started out like any other, the hot sun beating down on Jake's neck, he and his son working on the farm, Jake whistling a sprightly tune while he broke the tough ground with the plow.
"Pa?" his son asked.
"Hm?" Jake turned to where Adam's pointing finger indicated. A man in a postal uniform handed Jake's wife, Imogene, an envelope. Intrigued, Jake headed over to his wife, who was literate.
"What does it say?" he asked.
"Seems you're needed in Sagebrush," she sighed. Imogene always hated when Jake had to leave, because there was a chance he wouldn't come back. Especially in his line of work; he was lucky enough to have made it that far. "Marshal says it's urgent."
"Sagebrush is only about thirty miles away, so it shouldn't take more than a week to get whatever it is handled," Jake smiled at his dear wife, trying to ease her worries. She smiled faintly back.
"Just come back with your limbs intact, ya hear?"
"I will, darlin'. Don't you worry," he pulled her into a loving embrace, hearing her sigh quietly. He pulled back, and saw her eyes glistening. He smiled once more, then went to the stable to saddle up his horse.
Now, Jacob Hart is an admirable character. A sheriff's deputy for most of his young life, he met the beautiful and elegant Imogene Black. He convinced Imogene's father that he would treat her much better than the stuffy banker that she was supposed to marry. Imogene and Jake married a year after they met, moved to a farm, and started a family. Their son, Adam, is eighteen at this point in time, and well-bred. Honest, loyal, and a gentleman despite his humble setting, he helps his father with anything he can do. Jake is often called upon by local sheriffs to help get rid of a rotten accountant, or a gang nearby who is causing trouble.
"Pa? Where are you goin'?" his son asked.
"Sagebrush; seems the marshal needs me there."
"Don't know that yet," Jake looked at his son. "Now, son, you gotta take care of your mother, she's a very gentle woman. I'll be back before the week's end."
After some silence, Adam finally said, "Okay, Pa."
"You're the man of the house, ya hear?"
"Yes, sir," his son said. Jake went inside the stable, straight to his chestnut-colored horse, and saddled him up. Getting up on the saddle, Jake trotted off the property, waving to his wife and son.
Sagebrush is about a day's ride (if you go slowly) from Life's Waters, the small, farming town that the Harts live in. That night, Jake huddled around his small fire and listened to the coyotes howl and bark at something much weaker than themselves. It always sounded like they were laughing, but Jake didn't let it bother him.
The next day, Jake arrived at Sagebrush around 9 AM. He rode straight to the marshal's office, hitched his horse, and walked in to see the marshal half-dozing in his chair.
"Mornin', marshal," Jake laughed.
"Oh!" the marshal started. "Jake, glad to see you made it."
"What can I do you for?"
"Seems we have a new bounty hunter in town," the marshal sighed. "I always hate new bounty hunters; they go by their own rules, mess up our entire system, and-"
"Get on with it, marshal." Jake interrupted. "What's wrong with him?"
"He's… too good. He's exceptional. It just seems he's been rubbin' everyone the wrong way. People are picking fights with him left and right."
"He keeps winning. It's just odd, Jake, the way he fights. It's so fast, and leaves people in so much pain when he only lands a couple of strikes."
"Puzzling, ain't it?"
"Yeah," Jake pondered. "So where is he?"
"He usually comes to town around night. I never see him in the day."
"So what do you propose I do? Just wait around until night falls?"
"There's not much you can do, is there?"
The marshal of Sagebrush is a respected figure in town; he always did his job, paid his bounty hunters fairly, and protected the people of his town to the best of his ability. Many of the women in town often brought him cured meat or such when there would be long nights. Men always volunteered to be part of his posses, because they felt safe with the marshal.
"You can stay here if you like, but it ain't very entertaining."
"I'll see what the town has to offer, marshal," Jake walked out of the marshal's office, down the street to the butcher's shop, and bought a couple of pounds of cured beef for when he got home. He walked down the porches of the town, since they were all lined up, and chewed some tobacco.
Jake saw a group of young men smoking cigars in front of the saloon, and thought nothing of it until one of them decided it would be funny to trip him. Jake landed hard on the wooden walkway, temper flaring, and debated picking a fight with the youngster. The boy's group laughed like a pack of hyenas at the man who fell.
"What's wrong, old man? Too drunk to walk straight?" the scoundrel jabbed. Jake didn't answer him, just slowly got up. He had blonde hair and brown eyes that bore into the soul. "Won't answer me, eh? Maybe I should teach you a lesson about manners."
"Looks like you have too much to learn yerself," Jake said as he rolled his shoulders back.
"Want to pick a fight, old man?"
"Gladly," Jake growled. He hopped over the railing and walked into the street. (After all, Jake is not old, to today's standards.) The young man did the same and put up his fists, but Jake didn't trust him to fight fair. The first punch landed hard on Jake's jaw; enough to make him stumble back a little. This guy was young and had probably fought plenty of times.
"Come on, old man, at least go out with your dignity," he laughed. The boy tried to punch him again, but Jake beat him. They both fought until a fair amount of blood trickled down the street.
"Ezekiel Adams!" there was a call from the other end of the street. Ezekiel looked away from his most recent victim. Jake couldn't help but look along with him. A girl stood there, her hair like yellow fire, her features dainty, but her expression stern and scolding. Ezekiel backed away from Jake, caught in the act, and walked over to her, while she met him half-way.
"Ms. McCullough! What a pleasure to see you this fine morning!" he almost pleaded as he took off his hat.
"Don't give me that," the girl said, with an Irish accent. Jake had met many Irishmen in his day, generally escorting them out of bars. "What are you doing beating up on a poor man like that?"
"You see, Ms. Anna, he got in my way, and I had to defend my honor."
"I find that highly unlikely, Mr. Adams," she deadpanned.
"Well, I'm sorry a fine lady such as yourself had to see such barbaric goings-on."
"Ah, you speak like a scholar, yet act like a savage," she said. Ezekiel then took her into his arms, dipped her, and kissed her right there. Jake spat out blood, walked over, and pulled the boy away from the young lady by the collar.
"Get off of her, boy. It seems she doesn't want you," Jake interjected. Ms. Anna seemed pretty fired up, and seemed ready to do a barbaric act or two herself if Jake hadn't have been there. "A true Irishwoman," Jake mumbled under his breath, then cleared his throat. "Excuse him, miss, all those hormones are doin' wonders to his judgment."
"Figured as much," she wiped her mouth with her sleeve, not taking her eyes off of Ezekiel. "Just make sure he doesn't jump me on my way back home, would you?" she walked over to the man with broken ego, looked him straight in the eye, and said, "I will not let you court me again, you hear me?"
"Yes, miss," the boy grumbled.
"Good," she turned to Jake. "Thank you for getting this animal off me. I've dealt with enough men to know how they work. Yet they always seem to sneak their attacks in right as I'm getting my point across."
"I reckon so, miss. Just do me a favor, and get home safely."
"I will. Thank you," she turned and walked away. The group of hyenas laughed louder than ever to see their leader emasculated so. Jake threw him to the side and as the scoundrel was standing up, punched him in the jaw.
"Don't try that again, boy," Jake warned and spat out some excess from his chaw onto the boy. The group howled with laughter and there was no doubt that he would not live that down for a long time.
Jake killed time until the sun went down, then joined the marshal at the saloon. The bounty hunter wasn't there yet, so the two played poker, and drank a couple of whiskies.
"So I heard you got into a fight today, Jake," the marshal said while looking down at his cards.
"The boy started it, not me."
"Who was he?" the marshal asked.
"Some punk named…" Jake thought of the name. "Ezekiel Adams."
"Oh, him. No charges will be held against you, then," the marshal laughed.
The two had a good time until suddenly the marshal fell silent. Jake looked over his shoulder and saw a figure come in, hat pulled over his face, and loaded up like any bounty hunter should be.
"That's him?" Jake whispered to the marshal, and he nodded. The rest of the rowdy saloon seemed to fall silent along with them. The man sat at the bar, staying silent, and placed money on the bar. At this point, the bartender must have known what his preferred order was, because he didn't ask questions, only got the man his drink.
Jake felt uneasy; he never trusted anyone who didn't show their face plainly. He noticed that the man also had a whip in his possession, with a barbed end. He could see the end was reflecting off the dim light and could only imagine that it was blood. How that must have stung when it hit you!
Sitting next to the bounty hunter was a beast of a man, who the marshal had pointed out earlier as being the leader of some gang, but no evidence was strong enough to convict him. The saloon remained silent, and the bounty hunter seemed to have no issue with the silence, but the man next to him sure did.
"Hey, why won't you talk?" the man bellowed in an accusing tone. The bounty hunter didn't even flinch. "Talk! Or are you too stupid to?" he laughed, and pushed the bounty hunter off his stool. He stood up along with the beast, standing upright and perfectly straight. Rigid, unmoving, the bounty hunter's eyes could not be seen, yet it seemed that he could see. He put his fists up, not bouncing around like some do, simply standing there. The beast was the first to shoot out a fist, but the bounty hunter dodged it with ease, then quickly jabbed the beast's arm with fast hits. The beast howled in pain, although it didn't look like it had hurt that much to Jake. This was the fighting the marshal was talking about.
"You little bastard!" the beast bellowed. Jake saw a small smirk cross the bounty hunter's face, and he waited again for the beast to make the first move. Nobody in the bar moved, they all stared. Even the marshal didn't intervene. The beast continued to make slow punches, but the hunter make quick, precise hits to his forearms or shoulders. Soon the beast had fallen, howling in pain.
The bounty hunter grabbed him by the collar, bringing his face to the beast's. An expression of disbelief and shock crossed the beast's visage. His mouth moved, but no one could hear the words except for maybe the hunter. The hunter took out a knife, and before anyone could say or do anything, slit the beast's throat.
A frenzy broke out as the blood poured out of the beast's throat, all his fellow, lesser beasts started lunging toward the hunter. The alpha male was dead. The hunter acted with the same precision and speed as with the first, and although he didn't kill any more, the other men were falling like flies. Fighting with his legs, even, the bounty hunter conquered. Jake finally understood why this hunter was hated so; he's terrific at what he does. After all had fallen, the bounty hunter started running for the door.
"Jake, he'll make a run for it!" the marshal called out in all the chaos. Jake and the marshal stood up and tried to block the bounty hunter's exit, but he simply squeezed between the two of them and made a run for it in the night. Jake was not about to give up, though! He got on his horse, and charged after the hunter.
His horse was fast, and Jake's horse had a hard time catching up to him. But, after a while, he did. The bounty hunter heard the extra hoof beats, turned around and saw Jake behind him. He took out his repeater, and aimed with one arm toward Jake. In return, Jake took out his lasso, started twirling it, and roped it around him like he had with runaway cattle. The lasso looped around the stalk of the repeater, and Jake pulled, only meaning to get the gun. However, the bounty hunter's grip was so tight, that it pulled him off along with it. In the moonlight, the bounty hunter's hat flew off, and everything seemed to go in slow-motion. The bounty hunter's horse stopped, rearing up its legs, knowing its rider had fallen. Jake's horse stopped, as well, rearing up its legs. In front of Jake the bounty hunter lie, but when he got up, Jake seemed to notice something.
That was no he.
That he was a she.
Mama had told her to hide. She had seen the horses off on the horizon. Not knowing exactly where to go, Anna had hidden herself in her bureau, which could easily fit her. Mama had told her that no matter what she heard, she was not to leave her hiding place until she knew it was safe.
This is what she repeated to herself endlessly as she heard the screams, the malicious laughter, and gun shots. Huddled up within herself, she tried to keep her breathing quiet, and her heart quieter. Hopefully she could stay here, hopefully they would not come searching for her, and hopefully her family is okay. Whenever she was scared or nervous, she would repeat things that she knew for sure to herself.
My name is Anna McCullough, I'm twelve years old. I am from Ireland. My family left there because we are Protestant. My mother is Bonnie McCullough. I am the youngest of five sisters. My father is Charles McCullough.
Forever had passed when the screams had stopped, but there were still heavy footsteps. Lumbering around her house, stealing her possessions, eating her food. They were coming closer and closer to her room, where she was hidden.
"Check the drawers," a man with a terribly deep voice ordered. She held her breath, and saw the shadow of a man stop in front of her wardrobe. She waited for it to be over and done with.
Just do it!
Light shone on her after another eternity.
"Looks like we missed one, boys," the man laughed, staring Anna right in the eye. He grabbed her and picked her up out of the wardrobe with ease. She was suspended above the floor. Her breath quickened, fear rushing through her system. "What's wrong, little girl? Scared?" he laughed again. He scanned her over, a look of slight disgust crossing his face. "Looks like she's a little young, boys. Anyone still want her?" they all growled like animals, some in agreement, some in disgust along with their boss. Anna finally saw how many there were. Twelve of them, right there in her room. All dirty and rugged and exactly how she thought outlaws looked like. The outlaw that was holding her turned her head toward him, made her look at him. She was memorizing his face while he spoke, and her heart was beating like a rabbit's while she was. "Run, girl," he said, a disgusting smile crossing his face. "We'll come get you when you're older, and more pleasin' to the eye."
He let her go, and she ran for her life down the stairs, out the door, and into the farmyard.
Bodies littered the grounds, but she had no time to mourn. She ran into the woods near her house, and kept running even though her lungs burned and her feet were sore. Everything went black after some time, and the next thing she remembered was waking up in a warm bed with a cool cloth pressed to her forehead. A kind old face looked down at her, the kind that a grandfather would have. She had never known her grandfather. She tried to get up, the memories rushing back to her, but the grandfather gently pushed her back down.
"Now, now. You must get your rest, dear," he cooed. And she did just that. She rested until she felt like a hundred years had passed.
She opened her eyes once again, feeling rested and less afraid. The memories still came back to her, and she slowly realized what those outlaws had done to her family.
Everyone she loved. Dead.
The reality hit her harder than she would've liked, and the silent tears streamed down her face until she broke out into sobs. The grandfather came in again, and pulled her into a hug, like he understood somehow. Anna stayed there for quite some time, until the grandfather's sleeves were dampened with her lamentation.
After having a few aches in her chest from its heaving, and her eyes out of tears, she finally pulled away from the grandfather—who had soothed her with his words, "Be calm, child,"—and looked at him.
His dark grey eyes stored inner turmoil that she could not fathom, his tan, leathery skin had wrinkled and age had done what it does to most.
"Are you feeling better now, child?" he asked Anna McCullough.
"Yes, sir," Anna said, wiping her nose with her sleeve. "Thank you for helping me."
"I see you're Irish!" he laughed. "What's your name, child?"
"Anna McCullough, and I am Irish," she tried to laugh, but found it difficult.
"I won't ask what happened to you, Anna," he stood up. "But you can stay here for as long as you like. We can always use another hand on the farm."
"I couldn't, sir! I've been enough of an imposition on you already."
"Also well-read," he noted. "But I insist. You cannot leave in your condition. So, please, stay. My wife and I would love to have a child around the house again, since our children are all grown and have families of their own in the cities."
"That's too kind of you, mister…"
"Cooper. Zachary Cooper," he held out his hand for Anna to shake. "It's nice to meet you, Miss McCullough."
She shook his hand, and said, "The pleasure is all mine, Mister Cooper."
Zachary Cooper had a secret of his own, a past he didn't reveal to anyone unless he absolutely had to.
A week passed, and feeling better, mourning Anna requested to see her old farm. Mr. Cooper agreed, got the wagon ready, and they were on their way.
The sight was more horrible than she remembered. She hadn't seen the people hanging, only the ones on the ground. Mr. Cooper was silent as a grave as Anna walked around, recognizing the faces that were masked by agony and blood. A deep hatred for the men that killed everyone on her farm and had left her for dead simmered in her center. Anna McCullough had never hated anyone until now. This wasn't any petty hatred, either; this was the hatred that signed death certificates and made poison for groups of full-grown men.
Mr. Cooper sat thirty feet away and could feel this dark energy radiating from Anna. He had seen too much of this forty years ago; he knew the effects it had on people. Most screamed at the heavens, or at God Himself, cursing Him or themselves. But Anna wasn't like most, she knew that screaming like a child would not change anything, would not stop her bad luck from happening.
Over and over again, the man's face, his hideous cackle, flashed in her head. She had memorized the face, and now he would wish he were never born. Disgusted, she walked back to the wagon. Without looking at Mr. Cooper she deadpanned, "Do you have a shovel," and it didn't come out as a question. Mr. Cooper reached back into the wagon's bed and grabbed a shovel, handing it to her without saying anything. She crossed to the nearest body and started to dig the first grave.
Mr. Cooper had joined her in the digging, so they would get back before dark. By the time everyone was buried and makeshift crosses made of two sticks tied together stood above every grave, it was mid-afternoon. Anna and Mr. Cooper got on the wagon and started to make their way back to the farm.
Now everything is done. I will never return here.
Gunshots in the distant snapped Anna back to reality. Mr. Cooper heard them, too, and seemed tense. Soon, a group of outlaws came galloping over the hills, guns blazing, all of them whooping and hollering. They saw Anna and Mr. Cooper, and stopped.
Anna searched every one of their faces, but none were the man from the farm.
"Give us yer money, old man," one demanded.
"I'm afraid I don't have any at the moment, gentlemen," Mr. Cooper said calmly. Anna noticed how calm he was and thought it odd.
"Then how about the girl?" the outlaw asked with lust in his voice.
"I'm afraid not."
"You asked fer it, old man!" the outlaw pulled out his gun and aimed it at the two on the wagon; Anna squeezed her eyes shut and heard the gunshots. She was surprised at how painless death was. When she realized she could, she opened her eyes, and saw Mr. Cooper with a smoking gun and all the bandits on the ground, either dead or getting there.
"No, you asked 'fer it'. Let's go, Anna." the horses started moving, but Anna was still shocked at what had happened. Some time passed before she could say anything.
"How did you do that?!" she shrieked. Mr. Cooper didn't look at her, and had a hardened expression.
"I used to be a gunslinger before I became a simpleton farmer. It was a long time ago, probably before your parents were born. Outlaws were common here and in Sagebrush, the next town over. The sheriff needed someone to eliminate the gang leaders. He had bounty hunters, but not skillful enough or plentiful enough to challenge the leaders. I, being reckless and young, decided to offer up my expertise at gun slinging and my different style of fighting to help the sheriff," he smiled then. "I astounded them all. No one expected that from me, a simple kid. I was seventeen. I survived, and that is what is key."
"You need to teach me!" Anna demanded. She looked at Mr. Cooper with what she imagined was a determined look on her face. He stared back at her, but couldn't say no to the heartbroken orphan child.
"Very well, I will teach you," he sighed as Anna's eyes lit up. "But you must be prepared for how grueling this work is. You'll also need to help with the chores around the farm so we can finish faster and I can teach you."
"I will do anything!" she smiled.
How lives can change.
One night, a month later, there was a raging storm. Anna went to help Mister Cooper put the horses into the stable. One of the horses that was expecting a foal started making too much racket for it to be anything other than labor pains.
"Anna, get some hot water, towels, and Mrs. Cooper!" Mister Cooper demanded. Anna ran as fast as she could to the house, panting that the horse was ready. Mrs. Cooper started to boil the water, fetched towels for Anna, and told her to run back to the stables. Anna ran more, feeling her legs toppling over the hidden holes in the dark.
"Mrs. Cooper is coming," she panted. "I have the towels, and the water is on to boil."
Anna was the youngest of her sisters, and so she had never seen the beauty of birth. But even in the beauty of it, it looked so ugly and painful. Mister Cooper kneeled next to the mare, trying to aid her. Mrs. Cooper came to the stables, and aided Mr. Cooper in aiding the mare. The foal (finally) was born, and Anna saw it right as it stood up. It looked at her, too, and in that moment, Anna felt a connection.
The foal was black with a black mane and tail. The only color was a slither of white on its nose.
"Can I name it?" she asked. Mister and Mrs. Cooper looked at her, then at each other, but nodded. After some thought, Anna said, "Laoch."
Several years of backbreaking labor and endless work later, Anna McCullough was not the same. She matured, growing another four inches and exposing the curves that were hiding under her adolescence. She was beautiful, but a fighter. Whenever she went into town for the food shopping, men ogled her. She knew how to handle them, though. Whenever one would try to touch her, she broke his fingers. Slowly and separately.
Mister Cooper had taught her an unknown style of fighting that used quick jabs and precise movements to take down her enemies. She also could pull a gun faster than most and lasso people off their horses. She kept those a secret, though.
Most called Anna fiery or hot-headed. Anna had one simple wish, though.
To kill the man that had murdered her family.
One day, Mister Cooper called Anna. He was like a grandfather to her now, and she was like a granddaughter to him. He showed her a trunk, and when she opened it, she saw a coat, a hat, gloves, boots, and plenty of holsters for plenty of weapons.
"You'll only find the man you want if you, yourself, become a bounty hunter. He ought to be around still. Put these on anytime you are out gunning people down. If a single person knows you're a woman, you'll be killed or worse." Anna knew what he meant by "or worse", it was what happened to the women in her family, she found out. Now that she was a woman, and she knew what men do to women, she was well aware.
The clothes were big on her, but covered up everything she needed to have covered up. The coat looked like an old duster, the hat big enough to pull down over her face, but small enough to where she could still see. Among the weapons were a repeater, two six-shooters, a barbed whip, a shotgun, rope, and a hunting knife.
"Thank you, Mister Cooper. You have made me who I was meant to be."
"Thank you, Miss McCullough, for letting me teach you my ways. It was a pleasure."
Anna changed her clothes completely, and looked into the standing mirror. Her hair hung down past her shoulders, so she stuffed it into her hat. She looked enough like a man to not arouse suspicion.
Mister Cooper came in, saw her, and smiled. She smiled, too, feeling strength within herself.
"Finally, one last present," he led her out to the stables, to the final stall, which held the horse she broke, rode, and loved with her heart. Laoch. She looked to him and beamed. He looked at her quizzically, however. "What does 'Laoch' mean? It sounds like Gaelic."
"It is, and it means 'strength'." she petted Laoch's nose, and felt content.
"One last thing, Anna. You cannot speak when you're dressed as a man, do you understand me?"
"Of course. I'll be silent as death itself." Anna saddled up Laoch, waved good-bye to the Coopers (though she promised to visit every now and again), and rode to Sagebrush.
Anna is sixteen at this point in time. Her hatred has simmered within her for long enough for her to have bloodlust. When she arrived at Sagebrush, the sheriff didn't open his arms up to her as much as she expected. She kept pointing at the wanted poster, but he didn't seem to understand.
"I don't trust a man who doesn't talk," he spat. Anna simply indicated toward her throat, her gloved hand hitting the edge of the duster she was wearing. She was still trying to get used to the pants she had on, they were definitely unusual. "So ya can't speak, eh? Too bad. Take the damn poster for all I care, but I want him alive."
Anna grabbed the poster, smiling to herself, and headed out on her hunt. She passed by the spot where she was camped. It was within a canyon, under a little out-cove. She kept her dresses there, in case she ever needed to be a woman again and get her supplies or what she needed.
Anna rode to where the petty thief was last seen, where his suspected hideout was. As soon as she was about one hundred yards away, the shooting started. She reared back Laoch and rushed into the nearest shelter she saw. Laoch knew to get down next to her, and she kept firing shots. The repeater was handy, since she was clearly outnumbered. But the outlaws were dropping like flies. Soon, there was only one left.
"Up, up!" Anna whispered to her horse. He stood up, let Anna get onto him, and she steered Laoch in the direction of the thief. She took out her rope, lassoed him, then hogtied him.
"Ya scum of a bounty hunter! Yer mother was a pig!" the thief snarled. Anna didn't let it get to her. She simply put the thief on the back of her horse and rode back to town.
She dropped the criminal in front of the sheriff. A look of shock crossed his face. Anna smiled, again, to herself. She held out her hand, waiting for her payment, and he dropped a small bag of coins into her hand.
"That's small stuff, but can you catch a murderer?"
Anna simply smiled in reply.
After several weeks of changing her identity back and forth between man and woman, Anna came back to Sagebrush in her real identity. She had been shopping for supplies, as she was running low on beef. As she was walking out of the butcher's, she saw that punk Ezekiel Adams and a man fighting. She wouldn't have any of this from him.
"Ezekiel Adams!" she screamed. Ezekiel looked at her, and walked over spouting apologies. But before she knew it, Ezekiel kissed her.
The man pulled away this poor excuse of common vermin away from her, but being the fiery Irishwoman she was, she wanted to tear Ezekiel's head off. The man stopped her, though, and she slowly calmed down. Anna headed to her camp, but on her way out of town, heard an interesting bit of conversation.
"I hear tell that gang leader is in Sagebrush."
Her ears pricked up to that, and she rushed to Laoch and galloped off. She quickly dressed into her bounty hunter's attire, and rushed back to town, but it was still too early. She saw a poster that stated WANTED and grabbed it, going out on the hunt.
She had found the man easily enough, he was simply up in the nearby hills, and it took her only an hour to kill his cronies and lasso him up and bring him into town. When the time came to get the man of the hour, she took out her barbed whip and struck him in the leg, causing it to catch and tear the skin open. She lugged the man over to her horse, and put him on the back. The man was wanted for assault, and constantly insulted her on the way back from his "hideout". He was bleeding heavily, and weakened throughout the ride. She placed the hogtied criminal on the porch of the jail, and took her money.
Remembering the leader who was back in town, she headed over to the saloon. When she entered everything quieted except for a large man sitting at the bar. She headed over to the bar, and sat on the stool next to him.
The bartender at the saloon in Sagebrush knew the bounty hunter and his order: whiskey. It took Anna a long time to get him to realize she was pointing to the whiskey the first time she went there. Anna sat alone, sipping her drink, as she always did.
"You damn roach!" a man next to her laughed.
That laugh… I've heard it before…
Anna glanced to her right, and saw the man who had murdered her family, raped her mother and sisters, sitting right next to her. She nearly choked on her whiskey.
Wait for the precise time.
Anna said and did nothing, only praying that the man wouldn't leave. He would not get away from her again. Suddenly, she must've caught his attention.
"Hey, why won't you talk?" the gang leader bellowed.
Anna breathed in, not saying a word. She remembered how silent she was when she first encountered this wretch.
"Talk! Or are you too stupid to?" he laughed and pushed Anna off her stool. Thankfully, her hat stayed over her face.
Anna stood up, and put her fists up; knowing there was no way this man would go easy on her. She stood there, waiting for him.
The man poured himself off his seat, standing a good foot taller than she, but she didn't let herself seem afraid. She couldn't, not with so much at stake.
She remembered the screams, the gunshots, the bodies. She remembered how many graves she had to dig, the faces covered in blood. The looks of agony and fear and anger on their faces.
Everything slowed down.
The man shot out his fist which almost hit Anna, but she turned her body at just the right time, she took both hands, and jabbed in the pressure points in his forearm. His arm was practically dead from that hit.
"You little bastard!" he screamed, arm hanging at his side.
Now, Anna was not a fair fighter. She couldn't be, because otherwise, the brute strength of the men she battled would overpower her agility. She shot up a leg, hit him straight in the jaw, and then plunged a fist right under his diaphragm. It looked like a flurry of shots to everyone else in the bar.
Anna grabbed him by the collar, risking her identity to the second person ever. She turned up her hat slightly, and looked the killer straight in the eyes.
His face grew pale, his eyes wide.
"Y-You…" he whispered, barely audible. "I thought you were dead."
"You thought wrong," she hissed and pulled out a knife. Before he realized it, she slit his throat, the blood pouring onto her boots, and over the floorboards. She smiled wide, a bloodthirsty, vengeful smile. She watched as the life drained out of the poor bastard, his eyes never leaving hers.
The leader's followers, and all his cronies, broke out into a frenzy, all rushed to her at the same time. Anna was ready, her adrenaline flowing, she didn't fear a thing. She punched, kicked, and jabbed her way through the mob.
One by one, the cronies fell, with Anna's precise shots overpowering their blundering ones. Finally, all had fallen. Anna was about to run out the door when the sheriff and…
They blocked her way.
No matter, she ran towards them at full speed and broke through their gate of arms. She whistled for Laoch, still running full speed. He caught up with her, and she jumped on, running from this town forever. She had what she wanted. The leader was dead.
Soon, she heard more hooves than she should have. She turned and saw the man she saved earlier gaining on her. She took out her repeater, and aimed at him with only one arm, (she was used to shooting with one arm at this point). But before she knew it, there was a rope around her gun and she flew off the saddle, her hat flying off with her.
It's all over, she thought, I'm done for.
Jake stood dumbfounded as the girl stood up. A simple girl, the same one from earlier that day, had just killed a man, a gang leader, according to the marshal. She panted, trying to regain her breath, and glared at Jake.
Finally, he asked, "How old are you?!"
"Sixteen," she spat to the side. "And if you so much as try to come near me, I'll kill you, too!" her accent flared.
"No, no! Don't worry about that!" Jake tried to reason. "I'm from earlier today, remember?" she only nodded in reply. "I, uh, I… don't mean no harm."
"Isn't that what they all say?"
Jake ignored that. "What's your name again?"
"Anna, Anna McCullough."
"Why the hell did you kill that man?!"
"Finally, the reasonable questions," she sneered. "But if you must know, he killed my family and left me for dead."
Jake looked at the girl in pity. She turned red with anger, her abundant freckles being covered by her hatred of Jake.
"Don't pity me!" she screamed at Jake. Jake sat straighter on his horse's back, and she continued to glare at him.
"I… I'm sorry, Ms. McCullough. I didn't know," he tried. Jake could only think of his Imogene, what she would do to calm this wildcat down. She'd get off her horse, you buffoon. So Jake did. He didn't want to approach Anna, though, for she was still too angry to deal with. "Listen, you can't stay out here. Men in town want to kill you!" Jake yelled, trying to get through to the stubborn Irishwoman.
"Well!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms above her head. "Isn't that a bit of news?" she stared at Jake as if he should have known better.
"Why don't you come to my farm with me? My wife and I would be glad to—"
"No," she said. "I cannot risk it."
"I cannot let you die."
"I assure you, I can take care of myself," she sneered, and started to walk back to her horse.
"Is that what your family wanted?"
She stopped in her tracks.
"My family wanted me alive. I want to take care of myself."
"For the love of God, just come to my farm!"
"How do I know I can trust you?" she asked, her stubbornness fading. She probably has nowhere to stay, Jake thought. He finally knew one thing that would convince her.
"How do you know I won't tell your secret?"
Her eyes widened, and she huffed as she picked up her hat and got back on her horse.
"I'll come, but I insist that I help out at the farm," she hissed as she started riding away.
"The Irish," Jake said under his breath, sighing as he led the way to his farm.
The two had stopped to sleep—or, at least, Jake slept—and they continued on in the morning. Anna had to stop to gather her things back at her camp, but they headed back after that. Jake tried to make small talk, but Anna was very quiet and would not keep a conversation going.
"Why are you so quiet, anyway?" Jake finally asked.
"I can't talk if I'm dressed as a man, can I?" she looked over.
"I suppose that's true."
"So who's at this farm of yours?" she asked, for the first time starting a conversation on her own.
"My wife, Imogene, and my son, Adam."
"Only you three?"
"Yep, my son and I tend the farm and she tends the house."
Anna thought on that, how her family was so large, and they still had workers to help. She was quiet once more. Jake didn't try to make conversation anymore after that.
Within a couple of hours, they were back in Life's Waters, and it was only a little farther after that to Jake's farm.
It had been a long time since Anna was inside a house. Not as long as some, but a good amount of time. A couple of weeks. The last time she was inside a house, was at the Coopers' and they were telling her to be careful when she was killing people in her free time.
Jake went and hitched his horse, and Anna followed close behind. Anna was feeling shy, just becoming part of this man's family. They went inside, and Anna watched as Jake kissed his wife and told her they had a guest for awhile. Anna barely made eye contact with Jake's wife, and only looked at her kneaded hands or at the floor.
"Imogene, darlin', this is Anna McCullough. She's going to stay with us for a little, because she don't have anywhere to go."
"Please pardon me for intruding, miss," Anna feebly excused herself. Jake was surprised how polite she was when she wasn't defending herself.
"Why, it's no trouble at all, dear. I'll be glad to have another girl around the house," Imogene smiled, trying to make Anna feel comfortable. Anna tried to smile, but looked down. "Now, you're all dusty. How'd you like a nice, warm bath?"
"I'd love that, miss, thank you."
"I'll put the water on," she smiled, then turned to Jake. "Go tell Adam you're home, he missed you so."
"All right, darlin'," he smiled at her then turned to leave. Anna sat silently while the water inside the kettle boiled, and waited until there was enough to fill a tub. Anna and Imogene had gone into the next room and when Anna stepped into the tub, she remembered when her mother would wash her hair and cut it and talk to her about the goings-on in the town. Imogene took the bar of soap and started washing Anna's hair, to see how beautiful it could be.
"My! Your hair is gorgeous, Anna. I always wanted to be blond," she laughed, and held a strand of her brunette hair.
"Thank you, miss," Anna said. Anna had been bathing in rivers for the last couple of weeks, only at night, when the water was freezing cold, and she couldn't stay in for too long. For the first time in a long time, Anna felt herself relax.
"So what were you doing out there, Anna?"
"I was…" Anna hesitated. "Just living."
"If I could not talk about it, miss."
"Of course. Excuse me for asking, dear."
After a while, Imogene finished washing Anna's hair, and Anna said she could wash herself. Imogene allowed her to, gathered some of her own dresses that could probably fit Anna, and left all the comforts of home for her. Anna couldn't help but feel thankful to Imogene, and she continued washing herself.
After Anna was done, she dressed herself in her undergarments, put on the hoop-skirt, bloomers, and radiant green dress Imogene had picked out. It fit her rather well, better than she was expecting. Imogene had also left out a hairbrush, perfume, and a necklace. As Anna was brushing her hair, looking into the mirror in front of her, she realized that she could look like a woman, and that she felt better when she did. This put all of her dresses to shame.
Anna's hair dried in loose rings, her perfume smelled much better than Anna had in weeks, and the necklace was the perfect accent for the dress. Anna tried to smile to her reflection, but had a hard time. Now that she had killed the gang leader, what was she going to do with herself? Just become a house wife and disappear? Anna couldn't look at herself any longer, so she got up and walked into the other room, where Imogene was sitting and knitting.
"Why, you look as beautiful as the sunrise, Anna," Imogene smiled reassuringly. Anna felt herself blush, and thanked her quietly. She sat next to Imogene and looked out the window.
Jake had found his son out in the stable, brushing the horses.
"Pa!" he ran into his father's arms.
"Hello, Adam," he greeted. He was hesitant to tell Adam about Anna, how they had a girl only two years younger than he in the household. He saw what the Ezekiel kid did to her, and hopefully his son was better than that scum. "Did you take good care of your mother?"
"Yes, sir. She didn't seem too sad during the time you were gone."
"Well, I'm not sure how I feel about that!" Jake laughed, and so did his son. "Come now, ma might have supper ready," Jake led his son to the house, the dusk settling in around the fields, the shadows becoming prominent.
Jake opened up the door and saw Anna and Imogene sitting there. Anna looked up with big, green eyes, looking unsure, and Imogene smiled at her husband.
"Supper's about ready, boys," Imogene cooed. Jake looked over at his son, who was staring straight at Anna.
"We have a guest, Adam. Her name is Anna McCullough, and she'll be stayin' with us awhile."
Anna and Adam kept eye contact, until Adam broke it with an awkward clearing of his throat and a meek "How do you do". Anna looked down, a blush creeping along her face, and muttered the same.
Imogene looked to Jake with a knowing smile, and prepared the table. Anna stood and joined in the effort to set the table. She only wanted to not look Jake's son in the eye again.
Adam had never seen such a beauty, since he'd spent most of his days on the farm, only going into town once or twice. He mentally kicked himself for being a buffoon in front of such a lady like Ms. McCullough.
Anna felt herself straighten her back when she walked, trying to act as much like a lady—and not a bounty hunter—as possible. It was a horribly awkward transition.
Supper tasted wonderful to Anna, normal to Jake and Imogene, and like nothing to Adam. He couldn't get his mind off of her. Sitting right across him was a girl, an actual girl. He tried his best not to stare.
"So how did you meet Anna, Jake?" Imogene inquired. Anna shot a warning look to Jake, letting him clearly know not to make any bad moves.
"In Sagebrush," Jake cleared his throat. "A, uh, local punk took a liking to her."
"Yes," Anna added. "He was a bit too forward with me, and Jake pulled him away and…" Beat him. "Scolded him."
"Good thing you did, Pa," Adam interjected, but when the pause went on for a little too long, he continued, "So he, uh, learned his lesson."
Oh, Lord, what was I thinking? Jake thought, seeing how the extra female presence was affecting Adam. Imogene seemed to have the same look on her face. The more Adam thought about it, the more Anna sounded like a prostitute, and the more Anna thought about it, the more she wanted to help Imogene clear the table.
This was a dinner to remember in the Hart household.
"Anna, would you kindly help me clear the table?" Imogene asked.
"Oh, yes, Mrs. Hart," Anna said dutifully.
"Please call me Imogene."
"Yes… Imogene," Anna hesitated. She was always used to formality; she always addressed her father as sir and her mother as madam.
She pushed her mind away from the subject.
Anna and Imogene started picking up the dishes from the table and Anna, as fate would have it, ended up picking up Adam's plate. She simply looked down, trying not to look at him, and loaded the rest of the dishes into the sink for Imogene.
"Oh," Imogene said, looking at Jake. "Where will Anna sleep tonight?" Anna tensed up, knowing there wasn't a lot of extra room in the house.
"I can sleep out in the barn," she spat out, trying to make it easy on herself more than anyone.
"No, nonsense, I will not have it. You are our guest, and we must make you feel welcome," Imogene cooed.
"No, really, I wouldn't mind at all. I can sleep on the ground, it isn't any trouble."
"Why don't you share a room with Adam?" she suggested. Jake was drinking some ale and almost choked on it. Adam stared at his mother in disbelief. Anna felt like dying.
"That really isn't necessary, Mrs. Hart," Anna almost-pleaded.
"Nonsense. Adam won't mind, will you, Adam?"
"Not at all," Adam squeaked.
"Good God," Anna muttered.
That night, when everyone was ready to go to bed, Adam let Anna go in first, so she could change and do what she needed to do. Anna changed into her nightgown without her eyes leaving the door. Adam seemed nice enough, but she wouldn't trust anyone while she was changing. She started brushing her hair when she heard a faint knock at the door.
"You can come in," she deadpanned. Adam stuck his head in slowly, looking over at her. He smiled goofily and Anna rolled her eyes and continued brushing her hair.
"So, uh, Miss Anna, what did you do out in Sagebrush?" Adam asked, hoping to God she wasn't a prostitute. Anna had stopped mid-brush, and simply looked down. She wasn't sure if she should tell him or not. Adam rocked on his feet, trying not to look at her for long periods of time.
"I…" she started, trying to form the words in her head. "Was a… woman of the law, I suppose."
Adam nearly fell to the floor with joy that she didn't say woman of the night.
"So you helped the sheriff?"
"Yes, you could say that."
"I… calculated bounties."
"I see…" Adam thought out loud. "Well, I'm glad Pa found you… and, uh… brought you here," Adam blushed a little. Anna just smiled and looked at him funny. She continued to brush her hair, and then it occurred to Adam that he may have to share that tiny bed with that beautiful girl. The thought made him redder in the face than he was already.
Anna noticed, being of acute senses, and glared at him, thinking he was thinking about her in an improper way.
"What are you thinking about?" she growled.
"Uh… Just the sleeping situation, is all. I promise!" Adam crossed his heart. It occurred to Anna how small of a bed she was sitting on, and how they would be rather close throughout the night, in order for neither of them to fall off.
"I-I could sleep on the floor, I don't mind. As long as I have a blanket," she tried to convince him that she'd be okay. "It's almost second—" she stopped. She almost gave away too much. "I don't mind."
Adam was confused about this girl, the way she never said very much. But the thought of her sleeping on the cold, hard floor didn't seem very welcoming to him.
"Well, it wouldn't be proper for a beautiful gi—" he stopped, too, but it was too late, he already had said it. Anna blushed and looked a little mortified.
"No, I've caused too much trouble already, I really shouldn't…"
"But I insist!"
"And I insist to the latter!" she said stubbornly.
"What if I slept on the floor?" he suggested, trying to make any progress. Anna stayed quiet for a while.
"No, it's your bed, so I should just sleep on the floor," Anna said, slinking down to the ground by the foot of the bed. Adam wouldn't let her have her way, though, and he grabbed her wrists and pulled her up until she was standing. It was already done when he realized what he did, however, and he was staring into the big, green eyes of Anna McCullough. They were only inches apart, and Adam felt his heart leap a little. Anna didn't move, she just stayed there, while her mind was going a mile a minute.
However, the Irish in her quickly replaced her shock and she pushed herself away and turned her back to Adam. She hugged herself, trying to make sense of how this happened. Adam was mortified, how would she react? Would she react? He decided to do what his pa did when ma was upset. He slowly walked up behind her and hugged her around her waist, setting his head on her shoulder. He was shaking so much, he just hoped Anna wouldn't notice. She tensed up upon contact, however, and just looked at Adam with wide eyes. She had never been this close to any man before, their faces almost touching, without her breaking his fingers or nose. She didn't do anything, and that scared Adam. She only stared at him. She finally grabbed his hands that were linked about her waist and she let herself out of the embrace.
She turned to look at him, trying to make sense of what exactly he wanted. She could only think about how he called her beautiful. She blushed a little at the thought, and finally she said, "You really think I'm beautiful?"
Adam was dumbfounded. He had never been around any females long enough to let them know what he thought. Half of his mind (the sensible half, he thought) wanted to slink away into the corner and think about his life decisions, but the other half wanted to tell her that yes, she was beautiful.
"Y-Yeah…" he said, ruffling his brown hair out of nervousness. He looked around until his eyes finally rested on Anna. She looked somber, with her head down. "W-What's wrong?"
"Nobody has ever called me beautiful before, without being sweet or… honest. They only want me. But not who I am, just what I look like," she sighed. Adam suddenly felt sorry for the girl in front of him, but he realized that she was a lady. She looked so lonely too, and Adam thought that she wasn't telling the truth about what she had done in Sagebrush. Or, at least, not all of it.
"Well, I…" he hesitated, not wanting to scare her. "I really do think you're beautiful, Miss Anna. One of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen," he smiled shyly, and she smiled back.
"Thank you, Mr. Hart," she looked up at him, met his eyes. "And I suppose that… just for tonight, we could, er, share a bed," she looked down again, but Adam grinned from ear to ear when he heard that, and let her get in first, then he.
Adam Hart had never been happier in his life.
The morning came and Anna found an arm around her and panicked for a moment until she realized where she was. Still in the Hart's house. Light poured in from the window, illuminating the wooden walls and floor. Adam's arm hung over her waist, and she thought about how happy he looked when she had finally agreed.
She, however, felt ashamed of herself. She thought of herself as a hussy, letting that happen. She let herself forget about how it happened and just appreciated who she was with.
She didn't want to think it, but she thought it possible Adam might be nice. That it would be nice if they were… together.
She shook the thought out of her head, she couldn't be anyone's wife. At least, not until her current job was finished.
"Men in town want to kill you!"
What was she going to do about that? They would probably be out on the hunt for her now. Oh, well. She was probably safe here for a little bit, to say the least.
Adam mumbled and pulled Anna closer, to which she blushed. She remembered how close they were last night, too, with his head on her shoulder, their faces almost touching…
She fought off the urge to elbow him in the ribs. Anna wanted to, but didn't want to at the same time. He was asleep (she hoped) and wasn't aware of his actions.
She heard the door open, and heard a soft "Oh," which she could imagine was Imogene.
Wake him up, please.
But she just left.
For the love of…!
Anna tried to lift Adam's arm over her, and place it gingerly next to him. She sat up then and looked down at the sleeping boy. His brown hair went in all directions, small curls lying over his forehead; he had about half as many freckles as Anna did, and his long, deep breaths raised his chest up and down in a peaceful pattern. Anna then wondered how she would even get out of the bed. If Adam woke up while she was stepping over him, that'd be a sight. Anna shook her head, decided to lie back down next to him, and closed her eyes.
She heard Adam mumble a little, although she was not sure if he was still asleep or not, and shift his body in the tiny bed. Anna became very aware of his movements, still wondering if he was asleep, because her back was to him.
"Good morning," he sighed. Anna pretended to just be waking up herself.
"Good morning," she tried to yawn. "Did you sleep well, Mr. Hart?"
"Fantastically," he sighed again. He was still groggy from his peaceful night's sleep. "And yourself?"
"I slept very well, thank you for asking."
"I'm glad you decided to sleep in the bed with me," he said. She blushed redder than before, hoping that he was not aware of what he had just said. She said nothing, for she was not sure how to even acknowledge that fact. "I suppose we should go meet my parents."
Adam got out of the bed, and began to get dressed, while Anna turned away, in case he wanted privacy. She tried to convince herself that there was no need to look at him. The thought of it was scandalous in her mind. She did, however, sneak a peek at Adam, to see his back towards her and all the muscles he gained working on the farm flexing throughout his shoulders and arms. He put his shirt on, and she turned her head away quickly. When he had finished dressing, he turned to her and said, "I'll let you get dressed. Breakfast ought to be cooking, so… I'll see you at the table."
She nodded, waited for him to leave the room, then got into one of her own dresses, which was ideal for farm work. She brushed her hair, and went out to the kitchen, where everyone was sitting at the table.
"Good morning, Anna," Imogene smiled.
"Good morning," she said shyly.
"Did you sleep well?" Jake asked.
"Very, thank you," she replied, then sat at the table opposite Adam. She couldn't find herself looking at him; she remembered seeing him without a shirt on, and tried her hardest to think of something else so she wouldn't blush yet again. Her breakfast that morning was grits, and she slowly ate them. Anna's appetite was tiny, for she never ate too much during her stay out by Sagebrush.
"Anna," Imogene pulled her out of her mind. "Each year we have a ball, of sorts, in celebration of the harvest. Would you like to stay until then? We would love your company."
"Oh, my…" she hesitated. Anna never went to a ball before. The Coopers never had one and she was never old enough to go to her own family's…
The thought caught Anna off guard. Her family. She thought about how her sisters would get dressed up for the boys from town that were coming, trying to speed up their decisions about courting the McCullough girls. Anna was going to be able to go that year, when she was twelve. It was only several months away. She had completely forgotten how excited she was that she would finally dance with someone, how her sisters were trying to teach her how to waltz after chores every day. The thought brought tears to Anna's eyes, and she was angry at herself for letting her mind wander.
"Excuse me," she choked, getting up and running from the table, out into the fields.
"What…?" Imogene thought aloud, looking to her husband for guidance. Jake had no idea how that episode had happened, but he ran out to the fields to find her.
He found Anna curled up in a ball next to the barn, sobbing.
"Anna?" he asked, trying to seem gentle. He went to put a hand on her shoulder, but she swatted it away, looking at Jake like he betrayed her.
"Don't touch me!" she screamed, tears running down her face.
"He killed my family,"
"Anna," Jake cooed, trying to calm the girl down. He sat down next to her. "Is this about your family, or what happened when I found you?"
"Both," she wept. "I avenged them, but it does not make the slightest difference. They are all still dead, and I will never see them again. I've taken too much of your hospitality, and those men that are trying to find me so they can kill me… I just disappeared! What if I led them here? I cannot stay here any longer. I must go."
She started to get up and tried to run again, but Jake grabbed her wrist and she stopped, no longer willing to fight.
"The first person I killed," she said so quietly it was difficult for Jake to hear her. "Was slightly older than me. Maybe a year or two. He had seen my face…"
The second bounty Anna was sent on, the murderer, was such a person. Only seventeen. He had gotten into a bar fight and killed a man. Anna was thrilled to be sent out, not knowing many of the details, and she thought this was the chance to prove herself.
She had found the man, and taken down his friends until it was just him. Rope ready, Anna ran toward the man who did not want to fight anymore, it seemed. She had hogtied him, finishing the final touches and knots, when he gasped. Confused, Anna looked at him, and he was looking straight into her eyes.
He had seen her.
Anna was flustered, unsure of what to do. She only had one choice.
She had to kill him.
But this man… this boy… was only a year older than her. He was just staring at her, when he began to smile. He looked so innocent then, and she almost did not have the heart to kill him. Maybe he would keep quiet.
But, no. She could not make that big of a risk.
She went to grab her knife, when he kept smiling at her. His smile set her off, how calm he was.
"I never thought that the visage of death would be that of an angel," he said. Anna was shocked to hear him say that. The Angel of Death… that was what she was compared to.
Anna took off her hat, letting her hair fall down to her shoulders. He only kept staring at her, knowing he was about to die. Anna felt her throat tighten up, her eyes water.
"I'm sorry," she sobbed. But he only shook his head.
"Don't be," he cooed, smiling as she brought the knife down to his throat, and slit it. She sat there holding the boy in her arms and sobbing as the blood poured out of him. She just kept repeating, "I'm sorry… I'm sorry…" and she rocked back and forth, like he was a dead, smiling baby. She pulled away, looking at the pale, lifeless corpse in her hands, and noticed that they were both covered in his blood.
Anna hardened at that point. Her heart was of stone, her soul of ice.
The Angel of Death.
She stuffed her hair back into her hat, loaded the body onto the back of her horse, and she rode off.
Jake stared at Anna, surprised to hear her story, what made her the hardened young lady she was when he met her. Nothing scared her except for losing those close to her.
And that had already happened.
"Anna, you're safe here. We all are. Nobody knew who you really were."
"But what if they find out? I could never live with myself," she sighed, hugging herself. "If something does happen, I will protect you to the very end. You, Imogene, and Adam; I will protect you until I die."
Jake half-smiled at Anna, trying to make her feel better. He led her inside, where Imogene and Adam had just finished their breakfasts. Imogene looked at Anna, then at Jake, to try to figure out what happened. Jake just shook his head slightly, and she knew not to pry. Adam was so worried for Anna, how she just broke down the way she did. He wondered if he was the cause of the fuss. He hoped not.
Anna ate the remainder of her breakfast alone and in silence. Jake, Imogene, and Adam all went about their chores. When Anna finished her grits, she took her plate up to Imogene, who gave her a sad smile.
"You can stay here, if you'd like, Anna," Imogene told her. Anna shook her head, and said she shouldn't. But Imogene insisted, and Anna said she could stay for about a week more. Life at the farm was familiar to Anna, and she loved it. Later that afternoon, Imogene brought the ball back up.
"The ball is only a week and a half away. Please stay, Anna. We'd love you to."
"I will stay," Anna started. "As long as I can help."
"That's fine, dear," Imogene beamed. "But the question is… What will you wear?"
"I shall leave that to you, if you don't mind."
After several days of working on the farm, Anna wanted to ride Laoch again. She saddled him up after all her chores were done, and started riding around the property. Adam saw her, and ran up to meet her.
"Hello, Ms. Anna," he panted.
"Just taking a ride around?"
"Mind if I join you?" he asked. Anna looked down at his hopeful face, and smiled.
She was closer with Adam now, for their sleeping arrangements never really changed. It was always like that one fateful night.
"Of course not," she replied. Adam ran to the stable and saddled up his horse. He met Anna next to the fields and they trotted around for a little bit, making small talk.
"We should race," Adam suggested. Anna looked at him and then made a mischievous smile.
"Think you can win, do you?"
"Of course," he challenged her. "First to the property line wins."
"Ready…" Anna took Laoch's reins, feeling the anxious horse beneath her. "Set…" She leaned forward, getting ready to go. "Go!"
"Hyah!" Anna urged her horse. He broke into a gallop, and Anna loved the way the wind felt in her face, through her hair. She loved how fresh it all smelled, with the wildflowers and plants around her. She saw Adam out of her peripheral vision and she looked at him. He looked over at her and beamed. She smiled, too, and laughed. Adam noticed how curly her hair looked, how it bounced from the horse, and how the sun landed on it just right. Her smile was almost magical to him, and he felt his heart pick up a little. Laoch went faster and she left Adam in the dust. She came up to the fence just before Adam did, and she hopped off her horse. She was still laughing and Adam couldn't help but admire her.
"I beat you!" she laughed as she spun around. Adam got down off his horse, and watched her spin around. She stopped spinning around and looked around her. They were in the meadow on the far side of the farm. Wildflowers sprang up everywhere and she reached out and touched the bud of one. It almost seemed like she expected it to bloom from her touch. She looked over at Adam and smiled. Her hair was windblown but it still looked elegant.
Beautiful, Adam thought. And she's right here.
Anna seemed to notice the way he was looking at her, and she blushed.
"I… should head back…" she trailed off. She got on Laoch, and rode away.
Adam sighed and said to himself, "Beautiful."
The day of the ball came and Anna was back with Imogene, getting ready for it. She had put it off for as long as she could—baking, cooking, cleaning—but it was finally time to actually be a part of it.
"Imogene," Anna whined. "Why do I have to go to the ball?"
"You're out guest, Anna, and I will not have it otherwise."
Anna sighed, and waited until Imogene was done with her hair. They were sitting in front of a mirror, and all of Anna's rebellious curls had been swept to the side by some obscene up-do. She looked like a noblewoman getting ready for her own funeral, in Anna's opinion. Imogene had given Anna only light make-up, so she wouldn't look like a "working girl", as Imogene had called it.
Anna had on a blue dress that fitted her well. A little too well, Anna thought, since she had to wear a corset. She could swear she felt her spine and stomach rubbing up against each other. She also had to wear a hoop skirt again. She felt like a walking factory.
"Here now, stand up," Imogene ordered. Anna obeyed, and Imogene looked her over. "My, now don't you look beautiful?" Imogene beamed, and Anna looked in the mirror. Her waist was the tiniest she had ever seen it, and the hoop skirt made her look like she actually had hips. She had several curls falling down around her face, and they framed it very well. Anna gave a tiny smile to Imogene as a thank-you, and Imogene led her outside.
It seemed a good portion of the town was here. But, thankfully, nothing stopped when Anna stepped out, which was a relief for her. She was afraid of that.
"Imogene, what do I do?" Anna asked, mortified at this new form of social interaction.
"You just stand to the side and wait for someone to ask you to dance, I suppose," Imogene laughed. At that moment, Jake, who was wearing a nice suit instead of farmer's clothes, came and took his wife away to dance with her. He gave Anna a supportive smile before he left. Anna smiled back, then looked down at her gloved hands. She twiddled her thumbs until she saw someone in her peripheral vision standing right before her. She looked up and she saw one of the town boys there, holding out his hand.
"May I have this dance?" he asked. She nodded timidly, then tried to remember the steps her sisters had taught her. Thankfully, the song was a waltz, so she had only a little trouble with it. She tried not to stare at her feet.
Give me a bounty any day.
The song ended, and she applauded softly. She thanked the boy for the dance, and started to walk away when a familiar voice asked her, "May I have this dance, milady?" she turned to see Adam, and she beamed and nodded. They waltzed for the song, and she didn't feel as worried or self-conscious as she had with the stranger. She looked up at Adam, who was also wearing a suit, and felt so happy for the first time in a long time. He was elated, for he had waited so long for this dance. Ever since that first night when their faces almost touched. When he could have kissed her.
The two of them could barely hear the music anymore, they were both so full of joy. But something interrupted the music, something sounded off. Anna looked to where the sound was coming from and saw a man on a horse coming up to the farm. He was far away, but she recognized him easily enough.
"Oh, God," she sighed.
"What? Who is it, Anna?" Adam asked, and they both realized it was the first time he didn't call her Miss Anna or Miss McCullough. She smiled at him for a split second before she realized what was at hand.
"Ezekiel," she groaned. Sure enough, the arrogant man who had kissed her had somehow found her.
"Oh, Miss Anna!" he called, and Anna felt her anger rising. She was not about to have her day ruined by this idiot.
"I will be right back," she told Adam, looking up at him with those big, green eyes of hers. Adam was worried, because he assumed this was the one who had been so forward with Anna, and he didn't seem very likeable to him.
"Be careful," he warned her, and she turned to nod at him, then ran up to Ezekiel.
"What are you doing here, you scum?" she growled. She didn't care to be ladylike with him, he didn't deserve the effort.
"Why, Miss Anna," he slurred. He's drunk? "That's no way to talk to your love!" he seemed to have a hard time finding his balance on the horse. Finally, he got down and looked at her. "Well, aren't you just purty?"
"Leave, Ezekiel. Go back to Sagebrush."
"I'm not going without you, miss," he smiled drunkenly, and seemed to have lust in his hazy eyes.
Anna stood her ground. "I'm not going with you, so git!" He grabbed her by the waist and pulled her close and she could smell the whiskey on his breath. She coughed a little.
"Now is that any way to talk to your… love?" he hiccupped.
"I'm not your love, and you're not mine."
"But Miss Anna, I do declare I love you!" he projected. Everyone was staring, including Adam. She pushed herself away from the drunkard, and started to walk away when she heard an all-too-familiar sound behind her.
"I said, I'm not going without you," he slurred. Anna turned around to see a revolver pointed at her head. Adam started to push his way through the crowd of gasping, afraid people. He was panicking, and everything was slow. Which is how he saw Anna fight.
She shot two fingers to his shoulder, and shoved a fist up into his diaphragm. The drunkard doubled over and fell to the ground, the gun escaping from his hand. Anna picked it up, cocked it, then pointed it at his head. Everything was going at a normal speed now.
"And I said to leave, Ezekiel. Get out before I put a bullet in your head," she growled. Adam had never seen Anna like this. She was always so quiet, so timid. Everyone was silent as the whimpering drunk climbed back up on his horse and rode away.
Adam finally made it to her. She turned the safety back on the gun, then placed it on the ground. Adam grabbed her shoulders and looked at her with fear and worry.
"Are you crazy?!" he screeched, but Anna's face didn't change. She only looked away. "Look at me!" his voice shook. She looked at him with her big, green eyes, but they didn't look at him in admiration, she didn't have any expression in her eyes. "He would have shot you, Anna."
"What of it?" she deadpanned. "That's not the first time." Adam let go of her and stared at her in horror.
"What do you mean, it's not the first time?"
"It means, I've had a gun to my head many times before."
"Impossible…" Adam shook his head.
"I'd rather discuss this in private, if you do not mind, Mr. Hart."
Oh, no, he thought, she called me 'Mr. Hart'. He led her to the far side of the barn when he heard his pa telling the band to continue, and hearing the music start up again. Anna looked so beautiful, how is it she could do something like that? She kept her back to him the entire time she spoke.
"I was a bounty hunter for the sheriff in Sagebrush. I use a different style of fighting that pinpoints the places where muscles meet bones, so on. A man, a beast of a man, killed my entire family, raped my mother and sisters, and left me for dead, claiming they would have me when I was older. I was twelve when this happened."
Adam tried to take a step toward her, but she heard him.
"Don't come closer… please. I became a bounty hunter to find that man, the one whose gang was in charge of killing my family and other innocent people. After being disguised as a man for several weeks, I finally found the man, and killed him. Your pa was working with the sheriff and came after me. He lassoed me off my horse, and in the process, my hat fell off, and my true identity was exposed. He took me here to make sure I kept safe, because there are people in Sagebrush who want to kill me as a bounty hunter," she finished. She finally turned to look at Adam, expecting to see the same look of horror on his face. But, instead, it was pity.
"I… I'm sorry…" was all he could manage to say.
"I am as well. I didn't want you to find out, especially in that way."
They looked at each other, and finally she went up to him and put her arms around him. He was surprised at first, but did the same. The music continued by the front of the farm.
The rest of the ball went by without any problems. She and Adam danced together more than most partners did.
When everyone left around nine, the Harts and Anna went inside. They followed their regular routine for getting ready for bed, and fell asleep easily.
The next morning, however, Adam woke up without her in his arms. He opened his eyes, and found Anna to be gone. In a panic, Adam searched the house and the farm, but couldn't find her.
Adam ran to wake up his pa, and told him what happened. Jake looked worried, and told his son to get dressed. Imogene worried as well, for now she, too, knew Anna's history.
Anna had left in the middle of the night, saddled up Laoch, and left the Hart farm dressed in her bounty hunter attire. She had to face the ones who wanted to kill her. Anna rode to Sagebrush in a hurry, and it only took her the night. She had left at midnight, and rode on. Tired, dusty, and irritable, Anna rode into Sagebrush.
Jake and Adam rode their fastest to Sagebrush, worried they would be too late.
Why, Anna? Adam thought. Why did you have to leave?
Anna had seen someone in the crowd after her little fight. Someone who looked at her different than everyone else. He looked at her with familiarity. She had to leave before someone made the connection that she was the bounty hunter.
The outlaws that were residing near and in Sagebrush saw the black horse and the man riding on top of it, and knew that their good, old friend had returned. Meeting in the middle of town, on the long stretch of street, Anna faced forty outlaws and bandits that were all out to get her since their leaders and friends had been turned in by the hunter and hanged for their crimes.
"Finally came back, eh, hunter?" one sneered. Anna decided it was time to stop this guessing game of who the hunter was and took off her hat. Her hair tumbled down to her shoulders, and she heard a collective grunt of confusion from the group of outlaws.
"You're damn right I did," Anna said. "And I'll kill each and every one of ya!" she laughed. Anna had brought her twin revolvers, and started shooting down outlaws.
The residents of Sagebrush had never heard such noise, and they stayed inside, knowing trouble when they heard it. Anna fled to the side of a building, knowing the bandits would not go down without a fight. A stand-off was about to ensue, and Anna had to get to cover.
There was a bit of disbelief when the outlaws found out she was a woman, but after seeing her shoot, they knew it could be none other than the hunter.
Anna had brought down ten of the outlaws when the cat calls began.
"Come out, girly!"
"We won't hurt ya!"
"We could have a tea party, or play dress-up!"
That annoyed Anna. She shot one of the bandits who was teasing her right in the head.
From five miles away, Jake and Adam could hear the gunshots.
"Anna," Adam whispered, hoping she was all right.
"Come on!" Jake urged his horse, and Adam followed.
Anna was doing fine, however, and outlaws were dropping like flies. She only had about three left.
"Hey, girl!" one of them yelled.
"What do you want?" she yelled back.
"How about we stop this gun show and fight like men?"
"You do know I am a woman!"
"But we've seen you fight!"
"Fine! Let us fight then!" she got up from out of her shelter and walked over to the middle of the street. A lumbering man of about six feet and three hundred pounds stared down at her. She could bring him down. She heard a small click from her right, however, and she shot the man who was about to shoot her. The bullet went straight through his skull and he fell to the ground.
"Now, that's cheatin'!" she laughed. "Any others?"
"No… there ain't."
"Well put them up, then," she smiled, and put her fists up, while he did the same. Everything went slow for Anna, and she hit between muscles and bones and the sensitive places placed conveniently on the human body. The man began to double over, and she kicked up into his jaw, delivering the final blow. Blood spat out from his lip and nose, and he fell backward. She smiled down at the fallen beast, and began to walk away. The last one jumped out and she shot him, too.
Jake and Adam rode up moments later, looking at the fallen men and the one left standing… Anna, in her bounty hunter clothing. She smiled and laughed.
"Sorry, you're late, you missed all the fun."
"You idiot," Adam spat, and her smile faded. She straightened herself and looked at him with one of those fiery Irish looks. "You could have been killed, Anna!"
"But I wasn't."
"But you could've been!"
"But I was not."
"Oh, dear God," Jake mumbled and buried his face in his palm.
"Why would you do that anyway?!"
"They were looking for me, so I let them find me." Adam got down off his horse and started walking toward Anna, and she started walking toward him, too, a fire in her eyes.
"And what would have happened if you were shot? Or stabbed?!" Closer.
"Then I would have brought down the bastard that did it." Even closer still.
"If you think I will stand by and watch you—"
"What would you have done anyhow? I can take care of myself; I've been doing it for long enough!" They were face to face now, and they were both steaming. "If you think I can't take you down like the rest of them then you have another thing coming."
"Then go ahead and try!"
"That's enough!" Jake intervened between the two teenagers. He hopped off his horse and pulled Adam away from her and looked at him sternly. "I know you like, maybe even love this girl, so show her you do, but you don't have to protect her all the time!" Adam bit his tongue and felt his face redden, and didn't say anything else. Jake turned his attention to Anna, who looked like she could easily kill someone, like the ones lying in the street weren't enough. "And you… I know you at least tolerate my son, and he cares deeply about you, so stop with this nonsense. It's okay to be taken care of!" Jake thought about what kind of mess he got himself in, and pulled his son back to where he was standing before. "Now, son, apologize."
"I…" Adam looked at his pa, whose look told him to keep going. He looked back at Anna. "I'm sorry I was overprotective." Anna snickered a little and covered her mouth, looking down.
"Anna, you apologize, too."
"For what?!" she shrieked.
"For making my son worry so much and for getting me up earlier than I was supposed to!"
"Just do it!" Anna sighed and looked over at Adam.
"I'm… sorry I made you worry and shot up all the criminals in Sagebrush," she rolled her eyes and looked over at Jake. "Is that good enough?"
"Yes," Jake smiled smugly, knowing how young love works. Adam looked over at his pa, and Jake got the message loud and clear. "Right, so while I'm down here, I think I'll… pick up some coffee."
Adam watched his pa walk away, and turned to Anna, who was still glaring at him. Not knowing what words to put it in, he just took her by the waist and kissed her. She didn't exactly fight back, too, which was acceptance to Adam.
Jake looked over his shoulder, and laughed to himself.