A/N: This is my first really long story, we'll see how it goes! Be sure to tell me what you think! :)
When you're the best you generally let folks know about it, right? Whether you get a good mark on a test paper, or can whip your gun outta your holster before a man has a chance to blink you tend to brag about it. A lot of the time I'd just love to do that; maybe telegraph my aunts back in Pennsylvania to tell them what I'm up to, maybe tell the store clerk about my skills, or even better: receive a reward for my troubles once in a while. There were only a handful of men that knew of my talents, and they were all locked up in prison. They were too scared to tell anybody so my work remained secret.
I was glad of this most of the time. My job didn't require secrecy, but it was certainly an advantage. If everyone knew what I was then the element of surprise would be lost, but there were the days when I'd just love to walk into a saloon and have everyone freeze in terror, hoping I wasn't looking for them. That would never happen though;the secrecy was just too useful.
I wasn't always a bounty hunter, couldn't have been when I was a little one. I can still remember a time when I lived out east with my mother and father, though it is a vague memory. After my parents died I was sent to live with my aunts. Crabby old ladies, the kind that put a damper on every child's spirit. After a while they found out about some of my talents, mainly my intelligence. I had always been at the top of my class and I soon surpassed the other children by years. My mother always said I could have gone to college when I was five. My aunts seemed to think the same thing because when they found out about my brain they entered me in the first knowledge competition they could find. I won it and they entered me in another. Every time there was money to be won and an entry form for the advanced division. Finally I had enough and caught the first train to California. When I got there I was just a kid with a head full of useless knowledge. Useless in the west anyhow. A gang of criminals took me in for my ability to plan heists, though they weren't more than kids themselves. Led by the fearsome Jumping Jack Jessie the gang was only five kids, all of them under eighteen. We had adventures, we played tough, but when Jessie high-tailed it the rest of the gang broke apart too. By then I was thirteen and ready for the west. Five years later I caught petty thieves like I once was and sent them to jail to learn their lesson.
That's enough about my history, it isn't really important. What's important is the day I got the letter that changed my life…
It was a bright, clear day in Shady Creek, nothing seemed amiss, but appearances aren't everything. I walked into the town saloon and ordered tea. It was cold out and just because I was at a bar didn't mean I had to order alcohol. The bartender was a friend of a friend and I knew that she wouldn't ask questions. My legs dangled above the ground in the tall chair, but I was used to that. Even with my favorite boots on I only reached about five foot. No one mocked me for it though, and not because I had a pistol hidden in my jacket. Most folks just didn't poke fun at a woman for being short.
When the bartender brought me my tea I first stirred some sugar into it and then blew on it. I glanced at everyone in the room, though there weren't many to be found in the middle of a work day. My gaze lingered on a man in the corner. He wasn't bigger or smaller than anyone else in the saloon. He wasn't any more handsome than another man, but he was my target for the day.
No one else seemed to be near him and for good reason too. Juan Garcia, one of the fastest guns in the west. Unlike me, he liked to brag about it too. Although his gun was tucked in its holster his right hand hovered by his side while his left lifted a bottle to his lips. I was the only one in the room who dared look at him, which caused others to look at me. I quickly bowed my head to sip my tea like a proper woman. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him smile. Why he smiled I had no idea, so I went to investigate.
My boots clicked on the hard floor and my skirt swooshed around them. The only sign that I was different was my black bowler hat. I never left home without it. When I was back in the gang with Jessie I stole it from the mayor. He still didn't have a clue I had it. In many situations I'd found it to be useful, so I considered it lucky. My unruly red hair stuck out from the style I had tried to put it in; I'd have to start letting it grow out if I wanted to be able to put it up for my disguises.
As I approached the table Juan stood and pulled a chair out for me. I sat and folded my hands in my lap as my aunts had taught me long ago. I looked him in the eye, something my aunts would disapprove of greatly, but the game was almost over for the day so I no longer needed to be meek. I stared at him, knowing my gray eyes could be very intimidating. He stared back, his brown eyes sparkling with amusement. I took a sip of my tea, never looking away. Juan laughed, making his black mustache dance.
"Begging your pardon sir, but what do you find so humorous?" I asked sweetly.
"Nothing senorita! It is only about the way you wear your gun!" His voice was heavily accented, but I managed to understand. I managed to keep my hand from going to my weapon like an amateur, and instead smiled.
"What about it?" I asked, putting on my best inquisitive mask.
"I have never seen a pistol worn in a chaqueta before, let alone on a woman." Juan laughed.
"What's wrong with wearing my pistol in my jacket?" I said innocently.
"It is a very good hiding spot, but it is odd. Why do you have one?"
I took a drink from my tea again and gazed out the window. "Protection mostly; it's not safe out here in the west."
He nodded. "Sí, what is a lady like yourself doing out here?"
He cocked a bushy, black eyebrow. "What kind of business?"
"You ask a lot of questions." I smiled.
"There is nothing wrong with that senorita."
"No, but I don't like people poking around. Good day sir."
"Buenos dias." He tipped his hat to me and pretended to go back to his drink, but I saw him watching me curiously. I paid for my tea and walked out the door. As I expected Juan walked out of the saloon – without paying – and followed me across the street.
I opened the general store door and heard the bell clink. Inside I looked around, like a housewife shopping for provisions. The clerk asked if he could help.
"No thank you; I'm only looking." I put the can I had been examining down and looked out the window. Juan was sitting on the hitching post outside, casually looking my way every once in a while, "Actually, you can help. Do you have an alley door I could use?"
In the alley I walked briskly to the back of the one place where gunshot – if required – wouldn't be heard: the bank. The walls were lined with lead and not much could be heard through them if anything. This made an ideal shooting location when force was required for my particular line of work. That day it looked as if someone else had the same idea. Before me were two men pointed pistols at each other. I pulled out my own weapon and fired twice in the air, leaving me with four bullets.
"Beat it." I hissed. Neither man moved so I shot one in the leg, "Now." They didn't hesitate this time, leaving me with three bullets.
Juan turned the corner and smiled at me. "Hola senorita, what was that noise I heard a moment ago?"
"Just my pistol. I hear you are quite good with a six-shooter yourself." I grinned, flipping my gun in the air.
"I am, senorita; the best gun in all of the west." He tugged on his hat, shading his eyes.
"I hear you've been using your gun on a few folks who didn't deserve it, is that true?" I narrowed my eyes and pulled the rim of my own hat a little lower to cut on the glare from the sun.
"Where did you hear that?" He asked, his smirk still present.
"Saw a few posters. Looks like there is a hundred dollar reward for you… dead or alive." That usually got them; they heard that and laughed, giving me time to shoot. Nothing fatal, just a shot to the shoulder and then drag them off to the sheriff. Not Juan though.
He smiled and nodded. "I saw the posters too. What would you do with a hundred dollars? If you could get your gun out fast enough to get a shot off."
I shrugged. "I wouldn't take the hundred. Normally I just leave a note on the body saying to give the money to the orphanage. Unless they aren't wanted dead, then I just tie up the crook and make sure they give the sheriff my note. Which would you prefer?"
This time he laughed, allowing me to take my shot. I hit him on his left arm, just below the shoulder. I had two bullets left just in case he was one of the kinds that took more than one shot. Juan didn't seem to put up a fight; he just stood there and held his wound.
"Hmm… I guess you aren't the quickest." I chuckled as I tied him up with a rope that had been hidden in the skirt of my dress. He didn't protest as I pulled him with me, my pistol to his back. When we got the sheriff's office I tied him to the hitching post and wrote a note.
This is Juan Garcia; please give the $100 reward to the Good Ways Orphanage.
- The Best
I had begun signing my notes that way after I overheard some other bounty hunters talking about someone who had brought down Joseph McGee. I had brought down that man the week earlier and stayed to hear more:
"Whoever brought him down is the best! The sheriff tells me four more like that have been caught by someone anonymous. If I knew who it was I'd put a stop to them, seeing as they're taking all our business!"
The words that had stuck in my mind were "the best" and so I began calling myself that. If I couldn't brag to others, why not brag to myself? None knew who I was, but I knew when they were talking about me. If anyone did figure out who I was they would definitely put a stop to my work, claiming it wasn't the work of women. I'd been told that too many times to let anyone know who The Best was in reality.
After I left the sheriff's office I headed for the inn across the street, my current residence. Inside it was stuffy and hot, but the fee wasn't high so I stayed. The owner had no problems with me living there as long as I paid; she really was a sweet old lady.
"Miss Derby! Oh Miss Derby!" The innkeeper called as I walked through the front door.
I walked up to the desk and stood beside a man who was signing in. "Good afternoon Mrs. Tucker, what's got you all riled up?"
She pulled an envelope from underneath the counter and flipped it in my face. "Letter for you! Comes all the way from Pennsylvania!" I tried to get a good look at the letter, but Mrs. Tucker kept waving it back and forth, "I wonder who you could know way out east! Far as I know you was raised in our little town Shady Creek! Never heard about no family out in Pennsylvania!"
I nodded, trying not to grimace at the poor English. "I didn't know I had any family left actually." I finally snatched the envelope from the fat woman and looked at the return address. It was hard to make out because the envelope was dirty and battered.
"Well! I wonder who it could be then! Do ya have any friends out there?" She gasped, as if the excitement was getting to her.
"You said it yourself; I was mainly raised here in town." I reminded her. Not many folks knew that I was from the east, and those who did were no longer in Shady Creek or long dead.
"Mainly?! Where were ya born then?"
"Well, I was born in the east ma'am. Haven't been there for a good nine years." I told her. The gentleman standing by was growing impatient to sign in, but grew interested when I said this.
"You're from the east?" He asked.
"Yes sir I am." With that I took my envelope and strolled up the stairs to my room. When I got there I threw my jacket and pistol down on the bed, noticing the jacket had a bloodstain on it from dragging Juan. "I'll have it washed later." I sat down at the desk and grabbed my knife. The knife cut through the top of the envelope easily because of the condition it was in. The letter wasn't in a very good state, but it was legible.
I can't believe I have finally found your location! A returning traveler told me all about you; he was a very kind man. My first question is regarding why you are out west in the first place. When you went to live with your aunts I assumed you grew up to be a proper lady and then went on to get married, but when I found out that you were out west I demanded to visit you at once! Father says the trip would ruin my heath so I thought of the next best thing. You will come to me! I have already sent a guide to come get you so we will be reunited by the end of June at the least.
The first thing that sent up a red flag in my mind was that the person addressed me by my true first name. Here in Shady Creek I was known as Ruth Derby, no one knew my real name. After I read the content I began to get nervous. This person knew of my origins, where I lived, and had sent someone to get me. When I read the name I felt my heart stop and my skin go cold. I reread it over and over to make sure it wasn't a mistake.
I had stolen my false last name from this girl – though I suppose that she was no longer a girl as much as a woman. It was one of the many things I had wanted from her when I was little and now I had it, but not for long.
Irene was someone I knew when I was living in Pennsylvania. Her father was one of the richest men around and his wealth grew with every week. Irene was his perfect angel, his only daughter. Mr. Derby spoiled her greatly, giving her whatever she wanted whenever she wanted it. As a result she took every word of his for the truth. My parents were fairly rich so Irene and I were friends. We played together when she didn't have lessons in French, piano, history, or poetry. I never liked her that much as I remember, but my parents liked being friends with Mr. Derby and Irene liked me. When, my parents died their small fortune was put in the bank until I was eighteen, when it would be given to me, but in those eight years I was to live with my aunts as a penniless burden. Irene and I never spoke and so I forgot her, but she obviously didn't forget me.
I stuffed the letter in a drawer and slammed it shut. "I am not going back east! Why would Irene even want to see a poor girl like me?" But then I remembered; I wasn't poor anymore. I looked at my calendar. One week ago had been my eighteenth birthday. If I didn't get the money out of the bank soon it would go to my closest relative or family friend.
I scrambled around the room until I found my carpet bag. It had seemed a lot bigger when I was ten; like it could fit me in it and take me anywhere I wanted. Now it seemed all too small, as if it would squeeze me until I gave in. I shook the thought from my head and stuffed a few dresses inside. I threw in a few odds and ends like a hair brush I'd used only twice, some handkerchiefs that I used for disguise, and some satin slippers that had been my mother's. I had never worn them, but in the east that might change. The last thing I put in was my spare gun, the other I hooked onto a holster around my waist. I hastily put my jacket back on and walked out the door and down to the lobby.
"Mrs. Tucker, here's my key. I'm moving out." I tossed the key at the woman, ignoring the stares from a few folks that were sitting around, and stomped out the door. The man who had been at the counter earlier followed me out, but I didn't notice. He called after me several times.
"Miss! Miss! Excuse me! Hey wait!" He yelled, running after me.
I turned to look at him. "Do I know you?"
"No miss, but Irene Derby sent me to get you. My name is George Fisher." He took off his hat and offered his hand. I stared at it.
"Irene sent you? How come you didn't introduce yourself when I got the letter?"
"Didn't want to frighten you miss. Miss Derby says we're to leave immediately after you pack your things."
I lifted my bag. "All packed. I've got to withdraw my money from the bank to pay for the stagecoach."
"All covered miss. But we'll go to the bank so you can get your money anyway." He started off for the bank.
"Why? If it's all paid for then I shouldn't need my money." I asked suspiciously.
"You'll be living in Pennsylvania so you wouldn't want to leave your money here." He noted.
I guessed as much. Irene wanted to trick me into staying in Pennsylvania. I said nothing and headed for the general store, which doubled as the pickup spot for the stagecoach.
"Miss? Don't you want your money?" George called after me.
"I'm not going to be living in Pennsylvania so I can leave my money here. That way I'll have something to come back to." Then I muttered to myself, "Of course with The Best gone the money will probably be stolen in a week or two."
"Miss! This is a highly untrustworthy town! I suggest you take your money with you!"
"If this town is untrustworthy then so am I. This is more of a home than Pennsylvania ever was."
George got in front of me. "Miss, you don't understand! The trip to the west is dangerous and you may not be able to make it back here alive!"
"I'll take a train. By then I'll have my inheritance and be able to afford a one way trip to California." I shouted.
"Trains are often robbed!"
I ignored him and kept walking. The stagecoach was just pulling in so I got out of the way. A flood of people got off and pushed their way past me. Women scurried to find their men and a few children ducked under the coach, squealing with delight. I approached the driver as he climbed down from the stagecoach.
"This the coach that's heading out east?" I inquired.
"Indeed miss. I ain't going to be driving her though." He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow, "If you're wanting to talk to the driver find Jason Smith. I believe he's in the saloon across the street."
"Thank you sir." I tipped my hat to him, though it wasn't very ladylike, and headed for the saloon. It was growing dark and the saloon would be busier now, making it harder to find the driver. Where had the day gone? Hadn't it just been afternoon? I guess taking Juan to the sheriff's office took longer than I thought it had. I picked up my skirt and ran for the saloon, which was becoming livelier by the minute. George, not knowing what to do, followed me in.
Shady Creek's saloon was the first building that had been put up in town, the second being the jail house. During it's rush hours you could find men playing poker (a personal favorite of mine), drinking whisky, getting into fist fights, and doing just about anything else you can imagine. The owner was a man by the name of Roger Rogers, the most entertaining fellow in town. He often put on shows featuring magic, tap dancing, and comedy. He did all of it by himself.
When I got inside Rogers was doing his famous magic act. He had just made one man's hat disappear and reappear on another man's head across the bar. Everyone gave applause, myself included. I took a seat at a table in the corner and scanned the crowd. I realized I didn't even know what Jason Smith looked like and decided to ask Roger Rogers. As he passed by my table I gave a little wave. He saw me and sat down at the table.
"Miss Derby! To what do I owe this honor?" He smiled.
"I'm looking for a man, can ya help me?" I asked good-naturedly.
"Looking to get hitched? Well I know a few fellows…"
I rolled my eyes and laughed. "That's not what I'm thinking of. Do you know where I could find Jason Smith?"
He thought for a minute and then stood up. "I think he's over there, by the bar." He pointed to a man wearing a bright green shirt.
"Thank you. Great show, by the way." I walked over to the man at the bar and sat next to him, "You Jason Smith?"
He looked up from his mug. "Who wants to know?"
"Ruth Derby. I'm looking to head out east to settle some business."
He looked at me suspiciously. "Yes, I'm Jason. Why aren't you waiting at the inn? We don't depart till morning."
I cursed myself for not thinking of keeping my room for a bit longer. "I just wanted to ask a few questions."
"No, I am not responsible for the loss of your personal belongings. Can I get back to my drink?"
"That's not the kind of question I was thinking of." I said, eyeing the contents of his mug dubiously.
"Then what? If it's about the cost I'll only deal with your husband."
"What would you do if I said I'm not married?"
He looked at me and frowned. "I'd say you're crazy to attempt this trip. It's not my business miss. What do you want to ask?"
"Are you going all the way to Pennsylvania?"
"Yes. I'll be there for a few days to pick up travelers."
I nodded. "Good. One last thing, isn't it a little unusual for a stagecoach to go all the way out east?"
"A little. I don't know the details miss, but there is some special cargo on the coach that the government isn't trusting to the railway." He whispered.
"Interesting. Uh, what time does the coach leave tomorrow?"
Smith sighed and thought. "I believe it's at eight o'clock."
"Thank you sir." I tipped my hat and left, earning a strange look from the driver.
Having no better place to stay I asked Roger Rogers if I could board in one of his empty rooms.
"Of course, Ruth! Believe it or not, most of my rooms have occupants at the moment, but I've got an empty at the end of the hall. Here's the key."
"Thanks Roger. How much do I owe ya?" I smiled, sifting through my change purse.
"Don't worry about it! Just don't mess up the room too much!" He winked and I returned the gesture.
I climbed to the top of the staircase and looked down at the hubbub below. Someone had decided to punch Hairy Harry in the face and Harry had sent the man flying across the bar. Before any apologies could be made or prayers said a bottle of whisky flew from one end of the room to the other, smacking the mayor in the back of the head. His body guards went head first into the melee. I sighed and turned my back on the whole affair, longing for a goodnight's sleep.