The eyes, always with the eyes. I could feel them wherever I go, peering holes through me that I can't see. Sighing, I heave another bale of hay onto the wagon and let my skirt down from where I had tied it up. My brother Paul sat in the front with the reins in his hands. His eyes taking on the blank stare that he's adopted as of late. Women walk past with their partners, looks of disgust clear on their faces as they spot the dirt smudged on my cheeks. I glance at the finery they wear; sometimes wishing I had that for myself. They think me different, just because I would rather work hard on the family farm then flirt with the richest man in this dusty small town, but that's the way of it out here though. Women are viewed as little porcelain figures needing protection. The menfolk don't want a woman challenging them in a shoot-off at the local fair. Bruises their egos see? My Pa always said never to change myself just to land a husband. I'll find one when it's time and he'll accept me for who I am; cow patty stains and all. Glancing one more time at the giggling ladies I can feel my eyes rolling. Shaking my head, I make my way to the seat beside my brother and nod. "Let's get outta here."
"Right oh." He snaps the reins and the horse jolts into a slow trot. The dusty roads stirred up by its hooves lead us past wooden buildings that house small stores and saloons on our way out of town. A young man smirks at me and chuckles under his breath, making me look down at my filthy hands. Don't pay attention, he's not worth your time.
"Hey, Elizabeth, don't you let them bring you down girl, ya hear? You're one of a kind, you are. One day these folks will realize what a gem you are and regret the day they looked down on you." My eyes wandered up to Paul's face, still as stone and looking straight ahead. He'd been doing that more and more like he was thinking real hard about something that he didn't want anyone to know about.
"Yeah, one day…" Sighing, I smirk and elbow him playfully. "How 'bout I make some beef stew for dinner tonight? Betcha Pa would like some after the day he's probably had."
Paul nods. "Reckon you'd be right about that."
Looking out at the vegetation surrounding us casting shadows as the day dimmed; memories of the Past few weeks surged to the forefront. Paul had been wandering off late in the night recently. Where he went, I don't know. He never said a word to me or Pa about it in the morning. I knew my brother was stubborn to a fault, so while I figured no information would be gleaned I had to ask anyway. "Paul, you headin' out again tonight?"
"What? Now, where would I be goin' in the dark out here? Dangerous that is." His voice was light and playful, a small chuckle underneath. But I could also read the lines around his eyes and the sudden tightness of his mouth.
"Well, then it must be a ghost I'm seein' every night recently that looks just like you." Crossing my arms, I sat back and huffed.
"Elizabeth, I ain't goin' nowhere you need to worry your head about alright? Just tryin' to give us a leg up is all."
"We're just fine as we are Paul."
"You only think that because you don't know no better. You were too young when Pa moved us out here. You'll see…this'll all be for the best." He trailed off then, growing quiet and reserved. His current behavior a testament to how he'd been recently. In the past, he would argue with Pa all the time, no matter what time of day or night. Recently though, he'd let up, the arguments far and few between. He'd become more and more withdrawn.
Shrugging at that thought, I decided to leave it be since he didn't seem to be letting up where he'd been going. We're silent the rest of the way to the house on the outskirts of town, my thoughts tripping over themselves in their race through my mind. Paul had always been there for me; he'd always been kind and thoughtful, there was no reason to assume he was doing anything untoward. The afternoon sun beat down on us. Even with his reassurances, I couldn't help but be a little on edge though. Rumors of bandits growing closer to the town's edge had been circulating as of late. We had these before, nothing had ever come of it. But with Paul sneaking out like he had been, I couldn't shake the feeling that something was on its way.
It was early when I awoke next. Something had roused me from my deep sleep. That's a feat worthy of a medal my Pa always said. Glancing around, a light showed softly to my left. Quietly getting up and tiptoeing closer, I snuck a glance out of my window from the little cabin our family shared, my eyes squinted to see in the darkness. Something was wrong, I felt it. Deciding to get a better look, I shuffled around my room getting dressed in some riding attire; breeches, boots, shirt, and leather jacket. That'll have to do.
The house was silent, "Pa? Paul? Where are you?" My voice echoed slightly, sounding loud though it was but a whisper. Sticking my head into their rooms, I found nothing but empty beds. Moving through the living room I stopped beside the exterior door. Soft flame light glowed through the cracks and shadows moved along the floorboards from outside. The wood was rough and cool, a by-product of the desert nights, as I stood and listened to the gruff voices arguing just on the other side.
"You promised us boy, there'd be gold waiting for us in that there town. I better see it when I wrench that forsaken vault open." A man spoke his voice deep and gravelly.
I needed to see what was going on. Moving quietly over towards a window I was able to just see over the sill. Men, a large group of them, gathered around my Pa and brother. Pa was tied up on the ground. But Paul stood there like he was one of them. My eyes narrowed as I took in my normally timid brother. He stood with a confidence I hadn't seen before. Eyes gleaming in the firelight, arms crossed and feet apart like he owned the place. Just what in the heck did he do? The double-crossing sneak, I wanted nothing more than to tan his yeller 'bellied hide right now.
"I promised ya and I'll deliver. You head on in there and do what you do best. It'll all be there like I said," Paul said, voice gravely and cruel. The group of men murmured softly, all of them big and menacing. My gaze caught one though standing on the outskirts. He was big too, all muscle and wearing a black hat with a long trench coat. His boots were scuffed from riding and I could tell he had a scowl on his face. Any more information would only be had if I got closer however, it was just too dark to see tiny details. He was interesting for some reason; he felt apart from the others.
Shaking my head, I looked back at the big man and Paul. The man grumbled, "supposing you still want your cut then?"
"Damn straight I do. It's going to get me and my Sis outta this town. Tired of them pompous busybodies looking down on us. Would ya know, not one man has come a-callin' on Elizabeth? All because she'd rather work hard and get dirty then suck in her gut for a corset." Frustration and anger surged through me at the mention of a husband. I had thought Paul was behind me in not caring about that. Suppose I were wrong. I didn't need a man to make me feel like a person. I watched in disgust as Paul spit on the dirt and looked at the town. The man shook his head and motioned to some of the group. They broke off and began getting ready to saddle up. I narrowed my eyes disbelief flooding me. How could Paul do this? He'd never broken a low or hurt anyone; that I knew of at least. The group quickly finished getting ready and Paul hopped on the horse next to the leader.
"What about yer old man?" He gestured towards Pa on the ground.
Paul looked back and frowned, "leave 'im, he'll just try to stop us."
"Boy you better untie me right now!" My Pa roared anger evident even from this distance.
"Oh, shut it, ya old codger. You brought us here to this shit hole of a town after Ma died. It's yer fault that we go through what we do. Be glad I'm not havin' him finish ya off!"
I had to hold back my scream as Paul spat such horrible words at the man who took care of us. I had never thought my brother felt this way; he had never let on. Not once. It's true that we'd left a fairly good life behind after Ma died but I didn't blame Pa. He was grieving, and the memories tortured him nightly. Some discomfort on my Part was small to give him the relief he so needed. I watched as the ringleader turned towards the man that I had stared at earlier. He was the only one that had not gotten on a horse.
"Jake, you make sure he stays put, ya hear? And don't you let that little woman try nothin' neither!" Jake merely nodded and stepped closer to Pa. With that said, the group of men rode off towards the town.
A glint of metal caught my eye drawing my gaze towards Jake. Casually, he made his way towards my Pa, the object in his hand coming more into view. He had a knife! He was gonna kill my Pa! A million thoughts raced through my mind at that point, I'd be all alone. I would have to fight for the land that Pa had left in my name. Paul would be an outlaw. Pa was in trouble! That single thought engulfed the rest and right when Jake stood over Pa, brandishing the knife, I bolted upwards and screamed, "no!" Jake's head whipped towards me as he brought the knife down on my only family left in my mind. My body froze in place as I waited for the wail of pain, or my Pa's body to drop lifeless to the ground. A few seconds past, nothing happened except Pa raising an eyebrow at me and Jake straightening upwards while sheathing the knife. Blinking at the both of them, my mouth hung open as Pa stood up.
"Pa!" I threw my arms around him and he hugged me tightly.
"It's alright baby girl, Pa's here." Turning with me, we faced Jake. "Thank ya boy. Thought for sure I was a goner."
"No odds…although you might want to teach Elizabeth here to stay quieter when sneaking around. I could hear her moving in that house like a train wreck." He smirked, and it was now I could see his face. He was handsome, rugged, with a small scar running down his left cheek. His blue eyes bore into my own like he was reading my soul.
Blinking dumbfounded, I shook my head and turned back to Pa, "what is going on?"
"Ah, well, Jake here is someone I've known since he was a boy. Only a little older then you to be honest. Never thought that little troublemaker would grow up to be the law!" He barked out a laugh.
Jake nodded and stepped closer, "I used to bother your father at the mill he worked back in the old town. My father worked at the same place, so I would always sneak in and wreak havoc. It's good to see you again, you have certainly grown." He gazed from my dirty boots up, stopping on my face. I blushed softly at his words, his eyes still following my every move.
"I don't remember you though."
"I wouldn't expect you to honestly, we never interacted. But I saw you when you'd come visit your father."
Nodding slowly, the information sunk in. "What are ya doin' here then? With these thugs? And Paul!" Turning back to my Pa, I grabbed his jacket, "why is he doin' this?"
Before Pa could answer, Jake shook his head and looked towards town. "I'm sure you heard him while you listened in. Which was way too dangerous I'll have you know." He eyed me, and I huffed.
"I'm not a fragile little doll like the other womenfolk you've met I'm sure."
He chuckled, "no I suppose not. Regardless, Paul has his reasons. Sadly, that means he is complicit in this as well. I've been following this group for a while now. Getting information on these guys and their bosses. This small contingent is nothing but an offshoot of a much bigger gang. Looks like I'm going to need to act now though." Looking back at me and Pa he tilted his hat and smirked, "I'll have you both stay here alright? You'll be safe."
I watched as he turned towards the one horse that had been left. Before I knew what, I was doing I had raced after him and grabbed onto his sleeve. Turning in surprise he glanced at my small hand before locking gazes with me.
"Yer not goin' anywhere without me!" I exclaimed in frustration.
Stepping down and facing me, he crossed his thick arms over his chest and shook his head. "This is far too dangerous Elizabeth. You need to stay here with your Pa."
I knew I had to stand my ground. "That's my brother out there! I'm gonna be the one to show him what's what!"
Taking my hand in his and gently removing it from his sleeve, Jake sighed, "you're not going to let up on this are you?"
"Nope and if you leave without me, I'll just find a way ta follow ya." I smirked at him knowing I had won. He wouldn't risk me going in there alone. It was either bring me or chance me getting hurt without his protection.
A few tense moments went by before Jake spoke again. "Fine…I don't know what you think you're going to do but-"
My hand whipped out and covered his mouth. Jake's eyes widened in surprise. "If you'd shut that pretty mouth of yours for just a moment, I'll be right back."
Nodding in satisfaction I walked quickly towards the house, my Pa still standing there dumbfounded. I could hear them from inside the house arguing and a smile formed on my lips.
"I will not have you bring my only daughter into that firefight!"
"Look, I don't want to bring her either, but I could see it in her eyes. She's going with or without me. I'd rather it be with, that way I can protect her."
Smile turning to a frown, I grabbed Pa's pistol he kept by the door as well as the shotgun we used for hunting. My boots crunched on the dirt as I made my way back to the men. "For your information, I don't need no one's protection." I moved the coat aside to show the sheathed weapon and turned slightly giving Jake a good glance at the shotgun.
He didn't look convinced, "you know how to use those?"
It was my Pa who answered, "of course she does. I trained her myself. Probably the only woman you're gonna see within hundreds of miles around here that is a bonafide sharpshooter like my Elizabeth." The look of pride that crossed his features filled me with warmth.
Shaking his head again Jake motioned for me to get on the horse. "I can't believe this. At least you know how to use a weapon though. Let's some pressure off me."
Pa grabbed the reins as Jake swung up behind me, "you be careful ya hear?" I nodded as he focused on Jake. "I know Paul is my boy, but he's left my good graces after this. You do what needs doin' son."
"You don't need to worry about that. I am the law after all…" Jake trailed off and kicked his spurred boot into the horses' flank sending us shooting towards the town.
Jake's horse was strong and carried us across the desert landscape like a bird skimming water and it took no time at all to arrive at the quiet town. Slowing to a halt he swung down and offered his hand to me. Rolling my eyes, I dismissed the hand and jumped off myself. Without looking back at Jake, I could hear him following; as well as the soft chuckle he emitted. We moved swiftly towards the bank in the middle of town. Hunkering down behind some barrels we watched as two men stood by the door as guards.
"Elizabeth, you listen to me alright? We're going to need to do this fast. We can't give them time to react. These men, they won't take prisoners, it's kill or be killed." He looked down at me, "do you think you can deal with that?"
Nodding slowly, I kept my eyes on the two guards, "I'll deal just fine."
"Fair enough. You take those stairs on the outside of the building and get to the balcony on the second floor. Keep your shotgun aimed and ready."
"What are you going to do?"
He smirked at me, "you'll see…now go." He pushed me towards the stairs and I moved quickly but quietly up them and into the building. Laying down on my stomach, I positioned my gun and waited. The big brute of a man was there, Paul standing next him looking smug. This was not my brother. This was someone I didn't know. Before I could I think again the doors opened, and Jake walked in like he owned the place.
The leader glared at him, "I thought I told you to stay at the house and watch the old man?"
Jake shrugged and threw his hat on the ground, "change of plans…" His next movements were a blur. Jake reached into his coat and withdrew two gleaming silver pistols. Gunfire exploded from the barrels, quickly followed by more. Men scrambled to take cover, but he was just too quick. One by one they fell, the blood seeped out from under their still bodies. Jake moved with such precision I was in awe, never had I seen such a show of violence that looked oddly like a dance. My thoughts stalled though as I spied a man coming up behind Jake. Without even hesitating I leveled my pistol and fired. The man fell still as a statue. Jake took a moment to look up at me in surprise and I only nodded in response.
After what seemed like hours since the row started, Jake stood before the brute of a man and my brother.
Jake spun his pistol around his finger he sighed, "I would say surrender, but I highly doubt that'll happen."
"Ya got that right ya double-crossing scum –" The gang leader didn't even finish his sentence before Jake had moved. Jake's gun barrel was pressed up into the underside of the mans' chin, his arms grabbed from behind.
"Tsk tsk…there's a lady present." Jake glanced upwards, our eyes locking for an instant.
I smirked, a small thrill went through me. No one had ever called me a lady.
"You'll Pay for this…" The leader growled.
Jake thought for a moment, our eyes still locked before he answered, "no…I don't think I will." His gun went off, the final sound echoed off the now silent bank. Looking back down towards Jake, I could see him focusing on Paul standing alone now; face still defiant though all his crime friends were lying dead in their own blood. Hopping up onto my feet I ran down the stairs. Before Jake could make any move towards my brother, my fist flew forwards and contacted Paul's nose. A sickening crack sounded, and he fell backward. Eyes wide open in disbelief as I stood over him and rubbed my sore knuckles. Jake sighed, "was that really necessary?"
"You shut yer mouth. This my kin here and I'll see to it he knows I'm unhappy with him." I ground out in anger.
Paul gurgled loudly, "by breaking mah nose?"
I started forward again, "I'll break more than that you two-bit scoundrel of a – "
Jake grabbed my shoulder gently and pulled me back into his chest. Leaning down, his breath whispered across my neck making me shiver, "enough now."
I shook my head gently before turning to Paul, "why Paul? We were happy. It was a simple life, but it was a good life."
He sneered at me straightening slightly on the floor. "I was never happy. We lived in needless poverty. You don't remember life before Ma died but I do. We had so much and were comfortable. But Pa had to go off his rocker and ruin it all! Now you can't even find a good man to take you under his wings."
I glared, "first off…I don't need no man to take care of me." Jake nodded next to me. "Second off, I was just fine. I had you, I had Pa and we all had each other. Your selfishness ruined everything. And now you have to Pay the price." Clenching my hands next to my side I did not dare look at Jake. "Do what you need doin'."
"Elizabeth…" His eyes were gentle. "I've been ordered to wipe out this gang…"
I could not speak. He was going to execute my brother. A few moments passed, everyone quiet and still. Jake huffed, and I glanced up at him. He tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Although…I suppose I could report that all were taken out. Paul is not a known member of this group. No one would know unless I reported it in."
My eyes widened in hope. My brother is a horrible scoundrel for doing this, but he is still my brother. "What do you mean?"
Jake turned back to Paul and narrowed his eyes, "you leave here, never come back. You understand. Change your name, go straight and narrow, whatever you have to do."
Paul slowly got up, eyeing the man before him as he spoke.
Jake suddenly got right up into his face, "but if I hear any hint that you've gone back to this? I will hunt you down. I will not have her hurt again. We have an understanding?"
Paul nodded slowly.
Jake smirked and backed up, "good man…now get lost before I change my damn mind."
I watched as Paul slowly skirted around us towards the door. He gave me one last glance before disappearing. My heart broke as I realized whether dead or alive, I would never see my dear brother again. Arms wrapped themselves around me tightly and pulled me into a warm chest. "I can't believe he would do this," my voice a hushed whisper sounded like a scream in my ears.
"Greed makes men do things they never thought they would."
Nodding I push back from him and looked into his eyes, "what now?"
"Now…I have some business to attend to back at the precinct. With this group gone, we have almost closed in on the big man. It won't be long now." Jake frowned then at something he could see in my eyes. "What is it?"
"Nothin'…I'll be seein' ya then." I turned away from him as noise started outside. People were coming to see what all the commotion was about.
"Elizabeth…" I did not wait for him to finish as I disappeared from his view, making my way home. He would be tied up here for a while, I was certain he would not follow me. No matter how much I wish he would.
"Pa! Throw me that there rope. I need to tie this filly down!" I was holding onto our newest horse. After the bank incident, the town had changed their tunes about us and we were finally bringing in some money now that people would do business with us. It had been months since I'd seen Jake. I missed him even though we'd only known each other for a short time. I felt connected to him. He had been the only one besides Pa and Paul to treat me with dignity. Shaking my head to clear the thoughts I grabbed onto the horse again as it bucked and whinnied, "tarnation! You stop that now ya hear?" My hands were slipping and I knew I was about to lose my grip. Right before the horse broke free and trampled me a set of big hands came down and pull me out of the fenced ring.
"What in the world?" I spun around as the man set me down. Blue eyes smiled back at me a scar glinting in the daylight from underneath a black hat.
"Looks like you could use some help little lady."
Putting my hands on my hips I smirked, "and just what are you doin' back here Mr. Big Shot Lawman?"
Jake smirked and took a step closer till we were toe to toe. "Life was getting boring, so I figured I'd come visit a spitfire of a woman that knows how to shake it all up."
Studying his face for a moment, his eyes burning brightly into mine, I shook my head. "Ya well, not all that exciting. If you want somethin' to do though, we got plenty." I brushed past him and walked towards the new barn we'd had built, stopping a few paces to turn back to him. "Well, what're ya waitin' for city slicker? There's work that needs doin'!"
Jake let out a hearty laugh and jogged towards me as I whipped back around, a smile on my face, and walked into my future.