Actions

Work Header

The Reckoning

Work Text:


Glossary, Notes, and Clips


THE RECKONING

 

It would snow again soon. The third lodge in this long-deserted Cherokee village didn't have much of a roof, and there was no door. Ruby just had to be fair, though it pained her, and it pained her as well to catch words coming in with the cold. The words weren't cold. She could hear the edge of their passion, even when those words were indistinct. They would eventually make use of that third lodge, without regard for the collapsed roof and without care for the absent door, but only if Ruby wasn't fair.

There was no rush as yet, not while Inman and Ada needed to say things that were best not interrupted by anything, not even themselves, not even their want and longing. Inman had been away nearly four years– that made for an awful lot to say, on both their parts.

Inman had clearly suffered, and the war was not yet over. After all his walking, after hundreds of miles of walking, he may yet have to run.

Capt. Teague, Bosie, and others of the Home Guard had come up here on the mountain just last night, and they'd found Ruby's father and his friend Pangle. They'd shot and killed Pangle. They'd shot Stobrod Thewes, too, but most folks living hereabouts would say that anyone at all by the name of Thewes was mighty hard to kill, even Ruby's daddy, who'd rather run, any day, than stand and fight. Bosie had shot him in the back and the bullet had done damage. Killed him? Not nearly. Ruby worried about the Home Guard finding out about that.

Her mind was taken away from Ada and Inman and she thought bitterly on Capt. Teague, Bosie, and the rest of that rotten crew. If they found out that Stobrod was still alive and hiding here, they'd hunt him in a serious way. That would also put Inman at risk, perhaps at more risk than he'd known when at the battles of Savannah, Chickamauga, Raleigh, or that Petersburg Crater mess. At least in those kinds of action, no-one had been trying to kill him specifically. But Inman, like Stobrod, was a deserter. Having the Home Guard on his trail was another story entirely.

Ruby wasn't comfortable with the idea of the Georgia boy staying down there at Black Cove farm. Another deserter, he'd been up here last night with her father and Pangle, but he'd managed to stay out of sight, and he'd dodged the Home Guard. He'd come running in just after dawn to say that Pangle and her daddy had been shot. Now he was there, on the farm, and Ruby hoped that one, he was tending to the stock properly, and two, he'd be smart enough to keep out of sight.

That Home Guard rabble had taken Pangle's coat, a coat Ruby had cobbled together. Pangle—such a sweet boy—had been slow and he'd been mighty proud of that coat. He might just have boasted about who'd made it for him. If that was so, it would be enough: the Home Guard had the power to detain and question, and also execute any civilian who was guilty of harboring deserters. Ruby had made that coat, and for the likes of Capt. Teague, that was proof enough. She swallowed hard, took a breath, and resigned herself to the fact that there was nothing she could do about any of that right now.

Ruby shifted on the bench bed made of wattle and daub, filled with earth, and covered with clay. She was Ruby Thewes, whose mind worked that way, and so she took a few seconds to wonder how something so seemingly insubstantial as mud and sticks could be fashioned to last over a hundred years. She'd ask the advice of one of the Cherokee she knew, and she might be able to try a few experiments on the farm. That thought gave her mind cause to work another way.

Her chest squeezed unpleasantly when she considered her plans for the farm, and how they'd have to change now. Maybe not all of them, but some of those plans would need to bend to include Inman and what he wanted. Just as she was going to be fair now, and take her blanket over to the other lodge where her father slept, Ruby would be fair and make sure never to put Ada in the middle. And though it surely pained her—Ruby gritted her teeth, rolled her eyes, and sat up—she'd be fair and try never to come between Ada and Inman. There was no better time to start along that particular trail than right now. She wrapped herself in her blankets and stomped towards the open door (had Ada been born in a barn?).

Out in the open area between the lodges, sitting next to the fire, Ada and Inman quit talking. Ruby started right in:

"Number one‒ shut this door, it's freezin'. Number two‒ shut that door, it's freezin'. I'm layin' on my back, with my fingers poked in my ears trynta shut out who's got a bag of diamonds, who's carryin' a tray... If you wanna get three feet up a bull's ass, listen to what sweethearts whisper to one another. In fact, if you're gonna wimble-wimble all night, I'm gonna sleep in with him."

Ruby rolled her eyes at their bashful smiles and told herself silently, while she settled down opposite Stobrod, that she'd ignore those two henceforth. But she could still hear them; she heard them move to the other lodge, heard the door close. She rolled both lips between her front teeth and applied some pressure. It didn't stop the tears, but it kept her from cussing out loud.

*-*-*

Ruby had never cared for wasting around, so she reckoned that the wait shortened was better than wondering when the Home Guard was going to come bash down the door and shoot her. The bastards found Georgia on the farm, and they'd beaten him to get him to say where Ruby and Ada were. And then they came riding up here, all cock-sure, with the Georgia boy laid over in front of someone's saddle. They'd surprised Ada and Ruby on their walk home, but Capt. Teague and the rest hadn't known that Inman and Stobrod were around, had never guessed that the two women wouldn't hesitate to use their shotgun (first Ruby, and then Ada had fired a barrel). And now, after four years of scaring and hurting and killing folks in this area, that Home Guard rabble wouldn't any of them be scaring, hurting, or shooting anyone again. Dead, all of them, even that damn Capt. Teague.

The early morning air was icy and still thick with gun smoke from the fight. It hadn't lasted long– mere minutes, with the last terrible shots sounding only a few minutes ago. Ruby was trying not to think about the more distant shots, was trying not to think about the very last one that she herself had fired. She got on with tending to Stobrod, who'd come off the horse he'd galloped in on, to distract Teague and the others from Inman's approach on foot. Stobrod was bruised and the gunshot wound had opened up again, but he'd live. Ruby had taken a minor wound to her left arm, just a bullet-burn, but it hurt and was irritating her. The Georgia boy was hovering around and Ruby wished he'd do something useful, like go away.

"Shouldn't we go see if Ada's—" Georgia began.

"No. Pick up them guns. All of 'em. Just lay 'em all on Pangle's coat, so we can bundle 'em. And clean out those men's pockets." Ruby straightened up and looked around: four men dead, one by her hand. He'd been wounded only and he'd reached for a gun, just after they'd all heard the two shots that had sounded like one, and Ada had run off. Ruby hadn't thought twice about that man. There'd been a pistol lying close to her; she'd taken it up and had shot him dead. She looked down at him now and her stomach turned, but she held it in, both the nausea and the words. No way would she say sorry to this man who'd meant her family, friends, and herself harm. No, sir. She would not so much as whisper it. She went through his pockets instead, hoping to find cartridges for the Henry rifle that still lay across his legs. She found thirty-one cartridges, and a good amount of both ball and powder for the old style Colt Navy lying not far from his lifeless hand. A pouch on his belt contained percussion caps, perhaps three hundred. "Lucky this dang fool didn't blow hisself up when he fell off that horse."

"Huh?" Georgia came over and his already pale face paled further at the sight of the caps. He swallowed hard and said, "Yeah. You can tell he was Home Guard, not a soldier. We all got told: never, never fill our pockets with caps, if'n we found 'em. You just sit down hard... Ain't pretty. I seen it happen... Ruby, what about Ada?"

"She ain't come back with Inman. Means he's dead," Ruby muttered. "Means she needs a spell alone with him. I wouldn't want no-one fussin', if I was her."

"No, nor me," Georgia admitted. He went over to search Capt. Teague's body and got Ruby to help him pull the body out from under the bush Teague had made for in the fight. Georgia said, "I never thought I'd see that, him crawlin' scared."

"You woulda skedaddled, too, if Ada was whalin' on you with a shotgun for a club," Ruby said and laughed briefly. Only briefly.

When she eventually went looking, and found them in that gully—Inman dead and yet bleeding the snow red, and Ada sitting by, just staring at the blood—Ruby wondered if it had all driven Ada mad. After all these years, he'd come home, and then she'd lost him. It wasn't right. Ruby wanted to fix it, somehow. She wanted to do anything to make it right. She couldn't. Nothing to be done now except tend to the dead, and then comfort the living.

Ruby hoped she could do that.

"Ada? Ada, I'm so sorry," Ruby murmured. The tears on her face were for Ada, not Inman. She had to sort out her feelings about him, hadn't gotten round to it yet. "Ada?"

"I'm all right, Ruby," Ada said quietly. She thought that she knew how Esco Swanger had felt, when Fox Benton had driven a saber under his ribcage and up through his heart: it had to have felt just like this. And yet, she was all right. Ada got to her feet by herself, shut her eyes a moment, and before opening them she wiped tears away from her face. They'd begun to freeze. "I don't want to bury him up here."

"Course not. No, we're takin' him home," Ruby said at once, and went to fetch a horse.

*-*-*

Yesterday she helped to shave this man. Ruby dragged the soaped flannel over a scarred back, and was careful not to wet the ugly wound left by the bullet ripping out of a man that she had helped to shave just yesterday. She'd insisted on doing this alone, wounded arm and all. Only one part of the reason amounted to making it easier on Ada; the other nine parts had to do with the guilt Ruby felt. Only yesterday she helped to shave him. Ruby tried to remember what they'd talked about then, but the words were gone, replaced by memories of last night's thoughts: at some point she had wished, bitterly, that he'd never made it home.

His body cleaned, she went to the door and unlocked it. She poked her head out of the spare bedroom and looked both ways before stepping out into the deserted hall. The door was locked again, the key pocketed. She needed help with dressing the body, which was fully stiff now. Ruby couldn't cope with that last task alone. She didn't have to go far, not halfway down the stairs before she found someone. The Georgia boy limped and Ruby was sure that at least two of his ribs were stove-in. She silently cursed Capt. Teague, Bosie, and their crew, and followed that with a silent remonstrance at herself, for wasting time on cussing out dead men.

"Were you comin' up to nap?" Ruby asked.

"Nah," Georgia said, shaking his head. "To ask if you need help. I saw to my pa‒ ain't easy, alone. Though Mister Inman's a fair shake smaller and not near as heavy as Pa."

"If your daddy was a big fella, how come you're just a stringbean?"

"Hell if I know... Damn. Ya reckon he got all them scars only in the last four years?" Georgia had stopped a short distance from the bare boards laid over saw horses. He took a step closer, cocked his head, and bent over to look the late W. P. Inman square in the face. "Now I know him. I didn't get a good look till now. Can't rightly recall where it was, but him and me, we met somewheres, once."

"Mmm," said Ruby, while she readied clean pants and a freshly ironed shirt. They couldn't spare a jacket for him, but he wouldn't be feeling the cold. "D'you know if the undertaker's brought the coffin yet?"

"I saw him comin' along, out on the road."

They worked together and had the body dressed by the time a knock sounded at the door. The undertaker and his assistant grumbled about trying to take a loaded coffin out the door and into the hall, but Ruby insisted. The box had been built to measure, so it was a good snug fit at the shoulders, with not much room above the head.

"So you can tilt it through the door," Ruby muttered, rubbing gingerly at her arm; the bullet-burn was throbbing. "Nail on the lid. Ada said her goodbyes."

"Sure?" the undertaker asked.

"Yeah." Nodding, Georgia backed Ruby. "She was in here alone, for some while."

The undertaker's man went back downstairs to fetch hammers and a bag of nails, and Ruby stood quietly, looking upon the face of the man Ada loved. Loved still; perhaps always. There was no life left in that face, and maybe Ruby saw now what Ada had seen, while in this room alone. She had come out and Ruby had observed in Ada's eyes a certain acceptance. Her man was gone. That alone was not reason to stop loving him, but he was gone and she had let him go. Ruby blinked and looked again upon the dead face: this body held nothing over her.

She hadn't wished him dead, not exactly. In truth, she would never have wished him dead. Resented his arrival? She had, and in a way she still did, but that would fade. This body held nothing over her, and the man who'd left this body behind—wherever he was now—did not hold anything against her. If she'd killed him herself, well, that would've been a different matter. She hadn't killed him, and would never have hurt him a-purpose, in any way, if he'd lived.

Ruby Thewes made her peace with Inman, then took a spare hammer from a tool-bag and helped to nail the coffin lid shut. Later she took a turn at shoveling partially frozen dirt loosened by others swinging picks. After, she stood silent next to Ada while several people said words about the W. P. Inman they had known before the war.

It was freezing cold, and the wind bit through their clothes, making them shiver. Ada's hand, when it slipped into Ruby's cold and still-grubby paw, was warm. Ruby squeezed gently, and Ada's grip answered strongly.

"Don't know what I'd do without you," Ada said softly, meaning it.

Ruby only nodded. She liked to be useful, relied-upon. She wanted that, and also needed it, and that was what had bothered her most when Inman had come back. She had plans for Black Cove farm. Had Inman lived—for all he had asked Ruby's permission to live at Black Cove—those plans might have been changed. Worse, they might have remained only to be carried out by Inman, leaving Ruby to feel like a spell mule trailing after the chuck wagon.

They only let go of each other's hands when they reached the house, but Ada had wanted to hold on. Ruby cussed the need to be polite and get coffee for folks, and this time she didn't bother with silence.

*-*-*

"I... Ruby, I think I'm with child," Ada said. They were up on the barn roof, replacing and resetting shingles. Ruby flicked her wrist and a half-rotted shingle went sailing to land neatly on a small pile of its past-useful cousins. Ada tried the same and snorted when hers landed all on its lonesome, some ten feet from the pile. She nudged Ruby's shin, and said, "Well, aren't you going to say anything?"

"I'm workin' figures," Ruby said, matter-of-fact. "That night was nearly four months ago?"

"Three months and nineteen days."

"Mmm. Could be, then. Ain't had yer monthlies?"

"No. Not a hint of them."

"Could be, then. There's an old crib in the attic. Might need some fixin'—"

"Can the talk in town be fixed?" Ada muttered.

"D'you really care about that, Ada Monroe?" Ruby almost snapped. "Do not tell me if you do. I don't feel much like takin' a strip off of you today. A baby? Ada, goddamn the town!"

"I think you just did take that strip off," Ada chuckled. She was used to Ruby by now. "And no, I don't care, but the talk will be tiresome."

"Just pay them no-never-mind," Ruby said and flicked another rotted shingle away. She wiped her hand on her pants, then used the back of that hand to wipe her forehead, pushing her hat back a little in the process. She took the hat right off to squint up at the sky, then, looking out at the land, she said, "Spring's shapin' for a hot summer. We need more rain... What'll you call that baby?"

"For a girl, Grace. I haven't decided on a name for a boy. Either way, the child's last name will be Inman."

"Fair 'nuff," Ruby said.

They got back to work and by noon the barn roof needed no more attention. Gone were the days when it was hard to get Ada out of bed. Sometimes she was up before Ruby, and occasionally Ruby was left to sleep late. Ruby sometimes gave that same small gift to Ada, too.

Lunch was a bread and cheese affair, a meal eaten with the help of one hand while the other poked dried pinto beans into the moist, rich soil that filled wooden seedling trays.

"You don't think we're starting these beans too late?" Ada asked.

"Last year we started new ones in after our first ones got frost-bit. We started that second crop later than it is now, later by nearly three weeks. They grew just fine‒ ain't we seedin' what's left of that crop?" Ruby got a handful of dried beans and dropped them one-by-one into the holes she'd poked in the soil. Her fingers pressed the dark soil over each bean. Ruby blurted, "Can't stop thinkin' on that baby."

Ada glanced up and smiled, and she couldn't quite explain to herself the small rush of pride she felt. Ruby blushed and grabbed another handful of beans. There weren't any holes poked for them, though, and she had to dump them back in the bag. She huffed as her face colored more deeply, and Ada laughed quietly.

*-*-*

"War's over! Ada? Ada! The war's over! Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House yesterday!"

"My God..." Ada said, then promptly burst into tears.

"I know about that," Ruby said, stubbornly raising her chin, jamming her hands on her hips. "I do. I know it. Woo! Ain't gonna cry..."

But she did, and she awkwardly tugged Ada into a hug. They sobbed together, standing in the middle of the collard patch.

It was so hard to believe, and believing brought no relief. It was a terrible place to be: both happy and grief-stricken all at once. A confusing place. They'd begun to believe that that incredible waste of life would never end, and that had been something of a sinister comfort. They were coping—more than coping, they were thriving, despite that slaughter of men elsewhere. For years now it had been a case of getting-along-despite, which was something to be proud of, but that pride led to guilt. Even though Ada had worried for years about Inman, even though she had nearly starved before the advent of Ruby, that had not been 'the war.' The war had been something else, somewhere else, and they'd gotten to the point where they would just get along and live, without blaming whatever hardship on a fight they had neither started, nor wanted, nor perpetuated. The war had often seemed to be someone else's business, even when it had touched their lives in some way or other.

But now it was over. Now came the reckoning, and Teague had been right: that reckoning was theirs, not his, and it also wasn't for the men on their way home. The reckoning was theirs, and how they were going to adjust was not something that came to Ruby and Ada immediately. It would come as the weeks passed, when men trickled home, some of them seemingly whole, others visibly maimed. The evidence of war came home to Cold Mountain, and forced those who'd gotten-along-despite to be grateful that those men had held the fighting to lines far beyond their small world. The reckoning came with facts and figures: nearly two-hundred-thousand dead, on both sides, and soon that number would exceed two-hundred-thousand as loved ones simply reported, 'No, he hasn't returned home yet,' and returning men said quietly, 'He fell at this place.'

Anteing up amounted to paying the piper instead of turning a blind eye: Ruby and Ada did what they could, which included growing more than they needed, and giving away a fleece or a slaughter-animal or two. They also talked Stobrod and the Georgia boy into taking jobs as rail setters (though that had been more a case of Ruby telling them both, in no uncertain terms, that they damn-well would go and get those jobs repairing North Carolina's railroads). She wasn't too happy after that conversation.

"Could you believe 'em? They deserted—left other men to die—and there they is, all keen to kick back and sing—sing!—about the war bein' over... Un...be...lievable: only my daddy. He's a bad influence on that Georgia boy."

"Perhaps," Ada said. "You don't think that bullet wound—"

"Ain't nothin' wrong with Stobrod Thewes," Ruby stated. "He spent two nights in a row with Julie Dinsdale. Anybody—anyone at all—who can keep up with her two nights runnin' can swing a hammer to set a rail."

"I... I guess," Ada said, and decided to say no more.

*-*-*

Ruby guessed that it was just a matter of Ada wanting company, but in previous years come the warmth of spring, when Ruby had moved back into her room, Ada hadn't pouted. Ruby couldn't call it anything less: Ada had pouted after her first night alone. She hadn't said anything (and though Ruby had tried, she couldn't imagine what Ada might've said). Wordlessly, that night Ruby had crawled into bed with Ada, and there'd been no pouting the following morning. That had been a while back.

This night she groaned and sank onto the bed.

"I feel bad about that," Ada said, sitting before the mirror at her dressing table, brushing her hair. "Are you sure I shouldn't—"

"I am sure," Ruby stated, head raised to look across the room at Ada's reflection in the mirror. She wagged a finger to better emphasize each word: "You can churn butter and hoe rows, but no sittin' on a milkin' stool, no bendin' an' liftin', no—"

"All right, all right," Ada muttered. She stood and, as had become her habit, she turned side-on to the mirror and smoothed her hands over her night dress to show the growing swell of her belly. She gasped suddenly, then laughed and said, "Kicking!"

"Yeah?" Ruby raised up in a hurry onto her elbows. Ada came quickly to the bedside and Ruby leaned over, allowing her hand to be guided to the place where Ada had felt the kicks. Ruby blinked and her mouth fell open a little, astounded at the strength of the small movements beneath her palm. "Hell. I ain't never felt nothin' but horse and cow and sheep babies kickin' in their mammas. This don't feel too different. Rather you than me."

"You don't want children? Georgia's—"

"Oh, don't get on that trail again," Ruby grumbled and took her hand away. She flopped back on the bed and laced her fingers behind her head. "You'd think a war would grow a boy into a man. That Georgia needs to grow up a fair shake 'fore any grown woman oughta consider him. Argue that."

"Well..." Ada shrugged and let the matter go, and this time she decided to let it go for good. This was the third occasion that she'd brought up the subject of Georgia. Until now it had been banter, and only now was she aware that Ruby wasn't just shooing her off. It was one thing to tease, and another to annoy, and Ada was not in the habit of annoying anyone on purpose, least of all Ruby– Ada wasn't stupid. She returned to her original question instead: "So, no children?"

"Yours is the first one I ever wanted," Ruby stated quietly. Something was telling her to just spit things out, to just say what was in her head, and her heart. "Maybe yours will make me want a young 'un of my own."

"That's a reasonable supposition," Ada said as she got into bed. "And I'm glad you want mine... I hope it's a girl."

"Me, too," Ruby drawled. "Menfolk is always up to no good."

"Ruby Thewes, that is a gross generalization!" Ada laughed.

"Just shows you don't know enough menfolk," Ruby chortled.

"Perhaps."

"Yeah. Perhaps you just been extraordinarily lucky."

"Probably," Ada said, smiling. "Teague and his men... But they're gone."

"Gone and good riddance." Ruby rolled slightly and turned down the lamp. As always, when the flame was extinguished, she turned the wick up again, just a tad. That made for easier lighting early in the morning, when sleep still clouded her vision and made for hands that weren't too steady with a match. With the lamp out, the near-full moon's light shone into the room, silvering everything. There was enough light to see Ada's face and know it for Ada's. Her back to the window, Ruby knew that her face would be in shadow, but Ada was looking at her anyway. "You got somethin' you wanna say?"

"I find myself thinking, sometimes, that it would have been strange, that it might not have been very good if Inman had lived." Ada reached out and found Ruby's hand, and smiled at the immediate reassuring squeeze Ruby gave her. "Reality makes the truth easy to say, sometimes."

"Know what you mean," Ruby said softly. "Only, I go round thinkin' that the world is always real, so I just say it‒ whatever's on my mind, even if some folks wouldn't like to hear it... Different, I guess, if it's somethin' I don't wanna say to myself. Ain't often I reach that spot."

"It's different, yes, and you're right: it's been something that I've not wanted to say," Ada admitted. "But it's true. It would have been... awkward. I love him no less now than I did when he was alive, but Ruby, maybe I'd have grown to love him less if he'd been here, making things awkward between you and this farm, and between you and me."

"Mmm," said Ruby. She didn't have to say anything else. She'd said it all the afternoon before Inman was killed: she had plans for this farm. But she added truthfully, "Still, lotsa days I wish he was alive, 'specially since you told me about the baby."

"Yes. There is that regret," Ada almost whispered. "But it doesn't seem to move me as much as my thinking that his being here, now, would have made things uncomfortable."

"Well, he ain't here," Ruby said bluntly. "And it ain't uncomf'table. And we better get some sleep. Least ways, I should."

"Hmph!" Ada snorted and laughed at that little jab.

*-*-*

Husband run through; a noose around her neck, and her hands jammed in a split-rail fence– tortured to lure her sons out of hiding, and when those boys came running they were shot dead, as deserters, before her eyes: Capt. Teague, Bosie, and their Home Guard crew had taken so much from Sally Swanger. She'd rallied, though, and had taken some back in one significant way‒ she hadn't given up. She had chosen at first simply to be loved—'Loved back to health,' as Ada had once put it—and being loved, by Ada, Ruby, and others, had helped her to choose living over dying. Living led to loving in return, and love was the one thing she could give without any effort or pain involved. After nearly three years, her hands still pained her but not as much these days. She could now manage a pen for short periods. She scribbled to Ruby and Ada one evening:

"It may take me two days to write my sister a letter, but the point is, I CAN write!"

They had agreed while wishing that Sally could somehow learn to talk again. It was unlikely that that would happen, mostly because the rope had damaged her voice-box too badly, but also because Sally never tried to speak. The urge to speak, she once scribbled, had fled when Esco and her sons had been murdered that day. Sally had her slate and chalk (the chalk by far easier to handle than a fine-nib pen or a pencil), and if she needed to say anything, or felt the rare urge for idle conversation, she scribbled her thoughts into words just fine.

And she had been, overall, more concerned with getting her hands back to something resembling usefulness. Writing with a pen was the last of the tasks she had set herself to master again. These days, though she often spent time at Black Cove farm and sometimes spent the night there, she could manage quite well alone. She managed her kitchen garden, all her own cleaning and laundry, and she even kneaded bread dough. That was surprisingly easy, when compared with writing, which took a lot more effort. While writing, Sally often found herself to be sweating because the small fine movements required an overload of concentration, as well as an exercised ability to ignore pain. Sally, Ruby, and Ada all theorized that it had to do with holding a pen in a set position for extended periods. Kneading dough, for example, involved a lot of movement, and so her damaged joints didn't get a chance to stiffen.

Kneading bread dough was what Sally was doing on the evening she caught Ruby staring off into nothing. Sally bumped the table leg with her foot, causing Ruby to snap out of it. Sally gave her a quizzical look, with the skew smile that everyone was fond of.

"Oh, just... Nothin'."

Ruby bashfully got back to mixing another batch of dough. Sally clucked her tongue and shook her head, frowning. She knew how to get to Ruby‒ work on her sense of fair play. Ruby rolled her eyes.

"Ada, and the baby."

Sally nodded slowly and cocked her head to one side.

"Just... Oh, Sally!"

Sally raised both eyebrows and firmed her lips into a straight line. Ruby gulped, remembering an occasion years back when that look had preceded a scolding for Ruby-forgot-what, but it had seared her ears something good‒ worse even than a tanning.

"Umm," said Ruby. Sally gave a short nod, encouraging her. Ruby's face colored afresh, and she mumbled, "Dunno what kind of influence I'm gonna be on that kid."

Sally didn't even bother to wipe her hands. She grabbed hastily for slate and chalk, and she scratched out, in very big capitals:

"GOOD! VERY GOOD INFLUENCE!"

"Y'think?" Ruby practically whispered, and she swallowed hard.

Sally snatched up a rag and wiped out what she'd just written. She wrote:

"Ruby, don't hurt yourself like this."

Ruby wiggled her nose and pressed her lips together against tears, swallowed the lump in her throat and raised her chin. She sniffed and nodded and got right back to mixing the dough. Sally made sure to wipe the chalk away properly just in case Ada, who'd gone to sleep early, should come downstairs. When she was done she went around the table and gave Ruby's shoulders a squeeze. Ruby, shifting in pretend-discomfort, huffed, earning herself a light swat to the shoulder from a highly amused Sally Swanger.

She knew Ruby Thewes, knew her well. Sally knew an awful lot, and sometimes she was rather grateful that that urge to speak had left her: now was not the time to point out what else she knew.

*-*-*

Ada's eyes widened and she blinked, then giggled. Mrs. Ericson tutted and flapped a hand dismissively before stalking off down the path to her buggy.

"Thank you!" Ada called.

Without turning around the old lady raised a hand and waved it, then flapped it again, this time at a fly. Ada looked down at the unwrapped bundled of baby clothes and ran her fingertips over exquisite honeycomb smocking. No wonder Mrs. Ericson had kept them all these years (her four daughters were all grown and living in big cities far away, one in San Francisco).

"What you got?" Ruby asked, coming out onto the porch. "And was that Virginia Ericson? Bet she didn't have nothin' nice to say."

"Well, you're half right‒ she didn't say a word. Look, Ruby: isn't it sweet?"

Ruby raised a brow at a teeny smock and wrinkled her nose.

"Mmm," she said. "Let's go get somethin' to eat."

Ada hid a smile and bundled the baby clothes up again. Ruby tended to amuse her at every turn, sometimes when amusement was sorely needed. Ada had accepted that having Inman alive and well here at Black Cove would've probably made for a fair bit of discomfort, but sometimes... Sometimes Ada's heart broke afresh at thoughts of the definite and absolute lack of him in her life.

Waiting for him had been the occupation of years—long years. It would have been a hard habit to break, if he hadn't come back, if she hadn't been present when he'd died. She might never have stopped waiting for him, if there'd been no word. She knew that decades might have passed, and if she'd had no confirmation that he was dead, she just might never have thought him dead. Sometimes belief needs evidence; other times faith needs none. Weigh the two—belief and faith—and faith would always tip the scales in its favor. The daughter of a preacher, Ada knew that better than most.

"But when last did I pray..." she mumbled, while Ruby was brushing her hair.

"I don't set much store in prayer," Ruby drawled, gently working out a tangle. "I might bend God's ear a time or two, but I can't rightly call it prayin'. Way I figure, God's gotta get awful tired of hearin' everyone a-beggin' an' complainin'... Least ways, if I was God I surely would weary of it fast. So I don't bother Him much."

"Somewhere along the line, I began to think that exact same way," Ada said, amused rather than saddened by a flash of memory: Inman had once expressed a sentiment similar to Ruby's, and Ada's father had agreed. That was the past, and the here-and-now rightfully demanded its share of attention. She smiled at Ruby's reflection in the mirror, and she leaned back, resting her head against Ruby's middle. "I love you, Ruby Thewes... just in case that big ol' sky should fall on our heads."

Ruby's cheeks pinked, and she awkwardly placed the brush on the dressing table. She allowed Ada to catch her hand, and hold it. Ada pressed the curled fingers of that hand to her cheek, and her eyes were steadily on Ruby's, in the mirror. She didn't have any words to say, none at all, but she knew that Ruby had had a few on her mind for the past two days.

"Tell me, then?"

"If Billy Leneart had both legs and both eyes, I woulda drawn my pistol on him yesterday morning," Ruby stated flatly. All the firearms that had once belonged to Teague and his crew had been collected. Some they had sold. Three pistols, one of them a spanking new Remington Army 1858 with an extra load cylinder, and two Henry rifles had been kept. "I'd a-drawn down on him, I swear."

"I heard. Lorna Raille dropped by this morning while you were mending the northeast fence."

Ada was no stranger to a gun either: she carried a pistol even in the house. The war was only newly over, and Ada was smart enough to guess that a firearm would be a needful thing even two years from now, because all that mess couldn't be fixed overnight. The men coming back, and those wandering the country trying to find someplace to call home, were all angry and broken-spirited. She had no idea when the word 'safe' would mean anything again, so she took practice with a rifle and her pistol twice weekly. Powder, lead, and percussion caps were not at all in short supply, and though others found the .44 Henry cartridges tricky to come by, Ruby seemed to conjure them out of thin air (and Ada wasn't about to ask about that). No-one said anything at all about a woman carrying a pistol these days, war over or not. Teague had convinced the town of Cold Mountain that women were not immune to violence: well-loved Sally Swanger was walking proof—walking proof who was lucky to still be alive.

Ruby shrugged a shoulder. Ada's gentle squeezing of her hand caused Ruby to look back at the mirror.

"Miz Raille didn't tell it all?"

"She did. Lorna isn't shy that way," Ada said. Then, after a pause: "Ruby, if you get killed one day on account of me—"

"I'll try not to get killt," Ruby said in quiet, serious tones. "I won't try not to kill, next time. If the man is whole and he says somethin' to match what Billy Leneart did about you, I will kill him."

"Lorna did say that a few people told Billy that he was lucky. That scared him. He might apologize," Ada said, and mostly because she didn't know what else to say. Inman had killed Capt. Teague right in front of her. Essentially, Inman had killed Teague on Ada's behalf. The reason then wasn't so very different to mention made now by Ruby, who had meant every word. And Ruby had already killed, had already shot one of Teague's men out of hand without a second thought on the matter. This was common knowledge. Ada said softly, "My God, but I hope no-one's that stupid..."

"Well, if they is, they is. That ain't my lamb to fold," Ruby muttered. "If some fool cain't use the head he was borned with... That just is not my problem."

"No, I suppose not."

They got into bed and the lamp was turned out. The night was dead dark: new moon, and the sky was also heavy with rain clouds. Ruby lay on her back with her head turned towards the window. They didn't draw the drapes, mostly because Ruby didn't like feeling closed in that much. In the distant dark, a small flash‒ lightning. It was too far off for even a quiet rumble of thunder to be heard yet.

"Will it reach us?"

"Maybe," Ruby said quietly. She felt Ada shift closer, and it was an easy thing to wrap an arm around her shoulders. Ruby liked the weight of Ada's head in the hollow of her shoulder. The growing 'bump' that was the baby pressed comfortably against her side, and Ada's arm came snugly round her middle. Ruby smiled a small smile and let loose a tiny but happy sigh. "Seein' as how you say it to me all the time... Love ya."

"I know," Ada murmured sleepily.

Ruby's smile grew, and she lay awake quite some time listening to Ada sleep, and watching the approach of the storm.

*-*-*

Ada could hoe rows, and so she did, but what weeds she hoed up she only raked into a pile: no bending and lifting. No matter how light something was, if Ruby caught her picking it up, she had some choice words to deliver to Miss Ada Monroe. If anyone could scorch a pair of ears, it was Ruby, usually in a truly memorable way.

August: she was seven months along now, carrying high, and old wives said that carrying high foretold a girl child. Ada hoped and sometimes prayed, quite fervently, for a girl.

A year ago she'd listened to a man describe what was left of Atlanta, hardly believing him until he said, 'Stubbornness. A passel of stubborn men did that to Atlanta.' Confederate forces were greatly outnumbered, and they knew it. They also knew that they couldn't hold the city for very long: only stubbornness kept them there, and all they did was put the lives of Atlanta residents, innocent civilians, at risk. If they'd abandoned the place, Maj. Gen. Sherman would've only burned munitions factories and armor plate foundries. Instead he was given every reason to pound the city for four solid months with seacoast 'Dictator' mortars and 8-inch Armstrong rifles, a kind of siege cannon. Sherman liked blowing things up, no question, but he also didn't like wasting around. He would've preferred to fire only the factories and foundries quickly, enabling him to evacuate Atlanta and move on that much faster to his infamous and bloody March to the Sea.

And thinking of male pride and stubbornness in general, and of ruthless men like Sherman, Ada was convinced that the world needed more women. Not necessarily fewer men; just more women. As she saw it, women would never have started that damn war.

"Daydreamin'," Ruby teased gently, playfully.

Ada started from her lean on the long handle of the rake, and turned to find Ruby toting her Henry rifle; a canteen was slung from her shoulder. Their newly acquired short-legged pony was hitched to the fence. They'd traded a bull-calf and two lambs for the pony, which was meant to draw their buckboard, but had already proved a useful beast at several other tasks.

"Hunting?" Ada queried. "But I thought you were going to claim a share of the steer the Fullers are slaughtering."

"I would," Ruby drawled. "If they'd slaughter it already. I think they're puttin' it off in the hope I'll forget about the deal we made: meat in return for the repair jobs I did on those fences. Like as not, when next them damn fences are leanin', I'll fix 'em all alone again. Good fences make good neighbors... Hmph! Not hardly... All right, then. I'll be back before dusk."

"Go carefully," Ada said.

"I will," Ruby said, leading the pony away.

Ada leaned on the rake handle again, and watched her go. Not so very long ago, 'Go carefully' from Ada would've been the cause of grumbles from Ruby, along the lines of 'Just you mind your ownself.' Ruby still wouldn't tolerate too much fussing, but a little now and then she took as water in the mill race: the wheel wouldn't turn without it. Ada contemplated, for a while, the possibility that without her little bit of fussing Ruby might worry, might ask Ada what was wrong.

They'd gotten used to each other. That had involved each accepting the other's ways, instead of wanting to change them, and even though Ada had changed a good deal since Ruby's arrival, she was still Ada. She felt firmly that she was more herself now than she ever had been, and she thought that her father, and Inman, might be very proud of her.

Inman had left behind a frail and decidedly incapable city girl. On his return he'd gotten a hint of who Ada had become while he'd been gone. Or perhaps more than a hint. Ada laughed aloud at the incongruity of that meek little word 'hint' and that moment of their meeting again, in a snowy gully– Ada responsible for a very dead turkey, and the still-smoking shotgun now leveled and trained squarely on poor W. P. Inman. That, Ada decided, was definitely more than a hint, but it had still been only a small reveal. Why, even pregnant she was a decidedly capable woman.

Ada switched the rake for the hoe and grumbled to herself about her rounded belly getting in the way of this and that. And she smiled wryly at an odd little thought: that girl who'd once been terrified of roosters and afraid of cows was now a woman who missed milking. Ada missed snugging her cheek against a cow's warm, sweet flank and hearing the rhythmic fizz-swish of milk in the pail.

Ruby got back long before dusk. With fewer men around less hunting was done. The deer were less shy, but Ruby—wise to the ways of Nature—was not a lazy hunter: she was quite prepared to trek two miles from home rather than drop a deer close by, and so make them overly skittish again. If she could keep that up, come winter, if they were in need of fresh meat, she wouldn't have to go far at all to bag a deer. Today she went out just a little less than two miles. Having the pony's help meant that she could bring home the entire carcass, instead of packing out just a hind leg slung from her shoulder.

"Big!" Ada called from the porch.

"Got him almost as soon's I reached the spot I aimed for," Ruby said with a grin. "Can you get the knives and the hatchet? I'll go string him from the dressin' scaffold. I saw ol' Harry on my way back, and he's gonna be by just now for the hide."

"All right," Ada said, hurrying into the house.

Harry Burke (who thought he might be around seventy) found the two women round back of the house not a half-hour later. The carcass was completely dressed out, and the deerskin was neatly laid out on the grass, flesh-side up, and not a buttonhole in sight.

"Leddies make better skinners 'an anyone," Harry declared loudly.

"Thanks!" Ada said, taking a joint from Ruby.

"Wha' was that, darlin'?" Harry warbled.

"Thank you," Ada enunciated more carefully.

"Ah. So the trade's four pair rabbit skin mittens?"

"That'll be just fine," Ruby shouted.

"All righty!"

Harry carefully rolled the fresh hide and promptly disappeared with it. By then the carcass had been reduced to the hind legs and pelvis, the rest of the spine, and the ribs. Ruby brandished the hatchet, took aim at the middle of the pelvis, and whack-whack! She split it neatly in two.

"You have got to teach me to do that next time," Ada said.

"I'll teach you when there's only you in that body." Ruby's arm worked rhythmically, and the hatchet blade bit through one vertebra at a time. "I will say the trick is to be patient. One chop, one bit of backbone, all the way down, and... There! All that hickory chippin' and whittlin' we did will surely be worth the effort..."

Ruby separated each side of the carcass from the hind legs, and then they got on with hanging the two sides and the joints in the smokehouse. There Ruby placed another two sticks of charcoal in the burn tray set under the chip pot‒ a modified brazier that allowed the wet hickory chips to smolder only and not burn. Ada flapped smoke away from her face with one hand while the other handled a paddle fan. Ruby picked up the fan's twin and flapped it slowly, helping the hot coals to glow, and the fresh charcoal to heat and begin to smolder along with the hickory chips.

"We'll keep an eye, but I think the extra holes I punched in that pot will keep the dang chips smokin' reg'lar... Smell that... Damn!"

"My mouth is watering," Ada said in agreement. "Isn't there a ham cured yet?"

"That there tells me you didn't eat lunch," Ruby scolded.

Ada mumbled that she hadn't. Ruby's lips pursed and her eyes narrowed; she shooed Ada out and bolted the smokehouse doors. Cleaning up was a task swiftly dealt with: Ruby had dug a hole for the head, lower legs, and entrails before going out with the pony. A scoop of lime scattered, dirt piled into the hole and stamped down– more than enough to keep foxes and stray dogs off.

In the house, Ruby cut a large steak from a slab of fresh venison, salted it lightly, and waited on a little mutton fat in a griddle, set on the wood stove. When it began to smoke, she slapped in the steak. Ada cut slices from a loaf of bread, buttered them, and waited.

"I could do with an egg, too," Ruby said over the hissing and spitting of the steak on hot metal. Then she glanced at the table and her eyes lit on the four thick slices of bread. "Or maybe not..."

Ada chortled. She'd never been a big eater, but then the child within her had begun to demand more from her. Now it seemed that she was always planning what to eat next. And the steak was good, more so with the addition of fresh bread, and butter so rich it may as well have been called cheese. They'd have broccoli with dinner. Ada licked her lips, half clean-up, and half in anticipation of blanched broccoli with butter and a pinch of pepper and salt. Over the new scents of fried venison came subtly the aroma of a duck being slowly pot-roasted. Slow-cooking a duck was a trick taught them by the Georgia boy.

"I wonder how they are‒ your daddy and Georgia."

"Stayin' clear of trouble, I hope, but then we're talkin' about Stobrod Thewes..." Ruby rolled her eyes. But she had to admit: "I wish they'd write more often."

"Me, too. I suppose they think that it's not important, now the war's over," Ada said, clearing their plates. She cranked the pump handle at the sink and filled a copper kettle with water. After handing it to Ruby to hook over the fire, she asked, "Why are men careless that way? It's a complaint I seem to hear with some regularity‒ the war's over and men have this idea that writing letters is no longer important."

"It's cos they ain't likely to die tomorrow," Ruby almost snapped. She sat down at the table and gestured irritably. "Men care more easily when they's shit-scared they's gonna die."

"Ruby—"

"Nothin'!" Ruby argued vehemently. "Ruby-nothin', uh-uh. It's true. You heard my daddy say in this very kitchen that war changes folks. Well, it ain't war that does the changin' he talked about; it's fear. And then what happens when there ain't no cause for fear no more? The war did a lot of permanent harm– I ain't arguin' that. But war has not and never will cause men to quit bein' men. They care when they are shit-scared, and who do they care for? Themselves."

"I can't agree, Ruby," Ada said quietly, leaning against the table close to where Ruby sat. She looked down into dark blue eyes and smiled sadly. "My father lost my mamma after less than two years of marriage, and he never stopped loving her, never married again. That's evidence of caring for something more than himself, surely."

"I ain't sayin' men don't feel," Ruby clarified. "I am sayin' they's selfish. You just said that you hear it kinda often, how men back from the war, but workin' away from home, don't write home as often as they might. Proof. And the reason is what I said: they ain't a-feared they'll die next minute. There's my daddy. He's workin', but he has free days; every one of his Sundays is free. What's he doin'? Whorin', gamblin', drinkin', and playin' his fiddle. Could be writin' to me and you, but he ain't about to get killt and he knows we know that, so writin' to us is just a chore he'd rather not do. That is selfish. Men ain't like us women. Not one bit like us."

Ada nodded in reply but made no other answer. Ruby got up from her chair and Ada's leaning on the table put them at eye-level.

"I'd write you, if'n I went away," Ruby stated, with a small determined nod.

"Are you planning on going away?" Ada said, and she was smiling, amused.

"No. Just sayin'."

"Needn't have been said."

"Nice to say it anyhow," Ruby muttered a confession, her cheeks pinking. Ada chuckled and managed to land a lightning-quick peck to Ruby's cheek. Ruby wrinkled her nose. "Ugh... You are impossible. I'll get at those dishes. Go take your nap. Shoo!"

Ada used to argue about that nap, and Ruby used to let her win, but over the last month or so the arguments had become less as Ada had found herself yawning at almost every utterance of the word 'nap.'

Upstairs she took off her boots and lay down. Flat on her back was no longer comfortable, but she always started out that way to ease the ache in her hips and lower back.

She thought about what Ruby had said, and wondered if Inman would have written to her had he lived and gone off to help repair damage done by the war. Ada supposed that a distinction needed to be made between men like Inman (rather desperately in love) and men who'd been married a while, or were sons, brothers, and uncles. She was certain that a good many men were, at that moment, writing their sweethearts, but that was still a case of men writing because it suited them.

Ada knew without doubt that she would continue to write to Stobrod and the Georgia boy, even if they never wrote back. To cease that bit of reaching out was an idea that simply didn't come to her; it never entered her head. She cared about the two men, worried about them, was fond of them both. Writing them to tell them bits of news about the farm and the town was a small task she and Ruby undertook without need of goading or even minor reminding: they wrote every Sunday afternoon without fail, and without thought for themselves.

She had written countless letters to Inman, because she had known that any letter he received would be of help to him. Certainly, those letters had helped her to feel connected to him, but her first thought, always, had been for his welfare. And he said that he had written when he could, though she'd received none of those letters... Ada frowned as words slipped from the recesses of memory into present mind: Inman had said, 'How could I write to you after what I done, what I seen?'

Ada shut her eyes against bitter tears. He hadn't written to her; he had only thought about writing to her. The half-truth told then bit like a snake now. She had a choice– lance the bite and suck out the venom, or let it alone to rankle and spread. Now considered, she knew that the truth wouldn't hide itself from her, but she made her choice.

He hadn't once stopped thinking about her, and thinking about Ada Monroe had been what had brought Inman home.

Ada smoothed her hands over her taut belly. The baby kicked, and she smiled.

*-*-*

Ruby wondered why she'd woken up. It couldn't be anywhere close to five-thirty. She rolled over and her hand felt around in the pitch dark. It landed eventually on Ada's arm.

"Did I wake you?" Ada asked softly.

"Maybe," Ruby said and yawned. "Can't sleep?"

"I doze off, then wake. I'm all right, Ruby."

"Mmm. C'mere."

Ada got as close as her belly would allow, nestling her head on Ruby's chest and unabashedly laying a leg across her thighs. Worked every time– Ada dropped off to sleep in about a minute. Ruby rested her cheek against the top of Ada's head and her left hand kept on rubbing gentle circles on her back.

She could get used to this, she decided; she could get used to it and never want to give it up. Ruby thought on that for a while and realized that she didn't have to give it up, unless Ada took up with a man, or Ruby herself did. It was everything she could do not to snort aloud at that last thought. Which man? He'd have to be some amazing kind of man for Ruby to want him. Well, she might want him, but not for good.

Stobrod and the Georgia boy were visiting for a week. Georgia had made eyes at Ruby bare hours ago. She thought that a couple of wild nights with him might be fun; that might actually have been all he was after. More than that? Ruby wasn't interested. And she'd become even more territorial. The men were sleeping out in the barn, for appearances' sake... supposedly. It was more like putting them both in their place and keeping them there. Black Cove belonged to Ada, but here Ruby was boss (which Ada liked just fine). She wouldn't take nonsense from any man, especially none from her father, and certainly none from Georgia.

And what kind of fellow refused to tell a body his given name? Stobrod had confessed that even he didn't know it. He surmised, though, that it might be something Georgia-awful, like Willy-Bob, or Bible-awful, like Ozias. Anyway, Stobrod had said, it didn't matter because 'Georgia' suited the boy all right. Ruby supposed that it did, but not knowing the young man's name, and being told by that young man that he'd never tell, was something that sat wrong with Ruby. So much was held in a name. If anyone knew Ruby, they'd say, 'That Ruby Thewes... Not much she can't do, and if you holler for help, she'll come running.' That was a thing to be a little proud of. So far all anyone knew about Georgia amounted to the fact that he could sing and play that mandolin of his, and he'd work if pushed to it.

That thought settled it all for Ruby. If ever she took up with a man, he'd better be able to work, and like it...

But, no! Not even that was enough, not when she knew that marrying a man resulted in whatever she owned becoming his, by right of law, and even she would be regarded as a possession, as his chattel. That was not fair, not fair at all. Unable to change the law, Ruby had only one other alternative: never marry. That wouldn't be difficult. She wasn't married, and even if she found one day that she wanted a child, children were easy enough to come by.

Ada sighed in her sleep and snuggled closer, and Ruby found herself to be murmuring nothings to her. She gently hugged Ada's shoulders and smiled when Ada's arm tightened around her middle.

*-*-*

"If you'd tol' me four years ago that Ada would bring a baby into this world and be up walkin' next day, I'd a-called you a liar."

Sally Swanger smiled broadly, eyes twinkling and teeth showing (Sally's silent version of a laugh), and she nodded agreement. Ada wasn't up right now; she was asleep, and Sally was minding the baby. She'd played midwife yesterday, and she was staying for a few days to help out generally.

Little Grace Inman was born on September 22nd, 1865, and she was not so little. She was a sturdy baby, and hefty, and Ada had labored for nearly nine hours to bring her out. This morning Ada had carried her child downstairs and Ruby had cradled the little girl while Ada put away a sizable breakfast. She'd come down for lunch, too. The walking hadn't ended there. Ada wanted to be up and about. This probably had to do with the last nearly three weeks of being almost bedridden. She'd struggled with spells of giddiness, general weakness, and awful, awful nausea. Typical, Ada had said– she got it all backwards: morning sickness towards the end of her pregnancy instead at the beginning. After three weeks of that, Ruby could only imagine that walking around felt like a luxury.

Something else felt like a luxury, to Ruby: no more worrying. These last three weeks had been trying, to say the least. She was over-tired because she hadn't been able to get much solid sleep. Sally eyed her and took up her slate and chalk.

"Milk the cows early. Bed early."

"What about—"

Sally waved a hand and put on a stern expression. She wiped the slate to clear it for other words, but Ruby shook her head.

"No, you're right," Ruby said. "Reckon if I don't get good sleep now, and for a while, I'll be too tired to look after lil Grace."

Sally nodded and smiled, cocking her head in the direction of the door. Without another word, Ruby went out to see to the cows.

Some weeks later Ruby was glad she'd acted on Sally's advice. Grace had colic. She also had a very fine pair of lungs. Ruby had to wonder if an old Cherokee remedy would work; she'd heard about it years ago. It couldn't hurt to try. Ada had tried four different kinds of gripe water, including one that had come all the way from Boston, and so far Grace continued to howl.

"What's that?" Ada asked over Grace's yowling.

"Spearmint water, mixed in a lil cow's milk. Figure she'd like that better'n just the water I steeped the leaves in. Try her on a couple spoonfuls," Ruby said and yawned.

Ada sipped from the spoon herself, and her eyebrows arched in surprise: it tasted good; only very mildly minty. She imagined that, chilled in a jar down the well, it would be a rather refreshing drink in warmer weather. She managed to sooth Grace down to whimpers, then touched the teaspoon to her lower lip. The baby's mouth opened almost automatically, and the spoonful of mint milk went down with no fuss at all. Three spoonfuls later, Ruby took the spoon, and they both waited. It didn't take long at all for Grace to drop off to sleep.

"My Lord..." Ada murmured, smiling and very relieved. "Ruby, I love you."

"Mmm," said Ruby, already half-asleep.

*-*-*

Somehow the baby's actual presence made a good deal all right.

The talk in town hadn't been pleasant for the last few months. Ruby had tolerated it from women, mostly because she knew that women only talked. Men who talked mean often followed mean words with mean actions. Billy Leneart had been warned, and that had gotten around. Instead of saying anything, some men had chosen to throw the kind of looks at Ada which said more than words ever could. Ruby didn't trust a one of those men.

She also didn't like talk around town of something called the Klan, the Ku Klux Klan, which was gathering a strong following in Tennessee, doing unspeakable violence against colored folks and anyone who could vaguely be called a carpetbagger. Ruby heard of a fellow called Michaels, just twenty-one, who'd been away at school in England all through the war. On arrival home in Tennessee he'd been set upon, called a carpetbagger, and lynched. Things like that, though happening elsewhere, gave Ruby the willies: she'd said a lot against Jeff Davis during the war; she'd said out loud that he was a spoiler and a scrapper and that he alone was responsible for every death on both sides. It was told that the Klan was in the habit of going after those who'd been vehemently opposed to Jefferson Davis during the war.

Despite all those concerns, Ruby had to smile at a gaggle of women cooing over little Grace Inman. Eventually that knot of females attracted the attention of several men, and not all of them old. The words 'precious' and 'fine baby' came occasionally to Ruby's ears, and she cinched down a full-on grin to just a small one.

"You look pleased with y'self," Andrew Noakes noted. He had a peg leg which didn't stop him from being a damn fine saddler. He might have come home two years ago but had asked to be stationed at Fort Bragg where he'd managed a shop producing gun carriage harness. "I've got that new bridle for you. If you'd care to drop by and collect it?"

"I'll walk along with you." Ruby got Ada's attention and pointed to the saddler's across and a bit up the street. Ada nodded and returned to saying something to Mrs. Schneider. Ruby walked beside Andrew, and said at length, "Amazin', how a baby will get folks to quit bein' idjits."

"I was hoping for that, as was my sister," Andrew said, and held the door open for Ruby.

He nodded to his clerk and Ruby followed him into the workshop at the back of the store. She admired the way he managed to make a limp look like a swagger. Of course, his silver-topped cane helped, but then so did Andrew's natural grace: even the loss of a leg hadn't altered that. She'd known him since she was a girl. Before the war his hair had been glossy black, almost blue-black, but now it was silver-white. That suited him, too, but Ruby regretted the cause of that early greying.

"Ooh..." she exclaimed softly, at first sight of the new bridle. "I didn't ask for—"

"Pressed steel buckles are cheaper than brass, but Ruby, they rust," Andrew chuckled. "No extra charge for the brass buckles. Six dollars, even."

"All right, then," Ruby said bashfully. She got out the cash and paid the price they'd agreed upon a week ago. "Y'know that those steel buckles might make more business for you."

"Quality makes more business," Andrew stated. Then he dropped his voice and said: "I heard Teague's cousin Elias was over in Trentville, and that he's aiming to come this way."

"Shit," Ruby breathed, her heart pounding suddenly.

"My thoughts exactly. But from what I've seen outside, I doubt you'll have much to worry about. Most of the town just fell in love with that child, and everyone knew Inman for a good man. Reverend Monroe is likewise fondly remembered. Miss Ada has made good, with your help. Despite all that negative talk, Ruby, many people much admire her. She could, after all, have simply fled, perhaps caught a train West and gone to California."

"I doubt it entered her head, even when she had silver and jewelry enough to set herself up," Ruby drawled. "She was addle-pated for Inman, and set to wait on him comin' home."

"Precisely," Andrew said pointedly. "That sort of loyalty is not to be belittled."

"Right..." Ruby murmured, her eyes narrowing for a moment. Then quite brightly: "I think I'll go announce Elias's intended visit."

"Somehow I knew you'd take on just that sort of antic," Andrew drawled.

The announcement, when Ruby made it to those gathered around Ada and the baby, was received with frowns. Those frowns were followed by glances at Ada's face. If she was worried, she didn't show it (this had all to do with trusting Ruby; Ada would ask questions later).

"If he wants trouble..." said old Mr. Janic.

"Yeah," growled—of all people!—Billy Leneart. "One leg. One eye... I still got one eye! And both hands. And a gun. If he wants trouble, he can have it."

Ruby twitched away a smile at rumbles of agreement, even from the women in the group. Billy Leneart looked at her sheepishly; the blush coloring his face clashed with his curly red hair. Ruby shrugged: he'd made it all right, with just a few well-meant words. That was way better than 'Sorry.' Little Grace caught hold of one of Billy's large, callused fingers and was not going to let go without a tug-o'-war. He looked mightily perplexed for a moment, then played the game. Everyone laughed and remarked at the child's strength, the clear health in her little pink cheeks and bright eyes. That day, Billy Leneart—of all people!—earned Grace Inman's very first smile, and Ruby gave him a playful and quite gentle whack on the shoulder.

"You still any good at smithin'?"

"I cain't shoe horses no more. Can do most everythin' else, includin' standin' for hours at the forge. Why?" Billy asked.

"Need new barn door hinges."

"I'll come by and see the pattern and size of the old ones."

"When the hinges are made, Ruby, call on me to help hang the doors," said Phil Ogden.

"All right, then... And if y'all don't quit bein' nice, I'm a-gonna wonder what's in yer drinkin' water," Ruby kidded.

"It's time to be nice, and hold to it," Mr. Janic said firmly. "High time. Too much fighting. It's time to smooth out whatever wrinkles and just live quiet."

"Me? I just think it's time to start listenin' to older folks," Phil Ogden said, wagging a finger Janic's way. "We didn't listen, more than four years ago. All us young fellas wantin' that war, like wantin' a party... Was that really us?"

"I got the scars to prove it," Billy muttered.

Ruby, Ada, and the other women could have given in to small urges to say, 'You might have listened to us women, too,' but they didn't. There was no point, and not simply because the war was over and done. They knew that it was just pointless trying to tell a man that a woman had known and still knew better.

"But if Elias Teague comes here, for trouble," Mr. Janic said. "I'll show him my new shotgun. There's no 'making nice' with a wrong-headed man."

On their way home, Ruby kept the pony to a quick walk but didn't allow him to trot. The seat springs on their buckboard were quite hard, and she didn't want the baby to be jounced awake. Ada was quiet, and she wore the kind of expression that told Ruby that she wouldn't have anything to say until she'd thought for a while. That suited Ruby fine‒ she also had a fair bit of thinking to do.

For all the support offered by townsfolk, certain facts still bothered Ruby, first among them being distance: the town of Cold Mountain lay almost two miles away from Black Cove farm. Their nearest neighbor was Sally Swanger, who lived alone. Their next nearest neighbor wasn't one: the Thresher Mill was operational again, but the men there worked only during daylight hours; no-one slept on the property, and it was a large piece of land, nearly three hundred acres, none of it arable. That was the trouble hereabouts, and that was why any piece of arable land was something to covet.

Sally had had no trouble finding crop tenants for her land. Others also part-rented bits of their land. Black Cove was around eighty percent arable but Ruby had chosen to keep a full fifty percent of it free for grazing. Her plans involved running a small beef herd, soon. Sheep were all right but they demanded a lot of attention, and even if their ears were properly notched, if they wandered and mixed in with another flock, it was a tough job to pick out one's vagrant animals. They'd always have a few sheep, but they would not be running a large flock.

As they neared Black Cove, Ruby looked on its southern meadow and could see—as anyone could—why any of the Teagues would want it back. Today the sun was bright and the light came clear out a pale blue, cloudless sky. It was late in the year, almost November, and still those bottom fields were green. Willows arched over one of the three creeks feeding the land, and they made a pretty picture with well-tended fences and the three brown-and-white cows grazing happily. Ruby could see why Elias Teague might do a lot to get Black Cove farm back.

There was no law in this county. The war was over and Governor Vance had his hands full with his part of the Reconstruction. Ruby had no idea when some kind of law and order would be put in place in small counties like theirs. Just today she'd had word of a small but bloody family feud, and how the two sides had just been left to fight it out amongst themselves. A ten-year-old boy had been among those killed. One would think that legal types, hearing of things like that, would rush to put officials in place to curb such violence, but they simply had neither the time nor the resources.

So it was left to good people to do dirty work. That was all it came to– dirty work. No-one would call Ruby a scrapper. She'd thrown a punch or two, had even killed a man, but all of that had been justified. 'Poke me first, then I'll poke you back.' She'd been heard to say that often enough that she hoped most folks believed it. But now she wondered if it might not be necessary to throw the first punch, or in this case, fire the first bullet.

She glanced over her shoulder as they turned into the way up to the house. That long empty road made her uneasy. Looking ahead, up at the distant treeline that marked the start of wild land, made her uneasy, too. There were any number of ways to lay an ambush on this farm.

"I don't like it either," Ada said suddenly.

"Yeah, well..." Ruby muttered. Then: "He might lay for us. It don't matter that the town will lynch him for it. If he hurts us, kills us, maybe... It just won't matter."

"That's my thinking, too... You think he might?" Ada asked.

"There's a lot to want here, and he might want it bad enough."

"We might offer to sell it to him."

"Ada," Ruby said very patiently. "He knows that there ain't no law to speak of. He can offer you a fire-sale price and nothin' more, and you'll have to take it. So yeah, you can let him buy the place, but you won't get not nearly enough to see you and lil Grace through any kinda life."

"That's... unacceptable," Ada said flatly, and her cheeks fired with anger.

"Mmm. And I thought about callin' Daddy and Georgia, but they're both cowards—"

"Ruby!" Ada admonished.

"What?" Ruby snapped. "Ada, you'd better pull the wool away, girl. You're a mother now. You'd best git wise and see what's plain to see. My daddy and that Georgia boy is both cowards. What Teague an' his rabble did to Georgia to get him to talk? It weren't much, Ada Monroe. You or me or Sally? We'd a-died rather'n say a word, and yet Georgia led 'em right to us. So, you think on that: you wanna rely on a man like Georgia when someone might aim a gun at your child?"

"Don't know what I'd do without you," Ada blurted. There was nothing else to say.

"Shoot the bastard y'self, is what. I'm tellin' you now, you see any stranger a-tall, you hold a gun on him and don't dare drop that barrel. If he takes one step near without invite, you put a hole in his chest. Clear?"

"Yes, Ruby," Ada said meekly.

"Good. You think on just one thing: Grace. You think on her and you shoot him dead." Ruby paused and chewed on the inside of her cheek while she mulled on a thought that had dropped in on her out of nothing. Abruptly she said, "We're goin' back to town."

Ada made no comment at all. Ruby worked the reins and the pony walked a wide, slow circle in the field below the house. Back on the drive, she geed him up to a trot, and slowed him to take the corner onto the road. Once on the road, ears pricked, he eagerly broke into a trot of his own accord. He'd turned into a fine asset, an animal fond of effort, and clearly the better choice over a mule they could also have traded for.

All the way to town, Ruby said nothing, and Ada's head was filled with ideas scrapped one after the other: nothing she could think of would make their life a bit safer. And she would never have guessed what Ruby was up to, simply because it was so unlike her.

Ruby Thewes was not one to ask for help, ever. She gave orders regarding things that had to be done, but if ever that was the case, it was simply because she was too busy to do those things herself. Moreover, if she issued an order, she was capable of doing the required task. She did not, for example, have a single word to say when she took a bag of loose dried corn down to the Mill to be ground: she had no idea how to operate the mill. But in that case she was paying for the service.

Payment... Ruby felt in her pocket and nodded to herself. She had enough cash, and payment would make this different. There'd be no need for 'please,' no need, even, to be overly polite. If she paid a man to come to Black Cove to help keep an eye out for Elias Teague, that would not be anything like asking for help or a favor.

She knew exactly who she wanted, too. She'd seen him around since they were both kids, but she'd not had much to do with him. She remembered him sticking up for a smaller boy, once. Ruby thought that might've been when she was around ten or twelve. And he'd been a damn fine soldier, she'd heard. He'd made sergeant, but unlike others he wasn't heard to boast on those stripes. All in all, Ruby liked him, and more so since he'd spoken up this morning.

When they reached town, it wasn't hard to find him. He was staying, as were several other bachelors, in the boarding house where Inman had stayed before going off to war.

"Phil, pack a bag, son," Ruby said, while pressing a ten dollar bill into his hand.

Rangy Phil Ogden looked into Ruby's eyes a while, then nodded, and went wordlessly upstairs to his room. Ruby waited in the common room and looked out through the door. Ada still sat the buckboard seat where she was talking softly to the baby, and beyond her lay the logging road that might one day be busy again. A light touch to Ruby's shoulder announced Phil's return, and they walked out together. He got into the bed of the buckboard and used his warbag as a cushion for his elbow. Out came his harmonica, but he played it one-handed. His right hand never left the workings of the shiny new Henry rifle resting on his thigh.

*-*-*

Appearances be damned, Phil slept in the house. This was necessary because if it came to a fight with Elias Teague, and whoever he brought along, they'd all three decided that the house was their spot from which to make a stand. To that end some temporary defense measures had been knocked together for easy installation.

The daylight rule was, the last person upstairs had to go around to all the windows, slide up the glass, and then put in place the casement barricades. These were boards nailed together, with rifle slots cut in them. Next to each window was a basket of wooden wedges and a mallet. Knocking the wedges in at the edges of the boards held the barricade snugly in the casement. Placing each one was the work of only two minutes, or less if the window was small. During the day, every other window downstairs was permanently barricaded, simply because there were so many downstairs.

At night, everything was boarded up, and Ada, Ruby, and Phil took turns to stand two-hour watches.

Phil had been with them only three days when he took the buckboard, was gone about five hours, and on his return he wasn't alone. The first thing Ruby did with his companion was give him a bath.

"Where did you get this mutt?" she chuckled. The dog seemed to enjoy his bath, even though the air was cold, and kept aiming a lick at her chin every chance he got. "Will you quit? My Lord... Lookit 'em fleas all drownin'. Ada, cut up about four big lemons and steep 'em in boilin' water, please."

"All right. Does that help for the fleas?"

"Chases 'em more'n kills 'em," Phil said. "But it's gettin' colder'n'colder. We get rid of this vermin? They might not come back till summer. And I got him off Mitchell Chambers, over near the Billet Sidin'."

"Oh, him," Ruby drawled while using an old pitcher to rinse the dog off. "Yeah, he's always got dogs, cos he's forever takin' in any ol' cur that wanders around... Nice enough fella, though... And never mind fleas in the water. Lookit the color of it!"

"More to the point," Ada said, carefully handling a pail of steaming lemon water. "Look at the color of the dog."

"Well, I'll be..." Phil muttered and bust out laughing.

A nearly black dog had gone into the tin tub, and now a wet red one stood in said tub. Ruby drew back and squinted at the dog.

"He's a Irish terrier!"

"Surely looks that way," Ada said, amazed.

The three humans changed out the dirty water, and warmed clean water with the hot pail of lemon-scented stuff. The dog pricked wet ears at a slice of lemon as it floated by and wagged his short curved tail. In short order he was named Jack, and began answering to the name even before he'd been dried off. Ruby draped the old blankets they'd used to dry him over the back porch rail. She liked the fact that Jack had chosen to attach himself to Ada, who introduced him to little Grace without any concern whatsoever.

"Why didn't you have a dog here when your daddy was alive?" Ruby asked.

"Our dog died just before we left Charleston. Broke both our hearts to lose him. He was an Airedale terrier, and we wanted another, never realizing how hard it would be to get one out here." Ada ruffled the wiry hair on Jack's head and smiled. "Good to have a dog again... But I suppose he's yours, Phil."

"Uh-uh. He's yours," Phil said. His hands were almost absently busy with a saddler's needle and thick waxed thread. He'd found some spare harness straps in the barn, and an old brass buckle. Ruby fetched a mallet and the hole punch that lived in a kitchen drawer, to save it going missing. Jack was skinny but would put on weight, so Phil punched a line of holes to make for easy adjustment. The dog stood stock-still while the collar was buckled in place then skipped a tight circle and gave a soft, clearly happy bark. "Well, ain't he pleased with hisself. Gotta say, he's fine to look at."

"He'll look better with more meat on his ribs. Let's feed this puppy," Ruby said.

Jack had been acquired as a watchdog, but his arrival provided no small amount of relief, however temporary, to their current worrying situation. He proved his worth within only two hours of arrival, growling when Sally Swanger was still out on the driveway, some sixty yards from the house. Later his sharp ears and sharper ratting skills took care of the mouse in the pantry, suggesting to Phil that it was time to take Jack into the barn. The dog worked for an hour and caught eleven rats, but he didn't so much as sniff at the hens, and though they paid him attention, they clearly didn't feel the need to get out of their laying boxes.

"Reckon those rats bugged 'em more than Jack ever will, and they know it," Phil noted.

"Maybe. What's causin' me no small wonder, though, is that he went rattin' after that big lunch we fed him," Ruby said. "Think maybe he got trained proper-like as a ratter, then ran off?"

"He brought me all them rats, and that says, yep, he's trained to it. Look there, how he's ignorin' the carcasses: he don't see rats as food."

"Mister Mystery Mutt," Ruby said, petting Jack. "I sure hope someone ain't missin' you, cos we ain't givin' ya back, no-sir. I'll take him out when next I hunt, see what he's like. Might be useless at it... Speakin' of huntin': given the damn weather's closin' in, good thing I laid in all that venison over the last three—"

"Laid in? Where's it at?" Phil said, clearly surprised.

"Ya mean to tell me you ain't sniffed out our smokehouse?" Ruby laughed. "I tended the chip pot just this mornin'. Go round back of the house and open the cellar doors to the right of the porch steps. The cinch chimney is hid nice'n'neat under the house. Take this red-dog with ya and cut him a bit of somethin'. He earned it... And you'll need a lantern... And don't let too much of my smoke out!"

"Yes, ma'am," Phil chortled.

He wasn't a chatty man by nature, but Phil was unusually quiet that evening. The two women didn't ask him about that, but Ada was curious. Once she'd settled Grace in her crib, she got into bed and she spoke her mind. Ruby promptly got the giggles.

In truth, Ruby had been trying to stave off those giggles since before milking time that evening. It was too much like work to hold them in now, and moreover, she didn't have to: Phil was on watch downstairs and was unlikely to hear her. Ada had a fair bit of prodding to do to get Ruby to explain herself.

"The smokehouse is purty well stocked, ain't it?"

"Well, there's room for more but—Oh. Oh dear..." Ada said, and chewed away her smile. She eventually jammed her face in a pillow to stifle hard laughter.

Ruby grinned and laced her fingers behind her head– the very image of smugness.

Their smokehouse was stocked with the jointed carcasses of eight big bucks and four hogs, and there were strings of sausages, hams, flitches of bacon, and Ruby's experimental racks of jerked beef: she imagined that it would taste grand smoked dry instead of just air-dried. That smokehouse was proof to any man that he was mostly just a guest at Black Cove farm. Another ego dent was to be found next door to the smokehouse: the root cellar proper was packed out with potatoes, onions, carrots, squash and pumpkin, several varieties of dried beans, hundreds of apples that were wrinkling as they dried, and a full bushel of nuts that had been collected off of bushes and trees that grew either wild or on the farm. Their three cows gave more milk than they could drink: several large rounds of wax-coated cheese sat on shelves. There were also over a hundred jars of preserves and jams and pickles, and precisely twenty jars of wild honey. Store-bought 'luxuries' in that cellar included cans of corned beef and baked beans, sacks of flour, oatmeal, salt, and sugar, and roasted coffee beans. And added to all that, their corn crib was almost overflowing this year.

"We're about set for winter," Ruby chuckled. "And we ain't had no man to help out."

"Worse for poor Phil," Ada commented seriously. "He has to know you did most of the work alone, while I was stuck being pregnant... Ruby, I think one child is enough. I am enjoying getting back to work, enjoying being tired for good cause... One child is enough."

"If you meet up with some fella you like, he might want kids of his own," Ruby pointed out reasonably.

"And I should just be his broodmare?" Ada said indignantly.

"I didn't say that. How're you gonna manage it? There's you and Inman for proof– one night was all it took."

"You're no virgin. How have you managed it?" Ada asked.

"My monthlies is reg'lar as clockwork," Ruby said and hunched a shoulder. "The week directly before 'em is, uhh, open season. The Cherokee worked all that out, but a lot of Yankee doctors know it, too. This side of Maryland? Forgettit. Ain't no doctor will tell you a dang thing. You just gotta spread 'em for your man and put up with ten kids."

"That is an obtuse view," Ada said irritably. "Especially now, when so few can afford more children."

"Ada, ain't no Southern doctor gonna meddle with his brothers' divine right to sire umpteen offspring. Haven't you heard? We mighta won the war if there'd been more of us."

"My God..." Ada muttered and gave a helpless little laugh. "Darlin', maybe we should head out West."

"I'd say yes, if I had a guarantee of a twin to Black Cove farm waitin' on us," Ruby chuckled. Then she admitted: "I nearly went out West, once. A fella I knew asked me to go along with him. I thought about it; for nigh on two weeks solid, I couldn't hardly think on anythin' else. Then the thought came in my head that I didn't really care for that man. Goin' with him woulda been like usin' a newborn foal as a packhorse. So I said no, told him to go ahead... He cried. I guess he really loved me."

"I know why he loved you: it's easy to love you," Ada said quietly. "Why didn't you love him?"

"He was one of those fellas who didn't believe that women should do any intelligent talkin'," Ruby muttered. "If he spoke with me about the weather and I read the clouds for rain, he'd switch and talk on somethin' else. If he talked about flowers and I showed him a herb and named its uses, he switched again... He wanted Meek and got me instead, I guess."

"I much prefer you to 'meek'," Ada drawled.

"Cos I pack a smokehouse purty good, Miz 'I'm hungry!'" Ruby joshed.

"Uhh!" Ada swatted Ruby's elbow, and then giggled at the sight of her broad grin. Eventually Ada said, "While the smokehouse and its contents are a very definite advantage, you taught me that being meek and polite—"

"And citified," Ruby interjected.

"—and on the whole a helpless, near useless individual, are none of them admirable traits. If you were to leave, it would surely break my heart, but I could manage on my own. That's thanks to you. So... I thank you."

Ruby flushed slightly and gave a little nod. She already knew every bit of that for truth, though she had to admit that hearing it was nice. It was also good to hear Ada speak with such clear confidence. They were both worried about Elias Teague; other than that, he had no hold here. Ruby had been smart in fetching Phil Ogden into this business, however, those casement barricades had actually been Ada's idea. It seemed that once she'd settled with the fact that Elias might do them violence, instead of panicking, Ada had simply set her mind to work on dealing with that.

"You're all grown up," Ruby said, smiling.

"Yes, I am," Ada said with no small amount of pride.

*-*-*

The days dragged. Phil forgot the small dent to his pride, regarding the smokehouse and root cellar. He came to admire the two women by another route, however. Those days dragged, and not once did he hear either of them mutter a wish that Elias Teague would hurry up and get here. Phil wished exactly that, but during the war he'd learned not to say it. Tempting fate was for greenhorn, foolhardy boys who lived by empty boasts and called war a game. He kept his thoughts on Elias's tardiness to himself, and he worked on patience with the help of farm chores, and his harmonica or a bit of wood to whittle at set-still time.

And he was building real friendships with both Ada and Ruby, more easily with Ruby at first because he'd been a little shy of Ada. He liked Sally Swanger, too. He'd known her sons quite well, but he'd not spent much time with Sally and the late Esco. On his eighth day at Black Cove, Sally had visited, and then had asked with her slate and chalk for Phil to walk her home. On the way, they'd had a conversation. Sally had told Phil, in bold capital letters:

"DON'T THINK OF SPARKING ADA."

Ada was beautiful, and of course Phil was attracted to her, but he told Sally that he hadn't thought of Ada that way. And Sally had raised her eyebrows. Phil dutifully and honestly mumbled 'Yet', and he'd nodded: he wouldn't spark Ada. He hadn't asked questions, though he'd felt that he could have, that Sally would've answered them.

And somehow, it was just all right not to think of Ada any other way than as a friend. He was a little puzzled by that, until the next day when Ada checked the loads in her Colt Navy 1861, and then proceeded to blow six holes in a bean can. Every time a bullet hit the empty can, it hopped high, and Ada barely waited for the can to hit ground before blasting it again. And more impressive than all that? Ada shot from the hip, not bothering to aim down the barrel.

"Who in hell taught you to do that?" Phil said, laughing.

"Necessity," Ada said with nary a smile. "Not long after we buried Inman, we were in town and a man there, just passing through, was asked if he could shoot the pearl-handled pistol at his belt. He said, 'I can, and from the hip.' A boy asked to see that... and I watched. Then I came home and taught myself."

"She worked at it every day for two weeks. Took me a mite less..." Ruby tossed out another empty can and set it dancing all over. Six shots added up to a fair bit of thunder and powder smoke. Ruby shrugged, pulled a face and said over the echoes, "All right, I guess. That second last shot nearly missed, though."

"Still," Phil mumbled. "That can's more holes with a side-order of tin. Put six forty-fours in a man—"

"Six?" Ruby squawked. "No bastard is worth more'n two, if I'm feeling gen'rous."

"Hard talker, soft walker," Ada chided gently. "You get all upset if a mouse is in pain any longer than it has to be. You'll give whichever bastard his second round... even if it is a waste of good lead."

"That's not funny," Phil said, suddenly angry. "You don't joke about—"

"I'm not joking," Ada stated. "And if you want to know where that vein of ice came from, Philip Ogden, take yourself back in time, put on a dress, and you stay home while all the boys run off to play soldier. And they all came back with the most astounding of revelations: Oh God of my fathers, war is not a game! Am I meant to praise you for simply opening your eyes in the morning? When last I checked, awakenings are personal experiences. Am I meant to praise you?"

"No," Phil murmured. "No, ma'am."

"Too goddamn right," Ada almost snarled. "And don't you dare criticize me for the awakenings forced upon me and every other woman in this land: some men deserve to be killed out of hand, and they are not worth a coup de grace if my aim is less than straight."

"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry," Phil said and meant it.

"Don't apologize. Shoot straight and don't waste any lead," Ada snapped.

Ada stalked off, back to the house where Sally was minding the baby. Phil watched her go, shamelessly wiping the nervous sweat from his stubbly upper lip. It was cold and he felt Ruby's slight warmth as she stepped up next to him. Phil shuffled his feet and wiped his lip again.

"Now I know why Missus Swanger told me not to spark Ada."

"I don't think there's a man alive who's got balls big enough to try sparkin' Ada," Ruby drawled. "Just come to that conclusion, unsurprisingly... This one, too: ain't a man dead who's got 'em big enough, neither. Wouldn't a-lasted twixt her and Inman. Sometimes love and loyalty ain't enough."

"How d'you mean?" Phil asked, interested.

"He wanted the Ada he met fresh outa Charleston, but ain't he one of them—one of you all—that just about forced her to become that Ada there, walkin' to the house?"

Phil looked over in time to see Miss Ada Monroe grab an exceptionally large rooster off the porch rail. She swore at it convincingly regarding its ancestry, made a no-nonsense threat about a neck-wringing, and tossed it over the rail, stamping her foot to set the feathery fiend running and flapping away. Phil never did find out why Ruby just about died laughing.

*-*-*

Ruby didn't like the quiet. Coming on to winter the hours after midnight were usually quiet, but right now there was silence. There was always some sound, made by some critter somewhere: cougars, red wolves, foxes, bobcats, owls, raccoons, skunks, weasels—if she had to list every animal that prowled the dark even in heavy snow, she'd be there all night. They were mostly predators, but there might have come the startle-bark of a distant buck, the strange ringing bellow of a rare elk, or the ramble-crash of a wild boar in underbrush somewhere. And their stock was silent, too‒ no snuffling or shifting or snorting sounds came softly from the barn. None of it sat right. She looked down at the dog. Jack was laying down, but his eyes were open and his pricked ears kept moving, a little this way, a little that.

"I think someone's out there, Jack," Ruby murmured.

It was foolish to go out. Not even Phil would've gone out, and he didn't suggest it when Ruby roused him and Ada. And Jack stayed quiet as a mouse, but very alert. They all watched him. More than an hour after Ruby had woken the others, Jack gave a heavy sigh and settled down on his old rug to sleep.

The next night it was Ada who woke Ruby and Phil, and again they spent a tense hour or so watching Jack and listening to the eerie silence beyond the house. Jack repeated his settle-down eventually.

"I couldn't find no sign of anythin'," Ruby muttered while warming milk for them all. "I hunted sign till my eyes were sore yesterday: not a boot print, not one busted twig. Whoever he is, he's smart enough to wear moccasins."

"In this cold?" Ada said. "Good Lord..."

"Riskin' frostbite like that? Tells me he's up to no good," Phil said. He huffed and elbowed Ruby playfully when she stole the skinny cigarette he'd just rolled. While busy with the makings of a second smoke, Phil said, "Might be time to try sell Cap'n Teague's stallion. Whatcha say?"

"If anything will lure the bastard in, it's that horse offered to the highest bidder," Ada said. "I'd rather not lose him, though. He's sired fine foals, and made us good money, too."

"All right, yes. I'm with you there," Phil had to agree. He'd just put his mare to the stallion which was stabled at the Dunn ranch, over the mountain. The Dunn brothers had a reputation for leveling shotguns on any trespasser, and no-one meddled with them in any way. Not even Capt. Teague had tried to press the otherwise peaceful men into going to fight when the war broke out. "You'd a-lost that horse by now, if you'd kept him here."

"You think maybe that's what he was after, whoever was out there?" Ada asked.

"Interestin' way to look at it," Ruby said. She set her smoke in a brass ashtray and fetched the milk, pouring it into tin mugs. "If that's so it means he don't know where the horse is. Means he ain't asked. Means we're in shit."

"Yeah," Phil agreed. "He's not showin' hisself in town, and a safe wager is, that fella out there? That's Elias Teague. Everyone hereabouts knows what he looks like."

"Means he ain't got nothin' but bad plans in mind," Ruby muttered.

"If he doesn't show himself," Ada cottoned to it. "No-one can say for sure that he had anything to do with whatever happens here."

"Gospel," Phil said and nodded slowly. "Possible he's just scoutin'. Possible he'll pay men to come out here and then just ride away. My bet? He won't be with them. He will not risk bein' seen. He'll send a crew."

"If that's so, it'll happen in daylight," Ada reasoned. "Those men can't be locals‒ they might also be seen. If there's an attack, whoever comes will need to see to get here, see to do their worst, and see to get away. A stranger here at night? Why, they'll break a leg—their horses will break legs."

"Well, ain't you the strategist?" Ruby chuckled. "Sound thinkin', Ada."

"I'm in line with that, too," Phil said. "Them comin' on in daylight... Gives us a heap of advantage."

"Do you think they'll fire the house?" Ada asked. That thought, of the house burning and little Grace inside it, was the only one that really frightened her.

"Doubt it," Phil said and yawned. "The idea of rebuildin'? Now? Nope. No-sir. Things are fallin' down without need of burnin', because the men skilled at repair are all dead or maimed. Like as not, the hope is that they'll catch us all at chores and shoot us down."

Ada's blood ran cold. And what of little Grace then? How long would she cry, how long would she lie with her diaper unchanged, how long would she be hungry before someone found her? Or would those men take her? Would they kill the baby, too?

"Maybe we should take Grace over to Sally."

"Sally's close enough to hear the shots. Could be they'll lay for her, too," Ruby said. "Better Sally comes here, Ada. Y'know she can bark a squirrel at fifty, sixty yards? She can. Drop a man? Easy as pie, compared to a bitty fur-ball on a branch. We'll fetch Sally in the mornin'."

"It's already the morning," Ada muttered.

None of them went to sleep because it was best to work out as much as they could now. As Ada had said, the men who'd come for them could not be locals. That would be far too risky: should they not succeed in killing everyone, one or more among the crew might be recognized. It was also unlikely that any of those men would ride by Black Cove in daylight, just to get a look at the place. That left it to Elias to give them a very accurate description of the farm's layout. Ada found out that Elias had actually been born here and had lived here with his grandfather until he was nine. Not much had changed at Black Cove since then, so Elias knew the layout and could probably sketch it in the dirt or on a piece of paper without need of seeing the place again in daylight. He would also know every way onto this farm and every way off of it. The road ended here, but a track continued past the farm and was a reasonably good shortcut to Trentville, a town twice the size of Cold Mountain. It lay nearly thirty miles away by proper road. Using the shortcut and going over a saddle on the mountain cut out eleven of those thirty miles. But it was a horse-only trail. No wheeled vehicle could pass that way. The shortcut trail was, therefore, an extra ace in Elias Teague's deck: he would tell his men to use it and they'd likely feel safe doing so because there was little or no traffic that way, even during daylight. The trail also provided a fast getaway route that would give Elias's crew a considerable head start on anyone aiming to come after them.

"And once you get over that saddle, you pike onto the road-proper," Phil said. "That road's busy, marked with wheel ruts and horse tracks‒ that's where their sign will be lost for good. Unless someone gets a real good look at their horses or their faces, they'll never be caught."

Ada was getting angrier by the minute, and Ruby saw that plain as day. Good, she thought. You get mad, Miz Ada Monroe, and we'll come out of this all right.

*-*-*

Ada was nursing little Grace, and Ruby called that the most peaceful scene in all the world. As she did whenever she could, Ruby was lying propped against pillows, next to Ada. She ought to be asleep, but there was peace enough here to count as sleep. Latched on and suckling strongly, little Grace chose tonight to keep her eyes open, and she switched her view regularly from her mother's face to Ruby's. Her eyes were bright blue, a fine match with the coppery haze of fine baby hair that was rapidly beginning to cover her little head.

"She's growin' so fast," Ruby murmured, stroking Grace's cheek with the back of a forefinger. She smiled when Grace blinked and nuzzled, maintaining the latch to keep right on suckling. "Greedy lil thing‒ that's why you're growin' so fast."

"She'll have teeth all too soon," Ada said quietly, stifling a groan at the thought.

"Teeth..." Ruby said, blinking. "Y'know, you can call me dense, but never once have I thought on that. Ain't pleasant thinkin' on it, so I'll just—Oh! Just you be still..."

Ada kept right on chuckling, mostly because it amazed her that she could still laugh after these five long and very tense days. A thought kept intruding on her, but she kept it in until she'd put Grace down for the night. She washed her breasts, buttoned her nightdress, and crawled in with Ruby.

"Ruby what about after? If Elias doesn't come with his crew, what'll we do about him?"

"Gonna hunt him," Ruby said quietly. It wasn't a pleasant thought to her. She'd discussed it with Phil and they'd agreed that it would be necessary. "Phil and me got it to do, Ada. We'll get someone here to stay with you, likely old man Janic and Andrew Noakes. You like them, trust them, right?"

"I do." Ada swallowed hard and cuddled up closer, hugging Ruby's waist. Anything could happen out there on the mountain. Given the fact that Elias had scouted the farm in the middle of the night, wearing moccasins in the freezing cold, Ada knew that he'd be a formidable opponent, someone who knew this country very well. He wasn't a tenderfoot, and though Ruby and Phil could neither of them be called a tenderfoot, Ada was filled with fear at the thought of them tracking down Elias Teague. Ada whispered: "I lost Inman. Maybe I lost him the day he went off to fight, and maybe that's why it seems easier than the thought of losing you."

Ruby said nothing, just wrapped both arms around Ada and hugged her tight. Ruby loved this farm, and she loved Ada and little Grace, and the two of them and this farm added up to a life Ruby wanted dearly to hold onto. The thought of dying didn't frighten her. It made her mad. She felt Ada shift and she loosened the hug. The lamp hadn't been turned out yet, allowing Ada to get a good look at Ruby's face.

"Well," said Ada, with an eyebrow arched expressively.

"Yeah," Ruby growled. "That Elias Teague's as good as fetched."

*-*-*

Twelve days and nights of waiting on that silence. Everyone was on-edge. Even Sally was grouchy, which was saying something, but she herself was saying nothing‒ hadn't reached for chalk and slate even once in the last two days. Ruby was starting to think that she might as well go hunting Elias before he tried anything. And she, Ada, and Phil had begun to say 'What if...'

What if they were waiting on nothing? What if Elias was a hundred miles away and had decided not to make a move against them at Black Cove? That last was a very discomforting thought, because the word 'yet' seemed to always tack itself on the end: what if Elias had decided only to delay for however long? The wait from the first night Ruby had noticed that silence had thus far been torment. Waiting a year, two would be nothing short of hell. Or worse: they'd forget at some point to be vigilant, and Elias would get the better of them.

"But how can we be sure it was Elias out there those four nights in a row, and one night three days ago?"

"Who else, Ada?" Phil snapped.

"Hey!" Ruby warned, giving him a hard look.

"I'm sorry," Phil said and meant it. "But we gotta stop thinkin' too hard on this, or we'll get careless. Cain't be no-one else but Elias Teague, cos there ain't no-one else interested in this place."

"Boils down to that," Ruby agreed.

Ada nodded and made no further comment. She supposed her doubts arose from a fervent wish for this business simply to be over and done. She felt herself to be at the ragged edge. They all had to get on with the farm work, but every moment outdoors put each of them at risk. Ada never left the house without whispering love and goodbyes to little Grace and Sally. This was no way to live.

Before getting into bed that night Ada checked the loads in her pistol, the hammer at half-cock to allow the cylinder to spin free. Her fingertip expertly turned the cylinder while the pad of her thumb made certain that each percussion cap sat snug. She lowered the hammer to a safety peg between two chambers, and set the pistol at her bedside. She sat a while looking at it. The gun was practically a part of her. She didn't object to that, couldn't hate a simple contraption of steel, brass, and wood, but she hated passionately the current need of that pistol.

"You all right?" Ruby asked sleepily, rolling over in bed.

Ada shook her head. She tried to bite back the tears but they fought their way out. Ruby tugged on her hand, bundled her close, and held her while she sobbed. Ada wept in a way that made her feel like she couldn't stop, and maybe there was more here than just their current situation.

Nearly a year ago she'd kept much of her grief over Inman to herself, mostly because his loss had not hit her as hard as she'd thought it might. It was easier to let Ruby presume that she'd been crying in private, than to let Ruby know that she wasn't crying as much as she might. She hadn't cried too much for her father either, when he died, but that was different. And now all of this, this tense and endless waiting. It was driving emotion that had lain somewhat dormant in Ada, most of it confusion: why had Inman's loss seemed less than it surely had been? Was it as simple as she'd guessed, not so long ago, that she'd rather much lost him the day he'd left for war?

Ada didn't know about that, but driven to this weeping and feeling it rip her from the inside out, she knew it had more cause than only the tension of the last days. Her thoughts flitted over the pain, and sometimes those thoughts were memories that spiked that pain: finding her father dead; clawing in the dirt for bitter half-seed potatoes; seeing the piano being taken away; waiting every day for letters that never came; touching poor Pangle's frosted and ruined head; and Inman bleeding in the snow. All told, with every trial added in, the last years had been hard, very hard, and now Elias Teague was making it worse.

"Goddamn him," Ada muttered, but she didn't know if she meant Elias, Inman, Capt. Teague, her father, or Jefferson Davis for starting the war. Perhaps she even meant God. "Goddamn him..."

"Just let it all go," Ruby crooned, rocking her.

Ada tightened her grip around Ruby's neck. Ruby who'd just arrived and taken charge and taught Ada so much that she could easily live alone now. She didn't want that, and the thought of Ruby stepping into harm's way, hunting Elias Teague, filled Ada with such intense fear that her sobs abruptly ceased, and she gritted her teeth against nausea.

"If he hurts you," Ada hissed against Ruby's neck. "I swear to God, I will take that old cutlass we found in the attic, and I will cleave him limb from limb."

Ruby didn't know what to say to that. She sure as hell did know that no-one, but no-one had ever cared as much for her as Ada did. Ruby never quite knew what to do about that. She could think of responses that made perfect sense to her, but that likely wouldn't be well received. It had long been a case of either-or. For Ruby the idea of offending Ada was exactly alike to the idea of hurting her on purpose: both wouldn't do their friendship any good. Thing is, that either-or idea had only been that, an idea, and it had never gone beyond the confines of her skull.

It was hard to keep that idea there with Ada practically in her lap, holding on so tight that Solomon's sword would've had a hard time separating them. Harder still when Ada kissed her neck, her ear. Harder yet when she felt that Ada's body was warming rapidly, and her breathing had become shallow and quick. Ruby knew all about it, knew far more than Ada did. She didn't pull away, because she knew that that might hurt Ada more than words, more than steel or lead ever could.

"Think first," Ruby whispered, attempting to be as gentle as possible. "Think. Make your head work, Ada. Try forget what your body wants. I'll never say no if you think on it and tell me you want me still."

As her mind cleared, Ada froze, then tried to pull away but Ruby held her tight. Her eyes squeezed tight shut, face flaming, Ada ceased to struggle and buried her face in Ruby's neck. Her heart wouldn't stop banging; it was still hard to breathe. How had that started? She had no recall. And now... Now there was startlement mixed with all the rest, but the surprise was fading away, and in its place were thoughts foreign to her simply because she'd never encountered them before, or else had passed them by after cursory examination. She loved Ruby, wanted always to be near her, felt it necessary to share even her most private thoughts with Ruby. They shared a life already, and weren't likely to change that life for something else. Ada had no wish to change it, not in the sense that they'd live apart. Change it this way?

It was easy to kiss Ruby in this new way, easy and right. Nothing that comfortable, that simple, that good could be anything other than right. She'd been nervous with Inman to start, but there was none of that nervousness with Ruby. They fumbled at first, then found a rhythm that was so simple, so easy. Ada let herself sink into love, like drowning, and felt as she sank and sank that this new thing wasn't so very new at all.

Later she lay cat-lazy and warm, naked beneath the sheets and blankets, watching Ruby wash and dress.

"When I catch that Elias Teague, I declare, I am gonna wring his neck slow," Ruby muttered, struggling into long johns. "Dammit. After four years I get just two hours before I hafta get up and go wait on a ghost... Shee-it."

"Now I hear the truth. Four years? You've wanted me so long?" Ada chuckled.

"Not exactly. You go to sleep, cos I'll be up to wake you in a bit... Got lots to talk about, I guess."

"Ruby Thewes, that is an understatement of criminal proportions."

"Yeah, well..."

Ruby dashed in and gave Ada a quick kiss, then hurried out the room. Downstairs she relieved Phil, but he didn't seem in a hurry. He always took first and last watch, and with Ada, Ruby, and Sally spelling each other in between, Phil got six hours uninterrupted sleep. He looked at Ruby quizzically.

"You comin' down with somethin'? Your face is red like you got a fever."

"I know I got a burnin' urge to kick the ass of one Elias Teague," Ruby muttered, scowling. "He's curdlin' the milk here in more ways than you can imagine, and more ways than I'll ever tell. Goddamn son'bitchin' bastard..."

"Huh," said Phil. "If he was here now? Ruby, I think he'd take one look at you and run to California. That man has bought hisself the worst kinda trouble."

Ruby made no comment other than to drag the edge of her knife over a whetstone. She'd used it to cut rope and rawhide today and had forgotten to hone it earlier. In the chair across the table, Phil squirmed. Ruby had a new knife, one she'd saved for. Made of Damascus steel, the blade had a drop-point and the edge had a good belly: perfect as a skinner as well as being handy for everything else, including fighting‒ the knife was nearly fourteen inches long. Given that Ruby's hands weren't big, it looked a good deal longer to Phil.

"What? It ain't a Arkansas Toothpick," Ruby chortled.

"It's plenty big enough, though," Phil drawled. Then brightly: "I hope I see Elias's face if ever you show him that blade."

"Not plannin' to," Ruby said. After wiping the blade she homed it in the sheath on her belt, and the next weapon in her hand was her Remington Army. She set the pistol on the table and nodded at it. "He can eat lead, cos that way I won't sully that good Damask blade with his blood."

"I got no quarrel with that argument," Phil grunted and stood. He stretched and said, "G'night, pal."

"You sleep tight," Ruby said, and quite fondly, watching the tall, lean, blond-haired man stroll out of the kitchen. She'd made a firm friend of Phil Ogden, and it wasn't hard for her mind to come up with images of the two of them, much older, arguing over small stuff and talking nonsense. He was an easy-going man, and her gut told her that if he stumbled onto the truth about herself and Ada, it wouldn't make a stranger of him.

Ada. Ruby shut her eyes a moment and fought off a powerful urge to go back upstairs. She was glad that this had happened now, and not sooner. It might have happened years ago, not long after she'd first arrived at Black Cove. That night when Ada had played her piano, and Ruby had hidden on the stairs, watching through the bars of the balustrade– she'd felt it then, but resentfully. She resented neither Ada nor Inman, nor their love; she'd simply resented her lack of love, because she knew how deeply she could care. But until that night she'd never known anyone who seemed a worthy recipient of that caring.

Ada had loved Inman selflessly all those years, and Ruby saw that as evidence of what she called a meet partner. Most of her life had been lived with thoughts related to practicality, but her thoughts about love had been nothing like; her thoughts on love involved wanting someone, anyone, who could match her level of loyalty. If Ada had been a man, Ruby would've felt the same way, and it hadn't and did not matter that Ada was a woman. Thinking on Inman, and his loyalty that had fueled his to return to Ada, Ruby felt certain that she could have loved him easily, too.

Ruby had shared beds with both men and women, more women than men, if she was counting. Women were often harder to deal with: saying goodbye was never easy. She'd not ever felt as she had tonight, though. Tonight the idea of even a moment's parting was like torture. Ada was upstairs, and yet not close enough. All Ruby wanted was to sit and watch her sleep. For the first time in her life, emotion chased desire completely. Just to sit and watch her sleep, and to feel this great welling surge of love: it would be enough.

She'd never know that Inman had expressed similar sentiments to Ada once, but if she had Ruby might only have nodded to herself, and called that information confirmation of her thought that she could easily have loved him, too.

*-*-*

Ruby had said that there was a lot to talk about, and Ada had called that an understatement, but they had been talking for years already. Neither could remember who mentioned this fact, but it reached them in the right way and they ended up, both of them, silent, and they were smiling.

Love isn't ruled by logic. It makes up its own rules as it goes along, and those rules are dependent, often, on the individuals involved in the relationship. For Ada and Ruby, talking happened every day, it always had. And when they did speak of their love, using small phrases bearing heavy emphasis, the echoes of those words reached back in time to the day Ruby had arrived at Black Cove, and the both of them knew that those echoes traveled ahead of them, to a time they had yet to see.

All their years of conversation, all their years of talking, and listening, had led them to this love. It was quiet and strong and deep and fearless. It would demand little of them, save a simple continuation of their life together, and—in future—a good many hours spent passionately engaged.

"I gotta remind myself not to go catch hold of Elias Teague just to rattle his teeth loose while I tell the bastard, 'I gotta go on watch or go to sleep instead of makin' love, and that's your fault!'"

Ada bit her lip against giggles. Three nights in a row, it had been like this: Ruby had caught sight of the carriage clock at her bedside, and had leapt out of bed. And Ada couldn't but find Ruby's muttering and ranting amusing. Ada felt less inconvenienced, though she didn't quite know why, until their watches changed, and she was the one who had to leap out of bed.

"Shit," she snapped.

Ruby snorted laughter and hid her face in the pillow. At the washstand, Ada planted her hands on her hips.

"Did you once hear me laugh at—"

"No," Ruby chortled. "But I saw you workin' real hard not to. Same thing. Hurry up or Phil will come knock on the door."

Ada stuck her tongue out at Ruby, then made all possible haste.

Alone in the kitchen, Ada found that she had space for a bit of introspection. She'd been brought up in religion, and was well-educated in the appearances of sin, but for the last few days Ada had puzzled over her inability to look at her love for Ruby and call it Sin. She hadn't asked any questions that first night, save those that had led to murmurs of 'Yes' and 'Please' and 'More.' Ada smirked at those thoughts, then remembered what she was supposed to be thinking about and straightened her face.

Her late father the Reverend Monroe probably wouldn't have approved, but Ada's thoughts didn't go there. She wouldn't allow them to wander that way because enforced practicality had caused her to see the world plainly– her father was dead, and his opinion didn't count. She might count, occasionally, on her certainty that he would have been proud of her, but that was different. That was a very different species of thought to those she was attempting to cultivate now, thoughts that had all to do with Ada, and the type of woman she'd become.

Ada had realized some time ago that there were things more important than religion, more important than one's belief in God, and there were things a lot more important than going to church on Sundays. If a new preacher arrived in Cold Mountain, Ada would not be rushing to join his congregation, and she wouldn't tolerate him dropping by with the intention of delivering a sermon while she sat still. She wouldn't mind listening to him if he followed her around... This thought would not translate to a mental picture. Ada snorted a quiet laugh, but then abruptly stilled and blinked before her eyebrows shot up in surprise.

The other night everything had felt so right, and that feeling of rightness had persisted even when Ruby had been quick this afternoon, making it short and sharp but beautiful, against their bedroom door. It was all right, every bit of it, including Ada's persistent desire for more than they could have right now.

But this was supposedly how men thought. Ada had overheard other women talking, had sometimes been included in their gossip, and they'd led her to believe that only men thought this way about sexual relations. Who gave them that monopoly?

And expecting a man to follow her around? Ada's eyebrows arched up again, and a slow smile crossed her features. If any man wanted to talk to her while she was busy, he'd need to both follow her around and keep out of her way, because honestly, why the hell should she drop everything just to listen attentively to him?

Ada knew all the Bible verses, and in her mind she heard those verses quoted by women she knew in the town, particularly Ephesians 5:22 – "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord."

"Like hell..." Ada growled. She wasn't about to 'submit' to anyone, not even Ruby. Ada's every instinct told her that if ever she 'lay back and took it', Ruby would probably recoil in horror. And what was that about? It had not simply to do with love and equality in love, no, nor was it about being fair. It was about respect. Even against the door this afternoon, Ruby was respectful. If Ada had uttered a single word of objection or complaint, Ruby would have backed up. Ruby would have been the one to submit.

Ada's thoughts would not have traveled that particular path even a year ago, when she was dreaming of marrying Inman some day. When he'd died, before his body had cooled she had known that no other man would ever draw her as he had, and she'd decided then and there never to marry another. It had been something solid, immovable, certain; she had not doubted that decision even once. But those thoughts of marriage had included tandem thoughts of men.

There had been clues here and there, in the last years with Ruby. Honest as sunshine, Ruby would've answered plainly if Ada had asked. Right now she couldn't think why she hadn't, but it no longer mattered. There had been clues, and Ada was far from stupid. She knew about men who preferred men, and it had stood to reason that some women preferred women. It also stood to reason that it was possible to be physically attracted to both men and women, as Ruby was. Ada herself was almost convinced that she'd never again look at a man and call him handsome because she felt that same pull that Inman had commanded. Ruby also commanded that pull; she had from mere weeks after her arrival. Ada hadn't thought much of that until very recently. She hadn't really noticed how it pleased her to look upon Ruby, and to watch her when she moved. Aware now, Ada called that attraction, and was comfortable with it, like an old friend.

There could be nothing wrong with this, nothing at all wrong with attraction and desire and all that love based in deepest respect, each for the other. Ada didn't care about what anyone else would have to say about it, and she knew that Ruby wouldn't give a damn either. Ada had grown into a woman who knew her worth, and she had come to this place by learning to tell what was important from what was not. No matter what the Bible said, no matter how those words were interpreted in the form of religion that dictated to the daily ways of those around her, Ada was firmly of the belief that if God was love, He'd have no trouble recognizing it here in this house.

But He would stay right out of her bedroom, or she'd have no trouble aiming a gun even at Him.

*-*-*

Jack growled, but didn't bark. Phil came out onto the porch and bent to pet down Jack's raised hackles. The dog was bristly as a porcupine, and Phil was confused until he heard it, too: the distant thunder of hoof beats.

Ruby straightened from her work at mending a water trough, and the first thought in her head was that no-one could be that stupid. She reached for her rifle and waved a signal at Phil, over on the porch. He nodded and ducked into the house to tell Sally and Ada not to fire until the whole crew had arrived.

Best to wait on them. Best to get them all.

Phil whistled Jack inside, where Ada shut him in the pantry. Upstairs Sally laid Grace carefully in a wicker cradle that she set against an internal wall, where there was no chance of a stray bullet or ricochet hitting her. She pinched bits of cotton wool and gently pushed them into the baby's ears, then took up a Henry rifle in a calm and businesslike way. Sally also prayed for the souls on their way to hell, though they didn't deserve it. In another room, Ada wasn't wasting time on prayers. She took her rifle and pistol up to the attic, where a door led onto the roof.

Time to end this.

Outdoors Ruby was waiting, waiting till the last moment before diving down next to that trough. She cussed at the thought of her careful caulking possibly being shot to hell, but better the caulking than her hide. To all intents and purposes, Ruby Thewes was the bait. This didn't frighten her. She knew men, she knew the kind of men these were: bullies, one and all. They'd see her and come in close, hoping to scare her because that's what they liked best in all the world‒ scaring folks. Hurting them came a close second. Fear first, pain next.

"Come on," Ruby muttered, watching the trail beyond the end of the road. Watching, and hoping like hell to see Elias Teague riding alongside whichever rat-bastards he'd hired. "C'mon, you son'bitches..."

It didn't take long for six men on sweated horses to round a low knoll and hove into sight. As she'd guessed, when they saw her they spurred their horses, urging them to come on faster. Ruby cussed bitterly when she saw Elias wasn't with them. And then she shrugged, feeling strangely relaxed: she'd get him later.

She held her ground, then started walking backwards towards the trough. The men spurred their mounts up the drive, pelting straight for her. One of them, a man on a pretty grey, leveled a sawed-off shotgun at her. Gunfire from the house: he suddenly tumbled from the saddle and he hit the dirt in a jumble of limbs, to be trampled by his own mount. His five companions struggled to get their horses under control, but too late.

Ruby dove behind the trough and chose to use her pistol rather than the rifle. Her first shot took half a man's head away, and other shots were flying, knocking men out of saddles. Ruby's second shot took down a man who'd had the presence of mind to aim his rifle at the porch. He'd gotten that shot off before he went down.

And it was suddenly all over. The air was rank with the smell of cordite, blood, and horse droppings. Panicked horses were running around the house paddock, their breath steaming with each whicker and squeal, and over that noise came a few weak groans and the thin, distant sound of little Grace's scared wailing.

Ruby got up, rifle in hand, held at the ready.

"Sing out!" she hollered.

"Me and Sally are all right!" Ada yelled.

"I got a burn," Phil said, while wrapping a neckerchief around his thigh. A bullet had grazed him, nothing serious. He stepped off the porch and asked, "You all right?"

"Just fine," Ruby said. "Don't think any of these fools will live, though."

She walked among the bodies, living and dead, taking and tossing weapons out of reach. Four were dead; two were alive.

"This one will be gone in minutes, and he don't know nothin' about it," Phil said of an unconscious man who was bleeding profusely. Of the second man, also out cold, he said, "That fella? Might be hours, a day, two. I seen men hurt worse'n him last four days on a battlefield. And I mean, if he gets a doctor, he might live."

"And if he lives, maybe he'll tell us who hired him? That's my kinda wager! I'll ride for Doc Haggerty," Ruby said, making for the knot of panicked horses. "Y'all get him inside. And batten up them windows!"

Ruby caught up one of the horses, calmed it briefly, then stepped into leather. She was gone before anyone could say a word against it. Ada looked around at the carnage and shook her head.

"Terrible, when you can't tell which man you laid low," she said, feeling slightly sick. "I feel as if I ought to know."

"Take it from me," Phil said, as he laid a broad plank down next to the wounded man. "It's enough to know you did it. Knowing who took your lead? That ain't near as important as standin' up and countin' the fact that you did it."

Ada nodded and helped Phil to get the wounded man onto the plank.

Out on the road, Ruby was keeping the horse to a steady canter. She had to wonder, given that the animal and its friends were sweated up, how far those six men had come. It was cold, bitter cold, almost December, and for horses to sweat up on a day like today, they had to have been ridden hard for at least fifteen miles. They'd come from Trentville, then, or close to it.

Had Elias Teague seen them this morning before they'd set out? He hadn't come along for the ride and the fun. None of those six bloodied and dead men were Elias Teague: Ruby had double-checked on that. Elias had yellow-blond hair, and all those men were dark or red-headed. A sudden, nasty thought dropped into Ruby's mind: what if Elias had been smart enough to go pay a visit to some respected soul in Trentville, while his crew had come here to wreak havoc?

"Oh Lord. Let not thine son'bitch child die yet," Ruby prayed. "Gittup, horse. C'mon."

She needed that doctor, hoped like hell he was available. Elias's alibi wouldn't be worth spit if the doc could save that wounded man.

In town Ruby soon had several folks rushing around to help her. She was loaned a fresh mount, and Dr. Haggerty chose to ride as well, rather than drive his buggy. Mr. Janic and Andrew Noakes decided to follow at a slower pace in a buckboard. If the man survived, they'd be on hand for the next few days, ostensibly to witness whatever statements he might make.

"I hope he lives and talks," Janic said. "Did you hear what Ruby told me?"

"I did, and if I had both legs I'd be among those who'd help her," Andrew stated.

"But if Elias is in Trentville, what will she do‒ bash down his door, drag him outside, and lynch him? I really don't think he'll run, simply because if he does, it'll make him look guilty."

"If that man lives and makes a sworn statement, Elias may as well run. And I doubt he's in Trentville. He's somewhere on that mountain... Did you bring a gun, Gustav?"

"Under my coat, and my shotgun is in the bed behind us," Janic said, nodding. "It's been a long time since I hunted a man."

"You hunted that bear that was killing dogs. Mind that? I've never heard or seen the like before or since."

"Bears are smart, and dogs aren't so smart, sometimes," Janic said. "Easy food‒ a dog that runs in, snapping and snarling. Bear just smacks him, and there's a meal that sort of delivered itself. Much easier than hunting, much easier than foraging. But he knew the sounds a hunting pack made. That bear knew a lot of things, and I just worked out what he knew about me, so that I could get him before he knew I was coming... We must ask ourselves: what does Elias Teague know about us? Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"I think so," Andrew muttered.

*-*-*

The wounded man was helped further away from consciousness by chloroform, while Dr. Haggerty removed the bullet lodged between his ribs. Somehow that bullet hadn't damaged his lung, but on the way to its resting spot between two cracked ribs it had broken his shoulder blade. Sally Swanger claimed credit for the shot and was now, ironically, nursing the man who'd regained consciousness about an hour ago. By now it was dark out. Ruby had just come in from tending to the cows.

"Your head clear?" Ruby demanded as she entered the room where their prisoner was being kept. "Just say no if it ain't, cos you need to listen and comprehend."

"I'm all right, ma'am," the man croaked.

"Good. You got three choices. Number one– you can say nothin' and we can get you all well'n'better, just so's we can hang ya. Number two– you can lie to us, and we'll get you all well'n'better just so's I can shoot you again. Number three– you can talk, tell the truth, and we'll get you mostly well'n'better so that you, sir, can just walk away. Which will it be?"

"The third one, number three," he said, rather much in a hurry.

"Good!" Ruby said. "Who sent you and those other dead assholes?"

"Don't know his name. Only Curry knew his name. Curry's the man who got shot first."

"Well, what's that fella look like?" Ruby muttered, deeply disappointed.

"Tall, skinny. He's handsome enough that most women would be mad for him, I guess. He's got blond hair—"

"D'you remember the color of his eyes?" Andrew Noakes asked.

"Yeah," the man said, blinking and frowning. "Now you mention it: strange. You get fair hair and blue eyes, sometimes brown eyes. His eyes are dark, real dark. They're almost black. He reminded me of someone I knew from Saint Louis, fella by the name of Jonathan Teague-Russel."

"If I recall," Mr. Janic said. "Teague-Russel is a general merchant of fine standing."

"Yes, sir. A real gentleman," the man said. He added ruefully, "I think Mister Teague-Russel's a fair side smarter than that fella who hired us."

"Don't complain," Ruby snapped. "You was the idjit who took pay from a fool. What's your name anyhow?"

"Joe Danvers, ma'am."

"Thanks. Cain't warn a man proper without his name. Joe Danvers, the only reason you're still breathin' is cos I rode like the devil to fetch the Doc. You cause any more trouble here, and you will be shot out of hand. Got me?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Ruby strode from the room, with Andrew following, leaving Mr. Janic to guard their prisoner. Janic had been rolling a couple of smokes. He gave one to Danvers and held a match for him, then made use of the light himself. He waved out the match, set it in an ashtray, and rubbed briefly at his short, curly grey beard. He didn't let his amusement at Danvers' expression show. Mr. Janic was a patient man but he knew he wouldn't have long to wait.

"Sir, who is that?" Danvers asked at length.

"Ruby Thewes," Gustav Janic said lightly.

Danvers paled and gulped. That smoke suddenly tasted just awful, but he took another drag anyway. He'd heard about Ruby Thewes, heard she'd taken down a Home Guard man with Capt. Teague... Oh. Danvers dragged harder on the cigarette and wished it was a shot of whiskey.

"She called me an idiot. Sir, I am not. If I'd known that skinny blond fella is called Teague, I wouldn't be here now. I'm from out near Wilmington, and I know who Ruby Thewes is."

"And now you are, most unfortunately, more closely acquainted. I can leave you alone, can't I?"

Janic took a hasty nod for answer, and he strolled from the room, leaving the door wide open. Joe Danvers would be the very image of good behavior, Mr. Janic was sure.

As Janic said later to Andrew, most men—even good men—find the fact that a woman has killed, a terrifying thought. As of today, Ruby had killed three times, and well Danvers knew it. More to the point, he might have been one of those five men lying in new, cold graves. They'd have no trouble from him at all.

*-*-*

The talk after dinner revolved around what was to be done about Elias Teague. The idea of hunting him had not been set aside, but it needed to be refined. Logic said that the man was somewhere watching Black Cove farm, perhaps not all the time, but he was watching. He'd been watching for quite some time. He knew a lot about the way things worked here. He expected the cows to be milked at six in the morning and four in the afternoon, for example, and if they weren't he'd become suspicious. And he was already nervous. By now he knew that his six men had been taken down. He might even know that one had survived. With that thought in mind, it was generally decided that Ruby and Phil wouldn't go after him just yet. After all, there was a chance that Elias might try to sneak in and do away with Joe Danvers. The man didn't know Elias's name, but he knew his face, and that would not be a comfortable thought for Elias Teague.

And they all knew better than to think Elias would give up his intentions on Black Cove farm. A man who would pay men to commit murder was a man hell-bent on getting what he wanted. He might hire more men. He might instead use a rifle to kill from a distance. There was no defense against a good sniper.

"We got any idea what he did during the war?" Phil asked.

"That information is sketchy," Janic said. "I have tried to find out and what I've heard most often is that he didn't fight at all, that he was 'otherwise occupied', as one man put it, in Texas and New Mexico Territory. We all know what that means."

"Yeah. He was up to no good, thievin' cows," Ruby muttered.

"The term is 'rustling'," Ada teased gently. Ruby was so tired that Ada had to wonder how she could keep her eyes open. "And if he was away down there, can we cross 'sniper' off our list?"

"No, you shouldn't," Andrew said.

"I agree," Dr. Haggerty said. "I'm no field-trained marksman, Miz Ada, but I can knock things down from a goodly distance. Any man is a sniper who can judge distance and shoot accurately, and it would be wise to presume that Elias can shoot... even if he can't. Perhaps especially if he can't, because it never hurts to be careful."

"Sometimes hurts an awful lot not to be," Ruby said. "All right, then. Here's what I think. We give it two days, then me and Phil get some early rest, and sneak out around four in the mornin'. We got it to do, and until then we all got to be careful without makin' it look like we're bein' careful... Ugh. Right. More talk in the mornin'. G'night."

Ruby actually swayed when she stood up, but Ada didn't dare make a move to steady her. She also didn't follow Ruby up immediately. She knew that if she arrived in that bedroom too soon, Ruby would have an excuse to stay awake.

By the time Ada carefully closed their bedroom door, Ruby was fast asleep, and Ada continued to be careful and quiet while feeding Grace and readying for bed. Ruby stirred when Ada settled next to her, and snuggled up immediately.

"Ada?" Ruby mumbled.

"Darlin'?"

"Can you stay awake and wake me round half-past three?"

"All right."

Ada dared not argue. Everyone else would, even Phil, but Ada would not because she could only agree with what Ruby had whispered to her earlier.

It was a very simple plan. Ruby needed to be out of the house from now on. She needed to leave before dawn and only come in after dark, to play riddle piece for Elias. They were certain he was watching, and if he was he would wonder where Ruby had gotten to, why he wasn't seeing her. All she had to do, really, was hide and sit still. All that was needed was to make Elias curious– was she laid up in the house, or was she elsewhere? From curious he'd go on to nervous, and a nervous man makes mistakes.

It had come down to playing the game by Elias's rules. He had played and preyed on their minds for over two weeks‒ creeping around the mountain and the farm at night, making everything stop and listen to him and the silence that followed him. Now it was his turn to wonder, and perhaps worry.

"I was borned out on that mountain," Ruby mumbled and yawned. "While his mamma was frettin' over his snotty nose, I was learnin' to tell wolf tracks from fox, just by followin' Daddy all over, helpin' him to set traps and tend his applejack stills. That Elias Teague... Time to rattle his chain..."

"Sleep, love," Ada said gently. "I'll wake you later."

"Mmph," said Ruby, and snored softly.

*-*-*

She liked being out early, and she liked to be alone in the dark and the cold. She knew most of this mountain—all sides of it—as if it were her backyard. In some ways, it was.

They'd have snow soon, she could smell it in the air; in the meanwhile, there was frost. Ruby wasn't crazy enough to wear skinny moccasins, but she'd chosen to wear a pair of well-worn boots with soles thinner than her newer ones. Thinner soles helped her to feel stones and twigs beneath her feet, helped her to choose her footing more easily. After the initial dashes from building to building and a crouching run along a fence, she stepped lightly through cold-stripped saplings, heading unerringly for a shallow cave in a gully, a place that Elias would probably steer clear of. It was the perfect spot for a bear's winter den, or a cougar's roost, or worse than all of those, a hog nest. Ruby knew that she'd encounter none of those, but even with all his nights prowling around, Elias couldn't know that, simply because he wouldn't have been stupid enough to go and nose around there in the dark. He also wouldn't take the chance of going there during the day: if he encountered a large animal, he might have to shoot it to protect himself, and that shot would give him away.

Ruby knew that a family of hogs had a sleep nest somewhere around this area, but they weren't using the heavy brush at the west end of the gully. Only six or so weeks ago, she'd flushed a cougar out of the cave nearer to the east end, scared the hell out of it with Roman candles and shots fired for good measure. The cat's scent would still be thick and heavy here, though, and that scent had most likely kept both hogs and bears well away. Cougars were like ghosts now, so rarely seen that even super-practical Ruby Thewes didn't have the heart to shoot the one she'd chased. It had taken two sheep, and even that hadn't been enough to earn it a bullet.

Always cautious, she walked into the gully carefully, rifle at the ready. She listened and sniffed the sharp, cold air, and kept walking slowly: nothing stirred. If that cat had come back, by now she would've heard a snarly growl. Satisfied that she was the largest critter in the area, Ruby made her way to the overhang and the shallow cave behind it. She shucked the satchel from her back, took a blanket out of it, and wrapped up before sitting down with her back against the wall of the cave. Under the blanket she took her pistol from the flap-top holster set on her belt near the buckle, angled for a cross-draw, and she held it in her lap. It never paid to be careless, which was why she'd made directly for this cave and would not be wandering around until daylight. She would definitely be taking a walk. Ruby didn't believe in sitting idle.

Back on the farm, Phil had been woken by Sally (on her way to bed after her turn on watch), and he'd found Ada in the kitchen. At first he'd been all for heading out to join Ruby, but he'd had sense enough to hear Ada out. After chewing on it, Phil let a slow grin cross his face.

"I would hate to be Elias. Were I him, I would wanna know where Ruby is, cos most everyone knows she can map that mountain in her sleep. He'll chew his fingernails till they bleed– mark me, he will."

"Ruby said so," Ada said, nodding. Then, quietly, "But she won't just stay in that cave, will she?"

"I wouldn't. She's got a heap of advantage," Phil said. "It ain't only the mountain that she knows. Elias has been away in New Mexico or Texas how long? A man can learn nature's ways, but they ain't the same all over, and ya gotta keep up with the study. He's been away south and west of here, where critters and even the way the wind moves is all different. He's been out there a while, on that mountain, and maybe he's learned again how it speaks. I say? He ain't had enough time to learn how to talk back."

"I don't rightly know what that means," Ada said, frowning.

"Ruby lets everything talk to her, tell her what's what and where. Talkin' back is about bein' part of what's around her, bein' so much a part of it that it's hard to see her, even when you're lookin' right at her. I walked right past her, out there. Right past! She was no more than thirty feet away from me, and I didn't see her. Old Injun trick. Cherokee. No-one by the name of Teague was ever friends with the Cherokee. A bunch of Cherokee kids taught Ruby how to run."

"She didn't learn that herself?" Ada said, mightily confused.

"You ever tried runnin' on that mountainside?" Phil chuckled.

"No, I have not," Ada confessed. "I can barely run up or down a hillside."

"You could if'n you was taught how. Ruby got taught." Phil paused to light his smoke, and he sipped his coffee before saying, "The only way Elias will hurt her, is by aimin' a long shot at her, or by sneakin' up. She won't let him see her, 'less she plans it, Ada, so that long shot is out. That leaves sneakin' up. You ever managed to sneak up on Ruby?"

"No," Ada drawled. "She always knows I'm there... All right. She'll be fine, I suppose."

"Yep. If we hear even one shot today?" Phil said. "Elias Teague will not be fine, not at all."

*-*-*

The sun was up when Ruby moved, but not before she'd taken time to listen to what the mountain had to tell her. Blue jays were especially raucous today, and that meant they were arguing with crows, who tended to keep their opinions to themselves unless squawking at each other. Far in the distance a dog fox barked and his mate answered, the vixen's bark a series of yips: it was possible that they'd separated and had hunted alone, and now were meeting up again. Certainly, they felt safe enough to 'talk.' Foxes had learnt to keep the noise down, or find a man hunting them. If Elias Teague was around, the foxes couldn't sense him. Given how canny they were, Ruby took their conversation to mean that Elias wasn't anywhere there, west and a bit north of her position. She packed away her blanket, hitched on the knapsack, and took up her rifle. She headed east when she left the cave.

A sharp wind had come up, and she liked that. Animals were careful when the wind blew, more so than when the air was still. Sound and scent carried further on the wind, and worse, if that wind should drop, any noise a critter was making would suddenly be heard by whatever and whoever was near enough. Humans, being arrogant, tended to forget things like that. They tended to think that the wind was perfect cover for their racket, their stomping around. Ruby moved quietly even when the wind briefly gusted strong and loud in tree branches, and she paid attention to her skin, waiting for that slight change in temperature that told her the wind was about to drop away to a whisper.

When she walked about on the farm and in town, it was with a businesslike stride, and her aim was to get things done. Out here, now, her stride was more a stalk; she moved like a cat, with her entire being focused on her surroundings. Rather than allow brush branches to catch and snap back after she'd passed them, she moved her body to avoid contact, while still moving forward. If she had no choice but to squeeze by a thicket she used her arm to hold and then slowly release branches. Each step she took started on the outside of her heel, and her foot rolled forward onto the ball before pushing her onwards. That deliberate movement allowed her to feel what was beneath her feet: she could correct her weight and not snap twigs, and make it so that stones weren't knocked loose to rattle away. More importantly, that stride helped Ruby to keep her balance; it helped her to freeze whenever the wind dropped, or whenever she heard a noise that seemed not to be a part of the mountain. And she never walked in straight lines. There was no 'shortest distance between two points' rule up here, especially not today. Ruby followed nature's lines and paths– a barely discernible game trail; the gap between two mountain laurel bushes; around those rocks and under that low branch. She moved with her surroundings, and never against them.

She stopped relying on her eyes to tell her things. Her eyes were fickle, their attention caught by the slightest movement– wind-stirred leaves and birds, mostly, but silly cottontail rabbits and the occasional woodland hopping mouse sometimes took her attention away from the whole, from everything around her. She kept her eyes on a spot six or eight feet ahead, to help with navigation only, and focused her attention on her hearing. Those blue jays were still giving the crows hell, and beyond that noise came smaller sounds, even over the wind. She heard the high whistle of a mink warning an intruder, probably another mink; the peculiar 'Chap-chitter! Chap-chap!' of flying squirrels; the song (such as it was) of a Least flycatcher... Wait.

Ruby stood still and listened intently. Least flycatchers should have all gone south a while back.

"Cherr-cherrbeck. Cherr-cherrbeck..."

And the whistle of the mink again, then the bird song: somebody was trying to get her attention, and she knew only one person who could mock a flycatcher.

"Stobrod Thewes..." Ruby breathed.

She turned her head, trying to pinpoint the sound. He was being smart. That whirring flycatcher song could be missed by just about anyone. It could be mistaken for something else, but only until a shrill 'Wheet!' accompanied it, then anyone would know the bird for a flycatcher... which was, at present, supposed to be sunning itself in a warmer spot than North Carolina. Stobrod was a good mimic, and he was smart enough to mix the mink whistle with the bird song. If Elias was listening, too, he'd be a lot less wise to the facts than was Ruby.

The whistle came again, followed by a chattering squeal. If Ruby hadn't known better, she would have thought that a mink had done damage to a raccoon. Ruby rolled her eyes.

"Since when do raccoons walk around in broad damn daylight?" she muttered under her breath.

She headed in the direction she'd been facing when the squeal had sounded: Stobrod's signal saying, 'I'm here!' Funny he should choose a squeal. Ruby vowed to herself that if he gave this game away, she'd kick his ass again, only harder this time. It didn't take long for her to find him, and a pretty nice little spot he'd found for himself, too– snug in a hollow once filled by the roots of a tree that had been felled by the wind some time ago.

"Hey, darlin'," Stobrod whispered. "I figured you'd be up here, an' if you wasn't, I was gonna get eyeballs on that Teague-dog for ya. Want some?"

Ruby sat down next to him and took the twist of jerky he offered. She kissed his cheek, then bit off a small chunk of jerky and chewed in silence, determined not to say anything right now. She had to admit, Stobrod knew his onions up here, and as much as she did. She knew that he had it in him to track anything that walked, keep a deer in sight for hours without it knowing he was there. If he could walk with deer like that, well, Elias Teague just would never see Ruby's daddy, that was sure. At the moment, Stobrod was up on one knee, keeping a lookout, but only by turning his head. Every other bit of himself he held still.

Ruby tugged on his sleeve eventually and he sat down, carefully shifting a twig out of his way so as not to snap it.

Stobrod started in without being asked. He and Georgia had decided to come and visit. When they'd gotten to Cold Mountain someone had greeted them with the news that six men had stormed Black Cove.

"Georgia, he's gonna come whistlin' up the road about one hour or two before milkin' time, but he'll send word with Doc Haggerty's son about that," Stobrod whispered. "So those folks there, to the house, they'll greet him like he's expected."

"Good," Ruby murmured. She nipped her lip, thinking hard for a while, then said, "Yeah. Georgia gets there, and if Teague's watchin', he is gonna be mad, I think."

"Uh-huh," Stobrod agreed, grinning. "He ain't seen you all day, then Haggerty's son arrives: 'Hail fella, well met!' Doc and his son skedaddle, an' here comes Georgia. Carrying his mandolin—"

"And yer fiddle?" Ruby queried, hoping for it.

"Yessirree," Stobrod said, and now his grin threatened to split his head in half. "And my fiddle... But he's alone, is Georgia. That Teague-dog thinks—"

"And where in hell is Stobrod Thewes?" Ruby hissed and clapped a hand to her mouth to hold in a conniption of giggles. Next to her, Stobrod was shaking with silent mirth, tears streaming down his cheeks. Ruby wiped away those laugh tears before kissing his cheek again. "Woo, I know that I know where I get my prankin' ways from. You's such a bad influence. Daddy, thanks."

"Welcome, darlin'. But why didn't ya call on me and Georgia? You gotta know we'd a-come runnin'."

"Y'know, if it was just you, I would have called. I'm bettin' that that Georgia boy is piss-scared. What good's he gonna be to us?"

"Oh. Well, he might be some good, cos he's sweet on ya," Stobrod said, clearly under no illusions regarding Georgia. He was going to elaborate, but then he caught the expression on Ruby's face: eyes narrowed, lips pursed a little. Stobrod gulped and half-hunched a shoulder. He said softly, "Ruby, you never have told him no."

"And I ain't paid him any interest of the kind that says yes, neither," Ruby stated flatly. "What? Does he think I waste around, mincin' an' sighin' an' waitin' on him to grace us all with his presence? You tell him no, then, if he's so goddamn stupid. And you also tell him that if I see him mopin', I will kick his ass to prove I don't want him."

"All right, Ruby," Stobrod said. Truth be told, it wouldn't hurt him to do it, mostly because he knew that Georgia had eyes not only for Ruby but for everything else that (sometimes) wore a skirt. "I'll tell him."

"Good," Ruby said. "Cos I—"

Stobrod put two fiddle string-callused fingertips against her lips. She'd been whispering almost in his ear, hardly loud enough to be heard a foot away. Still, the air felt wrong to Stobrod, and the sound of the wood had changed. Ruby became aware of the change as well. They looked at each other, and nodded: someone else with two legs was not too far away. Ruby shifted carefully and got really close to Stobrod's ear.

"All we gotta do, is set tight and wait. We let him screw it up."

"He will, yeah," Stobrod agreed.

And somehow he had a feeling that by nightfall he'd be down there, in the house, with a good meal cooking, and with time to make music. For now he got as comfortable as he could. It was only a matter of time.

Ruby lay back, too. She let herself almost sink into the thick leaf litter beneath her. The trees above had not one leaf to wave to the wind. Sugar maples and white oaks stretched stark arms to the heavens. She liked this spot, she decided. She wanted to bring Ada here to lie and look at the interlace of wood and sky. It would be pretty in spring, too, and prettier still in the fall.

Ruby wanted time with Ada. Just that. Time. Time to sit and listen to each other. Time be still and listen to this world of theirs. Time to be at peace, at home, with more time to give and give to little Grace, and Sally, Stobrod, Phil, and even time to give to that half-good no-good Georgia boy. Just time.

How much time had Elias Teague stolen from—Ruby stopped that thought right there. She refused to dwell on thoughts like that. She could not take the chance of losing her cool, not now, when Elias was skitty and ready, probably, to run just as soon as fight. Ruby did not want to waste time chasing after the man.

She purposefully steered her thoughts back to Ada and the few hours they'd spent making love. Lost somewhere in those thoughts, and feeling safe enough with Stobrod on watch, Ruby drifted into sleep.

*-*-*

Cold, bitter cold. He could barely feel his feet. He had no choice now but to put on another pair of socks, and boots. The moccasins he stowed with his other things, in a cleft between two large rocks. Though they were warmer, his feet ached in his boots. He'd have to sit and wait for them to warm up. He had chilblains and those wouldn't stop paining him for anything, but that itching burn he could handle: it kept him alert. The ache in his feet did nothing but make him want to quit.

And he would not quit. Elias Teague wanted that farm. If his cousin had had balls, Elias would have had an easier job of things here. Killing one man would've been a whole lot easier than getting rid of three women who were frighteningly good shots, Ogden who could shoot just as well, and that Danvers fool. At least the doctor had left. Noakes and Janic were still there. Elias had no wish to hurt either of them, but they were in the way now. They were simply in the—Elias came up on one knee and slowly raised a pair of field glasses to his eyes.

"Aww, for fuck's sake..."

Someone else was coming to visit. Wonderful. He watched the man walk along the road. Closer... closer. Elias took the glasses away, frowned, then stared through them again. That was Ruby's father's friend, someone from Georgia. No, they called him Georgia because he was from Georgia.

"Strange choice of handle, boy," Elias muttered to himself. "Girl's name, innit?"

He was about to put the glasses away and shift position, but abruptly swept them from side-to-side instead. Where was that Stobrod Thewes? Elias refocused the glasses on Georgia. Sure enough, that boy had his little guitar-thing and it looked like he was playing it as he walked. He also had Stobrod's fiddle in a case slung from his shoulder.

Stobrod was nowhere in sight, and Elias hadn't seen Ruby all day. His skin crept and he shivered involuntarily. He didn't like this, didn't like it one bit.

He ran his fingers through hair that needed a wash, then scratched the half-inch long hair on his cheek. He suddenly felt like he just couldn't think, but he had to think. He had to. He was smarter than them, he told himself; smarter and better. They didn't deserve that farm. It was his by right of birth: his grandpappy had willed it to 'every son of my sons, and every son of their sons.' That Elias's father had been the one to lose the farm, had forfeited it to pay a gambling debt, was a thought Elias kept firmly from his mind. Black Cove farm was his, as far as he was concerned. He had been born in that house, dammit!

Elias stood up and placed the field glasses in their case with infinite care, and placed the case in the rock cleft. He made sure to obscure that cleft carefully with a branch of dried thorn and some leaves. He'd be by later. He liked to sleep in this spot, facing east, looking straight down on his farm. Only ghosts would sleep in that house tonight. He himself would melt away, back into the woods, and sleep here one more night before going away for about three months. He wouldn't even try to find a tenant for the farm. No-one at all would want to live there, not after what they'd find there, when he was done.

*-*-*

"I think he's movin'. Feel it? Like even these trees is watchin'," Ruby whispered.

Stobrod's answer was to get up into a crouch. He knew how to walk as Ruby did, with the landscape, and not against it. He felt that Elias wasn't like that. He was quiet, moved quietly and lightly, but he moved against everything. That's why every critter had paused and was silent now.

"Won't be hard to find him," Stobrod murmured. "What d'you wanna do?"

"Draw him out, and cross up on him. We gotta make it so you or me can get in close. We gotta be sure, Daddy. It's likely that he's much, much better with a gun than you or me," Ruby said, not bothering to keep to a whisper now. Her heart thudded. This wasn't the safest plan. By rights she could shoot him down from ambush, but that didn't feel right to her. It was something Elias would do, after all. "Here."

Ruby took her spare pistol from the knapsack. That would lighten her load, make her faster, help her to be quiet. She handed over her rifle, too.

"I got ya," Stobrod said, reasoning out her idea. "I get his attention, and you get ahead?"

"Right. Then I take a turn at drawing him. Might be we'll only need that one switch. Soon's you hear a coo-ee from me, so will he, and it's me he'll want first. Like that Joe Danvers in the house, I bet Elias is scared of me. If he is, he'll wanna kill that fear. That'll be my chance. If he gets me, gun him down any way you can. We don't stop him, and he'll carry on down to the farm."

"I see that. All right."

"All right, then, Daddy. Let's find him, then we'll split."

For all Stobrod's bulk, he jogged near-silently along with Ruby, keeping up just fine. She reckoned that walking rails into position and swinging a hammer had fittened him up. And she liked this, being with him, being together. It wasn't exactly a family picnic, but Ruby had never been choosy.

And it didn't take long to find Elias Teague. He moved in and out of deep shadows thrown by the afternoon sun. That cold late November light shone like gold off his lanky hair and the new beard on his face. That alone would've given him away, had the way he moved not caught their eyes. He was quiet, but stiff. He took too much care with every step, and never managed fluidity. A hundred and more yards away, so focused was Elias on his every step that he didn't hear two people coming up behind him.

Ruby bumped her elbow against Stobrod's forearm, gave him a nod, and she took off straight down the mountain. She was running like a deer, parallel to Elias, but he never saw her, didn't hear her. What he heard was a shot from Stobrod's pistol.

Elias whirled and dived to lie flat. All for naught, really: Stobrod couldn't hit the wide side of a cow at fifty paces, especially not with a pistol. He had no intention of trying to hit Elias. All he was doing was providing a diversion. And he kept moving. He kept his eyes on Elias, and he kept moving. Good thing he was expecting a return of fire, or the zip of a bullet flying close to his left ear would've startled him. Stobrod aimed in Elias's general direction with the pistol, and let a shot go. He saw a flash bloom from the muzzle of Elias's rifle, and instinct drove him to ground. He rolled and moved, heading back the way he and Ruby had come. He threw a shot over his shoulder this time, and cussed at the way his ear rang after. He wouldn't be doing that again. A report blared, and another bullet zipped close to him.

"God's nightie!" Stobrod growled, jamming the pistol in his belt. He levered a round up in the Henry, aimed, and fired.

"You bastard!"

"Was that better? I cain't shoot worth spit with a pistol, but fair is fair!" Stobrod hollered. He leaned around a tree and let go another shot. "How's that?"

"I'll kill you! I am comin' to fetch you outa there!"

"Cooo...eee!"

"Go try fetch Ruby!" Stobrod shouted. "That's her! That's my Ruby!"

"Shit..."

Stobrod grinned and dared to lean around the tree again. Elias was running as fast as he dared for a hazel thicket. Stobrod followed, keeping his line faraway from the one Ruby was likely to aim along. He knew exactly where she was, but Stobrod was pretty damn sure that Elias Teague had no such knowledge.

A shot rang out and Stobrod dropped into a crouch. Elias's rifle answered Ruby's pistol, but Stobrod saw plainly that the man was shooting blind.

Ruby had a good lay-up spot. To her right was the thick bole of a white oak, before her lay a sizable boulder, and between the two was a gap she could aim through. She leaned back and looked up the slope to where Stobrod had eased down onto his belly. He held the rifle ready. She waved her hand, he looked at her, and she pointed emphatically at the thicket Elias had chosen as cover. Stobrod aimed and fired, and the bullet hit rock and screamed away. Elias aimed not one but two shots Stobrod's way, then threw a third in what he thought was Ruby's direction. Stobrod signaled to Ruby, with a hand over his eyes, that Elias was in a blind.

"Asshole," Ruby hissed. So he'd run for a spot—one of many, probably—that he'd scouted out for exactly this purpose. Well, this wasting around business did not suit Ruby at all. She had five rounds left in her pistol, and she had a fully loaded cylinder in her pocket. Eleven rounds, and after that she'd have to hope that Stobrod could at least wing Elias. She didn't want to take that chance. As a girl she'd marveled at how he could throw a stone and kill a rabbit, but no matter how he tried, he couldn't get even a Kentucky long rifle to shoot straight. He could knock anything down with a shotgun, but then so could most grandmothers. Her father was a useless shot. But not a useless distraction. She signaled Stobrod again.

This time he aimed higher, and after the thunder of the shot there came to his ears the muffled sound of several curses: that one had rattled Elias.

Ruby signaled him again, but this time it was a message. She raised three fingers, then jabbed the leaf litter three times, then pointed at the thicket. Stobrod nodded: he could hit the dirt just fine.

When he let go his first shot, Ruby grabbed hold of every bit of courage she owned, ignored her pounding heart and fear-tight chest, and she got up and ran. She skirted trees and slid to a halt on the other side of the thicket, and she got there unnoticed because Elias was too busy trying to kill her father. He was shooting and levering, shooting and levering, and all the while Ruby heard a stream of cusses flying faster than that lead. And then she heard the lever rack up into an empty breech.

Ruby threw two quick shots into the thicket and heard one ricochet. Elias bolted.

Ruby got up and chased, cocking her pistol as she ran. He heard her coming up behind him and he turned, tossing aside the rifle he'd been trying to load on the run. His hand snapped to his belt, gripped the bone-handled pistol there. Ruby shot from the hip just as he pulled the gun free. He gasped and raised his pistol, and she shot again: the bullet took him squarely in the chest. A death reflex caused him to pull his pistol's trigger just before he dropped to his knees and fell face-first into the leaf litter.

Ruby dropped to her knees, too, chest heaving. Cold, scared sweat seemed to run a river down her spine.

"You hurt?" Stobrod hollered while he ran.

"No," Ruby said. "No, I ain't hurt. Just done-in."

"Oh. All right. You want his guns?"

"Yeah. We can sell 'em," Ruby muttered.

She got to her feet and looked down at Elias's body. Stobrod had rolled him over. A tall man standing, Elias was longer laid out. She cocked her head to one side and marveled at the fact that so handsome a man, so beautiful a face could front a soul as black as all that. Well, it had, but now he was dead, and Ruby hoped his soul was being introduced to Hell, if there was such a place.

"Got a Colt Army, old type. Remington like yours. And that Yella Boy Henry... Ruby?"

"What's that word, when somethin' big happens but it feels smaller than it ought?" Ruby asked.

"A anticlimax?" Stobrod said. "Darlin', I was at the Crater, in Petersburg. That big hole in the ground is about the only thing I don't call a anticlimax. That's life, Ruby, but worse, it's death. Won't be no big fanfare when I die. Mighty humblin' fact, that is."

"Right..." Ruby murmured. "But still... I dunno. It's all over, and it didn't take much, did it?"

"Nope. But you shot those other fellas. This is all-out different?" Stobrod asked.

"No, but now it's all over... I should feel different."

"Well, maybe... Darlin', maybe it's like a sign, a signal: just time to move on to the next thing. Just time to get on without worry. That's good, ain't it?"

"Yes. It's good," Ruby said and found a smile from somewhere. "Daddy?"

"Uh-huh?" Stobrod turned to face her again.

"I love you... just in case the sky falls on our heads," Ruby said.

"Ruby with the eyes that sparkle, I love ya, too," Stobrod chuckled. "Let's go home before Ada frets herself into a cadenza."

"The foxes will get at him; coyotes, too," Ruby said, gesturing at the body.

"I seen worse. So's Phil. We'll bury the bastard tomorrow. Soon enough. C'mon."

Ruby thought about arguing, about saying that she hadn't thought about looking at the damage caused by predators, but she realized that her father wouldn't see it her way. And she clung quite closely to that small pang of guilt at the idea of leaving the body untended all night. Elias Teague had meant Ruby and Ada and others only harm, but Ruby knew that Ada would feel guilty, too, and all of that just said, quite simply, that they were good people. Good enough to care about even the remains of a man who'd wanted to kill them.

She linked arms with Stobrod and they walked away. While they didn't dally, their strides were relaxed, and when she realized as much, Ruby felt everything click into place. She easily made sense of the anticlimactic feeling that had practically swamped her earlier.

To what length would foolish men go to try to make real their selfish wishes? Ruby knew the answer to that question; so did Ada, and Phil and Sally. She'd had to kill a total of four men mostly for the reason of selfish wishes. In this situation, this sort of situation, there would only ever be an anticlimactic finish, and Ruby was glad that she felt no different, that she felt herself unchanged and not in any way buoyed by the death of Elias Teague. But she did wish that she'd never had to learn the lesson this way.

*-*-*

Pure luxury. Ruby lay back in a tub full of steaming water and Ada, sitting next to the tub on a milking stool, placed a kiss on her forehead. More often they used the smaller tub, the one that allowed them only to sit with knees bent. This big one might have been sold years ago, but its size had been what had saved it in the end: they would've had to pay for cartage to get it into town.

"All done'n'finished, barrin' the burial party tomorrow," Ruby muttered. "I done enough. I'm declarin' myself a vacation tomorrow, and I am gonna sleep late... Ada?"

"Mmm?"

"You think we can fix up the cottage the slaves used to use? I'd like Daddy to live here."

"Of course we can," Ada said, clearly pleased.

"What're you all chuffed up about?"

"Ruby, even when your father's hand was caught in the trap in the corn crib, I rather liked him," Ada confessed.

"Y'know what?" Ruby said quietly.

"Tell me, darlin'."

"It's worth every bit of sweat to work for a good life," Ruby stated. "Even if it means a bit of dirty work has to get done along the way. It is worth it."

"Yes, it is," Ada agreed.

*-*-*

They lay on their backs looking up at branches that were greening over, and through the gaps between them the sky was a perfect Carolina blue. The wood was near-wild with birdsong, and on their way up here they'd caught a glimpse of the fox and his mate, frisking and playing and flirting. Sometimes they were as playful as that, but more often they were just Ruby and Ada who talked about most anything that interested them. Just Ada and Ruby, who fit each other like gloves, and always had.

Down on the farm Sally Swanger set aside her book and got up to check on Grace– fast asleep. She didn't pick up the book again, and instead went out onto the porch to take the air. Jack stood up, shook himself, and whined. Sally made a face in agreement, and rolled her eyes at the screeches and scratches coming from behind the house, where Phil was trying to learn to play the fiddle. Sally had to wonder at Stobrod's seemingly infinite patience. Georgia, it seemed, had less. He was reorganizing things in the barn, and the racket he was making likely had all to do with trying to drown out Phil's infernal fiddling.

Sally leaned against a pillar and rested her hand on the rail, and she looked up at the mountain. She thought of Ruby and Ada, and what she'd guessed all along. She was a born matchmaker, after all, but beyond that, she believed that some people chose to love and then dictated to love, while others were simply led by love.

Cold Mountain. With all this good feeling, Sally thought, the place was poorly named.

* - * - *


Glossary, Notes, and Clips