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A Haunting in New Austin

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Mary visits Arthur’s grave for the first time in the late fall, before the reaching snow comes any further down the mountains, white fingers of ice stretching long over the rocks and boulders and turning the air bitter and cold. In northern Ambarino, however, full winter seems to have already set in, and by the time Mary reaches the high perch overlooking New Hanover and West Elizabeth, she is happy for the warmth of her long-sleeved dress and hat, and the sturdy pair of shoes she chose to wear this morning.

The climb itself isn’t terribly difficult, and Mary manages just fine with only several stops to rest. She wants, in some way, to prove herself with the effort, and trust in the strength of her own legs and the sureness of her feet. She finds the marker itself with only little trouble; on a pretty hillside, facing the evening sun.

It’s like Arthur was as a man, this gravesite. Humble, and somehow serene in its repose. The view is breathtaking. Whoever buried Arthur took the time to fashion him a beautiful wooden cross. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, it says in bold white lettering. There are even flowers, growing thick around the base of the cross, thoughtfully weeded and cared for. Mary is touched, seeing that another soul has paid their anonymous respects as she is now paying hers.

Arthur Morgan, she knows with all confidence, was a troubled man in many ways, but at his heart and his core, he was good. She’s thankful, by the look of this grave and these blossomed yellow and orange flowers, that she is not the only one to know this.

She looks at these flowers, and his grave, and sheds her tears for a man she loved and who loved her in return, but not enough to run away with her, too caught up in the doings of his second, larger family of misfits and outlaws. In a way, she can understand why he wasn’t able to leave them. She can understand why Arthur broke her heart, more than once, and broke his own as well.

Some time later, when her eyes no longer sting from the tears and her throat no longer aches with sorrow, and she finally turns from the marker and heads back down the hill to the train station, she finds she feels... better. Lighter. Not happy, exactly, but perhaps not so lost as before. As Mary had confessed in a past letter to Arthur, Life is confusing, and I'm afraid I'm not very good at it. Mary is still confused, and afraid, but being here has helped. She decides to make a habit of it, then, to come and visit the grave whenever she is lonely, or lost, or missing Arthur more than usual. It isn’t a terribly long trip to make from Mary’s house in New Austin, after all, the travel made quicker by train and stagecoach, so it won’t be an inconvenience to her.

Not that Arthur has ever been an inconvenience—baffling, at times. Frustrating, too. But he had always been there to help her in her times of need, even though her family hated him so fiercely, even though she could promise him nothing in return. Oh, Arthur.

She visits again, some time later, and then once more, until it becomes a habit. Sometimes she brings flowers to join the ones flourishing around Arthur’s cross. Sometimes she will bring a letter she has written him in that awful handwriting of hers, and find a nearby rock to rest on, and read it aloud to him. Sometimes she cries, or thinks of nothing but the bad memories between them. More often, however, she remembers the goodness they had. The love. She misses him, quite terribly.

Mary has already buried a husband, many years ago now. And while she and Arthur were never properly wed, she feels as though she has buried yet another.

 

 

The next time Mary visits, early in the spring of 1901 when the ground is wet and muddy from the melting mountain snow, she finds, to her great surprise, that someone is already there.

She reaches the outcrop slightly out of breath from the walk, feet smarting in her newly-bought boots to combat the slick mud, and sees a dark shape limned by the low-hanging sun standing by Arthur’s grave and, despite herself, stiffens and utters a soft gasp. It’s a man; a stranger dressed in a rugged calfskin hat and beaten leather duster, the bottom tails hanging just above the lightly-trodden ground.     

Or, no, not a man, she notices a moment later, when she spots a long, messy braid of straw-colored hair peeking out from the collar of the duster. A woman, but still a stranger all the same.

At the sound of her quiet gasp, the woman’s head jerks up, as though startled out of some sort of reverie. One hand darts into her duster, quick as a flash, but she doesn’t draw a weapon. Her cheeks, Mary notices as she turns around, look damp and flushed, as though she’s been crying. Mary suddenly feels as though she has interrupted something very private.

"Who th’ hell’re you?” snarls the woman. Her voice is as harsh as the rest of her, raspy and mean, heavy with a western drawl. Her eyes are flint, her face weathered and wind-chapped. She looks around Mary’s age, yet somehow Mary knows this woman has seen and experienced things she could not even imagine. Cruel things. Terrible things.

"Why, I’m Mary,” she replies. “Mary Linton.”

The murderous look in the woman’s eyes fades instantly. Her face doesn’t exactly soften, but does lose some of its arctic coldness. The woman blinks, looks her up and down, then jerks back around and wipes her face on the sleeve of her dirty jacket. “Well, shit. You Arthur’s Mary, then?”

Mary certainly wouldn’t put it that way—Arthur has never owned her, nor she him, even back when they were young and deeply in love. “I… suppose.” She pauses, waits, but the woman doesn’t introduce herself, just stands there with her back to Mary, glaring down at Arthur’s grave. The flowers, she sees, are already close to blooming again. “And you are…?”

"Sadie,” the woman replies, after a moment. “Sadie Adler.”

Mary only knows a few of the names of the members of Arthur’s “family,” the Van der Lindes. She doesn’t recall an Adler riding with them, nor has she seen the name in any of the papers. Does that mean, then, that she isn’t an outlaw, but simply a friend? Looking at the woman now, Mary finds that somewhat hard to believe.

Not quite sure what to say, Mary decides to be polite. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Ad—”

"That’s Missus,” Mrs. Adler snarls, her tone rising aggressively. Mary swallows tightly, tries again in a strained voice.

"Mrs. Adler. Forgive me.”

Mrs. Adler glances at her over her shoulder, then sighs roughly and shakes her head. “Shit. Sorry. Jes’... Ah’ll leave y' be.” She whirls, the tails of her duster fluttering, and makes as if to stomp off.

"Oh, no, Mrs. Adler, please. You were here first,” Mary protests, feeling badly about cutting the other woman’s visit short. They may not know each other, but they both knew Arthur, and for Mary, that’s enough of a reason to share this quiet spot with her for a time.

Thankfully, Mrs. Adler seems to agree, coming to a halt and reigning in her temper with visible effort. After a moment, she even moves slightly to the side, so Mary can stand with her, and look upon Arthur’s grave. Mary does so. In all the times she’s been here, this is the first where she has a companion. It’s a little strange, to have her solitude breached, but not enough for her to leave.

They stand there in silence for several long moments. Mary takes a small comfort in it, as she always does, and in the rush of the cool breeze off the Ambarino peaks high above, the familiar smells of spring rising from the ground around them, and in the other woman beside her, standing with her in kind solidarity.

"Arthur Morgan was a good man,” she finds herself saying quietly. Reverently, almost.

"Sure was,” Mrs. Adler replies with equal solemnity. “Best man Ah’ve ever known, right nex' t’ mah Jakey.”

Mary guesses Jake must be Mr. Adler, but doesn’t pry, as that would be rude. “Were you part of the Van der Linde… company, then?”

"S’pose y’could say that. Didn’t get ‘long with mos’ of ‘em, though. Didn’t like many a’ them, neither. But Arthur, he was diff’rent. He… He helped me, when no one else would.”

Of course, Mary understands. Arthur was like that. An outlaw, and a criminal, yet noble in his own way. Honorable, even.

"I’m glad someone was able to do this for him,” she says, nodding at the grave and the beautiful marker. “It’s the least he deserves, really, to have a proper spot to rest.” She wonders, abruptly, if it were Mrs. Adler herself who buried Arthur here. “Was it you who—?”

"Naw,” Mrs. Adler interrupts. “But Ah woulda, if Ah’d known where—where he fell. Ah’d a’ carried ‘im here mahself, fer all he’s done fer me.” Her eyes go watery all of a sudden, and she turns her face away from Mary and sniffs sharply.

"I see,” says Mary. “That’s awful kind of you.”

Mrs. Adler simply grunts.

Once more, they stand in a respectful silence, and stay that way until Mary’s feet are aching and her back is sore, nose and ears stinging from the chill of the mountain air—only then does Mary feel at least somewhat satisfied that she has properly paid her respects to the man she loved and lost so dearly. She clears her throat, smiles shortly at Mrs. Adler, who spits artfully to the side and regards her under the low brim of her worn calfskin hat.

"Well, Mrs. Adler, it was a pleasure to meet you. I’ll be headin' back, but you take your time. Goodbye, now.” She turns, and begins the slow trek down the hillside, treading carefully around stray rocks.

"Y’come here alone, Missus Linton?” Mrs. Adler calls after her, in a tone filled with something approaching derision.

Mary stops. “...Yes?”

Unimpressed by this, if not outright disdainful, Mrs. Adler hmphs. “Y’come by train?”

“I did.”

Mrs. Adler fixes her hat more firmly on her head so the wind won’t snatch it away and turns to follow Mary down the trail. “Then Ah’ll escort y’ to th’ station.”

Mary protests at once—Bacchus Station is only just down the hill. A bit of a walk, but nothing she needs a… a bodyguard for. “Oh, no, Mrs. Adler, that won’t be necessary, I—”

"Y’gotta gun?”

Taken aback by her bluntness, Mary blurts, “Of course I don’t, why would—”

"Bad folk ‘round here,” says Mrs. Adler, with finality. “‘Round everywhere, really. Can’t never be too careful. Ah’ll walk with ya. Now, c'mon.” Without giving Mary a chance to turn her down, she puts her fingers to her mouth and whistles sharply. A few seconds later, a big golden brown horse bursts out of the trees a bit further down the hill, neighs, and canters obediently up to them.

Mary sucks in a breath at the size of the animal, her head barely reaching his shoulder, and eyes his bared teeth warily. Mrs. Adler chuckles at the no-doubt terrified look on her face and gives her horse a few hearty thumps on the neck.

"This here’s Bob. An’ yes, he’s jest as mean as ‘e is big. So you’d do right t’ keep yer dist’nce.”

"Naturally,” says Mary, thinking of her own dun mare, Bela, who she’s left back at home, and who is quite possibly the meekest thing she’s ever met besides her younger brother, Jamie.

Mrs. Adler clucks at Bob and takes him by the reins with a firm hand. Bob snorts explosively. “C’mon, boy. Let’s get th’ Missus t’ where she’s goin’.” The horse responds to her direction well, and plods heavily along after them as they make their way down the lightly worn trail to the road leading to the train station.

"So, Mrs. Adler,” Mary asks, anxious for conversation, “is your husband waitin' for you nearby, or—”

"Mah husband’s dead,” Mrs. Adler says brusquely.

"Oh.” Lord. Mary curses herself for her lack of manners. “I’m—I’m so sorry.”

Mrs. Adler seems to take no offense, and only shrugs. A dark, almost haunted look comes to her face. “S’alright. Lotta O’Driscoll sons-a-bitches're dead, too.”

Failing to make that particular connection, Mary just swallows and walks on. Then, without quite thinking about it, she offers, “My husband died as well, a while back. Pneumonia.”

"Well, shee-it,” says Mrs. Adler, drawing out the curse into two or three syllables. “Awful way t’ go.”

"It is.”

An awkward silence falls between them once more. Mary wonders what else, exactly, she has in common with this ruffian woman, other than dead husbands.

"So,” she ventures again. “What is it that you do, Mrs. Adler?”

"Me? Ah’m a boun’y hunner.”

Mary falters, skidding her foot on a loose rock. Mrs. Adler catches her smartly by the elbow. Her grip is strong and sure. She holds Mary’s weight with ease until she can find her feet again. “A—a bounty hunter?” Mary pulls away, straightens her ruffled skirts. “Surely you're jokin'.”

Mrs. Adler laughs, rough and bawdy and loud enough to echo across the span of the Ambarino fields and valleys. She twitches back the edges of her duster, and only then does Mary see the twin custom Cattleman revolvers belted to her hips in dual holsters, and a bandolier with shotgun shells strapped across her chest, and has to stop herself from physically taking a step back.

She looks the other woman over again, quickly—Mrs. Adler isn’t some brawny, blood-stained, scarred up outlaw, but the look in her eyes is nearly as feral as a rabid coyote Mary saw once in her yard, and her face is hard and worn and resolute. Mary imagines it, for a moment—this woman, wrestling bloodthirsty criminals and murderous thugs to the ground, shooting them dead or hog-tying them up to be brought in alive, tried, and hanged—and realizes it’s not terribly difficult to fathom that it could possibly be true.

"Well,” she says, trying to keep the amazement from her voice, not wanting to come across as foolish or naive. “I never would’ve thought a lady—”

"Ah ain’t no lady,” Mrs. Adler rasps, with a touch of humor warming that scratchy voice of hers.

"No, Mrs. Adler,” Mary replies, feeling her own lips quirk into a small smile, “I don’t suppose you are.”

At that, Mrs. Adler laughs outright, just as loudly as the first time, perhaps more so, and Mary laughs with her, lightly.

By the time they reach Bacchus Station, the sun is well on its way down, the western sky beginning to bleed a faint red across the horizon. Mary is prepared to bid Mrs. Adler a polite farewell. It was unnecessary, but kind of her to accompany her this far, but surely, as a bounty hunter, she is a busy woman, and should be on her way to track down her next mark, or some other sort of business.

Instead, just as Mary’s bought her ticket to Mercer Station in New Austin and is about to say her goodbyes, Mrs. Adler pushes up beside her at the booth, elbowing Mary out of the way and barking at the teller, “Gimme one, too. Same’s her.”

"Oh, Mrs. Adler, there’s no need,” Mary protests immediately, as the teller makes a face but takes the crumpled bills thrust in his direction and exchanges them for another ticket. “I’m perfectly capable of—”

"Ah ain’t worried ‘bout whut yer capable of,” Mrs. Adler replies. “‘Sides, Ah got work thatta way. In Armadilla. A boun’y.” She glares at Mary, side-eye, as if daring her to challenge this, though it’s quite clear to Mary that Mrs. Adler has literally just made this up to get her to agree with letting her come along.

"Please, Mrs. Adler,” Mary protests again. “Really. You’ve done far more than necessary. You needn’t mind me any further.”

Rather than take the chance to agree and retreat with her pride intact, Mrs. Adler adopts a mulish look on her face. Her scarred brows pinch. Her chapped lips thin. Her gloved hands land on her hips, inches away from the jutting handles of her revolvers. A stubborn, glassy light fills her eyes. Mary’s seen it before, in horses that refuse to break no matter how long you try to ride them.

It’s then that Mary realizes Mrs. Adler is not simply doing all this to be polite—there is another, much deeper reason hiding beneath; perhaps she believes she owes Arthur for some past debt or another, a debt that has not yet been fully repaid, and has decided to watch over Mary as some means of compensation. If Mary continues to deny her, Mrs. Adler will only insist more and more vehemently.

Caught, Mary sighs, and gives in before the other woman can cause a scene in this train station and get the law involved. Really, what harm is there, in allowing Mrs. Adler to escort her home? It’s not as though she can physically stop the woman from getting on the train with her, after all. “Very well, Mrs. Adler. I’ll allow you to escort me.”

"Ah said, Ah ain’t doin’ it fer you,” Mrs. Adler reminds her, but the tense line of her shoulders soften, and the glazed look in her eye fades. Mary sighs again.

"Quite.”

The train arrives with a scream of the steam whistle and a screech of brakes, juddering the cars to a spark-flying halt. Mary boards, finds a quiet car and settles into a seat, pulling a small book from her satchel to read along the way. Mrs. Adler steps into the same car after her, gives Mary a dark frown, and takes a seat on the opposite side, a little further along, where she sits with her arms crossed tightly over her bandoliered chest, a sour expression on her face. Once the train departs, she seems to relax slightly, and lights a cigarette and smokes it slowly, propping her dirty boots up on the arm of the seat in front of her despite the looks the other passengers are giving her. Mary can feel her watching her the entire ride, eyes like a hot brand on the back of her neck, but does her best to ignore it, attempting to turn her attention to the book laid open in her lap.

Needless to say, she makes it no further than page one.

 

           

They arrive at Mercer Station with the sun nearly set, due to an untimely delay on the tracks—a crashed carriage or some such, the debris of which takes nearly an hour to remove before the train can continue on. By then, it’s late, and Mary is weary and aching for her bed, but her house is still several more miles from the station; a cozy little house in a quiet, green corner of the fields outside Cholla Springs, where no one is apt to bother her.

After her Daddy passed—from drinking, of course, the fool man breaking his neck while trying to ride a skittish horse on a bet, filled to the ears with whiskey—she had received a small sum of money from the bank, which had somehow escaped her Daddy’s notice in his feverish bouts of gambling. Mary suspects her dearly departed mother to be the gracious culprit. That, combined with the amount left behind by her late husband, Barry, and a further amount she found mailed to her more than a year ago by an anonymous donor—she strongly suspects Arthur, or one of his gang acting on his behalf—means Mary can live a quiet, simple life here in New Austin without having to worry much about taking care of herself, so long as she is careful.

Mrs. Adler hops tersely off the train after her, throwing the butt of another cigarette to the dirt and stamping it out with the heel of her boot. A quick study, Mrs. Adler is, and within only a few seconds the other woman grasps that not only must Mary not live in town, but that it’s now too late in the day to hire a stagecoach, leaving her with no other option than to walk home in the dark. Rather than curse and berate her, however, she merely scowls.

"Fool wommin,” Mrs. Adler mutters, under her breath but still loud enough for Mary to catch it, and then whistles. Her ferocious horse, who has followed them all the way from Bacchus Station, chasing the train with seemingly little effort, gallops up, looking as fresh as ever. Mrs. Adler mounts easily and extends a hand down. Mary blinks when she realizes Mrs. Adler is waiting for her to join her up there.

"Oh!” she says, surprised and not a little wary. “I… I don’t…”

"Jes’ geddon already, won’tcha?”

Mary glances at the horse again—Bob, was his name?—and almost quails, then at Mrs. Adler, waiting impatiently for her to take her hand. “I…”

Rather than grow angry, Mrs. Adler nods at her in an encouraging way, her raspy voice hard with confidence. “Ah won’t let nothin’ happen t’ that pretty face a’ yers, Missus Linton, Ah promise.”

"Well…” Mary hesitates a moment more, then slides her hand into Mrs. Adler’s. Even through their gloves, she can feel the strength in the bounty hunter’s grip, and yelps as the other woman easily hauls her up behind her, to sit side-saddle in her skirts on Bob’s powerful rump. Mary flounders, not quite sure what to hold on to—the back of the saddle, or maybe the tightly packed bedroll under her thigh? Mrs. Adler laughs at her huskily, and takes the hand she hasn’t released yet and presses it to the hard ridge of her side.

"Hold on!”

Tentatively, Mary cups Mrs. Adler’s flanks with her palms, fingers curling into the soft, supple leather of her worn duster. The other woman scoffs loudly.

"Ah ain’t gonna break. Hold on t’me, dammit!”

At that, Mary threads her arms fully around Mrs. Adler’s small waist and grips herself by the wrists. Satisfied, Mrs. Adler gives her horse a kick, and startlingly fast, they plunge down the empty road at such speed Mary feels a tingling thrill shoot up her spine that is equal parts daring and terror.

"Where to?” Mrs. Adler shouts over her shoulder.

Mary gives directions as best she can, leaning her mouth in close to Mrs. Adler’s ear so she can hear her over the sounds of Bob’s snorting and the pounding of his hooves. Once they’re on their way, she turns her face into the neck of Mrs. Adler’s duster, feeling dizzy from the sight of the darkening landscape blurring by, and closes her eyes and breaths slowly, so she won’t fall sick. It helps. Soon, Mary can lift her head again, though she doesn’t move it far from Mrs. Adler’s nape, the other woman’s long, tousled braid tickling her chin.

In a way, it’s sort of like riding with a man, Mary thinks. She’s ridden with several, throughout her years. Barry, here and there, and Arthur, most often, back when she was young. Arthur had used to spur his horse like Mrs. Adler is doing now, just to make Mary shriek and laugh with delight. Mary doesn’t much feel like shrieking or laughing at the moment, too intent on hanging on.

This close, she can smell the chapped leather of Mrs. Adler’s duster, and the musk of old sweat and grit lingering on the skin underneath. Probably, it’s been a while since her last bath. She’s a sturdy thing, though, Mrs. Adler is, and after only a minute or two, Mary isn’t so afraid of falling off. She even loosens her arms slightly, so she isn’t outright throttling the poor woman. Mrs. Adler is a natural rider, it seems, using her knees and shins to control her mount more than the sharp bite of her spurs.

She’s just beginning to enjoy the ride when she realizes they’ve arrived on her property, and guides Mrs. Adler to the path leading to her front yard. Mrs. Adler thoughtfully keeps Bob away from trampling the dedicated line of flowers Mary’s planted along the way, slowing them to a steady trot until the house itself comes into view. Chivalrous as ever, Mrs. Adler brings her all the way up practically to the porch before reining Bob to a stop. Then she takes Mary by the arm again and lowers her down just as easily as she lifted her.

Feet firmly on the ground, Mary feels suddenly weak from the events of her day, yet flushed and exhilarated at the same time. She smiles warmly up at the woman towering above her, and even goes so far as to give Bob a quick pat on his haunch, which the horse tolerates with a loud snort.

“Thank you, Mrs. Adler,” she says in a voice she can’t disguise as anything other than breathless. “That was very kind of you to take me home. It was quite a pleasure meetin' you.”

Mrs. Adler nods at her with a small, wry smile of her own. “‘Course, ma’am. Y’take care now.”

"I—I have an extra room if you’d like to—”

"Thank y’kindly, but Ah’ll be jes’ fine.”

"...Alright, then,” Mary concedes with reluctance. “Goodnight, Mrs. Adler.”

Gathering up her reins, Mrs. Adler tightens her heels and prances Bob a few steps back. “Call me Sadie, won’t ya, Missus Linton?”

"Mary.” Mary smiles at her again. “Call me Mary. Goodbye, Sadie.”

"G’bye, Mary.”

Mrs. Adler—Sadie—raises a finger and tips her hat at her in a way that Mary finds very becoming, all gentlemanly and charming-like, and then yanks her reins, rears her horse up onto his hind legs with practiced flare, gives a loud, “Hee-yah!” and then gallops off in a thunder of hoofbeats, a cloud of dust, and the sharp flap of her old duster in the wind.

Mary watches her go, and wonders to herself, as she turns and heads inside her dark, silent house, whether she’ll ever see the other woman again.

 

 

It’s nearly a month before Mary begins to feel the need to visit Arthur’s grave once again. Eventually, she knows, in the years to come, she will make the trip less and less often as she finds peace with her memories of the man, but for now, she is still fiercely lonely, and in need of the comfort his presence brings. She tells herself she will prepare better this time, and even writes up a list of provisions and supplies, just in case she is waylaid as she was before.

Two days before she plans to make the trek, she hears a whinny early in the morning and looks out her window to see someone riding up the path to her house. Not expecting company at this time of the day—or, ever, as she has no friends in town, and her brother Jamie is away attending college, happily getting himself an education, as his latest letters say—she pats her loose hair into order as best she can and quickly pulls on her socks and shoes. By the time she gets to the door, someone is on her porch. She opens it just as her visitor is raising a fist to knock.

Mrs. Ad—no, Sadie—stops herself just in time from rapping Mary on the brow with her knuckles, and takes a polite step back. She tips her hat at her. “Missus Linton.”

"Mary,” Mary reminds her, a nervous smile at her lips. She had not exactly expected to see Sadie again. She finds she is happy to be mistaken.

"Er, Mary.” Sadie seems to balk, then, as if at a loss of what to say next. She appears, momentarily, almost as nervous as Mary herself feels, which is an odd look on a woman so fierce and self-assured. “How d’ya do?” she blurts out, so abruptly it’s practically rude.

"Just fine, Sadie.” Mary runs her fingers through her loose hair in a quick, fluttery gesture, then opens her door further. “Would… would you like to come in?”

“No, Ah jes’... Ah…” Sadie falters again, fists clenching at her sides. She isn’t wearing her duster today—it’s become too hot for such a thing, lately—and is dressed in a white button up shirt, the sleeves rolled to her elbows, her usual bandolier strapped across her chest, a dusty black kerchief knotted around her neck, and a pair of soft leather gloves on her hands. Her bare wrists are sunburnt and slender. Her pants are patched in several visible places. Her revolver holsters hang low on her narrow hips, jingling faintly as she shifts her weight from one foot to the other, boots creaking on the wood of Mary’s porch. “Ah…” she starts again, sounding unsure, and angry with herself for it.

“Yes?” Mary prompts as patiently as she can, folding her hands in front of her skirt and wringing at her own fingers to quiet her nerves.

At her soft, encouraging tone, Sadie seems to remember herself. She lifts her face so the brim of her worn calfskin hat no longer covers her eyes, and asks Mary in a rush, “Ah wan’ed t’ know if ya’d like t’ come t’ Arthur’s grave wi’ me.”

To say Mary is surprised is to say the northern Ambarino mountains are cold in the winter. She is flabbergasted. Their last meeting had been a fluke, she was sure. Sadie had only brought her home to honor Arthur’s memory and his lasting wishes, nothing more. Really, what else could a rough-and-tumble gun-slinging bounty hunter like Sadie Adler want with the company of delicate little Mary Linton?

And yet… Mary had felt something, during her time with the other woman. A kinship, of sorts. Sadie, she can tell, carries a deep and powerful sorrow with her wherever she goes. Mary’s is not so suffocating, so thick or heavy, yet they can understand each other’s sadness, even without speaking. While they aren’t entirely the same, they are still very similar, the two of them.

And for Sadie to come here, to her door, wanting to alleviate that sorrow however she can, wanting to find that same peace Mary yearns for by visiting the quiet grave of a friend… Mary can’t help herself—she laughs.

Before Sadie can take it the wrong way, or glower or go storming off of Mary’s property and out of her life, Mary manages to say, “Forgive me, Sadie. You might not believe this but—but I was plannin' on visitin' Arthur in only two days. You and I are of alike minds, it seems.”

“...Ha,” says Sadie, a surprised grin twitching her upper lip. “Well, now. What they call that ‘gain, when thin’s work out like that? ...Prov’dence?”

Mary smiles again. “I believe they may just call it luck.”

“Luck, then,” Sadie says, and chuckles.

They share a fond moment just regarding each other. Mary is so very pleased that Sadie is here, realizing, dimly, that her heart is beating a bit faster than usual. Clearly, it’s been far too long since she’s last had a friend.

“Wan’ me t’ come back in a coupla days, then?” Sadie offers graciously, but Mary waves a hand.

“Give me an hour.” She ushers Sadie inside the house to wait, despite her absurd protests of intruding, and hurries to her bedroom to get her face washed and her hair braided and dress herself properly for a journey.

She finishes with ten minutes to spare, and emerges to find Sadie making herself comfortable at her dinner table, leaning back in a chair and smoking one of those sour-smelling tobacco cigarettes of hers. Her boots—clean, thankfully—are propped up on the table’s edge and crossed at the ankle. Mary, fastening her favorite pair of silver teardrop earrings on, gives her a stern look, and the fearsome bounty hunter snatches them off with a chagrined expression, as if unused to such censure.

They ride on Bob to the train station. Though Sadie insists her horse could carry them all the way to Ambarino, albeit at a slower rate than the train could manage, Mary would prefer to avoid a sore bottom for the next few days, and offers to buy Sadie’s ticket for her, or split up and meet her at Bacchus Station. Sadie refuses both.

On the train, she opts to sit beside Mary, rather than behind her, as she did before. Sadie seems reticent, so rather than talk her ear off, Mary produces a book from her satchel. Sadie, looking slightly relieved, sits back and tips her hat down over her eyes, arms crossed over chest, seeming to doze, though something tells Mary the woman remains ever vigilant to any sort of danger around them, and pity to the one who disturbs their peace.

At Bacchus Station, they mount Bob once again and ride to Arthur’s grave. They pay their respects, and—tentatively at first, then with growing exuberance—take turns speaking of him, recalling past stories of kindness, action and adventure. Mary talks until her voice is nearly as scratchy as Sadie’s. Some time later, once they’ve finished, Sadie brings them back, and once again escorts Mary home.

And so Mary's habit of visiting Arthur's grave takes on another patron. Every few weeks to a month, or thereabouts, Sadie will show up at Mary’s door with no warning. Mary will take the surprise in stride, and gather her things and some flowers from her garden if they are in bloom. Sadie will pull her up onto that fearsome horse of hers, and ride them both up to Arthur’s grave, where they can pay their respects and reminisce.

Mary begins to look forward to the impromptu visits. Her life since Arthur’s death has been quiet and mournful, filled with solitude and a stagnant stillness. She and Sadie are far from becoming dear friends, yet she takes comfort in the woman’s brash, impatient nature, so opposite her own, and her stolid presence and unwavering integrity.

Over time, Mary occasionally manages to convince Sadie, after escorting her home, to come inside for dinner, or to stay the night, especially if it’s late. Most times, Sadie will refuse, but eventually, she begins to accept, though she always contributes to the meal in one way or another—a hastily shot grouse, or picked herbs for seasonings pulled from her satchel. She also always insists on sleeping outside, in her little canvas tent, laid out under the stars on her bedroll. Mary will listen from her bedroom to the faint sound of her humming by the campfire or smell her cigarette smoke wafting in through her open window and fall asleep quickly. Sometimes, when she is half-dozing, dreams creeping upon the edges of her consciousness, she hears a sound that reminds her of a harmonica being played, a warbling, grief-stricken tune.

In the mornings, Sadie is always gone without a trace or even a proper goodbye, but rather than believe she will never return, Mary learns to trust that it will only be a matter of time before she sees her again, and finds comfort in such sureness, as Sadie comes riding up the road to her house again, and again, and again.

 

 

Mary is worried—in fact, she is very nearly becoming scared.

As confident as she was before in the steadfast routine her life has recently fallen into, it’s now been over two months, and Sadie has not come.

She has received no letters, heard no news. The familiar sounds of Bob trotting up the road to her house never reaches her ears, or if they do, Mary will rush to the door only to discover she’s been tricked by a flighty deer or simply the wind. And while she knows she is far from understanding Sadie’s terse, solitary ways, she also knows that unless something were badly amiss, Sadie would have reached out to her by now, in one way or another.

Mary tries to be patient, tries to hold fast and strong, but the waiting is quickly becoming more than she can bear. At first, she had let herself believe that perhaps Sadie was caught up in a difficult bounty, forced to spend weeks far from New Austin in search of her flighty score. Now she is afraid it is something much, much worse.

By the end of the week, Mary is tired of waiting, of sitting here and doing nothing, sick with dread, which is how she has always dealt with such things before, most often with Arthur and his gang, always chased by trouble. For the first time in which she can recall, Mary makes a decision to act, and before she can think too much on it, she dresses in her town clothes one morning, saddles up her mare Bela with unpracticed hands, and rides into town, afraid and anxious with what she may discover, yet utterly determined to unearth the truth.

Her first stop, she decides, will be at the Sheriff‘s.

Sheriff Burton, an older man with a flushed red face and great bushy mustache and sideburns, looks up over his newspaper at her when she walks in. His Deputy, a young man who Mary does not know well, gulps his steaming cup of coffee too quickly and starts to cough, as if the presence of a lady in their midst has disturbed some sort of natural order.

"Good afternoon, Missus Linton—” starts the Sheriff in that lazy drawl of his. He doesn’t even stand, or put his paper away. Mary marches up to his desk and cuts him off in a strong, unwavering tone.

"Can you tell me, Sheriff, where is Sadie Adler?”

The Sheriff blinks, glances over at his Deputy, who is still coughing lightly. “Er. Missus… Adler? The… the boun’y hunner?”

"Yes.”

The Sheriff laughs in disbelief. “Why’s a lady like you wanna know somethin’ like that, now?”

Mary ignores that, and presses on. “If you know where she is, Sheriff, please tell me. She and I are… acquaintances. I haven’t heard from her in quite some time and I’m startin' to become... concerned.”

“...And you two know each other, how?” pries the Sheriff, his heavy brow lowering in suspicion.

“That’s my business, sir.” Mary sets her shoulders and straightens her back. She can’t threaten these men like Arthur would if he were here, wave around a gun or glower down at them, but she can still hold her ground. “Please. Do you know where she might be?”

The Sheriff gives her a slow, appraising look that makes Mary’s hackles rise. Then he sits a bit further back in his chair and rustles his newspaper to a new page. “My advice t’ you, little lady, is t’ go on home, now. Boun’y hunners ain’t no concern of yours, y’hear me?”

Mary stands there for a moment longer. Suddenly she’s glad she doesn’t ever carry a gun—the urge to pull one out and demand answers is dangerously strong, at the moment. Instead, she says in her politest tone, “Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” and walks out.

She’s halfway down the street, trying to decide between checking the local saloon next, or the general store, when she hears someone calling her name.

“Missus Linton, Missus Linton!”

Mary turns. It’s the Sheriff’s Deputy, running down the street after her. She stops. “Yes?”

The young man draws to a halt in front of her, looking sheepish. “I’m real sorry, ma’am, I know Sheriff Burton didn’t much answer yer question, but—but you seem real worried, so I thought maybe… maybe I should…” He ducks his head, steps a bit closer. In a low voice he says, “I heard from a feller a few weeks back there’s a rumor that Missus Adler got ‘erself shot up. Don’t know how bad or even if she’s still alive, just somethin’ ‘bout she’d been in a fight and lotsa people ended up dead on her account. If—if she’s a friend of yers, I reckon you should know.”

Mary’s heart goes cold in her chest. She’s always known that Sadie’s line of work is dangerous, terribly so, especially for a woman, and yet she’s never imagined that something could actually happen to her. She’s always seemed so… untouchable. Impervious.

"Where is she?” Mary asks in a small voice.

"Last I heard,” says the Deputy, “is she was somewhere near Tumbleweed when it happened. Try there, maybe.”

Tumbleweed—Mary’s never been there, but knows it’s a small, almost lawless town almost twenty miles away. She looks up, at the sun. It’s still early. If she leaves now, she can reach the town by late afternoon and continue her search from there.

"Thank you,” she mumbles to the Deputy through numb lips, and barely hears as he calls to her retreating back, “Might jus’ be a rumor, Missus Linton, like I said! You be careful, now!”

She mounts Bela and rides as she’s never ridden before, working her to a lather but making sure not to push the horse past her limits and promising the hard-working mare an entire basket of apples once this is over. Thankfully, Mary had the wherewithal to fill a small saddlebag with provisions and a set amount of money before leaving her house this morning—not that she wouldn’t go hungry, or without sleep, if only to ensure Sadie is alive and well.

Tumbleweed appears on the western horizon past noon, but Mary only enters the town proper several hours later, near 4PM. She takes a short amount of time to find a stable for Bela so her horse can be rested, fed, and watered. Mary neglects to do the same for herself, even though she is tired, covered in dust, and saddlesore, as well as famished.

She attempts to pay a visit to the Tumbleweed Sheriff, but the man is not in, and his Deputy is practically useless. She checks at the closest general store and saloon, getting nowhere—in the saloon, she’s forced to slap a well-soused man for a salacious comment about bein’ jes' the one she’s lookin’ for. The other patrons, thankfully, laugh and pull the drunken man away. None of them know of the whereabouts of one Sadie Adler.

Mary decides to check the local doctor’s office next, and finds it easily enough. Once inside, she discovers there is already a patron ahead of her. Mary guesses he is waiting for purchased supplies, as she can hear the doctor himself rifling about in the back, and resigns herself to wait.

And then she glances upward, and recognizes who, exactly, is the patron in front of her.

Tall. Dark. Long, loose hair. Broad shoulders. Feathers by his ear.

It takes a moment for the name to come to her; Charles. Charles Smith, one of the Van der Lindes. Arthur’s friend. And, presumably, Sadie’s.

She seizes him by the sleeve before she can think about it.

Charles tenses at the touch, and turns to her like he's ready for a fight—then he sees his accoster is a small, weary-looking woman, and pauses, confused. Then he recognizes her, and his face goes blank.

"Mary,” he says, without inflection. His eyes flicker to the back room where the doctor is still shuffling through things, and then returns to Mary.

Breathless, Mary gets out, “Charles, I—please. I—Sadie—Mrs. Adler, that is. I heard—I heard that—”

Charles hesitates, taking a moment to look her up and down, quiet and somber. For an outlaw, he has a remarkable calmness to him, while Mary feels like she’s about to fall apart, though she isn’t exactly sure why. She and Sadie are not terribly close to one another. Yet she feels that if Sadie were to die, it would almost be as tragic as losing Arthur was. Mary could not bear it, not again.

Charles opens his mouth, and at that moment, the doctor emerges from the back, holding a satchel of medical supplies—bandages, poultices, medicine. Mary’s stomach drops at the sight.

"Here you are, my good man,” chortles the doctor, handing over the bag to Charles, who pays him without fuss and a quietly muttered, “Thanks.” Then he pulls his arm from Mary’s grasp and leaves.

Mary spins on her heel and follows him outside, ignoring the doctor’s confused, “Can I help you, madam?” to her back. Charles is already across the street, tucking the supplies into the worn saddlebags of a splotched white-and-black horse. He mounts as if he's trying to run away from her.

"Mr. Smith!” she shouts.

Charles tenses again, but miraculously does not move as Mary crosses the street to him. Several passersby give them odd looks, then continue on their way.

Mary stops, and looks up at the large man—who owes her nothing, who is practically a stranger to her, and she to him—and says only one word with all the earnestness she can muster. “Please.”

Towering above her on his horse, Charles squeezes at his reins, his face thoughtful, measuring. Then, he nods. “Follow me,” he says quietly.

Mary fetches Bela from the stable and rides after him out of town, her trepidation quickly spiraling into panic the further they travel from civilization. If Sadie is hurt, why isn’t she at the doctor’s office herself, getting tended to? Is she dead, and Charles is now leading her to the gravesite? Or has Charles, a known outlaw, tricked her, and is intent on leading her out into the wilderness to inflict some kind of harm upon her?

By the time they reach the outskirts of a small clearing, the glow of a banked fire flickering somewhere ahead, Mary is trembling with fear. Her mind is racing from one terrible scenario to the next. She nearly falls trying to dismount.

“Here.” Charles hands her the bag of supplies from town and leads her into the brush. Among the jostled bandages and medicinal flasks, Mary sees a crumpled, handwritten list for each item, and, in a moment of numbed clarity, recognizes the lettering.

In the year of 1900, Mary had received an anonymous letter written in the very same hand, with directions to the location of Arthur’s gravesite. Without the letter, she would never have even known that he was dead—other than the newspapers, which had only speculated—or exactly where he had been laid to rest. She had cried over that letter, back then, yet felt solace in the kindness of the one who had sent it to her, and allowed her to finally begin to grieve.

Charles Smith buried Arthur Morgan, she realizes now, and feels a wave of gratitude travel throughout her in a warm swell. Her eyes prick with tears. She sniffles, wondering how to bring it up, how she can possibly begin to thank him—

And then she hears the weak, high-pitched keening, like a wild animal in pain, and forgets everything else in the world.

 

 

They emerge through the bushes into a campsite strewn with blankets, crates, and supplies. A cookfire pops and snaps beneath a bubbling pot of stew. A small canvas tent has been erected off to one side—and, shadowed within by the light of a single lantern, the source of the shrill, agonized moans.

Mary ducks inside at once, and almost reels back from the stench. The tent is filled with the reek of old blood, infection, and a foul sickness in the close confines of the canvas walls. On the ground is Sadie, her bedroll rumpled beneath her, blankets kicked off into a tangle at her booted feet. Her hair is loose and snarled. A thick, blood-stained bandage is wrapped around her torso. By the looks of it, she has been shot three times—once in the shoulder, once in the chest, and once in the side. To make matters worse, she appears to have been thrashed in a fistfight; one eye black and swollen shut, her lip split and her left brow laid open, almost to the bone, with nothing to say for the bruises Mary cannot see under her clothing. She looks as if she’s been beaten almost to death. But the weak gasps and groans crawling up her throat mean she is still very much alive—for now.

Charles ducks in after her. Through Mary’s mounting horror, she hears him say, “She got ambushed by a gang of Del Lobo a few weeks ago. Guess she was hunting one of their members for a bounty. Killed the lot of them when they attacked, but not before they beat her black and blue. I heard what happened, came to find her. Took a while to track her. She was out here by herself, trying to take care of her wounds.”

“Fool woman,” Mary whispers behind a hand, palm pressed to her mouth with horror at the very idea.

There are opened medicine bottles strewn across the floor of the tent. Potent Health Cures, which mask pain but don’t do much in the way of help heal actual injuries, and cocaine gum to ease suffering, along with several empty bottles of whiskey. Charles, no doubt, has been doing his best trying to help Sadie, but he isn’t a doctor. Mary leans forward, touches Sadie’s brow, and nearly snatches it back—she’s burning up, sweat dotting her temples and neck, the hair on her brow damp and sticking to her skin.

"Sadie,” she says, stroking her thumb over the limp woman’s unmarred cheek. No response. She tries again, leaning close to Sadie’s ear. “Sadie!”

With a ragged groan, Sadie comes momentarily awake, and looks up at her with eyes glazed and delirious with pain. “Who... Mary?”

"Sadie,” says Mary, doing everything she can not to burst into tears at the sight of her, so hurt. “Oh, Sadie. You’re in a way. We have to get you to a doctor. Can you stand?”

"No,” Sadie moans.

"If you can’t, we’ll—”

"No doctors,” Sadie finishes.

"But—”

"No doctors!” Sadie roars, and then suddenly begins to cough.

For the second time that day, Mary’s heart goes utterly cold in her chest. She has heard that wet, thick, lung-rattling cough before—years ago, now, on her husband’s deathbed. She will never, ever forget that sound.

Sadie has pneumonia.

Mary turns to Charles as Sadie slips back into unconsciousness, sprawled like a corpse on the cold ground. “Do you have rope?”         

"...What for?” asks Charles.

"Get it. Now.”

Charles doesn’t protest, just leaves the tent to obey. Mary, for her part, struggles to dress Sadie’s limp body in a nearby coat and pull her as gently as she can outside, her hands clutching for purchase under the other woman’s armpits as she drags her slowly backwards.

"What are you doing?” Charles asks, standing nearby with the fetched rope in hand. Mary ignores him.

"Put her on her horse.”

"Why?”

Upset, exhausted, and bordering on frantic, Mary shouts, “Because she has pneumonia, and if we don’t get her to a warm place, she will die, Mr. Smith! If she doesn’t want a doctor, I won’t force her, but she won't get better out here in the wilderness!”

"You can’t bring her to town,” says Charles bluntly. “Del Lobo will be looking for her. They’ll want revenge.”

"Then… Then…” Mary casts about for an answer, and grasps the only one she can find. “Then I'll take her to my house in Cholla Springs.”

"You—”

Tired of arguing, Mary raises her voice more than believes she ever has before. “Put her on her horse, now, Mr. Smith!

Charles hesitates only a single moment longer, and then steps forward and picks Sadie up as gently as a mother cat lifts a newborn kitten. Sadie’s head lolls, half-aware, mumbling nonsense words and coughing now and then. Charles maneuvers her onto Bob, who snorts and stamps, feeding off the anxious energy in the camp. Mary has only a moment to be afraid before climbing up after her, sitting in front and instructing Charles to tie her and Sadie together around the waist with the rope, so even if she is unconscious, Sadie will not fall off the horse.

This is not, exactly, how she pictured the two of them riding together again.

Charles hurriedly packs Sadie’s saddlebags with her things while Mary takes up the reins with surprisingly steady hands. In order for this plan to work, she will need Bob to cooperate, as Bela is simply too small and too tired to bring the two of them all the way back to the house tonight—perhaps once they are home she can mail Charles some money to properly stable Bela until Mary can find a way to retrieve her.

Bob, of course, ruins Mary plans by snorting thickly and immediately resisting her. Mary fights him, controlling his thrashing head with a tight grip on the reins and squeezing his sides with her heels and thighs as she’s seen Sadie do countless times, effortlessly. The big horse dances about, confused and unhappy by his new rider.

To Mary’s relief, they are not bucked or reared to the ground. As Mary works Bob through his initial outburst, Sadie coughs wrackingly against Mary’s back and mutters something that sounds like, “Easy there, feller…” before slipping back out of lucidity. Afterwards, Bob seems to calm, eased by the fact that although his owner is not in control of him, she is, at the very least, present upon his back.

"Thank you,” Mary says to Charles, who has been watching her with his usual impassive expression. “For what you’ve done for her.” Her throat goes tight. “And… And for Arthur.”

Charles blinks in surprise at that, his mouth falling slightly open, but before he can speak, Mary puts her heels to Bob, and the horse lets out a deafening whinny and plunges toward the nearest road. Mary gives him his head, knowing the beast can run like a demon all night, and prays they make it in time.

 

 

The journey back to her house is fraught with terror and tension and dread. With every mile, Sadie’s body leans heavier and heavier against Mary’s back. Her coughing grows weaker, her breaths ragged, strained, which Mary knows is not a good sign. Mary, already sore and aching from so long on a horse, exhausted from no sleep and no rest, forces herself and Bob onward.

They reach Mary’s house in the blackest night, guided only by the light of the moon and Mary’s half-formed memory of the well-traveled roads of New Austin. At last, they reach her property, and this time, Mary does not much care when Bob tramples through her flowers, and is already beginning to untie herself from Sadie before the horse has even come to a complete stop. Her numb, tingling legs give out from under her when she slides off the saddle. Gasping, she forces herself to stand and carefully pulls Sadie, who has slumped over where she sits on Bob’s back, off as well.

Mary barely keeps the two of them from collapsing into a heap, and somehow gets them both inside the darkened house. Distantly, she hears Bob snort tiredly and clop over to her small, open stalled barn, where he will be able to find something to eat. She resolves to buy the horse a basket of apples just as big as the one she will buy for Bela. He’s saved a life tonight, surely.

She half-walks, half-carries Sadie upstairs to her bedroom, where she strips the blankets from the bed and lays her down. Then, operating more by muscle memory and instinct than rational thought, Mary begins to tend to Sadie’s multiple injuries. It’s been some years since she’s had to do such a thing—Arthur, in his younger days, had been a courageous, yet reckless daredevil, falling from horses and getting himself shot nearly every other week, out to prove himself as a new member of the Van der Linde gang—but Mary thinks it shouldn’t be too hard to remember how.

First, she removes Sadie’s outer clothing, and unwinds the dirty bandages from her torso. The cloth is stiff with dried blood, and sticks to Sadie’s reddened skin when she pulls it away. Her bullet wounds are only half-healed, and badly at that, bleeding sluggishly wherever they have not scabbed over. Mary can certainly guess why—Sadie, of course, does not seem the kind of person who would have the patience to wait for her injuries to be completely closed before doing something strenuous, such as ride her horse or shoot a gun, causing the wounds to re-open, again and again, leaving herself exposed to the dangers of infection and sickness—which, of course, is what has happened now.

"Oh, Sadie,” Mary mutters to herself.

She heats pans of water on her stove and washes Sadie, making sure to take great care in cleaning the barely-scarred-over bulletholes—someone, probably Sadie herself, or maybe Charles, at least had the wherewithal to remove the bullets.

Mary gives Sadie a serum, then treats her wounds with medicine and rebandages them with fresh cloth courtesy of the supplies from the Tumbleweed doctor’s satchel. Afterwards, she applies an ointment to Sadie’s many scrapes and bruises, and lays a cool poultice on her swollen lip and black eye. The split on her brow, she decides, will require thread and needle, so Mary steels herself, fetches her sewing kit, heats the needle over a candle flame, and sews her up as best she can with shaking hands. Sadie, out cold, makes no sound at all. Mary manages four even strokes and a knot before she has to stumble to the basin to be sick.

Even with Sadie’s most pressing injuries taken care of, Mary feels not at all relieved. Pneumonia is certain death for even the healthiest of men and women. In the matter of several weeks, it reduced her husband to a coughing, wailing shell of a man, and killed him in the night as she watched faithfully over him. She promises herself, here and now, that she will not allow such a thing to occur a second time.

 

           

The next few days are, for Mary, an exhausted blur of tending to Sadie’s many needs and then her own only as an afterthought. She barely sleeps, too anxious to leave Sadie for long, afraid she will be claimed silently in the night as her husband was. She listens helplessly as Sadie groans and coughs that wet, terrible rattle. It sounds like death, wracking her body so hard it makes the bed shake, but her breathing never falters, and that raspy, somewhat steady cadence gives Mary strength through the long nights and on into the mornings.

One of those mornings, she wakes slumped in her chair by Sadie’s bedside to a familiar whickering, and stumbles outside to see Bela has been returned to her sometime during the night, eating hay timidly beside Bob’s companionable bulk at the open stalled barn. The bigger horse doesn’t seem too annoyed by Bela’s presence, or about to kick her, and for some reason, seeing them standing there together makes Mary burst into a sudden bout of tears. Bela hears her weeping and wanders over to nibble at her sleeves, looking for a treat. Mary finds her an oatcake and feeds her by hand as she wrestles back her frazzled emotions.

And then, miraculously, that same day, Sadie’s fever finally breaks. Mary feels as though she can, at last, take a full breath. Yet she knows her battle is not over, and keeps on.

A week passes with Sadie steadily improving. She is no longer falling into bouts of dazed unconsciousness, seeming rather to sleep peacefully, coughing less and less as her good pallor returns. Mary almost does not dare hope it is over.

The next day, Sadie wakes up, well and true.

Mary is in the kitchen, cooking herself a quick, easy bowl of oatmeal. She is shaky with hunger, but had not dared leave Sadie’s side until now. She hears a thump from upstairs and abandons her still-bubbling pot to find Sadie sitting halfway up in bed, the nightstand and Mary’s jewelry box knocked askew by a flailing arm.

“Wh… where’m Ah?” Sadie asks, her low, raspy voice dulled at the edges, words slurring into the next. She coughs once or twice. Her eyes are half-lidded and bleary.

"My house,” says Mary, quickly coming to her side. “Oh, Sadie. You were hurt somethin' awful.”

"Mary? It ain't nothin'... Ah... Ah'm fine...”

"You—” Mary struggles not to chide Sadie like a child, but it’s difficult. “Charles was doin' his best to care for you, but it wasn’t enough. And—and you said no doctors, so I thought… I brought you here. You’re gonna be alright, I hope. Now, lay back, and try to get some sleep.”

"Ah ain’t… tired…” Sadie protests, though she is already lowering herself back to her pillow. Five seconds later, she is asleep again. Mary smells burning oatmeal, and tells herself the tears in her eyes are from the smoke.

 

 

The rest of the week is long, tentative, and hopeful. Mary is pleased by Sadie’s progress. Her coughing is drier now, lacking the thick, wet hacking of before, and she is more and more lucid every time she wakes. She talks drowsily at first, mumbling questions to Mary, then asks for food. Mary gives her a broth, first, and when that settles, stew. Sadie’s face, grown pale and weary from her injuries and sickness, begins to fill back in. Her eyes, no longer dull and glassy with pain, have returned to their usual feral brightness.

By the end of the second week, Sadie can sit up and almost stand. She is a remarkable healer, Mary notices, her bullet wounds almost completely closed over by now, but she is wary of the other woman pushing herself too far, too fast. Sadie, as ever, is impatient for her health to return. She gets out of bed when Mary isn’t looking—or even if she is—building her strength with short walks around the house, and waves off Mary’s growing worries about leaving for town to fetch them more provisions.

“Y’ must be sick a’ me,” she says, her voice back to its usual raspy drawl. Hearing it makes Mary unspeakably happy. “Go! Ah’ll be fine.”

Mary does so the next day. After so long at home, spending all hours of the day tending to Sadie’s every need while ignoring her own, it’s like a bit of fresh air. She shops indulgently for once, buying her usual staples but also silly, precious things like candies and sweets, and takes her time about it, for her own sake as well as Sadie’s, who must be tired of all her hovering these past few days.

When she gets back from town, the stagecoach jouncing off as she struggles up the road to her house under the added burden of two well-earned baskets of apples, she is glad to see Sadie resting outside on her porch in the sun, enjoying the dry air, but a little less glad to see the half-smoked cigarette in her hand and the glass of whiskey at her elbow. Sadie grins wryly at the stern look Mary gives her, and pointedly takes another drag of her cigarette, refusing to stub it out.

"Afternoon, Missus Linton,” she drawls, and takes a sip of her whiskey. “Y’have fun?”

Mary, who can’t find it in herself to scold her, delivers the apples to the eagerly awaiting horses, then returns to Sadie to share with her a bag of those precious sweets.

 

 

Two days later, Mary wakes from her new, unfamiliar bed in the guest room with a strange feeling gathering in her stomach. She isn't sure what's roused her, and lays there for a moment in the silence of the early morning, watching the sky gradually brighten outside her window and wondering what's wrong. Then she notices how very quiet and still her house is, and jerks from her bed in alarm.

Sadie is missing.

Mary cannot find her anywhere in the house, and her things are gone. Mary is frightened until, on the kitchen table, she finds a billfold of $100, and stares at it as if it is some foul thing, feeling as her heart crumples in her chest.

Mary Linton—and before that, as Mary Gillis—has never been one for confrontation. Why, this girl wouldn’t even hurt a fly, her mother used to say to her. And it is true; Mary has always found herself to be a gentle soul, one to go out of her way to avoid a fight rather than risk one. She almost never raised her voice, never argued about the way things were. Perhaps that is why she lost Arthur, not once, but twice. She loved the man, well and truly, and yet, allowed the Van der Linde gang to consume him over the years until he was nothing but bones. If she had taken a stand, if she had fought for Arthur as she seemed so reluctant to do back then, where would he be now?

And where would she, Mary Linton, be?

Mary realizes, standing there in her kitchen, gazing at that billfold of $100, that she is tired of walking away. Of letting things be. Usually, in times like this, Mary will cry with sorrow.

Now, for the first time in what may be her entire life, Mary feels herself growing angry. Furious. For the first time, she wants to fight.

She nearly takes her front door off the hinges as she charges outside. She is off her porch at something close to a dead sprint, running like she hasn’t since she was a young girl. It’s an utterly undignified thing to do, really, and difficult in her hastily pulled on skirts, the loose material tangling around her legs, her blouse untucked and wrinkled, but Mary is past caring, past thinking. In her ears she can hear nothing but her own ragged breathing and the thud of her cold bare feet hitting the worn dirt road. She is not sure when exactly Sadie left, or how fast she can travel, half-healed as she is. If Mary can’t catch her, she—she—

But then, she sees it—on the road ahead of her, lit by a rising sunbeam, a small, lone figure on a horse, trotting slowly away, the rider sitting in an awkward cringe on her saddle, as though in some pain.

Mary shouts at her back in a voice louder than she has ever used before, “Sadie Adler, you stop right there!

Sadie, at the very least, has the decency to face her, and reins Bob in with visible effort. She is wearing the same clothing she arrived in—the bullet holes in her shirt carefully mended by Mary’s practiced hand and the bloodstains painstakingly scrubbed out. Her twin holsters are on, partially hidden by her duster. Her loosely plaited straw-colored braid is tossed over her shoulder, her hat pulled down low over her eyes, so Mary cannot see her face.

Mary marches up to her, arms swinging at her sides, hands clenched into fists. She cannot quite remember the last time she was so angry. Perhaps never.

“I’ve had more than my share of fool men in my life, Sadie Adler, but Heaven forbid you join them!” Mary says, and then throws the billfold of money onto the road between them, stirring a tiny cloud of dust. Her voice raises higher and higher with every word. “And if you think I did what I did for money, you’re even more brainless than I thought you were!”

Sadie’s throat bobs as she swallows. Even from here, she looks pale and weak to Mary. It would be apparent to a blind man that it is far too soon for her to be leaving—and Lord above watch over the sorry wretch who attempts to tell her such a thing—still weak from her sickness, her wounds closed but not yet fully scarred up. Sadie, clearly, hasn’t the patience nor the brains for a lick of good sense.

"Take it,” says Sadie, voice subdued, jerking her chin at the billfold. “Ah’ve troubled y'long enough, Mary. It’s high time fer me t’be on mah wa—”

"Is that what you think?” Mary shouts over her. “That you trouble me?

Sadie is quiet, head lowered. Her mouth, just visible below the brim of her hat, is tight. A muscle on her cheek twitches.

It’s clear now, to Mary, that Sadie Adler is a woman who refuses to owe anything to anyone. Perhaps, after Arthur, she is through with that. And while Mary can somewhat understand such thinking, she cannot—will not—go along with this, and accept money that has no purpose or meaning other than to stop Sadie from feeling anything but guilty or wrong for leaving the way she only just attempted. Mary will be damned if she stands by and allows this woman to kill herself, as she seems so intent on doing now.

“Mary—” Sadie begins, after taking a visible breath.

“Don’t you Mary me,” Mary snaps. At that, Sadie’s head snaps up, as if in surprise of her ire—her face is drawn, but her coyote eyes are fierce and furious.

“Now, look here—”

"You nearly died, Sadie,” Mary says, choking on the word. “Don't that matter to you at all?”

Rather than grow somber or chastened, Sadie’s hackles bristle. She bares her teeth, sneers. “Ah ain’t afraid of dyin’.”

"Oh, I believe it,” Mary scoffs, “what with the poor way you keep yourself!”

"You ain’t mah keeper, wommin!” Sadie snarls back at her. “If Ah wan’ed a nag of a wife, I’d’ve asked ya t’ marry me long ago—!”

Hurt, Mary spits back, “And if I wanted a fool husband, I would've married Arthur and been done with it, so to Hell with you!”

A thick silence descends over them both. Mary almost cannot believe the unbecoming way she is acting, or the cruel words that have erupted from her mouth. Yet she also cannot believe Sadie truly thought she could leave the way she did, with only money as recompense. Had Mary really thought she knew this woman, this stranger in disguise who had nearly become her friend?

"I’ve seen far too many good men die for their pride,” Mary says bitterly through a tight throat. “I won't see it again.” She swallows. Then, as a parting shot, she grits out, “I hope, at least one day, that someone tells me where your grave marker is.”

With that, she spins on her heel and walks at a brisk pace back up the road to her house. She does not look back.

There are no shouts to stop, no canter of a horse come to chase her down. Sadie, probably, is glad to see her go. Mary tries with all her might to keep her anger with her the entire way, but before she can even see her house, the sadness is building in the back of her mouth. Her feet stomp loudly on her porch, and the force with which she slams the front door is nearly enough to break the glass of her front windows—they rattle as if stones have been cast at them.

Mary storms into her bedroom and slams that door behind her, too, and tries to tell herself she doesn’t give a single fig if Sadie Adler never, ever comes back.

 

 

Time passes, and Mary pretends it doesn’t bother her, that she receives no further word or visit from Sadie. There are no letters, hastily scrawled out in Sadie’s neat, looping hand, explaining her foolhardy actions to Mary. There is no word from town, either, not even rumors from the drunken saloon-goers or the Sheriff’s office, of treacherous gang shootouts or hard-fought bounties caught by one Mrs. Adler. It seems, sadly enough, that Sadie has drifted into Mary’s life like a stray breeze and then drifted out just as suddenly.

Mary tells herself that’s just fine. Her house is quiet and empty once more, but she is used to that. She fills her days with tending her flowers, brushing and feeding Bela, reading, cooking, and even plays with the idea of finding work in town, just for something to do. Mary’s life does not have to stop simply because she is alone again. She chides herself for her lingering sorrow, for all the effort she gave, trying to keep someone safe who did not want to be kept at all. Sadie said it herself, after all—that Mary wasn’t her keeper, nor her wife; now there is a silly idea.

Sadie is a grown woman, Mary tells herself, when her mind wanders to dark places at night, when she is trying to sleep. Sadie can do whatever she likes, no matter how stupid or selfish it may seem to her. To convince Sadie otherwise is impossible, and Mary is tired of trying to reason with blind fools.

Feeling lonely, and only somewhat spiteful, Mary arranges to visit Arthur’s grave alone for the first time in… well, months. Nearly a year, maybe. She prepares herself as best she can, trying to remember how she used to do such things, before Sadie.

That same day Sadie departed from her house so abruptly, Mary had discovered a small pistol in her nightstand, clearly left behind by the other woman. While Mary is bitter, she isn’t completely stupid, and, after re-teaching herself the basics of how to shoot—Arthur had showed her many, many years ago—aiming at empty vegetable cans in the privacy of her backyard until she was somewhat confident in her abilities, she decides to bring the gun along for protection. As Sadie said, the very first time they met, Can’t never be too careful.

Taking the bouncing stagecoach to the train station rather than riding there on Bob feels… wrong, somehow. Walking up the hill to Arthur’s grave without the familiar smell of Sadie’s leather duster or her sour cigarettes is even worse.

She feels awkward, at first, facing Arthur by her lonesome, as if suddenly the man will appear and ask her what’s become of Sadie. Mary resolves herself, and tends studiously to Arthur’s flowers, weeding them so they can properly flourish, then simply sits with him for a time. She has written a letter for him, but it is filled with anger, her messy handwriting slashing at the paper like a knife. She begins to talk, instead—naturally, the subject turns to Sadie, and the budding friendship that has wilted between them. She asks questions to him she knows will never be answered—Oh, Arthur, what would you have done in my place? and, Has she always been so… so damn stubborn? Finally, feeling only somewhat satisfied by her actions, she bids her farewells, and heads home.

She’s nearly at her house, head lowered glumly, eyes on the path, when she hears a familiar snort and her heart leaps and then plunges in her chest. Her feet jolt to a stop and her head jerks up. Bela is not alone by the open-stalled barn; Bob towers placidly beside her, nibbling playfully at her mane. Bela aims an annoyed kick at him, and Bob retreats to a more respectable distance, snorting as if in amusement.

As Mary suspected—and, yes, hoped, deep down beneath her resentment—there is a figure sitting on Mary’s front step. Sadie Adler, elbows on knees and hat tipped low over her eyes, smoking and quite obviously waiting for Mary to arrive. At the sound of Mary’s approaching footsteps, she looks up and then leaps to her feet, appearing strangely sheepish, yet somehow defiant. She flicks her cigarette away, touches her kerchief, then snatches her hat off her head and holds it in her hands in front of her.

She looks, if Mary is being honest, quite well. Healthy. Not quite so strong as before, but getting there. Despite herself, Mary is happy.

At Sadie’s belt hangs a freshly shot rabbit, not yet skinned. A peace offering, perhaps. Or maybe another bribe.

"H’llo, Mary,” says Sadie. Her usual acerbic tone is soft and breathy. It almost does not sound like Sadie at all.

"Hello, Mrs. Adler,” Mary says stiffly in return.

Sadie’s face falls slightly. Mary struggles not to feel sorry for her own spitefulness, biting her lip against a rising apology. She is not the one at fault here.

"Ah looked in town fer yah,” Sadie says, as though searching for conversation.

Mary refuses to lie. “I went to see Arthur. I only just got back.”

Sadie flinches as if she’s been struck. The line of her shoulders droop. “…Oh.”

Mary waits a little longer, her heart thudding in her chest, but Sadie is quiet, her hands twisting at her hat, eyes cast low, so at last she sighs and says with forced curtness, “Is there somethin' you need, Mrs. Adler? I have dinner to cook, and—”

"Now, look,” bursts out Sadie, stalking forward, so she and Mary are only inches from each other. They are of a similar height, Mary notices idly, yet somehow Sadie makes her feel very small, indeed. “Mah name is Sadie.”

"I know what your name is, Mrs. Adler, and—”

"Goddammit!” Sadie throws her hat to the ground, her hair falling across her scarred brow. She jabs a finger at Mary’s chest. “Lissen, you, jes’ b’cause Ah don’t do everythin’ y'say don’t mean you kin jes’… jes’ kick me outta yer life!”

Mary ignores the finger hovering under her nose as best she can, refusing to be cowed. Too much of her life has been spent doing so, and she is weary of it. “I very well can.”

"You—!” Sadie leans forward, lips drawing up into a menacing snarl—and then draws back, as if all the fight has suddenly been drained out of her. She looks away, fists clenching and unclenching at her sides. A harsh breath hisses out from between her teeth. When she speaks, her raspy voices cracks with emotion. “…Ah did’n’ come here t’ fight, Mary.”

"Then why are you here?” Mary challenges. “If it’s to try and force me into takin' more of your God-forsaken money, then you can just turn yourself around and—”

"Ah’m sorry!” Sadie shouts so loudly Mary’s ears ring.

And, there it is. The two words Mary was utterly convinced Sadie was incapable of speaking. They hit deeply, like high velocity bullets. Mary claps her mouth shut, refusing to stand and goggle there like an idiot, though inside, she is stunned. Before her, Sadie glares at the ground, hands clutching at the holsters at her hips, leather creaking under the clutch of her fingers.

"Ah’m sorry,” Sadie repeats after several moments, in a much quieter tone than before. “Ah…” She shakes herself, spits. Finally, she meets Mary’s eyes. Mary can see the sorrow in them. Can hear it in her words. Can feel it in the air between them.

"Sadie—”

"No, jes’—jes’ lissen, alright?” Sadie pauses again, seeming to gather her words. “What Ah did… It wuz wrong. Ah shouldn’ta done it. Not—not jes’ leavin’, but th’ money, too. Ah’m sorry, fer that. N' fer… fer scarin’ ya.”

Mary is quiet. This is more than she ever hoped to get from Sadie. She dares not speak for fear of waking from a dream.

Sadie, looking as if this is the hardest thing she’s ever had to do, scuffs a boot on the dusty ground and sighs, rubbing the back of her neck with a gloved hand. “It’s… What Ah said, b'fore. Y'ain’t mah keeper, no.” Her eyes flit down, and then back to Mary’s. They are soft with sincerity. “But y’are mah friend.”

If the words before were bullets, these are a healing balm. For Sadie to say them means a lot, Mary knows. She gets the impression that while Sadie Adler must have quite a lot of acquaintances and even more enemies, she does not have many friends.

“You’re my friend, too, Sadie,” she says at once. Her voice is relieved and shaky. She takes a step forward. “I… I’ve enjoyed our time together. I don’t want that to stop.”

“Well,” Sadie says easily, as if it were that simple, “it won’t, then.”

Mary laughs. It comes out thick and warbled with emotion. She sniffles.

“Don’t y’start wi' that, now,” Sadie warns, but with a kindness to her tone.

Mary sniffles again. “I… I’m sorry for those things I said, before.”

Sadie shrugs. “S’okay. We wuz mad at each other n' said some things we didn't mean. Ah jes'—Ah ain’t used t’ havin’ someone worryin’ ‘bout me, is all.” Looking rueful, she drawls, “N’ case ya haven’t noticed, Ah ain’t so good with people.”

Mary feels the smallest of smiles quirk her lips. “Really.”

Sadie looks surprised for a second, then bursts out laughing. She takes a step closer, so she and Mary are nearly touching.

“Ah never thanked ya,” she says quietly, and takes a long, tired breath, and then looks Mary in the eyes again. “Fer savin’ mah life.”

“Oh, Sadie,” Mary protests, “I—I didn’t—”

“Y’did,” Sadie says firmly. “Thank you, Mary. Fer what y'did fer me.” Then, before Mary can quite decide how to react to that, Sadie reaches out and roughly pulls her into a gruff but decidedly affectionate embrace.

For the few seconds that Mary is held, she feels somehow at peace in a way visiting Arthur’s grave has never quite achieved. She buries her face into Sadie’s kerchief, wraps her own arms around Sadie’s back—mindful of her past injuries, even though by now, surely, they are completely healed—and hugs her tightly in return.

When they part, Sadie clears her throat roughly and avoids looking at Mary. “This’s fer you,” she says suddenly, unhooking the rabbit from her belt and thrusting it at Mary. “Y’kin eat it alone, if y’like, or—”

“Oh, Sadie,” Mary says, taking the woman by the wrist and dragging her inside.

They cook the rabbit into a rich, hearty stew with chopped vegetables and herbs. As they eat, Sadie answers Mary’s barrage of questions of what she’s been up to—traveling, mostly, going for easier bounties and smaller rewards in New Hanover and Lemoyne until she felt ready for more. Mary’s own recollection of her past few weeks is pathetically boring in comparison, but Sadie still asks, listening attentively, and Mary is flattered by her interest.

By the time they finish eating, it’s late, the blotched purple evening sky darkening to full night. Sadie heads outside to brush, pat and feed the horses, a ritual she usually completes when she stays over, though afterwards, to Mary’s surprise, rather than unpack her bedroll, set up her tent, and start herself a small campfire by the barn, Sadie returns to the kitchen and sits again at the table. Mary, who has just finished cleaning up from supper, looks at her curiously.

"Ah think, maybe…” Sadie says slowly, “Ah’ll sleep in th’ house tonight.” She glances quickly at Mary, and then away. “If that’s okay.”

Mary feels a little breathless, although she isn’t exactly sure why. Not once since they’ve known each other has Sadie accepted her invitation to sleep under her roof—clearly, her time battling and then recuperating from her bout of pneumonia does not exactly count. This is Sadie taking a clear step forward in their friendship, and Mary will be damned if she does not take a similar step to join her.

“Why, I think that’d be just fine.”

In the attic, Mary finds some extra blankets for Sadie, who declares she will sleep in the living room, on the floor, even though Mary offers better accommodations upstairs, in the guest room. Mary understands, in a way. Probably, the bounty hunter does not want to go too soft.

Back downstairs, Sadie is undressing for bed. Her duster is off, folded loosely on the back of a nearby chair, her hair unbraided and messy, the locks soft and half-curled from her plait. Her shirt is stiff with dirt and sweat, smelling powerfully of horse and gunpowder. Her pants are no better. There is even a hole in the knee, and another on the opposite calf.

“Would you like to take a bath, Sadie?” Mary offers kindly. Sadie may be a former outlaw and a currently legally employed bounty hunter, after all, but she is still a woman.

As expected, Sadie shakes her head. “Ah don’t wanna trouble ya—”

At once, Mary blanches at the word. Sadie sees it in her face, and flinches as well, as they are both reminded of their past fight, the cutting words hurled at each other in anger and fear.

Is that what you think? That you trouble me?

“Please, Sadie,” Mary says at a near whisper. “It’s no trouble at all.”

For a moment, there is silence. Then, to Mary’s delight, Sadie smiles at her wryly. “Alright, then. Why not?”

Mary immediately sets to work heating water while Sadie heads upstairs to the bathroom. Once the tub is halfway filled—good enough for Sadie, the woman insists—Mary goes to her bedroom and fetches a spare nightshirt.

She knocks before re-entering. Sadie is already partially undressed, her shirt unbuttoned to the waist, baring the pale, smooth strip of skin between her breasts and the divot of her belly button. Despite having seen it countless times before while caring for her, Mary feels herself flush hotly.

“Wear this,” she says, pushing the nightshirt at Sadie. “Leave your clothes outside the door. I’ll wash them while you bathe. They’ll be dry by the mornin'.”

Sadie, it seems, has learned better than to protest. She just takes the nightshirt and nods. “‘Preciate it.”

Mary leaves the bathroom in a fluster, feeling overly warm and terribly aware of her own awkwardness. She waits in her bedroom until she hears the thump of the bathroom door, and retrieves the clothing left there before heading downstairs. She heats more water, finds her scrub-board and some lye, and gives the shirt, pants, kerchief and underthings a good scrubbing, then hangs them on the clothesline outside to dry in the cool night air.

When she comes back inside, Sadie is still in the bath. Feeling odd and jittery, Mary decides to sit and wait downstairs for her to finish, and finds herself listening with intent to the quiet sounds of the other woman washing herself, and wonders why the thought of it makes her heart race so badly. Surely it’s perfectly normal, to be nervous of someone new in your home, even though Sadie Adler is anything but new to Mary.

When Sadie at last emerges from the bathroom and joins Mary downstairs, her sun-freckled skin is flushed pink from her own good scrubbing, hair loose and darkened from the water, leaving wet marks on the shoulders of the white nightshirt Mary has given her. All the hardness of her has been rubbed soft, at least for the moment. She smells clean and delicate, of Mary’s fragrant soap. The borrowed clothes are slightly big on her thinner frame, the shirt loose at the neck, baring a delicate throat and the white curve of her collarbone. Mary can see the ridges of her sternum, and the faint edge of her scar from one of the bullet wounds she received several months ago.

Heart thumping hard in her chest, Mary makes sure Sadie is settled and then bids her goodnight, going quickly upstairs—so quickly, in fact, she near trips and makes an utter fool of herself.

“Careful, now,” Sadie calls after her, her tone light—teasing, almost—and then laughs, warmly.

Mary practically runs to her bedroom. The silence within is no respite. As she undresses, the thinks of Sadie, just downstairs, and gets that strange feeling again, wondering what she would do if the tables were turned, and Sadie walked in on her in such a state, instead. Then, angry with herself, she dresses in her own nightshirt, gets into bed, and pulls the covers over her head.

She barely sleeps at all.

 

           

Life as Mary has known it for the past year or so resumes, only now, when Sadie pays her a visit every few weeks, it is not always for the purpose of going to see Arthur—they do still make the trek from time to time, only not so much as before. Rather, more often than not, when Sadie comes, now, it is to see Mary.

To Mary, this is terribly flattering. She tells Sadie there is no need to visit her so often if it is inconvenient, but Sadie brushes her concerns aside with her usual brusqueness. It is nice, Mary thinks, to have a friend who looks forward to seeing her just as much as Mary does in return.

When Sadie comes, she always brings a gift of one kind of another—a rare animal hide for Mary to marvel at, or sugary pastries from Saint Denis for them to share, or even just a good story, gleaned from a past bounty-hunting exploit of hers. Honestly, though, Mary would be happy even if Sadie came with nothing at all, just herself.

One evening, Sadie arrives with a crate of four bottles of whiskey, given to her by a bartender after she, supposedly, punched th’ lights outta some feller at th’ bar with a big mouth who wuz lookin’ t’ start some trouble. Mary allows Sadie to talk her into sampling some. They drink outside, under the light of the moon, sitting companionably on Mary’s front step, trading the bottle back and forth between them. Mary sips like a proper lady; Sadie drains. In Mary’s opinion, the whiskey is not very good, which is probably why the bartender gave it away in the first place, but liquor is liquor, and soon enough the world is going warm and loopy around her.

They are on their second bottle before Mary begins to feel weepy and sad, which is how whiskey and being drunk has always made her feel. Sadie, on the other hand, is growing boisterous, hooting and hollering like Arthur used to when he had too much to drink. Lord, that man.

Sadie, drunk as she is, finishes another burning quaff from the bottle with a harsh cough and a drawn-out, “Jee-zus!” and then immediately notices Mary’s wet eyes and leans toward her with a panicked expression. “Mary!” she cries, her words slightly slurred. Her breath smells powerfully of whiskey. “Y’okay?”

“Oh, yes, I just… Here.” Mary takes the whiskey bottle from her and finishes it up, though she knows she shouldn’t. The weepiness fades under the burn of the alcohol, but returns only a few moments later, stronger than ever.

“Why y’cryin’?” Sadie asks, shuffling closer and putting her arm around Mary’s shoulders. “Did—did Ah do somethin’—?”

“No, Sadie, of course not. I love it when you visit.” And Mary does, but perhaps a little too much. Having Sadie around so much is spoiling her to another’s company. She tries to ignore the warmth of Sadie’s arm around her, the weight of it against the nape of her neck.

Sadie plucks another bottle from the crate and holds it between her knees to unscrew the lid one-handed. Rather than drink, however, she merely looks at it thoughtfully, then puts it on the porch next to them. With her free hand she finds a cigarette in her shirt pocket, puts it between her lips, lights a match on the side of her boot, and starts to smoke.

“Mus' be lonely out here, fer a lady like you,” she drawls, after a quiet moment.

Mary feels the weepiness surge again, but bears down against it. Where normally she would lie, and say, Why, I’m just fine out here by my lonesome, she admits, “It is.”

"Well, why don’t y’go find a nice feller t’take care a’ you, then?” Sadie suggests.

"Oh, Sadie, it’s not that simple—”

"Ain’t it? Lookit you. Feller’d have t’be a fool not t’marry ya.”

Flushed from the alcohol and the compliment, Mary laughs. “I can’t even remember the last time I went out with a man.” The whiskey seizes her brain, and she blurts, “No, wait, I do. It was Arthur. In—in Saint Denis. I’d written to him, and he came to see me, about some trouble I had with my Daddy.” She smiles to herself at the memory. “Oh, Arthur hated him, but he still helped me. My Daddy, he sold my mother’s brooch to some—some no-good businessman, but he—Arthur, he chased him down and got it back.”

"Ha!” Sadie mumbles. “Sure sounds like Arthur, alright.”

“He took me out on the town, afterwards.” The smile on Mary’s face grows bigger, until her cheeks are aching from it. Her words come faster with excitement, stumbling over each other. “We—we went to see a show together, it was amazin'. Dancin' girls, and—and a fire charmer, and… And when it was done and he was—was walkin' me to the trolley, he—” Here, her voice warbles, but she foolishly keeps on. “He said he’d run away with me. Only, after that one last job.” Tears fill her eyes, clog her throat. The arm around her shoulders tighten.

“Mary,” Sadie says.

“That’s when I knew he was gone,” Mary sobs. “I’d never had him to begin with.”

She cries, her tears fueled by whiskey and and loneliness and a deep sorrow tinged with past regrets. Sadie tsks, stubs out her cigarette, and holds her, patting her back with a firm hand.

“Don’t y'cry, now, Mary Linton,” Sadie slurs. “Arthur, he loved ya, and you loved him, but maybe y’ jes' weren’t meant t’ be. That don’t mean yer always gonna be alone. Ah mean… Ah’m here, ain’t Ah?”

Mary sniffles, hopelessly drunk. She lets Sadie wipe her face with her kerchief, blows her nose.

“There, now,” says Sadie, a silly-looking grin on her face, as if trying to cheer Mary up. “Tha’s better. S'all gonna be okay.”

Sadie releases her, but keeps a hand on Mary’s knee. They don’t speak again, just watch the stars and sit there, together, drinking. Mary is glad for the silence, because suddenly she feels very strange again, like she did the night Sadie slept in her living room. That nervousness is back, thudding at her heart and stomach whenever Sadie is near to her or kind.

But it’s familiar now, this feeling. It has a name.

This is how Mary used to feel when she first met Arthur.

 

 

Less than two weeks later, Mary hears the faint thud of hoofbeats coming up the road to her house late in the afternoon, followed by the heavy thump of boots on her porch. She knows it’s Sadie, and feels her heart give a delighted little thump, even while her stomach twists and knots itself with sudden nerves. Mary feels as though she is not quite ready to face her friend, not so soon after her realization, and yet is terribly eager to see her.

Rather than Sadie loudly announcing herself and entering the house as she usually does if she knows Mary is home, Mary instead hears a polite knock on her front door. Curious, and slightly confused, she puts down the cloth she’s been wiping her dishes with, and answers, and feels her breath catch in her throat at the very sight.

It is, of course, Sadie Adler at her door, but it is a Sadie Adler Mary has never seen before. This Sadie Adler is wearing what looks to be her Sunday best—she has on a perfectly ironed dress shirt and new black trousers with a smart set of striped suspenders, looking as if they are all from a professional tailor. Her hair is neat and brushed, a gleaming, glossy wheat color, floating loose around her shoulders. Her usual kerchief is gone, leaving her slender, beauty-mark dotted neck bare, the skin there whiter than the rest of her. Her boots have been pristinely blackened and her spurs, belt buckle, and holster fastenings have been polished to a high shine. There is not a speck of dust on her. She smells wonderfully clean, as if she just bathed that very morning. Even her hat is new, the dark brown leather perfectly stitched and looking soft as a cloud.

“Sadie,” Mary says breathlessly, knowing she must sound an utter fool, feeling her ears go red at her own silliness. “What—ah—what're you doin' here?”

Sadie smiles at her and tucks her thumbs into her belt, cocking her hips to the side in a way that’s almost arrogant, which Mary is dismayed to find she likes very much.

“What y’think Ah’m doin’ here?” she says. With one hand, she flicks the brim of her hat playfully. “Go git dressed. Ah’m takin’ y'out on th' town.”

Mary’s very first instinct is to refuse. Going out, at her age and standing, is a immature, girlish thing to do, her time better spent here at home, working on things that need to be worked on, or doing something quiet like washing or reading.

Her second instinct is to be utterly charmed. Sadie is doing something incredibly kind—she listened to Mary bemoan her solitary situation when last they saw each other, drinking that horrible whiskey, and now she wants to make her happy by doing this. It’s so terribly sweet Mary almost wants to cry again.

"Oh, Sadie,” she says, not sure at all of what to say.

"Ah won’t take no fer an answer! Ah insist. Now go on, git!” Sadie pushes her back into the house and steers her toward the stairs to her bedroom. “Put on yer fanciest dress an’ powder yer face n’ all that other womanly nonsense. We ain’t got all day!”

Ready to protest, Mary sees the eager look on Sadie’s face, the childish light in her eyes, and gives in. Really, what harm could it do, to have herself a little fun with her friend?

She puts herself together the best way she knows how, putting on her most sparkling jewelry and applying her makeup with care. Her hair, she arranges artfully before choosing, as Sadie commanded, her most beautiful dress in her closet.

When she comes down the stairs, feeling halfway a fool and a princess, Sadie stands up from her seat at the table.

"Well,” she says softly, and Mary can barely stand the warmth in her eyes. “Ain’t you a pretty picture? Ah’ll hafta fight t’ keep th’ fellers away. C'mon, now.” She holds out her elbow for Mary to take—which she does, with a fluttering feeling in her chest—and leads her outside to Bob, whose coat has been brushed to a glowing golden sheen and his mane appropriately braided.

Mary expects Sadie to mount first and pull her up like usual, but Sadie instead steps very close and takes her by the sides, politely lifting her onto Bob’s rump with ease. Then she climbs up, makes sure Mary is comfortable, and trots them at an easy pace toward town.

It’s a whirlwind once they arrive. Mary is dizzy with giddiness within minutes. Sadie takes her everywhere; the moving pictures, the Vaudeville theater shows, dancing—oh, Mary can’t remember the last time she went dancing! Sadie doesn’t quite know the steps, but she follows well enough, and even spins Mary a few times, just for fun, and flair. They go to the stores, where Sadie buys Mary anything she likes; all she has to do is look at something for longer than a moment, and Sadie will have it boxed up for her. Mary chides her, but Sadie just laughs.

“Ah’ve got plenty a’ money. Won’t y’ let me treat ya?”

Mary cannot deny those earnest words, or that face. This night is almost like a dream.

For dinner, they eat at a ridiculously fancy restaurant. Sadie may be dressed up to fit in with the rest of the crowd, but she is brash and coarse as always, complaining about the “racket” the string orchestra in the corner makes, smoking and ordering whiskey by the bottle, and laughing too loudly at the stories Mary shares with her. Mary ignores the looks they are getting, focused completely on the woman across from her instead.

It is, in all honestly, the most fun Mary’s had in months. Years, maybe. Traipsing about with Arthur in Saint Denis had been a wonderful time for Mary but this… This is something else entirely.

As their evening winds down, Sadie helps her back onto Bob and takes her home, but reins him in well short of the house. To walk her home, Mary realizes, and feels a warm pang in her chest at how romantic it seems to her.

"Well, ma’am,” Sadie jokes as she slides off her horse with a jingle of her holsters. “Ah cert'inly hope y’ enjoyed yer evenin’.” She reaches up, catching Mary under the arms and gently lowering her down. Suddenly they are face to face.

"Thank you, Sadie,” Mary says softly. Appearing not to notice her sudden nervousness, Sadie holds out her elbow again. Mary takes it, and they begin to walk up the road toward her house. “This has been… Oh, it’s been wonderful.”

"Ain’t nothin’ y'don’t deserve. Fine lady like yerself should be swept off ‘er feet. S’only proper.”

Mary blushes. “You flatter me.”

Sadie grins kindly at her. “Ain’t flattery when it’s th’ truth.”

By the time they reach her porch, Mary is a mess. Her heart is racing, her hands sweating. This has been quite possibly the greatest day she’s ever had. Everything is just so… so nice, just then; the sun is setting and the crickets are chirping and the air is warm and Sadie—Sadie has been so kind to her all evening, so chivalrous and attentive in a way Mary hasn’t experienced in so long, and it makes her think of Arthur and even of Barry—and she is feeling so many things at that moment, confused and happy and foolish and scared, the warmth that has been building inside of her for months now reaching a peak—

—and that's when Mary does something very, very stupid.

They have stopped at the bottom of the steps of Mary’s porch, and Sadie is smiling down at her sweetly. Mary thinks perhaps she’s just said something—asked if she and Bob could spend the night, or maybe bidding her a fond farewell—but Mary doesn’t hear it, doesn’t comprehend it, and feels as though she has lost complete control of herself, because suddenly she finds herself leaning forward and kissing Sadie Adler square on the mouth.

Mary has certainly never kissed a woman before. She has never even considered such a thing. To do so would be unladylike. Sadie’s mouth, though chapped, is full, and softer than a man’s. She’s isn’t much taller than her, either, so Mary doesn’t have to crick her neck back like she did with her husband or Arthur. Her face is soft, as well, without the harsh catch of stubble on her cheeks and chin. She smells soft and flowery and feminine—

—and that’s when Mary realizes exactly what she’s just done, and drags herself back into reality—

—because this isn’t Barry, or Arthur, this isn’t even a man, it’s Sadie Adler, Arthur’s friend and previous member of the Van der Linde gang, a bounty hunter and a woman besides, and Mary is kissing her because she’s a damn lonely fool who can’t keep her head out of the clouds for longer than a second—

She pulls away from Sadie with a harsh gasp, and claps a hand to her mouth, horrified with herself, and just stands there, frozen in disbelief. She risks a single glance at Sadie, who stands similarly frozen. Her eyes are wide, shocked.

“I—I’m so sorry,” Mary manages to whisper, backing slowly away from her.

Sadie blinks. Her face is white. “Mary—”

“I—I—” Mary’s heart, beating so quickly only moments ago, has gone cold and heavy in her chest. Her throat aches. She can feel the sorrow coming, the shame, building in the back of her throat. In a strangled voice, she says, “Goodbye, Mrs. Adler,” and then spins around and practically runs up the porch steps to her house.

She fumbles with the front latch, falls inside, slams the door shut behind her and then leans against it, legs gone weak with horror. She feels sick. Frightened of what she’s done. What she’s ruined. She stays like that until, eventually, she hears the faint jingle of Sadie walking away, mounting her horse and riding slowly off.

Mary’s heart breaks as it always does—in silence, alone once more.

 

 

Every day without Sadie tightens one of the tangled knots in Mary’s chest and loosens another; at once cravenly relieved by her continued absence and yet needfully anxious that the other woman has not yet returned to her doorstep, though she cannot even begin to imagine what she will do if that day were to ever come.

Mary knows she is a coward, too afraid to face the consequences of her actions, hiding from them as she is. This… friendship blossoming between her and Sadie, she’s ruined it. All those months, all those moments—the strength of their quickly forged bond, the pain of their bitter fighting, the subtle warmth of their making up—destroyed by one small, unforgettable mistake. Mary knows now, it was an immature, foolish thing to do.

And so now she does something just a foolish, to forget.

There is a man in town, named Thomas Campbell. He is a lawyer, and owns a small but reputable business which Mary guesses is somewhat successful, based on the size of his estate. He is a widower. He is also very obviously sweet on Mary, and has been since she moved to New Austin some time ago. Mary’s never encouraged him, always managing to turn down his advances politely enough, and eventually, the doggedly-earnest man found the forthwith to cease.

Now, though, she goes calling to him.

Thomas is delighted by this new development. During the next several weeks, he begins a whirlwind courtship of Mary. He buys her things. Takes her out to dinner. Sends letters filled with flowery prose. Mary grits her teeth through it all, and tells herself it is for the best. She just needs to forget.

A few days later, she is on a date with Thomas in town, walking down the street with her hand on his elbow as he prattles on about some legal case or another. Mary is not exactly listening, just pretending. She has discovered, lately, she is quite good at it.

It happens, then, in the space of only a few seconds; providence interferes once again into Mary’s life. Mary, who has been trying very hard these past few weeks not to think about a certain woman, happens to look up, and sees, there across the street, the very woman she has been so afraid of seeing, and feels as her breath is snatched right out of her chest, leaving her lungs stricken and her mouth agape. Her knees wobble for a split second before she manages to continue on.

Sadie has not seen her. She is standing in front of the Sheriff’s office, an uncocked sawed-off shotgun held in the crook of her arm and one boot planted square on the back of a swearing, squirming bounty, hogtied on the ground, Bob hitched up just beside them. Sadie has a large bruise on her cheek and a torn sleeve edged with dried blood—a cold spear of alarm pierces Mary’s heart, seeing that—and her hair is mussed and half-out of her braid. She is covered head to toe in dirt and dust and whatever else, as if she perhaps wrestled with the man now writhing there on the ground. Mary can smell the musty scent of horse and the sharp stink of gunpowder on her duster even from where she’s standing, and feels herself ache sharply with a pulse of pure yearning.

Noticing Mary’s falter, Thomas glances across the street as well, and sees Sadie standing there in her filthy hat and duster. “Riff-raff,” he sneers. “Come along, Mary.”

Mary swallow tightly, and obeys. It is for the best.

Just then, Bob smells Mary, and, as if in recognition, snorts and lifts his head, ears perked. Following the movement, Sadie looks up as well. Unerringly, her gaze lands on Mary. Their eyes meet.

Sadie’s face goes completely still, but for a single muscle in her jaw, flexing wildly. Her eyes dart from Mary—dressed today in one of her finest skirts and blouses, hair done up beautifully in a french braid—to Thomas—graying hair slicked back with pomade, wire glasses perched on the end of his nose, suit jacket buttoned smartly. Her nostrils flare. Mary, for a second, is terrified of what might happen next. Sadie looks, quite frankly, as though she would very much like to shoot Thomas Campbell right there in the street.

But then, without a word, Sadie looks away. She slides her shotgun into Bob’s harness, then bends and grabs her bounty by the ankles and drags him, thumping up the steps, into the Sheriff’s office, kicking the door shut behind her, leaving Mary feeling faint and helplessly confused, wondering why, just now, Sadie had seemed so very upset. Isn’t Mary doing what Sadie herself suggested, that night on her porch, soused from whiskey? Finding a nice man to take care of her, to be sweet on her, so she won’t be so terribly lonely?

Mary exhales, feeling slightly sick, even though she has done nothing wrong. Thomas, thankfully, doesn’t seem to notice, and continues to prattle on, undeterred.

Despite Mary’s quickly failing appetite, they decide to dine at a popular restaurant in town. Mary picks at her food, allowing Thomas to lead the conversation, a duty he takes on with aplomb. His words become an indistinct buzz in her ears until she hears something that sounds like marriage and nearly drops her fork, sure she has not heard correctly. For Thomas to propose to her so fast is incredibly rash. She hasn’t even kissed him yet. If he—

The front doors of the restaurant slam open with such force they hit the walls on either side and rebound, glass panes rattling fiercely. One cracks with an audible snick. Mary jumps in her seat, as do most other people in the restaurant, and then feels herself go stark white as Sadie comes storming into the room in a flurry of her duster’s tails and a furious scowl etched on her face. One by one, she sears each person seated with her murderous, searching gaze until she lands on Mary.

Mary gulps, unable to move. Before she can speak, Sadie is stomping across the room, straight toward her, her holsters and guns jingling sharply in tandem to her stalking stride. Mary can’t help but stare at the way her narrow hips roll with every step.

“Sadie—” she gets out weakly.

But Sadie doesn’t even look at her now—she is looking at Thomas, who goggles up at her with his mouth open.

“Who the hell—?” he begins, just as Sadie grabs him by his freshly laundered lapel and yanks, pulling him halfway out of his chair and tipping his drink off the table.

“Sadie!” cries Mary. Now the entire restaurant is staring at them. Oh, Lord!

“C’mere, feller,” Sadie snarls at Thomas. “Ah gotta talk t’ya.” Without another word, she drags him right out of his seat and pulls him, kicking and shouting in outrage, from the restaurant, exactly as if he is a $200 bounty of hers, wanted dead or alive.

Mary is beyond mortified. She doesn’t dare look around, just ducks her head, mumbles an apology to any who can hear, and hurries out of the restaurant after them. She follows the racket of Thomas grunting and cursing to a side alleyway, where she finds Sadie leaning dangerously over him, one fist pulled back threateningly.

“Sadie!” she gasps, snatching at the wrist of that upraised hand. “What in God’s name are you doin'?”

Teeth bared, Sadie rips her arm away, and turns her ire from Thomas to Mary. “Who th’ hell's this feller?” she barks.

“How dare—!” Thomas starts, then gurgles as Sadie tightens her grip on his lapel.

“Shut yer mouth!” Sadie snaps back at him. “Ah’m talkin’ t’ th’ lady!” To Mary, she barks again, “Who—?”

Mary flounders. “He—I—Thomas. Thomas Campbell.”

“An’ who th’ hell is Thomas Campbell?” Sadie says with a sneer, making his name sound like an insult.

“I’ll have you know—” Thomas tries again, but Sadie growls and shakes him like a dog with a rat in its mouth. He yelps, goes quiet.

“He’s a… a gentleman from town,” Mary says. When Sadie narrows her eyes, upper lip drawing up into a nasty scowl, Mary blurts, “He’s been… callin’ on me.”

Sadie turns back to Thomas, looking as though she’s two seconds from putting a bullet in his eye. “Has he, now?” she growls.

“Sadie, please,” Mary says. “I’m—I was just takin' your advice. Findin' a nice man to—to take care—”

“Ha!” Sadie scoffs. “This feller couldn’t take care’va sick horse with a cold!”

As if that were the last straw of such an affront to his manhood, Thomas slaps Sadie’s hand from his shirt and leaps to his feet. He raises his fists sloppily and swings wildly at Sadie, missing her face but knocking her hat off her head in a shower of dust. Sadie ducks back, cocks her fist again, and lays him out with a solid sock to the nose. Mary hears a crunch, sees blood spurt from his nostrils.

“Yee-ow!” shouts Thomas, cupping his nose in his hand, eyes visibly tearing up. “You—you hooligan!”

Sadie looms over him threateningly. A hand slides the edge of her duster back, baring one of the revolvers on her hip. “This hooligan’s givin’ y' five seconds t’ run, feller. Five—!”

At four, Thomas is already up and running. He doesn’t give Mary a single glance. Mary watches him go, and doesn’t have it in her to shout for him to come back. She can imagine Thomas Campbell will never come calling on her again. Through the humiliation rises the boil of her temper. She picks up Sadie’s hat from where it’s fallen on the ground and hits her with it.

“Hey!” growls Sadie, having the gall to sound indignant. After that.

Mary hits her again. “Sadie Adler, I can't believe you!” Whack! “You can’t just… just go around hurtin' people like that!” Whack! “You’re actin' like some no-good, low-down outlaw!” Whack! “Why, you’re—you’re no better than Arthur used to be, back when he was beatin' people for money—!”

This time, Sadie catches Mary’s arm and holds it to the side. “Ah ain’t Arthur!” she bellows.

“Believe me, I'm aware!” Mary retorts. “He, at least, acted like a gentleman at times!”

“What, fightin’ fer yer honor ain’t gentlem’nly, now?”

“You weren’t fightin' for my honor, you were fightin' for you!

“Now, lissen here—”

“No, you listen,” Mary cuts in, having had just about enough, “unless you have somethin' important to say to me—most obviously an apology for your behavior just now—then I suggest you make yourself useful and leave me the Hell alone!

“Why?” Sadie juts her chin out, grabbing her hat from Mary and jamming it back onto her head. “S’ y’ can go find that Thomas Campbell feller agin n’ flutter yer goddam eyelashes at ‘im?”

“I—I just might!”

“You even like ‘im?”

“I… I…” Suddenly Mary is furious. “That’s none of your business!”

“You don’t like ‘im!" Sadie crows triumphantly. "Ah knew it! Y'don't want 'im at all—!”

Mary scoffs. “You haven’t the slightest idea of what I want, Sadie Adler!”

The feral light in Sadie’s eyes is back. Her face takes on that stubborn, mulish expression from the very first time they met. “S'that what you think?”

Before Mary can answer, Sadie seizes her by the back of the neck with her free hand and yanks her forward, and then suddenly they are kissing there in the dark, closed space between buildings, utterly furious with each other and yet hopelessly entangled.

Mary, on her part, puts up a bit of a fight at first, hitting at Sadie’s shoulders with her fists and making muffled sounds of outrage, but her heart isn’t in it, it’s somewhere else entirely right now, and after only a moment or two of struggle, she’s clinging to the front of Sadie’s worn old duster and kissing her back with everything she has while Sadie does the same. Ever the brute, she ruins Mary’s hair. Her mouth tastes sour and musty from the tobacco of those foul cigarettes of hers. Mary can’t get enough.

Somehow, after an unknown amount of time, she comes back to herself and rips away. On instinct—though quite a delayed one—Mary slaps her; a glancing blow more than anything, knocking Sadie’s hat off her head a second time, but a slap all the same.

They stand there for a moment, in shock. Mary is breathing hoarsely, like she’s just run a mile uphill. Sadie’s mouth hangs open, eyes wide, like a horse seconds from bolting.

“I—I have to—” Mary chokes out, then gathers what’s left of her dignity and walks briskly out of the alley, telling herself she is still furious with Sadie for the scene she caused in the restaurant, and for the way she treated Thomas after that, despite the fervent way Mary may have kissed her just now.

Finding her horse takes a bit—Mary’s thoughts are all awhirl, and her legs are shaking, and she still can’t seem to catch her breath at all—but eventually she spots the mare waiting patiently by the stables, and climbs on without bothering to properly arrange her skirts. She risks a glance behind her, sees a distant shape further down the street she instantly recognizes as Sadie atop her own horse, watching her in silence, and heels Bela to a canter. She can feel those eyes on her the entire way home.

 

 

A week passes since the unseemly restaurant incident. Town is all a-titter about it for a few days, but then Mrs. Matthews, the butcher’s wife, leaves her husband for a ranch owner near Strawberry, and everyone stops talking about Mary and starts talking about her instead. Mary is grateful for the diversion, though she’s sure Mr. Matthews is not.

When Mary dares to visit town again, a few days afterwards, she does not see Sadie, though she tells herself she is not looking for her. In a way, she is glad Sadie has kept her distance lately. It has allowed Mary’s temper a chance to simmer and then cool, so the next time she sees her—and there will be a next time, she’s sure of it—she won’t be so spitting mad at the other woman.

She very well still might slap her, however, just because.

The weather is warm, but Mary can hear the distant growl of thunder, can see the darkening clouds on the horizon. Rain is coming. At the stores, she buys her usual provisions and then quickly heads home through a misting sprinkle, only to stop in her tracks in front of her house. Bob is munching hay by Bela under the cover of the open-stalled barn, and a skinned rabbit is cooking on a spit above a sputtering campfire nearby. On her porch is Sadie Adler, a cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth and her hat tipped low, the leather spotted dark by the beginnings of rain. At the sound of Mary’s approach, she flicks the brim up with a finger.

“Howdy,” she drawls, in that rumbling, familiar rasp of hers.

“...Hello,” Mary replies. Now that she no longer has her anger to rely upon like a crutch, she has no earthly idea what to do next.

Sadie nods toward the glistening rabbit. “Brought y’somethin’ t’ eat.”

“I—” Mary starts, wondering if she should refuse or not; if she should pretend everything is fine, and accept, or shout and swear and demand Sadie leave for all the confusion she has caused her lately. Today, she finds she simply doesn’t have the strength to resist this woman. And really, she would like to get out of this rain. “Thank you. Bring it inside once it’s done. I’ll find some biscuits and open a can of greens.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mary tries very, very hard not to react to that, but feels herself flush anyways. Sadie is watching her closely, so Mary walks stiffly up the porch stairs past her and on into the house.

The rain comes hard and heavy after the rabbit is cooked, hitting the roof of Mary’s house like a hail of rocks. Sadie comes inside with rivulets streaming from her duster and hat. Mary hangs them to dry for her so they can sit comfortably at the table. Their meal is stilted and awkward, though the food itself is delicious. Mary doesn’t know what to say, how to act. She finds herself at a loss for conversation, staring fleetingly at Sadie’s mouth, her kerchiefed neck, her bare, flexing forearms. She feels nervous as a rabbit in an open field. Sadie herself seems calmer than usual. Calculating. The way Arthur used to get, while planning for a heist with the Van der Lindes.

Once the food is gone, Sadie smokes a cigarette or two by the crackling fireplace while Mary, who’s rebuffed her offer to help, cleans up. They don’t much speak. Mary feels as though she is helplessly waiting to see what will happen next.

Sadie finishes her cigarette, stands. Mary’s heart leaps into her throat. Then she sees Sadie reaching for her duster and hat, still dripping on their pegs, and swallows it back down into her chest, abruptly dismayed. Sadie won’t be staying there tonight, with her.

Redressed, Sadie turns to her, face oddly blank, thumbs tucked into the low-slung holsters at her hips. Mary tries not to let her disappointment show, and smiles at her, perhaps a little sadly.

“Thank you, Sadie, for visitin',” she says, sincerely.

Sadie nods. She seems to hesitate for a moment, her mouth opening and closing several times. She leans toward Mary, then away. Then she nods again, turns, and leaves the house.

Through the roar of the rain, Mary hears Bob snort as he’s led out of the barn into the downpour, hooves stamping wetly in the mud. From the open doorway, she watches as Sadie rides off into the storm, hunched beneath her hat and duster against the driving rain, and wonders, not for the first time when it comes to this woman, whether or not this is the last she’ll ever see of her.

 

 

Falling asleep is difficult, that night, and not just because of the pounding rain. Mary keeps hearing small sounds from downstairs, her restless mind startling her back to awareness each time with impossible conclusions of what it might be. Mice, she tells herself. It’s only mice. No one else. Now you stop that, Mary Linton, and you go to sleep.

In the dead of night, she jerks from a murky doze to a softening, distant growl of thunder, the rainstorm moving on, and knows, at once, that someone is in her house. She jolts to her elbows, ready to shout, to scream, to reach for that gun in her nightstand, and then recognizes the faint, familiar jingle of a certain set of gun holsters, as someone climbs her stairs.

Mary sits up further, suddenly faint and breathless. She’s fallen asleep with a candle still lit, though burning low now, and in its flickering light, she can see a shadow grow under the bottom crack of her bedroom door. For a long, tortured instant, Mary waits, despite the fact that she already knows who it is, and that all that separates them in this moment is several inches of boarded wood and nails.

A few seconds later, there is a faint knock on her door.

Mary’s voice shakes as she calls out, “Come in.”

Sadie steps inside. She is fully dressed and soaked practically to the bone. Mary can hear her shivering from the bed. Her hat is pulled low, the brim covering her eyes. In the low burn of the candle, Mary can see her mouth, drawn into a tight line, and the hard clench of her jaw. Rain drips from her hair, her chin, from the tails of her duster, making a puddle on Mary’s floor, the steady plink, plink, plink of it filling the silence between them.

“Sadie?” Mary whispers.

Sadie doesn’t answer. She does, however, lift her head, so Mary can see her drawn, apprehensive face. Her eyes are bright and fierce. She makes not a move, as if she is waiting for something. For Mary.

Mary lets out a shaky breath, and then twitches back her covers the slightest bit in invitation. Her heart is pounding madly in her throat. She has goosebumps.

Slowly, Sadie approaches the bed. Along the way, she removes her hat, duster, and boots, dropping each rudely on the floor with a wet thump as she goes, though Mary could not care less for the mess they will leave on her boards. Her bandolier and twin holsters are treated with a bit more care, and placed on a chair at Mary’s desk. Then Sadie is at her bedside, sliding herself between the warm sheets as Mary holds them open. They settle, facing one another. Mary’s bed is small. Their knees knock. Their arms bump. Sadie’s body is damp and cold. They share Mary’s pillow and look quietly at one another for a long while as Sadie’s shivers gradually stop.

Finally, Sadie speaks. Her voice is low and raspy and grave. “Arthur said somethin’ t’me once. …Me an’ him, we’re ghosts. More dead ’n alive. We ain’t real people. We got no place in this world.”

“Why, that can’t be true,” Mary whispers back. She shifts closer, trying to give Sadie’s cold body some of her warmth. “If you’re a ghost, what're you doin' here with me?”

Sadie gazes at her thoughtfully. Her face is soft-looking despite her scars, harsh skin gleaming faintly from the rain. “Dunno.” She sniffs sharply. “…Hauntin’ you, Ah guess.”

Mary hurts for her, for this woman who thinks she is lost to the rest of the world and everyone in it. She wants desperately to prove her wrong, but she isn’t quite sure how. She is still learning, herself, how to belong.

“Sadie Adler,” she whispers into the gloom of her room, “you have my permission to haunt me as long as you like, until you feel like passin' on.”

Sadie’s smile is bittersweet. She touches Mary’s face with a frigid, coarse-fingered hand. Mary badly wants to kiss her, then, but isn’t brave enough.

Sadie is.

She leans in, and Mary feels her breath catch. Their mouths touch and hold like a secret. Mary closes her eyes, and takes it all in—the rain-sweet smell of Sadie’s skin and breath, the feel of her soft wet hair against Mary’s brow, the press of her cold chapped mouth, the hardness of her body taking up space in Mary’s bed. She is really here. It’s not a dream.

She whimpers, faintly, and hears Sadie make a comforting noise in response, like a practiced rider settling their skittish mount. The hand on her face cups her jaw and holds her still. Sadie is so very gentle as she kisses her, tilting her own head this way and that, as if trying to find the best way how. She doesn’t kiss like Barry, or Arthur, the only two men Mary has ever done such things with before—in fact, Sadie doesn’t kiss like a man at all. With a man, there is always an urgency, an unconscious impatience on their behalf to get to the next part. With Sadie, Mary feels no rush, just a lasting, lazy sort of intent, like the glow of a well-banked fire about to burst with heat.

They kiss for what feels like hours, there in that bed, until Mary’s mouth is sore and aching, lips bee-stung and swollen. She feels as though she is a candle, slowly melting from the heat of a brilliant flame. Rather than retreat, she finds she wants to get closer, to burn. Soon she cannot control the noises coming from her mouth—soft sighs, quiet gasps. She finds air when she can, in quick, ragged little snatches, and moans startlingly, embarrassingly loud when Sadie strokes her warm tongue over her own, and freezes, paralyzed by her own mortification.

Sadie shifts, then, and rolls Mary to her back, straddling her hips in an easy, practiced motion that makes Mary’s blood rush in her ears, bracing herself above her before pressing the length of their bodies together. She’s not terribly heavy—Mary likes the weight, the slight dizziness it gives her. Sadie’s shirt and pants are still damp from the rain, the chill of the cloth soaking quickly through Mary’s thin nightshirt. Her nipples prick and strain against the material, tingling faintly from the chafe.

They kiss again, Mary becoming lost in it, forgetting herself, her modesty. Even though she has always found her little house cool and drafty during the night, suddenly the room is stifling. Sweat prickles on the back of her neck, at her temples and back, and she kicks past Sadie’s hip at the covers draped over them until they’re off.

She feels a tug, and then a sudden coolness on her legs, and starts, realizing Sadie is trying to pull her nightdress off. She stops when Mary sits up, a guilty yet undeniably hungry look in those coyote eyes of hers. Mary can’t help but kiss her, once, breathing harshly against her mouth in quick pants. Then, feeling no better than those… girls who used to run with Arthur and his gang, she helps Sadie ruck the thin material up past her thighs and hips and arches her back to slide it off over her head, her loose hair tumbling across her shoulders and back, leaving her utterly naked there on the bed.

The room is dark, now, the candle having since gone out, but Mary can see the shadowy expression on Sadie’s face well enough—a fierce look of starving want and frustrated need. Mary feels herself flush from her own forwardness, laying there without a stitch of clothing while Sadie is still almost fully dressed.

A chilled hand settles on her naked hip, and Mary jumps like a startled horse, gasping as Sadie sways forward and presses her to the bed again under the weight of her small, hard body. She flinches and cries out when the shocking cold of Sadie’s belt buckle touches her bare stomach. They kiss again, frantically now, hurried—though, Mary is afraid to admit, she is particularly inexperienced with what comes next. She is perfectly aware of what relations between a man and a woman entail—having been a married woman herself for some years, and young and in love long before that—but between two women… Well, Mary hasn’t the faintest.

Sadie seems to have something of an idea, however, and leaves Mary’s gasping mouth to kiss at her sensitive neck and shoulders. Her hands lower and trace Mary’s breasts, cup them, the tiny knots of her calluses, earned from her years of gunslinging, catching on her nipples. Mary swallows her cries down, knowing it’s unseemly for a lady to be too loud in bed, squeezing her eyes shut and biting her lip in agony as Sadie trails her mouth down the flat of her sternum. With those work-weathered hands of hers, she holds Mary’s breasts to her mouth, kisses them scandalously. Mary is rigid in her pleasure, fingers twisting at the sheets under them.

At last, Sadie has mercy, and ceases her torture, returning to Mary’s mouth with a fervor. Mary almost doesn’t notice the hand on her flank again until it slides across the sharp point of her hipbone and down, parting through her dark hair to find where she is hot and wet and tender.

Mary bucks and cries out at the sudden touch, but Sadie’s hands, strong and sure after years of keeping unruly horses steady and tame to her will, hold her in place. Lord, that strength. Mary has never much liked being manhandled by her few past lovers, but something about having a woman doing the handling appeals to her.

As only another woman can do so effortlessly, Sadie finds the crux of her within seconds, and lingers there, making slow circles. Mary looses a strangled sound and thrusts her hips brazenly toward her—later, she will be ashamed of such wanton behavior. For now, she can think of nothing but those rough, hard-edged fingers, and Sadie, hovering above her on her elbow, watching her so intensely, and the white-hot coil tightening like a corkscrew in her stomach.

It happens before Mary can prepare for it—Sadie’s fingers quicken, her mouth lowers again to Mary’s neck, and the moment her lips hits skin, the coil snaps. Mary turns her face and gasps into her pillow as she seizes, her body hitching again and again with fiery spasms. Sadie kisses her shoulders soothingly, murmuring her name, again and again. Panting, Mary sags to the bed, spent.

When she at last manages to open her eyes and look dazedly upward, Sadie is gazing down at her hand, and the wetness clinging in threads to her fingertips. Mary feels herself go bright red at the sight, and then Sadie raises those same fingers to her face and licks them, and Lord, it’s just about the most crass thing Mary’s ever seen in her life. She covers her face with her hands and tries not to burst from embarrassment.

Sadie,” she hisses. “Goodness.”

Sadie, of course, just laughs, not chastened in the least. “Ah wuz jes’ curious.” She wipes the rest on Mary’s sheets, leans down to kiss Mary’s burning hot ear. “Y’ taste—”

Sadie!” Mary practically shrieks.

Once Sadie has finished laughing—and Mary no longer feels as though she is going to die from humiliation alone—she flops herself beside Mary, all loose and warm and rain-damp and lovely. Mary turns her face into her pillow again, feeling bashful for what they’ve done; she hadn’t known two women could make love like they did, never mind or not if they should. That, Mary will deal with later.

Now that it’s become entirely clear to her that they very well can, Mary feels her lingering embarrassment make way for curiosity. Boldly, she reaches forward, and plucks at one of the buttons of Sadie’s shirt, looking up at the other woman through her lashes in askance. She hopes Sadie won’t make her say it aloud, or do something depraved, like beg. Mary might very well do it, for how desperate she's feeling, just now.

Sadie, however, seems to realize how large of a step this is Mary is taking, and puts her hand over Mary’s smaller, softer one. Together, they work their way through Sadie’s buttons and remove her shirt. The scars decorated across her whiplean torso gives Mary only a moment’s pause. They aren’t ugly, or frightening. In fact, Mary wants to find and kiss each one, for making them who Sadie is now. She puts her palm between Sadie's breasts and just holds it there, feeling as her chest rises and falls as she breathes. She leans in to kiss the tempting white curve of Sadie's throat.

“Mary,” Sadie breathes, trembling faintly under her mouth. Feeling powerful, Mary gently pushes Sadie back and undoes her pants and belt herself, pulling them and Sadie’s underthings down and off with only some difficulty. Then Sadie is there, in Mary’s bed with her, naked and beautiful, and Mary feels as though she is dreaming again.

She wants to take her time, to kiss Sadie's scar-flecked body wherever she can reach, but Sadie is already squirming with impatience. She pulls Mary back to her so they can kiss harshly, licking hotly into Mary's open mouth, then takes Mary's hand with a growl of frustration and shoves it down between her legs. She is as wet as Mary was, as soft and warm and slippery. Mary rubs at her like Sadie did, making the other woman shake and cry out. She listens to Sadie's quick little gasps and focuses there, but again, Sadie interrupts her. This time, she crooks Mary’s ring and pinky fingers down, and with the other two she—oh, Lord—she slides them further down and then inside herself where she is searing and wet and tight and Mary can scarcely breathe for the want that rises within her at the feel of it all, at the look on Sadie’s face, the way her neck stretches as she throws her head back, the sight of her flushed breasts and heaving ribs.

Sadie ruts against her hand with a fury, until Mary's arm aches from the force. They kiss as if they're dying, biting and moaning at each other until Sadie stiffens and gasps and jolts against her in pleasure. Mary feels so happy, seeing her like this, touching her, that she near cries. Sadie slumps against her with a long, drawn out groan, then rouses herself enough to sleepily scatters kisses over Mary’s tired mouth and face, and Mary feels her heart, which has been pounding in her throat since the moment she heard footsteps on her stairs, finally begin to slow.

Sadie rolls to her back and puts an arm out so Mary can curl herself against her chest, her head tucked under Sadie’s chin. Mary is rapturously happy. When she puts her ear to Sadie’s sternum, she can hear the other woman’s heart thumping away, beating just as hers is. She falls asleep to the comforting sound, and dreams, strangely, of Arthur, smiling wryly at her as always.

 

 

Sadie is gone by the time Mary wakes, early in the morning with the sun not yet risen, but Mary isn’t discouraged. It’s how Sadie has always left her house—without goodbyes or fanfare, just an unspoken promise that she will be back. Mary sighs and rolls herself into the space where she lay. The smell of Sadie lingers on her pillow—the faint sourness of those tobacco cigarettes she smokes, and the soft, familiar musk that is all her—and finds herself falling easily back to sleep, drowsy in her satisfaction. Already, she misses her, but throughout their time together, as friends and now as lovers, in shared moments caught weeks apart, Mary has learned to be patient. She will wait however long it takes to see her again.

What Mary is not expecting is for Sadie to return only two days later.

It’s afternoon, and Mary is outside, brushing Bela, when she hears the approach of a heavy horse and turns to see a mounted figure trotting up her path. Surely it’s not—it is. Her jaw drops. The brush slips from her hand.

Sadie spots her by the barn and nudges Bob that way, tipping her hat at Mary in greeting, charming as always. When she’s close enough she slings a leg over Bob’s arched neck, dismounting smoothly. Before Mary can decide how to greet her—a teasing, Hey there, stranger, or perhaps a more honest, What are you doin' back here so soon, is everythin' okay?—Sadie walks right up to her and kisses Mary on the mouth with such an air of casual confidence that Mary just blinks and lets it happen.

It’s quick, but affectionate—like a kiss between married couples. It’s over before Mary can really kiss back, and when Sadie pulls away a moment later to turn and rifle through Bob’s saddlebags, she has to take a moment to collect herself, pulse already pounding in her ears.

“Had t'come t’ town this mornin’ n' do some bus’ness. Ah been huntin’, too. Got some venison fer supper,” Sadie says, sounding like her usual gruff self. As if she didn’t just jump off her horse and kiss Mary first thing, like some wayward husband come home.

Still blushing, Mary clears her throat delicately and stoops to pick up her dropped brush before returning to Bela with forced indifference. “Why, thank you, Sadie. That sounds wonderful.”

“’Course.”

Mary’s nerves are frazzled for the rest of the day—her heart sits high in her throat during an early supper, and aches sharply every time Sadie so much as looks at her. She wonders, in the quiet spaces of their light, casual conversation, whether Sadie will want to touch her again, like she did the other night, and then feels ashamed of herself for wanting it again so soon, despite the way her body excitedly reacts at the thought.

Greed, Mary thinks to herself—one of the seven deadly sins. She has never been greedy before. Nor particularly lusty. It seems the association of one Mrs. Adler is beginning to change all that, however. Mary isn’t sure of how she feels about such a thing. If she likes the idea of being so sinful.

But then Sadie leans back in her chair after dinner, cigarette casually held between her fingers, and looks at Mary, across the room at the sink, with half-lidded eyes and a predator’s tension coiled in her small slim body.

“What y’doin’ s’far away? C’mere,” she says, her voice a sultry rasp. A warm thrill shoots down Mary’s back.

She goes still. “Sadie, I—" she starts, trying to find an excuse not to, knowing she’ll only make a fool of herself if she does.

Sadie lowers the boot she had propped on her opposite knee so they are both flat on the floor, and slings an arm over the back of her chair. She crooks a finger at Mary. Her eyes are dark with intent.

“Come. Here,” she enunciates, each word a growl.

Mary goes, and stands nervously beside her, waiting for Sadie to speak, hands clutching at her own skirts. The other woman only takes a drag of her cigarette and then flicks her eyes down to her own open lap. Does she want Mary to… to sit there?

A hot flush fills Mary’s cheeks at the idea. They are in the privacy of her own home, and it’s nothing compared to what they did to each other the other night, and yet, it seems very inappropriate. She hesitates.

A flicker of concern travels across Sadie’s harsh face. “No?” she asks.

Yes, Mary heart says. Sadie can tell, somehow, and reaches up and pulls Mary down into her lap. Suddenly she and Sadie are face to face again, their torsos pressed together, the hard length of Sadie’s legs cradling her as a makeshift seat. One of her guns digs into the soft underside of Mary’s thighs. Mary’s ears are burning. She feels a girl, sitting like this, as if playing love-games with another young, foolish sweetheart.

“There, now,” Sadie purrs, all low and scratchy and warm-like. Mary can’t help but shudder, even though the other woman is barely touching her. The smoke from Sadie’s cigarette hangs around them in a haze. It makes Mary dizzy, or perhaps that’s just Sadie herself. She looks up at her shyly, from beneath her eyelashes. Sadie grins at her wolfishly. “Ah missed ya,” she says suddenly.

In her chest, Mary’s heart thumps and swells. “I—you were only gone a few days,” she gets out, embarrassed by such a confession.

Sadie shrugs. Her eyes trace all the corners of Mary’s face and neck. “Y’miss me, too?”

Knowing it will sound needy, and pathetic, and whatever else, Mary whispers the truth; “Yes.”

“Hmm.” Sadie finishes her cigarette, tosses the butt into the fireplace. She puts her gloved hand on Mary’s back and presses her forward as Mary trembles. She kisses Mary deep and slow. When she pulls away, Mary sways after her, eyelids drooping, already gasping for breath. There’s that greed, again. Mary should be ashamed, but isn’t. Not now. Not here.

Sadie grins at her wickedly, as if she can tell just from a glance, and leans in again to trace the line of Mary’s neck with her lips. The hand on Mary’s back slides lower, then up, beneath the material of her blouse this time. Mary arches at the feel of cool, supple leather against her skin. She can’t help it—she moans aloud, right into Sadie’s ear.

The woman beneath her goes still, and for a moment, Mary is terrified she’s done something wrong. But then those hard legs beneath her tighten, and suddenly she feels herself gripped around the middle and hauled into the air. She gasps as Sadie lifts her as easily as she lifts a saddle to a horse, or a bounty to his cell, and places Mary with resolve onto the edge of the dinner table.

Sadie stands, and slowly removes her hat, dropping it to the chair she’s only just vacated. Then she nudges it out of the way with her foot, the scrape of wood on wood sending a shiver through Mary, who swallows dryly as Sadie steps forward to leer over her. With those gloved hands of hers, she sets to work unbuttoning Mary’s blouse. Mary trembles, chest heaving with every breath. She’s never made love anywhere but a bed. This alone—being undressed in her kitchen, never mind by a woman—is entirely scandalous and unknown to her.

Sadie’s usually stern, scowling face is strained with a fierce concentration. Her eyes flicker from Mary’s mouth to her neck, her collarbone. She finishes with the buttons, and pushes Mary’s blouse open, baring her naked breasts and stomach to the well-lit room, and then, bold as always, kisses her on the flushed skin of her sternum, then trails lower, over Mary’s belly. Mary braces herself upright with her hands, fingers curling over the edge of the table so tightly the wood creaks.

Then Sadie does something no man has ever done for Mary before, something she didn’t even know was—was something you do. She pushes Mary’s skirts up around her hips, pulls down her underthings, and gets on her knees as if she is about to pray. Then she spreads Mary’s trembling thighs and puts her mouth where her hand was the other night, and licks at her.

Mary shrieks, grabbing Sadie by the plait and trying to push her away, both from the sheer shock of it and the jolt of lusty fire the warm wet pass of her tongue brings. Sadie growls at her and tries to shake her off, sinking her sharp teeth into the delicate skin of Mary’s inner thigh as some form of retaliation. She kisses it afterwards in apology, when Mary whimpers and feels herself relax the slightest bit, and then trails upward, and tries again to lick where Mary is already so wet and tender and swollen.

This time, Mary lets her, covering her mouth with a hand to stifle her squeals and sighs. She bucks and squirms and feels possessed, not in control of her own body anymore. Sadie obliges, and holds her hips down to the table with those strong, gloved hands of hers, burying her face beneath the rumpled fabric of her skirts. She licks at Mary slowly at first, then with a growing appetite, as if—as if she likes it

And for some reason, that appeals to Mary, and stutters the breath in her chest and pulls her spine taut as a bow. She clenches her teeth and tries to hold herself still. Hot breath puffs onto the inside of her thigh and she realizes, dimly, that Sadie is speaking to her.

“Yer in yer own house, girl,” she hears Sadie rasp. “Scream.” Then she puts her mouth back where it was before, only harder this time, hungrier, and Mary can only find it in herself to obey.

She screams.

Afterwards, she hears a hollow thunk and realizes it’s her head, hitting the table as she slumps backwards, gone limp. Mary is glad she is not completely aware yet, as she didn’t feel the knock to her skull as anything but a dull throb to go along with the rest of her. Her legs splay in a way that is entirely unbecoming, but she is too busy fighting for air to notice.

Sadie stands with a jingle of her holsters, which Mary realizes now she has not removed throughout. A proper bounty hunter and scoundrel, Sadie Adler is. Her mouth is visibly wet. So is her chin. Seeing it, Mary is beyond mortified. She sits up shakily, holding her blouse over her breasts, suddenly shy, and then Sadie darts forward and kisses her, as if she simply can’t wait any longer. Mary starts at the taste—unfamiliar and musky, but not… terrible. Sadie realizes what she’s done and jerks herself back.

“Sorry,” she blurts, and goes nearly as red as Mary is.

“That’s alright,” Mary mumbles back, face so hot she is sure she will faint any moment. When Sadie makes no move to kiss her again, she tips her chin up slightly, to encourage her. That feral light returns in Sadie’s eyes. She kisses Mary almost hard enough to bruise. The taste of her lips and tongue makes Mary’s head spin and the warm glow in her stomach flare.

Sadie pulls away, and they breathe raggedly into each other’s open mouths. Sadie looks drunk, like the night she and Mary swilled down all that whiskey. Her eyes flicker up and down Mary, then squeeze shut. “Yer so beautiful, Mary,” she gasps suddenly.

“Sadie,” Mary whispers. Her heart aches. “Take me to bed.”

At once, Sadie seizes her by the hips, as if about to carry her right up the stairs that instant—strong as she is, Mary has no doubt that she could—and then hesitates. She glances out the window, where it’s gone evening-dark. “The horses…”

Mary laughs fondly. Only Sadie Adler would feel the need to tend to the duty of their mounts first before Mary. Only she would have that kind of patience and diligence for the care of their animals. So taken, she thinks nothing of saying, “Go on, then. I ain't goin' anywhere.”

Looking torn, Sadie releases her and totters back. She takes in Mary again, sitting on the table with her clothes all askew and her hair a mess, and grimaces as if in pain before snatching up her hat from where she left it and stomping out of the room.

The front door slams with a violent rattle, and Mary can’t help but smile. Probably, this will be the quickest Sadie has every put away a pair of horses. To be honest, Mary doesn’t mind waiting, but the longer she sits there, the more she feels a right mess—sweaty and sticky and shivering from a sudden cool draft. Maybe, if she hurries, too, she can have herself a bath before they go to bed.

She slides off the table and has to grab a nearby chair as her legs threaten to buckle. She feels tender and wet and achy and thinking of how she got that way makes her chest and neck flush red. Quickly, she sets some water to heat, using less than she normally would, hauling it upstairs to half-fill her bathtub. She undresses, and sees in the lamplight all the bruises and marks Sadie’s left across her chest—from the other night—and scattered down her legs—just now. Settling in to the hot water makes her flinch and hiss when it hits those parts of her that are tired and sore, but only a few seconds later, the heat seeps in, and she groans at the wonderful feel of it.

She’s washing her hair when she hears Sadie climbing the stairs, her weathered voice calling out, “Mary?”

“I’m in the bath,” Mary calls back, and sets to finishing up quickly, so she can get out and dry off and then—

The bathroom door swings open and Sadie, dusty leather hat, wind-chapped cheeks, jingling guns and all steps in. Mary freezes there in the bathwater and feels herself begin to turn red, despite what they’d done, less than an hour ago—and on her kitchen table, no less—not to mention the fact that the thick layer of bubbles she's added cover nearly everything except her head, neck and shoulders.

“Thassa good idea. Y’mind?” Sadie asks, not at all shyly, and takes her hat off to hang on a wall peg, then removes her gloves.

“…Mind?” Mary replies weakly, a bit shaken by the sight of Sadie working off her suspenders and unbuttoning her shirt. It occurs to her, quite suddenly, that she has yet to see the other woman naked in broad lamp-light. The idea is illicit, and incredibly appealing.

Sadie grins at her, all roguish and teasing, worn, split-knuckled hands threading her thick leather belt from the loops of her pants. “Room fer two in there, don'tcha think?”

Oh, Lord.

Words fail to leave Mary’s throat as she watches Sadie undress. Everywhere Mary is soft and round, Sadie is hard and flat. Her thighs are lean, narrowly muscled from her years of horse-riding. Her waist is small, pale skin flecked by even paler scars. Her arms are thin but corded with a ropey strength earned from gunslinging and dragging countless bounties in by their ankles. Her breasts are smaller than Mary’s, her nipples a soft pink color. Between her legs, her hair is a shade darker than it is on her head.

Before Mary can speak, Sadie steps over the lip of the bathtub and sits slowly, so the still steaming water won’t splash and slop over the sides. She groans from the heat like Mary did and leans back against the opposite rim, closing her eyes and tipping her head far back, leaving her entire top half out of the water. Her breasts are exposed. Mary cannot stop staring at them.

At last, she looks up, only to find Sadie grinning at her, one eye lazily cracked open. Caught, Mary blushes furiously. Sadie lifts a hand from the water, warm droplets rolling from her fingertips, and beckons her closer.

Feeling unspeakably shy, even after... well, everything—just thinking about it makes her shake inside—Mary obeys. As soon as she’s close enough, Sadie catches her by the chin with that wet hand and pulls her the rest of the way forward, kissing her with a longing sigh. Her other arm slips around Mary’s ribcage in the water, holding her tightly to her chest. Their breasts touch, knees bumping until Sadie spreads hers and settles Mary’s hips between them. Her kiss grows rougher, until Mary is whimpering for want of breath and feeling faint.

Water splashes and Mary goes stiff at the thought of the disaster they might make of her bathroom—her bedroom floor will never recover from the other night, watermarks staining the boards no matter how much Mary scrubbed. Seeing her horrified expression, Sadie chuckles lowly in her ear, and kisses her on the cheek, a clear promise for later. Then, looking looking a bit shy herself, she asks, “Help me with mah hair?”

Honored, Mary obliges. She undoes Sadie’s loose braid and combs her fingers through the tangled locks, then urges Sadie to scoot forward and lean her head back so they can wet it to the scalp. Mary finds the soap, works it into the straw-colored strands. Sadie hums happily.

They stay in the bath until the water is cold and flat, talking of this and that. Private things. Sadie talks about Jake. Mary, about Barry and Arthur, and even her brother Jamie. When they get out, Sadie fetches a towel, and rubs Mary dry first, and then herself. Mary’s heart pounds as she watches. It’s been years since she felt so… so doted upon. So loved, even though they haven’t said the words. They don’t matter, those words, because Mary can feel them, here in the room with the two of them.

Afterwards, as promised, Sadie picks Mary up and carries her, laughing, to the bedroom. They stretch out beside one another in Mary’s bed and kiss for what seems like forever. Hands wander, and mouths, and soon they are making love again. Mary screams herself hoarse long into the night. When it is her turn to touch, she is proud of the string of curses that pour from Sadie’s mouth, her husky voice gone rougher than ever.

Lying there with her in the warm, happy aftermath, damp strands of hair clinging to her scarred neck and shoulders, Mary finds Sadie hopelessly beautiful. Her throat constricts at the thought of how much she loves her. Overcome, she wraps her arms around Sadie’s neck and hugs her tightly, gone weepy even without a drop of alcohol.

“Just this once,” she asks Sadie in a soft, hopeful voice, “will you stay with me ‘til the mornin'?”

Sadie pulls back and looks at her. It may just be only one morning Mary is asking for, yet it stands for so much more, and both of them know it. “’Course,” she says, as if it needs no thought at all, and kisses Mary’s jaw. “Ah promise.”

They hold each other until their eyelids begin to droop. Sadie falls asleep first, but Mary forces herself to stay awake, just for a little while longer, keeping those silly, soft dreams of hers at bay, so she can watch Sadie sleep, and think. It is selfish for her to want Sadie to stay; she knows the other woman isn’t hers to set rules upon. But this one morning, this one request... This will be Mary's proof. Sadie will stay because she loves her. And then tomorrow, perhaps some time after breakfast, or maybe before, Sadie will pack her things and mount Bob and leave Mary's house as she always does—but she will always come back, and whether that takes days or weeks or months Mary will love her all the more for it. Because every time Sadie comes back to her, it keeps her alive that much longer. It gives her a purpose, something ghosts cannot have.

So while Sadie Adler may still think she is lost from the world, Mary will prove she is amongst the living, again and again, even if it takes her all their lives to do so.

 

 

 In the morning, when she wakes, Sadie is there.

 

 

Mary visits Arthur in the frigid chill of winter before the turning of the new year, 1908. Snow has fallen gently all morning, coating the rough, rocky ground of the northern Ambarinos a bright, dazzling white.

She brings flowers for his grave, the final few that budded late from her garden and kept their petals even in the cold climb here. Under his marker she lays them, and wonders, as she always does, what he might say, or see, if he were to be there with her now. Perhaps he would see that she has gotten older, and wiser, and more honest, yet still remained the same woman as ever—someone who is searching for her way in life, someone who is sad some days and happy on others and who tries to be a good person most of all.

Not that there aren't some differences. Small, yes, but there.

There is a new streak of grey in her hair now, which Mary doesn't favor but won't try to hide. Sadie likes it. Says it makes her look mature—Mary laughs every time she mentions it. There is also a small scar on her left ear now, a nick caused by a stray bullet one day when Sadie was in her backyard, trying to show off her gunslinging skills even while Mary warned her to be careful. Sadie wasn't as good a shot as Arthur used to be, but she was getting there, and wanted to give Mary a little show. It went well till a bullet clipped the side of a can, hit a rock, and a piece of lead ricocheted and snapped right by Mary's ear like lightning. Sadie had been traumatized by it, swearing she'd never shoot a gun near her again. It'd been no worse than a bee-sting for Mary, really, but the kind, comforting kisses she got for the rest of the day made it more than worthwhile.

Perhaps most noticeable of all is the ring on Mary’s left third finger now. T’ keep those fellers from town away from ‘er wommin, Sadie says. It's more of a symbol than anything else, for the both of them, as Mary has not remarried, not in a church or before the Lord, but in her heart alone. She is proud to wear it, proud that Sadie wears one, too, under her gloves. After all, Sadie has always said, after Jake, who she loved so dearly, she would never again have another husband. Mary is happy to be her wife, instead.

Mary thinks if Arthur could see the two of them, how they have found a happiness together in a world where neither felt as though they belonged, he would be happy for them, too.

She sits with Arthur at his grave for a time, talking of things, and then takes out a letter she wrote him some time ago, but doesn't read it. Instead, she places it beneath his marker. She is bidding him farewell for the winter, and perhaps even for good, and she knows, somehow, this last letter of hers will reach him, one way or another. She loved the man, and always will. It feels, for the first time since she met him as a young girl, that she is now ready to let him go. He is at peace, and no one can ever mar the memory of him again.

"Thank you, Arthur,” she whispers to his grave, before she leaves. Thank you for loving her. For trying to be a good man. For always helping her. And for bringing Sadie Adler when Mary needed her most.

Sadie has already had her own goodbye with Arthur. Several months ago, she had disappeared for a time, up near Blackwater. Mary only discovered later that she had reunited with a lost member of the Van der Lindes, John Marston. Together, they had hunted down and killed the man who killed Arthur, a gutless outlaw named Micah Bell. While Mary has never been one for cold-blooded revenge, she had been very satisfied to hear this.

She had been much, much less satisfied when Sadie came limping home with a terrible stab wound to her side, hastily tended to, and leaning on—who else—Charles Smith, similarly wounded with a bullet to the shoulder. Mary had tended to them both with as much patience as she could muster, which, at the time, had not been much at all.

But that is over now. Sadie tells her it’s done. Arthur is avenged at last, and life can go on as it has for years now, in relative peace.

Mary retraces her steps in the thickening snow down the hill from Arthur’s grave, to where Sadie is waiting patiently on the back of her new horse, a massive dappled thing called Hera, even bigger than Bob was. Sadie smiles at her, tips her hat, though still sits slightly slumped to the left. Her stab wound was deep, and will take a long time to completely heal. Mary is just happy she is alive, and with her now.

Mary begins to climb up onto Hera herself, but Sadie ignores her and, despite her wounds, grabs Mary by the arm and hauls her up behind her saddle in a practiced motion. Mary huffs at her, and holds Sadie carefully by the waist as they canter off.

"Where to, ma’am?” Sadie jokes.

Mary squeezes Sadie to her, and leans forward to smell the familiar scent of her hair and clothing, made sharper by the snow falling around them. No doubt, Sadie is set to leave in a few days for another week or two bounty hunting, but Mary isn’t afraid, or sad. She knows Sadie will always come back to her.

"Home,” she says. “Let’s go home." And Sadie turns her horse to the sun and obeys.