Chapter 1: Empty Casings, and the Shadow of the Remington
The taste of gunpowder was a sharp and bitter tang as she licked her dry lips. Cracking a single eye open, her vision was bleary past the crusted gummy blood that had caked it closed. She could see the clear cloudless sky. Overhead, dark shapes lazily circled and she could feel a solid horrid ache in her temples begin to pound. Where was she? How did she...get here?
The woman rolled onto her side and groaned roughly as her muscles complained at the movement. She hurt all over. Her skin felt tight and hot; as dry as the sand she found clenched in her gloved hand. She was thirsty and nauseous. And as she forced herself into a hunched position on all fours, she was sure she wouldn’t be able to get back onto her feet. Blinking dazedly around her, she craned her neck back as much as she dared. Bodies, she was surrounded by crumpled bodies and empty bullet casings. a few feet from her, the handle of a revolver stuck up from the sand it was half-buried in. The sand beneath her and around her was red-stained and packed hard. As if it had soaked in a lot of liquid. Blood… She realized distantly.
The body nearest to her looked like a man who was just starting to decompose. The gun in his hand and the bullet holes in his back indicated he’d been gunned down in a firefight. Another body slumped against a nearby cactus indicated much the same.Taking a breath to steady herself, the woman touched at her head gingerly. Almost immediately she regretted it. A sick wave washed over her, leaving her sputtering up bile in response. Fresh blood now coated her fingertips, and soaked down to the skin beneath. Her hair was matted with the stuff. And looking down at herself she could just see past her chin that her shirt was splattered with more ofthe same.
Not good. Her brain mumbled to her. I’m in bad shape...
Currently she could still only see from one eye, but glancing back up at the now descending buzzards she knew she couldn’t simply wait around for death’s hoofbeats to catch up to her. She needed to find civilization. Otherwise chances were good she’d end up like these men here. Crawling over to one of them, she used his body to prop herself up more. Giving a heave she shoved herself weakly to her feet….only to come crashing back onto the sands again immediately. She gave a ragged cough, her vision blacking out for a moment. As she blindly grasped about her, her hand closed around the butt of a gun. The one she’d spied earlier. Using it as a very small cane, she propped herself up again to get her sandy face back up and shuffled about awkwardly for a moment until she was hunched again. This time, she moved her feet beneath her crouched body first before shakily trying to stand again. Success, if wobbly success. She now could see about her better.
There were apparently nine bodies in total, seven men, one woman and one child. There were a couple of downed horses, and a cart on its side with broken pottery and torn canvas scattered about it. Nothing of the scene was familiar to her. Near as she could tell, these men were bandits who had attacked a traveler and his family. Perhaps a merchant or someone heading to the next town. Anything of value was already gone. Did she know any of these men? What was she doing here? Her head continued to ache, and all that seemed to be in her skull was a buzzing sound and dusty cobwebs. She didn’t recognize the ruined black coat she was in, the blue checkered shirt, or the worn-down boots. Her boots did have spurs though. Had she been riding? Was her horse one of the dead ones here or had it escaped? Too late to know. The sun was no longer high in the sky, and had begun to sink towards the horizon. If she wanted to make it to a town by nightfall, she needed to hurry.
Willing her feet to move, she found she was a bit more steady now. But she still felt incredibly weak. She didn’t find much in her pockets, a couple of empty holsters and a box of matches. No water, no food, and no money. Searching through the bodies however she was able to find a half-full canteen, a compass, a bowie knife, and a handful of bullets. Their other items and weapons were gone. She still held the gun she found, but it was crusted with sand and appeared jammed. Possibly broken. Which was no doubt why it was left behind. On a whim, she put it in her holster anyway. Taking a drink of the water, she sputter and hacked painfully. Ending up losing most of it on the ground. Her throat was like sandpaper, and burned something awful. Carefully, she tried again and was able to sip it in small mouthfuls. Mindful to leave some in the canteen, she felt a bit better. And the world at least seemed to have stopped swaying in front of her. Placing the compass in her palm and peering about her, she judged that the cart tracks had been heading north-westerly. Possibly in the direction of a settlement. Though honestly nothing was for certain. She could either die here or die out in the desert wastes. But sitting around and waiting for the carrion eaters didn’t sit well with her.
The woman took a breath and began moving. Buzzards were already flapping and hopping their way to the bodies. As eager for the foul meat as the flies that buzzed above them. She looked away as a nearby vulture went for an exposed cheek, and set her face grimly forward into the setting sun. There was no time to dwell on things. It was time to focus on survival.
So, walking as best she could, her shadow stretched long behind her like an extension of her coat, the woman doggedly moved through the wastes…
Hours passed. And through it all she kept walking. The sun was a horrid weight on her scalp and face. The desert blurred into dull hues of pale tans, greys, and browns. Her one-eyed vision was going out, the buzzing in her skull getting worse. She thought she saw a shape rising in the distance, but couldn’t make it out. The dizzy weakness was a blanket smothering her. Swaying again on her feet, the woman’s eyes rolled into the back of her head as she crumpled into a heap. Darkness swirled over her as she fell into unconsciousness...
Sometime much much later, she awoke once more. She was now on her back, and there were wooden planks high above her. Confused, aching and exhausted, the woman blinked upwards for a time trying to process what she was seeing. Coffin? No. A ceiling. It was then that she realized that she could see again from both of her eyes. Lifting her head to try and look down at herself, she had to stop as a wave of nausea hit her.
“Now hold on there, miss! Take it easy, you’re alright now. I managed to patch you up, but you still lost quite a lot of blood.”
The woman dazedly looked over as a wiry young man headed into her view, cleaning his hands on a cloth. He was pale-skinned with short blue hair, and had the look about him of a fidgety jackrabbit. Animate and in constant motion. As she watched, he brushed his hands on his immaculate apron pulled on a stethoscope from where it was hanging around his neck. He looked young, but he had a serious air about him.
“Your vitals seem to be holding steady, though we had a scare there for awhile. Frankly you’re lucky to be alive, considering your injuries. I’m Doc Kaoru.” He smiled kindly, brushing some hair from his eyes. “Do you have a name, miss?”
“Errr…” She tried to think, but her mind was blank. Who was she? She couldn’t recall. Not her name...where she came from...it was like she’d just been born yesterday. Seeming to see her mental struggles, the young man’s gaze softened.
“It’s alright if you can’t remember. Normal actually, especially considering the amount of trauma you’ve undergone. The bullet that hit your head? A few more inches to the right and you’d have been dead.” He tapped the left side of his forehead with a slender finger. She noticed his hands were in pale pair of gloves. “As it is, it just grazed you and only took out a piece of your skull. You were fortunate. The one that hit your shoulder...ah...well that one hit solidly. But I was able to dig it out of the bone.”
“I...see. Sorry...I just…can’t recall...” Her own mumbled voice sounded rough to her ears. The young doctor shook his head.
“Not to worry. It’ll come back, in time. For now you should concentrate on resting.”
“How...how long was I...?”
You’ve been out of it for several days. Nearly a week.”
“I...see.” She looked down at herself, realizing she was now in a simple white nightgown and in a bed with plain starched sheets. There was sunlight coming in from a window, catching light on the dust drifting lazily in front of it. Around her, cabinets full of bottles and books caught her eye, as did several charts on the walls showing ink illustrations of the human form.
“You’re in the town of Thornhill. We found you just outside the town limits, nearly dead. A couple of folks helped bring you back here.”
“..…” She couldn’t recall any of it. It felt surreal to be here after waking up in the desert among the dead. “Are my...things...around here?” She had to keep pausing for breath, feeling as weak as a newborn kitten.
“Hrm, actually I do have some of your personal effects here. Our local leatherworker was able to repair some of your gear. And I had a couple of the ladies in town see to getting you some new things from the general store. I’m afraid most of your old things had to be scrapped however.”
As if on cue, the distant sound of a tinkling bell and a door opening was heard. A woman’s voice floated into the room.
“Miki, where are you? Hmph, I got what you asked for. Honestly though, I’m too busy to be running errands for an unkempt bloody stranger without a penny to their name. I don’t run a charity you know. They’re probably an outlaw anyway.”
The voice got closer, and at last a woman appeared. She could have been a mirror image of Doc Kaoru. Their height, their faces, complexion, and even their eyes were identical. One of the few differences was her hair, a bit longer and a darker shade of blue that edged toward navy. She was clad in a form-fitting corset the color of a good wine, and black twill bustle skirt short enough on one side that one could just barely catch a glimpse of stocking. The woman immediately locked eyes on her and she could feel the weight of that gaze. Searching, looking her over, and seemingly surprised.
“Oh. She’s awake? Interesting. Here.” Her tone was clipped and firm, as she passed the bundle she had been carrying over to the doctor. Dr. Miki Kaoru seemed to struggle for a moment before he got a grip on it, looking annoyed.
“Yes, she is. And I’d appreciate it if you’d stop complaining. I was out of ether after the last surgery and hadn’t had a chance to get more. She’s also going to need the disinfectant when I re-dress her wounds today.” The doctor sighed looking tired, before he put on a smile and waved a hand at the woman next to him.
“My sister, Ms. Kozue Kaoru. She’s...ah. One of our business owners in town.”
“I own the parlor house. Services that many in the community appreciate, even if my brother does not.” Her gaze hadn’t shifted from the bedridden woman’s own.
“A pleasure.” she croaked back.
“And you are...?” Ms. Kaoru’s smile was a glinting of teeth behind carmine lips. Equal parts intriguing and dangerous. Like a predator eyeing her to see if she was prey or a potential threat. The injured woman, for her part, felt her face go impassive as she held the eye contact firmly. Refusing to shy away. The doctor thankfully intervened.
“I’m afraid she seems to have a case of mild amnesia at the moment. Some bed rest and healing will help, though an interrogation will not I think.” Miki seemed to be giving a warning despite the mild tone of his words. Kozue flickered her gaze briefly to him, but refused to let the matter sit.
“Oh? That so? And how do we know? She could be lying you know… You’ve always been far too trusting, brother dear. Are these her things?” Kozue drifted to one part of the room, nearer to the bed where a pile of items rested. The nameless woman recognized her leather belts and holsters. The gun was still buckled in surprisingly. She had expected it to have been confiscated. Kozue picked up a small lump of metal that dangled from a chain, inspecting it before putting it back on the pile. She then tossed a smirk over her shoulder.
“Mind if I pry?”
The woman on the bed shook her head. Wincing at the movement. All she wanted was rest and this woman was beginning to drain her. If feeding her curiosity would speed things along, it hardly mattered to her. Kozue wasted not a second more and began picking things up to inspect them more closely. Miki seemed resigned and began checking his patient’s vitals again while his sister snooped. There was a small “Hmm!” in victory. She brought over one of the holsters toward the bed, and lifted it up for them to see. On the backside, stitched into the leather were some letters
“Juri A. Is that your name? Juri?” Doc Kaoru asked, curious
Juri...yes...that does sound…. It rang a bell. Like some distant dream. She may have been called that, or it at least seemed familiar to her.
“I... think so.”
Kozue, looking smug, cast a look at her brother. “See? Not so hard.” Miki merely shook his head in bemusement.
“Yes yes, well now that we know her name it’s time she got some rest. She’s still in recovery, and I won’t have you badgering my patient.” Kozue rolled her eyes in an unladylike gesture and produced a fan from her handbag. Snapping it open she let it flutter before her face as she made to turn to leave.
“Very well, I can see that I’m no longer wanted when I’m not useful.” she batted her lashes and fluttered her fan prettily. “But...let me simply inform your oh-so-interesting patient.” She locked eyes with Juri once more. There was a sharpness to them this time that made them seem harder. Like a pair of cobalt stones.
“When we found you on the outskirts of our town you were armed, riddled with bullet holes, and dressed in quite the masculine fashion. While I’m not one to judge,I do ask that you at least consider my dear brother’s kindness and hospitality in patching you up.” Miki fidgeted a bit behind her, looking as though he wanted to interrupt. But Kozue continued, “You look to me like trouble. Women don’t often walk around deserts with bullets in them, and if you bring problems to this town or misfortune on my twin brother? I promise you...”
Her voice became a growl. “Law men will be the least of your concerns.”
With that threat hanging coldly in the air, she turned on her heel and left. Miki sighed and mopped his brow with a handkerchief he pulled from his vest pocket. “I...er, sorry about...about that. My sister, well she means well. She’s just worried I think. What with the increase in outlaw activity here out west. But, I certainly don’t expect any difficulties if you continue your treatment. And in time, your memory is sure to return. For now? Rest up and we’ll take things slow. You survived quite an ordeal.”
Juri found herself shifting uncomfortably in the face of his easy friendliness and compassion. It was rare thing to find, and it weighed on her. Guilt feeling like lead in her chest. “I’ll pay for any trouble I’ve brought you or the townsfolk. You’ll be compensated, Doc. I’m not the type to let debts go unpaid.”
Miki waved her off, scoffing. “Don’t worry about payment. Just worry about getting back on your feet. You’ll be staying with us for awhile in the meantime, and I’m sure the rest of the town will get to know you.”
“All the same, thank you for your help.” She replied, still feeling bothered. A headache was settling again in her temples.
“Here, drink this.” Doc Kaoru passed her a glass of water. In it he sprinkled a powder of some sort. “It’ll help with the pain so you can rest.”
Juri took it, feeling immensely grateful and a little lost. Drinking it down, she leaned back down on the pillow once more as her eyelids began to close. In the back of her mind, like faded echoes from the past, she could hear gunshots and the screams of horses.
“Rest well Ms. Juri. We’ll speak again once you’ve woken up.”
She fell back into unconsciousness. The darkness this time feeling restless and brooding. But soon the silhouettes and shadows blurred and became nothingness as she slept. Outside the afternoon sun eventually set, as Miki quietly cleaned his office. The dying light glinting off of the pearl handle of a revolver comfortably holstered at his back.
To Be Continued
Chapter 2: The Stranger Made of Bullet Holes
Juri passed the next three days in and out of consciousness. The monotony of staring at the ceiling and dazedly across at the window was broken only by Doc Kaoru coming in to check on her status or dress her wounds. The thick swathe of bandages on her head and shoulder were itchy and uncomfortable. And the room was uncomfortably warm during midday, making her feel stifled. She began to feel restless and ached to explore her new surroundings. By the fourth day she could stand it no longer. Juri had already put her boots back on her feet and was struggling with pants before the doctor walked in and caught her. Quickly hustling her back into bed.
They squabbled a bit, mostly on his need to keep her constrained to the bed to heal when she couldn’t bear to stay there another moment longer. Her stubborn need to stay active and do something useful, battered against his lectures about staying put and not injuring herself further.
“Ms. Juri! You’re obviously a tough one, and I understand you’re feeling a bit stir crazy. But please understand that you’ll only tear out your stitches if you move around too much. You were on death’s door mere days ago!” Juri merely snorted.
“Doc, I’m grateful to you, really I am. But if I have to sit in that bed one more day I’m going to tear my stitches out myself. Can’t I at least sit outside for a bit? Or at least just get out of this room?” Her cheeks puffed out in annoyance, though she struggled to remain calm. Miki looked at her and sighed in annoyance, wiping a face over his hand.
“Look, I understand how you feel, but I don’t think you understand what kind of shape you’re in. Here, one moment and I’ll be right back.” The blue-haired man left for a bit, and the sounds of someone rummaging in the next room floated to her ears while Juri waited. Working to keep her own impatience from showing on her face. When he returned, he was carrying with him a small hand mirror in a plain wooden casing.
“Here, take a look.” He held the mirror out to her. Juri took it from him and held it up to peer at her face. What stared back at her was unrecognizable. A shock of orange hair tumbled messily down around her face, held there by a bandages wound about her head. Her skin was a pale that was almost deathly white. It made the mass of purple and green bruises all over her body seem to float on top. There was a particularly nasty one on her chin, and another peeking out from under the bandages. And a cloud of discolored skin seemed to bloom from under her shoulder bandages. She could only imagine what it must look like underneath.
Stretching her neck to the side and twisting her face this way and that, ignoring the buzzing ache of her skin as she did so, Juri tried to map her own features in her mind. An angular nose, smooth jaw line, and the beginnings of crow’s feet around a pair of water-colored eyes. Eyes that were a swirl of blue and green, colors that seemed to shift in the light. Her lips were cracked and wane. Her hair looked grimy. She was like a waif in her nightgown, and it was both shocking and strange to see. This is what she looked like? It was hard to find that face familiar when it appeared so strange. Juri averted her eyes and handed back the mirror with a sigh. It was true, she looked as ugly as homemade sin.
Miki watched her quietly for a moment as she leaned back and stared across at the window again. They remained quiet for a moment, the silence stretching between them awkwardly. Eventually the young doctor gave a slight cough and rubbed at the back of his neck. Struggling for a moment in thought.
“Well…I can understand wanting to stretch your mind a bit. I suppose…I suppose it would be alright if you did a couple of small light things. I could use a hand organizing my tonics and filling out some forms for new equipment. I have to order some penicillin through the post so that it’ll arrive on the next supplies shipment from the north.”
Juri looked up, feeling hope rise. Miki smiled down at her, smoothing his apron as he fidgeted under her gaze. “Can you read or write, Ms. Juri?”
“I believe so.” Came her reply. And indeed, oddly she felt that she should be able to.
“Then come, I’ll help you to a chair at the front. There’s some an inkwell and pens there you can use. I’ll show you how to fill out the documents.” Lending his arm, Miki helped the woman to her feet.
Together they passed from the sparse back room where she’d been staying and into the next room. Like the previous room it seemed cluttered with stacks of books, glass bottles and jars, and parchment papers. From here she could see a dining table, the kitchen area, and the front door. An open doorway to the side showed a living area near a set of stairs leading to the second floor. The building she was in seemed quaint, but spacious. The good doctor at least seemed to live comfortably. Juri could smell coffee brewing on the iron stove in the kitchen, but the remains from breakfast earlier had already been tidied away from the table. Disorganized then, but not slobbish. The mark of an academic.
Miki helped her to a straight-backed wooden chair and bustled about the room, grabbing a few necessary things, before taking a seat across from her. He showed her the papers, where to fill out the names of the bottles, and how many to order. And before long she was comfortably filling them out herself. Taking down notes as Miki called them out.
To Doc Kaoru’s surprise, Juri proved herself to be quite adept. Her handwriting was neat and tight, and she showed her tendencies towards meticulous detail and organization. It was a boon. They fell into a rhythm and over the course of the day Juri systematically sorted his equipment, handled the paperwork, re-labeled the bottles in his cabinet. Leaving him free to handle errands in town and visit a few patients at their homes. When he returned before evening, it was with a smile and with another woman in tow. This time, one with chestnut colored hair and a boisterous personality.
“Nice work, Ms. Juri! This place looks as fine as cream gravy.” Juri nodded back her thanks at the compliment, modestly silent. Miki gave a slight bow and extended a hand towards the woman behind him to usher her forward. The doctor was a man of form, upholding polite conduct as he introduced the both of them. “Might I introduce to you Ms. Wakaba Shinohara? She runs the general store in town. And a kinder soul you won’t find anywhere else. She’s here with a few things you maybe could use. Ms. Shinohara? May I introduce Ms. Juri. ”
Wakaba gave a curtsy and a huge smile to Juri, who nodded solemnly back. “Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Juri.”
“Pleasure’s mine, Ms. Shinohara.”
“Well now!” The smaller woman clapped her hands together. “Ain’t you just a sight! Moving about and healing up nice and fine...” Ms. Shinohara made a show of looking her up and down. Juri shifted her weight on her other foot, feeling a bit uneasy with the inspection. Giving a wink as she straightened, Wakaba continued. “When you were brought in, you looked like a dime’s worth of dog meat.” Juri blanched at that, surprised at her colorful language. Wakaba was unfazed, “Yep! Simply awful. Your face looked like it tap danced through a stone wall. Just soaked through with mess and looking something awful. Couldn’t even tell what color your hair was!” Juri felt the corner of her eye ticking a bit, annoyance starting to creep its way in.
“Yes..I see.” Miki looked between the two of them, and made to try and intervene “Yes, well Ms. Shi--”
“But, eh, I’d say you’ve cleaned up pretty good. All things considered.” Wakaba didn’t seem to hear the good doctor’s attempts. She instead cocked her head to the side considering, before adding mischievously “At least now I’d say you only look like a penny’s worth of dog meat.”
Ms. Shinohara’s voice matched her smile. Warm, inviting, and loud. As if she were full of a perpetual energy that seemed to radiate from every part of her. Bemused, Juri found herself sighing and accepting defeat in the face of that energy despite herself. The gregarious woman had an infectious sort of charm.
“Hmm, I see. Sorry for the trouble, you kind folks saved my life it would seem. I’m grateful to you all.” Juri gave a nod to include Doc Kaoru, who merely waved it away as if saving her were of no consequence.
Wakaba Shinohara reached down beside her and lifted a basket into view. She pulled back the cloth on top of it. “Seems you didn’t have anything with you, really, when you were found. So I brought over a couple of things to see if they’d fit you. Blouses, skirts and bloomers...oh come off it now Doc Kaoru don’t look so embarrassed. A woman needs some things!” The doctor was blushing a bit, looking away from the ruffles and frills spilling over the basket sides. “I also brought a couple of...hmm, men’s things. In case you were one of those gal-boys. Seeing as that’s what you were wearing before.”
The basket filled linens and clothing was placed in the injured woman’s hands. Juri inspected a few of them and gingerly held them up to her chest.
“You’re far too kind, Ms. Shinohara. Thank you. Soon as I can, I’ll repay my debt to you and Doc Kaoru.” Juri tried to say, but she was quickly shushed as Wakaba tutted her. Finger waving in front of her nose.
“Not at all! Honestly, even if some around here have forgotten how to be hospitable I certainly haven’t! I still believe in the Code of the West. You take those things, and you find what fits.”
Juri bowed her head in thanks, tangled curls of orange falling forward and obscuring her view “Mighty kind of you.”
The trio went toward the back room, intent on apparently doing such fittings right then. Wakaba quickly shooed Doc Kaoru back out however, so that the other woman could try on her new clothes in peace. Once they were alone, Juri wasted no time in completely bypassing the skirts and blouses on top of the pile. The action caused Wakaba to cluck her tongue in disappointment and cross her arms, though she didn’t seem upset. Juri instead focused her attention on a pair of black wool pants, and a loose fitting cotton men’s shirt. It’s color was a pale robin’s egg blue, and reminded her of the sky outside her window. With a bit of effort, and Wakaba’s help, she managed to remove her nightgown. The material was carefully lifted up and over her head, and behind her she heard the other woman hiss in surprise. Juri carefully kept her back turned and ignored her, refusing to think how badly her body must appear.
Together they pulled on the new shirt over her bandages and buttoned it up. Juri only able to manage the buttons lower on the shirt but not able to raise her arms high enough to get the rest. Pulling on the under things and pants was an even more embarrassing affair. But once she was dressed, the injured woman found her new clothes to be clean and serviceable. The pants fit fairly well, only a little loose on her frame. The shirt was a bit snug, no doubt due to her chest and the extra padding from the bandages. Wakaba however shook her head negatively at Juri’s boots.
“Those things are falling apart. Did you walk the whole rail line in them?” Wakaba remarked.
“Not that I can recall.” Juri remarked glibly. “I might have been a dancing girl before my...accident though.” Juri’s injuries were of course no accident. They’d been deliberate. They’d been meant to be fatal.
Someone wanted me dead…
Wakaba looked at her curiously, a teasing grin on her face. “What, you can’t recall?”
“Not particularly. Too many bullet holes I guess.” Juri made it a lighthearted comment. Ms. Shinohara winced however, her grin fading immediately. Biting her lip, the other woman resumed helping to tidy up the scattered linen.
“You seem near made of ‘em.” Juri heard her mutter quietly under her breath. A knock came at the door, startling them both.
“Are you ladies about finished?” came the soft voice of the doctor from the other side of the wood. “It’s about time for Ms. Juri’s medicine.” Ms. Shinohara moved to open the door as Juri smoothed her hands over her shirt cuffs. The doctor looked her over and gave a nod of encouragement. “Looks nice!”Juri nodded her thanks silently.
“Well. Goodness, don’t let me keep you.” Wakaba moved from the room and was heading towards the front door. “Let me go and see about getting you another pair of boots, Ms. Juri. I think I have a size back home that should fit you.” With one last flash of a smile, she bustled out of the office.
All became stillness and quiet with her absence, and Juri took a moment to catch her breath. Stepping out of the room once more, she headed into the dining area and took a seat. Feeling a bit drained and sore from the whole ordeal. A newspaper on the table caught her attention. Miki must have been reading it a moment ago. Local newspaper? The town must be fair on resources. Idly Juri wondered what day it was. But she tossed aside the thought. Did it really matter any more?
Before her thoughts could turn bitter, the doctor came in and joined her. A familiar bottle shone in his hands.
“The shoulder or ribs give you any trouble?” Juri nodded, grimacing.
“Yeah. It aches pretty fiercely.” she licked her lips and adjusted her posture. Careful not to jostle her bandages overly. Her wounds were beginning to throb with a sickly pulsation that she could feel crawling through her muscles. Like the pulse of a heartbeat, hot and painful. No doubt her wounds were a bit inflamed from all the moving about earlier while dressing.
“Ms. Shinohara is a...very kind woman. I appreciate the new clothes” She said after a moment, genuinely meaning it. Miki nodded, understanding. He gave her a soft knowing smile and rested his elbow on the table.
“Hmm, yes. She also can be heard coming from a mile away. But her heart’s in the right place, even if she can be a little overzealous.” His eyes crinkled in amusement, his chin now on his hand “When she heard how you were doing, she wanted to help immediately. Thornhill is a good town, with hardy people. And Ms. Shinohara is one of the kindest of its residents. I’m sure you’ll like this place.” Miki quited then, watching her. His thoughts a mystery. Miki then shook his head and pulled a pocketwatch from his vest pocket. He clicked it open, checking it, then reached out a hand for hers.
“How’s your head doing?"
“Hmm..the headaches are passing. Seems to be getting better. Still have trouble remembering things though…” Juri trailed off, falling deep into thought herself. Thornhill? Never heard of it…just where exactly am I? And where was I heading? She let him take ahold of her pale wrist and held still as he counted her pulse. Gauging it against his watch. When Doc Kaoru was satisfied, he nodded.
“It will come, have faith. Sometimes injuries to the head can do this, but there’s a good chance it’s not going to be permanent. You were lucky, but you’ve got a strong spirit. I’d say you’ll pull through with a complete recovery.” His smile was infectious, and Juri felt the corner of her lips lift. Which in turn made him smile wider as well, “Are you able to remember anything new? Even something minor?”
As if in answer to his question, Juri felt a stab of pain flash through her brain. She winced and raised her fingertips to her temple. Unbidden, ghostly echoes seem to sound in the back of her skull. Horse screams...gunshots...the cries of men...and the sudden feeling of hopelessness. Like a dark looming cloud that sucked at her vision. But no matter how she tried, she couldn’t see the picture of it all in her mind. It was like a painting that was shrouded from her view. Awkwardly, she described the sensations as best she could.
“Bandits, I’d say. Robbed you blind and left you for dead.” Miki declared matter of factly. “A couple of men in town rode out to try and follow your trail back. Took them awhile, but they eventually found the bodies. Coyotes and carrion eaters had gotten to them, but they were able to give what was left a proper burial. Apologies if I’m being indelicate, and those might have been friends or family of yours.” Juri nodded, but merely felt empty inside. As if it was all happening to someone else.
“I...I don’t know. I don’t think I...recognized….sorry. I’m just not sure.”
Juri was saved from having to speak more when Ms. Wakaba Shinohara returned. A pair of polished boots were cradled carefully in her arms. She handed them to Juri with a smile, who took them and carefully set them down on the floor to try them on. Pushing her foot into one, she wiggled her toes a bit as she felt her calf sink into the leather smoothly.
“Well? What do you think?” Wakaba asked with anticipation. Juri stood and gave walking a try. They fit well, and had a bit of space around the toes for comfort. Wakaba smiled wistfully as she watched Juri pace about the dining room, a slow smile spreading on her features. “They belonged to my fiancee, Tatsuya. But...well...he won’t need them any more.” Juri stopped walking and she felt her face go impassive as her eyes locked onto brown ones. She said nothing for a moment, looking away. Juri’s voice was quiet but gentle, taking care when she spoke.
“Is it really alright if I take these?”
Wakaba smiled, her voice seeming a tad shaky and soft. A bit more fragile, it felt. “Yes, of course. He’d want you to have them. They’ll actually get some use!” And just like that Wakaba was smiling warmly again, laughing a bit as she clapped her hands together.” Juri nodded and decided not to press the issue further.
“Well then…” Juri began, taking in her two benefactors. They both watched her, waiting. “Next order of business I suppose is working out a temporary residence.”
After much debate among the three of them, her new arrangements were decided and plans were made. Nearly two weeks after Juri arrived comatose into the town, she was officially discharged with a bottle of painkillers and a promise to check in regularly during her recovery. Juri was given a bit of money from Doc Kaoru, after arguing against it profusely, and a couple more sets of clothing from Ms. Shinohara. She would now come by the doctor’s office and general store to help out a bit for the next month, in order to work off her debt. Mostly by Juri’s insistence. That way the good doctor could keep an eye on her injuries, Juri would get to have a bit of freedom and feel useful, and Ms. Shinohara could get a hand at the store to pay back the cost of the goods she’d given out. It was suggested by Doc Kaoru that there were rooms to rent above the saloon in town, though Ms. Shinohara’s opinion of the place was dismal at best.
“That place is a den of sin! What with all of the drinking and fighting and scandalous behavior that goes on there.”
“The owner isn’t a bad sort though.” Miki tried to amend.
“She’s the worst of them all! That woman is an absolute beast, and is far too high and mighty for my tastes!” Wakaba looked ready to spit nails. Juri smiled, thinking her scrunched up face and puffed out cheeks were rather charming. Like a prairie dog.
“Not to worry, Ms. Shinohara. I’m confident I’ll be able to protect my dignity.” Juri drawled, feeling a half-cocked smirk stretch across her features. “I’m comfortable in most places, and look forward to getting an actual bath. I’m sure the owner won’t be a problem, as long as I pay my way.” Wakaba was not impressed.
“Hmph! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She had intoned ominously. Which brought the orange haired woman to where she was standing now.
Juri was currently in front of the bar inside of the town saloon. A small satchel in hand and a modest purse of coins tucked into her pants pocket. The saloon was located in nearly the dead center of town, directly across from the feed store and town newspaper. The big hand-carved wooden sign had been legible from far away, and the curious glances from town residents had followed her all the way inside. The interior had seemed modest but well kept, a couple of patrons already in their glasses when she arrived. One man was playing solitaire at a card table. The plan had been simple: secure a place to stay, explore the town to get a lay of the land, then set about finding work in order to get herself back on her feet. That had been the plan anyway.
“You’re that stranger that plopped half-dead into town, aren’t you?” Juri was taken aback by the instant hostility. In front of her was a small blond petite woman with her hands on her hips and a nasty scowl on her lips. “The one who’s been Doc Kaoru’s charity case?”
“...Yes. I suppose I am.” Juri responded. They glared at one another as the saloon went still. The man playing cards set his deck down and watched them silently. Juri felt her hackles raising, though her eyes never left the woman behind the bar. Juri felt her neck tensing, and something like anticipation coiling in her stomach.
“Well. Seeing as you’re able to walk, don’t suppose you’ll be walking back out of town then? That would suit us just fine I think.” The woman’s haughty expression practically dripped with venom, and Juri fought not to give a sneer of her own. Who the hell was this and what on earth was her problem?
“I wasn’t aware you were against paying customers renting rooms from you. My apologies.” Juri replied, but her words were icy. She could feel her eyes flashing as she watch the blond woman. She was reaching her hands down for something behind the bar.
“Paying customer? Ha! More like a trouble-maker rooting itself in town with the good doctor’s money! Words already gotten out about you. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll save yourself the trouble and go.”
The more the woman spit her poison, the more Juri felt a dogged desire to do exactly the opposite. The hostility was unwarranted, and if she wasn’t mistaken the bartender now had a gun hidden in her hands. Juri felt an itch starting in her palm, and felt her hands move towards her hip. Feeling for something that wasn’t there.
“Hey! Ya ain’t hearin’ good? Ms. Kiryuu said ta leave!” One of the men at the bar lurched her way, clearly drunk and getting riled up. Juri moved a half step to the side, and kept one eye on him as well.
“Look. I came here looking for a room. I plan to find employment in town to pay off my debts. But if you’re threatening me, I’ll warn you now. I don’t take kindly to it.” Juri’s voice dropped an octave and her shoulders tensed in readiness. Her words were chilly enough to make ‘Ms. Kiryuu’ give a small flinch. “Not at all.”
The man moved closer, a hand outstretched to grab at her. “You got some nerve--” But he never got the chance as Juri’s own hand struck out quick as a snake bite. Snagging him by the wrist, twisting sharply. He cried out in pain.
“Touch me, and you’ll be losing that hand.” Juri snapped, eyes flashing. She felt outside of herself. Her body moving on it’s own to react to the threat suddenly looming about her. Quick as a thought, the blonde loud mouth behind the bar had a shotgun up and pointing straight at her chest.
“Let him go. Or you’ll be breathing through a new hole.” Ms Kiryuu’s voice was as hard and as unflinching as iron. And the barrel was pointed level at her chest. “I promise.”
Juri let him go and slowly raised her unarmed hands on either side of her head. A bead of sweat dripped down her neck in the sudden stifling atmosphere. She waited, stone faced and tense, for the shot to come.
To Be Continued
The hollow metal barrel pointed at her ribcage, and she felt her chest squeeze in anticipation. Juri licked her dry lips as she wait, a gnat buzzed near the corner of her eye in an attempt to land on the skin of her brow. The room was dead silent, as the two women locked eyes.
“Well then? What are you waiting for, hm?” Juri asked, with steel in her voice. The bravado split the silence between them. And the blond woman snarled.
“Shut up! Back away from the bar and keep your hands raised where I can see them.” She ordered, coming around the side of the bar, her gun still held rock-steady. Their eyes never left one another, and Juri saw lightning flash in the barwoman’s eyes. There was a deep rage there, a deep amount. All of the other patrons around them were still as statues, waiting to see what would happen. As the woman came completely from behind the bar, Juri could see she was rather petite, slim with a soft build. Her curls bounced about her shoulders carelessly.
“Now I’m only going to say this one more time: You’re not wanted in these parts. Now that you’re healing up, you need to look into leaving. Understand?”
Juri opened her mouth to reply, but a voice interrupted from the side.
“Oh, Nanami. Just rent her a room already.” It was familiar, and had a feral smoothness. Juri spared a glance and recognized Miki’s sister, Kozue, approaching from down the stairs. She was currently dressed in velvet and satin the color of midnight. But it was no less revealing than her past ensemble. She gave a smirk as Juri caught her eye, then tossed her head to dismiss her completely. “What’s the harm, really?” Juri quirked an eyebrow in surprise. Given their last encounter, Kozue wasn’t someone who she would have expected to come to her aid. Something was off. Still, she bit her tongue.
“You don’t call the shots here, Kozue. This is still my saloon, regardless of whatever contract we have.” Nanami spat, her rage finding a fresh target. Kozue simply laughed and popped open her fan. Fluttering it like a bird’s wing.
“Really now. I think our partnership has done wonders for your business. I merely am offering some personal insight. She has money, and she’s in plain view. Any trouble? And she’ll be handled...effectively.” Kozue smiled. It wasn’t a nice one. Juri didn’t like how the other woman’s gaze kept sizing her up. But her face remained impassive as she cut in.
“I keep saying I’m not looking for trouble. I’m only trying to get a handle on my current situation. Get out of the good doctor’s hair.” Juri sighed, her shoulders were beginning to ache from holding her arms up. She noticed the gun barrel lowered a touch. Which was good because Juri was pretty sure she’d tweaked a couple of her stitches earlier. The injured woman made sure that her voice and face didn’t show it however.
“I’m perfectly aware of how much I owe him, and this town. If you’d like, I can have a chat with your sheriff or the mayor? Get my affairs squared away with the local authority?”
“That won’t be necessary.” Kozue cut in smoothly before the barwoman Nanami could say anything. “My brother has already informed several of us of your status and intentions. Nanami? I’ll be happy to give my pledge on Ms. Juri’s behalf here. There’ll be no issues. Right?” She smiled, her teeth were white and neat.
Juri lifted her hands wide and tried to push down the annoyance and irritation gnawing at her veins. Kozue was working her nerves faster than even Nanami had. More and more she was regretting her decision to come here. “No trouble. Just looking for a place to stay, and work to get by.”
Nanami glared at the two of them suspiciously. The drunk man hovering near them looked baffled and confused, but still ready to involve himself. Finally after a long sigh of annoyance, Nanami eased from her aimed position and pointed the shotgun away towards the ceiling. The blonde impatiently waved her hand.
“Fine fine! But it’s on your head if something happens. Sit down, Yamada! You’re embarrassing us both.” The drunk man stumbled clumsily back onto a bar stool. Nanami waspishly glared back at Juri.
“You. Stranger . You can take the second room upstairs. It’s $4.00 for the week. Rent’s due the beginning of every week, and paid in full. Lunch is free, but the liquor’s not. We don’t take IOUs. First payment is due now .” Nodding as she fell silent, Juri lowered her hands and made for her pockets. Taking out a purse, she counted out the coins and passed them over. Nanami inspected them before taking them and securing them out of sight behind the bar. Giving a huff, she came out from behind the counter once more with a key ring on her belt. She removed one and gave the key to Juri, muttering darkly under her breath.
“Well then! Seems like everything’s settled. In that case, if you dear ladies will excuse me I’ll be retiring to my parlor now.” Kozue remarked, fanning herself grandly before sweeping out of the room and through a doorway towards the back of the saloon.
Nanami shook her head bitterly and started heading for the stairs. Looking over her shoulder at Juri, she jerked her head for Juri to follow her. “Well? Hurry up! I don’t have all day you know.”
As she followed the woman up the stairs, Juri felt her eyes going a bit unfocused. The whole ordeal had worn her out, and a stinging sensation nagged at her shoulders. The amnesiac woman found herself staring at Nanami’s form in front of her, watching it waver in her focus like a candle flame. She was small, maybe only came to Juri’s collarbone. It was almost impressive how much spit and fire she seemed to possess. Her world narrowed down to the saloon owner’s flaxen hair, as Juri trudged up the stairs. It was loose about the shoulders, with twin braids pulling it back and encircling her head like a crown.
Forcing herself to put one boot in front of the other, Juri found herself musing. The stairs felt endless, but surely could be no more than a flight and a half at most. And she was so tired suddenly. I wonder why… came the fuzzy thought. Maybe I really was too weak to leave the Doc’s place...
“Hey, you listening? Are you alright ?” Juri jerked her head up, realizing she was now standing at the top of the stairs, with a pale hand waving in front of her face. Nanami looked annoyed and bemused, but there was a flicker of something else shadowing her face.
“I’m fine.” Juri muttered, pushing past her. “This the room?” The second door had been unlocked and was pushed open, revealing a simple room beyond.
“Yes.” Came the clipped response. “Make sure you leave any firearms or weapons upstairs. This is a law-abiding town.”
“Of course.” Juri murmured, making her way past Nanami and into the room. The other woman watched her for a moment as Juri began setting her things down. Saying nothing more, she left after a moment and returned to the bar downstairs. Alone at last, Juri closed the door and glanced about the room.
The room was simple but clean, with a few light furnishings. A bed dominated the right side of the room, and against the wall near the door was a single bureau. There was a small wooden table under the sole window directly across from her, upon which was a vase containing a sunflower and a glass lamp. The walls were wood paneling and covered by a faint patterned wallpaper. The bare wood floor had a small round thread-bare carpet that was at the side of the bed. Moving over that way, she ran her hand on the sheets of the bed. No obvious bugs it seemed, and Juri noted they were freshly laundered. A bit of a surprise, really. Nanami must be as uptight about upkeep, as she was about renting out rooms.
Sitting down and letting her weight sink into the bedsprings, Juri allowed herself a moment to wallow in the aching throb her wounds had become. She felt slightly nauseous and leaned carefully backward to lay squarely on her back. Closing her eyes, she willed the headache building to recede and for her tense muscles to relax. She had a room, goal one was complete. Blinking up at the ceiling, she sighed. Next would be finding some kind of work in town. She needed to eat after all. And then? Maybe try to piece together who the hell she was. Figure out what happened to her.
Biting her bottom lip with a grimace, she lifted the collar away from her shirt and twisted her face to look down at her shoulder. The linens bound over her stitches looked wet now, with spots of fresh red blood. Definitely tore something. Doc Kaoru won’t be happy… Juri realized, already vowing not to tell him. Sighing she closed her eyes and let her body sink into the mattress. For the moment she let her mind drift as she ignored her aches.
Right now, all she owned in the world was on her person. And most of it was not even hers. The woman felt broken and disconnected, like she wasn’t even really there. Just a tumbleweed blown by the wind… Part of her wondered if she actually was dead, and this was just some sort of limbo. The kind of existence spoken of in myth and by the bible thumpers. However, the nagging burn in her shoulders remarked otherwise. Anchored her down to the bedsprings and the cotton threads. Reminded her that: Like it or not, she was here in Thornhill. So Juri would have to make the best of it.
Grunting, she worked to sit back up. A thing that ultimately proved a lot harder than lying down. Using her toes to pry the boots off of her feet, she let them clatter to the floor and worked to stand once more. It was time to take stock, now that she was alone and away from prying eyes. Juri undid her belts, fished in her pockets, and emptied out the contents of the satchel she had been given onto the little table. Laid out in front of her was the following: a single change of clothes (a gift from the general store owner), a coin purse with exactly 6 dollars left (made up of a quarter-eagle, two silver dollars, a half dollar, and a handful of bits), two holsters but only one gun (which was currently still jammed and crusted with sand), a simple satchel to carry her things, a small packet of jerky and dried fruit (courtesy of Ms. Shinohara again), and a twisted lump of metal on a chain. It was that last bit that gave her pause.
Lifting up the item to inspect it further, she peered closely at it for the first time. It looked like a lump of iron that had been melted by something. It was twisted and deformed, and there were flakes of old blood stuck in its grooves. Tracing a finger over its surface, Juri turned it this way and that. There were a pair of hinges to one side, had this been some sort of locket? A buzzing sensation began in the back of her skull. What was this? Digging a fingernail at the edges of the metal, she worked at a chunk of it that seemed loose. After a moment it came away to drop coldly into the palm of her hand. It was a bullet. A bullet that was warped and flattened from impact. The buzzing in her head was like an angry hornet, fierce and insistent.
Narrowing her eyes in silent musing, Juri slipped a hand into her shirt once more and let her fingers trace down along her chest. Searching… There. A hard knot of bruising and the feeling of a scab right there above her heart. The size of a locket perhaps? Absently, her hand massaged her temple to dislodge the dull pounding that was building there. Had she been wearing this thing when she’d been shot and left for dead? If that was the case, this locket very possibly took the bullet that would have ended her life.
Curious and refusing to be shaken by that thought, Juri tried unsuccessfully to open the ruined piece of jewelry. But the metal was so badly bent and welded together that it was shut tight. Whatever contents laid within were currently out of her reach. Sighing she set it back down on the table. For now? She’d rest a bit, and then see about exploring the town some. Get her bearings and then find a blacksmith (who hopefully had knowledge of guns). She also needed to inquire about for employment, a woman had to eat after all. There were surely odd jobs about that needed doing. Farmsteads always needed laborers. Perhaps should should speak with the local sheriff despite Kozue’s dismissal? Get the story straight and prove her intentions? It felt so strange to remember nothing of one’s own past, and be left with only a blank slate and a body torn to pieces. But she was alive. She would survive.
Striding back toward the bed, Juri moved carefully to lie back down on it. I’ll close my eyes, just for a bit. An hour at most, and then I’ll see what this town has to offer. Her decision was heartfelt, and as another wave of exhaustion threatened to overwhelm her her eyelids fell shut. Blackness enveloped her mind, spiraling her down into a deep slumber.At the edges of her mind, men and horses cried in pain, gunfire cracked like thunder, and a dark feeling of fear and loathing rose from her locked memories.
“Kill me. Go on! If you think you have the guts...”
Restlessly, Juri bit her lip in her sleep, fists clenching futilely. Unknown to her sleeping mind, a cold sweat broke out on her brow.
“I’ll see you in hell before this is over.”
It would be long past nightfall before she’d open her eyes again…
The sounds of saloon music drifted from below, startling her awake with a muffled grunt. Juri blinked awake, realizing she was sitting up in bed, a fist raised to deliver a blow. But there was no one there, and she remained alone in her dark room. Feeling her way to the small table nearby, she patted her fingertips around the metal base of the lamp. Behind it she found a couple of matches, and striking one, she carefully lit the wick hidden behind the panels of glass. Adjusting the flame’s trim with a slight twist of the little knob. Light illuminated the room, letting her eyes adjust better to the state of things.
Everything was as the injured woman had left it, and sighing, she wiped a hand over her face. She felt...awake? But exhausted. As if she’d been fighting entire armies in her dreams, though the actual memories of the dreams themselves faded from her mind. Lately her thoughts felt like water seeping through the cracks her brain, she just couldn’t hold onto anything. Juri bitterly scrubbed a hand along her scalp and through her tawny hair. The curls there felt tangled and messy. Should I brush them out? She settled instead for just raking her fingers through them.
Adjusting her shirt and feeling slightly more presentable, her growling stomach suggested she go downstairs to see if she could rustle anything up to eat. After all, the day was already wasted. And a drink didn’t sound terribly bad either. Leaving her holsters and useless gun upstairs, Juri headed downstairs into the saloon proper. And was immediately assaulted by the riot of noise and color below.
The parlor, having been nearly empty earlier, was practically filled to bursting now with men (and even a couple of ladies) from the town laughing and carrying on. There were doves in outrageously bright and lacey dresses, giggling and preening among the tables. A few girls were dancing on a small stage in the next room; a jaunty tune being pounded on a piano as they kept time. Tendrils of smoke curled from cigarettes and cigars, and the gambling was in full swing all around. Feeling a bit taken aback, Juri gingerly made her way to the end of the bar and sat down, debating returning to her room.
“H-Hey! Yer that…It’s you! Howdy , Stranger!” A semi-familiar face loomed into her view from beside her, making her narrow her eyes suspiciously. It was the drunk man from earlier, still inebriated it seemed. Only now he had a big beaming smile and wobbled dangerously. He collapsed onto the bar stool next to her and tipped his hat. “S-Sorry ‘bout earlier, I was..uh, whatcha call, drunk an’ disorderly?”
Juri sniffed and wrinkled her nose, bemused. “You’re drunk now .”
“Yeah! But, I were drunk on gin earlier. N-Now I’m...ah, drunk on whiskey !” Another beaming smile. “We’re all good, though. Ms. K-Kiryuu rented ya the room, an’ she’s the boss ‘round here. Anyway...sorry ‘gain.”
He put his hand out to shake, entirely missing and ending up far over her shoulder. Juri felt her eye twitch a moment, but then sighed and carefully took ahold of his hand to shake it solidly. His grip was fairly decent.
“I’m Juri. You’re…” She searched her brain for a moment. “...Yamada, right? How’s the wrist?” The man seemed impressed she’d remembered.
“Aw, it’s jus’ fine. Don’t feel a thing!” She imagined he did not. But he’d probably be feeling a few things come morning. He peered at her blearily. “Ya ain’t drinkin’ yet?”
Juri cocked an eyebrow and gave a small wry smile. “Not yet, but that’s probably only temporary. The food any good here?” She joked.
“The best.“ A voice cut coldly in. Ms. Kiryuu bustled in front of them, laden with various mugs and bottles and looking entirely unamused. Juri felt her headache already coming back. Great. She looks to be in a rare mood. Juri worked to keep her annoyance off of her face and out of her voice.
“Well then, mind if I order something to eat? ” Juri gave her a mild look, while the blond woman sized her up.
“Fine. Go sit down at one of the tables, you’re taking up space. I’ll tell one of the girls to get you a dinner plate.” And like that, Nanami was gone once more. Doing as she was bid, Juri made her way deeper into the saloon and found an open place at one of the long tables filled with patrons. It was even louder here, and movement was everywhere. The cavorting all around seemed like thick blanket to Juri, that she managed to studiously dismiss it for the most part. Taking a breath and releasing it as she worked to rid her neck and shoulders of tension. So many things were hitting her senses, not just the bodies all around her. It was a bit jarring. After a time, her plate arrived in the hands of a cheerful young server. The girl set the plate down, gave a polite nod, and then left as Juri set to the business of eating. True to her words, it looked fantastic .
There was warm slices of roast beef covered in savory gravy, roasted corn on the cob, green beans, hardboiled eggs, and a slice of buttered cornbread. And all of it seeming like a piece of heaven served on the simple tin plate. Juri wasted little time, and worked quickly at the food with her fork and knife. Having finished everything in the blink of an eye, but feeling infinitely better, a polite cough drew her attention.
“My, did you even taste it?” One of the saloon girls was looking at her in mild amazement. She was slender and wore a bright pink dress. The other woman’s eyes were the color of Easter grass, and were currently locked on her. Juri gave a slight start, feeling embarrassed and undignified having not noticed that she had had company.
“Sorry, I suppose I was...rather hungry. I hope you’ll pardon my poor manners.” Juri apologized calmly, despite the feelings inside. A tinkling of laughter came back, and the girl grinned.
“Oh, la. You’re fine, dear. Hearty appetite? Always nice to see.”
Juri felt her cheeks redden a bit, but suppressed it as best as she could with confidence. “I do have a bit of an appetite. But I’ll try not to let it get the best of me.”
The dove cocked her head to the side, regarding her carefully. There was an intelligence there, that Juri recognized. “You’re the stranger they found outside of town? You speak awful well. And you’re pretty too, I can tell beneath all those bruises. You’re as interesting as they say.”
Juri raised an eyebrow, and held her gaze. “Oh? Am I entering gossip around here?”
The girl tsked with her finger, and chided her with a smile, “Now now, of course! New person in a small town like this? That alone is enough to make the rounds. But your particular... circumstances ? My, the tongues won’t stop wagging. Word is you’re lucky to be alive.”
Juri was silent a moment, regarding her carefully. “I suppose some say too lucky?” She was rewarded with another smile and those intelligent eyes sparkling.
“Naturally. The only survivor in a mass shootout? Who claims to have no memories of the entire thing? Folks say it’s strange. And strange makes them uneasy.”
Juri hummed a note under her breath and pushed her empty plate away, settling her chin on one hand as she stared out before her. The room ignored them for the most part, the hive of activity only a background sound to her thoughts. One bearded man tried to tickle the thigh of one of the saloon girls and was promptly slapped for it. Laughter roared out around him.
“Not much to be done about that. Tends to make most people uneasy.” Juri conceded finally. The server returned for her plate, and Juri placed an order for a whiskey. Having a drink was feeling like a better idea the more she mused. The saloon girl continued to sit near her, seeming curious.
“For what it’s worth? I don’t think you’re a bandit. You don’t seem the type.” The girl remarked. Juri raised an eyebrow and gave her a skeptical look.
“No. But I also am waiting to see what side you’re on. You still could be trouble. And the town doesn’t need more of that.”
Juri found herself smirking at the unexpectedly honest comment, filing away the tidbit for later. “Well, I appreciate your honesty, Ms..?”
A hand was extended, which Juri formally took. The woman smiled grandly. “My name is Aika. One of Madam Kozue’s girls.”
“A pleasure, Ms. Aika.The name’s Juri.” Her whisky arrived then, and Aika took it as her call to leave.
“Enjoy the drink, Ms. Juri. And if you’re interested, feel free to come and see me dance later this evening. The girls and I put on a good show.” The woman in pink winked and waltzed away, not waiting for a reply. Lapsing once more into quiet, Juri nursed her whiskey glass and watched the room.
After a time, she found herself standing, drink in hand, and moving back toward the bar. Nanami was wiping off the counter top amidst elbows and the waving hands of the townsmen. She moved efficiently, smiling at one as she filled his glass, bantering with another as she brought him a bottle, a blur of shining blonde hair and pale hands. The barwoman moved with a practiced ease that edged on graceful. Juri swallowed the rest of her glass and placed it on the counter, waiting. In a moment Ms. Kiryuu appeared, whisky bottle in hand, and was already filling it before she realized who it belonged to. Once she did, her expression soured noticeably. Keeping her mouth shut, the blonde filled her glass and moved away once more. Steering clear of her. Juri looked about herself and assessed the situation. The bar was full of jostling individuals, all well into their glasses. But besides the drunk Yamada and Aika, no one approached her. They were enough of a distance away that not a single elbow grazed her, and no backside bumped into her. Not hostile but...distant perhaps.
Juri glanced and made eye-contact with a server moving about with a tray of plates. The server locked eyes with her, and then averted his gaze. Carefully moving past her on his rounds. The amnesiac woman then moved her gaze about the bar, and watched as one by one curious gazed wilted away from her stare.
Juri turned back to her whiskey and said nothing, ignoring the feelings of eyes on her back. There was a crash to her left. Two coal smudged faces yelled at one another and started grappling. They crashed into a table, sloshing the contents of the drinks that had been on it. The occupants stood in anger and outrage as the two men grappled with one another unheeding. She waited a moment, blue-green eyes tracking their movements. But no one moved to stop them. She glanced at the door, as the scuffle went on. But they went on ignored and no one from outside the saloon stepped in either. Finally though, Nanami stepped over and yelled shrilly at the two of them, dumping a bucket of water on them until they at last broke apart. She ordered them out of the saloon, and they sullenly did so, wobbling out into the streets. Coming back behind the bar, Nanami resumed her duties. Looking a bit more frazzled in the process.
“Hmmm..” Juri murmured aloud, her thoughts ticking through her skull. She drained her second glass of whisky, feeling a warm fuzziness flowing through her. It caused the aches to dull, and feeling bold Juri waited until Nanami had approached her with bottle in hand before holding up a hand for her to halt.
“Who keeps order in this town? I’m surprised I haven’t been talked to yet by your lawman. Who’s the sheriff?” Nanami shifted, her thoughts flying across her face as varying degrees emotion at the sudden barrage of questions. First outrage, then bafflement, and finally a deep unease. Ms. Kiryuu quickly worked to appear her normal sullen self.
“What’s it to you? You’re just being let off easily, not that you deserve it.”
But Juri’s eyes were hard and she remained firmly holding Nanami’s gaze. “You’re a terrible liar, Ms. Kiryuu. And I’ve had enough of it.” The softness of her voice seemed at odds with the staredown she gave the barwoman, who suddenly seemed helpless to look away.
“Y-You...just...Pffha! We keep our own order. And you’d be well to remember that.” Nanami snarled, but she seemed to lack her usual fire. Taking the bottle away, she left Juri’s glass empty as she went to collect money from a customer. But Juri refused to be brushed off.
“Who’s your sheriff? Surely you have one.”
Around her, the crowd about the bar stilled. Or at least those in earshot. Nanami was looking very uncomfortable. Juri knew she was on the right track, and doggedly kept her eyes on the blonde.
“...Ain’t got one.” Nanami finally replied after a moment, breaking the awkward silence. Around her were uncomfortable shifts of patrons. At the end of the bar, someone coughed. It was loud in the sudden deafening quiet. But Juri kept her face calm and at ease.
“I see. Unusual. No lawman?” Those around her waited to see what Nanami Kiryuu would say. The barwoman grit her teeth before answering. It came out as a little more than an angry growl.
“...No.” But don’t go getting any funny ideas about causing a ruckus. Ain’t one to stop us from lynching you either.” There was a story there. A hurt. Juri would stake her life on it. And perhaps in a way she was.
“Who’s the mayor then? Who runs the town?”
A quiet male voice piped up, drawing Juri’s attention away from the woman she was interrogating. He had long crimson hair that streamed below the brim of his pale colored hat. He looked back at Juri with a calculating gaze.
“I’m afraid, Stranger, that this town no longer has a sheriff, a lawman, or a mayor. But perhaps you’ll allow me to advise you: No one here wishes to speak of it. It is simply the way things are. Thornhill tends to run itself, and quite well.”
The man’s voice was velvety, placating. Juri considered his words. This town was clearly hiding a few things. But she chose to ease off for now, until her situation improved.
“I see. I’m looking for work. I wanted to talk to the right authority about my intentions, but seeing as that authority is seemingly all around me...where can I find honest work in town? Ms. Kiryuu?” Nanami looked back up at her, frowning. Her gaze was distant for a moment before she came back to herself.
“What? You want to run for office as the mayor? Or the sheriff?” Her voice dripped with venom at the idea. Juri merely shook her head, refusing to be ruffled.
“Not at all. Not my style, I’m afraid though I’m flattered you’d consider me.” Nanami Kiryuu sputtered, mouth working like a landed fish. An angry landed fish. Juri cut her off before she could say what she knew was coming.
“I’m actually interested in seeing if your saloon is hiring.” Juri hadn’t planned to ask about work here, but part of her wanted to see how far she could push things. The reaction was priceless and Juri worked to keep the smirk from her features. “I’m currently recovering, and there’s a great deal of distrust about me since I’m unable to even remember my own name. Yes?” A few muttered agreements about her perked her ears, but Juri kept her gaze locked with Nanami. She was the ‘boss’ around the saloon after all. And the veritable dragon at the gate.
“I’m a hard worker, Ms. Kiryuu. I can read and write, and am capable of defending myself. At least from what I recall. What better way to keep an eye on me? An extra pair of hands would free you up for more important work perhaps.”
The red-haired man suddenly laughed out loud, startling them both. His features were stretched wide in an amused smile and he put his chin on one hand as he regarded them. “I see...and I suppose with so many folks coming and going as well, you might be able to perhaps trigger a memory? Figure out more about yourself, and then leave Thornhill once you are well?”
Juri raised an eyebrow but nodded. “Yes. Precisely.” She glanced sidelong at Ms. Kiryuu. “Wouldn’t want to overstay my welcome here...right?”
The blonde barwoman fumed, looking between her and the red-haired man. Who just continued smiling widely. As if he knew a joke they didn’t. Growling, Nanami slapped a hand on the bar top.
“You’ve got nerve!”
“I do.” Juri retorted, voice steady and a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. Around them, more and more observers were watching wide eyed and interested at the exchange. But no one else dared speak. Except one.
“She does.” The man from earlier chimed in, his voice sure and almost melodic. He was quite handsome, Juri noted distantly. And seemed very confident.
The barwoman threw her hands up in the air finally, at last relenting. “Augh! Fine! If it shuts the both of you up. Come by in the morning, and we’ll talk. You better not waste my time!”
“I won’t, thank you Ms. Kiryuu.”
“Ugh, don’t thank me. Now move, I have customers to serve and your ugly face is distracting.” Juri nodded, a real smile threatening to completely spread across her features as she rose from her barstool and put some coins on the counter top. Nanami scowled at her but took the offered money and said no more.
Moving from the bar at last, Juri noticed quite a few tables had quieted down to listen in on their conversation at the bar, but hurriedly talk resumed as she passed and cards swapped hands.She glanced over her shoulder to see the red-haired man watching her. Still smiling in amusement. He tipped his hat to her and she gave a silent nod of thanks back. And then made her way toward the stairs. The whiskey was riding high in her blood now, and the world seemed to shift a bit with her steps. She felt good, felt more alive. As if verbally dueling with Nanami had rekindled something in her that had been dormant since she’d awoken in town. It filled her with a restless energy, so instead of heading upstairs to sleep she slipped outside into the cool night air.
The moon was high in the sky, a waxing bright light that bathed the buildings and fences outside. Long shadows striped the streets, as Juri slowly walked out and down the street. Her boots were softly muffled in the sand as her strides took her past dark wooden buildings and empty windows. Only some of which were lit with a single candle behind their curtains. The buzzing warmth in her belly put her at ease as she walked the unfamiliar road, the woman looking up at the moon and gazing at the dusting of stars that stretched the canopy above her. She hardly paid attention to where her feet took her, so relaxed was she in the quiet of twilight.
At the edge of town she came to a stone well that rested in front of a building with boards over its windows. Juri plopped down on the lip of the well, resting a moment for the moment with her palms smoothing over the worn cool stones. Closing her eyes she tried to let her thoughts flow freely. To conjure some sort of memory...or sensation. Anything that might shed light on who she was. But try as she might, everything in her mind was a blank except the present feeling of hard stone beneath her and the dusty breeze blowing her bangs into her eyes. She was empty inside, a blank canvas.
Opening her eyes again with a sigh, something caught her gaze. In front of her, there was a subtle movement in the shadows of the building. To the right of the porch beams that rose from the sand. Something misshapen crouched there on all fours, and watched her with unblinking yellow eyes. Feeling the hairs on her arms and neck stand on end, Juri held still. Trying to work out what it was. It was smaller than a man, but larger than a coyote. And the shape...something about the shape was...strange. There was something else too. It looked as though the dark shape was growing larger almost.
No. Juri narrowed her eyes, then hissed in realization. It was moving closer .
Slowly coming to stand, Juri reached for a gun that wasn’t there. Cursing internally, she squared off into a boxer’s stance, bringing her fists up defensively. The shape moved closer, posture tense and hostile. Was it her imagination? Or did she see teeth glinting in the shadows?
A sound came from the shape and it turned her blood turn to ice. It sounded like nothing she’d ever heard before, but an unmistakable feeling of dread centered in her gut. What... was that thing? In that moment, Juri’s entire world centered down onto just her, the thing, and the blowing breeze. And never before had she felt so alone. So vulnerable .
The thing stopped and raised its haunches. Juri tensed and tightened her fist. This is it… She whispered to herself internally. Ready for the bite to come or the slash of claws.
But a loud bout of laughter came from down the street as a gaggle of drunk cowboys spilled out onto the streets from the saloon, and sang a chorus together. Shattering the silence of the night. Juri whipped her head over to glance at them, and when she looked back the thing was gone. All that was left was the flicker of movement darting off into the desert. It moved so quickly that for a moment Juri thought she had imagined it all. The whiskey surely, delusions of a drunk woman. But as she made her way to get a closer look at the building, her eyes alighted onto its sign. It read ‘ Sheriff’ .
Wiping the newly formed sweat from above her lip, Juri kneeled down to the ground to get a closer look. Tracks...tracks that weren’t made by any coyote she knew. They had too many digits...and the grooves in the sand as big as knives. Claw marks...
Glancing up at the looming sign of the Sheriff's building one last time, Juri furrowed her brow and made her way back to the safety of the saloon. Questions would wait until daylight. For now it was time to look into getting her gun repaired.
To Be Continued
Thanks for reading and your patience. It's hard for me to find time to update regularly with my current work situation. But your kind words and comments are very much appreciated. I will be continuing to work on this and my other projects.
Chapter 4: Silk Stockings on a Bruised Cheek
I was born with lightning in my heels
Sewed a spur onto my ankle
Bitter horse under the steel
And I lost hope when I was still so young
Had an angel on my shoulder
But the devil always won
And oh, I lost it all when I got hurt
And I can feel you even now
Breakin' horses in the sky
I can taste you in my rage
And in the sweat upon my brow
- “Chasing Twisters” , Delta Rae
Footsteps roused Juri out of her reverie as she blinked her daydreams from her eyes. She passed a hand over her face as a voice intoned dryly.
“Well, you’re here early.”
Nanami Kiryuu came from the back where the kitchen was located, with a pot of coffee and two cups in her hand. Juri lifted her head up from her arm and sat up straighter. She’d been sitting and reflecting at the bar since dawn, unable to sleep in fear of more fitful dreams. A quick glance over her shoulder at the windows along the far wall, showed her the sun was now well up and people were beginning to drift onto the streets. A metal clink by her elbow brought her back around. The blonde woman had filled a cup for her. Juri perked up as the warm earthy scent drifted to her nose.
“Thank you, Ms. Kiryuu.” The quiet woman couldn’t help a genuine smile from tugging at her lips. If there was one thing Juri had found she loved, it was a cup of hot coffee in the morning. Strong, black, and bitter...something about it seemed to help set the world right. Nanami blinked for a moment, regarding her silently. Then the blonde gave a small shake of her head and set about pouring her own cup of coffee.
“You’re welcome, but I’m not here for pleasantries.” Her tone was clipped and short, but it lacked much of the hostility that Juri was becoming accustomed to. Looking her over, Nanami seemed tired she noticed. There were bags under her eyes, and her hair was mussed. Perhaps she wasn’t a morning person.
“Be that as it may, I am still mighty obliged at the opportunity to work for you.” Juri tried to soothe, backing off of the barwoman's short fuse. “I want to work back what I owe and repay the sums to Doc Kaoru and Ms. Shinohara. Then I can leave in peace.” Nanami quirked an eyebrow as if she didn’t buy it.
“So why not work at the mill then, or the...dear god, the smithy. Oh he would just love that I bet…” The other woman trailed off, muttering quietly to herself again. “There’s no need to bother me, you know. I’m a busy enough woman without tripping on you under foot. I could hire any fool from the town.”
Juri shook her head in negative. “We already established last night that you’re a figure of this community, and having you keep an eye on me would make both you and the others undoubtedly feel safer.”
“Guns do that perfectly well.” Nanami deadpanned.
“Yes, you’ve proven that point.” Juri retorted just as flatly. Nanami sighed in annoyance, busying herself with the cup in her hands. Once again, Juri couldn’t help but notice that the other woman seemed tired, out of sorts.
“To be perfectly honest? I wasn’t looking to take on any more hired help. But three weeks ago I lost my handy man.”
“I see.” Juri replied quietly, sipping her coffee. “Quit?”
“Dead. Snakebite took him.” Nanami waved a hand dismissively. “A pain, since he was also doubling as general security in the evenings. Things have gotten a bit hectic around here as Kozue and her.. .ladies , tend to rile the men. Mix that with rounds of whiskey? You get broken furniture, and busted lips.”
Juri arched an eyebrow incredulously, catching Nanami’s gaze. Last night must have been somewhat tame if that was the case. She decided to probe a bit further. “I admit I was somewhat surprised that Ms. Kaoru and you were business partners.” And that she vouched for me. Juri took another casual sip of her coffee. “You and she seem to take differing views…” She noted the flash of anger in the other woman’s eyes, continuing on as if nothing was wrong. “...But I suppose a steady source of entertainment is practical. Helps keeps in customers and the beer flowing.”
Nanami shrugged, “Oh there’s no worry of that. This town has no shortage of thirst, with or without loose women .” Her lip curled in disgust, her eyes stormy. Something about her tone made her words seem a bit cryptic. Juri filed it away.
“Well. If it’s simple handy work, I think I can manage. And I’m not afraid of a busted lip or two.”Juri replied, deciding to move things along. Nanami placed a hand on her cocked hip, looking down her nose.
“Getting, or receiving?”
“Yeah, wouldn’t notice another one on you at this rate would we?” Juri fought not to feel insulted at the quip, keeping her face impassive. “Come see me this later afternoon, and I’ll have some things for you to do around the saloon. I’d advise picking up some basic tools, Suzuki’s disappeared when he passed. Be ready to work, or else.” The blond dismissed her, tossing her hair. Juri rose from her hunched over position. Their business was now officially settled apparently. At least for the time being.
“Thank you Ms. Kiryuu. You’re too kind.” Juri murmured politely, tipping her hat as she made to leave. But Nanami Kiryuu didn’t bother to acknowledge her.
The town outside was a bustle of life when Juri’s boots crunched in the sand on the main street. Horses pulled carts, men unloaded crates, and women flocked in pairs and groups. A pair of men were relaxing on the bench outside of the general store, each holding a copy of a local newspaper that they quietly read. The skies above were a clear robin’s egg blue, and not a single cloud marred the expanse above. The sunshine was warm, pleasantly chasing away any of the eeriness from the night before. Breathing in deep Juri let her feet take her where they willed.
As the stranger wandered aimlessly, her mind whirred as she began working out a general map of the area. Everything seemed peaceful, the town itself was a decent size. There was the general store and doctor’s office, located between the hardware store and the printing press. She gave a small wave to Miki who cheerfully grinned back. She watched as he turned and helped a limping man into his office, blue hair falling into his eyes as the doctor knelt down kindly. At least one person in this town didn’t seem to hate her. Well, perhaps two… At the general store, a broadly smiling Wakaba Shinohara waited for her. After catching up and chatting about the weather the kindly woman pressed a small bundle into her hands. “Here! Just take these, a couple of small things. I figured you’d probably want some essentials besides the clothes.”
Juri smiled warmly, “You’re too kind Ms. Shinohara. Thank you, I’ll return the favor.”
Wakaba preened under the praise, blushing. “Oh pish posh, and please call me ‘Wakaba’. I hope it makes things liveable in that filthy den you’ve decided to hole up in.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust as Juri nodded gratefully before taking her leave. The two men glaring at her over their newspapers, giving her a moment’s pause. Shaking her head she moved on.
Across the street rested a trading post and the courthouse, which currently appeared to be empty. Juri let herself glance inside, noting the dusty benches and the serene sunlight filtering through the smudged window panes. Not been in use recently it would seem. Turning, her boots clumped along the wooden boardwalk that served to separate the street from the doorways. The timbers forming the awning above her helped to shield from the blazing sun, but already the woman felt beads of sweat gathering on the back of her neck. She ambled along, nodding now and then at individuals who seemingly ignored her. Occasionally someone gave her a cold stare back, but she kept moving as though she hardly noticed. She was on a mission.
After about an hour of quiet walking, Juri had formed a fairly decent picture in her mind of Thornhill and its inhabitants. The town was comprised of a variety of hardware, leather goods, and a large warehouse for trading and storing imported goods. It had a claims office right across from the surveyor’s office, and from what she gleaned many of the men in town were miners. Or at least, they used to be. After carefully poking around, she had come to realize that several of the mining men she had seen at the saloon the night before were all still here. Not out working in whatever claims lay outside the town limits. They milled about aimlessly, bottles in hand, dozing against water troughs, or else glaring out from the few shadowed corners around town. After a couple of careful questions here and there, most of which were blatantly ignored, Juri was able to surmise that the rest of the miners were currently working as temporary labor for other inhabitants of the town. Her brow furrowed as she wandered, mind working.
There were some farming families and a few ranches that she could see nestled in the distance, but she noted that the men and women bringing in carts of produce seemed tired and gaunt. The crops were decent at least, her eyes tracked a cart as it wheeled by. Inside were stacks of bundled maize and crates of tomatoes, tucked between unmarked barrels. The driver of the cart turned his horse toward the general store, and Wakaba came outside to greet them. Already clucking out instructions, the cart was unloaded and she bustled everything inside. The saloon was certainly well stocked, the general store seemed to get consistent deliveries. Yes, it all seemed alright Juri supposed.
She pulled her hat low over her eyes as she thought. Honestly it could be chalked up to the grit it took to set up any sort of life out in this harsh terrain. Perhaps Thornhill had once been a boom town and the mines had simply dried up. Thinking back to the previous night with the rowdy inhabitants of the saloon, she didn’t recall very much money that had been exchanged. Except for hers of course, but that had been from the good doctor. Was most things around the town running on credit? Or a bartering system? Not unheard of certainly... Something keep gnawing at the back of her mind, but she decided to push it aside for the moment.
Sticking her thumbs into her belt loops, Juri let her feet move her once more down the street and behind the main buildings. She would need to look into getting tools as Nanami had suggested, and figured it would be best to start at the hardware store. Passing through the doorway of the shop, a little bell rang at the top sounding to announce her presence. After a moment, a young teen appeared with a smile. “Welcome! What can I do for you?” His tone was bright and cheerful, matching the lightness of his step. He was young too, clean-faced and soft featured. But Juri noted that the line felt rehearsed and his smile didn’t reach his eyes. They were wary.
“Afternoon.” She nodded politely, keeping her face calm as she locked eyes with him. “I’m looking to get some basic tools. Hammer, nails, saw...just the essentials for now.”
“Oh? Sure, let me go grab you a few things in the back.” The boy wiped his hands on his apron, and Juri took out her coin pouch to start sifting through it. Mentally noting that it was a fair bit lighter since the previous night, she palmed a couple of the coins. Doc Kaoru’s generosity was soon to be depleted if she didn’t start securing additional funds quickly. Relying on the surly Nanami Kiryuu might help with that. And if not? Well...she had best make sure she had a back-up plan.
When the shopkeeper returned, he began laying several items on the counter, each of them seeming sturdy but fairly worn. The handles seemed chipped, and the edges of the steel tools had burrs. Clearly she wasn’t going to be done any favors here. Despite it all, Juri kept her face expressionless. Once he rang her up, prices far higher than normal of course, she dared to voice a question she had been hesitating on since she woke up.
“Say, I know you sell tools and tinware. Do you by chance repair jewelry? Or...guns?”
It was like winter had set in, with how cold his blue eyes suddenly became.
“Sorry, Stranger. I’m afraid I don’t.” He was all smiles and geniality. But there was a stubborn set to his shoulders that Juri recognized.
“Well now, that’s a shame.” Juri replied deadpan. “Do you happen to know of anyone who does, Mr….?”
“Tsuwabuki. And no, there’s no one like that in town. But surely you’ll find someone like that the next town over.” He spread his hands wide apologetically. Juri glanced over at a small sign that hung just past the register. It read in bold flowing script: “Guns, Pistols, Ammunition! We Sell Stoves, Hardware, Tinware, and Make Repairs!” Juri looked back at Tsuwabuki unimpressed, who simply shrugged in reply. She felt a headache coming on.
“I see. In that case I’ll continue with my affairs. Good day to you Mr. Tsuwabuki.”
“And you as well.” She turned on her heel to leave. The bell tinkled merrily as Juri shouldered her way through the door with her purchases. But as she was leaving she heard him call out cheerfully to her back, venom in his voice.
‘I hope your affairs are concluded soon! No need to trouble Ms. Nanami further.”
Juri let the door slam shut behind her.
Having dropped her purchases off in her room, Juri grimly set her jaw in determination as she strode back out into the blazing sun. If Tsuwabuki was refusing to help her, then she’d find someone else. While she understood the hostility, and even their unwillingness to put a weapon in her hand directly, Juri needed that gun and locket fixed. They were the only clues she had to...well...whatever had happened to her. And she’d feel a lot safer with some sort of protection from whatever strange critters were stalking the town at night. Juri winced as she felt a twinge of apprehension in the memory. Shaking her head to clear it she let her thoughts drift. Perhaps the locket held a picture of her family or a lover or something that would jog her memory. She felt like a ghost, passing through everyone around her unseen. Or that was perhaps just the cold shoulders everyone seemed to throw her way. At least the soiled doves from the saloon seem nice.
The woman’s ears pricked up as the sounds of steel striking steel met them. The blacksmith would be her next stop. Furrowing her brow, she worked to calm herself as she gripped the lump of twisted metal in her pocket. Her boots trudged through the sand and into the shade of the open workshop. Inside, bare backside glistening in the heat of the forge, was a powerfully built man wielding a hammer. He struck his anvil and the glowing metal horseshoe on it, before tossing it in the nearby bucket of water at her approach. Sweaty green hair was plastered to his scalp in a messy ponytail. He gave her an open scowl.
“Oh it’s you. The murderer who rolled into town. Is there a reason they don’t have you in irons and rotting in the jail?”
Juri felt her hackles go up immediately at the naked hostility. Her expression darkening as she replied, “Perhaps because it would be without any actual proof of the allegation. I would guess those with good sense in this town are waiting for evidence of my supposed guilt. After all, simple minds believe simple lies.”
The man sneered, and set his hammer down as he started pulling off his gloves. He was clad in thick boot and pants, with a weighty black apron protecting his chest from the heat of the flames. “Funny, I seem to recall plenty of evidence. The field of blood and corpses strewn about seemed rather damning to me.” He bared his teeth in a growing rage. Juri felt her shoulders tensing in kind, but forced her mind to stay sharp on the details.
“You talk like you were there.”
“I was!” He spat at her feet. Stalking about the workshop angrily. His face was tense, “I was part of the posse that rode out, and had to bury an entire family on the roadside. Ever put an infant in the ground? I can now say that I have.” Angrily he threw his gloves onto the table behind him, fist clenching tight. The words hit her like a blow to the gut and Juri’s anger cooled a touch.
“I’m sorry.” With a mess of unknown feelings swirling inside, she stood there in the blistering heat rolling off the roaring forge, but felt cold. Almost out of body. The anger was still simmering below the surface, but now there was a hard leash on it. “It sounds terrible. I can only remember fragments of trying to crawl away from there.”
“So much blood…so many spent bullets.” His eyes unfocused as he recalled it, his shoulders slumping a bit. Coming back to the present, his expression became black once more as his eyes locked onto hers. “Wonder if we compared your gun, would those bullets fit?” Both of their eyes darted to her holster, now strapped once more to her waist. “Miki should have let you die.” At some point he’d taken a step toward her, and Juri felt her feet shift into position beneath her. But before anything further could happen, they were startled as someone else walked in from the bright sunlight outside.
“Ah, but that would be against his oath, Saionji.” Juri’s first impression was of a graceful gait, a strong jawline, and a warm smile. The man from the bar. She recognized quietly.
“He’s a doctor, they’re supposed to save lives.” The red haired man greeted Juri with a tip of his hat and a smirk. He then tsked at the blacksmith with a wag of his gloved fingers. “Besides, you’re being quite rude. Ms. Juri is a guest of our town for the moment, until she is able to travel. Once she is well enough she has already promised to go on her way.”
Saionji turned on the other man, quick as a snake. “Rude?! Touga it’s thanks to your meddling she hasn’t been run out of town already. I don’t know what Nanami and that whore of a woman Kozue were thinking. She’s a threat, she should be dealt with. Not allowed to walk free and get away with her crimes.’
“Crimes we have no proof of, outside of suspicion.” Touga soothed placing a firm hand on the other man’s shoulder.
“Are the both of you done arguing my innocence in front of me?” Juri asked drily, her headache worsening. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I have to report back to the saloon soon. I only came here to ask for smithing services, which was clearly a mistake. I can tell my presence here isn’t wanted.”
“It’s not! Touga, this is absurd. I’m not doing a damn thing for this bitch!” Juri snarled in anger, the man’s raw hate getting under her skin quicker than Nanami Kiryuu’s ever could. But Touga intervened before she could retort.
“Apologies. Some in this town let fear interfere with the law of the west. And good manners. I’m Touga. Touga Kiryuu.” He smoothly extended a hand for her to shake, which she did after a moment’s hesitation. Wait, did he say Kiryu-- “I’m Nanami’ older brother.” He supplied helpfully. Juri felt her eyebrows raise skyward but didn’t comment.
“Juri. Though you seem to know that already.”
“Word gets around.” He smiled cheerfully. He was a much better actor than the teenage shopkeeper Tsuwabuki had been. If he harbored ill will towards her, it was masked completely behind his handsome smile.
“So I hear.” Juri drawled, replacing her hands in her pocket. “Thank you for speaking up for me last night. I intend to make good on my word.”
“I’m sure you will.” Touga’s head cocked to the side, his long red hair cascading like a river over one shoulder. He regarded her a moment, then continued his introductions. “And this strong ox here is our very capable town blacksmith, as I’m sure you’ve gathered. Saionji Kyouichi.” The only response was the man spitting at the floor again. Juri’s eyes narrowed, only just stopping short from rolling at the display. “I myself own a large ranch on the edge of town, and operate the tannery.” He gave a theatrical little bow. Juri smirked despite herself.
“I appreciate the civility. I know my presence in town is...a strain.”
Touga grinned, “It absolutely is. We’d like it if you were gone.” Juri frowned, but he went on. “Now then, how can we help you? What brings you here?’ Juri sighed, feeling very very tired suddenly in the face of his charming charisma. “I have a gun that needs repair--”
Juri glared at the blacksmith as she went on, “--And a damaged locket. I just want to open it, I don’t expect it’s fixable.” She turned back to Touga and pulled the items out of her pockets. Placing them in his open palms, he quickly worked to inspect them.
“Mmmm, yes I think I see your meaning. Is that a bullet welded in it?” He experimentally prodded at it with a finger. Juri just sighed. “You are such a colorful person, Ms. Juri.”
“I try.” She sighed.
With the gun, his reaction shifted to something more cool and serious. “A very nice piece.” He tried cocking the hammer unsuccessfully, inspecting it from all angles. “Unfortunate that it’s ruined. I’m afraid I don’t think anyone in this town will be able to fix it.” If Juri could have gotten away with throttling him, she would have. As it was, she held herself in check.
“And why would they?” Saionji grumped, his back turned to them as he labored about at the back work bench with a pair of tongs. A pile of horseshoes rested at his feet. “I won’t.”
“Well in that case keep it. Melt it. Do whatever you want with it at this point. It’s not doing me any good as a paperweight.” Juri ran a hand through her snarled curls in agitation, outwardly frustrated for the moment before she could reign it in. Probably a mistake, she honestly should hold onto it. But the stubborn nature of the townsfolk was finally getting to her.
“Well…perhaps I’ll hold onto it, for now. I wouldn’t want to damage what's left of your property. As for the locket, I’m sure something can be done with that at least. It can be delivered to you later. After all, we all know where to find you.”
Juri nodded, the choice of words making her uneasy but she held her tongue. Stoically taking the dismissal for what it was, she walked away. She could feel the holes being burned in her back all the way down the road. Maybe she could get her hands on a knife in the meantime?
It was far past nightfall before Juri felt she could breathe again. The moment she’d returned to the saloon, Nanami was on her like a harpy. In short order Juri was elbow-deep in cleaning the floors, dusting the many cobwebs, and doing her best to patch the assorted holes and broken furniture that littered the empty hall. Without the evening festivities, the place seemed duller. The silence was almost deafening, save for the sounds of her work and Nanami barking orders to staff in the distance.
With the setting sun came the trickle in of traffic. Men from outside, and women from within. All coming together under the glow of lamplight and fire places. Piano music sprang up the moment Juri had finished nailing a leg back on a forlorn chair, and stretching she took in the growing revelry around her. Moving to a back room by the kitchen, she used the rough soap and and basin of water to clean her hands and face. The reflection staring back at her made her cast her eyes skyward,unable to look at it for long. Heading back, before she’d even crossed the room towards the bar, she spotted that three tables were already gambling in earnest. She dodged out of the way as a pair of Nanami’s staff hustled out of the kitchen to serve dinner to hungry mouths. Her own stomach rumbled as she moved to get her new orders from her employer.
“You.” Nanami’s eyes were on her in a moment, her mouth a firm line. “Take this and go stand in the back. If there’s trouble, escort them out. And don’t let me catch you sleeping on the job.” The barwoman scowled and put a wedge of cheese and hank of bread in her hands, shooing Juri away again. Juri stood a moment more, watching her quietly. The blonde proprietress currently seemed in her element, moving among the patrons with fluidity and purpose. She laughed here, smiled there, and in general kept a steady stream of beverages moving.
Looking down at the food in her hands, Juri left to do as she was bid. No sense looking a gift horse in the mouth. Taking time to eat carefully, the woman kept a careful watch from her new place in the back corner of the saloon. She stayed that way for hours, doing her best to be unobtrusive and out of the way of the townspeople. For her efforts Juri was largely ignored, which suited her fine given the frustrations from earlier. She watched quietly as men around her laughed, swore, and flirted boisterously at the twittering women.
With the flowing drinks, tensions seemed to rapidly ease. The den of ill repute kept everyone nicely distracted and upbeat. Interesting. It’s not just about coin, there’s something more here... That felt especially true as her eyes lifted and Juri glimpsed Madam Kaoru watching it all from above the crowd. The short-haired woman stood within a small alcove on the second story, eyes narrowed like a hawk. A second woman in an outrageously orange dress stood at her side, whispering to her. Every now and then Kozue Kaoru would nod, and the woman would dart off with whatever orders she’d been given, only to be replaced with another girl in a blue dress who would do the same. Three girls in total seemed to be her hands, and as Juri watched, those girls in turn whispered to the many loose women sprinkled in among the crowd.
Fascinated, Juri watched as the laughing and smiling ladies were positioned about the room. Some even seemed strategically placed in order to follow strong drinks placed in the hands of certain patrons. There was a system here, Juri noted. She crossed her arms and kept her face bored. Internally however, she began working to unravel the pattern. So focused was she, that she missed the woman who sidled silently up to her.
“Well now, hello there tall, pale, and brooding!” Juri twitched in surprise. “Did you survive Ms. Kiryuu? The girls have all been taking bets.” The cheerful voice sounded at her elbow, and Juri looking down immediately recognized Aika. Today she was in a green dress, identifying her as one of the three girls Juri had seen reporting to Kozue.
Politely inclining her head, Juri didn’t move from her reclined position against the wall. “Good evening, Ms. Aika. I seem to currently be intact, so far.” Feeling eyes on her Juri glanced at the bar and locked eyes with Nanami herself, who wore a nasty scowl. Sighing under her breath, Juri returned her attention to the room. “Though how long it lasts is anyone’s guess.” Aika giggled, making a corner of Juri’s own mouth twitch.
“Oh la, it’ll be fine. She’s a beast that one, but she’s fair.”
A second voice piped up. “Good with business, not really with people. Not like her brother. Ooooh!” Juri looked to her left to see a second dove had joined them. This one in the orange dress. Aika fanned herself dramatically with a small feather fan. The new girl grinned and pretended to faint against Juri, squeezing her arm playfully. “I’m Bunko by the way. Nice to meet you!” Aika’s fluttering fan drifted lower, subtly drawing attention to her exposed neckline. Thankfully Juri caught herself before her eyes could be led astray, unsure if the move was intentional or not. She extricated her arm from Bunko instead, rolling up the sleeves on her shirt as she replied.
“I admit, I had not realized she had a brother. Touga Kiryuu is...something. They seem like night and day.” Both girls nodded in unison, but leaned in conspiratorially.
“Ms. Kiryuu used to be the belle of the town way back when.” Aika stated, amusement dancing in her eyes.
“But really her strong suit is in being behind the curtain. You should’ve seen this place before she took it over! Prickly, but shrewd that one.” Bunko offered genially.
“Her brother is the town darlin’, and well respected. They’ve more wealth combined than most everyone around here!” Aika gushed, putting a hand up to her cheek.
“Or, well, did . Hard times can hit anyone, wouldn’t you say?” Bunko sighed, hand resting on her hip
Juri blinked. Feeling slightly dizzy from trying to keep up with both halves of the conversation around her. “I suppose.” Mentally logging away the freely offered gossip. “She’s certainly a woman of backbone.”
“Oh yes.” Aika nodded sagely.
“And a hellcat in bed.” Bunko nodded as well. Juri nearly choked.
Sighing as she worked to school her features once more, she steered the conversation elsewhere. “I’m surprised you ladies are willing to talk with me, by the way. Several townsfolk have already told me their opinions.”
“Like I said before, I don’t think you’re what they say. Kozue’s girls are good judges of character. We have to be.” Aika commented mildly. “And besides us girls can get very curious.”
“Now who you are remains to be seen. So...and now of course this is just friendly advice …” Bunko’s eyes hardened a touch, their honey color almost looking gold. “But if I were you, I’d keep my nose clean.” The coolness of her delivery made Juri frowned, but the gentleness quickly returned. “Leastways until things are cleared up! We like you, we want you to be able to stick around.”
“Interested parties are watching after all.” Aika smiled, her green eyes dancing. And both of them looked upward. Juri followed their gaze to see the Madame watching them intently. Kozue Kaoru smirked back at them, raising her glass. Juri put her eyes back down to the room only just then noticing her companions’ absence. Aika and Bunko had slipped away like a couple of shadows, message having apparently been delivered. Brooding, Juri was left alone with her thoughts in the middle of the crowded hall.
The night continued on uneventfully. Only twice did an argument break out to the point where Juri had to intercede. And she successfully managed to diffuse both without resorting to violence, thanks to their innate fear of her and her ‘strangeness’. No one seemed keen on her touching them. For which Juri ended up feeling grateful for, since she was certain Nanami wouldn’t want her to lay a hand on her customers if possible. Additionally, the still-injured woman was unsure how light on her feet she’d be with her ribs still swaddled tight in bandages. Juri concluded that while she didn’t make for the most threatening security, at least it kept some nuisances out of the bartender’s hair.
She now lay in bed frowning. Sober, tired, and alone. Her limbs ached, her eyelids burned. But Juri found it difficult to simply close her eyes. Without the distractions of the town and its mysterious occupants she was left alone with...herself. Why couldn’t she remember anything? Saionji had gone pale remembering the gruesome scene she had awoken in. Shouldn’t something like that be burned bright in her memory? Could she have really done something like that.
Holding a hand up above her face, Juri looked at the callouses there. The pads of her fingertips were worn in places, there was a groove of raised hard skin along the crest of her inner palm. There were small scorch marks, old ones, along her fingers. Closing her hand, pantomiming an invisible handle, the marks seemed as though they would match with what a gunman might have.
Carefully shifting to her side, she caught one of her own tresses between her fingers and twirled it. It felt grimy and the color was dull. Like unpolished brass, and very dry. There was also that headache from earlier that had never quite gone away, and it only worsened the harder she thought. Sure, she had a basin and a sponge but… The troubled woman felt the urge to completely clean herself, wash away her inner doubts. Since she still had yet to, perhaps now would be alright to ask about a bath? It’d probably do her some good, clear her mind.
Pulling herself to her feet, she made her way to the hall. Deciding not to bother with pulling her boots on, Juri padded barefoot along the hallway in search of Nanami or perhaps someone who could direct her. Pausing just outside a cracked door Juri halted as she recognized two voices murmuring. One sounded like Nanami...and the other could only have been...Kozue?
Juri leaned slightly forward to peek. Sure enough the two women were in the middle of what looked like an argument, Kozue being slightly taller and leaning over the shorter blonde. When she latched onto the other woman’s wrist as she made a point, Nanami looked stricken. Blushing, she harshly shoved the taller woman away who smirked and said something else. Juri hurriedly ducked back out of sight before she was spotted. This wasn’t a good time to ask about the luxury of a bath after all.
Turning on her heel, Juri paused as she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Someone was watching her from the edge of another doorway. A woman in a red and black dress smiled back at her, as if they shared a secret. Juri watched curiously as a single finger was lifted and pressed to a pair of ruby red lips. That pale hand then beckoned to her as Juri arched a brow. Curiosity getting the better of her, Juri followed that hand quietly into the dark of another room.
Once inside, the woman in red held up a hand for her to pause as she shut the door behind them. A match was struck and a lantern then lit, casting a warm glow about the room and allowing Juri to get a better look at her host. The woman was petite, fine featured, and had her long coffee-colored hair tied up in a pair of twin tails. Smiling up at her, Juri was motioned further into the room.
“It’s best not to disturb them when they get like that. You’ll learn.”
“I see.” Juri replied mildly, “Thanks for the tip, miss.”
Juri looked about the room with some interest, noting the room was furnished much more luxuriously than her own. There were plush velvets and deep red satins covering the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Curtains hung along the walls, tasteful and opulent. Above the vanity she saw an expensive and ornate mirror, the reflection of the soiled dove looked back at her with interest. Seemingly watching her inspect the room. Juri looked around for a chair but noted the only one was piled with clothing. Women’s under things. Coughing politely, Juri turned back to the lady who remained silent in her study of her.
“Do you think they’ll be busy long?”
“Hard to say, sometimes it can take hours . Business can go that way.” The woman smiled back at her, a certain look entering her eyes. Juri narrowed her own as the woman stepped in front of the door and slowly moved toward her. Something a little...predatory in her steps.
“So, since it’s best to wait why not...wait here with me a bit? This room’s currently unoccupied, and I find myself without company at the moment.” She smiled, her nearness causing Juri to take a step back. The other woman now found herself trying to keep a polite distance.
“I wouldn’t want to take up your time. I’m sure there’s far more, ah, appropriate companions.” Juri supplied somewhat awkwardly. The scarlet woman never stopped her approach, causing Juri to blush a bit. Moving backwards she now found the back of her legs hitting the frame of the bed, making her blink. Glancing behind her quickly Juri looked upon a large bed that was clearly the centerpiece of the room, and was draped in sheets and coverlets. When she glanced back, the advancing woman was now within inches. With a grace that unnerved her, Juri watched as the dove freed her hair from it’s updo, shaking it out and letting it fall freely about her shoulders. Her smile became a knowing smirk.
“ Appropriate? ” The woman laughed, a high and shrill sound. “Oh my, aren’t you something. What about my profession makes you think I’d worry about being appropriate ?”
Juri coughed again, and held a hand up to carefully ward the woman backwards. “I know you ladies aren’t really...hm, well what I mean to say is...I apologize if I seem rude, but you’re rather bold .” The woman slid a hand up Juri’s arm making her flinch. The soft touch raising goosebumps across her bare skin.
“Kozue looks out for the interests of us ladies, never you worry. Thornhill isn’t your average town, sugar. We come and go as we please.” Another smile, and a darkness filling a pair of brown eyes. Juri frowned, and managed to shake her hand off. Sidestepping the woman, she went to the door intending to make a quick exit. If Nanami or Kozue found her here she’d certainly get into trouble. And that wouldn’t do. If I made it out alive. Twisting the handle, Juri suddenly stopped cold. It was locked. Flinching again, she felt a small feminine hand snake its way down her shoulder and place itself squarely on her back.
“In a hurry? I don’t bite. Not unless you want me to. Such a strong backside too, how about a massage?”
“Open the door. I need to leave.”
“I don’t think you do.” Came the surprising retort. The hand with shocking strength, pulled her to spin around and Juri now found herself with her back to the door. Juri grunted, but a pair of arms twined about her holding her fast. “I think you’re lonely, and I think you might do with a bit of female company. Why not let me help you relieve some of that tension?”
Juri’s body stiffened as a smaller and curvier one invaded her space. It placed itself firmly against her, chest to chest. She could feel the other woman’s breasts clearly through the thin satin material of her dress. The open neckline revealed more to her eyes than she’d planned o seeing. Juri found her breath had stopped and had to work to keep her composure as a result. A sort of panic was beginning to set in, as she worked to corral her beating heart. Being propositioning like this so unexpectedly was unnerving her.
“Listen, please. I’m flattered but...I’m not a paying customer. I don’t want to get you into any trouble. Either of us.” The laugh came again, as Juri tried to carefully extract herself. It was difficult to manage though, because she worried about hurting the dove accidentally.
“This one’s on the house. And besides....they’re a little busy right now. Ain’t they?”
Juri was definitely panicking now. She felt restless and trapped, a bead of sweat trickled down her brow as the room felt too close, too warm. Maybe this was all a cruel joke. Just teasing the outsider. Making fun of the ugly unknown pariah that had stumbled into town. Juri certainly hoped it was all a joke anyway. She didn’t know what she’d do otherwise. “I don’t even know your name!”, Juri tried desperately. It sounded weak even to her own ears. A small hand reached up to stroke her jaw, and that stopped her cold again. The touch felt familiar, like an old glove. Another hand moved to settle low on her stomach, just above the line of her belt. Juri felt her blood pump faster, a rushing feeling begin to pound in her temples.
“Call me Keiko.”
“Keiko. Right. You’re a lovely girl. But...” And honestly she was. Up close, the lantern light flickered across her comely features and smooth skin. Her physique was, well… Juri subtly swallowed, mouth feeling dry. The girl felt good in all the right places. Definitely. Eyes frantic, Juri blindly tried the door handle again, and tried to push Keiko off. It would be really bad to be caught in a compromising position. Was that the real intent? It had to be right? Who on earth would want anything to do with her? Juri currently looked like she’d been stampeded on by an entire herd of cattle. “I’m sorry, I’m just not looking for companionship tonight. Maybe...another time?” The arms around her were like a vice.
“A damn shame. It’d do you wonders.” Despite her words, Keiko didn’t back away. If anything the arms tightened. Her hand gripped onto Juri’s jaw and tugged insistently on it. Moving it downwards, and closer to where Keiko’s lips waited. Juri felt ice go through her veins. This wasn’t right, she needed to get out of here.
“I’m still healing. I wouldn’t be very good...” Juri smiled placatingly and now tried to actually muscle Keiko off forcefully. The small girl felt like a band of iron wrapped in silk. Strong...far too strong. Or was Juri just weakening? Was it the wounds? They were starting to ache again. Keiko’s lips moved closer, Juri winced, and oh-so-gently those lips touched hers. With that simple touch however, everything changed.
It felt like a line of fire shot through her spine, settling low in her belly and loosening the tension in her muscles. Soft and pliant, and tasting of something sweet and syrupy, Juri groaned as she felt her head swim from the contact. It’s been so long… The thought came unbidden, but felt true. Against her will, Juri’s eyelids fluttered closed as a mental fog wormed to wrap her thoughts. The kiss continued, deepening. It felt good, it felt...really nice. What was she so scared of before anyway? Perhaps she should have taken the offer before, instead of acting like a virgin on her wedding night. Keiko parted their lips and whispered quietly against them. “That’s fine. I like a little blood. You look like you’d be fun to ride, Ms...Juriiii~”
Juri groaned as Keiko pushed their mouths together once more, insistent and demanding. A small pink tongue darted out to taste the taller woman’s still bruised lips and Juri felt something primal starting to surge through her. It felt like heaven the way Keiko folded in completely to mold against her. Their bodies heating one another up, the subtle motions of their embrace rubbing into a spot low on her body. Juri’s mind was a blur, everything around her seemed soft and indistinct. Hands gripping on the edges of the dove’s corset, Juri pulled her in tightly as she just...let go.
With every kiss the taller woman felt her shoulders dropping and her head being weighed down like lead. All she wanted was the feel of that talented mouth on hers. But something niggled in the back of her mind. This feeling was so familiar , but she was enjoying it too much to pay any attention. Her whole world narrowed down to a tongue now skillfully working into her mouth and fingers undoing her belt. The pounding of her heart sounded in her ears like a drum. She made a sound as Keiko roughly pulled their hips together with a sharp tug. That familiar feeling grew even stronger, with something else building behind it. Something like a warning. Juri pushed it down viciously, darting down to kiss into Keiko’s neck, and plunge a hand to squeeze a breast. The dove gasped artfully, leaning into the touch.
Before she’d realized it Juri had been pulled away from the door, and was now pushed onto her back on top of the bed. Keiko strode over and skillfully climbed up to straddle her. Still wearing her dress but Juri noticed it was significantly loosened. The scarlet clad woman’s hair was mussed and her eyes were so dark they looked black. Juri’s own eyes were heavy lidded and her body felt slack. As if she were drunk, or sailing high on opium. It wouldn’t take much to pull the offending material completely down to reveal a perfect set of breasts, take one in her mouth and…
A sharp sliver of ice stabbed firmly into her brain. The feeling of danger was now a shrill shriek in the back of her mind. Something was wrong. Something wasn’t right here. Juri shook her head confusedly, trying to clear her thoughts. Her vision felt blurred at the edges, the colors in the room muted and strange. The red of the dove’s dress seemed bright and eye catching, almost surreal. Everything seemed to center on Keiko and the incredible slow grind she began with her hips across Juri’s stomach. Keiko gasped, her head falling backward and Juri felt liquid heat pooling in her loins. Impressed she watched as the woman dexterously reached down to slowly pull off one of her silk stockings, running it sensually across Juri’s cheek and neck. The feeling of danger now roared urgently in her mind, and as she paused again to try and shake her head minutely a new feeling rose. The broken shards of a memory. Distorted and cloudy, twisted and indistinct. Another pair of arms, another pair of lips. Twining bodies and a taste like cinnamon.
Keiko must have sensed something was off, because she halted her motions, eyes locked onto Juri’s own. “What’s the matter? Feeling shy? Don’t worry, I’ll make you feel good.” Juri barely heard her through the pounding in her ears, and the throbbing in the veins of her neck. Everything seemed far away, like she was underwater and floating free from her own body.
“Get off of me…” Juri whispered, feeling phantom sensations crawling across her body. Fear started clouding her sight. This is wrong this is wrong this is wrong! Keiko either didn’t hear her or didn’t listen. She leaned down, placing palms on either side of Juri’s head. “Need another kiss? Let’s loosen you up some more.” Those carmine lips were a hair away from her own, and Juri could feel warm breath ghosting her mouth. Don’t touch me don’t touch me! GET UP GET UP!
“Get off me right now.” A scent rose to her nostrils then, like burnt amber or maybe cloves. She breathed it in, like a musky perfume. But the smell only seemed to set her body off into a panic even more. Juri began gasping for breath and twitching, hyperventilating as a raw feeling set her skin to crawling. Keiko’s mouth twisted into an ugly frown, her expression darkening with something else. Disappointment maybe. Or anger. With her skirt bunched and flowing around them, the dove darted her hands down and forced Juri’s wrists down on the bed. Juri fought to push up, but they were like a pair of manacles. Firm and unyielding.
GET UP GET UP GETHEROFFNOWDON’TLETHERTOUCHYOU!
Whatever lust had been clouding her judgement before, Juri blinked rapidly as that gut wrenching terror seeped into her muscles. She now struggled with the other woman, bare feet uselessly digging against the bed frame but finding no purchase. Something was happening, Juri just didn’t understand what. Yet every instinct was wired tight and telling her to fight or flee and to do it now.
“Hold still! Why are you acting this way?! You should feel lucky I’d bother with you!”
“Let me go right now! Or I’ll shout until someone comes!” Juri bared her teeth, a feral act of desperation.
“They couldn’t hear you even if you did.” Keiko smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. Juri struggled again to no avail. The girl looked like she weighed nothing at all, so how was she holding Juri down so completely? “Your fate was sealed the moment you walked in here Ms. Juri. ”
Unable to take it anymore, Juri used her hips to shove upward with all her might, sending Keiko forward off balance. As the brunette shifted to right herself, her arm loosened its hold on one of Juri’s. The pinned woman didn’t give it a second’s thought. Letting her body react, she yanked her hand free and balled it into a fist. With a crack, she punched Keiko hard in the jaw, sending her tumbling to the floor. Scrambling to roll backwards, Juri sat up while crouching low on the bed. Ready for any sort of retaliation.
Keiko gave a snarl of outrage from the floor, and Juri’s eyes widened as she took a good look. Keiko’s eye blazed like hellfire, her fingernails had lengthened to sharp talons. It was like Juri had suddenly awoken from a dream, and landed in an awful nightmare. Sick dread hit her stomach like a stone. Whatever Keiko was, it wasn’t human .
“How dare you?! Can’t make this easy? Fine! Then we’ll make this hard.”
“You take one step towards me, and I’ll do more than clock you. Back off!” Juri barely recognized her own voice. It was cold as ice and sharp as a knife. Her shoulders bunched up as she brought her fists up in a boxer’s pose. To her shock though Keiko started laughing. Slowly moving to stand up, she kept on laughing, long nails running backward through her hair. A long thin tongue slipped from between her lips and tasted the air.
“Kekekekekekeke…” Juri felt ice water in her veins again. That sound was far too familiar. Something she couldn’t forget if she tried. “Stupid girl, you never should have come here. Now you’re going to die.”
Keiko’s mouth split wider, impossibly wide. And Juri could see that her teeth were rows of sharp needle points. “But I’m glad I’ll get to eat you first. I had wondered what you’d taste like.” Juri sucked in a breath through her teeth, tense and ready. She never let her eyes leave the monster before her, waiting for a sign. It came quick enough. With a howl the creature in red launched itself forward, claws outstretched. Juri gave a cry as she tried to shield herself with her arms. The force of the full body impact knocked the pair airborne and Juri felt those long nails slice into her sides as they soared backwards. Time seemed to slow, everything felt crystalline and sharp. Her vision filled with a horrible razor grin. Jaws opened wide as they closed onto firmly onto Juri’s neck...
To Be Continued
Author’s Note: Quick disclaimer (a little late but) this story is a hodge podge of several things. The characters of Utena, themes from dark supernatural Old West (similar to Deadlands) and a very small smattering of semi-historical accuracies. It is by no means totally historically accurate, nor is it intended to be. Just having some fun, yeah? Tags will be updated as I go.
Also: Going back to try and clean up some old things and update my unfinished works. I've been incredibly busy over the last few years with directing, producing, and moving in with my SO. I know I’m the worst about finishing projects, but I do want to change that. (Plus re-reading my previous stuff makes me scream inside). Can’t stand it, gotta at least attempt to update them and fix some of the many many mistakes. (Sorry to those who may have seen my older works on FF.net ha ha) One day I’ll try doing an actual one-shot, because wouldn’t that just be easier on everyone? I also plan to make a secret account on Wattpad for original fiction. But we’ll see how that goes.
Anyway, enough of that. For those who bothered to read all that (and this story) thank you for your support. It is much appreciated. Thanks to my friends on here as well (you know who you are) for being incredible and encouraging me to write again. I don’t deserve you.
The time has come my friend to run,
I bid you please to take the roses
An’ the loaded gun I left you
'Cause I'm hopin' now you find somehow
That I'm so damn cold,
And if this blood don't turn to gold,
I think I'm doomed.
- “Blood to Gold”, Boy And Bear
Juri was flying to her death. She felt the press of sharp teeth around her neck and the horrible wet agony of knife-like talons lancing deep into her gut. Propelled by the impact of the inhuman beast smashing hard into her body, the two grappled in mid-air as Juri felt her back crash through a thick pane of glass. Crying out in pain, Juri’s force was slowed as she and the monster broke through a window that had been hidden behind one of the silk curtains. Her vision went red as blood covered shards sailed through the air about her, a nightmarish vision as the woman struggled to free herself from her killer. They were still impossibly airborne, Juri’s sense of time slowing to a crawl as she grabbed a pair of furry wrists and wedged her knee in between the press of their bodies. Grunting, Juri gave a ferocious shove, sending the monster back enough to separate them as they fell through the dark outside. Those teeth were yanked forcefully off her neck thankfully, but they left rows of bleeding gashes behind.
Time restarted. With a woof Juri felt the air go out of her lungs for a second time, as she slammed down hard onto a wooden awning below. An instant later a second figure crashed down near her, making the planks split and shiver. Gasping for breath Juri darted her gaze up to try and keep her focus on her enemy, shielding her eyes with an arm to protect them from the broken glass that rained down from above. The pieces tinkled about her ears, sounding too loud and sharp to her hearing as Juri tensed and saw the dark figure get up to rise. It was much bigger than before, seeming to grow before her eyes. Juri coughed and strained to catch her breath, one arm tucked protectively around the wounds on her stomach as she started scooting backwards and away. The moon above was behind a bank of clouds that obscured its light from view, turning everything about them pitch dark. Desperately trying to staunch the flow in her stomach, Juri braced for the danger she knew was imminent. The feral monstrosity raised itself up on all fours and gave itself a shake, bits of black liquid splattering Juri’s cheek. The human woman felt about her for a piece of wood she could use as a weapon, or a shard of the broken window that might be large enough. Juri’s fingers closed on one at the same moment that Monster Keiko howled and with blinding speed lunged at her too fast too fast too fast!
Fueled on terror and adrenaline, Juri yelped as the creature tackled her fully, knocking them both off of the awning and onto the ground below. The second impact dazed them for a heartbeat, but Monster Keiko fisted its claws into Juri’s shirt and viciously snapped it jaws at her neck with murderous intent. With a quick series of stabs, Juri plunged the shard of glass over and over into its neck and back, blood spraying between them as fear and survival sang in her veins. But to Juri’s shock, the thing only laughed again, an awful braying howl that scraped her ears like metal on stone. The beast whipped the back of its claw across her face in a backhanded smack that jerked her head sideways and for a moment Juri saw stars as she fought a haze of raw pain. Shaking her head to clear it, Juri slashed widely and backed away defensively as the yowling abomination that had been Keiko followed her carefully. Taking initiative Juri lunged forward, ducking beneath it’s arms and bear hugging it about the torso where Keiko seemed unable to twist her neck down far enough to bite. It was bizarre to still have those soft breasts pressed about her face while the muscled rib cage twisted beneath her cheek.
Juri buried the piece of glass in between a pair of those thick ribs, snapping it off inside the meat, as Keiko roared like a lion. Dancing away as fast as her feet could carry her, Juri watched as Monster Keiko scrabbled at its side to try and dislodge the piece of glass. It gave the human woman a moment to take stock. Keiko was definitely bigger, covered in a coarse black hair on her arms and legs. Keiko’s limbs were also twisted all wrong , bent back in ways that weren’t like any animal or creature Juri had ever seen. Whatever she was... it was...Keiko wasn’t going to stop. The monster needed to be dealt with... A pair of frenzied yellowed eyes locked onto hers with another manic laugh, the sound of which made Juri’s blood run cold. Gritting her teeth in grim determination, a deep-seated hate settling in her core, Juri vowed that she wasn’t going to die without a fight. I’ll take this bitch with me first... An explosion of sand and a blur of motion caught her her attention. Darting forward on two thick legs, Monster Keiko leapt high in the air and arced its body around smoothly to attack Juri from above.
Timing her movements with a cool calculation, Juri sank her weight down into her legs and caught the monster with her arms as it landed on top of her. Using its momentum, Juri rolled them both backward, planting her bare feet into the creature’s hips and wedging them into the hip bone. With a mighty heave, Juri catapulted the monster woman up and over her in a throw, sending Keiko careening away. The thing cried out, impacting the dirt some distance away with a muffled whump . Juri sneered and twisted onto her hands and feet, hastily readying herself for another attack. Straining her eyes to see across the dark sands, she saw the ex-soiled dove shake itself awkwardly onto all fours. Monster Keiko squatted down, coiling up like a snake to spring once more.
Hands balled into tight fists, Juri’s body moved on it’s own accord as it ran to meet Monster Keiko’s howling charge. Jumping into the air like before, the monster woman launched its clawed hands at her. But before they could connect, Juri’s foot snapped out a kick to the thing’s jaw, closing it with a loud clack. Keiko recovered quickly and wasted no time biting and clawing out at her, but Juri fought back valiantly. Punching and kicking like a thing possessed, Juri rained blows upon her attacker in a desperate bid to knock it out. Yet no matter how much abuse the monster woman seemed to take, she never seemed to slow or tire. It all seemed completely futile.
“Awwww, is that how it is?” Hearing Keiko’s warped voice climb out of that elongated jaw sent chills down Juri’s spine. “And here I thought we had something.” The voice was still sickly sweet, but pure malevolence dripped from it .
Quicker than thought, Juri felt that powerful arm slash across her body again, tearing into her deeply.. She managed to keep her feet, but only just. Her injuries ached, and Juri’s stomach wound tore at her attention especially. Using her bare foot Juri gave a quick scoop and kick, sending sand flying up into Monster Keiko’s face. The monster roared, the. Laughed again as it blindly flailed for her and Juri hopped backward madly. Juri took a quick second to cast about for help, any help. Could no one hear them? It was difficult to make out, but every window about them on the main street seemed shut tight with only darkness beyond. No candles flickered, and no one peered from behind the curtains. This might just be her end, alone and abandoned to a devil in the street. Juri locked her gaze back on Keiko and brought her arms defensively once more, ignoring the blazing pain radiating from her body. Juri’s blood all this time had been dripping down into the dust and sand beneath her feet, forcing her to keep wary of her footing. Juri intended to make the creature work for it, she simply had to keep going before the adrenaline wore out and her body failed her. Time was running out...
Juri’s sharp ears caught the sounds of shifting sand somewhere to her left and she brought an arm up to block on pure instinct. claws swiped viciously at her....but to her surprise this time it wasn’t Monster Keiko. A dark shape rose up from her left, and with a gasp Juri realized it was something that looked suspiciously like the crawling coyote from the night before now. More sounds of growling and snapping came from out of the darkness nearby. Juri squinted, feeling her heart race anew as she swore beneath her breath. The clouds overhead slowly shifted, and moonlight started to glow across the main street of Thornhill. But it’s light only caused Juri to blanch as her mind tried to make sense of what she was now seeing. Keiko stood statue-still, as five “coyotes” crawled their way toward her. Their snouts split open in gleaming toothy grins, eyes blazing like lantern light, as each and every one of them locked their gazes on Juri. With their large bodies low to the ground in a semicircle in front of her, once more Juri felt a roil of awful terror hit her. Like a thick blanket she couldn’t breathe through, it strangely suffocated her...drew her throat tight and paralysed her legs. Keiko grinned in the shadows as well as she began to advance. “Kekekekekekeke…” The coyote-monsters answered her cackling laugh with their own, a cacophony of evil intent.
“Get down !!” Came a cry from somewhere behind her. Juri blinked as the spell of terror was broken. Instinctively she hit the dirt, gray sand going straight into her eyes and nose. From the dark she heard the boom of a rifle being fired. The shot hit the monster square in the chest, staggering it backwards. Monster Keiko shrieked, and Juri squinted. A large wet hole had bloomed dead in the center of Keiko’s ribs, the gorey hole looking black under the moon. It gave a full-body shiver, hunching slightly, but otherwise the monster appeared unfazed. Another blast came, taking Monster Keiko back a few more staggered steps, the muzzle flash from the gun bright in the gloom. Shocked, Juri felt her ears ring as she tried to stay low and out of the line of sight. The sound of running boots came behind her and Juri was suddenly pulled up onto her feet by a pair of strong arms. Seeing this, Keiko lunged with outstretched claws to grab her ahold of her. The arms holding her yanked her backward hard and Juri felt the talons miss her nose by inches. But before it could recover, the creature shrieked again as a fast hail of gunfire cracked through the air. Bullets whizzed past Juri and pelted Keiko’s chest and face once more. Splatters of blood and gore dusted Juri’s face, causing her to wince and shut her eyes as the monster roared.
The arms about her tensed, then like a small child Juri felt the owner propel them backwards as fresh gunfire blasted just above her shoulder. The sound was deafening, the gun held in her protector’s hand. A coyote jumped up, snapping its fangs, but her savior was ready and fired into its jaws. Jostled about and clumsily trying to get her bearings, Juri was unable to see anything clearly as she felt a lurch of vertigo. She was being forcefully rescued it seemed. “Here! Take this!” A heavy weight was shoved quickly into her hands and Juri almost dropped it. The man barked at her as she struggled. “Keep your head on straight! This isn’t over. Now shoot or you’re dead!!” Juri recognized that voice, but was too out of it to place it. The man turned away from her and leveled his revolver as Juri wrapped both of her hands around the handle of her own. The two of them raised the barrels of their guns and began unloading at the shadowed forms behind them.
The night came alive with gunfire, and more shots began to sound from one of the windows nearby. Muzzle flashes bloomed in the air like flowers as more humanoid figures materialized from the shadows of a nearby buildings, as all took aim on the coyotes and Keiko. The middle of Thornhill had become a violent free-for-all, and Juri felt she had to be trapped in some awful hallucination. The entire ordeal felt incredibly surreal, her body felt as though it were being puppeted by an unseen hand, but the slow burning leak of her guts was a reminder that this was all so very real. The chamber of her revolver finally clicked empty, as Juri felt her senses buzzing a warning again. Something was coming. Her hand moving in a blur with her realizing, Juri reached over and yanked the other man’s gun to aim it toward their right. “Hey!” Came an outraged cry, but Juri ignored him. Quicker than thought, she aimed the barrel and tried to fire unseeing up the stygian street. But the man’s fingers were in the way of the trigger.
“ Fire , damn it!” Juri snarled, and the steel in her tone seemed enough to make the gunman heed her. A sharp barking cry sounded from the direction he fired, and the coyote creature that had been sneaking up on them fell back. A squealing cry gurgled from it as it writhed on the ground. Around her, the other sounds of gunfire slowly died away until all was painfully quiet once more. Juri’s ears still rang in the silence, and she swayed on her feet. It was over...somehow they had done it. Her mind was going fuzzy, and Juri blinked painfully to focus her vision. When she could strain her eyes enough to see better, the corpse of Keiko took her attention. Only a few yards away from where they stood, the dove-turned-beast’s body lay slumped on its side. There were so many holes in the corpse Juri could barely make out anything but a messy pile of limbs and flesh, the large muscled chest still at last. Blood and viscera soaked the ground about it, dark and wide like ink spilled across a blank page.
With her strength finally spent, Juri felt cold under the night sky as the heat of the fight drained away from her. The gun loosen in her grip and a large warm hand grasped her by the shoulder to keep her standing as her head lolled. The weapon was swiftly taken from her slack fingers and holstered away, but Juri’s vision was swimming. It was over…they’d won...
“Stay alert, fool! There could be more. We need to sweep the area first before any of us get sleep tonight.” The masculine voice harrumphed. The disdain in the tone was familiar, but Juri’s energy was spent and her mental faculties had started shutting down. Eyes rolling up in her head, the last thing she saw was those large arms dart out to try and catch her as she crumbled to the ground.
She floated in darkness, her consciousness going in and out. Distantly she felt her body being moved, and various voices, maybe three or four, spoke urgently just out of her hearing.
“--ame from. Cut up pretty ba-”
“-roblem! We can’t...no I know! Under our nos--”
“-y herself. Look at...unbelievab...can’t ignor...Miki’s comi--”
Something was placed on her forehead and Juri felt her body laid upon something hard before she drifted deeper into senselessness. Unaware of the passage of time, Juri was roused slightly as she felt her person being manhandled by insistent fingers. Juri awkwardly tried to bat them away with a hand, groaning in pain.
“Hold still you stubborn idiot!” A female voice, irritated.
“Hush, press this down here. I need to sew this up tighter.” A gentler voice, soothing and calm. Juri felt a thin insistent tug of a needle pulling thread through her abdomen. Another pair of hands blotted her forehead with a cloth.
“Tougher than she looks. Those bullet wounds healed rather quick apparently.” A new voice, silkier and intrigued, commented mildly from the sidelines.
“If you’re just here to make small talk, then kindly make yourself useful.” Came the firmly polite voice of Doc Kaoru. “Hold her shoulders while I give her this.”
Juri murmured nonsensically to herself as she was propped up and a bitter syrup slipped between her lips. Almost instantly her body went limp, and her mind plunged back into blackness.
The next time she resurfaced, there was sunlight shining on her cheek and there were sounds of two people conversing nearby. Blinking her eyes open tiredly, Juri moved to sit up. The motion must have made some noise however, because the talking ceased and Juri heard footsteps move her way.
“You’re awake. Good. Miki is going to want to know.” Juri looked up to see Nanami Kiryuu looking down her nose at her prone form. A quick bewildered glance about herself informed Juri that she was in her room above the saloon. Fresh bandages covered her body, and everything stung like hell. But she felt surprisingly...awake, all things considered.
“Wh--” Juri’s voice came out like rusted metal, a copper taste hitting the back of her throat. She cleared her throat and tried again. “What happened? Those monsters...are they gone?” Nanami looked at her, a strange look entering her eyes.
“What are you talking about?”
Juri blinked, confused. “That thing that...attacked me. And those other things. The giant monster, and the twisted crawling ones!”
Nanami shook her head negatively, bringing her hands up in a fluttering gesture. “Sorry, don’t know what you’re talking about. You must be confused. No wonder, you were a little drunk at the time.”
Juri felt something cold settle in the pit of her stomach as her brows furrowed. What the hell was this? Was Nanami really trying to say nothing had happened? That was absurd! Juri knew what she had seen, couldn’t shake the dark visions of those snapping jaws from her memory even if she wanted to. Not to mention there was something about the other woman’s tone that set her teeth on edge. Juri tried again, hot indignation starting to lace her voice “I was attacked by a goddamn--”
“By coyotes ! Yes, good lord we know! Pipe down will you? You’ll pull your damn stitches. Again. Coyotes attacked you while you were stumbling around like a drunk fool outside. Luckily a couple members of the town council found you out in the streets and Saionji and Touga had their guns.
“What are you--”
“They shot at the mongrels and drove them away. We already let the townsfolk know to be careful when they go out at night.”
“That’s not what--!” But Juri’s angry protests were cut off as Nanami’s hand lunged out quick as a snake and clamped tight over her mouth. Her hand felt like iron, and there was a dangerously wild look in the blonde woman’s eyes as she clenched her fingers tight enough to bruise the sides of Juri’s cheeks. Nanami leaned in close, her words a low snarl.
"Shut up! Don’t say another word."
Leaning back, Nanami spoke louder, her voice back to sounding mild and bored. “Now then. If I hear of any more drinking and trouble making, you’ll quickly find yourself thrown right back out on the streets. I run a tight ship here in my saloon. Got it?”
Juri remained silent, her mind a whir of activity. Something else was clearly going on here. Some sort of cover up? But the question was why? The injured woman glanced at the open doorway, thinking silently to herself. What the hell is going on in Thornhill? What are these people hiding, and what the hell were those things? Turning hard eyes back to Nanami, Juri regarded her with distrust. Her new employer seemed to be waiting for a response. Warring with herself, Juri decided at last to follow what her instincts told her.
“Sure thing...Won’t happen again, Ms. Kiryuu.” Nanami stared back at her for a moment longer, before nodding.
“Good. I’ll go let the Doc know you’re awake. I’m sure he’ll want to look you over. Stay here and rest until he comes.” Nanami turned to go, pausing a moment at the door. She glanced backward over her shoulder, brows creased in thought, before she lightly made her way beside Juri once more. In a smooth motion Nanami bent and leaned in close, her whisper was soft and warm on Juri’s ear.
“We’ll talk tonight. So just...stay quiet for now.”
And suddenly she was gone, having turned on her heel and strode with purpose out of the door. Juri frowned to herself, a hand absently stroking the bandages wound about her middle. Sighing she leaned back and glanced out at the far window, waiting for the good doctor to arrive and preparing herself for whatever lecture he had to give. Unable to shake her thoughts from that look of fear and threat that had been in Nanami’s blue eyes.
To Be Continued
Author’s Note: Sorry I’m shit at updating consistently. And I'm sorry this was such a short chapter, but I really wanted to get through this scene. Thanks for stopping by regardless, it really means a lot. The next update will be longer, I promise.
Sidebar: I have a Spotify playlist that I listen to while working on this series. For anyone curious, you can check out “The Gunslinger’s Hymn” by ladyprincepyro. I also have an account on 8tracks for uploading stuff and making collections of music I throw in the background, including stuff for this particular series. Eyyyy enjoy or not I guess ha ha. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’ll stop wasting your time now.