Despite the gentle movement of the gossamer curtains, and the late afternoon sun, the small room was stuffy and hot. The basin’s water, on the other hand, had cooled from boiling in little time at all, and was now tepid at best. Nika rung the washcloth into it, watching Creed’s blood swirl and turn the water pink. She dabbed it again at his wounds, this time caressing the crusty blood from his split lip. It must hurt like the dickens, but he didn’t flinch or complain. The skin had already begun to purple where he’d been walloped by the table leg.
Creed hadn’t spoken since they’d retreated to her room. He was brooding, and she’d long learned not to interrupt him while he was mulling. Those dark, piercing eyes were intent on some far-away trouble. She dipped the cloth into the water and repeated the process on his jaw now. It was a hard-lined jaw, and quite fetching. The cloth roughed against his afternoon stubble, despite the care she took, but again he seemed not to notice.
How brave. No matter how many times she witnessed her mentor in action, she could not quite get used to his intrepidity. He was a man of action, fearless and decisive. Oh, and what honor had he. To say he was virtuous would be an epic understatement.
At the conclusion of the incident in the taproom downstairs, Creed had swung her up into the safety of his arms and swiftly carried her up into her room, away from the ogling crowd. She’d had a terrible fright, trembling and scared witless from the attack. It didn’t even dawn on her until later, secure in her boarding room, that she’d been naked, except for her intimates. Creed took care of her, and took no advantage of the situation. He’d respectfully turned away while she put on her dressing robe. Ever a gentleman, Creed. A rugged, dashing gentleman at that.
Creed’s gaze, she abruptly realized, had left the faraway. His attention was upon her. Nika’s cheeks grew warm. She realized that her attention to his injuries had wandered. She was stroking a place on his jaw, wholly uninjured.
She turned away abruptly, plunging the cloth into the basin. She rung it out, hoping to mask the blush she felt warming her face.
“Here,” she said, picking up the basin, “let me refresh this water and I’ll tend to your temple.” But Creed stopped her, raising a hand to her upper arm. She instinctively winced in anticipation. She had to admit that she was in considerable pain. Creed, however, barely brushed the smooth white cotton of her robe.
“No, Button,” he said. “I’ll be fine. It’s you I’m worried for. You were roughed up right good.” His gaze was fierce, full of concern. A woman would be hard pressed not to melt under such a gaze.
Nika took a breath, then nodded and let go the basin. Her shoulder – goodness the whole right side of her torso – ached terribly. Tomorrow, she’d really be smarting, she knew.
“I’ll be alright, Kes.”
“Bulldust you will. That animal crooled you bad.” As Creed stood up from the bed, he added in a gentle whisper, “Lie down now. It’s my turn to medicine you.”
She blinked, but did what she was told.
The bed was still warm where he’d been sitting, warmer even than the rest of the room.
Creed grabbed up his ‘surgery’ satchel and lay it on the chair. Rummaging through it, he pulled out a tin of balm and set it on the bedside table. He grabbed out his partitioned sack of herbs, his fixins’, then pulled his shiny Zippo from the pocket of his blue denim jeans. He thumbed together a rollie from his pouch of shag, licking it closed. He then made another, larger one from several pinches of different herbs from his sack. His fingers were rough, but deft, and well maintained. Nika had never seen anyone roll a cigarette so quickly or neatly as Creed.
“I’m gonna need to get at your shoulder,” he said, “with the balm. But first, you’ll need to smoke some of this.” He picked up the fat, herbal cigarette and held it out for her.
She eyed its size, then frowned at Creed. “This isn’t going to make me red-hot is it? Not like that mootie you gave me?
Creed snorted. He smile broadened, “No Button, this isn’t cannabis. It’ll just relax you, open your spirit up so the balm – and my other work – will do their job.”
Nika took the plump cigarette and held it to her mouth. With an quick snick, Creed had the lighter glowing. She puffed a few times until the herb caught. The smoke wasn’t as bitter as some he’d used. But then, not all his weeds were for smoking.
She coughed, despite her best efforts to keep from doing so. She smiled, which made her cough look even more ridiculous.
“Take it in deep, and hold it,” Creed instructed. She tried, but another cough forced the smoke to snort out her nose and brought tears to her eyes.
“Nothing like those tailor-mades you are used to, hmm?”
She giggled then, blurting out, “Nope. This is…”
The room listed then, worse than if this boarding room’d been the cabin of a boat in a storm. She braced herself on the bed, then tried another puff, thankful that this one did not send her into a coughing fit.
“I’m not red-hot,” she mocked, “No, not in the least.” She looked into Creed’s piercing eyes, at least she tried, but his face kept going blurry. Such a ruggedly handsome face.
“Wow,” she added, “that was fast, just two puffs and I’m already giddy.”
Creed’s mouth was cocked in a mocking smirk.
“Stop making fun of me!” she said.
“Then don’t be a sook,” he said, his smile broadening. She shot him a glare, but could not hold it. She smiled despite herself.
“A good patient does what she’d told. Take your medicine,” he added, “another draw and you should be ready. At least I didn’t make you drink none of my bitter concoctions.”
In that, he had a point.
The room was soundly spinning by the time Creed told her she was done puffing. He had to snuff the thing out for her. She simply could not stop giggling. “There… there was… the mootie in there… wasn’t there?” She tried to give him the stink-eye, but the medicine had made her too featherbrained.
“You just lie down now, and pull back the robe so I can get at your shoulder.”
She loosened her robe, then twisted around and flopped down, face first. Creed peeled the soft fabric away from her shoulder and back.
“I… trusht… you…” she began, but her mouth could not make the words, and she gave up trying. Her whole body heaved with her small mirthful outbursts.
“Settle down and relax.” His voice was kind, yet firm. He didn’t begin until she’d gotten all the silliness out, which didn’t take long on account of the potent smoke.
The bed felt warm and deep, and his hands were miraculous when he started rubbing the balm into her bruises. He was humming, in that language, the one he’d learned from his Aborigine medicine man tutor. The words vibrated into his very touch, and Nika sank into the bed as if it were a warm, relaxing bath.
When she opened her eyes, the room was dark. She pulled back the covers after struggling to unwrap herself from the bath gown she still wore. Her arm and shoulder ached dully, but nowhere near as bad as they had.
Nika looked around, trying to determine how late she’d slept. There was no sign of Kes, but she did hear indistinct murmurs vibrating through the floorboards below; it mustn’t be very late. It was odd, she thought, that despite the fact that a woman was nearly raped earlier today – and the man responsible killed – patrons none-the-less populated the taproom below. Just then, a rush of excitement flared from below, no doubt a large stake having just exchanged hands. It was as if nothing untoward had happened.
The door opened after a brief double-tap knock. Creed poked his head through the door; white light from the electric bulb in the hallway burned into Nika’s eyes, making her squint. Her mentor stepped into the room, set down his pack and closed the door.
“Pack yer swag,” he said. “We’re hitting the frog and toad.”
“We’re… leaving Burning Bush?” she said. “But we just got here. What about the bounty?”
“That don’t matter,” he said as he unhooked the strap on his revolver’s holster. “It looks like Kule was much liked in the town, despite being morally bankrupt. His local celebrity’s got some of the townsfolk in an uproar. But that’s not the main cause of us… ”
“We’re leaving now?” she asked. Sober dread flared in the pit of her stomach.
“I’d thought to be up and out before the sparrow farts,” Creed continued, “but I am thinking it best we hit the dust sooner than that.”
Nika pulled the robe closer about her. The sensation inside her, she realized, was in fact contrition. She pushed at the niggling feelings of shame. She’d done nothing, absolutely nothing wrong, to provoke Kule’s lust. “I don’t quite understand,” she said. “That man threatened to rape me, more than threatened. You stood up for my honor, despite him being twice as big as you…”
“Not quite twice,” he interjected. He’d turned his back so she could dress.
“Still… you protected me, and he died because he was a vile person and would not stop.”
Nika stood, opening the doors to the small wardrobe. She gathered up her things and stuffed them into her sticker-spotted, tan and brown suitcase, leaving out what she’d be wearing. A professional at dressing while wearing her night gown, Nika slid on her twill trousers. A skirt would just tumble her up if they needed to bolt a getaway.
“Why are we the ones being chased out of town for doing what was right?” she asked. “I just don’t understand people.”
The thought of Kule’s sweaty hands on her, how he leered at her, it sent cold spines of terror running up her body again. She tried to rebuke the filthy, shivering shame. She wanted to control it, but it clung to her like tar.
“Just focus on getting your belongings into yer swag, and be quick about it.” Creed plucked his lighter from his vest and flicked a candle to life.
No sooner had the wick shot to flame, but a thunderous knock resounded. Someone was beating on the door to Creed’s room, across the hall.
“Mister,” the heavy voice pounded, not much unlike the man’s fist had sounded off the door, “this is Sheriff Ichabod Jonas. I come armed and with men to back me up. I need to take you in, talk to you about the murder of our negro, Kule. Come on out peacefully. My men ain’t up for carrying you outta here.”
Nika gulped. “Murdering Kule?” she whispered. “Under what law in America could that be considered murder?”
Creed held his hand out to Nika. She knew that move, and she kept still. His revolver had leapt to his hand.
He moved silent as a hawk, and set his ear to the door, tossing his hat onto the bed in one swift motion. Her eyes scanned for her .45, but in the dim candlelight she didn’t see it. Last she remembered of it, the big black man had swatted it out of her hands just before…”
“Open it,” ordered the lawman.
The proprietor retorted, “If he done barred the door, Jonas, you better not bust it down. Door’s ain’t cheap, you know.”
“Shuddup and open it, Reingold. He’ll pay the damages. It’s the law.”
“The law?” Nika wanted to scream. How dare they?
Creed shot Nika a look that brooked no argument. She frowned. Keys jingled dully, scraping against wood and scratching metal. Next came a tense creaking sound as the boarding room door was nudged open. At the very same moment, Nika heard the click-clacking of several firearms being cocked and readied. These men meant business.
She new better, but she still wanted to scream. This was violation heaped on violation. Yet still, and to her anguish, Nika’s insides wrenched with degradation. Worse, she felt naked without her Colt. Even their long guns were far out of reach, hidden away down beneath the Ford’s rumble seat.
The best Nika could do, she knew, was to focus on getting packed. She finished with the top button on her blouse and stuffed her dressing robe into the suitcase.
Heavy steps receded into Creed’s empty room, and others shuffled in the hallway.
“He in there?”
“Nope,” replied the lawman. “He musta seen us coming and skedaddled.”
“Lets get’em before he gets away!” shouted another.
Heavy footfalls began stampeding down the hallway, and Nika let out her breath. Creed did not move a mite. He stood stock still, ear against the door, his revolver at the ready.
The last of her belongings now inside the case, she carefully clicked the two fasteners, hoping nobody would hear her. Just then, she realized that the candle was still burning. She hoped that the electric bulb in the hallway would blind them to what light the candle might shed under the door.
“Wait a minute,” perked a voice, “there was a filly with that fella.” Of course, this was the voice of the proprietor, Reingold. “They got two rooms. I bet that killer is in with her!”
The shuffling on the wooden floorway stopped, and Nika’s eyes went wide with fear. She quickly stepped to the window and drew it open. A lone flood-light illuminated the yard before the saloon and boarding house. Directly below was the roof over the wooden walkway. Just past that, a sad looking horse was tied to the hitching post. Two automobiles were parked in the gravel yard, nearest the roadway, neither of them their Ford. They’d left their Model ‘A’ parked in the field around the backside of the establishment, per Reingold’s request. Even if they could clamber out the window, it was a ten-foot drop from the roof to the ground, and they’d still need to race around the back, and crank up the Ford’s engine before they could make a getaway.
Boots clomped without. A heavy fist pounded on the door to Nika’s room.
“We know yer in there. No sense on making it harder on yourself than you need to.”
Creed shot Nika a glance, then cocked his head twice, indicating the window.
“I won’t leave you,” she admonished, albeit quietly.
“Go!” he said in a forceful whisper. His eyebrows drew narrow, then raised, expectantly.
“I’m gonna count to three, fella. If you don’t come peacefully, we got no choice but take you down. Fists or lead, it don’t matter.”
Creed took two steps away from the door. “Go on,” he said quickly, his voice like smooth steel. “Up the road, North. There is a farmhouse what’s been torched to the ground. The homesteaders are hold up in the barn.”
“Take the Ford, I’ll meet up with you come sun-up.”
“I won’t leave you,” she pleaded.
“I’ll be fine, you know I will. Now git, before they think to send someone out to cover the window.”
Nika tossed her suitcase out the window and onto the porch roof, then reluctantly climbed out after it.
“THREE,” she heard behind her, and she snatched up her case and stepped toward the roof edge.
At that same moment, several things happened. Back in the room above, the reports of several shots rang out, and Nika’s heart lept once again to her throat.
“Hey you there, stop,” shouted a man who’d just clomped down the stairs from the saloon’s boardwalk, looking up to the windows. Nika glanced down at him. He was presently looking down at his belly, fumbling to draw a pistol shoved into his waistband.
Nika couldn’t risk him drawing it out, so she did the first thing that popped into her mind. She leapt off the roof onto the back of sag-bottomed horse tied to the post. She reached over and yanked free the slip-knot, and drawing back on the reins, urged the old piebald mare to spin around.
The fellow managed to free the gun. He was no more than two yards from Nika, and in the light from the flood above, she realized with dread that the pistol he held, aimed directly at her, was her own Colt M1911.
“Stop where you are, missy,” he called, his voice tremulous. He held the weapon like it was a snake, not sure whether it would bite him or not. “I’ll shoot you, I will.”
Nika was furious. How dare he threaten her with her own gun? She wished, at moments like this, that she could keep a clear head, like Creed. But there was none of that for her.
Before the man could blink, she spun the horse around and jabbed the heels of her boots into its side – hard – and held on for all her life.
The mare lurched into the air, bucking. She kicked back at what she’d perceived as the source of the sudden pain. Nika heard a cracking thud, hoof versus chest, followed closely by the blast of her Colt.
The gun’s roar shocked the mare further, and she bucked again, this time sending the man with Nika’s pistol flying back and toppling. Nika wanted to stop and retrieve her pistol, but the mare had other ideas. She bolted, hard and fast, and it took all Nika’s strength to hold onto the horse as they fled away, into the darkness.
She heard shouting behind her, and more gunfire, but dared not look around, lest she be thrown from a very angry horse. By the time the mare had calmed, and slowed to a limping trot, the little town of Burning Bush was nothing more than a glow on the horizon, overshadowed by a million brilliant stars in the heavens above, and by Nika’s dread for the fate of her friend, and mentor.