Jesse studied the floorboards, rubbing a week’s worth of whiskers. “Are you sure, the Long Riders?”
Nora rose, her chambray skirt sweeping an indigo arc. “I heard the order clearly.”
“How many?” Jesse crossed to a grimy window, the information weighing heavy. A mare and loaded buckboard blocked the Livery Mercantile entrance. A stout lady in calico frock and matching bonnet bustled two shiny youngsters along the boardwalk.
With lace hankie pressed to her heart, Nora paced, the tapping of her shoes ticking seconds into minutes. “Allan and three others. And you know there will be more.” Their eyes caught. “Hundreds more.”
Leaning against a faded grasscloth wall, Jesse fished bullets from his waistcoat and plugged the chambers of twin Colts. He’d been running for so long he barely knew the month and year. But he knew hundred-to-one equaled impossible odds. Overkill was Allan Pinkerton’s trademark. “South, then. After midnight.”
Nora’s lips quivered. “When will I see you…”
Four quick boot strides closed the space between them and he lifted her into his arms; bed coils squeaked beneath homespun ticking. Jesse’s hands sank into lush auburn curls, his lips traced Nora’s jaw line. “I can’t promise anything, Mrs. Pinkerton, except that I love you.”
Jesse’s bay raised its head, snorted against bit and bridle. From the rise, a thumbnail of light marked the Hotel Santa Rosa room where he’d left Nora. Embroidered pillow slips smelled of lilac and her tears tasted of ocean spray. “Take me with you,” she said, the words a burned brand on his soul.
Eyes shut tight, he felt his face again burrowed in full breasts while milk-white thighs hugged his waist, her hips matching slow thrusts. A night he’d savor till his dying day. If there was even a fifty-fifty chance of reaching Mexico with a woman in tow. He swallowed the reckless thought. No choice but to lay low.
Guiding the horse southward, silver stirrups kicked a canter, then full gallop. She’d risked life and limb to warn Jesse, more than once. Defiant, brave Nora – his riverside redemption. Unasked for, unexpected, undeserved. A stranglehold stronger and deadlier than the hangman’s noose.
Gritty wind grazed his skin, stung his eyes. Showdowns and shootouts replayed; rifle blasts sounded. The faces of fallen, buried in their boots, chased Jesse across black miles. Ancients chanted dreams from sacred mountain caves. Coyotes howled to their mates. He’d outrun Pinkerton’s agents, live to return for Nora.
Nora emerged from the flat-roofed pithouse into a bright dry season, cradling three-month-old Woodson. This small settlement on the remote Mexican border, no longer populated by distinct native groups, harbored poor peasants of mixed heritage. Nora and her son had melded into their midst a half-year before, secret passage secured by stagecoach banditry before the attempted Minnesota bank robbery brought captures and deaths to several James Gang members. “I’m done with the life,” Jesse had said, pushing gold coins into Nora’s hands at the hotel. He knelt and kissed her stomach where their child grew before blending into the night. “Watch for me faithfully,” he said. “When it’s safe, I’ll come for you.”
She looked each day to the wide floodplain horizon along the rivers of the La Junta district, clothed in the same dress of the peasants, and waited there among the cuachalalà trees and cycad plants, lulling Woodson to sleep with stories of his famous papa and recollections of Jesse’s Missouri home. A brief note penned in Jesse’s hand, carried on her person always, promised a happy, prosperous future in California, far from Allan Pinkerton’s reach.
Wanda Morrow-Clevenger lives in Hettick, Illinois. A 2009 Long Ridge Writers Group graduate, she has published over fifty pieces of fiction, micro, nonfiction, and poetry.