Authors: Gem Sivad
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Fiction
Eclipse, Texas Social, 1878
The sound of a slap disturbed the music for a moment, and everyone who heard paused in their gossiping long enough to look for the source of something new to talk about.
"Here now," Sheriff Bailey halfheartedly called from across the room, then turned away, content in his effort to intervene.
Julie Fulton Rossiter stood holding her cheek, red from Frank's slap and bruised from his fist earlier.
She shouldn't have followed him, but he'd taken the last of her money. She'd started hoarding her funds a month into her marriage when she'd finally realized that it was the proceeds from the sale of her grandmother's farm that her husband was gambling away every night.
Frank Rossiter had told her when they left Tazewell County, Virginia that it would be their grubstake to tide them over until he found work. He hadn't told her that his idea of work was sitting in a poker game until he ran out of money.
"Can I help you?" It was one of the society women from Eclipse. Julie wanted to crawl in a hole and hide. Frank's abuse was regular, but it had never before been made public. He'd now committed the ultimate humiliation.
"No one can help me," she answered flatly, looking around for Frank or someone who could tell her where he'd gone.
"Then you'll have to help yourself." The woman stepped closer and laid her hand on Julie's arm. "My name is Lucy McKenna Quince. If you need help in the future, send word or come to the Double-Q Ranch."
Julie remained silent, but nodded her thanks at the woman. What was there to say?
As she moved away, she heard Lucy Quince ask her companion, "Who are those people?" Julie winced at his answer.
"Worthless trash, a local gambler and his wife who he promotes," the rancher answered, decisive in his opinion. "Grady Hawks took the no-good bum outside. But Hawks isn't much better than a savage himself."
The fight was over by the time she'd pushed her way through the exit filled with Eclipse citizens wagering on the outcome.
Worthless trash, a local gambler and his wife who he promotes …
Julie hid her shame as she edged past the loitering men, ignoring the too-familiar pinches and rubs that she received on her journey to where her husband lay on the ground.
Evidently his fists didn't work as well on a man as on a woman. Frank was in the dirt—stunned, blood spurting from his nose. His assailant stood before her, dusting himself off and straightening his clothes. He smiled at her.
"Are you all right?" Grady Hawks asked, studying her carefully, as though looking for damage. It gave her time to look at him too. He was polite and solemn and actually seemed concerned about her. Good quality denims, callused hands but clean nails, lithe strength … Frank was outclassed from the get-go.
"Whatever you thought you were doing in there, it wasn't necessary," she told him flatly. The smile left his face. "When someone beats on Frank, then Frank beats on me.
You didn't do anything but delay the message."
She covered her cheek with her hand, and then dropped it, straightening her shoulders proudly as she looked first at his attacker, and then at her husband.
On his rump in the dirt, holding a bloody handkerchief, Frank had the nerve to swear at her. "Goddammit, see what you've caused. Get me back to the hotel."
Julie looked away from Frank, silently comparing his pale, dissipated features to the bronzed picture of health before her.
"Watch your back," she warned Hawks grudgingly. She didn't want anyone killed, although seeing her abuser sprawled in the dirt gave her a minute of satisfaction.
"Quit looking at my wife, you dirty Indian," Frank snarled viciously. He seemed determined to provoke another attack, and she wondered at his foolishness. Then she saw his hands tighten around the derringer and deliberately bent over him, blocking his shot.
"Get out of my way," he swore at her again, but she knocked it loose and palmed the handgun, ignoring the list of punishments she'd suffer soon, as she pulled him up and helped him toward the rickety wagon she'd arrived in.
Had she been willing to air her business to all and sundry, Julie could have explained how she'd followed Frank to the town dance, planning to catch him at the social and shame him into returning her money.
Foolish me, I thought the presence of civilized people would help me.
The only civilized help she'd encountered had been the Quince woman and then Grady Hawks, the supposed savage.
She'd sat in the hotel room alone and worked herself into a grand passion. The marriage was a fiasco, testimony to her stupidity that she had once believed the handsome gambler when he claimed to adore her.
Disgusted at her stupidity, she'd stripped off the cheap satin gown she'd donned to please him and dressed in her worn cotton, remnants of days on the farm, determined to get her money and go home.
He adored something, but it wasn't me.
It had been a shock to admit that she'd been duped. The man, whom she'd thought she'd ensnared with her beauty, had used her vanity to get possession of all she owned.
Earlier, when he'd slammed out of the seedy room he rented by the day, he'd admitted, "God, you were easy. A love-starved innocent with the title to a farm."
It wasn't the picture of sophistication that she liked to imagine when she thought of herself. He reduced her then to what she was—a scared, eighteen-year-old girl who had run away with a scoundrel.
The past weeks had brought Frank's weaknesses to her attention. But he'd still petted her and pretended that she mattered, so she'd ignored warning signs of a deeper ruthless character. Tonight she had finally admitted that he didn't care about anyone but himself.
The additional hurt of knowing he'd married her for the title to sixty acres of played-out bottom land had made her realize how far she had fallen when she'd run off with Frank Rossiter.
Then you'll have to help yourself,
the words of the Quince woman came back to her.
Jewel Rossiter leaned over Frank, careful not to touch the knife lodged in his chest.
"Where are they?" Her whisper was accompanied by a rough nudge. "Tell me where you left them."
He labored to speak, grabbed her by the neck of her dress and pulled her closer. "I hid them from you, Jewel. I took your precious gems," he sneered, showing his need to dominate her even as the knife cut away his life.
The dying man wheezed, his death rattle filling the air. "Oh, shit…" He gasped for breath and finally noticed the blood pumping from his chest. He tried to raise his hand to catch it, but his arm didn't work.
"Julie," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean any of it. Find a bolt hole and hide.
He's looking for you. I tried…" There was no longer a girl named Julie Fulton. Jewel Rossiter stared down at her partner and focused on persuasion, but prepared to deliver pain if needed. He would tell her what she wanted to know before he died.
Without a doubt she knew what Frank had tried—blackmail—and his victim had turned the tables and murdered him instead. "He knows, Julie. I'm sorry, baby…" Frank's pulse fluttered and his breath labored loud in the night, exhausted by his effort to hold on.
The tenderness in his voice, and his use of her real name, was testimony to his awareness of approaching death. She hadn't heard that tone in four years.
Her husband was bleeding to death on the ground, and no matter who killed him, she needed information before he died. She leaned closer and promised, "You're going to be just fine. Hold on, I'll get the doctor."
Jewel Rossiter ran all the way down the board planks that lined one side of the only street in Eclipse. Out of breath and panic stricken, she stopped off at Sheriff Potter's office where Doc Lawrence usually played checkers till the drunk and disorderly gave it up and went to bed.
"Doctor Lawrence, I need you to come." She was panting for breath once she was in the office. "Someone stabbed Frank. He needs a doctor."
Hiram Potter took in the blood covering her dress and the red staining her hands, and picked up his hat and Winchester, following along behind the doc.
"You don't mind if I come along, now, do you?" Jewel ignored the question because it wasn't a real question. She took the doctor's arm urging him to a faster pace.
Frank Rossiter was still alive when they got to the end of the street, but an ever-widening pool of blood, black in the limited light of the street lantern, shed doubt on how much longer he'd endure. She pushed the doctor toward her husband.
"Fix him," she muttered. "I need him to stay alive at least five more minutes."
not the proclamation of a grieving wife—too bad.
Jewel ignored the sheriff's scandalized look. Then he must have noticed that her cheeks didn't match, one being bruised darker than the other.
"You all right, Miz Rossiter?" Jewel ignored his concern, belated as it was.
She knelt beside the doctor, dust and blood mixing on her skirt. "Frank, the doctor's here. I brought him to tend you. You're going to be fine."
She filled her voice with false reassurances, but when the doctor frowned and shook his head, she gave up gentle and added roughly, "Tell me where they are." She was persistent, so much so that the man opened his eyes and grimaced at her.
One last battle of wills passed between them, and then she said, "Please." She hid her frustration behind an insincere smile and gave him the answer he had always craved. If it was one thing Frank Rossiter loved, it was to see her beg.
"Please tell me where you hid"—to the growing audience, her voice seemed to break before she finished—"my gems."
He coughed up more blood and laughed wryly. "Never show all of your cards, right, honey?"
"Only when it's the end of the game," she answered harshly, afraid he'd die before he could finish his last game of torture. "Tell me."
Before the gathering crowd of men could hoist the gambler onto a slab of wood and haul him to the doc's office, he had the last word. "They're with family, of course." And then, he died.
Jewel let her keening wail rip through the air, even though those in the crowd who knew her would doubt its sincerity.
I might as well put on a show while I figure how to
get out of this mess.
She covered her face with her hands and then realized that she'd smeared Frank's blood on her cheek. Her gasped, "Oh God," was sincere. Her stomach heaved as she considered how to free herself from the sheriff.
"I think you need to come to my office with me, Miz Rossiter." Sheriff Potter's words were spoken kindly, but it wasn't a request, as he already had hold of her arm, leading her in that direction.
"Say, Sheriff," one of the men loitering in the half-dark called. "The gambler owed me money. If he had treasure stashed away, I'm putting in my claim right now."
Another unidentified voice suggested, "Ah, hell, Wiley, you'd be better off taking it out in trade. Teddy James will take over putting Jewel out, the same as Rossiter did. Ain't that right, Jewel?"
She ignored the hecklers and allowed the sheriff to guide her away from the body of the late, unlamented Frank Rossiter.
Once in the sheriff's office, she gladly accepted a tin cup of strong black coffee and was surprised when her teeth clattered loudly against the rim. The sheriff wasn't delicate in his questioning.
"You kill your husband, Jewel?" She let his use of her professional name stand. As soon as she retrieved her babies from wherever Frank had stashed them, she intended to leave this awful place and start over.
She'd soon be Julie Fulton Ross, a respectable widowed mother of twin daughters, instead of Jewel Rossiter, shill and gambler's partner.
She looked at Sheriff Potter's face and realized he actually expected her to tell him the truth.
Did you kill your husband?
She answered him fiercely, "No," and tried to hide the real truth from him.
beat me to it.
It was a fact. She would have killed Frank had she found him first.
This morning, after five months of freedom, Jewel had opened the door, and he'd stood there before her, looking rough and seedy, something Frank avoided at all times. It was obvious he was in a bind, or she would never have seen him again.
He'd been polite, humble. First he'd tried charming persuasion.
"I was worried about
you, Jewel—and the children, of course. I've been in Albuquerque in the territory. I
figured you'd be over your snit by now, and we'd get this marriage back on track."
It had been pointless for her to argue. She just wanted him gone.
"Go away and
leave us alone."
She'd started backing into the room at that point, anticipating his next move. That he had tracked her to the makeshift shanty where she'd moved with her babies was evidence of his desperation.
"Baby, come back to me. I miss you. It's been hell trying to make it alone."