By Jo


Part One:

Eppie watched him dodge the bullets, zigzagging as he ran. Ben Wade did that to her, kept her heart in her mouth more often than not. How long? Over two years now, ever since she'd hooked up with him in Mexico when he was hidin' out. He didn't have a gang anymore, not since that day in Contention. Said he didn't want one, not ever again, not like that. Said he was tired of animals. She smiled. Guess he considered her better 'n that. Well, damn, she WAS better'n that. He didn't sleep with her none, well, 'cept'n by the campfire when the night got too chilly. Then he'd pull her close like she was some blanket or somethin'. But he liked her. She knew that much. Maybe like he had himself some kinda dog or somethin'. She hoped it was more'n that, but she wasn't sure. Ben played his cards close to his vest nowadays. Didn't let nobody in. She guessed she was the closest he'd come to that.

She'd been alone, just sittin' there on the damn plankin' front of the saloon when his spur caught on the hem of her brown woolen skirt. "You, girl," he'd said. "What you doin' sitting out here this time of evenin'? Ain't you got no home to go to?"

Well, truth was, she didn't. She was sittin' there gettin' her courage up to go inside and look for work. Told him that and, damn him, he'd laughed. When he moved to go on inside hisself, she tripped him. Yeah, that's how they'd met. He fell hard on his knees, cussin' like there was no tomorrow, glarin' at her in the light cast through them saloon doors. Scared her then, he did, and she hunched herself back from him, gettin' her muscles ready for his blow. But it didn't come. The man just sat over on his hip, starin' at her mighty hard.

"Don't much like bein' laughed at, mister," she said, stickin' her lower lip out kinda far like.

"Your name, girl? You got yourself a name?"

"Eppie," she said, tryin' hard to keep her voice steady. His eyes was starin' into hers like he was some huntin' falcon and she was the rabbit he'd done gone and decided was his dinner.

He turned his gaze toward the saloon. "You think you got the stuff to work in a place like that, Eppie?"

"I got stuff!" she replied, tipping her chin up.

"Must be hidin' it under that thing that's tryin' to pass itself off as a dress."

"Ain't none of your business, mister, what I got under this here dress or what I don't got!"

"Don't look like you got much. How old are you, girl?"

"I ain't no girl. I'm twenty-six," she lied. Well, she was probably somewhere around twenty-one,
at least. Warn't nobody no more to tell her 'sactly when she'd got herself borned.

"You look like you're twelve," he smiled.

Eppie scrabbled to her feet. "You don't know shit, mister!" she frowned. "I ain't been twelve for
a long time."

"Well, I doubt anybody in there," he nodded toward the saloon, "is gonna hire you, girl. You ain't got the look of one of them there saloon gals." His eyes traveled up and down her rather skinny form.

She hugged her arms around herself. Seemed like he could see right through her dress with them eyes of his. "You ain't got no right to go lookin' at me like I was some horse for sale."

"You for sale, girl?"

"I ain't never...."

"Then you sure as hell don't wanna be goin' in through them there doors. You'll end up for sale, sure enough."

A man came out of the saloon, not even pausing to give her a look. Ben laughed. "Bet he thought you was a boy."

"I ain't no boy!" she almost shouted.

"Didn't say you was. Said I bet he thought you was."

"I'll show you, mister!" Eppie pushed the swinging doors open and walked into the saloon, her head high.

Ben got up and followed her, watching carefully as the folks inside became aware of her. She walked up to the bartender and announced she was lookin' to be hired.

"As what?" the man asked. "Scrubbin' floors?"

Three brightly-clad women perched on male laps here 'n there about the saloon, all laughed. A man deliberately missed the spittoon, gettin' his chaw on her shoe.

Ben saw her hands ball into fists and he grabbed her arm, haulin' her out of the place. "Let me GO, dammit!" she shouted at him.

"You'd best get it through your mind, girl, you ain't gonna find decent work in a place like that."

"Who went an' said it hadda be decent, mister?"

Ben shook his head, his lips pressed together. "You got someplace to sleep?"

"I ain't sleepin' with the likes of you, that's damn sure!"  He was dressed purty fine, though. She'd noticed that. A little bit worse for wear, maybe, but still purty fine.

"You ain't no Mexican, girl. What you doin' down here? You alone?"

"So what if I am alone. Ain't none of your business, now is it?"

And that was how Ben Wade had done gone and taken her under his wing. He'd never planned, not for a minute, on such a thing, but he'd gone and done it anyway. Made her his lookout, his scout-of-sorts. She'd got awful good at it, too, the two years they'd ridden together. No one ever suspected her of nothin'. She could go into a town and in less'n half an hour get back to him with all the details he'd need for whatever job he had in mind. He'd told her he was startin' over, doin' things different this time. Didn't mean he wasn't robbin' banks no more. Just meant he was bein' real picky-like about it, meant he didn't want no big gang taggin' along at his heels. She was part of the different.

He never let her stay at his side when he pulled a job, not like he had with his gangs. He seemed to want to work alone nowadays. She knew she was kinda like his dog to him. He took care of her, saw she had grub, a place to lay her head. She didn't need much, didn't want much. As the months passed, all she wanted was to be with him, follow him wherever he went. He made sure she was all right, didn't get hurt none or nothin'. Seemed to mean somethin' to him that she was all right. Got so's he seemed to count on her presence, especially in the long nights when they
camped out. She knew he liked her there. He just didn't know how damn much she liked bein' there.