A Round Number (by Taffey)

Summary:
Category:  The Quick and the Dead
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  4700


Cort watched Ellen ride off, a lone cloud of dust billowed behind her.  His heart felt heavy.  They had only known each other a week, but it was one fraught with fear, sadness, anger, and most of all, the fight to survive.  A bond had been forged between them.  Now she was leaving and he’d probably never see her again.  His deep blue eyes squinted against the dust and smoke of the burning town and he silently said good-bye.  Ellen, having sated her thirst for revenge, had to move on and begin a new life.

Cort looked at the Marshal’s badge cradled in his large hand.  Belonging to Ellen’s late father, this piece of silver was her most prized possession.  Yet with a pitch of her wrist and a nod, she passed it on to him.  Cort turned it over wondering if it was lawful to just pin it on his shirt.  There was no one to ask.

“Excuse me—Marshal?”

Cort saw two small dark eyes peering from an old wizened face. “Ma’am?”

“You will take care of us?”  Her voice, hoarse with age and worry was eager.  Cort’s eyes studied the ground; he felt unworthy of the confidence she was putting in him.

“I’m not sure.”  He faced the people of Redemption.  “I’m assuming you’d like some type of law in town.  I’m willing to take on the task unless you have someone else in mind.”  There was a great deal of discussion and head shaking among the little group of citizens.  Finally, a few of the men stepped forward.  One of the old men, sombrero in hand, spoke up.

“We’d appreciate it if you’d wear that badge.  We will need—ah, that is, we’re expecting…”  He looked back at his friends questioningly.

“Cort, what they’re trying to say is that all of Herod’s men weren’t in town today.”  Joe the bartender moved to where Cort was standing.

“Senor, please stay,” another man said, his black eyes pleading.

Cort smiled tersely and shrugged.  “I have no place else to go.”  He got ready to pin the badge on his shirt when the old woman stopped him.

“Not now,” she said, putting her thin hand on his arm.  “You need a bath, a meal, and sleep. Go see Mattie.”  Cort knew she was right.  He had been enduring on sheer will and adrenaline, and was quickly winding down.  He looked up to see a tall, red-head, her eyes still red from mourning her dead husband.  She motioned Cort over and walked to the back of the bordello.

Cort yawned.  He was suddenly very weary and wanted nothing to do except drop into a bed.  As they walked past the whore’s rooms, he paused in the hall, staring at one of the uncomfortable beds longingly.

“Cort?” Mattie had a tired smile on her face.  “Bath first.”

“I don’t think I can,” he whispered.  Mattie took him by the arm and led him to her room.   The tub was already filled.

“I had planned on taking a bath; you need it more.”  Cort stood and stared at the metal tub not having the energy to lift one leg over the side to get in.  “I’ll help you.”  Mattie removed what was left of his shirt. “I’m going to get some soap.”  With his last bit of energy Cort removed his pants and shoes and slid into the warm water.  When Mattie returned he was sleeping.   His arm was resting on the side of the tub and his head was bent forward, leaning on it.  Mattie soaped up a cloth and gently washed the dirt and grim off Cort’s back.  There were many contusions and bruises he had been dealt by Herod’s men.  He was so tired he didn’t wake up even when she washed them.   But when Mattie needed to wash his arms she had to wake him.  Cort snorted and turned to look at her with bleary eyes.

“Huh?”  Then he realized what she was doing and snapped to attention.  “I can do it,” he said, turning a light shade of pink.  Mattie smiled and handed him the cloth.

“I’ll see about getting you some clothes.

“Uh…yeah, thanks.”  Cort finished bathing, including his hair.  Mattie came back about ten minutes later with a blue shirt, black pants, socks and new shoes and left them on her bed.

“I’m coming back with some food.  When you’re done eating, you can sleep on my bed.  Stay as long as you need.  I have another bed.”  Cort smelled the food and wasn’t sure what to obey first—his growling stomach or his leaden eyelids. He ate as if in a trance and then fell into the bed.  He slept for three days.

When Cort got up, he pinned the badge on his new shirt and took on the task of cleaning up the town.   He knew Ellen had to use dynamite in order to distract Herod, but he sensed a little vengefulness in the finished product.  At least half the buildings were decimated or badly damaged.  The streets were filled with wooden planks, shattered glass, and money from Herod’s destroyed home.  He decided to attack the glass and stray nails first, as someone could hurt themselves on these objects.  Cort found the citizens of Redemption cooperative; although he had a feeling it was due in part to fear.  Herod and his men had terrorized the people for years.  It was natural for them to view him with trepidation, as it was common knowledge Herod had been his mentor.  Some of the people were afraid because they had followed Herod’s example and tormented Cort physically and mentally; he would have every right to retaliate.  He wasn’t certain how to allay their fear, so he continued working and organizing, painting and hammering, right among them.

During the first day of cleanup, a few of the braver citizens approached their Marshall concerning the money littering the streets.

“Excuse me, Senor Marshal.  What shall we do with all this money?”

Cort looked up and frowned.  “What money?”   Everyone returned to work.  At the end of the day, not one piece of currency remained.

*****

Within a month, a good part of the town was rebuilt.  Once that was accomplished a period of rest followed.   If there had been any more of Herod’s men, they never returned to Redemption.  Cort’s position as lawman was a moot point; the worst trouble Redemption experienced was the occasional drunk shooting off his gun.

The strange thing about Redemption’s citizens was that they had prayed so long for peace and tranquility.  Now that they had it, many of them were bored.  Over the next year, they slowly packed up their families and their recently acquired money and left town.

Cort seemed to be the only one who truly appreciated the situation.  His life was ruled by early risings, adequate meals, hours of reading (mercifully, Herod’s library wasn’t destroyed), and early bedtimes.   It was predictable, slow, and satisfying.   There was something else keeping him in town.

“Cort, she ain’t coming back.”   Only Joe guessed what Cort was waiting for.

*****

By the second year, most of Redemption had been reduced to empty buildings.  The merchants had all but gone.

One day in August, Joe entered the Marshal’s office for the last time.

“Cort, I’m moving on.”  Cort stood and extended his hand, which Joe shook heartily.  “Come with us.  You can’t stay here.  The food and drink will run out.”

“I can wait till then.”  Cort was so certain Ellen would come back.  If he wasn’t there, he was certain she would be disappointed in him.  For some reason, that mattered.

“She ain’t come back in two years; it’s over.”

Cort had been fine with the people trickling out of town, but he knew he couldn’t survive there alone.  He looked up at Joe and sighed.  “Guess I could leave her a note.”

Joe chuckled.  “I’m sorry she left.  It was her way of handling things.”

“I know Joe,” Cort said softly.  “When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning at 6 sharp.”

“Okay.”

Joe slapped Cort on the shoulder.  “Get out of this town.  You’re young yet.  You don’t need to be rotting away here.”

Cort shrugged and finished his cup of bad coffee.  He had gotten quite used to rotting away.

*****

The next morning when Joe arrived at the jailhouse, Cort was sitting out front.  He got up, tied his horse to the wagon, and hopped aboard.  Joe’s daughter Mary, who was totally smitten with Cort, just stared at him.  She was almost 15 and looking to get married.  Joe was glad that the men of Redemption were dirty, rancid, and too old for Mary.  Raising a daughter alone had been difficult for him.  He didn’t imagine anyone well bred or educated would want to make her his wife.  Mary was still so naïve and he was afraid she’d marry badly.  Joe glanced in Cort’s direction and caught his daughter gawking.  He frowned and Mary dropped her gaze.  He didn’t know how old Cort was but he wished this fixation with Ellen would end.   Cort seemed a decent sort; at least he wouldn’t harm his daughter.  Joe shrugged.  He knew these things couldn’t be manipulated.

“I never asked where we were going,” Cort noted a little embarrassed.

“Dry Gulch,” Joe replied.

“My Aunt Mattie lives there,” Mary spoke up.  Cort was reminded of the auburn haired whore, The Kid’s widow.

“Yes,” Joe said, “it’s Mattie from Redemption.”  Cort frowned.  How did that old bartender keep reading his mind?   “She moved to Dry Gulch with a few of the girls and opened a saloon.”

“Really?”  Cort didn’t want to ask if there was a bordello.  He only hoped Mattie had left that life and found a nice young man she could deceive into marriage.   Cort felt that she was a good person who got involved in a bad profession.  “It’s a lucrative move,” he said thoughtfully.

Joe laughed and slapped his knee.  “By golly, Cort, your words have gotten bigger and more educated spending two years reading Herod’s books.”

Cort looked at Joe mortified.  “Do I sound like a snob?”

“No!”  Mary interjected.  “You sound like a man who’s been to school.”  Joe shook his head; that daughter of his was going to scare Cort away if she didn’t watch out.

“Oh,” was all Cort said, not certain whether he should ever speak again.   He wouldn’t find that so difficult.  He never was much of a talker; and the time in Redemption hadn’t lent itself to many discussions beyond one-word replies to two word questions.

“We’ll stay there for a bit,” Joe added.

“Cort, will you come with us if we leave Dry Gulch?” Mary asked anxiously.

“Dunno,” he said absent-mindedly.

“You’re certainly welcome if you have a mind to,” Joe assured him.

“Thanks.”  Cort looked behind him wistfully.

*****

That night they camped out and Cort took the watch claiming he wasn’t tired.   Mary made beans, which she was proud of, and brought some to Cort. “It’s my mother’s recipe,” she said, her face beaming.    In Cort’s mind, beans were beans; but he had the presence of mind to comment on how good they were.

“Papa, Cort likes my beans.”

 Joe sighed.  There was so much she needed to know.   Maybe he’d talk to Mattie once they got into town.  Perhaps she could educate Mary on men and life. “Child, you want to attract a man, you need to be learning how to fix something to go with those beans.”

Mary looked deflated.  “Oh.  Where will I learn that?”

Joe shrugged.  “Maybe Mattie can help.   Let’s not think about it now.  You go to sleep.  We have to get up early so we can make Dry Gulch by evening.”   Mary smiled and kissed her father on the cheek.  He tried so hard to be everything for her.  But there were so many things working against him, including his age.  At age 55, he sincerely doubted that he’d be alive to see his daughter marry anyone.

Mary laid her bedroll out near the fire but close enough so she could observe Cort.  He looked so lonely, she thought.  There was still coffee in the pot.  She quickly got a tin cup and almost tripped bringing it to Cort. “Would you like some coffee?” she asked with a big smile on her face.

He didn’t; but not wanting to hurt her feelings he took the cup. “Thanks.”  He watched her float away, not sure what to make of the encounter.  He peered into the cup; it was half filled with grounds.  Cort shook his head as he tossed the liquid mud out.   She wasn’t going to get a man serving beans and coffee grounds.  Of course, Joe was doing the best he could, Cort quickly noted.

*****

The next morning Joe made breakfast and they ate heartily, the fresh air heightening their appetites.  Mary took the dishes to a nearby stream.  Cort followed with the coffee pot and frying pan.

“Thanks, Cort.  You can just leave them.”

“Uh, you want some help?”

“That’s very nice of you but its woman’s work.”  Mary tried very hard to speak clearly and correctly.

“Oh.”  Not knowing what else to say he turned to walk away.

“How old are you?” Mary asked.

Cort frowned.  “Twenty five.”

“That’s not too old.”

“For what?”

“To marry.”  Cort’s eyes grew wide.  “I know you feel something for Ellen.  But I can wait.”

He stood there for a few minutes, mouth wide open, not daring to move.  Finally his feet returned him to camp.

*****

Aesthetically, Dry Gulch wasn’t as glamorous as Boston.  But it was plumb full of people and merchants.   Joe pulled the buckboard in front of the Grandview Hotel and sent Mary inside to get two rooms.  She got two rooms with an adjoining door.  As Cort carried the luggage in Joe took care of the horses.

An hour later they arrived at Mattie’s Place.  It was a big, splashy saloon with card tables and a roulette wheel.  Cort was impressed; she had climbed as high as she could, given her background.

“Joe!”  Mattie, looking years younger and happier hugged the old bartender tightly.  She embraced Mary, declaring how tall she had gotten.  Cort nodded and wondered how he hadn’t noticed.   When Herod brought him to Redemption two years ago, Mary was a petite girl with long ponytails who skipped and hummed to herself.    “And you,” she addressed Cort, “look bored.  I doubt when you rode with Herod you were ever bored.”  Cort blushed and Mary bristled.  She put her arm through Cort’s.  “Come with me.  I’ll show you a good poker game.”  He relaxed.  That’s what he needed—a stiff whiskey and a card game.  Some loosening up would do him good.

Mary put her hands on her hips.  “Where she think she’s going with him?”

“Why, is he yours?” Joe teased.  Mary’s lips twisted into a pout of indignant proportions.  She looked down at her dress.

“I need a new frock, Papa.”

“Good grief, child, we just got into town.”   But he was a father who felt guilty over his parenting, so he handed her some money.  She spent the rest of the afternoon searching for the perfect dress.

*****

“Naw, Cort you don’t need to give me money,” Joe protested.

But Cort was insistent.  “I rode with you and I’m going to pay my way.  Besides, I won a small fortune today.”

Joe frowned, but took the money.   “So, you did well at poker?”

“Yes.  I sat in for six hands.  Once I got the pot, I left, much to everyone’s distress.”

Joe chuckled.  “You’re supposed to give ‘em a chance to win their money back,” he smiled.

“Not me.  I won it; it’s mine.”

“Smart boy,” Joe said approvingly.

*****

“Honey, I know you’re practically a grown woman now, but I need to talk to you about some things.”  Joe had discussed his problem with Mattie and asked her to impart some wisdom to his daughter.

“Papa tell you to talk to me?”  There was a tad bit of resentment in Mary’s voice.

“He knows you’re grown up and he feels inadequate.”

Mary hung her head.  She loved her father dearly.

 “A girl needs her mother and plain up, you don’t have one.”

“I do want to know about something,” Mary admitted.

“Come here and sit.  I’ll help you the best I can.  You understand that I’ve been a whore most of my life, so I don’t know much about uppity manners.”

“No, it’s nothing like that.”  Mary fidgeted.  “I-I like Cort.”

Mattie’s pretty face broke into a big smile.  “Well, honey, stand in line.   Most women like what they see when he strolls by.   You think something’s wrong in that?”

“No!  I mean I want to marry him.”

Mattie’s eyebrows rose considerably.  “Well dear, that has to be his desire.  I’m afraid what we women want doesn’t count for much.”

“But he’s still smitten with Ellen.”

“No, he’s not smitten.”  Mattie had been brought up badly and it turned her bitter in some respects.   Until Kid came into her life she never had much of a soft spot for men.  But she always understood them.  Kid taught her that some men could be trusted.  The day Ellen and Cort devised the plot that killed Herod she had the satisfaction of seeing Kid’s death avenged.   She felt she owed them something—even if it was just an explanation.  “You know Ellen’s father was murdered by Herod, don’t you?”

“I heard that.”

“She spent her whole life up till the day she rode into Redemption, plotting revenge against the no good snake.  The same man ruined Cort’s life.  They both had to be afraid of so many things, but they forged a bond and accomplished their goal.  When you’re in thick with someone else, you develop feelings.  Cort’s mistaken them for something they’re not.”

“You mean he thinks he loves her?”

“I’m guessing that’s what’s going on in his head.  Poor Cort don’t know the difference.”

“He doesn’t know what love is?” Mary asked incredulously.

“Who’s ever been around to show him?”

“I understand what I need to do.  I need to show him that I love him,” Mary said brightly.

“But honey, you don’t.  You got feelings for him but not love.  I was young once, too.  You think he’s handsome and dashing with his guns.  But you understand getting involved with him will pull you into his life, his past.  He’s had a hard time and done bad things because of it.  I know he’s paid for his mistakes, but those bad things always follow you.  You give it a good clear thinking before you try to convince him you care, okay?”

“Are you saying he’d hurt me?”

Mattie smiled.  “No, Cort would never hurt you.  But there are others who don’t give a diddley about you and would give their right arm to kill him.   Honey, he has a gun and he’s quite capable of using it.  That makes him and anyone around him a target.  You need to consider that.”

“Did you consider it when Kid asked you to marry him?”

“No, I didn’t.  All I thought was that he was cute and if I worked real hard, maybe I could get him to take me out of Redemption.  I knew he could shoot and I felt safe.  Did I love him?  I really don’t know.  I mourned like I did.  But you see where not considering things got me?  A widow at 24.”

“I still want to marry Cort.”

“Well then you need to learn some things.   Can you cook?”

“Some.”

“Honey, ‘some’ ain’t gonna get you nowhere.  The quickest way to impress a man is to impress his stomach.   The next thing you need to do is spruce up.”

“I’m clean!”

“I don’t mean that kinda sprucing.  You need some grown up dresses and you have to do something with your hair ‘sides let it hang.  You have nice smelling soap or perfume?”  Mattie sighed.  “Okay young lady, let’s go shopping.  If it’s Cort you want, you’re gonna have to convince him you’re what he wants.”

Mary beamed.  “Oh, thank you, Mattie!”

*****

Cort was sitting at a table in the saloon nursing a cold beer.  Mattie had herself a nice place and he was pleased things had gone well for her.  It was a very sad thing when her husband died.  Cort knew it hit Ellen hard also; Kid brought out the maternal side of her.   He sat back and watched life pass by, glad he had come to Dry Gulch with Joe.

*****

Several weeks passed.   Mattie offered Joe a job polishing the bar glasses.  It was enough work to make him feel useful and earn some money.  Cort could see that he was happy.

Mattie helped Mary purchase some nice cotton dresses and matching hats.  She realized she wasn’t the proper escort for Mary and encouraged Joe to ask one of the more dignified ladies in town to further educate her.  She suggested Thelma Thompson, a retired teacher and a woman who was highly thought of in town.

*****

The weeks turned to months.  Cort decided Dry Gulch was as good as any other town, and got a job as a Deputy Marshal.   He apprised Marshal Ben Fowler of his outlaw past, and was surprised that the badge was given to him anyway.  Being a lawman in a town full of active people was quite different from his previous job where buzzards were the deadliest threat.

Thelma Thompson was more than happy to oblige Joe and took to Mary immediately.  She had a great deal of knowledge to pass on in etiquette, literature, mathematics, and child rearing; and she found the young lady to be a sponge.  Mary was most eager to improve herself in order to attract Cort.

Not being blind, Cort noticed the changes in Mary.   She was now a young lady of 16.  Everything about her was different—her skin, her hair, her manner, even her spoken word had become sophisticated.

Other men—her age and older—were also noticing the Mary; and before she knew what was happening, proper gentlemen with carriages and land and well-rooted families were asking to court her.

One day Mary saw Cort walking across the street towards her.  She was eager to talk to him about her latest lessons; she hadn’t seen him around lately and wasn’t sure why.  He stopped a few feet in front of her.  She saw a strange sadness in his blue eyes and suddenly realized that there was no place for him in her life.  She had worked so hard to better her life; and now she had placed herself farther away from him.

“Mary!”  It was Josh Bradley, the head teller at Dry Gulch Bank.  “There you are!  I’ve been looking everywhere for you.  Mother is having a barbeque tomorrow and wants you to come.”    Mary felt tears come to her eyes; Cort only nodded and kept on walking.   Mattie had been right.  She would always care for Cort and be grateful to him; but she didn’t love him.

*****

A stagecoach moved unsteadily over the rocky terrain.  Inside was a tall, well-figured woman with blonde hair and green eyes.  She had paid the driver to deviate from his planned route to Houston.

As the stage traveled down a steep hill, she saw the buildings of Redemption appear over the horizon.  But as they pulled into town, a deep sadness filled her heart.  The driver stopped the team and opened the door for her.

“I’m sorry, Miss Masters; looks like a ghost town.”  She stepped out slowly and took in the buildings, most new to her.

“Do you mind if I look around?” she asked.

“No ma’am, it’s your money.”

Walking past the older structures brought back painful memories.  Still, she felt they had to be revisited.  The people had done a good job rebuilding the town.  She sighed.  Why had everyone left?

When she entered the Marshal’s office her throat tightened.  It was stark and simple—just what she would have expected from Cort.  On the desk was a stack of books.  She smiled sadly.  As she approached the desk something shiny caught her eye; it was her father’s badge.  Had something happened to Cort?  She reached for it and saw a note.

“Sorry, I stayed as long as there were people to Marshal.  Unfortunately cockroaches have no need for a lawman.  Cort”

“Oh dear,” Ellen whispered as she clutched the note to her bosom.  I’ve lost him, she thought, tears dotting the paper she held so tightly.  She heard a creak in one of the floorboards and whirled around.

“I just knew you’d be visiting my jail one day,” Cort drawled.

“Cort!”  She flung herself into his waiting arms.  “I have never been so happy to see anyone.”  Ellen didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  “I missed you.”

“By about three years, I’d say.”

“Stop poking fun and give me your hankie.”  Cort obliged, a smile lit his face.  It had been a very long time since his mouth felt like smiling.  “Where is everyone?”

“People got bored with law and order.”

“What?”

“They slowly left until there were only a few of us.   I went to Dry Gulch with Joe and Mary.”

“How are they?”  Ellen asked, sniffing.

“Joe works for Mattie, who has her own place.  Mary’s got herself a nice husband—a banker.”  Ellen looked at Cort, her green eyes wide with disbelief.

“Has it been that long?”  She thought for a moment.  “Yes, Mary was 13 when I left town.  Goodness, she’s 18 now.”

“Has a daughter of her own; named her Ellen.”   That news made her cry again.   “What’s with the tears?”

“I tried to come here so many times.   I just couldn’t face it.  Or you.”

“Me?”

“Cort, I ran out on you.  I blew Redemption to pieces then left you to deal with the aftermath.”

“Messiest woman I ever saw.”

“I just couldn’t stay.”  Tears of regret spilled over to her fair cheeks.  “I had to get my life straight.  I couldn’t even make sense writing you a letter.  I never dreamed Redemption would be anything but a thriving town by now.”

“That was way too much confidence you put in an outlaw,” he said softly.

“But when I came here today, I-I was so sure I had lost you forever.”

Cort pulled her close, her eyes damp against his shirt.  He rubbed her back gently, suddenly overcome with the desire to sweep her off her feet and smother her with affection.

“I knew you’d come back,” he said.

Ellen pulled away and looked at him puzzled.  “You left Redemption three years ago?”

“Yep.”

“How’d you know to come here today?  Five years after I rode off?”

“Today?  It’s the exact day Herod died.  As for the year, it was a good round number.”

Ellen slapped him on the arm playfully.  “Cort, five isn’t a round number.”   She saw the twinkle in his deep blue eyes

“Your friend Doc Morton thought so.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When we were cleaning up the mess you made, he said you’d return to Redemption.  I asked him when and he said:  “Oh, ‘round five years.”

Ellen laughed through her tears.  “Come to Houston with me.  I have a nice spread.”

“Yes, you do!” Cort smiled appreciatively.

“You’re behaving very badly.”

“Hush up.  I’ve been waiting five years to kiss you.”

“Well then cowboy, pucker up.”  He kissed her long and passionately, sending chills up and down her lovely spine.  “Will you?  Will you come to Houston?” she asked hoarsely.

“Yes.”

“When?”

“I was thinking about now.”

“Don’t you have to tell someone in Dry Gulch that you’re leaving?”

“Already said my good-byes and turned my badge in.”

“That was quite a chance you took on a round number,” she grinned.

“Let’s not keep the driver waiting.”  They walked arm in arm to the stagecoach.   Once the door was closed Cort continued instructing her on the proper way to kiss—all the way to Houston.

***The End***

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