Desert Rose — Bounty Hunter
by Kathi Sprayberry
A flat-brimmed hat shaded her startling blue eyes and creamy complexion. Coal black, curly hair bounced and flipped against her back, drawing sweat from her dust-stained white shirt. A split skirt in muddy brown encased slender legs that gripped the flanks of the horse upon which she rode. Rose O'Cannon, survivor of one of the infamous coffin ships leaving Ireland during the Great Potato Famine, stared hard at the unrelenting desert landscape surrounding Tombstone, Arizona Territory. Here she began her quest three years past and here she would end an unrelenting search when she captured the men responsible for killing the last of her family.
"Tis nothing but sorrow for the O'Cannon's since those men did their vile work," Rose murmured. "I be not the last, but the name dies with me daughter. Oh, the shame of it! What the English and the famine failed to accomplish, those murdering scum did."
Sorrow settled around Rose like a heavy blanket. Most of her four and twenty years had been spent grieving family taken from her by the English invaders in her homeland or other circumstances. Since losing her aunt, uncle, and cousins, Rose's life consisted of travel from town to town in the untamed West. She sought miscreants for the rewards offered in return for their capture. Because of her diminutive stature and gender, the criminals she tracked down always resisted. Her fast draw and dead-on aim earned her the moniker Desert Rose, bounty hunter.
"This one's for free, Bailintin." Rose leaned forward to pat her horse's neck; the gelding's name came from the ancient Irish language, Gaelic, and meant Valiant. "This one is for Uncle Liam, Aunt Kathleen, and me cousins."
A bit of the Irish speech crept into her voice as yearning took her heart. Rose carried a taint upon her soul, a taint that killed her parents and five brothers during the long journey from Ireland to New York City. She firmly believed the same taint brought about the famine in her homeland. Three centuries earlier, the Spanish Armada washed ashore near her family's home. The Spaniards pillaged the land and ravished many a young woman. Now, in every generation of O'Cannon's, one female carried the looks of those marauders and brought bad luck upon those close to her.
"We break the curse forever today." Rose straightened and stared at the town on the horizon. "Tombstone's where those men lit and Tombstone's where I shall bring them in – alive."
Never far from her memories, the past took hold of Rose. Twelve at the time she watched her parents and brothers buried at sea, she overcame the sorrow before her fourteenth birthday by helping her aunt, uncle, and cousins build their desert ranch between Tombstone and Charleston. Then came the moonless night on the eve of her twenty-first birthday when three bandits crept through her bedroom window; men who never bothered covering their faces. They had their way with her and one knifed Rose's neck when she wailed out her terror. Unconsciousness took her only seconds into a heated gun battle with bullets whistling all around and she woke to yet again having lost those she loved.
"They'll pay." Rose pushed the horrific memories into the far reaches of her mind, to better concentrate on the task at hand. "No one will stop me."
Since taking up the bounty hunter profession, Rose brought in her quarries without a breath of life in their bodies, but these men were different. Miners and bandits they were; they took up with a group of men wreaking havoc all over the area – the cowboys.
Rose knew the English enforcing the law in Tombstone were as corrupt as those they took every opportunity to harass or jail. John Behan vowed to protect Uncle Liam's ranch and family. Behan claimed kinship, as one Irishman to another. Yet, when bandits he called bosom buddies entered the adobe house in 1879, the man made himself scarce. Behan showed his true colors to Rose after she recovered from what were supposed to be mortal injuries.
"No one will stop me from seeing those men swing." Rose fingered the scar along her neck, her fingers stopping when the ridged skin met the high collar of her blouse. "No matter if I need to send a wire to the marshal service in Washington DC, I'll make sure Charles Boyden, Mick Angelo, and Tom Higgins pay the price for my pain."
She let her gaze move north and west, in the direction of the convent where she sought refuge after discovering those men did more than violate her body; one left behind a wee bairn. The daughter Rose bore, Caitlyn, spookily resembled her mother in looks and temperament. Thanks to the nuns at Mission San Xavier del Bac, the child had a home where Rose visited whenever she was close. The nuns treated the child with loving care and swore never to reveal the act which brought her into this world.
"Keep me babe safe, Lord," Rose uttered the words to a prayer she said daily. "Protect her from the ugliness in this harsh world."
A nudge of her heels prodded the horse into a gentle trot. Rose swayed in the saddle, her hand hovering near a shotgun she kept in its boot near her left leg. Tombstone loomed closer and closer, as did the sense of evil surrounding the area. As fey as her ancestors, Rose ignored warnings to turn and run for her sanity. Premonitions of trouble would never keep her from completing this quest. She then planned to make her way east, back to New York City and onto a boat to return to Mother Ireland, but only after she collected her daughter and purchased a wedding band. No one would ever know Caitlyn had no father nor had her mother wed the monster responsible for her sorrow.
Rose allowed herself a moment of weakness as a tear rolled alongside her nose. She longed for the barely remembered breezes coming off the Irish Sea. Yearning seared her damaged soul for the gentle green hills of the land and the soothing brogue of her kind. Americans spoke in harsh voices and too many were of the dreaded English ancestry, especially those she must deal with this day.
"Or week," she whispered, her words carrying on the constant wind laden with gritty sand driven from the ground by dust devils. "However long it takes. John Behan nor any of the Earps will stop me."
Small ranches, much like her Uncle Liam's, appeared on either side of her. Rose gave them a cursory glance, no more. The activities of those ranchers bothered her not, so long as none of the men herding cattle attempted to stop her. Bailintin's gait picked up and Rose leaned forward as the raucous town of Tombstone came into view. Rarely did the town go entirely quiet, but it had changed so much since the last time she saw its streets. Far more people wandered along boardwalks in front of stores and she gaped like a child let loose in a circus. She closed her mouth and began a methodical search for a place to lay her head. Tonight, after the families she saw everywhere retired to their homes, she would begin her search in the saloons.
A jail near Schieffelin Hall drew Rose's attention and she pulled on the reins until Bailintin stopped. A sight she never thought to see amazed the young woman. Two of the Englishmen she hated stood together at the top of the steps. John Behan lounged against a wall beside a rough wooden door while Wyatt and Morgan Earp examined the street beside and around Rose. She stared at them until Morgan sashayed down the steps and stood beneath her gaze.
"May I help you, ma'am." A quizzical expression crossed Morgan's face. "Forgive me for being forward but do I know you?"
A silver badge proclaiming his status as a city policeman decorated his left chest, in a perfect position for one of the cowboys to use the tin star as a target. Rose permitted herself a rare smile at having the means to dispatch one of the men who failed her three years back at her disposal.
"Do ye know me?" she asked, the Irish lilt becoming more pronounced with each word. "Did ye forget what happened in September of 1879, Morgan?"
"My brothers and I arrived the first of December that year," he replied. "But I still believe we've met at some time."
Morgan squinted and took in her face in an examination that lasted long enough for Wyatt to join them. The older Earp, a man with legends already attached to his name from his time in Dodge City, pinned Rose in her saddle with a glare that would have murdered a lesser person.
"Rose O'Cannon," Wyatt said with barely restrained fury. "I've heard you took up bounty hunting." His voice took on a sarcastic tone. "Desert Rose, very original."
"Aye, I did. The name fits since the desert failed to sear this rose." Rose dismounted in one smooth move and tied off Bailintin to the hitching rail in front of the jail. "Isn't John Behan about to make this unholy trio more than I can stand? Two English and an English bootlicker are far too much for my delicate sensibilities. Don't you agree?" She easily fell fell into the Irish way of making observations into questions. "Shall I leave you to your useless musings and get about me business?"
She pushed past the men and sauntered into the jail, removing her hat as she entered. Using the hat to smack dust from her split skirt, Rose examined the board beside the door, searching for bounties on the men she sought. To her disappointment, none existed.
"You won't find what you seek there," a gravelly voice said. "Leave Tombstone, Desert Rose. Your fast draw and even faster trigger finger will only cause more headaches; headaches I don't need. I have yet to put a woman into my jail but I will if you remain in Tombstone."
Rose turned and smiled, a smile full of the promise of violence. "My, my. Can ye explain why you leave your brothers to stand with John Behan while you rest your legs in here, Virgil Earp?" He also wore a badge; the badge naming him town marshal. "Did the town council lose control of their senses, Virgil Earp? Truly, I don't understand this at all, at all. Two Earps, both English, given leave to make so many lives miserable? Tis truly a quandary I want no part of."
"Leave Tombstone, Rose," Virgil repeated. "I won't have my town shot up whilst you search for the men you claim killed your family."
"And have they proved to ye, Marshal Virgil Earp, they were never near me uncle's piddllin' ranch that night?" Rose thrust out her chin in a belligerent manner. "Can ye find none who say otherwise? Can none of their friends give them up to ye for the reward I left to be posted?"
"You took long enough to report the crime," he retorted. "I have no way of knowing if the witnesses spoke the truth when I questioned them more than three months after the fact."
"Nor did ye try very hard," she shot back. "What's one or a dozen less Irish in this world to an Englishman?"
Virgil Earp rose from the chair upon which he sat and crossed the room until he stared down at Rose.
"Behan claimed those men played poker with him from approximately six in the evening until well past dawn the day after the attack on your family," Virgil announced. "We never pursued charges against them, as Behan had other witnesses." His mouth twisted into a grimace. "Men known as the cowboys."
"And, of course, ye believe everything spouting from that English bootlicker's lips, do ye?" Rose silently cursed her short stature that put her at an extreme disadvantage with this towering hulk of disapproval. "I swore it then and I will do the same now. Charles Boyden, Mick Angelo, and Tom Higgins attacked Uncle Liam's ranch. Those bandits tried to slit me throat and left me for dead while shooting everyone else in the house." She jerked her head to one side and trailed a finger across the still vivid scar. "Isn't that enough proof for ye, Marshal Virgil Earp? Do ye doubt me word when I tell you they stopped at the ranch earlier in the day but left angry when Uncle Liam and Aunt Kathleen refused to pay them tribute?"
The door creaked open. Behan, Morgan, and Wyatt moved behind Virgil. The lawmen glowered their disapproval at her words. Even Wyatt, though he wore no badge, stood firm against her. August heat caused sweat to pour down her face, stinging her already tender eyes.
"Believe me or not!" Rose exclaimed. "I thought to wait until nightfall to begin me search but your lack of concern for this town's women convinces me otherwise. I shall bring those men to you before sunset – alive. Then I shall swear out a complaint of murder against them." Unbidden tears clouded her vision. "They will never do that again."
Angered beyond belief, Rose made to push through the wall of men. None but Morgan moved aside. She held her head high and met incredulous but puzzled looks from the other three.
"Let Rose leave," Morgan said in a quiet but commanding voice. "She'll do as she said. We have no worries about her starting a gunfight."
Behan, Wyatt, and Virgil stepped aside. Rose stormed out of the jail and slammed the door. She slapped the hat atop her unruly hair and paused until her emotions settled.
"By all that's holy, what do you think you're doing?" Wyatt's explosive bellow penetrated the jail's wooden walls. "Desert Rose has never brought in a bounty alive."
"She will this time," Morgan insisted. "Or do I have to remind you about another young woman and the way she reacted to men." His voice grew sharper. "I can't believe you don't remember that incident in Dodge City, Wyatt. You told me it haunts you."
"No!" Wyatt gasped. "Are you saying–"
"I am," Morgan responded in a firm tone. "And that's as far as I'll take this discussion. Rose will bring in the men she saw that night, have no doubts of that."
The sound of boots stomping toward the door prodded Rose into action. She stopped when Behan yelled.
"I already told you those men played poker with me that night! What will it take for you to believe me?"
"Witnesses other than cowboys," Virgil said. "And a woman not so certain of what she saw, heard, and experienced. I had my doubts then and now, those doubts grow stronger, Behan. It's well-known you'll do anything for certain people in this town."
With a smile of satisfaction at the English bootlicker's turn of fortunes, Rose walked down the steps and yanked her shotgun from its boot. She strode along Fremont Street's boardwalk, stopping to peer through batwings on the many saloons. Men stared at her with mouths gaping while women shooed their children to dubious safety within several stores. At Sixth Street, she turned and kept an eye on the Red Light District as she made her way to Allen.
"So many saloons," Rose commented as she sauntered along the boardwalk. "No wonder Virgil says he has headaches. When do any of these men have time to work?"
It was on Allen Street, midway between Fifth and Fourth Streets, where Rose heard a familiar voice. She pushed open the batwings on Campbell & Hatches Saloon and stood in the doorway.
"Wimmen ain't allowed without a man," the barkeep said in a bored tone. "Not unless you're a whore. Iffen you are, git into something more revealing and put your arse to work."
Rose ignored his profane comment and stared at a table in the far corner. Three men clad in the dusty gray pants and shirts preferred by miners stared at her. She jacked a round into the shotgun and took aim.
"This scattergun makes my finger itch," Rose spoke her trademark statement in an almost bored tone. "Get your carcasses up."
"Do you really think a bitty thing like you can take us alive?" Charles Boyden demanded. "We'll teach you a few manners, missy. Barkeep." He turned toward the bar. "Send a boy for Marshal Earp. He'll take care of this hoyden."
"My name is Desert Rose," Rose said.
Dead silence greeted her announcement. Mick Angelo and Tom Higgins edged away from Charles and raised their hands into the air. Charles gulped and stared at her.
"Desert Rose?" Charles squeaked. "Why are you after us? There ain't no bounty on our names."
"Only because an English bootlicker gave you an alibi," Rose told him in even tones. "But I know what you did on September 4, 1879 at Liam O'Cannon's ranch Your only mistake was in not making sure I died from the knife ye used to slit me throat, Charles Boyden."
Ach, but her shame was now out for all to know. Not only had these men destroyed her purity but the one who fathered her child was also of English ancestry. Rose vowed then and there to keep that information from her wee bairn. Caitlyn would never live with that shame.
"Tis a lie," Charles claimed. "We played poker with Sheriff John Behan that night."
"Shut your mouth," Mick Angelo cried. "She's holding a scattergun on us."
"Ach, and me finger just itches to cut ye down for what ye did," Rose answered calmly. "The English have done worse in the homeland but I'm thinking a few less English by me hand won't make no never mind. Don't ye agree?"
The men's faces leached white, so white it appeared they might faint. The barkeep edged away from the center of the room and ducked through a rear door.
"Move," Rose ordered. "In front of me, and none of you even think about trying to grab me gun. It has a hair trigger." She smiled; this one indifferent. "I promised Marshal Earp to deliver ye alive. It wouldn't do to go back on me word, would it?"
The sun had moved to halfway between noon and sunset when Rose marched the three men responsible for her worst misery and greatest joy along Allen Street. At Fourth Street, she ordered them to turn toward Fremont and once more until they stopped in front of the jail.
"Virgil Earp," Rose called in a loud, clear voice. "I've done as I promised. No one died this day. I'll still swear out that complaint."
Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil spilled out of the jail with their guns drawn. Their mouths dropped open at the sight of three grown men quivering in front of Rose. She lowered the shotgun.
"Do ye need me statement now or may I come back on the morrow?" Rose asked.
"Tomorrow will be fine," Virgil sputtered. "Where will you stay?"
"The Palace Hotel." Rose stared at him hard. "Do ye believe me now?"
Behan still had not come out of the jail, if he was still in there. Rose tilted her head and examined the surprise etched into the Earp's faces.
"We believe you, Rose," Morgan managed to say. "Come back tomorrow about ten. We'll take your statement and notify the judge he's needed up here."
Tired both in body and heart, Rose trudged away, one hand holding onto Bailintin's reins. The gelding would never again carry her from town to town in an effort to stop murderers from tearing apart families. She felt nothing more than relief at the thought of having a life free of violence.
"Tis truly a great day, Bailintin," Rose said as she spotted the Palace Hotel. "Ye will have a life of luxury, all the hay and corn you can handle and paddocks of green grass to frolic in. Me? I shall finally have a home."
Ireland's beckoning call waned. She looked around for a reason to abandon her quest to return to her homeland. Sure, and it was a beautiful place to live, but the English invaders made life near impossible for the Irish. Her eyes lit upon Morgan Earp a few feet away. He stared at her with bottomless eyes.
"Why do ye trail after me?" Rose demanded. "Have I perhaps broken some law I don't know of?"
"No." Morgan approached her carefully, almost as if he expected her to bolt. "I have to know something. You call us English. What meaning does that have?"
"You be English, don't ye?" She asked.
This man, this enemy, seemed to care about her, but that was wrong. All the English cared about was destroying the Irish. Sure, and did they not do that so much in the homeland?
"My family originally came from England," Morgan conceded. "But we're Americans now, as are you."
"Nay." She shook her head. "I shall always be Irish. Tis part of my soul, the motherland with her gentle rains and loving people."
"And you'll always hate anyone from England?" he asked.
"Mayhaps." Rose nodded. "Are not the English responsible for Irish misery? Do they not have a boot on our necks? Did they not send families away from the motherland in ships destined to kill nearly half those aboard? Do not the English decide we must speak their blasted language instead of our own? Do they not call us savages while they ravage our women and murder our men?"
"I have no idea of conditions in Ireland," Morgan said. "But I see a beautiful woman with pain in her past, searching for a way to ease that pain. Running away to a place where she'll experience more of that pain seems wrong to me."
"Aye, ye may be right." Rose walked the last few steps to the hotel. "I'll think on it, Englishman. But don't think I'll stay around here, either."
"I didn't expect that," Morgan replied. "I'll see you tomorrow."
He tipped his hat in a gesture of respect and walked off. Rose stared at his back for a long time as his words penetrated the numbness in her brain. All the plans she had made to return to Ireland now seemed wrong, all wrong.
"Tis a difficult decision," she said. "But one I'll have to make before I bring me Caitlyn to this place, even if it's only for a few hours."
Inside the hotel, she paid a lad to send a telegram to the mission for her. Rose spent an hour in a hot tub and then had a good meal before seeking out a dressmaker. Her new persona, that of loving mother, required her to give up her bounty hunting attire. Her last errand saddened Rose but keeping Bailintin was out of the question. The liveryman paid her an excellent price for such a well cared for gelding and promised green paddocks if the right man discovered the animal. By the time she settled in her bed for the night, the difficult decision resolved itself. Ireland was a wonderful dream but the reality was the country still had far too many problems for her to raise a child there without constant worry.
Precisely at ten the next morning, Rose marched into the jail and gave her statement of the events three years ago. She left out the part about the men assaulting her and how her cries caused the gun battle that killed her aunt, uncle, and cousins. Morgan finished writing out her complaint and had her sign the paper.
"Judge'll be up here in ten days," Morgan said. "He said the trial would probably only last a day or two. Will you stay?"
"Aye." Rose nodded. "I have nothing else to do except make arrangements for me future. May I leave? I have much to do."
"In a minute." He smiled. "Are you still returning to Ireland?"
"Mayhaps, but I think not," Rose said with great reluctance. "I have an idea about where'll I'll settle but no one else will know." She lowered her voice to where it was near impossible to hear. "No one but one other."
She walked out of the jail. Forever loomed on the horizon and she was eager to find out what fate had in mind for her.
Two weeks later, Rose watched as the men who stole her innocence and murdered eight people swung from the gallows. She felt no pity when they begged for their lives; just as they showed no pity for her family on that bloody night. After the last one finished kicking, she walked away with a far lighter heart.
"Let the stage be on time," she whispered.
The stagecoach station appeared deserted. Rose stood in front of the building and watched for a dust cloud from the northwest. Forty minutes later, her vigil was rewarded. Eagerness rose within her. One hand on the hitching post, she strained to see the coach. Soon, it barreled toward her. As soon as the driver braked, she raced for the door as it opened.
A tiny replica of herself jumped down without assistance and dashed to Rose. She grabbed her daughter and held her tight. So grand was their reunion, Rose ignored the woman clad in black from head to toe who came off the stage after Caitlyn. Sister Brighid always stayed within steps of the child, but now, after almost three years, that duty was now Rose's.
"Ach, me Caitlyn," Rose cried. "We'll never be apart again."
Their reunion brought gentle healing to the horrific wounds Rose suffered so long ago. She and the child cried out tearful remembrances of the few times they spent together. Rose held her daughter high in the air, studying all the changes since they last had a few hours to visit. Some of the baby fat had vanished and Caitlyn showed signs of great beauty later. The wee bairn stared back at her mother with a look of awe.
"I love you, Mama!" Caitlyn declared.
"Ach, and don't I love you as much?" Rose returned and held her daughter tight in another hug.
The sound of measured footsteps from behind failed to upset Rose. So long as she held Caitlyn, Rose felt safe. The warm bundle of love rained kisses all over her face and neck. So far as Rose was concerned, all was right in the world – finally.
"So that's who you protected," Morgan said from behind Rose.
Frightened out of her mind, Rose pulled the child closer to her chest. Caitlyn wiggled around and peered at the lawman. Slowly, ever so slowly, Rose faced the man capable of destroying her newfound happiness.
"If I deny your suspicions?" Rose asked.
"The child is about two," he said in a bland tone. "I may not have a child of my own, but I know how fiercely mothers protect their young. Why did you not tell us about this, Rose?"
"Mama, what's he talking about?" Caitlyn piped in her childish voice.
"Nothing, me babe," Rose answered. "Nothing at all." She glared at Morgan. "Aye, Morgan, mothers will do whatever's necessary to protect their young."
"Then you're off to Ireland?" he asked.
"Nay," she said with a shake of her head. "But far from here. The desert has begun to wilt this rose. I'm thinking me and me bairn will settle near San Francisco."
"I'll warn the law up there," Morgan said with a smile. "But, somehow, I don't think we'll hear of the bounty hunter, Desert Rose, again."
"Aye," Rose said. "Desert Rose has taken her last bounty."
She turned away from Morgan and greeted Sister Brighid. An exchange of a bank draft for the good sisters at the mission made the difficult parting easier for Rose but not the nun nor the child. Sister Brighid boarded the stagecoach and Rose followed after the stage driver loaded the few trunks containing her belongings. Within the hour, when the stage returned to Tucson, Rose sat at the window with her daughter at her side. The ache Rose had carried for so long began to subside.