At first, it seemed there could be no words. Each one was uncertain what to say, how to begin. Every time Emma moved to speak, she could only look at her brother with pleading eyes, as if wanting him to divine everything within her mind and on her tongue without her having to utter a word.
For his part, Jason did not demand answers or explanations, though he reckoned there wasn't a piece of him that didn't burn to hear it from her own mouth. Instead, he silently led her back to the parlor, and they sat closely together on the horsehair couch. He clasped her hand in warm encouragement and looked at the girl he had last seen three years ago on her wedding day.
Despite what he knew she had gone through, she barely looked different. Her hair was still a deep gold, almost the shade of brass in the autumn sun. It hadn't dulled or become lank and tired as a result of her recent troubles. Were she wearing a wedding dress, Jason doubted he would be able tell the difference between his sister on the day she wed William Greenleaf and his sister of today. She was still the slender girl who had gamely tried to keep up with him and his friends throughout their childhood, and had done a fair job at it.
Emma took a deep breath and lifted her gaze from where she had been previously looking at their twined fingers. Jason saw that small lines of worry had begun to mark her brow, but only faintly. Maybe it's only the morning light, he thought, finding himself wanting to cling to the hope that she was utterly unchanged and that her sturdy and stubborn nature as a child was to credit for how she looked today.
"Jason," she began, "I know what you're thinking."
"No," he replied tenderly. "No, you don't. I don't know what brought you here, but I don't blame you for any of it. How could I?"
She smiled humorlessly. "Father doesn't know. Anything. He thinks William is still alive and that I'm—" Her voice wavered, then cracked. "He can't ever know, Jason. Promise me you'll never tell him."
Jason hesitated, then slowly nodded. "Sure, Em. He wouldn't take it well. I doubt many fathers would."
Emma sighed and rubbed at her nose indelicately, sniffing away unshed tears as she did so. "I never thought I'd think it, let alone say it, but I'm glad Mama's dead. She wouldn'tunderstand."
"I'm not sure I do completely," Jason ventured. "There's still a heck of a lot you haven't told me." He once again retrieved her telegram from his vest pocket and unfolded it along its well-worn lines.
"It looks like you've been reading that pretty often, brother dear."
"Yeah. It's easier to take on the trail than a book."
Emma laughed. "And you were never one for books anyway."
"No, but you were."
"I still am, Jason," she reminded him, giving him a pointed look. "Less has changed than you might imagine."
Her expression was serious, and Jason sensed that what he had wanted to know these last two weeks, ever since he received the telegram, was imminent.
"What happened to your husband?" he prompted, handing her the telegram. "This is all you told me and it's been a nightmare, stumbling around in the dark up here." He tapped a finger against his temple. "I got here as fast as I could, but we had some jobs along the way, and I'm tied to another's movements, for the moment anyway."
Emma looked down at the telegram as if reading it for the first time, then gave a rueful laugh. "Is this the only one you ever received?"
"There were more?"
"Several. I've been chasing you through the wires all over the territory. Imagine my surprise when I sent a message to Virginia City and got a reply from Dad's old friend at the Union office that you'd given up the law to go bounty hunting!" She sobered. "He wasn't approving, if you care to know."
"I don't," Jason said. "Josh Randall came to town on a job and I decided before he left that if I'm going to get shot at, it might as well be for far more money than what a deputy's badge could earn me."
Emma's eyes brightened. "Then you will understand me completely once I've explained." She re-read the telegram and handed it back to him. "Here, as a souvenir." With a sigh, she slumped backwards and rested her head against the wall, her eyes fixed on the painted cherubs on the ceiling.
"William died in February," she began. "You knew that he was digging around here for silver, with a little success. I think that was in my last letter to you before he died. The strike wouldn't have filled a small washtub, but by then he was too far gone in chasing after it. I'd have just picked up and moved on, but he was sure there was more in the lines and he kept after it, week after week.
"I rarely saw him anymore. More than usual, that is. After awhile he was always up at the mine, and then he got his fool self killed handling dynamite when he should have been sleeping. He might as well have been drunk, for all the sense he had at the time. Maybe he was. Like I said, I'd become a mine widow long since."
"I was still in Virginia City when this was all happening," he said, unable to prevent a hint of accusation from tingeing his words. "Why didn't you at least let me know, if you didn't want Dad to?"
"At first it was because I didn't want to admit that I'd made a mistake marrying him," she replied. "In the three years we were married, he ran after one dream or another, leaving me in the lurch more than was proper or tolerable. Most of my letters to the whole family in that time were full of so many lies that I had to copy each one to make sure I kept them all straight. But it's all over now, isn't it?"
She rose and went over to the sideboard that held all the decanters of liquor. Her hands fidgeted near the brandy, but she quickly turned away and came to stand in front of him. "William died and I was left alone. There were no children to raise and I decided not to go back home. It had been my decision to marry and leave home, just as you left Virginia City and came back a lawman. You wouldn't have come crawling home had things gone badly, would you? Well, neither would I."
"And this is better?" he demanded.
"Oh, Jason," she said, sinking in front of him. She grasped his hands. "You've done all a brother can do to protect me when we were children, but it's not up to you to keep doing that. It was William's duty and he failed. I've managed quite well."
She patted his hand in comfort. "I fear your worry is mostly my fault. I sent so many wires, never getting replies because you had apparently moved on to the next town. I tried to catch you, and I even saw your name a couple times in the newspaper when this or that killer was caught, but you were damn hard to get hold of. Every wire got shorter and shorter until this one. Lordy, it's so short it sounds like a cry for help when it was only a plea to see you."
"You said I'd understand why you're doing this," he said. "Tell me."
"Money," she said simply. "Right after William died, I worked taking in mending and laundry for two months. I used to look down on those women who did laundry and yet whored themselves on the side. Now I know why they did both. There is simply no way to live on what you earn washing a man's shirts and darning socks. Without clothes, they'd all be naked, but you'd never know it was important from what they choose to give you in exchange. This is more profitable, even if Madam Bess does take most of it. I still earn more in a week than what I scraped together during those two months of grinding my fingers down on a washboard."
Jason's last hope of persuading her to leave fled. He had uttered the same sentiment to Josh when they split the bounty money for Clell Fannon. His half had been twenty-five hundred dollars, more than his deputy's badge could earn him in three years. That day, with the feel of so many greenbacks in his hand, he decided that if he was going to get shot at, he might as well make it worth it.
Emma rose and slid onto the couch next to him. "You dounderstand, don't you? I can see it in your face. You were never able to keep anything hidden from me, Jason. What you're thinking is as plain as if you said it."
"Yeah," he mumbled. "I understand."
"What does a wife earn?" she went on. "If she's married to a no-account, like I was, she lies on her back and earns nothing—"
"Emma!" he said, shocked at hearing such bluntness coming from her mouth.
"Nothing," she said again. "She has nothing but drudgery for the rest of her life, slaving for a man who doesn't care. But now, I do what was my wifely duty, get paid for it, and have people like Samuel and maids like Chloe and Sarah do the cleaning and washing."
"That may be," Jason plunged ahead, his outraged sense of what he felt his sister should talk about getting the best of him, "but I'm earning far more than you. I can take care of you. I wantto."
"But I don't," she replied. "You're in a far more dangerous business than I. You'll have a wife one day. Some woman is going to love you enough so that the real chance of you gettin' killed won't matter a whit to her. It's her that your money should be saved for. I'm only twenty-three and have many years left to me. You'll see, and you won't want me burdening you until I find myself another husband. Believe me, I will not be so impulsive next time."
He bent over, resting his elbows on his knees, and ran a flustered hand through his hair.
"Emma, you're talking selfless nonsense," he persisted, lowering his tone into a semblance of restraint. He kept his eyes riveted on the floor to help him focus. "You expect me to go off and leave you, earn hundreds or thousands in a day, and all to save it up for a woman who doesn't exist yet?"
"That's exactly what I'm expecting you to do," she said, every word just as measured and calm. "I could not be more rational about this. Do what William failed to do for his own wife. I would be in a far better position today if he had known the value of a saved dollar instead of wasting it on digging through dirt and rock. He was blessed with a job in Denver that paid very well, but he took it all and let it pour through his fingers." Her face grew pinched in regret. "Thing is, he thought he was doing it to provide for me. All he needed was one lucky strike, but it never lasted."
"This won't last either."
"No. No, it won't," she agreed, "but at least I am no longer a captive bystander to someone else's decisions. I've earned plenty already, but if you feel compelled to provide for me in a small way, it would be unsisterly of me to refuse." She reached over to tousle his hair playfully, and idly twirled a lock of hair around her finger like she would to a doll.
Madam Bess appeared in the doorway. She had changed from her bright satin robe into a dress of equal brilliant color, looking like a bird of paradise next to Emma's demure wren. For that, Jason was grateful. It had been high on his list of fears when he had entered the brothel that he would find his sister painted and swathed in feathers and beads like a drunken peacock.
"Your gentleman from last night is here again," she told Emma, and Jason felt his stomach lurch at the eagerness in the madam's tone. "He would like to see you again, if you're willing this early. I think you might have already caught yourself a benefactor, Sweetheart."
Jason swallowed the rising bile in his throat, a nausea that threatened to overwhelm him completely when he saw his sister's face alight with genuine surprise and pleasure. It had been so easy to say the words "I understand", but he hadn't planned or desired to be present to see his sister sold for an hour of sport. Just as he felt his hand itching to grab Emma about the wrist and haul her from the room and the building, he turned his focus to fidgeting with his hat, spinning it around in his hands.
"I'll—I'll go now, Emma," he managed, casting Madam Bess a condemning glare. She returned the gaze coolly, yet there was a flicker of sympathy in her eyes. Or so he hoped. She truly hadn't struck him as a soulless flesh merchant. He wanted to believe that she held some affection for her girls since she had been in the same position herself only recently.
Emma gave him a quick kiss. "Everything is fine," she whispered. Her eyes met his, as rock steady as any hardened criminal, and Jason didn't think his heart ever felt so heavy. He was not only seeing his sister on a path he had never imagined her walking, he was leaving her to tread it alone.
"I hope I won't regret walking out that door, Em, and I hope you never do either."
"If I do, I promise to tell you," she said with an encouraging smile. "I know you'll always be there for me when I need you. You're a dunderhead at times, but I love you anyway."
Jason made to leave the room, but stopped and turned to Emma. "At least tell me something about this man," he said. "I don't think I'm asking too much."
Madam Bess lowered her voice. "A tragic story. His bride-to-be was horribly killed on her journey here. They still haven't hanged the bastard who did it."
Jason straightened in interest, but didn't have time to respond because the man in question appeared in the doorway behind Madam Bess.
"Hello," the man said smoothly, bowing his head first to Madam Bess and then to Emma. He shot Jason a quizzical look, his eyes then darting to Emma again. "I trust I am not…intruding?"
The question and the unspoken one in the lilt of his voice made Emma immediately flush. "No, not at all! This is my brother."
"In that case," the visitor said, holding out his hand. "Gilbert Tunstall."