The largest hotel in Strawberry was by far the most magnificent iron and brick structure in the town. On a rainy day such as today, many people had gathered inside to shelter themselves with drinks, food and entertainment. The place was roaring with music from a lively piano man. People were smoking cigars, spilling brandy, singing and dancing on the bar top.
Outside Rosalyn Bush was trying to lead Arthur Morgan from the stable to join the party but was having a hard time getting through the mud. Her heeled boots kept sinking into the thick brown mud which threatened her expensive blue gown. Arthur watched with amusement as she gracefully yet slowly made her way keeping her dress bundled up underarm. Rosalyn trying her best to look like a lady as she walked. They were nearly there, and the stubborn woman despite her sweating and panting would not give up even as the rain began to pick up once again.
Rosalyn stopped suddenly when her foot became stuck, a few people hanging around staring to glance over. She had a face people paid attention to, and she was aware that any slip up would not be forgotten. Arthur walked up beside Rosalyn and offered his hand to her.
"Madam?" He asked.
"I guess my legs aren't fit for the countryside just yet." She laughed out of breath and took his hand and leaned into him trying to pull her leg free. Except once Arthur took her gloved hand he placed it around his neck and scooped her off her feet pulling her out of the mud and into his arms as she let out a yelping laugh.
"Oh, my aren't you a strong one." She said as he carried her for the rest of the walk sick and tired of the slow pace she was taking to get to the hotel with her prissy walk.
"Well I can't just watch you and that pretty dress get ruined by the nasty weather now can I," Arthur replied and set her down on the bottom of the wooden staircase to the hotel. The few men and woman smoking at the front door stared over at them curiously as they made their way over.
Rosalyn in a fit of giggles let her dress fall straight after knocking the mud off her shoes by stomping harshly on the patio.
"I owe you again, seems like I'm going to run up a debt with you real quick." She said as Arthur stepping under the shelter of the awning of the hotel patio.
"You are a mess, my friend," Rosalyn said as Arthur stepped up onto the patio trailing mud behind him. No amount of stomping would clean off his jeans and boots which reached up to his knees.
"Probably should order a bath then," he said as they walked inside.
"Well, you will have a long time to wait if you trying to do that here sir. The place is booked." A boy at the door with a clean dress shirt and black vest saluted them both.
"Good afternoon Ms Rose. Welcome back, your party is in the yellow lounge waiting for you." He said kindly.
"Why thank you, William, would you kindly ask the owner to make room for my friend here. He will be staying on my tab tonight."
"But Miss I just said..."
"I heard you loud and clear my boy, go put Tracy and Sally together I'm sure they will be just fine sharing a room. Now go on, make it so and don't forget he gets a bath too. Thank you, darling." She said and shooed the boy.
"Y-yes, mam," William said and ran off inside.
"I have a feeling you're the type people shouldn't say no to Miss Bush," Arthur said enjoying her blunt yet polite behaviour.
"You are right about that and don't call me Miss Bush, you can call me Rose. Now come on cowboy, " Rosalyn waved Arthur to follow and pushed open the gate and entered the lobby of the hotel.
All sorts of people were gathered inside, as muddy shoes destroyed the floor. Caked mud mixed with spilt beer and food crumbs. At the front, a man was watching the room sitting behind a desk where the office had a locked up cabinet of keys under his guard. Few keys remaining inside the chest as most of the rooms looked booked. The soft song of a baritone-voiced man filled the room accompanied by an acoustic guitar and fiddle. His sweet song rocking the place as a few couples spun and danced in a cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke.
(Strawberry Roan by Marty Robbins for your pleasure)
Rosalyn and Arthur ascended the stairs at the back of the main room and headed up to the private party rooms on the second floor. The music and chatter were so loud that Arthur could barely hear Rosalyn trying to chat with him as she marched quickly towards the back. A small painted sign hanging over the curtained door spelling out 'yellow lounge' caught his eye as Rosalyn stopped in front of it. She pulled open the curtain and inside was a gaggle of girls crowded around three tables. Teenaged girls, older ladies and young adults all dress in well-kept dresses and fancy wear. Some wearing gold earrings, rings and lacy hats. The amount of money flashing in his eyes as the temptation to rob them all blind struck in his mind as they glittered in the low light.
"Ladies, I would like to introduce you to Mr... you know I just realised you never gave me your name," Rosalyn said standing in the middle of the room amongst 13 or so Ladies inside.
"Arthur Callaghan, at your service," Arthur said giving his fake name and tipped his hat to them all.
"Mr Callaghan here stepped in the middle of Isabella's spat outside earlier. Let's show him a good time as a thank you to his bravery."
"Ah, Ms Bush you give me too much credit."
"Please call me Rose, I am the madam of these ladies and their care is my charge. Tonight you are our honoured guest, and I welcome you to our caravan." The blonde said and picked up a bottle of wine from the table and two glasses.
As drinks were poured and the room filled with chatter once again Arthur was pulled onto the couch with some of the other Ladies who started asking him twenty-one questions about himself, where he was from and how old he was. All of which he carefully dodged with clever lies by avoiding details.
"So Mr Callaghan, what brings you to Strawberry?" A Brunette in her late teens asked wearing too much makeup and a low cut dress too mature for her age.
"Just stopping for the night before I go hunting up in the mountains, looking to see something rare and shoot something to make me rich." He said sipping the wine. Wouldn't Dutch be jealous of him now, wining and dining with the face and creator or Bush's Cooked Kidney beans in maple sauce? To be surrounded by what seemed to be enough ladies to run a whore house in the city. His confidence had never been so high, knowing for sure that his gruff disposition in life still had a certain charm to the ladies. Though even with the drinks, the conversations and laughs, deep in his chest he felt empty. No matter where or what he did, the ghost is his mistakes wounded him gravely, and a deep sadness was buried within his grin, these parties were shallow attempts to flaunt wealth and power from desperate people who wanted the world to notice them. Ms Roslyn being a true shining beckon of such a fact. She had left Arthur in the company of a few harlots who wanted to peel him out of his clothes for money, and very quickly he was learning more about these people.
They were indeed whores within the group, a few overly painted girls had disappeared slowly as the night went on, escaping to rooms with men they met in the dining hall. After about 2 hours of conversation, eating and drinking. It was only him, Lady Rosalyn and one mousy looking woman older in her years left at the dining table still trying to enjoy their dinner.
"Everything is covered for the night, some of the girls picked up some tricks even though we don't need the extra money right now, but they wanted to work." Arthur heard the older woman say as the last harlot stopped screeching in his ear to get another drink.
"That's their choice then, I'm proud they are enjoying themselves as long as they are safe. Izzy has the night shift tonight and being inside a brick hotel makes me feel safer too. The owner and I go way back. We will be cooking up a storm tomorrow for the pie eating festival on the weekend. If this godforsaken weather breaks up" Rosalyn took notice that the table was empty and Arthur had started eavesdropping on the conversation.
"So, Mr Callaghan. You were telling me what you did for a living." Lady Roslyn asked sliding her chair closer to Arthur only halfway through her tomato bisque. The older woman gave her a look, but Rosalyn waved her off with a severe look.
"I'll talk to you later Honey." Rosalyn blew her a kiss and turned her attention back to Arthur. She rested her elbows on the table and perched her chin on her hands signalling he had her attention finally.
"I hunt." He said simply.
"What do you hunt?" She asked
"Large game, Rare creatures..." He tried to continue eating his steak and potatoes, but she had him in a staring contest.
"People?" She asked with a grin.
Arthur's eyebrow raised in concern with the husky tone she spoke with.
After the fourth or fifth seconds of silence between them, a pair of angry boots was heard stomping down the hall. Catching Arthur's attention away from the threatening blonde as his hand rested on his side on his pistol out of instinct. A red-headed woman wearing men's clothes marched to their table with a gun on her hip and a lit cigarette in her mouth. Her cherry red hair was still damp and cascaded down her back in wild curls stopping past her rear. Her pale white face was pale and clean except for the freckles which speckled her nose and cheeks. She was stunningly beautiful, and now that he could see her completely she seemed familiar, but this was a different familiarity then when he saw Rosalyn. This red-dead had a face that made his chest tight. The hateful glare in her eyes sent a chill up his spine, unlike anything he had experienced before. He recognised the shape of her ears, the bridge of her nose and the colour of her eyes like he would his own in a mirror. As she entered the room, he stood up quickly to greet her as Rosalyn took notice.
"Izzy!" Rosalyn called out fondly as the blonde stood and trotted over to her friend. Arthur's head snapped at the nickname, and he looked between the two girls.
"Would you mind tellin' me why I just got kicked out of my room?" Izzy asked with an angry tone dropping a bag of clothes on the floor at Rosalyn's feet.
"You gave my room away?" She asked ready to punch to blonde with her fists clenched on her hip. The well-dressed woman in the mud fight was actually this spitfire cowgirl with muscled arms and chiselled features. She was healthy and lean like an acrobat from the circus with thick thighs that were too much for the masculine cut pants, so they clung to her like they were painted on. Everything about her silenced him, and he could only watch as the two girls got into a spat.
"Oh dear, no one listens here. Sally and Tracy are to be sharing a room tonight. They were supposed to kick one of them out! Ugh jeeze well, I'll make sure one of them of you gives you a key. Or you can always share with me." Lady Rosalyn rubbed the other's arm trying to soothe her.
"So who took my room?" Izzy asked demanding an answer.
"Why our new friend Mr Callaghan, I believe you owe him a thank you. Since he did save you from getting bludgeoned to death by Henrietta and her bucket," Rosalyn said equally giving some sass back to her friend.
Arthur was afraid, but Izzy looked at him for a long hard moment, her green eyes like a hungry cougar prowling through the grass. Arthur could feel his chest tighten even further, did she recognise him. Did she remember him? How could he not remember her name but know her so fondly like this?
"Thank you, Mr Callaghan. My name is Isabella Morningstar enjoy your meal. I'm going to wait in your room, get me my key" She introduced herself to Arthur, threatened Rosalyn and turned away from them both and walked away. Arthur was stunned. It had been Ten... no thirteen years maybe since he had seen her and the felt the colour fall from his face.
Isabella Morningstar was the first woman he ever robbed.
For a moment he had hoped she would recognise him. Even with all the trouble that would come along with it since he just wanted her to know he was there. They had met when he was a teenager and had become close many years ago. Yet now she could look him in the eye and not remember him at all... and it hurt. Isabella had grabbed her bag before heading out of the room angrily.
"Oh Izzy," Rosalyn called to her. The blonde took her key and handing it to Izzy.
"Come down for Poker later." She gave Izzy and kiss on the cheek as Izzy took the key and rolled her eyes heading out of the lounge while flipping the bird back at Rose. Leaving Arthur feeling relieved yet empty at the same time. He put his hand to his face feeling how long his beard had gotten over the past few weeks and looked back watching the red-head stomp down the hall.
"Don't mind her, that's Isabella Morningstar for you. They don't call her the devil in red for nothing." Rosalyn snickered.
"That's the Devil in Red?" Arthur whispered to himself as Rosalyn returned to her dinner. Before they could resume any sort of conversation, William entered the room with a set of keys in hand and darted up to them.
"Here you are mam, room five is ready and a fresh bath awaiting for your guest." He said as it looked like someone had given William a bath as he was soaked from head to toe dripping all over the floor.
"Arthur why don't you go get tidied up and meet me later for some poker. Go on go on, the girls and I have business to discuss." She said and shooed him out of the room where William lead him to the bathhouse.
After a rushed bath where he scrubbed himself as clean as possible Arthur rushed to set himself up in room five. It was small but cosy enough with a freshly made bed and grooming supplies available to him. Knowing Izzy would go to poker later he decided to shave and put pomade in his hair and looked at his reflection realising he just made a terrible mistake.
"My god you are old. She didn't even recognise you. She's... different. Isabella. Bella... she's the devil in red?" He shook his head at himself. A bottle of whiskey sitting on the dresser desk was already open, and he took a sig from it as he got dressed in some of his more higher-end clothes rambling to himself the entire time. His fancy black dress shirt and fancy brown pants with a brown and gold opulence vest on top. Was he trying hard? Entirely since that flutter in his chest had not stopped and the booze was giving him courage. Once he was dressed and clean, he sat down to his journal and began writing quickly.
"Of all the places in the world to Run into Isabella Morningstar I would have never thought she would come back to the west. Let alone be shopping for expensive jewellery. I believe it has been around thirteen years since Dutch, Hosea and I found her on the trail when I was a just a kid running with us.
Of all my regrets in life, watching her leave on that boat to Washington by far closest to the top. I don't know what to do, I have come across a group of ladies with more money then the bank and could easily sneak off in the night with a good score. But I want to stay and see if there is a chance Isabella remembers me and what she would do when she did? Is she angry with me? For once, I wish Hosea was here to give me advice, and he isn't."
He closed the book after making a quick sketch of Rosalyn and Isabella and stashed it into his satchel. He marched out of the room onto the patio to light up a cigarette to clear his head. The night had come, many of the patrons had turned into their rooms for the night, and the rain had turned into a full downpour. The streets flooded as the hoof prints in the mud filled with murky brown water. As he deeply inhaled the smoke, he combed his wet hair with his fingers and tried to think on what to do.
After he chain-smoked three cigarettes in a row, he left his hotel room and headed down to where the poker table was, cleaned up an presentable and no longer hidden behind a beard.
"I should have left a moustache on." He said quietly to himself as he reached the table seeing the red-headed woman sat with her back to him at the table with Rosalyn and two other gentlemen.
"My My My, Where did this handsome cowboy come from." Lady Rosalyn said catching his sight first.
"I get it I was dirty," Arthur responded in jest taking a seat at the table and looked to Isabella, whose green eyes were focused on him like daggers this time around.
/she knows./ Arthur thought to himself as he could feel the scalding hot fire which was her gaze on him. Never before had he felt so vulnerable and guilty under the gaze of such gorgeous eyes.
"So what's the buy-in?" He asked.
"Five Dollars," Isabella said sternly.
"Oh Ho! We playing for real tonight?" Roslyn asked excited and took out her flip book of bills and placed it on the table as she was handed the chips.
"That's a little rich for me ladies." One of the gentlemen stood up from the table and took off.
"Sounds like a good time to me. I'm in!" The other said sapping his money down mostly in change.
"Oh, Charlie I didn't know you had that kind of money to lose," Rosalyn said with a grin.
Arthur looked at Isabella who was waiting for him to put his money in, he knew why too. "Alright, I'm game." He said and casually added five dollar bills to the pot.
Isabella without a word, placed a full five dollar bill into the pot and collected the cards and began to shuffle to start the game as Rosalyn handed her a set of chips.
Isabella dealt the first hand as Rosalyn and Charlie added their blinds to the pot, Arthur glanced at his hand as a mere 2 of hearts and 10 of hearts came up. He put 10 cents to the centre to play the round and sat back in his chair ready for a very high stakes game of poker with the Devil in Red.
"So, You're the Red Devil Isabella Morningstar? The famed bounty hunter who caught the Bayou Bandit." Charlie asked like he was talking to a celebrity.
"Yea." She replied still glaring at Arthur as she added her 10 cents into the table to play as well.
"She has caught much more than that murderer. She saved the lives of my girls in Washington and in Mississippi too. Hell, any riff raft who thinks a whore is an easy target for murder should beware of her." Rosalyn said and folded her hand.
"That's strange around these parts rumour had it that the Devil in Red was a bandit stained red with innocent blood. and also a man." Arthur interjected. He had never heard the stories about the bounty hunter, only stories of the brutal murders. His confused face sparked Roslyn's attention while Isabella was distracted revealing the flop. A queen of hearts, a three of hearts and jack of spades.
"Have you never read the article about the Devil in the Saint-Denis times, Mr Callaghan?" Rosalyn asked.
"No, I haven't, but please do tell. I'd like to add a small wager first." Arthur said and added 25 cents to the centre.
"Well! There was this killer you see, he would hunt down carriages going through the swamp road of the Bayou and kidnap ladies and daughters from their wagons on their way into or out of the city." Charlie started the story as Isabella silently put her money in and Charlie followed suit.
"About 12 girls had gone missing altogether, only 4 were found in pieces in the swamp. You see he would kidnap them, rape em then drag them out into the swamp after beating them. Tie them to a sandbag and throw em in the water for the Gators. Alive!" Charlie exclaimed.
Isabella flipped the next card revealing a 2 of clubs to the flop. Everyone checked in response to it.
"You see my carriage was on the way out of the city, I had plans to meet with a buyer of my whore house in St. Denis. I had come into a hefty sum of money, so I wanted to close them all down and bring my girls away from the life of whoring and give them a chance out west to find husbands and better lives than being the pleasure tools of men in the city. You know that old story."
"That's very admirable Ms Bush, What happened on the road?" Arthur asked steering her back to the story before she went on about herself. As Isabella flipped the last card a five of hearts was added on the table completing his hand with a flush of hearts. He slid a full dollar worth of chips across the table into the pot.
"I was kidnapped. That's a bluff if I ever saw one though." Rosalyn said pointing at his bet, so people were not too distracted by the story to notice his technique in playing.
Isabella silently slid her chips into the pot as well.
"I don't trust it," Charlie said and folded his hand.
"Well, what happened?" Arthur asked Rosalyn.
"Ah ah, show us your hand." Isabella finally spoke almost barking at him.
"Whoa, What's gotten into you sugar, you're all a fire tonight," Rosalyn said intrigued on Arthur's cards.
The table went quiet as Arthur's flipped his hand over revealing his heart flush which made Charlie hoot in relief.
"That's a good hand," Rosalyn said as Isabela threw her cards in. A pair of Jacks was the best thing she had.
"I got lucky on the last card," Arthur said with a shrug of his shoulders and collected his chips still glancing back at Isabella who would not give up the staring contest she had challenged him to. Rosalyn collecting the cards and dealing the next hand.
"So, you were kidnapped by the Bayou Bandit." Arthur continued the conversation after quickly folding this hand one once he saw a two of clubs and a three of diamonds in hand.
"Yes sir, snagged me with a rope from the driver's seat and dragged me off into the swamp off the back of his horse. He didn't notice Izzy here was saddled up on the other side of the carriage talking to me with a rifle in hand and gave chase after us. He dragged me behind that horse for I think 3 minutes before she shot me free of the rope. I lost sight of them after that, but once I ran back to the carriage, she came back with him hogtied on the back of her horse bloody, beaten and crying. We took him into the Sherrif, and they gave us a huge reward. He was hanged the next day." Rosalyn looked to Isabella with a sweet smile and placed a bet which Authur wasn't following.
"You hired me to protect you Ms, and I intend to do so where ever you go and to protect you from everyone you meet," Isabella replied to Rosalyn but gave Arthur a dirty look at the end of her sentence.
"I've never heard of a female bodyguard, are you sure you're tough enough for the job out here in the west?" Charlie asked.
"Care to challenge me to find out yourself?" Isabella gave Charlie a hint of her scornful look towards him, and like a mouse, he shrank in his chair under her gaze.
"Play nice deary," Rosalyn said and folded her hand leaving the win to Isabella who pulled in the chips.
They played many hands for Arthur was playing one of the hardest games of Poker he had ever played in his life. The ladies were hard to read. Isabella was bold with her bets, but it was hard to tell when she was bluffing or not. An attempt to call her out on a bluff ended up getting Charlie busted out of the game when he went all in on a three of a kind to her full house. Rosalyn ended up throwing the game entirely to Isabella in a pathetic hand which ended up with her holding the most chips at the table when it came down to the final grips between the two of them.
The final flop was on the table, the chips scattered across a beer-sticky table as Arthur flipped the last card of the flop into the centre of the table. A small crowd gathered around watching the large pot of Twenty Dollars sitting on the table and these last two players with all their chips in the pot on the previous hand. Isabella, however, still sitting on six extra dollars but Arthur was sitting with a full house. The two black aces sat in the flop with a king of hearts a jack of clubs and 3 of clubs lined up in front of him. A pair of Kings lay stacked under his hand which he tried to not nervously play with. He had a damn good hand and not enough money to bluff her into a more substantial bet with. It was his bet, and the game had gone on long enough. Arthur needed to get out of here, his plan wasn't thought through carefully enough. The stories of her wild riding with Rosalyn had him sweating, and he couldn't rob the Lady of Beans with Isabella at her side. She was suspicious of him, aware of his outlaw status and had eyes completely fixated on him with an itchy trigger finger.
"Let's make this interesting shall we, I bet my horse," Arthur spoke with calm confidence, and the room gasped as well as Roslyn who had seen the rare white Arabian in the barn he talks about.
"What kind of horse is it?" Isabella asked with a sly smile on her face.
"Mr Morgan I have to insist that's too much." Ms Rosalyn tried to interrupt.
"Shhh Shhh Shhh, he's a grown ass adult who makes his own decisions. If he wants to throw his property around so carelessly, that's on him. I accept your bet. My black Clydesdale versus your?"
"White Arabian," Arthur said and flipped his cards revealing his pair of Kings and the room was a buzz.
Isabella's face dropped for a moment, she licked her teeth and pursed her lips to resist making a look at the room filled with whispers. Roslyn herself palming her face with her hand at the loss of one of her caravan's most muscular horses.
Arthur felt victory at hand and leaned forward to collect the chips when Isabella placed her hand on the table where her cards were stacked neatly. She smiled at Arthur maliciously and flipped them to reveal a pair of red aces in her hand.
"I believe my four aces beats your full house, Mr Callaghan," Isabella stated with a well-deserved air of confidence as the room went up in a roar as Arthur's eyes widened at a loss.
The room became so loud with people talking about the game and Rosalyn jumped up and hugged Charlie in a fit of laughter as Arthur had become the punch line of the night, losing his horse to the Devil in Red on a careless bet. Isabella, however, was not up in arms over her victory. She was staring Arthur dead in the eye with a blank expression across her face. Arthur stared back at her as the same empty expression came to his features as well. The room's sounds deafened around him as all his focus set on her, the last time he sat at a table like this with her and the visage of her younger face flashed in his eyes. A funny looking girl with messy hair and pretty eyes who smiled with apple dimpled cheeks. Izzy stood up abruptly shattering to the reflection of the past and collected the money on the table and looked to horse papers he had placed on the table.
"I don't want your fucking horse. I want Artex back." She said and spit on him landing it square on his jaw as she walked past him and headed outside into the rain.
"Isabella!" Rosalyn gasped at her rude behaviour.
"It's alright! I'll take care of it." Arthur said wiping his cheek clean with his sleeve and standing from his chair. He quickly followed after her before pausing at the door, his hand shaking slightly before he could place it on the swinging gate. He cleared his throat and took a deep breath before he pushed open the entrance to the front of the Saloon and stepped out. Isabella at the end of the patio trying to light a cigarette under the light of the lantern, alone as the rain showered behind her falling off the roof of the awning like a waterfall.