A few hours later, the moon sat high in the cold night sky behind clouds that stretched from horizon to horizon. It burned like a lantern behind frosted glass, and the stars did not shine. John Quinn stepped into the street and took a deep breath and smiled to himself. The satchel that lay slung low across his shoulders was heavy with the night’s winnings, and the round of ale he had bought to soothe the egos of the men who had last to him had done little to lessen its weight. He pulled his overcoat.
A voice, high and with a faint mocking tone to it, called out from above him. “And there goes John Quinn to sleep in the fields under the open desert sky. Why don’t you come back inside where it’s warm, John?”
John turned and looked up to see Rose of Sharon smirking down at him from the second-story balcony of her building. She was wearing one of the dresses she had made herself, drawing silk and velvet and cotton from an untold number of garments and fashioning them into a red dress that shimmered in the light and clung to her figure while still maintaining a respectable degree of modesty. After all, there was a business to be run and it wouldn’t do to have the clients confusing her with her employees. John smiled up at her and tipped his black felt hat. “You won’t be having any more of my money tonight, Rose. Some other day.” He turned to leave, but she called out after him.
“I don’t want your money, John Quinn! I just want a body to talk to.”
He cocked his head a bit to the side. There was a game they played sometime, teasing and taunting at each other. A playful jab danced at the edge of his tongue, but instead he looked up and past her at that starless night, at the moon hidden away behind clouds and he shivered though he was not cold.
Rose of Sharon saw that John’s resolve was cracking and pouted at him. “Come on, John. Enrique tried to square away some of his gambling debts with a bottle of some clear liquor he says he carried five hundred miles. Come up and have a drink.”
John laughed and shook his head. “I never could say ‘No’ to a woman with a strong spirit.” He walked back inside Rosie’s leaving the cold desert night behind him.
By the time John reached the doorman, Rose of Sharon was already standing on the second-story landing waving for the man to let John pass with his coat and his gun. John slid through the crowd, the mass of people still quite large but somewhat quieter than when he had first sat down to play poker and made his way up the stairs. He walked past the other bedrooms, some open and empty, some shut with the soft noises barely audible over the din below, and stepped into Rose of Sharon’s room.
It was the largest room in the building other than the floor downstairs, and Rose of Sharon had decorated its walls with gifts from lovers and suitors the world over. A serape from Mexico. The horns of a sheep from Colorado. The skull of a great bear from some land to the north whose name she could not recall. Bones and art and clothes and furniture and delicacies from as far as men could travel by foot. There was a bed, large enough for two people to sleep side-by-side on their backs and still stretch out some. There was a crowded bookshelf. There were two doors, one which opened out onto the balcony Rose of Sharon had called to John from and one which locked and served as a safe. Finally, there was a couch, and here Rose of Sharon lay with rehearsed grace and feigned impatience. “You certainly know how to keep a lady waiting, John Quinn. Why, I almost thought you’d gotten lost on your way upstairs.”
John said nothing, but arched one of his eyebrows and sat beside her. She looked much the same as she had when they’d first met ten years before. She was younger than him by over a decade, and her face was just starting to show the wear from a life spent laughing, smiling, frowning, shouting, and crying. She was a strong woman, but expressive. She was unapologetic about letting the world know what she was thinking and feeling. John saw a few lone strands of grey in her chestnut hair, but they blended well with its natural sheen. He wanted to put his arm around her, pull her close and kiss her. Instead he took the glass that she offered and sipped at the clear liquid within. “Good,” he said. “Kind of sweet.”
She nodded and sipped from her own glass. “Tell me, John. What were you doing standing out there looking up at the night sky?”
John almost said, “Nothing,” but looking into Rose of Sharon’s hazel eyes, he knew she’d get him to speak his mind eventually, whether it was now or after another glass of Enrique’s liquor. He sighed, picked his words carefully. “Do you remember decades ago when there were a few years where there was barely any sun at all? Probably not. You were probably just a baby, bawling and drooling in your daddy’s arms.” Rose of Sharon punched him in the arm, hard, and John laughed. This was another game they played, and John respected her for playing it well. “Well, on nights like this I get to think about those years. I was just a boy myself, just beginning to get stubble on my face and bad ideas about girls in my brain. It was bad. Nothing grew. Not enough sunlight, you see. No rain or snow either, but it was colder than I remember it being since. No seasons. Just one long grey nothing.” He took another drink of the liquor, held it on his tongue for a bit before swallowing. “Folks died. A lot of folks died.” He shook his head. “Call me a sentimental old fool, I guess, but on nights like these, I look up, and it’s like there’s nothing above us.”
“You’re a sentimental old fool, John Quinn,” Rose of Sharon said. She said it softly and sweetly, and as she said it, she took the empty glass from John’s hand and set it on the floor. She cradled his body in her arms and laid him down so his head was resting on her lap. She ran her fingers through his hair, gently at first and then mussing it like she was petting her favorite dog. “This isn’t like you, John Quinn. Where’s the gunslinger that doesn’t need nobody? Where’s the grizzled, hard-drinking man that spends his nights sleeping under the stars with the snakes and the coyotes?”
John snorted. “I didn’t turn around and come back so I could be mocked by a little girl in a homemade dress, Rose.”
She slapped him on the top of the head. Not hard, but he wasn’t expecting it, and he jumped. “No, you came back inside because you’re afraid of the dark and you’re sick of cleaving to rattlers for companionship.”
John chuckled, fumbled around on the ground for the glass, held it up. “That must surely be it.” Rose of Sharon refilled it, and they sat in silence for a while. “I busted some kid in poker earlier.”
John shrugged. “Some brat. I went all in with a flush, and he tried to match me with a straight.”
“His own fault for not reading the cards. Should have seen the flush on the table.”
“He’d been drinking. That’ll make any young man cocksure. He got real upset, though. Took to calling me a cheater.”
Rose of Sharon laughed. “Why, John, if ever there were a sign that you’ve been away from these parts for too long, it is surely that the youth isn’t afraid of you.”
John ignored her, stared straight up at the ceiling and at some point past it. “It’s a cruel world to live in, where an old man can take everything from a young man.”
“Oh, stop that. You aren’t that old, and you didn’t swindle him. He bet all his money his fool self and he paid for it. You taught him a valuable lesson, if anything.”
“I know, I know. I remember being his age, though. Young and angry. It’s a shame this world doesn’t have more to offer a boy like that. I think he’d take well to good, honest work.” John sighed. “I just–”
“Hush, John Quinn,” Rose of Sharon said softly. She laid her hand alongside his head, tilted it up slightly so he was looking into her eyes.