Secret Chapter: Flirting With The Law

Flirting With The Law

© 2017 Vanessa Vale

CHAPTER ONE

Madison Thomas

“Are you sure you wish to do this?” I asked, glancing down at the two women before me, my damp hands smoothing down my dress even though it didn’t need it. We stood on the shady side of the Mercantile, just around the corner from the Rollinsville bank. The air was quite warm and being as anxious as I was, sweat dripped down between my breasts beneath my silk dress. On the outside, I appeared calm, or at least I hoped I did, but on this inside, I was shaking like a leaf.

Tara and Amanda were so young and innocent, even after two previous robberies. We were just about to commit the third. Hopefully, the last. If we were successful this time, we’d be able to walk away, never break the law again. Yet I’d still corrupted them. It had been my idea. All of it.

Norman Rollins had been the one who forced us to be criminals. We’d had no choice. He’d ruined us all. We’d been left with nothing. Families destroyed. Destitute. We were just getting back what rightfully belonged to each of us so we could survive. They had parents to return to, brothers and sisters, albeit much poorer, but I had no one. Mr. Rollins had seen to that as well. I was focused on revenge.

“You can change your mind,” I offered. One last chance. We’d gotten away twice, but there was always a chance we’d be caught. A very big chance. If I were a gambler, I’d say the odds weren’t in our favor.

I took a deep breath, hoped the smile on my face wasn’t as brittle and false as it felt. I hated robbing banks. It wasn’t in my nature to steal, but I had to do it. I was driven to. My anger pushed me.

But Tara and Amanda? They could walk away now. I would understand if they changed their minds.

We could be caught. I wasn’t sure if a connection was made between the various banks, all of them belonging to Mr. Rollins, and there was a chance the law was waiting for us. To catch us in the act.

I didn’t want either of them to feel guilty for changing their minds. They hadn’t yet, but I had to be sure. Each time, I asked. I was doing this, with or without them. I wanted to see Mr. Rollins suffer and taking his money was certainly a way to do that for someone so miserly. I could just shoot him and be done with it, but that would be too easy for him. I wanted him to know what it felt like to be helpless and broken. I wanted everyone to know what he’d done, the kind of man he really was.

“You look very pretty today,” Tara replied, adjusting the ribbon for her hat beneath her chin. “That shade of blue looks fetching with your dark hair. And the silk.” She sighed with obvious envy.

I was lost a moment in her change of topic, but I agreed with her. It was a lovely dress, the nicest dress I owned. Before Mr. Rollins wanted Daddy’s ranch, we’d been well off enough to have a few finer things. This dress had been one of them.

“We’re robbing a bank. I don’t think her dress is something we should be considering now,” Amanda scolded. She eyed my outfit. “It does look nice on you.”

I tried not to roll my eyes. What we were about to do…again, was not smart. It was downright idiotic, illegal and something completely out of our elements. Although, we seemed to be rather proficient at it since we’d successfully robbed two banks in the southwest corner of the Montana Territory. To me, that didn’t matter. I was driven by my anger and need to destroy the bank’s owner and if I needed to be an outlaw to do it, so be it. Even though they assisted in the robberies, Tara and Amanda weren’t outlaws. Not really. I doubted they ever missed a church service. It just continued to surprise me they were prepared to be accomplices in another bank robbery. I had to wonder what they’d told their families they were up to.

We’d devised a plan, but I doubted it was anything like the infamous James Gang’s routine. It had worked. Twice. No bank teller expected a well dressed woman to pull a gun on him. We’d used that to our advantage, but I doubted Tara or Amanda knew the gravity of our actions. They were young, not quite twenty and blatantly naive. Looking at them now, I worried for them. The weight of the revolver in my reticule was nothing compared to the guilt upon my shoulders. I was corrupting them with my own reasons for action. Yes, Mr. Rollins had taken their families’ ranches too, but they still actually had family. I wanted Mr. Rollins to be destroyed, just as he’d destroyed my father. But was this the way to go about it, pulling them in as accomplices?

They could find suitable husbands, men who would love them and make them forget about their pasts. If they kept silent, these men wouldn’t even know they were wanted criminals. They were innocent in all ways—except bank robbery. Both had hair the color of golden wheat, but Tara was tall and lithe while Amanda was petite and curvy. Beautiful and with their lives ahead of them. Innocent and marriageable. If we were caught…

I shook my head, not willing to risk any prospects for full and happy lives for them. We’d hang, side by side. “Never mind. We’re not doing this together. You’ve done all you need. Not quite your full amounts Mr. Rollins took, but still. I will go on my own.”

“No.” Amanda’s one word was loud and made Tara startle. “We’re going in there and taking what belongs to us. And you’re right, we have almost all our money back. You haven’t gotten all the money owed you yet.” She pointed over her shoulder in the direction of the bank and it was possible she stomped her foot on the boardwalk. “It’s not fair what Mr. Rollins did to you, to all of us. He didn’t burn our houses, nor put our fathers into early graves, but we want to see him get what he deserves. We’ve almost all our shares. We’re getting yours now.”

We’d been saying this to each other over the past two weeks, perhaps to validate our intentions, but the vehemence behind Amanda’s tone this time was surprising. She wanted to do this and clearly wasn’t planning on changing her mind. I thought they were mild, but I was perhaps wrong.

“The plan works,” Tara added, giving a decisive head nod. “Men might rule the world, but women have them by the balls.”

Amanda gasped and I couldn’t help but laugh. People who passed turned at looked at us, three women chatting and amusing themselves, not preparing for bank robbery. We didn’t look anything like a gang of thieves. Being female was the best disguise.

“What?” Tara asked, patting her hair. I couldn’t miss the bright spots of color on her cheeks. “I might be a maiden, but I’m not completely naive. Not after what we’ve done.”

No, perhaps they weren’t. While they looked that way, Mr. Rollins had made them jaded, too. Perhaps not as vengeful as me, but they wanted what belonged to them as well. To help their families. We’d rob the bank, get the last of the money Mr. Rollins owed us, and ride off into the sunset. The banker would be out over two thousand dollars and taken for it by three women. That would irritate him more than anything else if he knew.

“I’m not changing my mind,” Tara said.

She looked to Amanda. “Nor me. One last time, Maddie.”

I closed my eyes for a moment, thought of my father and how Mr. Rollins had destroyed him. I remembered watching the house go up in flames, seeing everything we owned turned to ash. Yes, Mr. Rollins may have gotten Daddy’s land, but I’d get the money owed for it.

“One last time,” I repeated.

I looked to Amanda, who nodded decisively. “I know what I need to do.”

She took a deep breath, put her hand on top of mine, then turned and walked down the boardwalk. Tara and I stood side by side and watched her, nodding politely to those she passed with a serene smile, before she went around the corner and out of sight.

I counted in my head the three minutes for Amanda to enter the bank and gain the assistance of the manager, although it felt like an eternity. It wasn’t the heat making me sweat now. My heart was hammering in my chest, like it had before the other robberies. I placed my hand on my belly where it felt like butterflies were trying to escape. I doubted true criminals felt like they were going to vomit before they committed their crimes. This strange and dangerous path had begun when Mr. Rollins had set his sights on my father’s ranch.

When Daddy had rightfully refused the businessman’s offer to buy the property, Mr. Rollins had gone about more sinister ways of getting it. He’d changed the payments owed the ranch to a price my father couldn’t afford and the bank—Mr. Rollins— took the property. My father hadn’t received a dime. It might be an unwise decision to steal the money that was offered originally to my father, but it wasn’t rash. I’d taken my time to consider it, to plan it all. I’d learned I could be ruthless, too. Mr. Rollins had to pay.

Resolved once again, I took a deep breath, thought back on our time observing this bank. We’d discovered there were two employees, a teller behind the counter and the bank manager who sat behind his desk across the room, just like the other bank branches. Their schedule was more precise than the train’s that ran through town and the men seemed the fussy sort who didn’t like spontaneity. That boded well for us.

After a man tipped his hat, gave Tara a lingering glance, and walked on, I knew it was time.

“Ready?” I asked Tara.

She smiled at me and waved her hand in the air with nonchalance. “I have the easy task. I had not realized I was such a good actress.”

“Or flirt,” I added, with pursed lips. I was corrupting her. And Amanda.

She grinned. “Yes, there is that.”

I didn’t want her to get her head full of ideas that being a flirt was a good thing. It, perhaps, was potentially more dangerous than bank robbery. When we were done with all this, had the money we all deserved, I had to hope she would find a worthy man.

“All right then,” I breathed, adjusted my hat that matched the pale silk, and headed toward the bank. Through the glass window, I could see Amanda was where I expected, sitting primly across from the banker at his desk. The man was smiling and almost preened at whatever she said to him. It worked every time.

I entered and didn’t offer Amanda more than a passing glance—we weren’t supposed to know each other—and saw one man at the counter being helped. No one else was within. Patiently—at least on the outside—I waited my turn. In my periphery, Amanda was engaging the bank manager. Their subdued laughter carried on the still air. She was just as adept at flirting as Tara; her role was working. The man was not paying attention to anything but the beautiful woman before him.

Once finished his business, the man at the counter turned, tipped his hat to me and went out the door.

Daddy’s ranch. Daddy’s ranch. While I wasn’t going to back out now, I still had to repeat those words in my head, maybe to remind myself why I was breaking the law, behaving like a common criminal. No, worse. I was committing armed robbery. Daddy would roll over in his grave at my behavior, but I could not think of that.

“May I help you, ma’am?” the teller asked, offering me an attentive look and a warm smile.

He was a portly man, with long, gray sideburns and bushy eyebrows. The hair remaining on his head was slicked back. His black suit and crisp white shirt were indicators of the bank’s prosperity.

Clearing my throat, I stepped up to the counter. “Good afternoon. Yes, I would like to withdraw some money, however I need to find a slip of paper with the amount.”

I fumbled with my reticule, careful not to let the gun make any sound when I set it on the wood surface. Glancing out the window, I looked for Tara. “It’s quite warm today, isn’t it?”

My small talk only made the teller offer me another smile. He was patient as I fumbled, waiting for the right moment.

There she was, right on time. I could see Tara grabbing hold of a cowboy, distress on her face. Even from inside the bank, she looked as if she would swoon. Another man came to assist. How could they not? She was beautiful and in need of help.

Both women were doing their jobs and it was time for me to do mine. Reaching in my bag, instead of pulling out a non-existent piece of paper, I pulled out my gun. I kept it low so it couldn’t be seen easily by anyone looking in the window and especially by the bank manager behind me. “Don’t raise the alarm. I don’t wish to harm you.”

“What do you want, ma’am?”

Without looking away from his gray eyes, I told him the sum that was still outstanding.

His eyebrows went up and he glanced about, as if confused. Surely no woman would rob a bank, he probably thought. “You want a specific amount?”

“That’s correct.”

He cleared his throat. “Don’t make a scene. You wouldn’t want to be shot, would you?”

His jowls shifted as he shook his head. “No, ma’am, but I think you should just put that away and walk out of here.”

“No.” I kept my voice low and even. “You will give me that exact amount. Now.”

“You won’t shoot me,” he countered, his hands flat on the counter.

“See the men outside? The ones who are creating a diversion?”

He didn’t turn his head, only moved his eyes toward the front window.

“They won’t hesitate to kill anyone walking by. Is that a woman they’ve stopped?”

One man was leaning over Tara, his hand on her forearm, seemingly to steady her. While I knew she was the one working her wiles for the man to do her bidding, from my vantage, she was in the stranger’s clutches. Weak and vulnerable.

The teller cleared his throat again.

“You’re the one who’s robbed the other banks. The Black Widow.”

I had no idea how I’d been given that title, but now wasn’t the time to discuss it or tell him otherwise.

“Don’t get the bank manager’s attention.” I didn’t want him to stall any longer. “Isn’t he assisting a woman? My, you wouldn’t want so many innocent people killed, would you? Mr. Rollins surely wouldn’t want women to die in his bank.”

“What do you want?” Sweat trickled down the man’s temple.

I pointed to his hand. “Just the amount I told you.”

He opened a drawer, began counting out bills. A small stack grew quickly, then he pushed the amount toward me with stubby fingers. “That’s not the entire sum, but it’s all I have that’s not in the safe.”

Drat. Why couldn’t it have been more? The man wasn’t lying, the drawer was empty. It wasn’t time to dwell on what I didn’t have. “Thank you,” I said to the teller. “The men outside will remain, ensuring you don’t raise any warnings right away.”

While my fingers shook, I shoved the money into the reticule along with the gun.

“Good day,” I said, as if I hadn’t just robbed him.

I turned on my heel and walked out of the bank. Turning away from Tara and the men who were assisting her in her false swoon, I worked my way down the boardwalk, but not so quickly as to draw attention to myself. Men who passed tipped their hats to me, unaware I’d just robbed the bank.

No shouts or shots rang out. No one called or chased after me. My reticule was heavy about my wrist and I felt alive and shaky, petrified and thrilled all at once. As I collected my horse at the livery and rode out of town, I realized I’d done it. Again. With the help of Amanda and Tara, we’d gotten even more money from Mr. Rollins. Not all of it, but more. It would have to do. Just knowing Mr. Rollins’ banks weren’t as formidable as he assumed was a perk, but we’d have to rob again.

Amanda would feign surprise at being in a bank while it was robbed and Tara would have been taken to the nearest restaurant for some shade and a glass of water to recover. Neither would be associated with the robbery itself and would quickly slip out of town. We would meet in three days in Helena. While we’d hoped this was the last time, we’d planned ahead for one more if it was needed. And it was.

Once more, then. On to Helena, then we’d be done. Hopefully, they would find suitors and marry quickly. They deserved happiness, a family. Love.

I knew the same would not be for me. I’d had a husband a long time ago. While Orville had been kind and doting, we’d been young. My heart had been tender at his death, but not broken. My life had changed so much. Daddy was gone. I was alone, content I was taking back what should have been Daddy’s.

I was happy I wasn’t in jail.

I rode west, having time to get to Helena. I only had the small house Daddy and I had rented in town after the bank took the ranch. There was nothing there, only a few clothes. All our furniture, our mementos all burned. It meant nothing to me. I just had to stay away from towns with banks I’d robbed, to be ready to flee at any time. To run. Being alone was the price of revenge.

The day’s thrill of success was balanced heavily with the knowledge that I was a vigilante. I’d sought justice where there was none.

I was no longer a wife. I was no longer a daughter.

I was an outlaw.

 

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