She knew time was running out, fast, but opening that door was Pandora's Box all over again. Susanna checked that her six-shooter was loaded and that her knife was firmly in its sheath. The knife was a gift from her Pa on her 13th birthday and she'd worn it on her left ankle ever since. She had Doc Shaw's satchel stuffed with the paper money and coins. Everything was ready but her nerve.
The last time she opened the door to the school house, she had found three members of the Dirty Boys gang holding her students at gun point, one of whom was lying on the floor, bleeding from the ear and whimpering. Stunned, she watched the men turn and train their guns on her when they heard the door shut. They smirked and licked their weathered lips as they took in the site of the local school marm. She nearly laughed at the sight of their wolfishness, some mania gripping her.
But before the laugh could find its way out of her gut, the children began to call out to her and scream, hoping she'd lead them out of this like it were another one of her lessons. They began to run towards her and the Dirty Boys started shooting. Eli Johnson, her cousin and prized pupil when down when a bullet landed in his spine. Desks splintered in reaction to the barrage of lead flying around the room and her world dissolved into screams, tears and utter devastation.
She felt herself slipping into panic, not knowing where to turn first. Her heart started to break as she remembered what her Pa told her. He'd said, "Susanna, you're as stubborn as my mule and smarter than my whip. Ain't nothin' anyone can throw atcha you cain't handle. People are gonna sense that about you and they're gonna look to you for help. You got the grit, girl. Just feel the fear and saddle up anyhow."
She let her fear wash over her and mix in with love of this school house and her own stubbornness. Her innards began to boil with anger and she knew then that she had to take control. She had found her voice and shouted her standard line to the children when she was ready to start her lessons and they were rowdy and preoccupied: "Looky here, lads and lassies!"
They all stopped running and screaming and turned their wide wild eyes at her. The shots stopped, the bandits having been school children once, too. She took a moment to look at each one of the children that could see. She tried to convey a calmness and love to them with her eyes. She then turned her anger to each of the three gangsters in turn, memorizing two of their faces, the third one obscured by the wide brim of his black hat.
"What is the meaning of this?" she demanded, bringing out the tone she used on bullies in her classroom. "Why have you turned our school house into a battle field?"
The Dirty Boys had recovered their swagger and began to move towards her.
"Well, ma'am," the dirtiest and biggest one said, "We're here to take our cut."
"Yeah, our cut!!" the littlest one sniggered as he pulled out a bowie knife slowly from the sheath on his belt.
"What do you mean, 'your cut,'" Susanna demanded, putting her hands on her hips.
"Well, we heard tell that the gov'ment gave you some money...a lot of money to add on to this school and buy books and such. And since you're only allowed to use this school house by the good graces of Dirty Dan, we thought you'd like to return the favor and give us half."
"Half!" the littlest one laughed and hooted.
"So, why don't you hand it over and we'll let you get on with your history lessons and what not," the biggest and dirtiest one said.
"Well, I don't keep it here, you imbecile!" she retorted. "It's at the bank. Why don't you take your guns and your knives and go over there and try to help yourselves."
"Well," the third one said tipping up his hat, "We thought you might do that for us, save us the trouble of a bank robbery."
The children gasped, recognizing the face of Dirty Dan himself.
"Besides," Dan said, "I'm looking for a new wife...my current one is getting pretty long in the tooth."
"If you think I'm going to marry you, you've got another thing coming, mister!" Susanna declared, feeling the fear trickle between her shoulder blades.
"You? No, you're older than my last wife," he smiled. "Plus, I can tell you'd be trouble....while one of these fine young ladies might just suit me fine." His eyes moved toward the Hailey twins, hungry and clouded over with lust. They were 13 and beautiful with a sweetness of summer lemonade.
Susanna blanched. The twins looked at her in terror.
"Now why don't you get yourself over to the bank and get my cut while me and the boys decide which one of these bookends would look best on my trophy shelf."
"Don't you touch a hair on their heads!" Susanna screamed.
Dirty Dan looked at her, lust turning to ice. "You go to the bank, get your money and come back here by high noon or we'll just start taking our turns at the buffet...Elroy over there likes boys, so no one will be left out."
"Then we'll kill 'em all!" screeched Elroy.
"Now git!" Dirty Dan demanded. "And don't bring no law with you neither or we'll just set this place on fire, lock the doors and run. Pull yourself together and get that money!"
Susanna had turned on her heals and ran down the long country road. Her skirts flew and her mind raced. By the time she reached the edge of town, she flopped under a tree, her lungs rended. As she caught her breath a plan had formed. She went to Doc Shaw's office and told him quickly what had happened. She left him to gather the posse, then raced to the bank to withdrawl half her funds from the school account. The bank manager raised his eyebrow at her but knew her well enough not to question her when her tightly wound hair uncoiled around her face.
And now here she was at the door armed with money, a gun, a knife and her grit. She knew what she was facing this time. She'd never killed a man before, but she had helped Pa slaughter pigs and shoot lame horses. And what were these men, but animals, vicious and lousy with hunger? With the six shooter tucked in the bustle of her dress, the knife at her heel, a satchel of money at her side and her fear vibrating through her bones, she opened the door.
Submitted for Friday Flash Fiction