Amie loosened the strap on her overcoat. Why she had let Mrs. Levinson convince her to wear it was beyond her. It stifled, even in the mild Southmill autumn evening. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think, not that she wanted to think anymore today. What she wanted was to shed the heavy wool coat and corset beneath and disappear upstairs. But she told herself with a shuddering sigh, that would not be proper.
Instead, she nodded demurely at the line of mourners waiting to give their condolences.
“So sorry for your loss, Miss Davison. Your father was a good man. A right good man.” Mr. Womack squeezed her hand. For an elderly gentleman, he still had a grip on him. “You come ‘round the store any time you need something, you hear? Anytime.”
“Thank you, Mr. Womack, sir. It’s rightly appreciated.” Amie set the modest smile back on her face.
As he stepped past, Mr. Grady, the local mine owner, removed his hat and bowed. “Please let me know if you need anything, Miss Davison. And don’t worry, this town takes care of its own.”
Every member of this small Colorado town had made Amie and her father feel at home since their first day, not too long ago. Now the whole town had come out to pay their respects to her after his passing. Except, she couldn’t help but notice, her father’s business partner. Levi Burnside had made himself scarce over the past couple days. She knew he wasn’t one for public displays, but still. It set a bad taste in her mouth that hadn’t washed out since her father’s death. Even through the shock of the accident and grief of losing him, her head had been clear enough to notice Mr. Burnside’s curious avoidance of her.
Nonetheless, it warmed her heart to know her father had made such an impact on the townsfolk in quite a short time, but she didn’t know how much more of this she could take. Her handkerchief was soaked with tears and there was no room left in the ice box.
Coming from New York, she hadn’t been prepared for the local tradition of bringing food to a wake, or gathering, as the people of Southmill called it. Another custom, which came as quite a surprise, was when the town’s matrons arrived before daylight that morning to sit with her. She didn’t know what to make of it at first, used to her solitary life back in the big city. But now, she was eternally grateful. The women buzzed around her kitchen organizing the dishes as they came in and keeping the visitors talking.
Between them and Reverend Frazier, Amie felt she might just make it through this horrid day.
“How are you holding up, dear?” Reverend Frazier patted her on the arm. He’d been holding her upright for the last hour and they were both beginning to sway. It pained her to lean on him so heavily, considering his age and thin frame. But he had become her rock in the days since she heard of her father’s passing. It was he, actually, who had told her, and she wasn’t sure which of them had shed more tears.
Amie secretly tugged at the tight cap which barely held all her blonde curls out of sight. One of the pins had been poking her since before the service, but she hadn’t the time to remove it. Now one of the offending curls had found its way down her back and she couldn’t help but wonder how disheveled it made her look. It was her responsibility to make the townsfolk feel as welcomed in her home as she had felt in theirs.
She smiled politely up at the reverend and patted his arm as he had done hers. “I am well, thank you. Just…” Amie caught herself. What she felt was lost, drifting. Just days before this house had been alive with love and joy. Now, it felt cold and strange to her. The house had never known her mother’s touch, and now it will never have her father’s again either. Even if the bank wasn’t going to take it from her, she couldn’t see herself staying on much longer anyway. “Thank you for all you’ve done, Reverend Frazier. God has sent your light to me in my darkest hour.”
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” the reverend said with another gentle pat on her arm. “What say we disperse this crowd and get you up to rest? Then when you’re ready, we can start moving your things into the parish,” he added, as if reading her mind.
“Oh, Reverend Frazier, you are truly a Godsend.”
“The children asked me to give you this,” he said, taking a folded piece of paper from his overcoat. “They miss you.”
Amie’s eyes burned with fresh tears as she read the beautiful scrawled lines of the poor orphans at the shelter where she and Reverend Frazier volunteered. Now, more than ever, she felt truly drawn to them. For she, too, was now an orphan.
Amie wiped the same spot on the bar over and over. She couldn’t hear herself think over all the noise. Men hooted and hollered every few seconds as card games were won or lost and coins begrudgingly changed hands. She tried to calm herself, hiding in the far corner, by the more expensive liquors the tavern patrons didn’t much care for. It always struck Amie as odd that in a mining town so rich from years of gold and silver pouring through it, most of the men still preferred their modest whiskeys or barrel beers to the strong stuff they surely could afford. It was one of the unique things about this small town she still didn’t find herself used to after three years.
The calculations of her time in Southmill, Colorado, sent a pang of mourning to her chest, which she caught old Ike Thatcher staring at again. Amie shifted in her corner and adjusted her blouse up over her corset to cover the ample bosom. Then, to be sure her modesty was more on display than the rest of her, she pulled her long blond curls over her shoulder, so they hung down her front, almost to her belt.
She watched Ike’s toothless smile fade as his eyes fell back to his near empty mug.
“Refill?” Amie asked, adding a little extra perk than she felt. Ike might forget his manners after a couple, but he tipped well. And Lord knew she needed it.
Her father’s death had hit her harder than expected. Of course, she loved the man with all her heart, but the shock of it sent her into a despair she hadn’t known before, even after the fever that took her mother some years before that. At least then they’d had time to prepare themselves for the inevitable, to say goodbye. It probably helped, she reckoned, that she’d been only a girl when her mother was taken from her. Grief hadn’t felt real at the time. Now, as a woman of twenty-two, it settled harshly on her bones and darkened something within her she didn’t much care to think about.
“Thankye.” Ike grinned, his pride returned and his mug full.
As Amie turned to go back to her corner, a loud crash rang out from across the tavern. Ike ducked and grabbed his hat in time for Amie to see a crowd of miners leaping from the card table and squaring off.
Rusty McCoy, one of Levi’s men, threw his hat down on the card table and grabbed one of Ted Grady’s miners by the collar. “You watch yer mouth!”
Before the younger smaller miner—Amie thought his name was Jeb—could shake his head in denial, Rusty tossed him into the air to land on his fellow miners.
The card table flipped, and more glass shattered on the floor Amie had just mopped.
“Get down!” Ike yelled from under his barstool.
Amie stumbled backward as a chair came flying over the bar, narrowly missing her. Bottles of whiskey and gin toppled over and landed at her feet. Shards of broken glass dug into her stockings.
“Stop!” Amie hollered at the melee. “Stop it right this instant!” She moved to step out from behind the bar and put an end to the fight before it kicked up.
“Aww, ‘tain’t nothin’. They just mixin’ it up a little,” said Levi from atop the stairs. He stood there, looking over the fray, with his waistcoat undone to give his belly room, tie akimbo, and hat down near over his eyes. It was clear to Amie that Levi was well into his drink and would do nothing to stop his man from killing the other.
When a wet smile spread across Levi’s pockmarked face, Amie followed his gaze.
Rusty had pulled out on Ted Grady’s man. The younger miner was still trying to scramble up from the wet floor with a pistol at his forehead.
Amie rushed to the miner’s aid, despite Ike tugging at her leg as she ran past him. “Rusty, what have I told you about pulling your weapon inside?” Amie stood between the gun and the injured miner.
“My quarrel ain’t with you, woman. Don’t go raisin’ your bristles at me,” Rusty slurred. “This boy needs to be taught a lesson ‘bout rookin’ in this town.” He stepped closer, looming over Amie, and glaring down at the scared boy.
Though her heart still pounded at the sight of a pistol, Amie was more used to these fights than she was comfortable with.
“Girl, get back and let the men settle their tussle. You fancy yerself a marshall or somethin’?” Levi boomed from his place at the top of the stairs. The drunken words slid wetly from his ample jowls. He hadn’t moved a might since the dust up started. If she had allowed herself to think on it long, she would have recognized the light in his eyes as glee over the impending violence. But she felt ashamed for thinking it, even about someone as prone to hatred as Mr. Burnside.
Amie glared back at Rusty. “The last three guys you accused of cheating turned out to be telling true. Didn’t matter for two of ‘em though, did it?”
“Miss Davison, get yerself behind that bar or find another job come tomorrow!” Levi hollered.
Amie moved, reluctantly, but stared Rusty McCoy down as she did so.
No sooner had she left the fray when one of Ted Grady’s men shouted, “How come only the babies is the ones cheatin’? Huh, McCoy?”
Amie flinched and picked up the pace. That was the grizzled voice of old Charlie Thatcher. She barely made it back behind the bar when shots rang out from both sides. A large painting fell off the wall and Levi hollered.
“All right now, fellers! That’s it! Don’t be bustin’ up my establishment. Big Frank, go fetch the sheriff!”
Moments later, Amie peeked out from behind the bar to see the miners, Levi’s men locked up with Ted Grady’s, rolling around on the floor. Rusty McCoy still staggered over the whole thing with his pistol cocked. Another of Grady’s men held his shotgun steady at Rusty’s chest, waiting for a reason to pull the trigger.
Amie heard old Ike gasp as the doors flung open. The largest man Amie had ever seen came barreling through. Her heart stopped for a second at the feral look on his handsome face.
Josh Morgan slammed the saloon doors wide open. His six-shooter stayed holstered. Josh preferred settling things with his fists. He’d gotten a reputation around town of being more ruthless than any outlaw, and he did his best to live up to that legend.
Five years as a cowpuncher made him tough. A lifetime on his own made him hard as stone. He bowed to no man and he wasn’t about to start now.
After only six months in Southmill, Josh knew right away what he’d find on the other side of the door. Rusty McCoy was the first rough and tumble miner he’d met when Sheriff Alderman brought him to town. He was also the first one called to fight most nights.
Sure enough, with the whole saloon going wild around him, Josh set his sights on McCoy. The brute stood over a helpless young newcomer, one of Ted Grady’s men, with a pistol trained on him.
Without word nor warning, Josh rushed the blowhard. He rammed his head direct into the large man’s chest, knocking them both to the ground—glass and whiskey clung to his coat. Josh barely had time to consider the old letter in his pocket, but it was too late. This wouldn’t be the first time he’d had to dry booze or blood off of it and wouldn’t be the last.
“This is not your concern, Deputy,” Rusty grunted. The last word fell from his lips as more a slur than a proper title. A meaty fist slammed against Josh’s jaw. He was braced for it, though. Rusty McCoy was nothing if not predictable. His hat slid sideways a bit, but he kept his wits about him. He’d been hit harder by much more imposing cowboys in his days on the range.
“It is when the sheriff sends me in to stop you from busting up another poor kid.” Josh caught Rusty in the gut and knocked the air out of him. “One of these days you’re gonna get yourself kilt pulling out on the wrong man.”
Josh pushed Rusty’s arms to his side and knocked the pistol away. He pulled his cuffs from their catch and adjusted his hat with the other hand.
“Git up off him, Deputy Morgan!”
Josh looked up to see Levi Burnside, the Bucking Broncho’s proprietor, strolling down the back staircase. His silver spurs clanked each step and he took his time, with all eyes on him. Levi owned most of the town, including the biggest mines and roughest saloon. His word was gospel, despite the tightness of his pockets and the blood on his hands.
“Don’t worry, Levi, it’s under control,” Josh replied. He commenced to locking the cuffs onto Rusty’s thick wrists.
“It’s Mr. Burnside, Deputy. And I’ll have ye to let my man aloose!” Levi raised his voice, though the whole saloon had gone quiet.
Josh started to speak but he heard a click behind him. He cocked his head to see one of Levi’s other men with a pistol trained on him. He swatted it away like a fly. “You best put that pea shooter back where you got it, boy.”
The gun did not return to its holster.
Josh stood, pulling Rusty up with him. “Now, Mr. Burnside, I’d kindly ask you to have your man stand down. The fight’s over. Mr. McCoy and I’ll be seeing ourselves out.” Josh scanned the room, assessing any other threats.
Most of the patrons had enough sense to get down and take cover. Some, too drunk or sapheaded to move, scattered around the perimeter.
Overtop of the bar, he spotted a flurry of golden blonde curls. He recognized the barmaid’s bright hazel eyes right away. He didn’t know much about her, only that her name was Amie and she carried herself well beyond any tavern woman he’d ever seen. The fear in those eyes set his heart afire.
How could such a decent respectable looking—and strikingly beautiful—woman find herself amongst the likes of Levi Burnside and his men? What would drive a woman of her obvious caliber to work in the Broncho under Burnside’s thumb?
“Ye’ll do no such thing!” Levi shouted, snapping Josh’s wits back to him. “You take yer hands off my man and arrest those rebel rousers!” Levi pointed a fat greasy finger at Ted Grady’s miners all lined up by the door, hands at the ready on every hip.
“From what I see, Mr. Burnside, ‘twas McCoy here causing the fray … per usual, I might add.” Josh gave Rusty a harsh shake to remind him who was in control.
“You might not,” Levi snapped. “Seein’ as how I been here watchin’ the whole thing. Watchin’ helpless as these men,” gesturing toward Grady’s men again, “set upon my employee and busted up my whole establishment.”
Grunts and guffaws rose up through half the crowd. The tension ramped up in the hairs at the back of Josh’s neck. Levi’s men grew bold at their leader’s defiance of the law.
Josh squeezed Rusty’s cuffed wrists hard, cutting off whatever disrespecting thing was about to come out of his mouth. He whispered in the miner’s ear, “You know all too well how long of a walk it is back to the station … just the two of us, in the dark of night.”
Rusty stopped squirreling.
“Deputy Morgan, I’ll not speak it again. Release my man and remove these filthy vagrants from my tavern before I send for the sheriff.”
Josh narrowed his eyes at Levi. The hefty former miner took the bottom two steps as one, standing tall at the foot of his grand staircase, never lowering his gaze.
There was but one way to quell this ruckus with little more bloodshed. Josh pulled McCoy backward by his cuffs, toward the swinging doors. He kept his eye on Levi, while nodding to the lot of Grady’s men. “How’s about we all call it a night? I’ll let Rusty here go sleep it off at his boarding house and the rest of y’all head on home to your wives and mammas.”
The sight of Miss Amie caught Josh’s eye from across the room. She must have felt safe enough to stand full again, no longer cowering behind the bar. He felt a familiar heat rise in him, getting his heart pounding better than any bar fight could.
“Alderman’ll hear about this, boy.” Levi challenged from his spot at the bottom of the stairs.
“I’m sure he will, Mr. Burnside, as ‘tis my duty to inform him of every matter of violence in the town. Now, what goes into that report is still up to you … sir.” Josh tipped his hat at the fuming Levi.
Levi stammered a bit before hollering, “No man of Grady’s is welcome in this establishment from this day forward.” Then, he stomped back up the stairs and slammed his office door.
“Next time maybe you’ll mind your mouth and your station,” McCoy laughed.
Josh grinned and said slow and low, “I suppose, in your current state, you forgot the boarding house is further than the station, and it’s only gonna be you and me for a while.” He shoved Rusty out the doors and into the dark night.