“Damn, you’re snorty. Who’s the woman across the street, sittin up in that bay window? She watches me ever time I pass by.”
“Molly Madsen, and you ain’t special. She watches everyone.” “What is she, a lunger, up here for the rarified air?” “No, ten years ago, her husband sent her out here to set up a home. He knew Bart somehow, was gonna assay for the mine. Well, he never came. Never wrote. Just up and quit her.” Oatha smiled.
“Bart felt awful about it, put Molly up in the hotel when she finally ran out a money. Been supportin her ever since. What I’ve heard, Molly went crazy as a sheepherder over it. Hasn’t left that room in five years. Still thinks her husband’s comin for her.”
“Had a feeling she was sent for supplies.” He pointed at the tumblers. She filled them. He drank again, then stepped quietly over to the potbellied stove, so as not to rouse Al, the deputy, who’d once again drunk himself into an unconscious stupor. Oatha warmed his hands, which were heavily calloused and perennially black with mine dust and grime. He wore thirty-year-old garments from his stint fighting for the Confederacy—gray trousers and a matching double-breasted frock coat with pewter buttons. There was a single row of braids on the left sleeve, denoting his rank as junior officer in the infantry. He’d long since ripped off all other insignia. Old wax drippings marred the shoulders of his frock coat, a telltale sign of his employment with the mine.
Lana sat at the piano, having come to the saloon at first light.
Oatha walked over, stood watching her play.
When she’d finished the song, he clapped, put his hands on her shoulders, said, “Merry Christmas, Miss Hartman. You sure do a beautiful job fillin out that corset and camisole, if you don’t mind me sayin. I was wonderin if you’d take a walk across the street to the hotel. Thought you and me could exchange presents. I’d sure fancy a trim—”
“Oath.” Joss said his name softly, but her voice cracked with rage, her black eyes smoldering. “Come here. Quit pirootin—”
“I’m talkin with Miss Hartman at the moment. I’d extend you the same opportunity, but seein as how you’re presently chained—”
“Son of a bitch. Put this plain. I’ll cut off your grapefruits.”
Lana fixed her gaze on the yellowed ivory keys, paling, trembling.
Oatha sidled back up to the bar.
“Why you so knotted up? You her f**kin madam?”
Joss smiled and made a move so deft and graceful, the next thing Oatha knew, the right side of his face had slammed against the bar, Joss cradling his head, a cold knife point digging into his left ear.
“Swear to God,” Joss whispered, wisps of her black hair tickling his mustache, “I’ll jam it straight through whatever brains you got left in there. Go on playin now, Lana. It’s all right. You won’t be bothered no more.” Oatha chuckled, though he didn’t dare move. From his tilted vantage point, he could see Al, a half grin on the lawman’s face as he shaded in oblivious repose beside the stove.
“Joss, would you accuse me of exaggeration if I said that is the most useless cocksucker I ever laid eyes on?”
“No, I wouldn’t contradict that statement. Now I’m gonna let you up, and you and me is gonna come off the rimrock. Behave yourself.”
Joss released him, shoved the bowie back into its leather sheath under the bar. She set up two tumblers while Oatha retrieved his hat. They raised their glasses.
“To your impending release,” Oatha whispered.
They clinked and drank. Joss glanced at the sleeping deputy, then whispered, “How’d it go last night with ol’ Bartholomew?”
“Smoothly? Without incident?”
“Well, by the end of the proceedings, Bart sure as shootin wished he’d never yapped to you about them bars.”
“What I mean is, you did it quick, right? There weren’t no need to drag it out, make things any harder on the man than necessary.”
“Billy f**ked it up.”
“Particulars ain’t important. It got done what needed to get done.”
“You sayin the boy was rough on him?”
“Well, Billy hadn’t never done nothin like it before. He got carried away, but—”
“That little shit.” Oatha withdrew a scrap of paper from his flap pocket, slid it across the bar. Joss unfolded it, saw where Oatha had scribbled something on a torn-out Montgomery Ward page advertising hobnailed miners’ boots. “Fuck is this?”
“Wrote it last night. Notes for what you need to do tomorrow when I come back for you.”
She lifted her suspenders and slipped the paper into the patch pocket of her plaid dress shirt. “What of the boy? You trust him?”
“Shit no, but what other choice I got? Can’t play a lone hand, haul it all up there myself, can I?”
“It’ll get taken care of. You just worry about them notes I made for you. We do this right, everthing’ll work out. Now this child’s gotta haul out. This ain’t gonna be easy in a blizzard.”
“Know this. When the time comes, I’ll be the one to take care a that hobble-tongue chore boy.”
“Ain’t arguin with you about it. He gave Bart a rough shake, boy gonna by God learn somethin about pain on his way to hell.”
Oatha headed for the coatrack. He’d just done the last button on his slicker and reached for the door when Joss called his name. He turned back. She held up the piece of paper he’d given her.
“Before I say this,” she said, “let me warn you. If I see a grin, a smirk, a eye roll, one f**kin hint a condescension—”
“Jesus Christ, chew it finer. I gotta go get Billy.”
She shook the paper. “Can’t use this.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I can’t use it, Oatha.”
“Oh.” He started back toward the bar.
“I said, not a f**kin word.”
“I just said ‘Oh.’ It ain’t a judgment. Why didn’t you tell me this when I give it to you in the first place? Think I give two shits whether you can read or not?”
Abigail returned to consciousness, aware of only two things—the staggering pain in her head and the echo of voices, one of them her father’s.