Petey's in the whore house again!
"If you're up there whorin', you better git down here right this minute, or I'm a-comin' up after you."
Josie Hardwick shoved away an errant strand of dark hair and jammed the old felt hat firmly onto her head. Placing a booted foot on the bottom step, she craned her neck to see the rooms lining the balcony of the saloon's second floor. He's up there all right. Rolling around with some slut.
She turned, and her gaze swept the empty saloon behind her. Her nose wrinkled against the stale odor of whiskey mingled with the pungent scent of a sawdust-littered floor. Red-checkered cloths covered empty tables. The only patron was a lone man hunched over his drink, one foot propped against the brass rail running the length of the oaken bar. Behind it, the bartender slowly dried glasses with a towel and watched her.
"Petey? Petey!" Her voice echoed with a cavernous ring. Scowling and moving up a step, she sighed. She'd told her addled brother not to go near the saloon when she left him alone in the wagon. Now, she'd have to haul him out like a sack of 'taters. Hell-to-spit! She spent most of her time rescuing either Petey or Pa from their own mischief.
"Do you hear me? I know damn well you're up there! I saw you jawin' with that whore from all the way 'cross the street!" She shifted the too-heavy Hawken rifle from her left arm to her right and jerked another glance over to the bar. She hated tight places with strange people to her back. "I'm comin' up!" She started up the stairs, her oversized boots clumping on the bare boards.
As she reached the first landing, an abashed youth stumbled out of an upstairs room, his shirt half-buttoned, his breeches clasped together by one hand. "For God's sake, Josie. Stop that hollerin'. I'm a comin'," he grumbled, stopping to hitch up his pants.
"You got no business up there with that floozy," Josie hissed, nodding her head toward the fleshy woman standing at the top of the stairs, stuffed into a black corset and hose.
Beleaguered Petey cast a wishful gaze up at the woman and frowned. "Don't you go callin' Lulu no floozy. She's a real nice—"
"Whore," Josie finished with a withering look. "Now git your backside `cross the street and into that wagon." She flung out an arm encased in a coat sleeve three inches longer than her fingers.
Petey hesitated as if to defy her, but another scathing look shriveled his rebellion. "All right, Josie. Just stop that hollerin'. You got everybody a-watchin' us." He glowered and nodded toward the swinging doors where the crowd stood three deep peeping over the edge.
She felt a hot flush reach her cheeks before she grabbed her brother by the ear and hurried down the steps. Suddenly, the barrel of the cumbersome rifle tripped her. Petey pitched into her back and together they fell, head over heels. With each revolution, the gun gouged her side, threatening to discharge at any time.
The floor rushed up to meet her, and she shut her eyes in anticipation of the impact. They struck something and stopped tumbling. Josie's nose rubbed against the soft muskiness of leather. Slowly, she pushed her hat up from over her eyes. Rows of fringe adorned buckskin inches from her nose. Colorful beading led to a tanned neck and face. She lay sprawled face down lengthwise a stranger. A crooked smile narrowed gold-flecked green eyes and a handful of silky brown curls fell across his forehead.
He was the purdiest thing she'd ever seen.
Caleb stared back at the dirty-faced urchin that had barreled down the stairs at him. She blinked and long lashes swept her clear sapphire blue eyes. Rivulets of grime streaked her face and stringy strands stuck out from under the battered hat.
"Let me go, you big oaf," she said and shoved against his shoulders. Her hat tumbled off, loosing a cascade of long, black hair. "Now look what you done." She snatched up the hat, stuffed up the unruly mane, and jerked the head piece down over her ears, which now stuck out like wings. Beneath the smudges, a pretty pink blush suffused her face.
A giggle from outside brought Caleb's attention back to his predicament, reminding him how foolish he must look sprawled on the floor, his hat at a ridiculous tilt, staring open-mouthed at this ragamuffin. A crowd had gathered outside, guffawing while the girl berated him in a voice that surely carried all the way down the street.
"What are you grinnin' at?" she demanded as she rolled off him.
"At you," Caleb said, pushing himself up on his elbows. "Who let you out with a gun this size?" He nudged the fifty caliber rifle with his boot.
A blast skittered the gun across the floor. Wood shavings rained on him as a hole appeared in the oak paneling on the side of the saloon. Caleb glanced over at Shorty, the barkeeper. Shorty sucked in his breath as his gaze jumped from the pile of people on his floor to the crowd now bent double with laughter. Caleb stood, then reached down and offered Josie his hand.
"I can git up myself," she snapped, jerking her arm out of his grasp and scrambling to her feet. A cloud of dust rose from her clothes as she brushed at the sawdust. Caleb sneezed.
Primly, she smoothed back loose curls of hair. "You made me git dirty," she scolded as she flicked away one last wood shaving.
I wonder how she can tell? Caleb guessed the clothes carried more than a day's worth of dirt.
"You made me waste a good ball, too." She picked up the rifle and eyed the still-smoking end.
"You're likely to kill somebody with that thing." Caleb jerked down his shirt and swept his hat off the floor. From his height, he could barely see her face beneath her hat's broad brim.
She raised her head and narrowed her eyes. "Who I kill's my business. If you hadn't a-got in the way, none of this woulda happened."
"Me!" Caleb felt a pinch of annoyance. "You charged up the stairs bellowing like a bull." He waved a fringe-clad arm toward the balcony.
"I was not bellowin'." She slammed the rifle butt on the floor to accentuate her words. "I was tryin' to git my brother's attention. You hunkered yourself over here and stuck your nose in it," she shouted.
"I thought you were going to shoot Lulu the way you were waving that gun around," Caleb shouted back.
"Maybe I should've." She threw a warning glance back to the top of the stairs where Lulu cowered behind the railing. "That way there'd be one less whore."
"You sure have got a big mouth for somebody so little." Caleb stifled an unwanted smile. Her face was screwed into an expression of pure defiance.
"And you sure got big feet for somebody so skinny." She stuck her chin out and crossed her arms.
Her expression challenged him to better that one. A renewed surge of laughter burst from the crowd outside. Caleb McCall wasn't a vain man, but his large feet had always been a sore spot. Somewhere to his left, a woman's high voice chimed into the laughter. He glanced at the girl. She was thoroughly enjoying his humiliation. "Somebody ought to teach you some manners," he growled.
"Somebody like you? Humph."
Her smug expression begged him to try. He was sorely tempted to call her bluff, to yank her breeches down and tan her bottom. She'd thrown down the gauntlet, and he couldn't pick it up. All he could do was back down, and the gleam in her eye said she knew it.
Minutes ticked by, punctuated only by an occasional twitter from the crowd. Caleb began to feel foolish. They were locked in a staring contest. Hands on hips, she met his gaze unblinkingly.
From the corner of his eye, Caleb saw Petey stuff his hands in his pockets and heave a huge sigh. He shuffled away out of sight. Shorty hurried toward the door, encouraging onlookers to leave before the sheriff showed up and demanded explanations. Transfixed, Caleb wondered how he could get out of this with his pride intact.
"Petey!" Josie shouted suddenly, breaking the glaring match. The boy jumped and spun around red-faced. Directly above him hung an elaborate portrait of a buxom, nude woman.
"You ain't got no business ogling such filth," she scolded, then snatched up her gun and strode over to the boy. She grabbed the top of his ear again and marched toward the door. They slammed into the swinging doors, sending one panel dead center Shorty's midsection. "Ooph!" He clutched his stomach and doubled over.
Caleb removed his hat, scratched his head, and laughed as the pair disappeared into the crowd. Bachelorhood didn't seem so bad after all.