Y Knot, Montana Territory, July 1888
Justin Wesley, deputy sheriff of Y Knot, nodded amiably to the passing riders as he walked along the boardwalk. He enjoyed the rustic, frontier community. Nothing much out of the ordinary happened here aside from an argument between merchants or rowdiness in the saloon. Today, the town was quiet but felt even more so since all the hullabaloo from almost two months before. First, Flood McCutcheon’s historic birthday party occurred. Second, a twister threatened to blow Y Knot off the map.
Justin had been at home, playing checkers with his father, the day a hellish, howling wind sent twigs and pebbles pattering violently on the windows and roof. Carlie, his little sister, ran down the stairs from her bedroom and crawled into their father’s arms, her eyes the size of harvest moons. Aunt Pauline had dashed from the kitchen, dishcloth in hand. His three family members had followed him to Y Knot from Denver a year earlier, when he’d accepted the deputy position from Sheriff Crawford, and they’d not seen such a storm since. Curious, they’d stepped outside to find the day was black as night and had a greenish tint churning the clouds. Seconds later, the roaring wind swallowed every sound. The sky had opened with force, battering everything with huge drops of rain and hail.
Justin smiled, shaking his head, thankful the tornado had veered right at the last second, leaving him a town to watch over. Pushing through the batwing doors of the Hitching Post Saloon, he went to the bar where Abe, clipboard in hand, was taking inventory. The bartender’s slender frame always reminded Justin of a banty rooster. The establishment was deserted. The piano sat quiet on the far wall. The scent of fresh brewed coffee mixed with aromas of stale sweat and horse manure. “Mornin’, Abe,” he said, leaning his elbow on the long, walnut bar top.
Abe made two hash marks next to a column.
Justin stifled a grin. The Hitching Post wasn’t like the large saloons he’d known in Denver, with men crammed into every crevice. He wondered if Abe went through two cases of whiskey a month.
Justin bobbed his head and chuckled. “Inventory time? Don’t let me distract you.” No more than five hash marks were on his sheet.
Abe glanced up sharply. “Young pup! You got to know your numbers. A man who don’t soon’ll be parted from his profits—even if that ain’t much.”
The barkeep was right. He should’ve kept his mouth shut. “Sorry, Abe, didn’t mean any disrespect.”
Abe laid aside his work, the irritation on his face a moment before now gone. “I didn’t mean to bite your head off, either, Justin. Been slow, is all, with so many fellers out of town. What can I do ya for? Beer? Whiskey?”
Abe was just being polite. He knew Justin didn’t drink while on duty. “Just a glass of water. My throat is a mite parched.”
Abe’s smile was back. “Temperature’s rising, all right. Gonna be a hot summer. Water comin’ right up.”
Three fellas appeared in the doorway—Sam Green, Dennis Oats, and Chet Fender. The boozers nodded as they staggered by and went to a table in the middle of the room.
Dennis ran a hand through his thinning brown hair and then broke out a deck of cards. “Beers, Abe!” he called as he shuffled.
“That we have,” Abe responded. He plunked Justin’s glass of water on the bar and went for the mugs. “How’s Brandon doin’?” he asked over his shoulder, filling the first mug. “Heard tell he’s still woozy.” Abe shook his head. “That break was a doozy.”
If Brandon’s accident wasn’t so serious, he’d smile at Abe’s humor. As it was, Brandon had taken a mean fall from a ladder and broken his left femur. The break was clean, or so said the doctor, and given a good prognosis. Brandon and Charity were staying out at the Heart of the Mountains while he recuperated, where Charity’s mother could help in the process. Caring for a bedbound man of Brandon’s size was no easy task, and Charity was in the family way. “I was out there yesterday. He’s sleeping a lot.”
Abe balanced the three beers on his beat-up, round tray. “That right?” he said as he passed Justin by. “Seems a trifle odd.”
At the time, Justin had thought so, too, but hadn’t said anything to Charity in her delicate condition. Didn’t want to feed her fretting. He wasn’t a doctor, and Dr. Handerhoosen was. The physician said all was well.
Abe was back with the tray tucked under his arm. He stopped on Justin’s side of the bar. “You let me know if there’s anything I can do. With Flood and most of the ranch hands gone from the Heart of the Mountains, the women might be anxious.”
“They’re not that shorthanded, Abe. Luke, Matt, and Mark, plus Francis, Lucky, Nick, and Hickory stayed back from the cattle drive to Miles City.”
Abe shook his head knowingly. “There you go again, young pup, shooting off your mouth over something you’re ignorant about. Seven hands on a sizeable spread is a skeleton crew. You just tell Claire and Charity I’m available, if need be.”
“Will do tonight, when I go out to report to Brandon.” If he’s awake.
“Where’s Fancy?” Sam Green hollered.
Justin watched the three through the mirror behind the bar. Something about Sam always reminded Justin of a goat with his scruffy black hair and sloppy clothes that hung every which way. In contrast, Chet was clean-cut and his garments formfitting.
Sam downed half his beer and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
By the looks of the money in front of the other two, he’d just lost.
“I need her to sing,” Sam said. “I have better luck when she’s here.”
“Tuesday and Thursday she has a few hours off in the morning—you know that. She’s off doing something, somewhere.”
The man bit out several curses, pushed back, and came to the bar for a refill.
“Pay up now, before you lose the little money you have,” Abe stated firmly. “No more tabs for you.”
“Real friendly, ain’t’ ya, Abe?” He tossed down twenty cents. “Can’t imagine where a saloon gal goes, but I can imagine what she does,” he mumbled as he returned to his table and took a seat. “I surely can.”
Justin gazed into his glass. He hated lewd talk—especially about Fancy Aubrey. She was a good woman and a great conversationalist. She kept him abreast of all the undertones around town. Helpful information, especially now, with Brandon indisposed. Being somewhere in her mid-to-late thirties, she treated him like a little brother.
The rumbling racket of heavy wagon wheels belonging to the stage, if he was correct, drifted into the room. Curious to see any new arrivals to Y Knot, most townspeople came out when they heard the jingle of the harness and call of the driver. Justin was no exception.
He left his water at the bar and stood at the batwing doors, watching as the stage rocked to a halt in front of the Cattlemen’s Hotel.
Bradly Renfro, the thirtyish shotgun messenger with an easy smile and mad sharpshooting skills, climbed down and placed a small stool beneath the door.
Must be women inside.
A tall, slender woman, somewhere in her forties or fifties, clambered out with the help of the stagehand. Dressed in a yellow calico dress and matching bonnet, she wobbled once before she hit solid ground.
Justin feared she might fall. Now successfully anchored, she took a moment to straighten her skirt and then hurried to the boardwalk, where Ina Klinkner was waving a cheery welcome. The two fell together like long-lost hens, clucking and laughing while they waited for the luggage to be brought down from the top of the stage.
One second later, another woman was handed out. Young, pretty, and all alone. In such a fine, tailored dress, she was sure to stand out. He’d not seen a pair of crocheted gloves since he’d left Denver. A light blue hat, the same color of her dress, sat forward on her head.
“Wonder who that is?” Abe breathed from behind Justin’s shoulder. “Doesn’t look like she’s searching for anyone. Wooheee, a woman like her doesn’t come to Y Knot every day!”
Justin lifted a shoulder, noticing the same thing. “Looks like a startled deer. Not sure what to do next…”
Abe nudged his back. “Mayhap someone should go out and welcome her. That’s what Brandon would do.”
At his and Abe’s interest, Sam, Dennis, and Chet scooted back in a racket of scraping chairs and hurried from their table, the card game abandoned.
“Good idea.” Sam hitched up his dusty pants and was just about to push through the door.
Justin caught his shoulder. “Welcoming newcomers is my job, Sam. I wouldn’t want to scare her away. You go back to your cards and pray for your luck to turn.”Return to Montana Surprise