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Lola Martin opened her door and raised a lantern, its flame flickering in the cool night air.
"I'm looking for the undertaker, ma'am. Got a body for him." The man's voice was worn and gritty like an old straw tick, but his tone gave nothing away.
He glanced over her shoulder, as if the undertaker would appear from the shadows behind. Light reflected off his brown eyes as if off an empty store window. Desperation lurked in the hard lines of his face, making it difficult to guess his age. A deep scar cut across his cheek to the edge of his crooked lip, just escaping the whiskers that wouldn't hide his stubborn jaw.
"I'm the undertaker. What can I do for you?"
His spurs rattled as he shifted, but if she surprised him, his face didn't show it. He rocked his hat on his head and heaved a raw sigh. "I found a man dead out on the trail, not far from here. Head busted on a big rock. Looks like his horse threw him."
Lola's heart tripped. She wished the sheriff hadn't been called out. Pete McKenna always kept an eye on her place, out on the edge of Quiver Creek. Grace, his wife, Lola's dearest friend, insisted on it.
She'd have to find a way to notify the man's family, and hoped he turned out to be some drifter. But her conscience pricked her. She should be praying the man died ready to meet his Maker. She hung the lantern outside the door and grabbed her shawl. "Let's see him."
The man's jaw twitched. He stepped back to make way for her. "If it's all right by you, ma'am, I'll bring him inside. You tell me where you want him."
The idea of a stranger bringing a "guest" into her home after dark gave her pause, but she couldn't carry the body herself. No one else would be around at this hour. She looked into the man's eyes, seeing the exhaustion shining from their dark depths. She didn't recognize him, probably wouldn't even without the pounds of trail dust he carried. He stood taller than her, though that didn't say much for his height, and a worn hat sat low over his forehead. Lord, keep me safe, she prayed. She swallowed hard and nodded. "I'll get the table ready."
Lola swung the door wide, its knob bouncing against the inside wall. She pulled a fresh sheet from the corner cupboard and draped it over a long table in the middle of the room. Her stiff muscles and sleepy eyes protested the work ahead, but she couldn't let it wait until morning. She'd at least clean him up before turning in. And she'd have to talk to Ike about a carpenter. Business had picked up in the months since her father's death. Supplies she could order, but this "guest" would use the last remaining coffin he had made. She'd learned all aspects of the business from her father-except that one. She'd need to find a woodworker who could build a few to have on hand.
A blanket-wrapped body heaved over his shoulder dwarfed the stranger easing through the door. He walked with firm steps, spurs ringing as he trod across the wooden floorboards.
Lola closed the door and followed, lighting more lanterns. She pumped water into a kettle to heat. "Will you be around a few days, Mr.-?"
"Jamison. Bridger Jamison," the man supplied. "Depends on whether or not I find work. Why?"
Lola rolled her sleeves, determined to prepare her guest with care. The slack body swayed as Mr. Jamison carried him, proof he'd lain on the trail long enough for rigor to pass. The head bobbed a little too freely. She suspected a broken neck had ended the man's life in an instant. She donned a fresh apron. "Well, Mr. Jamison, I'm sure the sheriff will have questions, so he can investigate the death. He's been called to help track a cougar that's been aggravating the local ranchers."
Mr. Jamison tensed as he bent over the body, laying it across the table with careful ease. He straightened with slow stiffness and then faced her. "I expected there'd be a man here, ma'am, no offense. I hoped to talk to him and explain what I could right off." He drew a step closer, hand digging into the breast pocket of his long duster.
Lola drew back, hands frozen around the knob of her hair she'd twisted in preparation for the job ahead. The man held out a battered tin star that gleamed in the lantern light. "When I found him, this was pinned behind his lapel."
Time froze as her gaze met his. Her hair fell down her shoulders, unsecured. Lola took the unmistakable medal from the man's rough fingers. She stumbled to the table and jerked the blanket down. Pete McKenna's rowdy red curls fell away from a gash and slight indent near the temple. His normally sun-darkened skin carried the pale grayish cast of death.
A sharp, cold pain sliced through her. "Precious Lord!" she cried, grabbing Pete's collar and burying her face against his chest. "What will I tell Grace?" How could she tell the woman she loved like a sister the baby she carried would never know his pa?
Lola pressed the tin star into his vest. Tears blurred the letters proclaiming the job he held with such pride.
She'd tended bodies at her father's side since her mother died, and on her own in the months since his death, but she'd never mastered the mechanical nature he always possessed when preparing guests for burial. Her empathy made her good with grieving families, Papa always said. Now compassion betrayed her as she sobbed, unable to think beyond the pain of this moment.
Calloused fingers brushed against her hair as Mr. Jamison patted her head. Lola didn't face him, couldn't hear any words said beyond the pounding in her ears and the ache in her heart.
When her sobs slowed to quiet tears, she draped the sheet back over Pete's body. The soft jangle of spurs faded out the door that latched softly behind her.
Bridger trod the grit beneath his boots. He never could abide a woman's tears. And the good Lord knew he'd seen more than his fair share in his twenty-seven years.
He led his horse along the bend into the main thoroughfare of the town, too tired to mount. No street fires lit the road this far out, but he heard lively music pouring from the saloon at the end of the street already.
Bridger didn't feel very lively at the moment and had seen firsthand all the trouble liquor could bring to a man, but he'd also seen enough of Quiver Creek to know this was the only place he'd get a hot meal and a soft bed tonight.
He thought of his brother, Frank, still back at camp rumbling around on rocky ground. Guilt flared, but it couldn't be helped. Hadn't Frank caused the mess that pushed them out on the trail in the first place?
Bridger shook his head and gave the horse's reins a jerk. He knew Frank bore no fault, not really. Frank wouldn't hurt a fly if he could help it. Other folks with their fear and judgment were to blame. If they knew-
He pushed those thoughts away. Things would look better after a good night's sleep, even if he had to go into a saloon to get them. The town sported few businesses, but several buildings looked to be new construction. Maybe a small town would make it easier to hide Frank. Maybe after they settled in awhile, he could convince people to see Frank's true self: harmless, kind, hardworking.
First things first. No sense in staying if he couldn't find work, and he couldn't find work looking like he did. He wondered at the undertaker-woman letting him in the door at all. She really should be more careful, especially now with no sheriff. He'd never heard tell of a woman in that line of work, but the strange tone in the liveryman's voice when he directed Bridger to find the undertaker made sense after seeing her at the door.
He stopped at the dingy window of the saloon, hearing the wild noises from inside vibrating against the glass. A plain brown paper with crooked black letters caught his attention-HELP WANTED: Inquire Within. A saloon would be the last place on earth he chose to work, but finding a job hadn't been an easy thing. The Lord worked in mysterious ways, though, and he wasn't about to pass the chance by without at least checking it out.
He tethered his horse to the post and stroked the white blaze across its forehead with a silent promise to untack him soon. Bridger walked through swinging doors into a well-lit room.
A bottle smashed at his feet. He stepped back as a well-dressed man tossed a grubby drunk out the doors. The man dusted his hands together and smiled broadly. "Welcome to Ike's Tavern. You look like you just crawled from under a stampede, if you don't mind my saying so, stranger. Plenty here to ease your troubles."
Plenty to cause them, too, Bridger thought. "If you serve food and have an empty room, it would go a long way. And who do I see about the help-wanted sign out there?"
"That'd be me," the man said, his voice rising above the crowd and music. He motioned Bridger to a small table in a back corner. "Let's start with a name, stranger.
I'm Ike Tyler."
"Bridger Jamison." He took a seat by the wall, keeping a clear view of the door and the rest of the room. "What kind of help are you looking for?"
Tyler pushed his hat back on his head and smoothed his string tie and loose suit coat before taking the seat opposite him. "I like that, a man who keeps his eyes and options open, prepared. Right to the point, too." Ike motioned a blonde woman with plenty to entice a man over to their table. "Get my friend here a drink."
"Looks to me like he could use more than just a whiskey, Ike." The woman trailed long red fingernails over his shoulder in a way that suggested everything she intended.
"Food, ma'am. I'm hungry enough I could eat a bear down to the bone." He pushed a grin to his face, feeling the pull of his scar. "Course, I'd settle for a good steak and a baked potato."
The woman looked at Ike, who nodded. She trailed her painted nail over his lip, along his scar and around his ear into the hair against his neck. "My, you are a handsome one. I suppose that's a good place to start, but you need anything else, sugar, you come see Mattie first, won't you?" She adjusted her corset in front of Ike and turned with a wink. "One steak and potato, coming up."
Ike watched her work through the crowd with a wolfish smile. "Lots of benefits, working in a place like this."
Bridger adjusted his hat and leaned forward, hoping the man didn't hear his stomach rumbling. But the tinny piano and boisterous patrons drowned most of a man's thoughts, along with everything else. "I'm more interested in the kind of work I'd be doing, Mr. Tyler."
"Hmm respectful, too," Ike said, almost to himself. "Nice town, here, Quiver Creek. Quiet, growing new businesses coming in. I have several interests. I'm looking for someone strong, not afraid of hard work, willing to do what needs done, loyal "
"If you're hiring for personality, sir, I'd fit that bill. But what skills are you looking for?" Bridger stifled the urge to yawn, even in the hubbub of the room.
Ike lit a long, thin cigar and added his own puff of smoke to the already cloudy air. "What skills do you have to offer, Mr. Jamison?"
"I've done a lot of different jobs. But I suppose you could say my pick is woodwork, construction, building things."
"Well, now, it just so happens I'm planning to build a hotel right here in town. Quiver Creek finds itself between the main railroad line and a hot-springs resort being built further up the pass. We're getting a lot of visitors in town. Not all of them are suitably impressed with our present accommodations, you see. We need something grand, a hotel reminiscent of those back East. I'm the man with the vision-and financial wherewithal- to build it." He looked around the room with its maroon wallpaper and barely faded gilding and then back to Bridger with a grin around his cigar. "I need more than someone who's good with a hammer, though. I need a man willing to do all kinds of odd jobs, run some errands, some out-of-town deliveries, whatever comes up."
"What's the job pay?" It sounded crass, even to his own ears, but his plans required more than a dollar a day and all you could eat. Bridger rubbed his fingers against the smooth wood of the table, wondering if the hunger would hold off his exhaustion.
If the question offended Ike Tyler, nary a blink told it. "I treat my men well. Room at the boardinghouse next door, meals here, good wages-" his voice trailed as Mattie came up behind him, rubbing her free hand across his back "-and plenty of added benefits."
Bridger thanked the woman for the plate and she sauntered off with a wink as Ike swatted her bottom. He didn't bother with niceties but dug into the thick steak and steamy potato. "Don't get me wrong, I'll be grateful for the soft bed tonight, but it doesn't seem like a real restful spot."
Ike smiled. "Might be a room in the new hotel once it's completed." He puffed on his cigar, eyes glittering. "I like the looks of you, Bridger Jamison. It's not bragging to tell you, you'll not find a better boss in town, maybe not in the territory. Ask my men. You do well with the jobs I give you, and I'll see about throwing more work your way. Ones with greater pay more befitting a man with your needs."
Bridger focused on his plate-one cleaner than he'd have expected in such a place-and worked a bluff.
"Don't need anything but a quiet place to stay and work to earn my keep, Mr. Tyler." He chewed another tender bite of meat. "When can I start?"
"Supplies for the hotel are to arrive by end of the week, but there's no reason I can't call on you for some odd jobs before that, right? Why don't you get settled in next door and I'll see what comes up over the next day or so to keep you occupied in the meanwhile."