Only two things could lure a thinking man to Whiskey Falls in January, money or women. Since Molly Watkins didn’t have much in the way of the first, she supposed the filthy scoundrel at her outdoor Soap Parlor must have come for the latter.
“You best take your grubby paw off her bosom and get the hell out of here before I make a hole in you,” Molly Watkins aimed her modified Henry directly between the eyes of the man lusting after her hired help.
Guffawing, the scoundrel held up a nickel that sparkled in the moonlight. His arm still wrapped firmly around the young girl’s waist. “I got my money right here. Sign says five cents.”
“That’s for the laundry, you fool.”
The girl wiggled free from his sordid clutches, slapped him on the hand, and spit on his boot.
“Why don’t you go inside, Mercy. This won’t take but a minute.”
Molly waited as the seething girl stomped inside before persisting with her tirade. “And you’re gravely mistaken if you think this is the kind of place where you can purchase a woman for your own satisfaction.” Molly shivered beneath her dress and two layers of thermals. “This is a Soap Parlor. That means we have a steam laundry and hot soapy baths for paying customers.”
The scoundrel turned his head to eye the bathtub percolating behind him. Adjacent to the steam parlor was Molly’s latest invention, a laundry machine she constructed from discarded machine parts. It stood silent now after a long day of repetitive use.
“Ha!” His eyes jiggled like a fishing bob. “That’s nothin’ more than a blazing heap of tractor scraps.” He belly laughed. “Got any marshmallows?”
Molly’s lips twisted themselves at the corners, like barbed wire. Now she really wanted to shoot him. “Listen here, you twit. You best vacate these premises before I lodge a bullet in that empty head of yours. And I don’t aim to miss.”
The ghostly gap between his yellowed teeth reminded her of Tuckerman’s Ravine, a place in the mountains where a discouraged man might lose his way during lean times. About thirty days of straggly beard growth sprouted on his smoke-stained face. Steam from the bath ascended behind a cap-covered crop of greasy hair. A reaper waiting on a fresh corpse. Hands grooved by decades of timber work slithered towards the pistol that hung loosely at his side.
Piney soldiers, rooted in frozen earth behind them, shielded a secret.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a voice, sated with confidence, called out from within the tangled cover of dutiful branches.
Molly twitched; a gun cocked in the night.
“I don’t need your help, Mister. Got this one right where I want him.” Her arms trembled between the weight of the gun and the chill of January. She cocked her own gun in return, planted two fur-clad boots into the mealy snow and let her tongue rest again her top lip; her traditional shooting stance.
Evidence of his ominous situation flowed down the scoundrel’s leg, saturating a pair of tan trousers. Shaking, the demoralized nuisance tossed away his pistol and put his hands in the air.
“Is this man your partner?” Molly called out to the voice in the trees.
“No,” he scoffed back. “And I find your implication of such to be offensive.”
The scoundrel pouted.
“If you’re here to question me about my machine…or for the recipe for my soap powder, you can just turn around and…”
A tree of a man stepped out from the shadows, clad in a fur rug and dark heavy boots. He blocked out the moon. The scoundrel’s back stiffened.
“Been tracking a man…a wanted man. Lost his trail at the edge of the ice.”
Molly nodded. “You some kind of bounty hunter?” She kept the Henry pointed at the scoundrel. Elements of surprise were key ingredients for disaster- having learned the hard way once, she wasn’t taking any chances now.
“Something like that, Miss.” He offered a nod.
“I reckon.” He paused, sighed. “But I suppose it was lucky for them bandits they didn’t wander into your yard. Looks like you could’ve taken him down yourself.”
The scoundrel chortled. “As if. She probly’ couldn’t hit a mountain if she was standin’ on it.”
Lightning flashed from the muzzle of Molly’s Henry.
The stricken man howled on his way to the ground, dropping like a sack of potatoes.
“Damn, I thought I fixed that hair trigger.” Sarcasm soothed her mordant nerves; a smirk burgeoned.
“Apparently not,” the tree quipped, eyebrows dancing at the spectacle before him.
Molly placed a boot and the weight of her wrath onto the chest of the fallen man when he tried to get up. “Hold it right there, cowboy.” She lowered the gun to within a few inches of his face. After a moment he opened one dark eye; sheepishly followed by a second wayward one. Covering his face with his forearms, he cowered, drawing the knit cap that had been poised aloft his head down over his grimy forehead.
“Next time you find yourself fortunate enough to be in the company of a woman, treat her with respect,” she scolded, jabbing the gun tip into his chest; reiterating her point.
The scoundrel struggled to his feet, breathless. “You almost killed me,” he snorted while poking a finger through the large hole that started in the front of the cap and went clear through to the back.
Without warning or permission, the tree grabbed one of the scoundrel’s wrists from mid-air, and then the other, before flipping him onto the ground like a farmer with a calf for branding. A knee held down the writhing body while he joined his hands behind his back. He stood back up, pleased. “I can take this one off your hands,” he huffed, giving a forceful yank and pulling the scoundrel to his feet with little effort.
The scoundrel grunted in pain through gritted teeth; a rabid fox.
An explosion rocked the ground below their feet. Shards of metal, entwined with dirty snow, rained back down to earth.
“Take cover,” the tree bellowed, pushing the scoundrel to the ground, face planting him on a mound of undisturbed snow. Giant branches swatted at Molly, swishing her to safety in a deeper bank of snow. A winter storm filled her britches; cold and wet, matching her current disposition.
* (End of Chapter #1)