The bar brawl was over before it had really begun. At its outset, it had looked to be one of those fights that spilled out of the doors and into the dirty street, but it had somehow – perhaps miraculously – remained contained within the No 10 Saloon’s walls. It had been brief, brusque and brutish; fists rather than shooting irons, angry words rather than knives, but regardless of the lack of lethality, it had certainly left its trail of casualties.
The fight’s instigator stood among the groaning pile, hands still tightly clenched into fists, eyes flashing with danger signals that meant nobody else wanted to go close. The tension was palpable and heavy with the anticipation of more violence. Then, as suddenly as the fight had started, the cloud of rage lifted from the brawler and the air cleared.
A protracted silence settled across the saloon but it did not take long for the bystanders to return their attentions to various drinks, card games or conversations. Gradually, the hubbub of normality overwrote the intensity of fighting and everything was fine. Saul the bartender, who had seen all nature of fights break out in his saloon, sighed softly. Huffing slightly, he squeezed his portly frame out from behind the long bar to begin the irritating business of picking up the five wounded men and dispatching them with all haste to the town’s doctor. Two of the regular barflies began to protest uproariously at the departure of their supplier, but he flicked his towel at them and they quietened down. Saul’s attention was on the victims of the skirmish.
Four of them were fine, with nothing more than tinnitus ringing in their ears from what was an impressive – and repeated – right hook. The last unfortunate soul required support from two of his friends to get up. The swelling on his nose suggested that it was broken and from the wincing on his face with every step, it seemed that his attacker’s kick had connected squarely with its target, temporarily granting him, no doubt, an extraordinarily excellent soprano. Saul ushered the men out of his saloon, satisfied that their prides were far more beaten than their physical selves had been. As the saloon doors swung back to position, he took a deep breath and turned.
The Ten, as the locals called it, had resumed its usual level of bawdy good-naturedness; someone was playing a bright melody on the horrendously out-of-tune piano and for a worrying moment, it looked like a sing-along might break out. Saul could deal with bar brawls and did so on a frequent basis. Toneless singing on the other hand…
His ears were saved. Nobody sang and the melody melted into background noise.
Saul turned his attention to the final fighter, the one who had been at the centre of the short but effective tussle. He narrowed his eyes and was rewarded with a beaming smile.
“Are you quite finished? Only I’ve generally found I get a better night in takings when my clientele ain’t passed out on the floor.”
“I’m done, Saul.”
The bartender tipped his head to one side, hands on his hips. “Don’t you ever get tired of fightin’, Jane?”
The woman known locally as ‘Calamity’ Jane threw back her head and laughed. She was the owner of an extraordinarily infectious laugh and despite his annoyance, Saul found that he could not help but smile.
“Short answer, Saul? Nope. Ya gotta hold your own when ya head out into them there mountains. An’ if provin’ I got what it takes to look after myself when pups like that try it on? Then no sir. I won’t ever get tired of fightin’.” She ran her fingers through her dirty, tangled hair and beamed at him. He softened. It was difficult to remain angry with her. Like kicking a mischievous pup. Saul was fond of her. Most people in Deadwood were fond of her.
She was the product of a hard upbringing and a harder adult life. But she’d found purpose at last, serving under the steadying hand of ‘Wild’ Bill Hickok. Rumours abounded that she had developed a schoolgirl crush on the ranger, but anybody who ever dared suggest such a thing to her face ended up… well, like the four men he’d just seen off the premises.
Whether she created calamitous disaster around her or not, you absolutely had to admire a woman like that.
“Damn straight. Make it a double.”
As hard a drinker as she was a fighter, Saul knew from lengthy experience that Jane could easily have drunk most of the men here under the table and back up the other side. Locally, she was liked for her easy manner, her generous heart and her childlike enthusiasm. When strangers came into town and encountered her for the first time, they learned quickly that treading carefully was wise. If they made inappropriate advances – to her or any of her female friends, of which she had plenty – or if they passed factious commentary on Jane’s choice to dress comfortably and practically like one of the townsmen, then Saul steeled himself for trouble. That trouble never last long, though. Jane dealt with such matters quickly.
Violently, yes, but quickly.
She downed the glass of Old Overholt in a single shot, upending the empty glass on the bar. When she’d first picked up a glass of the amber liquid, the taste had made her gag violently. Now she joined many others in this part of the country who preferred the purity of bourbon to the often brackish water that came from the wells. Saul paused only momentarily before she turned the glass back upright.
Saul poured again. The drink disappeared just as swiftly as the first. He was about to upend the bottle for a third time when a newcomer swung open the doors of the saloon. He was a big man, broad-shouldered and solid and he certainly filled the doorway with his physical presence. But it was the man’s cool, eagle-eyed stare that held the attention most. Ice-blue and cold as the frozen wastes of Antarctica, Bill Hickok was not a man to suffer fools gladly. Or at all, for that matter.
The barkeeper shot a glance at Jane who had stopped drinking and was attempting, without much success, to fix the bird’s nest that was her hair, to pat it into some sort of order. For a fleeting moment, the hard drinkin’, tough fightin’ exterior gave way to the vulnerable young woman beneath. She offered up a tentative smile as Hickok’s eyes landed on her. For a fleeting second, he smiled back, then the expression faded as he took in the freshly colouring bruises on her face and the blood on her knuckles.
“We were meant to head out ten minutes ago, Jane. Hop to it.”
With that, he turned and strode off again, the tails of his long coat flaring out behind him. The lingering sense of crushing disappointment at her mentor’s disapproval was palpable enough that Saul reached over and patted Jane’s hand.
“I’ll have one waitin’ for you when you get back, Jane.”
She glanced at him and smiled, the moment of sadness gone.
“Every gal needs a man like you in their life, Saul.” He watched her go and fought back the rebellious, borderline mercenary thought that crept into his mind.
And every bartender needs a customer like you in their life, Jane.