I hope you are blessed with a heart like a wildflower.
Strong enough to rise again after being trampled upon,
tough enough to weather the worst of the summer storms,
and able to grow and flourish even in the most broken places.
-Hearts Like Wildflowers, Hearts Like Yours
"Excuse me, would you be Ms. Tessa Newell?"
Tessa blinked in surprise, just once and tipped her hat back to get a clear look at the man addressing her. She'd known exactly when he'd set foot on the boardinghouse porch of course. It had become a habit to not let her guard down in towns, especially when she was alone. So when he'd made his way over to her, she braced herself for some comment on the thickness of her book (or her wearing pants). She had not expected to be addressed by name.
"May I ask who wants to know?" she returned, shutting her book a little regretfully.
"My name is Sam Chisolm, duly sworn warrant officer in Kansas and six other states, and I have a business propistion for you, if you'd care to hear it." He didn't hold out his hand to shake. But that was to be expected, given his color. The west might not care as much as the South if you were colored, but they sure seemed to care when a black man and a white woman interacted.
Tessa nodded slowly and gestured for him to continue, watching him with calculating grey eyes.
"I've been hired by Mrs. Cullen to rid the town of Rose Creek of a low down murdering scum named Bartholomew Bogue." He gestured to a slender, pale woman on a sorrel mare several feet away from the porch. "I'm assembling a team of men to do just that."
"I'm not a man." Tessa pointed out blithely, giving Mrs. Cullen and her nervous looking friend a lazy salute.
"No," Chisolm agreed just as bland. "But you and your brothers have made a bit of a name for yourselves. I hear you have a head for strategy."
"That's an interesting way of putting it." Tessa snorted and rolled to her feet. "Tell me Mr. Chisolm, duly sworn warrant officer in seven states. How'd you hear about us, and who told you my name? I make a point of not giving out my given name to too many people."
There was a smile on her face, but she didn't let it reach her eyes. This Chisolm fellow didn't seem like a bad man, but then again, many of them didn't. She could think of maybe a handful of people she'd told her first name to.
For his part he bore her scrutiny with a placid calm that she nearly envied. It was much better than hers, but then he'd probably had a lot more practice. "I passed through a small town name of Bedrock in Nebraska six months ago. Heard about that business with the Turning's gang." He tipped his chin, a faint gesture that seemed to carry a lot of weight. "That was a handy trick for three people to pull off, especially when one of them is a woman."
The backhanded compliment made her twitch, but she let it pass. Some things happened too often to argue every time they came up. She'd long grown used to her brothers getting credited for her ideas. "And Miss Hattie Braum had a lot to say about you," he added as if only just recalling.
Tessa felt the tension she hadn't realized she'd been carrying ease out of her shoulders. Hattie Braum's name was as good as gold in her book. "And how is the good Miss Hattie?" she asked fondly.
The first hint of smile touched the corner of Chisolm's mouth. "She's as fiery as ever." The smile vanished. "Think you could stand to hear a few details about this job now?"
"I suppose I could," Tessa smirked unrepentantly.
Chisolm dipped his head, either ignoring or unaware of her sass. "Bogue is a man with a lot of money and power. He wants the people of Rose Creek gone."
"Why is he fixated on Rose Creek?" Tessa tapped her book thoughtfully on her leg.
"Gold mine." Chisolm explained. "He owns it, but he wants the town, down to the nails and boards. Doesn't seem to care too much if people want to sell or no. His agents have murdered more than a few people, Mrs. Cullen's husband included, for refusing to move."
Part of her wanted to ask why not go? But she knew the answer. The west was first generation, grassroots efforts. People who came out west left everything behind and it was very much do or die. Some got lucky, some didn't. Regardless, you didn't just leave the land you toiled for. She eyed Mrs. Cullen who returned the study dispassionately. She didn't look pleased with Tessa, but that wasn't anything new.
"How many men do you have?"
"Me, one other. Three more if you and your brothers agree." Chisolm responded promptly, no hint of coercion in his tone.
"It sounds like suicide." Tessa pointed out, but she knew where she was leaning in that moment.
Chisolm nodded slowly and scrubbed a hand on his chin as if gathering the words he wanted. "Everyone dies." he offered eventually.
Tessa stared. She laughed. She liked this man.
The first step was to see her brothers. Nick and Joe had bee-lined for the saloon as soon as they'd hit town, but that was no surprise. They needed to unwind after hunting down that fool Harper man. Three weeks in the bush would do any man a turn. Tessa shook her head to clear it, mind already ticking over the things they'd need-but that was getting ahead of herself. If Nick and Joe didn't want to go, then they wouldn't. Chisolm hadn't seemed concerned about that little fact when she'd told him so. Maybe he assumed they'd be as on board as Tessa already was.
The smell of the saloon hit her before Tessa clapped eyes on her wayward little brothers, a thick haze of alcohol fumes and cigar smoke. It wasn't pleasant, a thick snarl of taste of the back of her tongue. The boys would smell of it for days after...Tessa paused on the top step as the copper-sweet scent of blood slid across the back of her throat. Slate grey eyes narrowed as she studied the windows, the stretch of floor she could see beyond the swinging doors.
One hand drifted to the gun on her left hip and she calmly stepped inside.
It wasn't like the movies. No one spared her a glance. There were other things to worry about. As soon as she'd assured herself her brothers were fine Tessa indulged in an incredulous study of the bar. Bullet holes, broken glass, splashed whiskey (that accounted for the powerful smell at the very least) and splash of blood on the floor from some unlucky bystander painted a very strange picture. She tipped her chin to a bemused looking man who looked to be new at the whole bartending business and made her way to her brothers.
Nick and Joe sat with the air of men who'd seen violence and weren't too bothered by its aftereffects. It was the beards, she decided. It made them both look much older than their mid-twenties ages. Joe still had that unwrinkled sweetness around his tawny eyes, though, if one looked beyond the mountain-man scruff.
"Tessie," Nick saluted her with some brown substance. It must not have tasted very good, because he looked faintly sour about the whole thing.
"Nicky," she returned sweetly, eyeing a chair dubiously before sinking into it. "What went on here?"
"Must have been an exciting book if you didn't hear the noise of murder." Joe snorted, nursing his own brown substance.
Tessa's sooty lashes fanned wide in surprise, under one sardonically curved brow. "I missed a murder?"
"A bounty killing." Nick cut in.
Ah, that accounted for his sour-milk face. Tessa felt a little sour herself. "Who? Who did we miss?"
"Man by the name of Powder Dan." Joe replied cheerfully. He ignored his siblings glares. "Some black guy strolled on in and took out half the saloon. We covered him of course. Well, us and some tall ginger."
Tessa blinked. "Some black man-"
"I can't believe we missed a bounty. We had the warrant!" Nick muttered bitterly into his empty glass.
"It wasn't that much money anyway," Joe consoled his brother.
Tessa sank back in her chair torn between amusement and annoyance. No wonder Chisolm hadn't seemed too concerned about her brothers agreeing; if anything, he was concerned about her agreeing. And he'd neglected to mention he talked to them first. She tapped her chin while her brothers argued. Why he hadn't said anything was suspect. He'd mentioned Hattie Braum, even though he'd talked to her siblings. A name drop which accomplished something-he'd won her over without too much effort. A smile curved her lips.
"He's entirely too smart for his own good." Tessa mused aloud. Then, louder: "What do you say boys? Shall we go fight tyranny and win the day?"
"Might as well." Joe nodded, eyes warm and molten gold with his smile.
"No one uses the word shall anymore." Nick informed her, which was as good an agreement as they'd get out of him while he was grumpy.
Tessa shared an amused glance with the youngest Newell sibling and pushed to her feet. "Let's go then. I want to leave in the next half hour. Let Chisolm know will you Joe? He's over by the boardinghouse still, I should think."