Waverly Earp stood behind the bar, as usual, absent-mindedly cleaning yet another glass with her usual filthy rag and watching the usual late-afternoon customers draining their drinks and chatting about trivial matters.
She heaved a sigh, puffing out her cheeks, and turned the beer glass over to stack it neatly with its few remaining brothers on the shelf behind her. The grubby mirror in front of her – that she always tried so hard to keep pristine in spite of the near-daily spillages that always coated its surface – reflected her face back at her: dark circles nestled under her hazel eyes, whispering of the restless nights over the past few weeks; her lips were pursed into a thin, narrow line; her cheeks were bereft of their customary rosy tint, looking otherwise pale and almost gaunt. The town-proclaimed sweetheart of Purgatory, once head cheerleader of the local high school and most popular resident since her great-great-grandfather and local hero Wyatt Earp, could not quite put her finger on what had changed in the last two months to make her feel so…lost.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true.
She knew some of the reasons why. At least the ones she felt comfortable admitting to herself.
In spite of just recently completing yet another correspondence college course – this time in Latin and ancient Greek – with flying colours and receiving effusive praise from every one of her remote professors, Waverly lacked the feeling of accomplishment in her life that she thought she would have managed by the ripe old age of twenty-two. For three years she had tried to better herself, expanding her intellectual horizons and pushing the limits of her academic mind at every opportunity. It was her way of trying to escape from the humdrum life she had grown accustomed to over the past sixteen years, of convincing herself that something more lay somewhere out there for her, somewhere beyond the dusty town line that she had never dared to cross. For her, Purgatory lived up its name: for her, it was a cage, a prison that she longed to flee, one from which every day she waited for her eventual torturous release.
The problem was it never came.
Her now-daily descent into her own personal hell of spiraling doubts was finally broken by the sound of a hand slapping down on the bar behind her. ‘A shot of your best whiskey, please, darlin’.’
Waverly turned towards the sound of a voice she knew and loved so well, her eyebrows raised in reproach. ‘Uncle Curtis, you know what the doctor said...’
The older man grinned at her, his eyes twinkling with barely-suppressed humour. ‘Oh, come now – one shot of medicine won’t hurt.’
‘‘Medicine’, he says,’ a woman’s voice snorted behind him as she climbed atop a bar stool next to her husband. Waverly edged closer to her aunt Gus, a genuine smile crossing her face. ‘You’re a stubborn ol’ mule, Curtis McCready.’ She shook her head, her exasperation at her husband evident in every groove on her lined, weathered face. ‘There ain’t no convincing him, though. So best make it two glasses.’
Waverly hesitated for only a moment, looking at her aunt as she shrugged and spread her hands in surrender, before fixing the drinks with deft fingers. As much as she would rather be pouring her uncle a cool glass of water, she knew better than to argue with him; he may not be an Earp, but his obstinacy certainly rivaled her own family’s. His deteriorating health was yet one more reason to add to the laundry list of sore points in Waverly’s life. The feeling of dread that had settled in her stomach since he had been rushed to the hospital four weeks prior gnawed at her insides as she handed him his usual drink and watched as he downed it in one swift movement. She couldn’t help but feel she was aiding him in his slow shuffle down the dirt track to his own grave…
Waverly was still hovering in front of her relatives, her fingers worrying the frayed edges of the damp rag in her hand, when the sounds of an argument erupting from the pool table pulled her gaze towards the other side of the bar. Raised voices, slurring with the volume of alcohol both men had consumed, and the shattering of yet another glass tugged a frustrated sigh from the barmaid.
The York brothers.
Rolling her eyes, Waverly marched towards the other end of the bar. ‘Hey!’ she yelled, her normally sweet voice inflected with a dangerous note of anger as she glared at the young men. ‘For once, could we have an evening without one of you ending up with bandages?’
Both men turned their drink-soaked stares in her direction, apparently trying their hardest to focus on her pretty face as her ire gathered pace, her hands perched on her hips, her eyes darting between them. The youngest, Kyle, attempted to put his hands up in supplication as he stepped away from Waverly’s wrath – everyone knew not to get on the wrong side of the town sweetheart when she was this riled.
Yet it seemed the eldest had other ideas.
Whilst his brother nodded his assent, Pete picked up the nearest pool cue and swung it around, the sickening crunch as it connected with the side of Kyle’s skull reverberating around the otherwise silent bar; the younger brother yelped, his hands gripping his bloody head as he wheeled around to face his attacker.
And that was that.
There was nothing anyone could do to intervene as the two men grappled with each other, drunkenly swinging their fists as they tried to punch any body part they could reach. Expletives exploded from their mouths as they scuffled, eventually ending up on the sticky floor, rolling around in the earlier broken shards of glass. Waverly put her hands on her head, knowing that it would only end once one of them was knocked unconscious.
‘Stop that right now!’ a gruff voice bellowed from the entrance of the bar.
Waverly twisted around to find the local Sheriff of the Purgatory Sheriff's Department, Randy Nedley, trotting down the few steps that led to the bar, his age-creased brow knitted with the same irritation that Waverly could feel gripping her. He pushed back his black Stetson further down his head and marched over to the two brothers, gripping one of them roughly by the collar of his green plaid shirt and yanking him away. For an old man, he still had a surprising strength left in him, Waverly noticed. She watched as his deputy, a tall woman in a beige Stetson that Waverly had never seen before, pulled the other brother up from the floor and held him there, her hands clasped around his wrists as he struggled against her.
‘You boys best settle down if you don’t wanna spend another night in the drunk tank,’ Nedley warned them, his own hands grasping Pete’s forearms.
Again, it seemed the brothers had other ideas.
Kyle lurched forwards, kicking out with his right leg as he slurred something about a ‘cheatin’ sonofabitch’. That, it seemed, was his last strike.
In one swift movement, the tall deputy wrenched his arms behind his back, forcing him against the stained pool table and slapping a pair of shiny handcuffs on him, her right knee pressed hard into his back to prevent his squirming. ‘Should have listened to the boss,’ she muttered as she frog-marched him towards the entrance of the bar.
Still frozen in place, Waverly looked on as the woman nodded her head in her direction and tipped her hat towards her before disappearing through the double doors, Nedley in tow with his own trouble-maker, grumbling about the brothers ruining his customary afternoon coffee.
And with that, the normal casual murmur settled over the bar, the patrons returning to their own mundane conversations before the unsurprising interruption. Just another Purgatory afternoon, Waverly thought, sighing as she bent down to pick up a dustpan and brush from behind the bar and made her way over to the scene of the commotion. Some days it really sucked being the only barmaid at Shorty’s. Today was one of those days.
‘Hey, darlin’, you need any help?’
Waverly smiled up at her aunt’s offer but shook her head. ‘No, it’s okay, Gus. I’ve got it, thanks.’
Gus leant against the pool table and watched her niece sweep up the pieces of glass that littered the floor, apparently lost in thought. When Waverly looked up again, it was to find her aunt’s eyes staring into her own, a gentle expression softening her otherwise hard features.
‘What?’ the younger woman questioned as she straightened up.
‘You’re a good kid, Waverly,’ her aunt answered.
And that was it. She said nothing more. Waverly grinned, shrugged, and returned to the bar to throw the debris away. Something occurred to her as she moved with Gus back over to Curtis, now nursing his second glass of whiskey, much to Waverly’s chagrin.
‘Did you see the other deputy with Nedley?’ she asked, her gaze wandering to the bar’s entrance. ‘Do you know who she is? I’ve never seen her around before.’
Both her aunt and uncle shook their heads. ‘I heard Nedley made a new hire,’ Curtis said, lowering his glass. ‘Never caught her name, though. Out-of-towner, it seems.’
‘A bit of new blood might do the place good,’ Gus added. ‘She certainly seemed to know how to handle the York boys' nonsense, and Lord knows she’ll run into them often enough.’
Waverly nodded absently, only half paying attention to their replies as she picked up her usual rag and began to clean the usual dirty glasses once more.