By Nancy M. Bell
Sadie sighed and pushed a stray strand of blond hair out of her eye. It wasn’t even noon yet, but the inside of the bank smelled of furniture polish and overheated bodies. The oppressive heat threatened to overwhelm her and she blinked in an effort to keep her eyes open. Sleep had been hard to come by the night before, even though the faint breeze that had stirred her curtains was cooler than the heat of the day.
Colt hadn’t showed up at her door…again. What trouble was that boy up to this time, she wondered. Rustling cattle was gonna get him shot, sure as shootin’. Sadie warned him often enough, but that devil may care grin never failed to make her forget his antics. The sharp retort of boot heels crossing the wood floor drew her attention back to the lobby.
“M’am.” The dark haired cowboy removed his hat and slapped it against his thigh sending a cloud of dust shimmering in the slanting sunlight. Brilliant blue eyes caught and held her gaze. The small leather bag clunked heavily as he dropped it on the wicket shelf in front of her. “I need to open an account, m’am.”
“Of course, right away, sir,” Sadie’s tongue tripped over the words. She ripped her gaze away from his mesmerizing regard and rummaged in the small drawer below the shelf for the form she needed. “Just fill this out and I’ll get you set up.” She smiled and hid her trembling hands below the counter.
The man frowned and tipped his head down. He shoved the paper and writing utensils back at her. “I don’t exactly know how to write, ma’am. If you’d be so kind, I kin tell you what you need to know and you could write it down for me.” A dusky blush coloured his cheekbones underneath the sun-darkened skin of his face.
“Oh, of course. I’m sorry, I should have asked if you needed assistance,” Sadie replied.
It took only a few minutes to complete the forms and prepare the deposit receipt for the new customer. Hart Montana. What a name, she mused. Although, it wasn’t much different than some of the monikers she’d come across. Hooves Colorado, Two Boots Texas, and a few others she’d rather not remember, the connotations of their meanings bringing a flush to her face.
“There you go, Mister Montana.” Sadie smiled and pushed the slip across the shelf of the wicket toward him.
“Thank you, m’am.” Hart took the slip and put it in his pocket. He took a step away before he hesitated and turned back to her. “Miss Wells,” he read the name off the tag on her blouse, “I don’t know anyone in Fargo, could you recommend a hotel or a boarding house in town?”
Sadie blinked and regarded him in surprise. “You could try Miz Walters, her place is just down from the general store. She runs a tight house though, you might find the Longhorn Saloon more to your liking. Sam rents out rooms by the night or the week.”
“Much obliged, m’am. I’ll give Miz Walters a try.” The dark haired cowboy tipped his head to her and walked across the lobby.
The next customer in line cleared their throat and Sadie pulled her gaze away from the long legged man moving with such lithe grace as he disappeared into the brilliant sunlight.
The hands of the clock finally read three o’clock. Sadie cleared up her wicket and tallied her paperwork before handing it all to Mister Wesson, the bank manager. Retrieving her reticule and bonnet, she prepared to step out into the broiling heat of the street. She paused on the boardwalk to let her eyes adjust to the glare. The slight breeze didn’t penetrate the layers of long skirts and only served to stir the dust so it coated her sticky skin. Shaking out her skirts in the hopes of allowing a small breath of air to cool her legs, Sadie made her way toward Elsie’s Tea Room. She could do with a nice cup of chamomile tea, providing the latest shipment had arrived, of course.
The thunder of hooves and high pitched whoops and yells sent her backing against the wall of the nearest building. Four riders raced at breakneck speed into town raising a cloud of dust that threatened to choke her. Pulling a handkerchief out of her reticule, Sadie held it over her nose. The group clattered to a halt in front of the Longhorn and dismounted. Draping their reins over the hitching rack, the men ambled into the building.
The last cowboy up the shallow steps removed his hat and smacked it against his leg to dislodge the travel dirt. Sadie’s breath caught in her throat as she recognized Colt’s shock of bright red hair. Now she knew he was up to no good. The fool was hanging with the James brothers again. He was gonna get himself shot full of holes one of these days. With a sigh, she lowered the handkerchief as the dust cleared and continued along the boardwalk to Elsie’s.
Outside the milner’s, she paused to admire a pretty bonnet adorned with pale pink and aqua ostrich feathers. Straight from New York City the sign declared. On her wage she might as well wish for the moon. With one last glance at the lovely hat, Sadie turned and ran smack into a post she didn’t remember being there.
“Careful, m’am. Lady could get hurt not lookin’ where she’s goin’.”
“Oh my stars,” she exclaimed. Not a post then, she inadvertently ran into a very tall cowpoke. Steel like hands set her back solidly on her feet, and Sadie looked up into the brilliant blue eyes of Hart Montana. “Please excuse my clumsiness, Mister Montana.” She lowered her gaze as heat rose in her face.
“Nothin’ to excuse, Miss Wells. Womenfolk sure do love them bonnets. Leastwise, I know my sister sure does. Seems like once a week she has her heart set on a new one.” Smile lines crinkled the corners of his eyes.
Sadie peeked up at him from under her lashes. “It is beautiful, but far too rich for my pocket book.” She smiled and stepped around him to continue on her way without looking back.
After taking refreshments at Elsie’s, Sadie went to start her second job of the day at the dressmakers. She had some talent with a needle and was quite adept at attaching the fragile lace trims to the fine linen undergarments the seamstress specialized in.
The sun was already below the western horizon by the time she was finished for the day. A gold and orange glow lit the sky and she paused to admire it. Before she could take it in, a hand snaked out and pulled her into the narrow alley between two buildings. Strong arms wrapped around her, and Colt’s lips ravaged her mouth. For an instant she gave into him before stamping on his toe with the heel of her boot.
“Leave off, you varmint,” she hissed. “Where were you last night?”
“Now, darlin’,” he drawled, that devil-may-care grin lighting his face, “I was just out with the boys raisin’ some hell. You want I should buy you that pretty head gear you were moonin’ over earlier?”
“No! I want you to show up when you say you will, and stop runnin’ with them outlaws.” Sadie stamped her foot to emphasize her point.
A frown crossed his handsome face. “Don’t be callin’ my friends outlaws, darlin’. People might get the wrong idea. Let’s just say we like liberatin’ some gold from them that has too much of it to start with.”
“It’s thieving, no matter what you call it, Colt. There’s a new marshall in town, and I hear he’s plannin’ on cleanin’ up Fargo.”
“Hope he brought a mop and pail then, darlin’. No marshall is gonna interfere with the James boys and me.” Colt pulled her hard against him before she could protest and pressed a demanding kiss on her lips. One hand cupped her breast before he broke away and vanished into the shadows.
Sadie straightened her hat and skirts and pressed a trembling hand to her mouth. Damn fool idiot. She needed to break it off with Colt, but he just wouldn’t listen when she tried to bring up the subject. A tiny frisson of fear skittered through her gut and down her spine. No telling what that boy might do if she riled him.
* * * *
The interior of the bank was dark after the morning sun outside. Sadie nodded to the two other employees and proceeded to prepare her workspace for the day.
“Sadie,” Mister Wesson stopped by her wicket, “I hear the James boys rode into town last night and Colt was with them.” He regarded her sternly and she swallowed hard.
“Yes, sir. I did hear they were back.”
“I trust you’ve broken off your association with that no good ruffian. I won’t have him coming in here and distracting you or hanging around my bank. Not with his reputation. If you want to keep your position here, I suggest you heed my words.” He turned on his heel without waiting for a reply.
Sadie blinked back tears and firmed her chin. Colt was not going to cost her this job, she couldn’t let that happen. Tonight she’d track him down and set him straight once and for all.
A steady stream of customers kept her busy all morning and made it easy not to think about the unpleasant conversation she was going to have with Colt come evening. Just before noon, a commotion at the door made her look up in surprise. Her heart jumped into her throat, and she couldn’t breathe. Four men, with guns drawn and glad rags over their faces, barged into the bank. One of them knocked old Harry on the temple with the butt of his revolver, and the guard crumpled to the floor.
“Hands up, this is a hold up!”
The leader swept his gun in an arc around him. The other three men moved among the customers snatching whatever valuables they could find. Sadie’s knees shook so badly she feared they would deposit her on the floor. One of the bandits strode up to the wicket and thrust a canvas bag at her.
“Fill ’er up, sweetheart, and don’t take all day about it.” The robber leaned close and winked at her. “Shhh, darlin’ it’s me. Stuff that bag like a good girl, and I’ll buy you all the fancy head gear your little heart desires.”
“Colt,” she hissed. “This is madness, what are you doing? They’re gonna think I’m in on this, you idiot.”
“Then maybe I should take me a hostage when we leave…” He winked again and grabbed the bag she had filled with all the cash and coin in her money drawer.
The leader shoved Mister Wesson behind the counter and pointed at the safe. “Open it, iffen ye know what’s good fer ye.”
Wesson hesitated but turned the dial with shaking fingers when the ringleader pressed the barrel of the revolver to his forehead. The heavy door swung open and three robbers disappeared inside, leaving Colt on guard in the lobby.
A shadow passed the bank window just before a shot rang out and Colt dropped to the floor. Sadie got a glimpse of the surprised look on his face before she ducked behind a desk. The robbers boiled out of the safe, guns blazing, looking wildly around. One by one, they dropped like sacks of bricks as the unseen sniper picked them off. Sadie cowered under the desk until a pair of boots stopped by her side and she looked up into Hart Montana’s brilliant blue eyes.
“You didn’t tell me you were the new marshall,” she said stupidly as he helped her to her feet.
Nancy M Bell has publishing credits in poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Nancy has presented at the Surrey International Writers Conference and the Writers Guild of Alberta Conference. She is currently working on Book 3 of her series The Cornwall Adventures.