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ghosts & chariots

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Ten-year-old Waverly Earp paced nervously in the dank alleyway by the saloon, a cigarette pinched between her fingers, focus evident in the tiny lines on her forehead. She repeated the plan over and over again under her breath, even as she felt it spiraling out of control.

“…And Wynonna gets the keys from Samantha after she shows her the hooch, steals the car and meets me behind the saloon after she pays off Bobo, then we drive to Calgary before sun up,” inhale, exhale, ash, repeat.

This was the same thing that happened every time Wynonna promised Waverly that their daddy wouldn’t hit her again, wouldn’t destroy her with hateful words and leave her crying in the barn as she tried to escape his drunken tirades. Wynonna would eventually come find Waverly with her arms wrapped around her knees, rocking to calm herself, ignoring the chill of the Montana wilderness because it didn’t have nearly the bite of her father when he had downed the rotgut and taken to putting his boots through doors or walls. She’d bring a blanket, warmed from the fireplace, and wrap it around tiny Waverly, all of ten years old and full of vitriol when she was anywhere outside the homestead. A hellion , that’s what they had called her in school; Wynonna paving the way by punching boys who leered at her and girls who leered at the boys.

Finally the knob turned with a sharp squeak and broke Waverly’s obsessive recollection, encouragement lighting onto her face, as a door opened. Expectant of her sister’s haphazard exit, she stepped forward quickly to grab at the keys she assumed Wynonna would press into her hand, but was met with only the damp, cold end of a bar rag wrapped around the meaty fist of Bobo Del Rey.

“Wynonna ain’t comin’ out. She’s got herself so drunk she’s sleeping it off upstairs…She didn’t leave you here to take her out of Montana, did she? Surely she doesn’t think a tiny thing like you can handle Peacemaker or a Caddy when she’s too liquored up to walk.”

Waverly went to push past Bobo when he held a hand against her shoulder, “This is adults only, Waverly, so you best be gettin’ home to your pa.”

Waverly threw the cigarette on the ground and leaned her entire weight against Bobo’s hand to no avail, “But Wynonna’s in there and she’s no adult.”

“Wynonna has friends who snuck her in and right now, well, you’ve got no one. I’ll tell her you went on home before it got too late. You need me to give you a ride?”

The last thing Waverly wanted to do was be in a car with Bobo Del Rey. Well, in actuality, to be in a car sulking at the defeat of their plan as Bobo drove her home to her drunk father…

“I can walk. I walk everywhere else,” she spat at him.

“Waverly, you need to get yourself away from Wynonna. She’s nothing but bad news and well…you’re an angel deep down…you can have a life away from this if you get out while you’re young. I’d hate to have to start calling the law on kids loitering all hours of the night outside my saloon,” he threatened halfheartedly, even as he turned and pulled the door closed behind him, leaving Waverly alone and hopeless.

The sun wrapped around the trunks of pine trees like a thick orange blanket at the foothills of Currahee Mountain. Nicole watched in careful awe, silent and purposeful beside her grandfather. Their guns were trained on a ten point buck even as John Henry slid his finger away from the trigger. “Make it painless for him, Nicole,” was his only instruction.

Seconds later a single shot rang out and the buck fell almost gracefully to the ground. He was dead the second the bullet hit his heart; Nicole comforted by the fact that his imminent death was quick. She lowered the rifle and angled to see the man she admired most in this world smiling with soft pride at her. Neither of them said a word as they gathered their minimal belongings and headed towards the deer.

Nicole hated this part, hated death in every way, and was sickened by some undefined fear inside her that karma would make sure hers was fast as well. Hopefully painless too , she always prayed as she began the chore in making use of the dead.

Waverly wore her best dress to the courthouse, which wasn’t saying much. It was clean and she had been able to patch the small frays in it with sheet scraps that weren’t noticeable against the pale yellow fabric. She looked as respectful and conservative as a poor orphan could in the Northwest Territories.  She stood with the rest of the townsfolk as the judge entered to hear the case.

“Wynonna Earp, on the charges of grand larceny, breaking and entering, and assaulting an officer of the law, how do you plead?"

“Not guilty, your Honor,” was Wynonna’s defiant reply.

“Waverly Earp, on the charge of conspiracy to commit armed robbery, how do you plead?”

Waverly moved to open her mouth, but her court-appointed lawyer, Percival Noth, gently interrupted, “Your Honor, my client is underage and not able to plea without full understanding of the charges. She would like to offer no contest and ask the court’s mercy.”

Judge Winnemaker, a burly old man with a beard he’d probably donned since the Spanish-American War, adjusted his glasses and picked up a pen, marking his ledger absently. “Very well. Waverly Earp, you have been granted the court’s mercy and are hereby under the law’s watchful eye until your twenty-third birthday to account for a life free of further crime. Do you understand?”

“Yes, your Honor,” Waverly eked out, even as the judge continued.

“You Earps think this country owes you a debt for the service of your grandfather, but it does not. While you are young, Ms. Earp, I highly suggest you forget your lineage and focus on your future. Try to be an upstanding citizen…for goodness sake, find a nice young man and settle down. This better be the last time I see you, unless it’s in church,” he commanded as he rapped the gavel and an officer escorted Waverly from his courtroom.

“With the exception of meeting Wyatt Earp, Texas has never done a damn good thing for me, Nicole, so I am wary to offer my congratulations at your announcement to move out West and take up with these Rangers,” John Henry sighed even as he continued to check her bags and finally her guns, honestly his two best guns, requesting she remove them from their holsters, eyeing them with great affection and clinical acumen, and finally returning them to her outstretched hands.

“I spent last night making sure they were properly calibrated and cleaned to your standards, grandfather,” she announced, puffing her chest out a bit, knowing full-well that Doc was critical only because she was leaving his safety; his and the safety of their family in the mountains.

“I never doubt that you are prepared, Peanut,” he said, pushing her shoulder away and then pulling her close in one fluid motion. “Now you be careful, watch others and then yourself, set the right pace, and when necessary...”

“Make it painless…” she completed their mantra solemnly.

John Henry nodded in understanding and his assurance that Nicole was the best marksman and second fastest draw he’d ever known. She had never beat him, but he was thinking he might start to show a bit of age were she not there to challenge him regularly. He pulled Nicole into a tighter hug this time, finally releasing her only so that her grandmother could do the same and then tapped the hood of the pickup truck as she climbed inside and set out for Austin.

The red Georgia clay spattered off the wheels and the smoke from the crude oil plumed around them as Doc pulled his wife against him, a tear escaping his stoic eyes. “We’ll never see her again, Katie,” he mourned.

Waverly wasn’t sure how married life was supposed to be better than prison. The only thing she was grateful for was that she had somehow not ended up pregnant yet. Sitting at home and being dictated to by the likes of Champ Hardy was not how she had envisioned her adulthood. She didn’t even feel like this was her home. Sure it was a nice little apartment they had moved into when they were first married a couple of years ago, but it smelled like the cannery housed below it and was dreadfully lonely.

Waverly had taken to reading, the library an “allowed and proper” place for a married woman to be seen on a weekday. She was often there, hidden in the rows of fiction, then history, and most recently art literature, for hours at a time, lost to the worlds she knew with certainty she’d never be a part of in any significant way. It left her in constant melancholy and the only thing that soothed this a bit was the fantastical stories she would find herself embroiled in. Waverly started by nine each morning and left as close to five as she could justify, even later recently.

Champ had always relied on his parent’s general store, a mainstay of Kalispell, to fund his upper-middle class lifestyle and he decreed that Waverly would not be working once they had married. He dutifully put in time at the store through his youth and early adulthood, but by now he had discovered a new hobby. He was currently wasting away his afternoons and dragging further towards evenings, in a speakeasy, slowly eroding not only his, but his family’s savings.

Bobo Del Rey didn’t mind. In the years since he had caught Wynonna and Waverly sneaking into his now defunct saloon, closed when Prohibition started, he had moved on to more illicit and profitable ventures. Currently he facilitated a prostitution ring, the speakeasy, and was starting to introduce heroin into doctor’s offices. He knew he was going to need a secondary market with the news that Prohibition was ending in mere months.

Champ sat at a card table, his third scotch of the hour in hand, as he went all in on a bad hand. He immediately claimed cheating in a boisterous voice that disturbed the other patrons, and specifically Bobo. The fur of his pompous coat shivered as he rose and marched over, his boot rising steadily off the ground and onto the green felt of the table, the ice clinking in the glasses as he left footprints on the cards.

“Champ Hardy, your balance is due. You need to pay your bills and go home to your wife,” he growled.

“Oh come on, Bobo, you know I’m good for it. Can’t you just hold open the bill till Friday?”

“IT IS FRIDAY.” snarled Bobo, the rough metal of his many rings catching in the linen of Champ’s shirt as he lifted him effortlessly from the chair. “You owe me ten grand, boy, and I’ll be coming to get it this time tomorrow. So I suggest you go home and tend to your needs and beg mommy and daddy to save your sorry ass before three on Saturday. I would hate for Waverly to be a widow at the tender age of 22, and you and I both know she ain’t givin’ up her grandaddy’s gun for you.”

Champ sobered as much as the whiskey would allow of him and begged Bobo’s mercy, promises falling out of his mouth about having the money tomorrow morning at latest as Del Rey slowly released his grasp and allowed the slobbering idiot to back out of his establishment gracelessly.

That was the last time anyone saw Champ Hardy alive.

It was never as humid in Texas as Nicole remembered from her childhood in the Deep South. The border was hot, a scorching heat that sapped her energy and drove her mad some days, but never quite that same melting, sticky dampness that the Appalachians held nine months of the year. The only time she got a hint of it was in a basement filled to the brim with barrels of moonshine… or tequila …Nicole guessed that was tequila this close to Mexico. Currently she was surrounded by about fifty barrels, waiting on the sign from Captain Hamer to rush the bootleggers from above, herding them into submission, if only from sheer firepower.

Borger had been chartered as a legitimate city for only five months when the Texas Rangers were called in by Governor Moody to clean up Dixon Street and the red light district where every kind of bootlegger, drug-dealer, prospector, prostitute and gambler had seemed to relocate, earning itself the name Booger Town.  Everyone knew the city was under the control of “Two-Gun Dick” Herwig and the Rangers had no choice but to come down and rein in the robberies and murders now occurring daily.

Nicole held her Colt .45 with her right hand and a Thompson semi-automatic in the left. Sweat trickled down her cheek as she stood motionless for long minutes, her full wool suit clinging to her uncomfortably, recalling every small step of the plan. Frank and Dolls would go in the front and push the bootleggers back towards her and the other two Rangers waiting inside. Their intention was not to let anyone affiliated with the speakeasy out the usual escape route, which was now littered with the barrels in expectation of fleeing fugitives.

When the gunfire started, everything slowed and Nicole ticked off each gangster she fired at, her bullets tallying precisely, the excellent marksman in her emerging as usual. No one was going to make it past her to freedom, and she hadn’t even aimed her Tommy gun yet. There was no need to make a mess of the place if she didn’t have to. Pops and guttural shouts rang out above her in the main gaming area, glasses occasionally shattering as bullets ricocheted off the bar top. But the moist, dark basement was eerily quiet and Nicole leaned towards remaining motionless and silent while the melee played out above her. But Carl, STUPID Carl, stood with a hoot and stumbled passed her, grabbing up a dirty shot glass and siphoning some clear liquor from one of the barrels. It gurgled and Nicole heard a click follow shortly.

Carl was dead before she felt the second shot enter just under her rib cage, ripping through her flesh at a sideways angle that drove the bullet into the center of her belly. She lost control of her hands and the Colt fell to the floor but the machine gun blasted repetitively until her mind caught up to her body and she slowly released the trigger even as she fell to the ground.

Nicole knew she was in shock, blood pooling around her, eyes fixed on the light seeping through the rough cracks from the cheap wood floor above. Her lips twitched but she couldn’t speak; she refused to bring her hand to the wound when it would in no way stifle the bleeding. Nicole considered how fleeting life was in what she could only assume were her final moments on earth. She had never been in love, had nothing to leave behind, wondered if the Rangers would even acknowledge her death since she was a woman. She wanted to be angry, but she just felt hopeless and sad for what she was going to miss out on. It all seemed so empty and wasteful now, how she had chosen to dedicate her life to something that offered so little in return.

Finally the sweet smell of Georgia drifted towards her. Nicole caught the slightest scent of a pine barrel and a honey moonshine still, and the light pilfering through the floorboard became the sun on an early spring day when she would wake from a nap to a sip of cool water and peanut butter biscuits. Her hand relaxed into the liquid that had trickled from the bullet hole in a nearby barrel and she was home .

Waverly had to ditch this car and that was the most disappointing thought in her mind as she sped across the border into Canada. This BMW 303 was the only thing Champ had ever done right in his life, well besides marrying her she admitted, and to have had it only a few months - just enough time to fall in love with driving - only to give it up, felt like a harsher punishment than leaving Kalispell or even the United States. This car had become her chariot and she felt invincible in it, even though she knew she was leaving everything she had ever known. Losing the car was just going to be too painful, she feared.

Now as the miles rolled on behind her, left to abide with the sunset, Waverly thought back to how she ended up on the run. She wanted to blame Bobo Del Rey. Bobo was the one that had enticed Wynonna back when they were kids. Always challenging her to come up with any plan that would get them out of Montana, when really he just wanted Wyatt’s gun. Suggestions of how they could steal cars, when Samantha Baker, in her daddy’s Cadillac V-16, offered to drive them over to Butte if Wynonna would just get her some good hooch. Wynonna had planned to knock Samantha unconscious the second she saw the keys and come get Waverly, but she had to put up the booze before that would happen. Wynonna had to procure the liquor, and Bobo was always offering her a taste. She was drunk half an hour later and Waverly found herself once again abandoned behind Bobo’s saloon at ten years old. Waverly knew now that children couldn’t come up with valid plans to change their lives because so many of the things impeding them were well beyond their control, but god had they tried…simple, stupid plans, always to no avail. By the time Waverly was a teenager, they were pickpocketing and swindling local businessmen, and shortly after that Wynonna began brandishing Peacemaker. She was still convinced her sister had taken a plea deal in order for Waverly to avoid jail time.

Then there was Champ. Waverly rolled her eyes just thinking about how she had fallen into that… marriage …she cringed as she thought back. The judge had told her to save herself, and so that’s just what she did. Took the first boy, man, boy-man that showed any interest in her, an Earp, and locked him down before realizing what a piss-poor example of a human being he was, or rather had become. Deep down, she knew Champ wasn’t always a bad guy. When they were in high school, even as a sports and rodeo star, he’d spent afternoons at his parent’s store, putting in his time so that one day he could take over. At least that’s what Champ had told Waverly when they were dating, when he proposed after their first time in the bed of his truck.

“Waverly…you know I love you. If anything were to happen, I’d make it right. I wouldn’t let you have a bastard child of mine. Hell, we can get married if that’s what you want. I’ll go to work full time at the store and one day that’ll all be mine...ours. It’ll all be ours one day, babe.”

Waverly guessed that was a proposal because after going three weeks without so much as looking at Champ Hardy, he showed up at the Five & Dime with a diamond ring, flowers, and a “Baby, I’m sorry, let’s get married”. The judge’s advice pushed to the front of Waverly’s mind in that moment and she stupidly said yes. They were married not a month later and her life felt… over .

Somehow Bobo was back in her life soon after, enticing her newlywed husband down to the speakeasy for cheap whiskey and cards. She didn’t mind Champ playing occasionally, he seemed far less concerned with her whereabouts and actions when he did, but soon there were creditors calling and no money for groceries. Champ wouldn’t let her go back to working at the store, but also wouldn’t offer a reason why their finances were in such trouble. It had to be that goddamn racket Del Rey was running. Sure enough, it only took another month or so before he started coming around and asking if Waverly still had her granddaddy’s gun.

“I know Wynonna is too smart to have left Peacemaker anywhere someone other than you could find it. You give me that gun and Champ’s debts are paid, not just what he owes me. We’ll get you back in good standing in this community, Waverly.”

“I don’t have the gun, Bobo, and even if I did, I’d never give it to you, especially not for Champ Hardy!”

Things just got exponentially worse from there. Finally, there was only one thing to do…

Now as Waverly saw lights ahead for the first time in hours, she tried to make peace with her past. She was going to start fresh, be a model citizen and keep to herself. She had this one last chance to make a good life for herself, without any man or anyone to depend on, thank you very much . The cold air whipped through the open windows of the car as Waverly passed the sign of the first little town in Alberta, and it sure did fit.

Welcome to Purgatory: You’ll Never Want To Leave.

Nicole lunged forward with only sheer determination in her first moments of consciousness after the shooting. Pain rippled, so hot and sharp, through her middle that she thought she would vomit, but she was alive and she had to fight . Dolls used every bit of strength he had to hold her down, whisper-shouting at her from behind before she could even get her bearings.

“Haught, dammit, be still. She’s almost done…just BE STILL.”

But she was inconsolable as she squirmed and writhed under Doll’s weakening grasp, terrified of what she saw in front of her. Blood was everywhere and parts of her no one should ever see…and then the pain and the shock overcame Nicole and she was out cold again.

This had happened for the last few hours, Nicole waking to see someone feverishly trying to find bullet fragments and sew organs back together and stifle the bleeding all without anesthesia. The doctor knew this would happen, warned Ranger Dolls over and over to be ready and hold the patient still while they worked if there was any hope in saving her.

“How long was she left like this?”

“The raid ended and only then could we not account for Ranger Haught and finally I found her bleeding out in the cellar near another Ranger who had already expired. My superior said she was a lost cause, to let her go, but I just couldn’t. I owe Nicole my life. Can you save her?”

“If the bullet didn’t hit any major arteries, we might have a chance, but I need blood and…” the doctor stopped, unable to utter the terrifying fear they shared, “…if they find her here, alive, you know what will happen.”

Once more, only a few moments later, Nicole used the last of her energy to fight Dolls, to fight the masked doctor digging into her gut, pushing up with  the last bit of strength in her body, she screamed, “STOP THIS. STOP IT ALL. I am an officer of the law. I am a Texas Ranger! You cannot torture me into confessions or admissions. I will not give in!”

But Xavier wrapped his arms around her shoulders then and held her, a comforting quiet tone, “Nicole, you aren’t a Ranger anymore. This lady doctor is saving your life, so let her, please…”

“Dolls,” Nicole whimpered “I got shot…”

“Yes, you did. We thought you had died, but Doctor Pressman here says there might be enough left to make a ghost of you.”

“A ghost?”

“Hamer was going to let you die, Haught. If you make it out of here…you’re a ghost. You can’t go back to the Rangers and they can’t know you survived. You’re dead, Nicole, and now you’ll only ever be a ghost…”

Waverly wrapped the Colt Peacemaker back in the oilcloth she had covered it in across the Canadian wilderness six months earlier, and slid it under the floorboards, followed by the slap of a thick-weave rug, and sighed. Sometimes it was a comfort to see it again, but most times it felt like a curse. This gun had always brought her heartache. Hell, Wynonna had spent the better part of a decade behind bars for brandishing it in several gunfights and armed robberies. That life seemed like a distant past now, something barely part of her.

Waverly hadn’t seen Wynonna in seven years, only once after she was sentenced to prison before they carted her off to the state penitentiary. And the only thing that Wynonna had cared about was that goddamn gun. Did Waverly get it before the cops found it? Of course, Waverly knew every which way that Wynonna hid things, both guns and feelings, and she just nodded her head quietly.

“I knew I could count on you, Babygirl. You keep it somewhere safe, somewhere no one but you and I will ever find it,” Wynonna dictated.

Waverly had kept it in their mama’s trunk until the day she left Kalispell, partly out of her promise to Wynonna and partly because she knew if anyone ever caught her brandishing that gun, all hope would be lost of convincing her neighbors that she hadn’t cut down her cheating, bankrupt, poor excuse of a husband in cold blood when he came home to beg it off of her as payment on his debts to Bobo Del Rey.

“You want this gun? You’ll have to pry it from my cold dead hands.”

Waverly shuddered at the memory and stood solemnly before taking hold of the Bible on her end table, donning a shawl, and heading off to morning service.

Nicole rolled the last barrel of bourbon onto the flatbed truck and glared at Lonnie who was preoccupied with the way the comb pulled through his pomade-laden hair.

“You’re doing that for no one who appreciates it here, Lonnie,” she reminded him as she grunted, shoving the barrel against the thin wood railing, and tapping his shoulder more than gently.

“You’re right, boss. I’m sorry…I just really like Mildred and I think she’s always concerned I look unkempt when we go into town.”

“Lonnie, have you seen the way I look?”

“Well yeah, and I guess there’s a reason you’re all alone out here, Nicole,” he chided.

Nicole narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth in rebuttal only to close it a moment later. She really hadn’t considered the concept until this very moment. But Lonnie was right. She had spent the majority of the last five years making and selling cheap moonshine on the sly in order to fund her “new” legitimate whisky distribution, now open for business as Prohibition came to a close. No one was stupid enough to ask how she had aged bourbon when they had just come out of a cold, sobering decade with a scarcity of quality liquor. And that was the plan all along.

On crossing the border, Nic had found an old ranch with a small house and a big barn that she could use as a malting house and distillery. It took her four tries to build the stills to the standards she knew her family would approve of, complicated by the harsh terrain and her plan to keep them well out of sight and scattered throughout her land. Splitting their use between moonshine and whiskey, she sold enough cheap booze to fund her continued efforts towards the perfect bourbon. She started using the smokehouse for the casks to age, knowing most people wouldn’t want to be anywhere around curing meats. Slowly, her skills honed, she found the perfect recipe, part of which she credited to the pure deep river that ran alongside the ranch. It was all coming together and with the hooch business holding steady, she had also been able to amass quite a solid stock of whiskey, the good Scottish kind her family would drink only on a Sunday. She had cellars built to store the barrels, always shying away from doing much more than testing their age in the cold depths, a different chill creeping under her ribs and along her scars, the only reminder of how alcohol would always rule her life in some way.

It was only now over five years into the plan, when she had started to go into nearby towns and market her quality mash, that she realized most citizens of the Albertan province were cautious to invest with a distillery owned by a trousers-wearing, suspenders and henley, cap-covered redhead of a woman.  After the first two small businesses outside Calgary, she had invested in a blue tweed suit, adding a tilt hat when she felt the population warranted a more metropolitan look.

Business was good and picking up. People didn’t care where the whisky came from as long as she didn’t spell it with an ‘e’. Canadian whisky wasn’t from the Scots and she was sure not to remind them of that, hence the hat to downplay her fiery mane. She undercut her competitors because she wasn’t transporting it from the South and because she knew once they had her quality booze, they’d pay a little bit more in the winter months when there was nothing else to keep the bone cold of Alberta at bay. Right now, as the maple leaves began to fall, she wanted to get that first taste out to the surrounding hundred miles or so and hope that she had enticed small bars and country clubs enough to give her a call when Thanksgiving and Christmas parties rolled around. 

Thinking over all this, she realized she hadn’t considered loneliness as anything more than a staple in her life. Women had been easy enough to seduce in her younger years, and she still had a few girls she could call on from the dance halls, but they never satiated her longing for a real connection. The memory of comfort and warmth in the arms of someone she loved was growing distant and she hated herself for letting it go, knowing it meant that when she forgot Shae…well, she was gone forever...another ghost.

She shook her head from the daze she had drifted into somehow and shoved her hip against the barrel. “Come on now, we need to make it to Calgary and back before Sunday if you’re going to take Millie to church. Still can’t believe her father allows cavorting with a drunkard,” she joked.

“I’m not a drunkard,” Lonnie defended with a confused look on his face.

“No, I was just saying…because you are off on a liquor run…You know, never mind. Let’s get goin’,” she murmured, bounding down from the truck and climbing into the driver’s seat. “I wouldn’t mind taking in a show if we get done before nightfall.”

Some weeks later, Nicole stood in front of the biographies at the Purgatory Library for well over ten minutes, somehow having the impossible hope that she could conjure the book she was looking for if she just kept staring hard enough. She definitely couldn’t ask for it, not here, not in Purgatory.

Waverly had been stealing glances at the tall redhead since she came in earlier that morning, watching as Nicole ran her fingertips lightly over certain sections of books, stopping momentarily to read a title now and then, once pulling the spine out on a historical tome of Alexandria, only to return it moments later, the dust remaining on the upper ridges. Waverly’s glances turned into a full head-to-toe assessment once Nicole stopped in front of the current shelf. She was wearing clean denim pants and a cotton jacket shirt, men’s work attire, Waverly knew, but that only intrigued her more.

Now Nicole shifted her weight from one foot to another growing more anxious the longer she stood in front of the overwhelming wall of biographies and memoirs. She huffed and finally lowered her head, her hands dropping to her side dejectedly.

“Are you looking for something specific?” Waverly asked gently, a step behind her. She could see Nicole’s internal machinations and added on, “I get all kinds of odd requests, so nothing would really surprise me…”

“Oh…” Nicole considered at the sound of the young woman behind her and slowly turned her head to see Waverly waiting expectantly. Nicole pushed her hair behind an ear, suddenly conscious that she hadn’t given much time nor thought to her appearance before deciding to stop into the library after breakfast. She was certain she still smelled like coffee and bacon and no amount of musty books would mask it. Nicole certainly wasn’t expecting to be in the presence of angels today or ever again. But she felt there was one staring right at her, clandestine in chestnut hair and a tea dress, nevertheless with a glow that couldn’t be hidden. She gulped and grabbed for the shelf, missing it entirely, but managing to shuffle a few books to the floor.

They bent in unison to retrieve them, and Waverly remarked that these must’ve sat on the shelf for decades, the smell of vanilla so overwhelming where their pages opened at the stranger’s feet. “I’m sorry,” Nicole whispered, hands delicately closing over the spine, brushing Waverly’s lightly as she picked up the books, returning them to the shelf efficiently, as if a ghost had wafted through and she was just sharing their presence. “I forgot myself for a moment, ma’am.”

“Don’t ma’am me,” Waverly chuckled, “We’re the same age, if anything.”

“I’m sorry, I grew up in a place where everyone was referred to as sir or ma’am and I’ve never been able to break the habit,” Nicole explained, “Honestly, not sure I’d want to.”

Waverly was enchanted by the southern drawl from those lips…those lips…she cleared her throat and averted her eyes. “Uh, oh, okay, tell me what you were looking for at least?”

Nicole blushed. “It’s new…”

“I know we’re in a tiny town in Alberta, but we do get new books sometimes,” Waverly encouraged.

“It’s the…uh…book about the art scene in Paris, with the stories about Matisse and Picasso and…” Nicole finally began.

“The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas?” Waverly asked excitedly.

“Yeah…you know it’s probably not here and I can just order it or pick it up next time I’m in Calgary I didn’t mean to waste your time and drop your books and…” Nicole ran on even as her hands twisted before she shoved them into deep pockets.

“Miss?” Waverly calmed with her the raise of her eyebrows and innocent smile.


“Nicole. It’s not on the shelf because I just finished it last night. Come with me, I’ll get it for you. I assume you have a library card?” Waverly cajoled as she stepped back and then touched Nicole’s arm gently, before turning and walking towards the main desk.

“Yes ma’am,” Nicole followed, only to be met by cautious eyes from the librarian. “...well, I don’t know your name, so ma’am it is?”

“Waverly. I’m Waverly Hardy,” she said as she leaned down and took the book from her satchel, placing it on the desk.

“Waverly,” Nicole repeated, even as she rolled the name around her tongue thoughtfully. “I’ve never met a Waverly before.”

Waverly ignored her and opened the book, taking out the card and writing Nicole’s first name down, “Last Name?”


“For the book, Nicole.”


Waverly’s brow furrowed, “Hot? Like a stove?”

“H-A-U-G-H-T. It’s Scottish but don’t tell anyone or they’ll never let me sell whiskey here.”

“You sell whiskey.”

“Scandalous, I know, as if requesting this book hasn’t already put me on a list,” Nicole winked.

Waverly finished writing out Nicole’s name and took the card, handing her the book, but refusing to let it go momentarily. “I’ll pray for you in church.”

“I will take all the prayers I can get, Mrs. Hardy,” Nicole said as she tipped a non-existent hat, Waverly finally releasing the book wholly to her grasp, and turned to exit the library.

Nicole heard a huff as she stepped to the door and turned around, “You told me not to call you ma’am and I’m sure your husband wouldn’t mind me using his name either if that ring is any indication. Have a lovely day…Waverly,” she winked as she left.

Waverly sighed to herself as she turned her back to the door, a flush on her cheeks.  She couldn’t wait for the day Nicole returned that autobiography.


Chapter Text

Bobo slammed his fist down on the wet bar of his speakeasy in Kalispell, growling furiously. “Two people don’t just disappear , Levi! It’s been six months. Champ Hardy owes me money…a LOT of money, and his wife is going to pay if he can’t. Yellow-bellied coward disappearing in the middle of the night! And I suppose his wife is stupid enough to follow after him when she thought it was safe to do so. And here we are…without any money…and without that gun,” he sneered at Levi, “ I want that gun.

“I know, Bobo,” Levi cowered. Nervous sweat beaded on his brow under the black bandana signifying he was a member of the Revenants, Bobo’s gang of ne’er-do-wells who made sure everyone was paying their debt or clearing it in some other way. “I’m waiting to see if the girl makes contact with her family…what family she has left. No word that she’s visited her sister in jail and she hasn’t contacted her aunt so far, that we can tell. No one has heard anything from Champ since the night before he…”

An ancient roar rose from Bobo’s chest as his frustration increased exponentially. “If Waverly killed him like they all say, then we’ll never see her or Peacemaker again…but I’m willing to bet she’s too much of an angel to murder her husband in cold blood…” he mused, “Track down their car. That 303 is something people would pay attention to, especially if she’s ended up in a poor little town on the border of Montana.”

“Bobo, I don’t think we’re going to be able to find that. It’s a black car and - “ Levi tried, to buy time.

But Bobo was having no excuses. “You will find the car and you will find the girl! Sooner rather than later, or I will make an example of you, Levi…”

The last thing on Waverly’s mind this fine Thursday morning was whether Bobo Del Rey was looking for her, or not. She constantly returned her eyes to the slowly ticking clock over the doors of the Purgatory Library. 

It had been two long weeks since she had seen Nicole Haught and she was anxious for the return of the biography of Toklas, anxious for the redhead to walk in and discuss their…opinions of exactly what this book was saying, not only about all the Parisian art, but also about the women themselves in the story. Nicole had obviously wanted to read this for more reasons than a passing interest in the art scene of the late 20’s and early 30’s, Waverly convinced herself. There was so much more to the story than Picasso and Matisse, just like Waverly had learned there was more to the story of one Nicole Haught.

Waverly had casually asked around when it felt negligible. First there was the diner, where Nicole had strolled from that day, before winding up in the library. Waverly had breakfast there a few days later,  curious to see if it was a regular occurrence for Nicole, and also to see if anyone knew more about the redhead. 

“Hi Jackie, seen anyone new around these parts lately?”

“You looking for someone in particular, Waverly?” Jackie asked, filling up Waverly’s water glass and pulling the empty plates off the table.

“No, I just remembered a new girl coming into the library a few days ago…a redhead.”

“Oh, Nicole?”

“Yes, I think that’s what she said her name was,” Waverly replied nonchalantly.  

“Nicole is real nice, but a genuine character, if I ever saw one. Said she was from the American South when I asked her about that drawl, all in kindness, you know?” Jackie clarified.

“Of course, of course,, does she come here often?”

“Well, you know, when she has meetings in town, I believe. She’s got that nice setup on her ranch, with the whisky. I do believe she’s hoping to get the city council to let her sway the townsfolk with her quality bourbon for the upcoming social.”

Waverly swallowed hard. Whiskey and a ranch? The autumn social she had greatly underestimated Nicole in her denim and henley.  Her focus returned to Jackie, as hard as it seemed in the moment.

“…but I’m not sure that’s something you’d be about, seeing as how you’re such a good Christian lady, going to church and all. No offense meant, but I myself have no use for that; I’d much rather have a fine sip of Canada and a slow dance with my Barry,” she admitted whimsically.

“Jackie, I do understand that. A nice dance and a shot of the good stuff is what hardworking women need, I do believe,” she said, laying a nice tip into Jackie’s palm as she rose and left. “You make sure you have one on me, okay?”  

And after that was the general store in which she wandered about aisle by aisle until Joey had asked her if she was needing anything. She had wanted to inquire about the whisky, but again, she was a Christian and drinking might be frowned upon, especially drinking alone in her state…So she said no and never found the bottles of bourbon, but decided it had to be somewhere in the city limits of Purgatory if Jackie had known. She would find out eventually…

The next week was the livery, and then the courthouse. Just in case she has any issues with the law , she explained, as she asked Randy Nedley if he knew anything about a girl selling whisky. It was all legal now both here and in the States, so really, it weren’t any of his business , he gruffed.

Now the time allotted for Nicole’s book was expiring and surely she would be in to return it. Nicole seemed…honorable…to say the least. But the clock on the wall monotonously made its way around, hour after hour, until it was five o’clock with no Nicole. Waverly sighed as she locked the doors,  her breath catching in her throat at the idea she might never see the redhead again-- ridiculous as that might be living in Purgatory, it still didn’t quell the burn in her chest at the thought. 

Nicole strolled into the post office the following morning and tipped her hat to two women, who then glanced at her lanky frame, realizing it was also a woman that had greeted them.  

“Ladies…” she murmured, as they whispered to themselves at her stature and her polite hold of the door, “..have a good day now,” she concluded despite their slight gasps.

Nicole turned to see Fish smirking at her and just shook her head absently. “I swear I don’t mean anything by being polite, Ambrose.”

“Oh I know, Nicole, but I do delight a bit in their eyes when they notice what a fine woman you are,” he chuckled. “Here for your mail?”

“Yes, please, if there’s anything to be had.”

“Actually, a postcard from the West Coast,” he confirmed, handing her a full-color drawing that read “Greetings from California” with little scenes in the letters of the words. She smiled to herself, taking note of all the vibrancy, before flipping it over.

It’s hot out West, but a dry heat and beautiful. Leave the cold and join me soon? X

“A sweetheart?” Fish questioned.

“Ah, actually…more like a brother,” Nicole clarified.

“Ever think about going?”

“Well, maybe…depends on how long it takes to sell out these barrels I’ve got at the ranch, I suppose. It sure does look lovely…” she mused.

“I think if I ever got…ya know, if there was ever a chance to be happy far away from here, that might be it?  For me anyway…” Ambrose confessed, with smooth vaguity.

“Not sure that kind of happiness is for us here on this earth, Fish, but I will try and hold out hope for you,” Nicole said as she returned the hat to her head and tapped the counter with her postcard. “See you next week, I suppose.”

She exited the post office lost in her own thoughts. Was it safe to return to the States now? Had it been long enough? Would any amount of time ever be long enough for her to seek happiness again? She couldn’t even convince herself it existed, as of yet. 

Nicole rounded the corner and climbed into her truck, tucking the postcard into the visor and shifting the stick while it shuddered to life with the turn of the key. Time seemed different here and she wasn’t sure if it was the cold or the lonely, but how had it been five years since she had seen her friend, her love, or even America?


five years earlier


The teapot hissed and began to whistle as Nicole arched a brow, her eye opening minutely to spy Shae at the stove, taking the kettle from the gas flame and tilting into her cup, the morning light filtering through both the window, and Shae’s thin nightgown. Their one-room house afforded Nicole a constant gaze at her girl, and was secretly why she kept telling Shae she didn’t want to move. That-- and they were safe here. 

“Safe” was a relative term, seeing as how Nicole wasn’t supposed to be alive, much less living on the outskirts of Amarillo. She wasn’t supposed to be living with a girl, a dark-skinned girl no less, who was practicing medicine to the chagrin of every white man west of the Mississippi, and probably East as well , Nicole had thought numerous times. But this doctor had saved her life, and this woman had made her happy. Shae was smart and beautiful, and Nicole was enraptured with how she took care of tiny babies and old grumpy men, always with the kindest smile, the warmest eyes. 

She remembered waking up to those eyes, days after being gut-shot, Shae shushing her from the fevered cries of pain. “Quiet now, I know it hurts so much…” she said, as she lifted Nicole at the shoulders and motioned for her to take sips from a tin cup, “drink this, it’ll help…” and it tasted of gasoline and licorice, but she couldn’t argue. “There now…you’re so strong. I didn’t think you’d make it, Ranger, but here we are,” Shae smiled consolingly. 

“Nic-“ she stuttered.

“Nicky, you’re going to be fine once we get this infection out of you. Xavier will be back tonight and we can lance it through then,” Shae explained, even as Nicole shook her head adamantly that she could not, would not, withstand the pain of a hot poke to her belly again. 

“Just this last time and you can have whatever you want when you wake up tomorrow. Ice cream? Whiskey? What do you want?” 

“Peanut butter,” Nicole begged. “And you…I want you to stay.”

“You know I can’t stay, Nicole. It’s already too dangerous that I’m out here for this long. People will start looking for me. Xavier will bring you whatever you want, and Mattie will make sure your wound is clean. This is the last time you have to drink my magic tea and wake to me promising you pain.”

Nicole reached out and grasped Shae’s hand tightly. “I’ll come for you. When I’m well, I’ll come for you and we can be happy.”

Shae leaned up and kissed Nicole’s forehead. “Okay, I think that would be marvelous…” and then she poured the acrid mixture down Nicole’s throat quickly, willing her into sleep yet again.

Nicole had woken up to a jar of peanut butter and biscuits, but no Shae. And she thought she might never see her again, but slowly, as Nicole began to heal, Shae would visit and check on her wound, the gnarly scar turning from bright red to pink, until one day she proclaimed that was as good as it would get. Nicole was, for all intents and purposes, a survivor. 

Shae stood in the doorway and placed the Stetson on Nicole’s head. “You are one good-looking ghost, Ranger Haught,” and then she kissed her just once before leaving. 

Nicole spent three weeks looking for Shae and when she found her, she took her to bed in that one room house, and never left. Now as she watched Shae make her morning tea, bleary-eyed and hazy with love, she realized that months had somehow passed. She had come to love the community that Shae serviced as a doctor: the poor sharecroppers and farmers, factory workers with families too big, crammed into shotgun houses away from “polite society”. They reminded Nicole of home and she missed Georgia more and more. She longed to go back, take Shae home to meet her grandparents, start a life there. But Nicole knew that Shae was where she needed to be and these people needed her to stay, so Nicole went about the business of figuring out what her new life would be. And everything was lovely if a bit grimy, until the state came looking for her…

Nicole leaned against her truck, the hymnals from the choir of the First Baptist Church of Purgatory ricocheting off the windows as they sang about chariots carting their souls away. She spun the fedora in her hands over and over as the music progressed into the sermon, trying not to pay attention to the turmoil in her chest over the minister’s condemnation by original sin. 

What am I even doin’ here? she asked herself, raking a hand through her hair, then smoothing down the front of her jacket. But Nicole knew exactly what she was there for: a glimpse of Waverly Hardy. She had done her own asking around and Waverly attended this church regularly, was inside right now listening to the pastor send God’s judgement down upon them all. It left a sour taste in her mouth; how she could be looking for a girl who wanted to accept fire and brimstone for the likes of what she only considered natural? Where was the God that loved all his children? 

But she supposed Waverly was trying to make sense of being a widow so young. The rumors she had finally been privy to once she had asked enough questions, were that Waverly had come to Purgatory shortly after the untimely death of her husband, an American soldier killed in friendly fire. She had nothing and no one, and kept to herself. She had started at the library shortly after arriving in town; she was quiet and respectable and attended the Baptist church from her first Sunday forward. All of this confused Nicole’s feelings about Waverly. She felt almost certain Waverly had felt the sparks lit between them that first day in the library. 

Waverly didn’t seem the kind to be reading “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas”, and attending church at the same time. She didn’t seem like a widow that day, though she wore a wedding ring. She seemed young and fresh and vibrant. Nicole couldn’t reconcile the Waverly that made her promise not to call her “ma’am” with the quiet, widowed, demure girl everyone seemed to know in Purgatory. A slam of the minister’s fist against the podium brought Nicole from her reminiscing and back towards the hellfire she would surely face on her death…her second one. 

Nicole just wouldn’t listen, is all, she consoled herself. She’d climb in her truck and listen to the radio, the sounds coming from somewhere south of Purgatory, anywhere south honestly since everything seemed further and further away the longer she spent in this little town. But Nicole didn’t take her place behind the wheel, nor turn on the radio, she just maintained her recline against the front of the Ford until she heard the benediction, and the congregation poured from the exit.

Nicole rose and stood to her full height, the hat remaining in her hand and a smile cresting on her face, dimple popping as she finally saw Waverly emerge from the church. And when Waverly saw her…a smile emerged on her face as well, eyes crinkling into half-moons, as she said her goodbyes to fellow parishioners and glided over to Nicole.


“Ma’am,” Nicole responded automatically, to which Waverly only scowled. “Miss Waverly…”

“That’s better. What are you doing here?” she asked kindly, “Afraid to come inside and experience the grace?”

“Didn’t sound too much like grace out here, and I’m almost positive your pastor would not appreciate a sinner such as myself in his church.”

“God’s love is for everyone, Nicole, even sinners…if you believe in any good religion.”

“I have about as much use for religion as I do the law, Waves,” Nicole admitted.

Waverly furrowed a brow, unsure what exactly Nicole meant by this, but turned along the sidewalk towards her apartment, her arm extending for Nicole to take it.

“May I walk you home?” Nicole inquired politely, even as she threaded her hand around Waverly’s elbow and gently stood beside her to begin their walk.

“I would like that, Nicole.”

They strolled in silence for a few moments, Waverly shivering in only her cardigan. Nicole instinctively stopped and unzipped her coat, pulling it off and draping it over Waverly’s shoulders, even as Waverly could barely tear her eyes from the smooth creamy skin now exposed on Nicole’s chest. “I am sorry, it probably smells like sin, but I had nothing else to wear warm enough for this chilly morning.”

“I’m grateful for the warmth, pay you no mind anything more than that.” Waverly said out loud, all the while thinking the coat smelled sweet, like hot vanilla donuts.

A few more steps and they were at the building already, to Waverly’s dismay. She shed Nicole’s coat and handed it back, waiting while Nicole zipped it up and looked up to meet her eyes. Waverly stood on the third step, slightly higher now than Nicole’s usual advantage over her.  She pushed hair from Nicole’s face as she asked, “So why were you outside the church this morning?”

“I remembered I needed to check my book out again…it’s late on return…” Nicole lied.

“It is. I will mark you down for another two weeks?

“I’m hopeful it won’t take that long,” Nicole’s voice lowered in register.

“Slow reader?” Waverly questioned, looking at Nicole’s lips.

“I like to read everything at least twice, and the good parts three times.”

“Then you should make notes and tell me the good parts when you return the book,” Waverly’s voice lowered to match Nicole’s.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Before Waverly could lean that last few inches between them, Nicole turned and was gone, her warmth remaining against Waverly’s hand. She skipped for a second down the sidewalk and turned back to Waverly, quite the same as she had that first day in the library.

“Have a lovely Sunday, Mrs. Hardy.”

Waverly caught her breath and pushed it out just enough to respond accordingly, “You too, Miss Haught.”

Turning to open the door, she rolled her eyes and realized she was going to have to cut the charade of being a married woman if she ever wanted to kiss Nicole…and she definitely wanted to kiss Nicole.

Nicole stood and shook the outstretched hand of Perry Crofte, “I’m pleased we could come to an agreement for the Autumn Social,” she said confidently.

“I am as well, Ms. Haught. I’ll have First Trust issue your payment on Thursday and we can expect delivery on Friday?”

“I will have three trucks at the fairgrounds that same day, if you prefer.”

“No, no. Friday is fine. Gives them plenty of time to have everything arranged for the dance on Saturday night. We obviously won’t be serving while the children are in attendance for the corn maze and other games during the day,” he cautioned.

Nicole scowled in agreement, shoving her hands into pockets a bit too briskly. “Of course not, wouldn’t be proper with children around. But I do think the adults will enjoy a bit of a more jovial atmosphere that bourbon can provide as night falls.”

“Only the best whisky for the citizens of Purgatory as long as I’m Mayor.”

“I appreciate you are pleased with my stock, Mayor Croft.”

“Please, call me Perry. Will we be seeing you at the social?”

Nicole swallowed and considered the circumstances. She could go, but not as a lady of refinement in a dress. She could go as herself, but never dance with another woman, standing along the sides of the dance floor all night. She had about decided to decline when Perry encouraged her, “They should know where to go for the Christmas parties and maybe even a special afternoon delicacy on Thanksgiving, no?”

That would be good business … Nicole reconciled within herself.

“…If for nothing more than shaking hands and making acquaintances, Miss Haught. I will be glad to introduce you around to the fine citizens of our community.” 

“Then I suppose I will have to find myself some proper attire, mind you no flutter skirts…” she acquiesced. “I am a businesswoman, first.”

“Of course,” Perry stated with a final handshake. “See you there.”

When Augusta McCready climbed off the train last of all the other passengers, Waverly breathed easy for what felt like the first time in three days. She grabbed her Aunt Gus by the shoulders and pulled her into a tight hug. “I thought maybe you hadn’t made the last stop…or that you’d changed your mind.”

“It’s not like you didn’t make me give everyone the runaround, child. I had to take a train through Idaho and Oregon and buy a ticket for Seattle that I won’t get to use, just to come across the border-- and less than a day’s drive away from Kalispell…You worried about being found, Waverly Earp?”

“SHHH!” Waverly warily forced out, before whispering to Gus, “I go by Hardy here. It’s…easier…”

“Now why would you take that no-good piece of…” but Waverly jerked on her aunt’s arm, pulling her close to make a further point, “…he was still my husband last I checked…”

“God rest his soul,” Gus said, even as she crossed herself.

“Aunt Gus, if that coward is dead, he had it coming…Just…for all intents and purposes, I’m a…a widow here…”

Gus guffawed despite herself, “A widow? Well that certainly isn’t going to dispel the rumors in Montana, but whatever you say, Waverly.”

“Come on now, I have you a nice room at the Gardner Hotel and you’re just in time for the Autumn Fair & Social,” Waves said, returning to the glee she felt at finally having family close again. 

Nicole rode into town on an unseasonably warm October evening as the sun set on the fall festival. Her radio was tuned to the sounds of staticky blues on the AM band. She knew her grandfather would be so disappointed that she loved Leadbelly more than the music of her heritage, but the mandolin was almost too sad for her to tolerate now. It just reminded her of honeysuckle and pine and she could not go home. 

She turned down the volume as she neared the fairgrounds, the sound of children squealing both in delight and exhaustion overtaking the fret work of Charley Patton, as the day drew to a close. She rolled down the window and took in the scent of hotdogs and the wood of the bonfire being prepared for the evening’s dance. 

Her eyes wandered across the open spaces of the fairground searching for Waverly, disappointed when she couldn’t spot her in the midst of any crowd, nor alone-- though she couldn’t imagine Waverly being alone, not being the center of everyone’s attention, just as she had been foremost in Nicole’s mind for the last three weeks. 

She hadn’t known what to think. Waverly still wearing her wedding ring meant she was in mourning for her husband? But she had moved here alone, away from everyone she knew, her family…his family perhaps. How long had it been? Waverly had only been in Kalispell a few months, certainly not enough time to grieve someone she would marry. Not Waverly… Nicole thought. Waverly would only marry for love; she just knew that was the kind of person Waverly was.

Nicole was pulled from her thoughts by Fish, who was so wrapped up in his conversation with another gentleman that he didn’t see her as she opened the door and emerged from her truck. He slammed into the door and turned as if he’d been threatened, only to smile in relief when he saw Nicole standing there.

“Nicole…” he whistled, his eyes running the length of her long form, “…you do look like you’re on your way to the dance. Are you thinking you might find happiness after all?”

Nicole dismissed him immediately, “I’m here for business, Ambrose…well, mostly at least. Hoping to see a new friend or two.”

Fish gathered himself, running his hands along his belt and tucking in the back of his shirt. Nicole noticed the hand of the other man absently graze his shoulder, and she couldn’t help but smile. So this is the someone Ambrose always talks so wistfully about…

“Anyone I might know?” he finally asked, after clearing his throat.

“Well, there’s the city council members, but friends-wise, I was hoping Waverly Hardy might be attending,” she played off as casually as she could make Waverly’s name roll off her tongue.

“Oh…Waverly,” Fish lamented. “I do believe she’s with her Aunt this evening instead. They were here for some of the barbecue earlier, but her Aunt Gus was tired and I saw her escorting the lady home an hour or so ago.”

Nicole shook her head in acknowledgment and not much else. She was disappointed but convinced herself to proceed with the socializing. As she had told Perry, it was good business.

“Very well, then. I hope her aunt is okay. I take it you boys are heading out?”

“That gentleman there…” Levi finally spoke up, pointing towards Lonnie at the entrance greeting the attendees as representative for Haught Whisky at the moment, “…he gave us a bit of what you call, lower grade…”


“…yeah, moonshine…so we’re going to have that down by the river.”

“Sounds like a right good plan. Hope you two have a good evening, but don’t fall in. That moonshine will knock you on your ass faster than you can say Lindy hop,” Nicole winked before moving past them and towards the entrance to the dance. 

Fish and Levi slipped away, disappearing into the woods amidst laughter. Nicole stepped up to the arched entryway and admired the hanging sconces as she greeted Lonnie. “Everything ready? Ambrose said you are giving away a bit of hooch for those who would rather squirrel away with their loves.”

“Who is Ambrose?” was Lonnie’s initial response, “Yeah, I let them try a taste and then sell them some of the cheap stuff if they’re not coming inside anyway. Ten cent drunk is better than free.”

“I’ve taught you well, Lonnie. But now that everyone is arriving,” she turned, looking at the headlights switching off in the dusty parking area, couples emerging from their cars after delivering their children to grandparents so they could have an evening of adult time, “…let’s just put that away. We’ll go on in and you can spend your evening with Millie and I will gladly take on the burden of the commissioners and judges for the holiday season supply. Thanks for all you’ve done,” she said as she patted him on the back and ushered him to his awaiting girlfriend.

What felt like years, but was actually just a few hours later, Nicole finally stepped back through the arches and was heading to her truck. She had shaken every wealthy man’s hand in Purgatory, and praised their wives sometimes horrible fashion sense, insisting she drop by with a taste of her best bourbon, the “top shelf” supply so they could place their holiday orders if the flavors agreed with them. She was exhausted. Nicole couldn’t remember the last time she had talked so much that her voice had gone to give out, and that was her excuse for making her way home, that and the crowds had thinned significantly, only a few young couples remaining on the dance floor they’d fashioned out of timber and shellac. The band had lost their singer and guitarist, only the piano and bass players, perhaps the guy with the clarinet or sax still milled around, but music was waning with the clock towards midnight. It was time for Nicole to go home.


It was all Nicole heard and her heart soared in her chest. She whipped around to find Waverly standing a few feet behind her, obviously noticing her just as she was leaving. “I guess I’m too late if you’re going…”

“No, ma’am,” Nicole blushed and dipped her head remembering Waverly’s distaste for that particular honorific. 

“I heard the best whisky in Alberta was available here tonight, so I had to come get a taste for myself.”

Nicole swallowed, her eyes appraising Waverly, tongue darting out to lick her lips subconsciously at the suggestion of a taste.  “The boys will have you a fine full glass as you walk towards the dance floor, Mrs. Hardy.”

Waverly swung her arms a bit, her intention to do that visible, but then her eyes shot straight to Nicole’s and all movement otherwise ceased. 

“Walk with me?”

Nicole nodded and turned, coming to stand beside Waverly before they made their way back towards the gates slowly, walking in silence before Nicole finally spoke.

“Ambrose said you wouldn’t be here, something about your aunt not feeling well, I believe…I’m glad you have family here, Waverly.”

“My Aunt Gus just got in yesterday and it was a bit much to expect her to spend all day at the fair, perhaps. I gave her a hot toddy and put her to bed with a good book. She won’t even know I’m gone.” Waverly explained.

“I understand. I meant no disrespect in you not coming to the Social tonight. I know you…you’ve had a lot to deal with…”

Waverly didn’t respond and they walked in unison, ever slowly, back towards the main gathering area. The chill of the night was overtaking the open space, the bonfire dying, and Nicole crossed her arms to hold in the heat that her black crepe button blouse could not. She was grateful she had gone with the sailor pants or she would be freezing. She looked down at Waverly, who was in better shape with a wool peacoat covering her dress, and proceeded to offer her apologies. “I hope you’re not too cold. We can make our way over to the fire, though I’m not sure what comfort it might offer at midnight.”

Waverly remained silent a few steps further and came to a slow stop before her confession. 

“I’m a widow, Nicole.”

Nicole wrapped her hands around Waverly’s arm at the elbow, the most comfort she could think would be appropriate in this moment.  “I’m very sorry to hear that…you must…you must miss him very much,” she consoled, not allowing that she had already found this information out. It was on Waverly’s time to reveal what she wanted to Nicole.

Waverly swallowed hard before turning towards Nicole and taking her hands within her own. “Actually, he was a real piece of shit,” she laughed, never letting go. 

Nicole gaped at Waverly for a moment before chuckling as well. “Yeah?” was all she could think to respond with, completely distracted by the warmth and softness that had enveloped her with Waverly’s touch.

“Yeah! I didn’t have much use for him near the end and well…I came to Purgatory to get a new start.”

“I did the same a few years ago. It’s a good place for that, I do believe,” Nicole confirmed, turning so they could continue making their way towards the few remaining patrons and the last glasses of whiskey.  When they came to stand at the table, she picked one up, took a quick sniff and handed it to Waverly, “The Scot’s finest, but don’t tell these Albertans,” she winked.

Waverly breathed the whiskey in before taking a sip. It was smooth and rich, the oak remaining on the roof or her mouth, the mash a sweet memory on her tongue. She had another and then another and turned the glass up empty a bit quicker than Nicole felt was prudent.

“I hope you are accustomed to liquor, ma’am, because this is a bit potent,” she warned.

“I’m an Earp, Miss Haught, and I handle my whisky just fine,” Waverly said, taking a second glass and turning it back efficiently. Nicole’s eyes bulged with shock and awe at a girl who could down a shot like that, the muscles in Waverly’s neck defined with each swallow and appreciative roll of her tongue.

Nicole could only smirk, “An Earp, you say? No more Mrs. Hardy?”

Waverly took one last glass and turned it up, squinting her eyes as the bourbon burned her throat, the shot a bit bigger than she expected. But even as she finished it off, she shook her head, “Definitely not…well, maybe for all these people,” she said, gesturing at the few Pugatorians remaining, “but I was born an Earp and I’ve paid mightily to be an Earp most of my life, so what the hell?”

“Very well, Waverly Earp,” Nicole agreed, drawing the P out with a wide smile, her dimple popping. 

Waverly was mesmerized and they stood motionless for a minute too long, she surmised.  She grabbed Nicole’s hand, the liquid courage begin to surge through her veins, “We should dance.”

“Waverly, I -“ Nicole objected, worried about Waverly’s reputation even with the half dozen people that remained at the Social, “I - I don’t think that’s a good idea, people will see…”

“Do you see any available men to dance with me here?”


“Do you not want to dance with me?”

“No, I mean…yes, I just…”

“It’s after midnight, Nicole, and everyone’s had a bit of your very fine bourbon and I just want to sway to the music and…” she shrugged off her coat, and pulled Nicole onto the dance floor, reasoning with her arms wrapping around shoulders loosely, “…and just talk to you for a few minutes while we dance, okay?”

Nicole realized in that moment that she would never be able to deny Waverly anything. She had considered that previously, in fear almost, but now she knew it was a cold hard fact, verified by the feel of Waverly softly leaning into her, their bodies barely touching, nothing improper really, she would say… friends …friends just having a drink and a chat on the dance floor. 

Waverly got her fine bourbon. Waverly got her sway. The piano player drifted from an upper to a soft slow lilt of a song, while Waverly drifted closer to Nicole. The whiskey warmed her now and she felt alive, but safe in Nicole’s arms. 


“Yes, Waverly?”

“I suppose I understand why you have no use for religion. It’s petulant at best and a damning sacrifice of life at the worst…”

“Then why do you go to church every Sunday?” Nicole interrupted.

“Ahhh…to put it simply, I suppose I’m trying to be a better version of myself here. Maybe I can explain that more articulately someday,” Waverly said.

“I think I’d be delighted with any version of you, Waverly,” Nicole said as she pulled her a hair closer.

Waverly only smiled and remembered what her original question had been. “…so why do you have no use for the law? That’s not something I hear very often.”

“And why would you? The name Earp,” Nicole swallowed the stories down hard of her grandfather and Wyatt and choked out the rest, “the name Earp, well that’s pretty famous Law, is it not?”

“It is,” Waverly whispered, her own memories of trading on her family’s name as an adolescent haunting her now. 

“Let’s just say…most lawmen aren’t like Wyatt Earp and I have no use for it as a whole since it stole a life away from me, made me a ghost,” she finished in a whisper.

They had stopped dancing and stood alone, the band continuing to play as if they weren’t the only people remaining at the Social. Nicole saw in Waverly’s face something akin to fear or shock…something she wasn’t sure Waverly could handle, so she would most definitely not ask that of her tonight. Her eyes softened and a smile betrayed the hate that had welled up inside her even as she took Waverly by the waist and drew her near. She began to step to the music again.

Nicole hummed at first, Waverly bending into her body gradually, and finally she sang low at the shell of Waverly’s ear.


How many times in a day

Do I think of you?

How many roses are

Sprinkled with dew?


Waverly looked up and into Nicole’s warm eyes. She wanted to ask her the name of the song or how she knew of it or really a million other questions. Waverly had so much she wanted to know about Nicole and if she could just read her, like the thousands of books she had plundered through in her life, then she would know her…she would understand…

But Waverly couldn’t read Nicole just yet, and she didn’t want to ruin their first dance. Waverly didn’t want to offer her own story quite yet either. So she just let Nicole take the lead and continue to whisper sweet words of devotion.


And if I ever lost you

How much would I cry?


How deep is the ocean?


How high is the sky?