The grim undertaker stood back from the body on Josephine's bed and nodded once as he covered his oil slicked white hair with his coal black top hat.
“Dead all right,” said the rail-thin older man, stating the obvious and making it official at the same time.
The madam stood at her window, staring down at the main street through town. The wagon ruts needed filling again, she noticed absently. Josephine did not move or turn to look as two young men assisting the old grave digger came in and took Freddy's body away.
The undertaker cleared his throat behind her. Still, Josephine did not look away from the view beyond the glass. She knew what the man expected. Josephine waved her hand, indicating the dresser by the door.
“In the candy jar by the lamp,” she said quietly. “Be careful with the glass, if you please. It was a gift.”
Josephine did not bother to see if the stodgy old coot took care or not. She heard him lift the lid and remove the coins he expected as payment for his “services.” The door closed solidly as the man took his leave.
Alone again, at last, Josephine removed the tin star from the pocket of her robe. She was replaying in her mind's eye, the near death experience of another client that evening. Josephine could not recall ever moving so quickly in her entire life. What had caused such swiftness, she wondered. Josephine turned the sheriff’s star around and around between her slender fingers. Could it be that the piece of tin really was what Freddy had claimed it to be?
Josephine shook her head and dropped the star back into her pocket. She laughed quietly at her own silliness.
The star was, of course, just a simple piece of metal. To give it mysterious powers beyond its status as an inanimate object would only do her own quick thinking a disservice.
Looking around her modest, yet elegant space, Josephine realized that she would not be able to sleep in her own bed that night. Perhaps tomorrow, but tonight it would be too much. She needed to get some fresh air. As quickly as she could, Josephine removed her robe and donned a very fashionable, and expensive walking dress.
The two piece bustle dress was sewn from deep emerald green silk fabric and accented with a rich black cotton underskirt and lace dickey. Three-inch black lace trimmed the elbow long sleeves, the upper skirt apron, and the lower bustle. One inch black lace trimmed the neckline and on the Jabot.
Josephine stood before her full length mirror to swiftly fasten the six silver buttons with intricate floral patterns stamped on them. She did not want to take the time to mess with her hair, so Josephine tied a black satin bonnet onto her head. It was not her best effort, but it would pass the accepted societal standards. At least for a quick stroll down the boardwalk.
At the last moment, Josephine removed the tin star from her robe and gripped it within the fist of her right hand.
She made a hasty retreat from the Thorn Bush brothel house. Those girls who were unattached, touched her arms gently as she passed through the parlor. It was a silent and gentle show of support for her mourning. It was the best she was going to get.
The fresh air smacked Josephine in the face as she stepped into it. She turned to close the door behind her. The street was quiet. At this late hour, most of the citizens were home with their families, or already well established within the warm and cozy confines of her own establishment. Even the saloons down the street were not as loud as they might be later in the week when the miners would draw their pay.
The madam turned to the right and started down the boardwalk. She had no destination in mind. There was a gambling hall at the end of the street. Josephine had no money in her possession that evening. Not that she really needed any. Any one of the establishments in the small community would extend her credit if she so desired. Her business was good for their business. The Thorn Bush drew money to the town. That money was distributed throughout the populace. Not even the prude ladies of a married status could deny the financial impact the brothel had on the small economy.
The tinkling notes of the piano being played within the thin walls of the gambling hall were just reaching Josephine's ears when she passed by the only dark alley in town.
Josephine jerked to a halt with surprise as a gristly drunk shuffled out of the deep shadows. The soft light from the street lamps flickered across his haggard face. His long beard was speckled with gray. The crumpled hat on his head covered his otherwise bald scalp. He was an older man, perhaps nearing the end of his fifties, but still looked to be very stout.
When the man's watery eyes landed on Josephine, standing stalk still before him, he nearly tripped over his wandering feet trying to stop his forward motion.
He ripped the hat from his head and bent awkwardly at the waist in a dangerously sloppy bow. The gesture caused the drunk to pitch forward toward Josephine. Before he could hit her, the madam spun in a flurry of cloth. The silk of her dress hissed softly with her sudden movement.
The drunk landed hard, face first on the boardwalk. It had all happened so fast. Josephine rushed to the man and hiked up her skirts to kneel down next to him.
The man known around town as “Gravy” Adams, raised his head off of the splintered boards and grinned at her. Blood ran down his ridiculous face from the fresh gash across his right cheek. It didn't matter if the man was drinking, jawing, or epically failing a simple gentlemanly gesture, he lived up to his nickname by pouring it on thick.
“Did I hurt you, sweet Josey,” Gravy asked. His voice was deep and liquid.
Josephine shook her head and frowned. She removed the balled up hat from within the man's fist and helped him turn over and sit up.
“No, you silly fool,” the madam replied a bit more angry than she really meant to sound. “But you damn sure did yourself an ugly bit of hurt.”
Through the haze of alcohol, Gravy could not yet feel the damage he had done to his face. He was certainly going to be feeling it in the morning.
“I apologize fiercely,” Gravy slurred. “You very nearly startled the drink right out of me standing there so sudden-like.”
“If only that were possible, Mr. Adams.”
Gravy gave her another goofball grin. He liked that she refused to call him by his nickname. She was the only one in town who refrained. She seemed to understand that he couldn't help his overindulgent nature.
“That was a nifty motion you made there, to avoid a mighty collision with my clumsy self,” Gravy remarked with a twirl of his hand to mimic Josephine's spin. “It almost felt like we was dancin',” he added wistfully.
“We do not share the same vision of dancing,” Josephine said as she took Gravy's arm in both of her hands. “Can you stand? I fear not my back, nor my dress can take to kneeling here like this much longer.”
Gravy was suddenly very worried for her. He attempted to scramble to his feet and help her up, but it was Josephine who gained her feet first. She had to fight hard to keep Gravy from pulling them both back down with his fumbling.
At last, he came to a near stop. He still swayed gently on his unsteady feet. Josephine was concerned about the gash on his cheek. It had not stopped bleeding yet. The wound was full of debris from the filthy boardwalk. It needed to be tended to immediately or it would not heal properly.
Josephine held Gravy's hat to his cheek and forced his hand up to hold it there himself. Hopefully the pressure would help stop the bleeding. Gravy was already looking a bit paler than he had before the fall.
“Now, Mr. Adams, I want you to go straight to my establishment and tell the first girl you see that I sent you,” she instructed. “You are to have your wound cleaned and mended, and a place to sleep provided for you."
Gravy swayed from one foot to the other. He lowered his eyes.
“While that is a fine and decent thing for you to offer me, miss Josey, I must decline.”
“Why ever for,” Josephine asked.
“A person such as myself does not belong in your house,” he said, hanging his head.
Josephine shook her head. She took up his arm again and turned him around in the direction of the Thorn Bush.
“Nonsense,” she replied, “It is my house and I shall determine who may enter into it.”
The madam abandoned her mission for fresh air and mourning, to march Mr. Adams back to the brothel. They were halfway there, passing the Livery when an angry, booming voice stopped them.
A tall, slender man in a top hat and brown tailcoat was marching down the boardwalk toward the madam and the drunk. The heels of his high-calf black boots struck the wood hard as he strode quickly at them. The long salt and pepper hair that feathered out from under the brim of his hat, ruffled with the wind his speedy advance was creating.
Before Gravy could raise a reply, the well known financier started to lift his arm. Josephine's eyes went wide. She recognized the shape of the metal in Maxwell Keen's hand.
Quickly, the madam shoved Gravy toward a stack of feed sacks near the Livery door.
They fell behind the pile, hitting the ground with very little finesse, just as a shot thundered into the air behind them and the lead ball tore through the bag at the top of the stack.
Feed rained down on Gravy's head.
“Well, ain't he just spittin' fire,” Gravy exclaimed. Josephine balled the cloth of Gravy's collar between her two fists.
“What in the hell did you do, Mr. Adams?”
“He may have finally figured out that it was me what put an ace in his pocket,” Gravy explained with just a little too much merriment in his voice for Josephine's liking. “Then I may have spread some whispers about him cheatin'.” He shrugged again. Josephine could have strangled him.
“You of all people know what kind of a short temper Mr. Maxwell Keen has!”
“Yes, ma'am. He's a jackass.”
Another lead ball ripped a large hole through a second feed bag. This one was very close to Gravy's ear.
The growl that Josephine conjured deep within her throat was very unladylike. She pulled hard on the drunk's coat, urging him up.