Once Upon A Time…Has Never Been This Hot.
“Of all the pig-headed, ignorant…”
Hollis Chambers muttered to herself as she strode across the dusty street, her displeasure mirrored in the gait. She should have known better than to trust Gilmore—believe the man when he'd assured her she'd be more than welcomed. While he hadn't been exaggerating about the camp's desperate need for a physician, he'd greatly overestimated her appeal. At least at the other camps she'd resided in, she'd been given a chance to pass or fail, even if that test seemed to be never-ending. Here… She hadn't gotten past the two men in charge.
She cursed, wishing she'd acted on her instincts and smacked the smug grins off both of their faces. Damn, those two boys were infuriating. Gilmore had shown her the telegrams Cullen had sent the man—how he'd practically begged for his boss to send someone, anyone—yet, Cullen had brushed her off without even bothering to see if she was worth taking a chance on. If twisting the arms of the men in the camp to accept her might be worth his while.
She shoved at the swinging doors to the saloon, heading straight for the bar. More than a few gazes followed her progress, their attention no doubt centered on the pistols on her hips. She hadn't been lying to Cullen. She knew how to shoot, how to fight—thanks to her father's unusual occupation. Not that she enjoyed killing people. But she'd discovered long ago that, regardless of her desire, she couldn't save every soul.
Hollis snorted. She'd read Cullen and Lucas' disbelief. Had sensed that they thought she'd merely been posturing. Exaggerating her abilities. Of course, being underestimated was one of her greatest attributes. Some might have seen her gender as limiting, but she saw it as a way of gaining the upper hand. Men expected her to be weak. Fragile. And she had no qualms about proving otherwise. Knowing she could treat most of the wounds she inflicted didn't hurt, either. Though even she realized that her medical skill could only go so far. That sometimes defending herself meant someone else would suffer.
The barkeep stopped in front of her, giving her a hard glare. “Can I help you?”
She placed a few coins on the bar. “Whiskey.”
The man gave her the once over then poured her a glass. She tipped her hat, taking a seat at one of the tables closer to the wall. A spot where she could watch the other patrons interact without being too close. She'd never been fond of saloons or large gatherings, but under the circumstances, it seemed a better option than waiting for the next train somewhere else—like the sheriff's office.
Hollis took a sip of the alcohol, allowing the liquid to burn away some of her tension. She didn't like being dismissed, especially by Cullen and his friend, Lucas. For some reason, their rejection had stung more than usual. Whether it'd been the knowing looks they'd given each other or the seeming ease with which they'd discounted her, she wasn't sure. All she knew was that she'd worked hard to appear unaffected as she'd spun on her heel and left.
Disappointment soured her stomach as more workers entered the saloon, the noise level rising with each new wave of men. She watched the steady flow of people for over an hour before venturing to the train platform. But the departure time came and went with nothing more than a shrug by the man at the station. He offhandedly mentioned the times for the following day then left.
Anger heated her skin as she returned to the tavern and ordered another drink and a bowl of stew, finally switching to something less potent as the sun sank below the horizon, dusk settling around the camp. Just her damn luck she'd get stuck at the end of a dead-end spur, with no other recourse but to wait it out.
She shoved her two bags beneath the small table, resting her feet on the edge while keeping her hat low over her face. She glanced at the barkeep, wondering if the man would let her stay the night, when the doors to the tavern crashed open. Three men stormed through the entrance, carrying a fourth, blood staining the man's shirt. They headed toward a table on the far side of the saloon, shouting out for someone named Henry.
The man in question rose from the table, knocking over his chair. It clattered onto the wood floor, cutting through the din of conversation. Henry's mouth gaped open as the other men cleared off the surface with a sweep of their arms, shattering glasses onto the hard planks below then draping their friend over the table, a muted groan lighting the air.
One of the men grabbed Henry's shirt, yanking him closer. “One of Buford's men clipped my brother in the shoulder. Fix him.”
Henry pulled free, then crossed his arms over his chest. “The man's been shot. Bleedin' him ain't gonna fix nothing. The only place he's going is to the undertaker's.”
“I know he's been shot. Why the Hell do you think we dragged him in here? You're always runnin' your mouth off about how skilled you are. How you're as good as any doctor the company ever sent out here. That means it's your job to fix him before I decide you're not worth keeping around.”
Henry shoved at the man when he tried to grab him, tripping them both back a few steps when the swinging doors opened again, Lucas and Cullen barreling through. Lucas pushed his way through the crowd, grabbing the injured man's brother and pulling him off Henry. Cullen moved around to the opposite side, stepping between the others and Henry, motioning the surrounding men to stand down.
Lucas palmed his weapon. “Easy, boys. Everyone just take a step back.” He shuffled closer to the brother. “Frank, you need to calm down before you get yourself shot.”
Frank pointed at Henry. “I'll calm down just as soon that bastard takes care of Jack.”
Henry lunged at Frank, held back by Cullen's arm. “No one can save your brother, now, you fool. He's already dead.”
Cullen pushed the man back. “Are you trying to get yourself killed? Just do everyone a favor and shut the Hell up.” He cursed, shoving Henry, again, when he tried to move past him. “I mean it, Henry. There are more than a few men in here who would love to see you covered in your own damn leeches, so back away.”
Henry sneered but stopped pushing against Cullen's hold, finally taking a couple of steps backwards. He mumbled something under his breath, looking as if he was considering making a run for the door.
Cullen gave the man a curt nod, glancing down at Jack splayed across the table. Though Hollis was too far away to see the full extent of Jack's injuries, she knew by the tight press of Cullen's mouth and the concerned look he gave Lucas that Cullen wasn't expecting the man to live.
Tension clenched Hollis' stomach, but she forced herself to remain in her seat. Allow the events to unfold without getting involved. It didn't matter that her skin crawled at the thought of sitting idly by as the man slowly bled to death. Of ignoring the incessant voice in her head begging her to uphold her oath. Both Cullen and Lucas had made their feelings regarding her presence crystal clear, and she knew she'd never gain anyone's respect unless they made the first move. An uneasy calm settled over her as she watched the two men exchange another look before Cullen sighed.
He raked his hand through his hair, nodding at Frank. “I hate to admit it, but your brother's lost a lot of blood. Even if Henry patches him up, he might not make it.”
Frank sneered at Henry still standing behind Cullen. “He ain't dead, yet.”
Cullen gave Frank a grim smile. “I realize that but…we all know this is way beyond Henry's ability to treat.” He glared back at Henry. “In fact, everything is beyond his ability to treat.”
Henry huffed. “I don't see you doing any better? If you're so disappointed with my skill, then why haven't you found us another doctor? Men around here are droppin' like flies, yet you keep telling us the same excuses. Maybe you're the one who needs to 'fix this'.”
Cullen twisted toward the man, his sheer size making Henry take another hurried step back. Having interacted with Cullen and Lucas on their own, Hollis hadn't really noticed how much larger the two men were, standing several inches taller than any of the other men in the bar. But it wasn't just their height—their shoulders were broader, their bodies thicker. And she guessed, by the way their shirts bunched against their torsos, that well-formed muscles flexed beneath the fabric.
Heat swirled through her core, settling uncomfortably in her groin. She gave herself a mental shake. Despite the fact the men were ruggedly handsome—both sporting square jaw lines with high cheekbones and symmetrical features—their attitudes earlier had told her all she needed to know. And she'd be damned if she allowed herself to feel anything for either of them other than the anger still churning in her gut.
Cullen stared at Henry, his lips quirking slightly when the other man took another step back. “Don't you think I've tried?” He turned back to Frank. “I've asked. Hell, I've fucking begged, and all they've sent me was a wo—”
His voice cut off sharply as Lucas swatted him in the back, pointing toward Hollis when Cullen glared at the sheriff over his shoulder. Cullen frowned, following the man's motion. His gaze clashed with hers, disbelief widening his eyes. He held up his hand, silently telling the other men to wait before picking his way over to her table.
He stopped a foot away, giving her body a long, slow sweep, finally making eye contact, again. He nodded at her. “I thought you were headin' back?”
She shrugged. “Train never showed.”
“I see…” He seemed to force himself to swallow before waving at Jack's body spread out on the table. “Seeing as you're still here…we could use your assistance.”
“What?” Frank pushed his way across the room, barely held back by Cullen's arm across his chest once he'd reached them. “We need a doctor, James, not some tavern girl who makes a living spreadin' her legs.”
Cullen fisted the man's shirt, tossing him backwards. “Goddamn it, Frank. Shut up before you guarantee your brother dies by sunrise.” He released a harsh breath, looking at her, again. “Miss Chambers…” He cleared his throat at her arched brow. “Dr. Chambers—”
“Doctor?” Frank tried to push past Cullen, only to end up on his ass. “Women ain't no doctors.”
Cullen growled this time, the sound far more animalistic than she thought possible. Something flashed in his eyes, but the hint of red she thought she'd glimpsed was gone before she could be certain it had ever been there.
“One more word and I'll have Lucas drag you out of here. See that you spend the next few days in jail.” He turned to her. “Doctor, as you can see, we're in need of your… expertise.”
Hollis thumbed the empty glass beside her hand. “I'd love to help out, Mr. James, but…as I recall, you and Sheriff Quinn didn't feel my services were welcome here.”
Cullen's jaw clenched, jumping the muscle in his temple. “Obviously, that was a bit of a rash decision.”
She glanced at the injured man. “Your barber was right about one thing. That kind of wound won't heal itself. Without treatment, that man will be dead within the hour.”
“Which is why we could use your assistance.”
“No fucking way she's touching my brother.” Frank pushed upright, only to be held back by Lucas when the other man darted across the room.
Cullen shook a finger at him. “Shut. Up.”
She smiled at him. “Again, I'd like to help, but…”
Cullen exhaled, fisting his hands at his side. “Fine. Consider yourself officially hired. Now, if you'd kindly take a peek…”
Hollis placed her feet on the floor, rocking onto her heels. She glanced at the surrounding men, noting the firm scowls gracing their faces. Damn, she knew those looks, and it generally meant she'd have to prove herself in more ways than one before the night was over.
She skimmed her palms over the handles of her guns before bending and grabbing one of her bags. Then, she made her way over to the other table, arching her brow. “Goddamn. Don't you men know even the basics about keeping someone alive? You need to put pressure on the wound. Stem the bleedin'. Christ, he looks like a bloody ghost.”
She placed her bag beside Jack, reaching for the guy's shirt when a hand grabbed her shoulder and yanked her backwards. She managed to catch herself against another worker a moment before a fist connected with her jaw, tumbling her against a table then onto the floor. She hit hard, sending black dots swimming across her vision as the metallic taste of her own blood filled her senses. Shouts erupted around her, followed by the sounds of fighting.
Years of training took over, and Hollis rolled onto her hands and knees, quickly gaining her feet. Cullen and Lucas each had two guys by the shirt, doing their best to toss them toward the swinging doors as more men threw punches at each other. Frank appeared in front of her, arm cocked backwards as he readied his next strike. She gauged his attack, dodging the punch as she spun out of the way, then landing one of her own. Then, she kicked the back of his knee, dropping him hard to the ground. Another punch had him face down, blood trickling from his nose.
A hand landed on her shoulder, but she elbowed the guy firmly in the chest, following the strike with a hit beneath his jaw, snapping his head up and away. The movement broke his grip, giving her enough time to grab a chair and slam it against him, crashing both to the floor. She used the momentary distraction to draw her guns, cocking them then pointing them point blank at two more men as they closed in on her.
The men stopped, the sound of the hammers clicking into place spreading silence throughout the saloon. The shouting died away as all gazes focused on her.
Hollis blew the wisps of hair out of her face, endlessly scanning the room as she glared at the surrounding men, sweat stinging the cut across her lip and forehead. “Enough! I swear to God, I'll shoot the next man who so much as looks at me the wrong way.”
She kept surveying the crowd, searching for anyone who might challenge her, when a flicker of movement caught her attention near the bar. She cocked her head, firing a single shot when the barkeep raised a rifle in her direction. The bullet hit him in the hand, knocking the gun from his grasp. He howled and reeled backwards, grabbing his hand as blood seeped out between his fingers. A hushed gasp passed through the crowd, all focus returning to her.
She didn't flinch, keeping the weapons aimed at the men closest to her as she arched a brow. Her gaze clashed with Lucas', the amused tilt of his lips catching her off-guard. She didn't linger, fixing her attention on Frank as he staggered to his feet.
“Let's get a few things straight, gentlemen. I'm not here on some holier-than-thou mission from God to save your souls. If you want that kind of salvation, I suggest you see the preacher. And I don't appreciate it when men try to take advantage of me because they think I'm weak. I'm not.”
She made a point of meeting each of their gazes. “So, in case there was any confusion… I'm not your mother. Or your sister. And I'm sure as Hell not some two-bit whore you can manhandle whenever the feeling strikes you. I took an oath to help those I could, but if you ever challenge me again, I'll just as soon kill you as save you. Now, as I see it, you all have two choices. You can sit the Hell down and let me treat this man before he bleeds to death, or I can send a few of you to the undertaker, because I promise you my next shot won't be an injury I can fix.”