Tara walked out of the saloon with a broom and began sweeping, her head down. She knew it was a beautiful day and did not want to be reminded of how perfect it would have been for going riding. She'd awoken early and in good spirits despite the late hours of her profession, and made it as far as the top of the stairs before her plans for the day crumbled. The barroom was a disaster. Tables were littered with dirty glasses and overturned ashtrays. Chairs were strewn everywhere, several broken. And the floor - Tara didn't want to even look at the floor, much less walk on it. She lifted her skirt as she reached the bottom of the stairs and carefully crossed the room.
The night before, when the last of the usual drunks had been sent staggering home and only the serious card players remained, Donnie had told Tara she could go on up to bed. He'd promised he wasn't going to drink, he just wanted to play a couple more hands, and would tidy up before the end of the night. Tara shook her head in disappointment as she approached the bar, then turned right to pull back a red curtain and duck her head into the back room. The small windowless area was dark, but the light filtering in through the front plate-glass windows allowed Tara to see a little. The space was dominated by a large octagonal poker table, shipped from Chicago and covered in pristine green felt. It was Donnie's pride and joy, and he wouldn't allow anything but cards and currency to rest on it. A small shelf ran around the perimeter of the room for ashtrays and drinks, and in each corner was placed a brass spittoon. Sturdy oak armchairs surrounded the table, and despite the dark Tara could easily identify the form of her brother slumped in one, his head and arms resting on the table. She couldn't tell at first if he was passed out or dead, until he shifted a fraction and began snoring loudly.
'So much for riding today,' she thought, dropping the curtain back in place and setting about collecting glasses.
When Donnie came to several hours later, he was in as angry a mood as she'd ever seen him. He refused to talk about what had happened, other than muttering something about the Sheriff cheating at cards. When Tara had blanched and asked how much he'd lost, Donnie flew into a fury and threw several of the glasses she'd just cleaned against the wall. After a hastily mumbled apology, he retreated upstairs to his room. Tara spent the rest of the day putting the saloon back in order, knowing that come evening it would be the same thing all over again.
Running her broom briskly over the wood planks in front of the building, Tara wondered why she bothered. The town was named Dusty Hollow for a reason, and all the sweeping in the world would never get it clean. When she heard the squeak of wagon wheels and the slow clop of hooves approach behind her, she kept her head down.
"Afternoon, ma'am," a scratchy voice called out.
"We're closed," she replied, a little more unfriendly than she intended.
"Well, now, I wasn't lookin' for no drink this early in the day, but I was hopin' you could give me some directions. Or are you closed for them too?"
Tara bristled at the jibe and turned to face her taunter, one hand on her hip while the other held the broom. She looked at the small dusty cart tethered to a small dusty horse driven by a small dusty man. One look at the wide, gently mocking grin of the stranger dispelled her ire, and she leaned both arms on her broom with a sigh.
"Directions are free today, but you get what you pay for."
"Well I think I'll take my chances. I'm just passin' through this beautiful metropolis, and I'd be much obliged if'n you'd point out your finest hotel and dining establishments for a weary traveler."
Tara found herself openly gawking, then biting back a giggle as she took in the stranger's appearance. So coated in trail grime was he that the only distinguishing feature Tara could identify was sparkling green eyes. He could have been fifteen or fifty for all she could tell, but he did not appear to be able to afford a straw bed in a stable, much less a feather bed in the newly constructed Dusty Hollow Inn. Nevertheless, to appease him and amuse herself she pointed out its location down and across the way, along with that of the other buildings dotting the street.
"Where do I park... him?" the man asked, hesitantly pointing to the horse with a frown.
"The inn's got a stable, just tell the front desk you're in need. And it's a she," Tara giggled. At the blank look she received, she stopped laughing. "Your horse. She's a she."
"Oh," came the reply, and if Tara didn't know better, she could swear she saw a blush break through the dirt on the stranger's face.
"Well, Miss Horsey, I do apologize. I guess all this time I've been swearing at you all wrong."
Tara laughed again as the man leaned forward and smacked the horse's flank, causing the animal to lunge ahead and the man to fall back onto his seat with a thud and a cloud of dust. As the cart continued down the road toward the inn, Tara watched in bemusement.
"Thank you kindly, ma'am!" the odd fellow called back over his shoulder. "I'll be sure to stop by later when you are open!"
Tara smiled and shook her head as she returned to her sweeping.
'Just what this town needs... another character.'