Bridget Terrio applied one last brush stroke to the tail of the curved bill thrasher, a Small Things Incorporated wooden-wire-and-cat-whiskers mini-sculpture of which she was justifiably proud. A glance outside told her the snowstorm was settling down to serious business. Getting dark, too, with an early assist from the heavy cloud cover. Time to clean her brushes and call it a day.
Not that it was easy. Every piece she’d ever produced had begged for just one more finishing touch…just one more…but the sharp business side of the sculptress’s mind forced the decision. No one else would ever know; it was only her perfectionist side that screamed at her for being a quitter, as it did every time.
Old Hank Walton came ambling out from the café, easing along with his curious, rolling gait. The ancient cowboy was the only man she’d ever seen with those stereotypical limbs, earned the hard way by having lived in the saddle from childhood. Or so the stories went; she’d heard tales told by people who’d known the bowlegged renegade fifty years ago, or more than that. Tales that portrayed Walton as the last of the great horse thieves, prior to motorized transportation taking over, and one of the relatively few such thieves who’d never once been caught, let alone hung.
There was a thick scar on his neck, though, hidden beneath that black bandana. Not a rope scar, but something had sliced him pretty good there at one time.
Hank tipped his hat on his way by her work desk, oversized spurs jingling as he went. His going to town spurs, he called them, intended to impress the girls. She’d never seen any sign that he’d used them on his horse. “Evening, Miz Bridget. You have yerself a fine weekend, now.”
“You too, Hank.” She dimpled at the old rascal. Couldn’t help herself. The man really had impressed the girls with those spurs a few decades back; she’d bet on that. “And don’t you get lost out in that little snow flurry, okay?”
“Not likely.” He grinned at her, revealing a surprising number of teeth still in his head for somebody who had to be past the century mark and who’d never gone to a dentist in his life. True, those choppers weren’t exactly pearly white any more, but they looked like they could still chew iron and spit nails. “I might git a bit corn-fused, but old Thunder ain’t about to fergit where the barn’s at. Old plug is about as barn sour as they come.” He tipped his battered felt hat on the way out the door, letting in a blast of chill air that promised crispy-cold Montana temperatures before daylight.
When Bridget had finished gathering up her brushes, palette, and rags, allowing her OCD to run a check on the tightness of every paint tube cap for the third time, horse and rider were gone. Swallowed up into the storm, just like that. Old goat will probably outlive the bunch of us, she thought, amused. How he’d survived this long was a mystery. Even Joanie Crowden, Limpid’s sometimes overly talkative Postmistress, admitted that he wasn’t getting anything like a Social Security check, at least not through the Post Office. Online? Doubtful; Hank’s log cabin, tucked into a little hollow up Peavey Gulch, didn’t have electricity or anything that looked like a satellite dish. The definition of living off grid, that one. And maybe still a thief? Every local rancher who ever came up a cow short thought so, but again…never been caught. And this was black bear and cougar country, with an occasional grizzly wandering through. It wasn’t like there was a shortage of ways for a cow to get dead without paperwork.
“Need any help, Mom?” Cherry stood in the café archway, wiping her hands on a towel. “Our tables are all bussed and the side work done. Paula and Dad are mopping up.”
“I’m good, sweetheart.” Bridget and her daughter were both born workaholics, seldom able to stand back while anyone in sight was still hard at it, but the older woman wasn’t about to relinquish her brush-cleaning routine. It served as a contemplative period for her, deeply relaxing. Not to mention the simple fact that she secretly thought of those brushes as her babies; nobody else was touching them. “Why don’t you give Hall a call, see if he thinks the dance will still happen with all this snow coming down.”
“Okey dokey.” Not that there was any doubt; this was western Montana, not Wussy Nation. The dance would take place unless every vehicle in the area was buried up to the windows. Hall Bannister–how the man must have cursed the name his parents had given him–could walk to the Community Center, so he’d have it unlocked and the heat going right on time. Half a dozen residents knew how to run the music setup, so yeah. Her Mom just wanted her out of her hair.
The whole crew hiked upstairs together after everything was squared away and the lights turned off, but they went their separate ways as soon as they hit the landing, the older couple turning left to access the hallway to their rooms, the younger women turning right. As a real estate hustler, Mac Johnson would have found it fascinating, the way the second floor had been remodeled. Basically, the center twenty feet had been converted to a double row of storage closets that ran the full length of the building, just a whole lot of storage closets facing each hallway, each compartment ten feet deep by however wide–the widths varied, some sizeable, others not so much. Genius, Paula had declared. Pure genius.
None of the others disagreed. This way, no room in either set of living quarters lacked an outside window, and every view reached out across the few scattered one story buildings that made up the tiny town of Limpid toward the mountains that bordered the valley on three sides. No smog, no sirens, not even a single law enforcement officer stationed any closer than Granite Crag, population four hundred and something, where Limpid kids were bussed to high school after graduating from Limpid Elementary.
True, the stunning view was mostly of swirling snow tonight, and beyond that, blackness. When the storm was over and the sun back out under a clear blue frozen sky, though, the setting would be picture postcard perfect.
“What’re we wearing for the dance?” Paula’s question was sincere; she liked letting Cherry tell her what to wear, and the brunette didn’t seem to mind.
There was no answer. Cherry Terrio had already made her way to her favorite recliner in the oversized living room, putting her feet up and kicking back. She looked like she was sleeping, though Paula knew better. She also knew better than to say anything more while her dominant partner was staring mindlessly out at the swirling snow, communing with the storm. Or at least Paula thought she was communing. She might simply be hypnotized or something.
There were some things they never discussed. A girl’s got to have a secret or two, right?
A contented voice, practically purring, floated up from the recliner. “Going to be cold tonight. We might as well look hot.”
“Um…how hot, exactly?” This wasn’t New York City, after all.
“Go get your shower, honey. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Dance attendance on a bad weather night was always a bit of an iffy proposition, but by nine-thirty it was clear the Community Center wasn’t doing badly at all. It cost a whopping dollar per person at the door, practically nothing to the current entitlement-minded generation of smartphone users, all proceeds going toward upkeep of the old building that hosted any get-together worth discussing. As they handed him their two dollars, Hall nodded contentedly. “That makes fifty,” he said. Fifty was sort of the magic number.
Cherry gave the caretaker two thumbs up, then turned to lead the way toward the chairs along the west wall. Tradition had it that females congregated on the west side, males on the east side, and every young buck who wanted to ask a girl for a dance had to cross sixty feet of hardwood flooring in front of God and everybody to do it. Not that tradition fared all that well these days; a bold lady, or even one of the older women, could occasionally be seen striding across to snag a guy.
Plus, there were the inevitable young trouble makers in the bunch. Not many, but then there weren’t many young people in the entire town. Overall, the mix looked about average. Paula apparently agreed, settling into her seat demurely and waiting with bright eyes for the inevitable effort by some young buck to ask her to dance. She’d accept, too, as often as not. Cherry chose not to stir up the natives too much, no cheek-to-cheeking with her lover in front of the Montana version of rednecks, but Paula loved to cut a rug, refusing the males only when the dance was a slow one. Slow dances were out, ever since Corey Gardner, who’d been spending his weekends at home with his parents after being cut from the Grizzlies football team, had grabbed Paula’s right butt cheek during the Tennessee Waltz a couple of months ago. Cherry’s uppercut had knocked him stone cold, right in the middle of the dance floor. Bit his tongue pretty badly, too.
It hadn’t taken the town long to figure out how she’d been able to do that, having Marvin the Mangler for a father and trainer. The word was out: Don’t mess with Cherry Terrio, and most especially keep your hands off her blonde. Gardner’s oversized young male ego was no doubt plotting revenge, but he wasn’t likely to haul out a gun or a knife, so no big. Unless he was drunk… which he undoubtedly was, come to think of it, or shortly would be. No sign of him yet, though.
There were friendly nods from several people, but the music was too loud for casual conversation. Time to kick back, enjoy the show, and see what she could see. There was always something.
Bridget Terrio finished her yoga routine and headed for the apartment kitchen to mix a couple of juiced vegetable drinks. When they were done, she placed the pint glasses in the freezer to chill and set to cleaning the thousand dollar juicer. Marvin was always willing to do the cleaning, but by the time he finished his “light” workout, the residue would be drying out enough to be a problem.
When the juicer was squared away, she took her glass from the freezer, moved Marvin’s to the refrigerator, and strolled down the hall to her husband’s so called home gymnasium. It was true that the equipment was in their home, but he had everything there a gym rat could want. No machines–he hated those, no matter the design or brand–but a full set of free weights, several jump ropes, a speed bag, a heavy bag, and various forms of steel torture devices she wasn’t sure she even cared to identify.
The retired boxer was working the heavy bag when she arrived, so he was nearly done. He always saved the bags for last, explaining, “I do purely enjoy smacking the bejabbers out of the bags, so I get the ugly stuff out of the way first, and the bags are my reward for keeping up a tiny bit of discipline.”
Tiny bit. Hah! Marvin “the Mangler” Terrio, Small Things Incorporated chef extraordinaire, was one of–no, the most disciplined man she’d ever known. Not that she’d known all that many men, at least not in the Biblical sense, but to watch the Mangler at his nightly workout…frankly, she admitted to herself, it always left her slightly in awe of him. Young Olympic athletes were getting into trouble, partying at the Games in Rio this year. Born with talent, sure, but they were all wusses compared to her man. Terrio could have been a gymnast, except for his scorn for the idea of doing flips. “I prefer to stay right side up,” he’d stated more than once. Which wasn’t completely true; handstand pushups, with his feet against the wall, were part of his skill set.
The heavy bag was taking a serious beating, but the blows weren’t just powerful; they were coordinated, graceful, and…was that a new combination he was working on? She couldn’t be sure; his hands were deceptively fast. But if she listened instead of just looking, and counted the impacts…yes indeed. A six-punch combination, a lethal flurry that slammed the bag high, low, and in the middle, though for the life of her, she couldn’t have said in which order. The low blows weren’t legal in any sanctioned sport, of course, but her man had grown up on the mean streets where the only rule was survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle.
Poor bag. He bought the best, Marvin Terrio did, but he still wore them out over time.
She wasn’t at all sure he knew she was there; when the old fighter focused like this, the environment disappeared for him; only his opponent existed.
Her Veggie Special was halfway gone when Marvin finished up on the heavy bag and took a one minute break, moving over to the speed bag. He noticed her then, gave her a nod, but no smile. Terrio was in the zone. It amazed her every time, watching him, realizing that he’d not been good enough to be the World Champion, or even to get ranked in the Top Ten. Good Lord, what did it take? She’d stick to her yoga, thank you very much. Though she much appreciated the training that had kept her family safe and sound until they could escape from New York; forgetting the debt she owed to the fighters in her family was never an option. And she did love to watch Marve work the speed bag. His hands literally blurred, the bag itself blurred even more, and the machine gun rat-a-tat-tat of the leather hitting hardwood was music to her ears. It would take him another hour to shower and wind down, just the two of them sprawled on the couch in front of an old Mad Max movie, the fireplace crackling softly in the corner, but the wait would be worth it.
Could life get any better than this?