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If it wasn’t for all the fights, the Bristling Elk would have been a nice, peaceful place. It was an old-time country and western bar combined with a family-owned diner, located off the main street leading through the center of Greenhearth, Oregon.

At about 10:30 in the morning on a weekday, the place wasn’t exactly bustling with customers. No band played country tunes, no bodies moved to music. There were five people on the dance floor, though.

Four against one.

“Now,” the apparent leader of the four young men began, “we asked you a simple question, is all.” His name was Chris, and he was tall, although not much taller than the girl.

He took a step forward, pointing at her. Meanwhile, his buddies fanned out, two to his left and one to his right, the quartet of them penning the tall young woman in at the far corner of the floor.

She didn’t move. All she did was stand, hands on hips, glaring at them, her hazel eyes mostly lidded. The rest of her face was twisted into an expression not far from being a wry smirk. A hint of freckles dusted her nose, but they did nothing to make her look any less serious.

“Yeah,” the girl shot back, “and I gave you an answer. Get out of my face, if you would, please. I got better things to do with my time than respond to dumbass crap like that.”

The beefiest of the four laughed at that in a stunned, scoffing way, as if asking, “Can you believe this shit?”

Chris, the leader, seemed less amused. His face fell in dismay even as his eyes widened. “What the fuck?” he snapped, taking another step forward. “You got no cause to give us this kind of attitude, especially since we can’t help being curious about…people like you. All we were doing was—”

He took another two steps forward, ignoring the way the girl had tensed up, raised her eyelids, and laser-focused on him as he’d made his first move.

She suddenly stepped forward, interposing her foot between his and shoving him hard in the chest with the side of her forearm at an angle. Before he realized what was happening, he was tumbling hard into the floor, his cowboy boots sticking up at the end of long, flailing legs.

Then his boys jumped in, and it was on. The handful of other patrons all turned to watch the show.

Just before the good stuff began, a young man wandered into the building, shaking the day’s cool, misting rain from his shoulders and closing the door behind him with his foot.

He stood about six foot two and wore a fringed brown leather jacket and cowboy boots of his own. They were common footwear in the region. His hair was short but shaggy, his eyes bright and blue, and his square jaw was covered with beard stubble.

There was a notable resemblance between him and the girl on the dance floor. He looked to be about her age, or perhaps a year or two younger.

He made straight for the bar, not yet glancing toward the scene developing off to the side. Cheryl, the one waitress currently on duty, noticed him at once and strode toward him.

“Hi, Jacob,” she greeted him, her eyes sparkling surreptitiously. “Aren’t you just looking all sweaty and rugged today!”

He shook the moisture off his coat. “Just the rain,” he chuckled, “but thanks, Cheryl. Not yet decided if I’m going to eat or not. Probably a beer will be enough.”

“Gotcha,” she acknowledged. “Up to you. Oh, I don’t know if you noticed, but Bailey’s picking a fight again.” The waitress gestured at the dance floor with her elbow but kept her eyes on Jacob.

He looked past her shoulder, taking in the scene. The girl was only seconds away from throwing Chris on his ass.

“Well,” he mused, rubbing his stubbly chin, “technically, it’s four guys against her. Really, it seems more like them ganging up on Bailey than her ‘picking a fight,’ if you ask me.”

Shrugging as Bailey stepped forward and launched Chris earthward with her sudden takedown, Jacob smiled and closed the rest of the distance to the bar. He plopped himself down on the nearest stool and flagged down the bartender.

“Two beers, please,” he requested. Only one was for him. “Bailey’s going to be thirsty after she gets done with her workout over there.”

The bartender, a jowly man with a calm, friendly face, nodded and quickly produced the brews, the bottles lightly coated with frost and perspiration.

The bar area could be a watering hole in any American small town. It was dimly lit, but not to the point of obscuring the place. Signs and placards advertising different alcohol brands were attached to the walls, some of them with neon borders and logos.

Behind the bar were a few mounted photos of different iconic places in the Cascade Mountains—Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, the South Sister—as well as the mounted head of an eight-point buck the proprietor had bagged during a deer-hunting trip into Idaho three years ago.

Jacob had always thought that an elk would have been more appropriate than a white-tail, given the name of the establishment, but the man hadn’t gotten around to that yet.

All in all, the place had a definite “redneck” vibe, but more than that, visitors thought it felt homey.

“Damn,” Jacob commented as he reclined, sipping his lager while watching the fight, “those guys actually aren’t doing too bad.”

None of them was down for the count, and they’d even landed a couple of minor, glancing blows on Bailey. They all looked just barely old enough to legally drink, so they were probably still learning how to hold their liquor without doing anything too stupid. Then again, some people never learned.

Bailey’s foot caught Chris in the stomach. “Oof!” he sputtered, doubling over as his eyes bulged and his charge halted. The blow had killed his forward momentum.

One of the other guys had tried to grab the young lady from behind, wrapping a beefy arm around her shoulders, but she’d reached up, seized his ear, and pulled his head down by it just in time to jump straight up and kick his buddy.

With that taken care of, she rolled around to the side of the man attempting to grapple her and released his ear as she swept his legs out from under him with a strong lateral kick, shoving back and down on his chest for good measure. He toppled like a felled tree, landing flat on his back on the dance floor. The impact knocked the wind out of his lungs.

The other two had also been sprawled on the ground, but now they were climbing back to their feet.

Bailey settled into a combat stance, grinning with bared teeth as the pair of them moved in to try to flank her. Chris was regaining his composure, and his eyes were livid with rage. She put up her fists to welcome them.

About this time, the door opened again and two more young men strolled in. One was about the same height as Jacob and similar-looking, although he was thinner and slightly younger—probably in his late teens.

The other one bore a resemblance as well, but he was five or six inches taller—he had to be a good six foot seven—and darker in hair, complexion, and demeanor. Both caught sight of Jacob and walked up to join him at the bar.

The bartender reappeared. “Howdy, Kurt,” he greeted the younger, average-sized one. “And Russell.” He nodded at the brooding, towering young man. “What’ll it be?”

“Beer,” Russell said in his deep, gravelly voice.

“Hmm,” Kurt began, making a show of trying to decide, “a beer does sound good right about now, but for some reason, there’s this ‘law’ that says I can’t drink yet. So unless you’d be so kind as to slip me a brew without bothering with all that ID nonsense, well, I guess I’ll have to ask for a Coke.”

The bartender sighed. “One beer and one Coke, coming up.” He turned to grab their beverages.

By now, all three were watching the fight, chuckling at each new swing of a fist, each stumble or curse, and each impact of a body on the floor. The four dipshits weren’t having much luck defeating Bailey, but they refused to give up.

Returning with two bottles, one golden and one dark brown, the bartender asked, “She’s not smashing up any of the equipment or furniture over there, is she?”

Kurt accepted his legal, non-alcoholic cola. “Nope. Denting the floorboards a little is all.”

There were four other people, three guys and a girl, watching the brawl from closer to ground zero. One of them, a skinny straw-haired kid named Justin who lived on the other side of the valley, picked up his beer and retreated to the bar to sit next to the three brothers.

“Hey,” he greeted them.

They all waved at him. Jacob realized he hadn’t seen the kid here before. He must have just turned twenty-one recently.

Justin squinted at between the trio beside him and then the fight going on at the other end of the building. “What I don’t get is why you guys aren’t coming to the rescue? You’re not going to let her get beaten up, are you?”

Kurt shrugged, and Russell didn’t say or do anything. Jacob spoke for all three. “She’s the oldest of us,” he pointed out, “so she’d hand us our asses if we jumped in without being asked. Besides, looks like she’s doing all right.”

No sooner had he said this than subsequent events made him into a liar.

Chris and the skinniest of the four guys came at Bailey simultaneously from separate oblique angles, trying to seize her arms. While she was momentarily distracted, the biggest and beefiest of the four snuck up behind her with surprising stealth and took a swing. His fist caught her pretty hard on the cheekbone in just front of the ear.

“Ow!” she bellowed, head falling forward as her four attackers all laughed.

The big guy who’d hit her chortled. “How you like that, bitch? You’ve been lucky so far is all.”

Jacob sat up straight. “Uh-oh.” He swallowed about half of his beer in one gulp. Beside him, Kurt was wincing, and even Russell had lowered his eyes to the floor, subtle tension filling his huge frame.

On the dance floor, Bailey’s eyes were positively blazing, and she trembled.

Motioning to the bartender, Jacob told him, “Mr. Quaile, you’d best call the cops. And an ambulance. Things are about to get ugly.”

The man threw up his hands. “Oh, for God’s sake!” He put down the glass he’d been polishing and hustled to the establishment’s landline.

Justin raised an eyebrow, confused. “What’s wrong? I mean, yeah, that was a decent hit, but she seems okay.”

Jacob shook his head. “It’s not that. She really doesn’t like being called a ‘bitch.’ It’s a family thing, you might say. Somebody’s about to get seriously hurt.”

The words had just left his mouth when Bailey spun toward the beefy asshole. Her fist was like a piston as it drove into his midsection with a speed and force that made her previous blows seem like something thrown in a light sparring match with a kid half her size.

The big guy’s eyes bulged and his mouth dropped open. “Auulggh!” he squawked, and a sickening crunch was audible from his chest. He dropped to his knees, clutching the spot she’d punched him, and gasped in pain. He would no longer be participating in the fight. Jacob was sure of that.

The other three moved back in. They were motivated for to get revenge now, but didn’t seem to realize that Bailey had stopped treating this as a half-assed sporting fight and was now playing for keeps.

One of Chris’s wingmen, the scrawniest of the four, reached her first. Her hand shot out in a fierce grasping motion, seizing him by his shaggy hair and jerking his head and upper body forward hard enough to make him squawk. Then she drove her knee into his gut, put her other hand on his shirt, and tossed him the full length of the dance floor.

He landed just before the wall and skidded into it head-first. His body shuddered from the jolt, and he was silent for a second before a series of low, miserable groans escaped him.

That left Chris and the nondescript fourth guy, who both piled on her, fists swinging wildly, knees and feet lashing out.

As Jacob watched, the waitress came back over to check on him. Or at least, that would be her official story; she probably just wanted to be near him and have an excuse to strike up a conversation.

He raised a hand to her. “I’m good, thanks.”

“Okay,” she responded. “So, did you come here often before I started working?”

Jacob smiled. “Ever since it was legal, so about two years now.”

“Gotcha.” She wasn’t sure what to say next, so she wandered off, figuring she might have another opportunity later.

Back on the dance floor, Bailey had taken a couple more minor, glancing blows as the remaining two dipshits flailed madly at her. It looked like the fight would be over soon, though, and not in their favor.

The young woman swept Chris’s left leg out from under him with her foot at the same time as she shoved hard his chest with both hands, sending him hopping and stumbling five or six feet back before he simply toppled over.

As this was going on, the fourth guy laid a hand on her shoulder, trying to reposition her so he could land a punch on her jaw. She was faster, though, both of her hands seizing his wrist and twisting it sharply.

He cried out and drew it back to his chest. That gave Bailey an opening to kick him in the gut, sending him to join his friends on the floor. He didn’t get back up.

Chris wasn’t down for the count yet, though. He’d fallen hard and was struggling to rise to his hands and knees. Bailey pounced on him, sitting on his lower back and grabbing the same ankle she’d just kicked out from under him.

Ow! Fuck!” he exclaimed. Unlike his buddy’s wrist, she twisted his leg slowly, not doing immediate serious damage but threatening far worse. The spectators winced as his foot began to pivot in a distinctly unnatural direction.

Bailey looked down at him. “Uncle?” she suggested.

“I, uh,” he wheezed. “Uncle. Fine.” He tapped the floor rapidly with one hand.

The girl released him, leaving him trembling and breathing heavily as she sprang to her feet. “Right, then,” she said. “Best gather up your low-IQ friends and get out of her once you get some air back in your lungs. Hope you learned something.”

Watching, the three brothers chuckled darkly.

“Yeah,” Kurt opined, “for their sake, I hope so, too.”

* * *

Bailey’s ears picked up the sirens growing louder and closer as she wandered over to the bar. She’d left her four victims behind, sprawled on the dance floor, to think things over.

Her three brothers were waiting for her there. They watched her with a mixture of cool admiration and concern for the consequences of what had just happened. After she arrived, they glared at the quartet of dumbasses, bristling with hostility.

Jacob had an extra beer in his hand. “Here you go, Sis. Figured you could stand to get your mouth wet after all that.”

“Thanks.” She took it from him and placed it against her face, between the cheekbone and the hair, where the beefy guy’s fist had landed.

Now that the adrenaline rush of combat was wearing off, the shiner was stinging her fiercely, and behind it was a deep ache that suggested bruising. She might even have some kind of fracture, though probably not. The cold glass soothed it quickly enough.

She sighed, wanting to drink but holding off for the moment.

“I can’t believe,” she complained to no one in particular, “that I managed to get sucker-punched. It’s embarrassing is what it is.”

Once her cheek was numb, she withdrew the bottle, snapped off the cap, and angled it almost straight up as she gulped the amber liquid, draining half of it before she came back up for air.

“Wow,” Kurt marveled, exaggerating his look of wide-eyed wonder. “That stuff numbs pain from the outside and the inside! Being twenty-one must be the best thing ever.”

Jacob prodded his shoulder. “Too bad it’ll never happen for you, squirt.”

“Yeah, yeah, shut up.” Kurt savored the next drink of his cola as if it were fine wine.

The sirens grew blaringly loud as the vehicles producing them pulled up into the diner’s parking lot, then the noise cut off all at once. There were a few shuffling sounds and footsteps while everyone within waited for the inevitable.

Sure enough, the door burst open and in streamed the forces of law and order. Said forces were represented in this case by two cops in front, hands resting on their sidearms, followed closely by two paramedics. They quickly surveyed the scene.

Officer Jurgensen, who seemed to be in charge, let his gaze linger for a moment on the crumpled forms of the four guys on the dance floor. Then he shook his head, sighed, and waved for the others to follow him in that direction. They ignored everyone else in the bar.

Chris sat up, his jaw slack and his wide eyes not comprehending what he was seeing for a moment. Then he scootched forward and pointed at Bailey.

“Officer! Thank God you’re here. That woman is responsible for all this. We asked her a simple question, and she started acting all hostile and stuff. My buddy got overexcited and called her a ‘bitch,’ and she went ballistic on us. Totally psycho. We’re gonna need medical attention while you’re arresting her.”

Jurgensen stood before the young man with his hands on his hips, his bony face displaying a hint of sympathy but mostly annoyance.

“You’re under arrest, my friends,” he stated, “although you are entitled to medical attention as well. Don’t you worry about that.”

“What?” Chris protested as the two paramedics circled around the two cops to examine him and his friends.

Jurgensen by now had shifted his right hand to the nightstick at his belt. “Go picking fights by calling her a ‘bitch’ again and I’ll billy-club you myself.”

Pouting as he slowly climbed to his feet and wincing from all the blows he’d taken, as well as his twisted ankle, Chris stammered, “But I thought you were protecting us! ‘To protect and serve,’ isn’t that you guys’ motto or something?”

“Yeah,” said Jurgensen. His partner came up beside him. “That is protecting you, dumbass. You boys look familiar. If you’re from around here, I would’ve thought you’d understand things in this town have a unique way of working. If you’re knocked unconscious, you can’t go around spewing stupid, troublemaking shit like that where her brothers will have to take notice.”

All four of the defeated quartet were now fully conscious again and either sitting, kneeling, or standing. All their heads turned toward the other quartet at the bar.

Bailey was ignoring them, focused on her beer. Her brothers, though, were staring menacingly at the dance floor. Even the smallest of them was almost the same size as the beefy dude who’d punched Bailey on the cheek. The eyes of the huge towering one practically smoldered, as if he were fantasizing about murder and giving serious consideration to making his daydream a reality.

Those on the dance floor all looked at the floor or walls instead.

The paramedics finished their examinations and one of them stood up.

“Okay,” he began, “two broken ribs on the big guy. Broken wrist on the skinny guy. The gentleman over there has a mild concussion, and this guy,” he pointed at Chris, “doesn’t have any major injuries we can identify, but we’d better look him over in more detail.”

“Right,” Jurgensen assented. “Do so.”

The paramedics led the four battered ruffians out the front door, aside from the largest one with the busted ribs, whom they’d placed on a gurney. The other cop chaperoned the group while Officer Jurgensen hung back, then slowly strolled toward the bar and came to a halt beside Bailey.

“You, young lady,” he intoned, “need to work on managing your anger. I’m getting pretty tired of these kinds of incidents.”

Bailey puckered her lips out in a fake pout. “Aww, but Officer, this is how I manage it.”

“Real cute,” Jurgensen replied. “But see to it that you don’t manage it into some kind of disaster that brings in the press or the outside authorities. I’m willing to overlook crap like this to a point out of respect for your family, and Sherriff Browne understands. It’s another thing entirely if the State Police—or, God help us, the feds—get involved.”

Kurt piped up. “Dang! I didn’t know the FBI investigated bar brawls these days.” He sipped his Coke. Jacob shot him a glance, not sure whether to smack him or burst out laughing.

“Watch it,” Jurgensen grumbled, and strode out the front door without further words.

As he exited, he passed a woman coming in, a blonde in her early thirties or so—Tomi, the long-time waitress, who usually worked both lunch and dinner.

Tomi glanced around. “Damn, looks like I just missed the excitement.” Shaking her head, she went to get her apron.

Meanwhile, another of the handful of spectators, most of whom seemed disappointed that the fight was over already, wandered toward Bailey. He was a good old boy in his late twenties or so with an almost perfectly round goatee.

“Hey,” he interjected, “you’re Bailey Nordin, aren’t you? You work at the body shop, right?”

The girl took another swig of beer. “Yeah, that’s me,” she confirmed. “Don’t work there as much as I ought yet, though.” She gestured behind her with a nod of her head. “And those three guys over there are my little brothers.”

The guy waved at them but did not make eye contact for long. “They don’t look all that little, but okay. Listen, I was thinking of doing some improvements on my truck.”

Bailey perked up and gave the young man her full attention. “Oh, really? And what was your name again? Don’t think you mentioned.”

Her new friend smiled. “Chris. No relation to that other guy you just beat up, ha, don’t worry. See, I was thinking my truck could stand to be lifted—you know, so it sits higher on the wheels—and maybe add a flame decal on the front. And an oil change.”

“Really?” Bailey quipped. “Well, we could get you set up at the shop, or I can give you some tips on how to do it yourself, although it helps if you already know a few things about motor vehicle repair and improvement.”

The Nordin brothers watched as Bailey regaled the guy with a virtual encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge about the intricacies of cars and trucks—all sorts of technical details and obscure procedures. Chris the Second nodded along, although something in his eyes suggested he was growing increasingly baffled and was uncomfortable because he didn’t know what she was talking about.

“And there goes her chance at love,” Kurt lamented, shaking his head sadly even as he bit down the corner of his lip to keep from smiling. He drained the last of the Coke from his glass and then used it to gesture at the eldest brother. “I blame Jacob.”

Jacob snorted. “Hey, now. Learning vehicular maintenance and how to improve cars is a noble calling, in addition to being a useful skill. People make a living off that shit. Besides, who was it got her into fighting and whetted her taste for that?

He and Kurt both looked at Russell, not bothering to venture answers, and not expecting one. It was pretty much a rhetorical question.

The tallest of the trio shrugged his huge shoulders. “It was either fight with her or put up with her wanting to play ‘tea party’ with me. What would you have done?”

Russell’s voice was so deep it was almost a thunderous rumble. Hearing it, Cheryl, the newer waitress who’d been there when the brothers had first sauntered in, shivered despite herself.

The second girl, Tomi, had just gotten her apron on, and could not help noticing her coworker sneaking glances at the brothers, the huge Russell in particular.

Tomi sauntered up to Cheryl and put her face just above her shoulder, lips aimed at her ear.

“Why do you think I’ve kept this dead-end job for all these years?” she whispered. “The eye candy, and ear candy too, is worth another hundred dollars a week, minimum.”

Cheryl tried not to blush. “I can understand that.” She’d already encountered Jacob a few times, and it always made her day when he actually spoke to her beyond just the formalities. Now, though, she wasn’t sure if she liked him or Russell better.

Tomi snickered and pretended to be adjusting her apron. “Well, if you do move on for greener pastures, you ought to make sure you have a list of local girls who’ll want to be notified when the position becomes vacant. Some of them will even pay you money for the privilege. Helps them get a jump on the competition to fill your spot.”

The younger waitress did blush now, although she had to acknowledge that Tomi had made a damn good point.

Both women strolled toward the side of the bar, headed for the break area, where Cheryl would take five minutes to have herself a drink and Tomi would finish the preparations for her shift.

Tomi added an extra tidbit to the conversation they’d had a moment ago. “You know, there’s already a few other gals with money down on this, and not people you’d necessarily expect.” She laughed.

Cheryl smiled. “Oh, really?”

“Yup. And Mr. Quaile, he don’t mind the fights too much as long as nobody gets killed or anything like that. It brings in customers. Boys come in after Bailey, and so do her brothers,” she explained. “And then all the ladies come in after Jacob and Russell and Kurt.”

They disappeared into the rear corner where the small break table was set up, and Cheryl laughed openly as she took a seat. “Make sense.” She grabbed the water bottle she’d left there and took a swig as Tomi checked her makeup in a pocket mirror.

Back out in the dining-and-drinking area, Chris the Second had excused himself from the premises. Bailey finished her beer with an appreciative “ahh,” and placed the bottle firmly on the bar. Mr. Quaile retrieved it at once and added it to the empties tub.

Kurt looked at her. “You know, alcohol has a drying effect,” he pointed out. “So really, after all that exercise, you ought to be hydrating with some good old-fashioned water.”

Bailey snorted and ruffled her younger brother’s hair. “Be quiet, Kurt. It’s not the same thing as whiskey. Beer’s mostly water anyway, isn’t it? Besides, I’m out of here.”

Jacob raised an eyebrow. “Where you headed?”

She put her hands on her hips and her hazel eyes went distant. “Think I’m gonna go back to the shop,” she answered him. “Clear my head and relieve some stress after all this nonsense. I swear, a girl can’t even come in for a morning beer anymore without having to deal with idiots like those guys.”

Quaile the bartender waved to her. “You can come in for a beer anytime you want, Bailey. Just do like the officer said and don’t bust things up too much. You’re good for business, and we all know you’re well over twenty-one.”

She waved back without looking at him and turned to leave. Something the man had just said seemed to have rankled her.

Tomi stood near the door in a position where she could delay Bailey’s exit, forcing her to acknowledge her but not technically blocking her.

The waitress caught the younger woman’s eye. “Bailey, dear, pardon my asking, but, how old are you, again? I don’t recall.”

Bailey frowned, and again her eyes took on a distant cast, as though her mind were far away. The next Gathering of the Packs would be happening sooner than she’d like.

Rather than answer Tomi’s question directly, she just said, “Not twenty-five. Not yet.”

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