As she brought her set to an end, a roar of cheers and applause erupted. Even a few piercing whistles split the joy and excitement of the meager crowd. Brody clapped as he watched Liv smile and bow in humble gratitude. It wouldn’t be long before she’d be singing in front of thousands of fans. He just knew it.

Liv hung her guitar on the wall behind her and stepped off the platform to resume her waitress duties. Brody caught her attention and pointed to his empty bottle. One more, he mouthed.

She gave him the thumbs-up and walked between tables, checking on customers and snagging empties as she went. Just like that, the atmosphere of the Wagon Wheel returned to its usual state. The local drunkard, Bob Walsh, plopped his forehead on his arm and took another snooze on the slick lacquered wood of the bar. Mr. Corinth sat beside him, puffing on his cigar and watching Denver kick Cleveland into the dirt. His wife ignored the game and the few Bronco fans who sat adjacent to her. Instead, she perched on her stool, crocheting the beginnings of a tricolored afghan. On the opposite end near the restrooms, Professor Shoemaucker hid behind his newspaper as he always did on Monday evenings.

Everything was as it should be, save for the three guys in the corner booth. Brody kept refocusing his attention on them, waiting for one of the spoiled pretty boys to act out of line. He knew they would. He’d bet money on it. Especially the guy with the million-dollar smile and the thousand-dollar wristwatch. He had more flash than a vintage mid-century Kodak camera. Guys like that loved to be the center of attention and often went to extremes to acquire it.

“You’re doing it again, Galven,” Liv interrupted, handing Brody a full one.

“Doing what?”

“Sizing them up. Finding justification for kicking their asses.” Liv seized his chin and drew his attention toward her. “Let it go. I mean it.”

Though she stood no taller than five foot four, weighing in at a buck ten, Brody adored her confidence. She embodied self-assurance in the way she turned and sashayed down the aisle of empty tables. He held his beer to his lips as he watched her drop another bucket of beers at the corner booth. Her long, toned legs flexed as she leaned forward. Her shorts barely covered that spot where the curve of her bottom met the back of her thigh. If he wasn’t so suspicious of the guys at that table, he might have bought them another round just so he could watch Liv stretch and lean again.

“Well, thank you, darlin’,” Brody heard one say. “That’s mighty kind of you.”

For a moment, Brody thought perhaps he’d judged them prematurely. It wouldn’t have been the first time he’d allowed his jealous tendencies to bring out the worst in him. The last time it happened, he’d ended up spending the night in jail for disorderly conduct. He’d never forget that awful night. He only wished the folks of Meeteetse would.

No sooner had Brody given those boys the benefit of the doubt than one of them reached around and slapped her on the behind. When she scowled at him, the man laughed and pulled her onto his lap. 

Liv shrieked in surprise and writhed to escape him. Brody flipped his lid and lunged from his chair without hesitation. He gritted his teeth. Spots blurred his vision. He was going to kill that sonofabitch.

Liv saw Brody stalking forward. She froze. She looked more frightened than the two guys who tried to warn their friend. Upping the effort, she threw an elbow into the man’s chest and slipped from his grasp. “Galven, wait!” she said, throwing herself at Brody. “Listen to me. He isn’t worth it.” She frantically pointed toward the bar behind him. “See, Jethro’s coming. He’ll throw them out, and they won’t be allowed back. Please, Brody, listen to me. Don’t do this.”

Brody could hear Liv pleading, but nothing registered. He moved her aside and barreled forward. All three guys had squeezed out of the booth, securing their spot in a defensive triangle. The biggest of the three stood in the front.

Brody scoffed, unimpressed with any of them. “I don’t know where you’re from, but around here, we treat women with respect.”

The entire bar fell silent. No one dared to move a muscle with Brody cocked and loaded.

“You don’t want to mess with me,” the stranger stated, crossing his arms. “I’ll have you know my father is the—”

“I don’t care who your sperm donor is,” Brody interrupted. “Apologize to her.”

Brody felt Liv’s hand on his shoulder. “It—it’s okay.”

“No, it isn’t.” Brody stared the man down. “Apologize. Now.”

One of the three muttered to the guy in front, “Apologize already so we can get the hell out of here, Carlton.”

“Your friend’s a smart man,” Brody added. “You should listen to him.”

Carlton shook his head. “I don’t have to listen to you or anybody in this Podunk town. And I sure as hell don’t need to apologize to a waitress. It’s her job to serve me. Besides, I think she liked having a real man’s arms around her for a change.” He leaned forward and looked Brody in the eyes. “What do you think about that? Hillbilly.”

Brody reared back and threw the first punch, knocking Carlton and his high-dollar hat into next Sunday.