Here’s a sneak peek into chapter 1 of my newest release, The Outlaw. Coming 1-21-19! Preorder Now on Amazon!
Straightening her shoulders, feigning confidence, she crossed the street to the boardwalk that rounded the corner and made her way to the Summer Saloon.
Sarah compressed her lips and took one more big gulp of fresh air before plunging herself into the thick miasma of cigarette smoke, whiskey, astringent perfume, and manly smells that were poorly masked by it all.
Light from the two large windows on either side of the door illuminated the inside. The modest kerosene lanterns that hung from the ceiling would replace the natural light once the sun set. Round tables covered in green felt dominated the room, with a bar counter opposite the front door that stretched from one end of the hall to the other. A mirror reflected back the afternoon sun behind the bar, its edges rimmed in a dark mahogany that matched the countertop. Liquor bottles lined the space along the back, their labels proudly displayed for customers.
Fairplay was a sizable town, but this was not the only saloon worth visiting, and therefore did not have as many occupants – which she was grateful for.
Two groups of men were deep in their card games on either side of the room, muttering the occasional comment to their neighbors that was followed a grisly laugh or grunt. No music played and the only soft, pleasing sound would have come from the smiling, painted lips of the soiled doves who whispered in the player’s ears. There were four in all, each one pretty in her own right with long hair, faces as flawless as porcelain and eyes bright with the prospect of gaining a potential client.
The cowboys, miners, and farmers with cards in their hands looked as grimy and filthy as they smelled. Her father, a man who had been unafraid of dirtying his hands, at least had the sense to bathe every so often. These men, however, looked as if they had just come out of the mines or in from the fields.
Sarah was virtually ignored when she entered and kept a steady, but casual pace as she crossed the floor to the barkeep.
The proprietor with his white, rolled-up sleeves greeted her as he might any other customer. “What’ll ya have?” he asked as he slowed in his task of cleaning the polished wooden countertop. She presumed him to be the one whose name was engraved on the plaque above the sign on the façade, Leonhard Summer.
“Beer,” Sarah replied flatly, suddenly feeling her throat choked with the fear of confronting any of these men. To ask if she could pay them to help her track down a killer might as well have made her like one of the men who petitioned to the ladies of the street. If she didn’t dislike the way whiskey scorched her mouth, she might have asked for a shot of the firewater to steady her nerves.
Leonhard poured a glass from a keg underneath the counter and presented it to her. With a few coins, she paid the man and used the convenient placement of the mirror to watch the two coinciding games. With her elbows leaning against the edge and one heel hooked over the brass foot rail, she studied each of the men with no risk of discovery. They were all so engrossed with the state of their hand in the games that they didn’t pay her, or the prostitutes, any mind. While they all gave the impression that they could fire a gun with some level of accuracy, none of them struck her as potentially dangerous or vicious. Ill-mannered, yes, but not vicious.
The bartender resumed the task of cleaning and when he came back in her direction, she decided to be brave.
“I was told there was a bounty hunter here,” she began in a faint whisper. “Would you happen to know if he’s still playing?”
Leonhard glanced directly to the occupied table on the right side of the room and motioned with his rag. “That one in the glasses, I’d think. I know every man in here, except for him. Never gives his name or nothin’. Just comes and plays a few rounds, then leaves.”
Sarah leaned enough, so she could get a look at the man through the mirror. Like the others, she had discredited him upon first inspection. Now, she saw him in a different light. Slumping in his chair, one hand tilting down his cards while the other relaxed lazily upon the felt, he looked a hair older than herself.
A hat shadowed much of his features, giving them an enigmatic quality that both frightened and intrigued her. A dark bit of stubble graced his bold jaw, eyes almost completely obscured by the amber-tinted glasses he wore. Though she couldn’t see the direction of his gaze, she felt it upon her, burning straight through and rendering her motionless under its power. Every line of his fit, powerful body warned her against attempting any interaction with him. The way he stared so fixedly, and yet calmly, told her that he was well aware of her interest. Something about him made her want to run and burrow into the ground to hide until he was gone, but without saying a single word he commanded her to stay.
How she could have overlooked such a character was incomprehensible now. He stood out in this crowd but evaded the unfocused eye without even trying.
She tightened her hold over the glass of beer in front of her, only two sips taken from its measure. Thirst had left her entirely as a cold sweat beaded along her back and neck. The spell was broken the moment his head angled away from her enough to let her know that he was no longer staring.
Sarah swallowed hard and lowered her gaze, fortifying herself for when the moment came to talk to him. Contrary to how she felt, she refused to be cowed by this subtle intimidation. Justice and honor were at stake.
From the looks of the pot in the middle of the table, there was plenty more on the line. Greenbacks, gold and silver coins, and other trinkets of value were piled high, each man putting a fortune at risk over the five cards they held.
For some time, none of the men spoke. No new bets were placed as fate’s guiding hand hovered over them, waiting to deal the blow or bestow the reward. One man took a long drag from his cigarette and blew the smoke into the air as he tapped out the ashes into the tray on the table. He had a lady on each arm who favored his company above the others. Sarah could see the leg of another player bouncing nervously as he contemplated his hand. It was as if he were trying to will the faces to change to a more favorable combination. The remaining two – the one with the glasses and another with a gnarled scar across his left eye – silently assessed one another like two circling predators ready to pounce.
The game on the other side of the room was far more relaxed, the source of boisterous laughter and slapping of knees as men exchanged stories and jokes, betting only on pocket change and poker chips that held little to no value. The atmospheres were divided. It was like when a storm front was halted upon the heights of the mountains. One half remained sunny and bright, while the other was darkened by thunderheads. Lightning would soon strike, and Sarah was sure a fire would manifest from the sparks and destroy this whole place if someone didn’t break the tension soon.
“Stop movin’ your damn leg,” the smoker reprimanded. “You’re gonna spill my whiskey.”
The jumpy one snapped out of his concentration and all jittering stopped. “Sorry.”
“What’re you waitin’ for? You foldin’ or what?” the scarred man grumbled to the man in the glasses, one hand bending his cards almost enough to crease them.
The mercenary thrummed his fingertips upon the table once in a show of impatience before replying, “I’ve already got my all in. You gonna fold that wimpy hand of yours or keep fingerin’ that fifth ace?”
At this, Sarah turned in her seat and could see the glint of a knife blade laying across the agitated man’s lap.
A bit of her composure slipped, and she cagily watched each of the men for their reactions. The armed gambler’s piggish nostrils flared and if it were possible for him to be any more grotesque, Sarah doubted it. The cigarette dangled from the smoker’s mouth, all amusement gone. The two women edged further behind the man they thought would win this round. The one who wasn’t scared to show his anxiety finally folded and threw up his hands.
“I don’t want no trouble, Morgan,” he said to the one hiding the bowie.
The third gambler leaned back until he was balancing on the back legs, wholly unfazed by the unease that began to make its way across the room to purge the cheerful mood on the other side. Lips that were smiling now turned down into a worried frown as they stared at the scene unfolding.
Beside her, Leonhard’s hand reached for the shotgun underneath the counter. Either he had seen these situations enough to know the outcome, or he knew Morgan well enough to predict how he would react.
“Take it easy, Morgan,” the bartender warned. “Don’t make me holler for the marshal like I had to last week.”
“You stay outta this, Leonhard!” Morgan thundered, swiveling around to point an angry, calloused finger toward the bar. Much to Sarah’s chagrin, she flinched and looked away.
“We’re just playin’ a friendly game of poker,” the mercenary said coolly. “Ain’t no need to get all excited.”
Morgan spun back and slammed his hand on the table. “Show your hand or fold!”
This jostling of the tabletop caused the whiskey in the smoker’s cut crystal glass to slosh over the rim. The only repercussion Morgan would receive was a nasty look. The sole level head in the saloon was the one whose eyes she couldn’t see and whose face she couldn’t read.
A few seconds passed and the five cards were finally laid upon the table. A neat row of diamond royals stared up at Morgan and the other gamblers.
Jaws went slack, eyes went wide, and calculating minds added up the total value of the pot on the table. Only the brave exclaimed over the high sum and the dumb luck that anyone could pull a strong hand like that on the first try. Sarah might have assumed the man was cheating, but as the others inspected their own cards, they didn’t say another word about it. There were only twenty cards between them and none were available to draw or exchange. A hand like this only came around once or twice in a lifetime.
The face of the scarred man wrinkled with a contemptuous sneer. “I think you been cheatin’. Ain’t nobody can win ten games in a row,” he said to his rival.
A long slow breath was expelled from the young man. “I ain’t gotta cheat. You been bluffin’ since you walked in the door and you can’t hide it any better than a rooster can hide its tail feathers.”
Sarah mutedly begged the man not to rile his opponent. The last thing she wanted was to be caught in the middle of a shootout in a saloon. She had been fortunate enough to avoid them thus far.
The smoker took a long drag of his cigarette and threw down his hand, showing only one pair of tens and an ace of hearts. Morgan’s bent cards weren’t so weak, but his triplet of kings would have beaten the nervous man’s two pair.
When the mercenary was done collecting his winnings, he left the table and ambled toward the bar counter to stand right beside Sarah. He counted out the bills and gave a few to Leonhard. “Their drinks are on me.”
Now would have been the time to ask him about her predicament, but her tongue was held tight when the harsh scraping of chair legs upon the wooden floor jarred her out of her fascination.
Someone shouted and the only thing she saw was the mercenary catching the blade of the bowie knife in his fist. Morgan was on his feet, chest heaving and eyes wild for payback, but it came to nothing. If the knife had been allowed to follow its projected path, it might have found its way into the man’s back. Instead, it was flipped around and the mercenary stabbed the counter, the tip stuck firm in the wood.
Sarah stared, lips parted in amazement. He had caught the knife in midair so swiftly that it defied logic itself. How could he have known it was coming? And why didn’t he fight back? Any other man would have taken the invitation and returned the blow instead of rendering the knife useless, now jammed in the bar top.
A few of the older men fled to Morgan to calm him down while the mercenary slipped from the saloon, much without Sarah’s notice. It all happened so quickly, so suddenly that she had to remind herself to move and carry out her purpose for coming here. This man, this even-tempered mercenary gambler, had to help her find her parents’ killer.