Gambler’s Luck

Shifting West

Maria Violante

 

Chapter 1

“All right.” Cole grinned. “It’s time to pay up.”

Dickey guffawed. “Betting the mine, are we? Last time I checked, we still had a few more hands to play.” His lips played in a smug smile as he reached for his next card.

Cole sprang to his feet, his chair scraping across the parquet floor. His hand slammed down onto Dickey’s with an audible slap. Dickey struggled, trying to pull away, but Cole had him pinned, one hand already peeling back the lapels of his sack coat.

“Now, see here,” yelled Dickey. He tried to shove Cole away—only to freeze as an ivory-handled .44 materialized in his face. The Reisen’s bar had been packed with the loud noises of miners gambling—bets, trash talk, and catcalls—but the crowd sensed blood and fell silent.

Dickey swallowed. “I highly resent this lack of trust.” From the way his cheeks paled, Dickey knew he was in trouble.

Gaze locked on Dickey’s face, Cole maneuvered his hand under the man’s loose coat, toward the waist—only to stop above the belt line.

There, you bastard. I’ve got you. He pulled hard and thumped his catch on the table. It was a steel, boxlike contraption, slightly larger than a deck of cards.

The crowd gasped. Over his shoulder, Cole could hear Marilyn groan. It was a holdout, and while it was empty now, he had no doubt Dickey had used it to stash a few cards during the game.

“I knew it.” Cole’s brows had drawn together in a dark line. “I knew you were cheating me.”

“Now, come on, Cole.” Dickey smiled as slick as a pile of snake oil. “We go way back. Everybody cheats, and this is just a friendly game.”

“That may be so, but there’s cheating—a mirror on the shoe, a ring to mark a dent in a card—and then there’s cheating.” His voice got lower, more dangerous. He glanced around at the bar behind him. “I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single individual in this establishment that doesn’t find a preprinted trick deck or a holdout to be a killing offense.”

At the word “holdout,” a gruff drunk at the bar turned around, swaying slightly on his feet, and laughed. “Dickey, are you trying to bamboozle Cole? Cole Rede? Ain’t a cardsharp sharper.” He shook his head and turned back to his drink.

Cole’s gun trailed over Dickey’s forehead, wandering lazily. It rested on one of his eyes and then slid to the other. Dickey went from a statue to shivering like a man in a blizzard.

“Dickey, this is going to go in one of two ways, because I ain’t gonna get it in the neck from some mudsill who thinks he’s brighter than everyone around him. You can either pay up the one hundred and twenty dollars you so glibly wagered in front of me, or I’m gonna put a bullet in you.”

“Cole.” It was Marilyn’s voice—Marilyn, who was always the voice of reason. He didn’t feel like listening, though.

“Hold your tongue, Merry. This isn’t the Ophir House, and I ain’t one of your girls.” He winced inside—he was going to regret that very soon, but there was nothing for it now. He shifted his focus back to the man in front of him.

“Now, you could try your odds, Dickey. Lord knows you’ve been tryin’ them all night—but given how your luck has gone, I wouldn’t exactly recommend it.” Cole shrugged and tapped the hapless cheat in the forehead, making him wince. “What’s it gonna be?”

Dickey stammered. Already, his whole face was breaking out into a nice sheen.

“Hold on now.” Marilyn’s voice was insistent. “Pull in your horns and give the man a chance to speak.”

Cole glanced at her. “Merry, what do you care if I shoot him or not? This isn’t even your bar.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he sucked air through his teeth, but it was too late.

Her cheeks flamed, and her hands balled into fists so tight, he bet she could have squeezed the ore out of a rock. “And, what, exactly, is that supposed to mean?”

“No, I didn’t mean—”

“Because while I don’t care a continental, if you’re suggesting that you can shoot off a gun in the Ophir House—”

“No Merry, I’m not, and…” He was roaring. Why was it that a grown man in front of him was literally quaking in his boots, and yet Merry never had any fear of him?

She ground her fists into her curvy hips. “And what? Listen here, you damn scoundrel, this may not be my bar, but the Riesen is the most respectable place in all of Gold Hill, and if you shoot a man in here without at least trying to resolve the situation first, Vesey will never let me hear the end of it.”

Ignoring the gun, she poked him in the chest with a finger. “Now for God’s sake, you’ve already nailed him to the counter. What good is shooting him going to do? Let’s get our money and be on our way.”

Cole grimaced as if sucking on a lemon, but he didn’t move his gun. “Fine, fine, you win, you old shrew.” She sputtered, but he ignored it, focusing instead on Dickey. “Make with the loot, because if I have to listen to this woman again, I’m going to let some daylight into you.”

“Well,” Dickey’s hands shook so hard his giant sausage fingers jiggled, “I ain’t exactly got it.”

“Nice knowing you.” Cole cocked the hammer.

“Just hold on a sec,” sputtered Dickey, waving his arms in front of him like fans. “I got something better.”

Cole slid his forefinger off the trigger. “Now what, exactly, could be better than money?”

Marilyn snorted. “Damned if I know.”

Dickey, clearly agitated by the sight and feel of a revolver barrel pressing between his eyes, was reduced to a stuttering whisper. “C-c-Cole, it’s in the b-b-back.” He eyed the door for a moment before flicking his gaze to Cole’s impassive face. “J-just c-come around w-with me and we can get it.”

It was Cole’s turn to snort. “Do you think I’m stupid?” He pushed the gun harder, and Dickey moaned. “I got you right where I want you. Why would I follow you out to a place where I could get jumped?”

“No.” Dickey shook his head so violently the barrel mussed his already unkempt eyebrows. “No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I swear, it…” He looked over a shoulder, and when he spoke again, his voice was a whisper. “It’s in the back, in the wagon.”

Marilyn pulled a frown. “Well, King of Mystery, Mr. Rede might be a little less gun-happy if you told him what it was.” Her hands had returned to their nesting spot on her hips.

“I can’t.” Dickey whispered so quietly that Cole could barely hear him. “Not here. But trust me, it’s good. Mark my words, you’ll want a piece.”

Cole and Marilyn exchanged a glance, and Marilyn nodded imperceptibly, just a brief, barely noticeable flick of the head. He shook his head just as slightly in return, shooting her a look that clearly warned, No, I have a bad feeling about this.

He could tell from her return stare that she wasn’t going to pay him any mind.

He sighed. “Fine, Dickey. Lead on. But if you run, I’m shooting you in the back. And if I miss, Merry will probably shoot you, and she’s a much better shot than I am.”

Dickey gulped visibly before leading them through the side door.

* * * *

Sarah’s eyes were glued shut, and her mouth was so dry she was sure it was going to crumble into dust and blow away. She tried to swallow, but wound up coughing, the motions setting off a raw net of pain that ran through her throat and chest.

When the chloroform had worn off and she awoke in this prison, she had screamed at the top of her lungs, the muffled cries for aid quickly devolving into wordless ululations, but the gag in her mouth and the thick oak walls effectively erased her from existence. She had marveled at the resolute pitch-darkness, so complete that even she couldn’t tell which way the sun lay.

She had spent the next day trying to struggle out of the stifling thick fabric around her, fighting her instinctual claustrophobia with the resolute determination that marked her kind, but the potato sack was tied shut. Using the last of her energy reserves, she had shifted twice to her wild form and back again, but no amount of tearing at it, neither with claws and fangs or with her more dexterous human fingers, bought her any reprieve.

Finally, after hours of baking in the heat with no food or water, her muscles up and quit.

If only her mind had, too.

Unable to change again, she first kept the memories at bay by marking the passage of time. She spent hours counting the seconds out loud to herself, her voice muffled by the gag they had stuffed in her mouth.

And then she heard a series of creaks, and her body rocked with motion. She realized she was in some sort of transport. She tried to make sense of it, but she couldn’t, and she knew her spirit was leaving her body.

Is this a coffin? I’m already dead, and they’re sending me to the bone orchard.

The thought filled her with a sense of peace. She wondered how many of her loved ones had walked the paths to the great spirits before her. She had thought it would be long before the crow would come for her and bring her to them, to her lost loved ones at Ft. Adele and later at the Indian Camp.

I miss you, Father. Where is your brisk laugh? She could smell the gentle scents of coffee and tobacco that always clung to his beard like a perfume.

I miss you too, Coyote Ear. Where are your hands, so soft and gentle? Where is your voice, so firm and full of guidance? Are you waiting for me?

When the wagon stopped, she found she had lost count of the hours. She considered starting again, but her will to fight back against the past had evaporated, and she let go, giving in to the memories that pushed in on her. First were the ones of Ft. Adele. She saw Gavotte play in the trees, his bark begging her to follow. She ran after him, her paws as light as his own, her gentle howls following his baying call.

She saw her mother tending the fire, and the smells of wood smoke and a roasting rabbit ruthlessly teased at her empty belly. She enjoyed these dreams, but they faded into other ones, vistas of war whoops and bloody arrows and the dying, and still, she could not wake herself.

Just when the feelings got too intense and she thought she would be trapped in her own horror and despair, a shadow materialized in the dark at the back of the wagon. “Let these thoughts go, second wife.” Her heartbeat stilled as she stared into the wise face of one who had so often helped her.

“Coyote Ear.” She sighed and tried to reach up to caress the old woman’s face, but her hand was too weak.

“Yes,” the old Indian answered. She reached out and stroked Sarah’s hair, a measure of comfort in a terrible world of darkness.

“I saw you die.”

The old woman stopped stroking and her fingers rested in Sarah’s jet-black mane. “Yes, Sarah—that is true.”

“So you aren’t really here?”

The woman shook her head. “No, not really.”

Sarah nodded. The blow crushed her, and yet, she could not deny the comfort she saw in her dear friend.

“Will you stay with me?”

Coyote Ear laughed, the sound like a river babbling through stones. “Of course, little one—for as long as you like.”