The Gambler – By Lisa Kessler
He squinted into the sun, wetting his chapped lips. Judging by the angle of the light on the horizon, he figured he should reach Bodie before dusk. His lungs rattled with each breath, enticing him to cough. Zane tightened his grip on the worn leather reins, resisting his body’s urge to hack up the fragile tissue in his chest.
One of the players in his last card game in Virginia City must’ve been carrying some sort of miner’s sickness. Not that it mattered now. He had it, and prayed it wasn’t consumption. Gripping the reins in one hand, he slipped the other inside his vest and took a swig from a small blue bottle. He winced as Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery burned through his gullet. The snake oil claimed to cure whatever ailed you, but he was far from cured.
At least the foul tasting syrup numbed the burn in his throat and soothed the scratch that dared him to cough up a lung.
He was coming into town on a winning streak. Following the gold and silver rush spreading through the west, he found card games with eager players and weak hands. A dream for any gambler worth his salt.
And Zane was worth much more than salt.
But it wasn’t a poker table that lured him toward the new California boom-town.
He spat tobacco into the dust and urged Smoke to pick up the pace. Hot wind stung his cheeks as his black gelding broke into a slow lope across the prairie. While the days were hot, the nights were treacherous, with temperatures dropping and unforgiving winds that could freeze a man sleeping under the stars.
Zane hadn’t slept in days. For once, insomnia was a twisted blessing.
The sky was a brilliant orange by the time the buildings loomed in the distance. “Almost there, Smokey boy.”
His horse flipped his head in agreement, and jumped to action when Zane brushed his side with a spur. He leaned forward, closer to Smoke’s black mane, giving the wind a smaller target as they raced toward Bodie.
He pulled up on the reins when they reached the city limits. “Easy boy,” he mumbled to Smoke.
It didn’t take long to figure out the dance-halls were on the North side of town. He followed the sound of music and debauchery until he stopped in front of the Scarlet Dance Hall. The corner of his mouth twinged into a shadow of a smile.
This had to be her place.
Zane swung his right leg over the back of the saddle and dropped to the ground. Smoke followed him to the tie post, and he wrapped a rein loosely around it before kicking the dust off of his boots and heading inside.
The air was thick with cigar smoke, and his gaze fell onto the two card games along the back wall. Instead of joining in for a hand, he turned to the bar.
When the bartender met his eyes, Zane grumbled, “Whiskey.”
A drunken cowboy sidled up next to him. “You’re not from around these parts are you?”
Zane glanced over at him, narrowing his ice blue eyes. “Nope.”
The drunk leaned closer and lowered his voice to a slurred whisper, “Ya found any gold or are ya lookin’ fer some?”
The man’s breath could’ve knocked out a horse.
“Just lookin’ for a card game.” Zane tipped his whiskey back and set the glass back on the bar. He tossed a silver coin to the bartender and left the drunk alone at the bar.
The lure of the poker tables made his fingers twitch. Painted women worked the room, carrying drinks, sitting on eager laps, and a few led paying customers up the back stairs. Cigar smoke twisted up from the table, the scent awakening the beast inside of him, the animal that hungered for a royal flush more than food or drink.
The same monster that cost him the only woman he ever loved.
He settled in at the table and anteed up.
After winning his second hand, the music got louder. The piano man in the corner by the small stage pounded out the ragtime tune as the curtain opened in the middle. A woman made her way to center stage and his heart stopped for a moment.
Her red skirt was hiked up in the front, giving all the men in the saloon a gander at her gorgeous long legs. He gnawed at the end of his cigar as he laid his cards face down on the table.
“What the hell are you doin’?” The stocky miner to his right grumbled. “This is horseshit. The game doesn’t stop for whores.”
Zane hit the man so hard the chair fell over backwards along with its unconscious occupant. He didn’t give him a second look. “She’s not a whore.” He mumbled, making eye contact with each of the remaining players at the table. “Anyone else got a problem with holding the game?”
Not a single head nodded.
“Good.” He turned toward the stage, making his way through the salivating dogs with their goddamn tails wagging.
The crowd parted, and if they didn’t, his broad shoulders knocked them out of his way. Nothing would stop him.
The moment her brown eyes turned his way, she gasped and stopped singing. Moving closer to the edge of the stage, she stopped. “Zane?”
He closed the distance between them and pulled her off the stage and into his arms, carrying her away from the angry patrons. The piano came back to life behind him as he set her feet on the ground outside the swinging doors of the dance hall.
Her initial surprise melted away, and before he saw it coming, she slapped his face so hard his teeth rattled.
“What was that for?” He rubbed at his cheek.
“You left me to chase a card game.” Her brow furrowed and her red lips pressed together. Dear Lord he missed kissing those lips. “Did you think I’d be happy to see you?”
“Maybe not happy.” He settled back in his boots, crossing his arms. “But I didn’t expect to find you selling yourself. Seems men strike more than gold in this town.”
This time he saw the slap coming and caught her wrist before she made contact. He took a step closer to her so that their bodies made contact. The rebellious spark in her dark eyes and her curves pressing against him sent his pulse racing, pumping blood below his belt.
With his mouth closer to hers, he growled, “I didn’t come here for a card game, Kittie. I came here for you.”
She wrenched her wrist free, but he was pleased she didn’t step back or break eye contact. She was still the most fearless, gorgeous creature he’d ever seen.
“So you came all the way to California to insult me?”
“Nope.” He leaned down toward her lips. “I came all the way to California for this.”
He kissed her, hard, his mouth claiming hers. She still tasted like springtime. Her tongue mingled with his as he clutched her to his chest. Behind him glasses shattered. He spun around just in time to see the man he hit lurch through the doors.
Zane stepped in front of Kittie, eyes narrowed, his trigger finger twitching against his thumb. The man’s right eye was swollen shut.
“How much is he paying you?” He tried to see Kittie around Zane’s shoulders. “I’ll double it.”
“I told you she’s no whore.” That was all the restraint Zane had left. Now that he’d found her and tasted her lips again, there was no way any other man was going to touch her. Never again. “Now get the hell outta my face. I fold. The pot’s yours.”
The battered man attempted to raise his misshapen brow. “You come in, mess up my game, assault me, and now you think you’re gonna decide where I wet my wick?”
“You son of a…” He tackled the other man, knocking him to the ground.
They grappled in the dirt in front on the saloon. Something flashed in the lantern light and Kittie screamed, “He’s got a knife.”
Before Zane could grab his arm, the blade sunk into his skin, slicing through the muscle of his bicep. Distracted by the pain, he let go of the other man.
The weasel scrambled to his feet and grabbed Kittie. Holding the bloody blade to her neck, he ran his other dirty hand up her bare thigh, licking his swollen lips. “How much will you charge if we let him watch?”
Zane drew his pistol. “Let her go.”
The man pressed the knife against her skin until she gasped, her eyes begging for help. “You don’t get to call the shots, stranger.”
Zane cocked his weapon and fired, knocking the man back into the dirt. “Nope. I just make ‘em.”
Kittie rushed to his arms and he scooped her up and onto his horse before the mob lost interest in their fallen friend. He swung up behind her, squeezing his spurs into Smoke’s sides. His horse launched into a gallop as Zane held his wife tight. He thought she was weeping, but gradually realized she wasn’t crying at all.
She was laughing.
He peered down at her with a raised brow. She smiled up at him. “Lord I’ve missed you, Zane.”
She shook her head and kissed him. He was breathless when he came up for air, relieved to see that Smoke remembered the way out of town.
“You followed me all the way out to California.”
She looked over at his bloody arm. “You gonna stop and let me clean that?”
“Eventually.” He shrugged, hoping he wasn’t letting on how much he’d missed her attention.
Her gaze met his. “How’d you know I wouldn’t shoot you dead when I saw you?”
“I didn’t.” He kissed her again. He couldn’t resist. “It was worth the risk.”
“Always the gambler,” she hummed against his lips.
“Always,” he growled.
But the woman in his arms was by far the best bet he’d ever made or won.
This story was inspired by a story I found in the Library of Congress newspaper archives…
“April 1, 1880, Samuel Black was shot and dangerously wounded by Jesse Pierce…” The story went on to describe an altercation over a harlot named, Kittie Welles.
I think it’s amazing that we have so much history at our fingertips now! 😀 I also used Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery from an advertisement I saw in the 1880 newspaper! Dr. Pierce was one of the most successful snake oil salesmen in America!
And if you’re interested in the California mining town of Bodie, it’s now one of the larget ghost towns. I’ve been there twice and I highly recommend it. Such a cool glimpse into the wild west… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodie,_California