A Gambler’s Heart

Book Cover: A Gambler's Heart

Joshua Merriweather's plan had been to just keep traveling West until it turned into East again - or at least until he outran his grief. No part of that plan had ever involved becoming the sheriff of a town called Red River Hill.

Excerpt:

The little town of Red River Hill, unlike many of its cousins along the face of the frontier, had not started life out as a mining town, or a mining camp, or anything else that had to do with mines, gold, or silver. It had not sprung up from a group of intrepid homesteaders all deciding to settle in that particular location rather than moving farther West, either. Not that there hadn’t been homesteaders in the area; there had been. Several of the farms in the area had started off that way, but a handful of farms was not enough to generate a whole town. And there wasn’t a fort or garrison full of soldiers for a hundred miles or more, so a need for amenities for those hypothetical soldiers and their families hadn’t spawned the town either.

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Red River Hill had started out as a stage stop. Originally it had been one building, and that had been a stable; the place had been called the Red River Hill Stop because that was a landmark any driver or rider could spot and wasn’t likely to forget. As traffic had increased, the need for certain amenities at the stop had as well. A blacksmith, for seeing to the needs of both horses and the carriages they pulled. A trading post, to supply drivers, riders and passengers with necessary items. A saloon to water those visitors, and a hotel to feed and accommodate them. A sheriff with accompanying jailhouse to keep everyone involved in line, and to warn off potential robbers - a new trend among the outlaw element at the time had been for a band of ambitious but lazy outlaws to commandeer a stage stop and then simply rob the stages as they pulled in.

And of course, all of the people running these businesses required homes to live in, and more and better supplies to live with, and an expanded range of services to be available to them. George Barton’s cattle ranch may have started out as a homestead, but Todd Ainsley had set up his dairy farm specifically to supply a local demand for milk and cream; prior to that, he’d been attempting to run an orchard, which he was still doing but only because the fruit trees were already there. The trading post became a dry-goods store and then put on airs and became an Emporium. The itinerant blacksmith who had lived above the livery stable was replaced by a jovial Swede and his wife, their small son, and eventually a set of tiny twin girls. Soon there were enough children in town to justify having a schoolteacher, which creature was duly sent for. A preacher arrived and built a small, whitewashed church at one end of town around the same time the local banker moved his expanding concerns into a finer, larger wood-and-stone structure which he considered much more secure than the original clapboard building had been. A meeting hall was built. A selection of worthies from the area were appointed to a town council of sorts which would see about laws and rules and suchlike, and after a time a mayor was elected who would head the council.

All in all, Red River Hill was striving to become a real town, the sort of town her residents had lived in back East, the sort of town they wanted to keep living in if that could at all be made to happen. And they were making it happen, nobody could say they weren't.

Some people had some things to say about the way they were doing it, however. One of those people was the sheriff, a hard-eyed, tight-lipped veteran of the frontier and outspoken proponent of the idea that men who lived on the frontier should all be like himself to as great an extent as possible - and if they weren’t, they probably should consider going back where they came from and leave the West for the real men. Basically, he thought that ‘civilized society’ had no place on the frontier - especially as the so-called men who wanted it thought that it was his responsibility to ensure that their community stayed civilized and were not inclined to lift a finger to do it for themselves.

The sheriff had laughed when he’d left. He’d laughed all the way to Mexico, intermittently, every time he thought about the nicely ‘civilized’ fantasy of a town falling apart as it was assaulted by the rougher, realer elements of the true frontier while the soft Easterners who lived there wrung their hands and cried for someone to come save them. He thought their first wake-up call would most likely be the death of his jokingly appointed kid deputy at the gun-end of the very next outlaw to ride through - the kid couldn’t shoot worth shit, and he was about as sharp as a dead rooster.

Being one of the ‘real men’ who belonged in the West, the sheriff did not feel the least pang of remorse over the idea that this would mean the end of an innocent young man’s life. He was not a bad man per se, but he was a hard man and in his own mind at least his philosophy of life was simply the way life was and the way it should be. He had even decided that at some point he would ride back into what was left of the town - if there was anything left of the town - and have his laugh again at anyone who was left. He did not think that any of the townspeople could ‘toughen up’ enough to survive without him or someone like him.

And he might have been right, if circumstances and luck and perhaps even some godly intervention hadn’t conspired together to prove him wrong.

 

Joshua Merriweather looked up from his cards when the voices at the other end of the small saloon began to get louder. He caught the eye of one of the ‘participants’ in the budding altercation and raised a dark eyebrow. “Do ah need to come ovah there?” The man hesitated; the eyebrow went up a little higher, and the tightly fanned cards dipped slightly. “Really?”

The man swallowed, and shook his head. “I...no. Me an’ the boys, we’s just gettin’ a little...we’ll jus’ take it outside. Out in the street. R-right boys?” He elbowed one of the ‘boys’ hard. “Right, boys? This gent don’t need to get up ‘cause of us?”

“No sir,” the one who’d been elbowed answered quickly, and passed the elbow along to their third companion, who’d looked as though he might comment something different. He grabbed that man’s arm when the elbow didn’t work. “We was just goin’ outside, all three of us.” He remembered something, and gave a nod to the worried bartender. “Don't want to make no trouble in this fine establishment, we like drinkin’ here.” The bartender nodded back, looking nervous himself, and the man jammed his battered hat onto his head and began to pull his less-convinced companion toward the saloon’s batwing doors. “We’ll be back when we’re a bit less rowdy, a’right?”

The bartender swallowed. “That...that’s just fine, boys. I appreciate your consideration.” The three men nodded back to him again, just a tad overeagerly, and then high-tailed it out onto the boardwalk and from there into the dusty street. Where they had a quick, somewhat heated discussion - meaning the third man tried to start something and the other two finished it for him - and then they all moved away from the saloon.

The bartender watched until they were completely gone, and then went back to polishing the bar, the glasses, anything that looked like it might need polishing. Surreptitiously, he looked over at the man with the cards in the corner, who had gone back to his game with apparent unconcern. The man had been in town three days, waiting for a stage to California supposedly, and he’d spent most of that time in the back of the saloon playing cards. He was relatively well-dressed, for that part of the country at least, and soft-spoken in the way of a man who knows he doesn’t have to raise his voice to get someone’s attention. He had dark hair, almost black, and light blue-gray eyes the color of a stormy summer afternoon - or of washed-out worn flannel, depending on his mood. He was handsome, although not arrogantly so, and his Southern-accented speech was cultured and betrayed a considerable education.

Other than that, however, he was posing something of a conundrum to the bartender, who had - before meeting Joshua Merriweather, anyway - prided himself on being able to read people like a book. He could not read the gambler, though. The man’s proficiency with cards said very clearly that he was a professional cardsharp, yet he had not tried to scam, cheat, or hustle a single person in town. He sipped whiskey or drank black coffee in the saloon, but took three meals a day at the hotel just like any regular traveler would. And although he was handsome, and not that old - the bartender guessed he wasn’t more than thirty - he had yet to cast a single carnal glance at any of the town’s whores, or at the two primped and powdered girls who claimed to be something better than whores when they livened up the saloon in the evenings.

One of the saloon girls had offered Roddy a possible explanation for that: the gambler was wearing a wedding ring, a gold band so plain and simple that it was easy to overlook its presence on his finger. So possibly a widower, then, and a fairly recent one, trying to leave his grief behind on the long trail to California. Maybe to work in one of the big gambling establishments there, San Francisco perhaps? Roddy had heard about those places, gilded and mirrored pleasure palaces very unlike his own humble establishment. He never had understood how the proprietors of such places managed to replace all of that glass on a regular basis. But then, if they had men like Merriweather in their employ maybe it simply wasn’t an issue. After all, Roddy himself hadn't had to fix anything in two days now, which for him was sort of like going to Heaven without being annoyed by the harp music and loose feathers everywhere. Roddy never had been all that fond of harp music.

The game at the back table had played itself out while he was thinking, and he dutifully carried over a half-full bottle of whisky to see if anyone wanted a refill. Merriweather’s response was a polite, “Thank you, but no," and only one of the three men he’d been playing with had enough silver left to buy another shot. One of the broke ones looked irritated, but the other ones didn’t so it didn’t look like the outcome of the game was going to spark a saloon-destroying fight - or worse, an in-saloon shootout. Blood did not come out of the wood floors easily, and Roddy had better things to do with his time of a quiet late evening than to spend it on his hands and knees on the floor, sanding out stains.

The man who had gotten a refill polished off his shot and then the three of them were getting up to leave. Merriweather rose too, towering over all but one of them with his well-proportioned six-foot-one frame, and shook hands like a gentleman. The man who had remained irritable for losing refused the genteely offered hand, something the gambler appeared to be very little offended by. “As you will, sir,” he said, the diminished syrupy thickness of his vowels showing that he truly wasn’t all that upset about the slight. “Perhaps, however, if losin’ at poker is so little to your likin’, then you should avoid the game in future and amuse yourself with other diversions.”

The man, who was a townsman named Turner and a cranky, often unpleasant man, turned red but controlled himself. “Maybe I just don’t like cheaters much, Merriweather. What do you think of that?”

“Why Mr. Turner, are you tryin’ to call me out?” Merriweather asked, sounding amused. Almost unconsciously, Roddy reached for the shotgun under the bar; the smile on the gambler’s face was an icy cold smile, and his soft-colored eyes had iced up to match it. “If so, you are doin' a very poor job of it - and guaranteein’ that your losin’ streak will continue on past our little game. And ah do believe your friends are not in agreement with this new diversion you are tryin’ to embark upon. Doubtless they were lookin’ forward to returnin' home for the evenin’ and havin’ a nice supper with their families. Am I right, gentlemen?”

“You aren't wrong,” the man who wasn’t broke, George Barton, agreed easily. “Abe, I am not going to be late for my supper over your nonsense. If you want a fight, go find those hands from before and I'm sure they’ll give you one.”

“And my wife’s makin’ dumplings tonight, which I don’t aim to miss for you or any man," said the other man, Todd Ainsley, who had a little dairy farm outside of town. “Mr. Merriweather, it was a good game - a pleasure playing with you.” He gave Turner a look. “Say good day, Abe, or you’ll have the bartender’s shotgun out and that kid deputy over here.”

Turner turned on his heel and left, and Barton shrugged a ‘what can you do’ at the gambler. “One in every town, I suppose. Good evening, Mr. Merriweather.”

Merriweather smiled. “And to you Mr. Barton, Mr. Ainsley.”

The men left, and he sat back down. Tapping his cards into order, he shuffled them, tapped again, and then tucked them into an inner pocket in his dark maroon coat - which unlike many gamblers was made of sturdy although well-cut broadcloth instead of finicky velvet or delicate silk. “Unless you think he’s comin’ back, sir, which ah don’t believe he will," he tossed somewhat carelessly towards the bartender, “ah believe you can let go of the shotgun now. Although I find it interestin’ that you made no move towards it when those high-spirited cowhands from earlier were gearin’ up towards violence.”

Roddy shrugged and took his hand off the shotgun; most saloons had one under the bar and within easy reach, so he was not surprised that the gambler had correctly guessed where the hand beneath the bar had been resting and why. “Shotgun wouldn’t have stopped those boys," he said. “But it would have shut that Mr. Turner down like a closed-up music box. And you’re right, he won’t come back. For a few days, anyway. He’s prone to having steam come out of his ears over every little thing, but he won’t buck Mr. Barton.” He considered something. “You know he’s likely to tell folks you’re a coward, that you backed down when he called you out.”

The gambler chuckled, sitting back in his chair and taking a slow, thoughtful sip of his whisky. “He may at that. But I believe several of your other regular patrons would likely disagree with him - and would be disposed to offer proof if he pushed the matter. Not to mention, I am only dallyin’ here until that blasted stage arrives." He snorted. “Today's excuse was even more fantastical than yesterday’s, ah think the gentleman at the stage office has missed his callin’ and should perhaps be pennin’ dime novels rather than strikin’ off telegrams.”

“Be sad to see you go when the stage finally does get through," Roddy admitted, going back to polishing the bar. “Ain’t been this peaceful in here in a good long while.”

“Ah yes, young Mr. Barton.” Merriweather took another drink. “Beggin’ your pardon for askin’ the question, but aren’t there any men in this town who can step into the former sheriff’s shoes? I respect the fact that the boy is tryin’ to do the job, but after seein' him in action over the past few days, I have to wonder if his now-absent boss wasn’t tryin’ to get him killed.”

“Think he just didn’t care," Roddy admitted. “Jesse’s a good boy, but I agree with you, he just ain’t lawman material. Always sort of wondered if the sheriff took him on as his deputy as sort of a joke - he’d always said before that he didn’t need no deputy, and he said it more than once after he give young Jesse that tin star to wear.”

Merriweather made a face, shaking his head. “He must have been a truly unpleasant individual, I am rather glad I was not forced to make his acquaintance.” He finished off the rest of his whisky, then stood up and put on his hat. “Good day to you, sir. I shall most likely see you later this evenin’ after supper.”

He didn’t miss the way the bartender’s face lit up at that statement, and Joshua mused on that as he walked out onto the boardwalk and strolled somewhat aimlessly back towards the hotel. It didn’t necessarily please him. He’d been stuck in this god-forsaken little town for three days, and he’d already saved the ‘deputy’s’ life at least twice - what had been keeping the boy alive before his arrival was anybody’s guess. He’d also stopped numerous fights in the saloon, mainly because he didn’t want to be bothered with them, but partly because of the helpless, resigned look he’d seen on the bartender's face the first time one had broken out. Joshua did not think too much less of the man for that, he knew the type: quiet, orderly men who were designed by their very nature to live in the tamed, civilized towns which had not yet come into being this far West. Men who had ventured out into the wild, practically lawless territories looking for opportunities which were fewer and harder to come by in their own well-populated states.

Men who hadn’t known what they were getting into, who had let a little personal greed for ‘easy pickings’ and/or a misguided desire for adventure lead them out of their neat, orderly world and into one where they must look to stronger men to protect them and theirs. Joshua had a little bit of sympathy for such men, and a little bit more for their women, but he knew that they also had a tendency to get good men killed by hiding behind them.

Hence his anger over the situation with the boy deputy, Jesse Barton. Red River Hill - so named because of a wash of red clay that decorated one side of the hill the town sat in the shadow of, and not because of any particular proximity to a colorful river - was full of supposedly able-bodied men, and the surrounding farms and small ranches held even more. The fact that they'd left the boy holding the star - and Joshua was fairly certain the bartender was right about him getting it as a cruel sort of joke - all this time was practically criminal in and of itself. At the very least they could have sent to the territorial governor requesting a new sheriff for the town. Surely someone in the territory would have been willing to take the job...

With a mental shake, Joshua forced his thoughts away from that. It wasn't his town and therefore not his problem, he had no intention of staying here even one hour longer than he absolutely had to. He was headed for California; he wanted to see the redwood forests he’d read about, maybe play a few hands in the gambling palaces of San Francisco, and maybe after that get on board a ship and just sail off further West until it turned back into East again. He wasn’t planning to stay anywhere, at least not for a long while to come.

Planning, of course, being the operative word.

COLLAPSE

This book is currently in progress and does not yet have an estimated release date.

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