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ROGAN'S GAME 

 

Wyoming Territory 1882

 

Jake Rogan was a stranger in town – just another gun-toting drifter. But Ella O’Shaughnessy suspected different.

  

Ella ran the Silver Spur, the town’s saloon. And in spite of what the gossips said, she was not – and never would be – Emmett Stroud’s mistress.

  

Emmett owned the Silver Spur. His game was poker – and he played by his own rules.

   

But what was Rogan’s game?

It was a little before sundown when the stranger rode into town. An old yellow mongrel on the dusty sidewalk outside Culver’s General Store paused in scratching a flea to watch him pass, then yawned widely and went back to his task.

    A couple of ranch-hands from the Lazy B, loading supplies onto a buckboard wagon, cast him a look of wary curiosity, taking in his grim, hard-boned face, his easy lope in the saddle. A walnut-handled Colt .45 in its leather holster hung heavily on his hip.

    He was riding a big roan - a good-looking horse with a strong back and powerful hindquarters, and a deep girth. But the animal’s gait was slightly uneven - he could be seen to be slightly favouring his right fore-leg.

    Betty Oakley, hurrying home from the chapel to cook her father’s supper, twitched her skirts and stepped up her pace. Strangers. Huh! Usually they meant nothing but trouble, and this one didn’t look no different. Pine Fork had troubles enough of its own to deal with, without strangers bringing in more. 

    Jake tipped his hat to the lady, smiling inwardly at her undisguised disdain. His narrowed eyes were taking in every detail of the place as he rode easily down the main street. The small town was like a hundred others scattered across the Territory of Wyoming – a single wide street running down the centre, the buildings mostly wood with deep verandas sheltering the plank sidewalks.

    Only the Sherriff’s office and the saloon were built of brick. Behind this, a few dozen cabins and shacks rambled in a disorganised jumble until giving way to the dry, ragged grassland of the high plains.

    He was keen to shake off the trail dust and find some chow, but first stop was the livery stables. He found it down past the blacksmiths. It looked clean enough, with a good roof and a well-fenced corral. An old-timer sat on a stool outside, picking mud out of a leather harness and noisily chewing tobacco.

    He looked up as Jake approached, casting an appreciative eye over Franklin. “Nice looking pony you got there, stranger,” he remarked. “You looking to stable him?”

    “That was on my mind.”

    The old man spat out a stream of brown tobacco juice onto the dusty ground. “Half a dollar a night, including hay. How long you fixing to stay?”

    “I reckon a few days.”

    The old man nodded, frowning at the horse, who was standing with that right fore-leg slightly eased off the ground. “How’d he get hurt?”

    “Coming through the creek back there.” Jake swung himself lightly from the saddle. “Loose rock gave way under him. Figured this was the nearest place to rest him up.”

    A wide grin showed a few remaining stumps of brown teeth. “Aye, reckon it could be the nearest. Ain’t saying much.” The old man chuckled, and tore off another cud of tobacco. “Name’s Tom Hatton.” The inflection in his voice invited a response in kind.

    Jake nodded. “Jake Rogan. Pleased to meet you, Tom. I’d appreciate a stall at the end of the row for old Franklin. He’s a good horse, but he don’t take easy to strangers.”

    The old man had shuffled to his feet, eager to help Jake lead the big roan into the stables, showing him where to hang his saddle, where to get a bucket of water, and bringing a jag of hay to hang over the half-door. Jake rubbed the big horse down with a handful of straw, and checked his feet, then went to his head and blew softly against his nostrils.

    “See you later, buddy,” he murmured, patting the horse’s neck.

    Old Tom was watching him eagerly, like someone who rarely got much in the way of entertainment and would make the most of any fleeting chance. “You’ll be looking for a bunk yourself?”

    Jake smiled dryly. “That was on my mind.”

    Again that plug-tooth grin. “Well, you got three choices. There’s a flop-house down to the far end of the street here. But I wouldn’t recommend it – not unless you care to be a-scritchin’ an’ a-scratchin’ all night. Then you have Miss Oakley’s place – she takes in boarders, and it’d be clean enough. Miss Oakley’s a great believer in cleanliness being next to Godliness – and Miss Oakley sure is a great believer in Godliness.”

    “Don’t sound like you’d highly recommend either of those.”

    “Damn right. Howsoever, you do got a third choice, which I would highly recommend. Just down the street a pace you’ll find the Silver Spur. They got good cheap rooms, and they keep a decent table, too. Plus you get to admire Miss Ella – and believe me, son, that’s worth a handful of any man’s silver. Purdiest gal this side o’ the Mississippi.”

    Jake arched one quizzical eyebrow. He had fully intended to favour the Silver Spur with his custom – though it was convenient to have the old timer believe it had been his suggestion. And the name of Helena O’Shaughnessy was not unknown to him. It would be interesting to get a look at her for himself.

    He swung his saddle-roll over his shoulder and closed the stall door. “Well, I thank you for your advice, Tom.” He pulled a bill-roll from his pocket and peeled off a five-spot. “Take good care of Franklin. Like I said, he don’t like strangers around him.”

    “You can rely on me, Mister. I’ll take good care no-one bothers him, nice-looking horse like that.”

    Old Tom stood watching the stranger stroll along the side-walk and turn in through the bat-wing doors of the Silver Spur, than scampered across the road to his buddy Buck Culver over at the General Store, to share the news of the new arrival.

 

    It was early yet, and the saloon was half-empty, but already the heavy haze of pipe tobacco and cheap cigars was drifting amid the orange glow of the oil lamps that swung from the low-beamed ceiling.

    Later the place would be packed, loud with the raucous voices of ranch-hands and miners who gravitated into town in the evenings to drink and gamble and watch the dancing girls on the small stage at the back of the room.

    Ella had checked the bar-stock, and was polishing a small smudge off the big mirror that hung behind the long mahogany bar when she saw in its reflection the stranger who had just walked in through the bat-wing doors. He had paused on the threshold, the narrowed eyes beneath his black Stetson surveying the place like a man who always looked first for trouble, maybe before it found him.

    He was tall and lean, his coat and boots still dusty from the trail. There was nothing fancy in his clothing, nothing ostentatious about him at all, but there was something in his quiet stillness as he stood there that drew every eye in the place. He was the sort of man a woman would notice – whether she wanted to or not.

    He took off his hat and strolled over to the bar. Ella continued to polish the smudge as he came up behind her. His hair was dark, almost black, and his face hard-boned beneath the shadow of a day’s growth of beard. There was something uncompromising in the firm line of his mouth, and his eyes were the colour of cold steel.

    “Evening Ma’am,” he greeted her, impeccably polite.

    She took a moment to check that the smudge had gone before turning slowly, pinning a practiced smile in place. “Good evening, stranger,” she responded coolly. “What can I do for you?”

    “I was told you have decent rooms and a good table.”

    “Decent, clean and a fair price,” she confirmed in her best businesslike manner. “How long would you be wanting to stay?”

    He shrugged a pair of wide, handsome shoulders. “A few days, maybe a week.”

    “Sure.” She nodded. “And for supper, we can do you a prime steak with mash and beans.”

    “That sounds good. I prefer my steak not too well-done.”

    She smiled dryly. “That’ll please Cookie,” she remarked. “Most of the cowboys around here like it darned-near burned.”

    He smiled back, his eyes crinkling, and her heart gave an odd little thump. It looked like a smile he doled out sparingly – which was probably just as well, she reflected, struggling to steady her agitated breathing. A smile like that could be lethal.

    She distracted herself by wiping down the counter. “Would you like to see your room now, or can I get you a drink first?” she asked.

    “I’ll have a Bourbon, thank you Ma’am.”

    She placed a bottle and tumbler on the bar in front of him. “So, what name do you go by, stranger?” she asked, her tone no more than casually polite.

    “Jake Rogan.”

    “Ella O’Shaughnessy.”

    “I’m mighty pleased to meet you, Miss O’Shaughnessy.”

    He held out his hand to her, and without consciously intending to she placed hers in it.      “Folks around here call me Miss Ella,” she responded, conscious of an odd little tremour in her voice.

    Those cool grey eyes looked straight into hers, and that smile flickered briefly again. “Then I’m mighty pleased to meet you, Miss Ella,” he responded. His voice was low, slightly husky, strangely beguiling…

    With a struggle of will she tore her gaze from his, drawing back the hand he had held onto for a little too long. “Fine. Well… let me know when you want to see your room.” And with a polite little nod she turned away, walking briskly down to the far end of the bar, where the Cobb brothers were waiting to be served.

    Fortunately it was a busy night – the boys from the Moosehead copper mine had been paid, and were keen to spend every last cent as quickly as possible. It would probably end in a fight – likely over one of the girls.

    As the evening wore on, the appreciation for the scantily-clad dancers grew ever more raucous, and more than one sex-hungry miner had already had his hand slapped away as he had attempted to snap a scarlet garter.

    Ella strolled among the tables, pausing to speak to some of the customers and making sure they were well-supplied with beer or bourbon, keeping a shrewd eye on the girls to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. She certainly wasn’t watching the tall man at the end of the bar – but she couldn’t help but see him, just on the edge of her vision.

    Walter Jackson had sidled up to him, cadging drinks as usual. He was a bit simple-minded, Walter – except when it came to free drinks – but Jake Rogan seemed happy enough to give him the time of day. She had to admit, that was pretty decent of him – most guys just ignored poor Walter – or worse.

    Emmett strolled in at his usual time, around nine o/clock, arrogant as ever in his fancy duds, a new embroidered waistcoat showing beneath his store-bought jacket as he kept one hand casually resting on his gun-belt. He came round behind the bar and opened the cash box, quickly adding up how much was in there.

    “Takings are a bit down,” he remarked.

    “It”s early yet,” Ella pointed out coolly, easing herself discreetly out of his reach as he let his hand rest possessively on the back of her waist.

    He returned her a leering smile, helped himself to a large slug of rye whiskey, and strolled over to his usual table next to the stage, where some of his gambling buddies were already settling in for the evening.

    Glancing up at the mirror again, she realised that the hard-eyed stranger had been watching the brief exchange. Had he caught the fleeting expression of distaste that had crossed her face? She would hope that he hadn’t – she would prefer not to give anything away, especially to someone she didn’t know, couldn’t trust.

    But she suspected that he was a man who missed nothing.

 

    Interesting, Jake mused as he sipped his bourbon. Talk was that Ella O’Shaughnessy was Emmett Stroud’s mistress, but if that was so she didn’t appear too happy about it. Of course it might just be that she didn’t care for him laying claim to her in public like that, but there seemed no reason why she should be so nice when it was common gossip anyway.

    Of course, her job was dependent on keeping him sweet - he owned the Silver Spur. But what sort of man kept a mistress who appeared to dislike the very sight of him? Not that it was any of his concern – his business was with Emmett Stroud. The lovely Miss O’Shaughnessy was a side issue.

    He picked up the bottle of Bourbon and offered Walter a second drink.

    “Well, that’s mighty generous,” his new friend responded cheerily. “Don’t mind if I do.”

Walter was proving to be a very useful acquaintance. He might not be quite the full dollar, but he knew everyone in town, the complex networks of their relationships, who was quick with his gun or his fists.

    “That there’s Sheriff Moody that’s just come in,” he confided in a low tone. “I like him well enough, but he ain’t much of a sheriff. A bit too fond of Cookie’s steak pie - got so he can barely git on his horse.”

    Jake could well imagine that. The sheriff’s face was round and red, punctuated by a nobbly potato of a nose, and his stomach looked fit to burst the buttons on his shirt. It would be a wasted hope to look for any support from that quarter.

    “Uh-oh. Seth Parker.” Walter’s voice had sunk to a frightened whisper. “I don’t like him. He’s a big pal of Emmett’s. I seen him shoot a man once. Farmer from out by Black Rock Creek.”

    “Did you tell the Sheriff?”

    “Not me.” Walter took a large gulp of his Bourbon. “’Sides, must have been a dozen or more people ‘sides me saw it, but ain’t no-one gonna squeak on Seth Parker or Emmett Stroud. Not if they wants to go on living theyselves.”

    Which confirmed the information Jake already had. He took another sip of his Bourbon, surveying the room through narrowed eyes. There were maybe half-a-dozen gun-hawks who worked for Emmett Stroud or who would certainly back him, maybe a couple more who might think it was in their interests to be seen to be on his side. The rest were likely bystanders.

    Interesting odds.

    Ella had moved down towards his end of the bar. “How was your supper?” she enquired, her manner coolly polite but her eyes focussed somewhere around his left ear.

    “Real good, thank you ma’am.”

    “I can show you your room now, if you like,”

    “Sure,” he agreed easily, finishing the Bourbon.

    “This way.” She came round from behind the bar, leading the way to the back of the saloon and up a flight of stairs which led to a wooden gallery that ran around three sides of the room. “Those are the larger guest rooms,” she informed him, indicating the doors that opened off each side of the gallery. “Those at the back are the office and the private dining room. I’ve put you in one of the rooms off the side here. They’re a bit smaller, but I assumed you wouldn’t want anything fancy.”

    “Suits me.”

    He followed her down a narrow passage, their way dimly lit by an oil lamp she had picked up from a table at the top of the stairs. The floor was covered with a strip of woven rug, a bit threadbare in places. Jake took in all these essential details, while also appreciating the back view the lady was presenting to him.

    She was wearing lilac satin trimmed with a froth of black lace, with a bustle that swayed provocatively as she walked. Her waist was nipped in by tight boning, and her shoulders and upper back were bare, her creamy skin gleaming in the glimmer of the lamp. Her glossy dark hair was pinned up with some fancy comb thing, leaving her long neck exposed, just feathered by a few whispy curls.

    Tempting…

    She stopped before one of the doors, taking a key from her pocket and turning it in the lock. “Here.”

    The room was small and quite sparsely furnished, but clean. The wooden bedstead was covered with a colourful quilt, and there was a table with a wash-bowl and jug. Two narrow windows looked out over the back of town, mostly in darkness now. He strolled over to one of the windows and pushed up the casement. Below was nothing but the end of a dusty alley, and the back of a timber-yard.

    “This’ll do me fine,” Jake approved, tossing his saddle-roll onto the chair and stretching his length on the bed, folding his hands behind his head. “So tell me, who was the big dude in the fancy waistcoat?”

    His voice conveyed only a casual interest, but his eyes watched her closely. She gave little away – just a slight tightness around her mouth, that same hint of distaste he had noticed down in the bar. He felt a sudden surge of anger boil up inside him – he didn’t like a man who would make a woman react like that. One more thing to add to the score.       “That’s Emmett Stroud. He owns the place. And don’t let that fancy waistcoat fool you. He’s faster with a gun than most men I’ve seen, and he’s got half-a-dozen sons-of-bitches as mean as he is to watch his back.”

    “Seems like a lot of fire-power for a little old town like this,” he remarked dryly.

Her smile was grim. “Let me warn you, it’s best not to enquire too deeply into what goes on in this little old town. It can be… dangerous.”

    “Is that so?”

    “Yes it is.”

    He caught her gaze and held it, trying to fathom what she was really thinking. After a moment she slanted her glance away, a soft blush of pink rising to her cheeks. Interesting. Who’d have thought a saloon girl could blush like that?

    “Well… um… ‘d better be getting back downstairs,” she said, her voice sounding not quite steady. “Any time you want breakfast in the morning, just let Cookie know what you want. And if you want hot water sent up, even a bath, Cookie will arrange it.”

    He grinned, and swung himself off the bed. “Sounds good.”

 

    Emmett was leaning on the bar when Ella came down the stairs. “Where have you been?” he demanded, his suspicious eyes watching as Jake followed her.

    “I’ve been dealing with a customer,” Ella responded coldly.

    Jake, apparently unaware of any scrutiny, had strolled over to watch a poker game at one of the tables at the far end of the room.

    “You took your time about it,” Emmett grumbled. “It’s been busy down here.”

    “I’m quite sure Bill could cope well enough – there was no need for you to feel you had to help out.” Her conviction that he had done no such thing was confirmed by his scowl.

    “You’d better watch that tongue of yours,” he warned harshly. “It’ll get you big into trouble one of these days.”

    Ella returned him her most saccharine smile. “How’s Lila?” she asked.

    Emmett snorted with annoyance, and stalked away from the bar.

    Ella laughed softly to herself. Lila was Emmett’s wife – and Ella’s secret weapon. Although Ella’s mother had been Emmett’s mistress for over ten years, until her death, Lila had always been sweet to Ella herself.

    And Lila, gentle and refined as she was, held a lot of power over Emmett. Her father was a big noise in the Territorial Legislature down in Cheyenne, with big stakes in mining and the new railroads that were snaking across the Territory. Ella knew that it was Lila’s father who held the mortgage on the Silver Spur, who supported Emmett in his extravagant lifestyle – he couldn’t afford to offend her.

    Jake hadn’t taken long to make a couple of new acquaintances and get himself invited to join a poker game. The stakes were low, and the standard of play not the sharpest, but that fitted in perfectly with his plans. He was winning, but took care not to make it look too easy.

    Not having to concentrate too hard, he was free to enjoy the pleasure of watching the alluring Miss O’Shaugnessy as she deftly managed the increasingly rowdy all-male crowd in the smoke-filled bar-room.

    She wasn’t, to be perfectly honest, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen – she had a strong, slightly aquiline nose and a determined set to her chin. Her eyes were definitely her best feature – almost violet, and fringed by silken dark lashes.

    But there was a certain something about her. He watched as she damped down a threatened quarrel, leaving both parties happily sharing a drink, kept an eye on the dancing girls to make sure things didn’t get out of hand, and moved efficiently along the bar serving drinks while somehow finding time for a little friendly chat with each customer.

    Meanwhile, Emmett Stroud had sat down at a table with some of his buddies, and was dealing a hand of poker. He’d probably be there for several hours, and would get up with his pockets considerably heavier.

    In the event, it was well after midnight when Emmett finally tossed down his cards and scooped up his winnings. “That was a good game, boys,” he remarked complacently, rising from the table. “See you tomorrow night.”

    The bar-room was pretty nearly empty by now, the pungent smell of strong booze and stale tobacco hanging heavily in the air. Jake had remained in the shadowy corner where he had been sitting for the past few hours, and Emmett didn’t appear to even notice him as he strode across the room and out into the night.

    Ella had put an apron over her dress, and was collecting the empty jugs and glasses from the tables. To Jake’s amusement, she seemed to be avoiding his table, but finally she had to come closer.

    “Hope you’ve had a pleasant evening,” she said.

    “Not bad,” he responded easily. “Won a few dollars.”

    “From Nate Baker and Lol Freeman?” Those violet eyes conveyed a sardonic amusement. “That’s not exactly difficult.”

    “True. Maybe tomorrow night I’ll get into a better game. I see Emmett likes to play.”

    “Emmett likes to win,” she corrected him dryly, taking his empty glass as he set it down on the table and turning back to the bar.

    Jake stretched his legs, then rose to his feet, and strolled over to the stairs. A swift glance across the room confirmed that Miss O’Shaughnessy was watching him covertly in the mirror. He smiled, and tipped her a casual salute, which – as he had expected – she completely ignored.

 *    *    *

    “I’m so grateful, Miss Ella. I really… I can’t thank you enough.”

    “Don’t even think about it, Jenny. Cookie had over-ordered in the kitchen again, and it would be silly to let it go bad.”

    She didn’t mention that she regularly conspired with Cookie to order far more than they needed, so she could distribute it to families like Jenny’s. Six months ago, Emmett had shot Jenny’s husband Frank for accusing him of cheating in a poker game. The two had drawn their guns, right there at the table, but Emmett, of course, had been much faster than the plain farmer. And of course, Frank had been right – Emmett had cheated. He usually did.

    She glanced up at the rough cabin where Jenny now lived with her three children – including the new baby that Frank had never seen. Though as homely as Jenny could make it, it was a long way down the scale from the comfortable homestead she and Frank had built for their family.

    That homestead had now been knocked down brick by brick, the neat farm around it sold to one of the territory’s biggest cattle barons for far less than it was worth. What choice had poor Jenny had? She wasn’t the only unlucky widow whose husband had lost money to Emmett, or even the only one Emmett had shot dead in a ‘fair’ draw after being accused of cheating.

    “Well… thank you,” Jenny repeated. She shifted the baby onto her other hip. “Would you like to come in for a coffee or something?”

    “No, thank you Jenny,” Ella smiled. “Not today. Ayita”s a bit frisky – she hasn”t had a good outing for a couple of days. I thought I’d give her a gallop up over Copper Bluff.”

    As Jenny and the baby waved goodbye, she turned her horse’s head, and rode off down the rough lane. The bay mare lengthened her stride as she felt the wind in her mane, cantering easily up the slope above the cabin and onto the rocky heights of the Bluff.

    Ella reined her in for a moment, breathing in deeply. Below her the vast, empty loneliness of the high plains spread for miles and miles to where the white craggy peaks of the distant mountains jagged the far horizon. The air smelled of hot, dry prairie grass and wild bergamot, clearing the cobwebs out of her head.

    She hadn’t slept well last night – that damned cowboy had somehow infiltrated her brain, disturbing her dreams with those hard grey eyes. Why he should, she had no idea – he was just another gun-toting drifter, and there must have been hundreds of them passing through Pine Fork over the years.

    What was so special about this one?

    But there was something different about him. It was hard to put her finger on it… Maybe it was his clothes – though dusty from the trail, they were well made, as were his boots. And those eyes – they had a kind of knowing glint in them, as if he could read exactly what she was thinking…

    Shaking her head, she nudged Ayita into a full gallop. The mare moved smoothly, powerfully, foot-sure over the rugged ground. Ella let her Stetson fall back onto her shoulders, letting her hair stream loose behind her. She could never understand why some women chose to ride side-saddle – she’d tried it once, and found it uncomfortable, unnatural. Riding astride, she felt at one with her horse.

    She took a long loop around the valley, crossing Stoney Creek high up near its source where it was just a small stream babbling between banks of rough grass, then climbed the low hills on the far side. A jackrabbit skittered away as she passed, bouncing as if it was on springs, and high in the sky a red-tailed hawk soared on the hot morning air.

    A whisp of smoke rose from somewhere along the valley. A homestead – another couple, like Jenny and her Frank, trying to make a life for themselves. How long before the cattle barons moved in on their land? How long before Emmett Stroud lured the man in with whiskey and saloon girls, and a game of poker, seemingly easily won. Until the stakes were high, and the game changed.

    With a sigh she turned back towards town. If she could do something, she would – but even if she could warn them off coming into the saloon, Emmett and his rancher pals would just find another way. Although the nearest Shoshone encampment was more than a day’s ride away, they were close enough for a ‘raiding party’ to be blamed for a night-time attack – though quite why they would ride that far just to burn out one log-and-stone cabin was never questioned.

    Main Street – they called it that, though really it was the only proper street in Pine Fork – was bustling with mid-morning traffic. Betty Oakley slanted her a disapproving glance as she passed, and hurried on to chapel with her thin nose in the air. Buck Culver was watching over the unloading of a wagon-load of barrels and crates. Old Tom greeted her as she hopped lightly from the saddle outside the livery stables.

    “Morning, Tom,” she responded, smiling warmly.

    “Morning, Miss Ella. Enjoy your ride?”

    “Yes, thank you. And so did Ayita. She was ready for a good gallop – weren’t you girl?” She stroked the bay’s nose affectionately.

    “Want me to stable her up for you?” he offered.

    She shook her head, laughing. “You know I prefer to take care of her myself.”

    Tom chuckled. “Aye, you always do.”

    She led Ayita into her stall, unfastened the girths and lifted off the saddle. But as she turned to carry it to the tack-room she found herself confronting the man who had troubled her dreams so much – but now in the hard, rugged flesh.

    “Can I help you with that, Ma’am?” he offered politely.

    She drew in a sharp breath, quickly pinning a cool smile in place, her first instinct being to retort that she could manage. But the sardonic glint in those steel-grey eyes warned her that that was exactly the response he was expecting from her. So instead she nodded graciously. “Thank you.”

    He lifted the heavy saddle out of her arms, the faint smile of amusement on his lips never fading.

    Her hand was shaking slightly as she picked up a swatch of straw to rub Ayita down. The pretty mare seemed to sense her agitation, skittering around in the stable. “Shhh,” she soothed her softly. “It’s OK.”

    “Here’s another one who likes to tend to his own horse,” Tom informed her, nodding towards Jake as he strolled back from the tack room. “Proper horseman allus takes care of his own horse, I allus say.”

    Jake leaned his arms on the wooden half-door of Ayita’s stall. “Nice little mare,” he approved, sliding an experienced eye over the bay’s lines. “Well muscled, good depth of chest.”

    Ella couldn’t suppress the smile that answered him, her pride in her horse shining in her eyes. “How’s your boy getting on?” she enquired.

    “His tendon? Oh, the heat’s gone down pretty good,” he responded. “He should be fine in a day or two. I let him out into the corral this morning, and he was moving nicely. I thought I might take him for an easy canter tomorrow.” That slow, beguiling smile taunted her. “Would you like to come along with me – just to make sure I don’t get lost?”

    “Oh, I doubt you’re the kind to get lost,” she retorted, a sardonic edge to her voice.

He laughed - a soft, husky laugh that felt almost like… a caress. “Of course, I understand if you can’t - I guess Stroud wouldn’t like it if you came riding with me.”

    “It’s got nothing to do with him!” she protested automatically. “I only work for him. He doesn’t control what I do.”

    “Good!” Those steel-grey eyes glinted with mocking amusement. “Shall we say ten o/clock then? I’ll meet you here.”

 

    It had been another busy night in the Silver Spur. Jake had managed to get himself into a more interesting game of poker, and won it – a couple of apparently nail-biting hands had drawn a fair bit of interest, and he had taken care to look a little surprised and rather pleased as he had scooped his modest winnings into his pockets.

    Old Walter had been quick to join him at the bar, eager to trade on a winner’s generosity to claim a couple of free drinks. “Stage came in from Cheyenne this afternoon,” he confided, sipping his beer. “Bill Sturgis and his wife was on it. They’ve been down to visit their new grandson – been gone two whole weeks. And there was Miss Oakley’s sister, come for a visit. She comes every once-in-a-while – don’t s’pose she can stand it more often with that dried up old prune. And Jonas Wood - he always…”

    “Oh, for the love of God shut your cackle, Walt Jackson.” Seth Parker, propped on a stool a little further along the bar, scowled unpleasantly. “Yakkety yakkety yak. It never stops.”

    Beside him, Jake sensed Walter stiffen and start to tremble. “Leave him be,” he countered. “He’s doing nobody no harm.”

    “He’s riling me up. Can’t stand that yakking. If you don’t shut your mouth, Jackson, I’ll shut it for you.”

    Walt pushed his half-full beer mug away. “I’d best be getting home,” he muttered. “It’s late.”

    “Finish your beer,” Jake urged him, slanting Seth Parker a warning look.

    “No, no – I’ll be off.” Walter’s voice was shaking with agitation. “Ma’ll be wondering where I’ve got to.”

    “Yeah, that’s right. Run away home to your Mama,” Seth sneered, “before you wet your pants.”

    Hunched into his shoulders, Walt hurried for the door. But as he passed down the bar, Seth stuck his foot out and tripped him. Walt cried out as he sprawled on the floor, while Seth’s raucous laugh challenged those around him to join in the joke or risk his disfavour.

    Jake didn’t laugh. His face grim, he took Walter by the elbow and helped him to his feet. “Are you OK?”

    Walter mumbled something, his face a blazing red, and skittered away. Jake turned to Seth Parker.

    “That wasn’t funny.”

    “Oh, you don’t reckon?” Seth retorted, leaning back on the bar and looking around to his sycophantic supporters, who continued to laugh, though with no real merriment.

    “You’re nothing but a cheapskate bully,” Jake asserted. “And bullies are cowards.”

Seth glared, straightening from the bar. “Who you calling a coward?” he demanded aggressively.

    Jake stood square, letting a slow sneer curl his mouth. “Looks like that’d be you.”

There was a ragged clatter of furniture and feet as the experienced clientele of the Silver Spur moved swiftly out of trouble’s way – leaving Seth and Jake facing each other, eyes locked, as both paced back slightly to give themselves more room.

 

    Ella had been serving tables at the back of the bar-room, and hadn’t seen what had led up to the confrontation. All she saw was Jake, facing Seth Parker, both of them with their hands poised over their gun-holsters. A small cry escaped her lips - she had no doubt that Jake was good, but Parker had an evil reputation – he’d never lost a gun-fight.

    She tried to get to them, to somehow stop them, but there were too many people in the way. She could only watch in mounting desperation as the two men sized each other up. A tense hush had fallen over the room, which seconds before had been filled with the hubbub of piano music and loud voices; the remaining card games had paused, Bill had stepped right back against the shelves behind the bar, mid-way between the two combatants.

    A second splintered, from stillness to movement, from silence to the whip-crack of a bullet – and with a maimed cry Seth Parker fell to his knees, cradling a hand that was bleeding profusely as his gun clattered away across the floor.

    “My thumb! You’ve shot off my thumb!”

    Ella felt dizzy as she remembered to breathe again. Jake was still standing. The rush of relief found expression as hot anger. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, shoving her way through the crowd. “How dare you start shooting up in here? Anyone could have got hit. And now there’s blood all over the place to be cleared up,” she added, slanting the still moaning Seth Parker a glance devoid of any ounce of sympathy. “You’re drunk.”

    “I’m sorry, Miss Ella…”

    She turned on Jake before he could finish his apology. “And I expect you’re drunk too,” she snapped at him. “I’ve a damned good mind to have you clear up the mess yourself.”

    Someone had run for Sheriff Moody, and he came hurrying in, still strapping his gun-belt around his corpulent middle. “What’s this?” he demanded, wheezing for breath. “What’s happened?”

    A dozen people started in at once with explanations, but Emmett stepped forward, silencing everyone else. “It was a fair fight,” he confirmed, also regarding Seth Parker with no sympathy. “Serves you right, Parker – you started the quarrel, and you went for your gun first. You were just unfortunate to meet someone quicker than you.” He turned to Jake and grinned. “You’re good, son,” he conceded.

    “That’s all very well,” the Sheriff protested, “but there’s been a shooting.” He turned to Jake. “You’d better get out of town, feller. I want you gone by sun-up.”

    Jake smiled a little crookedly. “Well, I’d sure be pleased to comply, but my horse went lame yesterday – tipped his foot crossing the stream. It ain’t bad – just a hot tendon – but he needs to rest up another day or two.”

    “That’s right.” Old Tom from the livery stable jumped in to confirm. “I seen him ride in. That horse was limping on his right foreleg. Wouldn’t be right to make him travel far in that condition.”

    The Sheriff hesitated. “Where you heading?” he asked Jake.

    “Up to Lovell. An old buddy of mine needs a hand guarding payroll for the copper mines, so I thought I’d take myself up there and help him out for a while.”

    Ella studied him from beneath her lashes. It was a plausible enough story – it might even be true. Maybe he was nothing more than a saddle-bum and hired gun, who chose to spend his duds on good quality leather boots. Maybe.

    The Sheriff was frowning. “Well… OK, you can stay a couple more days. But you’d better hand me your gun belt.”

    Emmett held up his hand. “Now, Moody, I’m sure there’s no need for that.”

    But Sheriff Moody, having conceded one point, was in no mind to concede another. “If you’re going to be sticking around, you hand over your iron – simple as that.”

Jake hesitated, but then with reluctance unbuckled his belt and held it out to the Sheriff.

    Meanwhile Doc Caine had arrived, his coat over his pyjama jacket, clutching his big leather bag. “Now what?” he grumbled. “Getting me out of bed at this time of night.” He looked down at Seth Parker, still kneeling on the floor cradling his bleeding hand. “So? What are you whining about? You’re still alive. Let me have a look at you.” He seized Seth’s wrist roughly. “Well, you’ve lost your thumb – nice shot, taken it clean off at the joint. You wont be slinging your gun around again, unless you learn to use your other hand.” He sighed wearily, shaking his head. “OK, you’d better come over to my surgery, and I’ll bind it up for you. Come along, you can walk.”

    Emmett turned to Jake, holding out his hand. “Well, my friend, since you’ve lost me one of my best men, maybe you’d like to take his job?” he suggested genially.

    Jake took the proffered hand, but shook his head. “No – thanks, but if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll carry on up to Lovell when my horse is ready for the trail. My buddy needs me more’n you do, I reckon.”

    Emmett nodded, smiling. “Fairly said, my friend, fairly said. But it looks like Seth ain’t gonna be able to hold his cards any easier than he can hold a gun, leastways for a while. Maybe you’d like to take his place at our table tomorrow night?”

    Jake laughed shortly, and nodded. “Well, yes, I reckon I could do that.”

Emmett nodded, satisfied. “Until tomorrow night then,” he said, and left, followed by several of his hangers-on.

    Ella had finally managed to compose herself, her heart slowing to its normal pace. Hopefully no-one had noticed her reaction in that moment of sheer, cold terror when she had feared that Jake was going to be killed right there in front of her – least of all Jake himself.

    He seemed quite relaxed about the whole thing, resuming his place at the bar and sipping his whisky – she didn’t know whether she wanted to slap him or kiss him. All she knew was that to watch him die would have been the worst nightmare she could imagine.

    Damn him – he was getting under her skin, and she didn’t want him to. Hadn’t she learned enough from her mother’s experience what happened to women who fell for drifters and gamblers? She had vowed every day of her life that she wouldn’t make the same mistake.

    Straightening her shoulders, she walked round behind the bar. “So, gentlemen can I get anyone another drink?”

*    *    *

Ella turned over and punched her hard feather pillow into a more comfortable shape. She wanted to sleep, but every time she closed her eyes she saw that scene again, etched on the back of her eyelids – Jake Rogan standing there in the bar, facing Seth Parker, both of them with their hands poised over their guns.

    What bothered her the most was why it bothered her so much. She’d known him little more than twenty-four hours, and within a few days he would be gone – and likely she’d never see him again. Or if she did, it would just be because he’d blown into town as casually as he had on this occasion. And if he thought she would just fall into his arms any time he cared to show up…

    But the thought of falling into his arms… The breadth of his shoulders told her that his arms would be strong, his chest hard with muscle. Her pulse began to run faster just thinking about it… leaning against him, breathing in the musky male scent of his skin, her head tipping back as his mouth claimed hers, hot and demanding… submitting as he stripped off her clothes…

    NO! The sane part of her mind protested forcefully. That wasn’t going to happen. And she certainly wasn’t going to go out riding with him tomorrow morning – about that she was quite definite.

 *     *     *

    Jake guessed that Ella didn’t intend to come riding with him – but he also guessed that she would come anyway. Whether it was that goad about Emmett Stroud, or the curiosity he knew he had stirred in her with last night’s little drama, he sensed that she wouldn’t be able to stay away.

    She was late, of course. That was no surprise – a lady had her pride, after all. He was leaning in the doorway of the stables, chatting to Tom, when the sudden grin on Tom’s face told him that she was on her way. He didn’t turn till her footsteps on the dusty roadway were close behind him.

    She looked good. She was wearing a buckskin jacket over a white silk shirt, high-buttoned to her throat but beautifully shaped to those tempting curves, and loose-cut buckskin breeches that came to the tops of her tan riding boots. Those rich dark curls were twisted into a single hank which lay over her shoulder, and she carried a wide-brimmed white Stetson and a pair of brown leather riding gloves.

    She walked with the same elegant confidence as walked around the saloon, her head held high, those slim hips swaying with each step. As he let his gaze linger over her in undisguised appreciation, she returned him a sardonic smile.

    “Good morning,” she greeted him briskly – though he noticed that she wouldn’t quite look him in the eye.

    “Good morning.”

    She skirted around him, avoiding coming too close. “Fine morning for a ride,” she remarked lightly.

    “Sure is,” he agreed. “Can I help you with your saddle?”

    “I’m perfectly…” He arched one mocking eyebrow, teasing her. “Very well,” she conceded grudgingly. “Thank you.”

 

    Jake had always liked the High Plains. Though bitingly cold in winter and scorching in summer, and unforgiving of any traveller careless enough to get themselves lost, there was a sense of endless distance, of freedom, that appealed to his soul. To the south and east the land was still green in places, furrowed with pleasant valleys; to the West the jagged peaks of the mountains rose grey and white against the clear blue sky.

    They rode in silence, the horses trotting side-by-side. Jake was aware that Ella was struggling to maintain her air of cool disdain. That pretty chin was tipped at a haughty angle, and from time to time she would slant her gaze his way, but snatch it away again swiftly if she thought he had caught her.

   It would be good to see that haughtiness melt in the heat he sensed burning just beneath the surface chill, he mused, feeling the familiar tug of his body’s response - to see that glossy mane of dark hair tangled on his pillow, to see those violet blue eyes darken and those soft pink lips part in a sweet sigh of surrender…

    But he had to keep his mind on the job, he reminded himself firmly. Perks came later.

 

    “He’s… a fine-looking horse.” Dammit, she had been determined to give him the cold shoulder, but this was getting ridiculous – they couldn’t ride in silence all morning.

    Jake slanted her a provocative smile, taunting her for cracking first. He leaned forward and patted Franklin’s neck. “He sure is. A good horse, and a good friend.”

    “I see you don’t use spurs,” she remarked.

He slanted her a look that spoke volumes. “You don’t use spurs on a friend. If you can’t get a horse to do what you ask without digging spikes into his side, you should stick to walking.”

    Ella regarded him thoughtfully. A man who thought that much of his horse couldn’t be all bad. “His limp seems to have gone,” she observed, watching the horse’s elegant stride.

    “Oh, yes.” He made a small clicking sound in his throat, and immediately Franklin started to limp convincingly, favouring his right front foot. Another click, and his gait was instantly back to that smooth trot.

    Ella laughed, astonished. “How did you get him to do that?”

    “He’s clever.” He made a sound, and the horse began to trot backwards, picking up his forelocks with each step. Then he turned in a neat circle on the spot, and trotted back to her side. 

    “That’s brilliant!” she applauded, forgetting that she had intended to give him the big freeze.

    Jake smiled, patting Franklin’s neck again. “You don’t ride side-saddle?” he remarked.

    She slanted him a speaking look similar to his own. “I’m riding a horse, not a rocking-chair,” she returned with a touch of asperity. “I know there are some who don’t think it quite lady-like…”

    Jake shook his head. “You’ll never hear me saying that. Side-saddle’s unsafe for the lady, and bad for the horse – the balance is all wrong, it hurts his back, and to hold the saddle in place you have to fasten the girths too tight which is bad for his wind. I’d far rather see a lady riding like a real horsewoman.”

    That sounded like a real compliment – and meant far more to her than the empty praise of her eyes that was Emmett’s idea of flattery. She was smiling as she took the lead to pick her way up a narrow track over the shoulder of a hill and down into a shadowy gully where a sparkling spring darted between overhanging trees.

    This was her favourite spot, the place she came to dream. She had never brought anyone here before – and she hadn’t been conscious of the intention to bring Jake Rogan here. But she had… What did that tell her?

    Jake dismounted and left Franklin to crop the sweet grass along the edge of the stream. Ella followed suit, letting Ayita wander wherever she liked – she never strayed far, and would return on a whistle. As they climbed down to the water’s edge, Jake offered her his hand – and she took it.

    It was pure craziness – just his touch against her fingers was sending a shimmering heat up her arm, and she could feel the blush of pink colouring her cheeks. She would have preferred that he didn’t know how he affected her, but she couldn’t conceal it.

    But a little to her surprise, if he was aware of it, he took no notice. “This is a nice place,” he remarked, perching his taut butt on a flat rock that hung out over the water.

    Dammit, when had she taken to noticing his taut butt? Or his wide shoulders, come to that? Or the dark smattering of curling hair on his strong wrists? His hands were well-made, the fingers long… Gambler’s hands, she reminded herself starkly. He was no wandering saddle-poke who had drifted into Pine Fork by chance. He had come here, with his tale of his limping horse, to take on Emmett Stroud at poker.

    And that was a good way to get yourself killed – however fast you were with a gun. And especially when your gun-belt was currently hanging in the back of the sheriff’s office over at the jailhouse.

  

   “So…” Jake watched as Ella settled herself on a rock a little higher than his. “Emmett had nothing to say about you coming out riding with me?”

    Those fine violet eyes flashed with fire. “I told you – it’s none of his business what I chose to do. I run his saloon for him, and that’s all.”

    He arched one dark eyebrow. “Some around town say you’re his mistress.”

    “I can’t help what goes on in people’s dirty little minds,” she retorted tartly. “And I’d have thought better of you for not listening to cheap gossip.”

    “You can’t blame a man for wanting to be sure how the land lies,” he responded with a soft laugh. “Especially when he’s up against a man with a reputation like Emmett Stroud. And it sure looks to me that he’d like for you to do a little more for him than run his saloon.”

    She glared at him for a moment, on the edge of anger, but then conceded a reluctant smile. “Yes, well, what Emmett wants and what’s going to happen are two different things.” A faint blush coloured her cheeks. “Did your informants happen to tell you that my mother was his mistress?” she demanded, a little awkward.

    He shook his head.

    “I guess it was the best she could do.” She sighed, gazing down at her hands folded in her lap. “She followed my father out here when I was just a baby. He was aiming to make his fortune prospecting for gold, but he only got as far as Rawlins. He was a little too fond of the poker tables. It didn’t take too long for him to lose every cent in his pockets, along with our wagon and virtually everything we owned. When he had nothing else left he tried to raise his stake by robbing the stage coach – and wound up with a bullet through his head.”

    Jake’s eyes darkened in sympathy. “Leaving you and your mother…?”

    “She couldn’t go home – she had no money to make the trip, and anyway her family had cut her off when she married my father. So she did the only thing she could do. She found a man.”

    “Emmett?”

    “Not then. First there was a guy who owned a lumber company, then a rancher from down by Cheyenne. She was hoping he was going to marry her, but he chose some heiress from Nebraska instead. Understandable, I suppose. Mama would have stayed with him anyway, but his new wife put her foot down. So Mama took up with Emmett. He was a couple of years younger than her, but Mama was quite a beauty.”

    “I can believe that.”

    Her soft mouth curved into a wistful smile. “When I was a little girl, I used to sit beside her dressing table, watching her brush her hair and rouge her lips.” She sighed. “Emmett was already married when she met him, so she knew the score before she agreed to come up to Pine Fork with him. But she was almost thirty by then, with a past a lot of men wouldn’t like, and a daughter in tow, so she didn’t have too many options. And to be fair, Emmett was always decent to her – I think maybe he even loved her, in his way. When she died, he paid for her to have a proper funeral, and a headstone.”

    “When did she die?” he asked softly.

    “It’s almost six years ago now.” A single tear sparkled on the end of her lashes. “She had a fever…” The memory tightened in her throat, and she couldn’t go on.

    “And you’ve been making your own way in the world since then?” Jake prompted gently.

    She tilted up her chin, resolutely putting the past behind her. “I’d been helping her run the saloon since I was fifteen. When she got sick, I took over, and… well, I just carried on. I made Emmett pay me more than he paid Mama, though,” she added with a flash of spirit.

    “Some people might say it’s quite a job for a woman.”

    She returned him an acid look. “Yes – the same people who say I’m Emmett’s mistress, because their dirty little minds can’t see anything else for me to be. The same people who condemned my mother for trying to do her best. The same people who would turn their noses up at me if I said I wanted to teach school, or tried to make my way as a seamstress, or a housekeeper. There ain’t many jobs open to a woman, even in these days, and I ain’t qualified for most of ‘em. And I ain’t desperate enough for the rest,” she added with a haughty air.

    Jake laughed. “To be honest, I can’t quite see you as a school-teacher, or a seamstress. Besides, you’re doing a pretty good job of running a saloon.”

    “Thank you. Of course, it would be a lot easier if didn’t have to cope with passing drifters shooting up my regular customers,” she returned, slanting him a sardonic glance.

    “Don’t tell me you object to me putting Seth Parker out of action for a while?” he challenged.

    “Not in the least,” she acknowledged grimly. “He had it coming – he’s had it coming for a long time. He’s a bully, with his fists or his gun - picking on poor Walter, who can’t even defend himself. And it was a damn good shot,” she added, smiling into his eyes. “Where did you learn to shoot like that?”

    He settled himself more comfortably against the rocks. “I passed several years of my mis-spent youth in a mining camp up in Montana. Silver-mining, with my Uncle Nate. I learned a lot of useful things up there.”

    “Like how to play poker?”

    He nodded.

    “And you’re set on joining Emmett’s poker table tonight.” Her voice was deep with concern. “But the sheriff has your gun.”

    “You’re worried about me?” he teased.

    “Yes, dammit, I’m worried about you,” she admitted angrily. “Didn’t I warn you that Emmett cheats? That man couldn’t walk a straight line if you drew it down the middle of the street for him.”

    He laughed again, catching both her hands and drawing her to her feet. “Ah – Miss O’Shaughnessy, I admit I do like to have you worry about me.” He drew her closer, keeping hold of her hands. “But you have no need, you know. I can take care of myself.”

    “Can you?” She was gazing up into his eyes as if she was drowning. “You’re going to challenge Emmett. And he’s going to kill you.”

    “No he isn’t. Trust me. Do you trust me?”

    She hesitated, then nodded without saying a word. He strongly suspected that was a tear-drop sparkling on the edge of her dark lashes.

    “Tonight, I need you to behave exactly as normal.” He spoke with a quiet urgency. “Don’t pay any special attention to our game. Not by so much as a flicker should you show that anything is going on. Okay?”

    “O… Okay.”

    He couldn’t resist it – how could any sane man resist it? He lowered his head and kissed the tear from her eyelashes.

    He really shouldn’t be doing this, he reminded himself with a twist of guilt. However tempting, he shouldn’t be drawing her into what was going to happen. But her waist was so slender, her hair so gloriously silky… and her mouth tasted of honey as her lips parted on a soft sigh.

    When his business with Emmett Stroud was over…

 

    The atmosphere in the bar was tense – or was it just her imagination? Ella had seen Jake come downstairs a while back. He was eating his supper at one of the tables near the kitchen, apparently completely relaxed, as if unaware that last night’s incident with Seth Parker had inevitably made him the focus of attention for everyone in the room. A focus heightened by the anticipation of tonight’s poker game.

    Which just added to the danger. Emmett didn’t like anyone else hogging the limelight. No, it wasn’t her imagination. The atmosphere in the bar was tense.

    Ella moved through her usual round of tasks as if in a dream – or more likely a nightmare. It felt as if some giant clock were ticking in her head, ticking down the seconds, the minutes. But she would play her part, as she had promised. Jake had asked her to trust him, and crazily, beyond all rational considerations, she did.

    Emmett came in around his usual time, striding through the bar in his usual arrogant style, everyone automatically stepping out of his way as they always did. He strolled round behind the counter and opened the cash drawer, noting with satisfaction that it was rather more full than usual. He grinned complacently, and slid an arm around Ella’s waist, squeezing her against him.

    “Looks like being a good night tonight,” he remarked. “Everyone’s looking forward to a little entertainment.”

    She moved deftly out of his grasp. “I hope they won’t be disappointed.”

    “Oh, I don’t think they will be.” His voice dripped pure evil. “Some smart-Alec comes into my town, shoots up one of my best men… Well, I’m naturally going to have to sort that out, ain’t I?”

    “You said yourself Seth had it coming,” she retorted. “He was drunk, and he drew first.”

    “So…?” He caught her face in his hand, squeezing her cheeks. “Word is you went out riding with that saddle-bum this morning. You sweet on him?”

    She knocked his hand away, her eyes blazing with contempt. “When did I ever go sweet on any saddle-bum?” she countered.

    “So why did you go riding with him?” 

    “To annoy you!” She laughed, a hard sound, devoid of humour. “Looks like I succeeded, too.”

    His mouth thinned with frustration. “That sharp tongue of yours…”

    “Yeah, I know. Now, as you may have noticed, we’re busy.” She hurried away, down to the far end of the bar where the Cobb brothers were waiting to be served.

    That brief conversation had drawn her nerves even more taut. Emmett couldn’t have made it plainer that he intended to kill Jake. Could she warn him? Not that it would make any difference – he already knew.

    Dammit, why did he have to be so darned crazy? Did he really think that proving Emmett had cheated would change anything? Most of those in the room knew it well enough already. He didn’t cheat his regular card buddies, of course, and rarely the townspeople. So no-one cared that he cheated outsiders. And if they got themselves shot for protesting, no-one cared – at least, not enough to risk drawing Emmett’s anger down on them.

    From beneath her lashes she cast a covert glance across the room to where Jake was sitting, tucking in to his dinner with his usual hearty appetite. If he was concerned about what the evening held, he wasn’t showing it. Trust him…

    Unconsciously she touched her fingers to her lips, remembering the way he had kissed her. Was that why she was trusting him? Because he had kissed her? Was she being a complete fool, just like her mother, all those years ago – trusting a man with the soul of a gambler?

    But one thing was certain. Whatever happened tonight, whether Emmett killed Jake or not, her time in Pine Fork was coming to an end. She had no idea where she would go or what she would do, but she had a little money saved – she would manage somehow.

All she could do now was wait, as fate dealt the cards and the players staked everything to win – or lose – the game.

    Jake sat watching the room, a hint of amusement curving his firm mouth. Yesterday he had been a stranger, more-or-less ignored. Tonight he was the centre of curiosity. Some - a few - wanted to be his friend. More were eyeing him like they were already mentally dividing up his worldly goods before carting his body off to Boot Hill.

    Over by the bar, Ella was her usual efficient self, chatting to the customers, serving drinks, alert to any eddies of potential trouble in the ever-shifting tide of ranch-hands, miners, loggers and drifters who passed through the saloon’s bat-wing doors.

    Tonight she was wearing a dress of scarlet satin, cut in a low V at the front to display those temptingly round breasts, and caught up at the back in a cascading bustle that swayed beguilingly as she walked.

    He had seen Emmett Stroud slip that possessive arm around her waist, a gesture intended to hint that he owned her, just like he owned the Silver Spur. But tonight, he was going to find out different. There was a satisfaction in that, as there was in knowing that Emmett Stroud’s days of cheating miners and homesteaders were at an end.

    The piano player had struck up a lively dance, and the girls had come out onto the stage, kicking up their heels and swirling their skirts to show off their suspenders. The crowd, already quite excitable, were soon clapping and cheering along, whooping and stamping their feet loud enough to raise Cain.

    “Noisy night.”

    Jake glanced up as Emmett approached his table.

    The older man slanted a sardonic glance around the room. “You’d think they’d never seen a woman’s knees afore,” he observed.

    “Most of them probably haven’t.”

    Emmett beamed, though the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Spoken like a man who has seen his fair share of knees!”

    “A few,” Jake conceded dryly.

    “You’re a modest man, sir. I like a modest man. Let’s play cards.”

    Jake nodded agreement, and picking up his whiskey, strolled over to take one of the chairs at the baize-covered table where Emmett always played.

    Emmett introduced him to the other players; there were four of them, two ranchers, the senior manager from the Moosehead copper mine, and a surveyor from the railroad company up from Rawlins. They all greeted him with varying degrees of friendliness, as Emmett picked up the sealed pack of cards and slit it open with his thumbnail.

    “We play straight poker, three draws, one dollar ante,” he informed Jake. “We can always agree to up the stakes later.”

    “That’s fine by me,” Jake agreed easily.

    They cut for the deal – one of the ranchers won – and five cards were dealt out to each of them. Jake peered at his hand. His best cards were a pair of sevens; that was a good enough start – he didn’t want to win the first hand, just to give a good showing.  The first round of betting began, then he drew two cards – one of them another seven, which improved his hand, but not by too much.

    He lost a small amount on that hand, and then again on the next, then won a reasonably good pot on the third.

    “Good play,” Emmett remarked approvingly – but with a hint of smugness which suggested he remained confident of cleaning up by the end of the evening.

    Jake simply nodded, and took his turn to deal.

    As the evening progressed, he watched Emmett covertly. As on previous evenings, he noted that each occasion on which he won an unexpectedly good hand appeared to follow a small disturbance around the table which had created a distraction. A cheap trick, he reflected with contempt – but just what he would have expected from a cheap shyster like Stroud.

    So – he had seen enough. Tonight he would call an end to the game.

 

    Behave exactly as normal, he had said. Easier said than done, Ella reflected dryly. The evening seemed to pass impossibly slowly. The girls came out to dance again, but there was less interest in them than usual. All attention was focussed around the poker table, where the ante had been raised to five dollars, then ten, and the heaps of money were piling up amid the empty whisky glasses and overflowing ashtrays.

    She moved between the tables, serving drinks and collecting empty glasses, trying to keep herself busy – trying to conceal the agitation in her heart behind a cool, smiling façade. As often as she dared – as often as she could get a clear view through the throng – she would slant a covert glance across the room.

    Of the original six players, two had dropped out, and the play between the remaining four was becoming increasingly intense. Emmett’s face wore its customary arrogant smirk; Jake’s was expressionless. It could be carved from stone. Please, she begged silently – just play cards, and then leave town in the morning. Stay safe.

    But she knew he wouldn’t. He wasn’t the type to back down from anything.

When the trouble erupted, it was sudden – so sudden that Ella’s start of surprise was quite genuine. Voices were raised in outcry, and above them Emmett’s angry bellow was clear.

    “Are you accusing me of cheating, sir?”

    Jake’s response was a casual shrug of those wide shoulders. “That was on my mind.”

    “That’s a mighty serious accusation, son,” one of the ranchers put in. “You’d best tell us your reasons.”

    “Sure. Perhaps Miss O’Shaughnessy would care to assist us here?” Jake suggested, his voice low and calm. Every eye in the place turned to Ella; the crowd parted as she slowly walked towards the table. Emmett’s face was like thunder.

    “Thank you.” Jake didn’t glance at her – his eyes were fixed on Emmett’s. “If you would just slide your hand under the edge of the table there, I think you may find something interesting.”

    Ella hesitated. Of course Jake knew there would be something to find – he had had plenty of time to check out the place during the night, when there was no-one around.  She had seen it herself, that extra piece of wood nailed in place to make a kind of shallow shelf.

    And she had guessed what it was for. There would be a playing card there, which Emmett would have hidden earlier in the game, swapping it for a card in his hand.

    The hard glare in Emmett’s eyes warned her off. Of course it was one thing for everyone to assume he cheated, but to have the proof exposed right there in front of them… He would lose face, and that was something he would never tolerate.

    It seemed like all she could hear was the sound of her own heart pounding. Surely Jake wouldn’t just let Emmett kill him? His gun was in the safe in the sheriff’s office, but he must have another one concealed somewhere, ready for a quick draw. Or even a knife… But if he killed Emmett, they’d hang him, sure as the sun would rise in the morning. 

    Those cool grey eyes flickered briefly towards her, smiling, completely in control. He had asked her to trust him…

    Drawing in a deep, steadying breath, she stepped forward and slid her hand beneath the table’s edge. And there it was, on the shelf. She drew out the card and lay it face up on the table, next to the hand Emmett had just laid down.

    There was a collective intake of breath. The five of clubs. If that had been in Emmett’s hand, instead of one of the three kings, it would have been easily beaten by Jake’s two pairs. 

    “That… that don’t prove nothing,” one of the ranchers protested weakly. “That could have been put there any time. You could have even planted it yourself.”

    “That’s easy enough to settle,” Jake responded, still in that steady, quiet voice. “We started with a new pack. One of you look through and see if there’s another five of clubs in there.”

    Emmett slammed to his feet, his hand on his gun. “No man calls me a cheat,” he grated in scalding fury.

    “Emmett! He ain’t got his gun!” someone warned.

Jake had also risen to his feet. “Are you going to shoot an unarmed man?” he challenged. “That’s murder.”

    Emmett’s eyes were blazing, close to insanity. “You should have thought of that before you insulted me.”

    He raised his gun, pointing it straight at Jake’s chest. Ella screamed, darting forward, but before she could grab the gun Emmett had fired. Jake fell backwards, his chair clattering to the floor.

    “Jake!” She stumbled round the table and fell on her knees beside him. “No, please, Jake…” She could barely see for the tears filling her eyes.

    She didn’t at first register the distinctive metallic lock-and-load clunk of a dozen Winchester rifles on the balcony above their heads, but then from immediately behind Emmett another cool voice spoke. “Everybody will please place raise your hands in the air. I’m sure you will perceive that attempting to go for your gun right now would be a very serious mistake.”

    Ella’s brain was still spinning in bewilderment as Jake laughed and sat up, keeping his arm tightly around her waist. “Just one thing, dear brother,” he remarked dryly, unfastening his shirt. “Next time you want to pull a stunt like this, you can wear the tin vest.”

 

    The bar was empty, the storm shutters bolted over the bat-wing doors. Emmett Stroud was in the jailhouse behind the sheriff’s office, along with half-a-dozen of his cronies, watched over by a dozen armed guards. Everyone else had been sent home by orders of Sheriff Moody – about his only contribution to the evening’s events.

    Jake watched as Ella cleared the tables and washed the glasses, amused by the pent up fury in every move she made. Finally it erupted as she turned to glare at him. “What are you sitting there smiling about?” she demanded. “I suppose you found it very funny, making a fool of me. Was a single word you told me true?

    “Some of it,” he conceded easily.

    “OK, so let’s start with your name. Is it really Jake Rogan?”

    “It is.” He laughed softly. “Jacob Henry George Rogan, of Springfield, Missouri.”

    “And that man – he really is your brother?”

    He nodded. “Samuel – he’s my younger brother.  My older brother, Adam, stayed home to help run the family farm with Pa and Grandpa, but Sam wanted more adventure than raising hogs and corn, so he signed on as a Pinkerton’s man.”

    She paused in drying the glasses, slanting him a questioning glance. “So what’s he doing here in Wyoming?”

    “Working for the Territorial Legislature. They’ve been getting a lot of complaints from the homesteaders - some of the big cattle ranchers have been going well beyond the line these past few years. Hiring guys like Stroud to run the homesteaders off their land.”

    “It never struck me the legislature were on the side of the homesteaders against the ranchers,” Ella remarked dryly.

    Jake shrugged. “Things change. They want the land settled – they’re looking to join the Union, and to do that they need voters. Homesteaders, farmers, they make good citizens – ranchers and cowboys…maybe not so much. So they needed to deal with the likes of Emmett Stroud. But proving what he’s been doing – that wasn’t so easy. There were no witnesses willing to come forward. Stroud had them all running scared.”

    “Hence your little game?”

    He nodded. “Now we have him for attempted murder – that alone will be enough to draw him a long stretch. And with luck, seeing him stand trial could be enough to draw in witnesses to his other crimes. That could put a rope around his neck.”

    “Well, he won’t get much sympathy around here,” she remarked. If he had been harbouring any questions about her relationship with Emmett Stroud, her grim smile told him everything he wanted to know. “There are those who’d string up the noose for you.”

    “But you wouldn’t be one of them?”

    She tipped her head on one side. “Well… no,” she responded thoughtfully. “For my mother’s sake. But I shan’t be shedding any tears at the thought of him mouldering in a jail-house.” She picked up the cloth and began slowly drying glasses again. “Couldn’t you have trusted me enough to tell me what was going on?” she appealed wistfully.

    Jake smiled, shaking his head. “It was better that you didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I knew you wouldn’t deliberately betray me, but there was always a risk that you might unintentionally give something away. A glance up at the balcony at the wrong moment could have ruined everything.”

    “What if they’d made a noise, all those guys creeping around up there?”

    He shook his head. “They know their business - most of them are Indian trackers. They came in through my window while the girls were dancing – that was enough to cover any sound. After that, with everyone watching the poker, that was enough of a distraction while they moved into place.”

    “And what was I?” she queried dryly. “Part of the distraction?”

    Those grey eyes glinted wickedly. “In that dress… You were almost more of a distraction than I’d bargained for. But I needed your spontaneous reaction when Stroud shot me. You were brilliant – for those few seconds, no-one would have doubted that I was dead.”

    “You deserved to be,” she retorted tartly. “What a ridiculous risk to take. What if he had shot you in the head instead of the chest?”

    “No – he always goes for the centre of the chest, even at close range,” he asserted with confidence. “Sam had his intelligence people check out every single shooting he’s thought to have been involved in for the past twenty years. He goes for the easy shot, every time.”

    “And as for this thing.” She tapped her finger on the steel vest lying on the bar. “How could you be sure it would stop the bullet?”

    “I can assure you, we tested it out very thoroughly indeed.” He picked it up and turned it over. “It has two layers of steel, with layers of silk wadding tight in between. It was invented by a chap who was in the navy, who saw one like it in the wars out in Indo-China. But it”s damned heavy,” he admitted, hefting it in his hand, “and the bullet still packs a real punch.” He smiled ruefully, rubbing the sore patch in the centre of his chest.

    “It serves you right!” she flashed at him, those violet eyes sparking. But then she relented, smiling that gorgeous smile. “I have some arnica ointment you can put on it – it will ease the bruising.”

    “Thank you.”

    She brought a box out from under the bar, sorting through various useful items like bandages and safety pins, finally pouncing in triumph on a jar of ointment. “Ah!”

    She bustled round the bar, all efficiency, but as she approached him she hesitated. He smiled slowly; the sudden dark glitter in her eyes, the faint blush of pink that had risen to her cheeks, told him that she was thinking about exactly the same thing he was. That kiss in the morning sunlight, down on the banks of the creek.

    And now it was night…

    Ella drew in a long, deep breath, conscious of the way it lifted her breasts against the tight-laced bodice of her dress. She saw his eyes drift down to appreciate the view, then lift again to meet hers. Not cold steel, but molten silver…

    He had unfastened his shirt when he had taken off the steel vest, exposing the width of his hard-muscled chest, covered with smattering of rough, dark, curling hair. And suddenly her fingers were all thumbs – she couldn’t get the lid off the jar of ointment.

    He took it from her, laughing softly as he deftly lifted off the lid. She had to draw in a long, deep breath again, enough to murmur, “Thank you,” as she took the jar back from him.

    “My pleasure.”

    “This might… sting a bit,” she warned as she scooped up some of the ointment on her fingers, and reached out to smooth it over his skin.

    “Not with you to soothe it,” he responded in that low, husky voice that set all her nerve-ending tingling.  He placed his hand over hers, holding it against his chest. “That feels good.”

    Yes, it did. Much too good. Had she learned nothing from her mother? Never fall in love with a gambler. But how could her heart heed the warning, when she could feel his heart beating hard and strong beneath her fingers, feel the warm resilience of those powerful muscles, breathe the faintly musky scent of his skin…?

    And when his hand slid around her waist, and drew her close against him, how could she resist the sweet tide of temptation that swept away every last trace of sanity?

    His mouth came down on hers, hot and demanding, his tongue swirling sensuously over the sensitive membranes inside her lips, sending her dizzy as she forgot to breathe. Her body seemed to be melting from the inside, her bones turning to liquid honey. She no longer cared about anything but being with this man, being as close to him as a man and a woman could ever be.

    With one smooth movement he scooped her up in his arms, and carried her over to the stairs.

*    *    *

    The early morning sun was painting the sky with streaks of mother-of-pearl. Ella lay in bed, gazing out of the window, savouring the warm ache in her body, the lingering tingle of sensitivity on her tender nipples and in her deepest, secret places. Beside her, Josh was still sleeping, that long, strong body naked against hers. It had been quite a night – unforgettable.

     But now the dawn of a new day was bringing back harsh reality. Josh would soon be gone – maybe today, maybe tomorrow. And she… well, with Emmett in jail, there was no telling what would happen to the Silver Spur – more than likely, Lila would sell it. And the new owner would likely want to install his own manager.

    But for now…

    As she moved to roll out of bed, a strong arm wrapped around her waist and dragged her back. “Where do you think you’re going?” a warm, teasing voice asked in her ear.

    “I have to get up,” she insisted, struggling to remind herself of all the reasons why she shouldn’t indulge the aching need to lie down in his arms again, to let herself indulge the fantasy that this dream could last.

    “No you don’t,” he countered promptly. “You won’t be opening the saloon today.” He nuzzled into the crook of her neck. “And besides, I have a far more interesting way for you to spend your morning.”

    “No… I must…” But her protests carried no conviction. As he drew her down and pinned her beneath him, her eyes gave him her true answer. “I have to go before there’s anyone around,” she pleaded. “If anyone sees me leaving your room…”

    “Relax,” he coaxed soothingly, his clever hands moving over her soft skin. “It doesn’t matter.”

    She knew it should. The only thing she had of value was her reputation, a reputation that for a saloon girl teetered on a knife-edge. Yes, she had had lovers – but very few, and very discreet. A beau when she was seventeen, whose parents had sent him back east when they had found out he was seeing her; a rancher from Rawlins who had turned out to be married; a couple of cowboys, when the nights had been just too lonely.

    But right now, nothing mattered – nothing but surrendering to the tumult of desire that his kisses aroused. Nothing but letting her hands smooth over the hard muscles in his wide shoulders, letting her body invite him in, letting her spine curl in pure ecstasy as they moved together in sweet harmony, as if they had been forged from the same mould.

 

    The sun was climbing high in the sky before they finally made a real effort to get out of bed. Ella tossed her dress over her head, turning her back so that Josh could deal with the lacing for her.

    “So, I suppose you’ll be off pretty soon, up to Lovell?” she enquired, struggling to keep her voice steady. “What was it – to help out a friend, guarding his payroll? Or was that one of the bits that wasn’t true?”

    He laughed, kissing the back of her neck. “I’m afraid so.”

    “I can’t say that’s a surprise.” There was a sardonic edge to her voice. “You didn’t strike me as a hired payroll guard. What are you? Not a Pinkerton’s man, like your brother.”

    “Not that, either.”

    She laughed. “Don’t try to tell me you’re a farmer, raising hogs and corn on your grandpa’s farm!”

    “Not that either,” he conceded, sitting on the edge of the bed to pull on his boots.

    “So you’re a gambler,” she concluded bleakly. “Well, I suppose that life is a lot easier than digging for silver.”

    He shook his head, his eyes dancing with laughter. “I’m not a gambler. I’m a card player.”

    She slanted him a look of open scepticism. “There’s a difference?”

    “A gambler plays his luck,” he explained. “He always believes a run of bad luck will come to an end, but a run of good luck will go on. So he always loses, sooner or later.”

Her mouth twisted in wry agreement. “Tell me about it!”

    He smiled in acknowledgement of where she was coming from. “A card player,” he emphasised, “plays his cards, plays the table. He loses small, he wins big. And he knows when to walk away. But mostly I only play with friends now.”

    “And presumably you don’t cheat with them?” she enquired, one dark eyebrow arched in mild amusement.

    “No - the only time I cheat is when I’m playing a cheat.” He shrugged those wide shoulders. “I learned up in the mining camp every way there is of cheating. Sometimes people ask me to check someone out. If I find they are cheating, I usually out-cheat them. Best way to teach them a lesson.”

    “Sounds like a pretty dangerous way to make a living,” she remarked.

    “That’s not how I make my living.”

    “No?”

    “I breed horses.” He smiled at her, that heart-stopping smile. “See, me and Uncle Nate, we struck a good hardrock vein of silver. Worked it for a couple of years, drew in a tidy sum. But mining’s hard work, and Nate wasn’t getting any younger. I could have bought him out, and carried on working it by myself, or brought in another partner, but scrabbling around in a tunnel under the mountains, waiting for it to fall in on you, wasn’t exactly my lifetime’s ambition. So we sold it on. With my half-share, I got me three-hundred and fifty acres of the finest horse-rearing land, up in the Ozarks. Even got my own lake.”

    “That sounds…” For a fleeting instant, a dream passed behind her eyes. “…like paradise.”

    “It sure is. But you know, there comes a time in a man’s life when he’s good and settled, got some fine land and a good living, when he wants a little more. A woman’s company. A wife. Someone he can laugh with and live with, wake up in the morning with, sit out on his porch in the evening with, watching the sunset. I ain’t picky, mind,” he added on a note of judicious fairness as he stretched his length on the bed, his hands behind his head, gazing up at the ceiling. “But she’d need to be good around horses. And she don’t have to be no beauty – just easy on the eye. I do have a preference for a black haired gal, one with eyes so blue they’re almost violet, and a soft pretty mouth that knows how to smile.”

    Ella was aware that her heart had started to beat a little too fast. “That… sounds a bit picky,” she managed.

    “It does, doesn’t it?” he conceded cordially. “I’ve been looking around me for a while now, and I can’t seem to find a one that just matches everything I’m looking for. I was beginning to get real down-hearted.” He didn’t look it. “Then I saw you, and I thought… well, she’ll do…”

    “She’ll do…?” She snatched up a pillow and aimed it at his head, but missed him as he rolled off the far side of the bed.

    “Well, I suppose I could go on looking, but it could take a mighty long time.” He was coming round the bed towards her, smiling that impossible smile. “So I’d be happy to settle for you, if you’d be willing to oblige.”

    He caught both her hands and drew her towards him. Ella was struggling somewhere between laughter and tears. “Well I… I wouldn’t want you to go getting downhearted,” she assured him breathlessly. “That is… if you…”

    “Maybe I should have mentioned that I fell in love with you… Oh, about two minutes after I walked into the saloon,” he added, his arms wrapping around her waist.

    “What took you so long?” she protested, laughing.

    “I don’t like to rush things.” His eyes were warm and tender as they gazed down into her. “So what do you say? Will you marry me, and come and raise horses in the Ozarks with me?”

    “Oh yes,” she whispered. “Oh yes, I will.”

    It had been a waste of time lacing up her dress. The sun was sinking low towards the distant hills before they finally decided it was time to go down and get some supper.