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The Man From Boot Hill: Dead Man's Promise
By Marcus Galloway
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright ©2006 Marcus Galloway
All right reserved.
It was easy to blend into the woodwork in a town as big as Keeler. Despite all the folks who came and went through that town, Nick Graves didn't pay much attention to the flow of people through the streets. He no longer listened to the rumors floating through town, even though he was in the best vantage point possible. He had enough weighing down upon him without taking on more weight from the rest of the world.
Nick was sitting at a table near the end of a long bar in a smoke-filled poker hall named Petunia's. At first, the name had seemed odd painted across the front of a festering hole like this one. He'd asked the curvaceous bartender about it on his first day there and she'd given him the same answer she gave to everyone else.
"Used to be flowers on every table," she'd replied that first night. "That is, until folks started setting them on fire to light their cigars."
When it came down to it, the name didn't matter. Neither did the origin of the name. Most of the time, knowing one or the other didn't make a damn bit of difference. All that was important was that Nick could find the place because it served some of the best stew in three states and had home-brewed whiskey that hecould actually stomach.
As Nick thought about his early years with Barrett Cobb, he still got a fond smile on his face. When he thought about burying that same friend not too long ago, he felt like he needed more whiskey than anyone could ever pour.
"Set you up with another round?" asked a woman with healthy curves and chestnut brown hair that flowed all the way down to the small of her back. When she leaned against the bar toward Nick, she displayed an ample bosom that was barely contained by a loosely tied peasant blouse.
"No thanks. I'm doing just fine."
"Isn't tonight Kaleb's game?"
"It is," Nick said. "As long as he shows, that is."
"After the pounding you gave him last week, I wouldn't be surprised if he's sitting at a table in Deadwood by now. Those boys would be merciful compared to you."
"A man's got to make a living, Belle."
"He sure does," Belle replied while tossing some stray hair from her face. "I heard you know an honest trade. Maybe you should practice it before you get cleaned out one way or another."
Coming from a woman like Belle, that suggestion was downright tender. Her skin was smooth and soft, but only if she was in the saloon itself. In the daylight all the creams and ointments she used were plain to see. Her rouge-tainted cheeks simply did not belong in the same light as respectable folks.
After all he'd been through, Nick figured he was in that same boat.
Belle's most recent words hung like bits of dust snagged on the cobwebs in his mind. Some of them, like "honest trade" hung heavier than others.
He did know an honest trade. It had been taught to him by his father and plied throughout different parts of the country. It was a specialized craft that was always in demand and it had earned him a place in more than one community. Unfortunately, there was even a time when he'd looked down on that trade as something so far beneath him that he wouldn't even consider it.
That's how he used to think when he was younger. Actually, back then, it was only the "honest" part that had bothered Nick.
"About time for some dinner, isn't it?" Belle asked.
Glancing at the dented watch in his pocket, Nick nodded. "Fix me a steak, would you?"
"Sure thing, handsome. Maybe tonight you'll let me help you work off that meal back in my room. At least you might work off some of that liquor in your system one way or another."
"I might just take you up on that, Belle." Just then, the front door of the saloon swung open, allowing a spindly man to come in amid an unwanted torrent of sunlight. Spotting the figure instantly, Nick added, "That is, if you don't mind waiting until after my game."
Belle smiled as she caught sight of the man who'd just walked in. "He showed, huh? Try not to break him too badly, Nick. Remember, the man has a wife at home."
"Yeah," he grunted unconvincingly. "I'll try to remember that."
Nick had yet to move more than an inch or so from his spot. Even as he got a jittery wave from the man who'd just walked into Petunia's, Nick only responded with half a nod. That skinny man was the way Nick was forced to make money nowadays: off him and others like him who were just as bad at playing cards.
It was enough to earn a living, but not enough to sleep in a place better than one of the rental rooms across the street. Nick shook his head as he thought back over the course of his life. Things had gone from bad to worse, to better, to bad, to worse, to better, and now to worse again. It was an uneven chain of events that barely even made sense to the man who'd lived through it.
And that chain, much like the name of the filthy saloon where Nick was plying his new trade, didn't seem to make one damn bit of difference when everything was said and done. Nick barely even knew when night turned to day anymore. His eyes were blurred. His belly was full of cheap whiskey and his head was full of memories of the days when he'd ridden with friends who were close enough to be his brothers.
Those brothers were dead now. For the ones who Nick didn't actually kill, it had been his stupidity that had brought their lives to an end. That was some bitter medicine to swallow and sometimes the whiskey didn't even help.
Excerpted from The Man From Boot Hill: Dead Man's Promise by Marcus Galloway Copyright ©2006 by Marcus Galloway. Excerpted by permission.
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