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Morrow Creek, Northern Arizona Territory
"A gambler is nothing but a man who makes his living out of hope."
From the moment he saw the boy, dirty faced and shabbily dressed, Cade Foster knew he was in trouble. Darting a glance at the middling horse, wagon and foot traffic surrounding him in the territorial backwater he'd arrived at this afternoon, Cade frowned. He stepped sideways, intent on making a detour.
The little sharper moved in the same direction. "Wanna try your luck, mister? I got me a nickel says I'm luckier than you."
Unhappily distracted, Cade glanced down at the coin the boy brandished. It looked cleaner than all the rest of the urchin combined. From his grimy fingernails to his shabby shirt, the boy looked powerfully worse for wear. Unfortunately, he also looked a little like Judah. Maybe that's why Cade stopped.
The boy grinned, revealing a smile that jabbed at Cade's heart like a sterling-silver knuckle-duster. "Ain't nothing finer than a fast game of craps, sir." The boy, probably twelve years of age or a little more, extracted a pair of dice from his trouser pocket. With elan he shook them in his scrawny fist. "How 'bout we toss 'em over yonder, where it's quiet?"
He nodded toward the nearest alleyway. Hesitating, Cade squinted up the main street toward the two-story brick house that was his destination. All Morrow Creek's movers and shakers were expected to be at the benefit being held there tonight, during which the Territorial Benevolent Association Grand Fair would raise funds for a new public lending library.
"You got yer roulette, el Sapo, rondo, rouge et noir, faro, and vingt-et-un" the boy rattled off the names of those popular games of chance the way most youngsters recited their ABCs "but for a fast win and real excitement nothin' beats craps, sir."
Transferring his gaze to the child again, Cade noted the boy's hollow cheeks and the dark smudges below his eyes. He saw the way the pint-size "sporting man" hunched his skinny shoulders against the autumn chill. He assessed the boy's nimble movements even as he listened to more of the imp's patter.
"If you roll those bones as ably as you talk," Cade interrupted, "I'd be a fool to strike a wager with you."
"You'd be a fool not to, you mean. It's just a nickel."
To a boy like that, a nickel was the difference between eating and going to bed hungry. Cade knew that more than most.
He also knew, with another proficient glance, that the dice the youngster jiggled were likely a pair of dispatchersso named because they effectively "dispatched" their intended targets: suckers. Like all gambling men, Cade recognized the tools of a cheat. There was no other way to assure himself a square game.
Not that he ever expected to actually get one. Cade reckoned that every game he went up against was crooked one way or another. But if he ever wanted to find Whittier, he had to follow the gambling circuit. Tonight, at least a few of its members would be scouting for prospectsand showing offat the Grand Fair. Once Cade made his way up the street to that big brick house, he'd have to do his best to impress them.
Winning was the only way to progress up the circuitto make it to the high-stakes tables where men like Whittier wagered.
Not that throwing dice with this youngster would help Cade do that. He should have tried harder to go around himregardless of the boy's resemblance to Judah. Now it was too late.
When Cade glanced up again, wondering if he could sidestep the kid without taking too hard a punch to his conscience, the boy was shrewdly studying his watch chain. Doubtless he was envisioning the expensive gold Jurgensen timepiecea particular favorite of professional gambling menthat dangled at its tail and wondering if he could win it.
Seeing no other choice, Cade nodded. He ambled to the alleyway with the boy leading the way. They set their wager.
"I'm in a hurry." Cade nodded. "Go on and roll." Smartly, the boy refused. "Let me see your nickel first."
Obligingly, Cade produced a coin. On the verge of throwing it in their makeshift kitty, he frowned. "Tell you what," he said in a tone of studied carelessness. "A nickel's not much of a bet. I'll put up my coat in this bargain, too." He was happy to forfeit the damn thing if it would keep this urchin warm for the coming wintertime. That was the least his problematic conscience demanded. "Just to keep things interesting."
"Yeah?" The boy jabbed up his chin. His eyes gleamed with wanting Cade's warm coat, but his decidedly unchildlike sense of skepticism demanded more. "What do you want of mine, then?"
Cade thought about it. "I want those fine dice of yours."
Reluctantly, the scamp examined his pair of clinkers. He'd probably been earning all the sustenance he had with them. He appeared disinclined to part with them. But the kid would be better off without those cheaters in his hands. They'd only get him in trouble. Nobody was likely to keep the boy from earning some much-needed money with fast gamblingand truthfully, Cade wasn't inclined to trybut at least the practice could be made safer. With a keener pair of loaded or expertly shaved dicelike the pair Cade kept ready in his coat pocket, for instancethe boy's subterfuge would be less detectable. All Cade had to do was slip them to the little sharper, easy as pie.
If the morals of helping a child to cheat were supposed to have bothered him, Cade guessed he was past repentance. Because this boy reminded him of his brotherof those hellacious orphan trains the two of them had been shoved onto and the hopes they'd had crushed for all those long-ago monthsand he'd be damned if he'd let one small boy shiver for the sake of his own need for a heavenly reward.
Besides, the boy's future marks weren't any concern of Cade's. Any man who would set out to purposely bilk a down-on-his-luck child at gambling deserved to lose a few coins. Cade wasn't that man. But the boy didn't know that and never would.
At the child's continuing reluctance to strike a weightier wager, Cade heaved a sigh. "No deal? Fine. I'm late already."
"Oh? You goin' to Miss Benson's gala benefit?"
"You stalling for time? It's an easy bet. Yes or no?"
The boy toed the dirt. He eyed Cade's coat. "Add in that nice watch of yours too, an' you got yourself a good wager."
Against all reason, Cade admired the boy's pluck. "I won this watch in the biggest game of my life. It's sentimental."
"You sayin' no? 'Cause I ain't familiar with sentiment."
If Cade had been a softer man, that admission would have broken his heart. As it was, he only sobered his expression, then shook his head. "You can't have my watch."
The boy shrugged. Appearing resigned, he shook his fistful of rigged dice. With elaborate showmanship, he yelled, "Hold on to yer britches then, sir! Here comes the first roll, gents!"
Too late, Cade realized they'd drawn a clump of onlookers. In the shadows cast by the setting sun, four strangers watched as the dice spewed from the boy's hand, rolled on the ground, bounced theatrically from the nearest lumber wall, then stopped.
A five-spot and a one-spot winked up. Another roll, then.
Cannily, the boy let himself lose the first several throws. All the while, he kept up an animated pitcha talk meant to reel in Cade and keep him wagering even after he began losing. Such tactics were all part of the gamea prelude to the inevitable swindle after which the boy would walk away victorious.
If a grown man had tried such tactics on Cade, he wouldn't have been so patient. There was a reason he carried a derringer, two wicked blades and a surfeit of suspicion wherever he went.
As the alleyway grew darker and the dice rolled on, side bets sprung up among the spectators. Money rapidly changed hands; good-natured insults were traded along with the wagers. Cade wasn't surprised. In the West, gambling was as common as breathing. After all, what was mining if not wagering that you'd find more gold than dirt in the nearby hills? Compared with wielding a pickax, pitching dice was hardly backbreaking.
As the dice rolled again, a sharp breeze whirled into the alleyway. The boy shivered. So did Cade. He'd upped the ante on their wager several times already. Now it was time to end this.
"My turn." Cade accepted the dice. Deftly, he switched them for the pair from his coat pocket. He rolled. Then he swore.
Exactly as he'd planned, he'd lost everything. "I won! I won!" the kid crowed. "I get your coat, mister!"
The boy's eyes shone up at him. In that moment, Cade didn't mind that he'd made himself late for the Grand Fair. Then the urchin deliberately schooled his expression into his previous toughness, Cade remembered that he was a hard-nosed gambler who was in town only long enough to find the man he'd hunted through several states and territories and the world righted itself.
"Tough break," a bystander commiserated. "You was just coming back, mister. You ain't got no kind of luck, do you?"
At that, Cade grinned, pinned by an unexpected sense of irony. This time, with the boy, he'd lost on purpose. But he hadn't enjoyed his usual run of good luck latelythat was true.
In fact, if his current unlucky streak continued, Cade didn't know what he'd do. He was so close to finagling a way into the high-stakes gambling circuit he'd been chasing. He desperately needed to keep up with that league of professionals.
It was the only way to find Whittier. He ran with that circuit; if not for his vaunted appearances at the table, he might as well have been a ghost. The minute rumors had flown that he'd been spotted here, in Morrow Creek, Cade had pulled foot for the town, too, hoping to catch up with him.
Besides, Cade had already tried everything else he could think of to track the man. His more legitimate search methods had turned up nothing.
"Well, it's like I always say," Cade told the bystanders, "if you must play, decide upon three things at the startthe rules of the game, the stakes and the quitting time." As he spoke, he slipped off his overcoat. He dropped it, covertly divested of all the items he wanted to keep, on the boy's shoulders. "Now it's quitting time."
"What? You ain't even gonna try to win your money back?"
"Not tonight." Cade turned away. Behind him, he heard two awestruck whistles and several gruff, gossipy murmurs. Whoever said women were the only ones with flapping jaws was dead wrong.
"Hell! I'd say we got ourselves a new sporting man in town, boys!" one of the local men said with a chortle. "And he's droppin' money like he's got holes in his pockets, too."
The urchin ignored the chattering men. He chased down Cade, the oversize coat trailing on the ground behind him, then tugged at his suit sleeve. "Hey, mister! I know I won and all, but I don't reckon you meant to leave this behind. I found it in your coat pocket."
He held up a wad of greenbacks, fastened with an ivory clip, which Cade had won off a cotton merchant down South.
Cade had meant to leave that money with the ragamuffin. He didn't have much use for his winningsaside from their ability to stake his reputation, admit him into the elite high rollers' circle and eventually get him invited into their next private faro tournament. If he was lucky, that's where he'd find Whittier. Cade had already skimmed off a sufficient quantity of cash for his own incidentals. He had a fair bankroll set aside at his hotel. And there was always his benefactor, Simon Blackhouse, to rely on if he needed more funding, too.
But what concerned Cade now wasn't his own well-being. Because behind the boy, out of sight of his stupefied gaze, all those onlookers stared at Cade's carelessly lost money with hungry eyes. Surely they wouldn't actually steal from a child?
Cade didn't know. All he knew was that some thingsnot many, in his experience, but someweren't wagering material.
"You show me how to get to the Territorial Benevolent Association Grand Fair," Cade said, "and you can keep it all."
Wide-eyed, the boy nodded. Quick as a wink, he shoved the wad of cash down his pants for safekeeping. "For this much scratch I'll take you there myself! But I ain't stayin'. I done heard of kids bein' lured in by Miss Benson and then they ain't never seen again! I don't want no reformer gettin' ahold of me."
Cade only shrugged. "I don't care much for those do-gooder types myself." He started walking, with the boy eagerly dogging his every booted step. Something about the urchin's sudden devotion bothered him, but Cade shrugged that off, too. "Give me a bottle of mescal, a pretty girl, a fair hand and a chance to square off against Lady Luck, and I don't need much else."
The boy skipped ahead, belatedly taking the lead as he'd agreed to do. He pointed to their destination. "The fair's up yonder at that ole' brick house." He eyed Cade. "You fixin' to steal all the raffle money for the new library or somethin'?"
"Nope. I've never stolen anything in my life. I've never had to, and I'm not starting now." Speaking in all honesty, Cade leveled his gaze on the house. Morrow Creek residents came and went in all their meager territorial finery. Music and lights spilled from inside, foretelling exactly the frolic he expected. "I'm here for something even better than raffle money."
The boy scoffed. "Nothing's better than money."
"At least one thing is," Cade disagreed.
At that, the boy made a disgusted face. "What? Love?'"
Cade laughed. "Nope. Not love."
He wasn't even sure what love was. He cared for Judah; that was true. Everyone else he kept at arm's length for good reason.
"If it ain't money, and it ain't love, then what is it you're after?" the child demanded to know.
"Answers," Cade told him. "I want answers."
Then, for the fourth time in as many months, he headed toward the celebration he hoped might change his life all over again.
Standing at the edge of the boisterous Territorial Benevolent Association Grand Fair with her toes tapping and her arms full of discarded shawls, wraps and overcoats, Violet Benson felt like nothing so much as a human coat hangera coat hanger who wanted desperately to join in the fun.
All around her, the finest and largest house in all of Morrow Creek was packed to the gills with revelers. Her friends and neighbors were dancing, drinking and trying their luck at the evening's games of chance, including the fancifully painted wheel of fortune donated by Jack Murphy. Now that the device wasn't situated in his saloon, even the ladies felt free to place bets. Violet hadn't yet done so herself, but she thought she might later if she ever divested herself of her burden.
"Oh! Violet! How nice to see you!" One of her longtime friends bustled over, all smiles. "Are you collecting wraps? Heretake mine." She flung off her lace shawl, then added it to the pile in Violet's arms. "You're so kind. Thanks so much!"
"You're welcome." Rearranging the wraps, Violet glanced at her friend's dance card. A number of gentlemen's names adorned it already. "My, look at your card! Aren't you popular tonight."
"Yes!" Her friend beamed. "My card is almost full already, and I've only just arrived. But you must be in demand, too!"
In unison, their gazes dropped to the dance card at the very tips of Violet's fingers. She hadn't even claimed it by printing her own name in the designated space at the top yet. She'd been too busy fancifully perusing her card's many blank partner spacesimagining lots of suitors writing in their names with the small ribbon-attached pencilwhen the first partygoer, another friend, had assigned her his overcoat for safekeeping.