Montana Territory, 1864: Jack Wade had nothing to lose when he left the wagon train that carried his sister Callie westward. Heartbroken over losing their sister Rose and wanted by the law, Jack heads to the only place for wild souls like himself: the rough-and-tumble gambling town of Virginia City. What he finds there outshines any prize won at the gaming tables -- he discovers Lillie, the down-to-earth card dealer who could be the love of his life. But just as Jack makes a fresh start, a murderous enemy crosses his path -- an explosive twist of fate that forces Jack to leave Lillie and sends him on the run once again.
Out on the trail, wounded and half-starved, Jack is rescued by Raven, a beautiful Blackfoot woman, and with her tribe he finds the peace he seeks. But unseen adventures -- some tragic, some redemptive -- await Jack before he finds a place to call home....Written on the run or by the campfire light, in times of joy and grief, Jack's letters to Callie reveal his unforgettable journey as it unfolds -- and stand as a moving testament to the strength of the human spirit.
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March 19, 1864
Mrs. Callie McGregor
Plumas City, California
Well, I'm here and Virginia City ain't exactly pretty. But she is a sight for these sore eyes.
It's fourteen crowded miles of miner's sin here, as Ma would call it, more saloons, gambling dens, and dance halls than I ever saw. And slapped up quick, too. If it weren't for the mountains, I'd think a good wind might blow it all away -- but I'm hoping it won't. I have a hunch if I play my cards right, this place just might be my ticket to a new start.
And truth is, I don't know how many of them tickets I have left.
I swear, I ain't ever seen so much coming and going since we joined that wagon train back in Independence. By God, but it is good to see people again! Makes me think I ought to stay here awhile. I guess I'm just sick to death of being on the run. I imagine I'm far enough from the trouble I wrote you of, too. Even if I ain't, this would be one hard place to find someone who didn't want to be found. If I can just fade into these crowds for awhile, I might buy enough time to sort things out. Might be I can hit some paydirt, too -- mine the miners, so the saying goes. I swear, you can almost smell the gold on the fellows walking by.
Well, if Lady Luck's finally invited me to the party, I guess I ought to quit this letter for now and scrounge up a room so I can clean myself up for the doings. Ain't no time like the present to dust off and get back to living.
Funny. You know what I keep thinking about? Remember what Grandma Wade said to me that time that bully tried to get the better of me? She said, "Jack, you lay down once and you'll end up stayin' there. Next thing you know some feller's tossin' dirt over you." Well, I got up -- just like the old lady expected -- and I aim to this time, too.
I guess it's in the blood, Sis. We Wades ain't made to stay down long.
If women and whiskey were at a premium in Virginia City, rooms were worth the mother lode and a lot harder to find. Jack rubbed the shadow of a beard on his face and considered his dilemma as he watched the fracas going on along the bog of mud and manure that was Jackson Street. With the sun fading behind the mountains, the gulch seemed to come alive quick like a shaky drunk after downing his first drink of the night. The street was jammed with even more people, if that was possible; prospectors and cowhands, ladies both painted and proper, sharing leg room with the horses, oxen, and stray hogs that stood in the road, driving up the mud and the stink.
Still, it was life, Jack figured. And underneath all that raunch was opportunity.
But it was more the sounds that drew him in every time; the raucous laughter that spilled from the doorways, the arguing and the crack of gunfire, the call for a new game -- it all helped him to drown out his failings for awhile. And whatever he won in gambling just helped him to keep moving and forgetting. The risks were worth it as long as he could forget.
Time alone hadn't been much of a healer.
Jack's eyes strayed for only a moment to the other side of town, the side he figured to stay clear of, where there were finer buildings, houses, and a school and all. It was the comfortable side, with its families that reminded him so sharply of Callie and the little sister he'd failed. Somewhere -- probably when he'd left the wagon train behind in Salt Lake, after he'd built the coffin for little Rose with his own two hands -- he'd given up that part of himself, his history. Sorrows could kill a man quicker than anything he knew if he gave in to them.
He knew most folks looking at him never would have guessed his history because of the mask he hid behind, always good for a story or joke to make them laugh. It didn't take long to figure out that it was better for the game to keep up a cheerful outlook. It was only in his heart where nobody could see that he kept his distance. He had learned all too well that it never paid to get too close because what you cared for could be lost. Which was why he preferred poker, he thought, looking around. Money wasn't so hard to lose -- and he rarely did.
Jack was pulled from his thoughts as another squabble suddenly erupted in the street. This time, it appeared to be between a scrawny auctioneer who hogged a good part of the street with his animals and a big fellow who had been trying his best to park his rig. The black man was about the tallest Jack had ever seen and had arms as big around as small trees. Jack watched with interest as the black man quietly pondered his dilemma, then promptly halted his team dead center of the selling, stepped off into the ankle-deep mud, and solemnly trudged by. The auctioneer had been ready for a fight until he realized the man's size. So, he waited to holler until the man got far enough down the plank walk, then put himself into a lather that was comical, drawing more of the crowd's attention.
"If you're looking for civilization, mister, it's two streets over," came a sudden female voice, causing a healthy roar of laughter from the crowd. "If not, come on in and try your luck. We're the only place around that'll guarantee you a square deal."
Jack craned his neck and saw the woman standing just inside the doorway of a ramshackle affair with a sign overhead dubbing it "Pair-O-Dice." She was small but built generous with a fine head of brown curls piled high and a nice smile that faded as the hawker carried on about Negroes and not having brains enough to think.
"I guess you're right," she called. "Had the man been thinkin', he'd have just shot you."
The little auctioneer looked startled.
"Ain't no woman that would've mouthed me like that back home," he declared, but Jack hardly paid any attention. He was watching the woman as she turned back into the saloon with the rough bunch of lean, gaunt-faced miners trailing behind her like schoolboys. She had to have sand to handle a crowd like that, he thought admiringly. These were the kind of people who worked hard and played harder. As he watched the last of the crowd file in, he felt the familiar rush of a new game build in him.
"...No woman," the little man repeated loudly as he set to gathering the animals that he'd been hawking. Jack grinned at him, suddenly feeling in better spirits.
"Well, if you ain't goin' to take the lady up on the invite to play I guess I should," he said, proceeding into the Pair-O-Dice. Hesitating queered the luck as far as he was concerned -- and that was just how he felt, lucky. Stepping through the batwings, he heard a fiddler strike up a lively tune somewhere in the crowded tobacco haze. A smallish bartender with a sorrowful expression glanced up and Jack saw his eyes rest briefly on the tied-down holsters before he went back to mopping the bar. A ragged dove smiled an invitation, but when she saw he wasn't interested, the light in her eyes faded and she tottered on back through the crowd. Jack heard the familiar husky female laugh then, followed by the constant clack of chips being shuffled, and he moved in closer to the faro layout at the back of the room.
"Remember boys, it's all about faith. The more you bet, the more you're likely to win," the lady dealer said, smiling as she drew winners and losers from the case box. "Reverend Webb, you of all people should know that."
The men all laughed at the sally, but Jack couldn't help to notice how far off the lady dealer seemed in spite of her friendliness. Up close, her face was fair and distractingly pretty with a pair of large blue eyes that appeared set on a thought of somewhere else, though the other boys didn't seem to notice. He guessed more than half of them were there just to look at her. She was fresh looking -- that alone could do it in a place where most women appeared dried up or wilted.
He watched the game for a bit as she calmly called winner or loser, then stepped forward and slid a chip to the seven, coppering it at the last minute with the token that marked it to lose. She glanced up at him briefly, her eyes staying on him a bit longer than he expected, then drew a five of clubs, loser, and ten of diamonds, winner. He shrugged off the loss as minor and studied the dealer as she collected his chips off the table. He noticed the mending done in her silk dress and thought she couldn't be getting much of the rake-off. But the stubborn set of her chin said she wanted more. There seemed something lonely about her too, he saw, but he was quick to brush the thought aside.
"Last bid, gentlemen," she announced, drawing down to the hock, "all or nothing."
"Wouldn't none of us be standin' here if we didn't want it all," Jack said and a few of the men chuckled, not noticing he was looking at the dealer and not at the table. The woman they called Lillie was no fool, though. He saw her eyes go a bit wider, but she quickly recovered and gave him a grin that caused the dimples in her cheeks to appear.
"Wantin' and gettin' is two different things," she said finally. Lillie shuffled the cards easy then laid them before Jack to cut. After he did, she set them in the case box and Jack slid a chip to the ace of hearts. She pulled a six and a queen and slid Jack's chips off of the layout. She then drew the two of clubs for him, loser, then the ace of hearts, winner. Lillie gave him a wry smile that said, You see?
Jack grunted. The thing was, he didn't see. He had had the gut feeling when he stepped through the door that his luck was about to change. The first time he didn't so much mind it, but the second time he'd felt sure and his feelings weren't usually wrong. Faro had never been his best game -- not like poker or three-card monte -- but he wasn't a slouch at it, either.
By the time she took the third round of wagers, Jack suspected she had an edge of some kind, but he was hard put to figure out what. As close as he looked, he saw no sign of the usual cheats: spring or sliding plate. When he finally glanced up and their eyes met again, it was with silent regard, like two war-weary soldiers who had come face to face only to realize they were fighting for the same thing.
She grinned and Jack smiled in return. But he was forced to step back from the faro layout just the same. He'd had a mind to stay in her game until he figured it out, but his funds wouldn't allow it. Nothing aggravated him more than having to be cautious -- especially when a challenge had been laid down.
He felt her curious eyes stay on him as he felt for the small wad of greenbacks tucked inside the money belt beneath his vest. He had sold his saddle and rifle for a lot less than their worth, but he had figured it to be enough to get into a poker game. The rest would take care of itself. He winked at Lillie to let her know he wasn't finished, then started back across the room.
He had no problem finding a game. The three miners were a friendly bunch who appeared tired of their own company and quickly offered him a chair. One of the miners who sat across from him was so caught up in asking Jack about his travels that he kept spitting tobacco on the floor instead of in the spittoon that was provided. Jack had no more dealt the cards when he saw the sorrowful-looking bartender march toward them, his thin face turning red clear to the bald area on his head. The bartender grabbed the closest spittoon and dropped it so hard that it bounced once and sloshed over a bit before resting next to the miner's mud-caked boot, then he stalked off.
The old miner didn't seem to take offense.
"Ely's got bad nerves," he confided solemnly, then smiled. "But he's the only feller I know that'll believe an outright lie when ya want to tell one."
"Why, that's the best kind of fellow to have around," Jack chuckled, grateful for the bartender's nerves; the miner's endless questions were starting to make him uneasy. His hand was called then and he peered over his cards, at ease again. "Well, boys, as my sainted Pa used to say, the safest bets are the ones you don't make." Jack laid his cards down, displaying his flush, and the men laughed amiably. They even laughed when he won the second hand‹they cursed too, of course, but it was good-natured cursing.
"Where're you from?" the curious miner asked again, as the dove served them another round of drinks. Jack saw his friend kick him under the table to silence him, his eyes darting to the guns, and he smiled slightly.
"Oh, here and there," he replied softly, glancing back to the lady dealer again. She had kept his interest throughout the evening and he had found it more and more of a burden to keep his eyes from straying over to her table for a look. Not that he was interested in another go at faro -- he preferred games where the odds were more in his favor, he thought, brushing the fattened bankroll in his vest. There was just something about her....
"She a sport?" Jack asked finally, inclining his head toward Lillie. The old fellow glanced at Lillie then grunted and let loose a stream of tobacco, this time careful to aim it into the spittoon.
"Only when she wants to be," he replied disgustedly, as if she were a disgrace to her profession, but he immediately became contrite. "Most every feller in here's tried for her. Harm here oiled his hair and turned his paper collar twice in one week. I, myself, even offered to marry her," he sighed. "She's a challenge."
Jack raked in the third pot with a thoughtful expression on his face. He had always liked a challenge.
He smiled a bit as his eyes slid over to the lady dealer again, thinking Virginia City might just have more possibilities than he thought, after all.
There were only a few stragglers left in the saloon by the time Jack dealt the last card to Lillie: Ely, the bartender, the dove he'd seen earlier, and the fiddler. The fiddler, who had turned to song after drinking all night, had passed out in mid-chorus of "I Miss My Sainted Mother, Now that She's Dead and Gone to Heaven" and was still lying on the floor where he dropped. Ely swept around him as if he were a permanent fixture, while the dove called Mabel picked through the broken glass and clumps of mud for loose change or dust that had fallen from the miners' pockets.
Jack glanced at Lillie, who sat across the table from him. She had a distant look on her face, but he had seen a difference in her when she had won the first hand; she had looked almost like a young girl and had even laughed outright. As lonely as he had been, he almost wanted her to win just to see that expression again. Jack had a feeling she wanted it as well but for different reasons; she had already sent the bartender to her room twice for money and she had begun to look hesitant as he dealt them another round.
He himself hadn't drawn a bad card since they sat down together, and the relief to be back on familiar ground made him bold. He was sometimes shocked at his own thoughts, but the truth was he didn't relish another night sleeping on the ground -- or the loss of good company.
"How 'bout we add to the stakes and make this interesting," he offered. "You win, you get the pot, naturally. But if I win, I get to spend the night in your room."
Mabel cackled loudly in the quiet of the room, but Ely looked almost sick with worry. "You want me to get your money, Lillie?" he asked, setting his broom down on the floor, but Lillie waved him off.
She had no intention of sending Ely up to her room again. She hadn't made do with old dresses and no jewelry just to see all of her money fall into the hands of a handsome stranger. Her money was her one hope of making a different life for herself. She studied her hand, then glanced across the table at Jack, who was grinning his challenge. She smiled herself, the heavy anticipation in the room biting into her boredom.
"Fine by me," she said finally, and Jack slid the hundred in gold dust to the center of the table and called her hand.
Lillie laid her hand on the table face up: four kings and an ace. She moved to take the pot, but the expression on Jack's face stopped her. He was looking at her with something like regret.
"Sorry, sugar," he said low and spread his own cards on the table. Her eyes froze on the four perfect aces, and the realization seeped in that she'd duped herself with a joker that had been a dangerous twin to the ace of spades.
"It was a good game, Lillie," Jack said, and she smiled.
"Not good enough. I must be going blind not to realize I laid down that cutter."
Lillie sat quiet, allowing the loss to settle in. Fate was a curious thing, she thought. She had figured if she were careful, she might avoid it. The last time she wasn't careful, fate had tricked her and her quick decision about a man had been a bad one.
Lillie studied Jack. He was a big man by most standards, dressed in the dark clothes of a gambler -- a bit trail worn but cared for. He was handsome too, not the frail kind of handsome she'd seen in other gamblers, but strong. And there was something in his green eyes that made her think he had been alone too long. After all, he had ridden all of his winnings on the chance to stay the night with her. If that wasn't lonely, she didn't know what was.
"My room's upstairs," she said finally, then managed a smile. "But I guess you already know that." When her eyes met Jack's, she saw him hesitate and she drew her shoulders back and pushed away from the table.
"You won fair and square, Jack," she said, abruptly rising from her chair. "I may be a lot of things, but one thing I'm not is a poor loser."
As she climbed the stairs to her room, Jack following a short distance behind, Lillie glanced back toward the bar. She saw Ely standing in the center of the room, his face frozen in a part shocked, part sorrowful expression. The rag he was holding was dripping large drops of water on the floor. "You're gonna warp them boards," she said, smiling a bit to cheer him, but Ely just stood there like he hadn't heard a word she spoke.
Ely didn't know what to make of it. Although he was usually slow to talk, for the most part he had no problem with his opinions. But he couldn't seem to form one as he watched the stranger climb the stairs to Lillie's room.
It had given him a queer feeling, seeing how Lillie had just taken up with the fellow. But it still didn't help him on how he should approach the situation. Being short and skinny to the point of awkward had always provoked a shyness in him that made it hard to get his point across at first. Sometimes his nerves pushed him, but thinking of speaking to the man with the fancy guns and haunted eyes made his throat clog.
Ely suddenly felt weak but resisted the urge to take to his bed, as he usually did when aggravated. He had to think of Lillie.
Lillie was, after all, why the boys came to his place night after night. The very fact that he had found her had perked up his confidence amongst the fellows enough to carry on a conversation every once in awhile. The sudden thought that he might lose Lillie brought on such a wave of protectiveness that he figured to speak his mind in spite of the danger.
Hey, fella! Just you remember, Lillie ain't no sport. Not really. She's just trying to get by like the rest of us.
But he'd only thought it, not said it aloud, and a deep sense of loss that he couldn't explain filled him as he watched the door to Lillie's room close behind the stranger.
Jack glanced around the room. It wasn't much: a little cubicle just wide enough for the rough lumber bed, its shuck mattress and an old three-legged stool perched just beneath the window. Folks back east would have considered it hellish, but Jack had seen worse -- heck, he had lived in worse. When he glanced up, he found Lillie watching him.
"You won a night in my room," she said quietly. "But just so you know, that's all you won."
The look in her eyes seemed so wounded that he thought better than to try to tease her. Truth was, he was pretty sure there would be nothing more long before he laid his last hand down. Just as sure as he was now that it didn't matter.
"I guess I'll take that spot on the floor if you think you can scare up a blanket or two," he said finally, grinning to cut the awkwardness between them. But in spite of his effort, she kept herself stiff as she plucked up the blanket folded at the end of her bed.
"If you knew the floor was all you won, why did you play?" Lillie asked, handing him a scratchy wool affair but keeping her distance, as if she still wasn't sure what to expect.
"I chanced it for the company," he said truthfully. "I don't know anyone who doesn't like a little company once in awhile."
Lillie looked at him funny for a long moment. "Well, one thing this town isn't short on is people," she said finally. "I guess we're all just rich that way."
The way she said it made Jack think maybe she understood what he was really saying better than what she was letting on. But instead of letting it go at that, he felt his curiosity start to get the better of him, wanting some kind of response from her that wasn't so businesslike. He didn't even know why he felt the need for it -- maybe it was just to outrun the silence that had hounded him on the trail or maybe it was something else. He gave a sigh and sat down on the bed.
"You ever just miss hearin' someone else breathing when you're falling off to sleep?" he asked and saw her surprise as she went still for a moment. Just when he thought she was about to answer, she turned to the cracked piece of looking glass and began to let her hair down. Jack squirmed a bit. For some reason, it almost seemed too personal -- her letting her hair down in front of him. But the real surprise came when she had wiped the last of the paint from her face and he was put back to see how young she looked, how out of place.
"Whatever brought you here, Lillie?" he asked suddenly, watching her in the reflection as a smile played bitter on her lips.
"Life," she answered simply and he saw in her eyes something akin to memories -- or maybe regret. Jack understood that look, if he didn't any other. He did something that shocked him then: He reached out and pulled her down to sit next to him and he held her hand. She appeared shocked too, and they both fell silent for a bit.
"Simple word. But it ain't simple, is it?" Jack asked finally, wondering if he was just filling the silence again, but when he looked at Lillie there seemed to be a change in her.
"No." Lillie said, stealing a side glance at him as if to check if he was making fun. She sighed, then stood with a determined look on her face.
"Guess I ought to get some sleep. It'll be another long day tomorrow."
As he watched her climb into her bed, it took everything he had not to chuckle as she nervously turned down the patched cover and slipped primly underneath, fully clothed. He then spread out his own blanket, untying the holster strapped to his thigh but making sure his guns were in easy reach before he slipped his boots off.
Just as he tucked his hands under his head, Lillie leaned over to turn her lantern down. When their eyes met, her stare lingered and he saw the loneliness looming large as his own in her blue eyes. But she quickly turned the wick down and before either of them could think to say anything, the room was painted black.
In the dark, Jack wondered if maybe he imagined the look, and the feeling that seemed to come with it; as if something deep within the two of them had recognized each other in some way neither was able to understand just yet.
"Jack?" came Lillie's voice in the dark.
"I lied -- I mean about company. I knew what you meant...I just...I haven't been around any real company in a long time," she said in a quiet voice and he smiled softly.
"Me either," he said just as quiet. "You know, ol' Ely says the room next door will be free tomorrow. Who knows? We might just end up bein' neighbors for awhile."
"Neighbors?" Lillie chuckled as if the thought tickled her and he joined her, glad to hear the humor in her voice again. "I guess stranger things have happened."
As silence filled the room again, Jack waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark, then he turned his head and watched the door. He would have gladly given the night's winnings if he could just pull Lillie toward him and drift off to sleep against her warm skin and not think of anything for awhile, maybe just talk and talk until they both fell asleep. Talk so the silence couldn't haunt him.
He had been through it before, running from what haunted him; time and again, town after town, until his recollections were a tired blur of seedy rooms and faces without names. At least in towns the stretches of silence were shorter. But they still came, and with it his thoughts of his time on the wagon train with his family: hearing the cows bawling, the clack of their horns hitting against each other, wagons rumbling along, laughter, his two sisters picking wildflowers along the trail. Long days and shorter nights. In his mind's eye, he saw again his sister Callie's tear-streaked face when they buried first their pa, then their sister, Rose.
Rose. Good God, would he ever be able to wrestle the demon that put her tired little face before his eyes when he tried to go to sleep? Did he want to be free? Free of remembering Rose's hope for a new home, of his failure at giving her nothing but a pine box in a town that never knew her name? If not pain, what did he have left of her?
But he could only bear the pain for so long. So, he pushed it down again and let it be someone else's life for awhile, someone else's pain. Feeling took too much out of him, he thought; it was the doing that counted.
Only now, Jack thought wearily, there was one more thing to outrun. His letter to Callie hadn't been all truth, but he hadn't wanted her to worry. What if the law does come for me before I can clear my name? What if, like that marshall, they don't believe I didn't rob that bank with Jude? he wondered, the endless possibilities of what could happen rolling through his mind. How did it ever come to this? he wondered. How did I end up here?
Jack sighed and glanced up to where Lillie lay sleeping on her bed, listening to the steady rise and fall of her breathing. For the first time in a long while, he wished he knew her better, wished more than anything she was awake so he could ask her if she ever wondered the same about her own life.
Lillie sat on the little stool next to the window and gazed out. Mid-morning was about the only time she could tolerate the view. The lowered sun had a way of painting the gulch pretty; warm oranges and yellows gilded the clapboard buildings that sagged and leaned against each other and retouched the barren hillsides, scalped of every last tree. But like giving a sporting gal a coat to wear over her bloomers, it only lasted for a little while.
Like most good things.
Lillie bit her lip as she glanced over at Jack, who had finally found sleep, and she couldn't help wondering how long he'd be around. A gambler was what he'd called himself and said no more. But she'd sensed from the first that he was skirting trouble. Had been for awhile, from the look of it, she thought, studying the long, lean body sprawled out on the floor.
Still, there was something about him that made her want to give in to her loneliness in spite of the misgivings, made her want to know more about him. He had made her laugh. How long had it been since she'd laughed like that?
How did you end up here? she recalled him asking, and for just a moment it almost sounded like he'd cared about the answer. No one had ever asked her that question before. Of course, most men didn't talk much anyway.
And he had held her hand. That had been a shock, too. You're a peculiar one, alright, she thought. But I'll keep my past to myself. It's about the only thing I have left that's mine alone.
It seemed like another lifetime, her past. Her pa had been wrong, of course, to hit her ma like he did in front of everyone. But her ma's desertion the next morning along with another miner was more punishment than her pa could bear. Stripping away a man's pride can make them do fool-headed things they wouldn't normally do.
Leaving their claim in Colorado was his first mistake -- getting the fever had been his last. By the time they finally made it to Virginia City, they were out of money and luck.
Lillie could see her pa as clear as if it were yesterday, trudging ahead of her through the large drifts of snow that had settled over the town, each step making him weaker. Still, up and down the gulch they had drifted. There were plenty who had offered to take Lillie in, but her pa's fevered eyes and flushed face scared folks into being cruel and greedy. "Got any money?" they'd ask, over and over. Her pa would pull his billfold out and open it up, frown at it being empty, then stick it back in his coat only to pull it out a few moments later as if the effort could produce the miraculous. Again and again, she watched him do that until it hurt too much to look. It was maybe a few hours later that he stopped abruptly in the center of the street and looked back at her. "Ain't nothin' free, Lillie," he said and fell down face first in the snow and died.
Not long after, she'd been led to being a kept woman -- reluctantly maybe -- but not blindly.
No family, no food, and a winter wind biting your backside tended to open a person's eyes. Morals, she'd learned, were only for those who could afford them.
"Morning," Jack said. Lillie felt the memories being brushed away by his voice as he came up behind her and she was grateful for it. Remembering sometimes made her feel scattered.
Jack seemed to study her hard for a moment, then he moved to the window. He had his trousers on, but his shirt was off and she noticed a graze wound on his side as he leaned and looked out, an odd, searching look on his face.
In spite of herself, she looked too, half expecting to see Jack studying some unsuspecting soul, but his eyes were fixed beyond the town, past the bare slopes of sage and cactus to somewhere in the distance. For some reason it made her uneasy -- how quick he was to give all of his attention, then be drawn away just as fast. Like he was standing there but really gone.
"I sure hope there's more fish in the pond today," he murmured suddenly and she felt a rush of relief to be on familiar ground.
"It's Sunday," she answered, as if that explained it all. There was no such thing as a quiet Sunday in the gulch. Already, she could hear the stir of life: men's laughter, ripping and sawing of new buildings, the clatter of wagons, pounding stamps and dull booms of blasting that she'd come to know as well as her own heartbeat. Lillie glanced at Jack and was glad to see the fuss had caught his attention. "The boys will be packing the house for a game. They're rough as cobs, though. Think you're ready?"
"What say you introduce me to the fattest of the flock and I'll take it from there," Jack said, excitement building in his eyes.
"You looking for someone to clean you?"
"No, just to make it interesting. I can hardly tolerate boredom." Jack turned to her and grinned. "I promise you won't regret it, Lillie. I don't usually lose."
"We'll soon find out," Lillie sniffed, but she felt an odd tingle of excitement run through her anyway.
She even found herself enjoying watching the town come awake with him. Instead of wanting him to leave and let her alone -- like she had with her customers at the tables -- she felt herself wishing he could stay for a little while longer.
Of course, it wouldn't pay to trust so soon. She'd done that before. Frank Monroe had seemed like the sure, good-natured type at first, breezing into her life that first long winter when she'd been so scared. He'd been the one who taught her to deal -- a joke really, until she got good. It wasn't long after that he'd turned mean. Lillie had allowed the meanness for a time because she thought being lonely was worse. It didn't take long though for her to change her mind.
Jack didn't seem like Frank. Elusive maybe, but not cruel. And he did have a way of talking of dreams so's a person might almost believe they'd come true, Lillie thought. And even if they didn't, she had the feeling that his way of chasing them would be a lot more fun than hers.
Some days just weren't what folks chalked them up to being, Ely thought, wiping a table that didn't need it, trying to appear casual as he glanced over at Lillie and the gambler who'd seated themselves close together.
The racket he'd created in the kitchen earlier had drawn them down, he knew. He wasn't usually so brash, banging pots and pans around like a woman, but he was curious -- and maybe a bit put out. He'd thought Lillie was through with sporting after Frank; she had even agreed to quit when she got good at dealing. She had looked lonely lately. But laws, everyone looked lonely in the gulch.
Loneliness makes quick bedfellows, Mabel was forever chirping. Ely glanced over at the sport he'd recently acquired and she grinned mean, as if she knew what he was thinking. Mabel, who was only half-filled with laudanum, had enough curiosity left in her to prop up near the bar so she could watch, too‹in spite of the dirty looks he'd given her.
"You're a sour one this morning," Lillie said suddenly and he practically dropped the plates of bacon and hard biscuits on their table. She looked too cheerful and flushed and Ely felt her words prick him. He was half in love with her even if she didn't know it.
"I'm usually not so sour, but my nerves are bad," Ely said defensively. "I think if I could just shoot someone I'd feel better." Life was chancy, anyway, he told himself. Still, he watched nervously for the gambler's reaction.
If Jack had understood his meaning, he didn't show it. The cautious look the gambler had most of the time was gone, and Ely thought he looked plain friendly, sitting there like he was with Lillie. Ely noticed he had shaved the shadow of a beard off his face.
"Ely, your nerves are always bad. And you can't shoot besides," Lillie said, looking at him curiously. But it was Jack's fleeting glance that made him testy again.
"If I was worked up enough I guess I could," Ely replied, like an old dog hanging onto a bone with his last tooth. But he could see the threats were no use, so he silently prayed the gambler would just leave and let them get back to their normal routine.
"Hey, Ely," Jack called suddenly, causing him to start a bit. "Lillie and I've been talkin' and I think we've come up with a pretty good plan to have us all sittin' pretty in no time. If you can spare that room you told me about?"
"Sure, Jack," Ely said cautiously. He turned his back to them then, avoiding his own reflection as he stared into the long mirror behind his bar, considering the gambler's offer. It would be nice to get some extra cash coming in, he thought. Besides, seeing the new spark in Lillie's eyes and the familiar way the gambler rested his arm on the back of her chair, he knew there was no sense hoping for things getting back to normal anytime soon.
March 30, 1864
Mrs. Callie McGregor
Plumas City, California
Just finished reading your letter and knowing you like I do, I figured to drop you a line and let you know I've found a place to stay. See, me and the owner of a saloon here have struck a deal. Ely (a fine fellow too in spite of being a bit wispy) has decided that he can get more of a draw with a resident gambler. I took him up on it. Even if there was a room to be had -- and there ain't -- this place is pricey. Most shacks rent $20 to $30 a week and hotels $125 a week. It's a good thing I'm a gambler and not a miner; I'd never afford it here. I've made a few friends in the bargain, too. One friend (a lady dealer) is showing me the ropes. You might find it funny that the lady beat your ol' bro' down at the faro tables.
Underneath all the mud and muck, Virginia City is pretty much what I figured it to be. One thing it's not is quiet; ripping and sawing of new buildings, miners blasting, then drunk again for another night. If you close your eyes, you'd swear the sun never sets the way they carry on. Ely says it's a test of some kind. He says it's like God Himself took an old broom and swept us together to see what would happen. I told him God might not be too pleased, but I guess He won't get bored trying to fix it, either.
A town of schemers and seekers, that's for sure. Miners, gamblers, barkeeps, even the doves are all scrambling for their share. Makes me think it's a good thing for the West, Sis. I don't imagine half of us would survive the rules back East. I know I couldn't.
You asked what it feels like: the gambling, moving from town to town. Easiest way I can explain it is being free. There ain't no one counting on me out here, Callie. No one but me, and if I disappoint myself, well, that ain't so bad a pill to swallow. There are times I look around and think, "What are you looking for, Jack? And how are you going to know if you find it?" I think of Pa, too, and what a decent, hard-working man he was and how maybe he might've wished I was more like him. But I can't be what I'm not. If I've learned anything these past years, it's that.
One thing I'll tell you, Sis, I had the oddest feeling when I set eyes on these mountains out here, on this country and the sky that goes on past. It was like I knew, like I felt down deep somewhere that this land would make me.
Life can be funny, can't it? If I hadn't hooked up with that crook Jude, I'd never have come here. I guess you can plan all you want but that don't mean you'll end up where you figured.
'Course, if we knew the road ahead of time, who's to say we'd walk it?
P.S. And tell our buddy Stem to just keep looking out for you like he has. Tell him I ain't as green as he thinks. There's trouble in every mining town, sure. But that don't mean I aim to go and find it.
Copyright © 2001 by Dawn Miller