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Outlaw in Paradise
By Patricia Gaffney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Patricia Gaffney
All rights reserved.
Some folks said it was a coincidence that the church clock got stuck at three o'clock on the day the gunfighter rode into Paradise. Maybe so, but what about the leak that sprung in the water tower the same afternoon? And what about the grease fire at Swensen's Good Eats & Drinks? Not to mention the fact that Walter Rideout keeled over and died in his own outhouse that very day. Walter was pushing ninety, but still. It made you wonder.
Most people could tell you where they were and what they were doing the first time they laid eyes on the gunfighter. Nestor Yeakes was sitting out in front of the new livery stable, eating a green apple and reading the Paradise Reverberator. "I see a shadow, I look up, and there he is, dressed in black and covered with guns. Two Colts in his belt, a Winchester in his saddle, another pistol in his boot, and I swear I saw a derringer's butt sticking out of his vest pocket." Later on it turned out the gunfighter was only carrying two six-shooters and the rifle, but no one blamed Nestor for overestimating, and nobody disagreed with him that it "Looked like a damn army'd rode into town."
"Stable your horse?" he inquired, and according to Nestor the gunfighter curled his lips under his long black mustache and sneered.
"I didn't come here for a haircut," he answered in that low, whispery voice you had to lean close to hear. Gave you gooseflesh, that whispery voice, and he talked slow, too, Nestor said, like he wanted you to understand every word, and if you didn't he'd just as soon shoot you as repeat himself.
"This is Pegasus," Nestor said he said, introducing his big black stallion like they were all at a barn dance or a box supper. "What he gets is whole oats in the morning and ground oats at night. Cottonseed meal and clover in the afternoon. Two ounces of salt. No timothy. You feed him timothy, I'm afraid I'll have to kill you."
Nestor opened and closed his mouth a few times before he got out, "No timothy. No, siree."
"Pegasus better look good when I come around to check on him tomorrow. He better feel good. He better be singin'."
"Some real happy tune. Like 'Little Ol' Sod Shanty on the Claim.'"
Nestor kind of grinned at that. But then he saw the shine in the gunfighter's eye, the one that wasn't covered up with a black patch, and the icy cold in that steel-gray eyeball froze the blood in Nestor's veins.
Floyd Schmidt and his brother Oscar were playing checkers outside the grange hall when they first saw the gunfighter. For once Floyd, who's been known to stretch the truth to make a story tell better, didn't exaggerate when he said, "Feller didn't have on one stitch that weren't black. Black britches, black shirt, black vest, black coat. Black boots, black hat. Black cigarette. Looked like a one-man funeral walking down Main Street."
"Friend," Oscar said the gunfighter whispered to him, making what little bit of hair Oscar's got stand on end. "What's the best saloon in this town?"
Floyd, who was drunk at the time and had more courage, answered when Oscar couldn't get his tongue to work. "Well, we got Wylie's Saloon, which you done passed comin' in. Then there's Rogue's Tavern up here at the other end. That's about it, saloon-wise."
The gunfighter squinted his eye on the Rogue, which you can just barely see from the grange hall. "Red balcony on the second story? Rocking chairs settin' around?"
"Yep. You can rent a room there, too." Floyd could never explain afterward what possessed him to say that.
The gunfighter thumbed the brim of his Stetson up a notch and sort of smiled. "I got a hankering to set down in a rocking chair and watch the world go by." Floyd and Oscar both shivered when he whispered, "Never can tell who you might see passing down below. Ain't that right?"
They said that sure was right, and watched him stroll on down the street real slow, spurs jingling, saddlebag over one shoulder and his rifle on the other.
Levi Washington, the colored bartender at the Rogue, almost dropped the whiskey glass he was drying when the gunfighter came through the swinging doors, quiet as a puff of smoke. "You could hear the head fizz on a beef," Levi claimed, "when he thunk that rifle butt down and say he'd take a double shot of bourbon, best I got. Not many customers that time o' day, and what we did have cleared off quick, shot out the door like they pants was on fire. I was glad Miz Cady wasn't here in case trouble started, but kinda wishin' she was here, too, 'cause she prob'ly coulda headed it off. You know what she's like.
"'House brand, all right?' I say, and he cocked his head and whispered, 'Talk into my good ear, friend,' just like that, like his voice comin' outa the grave or a coffin or something. I begun to suspicion who he was, but I don't know for sure till he say he want a room upstairs lookin' out on the street. Corner room, he say in particular. He give me four silver dollars, and say if anybody want to see him, I should send 'em right up. Somehow I get enough spit in my mouth to ask his name.
"I swear the wind died down and some dog quit barking just before he say 'Gault' in that tumble whisper that make your insides freeze. 'The name's Gault.'
"Well," said Levi, "I knowed we was in for it then, because I seen it happen before. Nothin' the same once a killer come to town."
Cady McGill always took Friday afternoons off. Lately, now that spring was here and the weather had finally dried out some, she'd taken to renting a buggy and driving out to the old Russell place by herself.
She'd unhitch the horse and let it graze while she wandered around the old going-to-seed orchard, running her hand over the scaly bark of the wild-blooming apples or down-at-the-heels pear trees. Butterflies fluttered through knee-high wildflowers, and the smell was so sweet she could feel it purifying her lungs, making her forget all the smoke she'd inhaled for a week at the Rogue. She'd stroll over to the big house and press her nose to the wavy front-door window, imagining what she'd be doing right now if she owned the place. She might be sitting in the parlor, which she could see about a quarter of from the door, drinking a cup of afternoon tea, maybe paging through a seed catalog and planning her summer garden. Or maybe she'd be reading a book, a novel, nothing serious, while she sipped a cold glass of lemonade. No, on second thought, not on a gorgeous day like today. If she wasn't planting flowers, she'd be working in the orchard alongside her men. Two men—three if she could afford it. This might be a daydream, but she was practical enough to put at least two sturdy day laborers in it.
Le Coeur au Coquin. The Heart of the Rogue. Thirty years ago, after the Rogue Indian wars ended, that's what the Russell family had named their three hundred acres of orchard and pastureland on the cliff edge of the river. Nowadays people just called it River Farm, all that French being too big a mouthful for honest Oregon tongues. But Cady liked both names, and some nights she even fell asleep whispering them to herself, pretending she was standing on the high cliff and watching the blue-green Rogue rage from side to side in its half-mile-wide canyon. Her bit of the river. Her orchard. Her dark hills and pretty green pastures.
Well, someday, maybe. If everything worked out just right.
Time to go home now, though. It looked like rain in the west, and besides, she had work to do.
She hitched up the buggy, climbed in, and gave the gray mare a switch, thinking about Merle Wylie's latest offer for her saloon. If she combined it with her nest egg, it might be enough to buy River Farm, but not enough to do anything with it afterward. Like put it in working order. Anyway, Wylie could kneel down, fold his hands, and kiss her butt before she sold him so much as a shot glass. Why did the one man who could've helped her buy her dream place have to be her worst enemy? Life sure was funny sometimes. Ha ha. Life had been funny to Cady a few times too many. She wished it would hurry and sober the hell up.
Not that she had much to complain about nowadays. Nothing like in the old days. Some might say she had it made—a few good friends, her own place to live, a business she owned free and clear. Why, she even had a gold mine. She had to smile as the buggy passed by the muddy, poky, weed-infested turnoff to the Seven Dollar Mine, the second thing any man had ever given her. (Third if you counted the tattoo.) If it weren't for Mr. Shlegel, you wouldn't have anything at all, Cady McGill. She reminded herself of that whenever she was feeling down on men. Which was pretty often. Being in the saloon business, she figured it came with the territory.
Riding past the entrance to the Rainbow Mine a few minutes later wiped the smile off her face. Merle Wylie's turnoff wasn't scraggly and overgrown, and his mine wasn't placered out like hers. Which just went to show, there wasn't any justice in this world. If there was, a no-account rodent like Wylie wouldn't still be digging gold out of the ground, and a saint like Gus Shlegel wouldn't be moldering in his grave. He'd still be running Rogue's Tavern and hauling gold out by the bucket from the Seven Dollar. And Cady would be ... his mistress? Wife by now? She couldn't quite picture herself in those roles, although she'd wished for either one of them often enough when Mr. Shlegel was alive.
But all that was water under the bridge. You couldn't get anywhere by ruminating on the past, which wasn't going to change no matter how much you wished it would. You couldn't count on the future either, but sometimes you were allowed to dream about it. Paint yourself a picture of what you thought it would look like. For Cady, it always looked like an orchard farm in the Rogue River Valley.
Jesse almost set himself on fire lighting one of his damn black cigarettes. He was sitting in a rocker on the red balcony outside his room, doing his badass sonofabitch outlaw routine, when half an inch of red-hot ash fell in his lap. It's hard to look menacing when you're jumping up and down and slapping at your privates. Nobody was ogling him just then, though—which was a miracle, since about the only thing the good folks of Paradise had done since he hit town was stare.
He liked Paradise. It didn't look like much, but with gold towns, looks could be deceiving. He was sure there was money under the wheel ruts in the dusty, unpaved streets; big money in the pockets of the rough-looking customers stumping up and down the wooden sidewalks; buckets of money behind the yellow brick facade of the First Mercantile Bank & Trust Company. All an enterprising fellow had to do was be patient and wait for it.
Knock knock knock.
He got up, moving cool and slow in case anybody was watching. But he had to look down to hide a grin. This trick was getting so easy, it wasn't hardly even any fun anymore.
"Gault?" somebody mumbled through the door to the hallway. "Speak to you, Mr. Gault?"
Strapping on the gunbelt he'd hung on the bedpost, Jesse said, "It's open," in his creepy whisper.
"Mr. Gault?" Knock knock knock.
Which was so often the trouble with creepy whispering. He cleared his throat and yelled, "The door's open!"
The knob turned and the door cracked an inch, two inches. Three, four. Tired of waiting, Jesse yanked it all the way open, and a bowlegged, ginger-haired man with a smell on him like dead buffalo half fell, half jumped into the room.
"Don't shoot, I ain't packin'!" he shouted with both hands in the air. He was built like a cob horse, short and stocky, and if he'd changed his clothes in the last year or so it didn't show. He didn't look like much, but Jesse had learned opportunity came in many different shapes and sizes.
"State your name," he hissed, flexing his fingers over one of the Colts, like a nervous habit.
"Shrimp Malone. Name's Shrimp Malone." He looked like a shrimp, little and orange-headed. Then, too, he could've been Chicken Malone because of the blond eyebrows and eyelashes. That and the fact that he didn't have any lips to speak of.
"I've been expecting you, Mr. Malone," Jesse said, and Shrimp's red face turned pasty under the dirt and grime and gingery whiskers. "Close the door."
"You wouldn't shoot me here, would you?"
"Depends. Close the door and sit down." Shrimp pretty much fell into a spindly ladderback chair by the door, while Jesse moved back as far as he could and still be heard in the creepy whisper, because the stink coming off his visitor was strong enough to wither trees. Under the reek of booze and sweat lay the sour odor of clay dirt, though, and that told him Mr. Malone was a prospector. Which made him as welcome as if he'd smelled like a perfumed hankie.
The fastest way to make a man with a guilty conscience talk is to keep quiet. Shrimp Malone stood the silence for about twenty seconds before blurting out, "Well, hell's bells, did you see 'er? God damn, that was the sorriest-lookin' female I ever clapped eyes on! I only poked her in the first place on accounta I was shit-faced drunk. Which she knowed, and so did her whole idiot family. They tricked me. Any man woulda ran off if he'd saw the chance—you'd'a done it, too! God Almighty, she looked like a goddamn possum, breath like a shut-up cave, and them two black teeth stickin' out like dominoes. Whuh!"
Jesse shuddered in sympathy, picturing the kind of woman Shrimp would scorn because of her personal hygiene. "That ain't worth two cents to me," he said, figuring it was time to bring money into the conversation.
It worked. "How much are those halfwits payin' you? Whadda they want you to do, drag me back to marry 'er, or just plug me right here and put me outa my misery? It don't hardly make a difference to me—I'd as soon be dead as shackled to that horse-face hyena the rest o' my days." He looked cocky and resolute for half a minute. Then he caved.
"Okay, okay, here's the deal." Jumping up, he dragged a filthy cloth bag out of the deep pocket of his brown, baggy, dirt-crusted dungarees. "Here's sixty-four ounces of dust, all's I got in the wide world. Took me four months to sift and pick and scrounge it outa the river. You take it and tell the Weaver boys you done killed me. Pocket what they give you an' this, too, and ride on. They'll never know, 'cause I don't aim to set foot in Coos County for the rest o' my days, and that's the God's truth."
Jesse caught the bag one-handed. It hefted like about four pounds. Gold was bringing twelve dollars an ounce these days. Twelve times sixteen, two sixes are twelve, carry your one is seven ... Seven hundred and fifty bucks. He didn't bother opening the bag to make sure it wasn't full of sand. In his short but profitable career, nobody had ever stiffed Gault yet, and Shrimp Malone didn't look like the man to start.
Jesse sent him his fiendish, one-eyed glare. "You wouldn't be trying to bribe me, would you, Mr. Malone?"
"What? No, sir! I'd never do nothin' like that."
"I hope not. Because I've got a reputation to uphold."
"Yes, sir. No, this 'ud be like ... like a gift. This little bit o' gold for my life. A trade, like."
He looked thoughtful. "How'll I prove to them you're dead?"
"The Weavers. They'll want proof. What'll I use to convince them?"
Shrimp looked baffled for a second, then crushed. "Aw, shit," he mumbled, digging down in the other pocket and pulling out something gray and nasty-looking. "This here's the onliest thing that'd do it. My lucky pig's ear."
Jesse, who'd been hoping for a watch, took the bristly, petrified ear between two fingers. It appeared to be a hundred years old, so it must be his imagination that it still stank. "If you're trying to birdlime me, Malone—"
"I ain't, I swear I ain't! Anybody who knows me'll tell you, I'd rather die than part with my lucky pig's ear."
Jesse lifted the eyebrow over his good eye.
"Heh heh," Shrimp said nervously. "Leastways, that's what I always use t' say. Ask anybody."
He pretended to think it over while the miner shifted from foot to foot. After a long time he whispered, "I'm in a good mood today. Reckon I'll take you up on your offer, Mr. Malone."
Shrimp's knees almost buckled. "Oh, thank you, Mr. Gault. You won't regret it, I swear."
"I better not."
Excerpted from Outlaw in Paradise by Patricia Gaffney. Copyright © 1997 Patricia Gaffney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jesse Vaughn has adopted the guise of feared gunfighter Jesse Gault and has discovered that he can ride into town and prey upon the minds of the guilty who will pay him not to shoot them. Which is fortunate since he can't hit the broadside of a barn. But he finds himself staying too long in Paradise. He likes the town, the residents and especially the saloon owner Cady McGill. This is a funny warmhearted western romance.
I thought this book was a pretty good read. Very light and enjoyable. Did take a while to get started but I'm glad I stuck with it. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a romance.
Caddie McGill is a saloon owner with big dreams and a bigger heart. For years she has battled the man who wants to control the town, appropriately named Mr. Wyle, for control of her gold mine. Though it has ostensibly played out, it is hers, and she wants to keep it; more importantly, to keep her enemy from having it. However, Caddie is up against a foe who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
Then, notorious gunfighter Jesse Gault enters town. With a legend that proeceeds him, Gault finds that people are willing to do whatever it takes to please him and to keep their lives. Only the lovely saloon owner appears unintimidated by him and the potential danger he poses. Despite this, he is attracted to her. Though she hates to admit it, even to herself, for men have treated her badly all her life, Caddie feels something for Gault. There is much more to this gunfighter than meets the eye, and as he makes a place in the town for himself, Jesse finds his way into Caddie's heart. When his secret is revealed, will he continue to have her love, or even to live?
***** Humor and romance combine to give this novel a touch that is reminescent of the James Garner SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL.... duet of movies. A spunky heroine, ordinary guy hiding behind a larger than life image, colorful townsfolk, and a comedic surprise twist make this a light novel that many will find easily enjoyable, especially when it is spiced up with very hot love scenes. *****
Reviewed by Amanda Killgore.