Jackson City, Arizona Territory, 1876
Disappointment rolled over her like dark thunderclouds, but sixteen-year old Gabriella Devere refused to acknowledge it. The same stiff smile that had been fixed to her sun-bronzed face throughout the music-playing remained, even as she stood alone at the edge of the outdoor dance area and watched Johnny Anderson, the handsomest boy in school, kick up his heels with Molly Pritchard.
Gabe squeezed her arms tight against her waist and thrust out her bottom lip.
Johnny Anderson was nothing but a scrawny turkey, and she didn’t give a darn who he danced with. Yet she couldn’t tear her gaze from him, and every skip he took vibrated in the pit of her stomach.
Two weeks and five hours ago she had begun to count the minutes until this dance. She had returned home from riding her gray, Maggie, and was walking her into the stables, just as she’d done day after day, year after year.
She had been looking back at Maggie, pulling the mare’s head around, and giving her a tug as she’d reached out blindly to open the stable door, only to find that it had been opened for her. Standing inside, smiling at her, was Johnny Anderson. He was tall and thin with light brown hair. The sleeves of his shirt seemed to have too much material in width and too little in length because skinny brown arms jutted out from the ends of the cuff.
"Hi, there," he said.
Her eyebrows popped up high in surprise, and her heart fluttered strangely. His eyes had a sparkle to them, and his teeth, she noticed when he smiled, were pearly white. "Nice mare, you got," he added. She felt herself go hot and cold, and her tongue seemed to choose that very moment to attach itself securely to the roof of her mouth.
"I’m all set, Johnny!" Her brother Chad barreled out of the stable leading his gelding. Chad’s hair was black, his skin tanned a golden hue. Gabe knew the older girls whispered about his being handsome. She couldn’t see it. Especially not when he stood beside Johnny Anderson. "Gabe, get out of the way!"
She stepped back. "Where’re you going?"
"Quail-hunting." They mounted their horses and started toward the road. "Be back at dinner."
"Can I come?" She chased after them, unsure where she found the boldness to ask to go anywhere with Johnny Anderson.
Her brother laughed and waved her off as he broke into a canter. Johnny smiled and shrugged. She watched until the two boys disappeared at the bend in the road.
Her breath was short, her head giddy, all because of Johnny Anderson’s smile.
Now, she stood at a section of the dusty street just past the church where the edge of the town met the desert had been roped off for the dance. Tables filled with canned peach and custard pies, prickly pear candy, plum preserves, molasses and sugar cookies, lemon punch, and apple cider were set up along one edge, and near them, on a raised platform, four fiddlers played. Paper lanterns ringed the area, casting a warm, festive glow into the summer night.
Gabe was certain Johnny would ask her to dance soon. The excitement, the anticipation that had seized her when she awoke that morning continued to course through her. Finally, Jackson City was holding a dance she had looked forward to instead of wanting to avoid. Finally, she would have a chance to talk to, and dance with, Johnny Anderson.
Jess McLowry pushed open the slatted wooden half-doors of the Red Lizard. He needed a bottle of Jim Beam, a high-stakes game of five-card stud, and an accommodating woman. Eventually he might eat, but he was a man who kept his priorities straight.
A plank oak bar stretched along one wall, gleaming like a snake caught in a hailstorm. A white-haired, ruddy-faced prospector stood at one end, his clothes baggy and his skin powdered with rock dust. Shaky hands gripped a shot glass, and the old codger seemed to be concentrating hard to aim it at his mouth. Behind the bar, over rows of liquor bottles and beer kegs, a gilt-framed portrait of a bare-assed woman smiled onto the room. She was the liveliest thing in it.
Wooden tables with empty chairs filled the space between the bar and the opposite wall. No hurdie-gurdie music. No cards. No women. Not even a raucous crew of drunken cowhands.
The barkeep, a balding man with reddened skin and a bulbous stomach squared his shoulders and nodded a quick, cautious greeting. His gaze darted from McLowry’s tied down holster, to his black satin vest, to his butter smooth black walking boots.
McLowry moved with a deceptively slow and easy stride. He plunked a gold dollar on the bar. Hard blue eyes scanned the liquor bottles. There wasn’t a label in sight. "Whiskey." He watched as it was poured. The moonshine was raw and harsh, but he drank it down fast, needing to wash away the sour taste of his last job. He was a hired gun. He had learned one thing long ago about his kind of work, the men hiring him were every bit as bad as the ones he was paid to fight against. The only difference was that they were rich bastards instead of poor ones.
The barkeep wiped down the bar over and over with a blue-checkered cloth, not that it was wet or dirty, but as a means to give him something to do while keeping an eye on McLowry.
"This place looks like a morgue." McLowry pushed his empty glass forward.
"Town dance down the street. Regular customers are all there." Tossing the cloth over his shoulder, the barkeep poured another drink. "This isn’t the kind of town you’d be interested in anyway, gunfighter. You might think about moving on." He stepped back quickly, as if ready to duck if the man before him took offense at the suggestion.
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