1870 - Winter - Idaho Territory
He was going to die. Tristan knew it the moment he heard the gun hammer being pulled back. Sweat broke out on his brow. Things were about to get ugly as sin and there wasn't anything he could do about it. Lifting his gaze, he stared at the man across the table. Just his luck he’d find another sore loser.
A glance down at his cards and he wondered if it was worth it. He smiled to himself when he saw his hand. It was. He drummed one finger on the table and reached for his chips, tossed in half of what he had and ignored the whispered comments. Let them think him stupid. He bit his tongue, staring without blinking at the man in front of him and discreetly lowered his left arm, his fingers twitching beside the holster at his hip.
The man grinned at him and leaned back in his seat. “I know what you’re doin’ boy, and it aint gonna work.”
Tristan didn’t say anything. He stared the man in the eye and waited, tuning out the commotion inside the small saloon. The tinny piano-music filled the room with a lively atmosphere and the melody joined the ruckus of laughter, feminine squeals from the girls in their colorful dresses and the occasional shout from someone about to come face to fist with another sore loser.
The game started like any other, with a mix of ranchers, cowpokes and those thinking they were lucky enough to hit it big. Tristan knew they weren’t. He’d been playing since he was old enough to hold cards and luck had nothing to do with it.
He knew every nuance the players made, how to read their body language, their facial expressions, and knew when to keep playing and when to fold. This guy, the one across the table from him, had to be the easiest he’d ever read.
His every move was written across his face. His eyes were too bright, he licked his lips anxiously and his gaze kept flicking from his cards to the chips scattered across the table. He had a good hand, whatever it was, but it wasn’t as good as his.
He eyed the man again. He was sweating, now. Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead and he licked his lips as he studied his cards before glancing at the chips. Tristan looked too. It was enough cash to choke his horse and his insides were a bundle of knots. If he won this hand, it would be his single biggest win, ever.
“All or nothing?” The man looked up with wide eyes. He produced a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, opened it and laid it on top of the chips littering the table. “A piece of property sweeter than a young virgin's tits. You in or out?”
Tristan craned his neck to look at the paper. It was a property deed, one hundred acres of wooded Idaho soil. He had no use for that but the chips under the deed could set him up for a good long time. He looked at his remaining chips. It was an obscene amount of money but it was easy to replace. If he backed out now, he’d look a right coward, and there wasn’t an Avery in history who could be tagged with that moniker.
Besides, his hand couldn’t be beat.
He pushed the remainder of his chips in and inclined his head. “Show me what you’ve got, ole’ timer.”
The man laughed and slung his cards down on the table. He was holding a straight, just as Tristan thought he was, and he tipped his head forward, acknowledging the hand. He watched the old man laugh, heard the others gathered around the table congratulate him before the man reached for the pile of chips on the table, his arms surrounding the bundle, the chips making a soft tinkling sound as the man started dragging them toward him.
Tristan laid his cards down. “Not so fast, old man.”
The silence that followed caused the hair on the back of Tristan's neck to stand on end. He thumbed the strap holding his pistol in the holster loose and waited, his fingers twitching. When the old man looked up, his face red and splotchy, Tristan saw a vein bulge in his forehead.
“A royal flush?” The man stood, his chair falling backwards to slam into the floor. He looked up, those wide, drunken eyes bloodshot and filled with fury. “You cheatin' little piece of shit!”
He reached for the gun hanging near his hip and Tristan pulled his and leveled the barrel with the man’s chest. “Don’t do it, old man.” He eyed the furious man across the table and wondered just how far he'd get with his winnings before he was shot in the back. He didn't wait around to find out. The mingled whispers grew in volume as he collected his winnings and cashed out, leaving the saloon at a fast clip.
The street was dark and his booted feet made a loud pop across the wooden sidewalk. The occasional shout echoed across the street from the many gaming and whorehouses lining both sides of the road and Tristan let his gaze roam in every direction. When the hotel came into view, the relief he felt was almost orgasmic.
It was short lived. He heard someone behind him a moment later, their boots hitting the wooden sidewalk with a soft thump. Tristan laid his left hand on the butt of his pistol. The urge to turn around and look behind him was strong but he resisted.
The alley up ahead was dark with shadows. His heart raced as he quickened his steps, ducking between the buildings. He readjusted his hat, pulled the pistol and waited.
It took only seconds for the drunken man to reach him. When Tristan saw him round the corner, he lashed out, smashing his fist into the side of the man's head. The drunk staggered, fell back into the wooden crates lining the building opposite him and everything seemed to go in slow motion then. The flare of light caused Tristan to blink, the red and blue flash was followed by an ear piercing ringing inside his head as the old man took a shot at him. Tristan reacted without pause, lifting his colt and pulling the trigger.
He didn't miss.
The old man went down, his gurgled breath wheezed out with a bloody cough and Tristan didn't wait around to see if the old man was dead. He turned, stepped back onto the sidewalk and walked quickly to the hotel.
Ten high-stakes games and two deaths in one month. That was enough trouble to last him a lifetime. He glanced behind him, nervously waiting for someone to yell about the shooting and knew he needed to lie low for a while, let his name die on the lips of those he’d bled dry. His mind swirled with possibilities of where he could go. None of them appealed to him. There was only one place he could get as far away from the gambling scene as he needed to.
He crossed the street, his thoughts on Willow Creek and saw movement in the darkened alley between the hotel and general store. He slowed his steps, laid his left hand on the revolver at his hip and crossed in front of the alley cautiously. He saw nothing and realized he was still nervous. His insides were jumpy and he was seeing things.
Walking quicker, he entered the hotel, jogged up the steps and walked to his room without slowing. Once inside his room, he sighed in relief.
He rubbed his face, felt the grime of sweat on his brow and let out a weary sigh before walking across the room to sit down. He took several long breaths and tried to calm his racing heart. It took longer than it should have but when he could breathe normally again, the enormity of what he’d just done tore a laugh from him. “Son of a bitch.”
Reaching into his pockets for the money, he grinned when he saw it. The land deed fell out with it and he picked it up, looking it over. One hundred acres. What in the world was he going to do with land in Idaho? He laughed. Life just got sweeter every damn day.
He stared at the deed, his mind rolling over the possibilities before he realized he could sell it. Of course, it could be a worthless piece of land no one would ever want. Might have been why the old man threw it into the pot. He’d have to take a look at it to know.
Staring at the deed, he was taken back to the alley and the old man he'd shot. His joy at winning dimmed. He sighed. Tonight’s game was the second that month that had ended in bloodshed. Luckily for him, both times had seen him walking away, but he wasn’t fool enough to think it would always be that way. One of these nights, someone would be faster and he’d be dead. Or caught and hung for murdering those stupid enough to pull their gun on him.
He tossed the money, and the deed aside, laid back across the bed and stared up at the ceiling. He felt old all of a sudden. He didn’t think being twenty-six would make a person feel like they’d lived half their life already but for some reason, he did. And he still had things to do before he met his maker. He wanted to see his family again. Check on his pa to see if he’d ever got better. Travel a bit and meet a nice girl. Maybe settle down someday and have a few babies. He laughed. “Nah.”
Sitting up he pulled off his coat and vest, draped them across the foot of the bed and took his boots off. He needed to leave first thing in the morning. The less he saw of this town the better.
He picked up his winnings, his gaze falling on the land deed again. He needed to see that property he now owned, too. He’d find out where it was and swing by on his way out of town. At least he’d have something to show his brothers when he got back home. Lord knew they wouldn’t be happy to see him.
* * * *
The room was lit in filtered moonlight. Emmaline hurried inside, shutting the door behind her. She waited until her eyes adjusted then turned, faced the bed, and looked at the man lying there. He appeared to be naked, the sheet bunched low around his hips gave her a faint glimpse of a taunt stomach. His chest and face was bathed in shadow and she stood for long minutes, just staring, before she took a step.
The floor creaked under her feet and she stilled, her gaze searching and finding the face of the sleeping man. He didn’t move. She crept closer to the bed, looking at the top of the table next to it. It was empty.
Turning her head, she searched the room, looking for anything he might conceal his belongings in. She spotted it a few moments later. A large carpetbag on the chair by the window. She crossed the room, pulled the flap and peered inside.
The usual traveling accessories were there. Clothes, a shaving kit, a few letters. She dug her hand deeper, searching for his purse and clenched her jaw when she found nothing but a small bottle rattling around in the bottom of the bag.
“Looking for this?”
She froze, her eyes wide as she stared at the wall in front of her. The clicking of a gun hammer being pulled back echoed in the silence a moment later. She swallowed the lump forming in her throat and let go of the bag.
“Turn around. Slowly.”
Inhaling a calming breath, she turned, lifting her gaze to his face.
He bared his teeth, the whiteness gleaming in the moonlight shining through the window, and crossed his free arm over his chest. “Please, do tell me what you’re doing in my room? More precisely, why you’d be stupid enough to try and rob me?” When she didn’t answer, he scowled. “And make it quick. I've little patience this evening.”
She glanced at the door before flicking her gaze back to him. He was naked, she noticed. Standing in a stream of moonlight she could see him clearly and the man certainly had nothing to be ashamed of. Her gaze ran over him from his toned thighs to his face. He was watching her and she wondered if she could make it to the door before he could. Or if he’d shoot her for trying.
“I don’t have all night, son, so spit it out.”
Emmaline bit her lip. He thought she was a boy. She nearly sighed in relief. If she made it out of the hotel, he’d send the sheriff 'round looking for a man, not a woman. She eyed the door again and balled her fist. The small bottle was still in her hand. She clenched her fingers around it, once, and then tossed it to the left. When he looked, she ran.
He yelled, his heavy footfalls smacking the floor as he chased her. She made it to the door, her fingers grappling for the handle seconds before he wrapped his arms around her waist and they both crashed into the floor. “Get off me!” Emmaline kicked, clawed and raised her head, clamping down on his shoulder with her teeth. He threw his head back and yelled before raising the gun and laid the barrel against her forehead. She froze.
“You move another muscle and I’ll blow your face off.”
Emmaline didn’t even attempt to breathe. She stared up at him, her lungs aching for air, and was dizzy by the time he moved.
He sat up, balled his fist around the front of her shirt and stood, dragging her off the floor before slamming her into the wall. He raised the gun again, leveling it with her face and lifted her until her toes were dangling above the ground. “Let’s try this again,” he said. “Who are you and what are you looking for?”
She was going to be sick. Emmaline swallowed the bile rising into her throat and licked her lips. He was bathed in shadows again but she’d seen him through the saloon windows and knew, those blue eyes were probably dancing with fury. He gave her a small shake and her head bounced off the wall. Emmaline willed herself not to cry as her hands started to shake. “I just want what’s mine.”
He blinked and tilted his head to one side. “And what exactly do I have that belongs to you?”
Emmaline tilted her chin and stared him in the eye. “The land deed. It’s mine and I want it back.”
He stared at her for long moments, the hand he had twisted in the fabric of her shirt loosened before he lowered her back to the ground. When her feet were on the floor, she raised her head up so she could see him. He was tall, the top of her head only reaching his chest.
The gun wavered. He stared down at her, squinting before he took a step back. His gaze roamed her from head to toe before he reached out and jerked the hat off her head. “Son of a bitch.”
Emmaline kept her chin lifted and hardened her gaze as she reached for her braid and flung it over her shoulder.
“You’re a girl?”
“I’m a woman, thank you very much.” She straightened her shirt and met his gaze. “And I’d be obliged if you’d get that gun out of my face.”
He glanced down at the colt, lowered the gun before thinking better of it and raising it again. “Who are you?”
“Where’s the land deed?”
“I’m the one asking questions here. Who are you?”
Emmaline stared at him and crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m the stepdaughter of the man you killed tonight and I want my damn land deed.”
He gaped at her, whether it was because of her language or her harsh demand, she didn't know, but he lowered the gun and opened his mouth as if to speak but shut it with a snap. He scratched the side of his head before his lips formed a thin, angry line. “I won that deed fair and square. I’m sorry about your father but you’re not getting the land back.”
If she didn’t unclench her jaw, she’d break her teeth. Emmaline bit down harder and counted to ten in her head and released the pressure, staring up at him and wishing she’d had the sense enough to conk him over the head with something when she entered the room. “It wasn’t his to gamble away. It was mine and I want it back.”
“Not going to happen.” He crossed his arms over his chest and threw her an infuriating smile. “The game was fair. He offered the deed and he lost. The land is now mine. And you, whoever you are, will just have to accept that.”
“I’ll have you arrested for murder.”
The man laughed. “Go ahead. Tell me your name while you're at it. I’ll be needing it when the sheriff gets here to arrest you for attempted robbery.”
Emmaline felt so defeated her chest ached with it. What conscience this man had obviously wasn’t tortured by the fact he’d killed someone. She’d watched him through the window at the saloon, saw how confident he looked and knew just from a glance he was a professional gambler. There was just something about them. It was in the set of their shoulders, the way they carried themselves. The smug look on their face as if the entire world was theirs for the taking and this man was no different. He towered over her and demanded answers he thought he deserved. He wouldn’t get them. She’d die before she told him her name.
Glancing at the door out of the corner of her eye, she made a quick lunge for it but held her ground, waiting. When he made a move toward her, she kicked out a leg, her knee catching him the groin. He yelled, lowered both hands to cup his groin and hit his knees in agony.
Emmaline turned and ran, scrambled for the door handle and was able to get it open moments before he grabbed her ankle. She shrieked, kicked out again and planted the toe of her shoe to the side of his head. When he fell, she ran, racing out the door and down the hall and didn’t stop running until she was clear on the other side of town.
She stopped when she reached the tree line and heaved in deep breaths of air, watching the main road. He never came after her. When her heart stopped racing, she turned and started making her way home. She’d have to think of something else. She had to get that land deed back, even if that meant tailing that gambler clean across the country. Her future lay on that land and she wasn’t letting it go without a fight.
* * * *
Emmaline lifted the shotgun and pulled back the hammer. She sighted in on the stranger riding up the road and waited until she knew he was within hitting distance. She pulled the trigger and grinned when he ducked, his horse dancing underneath him enough to knock him from the saddle to end up sprawled on the ground. He cursed as the horse ran a few feet away and Emmaline sighted on him again and waited.
He stood, dusted off his pants with his hat and turned toward the cabin. One look at him and she knew it was the gambler from last night. Butterflies started dancing in her stomach. What did he want? She waited, watching him take a few steps closer and aimed for a spot by his head and pulled the trigger again. He shouted, ducked and hunkered low to the ground.
“Stop your damn shooting!”
Holding his hands up as if to surrender, Emmaline lowered the barrel an inch. “State your business.”
He straightened and reached into his coat pocket. Emmaline lifted the gun again. “Hang on a minute,” he said. “I’ve got the deed to this property.” He waved it in the air and took a few more steps closer.
Emmaline let him get close enough to see his face. He was handsome and his clothes told her he had enough money to buy the place three times over. His brocade vest was a rich purple in color, shot with gold threads throughout, his black jacket tailored. His hair was blonde and cut short, which was unusual for these parts, and she was sure he was up to something. After their encounter last night, him riding out here to give her the deed back was too ridiculous to think. “That’s close enough, mister.”
He stopped, repositioned his hat on his head, and tossed her a smile she was sure was supposed to flatter her. It didn’t.
Glancing down at the paper in his hand for a brief moment, he looked at the cabin and the surrounding forest. “This is the Hunt place, right?” He stared at her, his head tilting just a fraction before his brows lowered. “Are you the girl from last night?”
Emmaline raised the gun again. “Unless you’re here to give me the deed, you’ve no business here. Now either hand it over or go grab that horse and get back on it.”
The man grinned and lifted his hand, the paper he held blowing in the breeze. “Can’t do that, Ma’am. According to this piece of paper, you’re standing on my property. If anyone should leave, it would have to be you.”
“I can make you leave.”
He smiled and tucked the deed back into his jacket pocket. “And I’ll go get the sheriff and have you hauled out of here like an unwanted squatter.”
She huffed out a frustrated breath, glared at him for a full minute and turned, walked back inside the cabin, and slammed the door behind her.
Emmaline placed the gun back on the shelf and walked to the stove, laying her hands over the top to warm them. The old hunk of iron was barely throwing off heat but compared to the brisk wind outside, it felt like heaven.
Her thoughts were a tangle of what ifs. The man outside wouldn’t be here if he didn’t want the land and her situation had turned from bad to worse. She should have known Harold would eventually ruin them beyond repair and now that he had, knowing she’d been right, it left a bad taste in her mouth.
The rumbling of her stomach echoed in the room and the tears she’d been fighting rolled down her cheeks. She swiped at them angrily, refusing to be beaten, once again, by her idiotic stepfather’s choices. He’d been a careless bum his whole life and she’d forgiven him one time too many. Not this time. She’d never forgive him for leaving her homeless. She couldn’t.
Hearing the door to the cabin open, she wiped away the rest of the tears and stared at the wall. “I don’t recall inviting you in.”
“Well, legally, it's my cabin so I don’t need your permission. You are officially trespassing and unless we can come to some sort of agreement…”
She whirled and locked eyes with him. “Evicting me already? Such a gentleman. I bet the ladies just fall at your feet with such sweet talk.”
He grinned and she tried to ignore the dimple in his cheek or how much younger he looked in the bright light of day. He couldn’t have been more than a couple years older than she was. And he was even more handsome up close. His eyes were bluer than they appeared in the saloon and his fancy clothes and fresh barbered look appealed to her. She scowled when she realized she was looking at him as any woman would a man she found attractive and reminded herself he was a lying, cheating, murdering dog. “Get out.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the door, his smile widening. “Make me.”
* * * *
Tristan didn’t know a thing about this girl, other than the man he’d shot the night before was her stepfather and she was brave enough to sneak into his room to rob him, but he liked her. She had more gumption than most men he knew and the fire in her eyes was a welcome change from all the doe-eyed looks women usually gave him.
He looked around the inside of the cabin and was confused. She was fighting to keep this? The cabin was one room, drafty, the light from outside seen through almost every board and the floor was nothing more than hard-packed dirt covered in ratty braided rugs. A small bed was against the right hand wall, the blankets thin and threadbare. A potbelly stove sat in the center of the room, a small shelf beside it housing a few pots and bowls. A small table with one chair took up the left hand wall. Pegs on the walls showed a few articles of clothing and that was it. Nothing else. It was as barren and gloomy as an outhouse. Smelled like one too. And this girl lived here?
Removing his hat, he turned his head to look at her and ran a hand through his hair. “Look, I’m really sorry I shot your pa. It all happened so fast. I…”
“He was my stepfather and don’t apologize for him.” She shifted her weight to one foot and Tristan gave her a good look. She was thin, pale, and the dress she wore should have been used for cleaning rags a long time ago. Her hair was braided, the dark brunette strands hanging all the way to her hips. Her brown eyes were large and seemed too big for her dainty features.
He blinked and focused back on their conversation. “I wasn’t. I just hate it happened the way it did.”
She shrugged one shoulder. “Bound to happen eventually.” She ran her gaze over him from head to toe before looking back up. The look in her eyes hardened and he saw the contempt aimed at him. “So, what is it you want, Mr….?”
“Avery. Tristan Avery.”
“Mr. Avery. Why are you here?”
Tristan patted the front of his jacket where she'd seen him tuck the land deed. “I came to see what I’d won. That’s all.”
She laughed but there wasn’t anything humorous in the sound. “You won a hundred acres of trees and soil that won’t grow grass.” She looked around the cabin and held out her arm in a sweeping motion. “And this fabulous cabin. Congratulations, Mr. Avery. What will you do with it all?”
Her sarcasm was noted but Tristan couldn’t really blame her. She’d just been told she no longer owned her property and someone she cared for was dead.
His mind snagged on that last bit as he looked at her and he noticed the dark shadows under her eyes, her dry lips, the shabby clothes and her spindly limbs. This girl had a rough life. It made the money in his pocket feel like a steel rod weighing him down. Something pulled in his chest and guilt rushed through his system. He’d killed someone she depended on. The knowledge caused his stomach to ache.
What was he to do now? He owned this property outright and a small voice in the back of his mind whispered that she was his responsibility too. He won that position when he killed her stepfather and became the new owner of the land. He’d thought to sell the property but looking at her, he knew he couldn’t do it. How could he and sleep at night knowing he’d truly left her homeless?
Damn it all to hell. Why did life always have to sucker-punch him when things were going his way?