- 1 -
He had been two years in Mexico, traveling from cantina to cantina playing poker with the vaqueros and the aventureros where he was known among them as El Pistolero, or was sometimes called, jokingly but nonetheless nervously, Señor Muerte. He came north through Chihuahua Province and back into the States through Ciudad Juarez, crossing the Rio Grande and riding into El Paso early in the afternoon.
He had become accustomed to the dust and the heat of Mexico, and Texas was just more of the same, though El Paso, at least, had some trees. Fed by the big river, there were sycamores and elms, and he rode past a park with an expanse of green grass and bushes. Even so, El Paso’s dirt streets had been burned into fine powder by a ferocious sun, and great clouds of the stuff billowed out from under every wheel, smaller puffs cast up by every hoof and boot. The sun baked his skin and put rivulets of sweat through his hair, and dust was in his nostrils as part of the air he breathed. He rode a big chestnut bay stallion and both horse and rider were hot and tired, and made their way slowly into town.
People stopped, individually and in little clusters, to gape at the Yanqui in the colorful serape and wide sombrero as he rode by. Those in groups engaged in lively talk among themselves as he went past, though they all knew, just from the armament he carried, that they didn’t really want to know him any better.
A Greener ten-gauge shotgun, the barrel cropped smoothly and perfectly just past the forestock, hung upright in a fine leather scabbard right of the saddle horn; an 1876 Winchester lever-action .45-75 was strapped diagonally on the left side, and a Sharps long-range Creedmoor lay between the stirrup and saddle blanket under his right leg. Low on his right hip was an ivory-handled .45 caliber Smith and Wesson Schofield. The stubby shotgun and the long, heavy-barreled, .50 caliber Sharps were an unusual and deadly combination, and were, he knew, responsible for most of the chatter. Some, he could tell from the looks on their faces, knew his name.
He rode the dusty street past the mostly adobe buildings until he came to a livery. The entrance was high and wide, and he turned and rode in, ducking his head to narrowly miss the beam. He dismounted onto a hard-baked dirt floor strewn with straw, and swept off the sombrero. He knocked the dust off it on the side of his leg, and tugged at the neck of the serape that draped his shoulders.
It was darker inside, but no cooler. An old Mexican man hurried from one of the dark stalls, a horse comb in one hand.
“Hable Ingles, Viejo?”
“Si. Yes, Sir.”
He handed the old man the reins and then took a pair of sixty-peso gold pieces from his pocket. Handing them to the Mexican, he said, “Rub him down, feed him, water him, give him a clean stall.”
“Ciertamente, Señor,” said the old man, running his eyes over the long rifle with the huge hammer on the side.
“Keep him for me. I don’t know how long.” He put the sombrero back on and cinched the loop under his chin. “But if that dinero runs out I’ll give you more.”
“I understand. That will be fine, Mister.”
He untied a pair of dusty saddlebags and threw them over his right shoulder, then pulled the shotgun out of its scabbard.
“Clean and oil the rifles for me, si?”
Carrying the ten-gauge in his left hand, he walked to the entrance and, standing between shadows and sunlight, he turned to face the old Mexican. “And Viejo?”
“That big bay is my only friend. Make him your friend. Give him the best of everything.” He pulled the sombrero down over his eyes. “Habra algo adicional para su problema cuando yo salga.” There will be something extra for your trouble when I leave. He hoisted the shotgun up onto his shoulder.
The old man had known many dangerous men in his time and didn’t need to be told that this gringo was among them, but he had also worked hard at making money all his life, and he understood the intricacies of commerce; he had quickly sensed that this one would be generous when pleased. He nodded. “It will all be just as you say, Jefe.” He watched the gunman turn and walk into the blinding sunlight, going back down the street the way he had come, the shotgun up on his left shoulder, the saddlebags slung over his right. The smooth black leather of the man’s gunbelt hung low, down beneath the serape of many colors, and his right hand rested comfortably on the ivory grip of the gun that was there.
He checked into the first hotel he came to and promptly paid an extra fifty cents for a bath. The deskman had looked sourly at the weathered serape and sombrero, then his eyes had almost imperceptibly widened when he saw the signature on the register page, and he had deftly spun the big book around and tried to sound casual as he said, An honor to have you with us, Mister Matthews.
In his room, he dropped his saddlebags on the bed and laid the shotgun on a table. From one of the saddlebags he took a change of clothes – a white shirt, a pair of black trousers, a black denim jacket – and laid them out on a chair. The other saddlebag contained assorted boxes of ammunition and gun cleaning oddments as well as a bullet seater, bullet mold, wad cutter and tin of black powder for making his own precision loads for the Sharps; there was a book he was halfway through, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, a small shaving kit, a fresh pack of Steamboat playing cards, and a brown leather shoulder holster in which he sometimes opted to carry the Schofield. He dropped the serape on the floor and tossed the sombrero into a distant corner.
He sat at the table facing the door and positioned the shotgun to one side, close at hand should it be required, then unloaded and began to clean the Schofield. When the big .45 was cleaned and oiled to his satisfaction, he loaded five cylinders and laid it on the table next to the Greener. Then he picked up the shotgun and broke it open; he removed the two ten-gauge shells inside and set to work on it. The shotgun cleaned faster, and when he was done he wiped down his dusty boots.
He shaved and took a bath in a room down the hall and then slept for several hours.
- 2 -
He awoke from a nightmare, a film of sweat on his face and on the back of his neck. One of his personal legion of the dead, a middle-aged Texas drover who had killed a whore in Ellsworth and then fought arrest in Wichita, had glided like an evil wraith from a pitch-black alley and stuck an absurdly giant shotgun in his face. The cowboy’s eyes were insane, his lips pulled back in a horrifying grin, and the jagged hole made by Cole Matthews’ bullet still gaped huge and black in the center of his forehead. The dead whore had materialized from somewhere and wrapped her arms like a tightening shroud around Matthews’ legs. She sank her teeth into one of his knees. He awoke with a silent shriek as the twin tunnels of the shotgun roared orange-red in his face, casting a hideous illumination back on the satisfied expression of the mad drover, and the dead whore began pulling him down... slowly, inexorably down... into the yawning, black, hungry pit of hell...
He found himself sitting up straight on a rumpled bed. He pulled up a corner of the sheet and wiped the sweat from his face, breathing hard, his hands trembling. He swung his legs around and planted his feet on the floor, then sat for a moment with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands and collected himself, shaking the images from his mind. He used the sheet to wipe at the back of his neck and glanced over at the window. It was getting dark outside and the street was noisy. He got up and opened the window to let in some blessedly cooler air and the volume went up on shouts and laughter and at least two pianos and a hurdy-gurdy somewhere down the street.
He poured water out of a pitcher into a basin and splashed it onto his face as he looked into an oval mirror that hung on the wall. Eyes as cold as gunmetal gazed back at him. A wire-thin, quarter-inch scar, the vestige of a long-ago knife cut, lay waxy-smooth across the arch of his left eyebrow. He noted without lament that he was getting gray.
He winced as he put on the clean shirt. Putting his left arm into a shirtsleeve always provoked a little scream from an old shoulder wound, a minie ball he’d stopped at Antietam. Trousers were worse; stepping into a right pants leg, no matter how he angled it, brought a lightning bolt of pain from a thigh bone once broken by a slug from a Winchester .45-70. Then came the pulling on of his boots: first the right, which ignited the shattered femur yet again, then the left, which punched awake a Mexican .36 caliber ball he carried just under his left knee.
There were others. Scars on the back and palm of his left hand showed where a blade had gone clear through. There was still buckshot in his chest from a fight in Wichita, and a bullet directed at his back from an alley in Hays City had lodged so close to the spine that the doctors had declined to take it out; it bothered him, as it was beginning to now, only when it rained.
He strapped on the Schofield. The belt was wide, plain black leather with twenty-four bullet loops, the holster the buscadero style, custom-made for him by a leather craftsman in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He positioned it low on his hip and tied it down just above the knee, which made him an anomaly in a roomful of men with guns high up around their waists, but like the cut of the holster, he favored it for speed, and it added up to nothing less than suicide for the man who tried to match him. A tiny holster custom sewn inside the back of the gunbelt carried a Remington .41 caliber over-and-under derringer; a sheath sewn inside the front of the belt held a short-bladed gambler’s push dagger. The two were virtually invisible. He decided to skip the jacket, not particularly wanting to put his left arm through another sleeve.
Out on the street in front of his hotel, he paused to savor the night. The air was cool because a rainstorm was coming. He could feel it in the throbbing down low in his back, and the rain-smell was strong in the air. The sky was black and without stars, and the night breeze was becoming a light wind. There was a distant clap of thunder to the west, then a slash of lightning in the sky, and he felt the first tiny drops of moisture on his face.
Lanterns were on up and down the street, every window illuminated. El Paso was a bustling town it seemed, with many people on the boardwalks, and even some wagon and carriage traffic at this darkening hour. There were voices and laughter, and after two years among the vaqueros and the banditos, drinking tequila and eating Mexican food and listening to Mexican music, he welcomed the distinct Texian clamor. Most of the noise, as far as he could tell, was coming from a saloon across the street and several doors down to his right, so he headed that way. It might be cooler, he reflected, but it was still dusty. It clouded up onto his freshly cleaned boots as he walked the street.
The saloon was a big, raucous place with shouts and piano music and laughter pouring out. He stood for a moment with his hands resting on a pair of swinging doors and surveyed the scene inside. A roulette wheel dominated the center of the room with a tightly packed bar just beyond, and a faro table was on the right. His eyes scanned the room and then moved back to the faro layout. It was the only empty table in the place, and he thought it passing strange. A faro table was many things: smoky, noisy, jostling, fractious – usually the most crowded table in any saloon – but it wasn’t often he had seen one dead. Odd, he thought again. Just past it was a small dance floor with four or five couples stomping enthusiastically as a bald piano player pounded out one of the songs from the immensely popular The Pirates of Penzance. A crowd of drunks was whooping along...
Pour, Oh pour the pirate sherry
Fill, Oh fill the pirate glass
And, to make us more than merry
Let the pirate bumper pass...
Tables were scattered throughout the place, some occupied by rowdy clusters of drinkers and some offering games of chance, but all of them were packed shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, and the tumult seemed almost a living thing. Only the faro table sat apart, as still and quiet as a grave.
Spotting a poker game with a freshly vacated chair, he pushed on through. It was a corner seat, back to the wall, so he determined to take it. There was a fortune-telling contraption with a mechanical Swami just inside the door as he went in; he made his way around it, between several tables of poker players and past a rowdy crowd that clustered around a ratcheting wheel of fortune. Sitting down, he gave the table a friendly, Good evening, Gentlemen and pulled a sheaf of bills from his shirt pocket. He separated out a wad of peso notes and threw five-hundred dollars American across the table, receiving four stacks of assorted chips in return. A waitress appeared at his side and he asked her to bring him a glass and a bottle of brandy.
Around the table from him were two locals, two cowboys, and the dealer who didn’t play a hand, but took a percentage out of each pot for the house. Picking up the first cards dealt to him, he let his eyes wander the noisy place. There was the usual assortment of cowboys and townsmen and tinhorns, but his gaze stopped in the center of the crowded bar where stood one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. She stood imperiously surveying the room with one elbow up on the bar behind her and a champagne glass in her other hand. Honey blonde hair hung just to her shoulders, and he could tell even across the distance that separated them that the eyes were a deep emerald green. She wore a black dress buttoned to the throat that sleekly hugged her body and subtly played off her golden hair and striking green eyes; the hoop-skirt garments of the dance hall girls were gaudy and tasteless by comparison. A young cowboy standing at the bar next to her leaned in close and spoke something in her ear, and as she laughingly batted his attentions away her gaze brushed on to Coleman Matthews who sat holding his cards, looking back at her. Their eyes met for a tiny, piquant moment in time, and then she swept her attention on past to a grizzled army sergeant who stood drinking on her other side, and she turned and said something to him.
Matthews watched as the cowhand slunk away and the old soldier’s interest was kindled. He put his mind back on the game and tossed in three cards.
When he looked up a while later, she was sitting with a circle of businessmen, plump and prosperous types with cigars and a full decanter of whiskey on the table. There was a burst of laughter all around. She was entertaining them with a story, and they seemed to want only to fill her glass and bask in her tantalizing smile. Another brave cowboy approached from behind her shoulder and she swatted away his invitation to dance. Matthews snorted and shook his head. The little empress, he mused. Holding court. He went back to his cards.
As the evening passed, and the ebb and flow of the poker game allowed, he watched her get tipsier and tipsier as she wandered the place, tossing hearts in the air and knocking them down and nonetheless charming them all with beauty and stories and laughter. No one seemed to mind; they apparently considered the evening hallowed just having her there amongst them. No one except Coleman Matthews, who had had quite his fill of her even from a distance, and who had begun to feel something he thought he never would: sympathy for Texas cowboys.
It proceeded to rain and then rain hard accompanied by great cracks of thunder and bright flashes of lightning, and the cloudburst began to cast a pall on the merriment. One by one, people peeled off, throwing coats over their heads if they had them before braving the storm. There were doors to lock and windows to close and draglines to tend. Even the piano went silent, and there was only the sound of the rain.
Matthews’ table was down to two other players when he heard the piano again, a lovely piece, one he had always been fond of. He looked across the half-empty room to see the tipsy little empress at the keyboard. He tossed his cards in with a look that said, I’m out, and leaned back and listened to her play. The music that drifted across the room was simply beautiful, there was no other way to say it, and it was clear that she was more than just good; her touch was light, her timing impeccable, and somehow – even with a load on – she made the upright bar room knuckle-pounder sound like a concert baby grand. He had never heard anything like it. She played the short piece in its entirety, three or four minutes, the music flowing effortlessly and flawlessly from her fingers, and she brought it to an end with a showy little flourish of the right hand. The assorted drunks remaining gave her whooping applause, and she stood to receive it with a wobbly little bow. She made her way unsteadily back toward the bar.
Matthews put his attention back on the table. One player had left and the other was cashing out. Outside, it was raining hard.
“Cash me in too,” he told the dealer, pushing a pile of chips across the table. When he put his original five-hundred back in his pocket, he had, lying on the table in front of him, three hundred forty-two dollars and a little Colt revolver he had taken from one of the cowboys. He was alone except for the dealer, who was busy clearing the table and racking chips.
A silken voice, slurred and a little husky, came floating across the table. “Let me ask you something.”
He glanced up to see the blonde in the sleek black dress seating herself directly across from him. She had brought a glass of champagne with her, spilling a little of it when she sat down, and the emerald eyes weren’t quite tracking now, but she was looking at him intently, and she was so very beautiful.
“Let me ashk you something,” she said again, more slurry, cocking her head a little to one side. She leaned back in the chair and cupped the champagne glass with both hands. “Don’t you ever smile?”
The dealer briefly stopped what he was doing and looked from the blonde over to the gunman from under his green eyeshade. His thought, shaking his head and giving Matthews a man to man grin, was, I’d trade the rest of my life for one night with that, then he was stopped by the cold, gray eyes. He went back to racking chips.
“Don’t you? Don’t you ever smile?” Her eyes were lidded and heavy.
Matthews leaned back in his chair and studied her. She looked to be about thirty, which would make her ten years or so younger than himself. Up close, there was a sadness deep in the beautiful eyes. Maybe it was just part of a drinking cycle, goodbye euphoria, hello melancholy, but he didn’t really think so. No, this looked like a sadness that went right down to the core and lived there. She suddenly seemed profoundly wistful and vulnerable, and he softened a little. He swallowed a mouthful of brandy.
“It’s been a tough fifteen or twenty years,” he said quietly.
She sat scrutinizing him for a few moments, then she lurched forward, planting her forearms down hard on the felt tabletop. Fixing on him with those intense, beautiful, out of focus eyes, she said softly, “It gets better though, doesn’t it?” Almost a whisper. “It has to get better. Don’t you think?”
She leaned forward a little further and the slight scent of her perfume was wonderful; like the dress she wore, it was subtle and expensive, and his heart, still full of the lonely, violent peculiarity of Mexico, leapt at it. Looking into the saddest and loveliest face he had ever seen, he dredged up a smile from somewhere and said, “The basis of optimism is always sheer terror.”
She blinked and looked confused.
He glanced across the room to the front of the building where a barman was closing windows against the storm. The wind was rising outside and shutters were beginning to pound. He took another sip of the brandy. “Oscar Wilde,” he said, watching the saloon’s front doors tremble and squeak in the wind, and beginning to regret that he hadn’t worn his jacket.
Her expression was thoughtful, but she said nothing.
“Well, anyway,” he said, turning and facing her and putting his glass on the table. “It never really seems to get any better for me.”
She continued to study him for a moment, a little frown on her lips giving her a look both sad and sullen, then she reached for her drink. Raising her glass and looking at him over the top, she said, “There’s not a lot of lying bullshit in you, is there? Good.” She took a sip of the champagne, and then, looking down at the table, her eyes brightened when she saw the little Colt. She put her glass aside and reached for it, then stopped short and looked up at him, her eyes asking, May I?
He was startled by the mood change, and liked the way she sought permission before touching the weapon. A little amused and a little intrigued, he nodded, Sure...
She picked it up and held it in both hands. “How much do you want for it?”
Smiling, he shook his head. Not for sale...
She dropped the little revolver; it made a short trip to the table and landed with a thud. “What’s it to you?” she flared. “You won it, didn’t you? It didn’t cost you anything. And God knows you don’t need it. I count two guns and a knife on you right now!” She finished her drink with an angry gulp, set the glass down hard on the table, and sat glaring at him. “Hell, I heard your horse can hardly walk from the weight of all the damn guns you make him carry. What do you need this little thing for?”
The dealer, having put the table in order, pushed his chair back and stood up to leave. Matthews slid a five dollar half-eagle across the table to him.
“Thank you very much, Sir,” said the dealer with a little two-finger salute to his eyeshade and, after a glance at the blonde, hurried away, leaving them alone at the table.
Cole Matthews gazed down into his glass. “Two guns and a knife. That’s not bad for a drunken little piano player.”
“Oh, I’m a bit more than that,” she said, sounding a little crafty. “You might even be surprised.”
He looked up at her. Two more fast mood changes. And she knew how to be enigmatic, he would give her that. “What do you want it for?”
She turned away and looked across the room. “Just to have,” she said darkly. “Just to carry. What do you care? Forget it.” She sat watching the rain pound one of the far windows.
“Feisty, fiery pouting...” he said, nursing a little smile. “Doesn’t get any cuter than that.” He pushed the Colt across the table. “As for this, it’s already yours, dear, bought and paid for. The Beethoven was exquisite. Thank you. And you’re right, I have no use for the thing. Besides which, I’m sure it fits your hand better than mine.”
She picked up the Colt and a smile lighted her face. “Fur Elise,” she said thickly, looking up at him, holding the revolver in both hands. “Drunken little piano players play simple little songs.”
He nodded at the weapon. “It’s an 1877 Colt Lightning, thirty-eight caliber. Four-and-a-half inch barrel, checkered rosewood grips, weighs eighteen ounces. It’s a double action, which means it’s a self-cocker and fires with every pull of the trigger, but it’s a fragile mechanism and prone to break.”
She turned the revolver in her hands, liking the look and feel of the curved and pointed birdshead grip. Then suddenly, she caught her breath and, in a small voice, she said, “There are two notches carved in the wood, down here at the bottom of the handle.” She looked up at him with wide, little girl eyes.
He smiled. Handle. He took another sip of the brandy and cradled the glass on the table between his two hands. “Better and better. A weapon with character.”
“You do smile,” she said, looking almost surprised, then looked down again at the little Colt. She brought the hammer back one click, flipped open the loading port, and click-click-click-click-click rotated the cylinder. “It’s empty,” she said, sounding a little disappointed.
He leaned back in his chair and watched in silence, glad to see that she knew her way around a loading port. Still holding the revolver in both hands, she gazed down at it for a few moments, then, looking up: “I’m” – a tiny hiccup – “Jenny.”
The words were a tumbler falling into place in his mind. He reached for his glass and leaned back in his chair. His eyes went to the silent faro table, then back to her beautiful face. “Faro Jenny...” he said softly, putting something of, at last we meet, in the words, and he raised his glass in casual toast.
“Don’t call me that,” she said, a dark look moving quickly through her eyes. “I don’t like it.”
“Oh?” he said. “Why’s that?”
“Let’s just say it’s a bit coarse.” Her chin came up and her eyes, as they locked with his, fairly crackled with a willingness to go to war on the subject. “Let’s also say it bears absolutely no relationship to who or what or anything I may actually be.” Period, said the look in her eyes.
He stroked the sides of his glass with his fingertips. Fair enough, he thought, and brought the glass to his lips. “When I was in Fort Laramie, I heard you were in Cheyenne. In Dallas, somebody said you were working the Mississippi.” He took a sip of the brandy and put his glass on the table. “Somebody always has a story about you, but you’ve always been just over the next hill from me.”
“How nice that we finally meet,” she said, scanning the room with a wintry look.
He smiled. “I was beginning to think you didn’t really exist.”
“Right on the first try. I don’t really exist.” She pushed her glass aside. “Not in any way that matters anymore.”
He sat considering that remark for a few moments. “Well, you exist in legend, if nowhere else,” he said finally, a little bitingly. “The beautiful faro dealer with a heart of ice...” He took another sip of the brandy. “You have a reputation, dear.”
She put the butt of the little Colt down on the table and leaned down and rested her chin on the backstrap. She looked up at him from under her eyebrows. “I travel a lot,” she said dismissively, her eyelids getting heavier. “People remember me. You’re famous too, don’t be modest. It was all the talk today about Cole Matthews being in town. Cole Matthews the gunfighter, Cole Matthews the famous lawman...”
He sloshed the brandy around in its glass.
“I even read a book about you once.”
He frowned and looked wary. “Which one?”
She looked thoughtful for a few moments, then closed her eyes. He thought she had fallen asleep with her chin resting on the Colt, but then her eyes popped open and she blurted, “Cole Matthews, Gunfighting Marshal of Wichita; or, Nipping Outlawry in the Bud!” She looked as happy as a little girl to have dredged it up.
He winced and closed his eyes. “Good God,” he groaned, and reached for the bottle. He poured another inch of brandy into his glass.
“Wellll,” she said with a sly little smile full of amusement at his discomfort, “it wasn’t Anna Karenina, but I only paid ten cents for it.” Her chin still rested on the Colt. “So tell me. What sorta money does a person make outta that stuff?”
He snorted and then tossed back a mouthful of brandy. “Damned if I know,” he said, putting his glass on the table. “They may call ‘em dime novels, but I never saw a dime out of one.”
She giggled softly, finding something delicious in that, then closed her eyes again, her breathing slow and heavy. “I was in Deadwood when Wild Bill was there,” she said. She sat perfectly still for a few moments, breathing heavily, then opened her eyes and looked up at him. “He spoke of you.”
He said nothing. The subject was depressing.
“So which one are you?” she asked with another tiny hiccup.
“Gunfighter or lawman? Which?”
“I’m neither one anymore. I’m just a player. Like you.” He lifted his brandy off the table and sat watching her with the glass poised in his hand, and she continued to peer up at him from the perch her chin made on the Colt.
“I doubt that,” she mumbled, closing her eyes again.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I don’t believe being neither one is an option for you anymore. And besides, if you’re neither one, why ride around with half the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal on your saddle?”
He gazed across the room, sloshing the brandy around in his glass, then looked back at her. He was curious about something, and interested in changing the subject as well. “Why faro?”
She opened her eyes. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Poker is a more intelligent game. Why do you deal faro?”
“If I want intelligent, I’ll read Schopenhauer,” she said, a perturbed little furrow between her eyes. “Poker is for people with too much time on their hands. Faro moves fast.” She closed her eyes again. “Not to mention the fact that faro is where the prestige is. Poker dealers are a nickel a dozen, but a faro dealer gets respect.” She breathed deeply and sighed. “And,” she said, after a moment, “the house percentage is a killer.”
He smiled. “I hear you run an honest bank.”
“I can’t abide a thief,” she said, opening her eyes.
He took the measure of that. “Neither can I.”
There was a peal of laughter at a distant table. She sat up in her chair and looked around for a moment. Then, looking straight at Cole Matthews, her chin poised high, she asked, “Do you think I’m beautiful?”
He gazed evenly at her for a few moments, the glass in his hand. “I have some experience with pretty women,” he said.
She looked off across the room. “I’m shocked,” she muttered.
He smiled. “They have, of course, been pretty all their lives. And starting with their fathers and brothers and uncles, men and boys have been doting on them for as long as they can remember. They expect men to make fools of themselves and chase around after them. It’s all they know, and consequently, it means very little to them.” He brought his glass up, looking at her over the top. “I observe that the only way to interest a pretty woman who has taken notice of you, is to take no notice of her.” He finished his drink and laid the glass on the table. “So don’t ask me if I think you’re beautiful.”
She smiled like a green-eyed cat. “Come home with me.”
Matthews pushed his chair back and stood up. He gathered his winnings and stuffed it all into a pocket. “I’ll see you home, Faro Jenny, but I won’t go home with you.” He extended his hand.
She was peeved, not the least at his use again of the nickname she detested, but she took his hand and rose to her feet.
“If I ever see you again, maybe we’ll have dinner or something. Hell, we might even like each other, who knows? But at the moment, dear, you don’t interest me much.”
“Don’t do me any favors, gunfighter,” she grumbled, but she took his arm. She teetered unsteadily for a moment, they took a few steps, and then she stopped, turned around, and picked the little Colt off the table. The room watched as they made their way to the door. “And stop calling me dear,” she muttered.
He smiled. “Do you have a coat or a slicker?”
“Let’s get wet, then” he said, and they pushed through the swinging doors and stepped outside. They were protected from the downpour by a slant roof that overhung the boardwalk, but the night was a deep black, and with the driving rain, he could barely see the lanterns in the windows across the street. A crack of thunder seemed almost to shake the town.
“Over there,” she said dreamily. “And down that way. Hotel. Acrosh the street.”
Keeping his right hand free for the Schofield, he took her by the elbow with his left, and they stepped down off the boardwalk. The rain hit them hard and they were quickly drenched. The dust and dirt of the street had been turned into an inch of mud that squished around their feet. He tightened his hold on her elbow and tried to hurry their journey to the other side.
Then, he saw a flicker of furtive movement in the deepest shadows of the buildings across the street. With his left hand he pushed her a few feet away from him; the Schofield leaped easily into his right. He peered into the dark rain, but could see nothing.
“Whas’ wrong?” she called out.
The flash came first, then the report, then the strike of the bullet, and the sequence seemed almost that slow: a yellow-orange burst in the darkness, a deafening crack, a white-hot sledgehammer blow to his chest. He stumbled backward from the impact, and then came a louder, duller explosion and an even brighter flash of light. He was punched back hard again, stumbled a few more steps, and landed flat on his back in the mud.
He was only barely lucid, but he was aware of the Schofield laying loosely in his hand, and he could feel the rain pelting his face and the mud thickening up behind his neck. Two shooters, he thought, detached and confused, staring up into the pouring black rain. Revolver and shotgun... He felt his breathing slow and weaken; warm, frothy blood gurgled up and covered his lips. Thinking was difficult, sluggish. His chest felt numb and cold, not even part of his body. He was more disoriented than hurting, and on some level he knew that was, itself, a bad sign. He blinked huge raindrops out of his eyes.
The little empress was kneeling in the mud beside him; she had put the palm of one hand on his chest and she was pushing down hard. It didn’t hurt; he barely felt it. There wasn’t really much pain at all, not like when he had taken the leg shot in Wyoming; it was just so damned hard to breathe.
A crowd of gawkers had poured out into the street when the shots were fired and surrounded them now. They milled and shuffled and pointed; one or two bent over for a closer look. They whispered and murmured amongst themselves, but it was all lost to him in the noisy, driving rain. The little empress shouted something at them, but he couldn’t make it out. He heard the word doctor he thought, and when she looked down into his face, he was astonished again by her beauty.
My God, you really are something, Faro Jenny, he told her. Your makeup is running and your golden hair is all wet and stringy now but you couldn’t be more beautiful and think about it, isn’t that a helluva thing, really? Look at you. Here you are in the rain and the mud and the blood, wet as a drowned cat, completely and absolutely beautiful. And never mind about a doctor, I’ll be fine, I just need a little help getting up. It’s hard to breathe, but help me up...
He told her this most earnestly, but as he made no sound, she heard none of it.