Gunslinger: A Six Guns and Prairie Roses Novel, page 1
Copyright© 2019 Cynthia Breeding
Cover Design Livia Reasoner
Prairie Rose Publications
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
San Francisco, 1869
Abigail Clayton stepped onto the Long Wharf platform and brushed flecks of cinder off the shoulder of her pelisse as she tried not to choke on the sooty smoke spewing from the locomotive’s stack.
Criminy. The train journey from New York had been an exhausting eight days even though the conductors bragged about the speed of the latest engine. Her bones had been rattled by the clanking of iron wheels on metal tracks, her teeth practically jarred loose, and every muscle ached. All Abby wanted was a hot bath and a real bed instead of a hard bench for a berth.
But first, she needed to find her husband…if only she knew what he looked like.
Opening her reticule, she took out two pieces of paper and carefully unfolded them. The one was her marriage-by-proxy which had been quickly signed by a magistrate in the Bowery with two strangers for witnesses. The other was the reply she’d received when she answered an ad for a mail-order bride to come West.
My dearest Miss Clayton,
I hope I may call you ‘my dearest’ since I pray that you will do me the honor of becoming my wife. Although I am quite the successful entrepreneur—I own a general store that profits nicely from both miners and the local population—I find that I am quite lonely. Virtuous, demure, and refined young ladies are in short supply here. I am sure we will suit quite nicely. I look forward to greeting you at the train station.
Your future grateful companion forever,
Abby repressed a very unladylike snort. She was none of those things. She may have hedged a bit in her response to the ad. Oh, her physical virtue was intact, but growing up in a tenement with no father and a mother who took in laundry before she died two years ago didn’t lend itself to being refined. Or demure, although she supposed she could thank her natural inquisitiveness for catching the attention of the Sisters of Mercy who ministered to the poor. They’d seen to it that she and her brother, Ben, had an education.
For all the good it did. Ben was currently serving a sentence for robbery. She’d almost been caught too, which was part of the reason she was here.
This was going to be a new life. A new beginning.
Abby collected her valise that the porter had set down and looked around. One man standing a short distance away caught her attention. He was tall and dressed completely in black, his frockcoat molded to his broad shoulders like a second skin, with a wicked-looked revolver strapped to a muscular thigh. His hair was as black as his clothes and a subtle shadow darkened his jaw, but it was his eyes that struck her. They were the color of whiskey, and penetrating as a wolf’s. For a moment, their gazes held. Then he turned and walked away.
Abby released the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. Of course, that man would not be her husband. When Travis had sent the bank check to pay for her transportation, he’d described himself as medium height with blond hair and blue eyes, the same coloring that she had.
There were no blond men on the platform.
Sighing, she walked to the small ticket station at the end of the wharf. She had long ago learned not to count on a man being reliable—the man who’d sired her had been proof of that—but she had hoped that someone who wanted to marry might be different.
“I was supposed to meet someone. Is there is a message for a Miss Abigail Clayton?” she asked the young man at the counter.
He shuffled through some papers and then shook his head. “No message, miss.”
This was not a good start. “Where can I hire a hack then? I need to go to Sayer’s General Store.”
“The hacks are…” The boy stopped. “Did you say Sayer’s General Store?”
“Yes. Is it far?”
“Not far.” The boy paused again. “Is it Travis Sayer you’re expectin’ to meet?”
Suddenly, her nape began to tingle like it did when she sensed something was very wrong. “Yes. Why?”
He hesitated once more. “There was a brawl in front of McGiver’s saloon a couple of weeks ago…well, it turned into a brawl after Mr. Sayer shot a wh…a woman.”
Abby shook her head, sure she hadn’t heard correctly. “My hus—Mr. Sayer shot a woman?”
“One of them painted ones from the dance hall next door. He claimed he’d paid for her company and she didn’t want to…” The boy’s face turned red. “…do her part.”
Abby didn’t have to ask what that meant. She’d nearly been forced into the same occupation herself after Ben got arrested. “So, what happened then?”
“I heard he grabbed her by the hair and started pulling her down the street. She fought, and he pulled his gun.”
This was just getting worse. Her intended—Hellfire. Her husband—had obviously not been waiting with bated breath for his wife, but he’d also shot a woman who couldn’t defend herself. She took a deep breath. “Did he kill her?”
“No. Just an arm wound.”
Just. Abby sighed. “I assume I need to take a hack to the local jail then.”
The boy looked down. “That won’t do you no good.”
“Why not?” Her nape tingled again. “Did the constable not arrest him?”
“There weren’t no need. Someone in the crowd shot him.” The boy looked up. “Mr. Sayer’s dead.”
By the devil’s own horns, he hadn’t expected Abigail Clayton to be so beautiful. The information he’d gotten on Sayer’s new bride hadn’t said much. Luke Cameron narrowed his gaze at the woman who’d just stepped off the train. She wore no bonnet, and the sun made her golden hair glow like a halo, brightening her eyes to the deep blue of the Pacific. She had the face of an angel, softly rounded with a pert nose. Not that Luke had any experience with angels. Gunslingers rarely did. But…he studied her face again. Her mouth was definitely not angelic. The full lips, right now gathered in a pout, begged to be kissed. He pushed the thought away. He was here to see who would come for her now that Sayer was dead.
He hadn’t meant to kill Sayer, just shoot the gun out of his hand so he couldn’t do any more harm than he already had. But the brawl had started so suddenly that he’d been jostled just as he squeezed the trigger. Damnation. He’d needed the man alive to collect the money Sayer had swindled from several elderly ladies, including his grandmother.
The blonde picked up her valise and looked around. For a moment their eyes met, and Luke felt a strange sensation sizzle through him. Something akin to the primal feeling he got when he picked up the trail of whichever fugitive he’d been tracking. Similar, but not the same.
Abruptly, he turned and left. It would be safer to observe from afar.
She wasn’t a fugitive, of course, but he hoped she’d be the bait that would lure Sayer’s unnamed accomplice in his deceptive schemes to separate unsuspecting souls from their money. That was why he was here. It would be better if Miss Clayton weren’t involved at all and just went quietly home.
His connections at Pinkerton’s—who hired his fast gun at times—had
Luke walked toward the ships’ dock where several doxies already lined the pier waiting for sailors to disembark. From there, he could appear to mingle while keeping an eye on newly arrived widow.
“Ya sure dun’t look like a sailor-boy.” One of the women with kohl-lined eyes winked at him. “No’ that I mind.”
“Ya look like a right-fine gent,” said a woman who had the strangest color of red hair he’d ever seen. “I know how to treat a gent.”
Another woman looked at the six-gun strapped to his leg and then gave him a leering grin. “Is your other weapon as big?”
He smiled as he sidestepped her hand reaching for him and fished three silver coins out of his pocket. “No need to work today, ladies, although I appreciate your efforts.”
They snatched the money with looks of awe. “He really is a gent,” he heard one of them say as they scurried away, probably fearful he’d change his mind.
He gazed after them for a moment. He’d heard of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast long before he’d crossed the California border following Sayer. The three-block stretch of Pacific Street between Montgomery and Stockton had as many brothels as it did saloons, both of which were usually overflowing with miners carrying a bit of gold dust in leather pouches. But the more savvy prostitutes knew sailors coming ashore after weeks or months at sea had their entire wages in their pockets.
He doubted any of them actually enjoyed what they did. That was one reason he preferred widows who liked their independence but missed the pleasures of bed sport. And thinking of widows…
Luke turned his attention back to Abigail Clayton who was now at the row of hired hacks. Apparently, the accomplice was not about to make himself known. Luke sighed as the driver snapped the reins and the carriage moved away. He was going to have to make the acquaintance of Abigail Clayton after all.
As Abby stepped through the doorway of Sayer’s General Store, various smells assailed her. To her left, the tanginess of brine in a pickle barrel, the sharpness of a cheese wheel on a board covered with a linen, the sweetness of a molasses jar left open, the aroma of coffee beans, and the earthiness of root vegetables in bushel baskets on the floor. To her right, the mustiness of coiled hemp rope as well as the subtler scent of leather boots and bridles. Walking further inside, she gazed around. A variety of axes, hammers, shovels and tin pans were stacked along the left wall and, toward the back, tables with bolts of cloth and a wooden rack with ready-made clothing.
All in all, a very good inventory. The seed of an idea that had come to her on the carriage ride from the train station began to take root.
“Help you find something, miss?”
She turned as a middle-aged man came from behind the counter that was just to the right of the door. She hadn’t noticed him when she entered, but then there was nothing really remarkable about him. Of medium height, neither fat nor skinny, he had brown hair and a pleasant-looking face.
“Are you the manager?”
“I tend the shop. The name’s John.” He puffed up a bit. “I’m fixin’ to buy the place now that Sayer’s dead.”
Abby bit back a retort that he would be doing no such thing. At least, not yet. But growing up in the Bowery had taught her not to act rashly. “The property is for sale?”
“It will be. I started tending the store two years ago, then when old man Bronson died last year—this used to be Bronson’s General Store—and Mr. Sayer bought it, I stayed on. Turns a right-good profit.”
That was excellent news. Her idea to keep the place was fast congealing. She looked around again. “I can see that it would. Did Mr. Sayer not have any relatives who might be interested in keeping it?”
John shook his head. “He’d sent off for one of them mail-order brides, but after he got shot I wrote her telling her not to come.”
A letter she’d not gotten since she had already left. Perhaps it was time to break the news. “I’m afraid that letter arrived too late.”
The man looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“I’m the mail-order bride.”
Surprise flitted across his face. “You don’t say! I reckon you made the long trip for nothing. I can recommend a boarding house if you’re wantin’ to rest for a day or two before going back.”
“That is kind of you, but I won’t be returning East.”
His features shifted subtly. Most people wouldn’t have noticed, but she hadn’t survived the streets of New York without being observant. He was wary. Perhaps he had cause to be, given what she was about to say. Abby gave him a benign smile.
“I am planning to run the store myself.”
His brows rose. “You?”
She nodded. “Women can hold property in their own names these days.”
“Yes, but aren’t you forgetting something?”
“What would that be?”
“You were only fixin’ to marry Sayer. So you can’t inherit anything.”
“Actually, I can. I insisted we be married-by-proxy before I would make the trip.” She shrugged slightly. “I am—was—his wife.”
“You got proof of that?”
“Of course.” She wasn’t about to take the paper out of reticule though. “I can produce it tomorrow, if you want to see it.”
“I do.” He managed a smile. “Strictly business, of course. I don’t want to lose this place to someone who may not be who she claims to be. There’s lots of frauds in this town.”
“I understand.” Unfortunately, she did understand. She had her own shady past to hide. One of the reasons she’d insisted on the marriage-by-proxy was to protect herself just in case the past caught up with her present too soon.
“Do you? There are any number of scoundrels who are willing to dupe a woman.”
As if she didn’t know. Abby paused. Ben had always warned her men’s egos were frail. She didn’t want to make an enemy of John, so perhaps she should appeal to that ego. “Since you have the experience, I would very much appreciate it if you would stay on and help me learn to run this business? That would benefit both of us, I think.”
For a moment, something flickered in his eyes and then was gone. Slowly, he nodded. “I reckon I could.”
“Thank you. I’m glad to hear it.” She turned to go toward the door. “Now, I must see to living quarters.”
“I’d recommend Bartlett’s Boarding House just off Sutter Street. Travis stayed there.”
“Thank you, I’ll do that.”
As she left, Abby felt a sense of relief. She hadn’t known what to expect when she arrived at the store. John had taken the news that she’d be keeping the store rather stoically, she thought. At least, she hadn’t made an enemy of him.
John narrowed his eyes as the bitch left, allowing himself a moment of anger before he carefully schooled his features into the passivity mask he always wore. It had taken years to perfect the persona of someone who would not be noticed. Years in which Travis had fleeced gullible, old people out of their money, which he’d then laundered through various methods.
Two years ago, he’d decided San Francisco was a gold mine—John quietly laughed at the irony of his little joke—just waiting for someone like him to rake in the gold without having to pan for it. Everything was wide open—prostitution, gambling, opium dens—where fools could be easily taken, but it was smuggling the opium in from Victoria to avoid paying taxes that the real money was made.
And he had barrels of opium pods hidden in the basement below the store.
Their location, not far from the docks or Chinatown, but away from the high crime area, made it a perfect place to conduct the drug trade. He wasn’t about to let some hoity-toity tart from New York City mess up his plans. But i
The Bartletts didn’t know their son, the captain of the Neptune Maiden, was involved with bringing the opium in, but it was something John could use to blackmail them if he needed more information on the damn bitch.
He hoped old man Bronson had enjoyed his last night’s sleep. There had been enough powder in his nighttime toddy to kill a horse.
Unfortunately, when Abby stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the general store, there wasn’t a hack to be seen. She reminded herself that San Francisco wasn’t New York. That city was two hundred years older, and a certain degree of urbanity had taken hold, even in the Bowery. Hacks for hire were readily available. From what she’d seen on the carriage drive to the store, San Francisco seemed a rough and tumble place, full of prospectors and hardy people who could probably walk ten miles without getting tired.
She slipped her small reticule into the pocket of her pelisse and moved the valise from one hand to the other. She’d seen a town square on the way over that didn’t seem that far away. She could probably get a hack to take her to the Bartlett boarding house from there.
Maybe she should have told the one that had brought her from the train station to wait, she thought as she walked along, but she hadn’t known how long she would be. As it turned out, it hadn’t taken her that long to establish the store was something of a personal gold mine for her. If she worked hard and studied the accounts and learned the business, she could make something of herself.
Hopefully, John knew something about the accounts so she wouldn’t have to try and figure everything out herself. The man had seemed suspicious at first, and she guessed she couldn’t blame him for that. Having a stranger show up from nowhere to claim the store probably made him think he was going to lose his job. Well, she’d put his mind to rest about that tomorrow. She really did need his expertise, and she’d make sure he realized she respected him. Once he knew she wasn’t going to kick him out the door, they’d get along just fine.
CYNTHIA BREEDING SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Gunslinger: A Six Guns and Prairie Roses NovelRogue of the BordersA Rake's Redemption (Rake Trilogy)Rogue of the High SeasCatch a DreamSister of RoguesThe Immortals II: MichaelA Rake's Redemption
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