Authors: Raine Cantrell
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #FICTION/Romance/Western
McCready saw the red flush creep up from Dutch’s stiff white linen collar at an alarming rate. He eyed Dutch’s fists. The scars and protruding knuckles forced him to swallow. He knew he was already suffering the condemning guilt of the damned. With a mental shrug he answered.
“Me.” And braced himself for the blow that was coming.
High on the rim of Silver Creek Canyon, Maggie knew that a further search was hopeless. The other men had already turned back when she caught up with them, but she had insisted on continuing even if the trail they had followed had been carefully wiped out.
The sturdy mustang mare stood quietly as Maggie studied the open land dotted with scraggly brush. She was being stubborn and perhaps a bit foolish to sit here, wasting the last of the daylight when she should be heading back to the mining camp.
But Satin was the only one waiting for her to return.
A wave of loneliness overcame her. Since Pete had died, she had no one to trust, no one to count on but herself.
It sickened her now to remember that before she had Pete buried, people were claiming friendships that she knew had never been. Debts, more likely owed to Pete than the demands that he was the one owing them, surfaced faster than a good panner collected his poke of gold from his placer claim. And she thought herself so smart, finding Quincy, convincing him that she couldn’t sell what Pete had left her, but that if he married her, he would be well paid.
Smart maybe. But McCready had proved smarter. If he wasn’t lying.
Just the thought of being married to McCready set off those funny flutters rising in her belly again. Damn the man and his smooth ways.
“Aye,” she whispered, “
is the devil’s own word for the man.”
His voice was smooth, never a rough edge to it, just like the whiskey he favored. His hands were smooth enough to deal off the bottom of the deck while you watched to catch him. And that fancy talk of his could make a person as crazy as Cockeyed Charlie. McCready was a handful of trouble she could do without. Him and his fancy ladies lording about with those cat-got-the-mouse smiles.
She knew it was only feeling a bit raw herself that had allowed curiosity to surface about McCready. What did he do to cause those women to fuss for his attention? Pamela, she recalled, was a sensible-to-a-fault female most of the time, but she melted and ran like honey if McCready so much as breathed the same air as she did.
That’s what being a woman got you, she decided. A man like McCready was all set to call the shots with his wicked smile and sweet talking. Well, it would never happen to her. She had horse sense. She would never let McCready get close enough. And if he tried claiming some rights with his lies of their being married, Dutch could go polish the bar glasses with the rash promise he had forced from her. She’d fix McCready’s silver tongue but good.
She had to. There was no one else who would do it for her.
Restless, Maggie shook off her black thoughts. Her nose itched. “A warnin’ for sure,” she muttered, glancing around as a chill laced itself up her spine. She slipped her rifle from its boot beneath her leg, and set the weapon across her lap.
The mustang’s ears flattened as Maggie whispered to the mare, then perked high to capture sounds that Maggie couldn’t hear.
Maggie didn’t trust people, but her horse and dog had never failed her. The ripple of tension that passed over the mare’s hide was all she needed. Dropping the knotted neck rein, Maggie kneed her mare to a walk, glancing behind her.
There was no shelter to hide someone. Yet a feeling persisted that she was being watched. She needed to get off the rim of the canyon, where she presented a perfect target.
Maggie looked down. The mustang veered from the edge of the canyon just as a shot whizzed damn close to where Maggie’s back had been seconds before. Furious, she brought up her rifle, sighting the deep clefts of the canyon wall across from her. She couldn’t see anyone in the dusky light.
Gently squeezing the trigger, Maggie decided to pepper the wall, but a second shot echoed and grazed the rump of her horse. Caught unaware, Maggie tumbled to the ground when the mare reared in pain. The rifle fell from her hands a few feet away.
The rapid fire of the repeating rifle kept her pinned in place. In moments the painful whinny of her horse and the drum of the mare’s hoofbeats were faint sounds.
Maggie ignored the sting of her cut cheek and the scrape on her chin as she pressed her face to the bare rock. Now she was truly alone.
Her only safety lay in the last feeble rays of the descending sun that would give her the shroud of darkness. She urged it to hurry, for Maggie found that she was too scared to pray.
Far to the northwest, in Santa Fe, Thadius Cornwallis watched the same setting sun as he patted the fattened envelope resting securely in the inside pocket of his jacket. He stroked the fine cashmere and wool blend material of the lapel. Thadius prided himself on wearing only the finest of cloth. A smug smile played around the cigar he was never without. He accepted another glass of the Milwaukee beer from one of the Staab brothers, nodding as he listened again to the story of their being chosen the sole agents by the Schlitz’s brewery for the New Mexico Territory. Thadius did not know which brother was which. They were not important in his scheme of things, so their names did not matter.
But Thadius made it a policy to smile and listen to everyone. A smart man never knew when he would be offered the perfect tidbit to sell to those men whose rewards kept him in grand style.
William Berger, head of the mining exchange, and a real estate and insurance firm, motioned for Thadius to join him. For less than a heartbeat Thadius’s small eyes, set like a pig’s, revealed a flame of hate. But he excused himself and began to cross the room to William, knowing he was the last man here this evening who still had to offer more than verbal thanks. Thadius knew to the penny how much Berger stood to make on the completion of the Southern Pacific joining with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe line to form the second transcontinental railroad.
It was Thadius’s business to know such information. Know what you wanted from a man, find out what he wants, and give it to him. Thadius’s rule. One of his few. He had learned to live without a conscience, having decided at the age of eleven it was baggage that he could easily do without.
William watched the portly man’s progression through the crowd. He noted each of the men whose hands Thadius paused to shake. All of them men whose palms Thadius had greased to bring about the final stages of his latest scheme. His satisfied smile irritated William as he finally reached his side.
“A token,” William said, handing over a thick wad of banknotes.
“Generous,” Thadius murmured, sliding the money into his inside pocket, then patting the bulge it formed.
“I can afford to be, can’t I.”
It wasn’t a question, but a statement that required no answer from Thadius. “What’s on your mind?”
“I spoke to Walter Jones, that assayer I told you about. He tested the sample. It weighed forty-seven ounces and is worth about seven hundred dollars. I want that gold mine, Thadius.”
“Yes. I thought you would.”
“You knew I would. I heard a distinct
“Well, now, William, I’ve never been one to bother you with the sometimes difficult problems that I encounter—” “And you will not begin to now, Thadius.”
The command grated on Thadius. But this time, for the first time, he had the upper hand. “As you wish. The owner refuses to sell, so I’ve decided to pass.”
William eyed him with amusement. “You are telling me that? I’m not one of your gullible marks, Thadius. If that sample tested out as pure as Walter claims, we stand to make a fortune.”
“You just made one on the railroad,” Thadius pointed out. “But I’ll admit you’re right.” Sucking noisily on his cigar, he hooked his thumbs into his vest’s pockets and rocked back on his heels. “However, in this case, the owner is proving troublesome.”
William Berger was of an equal height to Thadius, but without an excess bit of flesh on his bony frame. He patted his thinning brown hair, his dark eyes narrowed as they snagged
Thadius’s gaze. “You wouldn’t be thinking to claim there are problems to up the ante, would you?”
Shifting the sodden tip of the cigar to the left side of his mouth, Thadius took exception. “Didn’t I cut you in for a tidy profit on that deal—”
“Not here. But yes, yes you did.”
“And who was it that put you wise to buying the land up in Deming before the rail ever laid a piece of track near there, William?”
“You did, Thadius. I do not deny that you’ve made me money. I expect you to make me more. I want that gold claim. When you are alone and see what I have given you to show my gratitude, Thadius, I believe you will find that I have been more than generous for what you did.”
“Never doubted that for a moment. Always could count on you. But since you never wish to be bothered with all the little annoying details—and in this case there are plenty—I can’t offer you a cut.”
Thadius turned away, the conversation at an end. But William, with his eye on the governor’s mansion, knew he needed more money than he had amassed to have his desire come to fruition. Money bought power. He reminded himself that the kind of dirt men like Thadius generated was wont to stick to one’s feet. No matter how necessary they were to the scheme of things. The assay report tantalized him. William broke his own law of never getting involved personally on Thadius’s level.
“Perhaps I’ve been hasty, Thadius. A good friend and business partner should extend help when it’s needed. Why don’t you tell me about the problems you’re having?”
Inwardly Thadius smiled. Now he had William hooked. He faced him, knowing his fish so well, and didn’t waste any more time.
“It was to be clean. An accident, a jumped claim, and the deed done. But this man of mine, damn good I must say, faced a shotgun held by a woman. Can’t do business with a woman. Never works, as you well know. The creatures can’t be decisive, don’t think with logic that makes any sense to a man, and likely can’t see past their next fancy to buy. It set my plans back a bit with her refusing to sell. But I told you my man was good. He offered to marry her.”
William’s smile never reached his eyes. “It’s a temporary solution that would work.”
“Temporary is right,” Thadius agreed, lowering his voice so that William had to lean closer. “A week or two, we had figured, just long enough to refile the claims and make out a will.”
“And once again I hear a
“Someone else is claiming to own the mine.”
“A problem, just as you said. But tell me, Thadius, won’t someone suspect another death so close to the first?”
“Don’t know what you’re babbling about, man.”
“You know. Don’t ever forget that I’ve known you long enough to understand exactly how you work, Thadius. You do not leave things to chance. If this woman is in the way, she’ll be removed. Permanently. If not by your front man, then by the other one you’ve already had in place as a backup.”
“Think you’ve got me all figured out, Berger? Don’t.” But Thadius had a moment’s fear. William shouldn’t know such things about him. He’d always been careful to cover all his tracks. “I never said there was anyone else down there to negotiate for me. Watch your mouth—you’ll have us both swinging from a rope.” After removing his pocket watch, Thadius flipped open the case, glanced at the time, and then snapped it closed. “I’ve got another appointment that I’m already late for.”
William was not a physical man, but he gripped Thadius’s arm. “You always get what you go after, friend. I want this to remain a private deal between you and me. And, Thadius, I never want the thought to cross my mind that you’d close me out of a deal this good.”
“I hope I heard you wrong.” Thadius stared at William. “Don’t threaten me. You talk and it’s my neck. But I’ve protected myself, William. No rope stretches without me having company.”
“I’m well aware of that. Just as I’m aware that miners meet with all kinds of accidents. But those were men, not a woman.”
Rocking back on his heels again, Thadius eyed his companion with mockery. “Are you developing a conscience? Didn’t know you could afford one as yet, William. This woman isn’t one in the sense that you’re thinking. And you never wanted to know the details before. Let’s keep it that way.”
William stepped back and away, heeding the underlying threat that had been returned. Thadius had spread a net in the territory that no one was privy to. Yet there was a nagging in his mind that forced him to ask another question.
“Why are you taking this delay so well, Thadius?”
“Didn’t believe I was.”
A shrewd measuring look met his statement. “There’s more to this than what you’re telling me, isn’t there?”
“Common sense. Use yours, William. Why would I? Any delay costs me money and time. It costs my investors the same.”
“Just how rich is this one claim?”
Thadius removed his cigar, contemplated its stubby length, and smiled. “There’s enough for us to share.” His smile remained fixed in place as he thought of seven staked claims that had tested out to be rich veins of either silver or gold. But no one else had to know. This was his big chance to hit the mother lode without having to share it. He knew William’s greed and his desire to see himself in the governor’s chair. Thadius had made it his practice to sniff out those men whose greed for land, riches, or power could be used to his advantage.
Slapping William on his back, Thadius laughed softly. “Never fear. I’ve always come through for you. You get your cash together. You’ll be needing it.”
William Berger watched Thadius weave his way through the crowd and leave. His thoughts raced even as he began his own leave-taking. There was more to this gold claim than Thadius had told him. He was sure of it. Now he had to find a way to act on his knowledge. Thadius had made him money, had helped him gain a measure of power.
But Thadius was all for himself, and William never forgot that simple truth. And Thadius was dangerous. William never forgot that, either.
It wouldn’t hurt to have someone of his own to see to his interests in Cooney Camp. He mentally ran through the list of names of those who owed him favors or debts. When he reached back far enough, William found a name he could use.