Authors: Larion Wills
Little Sam's Angel
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part without permission.
Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000. This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or events is purely coincidental. They are productions of the author's imagination and used fictitiously.
Cover art by Skylar Sinclair
First edition: Little Sam's Angel © 2009 Larion Wills
Author’s edition: Little Sam’s Angel © 2014
Other books by Larriane Wills
Bonds of Time
The Cross of Death
Looking Glass Portal
Books by Larion Wills
Historical western romances
Mark of the Sire
Curse of the Sire
A Gallows Waited
Contemporary and Paranormal
It’s Still Tomorrow
The Wait for Red Roses
As far as saloons went, it wasn't much. The floor was swept dirt, packed hard by the hundreds of feet that had stomped back and forth across it. The walls were rough-cut pine. Split pine logs formed the bar top, with the smoothest side up, which wasn't to say it was smooth. No one had taken the time to level it with a plane, and no time at all was spent in sanding it. When the bartender set the glass down in front of him, Gabe had to grab quickly to keep the beer from spilling when it tipped precariously to one side on the uneven surface. No, the saloon wasn't much.
Neither was the town. Hell of a place to be stranded, even overnight, but then what did he care if he spent a night in the relay station or jolting around in the stage all night?
Crossings was just that, a crossing point in the road. A bit wider than some others and maybe with more level ground or sweeter water that made it a better place to build a town than spots a little narrower or less level or with bitter water. Whatever the reason, Crossings had a hotel he couldn't afford to stay in and a saloon where he could only afford to buy one drink. Even that would mean less food somewhere down the line. The few other buildings that made it a town instead of no more than a place to change the stage team meant nothing at all to Gabe.
He noticed the various businesses; he just didn't have much use for them. Not much more use than he had for the saloon. The only reason he'd gone there was habit. When a man had time to waste, that was where he usually went. Only a little better than the station building, the saloon had more room, and so far there were fewer people. Gabe didn't much care about being around people, not now. The way he felt, maybe never.
"Hey there, stranger, care to sit in? Three-handed poker ain't much more fun than two."
Gabe turned to face the man that had called out to him, a refusal on his lips. Then he shrugged indifferently and walked over. He didn't care for company, but he did have some hours to pass. If he was lucky and won, he could use any money he could get his hands on.
He pulled up a chair, fully aware of the close looking-over he received from the three men at the table. He didn't figure they much cared for what they saw. He hadn't the last time he'd looked in a mirror, and that had been before three days and nights on a stagecoach. Fighting back from near death had left him with sunken eyes, the bright blue color in a sharp contrast to the darkness surrounding them, bone-skinny, and gaunt-faced. Shoes with worn thin soles and the bad fit of the cheap town suit, hanging off his broad shoulders didn't help any, both the best in fit from the charity box at the hospital. His light blond hair was too long, waving down over his collar, and three days of scruffy beard covered his cheeks and neck. He hadn't been able to shave since they'd put him on the stage to get rid of him.
"Stage got a bad wheel, huh?" the same man asked.
Gabe nodded, looked at the man and noted there wasn't much about his looks to see. Fifty years old or so to judge from the steel gray in his hair, and a town man by the look of him, from his ready-made clothes to the trace of soft flesh beneath them. Gabe judged him to be a man who lived easy, with an easy temper, and an easy to get along with personality.
The second man held out a hand across the table. "Name's Joe Burns. I own the general store."
"Gabe Taylor," he answered, taking the hand. The hand was soft, telling Gabe that Joe Burns took life easy, too.
"Gabe…short for Gabriel, no doubt," Burns mused. "Don't think I know the name."
Tensing, Gabe hoped not, hoped no connection was made to the name he’d used before, and was grateful when the man who had called him over spoke.
"No reason you should," he said with a tinge of impatience in his voice. "I'm Hedges. I own and operate what passes for the hotel in this town. This," he jerked his thumb towards the third man on his right, "is Trader Faller."
"Name's Zeke," the third said gruffly, frowning at the tag he'd been given for a name. "I only do trading for extra money. Most the time I run the livery."
Of the three, Hedges was the one who impressed Gabe the most. Faller looked like a man old before his time, face drawn and tired looking, like life was wearing him down, and he wasn't too happy with it. He had said he ran the livery, not that he owned it, which could be the reason why.
Hedges looked like a man who'd lived a lot of years and was still happy to be alive. His face was wrinkled and weathered, but his hazel eyes were bright, alert, and taking in everything about Gabe in a slow, calculated gaze.
Gabe had the impulse to hunch his shoulders up under his suit coat. Damn fool kind of clothes for him to be wearing, but that was what they'd given him, and he'd have been the worst kind of fool not to take them. He sure couldn't buy any to replace the ones he'd had before, and he couldn't very well leave the hospital in his birthday suit. He nodded to each man and absently took up the cards as they were passed to him.
The good charity people at the hospital had given him the worn out suit with the same condescending attitude everyone gave clothes to those less fortunate. The good people of Crystal Creek Bluffs had given him something else, a five-dollar gold piece and a ticket on the northbound stage to take him as far away from them as it'd take him. He was too acute—that was the word they'd used—too acute a reminder of the past.
"You in or out, young fella?" Hedges asked, bringing Gabe away from the daze where his bitter thoughts had taken him.
"In," he said, pitching a coin to the center of the table.
"Better take some change. Ante's only a penny. You tossed in a nickel."
Gabe looked up to find Hedges' intent gaze on him and dropped his eyes quickly. Hedges was the kind of man that looked into you, and Gabe didn't want anyone doing that. The wound on his soul was still too raw, too easy to see even if those on his body had nearly healed. He leaned back in his chair, dragging his cards to him, trying to concentrate on the game.
"Forgot your change," Hedges reminded him.
"I'll get it at the end of the hand," Gabe said, shifting uneasily. He wouldn't be winning any money if he didn't pay more attention to what they were doing. He didn't even know what game they were playing.
"Jacks or better to open, and it's up to you," Hedges said.
"Pass," Gabe said, hoping they thought he'd just been studying his hand, not going off in a stupor. Glancing up, he saw Hedges was still studying him, but he answered Gabe's look with a wink, then turned his attention back to the game.
That wink bothered Gabe more than the old man studying him. Gabe knew a story like what happened at Crystal Creek Bluffs would have spread even as far as Crossings and quick as wildfire. He also knew that even though he was only one of dozens who had been caught up in that bloody mess, the name he'd gone by then was the one mentioned the most. Did the old man know who he was?
"Danged inconvenient, that stage busting down like that. Sure could mess you up if you were in a hurry," Faller commented after passing the play on to Burns.
"Yeah," Gabe said noncommittally.
Burns passed the bid to Hedges, who opened.
"If you were in a hurry, you could buy a horse," Faller went on while Hedges' bet was met, and they shifted through their hands for the cards they wanted to discard.
"If he was, he wouldn't be lollygagging in here," Hedges said, holding up two fingers to show the number of cards he wanted.
"You're out of turn," Faller complained.
"You can see how many I want. When my turn comes, you just pass them over to me," Hedges said, "and quit getting snippy 'cause you ain't gonna get a sale outta him." He told Gabe, "You can see where he gets the handle of Trader."
"I'm not in a hurry," Gabe said to end the discussion.
"Just drifting, are you?" Burns asked, drawing a sharp look from both Hedges and Faller. That wasn't the kind of question you asked a stranger since it bordered on prying into personal business.
"I'm just not in a hurry," Gabe retorted, irritation in his voice. "I'll take two."
"Oh, now, I didn't mean anything by that. I was just thinking if you don't have any place special to go, Crossings would be a good place to light. This is a fast growing town. We can use new blood."
"Dang sure can," Hedges said with a snort. "We're sure getting tired of all that old blood that's been around."
"There are a lot of opportunities for a young man that's willing to work hard to get ahead," Burns went on, ignoring Hedges. "This area has been opened to homesteading, and there's some choice land available."
Hedges snorted again. "Don't you listen to him. Any land that's worth having has already been filed on. What's left ain't no good for farming."
"I'm not a farmer," Gabe said, his tone bitter and cutting.
Burns went on. "A lot of men who never were before have tried it and have done real well. All it takes—"
Hedges cut him off, his voice rising in agitation. "There ain't anything left but land worthless for farming. I'm the land agent so I know, and you know it, too. The ranchers have filed on all the good land."
"Hogging up all the decent land for themselves, having their hired hands file on it, paying for the improvements, then taking them over when the deeds are proved. It ain't legal," Burns retorted.
"It is legal. What wasn't right was that they had to file at all on land they've held for years. Just 'cause some dead-headed politician didn't know his butt from a hole in the ground was no reason for men to lose land they sweated blood for to make into something."
"They stole it from the Indians and Mexicans that were here first. They never had a legal claim to it."
"Legal? Legal?" Hedges hooted, rising up in his chair he was so mad. "What about moral?"
"Was it moral for them to chase off the farmers, scaring them near to death, hurting some of them?"
"That was Old Sam's doing, 'cause he was just as bullheaded as you are. Dang good thing Little Sam took over Rocking M, or we'd have ended up having the same kinda blood bath they had down in Crystal Creek Bluffs."
"Overbearing ranchers caused that war."
"Ignorant farmers were just as much to blame by not recognizing the right of prior claim of possession. And fools like you," Hedges added the last, shaking his finger in Burns' face. "Just like you trying to interest this young feller— Where'd he go?"
The young feller he pointed to was no longer in the chair next to him.
"He left," Faller said in annoyance.
"See what ya did, you mule-head?" Hedges demanded before going after Gabe. He found him just outside the door, leaning against the wall. "Sorry about that. We just naturally lock horns when… Say, boy, you feeling all right?"
"Yeah," Gabe lied, wishing to hell he did. That subject and name coming at him so unexpectedly had hit him like a bolt of lightning, making his stomach knot. He was shaky, and he didn't want anyone to see it.
"Don't look it. You just come along with me." Hedges didn't wait for an agreement but grabbed Gabe by the arm. By the time Gabe protested, he was well on his way across the street to the hotel, his protests being ignored.
"I'm all right," Gabe said as Hedges pulled him through the door into the hotel lobby.
"Now boy, don't you know you can go to hell for lying?" Hedges asked with a chuckle. "You got the look about you of one who's coming back from a long sickness. Seen it when you walked in that saloon. You just come on back in here and rest up a bit."
"That's good of you, but…" Gabe jerked to a stop to protest in earnest once they were out of sight of everyone in the street, but Hedges didn't let him finish and dragged him further, through the lobby and down a back hall.
"Just take it as a way of apologizing. Ain't fitting manners to invite a man into a game then blow it apart with arguing over a dead horse before he ever gets to finish a hand. Here, you can bed down there."
He pointed to a bed and was gone with the door shut behind him before Gabe could protest again. Gabe started for the door but stopped dead as the significance of Hedges' words hit him.
The look of one coming back from a long sickness
. Anger cut through him like a knife, but then he knew how bad he looked. The flash of anger was followed by a shrug. What difference did it make if everyone could tell by looking that he'd been sick?
None, he decided and lay down. He felt like a damned teeter-totter. He supposed that was bad, but right then he didn't care. Either he was raging inside the way he had been when Hedges had mentioned Crystal Creek so unexpectedly—so raging mad it made him shake and feel sick—or he just didn't give a damn, the way he was when Hedges had found him leaning against the wall for support. He'd been back and forth that way ever since he'd come to in the hospital.
One minute he wanted to go back to Crystal Creek Bluffs and kill every last mother's son of them.
The next he didn't care if he even lived.
Lately he seemed to be indifferent more than mad. He thought that was for the best considering how much rage welled up in him, but the doctor back at the hospital had told him neither one was good. He’d told Gabe that one time he saw Gabe wake up from dreaming about that night, clenching his one good fist and grinding his teeth. When he shrugged away the doctor's words like apathy and depression, slipping back into indifference, it'd been a one-shoulder shrug.