Jake’s mouth was as dry as the dustbowl his pa had called a farm while an awesome hammering had commenced in his brain, punctuated with random bolts of acute pain. Groaning, he turned on his side, coughed, and instantly regretted it. Sweet mother of Jesus, he weren’t even aware afore now that such agony were possible, and he’d been shot any number of times.
Cautiously, he cracked an eye. He didn’t immediately expire, so he opened both and though the pain in his head intensified, he didn’t lose whatever remained in his stomach. Every muscle in his body protesting, he swung himself out of bed in incremental stages, resting his ass on the side of the bed and burying his head in his hands. Good God and all his angels, how much whiskey had he drunk last night? He recalled a hand of poker, and a pretty gal coaxing him to drink, and then it was blank. What had prompted him to imbibe last night? He would rack his brain, but the resulting pain would probably drive him to his knees. Goddamn, what had been in that whiskey?
Wobbling to his feet, he made his way to the washstand. The mirror showed bloodshot eyes, sallow skin, and the beginnings of a rough beard. He rubbed his hand over the dark stubble covering his jaw, wishing his hand were steady enough to rid himself of it.
Ah, well. He’d seen himself worse than that, and who was he looking to impress?
Blearily, he examined his reflection. His hair began to show flecks of grey, the colour a sharp contrast to the black strands. The wrinkles around his eyes had gotten a sight worse, but that’s what you got when your profession was spent out of doors and in pursuit of villains. His quick draw was as quick as ever, and maybe he had more trouble reading a newspaper of a morning, but he could still sight a man at twenty paces and hit him through the heart.
Abandoning his toilette, such as it were, he pulled on his boots. At least he had the presence of mind to remove them…or had someone other than him done the deed? He didn’t remember the purchase of a woman, and he was almost certain he would have been no use to her if he had. Besides, the Diamond didn’t hold with such things, and he’d lost his taste for a bought embrace over the years. His arrangement with a widow down in Cheyenne suited him fine, and when he weren’t with her, his own hand sufficed.
Colourless eyes and scraped blonde hair.
He blinked. Oh, the woman. What was her name? McGregor? It was Mc- something. A flash of memory came to him. He was going to accept her offer of employment, and he’d been pre-emptively celebrating his imminent windfall.
Christ on a stick. He had the brains God gave a peacock some days.
Making himself presentable took some time, but he found himself at the Diamond’s bar before the sun was high in the sky. Behind the bar stood Miz Llewellyn asked, her dusky skin and dark eyes fresher than anyone had a right to be this early in the morning.
“Coffee?” she asked.
He nodded. “And mighty grateful for it. My thanks.”
The Diamond’s proprietor poured him a cup and slid a newspaper his way. “This morning’s edition.”
“My thanks, again.” Miz Llewellyn made sure the paper was available for him each morning, knowing he liked to peruse as he slowly regained life. She was a good woman, and if she didn’t have a fool husband she seemed to dote upon, he might sees a ways to spending some time charming her.
He glanced over the lead stories, about a new coal seam discovered north of Freewill, and the establishment of a new bank. Raising his mug to his lips, his gaze fell upon the advertisements.
“Son of a bitch!” Coffee sloshed over him, the hot liquid searing his skin. He paid it no mind, though, his total focus on the advertisement in the paper, second from the top and in bold lettering:
A gunslinger of renown to find a heinous and terrible man.
$500 retainer, with a final sum to be negotiated upon discovery.
Apply to H. McElroy, Richmond Hotel, Main Street, Freewill
Christ Jesus, what fool idea had planted itself in the woman’s head? Banging his coffee mug against the bar, he stormed from the Diamond, the protest in his head drowned by his anger.
The Richmond weren’t five minutes from the Diamond, and the owner stood behind the desk even at this early hour, cringing as Jake approached.
“McElroy,” he demanded through gritted teeth.
“Room five,” the man stuttered, offering no more than a token protest.
Taking the steps two at a time, Jake made note to have a conversation with the man about the ease he gave his guests information, especially pretty young women who weren’t all that smart for all they pretended otherwise.
Tarnished metal in the shape of the number five proclaimed the room to be Miss Hope McElroy’s room. Jake banged on her door.
The sound exploded through his head, and he placed a hand against its spearing fingers a moment before using the same to bang some more. Halfway through a bang of particular force, and while he cursed himself for his concern, the door opened to reveal her,
Miss McElroy, brows drawn and colourless hair in a loose braid over her shoulder.
He crossed his arms. “You got an advertisement in the Star?”
Brow clearing, she pulled her wrap tighter around her. “I beg your pardon?”
“Don’t be begging my pardon. Do you have an advertisement in the town’s newspaper for a man to take you to find Callihan?”
Her chin lifted. “I do.”
He started to swear. “What possessed you to do such a fool thing?”
“It is not a fool thing, Mr Wade.”
He pushed past her into the room. “You’ll get yourself killed, and harmed before they’re done with you. Don’t you got the brains God gave a peacock?”
“I’ll thank you to cease with your insults, sir. I have reached the age of thirty-two without kowtowing to a man and I don’t intend to start now.”
She was older than he’d thought. Must be fine living that kept her skin so smooth and soft-looking and touchable, though now he were close to her, he could see a fine smattering of freckles across her cheeks, as if at some point in her life she had lived outside in the sun.
“I’ll also thank you to leave my rooms,” she continued. “You’ve no call to be here. I have not invited you, and it is ridiculously early in the morning. Frankly, I am surprised you were allowed past the front desk.”
“And that’s another thing. You’ve chosen a shoddy place to rest your head. The desk manager gave me your room number with no hesitation. You ain’t safe here, not specially now you’ve announced your presence and your wealth to all the villains throughout Freewill and three towns besides.” Frustration made him pound his fist into his thigh. “And I ain’t never said I weren’t taking the job. I said I needed time to think. You were giving me until today.”
“It is today.”
“You arranged for that advertisement in the paper yesterday,” he accused.
She shrugged. “I plan for contingencies.”
If he weren’t so all-fired mad, he’d admire her grit. “I’ll find Callihan for you.”
Her brows shot up. “It was my understanding you refused.”
“I told you, I ain’t never said—” Taking a breath, he pinched the bridge of his nose. God damn, his head hurt something fierce.
“Fine, then. I’m un-refusing.”
“I’ll be going with you.”
It weren’t often he was flabbergasted, and she’d managed it in under five minutes. “No, you won’t.”
That pointy little chin lifted. “I’m paying, Mr Wade.”
“Just ’cause you’re paying don’t mean I’ll let you get your fool self killed. On the trail of a killer is no place for a lady.”
“I’ll be on the first train out of Freewill tomorrow morning, Mr Wade. Either you will be on it with me, or I will find someone else to employ.”
Damned if she weren’t the most ornery, contrary, frustrating woman. “This will be a hard journey,” he warned. “It ain’t the carriages and feather beds you’re used to. We’ll be riding hard, and sleeping under the stars.”
Her quiet words held determination and steel, as did her gaze. Nothing he said would dissuade her. He knew it like he knew the feel of his gun in his hand. He tipped his head. “The next train to Cheyenne leaves tomorrow afternoon. Make sure you’re ready.”
“I will be ready. Make sure you are as well. Remember, Mr Wade, you are replaceable.”
Her certainty that he was expendable stung., and made his words harsher than they ought to be. “Send your trunks back to wherever you came from. You have two saddlebags for your stuff. Make sure you don’t exceed that,” he said stiffly. “I’ll expect my expenses at the Diamond be paid, along with the transport of my horse. We’ll hammer out the other details on the train ride.”
He smiled lazily. “It’s a long train ride, darlin’, and I’ve many conditions. I imagine we’ll entertain ourselves mightily.”
She inclined her head.
Because his mama had raised a gentlemen, he tipped his hat to her before departing.
The further he got from her, the lesser his rage, and the greater his astonishment that she got under his skin. She was a little dab of a thing, colourless and drab. Sure it was she had an imperious way about her, and a particular way of looking down her nose that made him irritable, but she barely came up to his shoulder, and for all her softness and wealth, he could tell life hadn’t treated her kind. Why else would she be gallivanting around the country at the age of thirty-two hunting for a bad-wicked man and employing the likes of one who didn’t entertain the most spotless of reputations? She were a puzzle, and he might as well set his mind to solving her.
After all, it looked like he were about to set upon a journey and he needed something to pass the time.