Freewill, Wyoming, 1885
The fool would get himself killed if he used a gun.
Jake scowled at the dime novel. Conversating as they were in the gunslinger’s boarding room, the gunslinger in his underclothes brandished a gun at the villain, which in a real live circumstance would result in ruin. The gunslinger would be better served by a knife in his hand, rather than a pistol that could be wrested from him afore he blinked twice. However, the author had determined it was how his man should behave, and if Jake knew better by possessing actual experience, it weren’t here nor there. Besides which, the author was all the way in New York City, if the biography at the back was any indication. Jake wasn’t going to waste cash he didn’t have sending the man a telegram lambasting him for incorrect weaponry.
Raising his gaze from the page and the ineptitude of his fictional equivalent, he surveyed the saloon. The Diamond was mostly empty, but that weren’t an unusual circumstance for the middle of the day. A few old-timers sat around a table, dealing cards and arguing over their outcome. A disinterested barkeep polished the wood before him, his gaze drifting to the group of women holding their own table. From the advertisements about town and the sound of carpentry from the concert hall attached to the saloon, the ladies were the stars of the Diamond’s upcoming Spectacular w. By Jake’s reckoning, the barkeep was sweet on one of them, if the furtive, longing looks were any indication. The dark-haired woman wearing a teal dress one size too small would be Jake’s guess.
Exhaling, he leaned back in his chair. He’d been cooling his heels in Freewill, Wyoming, for nigh on a week now, with no sign of his promised employment. He had a mind to move on, but he had no job to move on to, so it weren’t here nor there if he remained in Freewill a spell. He had use of a room in the boarding house paid until next week, and a place for quiet contemplation here in the Diamond. Maybe it was he’d take a break, watch the world pass him by for a day or two. Freewill was a decent sort of town, big enough for distraction but small enough of contemplation , though the advance of fall would mean he’d be moving on before too much longer, before the beginning of winter and the heavy snows that would make leaving impossible.
The doors to the saloon swung open and a woman walked through. There wasn’t anything extraordinary about her. She was, in fact, completely unremarkable, dressed in dark grey and covered from chin to toe. It was a fine dress, but it screamed of wealth, and she screamed of the sort of woman who would never step foot in a saloon of her own volition.
Her step was calm, measured, and filled with purpose, as was her gaze as she cast it around the saloon. The hair at the back of his neck stood up. Head angled so his hat obscured his eyes, Jake charted her clipped step through the tables, as she stopped in the middle of the saloon and cast her gaze about. As her gaze lit upon him.
She started toward him. He didn’t react, keeping his legs sprawled, his shoulders relaxed and his attention ostensibly on his novel.
Lazily, he met her gaze. Dull blonde hair pulled tight at the skin of her temples and gathered into a mean knot at the base of her head, while emotionless colourless eyes regarded him from under light brows. Every part of her was pale, a sharp contrast to the warmth of the Diamond. Her dress was even worse up close, a grey that on a woman with some colour to her would maybe be attractive. She was young, at least a decade younger than him. No doubt a lifetime of experience separated them—he’d fit a lot into his thirty-six years. Too much.
Pale eyes regarded him steadily. “You are Jacob Wade?” Her voice was as colourless as the rest of her, modulated with an accent that spoke of a fine education and a city, maybe even Boston if his ears were picking it right.
Novel dangling from his hand, he propped his elbow on the chair. He didn’t invite her to sit, and she didn’t seem inclined to accept even if he did. “I am.”
Her expression didn’t change, and neither did her tone. He had no clue if she were pleased, determined, or indifferent. “Mr Wade, I have a proposition for you.”
Silence grew between them, and she didn’t articulate her proposition, whatever it was. “Well, spit it out, darlin’. I’m a busy man, I ain’t got all day.”
Her lips tightened. “Mr Wade, I would like you to find me a man.”
Allowing a lazy grin to stretch his lips, he drawled, “Now, darlin’, I don’t offer that kind of service. Why don’t you take yourself to a church dance or some such and see if you can’t rope yourself a fella.”
“A particular man, Mr Wade.” Her tone had also tightened. “A man that needs killing.”
Any humour he’d enjoyed fled. “I don’t kill people,” he said flatly.
Her back became, if possible, even more rigid. “I don’t want you to kill him. I want you to find him. I can pay.”
“I’m sure you can.” He raked his gaze over her. “That dress is worth more than my horse.”
A kind of surprise lit her features, but only for a moment. “Are you interested, Mr Wade?”
“Well now, let me think.” Rubbing his jaw, he enjoyed the indistinct play of emotions across her face. He’d bet the fee on his next job she didn’t show emotion often. “You can pay, you said.”
“Yes. One thousand dollars now, and another three thousand when you find this man.”
Christ Jesus. “That’s a hefty sum, darlin’.”
She watched him with those colourless eyes and he was almost certain she knew his reaction though he hadn’t twitched a muscle. “I really want to find this man.”
Four thousand dollars. God above, the things he could do with such a sum. He could purchase that ranch he’d had his eye on, settle down, maybe even find a good woman and produce a couple of kids. “Who’s this man that you say needs killing?”
Cold slid down his spine. Quick, he cast a glance around the saloon. None had taken any notice of their conversation, the old timers continuing their game and the barkeep continuing his mooning.
His finger began a tap against his thigh. Callihan was a proper villain, one a lady like her shouldn’t even know of, let alone have a relationship that would warrant the man’s killing. “Heard tell he was dead a while back.”
She said it with such confidence, as if her version of fact trumped everyone else’s. It were lucky none had noticed her invocation of Callihan’s name. No doubt it would conjure such an evil doer to their presence, or those who thought to follow in his like. Why would this wren of a woman keep tabs on a bad man like Callihan? The man was a legend, but not the good kind. No, he was known for his ruthlessness, his cruelty, and that he never left anyone alive. He’d disappeared a handful of years ago, and when he had, most folk had been relieved. “What did Josiah Callihan ever do to you?”
“That’s my business, and none of yours. I’m willing to pay, and pay well. You’ll be amply compensated for your time.”
“I weren’t worried about that, darlin’. It’s only Josiah Callihan was a bad man, and I don’t mix with bad men.”
The faintest rising of an eyebrow. “Weren’t you a marshal? Aren’t you now a gunslinger?”
“I was.” And because he was feeling a mite contrary… “I don’t hold with the term gunslinger.”
She ignored his last comment to focus on the first. “Then don’t you, by definition, associate with bad men?”
He gave a lazy grin. “I associate with men of a baddish cast, but I got better things to do with my time than waste it in pursuit of men the calibre of Josiah Callihan.”
Features as smooth as stone, she said, “Are you refusing me, Mr Wade?”
“I don’t reckon those words passed my lips. Alls I’m saying is I might need time to ponder.”
Again, not a flicker of emotion. It were fascinating, is what it was. “This is more money than you’ll see in a year.”
Her words made his smile burdensome. “That may be true, darlin’, but it don’t change my answer, or hurry it along. I require time to ponder the particulars of your proposal so, if you’ll be so kind as to leave me to my contemplation and requiescence, I’d be grateful.”
She stood there a full minute, as if her colourless expression would force his decision before he was of a mind to make it. Then her shoulders straightened just the tiniest bit. “I will leave you to your novel, Mr Wade, but I will have my answer tomorrow morning, or I will take my business elsewhere. You may find me at the Richmond Hotel, under the name McElroy.”
He inclined his head, and watched as she departed the Diamond, her thin shoulders much too straight for his liking but her stride just as purposeful.
Strangely, the Diamond seemed less interesting now she was no longer in it. Kicking back in his chair, he lowered his gaze to the novel but an incompetent gunslinger and his misuse of weaponry could no longer occupy his brain.
Why would a young woman want to do away with a bad man like Callihan? Jake had no doubt Callihan had done her wrong—before his death, Callihan had been the worst kind of man, killing folk innocent and otherwise, running with his gang, luring impressionable young boys with more piss than sense and setting them on a path they still struggled to avoid even though they had seen thirty-six winters….
He took a breath. That was neither here nor there, and he’d left his past behind.
Maybe he would take her money, protect her from herself. A woman the likes of her had no business with Josiah Callihan, at least none that would end well. He could ask a few questions, shake a few villains, and report back to her that, sadly, the rumours were true and Callihan was, indeed, deceased. She would go back to her city life, and he would be a thousand dollars richer. He’d never before refused easy money and he wasn’t fixing to refuse hers, specially when it fell in his lap. Everyone knew Callihan was dead, and it weren’t no skin from his nose if some rich lady wanted to pay him anyways.
A city woman like her shouldn’t be here anyways. Her fine clothes and cultured accent set her apart from most everyone in town, and it was clear as she stood in the saloon how out of place she was. A woman like her should be sipping tea in her fancy townhouse, not venturing a town still more rough than polished, striding her way into a saloon to accost gunslingers in their quiet time.
His gaze drifted to the dime novel, carelessly discarded on the table afore him. What else did he have to do with his time?
Kicking up from his chair, he tucked his novel into his belt. There was money to be made, and a woman wanting an answer.