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Looking at the pair of threes he was holding and judging the gleam in the eye of the man across from him, Mitch McCall tossed his cards onto the table. “I fold.”
Robert Hill, owner of the post and telegraph office in Marietta, snickered as he laid his cards face down on the table and scooped the small pile of coins toward him.
“For a man who makes his living gambling, I thought you’d be better,” he taunted.
Mitch didn’t react to the jibe. He simply stretched out his legs, folded his hands over his stomach and relaxed as Steven Garvey, mayor and owner of the feed mill in town, grabbed the cards and began shuffling. They’d only been playing a half an hour and Mitch had already lost two hands. He was in no hurry to prove himself the way Robert was.
There were five of them sitting at the circular table in the middle of Silver’s Saloon. Steven sat to Mitch’s left, next to him was Robert. On the other side of Robert sat Justin Richardson, the local blacksmith. Rounding out the group was Bill Collins, who ran the stable in town. Mitch had been invited to join their weekly Friday night game when he’d first returned to town three weeks ago, after a ten-year absence, but the very day the game was to take place the owner of the saloon, and his soon to be sister-in-law, Silver Adams, was shot and nearly killed.
His gaze flicked past Robert to the curving staircase that led to Silver’s personal rooms upstairs. He could still see her lying at the bottom of the steps, bleeding. It was an experience he hoped to never repeat. She’d recovered, though his brother Shane wouldn’t quit fussing and worrying. Even now, Shane sat at the bar ensuring she didn’t overexert herself her first day back to work. Of course if Mitch had nearly lost the love of his life he’d be fussing like a mother hen as well.
Mitch’s lips quirked as he fixed his gaze on his brother’s back and the gun belt hanging on his hip. He doubted the sheriff of Marietta would appreciate being thought of as a mother hen. All the more reason to tease him about it later. For now, however, Mitch put everything else aside but the cards dealt to him.
After tossing in the required starting bet, Mitch picked up the cards one by one. Two queens, a king, a nine, an eight, and a three. He’d had better; he’d certainly had worse. Knowing his face gave away nothing, he examined those of the men around him.
Robert’s grip on his cards tightened. His eyes went a little brighter.
Someone’s happy with his cards.
A fact confirmed when Robert raised another dime.
Justin sighed, folded. “Sometimes I don’t know why I play this stupid game,” he muttered.
As Justin had a habit of folding every hand, other than the one where he’d won with three tens, Mitch had come to realize the man wasn’t one to bluff. Justin only bet when the odds were in his favor, which meant he sat out more than he played. Mitch chuckled to himself. The man was missing the beauty and strategy of poker.
Mitch’s gaze shifted to the right where Bill was drumming his thick fingers on the table. Though it was something the man did with every hand and though it was subtle, Mitch had noticed the speed in which he drummed decreased when Bill was confident of his cards. Judging by the quickening beat of his fingers, his cards didn’t amount to beans.
“I’m out, too,” he said. He tossed his cards and raised his empty glass, signaling to the waitress he wanted another whiskey.
“I’m in.” Mitch matched Robert’s bet.
Steven’s eyes narrowed a fraction. His gaze went from his cards, to the scattered coins lying in front of him, back to his cards. He threw in a dime. Not a great hand, Mitch figured, but enough to warrant the small bet.
“I’m in, too,” he said.
Steven picked up the deck. There was only to be one draw to a maximum of two cards. Robert threw away two cards, which Steven replaced with two more. For a moment, the glimmer dimmed from Robert’s eyes. Well, well. Mitch tossed away two cards, slowly raised their replacements. A pair of nines. Pleased with his full house he watched Steven also switch out two cards. Steven’s shoulders dropped ever so slightly.
Being to the left of the dealer, it was Robert to bid first.
The postmaster leaned forward, by all appearances a cougar ready to pounce. Robert tossed in two bits, his gaze all but daring Mitch to do the same, which told Mitch all he needed to know. Taking his time, Mitch remained stretched out, sipped his bourbon. He was nobody’s prey. A fact Robert was about to learn the hard way. Though Mitch was tempted to raise the ante, he refrained. Instead, he calmly matched the bid.
Steven hesitated, chewing his cheek as he contemplated his decision. Ivy, one of Silver’s waitresses, had time to bring Bill another glass of whiskey in the time it took Steven to make a decision. Finally the mayor shook his head, added his cards to the discard pile.
All eyes turned to Robert.
Splaying his cards for all to see he said, “Three sevens, jack high.” Smug, he crossed his arms, leaned back in his chair as though it were impossible Mitch could better him.
Mitch had discovered early on that gloating often resulted in a poor loser waiting to knock him down on a dark, dusty street. He had a long scar on his arm from one such man who’d come at him with a knife and another close call with a six-shooter that still gave him the occasional nightmare. He’d learned from both experiences to stay humble and matter of fact. A man’s pride was a delicate thing and to Mitch’s mind there were two things one didn’t gloat about, taking a man’s woman and taking his money. Not that he’d ever taken another’s woman, but he’d seen his share of fisticuffs over the matter.
Although the pot wasn’t anything near as substantial as most of the games Mitch had played in along the Missouri River, and the amount Robert stood to lose would hardly leave him impoverished, Mitch nevertheless kept his tone even when he also laid down his cards.
“Full house. Nines over queens.”
Robert lurched forward, his gaze raking the cards as though to ensure Mitch hadn’t lied. Mitch didn’t say anything more. He gave Robert enough time to see for himself and calmly pushed the cards across the table, as it was Robert’s deal next. Then just as quietly Mitch scooped the pile of coins closer.
Silver, who never interrupted when the game was on, sidled over as a grumbling Robert gathered the cards. When Mitch had first found his way back to Marietta, he’d managed to arrive on the day of the annual church picnic. His timing couldn’t have been better as he’d folded into the gathering just as the bidding of the baskets was about to begin. Every year the unattached women prepared baskets of food that the bachelors bid on and each winning bachelor was rewarded not only with the food, but with the company of the woman who prepared it as they ate it together.
Silver’s had been the first basket being auctioned. Even from the distance he’d been standing, even with the crowd of people between him and the line of women waiting for their baskets to be sold, Mitch had noticed Silver’s beauty. Petite and curvy with long, curling blonde hair, she was impossible to miss. Not that the others weren’t pretty, as the willowy brunette who’d stood next to her had also caught his eye, but when nobody else but the reverend bid on Silver’s basket, he’d felt obliged to rectify the situation.
Of course that had started a bidding war between Mitch and Shane, who’d been too mule-headed to admit his feelings toward the woman at the time. Mitch had won her basket once Shane backed out and though he’d dallied with the idea of courting Silver, it turned out she only had eyes for his brother. There was no accounting for taste.
Although Mitch had to admit he’d never fallen for Silver and he didn’t begrudge her the happiness she’d found with Shane. Which was why his smile came easily when she stopped next to his chair and set a hand on his shoulder.
“You know the only way I make money here tonight is if you drink more than one glass of bourbon.”
“Well, then, I suppose I should do something about that.” Mitch swallowed the last little bit of amber liquid he had left then passed her his empty glass. “Why don’t you send it back with Ivy? Judging by the way my brother’s glaring at me, he doesn’t want you to overdo it.”
Silver rolled her pretty taffy-colored eyes. “If your brother had his way I’d be doing nothing more than sitting on that empty stool next to him.” She smiled warmly. “You don’t fool me, Mitch McCall. You’re worrying nearly as much as he is and you don’t need to. I’m fine.”
Indeed, she seemed to be but the image of her lying pale and bleeding on the floor was a hard one to forget. Especially given his past.
“I told these men I could only play until nine. But I can stop sooner if you need me to take over before then.”
Ever since Silver had been shot, Mitch had been helping run her saloon. Along with Ivy and Bruce, the man who kept order and helped tend bar when busy, Mitch had kept the saloon running in Silver’s absence. With no other obligations, no rush to move on to the next town and game, he’d been happy to step in and help.
“I’m fine to work until closing but to appease your brother I’ll stop at nine as agreed.” She squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll bring your drink over on the next shuffle.” She meandered her way between the tables back toward the bar as Robert dealt out the next hand.
Most of those tables were full. As Mitch had come to learn, Friday and Saturday nights drew the biggest crowds at Silver’s. That Friday was no different. The room was near full, with at least two men sitting at every table. Glowing lights hung above them, giving the saloon a warm, welcoming feel. Conversation flowed and ebbed like waves rolling into shore. The tables and floors gleamed. The thick blue velvet curtains tied back at the windows gave the establishment some class. And yet, to Mitch’s mind, it was missing something. Not whores, for if a man was so inclined there was Grey’s saloon across the street, just… something. He’d had some thoughts on that but he’d kept them to himself. Not only wasn’t it his saloon to change, but once Silver was fully recovered and he’d settled some of the business that had brought him to Marietta, he’d be leaving again.
End of Excerpt