Howdy folks.The release date on this book is coming soon. I know that I said that months ago, but this time I mean it! Seriously! I love this storyline and the new world I have created and I think you will too.
Here is the last preview chapter as promised. This one introduces Tom Dunn; the youngest member of the Red Star Gang. He is the gambler of the group and his backer is the mischievous specter known only as The Kid.
If you haven’t read the previous preview chapters, you can check them out below:
Preview one: The Death of Bobby Estrella
Preview two: Introducing Luke Bassett
Preview three: Introducing Sandy Tucker
As always, please let me know what you think!
Right in Front of His Wanted Poster
An excerpt from the Tale of Tom Dunn
“There’s no such thing as cheating at cards. It’s all just part of the game.” – William “Canada Bill” Jones’ last words before being choked to death, Charity Hospital, 1880.
Now that the trains ran through Luna Gorda, the town boasted of no less than four hotels. The Cloverleaf Hotel was the oldest and smallest of them. It was a narrow two story building consisting of three small guest rooms and a bath upstairs and a common area and kitchen downstairs. Established in the early days of the settlement, the Cloverleaf Hotel had long been owned by the O’Malley family. Proprietorship had been passed down through two generations until, at the time of this tale, it was owned and operated by Miss Joline O’Malley.
The small, but cozy parlor of the hotel was filled by a modest bar and two tables, one of which was occupied by four men playing a game of cards. This meant that the small bar needed to be tended and, this early in the day, that meant that the responsibility fell to Joline herself.
She sat glumly behind the bar reading a dime novel, only looking up occasionally to shoot irritated glares at the men when they asked for something. Most of those glares fell upon Tom Dunn. The nerve of him, calling a game together in her parlor in the middle of the day. If she’d had the ability, her eyes would have burned a hole right through the back of his head. She had better things to do than wait on him. On top of that, he expected her to keep her mouth shut about his reputation. If the three men he was playing with hadn’t been guests at her hotel, she would have kicked him out.
Tom, who had his back to her, was wearing a new hat he had bought just the day before. It was a wide brimmed Stetson in the ‘gambler style’ and he had pinned a tilted red star to the side of it. His jacket was lying across the back of the chair behind him and the striped blue shirt he wore had the sleeves rolled up so that the men he played with couldn’t suspect him of hiding cards.
Tom grinned as he dealt out the latest hand of cards. “Joline! A round of whiskey for my friends here! I’m buying!”
If the other men at his table were pleased by his generosity, they didn’t show it. All he got was a general grunt from the three of them. After all, he had won the last three hands and at this point he was buying them drinks with their own money.
Joline slammed her book down on the bar top. Grumbling, she poured four shots of whiskey into tumblers and carried them out to the table.
She started with Albert Swen, a railroad employee that was staying at the hotel while waiting for his next assignment to roll into town. He was a hard, but mild-faced man with a thick chin strap of a beard.
He nodded at her as she placed the glass in front of him, but addressed the man sitting at the table to his right. “So you live in Puerta Muerte, huh?”
“Yep,” said Jorge with a drunken smirk as he cast away the cards he didn’t want. Jorge was a squat Hispanic man who had the rough demeanor of someone who knew how to handle himself in a fight. He had come in town to visit his mistress on his day off and things hadn’t gone well. Jorge already had a tall bottle of cheap wine open in front of him and barely noticed when Joline gave him the whiskey. “Gimme three.”
“Puerta Muerte? That’s about twenty miles from here,” said Denny Dodge, a traveling salesman passing through town. Unlike the other two of Tom’s players, he was dressed all neat and tidy, his mustache oiled and shaped into neat curls on the ends. “In Texas, right?”
Jorge nodded. “Yep. Five miles east of the border.”
Joline served Tom last. He was a handsome man and his mixed Anglo and Mexican heritage showed in his tanned skin and thick black hair. He was grinning cockily as he looked at the cards in his hand. He barely looked up at her when she placed the glass in front of him.
“Thanks, darlin’,” he said in an offhand manner and she realized that he hadn’t drank the first glass she had given him. It was still full.
Joline wanted to smack his narrow mustache right off of his lips. She settled for leaning in close to his ear. “You and I are gonna have us a little talk when this is over.”
If Tom heard the menace in her tone, he didn’t show it. He spoke to Jorge. “I hear Puerta Muerte’s a dangerous place. Folks say it’s full of bandits.”
Jorge chuckled. “Well, that ain’t wrong. But it’s safe enough if you got the Sheriff on your side.”
Joline turned to storm back to the bar and wasn’t aware that she had walked right through the specter of the fifth man at the table. She did, however, feel the pinch that the apparition left on her behind. She lurched and gritted her teeth, but resisted the urge to break a glass over Tom’s head. She resolved to spit in his next glass instead.
Jorge tossed some coins into the small pile in the center of the table. “I’ll call.” There were a few grumbles, but everyone matched his bet.
Albert shrugged. “Two pair.” He laid his cards down to show a pair of tens and jacks.
“Blast!” said Denny, throwing his cards down.
“Three of a kind,” Jorge said with a grin, showing off the three nines in his hand. He reached for the pile of assorted coins.
“Wait,” said Tom. He laid his cards down to show three kings and two jacks. “Full house.”
Jorge’s smile fell. “Aw hell. Again?”
“Best luck I had in months,” said Tom.
Denny picked up the cards and Tom pulled in the coins.
The specter disappeared from behind Jorge and reappeared next to Tom. The strong smell of cloves rolled past Tom’s nostrils. It always smelled like cloves when the Kid appeared.
The specter looked to be somewhere in his teens, but Tom wasn’t sure how old he really was. All he knew was that the Kid was slight of frame and had a youthful face. He wore a pistol on each hip just like Tom did and a Mexican sombrero hung on his back, held there by a cord around his neck.
The specter leaned in close to Tom’s ear. “Boooored!”
Tom winced slightly but he didn’t reply to the loud outburst, knowing that the other players at the table hadn’t registered the disturbance. The Kid was like an impish ghost that only Tom could see or hear. An annoying, but sometimes useful ghost.
The Kid flounced into an empty chair, sitting in it sideways with one leg over the armrest. “What’re we doing here, Tommy?”
Denny finished shuffling the cards and started to deal, but Tom stuck out his hand. “Cut?”
Denny plopped the cards down and Tom cut them. As he did so, he expertly palmed a card. Denny started dealing again.
The Kid snorted. “Cheating for small stakes? You ain’t gonna make your name that way. Come on. There’s bigger fish elsewhere in town.”
Tom cleared his throat. “So Jorge, I hear they got some good games going down in Puerta Muerte but I never dared try heading down there. How does a man get the Sheriff ‘on his side’ as you say?”
“What’re you talking about, Tommy boy?” the Kid asked. “You hate that sheriff.”
Denny nodded in interest. “Yeah, how do you get in with the man? I been looking for a new place to sell my wares.”
The specter, with a bored look, gestured at Denny and the cards spilled clumsily out of the dealer’s hands. Denny swore and picked them back up to reshuffle them before he could continue dealing.
Jorge put down his emptied whiskey tumbler and grinned at being the center of conversation. His voice was slightly slurred. “Well, it ain’t easy. I’m okay ’cause I work for him. Other than that . . . well, you ain’t heard it from me, but you gotta grease the right palms if you know what I mean.”
Tom pretended innocence. “Grease palms? Sounds unsanitary.”
The Kid laughed sarcastically, then gave Tom a deadpan look. “Seriously, I’m gonna cause all kinds of havoc if you don’t get out of here soon.”
“Gimme two,” said Albert the railroad employee, oblivious to the Kid’s threats. He discarded two cards and picked up his replacements as he replied to Tom. “He means you got to pay the Sheriff for protection. I heard about that. It’s a shame, but he ain’t the only sheriff around with that policy.”
“Oh,” said Tom, discarding two cards of his own. He looked to Jorge. “Is it expensive?”
Jorge hiccupped. “Depends if he likes you.” He leaned towards Denny. “I wouldn’t go there if I were you, salesman. The Sheriff don’t like ballyhoo men.”
Albert tossed in two quarters. “Raise you fifty. So what do you do for the Sheriff that keeps you safe, Jorge?”
Jorge took a drink directly from the bottle in front of him and wiped his mouth before saying proudly, “I work at the bank in town.”
Tom shot a meaningful glance to the Kid and scoffed. “A bank? In a town full of outlaws? Who’d dare put their money in there?”
“Hey! I keep it safe!” Jorge said with a frown. “’Sides, no one’s even tried to rob it since the Sheriff started putting his own money in there. No one would dare.”
The Kid was now leaning forward with interest.
“The Sheriff puts his own money in?” Tom’s eyebrows furrowed in disbelief. “I heard he sends it out of town.”
Jorge shook his head. “No way. I seen it myself. He has his own safe in the vault that no one else can use. Makes the deposits hisself.” Jorge paused, blinking suddenly as if realizing he had said too much. “But you didn’t hear that from me.”
A smug look briefly crossed Tom’s face and he winked at The Kid. “No worries. It’s none of my business anyhow.”
“Now you’re talkin’,” said the Kid with a chuckle.
Jorge looked blearily down at his cards and scowled, then tossed them on the table. “I’m done, boys. Gotta try and see the missus one last time before I head back to town. Got a shift tomorrow.”
He picked up his bottle, which now had about a third left in it, and planted it against his lips. He tilted his head way back. The Kid, a mischievous look on his face, reached out and made a squeezing motion with his hand.
The remaining wine in the bottle sprayed out into Jorge’s mouth and down the front of his shirt. The man coughed and sputtered, looking at the bottle like it was possessed. The other three men stared at him for a moment, then laughed.
Jorge looked back at them as if trying to decide whether or not to get angry. Finally, he chuckled and stood from his chair. He shook his head as he wiped off what liquid he could. “Well that caps it. I’m off.”
The bank guard grabbed what remaining money he had off of the table and walked out toward the front door, muttering to himself.
“The rest of you still in?” Tom asked.
“Yeah,” Albert said, scratching his head.
“Me too,” said Denny. He chewed his lip while looking at his cards. “I don’t get what he was saying. If Puerta Muerte’s full of outlaws, why would they be so scared of a lawman? You’d think they’d just shoot him.”
“Some have tried,” Tom said and tossed in another quarter. “I’ll raise you two bits.”
Denny tossed in a quarter of his own. “And?”
“Ain’t you heard?” Albert said. The railroad man’s eyes went wide and his voice took on a mysterious tone. “They say he can’t be hit by bullets.”
Tom snorted. “Yeah, I heard that, too. Bunch of hogwash if you ask me.”
“I don’t know,” said the Kid. The specter turned in his chair and propped his feet up on the table, placing his hands behind his head. “Come on, Tommy. You seen stranger things.”
Denny seemed just as dubious as Tom. “Seems to me they just haven’t found the right shooter.” The salesman sighed. “I call. What yall got?”
Albert laid down his cards. “Two pair. Aces high.”
Tom grinned and dropped his cards on the table. “Three kings.”
“No way!” said Denny, scowling as he threw down his cards. “Five hands in a row you had three kings. No one’s that lucky.”
Tom pulled the pile of coins towards him. “You’re right. I’d best stop now.”
“Just a minute,” said Albert with a frown. “That’s my drinking money. I want a chance to win it back.”
Tom gave them both an apologetic smile. “Sorry, a good gambler knows when his luck is out and that’s my last gasp. I’m calling it a day. Maybe we can play again another time.”
“Finally!” the Kid groaned and disappeared in an aromatic cloud of clove.
The two remaining men grumbled as Tom stood. He pulled on his coat and gathered his winnings into a leather pouch, then stopped by the bar to pay his tab. “Joline, your service was dag-gum remarkable. As usual.”
He smiled back at the scowl she gave him and dropped a few extra dollars and change on the bar. With a tip of his hat, he turned and walked out the door.
Tom stepped out onto the hotel’s front porch and winced at the sunlight. It was a beautiful day, clear and hot. The old main street was sparsely populated with people going about their business, mostly locals. He could hear the hammering of nails from two streets over. New buildings were still being built.
Tom’s grin widened. He loved the new Luna Gorda. It had once been a dreary place in his mind; a slow-paced town where the locals got nowhere, but the train’s coming had brought new life to the place. He envisioned that one day it could be as big as Mesilla or Santa Fe.
Part of him itched to head over to the new street and peruse the shops again, perhaps spend some of that money he had just made. Unfortunately, his business was in the old section of town. He started walking down the street towards the saloon, nodding to folks along the way.
Tom stopped in front of the jailhouse as something caught his eye. He turned and looked at the bulletin board covered in wanted posters. A giggle escaped his lips and he moved closer, jumping up the two steps to the porch. Amid the jumble of bounty promises were the three members of his gang.
Luke’s poster read, Luke Bassett, of the Red Star Gang. Wanted for Robbery and Public Disturbance. Reward, $150. The artist’s rendering was a decent one, highly detailed, though the person who had drawn it obviously was working only from eyewitness accounts. They had drawn a surprisingly accurate depiction of Luke’s intense eyes, but most of his face was obscured by a bandana marked with a tilted star.
Sandy’s poster wasn’t quite as well done. The artist had drawn him with a full beard and his hair looked darker than the dusty brown it really was. His bounty was a bit higher than Luke’s for some reason at $175.
Tom’s grin fell away as he saw his own wanted poster. The artist had drawn Tom with an overwide nose, his eyes slightly crossed, and there was a stupid grin on his face. His bounty was also lower than the others, which he found insulting. But the thing that bothered him the most was the way they had written his name. It read, Tomas Jefferson Dunn, of the Red Star Gang. Wanted for Robbery. Bounty $125.
Tom drew back, his face twisted with disgust. He caught the smell of cloves as the Kid appeared next to him. The specter pointed at the wanted poster and let out a guffaw.
“They still ain’t changed it, huh? You never have told me how that happened. What was it? Marshals get your name wrong? Or was your daddy just a bad speller?”
Tom frowned. It was actually worse. His father had wanted to name him after one of the founding fathers, but his mother had wanted to name him Tomas after his grandfather. “Shut up, Kid.”
“Hey!” said a child’s voice and Tom looked down to see that just a few feet away was a young boy with a piece of coal in his hand. He was using it to draw on the walkway.
Tom put on a smile. “Sorry. What’s your name?”
The child’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Neddy.”
“Hi, Neddy. Mind if I borrow that piece of coal?” Tom asked. “Just for one second.” He snatched it from Neddy’s hand before the child had time to decide. “I’ll give it back. I promise.”
His jaw set, Tom took the piece of coal and began working on the poster.
In the parlor of the Cloverleaf Hotel, Albert and Denny were still sitting at the table looking unhappy.
“I just know my luck was about to turn around,” Albert was saying. Surely there was a way he could make the money back. “Denny, you going anywhere soon?”
The salesman put down his drink and shrugged. “My train don’t come in for a few hours yet. Why?”
Albert turned towards the bar. “Hey, Miss Joline. There anyone else staying here that we can call down to play a game?”
Joline put her dime novel down and gave him a dull look. “Nope. You two are the only ones here for the day.”
“Aw hell,” Albert moped.
Joline frowned. Why wouldn’t the men just leave already? As long as they were sitting in the common room drinking, she had to stay. She made a decision.
Joline shook her head exaggeratedly. “I really can’t believe you boys actually went and played a game with Tom Dunn in the first place.”
“What do you mean?” Albert said, suddenly suspicious. “He famous or something?”
Joline didn’t bother to suppress her smile. “Famous for cheating, maybe.” Both men stood and she added, “He couldn’t have gone far.”
Tom stood back and nodded in satisfaction at the changes he had made to the poster. The smile on his face in the poster no longer looked quite so goofy and he had given it a proper mustache. More importantly, he had blackened out some of the letters and it now read, Tom Dunn, of the Red Star Gang. Wanted for Robbery. Bounty $725.00.
“Sad,” said the Kid in amusement.
“I think it’s a definite improvement,” Tom replied.
He tossed the piece of coal back to the the child just as the door to the inn burst open. Albert and Denny spilled out, wincing as their eyes adjusted to the sun. Tom quickly turned to head across the street, but it was too late. The two men started towards him.
“Hey!” shouted Albert. “You stop there, Tom Dunn!”
“Yeah, you . . . scoundrel!” echoed Denny. The other people in the street turned to look.
The Kid chuckled. “Gee, I wonder what gave you away?”
Tom sighed. “Joline, I’d bet. She still hasn’t forgiven me for kissing her sister.”
“Well, you gonna fight it out in front of the jail?” the Kid asked, gesturing at Tom’s wanted poster.
“Uh, no,” Tom replied and walked towards the two men, wearing a disarming smile. He met them in front of the general store. “What is it, gentlemen?” He started patting his pockets. “Did I forget something back there?”
“We want our money back, sir!” Denny harrumphed.
Tom blinked innocently. “And why would I do that?”
Albert pointed a stiff finger. “You were cheating!”
“Woah now,” Tom said, feigning shock. “Hey, that’s a slanderous charge. Why’d you think that?”
“We know!” Denny insisted.
“That’s right,” Albert agreed. “Pay up. No one gets three kings five hands in a row.”
The Kid appeared atop a horse tethered in front of the store. He sat atop the horse’s rump cross-legged, and sucked at his teeth. “Sloppy.”
Tom placed his hands on his hips not far from his two pistols, “That was just blind luck, sirs. Do you have any proof of this?”
Albert, eying the guns, drew his own pistol and pointed it at Tom. “The hell with proof, cheater! Give us our money and we’ll be on our way.”
“Put the gun down, Albert,” Tom said. He left his expression unfazed, but he was surprised by this aggressive behavior from the railroad man. “You ain’t gonna shoot. Sheriff Dale’s office is just over there and he is a personal friend.”
“Oh ain’t I?” Albert’s lips pulled back from his teeth and he pulled back the hammer with a click. “I ain’t about to let a thief cheat me and get away with it.”
Denny licked his lips. The salesman had seen enough gunfights in his travels and had no desire to be caught in the middle of one. The other onlookers had similar thoughts and began entering buildings or heading for alleyways where they could watch from safety.
Looking uncomfortable, Denny said, “Just give the winnings over, Dunn. Then we’ll let you go like nothing happened.”
“Well, I protest! I take great offense at being called a cheater,” Tom said. “Still, I suppose I have no choice . . .”
Tom reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out the pouch of coins. Albert held out his free hand, but Tom tossed the pouch at the man’s gun. Albert turned and fumbled with the pouch, finally catching it in the crook of his arm. By that time, Tom had already run up to him.
He started with a punch to Albert’s nose, which rocked the man’s head back. Tom then grabbed the man’s wrist and twisted, wrenching the gun from his fingers. He breathed a sigh of relief that it didn’t go off.
Albert punched him in the ribs with his free hand and Tom swung an elbow into the side of the man’s face. This knocked the railroad man back far enough that Tom was able to get his foot up. Tom’s front kick caught the railroad man in the stomach and sent him stumbling backwards.
Tom let the purse fall and cracked the railroad man’s gun open. He shook the bullets onto the ground, then tossed the gun to the side and took a step back. “Now I want you two to stop and think for just a dag-gum moment-!”
Denny surprised him with a flying tackle from behind that took Tom to the ground. Tom’s hat flew off and he ended up with a mouthful of dirt. He twisted, trying to shake the man off.
Tom sputtered, spitting mud. “Damnit, Denny! Get off me!”
The salesman was no brawler, but he held on tight and he was behind Tom in such a position that it was hard for Tom to get any leverage. They tussled for awhile until Tom was finally able to flip over so that he was on top of Denny.
Tom pried at the man’s fingers, twisting them until, with a yelp of pain, the salesman finally let go. Tom rolled to his feet and when Denny tried to sit up, Tom lashed out with a right hook. The salesman fell to his back; out cold.
“Stop right there!” said Albert. The railroad man was down on one knee and was clutching his pistol, having used the time of Denny’s distraction to retrieve and load it.
“Great.” Tom grimaced, spitting again. He was now covered in fine dirt that had adhered to his sweat and his hair was sticking up in all directions. “I’m sure I look ridiculous.”
Albert stood. “Now pick that purse back up and this time you walk over and hand it to me.” He cocked the hammer and glared. His split lip and bloodied nose made him look all the more furious. “And don’t you think I won’t shoot.”
What Albert didn’t know was that he was now standing directly behind the horse that Tom’s ghostly companion was perched on. Just as Tom was about to retrieve the purse, the Kid cried out and smacked the horse across the rump.
Tom was the only one who saw what had happened, but the horse definitely felt it. The poor beast felt a sting like twenty horseflies biting at once. It let out a scream and kicked out with both rear hooves, catching Albert right in the lower back.
The kick sent the unfortunate railroad man up on his toes. He let out a shocked cry and his finger convulsed around the trigger. The gun went off, causing the spectators to gasp. Luckily, the force of the kick had knocked Albert’s aim high and the bullet shot harmlessly into the air.
Tom took the opportunity to step forward deliver an uppercut that knocked the man out. As Albert hit the dirt Tom dusted himself off and picked up his pouch of winnings.
He looked up at the Kid. “I’m surprised you interfered like that.”
The Kid shrugged. “The horse did it.”
They were interrupted by the sound of the door of the Sheriff’s Office slamming open. “Tomas Jefferson Dun!” shouted Sheriff Jim Dale.
Tom rolled his eyes at the way the Sheriff had pronounced his name, putting so much emphasis on the Mexican way of saying it. He turned. “It’s just Tom! You know that, Dale.”
Dale stood in the open doorway of his office with a shotgun in his hands. He was a middle-aged man with a thick mustache and a confident demeanor that came from his years of experience training under the retired Sheriff Paul. He stormed toward Tom, his deputy following closely behind him with a rifle at the ready.
“What the hell’re you doing starting a fight right outside my door?” Dale asked, his voice flabbergasted. “Right in front of your wanted poster, even?”
“I didn’t start no fight,” Tom insisted. He pointed at the fallen forms of Albert and Denny. “I was being robbed! That man drew on me and that man tried to help him.”
Sheriff Dale chuckled. “They were robbing you? Right. What’d you do? Cheat them at cards?”
Tom frowned. “I cheated nobody, Dale. It was just a friendly game.”
“I saw it, Uncle Dale, sir!” said the boy that Tom had taken the coal from earlier. “Those men did start the fight.”
Dale glanced at the child, then gazed down the street at all the onlookers that had come out from their cover. He raised his voice. “Anyone see anything different?” There were a few noncommittal head shakes, but no one spoke up. He turned back to face Tom. “I should arrest you right now.”
“What for?” Tom protested. “I didn’t shoot nobody. I didn’t rob nobody. You can’t even get me for being drunk in the streets.” He took a few steps toward the Sheriff and opened his mouth. “Here! Smell my breath.”
The Sheriff raised a disgusted hand and called out to his deputy. “Ted, go get the Doc. These men need seein’ to.”
Tom feigned offense. “Ain’t you going to ask me if I want you to arrest these men?”
“There’s only two reasons I don’t haul you in right now,” Dale said, raising two fingers. “First, your momma makes the best pie in town and I know she won’t forgive me. Second, your tiny bounty ain’t worth my time.”
“Two reasons?” Tom said. “I’m impressed, Sheriff. I didn’t know you could count that high.” At Dale’s enraged scowl, he raised his hands and added, “Just a joke. I wasn’t gonna ask you to haul them in. I think they’ve learned their lesson.”
Dale spat. “Get out of my sight, Tom. Next time you make a ruckus in my town I will arrest you. And that’s a promise.”
“Understood,” Tom replied. He walked over and picked up his new hat. He smacked the dust off of it, frowning at the way it clung to the felt.
“And that goes for your friends too,” Dale added. “You tell ‘em I said it!”
Tom raised a hand in acknowledgement and headed across the street and into Hank’s Saloon.
End of Preview Four.
Noose Jumpers: A Mythological Western coming soon! Stay tuned for more details.