Canyon City, Colorado
Late summer 1867
Out of money, out of luck, alone, and frightened, the girl known as Evening Star did the only thing she could think of to stay at the saloon’s poker table.
She bet herself.
But first Eve shuffled the deck with dazzling speed, subtly arranging the cards as she had been taught to do by Donna Lyon. While she worked, she tried not to look at the dark-haired stranger who had sat down at her table without warning. The man’s hard good looks were unsettling.
Outlaws like Raleigh King and Jericho Slater were enough for any girl to deal with. She didn’t need a handsome stranger to make her sore hands shake.
Eve took a secret, steadying breath and said, «Five-card draw. Table stakes. Ante up.»
«Just a minute, little lady,» Raleigh King objected. «You’re busted. Where’s your ante?»
«Sitting right here.»
«I’m the ante, Mr. King.»
«You’re betting yourself?» Raleigh asked in disbelief.
Reno Moran didn’t have to ask. He had read the determination in the girl’s posture when he sat down and took cards. It had been her combination of steady eyes and slightly trembling lips that had lured him across the room.
Whatever happened, he knew she meant every word.
«Yes, I’m betting myself.»
Eve glanced at the jewelry and coins stacked around the table in front of each man.
«I’m worth as much as anything any one of you has now,» she added.
Then she smiled a brilliant, empty smile and continued shuffling.
Silence spread out from the poker table, followed by a rush of whispering as the other men in the room asked one another if they had heard correctly.
The whispers told Reno that a lot of men had wanted the girl, but none had gotten her. A cynical smile shifted the line of Reno’s black mustache. There was nothing new in that particular game. Girls had been teasing and promising and then withholding their bodies for a long time.
Reno glanced from the deck of cards in the girl’s hands to the girl herself. In the saloon’s dim interior her eyes were a clear, uncanny gold that matched the lantern light rippling through her tawny hair. The cut of her dress was demure enough, but it was made of a crimson silk that set a man to thinking about what it would be like to unfasten all the gleaming jet buttons and touch the luminous skin beneath the fabric.
The direction of Reno’s thoughts irritated him. He was old enough to know better. He had been taught and teased by the most expert female since Adam’s wife fed him the forbidden fruit.
Looking at Reno, Slater stirred the pearls and gold coins he had just won from Eve.
«I figure this should match the ring you won off of Raleigh,» he said to Reno, «and be worth a damn sight more than that journal you’ve got left,» he added to Raleigh.
«The hell you say,» Raleigh retorted. «I have it on good authority that this here old journal contains a gen-u-ine Spanish treasure map worth more than all the pearls in the Orient.»
Slater looked coldly at the book but didn’t object to Raleigh’s statement.
Reno picked up the elegant, ancient ring he had won earlier from Raleigh. Emeralds flashed subtly, surrounded by gold so pure it took the imprint of his fingernail.
The stones were pretty enough, but it was the gold that held Reno’s interest. To him the feel and weight of gold was like nothing else. Women’s flesh was sweet and soft, but women were as fickle as a spring wind. Gold never changed, never corrupted, never turned out to be less than it seemed.
Silently Reno measured the ring against the girl whose name was as improbable as the innocence in her golden eyes.
It was Raleigh who expressed Reno’s doubts aloud.
«Huh,» Raleigh said to Eve. «So you figure you’re worth as much as the ring, the pearls, or the treasure map? You must know some pretty fancy tricks.»
The smile he gave Eve was frankly insulting.
«Give the little lady what she wants,» Slater said coldly. «One way or another, she’ll pay up. At Denver prices, a month of her time should cover it.»
Eve barely managed not to shudder at the thought of being at the mercy of a man like Jericho Slater for a single night, much less for a month.
Silently she told herself she didn’t have to worry. She wouldn’t have to pay off the bet, because she had no intention of losing.
For once the idea of cheating at cards didn’t make Eve squirm with unhappiness. If anything, there was a certain rough justice in cheating Slater and his gang. Everything of value on the table had been stolen a few days ago by Raleigh King. If she had to cheat to get everything back, she would.
Her only regret was that she could do no worse than that to the man who had murdered Don and Donna Lyon.
With outward casualness, Eve continued shuffling while she waited for the third player to agree to the unexpected bet. When no agreement came, she glanced cautiously at the man from beneath her thick eyelashes.
The green-eyed stranger had taken a seat at the table an hour ago, just before Eve had begun to deal the first hand. A single look at the stranger had told her two things: She had never seen a man who appealed more to her; and she had never seen a man more dangerous.
She suspected that the stranger’s Virginia drawl was as misleading as the seeming indolence of his movements. There was no laziness in his green eyes. Wariness was as much a part of him as his black hair and powerful body.
Yet Eve’s instincts kept whispering that this man was somehow different from men like Slater and Raleigh, cruel men who cared nothing about hurting or destroying those who were weaker than themselves.
«Just one thing,» Slater added coldly. «Make damned sure all the cards you deal yourself come from the top of the deck.»
Eve forced herself to smile despite the ice condensing in her stomach. She had no doubt that Slater would kill a woman he caught cheating just as quickly as he would kill a man.
«Are you accusing me of cheating?» Eve asked.
«You’ve been warned» was all Slater said.
Reno shifted slightly. The motion brought the butt of his six-gun closer to his left hand. Silently he measured the catlike elegance of the girl with the determined eyes and the soft mouth.
«You sure you want to bet yourself, Miss… what was the name again?» Reno asked, though he knew very well.
«Star,» she said softly. «My name is Evening Star.»
Eve’s voice was much calmer than she felt. She had lied about her name so often, she no longer hesitated over it. In any case, the lie was meaningless; no one alive remembered her as Evelyn Starr Johnson.
«All right, Miss Star,» Reno drawled. «Are you sure you know what you’re doing?»
«What do you care?» Raleigh demanded. «She’s old enough to have everything a man needs, and pretty enough to make taking it a pleasure.»
«Miss?» Reno repeated, ignoring the other man.
Reno shrugged, outwardly indifferent. Beneath the table his left hand settled on his six-gun.
The saloon’s hush changed into a humming of male voices as people left their drinks at the bar and focused on the poker table where the potential stakes now consisted of a rope of pearls, an ancient emerald ring, a Spanish treasure map…
And a girl called Evening Star.
Reno was certain the ring was real, had his doubts about the treasure map and pearls, and wondered how the girl with trembling lips and steady gold eyes had ended up as table stakes in Canyon City’s most infamous saloon.
«Five-card draw,» Eve said quietly. «My deal. Agreed?»
«We already agreed,» Raleigh said impatiently. «Deal.»
«You’re really sweating to lose the rest of your money, aren’t you?» Reno asked carelessly.
«Listen you son —»
«Shut up, Raleigh,» Slater interrupted coldly. «You can get killed on your own time. I came here to play cards.»
«The only one doing any dying will be this here rebel turncoat,» retorted Raleigh.
«I don’t see any rebel turncoats,» Reno said, smiling lazily. «Do you?»
The wolfish quality of Reno’s smile, plus Slater’s blunt warning about getting killed, told Raleigh he had made a mistake by dismissing the lazy-looking stranger as no threat.
«No offense meant,» Raleigh muttered.
«None taken,» Reno said easily.
Both men were lying.
Eve’s heart threatened to choke her as the moment approached when she would have to stop shuffling and deal. Given a choice, she would have gotten up and walked away from the grimy saloon and the three dangerous men. But there was no real choice.
She had nowhere to go, no money to pay her way, her stomach was growling from hunger; and most of all, a desire for vengeance burned in her blood like acid. Raleigh King had killed the only two friends Eve had.
And she had just thought of a way to return the favor.
Praying that the green-eyed stranger was as deadly as she suspected he was, Eve took a deep, invisible breath and began dealing cards with great care and dazzling speed. The cards made a crisp sound as she placed them facedown, one at a time, in front of the three men and herself.
Slater and the stranger watched Eve’s hands. Raleigh watched the place where red silk swelled outward over her breasts. Though the neckline of the dress was modest, the fit left no doubt there was a female beneath.
While Eve dealt, she avoided looking at Jericho Slater, for she knew his cold blue eyes would be telling her that she wasn’t going to get away with bottom-dealing good hands to herself any longer. With her fingers still sore and blistered from burying Don and Donna Lyon, she simply wasn’t fast enough to hold her own for long against a gambler of Slater’s skill.
Nor was the derringer concealed within the pocket of her red silk dress going to be much help against the heavier handguns worn by both Slater and Raleigh.
It has to work, Eve thought desperately. Just once, the weak have to win out over the cruel and the strong.
Eve didn’t look at the green-eyed stranger again. A man that handsome would have been unsettling under any circumstances, much less when a girl’s life depended on her concentration.
Five cards now lay facedown in front of each player. Eve set aside the deck and picked up her own cards, wondering what she had dealt to herself. From the corner of her eye she watched the stranger. If the possibilities of the hand he had been dealt excited him, it didn’t show on his face or in the light green crystal of his eyes.
Eve wasn’t surprised when Slater opened the betting, for she had dealt him two pairs. Nor was she surprised when Raleigh jumped in with a raise, for she had dealt him a straight. The stranger simply called for that round, as did Eve.
Without a word she dealt each man the one or two cards he requested and swept the discards to the bottom of the deck. She permitted herself a brief glance at each man’s face as he looked at his hand.
The stranger was good. Not a flicker of emotion showed on his face as he picked up his single new card.
Nothing showed on Eve’s face, either.
The cards she had were uninspiring. A jack, a nine, a six, a three, and a two. The suits were a complete mismatch. About all the cards were good for was to conceal the fine trembling of her fingers as she waited for the shooting to begin.
Dear God, let the stranger be as quick as he is handsome. I don’t want his death on my conscience.
Raleigh’s death, however, was another matter. Eve had no scruples about that. Anyone who could torture an old man to death while his dying wife looked on helplessly deserved a much more painful death than he was likely to get from the stranger’s six-gun.
Slater began the betting by throwing two twenty-dollar gold pieces into the pot. Raleigh called and then raised. So did the stranger.
Eve threw in her cards and waited for the shooting to begin.
On the final round of betting, Slater pushed the pearls into the center of the table. Raleigh followed with the journal. Reno tossed the ring into the pot.
«Call,» Reno said coolly.
Slater fanned his cards face-up at the table. «Full house. Kings and aces.»
Slater’s blue eyes began appraising Eve the way a man appraised a strange mare he planned to ride.
Raleigh crowed and turned over his cards.
«Four nines and a queen,» he said triumphantly. «Looks like the little lady is mine.»
«What about you?» Eve asked quickly, turning to the stranger.
Reno gave her an odd look. Slowly he began turning over his cards one at a time with his right hand. Beneath the table, his left hand lay relaxed and close to his gun.
«Ten of hearts,» Reno said. «Jack. King. Ace.»
As he turned over the last card, he watched Slater’s hands. The royal flush gleamed like blood on the table.
«Queen of hearts.»
For an instant there was only silence. Then Raleigh and Slater went for their guns. Slater was much faster than Raleigh, but it didn’t matter.
Reno moved with stunning speed. Before Slater could draw his gun, Reno upended the card table and slammed it into the other men with his right hand. With his left he reached for his own gun.
Eve scooped up the ring, the pearls, the journal, and the coins before any of it hit the floor. Instantly she sprinted for the back door of the saloon, racing past men who were too surprised to stop her. Just before she reached the door, she risked a fast glance over her shoulder, wondering why no one was shooting.
Slater had known immediately that he was no match for the stranger. Hands held away from his sides, he watched Reno with reptilian intensity.
Raleigh was neither as bright nor as fast as his friend. He believed he could draw and shoot quicker than Reno could. Raleigh died before he understood his mistake.
As the abrupt thunder of gunshots exploded in the room, a man called Steamer stepped partway between Eve and Reno. She watched, horrified, as Steamer drew his gun to shoot Reno in the back.
There was no time for Eve to pull her derringer free of its hidden pocket. She jammed her hand in the skirt pocket, grabbed the small pistol, and pulled the trigger. The layers of red silk didn’t slow the bullet one bit, but the hasty shot almost missed.
The bullet burned across Steamer’s thigh. He gave a startled cry, his arm jerked, and the shot he triggered went into the ceiling.
Before Steamer’s finger could squeeze the trigger again, Reno turned and shot him in a single fluid motion. As Steamer fell dead to the floor, Reno spun back around to face Slater.
Shocked by the stranger’s lethal speed, Eve stood and stared for a moment before common sense took over. She bolted for the nearby stable.
Eve had prepared well for this moment. She had traded the battered Gypsy wagon that belonged to the Lyons for an equally battered saddle and saddlebags. She had been surprised to discover that, once free of the traces, the gentle old gelding called Whitefoot was both fast and eager for the trail.
Whitefoot was saddled, bridled, and ready to go. All of Eve’s possessions were in the saddlebags and bedroll tied behind the saddle. Later she would take time to change into trail clothes. For now, speed was more important than modesty. She jammed the ring on her right hand, pulled the rope of pearls over her head, and stuffed the journal and gold coins into a saddlebag.
In a wild swirling of crimson silk, Eve threw herself into the saddle, spun Whitefoot on his hocks, and headed out of town at a dead run. By the time Whitefoot passed the saloon, the scarlet skirt had climbed to Eve’s thighs.
From the corner of his eye Reno glimpsed a flurry of crimson and a breathtaking length of leg clad in cotton pantalets so sheer, they were little better than going naked. The drumroll of horse’s hooves filled the ringing silence that had followed the crash of gunfire.
Slater smiled grimly at the man who was watching him over the barrel of a six-gun.
«Looks like she suckered both of us,» Slater said calmly.
«Looks that way,» Reno agreed.
«Friend of yours?»
Slater grunted. «Just as well. Man would have to be crazy to turn his back on that bit of scarlet.»
Reno said nothing.
Slater fell silent. It was dealer’s choice, and the man with the six-gun was the dealer.
Without looking away from Slater, Reno assessed the men remaining in the saloon. Raleigh and Steamer were dead.
«Friends of yours?» Reno asked.
«Not particularly. I don’t cotton to stupid men.»
«But you ride with them.»
«No,» Slater corrected. «They ride withme.»
Reno’s smile was sardonic.
«Well, you’ll be riding a little light,» he said, «but not for long. God must have loved fools and horseflies. Sure to hell he made a lot of them.»
Reno’s ice green eyes counted the men remaining in the saloon. Three of them were drifters. The rest were part of Slater’s gang. All of them were being careful not to give Reno a reason to shoot.
«Might your name be Reno?» Slater asked.
«Some folks call me that.»
A sound went through the men in the saloon. As one, they eased backward, giving Reno all the room he might want and then a bit more just to be safe.
The only move Slater made was to nod as though a private guess had just been confirmed.
«Thought so,» he said. «Only a few men can move like that.»
Slater paused, then asked with real interest, «Is the Man from Yuma still hunting you?»
«Too bad. Hear he’s fast. Really fast.»
Reno smiled. «You heard right.»
«Did you kill him?» Slater asked. «Is that why he isn’t hunting you anymore?»
«I had no reason to kill him.»
«So I hear. Pity you weren’t with your twin brother, Jed, when he died. Then Wolfe could have made it a clean sweep.»
Slater became very still. «You were the third one there that day. The one with a six-gun.»
Though it wasn’t a question, Reno nodded.
«I was there. Best piece of work I’ve done. Whole lot of folks are sleeping more easy now that Jed and his boys are pushing up daisies.»
Slater’s face went still and hard.
«Lie facedown on the floor, boys,» Reno said calmly. «I’m feeling a mite nervous right now, so don’t do anything to startle me while I take your guns.»
There was a muted surge of motion as the men in the saloon went facedown on the floor. Reno moved among them quickly, gathering guns. As he worked, he kept an eye on Slater, whose right hand was inching toward his belt.
«After I gather up all the loose iron,» Reno said casually, «I’m going to wait outside the door for a while before I ride on. Whenever you feel lucky, you just lift your head and see if I’m still around.»
None of the men seemed in a hurry to take Reno’s offer.
«Slater, I hear you keep a little hideout gun behind your buckle,» Reno continued. «Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Now, I’d hate to kill an unarmed man, but not as bad as I’d hate to be shot in the back by a coyote who beats women and cheats at cards enough to put Satan to shame.»
Slater’s hand stopped moving.
Reno went through the room, drawing guns and shucking bullets onto the saloon floor. His passage was marked by the sound of the bullets falling and bouncing across the uneven wooden boards.
When several minutes had passed without the noise of more ammunition falling, one of the men eased his face off the floor and looked around.
«He done left,» said the man.
«Check the street,» said Slater.
«Check it yourself.»
By the time one of Slater’s men got up the nerve to check the street, Reno was four miles away, riding at a dead run as he followed the trail of the girl called Evening Star.