Willow palmed her cards and glanced around the table. Over the course of the last two hours, she had become adept at reading the other players' 'tells.' Spike, the mortician, sucked in his right cheek when he had a decent hand, both cheeks when he had nothing. Deputy Andrew the banker might as well have been wearing a sign, as he was in the unfortunate habit of raising an eyebrow and nodding at his cards as if to say "how-de-do, Mister three of a kind." When he came up empty, he visibly pouted and squirmed in his seat. Donnie, too, was an open book; biting his lower lip and darting his eyes around when he thought he had a decent draw.
Warren, however...Willow had yet to figure him out. He sat perfectly relaxed in his chair, his expression of arrogant disdain never faltering. Willow didn't think she'd ever seen such cold eyes on a human being. In any other situation, coming up against a card player such as the Sheriff, she would have scooped up her winnings and high-tailed it out of there. This time there was too much at stake, and besides, she and Donnie had a plan.
She had feared Donnie would derail that plan when he started hitting the bottle hard upon first sitting down. She knew he was nervous, but Warren's spontaneous seating assignment change meant that Donnie was drinking straight gin, not the watered down liquid Tara had provided them. When Tara had reappeared in the small room an hour into the game, ostensibly to empty Spike's ashtray, and had managed to inconspicuously knock Donnie's bottle to the floor and smash it, Willow had nearly cheered. The barmaid returned promptly with another, less potent bottle for her brother.
Unfortunately, the damage had already been done.
Ethan threw down his pickaxe with a huff and pulled a yellowed piece of paper from his coat pocket. He unfolded it carefully and squatted down next to his lantern, holding the brittle parchment at an angle to catch the light and squinting at the faded ink on the page. He traced a line from the edge of the paper, counting off the distance under his breath and pausing his fingertip at the image of a cluster of flat-topped boulders. He stood slowly, folding and returning the paper to his pocket as he turned in a complete circle, his eyes straining to read the landscape in the muted light of the half moon. His sharp vision picked out a potential spot, and he picked up his lantern and axe, kicked the boulder he'd been digging alongside, and started off toward his new objective.
Xander tightened the final nut holding the wheel in place on the new axle, and wiped his brow with the back of his sleeve. He set aside his wrench and removed the blocks from under the wagon before releasing the pulley and carefully lowering the wagon to the ground. He was putting on his jacket when the large sliding door to his workshop opened with a creak.
"Larry! Jeez, you scared me."
"Why so jumpy?" the barber gruffed, leading Miss Horsey to the cart.
"Uh, no reason," the carpenter answered with a nervous laugh, glancing over to the tarp covered pile in one corner of the workshop. "Let's get her hitched up."
"Will tell you what's goin' down tonight?" Larry asked, holding the horse by the halter as Xander attached the saddle and harness.
"Nope, didn't offer and I didn't ask."
"Sounds dangerous," Larry mused. "Wanna go watch?"
"You betcha," Xnader grinned.
The two men finished their task in an atmosphere of giddy anticipation, led the horse and cart around to the front of Xander's shop and hitched Miss Horsey to the post. With an agreement to meet at the saloon, Xander excused himself to tell Anya where he'd be, while Larry rushed off to collect Clem.
Madam Darla glided down the wide staircase, her royal blue silk skirts billowing over wide crinolines and swishing against the polished mahogany banister. She walked with imperious grace, her eyes dancing with satisfaction over the finery of her surroundings: the deep burgundy flocked walls, matching velvet draperies, an assortment of carved wood framed chaise lounges and chairs with overstuffed cushions covered in embroidered fabric, gilded mirrors, brass wall sconces and lead crystal chandeliers.
When Mayor Wilkins had brought gas light to Dusty Hollow the year before, hers was the second building outfitted for the new technology-right after the Mayor's mansion.
Darla stepped into the sitting room, where her ladies were beginning to assemble for the evening. One of the newer girls sat at the spinet, softly playing a delicate minuet, while the others draped themselves over the couches or leaned against the walls in practiced poses. A servant appeared with a tray of glasses and bottle of claret, which she left on a sideboard next to an assortment of liquor decanters. Madam Darla allowed each girl one glass of the red wine to loosen their nerves and morals, but that was all. She fancied her house a high-class establishment, and would not stand for drunkenness from her whores. It was encouraged among the male guests, however. Madam Darla had learned many a valuable secret from the inebriated lips of her clientele.
One such secret had come directly from Sheriff Mears, one of the few men in town to whom Darla personally administered services. That had been the start of a mutually beneficial arrangement. She had been more than willing to help him dispose of several unwanted residents of Dusty Hollow in exchange for a guarantee of free reign over her empire of vice. Warren was only too happy to look the other way at some of Darla's younger acquisitions, even going so far as to return to her custody any girl who tried to escape the house of ill repute. Those were rare occasions, however. Darla ruled her house with an iron fist, with the help of her lover Liam, a hulking brute of a man whose viciousness was well known.
"Ladies, I want you all here tonight," she announced. While it was usual for her to send several to the saloon to solicit customers, Darla noticed with satisfaction that none dared to question her directive.
Darla strode into the entry hall and pulled on her lace gloves. Liam entered from outside, where Darla could see her carriage waiting.
"Shall we go get your new girl?" the Irishman asked, offering his arm.
"Yes, my Angel."
Lieutenant Finn slowed his horse to a walk and peered into the distance. He could see the lights of the town several miles away, but the movement of a lone figure nearby captured his attention. He held up his hand for silence and pointed in that direction. His patrol consisted of the five best members of his usual troop, and as they rode quietly towards their target, they gradually spread out into a semicircle, prepared to close in at a moment's notice.
As they neared the man, Riley could see it was not the Red Bandit, but he maintained his cautious approach until they were within 20 yards. The man wore a dark suit, plain but well tailored, and stood in a shallow hole about three yards in diameter, swinging a pickaxe haphazardly. Whoever he was, Finn surmised he was not used to physical labor. Riley's men had virtually surrounded the stranger before he heard the whiny of a horse and looked up.
"Oh, you gave me a fright," the man said, though his expression betrayed no such emotion. "Can I help you officers?"
"Lieutenant Finn, United States Cavalry," Riley stated. "We're tracking a wanted criminal to Dusty Hollow."
"Dusty Hollow? Why, I live there! How can I be of assistance?"
Riley dismounted and passed his reins to Corporal Miller before taking a piece of paper from Sergeant Gates.
"Have you seen this man?" he asked, holding out the wanted poster of the Red Bandit. The stranger inspected it carefully for several long moments.
"Well now, I can't be sure, but I have seen a young man who may be the one you're looking for. Is he dangerous?"
"Very," Finn answered, handing the poster back. "We'd be much obliged for any information."
"He only just arrived in town, said his name was Smith."
Riley nodded. "Probably an alias. Do you know where we can find this Mister Smith?"
"I would try the saloon-Maclay's. There's not many places in town, and that's where I saw him before."
Finn hauled himself back into his saddle and looked toward the town.
"Thank you, sir, you've been very helpful."
"I noticed there was a reward mentioned," the man added casually.
"If it's him, you would be entitled to it, Mister..."
"Rayne. Ethan Rayne."
Willow tried to still an antsy leg, which jittered nervously under the table. She was holding steady, her bankroll depleted a little, but more or less intact. Donnie had been losing as planned, but she could tell he was almost to the point of having to throw in his deed, and neither of them had come up with the one hand that could break the bank. While she could stay in the game indefinitely, it was imperative that Donnie win on the hand that staked the bar. With a pot that size, Donnie could pay off all his debts.
Warren had just dealt, and while she looked at her cards Willow wondered if they would have to resort to more extreme measures when a motion out of the corner of her right eye caught her attention. Donnie rubbed his head, then his chin, and finally scratched the tip of his nose. It was the signal! Willow tried to keep her emotions in check as she let out a breath.
Donnie started the bidding, throwing in four bits. Willow frowned, expecting him to start higher. Spike sucked in both cheeks, but called. Willow raised a dollar, and was too busy trying to glean some information from Warren's stony face to notice Donnie looking at her. Andrew's shoulders slumped and he tossed down his hand. Warren stared hard at Willow before calling. Donnie and Spike each threw in another dollar and Warren asked for cards.
When Donnie requested three, Willow nearly spat out the gulp of watery gin in her mouth. She swallowed hard and looked at her hand again. A pair of fives, an eight, a ten, and an ace. Spike took three cards as well. Willow lay down the eight and ten and took two cards, while Warren dealt himself one. Willow held her cards close to her vest and fanned them out to reveal a full house, fives and aces.
Donnie again began the bidding, starting at a dollar. Spike folded immediately. Willow raised to $5, which Warren doubled. Around and around they went, the pile in the center of the table growing until Willow estimated there had to be over a hundred. Warren looked over at Donnie and reached into his vest, pulling out a roll of ten-dollar bills. He counted out ten of them and tossed them onto the pile. Donnie blanched and looked around the table.
"Something wrong, Donnie?" the Sheriff asked.
"I can't cover that, Warren," Donnie stammered.
"You've stayed in this far, it'd be a shame to waste your hand now," Warren smoothly replied. "Maybe you have something else of value you can stake? There's always the saloon..." Warren led. "If you're so confident in your cards, it's not like you'd really be risking it."
Donnie hedged appropriately, screwing up his face as though trying to puzzle out a problem. After several long minutes, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a folded parchment. He laid it on top of the stack of bills. Warren's smile was predatory.
Willow felt a tightening in her gut, but reached into her own bankroll to call. The noise from the saloon seemed to fade away in the small room, while the card players all stared silently at each other. Warren turned to Donnie, who lay down his cards: two pair, queens high. Willow closed her eyes tightly and shook her head. She looked again at her hand, hoping somehow it would be enough, and placed them on the green felt. Warren's lips curled into a derisive sneer. He revealed his own hand: four kings, and began scooping the pile of winnings toward him.
As his arms stretched across the table, Willow saw the cards peeking out of his left sleeve and grabbed his wrist. The Sheriff's face reddened with fury.
"What the hell do you think-"
Willow stood up, not releasing her hold, plucked the cards from his sleeve, and threw them into his face.
"Mister, you're a cheat."
There was an audible gasp from one of the other men, but Willow couldn't have said who it came from. She continued to stare bullets at Warren, who yanked his arm away and stood up sharply, his chair falling over backwards with a bang.
And then, all hell broke loose.