I am super stoked for today’s Sunday Snippet. When I discovered romance it was American West Historical’s that I glommed at the library, and they remain some of my favorites to this day. When the historical market shifted to regency I was sad but went with it. One of the American West Historical’s I loved was Lorraine Heath’s The Gunslinger, so when Avon told me they were re-releasing this book in ebook I immediately asked to do a Sunday Snippet of it. If you’ve never read an American West Historical Romance you are missing out on some great stories.
Chance Wilder was a man with his back against the wall.
Finding comfort in the rough wood of the saloon pressing against his slender shoulders, his chair tilted back, he studied the comin’s and goin’s, constantly alert to the potential for trouble. He didn’t fear the bullet that might hit him dead on. It was the one that would sneak up from behind that weighed heavily on his mind.
He scrutinized the young fella—standing with his elbow perched on the bar—who hadn’t taken his eyes off Chance since Chance sauntered through the saloon doors. He’d watched the man down half a bottle of whiskey, his fingers caressing the butt of his gun in between swallows as though unable to find courage in either the liquor or the sidearm. He figured the fidgeting gent would meet his Maker before Chance rode out of town.
With a slight shift in his hips, Chance eased forward and the chair’s front legs hit the wooden floor with a resounding thud. The saloon suddenly became more hushed than a prayer meeting as wary eyes homed in on him. He could sense the anticipation on the air, the thrumming of excitement that made every last one of them hypocritical vultures.
His gaze cautiously roaming the room, he slowly tipped the bottle of whiskey until he’d refilled his glass without so much as a splash, his hand steady as a rock. In his line of work, he relied on a steadfast hand. He set down the bottle, picked up the glass, and dropped back against the wall, balancing the chair with the confident ease that he used when cradling his gun in the palm of his left hand.
He sipped on the amber liquid like a man in no hurry—which he was. He had no one waiting on him, hadn’t had anyone waiting on him since he’d killed his first man at fourteen.
He heard one cowboy clear his throat and the harsh whisper of another. He didn’t have to hear the words to know what they were discussing.
Every person in the saloon—every citizen in the town—wanted to know who Chance Wilder had come to Lonesome, Texas, to kill.
Toby Madison hurtled himself through the swinging doors of the saloon. The thick cigar and cigarette smoke burned his eyes, while the stench of sour whiskey and sweating bodies made him want to puke. Or maybe it was the thick blood trickling down the back of his throat that caused his stomach to lurch. He thought the bully might have busted his nose.
“Hey, boy, get out,” a giant cowboy ordered, clamping a large hand onto Toby’s shoulder.
Toby jerked free, his frenzied gaze darting over the glaring faces. He hadn’t expected half the men in town to lollygag in the saloon this time of day. He’d never find the one for whom he was desperately searching.
Then he realized that everyone was crowded to the right of the bar, leaving open space that he could see out of the corner of his eye. He swung around. His gut knotted up tighter than a hangman’s noose when he saw the stranger in the black duster sitting in the far corner, alone, his chair tipped back and his silver eyes narrowed as thinly as the sharp-edged blade of a Bowie knife.
Toby swallowed hard and limped hurriedly across the room. “You the gun-for-hire everybody’s talkin’ about? Are you Chance Wilder?”
The man’s eyes narrowed further, and Toby figured he could slice a fella open just by looking at him. “If’n you are, I wanna hire you.”
“Already been hired,” Wilder replied in a quiet raspy voice that still managed to echo around the saloon and cause a shiver to crawl down Toby’s spine.
He heard gasps and feverish whispers. Even with the blood trailing down his throat, his mouth went dry. “But them bullies is beating up my sister. I want you to make ’em leave her be.”
“You look old enough to do the job.”
“I tried to stop ’em from hurtin’ Lil, but there’s five of ’em—”
The bartender grabbed him, his beefy fingers biting into Toby’s skinny arm. Toby bucked with all his might but couldn’t wrestle free of the relentless grip. Panic clawed through him. He had to save Lil.
“This is no place for you, boy,” his captor barked as he hauled Toby across the room like the sack of flour he’d dropped when the bullies grabbed his sister and dragged her behind the general store.
Desperation edged Toby’s words as he fought frantically to keep his eyes on Wilder. “I’ll pay you everything, everything I got!”
Wilder slammed the front legs of his chair against the floor. The bartender froze. Toby wrenched away and moved beyond reach. The gunslinger unfolded his tall, lean body and tugged on the brim of his black Stetson.
“What the hell,” he murmured. “I ain’t never been paid everything before.”
“You want to steer clear of this mess,” the bartender said in a voice that Toby didn’t think sounded too sure of what it was saying.
Wilder pulled one side of his black duster back to reveal a pearl-handled gun housed in a holster slung low on his hip. Everything is a hell of a lot, mister. You gonna better the kid’s offer?”
“No … no, sir,” the bartender stammered.
“Then don’t tell me my business, because you ain’t paid for the privilege.”
“We gotta hurry,” Toby announced as he scurried out of the saloon. He heard Wilder’s spurs jangling as he followed. He figured Lil was gonna have a cow when she found out he had hired a gun to save her. But he didn’t see as he’d had a choice.
Chance sauntered after the towheaded kid, lengthening his stride as they distanced themselves from the saloon. Skinny as a willow branch, the boy couldn’t be any older than seven or eight. But he had spunk. Chance had to give him that. And if he wasn’t mistaken, the boy had a broken nose. He hadn’t noticed it until the bartender grabbed the kid to haul him out. It had to hurt like hell, but the boy’s only worry seemed to be his sister. Chance chuckled low. He was looking forward to receiving everything—and how much trouble could it be to chase a few bullies away from a little girl?
With his booted feet pounding the boardwalk, the boy raced past the general store, flew around a corner, and disappeared between two buildings. Stepping over the split sack of flour that dusted the wooden slats, Chance gave the wagon in front of the general store a passing glance. Then he heard the kid’s indignant yell, quickened his pace, charged into the alleyway, and staggered to a halt as five men gave him an insolent glance, before returning to their business.
A cowboy in a battered brown hat had one arm wrapped around the boy and was pressing the business end of a pistol to his temple. The boy stood as still as a stone statue, his eyes trained on his sister—pinned against the wall by a man large enough to crush her. Her skirt and petticoats were hiked up to her thighs … up to her slender womanly thighs, revealing slender ankles and longs legs that might stretch clear up to her throat. Her burnished hair in wild disarray tumbled past her shoulders. With each labored breath she took, her torn bodice revealed the creamy curve of a small breast. Scratches marred alabaster skin that had probably never seen the sun before that moment. Blood trailed down from a split lower lip and a bruise was forming high on her cheek.
Her captor shifted, pressed a beefy forearm against her delicate throat and began to unfasten his britches with his other hand. “Figured you’d stop fighting with the right incentive,” he drawled.
Defiance shot into her startling cornflower blue eyes and quickly faded into acceptance of her fate. She must have fought like a wildcat to hold the brutish men at bay as long as she had.
“Don’t believe the lady has much interest in your style,” Chance said with feigned calmness, wondering why no one had come to her defense until now.
The apparent leader snapped his head around and snarled, “This ain’t none of your concern.”
Chance slipped a matchstick out of his shirt pocket and wedged it between his teeth. In his youth he’d discovered that he had the embarrassing habit of rolling out his tongue when he slid the gun from his holster. As if looking like a panting dog in the middle of a gunfight wasn’t bad enough, he’d damn near bit off his tongue a time or two. Gnawing on the matchstick kept his tongue behind his teeth where it belonged. And it had the added advantage of making him look a little more dangerous. “The boy paid me to make it my concern.”
“Toby,” the woman gasped low, shaking her head at her brother. Chance’s gut clenched. Her raspy voice sounded like she’d just crawled out of bed after a long night’s sleep or an even longer night of lovemakin’.
“He’s gonna save you!” the boy assured her, proudly puffing out his chest even though he still had the barrel of a six-shooter kissing his temple. Chase tried to remember what the boy had called his sister—Lydia? Lilly? Lil? That was it. Lil.
The leader released a sharp bark of laughter. “Head out, mister.”
“Where I come from, men don’t paw ladies who don’t want to be pawed,” Chase told him.
“Well, she ain’t no lady. She’s a whore. Jack Ward’s whore.”
She let loose a stream of spittle that hit her insulter in the eye. He swung his arm back—
“Don’t even think it,” Chance commanded in a tone rife with authority. “Can’t tolerate a man who hits a woman.”
The brute lifted a corner of his mouth in a sneer. “That so?”
“Yep, that’s so.” He wrapped his fingers around the edge of his duster and drew it aside, hooking it behind his gun.
One of the other men started to twitch, his beady little eyes growing round. “Hey, Wade, I’m thinking this might be that fella—”
“Shut up,” Wade growled, knocking the woman to the ground before planting his feet apart, facing Chance squarely and issuing his challenge. “Stop me from hitting her.”
Chance met and held each man’s gaze briefly before letting his icy glare settle on the one itching for a fight. “I don’t want any misunderstandings here. I need your boys to know that I’ll kill every man who draws a gun.”
“Holy hell,” the nervous man said, throwing up his arms. “He’s the gunslinger, Wade. I ain’t gettin’ myself killed over no woman.”
Wade’s hideous smile faltered. “That so? You the gunslinger?”
“He sure is!” Toby yelled. “And he’s fast, too. Faster than anybody!”
“They say you’re reckless and wilder than most,” Wade said, doubt laced through his voice. “They say you’ve killed twenty-four men.”
Chance gave a short nod. “That’s what they say.” He slid his gaze over to the man who still held the boy. “The first bullet goes right between your eyes if your gun ain’t holstered by the time mine clears leather.”
With a shaking hand, the man slid his gun into his holster and released the boy. “This ain’t my fight.”
Chance jerked his head to the side. “Get outta here, boy.”
The youngster rushed to where his sister was crouched against the wall. He curled up in her lap and she wrapped her arms closely around him. That wasn’t exactly what Chance had in mind for the kid. He didn’t like for children to see death. At its best, it was an ugly sight. At its worst, it guaranteed nightmares.
He locked his focus squarely onto Wade. “If you and your friends want to just stroll on outta here—”
Wade went for his gun. Everything else seemed to unfold within the same excruciatingly slow moment. Chance slid his gun from his holster, heard an explosion, and felt a bullet bite into his shoulder as he hit the dirt, rolled, aimed, and fired. Surprise flittered across Wade’s face—just before he crumpled into a lifeless heap.
Chance struggled to his feet. The woman stared at him in horror, as though she’d forgotten the man he just killed had planned to brutally abuse her. He’d long ago accepted that the reality of death usually made people forget that only moments before they’d desperately prayed that the deceased would die. “That your wagon in front of the general store?” he asked.
She gave a brusque nod. Chance pinned three of the men with a steely-eyed glare. “Reckon she’d appreciate it if you’d finish loading it for her.” They bobbed their heads like apples tossed into a barrel of water. “See that you get her a new sack of flour while you’re at it.”
They scurried off to do his bidding. He looked at the man who’d held the boy earlier. As much as he wanted to shoot him in the foot for terrorizing a child, he merely said, “Fetch the sheriff.”
The man balked. “Wade drew first.”
Chance nodded slowly. “Yep. Be sure you tell him that ’cuz I can’t tolerate liars and you just saw what happens to people who do things I can’t tolerate.”
The man was still nodding when he disappeared around the corner.
The boy scrambled out of his sister’s lap and came to stand before Chance, his head bent back as he looked up at him with something akin to hero worship reflected in his eyes. “You saved Lil.” The boy dug a hand into the pocket of his britches. “I’m gonna pay you everything just like I promised.”
Chance held out his hand, and the boy dumped “everything” into his cupped palm: a length of frayed string, a rusty harmonica, and a bent penny.
Chance Wilder never wanted to be a hero. A road-weary gunslinger with a ruthless reputation, he focuses only on his next target—and his next payday. That is, until a young boy offers Chance everything he owns—a piece of string, a harmonica, and a bent penny—if he’ll save his sister from a couple of thugs. Chance agrees, only to discover that the beautiful, fierce young woman in need of rescue is actually the very person he’s been hunting: his next mark.
But after he saves her, Lillian Madison awakens in him long-buried dreams and possibilities. Facing the demons of his past, Chance is forced to question his next move. Dare he risk everything by following his heart … and trust that the road to redemption begins with Lillian?
Originally appeared in the print anthology To Tame a Texan, under the title Long Stretch of Lonesome.