“Twenty thousand dollars, Chui.” Luciana sighed. “Twenty thousand.”
“I heard you the first hundred times, cousin.” Chui lifted a metal lid and dodged the billowing steam. Once it had abated he lifted the lid fully and stirred the chili within.
“With that kind of money, I could open my own tavern,” she said. “Something small but elegant.”
“Si, and all you have to do to claim it is track down and capture the most wanted man in America.” Chui slammed the lid back down and stared from beneath greasy bangs. “Have you ever shot someone, cousin?”
“Well, I have. It’s ugly business, and a lot of the time they don’t just fall over dead. They scream and cry and sometimes they keep coming after you even with a dozen holes in their body.” Chui shuddered. “Is that something you want to see, cousin?”
“No,” she sighed. “But I do not wish to keep dealing Faro for the rest of my life, either.”
Chui headed out the back door and into the sun, Luciana following a second later. He went to a large wooden bucket filled with well water and thrust his face beneath the surface. Gasping, he used a ladle to spill it over his head and neck, thoroughly soaking his shirt.
“Gracias,” he said as Luciana handed him a faded towel. “Lucky, why not just find a nice gentleman and get married? There are a number of wealthy men who would be thrilled to put a ring on your finger.”
“A ring on my finger...or a collar around my throat?” Luciana laughed bitterly. “I have never seen much difference.”
“Please what? I don’t wish to be some rich man’s trophy seniorita who he trots out for the amazement of his gringo friends.”
“Listen to yourself,” Chui laid the towel in the sun to dry. “You don’t want to be a rich man’s wife? Is not that what all women want?”
“No,” Luciana said coldly “it is not. I’m going to take a bath before the evening crowd comes in, Chui. Don’t burn the chili.”
He nodded, wiping his brow and staring into the setting sun. It was magnificent, fat and golden red as it squatted on the horizon. Luciana almost believed that if she rode that way far enough, she’d be sure to find fortune.
Unfortunately, no matter how far you rode, or sailed on the ocean, the sun always stayed out of reach. Much like her dreams.
Luciana knew that her mother, grandmother, and sisters back in Mexico would be aghast if they found out her secret. She did not want to be married. Yes, men had their uses—her fiery night with Sam came to mind—but they tended to lay claim to the women they loved. As far as she was concerned, a ring on the finger was just two steps away from a brand on her hide, marking her as an owned piece of property.
Any husband she might have would insist she stop gambling, of course. Going out after sundown? Not suitable for a respectable lady. Luciana loved the night. She couldn’t imagine being locked away like gold in a chest, taken out only to impress.
After a good long soak in sudsy water, Luciana dressed in an elegant, lacy red gown. The whalebone corset the garment required made it a bit difficult to move, but pushed up her bosom sufficiently to distract the night’s players. The locals knew better than to ply their trade against the saucy Latina, but there were plenty of out of towners eager to strike at what they perceived as the weakest link.
Of course, there were also those patrons who believed if they lost enough money at her table they had somehow become entitled to spend the evening in her bedchamber. Fortunately, the Tiger had a reputation to maintain and anyone who got rowdy was usually thrown out—literally.
When she stepped off the stairs and took in the crowded room, she had to sigh. There was a rowdy bunch plaguing another Faro dealer, an older man named Tim. Sitting across from them was an odd looking trio. They were occupying a poker table but weren’t engaged in a game. In fact, they seemed to be having an argument.
Partially curious, partially stalling the start of her shift, Luciana wandered across the room to loiter near a support beam. It put her out of sight of the trio but allowed her to eavesdrop. She caught their conversation in snippets due to the constant drone of background voices and the clink of glass, the slap of cards as they were dealt.
“Don’t understand--” that was the man speaking. She hadn’t gotten a good look at his face, but he seemed slight of build and nebbish. He had traces of an accent she couldn’t place. “--Coyle was riding south when he left Carbon. What makes you think--”
Boisterous laughter from the bunch at the Faro table drowned out the rest, but she caught the red haired woman’s response.
“Bad News Bill was lookin’ to hook up with the Dalton boys. Them boys just robbed a train a short while back on the Montana border. So that’s where we’re headed.”
“I know all this,” the man seemed on the verge of losing control, though he spoke with great deliberateness. “But what of your posse you bragged of? I count only three of us here, you and your...your friend and me.”
“She ain’t nothing but an old friend,” the woman said in a huff. “Nothing ever happened!”
“Yes it did.” That was the big injun woman, and it seemed like she was enjoying herself.
“You just keep yer lips and tongue to your own damn self, Fox! Done told you a million times I ain’t like you!”
All converse stopped abruptly. Luciana couldn’t help but peer around the beam to see what was going on.
It didn’t look good. One of the cowboys from the loud Faro table had sauntered up to the trio’s table, and was fixating on the big Indian woman. The mustachioed man seemed to shrink into his chair, while the red-haired woman seemed to be waiting for her friend to react.
“Hey there, honey pie,” he said, badly slurring his words. The Indian woman took a drink from her mug, not paying the man any heed. “Hey, I’m talking to you. You speakey English? Me um want to screw um you!”
Luciana had heard enough. She was moving forward to intervene when the Indian woman’s hand lashed out like prairie lightning, smashing the cowboy’s nose to the side. He stumbled back a few paces and came crashing down on top of a game of poker. One of the table legs gave way and the cowboy went over in a pile of cards, cash, and coins.
“Madre dios,” Luciana said with a sigh. The rowdy crowd had been a powderkeg waiting for a spark, a spark which had now been lit.
Immediately the men at the table started stomping on the fallen cowboy, no one more fiercely than the heavy set fellow who had been winning. The cowboy’s drunk friends at the Faro table of course took exception to this, and rose to join the fray.
In very short order the elegant Laughing Tiger became no better than a sawdust strewn dive, as punches were thrown and furniture used as improvised weapons. One of the Cowboys made a detour from the grand melee and tried to grab the Indian woman’s hair.
She rose to her feet while grabbing his wrist and twisting. Her assailant found himself flung head over heels to land face down in a pool of sour beer.
Luciana figured the man got what he deserved, but then the Indian woman went too far; She whipped out a foot long bowie knife from a sheath on her back and raised it in the air, her dark eyes glassy and filled with zealous rage.
“Are you crazy?” Luciana spotted a bullwhip, largely used for decoration though it had once served on a ranch. She snagged the handle and let the tether fall loose to the floor. Old reflexes took over, and she gave it a good crack.
The Injun woman, as well as half the bar, turned their heads at the sound. While she was distracted, Luciana rolled her wrist and sent the whip snapping across the rubble strewn floor. The thong lashed around the woman’s wrist and Luciana gave it a hard tug. The knife flew out of her hand to clatter across the floor, coming to a stop near the kitchen entrance.
The Injun woman gave a hard pull, grunting like an ox. Luciana found herself being dragged by her own weapon. Looking at the Indian’s arms, she didn’t want to get close, so she put her foot up on the support beam to brace herself. It meant her skirt rode up and the bar had a glimpse of her undergarments, but she did stop sliding.
Using her free hand, the Indian managed to extricate herself from the whip’s embrace. Luciana barely had time to squeal and duck before a wooden chair smashed to splinters on the wall above her.
Luciana scrambled under a row of tables, the Indian following close behind. She risked a glance behind her and was shocked to see the raven haired woman hurling the tables out of her way like they weighed nothing. Yelping, she scrambled even more quickly on hands and knees, careful not to entangle her whip.
She made it to her feet when the Indian was still two tables away. Spying a nearby three legged stool the cleaning staff sometimes used, she snapped the whip out and entangled one support strut. As the big Indian woman bore down on her position, Luciana took a two handed grip on the whip handle and sent the stool hurtling through the air.
It smashed into the Indian woman’s jaw, drawing a line of blood across her face. The big woman didn’t go down, but she was clearly stunned.
Luciana pulled the slack of her whip back to hand, struggling to free it from the now broken stool. The Indian recovered her senses a bit, and two more knives much smaller than the last appeared in her hands as if by magic.
She was just barely able to twist out of the way of both missiles, one of which had been aimed squarely at her eye. Fire erupted on her cheek, and she realized she had been grazed by the knife before it continued past to stick in the rear wall.
“Puta!” Luciana pulled her arm back. She would flay the skin off the Indian’s bones!
She nearly dropped the whip when the sharp retort broke through the din of violence. Seamus banged his shotgun on the bar for added emphasis.
“That’s enough!” His face was redder than the setting sun. “Everybody out! NOW!”
“But what about our winnings?” one man dared to ask.
“Look at my place!” Seamus snarled. “I’d say your winnings are forfeit for damages! NOW GIT!”
Grumbling, the patrons filed out into the night. The Indian woman stalked toward Luciana and she braced for another fight. The raven haired huntress merely moved past her and retrieved her weapons from the wall. She paused, and then turned back to face Luciana.
“You’re pretty quick. I usually don’t miss.”
“You cut my face,” Luciana said in a hiss.
“Shame to ruin something so pretty. I think it won’t scar, though.”
“That is so reassuring!”
“Luciana, what in the hell are you doing?”
She whipped her head around and gaped at Seamus.
“What are you talking about? I was defending myself-”
“You were brawling with the customers! I’m docking your pay for every splinter of furniture the big Injun woman broke!”
“You can’t do that!”
“Just watch me.”
Luciana stormed out into the street. One of the cowboys who had started the whole mess was struggling to pick up paper money from the porch, bent over at the waist. His rump presented too tempting of a target, and she kicked him right into a horse trough. She didn’t wait to see if he drowned or not.
“Excuse me, miss?”
Luciana turned around, expecting a tongue lashing for kicking the cowboy. The red-haired woman was there, hands held up in the air and well away from her formidable looking pistol.
“Don’t mean to bother ya, I can see yer having a bad night.” She coughed. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Amelia Louise Redding, Federal Marshal.”
Luciana saw the shiny badge, which seemed authentic enough.
“I haven’t done anything wrong, officer,” Luciana started.
“What? No!” The marshal shook her crimson locks. “It ain’t nothing like that. I wanted to recruit you for my posse.”
“For your...you must be joking!” Luciana huffed. “I’m a Faro dealer, and a woman!”
“I’m a woman too, thank you very much,” the marshal said, her cheeks flushing red. “At any rate, you sure could handle yourself against Fox, and she’s as mean as a rattlesnake and twice as tough. Sides, you look like you probably speak a little Spanish, am I correct?”
“More than a little,” Luciana said with a chuckle. “I am no foolish girl who reads the periodicals, marshal. I came from Mexico on the back of a swaybacked mare, I know well the hardship of the trail—enough to know I want no part of it. I like taking baths and sleeping on beds.”
“Well, it’s a shame you feel that way, ma’am, because we’d sure like to have ya. Folks around here say you’re powerful lucky, so lucky it ain’t natural.” The marshal grinned. “Would it make any difference if I told ya each member of the posse gets an even split of the bounty?”
“Even split?” Luciana licked her lips. “The women don’t get a smaller share?”
The marshal’s green eyes narrowed. “Missy, what the hell do you think?”
Luciana took a deep breath. “I think...that I am going all in.”