Texas Redemption(3)By: Linda Broday
Laurel struggled to see the owner of the steely voice.
“What’s good for you is letting her go,” the stranger spoke again, a threat in his low drawl making the gooseflesh rise on her arm. She strained for a better view.
The shadowed corner beyond reach of lamplight hid his face. But not the long, lean legs propped out before him. The way he lounged so easily in the chair stirred the embers in her mind of someone she’d known long ago. Like this one, his quiet bearing had carried much weight.
Jeb shot to his feet, upending her. His mouth flew open, then snapped shut in disbelief. Laurel scrambled to safer territory, clutching the back of a spindly chair.
“You’re not from these parts so I reckon you don’t rightly know who you’re dealin’ with, stranger.”
“I recognize a mealy-mouthed swamp rat when I see one.” The man straightened, lifting his black felt hat from the table. The deadly hiss of snake rattles filled the silence. Slowly, he angled it on his head. “I’ve crossed paths with far too many.”
Only one man wore a hat banded with snakeskin from which diamondback rattlers dangled off the back. He leaned forward into the lamp’s glow. Someone stole all the air.
Laurel’s gaze traveled to the tall loner’s features. Her dry mouth fought for moisture. Creases beneath his high cheekbones had deepened into valleys, underscoring the grim set of his mouth. And the dark hair sported a few streaks of gray at the temples.
She sidled toward the obscurity of a group who had jumped to their feet. Trouble had a way of making folks edgy. Some already headed for the door, their stomachs forgotten.
“I give you three seconds to apologize for that name-calling.” The young bully shifted, a bit of the swagger fading.
“And I’ll give you two to scrape that steak off the floor.” Shenandoah rose lazily. “I believe it’s mine, and I haven’t eaten in two days.”
“What’ll you do if’n I don’t?”
“Choice is yours.” The icy glare never faltered. “The easy way or the hard. Make it light on yourself, boy.”
The Colt weighting Shenandoah’s hip apparently gave Jeb plenty of concern. He flung an angry scowl about the room. If hoping for support, none came. Color drained from his face when he slapped holster leather and found empty air, realizing Ollie had confiscated his revolver at the door. Laurel wouldn’t sympathize. Jeb had dealt out plenty of misery.
“What’s all the goldarned commotion?” Ollie propelled her petite frame between the towering men.
Shenandoah continued to hold Jeb in his stare. “This boy owes me a steak. Mine’s on the floor. We’re settling up.”
Ollie lobbed a questioning glance her way. Laurel cringed but answered, “Jeb made me drop the plate.”
The wiry woman swung back, directing a pointed stare to Shenandoah’s hand resting on the butt of his Colt. “Shootin’ irons ain’t allowed in here. No exceptions. Didn’t you see the sign that said to leave ’em on the counter?”
“I saw it.”
Though he spoke to Ollie, his granite gaze never wavered from Jeb. Laurel knew if the overgrown boy twitched he’d shake hands with St. Peter.
“Means what it says. That’s my rule.” Wiggling the pipe between her teeth, Ollie stood on tiptoe to get a better look. Furious puffing sent plumes of smoke toward the ceiling. “Don’t I know you, mister?”
“Ever been to Missouri?”
“Among a few hundred other places.”
“I never forget a face.” Ollie rubbed her chin. “Might you be the fellow they call Shenandoah?”
“Depends on who’s asking.”
Laurel’s stomach churned. When she could take a breath, she wondered how Ollie knew him since Shenandoah left years before the woman arrived at Taft’s establishment.
Ollie swung back to Jeb. “You chuckle-headed shavetail. You don’t have the sense God gave a pissant. Here’s a man you don’t wanna mess with. You’re mighty lucky he hasn’t already filled you so full of holes your own mama would mistake you for a flour sifter.”
Jeb bristled. “Gimme my forty-four an’ we’ll see who’s able to see daylight through.”