More Than Meets the Eye(7)

By: Karen Witemeyer

At only twenty-three, Logan had worked hard to cultivate a stony bearing to match the hard heart he’d spent seven years callousing. He wore a beard to disguise his youth and a gun to keep folks at a distance.

He squinted toward the west, where the sun still hovered well above the horizon. A mite early for a crowd to have gathered in the saloon, but then, he’d timed his arrival for precisely that outcome. An inveterate gambler like Hamilton wouldn’t bother to put in an appearance until the whiskey had been flowing for a couple hours, softening the brains and the inhibitions of his marks. Which made now the perfect time to collect intelligence.

With slow, swagger-heavy steps, Logan strode up to the batwing doors and pushed through. He moved just inside the entrance and stood with his back to the wall as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior.

A woman with henna-red hair and a bodice that left little to the imagination stood with her hands on her hips atop the small stage at the front of the room, haranguing the piano player about rushing the tempo of her song. A group of four men—farmers, judging by their overalls and serious expressions—sat around a corner table, discussing the necessity of getting a Populist elected to Congress. But it was the man behind the long, polished counter that Logan found most intriguing.

“Thirsty, mister?” the barkeep asked as Logan approached. He finished drying a tall glass, then used the dish towel to shine up the counter in front of the stool closest to Logan. “Delta County is dry, I’m afraid, but I’ve an assortment of switchels and shrubs, ginger water, sarsaparilla, coffee, or tea. Also got a full menu of food options if you’re in need of a meal.”

The barrel-chested fellow smiled warmly enough, if cautiously, as he took in Logan’s appearance, but when Logan pushed his hat back and fully exposed his scar, the disgust that registered in the barkeep’s face before he could hide it stirred Logan’s ire.

“Coffee’s fine.” Logan leaned an elbow on the bar, keeping his body angled so he could see both the barkeep and the door.

The Lucky Lady was a tame watering hole compared to the dives he’d frequented over the last four years, a necessary training ground for one who wanted to master not only cards but faces—learning to read tells and ferret out cheats. Consorting with the worst scoundrels humanity had to offer also taught a man a thing or two about survival. The recollection of the broken bottle that had been used to decorate his face kept Logan from underestimating anyone in the room. Even the flame-haired songbird making eyes at him as she conspicuously adjusted the scarlet garter holding up her black stocking. Women could be just as treacherous as men.

The barkeep set a brown ceramic mug on the counter in front of Logan, then retrieved a pot from the stove behind him. As he poured the brew, he peered up at Logan with a questioning arch of his brows. “So, you passin’ through?”

“Nope. Bought a spread up by the North Sulphur River. Plan to stay a spell.” At least until Zacharias Hamilton got his comeuppance.

His host eyed him with skepticism as he plopped a tin cup onto the counter. A small set of tongs rattled against the rim of the makeshift sugar bowl. “Ya don’t exactly strike me as the farmin’ type.” His gaze darted to the men at the corner table and back.

Logan shrugged and dropped two cubes of sugar into his coffee. “You got a spoon . . . ?” He drew out the pause, waiting for the barkeep to supply his name.

“Dunn. Arnold Dunn.” He wiped his hand on his pant leg, then extended it across the bar.

Logan shook it. “Logan Fowler.”

Dunn showed no recognition of the name. Not surprising. Seven years ago, the town had been brand-new, barely a post office to its name. Dunn probably hadn’t even been around. It wasn’t until the railroad came through in 1888 that people started flocking to the area. Which made Hamilton’s crime all the more severe. Logan’s father’s land would have tripled in value with the railroad’s arrival, but Hamilton had stolen it from him before that could happen. Had stolen his father’s life as well.

The barkeep extracted his hand, then found a spoon and set it on the counter next to the mug. As Logan stirred the dissolved sugar into his coffee, he cast a quick glance around the room to ensure no one was paying him any particular attention. Then he casually brought up the topic he most wanted to discuss.

“You get many high-stakes games in here?”

Dunn chuckled. “Didn’t call her the Lucky Lady for nuthin’, did I? Highest stakes in town. You a gamblin’ man?”

Logan took a sip of his coffee, studying the other man. “When properly motivated.”