More Than Meets the Eye(8)

By: Karen Witemeyer

“Only go for the rich pots, huh?” Dunn’s mouth curved in a sly grin.

Logan just sipped his coffee, letting the barkeep think what he would. In truth, Logan despised gambling. Hated the greed that accompanied it, the unnecessary risk, the completely irrational belief that one could actually control fate. He’d learned to count cards, to run probabilities in his head, to read the faces of those sitting at the table around him, but he still lost. Not as often as most, and not more often than he won, but often enough to remind him that control was an illusion. No man controlled fate. God alone claimed that honor.

He eyed Dunn over the brim of his mug. “You got any big players around here?”

Dunn shrugged. “Most of the folks in these parts don’t have much ready cash. The boys from the mill will get up a good game when they’ve got wages burning a hole in their pockets, but the rest play friendly games as a way to pass the time. Play runs deeper here than at L. A. Campbell’s place, though. I don’t put no limits on the stakes or kick people out if things get a little rowdy. Unless someone starts breakin’ up the place. That’s just bad for business.”

“A fellow by the name of Hamilton ever play here?” Logan’s gut clenched even as he forced his expression to remain cool. He wouldn’t want the man to think him too interested in the answer.

“Zach Hamilton?” Dunn’s eyebrows arched.

Logan lifted the coffee to his mouth in a carefully measured display of nonchalance. “Man has the reputation of a player, and I heard he lived around here.”

“Oh, he lives around here, all right. Probably’ll be your neighbor, seein’ as how his spread backs up to the river, too. But a player?” Dunn shook his head. “I can’t picture it. Oh, I’ve heard the rumors that he might have gambled in his younger days, but I ain’t never seen him so much as touch a deck in my place. Nowhere else in town neither, as far as I know.”

Logan froze, the cup halfway between his mouth and the counter. Never touched a deck? That couldn’t be right. The cardsharp his father had described would never just hang it up. The thrill of the game? The addicting rush of power that came with each win? Logan himself battled the pull, and he despised the pastime. It made no sense for a gamester like Hamilton to simply retire.

“Maybe he rides over to Ben Franklin to play,” Logan gritted out as he slowly lowered his cup. It would make sense. If Hamilton had set up permanent residence in Pecan Gap, he’d not want to stir up trouble amongst his neighbors. Beggaring them with his underhanded gameplay would make any aboveboard business dealings next to impossible. It’d be wiser to conduct his confidence games elsewhere, and Ben Franklin was only a few miles’ ride farther from the homestead than Pecan Gap. Or he could even ride to Cooper. Bigger city. More anonymity. The fact that he didn’t gamble here didn’t mean he didn’t gamble at all. It didn’t mean Logan’s scheme would fail. It just meant Logan would have to be patient. Learn Hamilton’s habits. Get under his skin. Hamilton was smart. Cagey smart. Logan would have to be smarter.

“I wouldn’t know anything about what Hamilton does over in Ben Franklin,” Dunn was saying, “but he don’t exactly seem the socializin’ type. All them Hamiltons keep to themselves.”

“All the Hamiltons?” The question jumped out of Logan’s mouth before he could mask his surprise. He quickly swigged another mouthful of coffee and forced his spine to soften back into a more casual position after springing to attention at Dunn’s statement.

“There’s three of ’em.” Dunn glanced around, then placed an elbow on the bar and leaned close, lowering his voice to a raspy half-whisper. “Odd bunch. Claim to be siblings, but if you ask me, there’s no way they’re related. Not by blood. None of ’em look a thing alike. And that girl?” He turned and spat at the floor.

Hoping there was a spittoon back there somewhere, Logan hid his repulsion at the barkeep’s abysmal manners and lowered his mug to the counter. Somehow, the coffee seemed a lot less appetizing after that display.

Dunn swiped the back of his hand beneath his lower lip, then eyed Logan with a grim expression. “I ain’t the superstitious sort, mind you, but if I were, I’d swear that gal was a witch. A freak of nature, she is. Eyes that don’t match. And I’m not just talkin’ about eyes that are slightly different shades. No, this gal has one eye as brown as chocolate and another so bright blue, it pierces a man’s soul.” He shivered. “I can feel that blue eye of hers following me whenever she’s around. Cursing me.” He turned his head and spat again.