Pine Valley, California
Nick Gabriel spotted the lights of the town of Pine Valley from across the desert floor but of course the town was farther off than it looked. He pushed ahead in the dark since he wanted to reach it before midnight. Glad to be traveling alone, he made it a point to stay out of the way of his old friends. Well, he guessed you couldn't call them friends. He wasn't sure he even knew what a real friend was anyway. Had he ever had one? Not since Joey. But Joey'd been a baby back then. Nick's hardened eyes flickered toward the horizon, his jaw clenched. No use thinking about the past.
At the age of thirty and after two terms in prison, he felt ancient and jaded and absolutely determined to keep his freedom this time. Being chained to other men, forced to perform hard labor, compelled to exist in subhuman conditions, living with boredom punctuated routinely by terror, were not what he wanted to go back to. No one had cared who he was or what he did but now he cared for himself. Knowing he was lucky to be released early this time, lucky to be alive, he'd vowed to create a new life.
He found he liked being a private investigator and had been paid handsomely for his services. This latest job wasn't entirely to his liking since the new client wanted two more operatives to join the search. He couldn't figure out why three men were needed to find one girl and bring her back to Los Angeles. Not wanting to ride with anyone, he told them to meet him in town. They knew the girl was with a flamenco dance troupe scheduled to perform in Pine Valley, California. He hoped he could at least get a bath and a shave, and maybe if he was real lucky, a couple of nights' sleep before they had to get back on the trail.
At the outskirts of town he stopped and unbuckled the gun belt on his right hip, stowing it in the secret pocket beneath his saddle. The gun he shoved into his waistband at the back of his pants under his jacket. Unless he knew he was riding into trouble, he didn't need so much firepower visible. He figured he could manage with just the one on his left hip. No sense in giving some local character any ideas about taking on someone with two guns showing.
Clip-clopping slowly down the main street, he thought this town looked a little better than so many others he'd seen which were lonely, dusty, and with few permanent buildings. Every town seemed to have a saloon, a general store, livery and blacksmith, and a sheriff's office. This one had some additional buildings, a two-story hotel and a large barn-looking structure to the side of the saloon. He was always surprised if he saw a church or a schoolhouse. If he did see them, he knew there would be nice women around, women who had husbands and children and wanted better for their families, a more civilized life. Lately there'd been a tightening in his chest and throat when he thought of family. Shit! You must be getting soft in your old age. Wanting a woman of his own, let alone kids, wasn't likely for him. He didn't want that tying him down anyway. No way!
Reining up in front of the saloon, climbing down, and flipping the reins around the hitching post, he stood outside a minute listening to the action inside. No sense in walking into a situation already started. All he heard was the plinking of a piano, the clink of bottle against glass, and "Call" or "What've you got?" Laughter. Men and women. Well, because he was so tall and because he looked dangerous, that all usually stopped whenever he entered a saloon. Might as well get it over with. Pushing purposefully through the swinging doors, he eyeballed the bar at the rear and, wearing his usual impassive expression, strolled across the room, and clattered a coin across the wood.
The bartender retrieved the coin with one hand as he poured with the other.
He drank quickly, the warmth of the whiskey sliding down his throat and into his gullet. It wasn't great whiskey, but it would do. Nodding his thanks, he pointed to his glass for a refill and slowly turned around to face the room while he sipped. All talk and action had stopped when he'd entered. Curiosity got the better of people, and they wanted to see who had come into their midst. He stood easy, non-threatening, one elbow resting on the bar, one boot heel hooked over the foot rail, Stetson low over his forehead. He made eye contact with the piano player who was, strangely enough, a grizzled-looking older woman. The only women usually found in saloons were young or at least youngish, pretty or trying to be. Poking a finger at his hat brim as an acknowledgement, he nodded to send a silent message not to stop playing on his account. Music and talk quickly started up again just as suddenly as it had stopped.
Thankful that was over, he took his glass and sauntered to an empty table.
"I'm out, fellas." The speaker rose and ambled across the room toward him.
One of the remaining players held up the deck of cards and caught his eye. "You interested, mister?"
Pursing his lips, he shook his head briefly but apologetically. "Maybe another time."
Nick glanced at the former card player and, liking the open expression on the man's face, shook the offered hand. "Hello."
"Mind if I sit? Buy you a drink?"
He recognized the type. Just someone looking to talk a bit, find out what he can so he'd have something to talk about later. He wasn't about to tell the guy much but, for some reason, he felt a tad friendly. "Sit," he said. "Sure. Wouldn't hurt, I guess."
Simpson gestured to the bartender who brought over a bottle and another glass. Simpson poured. "Didn't catch your name."
"Mm." Nick took a sip. He never knew who might have heard his name and didn't give it out freely. "Heard there were dancing girls in town. Mexicans or something." He drawled this slowly, focusing on the fact there were girls not just the one he was looking for.
Simpson's eyes lit up, and he licked his lips excitedly. "Boy, they're somethin' else. Taking a night off but they'll be on again tomorrow night. Them gals sure know how to move. Those fellas are kind of funny, odd," he amended. Simpson leaned over the table and, like he was sharing a big secret with his new friend, said, "I heard that one of the gals is White, an American but she's living with them Mexicans. She's a beauty."
Nick took a deep breath, keeping the flicker of interest off his face. Okay, he found her. "Tomorrow night, you say? Yep, that'd be somethin' to see."
A commotion at the doorway drew his gaze to three men. With only a momentary pause in the sound level, he figured these three men were already known in town. His belly tightened when he realized something familiar about two of them. Three years back they'd been in Yuma with him. Shit. He didn't want any trouble. Dipping his head, his Stetson shielding his face, he lifted the glass to his lips.
One of the men, the second one through the swinging doors, glanced in his direction. Recognition dawning, the man looked away, looked back, and then stopped dead in his tracks. "Gabriel," he muttered.
"What'd you say, Matthews?" The first man turned back, searched the face of the second one, and followed his gaze straight across the barroom to Nick. "Well, if it ain't the Angel Gabriel," he said deridingly, cold hatred in his eyes.
His prison nickname. Angel. He'd stopped counting the number of times he'd had to defend himself against men thinking Angel meant soft. He'd tried to keep to himself, stay out of trouble, but someone always wanted a new conquest—the proverbial notch on his belt.
"Newton," Nick acknowledged, his voice dangerously low. The first moment he recognized these men, he'd slipped his left hand slowly down to rest on his thigh under the table. It was inches away from his gun butt, his fingers lightly flexing. His eyes flickered from one man to the other, from Matthews to Newton to the last man. He wouldn't do the starting, no reason to on his part, but he'd finish it if he had to. Just because he tried to stay away from trouble didn't mean he didn't know what to do if it came to him.
"Well, well, well, the Angel Gabriel got out early. And we all know what got you out early, don't we?" Newton sneered. "Fucking bastard."
A guard had been attacked, and Nick had wrenched three prisoners off him before the other guards heard the commotion and finally arrived on the scene. Surprisingly, the injured guard admitted that Nick had probably saved his life, and the warden petitioned the court to have Nick's sentence commuted to time served. He was a couple of months from the end of his sentence anyway, and his life would have been worthless if he'd stayed in. But his actions sure hadn't made him popular with any of his former fellow inmates. He supposed it was too much to expect never to see any of them again.
Matthews and the third man, at a signal from Newton, fanned out and began to surround Nick. The saloon's patrons had finally quieted down, the tension in the bar heavy and dark. No one wanted to be hit by any stray bullets, but most everyone was afraid to make any sudden moves, not wanting to draw attention to themselves. But almost to a man, everyone slunk low in his chair or back as close to the wall as they could get and watched the positions of the gunmen.
"I don't want any trouble." Nick took a relaxed-looking sip of his whiskey. "Here Nate, why don't you get us another bottle." He pulled a coin out of his jacket pocket and tossed it to Simpson without taking his eyes off Newton. This would at least get his new friend out of the line of fire. Simpson scuttled away, but when he circled the room, he stationed himself behind Matthews. Damn, Nate, don't get involved.
"You should have stayed to yourself, Angel, and kept out of our business. That guard was goin' down. You should've let it be. I had to stay in another year because of you, you son of a bitch." Newton's mouth tightened, hatred spewing out of him like venom.
Like it was meant to be, he knew Newton would draw. Someone would die tonight, and he'd be damned if it would be him.
"Now!" Newton shouted. As his gun cleared leather, Nick drew his own, punched the table over, and fired twice. Crouching on one knee, he swung toward Matthews who lay flat on the floor, then to the third one.
"Don't shoot!" His arms high in the air, the man added, "I don't got nothin' against you. Never saw you before."
"Take your gun out of your holster with your left hand and drop it," Nick ordered, rising to his feet. When the man complied, he ordered, "Kick it out of the way."
That done, he looked back at Matthews, then at Nate, who loomed over Matthews with his foot square on his back. "Nate, take his gun out and cover him." Nick approached Newton and, kicking the gun away from the stilled hand, he squatted and checked his neck for a pulse. Dead. Damn it! I'm not gonna get much sleep tonight. There'd be too many questions from the local sheriff, who maybe would even take him in. It would depend on what Nate and all the other witnesses said. A bleakness hit him. He couldn't go back in jail. But where could he go so this kind of thing wouldn't happen to him? Again and again?
He heard the creak of the swinging doors and glanced up. A man with a silver star on his shirt slid through quietly, gun drawn. His gaze held Nick's as he addressed Nate. "Put the gun down on the bar. You too." He motioned Nick to follow suit. The sheriff checked Newton's pulse, confirming he was dead. "All right, what happened, Nate?"
"Sheriff, the dead guy drew first. You should've seen this fella's draw. I never saw anythin' that fast before."
Matthews, his voice slightly muffled by the floor, piped up, "Sheriff, we weren't doing nothin' wrong. Gabriel just started shooting."
"Liar!" Nate kicked Matthews in the side. "Your guy drew first."
"Max?" The sheriff glanced toward the bartender. "Did you see it?"
"Yeah, Sheriff. The dead guy drew first. Now, Nate here, I didn't know he could move so fast." The bartender gave a shaky laugh.
The sheriff holstered his gun and turned to Nick. "What's your name, fella?"
"Well Gabriel, you need to come with me. Nate and you…" He pointed to another man. "Come on, bring the other two. Somebody get this guy over to the undertaker." The sheriff gave a general look around and said, "I'll need statements from all of you later, so stick around."
Nick had been right. He didn't get any sleep until almost dawn. By the way people told the story, he figured the sheriff would see it as self-defense, but they had to go through the motions anyway. He thanked Nate as he dragged himself to the hotel, sought the night clerk, and booked a room. Throwing himself on the bed fully clothed seemed like the only thing to do at the time. He'd deal with whatever else after he had a few hours of sleep.