Nightwalker Page 1


Nevada, 1876

Smoke from a dozen cigars and cigarillos filled the saloon, creating a gray mist that hung over the patrons’ heads. George Turner, a man with a curious mix of races running through his blood, was playing the piano. Milly Taylor, a soprano who survived by prostitution in this godforsaken hellhole, was singing about being in a gilded cage. The desert dust, which never seemed to really settle, joined with the miasma of smoke, and it was only the fact that the fiery red ball of the sun was finally settling that made it bearable to sit at the poker table.

John Wolf was holding a flush, aces high. He leaned back easily in his chair. There was a fair amount of money on the table, but if he appeared casual, it wasn’t just his customary stoicism that made him so.

He didn’t give a damn about the money at stake. He’d just returned from a trip that could change the lives of everyone around him. Now he was waiting for Mariah.

“I’ll see your dollar, breed,” Mark Davison said.

John didn’t bat an eye. He knew Davison was trying to rile him with the remark. The man should have known better. If there was anything John had learned from being raised between two worlds in this lawless sandpit, it was to control any outward display of emotion.

“I’ll raise you two,” Davison continued.

Davison was an ass, a would-be gunslinger.

He’d come from the East, with family money and an attitude. Whether he won or lost, he tipped the bartenders and the girls, so that, at least, was good. But he’d taken up with Frank Varny and his crowd, and that was bad.

“Two bucks,” Davison repeated. There was color in his cheeks.

“Two bucks,” John said, smoothly sliding the sum onto the pile.

He could tell by Davison’s expression that the other man had expected him to fold.

“This is a friendly poker game, fellows,” Grant Percy, the so-called sheriff said, fidgeting uneasily in his seat and folding his cards. He might wear a badge, but the truth was, Frank Varny owned the town.

He had muscled his way in, and he had kept his power in the usual way: by intimidation. You joined him—or you went out into the desert with your mule and pickax, and only the mule and pickax came back.

But today, John Wolf knew, things were going to change. Mariah would come, and whatever happened to him after that wouldn’t matter. She was the one good, honest human being he’d come across in his life, and he was going to give her the information she needed to ensure that the people here—not just the tribe but all the people in this town who’d suffered for too long under Varny’s corrupt rule—found life worth living again.

“I’m out, so lay down your cards,” Ringo Murphy, the fourth and last man at the table, said. Murphy was a wild card himself. He’d been an opinionated rancher down in Missouri, so the story went. Just a kid when his world had gone to hell. He’d become a sharpshooter during the War Between the States, and now that it was over, he was chasing a dream of wealth and comfort. He was gaunt but well toned, a fellow with a devil-may-care attitude, and he wasn’t quick to bend to any man’s brutal tactics. He leaned back in his chair with his guns visible, nestled into the shoulder holsters he wore. Names were etched on the barrels: Lola and Lilly. “Come on, Davison,” Ringo said impatiently. “I’d like to get back into this game.”

Davison was a lean man, as skinny as a string bean—letting his muscle come from the two Colts he wore holstered on his hips.

John was armed himself. Always. He, too, carried Colts. Six-shooters, each one double-barreled, providing him with an extra shot per gun. He also carried two knives, sheathed at his ankles. It wasn’t out of meanness. Out here, it meant survival.

“Call,” Davison said gruffly. John laid his cards on the table.

That was when the swinging doors to the saloon burst open. The sun was setting, painting the sky a deep red hue. Against it, a man was silhouetted in the doorway.

Frank Varny had come, just as John had known he would. But the timing was bad; Varny shouldn’t have made it in from his “office” in the hills until nightfall.

“Wolf!” he said, the single word sounding like a roar.

John didn’t twitch. He cursed silently and didn’t acknowledge the newcomer. He’d had it all planned down to a crossed T, but someone had betrayed him. Varny shouldn’t have known he was back. Not until Mariah had come.

The smoke in the air began to dissipate as most of the crowd scattered hurriedly, like dry leaves caught in a high wind, heading out the backdoor.

Even the bartender disappeared. Milly Taylor croaked out one last note, then froze, as her accompanist scrambled up the stairs.

Only John paid no attention to the other man’s arrival.

Frank Varny didn’t like being ignored. He strode across the room, so accustomed to being a law unto himself that he didn’t see the flicker of annoyance in Ringo Murphy’s black eyes.

Davison looked up nervously, though, barely noticing anything as he set his cards down by reflex alone.

John had won. “My flush beats your straight,” he said, and scooped in the gold dollars piled on the table.

“Good. Now the rest of us can get back into the game,” Ringo Murphy muttered.

“The game is over,” Frank Varny announced. By then, four of his henchmen had followed him into the saloon. They were all resting their hands on the guns holstered at their hips.

“Deal,” John told Grant Percy.

“Now, now,” Sheriff Percy said, licking his lips nervously. “Seems like Mr. Varny needs to have a word with you first, John Wolf.”

John looked toward the swinging doors and saw a tumbleweed dance by in the breeze that had suddenly lifted. He looked upward, not at Varny, but at the red sky that was darkening to crimson, deep as a dead man’s blood. From the corner of his eye, he judged where Varny’s men were standing.

Varny planted a fist on the table, leaning down. “You found the vein, didn’t you? Well, it’s my land. And it’s my gold.”

John stared back at him and smiled slowly. “It’s Paiute land,” he said calmly. He drew the cards toward himself and started to shuffle. “I brought a claim into Carson City, and I took ownership, on behalf of the tribe, of the land that once belonged to the Paiute nation, before you white men came and took it all away. Up in those offices in Carson City, they’re not afraid of you, Varny. They believe in something called the law. So now the claim is on Paiute land, my friend.”

Ringo Murphy let out a snort and stared from one man to the other. “What the hell? Are we playing cards here or not?”

“Shut your mouth,” Varny said. “We’re doing business here.”

“Get the hell out of my sight, Varny,” John said. “I told you, that gold is mine.”

It was amazing, John thought, that Varny didn’t die of apoplexy on the spot. He looked as if he was about to explode. “That’s my gold, and you’re going to tell me where to find it, you red bastard.”

“Is anyone going to deal?” Murphy demanded. “I would like to win my money back.”

“We’ll get right back to it,” John said to Murphy. He turned back to Varny. “Actually, I’m only half-red. My mother was white. She was working in this very saloon when she was captured, and she soon realized she had a better life as a Paiute captive than a white barmaid.”

“Barmaid? Whore, more like,” Varny spat out.

John looked evenly into the other man’s eyes. “Whatever she might have done in life to survive, she was a far better person than you. Hell, Varny, you murdering scum. That makes her pretty damn fine in comparison, no matter what the hell she did.”

Varny drew his gun, and his men drew theirs. Left with no choice, John Wolf rose, kicking the table over and using it for cover, as he drew, himself. He noticed Murphy drawing his own gun, evening the odds at least slightly.

As the shots began to explode and ricochet, the sheriff and Davison dived for cover, and Milly Taylor ducked behind the piano and screamed.

To John Wolf, the world seemed to slow down, letting him see every little detail of what was happening.

Murphy was good. Faster than lightning, even in John’s slowed-down view. As the sheriff threw himself under a nearby table for protection, Murphy held his ground, both guns blazing. John heard the sickening thuds as first one bullet struck home, then the other, as Murphy took out two of Varny’s men, saving John’s hide.

John Wolf took that in even as his own guns blazed against Varny’s other two thugs.

Another thud, and a spray of brilliant color as one man was struck in the heart. A moment later, the other took a bullet in the lung. Blood streamed across the floor, matching the sunset.

Varny’s men were dead, all four of them, but Ringo Murphy been hit himself. He looked at John before he died. “Sorry, partner,” he said, and fell. Hiding under a table hadn’t helped the sheriff; he was sprawled out under it now, his eyes glazed in death. It hadn’t saved the skinny fool from the East, either. Davison was bleeding out on top of the sheriff; his jugular had been hit, his geysering blood turning into a deep, dark river as it mingled with the dirt on the floor.

Milly Taylor wasn’t dead, though. She had wilted against the piano and was sobbing. The wall was blown out behind her. Varny had been hit in the right arm, but he was still standing.

Now it was just the two of them.

They stood in the midst of the carnage and stared at one another.

“You’re a lucky son of a bitch,” Varny said. “Your buddy there took down Riley and Austin. Without him, you’d be dead. You couldn’t have shot all four of them.”

“The world is full of what might have happened,” John said softly.

Varny grinned slowly. “I’m going to kill you, you know. Thing is, why the hell are you holding out? Give me the gold and I’ll let you live. Are you going to give me some cock and bull about your father’s people? You said that it was your land now. So which is it? Misplaced heroics or personal greed?”