1910 Under a full moon
It is a sad day in a woman’s life when she comes to grips with weakness of character. Today might have been that way for Patience Eileen Sweet, but she couldn’t dwell on something like that. Not this day, which had turned into a warm autumn night in 1910. Not when she intended to escape the mess of her own making. Her papa would have told her, “Patty Cake, proceed with caution.” He always claimed full moons bring babies, lunatics, and any number of disasters, particularly mine cave-ins.
Tonight would bring change; that she knew beforehand. This night unfolded for Patty in a saloon. By the midnight hour the floozies had served their last drinks and were nowhere to be seen, most of the customers having cleared out. The bartender did nothing to cover his yawns. Cigar smoke still curled toward the tin ceiling. Gaming chips still pinged. Three gamblers refused to give in or give up.
Still and all, it would be over soon.
Looking up from her mending, she meant to steal a glance at her “stepbrother,” but she locked gazes with one of the gamblers instead, and not for the first time this evening. The three were close enough that she could get a good look—he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen. As he had the other times, he nodded once. There was a puzzled, curious look to his fine features, certainly not the nasty-old-pervert leer that Dorinda had warned her to look out for.
She did like this man’s black-haired, blue-eyed looks. He wore the garb of a West Texan—a yoked shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons and
denim britches that hugged him just right. His boots were the same kind that cowboys wore, only this ’poke’s weren’t scuffed or worn out. His clothes looked too clean, his hair and chin too smooth for a man of the land. He looked rich.
Patty moved her line of sight to her partner-in-crime, Chet Merkel. It was his turn to deal, and she could tell he was losing at five-card stud. They couldn’t afford for him to lose, not even for one evening, yet she prayed for his bad luck.
She knew what his next move would be. He’d barter her virginity. For the third time.
Twice before to two different men in two different towns.
Tonight it was Scarlet Garter Jenny’s Saloon. The “winner” would be a short, dark sheriff wearing a big, thick wedding ring. Or else the winner might be that curious fellow—the smooth-shaven pretty boy that the drunkards, gamblers, and preening waitresses called “counselor” and “mouthpiece,” with “Grant” or “Kincaid” thrown in from time to time. Well, the painted ladies usually said “Sugar.”
Neither of these men looked as gullible as the previous winners of her so-called prize.
Anyway, Patty knew how to get out of being the night’s reward. Did she even want to? Just looking at Grant Kincaid had her in a tizzy. One way or another, things would be different tonight. She was cutting all ties to her double-dealing snake of a “stepbrother,” Chet Merkel.
Definitely, she wouldn’t be rendezvousing with Chet later.
* * * *
Grant Kincaid spent many nights at the poker table. As a bachelor uninterested in ice-cream socials or musical recitals performed by the boring flowers of Lubbock society, he lacked choices beyond reading and visiting friends or relatives. Not that he had any local relatives, beyond the Kincaids of the High Hopes farm and ranch and their relatives, the Craigs. He hailed from the shoals of the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama. Besides, he enjoyed playing cards. After the last hand of an evening, he sometimes got lucky with one of the tarts, two if he was really lucky. He liked ’em ripe, filled out, and hotter than a thin-skinned jalapeño pepper
under the broiling Texas sun.
Tonight, he’d been leery of the tinhorn already at the Garter when Grant arrived for Thursday night poker. The odd-looking fellow, who’d shown up with an adolescent sister in tow, wanted to join the game between Grant
and the general store proprietor, a local rancher, noted baker Mrs. Jewel Craig, and Sheriff Wes Alington, who played whenever his mother went visiting in San Angelo.
The last seat was occupied by a cotton-gin salesman from Dallas. Since the High Hopes Ranch showed that cotton could be successfully grown in West Texas, cotton had become a popular way to make money in the previous decade.
Tonight, the table cleared early with the less-than-dapper newcomer— he introduced himself as Chet Merkel—taking several hands. Jewel the baker bowed out first. Next went the general store man and the rancher. The cotton-gin representative took his leave after his third bad hand. That left Alington, Grant, and the tinhorn.
Luck started going Grant’s way, then the sheriff’s.
Always cool and quiet at the table, the compactly built lawman wore black and a shiny silver star, but never a sign of his wealth. His history with card playing didn’t reach far back. After he’d married a Valkyrie from the Hill Country, he’d taken up gaming. His mother had and would object to just about anything that might have “enjoyment” tacked to it, but the missus advised Alington just to do what he wanted, as long as he was smart enough to hide it from Mother Dear and it didn’t involve cavorting with other women. That was laughable. The sheriff had eyes only for his Lisa-Ann. Grant hoped when he found a wife that he could love her even half as much as Alington idolized the blonde from The Divide.
“Do you plan to answer my bet, Mr. Merkel?” Wes Alington pointed to the five green chips he’d slid to the center of the baize-covered table.
A bead of sweat popped on Merkel’s temple. Carelessly flicking cigar ashes on the floor, he cast a glance at his sister who sat primly in a straight chair in the corner, mending a garment that looked to be a shirt.
Grant eyed the girl, as he had several times. This dimple-cheeked young lady had long titian-hued hair held up in a big white bow. Dressed in the childish style of a sailor, she wore leggings that covered her slender calves, and her hems were short, befitting a little girl. He would bet every last chip in front of him that she wasn’t a day over sixteen.
She was too young to be candy to the senses. Most men of his age wanted to marry girls of sixteen or seventeen—often even younger, to pluck a cherry from the tree—but this man preferred women to girls, and he wasn’t angling for a wife.
That’s what he liked to tell himself. In truth, he yearned to find the ideal lady to fill the emptiness of his heart and home.
“See your bet, Sheriff, and raise you a hundred.” The girl’s brother
tossed the required chips atop Alington’s last bet.
One hundred? A ridiculous bet for a friendly game. It was time to end this nonsense. Given his excellent hand, Grant figured the only call for Merkel was “quits.” He said, “Raise you two hundred.”
It turned out that Alington had bluffed with two jacks. He folded, saying, “Too rich for me. And it’s past my Lisa-Ann’s tuck-in time. Don’t want to miss that.”
He took his leave; then Merkel covered the bet.
“Raise you five hundred,” Grant challenged, feeling confident with his four-of-a-kind and ready for bed himself. Circuit court would convene this Saturday and he had a pair of cases to review tomorrow.
The stranger sucked his cigar, squinting at his challenger. He was squinty- eyed to begin with. “Look, I’m short on chips. I can cover your bet, but I’ll have to collect the cash from the hotel’s strongbox. Tomorrow morning.”
“That’s not the way we play poker in Lubbock, my friend.” “I have…collateral.”
“How is that?”
“That girl—I mean, lady—over there.” The way he spoke, a person would think the room had dozens of females. “That lovely brown-eyed lady. She’s my collateral.”