Talbot’s Ace by Diane Whiteside in Improper Gentlemen
Brava – July 2011
Wolf Laurel, Colorado, High Rockies, September 1875
Silver and black spun through the man’s fingers in deadly pinwheels of steel, under the lead grey skies.
Charlotte Moreland froze in front of the Silver King Hotel, unable to take another step even though the young man was more than a dozen paces away, and behind a solid brick building.
Three years of playing poker in the West’s worst gambling dens had taught her much about the narrow margin between great shootists and the dead. She had no desire to join the latter, in front of an establishment named Hair Trigger Palace.
Handsome and harsh as a Renaissance angel, he was utterly absorbed in weaving patterns of light. His black broadcloth frockcoat, black trousers, and black boots were as finely made as if they too bore homage to the death dealing implements he worshipped.
Her fellow stagecoach passengers streamed into the closest saloon to warm themselves with beer or whiskey. One headed swiftly into the hotel to claim his clean lodging, more priceless than a good meal in this hastily built town. A few pedestrians glanced at the effortless display of gun tricks, then walked swiftly past.
He flipped the heavy guns between his hands and they smacked into his hands, like a warrior’s salute. He immediately tossed them high and spun them back into the holsters at his hips.
Last spring in Denver, she’d seen a shootist testing his pistols. He’d shot a can of peaches and it had exploded its innards across a wall, just like a person would. She’d been wretchedly sick in her hotel room afterward.
He slapped the leather holsters and, an instant later on a ragged beat, death looked out of the guns’ barrels.
His expression hardened to become an angry fallen angel leading the armies of destruction. He shoved his guns back into place, clearly ready to teach them another lesson.
Charlotte gave a little squeak and trotted onto the boardwalk in front of the hotel. No matter how flimsy its roof and planks were, it still offered more protection than the open street. Men, equipped with guns and a temper, were dangerous to both themselves and everyone nearby.
The shootist whirled to face her and his gaze drilled into her.
Heaven help her, he truly was Justin Talbot, the fastest gun in Colorado.
Recognition flashed across his face. But not greed, thank God. Perhaps he hadn’t recognized her photo, flourished by those skulking Pinkerton’s men throughout the mining towns.
Why had she dreamed about him for so many months?
He bowed to her with a flourish and she froze. Her heart drummed in her throat, too fast to let her breathe or think.
How should she acknowledge him – formally, with a bow or a curtsy? Heartily, with a wave inviting affection or perhaps intimacy? Or coldly, with an averted shoulder and gaze, as befitted such an experienced death dealer, no matter what living in this town required?
He frowned and anguish slipped through his eyes. A man whistled from behind him.
Talbot’s mouth tightened and he bowed to her again, far more coldly. She gave him the barest of nods in return, all her drumming pulse would support.
He disappeared into the Hair Trigger Palace an instant later, his expression still harsher than ice-etched granite mountains.
Truly, she should not feel bereft, as if she’d lost a potential friend.