The Last Chance

Book Cover

Wade McCord abandoned a life he no longer wanted and headed west, looking for a fresh start. When he wandered into the town of Wickenburg, Arizona, he found its citizens under siege from a ruthless land baron who coveted a beautiful woman and her land. Never one to run from a fight, McCord decided to remain in Wickenburg and fight to protect the ranch and life of the woman he desired. Searching for happiness, he wondered if Wickenburg was his last chance for love.

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The Last Chance

Part One   Episode One

Embers from the small campfire drifted upward toward the pitch-black sky as if the stars were seeking warmth. The crackling of burning wood and a soft whinny from the sleek muscular stallion tied to a scraggly tree were the only sounds keeping him company. The desert was hushed as if holding its breath, waiting for something to happen.

Lying on the thick, gray woolen bedroll, Wade McCord stared at the sparkling points of light overhead. He fought to relax, but his senses were alert, his muscles tense as if any moment something was going to happen. After months of drifting from one small town to another, he craved for something, anything, to happen, but he realized if it did, it would be trouble. There was always trouble.

The stallion pawed at the sandy ground, snorting, seeming to sense his uneasiness. He spoke softly, “Be quiet, Pegasus, tomorrow we’re riding into Wickenburg. I promise I’ll get you some oats, but only if you’re quiet tonight.” Pegasus snorted again but fell silent, and horse and rider fell asleep, waiting for dawn.

As the sun began to peek over the eastern horizon, the cold nose of an impatient horse nudging his cheek awoke him. Stretching his long legs, McCord could feel every pebble and root digging into his back, despite the thick wool pad he laid on. As he pushed himself onto his feet, he whispered to the wind, “Tonight, a real bed.”

The campfire had died down, only a few embers glowed among the ashes. He added a couple more pieces of wood from the pile he gathered the night before and restarted the flame. He rummaged through a saddlebag for the sparse supplies he had left, noticing that Pegasus had wandered to the end of his tether, noisily chomping as he grazed on a patch of scrubby grass. He selected a can of beans, hard tack bread, and just enough coffee for a single cup, which would have to do for his own breakfast.

McCord sat cross-legged in front of the fire as he ate, wondering what he was going to find in Wickenburg. The stable hand in the last town he visited told him the Army broke the backs of the Yavapai Indians, putting an end to the raids against the settlers. Talk was the fertile plain of the Hassayampa River was attracting ranchers and farmers along with the miners who had settled years before. Lately, he has begun to think about finding a small plot of land, and settling down, but so far no place caught his fancy.

Breakfast consumed, he doused the fire, packed up his meager belongings, and mounted Pegasus. “Come on, boy, time to join civilization.”

The narrow trail he was following ran along a low rise, meeting up with the main road into Wickenburg, about two miles from where he camped. A weathered wooden sign, sitting crookedly in the sandy soil, had Wickenburg 10 miles burned into it. McCord felt Pegasus tense. The road was wide, and, for the most part, level. He wanted to gallop. With a quick flip of the reins against the horse’s withers, McCord let him.

Pegasus galloped at full speed, his thick black mane and tail flowing behind.  McCord reined in the big horse as they approached the outskirts of town. “Whoa, boy, I don’t want to ride into town as if a posse’s chasing me. We don’t need anyone to think we’re a threat, so try to act dignified.” Pegasus threw his head back and forth, making it clear he was not happy.

As he rode into town, McCord marveled at how one western settlement looked like any other and Wickenburg was no exception.  At the entrance to town, a combined stagecoach station and telegraph office sat apart from the business section. Along the packed dirt main street, he spotted the usual, a hotel, a mercantile, a bank, the sheriff’s office and jail, a barbershop, and a saloon. He headed straight for the saloon.

Dismounting, he led Pegasus to a watering trough where the big horse drank his fill, then McCord wrapped the reins around the hitching post outside of the saloon. With a pat on the stallion’s neck, he grabbed one of the saddlebags slinging it across his left shoulder and climbed the dusty steps to the boardwalk spurs jangling as he walked. Above the swinging doors, a painted wooden sign read The Lucky Strike Saloon.

It was mid-morning, yet several men were already nursing bottles of whiskey. A couple sitting at the polished wooden bar, the rest sitting at tables. In the corner, five men were playing poker and from their tired faces, it appeared, they’d been playing all night. Everyone turned, string as the rattle of the swinging doors announced his arrival.

The barkeep, a small slight man with mousy brown hair, and round wire-rimmed glasses wiped the counter down in front of McCord as he sat on a stool. Offering a brief smile, he spoke in a heavy accent, “Welcome stranger, what’ll be?”

“Shot of your best whiskey, none of that rot-gut stuff.”

“My best whiskey cost up front.”

McCord smiled, “Not a problem,” reaching into his vest pocket he pulled out a silver dollar. “Keep it coming?”

The bartender pulled a bottle from under the counter. He poured a shot glass full, sliding it toward McCord, who downed the shot in one gulp and slid it back for a refill. He had just taken a sip of the second when hands slipped around his arm, and a soft voice whispered in his ear.

“I knew this was gonna be my lucky day, and here you are. Not every day a handsome thing like you walks into this saloon.”

McCord turned his head to find a young and very pretty blond barmaid grinning broadly. His eyes trailed down her body, enjoying the low-cut white peasant blouse and full calico skirt she was wearing. He smiled back, “Hello, lovely lady.”

“Ooh… and polite, too, I think I’m gonna have to keep you. I’m Jennifer, what’s your name handsome?”

“I’m Wade, and I’m just passing through.”

Jennifer pouted, “Now, don’t go saying that when we’ve just met. I bet I can convince you to stay.”

“Aren’t you a little young to be working in a saloon?”

“I’m older than I look handsome Wade.”

The bartender, who had been stocking beer bottles, approached, “Jennie, don’t bother the customers.”

“She’s not a bother,” McCord murmured, tipping his empty shot glass.

The bartender’s eyes blazed, “She’s not for pleasure.”

“Oh… Marik, you ruin everything.” Jennifer spun away, running through a curtained doorway into the backroom of the saloon.

McCord threw up his hands, “I’m not looking for companionship, just some whiskey, and a hotel room.”

The bartender sighed, pushing his glasses up on his nose, as he poured another shot, “Promiň… uh… sorry… I forget sometimes. I am Marik Pecha, and I am from Bohemia. I did not mean to be disrespectful, but I raised Jennifer since her parents were killed in Indian raid. She was twelve and no one else would take her in because her father was town drunk, and her mother worked in the saloon. I had just come to Wickenburg, and I fired her mother for her behavior with customers. Then they were killed and I could not let the child wander the streets. Sometimes people forget she is not her mother. I apologize.”

“No need to apologize, taking in an orphan is a good thing.” McCord downed his third shot, then stood up. “I need to stable my horse and find a room. Suggestions?”

“Livery’s in alley behind the sheriff’s office, next to the blacksmith shop, the hotel’s two doors down, tell Maddie I sent you. She will take care of you.”

“Thanks, I’ll do that.”

McCord stepped out into the bright sun, slipping his black Stetson on, and untied Pegasus’ reins. Leading the horse toward the alley behind the jail, he was oblivious to the attention he was receiving, not realizing word of a stranger had already spread through the town. Many townsfolk were peering out their shop windows to catch a glimpse of the tall, handsome man leading a beautiful black stallion across Main Street. Dressed all in black, from his leather duster, jacket, shirt, vest, and pants, to black boots adorned with shiny silver spurs, McCord made quite an impression on Wickenburg’s citizens.

However, one citizen, in particular, appeared curious about something else. Sheriff Everett Logan, watching from the jail apparently noticed the Colt pistol, the Peacemaker, strapped low around McCord’s hips. The sheriff watched intently until he was out of sight.

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musings of a southern writer

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