The people of Meridian, Colorado, live and die by coal mining, and when the railroad bypasses them, their livelihood is in peril. However, they discover that for a hefty sum of money they can create a spur line and save the town. A hefty sum that the town does not have.
Their only hope is former gambler Asa Newcombe. The townspeople pool their money so Newcombe can enter the big poker game in Golden Junction, and as much as he wants to leave his past life behind, the whole town is counting on him. Winning the big pot will burnish his reputation, but his goal is simple: Get the money and get out alive. His opponents include wealthy ranchers, tinhorn gamblers, and men who are outright criminals—and many of them will stop at nothing to make their fortune, even if they have to cheat, drug, or kill to do so....
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Asa Newcombe tried not to look down. A spill down the rocky precipice meant death. With any luck, it would be fast, quick, but he doubted it. A body tumbling to the bottom of the five-hundred-foot ravine would bounce and tumble and leave the poor wight broken and bleeding-and not dead. Not right away.
"Until sundown. A man falling down there'd be like a snake and not die until sundown." He swallowed hard and closed his eyes. His sure-footed mule plodded along and ignored its rider.
His traveling companion called back to him, "You ain't gettin' cold feet, are you? There's no way to back out now. We're committed."
Asa forced himself to open his eyes. It was impossible not to glance over the brink and wonder which of the jagged, rocky outcroppings his body would hit as it bounced down to the rapidly flowing river at the bottom of the canyon. He decided all of them would be painted with his blood. He blinked and concentrated on the man ahead of him on the three-foot-wide trail. That was the safest way to travel, even if the short, scruffy stranger he had set out with from the Mosquito Pass railroad depot wasn't anything worth looking at. In spite of the cold, stiff wind blowing around the mountainside, sweat beaded on Asa's forehead.
"We ought to be committed," Asa muttered. "It's a day longer getting to Meridian, but the other trail . . ." His voice died out as the other man drew rein. His mule came to a halt and protested loudly. The animal wanted the trip to be over as much as he did. "What's wrong?"
"Got a small problem ahead. The trail's blocked."
"But you said we can't back up!"
"Cain't. No way to turn around. Not enough space. And mules like these here we're astride don't know how to put theyselves into reverse. Even a horse don't back up so good. Reminds me of the time that-"
"What's wrong with the trail?" A thousand terrible reasons for the man's halt flashed through Asa's head. Rocks tumbling from the top of the towering Colorado peak to block the trail. The trail itself, carved into seemingly inert stone, giving way and tumbling half a thousand feet to dam up the river below. Or a body. Another traveler had died on the trail. There was nowhere to give a Christian burial amid the solid rock. The mountains were immutable and unforgiving.
If another poor soul had perished, Asa considered so many things other than burial on the spot. Tossing the corpse over the side was easiest, but he liked that least. Another alternative was to drape the body over his mule and lead the burdened animal back to Meridian, where a decent burial ceremony could be performed. Should a family be notified? How could he find out about the man's people? There wasn't even a marshal in Meridian now. The mayor was the only "authority," and . . .
The lead mule began to snort and kick. Asa leaned over as much as he dared and saw that a body spooked the otherwise staid mule.
"Can we edge past?"
"Edge past? Mister, you got a death wish for certain sure. Ain't no way to get past a mountain lion."
"A mountain lion?"
"The one what's settin' smack-dab in the middle of the trail, sunnin' hisself and not lookin' like he's got a care in the world. As fat and sassy as he is, he won't think of us as food. Not that he would, anyway. I heard tell they don't like to eat people since we don't taste good. All bitter, like our meat's drenched in kerosene, though how a cat would know that's how we taste without tryin' out a sample first is-"
"A mountain lion!" Asa's ire rose. He had let his imagination run wild. His fear of heights had driven out his common sense. "I thought it was a dead man's body blocking our way."
"Ain't never said a thing like that." The man scratched himself, pushed back his hat and showed a receding hairline and a pate glistening with sweat. That display made Asa feel a tad better. The rumpled old man's emotions played hob with him, too. The way he tugged at his tangled gray-shot beard and his nostrils flared betrayed more than a touch of fear. His mouth ran like a frightened deer because he feared the cougar, and he might even have shared Asa's dread of the narrow path so high above a mountain valley.
Asa read people well, and he had ignored all the signs because of his own fearfulness. If only the medicine in his saddlebags wasn't so important, if a life didn't hang in the balance, he never would have dared this risky path back home.
"Whoa, wait. The cat's movin'. He's got his front legs all straight in front and he's stretchin'. He opened that mouth of his. You want to see his teeth? Dangest, sharpest teeth I ever did see. What a yawn!"
In spite of himself, Asa leaned far out to peer around the old man ahead of him. The trail curved back inward sharply. He saw the trail some distance farther along but caught only the barest hint of movement. Tawny fur, sleek and powerful and dangerous. The quick sight of the mountain lion vanished as the animal moved away from the brink. Asa imagined it stretched out so its powerful body blocked the trail farther along.
"Reckon I can shoot it." The grizzled old man drew a Colt from his belt. Asa saw the well-used, well-maintained pistol and how the man's easy familiarity with it suggested expert marksmanship.
"Don't be a fool. If you wound it, we're goners. It'll fight. One misstep and your mule plunges over the side and takes you with it." Asa's brain fog lifted. His usual sharp mind took on the problem. "We can't stay, we can't back up and the cat is in our way forward."
"That 'bout sez it all, mister. I got to admit that you're right about shootin' it. I ain't much of a shot. What if I missed? And gunshots in these hills have been known to cause an avalanche." The man pushed his broad-brimmed gray hat back further as he looked above them to check for a possible rockslide.
Asa dismissed that danger. Too many others were more imminent. Something about the man claiming to be a poor shot began to fester. The man lied just because he could. Asa read his expression. The stranger considered himself something of a gunslick, and yet he had claimed to be inept. That was the kind of trick a man used to lead an opponent astray. Asa wasn't any danger, but the man's reaction was to deceive. He shrugged it off. Some men couldn't help themselves when it came to spinning a yarn. It came as easy as breathing.
Risking life and limb, Asa climbed down from his mule. The animal snorted in resignation and began shifting its weight. As it leaned outward, it almost knocked him from the narrow ledge. He twisted about and got in front. From there he got a better look at the mountain lion sunning itself. Shadows crept slowly toward the cat. When it no longer basked in the warmth, it would move. But Asa grew increasingly edgy about reaching home. He needed to get home to Rebecca to help her and the girls. Looking for a way around the cougar, he sneaked a quick peek over the verge. Shakiness hit him, and he knew he would plunge to his death. Even if there was a ledge or another way around the big cat, he wasn't capable of taking it.
The river below gurgled and rushed along. If he fell, his body would be washed away into oblivion. Asa wobbled. Arms around his mule's neck steadied him until the balky animal let out a liquid snort and pulled free. Pebbles tumbled over the edge of the narrow path and rattled for several seconds. Asa vowed not to follow.
He edged past his travel companion-he had never asked for the man's name in his haste to return to Meridian. The man was a prospector from the look of his clothing. Canvas pants, plaid shirt, floppy hat, battered boots and the Colt tucked into his belt. Anyone spotting the two travelers would have been curious at the contrast. Asa was tall and thin as a rail, and he sported a shock of hair so red, it looked as if it was on fire. His blue eyes missed nothing. Hands with long, nimble fingers betrayed how physical work and Asa Newcombe were strangers. No calluses on those hands, which compounded drugs and mixed concoctions. He wiped his sweaty palms on a frock coat both stylish and inexpensive. His green brocade vest and starched white shirt beneath were soaked with his sweat. A few more swipes of his hands along strong thighs steadied him.
No six-shooter hung at his side or weighed him down as he moved with a sure, quick action that threatened his life. He picked up a small stone and threw it at the mountain lion.
"What're you doin', you danged fool? Wake it up, and it's sure to come for us!" The man tried to turn his mule, but there wasn't room. Asa pushed against the mule's rump and held it in place.
The stone clattered along the trail on the far side of the cat. It stirred but didn't awaken. Asa threw another, larger rock. This careened off the hillside before tumbling away to the river below. The mountain lion came fully, instantly awake. It pushed up to a crouch and snarled.
Before Asa's companion could cry out, the apothecary clamped his hand over the man's mouth.
Asa released his hold when the man sagged. He didn't miss how a hand rested once more on the Colt's butt thrust into the tight belt.
The mountain lion took a tentative step in the direction of the rock Asa had thrown. It snarled, shook its head and then began stalking along the trail. With a tawny, liquid rush, the cat slipped over the side and disappeared.
"It's still there, below us somewhere. You went and woke it up."
"Ride," Asa ordered. "If it comes back-and I don't think it will since there's nothing here for it-we ought to be long gone."
"Mister, you're crazy as a loon. Waiting it out was the smart thing."
Asa edged along the rocky wall, positioned himself and carefully mounted. The mule had tried bucking him off more than once when he stepped up before. Self-preservation told the mule not to make a misstep that would send it over the edge. That might dislodge its unwanted rider, but it also meant catastrophe. As the mule settled down and began its sure-footed plodding again, Asa patted its neck.
"I'll get you an apple when we reach town. A whole bushel basket!"
The mule turned a large brown eye back accusingly.
"I promise. I always keep my promises."
The mule snorted and picked up the pace, much to Asa's regret. He clung to the reins and alternately clamped his eyes shut and opened them in stark fear. At least, the man on the mule ahead of him held his tongue the rest of the way into Meridian.
Some days Lady Luck smiled. On others, she smirked. Asa Newcombe only wanted to accept the good. And today he got it. A couple hours before sundown, he rode into Meridian with friends and neighbors waving and calling to him.
Take this to Mr. Thompson right away." Asa Newcombe sealed the envelope and handed it to the towheaded boy. "Tell him to take half today dissolved in a quart of water and then the rest tomorrow."
"What is it?" Wilson Dutton held up the envelope and thumped it with his thumb. Asa almost snatched it from the twelve-year-old's hands. Not only had he risked his life taking the crazy dangerous trail through Mosquito Pass, but he had paid a small fortune getting the chemicals for the mixture sent by rail from Denver. For once, deadlines had been met, and Big Bud Thompson had a good chance of surviving after his fall.
"It's medicine that will reduce his fever and keep him alive . . . if he ever gets it."
"Usual pay?" The boy didn't budge.
"A dollar if you get it to him within the hour," Asa said. "Or are you looking to apprentice to the undertaker? Mr. Thompson needs it now."
"A dollar," Wilson said, rolling the words over and over like a fine wine caressing his tongue. "You bet, Mr. Newcombe!" He took two steps for the door, then spun around. "I almost forget. My pa wants to talk to you about the railroad spur."
Asa sighed. The boy's pa was the mayor, and he was always spinning deals that profited himself more than the people of Meridian, but this time was different. Everyone in the North Park area profited from having the railroad use Meridian as a depot.
"Get a move on. I have another prescription to deliver." Asa shook an amber bottle and got the last of the powder dissolved in the alcohol.
"I can deliver it, too. For another dollar."
"Scat!" Asa chased the boy out of the apothecary store and on his way. He stopped at the door to watch, to be sure the delivery was headed to the right place. When Wilson took off running in the correct direction, Asa closed the door behind him and locked it. Most merchants never bothered with locks. Meridian was a peaceable place, but he worried that some of the powerful drugs he kept on his shelves might disappear. Laudanum was the least of the drugs that someone so inclined could take.
He pulled down his bowler to shield his eyes from the sun and walked briskly across the street to the hotel. The owner's wife was laid up and needed medicine. Meridian's doctor had died more than a year ago. No one had stepped up to fill the void. The town shared a veterinarian with three other towns and only saw the man a few times a month. That left Asa with the responsibility to tend to the citizens-and the animals-the best he could.
"Hello, Joel," he greeted the room clerk. "I have Miz Selwin's medicine."
The young man smiled weakly. "She's not doing so good, Mr. Newcombe. Anything to buck her up'll be good."
"See that she gets a spoonful of this twice a day and don't let her get up and walk around. She'll be dizzy and might fall down."
"We wouldn't want that. Not with Mr. Selwin, uh, not with him . . ." The clerk's words trailed off.