A happy, relaxing Sunday to all. For a treat today I’m posting an excerpt from a good friend of mine, Cynthia Wright. She climbed aboard the self-pubbing wave about a year ago along with the rest of us clever, independent, quick-thinkers and started reissuing her backlist as ebooks. She has some gorgeous covers (no, I didn’t do them, but that’s okay, I still like her *snort*) and some terrific books so if you haven’t tried Cynthia yet, here’s a sample from her stand alone Western, Brighter Than Gold.
By the way, if you would like me to bring back Sample Sundays on a regular basis, leave a comment after the excerpt *G*
Riding slowly downMain Street, the man on horseback reflected that the sleepy town ofColumbiahad certainly known better days. A dozen years ago, it had been heralded as the “Gem of the Southern Mines,” the largest and most prosperous of all the towns that had sprung up during the rush for gold in the Sierra foothills. More than fifteen thousand boisterous people had lived here, making and spending fortunes inColumbia’s thriving gambling palaces, saloons, fandango halls, theaters, restaurants, and bawdy houses. Stores were stocked with merchandise delivered by a constant stream of freight wagons fromStockton. Stagecoaches rumbled downMain Streetmorning and afternoon, dislodging a colorful variety of eager newcomers, including a French chef who charged outrageous sums of money for gourmet meals and imported champagne. The town’s four theaters had hosted Edwin Booth, Lola Montez, and circuses with elephants and lions.Columbiaeven had a Chinese theater for the particular benefit of its immigrant citizenry.
In the town’s first decade, more than $87 million worth of gold had been discovered in its diggings. The scales at the Wells Fargo office weighed an average of $100,000 of gold a week, and in the heady decade of the 1850s, it seemed that the supply would never run out.
However, those days of unrivaled prosperity had passed.
On this dusty afternoon, the man on horseback rode into a town of fewer than five hundred people. Tucked behind hills that staggered down to the dramatically beautifulStanislausRiver,Columbiahad acquired a haunting serenity lacking in its heyday. Delicate trees of heaven linedMain Street, and many of the homes were embowered with climbing roses in full bloom. The clamor was over, yet the traveler felt a surge of respect and fondness for this tenacious community. It had had its share of challenges, but it simply refused to die, adapting instead to change.
Farther ahead downMain Street, the traveler spied MacKenzie’s Saloon. Hot, tired, and in need of friendly conversation, he decided to stop for refreshment.
* * *
At the far end of the polished mahogany bar, Katie MacKenzie was perched on a stool, drying glasses and reading Jane Eyre at the same time. It was a quiet afternoon. The shafts of sunlight that streamed into MacKenzie’s Saloon were mellow and golden, scented with roses. The corner tavern was large, with a magnificent carved mirror behind the bar and numerous tables ringed with chairs. Once upon a time, MacKenzie’s had echoed with the laughter and raucous conversation of men from all walks of life. Now, the place was an ornate mockery of a golden age long since passed. Katie looked up to see two lone, grimy miners, clad in red shirts and dungarees, who slouched at a distant table, dozing before their empty bottle. Farther down the bar, Brian MacKenzie poured a whiskey for his third patron, then approached his daughter.
“I’m thinking this is a fine way for you to celebrate your twentieth birthday,” he murmured, his ruddy face and curly white hair reflected in the twenty-foot mirror behind them.
Katie gave him a sweet smile. “Nonsense, Papa! You sent all the way toBostonfor this book and you gave me these beautiful flowers.” Lovingly she fingered the vivid bouquet of blue larkspur and orange Humboldt lilies that filled a vase at her elbow. “It’s a perfect birthday!”
Brian wrapped her in his bearlike embrace and smiled. “You’re a blessing, Kathleen Elizabeth. Why don’t you put away the towel and glasses and go outside? It’s not a day for chores.”
“I’m fine, Papa.” Already her attention was wandering back to Jane Eyre.
Sighing, Brian studied his daughter’s profile. It was almost a shock to realize, daily, how beautiful she had become and how much Katie resembled her mother who had died eight years before. She had inherited Mary’s lustrous ebony curls, her striking deep blue eyes, her delicate features, and radiant smile.
However, Katie’s temperament mirrored his own. Growing up in the rugged atmosphere of a mining town, Katie was used to working hard, but otherwise she dressed and behaved to please herself. Today she wore a faded rose calico dress with one petticoat, but she was just as likely to be clad in trousers and a shirt if the mood struck her. Worst of all, Katie had declared that she had no interest in marriage. And she did indeed seem to prefer helping him run the saloon or writing articles for theColumbiaGazette. Women were at a premium in the foothills, especially beauties like his daughter, and Brian prayed nightly that she would come to her senses one day soon and begin acting like a woman.
“Quite a romantic hero in that book, eh?” he inquired slyly. “What’s his name?”
“Edward Rochester.” Katie gave him a fond smile, familiar with his ways.
“Indeed? Why, seems to me that that name alone would be enough to turn a maiden’s thoughts to love!”
The swinging door creaked to announce the arrival of a customer and Brian trundled back to work. He squinted as the man approached the bar, then smiled broadly as recognition dawned.
“Why, it’s Jack, isn’t it! Where’ve you been these past weeks?” He set a shot glass on the bar and reached for a bottle of whiskey.
Settling onto a stool, Jack spread a tanned hand over the glass. “Save your whiskey for someone who’ll appreciate it, MacKenzie,” he said in a husky voice underlaid with ironic amusement. “Do you serve water?”
“Ah, that’s right!” Brian laughed, remembering, as he poured spring water from a pitcher into a larger glass. “You don’t drink liquor. Tell me, do you belong to that Dashaway Society that’s been promoting temperance in these parts?”
Jack’s answering laughter was sufficiently roguish to make Katie look up at last. “Lord, no,” he replied. “I’ve just never seen the point in drowning what few wits I have in liquor.”
His expression and manner made it clear to Katie that Jack’s wits were far more considerable than he so modestly implied. His looks were noteworthy as well. Katie’s first impression was of a mountain lion. His hair, wind-ruffled and dusty, was a few shades darker than his sun-bronzed skin, and a two-day growth of beard glinted against his lean cheeks. There was something appealing about the slightly bent shape of his nose, the smile that lingered on his mouth, and the grooves on either side that hinted at dimples. She was most intrigued by his eyes, though, and wandered down the bar for a closer look.
Cat’s eyes, she decided after a few moments. A clear, sage green dusted with gold, slightly hooded, as if a bit weary of surveying the world, and framed by laugh wrinkles and sandy brows. Katie was disarmed by the sight of his roguish smile and the sound of his frank, husky laughter, but she sensed that, like the mountain lion he resembled, this man could be dangerous.
“Ah, here’s my girl,” Brian announced, wrapping an arm around her slim form. “Katie, have you met Jack Adams? He’s new to these parts. Came in here the first time just a couple months back. Jack, this is my pride and joy, my daughter Kathleen.”
Seeing the appraisal in his eyes, she put out her hand and smiled. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Adams.”
He smiled back. “The pleasure’s mine, Miss MacKenzie,” he said in his appealing, rough-edged voice. “Call me Jack.”
“I’m Katie.” As their hands met, she glanced at the surprisingly clean, well-tended nails. It was a strong hand, tanned against the faded blue shirt he wore but only slightly callused. She wondered what he had done before coming to the gold country. “Where are you from, Jack?”
He shrugged. “Nevada, lately.Placervillelast week. I have my eye on a couple different claims, but can’t decide whether they’re worth working. One’s near here.”
“Just because the boom’s past and so many miners have moved on toNevadaorCanada, that doesn’t mean our gold’s gone!” Brian declared, seizing on one of his favorite topics. “A man with a bit of patience can still get rich and live a more civilized life in the bargain!”
“Columbiadoes look permanent these days,” Jack agreed. “Until last fall, I hadn’t been in the foothills for years. The towns were all wood and canvas when I was here in my youth; a mixture of imported luxury and make-do. A lot of them are gone now that so much of the gold’s been mined, but what’s left is more civilized.” His eyes crinkled at the corners. “Maybe the miners left because they missed the wild life.”
“There’s still enough wildness up here for any man,” Brian snorted. “And enough challenges. They’re destroying the land with that new hydraulic mining now!”
“You must admit that Jack’s right, though, Papa,” Katie remarked, pouring more water intoAdams’s glass. “Times have changed. The people who came here looking for wealth and adventure a dozen years ago have either moved on or settled in to more permanent lives.Columbia’s a different town.”
“Quieter, that much is true.” Brian sighed, gazing around the nearly deserted saloon.
Deftly, Jack changed the subject. “Missouri Dan rode down fromPlacervillewith me, and we spent last night just north of here. I didn’t get much sleep, though, because Dan made me dig most of the night….”
Katie responded to the gleam in his eyes. “Dig?”
“Seems that last fall Dan discovered some gold over nearFraserRiverand brought it here to be weighed. There was more than five thousand dollars’ worth, but he decided to put it away for safekeeping rather than take it along toPlacerville—”
“Or have it stolen by theGriffin!” Katie exclaimed.
“I think theGriffinspecializes in stagecoaches, lass,” her father murmured.
“Anyway,” Jack continued, “Dan chose a clump of five pine trees near a stream, and buried the gold there. The winter inPlacervillewas long and lean, so Dan was anxious to get to his pine trees last night and dig up that treasure.” The corners of Jack’s mouth slowly turned up as he paused to sip his water. “The stars were out as we came over the crest of the hill, but instead of lighting up Dan’s clump of pine trees, they shone down on a vast, cleared field and a newly built cabin.”
Katie gasped. “Someone had settled there!”
“That’s right.” He nodded, more than a little amused, his eyes twinkling as they met hers. “They’d not only cut down Missouri Dan’s pine trees, but they’d also planted grain. Of course, he wouldn’t give up without a fight. Made me dig alongside him all night long until that field of grain was covered with holes. I just prayed that the farmer wouldn’t wake up! As it is, I shudder to imagine the look on his face when he saw his field this morning.”
“Don’t suppose you found the gold?” Brian asked hopefully.
“Of course not! Dan’s in the blackest of moods. I left him digging one last hole before dawn, but I heard that he was at Big Annie’s this morning—” He cut himself off, realizing that he shouldn’t have mentioned Big Annie’s bawdy house in front of Katie.
“He should have put the money in the bank,” Katie said.
“Now there’s a civilized suggestion! Not Dan’s style, I’m afraid.” Jack laughed lightly as his eyes wandered over her face and settled on the thick braid that hung down Katie’s back. “You’re an uncommonly pretty girl, Miss MacKenzie. You’d have men lining up outside just to look at you if you’d change your style. Why not free your hair?”
Katie took a step backward, bumping her elbow against a decanter of brandy. “I prefer to wear it this way. It’s cooler.” Her cheeks felt hot. “And neater.”
“She’s a stubborn girl,” Brian toldAdams.
“I don’t give you men grooming advice so I suggest that you show me the same courtesy,” Katie said, recovering her composure. “Besides, why would I want to be examined by a lot of strange men?”
“I can’t imagine.” Jack bit back a smile. “I humbly apologize.”
“Apology accepted. If you are starved for the sight of female beauty, you ought to visit the new German dancing girls at Darling’s Dango Hall.” Picking up Jane Eyre, she turned to her father and said, “Papa, since you have urged me to do as I please today, I believe I’ll go over to the Gazette and write an article about Missouri Dan’s adventure. I think our readers might find the story very entertaining.”
“Wouldn’t you rather spend your birthday seeking some entertainment for yourself?”
“I love to write, so that is entertainment.” Katie kissed his cheek, then smiled politely at Jack. “Meeting you has been very interesting, Mr. Adams. Have a safe journey.”
“That’s kind of you, but I’m not leavingColumbiajust yet, Miss MacKenzie. I feel certain we’ll meet again.” He gave her a lazy smile. “Happy birthday.”
Jack watched Katie cross the saloon and stride out into the sunshine, idly noting her slim back, narrow waist, and gently curving hips. When he turned back, he discovered that Brian was contemplating him thoughtfully.
“I don’t know what to do with that lass,” MacKenzie said, sighing. “Twenty years old today and she’s acting like there’s no hurry to marry. I don’t think it even crosses her mind! Not that any of the men around here are worthy of her. Many of the best are off fighting in the war between the North and South.” He shook his head. “It’s a difficult bride who’s not only beautiful but also smarter than most men. She’s hardworking and has a mind of her own, but she’s quick to laugh, too, and—”
“MacKenzie,” Jack put in softly, his expression knowing yet amused, “why are you telling me this?”
He looked down the bar at the bouquet of lilies and larkspur and heaved a sigh. “I don’t know.”
“Neither do I.” He patted the older man’s shoulder, then stood up and brushed the dust from his smooth buckskin pants. “I’m off to have a bath and a shave, get my clothes laundered, and take a room above the U.S. Bakery and Coffee Saloon.” He put some coins on the bar. “Thanks for the water and conversation, MacKenzie. Buy Missouri Dan a drink for me when he comes in, will you?”
“Be glad to.” Brian picked up the coins and looked at them for a moment. “If you want a clean bed and home cooking, you’re welcome to stay with us. I like you.”
Jack stopped at the door and glanced back, his wide shoulders and lean hips outlined against the sunlight. “That’s a kind offer. I’ll consider it.”
Don’t forget to check out Cynthia’s gorgeous web site: http://www.cynthia-wright.com/
And, if you have a moment (shameless plug here) you might want to download a copy of Across A Moonlit Sea while it’s still free, annnnnnnnnnnnd…if you have two spare moments, check out my “Possible Jonas Dante” board at Pinterest and toss in your vote for who should be pinned over my desk as inspiration for the lusty, dangerous fellow.