Flames Along the Wagon Train (Preview)

Chapter One

Memphis, Tennessee, 1855

“Now gambling men, better save your skins,
And listen to my story,
Don’t hog the pot, or you might get shot
Better share the gold and glory.”

The silk-and brocade-clad crowd in the poker hall exploded into laughter at the end of the song. The jaded piano player was sufficiently touched by their applause to lift his bowler and move his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other before launching into another song.

“You hear that, Montgomery?” a bawling voice taunted, “Maybe you better pay attention to what he says! Ain’t healthy to win all the money!”

More laughter eddied around the ornate parlor as Eli Montgomery acknowledged the gibe with a smile and a nod of his blond head. He lounged very much at ease in the main poker salon of the Corabelle, a palatial riverboat docked on the waterfront, resplendent in a tailored linen suit, a vest of red brocade, and a gold ring on one sun-bronzed hand.

Since he was enthroned behind a massive pile of multicolored chips, the joke had clearly been aimed at him. The pistols on his hips had kept the jokes more or less civilized, but that could change. He was in the final stages of cleaning out the table, and the game’s mood had darkened.

The gaslight from the chandelier made his hair gleam gold as he turned to the saloon girl at his elbow. He moved his hand just enough to let her see his cards.

“What do you think, honey?” he quizzed her with a twinkling look. “Call, stand, or fold?”

The flossy redhead smiled and seemed to consider. “Call,” she announced, and the table roared with laughter.

Dan turned to smile at the other men seated around him at the green baize table. “Well, you heard her, gentlemen,” he said with a grin. “I call.” Another wave of laughter circled the room.

“Is Tessie your good luck charm, Eli?”

“I’m not brave enough to take advice from no woman!”

“Let’s see how he does. If he wins again, I want Tessie to come and stand by me!”

One of the faces staring back at him across the table was particularly sour. Jonas Black was a rough, unsmiling man sitting directly opposite him. He tilted his head back and scanned Eli through narrowed eyes. “Enough jokes,” he growled. “Let’s make this interesting. Everything on this table, plus”—he tossed a sheaf of bills onto the pile of chips— “a thousand dollars on these cards.” He lifted his hand to shake six hidden poker cards.

A chorus of awed whistles and muttering circled the room. One player after another threw their cards down onto the green baize.

“Too rich for my blood.”

“I got a wife with a temper. No thanks.”

Eli watched through a haze of cigar smoke as another man leaned over Jonas’ shoulder and muttered earnestly in his ear. He was one of the half-dozen men who’d arrived with Jonas at the riverboat casino that night, and the fellow didn’t look happy. Eli’s glance swept the bunch standing behind Black’s chair. They looked like thugs and were especially dirty, unshaven, and sullen. They stuck out in that well-dressed crowd, and if they were gamblers, he was the president.

Jonas half-turned his head to glare at his thuggish friends, barked out some variant of shut up, then turned back to face him.

“Well, Montgomery, let’s see what you’re made of. All or nothing. Are you in or out?”

Eli rolled his eyes to the bored redhead perched on the arm of his chair. She smiled faintly, put her soft hand on his shoulder, and nodded.

“I agree to your terms, sir,” Eli announced, “but with one proviso.”

Jonas watched him suspiciously from across the table. “What is it?”

Eli’s eyes bored into the man’s. “That you tell me where your old friend is,” he replied softly. “Samson Kruger. I’m sure you remember him. He used to be your boss.”

Every eye in the room turned to Jonas Black’s face, and the confident look was momentarily wiped off it. “Samson Kruger?” he stammered and uttered a half-hearted laugh. “Don’t know nobody by that name!” His voice gathered strength, and he leaned over the table to jab at the pot with a stubby finger. “But it’s my money sitting on this table, and I aim to get it back. All or nothing! Let’s see what kind of gambler you are, boy.”

Eli glanced up at the redheaded woman and shrugged. “Let’s see your cards then,” he drawled and watched with lazy interest as Jonas spread them across the green baize.

“Six of clubs, seven of clubs, eight of clubs, nine of clubs, ten of clubs. A straight flush!” Jonas announced triumphantly and leaned back in his chair to receive congratulatory back slaps as gasps and laughter eddied around him.

“Yey-ee!”

“Hard to beat, mighty hard to beat.”

“Get that money, Jonas!”

The laughter died down as Jonas and every other man in the parlor turned to stare at Eli.

“Well, Montgomery?” Jonas taunted him. “Let’s see the color of your money!”

Eli shot him a smiling look. “The game’s not over yet,” he replied softly. “Remember your promise,” he reminded his opponent, tossing cards onto the table.

“Ten of hearts, jack of hearts. queen of hearts, king of hearts.” A gasp rose up from the stunned onlookers as all the blood drained from Jonas Black’s face. Every eye was fastened on Eli’s hand as it reached out and tossed the final card. The little piece of cardboard fluttered to the green baize face up, and another gasp circled the room.

“Ace of hearts. A royal flush!”

There was a split second of astounded silence, and then the room exploded into shouts and laughter.

“Never seen anything like it in all my born days!”

“What a pot! Must be five thousand dollars on that table!”

Eli lounged in his chair and watched Jonas Black’s face as it quickly deepened from red to purple. “I won, Jonas,” he told him. “Now I want to know where Samson Kruger is.”

Jonas surged to his feet, and his chair clattered to the floor. “You didn’t win, you cheated!” he roared.

The laughter and talk suddenly hushed to near-silence, and Eli sat staring at his opponent over his cigar. “I played a clean game, and you promised me an answer in front of everyone in this room,” he replied evenly. “Now tell me where your old boss is, or get branded as a welcher.”

Jonas’ face twisted. He suddenly flipped the table over with a thunderous crash.

“There’s your money, you four-flusher! Get down on your hands and knees and pick it up!”

A collective gasp filled the room as money and chips went flying everywhere. There was a split second of stunned silence as all eyes moved to the floor, then pandemonium suddenly broke out as the crowd started grabbing the scattered cash.

“Gimme that!”

“Hey, hey, it’s his money, not yours!”

“Where’s the management? Somebody call the management in here!”

Eli turned to the redheaded woman, murmured, “Better scoot, honey,” and watched as she rose, shouldered gracefully through the shouting crowd, and disappeared through the parlor door.

Jonas was still glaring at him, his body rigid with rage, his fists clenched. “I called you a cheat, boy!” he roared. “Get up and fight me!”

Eli’s smile faded, and he put his cigar down. “You owe me an answer. Where’s Samson Kruger?”

“I owe you a beatdown, you cheating—”

Jonas shouted and charged him, and in a split second, Eli pulled his guns. There were three loud pops, and Jonas Black froze mid-charge, swayed, glared down at Eli in astonishment, staggered back a pace, then fell full-length on the carpeted floor.

Everyone in the room froze, stared at him, and then at Eli’s smoking guns as he sat unmoving in his chair. A tense, heavy silence hung for a moment or two as Eli’s eyes moved from one corner of the room to the other.

Eli challenged the crowd with his eyes, but even the threat of his gleaming pistols couldn’t smother the greed for his winnings. Soon a voice from the back of the room piped up, “That’s mine; I saw it first. Leggo of that necklace!”

“It’s mine and I’ll keep it!”

“The devil you say!”

There was a sudden crash, followed by frantic struggling, and in what seemed like less than a second, the whole parlor erupted into a wholesale brawl over the money and other valuables lying scattered on the floor.

Eli’s glance snapped to the men who’d come in with Jonas Black. They were right in the thick of the swinging fists in the middle of the room, even though their friend was lying dead at their feet.

Eli holstered his pistols, stood up, dodged a man thrown through the air, and closed in on the closest of Jonas’ fellow gang members.

He reached for him from behind, grabbed him by the collar of his coat, and dragged him backward, across the room, and out onto the riverboat balcony. The scent of horse, chewing tobacco, and unwashed arm pits trailed through the air after him, and Eli grimaced as he pushed him up against the deck rail.

“Hey!”

Eli shoved him halfway over the ornate iron bars. The man screamed and flailed with his arms as he dangled twenty feet over the surface of the Mississippi River.

Eli leaned into his quarry and grunted, “Where’s Samson Kruger? Quick, or you’re going over!”

The man’s expression hardened, and he shook his head stubbornly. “I don’t know!” he barked, and Eli grabbed his trouser waistband and prepared to toss him overboard. The man screamed and scrabbled helplessly for the rail.

“Where he is? This is your last chance!”

The man turned his head to stare at the dark water flowing far below. “The Indian, the Indian territory!” he gasped.

“You’re lying,” Eli growled.

“It’s the truth, I swear it!” he gargled. “Let me up!”

Eli scanned his face through narrowed eyes and let him sweat for a few seconds more. “All right,” he grunted at last and hauled the thug up again. He let the man’s feet touch the deck, then nailed him hard across the jaw and watched the wretch roll his eyes up and slide to the floor.

“Thanks for your help,” Eli murmured. He leaned down and reached into the thug’s pocket to reclaim five hundred dollars of his winnings, then buttoned his own jacket and stepped over the man on the way back to the chaotic poker parlor.

It was a scene of bedlam inside. Eli reached out to catch another hundred-dollar bill fluttering through the air, then shouldered through the melee, through the riverboat security rushing into the room and down the carpeted grand staircase.

Tessie was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs with one hand twined around the golden newel post. She trained her lovely green eyes on him, and the look in them was sad and knowing.

“You’re not leaving, are you, Eli?” she asked softly.

Eli paused to put a hand to her cheek, and her eyes glistened as they searched his face. He leaned in to kiss her.

“Goodbye, Tessie,” he whispered, then turned and walked out into the soft Memphis night.

Chapter Two

Low Plains, Tennessee
1855

“Wait for the wagon, wait for the wagon,
Wait for the wagon, and we’ll all take a ride.”

Belle Hampton clapped her hands to the music and watched in smiling approval as the dancers whirled over the grass just beyond the gathered crowds. It was the Founder’s Day celebration, the annual party to celebrate the establishment of Low Plains, and the whole town had turned out to dance and enjoy an all-day picnic on the grounds.

A makeshift dance floor had been roped off on the meadow just outside of town, and flags and balloons fluttered from a dozen tables set out just beyond. Every granny in town had brought her specialty dish to the party, and the picnic tables were groaning under the weight of the accumulated platters: fried chicken, smoked ham, mounds of buttered biscuits, green beans, and bacon, sliced tomatoes, fried okra.

Belle’s little brother Sam pulled a peppermint stick out of his mouth and pointed at their parents as they danced on the lawn. Titus and Mary Lynn Hampton whirled right along with the younger dancers, and Belle shook her head and smiled. “Yeah, they’re a sight, all right. Still prancing around at their age!”

“Wait for the wagon, wait for the wagon,
Wait for the wagon, and we’ll all take a ride.”

Sam turned mischievous eyes to hers and elbowed her in the ribs. “Maybe if you’d dressed up pretty like the other girls in town and hadn’t come to the party wearing Pa’s old coat and hat, one of the boys here’d ask you to dance, Belle.”

Belle tossed a long brown braid over her shoulder, sticking her peppermint stick into her mouth. “That’s right, I didn’t dress up. That should tell you something,” she retorted. “I haven’t seen anybody around here I wanna dress up for.”

Sam frowned faintly and quizzed her with his eyes. “Nobody, Belle?”

“Nope, not so far,” Belle replied serenely. “All I see around this town are green-behind-the-ears boys. I know as much as they do about running a farm, and I can run faster and shoot straighter than most. I can tot up numbers better and lick more than half of ’em in a fight. I’m not looking for somebody I can beat.”

Sam’s eyes widened. “What are you looking for, Belle?”

Belle turned to smile at him. “A man who’s stronger than I am,” she whispered and pinched his nose.

Sam frowned and pulled away from her. “Aw, you’re gonna end up an old maid, just like Ma says,” he complained.

“Maybe.”

“You’re almost twenty-one,” Sam added glumly. “Time’s running out, Belle.”

Belle didn’t answer. Her eyes were on the dancers as the music ended and they began to drift back to the picnic tables. Her gaze skimmed her laughing parents, then moved beyond them to the edge of the meadow, where a fancy rig was just pulling up.

“Oh, here he is,” she drawled and crunched a piece of peppermint between her teeth. “The king has arrived!”

Belle made a face, and her little brother turned to look at the well-dressed, graying man climbing out of a shiny carriage. Jameson Miles was the biggest land owner within twenty miles of town and the most successful rancher.

“Mr. Miles is just a little better off than most folks, that’s all,” Sam replied mildly. “Why don’t you like him, Belle?”

Belle gave her gentle brother an indulgent glance, then shrugged. “I’d like him a lot better if he’d quit pestering Pa to let him buy our farm,” she retorted, shaking the peppermint stick at the newcomer. “Pa’s told him no, but he just won’t let it go. Reminds me of a dog on a bone. I don’t like the way he treats us,” she muttered and watched the older man through narrowed eyes as he began moving through the crowd, shaking hands and slapping backs. “But you know how Pa is,” Belle sighed. “He won’t say boo to anybody. I’m afraid ol’ Jameson will wear him down, and then where will we be?”

“Richer?” Sam ventured, and Belle snorted.

“No,” she retorted, “not if I know Jameson Miles! Our farm’s got the best spring in the county. Ol’ Jameson wants it, and he can be a mean man if he doesn’t get what he wants. It gives me a bad feeling.”

“You worry too much,” Sam mumbled, then perked up. “Belle, look!” He elbowed her ribs and nodded toward another boy approaching them. “Here comes Cade Briggs, and he’s looking right at you!”

Belle glanced briefly at Cade. The young man was sure enough looking right at her, and walking toward her, too.

Sam gripped her arm in excitement. “He’s coming over to ask you to dance,” he hissed. “Don’t tell him to go boil his head this time, Belle, and maybe he’ll be your beau!”

“I don’t see why you’re excited about it,” Belle mumbled. Her eyes were on Jameson Miles as he moved through the crowd. He was slowly but surely working his way toward her father, who had finished dancing and was on the sidelines.

Cade strolled up with his hands in his pockets. He tilted his dark head and smiled. “Well, are you two going to sit out all the fun?” he asked, glancing meaningfully at Belle.

Sam piped up instantly. “Oh, Belle was just saying how she wished somebody would ask her to dance, didn’t you, Belle?”

Belle frowned. Her eyes were on her father as Jameson Miles walked up and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “I guess,” she replied absently. She saw her father glance up with a worried look as Jameson led him off to one side, away from the other people.

Cade’s face brightened. “Well, no need to be a wallflower,” he said smiling. “You wanna dance, Belle?”

Belle watched in growing concern as Jameson bent over her father and spoke to him with a keen expression on his thin face. “No,” she murmured and stood up to get a better look at the two men.

Cade’s face fell. “You don’t want to dance?” he stammered.

Belle saw her father break free of Jameson’s grip on his arm, shake his head vehemently, and back away a pace. Jameson’s earnest look darkened into a scowl, and he threw up his hands as if he was arguing.

“But … Sam said you wanted to dance,” Cade objected with a puzzled look.

Belle’s frown deepened as Jameson leaned over her father and poked his chest with an angry finger as if berating him.
“Maybe you should ask Sam to dance, then,” she mumbled, then added, “pardon. I’m going to go check on something.”

Sam wailed in objection, but Belle’s eyes were on her father, on the look of fear on his face as the richest man in the county apparently threatened him. She was too far away to hear what Jameson was saying, but it wasn’t hard to guess. He was telling her pa to sell their farm—or else.

Belle shouldered through the crowd as quickly as she could without running, but kids darted out in front of her, old ladies blocked her way, and then a familiar voice called her name.

“Belle!”

She turned around to see Cade jogging after her. “Why’d you run off so sudden?” he asked. “You ain’t mad, are you?”

Belle bit back an impatient exclamation and craned her neck to try to get a glimpse of her father. “No, I’m not mad,” she murmured, “it’s just that Jameson Miles’ got my pa cornered again, and I want to see what he’s doing.”

Cade waved a hand. “Oh, that,” he scoffed. “It’s just menfolk business, no need for you to worry about it. All kinds of horse-trading goes on at parties, Belle, don’t you know that? Ain’t no harm in it.”

“All the same,” Belle muttered. “I’ll be seeing you, Cade.” She struck off again, weaving around partygoers and dodging little kids, until she found the shaded spot on the edge of the meadow where Jameson had taken her father. To her irritation, Jameson wasn’t there anymore, but her father still was. He had his hands on his hips and was walking back and forth in agitation. When he looked up and saw her, the worried look on his face disappeared like magic, and his hands dropped to his sides.

His laugh sounded a little forced to his daughter as he chuckled. “Well, enjoying the party, Belle? Where’s Sam?”

“Back at the wagon. He’s all right.” Belle frowned and studied her father keenly. His shaggy head of gray hair was even more than usually mussed. He’d been rubbing it, as he always did when perplexed. His big, usually jovial face was red and flustered, his eyes looked worried, and he couldn’t keep his hands still, a sure sign of trouble.

Belle crossed her arms. “I saw Jameson Miles come over to talk to you,” she told him. “What did he want this time?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing.” Her father shrugged and turned away to gaze out toward Miles’ shiny carriage. “Not everything has to be about business, daughter.”

“Huh,” Belle grunted. “He looked mad to me. Riled up. I could see it all the way across this field.”

Her father turned back to her and plastered a wide if unconvincing smile across his face. “Now, now, Belle,” he soothed and took her arm. “You’re a lovely young girl at a party. It would be a crime for you to fret on such a happy day. Go find a partner and dance awhile. It’ll drive every worry right out of your head. It always does for me!”

Belle’s frown deepened. “That won’t work for me,” she replied softly. “What did Jameson say to you if it wasn’t about business? I know it wasn’t ‘Howdy do, Titus, how’s the wife and kids.’ I worry about that one, Pa. He may clean up pretty, but he’s bad; it’s plain as print. It may as well be stamped across his face!”

Her father took her by the shoulders and smiled down into her eyes. “Everything’s fine, Belle, I promise,” he whispered and leaned in to kiss her cheek. “Now go, find a young man and dance; I command you!”

Belle sighed and looked away. “Oh, Pa,” she sighed, and her father laughed and kissed her again.

“Go and dance. It’s my final word.”

Belle turned to watch her father with helpless love as he walked away. There was no talking to him. He simply refused to admit that there was such a thing as evil in the world. That some people were bad right to the bone.

But that was all right. That was what his eldest was for. Belle shook her head and followed after him slowly. Her father was the soft one, the trusting, happy one, and so she had to be the tough one. The hard, skeptical, observant one.

Her folks didn’t have a strong young son to protect the family. Sam was seven years old and frail. She was all they had, so she would be all they needed.

But as Belle walked back across the meadow, she focused on the shiny carriage on the far side of it. Having asked his question and gotten his answer, Jameson had stopped even pretending to rub elbows with the ordinary folk, and she watched as he climbed back into his rig, nodded to his driver, and left the party.

It was one more worry to add to the list of things that troubled her, and she watched the rig through narrowed eyes until it slowly disappeared behind a bend in the narrow country road.

 


“Flames Along the Wagon Train” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

In the heart of the turbulent post-Civil War South, Eli Montgomery, a skilled gambler with a shadowy past, finds himself drawn into a deadly gamble with dangerous adversaries. When a high-stakes card game leads to a deadly confrontation, Eli’s quest for answers takes him on a dangerous journey. As he follows the trail of his elusive target, the notorious Samson Kruger, he might discover more secrets than he anticipated…

A saddlebag full of stolen money, and a ruthless outlaw vowing to get it back…

Belle Hampton, a strong-willed farm girl, faces her own trials as tragedy strikes her family’s homestead. Determined to uncover the truth behind the devastating fire that ravaged their land, she dresses up as a boy and her path intertwines with Eli’s, complicating matters further.

Who among her newfound companions can she truly trust in a world where deceit and betrayal reign supreme?

As Eli and Belle traverse the rugged frontier, they confront their deepest fears and forge an unlikely bond amidst the chaos of lawless terrain. But as danger looms ever closer, will they emerge unscathed, or will their quest for justice lead them down a path fraught with peril and bloodshed?

“Flames Along the Wagon Train” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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