The first versions of Until... included the murder of the heroine's brother, but I dropped it from the final version because having my hero arriving in the mining camp and finding my heroine covered in blood (not her brother's) was far more dramatic.
But I still liked this bit so I didn't totally erase it, but saved it with the intention of sharing it with readers who might be curious about what happened to Kit Kittridge. Particularly because no one seems to realize he was murdered until my hero begins putting things together.
So, here is the deleted piece, which I called a "Prelude" rather than a "Prologue". Prelude fit what it was much better. Now, enjoy...and then snap up Until... itself!
Boise Basin, Idaho Territory, January 1863
Outside the cozy confines of The Gilded Moon Saloon the weather was having a tantrum. Snow, wind, and temperatures fit to turn the hottest blooded of men into ice did its best to ravage the mining camp. Inside the saloon, it was as toasty as a cast iron stove chocked full of wood could make it. What the stove didn’t take care of, liberal doses of whiskey did.
Five men sat at the table, cards in their hands. Ebner Melton, one of the earliest to arrive at the gold strike, held the fanned-out cards in his hand close as he studied them. Burl Bergen, who owned the general store, sat next to him, his cards tilted so that only his crotch knew the number of pips on them. Since there was no one currently residing in the cell at his office, Sheriff Linus Strand held down the chair to Bergen’s left, leaning back in it as he viewed the hand he’d been dealt. Fintan Foley, owner of the illustrious Gilded Moon, had pushed his chair back a bit from the table, the better to stretch out his long legs. He’d taken a gander at his hand then stacked the cards neatly together, letting them rest against his thigh.
Kit Kittridge lorded it over them all in the fifth chair. From the way he spoke, carried himself, and dressed, they all knew he’d once been a rich man back East, and though he never mentioned any of that, he tended to treat them all as his inferiors. Every one of them knew the man was near as dirt poor as any of the former farmers, milk carriers, trolley car conductors, factory workers, or whatever the gold fevered greenhorns who arrived on foot were. Kittridge had been stupid enough to ride into town with his sister perched behind him on the nag. A mule that had seen better days trailed behind, carrying the two Easterners’ sum worth. If the Kittridges hadn’t resembled each other so closely, some would have suspected she was a doxy he’d charmed into warming his bedroll along the trail. But they did have the look of siblings in the way their faces were put together that had nothing to do with both being blond, green eyed and out-of-place in the wilds of Idaho Territory. Kittridge had his cards stacked face down on the table before him, seemingly unconcerned over the hand he held.
They’d all sat at the table with him more than they cared to admit and, before this night, felt they knew his tells. At that moment, not a one of them had the slightest idea what kind of cards he’d been dealt. He sprawled in the chair at his ease, ignoring the shot glass before him. They all knew he traced his finger around the rim of it when he had a good hand, and tossed off the contents when he bluffed. Tonight, he sat there simply watching each of them, a slight smile curving his lips. Not the full-bodied grin used when he had a bad hand and intended to mislead them, but one they’d never seen before. He looked simply content, a man enjoying an evening with convivial company, not men intent on emptying his pockets as they knew he was intent on emptying theirs.
There was a comfortable pile of coins and greenbacks before Kittridge, and an even more comfortable pile tossed in the center of the table. It was obviously going to be the final game of the night and each player hoped he’d go home the winner.
Hope was all they could do. The four watching Kit Kittridge had a bad feeling that this last hand was going to go his way, not theirs.
“Hell,” Burl Bergen said. “The wife’ll be on me ov’r how long I been gone und I’d sooner know if she’s got good reason ta be riled. Raise it forty.” He pitched the required coins on the table.
“Too rich for me,” Sheriff Strand declared and tossed his cards down.
Foley lifted the pasteboards in his hand, fanned them out again, stared at them, then sighed deeply. “Fold,” he said and let what he’d been dealt drop to the table.
Kittridge let his long aristocratic fingers lift and drop the coins piled before him, creating a calliope of contemplation. “Damn, in for a dollar, in for hell of a lot more.” He tossed enough to the center of the table to match Bergen’s bet. “Call,” he said and added fifty more in greenbacks.
“Shit,” Melton growled around the ill-smelling cigar gripped between his teeth. “I’m out.” His cards hit the table.
“What are you holding, Burl?” Kit asked.
The shopkeeper’s face broke into a wide smile of satisfaction as he matched the Easterner’s bet. “Three ladies und two young bucks,” he announced, showing the spread of three queens and two jacks. “A full house. What’re ya holdin’, Kittridge?”
Rather than answer, Kit laid his cards on the table one at a time to show the ten of diamonds, the jack of diamonds, the queen of diamonds, the king of diamonds, and finally, the ace of diamonds. “I think a royal flush beats your full house, though it was quite a royal house. Sorry, Bergen, but all is not lost. I believe my sister and I owe you close to forty dollars on our account?” Having drawn the pot to mingle with his earlier winnings, Kittridge separated three twenty-dollar gold pieces from the cache. “This should clear the account and put us twenty dollars ahead. Letty will be relieved that she can stock the larder again.”
Bergen pushed away from the table and pocketed the coins. “The wife und I’ll be right pleased ta help her,” he said slipping his arms into his coat.
“Think I’ve got an account to settle with you as well, Foley.” Kit pushed several folded bills over to the saloon owner. “And a gambling I.O.U. to retrieve from you, Strand.” More coins exchanged hands. “Do I owe you anything, Melton?”
“Unfortunately for me, no you do not,” the man admitted, ramming his hat down to his ears. “Evening, gents. Been a pleasant night.” He was the first to broach the walk back home to his heavily reinforced tent.
Strand and Bergen were at his heels.
“Think I could have another drink to fortify myself before becoming one with the elements, Foley?” Kit asked as he tucked greenbacks in an inner pocket of his weskit then the coins in his trouser pockets. “It’s nights like this that I wish Letty and I had found a place in the camp rather than the cabin outside of it. Still, cramped though it is, we were lucky it was available.”
“Not so lucky fer the man who built it,” Foley said as he refilled Kittridge’s shot glass. “’Course if he hadn’t gotten drunk on Rosser’s gut-eatin’ liquor and drew on his partner, he wouldn’t have exchanged it for the six feet under where we planted him.”
Kit leaned back in his chair, tilting it on the rearmost legs and grinned. “Very fortunate for Lett and I that he had a temper as well as an unquenchable thirst. Why’d he draw on his partner?”
“Difference of opinion on the war, of course.”
“Politics,” Kit mused. “It was all we talked about in Boston, but I must admit I don’t miss having it be the only topic of conversation.” Letting the chair drop back on all fours, he tossed off the dram of whiskey and reached for the heavy outer coat he’d tossed aside on an empty table earlier. “Your mention of Rosser reminds me I owe him as well. Best pay it off while I’m still plump of pocket. Tell the lovely Moira that her pie tonight was worthy of any confection served in the best restaurants in Boston.”
“She’ll be pleased,” Foley said.
Kittridge finished buttoning his overcoat and turned up the collar before setting his dark bowler hat at a jaunty angle. “Sleep well, Fintan,” he wished and slipped out the door.
Rosser’s place was on his way home. Not the most convivial of saloons, or the safest, but when a man scraped by on what he could make at a card table, he went where the players were. And there were always plenty of bad players at Rosser’s.
Except for Rosser himself. Kit blamed the ill-advised loss to the man on the number of drinks he’d had one fateful night.
His business with the saloon owner was brief but when he left the premises his heart was light. Not only had he kept his wits at the cards, for a change he’d managed to clear all outstanding debts and still have a hefty amount to hand over to Letty for safe keeping. He’d promised her San Francisco and come spring he intended to make good on that vow.
As he trod through the snow toward the meager cabin a quarter mile outside of camp, what few lamps remained lit in the ramshackle buildings blinked out. All but those at Rosser’s.
Kit glanced back and shook his head. If he was smart, he’d give that bar a wide margin in the future. Nothing good ever happened for the clientele. Rosser made damn sure of that.
The storm was doing its damnest to bury the camp. Concentrating on forging his own trail through the most recent snow accumulation, Kit seemed unaware that the shadow of a man stalked him from the forest, closing the distance between them with every stride he took.
Kit hummed a tune to himself, one he’d favored from the low dives he’d enjoyed visiting in Boston, before the disastrous loss of the family fortune had sent him barreling west with Letty in tow.
When the hunter was nearly on him, Kit turned swiftly, a knife in his gloved hand. “I’m not a flat, boyo,” he snarled. “I know when a man is stalking me.” Hell, the thrill of besting the most feral lads in the slums back home had been what lured him to their neighborhoods in the past. They always underestimated their betters.
Then he realized he knew the man he faced.
“Oh, hell!” Kit snarled, but that flash of recognition had put him off his guard just long enough for the other to act.
The assailant seconded Kittridge’s words. No longer could he simply deliver a clout to the back of the man’s head, quickly rifle his pockets then melt back into the forest, unidentified and with his finances improved.
The situation had changed.
He had to kill his mark.
The assailant lunged forward, taking Kittridge by surprise, knocking the knife from his hand. The Eastern dandy fell into a boxing stance, the action so effortless the thief knew the man was quite familiar with the rules of the ring.
But this was no ring.
He avoided Kittridge’s strike toward his jaw and, pulling the scarf from around his own neck, got behind his target. The fabric was bulky compared to a rope, but habits of old died hard. As though binding an animal’s legs prior to a branding, he twisted the ends of the scarf around Kittridge’s throat quickly and yanked the Easterner off his feet. Then, a knee to his victim’s back, the thief drew the makeshift weapon tighter until Kittridge was clawing at it, attempting to pull the cloth free enough to breathe. The attacker had no intention of letting him do so and kept the tension taunt long after Kittridge had slumped, a dead weight against him. Only then did he release his grip and let the dead man tumble to the snow.
Hastily unbuttoning his victim’s overcoat, he fumbled in the man’s pockets, extracting Kittridge’s winnings. He stuffed the money in his own coat pockets then took the time to rebutton the dead man’s coat.
To obscure his footprints in the snow, he broke off a branch from a low hanging pine to drag behind him all the way back to his own cabin. When he slipped into bed it was to stare up at the timbers overhead knowing sleep would not come easily. Killing a man made him drunk in an entirely different way than indulging in spirits did. Made him feel alive as nothing else ever had. The euphoria hadn’t embraced him in years. He was no longer a young buck surviving on his brawn and the friendship of men just like him. None of them had feared death. They had reveled in it. Since then he’d become a different man.
Or thought he had.
With the cash in his money box dwindling away, and his creditor demanding a higher interest rate, the pile of winnings Kittridge had taken in that night had been too much of a temptation.
He’d get away with the theft, with the murder. There was nothing to tie him to the scene. To all intents and purposes, Kit Kittridge had passed out on his way home after consuming a lot of whiskey. The weather would take the blame for his death for his body would be frozen by the time anyone found him.
Copyright February 2021 Beth Daniels / Beth Henderson
Until . . . by Beth Henderson releases April 5th, 2021, from The Wild Rose Press.