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The Gambler

by Lucas Rivera


With the sun at their backs, the two men reached the crest of the hill and found themselves face to face with the end of their journey, Arlot's Ridge. It was a typical frontier town, nothing more than a dusty, ramshackle group of buildings with a packed dirt path running through the center serving as the main street. The town was on a slight slope, so it had a drunken, lopsided look to it. It was almost definitely a mining settlement, Tom could see the rocky, dusty dirt wouldn't give much in the way of crops in this region. Although it was clear the settlement was inhabited, there was very little movement. As the ranger and the cook walked their horses into the town they crossed very few people going about their business, pulling carts, carrying mining tools, leading oxen for pulling wagons. The few people they did cross-eyed them suspiciously, and with a touch of... was that fear? Hunching their backs and scuttling away quickly. Not a single one offered greetings or so much as a smile. Only anxious glances that told the two men that something wasn't quite right.


"Friendly people aye?", noted Einar.


Tom shook his head as one of the men almost tripped over himself while scurrying away from the pair, "They're livin' in a hostile place Cook, I'm sure they ain't used to getting travelers", the Ranger responded quietly.


"Still, they could look a little less like we were holdin' a flamin' slinger to their head", he added as an afterthought.


The two men continued into the frontier town, passing by several huts with so much coal on them it looked like they had been lightly sprayed with black paint. They passed the sheriff's office, a two-storied building so large it could only be the mayor's house and a small general store that looked as though it hadn't sold so much as a nail in several years.


Finally, the men came upon a mean-looking, squat building with several cracked windows and a shoddy-looking door. Despite its squalid appearance loud music and laughing could be heard from inside, a stark contrast with the solemn air of the rest of the town. Tom and Einar looked at each other with raised eyebrows and surprised expressions.


"'Spose they get nicer when they get a bit o' whiskey in their system", the old Cook commented.


Tom paused for a moment before saying slowly, "I 'spose so", but he couldn't shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong in this town.


The two men dismounted, with the Ranger landing on the ground in one, smooth, practiced motion. Einar didn't land on the ground so much as he dropped and barely kept his balance.


"Shall we go see what all the fuss is about Tommy boy?", the old man declared as he strode to the decrepit door and pushed it open.


The puzzling scene before them stopped them dead in their tracks, not three feet into the saloon. Contrary to what the ruinous exterior would have suggested, the interior that greeted the pair was comfortable and homely. Three of the walls were filled with various animal heads and trophies, from deer heads with antlers so large and numerous it was a wonder the animals could lift their heads at all, to an owl bear's head still snarling even in death. The back wall facing the door was taken up by a huge bar with bar stools placed haphazardly along it. The bar looked to be well-stocked, with every kind of beer, whiskey, tequila, tonic, and alcohol imaginable. The remaining space was occupied by several round tables and booths filled with men. The men in the tavern were of the lowest specimen possible. They were dirty, unkept, drunken idiots who stank up the entire saloon with a stench that made rotten fish seem like lavender.


"And they're almost certainly all outlaws." Tom thought dryly, though he made sure to keep his face completely blank. Looking to his side he saw that Cook also wore a stone face. "Good," thought the Ranger, "At least he can recognize a ruffian when he sees one."


He had never really doubted the older man, nobody lived that long without having some brains, but it always paid to make sure your company was informed. The motley pair waded through the crowd of bandits; as they walked, Tom subtly studied each of the men and counted no fewer than six slingers on hips, and took a seat at the bar. There was no chance of leaving any time soon, if the two of them stuck their head into the tavern and ran off at the first sight of some outlaws it would make the gang suspicious, and it would mark them as easy targets. There was also no way to hide their presence, they had already been seen by every person in the room. For now, at least, all they could do was try to discourage any attempt to rob them blind and leave their carcasses in a ditch somewhere. A fine mess they had gotten into.


A short, squat man with a thin fringe of hair around his head came up to them and nervously asked if they wanted anything to drink. His small beady eyes darted every which way, as if afraid one of the outlaws might suddenly pull their slinger on him.


"Come to think of it, one of them very well might just for the hell of it." The Ranger thought as he asked for a cold one. Einar smacked his open palm on the countertop and roughly called for a pint of ale. As the two of them nursed their drinks and listened to the raucous collection of laughs, shouts, yells, and curses that surrounded them one sound caught Tom's attention over everything else. It was a laugh but it was... different.


Tom shifted his position to lean on his elbow and quickly looked over his shoulder to find the source of the laughter, and then he saw her. A strikingly beautiful tan woman clothed in a dusty cloak and a wide-brimmed hat. Her hair was auburn and cut short so it barely touched her shoulders, her eyes were a piercing emerald green that seemed to cut through whatever she was looking at with an intensity the Ranger had only ever seen when he was in a slinging duel. And she was surrounded by a group of ten bandits in the middle of a card game.


As the Ranger watched, it became clear that although she was laughing she certainly wasn't happy. She kept shooting glances at the men as if to make sure they didn't make any sudden movements. The scene reminded him vaguely of a farm dog surrounded by coyotes, for the moment they were keeping their distance, but soon enough they would close in on the dog and it would all be over. The woman quickly called for another round and the men cheered, shaking their mugs and loudly asking for more with slurred words.


The bartender quickly granted the request, filling each mug to the brim, before scuttling back behind the bar and wiping his face with a rag, "Those men have been drinkin' for five hours now. Don't know where they get the money, or where they put the alcohol".


So that was her plan, she was trying to get them drunk silly and slip out of the saloon before they knew she was gone. It was a decent enough plan, but risky. Drunk men could be fooled, but they also did foolish things. All it would take was one man to decide he wanted to make a move on her and... well the results wouldn't be pretty.


"Looks like she got caught up in a rough crowd", Cook muttered to Tom, "Probably stumbled in here much like we did".


"Most likely." Tom paused for a moment to take a swig of his drink before commenting further, "She might get out of this yet though. And she's got a mean-lookin' rifle if they do decide to get too touchy."


And indeed she did, it was a long slim spell rifle that looked as though it had been designed to fire accurately at huge distances. Too bad it wouldn't be much help in the tiny interior of the tavern, and it seemed like she would be needing a lot of help very soon.


One of the men had decided he wanted a kiss from the pretty lady and although she was doing a decent job of fending him off while appearing to play hard to get, it was becoming increasingly obvious he wasn't taking no for an answer. Tom quickly took a big swig of his beer before pounding it down on the table and standing up.


Cook kept looking straight into his ale mug and muttered, "And where are you goin'?"


"Where do ya think?", the Ranger answered curtly before striding over to the card table. Einar sighed into his mug before taking a deep gulp and throwing a couple of silvers onto the table along with a gold.


"W-what's the gold for?" The tavern keep asked, eyeing Cook nervously.


"For the trouble... and the repairs."


And with that Einar got up from the bar as well, taking his mug with him.


The outlaw was becoming even more insistent when Tom finally reached the table and exclaimed, "Why there you are sis! We've been lookin' everywhere for you. Ain't that right grandpas?"


Cook shot a nasty look at Tom suggesting that he would pay for the grandfather comment later before responding, "Why yes my dear, why on Earth did you run off? Your mother will be worried sick, come now, let's be off."


The woman looked confused for a moment, but she caught on quickly, "Oh goodness I think I lost track of time", she stood suddenly and grabbed her rifle before turning back to the men and dropping a quick curtsey, "I'm sorry gentlemen but I really should leave or my Ma will be worried."


She began to move away from the table but one of the men grabbed her wrist roughly before drunkenly stating, "Come on now pretty lady, I'm sure your Ma won't mind a couple more hands."


She tried to pull away but his grip was like iron. Tom sighed, he didn't want to have to fight his way out, but it seemed like it was inevitable at this point.


Smiling graciously Tom moved closer to the man and said, "Y'know what, I'm sure you're right, five more minutes couldn't hu-", in the middle of his sentence Tom hit him with a quick jab aimed directly at the outlaw's jaw. The drunken moron crumpled like a napkin back onto the table.


Tom thought they had about 5 seconds before the entire saloon realized what had just happened and made a break for the door with Einar and the woman close behind him. One of the bandits was faster to realize what had happened and stood to block their way.


Before Tom could do anything the green-eyed woman slipped past him and slashed the man across the throat with a knife she must've been concealing under her coat. Pushing the blood-splattered bandit aside the woman shouted over her shoulder, "Well come on you two lugs, unless you feel like takin' on the whole flamin' saloon!".


The unlikely group burst through the door out into the street at a dead run, each one heading straight for his or her horse. Tom fired an ice spell to partially block the entrance to the saloon, and by the yelps he heard inside the building he had caught a few bandits in its blast. Even with his stalling however, by the time they were all mounted and galloping out of the town, there was a flood of men pouring out of the tavern, some looking for their horses, some already aiming their spell slingers.


Tom tried to turn in his saddle and get a shot off on the slingers before they could fire but with his horse's speed and not being able to turn fully around he only managed to get one of the men with an earth spell to the stomach. The rest of his shots missed almost completely.


Cursing, Tom turned back in his saddle to reload, but as he did so something caught his eye. He looked to his side and saw the green-eyed woman sitting backward on her horse steering with nothing but her knees and aiming her spell rifle at the outlaws. She fired five shots in quick succession and the five slingers were blown off their feet, dead as doorknobs.


Bewildered, Tom glanced at Cook who shrugged and shook his head, just as confused. The woman continued shooting shot after shot, each one emptying an outlaw saddle. The band of marauders soon realized it might not be a healthy choice to continue their pursuit, and turned back to the town after a few minutes of chasing.


As the last outlaw turned his horse and began galloping back the woman stowed her rifle and grabbed hold of the saddle.


Then she swung her legs off the saddle, kicked off the ground while the horse was going full speed, and neatly swung back onto the saddle facing forward now. "I gotta thank you, fine gentlemen, I wasn't really sure how I was gonna lose those thieving rats", the woman turned to Tom and smiled brilliantly, "The name's Jolene."

Tom tipped his hat to her and offered a small smile in return, "Nice to meet you, call me Tom, and that unkept mess over there is Einar"


Einar roared with laughter, "You know ranger one of these days I'll crack your skull for all these jabs", he turned to Jolene and smiled at her so wide it seemed to split his face in two, "And where are you heading m'lady? I'd hate to leave a fellow traveler all alone with no one to guard her back."


Jolene looked down and adjusted one of her saddle straps that certainly needed no adjustment before looking up and saying, "Oh just here and there... really just traveling around, no need to worry about little ol' me."


Tom and Cook exchanged a quick glance, so she didn't want them to know where she was going, or maybe she didn't even know where she was going. Interesting.


"Well, I for one need to put into a town soon for food and ammo, I'm running low on every kinda spell," Tom said carefully, "What about you Cook? How're we doin' on food?"


Einar squinted his eyes and thought for a moment, "If I remember rightly, and I always do, we got about two days' worth o' food before we've got nothing but crumbs. That's why I was so keen to resupply here."


Jolene snorted, "The only thing you were gonna get in that dump was a hide full o' spells and knives, damn place is a rat's nest now for thieves."


"We noticed", Tom answered dryly, "would you happen to know of anywhere we could put in for supplies? Maybe get a bite to eat and a barn to sleep in?"


Jolene took a moment to answer, looking at the pair of men carefully as they rode. It was unclear what she was looking for, but she liked what she saw because she gave a slight nod and answered, "I know a spot, it ain't far. I'll ride with you at least as far as the next town" She took one more careful look at Tom before adding, "You seem like good folk".


Tom nodded silently and the trio fell into a silence for a moment before Cook shifted in his saddle, produced his lyre and began to play a saloon song about a beautiful woman stealing away husbands from their wives. Jolene gave a slight laugh at the whimsical melody before singing along in a high, clear voice.


Tom hesitated for a moment before pulling out his guitar to play in tempo with Einar's lyre and sing the lower parts of the song with Jolene. The group continued to play as they cantered off toward the next horizon and their next destination.

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