Authors: Elizabeth McKenna
A story wrapped in love and justice
Cera’s Place is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth McKenna
All rights reserved.
To my family with all my love.
“You should have told me you were with child.”
Ever since walking through the front door of his home in Boston and seeing Martha’s swollen belly, Jake Tanner had repeated those words like the chorus of a favorite song. In that moment, he had never been so angry—or so in love—with his wife. Now, as she lay on their bed fanning herself in the early summer heat, he gave in to the urge to say it again.
Martha turned her head away and sighed. “Now what good would that have done, my love, but to give you a needless worry?”
He tugged her thick, honey blond braid until she looked at him again. “I could have gotten leave sooner, maybe even more than once.”
“And what makes you more deserving than the other Union boys with wives and children at home?” She patted her bulging stomach. “We are fine. Even better now that you are here with us.”
The bed creaked when Jake shifted beside his wife. He closed his eyes for a moment, allowing himself to enjoy the coolness of the cotton sheets next to his skin. It had been months since he had slept on anything softer than a horse blanket. His hand wavered above her belly before gaining the courage to join hers. “It was just such a shock. You must have known when I was home for Christmas.”
Martha shrugged, breaking the slow rhythm of her fan. “I wanted to be sure. Things can happen.”
Jake’s stomach did a nervous flip. “But you are all right now?”
“Mama said I can do anything a woman would normally do.” She moved his hand down her belly and under her thin shift. When he found her favorite spot, she closed her eyes.
Jake leaned over and tasted the sheen of perspiration forming between her breasts. They were fuller than he remembered, straining against the soft cloth that hid them from his hungry eyes. “I’ve missed you more than I can say.”
Martha flicked her wrist and the fan snapped shut before it hit the floor. “Show me then.”
Happy to oblige, Jake balanced above her, being mindful of his weight. His eyes caressed her face, willing his brain to remember every curve, every lash. He would need these memories in the coming months to keep him sane.
He moved the tip of his tongue over her bottom lip, savoring the sweetness. When she giggled, he smiled. Her lips parted to receive his kiss, and Jake wished he could stay in this moment forever. As their lips touched, a piercing wail filled the room.
Jake jumped back from his wife, panic seizing him. The baby. He must save the baby, but where was it? The cries were louder now and carried an edge of pain. Jake searched the room, crawling on hands and knees to peer under the furniture and behind the curtains.
“Martha, please help me! I can’t find the baby!”
His wife lay silent on the bed with hands folded over her flat stomach. In place of her shift, she wore the dress from their wedding day—the one with small pink roses and lace trim that had always been his favorite. An errant breeze scattered flakes of her creamy white skin across the pillows and sheets, revealing the smooth bones of the skeleton beneath.
As he stared in horror at his once-beautiful wife, a fiery explosion shook the room. Jake dropped to the floor, covering his head with his arms. When all was still, he looked up and there in the doorway stood his old friend Daniel, his eyes staring upward, glazed and lifeless, never to see again. In his dead arms, Daniel cradled the screaming baby, chest heaving with each cry. Blood dripped from Daniel’s scalp, painting the baby’s face and body scarlet and soaking the front of Daniel’s shirt. Jake knew if he tore it open, he would see the black festering wound, courtesy of a too-young-to-be-killing Confederate soldier.
“Save us,” Daniel’s motionless mouth pronounced.
When the second explosion sounded, Jake bolted up in his rented bed, screaming. His eyes darted around the shabby room, trying to place his surroundings. Not his bedroom in Boston or a riverbank in the Indian Territory. His hands fisted over his eyes, willing his breathing to slow. San Francisco. That’s where he was. Mae’s Boarding House for 50 cents a night.
He picked up a corner of the tangled sheet and wiped the sweat from his face. Calmer, he crossed the room to the basin and splashed water over his head. Drying his skin, he let out a heavy breath into the threadbare towel.
“Complications during delivery” Martha’s mother had written. Their baby girl was stillborn and Martha died three days later from fever. And Daniel? So many men died on the battlefield that hot summer day. Despite Jake’s efforts to get him to the field hospital, when it came to his friend, the surgeons were all out of miracles.
Though this terrible nightmare had regularly haunted him over the past four years, it had been a good six months since its last visitation. He had looked upon its absence as a positive sign. Like the North and South struggling to rebuild the country, maybe he too could make a new life. He absently rubbed the spot over his still racing heart. Maybe tomorrow would bring the end to his mission and he could finally move on. Peace. What would that feel like?
He looked heavenward for the briefest moment and then across the room. The night sky glowed through the grime on the bedroom window. Jake didn’t need to look any closer to see why. He had seen that shade of sky more times than he wished to recall. Something big in the city burned. For once, the explosions in his dream were real.
The first explosion rained dust from the rafters onto Cera Cassidy’s gleaming bar top.
“What in blazes is going on now?” She flicked away the offending dirt with her rag. “I want a saloon uptown. I’m tired of this nonsense every other night.”
Surveying the room, she clucked her tongue. The men hadn’t even looked up from their card games. Her good friend and business partner Isaac Knappe continued to move his head to the beat as he pounded out a lively tune on the piano in the corner. Mary Beth Edwards weaved effortlessly through the crowd balancing a tray of dirty glasses, her pale blond curls swinging with every change in direction.
Two seconds after the second explosion, her kitchen girl, Sadie Freedom, crashed through the saloon’s wooden double doors. In her wake, she dragged a wisp of a Chinese girl who Cera had never seen before.
Holding her side, Sadie gasped for breath, her slim frame jerking from the effort. “Miss Cera! Miss Cera!”
Cera shook her head in resignation. It was going to be one of those nights.
“Lord have mercy, Miss Cera! They’re killin’ the China men!” Sadie’s hands flew to her mouth, as if by stopping her words she could stop the horrors she had just seen.
Cera froze where she stood and stared at the shaking girls. Oh Lord, she prayed, please not another riot.
The Chinese girl hung on to Sadie’s hand like a lifeline, her wild eyes taking in the room full of half-drunk white men regarding her with interest. Though tears streaked down her face, she made no sound. A mixture of blood and dirt stained her black, silk tunic. At some point during their flight, she’d lost her slippers. Bare feet peeked out from beneath her pants.
Coming to her senses, Cera hurried over to Sadie, as the girl wavered on her feet. She grabbed Sadie’s shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. “Don’t you go fainting on me now. Tell me, who’s killing the Chinese?”
“Samuel Biggs and his men…in…in Ross Alley.”
“And who’s that with you?” Cera pointed with her chin at the Chinese girl who looked no more than sixteen years old, if she was a day.
Sadie’s corn roll braids whipped side to side as she looked from the Chinese girl to her boss and then back. “I…I don’t know. She was with the China men. I reckon’d she needed help.”
Cera was about to ask her next question when the saloon doors burst open again. A boy dressed in clothes too big for his scrawny frame rushed in. “Fire! Fire in Ross Alley!”
It took only an instant for the room to empty out, as the customers poured into the street and headed for the alley.
Before the boy could follow, Cera grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him back. “Johnny, what’s going on out there?”
Excitement lit the boy’s face as he danced from foot to foot. “Kong Chow’s buildin’ is burning. There must be rockets inside. Did’ja hear the booms?”
“Did you see the China…?” That was as far as Cera got. Johnny yanked his wrist from her grasp, and the thump, thump of the swinging doors echoed behind him.
“Lord almighty, what’s all the ruckus? Did someone strike another silver vein? I sure hope they spend some of that wonderful money here.” The charming Southern drawl of Ginger Crawford, another of Cera’s serving girls, carried down from the top of the stairs leading to the saloon’s second floor. Fluffing her bright red curls, she swayed her generous hips with each step. Halfway down she stopped, her eyes widening. “What’s happened?”
“No time to explain,” Cera called over her shoulder as she headed for the saloon doors. “Sadie, go get Li from the kitchen. Ask him to talk with this girl while I’m gone.”
Isaac jumped up from the piano and hurried after her. “Cera, don’t be crazy. You could get hurt if you go out there.”
Cera shook her head at his fears. “You remember last year when the whites and Chinese got to fighting? All those buildings looted and burned during the fray? I’m not letting that happen to our saloon.”
“But I’m sure the police and firemen are already there,” Isaac persisted. “They’ll have things under control in no time.”
“I’ll be fine.” She gave an affectionate tug on his gray beard. “I just want to make sure nothing’s coming our way. I’ll be gone five minutes at the most.”
Out on the street, gas lamps cast a muted glow in the foggy night. Cera patted her skirt pocket, feeling the weight of the double-barreled Derringer that never left her side. She hesitated for a moment, shivering in the cool air, but then ran after the crowd headed in the direction of Ross Alley.
Reaching the corner of Jackson and Dupont, she stopped in awe. Flames leapt high into the sky as they consumed the three-story building standing next to Ross Alley. The wind whipped the sparks through the air like fireflies, threatening the adjoining buildings. On the sidewalk, broken glass sparkled in the firelight like a jeweler’s display of precious gems. A jumble of frantic voices and fire alarm bells added to the chaos. The sound of beating hooves drew Cera’s attention away from the fire and down the street. The fire department’s horses and wagon were coming at full gallop.
With great effort, she pushed her way to the front of the crowd. Expecting to see the dead Chinese men, she looked at the empty alley in bewilderment. Besides the slack jaws staring at the burning building, the only other people nearby were Samuel Biggs and Officer Klein. The men stood apart from the crowd, exchanging what could only be heated words from all the finger pointing and chest thumping.
Another explosion rocked the building, lighting up the night sky with a whoosh. The crowd responded with a collective cry of fright, as debris fell from the sky. The few extra seconds of brilliant light illuminated several puddles on the cobblestone in front of the alley.
Water? It hadn’t rained in days. Blood?
As Cera reached toward one of the puddles, a rough hand from behind yanked her back. Losing her balance, she fell hard, cutting her palm on a shard of glass.
“I told y’all to get back! Go on now!” Officer Klein’s face pulled into a snarl as he barked orders at the crowd.
Glaring at the officer, Cera sucked on her bleeding palm to stay silent.
“You hurt, Miss Cera?” a small voice asked. Johnny appeared at her side, sticking a hand out to help her to her feet.
Cera smiled at the boy. “Just cut my hand a bit.” She tried for one more look at the puddles, but the firemen were already pouring water on the building. Whatever was there moments ago was washed away. “Johnny, did you see anyone in Ross Alley earlier—maybe some Chinese fighting with Mr. Biggs?”
The boy shook his head. “Naw, nothin’ like that. Why?”
“Never mind. I need to head back to the saloon. Are you staying here?”
Johnny’s eyes scanned the mesmerized crowd. “I’m thinkin’ of watchin’ for awhile.”
“You’ll watch, huh? From the look on your face, I’d say you’re figuring how much money you can pinch from these people.”
Scowling, he replied, “I don’t take nothin’ they can’t afford to lose.”
Cera ruffled his hair a bit harder than she had to. “Why don’t you come by the saloon tomorrow and earn an honest wage? The floor needs a good sweeping and I’m sure Li could use some help in the kitchen.”
“Sure thing, Miss Cera,” Johnny agreed before slipping into the crowd.
Hurrying back the way she came, Cera puzzled over what she had—and hadn’t—seen. Obviously, from the looks of Sadie and the Chinese girl, something murderous had happened, so where was the proof? Had someone taken the bodies away before the crowd came out to gawk?
“She is Hu Wong, daughter of Chen Wong,” Li Chan explained to Cera when she arrived at the saloon. He sat at a table with Hu and Sadie, while Isaac, Mary Beth, and Ginger stood nearby, their faces reflecting concern.
Cera frowned. “That’s all she’s said so far?”
Li shook his head. “She say nothing. I know her.”
“Should we go find her family?” Cera asked.
Li shrugged. “Mother die on ship to America. Father have laundry shop. No more family.”
Cera sighed and rubbed her forehead, trying to stop the dull throb taking over inside her head. “Sadie, what happened out there?”
Sadie stopped wiping the dried blood from Hu’s face. “Well, ma’am, I was coming from visitin’ a friend, when I saw a China man and Mr. Biggs arguin’. The China man was waving his arms all ‘round and shouting up a storm. Then Mr. Biggs hit him hard—right in the face—and the China man fell to his knees. Some other China men came a runnin’ to help, but the men with Mr. Biggs had clubs…” Sadie’s voice faltered. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, grimacing at the memory. “The girl here was cryin’ and such. When the white men beat all the China men to the ground, I grabbed her and ran.”
Cera nodded. “I would have done the same.” She walked behind the bar and poured a shot of whiskey. Setting it in front of Hu, she motioned for her to drink.
Hu’s hand shook as she brought the glass to her mouth, but when the smell of the raw alcohol reached her nose, she made a sour face and set it back down.
Cera pushed the glass at her again.
Giving in, Hu swallowed the liquor and promptly broke into a coughing fit.
Satisfied, Cera asked the girl, “Do you speak English? I can speak some of your language, but it might insult your ears.”
“I speak English.”
“Good. Then can you tell me why your people and Biggs were fighting?”
Hu shook her head, burying her face in her hands. Her shoulders moved up and down as she silently cried.
Blowing air from her cheeks, Cera hunkered down beside Hu and took her hands away from her face. She held them until the girl looked at her. “You are safe here. I—we,” nodding toward Li, “will protect you, but I need to know what happened.”
Hu stared at Cera for several moments, but finally, as if making a decision, she began her story.
“You know Chinese brothel? It small shack with bars on window and door. Many girl live in shack. When girl see man, she show bosom. Make him want to buy. All night you hear girl call, ‘two bits to look, four bits to feel, six bits to do’. Girl live terrible life. Girl sad, take opium every day.
“Girl not want this work. Men tricky. Say if leave China and go to America, girl marry rich man. But not true. My father know Samuel Biggs buy girl from Hip Yee and Choy Poy for brothels. If they no have girl, Biggs steal girl from street. Tonight, my father tell Biggs to stop and my father die in alley like dog.”
“Who are Hip Yee and Choy Poy?” Cera asked. For the most part, the Chinese kept to themselves, but the names sounded familiar and rumors were as plentiful as the foggy nights in San Francisco.
Hu wiped a palm across her wet cheek. “They run Chinese Tong. They bad.”
Isaac let out a low whistle and exchanged a look with Cera. They both knew the Tong controlled the Chinese community, by force if necessary. “Are you sure Biggs is involved in these kidnappings? He has a lot of influence with the city officials. I have never much cared for him but if it is true, I’m not sure if we will be able to convince the police to do anything. Did your father have any proof?”
“One night, my father see two men put girl, Lan Chiu, in Biggs’ wagon. My father go to Chiu house. Lan no come home. My father see Biggs and say ‘Where you take Lan Chiu?’ Then…” Hu stopped, unable to go on.
Pacing the length of the bar, Cera considered Hu’s story. She wasn’t sure what could be done. Since the Chinese community didn’t trust the whites, she knew they wouldn’t talk to the police willingly. Yet, for the sake of these girls, Biggs and the Chinese Tong had to be stopped.
“I have more bad news.” Cera hesitated, not knowing how to tell Hu what she had seen. “When I went to the alley, no one was there but Biggs and Officer Klein. The bodies of your father and his friends were gone.”
Speechless, Hu gaped at Cera.
“That’s why there was a fire,” Isaac said, coming to the realization Cera had already formed. “They needed to get rid of the bodies to hide the killings.”
“That’s what I reckon. I saw some puddles that were probably blood—” Cera stopped short when Hu’s face began to crumble. “Anyway, what it comes down to is the word of a colored kitchen girl and a Chinese laundry girl against an influential white man. I can tell you right now who’s going to win that one in court.”
“Do you know the names of any other girls who have gone missing?” Isaac asked.
Gripped with grief, Hu managed to nod.
“Good.” Isaac rubbed his palms together briskly, in a no-nonsense manner. “Li can talk to their families. Maybe if we get enough people to come forward, the authorities will listen to us.”
Cera started to pace again. “That’s a good plan, Isaac. How about if—”
Ginger interrupted her boss. “How’s about if I take Hu upstairs and find a bed for her? She’s as pale as a magnolia petal. This can all wait until the morning, after she’s rested some.”
Hu raised her eyes to Li. Behind the redness, there was fear, but Li nodded reassuringly.
“Come with me, honey.” Ginger helped Hu to her feet and wrapped a protective arm around her. “Now don’t you worry none. Cera’s real good at putting things right.”
“Thank you,” Hu whispered and bowed her head.
“Remember Hu, you are safe here. I told you I would protect you and I meant it.” Cera clenched her fists at her sides. Her temper rose and she welcomed it. “Men like Biggs think the rules don’t apply to them. They are the worst kind of lowlife. Taking him down will be a great pleasure.”
When Ginger and Hu were out of earshot, Sadie turned to Cera. “Are we safe, boss? Biggs knows we saw him murder those men. If he recognized me, you can bet he’ll come a-calling.”
Cera bit her lip, but then took Sadie’s hands in her own and squeezed them. “I know. I just didn’t want to bring that up and scare you all more. I think you and Hu had better stay out of sight when customers are around for the next few days until we figure out what to do. And what I said to Hu goes the same for you. You’re like my family and I will do everything I can to keep you safe. Now, why don’t you go upstairs and get some rest. We’ll deal with this mess in the morning.”
Sadie nodded. “I’m sorry for bringin’ trouble to your doorstep. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Cera held up her hand. “Not another word. Get to bed.”
Cera kept the saloon open for a few more hours, but only a handful of the regulars returned. Every now and then, another explosion rocked the neighborhood, signaling the fire still burned strong.
After closing, Cera climbed the stairs to the bedrooms where she and her serving girls lived. From the upper landing, she looked down at the barroom. So much hard work just to have a saloon in the worst part of San Francisco, it almost made her laugh. Still, she was grateful. Not many women were given the chance to own their own business—she had Isaac to thank for that. Without his agreement to be a silent partner, the bank would never have lent her the start-up money. Of course, a few palms were also greased along the way. Officer Klein enjoyed his share of their profit on a monthly basis.
Two decades ago, her folks came West in the hopes of finding a fortune in gold, but that hadn’t happened and her parents were long dead. The Chinese men in Ross Alley came to this country looking for a better life as well. For a short time, they found it but now they were dead. Her heart went out to Hu. Grief was a hard parcel to carry. Maybe if she could give the girl some justice, it would make the load lighter.
While Jake walked the streets looking for Cera’s Place, he paid no heed to the vendors hawking their wares or the saloon girls calling out for company. San Francisco reminded him of a whore trying to buy respectability. In the distance, he could see the beautiful homes on Rincon Hill built by the newly wealthy, but here in the Barbary Coast things remained ugly and dangerous.
As he passed yet another dance hall, a bleary-eyed drunk stumbled out the door, knocking shoulders with him. The man exhaled the stench of stale beer along with a mumbled apology before lurching away. Jake gave him a quick nod, and then felt his coat pocket, ensuring his money was still intact.
He had asked around about Cera’s Place when he first got into town, and the response had always been the same. The saloon was well known for its good food, strong drink, and the tough Irish owner who didn’t allow any shenanigans. Unlike the surrounding businesses, Cera’s girls only dealt cards to their male customers. If you wanted more, you had to take your desires elsewhere.
When he finally found the saloon on the corner of Kearney and Washington, it seemed out of place among the other dilapidated buildings in the neighborhood. The bright white wood trim looked recently painted, and the freshly cleaned windows reflected the late-morning sun. He chuckled just a bit at the sign in the window: Mind Your Manners—or Leave. Thank You.
Jake wondered if this time he would find Daniel’s daughter so he could finally fulfill his promise to his friend. Even though he had been this close before only to be disappointed, he allowed a small flicker of hope to come alive before he pushed the saloon doors open.
He waited for his eyes to adjust to the smoky room. It wasn’t what he expected. An intricately carved bar ran the length of the wall to his left. Creamy wallpaper in a fleur de lis and rose pattern gave the place more elegance than the average saloon. A young boy busily swept the plank floor clean of peanut shells, cigar butts, and ash. About three quarters of the small tables were occupied with men either eating or gambling, and in the corner, a fairly competent piano player provided music.
A few serving girls circulated the room, their laughter mingling with the grunts of the coarse men. He wondered if the patrons found it frustrating that these girls weren’t for hire. He had visited plenty of saloons in his life and more often than not, it took either a dark room or several drinks to make the upstairs girls come even close to the vitality these possessed.
Seeing an empty table, he picked his way across the room. He considered asking straightaway about Daniel’s daughter, but decided he needed food and drink first. If the girl was here, there was plenty of time to find her. Time was all Jake had to his name.
He eased his body into a spindle-backed chair and stretched out his legs. Still feeling the effects of riding for two weeks straight, he shifted his sore muscles around trying to find a comfortable position. A tall, raven-haired woman approached and for a moment, Jake forgot he was in a saloon. The woman moved toward him as if she were queen and the room her royal court. Why was someone of such strong bearing serving drinks? He didn’t have time to think of an answer before she reached his table.
“Can I get you a drink, sir?”
He placed the woman’s accent somewhere east of Europe. It reminded him of a band of gypsies he met a few years back. This woman had the same olive skin and high cheekbones. Jake nodded politely. “Whiskey and a beer—and some food if any is available.”
The woman’s smile was friendly, though the warmth didn’t quite reach her dark eyes. “Certainly. We’re serving a stew today with a small loaf of bread.”
“That sounds fine.”
“Coming right up.”
The woman soon returned with a tray of delicious smelling food, a mug of beer, and a shot of whiskey. Jake’s stomach rumbled in anticipation. After setting the items in front of him with an unexpected flair of elegance, she tilted her head and asked, “Are you new in town? I don’t think we have seen you here before.”
“No, you haven’t.” Not ready to continue the conversation without a full stomach, he focused his eyes on the food instead of her face.
After a few beats of silence, she took his hint. “Well, then, my name is Sonya. If you want anything else, just ask. If you are feeling lucky, there are a few openings at the gaming tables.”
Regretting his shortness with her, he replied, “Thank you kindly, but this should be all I need for now.”
With a nod, Sonya excused herself. She made her way to the bar, charming the men in her path.
He drank the whiskey in one gulp, allowing the warmth of the alcohol to work its magic on his sore muscles. Taking a small bite of the stew, he closed his eyes and savored the rich flavor. Its taste was as good as its smell.
As he sopped up the last drop of the stew with a chunk of bread, another woman came hustling out of the kitchen carrying a bottle of liquor in each hand. She had no sooner placed them on the bar than a roughneck grabbed her around the waist and spun her in a clumsy circle. Alarmed, Jake rose out of his chair and took two steps before he realized his help wouldn’t be needed.
“Oh, now stop that, Charlie.” The woman laughed as she put out her arms to keep her balance. “You behave yourself and let me work or I’ll be tossing you out on your bum.”
“Sounds fine by me, Cera, as long as your bum comes too,” Charlie slurred with a lopsided smile. He reached out again with an unsteady hand, but Cera pushed it aside.
“This is your final warning.” She wagged her finger, as if scolding a child. “Don’t make me get my stick.” Though she barely raised her voice, it was enough. Charlie shrugged sheepishly before plopping into a chair and taking up his cards again.
Jake sat down also. So, this was the famous owner of the saloon and not another serving girl. Though her royal blue dress showed off her smallish waist, it was plainer than the other women’s were. Her shimmering auburn hair coiled loosely on top of her head, as if the hairstyle was an afterthought on her list of duties for the day. All in all, she wasn’t the most fashionable lady he had ever seen, but she sparkled—and he wasn’t the only one who noticed. Every man watched Cera as she went about her barroom duties.
Jake pushed the reason he had come to the saloon to the back of his mind and settled down with his beer. After his arduous journey, he decided he deserved a few minutes of self-indulgence—and for the first time in a long time looking upon a woman brought pleasure to his tired eyes.
Cera noticed the stranger while she leaned against the bar, drinking her third cup of coffee for the day. It was the first chance she’d had to catch her breath. Business was brisk, as everyone wanted to talk about last night’s fire over some food and drinks.
He sat alone, hunched down into his faded officer’s coat, reminding Cera of the many war-weary drifters who had passed through her place. His worn boots rested casually on the seat of a chair, and though his Stetson sat low over his eyes, she got the sense he could see just fine. He seemed to be waiting.
More often than not, Cera could see trouble coming. When she looked at this stranger, an uneasy feeling rose in her belly. Unfortunately, she couldn’t decide if it was because of the bowie knife and Colt revolver strapped to his sides or because his tangled, dark hair and chiseled jaw made him the best-looking man she had seen in months.
As she pondered the stranger, his face moved out of the shadows, revealing a thick jagged scar running from the outer edge of his left eye to the corner of his mouth. Startled by the sight, Cera’s hand jerked, sloshing coffee over the cup’s rim. Their eyes met and, for an instance, Cera thought she saw a flash of anger in the stranger’s gaze.
Embarrassed, she turned away to hide the blush blooming in her cheeks. As she wiped her wet hand on her apron, she chided herself for such squeamish behavior. Since the end of the War Between the States, plenty of men had walked through the saloon’s doors with injuries far worse than a scar. There was no reason for this one to unsettle her.
When her composure returned, she sought out Ginger. “See that drifter over there?” She inclined her head slightly in the stranger’s direction. “Has he said anything to you?”
“Oh my, my, my, that dusty Yankee? I’ve been trying to catch his eye since he sat down. I think they’re blue, by the way. Too bad about his face, but luckily I’ve never liked my men prettier than me.”
Cera laughed, despite her present worries. “Well then, you’re the perfect girl to go charm him—find out what he’s about.”
Ginger’s painted on eyebrows knitted together as she cast a discreet glance at the stranger. “You think he’s trouble?”
“Maybe, but maybe I’m just nervous because of last night. Either way it will be good to know who he is and what he wants. He looks barely able to afford the beer sitting in front of him. Who’s been serving him?”
“Sonya, I think.”
“Try to get him talking. I’ll go see if he’s paid for anything yet.” Cera gulped the rest of her coffee and moved to where Sonya sat playing cards with three other men.
Across the room, Jake watched the redhead and the saloon owner exchange words. Then, after grabbing a bottle of wine and a glass, the redhead sashayed toward the piano player. She whispered in his ear, and when he struck up a new tune, she began to sing in a clear sweet voice.
“Drink to me only with thine eyes and I will pledge with mine. Or leave a kiss within the cup and I'll not ask for wine…”
As the men in the room shouted their encouragement, the redhead twirled from table to table, stopping only for a brief flirt. As she ended the song, she stopped in front of Jake, striking a pose with one hand on her ample hip.
“You’ve been tasting that beer for a long time now, Captain. Want to try something better?” She smiled, waving the wine bottle at him. “My name is Ginger and I have here the finest sparkling white wine in all of California—from the Buena Vista Winery. It’s all the rage in Paris—very chic. The first drink is on me.”
In his mind, Jake saw the dinner parties that he watched from the top of the main staircase in his boyhood home. His parents and their friends dressed in finery, making toast after toast with wine glasses filled to the brim. His mother’s laughter always carried above the din of lively conversation.
Now in the smoke-filled saloon, his eyes traveled over Ginger’s gravity-defying bosom, colored hair and made-up face, including a painted on black mole next to her full red lips. The Southern belle held out the glass, waiting for his response. Fate sure had a mean sense of humor, he thought, smiling wryly.
He shook his head. “Your fine wine would be wasted on the likes of me.”
“Aw, now, I don’t believe that, Captain. You must have a taste. Some say this wine is the nectar of the gods.” Putting the glass in front of him, she filled it half way.
Jake studied the wine for a moment. “Which gods would those be?”
Confusion flitted across Ginger’s face before she replaced it with a cheery smile. Motioning to the chair beside him, she asked, “Do you mind if I sit down? I’ve been on my feet all day and could sure use a few minutes rest.”
Deciding it was time to get back to his original mission, Jake replied, “Not at all.” He stood and pulled out the chair for her.
Ginger smoothed the back of her skirt as she sat. “Well, aren’t you the gentleman. You don’t get fancy manners around here very often.” Propping her elbows on the table, she leaned in close to Jake, allowing a view of her best asset. “Your mamma sure raised you right. Now tell me, Captain, where’s your mama so I can thank her for having such a wonderful son?”
“The war’s over, Miss Ginger.”
“You keep calling me ‘Captain’. I haven’t been a soldier for some time now.”
Ginger twisted a red curl around her finger and fluttered her eyelashes. “Well, honey, I don’t know what else to call you since you haven’t told me your name.”
“My name’s…not important, but maybe you can help me. I’m looking for a colored girl, sixteen years old, maybe seventeen at the most.” When Ginger jerked back in her chair, he stared at her in confusion.
“A colored girl?” she asked, almost choking on the words. Recovering quickly, she smiled, though it seemed to take some effort. “And here I thought it was only the boys in gray who liked to play with them. You’re in the wrong saloon if you’re looking for that kind of entertainment. Cera runs a proper establishment. There’s no girls for hire here.”
“Hold on there, Red. It’s not like that. I only want to talk to the girl. Her name is Sadie.”
Ginger rose from the table, knocking over her chair in the process. “Well, there’s no girl by that name here.”
Jake felt as if he had been kicked in the gut—again. “Did she used to work here? Did she say where she was going? I need to find her.”
Ginger shook her head. “I can’t help you out. You should leave, provided you’ve settled your bill.”
Jake stood and picked up the chair. At his movement, Ginger scurried backward, her eyes darting to her boss who was reaching under the bar. Jake had seen that move often enough to know what Cera was going for and he surely didn’t want the shotgun aimed at him.
He tossed some money onto the table and raised his hands in surrender, hoping to diffuse the situation. “I always pay my debts, but you are misunderstanding my intentions. I knew the girl’s father during the war. I promised him I would find her.”
Seeing the shotgun in Cera’s hands, Ginger stopped retreating and went on the offense. “That’s a mighty fine story, soldier. Who you working for? Who sent you here?”
“What? Nobody. Listen, I’m telling you the truth and I can prove it.” Jake reached into his coat pocket but froze when Cera raised the shotgun to her shoulder. “I just want to show you a photograph. Please?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sonya grab the young boy with the broom and hustle him toward the kitchen.
“Ginger, come away from that man,” Cera called out.
As the big redhead obeyed, Jake rested his hands on his hips. He hoped he looked annoyed, though the stance served a different purpose—keeping his right hand near his gun. He would never shoot a woman, but he might have to make some noise to get this one to back down.
Across the room, Ginger gestured at Jake several times, while the saloon owner kept her eyes locked on him. Finally, shotgun in hand, Cera came out from behind the bar and approached his table. The room went quiet as everyone waited to see if there was going to be a brawl or an execution.
“You need to leave—or else.” Facing him squarely, she threw the last word out as if it was her leather glove and the challenge to a duel.
Jake’s jaw clenched at her threatening tone. What in blazes did he do to deserve this? “Do you treat all of your customers this way or have I done something to offend you? I’m just looking for my friend’s daughter. I was told she worked here.”
Her green and gold eyes flashed fire the more she looked—no, glared—at him. Earlier, Jake thought she sparkled. Up close, though, he realized his mistake. It was more than that. She radiated.
Cera laid the shotgun across one arm, letting it casually point in Jake’s general direction. “Are you not understanding my words, soldier? I told you to take a walk.”
Unwilling to leave until he knew where Daniel’s daughter had gone next, Jake decided to take a risk. “How about if we start over? Let’s sit down, I’ll buy you a drink, and you’ll listen to my story.”
“I own the place. I drink for free,” Cera replied, pointing out the obvious.
“Well, then, you can buy me a drink.” Before she could say no, he pushed her into Ginger’s chair and called the redhead over.
“Miss Ginger, would you bring us two shots of whiskey, please?”