"Are you engaged or married?" He raised his voice as though she hadn't heard his query over the rattle of harnesses and pounding hooves.
"Well, that good news will spread like wildfire." He grinned. "If you want a husband, you can have one by nightfall."
Was that a California proposal? "No, thank you."
"Men out here are hankering for wives. And you look like a prime candidate."
She supposed he meant it as a compliment, but she felt like a juicy steak on a plate. "I didn't come out here to find a husband. I came to claim an inheritance and have charge of my own life."
"You'll need protection."
Was he offering it? "I'll buy a gun."
The stagecoach swayed sharply, and Kathryn grabbed hold of the window frame. Every muscle in her body screamed for relief.
"Wake up, folks!" Cussler shouted. "Coming round the bend to Calvada."
Mr. Call checked his case. "Will someone be meeting you, Miss Walsh?"
"I'm to contact Mr. Neumann when I arrive."
Wiley spit the plug of tobacco out the window. "Herr Neumann?"
"Yes. Do you know the gentleman?"
"Came near to cutting my ear off last time I went to his barbershop."
Judging by the length of Wiley Baer's hair, that had been several years ago.
"Lousy barber. Good man. When he's sober. If he ain't in his shop, you'll find him at Beck's Saloon."
Kathryn flinched at several loud bangs. "Was that gunfire?"
"Yep." Wiley scratched his beard. "Sounds like a Smith & Wesson. Shooting ain't unusual in Calvada. Men get a little rambunctious with whiskey under their belts." He leaned out the coach window as it went around a bend. "Don't see any bodies lyin' in the street." He sat back. "Could be worse. I seen six men chasin' a dog down Chump Street once. They was so drunk none of 'em made the mark. 'Course, a man mindin' his own business in the dry goods store got a bullet through his head."
Kathryn didn't know whether to believe him or not. Henry Call didn't say it was a tall tale. What sort of place was Calvada? "Did the sheriff arrest the men?"
"Wasn't no sheriff."
"Surely there is some sort of law..."
"Yep. Men gathered at the saloon, discussed the matter. Decided his death was an act of God. A pity, but we all gotta go sometime."
Kathryn stared. "And that was all they did on the deceased's behalf?"
"Nope. Had a couple of drinks in his name, took up a collection, and had him buried in a new suit the next day."
Just as Kathryn was about to make a comment, she was struck by a stench so foul, she gagged. She covered her nose and mouth. "What on earth is that horrible smell?"
Wiley Baer's half smile turned rueful. "Like I said, Calvada ain't Boston. You'll get used to the smell in a coupla days." Three more shots rang out as the coach lurched to a stop. Had a stray bullet hit Cussler or one of the horses? Wiley opened the door and jumped down. He looked around and peered back in. "Must've rained again. Mud's past my ankles. Better get out on the other side, ma'am. Town's got sinkholes so deep men have disappeared and become part of the road."
The air was heavy with eau de sewage, mud, and horse dung. Another shot rang out. Glass shattered. Men shouted.
It sounded like a riot had broken out in the saloon across the street. Wiley sloshed through the muck. "Comin' from Beck's place. Shootin's over, is my guess."
Mr. Call climbed out of the coach and stood on the boardwalk. He offered Kathryn a hand. Trembling, knees weak, she hopped onto the boardwalk, where Wiley Baer stood scraping pounds of oozing, odiferous mud off his boots. Across the street, the swinging doors flew open and a man windmilled out. He fell backwards off the boardwalk and skidded into the middle of the street. A tall, broad-shouldered man with dark hair came through the doors after him.
"That thar is Matthias Beck. And he looks pure hostile right now."
This excerpt ends on page 14 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water by Erin Bartels.