Excerpt from Texas Moon

     
     Townsend emptied the pouch of gravel across the papers on which his partner had been diligently working. "It's there," he announced with quiet satisfaction.
     Peter Mulloney spread the dust and gravel into a smooth layer, picking up a small nugget and holding it to the sun. His wide-brimmed hat hid his face in shadow, but a flicker lit the green of his eyes before he laid the nugget back on the table. "We'd better be certain the vein runs deep. Mountains don't come cheap."
     Despite the rough appearance of his leather vest and faded denims, Mulloney spoke with a cultured accent that betrayed his Eastern origins. "Get your shovel. I think you've just found a surface layer. The good stuff will be deeper."
     The two men hoisted their tools and their packs and strode off into the rocks and evergreens, leaving behind their tent and supplies. The men were of equal height, but Townsend was the elder and carried a thicker weight around his middle. A bristly brown mustache hid half his face and a Mexican sombrero hid most of the rest. He looked almost disreputable compared to the Easterner with his clean-shaven, square jaw and immaculate Stetson. A closer look, however, revealed a clear, steady gaze beneath Townsend's sombrero. The grim expression on Mulloney's visage was that of a man on the edge of hell.
     * * *
     The next morning, Mulloney packed his saddlebags while Townsend set about moving camp.
     "I can dig enough to buy the whole damned mountain in three months," Townsend protested as he collapsed the tent.
     "You go down there and try to pay the loan off with gold, and the old man will change his mind. He'll know damned well where we got it. Right now he just thinks I'm a greenhorn with too much money and a bee in my bonnet about raising mustangs. Let's just keep him thinking that. You know what happens when word gets out about gold. There's enough money left to buy whatever you need until I get back. Just don't use the gold for anything."
     Townsend nodded impatiently. "I don't know where you're going to find the kind of cash he's asking for this place. You'd better have a money tree somewhere. I figure he's making a living off what people pay him just to hold the damned mountain for three months, then when they can't come up with the balance, he runs them off and sells it to the next one in line. It's a pretty good con."
     "I can't imagine anyone stupider than us trying to buy a mountain," Mulloney said, testing the saddle straps. "We might even talk him down when the time comes. You just mine that gold while I find the money. Once we pay off the loan, there won't be a damned thing he can do when we start hauling out gold. I think I can find investors willing to risk that kind of easy return."
     "It's likely to be a deep mine. We'll need timbers and labor and machinery to get at the mother lode," Townsend warned.
     This time, it was Mulloney who nodded impatiently. "We'll buy them with what you're going to dig out while I'm gone. I know this end of the business, Townsend. Are you sure you'll be all right out here alone?"
     Townsend made a rude noise. "Better off by myself than with some Greedy Gus who'll stab me in the back first chance he gets. We've been through enough, Mulloney. We've got the right idea this time. Just us and nobody else. Just don't forget I'm out here while you're playing up to the girls."
     Mulloney managed a wry grin that almost transformed his hardened features into that of a real human rather than a grim statue. "There isn't a woman alive who's going to make me forget that gold. If I'm lucky, I'll be back before you've got the first batch processed."
     He rode off, the tail of his expensive bay stallion swaying as it traversed the rocky downward path. The morning sun was just beginning to rise over the thin line of trees ahead.
     Mulloney didn't whistle as he rode. He kept a repeating rifle within easy reach on his saddle and the latest Colt model revolver on his hip while his gaze searched every speck of the trail ahead. In the five years he had been living this life, he'd come to know more dirty tricks and vicious scoundrels than a man had any right to know. He'd learned to survive the hard way, but he'd learned.
     He didn't think too hard on the years wasted tracking gold with thousands of other hungry men. He'd been in California, Colorado, and India, contemplated following the hordes to South Africa, but in the end he'd taken what miserable gleanings he'd found and come home. Not home, precisely. He'd never go there again. But he'd come back to the states and the mountains where he'd first started. He was an older, wiser man now, but his ambition hadn't changed. He intended to be wealthy, and he would do it with his own hands, on his own terms.
     This time, he meant to succeed. The fire in his belly burned strong as he guided his stallion down the mountainside. The gold was there, and no one else knew about it but Townsend. He'd met Townsend in India, saved his life once, dragged him back here while he still burned with the fever. The man would lay his life down for him but it wasn't Townsend's life he wanted, it was his knowledge.
     Townsend was the engineer Mulloney was not. Mulloney was the financier that Townsend was not. Between them, they would not only find the gold, but sell it without being cheated or murdered in their beds as so many had been in the past. They trusted only each other.
     Mulloney settled himself more comfortably in the saddle as the horse trotted across a level valley. As a city boy, he found this method of transportation convenient but uncomfortable. He'd learned to manage mountain ponies, mules, and even elephants, but sometimes he had difficulty forgetting the proud bays and elegant carriages he'd once known. At the time, he hadn't realized how spoiled he had been. Now he knew better.
     He wasn't bitter about leaving all that behind. It was a choice he had made on his own. He had wanted to rid himself of the corrosion of his father's money. He'd never felt dirtier in his life than when he had stood in his parents' bedroom, wearing a silk shirt and expensive frock coat, listening to the news that he had an older brother he had never known, a brother who had been thrown away because of his deformity.
     His skin still crawled when he thought about it. The discovery of his father's cruel deception had led to other discoveries, each one more ruthless than the next. He'd spent his early years living like a leech off the blood of the helpless.
     So he didn't think about his past any longer. He didn't think about the wealth he had left behind, the wealth he had known only by default and at the expense of his own kin. He didn't think of the people whose lives had been crushed because of his father's greed. He didn't think about the family he'd left behind. His brothers were in a position to straighten out what was left of the wreckage of their lives. They didn't need him. After twenty-five years of living a lie, he'd had to get out. It was the only way to save his soul.
     Only, somewhere along the way, Mulloney thought he must have misplaced it. Perhaps he'd never had one. There were any number of people who could attest to that. Instead of finding his soul, he'd found a goal. He was going to be rich again, but he would earn it with his own hands and mind. And right now, the goal sparkled on the horizon, just out of reach.
     If he knew how to whistle, he would as he urged his horse through a rock-strewn streambed. Two days ride ahead, at the foot of the range, waited a little cabin he'd built when he'd thought what he needed was a home. The cabin hadn't held him for very long, but he liked to think of it as home when he was out here with only the sky for a roof. He'd left a warm and willing senorita there last time he'd been through. She'd promised to wait. He wondered if she had. It had been six months since he'd shared her favors. He was more than ready to enjoy them again.
     As the first day rolled into the second, Mulloney began to contemplate the woman with more burning intent. She had a body like no other he had ever known, full breasts and wide hips and a tiny waist, all of which she used to advantage. Her voice was low and sweet, and she said all the things he wanted to hear when they were together. He wasn't enamored of Mexican cooking, but he could learn to like it under the right conditions. Lying in her arms seemed right enough.
     He hadn't been interested in settling down before because he hadn't reached his goal, but now that it was in sight, he needed to find new horizons. He'd spent twenty-five years of his life surrounded by family, and he'd been happy to escape their limitations. But five years of life among strangers was taking its toll. He could admit that he missed coming home to familiar voices. He'd like to have a decent roof over his head again. The thought of having a loving wife and the smell of baking bread meeting him at the door had been little more than a daydream these last years. The possibility lurked tantalizingly within reach now.
     He'd lived a pampered life before and it hadn't made him happy, but he wasn't that much happier living the life he led now. He was a free man for a change, but freedom meant little when he had little to show for it. Maybe once he had the mountain in his name and gold in his pockets he could ask his little senorita to marry him.
     They could build a house in that valley back there. They could build a whole damned town if they wanted. Once he and Townsend owned the mountain, they could hire laborers to dig the gold. Then all he'd have to do was go into his office every day, work the business end of the operation, and figure out where to invest the profits. He could go home every night to a decent meal and a clean bed and a wife who would welcome him with open arms. He could be content living like that.
     He would admit to needing a woman in his life. He'd spent the better part of his life protecting his mother, but he missed her soft reassurances, their quiet talks, the little things she did to make his life comfortable. He could find solace in the arms of willing women, his handsome face was good for that much, but that wasn't the same thing. He wanted a woman of his own, one whose bed was reserved just for him. He had that much of his father in him. He liked owning things. He was a possessive man.
     Women were still too few and far between out here. He'd not wasted much time looking for one, but he'd seen what was available. His little senorita was the best of the lot. He would stop by the cabin, ask her to marry him, and when he came back with the money to buy the mountain, they'd tie the knot. He could move her up the mountain with him until the mine was established.
     The idea grew more pleasing the closer he came to her bed. Peter could almost taste her lips against his. He liked the anticipation of coming home to a woman's arms.
     The sun was setting behind him when the first smoke from the cabin chimney curled on the horizon. He owned this land, but the summers were too dry for farming, and he wasn't a rancher. Grass rippled a healthy green from early spring rains. He'd sold his horses before he'd left the last time. Catalina couldn't take care of them herself. Peter missed hearing their whinnies as he rode up, but his thoughts were on the woman tending the fire inside.
     He tried to envision Cat's thick dark hair wrapped in a braid around her head, the sway of her hips beneath a long full skirt as she bent over the fire, but the image was slightly hazy as he dismounted. It didn't matter. Once he got inside, she would be in his arms, all round and warm and soft. He hadn't eaten all day, but the hunger he felt now wasn't for food. He'd have her in the bed before he thought about food. He needed a woman right now. He needed her desperately.
     The fire was burning low when he entered, and the lamp wasn't lit. A pot of something simmered over the embers, and Peter remembered he had meant to buy her a stove. He would do that as soon as he got to town. His funds were nearly nonexistent after putting the down payment on the mountain and leaving some for Townsend, but he could get by without money. Catalina ought to have the best. He would dress her in silk once they owned the mountain.
     She must be in the bedroom. The door was closed, but he could hear movement. Perhaps she had seen him coming and was putting on clean sheets. That thought made him randier than hell. He hadn't seen clean sheets in six months, since he'd been here last.
     He ought to take time to bathe, but he couldn't. She'd have to take him as he was right now. He'd do things properly later, when he proposed. He should have done that long ago, but a wife hadn't been one of those things he had considered back then. He was considering it now.
     The last rays of the setting sun filtered through the bedroom window when Peter threw open the door. The rosy haze befuddled his eyes a moment as he stood there in the doorway, expecting Catalina to turn and throw herself at him. A movement from the bed brought his gaze into better focus.
     Catalina was there, buck naked against those sheets he'd just been imagining. And so was the rancher he'd called neighbor, equally naked and on top of her.
     The man turned his head and looked over his shoulder, paling with recognition. His gaze dropped in terror at the sight of Peter's hand going to his holster.
     With only a grim smile, Mulloney dropped his grip on the gun and politely tugged at his hat. "Good to see you again, Roger, Catalina. Just stopped by to tell you I'm heading for Texas and won't be through here anytime soon. If you hear of any buyers for the land, drop a line to my box in town."
     He turned on the heel of his worn but expensive boots and walked away.
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