Chapter 1

"This is shit," Orias crumpled the last page up and shoved it back into my hands.

I scowled. What did he know, anyways? He was just a gun toting thug, I was the writer here, the artist.

"It's just a rough draft.." I explained, "Look... I know there are a few contradictions- but you try giving a hired gun a conscience."

"A what now?" He muttered and lifted a spoon off the table to study his distorted image on it's back, "I wouldn't use the word wretched..." He said, " I'm a little rough round the edges, sure, but that's the lifestyle... I'd call it... rugged." He sucked in his cheeks a little and raised his brow, as if this improved his ragged, baggy appearance in the least.

"I've seen day old kittens more rugged than you," I told him.

He downed his glass of whiskey and cocked his gun over the edge of the table.

"And more threatening too," I rolled my eyes, "I know it aint my place to say it, but maybe you're better off leaving things as they are..."

"As they are?" He spat it out like I had just fed him snake venom, "There aint a person in this whole world who thinks I'm better off alive than dead... hows that for how things are?" He asked incredulously.

"I like you alive," I insisted.

"That's only because I couldn't pay you if I were dead," He informed me. The flabby outlaw made a convincing point. I shrugged.

"Well if you cared about that then you wouldn't have become an outlaw," I told him, "You've been doing this since you were fifteen, right?"

He grunted. End of conversation.

I set the ballad back into the saddle bag and looked out into the haze of the saloon. A piano sat across the room, with a cigarette still billowing smoke from the ashtray and a lady leaning against the body, sweeping a fan rapidly before her face. Her eye was on a table nearby with men in bowler hats leaned over their cards. I could see her fingers twitching. This was a bottle breaker waiting to happen.

"Hey Orias?" I said.

He grunted. He was counting out his money plain for anyone to see and he didn't want to be bothered.

"I'm just gonna go test out the ivory," I told him, "Watch the bag?"

"What for?" He asked, "You think there's anything worth stealing in that thing?"

He lifted the bag by leveraging his steel tipped cane under the strap and brought it to his side of the table, anyways. He was a big softy and we both knew that that ballad was more precious to him than all the gold in the world.

"Don't take too long," He advised, "We can't stay."

I hopped out of my chair and for the piano bench. As I sat down the woman leaned against the piano raised a penciled brow.

"You sing?" She asked.

"Not in tune," I replied, ever the honesty of thieves.

"Pity," She gave a tart nod, and one of those wry smiles that people with stories wear, "Lark has been lookin for someone who can sing and play. I can't hold much of a tune myself but..." She sighed long and deep like she was letting out the world in that exhale, "People get so drunk round here they don't care."

"Lark is the one who runs this place?" I asked carefully. Getting the layout of a town often only depended what friends I made and barkeeps were never a bad place to start out in the West.

The woman jutted her narrow chin towards the counter.

"My names Rhoda, by the way." She added as an after thought.

"Hal," I told her back.

She smiled and her eyes were back on the game. Suddenly, with a theatrical grasp at her chest, she gave a loud sneeze that could have sent cards flying.

"Oh my..." She said, and put a hand to her cheek in embarrassment, "It must be the dust in here."

The man nearest to us cleared his throat and looked at the table. Then he pushed his remaining cash into the center.

"Who's in?" He asked.

Cards went down as the men around the table forfeited easily. But directly across from us a man didn't fold. He kept half his face hidden under the rim of his black hat, and an unreadable expression on his still lips. It was all too clear to me- by his neatly trimmed goatee and the studs in his jacket- that this was a man who did well and liked to show it.

Cards were laid down. I looked back at Orias who was still obliviously counting his coins in the far corner. It would be better if I got him out of here before the saloon was in hysterics. He tended to forget himself in a fight and it usually got us kicked out of town.

The one closest to us laid down his cards. There was a round of low whistles around the table at his hand as a straight flush from five to nine in hearts was spread out proudly before him. Of course I had been to enough saloons and seen enough games to know that the odds that any man around this table had played an honest game were slim to none. It wasn't terribly shocking to me when the man across the table broke his straight face to tweak his lips into a smirk. He laid down his own cards and there was a collective gasp.

"Royal flush..." He said, "Looks like I win again. Must be my lucky night."

He bent over the table to pull in the cash but paused wisely as he found himself at gunpoint.

(a/n: Thanks for reading. I know this chapter is pretty short... that's sort of what happens when a person who knows nothing about cards or guns tries to write a western. However, with the help of google I am learning and with help from a review or two I'd learn even more!)