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Love Is A Gamble

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Nephilim Falls
Dakota Territory, 1889

 

The freight train was due in at three o'clock in the afternoon, and the town of Nephilim Falls was all abuzz with anticipation. They were so far away from the main cities that the town usually depended on the bi-weekly Cheyenne stagecoach for things they couldn't get on their own, like fresh fruit and vegetables, flour and tinned goods, but also things like cloth and shoes. The railway - newly installed just last year - brought bigger things like furniture and machinery for the gold mines and assay building where they cast the gold into bars. 

But today, the train was bringing something even more exciting - the people who had bought the biggest building in the town apart from the general store. It was also the first building in Nephilim Falls with actual plastered and painted walls. Everyone had come out to watch them put the sign up when the building had been furnished and decorated under the watchful eye of a surly young man named Raphael Santiago, who kept mostly to himself. Today was the day the people who owned the Pandemonium arrived.

For a town with a population of less than 2,000 souls, the town had its fair share of places where the miners could get their entertainment and pleasure. There were no less than ten saloons, practically a whole street of them, and the "badlands" right at the edge of town where the men in their women-starved town went for half an hour of paid company with the fairer sex. But the Pandemonium was going to be the first gambling hall in Nephilim Falls, the posters that had been put up advertising singing and dancing girls and drinking - every form of vice available out here in the frontiers. 

Sheriff Alec Lightwood frowned as he stood on the steps of his office and watched Santiago going down Main Street with his wagon, on his way to the railway station. The population of Nephilim Falls consisted mostly of men - lonely, single, and rough men deep in the throes of gold fever. Men who were willing to spend more than 12 hours every day deep in the bowels of the earth looking for the precious yellow metal that would guarantee comfort and luxury for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, the reality was that not all the mines yielded the kind of riches their owners were dreaming of, and far away from family and loved ones, most of the men ended spending most of their gold on drink and women. As it was, he and his brother Jace, who was his deputy, had their hands full breaking up rowdy drunk fights when mining went poorly and tempers rose, and the men ended up brawling over silly arguments. The last thing he needed was someone opening a gambling hall so the men had more reasons to riot. 

"Alec! I didn't think you'd be out here waiting like the rest of us. Isn't it exciting?" his sister Izzy called out to him as she trudged her way across the muddy street towards him, ignoring the stepping stones most of the other ladies used.

But then again, Izzy wasn't like the other womenfolk in town. There were less than a couple dozen of the fairer sex in Nephilim Falls, not including the prostitutes of course. Isabelle Lightwood, belle of the town and daughter of the late Reverend, could have had the pick of any man in town, but while she was free with her smiles, Isabelle wasn't going to settle for being somebody's wife and raising babies. Despite their mother's disapproval, Izzy had opened her own business, selling clothes for both men and women that she had designed and sewn herself. And she wasn't just handy with a needle - she had gotten her two brothers to secretly teach her to ride a horse and shoot a gun. If Alec said so himself, none of the men in this town were good enough for his sister.

"Exciting?" Alec repeated sourly. "A no-count gambler comes into my town, and practically flips a finger at my face before he's even set foot in here by setting up a gambling hall almost directly opposite my office. To top it off, he's bringing 'dancing girls' - as if we don't all know what that means. So, no, Izzy, I don't find it 'exciting'."

"Honestly, you're no fun," Izzy huffed when she joined him on the steps. "Nothing wrong with a game of cards or two. Maybe if you went in and played a couple of rounds yourself, you'd loosen up a bit." 

"I'm the sheriff of this town, Izzy," Alec scoffed. "My job is to uphold the law and order - and that requires a firm hand."

"You know what they say about all work and no play, big brother," Izzy told him, just as Jace was walking out of the office. 

"She's not wrong, you know," Jace said. "Why don't you come along with me tonight?"

"I'm not visiting the whorehouses with you, Jace," Alec rolled his eyes.

"You're the sheriff, not a saint. Nobody's going to look at you different, not here," Jace cajolled. Alec opted to soundly ignore his brother and head back inside.

 

 

He heard the banjo music before he saw the group coming down the street in Santiago's wagon. Izzy and Jace were nowhere to be found, probably having gone off to look for a less conspicuous place to watch the newcomers, so Alec let himself give in to his curiosity and stood up to hide in the shadows near the window.

Santiago's buckboard wagon was piled high with luggage and people - three men and two women, to be exact. One of them, a grumpy-looking older man who looked like he would much rather be some place else, was seated next to Santiago. There was a cheerful young man, almost still a boy, standing right behind them, playing the banjo and swaying side to side to the rhythm of the song. The two women sat behind with their legs dangling off the back of the wagon and holding hands while they sang at the top of their voices - one white woman with hair like blazing fire, dressed in a pure white dress, and one black woman in a cherry-red dress that clung to her curves. A third man sat with them with a cheroot clamped between his teeth, laughing. They were singing a song Alec didn't recognise, something about buffalo girls, but he couldn't have paid it any attention even if he tried.

All his attention was focused on the third man, the man with the cheroot. He was wearing a bright royal blue vest under his black jacket, black string tie, and an expensive-looking flat-crowned Stetson on his coal-black hair. The warm tone of his skin indicated that he was of Asian descent, and his eyes were dark and lightly kohled. But it wasn't the bright colours of his clothes or the audacity of him wearing make-up that had struck Alec speechless - it was his unfettered confidence, his beauty, the bright clear sound of his laughter.

Alec watched him flick the remains of his cheroot over the side of the wagon and hop down gracefully, before extending a hand to each of the ladies in turn. He spun around, aware that all eyes were on him and his little troupe and clearly revelling in the attention, and said in a firm, strong voice: "Ladies and gentlemen of Nephilim Falls, I am Magnus Bane, and we'd be pleased if you could join us in the Pandemonium tomorrow night for our grand opening!"

There were some cheers and claps and titters in response to that pronouncement, and he bowed exaggeratedly before leading the ladies into his building, one hanging on each arm.  

Alec was suddenly aware that his mouth was hanging open. He shut his mouth with a snap, and frowned.

 

 

It didn't take ten minutes before Izzy and Jace came into the sheriff's office, and Izzy was obviously bursting to talk about the newcomers.

"Did you see them?" she squealed excitedly. "I wish I could do that, just once - ride down the street on a wagon at high noon on a fine spring day, singing my heart out."

"I'm sure we'd all rather you didn't, singing really isn't your forte," Jace teased, and she punched him in the arm.

"Weren't the girls just beautiful? And their dresses - no bustles. How I wish I didn't have to hang fifteen pounds of metal on my rump every morning," Izzy sighed. 

"Yeah, the girls were really something else alright," Jace agreed, sounding a little quieter than usual. 

Alec hummed non-commitally, and didn't look up from his desk.

"Oh Alec, tell me you at least looked out of your damned window!" she scolded.

"Language," Alec chided her. "And yes, I did. Wasn't particularly impressed."

"Hard to impress, I see. Well, I do love a challenge," said a smooth, lilting voice at the door. Alec frowned and looked up, then frowned harder when Magnus Bane strolled into his office as easy as you please, without even bothering to wait for permission. 

"I reckoned I'd do the neighbourly thing and stop over to say hello. Besides, I believe I have forms that I need to fill out - licenses, taxes, that sort of thing," he said, then stopped when he noticed Alec glaring at him. "This is the sheriff's office, right?"

"That depends, who's asking?" Alec asked coolly. 

"Magnus Bane, owner of the Pandemonium," he introduced himself, unfazed by Alec's chilly attitude. "And you are?"

"Sheriff Lightwood," Alec replied gruffly.  

"Welcome to Nephilim Falls, Mr Bane!" Izzy said enthusiastically, offering a hand for him to shake and laughing in delight when he kissed her hand instead. 

"And who might you be?" he asked her.  

"I'm Isabelle Lightwood, but call me Izzy," she told him. "Please excuse my brother's lack of manners. His name is Alec."

"And I'm the other brother, Jace Lightwood, Deputy Sheriff," Jace said, shaking Bane's hand. "Are you really opening tomorrow night?" 

"Of course - as soon as I sign everything I'm supposed to sign. Wouldn't want to start off on the wrong foot with Sheriff Lightwood," he replied with a smile.

Alec scowled and picked up the pile of paperwork he had already prepared the day before, walked over to an empty desk, and slammed it all down perhaps a little harder than necessary. 

Bane took this in stride and went through everything carefully, reading through and signing wherever necessary before bringing the stack of paperwork back to Alec. 

Alec grunted and didn't look up, stamping all the documents mechanically. "Five dollars."

Jace helped weigh out the correct amount of gold dust from Bane's bulging money pouch and Bane smiled. "Very efficient, Sheriff Lightwood and Deputy Lightwood. Pleasure doing business with you."

"And you," Jace replied amicably. 

"Well, I hope to see you at the Pandemonium tomorrow night. Drinks on the house, of course, as a thank-you to our fearless and responsible lawmen," Magnus offered, with a wink at Izzy. 

"Much obliged, Mr Bane. I'll definitely take you up on your offer," Jace promised. 

Izzy and Jace said their goodbyes, and Izzy immediately rounded on Alec when Bane was safely out of earshot. "Did you have to be quite so rude to him?" 

"Nobody said I had to like him," Alec snapped. "Besides, I meant what I said. The Pandemonium is the last thing this town needs, and Bane is a troublemaker through and through."

"Alec, he's been here for ten minutes! You don't even know the man!" Izzy protested. 

Alec pretended to busy himself with something on his desk and didn't answer his sister. Who was this man, to stroll into his town, bold as brass, and awaken those old feelings in Alec that he thought he'd managed to kill and bury over the years? Magnus Bane was trouble, alright - trouble for Alec Lightwood.