Armed with her six-shooter, Ava De La Vega dips the pen into the inkwell and etches her name on the Esmeralda County tax record book. A formidable force, that’s what her peers have called her. The woman in a man’s world, what did she know of mining ore, silver, and copper? Plenty. And it’s this knowledge that makes her of the richest miners in Nevada in 1903.
Of course, it also makes her a target.
Traveling back and forth from Tonopah, Nevada and San Francisco, Ava blazes the trail from the dirt and grime to the fanciest hotel rooms, the finest wines, the most decadent meals, and the company of attractive young men.
Unfortunately, for Ava, she doesn’t see Craig Harrison coming.
A miner from the snowy Klondike, Craig has traveled from the harsh Canadian mountains down to city streets of San Francisco. Not looking for work, he’s happy with the comfortable life away from the deep mines, the dirt, and the ever sought-after gold.
Unfortunately, for Craig, he doesn’t see Ava coming.
Rhythmic clinks from my silver spurs rattled. With the straps hitched around the heels of my boots, the silver and gold rowels spun, their spiked tips sharp enough to cut the hide of any animal.
Or the skin of any man.
For nearly five years, since 1899, I’d strolled down the same dirt roads of Tonopah, Nevada. In that time, I’ve watched the dusty little town spread through the sagebrush, growing from just a few tiny buildings made from scrap and splintered leftover wood to dozens and dozens of grand brick dwellings three and four stories tall—all built with the greed and hunger for the precious metals hidden deep within the earth.
Once word spread about the gold, silver, and copper strikes up along the Comstock and down south through the Tonopah basin in Esmeralda County, mining companies flocked to the land. Their sixteen and eighteen teams of mules left trails in the Nevada sand, stretching so far and wide, you could see them for miles until a dust storm covered the evidence.
Hordes of men trekked westward to apply with either the Tonopah Mining Company or the Goldfield Consolidated Mining Company. With their sights set on riches, they all wanted a share of the money.
Just as I did.
However, unlike those hired hands forced to work in the mind-numbing dark below the ground, I staked my own claims. On the outskirts of town, I carved my own path through the Sierra Nevada far away from prying eyes and self-indulgent men. Their own ignorance tied them to the warrants of a suit-clad boss who they didn’t know and never would.
Destined for a life only lived with the scraps they earned, most of the yuppies now watched me as I strolled down the street on my way to the assessor’s office. Their stained and tattered clothes were nothing like the finer garments adorning my curves.
Pairs of eyes burned into me as I passed them, tracing from my face down to the leather saddlebags clutched in my arms, a heavy burden that tired my horse not but five miles into our trip toward town.
Bags full of silver, gold, and copper.
Bags full of another fortune that everyone now stared at, wishing they could get their hands on—whether from the claims they worked in or stolen.
My boots thumped against the boards of the wooden sidewalk. Uneven and falling apart, they creaked and whined under my weight, while some of the nails had wiggled just high enough to tease with thoughts of tripping those who lumbered along the seams of the planks—repairs that the town didn’t care about.
Smoke billowed from the town rooftops as I passed the Buckhorn General Store.
“Ava! Oh Ava!” Madeline Pruett darted from the Buckhorn General Store. Her canary voice bellowed with a pitch nearly as shrill as the bell hanging from the door as she waved one hand after me. “I’m glad I caught you. I just wanted to let you know that Howard ordered those extra supplies you needed.”
“Oh, well thank you.”
“They should arrive sometime next week if nothing is delayed.”
“I’ll inform Huck to pick them up.”
She cocked her head to the side and tapped her lips with one of her index fingers. “You know, I couldn’t help but notice some of the items you ordered . . . well, I don’t mean to pry into the business of another—”
“You know, Madeline, as much as I’d love to stay and chat, I’m in quite a hurry. I’ll be sure to let Huck know about the delivery.”
Before she could utter a response, I trotted away from her. The nosiest of all people, Mr. and Mrs. Howard Pruett lived to spread gossip. Their tongues were like that of a wild fire burning dry brush with a heat that licked the sand as it devoured all in its path. I’d learned a lesson long ago never to say much in their company if I could help it.
A few doors down, Mr. Sullivan leaned against the doorframe of his hardware store. He swiveled his head, giving me a wink that rushed a groan from deep in my gut.
“Good afternoon, Miss De La Vega.” His voice purred as I approached, and he folded one arm across his chest while the other took a cigarette to his lips. The known philanderer, he often enjoyed the many whores at the whorehouse at the edge of town along with a few miners’ wives when they were feeling particularly lonely and forgotten, actions that I doubted his own wife knew about.
“On your way to the assessor’s office, I see.” A seductive smirk spread across his face. He slithered toward me, straightening his shoulders in an attempt to puff up his scrawny chest. He failed. “It seems luck has been on your side lately.”
I retreated from his advance as disgust crawled through my skin. “I don’t believe one should confuse luck with hard work.”
“You know, if you had a man, you wouldn’t have to work so hard.”
“I have dozens of men working my claims.” I rested my hand on my hip and leaned into my weight. “And I still work hard.”
“How about one for your bed?”
A body moved behind him, and within seconds, Mr. Sullivan’s wife appeared over her husband’s shoulder. Her eyes bore into mine, daggers of loathing shot through her fire hot gaze as her grip tightened on the broomstick in her hands.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Sullivan.”
I nodded toward the woman, who stuck her nose in the air and stomped through the door of the store. She ignored me, and her husband, as she began sweeping the sidewalk. Her short, curt movements jerked through her ridged stance.
Amusement tickled through me. “I must say, Mr. Sullivan, it’s quite sweet of you to hold such concern for my empty bed; however, I can assure you it’s neither empty nor am I lonely.”
Mr. Sullivan’s eyes widened. The color drained from his face as the slightest remnants of light vanished from his eyes, clouded by a disappointment that seemed to resonate through every muscle in his body.
A slight chuckle vibrated through my chest. “Well, I best be off. I hope you two have a lovely day.”
Beads of sweat dripped down the back of my neck as I continued through town, moistening the collar of my button up shirt and leather hide jacket. Summer in Tonopah—the desert of Nevada—with the hot, dryness that beat down on you and could crack your skin. The repressive heat, the cloudless skies, and the discomforting scent of sagebrush could leave your head spinning as though you’d drunk too much whiskey even though you hadn’t had a drop.
Although every one of those afflictions haunted me at my homestead, at least I could hide in the solace of my home and property. Away from the burdens of town blather and away from the prying eyes that had yet to leave me alone today, their greed darkening as they stared. It prickled a depth of annoyance that left me desiring to pistol whip all within a few feet of me.
I continued down the street by the Hotel Esmeralda, its plated glass windows beaten by the sun and pelting sand in the occasional windstorm. The colors still gleamed in the sunlight. Built with just one story, then two, and now three, the owners had decorated each room with luxurious furniture and linens. Even if the revolving door of dirty miner after dirty miner threatened to lessen the value and tarnish the beauty inside.
Horses tied, either hitched to carriages or saddled for riding, slept as they swished their tails at the relentless flies swarming around them. The coarse strands of hair slapped their hides with a smacking sound. Their eyes closed, and yet, the ears still perked, twisting with each sound they heard.
As I reached for the doorknob of the County Assessor’s Office, a familiar laughter rasped through the air and made my stomach churn. The mirth of one I wished I didn’t know.
“Those sacks look awfully heavy for a woman to carry. Why don’t ya let me give ya hand?” Billy Jack slid from around the corner. With his back against the building, he inched closer to me. His breath smelled of rotting teeth and whisky, a scent nearly as fowl as the stench of his stained clothes and the chunks of his unwashed hair that framed his face. The dull, mud colored strands so long, it nearly touched his shoulders. “Weren’t ya just in town last week?”
“I wasn’t aware that my travels were any of your business.”
He chuckled and rolled his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. “Aren’t ya just one lucky broad? Your claims must be rakin’ in, what, thousands every day?”
“You act as though I’m actually going to divulge such information to you, Billy Jack.”
“Come on, what could I possibly do? It’s not like I’m going to steal it from ya.” He licked his sunburned lips and nodded toward the two men behind him. Their eyes focused on my saddlebags. One of them pretended to blow me a kiss, while the other rubbed his chin with one hand.
Long ago, there was a time that this man’s existence didn’t repulse me. Growing up together in the orphanage in Virginia City, Billy Jack had been, dare I say, a friend, and even a courted lover when we were young. Someone I knew all too well, twisted by evil until he was nothing more than a stranger and a foe.
With the sickness of his greed and lust for dominance, the once shy boy who gave a poor bullied girl his porridge when someone else took hers vanished. The once young man who held the door for me, tipped his hat, pulled out a chair, and treated me with respect disappeared, leaving only a vengeful horse thief and a criminal. A man who only lived to point his gun in someone’s face to steal from them, or worse, murder them for his own gain.
He wasn’t the kind soul I once knew. He wasn’t the gentleman I once cared for or that cared for me. Now he only loved money and authority, leaving little concern if the people he gunned down were women, children, or if they were men, if they had families.
“You really shouldn’t tell lies, Billy Jack, whether it’s for your benefit or for your boss, Mr. McCoy.”
“I wouldn’t dare do such a thing as to be untrue to a woman such as yourself.” He placed his hand on his chest and attempted a slight bow, although he looked less than anything I would consider regal.
“That, certainly, was convincing. You should probably work on your performance before the day comes when you sit in front of a judge and claim innocence for something you’ve done.”
“And what about all the crimes you committed by my side? Or are those somehow forgivable?”
“I did nothing that I haven’t paid my debt back for. I may have stolen a wallet or two in my youth before we could find work so that we could buy a needed meal or a bottle of whiskey, but I’ve never committed the transgressions that you have. Now, if you’ll step—”
He clasped a lock of my hair between his fingers, letting the soft strands slid over his dirty skin. Memories of our time together swam in his eyes, blurring in the brown shade. I knew the thoughts running through his mind. Knew the visions of stolen nights in a barn, nights when we would sneak out of the orphanage in the darkness. Finally alone to do as we pleased, we’d roll around naked in the hay, enjoying the pleasures of one another until we tired. We’d then talk of our freedom from the four walls holding us hostage until dawn. Plans that only the young make when they believe they can do anything they wish and they have their whole lives ahead of them.
We ran away the second we could—two sixteen-year-olds with a passion for independence, sex, and whiskey. We lived by obtuse notions of life and the philosophies of the imprudent. Only to realize that the world wasn’t as giving as the sisters of the Church. Food, clothing, shelter—none were just provided to a couple of youngin’ fools without work. We soon had to resort to petty theft just to survive.
A time in my life that I would forever regret.
“We had fun, though. Didn’t we?” he whispered. “I swear, sometimes I can still feel your body on top of mine.”
“Which body? The one you worshiped or the one you betrayed?”
His smile vanished.
“Now, if you’ll step aside.” My words hissed through my gritted teeth.
He ducked his chin then twisted his body.
I shoved my shoulder into his chest, knocking him off balance enough for him to retreat a couple of steps. The disgusting odor of his clothes stuck to me, churning in my stomach as I reached for the doorknob once more.
Sunlight glimmered inside as I opened the door, brightening the gloomy interior with plain white walls and bare furniture through the haze of pipe and cigarette smoke. The air stung my eyes and burned my lungs.
Mr. Benson, the assessor, sat at his desk in the corner, peering at me over his tiny spectacles. He pushed the thin lenses and delicate frames up his nose as he glanced at me with only his eyes and without moving his head.
“Good afternoon, Miss De La Vega.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Benson.”
“I just thought I’d clear out the stash on the homestead instead of leaving it around unsafe. I’d hate to put a bullet in some fool who came nosyin’ around where they don’t belong.” My chin whispered against my shoulder as my gaze met Billy Jack and his men who had followed me inside. “Because you know how much I hate wasting ammunition and having to bury dead bodies.”
I tossed the saddlebags on top of the desk. They thumped with a heaviness that caused Mr. Benson to pause as he jerked his head. Without taking his gaze off me, he wrenched open his desk drawer and yanked a few thick leather-bound ledger books from the depths. He flipped the pages, licking his thumb every few sheets to help separate the parchment.
“So I can assume you want the cash today?”
As his spectacles slid down his nose once again, he reached for the saddlebags. His aged and wrinkled fingers trembled, fumbling with the leather until he untied the straps and then overturned them, dumping the contents on his desk. Gold, silver, and even copper nuggets in several sizes and shapes fell out, rolling a few inches across the wood in different directions.
He scooped each mineral into piles, and then dug the scale from the desk drawer and positioned it in front of him. The tarnished hunk of steel, nuts, and bolts squeaked as he moved it and placed the gold nuggets in one of the cups.
One by one, he countered the heaviness with weights, until finally, both cups suspended in the air at an equal height. After scribbling down the numbers on a ticket, he repeated the process with the silver and copper, tallying up and scrawling those numbers on other tickets. His handwriting nothing but chicken scratch that I wondered how anyone other than himself could read.
Mr. Benson took his time—an annoyingly brazen amount that allowed Billy Jack to keep a watchful eye. His attention unwanted. My hand rested on my hip, and I tapped the pad of my index finger on the white pearl handle of my six-shooter, a silent warning.
Greed licked at Billy Jack, tightening through his body as he inched closer and closer to the desk. With a sudden flick of his wrist, his two hired men trotted from the office, their scurried steps upon the hardwood floor masked by their laughter as they slapped each other on the back.
What were they sent off to do?
Before I could place too much thought into them, Mr. Benson slid the ticket book across the desk and pointed toward a few lines. “Sign here, here, and here.”
I grasped the thin pieces of parchment with one hand while I fetched the pen with the other and dipped it in the ink well, etching my name in a black signature across each page. My eyes stared at the swooping letters as Mr. Benson tugged the ledger book back toward him, and signed his own name.
No matter how many times I’d penned Ava De La Vega, seeing it in print always seemed to leave a hole in my chest, and yet, swell it with pride. A name not given to me at birth, nor left with me when my mother abandoned me with Sister Mary at the orphanage, I’d given it to myself when I arrived in Esmeralda County.
“I’ll be right back with your money, Miss De La Vega.”
With several scoops, Mr. Benson, bagged the nuggets separately, tying them tight before he strode out of the office and into the back room.
“So you’re takin’ the cash instead of havin’ it wired, are ya now?” Billy Jack sauntered around behind me. His hot breath whispered across the back of my neck as he leaned in to emphasize his words. “Don’t ya usually do that when you’re gonna travel to San Francisco?”
“If you spent half the time and effort on mining your own claim as you do spying on me, you’d probably have some wealth of your own.” I spun on my heel and leaned against the edge of the desk, folding my arms across my chest. “Of course, that would require the hard work of a man instead of a thief and spineless lackey to Walter McCoy.”
Anger flared fire hot in Billy Jack’s eyes. The once brown color darkened black and hollow, like that of the opening of a mineshaft deep under the earth. He spat chewing tobacco on the floor, nearly hitting the toe of my boot.
“I ain’t no lackey.”
“I suppose you can keep telling yourself that. Although, I have to warn you, your denial doesn’t negate its validity.”
His brow furrowed, his head jerked. “What did you call me?”
“You know, you really ought to read more often. Your lack of articulacy makes it far too easy for another to criticize you.”
As Billy Jack squared his shoulders and opened his mouth to deny my insult, Mr. Benson shuffled back into the office, carrying a couple of stacks of banded paper money.
“Here you are, Miss De La Vega.”
“Thank you, Mr. Benson.”
Flipping through the bills, I counted every one of them then tucked my fortune into my brassier before spinning around to leave.
“That’s quite the expensive undergarment ya have, Ava.” Billy Jack called after me with a slight chuckle in his breath. “Better hope ya don’t go losin’ it somewhere between here and your homestead.”
“In order to lose it, I’d have to take it off.” I opened the door, glancing over my shoulder at him. “And that’s certainly not going to happen . . . at least not with you.”
“Well then, ya better hope no one takes it without your permission.”
I swiped my jacket open, exposing my holstered pistol once more. “You’re right, I hope they don’t. As I’ve said before, I hate wasting bullets and I hate burying bodies.”