If You Believe
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JULY 1894 SOMEWHERE IN TEXAS
Mad Dog took the first punch. A hard-knuckled right to the chin that sent him stumbling back against the ropes. The sharp, metallic taste of blood filled his mouth.
A roar of approval swept through the crowd.
He shook his head and blinked. His vision cleared. The crowd stared back at him.
Hundreds of upturned faces, circlets of pale pink against a sea of drab, dark clothing.
They whispered in anticipation. He closed his eyes, listening, knowing what would follow. Waiting for it, needing it.
It started slowly, tentatively, a single voice, a single pair of clapping hands. One person joined in, then another and another, until the hot, dry Texas air became a living, breathing monster of enthusiastic sound. A pulsing chant of voices raised in unison. "Mad Dog, Mad Dog, Mad Dog ..."
Adrenaline coursed through his body, made his breathing quicken. God, he loved this.
He pushed himself away from the ropes and sauntered toward the center of the makeshift ring. An expectant hush fell over the fairgrounds.
He backhanded the trickle of blood from his mouth and gave his opponent a slow, lazy grin. The same devil-may-care, you-haven't-hurt-me smile he'd given a thousand times before. "That the best you got, Sue?"
The huge, hairy man glared at him. His ham-sized hands balled into dangerous fists.
"Name's Stew, you two-bit piece o' shit."
"Stew? As in Stewart?" Mad Dog glanced at the spectators. As if on cue, they leaned slightly toward him, waiting . . . waiting.
"Well, hell," he drawled, "with that punch, I figured your name was Susan for sure."
The crowd burst into laughter.
"You arrogant bastard—" Stew lunged forward.
Mad Dog skipped to the left, ducked, and spun back.
Stew stumbled to a stop and looked around, confusion wrinkling his heavy face.
"Oh, Stew ..." Mad Dog taunted.
Stew turned toward the sound.
Mad Dog punched him. Hard.
Stew staggered back against the ropes, clutching them for support.
Mad Dog glanced down at his fist and shook his head. "Damn, that hurts, don't it, Sue?" (
A ripple of laughter, punctuated by applause, worked through the crowd.
"Why, you . . ." Stew launched himself off the ropes and barreled toward Mad Dog.
Mad Dog braced himself, his lazy grin faded. He waited a tense second, then slammed his fist into Stew's jaw. Bone hit bone in a grinding, crunching smack.
Stew exhaled in a booze-scented grunt of pain. A look of almost comical disbelief crossed his fleshy features before he pitched, face-first, into the dirt.
The mob roared with approval.
Mad Dog looked up from Stew's prone body and grinned at the swarm of sweaty humanity gathered around the ropes. He raised his right hand and made a fist in the air. Then he grabbed a towel and wiped his face.
He felt an arm curl around him, yanking him close. "You done good, kid. Like always," said a gravelly, tobacco-fed voice.
Mad Dog slowly lowered the towel from his face. Sneaky Joe, the fight's promoter, grinned up at him through watery gray eyes.
"Thanks, Joe." Mad Dog tossed his towel into the corner and patted Joe's humped back. "Where's my cut?"
"Right here." Joe dug deep in his ratty pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. "One hundred and fifty-two dollars. Should last you till next season. If you're careful."
Mad Dog pocketed the money without bothering to count it. "When have you ever known me to be careful?"
Joe laughed. "Never."
Mad Dog went to the corner of the ring and picked up his Stetson, clothes bag, boots, and a bottle of tequila. Everything he owned in the world.
Tearing off the cork, he took a long, satisfying gulp of tequila and wiped the dribble from his unshaven chin and drooping mustache.
Joe scurried up behind him, moving as quickly as his misshapen body would allow.
"See you at Rochester in May?"
Mad Dog took another long, slow swallow and smiled. Rochester was the first fight of the season—and his favorite. There was a particularly pretty widow in town. He'd been in Rochester every May for sixteen years. It was as close to a commitment as he'd ever made. "What'd stop me?"
Joe glanced back at the still unconscious, spread-eagle body of Stewart Redman.
"Not him for damn sure."
Mad Dog slowed. "That reminds me, Joe. About the talent you been finding to fight me . . ."
Joe winced. "Yeah?"
"They're perfect. Keep it up."
Joe grinned. "I'll check the veteran's home in Rochester."
"You do that." Mad Dog's gaze strayed to the thinning crowd. Paper and debris littered the brown, scorched grass. The yellow-hot sun streamed through the fairgrounds, silhouetting the retreating crowd. Multicolored tents dotted the field.
From somewhere came the musical sound of laughter.
It took him only a second to find her. She stood apart from the rest of the spectators, facing the ring instead of turned away from it. Long, curly blond hair framed her pale face and veiled her arms, its outline gilded by the sunshine. A scandalously low neckline showcased her considerable charms—charms Mad Dog remembered from his last time through town.
A smile curved his mouth. He loved to have a pretty woman waiting for him after a fight—even if he couldn't remember her name. He waved at her. She waved back, and started walking toward him, her movements slow and seductive.
Mad Dog slung the clothes bag over his shoulder and put on his hat and boots.
"Gotta run, Joe. See ya next year."
Joe chuckled. "You're gonna spend all that money tonight, ain't ya?"
Mad Dog vaulted over the ropes and dropped onto the crisp grass. The woman ran over and threw her arms around him, hugging him with abandon.
He closed his eyes. God, she smelled good. Like hot, sexy nights in a featherbed.
He loved women, all women, but especially the easy, alley-cat types who showed up for his fights. They cost him, but it was worth it. They laughed with him, kissed him, and undressed for him with ease—his money ensured it. And when he left, they waved good-bye with a smile. Just the way he liked it.
He grinned down into her beguiling, promise-laden blue eyes. Suddenly, fleetingly, he wished he remembered her name—it was Susannah or Sunshine . . . something that started with an S, but he couldn't for the life of him recall what. Not that it mattered, of course. She didn't expect him to remember it. That was the beauty of women like her. They didn't expect anything except gold coins and heavy breathing.
"Mad Dog?" She purred his name in a practiced, seductive voice that stirred all the hard, wet memories it was intended to. "You going to stand around here all day?"
He glanced down at the creamy swell of cleavage and pulled her even closer. "Not a chance, darlin'," he whispered against her small, soft ear. "Not a chance."
WASHINGTON STATE SEPTEMBER
Mad Dog leaned back against the shuddering wall of the box car. The article he was writing about homeless-ness lay beside him, forgotten for the moment. Wind clawed his face and raked his hair, curling the papery edges of his notebook. The metallic clackety-clack of the iron wheels vibrated up and down his spine.
Two short blasts of sound rose above the clattering of the train. The piercing wail hovered momentarily in the air, then melted into the puffing chugs of steam and disappeared. Wheels locked with a clanging screech.
Another town. The words carried with them the familiar magic, the seductive allure of unopened gifts.
He reached for his clothes bag. It was slumped in the corner of the boxcar, the patched, grayed fabric caved in on itself. There was next to nothing inside—just a faded change of clothes, a bedroll, and a few notebooks—but it was everything Mad Dog had. Everything he needed.
Except food and money.
He shook his head. It was too bad he hadn't saved something from that last fight.
Just enough to get him a place in Mexico, a few bottles of tequila, and a willing woman to keep him warm through the winter . . .
He thumped his head back against the corrugated metal wall and closed his eyes.
Christ, he hated that word. It was one of the few things that actually depressed him.
It was still autumn; almost an Indian summer, in fact. But yesterday's warm sun didn't fool him. He'd been drifting across this country for too long to be fooled by Mother Nature.
Winter was coming. Winter, when the world was cold, the fields were fallow, and work was impossible to find. Winter. The season when homeless, unemployed vagrants like Mad Dog were found dead by the side of the road and thrown in markerless paupers' graves by lawmen who didn't know what it felt like to be footloose and carefree ... or alone and hungry and filled with despair.
He had to find work now, during harvest, while there was work to be found. There would be no more fairs until late spring, no way for his fists to earn the money he needed. He had no choice but to get a real job.
Shit . . .
The train whistle blew again, three short, sharp blasts.
Mad Dog stuffed a half-finished editorial into his canvas bag and staggered to his feet. Standing in the open doorway, he stared at the blurred brown landscape.
Particles of wind-driven dirt stung his eyes, turned into a gritty paste on his tongue.
He rammed his battered Stetson on his head and jumped. r He landed hard. Pain ricocheted up his legs and throbbed in his knees. He groaned and staggered to his feet, brushing the dust from his Levi's.
Goddamn, sometimes it hurt to be free.
He walked to the fringe of a town called Lonesome Creek and stopped. Green fields fanned toward the horizon like a huge patchwork quilt, the color grafted by irrigation to a brown prairie that rolled into forever. In the distance, bluish gray hills rose into a sky so blue, it hurt the eyes.
A cold, early morning draft buffeted his stubbly cheeks and pulled at his long, unkempt mustache. He crammed his hands in his pockets, trying to find some meager warmth in the holey interiors.
The town was practically empty this early in the morning, which was just as well.
He'd learned long ago that respectable citizens didn't cotton to vagrants like him.
They didn't understand a man who didn't want a white picket fence to trap him in or a steady job to pay his bills.
They wanted the world to be clean, respectable, predictable.
He didn't blame them or judge them. Fact was, he didn't even think about them. He just walked past them, saying nothing, and slipped into the rum-soaked, lively part of town they denied existed. The part wreathed in shadows, punctuated by laughter and drowned in rotgut whiskey. The part where people had fun.
He tucked his chin into the fraying collar of his oilskin coat and strolled casually toward town. The wide dirt road rolled over a tiny rise, then melted into Main Street.
Rows of false-fronted clapboard buildings lined the street on either side, their doorways linked by a wide wooden boardwalk. A few well-dressed people strolled from store to store, talking quietly among themselves.
A sign stood out from all the rest, grabbing Mad Dog's attention. MA'S DINER.
Smiling, he reslung the pack over his shoulder and stepped up onto the boardwalk, pushing through the diner's slatted wooden doors. The mouth-watering aroma of baking cinnamon buns and frying bacon greeted him, made his stomach grumble loudly.