Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.
4:00 p.m. Thursday Afternoon
Jared Walker’s shadow lengthened on the dusty Texas street. The fingers of his right hand tingled. They seemed to have a will of their own, those fingers, and they itched toward the Colt.
Live or die. Kill or be killed. Which was it going to be?
He stood motionless in the main street of New Hope, waiting for another man some sixty feet away to make the first move toward his gun.
How many times had he stood like this, waiting for another man to draw?
How many bodies had he left for the undertaker? He had tried to forget the faces, each one contorted in surprise as his bullet found its mark, but the gallery he carried in his head never closed – not even in his sleep.
The face of his current challenger was young. He looked little more than a boy, but Jared had learned long ago that men like him, men with boyish faces and a longing for some kind of immortality, were far more dangerous than older, wiser men. And this man, Billy Joe Carter, had more reason than most to want to kill him.
He hadn’t wanted to kill again, ever, and if it were only his own life he was risking, he wouldn’t. But other lives were at stake. The lives of people he had called friends and neighbors for the past two years. He wouldn’t abandon those people now, despite that they had all abandoned him.
Even Mary Beth.
Was she watching? He tried not to look at the stores lining the street, tried not to hunt for that special face he knew he wouldn’t see. In the past forty-eight hours, their love had been tested – and found wanting. He might look for Mary Beth, but he wouldn’t find her. And in the time it took him to accomplish his futile search, Billy Joe Carter would kill him. Not that it mattered now. He’d lost his one and only hope.
Jared shifted on his feet and tried to concentrate. The silence surrounding him was overwhelming. It was late afternoon, yet stores were closed, windows shuttered. Horses had been removed from the street where they might wind up in the line of fire. It was as if the world had stopped, and he and young Carter were the only two survivors.
Jared knew, though, that other men waited in the shadows, ready to take Carter’s place. If he wanted to survive this challenge, two men had to die. He wasn’t being given a choice. But then, he’d never been given one. At least that was what he believed.
Carter rocked on the balls of his feet, and Jared felt his fingers flex again. Damn those fingers, so ready to kill. He’d spent ten years honing that killer’s instinct, and two years of raising cattle didn’t seem to have dulled his edge.
He should have known better. He should have known he could never escape the stench of death. He should have known he could never escape Tom Garrett, the man he’d been.
There is always a choice, Mary Beth had said as tears glinted in her blue eyes. He didn’t believe it, though. The only time he’d been given any real choice was twelve years ago; the path he’d chosen then had determined all roads he’d taken since. And it seemed all those roads were going to end here, in New Hope, with Billy Joe Carter facing him from the opposite end of the dusty street.
He had heard that your life flashed across your mind when you knew you were about to die. It had never happened to him. Not in any of the many times he’d exchanged gunfire with strangers. Yet as he stood here, the hot Texas sun blasting his back, soaking his shirt, waiting for Carter to make his move, in his mind’s eye Jared saw every one of the past twelve years in slow, excruciating detail . . .
He was eighteen. A Kansas farm kid who could shoot a rabbit from a thousand yards away. His pa was proud of his kill. He’d won every turkey shoot in west Texas. At the last one, his prize was a new and rare Henry repeating rifle. He had won a pistol, too, in a private contest that his pa didn’t know about. A rifle for killing game was one thing; a pistol, good mostly for killing men, was another.
His pa was a Quaker, a pacifist caught in a war that had neither use nor sympathy for those who refused to take sides. Quakers didn’t believe in killing – ever. But young Thomas Garrett knew he was good with a gun, any kind of gun, and he secretly admired the legendary lawmen. He’d been practicing his quick draw on the prairie, far away from his pa’s gentle eyes. He figured he could draw as fast as anyone alive.
He wanted to test his skills. He wanted to join the army and fight the Rebs. But his mother was sick, and his sister was only ten, and his pa couldn’t handle the farm alone. So here he was – grudgingly – feeding chickens and milking cows, with rebellion frothing inside him.
He was driving some milk cows from a pasture when he heard gunshots, blasting loudly across the open prairie. He spurred his horse toward the farmhouse and spied four riders milling about, tearing down fences, driving out his father’s gelding and the old mare. Tom looked for his father, his mother, but didn’t see them.
He did see one of the raiders fling a torch at his family’s neat little house.
Without hesitation, he took his treasured rifle from its scabbard. His father thought he carried it for hunting, and he did. But knowing that “Bloody Kansas” had come by its name honestly, he also carried it as protection against human dangers. It seemed every thief and killer was using the war as an excuse to rob and loot and kill: the Jayhawkers and Red Legs, different sides of the same coin.
He didn’t care who the men were as he rode hard toward the house. None of the raiders saw him approach. They were far too busy destroying what his father had spent fifteen years building. When they turned, it was too late. Too late for them. Jared’s fingers closed around the trigger again and again, not stopping until three of the four lay on the ground, and the fourth – a sorry excuse for a lookout who couldn’t be more than fourteen – was hightailing it across the fields.
Tom started to aim, then stopped and lowered the rifle. He had to see to his family, although in his heart he knew what he would find . . .