Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.
Little had he known, Jared thought, when he lowered the rifle and allowed that fourth aider to escape, that he’d made a choice that would dog his heels all his adult life and, finally, bring him to this: a showdown with the kid he’d let ride away.
Was it his imagination or was his shadow lengthening? Only a minute or two had passed since he’d walked into the street, yet the shadow loomed so large. Or was he seeing the shadow of the man he’d once been, the man he’d tried to bury, along with his reputation? The man whose fingers inched toward the Colt in its holster.
Jared’s gaze held steady on the man opposite him. He hadn’t always known the names of the men who had tried to best him. He knew this one, though. Billy Joe Carter, youngest brother of the men who had murdered his family. The men who he, in turn, had killed. Carter still didn’t look old enough to be living for revenge. He should be courting a girl, building a future, not throwing his future away for the chance to avenge his brothers.
Jared studied him closely, saw the determination, fueled by hatred, radiating from him. He’d been determined enough to force this showdown that he’d threatened to burn the town if his quarry wouldn’t face him. Jared didn’t doubt that Carter and the cousins he’d brought with him could do it, yet he might have called the man’s bluff – except that Carter had also threatened Mary Beth. That was a risk he wasn’t going to take.
Maybe Carter was bluffing. Then, again, maybe he wasn’t. Either way, the message was clear: Carter wouldn’t accept his refusal to fight. He wanted revenge. He wanted to be the man who killed Tom Garrett. And he’d wanted a town full of people to see it. Nor was there any law to stop him; New Hope was too isolated, too peaceful to need a sheriff.
And so here he stood, left once more with no choice but to kill or be killed. That’s the way it had always been, and that’s the way it was – no matter what Mary Beth thought.
This time was different. This time he was going to lose his life, no matter the outcome of the gun fight. Either Carter would kill him in fact, or he would kill Carter, and at the moment he did, he would lose his home, his friends, and the woman he loved. If Billy Joe Carter died today, Jared Walker would die, too – and Tom Garrett, gunslinger, would be resurrected.
Carter moved a couple of steps to the right in a clear effort to gain a better position, one that did not make him face straight into the sun. Jared knew the problem Carter was having. He always made sure that his opponent would have to squint into the sun. That’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? Survival.
Sweat trickled down Jared’s back. Concentrate. Don’t think about yesterday. Or tomorrow. There’s only now, and the slightest mistake, the barest hesitation, will wipe away any hope of there being more tomorrows.
Trouble was, he wasn’t sure he wanted more tomorrows. Was sure he did not if they were only going to be like all the yesterdays . . .
He buried his family that same evening they were killed: his father, whose body he’d found sprawled next to the corral; his mother, who had been lying inside the front door, her hand outstretched, even in death, in gentle entreaty; his sister, for whom he’d had to search before he found her huddled behind the wood pile. At first , he’d thought she was simply hiding, because her eyes were open, looking at him; then he’d realized those soft brown eyes were frozen forever in a look of lifeless horror.
He’d buried them all, then said a prayer over the graves. But no amount of praying could erase the sorrow or rage he felt. Or the guilt. He’d wanted to be free. Free of the farm he didn’t want. Free to lead his own life. Well, he was free, all right. And it struck him as bitterly ironic that the God he’d been taught to believe was gentle and peace-loving had liberated him in such a hideous, violent fashion.
In the days that followed, he came to see that acts such as his family’s murders weren’t acts of God but of the devil. He also came to understand that he was by no means free. Thanks to the boy he’d let escape, men started coming after him. Carters by name, kin of the young men he’d caught raiding his home. In order to survive, Tom met the challenges, and won. Reluctantly, and with no planning on his part, he earned a reputation that constantly attracted would-be gunmen whose names weren’t Carter. He met those challenges, too, one after another. Somewhere along the line, he became one of those hard-eyed gunmen he’d so foolishly admired. He became a killer, the bearer of the mark of Cain.
For ten years the killing never stopped; he’d never had a moment’s peace or any sanctuary. It seemed that someone was waiting for him in every town. And they seemed to get younger every year. He, on the other hand, grew older and weary, too weary to care whether or not he won.
It was inevitable that sooner or later he would make a mistake . . .