Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.
Jared was in Missouri when he made his mistake. It was late. He’d had a good night at poker, and his pockets were full of money for once. He was walking back to the hotel, thinking about what he would buy. He needed a new saddle, and he’d seen a hat he liked that day in a shop window. He was thinking about Molly, the pretty saloon girl who had caught his eye that night, and whether or not to ask her to have dinner with him the following evening, when a man stepped in front of him out of a dark alley.
Startled, Tom cursed himself for letting his mind wander. And in that instant, he let his gaze fall from the man’s eyes to his hand, hovering over his gun. He didn’t think anyone was faster on the draw than he was, but when he saw the man’s hand move, he realized with vivid clarity that he was wrong. Though he went for his own gun at the very instant the stranger went for his, Tom pulled the trigger of his Colt a fraction too late – at the same moment he felt a burning fire rip through his chest.
He fell to the boardwalk along with the man he’d still managed to kill, blinding pain wiping away all thoughts but one from his mind: he was dying.
He didn’t die, though the town doc told him several days later that he had come damn close, as close as any man could and still live. He must have an angel on his shoulder, the doc continued – or the devil, the sheriff retorted.
Jared agreed with the sheriff.
He’d learned a lesson, though, from that night in Missouri. Never — ever – take your eyes off your opponent’s eyes. Not if you wanted to live. The eyes revealed the soul, and something indefinable always flickered through them just before a man reached for his gun.
In the years that followed, he learned other lessons, too, all of them about survival. He wanted to stop learning them. He wanted to lead a normal life. To settle down, buy a farm, or maybe a ranch, and become a respected member of some nice community.
He tried his damndest to leave his reputation behind, moved constantly in search of a place where no one knew him, accepting any job, no matter how menial. But someone always found him; someone always forced him into a showdown.
Then he would have to move on . . .
How long had he been standing here. Two minutes. Maybe three? It seemed like a lifetime. The sun had not moved, nor had his shadow. The door fronts were still closed, the windows still curtained or shuttered.
Regret, deep and heavy, washed over him. He had never felt so alone, even in a life that was, by necessity, a solitary one. He knew the magnitude of his loneliness came from having known what it felt like to belong. Before New Hope, he’d not had that since childhood, so he hadn’t realized how lonely he was. But for the past two years, he’d been given a glimpse of heaven. Having it snatched away was more than he could stand.
Though he was alone, Jared felt a hundred pairs of eyes on him; the townsfolk of New Hope, watching the drama taking place on their main street. Were they curious to see the notorious Tom Garrett in action? They all knew who he really was now. They all knew he was a gunslinger with a price on his head.
Were they hoping he’d finally get his just rewards? Was Mary Beth among them?
A sharp crack split the tense silence, but Jared’s gaze never left his opponent’s face. Carter’s gaze darted toward the direction of the sound – a window slamming somewhere to the left. Jared knew he could take advantage of Carter’s distraction. He could draw. He could kill. Again.
His hand stayed at his side. Carter’s gaze darted back to meet his, then dropped for an instant to his Colt, and Jared figured Carter was wondering why he had not taken advantage of his opponent’s inattention. The answer was simple: his hand would not be the first to move. It never was. The only time he’d made the first move had been that day in Kansas. . .