Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.
4:04 p.m. Continued
Carter had been waiting for him when he rode in to make the final arrangements for the wedding. They were to meet with the minister at noon.
Instead, Billy Joe and two companions confronted him on the street after Jared had tied his horse in front of the general store.
Carter and two companions emerged from the saloon. Carter stepped into the street, calling him Tom Garrett and challenging him to a gunfight. It didn’t even occur to Jared to deny his identity. He knew then that his dream was over.
Jared was unarmed, and when Carter told one of his companions to hand him a gun, he refused it. Then he walked away as Billy Joe baited him. In front of the whole town, Jared just turned and headed for the general store. With each step he took, he died a little inside.
Mary Beth was at the door. Her eyes were wide as she searched his face. “All those things that man was saying – they aren’t true, are they?”
When he didn’t respond, she went on. “Jared, tell me you’re not wanted by the law. Tell me you haven’t killed twenty men.”
He couldn’t bring himself to answer. If he’d killed all the men attributed to him, he would have had to be in ten different places at once. But he’d killed enough to horrify her.
“Tell me, Jared,” she said again, the blue of her eyes misting, her mouth trembling slightly. “That man was lying. You’re not Tom Garrett . . . are you?”
Even in this remote piece of Texas, she had heard of Tom Garrett.
“He wasn’t lying,” Jared said, hearing the ache in his voice and unable to hide it.
Unable to bear the disappointment in her face, the disbelief, he left her, and she didn’t try to follow him.
But Billy Joe Carter did. He rode out to Jared’s ranch with his companions, including two cousins and two friends. Jared met them on his front porch, unarmed. Carter hadn’t come to kill him, though. He wanted to do that in full view of the entire town. He wanted to prove himself the best, the man who had killed Tom Garrett in a fair fight.
If Jared didn’t face him the following afternoon, Carter said, he and his band of outlaws would burn the town. And he added with a smirk, he would take particular pleasure in servicing Jared’s woman, “the purty widow.”
A few hours after he left, Mary Beth appeared at the ranch house door. Jared knew he had to tell her he was going to meet Billy Joe Carter in a gunfight, and he also knew he wasn’t going to tell her why he was doing it. The men of New Hope were no match for a band of murdering Carters, even if they were willing to fight them. Billy Joe Carter wanted him, no one else. And to protect the people he loved, he would give Carter what he wanted.
But how was he supposed to explain it to Mary Beth?
He should allow her to believe the worst and forget him, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He could not let her believe he was a hired gun, a cold-blooded killer.
Still, he didn’t spare himself. Yes, he admitted, his name was Tom Garrett. Yes, he had killed men. No, he had never been a hired gun. No, he had not killed twenty men.
Then how many, she wanted to know.
He knew. They each haunted him. But he could not force himself to say the number. So he stood mute, unable to defend the indefensible. What difference did it really make whether it was five or ten or twenty?
He watched the tears glint in her eyes, the disbelief register. He knew she had hoped he would deny it all. He wanted to take her in his arms, wanted to hold her and kiss away the tears. Instead he turned away so she wouldn’t see the wetness in his eyes.
“I love you.” she said in a voice that quavered. “I love you, but Jonny . . . ” She paused, then added, “I don’t really know you, do I?”
He shrugged, concealing his agony. She knew him better than anyone ever had. He’d thought she understood the need in him, the longing for peace and family and belonging. He had thought that understanding those important things, she hadn’t felt the need to ask questions, to prove and pry into his past. Now he wondered if she simply had not wanted to know the answers, had been afraid to know.
His fingers clenched at his side. God, he wanted – needed – to hold her. But he felt unclean. Unworthy.
“Why, Jared?” she asked, still trying to understand. “Why?”
He stood silent. He could mouth excuses, but none of them would erase the fact that he had killed, not once or twice, but many times.
“Go home,” he finally said. “Go home to your son.”
“I want to understand,” she pleaded.
“What is there to understand?” he said. “I’ve killed men. It wasn’t by choice, but that doesn’t change anything, does it? Once a man gets a reputation, they keep coming. They will always keep coming.”
She studied him for a long moment, then asked in a quiet voice. “How did it start?”
His jaw tightened.
“Tell me,” she insisted.
“Will you believe me?”
But understand? He doubted it. He couldn’t understand himself.
His tone was expressionless as he spoke. “I was eighteen and a farmer’s son. My father was a Quaker. Didn’t believe in violence. One day, some Jayhawkers raided my family’s farm and murdered my mother and father, and my little sister. They were getting ready to burn our barn when I rode up. I shot three of them, but one got away. Billy Joe Carter. He was a kid then. And the men I’d killed were his brothers.”
Jared looked out over the hills and drew a deep breath before continuing. “Their cousins started coming after me, and I killed them, too, in self-defense. Before long, I had a name and men looking to make a reputation found me. I tried to find a place where no one knew who I was, but some gunman always tracked me down.”
Jared turned back to face Mary Beth, meeting her gaze as he finished. “I’d be walking down the street and some stranger would step out in front of me and go for his gun. I was always a little faster. It was either that, or die. None of them gave me a choice, Mary Beth.”
She shook her head very slowly, and in her soft, husky voice, she said, “You always have a choice.” Then she turned away and stepped down to her buggy.
He knew then that he’d lost her. No matter what happened with Carter, he had lost Mary Beth forever.