Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.
“You always have a choice.”
Mary Beth’s words echoed in Jared’s mind as he stood waiting for Billy Joe Carter to make his move.
The wagon had stopped somewhere behind him. He dared not look to see who was in it, or if they were in the line of fire. The wagon’s occupants, if they had any sense, had darted into the nearest shelter.
Carter’s gaze refocused on him once more. Soon, he thought, any second now, Carter would go for his gun. And then he would have to go for his. If he shot Billy Joe, then he would have to face the Carter’s companions.
“You always have a choice.”
Again, the words taunted him. He didn’t believe it, but the very fact that Mary Beth seemed so certain it was true gave him pause. His love and respect for her were great enough that for the first time, it occurred to him that maybe he was wrong. Maybe there was another choice besides kill or be killed.
The sudden barking of a dog drew his attention – though not his gaze. It was Harry’s bark. He loved that damned dog, had become attached to him the instant he’d picked him out of the litter. And it seemed the feeling was mutual; Harry followed him everywhere, which was why he’d tied the animal in the back of the livery before walking out to meet Carter. Harry had never been tied, any more than he’d ever been scolded and only the fear that he might get shot had convinced Jared of the need to tie him now. Harry was voicing his indignation at being left behind, and the loud, forlorn barking ate at what was left of Jared’s heart.
Carter’s lean body had jerked with the first bark, and the continued barking was obviously distracting him. His gaze darted to the right, then the left; then Jared saw Carter focus briefly on a spot behind him before swinging upward toward the second story of the saloon.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jared saw one of Carter’s cousins step out from behind the corner of the bank and start looking around. A shutter slammed. There were other noises that were quite normal for a town this size. Yet, under the circumstances, they seemed out of place. Only a moment ago, it had been utterly silent.
Jared took a step to the left and tried to block Harry’s barking from his consciousness. Tried hopelessly not to think about anything –not Harry, not Mary Beth or Jonny, not his long and sorry list of regrets. Tried, instead, to concentrate on the task at hand. It was far past time to end it.
What was Carter waiting for, anyway? He would have sworn the younger man had been ready to draw a moment ago.
Heat shimmered in waves coming up off the street, and though there seemed to be no wind at all, dust balls bounced along, heading out of town. The sun burned the exposed skin on his neck, bore into his head, scorched the shirt on his back. A hint of hell.
Harry’s barking turned into a howl, a lonely, anguished sound that seeped into Jared’s bones.
Carter was still looking around. So was his cousin. What did they see?
“Come on, Garrett, draw,” Billy Joe yelled.
Why did Billy Joe care who drew first? He had his witnesses. They both knew every eye in town was glued to some window, peering out through the curtains or shutters. Once the gunfire died away, the good residents of New Hope would emerge from their burrows.
He couldn’t really blame them. He had lied to them. He had brought gunfighters here. He had brought death here.
Was Mary Beth watching. Would he ever see her again? Would he hear her voice or see her smile?
Jared felt a burning behind his eyes, and suddenly, his throat went dry.
“Garrett? Did you hear me?” Billy Joe was visibly sweating now. “Draw, dammit. Don’t stand there like a coward. Draw!”
Live or die. Kill or be killed.
You always have a choice.
Maybe. And maybe now was the time to find out.
One thing Jared knew for sure: he couldn’t kill a man in front of all the people he’d come to think of as his friends and neighbors. Or in front of Mary Beth. He did have at least one choice, and that was not to kill.
In that moment of decision, relief rolled through him, lifting an immense weight from his shoulders – and from his soul. He felt a kind of freedom he had never known before.
“I won’t draw, Carter,” he said – loudly, clearly – at the same time he turned away. Not much. Just enough to make his point.
In the next instant, he heard more noise behind him. The sound of rifle bolts slamming closed.
He guessed it was the rest of Carter’s men, come into town to see what was taking so long, and he waited for the bullets to hit. He even mumbled a small prayer, something he hadn’t done since the day, all those years ago, that he’d shot the men who killed his family. He’d never uttered a prayer nor asked a favor, figuring the devil already owned his soul. Yet he prayed now. He prayed Mary Beth and Jonny would be happy – and they wouldn’t see him lying in the dust.
Carter’s gaze moved rapidly from side to side. His companion, who had been standing near the bank, began backing away.
Wondering what the devil was going on, Jared risked a glance at the source of Carter’s distraction. His body stiffened when he saw Mary Beth standing in the bank’s doorway beside Bill Dale, who was holding a rifle.
How long had they been there? His concentration had been so centered on Carter that he’d been unaware of anything but this man and the heat and the dust. For a fraction of a second, his gaze met Mary Beth’s, and, incredibly, he saw the flicker of a smile cross her lips.
A movement to the left brought his gaze snapping in that direction. Jared saw Holt Winslow, another rancher, moving up beside him. With Holt was John Curry, the blacksmith, and next to him the gunsmith, and the saloon owner. All of them held rifles.
Spurs jingling to the right drew his gaze. The mayor. The president of the cattleman’s association. Four other men who had ranches in the area. They all carried guns. At the end of the line strode the preacher. No gun in his hand, but he held a Bible.
A window sliding open drew his gaze to the second floor of the hotel. A figure, holding a rifle, sat perched on the windowsill. Another man sat on a nearby roof.
All of a sudden, Carter looked pale. A muscle twitched in his cheek as he, too, took in the force gathering around them. That he was baffled by it was apparent.
But then, so was Jared. He was no longer standing alone. The town was standing with him. And Mary Beth was right there with them. Without moving from the bank doorway, she was reaching out to him, telling him by her presence that she had made her choice: she loved him in spite of his past.
Jared felt his battered heart start to pound. It pounded so hard against his ribs he could almost hear it. His throat was so dry he couldn’t swallow, and he knew his fingers were trembling as he moved his left hand toward the buckle of the gun belt and began to take it off.
Carter let out a furious shout. “No!” And his hand moved fast – faster than Jared thought possible – toward his gun.
At the same instant Jared’s gun belt hit the ground, he felt a bullet slam into his left side. The force spun him around, and his right hand – automatically, out of pure instinct – reached for his gun. But it wasn’t there. A second bullet hit his hand. With his brain registering little more than the red-hot agony tearing through him, he heard a scream, the sound of more gunfire. As he slowly sank to the ground, a part of him noted that Billy Joe, too, had fallen . . .