Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.
On his knees and bent double, Jared put his good hand to his side, felt blood flowing through his fingers and wondered through the morass of pain if the wound was mortal. In the next instant, Mary Beth was beside him, her hands pressing a cloth to the wound.
“Go,” he tried to tell her. “Get out of the street.”
“It’s over, Jared,” she said. “He’s dead. His cousin, too. The others are riding out.”
But it wasn’t over. The shadow of death would always be with him. Perhaps he had not killed today, but others had killed for him.
Struggling to sit back up, he drew a painful breath. He felt so weak, felt blood draining from him. He looked down at his mangled right hand. He doubted he would ever be able to use it properly again, much less draw a gun.
“You . . . left . . .,” he began in a rasping whisper.
“I had to have some time,” Mary Beth said. “You had lied to me, at least by silence. And I was so afraid of losing you, of watching Jonny lose yet another father.”
He met her gaze.
“But then I realized how unfair I was being,” she continued with tears streaming down her cheeks. “I realized how hard you’ve tried to make a new life since you’ve been here.”
The blacksmith who sometimes doubled as a doctor kneeled on the other side and busied himself with packing the wound in Jared’s side. “Don’t think it hit anything vital,” he said. “That hand . . . ”
Jake didn’t care about the hand. He fought the pain, as Mary Beth took his good hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry, Jared.”
He took his hand away and touched her face, wiped the tears away. “You are so . . . damned pretty.” He knew that had nothing to do with her anguished confession, but he felt the need to say it. He knew she understood that it was his way of telling her how much it had meant to him to see her standing there, in the bank doorway, reaching out to him with her smile.
“I love you,” she said brokenly.
“The killing never stops,” he said, his gaze holding hers.
“It stopped today,” she said. “You stopped it.”
Cal Baker, the minister, kneeled next to him. “Aye, lad. We all saw it. Everyone here saw you unbuckle that gun belt. You made the decision to stop.”
“But – ”
“They voted, you know,” Reverend Baker continued as if he hadn’t heard the muttered protest. “Mary Beth visited every man in town, and they voted to back you, every last one of them. They just ran it a little close,” he added dryly.
Jared looked back at Mary Beth. God, but her eyes were blue. Looking at them, he nearly didn’t feel her hands busily helping the blacksmith. He looked beyond her. The other men, about two dozen of them, were standing apart, and he looked at each of them, one by one. Bill Dale. Holt Winslow. John Curry. . . they all gave him a brief nod, telling him that they, too, had made a choice that day and were satisfied with it.
“Some men will do anything to get out of a wedding,” Mary Beth said.
He nearly chuckled, but it sounded more like a groan. His head fell back and he was looking at the sky. A few clouds had appeared and were floating lazily eastward.
“I . . . can’t,” he said, a harshness in his voice that he hoped covered the anguish in his heart. “There will be others . . . there are . . .always others.”
Bill Dale squatted down beside him. “There won’t be if we tell anyone who comes looking for you that Carter was wrong. That you aren’t Tom Garrett and that you, Jared Walker, have been here for years. Carter didn’t believe us, and when he threatened the peace, we had to kill him to protect our town.”
“We all made a pact. No one will never know any different,” John Curry broke in. “Not from any of us.”
Jared couldn’t believe what he was hearing, an entire town of people willing to lie to protect him. “What about the others Carter brought with him?” he asked. “By now, they’re halfway to Kansas where Carter’s got more cousins than this town’s got people. They’ll spread the word that he’d dead, and then – “
“Same story,” Bill replied. “If you’re not Garrett, then Carter was wrong and we had every right to protect ourselves. If we have to, we’ll get the federal marshal to escort any Carter who decides to pay us an unwanted visit back to Texas. I have a few friends in the state. But I don’t see it as likely that they’ll pursue a grudge against a whole town of people.”
Jared shook his head, barely trusting himself to speak. “I can’t let you all risk your lives for me.”
“You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?” Bill replied. “Or John or any of the rest of us. In fact I think you did exactly that out there in the street. You wouldn’t let him try to burn the town. You risked your life for each of us.”
Jared’s silence brought a smile to Bill’s face. It said what Jared could not.
“We protect our own, Jared,” Bill continued. “The day I met you, when you rode in looking to buy a ranch. I liked what I saw, and I haven’t changed my mind.”
Before Jared could reply – if he could have replied — Harry and Jonny arrived. The big yellow mutt bounded into the circle that surrounded him and frantically swiped Jared’s face with his tongue. Mary Beth gently pushed Harry aside, and Jared saw Jonny, hovering over him, anxiety squinching his youthful features.
The pain was receding, or maybe it was only disguised by stronger feelings, feelings like hope and gratitude – and love.”
“We have to get you inside,” John Curry said.
Bill put a hand under his good arm and tried to help him up.
Jared shook his head. “I just need a hand.”
The blacksmith offered his, and Jared took it. Mary put a hand under his good elbow and an arm around his waist. Pain flooded him as he stood, and weakness; but he looked around, and for the first time in his life he felt tall, and free.
With the blacksmith on one side and Mary Beth on the other, he took a step, then another. He stopped to look at Billy Joe Carter’s body sprawled in the dust.
Live or die. He hadn’t lived at all for ten years. He had merely survived. He’d only begun living when he’d come to New Hope.
He stumbled, and Mary Beth put her arm back around his waist.
“We’re almost home,” she said softly.
Home. His throat tightened, and he felt a wrenching twist of his heart. It had been a very long time since he’d had any home at all, and suddenly it was all around him, everywhere he looked. He saw it in the concerned faces of the men who had stood by him, in the boy dashing to open the door, and in the dog dancing at his heels. He saw it in Mary Beth’s beautiful blue eyes.
Live or die.
He’d finally chosen life.