Showdown…Chapter 10…Conclusion

     

    SHOWDOWN

    Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved. 

 

 

           CHAPTER TEN 

4:06 p.m.

                                                                                                                                                           

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.

And love.

 

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Showdown…Chapter 9

 

 

      SHOWDOWN

       Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.

 

 

             CHAPTER NINE 

4:05 p.m.

 

“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.

Did he?

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 . . .

 

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Showdown…Chapter 8

 

 

      SHOWDOWN

       Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.

  

   

          CHAPTER EIGHT 

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?”

“Yes.”

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.  

 

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Showdown…Chapter 7

     

      SHOWDOWN

       Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

           4:04 p.m. Continued

 

What followed the afternoon Mary Beth tended his wound was a most proper courtship.  For five and a half months, Jared made twice-weekly trips to town for the express purpose of visiting Mary Beth.  They took walks.  He played with Jonny, whom he came to love nearly as much as he did the boy’s mother.  He even helped New Hope build a church for its new minister when he realized it was Mary Beth’s fondest wish that the town have one – though he felt like a hypocrite the entire time and wondered if God would want his blood-stained hands involved in the construction of HIS house.

The times he liked best, though, were when Mary Beth invited him to supper, and he got to sit at her perfectly set table with her and Jonny – the three of them together, like a family.  Jared wanted them to be a real family.  He wanted to help Mary Beth raise her little boy and he wanted a child or two more.  He wanted to go to bed with her at night and make love to her until they were both too exhausted to do anything but sleep.  And he wanted to wake up with her beside him every morning for the rest of his life. 

He told himself it was impossible, but the thought that it might not be impossible wouldn’t go away.   And, finally, one night five months and sixteen days after the horse’s hoof had sliced open his arm, he made up his mind.

Supper was over and Jonny was in bed, asleep, and it was time for him to leave. He always left early so folks wouldn’t have anything to gossip about.  Instead of leaving, though, he tugged Mary Beth down to sit beside him on the sofa in her parlor.  Then he took her hand in his and asked her to marry him.

Her eyes widened, and for a moment, she just looked at him, apparently stunned.  He held his breath, heart pounding, waiting for her to say she couldn’t marry him because she didn’t know anything about him, didn’t know who he was or what he’d done before arriving in New Hope two years ago.  He’d convinced himself that it was safe, at last, to take a wife, but he wasn’t planning to reveal his past to her.  If she asked him to explain all his secrets, he didn’t know what he’d say.

She didn’t ask.  She simply looked at him with her heart and soul shining in her blue eyes and said, “I love you Jared.  Yes, I’ll marry you.”

Then he kissed her.  Tenderly at first, then with a hard desperation.  He had always been a gentleman with her, had made his caresses gentle, harnessing the fierce desire and the demanding need inside.  But when her arms went around his neck, her breath coming in short gasps as she melted against him, he was lost.

He rejoiced in her response, in the way their bodies melded together, in the need that swept away convention and caution.  Her husband had died five years earlier.  He himself had never lingered long enough to have more than momentary release with a soiled dove.  Both of them, for their own separate reasons, had been keeping their needs and desires in check for far too long.  That kiss unleashed it all.  Their passion rapidly reached the boiling point, then exploded into something else, something neither of them could stop.  She gave herself to him completely, and they mated in a fury of love and desire and need.

He stayed in her arms all night long, and they talked of getting married in two weeks, time enough for her to sew a fine wedding dress.  Then, before dawn, before Jonny – or the town,  – awakened, he left her.

Jared rode home, smiling the entire way.

His smile stayed in place for nearly two weeks.  Until the day Billy Joe Carter rode into New Hope . . .

 

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Showdown…Chapter 6

 

      SHOWDOWN

       Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.

 

  

           CHAPTER SIX

           4:04 p.m. Continued

 

Jared remembered every moment of that day.  They were engraved in his heart. 

He remembered Jonny’s eager face, the boy’s grin when Jared smiled and said, “You may have a sale.”

“They’re free,” the boy said breathlessly.

“That’s about the right price,” Jared had replied, his gaze going back to the boy’s mother.  He wondered where her husband was.

“The only thing that really matters to either Jonny or me is that the puppies get good homes,” the woman explained.  “Would your wife want a puppy?”

“No wife,” he said shortly.  “There’s no one but me.”

She hesitated for a moment, searching his face, and he understood he was being weighed.

“I like animals,” he said, surprised by his self-defense.  He’d never felt the need to defend himself, or to gain anyone’s approval.  At least, he hadn’t felt either need until that moment.  

She nodded.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t introduce myself.  I’m Mary Beth Reynolds.  I own the store.  If you need credit, just say so.”

“Your husband?” The question popped out, startling him as much – maybe more – as it clearly startled her.

“My pa died three years ago,” the boy said.  “Horse threw him.”

Jared looked back at Mary Beth, saw a brief shadow cross her face.  He stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

Jonny broke the silence.  “Let’s go now.  You can pick out your puppy.”

“I think Mr. Walker needs a few supplies first,” his mother said, her wide smile back in place.  “Then you can show him Queenies’s puppies.”

“Queenie?”

She winked at him.  “Don’t let the name intimidate you.  Queenie is anything but royalty.  She’s not very pretty, either, nor are her pups.  But she is smart, and I expect her pups are, too.”

An hour later, Jared headed toward his new ranch, a homely, yellow puppy – the runt of the litter – in his lap and a sack full of supplies tied to his saddle.  He was whistling as he rode.

Harry grew fast – and big – and he accompanied Jared wherever he went.  The dog filled one of the empty places in his heart.  Mary Beth and Jonny filled another.

Yet, as much as he was attracted to Mary Beth, and as much as he tended to linger at her store on his trips to town, he refrained from asking permission to court her.  Although he sensed she would welcome his attention, he kept himself firmly in check.  He had little to offer a woman.  Especially a woman like her.  And he knew his past would repel her, would, in fact, repel the entire town.

For nearly eighteen months he lived on dreams of what might be someday.  Someday when his cattle herd was profitable.  Someday, when the house was fit.  Someday, when he felt it was safe, that his past was well and truly buried and wouldn’t come back to haunt him.  Then . . . maybe then . . . he’d ask Mary Beth if he could court her.

Someday came a little sooner than Jared expected.

He was in town, walking from the bank to the general store when he saw Jonny running along the side of the street with his dog Queenie chasing after him.  The boy was laughing, glancing over his shoulder and calling to the dog, not watching where he was going.  He darted into the street, straight into the path of a galloping horse.

Jared’s years of acting instantly surfaced in a flash.  He made a running dive for Jonny, shoving him out of the way.  Jonny was unhurt, but the horse’s hoof struck Jared’s left arm, ripping it open.,

Mary Beth insisted on tending the wound.  After all there was no doctor in town – and as she stitched the gash closed, Jared knew she was having a hard time not noticing the other scars on his upper torso.  She said nothing, just raised a questioning brow that disappeared when he offered only a shrug  in explanation.  He had never known a woman who could resist asking a lot of questions that he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – answer.

He fell in love with her then.  He’d seen it coming, of course, but he’d done his best to keep it from happening.  He’d told himself that a man with his past shouldn’t get involved with any woman.  And yet . . .

He was a different man, now, wasn’t he?  A more worthy one.  God, he hoped he was, because despite his best intentions, he couldn’t resist the gentleness in Mary Beth’s hands, the warmth in her voice . . . couldn’t resist her.  She was like water to a man lost in the desert.

 

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Showdown…Chapter 5

 

  

     SHOWDOWN

     Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.

 

 

   

            CHAPTER FIVE

 4:04 p.m.

 

Pay day had arrived.

Was it fate:  Coincidence?  Or justice?  

He had been in the saloon, talking to Bill Dale, the banker when a stranger stopped in for a drink.  Jared hadn’t recognized the man, but it seemed the man knew his face – and he was one of Billy Joe Carter’s many cousins.  He must have one straight to Billy Joe with the news that his longtime quarry wasn’t dead after all but alive and well and living in New Hope.

Not for long, Jared thought as he faced Billy Joe.   Any second now, he’d either be heading out to his ranch to pack a saddlebag and leave – or he’d be dead.

The sound of a wagon rumbling down the dusty street behind him broke the silence of the afternoon.  Jared heard the creaking wheels, the hoofbeats against dirt, the first sound of movement on the street since the good citizens of New Hope had skittered inside their stores and houses like frantic ants whose hill had been kicked over.  

His neighbors.  His friends.  Bile settled heavily in the pit of his stomach.  He should have known that a gunman had no friends, could never have them.  Nor could he have love.

Carter moved again, still trying to find a place where he wasn’t blinded by the sun, probably also trying to gain some kind of mental advantage by dragging this out.  Jared figured the young gunman knew by now that he was not going to draw first.  Hell, Carter knew damned well he didn’t want to draw at all, that he had done his best to avoid this.

Jared took a step. . . two steps . . . to the right, careful to keep the sun at his back.  Careful, too, not to look toward the general store.  Mary Beth’s store.  She lived in the rooms above it, and he envisioned her there, huddling behind the curtain of her parlor window with Jonny, her son.  Almost his son, too.

Every word she had said to Jared last night still burned his heart, live coals embedded in his soul.  Given a choice, he’d rather have taken a bullet.  But then, he hadn’t been given a choice.

Mary Beth, however didn’t see it that way. . .

 

###

 

He was attracted to Mary Beth the instant he saw her.

He’d been living at his new, if decrepit, ranch house for three days, scraping by with what food he’d packed in his saddlebags, making plans and lists of things he’d need.  Lists in hand, he’d ridden into town and gone directly to the general store.

A woman in a blue dress with the most startling blue eyes he’d ever seen looked up from a ledger book lying on the counter.  A curl fell from her mass of auburn hair that was pulled back and wound into a knot. Her face was both delicate and strong, and she had a dash of flour on her cheek that drew his gaze.

When she smiled at him, her cheeks dimpling and the skin around her vivid blue eyes crinkling, Jared felt as if the skies had opened and the sun was shining straight into his heart.  He realized with a sudden start of amazement that he was smiling, too.  God only knew when last he’d smiled.

“You’re Jared Walker,” she said.

He just stared at her, feeling like a besotted eight- year-old boy.     

“News travels fast in New Hope,” she said in a husky voice full of warmth.  “That’s just too little of it.”

He’d never felt tongue-tied with a woman, but he’d been struck stone silent simply by looking at her.  His gaze fell to her fingers, seeking out a ring.  To his great disappointment, she was wearing one.

“Do you have any boys?”

The question didn’t come from the woman but from a pint-size boy whose face appeared above the edge of the counter.  He, too , had a head full of auburn hair, but it was far less tidy than the woman he stood beside.  She had to be the boy’s mother.

“No,” Jared replied.

“Girls?”  It was obviously his second choice.

Jared shook his head.

 “A dog?,” the boy kept trying.

 Jared’s smile broadened into a grin.  The boy had such a hopeful look on his face. 

“I’m afraid not.”

“I have some puppies.”

The woman laughed.   “He’s been trying to find homes for those pups for the past three weeks.   This is my son, Jonny.  Jonny, this is Mr. Walker.”

“Hi, Mr. Walker,” the boy said.  “What about the puppy?”

And that was the beginning . . .

 

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Showdown…Chapter 4

 

  

      SHOWDOWN

       Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.

  

 

          CHAPTER FOUR

 

4:03 p.m.

 

His chance to escape the gunfighter’s life came almost ten years after his family’s death.  He was caught in an ambush in Montana, where he had gone searching for peace only to wind up enveloped in a range war.

He was working as a horse wrangler for a big rancher when fighting broke out.  An imported gunfighter, hired by his boss’s competition, recognized him and jumped to all the wrong conclusions, assuming Tom Garrett was also a hired gun.

The ambush occurred as he was taking horses to an army post.  The impact of a rifle bullet hitting his shoulder knocked him from his horse, and when he fell, he hit his head and lost consciousness.  He woke well after dark, alone; his mount was gone, as were the horses the army had purchased.  His gun was gone, too, and so were his boots.  He reached inside his shirt and felt a small measure of relief upon discovering that his money, a modest sum saved over the years, was still there.

His shoulder hurt like all the furies in hell, but he managed to get to his feet and start walking.  Dawn came, then noon.  He couldn’t go on.  It felt like iron had been welded to his feet, and taking even another step seemed an impossible effort.  Blood trickled from his shoulder, and he knew he’d lost too much of it.  He sank to the ground, his head bowed, his eyes unable to focus.

He remained there, unaware of time passing, fading in and out of consciousness, until the indignant braying of a mule brought him partly out of his stupor.  He felt a weathered hand on his face and warm water running down his throat.

The prospector who found him took him to his cabin alongside a stream and, over the course of the next several weeks, nursed him back to health.  The old man did him an even greater service , though, inexplicably and for no apparent reason.  With a combination of bafflement and wonder, Tom listened to his benefactor relate – with considerable glee – how he’d gone into town and told everyone he had found a dead man on the plain.  Buried him, he had, but not before he’d realized the dead man fit the description of that gunfighter, Tom Garrett. 

Tom Garrett died that day.  And, in that prospector’s little shack, Jared Walker was born.  With deep gratitude, he gave half his money to the old prospector, then headed south where no one knew him.  Where he could start a new life.

Eventually, he wandered into New Hope, a tiny town in southwest Texas.  The name alone attracted him.  He approached the small bank – the only bank in town – and found William Dale, the owner.  Dale answered his questions and asked some of his own.  Seemingly satisfied with the answers, Dale gave him a long, searching look, then told him of a property, a neglected ranch available for the cost of taxes.  The owner was dead, and no one had the money or cowhands to take it on.

Money, Dale explained, was tight in New Hope, which was well off the route of the great cattle drives.  Its one saloon was small, and friendly poker games were the main gaming.  The hotel was nothing more than a boarding house, the blacksmith was idle more often than not, and the bank was barely surviving.  There was little to attract strangers.

That suited Jared just fine.  He paid the taxes on the property, bought a few head of cattle, and moved into the neglected ranch house.  For months, he worked from sunrise often until well after the moon had risen.  The leaking cabin was cleaned and expanded, the fences repaired.  The constant work started to heal him.  When neighbors realized he was in New Hope to stay, they held a barn raising for him, and every family within fifty miles attended.

Astounded by the effort everyone made on his behalf, Jared looked for a way to repay his new neighbors.  The chance came when he heard three women talking at the general store about how hard it was for the town to hire a school teacher when there was no schoolhouse.  After all, they said, no teacher worth his salt would want to come live in a town that couldn’t be bothered to build a school.  That night, he visited Bill Dale and several other men, getting them to agree to the construction.  His father had been a fine carpenter, and Jared had learned many of the skills.  He organized a school raising and he was the first there with hammer and saw.

Jared basked in the respect of his neighbors and in working his own small ranch.  He reveled in the hard work.  He actually slept through a night without being awakened by the nightmares that had plagued him for years : haunting images of dead men’s faces.

In addition to rebuilding his own ranch, he worked for other ranchers in return for heifers, increasing his herd little by little until he felt legitimate enough to join the Cattlemen’s Association.  It wasn’t much, the association, but it gave him a sense of belonging he had not felt since a boy.

His dreams had finally come true.  All the dreams he’d once thought lost forever.  Suddenly, for the first time in years, he had hope.  And as time passed, that hope grew.  It grew to overshadow the nagging feeling that all was going too well and that it couldn’t last.  The feeling that, someday, he would have to pay for his bloody past . . .

 

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Showdown…Chapter 3

 

      SHOWDOWN

      Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.

 

  

            CHAPTER THREE 

4:02 p.m.

 

          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. . .

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Showdown…Chapter 2

   

      

                         

       SHOWDOWN

      Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.

 

     

CHAPTER TWO  

4:01 p.m. 

 

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 . . .

 

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Showdown…Chapter 1

  

 

SHOWDOWN

Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.  

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

Texas, 1875

4:00 p.m. Thursday Afternoon

 

Jared Walker’s shadow lengthened on the dusty Texas street.  The fingers of his right hand tingled.  They seemed to have a will of their own, those fingers, and they itched toward the Colt.

Live or die.  Kill or be killed.  Which was it going to be?

He stood motionless in the main street of New Hope, waiting for another man some sixty feet away to make the first move toward his gun.  

How many times had he stood like this, waiting for another man to draw?

How many bodies had he left for the undertaker?  He had tried to forget the faces, each one contorted in surprise as his bullet found its mark, but the gallery he carried in his head never closed – not even in his sleep.

The face of his current challenger was young.  He looked little more than a boy, but Jared had learned long ago that men like him, men with boyish faces and a longing for some kind of immortality, were far more dangerous than older, wiser men.  And this man, Billy Joe Carter, had more reason than most to want to kill him.

He hadn’t wanted to kill again, ever, and if it were only his own life he was risking, he wouldn’t.   But other lives were at stake.  The lives of people he had called friends and neighbors for the past two years.  He wouldn’t abandon those people now, despite that they had all abandoned him.

Even Mary Beth.

Was she watching?  He tried not to look at the stores lining the street, tried not to hunt for that special face he knew he wouldn’t see.  In the past forty-eight hours, their love had been tested – and found wanting.  He might look for Mary Beth, but he wouldn’t find her.  And in the time it took him to accomplish his futile search, Billy Joe Carter would kill him.  Not that it mattered now.   He’d lost his one and only hope.

Jared shifted on his feet and tried to concentrate.  The silence surrounding him was overwhelming.  It was late afternoon, yet stores were closed, windows shuttered.  Horses had been removed from the street where they might wind up in the line of fire.  It was as if the world had stopped, and he and young Carter were the only two survivors.  

Jared knew, though, that other men waited in the shadows, ready to take Carter’s place.  If he wanted to survive this challenge, two men had to die.  He wasn’t being given a choice.  But then, he’d never been given one. At least that was what he believed.

Carter rocked on the balls of his feet, and Jared felt his fingers flex again.  Damn those fingers, so ready to kill.  He’d spent ten years honing that killer’s instinct, and two years of raising cattle didn’t seem to have dulled his edge.

He should have known better.  He should have known he could never escape the stench of death.  He should have known he could never escape Tom Garrett, the man he’d been.

There is always a choice,  Mary Beth had said as tears glinted in her blue eyes.   He didn’t believe it, though.  The only time he’d been given any real choice was twelve years ago; the path he’d chosen then had determined all roads he’d taken since.  And it seemed all those roads were going to end here, in New Hope, with Billy Joe Carter facing him from the opposite end of the dusty street.

He had heard that your life flashed across your mind when you knew you were about to die.  It had never happened to him.  Not in any of the many times he’d exchanged gunfire with strangers.  Yet as he stood here, the hot Texas sun blasting his back, soaking his shirt, waiting for Carter to make his move, in his mind’s eye Jared saw every one of the past twelve years in slow, excruciating detail . . .

 

###

 

1862

He was eighteen.  A Kansas farm kid who could shoot a rabbit from a thousand yards away.  His pa was proud of his kill.  He’d won every turkey shoot in west Texas.  At the last one, his prize was a new and rare Henry repeating rifle.  He had won a pistol, too, in a private contest that his pa didn’t know about.  A rifle for killing game was one thing; a pistol, good mostly for killing men, was another.

His pa was a Quaker, a pacifist caught in a war that had neither use nor sympathy for those who refused to take sides.   Quakers didn’t believe in killing – ever.  But young Thomas Garrett knew he was good with a gun, any kind of gun, and he secretly admired the legendary lawmen.  He’d been practicing his quick draw on the prairie, far away from his pa’s gentle eyes. He figured he could draw as fast as anyone alive.

He wanted to test his skills.  He wanted to join the army and fight the Rebs.  But his mother was sick, and his sister was only ten, and his pa couldn’t handle the farm alone.  So here he was – grudgingly – feeding chickens and milking cows, with rebellion frothing inside him.

He was driving some milk cows from a pasture when he heard gunshots, blasting loudly across the open prairie.  He spurred his horse toward the farmhouse and spied four riders milling about, tearing down fences, driving out his father’s gelding and the old mare.  Tom looked for his father, his mother, but didn’t see them. 

He did see one of the raiders fling a torch at his family’s neat little house.

Without hesitation, he took his treasured rifle from its scabbard.  His father thought he carried it for hunting, and he did.  But knowing that “Bloody Kansas” had come by its name honestly, he also carried it as protection against human dangers.  It seemed every thief and killer was using the war as an excuse to rob and loot and kill: the Jayhawkers and Red Legs, different sides of the same coin.

He didn’t care who the men were as he rode hard toward the house.  None of the raiders saw him approach.  They were far too busy destroying what his father had spent fifteen years building.  When they turned, it was too late.  Too late for them.  Jared’s fingers closed around the trigger again and again, not stopping until three of the four lay on the ground, and the fourth – a sorry excuse for a lookout who couldn’t be more than fourteen – was hightailing it across the fields.

Tom started to aim, then stopped and lowered the rifle.  He had to see to his family, although in his heart he knew what he would find . . .

 

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