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JAKE BOWMAN came to, face down in a puddle of coppery-smelling mud. His head throbbed as if a smith were banging him into shape on an anvil. When he moved, the fire in his right shoulder stopped him.
Two figures lay near him, still. Too still. He struggled to focus his eyes, then wished he hadn't woken up.
Cold, like a wave of freezing water, washed over him. The nearer of the two was the owner of this property, his former employer. Randall Tall Trees lay in a pool of her own blood in her dusty front yard, her brand-new Winchester rifle by her side.
It all came back then....
They had ridden up and Randall, when she saw Jake and Sam with the men, lowered her rifle.
Wil had drawn and shot her dead.
Jake had sat like a fool while Randall's daughter, Nancy, ran out to weep over her mother's body.
He squeezed his eyes shut. He'd sat there on his tall palomino, hearing, but not really understanding the scene playing around him. All he could see was Randall's accusing stare as she lay there in the dirt.
The charge was as loud as if she were shouting it.
You brought these men here, Jake? Why would you?
He was guilty. Jake reached the verdict with little deliberation. He'd come along, knowing what Wil had wanted. Even the fact that he and Sam had come to try to prevent this didn't make his guilt any less damning.
"We'll relieve them Injun squaws of the responsibility of all those cattle," Wil had said.
When the boys had seen Nancy, the cattle were no longer enough.
"Shall we have a little bit of fun, boys?" Wil had asked.
Jake's Colt Navy revolver nuzzled the back of Wil's head before Jake even realized he'd been thinking about it.
"No, Wil," he said.
"You won't kill me, Jake."
"No?" Jake pulled back the hammer on the piece.
Wil's eyes cut to the left, toward Jake, and he chuckled softly.
"No. You're a lawman deep down inside. You wouldn't kill me like this."
"I won't let you hurt her anymore, Wil."
Wil leaned away from the muzzle of Jake's gun and looked around.
"Jake, observe," he said with a sweep of his hand.
Five guns were trained on Jake's head. These old boys weren't especially good shots, but a couple of them had new double-action revolvers and could put six bullets somewhere in his carcass in a matter of seconds.
"I won't let you hurt her anymore, Wil," he repeated, his voice low.
"Then shoot, Jake. Because I'm getting down off this horse right now and I aim to ride that squaw until she spits blood."
Nancy turned pale under her smooth, copper-brown skin and fell to the ground.
Jake didn't know, wouldn't ever find out, if Wil had simply moved at a convenient moment or if he'd made a signal to the boys on his right, and it didn't matter, either, as the report of the rifle shot echoed across the yard.
Pain slammed into his shoulder. The Navy revolver went flying as he fell from his horse. Beau skittered. His ears flat against his head. Jake rolled away from the iron-shod hooves, teeth clenched against the pain in his useless arm.
"Run, Nancy," he croaked.
Sam put himself between her and the gang, raising the revolver in his left hand and picking off two of the riders. An instant later, another crackling report sent Sam to the ground, blood pouring from his left arm, just above the elbow. One man kicked his horse and took off after Nancy. He scooped her up and tossed her across his saddle. She kicked and screamed, but he held her until he'd returned to Wil, now dismounted, where he threw her on the ground.
Jake crawled toward Randall's body, toward her rifle.
"Don't let him get that rifle," Wil shouted in warning.
Bullets flew like bluebottle flies around his head.
Damn, I hadn't wanted to die like this. Even Point Lookout would have been better, he thought, remembering for an instant the horror of two years at that Yankee prison camp.
At least then I still had my honor.
He froze at the sudden silence. The shooting had stopped. The screaming and yelling had stopped.
Jake raised his head from the dirt and focused on Sam struggling, face distorted with pain, to escape the grip of two remaining members of the gang. The one on his left side twisted his injured arm behind him. His face turned a pasty gray, but not a sound escaped Sam's lips.
Jesus, not his shooting arm, Jake begged.
"Sammy, you killed your partners," Wil said as he approached. "Tie him to that tree over there. Let him watch, since he doesn't seem willing to participate."
The men laughed and dragged Sam between them toward the tree. He was making a powerful lot of noise and Jake realized through his haziness that he was creating a diversion so Jake could do something.
Randall's rifle was just out of his reach.
Jake stretched his healthy arm.
"No, no, Jake," Wil said, sweeping the weapon away with a quick kick. "Can't have you interfering with the party." Laughing, he swung Nancy around in front of him, his big hand wrapped around her thin wrist.
"Please," she begged, her sweet voice nearly inaudible over Sam's yelling and cursing as Wil's men tied him, "you're hurting me."
Derisive laughter answered her plea.
"Sweetpea, whether I hurt you more is very much your choice." Wil stroked her cheek with tenderness that turned Jake's stomach.
"Take your hands off her, Wil," Sam shouted, getting a backhand in reply. "I'll kill you, Wil. I swear, I'll kill you."
"Sure, Sam. Sure." Wil guided Nancy's hand to his fly. "Do a good job, Sweetpea, and maybe I'll keep you for myself."
Tears filled the brown eyes that first sought out Sam, then Jake.
The tears, big, round, heavy tears, spilled over her eyelids and plopped into the dirt in front of him, defying him to look away. But Jake couldn't face her and, cursing himself for his weakness, he rested his head on his arm. A pointy-toed boot shoved against his shoulder, turning him over onto his back. He stifled a moan. The pain had dulled to a throb, but he still couldn't move his arm.
"See, Jake. I told you. You can't kill me. I'm a better man than you. No matter what my daddy said." Wil fondled the girl's budding body. "Daddy always tried to make you out such a big man. Jake did this and Jake did that. He wouldn't think much of you now, would he, Jake?"
Jake didn't reply. What could he say? He wasn't exactly a model citizen anymore. Nope, he'd pretty much ruined his entire life and right this instant he didn't give a good goddamn if Wil put a bullet in his brainpan.
"So, Wil," he taunted, hoping to God he wouldn't have to see what was going to happen. He couldn't stop them. He was helpless now, unable to even raise a gun. "Stop blowing like a bull at green corn time and get the hell on with it." Jake locked his gaze with his cousin's, because he couldn't bear to look into Nancy's. "Come on, Wil. If you have the guts."
Wil's face blossomed a deep red. "Why waste a bullet on you?"
Stars exploded in Jake's head as the toe of Wil's boot cut across his head. His blood, warm and thick, trickled across his brow. An instant later, a second blow sent him to the blessed land of unconsciousness....
Mind clearing, he struggled to raise up so he could see.
"Oh, God," he muttered, his eyes clouding with tears of anger and self-hatred. "You should have stopped him, Jake. You could have stopped him." He crawled over to Randall. "I'm sorry, ma'am." He closed her eyes, partly out of respect for her, partly because he couldn't bear to see the accusation in them. He glanced over at Nancy, then turned quickly away. She was sprawled, dress up around her waist, just like she'd been when the last man had gotten off her. She'd died under him, like a used-up whore.
Somehow, sometime, Wil is going to pay for this night's work.
Jake let his aching eyes move across the yard. His brother was still tied to the tree, head hanging onto his breast. He feared the worst, until he heard Sam's muffled sobs.
Jake wanted to cut Sam down, but he was spent. He couldn't do anything to help anybody. He rolled onto his back. He hurt all over and could feel his lifeblood seeping from his body. Wil had wasted that extra bullet on him after all. Somewhere in his middle. He was gut-shot.
Well, then, that's that. He accepted it. He had earned it.
Opening his eyes, he looked up to the starry, early morning sky, up where the preachers said God was. The sky lightened as he lay there, just looking, wondering how his soul would be carried away. Mama had told him about the angels coming to get him to carry him to Jesus. He chuckled weakly. Jesus wouldn't want him, now.
Then as his eyes closed for the last time, he felt gentle hands lift him. Maybe Jesus did still want him. His soul took comfort from the thought.
"I'm coming, Mama," he whispered.
Copyright © 1998 by Anne Manning