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Graveyard Gulch, Arizona June 2001
Melissa fidgeted. How could she not when she was so thoroughly uncomfortable? The pale, parched ground burned through her thin-soled sandals. Grains of sand gritted between her toes. The intense June sun beat down on her uncovered head while the dry, hot wind scorched her skin. Even through her sunglasses, the glare hurt her eyes. Her nose twitched at the acrid sting of stable dust.
With each passing moment, she grew more frustrated with Jo's schemes. Jo meant well, bless her heart. She'd been trying so hard to distract Melissa from her grief, but it was simply getting to be too much.
In the two weeks since Melissa arrived in Arizona, Jo had added daily to a list of things they must see and places they must go. Melissa would have preferred more quiet time together. Given the opportunity, perhaps she could have found nerve to bare her soul, revealing the guilty secret that haunted her. Once shared, maybe it wouldn't weigh so heavily on her mind.
Take today. Had Jo not insisted, they could be in Jo's cool apartment in Linda Vista now instead of here in Graveyard Gulch, a partly restored frontier mining camp. Surely they could experience the Old West on television instead of in person. No show performed by amateur volunteers could equal her favorite novels and old movies, anyway.
Moreover, how could she enjoy light entertainment when guilt and grief clouded every moment? She couldn't escape reality. Daddy was dead and she was to blame.
Melissa's painful thoughts held her enthralled until she saw the actors begin to take their places. What a garish bunch! The score of men wore a wildarray of brocade vests, frock coats, buckskin, beads, fringe, turquoise, conchos, and cavalry blues representing every conceivable outfit of the Old West.
A half-seen motion drew her gaze into the shadow of the barn's overhanging roof. One man stood there, dressed in unrelieved black. Tall and lean, his severe, dark attire provided a stark relief to the peacock profusion of the others.
Suddenly the whole yard erupted in a noisy and disjointed melee. Gunfire and wild shouts echoed. Then someone yelled in Spanish. "Cuidado, es el policio!"
At the sound, Melissa cringed, instinctively seeking shelter. For an instant, she was somewhere else, awash in fear and pain. She blinked and shook her head in an effort to dismiss the troubling vision. When she finally snapped back to the present, the shrill squeals of horses almost drowned the other strident sounds.
A fistfight broke out. Frock coats and buckskin tangled and twined. Still unaccountably anxious, Melissa made no attempt to follow the action. Instead, her gaze was riveted on the man in black.
He stepped out into the harsh sunlight, the shiny, bronze badge on his vest making one solitary spot of brightness. Walking with a soft-footed grace, he drew his single revolver in one fluid motion. Pausing, he scanned the group with efficient speed, as if sizing up the situation.
"All right, boys. This has gone far enough."
While his gaze again swept the yard, he slid the weapon back into his holster. Still, he kept his hand near it. Though low pitched, his voice carried clearly, even above the cacophony.
For an instant, Melissa's heart leaped into her throat. What could one man do against a whole unruly mob shooting and brawling? One man and one gun? Wouldn't they all turn on him? She shivered as she started to drift back to the shadowy, awful other place.
"Drop your weapons. Now!" The sound of his deep, calm voice drew her back and slammed shut some mental door. Abruptly, she felt as if everything would be all right. She chided herself for being caught up in the fantasy, accepting it as reality for even a second. Of course, they didn't turn on him. It was only a show, for Pete's sake!
With sheepish or sullen expressions, the other men stopped. They lowered their weapons, stilled flying fists, and shifted to face him. Moments after his order, they began to drop their gun belts and lay down their rifles.
It's all play-acting; just make-believe, but something about this one man gave credibility to the whole performance. She found it easy to accept that he, with just the force of his personality, could subdue a brawling bunch of miners, gamblers and cowboys. In contrast to his air of assurance and authority, the others seemed little more than marionettes, woodenly pantomiming their parts.
Only the man in black seemed real. He moved among the rest, lining some up, dismissing others, collecting dropped gun belts and stacking rifles beside the barn. As he approached one man who wore the elaborate charro outfit of a traditional Mexican rancher, he stooped to pick up a pistol. The charro seized the moment. Snatching a wicked-looking knife from his boot, he lunged.
Melissa joined the crowd in a collective gasp. The blade glinted in the sun, transcribing a bright arc toward the black-covered back. At the last possible moment, the man in black twisted deftly aside. He whirled to flip the shorter but heavier man, sending him sprawling. Jolted from the charro's grasp, the knife flew across the corral.
Melissa gasped again. Shock held her immobile as the blade flashed through the air, settling into the dust not two feet from her toes. Catching her trembling lip in her teeth, she dared a downward glance. It had to be only a prop, but still, she shivered.
Copyright © 2005 by Gwynn Morgan
Posted September 4, 2012
I was not sure what to expect as I started this story. I found suspense, danger, survival and love. Two people find a love that has existed ever since Missy was 12 years old and Lawton rescued her.
That rescue had shaped both their lives until it brought them full circle back to each other.
As one who lived in Arizona for 4 1/2 years, I truly enjoyed the setting. My oldest was born there. So I got an added delight to the way the story unfolded. I highly recommend it.