by Larion Wills
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-927361-28-3
[ Historical Western Romance, MF ]
How was she to know how much more was behind the attempt on his life? How was she to know she would have to take up a gun, as less than a lady, and fight to save herself and the man she loved?
Note: Prologue omitted.
Five years later.
The women hurrying to finish their shopping and the loungers and loafers of Bellfort, Texas stopped to stare. Businessmen stepped to the front of their shops for a look. Gossips stopped exchanging exaggerations and assumptions to watch the lean, dark-haired stranger. They would soon turn their conversations to guessing who he was, what went on behind those hooded-brown eyes beneath the shadow of his hat, and what caused the hard set to his chiseled features.
Tarbet straightened his broad shoulders and back. Being stared at was nothing new to him, not anymore. This new town was the same as dozens. The population stared in curiosity, indifference, or hostility, and except for the pride straightening his back, Tarbet ignored them.
If any of those watching looked closely, below the surface of his erect posture, they would see the exhaustion making the lean face gaunt. They would know from the way the horse’s head drooped, from the coat of dust on both horse and stiff-backed rider, they had come a long way, and the ride had been hard.
Groups gathered and the whispers started before he dismounted and crossed the boardwalk into the second-rate hotel. They all wanted to know who he was, though none wanted to get as close as would be needed for a look into those cold brown eyes. An attitude Tarbet was also used to, with or without their knowledge of the badge pinned out of sight beneath his coat or his true name, one he wouldn’t be using here, keeping his business private.
He grew to expect the shunning that came if he was recognized, just as he grew to expect being stared at, and he could cope with those things. The new thing was different, wearing on his nerves. He was always cautious of his back, new towns, and strange men. Even that caution was no longer enough, not in towns and hotels he knew, and especially not strange ones, though this town was no different in feel, one more of too many for too many years.
A desk sat at the back of the furniture-scattered lobby. Behind the desk the clerk slept with his chair tipped back against the wall, his arms folded over his belly, and his head lolled to the side. He must be having a pleasant dream, and he must live an easy life with a paunch to his belly and a slight smile on his homely face. His excess thirty pounds Tarbet could carry without doing more than filling out his large frame.
A light tap of the desk bell brought the man awake with a jolt and a congenial smile to go with the face until Tarbet told him what kind of a room he wanted. Some clerks were old, some middle-aged like this one, some young, but they all developed the same look, the same strained smile long before Tarbet ordered his horse be stabled.
“Yes, ah, Mr.…?” He craned his neck to read the name Tarbet wrote in the register without getting any closer. “…Taylor.” He paused to lick his lips nervously. “Will you be staying long?”
“Passing through.” A lie, the same as the name he gave the man.
The room was all too similar to the many he had seen through the past six years. His choice, by necessity, was never the best or most expensive. Bare plank walls, bare plank floors, one chest with three drawers, a cracked and chipped pitcher and bowl sitting on it, one straight-backed chair, and one bed with sagging springs. Even if the accommodations were better, the desolate feeling was always the same. The significant differences were the room was to the back, another building was not in line where someone could take a shot through the grime-covered window, and the room was on the second floor without a balcony.
Tarbet locked the door and wedged the single chair under the knob. Modes of dust danced in the beams of light streaming through the holes in the shade he pulled before he stretched out on the lumpy bed. Though too tired to so much as remove his boots, his gun was in his hand as he fell into an exhausted sleep.
The clerk had smiled with his dream. Tarbet grimaced with his, tossing restlessly until he was able to jerk himself awake, putting an end to the torment. His breath came in rapid heaves, and he stared at the ceiling until he could remember where he was.
The gun slipped out of his hand as he staggered up to stumble across the room to the dresser. He poured the bowl full of tepid water from the pitcher and buried his face in it, welcoming any sensation to push away the remains of the dull feeling of too heavy and still too little sleep and the last disturbing affect of the dreams.
The water felt good, clearing his head and taking the grit of the trail from his face, neck, and hands. He didn’t stop until he had stripped to the waist with the empty gun belt dropped in a heap to the floor. He washed the dust from his upper body, the best he could with water rapidly becoming muddy.
With thoughts of how good a full bath would feel, he shook the dust from his clothes before putting them back on and picked up the heavy gun belt with an empty holster. His forehead furrowed as he looked, strapping on the belt, using only his eyes to search for the exact location of the gun. When he saw where he dropped the weapon, he started toward the bed, one arm in a sleeve of his coat. The gun was six steps from where he started. In one step, he knew it was too far.
He hadn’t heard the men in the hall until they crashed through the door, the chair failing to hold it. The men surged through: jostling, shoving, and shouting at each other in their hurry to get at him.
They all seemed to shout at once, the words a blur. Tarbet went for the only exit left to him. He threw the coat in front of his face for protection as he dove through the window. One man was faster than the others in getting a shot off. A bullet burned Tarbet’s side before he smashed through the glass and wood sash.
He rolled to his feet when he hit the ground, hoping an ankle or leg didn’t go out from under him on his run for the corner of the building. In the window above, men still shouted and shoved.
“Get out of the way!”
“He’s headed for the front!”
“Get after him.”
Tarbet rounded the corner, the building a shield between them. He started down the narrow walkway between the hotel and the next building. A canyon of wood-planked walls held him in, one that would send him to the street if he kept on running. Midway, he stopped to listen to the muffled sounds of men inside the hotel through the thin walls, shouting at each other as they stomped down the stairs.
Ahead, the passageway would take him to where the men would come out of the hotel. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw only the corners of the buildings and a thin strip of bright sunlight. The way to the stable and his horse ran beneath the window he jumped from—where at least one man could be waiting on the chance he would go back that way.
Tarbet looked above him to the walls reaching up to a thin blue strip of sky. With no way to scale them for escape, he stared, his perception distorted with shock and weakness from injuries he didn’t realize he had. The walls seemed to grow closer together while a strange feeling of being outside himself settled over him. The strange phenomenon held him in fascination, even after he fell. Lying on his back, looking up, they seemed to move apart.
How strange he was hurt in a way to make him fall, yet he didn’t feel any pain, only an instinct nagging at him to move. A strange detached curiosity held him as he lay there staring up at the tiny strip of blue above until the nagging became too insistent. In an effort to get up, the wall he rolled up against moved, letting him fall into an engulfing darkness. Too dark to see, he groped into nothingness, his mind too dazed to tell he fell through a loose section of siding to the crawl space under the hotel.
He heard sounds, all too far away and too indistinct to penetrate the daze, and he slipped from shock to unconscious.
* * * *
Dreams of Angela penetrated the apathy. Light hurt his eyes, and Angela was there. He wanted away, to stop the dream. She would scream. She always screamed in his dreams, screamed and fainted after staring at him with her deep, blue, doll eyes wide in terror.
One dream merged into another. Instinct and training told him the one room rock building was a bad place to be with only one door, and slits high in each wall the only ventilation. The thought affected the dreams. The rock building became a cell with a locked door, a nightmare reflecting the lives of imprisonment he had committed other men to endure after he hunted them down. Children’s sing-song voices drifted through the rock walls, calling for him to suffer. A giant hand provided the suffering the voices called for, crushing his chest, turning each breath into a searing fire. Blood pounded against his skull, beating against his eyes and ears, adding torture to torment.
Doors that wouldn’t let him free shattered, letting in men to shoot at him. He ran down a trench of wood planked walls to a single door which refused to open. The trench closed around him to make a cell. Rocks became crumbled windows, raining glass shards changed to rocks falling with and on him. During it all, the hand closed tight on his chest and a voice deep in the back of his mind told him he must move though not why. When he fell to a place free of canyons or rock cells, he refused to listen to the voice urging him to move. Dampness in sweet-smelling grass of a mountain meadow cooled the fire in his body. The soft and hazy light of shadow surrounding him didn’t hurt his eyes, and if he didn’t move, the hand eased its hold enough to allow him to breathe without agony. If he didn’t move, the pounding in his head was only a dull throb.
Peace wasn’t allowed. More dreams of those from the past came. Horace caused him pain, shaking him, making the hand tighten. Worse, Angela was there, standing behind her father, her blue eyes huge. When she startled, he was sure the old dream started again, the screaming and the crying, the fainting to follow, but it was a different dream, one to confuse him even more.
Angela did jump in fear; so did Horace when a woman’s voice asked, “What’s going on?”
To Tarbet it was a soft voice, sounding puzzled, and with nothing in it to cause the fear he saw in Horace and Angela’s faces. He saw nothing in the speaker to explain it, either, and he didn’t understand how he could dream so clearly and in such detail of a woman he had never seen before. Tall and slim, she moved toward them with such grace she appeared to glide over the rough ground. Even the rifle in her hand was carried with ease and grace and not even the rifle made her seem threatening.
“This is none of your concern,” Horace told her in a crisp tone.
“Really?” she asked, not in the least intimidated. “You are on my land.”