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Excerpt of Chapter One!
Outgunned and outnumbered. The stranger invaded the tiny church like a wild, Texas cyclone. The double church doors blew open and slammed into the walls as the toll of bells echoed through Eden, Texas. Josephine Gerard gasped, stopping in midstride as she came nearly face to face with the devil. Fury and passion enveloped him, sucking the very air out of the tiny space. What kind of man crashed into a funeral uninvited?
Clouds rolled over the horizon just outside the door and cast a dark shadow across the man’s silhouette in the doorway. All chatter ceased save for the preacher who mumbled the Lord’s prayer at the altar. Tension crawled up her spine like the tiny claws of some dark, unknown creature. Cruel, unapologetic eyes roved over the crowd, resting briefly on her. The man dismissed her with a wiry twist of his lips and a tip of his hat as he brushed by her.
Six of her brother-in-law’s men were strewn along the aisle between the pews and came to their feet. A cold, winter wind snaked through the opened door and wrapped around her. The late arrival entered the church with slow steps. He wore a dark suit and string tie. But strapped on each thigh were dual pistols. Interesting choice of mourning attire.
“Who is that?” her son, Max, echoed her own thoughts. Jo maneuvered the five-year-old against the wall, keeping Max behind her. What could she say? She’d never met any of these people before, save for her brother-in-law, Drew Gerard.
She wouldn’t even be here at her nephew’s funeral, if she’d had a choice. Her nephew could have been her brother for all the age difference between them. Whether she liked it or not, she was being forced to face her demons today. The reminder left a bitter taste in her mouth.
Drew had left her with an ultimatum: He would only pay off her late husband’s debt if her son became his ward. She and Max were stuck here. And with every day that passed she grew increasingly concerned about her precarious situation. She was broke with no family in the area and a young child to care for. The only family she had left, whom she hadn’t spoken to in years, lived across the country.
Were her husband still alive he would assure her that God would provide an answer. But she wasn’t a woman who relied on unseen forces; she preferred to depend on herself.
One of Drew’s henchmen stepped in front of the stranger, blocking his path. Surely, these men didn’t plan to draw their weapons in the middle of God’s house?
Drew strode up the aisle and shoved his way through the throng of men to confront the late arrival. Josephine clasped Max’s hand and crept down the length of the wall, trying to get a better view.
Drew’s solid, squat body seemed quite dwarfed by the giant. The stranger must be well over six feet in height. His long unfettered hair fluttered around his neck. And those blood-shot eyes roiled with pure emotion, although which emotion, Jo couldn’t rightly say, but the very air inside the building crackled.
“You’re not welcome here, Warren,” Drew’s tone brooked no argument but it didn’t seem to faze the stranger a bit.
“Then toss me out. You and I both know that’s the only way I’m leaving.”
A chill chased down Jo’s spine.
Sheriff Foxworthy unfolded his long frame from the back pew. “Drew, let the man pass. Don’t disgrace Sid’s funeral with violence.”
Warren leaned down into Drew’s face. “The bastard doesn’t deserve a funeral.”
A piercing gaze caught her attention and held it. Cold. Hollow eyes. He filled the entire aisle and several days’ growth of beard covered his jaw. The ragged ends of his uncut hair filtered out from under his hat in disarray but his face was arresting. Sharp angles and high cheekbones sketched across a hard visage. There seemed to be little give in this man’s features.
“I’m gonna enjoy putting you six-feet-under with your pa,” Drew threatened.
“What the hell are you waiting for?” Warren shoved Drew. “I’m right here!”
Six weapons cleared leather in seconds. Jo gasped and shielded her son.
The sheriff attempted to ease the tension, holding out his hands. “Whoa! Let’s all take a breath here everyone. What are you here for, Warren? This funeral is a private affair.”
The reckless stranger gave a bitter chuckle. “I came to make sure the bastard is really dead.”
Drew cursed, lunging for the stranger, but the sheriff blocked his path. “Get the hell out of my way, Foxworthy!”
“Not here,” Foxworthy whispered low from between clenched teeth, though the words carried through the silent church.
“This is Sid’s killer and you expect me to just stand by while he checks over his handy work?” Drew said, harshly.
Josephine eased Max toward the entrance. She couldn’t risk putting her son in harm’s way. She had to get him out of here before this escalated into a brawl. A struggle ensued and Jo lifted her son into her arms rushing outside. She set the child down in the dry grass and clasped his cheeks. “Are you all right?”
Max nodded as cool winter breeze ruffled his soft brown hair. “What happened? Did Uncle Drew hurt that man?”
She hoped not. Sighing, Jo hugged her precious son close, kissing his forehead. “I’m sure Uncle Drew is handling the situation in a calm manner. Come we’ll take a walk to get our minds off it.”
Jo and Max rounded the corner of the building just as the scuffle crashed out of the church doors. Several men tossed the battered and bruised stranger on the hard-packed ground. He groaned as he lay there and sympathy tugged at her heart. Drew waltzed down the steps. “Worthless drunk,” he said, kicking Warren in the stomach. “Did you get what you came for, boy? You Ryders had best prepare. This isn’t over with by a long shot. You see what started out as a bid for land turned into somethin’ much more personal.”
Sheriff Foxworthy scrambled down the steps. “Break it up. Warren go home, and sober up, son. Your pa would be ashamed to see you like this.” Foxworthy waved everyone inside. “Come on, back inside folks. Show’s over.”
After the last of the guests entered the church and closed the doors, Jo peeked around the corner at the man named Warren. Max rushed past her toward the wounded drunk. “Max!” she called, missing his arm by mere inches.
Max skidded to a halt and settled next to the man. His tiny little hand patted Warren’s shoulder. “Are you all right, mister? Can I get you somethin’?”
“Max!” Jo lifted the boy away from the man. She carried her son back to their hiding spot by the corner of the building “You stay here,” she admonished. She didn’t know what this man was capable of and she wasn’t willing to take any chances on her son’s life.
“Mama, Daddy said we should always help our fellow man.”
Guilt rushed through her as she realized the truth of those words. Hank would be right proud of their son. Her husband had once devoted his life to the word of God. He’d given up his chosen career for her, giving her his name, and his protection. She would always be grateful to Hank for that and she would ensure that his teachings lived on through their son. And that meant living by example.
She sighed. “I will care for him. You stay back.”
Easing down next to Warren as he coughed and gasped for breath, she brushed his hair from his face. “Here, let me help you up.”
Warren swatted her away. “I’m fine.” He coughed again, rolling to the side. A silver gaze focused on her and drifted to her son behind her. “Shouldn’t you two be inside?”
“My Daddy says to help those who’re in need, sir,” Max said as he eased out from around the corner. He’d deliberately disobeyed her order and she would deal with him later.
Warren sat and dusted off his hands. “Well, that’s kind of you, kid, but I’m fine.”
Blood seeped from a wound on his forehead and from the corner of his mouth. “Could of fooled me,” she muttered, drawing the stranger’s attention. She cleared her throat. “You shouldn’t have come here.”
A deep frown cut into his features, his eyes glittered under the sunlight. “What the hell do you know about it?”
She stiffened imperceptibly. “Rude as well as foolish…a great combination. I’ll try to remember that in our future dealings, Mr…?”
“Well Mr. Ryder, whatever reasoning brought you here, I think it’s well past time you leave. Do you have a mount?” She climbed to her feet, reaching down to help him rise. Warren shooed her efforts away. “Can you even ride?” she asked. “You certainly smell as if you’ve managed to tie one on. How much alcohol have you had today?”
“Not enough,” he said dryly. “And I don’t need any help. I can ride.”
She latched onto his arm as he teetered to one side. “Too bad there isn’t anyone around to place a wager with,” she added sarcastically.
Yanking away from her, Warren stumbled back toward town. The Church was located at the far end of Main Street, with a small graveyard located behind it. Warren staggered up onto the boardwalk in front of Hadly’s General store. “I don’t need help. Not from you or anyone else.”
Jo’s brow arched over one eye but she refrained from responding. When he whirled to face her once more, she smoothed her features. A headache formed in her temple and she plastered a fake smile on her face. “Well, I do hope the rest of your day gets a little better.”
A bitter chuckle escaped the man. “To hell with hope. To hell with you, and this town.”
He whirled on his heel and clapped down the boardwalk with angry, albeit weaving footsteps. She didn’t turn away until he’d disappeared around the corner. With a sigh, she spun and made her way back toward Max with heavy steps. Drunken sod. She’d met men like Warren Ryder all her life. Wretches, the lot of them. Without an ounce of decency in their bones. Men who preferred whiskey over their families weren’t worth wasting a single second over. If the bastard wanted to throw his life away on panther piss than who was she to stop him?
The child knelt on the ground, intent on something in his hand. Taking a deep calming breath, she closed the distance. He stood. “Look Mama! Look what I found!” Max raced to her, holding out his hand.
She smiled, brushing the dirt from her skirts. “What is it, precious?”
“It’s a toy! The stranger must have dropped it. We have to give it back.”
She studied the wooden horse. It was no larger than her thumb, carefully carved into a beautiful sorrel mare. Why would such a man have a toy?
Max placed the object in her hands and then clasped her fingers. “Mama, we have to give it back to him. It’s only right.”
Of course, he was right. She smiled and knelt next to him. “And we will. But for today we must stay for Cousin Sid’s funeral. Perhaps we can return it to Mister Ryder tomorrow. Uncle Drew may need our help.”
Big brown eyes rose to her. “Uncle Drew is not always a nice man. Not like Daddy.”
Jo held the five-year-old’s hand and kissed his tiny fingers. “There will never be another man like your Daddy, sweetheart, but we should always remember what Daddy said ‘Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
Max chimed in on the last few words. She squeezed his hand. “Now let’s go inside and take our seats.”
Jo and Max re-entered through the double doors. Drew and Sheriff Foxworthy stood together in the corner by the door in a close conversation. “Everything’s set. All we have to do is make a little trip out to the Ryder ranch.”
Her ears perked up and she pretended she wasn’t interested. She ushered Max past the men toward the aisle.
“Good,” Drew said. “Make sure your men are ready. My witness will be here in two days.”
“You do realize these Ryder boys aren’t goin’ to go in quiet-like?”
“I figured as much.” Drew settled his hat on his head. “But don’t worry they won’t risk those pretty new wives they’ve got out there.”
Alarm streaked a path through her body. What exactly was Drew planning? The real question was what exactly did she plan to do with this new information?
© Suzie Grant 2013