Hope stared as the small square of paper before her wavered, the stub of the pencil biting into her fingers.
“Miss McElroy?” The postmaster wore a smile, but irritation formed the creases around his eyes. “You’ve been staring at the paper a while, Miss McElroy. Did you want to send something?”
“Yes, of course.” Bending her head, she forced herself to focus. Damn Jake. Damn him to hell for consuming her thought so completely. It shouldn’t matter that she hadn’t seen him for three days, that he hadn’t spoken to her for longer. He disagreed with her methods and it shouldn’t bite at her that he was disapproving, that he was mad at her. It shouldn’t hurt her heart that she didn’t have his good opinion, that she hadn’t seen the wicked smile he saved for her in days, that she hadn’t heard a husky ‘darlin’ whispered against her ear.
It shouldn’t matter that she felt the lack of him so completely.
“Miss McElroy?” The postmaster’s smile was wearing thin.
Hastily, she scribbled the rest of the message. “Via telegraph, if you please.”
Taking the paper she proffered, his brows lifted. “You certain, miss? A message this length will cost you.”
“Via telegraph. Please and thank you.”
Shaking his head, he turned to the telegraph machine. “As you say.”
Folding her hands on the counter, her mind wandered back to Jake. She missed him desperately, but she didn’t know what words to utter to convey her regret she’d spoken so harshly. Her actions she didn’t regret. Her plan was solid. She’d had years to formulate it, and just because he didn’t like it didn’t mean it wasn’t a good one. But…she shouldn’t have spoken so harshly.
The door to the post office banged over, the bell clanging wildly. Startled, she spun around.
Margaret stood on the threshold, her eyes wide and her chest heaving. “Callihan is coming!”
The postmaster abruptly paled. “What?” he squeaked.
Hope stilled. Then, as calmly as she could, she levelled her gaze on the postmaster. “This letter is to follow.”
Wide-eyed, the man looked between her and Margaret. He swallowed. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Thank you.” Taking a steadying breath, Hope turned to gaze Margaret. “Good morning, Margaret. I trust you are well.
Margaret stared at her in disbelief. “Did you hear what I said? Callihan is coming.”
“I heard.” She took another breath. “How do you know this?”
“Chloe heard it from one of her regulars. Word is he’s coming for you. He read your article.”
“It wasn’t my article, it was Mr Lamar’s.”
“Who cares whose article it was? Didn’t you hear me? Callihan is coming for you. He’ll be here minutes.”
Her stomach abruptly relocated lower. “Minutes?”
Finally, a reaction.” Margaret placed her fingers on Hope’s arm. “What are you going to do?”
“Face him, I suppose.” She nodded at the postmaster, who looked as if he desperately wanted them gone so he could barricade his door. Obliging him, Hope departed the post office.
Gaze alert and frame visibly tense, Margaret followed. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Her fingers shook. She hid them in the folds of her skirt. “I do.”
“Well, you ain’t got Wade backing you.”
Her heart twisted. No, she didn’t. She’d ruined that.
The street was strangely empty, shutters drawn over windows and doors firmly closed. Hope smiled grimly. She would have thought a town as lawless as Deadwater would have wanted to gawk at the impending doom of one of its citizens.
“Hope.” Margaret grabbed her elbow. Hope stopped, her gaze somewhere past Margaret’s ear. “I know you and Wade are on the outs but maybe it is you should find him afore Callihan finds you.”
“Mr Wade made his position quite clear, Margaret.” Gently, she extracted herself from Margaret’s grip. “Do you have somewhere safe to stay?”
She lifted a shoulder. “The Oriental Rose is as good as any. Why? You ain’t gonna confront him on your own, are you?”
“You should go there,” she said instead of answering. “And take any you hold dear with you.”
Margaret’s frown warred with concern. “What about you?”
She nodded in the general direction of the brothel. “Go.”
Margaret exhaled. Ducking her head, she took a step, and then another, and then she disappeared.
Deliberately, Hope turned away. Dread pooled in her belly with every step she took, the silent street stretching her nerves. Stopping in the middle of the street, she laced her fingers before her as, in the distance, riders approached. A breeze stirred at her feet, pushing her skirts about her, the silence echoing in her ears. She lifted her chin. This was the moment she’d been planning for since she was thirteen. She would not falter now.
A shadow fell beside her. Jake’s pistols gleamed in the sun, lowered hat shielding his eyes.
Mutely, she stared at him. “You’re here,” she finally managed.
“Where else would I be?” Jaw set, he watched Callihan’s progress, his stance deceptively casual.
He was here. He would help. Even though she’d said horrible things, even though she’d hurt him, he would help. She bit her lip. She should have found him. As soon as Margaret told her Callihan was coming, she should have found him and asked for his help. Why hadn’t she asked him?
Wrenching her gaze from him, she exhaled. She had not thought he would help. All her life, she’d had to do for herself. It was…strange to rely on someone. To know she could.
Ahead, the man who killed her family rode into town. He was flanked by three men—Hope blinked. No, they were boys. Boys who looked scared but who desperately tried to hide their fear. Beside her, Jake stood calmly.
“You won’t get the best of me this time, Wade,” one of the boys called.
Jake ignored him, his gaze trained on Callihan.
Hope followed suit. Callihan had aged. His beard was mostly grey, as was his long and stringy hair, and dark pouches resided beneath his eyes. He sat his horse with stooped shoulders, his belly hanging over his belt. This current appearance would inspire fear in no one, but he had decades of evil deeds behind him. She would not underestimate him.
Callihan crossed his hands over the pommel of his saddle. “Hear tell you’ve been talking about me, girly.”
Lifting her chin, she stared him down. “Josiah Callihan. You have done wrong.”
He laughed, a wheezing thing. “That I have. Ask any here. Well, if you could find anyone to ask. Anyone willing to educate this here girl?” he said, raising his voice. Grinning, he said, “Looks like everyone’s too fearful, girl. That should tell you something.” His gaze skittered to Jake. “You might want to control your female, boy.”
Mouth set in a hard line, Jake didn’t reply.
“She’s got a mouth on her, and you know a girl’s mouth is only good for one thing.”
Jake’s jaw tightened.
“Don’t address him. You’ll address me,” she said sharply.
Callihan ignored her, squinting at Jake. “I know you, don’t I?”
Again, Jake said nothing.
“Yeah, yeah, you used to run with me. You’ve gotten old, boy. Yeah, I know you.”
“You don’t know me. I ain’t that kid.” Jake said. “And she ain’t my woman.”
Hope ignored the twinge in her chest.
“She ain’t yours, huh?” Callihan rubbed his lip. “Well, whose is she? Someone needs to take control of her.”
“She ain’t no one’s. She’s her own, and handles her own troubles.”
“Handles her own troubles? Then why are you here?”
Jake smiled, and the cold shape of it made Hope shiver. “I’m here to hold her hat when she pummels you into the ground.”
Callihan opened his mouth.
Goddamn, enough of this. “I hear you like stories.”
Callihan’s gaze swung to her. “Stories?”
“Stories about you. There are many dime novels about you.”
Callihan scowled. “Those ain’t stories. They’re true and correct recount of my deeds,” he blustered.
The sheer arrogance of the man. “Perhaps when you were in your prime. Now….” She lifted a shoulder.
“They’re the goddamn truth and everyone knows it. You all know it,” he said loudly.
She smiled prettily. “The truth, you say? They haven’t been exaggerated just a tad?” She held her thumb and forefinger an inch apart.
“They’re the truth,” he thundered.
Dispassionately, she eyed him. He wasn’t dismounting. His voice wasn’t as loud as he thought. He looked tired and unwell. The boys beside him remained silent and on their horses, their gazes flicking to Jake and his hand on the heel of his gun.
This shouldn’t be so easy.
“They’re the truth and you know it. You have to know it.” His eyes lit. “You do know it, don’t you? What did I do to you, girl?”
Pain. Red. Her family, dead. “Twenty years ago, you killed me.”
“You seem to be alive, darlin’.”
Anger burned bright. No. That’s what Jake called her. He didn’t get to call her that. “My mother. My father. My sisters. My brothers. Our farm. You destroyed it all.”
“Am I supposed to remember this?” he sneered.
“No, I don’t suppose you do. We were one of dozens. Retribution always comes, though, and behold, I am she.”
He snorted. “Your fancy talk don’t mean much, girl.”
“No, it doesn’t, does it? Actions are always louder. Which is why I’ve taken action.”
He suddenly looked uneasy. “What?”
“I have told a story, Mr Callihan. Stop me if you’ve heard it. It’s the story of a man, dangerous and fearsome in his prime, and of his decline. It’s the story of Ozymandias, of arrogant man everywhere. It’s the story of time, and how it erodes everything.”
“Still with the fancy words. This don’t mean nothing, girl.”
“I sent a telegram, Mr Callihan, to every reporter and newspaper I could think of. On it was six words. Do you want to know these words, Mr Callihan?” She smiled sweetly. “He’s not what he once was. You see, Mr Callihan, I don’t need bullets to destroy you. A telegram will suffice.”
Suddenly, he looked less sure. “They won’t believe you.”
“But some will.”
“You cocksucking whore.” He spat the words with venom.
She didn’t flinch. “There will be other stories now, stories that question you’re your legend. Wherever you go from now on, people will wonder. They will whisper and stare, and you will never again know if it is from fear or ridicule.”
He ripped the gun from his holster. In the blink of an eye, Jake’s gun was in his hand. “I wouldn’t, Callihan,” Jake said softly.
“I can shoot you, too, boy,” he snarled.
Jake didn’t waver. “You can try.”
A gunshot split the air.
Callihan howled. Falling off his horse, he cradled his bleeding hand.
The boys beside him made to unholster their guns.
“You boys don’t want to take me on,” Jake warned.
They swallowed and, almost as one, moved their hands to their sides.
Calmly, Jake holstered his gun.
Heart racing, Hope made her way to Callihan. He moaned, squirming in the dirt. Lifting her skirts, she kicked his gun away. “Save what little reputation you have. Walk away.”
“I’ll make your life hell,” he huffed, his fingers stained with blood.
She shrugged. “You did that once. I survived. I doubt you can do it a second time.”
“I’ll do it,” he threatened.
“Go on, then.” She cocked her head. “Who am I? What’s my name? Who are my people? Where do I reside? What do you know about me? You claim I am one of thousands, that I’m not special. I’ll leave this town and you’ll never find me. You don’t know me.”
“I can find you,” he sneered, though his eyes held uncertainty.
“Maybe you could. Maybe one day I’ll look over my shoulder and there you are. But you know what, Callihan? Even if you do find me, you won’t be able to touch me.”
“Why not?” he demanded.
She smiled triumphantly “Money. I have it. You don’t. This is the end of your legend. Enjoy retirement.”
“You won’t win, girl.”
“I already have.” Turning on her heel, she started to walk away.
“No,” Callihan howled. “Come back.”
She ignored him. Jake fell into step beside her, his silent presence protection and comfort, and she left behind the man who had ruined her life a ruin himself.