Unedited Excerpt from Tucker's Claim
Copyright © Sarah McCarty 2009
All rights reserved Harlequin SPICE
A pounding came at the front door.
“Miz Sally, Miz Sally! Come quick.” The pounding grew louder, more urgent. “Someone’s been shot.”
Sally pulled the pillow off her face and sighed.
“Hurry, Miz Sally.”
The news that someone had been shot was all it should take to get her moving, but the violence in this town assured that someone was always getting shot, and the truth was, she was becoming immune to the panic that announcement used to inspire. Jonah would have called it maturity, but she knew differently. Jonah had been the most brilliant man she knew when it came to medicine, and looked on every case with an eager curiosity. But for her, the constant demands were more wearing and depressing and she was coming to resent the scale of the intrusion into her life. Not a pretty thing to realize about oneself.
She threw back the covers, pulled a dress over her nightgown and hurried to the door, buttoning it as she went. Old Jed stood there, his wrinkled face dotted with perspiration, his breath wheezing in his chest. Shadows of the man he’d been in his youth could still be seen in his face and his lean frame, but so could the battles he’d fought. While his blue eyes were keen with the knowledge of his lifetime, his hands and back were bent with arthritis. And his lungs were almost worn out.
“Thee shouldn’t be running, Jed. It’s not good for thy lungs.”
He shot her an impatient look. “That bullet isn’t helping Billy none, neither.”
“Billy Hanson is the one shot?” Dear God, he was just a boy. “Are they bringing him over?”
“They don’t dare move him.”
She grabbed for Jonah’s bag and pushed past Jed. She didn’t need to ask him where the shooting occurred. It was always at the saloon. She hurried down the street, her heart pounding. Behind her she could hear Jed wheezing as he tried to keep up.
“He’s out in front of the saloon,” he called.
“Of course.” Her skirt flapped against her legs. Her breath echoed harshly in her ears. Ahead she could see a crowd gathered around something in the street. Billy.
“No need to take that tone, Miz Sally. Nothing wrong with a man having a drink.”
No indeed. Except that whenever men gathered with just such a purpose, bloodshed ensued. Pushing through the crowd, she pulled up short as she saw Billy. He lay in the dirty street clutching his stomach, his blue shirtthe one his mother had sewn for last month’s social when he’d gone sweet on Jennifer Hayesdark with blood. There was more blood on his lips and a steady trail trickled from his mouth down his neck.
For a second she closed her eyes as horror, fear and a niggle of hope roiled within her.
The medical satchel made a rattle as she set it on the ground. Why was it that the only way for a man to prove himself was to go out and kill something? Animal, humansometimes she wondered if they truly saw a difference. Another glance at Billy’s face showed just the bare traces of a beard. Children…
Jed limped up beside her, his breath rasping harshly in his chest. She placed her hand on his arm, steadying him, not liking the paleness of his complexion. “Can you help him, Miz Sally?” he wheezed.
The answer stuck in her throat. She just didn’t know.
“We left him just as he was, Mrs. Sally,” Peter, the town merchant offered. “Dr. Jonah was always real particular about not moving anyone bad hurt.”
The last was said with a bite. Since the day the first resident had come to her door and asked her to take that monumental step into her husband’s shoes, these subtle hints that any deviation from the pattern Jonah had lain down would not be tolerated had been constant. As was her annoyance. One complication to being taught all Jonah knew was that she’d developed her own opinions on how some things should be done.
“Thank you, Pete.”
She knelt beside the boy, forcing a smile to her lips as his eyes focused. “Hi, Billy.”
“I messed up,” he whispered. It was an attempt at maturity that did nothing to offset the fear in his eyes. The instinctive knowledge of impending death. The victims always knew. So did she. And after one
glance at the blood soaking Billy’s clothes, she was afraid the answer to Jed’s question was not going to be positive. Keeping her smile firmly in place, she unbuttoned his shirt. “Well, let’s see if we can fix it, all right?”
The crowd closed in. “Scandalous,” she heard a woman whisper.
It always amazed her that people could assume she experienced lecherous thoughts while attending the wounded. Especially when she wasn’t a woman prone to lecherous thoughts. Scenes from the night before flashed through her mind, and she was forced to amend. Unless it came to Tucker McCade. And even if it were Tucker lying here like this, about all she would feel was a sense of horror.
Keeping her impatience in check, she ordered the men nearest, “Push the crowd back, please.”
“All right folks. Give Mrs. Sally room to work.”
There was a grumble and the shuffling of feet over dirt as she parted the lapel and revealed the small round hole in his torso bubbling blood.
The blood pumping from the wound was black. Not good. That meant the bullet had hit the liver. Billy would bleed out into his abdomen. That would spare him the agony of infection, but it wouldn’t spare him death.
Billy grabbed her wrist with bloody fingers. “It’s bad, isn’t it, Mrs. Sally?”
She wanted to lie, but her God forbade her to lie. Even to save the feelings of a boy who’d tried all the wrong ways to become a man. She couldn’t get words to push past her lips, so she just nodded.
From down the street, a woman screamed Billy’s name. Only a mother’s cry could contain that much anguish. It had to be Hazel.
A peculiar calm came over Billy’s face. “I’m dying, aren’t I?”
She could only nod again, tears lodging in a choking ball in her throat. Billy’s eyes focused for a moment when his mother cried his name again. Sally Mae gave Billy what she hoped was an encouraging smile, and buttoned his shirt back up. He looked at her with understanding in his eyes at what that meant. He blinked back tears. She blinked back hers. He coughed. Blood sprayed and ran down his face. She wiped at the streams with her fingers, a stupid effort. Her touch would do nothing to stop this. A wet handkerchief came into her field of vision, along with a pair of knee-high moccasins. Only one man wore moccasins like that. Tucker. She glanced up and accepted the offer.
Tucker wasn’t looking at her. He was looking at Billy and the expression on his face made her want to slap him for not stopping whatever had happened earlier. A foolish notion. Tucker lived by the same code as everyone out here. The one that said a man looking for trouble was probably going to find it. And likely, in his eyes, Billy going into that saloon last night meant he’d been looking for trouble.
As quickly as she could, Sally wiped Billy’s face. There was no way she could get all the blood, but she could at least remove it from the places where it would leave the worst memory for Hazel. Nothing was going to lessen the impact of when Hazel saw her son. Nor her reaction when she realized Sally couldn’t save him. It always went that way with the survivors. First the optimism of hope and then the anger of helplessness. Reaching deep inside, Sally Mae stretched for the strength that would sustain her through Hazel’s grief and her own sense of failure. Her eyes went to Tucker even as her lips formed the prayer.
Please Lord, give me…
Hazel pushed through the crowd, a plain, thin woman with graying hair, a tanned complexion and soft blue eyes. With an inarticulate cry, she dropped to her knees beside her son. Her work-worn hands pushed through his dark brown hair as she drew him to her bosom, cradling his cheek in her palm, her sobs wrenching her shoulders. Sally Mae sat back on her heels and immediately felt the support of Tucker’s strong thighs. She expected him to step away, but he didn’t, and she was glad. For too long, she’d been expected to be strong, independent and steadfast. But in this past year, she’d begun to realize that being self-sufficient, dependable and needing no one was not the ideal place she thought it would be. It was stressful and sometimes scary, but mostly it was very lonely. In a silent thank-you, she pressed back against Tucker’s knees.
He took the blood-soaked handkerchief from her hand. She gave him a shaky smile, not caring if anyone thought anything of it. He was always there for her and though he insisted on being treated like one shunned, she wasn’t doing it anymore. She wouldn’t endanger his life by forcing an open friendship, but she wouldn’t shun him. Friends didn’t do that to friends.
“I thank thee.”
With a nod that sent his hair falling about his face, he stepped aside.
“Do something for him.”
Hazel’s hoarse whisper hammered at her composure. Reluctantly taking her gaze from the calm of Tucker’s, she met Hazel’s anguish with the simple truth that she just couldn’t change. “I can’t.”
“You help criminals. You help bandits. You help dogs, but you won’t help my son?”
In the folds of her skirt, she clenched her hand into a fist. “Thee know I would help him if I could.”
Sally Mae was too slow to prevent Hazel from lifting Billy’s shirt away from his wound. The shirt bunched in Hazel’s hands and she held on as if the tightness of her grip could change reality. “There has to be something you can do.”
“I can pray.”
Hazel didn’t move as the import of those three words sank in. Then she gave a nod so brittle it was inevitable that it shattered into a harsh sob.
Sally knelt in the dirt beside Hazel and placed her hand over one of the other woman’s as she reached inside for the serenity that evaded
her in moments like this. God’s will was God’s will. It was her duty to accept it serenely and to make choices in accordance with his wishes. But looking at a sixteen-year-old boy dying in his mother’s arms? It was very hard to feel serene.
Around her, men took off their hats and women folded their hands. Death was so common here. A boy being shot down in the street elicited no more reaction than that. She seemed to be the only one who couldn’t get used to it.
Dear Lord, grant me the serenity to accept this.
Looking at Billy propped in his mother’s lap, pale and shaking, fresh rivulets of red already flowing over the paths she’d partially wiped away just moments before, she was struck anew by the impossibility of the task she had set for herself. No one should have to accept this. Sally put her hand on Hazel’s shoulder, trying to absorb her grief into her palm as Billy coughed up fresh blood, then sucked air back into his lungs in a short, strangled gasp. The end was almost here.
Looking incredibly young and vulnerable, Billy shaped the words I love you to his mother.
The pain almost took Sally Mae down. Instinct sent her gaze to Tucker. He was watching her, his dark face impassive, his eyes cold. She’d never felt the differences between them so keenly. The corner of his mouth twitched, and though it was illogical, she knew he wasn’t as remote as he would have her believe.
Tucker didn’t lower his head and she didn’t take her gaze from his as she recited the Lord’s Prayer. As the prayer ended, a woman in the back began singing “Amazing Grace.” For the purity of the tone, Sally Mae knew it was Alma Hitchell, Dwight Hitchell, the saloon owner’s, wife. Sally Mae always wondered how Alma, a deeply religious woman, reconciled her beliefs with her husband’s profession. As the notes of the hymn slowed around her, Sally Mae closed her eyes and added a private prayer to the public one.
Please grant us all the serenity to accept this.
“What happened?” Roger, the town’s newly-appointed sheriff, came to a stop a few feet away, startling Sally Mae into opening her eyes. Inevitably, he started shifting his weight from foot to foot. Sally Mae knew if she looked up from where she knelt, he’d have his thumbs stuck in his vest pockets, looking down his nose at everyone. As if he had a right. The only reason he’d gotten to be sheriff was because the appointment had occurred over a drinking match. And the only reason the appointment had stood was because everyone thought he would have been shot dead long before now.
“Billy got himself shot,” Dwight offered.
The wording grated on her nerves. Billy hadn’t wanted to be shot. All he’d wanted to do was walk into that saloon and prove he was a man to the men he admired. And all he’d ended up proving was that he could bleed like the rest of them.
“Kids his age have no judgment,” Peter interjected. The fingers of Sally Mae’s free hand curled into a fist. The ones with no judgment were the men who’d accepted Billy’s challenge when they should have sent him home. They probably even thought it made them big and tough to kill a young boy whose only flaw was wanting to grow up too fast. And looking between Hazel, rocking her dying son in her arms, and the crowd standing witness, she knew something else. Tonight, tomorrow, maybe the next day, there’d be another knock at her door and another call for her to help another person who’d been shot. The cycle would continue round and round, death begetting death, death begetting hate. In the end, only the undertaker would profit, but no one seemed to see how pointless it all was. How much better they would do if they worked together.
Pushing to her feet, Sally Mae brushed at the blood smearing the dark gray material of her dress. Some came off on her fingers, but the stain didn’t diminish.
Please, Lord, give me…
The words stuttered to a halt in her mind. The murmur of voices rose to a cacophony in her mind, shattering her concentration. She blinked and looked around. No one seemed bothered by the noise other than her. The noise continued to rise until it became an accusing roar that only she could hear, a roar she couldn’t block out. Brushing at her skirt again she took a step back. She couldn’t pray here. She couldn’t think here. She couldn’t be here. Turning on her heel, she headed toward
home, ignoring the few who called after her, blinking as tears burned over her stiff skin.
Someone stepped into her path. She shouldered past. The scent of leather, sage and man followed, telling her whose hand grazed hers, whose fingers managed a discreet squeeze. Tucker again. Tucker, who’d showed her such tenderness last night. Tucker, who, if he’d been in town instead of being with her, would have slipped into the violence that had taken Billy as naturally as he took his next breath. She didn’t squeeze his fingers back, didn’t hold onto his handjust let it fall behind. She kept walking until she reached the door of her house. Behind her there was a scream of anguish. Her fingers tightened on the handle before she opened the door and slipped into the peace of her home.
The scent of lemon, wax and the faintest hint of carbolic surrounded her in a weak greeting. Lyle called to her from the sickroom. She ignored him as she climbed the stairs. In her bedroom, she knelt down, folded her hands and prayed. For Billy. For his family. For an end to the violence, but mostly she prayed to forget how her husband had looked as she’d last seen him. The hole between his eyes had looked too innocuous to have stolen the intelligence and life that had been there. And then she prayed again, because it was too easy to see Tucker’s face superimposed over her husband’s, to see him coming to the same violent end.
Please Lord, give me the strength.
Tucker watched from beneath his hat brim as Sally Mae strode down the street. Those slight shoulders were squared, but he knew she was crying, knew she felt the boy’s fate keenly. Hazel’s wail announced Billy’s last breath as Sally Mae opened the door to her house. The shadows of the porch emphasized the slump in her posture when she thought she was safe from prying eyes. He ached to follow her, to take the burden from her, to hold her. He was her lover. He should be there with her, comforting her, not standing on the fringes of the crowd listening to a lot of people grumbling about a lot of things they’d never work up the courage to do.
Someone brought a sheet and put it over the kid’s face. Hazel sobbed and traced the silhouette of his profile through the worn material with hands that shook. Her oldest boy, he’d heard someone say.
“They just shot him down,” he heard Old Jed tell the sheriff. “The kid came in this morning and bellied up to the bar. Everyone knew it was his first time. No one expected trouble. The loco next to him said something to him. The kid looked surprised and, faster than you could blink, the no-account just shot him.”
“Did you see who he was?”
“I think he was one of Tejala’s old gang, but I can’t be sure.”
“Soon as he fired, he lit out of here.”
“No point going after them then,” the sheriff huffed.
“He killed my son,” Hazel snapped. “It’s your job to bring him to justice.”
The sheriff straightened to his full height. “It’s my job to keep the peace, not to get good men killed chasing shadows, which is all Tejala’s men would be.
“Damn you for being a coward!”
“Here now! Watch what you say.”
Hazel glanced at the sheriff. “I know exactly what I’m saying and who I’m saying it to.”
So did Tucker, and he couldn’t blame the woman. He also couldn’t blame the sheriff. The man was a coward and his appointment a joke gone bad, but that being the case, a body couldn’t do much. Especially against Tejala’s gang, which was becoming a bit of a problem. With Tejala now dead, they’d all struck out on their own, but pickings were sparse for so many rival efforts and the fighting over leadership left everyone going no place fast. Dangerous men with no outlet and no money often found negative ways to amuse themselves to the point that Tucker would almost be glad if the gang did get another leader. Then, rather than putting out wildfires in different directions, the law could focus their peacekeeping in one spot.
“What are you going to do about this, Ranger?”
He’d wondered how long it would take for someone to remember he was a Texas Ranger. He pushed his hat back. “I think I’ll get a description and maybe do a little hunting.”
Hazel looked around, her face ravaged with grief, her voice dripping with sarcasm, and asked, “Are any of you brave men who stood by while my son got shot going with him?”
Tucker couldn’t blame the men for hesitating. They had families to worry about. Retribution to fear.
“Your little boy bellied up to the bar like a man and a man takes his chances,” one of the newer residents countered.
Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t, Tucker thought, but picking on a kid was low, in anybody’s book.
“I’ll go,” Old Jed said.
Jed had been a force to reckon with in his day, but his joints were rheumy now and his health fragile. The one thing Tucker didn’t need was the old man’s death on his conscience.
“No offense, ma’am,” he said to Hazel, touching his finger to the brim of his hat, “but I want to catch him before he reaches his friends. A man can sneak up on his quarry a lot easier when he’s not dragging a posse along.”
Hazel’s expression tightened. “But you will catch up with him?”
He looked at Billy, still holding his mother’s hand with his death grip, blood staining his cheeks. Hell, the kid hadn’t even sprouted whiskers yet. Hunting for Ari was going to have to wait until this debt was settled. “I’ll make it a point.”