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A Truce for Love

When Mia and Carson first laid eyes on each other, their hearts skipped a beat. They never suspected that this would not be the only rush of adrenaline they would feel.

Mia Carter feels finally free. She can unburden her family while at the same time, find a loving home with her brother, Jonas, and his family. Or so she thinks.

Her new town, Tombstone, is in a gang war and Jonas’s poker hall is right in the middle!

Unable to refuse his cry for help, Mia will find herself caught between the Powells, Dodds, and Dooleys’ fight for dominance.

Little did she know, while she gets closer to Carson, that he is the leader of the Powells Gang.

As the truth will be quickly revealed, Mia will be left heartbroken, and Carson shattered by her detachment.

But with the Dooleys’ deadly threat approaching, Mia, Jonas, and Carson will agree in a never before truce, solely intended for fighting the common enemy. But in this case, the road to love is paved with these intentions

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

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Chapter One

Mia

The stagecoach from Oatman turned onto the main street of Tombstone, the hooves of the team clopping on the rutted ground. Mia Carter looked out at the dusty, noonday streets, which the Arizona sun beat down upon mercilessly. The stores all appeared to be open, but there were few people out at this hour.

When the stagecoach pulled in at the stop, Mia looked across the street and gasped. Three men were tussling in the dirt. It appeared that the fight was two against one. Two of the men were dressed all in black—long coats, dark hats, and high black boots. Their opponent was a red-haired man, dressed in a white shirt and brown homespun pants, held up by suspenders. One of the two men in black threw a punch at their opponent’s face, knocking him backwards. The second man stomped on the man who had fallen. The red-haired man was quick to roll over and out of the way of the man’s boot, which had a glinting spur attached to it.

“Oh!” Mia exclaimed, her hand going to her mouth. She watched, horrified by the wanton display of violence, right before her eyes, and in broad daylight, no less. The red-haired man got to his feet, throwing a punch at one of the men in black, whose hat fell off, rolling away down the road.

The driver of the stagecoach jumped off  the box, and tied the horses to a hitching rail. He was a middle-aged man, with a thick beard, and bright blue eyes.

“Stay in here while I break them apart,” he muttered. Mia nodded, staying put. She wondered where the sheriff was, and whether she should run to fetch him. She gripped the edge of the coach window, watching.

The driver ran across the street. He pulled the red-haired man and one of the other men apart, yelling at them. The red-haired man’s lip was split, and bright blood dripped down his chin. He was good-looking, his five o’clock shadow dusting his face with gold. Mia thought that she might have been interested in him if he wasn’t clearly such a rabble-rouser. He had the beginning of a nasty bruise on his cheek, just below his one of his bright green eyes.

“Get ahold of yourselves!” the driver bellowed, pushing the red-haired man away from the others. “No reason to be fighting like this.”

“Get out of our town, Powell,” one of the men in black snapped.

“It’s as much mine as anyone else’s,” Powell, of the green eyes, sneered.

“Move along,” the driver said, insinuating himself in the middle, with one arm against Powell’s chest, his hand grabbing a fistful of his shirt. One of the dark-clothed men said something vile, Powell strode off, and then the two men in black turned away. The driver stood watching them make their way toward the Bird Cage Theater. Mia could see its sign from where she sat. She knew, without anyone telling her—it was a house of ill-repute. Jonas had met his wife there. Lily had been a dancer. It caused quite the stir with Mia’s mother, back when the marriage took place. Even recently, Mia’s mother still muttered to herself about her son going to Tombstone to get rich on silver, and instead making deals with devils.

“Here, miss,” the driver said, opening the door for her and smiling. He seemed a kindly sort. “I’ll get your bags down from the boot.”

“Thank you, kindly,” she murmured, stepping down out of the stagecoach. The heels of her half-boots crunched on the hard-packed gravel of the road. As she waited, she smoothed out the long cotton skirt of her dress. It had a simple pattern of blue flowers on a brown background. She wore her apron, despite not working that day—for once. Most days held work and more work, ever since she and her mother had opened a boarding house in Oatman. It was just such a part of her daily wardrobe that she’d feel strange without it.

She adjusted her bonnet, a simple straw one, and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. Her hair, so dark that it was nearly black, was in a single braid that hung all the way down her back. She’d turned twenty years old, just last spring.

She looked down at her hands, which were roughly calloused, from scrubbing floors, and scouring dirty pots and pans with sand and ash. Pulling a pair of soft cotton gloves out of her pockets, she tugged them on. Ordinarily, she’d have gone without them, but she was out and about, and wanted to look reputable.

The driver handed Mia her bags. She suddenly realized that she had no idea where she was going.

“Do you know where Carter’s Gambling Hall is?” she asked the driver, feeling silly for not knowing. He looked surprised for a moment, and Mia realized that he thought that she was going there to gamble. “My brother owns it. I’m to find him there,” she explained, watching as the surprise left his face. He nodded.

“Just down the street aways,” he said, pointing her in the right direction.

“Thank you, sir.”

He tipped his dusty hat. “Have a good day, miss. And good luck.”

“What do I need luck for?” she asked, frowning.

“Tombstone’s the very definition of the Wild West,” he explained, gesturing down the street with his chin. “Lots of dangerous sorts.” Mia looked in the direction that he was pointing, to see that a Black Maria was approaching. The ornate black hearse was pulled by two sleek black horses. Inside the glassed-in wagon lay a pine box. “It goes by at least once every day.”

“Why so many deaths?” Mia asked. After all, Oatman’s own Black Maria was busy itself—the mines were a dangerous place, taking many lives all of the time. But Tombstone didn’t have a mine. It was mostly a waystation for people traveling through.

“Fights, mostly. It may be eighteen ninety-four, but this here ain’t no civilized town. The Black Maria of Tombstone is the busiest hearse in the country for a reason.” Mia watched the hearse turn the corner, on its way to Boothill Cemetery, just outside of the town. No one followed the hearse, indicating that the person inside had no one mourning him.

“Thanks for the advice,” she told the driver. “I’m here to live with my brother. He’ll take care of me.”

He nodded, but looked doubtful. “You might want him to teach you how to use a weapon, miss. You never know when a boot knife might come in handy.”

“I’ll talk to my brother about it,” she said, nodding her thanks.

Mia began to walk toward her brother’s gambling hall, feeling unsettled. The people who were out were all walking quickly—rushing to get back inside. It was the hottest part of the day, hot even on the shaded the wooden boardwalk, covered by a porch roof, all of the way down the street. No one paid her any mind. She glanced back to see that the driver was watching, to make sure that she got to her brother safely. He raised his hat to her, and she nodded. She began to walk faster.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she noticed her own last name on the sign. Carter’s Gambling Hall. Established 1892. It was a building of dark red brick, with a green door and shutters to match.

She entered to find it crowded, with men sitting around the tables, playing cards and drinking. The bar was crowded, too, with dusty-looking men. It was noisy with many conversations. She didn’t see a single woman, until she spotted a few, crowded around several of the men who sat at the tables. They were wearing brightly colored gowns, which were low-cut. Her eyes traveled the room, searching for Jonas. She finally spotted him: her brother was leaning against the bar, looking down at his hand, which he was flexing.

“Jonas!” Mia called out, excited to see him again. It had been two years since they were last together. After all, he was a business owner, husband, and a new father. He didn’t have the time to come out to Oatman.

He looked up, his eyes wide, as though expecting someone else. A wide grin spread across his face as he realized that it was his sister.

“Mia!” he said, ambling over to her with his usual easy stride. He was dressed in smart black slacks and a crisp, white shirt, with a black vest. He had a cigarette between his teeth.

“What happened to you?” Mia asked as she noticed the cut across his cheek, and the way that he was cradling his hand. It looked swollen. He took the cigarette out of his mouth with his uninjured hand, throwing it to the floor as he exhaled a cloud of smoke away from his sister.

“This?” he asked, holding up his injured hand. “This is nothing.” He frowned then  placed a hand on her shoulder. “You’ve made it! It’s good to see you.”

“You too,” she said. “Thanks for letting me come to stay with you.”

“Of course! Anything for you, Mia, love.” Behind him, a few of the men watched their exchange.

“Hey! Jonas!” one of them called. He was a heavy-set man, with a face that was pink from drinking and walking around out in the sun. Jonas whirled to face him. “Who’s this, then?” The man gestured towards Mia curiously.

“This is my sister, Nash,” Jonas replied. “And she’s a good girl. Which means that she’s off-limits, for all of you thugs.” Mia heard the dangerous tone come into Jonas’s voice—the one that he used when he meant business. She wondered what kind of a look was on his face—he was clearly frightening Nash.

The man held up his hands. “I meant no offense,” he claimed.

“So you say,” Jonas replied coolly. He turned back to Mia, reaching out with his uninjured hand. “Let me take your bags. I’ll get you home so you can get settled in.”

“Thank you,” she said, handing him one of her bags. “I can manage the other.” Jonas tugged it away from her, nonetheless. She followed him out the door and back into the heat. He traveled along the roofed boardwalk, and down the street. Mia felt like she was spinning, but she walked quickly to match his pace. Already, Tombstone was proving to be a force of its own, one which had changed her brother—made him hard. She wondered if it would have the same effect on her.

“So, this here’s Tombstone,” Jonas said grandly. “City of kings. Speck of dust. Blink of an eye.” He was talking quickly, filling up the silence with a barrage of words. “How was your journey?”

“Not bad. Mama sends her love.”

“And the boys?” he asked, referring to their younger brothers—the twins, John and Elias, who were twelve.

“Rambunctious as ever.” They were walking past small houses, just off the main street. Jonas laughed as he turned into the yard of a neat white clapboard house with a tiny porch on the front. Jonas opened the door, calling out for his wife as he held it open for Mia.

Inside, the little house was darkened. The shades were all drawn, to keep out the heat of mid-May. Everything in there was really nice and new. The house was clean. Clearly, Jonas was doing pretty well for himself. Lily came down the hallway, emerging from the darkness. She was a beautiful woman, with blonde hair and large blue eyes, dressed in a rich gown of dark blue shiny material. Mia immediately felt ordinary beside her. Lily didn’t look like a woman who ran around at everyone’s beck and call. She folded her arms over her chest.

“Hello,” Lily said coolly. She didn’t smile. Mia was taken aback by Lily’s standoffishness.

“It’s nice to finally meet you,” Mia said kindly. When Lily said nothing, she asked, “How are you?”

“Well enough, I suppose,” she replied, her eyes going to Jonas’s cut, and his hand. Mia watched her face fall into a frown. “Again, Jonas?” she snapped, to Mia’s surprise.

“Lily, please,” Jonas replied tiredly—as if this was a discussion that they’d already had. He looked at Mia. “Lily will help you get settled. I am needed back at the hall.” He smiled at her, wrapping her into an embrace. Mia hugged her brother back. “It’s good to have you here. I’ve missed you, sister.”

Mia smiled up at her brother. “And I, you.” She’d missed him these past two years—more than she could admit. She was glad that they could get back to their close brother-sister relationship.

“I’ll be back later tonight.” Jonas then left the house without another word. When the door closed after him, Mia glanced over at Lily, who was staring at her. Mia wondered if she’d done something to offend Lily, but couldn’t think of a single thing, aside from the fact that she was quite rumpled and dusty after her journey.

Lily turned back toward the depths of the house, calling over her shoulder, “This way. And be quiet. I’ve finally gotten the baby to sleep.” Mia followed Lily, feeling distinctly as though she was a trespasser in her brother’s home.

To calm herself, she reminded herself that Lily didn’t know her. Once she did, then perhaps, she’d be a bit kinder. After all, Mia had never had any enemies before. She’ll warm up, she thought.

Chapter Two

Carson

After the coach driver had broken up his fight against Otis and Morgan Redford, Carson Powell made his way toward Big Nose Kate’s Saloon. When he got there, he unhitched his horse and slung a leg over the saddle. He felt worked up, on the prowl for someone on whom to take out the rest of his ire. The last time that he was kicked out of Kate’s, she’d said that it’d be his last fight—or else it would be his last drink at her bar. One thing Carson knew—any day that he had one fight, another was fixing to happen.

He wiped the blood off his chin as he rode his horse, Colt. He knew that what he needed more than a drink was to just go on home. So, he rode onward out of the town, and down the road towards the Powell ranch. The sun beat down on him, burning his bare arms. The blood on his chin mixed with his sweat, making his lip burn. Blood and sweat soaked into his dusty shirt. Everything he wore was always dusty: his cowboy hat, riding boots, leather chaps.

He gingerly felt his nose as he rode. It was crooked after all the fights he’d been in, but today had not added any fresh injuries to it.

Carson Powell had lived in Tombstone for all of his twenty-three years. He lived on his family’s ranch, just outside of town, with his father, his two brothers, and his three sisters. Their mother had died giving birth to Cass, his youngest sister. Carson had been twelve at the time. After his wife’s death, John Powell had never remarried—he’d always told his children that Elaine had been the love of his life. Indeed, no one had ever suggested that he remarry. Carson and his two brothers had worked beside their father, taking over the ranch when he’d gotten to the point where he couldn’t work any longer. The three Powell brothers had recently been able to expand the ranch, growing quite successful by breeding Criollo cattle.

By the time he’d untacked his horse, rubbed him down and turned him loose, Carson felt spent. He’d been up before the sun, getting work done. He trudged to the house, looking forward to a nice sit down in the cool quiet of the kitchen. He’d have some water, and then maybe a little whiskey. That should do him just fine.

When he opened the door, though, his three sisters were all sitting in the front parlor. He knew—he looked like he’d just been in a fight, and he was about to get it.

“Carson!” Rebecca said, standing up. Mary and Cass followed. “Have you been fighting again?” She tried to grab his chin, but he squirmed out of the way, stepping aside. He knew that he was disappointing her—he’d never been like this in his younger years.

“You have!” Cass declared. All three of them had their hands on their hips. He glanced behind them for his father. He didn’t see him, but that didn’t mean that his father was out of earshot.

“Why can’t you just walk away?” Mary asked. All of his sisters had the Powell strawberry blonde hair and green eyes.

“It wasn’t that simple,” Carson said—it never was. But it also wasn’t his fault. He needed to fight back. He couldn’t afford to look weak.

“It’s men,” Mary told the other two. “They just can’t leave it be.” They all nodded as one, as if this was the answer for everything. Their combined, withering looks of disapproval set Carson’s blood boiling.

“Can’t a man get a moment’s peace?” Carson grumbled angrily, finding himself at the center of a female mob of crinoline and disappointment. He wondered what it would be like had their mother lived—a larger mob, likely.

“You said you were going to stop,” Rebecca said.

“You said that the last time,” Mary added.

“And the time before that,” Cass had to include, rolling her eyes.

Carson huffed, and folded his arms over his chest. They were like a bunch of hens, always pecking at him, always chiding him for his behavior. He knew—no matter what he said, they weren’t going to listen. They were already talking, all at once.

“What are we going to do with you?” Rebecca asked as she grabbed his chin. She was trying to get a good look at the cut on his lip. She made a tutting noise as she shook her head.

“Did he knock any teeth loose?” Mary asked.

“Doesn’t look it,” Rebecca murmured. Carson squirmed out of her iron grip. He tried to do the breathing and the counting—One, two, three, he thought. The worst part about this was that he was disappointed in himself—the one person he couldn’t get away from.

“ALL RIGHT,” he yelled, still worked up from the fight and the long, hot ride home. “I’M GOING OUT.” He stormed through the house, and out the back door, letting it slam shut behind him. Before he knew it, he’d made it out to the barn. It was cool and dark in there, and the cow and calf he was keeping an eye on were quiet. For a few moments, he stood, listening to their snuffling, shuffling noises. There was nowhere more calming than the barn.

He exhaled then grabbed a shovel. He began to muck out brood mare stalls. He fell to his work, letting the rhythm and effort take over.

He’d been fighting pretty often of late—in the past three years, he’d broken his nose, survived a grazing shot to the arm, and dislocated his shoulder. He knew that his sisters were tired of patching him up. He knew that every time the doctor’s errand boy came to the door with news, they expected him to deliver word of Carson’s demise.

Carson and his brothers had started the Powell gang three years before and, ever since, their days were filled with running the ranch and gang activities. It was necessary, he knew. If they didn’t stick up for themselves, then no one would—after all, that no-good, lazy sheriff wouldn’t ever lift a finger to do a thing. Dandridge was good friends with whoever lined his pockets—that included the Redfords, and probably the Dooleys, as well.

Carson finished cleaning out the stalls, and laid down some fresh straw, before bringing in two mares close to foaling. Once he was done, he washed up in the basin out behind the house. Blood and dirt stained the water rust-colored. Hair wet and dripping down his back, he snuck inside the house, making his way upstairs to his room, where he pulled on fresh clothing. Afterwards, he found the rest of the Powell gang in the kitchen. His two brothers, Chase and Connell, sat at the table with the three locals who made up the rest of the gang: Jack Young, Will Godfrey, and Harlan Stockton. They were all drinking whiskey and playing cards, as they were wont to do.

“Hey,” Chase said, looking up from his hand with a wicked grin. “Heard from the girls that you got in another fight.” Chase had the same red hair as the other Powells.

“Yeah. I ran into Otis and Morgan Redford out in town,” Carson explained, pouring himself a shot of whiskey.

“Did you given ‘em a run for their money?” Connell asked, raising an eyebrow. He was the only one of the Powell clan with their mother’s dark hair and gray eyes.

“I did my best,” Carson said. The Redfords were the only other local gang. Hypothetically, they were all against the Dooleys, who came into town every few months, stealing cattle and horses. However, the Powells and the Redfords bickered often, fighting over who reigned supreme in Tombstone.

Jack Young gathered up the cards as they finished their game. He began to shuffle them. The cards were worn, overused. It was almost a miracle that the men could even see what was on them.

“Why don’t we go out?” Carson suggested, thinking of the crisp, new cards that Carter’s Gambling Hall always had. “Go back to the gambling hall.” He was also thinking of the nice, top shelf whiskey.

“All right,” Will said, popping up and out of his seat. “I’m in.” The others all got up, not saying anything, their actions speaking for them. They put their guns into their holsters, finished up their drinks.

The sun was finally beginning to dip behind the mountains as the Powell gang rode into town. Carson felt rejuvenated, wide awake—and fixing for a fight.

“I heard that Penny Lane is going to be on at the Bird Cage tonight,” Will announced as he adjusted his shirt collar. Will loved the ladies more than they loved him. He had a baby face, and could only speak to them when he had liquid courage flowing through his veins.

“Penny Lane, Penny Lane,” Carson sung. “My heart is all for Penny Lane.” He was teasing his friend, but he wouldn’t have minded having a girl of his own. He figured that he just hadn’t met her yet.

“Penny wants your money, young Will,” Jack said sagely. “She doesn’t want anything to do with your heart.” Jack was the one that the ladies loved. He had deep blue eyes, thick black hair, and a devil-may-care smile.

“A man can dream, can’t he?” Will muttered stubbornly. “There’s no woman more beautiful in all of Tombstone.”

“What about Miss Sadie?” Jack asked, his eyes wide and innocent, despite the fact that he knew the dangers of courting Mrs. Sadie Redford.

“Oh, no. She’s in love with Mr. Redford,” Carson said. “I wouldn’t mess with him unless I wanted to get myself a one-way trip to Boothill in the Black Maria.”

They rode along, joking, until they entered the streets of Tombstone. Now that the sun was lowering, the streets were crowded with people. Carson kept his eyes peeled, looking for any one of the Powell gang’s many enemies. He saw no one, only Sherriff Dandridge, who was giving them all a dirty look. The Powells never gave him any money. They’d all agreed—the sheriff was already taking a paycheck from the town.

The gang hitched their horses in front of Carter’s Gambling Hall. The moment they set foot inside, the room went quiet. Jonas Carter, the proprietor, walked over to them.

“You’re holding your hand funny, Jonas,” Carson pointed out, noting that the hand in question was being held close to Jonas’s chest. He was cradling it—and it looked swollen, and purple-tinged.

“I thought we talked about this,” Jonas replied sternly. “You cheat and cause fights.”

“We’ll be good, we promise,” Jack said.

“Please Jonas,” Harlan begged with mock seriousness. “I promised my mother I wouldn’t go to the Bird Cage no more.” They all laughed. Harlan’s mother was one of the most fearsome women in all of Tombstone. She’d run her own farm, all by herself, after Harlan’s father had been killed in a fight twenty years before.

“We’ll behave ourselves,” Carson promised, looking Jonas in the eye. “Our money’s as good as that Nash’s over yonder.” He cut his eyes over in Nash’s direction. He was the town drunk, parked at the bar, as he always was. Jonas exhaled loudly. Carson knew one thing about Jonas—he couldn’t afford to turn people away. He’d married Lily Longmire about a year and some change before. Everyone knew that she was a woman of expensive tastes. He’d seen their house in town—it was really nice, all fitted up with fancy curtains and a nice white paint job.

Jonas glared at them fiercely, as if attempting to place the fear of God in them. “You can stay,” he said at last, pointing at them with his good hand. “But keep to yourselves, and play fair.”

“We promise,” Carson said, holding his hands up. Jonas nodded, but his face was dark. It was a bad day when you crossed Jonas Carter. After all, there was a reason Lily agreed to marry him, and it wasn’t only because of the money. Jonas was a scary man when angry. They’d never been in a fight before, but Carson felt like they were about equals.

“You’re a good man, Jonas!” Carson clapped him on the back as he passed. He heard Jonas mutter something. Carson let it drop—now that he was out, he felt good. The night could go anywhere from here. The Powell gang occupied its own table that was located toward the back of the hall, and started up a game of poker. Carson shuffled, enjoying the feel of the brand-new cards in his hands, which were rough from work.

Sully, Jonas’s bartender, brought them a round of drinks. Carson threw back his whiskey, pointing at his glass to order another. They all sat quietly, playing cards, ignoring everyone else. For a while, they played intently, ordering round after round of whiskey. Carson lost track of how many he’d had, and time began to blur deliciously. He drummed his fingers on the table, without thinking.

“Penny Lane, Penny Lane,” Will sang awkwardly. The gang laughed, and he looked around at them, wide-eyed. “Please, can we go? I’d like to make her my wife, you know.”

“Your mother would love her,” Jack said. “A real church-going lady, that one.”

“If Rebecca hears that we’ve gone to the Cage again, we’ll really be hearing about it,” Chase said, shaking his head sadly. Their sister had tried talking them into avoiding the place.

“What Rebecca doeshn’t know won’t hurt her,” Carson slurred. He felt all of the tension leave his body. He had a really good hand. “I’m all in.”

Chase sighed. “I’m out of money.”

“Offer me something good, and I’ll let you play your hand,” Carson replied magnanimously.

“How about a day’s worth of chores?”

“Done deal,” Carson said. The only time he ever had a day off, was when Carson was sick. Chase set his hand down, showing his three fives and two sevens. “Not bad. However…” He set down his four queens proudly.

“Damn,” Chase muttered as the entire gang laughed.

“You shouldn’t play when you’re out of money, son.” Connell laughed, throwing his head back. It was a common occurrence when Chase would attempt to play without any money left.

“Let me know when you want that day,” Chase said.

“Will do.” Carson beamed. He was going to cash in on it very soon. All of these late nights, combined with the early mornings, were really taking a toll. He thought about sleeping late, and then coming into town for lunch.

Jack’s eyes widened as he looked at someone entering the gambling hall. “Will you look at who’s just arrived?” he said, his lips parting in a wicked grin. Carson turned to see five of the Redfords.

They were all talking to Jonas, and ordering drinks. They hadn’t noticed the Powells. If they had, then they’d be giving them hundred-yard glares. Instead, they were at their leisure, easy grins on their faces. Carson felt anger rise within him—after all, Jonas was talking to them like they were old friends. So the Redfords were welcome here, but not the Powells?

“How come they don’t get the third degree when they come in?” Harlem muttered.

Carson tried to feel it—the thing that would stop him from going after the Redfords—hesitation, that is. It wasn’t there. He’d had quite a bit to drink, and it had erased all of his already-low inhibitions. He stood up, throwing back his drink. All of the other Powells watched him, wide grins on their faces. Carson laughed to himself and then turned to the Redfords.

“Hey! Redford!” he yelled. “Heard that your mother got a job at the Bird Cage! Heard she’s got quite the following of gentleman callers.” The rest of the Powells hooted and cackled at the joke.

Otis Redford, when he saw who it was, grinned slowly. His eyes were dark, almost black. His brother, Morgan, and the other Redford gang members didn’t wait for him; they just ran in Carson’s direction. The Powells all stood up, hot and ready for a fight. Chairs fell back as they moved.  Suddenly, the two gangs were a mass of tangled bodies.

One moment, Carson was throwing a punch at Otis Redford’s face, and then the next moment, someone was pulling him up and off Otis. He struggled against the person in his attempt to get at Otis. He turned to find Sully, the bar tender, holding his arms.

“Lemme go!” he snapped. Sully didn’t respond, just started to walk him out.

“Get out!” Jonas yelled. He was shoving Morgan Redford in the direction of the door. Jonas and his men forced them all out of the hall. The fight was over as quickly as it had begun.

Carson, suddenly freed, spat blood out of his mouth. He glared at Jonas.

“I don’t want any of you back here,” Jonas said. He was white with anger—and maybe pain from that hand that he was clearly favoring.

“Jonas,” Carson said, searching in his drink-addled mind for something to smooth things over.

Jonas glared at him. “No. Stay away.” Jonas went back inside his establishment, slamming the door after him.

Otis Redford grinned at Carson. He looked barely ruffled by the fight. And those strange dark eyes gleamed in the darkness. Carson was reminded of a wolf, or a coyote—he had feral eyes. He tilted his head to the side, raising his hat in a salute to Carson.

“Until next time,” Otis said, laughing and turning away. The man sounded completely sober. All of the Redford gang followed him without a word, each of them shooting the Powells dark looks. Carson tried to come up with something smart, to start another fight, but he’d been knocked on the temple. He felt … jangly, like his head wasn’t screwed on quite right. He wiped the blood at his lip, which has been split open again. It smarted, and had acquired a heartbeat of its own.

“Lesh head on home, guys,” he mumbled, his words slurred from alcohol and injury. He held out a hand to help Will get up. Will stumbled, giggling drunkenly.

“No, not yet,” he said. “Penny—”

“I think we’re done for the night, Will,” Carson insisted. Already, he felt shame for what he’d done. While his sisters were likely to be in bed, he knew that he’d acted like a thug. He deserved whatever disappointment would be meted out.

The night sky was dark, the sun having disappeared entirely while they were in the gambling hall. They fumbled with ropes, untying their horses, heaving themselves into their saddles, nudging boot heels into flanks to get their sleepy mounts to move out. There was a cool breeze, and the moon was a bright sliver. In the distance, coyotes howled. It sounded like they’d found their prey, and were likely surrounding it.

The Powell gang began their ride home. Carson made a fist, finding that his hand was unable to curl up all of the way. It felt swollen. He shook it, wondering how much longer it would be able to put up with his nightly fights.

There had been a time when Carson rarely fought anyone. He’d been good, and he wondered where that man had gone, seemingly forced away by the necessity of fighting to protect what was his. He wondered if that man was gone forever—that he’d become this violent entity, fighting at the drop of a hat. He felt like he’d lost the person that he’d been. After all, he’d stopped going to church. He’d stopped believing that if you acted like a goodly person, you got any kind of reward. In order to protect those who were good, you had to fight.

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