Arizona Territory, 1881
The mid-September sun seemed to breathe its heat as it shone unmercifully upon the quiet and dusty streets of Tombstone, Arizona. The unbearable heat was not unusual for the last days of summer, yet folks seemed to think that September should bring relief, instead of more of the same hot, dry, dusty conditions that made merely existing seem like a chore for the most hardy of men. Not even a cool drink of water under the shade of a low hanging roofline could provide respite for a perspiring pedestrian or diminish the hot rays of the ball of fire slowly slipping toward the western horizon. For this reason, the streets of Tombstone were unnaturally quiet.
While ladies endeavored to relax in their homes or on their covered porches, most men took to the saloons where it was believed that a game of cards or a drink of whisky might help get their minds off the heat and their boredom. For a young man out to prove himself, a saloon was the perfect place to look for a fight. For a more content man who had no need to prove his worth, the porch of the Sheriff’s Office was the perfect place to gab the day away, but for Gage Colton, those quiet and dusty streets of Tombstone were a source of information on that lazy day in mid-September.
After his father’s untimely death, he had made the necessary arrangements, as best he could; kissed his daughter; and left the Colton ranch to try to find the man who was responsible for the aching grief that plagued his every waking thought and even his dreams.
To a casual observer, Jeb’s murder had appeared to be an accident at best, or at worst, a suicide. However, Gage was no casual observer; he was a man who had seen his fair share of death by gunshot, and this was definitely a murder.
It had seemed like hours, but only a few moments had passed between the echo of a gunshot and his riding up to find his father lying prone on the ground, revolver in his right hand with a widening stain of crimson darkening his shirt front. He had quickly dismounted and went to his father’s side, calling out to him, but even before Jeb spoke in a labored whisper, Gage new it was too late.
“I don’t think I ever seen him before.”
“Did you get a good look at him?” he had asked, wishing for something to do.
“Sure did,” Jeb had gasped, trying to suck in enough air. “He was Indian, I think.” Then, with a final sigh, he whispered so soft that Gage almost missed it, “Just a kid.”
The next couple of days had seemed to fly by with so much activity that nothing really made sense except his father’s last words and the knowledge that an Indian kid was out there, running from a crime that he had tried to cover up by making it look like another’s.
Memorizing the prints made by the killer’s horse, Gage said his goodbyes and left. The Colton ranch lay near the Rio Grande, and, due to the hard work of panning for gold in California, was something of which to be proud of. But, shouldering the responsibility of managing such a large spread would just have to wait. The deceased rancher’s eldest son was not certain why he left to follow the trail of the fast gun that had ended his father’s life, but trail him he did.
Years ago, he might have been on the gunman’s trail, so as to silence the kid, forever, but not anymore. He was now a Christian, and even though he was not quite sure what he would do when he found his father’s killer, he knew he was not bringing harm to the man.
He had been in nearly every town since San Antonio, and the information he’d gathered, so far, was not much to go on. Besides killing Jeb Colton, the half-breed gunman was reported to have killed two card cheats down in Mexico and a bartender in San Antone, and rumor was that the kid was very fast and deadly accurate. Speculation was that the kid was still looking for someone, but as for whom, well, no one seemed to know.
When he had asked around, folks had differing opinions on the kid’s appearance. Some said he was over six feet tall with long hair and a beard. Some thought he was little and scrawny with greasy hair and an ill-kept appearance. Mostly, however, no one really knew what the man looked like; they all said he was a young, Indian brave who either never spoke, or had very little to say for himself.
And now, after being in Tombstone for nearly two days, no one seemed to have any more ideas as to the kid’s whereabouts than he did. However, he was no less determined than when he had started out on this quest down in Texas. Figuring it was time to move on; he had just decided to go back to his hotel to pack his saddlebags, when he overheard a conversation between two men that attracted his immediate attention.
“Hey, Harry,” one of the men asked, “What was ye a-thankin’ ’bout, callin’ that kid out like that? I mean, seein’ as how he ain’t done nothin’ to ye, reck’n ye ain’t got no reason to kill ’em.”
“No reason to kill ’em!” the other man exclaimed in outrage. “Why, I reck’n his bein’ an Injun what thinks he’s gooder’n us white folks is good enough reason, Bob! I’m gonna kill ’em tomorra. Jest ye wait and see!”
“But I heard he’s a real fast gun and don’t never miss what he aims at. What if’n…?”
Harry did not allow his brother to finish. “How bad can it be, Bob? I mean, come on! He’s just a kid and a breed at that! I’ll have him dead afore ye kin blink an eye. Now, are we gonna git inside outta this heat and play a game-a cards ‘r stand out here and chit-chat all afternoon?”
In an instant, Gage recognized the twosome standing in front of the Silver Dollar Saloon. Both men had shown up at a time in his life that he did not care to remember. He had hoped never to lay eyes on them again, and seeing the pair so soon after his own father’s death, he felt a cold lump of dread settle in his gut. He did not know why the Baker brothers were so far south, but he could not help but think that trouble would be the end result. Knowing both men as he did, he knew they had spent most of the last three years in either Colorado or Wyoming, and now, he wondered if they were speaking of the very man who had seemed to elude him for the past several weeks. Praying he would not be recognized, he approached the two men, and inquired, “Don’t mean to interrupt you, gentlemen, but what might be the name of this kid?”
Harry frowned at the man who stood a good four inches above him. “What’s it to ye, stranger?” He asked. He wasn’t sure he liked strangers listenin’ in on his private conversation.
“Just curious,” Gage said with a lazy calm that he did not feel.
Harry’s frown deepened. He’d not said ten words to this tall stranger, yet he disliked him already. “The kid ain’t been botherin’ ye, too, has he?” He pried.
Fixing his gaze upon the smaller man with a determined look in his clear, blue eyes, Gage prompted, “The kid’s name?”
“The breed never said what his name was,” Bob said quickly, before Harry could open his big mouth and possibly get them in to more trouble than necessary. “Folks jest calls him the breed.”
“Why is that?” Gage asked, not taking his eyes away from Harry’s oily countenance.
“Cause he looks like a half breed,” Harry answered incredulously, wondering if the tall man was possibly a few cards short of a full deck.
“And,” Gage concluded “you’re going to kill him tomorrow.”
“Yip! Sure am! Come high noon tomorra, he’ll meet me right here in front of the Silver Dollar, and I’m gonna kill ’em dead,” Harry bragged, growing more self-confident as the questioning leaned toward him and not the breed.
“Well, I reckon I’ll be moving along,” was all Gage said as he continued his stroll down the rough board sidewalk. Something just did not seem right about the situation and, feeling that cold lump of dread grow larger, he intended to figure it out before moving on. Perhaps this was the break for which he had been searching.
As the man left, Harry and Bob looked at one another in puzzlement. Turning toward the double doors of the saloon, Harry asked, “What ye s’pose that stranger be a-wantin’ to know ’bout the breed fer?”
“Why, that waurnt no stranger,” Bob said, glancing over his shoulder at the retreating form. “That was Gage Colton. Ye know, the gunfighter we met up with back in ’76?”
A thoughtful look came over Harry’s face. As he sat down at one of the scarred card tables, he said, “So it is, Bob. Do ye reck’n somebody’s hired ’em to git that breed?”
“Wouldn’t know,” said Bob. “But, I can tell ye one thang! If’n Colton’s after that kid, then I kind-a feel sorry fer ’em; Colton’s good with that gun, and he always was a mean ‘un! Fact is I was a-gittin’ kind-a worried a minute ago, cause ye wouldn’t shut of ye mouth. What if’n ye’d made Colton mad? Don’t know ’bout ye sometimes, Harry.”
“Know what ye mean, ’bout Colton bein’ a mean ‘un,” Harry agreed. Shuffling a deck of cards, he finished, “I member how he never showed no mercy to those he went after. But, ye’d nothin’ to worry ’bout. I could’ve took care of that kid and Colton, too, with one hand tied behind my back!”
As the noon hour of the next day drew near, the street in front of the Silver Dollar began to empty, but it was not due to a lack of curiosity. In fact, those souls who were brave enough were finding vantage points along the street in order to watch from a distance. They were hungry for something new to gossip about, but they were not stupid; no one wanted to get in the way of a stray bullet.
Among those brave souls, standing just inside an alley across from the saloon, stood Gage Colton. The last thing he wanted was to see bloodshed, but he felt he needed to see who this kid really was. Something in him seemed to be shouting that he was right; he was finally going to get a look at the one he’d been following since Texas. Trouble was, what would he do if his instincts were correct?
Seeing Tombstone’s notorious Chief of Police, Virgil Earp, making his way toward the alley where he stood, he greeted him by asking in a low voice, “You planning on doing something about this fight?”
Earp gave the younger man an incredulous look, and answered, “No. Baker’s a cardshark, who cheats more often than not! I figure if he’s stupid enough to challenge that kid to a gunfight, he’s stupid enough to get his self killed. And the kid…well, from what I’ve heard that kid can take care of his self.”
“You’ve heard of this kid before?” Gage asked.
“No,” Earp answered, “not until last night when somebody told me Baker had called the man out; sides, if I tried to stop every gunfight in town, I’d be doin’ it from now till doomsday!”
Turning away in disgust, Gage wondered what the purpose was in having a Chief of Police, when he did not seem inclined to keep the peace. He wondered why no one seemed concerned that lives were at stake. Did anybody care what became of either man? Would anyone have a funeral for the one who would be unlucky enough to be too slow at the draw? He seriously doubted it. Uppermost in his mind was the kid’s identity, or rather, was he the same man who had murdered Jeb Colton? There were no forth-coming answers to his many questions, but one thing he knew for certain, was that there was bound to be trouble, no matter who was left standing when the smoke began to clear.
When the sun had finally reached its highest peak in the sky, he could see Harry, revolver resting in its holster on his hip, walking slowly down the left side of the street. Glancing to his right, he saw the kid on his way to meet his opponent. The two met about twenty feet apart in the middle of the street.
In the ominous hush that had seemed to fall over the town, Harry’s voice could be heard loud and clear, as he taunted, “Are ye sure ye don’t wanna back out, breed? Wouldn’t want any of your Injun blood contaminatin’ this here street, if’n it can be helped!”
Concentrating on the kid’s appearance, Gage almost missed the quiet reply.
“It isn’t my blood that will be contaminating the street; it’ll be yours, Mr. Baker. Are you sure you want to die today, because we could just call it off and…”
“Cocky little whippersnapper, ain’t ye!” Baker said, a little cockily himself, but he was unable to hide the note of nervousness that kept him from meeting his opponent’s eyes.
“You’re a fool,” the kid said in disgust.
“What’s that? What did ye call me, there, Boy?” Baker asked, nastily, resting his right hand on his gun.
“I called you a fool,” the kid answered, still not bothering to raise his voice. “If you’re wanting to shoot it out, then let’s quit all this talk and get on with it.”
Hearing something in the kid’s voice that made the little hairs on his arms stand at attention, Gage narrowed his gaze and studied the man more closely. His voice had not been loud, nor was it familiar, yet it sounded more like a woman’s than that of a young man.
He had no more time to wonder about it, however, for at that moment, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Baker begin to draw his weapon. But, he had no time to cock it, before the kid’s bullet hit him between the eyes, and the unused gun fell to the ground along with a very dead Baker.
As long as he lived, Gage would never forget the look on the kid’s face at that instant. Shock and horror seemed to mingle with a very feminine expression—the beginning of tears. Then, like a curtain, an expression of cold indifference fell over his face, and, as if nothing out of the ordinary had just taken place, he turned to leave the scene, revolver still in hand. It was all over in a matter of a few moments.
For a split second, silence ruled the spectators. Then all at once, a mass of people began to flock toward the middle of the street.
Paying no heed to those around him, Gage stepped in to the street, and without stopping to analyze his reason, began following the tall, slender figure out of town; he just could not let this kid walk off without finding out his identity. Behind him, he could hear shouting as folks were undoubtedly removing the lifeless body from the street. A few were trying to get close to the kid, too, but the cold expression on his face and the fact that he still held his revolver at the ready, kept everyone from getting too close, except Gage. Just as they passed the last buildings in town, he heard amidst all the shouting, Bob’s voice promising his brother that he would “git that no good Injun fer this.”
When they were finally clear of town, the kid stopped, re-holstered his gun, put two fingers in his mouth and gave a shrill whistle. Immediately, Gage could see a beautiful Appaloosa running toward them. The kid reached for the horse’s reins, but before he could mount, Gage said, “Hold up there, boy.”
When the kid turned to face the voice behind him, Gage managed to hide his surprise, but barely; his first impression of the kid had been correct. This was no man standing before him. Instead, he found himself staring in to the face of a full-grown woman, and a very beautiful one at that. She wore a wide-brimmed hat that hid most of her face. Masking most of her features, this hat was probably the most important part of her outfit, for it caused others to not think twice about her appearance. Her jet black hair was twisted into a thick braid down her back. He could see that she had a dark complexion, a full mouth and a chin that seemed permanently tilted at a stubborn angle. He tried to determine the color of her eyes, but the brim of her hat shadowed them, along with the rest of her features. Of average height, she wore men’s blue denim pants that showed well herslim waist and her long, shapely legs. The blue shirt and fringed buckskin jacket that she wore were well placed over broad shoulders, and were intended for the purpose of hiding her more feminine curves, but they fell woefully short; she was most definitely a woman. Instead of boots, she wore calf-high leather moccasins. Most intriguing about her attire, Gage thought, was the gun belt buckled securely about her waist, with her revolver resting in its holster on her right hip. From what he could see of her hair and complexion, she did look as if one of her parents were Indian, and it was no wonder so many had mistaken her for a young boy for she truly did look the part. But how could they not tell she was a woman just by looking at her?
“I suggest that you stop staring and start explaining, Mister. I don’t have all day.”
Gage’s eyes returned to her face. Wishing that he could see the expression in her eyes, he asked the first thing that came to his mind.
“Who taught you to use that gun?”
The question surprised her, but quickly masking her expression, she said, “That isn’t any of your business.”
Taken aback by her cold manner, he said, grimly, “No, I guess it isn’t at that. I only wanted to suggest that you stop trying to kill everyone you come in contact with. You can’t solve problems by ending the lives of others.”
He did not go on, for her anger was very apparent, not only in her facial expression but also in the torrent of words that spilled forth from her lips. Who did this man think he was, anyway?
“My actions and the reasons behind them are none of your concern, Mister…”
“Gage Colton,” he supplied.
But, paying him no mind, she finished, “So you can just turn your body around and march yourself back to town unless you’d like to end up like that man in the street. I can provide the service, you know.” This last was said as the fingers of her right hand brushed suggestively against the butt of her revolver.
Gage continued to stare at the angry woman. Her cold manner, along with the knowledge of her skill were enough to send anyone packing, but he was not thinking of the previous events in town; his mind was on the expression he had seen on her face when she had killed Harry Baker. Where was the horrified girl? He knew she had to be hiding behind the cold woman who stood before him.
Finally, he said, “I’ll go back to town, but you might want to think about leaving this place. They might come looking for you, seeing as how you just killed Harry…”
“I know who I killed,” she said, allowing her hand to rest fully on her gun.
Taking the threat for what it was, he gave her a long look, sighed, then turned toward town, still wondering about the interesting woman behind him. He had no doubt she would carry out her threat…he didn’t know too many men or women who could draw and fire as fast as she had, but he could not understand why a young woman felt the need to go roaming the countryside, posed as a half-breed gunslinger. How could he have ever thought, for one minute, that this woman might be the man he’d been trailing? Then, thinking on her peculiar behavior, he realized that there was more here than what met the eye, and he felt that he hadn’t seen the last of the woman, who shot in cold blood as if she was used to it.
Watching the tall figure walk back toward town, Shewana Christy sighed with resignation. So, she had finally met the infamous Gage Colton. She had heard all about him, but had never laid eyes on him until now. Or, had she? Oddly enough, he looked familiar. Then, as the name registered, her heart dropped in to her stomach and her knees nearly gave way beneath her; Gage Colton, the eldest son of Jeb Colton!
For an instant, the awful terror that had plagued her these last few weeks, washed over her in waves. What was she going to do now? Had he come looking for her? Or, was it just an accident—bad luck, perhaps–that she had had the misfortune to run in to him.
Finally telling herself to get a grip, she mounted her horse and gathered up the reins. She wondered if Deric could have sent him to come looking for her. If so, was her brother just concerned at her continued absence, or had the news of Jeb Colton’s death reached Wyoming?
She had heard, once, that Colton had come clean, that he was no longer a gun for hire, but one could never tell. In any case, the more miles between her and Gage Colton, the better. Most assuredly, she needed to get out of Arizona, and fast.