Johanna Lindsey


In memory of Misti Jewel, my own toe-biter.

She was a talker, a sweet pest, my deskmate.

Lord, please don’t mind that she likes to clean

her teeth on bare feet.

Chapter 1

Texas, 1881

High noon… an hour synonymous with death in a great many Western towns. This town was no different. The hour alone told folks who hadn’t heard what was going to happen when they saw other folks running to clear the street. Only one thing could cause such an exodus at that particular time of day. High noon… an hour without advantages, no shadows to distract, no lowering sun to blind and tip the odds. It’d be a fair fight according to the standards of the day. No one would stop to wonder if the man being challenged might not want to participate, or see anything unfair in the fact that he was forced to. A man who made his living by the gun had little choice in the matter.

The street was nearly deserted now, the windows along it crowded with folks waiting to see someone die. Even the November wind paused for the moment, letting the dust settle under the bright rays of the late autumn sun.

From the north end of the street came Tom Prynne, the challenger, though he was calling himself Pecos Tom now. He’d been waiting an hour since he’d issued the challenge, time enough for him to wonder if he might not have been a bit hasty this once. No, just silly nerves that bothered him before every fight. He wondered how many gunfights it would take before he felt as calm as the other fellow looked.

Tom didn’t mind the killing. He loved the power and the triumph he felt afterward, the feeling that he was invincible. And the fear. God, he loved it when folks feared him. So what if he had to deal with a little fear himself before each fight? It was worth it afterward.

He’d been hoping for an opportunity just like this, a chance at a known name. His own name, or the one he’d taken for himself, wasn’t traveling fast enough to suit him. No one had heard of Pecos Tom this far south. Hell, they forgot him even where he’d been because until now his gunfights had been with “nobodys” like himself.

But his opponent today, Angel—his name had no trouble preceding him. Some called him the Angel of Death, and with reason.

No one could say how many men he’d killed. Some said even Angel couldn’t name a number. He was reputed to be not only fast but accurate.

Tom wasn’t that accurate, but he was faster, he knew he was. And he knew exactly how many men he’d killed — one card cheat, two sodbusters, and a deputy who’d tracked him last year, thinking he ought to be hanged for shooting an unarmed man. No one knew about the deputy, and just as well. He wanted a name, but he didn’t want it plastered on Wanted posters.

There’d been other gunfights in his short career, and he’d been fortunate in that half of them he’d won simply by the draw, the other fellow so shocked at his speed that he’d drop his gun and concede. Tom was counting on that happening today, not that he figured Angel would drop his gun, but he hoped to surprise him enough so that he’d have time to steady his aim and be the only one standing when the smoke cleared.

He’d been in this town only two days himself. He would have been riding out today if he hadn’t heard that Angel had drifted in last night. It was sure as hell that no one had passed the word around when he’d ridden in. After today, they would.

But Angel wasn’t exactly what Tom had expected when he’d stopped him from leaving his hotel this morning. Somehow he’d thought the gunfighter would be taller, and older, and not so emotionless in the face of his challenge. His reaction had been as if he didn’t care one way or the other. But Tom hadn’t let that worry him.

He’d blocked the other man’s way, demanding in a loud voice so everyone present could hear, “Angel? I heard you was fast, but I’m here to tell you I’m faster.”

“Suit yourself, mister. I won’t argue the point.”

“But I aim to prove it. High noon. Don’t disappoint me.”

It was only after Tom had walked away that he’d realized how cold and emotionless Angel’s eyes were, eyes as black as sin, the eyes of a ruthless killer.

With outward calm, Angel waited to meet his challenger. He’d walked out into the center of the street, but that was as far as he would extend himself. He patiently let the young gloryseeker come to him.

To look at him, you couldn’t see his anger. What he was going to do was so senseless. It wasn’t like killing someone he knew deserved it. He didn’t know this kid, didn’t know what sins were to his credit, how many men he’d killed seeking a name for himself, or if he’d even killed any. He hated it when he didn’t know.

Knowing wouldn’t change what he was going to do, however; it would just eliminate the regret of a senseless killing. But most of these young gloryseekers wouldn’t have the nerve to start with him. They’d have quite a few gunfights behind them before they attempted a name, and that meant they’d done some killing — and the odds were, some innocent men had died — to establish their gun-fighting careers. Angel had no regrets killing men hike that. He saw himself as an executioner in that respect, getting rid of the scum a bit sooner than the law would, and maybe saving the lives of some decent folk in the process.

Having a known name was a curse and a blessing. It brought out the gloryseekers. That couldn’t be helped. But it also made his work easier sometimes because some men would back down, thereby saving lives, since he absolutely hated having to kill a man whose only crime was working for the wrong boss.

He was a gun for hire. It was what he knew, and he was good enough to make his living at it. He could be hired for just about any job if the price was right, though folks had learned not to ask him to do outright murder because they were likely to end up dead themselves if they did. He simply saw no difference between the man who pulled the trigger on the unsuspecting victim and the one who hired him to do it. Both were murderers in his book, and if Angel couldn’t find an excuse to kill them himself, he’d turn them over to the law’s judgment.

He made no excuses for his life. He could wish it might have been different, but circumstances made it otherwise. And though his instincts might lean toward mercy, he followed the creed of the man who’d taught him how to defend and protect himself with a gun.

“Conscience has its place well and good, but not in a gunfight If you’re gonna shoot, you shoot to kill, or they come back to haunt you… some dark night, out of an alley — a bullet in the back, ‘cause they’ve tried you once and know for a fact that you’re too fast for them to take the chance of trying you again. That’s what comes of just wounding a man, that, or they might figure you’re fast, but your aim’s lousy. Those ones you’ll be facing a second time in the street, and that’s purely a waste of time and what luck you’re allotted. If d be a damn shame if that bullet with your name on it came from a man you had the chance to kill but didn’t.”

Three times he’d come close to dying at the hands of lawless men before he’d learned that creed. Three times he’d been saved, not by his own efforts, but with help from strangers. Three debts he’d owed for that, and he was not a man who felt comfortable being beholden. Two had been paid, the second only recently.

He’d come to this town hoping to pay back the third debt. He didn’t know why he’d been sent for. He’d been on his way to locate Lewis Pickens to find out when the young gun had stepped in his way.

He only knew his name, Pecos Tom. Someone had had to check the hotel register to find that out. He was a stranger to the town, just as Angel was, so no one could tell Angel if he was facing a killer or just a foolish young man. Damn, he hated this, hated not knowing. He hadn’t asked for the fight, had tried to avoid it, but no one expected him to ignore it once the challenge had been issued. Pecos Tom had every intention of killing him. Angel had to settle for that simple truth to assuage his regret.

Pecos was taking his sweet time coming down the street. Twenty feet away, fifteen. He stopped finally at ten. Angel would have preferred more distance than that, but this wasn’t his show. He’d heard that back east a man got to choose the weapon when he was challenged, even no weapon, just fists if he wanted. It would give Angel pleasure to beat some sense into this kid, instead of killing him. But the West didn’t offer a man choices. When you carried a gun on your hip, you were expected to use it.

Pecos’s sheepskin jacket was already tucked out of the way, his hands out at his sides, ready. Slowly, Angel moved his yellow mackintosh out of the way. He didn’t watch the hands, not even to note if they trembled. He watched the eyes.

And he tried one last time. “We don’t have to do this. These people don’t know you. You can just ride out.”

“Forget it,” the boy replied, relaxing now, figuring Angel was afraid to fight him, that he was the one who wanted out of the fight. “I’m ready.”

No one was dose enough to hear Angel’s sigh. “Then make your peace, mister. I don’t shoot to wound.”

Twenty-year-old Tom Prynne didn’t shoot to wound either, and his draw was faster, about two seconds faster, all the time he would have needed if he had had the patience to perfect his aim before he’d gone gloryseeking. His bullet flew past Angel’s shoulder to lose itself in the dirt at the end of the street. Angel’s momentum was too quick to stop even if he’d wanted to, and his aim was deadly accurate.