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Painted Hearts Publishing

Heat Rating: SWEET
Word Count: 61,528
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Some who carry a badge are worse than those they hunt, but is that enough reason to let a man die?

Forced to run her father's ranch after his death, whispers ran wild that Susan acted less than respectably. Taking care of a wounded man with little help would completely ruin her reputation if it became known, but she couldn’t leave the dying man to his fate. Discovering that the man was the infamous Marshal Tarbet didn't change her mind.

But there is more to the attempt on the marshal's life than it appears. Even if it means taking up the guns and acting like less than a lady, Susan will fight to save herself and the man she has come to love.

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The women hurrying to finish their shopping, the loungers and the loafers of Bellfort, Texas stopped to stare. Businessmen stepped to the front of their shops for a look. Gossips stopped exchanging exaggerations and assumptions to watch the lean, dark haired stranger. They would soon turn their conversations to guessing who he was and what went on behind those hooded brown eyes and what caused the hard set to his chiseled features.
Tarbet straightened his broad shoulders and back. Being stared at was nothing new to him, not anymore. This town was the same as dozens like it. The population stared in curiosity, indifference, or hostility, and except for the pride which straightened his back, Tarbet ignored them.
If any of those watching had looked closely, seeing below the surface of his erect posture, they would see the exhaustion which made the lean face gaunt. They would know from the way the horse’s head drooped, from the coat of dust on both horse and stiff-backed rider, that they had come a long way, and the ride had been hard.
Groups gathered and the whispers started before he dismounted and crossed the boardwalk into the second rate hotel. They all wanted to know who he was, but none wanted to get as close as would be needed for a look into those cold brown eyes. That was something else Tarbet was used to, with or without their knowledge of the badge pinned out of sight beneath his coat. He had grown to expect the shunning just as he had grown to expect being stared at, and he could cope with those things. The new thing was what was different, and it wore on his nerves. He had always been cautious of his back, new towns, and strange men. Even that caution was no longer enough, not in towns and hotels he knew and especially not strange ones, though this one was no different in feel, one more of too many.
A desk sat at the back of the furniture scattered lobby. Behind the desk the clerk slept with his chair tipped back against the wall, his arms folded over his belly, and his head lolled to the side. He must be having a pleasant dream, and he must live an easy life with a paunch to his belly and a slight smile on his homely face. His excess thirty pounds Tarbet could carry without doing more than filling out his large frame.
A light tap of the desk bell brought the man awake with a jolt and a congenial smile to go with the face until Tarbet told him what kind of a room he wanted. That reaction was the same too. Some clerks were old, some middle aged like this one, some young, but they all developed the same look, the same strained smile, long before Tarbet ordered his horse be stabled.
“Yes, ah, Mr.…?” He craned his neck to read the name Tarbet wrote in the register without getting any closer. “…Taylor.” He paused to lick his lips nervously. “Will you be staying long?”
“Just passing through.”
A lie, just as the name was, but all the man needed before directing Tarbet to a room. The room was all too similar to the many he had seen through the past six years. His choice by necessity was never the best or most expensive. Bare plank walls, bare plank floors, one chest with three drawers, a cracked and chipped pitcher and bowl sitting on it, one straight-backed chair, one bed with sagging springs, and one grimy window with a tattered shade. Sometimes the window would have a curtain, sometimes a bare floor would have a rag rug, and sometimes the bed would have a worn out spread as well as a thread bare blanket. The feel was always the same. The only significant differences that mattered to him were whether or not the room was to the back, whether a building was in line with the grime covered window, or if the room was on the second floor without a balcony.
Tarbet locked the door and wedged the single chair under the knob. Modes of dust danced in the beams of light streaming through the holes in the shade he pulled before he stretched out on the lumpy bed, too tired to so much as remove his boots, but his gun was in his hand as he drifted into an exhausted sleep.
The clerk had smiled with his dream. Tarbet grimaced. He tossed restlessly until finally, with a jerk, he was able to wake himself, putting an end to the torment. He laid there with his breath coming in rapid heaves, staring at the ceiling until he could remember where he was.
The gun slipped out of his hand as he staggered up to stumble across the room to the pitcher and bowl. He poured the bowl full of tepid water, and then buried his face in it, welcoming any sensation to push away the remains of the dull feeling of too heavy and still too little sleep and the last disturbing effects of the dream.
The water felt good, clearing his head and taking the grit of the trail from his face, neck, and hands. He didn’t stop until he had stripped to the waist with the empty gun belt dropped in a heap to the floor. He washed the dust from his upper body, the best he could with water rapidly becoming muddy.
With thoughts of how good a full bath would feel, he shook the dust from his clothes, not thinking of the gun he had dropped earlier until he picked up the heavy belt with an empty holster. His forehead furrowed as he looked, standing still, using only his eyes to search. When he saw where he had dropped the weapon, he shrugged. What did it matter if the gun was across the room, with a locked door, on a second floor without a balcony? He strapped on the belt without concern or hurry. With one arm in his coat, he started towards the bed. The gun was six steps from where he started. Close enough in an emergency he would have thought, if he thought about it at all, but in that one step, he knew it wasn’t.
They were five steps too many when the men he hadn’t heard in the hall hit and smashed through the door and the chair that failed to hold. Safety was five steps too far away when those men surged through, jostling and shoving each other in their hurry to get at him.
One man was faster than the others in getting a shot off, a shot that burned Tarbet’s side. With only one exit left clear, Tarbet threw the coat up for protection and dove for the window. Smashing through the glass and wood sashes, he fell two stories.
He couldn’t stop. There was no time for worry or even think of possible injuries after that fall. Tarbet rolled to his feet, hoping an ankle or leg didn’t go out from under him on his run for the corner of the building. In the window above men shouted and shoved each other in their anxiousness to get at him and even though he soon had the building as a shield between them, he still could not stop to inventory injuries. He started down the narrow space between the hotel and the next building. A canyon of wood planks held him in, sending him to the street. He stopped, listen to the men inside the hotel, shouting at each other as they ran down the stairs.
Ahead of him the canyon of buildings would take him to where the men would come out of the hotel. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw only the corners of the buildings and a thin strip of bright sunlight. The way to the stable and his horse was there, where a man could be waiting above for a shot at him in the window he had just jumped from.
Tarbet looked above him to the walls that reached straight up to a thin blue strip of sky. There was no way to scale them for escape, but as he stared the walls seemed to grow closer together to distract him while a strange feeling of being outside himself settled over him. The taller walls of the hotel seemed to lean over the lower ones of the next building. The strange phenomenon held him in fascination, even after he fell. Lying on his back, looking up, they seemed to grow further apart. How strange and how curious he was hurt in a way that made him fall, yet he didn’t feel any pain, only an instinct nagging at him to move. A strange detached curiosity held him, as he stared up at that tiny strip of blue above. The more he stared, the more the walls seemed to tilt again, leaning over to touch, giving him the feeling they were going to fall.
He attempted to reach out to hold the walls and then stared dumbly at his right arm, an arm that refused to move higher than a few inches. He had no comprehension of the fact his arm was in the sleeve of his coat, the coat he had never finished putting on, and the body of it was trapped under him, his own weight holding his arm down. He didn’t wonder why he only had one sleeve on as he struggled to sit up and only half succeeded before dizziness struck him. The wall he leaned against moved, letting him fall into an engulfing darkness. Too dark to see, his right arm refused again to move. The left was free, but groped into a nothingness which did not tell him he had fallen through a loose section of siding to the crawl space under the hotel.
Tarbet felt of a warm stickiness on his shirt, and he was cold without knowing the why of either. He worked his coat on against the cold while his hand sought for and found a pocket it knew had a handkerchief. His hand must have known because Tarbet didn’t. He was outside himself. He didn’t care that the stickiness at his side was blood. He didn’t care any longer about the men who were trying to kill him. He was unaware of what his hands seemed to do independently, pulling the belt loose from his pant loops, buckling it tight over the hole in his shirt where the blood flowed. He moved without really knowing he was moving or why. He moved having the curious feeling he had wakened without knowing he had gone to sleep or that he was dreaming without sleeping. He heard sounds, but they were all too far away and too indistinct to penetrate the daze that held him. Nor did he know when he slipped from shock to unconscious.