He could hear her breathing in the next room. It was a painful sound, the air rattling in her chest before it rasped out again between cracked, dry lips. His mother had pneumonia, the doctor had said when he finally arrived, a full day after he had been begged to come. She would most likely die.
It would be a blessing if she did, he thought. She had been sick for a long time from that other disease, the one whores got that gave them sores and turned them blind and finally left them to die as maddened creatures. She hadn’t worked for maybe a year or more. He had done odd jobs that kept them from starving, sweeping up sawdust in the saloon and emptying spittoons. He had found an abandoned line shack that gave them shelter. But without heat in the cold of a Texas blue norther, she had fallen ill.
He had turned thirteen a week ago without a celebration, without any acknowledgment at all from her. She hadn’t remembered. Her mind was already going. He wanted the pain of watching her die to end. She was his mother, and he hated her, and hated himself for hating her. He prayed the pneumonia would set them both free at last.
He heard the tortured sound of his name pass her lips. He should go to her. He should answer her. But he lay where he was, huddled beneath a thin blanket on the floor, his shoulders hunched against the cold.
The whisper of sound carried to where he lay and shuddered over him. She was his mother. He must go to her. But he lay where he was, feeling the anger sweep through him for what she had done.
She had betrayed his father and given herself to another man. He had been the result. Only her secret hadn’t been discovered right away. He had spent eight years as Lord Philip’s son. Long enough to know what it meant to have a father. Long enough to be confused and crushed when that same father drove him and his mother from their home in England to exile in America. Long enough to know what it was to be warm and well fed and secure. The contrast, the small cold shack and his empty belly and his mother dying on a pallet on the floor in the next room, was all the more harsh and horrifying.
He covered his ears to shut out the rattling sound as she choked on the fluid that filled her lungs. He waited for her to call him again. He would go then. He would not be able to lie there and listen to her call and not go to her. Even though he hated her. Even though she deserved to die a terrible death.
He leapt to his feet but got tangled in the blanket, which clung like a web, threatening to hold him captive until he could be devoured by some monstrous imaginary spider.
“I’m coming, Mama,” he cried. “I’m coming!”
He fought the blanket and freed himself and ran to her. He dropped onto the hard floor, feeling the pain in his knees, which were bare in his shabby pants.
“I’m here, Mama. I’m here,” he said, his throat swollen with pain and grief and remorse. “Mama?”
He thought she was dead. Her breathing was so shallow her chest barely rose. She was so thin, so very thin, nothing but skin and bone. He had tried to feed her, but she wouldn’t eat. He could see the blue veins in her eyelids in the early-morning light that filtered through the broken-paned window above her.
“Mama?” His voice pleaded with her to answer him. To forgive him for wanting her dead.
“It was a lie,” she rasped. “Someone lied.”
“Who lied, Mama? About what?”
“You are your father’s son,” she said in short, ragged bursts of breath. “I never lay with another man.”
“What? What, Mama? Mama?”
Her breath soughed out like a bellows that is slowly pressed flat. It took him a moment to realize she was no longer breathing. That she was dead.
“Mama? Mama? Mamaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!
Nicholas Calloway sat bolt upright, his hands trembling, his throat painfully constricted, his body bathed in sweat. It was pitch black, and it took him a second to realize where he was, camped out under the sky, not far from Abilene, Texas.
It was only a dream. The same dream. Again.
He raised shaky hands and pressed them against his eyes. He had learned how to suffer the dream silently, but it had all seemed so vivid, so achingly real. As though it had happened yesterday, even though it had been more than twenty years since his mother had died. He was no longer that frightened boy. He had gone on with his life.
So why couldn’t he put his mother’s death behind him? Why had he been plagued all these years with the memory of that awful morning?
Was it because of what she had said on her deathbed? Why had she tried to absolve herself from guilt? She should have told the truth at the end.
Maybe she was telling the truth.
That was the voice that had kept the dream alive, the nagging voice that told him he might not be a bastard. The treacherous voice that offered him hope.
He should have found a way long ago to return to England, to confront his father with his mother’s dying words. But other things–at first, poverty, and later, responsibilities–had conspired to keep him in America. He had a home here now and a son of his own. The past was the past. There was no going back. He just wished there was some way to prevent the dream from recurring, from being so disturbingly real.
The sound of a twig snapping underfoot made him instantly alert. It must have been another, similar sound that had woken him. He reached slowly for the Colt .45 that had never been farther away than the reach of his hand. He pulled it from the holster that lay beside the saddle he had used for a pillow. He moved silently, stealthily away from his camp and concealed himself in a small hollow to wait and watch.
No one would have recognized, in the merciless gray eyes that searched the landscape, the vulnerable boy Nicholas Calloway had been. His mother’s death, and the few terrible years that followed, had toughened and hardened him. The lonely, frightened boy of the past existed only in his dreams. The man he had become was ruthless. A killer. Of course, that was a necessary quality in his chosen profession.
Nicholas Calloway hunted men for a living.
Nicholas smiled, a small, cynical tilting of lips that was almost a sneer. He had become a bastard in deed as well as by birth. At least bounty hunting was an honest job, if not a respected one. It was more lucrative than riding line for some ranch, albeit a sight more dangerous.
Nicholas welcomed the danger. The risk made the job more exciting. He wouldn’t mind dying, if that was to be his fate. The chances of that weren’t as good now as they had been ten years ago, after the War Between the States, when he had begun this sort of work. He had learned how to stay alive. How to kill before being killed.
Nicholas had a good idea who might be out there in the darkness. He had come to Abilene in search of Vince Tolman. The REWARD poster in his pocket promised $1,000 for Vince’s capture, dead or alive. Vince had started rustling cattle in Victoria, Texas, but had ended up shooting cowboys. The cattle rustling was enough to get him hanged. The killing had put a bounty on his head and set Nicholas on his trail.
Nicholas believed in letting a man know, through talk around town, that he was being hunted. It invariably made him nervous. And nervous men made mistakes.
Nicholas didn’t kill if he didn’t have to, but he wasn’t above goading a man into a draw. It was easier to account for a dead man than to bring in a live one, and he had no sympathy for the hardened outlaws he hunted down. He didn’t delude himself into thinking they would come in peaceably. Not after the first time, when he had nearly been killed by a man he had been bringing back to stand trial.
His eyes had adjusted to the dark, which wasn’t as dark as it had seemed when he awoke. There was no moon, but there were stars, and he could make out the bare outline of a Stetson topping the figure of a man. Nicholas had his gun in his hand and an easy target. But there was just the chance it wasn’t Vince. He didn’t want to kill some fool who was wandering around lost in the dark.
He rose slowly and waited for the stranger to realize he was standing there. “If you’re looking for a cup of coffee–”
“Goddamn you, Calloway! How the hell–”
It was Vince all right. Nicholas threw himself out of the way as the outlaw’s gun spat fire. He rolled, and when he came to a stop fired once into Vince’s body. Vince’s hands flew reflexively outward, and Nicholas heard, rather than saw, the outlaw’s gun land in the dirt some distance away.
Brush crackled as the outlaw fell, and he swore a muffled “Goddamn!” before all was silent.
Gun in hand, Nicholas walked over to the fire, squatted down, and stirred up the ashes, looking for some embers. He threw a bit of grass into the ring of stones and saw it flare from the corner of his eye. He didn’t look directly into the light, knowing that otherwise he would be blind when he needed to see into the darkness again.
The fire bit greedily into the few sticks he added. Vince Tolman was lying ten feet away. Nicholas watched for movement but saw none.
“You still alive?” Nicholas asked.
“Where are you hit?”
“I was thinkin’ the same thing myself,” Vince said with a harsh laugh. The laugh ended in a hiss of pain. “How long you figger I’ll last?”
Nicholas left the fire and crossed to the dying outlaw. He lifted the man’s vest and shirt aside and looked at the wound. “Daylight maybe.”
There was a silence while Vince digested his news.
“I was gonna offer you the thousand to let me go,” Vince said at last.
“Wouldn’t have taken it.”
“Yeah. I heard that. Thought I’d try, anyway.”
“Any kin you want notified?” Nicholas asked.
“My ma,” Vince said. “Martha Tolman in Seguin.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
Vince exhaled a deep breath. Nicholas recognized the sound. He reached over a moment later and shut the dead man’s eyes, knowing it would be harder to do it in the daylight.
“Guess I was wrong,” Nicholas said. “Guess you didn’t live to see another day.”
He took Vince into Abilene to have him identified by the sheriff so the authorities in Victoria could wire the reward money to him. Then he sent a telegram to Martha Tolman in Seguin.
Your son Vince is dead. His last thoughts were of you.
He didn’t sign it. It would be too easy for the woman to find out he was the one who had killed her son. He didn’t want her sending some relative to hunt him down. He didn’t know why he had asked Vince about his kin. He hadn’t done anything like that before, mostly because his first shot was usually deadly. Nor was he sure why he had followed through and sent the telegram. It wasn’t going to be much comfort to Martha Tolman.
Three days later, as he headed for his ranch in the hill country west of Austin, Nicholas put Vince and Martha Tolman from his mind. He was looking forward to spending some time with his son. Colin was nearly a man himself, already nineteen. All the same, Nicholas was comforted by the thought that Colin wasn’t alone at the ranch. Simp was there with him.
Nicholas didn’t know what he would have done if Simp Tanner hadn’t crossed his path nineteen years ago. Nicholas had been a boy of sixteen when his three-day-old son had been thrust into his arms. He had been sitting cross-legged on the grass in the middle of the southwest Texas prairie, a bawling baby in his arms, when Simp had come along. The weatherbeaten cowboy had immediately taken on the duty of nursemaid to Colin and had hung around to become a part of the family.
As far as Colin knew, his mother had died when he was born, though Nicholas had made no secret of the fact that he and Colin’s mother hadn’t been married. He had never told his son the truth about his mother. That was his secret, and he had no intention of ever revealing it to anyone.
The hundred twenty-odd mile ride home, almost due south as the crow flies over rolling, grassy plains, seemed unending. Nicholas stopped each day only when he knew his horse couldn’t go any farther without rest. He pushed hard and arrived at his ranch house on the outskirts of Fredericksburg at dusk one evening.
He and Simp had built a simple wood frame house with a central hallway leading to two rooms on either side, then added a kitchen on the back. It was whitewashed and had red shutters that Colin had helped paint. Nicholas smiled as he recalled how Colin had gotten as much paint on himself as on the shutters.
Nicholas pulled his mustang to an abrupt halt when he spotted a single rider approaching the house. It was still light enough from his vantage point on a rise overlooking the house to see the stranger glance surreptitiously around as he dismounted at the front door.
Nicholas felt his heart claw its way up into his throat. He had always known there might come a day when someone would come looking for him–a brother or a father or an uncle–seeking vengeance. No one around Fredericksburg knew what he did for a living. He was just Mr. Calloway who had a ranch and ran a few cattle and raised a few horses outside of town.