Denver crept through a field of tall grass that stood between him and the rough direction that mystery voice had come from. He skirted around hills, trying to stay low and out of sight, since there was no telling what kind of vantage point his quarry might have.
Just as he was worrying that all his dodging around had put him woefully off-target, a horse snorted much nearer to him than he was expecting. Dropping from the half-crouch he’d adopted to keep his head below the grass, he pressed his palms into the dirt to steady himself. It took all his willpower to not yelp like a struck mutt and give away his position.
When his heart had ceased trying to escape from his chest, he moved carefully, silently through the grass. As he parted the tall blades ahead of him, a clearing opened up before his eyes. It was quickly shadowed by the soft muzzle of a horse.
He reared back in surprise, and the horse followed him, trying to nuzzle his face. She was a sleek, brown mare. Well cared for. Her hindquarters were dappled with specks of white. He took her face in his hands and looked up into the dark, intelligent eyes.
This horse belonged to Ava Jo Gentry and disappeared along with her six years ago, when her husband, Bobby Gentry had been murdered. They’d spent five long months searching the surrounding plains for her, and found not a trace.
And now this Bachelor bastard was riding around on her horse.
He ought to go find Joss, bring him out here to take the murdering sonofagun back to face justice. The county Marshal was due to come through on his rounds within days. Then they could see him put to trial.
He ought to do a lot of things.
He chose not to do any of them.
Instead, he quietly slipped his gun from its holster and crept forward into the clearing, using Butter as cover for his movements. He just needed to get a bead on his target.
The clearing, upon a second look, appeared to be man-made. One of the plain’s many creeks trickled through it, and someone had dug out a small pool for the water to collect in. They'd even pulled up all the surrounding grasses and braided them together with sticks into a neat little hut. There was even a little fire pit dug out in front of it. It was a smooth operation; one that an outlaw could easily break down in a hurry when the heat was on. Denver wouldn’t be surprised to know that there were multiple of these spots throughout the county.
His target sat hunkered in front of the pool, washing his face. A long braid of scarlet hair ran down his back, tied off with a piece of rawhide. A faded poncho and wide-brimmed hat hung from a stake near the hut, and secured Denver’s assumption that this was, in fact, the Bachelor.
Denver stepped from behind the horse with his gun readied and trained on the outlaw’s back. “Reach for the sky, you murdering sonofabitch.” His voice was strangely calm, not betraying a hint of the fury that pulsed just under the surface.
The Bachelor froze. The water in his cupped hands that trickled slowly back into the pool was the only thing that broke the silence between them. Carefully, as though he had been practicing for this moment, he stood and raised his hands to just above shoulder height, slender fingers splayed to show that he held no weapon.
“I druther not.” His voice was gruff, but not deep. An obvious affectation to disguise his true identity.
“Turn. Around,” Denver hissed. He didn’t give two hoots what the damned outlaw would or would not rather do. He gave up any rights to his druthers when he started killing people.
“Are you sure you want me to do that, Sheriff?”
“God damn you.”
His hands went down, thumbs hooked in belt loops. Denver sucked air and brought his sights to eye level.
“Have it your way, Denver.”
All pretenses were gone. The Bachelor’s true voice was much higher than Denver was expecting, and he spoke as if they knew each other.
He ducked his head slightly, almost sheepishly, as he turned around. When he finally made eye contact, Denver’s jaw dropped. If he were a lesser man, his gun might’ve as well.
All at once, everything and nothing made sense. Etta’s description fit Ava Jo perfectly, especially if she was trying to hide her identity. But why would she have killed Edson? Or anyone else? Especially when she should be dead, herself.
His head spun with questions.
“But… how? You’re dead!”
“I reckon I ain’t, Denver. Unless you are, too.”
He knew Ava Jo Gentry as a good, kind woman. Tough as nails, but always willing to help a neighbor, or a stranger. He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that she could be the one going out and killing people. He decided to go with the next most obvious option.
“Has the Bachelor been keeping you here? We looked for you for so long, we figgered you were dead!”
“Denver…” She shook her head. “You know he ain’t. Don’t try to deny what’s right in front of you. There ain’t no point to it.”
“Ava Jo Gentry, you are too kind a woman to-” She cut him off mid-sentence.
“Don’t you call me that!” Her anger was so sudden and so violent that he actually took a step back from her. “Don’t you ever call me that name again, Denver Toland. My name is Ava Jo McGill. I never even wanna hear the name Gentry again.”
Her green eyes blazed with fury, and she balled her fists at her sides as though she were fighting the urge to take a swing at him.
A realization hit him like a brick, and he felt his heart sink.
She hadn’t been kidnapped at all. She was the one who’d killed her husband, and she fled into the prairie to hide her misdeed.
“But why? Why would you kill him?”
“D’you mean Edson, or Bobby? The answer’s the same, either way.” She wrinkled her nose, as though saying her husband’s name left a bad taste in her mouth. “They were filthy, awful men. Edson, that monster, was beatin’ poor, meek little Etta. He was gonna kill her one o’ these days. Bobby woulda killed me that night, if I’d’a let ‘im. I was lucky.”
“He wasn’t.” She spat on the ground and rubbed it into the dirt with the heel of her boot. “Ain’t no man gonna stand up for battered women ‘til they’re already six foot deep, so I took it upon myself.”
Denver snorted derisively. “You mean to tell me that every one of those men-”
“Every single goddamned one of them, Sheriff. You’d be surprised.”
“I don’t believe that for a second, Ava.”
“I’d tell you to go ask the ladies yourself, Denver, but…” Her hand dropped to her gun. It cleared leather before he could even think.
“But I’m afraid I can’t let you leave here, knowing what you do.”