He’d let his guard down.
This was not the same Ava Jo he knew. He couldn’t know for sure that her story was true, but whatever had happened to her six years ago had left her a harder, colder woman than he remembered. But, still, he had faith.
“I’m sorry, Denver. I’ve worked too hard to let you go messin’ everythin’ up.”
“Ava Jo, I know you won’t kill me.” Though he kept her squarely in his sights, he tried to picture her as she had been when last he saw her.
Butter was just barely out of her filly years, but Ava’s small frame was light enough that the horse hardly noticed her. He’d passed them on Ava’s way home from tending bar at the saloon (he knew how Bobby hated that she worked there, but you couldn’t tell Ava no anymore than you could Tillie). Her crimson hair was loose around her shoulders, and there was no breeze to shift it. She’d flashed him a smile as their paths crossed, and the next morning she was gone.
He’d beaten himself up over the intervening years, wondering if he could have done something that night to save her. He wondered that now more than ever.
“You don’t know nothin’, Denver.”
“Ava Jo, Tillie loved you like a sister. She still does.”
“I know it.”
“You wouldn’t hurt her so, would you? You don’t think I would ever lay a hand on my wife in anger?”
“Of course not, Denver!” She seemed offended at the very thought. “I know you love your wife. I was there the day the locksmith came to put the locks on the office, so you wouldn’t have to keep the guns at home anymore. Don’t you think for a second that I want to do this.”
“I’ve spent the past six years building a reputation, Denver. It’s the most powerful weapon I have. If word got out that I’m a woman… Everything I’ve worked for would be ruined. And don’t you bother tryin’ to tell me you’d keep it a secret.”
“I won’t. It’d be a lie. If we both walk away from here, you can bet I won’t rest ‘til you’re behind bars. I don’t care what your reasons are. You’re a criminal.”
“I know it, Denver.”
A pained silence passed between them. They met each other’s eyes as equals, doing what they each thought was right. There was no resentment in that stare. No hatred. Only sadness, and respect.
There was only one way this could end. They both knew it.
Denver strafed to his right. Ava, to her left.
Each gun fired a single shot.
A beat of silence, and one of them fell.
It wasn’t the Bachelor.