“Not again, Bevins,” Libby whispered to herself as she peered at the horseman’s approach through the latticework of sunlight and shadows. “Not as long as I’ve got breath in my body.”
Obscured by the thick grove of cottonwoods and pines, the rider stopped his horse. Libby had difficulty keeping track of him as dusk settled over the barnyard. Whatever he was up to, it wasn’t good. It never was with Timothy Bevins.
She stepped back from the window until certain she couldn’t be seen, then moved to the front door, checking to see if it was tightly latched. It was.
A small sigh of relief escaped her. But her relief was shortlived. Bevins wouldn’t break into her house. No, that method was too direct and could get him in trouble with the law. He would take an underhanded approach.
Well, you can’t scare me off.
She pressed her lips into a determined line. She wasn’t going anywhere, frightened or not. And she wouldn’t wait for Bevins to make the first move either. She wouldn’t give him a chance to do his dirty work. Not this time.
She grabbed the double-barreled shotgun that rested against the wall. Then, fortifying herself with a deep breath, she walked to Sawyer’s bedroom, peeking inside at the boy lying on the bed.
“Sawyer, something’s got the horses worked up. Probably another coyote. I’m going out to run it off. If you hear anything, don’t be scared. It’s just me.”
“I don’t scare so easy, Libby.” He raised his scabbed-over chin to a brave tilt.
“I know you don’t.” And neither do I.
She hurried through the kitchen to the back door, opened it silently, and stepped outside. Evening had changed the colors of the earth and sky into varying shades of gray and black. The trees were threatening silhouettes, looming overhead, their scraggly arms reaching toward her.
Bevins could be anywhere. Perhaps he watched her even now.
She sidled along the side of the house, making her way toward the wide clearing at the front, searching every shadow. You can’t scare me, you yellow-bellied snake in the grass. You can’t run me off my land.
Libby quit running over six years ago. This was her home, her land. Aunt Amanda had entrusted the ranch to Libby, and she meant to protect it and everyone on it. She wouldn’t let Timothy Bevins run her off, no matter what he did, no matter what he threatened to do. And he wouldn’t get another chance to hurt Sawyer either. Spooking the boy’s horse was the last straw. Absolutely the last straw.
She heard the snap of a twig off to her right. Startled, she turned and, in the waning light, saw him stepping out of the trees. More important, she saw the rifle in his hand.
She reacted instinctively, raising the shotgun and firing before he had a chance to do the same. The kick of the gun slammed her back against the side of the house as she squeezed off the second shot.
She gasped for air, her ears ringing, her shoulder throbbing. Had either shot hit Bevins? She hoped not. She only meant to scare him. As her vision cleared, she looked across the yard and saw him lying in the dirt.
He didn’t move.
Oh, Lord. Don’t let him be dead. Don’t let me be guilty of murder.
Gulping down panic, she dropped the shotgun and cautiously made her way toward him, uncertain what she would do if he was dead, uncertain what she should do if he wasn’t.
She reminded herself that Bevins was to blame for the death of Dan Deevers, Sawyer’s father. Dan, her ranch foreman, had been out in that January ice storm because Bevins ran off more of her sheep. He’d been stealing them a few at a time for the past year. She knew it was him, but she couldn’t prove it. Just like she couldn’t prove he’d spooked Sawyer’s horse on purpose yesterday. The boy could have broken his neck in that fall.
The Good Book said not to hate a man, but Libby had a problem with that command when it came to Bevins. Reaching him, she steeled herself against a bloody sight, then looked down.
Father God, what have I done?
Libby dropped to her knees and stared at the man she’d shot. It wasn’t Bevins. It wasn’t one of Bevins’s hired thugs. It was someone she’d never seen before.
God forgive her. She’d killed an innocent man.
The stranger groaned.
With a quick prayer of thanks that he wasn’t dead after all, Libby sprang into action. She had to stanch the bleeding. No time to wonder who he was or what he’d been doing, sneaking around her place at this time of evening.
She raced to the house, wishing for once that she hadn’t forsaken her long skirts and petticoats for the freedom of denim britches. Cotton petticoats made good bandages.
As soon as she opened the door, she saw Sawyer, bracing himself against the jamb of his bedroom. “What happened, Libby? What’s out there?”
A heartbeat’s hesitation, then she hurried forward. She couldn’t stop and explain. “Go back to bed, Sawyer.”
Before Sawyer turned away, Libby caught a glimpse of tears in his eyes, but she knew better than to apologize. Sawyer was every bit as proud as his father had been and wouldn’t want her to see him crying.
She grabbed a blanket off her bed. It was almost dark and the temperature was dropping. She had to get the stranger inside. In another few minutes, it would be black as pitch out there, not to mention bone-chilling cold.
Her heart pounding, Libby returned to the wounded man. She laid the blanket on the earth beside him, then paused to assess the situation. The long and lanky stranger had a good sixty pounds on her, if not more.