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Crimson Cloak Publishing

Maggie Shelbador is a half-breed succubus with a heart. Though raised inside one of the worst whorehouses in the world, all she wants is to find one man who will love her despite what she is. She dreams of one day being free of her nightmarish life but fears no man will ever truly trust her.

The year is 3515 and most of the world has been destroyed by a combination of natural disasters and man’s neglect. The whole human race faces extinction. To survive, the leaders of the day approach demons for help, not understanding the high price they will be forced to pay. Normally bound by the summoner’s magic, the demons know Maggie is the key to giving them free access to Earth.

Daniel is a widower with a young son. He is out hunting one day when his settlement is attacked and his son abducted. He tracks them to House of Pain, not realizing a trap is being set for him. Though tortured, Daniel refuses to break when they try to force him to prostitute himself—until a beautiful blonde woman is brought into the room, her power stripping away his self-control.

EXCERPT:

CHAPTER 1

Year 3515….

Three riders sat astride dozing horses and watched the lazy progress of a white coach below, murder on their minds. Frank Weston, their self-appointed leader, tipped down the stained brim of his tan cowboy hat to help protect his face from the sun, a bad time of day to be outside. There hadn’t been much of a choice, this their only opportunity to finally be rid of the dangerous bitch riding inside the coach.

Kill the demon before any more of their young men were caught in her trap.

The healthy white coats of the four horses pulling the coach were shiny with sweat. They moved at a brisk trot to help conserve energy, much too hot for the gallop they would soon face. Frank thought it a real shame those beautiful animals below would have to suffer. Lipizzans, from the looks of them, rare, expensive horses.

Though the monster who owned them could certainly afford it.

Six months had passed since the death of his son. Six months to plan his revenge. Down on the desert floor, Frank had three more riders waiting for his signal. Frank and the two men with him would work their way down this desolate hillside and wait closer to the road. The driver of the coach, and the man riding shotgun beside him, were exposed, making it fairly easy for his men to control them while Frank took care of the vicious thing sitting inside.

Though tall, and still considered handsome by many, there was a slump to Frank’s shoulders that hadn’t been there six months before. His once muscular body had grown thin, starting to lean toward frail. These days he kept his dark hair shaved close to his head, no longer caring about his looks . . . or his health. He’d lost his son first, his wife five months later. Life had always been difficult for them, but without Jason, their son, it became unbearable for his wife. She gave up the fight and withered away from a broken heart. As soon as Frank took care of the witch below, he planned to join them. His own life felt empty, and with little chance things would ever change, he no longer wanted to live. The five men riding with Frank understood what drove a man to such desperation and were willing to put their own lives at stake to help him face his nightmare.

“What do ya think, Frank?” Dave Whitfield asked, tugging down the yellow bandana he’d used to protect his lips and nose from sunburn. “If you still wanna do this thing, we gotta pull em over before they reach that range of mountains coming up.”

“Do it,” Frank said, lifting a matching bandana away from his mouth to spit to the side of his pony.

Dave, a short stocky man about the same age as Frank, nodded, a slight tremble visible in his hand as he raised the flare gun. The sun had aged him beyond his forty-four years, as it did with everyone forced to spend too many hours outside during the day. The heavy lines around his eyes and mouth, along with the multiple liver spots on his face and arms, put him closer to sixty. When the coach turned away on the curvy road below, he lifted the barrel toward the sky and sent a bright flare high above them.

“Let’s go,” Frank said, kicking his mare in the ribs to wake her up. “I know I don’t need to remind ya, but I’ll say it anyway, watch your backs. Once we get em stopped, don’t let that demon witch get close enough to touch you.” Pain exploded inside him and he closed his eyes, pressing his hand against his chest. “One touch is all it takes. Your soul…” Frank stopped, his lower lip trembling. “…will belong to her.” Just like my boy’s did.

He rubbed at his eyes, then spat again, wishing to be rid of the nasty taste of those painful memories. Killing the demon might help, but Frank knew they’d always be there.

Both his friends nodded, their expressions grim as they fell into step behind Frank. Unlike the finer animals below, they rode mountain stock, sturdy, tough little ponies. All three animals were sorrel in color, plain except for the white star or blaze found on their slight roman noses. But the beasts were sure-footed, their stamina more than making up for what they lacked in physical beauty.

The trail down took them a little under ten minutes to negotiate. It curved around a bare hill, packed hard and dusty with very little grass or plant life, leaving them less than fifty feet from the main road. Frank pulled his ancient Colt revolver from the holster on his hip, releasing the catch to double check that it was loaded, a motion he’d already gone through countless times today. Most of the night had been spent around a campfire, cleaning and oiling their old weapons, Frank going over last-minute plans with the other five men. They couldn’t afford to take chances with avoidable problems—such as a misfire because of an empty chamber.

The witch, or demon (nobody seemed sure what to call her), was too smart, too fast . . . too powerful. Frank knew he wouldn’t get a second chance to kill her. He only hoped the demon’s human guards would cooperate, knowing he’d take no pleasure in killing them, though if they forced his hand he’d do whatever it took to get the job done. He understood that times were tough for everyone and a man needed to work, even if it meant doing so for a monster like Olemjessa. She was the true one at fault here for bringing the demon into the world, ultimately resulting in Jason’s untimely death.

“Ready, boys?” Frank said as the thunder of hooves and the rattle of the coach drew closer. “Remember, don’t let the bitch get close enough to touch you. And for God’s sake, don’t look at her face, especially her eyes. They say her beauty alone is enough to mesmerize a man. If she happens to catch me, somehow tricks me into looking at her, I expect one of you boys to kill me . . . same as I’ll do for you.”

A couple of grunts were their only replies. All three lifted their soiled bandanas over their noses, more to keep out the fine dust raised by the coach and team of horses than to hide their faces.

The flare had been a signal for the three riders below to give chase. They’d decided last night that three miles should probably be enough to wind the four stagecoach horses. Frank and the two men with him would block their only escape. Then came the dangerous part, getting a clean shot off at the demon. One small mistake on their part and all six of them could lose their lives

Foam dotted the chests of the front two horses, their bright white coats darkened with sweat. Frank and the two men with him stepped out into the middle of the road, guns drawn, aimed at the horses, not the two men sitting out in the open. The driver pulled back hard on the reins and the tongues of the first two animals flopped to the side of the bit, mouths opened wide as they tried to escape the pressure. It didn’t take long for the coach to roll to a stop, the horses dancing in place, breathing hard after the long run.

Frank waited for the leggy coachman in the back compartment to jump down and run forward. Though it was obvious the animal couldn’t go anywhere, he stopped at the head of the left lead horse and took hold of the reins, petting the animal to help calm it. Frank scowled when he realized the coachman was only a young boy, fourteen, maybe fifteen years old. Younger even than Jason.

Monsters! he thought with disgust. Every blasted one deserves to be shot! He prayed it wouldn’t be too late for this boy, that his mind and soul hadn’t been corrupted by the evil surrounding him. At least they hadn’t forced the kid to sit inside with the demon, giving him hope for the boy’s intact soul.

“Everyone out of the coach,” Frank said between gritted teeth, voice gruff. He motioned with his Colt for the coach door, knowing they could see him through the window. “Move it, now!”

“You fellas are making a big mistake here,” the driver said, a smile twitching at the corners of his wide mouth. A good-looking man, early thirties, tall and lanky with blond hair and a trimmed goatee. The driver slipped off his dark glasses and tucked the frame into his shirt before locking cold blue eyes on Frank. “I suggest you turn those nice lil ponies around and get on back to your homes. Trust me, boys, we got nothin’ here you wanna be messin’ around with.” He paused, letting his words sink in before he added, “You don’t wanna see your boys here get hurt, my good man . . . or worse.” The last was said softly, his eyes narrowing under the brightness of the sun. “Tell em to put the guns away and then you can all ride outta here. Nobody has to die here today.”

Frank knew well what the ‘or worse’ part meant, but it wasn’t enough to stop him. Jaws clenched, he met and held the challenging stare of the driver, whose posture showed no fear, only confidence in his ability to maintain control over the situation. His long blond hair was tied back, the end of the ponytail flipped beneath his wide-brimmed hat. Sensing this one might cause them trouble, Frank’s hope for an easy end to this nightmare dissolved.

“Get on with it,” Frank said, nodding toward the door of the coach. “Let’s get this thing over with. We both know it needs done.”

“All righty then, it’s your funeral. Can’t say I didn’t try to warn ya.” The driver ran the fingers of his left hand down both sides of a goatee several shades darker than his hair. He grinned as he tied off the fistful of reins and then hopped down, landing gracefully beside the wheel. After taking a moment to stretch out his long legs, he slapped red road dust off his snug-fitting jeans and then walked toward the door of the coach, one eyebrow raised in question as he reached out for the handle.

“You sure?” he asked, the blond driver grinning up at Frank, his posture totally relaxed, cocky for someone faced with six armed men. Only confidence shone from his pale eyes.

His unease rising, Frank blew softly through his lips, nodding toward the older man riding shotgun. “Put that scatter gun on the seat and hop down.” He motioned with his pistol toward the kid. “Stand up there by the boy.”

The older guy chuckled, acting no more worried than the driver had. He carefully set the shotgun across the seat and groaned as he hopped down, taking a few seconds to stretch before he limped up by the boy, a hitch in his right leg. The old guy winked as he swatted the kid playfully on the shoulder, then he grinned up at Frank, heavy lines crinkling around his dark blue eyes. Frank barely held off a shiver, somewhat shocked to find the old man’s eyes icy cold. His unease rose another couple of notches.

“Open it up,” Frank said, irritated when his nerves caused the barrel of his gun to wobble.

The blond already had his hand on the door of the coach, but turned one more time to face Frank. “We both know nothin’ good is gonna come outta this, my man. Sure I can’t talk you out of it?” When Frank didn’t answer, the guy grimaced, releasing the latch. “Sorry, Miss,” he said, stepping up close to the open door. “Afraid there’s a little business to handle before we can move on.”

A petite white-gloved hand appeared, and Frank’s guts immediately twisted into tight knots, her hand much smaller than he’d envisioned. He shifted his gaze away from the slender arm, terrified of what would follow, but almost immediately found himself looking back. As she set her small hand lightly on top of the driver’s forearm, a few white-blonde strands of hair fell forward over her bare shoulder.

Frank shuddered, repulsed.

He scowled, keeping the demon in his peripheral vision (disguised now in the form of a beautiful woman), as he focused on the three men who’d chased the coach. Their ponies were breathing hard, front legs dancing in place, ready to bolt at the first light nudge from their riders. He pitied the lost soul of the man assisting the demon, Frank grateful he wouldn’t be forced to touch her. Rumor said that she could use dark magic to control lust in all men, young or old, sick or healthy, didn’t matter. With hardly a glance she could knock the poor bastards straight to their knees, make them a slave to desire . . . desire for her. And once enslaved, it became a hellish existence few could ever hope to escape.

Frank knew it was true because his son had been one of them.

The five men with him were all older, hardened men, same as him. He’d hoped men with a little age and experience might hold a better chance against the demon’s power. Randal Fleming, a tall slender man, and one of the three who’d put the chase on the coach, dismounted while the other two remained in the saddle, watchful, rifles held ready. He stepped out in front of them, his revolver aimed toward the woman, searching for a clean shot past her driver. Tough as nails, nothing much bothered Randal. It’s why they’d chosen him to be the one to dismount, try to get in close enough to dispose of her. They’d hoped he could fight off her witchy magic long enough to get a shot off. It didn’t matter to Frank who killed the bitch just so long as the job got done.

As he stepped closer, the barrel of Randal’s gun began to tremble almost as badly as Frank’s. Randal glanced over at Frank, terror in his eyes.

They’d made a mistake. Frank knew immediately that they should never have come down here. He’d underestimated her. They should have listened to the driver of the coach and turned away while they still could. These good men, his lifelong friends, were going to die today because of him, because he hadn’t been able to accept the loss of his son and wife.

Taking a deep breath first, Frank shifted his gaze to the demon. “Stay back,” he said to Randal. “Get back on your horse.”

Randal didn’t hesitate to obey, practically running back to his pony. He took the reins from one of the others, then stood watching from the ground, slowly shaking his head at Frank, eyes wide, spooked. Another warning.

Jason had spoken often of the demon’s beauty, but simple words could never do her justice. No wonder the boy had worshiped the ground she walked on. Frank’s breath left in one big swoosh, his lungs forgetting to draw in another. When she cast her sea-green eyes in his direction, Frank’s heart thumped, the hard pulse felt in his throat, in his ears, making it difficult to hear anything else. His mouth opened and closed, a fish out of water, though no words would form. He couldn’t think, couldn’t remember why he’d even come to this godforsaken place. Her long white-blonde hair reached well below her slender hips, the tips curling over snug jeans, resembling the heads and tails of many writhing snakes.

Medusa!

No, not real, it couldn’t be. Only an illusion?

Sweat trickled down the sides of his face. All the stories were true. The witch had easily trapped Frank and the others beneath her spell. It only took a passing glance to turn him into a living statue, powerless against her. He gasped when the spell suddenly broke, sound rushing back in with a roar, almost painful after the few terrifying seconds of total silence.

Frank sucked in a noisy breath and then blinked the sweat from his eyes, shocked to realize it was only a light breeze blowing the tips of her hair against slender hip, not snake heads hissing and writhing. He sucked in another breath, trying to kick-start his oxygen-starved brain into action.

God help us, Frank thought. We should have run.

The witch turned and stretched a delicate hand toward the interior of the coach, dark sunglasses in her grip when she pulled it back. Frank watched, still sucking in jerky breaths and wishing he was anywhere else but here, even back in his silent, empty home. Fire began to build in his belly as an erection sprang to life, straining against the confines of his worn jeans. His face flamed red and Frank prayed his men wouldn’t notice.

Or maybe they were fighting boners of their own.

“God help me,” Frank murmured. Never had he wanted a woman like this one, not even Jason’s mother, and he’d loved the woman with all his heart and soul.

With great effort, he glanced away, reading amusement on her delicate features, his face reddening even more. But if he were honest, there’d also noticed a hint of sadness there, and this puzzled Frank. He’d been told she liked to watch men suffer, that she enjoyed humiliating them, getting off on breaking them, dominating them. A professional dominatrix. Rage burned deep inside his guts, but it warred now with the blistering heat of his lust.

And his rage would lose this fight. Frank snarled and tried to raise his gun against her.

And she smiled, so gentle, so beautiful. So sad.

He froze, then breathed a soft sigh of relief when she slipped the dark shades over her eyes. “Please,” he whimpered, knowing he’d be good as lost if she touched him, no better off than his son. But even knowing that, Frank wasn’t certain if his whispered ‘Please’ had been begging for mercy or begging her to take him. Until that very second, he’d never fully understood the extent of her power.

He should never have agreed to let Jason work at Darkest Pleasures, Olemjessa’s place of business. Olemjessa had promised him that Jason would never have a reason to go near the demon, though obviously she had lied. Jason was only supposed to run errands, do some cleaning, help with livestock. He wasn’t supposed to work inside.

“What can I do for you gentlemen today?” she asked, her gentle voice almost musical.

Frank shuddered as sparks of warmth exploded deep in his guts, his erection throbbing, his balls aching for release. Humiliated, he dropped his hand behind the saddle horn, trying to hide the bulge from the bitch and her guards. But they already knew, he could see it in their faces, though it surprised Frank to find only pity and understanding there, not the amusement he’d imagined.

When she began to speak, his gaze returned to her angelic face. Please take off the glasses, he thought, almost desperate to see those gorgeous green eyes again. When the light breeze carried the flowery scent of her perfume across the hot sand to him, Frank tipped his head back and closed his eyes, nostrils flared. He smiled, releasing a soft groan, as if lost in a pleasant dream.

“Gentlemen, I’m afraid we don’t have a great deal of time.” She hesitated, smiling at the blond driver when he stepped out from behind the coach door to stand beside her. “Noah, aren’t we due in town in less than an hour?”

He tipped his head in a slight bow, the smile gone when he shifted his sight back to Frank. “Yes, ma’am, we’re expected at the House of Pain, but since the horses need a break after the long run in this heat, you have time to . . . speak with these gentlemen for a few minutes.” The smile returned, though his eyes remained cold.

She sighed. “I suppose it would be rude of me not to, especially after they’ve gone to such trouble to speak with me.”

Frank glanced toward the bitch’s driver, more afraid of him at the moment than her. He sensed the real danger to his life, and the lives of his friends, came from the man, not the woman beside him. She only wanted to make Frank pay for bothering her, humiliate him in front of his friends. The man didn’t care if they lived or died.

Frank growled, kicking his horse forward. He ignored the erection. What was the point of trying to hide it? His men probably suffered the same embarrassment. “Look, lady, I know I can’t kill you today, but I still got somethin’ needs saying.” He pursed his lips for a second, disgusted by the distraction of lustful thoughts breaking through. “I never believed all the stories people told about your power over a man’s body, not really. I thought….” He stopped, forced to fight off the need to sob, his emotions running in crazy circles: enraged, sad, scared, lustful, back to enraged. A literal train wreck, not one in the making, but one already crashed.

“You bitch! You killed my son and you deserve to pay for it. I’d give my soul right now to send you straight back to hell. We both know it’s where you belong.” He glanced over at the blond driver. “I don’t know how you can stand it, being so close to her, touching her.” Frank’s eyes dropped to the man’s crotch, but could find no hint of a bulge, at least nothing like his own problem. “Look what she’s doing to me! She’s a monster!” A little of the coldness in the man’s pale eyes was replaced with pity, and Frank wasn’t sure which he found worse. “I don’t need your fucking pity,” he growled. “I want vengeance, asshole. My son deserves it.”

“Maybe so,” Noah said gently, “but it ain’t gonna happen today.”

“What was your son’s name?” the woman asked, reaching out to touch the driver’s arm.

Frank flinched at the gentle tone, angered by her false concern. “Jason, his name was Jason Weston. Just a kid, for god’s sake, barely sixteen years old.” He closed his eyes and groaned, pressing against the front of the saddle, desperate for relief from the intense pressure building. “What did you do to him? Christ, he took one look at you and couldn’t think of nothin’ else. When you….” Frank stopped again, choking on his pain. “He said you laughed at him, but he wouldn’t tell me why. He . . . he . . . said he’d rather be dead than live without you. Ain’t right what you did to my boy. What you’ll do to another one if we don’t stop you.” He nodded toward the kid holding the horses. “Like that one there. It’ll never end. I don’t care about myself anymore, long as I can stop you.”

Her turn to flinch. “I remember Jason. A very nice young man. I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Weston. I wasn’t told of his death. But this is not the way to handle it.” She slipped her shades off and looked him in the eye. “I know what you’ve been told about me, what you believe, but most of the rumors are lies. I’ve no more control over my life than your son had with his. I’m a slave to Olemjessa, just as Jason was.” She stopped and took a deep breath, her gaze shifting to the bare mountains behind Frank. “Please, I beg you, don’t try to force my hand today. You’ll lose. Go back to your home, all of you, before someone else gets hurt. Don’t make Jason’s mother lose more than her son.”

Frank snarled, kicking his confused mare forward another step. “You freak! What would you know about Jason’s mother? She blamed me for losing him! Me, not you! I had no choice but to let him work for Olemjessa. There’s no jobs except those out in the sun. Might as well put a bullet in your own head. Olemjessa offered Jason a job and promised me he wouldn’t be used . . . be used….” He wiped the stinging sweat from his eyes. Or tears? “She couldn’t use him as a whore!”

The witch’s beautiful face hardened. “You knew what Olemjessa was when you handed your son over to her. You knew what she did for a living.” She sighed. “What did you think would happen, Mr. Weston? Jason was a handsome young boy. Did you think a woman like her would actually ignore that potential? You played the part of the fool, Mr. Weston. I’m sorry for your loss, but there’s nothing I can do to help you, not then, and certainly not now. You played right into my master’s hands.”

“What’s wrong with you people, all of you? You know the truth. You could go to the authorities, turn her in for using underage kids for sex games, put a stop to this nonsense!”

“Go home, Mr. Weston,” she said, her tone tired. “You made a terrible mistake and now you have to suffer the consequences. Believe me, I would never allow Olemjessa anywhere near my son. No amount of money could’ve convinced me otherwise, no promises or contract good enough to make me trust her. Better to starve or die of cancer. You are as much at fault here as Olemjessa in this case, but you find it easier to blame someone else, to blame me, than to accept responsibility for your own actions.”

Frank sucked in a noisy breath. “You rotten bitch. She promised. I would’ve taken him out before he turned eighteen! I had no intentions of leaving him there beyond that.”

“Are you sure?” The demon sighed and glanced up at her driver, her mouth molded into a thin tight line. “You lie to yourself even now, Mr. Weston. Do you think Olemjessa got where she is by being stupid? She knew you were desperate, ripe for the picking. Don’t you understand, Olemjessa knows how to work the law to her favor. Your boy would’ve been trained, made ready for a time when he could be used legally. At eighteen the decision would fall to him, not you, but you placed your boy in a position where he would learn to accept it. Olemjessa is my master. She owns me. And because of your stupid bargain with the devil, she owned your son. I pray you’ve learned a lesson so it won’t ever happen again.” She took a moment to look at each of them. “All of you.”

Frank stopped fighting against it and openly sobbed. “So that’s it, huh, you trained my boy? Used him . . . laughed at him.” He motioned toward the bulge in his jeans. “You used your power, this power, to lure him in, and then what? Did you laugh when he couldn’t perform well enough? Destroy his confidence? What did you expect from a young boy, a virgin? You made Jason think you loved him. He would’ve done anything for you, a fucking monster from hell.”

The bitch closed her eyes and sighed. “You and your friends are free to go, Mr. Weston. Please do so. I’m sorry I couldn’t be of help to you . . . or Jason. You have my deepest sympathies for your loss.”

Frank didn’t know if he could pull the trigger, but he managed to aim his revolver at her chest, unsure what it would take to kill a demon-witch. He tried to avoid looking at her face, knowing that behind those shades her intense green eyes were focused hard on his face. “Please step away from the coach,” he said, the barrel of his gun trembling violently. It’d take a miracle to hit her. “I got nothing against your men. They can go. I only want you.” A second, dark-haired man, this one slightly older, clean-shaven with brown eyes, stepped out of the coach and took his place on her left, the blond driver remaining on her right. The boy and the older man who’d been riding shotgun stayed at the head of the nearest lead horse. Recovered from their exhausting run, all four horses grew restless, beginning to paw at the ground with shod hooves.

She only shook her head and softly sighed, showing no hint of fear as she slowly pulled the silky white glove from her left hand.

Puzzled, Frank found his sight locked on that fragile-looking hand, her skin almost the same milky-white shade as the glove. Long, perfectly manicured red fingernails were a sharp contrast next to the pale skin. She folded the glove in her hand and then lifted her index finger toward her mouth. Very slowly she pushed it between her full red lips, a tight seal formed around the single digit as she sucked. Her gaze locked on Frank’s face as she deliberately began to slide her finger in and out, an obscene gesture, but one that held him completely captivated. He couldn’t look away, his hand moving back to the growing bulge in his jeans.

“Leave us,” she said after sliding her wet finger free, running it lightly over her shiny lips. “Leave now, Frank, while you can, your pride still intact.”

Frank groaned, half in pain, half in pleasure. Before he understood what was happening, he’d turned the barrel of the gun toward his own face. Horrified, Frank found he was no longer in control of his own actions. He slipped the tip of the barrel into his mouth, gagging on the strong taste of metal and gun oil, then sucked as he slid it slowly in and out, his lips wrapped tight around the warm steel, mimicking the witch’s earlier action with her finger. He groaned again as a tear slipped free and down the side of his sweaty face, Frank began to roll his hips against the front of his saddle.

“What in God’s name ya doin’, Frank?” one of his men called out. “Jesus, buddy, you okay? I mean, what the fuck!” He turned toward the woman and raised his gun. “Hey, you?” He waited for her to turn and look. “Yeah, you. Now listen up here, bitch, you best stop whatever the hell you’re doing to Frank, you hear me? You stop this shit right now or I swear to God, I’ll blow your fucking head off.”

The blond driver stepped in front of the woman, his pale eyes cold when he said, “Take your friends and leave. Don’t listen and you won’t like what happens when he gets off.” He nodded toward Frank, still thrusting against the saddle horn, the gun in his mouth, thumb in the trigger. “Think about it, my man.” His hand and fingers made the motion of a bomb going off.

“But why?” Dave said, side-passing his horse over next to Frank, obviously not sure what to do about the gun. “Why are you doing this?”

“It is how it is,” the blond called Noah said. “When it comes to kids, our lady doesn’t like what takes place at Olemjessa’s business any more than you do, or your friend there, the one who lost his son.” He nodded toward Frank, whose movements were getting more and more frantic. “We’re all forced to make sacrifices, or whatever else ugliness gets passed our way. The difference between him and our lady is that she takes responsibility for her actions. Your friend there doesn’t. Now leave. I don’t have the patience of the woman you could so easily judge and execute.”

Frank’s horse began to wander off, changing course every five or six steps, her ears twitching back and forth. Frank looked over his shoulder as the other five men watched in horror. They waited for their one man to mount his horse and then they all trotted to catch up.

The gun slipped from Frank’s mouth and dropped to the ground as he shuddered and fought not to groan, a wet spot darkening the front of his tight jeans.

Dave pressed his horse close to Frank’s side, reaching out to squeeze his arm. “Hey, there, boss, you okay?”

Tears flowed freely down Frank’s lined face, his eyes squinted almost closed against the bright sun. His shoulders jerked as he fought not to sob. Frank only wished he could’ve pulled the trigger, finally put an end to his guilt and pain. He left the gun where it fell, half afraid he might still do it . . . but even more afraid he wouldn’t.