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CHAPTER ONE


Texas 1870

Peaceful, Texas was the last place on earth Jake Gallagher wanted to be.

The hot, still air of the cantina hung heavy with smoke, the stench of stale tobacco and beer mingling unpleasantly with unwashed bodies. He fingered the damp bandanna at his throat, then tugged his hat lower over his eyes and sank into his chair. A swig of flat, lukewarm beer did little to wash away the taste of trail dust.

Seated in a shadowed corner beneath the stairs, Jake had a good view of the cantina. With his back to the wall and the rear exit close at hand, he held himself apart from the poker game at the next table. Despite his relaxed appearance, his whole body thrummed with the tension in the room.

The men, a mean, hungry-looking bunch, appeared ready to raise hell. Wisely, the cantina's few other patrons and the barkeep quickly found reason to be elsewhere, all but himself and one other man, an easterner by the look of him.

Jake shifted in his chair. The letter resting in his shirt pocket crackled. Lavender. Even though the crumpled paper, with faded script, had long ago lost its smell, he remembered the scent. The words burned in his memory. Come home, Jake, they pleaded.

Home. Two years. Could he go home now? Had enough time passed to ease the pain of angry words?

Maybe. But he couldn't leave now. First, he had business with Rico, the leader of this motley group.

Now the only paper of importance lay hidden in his saddlebags, ready, if necessary, to ease his entry into Rico's band.

Revulsion filled Jake as he looked over at Rico. Short and given to fat, the Mexican fancied himself a dandy and dressed accordingly, his mismatched finery stained and strained at the seams.

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