Isabella Gilmour woke one more thinking it was just another day. It wasn’t. It was the day the horrifying news thundered down on her: her husband haD been shot dead by Bart Conway, the scion of the biggest cattle rancher of Junction City, Texas. In her moment of anguish, she invokes Mosaic Law: an eye for an eye, a life for a life. She makes a simple request of her father: “Go get Stephen’s rifle.”
Her desperate father begs her to let the legal system work. Will she, or will she let justice come in the form of a bullet?
When Isabella Gilmour saw Dick Darby riding at full speed over the rise, she knew something bad had happened. No one rides like that to deliver good news. She stopped her work with her family’s horses and waited.
Her father, Malachi Metcalf, heard the hoofbeats as well. He had been working at repairing a section of the pasture fence. He also stopped and leaned against the new fence.
“Expecting anything?” he asked.
“Nothing good,” she replied. She wiped her hands on the apron she always wore when she worked.
The rider craned his neck, scanning the area. Isabella wanted to wave her hand and signal Darby, get whatever he’s got to say out as soon as possible, but knew that he’d find her eventually. The summer weather here in south Texas scorched the earth. It was August and only crazy people worked outside in this heat. Crazy people or folks that had no other choice to make a living.
Darby spotted the pair and turned his horse towards them. He angled the chestnut gelding around the main house, past the barn, and into the area between the pasture and the hog pen. He barely reigned the horse to a halt before he dismounted. Momentum carried him forward and he tripped, landing face first in the dirt.
“Take it easy, there,” Malachi said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Darby stood and brushed off his clothes. His shirt, wet with sweat, stuck to his chest. The dirt that found its way there started congealed to mud. He stepped forward and removed his hat.
Isabella’s stomach dropped to her feet. Dread coursed through her.
“Mrs. Gilmour, ma’am,” Darby began, “there’s been an accident.”
“What happened?” Isabella said. Her voice croaked with worry and curiosity. Darby was a hired hand on the Gilmour family farm. He mainly worked the fields with her husband. “Where’s Stephen?”
“Mrs. Gilmour, I’m sorry to say this, but your husband’s been shot dead.”
Isabella Gilmour’s legs gave out from under her. She slumped to the ground, dust curling around her. She put a hand to her mouth. Tears welled in her eyes.
Malachi crouched next to his daughter and hugged her tightly. The two of them sat there, in the dirt, and cried together. Darby merely stood there, working the brim of his hat, discreetly looking elsewhere. His horse had meandered over near the pasture fence where he and the Gilmour’s mares snuffed at each other. He walked over to his mount and pulled down the canteen hung around the saddle horn. He gulped warm water that soothed his dry throat but didn’t fill the hole in his heart.
Finally, Isabella looked up at him, her eyes rimmed with red. “What happened?”
Darby wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He hung the canteen back on the saddle and neared Isabella and her father. They were both standing now.
“It’s a little unclear.”
“Dick, you were working with Stephen over the rise on our east property. How can you not know?”
Darby cleared his throat. “Well, you see, I wasn’t there when it happened.”
“Where were you?”
“I was taking care of nature’s call.” He sounded sheepish, almost like a child. “I didn’t want to do it on your land and all so I went up a ways and took care of my business. It was in the trees. I heard some shouting and hollering. I couldn’t hear what was said, but I heard “This is my land” very clearly. It was Stephen that said it.”
Malachi said, “Do you know who he was talkin’ to?”
“Didn’t see his face, but I saw his horse. Gray roan, I believe.”
Isabella’s face hardened. “There’s only one man I know of who rides a gray horse.”
“Why’d Bart Conway want to shoot Stephen?” Malachi asked.
Bart Conway was the scion of Bartholomew Conway. The elder Conway moved into the area twenty years ago and generated a bountiful crop the first year. He withstood the droughts that crashed fellow growers’ land by shifting to cattle ranching. He really made his killing when the railroad proposed running new track in the middle of his land. He sold his acres for a hefty profit, enabling him to expand his cattle business. The younger Conway, growing up privileged, generally did whatever he wanted, including troublemaking, and his father always backed him up.
Darby had no response. Isabella started walking to the stable. She viciously wiped new tears from her eyes. Minutes later, astride her horse, a beautiful chestnut paint, she said to Darby, “Show me the place.”
“Wait a minute,” Malachi said. “I’m coming, too.”
The three riders crested a small rise and gazed down into a small, flat plain. Mesquite trees bordered the far sides and a rocky outcropping framed the north end. Below, the open farm land was almost completely tilled. At the far side, a mule stood, attached to a hoe. On the ground behind the tiller was a body.
“No, no, no,” Isabella cried. She dug her heels into her horse’s sides. The steed leapt forward and galloped toward the fallen man. Darby and Malachi held back and allowed her extra time to grieve.
Isabella’s eye took in the panorama through eyes glazed with tears. She and Stephen had met thirteen years ago. He was new to town, moved here with his parents as an thirteen-year-old. It was an awkward time for him. Schooling back in his home state of Louisiana hadn’t been regular. He preferred to work the land anyway. But his parents insisted he get caught up on school and that placed him with Isabella and her existing classmates. They had made fun of the tall, gangly boy who talked funny. Isabella thought it charming, different than the slang she heard every day of her life. She and Stephen had become friends, then more than friends, then husband and wife. Her classmates stopped making fun of him after he matured and his body took on hard, lean muscles as a result of working the land. The women of the town grew to envy Isabella. The men in town envied Stephen, for Isabella herself had grown into a beauty as well. Two pretty people had found each other in the awkward stage of life and had stuck together.
Now, they were torn asunder.
Openly crying, Isabella jumped off her horse and ran to Stephen’s body. The bullet that had pierced his heart left a ragged hole in his work shirt. It was wet with his blood and sweat. She sagged to her knees and cradled his upper body in her arms. She caressed his face and wiped his hair to the side, the way he always styled it for Sunday services. His face had lost the rigor and had sagged into a natural state. He looked like he was sleeping.
After a time—she didn’t know how long; time seemed to stop for her—a shadow fell across her and her dead husband. She looked up, blinking in the sunlight. Her father stood nearby. Darby as well. Both men held their hats in their hands. Tears filled her father’s eyes.
“Daddy,” Isabella said, her voice taking on a distant tone, “go get Stephen’s rifle.”