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Authors: Madeline Baker

The Angel and the Outlaw

BOOK: The Angel and the Outlaw
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The Angel and the Outlaw
Madeline Baker

 

Prologue

Cedar Ridge, Wyoming

April 10, 1875

 

They were going to hang him. No last words of confession or appeal. No hope of reprieve.

Resigned, he stared toward the east where the sun was rising on a new day.

The last day of his life.

Fear uncoiled deep in his belly as the hangman dropped a thick black hood over his head, shrouding him in darkness. The bitter taste of bile rose in his throat and he choked it back, though he couldn’t stifle the convulsive chills that racked his body. He wished suddenly, fervently, uselessly, that his life hadn’t turned out as it had, that he had done things differently.

Too late to think of turning over a new leaf now, he thought bleakly. Years too late. A lifetime too late.

He broke into a cold sweat as he felt the hangman slip the rope over his head, shuddered as he felt the noose tighten around his neck, felt the thick knot, snug beneath his left ear.

He heard a quick intake of breath from the crowd and knew the hangman had reached for the lever to spring the trap, knew his life expectancy could now be measured in seconds.

Nausea churned within him as every muscle in his body grew taut. He had seen men hanged before, seen their faces, their eyes bulging, their tongues turning black, their feet kicking in a dance of death.

In a last lucid instant, he realized it was true, one’s life did flash before one’s eyes.

In a dizzying kaleidoscope of blurred images, he viewed all the choices he had made in his lifetime—wrong choices, every one—and knew, deep in his soul, that he was getting no less than he deserved. Knew that hell would be waiting for him when he had breathed his last breath.

And then he was falling, twisting, spinning into an endless abyss that spiraled down, down, into eternal darkness…

And then he lost the ability to think, to feel, as thick smothering blackness engulfed him, putting an end to all thought, all hope, as he plunged into an endless black void…

Only it wasn’t endless. He had a brief glimpse of his body, twitching at the end of the rope, of the faces of the crowd as they watched, eyes wide with horrified fascination. And then he became aware of a bright white light that seemed to beckon him.

Dazed, he moved toward the light and as he did so, it grew brighter, enveloping him in a soft cocoon of warmth and love. A love that was pure, unconditional, and all-encompassing.

He glanced over his shoulder, left and right, but all he could see was the dazzling white light, brighter than the noonday sun.

“Where the hell am I?” he muttered under his breath.

“Not hell, I assure you.” The disembodied voice was low and soft and definitely male.

J.T. took a step backward. “Who are you?
Where
are you?”

“All in good time.”

“Am I dead?”

“Most assuredly.”

“Too bad,” he retorted, resorting to sarcasm as he always did when his back was against the wall. “I always wanted to see the ocean before I died.”

“You should have lived your life differently then.”

“Yeah. So, now what? Eternal damnation? The flames of hell? Perdition?”

“No hope of heaven?” inquired that same hushed voice.

J.T. laughed softly, bitterly. He had long ago forfeited any right, any hope, of heaven…

“You are a rare and interesting case, John Cutter.”

“Yeah? How so?”

“You never had a chance to redeem yourself while in mortality. It seems someone made a vital error somewhere along the line. You were never given the opportunity to prove there was good in you, that you could be saved if given the chance.”

J.T. frowned. “What are you trying to say?”

“I am saying, J.T., that you are being given a second chance.”

“To do what?”

“To prove yourself.”

J.T. shook his head, thoroughly confused. He glanced around, looking for the source of the voice, for streets paved with gold or the flames of hell, anything to tell him where he was. “I don’t understand.”

“Think about your life. Lying. Cheating. Stealing. Drunkenness. Gambling. Brawling. Gunfights. Consorting with lascivious women…”

J.T. held up his hands in surrender as, all too clearly, his transgressions rose up to haunt him, reminding him of the men he had killed, banks he had robbed, card games he had cheated at. The horse he had stolen…

Hanged as a horse thief, he mused with bitter regret. You couldn’t sink much lower than that, he thought, and then he grinned ruefully. The big Appaloosa stallion had been one hell of a horse.

“Indeed it was,” the voice said. “But was it worth dying for?”

Taken aback, J.T. shook his head. “No.”

“Most people learn several basic precepts during their lifetime. They learn to give. To love. To sacrifice. During your time on earth, you accomplished none of those things, but instead spent your time learning to take what was not yours, to hate, to deprive others of that for which they had worked long and hard and held dear.”

J.T. scowled. “Considering how I grew up, that shouldn’t surprise you.”

“Nothing ever surprises me.”

“Can we forget the lecture? Just send me to hell and get it over with. I’ve got it coming.”

“You do, indeed,” the voice agreed, “but, as I said, you’re being given a second chance.”

“To do what?” He practically screamed the words.

“To learn the eternal precepts you failed to learn the first time.”

“Who are you?” J.T. asked, peering into the light’s brightness. “Why can’t I see you?”

In less than a heartbeat, the light coalesced into a luminous being clad in a long, voluminous white robe.

“Who I am is not important, but, since you asked, you may call me Gideon,” the personage remarked. “I am your guardian angel.”

“Angel,” J.T. shook his head in disbelief as he stared at the being before him. The man—angel—had long blond hair and radiant blue eyes. His face glowed with a heavenly light.

“Remember,” Gideon warned, his voice deepening like thunder. “You have only a year, J.T. Cutter. Twelve months to redeem your soul from hell. Do not waste this year as you wasted all the others.”

“Wait, dammit…”

“Only a year, John Cutter,” Gideon warned, his image fading even as his voice grew faint. “Only a year…”

J.T. laughed softly. A year. Well, it was twelve months more than he’d had a few minutes ago. If he played his cards right, he could cram a lot of living into those twelve months.

Chapter One

Cedar Ridge, Wyoming

April 8, 1995

 

“And so he was hanged,” Brandy declared, closing the book. “A fitting end to such a despicable man.”

Brandy Talavera’s gaze roamed over the children in her third-grade class. “Let that be a lesson to you. Wickedness never was happiness, and sooner or later, you must pay the piper.”

“What does that mean?”

Brandy smiled at Nancy Leigh. “It means, sweeting, that if you do something wrong, sooner or later you’ll get caught, and then you’ll have to suffer the consequences.” Brandy shook her head. “It means if you’re naughty, sooner or later you’ll be punished. Understand?”

Nancy Leigh nodded, her blonde curls bouncing. “Why was he such a bad man?”

“I’m not sure. According to the history books, his father was a gambler and his mother was a…” Brandy hesitated. She didn’t feel up to explaining what a prostitute was to a group of eight year-olds. “His mother died when he was thirteen or fourteen, and he spent his time hanging out with some bad companions, which is why you should choose your friends wisely.”

Brandy nodded toward the back of the room where one of the more troublesome boys had raised his hand. “Yes, Bobby?”

“If J.T. Cutter was such a bad man, why does the town make such a big fuss about him?”

Brandy had always wondered that herself, but then, in the ’90s, the only heroes seemed to be outlaws, and J.T. Cutter was the only famous, or infamous, person Cedar Ridge could lay claim to.

“I think the town remembers the anniversary of his death to emphasize what I just said to Nancy Leigh,” Brandy explained. “To show that crime doesn’t pay.”

Bobby frowned, suddenly reminded of the candy bar he had stolen from the cafeteria earlier that day. “Oh.”

“All right, class, that’s all for today. Don’t forget to read your assignments. I’ll see you on Monday.”

Brandy sighed, then sat down behind her desk and began to sort through the stacks of papers spread before her. Some were tests to be graded, some were past homework assignments. She tried to concentrate on grading the papers, but all she could think about was the outlaw who had been hanged at the far end of town over a hundred years ago. Tomorrow was the beginning of Wild West Days. On Saturday, there would be a rodeo, a pie-eating contest, and several other events, including a hog calling contest. On Sunday, there would be a barbecue and a parade and, finally, a re-enactment of the trial and hanging of J.T. Cutter.

Of course, they wouldn’t actually hang anyone. Paul Jackson would play the nefarious outlaw during the trial. He would walk up the stairs to the gallows, there would be a quick switch, and a dummy wearing a replica of the black shirt and pants he had worn would be hanged in his place. Brandy had watched the mock hanging five years in a row now, and it always made her slightly nauseous, it seemed so real.

Two hours later, she pressed a hand to her aching back and stood up. Going to the window, she gazed outside. It would be dark soon. Slipping on her jacket, she glanced at the papers on her desk, and decided they could wait until Monday.

Tomorrow, she would don her costume and pretend the clock had turned back to 1875.

She experienced a thrill of excitement at the prospect of playing dress-up for a day. She had always felt she had been born a hundred years too late. As a little girl growing up on the Crow reservation outside Billings, Montana, she had loved to play cowboys and Indians. And, contrary to what the history books taught, on the reservation, the Indians always won.

Now that she was grown-up, Brandy still loved all things Western, especially cowboy movies, horses, country music, and line dancing. It was the reason she loved living in Cedar Ridge. It was such a picturesque little town it was almost like living in the Old West. Residents were as likely to ride into town on a horse as in a truck. There were still hitch racks in front of some of the stores. Many of the buildings had been restored to look the way they had in the mid-1800s, making Cedar Ridge a popular tourist attraction. She often wondered why the new hospital hadn’t been built to look more rustic. As it was, the big white building stuck out like a sore thumb.

The nearest really big town was about forty miles away, and as much as Brandy loved Cedar Ridge there were times when she felt the need to wander through a mall, to shop at a department store that stocked more than just denim and cotton, times when she wanted to dress up and go out to dinner in a fancy restaurant. But those times were few and far between.

Fortunately, there was a small shopping center located about five miles away in Ten Trees. Named for the ten trees that had once surrounded a way station, the mall didn’t have any fancy stores, like Nordstrom’s, but it did have a couple of nice dress shops and a decent restaurant.

Locking the door behind her, Brandy stepped outside and took a deep breath. The weather was cool, invigorating.

She nodded to Millie Barclay, who taught kindergarten, as she crossed the parking lot to her truck.

Sliding behind the wheel, Brandy drove slowly down Main Street, waving to several people she saw on the sidewalk. That was one thing she liked about small towns—everybody knew everybody else.

She pulled to a stop at the end of her driveway to collect her mail from the mailbox, then drove down the long driveway to the old-style farmhouse. It had been a wreck when she bought it five years ago.

She had put a lot of time and hard work into the place since then and had never regretted it for a minute. It wasn’t very big, three bedrooms, a parlor, a bathroom, and a kitchen, but it was plenty big enough for her. There was a barn in the back, and two corrals.

She had gathered quite a menagerie since moving to Cedar Ridge. She had a horse, two dogs, countless cats and kittens, a pygmy goat, a ewe lamb, and a couple dozen chickens. The only thing she didn’t have was a cow because she didn’t want to be bothered with milking.

The dogs came bounding up to meet her as she stepped out of the truck. She scratched behind their ears for a few minutes, accepted their welcoming licks, and then went into the house. Kicking off her shoes, she sat down on the sofa and went through the mail. A couple of bills, an ad for a sale at Granville’s Hay and Feed, and a long chatty letter from her folks which she read while she ate dinner.

She stretched and sighed as she pushed away from the table, then quickly washed and dried the dishes. After that, she went down to the barn to feed and water the stock, then checked on the latest litter of kittens.

Returning to the house, she curled up on the couch with the dogs and watched an old John Wayne Western on TV. It was almost eleven when she climbed into bed, accompanied by several cats.

As tired as she was, sleep was a long time coming. Tomorrow the Old West would come alive again.

BOOK: The Angel and the Outlaw
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