She could have sent Hughes and his sons to fetch for her, but that was being a coward. Jessi, Ally, Annie, and Jami, Emmy had ridden in with her. Emmy’s husband stayed close to the wagon. To her. No one had missed the rifles the men carried.
Emmy and Harrison were still spitting at each other, but Jude had seen him kiss her niece with actual fire. Emmy hadn’t exactly pushed him away. Jude half thought her niece was enjoying leading her new husband on a bit of a merry chase to win her heart.
Of course she was. It was the only power little Emmy had.
No. Emmy almost seemed to be enjoying the husband she had never wanted.
Her nieces were settling in, just like Jacob had said they would. She never would have believed it if she hadn’t been seeing it for herself.
It had only been eight days. Eight days that changed everything for all of them.
She had no clue what the future would bring.
“There’s dad’s horse,” Harrison said after the wagon parked. He lifted Jude down, then his wife. Emmy clung to him for a moment, her fear in her big blue eyes. “We’ll find him, then get the things you have to get. I want you all home as soon as possible.”
Jude just nodded. She’d felt brave on the ride in, but now that they were in the middle of town, well… she didn’t feel so brave.
Everything looked overwhelming.
She wished Hughes was there with her; though it irritated her to even think it. She didn’t need that man.
She sure wanted him, though.
The mercantile was just around the corner. Harrison had parked their wagon behind the rear door where he and some of his cousins, and the Wharton boy, could load their purchases right in.
Hughes owned part of the mercantile, he’d told her. No sense putting out the fabric for others to buy when he’d ordered it special for his daughters-in-law. Made a point of telling her there was plenty of it, if she wanted to make some dresses for the littler girls, too.
New dresses weren’t exactly something they’d had too much of in the last few years. It would be nice to give her daughters new dresses again.
She could do the sewing herself, with help from Janie and Annie, who were darned skilled with thread and needles. It would take some time, but they’d have new dresses.
That it was because of that man mildly irked her, but mostly on principal. For herself.
She always had been more than independent. Jude didn’t like the idea of being any sort of “kept” woman.
Then again, he wasn’t keeping her. He was taking care of his daughters-in-law and paying her for doing that with her labor.
She liked the barter system, even if she knew she was fooling herself.
He wanted her to have a new dress, because he enjoyed being able to provide it for her. He felt powerful when he could give her what she needed.
She suspected it was a man thing, and all. Her Ethan had liked it when he’d been able to buy her what she needed. Jacob, too, put a lot of stock in what he could provide for his girls. And her.
Her brother was one of the best men she knew.
She knew he wasn’t too keen on the idea of her and Hughes doing some serious courting. But he wouldn’t stop her. That wasn’t Jacob’s way.
Jude followed her brother around the corner to the front of the mercantile, Jessi and Jami and Emmy beside her.
Hughes saw her when she stepped into the mercantile. He bit back a curse.
Jude saw Wharton and squealed, turning to run. One of the bastard’s boys stepped into her path. “Well, well, look here. Mrs. Handley, herself. And some of Finley’s daughters come to play.”
The boy grabbed for one girl at Jude’s side.
Turner growled, long and low and terrifying. Wharton and his men stiffened. Turned toward Hughes’s boy.
“Take your hand off my boy’s wife there, son. Or I’m going to let him go. He’s mighty protective of his little Jess. And always has had a bit of a temper.”
The girl yanked herself free, glaring at Wharton.
Jude was still in shock. Staring.
Hughes wanted her away from those bastards. “Jude, honey, you come here to me. Fabric is in the back, where I had my nephews put it.”
To his surprise, she obeyed.
Until she was right there next to him, big eyes staring up at him. Terror-filled eyes.
Hughes reached out and cupped her cheek, knowing he was going to have talk about the two of them starting up once this was over. He looked around the mercantile. There were others there, others who had no part in this business with Wharton. Innocent onlookers. “Mrs. Beck, you’d best take your daughters and your boy out of here. We got some family business to attend to.”
The woman grabbed her two girls and her red-headed toddler and hustled out, ordering her children to hurry in a heavy Irish brogue. She understood that what was happening wasn’t good. Busybody had listened to every word, after all.
Still, she’d work in Hughes’s favor.
He suspected she’d head right across the street where her husband worked as a bank clerk in his brother’s bank.
Entire town would know something was happening in just a matter of minutes.
Hughes would bet on that. “Wharton, you get your boys, and you get out of my town. Your sort isn’t wanted here.”
Jude turned until Hughes was right at her back. Jacob, her beloved brother, was in the center of them all.
With Justice Wharton far too close. “What are you doing here, Wharton?”
Surprise crossed the monster’s face. “I came to see to it you and those girls are punished, of course. For what you did to my boy.”
“You mean when he died in the middle of physically attacking three defenseless women?” Jude snapped back. She would not hide what he had done. Never. “That monster son of yours near killed us that day. How does he deserve vengeance? Where was the justice for what was done to my nieces? The justice when his bullet ripped into my body, laming me forever?”
“He just wanted to have some fun. Not worth dying over,” one of the older sons said.
“A woman should have choices, Wharton,” Jacob said. “And harassing my entire family because of what your boys done was wrong.”
“Who says? I got rights to see my boy’s killers pay.” His hand dropped to his gun.
Jude gasped and stepped back.
Into Hughes’s arms.
The instant Wharton touched his weapon, every man in the mercantile, including Jacob, had their own right there.
Jacob moved to stand in front of his daughters, as Harrison stepped in, two tall men she didn’t recognize but had the look of Barratts around them, at his side.
Harrison immediately grabbed Emmy and shoved her behind him. Then Harrison’s own weapon came up so fast even Wharton gasped at how seamless the motion was. He held the weapon so steady. Pointed right at Jedidiah Wharton’s heart.
“Forget to mention… all of my boys are damned good with a pistol. Some are even better with a rifle. Now, Harrison here, he’s the lawyer around our parts. Going to be the judge in a year or two. Good friends with the nearest judge out of Dallas, too. But he’s real good at using that pistol of his. Best shot in the great state, actually. He’s never missed what he’s aimed at.” Hughes said slowly. As Harrison moved right up to Jedidiah Wharton’s side. “And that’s Emmy, his wife, right there. Why, I reckon Harrison would know just how to word it so that it sounds all legal-like, him killing a dozen men to protect her. What man in Barratt county wouldn’t side with him, seeing what you and yours did to little Jude and her nieces? Seeing how you terrorized them in their own home. Then forced them to flee into the night? Why, I’m sure half the men in this town will believe Harrison’s words. If not, well, his brother Mick is the preacher, don’t you know? Man of God. Man of his word. He’s mighty protective of his sisters-in-law, too. And me… well… I’m the law in this part of the country. And I’ve seen the scars on Jude for myself. So… unless you want to find out how the rest of my boys and my nephews and my good friend Tom here, and my future brother-in-law Jacob, and… just see how good we are with our own bullets… I suggest you ride out of town. And never look back.”
Jude couldn’t stop shaking. Everyone was just standing there.
She listened as Hughes told Wharton to get out of town, but she knew… one look into Wharton’s beady gray eyes told her that. The man wouldn’t stop until he had her—and probably every Finley anywhere—dead.
And he didn’t care who got caught in between. Something burned in her. Hot and fast.
Jude stepped into the middle of all of them. “Is this the way it’s going to be, Justice? Bullets and threats? Dying? Who will be next? Which of your boys are you going to bury because Clive got drunk and did things he shouldn’t have that day? Just let it end.”
“Why should I do that? I got right on my side. You killed him!”
“No. I did,” Jessi said, moving toward Jude. “After he shot Aunt Jude and me and Jami, he was getting ready to shoot Aunt Jude in the back. What kind of man does that? Shoots a woman in the back when she’s already half dead? He was a coward and a criminal. And he deserved to die for what he did that day. I don’t regret shooting him. And I never will.”
The girl’s husband yanked her off her feet and behind him, bodily protecting Jessi when Wharton would have gone after the girl.
Tucker, Hughes’s doctor son, stopped Wharton with the barrel of his gun. Lodged right under Wharton’s chin. Everyone froze.
He swung Jude behind him, protecting her with his own body. “Easy, son.”
“Oh, I’m easy, Pa. This man… I saw what his boy did to my wife. I’ve seen parts of what he did to her aunt. And I can imagine what he did to my wife’s twin. I’m as easy as I’m going to get. Wharton, I’m the doc in this town. And I know just where to put a bullet to keep a man alive, but in so much agony he would wish he was dead every ten minutes of his life after. Is that what you want? You are in our town now. And if you want to leave here without going to jail for what you’ve done, you’d better do some serious thinking about what you do next.”
“Pa—maybe we should…” one of Wharton’s sons said. He was facing the barrel of the merchant’s pistol. Hughes’s brother looked just as dangerous as the rest of the Barratt men, even with a flour-covered apron over his large chest.
“Shut up, boy! Your brother deserves to be avenged.”