The Agony of Love

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John Hardwick loves his wife like a Shakespeare sonnet: full, complete, and without equal. Unfortunately, John now finds himself in the crucible of infidelity. He knows the other man’s name: Alton Raines, a professional gambler. John is a good man, not prone to violence, but the images in his mind’s eye—of his wife in Raines’s bed—puts murder in his heart and a gun in his hand.

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Excerpt

Chapter 1

John Hardwick loved his wife Mary like a Shakespeare sonnet: full and complete and without equal. He would memorize the Bard’s sonnets as well as the poems of Byron, Blake, and Browning and recite them to her over dinner or in front of the fire in their little home. Their life was hard—he a farmer, she a farmer’s wife—but he loved it more and more each day. Even when the hardships of farm life took their toll on him physically, he still loved his beautiful Mary. When the farm life robbed her of her ability to bear children, he still loved her.

But even the surest of love could be tested in the crucible of infidelity. John Hardwick found himself in that crucible now as he stared across the saloon at Alton Raines, his head full of things that normally never entered his mind. Images of violence, hatred, and murder boiled his blood. He wondered how loud the shot would be if he stuck his pistol up against Raines’s body and pulled the trigger.

Still, he had to gather his courage. It had taken him over an hour of waiting, drinking, and watching to figure out which patron of the Oak Tree Saloon was Alton Raines . He had asked a couple of men if they knew the. They did, and had easily pointed him out.

Raines turned out to be the dandy sitting at the poker table. His dark hair, slicked back and coiffed perfectly. The mustache neatly trimmed. His suit, gray and adorned with a shimmery purple vest. The black tie formed a perfect knot over a pressed white shirt. Occasionally Raines would check the time on his shiny gold pocket watch. He presented himself in a suave manner, smiling at everyone in the room. Ladies would drape themselves across his shoulders.

All in all, the sight made John Hardwick’s stomach turn. It also brought a tear to his eye. He wasn’t much to look at. He knew that. Long days of sun and wind and hard work had aged him. He looked ten years older than his age of thirty. His eyes had developed permanent crow’s feet. His hands looked like an old man’s. And his shoulders sagged a bit, even when he wasn’t carrying heavy equipment or hay bales.

He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind the bar and felt an utter dislike for what he saw. Also in the reflection was Raines. It appeared that the two of them were side-by-side. Any doubt as to the idea of what he was about to do vanished in an instant.

John turned and sauntered over to the poker table. There was an empty seat now since a skinny blonde man stormed off in a huff after losing all his money. “Mind if I sit in?”

The remaining men seated at the table stared up at him. Raines sat opposite the empty chair. On the left was a burly red-headed brute of a man. When he held the cards, they looked like playthings in his oversized fists. To the right was a man he knew: Christopher Allen, the owner of the local tannery. The smell of the chemicals on his clothes wafted up and tickled John’s nose.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” Allen said. “Paul?”

The red-headed man downed the last of his beer. He wiped his mouth with the collar of his shirt and shook his head no. He raised the empty mug and signaled for another.

“Alton?”

All eyes turned to Raines. The dandy took his time answering. John felt like he was a prize hog being inspected for quality.

“Can you pay?”

John Hardwick nodded. “Yes, I can.”

Raines gestured to the empty chair. “Then by all means, have a seat.”

John pulled the chair out and sat. It was a good thing, too, since his legs had begun to shake. The closer he got to going through with what he needed to do, the more nervous he became. The hard leather of his holster thunked on the wooden chair and he had to adjust his posture to accommodate.

A barmaid brought Paul’s mug of beer and set it in front of him. He leered lecherously at her exposed cleavage. He mumbled something John found inappropriate and he felt it his duty to save her.

“Ma’am,” John said, “might I have a beer as well?” He turned to Allen. “You want one?”

“Whiskey’s fine with me.”

John faced Raines. “How about you, Alton?”

“It’s Mr. Raines. I’m fine.” His voice was a smooth baritone, the kind of voice that belonged in a choir or behind a pulpit, and not in this den of sin.

The barmaid left and Raines began to shuffle the cards. “How much you in for?”

John reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a wad of cash. Allen’s eyes widened in surprise. “Tarnation, John. That’s a lot of money. Where in the world did ya get it all?”

Where indeed? John had discovered the love letter written by another man tucked discretely into a book of poems he had given his wife on their fourth anniversary. The letter was full of affectionate sentiments that made John cry. At first, he felt the emotional punch in his gut. Then lost his lunch. Mary Hardwick had been out of the house for the afternoon so she was spared John’s immediate wrath. In the afternoon hours of that day, as he toiled under the broiling sun, he thought about what to do. What to say.

In the end, he said and did nothing. He planned. He intended to take his husbandly revenge out on the man who signed his name “Alton Raines.”

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