It wasn't supposed to end this way. Hanging was for the weak, men too stupid to plan for every contingency, men too fragile to do what needed to be done, even if it meant murdering their own kin.

Darkness washed over Alejandro del Pelado's face as he walked the frost-hardened main street of Angel Pass, wrists bound behind his back. The chilled breeze sliced through his ragged circus-style shirt, but he barely felt it. A gunmetal dawn sky spat crystals of snow that stung his bearded face, yet he refused to flinch. His one good eye-the left covered by a patch-focused on the platform a hundred feet ahead, then shifted to the hooded figure standing upon it. The figure's hand rested on a lever that, when pulled, would release a trapdoor. A noose, frayed, blackened with mold, swayed, beckoning.

At the base of the gallows stood three men, members of the town council who had convicted him in a farce of a trial. Their faces and body language betrayed myriad emotions: annoyance at being dragged out into the cold at such an early hour, displeasure at the time it was taking to walk the prisoner from the jailhouse to the platform…and fear. Fear that somehow the man they'd come to watch die might somehow escape his fate and wreak terrible vengeance upon them.

He almost smiled.

To the left of the platform stood another man, one whom he vaguely recognized as the father of a boy he had kidnapped in another town, a boy whose body had been discovered on a lonely Colorado trail. Could he help it if the men to whom he'd sold that boy had been unable to deliver their property to whatever fate they intended for him? Was he responsible for what happened to those he sold into slavery after they left his hands?

The father certainly thought so. He had testified at the trial to that effect, and but for the marshal and deputy flanking either side of him that man would have saved the town a hanging and put a bullet straight through Alejandro's black heart. He could see the hate scrawled across the man' face.

But Marshal Wentworth and the council refused to allow that man the luxury of ending Alejandro del Pelado's life. In their infinite wisdom, they'd deemed this walk to the gallows and the contemplation of his crimes on this grey execution morning a more appropriate punishment.

A scene flashed before his mind, dragging him back to a day long ago, when he'd been a child. Men had ridden into the del Pelado ranch, a famous gunfighter and his partner, though Alejandro had not known that until just a few days ago when the marshal had delivered a newspaper recounting the events of a man named James Deadwood's demise at the hand of one Jim Hannigan.

The name jarred him from the errant memory. Hannigan. So that sonofabitch had not only robbed him of a sister he'd searched years to find, but the satisfaction of delivering the vengeance he had dreamed countless nights of doling out to his parents' killers as well. He wondered what Angela thought of that, why she hadn't been the one to put a bullet into the lowly bastard who destroyed their lives. Details. Details he didn't know, would go to his death never learning. Details that piqued his curiosity yet at the same time unearthed more rage within him than any man was capable of enduring.

"Hannigan…" he whispered, hate bleeding from the word.

"What's that, Vago?" Marshal Wentworth asked, the older man's face grim. His new snake-skin boots thudded on the hardpacked ground.

Vago: the alias he had used for years. It no longer seemed to fit him. It left nothing but bitterness on his tongue. It was the name of failure.

"Don't call me that…" he muttered, head lifting, his tangled dark hair falling unbridled over his forehead. The scar running from his forehead to his cheek seemed to wriggle, like some sort of white snake that sensed the doom waiting, now a mere seventy-five feet away.

"I don't give a damn what you want to be called." The marshal prodded Alejandro forward with a sharp push to a shoulder. "The sooner we're rid of you, the sooner this town can get back to normal, least as normal as it can after a monster like yourself's left his stain on it."

"Monster, Wentworth?" Alejandro uttered a chopped laugh. "I did those children a favor. I granted them the opportunity to be strong."

The marshal's face darkened and he scratched at a muttonchop sideburn. "Reckon their folks don't see it that way. The only favor you'll do any of those kids is dancing your last at the end of that rope." Wentworth ducked his chin toward the gallows. "We found most of them, incidentally. Just got word last night."

"You have a reason for telling me that?" Rage boiled within Alejandro's belly. He wanted to put a knife into the lawman, watch the life bleed out of him, spit on his writhing body.

Wentworth's smile carried a note of satisfaction. "Just wanted to give you a bit of comfort before we stretched your neck."

"Yet you call me the monster…" Alejandro whispered.

Wentworth shrugged. "Don't mistake my delight at your passing as a lack of compassion, Vago."

"Compassion?" He uttered a scoffing hmmph. "I want no compassion from you. Compassion is for the weak."

Wentworth frowned. "Don't worry, you won't get any from me. My compassion extends solely to the parents whose children we didn't find. They'll likely spend the rest of their days suffering with the hell you brought to their lives. My compassion also extends to that sister of yours. From what Hannigan told me she's been through enough. You did nothing to ease her burden."

Alejandro's face hardened. "She's weak. She deserves whatever she gets."

He stumbled then. His boot hooked a stone embedded into the hard ground as an odd feeling washed through his legs. Weakness? No, it couldn't be. He simply refused to allow that.

The deputy at his side grabbed his arm, preventing him from falling. The man chuckled and shook him harder than needed. Alejandro gave him a vicious look that wiped the jovial expression off the man's face. Another weakling. Easily intimidated.

Fifty feet remained. The gallows loomed against the gray backdrop like some mythical beast of death. He could hear the creaking of its wood from the cold; it sounded like the cries of dying children. He quickly forced the thought away. He didn't care for the fluttery sensation it caused in his belly. It reminded him too much of fear.

Twenty-five feet to go. It wasn't supposed to end this way, he told himself again. He was supposed to have been a farmer, like his father, with a family and a simple, satisfying life. Instead he was a man adrift in a sea of blood and fury.

He spat then, let out an enraged sound at his weak thoughts.

"Shut the hell up, Vago!" Marshal Wentworth poked him hard in the ribs. He glared at the lawman, then looked ahead again.

Where was she? Alejandro wondered. Angela should have been here to watch him hang. Why hadn't she come? At least to gloat? But Angela didn't gloat, did she? She had grown too weak, too kind. It disgusted him. He would have gladly watched her die had the situation been reversed.

They reached the stairs and he looked up at the hooded figure, who didn't move. His gaze traveled to the rope again, which still swayed. More snow crystals spat from the unsympathetic sky and snipped at his face.

A thought rose unbidden in his mind: He didn't want to die. No matter how many times he had claimed not to fear death, he discovered much to his dismay and disgust that when facing it he might have feared it indeed.

"I'm weak…" he said under his breath, the words laced with revulsion. "How can that be?" How could the years of hell he'd experienced after leaving his uncle's home not have forged a man of iron will and soulless constitution? He was pathetic, no better than those children he'd sold, no better than…

His sister.

"Damn you, Hannigan!" he shouted, his control snapping. He wrenched himself around, tried to run.

Wentworth and the deputy grabbed him and he struggled like a wretched frightened animal. He kicked at them, bit at their groping hands. The marshal hammered a fist against Alejandro's forehead, ending his resistance. His legs threatened to desert him; only their supporting grip prevented him from collapsing to his knees.

"Damn, I think the sonofabitch is gonna bawl," the deputy said, pulling Alejandro onto the first step.

"Up!" Wentworth ordered.

Alejandro felt himself half comply, half be yanked up the steps to the platform.

What the hell was wrong with him? He felt like that lost child who'd stumbled into the outlaw camp shortly after he'd run away from his uncle's home. But what those men had done to him had only made him stronger…stronger…

"Strong!" he shouted. "I am strong!"

The marshal slapped him full across the face and Alejandro's head rocked. "I said shut the hell up, Vago. Go out like a man, for chrissake."

Alejandro went silent, the reality of the situation overwhelming him. For the barest of moments something rose within him he might have labeled regret, a kind word for a sister he had lost years before, only to find a few short weeks ago. But the notion was fleeting, instantly despicable. He was what he was:

A monster.

They walked him to the dangling noose and turned him towards the father whose son had been found dead. The man peered up at him with a mixture of enraged hatred and maybe the expectancy of some explanation, some meager attempt at an apology for his crimes. The man would die waiting for that, Alejandro thought. No sympathy remained within him. Only contempt. He cast him a sly smile and the man's face reddened. His hand drifted to the gun at his hip, settled on the grip; but he didn't draw. That man wanted to watch him swing now, was eager with anticipation for it.

Wentworth placed the noose over Alejandro's head and yanked it tight. The fibers bit into his flesh. He drew a deep breath and steeled himself, eye narrowing with spite, defiance.

Marshal Wentworth looked at him, face grim. "You got a prayer to say, Vago, now's the time to spit it out."

"Go to hell, Wentworth," he said, staring straight head.

Wentworth shook his head. "Reckon you'll blaze the trail…"

The marshal backed away, to the edge of the platform. The deputy did the same.

"May God have mercy on your soul…" Wentworth muttered, eyes pained. "And mercy on those whose lives you darkened…"

The marshal glanced at the hooded man and gave a slight nod.

The hangman's hand tightened on the lever, in preparation for yanking it back.

A shot thundered through the gray morning. The sound of it came so startling, so unexpected, Wentworth jumped half a foot off the platform. The deputy started and Alejandro stiffened. The hangman's hand froze on the lever. An instant later he fell face first to the platform boards.

"What the goddamn hell-" Wentworth jerked from his surprise and his hand went for the gun at his hip.

Another shot followed and Alejandro could tell now it came from a rooftop across the street.

Wentworth never drew his gun. A crimson orchid bloomed on his chest. He crumpled the platform without a sound.

The deputy swung, also drawing a bead on the source of the gunfire. It did him no good. With the thunder of a third shot he flew backwards off the platform and crashed onto the hardpacked street. He spasmed, then lay still, a gaping hole over his heart.

Alejandro wasted no more time with shock. He tugged at the ropes binding his wrists, flesh tearing, blood running. He ignored the pain skewering his hands and forearms. Blood greased the ropes and he managed to pull a hand free. Bringing his hands to the front, he pried the noose loose and lifted it over his head.

The father who'd come to witness the hanging jerked from his shock and went for his gun. Alejandro dived for the body of the marshal, in nearly the same move grabbing the lawdog's Colt from its holster. He swung the piece towards the father just as the man got his own gun aimed. Two shots came concurrently. The father jumped backwards, lead punching through his sternum. He slammed into the ground on his back, lay unmoving.

Alejandro scrambled backward as lead plowed into the platform at his feet.

Another shot came from the nearby rooftop and the councilman who'd fired the shot at Alejandro flew backwards to the dirt.

Alejandro swung his Colt, triggered a shot. Lead shattered the face of the second councilman, killing him instantly.

With a final blast, the third man pitched face forward to the street, terror and shock a death mask on his features.

The gray morning became eerily quiet. Blue smoke drifted from the gun in Alejandro's hand. He gazed about at the bodies, a ghost of a smile on his lips.

A shout snapped him from his thoughts, female, familiar:

"Go to the clearing, just outside the north end of town where you set up the carnival. Five minutes."

As he rose to his feet from a crouch, he nodded. Jamming the marshal's Colt into his waistband, he scrambled down the stairs. A horse stood tethered to a hitch rail a dozen feet away, likely the dead father's mount. He ran to it, grabbed the reins, then jumped into the saddle. With a slap of his heels he sent the animal galloping forward, eager to put the town behind him before someone came to investigate the shots and saw the carnage.

As he drove the mount through the street, a few doors flew open. It wouldn't take them long to organize a posse. Too many had cheered the day his death sentence was pronounced and he wasn't about to give them a second chance to stretch his neck.

Two minutes of riding found him at the clearing, which was now empty of the circus wagons and tents that had attracted crowds just a few weeks before. He wondered what had become of all his equipment, but going back to locate it was no longer an option.

He reined up, gaze sweeping the area; he saw no one. After dismounting, he drew the Colt again and waited.

Hoofbeats sounded from behind him and he spun to see a woman riding towards him, a rifle in one hand, reins wrapped about the other. Her dark curls bounced on her shoulders and her large breasts strained at a tan blouse. Glimpses of olive flesh showed from a slit in her riding skirt.

She slowed to a halt, shoved the rifle into a saddleboot and smiled. Her cheeks were rouged and her dark brown eyes, hard and satisfied, narrowed.

She urged the horse closer to him, peered down.

"Madam Mystique…Carmella…" Alejandro shoved the Colt back into the waist of his trousers. "I wondered what had happened to you."

She spat, face darkening with anger. "Hannigan and his whore happened to me. I spent a week in jail. But they had nothing to hold me on, so they had to let me go. I came looking for you."

"You cut it close." His voice sharpened. Strength filled him again. This woman had disappeared weeks ago, right before Angela had come to him for a job at his carnival. He knew she and Hannigan must have done something with Carmella, but didn't know what.

She shook her head, black curls bobbing. "Couldn't be helped. They had you guarded so well I was forced to wait till they brought you out into the open."

"We have to go. Now. Won't take long 'fore the town figures out what happened."

"Some of the others, they're still in jail."

Alejandro's face hardened. "Leave them."

"What?" Shock swept over her olive features. She clearly didn't like the idea, but he didn't give a damn.

"I said, leave them. Let them swing. We'll hire new blood."

Alejandro del Pelado spun, then mounted his horse. Turning his head back to her, he gave her a dark smile before heeling the animal into a gallop. The shock on her face pleased him. He knew it would give him more power over her, more control. She would see him as the ruthless sonofabitch he wanted to be seen as. And that was good thing, indeed.