It ends, here, now!
Elizabeth was first alerted to something wrong by the sound of horses riding into the yard in front of the house. How could they have approached without being seen, or without Zeb coming down out of the woods to warn them that such a group was so close?
She felt a tight knot of apprehension in her stomach.
They had been careful to approache out of sight of the house and of the cabins. A sudden feeling of unease gripped her.
She cursed herself for having let her guard down, lulled into foolishness by the euphoric news that the war had ended. She should have known better than to believe that. Wars never ended cleanly or when they were supposed to; history should have taught her that.
She could still escape out of the back of the house.
She hesitated, and then, staying out of sight, she glanced out of the open door of the washhouse and saw seven men on horseback. Confederates! But they had drawn guns and were not here for any honest purpose.
She saw one man dismount and grab hold of one of the women close to him; Dorothea, who was not fast enough to get out of his way; the others threatened anyone who thought to intervene.
She began to feel sick at what their intentions were. She recovered her father’s pistol from under some cotton sheets in the washhouse, saw that it was loaded, and immediately ran out of the house into the yard, heedless of any danger to herself now.
Dorothea was like a sister to her, and she would do everything in her power to stop them if she could.
The man who had dismounted and had stopped Dorothea from escaping him, ripped off her dress as he laughed at her efforts to escape him, revealing her naked body beneath. The other men on horseback were watching nervously, their guns ready for any resistance, though they already knew that there were no men worth considering at the main house, and the rest of the slaves were either in the fields or in plain view. They would not be trusted with weapons anyway.
They watched as he twisted the woman’s arm up behind her back and then pushed her ahead of him around the corner of the building and out of sight. His friends would make sure that no one followed them. He didn’t like an audience for what he was about to do. The woman could do nothing to fight him. Some man, possibly her husband if there was the formality of marriage between them since Belding had disappeared, ran forward to defend her and was shot. He fell back clutching at his side.
“Next shot, I kill you!”
As the first man went around the corner to the cabin, pushing his captive ahead of him, Elizabeth moved into the yard. She pointed the pistol at the man who was obviously the leader, and pulled the trigger.
It did not function as she'd expected.
She cursed the wayward thing and quickly tried to find out what was wrong with it, but by then he had seen her and what she hoped to do.
On the other side of the small cluster of cabins, and also out of sight of those in the yard in front of the house, Forrester had seen the beginning of what was unfolding.
He would have liked to have shot more of them before they got this far, but the ground here was not in his favor against so many men, and with too few places to disappear to and melt away, as he had been able to do before. They were also on horseback and would escape. There was no one here that he could rely upon. He could see their intent and what they would likely do to all of those here who witnessed what they intended, before they were able to escape over the river after torching the place.
He would get a chance to remove one more of them, without any sound of a gunshot to give him away, if he was lucky. He walked around the corner of the building with his revolver trained on the man roughly handling the woman as he pushed her to the ground and stood over her.
He did not see Forrester. The man’s attention was elsewhere, struggling to get his own clothing undone while restraining the now silent woman, and stopping her from crawling off as he stood over her. The black woman didn’t say anything. She lay still, thinking of protecting as many lives of her own people from these men as possible, by staying quiet, no matter what happened to her. She had seen her own man shot in the side for thinking to intervene. Both men could hear some ruckus in the yard on the other side of the building: the sound of horses moving about and of raised voices.
Dorothea said nothing, but watched with wide eyes and lay still when Forrester swung his pistol at the man’s head, breaking bones and knocking him to his knees, at least mostly senseless if not worse. Before he could fall, Forrester grabbed him by the hair and then hauled him backward as he holstered his pistol and retrieved his knife, both with the same action, and then decisively cut the man’s throat before he could give any sound of alarm. He hoped the woman was not going to be hysterical at the sight of all of that blood suddenly spurting everywhere, even onto them both, or the man’s gurgling as he fought for air with suddenly gaping eyes and hands that rose unsteadily to his throat to find out what had happened with some horror, finding only blood to breathe on.
She was too terrified to say anything just watching this second man, wondering what he would do now, and to her. He was not one of the others, she knew that. He let the man fall off to one side and paid him no further attention other than to wipe his knife off on the fallen man’s clothing before he re-sheathed it.
He signaled for her to remain silent as she sat up in a tight ball against the cabin wall, whispering for her to stay where she was.
He had no choice about what he must do now, but at least he would have the element of surprise on his part. He picked up the man’s gun and stuck it into his own belt, and then picked up his Henry repeating rifle as he retreated back the way he had come. The woman, still scared, watched him leave, but did not stay immobile for long with that dying man, jerking close by, still spouting blood and looking as he did, with his eyes wide and staring in horror. She rose to her feet and followed him, seemingly not put out by her nakedness, which was the last thing on her terror-filled mind at that moment, but wanting his protection, as uncertain as that might prove to be, and to get as far away from that other man making a strange noise, as he kicked at nothing, staring up into the sky. Seeing nothing.
The men on horseback were distracted by the sudden appearance of the younger woman, and at her intent, as she had tried to fire her pistol at their leader. He saw what she intended and rode at her quickly, seeing what had happened with her pistol.
Before she could correct what had gone wrong, he rode into her, sending her flying, with the gun lost from her grasp. As the others watched nervously, he dismounted quickly and hauled her to her feet. Another shot rang out behind him to discourage any concerted action by those blacks still standing there who would have come to her rescue. Before she could get back to her feet and escape, he had grasped her by the hair and pulled her back to him, holding her around her middle and around her breasts, endeavoring to trap her arms so that she could not fight him; but she could bite, and she did so... on the arm that came too close to her head. He struck her hard in the face for that.
“Well, lads, we got what we came for. She’s a feisty one.” He laughed. “She even had the gall to come out at us, as brazen as you please. We didn’t have to flush her out or go lookin’ for her. We’ll have us some fun tonight with this one, and for a while after that too. She’ll be a kicker and a screamer. At least for a while. She bites well enough.”
He recognized that they would have to leave now, after those shots, before others came out of the fields in response. He raised his voice and shouted so that their companion, supposedly still occupied with the woman behind the cabin, could hear him.
He could not have known what had already happened to him.
“Adam, we’re leaving. Now! Bring her along too, you can finish up with her later, and bring anyone else you can snag.” One of his friends passed him a length of cloth to bind his captive’s hands, and then, as he threw her facedown over his saddle, he took off his own neckcloth and bound her feet, as she almost slid headfirst off the horse.
“Adam?” He shouted for the man behind the cabin. “You hear me? We ain’t got time to waste. Bring her with you. We’re leaving.”
They had already been here too long. There would be others rushing back from the fields at the sound of gunfire. He turned to another man.
“Get us some food, or get some of those hens. Check inside that cabin and shoot whoever gets in your way, and then let’s get out of here, and see what’s keeping Adam. He’s never been longer than a couple of minutes, before.”
He climbed onto his horse and adjusted the struggling body in front of him, and then raised her long skirt to reveal her white skin and more.
“Stop struggling, damn you.” He spanked her hard, twice, on her bare buttocks for being difficult, liking what he saw there, exposed to him.
It would be an uncomfortable ride for her, but he didn’t care. That would be only the start of it. It would quieten her down and knock some of the fight out of her for later, and a very uncomfortable and busy night. He raised his voice.
“If any of you try to follow us, I’ll kill both of the women. You hear me?”
They probably would kill them anyway. No one moved or said anything, but the angry looks on their faces told him that they would not be easily discouraged. Let them learn the hard way. He fired a shot at a dog that had been barking and running in and out of the horse’s feet. He missed, but set the horses dancing nervously, almost unseating him, so did not repeat that act.
He heard another single shot, to one side, probably to discourage the slaves from intervening, and then another one.
That didn’t sound right!
He looked around and saw one of his companions lying still on the ground, where he had just fallen, and another slumped over in his saddle with half of his head shot away. The others were shooting wildly at someone to his right and behind him.
Something had changed! Downey had not expected any resistance or anyone to have any guns. Slaves were not usually trusted with guns. Who the hell was doing this? There were no men in the house, he knew that. They had watched it for ten minutes and had learned as much from a small black child that one of them had questioned back along the road. He had been heading away from the house, or he would not have survived.
They learned that the men were all at war still, or working out in the far fields getting the crops planted. He pulled the horse about with one hand as he steadied his burden with the same hand resting on her, across her bare buttocks, and the other hand reaching for his own pistol. He saw one man on foot, shooting at them from about twenty feet away and taking each shot with deliberation and care but not wasting any time either.
A Yankee! Where had he come from? There were not supposed to be any white men here. He felt as though he recognized him from somewhere.
His three remaining friends had already started to open fire at this new target—what little they could see of him—shooting at them; but with their horses moving beneath them, startled by the sudden noise of gunfire, and the dog, and being in each other’s way, they were not having much success as they were still picked off with unerring accuracy. The man took his time over each shot, heedless of the bullets flying around him and with some of them undoubtedly hitting him as he flinched, but was not deterred. Another man, fell.
Downey brought his own pistol up but saw—with complete horror—his hand holding the pistol separated from his arm by a long blade of some kind—he could not see it clearly—wielded by a black man who had somehow got too close to him as he had been distracted with the woman; and then he lost all interest even before any pain could be felt from that, as a bullet entered his brain, followed shortly after that by that same weapon that had taken off his hand. It lodged in his head, splitting him down to his chin.
The black man who had done that pushed the body off the horse, steadied it from dancing around, then carefully pulled his mistress off the horse, out of the line of fire and tried to protect her as the man fell to the ground under the horse’s feet. He would go nowhere, and was beyond feeling anything.
The two remaining men understood what was happening to them. They threw their empty pistols down, turned their horses, and spurred off in desperation, riding low over their horses’ necks to make as small a target as possible. Unfortunately for them it was all open ground with no cover of any kind, and with slaves hurrying along it back to the house after they heard the shots.
These two knew the man shooting at them. They had learned of him in the previous weeks, but had thought that he was now dead. He did not miss. They had found that out to their cost on several occasions as he had painstakingly hunted them down, picking them off, one after another over the last few weeks from a great distance, or from unassailable cover until they had laid a trap for him. Somehow, he had survived that!
Forrester dropped his empty pistol into the dust and brought the rifle he carried in his other hand up to his shoulder. He chambered a cartridge and took his time, as he had before. He squeezed off a shot, seeing one of the two men arch his back as he stood up in his stirrups before he fell back off his horse. One of his feet was still caught in the stirrup. His body began flying about in death, like a marionette at the end of its strings as the horse’s rear feet tore into his head and upper body, throwing him around enough to break bones and tear him limb from limb. The man felt nothing by then. Nobody had heard his cry over the noise of the gunshot . He was already dead. The horse would soon stop and wait nervously to be freed of that twisted burden.
Forrester ignored all of that and his own pains as he worked the action and then focused on the one receding target still left. He ignored all else around him. He could allow for the increasing distance, but the man made it relatively easy for him, riding directly away from him.
He had been doing this for the last four years and was a master at it. He aimed for the top of the man’s body so as not to hit the horse. He knew that he could hit a target the size of an apple at two hundred yards, but he was tired, and trembling even, and this target was moving. He took a deep breath and held it as he brought the man into view along the sight.
He took his shot and saw the man slump from the saddle and fall off the galloping horse to bounce and then roll to lie motionless in a relatively small lump of what seemed like balled-up rags before he had gone more than four hundred feet. If the shot had not killed him, the fall from a galloping horse had, breaking many of the bones in his body. All seven men were accounted for.
Forrester limped over to the four that he was reasonably sure about, ready to use the other pistol taken from his belt. He saw the man, Downey, that he had taken pains to be sure he killed, with a blade cleaving his head down to his chin. He could see that he was certainly dead, as were the others. He had completed what he had set out to do all of those weeks earlier. He sat down heavily in the dust, relieved to have brought it all to an end. At least he had stopped them before they killed anyone else or did any more damage. Now he could die. The devil could have him now after playing with him for the last four years, and throwing ever greater atrocities in his way.
He lost all consciousness of his surroundings as he fell over.