“Yer gettin’ awful restless lately, Youngblood. Must be on the mend. Fixin’ to take a walk?”
“Don’t go far. I’m makin’ biscuits.”
“You sure it’s safe?”
“Ain’t sure of nothin’, but I ain’t seen a soldier in a week and I’m right sick of all this cold food. I’ll keep the fire small and use dry wood so’s I don’t make no smoke.”
“You git your tail back in an hour. It’ll be dark soon.”
Ethan emerged into the golden haze of the lowering sun. Fat red and orange maple leaves lay thick on the ground. A breeze shook loose a cascade of russet from a sweet gum tree. Everywhere, the shower of leaf fall seemed unsustainable in its excess. Yet it went on and on as Ethan gingerly pushed west into the woods.
Jasper was right. Ethan felt restless, but not in any way Jasper might suspect. As he lay suffering for weeks in the gloomy confines of the barn’s sub-level, Ethan had tried to ignore Cole’s damaged body. Ethan had run through his mind a thousand times the chain of events that had brought him to this time and place. He relived each millisecond he had spent with the fading essence of his wife as she was wrenched away by energies too powerful to comprehend.
At night, when all fell silent except for the faint scurrying of mice, more than once Ethan had sworn he could hear her voice in the distance. He felt her presence in this place.
Ethan walked carefully, legs splayed, amazed at how a vital young body could be reduced to near invalid status in so short a time. His muscles ached from the previous day when he and Jasper had encountered the highwayman. But without exercise he would not grow stronger. He pushed on.
He hiked for half an hour. His gait became smoother, his muscles loosened and didn’t rebel as they had at the start. Yes, he thought, this body will do.
He heard the snicker of a horse and instinctively dropped to the ground. A voice cut through the darkening air. “No, no.”
Ethan crawled to the edge of a tree-filled bowl where he saw three horses tethered to a fallen birch. At the bottom of the bowl three men lashed a fourth man’s arms and legs to saplings leaving him spread-eagle face-up on the forest carpet.
Ethan crawled closer, confident that the breeze rattling the trees would cover his sounds.
“Taney, I hear a horse won’t step on a man. You think that’s true?” The speaker stood tall and muscular, with the white hair and pink skin of a lab rat.
“Well, Mister Hulse, my two dollars says it ain’t so.” Lean and dark, Taney rested both hands on his saddle pommel. His hair stuck out in oily spikes from under a flattened stovepipe hat.
“Well, let’s just see.” The albino strode to the edge of the clearing and grabbed the reins of his horse. “Hey, McCoy, you be the judge.”
The third man stepped away from the struggling figure on the ground and sat on his haunches as the other two men mounted.
“Please, mister. I’m jes a supply clerk. I ain’t done no fightin’” pleaded a young voice.
The albino, Hulse, rode his horse up next to the clerk. “I been listenin’ to your sorry tales for twenty minutes, Reb. You’re a lyin’ sack of shit and the more you keep mouthin’ the more I want to do ya.”
“Honest, mister. I never done nothin’ to hurt you.”
“Well, somebody killed my brother over in and looks like you get to pay.” He spat on his captive and rode off across the bowl. “Okay, Taney, I go first, then you go. If he’s brained, you win.” Hulse kicked his chestnut-red Morgan and the horse shot forward.
Ethan felt like he watched a train wreck. He didn’t want to be there, yet he couldn’t take his eyes away.
Hulse accelerated across the clearing and rode over the man on the ground. As soon as he passed, McCoy scurried forward. Horse and rider sauntered back to the body.
McCoy took off his hat and looked up at the other man. “Hulse, you crazy sumbitch. Ain’t a scratch on him.”
“You owe me two bucks, Taney,” the white-haired Hulse shouted across the clearing. “Now you go. Maybe you can make it even.”
The young man on the ground lay motionless and silent, except for tiny panic-puffs of breath whistling in and out of his nose. His mad eyes stared into the darkening sky. McCoy staggered back, his face wrinkled in disgust. “Oh, Christ, the kid shit his pants.”
Hulse grinned and shouted, “C’mon, Taney, before it gets dark.”
The thunder of hooves echoed through the clearing as Taney swept forward. As the cloud of dust and leaves boiled over the captive, McCoy jumped forward. Again he saw no evidence of damage. The blue eyes of the supply clerk stared straight up, unblinking. McCoy leaned over into the boy’s line of sight. “Get hurt that time?” The boy’s eyes focused and his head shook back and forth not more than an inch.
Taney and Hulse rode up to examine their results.
“Hey, ain’t that a spot of blood on his leg?” Taney pointed.
McCoy fingered the stain. “Yeah, but it ain’t fresh.”
“Git out the money, Taney. Four dollars and I want it in silver.”
Taney sneered. “Hellfire, that was too easy. This skinny kid ain’t even a foot wide. Let’s go again, but this time, we run over him lengthwise.”
“Okay. Double or nothin’.” Hulse leered down at the clerk. “Kid, I’m hopin’ I lose this time. I break even and you, well, you just get broke.” Hulse belly-laughed as he ran his horse across the clearing to join Taney.
Ethan had crept as close as he dared and huddled behind a thick trunk of white oak, twenty feet from the boy. The one named McCoy kneeled in profile to Ethan. Ethan gauged the distance. His instinct told him to get away, to go back to the barn and forget what he had seen. But another part of him couldn’t allow this abomination.
Before he could talk himself out of it, Ethan hobbled forward, drew his pistol and aimed at McCoy. As he heard the clatter of hooves and saw Hulse speeding toward him, Ethan swung his aim toward the oncoming wall of muscle. An explosion went off at Ethan’s right and he felt a piece of his coat pull away. Ethan shifted and returned fire at McCoy, but his weak muscles were not up to the task his mind had set. His shot went wide. An instant later, Hulse’s horse smashed into Ethan and flung him six feet through the air.
Ethan landed in a painful heap, his vision blurred, his head ringing. He sucked in a breath as a revolver appeared inches from his face. Behind that he saw McCoy. Through the ground, Ethan felt hoof impacts. In a second, Hulse smiled down on him. “What have we here? Another Reb deserter?”
Pink eyes loomed close. In a voice so low, only Ethan could hear it, Hulse whispered, “Did you just drop from heaven? Just for me? Now I know there is a God.”
A shiver ran through Ethan. Wind howled in his mind. Those pink eyes offered tunnels straight to hell. “Well, gentlemen, this is our lucky day. Let’s line him up next to the little one over there.” The albino’s mad eyes seemed a discordant contrast to his calm voice.
Jasper found them the next morning. After hearing gunshots the previous evening, he had fruitlessly scouted until the night got so dark he couldn’t see his own feet. Now in the cold light of dawn, he cursed himself for waiting so long to go after Cole.
As he cut away the ropes that held the boy and Cole to the ground, Jasper’s bile rose in his throat. “What kind of animal does this?” He seethed at the sight of the broken bodies, the tattered bloody remnants of what had been two human beings.
Many hoofprints criss-crossed the area. Jasper ran his fingers along one particularly deep one. Perfectly preserved in the soft ground he saw an impression of a horseshoe that had a fingernail-sized chunk gouged from the trailing edge. Jasper burned the image of the unique print into his mind.
Jasper glared up into the gray dawn, his body trembling with rage. “Lord, I don’t ask for much, but I’m askin’ you to put the bastards that did this in my sights afore I die.” Jasper had no shovel, so he hauled rocks from a nearby outcropping to cover the bodies. He worked until noon, then trudged back to the barn and sat in the gloom of the sub-basement the rest of the day.