Billy Anspach’s body gasped as blood once again lurched through his veins. Nerves fired and his heart chugged as if to make up for lost time. Then Billy’s mouth opened and emitted one long horrible wail.
Cornelius Ethridge’s heart almost stopped at the sound. He whirled away from his horse, his eyes frantically searching for the source of that horrid noise. Billy Anspach’s head rose from the edge of Antietam Creek and his bloodshot eyes drilled into Ethridge.
“Sweet mother of God,” seeped from Ethridge’s lips. The corpse raised its right arm and beckoned toward him, fingers outstretched and wriggling like worms. Ethridge approached the body cautiously as it quivered and thrashed in the mud and ice at the edge of the stream. Ethridge felt true terror. He had placed his hand on Billy’s chest before returning Hawley’s pistol; he had felt nothing. No breathing, no heart beat. The skin on Billy’s face had been pale and lifeless as wax when Ethridge dragged his body into the stream. But here before him squirmed a living thing. He wasn’t sure if it was a man. None of the horrible sounds it was making even resembled words.
Ethridge drew his revolver and for a second considered putting a bullet in Billy’s skull. Then he slipped the Colt back into its holster. If Billy’s body was found, one bullet hole could suggest he was robbed or in a duel. Even if the duel was ever tied back to George Hawley, there would be no repercussions on a matter of honor. But two bullet holes would mean murder and there’d be hell to pay.
Gritting his teeth, Ethridge grabbed Billy’s soggy boots and hauled his writhing body back into the water. Ethridge stepped onto a partially submerged rock and manhandled Billy toward the center of the stream. He set his foot on Billy’s back and pushed him under the ice. The dark, slow-moving water carried the body away. By spring, nothing would remain to identify. And if the body was found before then, it would be miles away.
Ethridge’s horse had wandered across the meadow. Pacing through the frosty grass, Ethridge scanned around for anyone who might have heard the shots and decided to investigate. Nothing else moved in the mists. He might have been alone in the world. He mounted his horse and kicked it into a trot along the dirt track that would take him back into town. Billy’s honorable second didn’t even glance toward the stream as he abandoned him once again.
Uncontrollable seizures slammed through Ethan’s new body. Then the cold hit him. For several seconds he enjoyed the icy contrast to the fire that ripped through his chest. His head cleared and he realized he was under water. Some instinct moved his legs and he bobbed toward the surface. He hit the ice. Ethan rolled face up and couldn’t understand why he was looking through a window.
The icy water numbed his wound, focused his mind. He almost laughed as he realized he was trapped under ice. What else could go wrong? With his good arm he pushed against it and his body dropped through the water in response. His left foot hit the bottom. Realizing the shallowness of the stream, Ethan rolled his feet under him and pushed on the muddy streambed. His head broke through the thin ice and he gasped in air for what seemed like the first time in hours. The effort exhausted him. He pushed feebly against the bottom and bobbed his right shoulder up and down to crack a path through the thin sheet ice as he struggled to shore.
Infinities seemed to pass before he floated close enough to reach up and grab the low hanging branch of an elderberry bush. His first feeble tug brought him up to the bank, but as he pulled himself out of the buoyancy of the water, Ethan felt as if he weighed a thousand pounds. He got his head and shoulders onto the shore and then rested.
He felt vibrations through the ground, heard the thud of hooves. Struggling to hold himself in place, he lifted his head and tried to shout. A shadow passed over him before he could make a sound. Ethan looked up and through the thin brush saw a man in profile riding past. Ethan watched the retreating back of the man and the rear of the horse. From the horse’s rump down to the right thigh, a white crescent stood out starkly against a chestnut background.
Molten lava poured through his veins. Ethan felt like his head would burst as he tugged on the elderberry bush, grabbed its base and hauled himself further out of the water. Then he lay exhausted, barely conscious.
Slowly, the pain resolved itself into a hot, throbbing oven in his upper chest and left shoulder. Ethan’s right hand gingerly probed and found the entry wound a hand’s width above his left nipple. His blood seeped out steadily, though he knew it would have been much worse if he had not been thrown into the icy water.
With an effort that left him dizzy, he rolled onto his right side. By kicking his legs and pulling at clumps of grass with his right arm, Ethan was able to inch his way up the gentle slope of the embankment onto the slick field grass at the side of the dirt track. He lay gasping like a landed fish. This is madness. I’ve made a mistake. He composed himself and tried to escape the damaged remains of Billy Anspach. He battered against the walls of his human prison, but no amount of effort could free him. He could not leave. Yet.
Chilled and shivering, Ethan lay on his back and absently gazed into the azure sky. From pain to pain. Why did he enter only the bodies of those already close to death? But he knew the answer. He could not eject or cohabit with the spirit of one who was living. Only when that energizing essence had abandoned its body could Ethan move in and try to reanimate the empty flesh before it decomposed.
This method sorely disadvantaged him in his search for Bethany.