Ethan leaned heavily on the cane clutched in his right hand, trying to keep his body steady as he shuffled up Main Street. Any misstep lanced pain from his chest to his left shoulder. Maybe he should have worn the shoulder sling, but he was trying to accelerate his healing, pushing the limits of this new body. The March sky, more gray than blue, seemed to suck the heat out of the earth and all that walked upon it. Ethan looked forward to stoking a big fire in the pot-bellied stove in the kitchen and basking in its radiation like a spoiled housecat. But for now, he plodded on, determined to go a little farther away from the house each day.
Through the ground he felt the heavy vibration of horses approaching so he stepped as far to the side of the dirt track as possible. In seconds, two horsemen galloped around the corner and almost ran him down.
Some afterimage came into Ethan’s thoughts as the horses passed. He knew one of the horses. Yes, the one on the right had a white crescent across its rump. And the way the rider sat the horse. He knew that too.
Remembered pain washed over him. He stumbled. He caught himself and then planted his feet as if withstanding an earthquake until the spasm passed. Yes, in the moments of his coming into Billy Anspach’s body, he remembered that horse and that rider.
Ethan gathered his wits and hurried as fast as his weak, stiff body could carry him. Straining muscles unprepared for exertion, he followed the cloud of dust the riders kicked up.
It took Ethan ten minutes to traverse the town and discover the two horses tied in front of the Brandywine Tavern. He stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of the saloon and reached for the brass door handle. His hand shook. Was he insane? If found the man who shot Billy Anspach inside, what could Ethan possibly do?
He left me, he thought. He left me to die. He dumped me like garbage in the creek.
What had led up to that moment? What grudge or feud or moment of passion had brought Billy out at dawn to a patch of field to take a bullet in the chest?
Ethan shuffled away from the and retreated to a stout sycamore tree for cover. A thin wind cut down under his collar. He shuddered.
Why am I doing this? What does Billy Anspach’s feud have to do with me?
But he knew. Anyone who would leave a boy to die would not leave his handiwork on display. Billy’s shooting and recovery were the talk of the town. Surely his assailant had heard. Surely he would want to finish his job of work before Billy was healthy enough for revenge, never knowing that his victim had no idea who had tried to murder him.
A half-hour dragged by before a pair of men exited the and mounted the chestnut-red Morgans. They whirled and retraced the route by which they had arrived. As they approached, Ethan slowly circumnavigated the sycamore’s trunk, keeping the mottled bark between him and the pair. As they passed, Ethan peeked around the tree and recognized the profile of the man on the left.
I’ll send you to hell, he thought. It’s what Jasper would say. Now he understood how the old trooper came to such conclusions.
Ethan hobbled through the rising wind toward the , a low, log structure with small lead-glass windows. When he stepped inside, a rank cloud of tobacco smoke burned into his lungs. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom and then stepped to the bar, at the end of which two hulking figures in bearskin coats huddled over beers.
Ethan approached the bartender, a squat man with arms like piano legs. The bald top of his head seemed compensated by a dark handlebar mustache so large that Ethan wondered how the man could eat.
“Those two who were in here? Who are they?”
“What two would they be?” The bartender growled. In the dim light his eyes glinted as black as the coal stacked in the bin next to the stove behind him.
“They rode Morgans. They just left.”
“Yeah, big red horses.”
“Seems a man’s business is a man’s business.” The bartender continued trimming the wicks of a half dozen oil lamps lined up on the cherrywood bar.
Ethan stood silent. Why had he assumed he could ask for help? He kept thinking of the past as a time when people showed more civility, but time and again he saw evidence that their cruelty and venality equaled that of his own time. He had to abandon his quaint notions of the “past.”
The bartender looked up. “You still here? Why don’t you gimp on out before you get into trouble?”
The two men in bearskins turned and eyed Ethan. “Hey, Gimp, how ’bout you buy us a round?”
The meek shall inherit the earth, Ethan thought. Yeah, but not until the strong had made them pay for it. He realized his mistake. This damaged body could barely walk, let alone pursue an impulsive quest. He turned for the door, the sting of their words like a lash in his mind. He transferred his cane to his weak left hand and used his right hand to pull open the thick wooden slab. Heavy boots thumped on the plank floor behind Ethan. He stepped through the door, pulled it shut, and hurried off the boardwalk and into the street, switching his cane to his stronger hand to make better speed.
The ’s door creaked open. “Hey, Gimp, where ya goin’? Ain’t nice to turn yer back on a man’s talkin’ to ya.” Clumping footsteps approached Ethan from behind. Ethan’s heart hammered and the ever-present throbbing in his shoulder and chest ratcheted up a few notches to searing pain. He increased his pace, each impact of his feet now sending a shudder of agony through him. He breathed shallow breaths and sweat appeared all over his body, despite the cold.
“C’mere, snotnose. You need a lesson in manners,” one bear-man growled.
Ethan felt a hand grip his left shoulder, yank at his coat. Pain screamed through his shoulder and by reflex Ethan dropped into a crouch. At the same time, he shortened his grip on the cane in his right hand so that he was holding it midway down the shaft. With as much strength as he could muster, Ethan spun to his left and, almost blindly, stabbed the metal tip of the cane up at the bear man’s face. The tip bounced off the man’s left cheekbone and juddered up into his eye. Ethan pushed and the bear-man screamed with the voice of a child. Bright blood gushed from the eye socket and the man fell back hard, writhing in the dust of the road. Ethan yanked his cane away from the big man’s clutches.
Faint from his effort and from the panic that flooded through him, he shuffle-skipped as fast as he could, wanting to get as far as possible from the Brandywine. He got fifty yards up the street when he heard a shout from behind, but he didn’t turn. He just kept his head down and his legs moving as he tried to control the searing white heat that reached up through his chest.
A shot rang out and Ethan heard the whirring buzz of a bullet pass his right ear. He cut right into a side street to put a house between him and his pursuers and to head for the center of town. Ethan did the grim arithmetic in his head. He had a lead, but he couldn’t make good time. The bear man would catch up.
Ethan turned left at the next street to break up the line of sight. His breath now wheezed in and out of him in a painful rhythm. Atrophied muscles in his legs burned from effort they could not much longer sustain. And the half-knitted mess of his left shoulder felt as if someone scraped a screwdriver against the bone.
Ethan ducked into an alley between two rows of houses. As he neared its end, he recognized Doctor Robert’s house diagonally across the street. The red board-and-batten structure with the gray slate roof had been a frequent destination in his recovery. Now it offered another kind of salvation.
Ethan hastened around to the rear and, without knocking, pushed open the door at the top of a short flight of stairs. The noise of his breathing echoed off the white plaster walls of the narrow hallway and his feet hammered against the pine planking. Surely his pursuers could hear him, like a mouse running inside a kettledrum. Ethan yanked open the first door on his right, spun through the doorway, and slammed the door shut. He slid to the floor with his legs splayed in front of him and tried hopelessly to catch his breath.
“I told you to exercise, Billy, but this is a little bit much, wouldn’t you say?”
Ethan looked up and Doctor Robert loomed in the doorway to the adjoining examination room.
Gasping, Ethan managed to spit out, “Hide me.”
“Men. After me.”
Robert hurried to the front of his office and peered out the single window. “I don’t see anyone.”
Robert knelt next to Ethan and helped take off his coat. “Lean forward. Let me examine your shoulder.”
As Ethan slowly regained control of his breathing, Robert pulled off Ethan’s shirt and probed gingerly around Ethan’s bruised flesh. “Your wound hasn’t opened. But there’s more swelling around this shoulder. Have you kept it in the sling?”
Ethan said, “Mostly, but I’m trying to do without it today.”
“So, who’s chasing you, Billy?”
Ethan spun the doctor a story of his adventure at the , omitting the part about recognizing the man who had left Billy to die.
“Billy, you shouldn’t be drinking in your condition. You stay away from the .”
“No problem there.”
Three loud thumps came from the front hall. Robert frowned at Ethan. “You stay here.” Robert left through the examining room door which he closed and locked. Thumping and curses. Deep voices. Ethan’s heart rate shot up again. How did they find me? Any second, he expected the door to the examining room to crash into splinters as the bear-men came at him.
But as minutes ticked by, the sounds diminished to silence that was only occasionally punctuated by a low groan. Ethan crawled across the floor to the adjoining door and squinted through the keyhole. One bear-man sat on a stool at the far end of the room. The other was lying on a table with Doctor Robert hunched over, wrapping bandages around the bear-man’s head.
Ethan sat back on his haunches. They hadn’t found him. The bear men had merely sought help from the nearest doctor. Relief surged through Ethan.
He suppressed the urge to hustle out the back door. The bear men couldn’t see through walls and they would have no reason to enter Doctor Robert’s back room. Better to rest a while before the long walk home.
He just hoped he could get home without making any more enemies.