By the time Ethan hiked back to Sharpsburg, he looked sufficiently bedraggled to sell his version of recent events. Townsfolk gathered around to hear of Billy’s most recent tragedy. Several Hawley riders set off to look for their boss. Ethan shuffled home, begging off further discussion. After feasting on roasted potatoes and mutton he found bubbling on the back of the stove, Ethan hobbled to the store.
“Back awful fast.” Calvin had not yet heard the news.
Ethan sketched out how his day had gone, undersensationalizing as much as possible.
“Son, you need to start carryin’ a sidearm. How many times you need to get waylaid? First you get shot, now you get robbed. That was a damn good wagon.”
“I need a flat piece of wood and some screws.”
“Ain’t you listening to me?”
“I hear you fine, but I can’t change what happened.” Calvin Anspach looked puzzled at his son’s lack of concern, but he pointed to a back corner of the store. “Got a couple pieces of pine over there from a crate that busted. How many screws you want?”
“Four should do it. An inch long.”
Ethan found a screwdriver behind the counter and dropped it and the screws into his pants pocket. The short plank he stuffed into the front of his pants. Off one of the wall racks, he pulled a dark blue coat and wriggled his arms into the wide sleeves.
“Now, what about a hogleg? What do we have in stock?” They walked over to the weapons counter. Though McClellan’s quartermaster corps had scoured the major battlefields, local residents still found guns in the most unlikely places where they had been flung by dying men or hurled through the air as the result of a cannon blast. Many were damaged. During his recuperation, Ethan had spent long hours mixing and matching salvageable parts into serviceable weapons to sell.
Ethan reached for a Colt’s .44. In excellent condition, it had probably been the service gun of a Union officer. He worked the action and spun the cylinder. He unhitched the cylinder, pulled it off the frame, and held a piece of newspaper at the base of the barrel. When he peered down the barrel from the other end, the reflected light off the paper showed the interior of the barrel clean and unpitted.
“Someone took care of this gun.”
“Where’d you learn to handle a gun like that, Billy? I never taught you nothin’ like that.”
“There’s a war on, Dad. Makes sense to know,” Ethan answered evasively. In his own time he had been an avid target shooter. He pulled boxes of powder and ball off a shelf and loaded the six big chambers of the Colt. Then he selected a second Colt, not in quite the same condition, but serviceable, and loaded it as well.
He slung a leather gunbelt around his waist and dropped the better revolver into its holster. The second Colt went into one of the coat’s capacious pockets.
“Fixin’ to fight your own war, Billy?”
“It’s dangerous country out there,” Billy said in a voice much older than his nineteen years.
Ethan waited until the funeral procession marched far down the main street before he entered the Presbyterian Church. He slipped into the darkened interior and waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. As he hoped, the place had emptied, all religious individuals drawn into the comet’s tail of the afternoon funeral ceremony. Ethan stepped to the left, his eyes surveying the interior architecture. Except for electric lights that would be installed sixty years in the future, the church appeared just as Ethan always remembered it. No renovations other than paint would occur in the future.
Ethan checked the pewter name plaque at the end of the last pew and committed the family name to memory. Bauer. Ethan stretched out on the maple planking and squirmed under the bench. From under his belt, Ethan extracted the square, flat piece of pine crating that closely matched the dark-stained oak of the pew. From his coat he pulled a flat packet of paper he had sealed with wax. Using the screwdriver and screws, Ethan attached his plank of wood to the underside of the pew, with the packet sandwiched tightly between the two surfaces.
He stood, dropped the screwdriver into his coat pocket, brushed himself off, and stepped out into the slanting sunshine of late afternoon.
As Ethan approached the rambling white house, he again had a feeling of familiarity with it. He climbed the broad, wide steps of the front porch and hammered the brass door knocker twice.
“Hello, Billy. Won’t you come in?”
She led him through a beveled glass doorway into a parlor furnished by overstuffed chairs and sofas of crushed burgundy silk, over the arms of which hung ornate lace doilies. She closed the door to insure their privacy and indicated a chair for him as she settled onto a wide divan.
“Is there any word of George?” she said in a conversational tone.
Knowing the fate of her husband made Ethan nervous. More lies. “Afraid not. I’m sorry, Mrs. Hawley. Has his crew gotten back from ?”
“No.” The older woman’s face appeared calm, not with the resignation of loss, but with a contentedness absent when he noticed her in town. Ethan saw the similarities between mother and daughter. But where, in Katherine, the ineffable mix of factors that comprise beauty had joined in perfect harmony, in the mother, they had not quite coalesced. Her bronze hair, wide-set green eyes, and straight nose, though pleasant, did not appear singular. Her full lips, however, perfectly matched her daughter’s.
“How can I help you, Billy?”
“I’d like to see Katherine.”
The calm features twisted. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“What? When? Where did she go?”
“She didn’t actually go; she was sent.”
Though Ethan wanted to pull the answers from her mouth, he controlled himself. “Please explain, Mrs. Hawley.”
“My husband has sent her away.” Her gaze settled in her lap as if something of great importance happened there.
This couldn’t be. Ethan tried to remain calm, but his pulse thrummed in his temples. “Mrs. Hawley, where was she sent?”
She raised her gaze from her lap. “Are you the father?”
Ethan knew nothing of what went on between these two young people prior to Beth and Ethan’s arrival. He stammered an answer. “Her, ah, her condition was as much a surprise to me as to you.”
“I’m sure you were surprised, but that doesn’t answer my question. Are you the father?”
A faraway look crept into Ethan’s eyes. “I wish I were.”
Her features softened. “You want to know where she is?”
“They left early this morning. Headed for the C&O Canal. They’ll be going west Chicago. George has picked her a husband.”
“So I heard.”
They stared at each other. She seemed to be waiting for him to say something. Finally, Ethan rose to leave. He hesitated and suddenly asked, “Could I see her room?” Something nagged at the edges of his awareness. As much as he wanted to hit the road, he couldn’t resist this urge.
Elizabeth Hawley tilted her head, her eyes quizzical. “Yes. Follow me.” She led him through several rooms to a stairway. On the second floor, she turned right down a hall and opened a door.
As soon as Ethan entered, he felt Beth’s presence. Some faint scent of her occupancy still hung in the air. Instinctively, Ethan went to the window. “Is this where it happened? Where she was shot?”
“No. That happened upstairs in the maid’s room while she watched the battle. Do you want to see?”
She led him to Emily’s room. Ethan stepped over to the window. At his feet a dark, irregular stain marred the pine planking. He pointed. “Here?”
“And the bullet came through this window?” Ethan noticed the bead of new trim around the perimeter of the glass, lighter than the original wood of the window.
Ethan peered through the rippled glass. He felt the rumble in the earth beneath his feet as artillery crushed iron into it. He heard the random firecracker sound of hundreds of rifle and pistol shots that went on and on like a Chinese New Year gone mad. He smelled the sharp bite of burnt gunpowder that hovered over the ground like a curtain of fog.
He had been out there. Now he stood here in a different body.
“Are you alright?” Elizabeth Hawley’s voice held concern.
Ethan realized he had collapsed into the straight-back oak chair beside the window.
“Billy, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Are you sure you’re alright?’
“Oh, yes, yes, I’m fine.” He wobbled to his feet. “I’ll be on my way.”
She led him through the house to the front door. As he passed her on his way out, she laid her hand on his shoulder in a moment of maternal care. “Be careful, Billy. She’s traveling with Ethridge and Hulse. Watch out for that Hulse.”
“Yes, Ma’am, I’ll be real careful.” Right up to the moment I blow those bastards away.
The thought of Beth with a weasel like Ethridge and a psychopath like Hulse lit a fuse inside Ethan. His search had ended. His confusion had ended. He now had a clear understanding of what he needed to do and what forces had arrayed to stop him. He hurried from the house, the fog of the last few minutes lifting as rage built inside him.
Three men in leather chaps gathered at the end of the dirt track that led through the Hawley’s main gate to the road. Three tethered circle-H horses munched at tufts of grass under the fence rails beside the gate.
“Hey, there, Billy. Mr. Hawley said you might come sniffin’ around one of these days.” The tallest of the three, a lanky, swarthy man with a scar down his left cheek, spoke in an outwardly friendly tone, but his voice held an undertone of sarcasm. Maybe twenty-five or thirty. A wide-brimmed brown hat rendered his eyes invisible in its shadow. He leaned against the left gate post. He looked familiar.
The second horseman, a wide-eyed boy no older than Billy, pulled off his work gloves and rested his thumbs on his gun belt. A heavyset giant of red hair and florid skin finished off the trio. Ethan ignored them and kept on for the gate.
“See here, fellers, this is a boy don’t have the manners to speak when spoken to,” the tall one said.
“Teach ’im, Taney,” urged the red man.
Ethan reached for the gate latch and the lanky one slid across the intervening yard quick and silent as a shadow. Suddenly a blade pricked the underside of Ethan’s chin. “Got your attention now, do I, boy?” This close, Ethan could see under the hat brim. The eyelids looked like mere slits over black marbles. Yes, Ethan knew this face. It had been one of the last things poor Cole had seen. This man, Taney, and the albino, Hulse, betting on whether a running horse would step on a man.
“Not thinkin’ of goin’ after the girl, now are you? That wouldn’t be smart and you look like you might have a little bit of smarts in that pinhead of yours.” The grin that slashed across the stubbled face held no good humor.
Ethan said, “Look down, Taney.” Taney’s grin got wider.
The click of a hammer being cocked sounded as menacing as a diamondback’s rattle. Taney stepped back half a pace, keeping the tip of his skinning knife under Ethan’s chin. His false grin disappeared as Taney saw the dull gleam of Ethan’s revolver between them. Taney’s companions stepped away from the fence, no longer lounging.
“Now lose that knife and step back.” Ethan’s finger so wanted to pull the trigger. His mind filled with the memory of Taney and Hulse staring down on Cole, taunting him before they mutilated him with a ton of horse, but his need to get to Beth won over his temptation. Shooting Taney would cause complications and delay.
The blade dropped to the ground and the lanky horseman retreated. The grin reappeared. “Lots can happen on the road, Billy. Stragglers, deserters, they make travelin’ real unhealthy. You be careful, now, y’hear?”
Ethan surveyed all three, checked their hands, watched their posture as he kept the revolver trained on Taney’s chest. No, they wouldn’t do anything now, not in daylight, not with him just a finger twitch away from blowing a hole in Taney. Ethan threw back the gate latch and stepped through. He didn’t re-latch the gate as he backed off. All three men stayed motionless. He held the Colt on them until he had gone a hundred feet.
Turning, Ethan walked briskly toward the center of town. Now too far for a pistol shot, Ethan’s back still itched in anticipation of a rifle bullet. No, it would be too difficult for Taney to explain how Ethan presented such a threat that Taney needed to shoot him in the back from a hundred yards. Several minutes passed before Ethan realized he still had the revolver in his hand. He lowered the hammer and dropped the revolver into his holster as he double-timed to the livery stable.
His lingering pains seemed minor compared to the acid fear in his gut.