Beth felt Hulse’s eyes burning into her back. With Ethridge riding in front of her and Hulse behind, she had little hope of cutting free. The canal path stretched like a railroad line; one could go only forward or back. Along most of it, steep embankments rose on the land side. Between the road and the embankments a deep ditch had been formed when the builders hauled dirt and stone up onto the roadway. Over an embankment on the other side rushed the torrent of the .
Beth acted passive, but stayed alert for an opportunity to bolt.
Hulse rode up next to her. She felt his Easter Bunny eyes rake across her breasts. He made no attempt to hide his interest. “Tired?”
Without turning her head, she said, “No, Mr. Hulse, I can sit a horse as long as any man.”
His pink lips leered under his white mustache. “Good rider, eh? That could be handy tonight.”
The C&O Canal stretched from Washington, D.C. to the Ohio River. George Washington had been one of the original visionaries who developed and funded the canal to allow for commerce from what was then the frontier to the settled areas along the coast. The dirt and gravel canal track used by the barge mules also provided a smooth, level road for travelers on foot and horseback.
When Ethan reached the canal late in the day, he didn’t see much traffic. He rode northwest until he encountered a lock. He dismounted and banged on the lock master’s door until a grizzled old man came to the entrance. Pulling on his red braces, he bellowed, “Lock’s closed. Cain’t you see?”
Ignoring the outburst, Ethan said, “Did two men and a young woman ride past here this morning?”
“Lotsa people rode past this mornin’. You think I keep track of ’em? I keep track of barges and there ain’t no barges this afternoon.”
“She was young, very pretty. Long red hair. When did they go by?”
His stubble of white whiskers stood out in starker contrast as the old man’s skin changed from pink to red. He stopped fussing with his suspenders and glared into Ethan’s eyes. “I smell trouble in you, young man.”
“What time did they pass?”
The lock master gave in. “’Bout eight. Now off with you.”
Ethan remounted and kicked the horse to a trot. At , he and Jasper had been riding up the hill to Turner’s Gap. Ethan’s emotions warred. If he hadn’t helped Jasper, he and Beth might be far away by now. Together.
And he would have spent the rest of his days in guilt for condemning Jasper to rot in a military prison.
Ethan rode until he could barely see the tow track. When the horse stumbled and almost fell into the canal, Ethan knew he had to stop for the night. A cautious mile later, he saw a dim light ahead. As he pushed on, the light differentiated into individual candle flames dancing behind window panes. Seconds after Ethan rode up to the front of the whitewashed stone structure, the front door opened and an ancient black man shuffled out carrying a glass and metal lantern that held a fat candle. “Stayin’ the night, sir?” The old man reached for the horse’s bridle.
“Where am I?”
“Big Spring, sir.”
“Yessir, couple nice rooms left. Oats for the horse and a soft bed for you, sir.”
The odors of cooking meat and wood smoke wafted through the air. Ethan suddenly felt famished. “How much for dinner too?”
“Two bits for the horse, dollar for dinner and the room, sir.”
“Done.” Then a trick of the lantern revealed the old man’s face and clouded eyes. Ethan caught his breath. “How’s your family doing, Ezekiel,” Ethan blurted out before he could catch himself.
The lantern came up between them and the old man squinted his cloudy eyes to examine Ethan’s face. “Do I know you, sir?”
Ethan shook his head. “No, no.”
Ethan dismounted and handed the reins to the puzzled old man.
As Ethan pulled open the heavy front door, he felt transported from the world of ice to the world of fire. The great room glowed with dancing flames from the wide fireplace along the far wall. Huge logs shimmered red and gold on the thick andirons whose metal glowed like the setting sun. Thick odors suffused the air: the sweet smell of burnt fat, the comforting alcoholic tang of mead, the subtle undercurrents of cooked parsley and squash.
Ethan catalogued the room’s inhabitants, though he knew Beth would have passed here much earlier in the day. Two men huddled in a back corner. A man, a woman, and two girls picked slowly through the remains of their meal, large wooden trenchers between them filled with chicken bones and the skins of yellow squash. A lone man huddled near the fire, wrinkled hands wrapped around a pewter flagon.
Ethan settled at the end of one of three long tables that filled the room, close enough to the strong radiation from the fireplace to thaw out but far enough to not overheat before he finished his meal.
It seemed a week since he’d said good-bye to Jasper, but it had only been this morning. His thighs had chafed from the day’s ride and every joint in his body ached from the long walk down from the place he’d killed George Hawley.
As he stared into the fireplace, Ethan heard his own voice.
You killed a man today, Ethan.
How does it feel?
It feels good.
His meal arrived and Ethan ate like a starved wolverine.