The sun had set and only its rapidly diminishing afterglow remained pink in the sky as the trio pulled up in front of a road house in Indian Springs. Hulse said, “Made good time today. Didn’t think we’d get this far.”
Hulse dismounted. “Ethridge, you think you can keep an eye on missy here while I get us a couple rooms?”
“How many rooms?”
“Two should be just about right.” Hulse leered at Beth. “Ethridge, you don’t mind sleeping alone, do you?”
Ethridge didn’t answer as Hulse strode up the steps of the front porch.
Beth spat out, “He’s a royal bastard.”
“You should know.”
“What’s that mean?
“You grew up with one.”
Beth felt no fealty to George Hawley, but she resented Ethridge’s presumption. “So, you work for a royal bastard and with a royal bastard. What’s that say about you, Mr. Ethridge?”
“And who was the royal bastard you spread your legs for, little girl?”
“You hypocrite. You want a woman to spread her legs, then you condemn her for doing it.” Beth dismounted and began walking to the left of the inn.
“Where you think you’re going?”
“I’m going over into those bushes to pee, if it’s any of your concern. Do you want to watch? Would that make you happy, Mr. Ethridge, to watch a woman relieve herself?”
“Just so I can see the top of your head.”
Beth squatted in the mountain laurel, her mind bouncing in her head like a hornet in a jar. She had to do something. Now. She had no illusions about what would happen tonight. Sometime before dawn, those big pink fingers would smother her mouth, those pink eyes would loom close, and Hulse’s pale slug of a body would rape her. Once he crossed that threshold, she could expect the same every night. How many weeks was this journey? She shivered and drove the repellent image from her mind.
She had succeeded in tricking Ethridge about relieving herself and needed to use this time to best advantage. Kneeling, she ran her fingers down through the tall grass. She found a stone protruding above the soil. Too small. She felt around some more. Ah. She tugged a fist-sized rock out of the ground. As she ambled back toward the horses, she concealed the stone in her right hand which she kept buried in the right-hand pocket of her blanket coat.
Beth’s horse stood on the other side of Ethridge’s, so she walked around the rear of Ethridge’s horse. He had no reason to fear a seventeen-year-old girl. He remained facing toward the inn, lolling in a fog of fatigue, as Beth passed behind him.
She glanced fearfully at the front door of the inn. If Hulse came out, her plan would fail. Tiny breaths puffed in and out of her mouth. She felt giddy with fear. If she failed…
I will not fail.
She stood directly behind Ethridge.
With her heart beating like a racehorse, Beth set her feet, reared back, and hurled the stone with all her strength. The two-pound missile crossed eight feet of space and hit the back of Ethridge’s skull with a loud thunk. Ethridge cartwheeled out of the saddle and landed on his left shoulder. He didn’t move.
Petrified, Beth approached his limp form and stood over him for a second. What if he was faking and was waiting for her to get close enough to grab her? Panicked, she glanced at the front door of the road house, expecting Hulse to come crashing down the stairs.
Beth stopped breathing as she lunged for Ethridge’s pistol and yanked it from its holster. Ethridge didn’t budge. She tucked the gun into one of her big coat pockets and glanced again at the door of the inn.
Feeling as if every eye on earth was watching her, Beth untied the reins of Hulse’s horse and tried to tug him next to Ethridge’s. Hulse’s horse reared and whinnied at the strange touch. Beth’s heart pounded so loud, she could hear it in her ears. She ran her free hand along the base of the horse’s neck. “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay.” Hulse’s horse still fidgeted and muscles along his flanks twitched in nervousness, but he stopped crow-hopping and allowed Beth to tug him closer to Ethridge’s horse. She grabbed the second set of reins and then untied her own mount from the hitching post.
She felt like she was moving in slow motion and naked for the world to see as she climbed onto her mare. She tried not to look at the door of the inn, tried to focus on balancing into the saddle, getting her feet properly set in the stirrups. God, she wished this wasn’t a real horse, but rather her old V-8 Mustang.
She wanted to ride like the wind, but she was afraid the sudden clatter of hooves would bring Hulse outside. Though Beth was an accomplished rider, dragging the reins of two tired horses proved difficult. Half turned in her saddle, she had to yank the reins hard to get the two horses moving. They knew it was the end of the day and they expected to be fed, not start a new trek.
No more than fifty feet down the path she heard a shout behind her. “Goddamn you little witch!”
Beth kicked her horse’s flanks and held onto the saddle horn with her left hand while her right pulled at the other two mounts. In that moment between when her horse accelerated and the other two horses began to respond, Beth was pulled off the back of her saddle. Bouncing on the rump of her horse, only her legs clamped to its sides kept her from tumbling to the ground. She hung suspended between two opposing forces as Hulse raced after her.
Looking back, Beth gasped at how quickly Hulse closed the gap. For an instant, she thought of letting the other two mounts go, but thought better of it. Once Hulse had a horse under him, Beth knew she would be recaptured. She suddenly had a gutful of ice at the thought of what his anger would make him do to her.
All three horses accelerated now, with Beth in the middle, Hulse only five feet behind the last horse.
Beth jerked hard on the reins of the two following horses to get their attention, then hauled the reins toward her, literally dragging them across the gap. She had no choice. If they didn’t speed up, Hulse would capture one.
Beth groaned relief as the gap closed. As the tension on her arms lessened, she hunched forward and managed to get back into the saddle. She took one last look over her shoulder and shuddered. Hulse’s churning legs had gotten him near the rump of one of the horses. He stretched out his left arm.
Beth saw Hulse grab a handful of the streaming tail. She screamed and kicked her heels into her horse again. Bathed in fear-sweat, her hand almost lost the reins. In panic, she screamed at the horses, “Run, Godammit!” Her right hand looped the reins around her saddle horn as she frantically kicked her horse’s flanks. All three animals smelled her fear and accelerated, the thrill of the chase getting into their blood.
Beth’s last view of Hulse was of him still running in the middle of the road, a fistful of black horse tail in his left hand, as a dust cloud enveloped him. As the tree canopy above her thickened, she lost sight of him in the gloom.
The faint ribbon of roadway stretched in front of her as she headed back the way they had come. The light got bad now and she feared a misstep, but she dared not stop. Somehow, she had to push on through the night, retrace her route, and hope that Ethan had figured out what had happened and was trailing her.
She had no plan other than to keep moving. Though she was expanding the distance between her and Hulse, she would not feel safe until she saw Ethan.
Clouds hid the moon and Beth slowed. She hoped the horses could follow the canal track.
When she was about three miles from the inn, her horse stumbled, almost throwing Beth from the saddle. She lost the reins of the two other horses as she scrambled to stay in control of her mount. The chestnut mare regained its footing, but Beth realized that she was pushing her luck. Her horse might go lame.
Beth tried to remember how far the next town was. Should she keep on or stop?
It depended on what Hulse’s and Ethridge’s horses did.
As soon as Beth continued east on the canal track, the other two horses stepped down the embankment to munch the grass that grew in the ditch.
Would Ethridge and Hulse be on foot tonight or wait until morning? Either way, if they headed back this way, they’d find their horses.
Beth thought she could reach before , but then she realized she had no money for food or shelter. If she stopped at a public place, she would be easy prey for her followers if they pursued tonight. The safest thing was to get off the road.
Beth dismounted and felt her way off the land side of the path. She led the horse through the gully and allowed it to drink from the trickle of water at the bottom of the depression. Then she dragged the rebelling animal up the embankment. At one point, it reared and she was terrified it would topple back into the ditch, but it righted itself and followed as she yanked on the reins. They reached the tree line and the earth leveled. Beth could see nothing but inky darkness. By feel, she worked her way through a stand of small trees. When she felt dry leaves underfoot, she stopped.
Feeling her way around the horse, she pulled a coarse blanket from one of the saddlebags, then tied the horse’s reins to a sapling. She gathered a large pile of fallen leaves around her and spread the blanket over them to hold them together. She burrowed down into the crackling leaves. When she had settled, she pushed her hands into the opposite sleeves of her coat, like a nun. A horrible way to spend the night, but she could think of nothing else. She hoped she could sleep, but feared being unable to wake up due to hypothermia.
After midnight, when the temperature dropped well below freezing, the horse settled onto the forest carpet to keep its legs warm. Half asleep, Beth wriggled up against the broad, warm side of the animal. It snorted once and she fell back asleep.
At dawn, the horse stood, jostling Beth awake. She felt a hundred years old as she tried to stand. At first, she couldn’t feel her feet. Then came pins and needles so excruciating that a small cry of pain seeped out between her lips. She stamped until the pain diminished, then led the horse back to the canal.
Looking down the embankment, she could not believe she had scaled it in the dark. She feared descending with the horse behind her. If the horse lost its footing, it would crush her. She scanned to the east and decided to ride the horse along the top of the canal embankment until she found a better place to descend.
Beth looked over her shoulder every few minutes.
Hulse followed somewhere back there.
She kicked the horse into a gallop.