Long before dawn, Ethan ate a hurried breakfast of fresh bread and apple cider and persuaded the innkeeper to hard-boil a dozen eggs while Ethan saddled up his horse. Ethan wrapped the eggs in two handkerchiefs and placed them in the large side pockets of his coat. He paid the innkeeper and hurried out into the cold pre-dawn.
Before the sun even peeked above the horizon, Ethan had traveled several miles on the canal track heading west. He wanted to kick the horse into a gallop, tear a hole in the wind, but he knew to do so would be to tire his mount before . He had to maintain a steady, mile-eating pace to ride all day.
As he rode, Ethan peeled one of the warm eggs and popped it whole into his mouth, wishing he had a salt shaker. His eyes surveyed the path ahead for the next lock master’s shack. No one else ventured on the path at this early hour.
“He’s a mile ahead.” The young man breathed hard from the fast gallop back to Taney.
“Good goin’ Conrad. We’ll take our time. Don’t want to ride up on him until past Indian Springs. Nice and quiet along that stretch.”
They rode in silence for several minutes. Then Taney said, “Hey, Conrad, how’s about you roll us a couple cigarettes?”
The young man, eager to please, pulled out his fixings.
Taney eyed the towpath ahead and smiled.
Mentoring. Tough work.
Movement far ahead on the towpath caught Ethan’s eye. When he identified it as a single rider coming toward him, he dismissed it. Ethan wanted three riders, moving away. He concentrated on peeling another egg.
At the clatter of hoof impacts, Ethan looked up. For a second, he thought he saw a hallucination. Copper hair streaming behind her like a kite tail, Beth leaned forward in the saddle as if by will alone she could propel her mount faster. Her face squinted into a mask against the cold air.
As she closed the distance, she sat up straight. Ethan heard a small shriek from her as she recognized him. He reined in as brought her mount to a halt in front of him. The rising sun splashed full in her face, transforming her skin to gold and her hair to fiery metal.
Holding onto the reins, she dropped from the saddle a second before Ethan dismounted. As he hit the ground, she threw herself into his arms. Their mouths locked and the steam of their breath billowed above them.
Finally pulling her face back, Beth blurted out, “Oh, my darling. We have to get away. Hulse and Ethridge are back there somewhere.” Her excitement was part love, part fear.
Ethan peered along her back trail, but saw nothing. “How far?”
Breathless, she said, “I got away last night. I don’t know how close they are by now.” She smiled up into Ethan’s face for an instant, then looked in panic over her shoulder.
“It’s alright, honey. Let’s get moving.”
Ethan reversed course and they trotted their horses east.
Ethan said, “We have to get off this canal. We’re too easy to spot. Back a bit, we’ll hit a cutoff road that goes up to Huyett and then on past .”
“At Williamsport, maybe six or seven miles.”
“Piece of cake.” She flashed him a smile. Her panic subsided in Ethan’s presence.
“Want an egg?”
“Thank, you, kind sir, but I’m already carrying the biggest egg I can handle.” She patted her stomach.
Ethan laughed. “No, I’m serious.” He pulled one of the hardboiled eggs out of his pocket and held it out.
“Good Lord, I’m famished.” She grabbed the egg and immediately began peeling it.
“I’ll peel you a couple.”
It took five eggs to sate her.
They approached the tiny settlement of Pinesburgh. “We better stop to feed and water your horse. She looks a little worse for wear.”
“Oh, please, not for long.”
“Not for long.”
As Ethan and Bethany rode past the place where Taney and his companion had left the road, Ethan pointed to the torn up earth. Beth said, “That’s what I did last night to get off the road.”
Caution instantly spiked through Ethan. “Just happened. The hooves broke through the frozen crust. Two riders.” He peered up into the trees, but saw nothing. As they rode, Ethan said, “Now why would someone do that?”
“Or they didn’t want us to see them.”
Five minutes later, they approached the outskirts of . Ethan reined in his horse. “Beth, I don’t want to go through there. Too many places for ambush.”
“Were you followed?”
“Knowing Hawley’s bunch, let’s assume yes.” He glanced over his shoulder and then up into the trees. The embankment here formed only a low berm, easily crossed. “Let’s cut up through here and avoid the intersection down at . It’s just a short ride and we’ll hit the road running north. I want to get into some cover and see who’s behind us.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
They rode up the berm into the trees, paralleling the road for a few hundred yards. Then Ethan dismounted and rummaged through his saddlebags. “Here we go.” He pulled out a collapsible telescope. Leaning against a tree, Ethan scanned the canal road.
“Ethan, I’m getting nervous. Let’s get out of here.”
“Easy, honey. Better to know what we’re up against.”
Five minutes later, Ethan spied two men on horseback along the edge of the forest at the top of the towpath embankment. He adjusted the focus. “This damn thing is really primitive. What I wouldn’t give for a pair of 7x50 Bausch and Lombs right now.”
A minute later, Ethan identified the riders. “Jesus Christ.”
“He’s behind us?”
“No, it’s that weasel Taney with some kid. They followed me from , cut up into the trees when they saw us coming back, and now they’re behind us.”
“Oh, Ethan. Let’s go.”
Ethan handed Beth the telescope. “First, take a look. I want you to be able to recognize these bozos on your own.”
Beth hastily focused the telescope, peered at their pursuers, and said, “Oh, God, through this they look way too close. Okay, now please can we go?”
“Yeah.” He hopped onto his horse and set off into the woods. “Let’s get to that road. We’ll make better time than through the woods.”
Taney saw fresh tracks climbing the berm and kicked his horse’s flanks. “Dammit, they spotted us. Now it gets hard.”
Taney’s sharp eyes picked up the trail of disturbed leaves and moss. Part of him wanted to rush the pair, but a little voice in his head kept asking what happened to Hulse and Ethridge? Taney remembered how Billy had poked a pistol into his guts. The kid had more skill than expected. Maybe he should wait until dark, catch them tired or sleeping. A gunfight could get messy and if the girl got hurt, Jesus, Hawley would personally skin him.
Yes, maybe better to hang back.
“I don’t like this. Let’s just keep moving.” darted glances at their back trail.
“Beth, these people won’t go away. We have to stop them.”
She squinted and stared into Ethan’s eyes. “You don’t have to kill them, Ethan.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Listen, this is going to get out of hand sooner or later. If they don’t know yet, they’ll find out soon enough that George Hawley is dead. He’s got enough psychopaths on his crew that they might just hunt us for sport. I’d rather pick the time and place than have them do it.”
“He’s dead. I shot him.”
Beth’s hands flew to her mouth. “Why?”
“He tried to kill me and Jasper.” Ethan sketched in the story of his short trip with Hawley.
She sat stunned. Then shaking herself, she said, “What do you want me to do?”
Ethan pointed. “Take my horse and ride up there, across that clearing, to the edge of the woods. Tether my horse further on, out of sight. Then come back to the edge of the clearing, get off your horse and make like you’re inspecting your saddle. When you see Taney, ride east away from here. Leave my horse. Wait at the road. I’ll catch up.”
She edged her horse up against Ethan’s, leaned over and kissed him. “You’d better.”
Ethan dropped from the saddle and handed the reins. “Get moving.” He settled behind a rock outcropping ten feet from the trail their horses had made through the brush. He unholstered his Colt and waited.
It seemed like hours before Ethan heard the muffled impacts of horse hooves. When the sounds got close, Ethan looked back and saw Beth ride off, just the right bait to distract Taney. As the hoofbeats got closer, Ethan rose just far enough to sight around the rock without making a target of himself.
When Taney got fifty feet away, Ethan fired. Too soon. Too ambitious, particularly since Ethan was trying not to hit the horse. Taney dropped from the far side of his horse and rolled into a thicket.
Ethan had to move quickly before the second rider reached the scene. He peeked around the rock and a belch of fire and smoke boiled toward him. He screamed and flopped over in the dirt, coming to rest on his stomach with his right arm outstretched and his pistol a foot from his hand. He moaned feebly.
Ethan heard footsteps and turned his head to see where his gun had dropped. He extended his right arm as far as he could, but he couldn’t reach the weapon. Suddenly, a boot ground his wrist into the dirt as a shadow appeared over him. “I’ll take that you little snot-nose.” Taney picked up the revolver and stood over Ethan, a gun in each hand. “Tell me where the girl went and I’ll let you live. On second thought, I take that back. I can track the girl, but I want your little ass dead. I’m gonna put one right in the middle of your sorry face, Billy.”
Taney aimed at Ethan’s head. Taney’s toe fished in Ethan’s armpit and then pushed to flip Ethan onto his back. As Ethan rolled, an explosion ripped the air between them.