Taney spat, “I’m gonna put one right in the middle of your sorry face, Billy.”
As Taney rolled Ethan onto his back, Ethan’s left hand appeared from under him and pointed up toward Taney. His hand held his second revolver. Before Taney could pull his own triggers, a blinding tongue of flame licked out from Ethan’s hand and slapped Taney in the chest. Taney didn’t even hear the explosion as his heart flayed to ribbons.
Taney’s eyes looked down in shock as he began toppling backward from the impact. “Not today, Taney.” The gun in Ethan’s left hand fired again and Taney spun and hit the earth face-first. His legs twitched for a few seconds and then he lay motionless.
Ethan stuffed the Colt back into his coat, then picked up the other one and pushed it into his holster.
Ethan stared down on Taney’s unmoving body, watched the blood spread on the cloth of Taney’s coat where the big .44s had exited his back. Taney looked small now, huddled face down against the cold earth. Ethan’s breath hissed loud in the still air. His initial horror passed and he felt a cold satisfaction. All his life, he had been crammed into a little world inside himself, his desires thwarted, but, first with Hawley, and now with Taney, these explosions of emotion felt liberating.
Ethan sensed the departure of Taney’s spirit, the silence in the clearing now complete.
Ethan ran across the clearing, leaped onto his horse, and kicked it to a flat-out gallop. It worried him that the kid with Taney had not shown up.
In no time he came to the road. As Ethan cleared the trees, he spotted Beth waiting in the scrub across the road, wearing a mask of fear. The look of relief that washed across her face told the story of what she had thought after hearing shots in the woods. As Ethan rode up to her she pointed toward the canal track. “Ethan!”
Ethan spun in time to see the kid kicking his horse to a gallop. “He didn’t follow Taney. He checked the canal road.” Ethan jumped from his horse and handed Beth the reins. “Go on into the trees. Wait for me.”
“Do it! We don’t have time.”
Ethan ran straight toward Conrad. As the boy drew his gun, Ethan dropped to one knee and sighted carefully. Firing from the back of a bouncing horse, Conrad missed Ethan with his first two shots. Ethan didn’t make the mistake he’d made with Taney. Hating himself, he shot the horse three times. The animal screamed and reared and Ethan fired again. Fifteen hundred pounds of horse fell over backwards and rolled onto its side, crushing its rider under it.
Ethan didn’t approach to investigate. Instead, he ran into the woods, mounted his horse, and raced through the trees with Beth close behind.
Jasper reached Williamsport late in the morning and looked up the turnoff that cut north to Hagerstown. A knot of people gathered in the road north of the intersection. A hubbub of voices carried through the cold air. Jasper instinctively wanted to avoid them and continue west on the canal road.
Bright metal flashed in the sun. Jasper became wary when a tall man in the group waved his arm, beckoning Jasper to approach. Jasper thought of riding up into the woods and making himself scarce, but that would arouse suspicion. He gritted his teeth and rode north, abandoning the canal path. As he approached, he focused on the man who had signaled him. The man wore brown pants, a green flannel shirt and a long black coat. His brown hat had a tiny brim that looked foolish on a man of such size. Most important, a brass star flashed on the chest of the man’s coat.
“Hey, there, hold on fella.” The voice held the twang of .
Jasper’s stomach dropped as the lawman called to him. The last thing he wanted was to talk to the laws, but running away now would just compound his problems.
“Yeah, what you want, young feller?” Jasper rode closer, reined in his horse, and sported his best shit-eating grin.
The man with the badge huddled with a stocky man and woman who kept glancing at Jasper as they spoke. Jasper couldn’t hear their words, just the subdued stridency of their responses. After they shook their heads, the tall man with the star strode purposefully toward Jasper. “I’m deputy sheriff for this county. Seen anybody hightailin’ it back along the canal?” His dark eyes examined Jasper with the keenness of a hawk.
“Ain’t seen nobody since early this mornin’.”
“Ye sure? Didn’t see a man and a woman riding two big reds?”
Jasper’s mind raced back and forth over his time in up to this moment. Roughly a day. What had happened on the road ahead of him during that day? Had Ethan and Beth found each other? “Didn’t see nobody like that. What happened here?”
“Boy dead up ahead. Couple townsfolk saw the fella what killed ’im.” The lawman gestured at the couple. A half dozen other gawkers stood at the edge of the road about ten yards away, chattering among themselves. In the ditch at the edge of the roadway, a chestnut-red horse carcass lay with its legs sticking toward the sky. An arm stuck out from under it.
Jasper’s heart chilled. Had Hawley’s men caught up to Ethan and Beth? Was he too late? Trying to appear casual, Jasper said, “Hey, there, sheriff, mind if I take a look?”
“Never know who I might know.”
Now that Jasper seemed to have no useful information, the sheriff lost interest. “Help yeself,” he said.
Jasper rode up to the fallen horse and dismounted. He yanked at the dead animal’s bridle until the horse’s head flopped over, revealing the face of the rider pinned underneath. Jasper recognized one of the young piss-ants that had captured him and dragged him into only days earlier. A crusted line of red flowed out of his nose and meandered across the smooth alabaster flesh of his face. More blood lay in an enormous pool around the bodies. Thick red runnels had flowed into the ditch and twenty feet down the grade.
His tracker’s eyes noticed that the blood in the shadow of a boulder at the side of the road had a light coating of frost. It happened near dawn, he thought. In his mind he saw the horse rear on its hind legs as lead punched into it, saw it fall over on its back, crushing the rider.
Jasper casually looked around and saw signs of flight into the woods at the eastern edge of the road: broken branch tips, torn leaves where horse hooves had churned up the forest floor. Appearing to stretch, Jasper wandered over to the opposite side of the road. Someone had ridden out of the woods here. Had it been Ethan?
Jasper approached the nearest man and in a conversational tone said, “You see what happened?”
The stranger tore his eyes away from the saddle and rubbed a forefinger across his red nose. “Not much. I was in them woods over there.” He nodded to the east. The liquor on his breath made Jasper take a step back. “Heard some shootin’ but thought somebody was huntin’ like me. Then I seed two horses runnin’ through the trees, a flash of skirt on one of ’em. Then they was gone.” The man’s eyes went back to the saddle on the dead horse.
“Much obliged.” Jasper mounted his horse and rode into the trees at the west side of the road, backtracking along the clear trail of horse sign for a quarter mile. His horse snorted and got an answer from off in the trees.
Jasper dropped to the ground and, like magic, his filled his hand. He tethered his mount and cut perpendicular to the course he had been on. Using a holly bush as cover, he hunkered down and became motionless for several minutes. Up ahead he heard a twig break. Jasper surveyed the ground around him. To his right, a flat outcropping of rock stretched about fifty feet. He hopped onto the stone, thankful to avoid the rustling leaf-fall that spread almost everywhere through the trees. At the end of the outcropping, Jasper dropped into a hollow where moss and snow cushioned his footfalls. He peeked above the underbrush and saw movement. He froze.
Through the gray curtain of bare branches, Jasper watched a riderless horse raise its head and shake its mane. The animal’s nostrils flared. Jasper took note of the slight breeze that pushed through the maze of trees and hit the left side of his face. Downwind from the horse, it could not smell him, would not signal his presence to its owner.
The horse’s head dipped and came up again, the grinding of its teeth sounding clear through the air. It appeared calm, eating something. Where was its rider?
Far off, Jasper heard a shout. “Hey, feller, where are ye? What’re ye doin’ back in here?”
That damn deputy.
Jasper sifted through the heavy woods, stepping on the outstretched roots of maples and beeches where he could, on clumps and patches of snow when he had to. He had spent a lifetime tracking both four- and two-legged prey and he knew that to hurry was a sure way to get yourself killed, but with that jackanapes sheriff on his heels, he needed to take a chance.
Jasper listened for a few seconds and still heard nothing but the horse ahead grinding up forage. Jasper plotted his course through the trees, imagining each footfall before he moved. Then, with a fluidity that belied his years, he accelerated through the woods with almost no sound except for the harsh click as he pulled back the hammer of his revolver.
At the feet of the horse lay a man face down in the leaves. He had Billy’s dark hair. The black fabric of the man’s coat shredded around a hole as big as Jasper’s fist. The surrounding fabric had been soaked with blood that was now congealed like a reddish-brown pudding slopped from its bowl. As Jasper approached the body, the horse whinnied and shied away.
Half in panic, Jasper poked the toe of his left boot into the corpse’s right armpit and rolled the body. Then he stopped to catch his breath. A grin broke across the frown that Jasper had been wearing as he saw the black marbles of Taney’s eyes looking no more animated in death than they had in life. The chilled skin of Taney’s scar stood out from his whiskered face like a chalk stroke across a blackboard. Jasper kneeled next to the body and touched the corpse’s throat. The body felt cold, though not frozen hard. Jasper looked up at the sun. He calculated that Ethan and Bethany had half a day’s head start. But in what direction?
“Hey there, what the hell ye doin’?” The sheriff made a racket plowing through the underbrush.
“See for yerself.”
The tall man puffed steam as he approached Jasper. His brown eyes fixed on the body for a few seconds, then cut to Jasper. “How’d ye know this was here?” He squinted at the revolver in Jasper’s hand.
“Jes followed the trail.” Jasper let down the hammer and holstered his .
“Broken twigs, strands of horse hair caught in tree bark, crushed moss. You know.”
“Ye some kinda tracker?”
“Used to be.”
The sheriff knelt next to the body. “Ye know this feller?”
“No,” Jasper lied.
“Why ye be interested in what happened here?”
“I lead a boring life.”
The sheriff glared at Jasper as he went through the corpse’s pockets. “Make yeself useful and go get that horse.”
The horse munched the underbrush twenty feet away. When Jasper retrieved it, the sheriff said, “Nother one of them circle H brands. Same as on t’other horse. Somebody don’t like George Hawley, I reckon.”
Not wanting to let on he knew anything about the situation now that Jasper suspected what had happened, he said, “Who’s George Hawley?”
“Big shot horse trader. Evahbody this side of the mountain knows Hawley. Ye’re not from ’round heah are ye?”
“That accent. Where that be from?” The eyes raked across Jasper again.
“Grew up in the Nevada territory.”
“What brings ye here?”
“Got kin up in Pennsylvania.”
Jasper hid his nervousness and with his peripheral vision checked if anyone else approached. He might have to shoot this curious son-of-a-bitch. He said the first thing that popped into his head, something Ethan had mentioned. “Gettysburg.”
“I got kin up that way. What’s ye name?”
Jasper saw no reason to lie more than he had already. “Jasper Jones.”
“Don’t know no Joneses in . Ye wouldn’t be one of them southern infiltrators, now, would ye?”
“If I was, why would I spend time lookin’ at dead bodies and chawin’ the fat with a sheriff? Wouldn’t be too smart.”
The hawk eyes danced for a second. “So, mebbe ye ain’t so smart.”
“I’m beginning to think so.”
“So, why ye be chawin’ the fat with me?”
“Like I said, I lead a boring life.”
The sheriff squinted and examined the details of Jasper’s face as if perusing a treasure map. Jasper didn’t blink as he stared back. He’d already noted that the sheriff had his six-gun holstered on his right side inside the flap of his long coat. He’d need a half-second to clear the coat before he could draw. The sheriff clearly wasn’t a gunfighter or he’d have hitched that coat flap behind his holster. Jasper gauged the distance to his horse.
The sheriff’s eyes changed. He’d made a decision.
Here it comes, thought Jasper. He spread the fingers of his right hand in preparation for drawing the .
“Ye want to make a few dollars?”
Jasper couldn’t keep the surprise off his face. “How?” He relaxed his fingers.
“Ye seem to know how to track. Ye follow that trail through the woods and let me know what ye find? There’s three dollars in it fer ye.”
“Three dollars, one day. Ye said ye was bored.”
“So I did. You got a deal, Sheriff.”
The sheriff mounted Taney’s horse and together he and Jasper rode back to the road. Several more travelers had gathered around the corpses. Jasper grinned as he noticed that both the red-nosed onlooker and the boy’s saddle had vanished.
Playing his role, Jasper said, “Where do I find you?”
The sheriff pointed down the road toward the river. “Got an office in Williamsport. I’ll be back there gettin’ together some deputies to go after whoever did this. But don’t worry ‘bout comin’ back. Ye stay on the trail. See if ye can find out where they headed. We’ll catch up.”
“Got a name, Sheriff?”
“Dunsfield. Think ye can score off some tree bark here and there, so we can follow? We’ll be along late in the day.”
Jasper tipped his hat and lightly tapped his horse’s flanks, heading east into the trees. Within minutes, his experienced eyes spotted a long hair wafting like a flag from an overhanging tree branch. He reached up and pulled it loose, then drew it between his fingers. It stretched two feet long and held the color of burnished copper. No doubt a woman’s hair. Jasper now felt sure of his quarry.
He rode for the rest of that day, not once marking a tree trunk.
Late in the day, Jasper dismounted to check a collection of hoofprints in the muddy bank of a small stream. Earlier it had been warm enough to thaw the mud, but the dropping temperature of late afternoon had gelled the soil, perfectly preserving four sets of tracks.
The first pair showed that one horse carried a much lighter load than the other. Ethan and Beth? When his eyes gauged the tracks that overlaid the first pair, Jasper’s heart rate increased. One of the followers’ horseshoes had a fingernail-sized gouge torn out of the left trailing edge. Jasper had encountered this track at the site of Cole’s death. The old trooper ground his teeth together, then whispered, “Thank you, Jesus.”
As he remounted and cantered off along the trail, Jasper worried that two other riders tracked this same trail. Ethan led Beth along untouched ground, away from roads or trails, clearly trying to avoid being seen. The two followers never wavered in their duplication of the couple’s path. Who were they? Surely not part of the sheriff’s people, not with Cole’s killer on the scent. More of Hawley’s men?
“Things can always get worse.” Jasper resolved to be careful about riding right up behind them. Well, maybe not too careful.