“This is a good spot, Ethridge. You hide in the trees along the road. I’ll hide round that bend up ahead. When I see ‘em, I’ll head back this way like I was comin’ from north of here. You just be ready when I make my move.”
“We shootin’ the kid?”
“You’re not shootin’ nothin’, ya hear? Any shootin’ needs doin’, I’ll do it. You just be here in case all hell breaks loose.”
“Lotta trouble for a lousy storekeeper’s son.” From the sneer that crossed Hulse’s face, Ethridge knew he had scored.
Hulse slouched in his saddle like a man who had been journeying for days. His head lolled forward and shielded his face behind the wide brim of the black hat he had pulled from his saddlebag. As he approached Ethan and Bethany coming in the opposite direction, he kept his head down. Instinctively, Ethan edged Beth toward the right side of the road so that he was between Beth and the stranger.
Ethan examined the oncoming horse and rider. Mud caked the horse’s legs and flanks like it had been running, but the rider wore a clean oilskin slicker, like he had just put it on. Not a drop of mud marred it. His hat, a crumpled, wide-brimmed affair had seen a lot of wear. His slicker hid the man’s hands and body. His horse shuffled almost abreast of Ethan. Ethan kept his own hat brim low while his eyes examined the man. Something about this rider caught Ethan’s interest. Ethan’s right hand dropped from his reins and brushed against his thigh, coming to rest near the Colt.
The rider passed on Ethan’s left and didn’t change position or even turn his head. He looked asleep in the saddle. Judging by appearance, the man presented no threat, yet Ethan’s fingers wrapped around the revolver grips. He sensed something here. Something evil. Ethan heard wind in the trees though no wind was blowing.
Seeing his hand move to the gun, Beth said in a disapproving whisper, “Ethan, no.”
By reflex, Ethan’s head swiveled toward his wife, but he quickly turned back to rake his eyes across the horse and man. At a distance of only fifteen feet, Ethan saw strands of white hair peeking out from under the side of the rider’s hat. The man had passed slightly behind Ethan and Ethan’s eyes jumped to the circled H on the rump of the man’s horse. Ethan drew his pistol too late. The fraction of a second he had taken to turn toward Beth gave Hulse the advantage. Hulse had his sidearm already in his hand under his slicker and in the instant before Ethan drew, Hulse snaked out his left arm and fired a round into the base of Ethan’s back.
Ethan tumbled from the saddle as his horse reared. Beth screamed. Hulse leaped off his horse before Ethan hit the ground. He stomped on Ethan’s right wrist and yanked Ethan’s weapon out of numbed fingers. He smashed the gun into Ethan’s temple, knocking him unconscious.
Ethridge rode out of the trees as Hulse fought with Beth’s horse. She dug her heels into the animal’s sides, trying desperately to get free, but once Hulse had a grip on the bridle, he was able to control the panicked mount.
“Ethridge, grab her, dammit.” Ethridge hauled Beth, kicking madly, out of the saddle. Hulse whistled and his own horse sauntered up close. He pulled a rope out of a saddlebag and looped one end over Ethan’s right ankle. The other end he tied to the saddle horn. Then with Hulse leading all four horses by their bridles and with Ethridge manhandling Beth, the group left the roadway and pushed deep into a thick stand of hemlocks.
When they passed far out of sight from the road, Hulse tethered the horses to a tree and hauled Ethan to the edge of a clearing at the base of an ancient beech tree with a trunk four feet across. As Hulse coiled his rope he delivered a fierce kick to Ethan’s ribs. Ethan’s eyes flickered. Hulse swung the coarse rope and raked the coils hard across Ethan’s face, leaving thin streaks of blood. Ethan returned to consciousness and lifted his head.
Ethan didn’t understand why his legs didn’t work. As he came out of his daze, he remembered where he was. He recognized Ethridge twenty feet away with Beth in a hold from which she could not escape. He vividly remembered Hawley’s words about how Ethridge had set up Billy to be cut down in the duel with Hawley. Red rage rose in Ethan at the memory of Hawley’s laughing confession. And now this animal was handling his wife. Ethan wanted Ethridge dead. Now.
Then a face suddenly loomed over him. White, wispy locks peeked out from under a hat brim over eyes the pale pink of an Easter rabbit. The dream. He saw the face from the dream he had awakened to this morning. And something else floated in those eyes. But before Ethan could understand what it was, the face turned away.
Ethan managed to raise his upper torso onto his elbows. Ethan wanted another close look at this man. Hulse spoke. “Hawley didn’t like you. I don’t like you.” Hulse waved his pistol at Ethan. “How’s that bullet feel? Bet it hurts like the devil.”
Ethan didn’t try to answer. A sharp sword of agony sawed at the base of his spine, but below that, Ethan felt nothing, his legs lifeless.
“Did that once to a feller out toward Winchester after he tried to cheat me on a horse. Heard it took three days for the bastard to die. Near the end he was beggin’ for somebody to put a bullet in his head. You want, I can finish you off right now.”
Ethan wasn’t giving this bastard any satisfaction. He said nothing as his mind vomited up the image of this same leering face standing over Cole. Involuntarily, Ethan felt the crush of horse hooves as this one – Hulse – rode over Cole months earlier. Ethan wanted to exterminate both these vermin.
Ethan’s vision blurred and from the growing roar in his ears, it seemed a freight train was passing nearby.
“Well, then, have it yer way. But I’m gonna have my way with yer woman. Now you jest lay there and watch me do what you cain’t do no more.”
Ethan sunk into the awareness that he had suppressed for so much of his life. Billy’s body could not last. In a very short time, Ethan would be loosed once again into the raw, elemental stuff of existence and would need to find a point of entry back into this particular plane in order to stay with . He needed to prepare.
Ethan concentrated. He needed to drift out as he had during the Neural Research testing. He needed to be a wraith. He called on everything he had learned during his previous deaths. He pushed outward with his awareness. He tried to remember the texture of the experience, the feel of space-time. Then as if he had merely blinked, he was there. He could feel the unique quality of his present plane of existence, but he also saw the alternative pathways that led off in an infinite jumble from this moment. This huge set of options had always confused him.
He focused. He only needed to stay with one path at a time, leading outward, into the future. He saw something he did not want to see. Ethan thought his way back and forth along many possible futures. Yes, in every one he faced a nightmare scenario. He saw Beth and blood and then he saw nothing. His own fate was certain. In not one of the scenarios did he see Billy’s survival.
Ethan’s mind writhed in panic. After all he had been through, all the energy he had expended to finally be with his beloved, it was now falling apart. Billy would not survive and Ethan would have to find another way to Beth. If Hulse raped and killed her, Beth would be gone. She was here only because of Ethan’s intervention. But if she died in panic, died without being able to focus herself or to have Ethan’s help, her consciousness would disappear, possibly forever.
Ethan’s mind bounced like a pinball as he considered the factors, the chances, the odds. A whole new set of futures opened up. The further out Ethan tried to project, the more complex and difficult it became to make the right choice. More nightmare scenarios. But in one, there seemed to be a way. It all depended on choosing the next three minutes. He saw a way out, but to take it he had to trust. And to do something terrible. Would Beth understand? Would she ever forgive him for breaking his promise?
Ethan focused his thoughts, made his choices, and threw his energies into believing in one particular version of events. Then inside his mind he blinked and he could feel the tumblers of fate realigning and moving like some great machine.
Ethan frantically scratched himself back toward consciousness. He had no time. The factors started shifting, reality began rearranging itself with each new possibility. Ethan had to move quickly, play his role at the right second or it would be too late. A lifetime too late.
Ethan swiveled his head toward Beth. He felt his abdomen filling with blood, becoming distended as if he’d eaten a feast. Shards of lightning went off at the edges of his vision and began closing in toward the center. He knew he had to take this chance. His window of opportunity had almost shut. Billy had to die now to release Ethan so he’d be ready when Beth’s spirit broke free.
When he inhaled, his guts felt on fire. In his mind, Ethan said, “Honey, forgive me. Stay alive. I’ll be with you soon.”
At the sound of Beth’s scream, Ethan’s numb fingers began their difficult journey under his coat for the revolver in his belt. It seemed that it would take forever to get this damaged flesh to obey his commands. But slowly, the Colt came free and Ethan dragged it up and up until it pointed at his own head.
Then something he hadn’t foreseen stopped him from pulling the trigger. All hell broke loose around him.