A single pistol report ripped through the cold stillness of the morning. Three crows cawed their annoyance at the disturbance and burst out of the stark trees ahead of Jasper. Squinting, the seasoned campaigner tried to penetrate the distance. He saw nothing but the net of gray branches that choked off his view at less than a hundred yards. Off to the right, open field stretched along the road. Jasper kneed his horse into a trot and took to the softer ground where the sound of hooves would be muffled.
Jasper had spent most of his life outdoors. He had the indefinable senses of a woodsman. Without thinking, his brain had calculated the distance of the gunshot and, knowing that whoever had fired it might be wary of travelers coming from the road, Jasper looped around to approach from a different direction. When his senses told him he was close, Jasper tethered his horse to a sapling and continued through the woods on foot.
When Jasper crossed a well-worn game trail, he saw horse tracks leading off into the woods on the other side. The disturbed leaf cover told him something heavy was being dragged. Then he saw a clear horseshoe print in the frozen mud. It had a fingernail-sized gouge along one edge. Jasper hurried. He avoided the leafy piles of detritus and placed his feet on the remaining patches of snow whenever he could to dampen the sound of his approach. He melted through the interlacing branches and trunks that seemed like an impassable screen from a distance.
Jasper heard a man’s guttural voice, then the cry of a woman. He drew his and accelerated. Jasper worked his way deeper into the stand of hemlocks. He heard sobbing, then the sharp tone of a man saying, “Dammit, Ethridge, hold her still.”
Jasper gauged the distance to the rising commotion and, with a slight adjustment of his course, put a huge beech tree between him and its source. He cautiously stepped along small hillocks of moss until he was among the fat gray roots than spidered out from the forest giant.
Jasper peeked around the right side of the smooth silver-gray trunk. He saw three horses tethered to a fallen tree at the edge of the clearing and a fourth that had wandered off fifty yards and was munching at the underbrush. On the ground not ten feet from Jasper a body lay in the leaves. Its young face gazed up into the sun. He recognized Billy, but the name that jumped into Jasper’s thoughts was Ethan. A spasm of grief ripped through Jasper. Thirty feet away, two men struggled on the ground with a copper-haired young woman.
A ragged female voice rasped, “Don’t do this.”
“Well, Missy, ya cain’t get pregnant twice, so stop makin’ such a fuss. Ethridge, cain’t you hold her still? The way she’s flailin’ about, I’ll have to cut these damn knickers off.”
Jasper watched the younger of the two men grip the woman’s arms more tightly while a white-haired giant pulled out a huge knife, cut away some of the woman’s clothing, then unhitched his pants.
“Okay, girly-girl, time to take you down a peg.”
sunk her teeth into Ethridge’s hand and he released her momentarily. “Hulse, get off me, you animal,” she screamed.
“Don’t be so uppity. I know ya done this before. How else did ya get that belly?” Hulse chuckled and speared a look at Ethridge. “When I’m done with ’er, you can show us what kinda man you are, Ethridge.” He laughed again and spat to the side. “Okay, feller, you hold her arms while I work on the business end of this little hellcat.”
“She’ll scream like a banshee.”
“Aw, let her. Who the hell can hear her?”
Jasper saw his opportunity. With all the commotion, nobody would hear his footfalls. He erupted from behind the beech tree at a run. As Jasper covered the distance to the group, Ethridge, seeing motion, looked up. For a second, his brain could not process the information it was receiving. Where had this stranger popped up from? In the next second, Ethridge drew his pistol.
Jasper did not want to risk a shot while he was running for fear of hitting the girl, but when he saw the glint of metal in the young man’s hand, he had no choice. He squeezed the ’s trigger just as Ethridge’s own gun went off.
Beth felt the heat of Hulse’s skin against her naked thighs. Her mind writhed in panic as a double explosion tore through the air and, suddenly, she could free her arms. Instinctively, she reached for Hulse’s face and plunged her thumbs into his eyes. Then she heard more explosions and she screamed.
Ethridge’s first shot whizzed past Jasper’s head so close he heard its whine louder than the girl’s scream. But his own shot caught Ethridge in the shoulder and punched the young man away from Beth. Ethridge’s second shot went wide before Jasper’s belched flame and smoke twice more and Ethridge fell to the forest carpet with runnels of red pulsing out of his chest.
When Hulse’s vision exploded into multi-colored pain from Beth’s thumbs poking into his eyes, his first instinct had been to pull back, but when he was deafened by shots, he grabbed for Beth. He rolled and got her on top of him as a shield while he grabbed at his holster. Blinking, with no sense of a target, Hulse extended his right arm and fired just to give his attacker something to think about.
Beth felt the explosion of hot gases against her face and, for an instant, she thought she would die. She almost welcomed the belief that her life was now finished, that she would be released, and that somehow she would be united with Ethan in the vast universe he had described to her. She felt sick at the loss of the baby she would never know.
But she felt no pain. Just an incessant ringing in her ears. And she still felt Hulse’s arm like a band of steel across her chest. The sky hovered bright and blue and she suddenly realized she had not died.
A long-barreled Colt arced across her field of vision, the heat-mottled blue barrel so in contrast to the lighter blue of sky. She watched the shiny hammer slowly move backwards under a thick pink thumb. Then, still an observer, she watched her own hands reach out, saw them wrap around the hand, saw the hand come close. Then her teeth sank into the pink skin and another explosion erupted all around her and then everything went dark.
Jasper continued forward, though with the girl flailing on top of the second man, he had no decent target. He watched the other man’s gun appear, saw it level toward him. Jasper dove, but in the last instant, the struggling girl deflected the man’s shot. Jasper landed on the pair and with his left hand grabbed for the hand that held the gun. He got a grip on the barrel and pushed it away just as another shot rang out. Jasper thought his hand had been dropped in scalding water, but he held on as he struggled to get his own pistol under the girl.
Again, the stranger fired and now Jasper’s left hand went numb from the vibration. He barely felt his grip on the other’s barrel as he heaved forward with his legs, rolling the trio. Working by feel, Jasper thrust his right arm down, under the limp bulk of the girl, and pulled the ’s trigger. The other man screamed as the heavy lead ball tunneled through his arm.
instinct told Jasper he had two shots left. Taking a chance, he released Hulse’s gun barrel from his left hand and, using his arm like a shovel, he scraped the girl toward him and off the stranger. Jasper scrambled to his knees as the prone figure of Hulse swung his revolver toward Jasper. Just then, Beth rose back to consciousness. She lurched and threw off Jasper’s aim as he fired. The bullet slapped into the dirt. Too late, Jasper realized that the girl was now like a shield in front of him. Jasper flung Beth to the side as Hulse fired again.
Jasper felt fierce heat rip through him. A kettledrum banged in his head and he collapsed onto the frozen ground. It hurt to breathe, but he struggled to breathe anyway. Jasper’s view of the blue sky narrowed as sharp explosions of light erupted around the periphery of his vision. He saw a swirl of skirts through the explosions and then a burring rasp grew in volume inside his head.
For a moment, Jasper didn’t care about Hulse or the girl or gold or the taste of fresh coffee. His vision narrowed further as something inside him began to expand. When his eyes could no longer see, some other sense took over and he began to sense things he had never thought possible. It seemed that eons passed before his eyes, yet only a second had transpired.
Hulse rested against the hard ground and let its cold seep into his fevered body. He filled with the elation of victory over this formidable old man whose last shot had gone wide. The injury to Hulse’s arm was not life-threatening. He holstered his gun and struggled to his knees as every muscle in his body screamed.
He saw movement and turned in time to see the girl rushing toward him, wielding a rock the size of her head. As her arms arced down, Hulse fell back and kicked out with his booted feet. Beth’s legs twisted and she went down in a heap. Hulse jumped on her in a flash.
“Now girly-girl, you gotta pay for all this.” From the top of his right boot, Hulse yanked a pearl-handled straight razor. He flicked his wrist and the blade hinged out of the handle.
Beth screamed as Hulse’s left fist smacked into the side of her head.