By Jared Southwick All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure


The following day—or more accurately, afternoon—came all too soon. Groggily, I forced myself out of bed, got dressed, and went downstairs. The kitchen and the front sitting room were empty. Not wanting to venture into the nether regions of the house, for privacy’s sake, I made my way out onto the porch. The weather was warm, making it feel more like spring than fall. I sagged down onto a swing, suspended by ropes from the overhanging roof, and rubbed the remaining sleep from my eyes. My shoulder, though less sore, still protested sharply with pain, if moved too much. Studying my surroundings a little further, I discovered some things I’d missed during my quick entry. Along with the livestock, there were pigs and chickens in the pasture, fenced off in their own little pens. A garden, with most of the vegetables now harvested, spread out to the left of the house; and an orchard grew beyond that, nearer to the lake. I found it quite beautiful and wondered how one person managed it all.

I continued my surveillance past the orchard and lingered on the woods, perhaps still expecting some gigantic creature to come barreling out into the clearing. Nothing happened. Something was odd about all this: the monsters and Sarah. My mind began to wander. Why did they leave this place alone? Maybe they weren’t anything more than just animals, like wolves, afraid of civilization. However, I doubted that. Oddly, they moved more like humans than animals. Even though I may be giving them too much credit, I had the suspicion that the trunk, which blocked the path yesterday, was more of a trap than some random, fallen tree. It was placed just right, where a rider wouldn’t see it until he crested the hill, and it would be too late to do much of anything, except run into it. I wanted to know more about the monsters—they both horrified and intrigued me.

There was also Sarah…. I liked her. Something about her seemed familiar and made me feel at ease. But why couldn’t I read her? It frustrated me. There was something there; I just couldn’t see past the thick veil that blocked me out. I wanted answers. I wanted to know Sarah, though I wasn’t ready to ask her to open up her soul and mind, so I can find out her secrets. I also didn’t want her asking about my gifts; especially since I wasn’t sure I understood them myself.

Still clueless, I got up and went to check on Smoke. He was no worse for wear and seemed pleased to see me. I fed him, refilled his water, patted him for a bit, and then wandered down to the lake.

The old boat was gone, and I concluded that Sarah must have taken it out, along with the dog. Deciding to enjoy the warm rays of the sun, I lay down on the dock and drifted lazily into that strange state between sleep and consciousness.

The sound of splashing pulled me back to reality. I sat up and watched Sarah row towards the dock. The rickety boat, looking to be one stroke away from sinking, was so small that it would probably be better suited as fish bait. She was, once again, dressed much like a man, except now she wore a three-cornered hat; and a large, wool vest covered her white shirt. The dog rode precariously on the bow, nose sticking out as if pointing the way. I did my best to stifle the fit of laughter bubbling inside me.

“You’re alive after all,” she called out.

Still grinning, I hollered back, “Sorry, I must have overslept.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for. If I wanted you awake, I would have woken you. Rest is the best thing you can be doing right now.”

She rowed up close and tossed me a line. I pulled the boat up to the dock and held it steady while she and the dog got out.

“Thank you,” she said. “Here, you can hold these while I finish securing the boat.”

Handing me three large trout, she tied the small vessel to the dock.

“How’s your shoulder feeling?”

“Doing better.”

“Good,” she intoned, unconvinced. “Perhaps I’d better have a look though. I’ve found that men tend to oversimplify things sometimes.”

I laughed and we walked back to the cabin where, under orders, I removed my shirt.

“It does look better,” she muttered, more to herself than to me.

I thought it looked worse—it was all black and purple. However, I felt vindicated that it was indeed doing better, and guessed the gash was sealing itself. Besides, nothing seemed to be oozing, so that must be a good sign.

“When do you think the stitching can come out?” I asked hopefully.

“Not for a few days.”

I grunted.

“Why? Are you in a hurry to get back?”

“Well…no. I can’t say I’m looking forward to a journey back through monster-infested woods.”

“I wouldn’t think so. It’s really best not to press your luck until you’ve healed. You’ll stay here, of course, until you’re ready?”

I was relieved. It must have shown on my face because, before I could give her my answer, she said, “Good. There are matters we should discuss.”

Quizzically, I asked, “Really? Like what?”

“First let’s eat and then we’ll talk.”

Indeed I was hungry and said, “I won’t argue with that.”

She smiled. “Yes—and you’ll learn it’s best not to argue with me at all.”

I grinned. “No, I can see that.”

“Now, let’s see if you can be obedient and get out of my way while I get the food ready.”

I was obedient and the food was delicious.

After lunch, we retired to the porch, with a cup of tea (which was also delicious). Thankfully, she left the ridiculous hat inside. It would have been difficult to have a serious conversation with that on her head.

“So, what did you want to discuss?” I inquired.

“Get right to the point don’t you?”

“Umm, I suppose it’s in my nature….We can just sit if you’d rather.”

“That would be nice,” she said and took a sip of her tea.

There are times when a conversation is desired, and other times when it is enough just to enjoy each other’s presence; this was one of the latter. We watched the cows roam around the pasture in no particular fashion. A warm, gentle breeze rustled the leaves in the trees and caressed my face. Despite the warmth, there was still a suggestion of fall in the air. I thought of the calm before the storm, lulling the unsuspecting into a false security. As quickly as the weather can change, so can our fate. In an instant, victory can change to defeat and defeat to victory. I was nearly overcome in the woods, yet here I was. Had I really conquered defeat or simply postponed it? I pondered that question.

Sarah finally broke the silence.

“I’ve always enjoyed sitting here, with the fragrance of the forest in the air, and the quiet sounds the wind makes.”

I agreed and told her so. I also took advantage of the broken silence and decided to fish for information.

“If you keep avoiding my questions, I’m going to think you’re hiding something.”

She smiled.

“I told you, I am,” she said teasingly. It wasn’t a flirtatious tease, it was more like joking between two old friends; and it had the surprising effect of disarming me. I found myself opening up in ways I normally wouldn’t with a stranger.

I played along. “And why would you want to do that?”

“Because… if I give you all the answers, you’ll leave.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Sooner or later I’ll leave anyway.” I replied, although I had no desire to go.

“I know; but I prefer later,” she said.

“I didn’t know I had such an effect on women.”

“Oh yes, I’m very sure you do.”

Continuing the banter, I said, “Well, now that you mention it, I do know my appearance is quite irresistible to your kind.”

“Quite,” she said, trying to keep a straight face.

“And my demeanor can be very intoxicating.”

“Naturally. You’re forgetting, no doubt, your incredible strength and quick wit.”

“My dear woman, if you’d be patient I was getting there.”

“Ooh, beg your pardon, sir. Apparently, I had forgotten about your modesty, too.”

“Yes, of course—quite understandable in light of my other qualities.”

She laughed. “You better stop before I change my mind and throw you out.”

“Maybe you should, you barely know me.”

“Perhaps I will, but not yet. After all that time I spent fixing you up, it would be such a waste.”

“I am thankful for your help,” I said more seriously. “I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be alive now, had I not found your place.”

“Yes, well, I’m glad you did. And it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m going to put you to work when you’ve healed up a bit,” she said with a wry smile.

“It’s the least I can do,” I replied truthfully.

Letting her playful demeanor slip away, she said, “You can do something else for me.”

“Really?” I asked. Based on her change of tone I wasn’t really sure I wanted to, but offered anyway, “If I can.”

“I want to know what happened to you in the forest.”

“I was attacked by the monsters and one nearly got me,” I answered matter-of-factly.

She rolled her eyes.

“See? This is what I meant when I said men tend to oversimplify things,” she said with exasperation. “I know all that. What I want to know are the details.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re entitled. All of the particulars then?”

“Spare nothing.”

I told her the tale and tried not to leave anything out. However, it appeared that my efforts were in vain, because she would occasionally ask for information that I didn’t think relevant, such as: how long it rained, how far we ran, whether or not I could smell them, or if I noticed anything odd about the forest, and so on.

When satisfied, she stated, “You’re lucky; few people survive their first encounter.”

“What do you mean?”

“By the time they realize something’s wrong, it’s too late to do anything about it.”

“I suppose I can see how that would happen,” I said. “When we were attacked, if I had been any slower, it would have been my neck slashed open instead of my shoulder.”

“Good thing you weren’t slow then.”

I agreed.

“They didn’t use to be this way,” she continued.

“You mean they weren’t always this aggressive?” I asked incredulously.

It was hard to believe from their appearance that killing wasn’t their primary purpose.

“No. When they first showed up, they avoided humans and were very good at it.”

“Then how did you see them?” I asked, hoping it didn’t sound sarcastic.

“Usually by accident. I think sometimes they weren’t being cautious. If they didn’t see or smell you, you had a small chance of seeing one.”

“And what happened if you did see them?”

“If you did, it was only for a moment before they turned and ran. As you saw for yourself, they are very fast and nimble.”

“Yes, I did notice that,” I confessed, remembering the way they easily launched themselves over and around obstacles. “Then what happened? Why did they change?”

“I don’t know for sure. I’ve thought a lot about that over the years, but haven’t come up with anything solid—except for some reason, they are organized now. For the first few years they were solitary, you would never see more than one. Then one day, it suddenly changed, and they became aggressive. More people started to see them…and die. The lucky few who survived, like you, told tales of coordination and even suggested some planning before the attack. It’s very possible they were stalking you, trying to learn more about the situation before they made their move.”

“Maybe, but they didn’t know I was coming.”

“No, they didn’t. Nevertheless, I think one tried to take you there in that clearing on your first night; but something spooked you and your horse, and you fled. After the first failed attempt, they become a little more cautious.”

I started to comprehend. “I see. Once the predator is discovered, catching its intended prey becomes much more difficult.”

“Yes, because the hunted can take measures to flee or even defend itself.”

“As I did.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Humans can be very dangerous prey.”

A fact that Mr. Martin had learned too late, I thought. He lost his life going after his intended quarry…me.

“A few Brean have died in failed attempts,” she continued.


“That’s what we call them. It comes from an old word meaning foul smelling and odious. Fitting name, don’t you think?”

Remembering the stink in the forest, before both encounters, I found the name most appropriate and told her so.

I continued, “It’s hard to imagine that they get killed often. The one I shot walked away, when just about any other creature would have died.”

“No, it doesn’t happen too often; but who’s to say the one you shot won’t die? Perhaps its wound will heal and maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t, you’ve sentenced it to a slow and painful death—a lesson that won’t be lost on the others.”

“What do you think they’ll do?”

“It’s hard to say. One thing is for sure…” she said, staring out into the trees with a concerned look on her face.

“What?” I pressed, when she didn’t finish.

“They are going to study you.”

“How do you know?”

“Because there’s one watching us right now.”

I froze. Searching her face to confirm she was serious, I slowly turned and scanned the woods; but I saw nothing. I looked at Sarah again. Despite her calm voice, she was tense. I tried following her gaze, but still couldn’t see anything. Normally, I was the first to spot an oddity, and it somewhat bruised my ego to finally have to admit, “I don’t see it. Where is it?”

She pointed to a clump of trees a few hundred yards away on the edge of the woods.

I tried again with no luck. Slightly exasperated and embarrassed, I confessed, “I still can’t see it.”

“Don’t get too worked up about it,” she said patiently. “I have a lot more experience with them than you do. You’re concentrating too much on one area. You have to contrast it with the surroundings. It’s like trying to tell the difference between two shades of white. If you focus on one without seeing the other, it’s hard to see the variation. To really tell the difference, you have to hold them up to each other and take them both in at the same time.”

Then her voice changed ever so slightly and she added, “You have to sense them as much as see them.”

I looked at her curiously; but she was still fixed on the trees. So, without focusing on anything specific, I visually took in as much of the forest as I could. Immediately, I saw something different about one tree in particular, but had a hard time telling what it was. I squinted, yet it looked like all the others as far as I could see. Then, I did something I hadn’t ever tried before. Normally, I read only one soul at a time. I had never felt the need to perceive a whole group of people, nor had I ever thought it possible. But now, I forced my mind open and read the entire forest at once, as if it was one living organism. What I saw left me speechless. A whole new world opened up before me. I was amazed to see that every living thing has its own aura, or color, and different levels of brightness. The grass has one, the trees another; insects, birds, everything has its own special, spiritual characteristic. Even the same species differ from one another. I could see animals and insects buzzing and moving around that I never would have seen with my natural eyes. Even from this distance, the woods and fields teemed with life that just a few moments prior had appeared empty. The one exception was around the tree that had stood out before. Other than the plants and trees swaying in the gentle breeze, there was no other sign of existence. All animal life had either fled the area or had stopped moving and remained as motionless as possible. Perched high in the branches, obscured by the leaves, sat the still, dark vortex of the Brean, just watching us. Goose bumps made the hair on my arms and neck stand on end.

Exhaustion overcame me and the vision began to close. It was hard enough work to open an individual soul, but opening a whole forest was monumental—something I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up for long. It was akin to holding a large barrel over your head; eventually, it would grow too heavy and your physical limitations would force you to lower it. But it didn’t matter. I knew what to look for now, and I could see it well enough.

Sarah was looking at me curiously. Suddenly self-conscious, I closed my gaping mouth. I must have looked like an idiot with my jaw hanging open and looking all over the place, but felt pleased to discover that at least I hadn’t drooled.

“Can you see it?” she asked.

“Uh…yes. Yes, I think I can,” I stammered, trying to recover.

Her gaze returned to the woods.

“How long has it been there?” I asked.

“Not long.”

“Did you see it come?”

“No, but I know it wasn’t there when we first came out.”

“Are we safe? Do we need to arm ourselves?”

“I don’t think we’re ever fully safe with one of those creatures around. Even so, I don’t think we are in any immediate danger. However, if it will make you feel better, you may get a weapon.”

It would make me feel better; but I stayed put since she wasn’t moving and I didn’t want to look like a ninny.

“I guess I’ll trust you,” I mumbled.

She smiled, which I thought strange in light of the circumstance.

“Have you been attacked?” I asked suddenly. I wondered why I hadn’t thought of asking before.

She hesitated before answering, “Yes.”

“Well?” I asked expectantly.

“Well, what?”

“Are you going to tell me what happened? You say how hard it is for men to tell particulars, but it’s near impossible getting information out of you.” Especially since I can’t read your soul, I thought.

“You can always get information out of me; the question is whether or not it’s the information you seek.”

I sighed, “See? You’re very good at not answering questions.”

“There really isn’t much to tell…”

“Go on,” I prodded.

“If you insist,” she said a little sadly.

“I do.”

“Very well, but it was a long time ago. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t dwell too much on the details.”

She glanced up and saw that the irony of her disclaimer hadn’t been lost on me.

She continued, “I’d grown accustomed to seeing a Brean now and then; not very often mind you, maybe once every few months. At first they terrified me, but then I grew used to them—well, as much as one could, I suppose. All the same, I got into the habit of taking my dogs with me wherever I went. Better to be safe, you know. Most animals usually leave you alone, but there is that chance they might change their mind.

“I lived in this state with them for several years. Then, one year, in early spring, everything changed. There were a few farms in this country at that time, some not too far away from here. One day, while traveling back from Marysvale, I heard screaming, and I ran toward it. I didn’t really think much of it at first; I thought that somebody was hurt and needed help. However, the nearer I got, I could tell something was very wrong. The cries were all different—filled with terror. At the same time, horrible growls and roars, sounds I had never heard before, filled the forest. Drawing closer, I saw the Whiting’s cabin on fire, surrounded by four of the monsters.”

It was the first time I had heard Sarah call them monsters.

“Joshua, the father, ran out to fight…they tore him to pieces.” Her eyes moistened up. “His screams, and that of his family watching, wrenched the air. My dogs went crazy. That’s when they noticed me. One of the creatures pursued me, and I ran. My dogs tried to defend me.”

She swallowed, and then continued in a shaky voice, “The fighting was terrible. As I fled, I heard bellowing roars, howls of pain, and the sound of tearing flesh. It all ended with a yelp; and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was caught. I’m still surprised that I wasn’t. My lungs and legs burned, and I wondered if it was pointless to try to escape. I was nearing steep cliffs, with nowhere else to run. Nevertheless, the snarls from the Brean, and remembering the sight and sounds of that poor man, kept me going. In desperation, and the knowledge that any death would be better than at the hands of a monster, I did the only thing I could think of: I ran to the edge of the cliff and threw myself off.”

She paused, reliving the experience in her mind; and I contemplated what I would have done in her situation.

After a long moment, she continued, “It was very high, and I felt like I’d never hit the ground…. I guess I really didn’t. The impact of the lake water on my body was incredibly hard; at first I thought I’d broken something. The cold from the spring runoff was so intense that it sucked the life and movement right out of me. I started to sink, but I told myself, ‘Just one kick’…then another…and another, until I made it to the surface. The Brean was still at the top of the cliff, glaring at me. I thought it was going to jump in, but it didn’t. However, it did follow me from the cliff top. With no other alternative in sight, I swam for the opposite shore. I expected to drown. Finally, nearly frozen to death, I drug myself out on the other side.

“After a very cold night, I made my way back to the farms. In all, only three others survived: Michael Wolfe and his two young daughters. They were also coming back from Marysvale at the time of the attacks. I found their mother in a field. All the rest of our neighbors were slaughtered….I buried most of them myself.”

Tears flowed down her cheeks and her hands shook slightly. I felt awful and guilty for badgering her to reveal the story, and wished I could take it back.

“I’m very sorry. I…I didn’t think it would have been so terrible. I shouldn’t have pushed you.”

“Don’t feel bad. Still, you need to know what they are capable of, now that you’re in their country.”

Suddenly, without warning, I felt my face flush, as an inexplicable anger flared to the surface. It wasn’t directed at Sarah, but her story had triggered something deep inside me. I wanted to grab all the weapons I could and blast that thing out of the tree.

Sarah studied my face for a moment and then said, “I know what you want to do, John. I’ve wanted to do the same thing; but now isn’t the time.”

“How do you know what I want and what time it is?” I spat, my voice trembling, trying to control the rage.

The fury within me erupted and my whole body was consumed with the desire to tear the beast to pieces. It enraged me in ways that I didn’t understand. My thoughts turned to the husband—and to the daughters who had to grow up without a mother; and I thought of the others, whose lives had also ended so horrifically. And it was all…for what? Because some beast decided to mark its territory? Were the people simply a nuisance to the Brean? Or was it just evil…and evil is irrational and selfish. Did it even matter why the monsters did it? No, not to me. I didn’t want to understand; I just wanted to kill them.

“John,” said Sarah, in a soothing voice that pulled me back from the dark chambers of my mind. She softly put her hand around my wrist. “Look at me.”

Reluctantly, I peeled my eyes away from the dark figure and turned them to the beautiful, compassionate face that was silently pleading with me.

“Let it go, John. Don’t strike in anger. There will be a time and a place for it; but it’s not now. Trust me.”

Something told me to believe her; and with great effort, I forced myself to settle down. Slowly, the illogical hatred subsided. My shaking and clenched fists eased, revealing little drops of blood where my fingernails had dug into the palms of my hands.

Once the anger had passed, I felt incredibly foolish. I had never felt such strong hostility, even with Mr. Martin. I thoroughly disliked him, but this was different; it was nearly uncontrollable and all consuming. With Martin, I’d always been in command of my emotions, except when Thomas had sucked me in. Even so, this was more intense.

“I…I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Think nothing of it. I know this can all be overwhelming and a little hard to believe. Sometimes it doesn’t seem real even to me.”

“I don’t know how you can sit here so calmly with that thing out there,” I blurted.

“I never said I was calm,” she replied.

“How do you know it won’t attack?”

“I don’t. They just haven’t bothered me in years. I’m never fully at ease; but I’ve decided if it happens, then it happens. I just prepare the best I can and try not to worry about what I can’t change. Besides, we’re not totally unprepared. First off, we know it’s there. Secondly, we don’t have to worry about an attack from the other direction; they’re afraid of the water and the animals get jumpy if they get too close. Lastly…”

Sarah unbuttoned her vest, revealing two large, strange-looking pistols.

“They’re especially made for them,” she said, gesturing toward the monster. “I contrived them myself—at least some parts. I heard a traveler a long time ago boasting that if you add groves to the barrel and spin the ball, it becomes more accurate at a farther distance. These pistols have that design, making them much more exact and have a greater range.”

Sarah drew one of them and extracted from it a narrow, cylindrical object, a little over half the length of my finger.

“See? They also use paper cartridges containing both the powder and balls. They are quick to reload, and powerful, too. Unfortunately, the paper needed to make the cartridges is hard to come by, so I only carry them for emergencies. Otherwise, you load them like any other pistol.”

She looked at me expectantly, obviously proud of her work.

“They’re wonderful!” I exclaimed. “How in the world were you able to create them?”

“I have my friend, Angus, to thank for that. He’s an old blacksmith and he helped make the plan of my pistols work. I also have a few muskets with the same design—he calls them rifles.”

I had to admit I was impressed, and I told her so. She looked pleased and I felt a little more secure.

I was intrigued by the weapons and wanted to try them out, but decided that could wait. Especially since my shooting skills were less than impressive.

“If you don’t mind my asking, how come you stayed here after the attacks?”

“I didn’t, at least not initially. Just those of us who lived around the lake were hit during the raid. Along with Michael Wolfe and his girls, I loaded up my belongings, and we fled to Marysvale. The news of our assault spread fast; and most of the families who lived in other parts around Marysvale moved into town as well.”

“And what of the ones who didn’t leave?”

“They, too, were eventually attacked. Those who survived moved to Marysvale in the end.”

“But you’re not there anymore….”

“No. After living there for a few years, it was agreed that it would be best if I left. You see, I didn’t get along with many of the town leaders; I was a bit of a troublemaker for them. So, they gave me the option of leaving peacefully, with their aid and supplies; or staying, and they would make it very unpleasant for me.”

“You obviously chose to leave.”

“Yes, but it was a hard decision. I was terrified about living alone out here with the Brean, and wasn’t at all convinced that I would survive. Neither were the town leaders. In fact, they expected my demise. I suspect they gave me everything I needed, with the plan that, after I was dead, they would come and take it all back. Only problem is…”

“You didn’t die,” I finished for her.

“No. But there were many sleepless and nightmare-filled nights in the beginning. I finally decided that if I died, then I died; and I stopped worrying about it.”

I looked up and the monster was gone.

Without having to ask, Sarah offered, “It left only a few minutes ago.”

I felt relieved and we lapsed back into a comfortable silence.

I was back in the dream, running through the woods toward the cabin nestled deep in the forest; only it wasn’t so strange now—it was familiar, much like Sarah’s home. As before, I was struck with a great sense of dread. There was someone I needed to see, but I didn’t want to. I held a secret; but I was forbidden to share it. Again, I crept up the stairs and through the front door. I made my way deeper into the cabin until I could hear women’s voices. They were strained and tense—panicked. Something I did caused them this fear. I hesitated, unsure of what to do. Eventually, I gently pushed the door open and entered a small kitchen. Two women were sitting there, one looked like Sarah. They turned and stared at me. In that instant, a tremendous roar split the air, and the cabin burst into flame. Black smoke choked my lungs and clouded my vision. I heard a woman scream, and then fall silent. A huge Brean emerged from the thick smoke. Its long, sharp teeth dripped with blood. Red eyes fell upon me. With a snarl, it lunged—its mouth wide, ready to devour me. I cried out in terror, struggling to flee. Strong hands gripped me from behind and drug me backwards out of its reach…and back into consciousness.

The blankets were soaked with sweat. Shaking with fear, I threw them off and sat up on the edge of the bed. I buried my face in my hands, trying to gain control. It was just a dream, I told myself; but the horror still felt very real.

I sat for a long time, shivering and fearful. Finally, somewhat calmer, I got up and crept down the stairs. There were still a few embers from the night’s fire glowing in the large stone fireplace. I retrieved some logs and gently laid them across the brightest of the coals. After a few minutes of smoke, flames leapt from the smoldering wood and began spreading their warmth. From a chair, I watched the golden firelight mix with shadows and perform their intricate dance across the walls and objects in the room.

Slowly, the darkness outside melted away before a new morning.

“Are you making up for sleeping in late yesterday?” asked Sarah softly.

She stood in the doorway, dressed in a long nightgown, with her loose hair pulled over in front of one shoulder—and not a bit embarrassed to be seen in such circumstances. She truly was an odd woman. I hadn’t noticed her arrival, and wondered how long she’d been there. Nevertheless, I smiled at her, grateful for the company.

“Couldn’t sleep,” I replied.

“I’m sorry. Is there anything wrong? Did you get cold?”

“No, I’m fine. Just a bad dream is all.”

“Ah. Anything you want to talk about?”

I shook my head. “It’s nothing; just one of those where going back to sleep is impossible.”

“Mmm, that sometimes happens—especially around these parts. I’ll get dressed and then make us some breakfast. A good meal and a bright morning always help; and it looks like we may have another warm, clear day.”

The prospect lightened my mood considerably.

“Is there anything I can do to help? My shoulder is getting better, and I feel like I should be doing something. I’m not accustomed to sitting around so much.”

“It’s not just your shoulder I’m worried about. You had a rough time getting here. You may feel fine now, but if you push it, it will take longer to fully mend. However,” she added, “I suppose collecting eggs from the chicken coop won’t put you under, if you feel up to it.”

I did.

We dressed and I carried out my assignment while she got breakfast ready.

After our meal, Sarah spent the rest of the day with chores. I tried to help as much as possible, but got scolded for doing so. She was funny when riled, and I sometimes worked just to tease her. Finally, Sarah threatened bed rest if I ignored her anymore. And when I ignored that, she threatened to throw me out, saying something like, “If you’re so dead set against healing, then you might as well just get on your way and let the Brean finish the job.”

The latter threat was in jest, the first was not.

The following day was much the same, except, she removed the stitching from my shoulder. The process consisted of snipping the thread and pulling each stitch out one by one, with the next feeling progressively more painful than the last—though, perhaps it was just the anticipation of the sting that gave me that impression.

The next afternoon, Sarah decided to go fishing, and invited me to join her. I looked at the small, ancient row boat, sagging slightly to one side in the water, and respectfully declined. The dog, who somehow understood what she said, was already halfway down to the little vessel.

Looking doubtfully at the boat, I warned, “Be careful.”

She smiled. “Don’t worry. I managed before you came; I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

I shrugged. “Your funeral.”

She laughed.

Turning toward the lake, she said, over her shoulder, “Stay out of trouble.”

I watched her row away, and then went to check on Smoke. I found him irritable at having been left in a stable for so long. He kept nudging and trying to knock me off my feet every time I turned my back on him.

“Fine,” I growled. “Have it your way.”

I turned him loose in the pasture where he immediately went over and tried to harass the cows. They didn’t even notice.

Feeling drowsy, I went back inside, sunk into a rocking chair by the fireplace, and drifted off to sleep.

What was that noise? I couldn’t tell if it was in my dream or a reality. I listened…nothing. Had I dreamt it? No, there it is again. I kept my eyes closed, still listening. The porch squeaked. Someone, or something, was out there. Is it Sarah? I had no idea how long I had been asleep; but it didn’t feel long. Again the porch squeaked—this time right outside the front door.

Wouldn’t Sarah come up from the dock at the back of the cabin? Experience told me that slow men sometimes found themselves dead. I sprang out of the chair with a little more force than intended, knocking it over, and sending it crashing to the floor.

I grabbed a gun from over the fireplace and spun around, just in time to see the door fly open. Two large, black pistols aimed at my chest.

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