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I could just stare at what was happening, barely breathing and my muscles frozen.
The soldiers brought their prisoner forward. The older man—John—called over his shoulder again, enjoying his smoking too much to put it down. “Come on guys, we don’t have all day!”
The two soldiers glanced at each other like they dealt with him a daily basis; someone they definitely didn’t respect.
One shoved the prisoner in front of them, urging him forward. He was also wearing black and green cargo pants, but his jacket was missing and his once white T-shirt had a mixture of red and brown stains. There was no doubt that he was a Union soldier, but he was much younger than the rest of them.
They had clearly taken turns beating him before coming here. The red seeped through his his shirt from unseen gashes, and the brown was evidence he’d been on the ground more than once. His face had cuts and bruises, fresh blood steaming down to his chin where it made the spot on his shirt grow.
It made a wicked kind of anger boil up inside of me, a feeling that I never experienced before now. Especially for someone I’d never met or seen before.
One of the men roughly shoved him forward again and the push made him stumble and fall to the ground.
They gave him time to stand up but he was having trouble. It was horrible watching someone struggle without any help, but it was worse knowing that I could. I could just walk out there, surrender myself over to them, just to help him to his feet, but that wouldn’t do either of us any good. It would only get me killed to help him.
And what I didn’t understand was, why did I care about this Union solider? They attacked us. I should be happy he was about to die.
When he was standing again, the soldiers brought him around to the front of the truck. He finally turned his head in my direction, but looked at the leader who was still smoking with his back to me. I couldn’t peel my eyes away from him as he stood there, waiting for something that was soon to come.
There was only one thing that held my attention about him at that moment, and that was his eyes. His body might have been beaten and broken, but his stormy blue eyes were so alive it caught me off guard. There was an intensity in them that I’d never seen. Even though he was about to die, he stared at the soldiers surrounding him with a ferocity that didn’t do him justice.
He was different from them. Not just his age or his eyes, but something more that I couldn’t see.
They were going to kill him, and for some idiotic reason, it bothered me.
Something tugged at my insides to do something ridiculous. Something I would never do, but as I thought about my soon-to-be actions, I felt good about it. Like I was doing something right . . . even though I had no idea if it was right. But I had to do it. If I didn’t, it would haunt me for the rest of my life, and I couldn’t live with myself if I decided to turn away from this situation with a blind eye.
The enemy of my enemies was my friend, right? I could only hope.
I couldn’t help Ethan right now—wherever he was—but at least I could help someone.
Leaving would be an easy way out and doing this was a high risk. I was outnumbered and I had absolutely no idea how to handle a situation like this. But I pushed those thoughts away and believed I was good enough to pull this off. Even when my hands were already shaking.
The three soldiers stood off to the side while John stepped closer to their prisoner. He reluctantly dropped his cigarette and pushed it into the ground with the tip of his boot.
The young prisoner held his back straight, looking the man in the eye. His breathing was calm. Too calm for what was about to happen.
“Well, kid, you’ve caused us more than enough trouble.” John spat at his feet and smiled. “I hope it was worth it.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said, not giving away any emotion. He was like a rock before the people who were about to kill him.
John brought his gun around in front of him and toyed with the trigger. If I was going to do something, I had to do it soon, before it was too late. He could pull the trigger without any warning. John continued talking, more forcefully and using words I didn’t want to repeat. I didn’t pause to listen. Under the cover of his voice, I slowly moved behind the big tree again and took off my bag, placing it soundlessly on the ground. Even if a leaf rustled, I would be given away too soon.
I silently zip open my bag and brought out my handgun.I wasn’t sure if I could do this. I don’t think it clicked in my mind yet that I was about to kill people, people I didn’t know. Even though they were my enemy, the nerves were making my hands shake. My palms were slick with sweat and I quickly wiped them against my jeans.
I had to do this. I had to.
My gun had seven bullets in the clip and I pressed the gun against my stomach to muffle the sound as I put one in the chamber. If I was lucky, I could shoot them all before they had a chance to react. But moving targets were a lot different from shooting cans on a log.
The woman needed to go down first . . . after that, I had no clue.
But the longer I waited behind this tree, the more chance the stranger would be dead.
So before I lost the nerve, I stood and stepped out from my hiding place, heart kicking.
I imagined it would have been like an old action movie when the character walks up to their opponents in slow motion and takes them out, one by one. Dust swirling around them like they were dancing with death. For some reason, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid kept popping into my mind. But they died in the end so maybe I shouldn’t think about that.
Either way, it was nothing like that.
The soldiers were already within range as I came around the tree, waiting for me to kill them even though it hadn’t registered in their minds yet. I brought up my gun—using two hands the way Dad had taught me—and quickly pulled the trigger as the woman turned towards me.
The bullet hit her square in the chest, instantly killing her as I tried to ignore the blood and the fact I just killed someone.
For a split second, I locked eyes with the blue-eyed stranger.
Then after a quick understanding passed between us, it was like the world was rushing back around me. He attacked the man before him, momentarily taking some of the attention off me.
I turned away from him pulled the trigger again. It hit the second soldier in the chest, just like other. The force pushed him back and his body almost hit the truck. At this point, I could barely breathe. My hands started to shake more.
Before I had a chance to aim for the third soldier, it was too late. His fist slammed into my head like he had a hidden brick in his palm. Unless getting punched always felt this way—I wouldn’t know. My vision clouded and I fell through the air, trying to use my arms to break my fall but nothing responded.
I landed hard. The air rushed from my lungs and my gun was knocked from my hand. It clattered to the ground out of reach, the soldier loomed over me. I could hear the other pair still fighting to my right. The solider standing above brought the butt of his rifle down.
I wasn’t fast enough.
The gun hit the side of my head. My vision blurred then became black. The throbbing was so intense it felt as if someone was hammering into my head. One pounding thrust at a time. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to block out the pain. Every time my heart beat, it sent a stab of torture through my head.
There was scuffling nearby—scrapping of feet and the thuds of punches. Then a gunshot went off directly over me. My ears rung and I could hear nothing. The breeze hit my face, making the sweat feel cool on my skin as I laid unmoving, my eyes still closed.
The hope I had started with quickly diminished.
I only took down two of the soldiers, and the last time I saw the guy I was supposed to be saving, he still had his hands cuffed while trying to fight a man with a gun. I didn’t have to be a genius to figure our how that fight ended. I should have known it was hopeless to begin with.
Something warm trailed down the side of my face, slowly inching over my skin. I felt the presence of someone near me—their steady breathing and heat of their skin. The pounding in my head lessened slightly so I cracked my eyes opened. The light made my head pound harder, but I couldn’t shut them once I saw who it was.
It was the blue-eyed soldier, crouching and staring down at me with a unwavering gaze.
“Are you all right?” His voice was smooth and confident. Something that made my heart rate actually slow down to a regular rhythm.
He wasn’t dead. And neither was I.
“I think so.”
When he smiled, I had no doubt. It was so brilliant it matched his sparkling eyes like nothing I had ever seen. It was like the sun. Something that brought light and warmth and mixed it together. But the rest of his face was practically unseen through the dried blood and dirt, the same went with his ink black hair. But that smile . . .
He stood up and gave me a hand down. When I finally got to my feet I felt like I needed to hurl.
“You’ll feel better in a minute,” he said, bending down to take the dead soldier’s knife he had hidden in his belt. As he straightened, I saw his hand flinch for a hidden wound—probably a broken rib.
When I looked around, I saw that he had killed the remaining two men. The leader’s body was laying at the edge of the clearing, his neck bent at an odd angle. The last man—who had obviously hit me—was laying nearby with a bullet hole through his chest. I bent down and grabbed my gun that was still laying where I had dropped it.
Then I paused.
I was alone in the clearing.
I did a quick circle and didn’t see him anywhere. Did he just leave me here? Him of all people, and after I had just helped him out of a situation that was promising to have him dead in the end.
Something in the back of the truck clattered and I spun around just as he jumped down, a pack slung over his shoulder. He walked over, favoring his left leg in a slight limp.
“We have to get out of here before anyone comes looking for them. The safest thing to do would to be head north, away from the city.” He walked past me, adjusting the straps to his bag.
“We?” I asked. He stopped, turning back like he didn’t understand the question. “Look . . . I know I just saved your ass, but I didn’t do it to have a traveling companion. And if I were to have one, it wouldn’t be a Union solider.”
When I said those last words, he flinched a little. I saved him, it was true. But I had no idea if I could trust him. His army had just attacked our country.
I walked past him into the woods—his eyes looking at the ground, his lips no longer shaping that brilliant smile. My bag was still where I left it, and I stashed my gun inside, swinging it back around my shoulders and grabbed my shotgun where it rested against the tree.
When I was ready to go, I glanced over my shoulder to see him still standing there, looking lost and not knowing how to respond to what I said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, actually meaning. “But I have a hard time trusting anyone right now.”
His gaze flicked up to meet mine.
If he asked me anything right now, I couldn’t say no. I was always that kid who brought home wounded animals that I found in the woods. If it was hurt, I couldn’t not help it. I reminded myself that he was human . . . the enemy. I would be safer by myself.
“No, I get it,” he said, nodding. “You’ve already done enough for me as it is. Thanks for that, by the way.”
His eyes were too strong and I had to look away. I glanced over my shoulder and took a step back like I was about to leave. “Yeah, well . . . it was the least I could do.”
“You could have been killed,” he said. “And you don’t even know me.”
I avoided looking at him, taking another step back. “I should go.” I finally turned my back and started through the woods, but I barely got a few steps before I heard him behind me.
“Can I just ask you something?” he called behind me.
I stopped and reluctantly faced him. He was only a few feet away. I wasn’t afraid of him, just . . . unsure. There was no way to know if I had just saved someone who could have killed me. He was even armed now, one of the soldier’s gun strapped across his chest.
“Why did you do it?” he asked
“Why did I do what?”
“You know what.”
I opened my mouth to answer but nothing came out. “I don’t know,” I finally said. “I don’t know why I did it.”
His wet his lips and glanced behind him. “Well . . . would you mind if I hang around until you figure that out? I would really like to know.”
I hesitated, trying to say no while his stared at me with those eyes. “If I agree, it doesn’t mean that I trust you. I don’t know if I ever can.”
He flashed a smile. “Is that a yes?”
“A temporary yes,” I agreed. I turned and started walking, not looking behind to see if he followed. What the hell did I just agree to? “Come on. I want to get as far as we can before nightfall.”
I don’t know why, but I felt a little relieved once I heard him behind me.
My heart was a confusing thing.