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Chris Scott Wilson
January l0th, 1884
Steamboat Springs, Routt County, Colorado
“That bastard. That black-hearted bastard!”
Her voice contained all the hatred, loathing, and anguish it was possible to crush into a whisper. She directed it at the back of the man standing in front of her, fifteen feet from where she crouched in the calf-deep snow, the metal of the big Colt freezing in her small hands. He was a tall man, made to appear taller by the fact that he was dressed entirely in black; a black low-crowned Texan hat, a long black frock coat brushing the back of his thighs, and black trousers tucked into shiny black boots. Breath cloudy in the frosty air, he was reading aloud from a leather-bound book in his hands, eyes lifting to direct the words at the man hanging from the oak tree.
The corpse swayed in uneven circles, pushed by the wind, limp legs moving back and forth above the hard crust of trampled snow five feet below the dangling boot heels.
“Thou shalt not steal, sayeth the Lord…”
The dead man wasn’t interested in what the Lord had to say about it. The dead man wasn’t interested in anything anymore. His eyes, still open, bulged from their sockets, fixed in a glassy stare. Above his raised eyebrows, which alone betrayed surprise at his death, his ginger hair suffered the curious fingers of the wind. His whole face was purple and the swollen tongue poking between his drained lips showed the rope had done its work fast and true.
“That bastard. That evil Bible-clutching bastard,” the woman whispered, staring beyond the man in black to the immobile face of the hanging man. Jack Keble hadn’t been a handsome man, or even much of a good man, but he had been her man. Sophie James’s man. He had stayed with her for the last two years, eating the food she cooked and sharing her bed, even if they’d had to keep moving every time a man with a tin star had got too close. It was the price they’d both had to pay for Jack being one of the gang that robbed the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad down on the Arkansas River in Prowers County, a few miles from the Kansas border. The newspapers had spilled out lies, as always, claiming the gang had escaped with fifteen thousand dollars. In truth, there had been little more than a thousand and by the time they’d shared it out there had only been a hundred in it for Jack. Then had come all the running.
And now it had caught up with him.
She and Jack had headed north, figuring whoever came after them would think they’d crossed the border into Kansas. The weather had caught them up in the foothills of the Park Range Mountains and they’d picked Steamboat Springs to winter and also wait for the birth of the child she was carrying. As soon as mother and baby were well enough to travel the plan was to hightail it up to Wyoming where the law had nothing on Jack and where they could find a place to settle down.
It was not to be.
Out of a howling blizzard, the man in black had come riding into the Springs on a big black stallion, his clothes caked with snow, eyes restless below the brim of his hat, and his mouth full of awkward questions. He had nosed around for two days, closing in on them until Jack’s nerves were jangling and he was drinking his way through three bottles of whiskey a day. Finally, he had cleaned and checked his guns then gone out into the night, tossing a few words of reassurance over his shoulder. Come the dawn he would return and the man in black wouldn’t be asking any more questions. Frightened, she had watched him leave, the last sound she heard the crunching of his boots in the frozen snow as he moved away from the cabin.
Jack hadn’t come back.
At dawn Sophie was still awake, the baby kicking in her womb as she sat over the coffeepot, feeding cordwood into the stove to warm Jack when he came in. Instead of Jack, it had been her sister, Mary, who opened the door. Grim-faced, Mary had told of the man being hung down at Soda Creek.
A man with ginger hair.
And the man hanging him was dressed in black.
Now Sophie was here, crouching frozen in the snow, the old Colt heavy in her hands, listening to the man in black’s voice as he read from the worn Bible. When he finished she would kill him. Only the words of the Lord stopped her from doing it now. Herself, she was unable to read or write and for what it was worth, there was nobody else to read the Lord’s words over poor dead Jack.
“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord…”
Mary was crouched in the bushes behind her sister. She could share the anguish Sophie felt, but this was crazy. Huddling here in the freezing cold, and Sophie almost at her time. If she wasn’t careful she would kill the baby and then she would have nothing at all. The man in black needed killing, but this was surely the wrong way.
“The son of a bitch,” Sophie whispered, blinking away the tears that blurred her vision and left two icy trails down her winter-numbed cheeks. The man in black fell quiet then turned some pages before his voice reached her again.
“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away…”
“You’re damn right He does,” Sophie spat, using both thumbs to lever back the Colt’s hammer. As the spring cocked she raised the long barrel.
The man in black heard the click. He whirled, Bible still in his left hand. His right snaked inside his coat, seeking his pistol. The two women saw his face clearly for the first time. A long angular jaw, hollow cheeks with prominent cheekbones. Eyes steely gray below bushy eyebrows. There was the coldness of death about him. He sidestepped with unexpected speed.
Sophie’s hands shook as she tried to steady the foresight on him. Tears swam in her eyes and the gun wouldn’t go where she aimed. Absurdly, she recalled Jack’s voice when he taught her to shoot: “Just point it, like you would a finger.” Her lips twitched with the memory, knowing he was dead, hanging on the tree. Hatred pulled the trigger. The Colt thundered.
The bullet went wild.
Panic raced through her mind like a herd of stampeding mustangs. Then she was falling sideways, an image of the man in black in her mind’s eye. There was a long barreled Colt in his hand. It roared. An orange muzzle flash, bright against the snow. An explosion of pain.
I’m dead, she thought as she fell sideways into the cold snow. Ice pressed against her cheek. It was so cold it almost burned. She felt a tiny kick in her womb, which nearly raised a smile. Then the baby moved again, more powerfully this time. Nausea began to climb her throat. Too late now, she thought, but she couldn’t be sure if she cared anymore. Jack was dead and she would rather die and take the baby with her so she could be with him. Better than to stay here, alone. Her strength was all gone, draining into the snow as surely as her life. And it was just so damn cold…
Mary glanced down. She had pushed Sophie over when she saw her sister’s bullet had missed. And now the gun was gone. When Sophie dropped it, its weight had carried it through the hard crust and now the barrel would be full of snow, useless. The man in black hadn’t missed. Sophie was still, her blood painting the snow crimson.
Mary glanced from her sister to the man. His cruel face, the expression of alertness and capability fixed there as he came to a stop, staggering in the snow. There was nothing she could do now. He would kill her too.
She came to her feet, turning away. Long skirts hampered her legs. She cursed like a man, forcing her muscles to work. Her frantic hands pushed aside the naked tangle of bushes. If only she could make the crest of the slope.
A moment’s grace…
The man in black regained his balance. His thumb automatically recocked the Colt. The barrel swung to cover the fallen woman’s body, discounted it, and moved on to the bushes. They were rustling, dry twigs crackling like the first burst of a prairie fire. He glanced over his shoulder at the remains of Jack Keble still swinging at the end of the rope before moving to the fallen woman.
A large scarlet stain was spreading outwards into the snow from her bloody head. There was no way she could be alive with a wound like that. His face was still as he carefully pushed his Bible into his coat pocket, his eyes flickering to the bushes. Tracks. Frightened tracks. Another woman. An outlaw woman. Another one that would kill him if she got the chance. But not if he killed her first.
The tracks led haphazardly upwards where she had struggled from foothold to foothold on the slippery slope. Carefully, he followed them step by step. The Colt was always ready, leading the way. The run of cover broke just before the crest. Wary, he shifted ten feet away to the left. Perhaps she was waiting with a knife. Slowly, he eased his way upwards to break the skyline.
There was nobody, nothing there but a wavy line of tracks running towards a snow-laden barn in the distance.
For the first time, the man in black smiled.
Mary knelt in the straw, her hands flat on the hard-packed earth of the barn’s floor. Tangled hair hung down past her face. Tears of fright ran unchecked down her cheeks and breath rasped in her throat, breasts heaving. She was trembling both from terror and the cold which once more had become her companion now that the running was over.
She had to think. He was sure to come here. It was obvious she would seek shelter. And only a blind man would not see her tracks in the snow. She needed a weapon. Something, anything to use against him. She shuddered. That look on his face when he had killed Sophie. And he would kill her too unless she killed him first.
Her breathing easier, she stood up and began to search the barn, stall by stall. Nothing but straw. Her nerves were raw as her eyes darted from corner to corner. Nothing. She was on the point of screaming. One last stall. It contained only a few strips of rotten harness leather.
She found herself standing in the middle of the floor. Her body began to shake and she wrapped her arms around herself, shoulders hunched self protectively as she swayed. Her head tilted back in an attempt to clear her mind. She passed the back of her wrist across her eyes to smear away the tears. Then she saw it.
The hayloft. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? She raced to the ladder. Her boot caught in the hem of her dress and tore but she ripped it away as she began to climb. At the top she stepped onto the rough planking then glanced back down to the door, almost expecting to see him there, his big gun aimed right at her. She felt dizzy for a moment. It was a lot different looking down than it was up.
He wasn’t there.
She switched her attention back to the loft. There was a pile of winter feed stacked up against the walls, ready to be tossed down. Where was it? She moved along the edge, feet shuffling in the scattered straw. It had to be there. Somewhere. It had to be. She cried aloud when she saw the long wooden handle sticking up, resting against the wall under the lowest part of the roof. She rushed over and wrapped both hands around the long shaft to draw it out. For a moment it stuck, the prongs of the pitchfork buried in the planking, but with a jerk it was free.
She breathed a long sigh of relief followed by a splutter of near hysterical laughter. She was safe now. She had her weapon. He would come and she would kill him. He would reach the top of the ladder, then just as he was about to step into the loft she would rise up from the straw and stick those long deadly prongs right through his black heart. And if he did not die she would pull it out and stick it in him again. And again. Once for Jack, once for Sophie. And once for Sophie’s poor baby that would never be born now.
Shivering, Mary sank to her haunches in the straw, the pitchfork in her hands. Slowly, almost sensually, she stroked the long smooth shaft with the tips of her fingers. Somehow, the action seemed to calm her.
Eyes bright, she waited.
It seemed like hours but in reality it was minutes. It could have been a sigh of wind that pulled and pushed at the barn door before tugging it open with only the smallest squeak of protest from the rusty hinges. It could have even been a wild animal whose scuffling feet could be heard inside the barn. But she knew it was neither of those things. It was him.
From where she crouched she could only hear him. There was only the smallest of chinks in the floorboards at her feet and she fixed her gaze on the section of earth that was visible. She wished then she had chosen a position with a good view. Where she was now was like being in the dark, knowing the enemy was there but unable to see it. That was more terrifying than being able to see him.
He crossed below her, moving cautiously, the gun held ready. Involuntarily, she caught her breath, hands tightening their grip on the handle. Even the smooth wood could not reassure her now. The sweat she had worked up during her frantic run to the barn had dried on her skin and if anything she felt colder than she had before. No matter that she gritted her teeth, she was unable to stop shaking. But at least she wasn’t crying now, so there were no tears to confuse her vision. The dimness of the barn’s interior had dilated her pupils and she could see everything in sharp relief with a clarity that was almost unreal.
If only it was so.
Where was he? She turned her head, seeking reassurance the ladder was the only way up. There was a scraping sound below. Her eyes dropped to the chink. He stalked by underneath again. Now her pulse had begun to hammer in her inner ear, filling her head with thunder. Her heart threatened to burst out of her chest. She felt weak and sick with fear.
The ladder? She didn’t recall it creaking when she had come up, but then he was heavier and that could make all the difference. If he had taken a step up, then a second creak would mean he had either stepped back down or moved another rung up.
Another creak. She tensed. A third one would mean he was definitely on the way up.
Oh Christ… Mary’s chest had a band of steel closing tight around it. This was it. How many rungs did the ladder have? She wished she’d counted them. The thing now was to suppress the fear and instead just concentrate on what she was going to do. As soon as his head appeared over the top she had to rise up and do it. All her strength compressed into one powerful thrust. That was all she had to remember. That was all it would take. It would be over then.
Creak. Another step closer.
She couldn’t control it. She was almost screaming with fear. She shook her head from side to side, trying to prize the terror out.
END OF SAMPLE
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