MACAVITY AWARD NOMINATED
The Gods for Vengeance Cry
by Richard Helms
EQMM, November 2010
There are sixteen bones in the human hand. I had managed to break five of mine retrieving a poodle, the object of a messy custody dispute. I had also learned an important lesson: Owning a poodle doesn't mean you aren't a tough guy.
Fortunately, I'm also a tough guy. The poodle was returned to its rightful owner, who was so insanely happy that she paid my fee and the medical bills to have my hand set.
The money was dwindling quickly, though. At six-six and two-eighty, I go through a lot of food. I can't cook anything more substantial than a Pop Tart, so I take all my meals in restaurants.
I was quickly joining the ranks of the bucks-down.
I sat in Holliday's, nursing a Dixie Beer, when Shorty—Holliday's owner and my boss—wandered in from the alley. Shorty is a human fireplug, square as a checkers board and ugly as roadkill.
"Gallegher," he said, "I might have some work for you."
Besides being a recently handicapped cornet player, I make a few bucks on the side looking for—and usually finding—things that have disappeared. Poodles, for instance. Sometimes people don't like it when I show up to recover things. Sometimes they try to resist. They seldom resist for long.
"Remember Katie Costner?" he asked.
"Blond kid. Worked here as a waitress about a year ago."
I nodded. I think I might have furrowed my brow a bit.
Thousands of young people gravitate to the French Quarter each year. Some adapt. Some don't.
You don't like to admit it, but you get used to it.
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "What happened?"
"They found her in her flop, down at the far end of Decatur, near Esplanade. She'd been strangled."
"Word has it she wasn't involved."
"You kept up with her after she quit?"
"I checked in on her once or twice. Brought her some food from time to time."
I nodded. Sometimes, Shorty dumps a boatload of surprise on you.
"The police officers working the case say she was from some flyspeck town in North Carolina. Place called Prosperity. Cops can't locate her parents. There's five hundred in it for you if you can track them down."
Shorty pulled a Dixie from the ice bin and twisted off the cap.
"People ought to hear about it when their kids die," he said.
A check on the Internet revealed that nobody named Costner owned a telephone in Prosperity. That didn't mean much. The number could have been unlisted, or maybe they used cell phones. Listed land lines are going the way of the passenger pigeon.
I also checked with a friend of mine in the Robbery-Homicide Division at NOPD, a scrawny, scarecrow-like guy named Farley Nuckolls. Farley and I had butted heads a bunch of times over the years, but he was reasonably forbearing since I passed along information when I fell across it.
Most of the time.
"She was strangled," he said.
"Harder than it sounds," I noted.
"Do tell. Personal experience?"
"I've never been strangled, if that's what you meant. As a retired psychologist I know a thing or two about the way the brain works. To do a strangling right, you have to cut off a person's oxygen supply for four minutes, minimum, unless you squeeze hard enough to fracture the hyoid bone in the larynx. Killing someone that way means you really have to go in committed."
"The forensic boys concur."
"No clues, then?"
"Not much to go on. The murder weapon was a twisted scarf. The killer apparently wore gloves. No epithelials on the scarf. No prints in the apartment. She was probably killed by a man."
"Or a female wrestler," I added.
"Don't complicate my life."
When Shorty referred to Prosperity as a flyspeck town, he had inadvertently given it a promotion. The main commercial district was confined to a five-acre area at the intersection of a couple of two-lane highways, and consisted of a strip shopping center, a doctor and a dentist, an attorney, and the town hall. At least the strip had a pizza parlor.
I ordered a garbage pie and sat at a booth facing out the picture window as I ate. It was already dusk, the end of a long day on the road. I hadn't seen a motel in town, and I was a little hazy as to where I was going to bunk down for the night.
The parking lot of the strip center seemed to be a gathering place for the disenchanted youth of Prosperity. They hung in clusters and stood around trying to look surly and threatening.
I finished my dinner, dropped a tip on the table, and slipped my Saints hat on.
I was halfway to my car when one of the kids stepped in front of me.
"Got a smoke?" he asked. A stray lock of limp hair fell across his left eye.
"No. I don't smoke, and you shouldn't either," I said.
"I don't like being told what to do," he said.
"If you don't have a cigarette, maybe you can spare a few bucks so I can buy my own."
Several of the kids had circled around and were now at my six. I was slowly being surrounded. I didn't think they meant to rob me, not in a place this public. They did, however, expect to intimidate me.
I don't intimidate easily.
I pulled a five from my pocket.
The kid reached for it. I jerked it back. A mix of confusion and anger crossed his features.
"Tell you what," I said. "This five goes to the first guy who can tell me where a family named Costner lives in this area."
The kid opened his jacket and showed me a knife in his belt.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "You let me have the five and I'll let you get in your car and get lost."
I palmed the bill and placed it back in my pocket.
Without saying a word, I turned toward my car.
As I expected, I felt a hand grip my shoulder.
"I'm talkin' to you, man," the kid said, with a fearlessness born of the pack mentality. He was certain that numbers made him invincible.
He was wrong.
With my good hand, I reached up and grabbed his wrist. Several seconds later, the kid who'd touched me sat on the ground howling over the greenstick break in his radius bone, and the kid who'd tried to help him sat next to my car trying to hold back a scarlet torrent from his broken nose. The other two seemed to vacillate between taking up the attack and running like thieves.
We were interrupted by the whoop of a siren and flashing lights. I knew what that meant. I stepped back and raised both hands to make it clear that I was unarmed.
"What's going on?" a man said behind me. I turned to face the cop who had stepped out of his cruiser. He was tall and skinny, with rawhide skin and sad eyes. He had augmented his uniform with snakeskin boots.
"I was going to my car when these punks tried to shake me down."
"He broke my nose, Slim!" one of the youths said.
"And he snapped my arm like it was a twig!" the leader whined.
"Just defending myself," I said to the cop. "The kid with the broken arm has a knife in his belt. He threatened me with it."
The cop leaned down, opened the leader's jacket, and pulled the knife from his belt. Then turned to me.
"Are you hurt?" he asked.
"Didn't reckon so. You come with me. I need to file a report. Rooster, you and Sonny head on home, get your folks to take you to the emergency room. You come by the station tomorrow if you want to file a complaint."
"A complaint!" I said.
"That's enough out of you, mister!" Slim said. "Come have a seat in the cruiser. I need to get some information from you."
Half an hour later, I sat in the Prosperity Police Station. The cop, Slim Tackett, hadn't cuffed me, but neither did he seem interested in letting me go.
The front door to the station opened, and another officer stepped inside. He was tall and barrel-chested and athletic. He wore a gray Stetson over close-cropped dark hair going slowly silver at the temples. His eyes were blue and penetrating.
"This him?" he asked Tackett.
"Name's Gallegher, Chief. Roy Patrick Gallegher. He's from New Orleans."
"New Orleans?" the chief said, as he glanced over the report. "You're a long way from home."
"I can't wait to get back," I said.
"You can go on," the chief told Tackett.
"Thanks, Chief," Tackett said. He left without saluting.
The chief told me to sit tight. He walked to the back of the station and returned with two cups of coffee.
"You take sugar or cream?" he asked.
"Beer," I said.
He grinned, for just a second, reached into his shirt pocket and handed me a couple of paper packets of sweetener. Then he sat behind the desk.
"Judd Wheeler," he said. "I'm the chief of police here in Prosperity. We aren't accustomed to riots in the shopping-center parking lot."
"As I told the other officer, I had just finished dinner and was heading for my car when these kids decided to hit me up for cash."
"So you assaulted them."
"The kid with the broken arm threatened me with a knife. I tried to leave. He decided to press the issue."
Wheeler nodded. "Rooster Broome. You tie fifteen Bliss County Broomes together and you might get a triple-digit IQ. Between you and me, I've kind of hoped for some time now that someone would clean Rooster's clock."
"So we're jake?"
"No, Mr. Gallegher. We are not 'jake.' I got two Prosperity kids in the ER over in Morgan, and you don't have a scratch on you. I'm not certain how to explain that. You some kind of tough guy?"
"Yes," I said.
I thought Wheeler's eyes might have widened a bit.
"Honest, too," I said.
"Are you so honest that if I send to New Orleans for your arrest record they're gonna come up empty?"
"I've been arrested in New Orleans," I said. "Several times. All the charges were dropped. If you want, you can check with Detective Farley Nuckolls in Robbery-Homicide, at the Rampart Street station in the French Quarter."
"Friend of yours?"
"We go back a few years. He can tell you anything you want to know."
Wheeler drew a few circles on his desktop with his index finger, and then took a sip of his coffee.
"What I want to know," he said, finally, "is what you're doing in Prosperity."
"I work in a bar in the French Quarter. There was a girl who waited tables there for a while. She was murdered several days ago. I'm trying to find her family."
"What was this girl's name?"
Wheeler nodded, and took another sip of his coffee.
"Katie Costner left Prosperity about five years ago," he said.
"So you knew her?"
"We crossed paths. Gave her folks no end of grief. Broke their hearts, though, when she blew town."
"Maybe you can help me track them down. My boss in New Orleans wants me to inform them of her death, make arrangements for the funeral."
"Well," Wheeler said. "Now, that's going to be a problem."
"They've moved away?"
"No. They're still here. Will be forever, I reckon."
It took me a moment to catch his drift.
"Oh," I said.
"Katie's father died about three years ago. Cancer. Got it working in the textile dye mill over in Mica Wells. Her mother passed about a year later. Ate herself to death after her husband died. Diabetes."
"Tough deal," I said.
"It seems to me that the person you need to talk to is Quincy Pressley. He's the preacher at the Lutheran church over off Ebenezer Road. The Costners are buried in his churchyard."
I glanced at my watch.
"It's a little late to call on him now. Is there a motel nearby I could flop for the night?"
"Sorry. Nearest motel is over in Morgan, about fifteen miles. Why don't you stay here?"
"In the jail?"
"Sure. The beds in the cells are plenty comfortable. We serve a first-class breakfast in the morning, from over at the Piggly Wiggly in the shopping center. It'll be nice and quiet."
"Am I under arrest, Chief?"
He shook his head.
"Let's call it protective custody. The Broomes are a clannish bunch—you know, with a capital 'K.' They aren't going to be very happy that some out-of-towner maimed one of their own, no matter how much he may have deserved it. They won't come anywhere near the jail, though. They seem to be allergic to it. If it makes you feel any better, I'll leave the cell door unlocked."
And that's how I came to spend the night in the Prosperity jail.
Chief Wheeler hadn't lied. The breakfast carted in from the Piggly Wiggly was top shelf. Market-cut pepper bacon, scrambled eggs, grits, and two biscuits, which I washed down with coffee from the pot in the back of the station. It wasn't Café du Monde, but as country breakfasts go, it hit the spot.
Chief Wheeler had kept his word also about unlocking the cell door.
I was just finishing my second biscuit when he walked in the front door of the station and headed straight back to the holding cells. He carried a thick sheaf of fax paper.
"Your buddy Nuckolls gets to work early," he said. "You failed to mention last night that you used to be a cop."
"I was a consultant. Nashua PD in New Hampshire. Forensic psychologist. I did their profiling."
"Says here you killed a suspect named Ed Hix."
"I don't like to talk about that," I said.
"I can imagine why."
"Read the report, Chief. Hix killed the detective working the case, and it was down to Hix or me. I decided that it was a lot better for everyone in the long run if Hix didn't walk out of those woods."
"You emptied an automatic into him. Fourteen shots."
"That was all the gun held. I'm not going to apologize for what I did, and I'm not going to minimize it either. Either Hix was going to die, or I was. I can't complain about the way things worked out."
"It seems you've had a very interesting life down in New Orleans. Detective Nuckolls seems to think that you've killed as many as six people over the last decade."
"He's entitled to his opinion."
Wheeler set the sheaf of faxes down on his desk.
"Besides the fact that you seem to be some sort of walking Angel of Death, Detective Nuckolls says you're generally dependable, probably honest, and even says you were responsible for stopping a serial murderer down there a couple of years ago."
"It could have gone the other way very easily."
"Here's my problem, Gallegher. I keep the peace here in Prosperity. This is a quiet little town. We like it that way. I would be very appreciative if you'd complete your business here and then go home, preferably without littering the landscape with bodies I'd have to bury."
We talked for a while longer, as he vetted me by way of the reports he had received from New Orleans, and then he offered to drive me over to meet Reverend Pressley.
"I have a car, over in the shopping-center lot."
"The roads, once you get away from the commercial district, can get a little confusing. Let me drive you out there, then I can bring you back once you have an idea of where you're going."
I couldn't argue with logic like that. He led me out to one of the cruisers and held the passenger-side door for me as I sat down.
"Have you lived in this town long?" I asked, as he pulled out of the lot onto the Morgan Highway.
"All my life," he said. "My father was a farmer. His father was a farmer. All the Wheelers back to before the Revolutionary War were farmers."
"You're not a farmer."
"Had to end sometime. I wasn't very good at it. Guess I didn't inherit the right genes. Doesn't matter. Nobody's going to be a farmer in Prosperity in a few years."
He pointed to a subdivision off to the left of the highway. It was filled with large, boxy, redbrick houses of the style I had come to refer to as "garage-mahals."
"Tax refugees. They think they're getting away from it all, but they insist on having all the comforts of big-city life. These neighborhoods are spreading like seventeen-year locusts. The population in Prosperity has doubled in the last five years. I expect it'll double again in the next two."
"Tough break, suburban sprawl. And you have to keep a lid on all of it."
"That's why they pay me the big bucks."
We drove past an opulent new high school, and over a bridge spanning a tributary called Six Mile Creek. Slowly, the McMansion developments faded away, the land seemed to become more fertile, and farms began to appear on each side of the highway.
"This is the Prosperity I remember from when I was a kid," Wheeler said. "I'm going to miss it. Now, to get to Quincy's church, you turn left just past this tobacco-drying barn up here, onto the Ebenezer Church Road . . ."
A few minutes later, we pulled into the gravel parking lot of a white frame church. A plaque screwed into the siding next to the front door proclaimed that the church had stood on that spot since 1764.
As we climbed out of the cruiser, a man stepped out the front door and waved at Wheeler. He stood in the high five-foot range, with a paunchy stomach, two and a half chins, and thinning hair. He wore glasses. He stepped down to the gravel lot and extended his hand to the chief.
Wheeler shook with him, and then pointed in my direction.
"This is the fellow I mentioned on the phone," he said. "Quincy Pressley, Pat Gallegher."
I grasped Quincy's hand. Despite looking out of shape, he had a surprisingly strong grip.
"I was so sorry to hear about Katie," Quincy said. "The Costners have been a tragic family over the last several years. If you'll follow me . . ."
He turned and started to walk around the church. We followed him. As we rounded the corner, I saw a cemetery behind the building. It stretched for almost an acre.
"We have people in our churchyard from pre-Revolutionary times," Pressley boasted. "People come from five counties in every direction just to do gravestone rubbings. Katie's parents are buried just over here."
He wended his way between faded gravestones and depressed patches of earth to a section filled with more recent monuments. We stopped in front of a rectangle of relatively new grass.
"Katie's mother," he said, pointing to the rectangle. Above it was a flat bronze plaque set into the ground, with the word COSTNER in large raised letters.
"There's a space on the other side reserved for Katie. I had hoped that it would be many years before I would have to use it."
"So she's going to be buried here," I said.
"Yes. John and Susan insisted on it. Despite the fact that Katie left them many years ago, they always believed that they would be reunited. And now, I suppose they will. How did she die?" he asked.
"It was murder," I said. "She was strangled."
"How sad. I'm afraid there aren't many people here in Prosperity who will attend the funeral. So many of the young folks have gone off to the cities, or have married and moved away for new jobs."
"Hold on a minute," I said, as I pulled out my cell phone.
Farley was in his office at the Rampart Station. There were no new leads in the case, but the forensic team and the M.E. had completed all their procedures.
"The family belonged to a Lutheran church here in Prosperity," I reported. "They had arranged for a burial site for her, before they died."
"Okay. Have the preacher there fax the release papers, and we'll arrange for transport."
He gave me the numbers for Pressley to send the information.
I folded the phone and placed it back in my pocket.
"Fastest five hundred bucks I ever made," I said.
"What?" Pressley asked.
"My boss hired me to find Katie's parents. I did. I guess my job's over."
"Did you know Katie?" Pressley asked.
"A little. She waited tables in the bar where I work."
"Would you mind, in that case, staying on for a while?"
I guess my face reflected the question in my head.
"For the funeral," he clarified. "It's so sad when I hold a funeral and nobody attends. It would be nice to have someone here who knew the girl. I never really got to know her, personally. Someone should be here who did."
I know a thing or two about lonely deaths and somber, empty funerals. Next to an advertisement for an unused wedding gown, a funeral without mourners is about the saddest thing I can imagine.
"Sure," I said. "No problem. I'll need to find a place to stay until they deliver the body."
"Why not stay with me?" Quincy said. "The church provides me with a nice little house—three bedrooms, lots of space. It's just me there. You'd be welcome to stay."
I thought about it for a second.
"Sounds great," I said.
"I'll take you back to your car," Wheeler said. "And I'll draw you a map to get back here. It's trickier than it looks."
I awoke the next morning to the smell of frying sausage and cinnamon.
I pulled on my clothes, made my bed like a good guest, and found my way to Quincy's kitchen. He stood there in his black slacks and a short-sleeved shirt, with an apron tied around his waist.
"Thought the aroma might awaken you," he said, as he sat at the table. "I have oatmeal with brown sugar and cinnamon, sausage, and scrambled eggs. You take coffee?"
"Sure," I said, as I took a seat.
I picked up the fork with my weak hand and started to sample the sausage, when I noted that Quincy had his hands folded in front of him, and his eyes closed. One eye winked open.
I set the fork down and waited for him to finish his prayer.
"Are you a religious man?" he asked.
"I was raised Catholic," I told him. "Even went to seminary, but I didn't finish."
"Crisis of faith?"
"You know about that sort of thing?"
"Of course. Doubt is a human condition, Mr. Gallegher."
"Please, call me Pat."
"How'd you do that?" he said, pointing to my cast.
I told him the story about the poodle and the tough guy. Some of it was funny, if it hadn't happened to you. He laughed at the appropriate places, but as I finished the story his face seemed to go dark.
"I have a feeling you lead an adventurous life," he said.
"Things happen," I said.
"And then you have to fight your way out."
"It isn't something I do on purpose, at least not most of the time. You get a reputation, though. People know you can do something other people can't, and they come to you when they're in need. I have a hard time turning down people in need, no matter how badly I want to."
"So you're some kind of detective?"
"No," I said. "I'm a musician. I play a horn in a bar. The rest of it is . . . it just happens. I suppose being a musician doesn't really count for much."
"Nonsense," Quincy said. "You have a gift. You can speak a language in which it is impossible to say a mean or hurtful thing. You should be proud of that."
I nodded and turned my attention to the meal. As I ate, a thought occurred to me.
"Where would you suggest I go to learn more about Katie?"
He hesitated for a second.
"I'm going to be the only mourner at her graveside," I added. "I think I should know more about her. Where did she go to school?"
"Everyone in this town goes to Prosperity Glen High School."
"You think there might be people there who'd recall her?"
"There's only one way to find out," Quincy said.
It took me about five minutes to reach the school parking lot. I had a feeling it took about five minutes to get anywhere in Prosperity from just about anywhere else in Prosperity.
I first asked to see the principal. If things went as I expected, I would probably ask a lot of personal questions before the day was out. It would be nice to have the imprimatur of the big guy in the front office.
The principal was a sallow, bleary-eyed man in his fifties named Hart Compton. He invited me directly back to his office.
"How can I help you, Mr. Gallegher?"
I told him about Katie Costner's murder, and how I had come from New Orleans to find her family.
"Yes," he said. "Very sad. The whole affair. So the entire family's dead now."
"I'm not certain what you want."
"The police detective investigating her murder back in New Orleans likes to have as much information as he can get. He's there. I'm here. Maybe I can find out something about Katie's life in Prosperity that had some bearing on her murder in New Orleans."
"An . . . official inquiry?"
"Some friendly questions," I said. "You can check with the detective."
I gave him Farley's number. Compton asked me to wait in the outer office while he called. After ten minutes, he opened his door and gestured for me to come back in.
"Your detective friend vouches for you," he said.
"He's in a charitable mood."
"He also asked me to pass along a request, in the interest of good public relations, that you not kill anyone in the course of your inquiries."
I cleared my throat.
"Is this something you're likely to do?" Compton asked.
"I'll make a special effort."
"Yes," he said, with obvious discomfort. "I should advise you in advance. You aren't likely to find many of the faculty and staff receptive to your questions."
He took off his glasses and rubbed a spot on the bridge of his nose, as if warding off a headache. I had a feeling he did that a lot.
"Katie left town under something of a cloud. People weren't particularly sad to see her go."
"Could you tell me more?"
"Oh, I'm sure you'll hear plenty."
"Where's your library?" I asked.
"We call it a Media Center."
"Of course you do."
"It's just down the hall to the right. Why do you ask?"
"More background. Would it be all right if I peruse some of your back yearbooks?"
I asked the woman at the front desk in the library where I could find back yearbooks. She directed me to the reference center and showed me where it was.
"Are you looking for anything specific?" she asked.
"I'm trying to find anything I can on a girl who attended Prosperity Glen several years ago. Her name was Katie Costner."
It was as if someone had flipped a switch on her entire personality. She stepped back half a step. The air between us chilled ten or twenty degrees.
"I'm sorry," she said. "There's nothing I can tell you."
"You don't recall her?"
"I'm very busy," she said, which I found a very facile way of avoiding my question. "The yearbooks are in the reference center."
I shrugged and walked to the reference center. According to the papers Hart Compton had given me, Katie had graduated six years earlier. I flipped directly to the senior pictures. Each one had a quote at the bottom and a list of the student's achievements. It took me a moment to find Katie's picture. She didn't look terribly different from what I remembered, except that her hair was longer. She also seemed somewhat happier in the picture than I recalled her in real life.
Her quote read: "Love looks through a telescope; envy, through a microscope."
She had only one achievement in four years of high school—Chorus I.
It was as if she had drifted through four years of school and scarcely made a ripple.
Katie's algebra instructor was on a planning break. I decided to stop by her classroom.
Myra Soames was in her fifties, plump, red of cheeks, and going gracefully gray. She invited me into her classroom when I knocked on the door. I introduced myself.
"I'm from New Orleans," I said. "I've been sent up here to look into some background information on a former student named Katie Costner."
Just as the librarian had, Myra Soames suddenly bristled and grew cool toward me.
"Why are you asking about Katie Costner?" she asked. "Is she in some kind of trouble?"
"Only if the theologians are right," I said. "She's dead."
I thought the news of Katie's death might soften Ms. Soames a bit. Instead, she grew even colder.
"I wish I could say I was sorry," she said. "But if you're right, and there is an eternal judgment, then Katie is in a great deal of trouble. I'm a Christian woman, Mr. Gallegher, Bible-raised and river-dunked. It's a sin to speak ill of the dead. I'll say no more on the matter. If you'll excuse me, I have papers to grade."
"Is there anyone you can think of—a former classmate, maybe—who knew Katie when she was a student here?"
"I'd say there were a great number of students who knew Katie, in every sense. You should check at the Piggly Wiggly. The assistant manager there, Rob Kiser, was a friend of hers, as I recall. Now, please, I am very busy . . ."
I visited three other teachers, and none of them would discuss Katie with me. I got the strong impression that none of them had cared for the girl, and that none of them was particularly distressed to discover that she had died.
I gave up and drove over to the Piggly Wiggly. The manager there paged Rob Kiser to come to the front office.
Kiser, like Katie, was probably in his early twenties. He had red hair and residual facial acne. His fingernails were ragged and bitten.
I introduced myself, and dropped the news about Katie on him.
"That's too bad," he said, without a lot of emotion.
"I was led to believe that you were one of her friends."
"Friends," he repeated. "Yeah, I suppose you could say that. At least at one time. Katie didn't keep friends for long."
"Why was that?"
"She just didn't. It was her personality, I guess. I reckon most people in this town weren't sorry to see the back of her car when she left."
"Just what did this girl do that was so bad?"
"Sorry, Mr. Gallegher, but you come to the wrong place. I got work to do, if you don't mind."
The Prosperity Police Department was in a row of buildings on a hill overlooking the strip mall and the Piggly Wiggly. I hiked up the concrete steps and around to the front of the station.
"Chief Wheeler in?" I asked the woman at the front desk.
Before she could page him, Wheeler walked out of his office and stepped into the waiting room.
"You've been busy," he said. "Step back to my office."
I followed him into the other room. He gestured toward a couple of chairs across the desk from his seat, and we both sat facing each other for several moments.
"I've gotten three different calls about you today," he said.
"It's nice to know people care."
"Oh, they care, all right. They care a great deal about people walking in out of the blue and dredging up muck from years ago that ought to be left alone. If I'd known you were going to drive around Prosperity upsetting people, I'd have let you stay at the motel in Morgan."
I leaned back in my seat and soaked in his menacing-cop gawp. People who never hang around the police tend to be intimidated by them. I had learned a long time ago that intimidation is one more coin of the realm in law enforcement.
"Nobody will talk with me," I said. "Just what did Katie do that was so terrible?"
Wheeler stood for a second and stared out the window of his office, his thumbs hooked in his Sam Browne belt. Then he turned and took his seat behind his desk again.
"I had only been chief of police for a couple of years when Katie took off," he said. "Katie was what you'd call wild. I reckon the only way anyone could have contained her would have been with a whip and a chair.
"There was this boy, Roger Thoreson. Nice kid. Lived with his mother. His father was dead. Tall kid. Clear of eye. Athletic. Smart. A real winner. He was the class president at both the middle school and the high school. Three-letter man at Prosperity Glen. He turned down a football scholarship to South Carolina because Duke offered him a full ride on academics."
"A shining light."
"Like a beacon. Everyone loved him, expected great things out of Roger. Thought he was going to put Prosperity on the map. Roger took an interest in Katie Costner. Katie came with a lot of baggage, a lot of whispers behind her back. Everybody knew she was promiscuous. This is a conservative town. People who don't conform spend a lot of time fending off those who do.
"I think, maybe, Roger felt bad for Katie. He started spending time with her. One thing led to another and . . . well, by August that boy was just plain girl-stupid over her. Most people think she was his first, you know, in bed. Roger started talking crazy, saying maybe he'd go to the state college over in Parker County rather than Duke. He even talked about getting married.
"His mother—shoot, just about everybody—tried to talk him out of it. It was like talking to a fish. Nothing got through to him. Then, about two weeks before school was supposed to start, Katie pulled the plug."
"She broke up with Roger?" I asked.
"Told him it was over. Said she'd taken up with some boy over in Mica Wells. Roger drove over there, looked up the kid, and offered to fight him for Katie. The kid kicked Roger's butt all over half the county. Roger had to go to the ER over in Morgan, get some stitches in his scalp.
"After Roger got back from the hospital, he and Katie had a terrible fight on his front porch. Stories vary depending on who tells them, but all the neighbors agree that Katie told Roger to get out of her life. Then she stomped off the porch, got in her car, and peeled out as she left the driveway."
"Tough deal for a young guy."
"Later that night, Roger's mother went up to his room to tell him good night. She found him in a bathtub full of pink water, his eyes fixed on some point a billion miles away. When I got there about five minutes later, Karen Thoreson was still screaming."
"The people in this town thought Katie killed their dreams for Roger Thoreson," I said.
"That pretty much sums it up. If people didn't like Katie before that, they plain despised her afterward. She tried to stand up to it. That only made people hate her more. Finally, she gave up, packed what belongings she had, climbed in her car, and drove away."
"That's why people didn't want to talk about her," I said.
"There're people in Prosperity who still think Lee gave up too early at Appomattox. Katie Costner's affair with Roger Thoreson is still an open wound. You ran around Prosperity today pouring salt in it."
"You could have told me all this yesterday," I said. "Could have saved me a lot of trouble."
"You weren't looking for Katie yesterday. You were looking for her parents. If I'd thought you were planning to dig up all the bodies in town, I'd have told you. That was my mistake."
I drove back to Quincy's house. He had been cutting the grass. I found him sitting on his front steps, sipping from a bottle of beer.
"Got another one?" I asked as I walked up.
"In the fridge."
I grabbed a bottle and joined him on the steps.
"Nice little town you have here," I said.
"We like it."
"You might have mentioned that Katie Costner was the town hump."
"I'm no gossip, Pat. That kind of thing doesn't go over well with the congregation."
"I think I understand now why Katie's funeral will be so poorly attended."
"It's a sad story."
"A lot of people hated her."
"You think any of them hated her enough to kill her?"
He had been raising the bottle to his mouth, but stopped halfway.
"What are you suggesting?"
"I haven't been completely open with you, Quincy. I've done a lot of bad things in my life. For the last ten years or so, I've been trying to make that right. A lot of the things I do to balance the scales of my flimsy karma involve crimes. Like murder."
"I know a thing or two about murder. I understand some of the reasons why people kill. Revenge is one of the biggies."
"I don't know. It seems a stretch to me."
"You can't escape yourself. Katie might have fled Prosperity, but she had to take herself wherever she went. Her personality being what it was, she was certain to behave the same way wherever she landed."
"Meaning that she was bound to make people angry with her no matter where she lived."
"Seems reasonable. Maybe Katie pulled the same stunt she did with Roger Thoreson on some poor guy down in New Orleans, someone more inclined to kill her than he was to kill himself."
"Maybe that makes more sense."
"It's certainly a simpler explanation than somebody from Prosperity harboring a grudge for five years before driving or flying all the way to New Orleans to do Katie in. I've made the arrangements for Katie's body to be transported here. We could have her funeral the day after tomorrow, and then you can be on your way back home. Would that suit you?"
My curiosity about Katie had been satisfied. I called Farley and told him what I had learned. I also suggested that he might consider the possibility that Katie had been murdered by a disappointed suitor in New Orleans.
That done, I had little to occupy myself until Katie's body arrived. Fortunately, Quincy had an excellent library. He left after breakfast the next day to make hospital visits. I foraged his bookcase until I found an interesting collection of stories. Then I settled in his living room to read.
The telephone rang around eleven o'clock. I hesitated answering it, since I was little more than a traveler using his home for shelter. Then I recalled that—as a minister—Quincy had to respond to any number of emergencies on a daily basis. The least I could do was take a message.
"Quincy Pressley's residence," I said.
"Could I speak with Reverend Pressley?" a woman asked. Her voice sounded dry and weathered.
"I'm sorry. He's out. Can I take a message?"
"I'm visiting with Reverend Pressley. He's making hospital visits this morning. Any message for him, ma'am?"
"I'd appreciate it if you'd tell him that Inez Stillman called."
I wrote her information on a pad next to the phone.
"No, just tell him that I hope his cousin is feeling much better. He hasn't said anything about her, has he?"
"Not to me, ma'am."
"And one more thing. Could you tell him I called to thank him for those delicious pralines he brought back from his trip?"
Something like an electric tingle began at the base of my skull. It was a signal that I'd long since learned not to ignore.
"Yes, he brought them to me to apologize for canceling our dinner. He picked them up while visiting his sick cousin."
"Of course," I said. "Reverend Pressley didn't say exactly where his sick cousin lives, did he?"
"I think he mentioned someplace in Louisiana. Isn't that where they make the best pralines?"
"So I hear. Do you still have the box the pralines came in?"
"Certainly. They're so rich, I may be a month finishing them."
"As it happens, I'm from Louisiana, and I'm always on the lookout for good pralines. Could you check the box and see where he bought them?"
"Just a moment."
I tried to keep my breathing and pulse from racing, as the electric tingle became a buzz that filled my head.
At the very best, Quincy Pressley had withheld information from me.
I didn't like to think about the worst.
"Here it is," she said, as she got back on the phone. "The box is from the Allons Praline Factory. That part is in English. Then the rest is words I don't recognize. The first is R-U-E. Then D-E, and after that is C-H-A-R-T . . ."
"Rue de Chartres," I said, in a practiced French accent. "What about the rest?"
"The next line is spelled V-I-E-U-X, and C-A . . ."
"That's all right, Mrs. Stillman. I know the rest."
"Now how on earth can you know the rest? I haven't spelled it yet!"
"I know it anyway. I'll be sure to pass your message on to Reverend Pressley. And you enjoy those pralines, you hear?"
I racked the receiver and stared at the wall for a few moments.
I knew the Allons Praline Factory, and I knew Rue de Chartres.
Vieux Carre was another name for the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Where I lived.
Where Katie Costner had been murdered.
And, as I had just discovered, where Quincy Pressley had been only a day or so before I came to Prosperity.
Perhaps, I tried to convince myself, it was all a coincidence. Maybe Quincy really did have a sick cousin. Maybe he had simply neglected to tell me he had just returned from New Orleans.
I had to know more.
Among the many dubious talents I have acquired over the years is the ability to toss a desk without leaving any evidence that I'd been there. I quickly went through his drawers. Quincy kept his desk in meticulous shape. It didn't take long to find his bank and credit-card statements.
Within minutes, I discovered a set of used air tickets indicating that he had flown to New Orleans two days before Katie Costner was murdered, and had flown back the day after the killing. They were sitting on top of a manila envelope, the only two items in the top right drawer of the desk. I opened the manila envelope, looked at the contents, and knew almost everything I needed to know.
Circumstantial, maybe. On the other hand, it meant that I had to confront Quincy with what I'd found.
And I needed to make a telephone call.
Quincy returned from the hospital around lunchtime. I waited for him in the living room, with the canceled ticket stubs in my hand.
"Hi, Pat," he said. "Hope you weren't too bored."
"Not at all," I said. "You had a call."
"Oh? From whom?"
I thought I saw him freeze, for perhaps half a second.
"Lovely woman," he said. "Pillar of the church."
"She likes you, too. She asked me to give you a message."
"What is it?"
I lowered my voice, and tried to sound menacing.
"She loves the pralines."
This time he did come to a full stop, his back to me. I think I saw his shoulders rise and his chest expand in an exhausted sigh. When he turned toward me, slowly, I could see the concern in his eyes.
"You have something to say?" he asked.
"Just a question. Why?"
Quincy shrugged and sat in the wing chair that had been placed perpendicular to the sofa.
"That's a pretty big question," he said. "It implies that you think you know something."
"Let's say that I'm about ninety-five percent certain that you killed Katie Costner. Can we start with that?"
"Sure," he said. "You can't prove anything, of course. I really do have a sick cousin in Louisiana. She provided me with an excellent reason to go to New Orleans. I'd been waiting for some time for an excuse."
I held up the manila envelope I had found.
"This is a report from the private investigator you hired to find Katie."
"Yes. Her mother's request. Susan was all alone after her husband died. She knew she was sick, and she wasn't inclined to do much about it. She asked me to find her daughter. She wanted Katie to come back to Prosperity for the funeral when she died. I hired that investigator. He did a very thorough job. Doesn't prove I did anything."
I laid the envelope on the sofa.
"I'm not a cop," I said. "I'm not in the proof business. I know you did it, and you know you did it. I only want to know why."
Quincy stood, slowly.
"I think I may have a sherry. Could I interest you in one?"
He crossed to the small cabinet in the front room, opened it, and poured a bit of amber liquid in a cordial glass. He returned to his seat and took a sip.
"I came to Prosperity, oh, thirty years ago, only a few years after I was ordained. I felt a calling. I wanted to work in a small town, where I could make a real difference. I wanted my service to have meaning.
"There was a young man who came to me. He brought his wife. They were having . . ." He waved his free hand in the air. ". . . marital difficulties. The man was depressed. The woman was frustrated, and unsatisfied. They were on the verge of separation and divorce. The woman wanted a child, very badly, and it didn't appear that she was likely to have one.
"I was in this very room one day, preparing a sermon, when the wife came to my door. She was crying. She was frightened that her husband might be considering leaving her. I tried to comfort her. I offered her a sherry," he said, holding up the glass. "She accepted it.
"We talked at length. When she left, I felt that I had done a good thing. I liked that feeling. It was the reason I came here, to do good things.
"She returned several days later, again seeking comfort. I did what I could. After a few weeks, she visited every three days or so. Then she offered to volunteer in the church. I needed the help, so I accepted."
He took another sip from the cordial glass.
"I have no desire to go over the more sordid details. I'll simply say that we became much closer than we should have. I regretted it, certainly. I am a man of the cloth, after all, but I am also a man. A . . . very weak man, it seems. The wife came to me after a few months, almost shaking with excitement. She said there had been a miracle and that she was going to have a baby. She believed that this child would mend the torn fabric of her marriage."
"This came as something of a surprise to her husband, I'd imagine."
"I think he ignored the improbability of it all and decided to accept the child as a gift from God—which, in an abstract and indirect sense, it certainly was. They had a boy."
"Roger Thoreson," I said.
"Roger was your son, and the apple of everyone's eye in this town. Everyone blamed Katie Costner for his suicide."
"You blamed Katie for his suicide."
"Well, of course I did. After his father died, I tried to act the role of a surrogate father to Roger. I tried to warn him about Katie. He wouldn't listen. She lured him in, and she drained him, and then she moved on, like the vampire she was."
I tried to pick up the story.
"Katie's father died, and she didn't attend the funeral. Her mother became ill, and asked you to find her. You hired the detective. He located her and told you where she was. Katie's mother died, and you didn't bother to tell Katie."
"She wouldn't have come," Quincy said. "Katie had no intention of ever setting foot in Prosperity again, after the way she had been treated. There was no point in contacting her."
"You knew where she was, though," I said. "You waited until you had a reason to travel to Louisiana. You flew to New Orleans. You went to Katie's home. She welcomed you, of course. You're a preacher. You weren't one of those people who drove her out of town. You passed the time of day, and then you found the opportunity to strike and you choked the life right out of her."
"And then I bought a box of pralines for Inez Stillman," he said. "It's true. Every word."
He drained the glass of sherry and examined the glint of sunlight in the cut-glass cordial.
"I . . . think perhaps another would do nicely," he said.
He stood and went again to the cabinet. He reached in, but instead of pulling out the decanter, he withdrew a nasty looking revolver.
"It really would have been much better if you had stayed in New Orleans."
"You don't want to do that," I said.
"The gravediggers were at the church this morning. They just finished Katie's grave. The people from the funeral supply will deliver the vault for the casket in an hour or two. My plan is for you to be at the bottom of that grave, covered with a tarpaulin. The vault will be placed on top of you. It's made of concrete, and I daresay it will crush you quite badly. Nobody will ever know you are buried underneath Katie."
"That's not going to happen," I said.
"You're a stranger here. Nobody knows you. Nobody will miss you if you simply disappear. Now, I need you to go to the back of the house. I can't have blood all over my living room. Clues, you know. I watch the television crime shows. I know what to avoid."
"No," I said.
"What? This is a real gun, Pat. I know how to use it. Don't think for a second I won't just shoot you where you sit."
I should have been angry, but Quincy just saddened me.
"You aren't going to shoot me."
"Give me one good reason why I won't."
Judd Wheeler stepped into the room from the kitchen and leveled a pump shotgun at Quincy.
"Because if you do, I'll have to shoot you," he said. "I heard everything. Gallegher called me right after he found the evidence, and explained his theory. He picked me up at the station, so my cruiser wouldn't be here when you got home. Drop your gun right now, or I will drop it for you."
Quincy was distracted, so I shot out my hand and grabbed the revolver from him. He seemed mystified. He didn't even bother to resist.
I felt a little sorry for him.
The next day, I stood at the graveside while the local Methodist minister conducted Katie Costner's burial ceremony in Quincy Pressley's stead. I had long since resolved my differences with religion and I allowed myself to focus on the reverence of the occasion.
Katie was buried next to her parents. Just two rows over lay Roger Thoreson and his mother, and the man who died thinking he was Roger's father. It felt a lot like the end of a Shakespeare tragedy—two families brought to ruin by the weaknesses and flaws of a man who believed that he was both an instrument of mercy and a sword of vengeance.
I didn't stick around to see them lower the casket into the vault. I didn't want to hear the scrape of wood on concrete, or the thud of falling earth. I had endured enough of Prosperity and its secrets to last me a lifetime.
By dinnertime I was three hundred miles closer to home.
# # #
Copyright © 2010 Richard Helms
The Scent of Lilacs
March 11, 1865
Reynolds County, Missouri
The horsemen drifted out of the dawn mist like wolves, strung out loosely across the hillside in a ragged line, their nostrils snorting steam in the morning chill. Two outriders on the flanks, five more in the main body. Polly guessed they'd already placed riflemen along the stone fence beyond her barn, ready to cut down anyone who tried to run.
Her son was sitting on the corner of the porch, whetting the scythe, daydreaming. "Jason," Polly said quietly. "Riders are coming. Get to the barn. And walk! All the way."
Without a word, the ten-year-old rose and sauntered across the yard as he'd been taught, toting a hay blade longer than he was tall. He disappeared inside. A moment later the loading door in the upper loft inched open a crack.
Picking up a besom broom, Polly casually swept her way across the porch to the front door of the farmhouse. She opened it to sweep off the sill, then left it ajar as she turned to face the riders coming across the stubbled fields to the house.
Federals. Of a sort. Only one rider was in full uniform, a Union cavalry captain—tall, hollow-eyed, and gaunt as a vulture, with a thin moustache and goatee. His men were irregulars, dressed in a mix of work clothes and uniform coats or pants. Farmers and tradesmen, from the look of them. Definitely Union, though. Their mounts were sleek and well fed. She'd heard Forrest's men were slaughtering their horses for food.
The riders sized her up as they filed into the yard. A farm wife, square as a stump in a man's flannel shirt, canvas trousers, and pebble-leg boots. Handsome once, perhaps, but careworn now, her auburn hair wild and awry in the chill March wind, her hands reddened and rough from field work.
Polly scanned their faces, desperately hoping to recognize someone—damn. Aaron Meachum was with them, slouch hat down over his eyes, grizzled cheek distorted by a plug of chaw. Trouble.
Casually, she sidled half a step closer to the doorway.
"Good day to you, ma'am," their leader said softly. "I am Captain Charles Gilliaume, of the Eighth Missouri. My men and I—"
"These men aren't Eighth Missouri," Polly said coldly. "They're Redleg militia. Hessians, most likely."
"It's what these Rebs call the kraut-heads," Meachum said. "Like them German mercenaries back in the Revolution? Most of Sigel's troops was Germans from St. Louis when they raided through here in 'sixty-two."
"I see." The captain nodded. "You're quite right, ma'am. My men are a militia unit from Jefferson City, and many of them are of German extraction. But they're as American as you or I now. May we step down?"
"Captain, there is a creek on the far side of my garden. You're welcome to water your animals. I have nothing more to offer you. We've been picked clean by both sides. Hospitality in southern Missouri is runnin' a little thin these days, hard to come by as seed corn."
"She'd find grain quick enough if we were wearin' butternut brown," Aaron Meachum said, spitting a stream of tobacco juice onto her porch. "The whole damn McKee family's secesh; everybody 'round here knows it."
"Is that true, ma'am?" the captain asked. "I see no men about. Are they with the rebels?"
"My husband is in Springfield trying to earn a few dollars. His eldest son is with Bedford Forrest up Tennessee way, his second boy's with the Union blockade at Charleston. The two youngest headed down to Arkansas to find Sterling Price after Yank militia run off our horses in 'sixty-one."
"Rebels," Meachum spat.
"Three Confederates," Polly corrected, "and one Federal. At least they're real soldiers, Captain."
"As we are, ma'am."
"Real soldiers don't ride with trash. This fella, Aaron Meachum, is a Jayhawker who was murdering and burning in Kansas long before the war. He runs easier with coyotes than with men."
"Mr. Meachum isn't actually a member of our unit, ma'am, he was retained as a guide."
"Well, he doubtless knows the trails through these hills. He's used most of them running from the law. If he's your guide, Captain, you're on the road to perdition."
"Armies are like families, ma'am, you can't choose your kin. We're seeking slaves and deserters, Miz McKee. I'm told you have slaves here."
"Who told you that? Meachum? Look around you, Captain, this ain't no plantation. We raise saddle horses and draft animals and we're only three days from the Illinois line. Even if we held with slavery, and we don't, it's tough enough to keep animals from runnin' off, to say nothin' of men. Our stock's been stolen, our crops burned. We had no slaves before the war and we've surely no need of them now. There's only me and my boy here, you have my word."
"In that case, a search won't take long," Gilliaume said. At his nod, the troopers and Meachum began to dismount.
"No!" Polly's voice cracked like a whip, freezing them as she snaked the scattergun from inside the open door, leveling it at Gilliaume, earing back both hammers.
"Madam, be reasonable, you can't possibly prevail against us."
"That won't matter to you, Captain. Or to Meachum. Or to one or two near you. My boy is covering you from the barn with a ten-gauge goose gun loaded with double-ought buckshot. If I fire, so will he."
"And you will surely die, ma'am. As will your son."
"No matter. We only have a little flour and some cornmeal. My boy's legs are bowing from the rickets 'cause Rebs butchered our milk cow. You soldier boys have taken all but the gleanings of the fields. For God's sake, sir, your animals are better fed than most folks around here. We have nothing for you. Unless Old Sam Curtis is paying bounty money for murdering women and boys."
Gilliaume stared coolly down at Polly, ignoring the shotgun muzzle, taking her measure. She knew that look. Death had shouldered him aside to kill his friends so often that he was weary of waiting for it, impatient for his turn.
But not today. "Gentlemen, the lady says she has no slaves and I believe her. And since there's clearly no forage for us here, we'll move on."
"You're lettin' her run us off?" Meachum said, outraged. "Our orders say deserters, slaves, and arms. She's armed, ain't she?"
"So she is," Gilliaume said wryly. "Personally, I interpret our orders to mean military arms, not rusty shotguns in the hands of farm wives, but you have my permission to disarm her if you wish, Mr. Meachum. But kindly give me a moment to back my mount away. This is my best cape and bloodstains are damned bothersome to remove."
Clucking to his gelding, Gilliaume backed his mount off a few steps, touched his hat brim to Polly, then turned away. The rest of the patrol fell in behind him, moving off at a walk. Leaving her to face Meachum alone. She shifted the shotgun, centering it on his chest.
"You got yourself an edge today, Polly McKee," Meachum spat. "But you ain't seen the last of me. I expect your britches must get mighty cold with your man gone. Maybe I'll swing by another time, get a little fire goin' in them pants of yours. I'll be back."
"But not by daylight, I'll wager, you Jayhawk son of a bitch! Come ahead on, anytime, I'll give you more fire than you can handle. If you ever so much as set foot on my land again, Aaron Meachum, I swear I will blow you out of your raggedy-ass boots! Now git off my place! Git!" she shouted into the face of his mount, spooking the beast. It shied away, kicking. Meachum sawed at the reins but the brute's manners were no better than its owner's. Bucking and snorting, it sprinted off to rejoin the patrol, with Meachum clinging to the saddle horn, cursing his animal and Polly all the way.
The laughter and catcalls that greeted him echoed off the hills. It wasn't much comfort, but it was something.
She waited on the porch, her old scattergun in the crook of her arm, watching the troop splash through the creek and vanish into the woods beyond. And then she waited a bit longer, until she was dead certain they were gone.
Stepping into the house, she carefully stood the shotgun in its customary place by the door. And then, in the sweet-scented silence of her parlor, she released a long, ragged breath. And hugged herself fiercely, trying to control her trembling.
Gus McKee sensed the danger before he heard it. Huddled over his campfire, warming his hands, he felt a sudden tingle between his shoulder blades, sharp as a nudge from a spike bayonet. Something was moving outside the flickering halo of the firelight, inching closer in the dark.
Nerves, maybe? A ghost walking on his grave?
No. The horses sensed it too, shifting uneasily in their brush corral at the base of the ridge, raising their heads, tasting the wind. Someone was circling his camp. Definitely.
Gus hadn't survived three years in these mountains by ignoring his instincts.
His battered Jenks-Remington carbine was in a rock cleft with his bedroll but the primer tape was so old the gun only fired half the time. If the intruder meant to harm him, he'd probably be dead already. Best to wait him out and—a twig snapped in the shadows.
Gus rose slowly, keeping his hands in plain sight. "Come on in, and welcome," he said quietly. "I've got no weapon, and nothin' worth stealin', but I got stew on the fire—"
"Shut your mouth. Are you alone?"
"My son's up in the ridges, hunting. He'll be back in a while, I expect."
"When did he leave?"
"I . . . don't recall, around noon, I guess."
"You're lying, old man. I been watching your camp since morning. Nobody's come or gone." The youth stepped out of the shadows. Tall and gawky, he hadn't seen twenty yet, but his weapon was man-sized, a Colt horse pistol, the hammer eared back, the muzzle centered on Gus's belly.
His ragged uniform jacket was so faded and grimy Gus couldn't make out its original color. Union artillery blue? Or Arkansas gray? Didn't matter which side the boy was on anyway; he'd obviously been on the dodge awhile. Dirty face, scraggly beard, sunken eyes. His cheeks were hollow from hunger.
"My name's Gus McKee, son. I give you my word you got nothin' to fear from me. I'm hidin' in these mountains, waitin' out the fight, the same as you."
"Are you a soldier?" The boy's eyes flicked around the campsite, jumpy as a cricket on a cook stove.
"I was once," Gus acknowledged. "Went down to Mexico with Winfield Scott in 'forty-six. Killed folks I had nothin' against in places you never heard of. Hell, I never heard of 'em and I was there. Still carry a musket ball in my hip from those days. One war's enough for any man. I want no part of this one."
"If you ain't a deserter, why are you hidin' out up here?"
"Me and the wife got a little stock ranch west of Reynolds. Raise mostly draft animals, a few saddlebreds. But southern Missouri's sorry country for breedin' horses nowadays. Lyon and his Hessians raided my place on their way to Springfield in 'sixty-one—"
"Germans," Gus explained. "Immigrants fresh off the boat. Strong for the Union. After Lyon got killed at Wilson's Creek, both sides started raidin' stock, burnin' our crops. Between the sojer boys and runaway slaves headed north, we're about picked clean. I brung the last of our animals up into these hills so my boys will have somethin' to come home to when it's over."
"You got boys in the fight? Which side?"
"Both sides." Gus sighed. "Oldest run away to sea in 'fifty-seven, stayed with the Union navy when war broke out. Last I heard he was on the Hartford, off Mobile Bay. Second oldest is with Bedford Forrest, two younger boys went off with General Price in 'sixty-two."
"And which side do you favor, Mr. McKee?"
"I favor livin' through these troubled times, same as you. Can I put my hands down? Coffee's 'bout to boil over and it's damn hard to come by in these hills. I'm pleased to share my grub with you, son, but you might as well lower that pistol. You don't want to shoot nobody."
"Want's got nothin' to do with it, mister. I'll do what I have to, if you give me cause. Understand?" But the boy holstered his horse pistol as Gus knelt to retrieve the steaming pot from the coals. Pouring two cups of scalding brew, Gus passed one to the youth, who nodded his thanks.
"I didn't catch your name, son."
"It's Mitchell. Elias Mitchell. Eli will do. And I apologize for comin' down hard on you like this. I been on the run."
"You're a Federal. From up north." It wasn't a question.
Eli nodded, sipping the coffee. "How'd you know?"
"You never heard of Hessians, for one thing. Whereabouts you from?"
"Illinois. My folks farm eighty acres near Cairo. I enlisted for a year but my unit got busted up after Perryville and the new outfit they sent me to was drafted for the duration. I've served nearly four years, and seen more killin' than . . . Anyways, I got a letter that said my folks are farin' poorly. I've had enough. I joined up to save the Union and free the slaves but all we're doin' now is burnin' out farms and villages, leavin' poor folks to starve. I couldn't take it no more. Lit out from Vicksburg last month, been workin' my way home since."
"You're still a ways from Illinois."
"Not as fur as I was. Had a horse for a while but she went lame on me, had to turn her loose."
"Near here?" Gus asked sharply, suddenly wary.
"No, down in Arkansas, two weeks back. Why?"
"These hills may look empty, but they ain't. Union patrols are out, foraging, huntin' stragglers from both sides. Got a bounty on Union deserters, boy, twenty dollars a head."
"Twenty dollars! Hell, that's more'n we been gettin' paid!"
"It's worse than that. The bounty's for dead or alive and they ain't fussy about which."
"Man, that's crazy," Eli said, shaking his head. "You're doin' the proper thing stayin' up here, Mr. McKee. There ain't no right side in this fight no more. If there ever was."
"Maybe not. You got any money, boy?"
"Money? No sir. A few Dixie singles for souvenirs, is all. I'm afraid I can't pay you for the coffee. Sorry."
"So am I, especially since I was hopin' to sell you a horse. Is your word any good?"
"Yes sir, I believe it is," Eli said, puzzled. "Why?"
"Because I believe I'm going to loan you a horse, young Mitchell. But I want your solemn word I'll get my animal back when this war is over."
"I don't understand."
"Boy, I been shiftin' my little herd around these hills, dodgin' Union and Reb patrols, Jayhawkers and outlaws, for damn near three years now. But I know every trail and pass in these mountains. You don't. If you keep on walkin' home through the Ozarks, you'll be taken sure as God made the green apples. Maybe they'll even track you back to me. The way I see it, the sooner you're long gone from here, the better for both of us. With a horse and a little luck you can be home in a week."
"You're taking a hell of a gamble for somebody you just met, Mr. McKee. To be honest, I staked you out because I planned to steal a horse off'n you. At gunpoint if I had to."
"You're a terrible fella, young Eli, I seen that right off. Care for some more coffee?"
"I'm dead serious."
"I expect you are. But you didn't back-shoot me or try to rustle my stock, and nowadays that'll pass for righteous. Help yourself to some stew, son, before it gets cold. Come moonrise, I'll put you on an old Jayhawk trail. You can cover eight, maybe ten miles yet tonight."
"I—surely do thank you, Mr. McKee. Only it ain't quite that simple."
"The past few days, I been layin' up with a wounded Reb at a spring about a mile south of here. I told him I'd fetch him some help."
"A creek with cedars around it, end of a long valley?"
"You know it?"
"I know every waterhole for sixty mile around, boy. But I ain't the only one who knows it. Yank patrols scout that valley regular."
"I didn't see no soldiers."
"Then you was lucky. How long's the Reb been there?"
"I don't know. A week, maybe. He's hurt bad. Gutshot."
"Is he a local boy?" Gus asked, swallowing.
"No sir, I believe he's from Arkansas. He's ravin' out of his head half the time. Near as I could tell, he was a lieutenant with General Price. He won't last much longer without help."
"Gutshot, he won't last long, period. Your home lies in the other direction, young Mitchell. Goin' back for that Reb will only bring trouble down on yourself, maybe on him, too."
"But I gave him my promise."
"You can't be held to that! Forgodsake, son, there's a war on. He's probably dead already. Tell you what, I'll try to look in on him in a day or two. Will that satisfy you?"
"I—guess it will have to. Thank you."
"No need for thanks. Bein' a damned fool comes natural to me. Here, get your ribs around some of this stew." Dumping a steaming mix of rabbit, wild corn, and slivered yams onto a metal plate, Gus passed it to Eli. "I don't get much news up here. How goes the war?"
"Don't know much myself," Eli mumbled around a mouthful. "Nobody tells the infantry nothin'. But from what we've been hearin', it might be over come spring."
"I've heard that joke once or twice already."
"This time it might be true. Sherman took Atlanta last fall, then burned it before he moved on to Savannah. They're burnin' everything in a sixty-mile swath. Richmond's surrounded. General Hood's still in the field, though, maybe headed for Nashville to make a stand."
"And General Sterling Price?"
"He got whipped bad at Westport in the fall, retreated back into Arkansas. I hear his men have fallen on hard times, eatin' their horses, livin' on grass . . . Sorry, you said your sons . . . ?"
"Two of my boys are with Price," Gus spat. "Damned nonsense. I never owned a slave in my life, don't hold with it. But after them Yanks raided our place, there was no keepin' my boys back. Went off to fight for the Glorious Cause."
"Hell no, for independence, by our lights. To live free without Yanks or Hessians runnin' off our stock. The only slaves I've seen since the Emancipation were runaways, ragged and starvin'. Rootin' in my fields like animals. Think they're better off than before?"
"Sir, I don't believe this war's made anybody better off, black or white. The slaves we set free had nowhere to go, no food, no land. Like I said, there don't seem to be no right side to it no more. I just want to go home."
"I know the feelin'," Gus agreed. "Know it real well."
Later on, in the final faint sliver of moonlight, Gus saddled his own mare with a serviceable working rig, put Elias Mitchell aboard her, and sent him north along an old Jayhawk trace. Watching the boy move off into the shadows, Gus felt surprisingly content, considering he'd just given away a sweet-natured animal he'd raised from a foal.
But later that night, Gus woke in the darkness, tense and edgy, his hand clamped on the carbine at his side. Listening. To nothing. The keening of the wind. Foxes yapping at the stars.
He'd been in these hills so long he was half wild himself. Jumpy as a mole in an anthill. But he knew something was wrong. Knew it down to his boots. He just couldn't put a name to it.
So he let the fire die out, and settled himself between two boulders away from the glowing embers, keeping his carbine cocked under his threadbare blankets.
He drowsed lightly through the night, at rest, but coming instantly alert at the slightest sound. Then easing back to rest again, all the while staring slit-eyed out into the darkness.
Knowing something was wrong.
At noon the next day, Polly was mucking out the barn when she heard the tlot-tlot of approaching hoofbeats. Meachum? Not likely, not openly. Picking up a pitchfork, she peeked out through a crack in the sagging door.
A single-seat Stanhope buggy was coming up the road from the west, a lone woman at the reins. Turning the rig in at the gate, she guided her animal down the long lane, slowing it to a walk as she approached the farmhouse.
Still holding the fork, Polly stepped out, shading her eyes, waiting. Her visitor was dressed warmly for travel, a fine seal plush cape over a tailored woolen suit, the first new clothes Polly'd seen since . . . she couldn't remember how long.
"Afternoon, ma'am. Can I help you?"
"Pleasse, I'm becomp lost," the woman replied, her accent harsh. Hessian. Polly's eyes narrowed. "I left Corridon this mornink—"
"Just wheel that buggy around and head out the gate, miss. A mile further on, the road splits. The north fork will take you to Centerville."
"I'm not going to Centerville."
"Look, ma'am, I haven't got all day—"
"Pleasse, I'm seeking the McKee place," the Hessian woman said desperately. "Is it far from here?"
Polly stepped closer to the buggy, frowning up at the woman. Younger than she thought, her face as pale as buttermilk, with nearly invisible eyelashes. A bruise and some swelling along her jaw. Still, all in all, a handsome girl, Hessian or not.
"What do you want with the McKees? Who are you?"
"My name iss Birgit Randolph. My husband is Tyler Randolph. He iss a cousin to Angus McKee. He—"
"I'm Polly McKee, Gus's wife. I've known Tyler since he was a sprout, but I still don't know who the hell you are. Tyler ain't married."
"We married a few months ago. We met when he was with the state militia in St. Louis. He was very . . . dashing. After the riots he joined General Price. We wrote back and fort' when he was in Arkansas. This past August he came for me and we were married."
"What do you mean he came for you? Came where?"
"To St. Louis. Tyler iss not a soldier anymore. He was wounded at Pea Ridge. He is discharged now."
"Wounded? How bad?"
"His leg . . . was shot. It is mostly healed now, but he limps. It causes him a lot of pain, I think. He never says. He's very . . . stubborn about it."
"That sounds like Tyler. Where have y'all been stayin'?"
"At his farm near Mountain Grove."
"I'll be damned," Polly said, shaking her head. It was too much, first Meachum and his Jayhawks, now a half-daft Hessian woman claiming to be kin. The damned war was making the world a madhouse.
"Well, you might as well step in out of the wind, miss—I mean—Mrs. Randolph. I'm afraid we're out of coffee—"
"I haff tea and some sugar," Birgit said, offering Polly a three-pound sack. "Tyler said the plundering hass been bad here."
"We get hit by both sides," Polly conceded grimly, leading the way. "Come into the kitchen, I'll make us some tea."
Birgit hesitated just inside the door. Though the walls hadn't seen paint in years, the small farmhouse was immaculate.
"You keep a fine home. Very clean. Even it smells nice."
"What did you expect? A pigpen?"
"No, I—please. I know I don't always say things right but I don't mean to make you angry. I think I've come at a bad time."
"There aren't any good times nowadays. And exactly why have you come, ma'am? What do you want here?"
"Tyler—told me to come to you. He hoped you can drive me to St. Louis then bring the buggy back here. He will send for it later."
"Send for the buggy? But not for you? Why? Is farm life too rough for your taste, missus?"
"No, I grew up on farm in Bavaria. I'm not afraid of work."
"What then? Ah, the lame dirt farmer isn't a dashing rebel lieutenant anymore? So you go runnin' home to Mama. Sweet Jesus, it serves Tyler right for marryin' a Hessian in the first place."
"I'm not Hessian."
"Don't lie to me, anybody with ears can tell what you are!"
"But I'm not!" Birgit flared, her throat and cheeks flushing, but not backing off an inch. "My family is German, but we are come from Freystadt in Bavaria! Hessians come from Hesse! I'm not Hessian! And I didn't leaf Tyler, neither. He drove me out!"
"What are you talking about?"
"It's true! I tell him our child is growing in me and he got terrible angry. He says I must go home to my family. And I say I won't. And he says I must obey him. Still I say no. And he . . . struck me!" Her hand strayed to her bruised mouth, her eyes brimming. "And now I am come here, and you are angry with me too—I don't know why—but I don't anymore know what to do. I don't know what to do!"
Polly knew. Wordlessly, she wrapped the younger woman in her massive arms, holding her while she sobbed like a lost child. Which she was, in a way. Good Lord, the girl couldn't be more than seventeen or eighteen. Polly was barely forty, but Birgit's age seemed like a fever dream to her, only dimly remembered now.
The low moan of the blue enameled teapot broke the spell.
"I'm sorry," Birgit said, pulling away. "This is my own trouble. I shouldn't burden you with it."
"Don't talk foolishness," Polly said, lifting the kettle off the stove lid, filling two vitreous china mugs. "God help you, girl, we're family now. Sit yourself down at the kitchen table, we'll work something out."
"But how?" Birgit asked numbly, sipping the steaming brew. "Tyler doesn't want me. He doesn't want our child."
"That can't be true. He had to snake through half the damned Union army to marry you. Discharge papers or no, he could have been lynched or thrown in a Yankee prison any step of the way. Tyler's a stubborn boy; all the Randolphs are, and the McKees, too. But there's no quit in any of 'em. If Tyler was willing to risk dyin' to marry you in August, he hasn't changed his mind. There must be more to this. How are things between you two? Has he hit you before?"
"No! Never, never. It's been good with us. The best. But this last month, he's... his mood is very dark. Far off. He stays up nights, watching. There are fires in the hills near the farm. Deserters, he says. Or Jayhawkers. Then a few days ago, men took our plow horse. Five of them. Came up on Tyler in the field and just took our animal. He doesn't speak to me since. I thought telling him of the baby would cheer him but . . . " She swallowed, shaking her head.
Polly sipped her tea, mulling it over. "He's afraid," she said simply.
"Oh, not of dyin'. After all the fightin' that boy's seen, death's less troublesome than a drunken uncle. No, it's you he's afraid for. Afraid he can't protect you. Or your child. That's a terrible fear for a man to face, especially a soldier like Tyler. He's seen slaughter, he knows how wrong things can go. And in his heart, he's afraid of failing you, though I doubt he realizes it."
"So he drives me away?"
"Looks like it."
"What should I do?"
"That depends. Maybe he's right, girl. God knows there's trouble in the wind around here."
"But you stay."
"I got no choice, this place is all we have. You'll be safer in St. Louis, Birgit. Maybe you should go home to your family awhile."
"No. Tyler is my family now."
"You sure about that? You seem awful young to me."
"It's true, I am, maybe. But I know. When I met Tyler, St. Louis is full of young soldiers. Thousands. And I am at a cotillion, and Tyler is laughing with his friends when he sees me. And he walks over and we talk a minute. No more. And we danced. Once. But I already know."
Birgit eyed Polly's wind-weathered face warily, then shrugged. "Laugh if you want, but I look in Tyler's eyes and I see . . . my life. With him. I see our children. I know it sounds crazy, but . . . I saw all this, in that one moment. But maybe you're right, maybe I am just . . . Hessian."
"No. I was wrong about that. And about you. I apologize for taking that tone with you earlier. And Tyler shouldn't have treated you like he done neither, though I can't fault his reasons."
"I don't care about his reasons. He's wrong to push me away. And I was wrong to leaf. I have to go back."
"It's not that simple, girl. These are dangerous times, he's got good cause to fear for you."
"I know that. I am afraid, too. But I'm more afraid to lose him, to lose what we have together."
"Havin' a stout heart's all well and good, darlin', but it ain't hardly enough. There are men in these hills who'd kill you for your horse or a dollar. Or no reason at all. And the truth is, Tyler can't always be there to protect you. You'll have to protect one another. Do you know about guns?"
"A little. Tyler bought me a pocket pistol. He tried to teach me but I'm no good with it."
"Just like a man," Polly said drily. "Give the little lady a little gun. Know the trouble with pistols? Men don't believe a woman will shoot. Or hit anything if she does. You have to kill 'em to prove it. Or die tryin'. Over there, that's a real woman's gun," she said, indicating a coach shotgun beside the back door. "No skill required, only sand enough to touch it off. You still have to watch out for border trash, but they'd better watch out, too. I can teach all you need to know in twenty minutes. If you'd like."
"Yes, I would. Thank you."
"We'll finish our tea first, and talk a little. I seldom see other women these days. I work like a man, dress like one. Sometimes I think I'm turning into one."
"I think you are very much woman, Mrs. McKee. And your home—now don't be angry with me—it's very clean. It even smells clean. What is that wonderful scent?"
"Eau de lilac. Lilac water. Before the war, with the boys home and their clothes and boots and such, sometimes it'd get to smellin' like a horse barn in here. Lilac water helps. I'm surprised you can smell it atall, I've watered it down somethin' fierce tryin' to make it last. The boys each promised to bring me a fresh bottle when they went off soldierin'."
"You say boys. How many?"
"Angus had the four older boys by his first wife, Sarah. She died of the consumption, quite young. It wasn't like you and Tyler with Gus and me. We didn't meet at no dance. I was orphaned, livin' with kin and Angus needed a mother for his boys. I was only fifteen when we married. We've got a boy of our own now, Jason. And I lost a girl in childbirth. It ain't been easy for us but we've built ourselves a life here. It was a good place before the war. We'll make it so again."
"But you do . . . care for him? Your husband?"
"Oh, surely. He's a good man, with a good heart, and I'm . . . fond of him, I suppose. But it's not always easy between us. Gus is older than me, set in his ways. When I took to his bed, all I knew about love and . . . such things, was seeing horses or hogs breedin' in the fields. Angus was gentle with me, and mostly we pull together like a yoked team. But I can't say I've ever had a moment like you talked about, no . . . special feeling like that. We work hard, try to make the best we can of whatever comes. To be honest, Gus has been gone so long I wonder sometimes if things will be the same with us . . . afterward."
"To the hills. I tell folks he's in Springfield, but he ain't. After Price's troops got drove down to Arkansas, both sides were raidin' the border, runnin' off our stock. So Angus took the last of our horses up into the hills. He's been movin' around with 'em since, hidin' 'em away so us and the boys can start over when the war ends. If it ever does. When he left we thought it'd be for a few months. But it's been more than two years now. Closer to three. He slips back once a month for a few hours. Seems like it's going to go on like this forever."
"Maybe not much longer. Tyler says it will end soon."
"Darlin', I've been hearin' that ole sweet song since 'sixty-one."
"No, it is true. Tyler sees the St. Louis paper almost every month. The Federals have all the Shenandoah Valley now. Price's men are scattered. Hood is retreating from Atlanta and the city is burning."
"Atlanta burning? But why? Who fired it?"
"Union, I think, but . . . " Birgit shrugged helplessly. Even in faultless English, no words could explain the madness on the land.
"Dear God," Polly said, slumping back in her chair. "This war may stop someday, but it won't never be finished. Not for a hundred years. No wonder the hills are fillin' with deserters and the Jayhawkers are back on the prowl. Both sides smell blood. You need to get home, girl, if that's what you mean to do. But first I'm gonna teach you a bit about killin'. In a ladylike fashion, of course."
In a scant half-hour, Polly instructed Birgit in the basics of the short-barreled coach gun. Pointed and fired at close range, the stunted scattergun would erase anything in its path from a poplar stump to three men standing abreast.
The girl took to the gun as a practical matter, learning to deal out death in defense of herself and her own with no more compunction than killing a coyote raiding after chickens. Or a child.
Neither woman derived the pleasure men seem to take from slaughter. It was a chore to be done, perhaps more dangerous than some, but also more necessary.
At the lesson's end Birgit could manage the coach gun competently. And as she seated herself in the buggy to leave, Polly placed the stubby weapon on her lap. "You take this with you; I've got another. And if there's trouble on the road, you don't hesitate. These boys been killin' each other regular for a long time, they're damned quick about it. Surprise and that gun are all you have."
"I'm not afraid. I'll manage. If nothing else, I think Tyler will hear me out when I explain how things will be with us now."
"I expect he will at that," Polly grinned. "You can make Corridon before dusk. Stay the night there, move on in the morning. You'll be home before supper tomorrow."
"And in summer, when my time comes for the baby, can I send for you?"
"You surely can, darlin'. I'll come runnin' and we'll haul that child into this world together. I'll see you in the summer, Mrs. Randolph, maybe sooner if this madness ends and our boys come home. Meantime, you take care, hear?"
Ordinarily Gus was up at first light, but his late-night sending off of Eli Mitchell and his restlessness afterward made him wake later than usual, with the darkness still dogging his spirit as the pale sun chased the timber shadows across his camp. After carefully stowing his rifle and blankets in a rock cleft, Gus used his last dab of coffee to brew a single cup, all the while troubled by the nagging sense of something amiss. Some warning sign he'd overlooked.
His supplies were down to nothing but it would be dark of the moon tonight. He could slink out of the hills to his farm. Somehow Polly always managed to scrape together a few necessaries for him; sugar, coffee. Local news and rumors of war. Enough to see him through another month of hiding out in these hills.
But before he could risk a visit home, he'd have to resolve this nettlesome worry, lest the faceless danger follow him home. Huddled in his blanket beside the embers of his campfire, Gus sipped the bitter dregs of his coffee, trying to put a face or a name to the trouble.
Had there been anything suspicious about Eli Mitchell? Something he'd said or done? Didn't seem likely. Gus had given the deserter his mare freely and had no regrets about that decision. What else could he do? Kill the boy? Drive him off?
True, he scarcely knew the lad, but Gus was a lifelong stockman. He could rank a horse at forty paces and he considered himself a fair judge of people as well. Young Eli Mitchell struck him as an honest young man. He'd promised to return the mare later on and Gus believed he would try to do so. . . .
And that was it! That was the burr under his saddle, the itch that was rankling him.
He would try to return the mare because he'd given Gus his word of honor and he was an honest lad. But he'd also given his promise to help that wounded Reb lieutenant. And now he had a fresh horse under him and some food to share . . . Damn it to hell!
Cursing his own stupidity, Gus fetched his rifle from the cache and headed down the trail at a trot. The mare's tracks were easy to follow in the morning dew. The boy had ridden north just long enough to get out of Gus's sight, then he'd turned south, working his way back to the spring to help his wounded friend.
But Gus knew these hills far better than young Mitchell. Leaving the trail, he trotted uphill through the aspens at a mile-eating lope. A horse would have difficulty threading through the brush up to the mountain crest, but a man could manage it, and it cut the journey in half. With luck, he'd make the water hole by noon.
But Gus was running low on luck. And Eli Mitchell's was gone altogether.
As Gus crested the ridge overlooking the valley, he heard a shout, then the thunder of hoofbeats. Walking the mare through the trees at the edge of the valley, Eli Mitchell had been spotted by a Union patrol. Though he was clearly trapped, the boy never hesitated. Scrambling into the saddle, Eli wheeled his mount and he raced down the valley toward the mouth, leading them away from the spring. The patrol fanned out to intercept him, cutting him off easily, encircling him before he'd covered half a mile.
Dropping to his belly on the ridge, Gus fumbled in his pouch for the brass-cased Mexican field glass, his only trophy from that long-ago war. Snapping it open, he hastily homed in on the meadow below, bringing it into focus. It was already over. The Union patrol had Eli surrounded. The boy dropped his reins and held both hands high in the air as the troopers closed in, weapons at the ready.
Gus was too far away to make out faces clearly. Didn't recognize the officer in charge. A captain, tall, gaunt, with a Van Dyke goatee, a cape, and a French-style kepi forage cap. Judging from their mismatched uniforms, the troopers were militia. Probably Hessians from St. Lou or Jefferson City. But their civilian scout . . .
Damn! Gus recognized the slouch hat and stooped shoulders even before he zeroed in on the scout's face. Aaron Meachum, a Jayhawker renegade who'd been raiding and robbing in Kansas years before the war came, camouflaging thievery and murder with a smokescreen of abolitionist bushwa.
As a Hessian sergeant questioned Eli, Meachum casually circled his mount around behind the boy, looking Eli's horse over carefully.
Would he recognize the animal? Gus searched his memory, trying to recall if Meachum had ever seen his mare. Once, maybe, at the Reynolds County fair. Meachum had tried to goad Gus's youngest son into a fight, but backed off when Gus and two of his boys stepped in. Meachum might have seen the horse then, but that was before the war and—
With a casual, fluid motion, Meachum drew his pistol and shot Eli Mitchell in the head! His hands still raised to the sky, the boy collapsed like a broken puppet, toppling from the saddle to the grass of the valley floor.
"No!" Gus leapt to his feet, stunned, staring. But too far away to be heard. The other troopers seemed just as surprised. Red-faced, the sergeant was yelling at Meachum, his voice carrying across the valley. Ignoring him, the Jayhawker scout dismounted and ran his hands over Eli's horse, stepping across the boy's crumpled body without so much as a downward glance.
Satisfied, Meachum unsaddled Eli's borrowed mare. Tossing Gus's battered rig aside, Meachum transferred his own McClellan saddle to the mare's back, kicking the wind out of her belly as he yanked the cinch taut.
The troopers watched in silence as Meachum swung into the saddle, then the sergeant muttered something and two men dismounted. Hoisting Eli's body onto Meachum's rank gelding, they tied him across its back. Meachum said something to them, a joke, apparently, since Gus could read his grin clear across the meadow. None of the others smiled.
Wheeling his horse, the captain led the troop out of the valley by twos with Eli's body bouncing like a saddlebag on the gelding, blood from his fatal wound dripping down its flanks.
Crouched in the brush, Gus watched them vanish into the distance, then waited another half-hour to be certain.
When he was sure they were gone, he began working his way across the ridge crest toward the spring Eli had described, the one he'd led the patrol away from before they rode him down. Keeping its secret with his death.
Gus was hoping the lieutenant would be dead as well. It would be simpler that way. He could get back to his camp to think, clear his head of the vision of Eli, falling with his hands still raised . . .
He heard a soft click. A pistol hammer being eared back.
"Stop where you are. Raise your . . . " The voice faded away. Gus stayed put.
"Lieutenant? My name's McKee. Elias Mitchell sent me to you." No answer, only a muffled cough. Gus could see him now, concealed in a copse of cedars beside the brook that trickled into the basin. An officer all right, cadet-gray tunic, gilt buttons, yellow cavalry stripe on his trousers. And a .36 Patterson Colt in his fist.
But the gun wasn't aimed directly at Gus. Only in his general direction. And even at that distance Gus caught the sour stench of mortification. Of blood festering, turning rank.
Kneeling beside the boy, who was even younger than Eli, Gus gently took the gun from his hand. He doubted the Reb even knew it.
Mitchell had been mistaken, the boy wasn't gutshot. Not that it made much difference. His lung wound was low enough in his chest to let the blood leak out slowly, draining his life away with every heartbeat.
He'd propped himself up against a cedar bole to keep his lungs from filling. Fighting for every breath. But his war was nearly over now. A lost cause. Like the gray he wore. And the medals on his blouse.
The lieutenant's eyes were open, but he was gazing into some impossible distance, his face chalk-white, arterial blood bubbling in the corners of his mouth, coloring his lips a livid crimson, scarlet as a painted lady.
After a time the boy slowly returned to his senses, staring up at Gus, faintly puzzled.
"I'm sorry," he said, licking his crimsoned lips. "I was talking with my mother . . . Do I know you?"
"No, Lieutenant. My name's Angus McKee. Elias Mitchell sent me."
"Elias Mitchell. A boy who stayed with you a few days back?"
"Mitchell, yes. The Yankee boy. He's well, I hope?"
"He's . . . just fine, Lieutenant. He's gone on home. To be with his people."
"I'm glad. He was very kind to me . . . " The young soldier swallowed. "I haven't much time, sir. I am Lieutenant James Oliver Neeland, of the First Arkansas. I have family in the White River valley. My father is Phineas Neeland, of Clarendon." The boy coughed, spewing red froth down his shirt front.
"Lieutenant Neeland, I have two sons serving in Arkansas with Sterling Price. Jared and Levon McKee. Have you heard anything of them . . . ?" But the coughing had sapped the last of Neeland's strength. The boy had drifted off again, his lips moving in soundless conversation.
Gus waited for what seemed an age. And realized Neeland was staring up at him, frowning.
"I'm sorry. I . . . seem to have forgotten your name."
"It's McKee, Lieutenant. Angus McKee."
"Mr. McKee. Of course. And you were asking me about . . . ? Was your son Jared McKee? A sergeant with the Missourians?"
"Yes! He and his brother were both—"
"Sir, Sergeant Jared McKee was among the fallen at Westport, badly wounded. I saw him carried to the surgeons. I doubt he survived. Not many do. I shall ask my mother when I see . . . " He broke off, coughing again. "I'm very sorry. I knew your son in passing. He seemed a fine soldier. I don't recall hearing about his brother. I hope he is well."
Gus looked away, his eyes stinging. It was too much. Eli's death. And now Jared too. Dear God.
"Mr. McKee, I'm sorry to trouble you at such a time but I find myself in a . . . quandary, sir. I am dying. And in truth, I don't mind so much anymore. The pain's not as bad now. And my mother is . . . very near. May I ask, sir, where your loyalties lie? North or South?"
Gus didn't answer. Couldn't. He saw Eli falling, his hands upraised in surrender . . . and then Jared. Falling.
Gus shook his head to clear it. "I have sons in gray, Lieutenant," he said hoarsely. "I stand with my sons."
"Good." Neeland closed his eyes. "There's a letter in my tunic. It is to my father but it contains . . . details of our troubles that might be useful to the Yanks. I would count it a great favor if you could place my medals in the letter and pass it to someone sympathetic to our cause. Would you do that for me, Mr. McKee?"
"Please!" Neeland grasped Gus's forearm desperately, pulling himself up. "For your sons, sir. For the South!"
"All right, boy, take it easy. I'll see to it."
"Thank you." Neeland fell back, spent. "The letter is in my vest pocket. Take it, please."
Gently, Gus reached inside the lieutenant's coat, found the envelope, then hesitated. He felt no heartbeat. He glanced at Neeland. His eyes were empty. He was gone. Just like that. Dead and . . . gone.
Rising stiffly, Gus looked over the envelope. It was probably as the lad said, only a letter home. But nowadays, passing along such a note, or even possessing it, would be considered conveying dispatches to the enemy.
A hanging offense, or a firing squad. On the spot.
No judge, no jury. No mercy.
Swallowing his distaste, Gus quickly searched the boy's body, but the only thing of use was the dress dagger at Neeland's belt, fifteen inches of Damascus steel, double edged with a needle point. A style some called the Arkansas toothpick.
The knife had bright brass pommels and a carved ivory hilt with silver insets, beautifully engraved. 1st Arkansas on one side, Lt. J.O. Neeland on the other. The hilt and the Damascus steel were darkly stained with the lad's blood. He could soak the blood off later, but he'd broken his camp bowie the week before and Neeland had no more need of the dagger. His war was over.
Gus slid the Arkansas blade into his boot, the Paterson Colt in his belt at the small of his back.
After carefully removing the lieutenant's medals, Gus placed them in the envelope and slipped it under his shirt. Then he buried Lieutenant James Oliver Neeland in a sheltered clearing not far from the creek.
He buried the boy deep, covering him over with rocks at the last, carefully camouflaging the grave afterward so no animal could dig him up. Nor any man. There'd be no blood money paid for this Rebel.
Good Lord. He'd spent the better part of two years hiding like a stray dog, waiting out the madness, and now that it was nearly over, he'd finally been forced into making a choice. Eli Mitchell said there wasn't any right side to this but he was mistaken. His own death proved it. And Jared's. And this poor bastard who'd kept himself alive long enough to pass along a last letter to his people. Gus hoped some part of their damned Cause was worth dying for. And killing for. Because he was done running and hiding. Right or wrong, he'd just volunteered. Again.
Maybe he couldn't cure the outlawry in these Missouri hills, but he could rectify one small portion of it. Aaron Meachum was Jayhawker scum. He'd murdered Eli Mitchell as casually as a field hand stomping a vole. Killed him for his horse and a share of a twenty-dollar bounty. And there would, by God, be a reckoning for that.
After a final look around the clearing, Gus set off at a steady lope, heading back to his camp. To pack up.
Leaving the herd untended would be risky, but the horses had forage enough for a week or so in this blind valley and they were well concealed. A straggler might stumble across them as Eli had done, and steal one, or run off the lot, but there was no helping that. He'd just have to chance it.
He chose his own mount with care, a swaybacked gray plowhorse named Nell. Six years old, she had a canted jaw, broken by a kick when she was a filly. Her crooked mouth kept her gaunt and her disposition was on the surly side of rabies. But most importantly, her injury made her nearly mute. She seldom whickered or whinnied. An admirable trait in a companion of the trail, horse or human.
After rubbing soot between the mare's ribs to accent her bones, Gus smeared small lumps of bloody suet on her legs to simulate open sores. It wasn't perfect, but only an expert would spot it. Most stockmen's tricks were intended to disguise a nag's shortcomings, not make them look worse.
Finished, Gus stepped back to admire his handiwork and nodded.
"Nell, old girl, you are just about the sorriest looking piece of horseflesh I've ever laid eyes on, too swaybacked to work and too scrawny to eat. And definitely not worth stealing."
Nell didn't reply, but her glare was so ferocious Gus couldn't help smiling. The last time he'd gone to war he'd been wearing a proud new uniform with brass buttons. This time, his best hope for survival was to pass for a ragamuffin, pride be damned.
Saddling Nell with his shabbiest work rig, he lashed his worn bedroll to the cantle, tossed a few hardtack biscuits and some jerky in a sack, and climbed aboard. He took a long last look over his camp, making sure he'd erased all traces, campfire buried, gear stowed in the rock cleft. He had a half-dozen hideouts like this one scattered through the mountains, moving from one to the other as the horses cropped down the grass or army patrols got too close.
Hadn't been much of a life these past two years, living like a bandit, seeing his wife and youngest boy one night a month during the dark of the moon when he could slink out of the hills without being spotted.
It was a sorry-ass way to live, but it was his only chance to save what little they had. Now he was risking it all for two dead boys he'd hardly known, boys who'd fought on opposite sides. As his own sons were doing.
Sweet Jesus. It was utter lunacy and he knew it, yet he'd seen murder done, in cold blood, and there was no backing away from that. Not if he was ever going to face himself in a shaving mirror again.
But being swept up in the madness of this fight didn't give him leave to be careless. It meant the exact opposite. He understood the odds he was facing. A stockman going up against a half-dozen seasoned fighters? His chances were slim to none. It would take every shred of skill he owned and all the luck in the world.
And even with that, it likely wouldn't be enough.
He had no trouble picking up the trail of the Yank patrol.
Meachum was riding Gus's mare and he could read her prints like a bill of sale. The patrol had headed northeast, angling from the valley into the forested foothills of the Ozarks. Probably still on the prowl, hunting more bounties. More lost, desperate boys like Eli.
Nell's bony back and plodding gait made for a damned uncomfortable ride and since she tended to balk in the face of rough cover, he was often forced to lead her through it on foot, walking much of the way.
And with every step he saw Eli fall again, his hands raised in surrender, or the blood bubbling at the corners of young Neeland's mouth. Or he'd think back to Jared as a boy, a towheaded kid with a gap between his front teeth.
Jared's brothers often joshed him, claiming Jared missed every other row on a corncob. Jared grinning, saying lunch lasted longer that way . . .
Dead now. Probably thrown into a mass grave with a dozen others and covered over. Slain in the final throes of a lost war, both sides savaging each other, mindless as wolves in a sheep pen, blood-crazed, lost in the red madness of slaughter.
A contagious disease, apparently.
By early afternoon, Gus was fairly sure he was gaining ground on the patrol. Their tracks were cleaner, more sharply defined. Fresher. He guessed they'd likely lay up for a meal soon, rest their animals, make coffee.
He guessed wrong.
He was threading Nell through a tangle of sumac when he spotted the horsemen ahead. Four—no, five troopers, blocking the trail.
Yanks. And his heart sank as he recognized them. Militia. The same bunch who'd murdered Eli, the Hessians, with Aaron Meachum as their scout. No officer with them this time. One of them was leading Meachum's gelding, with Eli's corpse draped over its back.
The others were already angling in toward him. No point in hightailing it. Nell couldn't outrun a three-legged stool. He had only a few seconds to act.
As he passed through the sumac bushes, he let his Jenks carbine slide out of his grasp. Dumped the Colt as well, heard it tumble into the brush, hoped to Christ they landed out of sight. Thought about the Arkansas blade in his boot, but it was too late to toss it. They'd see him reach down for sure. So he left it. As Nell plodded slowly up to the patrol, Gus could feel the sweat trickling down his back—
God! The letter! It was still concealed beneath his shirt!
"Who are you, mister? What you doin' way out here?" the sergeant asked. His Hessian accent was strong as sauerkraut. Red-faced, stocky. His blue wool uniform coat looked homemade and probably was, but his gray eyes were wary. And dangerous.
"My name's McKee. Got a place over in Reynolds County. I'm headed east to visit a cousin."
"What cousin would that be?" Aaron Meachum asked. "Robert E. Lee?" The Jayhawker sat lazy in his saddle, shoulders slumped, eyeing Gus from beneath the brim of his sagging slouch hat.
"Keith Stewart, at Buckhorn."
"Didn't know the Stewarts were kin to you, McKee."
"You know this man?" the sergeant asked Meachum.
"I know who he is. That farm woman that gave the captain mouth yesterday? This is her man. A Reb sympathizer, got boys in gray. Ain't that right, McKee?"
"Well, he's too old to be a sojer boy so he ain't worth no bounty," the sergeant said. "Let's move on."
"Not so fast," Meachum drawled. "He might be carryin' contraband. Step down, McKee."
"Best do like he says, mister," the sergeant sighed. "He likes to kill people, this one."
Forcing his fear back, Gus swung down.
"Step away from that nag and raise your hands. Search him, Dutch."
"Come on, Meachum, this bummer ain't got two pennies to rub together. Let's go."
"The captain left me in charge and I say we search him, Dutch. Now do it! Check his horse, then pat him down."
Muttering to himself in German, the sergeant swung down, stalked over to Nell . . . and hesitated. Eyeing the oil spots on the strap that had held the Jenks. He gave Gus a look, then glanced back down the trail. But if he spotted the rifle, he didn't say anything. He cast a critical eye on Nell instead, then nodded.
"You got her lookin' pretty sorry, mister," he said quietly in his harsh accent. "Them suet lumps you stuck on her legs? They look worse if you wet 'em with berry juice. It dries black like blood. Keeps the flies down, too."
"You know horses?" Gus asked.
"I had me a stock ranch outside Jeff City, till the Rebs burnt us out. Now I sell dead men."
"This ain't no Sunday social," Meachum growled. "Search him, Dutch."
Sighing, the Hessian quickly ran his hands over Gus's torso. And felt the letter! No question, Gus heard the rustle as the German's hands passed over it. Their eyes met for a split second, then the sergeant stepped away.
"Nothing," the Hessian said. "I told you."
"Looked like a pretty careless search to me, Dutch. We'd best make sure. Take off your clothes, McKee."
"You heard me, old man. Strip down. Get them duds off. Let's see what you been givin' that ole woman of yours that makes her so sassy."
Gus swallowed, hard, wanting to rush at Meachum, drag him from his saddle or die trying. But he couldn't. Meachum would kill him, sure as sunup. He was just itching for an excuse. Gus could see it in his eyes. But if they saw the letter, or the Arkansas blade, he'd probably die anyway. No explanation would satisfy this bunch. He'd be a Rebel under arms, worth a twenty-dollar bounty at St. Lou. And he'd already seen how they transported prisoners.
"No," he said. "I won't do it."
"No?" Meachum echoed. "Strip him down, Dutch. If he gives you any trouble, kill him. Or I will."
The sergeant turned to Gus, his face a mask. "Don't give me no trouble, mister. He means it."
"Go to hell!" Gus heard a quaver in his voice and hated it. "You want my clothes, Meachum, step down. Come get 'em yourself."
Grabbing Gus by his collar, the sergeant spun him around, pulling him close, ripping at his shirt. Gus struggled against him but could feel the power in the Hessian's arms, knew he hadn't a chance in hell—then suddenly he was free.
Thrusting him away, the Hessian stalked back to his horse. He said something in German and the troopers roared with laughter.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Meachum demanded furiously. "What did you say?"
"I said now we know why women got no use for you, Meachum. You get hard lookin' at bare-ass old men." The sergeant reached for his pommel to mount and found himself staring down the muzzle of Meachum's navy Colt.
"I told you to strip him, Dutch."
"And I say there's no bounty on him and no contraband. Look at him, look at his crow-bait horse. You waste our time here." He said something else in German, but this time there was no laughter. The others were eyeing Meachum warily now.
"What did you tell them?"
"You keep that pistol pointed my way, you'll find out." Swinging into the saddle, the Hessian wheeled his mount around to face Meachum.
"I don't like you much, Jayhawker," the sergeant spat. "You're brave, back-shooting a boy, but that farm woman ran you off like a dog. And when this old man says step down, you stay mounted. The captain says you know the land, so in the field, we follow you. But from now on, if you see me in town? You don't talk to me. You cross the street. Verstehen Sie? You-cross-the-gott-dampt street."
Jerking his mount around, the sergeant clucked her to a trot. He glanced down at Gus as he passed, but his face was unreadable. The others fell into line behind him by twos, with Eli's corpse bouncing along on the last horse.
But Meachum didn't move. The Jayhawker scout considered Gus a moment, the cocked pistol still in his fist, death in his eyes, then shook his head.
"You ain't worth my powder today, old man. But we'll have us another day, McKee. Count on that." Holstering the Colt, he swept off his hat and charged his horse at Nell with a whoop! Driving her off. The old plowhorse took off at a stiff-legged trot, as fast as she could manage, running toward the hills, her empty stirrups flapping as she fled.
Cackling, Meachum swung his mare in a wide circle and galloped off after the troop.
Gus could have lunged at him as he passed. Dragged him off his animal, stomped his brains in for Eli, for Jared—but again, he didn't.
Even if he won, the Hessians would kill him, and no part of Aaron Meachum was worth dying for. Not if it meant leaving his family to starve. Or so Gus told himself.
Or maybe, it was just plain yellow-dog cowardice. Getting old and slow, losing heart, making excuses. That was the worst of it for Gus. Not knowing the truth of his own courage. Or the lack of it.
Still shaking, Gus McKee waited till Meachum was well out of sight, then he doubled back down his own trail to collect his Jenks carbine and the Colt. No point in trying to catch Nell, she'd be halfway to the horse camp by now. If he had half a brain hefollow her back to the hills.
But he didn't. Instead he checked his weapons, shoved the Colt in his belt, then set out after the patrol again. On foot this time.
Which made their tracks all the easier to read.
After sending Birgit on her way, Polly spent part of the afternoon cleaning the house, absurdly pleased that Birgit noted how well she kept it. In such matters, only women's opinions carry weight. Men wouldn't notice a slaughtered hog on the sofa unless they had to shift its carcass to sit.
With her home immaculate, she had Jason bring in a load of kindling wood, then sent him down the valley to stay over with a cousin, as was customary during the nights of the dark moon. Every time Gus came out of the hills, there was a risk that he'd be followed, or braced by a patrol. If there was trouble, better if the boy was clear of it.
Hauling the copper bathtub into the kitchen, Polly lit the stove, getting it ready to boil water. And for a moment, she glimpsed herself in the hall mirror. And couldn't help thinking how fresh and young Birgit looked. Her own face was growing leathery, weathered by the wind and the work. She wondered if Angus still saw her as a woman at all, and wondered if she'd ever truly feel like one again—
Gunshot! A single blast, echoing down the valley like distant thunder. Polly froze, listening for another. But only silence followed.
Which might be good. Because she was sure she'd recognized the bark of a coach gun. And not many used them. Banking the fire in the kitchen stove, she took up her own gun, checked the primer, then eased out onto the shaded porch. To watch. And wait.
An hour crept by. Half of another. Dusk settled softly over the hills like a dark drape and still she waited, standing in the shadows. The last of the light was fading out through the tree line when she heard the distant drum of racing hoof-beats, growing louder as they came, then the clatter of a wagon as the Stanhope buggy burst over the crest of a hill, hurtling madly down the road toward the farm.
Polly was up and running as the buggy skidded through the gate into the yard. Birgit sawed on the reins, yanking her lathered, gasping animal to a halt. Her face and clothing were mud-smeared and filthy, hair awry, eyes wild.
"A man came out of the woods, grabbed the horse. I warned him off but he won't let go. I struck him with the buggy whip and he rushed at me, grabbed me, tried to drag me down and—" she swallowed hard— "and I shot him!
"He pulled me from the buggy as he fell and I ran into the woods. Lost. Couldn't find my way. After a while I came out on the road. And I see the buggy. The man is lying by it."
"I—think so," Birgit said, gulping down a sob. "I'm pretty sure. His head—oh God. Yes, he's dead. He must be."
"It's all right, girl. You did right. But we're not out of this. Is the body in the road?"
"By the side, yes."
"And the gun? Where is it?"
"I—don't know. I lost it when I fell. I don't know what happened to it."
"All right, now you listen to me," Polly said, seizing the girl's shoulders. "We have to go back. Right now."
"You have to! It don't matter if he was Federal or a Reb, if his friends find him kilt they'll come after us, 'specially if they find that gun nearby. Too many people know it. I'd go alone, but I might miss him in the dark. Can you find that place again?"
Birgit nodded mutely.
"Good. Then gather yourself together, girl. I'll fetch a shovel."
Gus figured the patrol would likely make camp at dusk, and he only knew of one creek within easy riding distance. He knew a shorter route, and considered pushing hard to get there first. Take them by surprise from the high ground.
But the risk was too great. If they didn't know about the waterhole, he could lose them altogether. And if he fired on them from ambush, they'd scatter and take cover. Or just ride him down.
No. Better to trail them, come up on them quiet in the dark after they'd made camp and settled in.
Gus kept thinking of the Hessian sergeant. The man had definitely felt the letter. Probably spotted the carbine in the brush as well. Gus saw it in his eyes. Yet he deliberately misled Meachum about it. All the Germans were strong for the Union, why had he let it pass?
The best Gus could come up with was that the sergeant had seen enough dead men in the road for one day. Amen to that.
The twilight was coming on when Gus spotted the orange glow of a fire ahead in the distance, shadows dancing above it, reflected on the pale bark of the aspens. The patrol had camped at the head of the creek, exactly where he expected them to be.
He felt a surge of energy, fired by his rage. Slowing his pace, he shifted from shadow to shadow like a ghost as he approached the camp. He could see the men clearly now, clustered about the campfire, washing down salt pork and sourdough biscuits with raw chicory coffee.
Relaxed. Easy targets, less than two hundred yards off, most of them starkly outlined against the firelight. But if the patrol was in range, so was Gus. Most of them appeared to be kraut-head farmers or townsmen, but he'd underestimated them once, and barely escaped with his life. If they caught him out here now, they'd run him down like dogs on a possum, and sell his carcass in Springfield or St. Lou for the bounty money. Two dollars and change apiece. The price of a life.
Circling south to put a low rise between himself and the camp, Gus picked up his pace, trotting crouched through purple shadows, feeling the land rising beneath his boots as full dark settled over the hills.
Slowing to a walk short of the summit, he circled the hilltop to avoid being skylined. Then he dropped to his belly, snaking over the ridgeline in the shadow of a rotted poplar log. Edging into a cluster of gorse, he waited a bit for his heart to slow, then gently parted the branches.
The Yank camp was spread out below him like a target range, every man clearly visible in the firelight. A somber camp, none of the joshing and laughter he remembered from the Mexican War. God, that seemed so long ago, before his first wife, before their boys—he swallowed hard, remembering his boys. Remembering Jared, with his gap-toothed grin. And Eli, pitching from the saddle with his hands still raised in surrender . . .
Settle down, Angus McKee. Get this done. Pulling his Mexican field glasses from his jacket, Gus carefully scanned the camp. The Hessians were already bedding down for the night, weary from a long day in the saddle, rolling up in their blankets near the fire. Gus made a quick count, one, two—
Shit! There were only five men in view. But there'd been eight this afternoon. Slow down. Count again.
He spotted one immediately. A picket was on guard near the horses, sitting with his back against a tree, wrapped in a blanket, his rifle across his knees.
Scanning along the river, Gus stiffened. A second man was bedded down away from the others. Aaron Meachum. His slouch hat down over his eyes, his head resting on the McClellan saddle. Either he was unsociable, or the kraut-heads disliked him as much as his Missouri neighbors.
Still a man short. And as he scanned the camp again, Gus had the uneasy feeling he knew who was missing. The Hessian sergeant. The only seasoned soldier in the lot. And knowing his man, Gus surmised where he'd be found . . .
There! Halfway up the far hillside, well above the camp, with a clear view of the narrow glen and the approaches to it. A perfect spot for an experienced sharpshooter. And the Hessian had the gun for it. Even at this distance, Gus recognized the odd outlines of the .451 Whitworth with its slender telescopic sight. Deadly out to five hundred yards.
Sweet Jesus. Gus had planned a hit-and-run attack. Pot Meachum, maybe one more, then slink away in the confusion. But the sergeant's position changed all that. He had the high ground, and a long-range gun that gave him the advantage. Resting away from the camp, his eyes wouldn't be dazzled by firelight. Killing Meachum wouldn't disconcert him, it would only bring him to full alert.
And he could shoot farther than Gus could run, even in the dark.
If he potted Meachum from here, the Hessian would kill him sure as Christmas. Hell, he might not get clear of this even if he didn't pot Meachum. Depending on how alert the sergeant was.
He didn't seem to be alert at the moment. Gus couldn't see him clearly at that distance, but he looked relaxed. Probably dozing. So Gus's plan might still work.
But only if he shot the sergeant first.
How far away? Two hundred yards, maybe two-twenty. Gus had taken deer in the hills with his Jenks-Remington at greater distances. The poor light made it tricky, but Gus was fairly sure he could make the shot. Kill the Kraut, or leave him in no shape to return fire.
The problem was, he had no wish to kill the Hessian. The man had probably saved his life. And if he shot the sergeant first, Meachum would scurry to cover before Gus could reload and fire again anyway.
The smart thing would be to back the hell away from this. Survive this night. Try for Meachum another time.
But Gus was weary of waiting. And border-Scot stubborn. He'd come far, and his enemy was in sight. Scanning the camp again, he looked for some other way to—
And there it was.
The horse herd was picketed at the far end of the draw. The campfire was midway along the creek, with men rolled in their blankets near it. Meachum was bedded down alone between the fire and the picket line.
From his hillside perch, the Hessian sergeant could see the approaches to the valley, but the slopes were wooded with poplar and ash. Gus doubted the sergeant could see the horses clearly . . .
No time to chew on it. The sky was clearing to the west, stars showing through. If he was going to move, it would have to be now. Gus carefully stashed his carbine under the rotted log. If he lived, he'd come back for it later. If not . . . ?
Dropping to his belly, he began snaking down the hillside toward the picket line, using every clump of brush, every woodland skill he'd learned in his years in the hills.
Nearing the creek, he was able to rise a little, moving along in a crouch. The brush grew a bit thicker close to water, and there was a well-worn deer trail along the bank. On the far side, he could see the lone sentry, wrapped in his blanket, his head resting on his arms. Asleep? Maybe. No way to be certain.
The horses heard him coming, of course, but they were as spent as the troopers and accustomed to the sounds and scent of men. Gus posed no threat.
Drawing Neeland's Arkansas toothpick from his boot, he slid along the picket rope, cutting the horses loose, one at a time. Last in line was the mare Meachum had taken from Eli. But as he reached for her, he stumbled over something and went down, landing hard. The horse beside him spooked, shying away with a snort. Gus whispered to her softly, calming her, and she halted, still eyeing him uneasily. Ready to bolt.
Groping around at his feet, Gus brushed against a human arm! He nearly slashed at it with the blade before he realized he'd tripped over a corpse.
Sweet Jesus. It was Eli. They'd dumped the boy's body downwind of the camp, near the herd, to save trouble loading him again in the morning. Leaving him out here in the dark like trash. Like nothing . . . God damn their eyes!
Rising slowly, Gus stroked the neck of the nervous mare, peering over her rump, scanning the camp as he waited for her to settle down. Across the creek, the sentry stirred once in his sleep. No one else was moving.
Except Meachum. Grunting, the Jayhawker rolled over on his side, turning away from the fire. Facing Gus.
But not seeing him. Meachum's eyes were closed, or nearly so. He was either asleep or drowsing . . . And no more than twenty paces away. Gus was already edging around the mare toward the creek before he'd given it conscious thought.
Easing into the water, he waded quietly across, heading directly at the sleeping gunman with Neeland's Arkansas blade in his fist, ready to . . .
What? As he stepped warily out of the water Gus realized his misjudgment. Jesus, he'd crossed the creek right into the middle of the damned camp. Sleeping Yanks were all around him, a sentry between him and the horses and a sharpshooter on the hillside above. The slightest noise, a sneeze, a bad dream? If anyone woke in the camp, he was a dead man.
And yet, Aaron Meachum was only a few steps away, now. Within easy reach. A thrust to his black heart, a slashed jugular . . . but no.
He couldn't risk it. No man dies silently. Butchering Meachum here would be suicide, pure and simple.
But he was so close . . . he damned well had to do something.
Moving a step closer, he carefully slid the bloodstained Arkansas blade into the ground, an inch from Aaron Meachum's nose. A remembrance. From Lieutenant James Oliver Neeland, of the First Arkansas. And his friend Eli Mitchell. Of Cairo, Illinois.
"Hey." A trooper near the campfire sat up slowly, blinking, only half awake. "What . . . ?"
But Gus simply waved at the man as he turned away, walking easily along the creek bank as though he belonged in the camp. As he passed the dozing picket sentry, he casually lifted the rifle off his lap, then slammed the butt into his head! Sending him sprawling into the brush!
Then Gus was off! Plunging into the creek, he waded across in three long strides. Vaulting up onto Eli's mare, he fired the sentry's musket in the air and cut loose a shrill Rebel yell, stampeding the horses down the glen away from the camp.
Throwing the empty musket aside, Gus crouched low on the mare's neck, clinging to her mane for dear life. As she ran flat out over the uneven ground it took every ounce of skill and tenacity Gus owned to stay on her back. A few shots rang out in the camp, but he wasn't worried about them. With smoothbore muskets, the patrol couldn't hit a barn at twenty paces. Nor was pursuit a problem; they'd be chasing down their scattered mounts for a week. A minié ball whistled past his head, close enough to feel the hot wind of its passing. The echo of its report came a second later. Damn it, the sharpshooter! No man could hit a horseman running at full gallop, not by starlight at this distance—
But Gus was already counting down the seconds it would take the Hessian to reload, trying to time the next shot. At the last instant, he leaned sharply over the mare's neck, trying to swing her with his weight—too late!
He felt the blow of a heavy slug hammer into his left shoulder, knocking him off the mare, spinning him into the darkness.
He slammed down hard, rolling to break his fall, crashing to a halt against a cluster of brush. He lay there stunned a moment, gasping, his wind driven out. Then he was crawling, scrambling up the hillside on his hands and knees into the cover of the aspens, out of sight, out of range.
He crouched there awhile, panting like a dog, gathering his addled wits. In the distance behind him, he could still see gun flashes, hear the reports as the panicked patrol fired blindly into the dark, blasting away at shadows.
Rising slowly, Gus looked back, trying to gauge the distance to the camp. At least five hundred yards, maybe six. That Kraut bastard was one hell of a shot. Gus gingerly touched his wounded shoulder with his fingertips. It burned like a brand, but there didn't seem to be much blood. A graze, no more. Still, a very near thing. Another inch, he'd be visiting with Eli and Jared.
But so far, he was still breathing. He might make it through this after all.
He'd have nothing to fear from the patrol for a while. They wouldn't venture out after their horses until full daylight, and they'd never recover them all in these hills.
A few lost boys would come upon stray mounts for the ride home. And some of the Hessians would have one hell of a long hike back to Springfield. Meachum too, most likely. Gus doubted the Kraut sergeant would loan him a mount.
Meachum. His only regret for this night's work was not seeing the Jayhawker's face when he woke to find a bloody Reb dagger an inch from his nose.
He was a yellow cur at heart. Knowing how close death had come would keep him sweating until it came for him again. And it would. Somewhere down the line, Gus would make certain sure of that.
Easing out of the trees, he looked to the hills, orienting himself. He was a good five miles from his horse camp, and nearly that far from the farm.
He read the stars, estimating the hours of darkness remaining. Knew he should circle back to the horse camp and his herd. It wouldn't be the first time he'd missed his supply run. Polly and the farm would keep another month—
But he wouldn't. On this night, Gus needed to see his farm, his land, his woman. To be sure they were real, and not part of some blood-crazed fever dream.
He knew he'd crossed a line tonight, risking everything to make a pointless gesture. Only a fool would do that. Or a man losing his grip.
He needed a few moments of peace amidst the madness of this life. Just a few.
So he collected his wits, then set off down the hillside at a brisk pace, marching toward the farm in the dark. Headed home.
In that same moonless dark, Polly nearly missed the corpse. Dappled with faint, starlit silhouettes, the road was a slender gray ribbon threading through the shadowed hills. Birgit wasn't sure how far she'd traveled or how long she'd been lost. The women could easily have driven past the corpse without seeing it. But the horse recognized the spot. She snorted, tossing her head, shying away from the crumpled form lying beside the road.
"You wait here," Polly hissed, stepping down from the buggy, her shotgun leveled at the body. But there was no need. The blast had shredded his upper torso. She could smell the reek of death from ten feet away. Not just the stench of blood and voided bowels, but the sickly sweet odor of gangrene as well.
Couldn't tell if he was Reb or Federal. Linsey-woolsey shirt drenched with blood, canvas pants, broken-down boots.
"Is he . . . ?" Birgit whispered.
"Oh my, yes. He's dead as a beaver hat, girl. He was near to dyin' anyways. Got a bandaged wound on his thigh and it was mortifyin'. The gangrene would have took him soon. You probably did the poor bastard a favor. Come on, let's get him underground."
Straining and stumbling, the two women tried to drag the reeking body off the road into the trees, but the corpse kept snagging on the underbrush. In the end, Polly put her gun aside and lifted him by the shoulders while Birgit took his legs, and they carried him into the forest.
Spotting a natural trench at the base of a fallen sycamore, Polly widened it with her shovel, then they rolled the corpse in and covered it over with dirt and forest debris.
"The wind will do the rest," Polly panted, straightening. "A day or two, it'll be like we was never here."
"We should say words for him," Birgit said.
"You mean pray? For a damned road agent?"
"We can't just leave him like this. It's wrong." Birgit's voice was shaking, very near to tears.
"All right, girl, all right. Do you know what to say?"
"Then say it in Hessian. Or whatever that place is you're from."
"Bavaria. But the language is the same."
"Well, I expect the good Lord understands 'em all, and this poor devil's beyond caring. You go ahead."
Kneeling silently in the moist forest mold, the two women bowed their heads while Birgit prayed. Polly didn't understand a word of it. Yet somehow she felt a bit better for it as they made their way back to the road.
The girl was right. A proper prayer was a righteous thing to do, even for no-account border trash.
They found the coach gun in the brush beside the road where Birgit had dropped it. After reloading it, Polly handed it up to the girl in the buggy.
"You drive on now. Corridon's less than an hour away and you'll be safer travelin' this time of night than by daylight. You shouldn't have no more trouble, but if you do, well, God help 'em. You blast away and don't stop for nothin'."
"But what will you do?"
"I'll walk home. I been in these hills my whole life, starlight's as bright as a lantern. Don't fret none about me. You just take care of yourself and that baby. I'll see you come summer, girl. I promise."
Polly watched until the buggy disappeared, then set off for her farm, a long, weary march. It was well past midnight when she finally trudged up the lane to her home.
She'd hoped Angus might be waiting. But he wasn't here. Or at least, not yet.
Exhausted, Polly relit the kitchen woodstove to warm the water, then stumbled into her bedroom. By the light of a lone candle, she filled the basin from the pitcher on the washstand, then stripped off her shirt, hanging it carefully on the doorknob to avoid getting bloodstains on the bedspread.
But as she plunged her arms in the basin to rinse off the gore, the scent of it came roiling up, suffusing the air, a powerful sweet-sour blend of gangrene and . . .
Stunned, Polly stared down at the basin, already reddening with blood from her hands. Leaning down, her face just above the water, she drew a long, ragged breath. Dear God. It was eau de lilac. Full strength, undiluted.
Her throat closed so tightly she could hardly breathe. Still, she forced herself to take her shirt from the doorknob to sniff a bloodstained sleeve. It was drenched with lilac water.
No doubt about it.
The—man—Birgit had killed must have been carrying the bottle in his shirt pocket. The shotgun blast splattered it all over his chest. With a low moan, Polly sank to the floor beside the bed, burying her face in her hands, rocking. No tears came, her agony was soundless and soul-deep, a pain so savage she thought she might die. And wished to God she could.
Which boy had they buried out there? She'd never looked into his face, hadn't wanted to. He was just another lost scarecrow of war, another starving, walking corpse, looking for a place to die.
Or to kill. Why in God's name had he attacked Birgit on the road? Was he too sick to walk any further? Or had the war bled away his soul and his honor? Made him into another Meachum?
She wasn't sure how long she knelt there. Perhaps she fell asleep.
Because suddenly she woke with a start! Someone was moving in the kitchen. And for a wild moment she thought she'd been mistaken, that the boy hadn't been quite dead. That he'd clawed his way out of the earth somehow, to find his way home . . . But no.
In the kitchen Angus was fumbling with a lantern.
"Don't light that," Polly said quietly, carrying her candle to the rough wooden table. "Cavalry patrol was here yesterday. They might be watching the house."
"Federals, out of Jefferson City."
"Oh." In the flickering shadows, her husband's seamed face was hewn from granite, his beard unkempt, his graying hair wild. She wanted to hold him, to feel his strength. But it wasn't their custom. And she wanted no questions.
"You're late," she said, her voice quiet, controlled. "It's nearly three."
"I had to walk in. Took longer than I figured."
"You walked? Why?"
He avoided her eyes. "I run into a branch in the dark. Took a fall. Lost my horse."
"Your mare? Why did she run off? She comes to your whistle."
"I don't know, somethin' spooked her, maybe. She run off, damn it. I wanted to get home so I walked on in. She'll likely find her own way back to the herd. If not, I'll hunt her up tomorrow. Let it be, Pol. What's the news? What do the neighbors say?"
"The war might be over soon, truly. I had a visitor today, Tyler Randolph's new wife. She said the Federals burned Atlanta. Hood's retreating."
"I heard that, too. Met a deserter, a Yankee boy."
"Did he give you trouble?"
"No, I . . . put him on a Jayhawk trail, sent him on his way. I've been seein' a lot of strays in the hills lately, mostly Rebs but some Union, too. Federal patrols are shootin' deserters now. Got a bounty on 'em. Huntin' them boys down like coyotes. Is that why the cavalry came?"
"For that, and to steal anything that wasn't nailed down. Aaron Meachum was with them. Gave me some mouth, nothing I couldn't handle."
"Meachum," Angus rasped, his eyes narrowing. "That bloodsuckin' scum's ridin' high now. Got the Hessians around him, thinks he's safe. But when this is over and the boys are home, we'll be payin' a moonlight visit to that Jayhawker sonofabitch—"
Polly slapped him, hard! Snapping his head around! He stared at her in stunned disbelief.
"No! By God, Angus, when this is over, it's truly gonna be over for us. We've given enough, bled enough. Let the dead bury the dead. No more killing, no more burning, not for justice nor revenge nor any other goddamn thing!"
"What the hell's got into you, Pol?"
"I met Tyler Randolph's wife! And she's a Hessian, except she's not, she's from—some other place in Germany. But she's a fine girl! And God willing, she and Tyler will have children. I can midwife for her, and they can come visit of a Sunday, stay a few days over Christmas, maybe.
"But so help me God, Angus, if you ever talk about any more killin' or use that word Hessian to me again, I'll leave you! I'll take our boy and go! Do you understand me?"
Hot tears were streaming now. She couldn't stop them and she didn't care. Angus stared at her like a stranger, utterly baffled. He touched his lip and his fingertip came away bloody.
"No," he said slowly, "I don't understand, Pol. But I think it's a damn sight more than we can talk through this night. I'd best go. I need to get back to the hills before sunup anyhow."
"No! Not yet! You came in for some hot food and a bath and you're damned well gonna have 'em!"
"I came in for a kind word, too. But I guess I'll have to settle for a bath."
"Good! You soak yourself and I'll fry up some eggs. Go on, shuck your duds. You smell like a damned horse camp."
Polly carried the steaming buckets from the woodstove to the tub, filling it with practiced ease as Angus unbuttoned his shirt, eyeing her warily all the while.
"What happened to your arm, Gus?"
"Must've banged it up when I fell."
"Give me that!" Snatching the shirt out of his hands, she examined the tear.
"That's a bullethole, Angus. And you never fell off a horse in your damn life! What really happened up there?"
"Nothing, Pol. Let it go."
"Don't lie to me! What—"
"I said nothin' happened and that's an end to it! If it needed tellin', I'd say so. It don't. Not tonight, not ever. Let it be, Polly. Just give me some peace! Please. I fell. That's it."
That wasn't it. Gus was lying to her face and she damned well knew it. But he was right about one thing, it was more than they could talk through this night.
When the tub was full, he turned his back and so did she, giving him his privacy, as was their custom.
But not tonight. Instead, Polly turned and watched Gus strip off his frayed shirt and the tattered union suit beneath. Saw his pale, scrawny frame, the bloody gash on his shoulder from his so-called fall. Next to an older scar where a horse had broken his collarbone years ago. He let his drawers drop, revealing his flat butt and skinny legs, the hipbones showing through.
My God. He'd been up in those hills more than two years, living with their animals, living like an animal. Freezing and going hungry. For her. For their boys. With no complaints.
As he turned to climb in the bath, he saw her watching and colored with embarrassment. But he said nothing. He just eased his aching bones down into the steaming water with a muffled groan.
But in that briefest of moments, when their eyes met, she'd seen her life. With him.
And nothing else mattered. Nothing.
Not the hunger, not the war, not even the lost boy in the forest. Somehow they'd get through this. They would.
Ordinarily she left him alone to bathe. Instead she knelt behind the tub, and after a moment's hesitation, she undid her muslin under-blouse and slipped out of it, freeing her breasts.
Wrapping her arms around his gaunt shoulders, she gathered Gus to her bosom, enveloping him in her warmth. Closing his eyes, he leaned back, resting his head against her shoulder. Feeling her heart beating with his own, breathing in her scent.
"I'm sorry," she said, after a time.
"No, it's my fault. Up in those hills I forget how hard it must be for you down here, toughin' it out alone. Coming home feels so good to me that . . . well, I forget, that's all. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, this minute. With you. I'll be better when all this is over."
"Soon, maybe. And you're right, Pol. When it's finished we'll get back to some kind of a life. Make up for these sorry times. All of us. I miss you, Polly, I miss our boys, our home. God, I even miss the way it always smells . . . so clean. So sweet. Like now. What is that scent you favor?"
"Eau de lilac," she murmured. "Lilac water."