Indians, she said, mouthing the word, abject terror taking away all the sound, leaving only a heart grown too large, slamming against her ribs so hard it hurt, and a tongue too dry to shape even the smallest of whimpers.
Moving slowly, scarcely daring to breathe, she gathered her bulky skirts close around her lower limbs, crept into the moon-shadows at the base of wall, and huddled there, hoping she was nothing more to the searchers than a darkness within other darknesses, a boulder, an old lava flow, something normal and ordinary—not a woman scared almost out of her wits.
Edwina stifled a cry when a shower of rocks clattered down from the rim, starting small landslides of dust and alkali that poured onto her bonnet, her bent shoulders. She put her fist in her mouth to keep back a moan of terror when other voices shouted orders. And Edwina crouched closer to the wall and tried to pray when guns fired, the sound deadly and without mercy.
The moon went behind a fast-moving cloud, came out, pushed the concealing shadows into new configurations. Her body cramped and aching, Edwina went with the shadows, slithered in between two sharp-edged rocks and tried not to listen. She tried harder still not to imagine what was happening to her sister and the girls; not that that was anywhere close to being possible.
Time seemed to stretch and stretch, each second a lifetime, a lifetime filled with worry and fear. She licked her lips, choked back a cough, and closed her swollen eyes. Soon, she told herself, it will be over soon. Indians dont stay long, they just . . . .
Every tale she had heard about the marauding Paiutes and Bannocks, everything she had read in the newspapers about the Little Big Horn and the other savages that had massacred General Custer and his troops came rushing back to taunt her, to add to her fear, her worry. Both hands covering her mouth, Edwina rocked back and forth and fought the scream that was rising in her throat.
The wind died to a trickle and then came back with a vengeance. Beyond the canyon something exploded, sending out a battering ram of sound. Towering flame brightened the night sky with a billow and surge of unsteady orange light. The acrid smell of smoke wafted down into Edwinas hiding place. Men cursed. A woman begged. All while Edwina cowered, terrified and helpless, in the bottom of a paper-littered canyon, wanting to rush out, save her sister and the girls, but knowing she could do nothing—except maybe get herself killed or captured. She had to stay alive, to find some way to rescue Olivia from the savages if that were possible. She just had to.
But the awful silence that followed the crack of mule skinner whips and the creak of departing wagons was almost as terrifying as the shouting and gunfire had been. The quiet, broken only by the keening of the wind, told her she was alone, all alone in the middle of nowhere.
Cold to the bone, almost ill, Edwina finally roused her unwilling body, made it search for a way out of the deep ravine. Clawed by the demons of fear and despair, feeling her way through the dense shadows, almost running in the moonlit areas, she stumbled on up the canyon. And, even after she was sure she had passed the point she had entered it, she went on, looking for a gentler wall, one she could ascend without making any real noise.
Edwina wanted to whimper, to lie down on the rocky floor and weep as she had the night before. But she hadnt enough strength left to do more than just plod on, to face whatever horror that waited in the lonely wastes of the high desert.
The bottom of canyon rose, became almost level with the surrounding countryside. It left her only a small slope of shifting sand to climb before she trudged on, seeking the camp in a featureless land of sage and rabbit grass and moon-glittered pans of white alkali. Coyotes yipped and sang in the distance. Something large and dark rasped through the sage. Dust caked on her face. Sweat, from terror as much as exertion, ran in muddy trickles down from her forehead, and she swiped at them when they stung her eyes. Fear dogged her every step, but Edwina didnt start to shake until she trudged to the top of a small sand hill, saw the dying column of spark-laced smoke rising toward a sky that had already lost most of it stars to the argent glow of approaching dawn.
Dear God, please, no, not Olivia and the girls! She hadnt the breath to scream the incoherent prayer, but the piteous whisper was surely torn from the aching flesh of her beating heart. Any thought of her own safety lost to fear, Edwina forced her legs to move a little faster, to carry her down the hill and across the broad, flat stretch of alkali to what remained of the freight wagons. One was nothing more than a smoldering heap that reeked of strong spirits and burning wool. One more, its contents ransacked, pitched about, trampled, partially destroyed, still stood where it had been left by the mule skinners. The two-seater sat alone. The rest of the heavy, cumbersome vehicles were gone.
The ominous silence chilled her more than the frosty air of breaking dawn, and she was still shaking, trembling violently, when she found the first body. It was almost beyond her bearing. Edwina clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a cry when she saw the bright blood that covered his whiskery face and head and was sure he had been scalped.
Not certain which one of the teamsters he was, only certain he was dead, she felt as if she should do something. Cover him up, or say a prayer for the repose of his soul? There wasnt time for that. Fear and despair whipping her with lashes of fire, she moved around him and ran, a slow, shambling run that took her first to the wagon that had contained their goods. Her trunk and the rest of their personal effects were relatively untouched. Whatever the Indians had been looking for, it wasnt a spinsters plain garments, nor the clothes Olivia had been taking to her husband, nor the hams, bacons, beans, spuds, and other edibles the freighters were carrying for their own eating.
She choked back the whimpers that were crawling up from her pounding heart. Her eyes dry and burning, jumping at every sound, every rustle of brush, flap of canvas, every skitter of wind, Edwina, not really aware of what she was doing, picked up a long-bladed knife from beside the dead camp fire. She carried it with her as she stumbled on through the silent camp, seeking her sister, the girls, hoping against hope that they werent lying dead. Butchered by a battle-crazed savage, left hairless and bloody by the devils that claimed ownership of this desolate land.
Dead or alive, the rest of her family werent there. But Edwina couldnt bear to admit it until she had searched the camp twice, searched every conceivable hiding place—and some that were patently ridiculous. She found bodies enough. Four male bodies that had been shot, three of them still in the blankets where they had spent the night. But the only living creatures in the camp, besides herself, were two large red mules and a dusty-looking gray horse, still saddled and roaming free—and she was too dazed to even wonder where it had come from.
The mules were tied to the picket line and seemed as glad to see Edwina as she was to see them. But possibly for totally different reasons. Big Red, the larger of the two mules, eyed her as she approached, but he didnt shy away, not even when she reached out to touch him.
What am I going to do? Edwina whispered, staring at the mule, trying to force her chaotic thoughts into some sort of order, to make some sensible decisions. About what? She shook her head. Help me, she said, begging the mule for something that was beyond his power to give.
God helps those who help themselves! Marthas oft-repeated words swept through Edwinas mind like a new broom, cleaning out cobwebs and disorder, and for an instant she wanted to force her trembling lips into a smile. She had heard the housekeepers words a thousand times before—and hated them every time—but now they made sense. And, if she stood any chance of rescuing her family and getting herself to a place of safety, sense was what she needed at the moment. Sense enough to know what to do and how.
First things first, she told Big Red. Thats what Martha always says, too. Only whats first? I cant go after them and fight a whole tribe of Indians, I have to . . . .
Mouth still open, she stared at the mule for a moment before she added, her voice hushed, awed, as if it were a concept newly born and glowing with promise, Help. I have to go find help.
It was a daunting task; one she wasnt at all sure she could handle. Not that she had a much choice; she had to go. But where? Which way? Forward or back? They had to have reached the midpoint of their two hundred mile trek. Their freight wagons had left a track that led back to Winnemucca. But Edwina was fairly sure that the forward trail was also marked by the signs of travel left by earlier wagons. Or it had been until yesterday morning when they started traveling across unmarked land.
But either way, it was a hundred miles of nothing, not a journey to be dismissed lightly, or to be undertaken without some careful planning—that much she knew. Her ordinarily good sense told her that, but it wasnt sense that was urging her to hurry, to run before the Indians came back, to . . . .
His ears back, his eyes intent, Big Red looked beyond her, saw something that made him edge away, jerk at the rope of braided leather that tethered him to the picket line. Eyes staring, teeth bared, the other red mule joined him in his apparent unease, and both had their full attention focused on something in the sage brush behind her.
At first Edwina thought it was just the wind which had increased its force as the morning light grew stronger, glittering off the frost, lightening shadows, bringing the silent emptiness of the camp onto center stage. But it wasnt the wind, it was some unknown, still not visible something that moved slowly, hesitantly, through the sage, coming toward the wagons.
Something that whimpered like a dying puppy. And Edwina thought thats what it was, a dog that someone had left on the desert to starve, a dog that was belly-crawling toward the human smell of the camp.
But she knew the crawling thing that came out of hiding about twenty feet away wasnt an animal when it croaked out part of a word, a word that sounded like Ed.
Abject fear squeezing her chest with an iron fist, mouth too dry for words, Edwina whirled and, without hesitating an instant, ran toward the blood-crusted, filthy man. It was Shorty, the same old mule skinner who had given her his coat and offered her comfort, who moved forward on his hands and knees. Oh, dear God, what have they . . . .
Edwina Parkhurst had been writing of fast guns and bloody death, under several different names, for a long time, but words on paper hadnt come close to preparing her for the real thing. For red blood that smelled like copper. For agony that twisted a mans face, left him weak. For the true horror of death. And her hands were shaking when she reached out, stopped the small mans forward motion—but what she really wanted to do was run away, hide from the blood, the pain, stop her ears against his moaning. But she couldnt.
She knew Shorty was dying; no one could suffer wounds like his and live. Dropping the knife, she knelt beside him as he collapsed onto the sand. Trying not to weep at the vile, unspeakable damage that had been inflicted on the old mans body, Edwina leaned close, heard his weak, thready whisper, Hurry, you have to go before . . . .
Shhh, dont try to talk. Ill get my sisters medicines and doctor . . . .
Please, child, go. Moaning deep in his throat, he took in a shallow breath before he turned his face away. Im hurt real bad. I . . . I . . . .
Indians? Edwina asked. Was it Indians that did this to you?
There was no answer. Edwina knew, as she heard the sighing exhalation of a final breath, that there would never again be an answer from the old mule skinner. Kneeling still, Edwina fought against the weary numbness that was invading her limbs, the sense of hopelessness that crept into her very soul. She fought until she had regained strength enough to close Shortys eyes and arrange his limbs in a seemly manner before she got to her feet and went to find something to cover his ravaged body.
That done and a prayer said over him, she stood for a long moment. staring at nothing, she tried to quell the guilt, fear, and shame that were gibbering inside her head, telling her she couldnt possibly make the trip alone. That she was nothing more than a coward, if she hadnt hidden in the canyon maybe she could have done something to save her sister and the girls. That she was selfish, ignorant, a sinner who was going to pay dearly for her sins.
Perhaps it was all true, perhaps she was all those things and more, but, even if her thoughts were as skittish as a roomful of frightened mice, leaping this way and that without actually going anywhere, Edwina couldnt quit. She had to go on, do whatever it was that needed doing—and she had had lots of practice in doing just that. Just get on with it. Her voice was too loud in the desert stillness. But she continued to talk, telling herself what do, giving the orders slowly, like a mother to a small child, speaking softly, designating one task at time, and just talking in the between times. She talked of Olivia, Winnemucca, the girls, whatever came to mind, because she needed to hear the sound of a human voice.
And, even though the gray horse watched her with inquiring eyes, she didnt even pretend she was talking to him or the mules. She began the slow task of gathering supplies for the long trip, mentally checking off her needs as she went, and carrying them over to pile them beside the buggy.
The single word, uttered by an old mans weak pain-filled voice, clawed its way through the throbbing pain, entered the formless nothing that held Talmadge Jones. It forced him to react, to move his hands toward the twin Colts that were cross-belted around his narrow hips.
There were other words, a two-voiced murmur that was only sound, not sense, as it traveled through the darkness. Within the sound was reassurance, whoever he was, Ed was just a kid. Not a man. Not danger.
There was no need to draw, to fight again. Gusting out a sigh, he relaxed his hold on the six-shooters and willed the hurt-free nothingness to come back. But it refused. It left him alone with his aching head, the total night, and the fragments of memory that were too broken to tell what had happened. he couldnt figure why he was lying on sand that smelled of alkali and mules and fire.
Or why the kid called Ed, was dragging stuff around, muttering something about a sister and Winnemucca. Talmadge Jones shifted his body a little, turned over to his side, tried to sit up. Instead he fell back into the nothingness with a dizzy, sickening swoop. But not before he tried, for some reason that he couldnt come close to understanding, to croak out the boys name, to tell the kid he wasnt alone in the endless waste of the high desert.
The whisper of sound came from everywhere and nowhere, rasped like the wind in the sage, scraped across her bare nerves like one of Mr. Poes more terror-filled writings, read by lamplight on a dark and stormy night. Gasping, Edwina whirled around, dropped the pile of quilts she was loading into the two-seater, and looked for something to use as a weapon to defend herself from whatever new danger that had come upon her unannounced. A danger that was trying to call her name.
The gray horse answered the call before she could even catch her breath or have the wit to grab the well-honed knife she had retrieved from the dirt and put on the floor under the front seat of the buggy. Moving away from the picket line, where he had stayed ever since she had unsaddled him and given him and the mules some corn and water, the gelding walked over to the rear of the only remaining freight wagon. There it began nosing at the first body she had found—and forgotten—the mule skinner she assumed had been scalped.
She was less than a yard away, moving around the gelding, when the man lifted a hand to his bloody head and moaned softly.
He was still alive!
The knowledge filtered into her head with agonizing slowness, and Edwina stared down at him for several seconds, trying to believe her senses. Senses that gathered in other information and warned her to stay back, away from the fallen man. A man that was not, judging from his garments and his cross-belted Colts, one of the mule skinners who had brought the wagons from Winnemucca.
Drawing the obvious conclusion, the one linking him with the villains who had killed and destroyed. The outlaws who had taken their plunder and captives and vanishing into the wastelands, Edwina took a small step back and asked, trying to control the tremor in her voice,
Who are you? Why have you done this? Where is my sister?
Groaning again, he said, his voice weak, Ed? Kid, you have to . . . .
Distraught, scared half out of what few senses she had left, and angry, Edwina wanted to . . . to . . . She didnt know what, kill him, maybe. But a touch of remaining reason told her that killing him wouldnt help her rescue Livy and the girls. The reality of the saddled horse, not an Indian pony, finally penetrated her daze, made her realize Shorty had been telling the truth. It wasnt Indians that had attacked. This man was one of the bad ones, an outlaw. She needed to know what he knew and . . . .
The authorities, she whispered. I have to take him to . . . to . . . to the sheriff or somebody in Winnemucca. Theyll make him tell what he knows and then Livy will . . . Theyll find Livy and the girls.
Born of shock, desperation, and fear, the plan, tentative at first, hardened into flinty resolve. It gave her enough courage to shoo the horse out of the way, kneel at the mans side, and examine his wound, the furrow a bullet had plowed in a bloody diagonal line across his forehead. Blood and dust had mixed, dried to an ugly brown crust, and cracked on his face, clung to his whiskers, giving him the appearance of pure evil, a devil straight out of the fires of hell. Edwina shuddered, gulped in a breath, and steeled herself to reach out, touch his face, to see if he was fevered.
Her fingers had barely grazed his burning cheek when his equally hot hand came up, clamped around her wrist, and pulled her close. Choking back a scream, she was almost too frightened to listen when he said, breathing hard, forcing the words out through barely visible lips, Thirsty. Water?
Ignoring his plea, Edwina jerked her wrist free. She remained crouched beside him, trying to remember what little bits of medical knowledge she had garnered over the years—most of it having to do with female complaints and having no application to the moment. Think, you blithering idiot, she told herself, completely unaware she was speaking aloud. The man has been shot. He has a fever. What are you going to do to keep him alive until you can get him to Winnemucca?
She frowned down at him, asked herself another question. Laudanum? She knew it was supposed to dull pain or something. Without saying why she wanted it, Livy had brought more than an ample supply with her. She had brought some other medicines too: carbolic salve, papers of sleeping powder, prune syrup, and so many others that Edwina couldnt come close to naming them all. There was bound to be something that she could use on the mans wound.
Thirsty, he said again, struggling to rise.
Wait, she said, trying, not very successfully, to keep the anger out of her voice, as she forced herself to put her hands on his shoulders, to push him back to the earth. I need to doctor you first.
He subsided, sprawled there, taking in shallow breaths, and acting like he was trying to gather enough of his waning strength to do something more. Whatever it was, Edwina had no intention of allowing it to happen. She was in charge of the situation—at the moment anyway—and she intended to remain in charge, and do whatever she had to do to insure it.
With that goal firmly in mind, she got to her feet and hurried to the freight wagon. There, she rummaged through her sisters belongings until she found salve, laudanum, and a length of pink flannel dress goods to tear into wash cloths and bandages. Back at the wounded man, Edwina lifted his head and began to force a truly hefty dose of the drug down his unwilling throat. Holding his nose when he fought against taking the medicine, she made him gulp it down in order to breathe.
That done, she fetched a basin of water and a bar of Livys precious hard-milled, Lily of the Valley soap. Not wincing once, she cleaned the gaping wound. It was clean and dry before she rubbed on a thick, smelly layer of Dr. Wisemans Carbolated Salve—guaranteed to cure anything that ails man or beast, or so its label read—and wound strips of pink flannel around his head. She tied the ends in a granny knot right in the center of his forehead, giving him an oddly rakish look.
t was black dark, not even a speck of light showing, and the wind was kicking up a real ruckus, rattling stuff around, throwing grit into his face, blowing cold. Real cold.
Whatever the kid had poured down him, it was easing the pain better than any drinking liquor ever would—but it purely came close to curdling on his tongue, it tasted so bad. Still, Tal reckoned, the boy was trying to help, and, at the moment, Talmadge Jones was sore in need of a big serving of that—even if help wasnt anything he was used to taking. But, according to his learning, one good turn deserved another.
Kid, you . . . he said, the words coming slow, slurring, sticking to his tongue like mutton grease. He had to get them out, to warn the boy, whoever he was, about the danger that was coming toward them at a goodly pace. He gasped in some more air. Listen, boy, theres a storm . . . Got to . . . Hurry . . . .
Smelling of mule and sweat and smoke, and something else, something female, oddly tempting, the boy leaned over him, tried to pull him up. Come on, the young, slightly husky voice said, I need to get you into the two-seater.
Too relaxed by far, Tal honestly tried, but it was mostly the boys muscles that got him up on legs that wobbled and made him stagger, with most of his weight draped over the kids shoulders, toward . . . toward . . . What had the kid called it? A two-seater? A buggy? How did a fancy buggy get out in the big middle of nowhere? He shook his head, or wanted to, while he pondered an even bigger mystery: how in the name of fire and water could the kid see to lead him anywhere in the black dark? That was the real mystery.
Wanting to ask for an explanation, but too relaxed to even try to frame the words, Tal let Ed shove him into a padded seat, lift his feet in, and wrap something thick and warm around him. Something that cushioned the ropes the kid used to tie him snugly in place.
Thanks, boy, he managed to mumble before he closed his eyes and his mind crawled loose from his body and went a-wandering all by its lonesome, leaving the rest of him behind in the velvety nothing.
oy? Edwina asked, not talking to the long, lean man slumped and sleeping, in apparent peace, in the front seat of the yellow-wheeled buggy. His dark whiskers still holding flecks of his blood, his dusty hair even more of the dried flakes, and even with the pink bandage around his head, he still looked dangerous. But not nearly as much as he had before she had eased his Colts out of the holsters and kept them for her own protection. A protection that would be even greater if, when he finally came to his senses and saw her, he continued to think she wasnt a female.
When everything was packed and loaded, if she hadnt been so tired and worried, Edwina Parkhurst might have allowed herself a pang of regret when she hacked off her braid of chestnut hair with the knife. But she was past all that when she traded in her skirts, petticoats, drawers, and corset for the red long-johns, wool trousers, and heavy shirt Livy was taking to her beast of a husband.
Wearing the old mule skinners coat and a sweaty felt hat—one she found by the burned wagon—jammed down on her shorn head, and her own Balmoral boots, the newly created Ed Parker let down the side and back curtains on the buggy. She tied them securely in place, picked up the rifle that she was reasonably sure belonged to the outlaw, shoved it under the seat with the knife. She hitched up the two red mules, fastened the gray horse to a lead rope at the rear of the heavily loaded buggy, and headed for Winnemucca with her captive outlaw at her side and a howling, blowing storm, hiding the westering sun and pushing her, with cold, deadly fingers, from behind.