Cowboy Paladin (part 2)
Patience hated being home alone at night, but all she could do was bar the door and hope for the best. No doubt either a poker game or a bottle of whiskey had prevented her father from making it home before sundown. More likely, it was both. She was used to his feckless ways, and most of the time she managed just fine without him.
But right now a noise outside reminded her of just why she'd been hoping her father would have made it home. She'd grown up on this farm and thought she knew the sound of every kind of varmint that made its home in the area, but she flat didn't know what or who had been prowling their woods the past few nights. It would be nice if it was just a pack of hungry coyotes looking for an easy meal in her hen house. However, if that were the case, the hens would be pitching a fit. So far, they'd remained quiet.
No, her gut instincts screamed that there was something far more sinister lurking in the woods that surrounded the house. She lifted Pa's shotgun off the pegs on the wall to make sure it was loaded and then put several more shells in her apron pocket. A couple hit the floor thanks to the fumbling of her trembling hands.
She knelt to pick them up while keeping her attention focused on the front door and the small glass window that looked out on the front porch. Closing her eyes, she listened hard in the hopes of figuring out what was going on outside.
Dear heavens, footsteps and definitely more than one person. No sound of horses or a wagon, so the intruders were afoot. Where had they come from? The nearest town was five miles away, and the stagecoach didn't run at night. Whatever the intruders were up to, it couldn't be good or else they'd have called out to explain their presence. She'd offer them food and what few coins she had if she thought it would do any good. Instead, Patience held her ground and waited.
The boards on the front porch creaked and then went silent. Fear tasted bitter on her tongue, and her breath was coming in short bursts now. For certain, Death himself stood outside on the porch.
"You, out there! I've got a gun aimed right at the door. Leave before I pull the trigger!"
Male laughter rang out, and a face appeared in the window only long enough to see that she was alone.
"Open the door, human female."
The words, spoken in a heavy accent, struck her as odd. Why would he refer to her that way? Of course she was human. So was he. She repeated her earlier statement, but this time pulled back the trigger on the shotgun and stood ready to fire. Her father had his faults, but he'd made sure she knew how to defend herself. One woman against multiple men might not stand much of a chance, but she wasn't about to meekly surrender to whatever fate they had in mind for her.
The doorknob rattled, not that that would get them inside. She had barred the door right after her father had left for town. Something else he'd taught her to do from a young age. The heavy wooden beam was solid, but it wouldn't hold against a determined assault. The thin glass in the window wouldn't prove to be much of a barrier, either. It wasn't big enough for an average man to wiggle through, but it wouldn't stop a bullet.
Her mind whirled as she tried to think. It wasn't in her to go down without a fight, but one woman didn't stand a chance against who knew how many men. If they couldn't force their way into the house, they could burn her out. So many possibilities, all of which played in their favor.
Would she be safer outside? She knew every inch of the woods around the house, which could play to her advantage. Because of her father's tendency to get himself into trouble with gambling debts, he'd made sure there was more than one way out of the cabin. It had been a long time since the two of them had taken to the hills to avoid facing off against trouble when it came calling, but she hadn't forgotten how to make good her escape.
She set the shotgun down near the trapdoor in the bedroom floor and gathered a few things to take with her: a tall candle, a change of clothes, a blanket, and a little food. After stuffing what she could in a small valise, she hurried back into the kitchen to douse the fire and the candles.
When the last flicker of light died away, her tormentors prowled closer to the door again.
"Human woman, the shadows will not keep you safe. Not from us. Come out now or we will come in." The words were accompanied by a bark of raucous laughter.
The sudden chill that swept through the room wasn't because the fire was out. No, it was fear, pure and simple, but she couldn't let it get the best of her. After one last look around, she retreated to the bedroom and opened the trap door as quietly as she could. Even the smallest of sounds echoed loudly in the night, but she kept moving. Rather than drop the pack down into the root cellar, she lowered it with a short length of rope that her father had attached to the ladder for just that purpose. Next she unloaded the shotgun to avoid setting it off by accident.
Finally, after taking a deep breath, she lowered herself onto the ladder and descended into darkness.
It took her several attempts to light the candle. Even then, its pale light didn't drive back the shadows very far. She gathered up her pack and started down the tunnel her father hand painstakingly dug that led into the woods. The other end came out in the middle of a clump of large rocks and was covered with a thin layer of dirt and leaves, making it nearly impossible to spot even in broad daylight.
Patience hated—HATED—the damp, narrow passage, fearing it would collapse at any minute even though her father had shored it up with planks of wood. The ceiling was too low for her to stand upright, making it difficult to hold the candle up high enough to take the best advantage of its light. The journey, no more than seventy feet or so, took forever. Carrying the shotgun and the valise in one hand only made it that much harder. By the time she reached the rickety ladder at the other end, she found it impossible to draw a full breath to the point it took her three attempts to extinguish the candle flame.
As soon as the darkness swallowed her up, she started up the ladder, moving slowly and praying the strangers were still prowling around the house. Even if they were, all it would take is one wrong sound to draw their attention right to her. She eased the trapdoor up just far enough to peek out. Thanks to the boulders surrounding the door, she couldn't see more than a few inches in any direction.
Before she could crawl the rest of the way out of the tunnel opening, a loud crash rang out through the woods followed by shouting and the sound of running feet. Dear heavens, the bastards had finally broken into the cabin and now knew she was no longer inside. How long would it take them to find the tunnel?
It didn't matter. One way or another, she needed to put some distance between herself and her pursuers if she was going to stand a chance of surviving the night. There was no way she could make it back to the barn to get the horse. Even if she could reach it unseen, there wouldn't be time to saddle Maisy. Besides, the mare was a plow horse built for strength, not speed. No, Patience would be better off to aim for the cave near the top of the hill.
She set the valise on the ground out of the way and then climbed out of the hole, taking care to ease the door back down as quietly as she could. It took a few precious seconds to reload the shotgun, but she figured it was time well-spent. Although she'd make better time if she could light the way with the candle, it would reveal her location. Instead, she'd have to depend on memory and her sense of direction to get her safely to the cave.
There was just enough moonlight to help her follow the familiar route that wound up and around the steep slope. It was with some relief when she reached the far side of the hill. Only a few feet to go before she could take refuge in the deep cave. Once there, she could light the candle and wait for daylight, hoping those men down below would grow bored and move on.
As she neared the entrance of the cave, she paused to look back one last time to make sure she was alone. So far, luck was with her. Once inside, she prayed she'd be safe until morning. But when she stepped across the threshold and lit her candle, her luck ran out.
Two more of the strangely dressed men stepped toward her with dark smiles and swords in hand. Another came in behind her and grabbed the shotgun before she could do anything but scream. They quickly surrounded her, and she saw her own death glittering their pale eyes. Praying it would be mercifully quick, she screamed one last time before a calloused hand covered her mouth and shut off all hope of rescue.
They dragged her back outside into the night air, arguing in a language that she couldn't understand. She fought them every inch of the way, but one woman against three strong men didn't stand much of a chance. When she landed a lucky kick, one of her attackers doubled over in pain as he grabbed his man parts with both hands. He shot her a look that promised retribution. Before he could make good on his threat, a shot rang out. He stumbled a few steps before falling to the ground dead.
The other two men drew swords and kept her close as they retreated toward the cave, all the while scanning the trees for some sign of the shooter.
Finally, a man stepped out of the trees, holding a revolver in one hand and a sword in the other. His eyes met hers briefly, and then he stared at the two men holding her prisoner, his smile as dark and cold as theirs had been. "Gentlemen, I suggest you let the lady go."
The taller of her captors sneered. "Why would we do that, Paladin? Our brothers will soon have you surrounded, and you will not live long enough to walk down off this hillside. If you ask nicely, we will let you live long enough to watch us have our pleasure with this female."
Once again he looked at her and slowly nodded his head just a little. What was he trying to tell her? There was no way he could get a clean shot at the men with her standing in front of the them. Oh, that's what he wanted. She nodded back and then collapsed and dropped down as far as she could. The stranger got off a quick series shots, some of which found their targets sending a hot spray of blood raining down on her.
She screamed as she scrambled to break free of the dying men's grasp. Her rescuer charged forward and grabbed her by the arm to drag her back up to her feet.
"Damn it, woman, hush. If those shots didn't tell their friends right we are, all that caterwauling sure will."
Despite his obvious irritation, his touch remained gentle, and he shortened his stride to match hers as he led her into the woods. She did her best to keep up and prayed she hadn't just exchanged one villain for another.