Authors: Molly O'Keefe
Into the Wild #1
Copyright © 2014 Molly O’Keefe
All rights reserved.
E-book formatting by Jessica Lewis
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locations are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
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May 15, 1867
One hundred miles southwest of Denver
MELODY HURST STARED unblinking at the cabin and wondered if she'd left her home in Georgia only to die here in this cold, foreign clearing.
“Go on now,” said her husband, Jimmy, from the trees behind her.
“There's no one here.” She pitched her voice low, though she didn't know why. There was no smoke from the chimney, no sounds from inside. The cabin, the almond-shaped clearing, the barn and the rocky outcropping it was built into—everything was still.
“Best be sure.” She glanced at him, hiding in the brush to her right, and he lowered his rifle toward her and pointed at the door. His eyes cold and hot all together. “Go.”
There was no choice, really.
She cast one fleeting, desperate look over her shoulder toward her sister, Annie, who was hiding with their horses in the trees near the barn at the other end of the hundred-yard field. Melody couldn't see her, and it was a blade to her heart to know she was out there.
I'm sorry I got you into this.
Marrying Jimmy after the war was supposed to give them security. Peace of mind. Protection. Because before the war, that was what the men she knew did. They cared for their women, their land, their horses. The war had changed everything, though, and if there were still men with the capacity for kindness, she did not know them anymore.
Her heart pounding in her throat, Melody stepped out from the tree line through the high grasses and flowers. It was a cloudy, gray afternoon, and the blooms in the clearing were closed up tight.
The simple log cabin was graced with an extensive covered porch complete with a railing and a chair—it was ludicrous, that porch on such a plain building. A bonnet on a donkey. But she imagined the owner of this cabin could sit, put his feet up, and look at the clearing, the flowers, the barn opposite and the snow-capped mountains in the western distance. His entire kingdom.
What a pleasure that must be for him
A pleasure Jimmy and his Remington fully intended to rob him of.
Her whole life she’d been called too clever for her own good; she had manipulated more than her share of outcomes, but she could not conceive of anything that would get her and Annie out of this horror.
The porch was made from the trunks of saplings strapped together, and she nearly tripped walking across the uneven surface.
“Hello?” she called, her voice shaking.
Please don't be home. Please. Please don't be home
They'd tracked Mr. Baywood across the West, missing him by a day in Denver. A fortuitous accident for Mr. Baywood, but Jimmy had been furious. Her arm still ached where he'd grabbed it in their hotel room, hard enough to leave purple-black smudges on her skin.
There was a chance that this might not be Mr. Baywood's claim. But having grown used to cruel fate and bad fortune in the years since The War of Northern Aggression started, she knew when those two evil specters were present. And they were here in this clearing.
She knocked on the door.
There was no answer.
Not that it would change anything for Steven Baywood. Jimmy meant to kill him. But at least she wouldn't be standing in the way when Jimmy gunned him down.
“He's not here,” she said, in relief more than anything.
A sudden crack of rifle fire in the forest to the west scared a flock of birds from the trees and nearly sent her to her knees.
Jimmy ran from the forest and jumped onto the porch.
“He's hunting,” he said, his entire body alight with malicious victory as he stepped past her to the door. He pulled the knotted string that released the bar inside to open the door and went into the cabin. “He's close. Get in here.”
His glee set off a terrible anxiety in her chest. Panic roared through her and she was lightheaded with fear. Her hands went numb, her knees loose.
“You hear me, Melody?” he snapped, his joy at finding the man he'd been hunting replaced by irritation with her.
Usually she'd immediately placate him if they weren't setting an ambush. But the strict rules that she followed, in an effort to keep the violence against herself reduced to some manageable level, were wiped away by the specter of this larger violence.
“I'm going to check on Annie.” She didn't wait for Jimmy's permission before lifting her faded blue skirts and sprinting across the clearing and into the forest.
Her sister—so calm, so familiar in their brother's old jacket, her glasses sliding down her nose—stood beside three horses who had long ago grown used to gunfire. They calmly nosed the pine needles on the ground, looking for grass.
We could ride away.
With Jimmy so preoccupied with Mr. Baywood, they could get on those horses and head west. Or back to Denver.
They had tried it once, with disastrous results. Jimmy had caught them outside of St. Joseph, hurt Melody so bad they'd had to stay for a week until she could move without pain. But certainly they'd learned something from that failure? How to cover their tracks better? How to move faster, ride all night?
The thought was mirrored in Annie's anxious and knowing brown eyes. She could practically hear her sister saying the words.
But Melody still remembered what Jimmy had said while beating her like a dog who'd disobeyed:
Next time it will be your sister I kick, and I won't stop.
“We can't,” Melody whispered, trying to talk both of them out of it. She'd done so little to protect her sister after the war, she had to try now. “We have no money. No means. He'd find us. Jimmy will kill Mr. Baywood, steal the gelding in the barn and find us within the day.”
And kill you. He'd kill you, Annie.
Annie grabbed Melody's hands.
“You go.” Melody's fingers bit hard into Annie's, so hard her sister gasped. Or perhaps it was what Melody was suggesting that made her eyes go wide with horror and astonishment. “I'm serious, Annie. Get on the horse and go. I'll keep him here. He might—” Well, this was awful, but probably true nonetheless. “He might not care.”
“I care and I will not leave you.”
“Jimmy means to kill this man.” A rare wave of hysteria swept over her. Mr. Baywood had been a Yankee soldier, a prisoner at Andersonville where Jimmy had been a guard during the last months of the war. Melody didn’t know what happened between them, how Mr. Baywood had escaped or why Jimmy deserted and fled with him. All she knew was that somehow Mr. Baywood had betrayed him. And Jimmy had spent the last ten months tracking him down. “I don't know what his crimes are. I keep telling myself that perhaps he deserves it. That he might be an evil man. But he has...he has built a cabin. With the most ridiculous porch...”
Annie squeezed her hands until the pain snapped her back from the edge of panic.
“Perhaps it's not his cabin?” Annie asked.
The lunacy of false hope. Melody had clung to it too many times, only to feel it capsize under the weight of her grim reality. Melody closed her eyes, wishing all over again with every scrap of strength that she had left that she could somehow reverse every decision she'd ever made that led them to this clearing.
“Please go,” she whispered. “You'll find work. You'll be safe.”
“Not without you,” Annie whispered. “This might not even be his cabin.”
Melody took a deep breath and then another, reaching out again for the thin, unpredictable comfort of false hope, if for no other reason than to help her sister cling to hers. “Perhaps.”
Hand in hand they turned and walked back to the cabin, going slowly to accommodate Annie's club foot, and because they were in no hurry to be party to an ambush.
“It's a fine porch,” Annie whispered.
Melody bit back a sob.
INSIDE, JIMMY HAD made himself comfortable. He'd put the stack of newspapers he’d gathered traveling from town to town over the last ten months onto the table in the middle of the room. He'd taken one of the three chairs and set it to face the door.
His Remington was in his lap.
“Over there.” Jimmy pointed to a low bench, with a homemade mattress, nestled into the shadows on the other side of the wide stone hearth, where dying embers barely glowed. Annie and Melody crossed the dirt floor, giving Jimmy, his Remington, and his unpredictable temper a wide berth, to sit down on the mattress. Hay crinkled beneath them, poking through the rough linen to jab Melody through her skirts.
Over the workbench on the far wall was a window covered with greased paper. On such a gray day it let in very little light. The shadows inside were deep and thick.
“How can you be sure this is Mr. Baywood's property?” Melody asked.
Jimmy pointed to the wall behind them. She and Annie both turned to see newspaper clippings tacked to the wall. News of a five-barrel petroleum distillery in Pennsylvania. The pages of a pamphlet called “Report on the Rock Oil, or Petroleum, from Venango Co., Pennsylvania.”
“The daguerreotype,” Jimmy said. “He had it in prison.”
Next to an announcement proclaiming the Army's need for kerosene in the western forts was a faded daguerreotype of a family in their Sunday best. Three teenage boys and a younger girl, her hair still in braids, sat unsmiling at the feet of an older seated couple, whose clasped hands rested on the man's knee. The woman was trying not to smile.
Melody turned away, her eyes burning.
, she thought, her fingernails digging into her palms
. I can accept no more grief. I have enough of my own
An hour passed as if on the edge of a piano wire, and just when she thought she would scream from the tension and silence, there was a heavy thump on the porch, and a moment later the door swung open, letting in the cold bite of spring mountain air and a big blond man who, at the sight of Jimmy at his table, quickly lowered the rifle on his shoulder.
“Drop it,” Jimmy said.
“You,” Mr. Baywood said.
Melody sucked in a breath, and Mr. Baywood's eyes, blue as the sky, swung to her for a moment and widened in surprise.
“We start shooting in here, one of those women is likely to get hurt,” Mr. Baywood said.
“Likely.” Jimmy did not lower his gun, but after a moment Mr. Baywood did, setting it down on the dirt floor beside the door. And in that one chivalrous gesture, no doubt orchestrated his death.
He didn’t seem to be scared, which was strange. Most people were scared of Jimmy, even if he wasn't lying in ambush and holding a gun on them. It was the deserter's brand on the side of his face, the ragged
over his cheek and across one eye.
“Shut the door. You’re lettin' in the cold air.”
Mr. Baywood shut the door, but not before Melody saw the dead turkey, plucked and dressed, on the porch. His hunt had been successful.
So had Jimmy's.
“How did you find me?” Mr. Baywood asked.
“You left a trail a letters.”
Was it her imagination or did Mr. Baywood's shoulders slump?
“Those were for my family.”
“Which I pretended to be. Since my homecoming in Georgia was not welcomin'.” He turned his face slightly, and in the dim twilight the brand on his face was illuminated in macabre detail. “My wife and I went on to St. Louis, where I saw a notice in the newspaper that there was a letter at the post office for anyone with the last name Baywood. I got real curious. Could it be my partner—”
“We were never partners.”
“You were singin' a different tune when I let you outta that hellhole. When I shared my rations with you.” Jimmy's voice got low and flat, the sign of his temper rising.