Back | Next

Chapter 3

Mike used Jenny's car, still dug into the embankment, as a stepping stone to climb onto the embankment. When he planted his foot on the peculiar wall, it immediately gave way, showering more dirt on the car. He sprawled awkwardly, cursing under his breath, and dragged himself over the edge.

Once he arose, he gazed down at his tuxedo. Between his recent mishap and the effects of throwing himself onto the pavement when the shooting started, the elegant outfit was looking more than a little scruffy.

The rental company's not going to be happy with me, he thought ruefully. But—

Mike gave Frank a hand climbing up. "Be careful," he urged. "That wall looks solid because it's so shiny, but it's nothing but loose earth."

Once Frank was atop the wall, he turned to help the others. Mike took the moment to examine his surroundings.

His new surroundings. What he saw confirmed his suspicions.

But I think a ticked-off tuxedo rental company is probably the least of my problems.

The "wall" wasn't a wall of any kind. It was simply the edge of a plain stretching into the distance. Everything about that landscape was wrong. There was no level stretch that size anywhere in northern West Virginia. And the sun—

Frank vocalized the thought. "Mike, what's happening? Even the damn sun's in the wrong place." He pointed to the south. "Should be over there."

Or is that the south? wondered Mike. At a guess, I'd say we're facing north instead of east, like we should be.

He thrust the problem aside. Later. There were more pressing problems to deal with. Much more pressing.

The plain was heavily wooded, but not so much so that Mike couldn't see one–two–three farmhouses scattered among open fields. One of the farmhouses was not more than a hundred yards away.

Close enough to make out some details . . . 

"Jesus," hissed Frank.

The two farmhouses in the distance were burning fiercely. The one nearby was not. It was a large and rambling structure. Unlike the wood-frame farmhouses which Mike was familiar with, the construction of this one leaned heavily toward stone. Hand-fitted stone, from what Mike could see. If it weren't for the fact that the farmhouse had all the signs of current occupancy—that unmistakably ragged-respectable air of a place where people worked—Mike would have sworn he was looking at a something out of the Middle Ages.

But he didn't spend more than two seconds studying the farmhouse itself. The farmhouse was still being "worked," but not by farmers.

His teeth were clenched. He could sense that Frank, standing next to him, was filled with the same outrage. Mike looked around. All of his miners were on the plain now, standing in a line staring at the scene.

"All right, guys," he said softly. "I count six of the bastards. May be more inside. Three of them are assaulting that poor woman in the yard. The other three—"

He looked back at the horrendous sight. "Don't know exactly what they're doing. I think they've got that guy nailed to his door and they're torturing him."

Slowly, as softly as possible, Frank levered a round into the chamber of his rifle. Despite its incongruity with the suit he was wearing, the action was quietly murderous. "So what's the plan?" he demanded.

Mike spoke through tight jaws. "I'm not actually a cop, when you get right down to it. And we haven't got time anyway to rummage around in Dan's Cherokee looking for handcuffs." He glared at the scene of rape and torture. "So to hell with reading these guys their rights. We're just going to kill them."

"Sounds good to me," snarled Darryl. "I got no problem with capital punishment. Never did."

"Me neither," growled one of the other miners. Tony Adducci, that was, a beefy man in his early forties. Like many of the miners in the area, Tony was of Italian ancestry, as his complexion and features indicated. "None whatsoever."

Tony, like Mike, was holding a pistol. He reached up with his left hand and quickly removed his tie. Angrily, he thrust it into a pocket. The rest of the miners did likewise with their own. None of them took off their jackets, however. All of them were wearing white shirts and all of them were experienced hunters. Their suit jackets, gray and brown and Navy blue, would make better camouflage. After removing their ties—a bow tie, in Mike's case—the miners simply loosened the top collar buttons. For the first time in their lives, they would "hunt" in their Sunday best, wearing dress shoes instead of boots.

Mike led the way, working toward the farmhouse through a small grove of trees. Birch trees, a part of his mind noted idly. That's odd too. Most of his mind was simply wishing that the slender trees provided more concealment. Fortunately, the criminals at the farmhouse were too preoccupied with their crimes to be paying any attention to the area around them.

The miners got within thirty yards of the house without being spotted. They were now squatting down, hidden in the trees at the very edge of the farm yard. The woman being raped was not more than forty feet away. Mike's eyes shied away from the sight, but his ears still registered her moans.

And the coarse laughs of the men assaulting her. One of them, the man holding her arms to the ground, barked a jeering remark at the man on top of her. The rapist grunted some sort of reply.

Mike couldn't understand the words, but they sounded German. He'd been stationed in Germany for a year, while he'd been in the Army. But he remembered little of the language beyond the essential phrase, ein bier, bitte.

"Those guy are foreigners," muttered Darryl. The young man's face was tight with anger. "Who do they think they are, coming here and—?"

Mike made a short, curt gesture, commanding silence. He went back to studying the criminals.

All of them wore that same peculiar armor and those weird helmets, although the men assaulting the woman had removed theirs. The discarded gear was lying on the ground nearby. The men torturing the farmer still had their armor and helmets on, but they had stacked their firearms against the wall of the farmhouse. From a distance, the "rifles" looked like the same kind of weapons carried by the two men killed by the police chief.

The helmets and armor reminded Mike of pictures he had seen of old Spanish conquistadores. The helmets were metal pots, basically, with flanges tapering into points toward the front and back. The armor, if he remembered right, was called a cuirass. Steel breast and back plates, tied on with leather strips. Outside of the antique-looking firearms, the only weapons they had in their possession were—

Swords? Swords?

He looked back at the three men asaulting the woman. They were not wearing swords, but now that Mike knew what to look for he spotted the weapons immediately. The scabbarded blades had been unbuckled and tossed onto the ground near the firearms. Mike had never once in his life considered the practical mechanics of rape, but he could understand why a sword would be awkward. These men, he was suddenly quite certain, were not committing this crime for the first time. There was a relaxed and practiced casualness about their activity.

You are dead men. The thought was grim, final.

He turned his head and whispered in Frank's ear. "You've got the only rifle. Can you take out the bastards at the door? Don't forget, they're wearing armor. Can't go for a body shot."

Mike and Frank stared at the three men torturing the farmer. The heavy door of the house had been opened wide and pressed against the wall. The farmer's wrists were pinned to the door with knives. A man in front of him was digging another knife into the farmer's thigh, while his two companions shouted at him. The shouts, Mike thought, were some kind of interrogation. It seemed a pointless exercise. The farmer was screaming with pain, oblivious to any questions.

"Forty yards?" Frank snorted. "Don't worry about it. A .30-caliber slug in the ass will take anybody down."

Mike nodded. He turned the other way and motioned toward Harry Lefferts. Harry crept up to him.

Mike scowled at the sawed-off double-barreled shotgun in Harry's hands. "Forget that stupid thing. We've got innocent people mixed up with these thugs." He handed Harry the riot gun he'd taken from the Cherokee. "Use this. It's loaded with buckshot. The magazine's full—I already checked. When Frank shoots those guys at the door, you back him up. He's going to be aiming for their legs, on account of the armor. You finish them off after they're down."

Harry nodded. He tucked the sawed-off shotgun under a nearby shrub and took the riot gun. After passing over the additional shotgun shells in his pocket, Mike glanced around at the rest of his men. All of them, like himself, were armed with nothing more than pistols and revolvers.

He decided there was no point in developing any more of a battle plan. Besides—

I can't bear listening to this any longer.

"Just back me up, guys," he whispered. To Frank: "Don't start shooting till I do."

A second later, Mike rose to his feet and strode out of the trees toward the rapists. He held the revolver in his right hand. His steps were quick, but he was not running. Mike hadn't boxed professionally in years, but the old training and experience had taken over. Steady, steady; don't lose your cool; it's just another fight. A stray, whimsical part of his mind told him how foolish he looked, marching toward mayhem in wingtips and a tuxedo, but he ignored it.

The first man who spotted him was the one squatting on his heels about three feet from the woman. The man had been simply watching the scene, leering. When Mike's movement caught his eye, the man turned his head. His eyes widened. He was not more than thirty feet away, turned sideways.

Mike stopped. He crouched slightly, in a firing-range stance, bringing up the revolver. Some part of his mind noted the instant reflexes of the man he was going to kill, and was impressed. No tyro, he. The man was already rising, shouting a warning.

Both hands, firm grip, cock the hammer. Steady, steady. Center of mass. Squeeze the—

As always, the magnum went off with a roar and bucked in Mike's hand. He watched just long enough to see that the slug had slammed into the man's turning shoulder and knocked him flat. A split second, no more. The man might still be alive, but he was clearly out of the action.

Mike could hear the flat crack of Frank's Winchester, and Harry shouting. He ignored the sounds, blocking them out as easily as he had blocked out the roar of the crowd while he was in the ring. He was swiveling, now, ready to take out the man holding the woman's arms. That one was facing him squarely. Mike could see the man's mouth gaping wide open, but his face was a blur. The man was still on his knees, but he had released the woman's arms and was rearing back on his heels.

Just another fight. Cock the hammer—single-shot's more accurate. Center of mass . . . 

Again, the .357 roared. The shot took the man square in the chest, slamming him back as if he'd been run over by a truck. Mike knew he was dead before he hit the ground.

One left, and he's tangled up in his dropped trousers.

The rapist was shouting something. Again, Mike couldn't understand the words. Nothing registered except fear. The man was scrambling off the woman. He tried to rise, tripped on his trousers, sprawled on his face.

But he was clear of the woman now. Mike raised the revolver, ready to kill him, but stopped when he saw Dr. Nichols was already there. There was something surgically precise about the way Nichols, from close range, leaned over and shot the man in the back of the head. Once, twice.

So much for that. Mike turned away, looking to the farmhouse. He could remember, now, hearing several shots from Frank's rifle.

All three men at the door were lying on the ground. One of them was not moving. He was on his knees, sprawled against the wall of the farmhouse. His buttocks were covered with blood. Mike was certain that he was the first one Frank had shot. For all that he teased Frank about that silly damned lever-action, Frank was both an excellent marksman and one of the most reliable men Mike had ever met. Got his deer every season, usually on the first day. Frank would have shot for the lower spine, just below the cuirass.

Paralyzed, for sure. Probably dead or dying.

The other two were writhing on the ground, screaming, clutching their legs. They didn't scream or writhe for long. Harry was already there, racing forward. The young miner stopped abruptly, a few feet away. He pumped a shell into the chamber, aimed the shotgun and fired. For all that Harry was obviously in a rage, he hadn't lost his composure. He aimed for the neck, unprotected by either helmet or armor. The man was almost decapitated. The buckshot sent his helmet bouncing off the farmhouse wall, the straps broken and flailing about.

Harry swiveled. Pump, level, fire. The other man was silent. Unmoving, dead. Blood and brains everywhere. Another helmet sent flying, straps flapping. For good measure—there would be no mercy here—Harry pumped another round, stepped forward, and shot the paralyzed man sprawled against the farmhouse wall. The range was not more than three feet. This time, the helmet stayed on—but only because the man's head was removed entirely. Blood gushed out of a severed neck, painting the rough stones with gore.

Mike caught a glimpse of motion, somewhere in the darkness within the farmhouse. He ducked.

"Harry—down! Fire in the hole!"

Mike's warning probably saved Harry's life. The young miner was lunging aside when the gun in the farmhouse went off. The bullet took him in the side and knocked him down, yelping. On the ground, Lefferts clutched his ribs, still yelping. But there was more surprise and outrage in the sound than anything else. Mike was pretty sure the wound was superficial.

"Cover me, Frank!" he yelled, racing to the side of the door. He could hear Frank's Winchester firing again. He couldn't see the shots themselves, but knew that Frank would be firing through the door, driving back whoever was inside. In the corner of his eye he saw James Nichols and Tony Adducci leveling their pistols and firing shots into the small windows alongside the farmhouse. He could hear the wooden shutters splintering.

Once he reached the door, Mike pressed himself against the farmhouse wall. He was on the opposite side of the door from the farmer. The man was unconscious, now, soaked with blood and sagging. His weight—he was a middle-aged man, heavy in the gut—was tearing his wrists badly. Blood spurted everywhere.

Christ, he'll bleed to death. Mike's decision was instant. He sprang across the doorway to the farmer's side, momentarily exposing himself to fire from within the farmhouse. But there was no gunshot. Two quick powerful jerks withdrew the knives. As gently as he could, Mike lowered the man to the ground.

That was all he could do for him at the moment. Mike hesitated, then, for a second or two. The interior of the farmhouse was so poorly lit it was impossible to see anything inside. Caution and his Army training urged him to wait until his companions could come up in support. On the other hand—

All these guns are those weird antiques. Single-shot muzzle-loaders. I'll bet that son of a bitch hasn't had time to reload.

Again, decision was sharp, immediate. Mike dove through the door and landed rolling.

Good decision, bad luck. His enemy hadn't had time to reload. Unfortunately, Mike rolled right into him.

For a moment, everything was chaos. Mike felt a body landing on top of him. The surprise, as much as the collision, jarred the pistol out of his hand. Frantic now, he lunged to his feet, hurling the man off his back.

Tried to, at least. The man, whoever he was, clutched Mike like a wrestler. Mike snarled and slammed his elbow backward.

Damn! He'd forgotten the cuirass. His left elbow was aching from the impact. But at least he'd knocked the man loose.

Mike had never been in a gun battle before in his life. He had a boxer's training and instincts, not a gunfighter's. He didn't even think to look for his pistol. He just pivoted and drove a right cross into his enemy's chin.

Eight pro fights. The first seven had been won by knockouts, none of them later than the fourth round. Mike had quit the game because he'd realized he didn't quite have the reflexes. But nobody had ever said he didn't have the punch.

The thug, whoever he was, sailed across the room and slammed against a heavy table. His jaw hung loose, broken. His head lolled to the side.

That dazed helplessness brought no mercy. Neither that, nor the fact that the man was quite a bit smaller than Mike. This was not a fight governed by Marquis of Queensbury rules. Mike bounced forward on his toes and slammed another right hand, low into the man's abdomen below the cuirass. Another. If there'd been a referee, Mike would have been disqualified by either punch. His next blow was a left hook, which shattered the man's jaw and lifted him right off his feet. Mike was a very strong man, and—unlike most—he knew how to fight. The blows were like sledgehammers. Mike started to slam another right into the thug's face but managed to stop the punch.

Christ, Stearns—enough! He's done.

He forced himself to step back, as if being driven off by an invisible referee. The trained reaction brought some clarity to his thoughts. Mike was shocked to realize how much fear and rage had taken possession of him. He felt like a vial of pure adrenaline.

His opponent collapsed to the floor in a heap. Mike dropped his arms and let his fists open. His hands hurt. He'd forgotten how much punishment bare-knuckle fighting inflicted on the victor as well as the vanguished.

He was starting to tremble now, from delayed reaction to the entire fight. The gunplay was affecting him more than anything else. For all that he'd been something of a roughneck in his youth, Mike had never killed anyone before.

A hand fell on his shoulder, turning him around. He saw Dr. Nichols' concerned face. "Are you all right?"

Mike nodded. He even managed a wan little smile, and held up his hands. Three of the knuckles were split and bleeding. "Far as I know, Doc, this is all that's wrong with me."

Nichols took the hands and examined them, kneading the joints. "Don't think anything's broken," he muttered. The doctor cast a quick glance at the unconscious thug on the dirt floor of the farmhouse. "But as hard as you punch, young fellow, I'd really suggest you use gloves from now on. That bastard looks like somebody took an ax handle to him."

For a moment, Mike felt a little light-headed. He could sense other miners ranging through the farmhouse, looking for more enemies. But there weren't any. The blood rushing through his ears blurred the words they were speaking, but Mike could sense from the tone that all danger was past.

He took a deep, almost shuddering breath. Then, with a quick shake of the head, he cleared away the sensation of dizziness. Nichols released his hands.

"Thanks, Doc," he said softly.

Nichols' face broke into a sudden smile. "Please—call me James! I believe we've been properly introduced."

The doctor turned away. "And now I've got some badly injured people to deal with. I think I've tattered the Hippocratic Oath enough for one day." In a mutter: "Christ, Nichols. 'First, do no harm.' "

Guiltily, Mike remembered Harry Lefferts. And the farmer and the woman he assumed was his wife. He started after Nichols, ready to lend assistance. Then stopped and turned, looking for Frank.

Jackson was standing by a large fireplace, slowly examining the interior of the room. Most of the farmhouse seemed to consist of a single chamber, although Mike could see a slender staircase—more like a ladder—leading to the upper story. Very little light filtered into the farmhouse, since the few windows were tiny. But Mike could see that the place was a complete shambles. The thugs had obviously been looting, along with their other crimes. Now that he'd seen how thoroughly the farmhouse had been ransacked, Mike realized that the farmer had been tortured in order to reveal whatever hidden treasures he might possess.

Not much, from the looks of this place. For all its size and painstaking construction, the house was poorer-looking than any farm Mike had ever seen. There wasn't even any interior lighting. Nor plumbing, from what he could tell. No glass in the windows. Even the floor was simply packed earth.

Frank's eyes met him. "I'll see to this, Mike. Tony's already checking upstairs. You go help the doctor."

Outside, Mike found Nichols working on the farmer. The doctor, having apparently gone through all the bandages in the first-aid kit, had removed his suit jacket and was tearing his shirt into strips. He was now bare from the waist up. For all that Nichols was in late middle age, there was almost no fat on his wiry musculature. The hard black flesh, covered with a thin film of sweat, gleamed in the sunlight.

Mike looked around. Darryl was tending to Harry Lefferts. Lefferts also had his shirt off, and was goggling at the wound in his side. It was quite spectacular—his entire thigh and hip were soaked with blood, along with his ribs—but Mike didn't think it was really serious. The wound was already bound with a bandage roll. The bandage was bloodstained, but Mike thought the bleeding had stopped.

"It's just a flesh wound," he heard Nichols say. Mike turned. The doctor had cocked his head toward him. "I treated Harry first thing. He'll have a truly amazing scar to boast to his grandkids about, but the bullet just traveled along one rib before passing out. No internal bleeding, so far as I can tell."

Nichols' head jerked toward the woman. She had rolled over onto her side, her hands covering her face. Her knees were drawn up to her chest, in fetal position. She was sobbing quietly and steadily. Her shabby dress had been pulled back down over her legs and two jackets were covering her further. The miners who had contributed those jackets—Don Richards and Larry Masaniello—were squatting nearby. Their expressions were confused and distressed. Beyond what they'd done, they obviously had no idea what other help they could give her.

"She'll be all right," murmured Nichols. His face tightened. "As much as any gang-rape victim, anyway." He looked back down at the farmer. "But this guy might not make it. There are no major arteries severed, but he's lost an enormous amount of blood."

Mike squatted by the doctor. "How can I help, James?" He saw that Nichols had bound up all of the farmer's wounds. But blood was already soaking through the cloth. The doctor was tearing more strips from his ruined shirt, ready to add new bandages.

"Give me your tuxedo jacket, for starters. See if there are any blankets inside. Anything to keep him warm. He's in shock."

Mike took off his jacket and handed it to the doctor, who spread it over the farmer. Then Nichols blew out his cheeks. "Get me an ambulance, so we can take this poor guy to a hospital. Short of that, I've done all I can here without medical supplies and facilities."

The doctor raised his head and slowly studied the surrounding area. "But somehow I've got a bad feeling that ambulances and hospitals are going to be hard to come by."

His eyes met Mike's. "Where the hell are we, anyway?" He managed a smile. "Please don't tell me this is what West Virginia's really like. My daughter's been pushing me to move my practice here." Again, his eyes ranged about. "Not even that movie Deliverance was this crazy. And that was somewhere in the backwoods, if I remember right. We're only an hour and a half from Pittsburgh."

Mike copied the doctor's examination of the surrounding area. Softly: "I don't think we're in West Virginia anymore, Toto." Nichols chuckled. "Nothing's right, James—not the landscape, not the trees, not the people, not—" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, pointing to the farmhouse which loomed behind them. "There's nothing like this in West Virginia, I'll tell you that. For all the poverty of this place, the farmhouse itself is no rickety shack. Anything that big and well-built and old would have been declared a historical monument fifty years ago."

He leaned over and seized one of the thugs' guns, still leaning against the farmhouse. After a quick scrutiny, he held it out for Nichols.

"You ever seen anything like this?" The doctor shook his head. "Neither have I," mused Mike. "Ken Hobbs says it's a matchlock. He'd know, too. He's made a hobby of antique weapons his whole life. They haven't made guns like this in—oh, must be two hundred years. At least. Even by the time of the American Revolution, everybody was using flintlocks."

He eyed the weapon's bore respectfully. "Look at this thing, will you? Must be at least .75 caliber."

He started to add something else, but was interrupted by Frank, coming out of the door.

"All clear," he said. Jackson seemed as unflappable as ever. Some of that was simply his personality, but some of it was due to the fact that the union's secretary-treasurer was the only one of them besides Nichols who had real combat experience.

Mike examined the other men he could see. All of them except Jackson and Nichols, now that the fight was over, were starting to react. Lefferts was lying on his back, clutching the bandage to his side and staring at the sky. The young miner, who had been so murderously ruthless in the heat of the action, seemed like a stunned steer. His eyes were wide, empty of all thought. Kneeling next to him, Darryl's head was slumped between his shoulders. He was gripping his knees so tightly that his knuckles were white. Off to the side, near the rape victim, Don Richards and Larry Masaniello were no longer squatting alertly with their guns in their hands. Both men were now sitting flat, their legs sprawled out in front, supporting themselves with their hands. Their weapons were lying on the ground. Both men were breathing heavily. Richards was cursing softly. Masaniello, a devout Catholic, was muttering the Lord's Prayer.

Mike blew out his breath almost like a whistle. "I think most of us are in a bit of shock, James. Except you and Frank."

The doctor barked a little laugh. "Don't kid yourself. Sometime tonight I'll wake up in a panic. So will Frank, I imagine."

Jackson, leaning against the door post, shook his head. "Not tonight. Not tomorrow night, either. But the day after that'll be real bad. I'll get the shakes, sure as shooting." He surveyed the scene grimly. "Christ, this was a worse firefight than anything I saw in Nam."

He shrugged himself off the doorpost. "But at least we did almost all the firing." He stared down at Mike, who was still squatting next to the doctor. "And how are you?" he demanded. Before any reply could come: "And don't give me any shit, Mike. You're not that tough."

Mike chuckled humorlessly. "I wasn't about to claim it. Truth? I feel like a truck hit me. Still trying to figure out how come I'm still alive." He had a flashing image of himself marching forward into the farmyard like a killing machine, cold as ice. Bang. Bang. Just like that. One dead, one—

He looked over at the body of the first man he had shot. In the shoulder. He didn't need to be a doctor to know that the man was dead, dead, dead. The magnum round must have blown right through into the heart.

Well, that's why you bought that monster in the first place. Stopping power, they call it. Jesus!

He pursed his lips, trying to decide exactly how he felt. Frank cut through the fog.

"Don't," his friend said. "You won't make any sense of it today, Mike. Trust me. Let it go for a time."

"Truth," echoed Nichols. The doctor rose to his feet. The motion reminded Mike that he was supposed to look for blankets.

"Sorry," he muttered. Mike got up and started toward the farmhouse door. "Frank, did you notice any blankets while you were—"

Suddenly, a shout came from above. Tony Adducci's voice. Mike looked up. Tony was leaning out of a small upper-story window, pointing his finger.

"We got more trouble!" he exclaimed. Mike followed the pointing finger. There was a small dirt road leading away from the farmyard, bending around a grove. From the ground, Mike couldn't see anything past the trees.

Apparently, Adducci could see over them. "There's a—ah, hell, Mike, I swear it's true—there's a stagecoach coming this way, escorted by four horsemen. They aren't more than a quarter of a mile away. Be here any second."

His voice rose with excitement. "With about another twenty men pounding after them on foot! Some of those are carrying goddamit huge spears! I kid you not—spears, for Christ's sake."

Leaning over the window sill, Tony glared down at the dead thugs lying in the farmyard. "Look just like these bastards. So do the ones riding the horses, for that matter."

Mike stared in the direction Tony had pointed. The dirt road was more in the nature of a cart path. Two furrows worn into packed earth. The trees blocking his sight of the area beyond were twenty yards away. But Mike could now hear the sound of pounding hooves.

Seconds later, four horsemen came into view around the trees. These men were also wearing helmets and cuirasses, with swords scabbarded to their waists. Mike could see what looked like very large pistols slung from the saddles.

The lead horseman spotted him and shouted something. All four riders drew up the reins, bringing their mounts to a skittering halt. A moment later, they were followed around the bend by a vehicle drawn by a team of six horses. The driver frantically sawed on the reins, barely bringing the vehicle to a halt before it rammed into the stationary outriders. As it was, the vehicle slewed sideways across the road. One of the wheels caught a furrow, almost tipping the thing over.

Tony had called it a "stagecoach," but it was like no stagecoach Mike had ever seen—not even in a movie. The vehicle, for all its elegant woodwork and ornate trappings, reminded him more of a small covered wagon.

Again, the lead horseman shouted something. As before, the words were foreign, but Mike was now almost certain that the language was German. At least, if his memory wasn't playing tricks on him.

A moment's silence followed, as the horsemen stared at the Americans. The two miners by the woman had risen to their feet and were holding their guns half-raised. So was Darryl. So were Frank and Tony. Nichols rose to a half-squat, the police pistol held loosely but easily in his hands. Even Hank, still sprawled on the ground clutching the bandage to his ribs, was groping for the riot gun. The last miner, Chuck Rawls, was in the farmhouse. Mike heard him whisper through the door: "I've got 'em covered, Mike. Just say the word."

Mike held out his hands. "Hold everything! Let's not start shooting without cause!"

He could see the four horsemen reaching slowly for the pistols slung at their saddles. Mike remembered—uneasily and belatedly—that his own weapon was lying somewhere on the floor of the farmhouse.

That moment, the curtain on the side of the coach was drawn aside. A face popped through, staring at Mike. The face was that of a young woman, looking very distraught. A few strands of long black hair had escaped the cap over her head. Her eyes were brown and her complexion was dark, as if she were Spanish. She was also—

Mike suddenly smiled. Cheerful as could be. Strangely so, perhaps. But, then again—perhaps not. Instincts will work sometimes, after all, even when logic and reason have fled.

"Ease up, guys! I think we've got a damsel in distress here. The way I see it, that makes figuring out which side we're on a piece of cake."

Frank chuckled. "You always were a romantic. And a damn fool for a pretty face."

Mike shrugged. Still smiling, he started moving slowly toward the carriage. He kept his hands widespread, so that the outriders could see he was unarmed.

"You call that face 'pretty'?" he demanded over his shoulder. "You're nuts, Frank. Me, I think we just got promoted. We were on the set of that movie Deliverance." With a snort: "Or maybe it was Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Now—"

The woman's face was closer. "Now we're in Cleopatra," Mike said. The words came out much more softly than he'd intended. And he realized, with a little start of surprise, that he was no longer joking at all.



Back | Next