“DO YOU WANT to stretch your legs before we head back?” Cullen asked.
“Yes.” Kit dismounted, feeling stiff and achy. She stepped to the cliff’s edge that overlooked the Deschutes River to get a broader view of the falls and rapids. A low timber growth spread out before her, and the air smelled of river water and dead leaves and rain-soaked earth.
Travel had been hard since leaving Baker Valley. The trail had led through heavily forested mountains, then through a narrow pass, which ended the climb out of the Grand Ronde and the last stretch of the Blue Mountains. From there they’d descended the Umatilla Hill to the valley, crossed the Umatilla River, and headed into a forty-mile stretch of sandy land until they had reached the John Day River the day before. Now Cullen was scouting the Deschutes crossing.
Looking out over the expanse, Kit experienced an unsettling flutter in her stomach. Was it the baby? Cullen appeared somber and reflective. The sun caught in his eyes and for a second, she saw him as he had first appeared to her when she was ten. An isolated cloud cast his face in shadow. Her stomach fluttered again, and sweat trickled between her swollen breasts. Then the cloud moved away and the sun returned.
“I need to go the bushes,” she said.
Cullen gave her a pensive smile. “Give me the backpack. I’ll wear it.”
She slipped the pack off her shoulders and handed it to him, then walked down the trail. Why was she being so secretive? Because of the flutter? She wanted to see if it would happen again before she told him. He’d want to know everything about it, and she’d be embarrassed if it was just gas or something else. It didn’t happen again, and a few minutes later, she walked out the bushes, cinching her belt. “I’m ready—”
The words stuck in her throat. She stopped cold. A few feet away, two men held guns aimed at Cullen’s chest. The air was wrapped in an odor of rot, decay, and death. Adrenalin rushed through her. She needed to distract the men and give Cullen a chance to draw against them. But how? Call attention to herself? She licked her lips, prepared to—
A powerful arm covered with thick red scars grabbed her in a headlock. “Here’s the other one, Jess. Gussied up like a boy.” His rancid breath blew hot on her neck.
Thick red scars. One of the witnesses at the fort had used that description the night she sketched the faces of the ghost train killers. Hard angles, skin stretched tight across their bones, ruddy complexions, and scars. But her sketches had not captured the depth of evil in their soul-less eyes, burning like a raging fire.
“Looks like you caught us a sage hen, Billy. Pretty ‘nough to eat fer sure.” Jess’s scaly skin and rigid snout somehow matched the sinister rattle in his throat.
Billy squeezed her breast, letting out a long, slow whistle. “Handful’s what I got. I caught her. I get her first. We’ll chock up nice.” His icy laugh slithered over her.
She had to do something fast. Her lips formed a tight seam, holding back fear for Cullen and her unborn child. She would kill for both of them. First, she had to disarm the man holding her.
Cullen’s nostrils flared. His eyes narrowed into two slits of blue ice. He lurched forward. Jess pressed his gun against Cullen’s ribs.
“You looking to die?”
Kit pinned him with a frozen stare, and he eased back.
“Didn’t think so.” Jess smashed his elbow into Cullen’s gut. He doubled over, letting out a low groan.
Kit’s stomach muscles clenched.
Billy ripped her shirt open with his callused hand. “Think he wants to watch me poke you?” He kissed her neck. Vomit raced up her throat, but she swallowed it back. “We’re going to the bushes. Let him listen to you scream and wonder what hole I’m poking ya in.” He humped her from behind.
That did it.
Another dose of adrenalin swelled through her veins. Whatever she did needed to be quick and deadly. She prepared to fight to the end if necessary. She searched Cullen’s eyes for a sign that he expected her to act. His gaze flicked, almost imperceptibly.
Silence swamped her as she moved beyond herself. She no longer heard the tumbling rapids behind her, Billy’s vulgar threats, or the bass drumbeat of her heart.
Silence. Deadly silence.
With their faces only inches apart and Billy’s sickening spittle on her neck, she grabbed his arm with both hands and dropped into a straddle-leg stance. The sudden move pulled him off balance and unable to maintain his hold. She threw a quick elbow punch to his right side followed immediately by one to his left. She stomped on his instep, feeling the soft, worn leather of his boot give way.
Without losing momentum, she turned, brought up her knee, and broke his arm, the crack loud and violent. Warm blood sprayed on her face from the compound fracture. Quickly, she snapped another kick behind his knee. He dropped.
A swift kick to the groin produced a gut-hollowing scream of agony. His eyes grew wide with pain and disbelief. She jammed her forearm into his Adam’s apple. A slow wet stain covered his trousers as he crumpled into a lifeless heap.
You’ll never touch me again, asshole.
She tried to steady the frantic rise and fall of her chest.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Cullen land an elbow to Jess’s face, breaking his nose and follow up with a rib-cracking punch.
The third man’s neck veins bulged. He pointed his gun at Cullen but Jess stood in the line of fire, so he waved the gun toward Kit. Her pulse thundered in her ears. She dropped and rolled, swung her legs and swept the man’s feet from under him. He dropped the gun as he went down on one knee, but immediately scrambled to his feet. He grabbed the front of her shirt with a meaty fist, tangling his fingers in the cloth. The force was enough to steal her breath, but she stepped back and dipped underneath his shoulder, just as she’d been trained. The move twisted his hand, which freed her to whack down on his right arm. Splintering bone gave her silent satisfaction. He screamed.
His pockmarked face glowed with an angry red sheen. He released her shirt but grabbed her hair with his uninjured hand and yanked her head back. Kit gagged on the pungent whiskey odor on his breath. She pinned his hand, regaining control of her hair, then torqued her body until he let her go, but he smacked her face. She bit back the pain, and with a whipping action of her shoulder and arm, threw a hand strike to his temple. His head whipped back. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.
Cullen connected with another punch to Jess’s stomach and wrestled for the gun. Then an explosion—a whip-crack sound of a bullet.
Kit, swimming in a sharp current of fear, swiveled toward the pistol shot and the caustic smell of spent gunfire. She watched with horror as Cullen grabbed his shoulder, blood oozing between his fingers.
Jess plunged his beefy fist into Cullen’s chest, forcing him backwards toward the cliff’s edge. Caught off-balanced, Cullen struggled to right himself. But there was nothing to grab. His eyes met hers, embracing her with love for one long indefinable moment. “I love you.” His mouth moved soundlessly. And then he was gone.
Jess turned the gun toward her, blood dripping from his nose and the corners of his mouth. Her adrenalin went haywire while the seconds of her life ticked toward zero. No time to think. She reacted, spinning counterclockwise. She kicked him and smashed his arm. Another kick shoved his testicles into his abdomen. More blood spewed from his mouth.
Her world turned blood red.
She threw one final jab with her hand directly into his windpipe. His eye grew wide with shock and disbelief. He gurgled, trying to speak and deny what he obviously knew to be true. He was a dead man standing. And with his thoughts telegraphing across his face, he toppled over and crushed his head on the corner of a large rock.
Frantically, with her heart in her mouth, Kit dropped to all fours and crawled, following blood spores to the cliff’s edge. She leaned over into the emptiness and screamed.