When Floyd Benson and Emmett Green’s gang held up the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad on the 26th June, 1883, the railroad immediately posted a reward for their capture and drafted in the Pinkerton Detective Agency. But when a bible-punching bounty hunter caught and hanged one of the gang, then crossed the line by going after Floyd Benson’s girl, the hunted stopped in their tracks and became the hunters.
Bible-punching bounty hunter Preacher Creech had a weakness. Women. He was hunting the Benson Gang, responsible for holding up the westbound train of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad in Prowers County on 26th June, 1883. Floyd Benson and Emmett Green might have been notorious desperadoes, and train robbers too, but what Preacher Creech did shocked even them. Even with every lawman in Colorado looking to bust them and the railroad setting the Pinkertons on their trail, Floyd and Emmett stopped in their tracks and the hunted became the hunters.
There’s no such thing as all black. No such thing as all white. And no such thing as all good or all bad. The truth is many shades of grey. Sometimes the good guys could be the bad guys. And the bad guys? Sometimes they could be, well, nearly good.
Mary knelt in the straw, her hands flat on the hard-packed earth of the barn’s floor. Tangled hair hung down past her face. Tears of fright ran unchecked down her cheeks and breath rasped in her throat, breasts heaving. She was trembling both from terror and the cold which once more had become her companion now that the running was over.
She had to think. He was sure to come here. It was obvious she would seek shelter. And only a blind man would not see her tracks in the snow. She needed a weapon. Something, anything to use against him. She shuddered. That look on his face when he had killed Sophie. And he would kill her too unless she killed him first.
Her breathing easier, she stood up and began to search the barn, stall by stall. Nothing but straw. Her nerves were raw as her eyes darted from corner to corner. Nothing. She was on the point of screaming. One last stall. It contained only a few strips of rotten harness leather.
She found herself standing in the middle of the floor. Her body began to shake and she wrapped her arms around herself, shoulders hunched self protectively as she swayed. Her head tilted back in an attempt to clear her mind. She passed the back of her wrist across her eyes to smear away the tears. Then she saw it.
The hayloft. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? She raced to the ladder. Her boot caught in the hem of her dress and tore but she ripped it away as she began to climb. At the top she stepped onto the rough planking then glanced back down to the door, almost expecting to see him there, his big gun aimed right at her. She felt dizzy for a moment. It was a lot different looking down than it was up.
He wasn’t there.
She switched her attention back to the loft. There was a pile of winter feed stacked up against the walls, ready to be tossed down. Where was it? She moved along the edge, feet shuffling in the scattered straw. It had to be there. Somewhere. It had to be. She cried aloud when she saw the long wooden handle sticking up, resting against the wall under the lowest part of the roof. She rushed over and wrapped both hands round the long shaft to draw it out. For a moment it stuck, the prongs of the pitchfork buried in the planking, but with a jerk it was free.
She breathed a long sigh of relief followed by a splutter of near hysterical laughter. She was safe now, She had her weapon. He would come and she would kill him. He would reach the top of the ladder, then just as he was about to step into the loft she would rise up from the straw and stick those long deadly prongs right through his black heart. And if he did not die she would pull it out and stick it in him again. And again. Once for Jack, once for Sophie. And once for Sophie’s poor baby that would never be born now.
Shivering, Mary sank to her haunches in the straw, the pitchfork in her hands. Slowly, almost sensually, she stroked the long smooth shaft with the tips of her fingers. Somehow, the action seemed to calm her.
Eyes bright, she waited.
It seemed like hours but in reality it was minutes. It could have been a sigh of wind that pulled and pushed at the barn door before tugging it open with only the smallest squeak of protest from the rusty hinges. It could have even been a wild animal whose scuffling feet could be heard inside the barn. But she knew it was neither of those things. It was him.
From where she crouched she could only hear him. There was only the smallest of chinks in the floorboards at her feet and she fixed her gaze on the section of earth that was visible. She wished then she had chosen a position with a good view. Where she was now was like being in the dark, knowing the enemy was there but unable to see it. That was more terrifying than being able to see him.
He crossed below her, moving cautiously, the gun held ready. Involuntarily, she caught her breath, hands tightening their grip on the handle. Even the smooth wood could not reassure her now. The sweat she had worked up during her frantic run to the barn had dried on her skin and if anything she felt colder than she had before. No matter that she gritted her teeth, she was unable to stop shaking. But at least she wasn’t crying now, so there were no tears to confuse her vision. The dimness of the barn’s interior had dilated her pupils and she could see everything in sharp relief with a clarity that was almost unreal.
If only it was so.
Where was he? She turned her head, seeking reassurance the ladder was the only way up. There was a scraping sound below. Her eyes dropped to the chink. He stalked by underneath again. Now her pulse had begun to hammer in her inner ear, filling her head with thunder. Her heart threatened to burst out of her chest. She felt weak and sick with fear.
The ladder? She didn’t recall it creaking when she had come up, but then he was heavier and that could make all the difference. If he had taken a step up, then a second creak would mean he had either stepped back down or moved another rung up.
Another creak. She tensed. A third one would mean he was definitely on the way up.
Oh Christ… Mary’s chest had a band of steel closing tight around it. This was it. How many rungs did the ladder have? She wished she’d counted them. The thing now was to suppress the fear and instead just concentrate on what she was going to do. As soon as his head appeared over the top she had to rise up and do it. All her strength compressed into one powerful thrust. That was all she had to remember. That was all it would take. It would be over then.
Creak. Another step closer.
She couldn’t control it. She was almost screaming with fear. She shook her head from side to side, trying to prise the terror out.