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—Lois McMaster Bujold
The setting sun bore down and the air was heavy with the oppressive heat that so often precedes a storm. Since mid-afternoon, first along the western horizon and then much closer, cumulonimbus clouds had slowly gathered. A current of warm air blew south across the Ohio River from Indiana, close and heavy and bearing the odor of decomposing fish and rotting vegetation. It was quiet. There was only the creak of saddle leather and occasional distant thunder—but not so distant now.
Overhead, a large bird effortlessly rode the humid, rising air, conserving energy. Little more than a black dot against the crowded, steely-gray thunderclouds, its six-foot wingspan remained almost motionless as familiar thermals carried it above the landscape below. Possessing little ability to reason, centuries had taught its species that certain patterns led to food. The bird's entire existence depended upon this knowledge and it sensed that where such men as the ones below were, death would eventually follow.
Beneath the patiently circling buzzard and ominous clouds rode two well-mounted men, backs straight and heads up and alert in spite of their many hours in the saddle. They were hard men, bred of a hard and unforgiving existence. Their faces and hands were brown from exposure, their muscles heavy with fatigue; yet, they continued on. They had been tired before. Eyes red-rimmed from sun glare, from inclination and habit continuously scanned the changing scenery. They looked for nothing specific, but noted anything out of the ordinary. Each man held the reins in one hand, the other resting lightly on his thigh, never too far from the revolver on his hip. Too many battles, too many tense situations had taught these men that caution improved the odds on living to enjoy another sunrise.
Dust covered the men's sun- and weather-bleached riding coats, their hats, and their horse's flanks, but it went unmentioned, although not unnoticed, much like the gathering clouds and the circling carrion-bird overhead; like the increasing wind that moaned through the pines and hardwood trees like a lost dog. Caution replaced conversation.
A sumpter mule followed the riders, content, even eager, to stay in step with the horses. Its lead rope rarely pulled tight enough to force the beast to step faster to keep up. The mule saw the circling bird overhead and sensed the changing weather. It had its own instincts to rely upon.
Precursor of what was to come, a few oversized, cold raindrops fell, dappling the men's dun colored coats and their felt hats as they reined to a stop. They paused for a moment to survey the two-track farm road with grass growing between the ruts leading into the cloud- and time-of-day darkened clearing that was their destination. It had been a long day's ride and both men were ready to abandon the saddle for a while. Tim Barnes glanced to his left at his companion, Duncan MacQueen, and noticed the creases across his uncle's forehead. Something was not right. If he needed further warning, Barnes felt William Wallace bunch his muscles and his ears leaned forward—his nostrils flared. William Wallace knew. Barnes sensed it in every movement of the big horse. William Wallace knew, just as every good cutting horse knows what is about to happen as it approaches a herd of cattle. William Wallace, like his rider, had an indisputable appetite for combat.
The sprinkle of rain gained impetus and grew to a steady downpour, drawing a gray veil across the clearing, limiting vision. Behind the rain came a roaring weight of wind. Both men unconsciously pulled their hats down tighter on their heads and drew up their coat collars.
Barnes' left hand unbuttoned his duster and checked the position of the big La Mat revolver he wore in a shoulder holster. He had already removed the safety loop from the hammer of his sidearm in its open holster; he never used the flap-over-weapon military style. There was no change in expression on his sun-tanned face other than his eyes becoming more intent and darkened in shade.
Partway through the clearing, a deep, grassy park with forest on one side and the Ohio River on the other loomed an ancient oak tree. Its thick limbs twisted high and wide and provided ample shade on a sunny day; today however, it cast dark, gloomy, frantic shadows as the increasing wind tossed the limbs. Gnarled and twisted roots broke through fertile soil and extended out to force the old road to detour around the roots and the tree. William Wallace, named for the legendary Scottish freedom fighter, cocked his ears forward and Tim felt added tension in the once-wild horse's body. Tim trusted the big black's natural vigilance and he instinctively placed his hand on the old Colt on his hip.
With no warning, the menacing clouds sparked with a sudden flash and a shaft of lightning flared across the sky and connected with a tree on the distant side of the river. The tree exploded in a flash of flames and sparks and the odor of ozone, and immediately a deafening cataract of thunder rolled across the river, and then, as if choreographed to coincide with the dramatic lightning strike, Reynard Winslow stepped from behind the ancient oak.
Winslow and a man known only as Sharkey, along with a handful of other deserters from the U.S. Army, had stolen the sole surviving wagonload of arms bound for troops occupying Memphis. Barnes and his Arkansas Rangers were part of a combined force sent to prevent their delivery. During the extended battle at Dyersburg in western Tennessee, four of the five wagons were lost to a flooded river or by cannon fire. Winslow and Sharkey took the remaining wagon containing, at best estimate, one hundred new Spencer repeating rifles along with plenty of ammunition for them.
Duncan MacQueen, special investigator for the Confederate government, recruited Barnes from his position as guerilla leader of the Arkansas Rangers to track down the rifles and secure them for the Confederate States. Carleton Pike, a childhood friend of Barnes', abandoned a lucrative trade as blockade-runner along the gulf coast to join the pursuit.
Standing in the semi-darkness beneath the giant oak, Winslow gave the appearance of a solo threat. However, his Confederate pursuers had learned enough about Winslow to know he would never face them on his own, alone. He was smart, crafty, devious, and deadly, but he was not a hero, nor was he foolish. Barnes and MacQueen knew Sharkey, and assuredly others, were close by.
They knew their enemy. Others were there, concealed in a rough semi-circle flanking both sides of Winslow, extending almost to the river on his right, across the farm road and almost to the trees on his left. Halfway up a hillock between the former Union officer and the river, two gunmen crouched behind a storm-blown tree that created a natural shooting blind. Another perched on a wide tree limb fifteen feet off the ground, accessible only by standing on his horse's back to reach the lowest branch. Twenty yards to Winslow's left two other gang members lay in wait partially covered by a bed of dead leaves in the shadow of a boulder left there by a prehistoric upheaval in the earth's crust. Sharkey, Barnes reasoned later that it was Sharkey, silently prowled a game trail that ran parallel to the road on the south side of the clearing. Spaced along the trail were a half-dozen additional ambushers. From this vantage point, the scar-faced Sharkey and his squad could easily provide covering fire from three different perspectives. This was his kind of fight. Never lacking for personal courage, Sharkey still preferred to command the high ground, have superior firing lines, and to outnumber his enemy.
In addition to side arms, each of the attackers carried a Spencer rifle, capable of a firing rate of up to fifteen shots per minute. Those weapons were most assuredly from the shipment that disappeared during the chaotic fighting and atrocious weather at Dyersburg the previous summer.
Barnes, MacQueen, and Pike had pursued the missing weapons and the thieves for hundreds of miles: from Tennessee to Kentucky, across the Mississippi River into Missouri, north to Illinois, and then back across the Ohio River into Kentucky. Along the way, and before the pursuers closed the gap, Winslow and Sharkey had recruited a band of former Missouri side hill farmers, who, when the war broke out, had no particular interest in politics, but the prospect of loot interested them very much indeed. Led by Denison Cole, they first rode with William Quantrill's Raiders, but they were too bloody and undisciplined even for Quantrill. Outlaws and thieves before the war, Cole's followers took advantage of the protective coloration the conflict provided to release all their rapine, killing, and destruction. Their only regret so far was that they were not with the infamous Missourian when Quantrill raided Lawrence, Kansas soon after they deserted his command.
Cole was a desperate, undisciplined fugitive who fought for the highest bidder, or for the most profit from the least effort. Most of his followers were wanted men, pursued in various states for misdemeanors and crimes ranging from public drunkenness and brawling to theft, rape, and murder. Only Sharkey and Den Cole could keep them in line.
Soon after the recruitment, Winslow's enlarged force, with the aid of the stolen repeating rifles, successfully attacked an Arkansas Ranger detachment escorting a Confederate shipment of gold, silver, and jewelry donated by Southern families. The loss of the shipment, destined for the treasury in Richmond to help shore up the flagging Southern economy, was a terrible blow to the Confederacy.
The attackers slaughtered twenty-eight of the thirty cavalrymen escorting the shipment; many of the victims were shot through the head or in the back as they lay on the ground—wounded and unable to defend themselves. After the fight, Cole and his henchmen passed among the dead and dying and bashed their heads with rifle stocks. The only two survivors were a recent young recruit named Evan and an experienced Ranger named Montgomery who had taken horses to a distant stream for watering. When the main body of Rangers arrived the following day, the scene was easy to read. Winslow, or more likely his men, wanted no witnesses. The theft was considered an act of piracy rather than an act of war, so Barnes' commanding officer, General N. Bedford Forrest assigned Barnes to track down the thieves. The intent of the Confederates' pursuit shifted from chasing stolen rifles to chasing murderers and a king's ransom in treasure.
The Confederate pursuers, spurred by the massacre and the loss of the extensive wealth, had closed on their quarry often enough to recognize their prey—even to learn the names of the principals—Winslow, Sharkey and Cole. Former Lieutenant Reynard Winslow, U.S. Army, engineered the theft of the Spencers. He was supposedly the leader of the misfits but the truly evil Sharkey, did, and enjoyed doing, most of the dirty work when their recruits, led by the equally malevolent Cole didn't beat him to it.
It was October 1864, and the Confederate States' agents, after numerous false trails, unproductive leads, and incorrect and misleading tips, had arrived at this small cove on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, following the best lead they had had in weeks. Not expecting to catch up with their quarry until the next day, Barnes and MacQueen went to the inlet to camp for the night and wait for Pike to rejoin them. Only when Winslow appeared did they curse themselves for riding into a trap.
Massive black clouds piled high and blocked out the evening's last feeble light making it difficult for Barnes and MacQueen to distinguish Winslow's features, but they recognized him. For too many months, too many miles, they had tracked this man. But where was Sharkey? Where was Cole? Where were the other men in Winslow's outfit? They had heard Winslow now had as many as two dozen followers. Some reports put that number at twice as many—too many for even three highly skilled, highly determined men like Barnes, MacQueen, and Pike. And Pike was elsewhere, following another lead.
The Confederate agents knew enough about their adversaries to know that Winslow would not face them alone; he was ruthless but not stupid. Cautiously dismounting, Barnes' and MacQueen's weary eyes searched the broken shadows for potential hiding places on each side of the sunken farm road stretching the short distance between them and the man they pursued. Barnes' expressive green eyes, which changed color with his moods, were almost black and they reflected the single mindedness demanded by situation.
Winslow, standing alone and feeling over-exposed, resisted an urge to wipe his palms on his pants, and realized he was not as calm as he wished to appear. His thoughts jumped as rapidly as his eyes. Where's the third one, the one called Pike? He allowed himself a moment to glance behind his pursuers to see if Pike was holding back, staying in reserve. But he did that for only a moment; Barnes and MacQueen were trouble enough and he should concentrate on the enemy he could see. That damn Sharkey. He's the one that fancies himself a bad man, him and Cole. Why did I allow them to talk me into being the decoy? What if Barnes and MacQueen shoot on sight? Sharkey or Cole should be here out in the open, not me. He watched the Confederates' confidence and precision as they ground-hitched their horses and mule and wordlessly separated to opposites sides of the lane. Well, it's too late now. It'll soon all be over—the running, the hiding, first wondering if they would catch us and then realizing it was when they caught us, not if. They were not going to give up. Those Rebel agents are devils on the trail. It's better that it ends now.
Following another clap of thunder, Winslow's thoughts shifted again. After this, I must do something about Sharkey; he's gone around the bend. I have no control over him, none at all; hell, he has no control over himself, and Cole is as bad as Sharkey. If I can't control them, they have outlived their usefulness to me. He allowed a small smile. And when they are gone, I'll have all the gold and what's left of the guns, to myself. It will be easy enough to lose the rest of the crowd after that.
"Winslow!" The sudden shout brought the former Union officer back to the present, and the smile froze on his face. He could tell it was Duncan MacQueen, the oldest and most experienced of his pursuers who called his name. The most experienced, but not the most dangerous. The most dangerous was Barnes. These men had pursued Winslow long enough for him to learn that.
The single shouted word hung in the air as lightning flashed. Rumbling thunder and the smell of brimstone filled the glade. Winslow resisted the urge to cast his glance towards his men's hiding places. He could not resist taking a sliding half step closer to the giant tree: easy, easy. The wind increased and in spite of the rain, a small dirt-devil filled with dead leaves danced toward him along the lane and then disappeared as if it had never existed.
"Drop your weapon and ..."
The bellow of a Spencer drowned out any additional commands and a large .56 caliber slug struck MacQueen and spun him completely around. Almost immediately, the powerful rifle roared again and Tim barely had time to dive for cover before a slug buried into the tree he crouched beside. A volley of shots echoed from the surrounding trees and sent hundreds of woodland birds into panicked flight; they wheeled crazily overhead before seeking refuge across the river. Without delay, additional shots from a half-dozen hidden riflemen in a half-dozen locations joined the initial reports with a long roll of their own brand of thunder. A hail of bullets kicked up dirt, mud, exploded bark, and even limbs from the trees behind which MacQueen and Barnes had sought protection.
And then the storm struck with new fury. It came with a rush of wind and a crash of thunder and the glen became a confusing babel of activity. A blinding flash filled the cove as a bolt of lightning struck a tall pine not far from where they last saw Winslow.
Moments before, Barnes was wishing he had not sent Pike to question local farmers for information about the men they pursued. Now, he was glad his friend was not there. There was no need for all three of them to die; he and his uncle would be fortunate indeed to survive this lethal attack. But we won't go quietly.
Excerpted from EXEMPT FROM FEAR by NICK WRIGHT Copyright © 2012 by Nick Wright. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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