CHAPTER ONE


CHAPTER ONE

When Lessa Trimble glanced at the wall clock a shiver trickled down her spine. She'd stayed at the one-room schoolhouse far too long, correcting papers she should have finished hours ago. But her mind kept drifting, focusing on the fate awaiting her when she stepped through the door to her home, where he'd be waiting on her, that look on his face she had come to loathe. The look that promised she would pay dearly for not having his dinner on the table on time, for not scrubbing the kitchen spotless, for not catering to his every need the way a good wife should. Unless she got lucky and it was one of the nights when he failed to come home at all.

It would be her own fault he took his fist to her again. She was asking for the mistreatment. She was begging for it. That's what pounded into her head each time he doled out punishment for her transgressions. Lies she had come to accept as gospel.

At least until those moments she lay safe in another's arms...

The redolent smell of ink and tang of fresh paper suddenly made her stomach turn, but she knew it was only the memory of the scent of her own blood filling her nostrils, the gunmetal taste of it on her tongue after he beat her, making her ill. Fear did things to a body: It rose sweat on her brow and made her pulse throb in her ears. It set her heart racing like horses stampeding and her hands trembling, as she lay a sheet of paper atop the stack of others on the huge pine desk.

Two weeks ago Lessa Trimble had celebrated her thirty-first birthday, but already her brown hair, pulled back into a tight bun, was frosting with gray at the temples. That too, along with the simmering fear in her soul, was his fault, though she supposed she should have simply accepted the blame for that as well.

She still kept her figure--Lord knew Galen Trimble would never let her go to tallow, as he so righteously put it. He wanted his woman--or should she say women?--to retain their youthful shape. How would it look for the town hero to keep a matronly wife? How would it look for him to exhibit anything other than a trophy worth his stature and standing? Horses or women, it made no difference. Both were owned in his view.

That was the reason they remained childless. Children made women fat, slovenly. He'd told her that as if he'd been reciting it straight from the Good Book itself. Decreed by God, women would stay sleek of figure, ready to serve. He ignored the edict "be fruitful and multiply" because it wasn't to his advantage, didn't fit in with his lofty delusions. He brooked no argument on the point and denied her her earthly and heavenly right as a woman to bear a child. She rarely brought that up anymore, because he often enforced painful measures protecting against such possibilities. And to backtalk him meant harsher punishment, then usually a violent hour's worth of his using her in a "husbandly" way.

"Bastard..." she muttered, a spike of fury and terror plunging into her belly with the thought of his rough hands groping her, his sour breath from that rotgut whiskey he drank searing her nostrils. Every manly scent about him now repulsed her where once it had aroused like fine musk. Now he simply stank, but the odor came from his soul.

She stood suddenly, unable to control her shaking limbs. Moving around to the front of the desk and staring towards the door she wrapped her arms about herself, shivered. Her hands bleached as she tried to squeeze herself tighter, stop the shaking, the fabric of her blue gingham dress straining against her ripe bosom. The room was stuffy, too warm, yet still she felt incredibly frozen.

Her gaze drifted from the door to the rows of desks, the children long gone home, the gentle sounds of their laughter and sight of their bright faces one of the few joys in her life. She missed them, looked forward to the time she was here, teaching...away from him. This school was as close as she had ever come to having young'uns of her own.

At least until three weeks ago, when she discovered she'd gone far longer without her womanly than she should have.

Two days ago she'd begun to feel sick in the morning and found herself vomiting after Galen left for work. Other signs should have made it obvious, despite her fearful self-denial, but she knew with that sense only a mother feels what was growing inside of her.

He'd kill her if he knew. Another shiver. Her blue eyes shimmered with tears that went unspilled.

He didn't want children, that was certain, and it went beyond the fact she might lose her youthful shape. He carried a deeper motivation, and she knew it, though he would never admit as much to her. A child would mean the mighty Galen Trimble would have to come second in her life and second in the eyes of the town. The attention he craved would be siphoned from him with the arrival of a child. Folks would stop by to visit the infant, to see her, and offer their gifts and congratulations, while he looked on. They would offer him their well-wishes, too, but not be because of something he did for them, something that made him all-powerful and virtuous in their eyes. It would be second-hand adulation, intolerable to a man such as he.

No, Marshal Galen Trimble, savior of Hollow Pass and lone vanquisher of the Crigger Gang would never stand for that.

Pitiful. If only he realized he'd been living off the currency of his reputation for longer than its value. Folks simply feared him now, though that distinction escaped him. They didn't respect him, but he was too bound to an image of what he once was to figure it out. An image that may well have never existed anywhere but in Galen Trimble's mind.

A sob escaped her lips, shook her body. A tear slipped from her eye, but she quickly brushed it away with a sleeve. No, Galen Trimble would never tolerate her telling him she was with child. If he didn't kill her for the news, he would the moment he figured out the child could not possibly be his. With the means he took to avoid such possibilities that would not take more than a few moments.

She'd been seeing someone. Secretly. The affair started out of spite, she supposed, something to pay him back for those saloon women he lay with--everybody in the entire town knew of it, for God's sake, and how she detested their looks of pity when they knew he wasn't watching. But something had changed soon after she met a man at the general store; he'd helped her load supplies for the school onto her buckboard, then offered to follow her and help unload. A kind man, he owned the livery stable. What had begun innocently enough with Clavin Pendelton had quickly taken a turn to the more tawdry the day after Galen beat her for ruining a shirt with a hot iron. She'd run to Clave for comfort and ended up in his bed.

It was wrong. She knew it. All her moral upbringing raged against such sin, but she couldn't stop herself. Was it so bad to have all her emotions returned, all her passion reciprocated? Was it wrong when the man she wed didn't love her and mistreated her so, slept with other women? Made her believe she was to blame for every goddamned thing that didn't go his way?

Yes, and no. It wasn't as black and white as her Bible schoolin' made it all seem.

Clavin was such a gentle man, his touch caring, his concern genuine. He made her see life had more to offer than going home to an ogre day after day. Made her feel she was worth more than being one man's porcelain whore.

Clavin had begged her to leave Galen, go with him somewhere, anywhere that wasn't Hollow Pass. But how could she? He would kill them both. So she had told Clavin no, she was chained to her fate and that was that. It was better this way, because at least then the man she truly loved would be safe from Galen's wrath.

And life would go on, each glance stolen, each wish stillborn.

But now she had little choice. She'd begin showing soon. Her breasts were already aching, straining against the fabric of her dress. Any other man not so wrapped up in himself would have noticed by now her frequent trips to the watercloset.

You're decision's made, she assured herself. And maybe that was the double blessing of this child growing in her belly. It gave her strength to do what she dreamt every night of doing. She and Clavin had discussed it. They'd made plans, picked new names. In two days time it would all be over, if she could only keep her nervousness from showing so much she gave herself away to Galen.

Clavin had purchased tickets on a train bound for the east. Once they left Galen would never find them. He would look, certainly, pry under every rock and scour every corner searching for his wife, his possession. But after a time he would give up, go back to his whores. Then maybe after a few months or a year she could stop living in fear and bring her baby into a family that was safe and filled with joy and love and caring.

But she had to stop making stupid mistakes like staying too late at school, if she were going to pull it off. She was placing not only herself but her unborn child in danger, if he beat her again.

Another shiver. She had better get home and face him. She didn't want to. God in Heaven, she didn't want to.

Two days. The waiting was the hardest part. It gave her too much chance to fret and fear.

"Soon," she whispered, rubbing her belly. "It'll be over soon. It's the only way. It's the best way."

She went to a hook on the wall, grabbed her shawl, then wrapped it about her shoulders. She could put it off no longer. The preternatural dusk would soon be upon the small Colorado town as the sun slipped behind the distant mountains. The walk to their home was not long, but it led down a wooded trail shadowed by forest and if he wasn't already on his way to come looking for her he soon would be. Her only chance at avoiding his wrath was in reaching home before he did and pretending she had been there for the entire time.

She went to the door, opening it, then stepping out into the late-summer day. The air carried a sultry quality, moist and uncomfortable, or perhaps it was simply the sweat dampening her skin making it feel that way.

She locked the door and turned, freezing instantly, a gasp escaping her full lips. A figure sat atop a black horse, staring down, silent. At first glance she saw Galen's face on the figure, then quickly realized that was only her overwrought imagination.

For the figure on horseback had no real face to speak of. His features were covered by a black sacklike mask, holes cut into it to reveal small brown eyes that glittered at her with the strangest of looks, one that seemed to pry into her very soul. A mouth stitched in thick yellowish thread gave the mask a scarecrowlike appearance. A black duster covered most of the man's average-sized frame and ebony silk shirt, flowed over the top of his black trousers. Black scuffed boots jammed into stirrups completed the figure's peculiar ensemble.

The figure said nothing, merely kept looking down at her, as if struggling with inner thoughts. She trembled, afraid to move, worried she might loose her senses and collapse into a dead faint if she did.

At first unable to make her voice work, she finally managed to get words out. "W-Who are you? What do you want?"

The figure didn't respond immediately. His cold gaze continued to hold her in its spell. Deciding, that's what he was doing, she concluded. The figure was weighing a decision, if she read those eyes right, one that would seal her fate.

"I'm...sorry..." he said a moment later, voice a grating whisper.

"What? Why? Who are you?" Her voice jittered, riding a scale of crescendoing terror.

"It'll be easier if you don't resist," the figure said. "I promise to make it quick."

"What do want? Did my husband send you to frighten me?" Her words came in a frantic stream and her gaze jerked to the trail that led towards town. It lay many yards across a browning lawn that surrounded the schoolhouse, but reaching it was her only chance. Yet even then she knew she'd never be able to outrun a man on horseback.

The figure uttered a low laugh, tone holding not a hint of humor, only mockery. "Your husband..." He leaned forward slightly. "You might say he sent me, but not in any way you or he'd rightly expect..."

She had no idea what he meant by that, and didn't care. Fear got the better of her and she forced herself to move. With a sharp sound of terror, she burst towards the trail, highlaced shoes kicking up dust as she ran along the walkway, then across the grassy yard.

Behind her she heard a "Yah!" as the figure kicked his horse into motion.

Reaching the hardpacked trail, she ran, not looking back, forcing her legs to pump as hard as she could. Whatever her husband was, whatever cruelty flourished within him, this figure was something worse, something terrible. Death rode that horse. Death that had come for her for some reason she couldn't begin to fathom. It had something to do with Galen, something that had finally caught up with him, but that was all she could guess.

She stumbled, toe hooking an upraised root. The ground rushed to meet her and she thrust out her hands, flesh scraping from her palms as they skidded against the solid earth and small pebbles embedded into the dirt.

Tears flooded her eyes as she suddenly thought of the child growing in her belly. Her life meant little, but that baby...that baby deserved the chance to live, grow, become all she never had.

The thing on horseback skidded past her, unable to stop the animal's forward momentum. She looked up to see the figure jerking to a halt, reining around. The horse neighed, a great black beast as frightful as the figure riding it.

"No," she murmured, pushing herself up to her feet, spitting dust, trembling. She bolted into the woods that lined the trail, diving into the lush clumps of brush and stands of cottonwood and maple, pine and spruce. Branches clutched at her dress, tearing a swatch from her sleeve and drawing a streak of blood on her flesh. She stumbled along, leg muscles burning, threatening to give out. A great crashing came from somewhere behind her and she let out a startled bleat. He was following, on foot.

Barely able to catch her breath, she pushed herself harder, but her progress seemed only to slow as exhaustion turned her limbs to lead and brought nausea to her belly.

She wouldn't make it much farther. The sounds of the thing behind her grew louder. He was gaining.

"Please help me, Lord in Heaven, please..." she mumbled, heart pounding so hard she thought she would vomit it at any moment. A branch whipped her face as she chanced glancing backward. She glimpsed the figure, about twenty feet back, coming on like the Spectre of Death. Coming for her.

For an instant, the thought the Devil has sent his minion after her for her transgressions with another man stabbed through her mind. But, no, this was no demon, no creature of the supernatural. It was merely a man, dressed like he was for some reason she would never know.

The woods seemed to grow darker, branches interlacing overheard, choking off the waning sunlight. All other sounds seemed to stop, the chatter of birds and forest creatures, the shushing of the wind--all sounds except the pounding of her heart and throbbing of her pulse.

Closer.

The clamor of his thrashing through brush loudened and she uttered a soft scream.

It can't end this way, she told herself. It can't. She couldn't let him take her child.

Something grabbed at the back of her shoulder. She jerked away, part of her dress tearing, tried to make herself run faster.

Her legs were gone. Sheer momentum propelled her now. She dared not look back, because if she did she would see him there and freeze in terror and he would have her.

"Noooo!" she screamed, panic flooding her veins. "No, please, don't!"

Then he had her. Gloved hands grabbed her shoulders and upset her forward thrust. She went down, hitting the ground hard, branches slicing at her face and clothing.

Gasping, she tried to struggle up, but the thing in the mask was on her, wrenching her shoulders around and slamming her flat against the ground.

"Don't resist, Lessa..." the figure said, cold eyes boring into her fear-stricken own.

"Whatever he did, it wasn't my fault..." she said, voice barely audible.

The figure paused, as if struggling with something in his own mind. "I know..."

He reached for a knife in a sheath at his waist, drawing it slowly.

She screamed, knowing there was no hope, no chance at redemption for her miserable life and no chance of a future with a man she truly loved. The blade glinted as the figure jerked it above his head, then brought it down in a powerful thrust. A prayer died on her lips as searing pain pierced her throat.

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