Today’s teaser, in honor of Valentine’s Day, is from a story I’m working on that was inspired by an infamous Kansas family, the Bloody Benders. It’s a bit longer than the teasers I usually post, because it’s hard to get a read on the situation without a bit more set-up.
The old woman said a long prayer over the food until it was half cold, and then they all began to eat, with the old woman talking the whole while. The boy with the silver necklace tried twice to take the meager serving of bread off quiet girl’s plate and when she tried to defend herself, the boy struck her hard on the side of the head and took the bread.
Oliver had never been in a house where it was acceptable to hit women and he felt the seconds passing him by between the twinge of indignation and the moment when he caught the boy’s arm and said, “There’s no call for that.” For a brief moment he thought the boy would strike him, too, but either the old woman’s look of disapproval or Oliver’s size or Oliver’s pistol decided him against it. He returned the bread to the quiet girl’s plate.
After the meal was done, Oliver managed to bring the talk back around to his brother, asking whether any of the rest of the family had seen him. He passed the picture around the room. The quiet girl stared at it a long time, until the old woman took it out of her hand, saying, “I expected the boys home sooner than this, but surely they’ll be in, before too much later. I’m sure they’ll be able to help you. You know, they travel a lot, see a lot more of the country. They might be able to find someone who’s seen your brother.” Oliver looked up to see the quiet girl looking at him. She didn’t seem embarrassed, but she looked away.
There was a bit more talk about other things, and then the old woman sent several of the boys out to do chores. She sent one of the younger boys up into the loft after some extra blankets and then turned to the quiet girl. “Why don’t you take Mister Oliver out to the barn and help him settle down where they’ll sleep for the night.”
The girl nodded, and when she rose, Oliver and James did likewise. At that moment, however, the strawberry-haired woman put her hand on James’ arm. Laying a Bible out on the table, the old woman said, “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind reading us a piece out of the Good Book.” James blushed and looked to Oliver for approval before sitting back down. The strawberry-haired woman still had her hand on his arm and was smiling at him.
Oliver followed the quiet girl out the door. She carried several blankets that the boy had thrown down to her from the loft. He offered to carry them, but that seemed to embarrass her, although she finally gave him the small lantern to carry. As they neared the barn, he finally got the nerve to ask where the outhouse was. She pointed a little ways around the corner of the barn and offered to wait for him. Even with the lantern, it was the worst of its kind that he’d found out west—dank and dark and full of spiders. Outside, he heard voices, the girl, and one of the older boys. At first, he couldn’t make out their words, and then the fight grew loud enough for him to understand its meaning.
“Does he still have his gun?” the boy said.
“I’m not helping you with him.”
“You will or she’ll sell you to the Comancheros. You’ll wish you were dead.”
“I won’t do it.”
Oliver heard a scuffle, the girl’s muffled cry. He struggled to fasten his belt, wrestled with the plank door, and left the lantern. When he hurried around the corner, he saw in the pool of light from the barn that the boy with the heavy silver necklace had the quiet girl down on the ground. He kicked at her as she struggled to get back on her feet, striking at him with her hands. She pulled him off balance and he fell onto her, punched her hard in the side of her neck, just as Oliver reached them and pulled the boy off her.
The boy staggered, then came up shouting, “Ahora!”.
His hand went to a small hatchet at his belt, and as Oliver thrust the girl behind him, a burning stripe opened across his shoulder. The boy was already swinging back for another blow with the hatchet.
“La pistola!” the boy shouted.
Before Oliver could get his hand down to his side, he felt the electricity of the girl’s hand sliding against his waist, felt the weight of the Colt lifted out of its holster. He staggered back to avoid the hatchet, which made a short stroke against his chest. He felt a terrible emptiness in his stomach: real, final terror.
He knew it was only a matter of moments before the girl passed the gun to her brother or shot her himself. For all he knew, he was already bleeding to death, and the boy was readying the hatchet again. Oliver tried to grab the girl’s arm, said a quick prayer: “God—.” and heard the gunshot.
The boy jerked backwards, fell, and Oliver and the girl also fell back, propelled by Oliver’s retreat from the hatchet and the recoil of the Colt. The girl leapt up, pointing the pistol down at her brother and fired again. He jerked and was still.
Oliver sat up, looking around in confusion. The girl pulled on his arm.
“Now,” she said. “You have to hurry. They’re killing your friend now.”
Oliver lurched to his feet, his arm and chest numb. “Get his axe,” she commanded, pointing down at the boy’s body. She jerked up the tail of her skirt, ignoring her bared legs and ran hard across the yard. Oliver followed with his head swimming.
The old woman sat just where she had throughout the meal. James had been sitting on the bench across from her, a few candles on the table, reading from the Bible. Now he wore a noose around his neck, his face gone purple. The rope was slung up over a rafter and on the other end of it, swung the boy who had gone up into the loft for blankets.
“Help him,” the old woman screamed at the strawberry-haired woman, who was laughing as she scrambled to help the boy pull down on the other end of the hanging rope. The two of them hoisted James a foot off the floor. Oliver was paralyzed in the seconds it took for him to understand what was happening.
He stared, trying to comprehend, and in those few moments the girl began to shoot. She was no marksman and made no effort at severing the rope. She simply shot the boy who held the rope, and then palmed the hammer back and shot him again in the chest. He dropped from the rope and the woman let go, screaming. James hit the floor and began clawing at the noose. With an ease that belied her age, the old woman turned to the hearth behind her and pulled down a shotgun.
Oliver looked down at the axe in his hand. Before the old woman could even level the shotgun, the girl crossed to the table and shot her from just a step away. The old woman fell back, almost into the fire as the girl jerked the shotgun away from her. She turned back to Oliver. Her eyes were dead black, unreadable. There were two hectic spots of color in her cheeks and a splatter of blood on her face. She held out the shotgun.
“Take it and use it,” she said. “You’ll be dead if you don’t.” The old woman groaned and the girl turned back to her and shot her again, just as she had done the boy out by the barn. She pulled the trigger again and they looked at each other at the sound of the dry click.
Read Full Post »