Slow Walk - Charley Marsh - ebook
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Every journey begins with a need and a single step. Sydney Waters and her twin sister survive the natural disasters that wipe out most of the world’s population. When a band of lawless men find their small family farm and kill her twin, Sydney’s life changes in ways she never imagined. Slow Walk, the first book in the Upheaval series, introduces the reader to a new world where survival often means choosing who deserves to live—and who should die.

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Slow Walk

Charley Marsh

SLOW WALK

Copyright © 2018 by Charley Marsh

All rights reserved.

Published 2018 by Timberdoodle Press.

Slow Walk is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and places are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. For more information contact the publisher: http://timberdoodlepress.com/

All rights reserved

E-Book ISBN# 978-1-945856-03-7

Print Book ISBN# 978-1-945856-38-9

Cover Art courtesy dreamtime.com and Kessler Photo

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Section II

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Author’s Note

About the Author

Also by Charley Marsh

1

Sydney did her best thinking in her grandfather’s musty old hay loft. She lay on her stomach atop a pile of loose hay she had raked together and gazed out through the hay door. The post and beam barn soared three stories high, giving her a view of the entire farm.

In the distance she caught a sliver of light dancing off the Mississippi River. Thunderheads gathered in the west. She could already smell the rain they carried.

The hay loft had always been one of Sydney’s favorite spots on the farm to get away and be alone. She rolled onto her back and watched the dust float through the shafts of sunlight that penetrated between the shrunken barn boards. Pigeons cooed and strutted on the highest crossbeams overhead.

Her grandfather, called Pops by everyone who knew him, was getting worse; she could no longer deny it. His dementia had reared its insidious head four months ago. At first it made Sydney and her sister laugh. He did foolish, forgetful things that she and Shannon shook their heads at and promptly forgot about.

The laughter ended last night when Pops almost succeeded in burning down the house. The clang of pots from the kitchen had woken Sydney a little after midnight. She assumed her grandfather was warming milk—a favorite of his when his heartburn acted up. When she heard the front door slam she crawled out of bed to investigate and found the wood stove roaring, doors wide open with hot embers popping and snapping onto the floor.

She shouted for Shannon, closed the stove, and poured water over the burning hot spots. Shannon carried the smoking hearth rug outside and dumped it into the rain barrel at the corner of the house. They found Pops shuffling in a circle partway down the long drive, disoriented and belligerent. He had no idea who they were and it took two hours of cajoling to convince him to return to the house and his bed.

Pops needed round-the-clock watching now, Sydney realized. It was going to be difficult with only the two of them, but somehow she and Shannon would work it out. They could take turns sleeping on the floor in front of Pop’s bedroom door; if he took another walk in the middle of the night he’d wake his watcher.

Satisfied with the solution, Sydney allowed her eyes to close. The old hay smelled sweet and made a soft bed. She decided she had time for a short nap while Shannon watched over Pops. She’d rest for a bit, then relieve her twin sister.

At first Sydney thought the screams were part of her dream. Her eyes fluttered open and then closed again. She wasn’t ready to wake up, it had been a long night with her grandfather.

Another scream pierced the air. She rolled to her knees and looked toward the house. A man stood in the open door, another on the step below him.

Desperate Ones. Survivors of the great upheavals that had changed the face of the earth and wiped out most of mankind. People unable or too lazy to fend for themselves, they chose instead to forcibly take from others. The first had arrived at her family’s farm a little more than a year ago. It had taken them two years to pillage their way from the east coast and across the Mississippi River.

Sydney and her sister and grandfather had been happy at first to share what little they had, but as the waves of refugees kept coming it dawned on them that they themselves would not survive if they continued to feed everyone who wandered by their farm.

The trio did their best to feed the children, but they informed the adults that it was time they learned to fend for themselves. Most of the people accepted this with resignation, grateful that at least the children were fed.

Some people did not. They became predators, willing to harm others in order to get what they wanted. Sydney named the predators ‘The Desperate Ones.’

Icy fear washed over Sydney as two men dragged Shannon from the house. Her sister bucked and jerked in their hands, trying to escape. Afraid the men would spot her, Sydney pressed her body flat on the loft floor and tried to think of a way to help her sister. Two of the men held Shannon’s arms while a third removed her pants and covered her with his body.

Bile rose in Sydney’s throat. She tried to choke it back but couldn’t. She twisted to the side and vomited. A clammy sweat broke out on her skin and she began to shake. She covered her ears, trying to block out the sound of the men’s laughter mixed with Shannon’s screams.

Sydney’s weapons lay hidden under her bed with no way to get into the house and retrieve them without being seen. She would end up like Shannon if she tried. She cursed her cowardice, told herself that her twin was strong; the rape was horrible, but her sister would survive and eventually get over it.

Another man took his place between Shannon’s legs. Shannon tore an arm free and raked her long nails down the rapist’s cheek.

Sydney saw blood glisten and drip down the side of the man’s face. Good for her. Shannon had always been the tougher and braver of the two. Her curiosity and fearless nature made her a born leader and were traits that Sydney lacked.

Sydney’s satisfaction was short-lived. The man roared in anger and slammed Shannon’s face with his fist, then grabbed her head and twisted. Shannon lay still beneath him.

“Jesus, Sandman, what’d you have to go and do that for? I didn’t get my turn. Besides, Pharaoh woulda paid us good money for a beauty like her.”

The man called Sandman got to his feet and gave Shannon a vicious kick. “The bitch cut me. Forget her. Let’s see if there’s anything worth taking in the house and get out of here.”

Sydney couldn’t catch her breath. She inched forward and looked down at her sister’s limp body, willing her to move. Come on, Shannon. You can’t die on me, I need you. A whimper escaped her throat and she buried it against the back of her hand.

Her sister’s killer came out of the house and looked toward the barn.

Too late, Sydney realized he would see her if he looked up to the hay loft. She ducked back from the loft door and prayed he hadn’t noticed.

“Hey, I just saw something move in that barn,” said Sandman. “Abel, come with me.” The two men strode across the yard toward the barn.

2

Oh crap. Crap, crap, crap. They’re going to find me. Sydney looked around the empty loft in a desperate panic. There was no place to hide. A cooing pigeon caught her attention and gave her an idea. She pulled off her teeshirt and tiptoed under the pigeons, then waved her arms at them, flapping the tee against the beams. The flock of birds took off in a noisy whir of wings and flew out the hay loft door.

“Bah. It’s just pigeons,” said Abel. “I already checked inside there. The barn’s empty, nothing worth taking. Let’s grab the food and get out of here. The old man ain’t going to stop us, he’s crazy in the head.”

The voices receded. Sydney put her tee back on and quietly stepped back to the loft door, careful to keep out of sight. The one they called Sandman hollered to the two inside the house. One came out carrying a sack that Sydney assumed was filled with her family’s food.

The fourth man, short and skinny with long, matted black hair, ran out the door cackling with glee. “Let’s go. I set a fire in the kitchen. It’ll take care of the witness—the old guy’s too out of it to know enough to leave.”

Sandman stared at the fourth man for a moment, then shook his head. “There ain’t no law around here, Bug. Who’s the old guy gonna tell? The fire could draw someone’s attention. You don’t have the brains you were born with, you know that?”

The four men set off down the farm’s drive, Bug in the rear. Sydney watched as he turned to look at the flames licking up the outside back corner of the house and pumped his fist in the air. She wondered if Bug was short for firebug.

As soon as the men were out of sight, Sydney climbed down from the loft and ran to the house. She stopped by Shannon’s body to check for a pulse, but it was obvious from her sister’s open, glazed eyes that she was dead. Sydney shook off the searing pain that tore through her chest. There would be time enough to deal with Shannon later. She had to save her grandfather first.

“Pops! Pops! Where are you?” Sydney ran into the house and headed for her grandfather’s bedroom. She found him sitting by the west-facing window, the ironwood staff/walking stick she had carved for his previous birthday across his lap.

In memory of her grandfather’s sheep farm, the figure of a ram’s head, horns elegantly curled, topped the staff. Famous across the midwest and western mountains for the care and quality of his breeding program, the sheep had been her grandfather’s lifelong passion.

Pops turned his head from the window and looked at Sydney while he fingered the ram’s head carving. “There you are, Gabriella. There’s a thunderstorm moving in. We need to bale the hay I cut two days ago before it gets rained on.”

Sydney swallowed the painful lump in her throat. Gabriella was her mother, a talented artist who had died when the first tsunamis hit the East coast. A major New York City art gallery had sponsored a one-woman show of her mother’s work and paid for her to attend the show’s opening night party. Her mother had been so excited by the acknowledgement of her talent. Unfortunately, none of the family had been able to go with her to New York.

Their father, a wildlife biologist, had flown to Yellowstone that weekend to join a group of scientists studying the effects of the earthquakes that were hitting the park more and more frequently.

Shannon and Sydney had volunteered to stay with their grandfather and help with the spring lambing, a job the whole family usually participated in. Three long years had passed since the girls had last seen their parents.

Sydney shook off the memories. There was no time for them now, she needed to focus on the current crisis. She heard the fire crackle and watched as tendrils of gray smoke began to curl along the ceiling of her grandfather’s bedroom. A shelf of plates in the kitchen hit the floor with a crash. The fire was gaining momentum.

“Pops, we have to check the baler first. I can’t get it to feed the baling twine properly and I need your help.” Sydney kept her tone calm while she plucked the ironwood staff from her grandfather’s lap and grasped one of his hands to pull him to his feet.

“I don’t know why the good Lord didn’t see fit to give me sons,” grumbled her grandfather. He took the staff from Sydney’s hand. “Give me that.” He stumped out of the bedroom, oblivious to the gathering smoke.

Sydney resisted the urge to race from the house. She fought the panic that waited to overwhelm her if she gave in to it. Her beloved sister Shannon, her best friend, had been raped and murdered. Shannon had been the one who held the three of them together, the one who figured out how to survive. They would be lost without her.

Sydney couldn’t bear the loss of another loved one. Part of her wanted to give up the struggle and let the fire take her so she could join her parents and sister in oblivion.

Instead, she forced herself to walk calmly behind her grandfather and play the part of Gabriella. “We need to hurry, Pops. The rain will be here soon.” They stepped outside the house. Behind them the fire began to roar. Sydney took her grandfather’s arm and led him away from the house.

Dazed confusion filled her grandfather’s face as they walked by Shannon. His eyes darted to her sister’s body and away. “Who is that?” He looked at Sydney’s almost identical face. “Who are you? Where’s Gabriella?”

“Gabriella’s gone, Pops. I’m your granddaughter, Sydney, remember?” But he didn’t remember, and she wondered if he would ever know her again. She led him to the glider swing in the side yard, away from the smoke, and left him gently rocking there.

With her grandfather settled, Sydney ran back into the house and grabbed a blanket to wrap her sister’s body in. She spread it on the ground beside Shannon, then leaned over to gently close her sister’s hazel eyes, so much like their mother’s. Sydney’s eyes were a soft jade green like her father’s. Both girls had inherited their mother’s curly black hair and olive skin.

Sydney crossed Shannon’s arms and pulled her splayed legs together, then rolled her in the blanket and dragged it to her mother’s vegetable garden. She needed to bury the body before the scavengers arrived and she knew the digging would be easiest here.

It took her three hours to dig a hole long enough and deep enough to hold her sister’s body. The rainstorm that had been gathering in the west blew in while she dug, dropping sheets of water over the house and yard and turning the garden to mud.

Sydney moved her grandfather to the barn to keep him dry and returned to her task. She managed to hold her tears at bay until she tamped down the loose earth over Shannon and covered the grave with rocks to keep the scavengers from digging her up. She laid the last rock and stared blindly at the grave, unable to take in the loss of her sister.

A low sob tore loose from the depths of her being. She threw her body beside the grave and wept until she was empty and the rain mixed with her tears.

3

6 months later

Sydney glided three long steps and stilled in the way of all prey animals: body frozen in the vain hope that a hunter will not see it. She strained to detect the faintest foreign sound. Moving only her eyes, she slowly scanned the spaces between the oaks, hickories and prickly ash that dominated the area, but she saw nothing that alarmed her.

Why then, was her mind on full alert? She spread her awareness out through the trees and shrubs, straining to pick up the tiniest change. She knew this area like she knew her own body: every rock, every tree, every animal den or nest, the patches of wildflowers and the gullies.

This was her land, a place where she felt safe and comfortable, but at this moment it felt alien. She frowned as she tried to pinpoint the source of her wariness.

The forest was too quiet.

That was it—a heavy silence pressed on her ears. No birds sang or twittered in the brush, not even a light breeze rustled the leafy treetops overhead. The unnatural quiet made her feel nervous and afraid.

The local wildlife was used to Sydney’s presence. Only minutes ago the upper forest had been filled with the chatter and movement of red squirrels and bluejays grousing at her as she passed through their neighborhoods. Their silence was better than any alarm; it meant that a predator was nearby.

These days the hunter could be man or beast. Either one, Sydney fell onto the prey side of the equation. A thin sheen of sweat broke out on her forehead and back as her fear increased.

She closed her eyes to focus on her other senses. Took a long, deep breath to slow her heartbeat. She smelled earth dampened from a recent rain shower, the rotting leaves of fall, and the sweet ripeness of a large blackberry patch off to her left.

She emptied her mind and listened for several minutes longer, but she heard nothing that shouldn’t be there.

She took three more slow steps and again carefully scanned her surroundings. It was an excruciatingly slow, oh so slow, method of movement, but also the safest. Movement is what catches the eye—all eyes—but especially the predator’s eye. Movement betrays the predator’s quarry.

“Grandmother called it Slow Walking, Syd.” She could hear her friend Smokey’s voice in her ear, low and gruff. “The best hunters use it to move undetected through the forest. It takes great patience to execute and is very difficult to master. Few men excel at it. I myself am merely good, but I believe that you have what it takes to be great.”

That had been the summer before her parent’s death. It was the last thing Smokey had taught her before he returned home to care for his grandmother with a promise to return the following summer. Six months after Smokey’s departure massive earthquakes and tsunamis had wreaked havoc with the planet.

There!

Sydney slowly shifted her eyes toward the sound, careful not to move any other part of her body. She waited. A branch cracked to her right and she heard a large body stumble and then swear.

A man. She fought the urge to run. Running gave away a prey’s location. She took three quick but silent steps away from the sound instead, into a nearby stand of prickly ash, ignoring the sharp thorns that ripped against her bare arms and snagged her clothing. She forced herself to stop and wait, to see what the man would do.

“Jeezus, Barrett, what the hell you doin’? I ain’t haulin’ your ass outta here if you break an ankle. You hear me?”

The voice came from in front of Sydney.

Two men. A small sob escaped her throat before she could contain it. She knew what the men would do to her if they caught her.

She still couldn’t see either man, and she was confident that they had not spotted her, but they were much too close for her safety. She needed to slink away without alerting the men to her presence.

Be the fox, not the rabbit, she told herself.

Her slim body trembled with the effort of forcing herself to remain motionless when every cell in her body urged her to RUN! She needed to move carefully, to be sure she moved in the opposite direction from the men and didn’t flee into their arms.

She could hear the man to her right, the one called Barrett, swearing softly to himself as he moved away from Sydney. That was good. She breathed a little easier. She turned her attention back to the man in front of her. He was still moving toward her.

Sydney spun around and headed away from the man, placing her feet carefully so she wouldn’t break a stick or disturb the forest floor. Leave no trace. When she judged that she had moved a safe distance, she stopped and listened again.

Hunters wait for a prey animal to panic and run. Running was a mistake that meant discovery often followed by death, while hiding, sometimes even hiding in plain sight, could mean survival. These men were hunting—if she wanted to survive she needed to use her wits and wait them out.

“I know I smelled smoke, Cal,” called the man named Barrett. “I think it came from somewhere up there on the ridge.”

The men’s rough voices sounded loud and offensive to Sydney’s ears. They didn’t belong in her forest. She cursed herself silently—these men were here because of her.

Her grandfather had been doing poorly this morning. His body was losing its ability to generate heat. She had wrapped him in all their blankets, but he continued to shiver. Even though she knew it was only safe to build a fire at night, Sydney had risked a small one for her grandfather. She placed her grandfather’s chair next to the fire before leaving to hunt up a squirrel or rabbit for their dinner.

Now that caring act was putting them both in danger.

The sharp crack of a breaking twig alerted Sydney that the men were on the move again. She sniffed the air, relieved that she could no longer detect any smell of woodsmoke. At least her grandfather had not fed the fire; the smoke would have led these men right to him. The biggest danger now was that the men would stumble upon the trail that led to their cave as they wandered through the forest.

She felt torn as she stood and listened to the men’s movements. Should she try to distract them? Perhaps she should lead them away and then lose them in the thick underbrush.

“Barrett! Over here!”

Sydney’s head snapped around and a jolt of fear shot through her body. How had the second man gotten so close? She cursed herself for her lapse in attention. That was the sort of carelessness that could get her killed—or worse.

She heard the man called Barrett stumble toward her through the woods on her right. The second man popped out from behind a thick stand of bushes only a few yards from where she stood. So much for her training—Sydney reacted as any frightened prey would—she screamed at the sight and turned to run.

Half-hidden by a bushy black beard and dreadlocks that fell to his shoulders, the man’s face did not hold a single scrap of kindness. It was the face of cruelty, of a man who enjoyed inflicting pain for fun. His filthy, ragged shirt exposed long, ropey arms. He carried a club in his hand.

“Well, lookee here what I done found. Barrett! Over here!” The man shouted to his companion as he closed in on Sydney.

Sydney stumbled over a tree root and dropped her crossbow pistol. As she struggled to regain her balance the man lunged at her, caught one foot and brought her to the ground. She winced as one of her knees landed on a rock, but pushed the pain aside as she twisted her body and kicked hard at the hand holding her foot.

The man held fast. He dropped his club and wrapped both hands around her ankle. He twisted her foot hard, a sneer on his face. Sydney cried out in surprise, then clamped her mouth shut. She would not show weakness. Weakness invited death and unspeakable atrocities. She willed herself to be strong.

Dread and fear filled her. She closed her eyes to block out the man’s evil face. Who was she kidding? It didn’t matter how she behaved. Weak or strong, she was now the prisoner of a Desperate One, a predator with no conscience. Cruelty followed by death was unavoidable.

She thought of Shannon and resigned herself to a similar fate. She deserved it. She had not come to her sister’s aid when Shannon needed her most. She was a coward. It didn’t matter that all her weapons had been inside the house and impossible to get to. It didn’t matter that she would have been raped and murdered like her sister.

All that mattered is that she chose to hide instead of finding a way to help the one person she loved more than anyone else. The image of her sister’s naked, dead body would be forever burned into her mind.

Sydney struggled to pull her foot loose, but the man tightened his grip on her ankle. His strong fingers dug into her and brought tears to her eyes.

A moment later the one called Barrett stumbled and crashed his way to where his companion held Sydney prisoner. “Oh, ho! Good find, Cal. We ain’t had us a woman in quite some time, especially a fine, young ‘un like this. She’s a little on the skinny side, but who ain’t these days?” His rough cackle made Sydney shudder.

“Yessiree, I’m lookin’ forward to some fresh poontang.”

4

Sydney opened her eyes and wished that she hadn’t.

Barrett was the ugliest human being she had ever seen. One wild blue eye stared at her with hunger; the other eye socket was stitched crudely shut with black thread. His large, bulbous nose was bent off to the side at an unnatural angle. He was filthy dirty and his leer revealed blackened teeth with several gaping holes where more than a few had fallen out.

Both men smelled rancid. Bitter bile rose in Sydney’s throat and she suppressed a gag, willing herself not to puke.

“You hold her, Barrett. I found her so I get first goes at her,” said Cal as he let go of one ankle and fumbled with his pants.

Sydney fought the panic that threatened to overwhelm her and tried to think. If she could get the men walking she might have a chance of escape. She took a deep breath and forced a tremulous smile.

“I ain’t had me a real man in a while neither,” she said. She emulated the men’s speech pattern, hoping it would make her seem more like one of them.

A picture came into her mind of a couple who had stopped by the farm once. The woman was what her mother called a “sex worker,” a woman who serviced men for money. The woman had been pretty in a hard way, and she talked rough. Sydney channeled the sex worker’s mannerisms. She had always had a knack for mimicry.

“Sure would like to do it right, tho, not here on the hard ground. You gents want to come to my place and get cleaned up first? I got food. We could make a party of it.”

She pumped enthusiasm into her words and forced herself to give Cal what she hoped was a flirty look. She guessed that he was the leader of the two, the one she needed to convince, and therefor the one from whom she had the most to fear. She hoped that Barrett would follow Cal’s lead.

Cal had his pants unbuttoned and was sliding them down his skinny hips. She sensed that the men were not going to go for her ruse, and she realized that she needed to sweeten her offer, needed to dangle something they couldn’t refuse.

“I got a little hooch left too,” she added slyly. “I might be willin’ to share a bit.”

That did it. She saw Barrett lick his lips and knew that she had him. She pushed a little more.

“I even got a purty dress I can put on. We’ll have a real party.” Sydney sighed and put a pleading note in her voice. “It’s been so long since I dressed up and partied...”

Cal gave her a hard, calculating look.

Sydney hoped that he was too macho to ever believe that a skinny teenaged girl would try to get the best of him. She gave him a tentative smile and saw him relax. He pulled his pants back up.

“Git up. And don’t try any funny bizness. There’s two of us and we don’t mind killin’ when we hafta. Yer dead body will still be warm long enough to pleasure us.”

Sydney nodded meekly, fully into her role now. She got to her feet. “Follow me, gennelmen.”

Cal stayed close to her side as she led them toward the trail that ran up the side of the bluff.

Her first thought was to escape and outrun them, but she realized that the men would not just let her go, they would hunt her down. They wouldn’t let her get away with making fools of them. She was sure that she could elude them, but her grandfather was immobile, and they would likely find him and kill him.

After the rape and murder of her sister, Sydney and her grandfather lived in the few rooms that had survived the fire. Sydney grew jumpy, paranoid about being found by more Desperate Ones. Images of Shannon’s rape were never far from her thoughts. They invaded her dreams and caught her at unexpected moments.

Fear became Sydney’s constant companion. In her heart she knew that no matter how much time passed, she would never again feel safe in her family home.

The limestone bedrock along the upper Mississippi River was riddled with underground rivers and caves, but very few of them were suitable for habitation. Massive earthquakes had caused many of the caves to collapse in on themselves, leaving giant sinkholes where farms once stood.

Sydney knew she had to get away from the farm and the scene of Shannon’s death. Once she made the decision to move, she spent every day searching the land that surrounded the family homestead until she found something she felt she could work with: a shallow sandstone cave near the top of a bluff. The cave was stable and deep enough to protect them from the elements.

It took her countless trips to transport everything she thought they would need to the cave. Rugs to insulate the cold, damp floor, sleeping pads, blankets, her grandfather’s chair. She discovered a small wood stove in one of the barns, took it apart and carried it piece by piece to the cave and reassembled it.

She worked hard to make their new home comfortable. She gathered wood for the stove, sawed lengths from fallen trees and stacked it neatly nearby.

Once everything was moved, she collected rocks and walled in three quarters of the entrance. She left a half foot open on the upper edge for smoke to exit and for air flow, counting on the overhanging sandstone to prevent any rain or snow from entering.

She also left a narrow opening to use as an entrance and hung a piece of heavy canvas for a door. When at last she was finished, Sydney stepped back to admire her work. It certainly couldn’t be called luxurious, but she hoped that it would shelter them through the approaching months of cold and inclement weather.

Getting her grandfather up to the cave had been the most difficult part of the move. Crippled from a bad fall many years ago, he frequently lost his balance on uneven ground. Only by convincing him that she was his daughter Gabriella, could she get him to agree to the move. It took her an entire day to get him to the cave. Walk a few steps, rest, explain where they were going, repeat.

By the time they arrived at the cave she wasn’t sure he would live through the night, but the old man was tough, and he survived the long, steep climb.

Sydney reached the base of the bluff and started up the familiar trail with the two men tagging close behind.

“Hold on there—where you takin’ us, girlie?” Cal reached out and grabbed Sydney’s arm.

“My place is just up this cliff,” she answered, her voice light, and pulled her arm away. She didn’t have much time left to come up with a plan. Panic overcame her when she realized that the only way that she would survive this ordeal was to either incapacitate or kill both men.

Cold resolution soon followed her panic. Sydney purposely dredged up images of Shannon’s lifeless body. If it came down to kill or be killed, she would kill, she told herself. She had failed her sister. She would not fail her grandfather.

Sydney clenched her jaw and marched on.

The land that Sydney called home consisted of steep hillsides separated by narrow ravines known to the locals as coolies. The coolies spread out into secluded valleys when they reached the river bottoms. One such valley held her grandfather’s sheep farm.

The bluffs rose five hundred feet above the valley floor where they then stretched a thousand miles to the west, with little change in elevation until they reached the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

Sydney led the men up the face of one of these steep bluffs. She followed a game trail that zigged and zagged its way up terrain that at times stood nearly vertical. It was tough going, sometimes forcing a climber to hands and knees, but she was in shape for it. She climbed these bluffs every day in her search for food.

The two men were not quite as agile as Sydney, and she had to be careful not to get so far ahead of them that they became alarmed. As she hiked, she worked out a plan. Near the top of the bluff the trail skirted around a large sandstone outcropping and made a sharp turn. The turn presented her first opportunity to attack her captors.

She glanced back to check on Cal and Barrett’s progress. They were grasping at trees to help pull themselves up the steep trail. It gave her a small amount of satisfaction to see that both men were red in the face from the effort of keeping up with her pace.

Cal had moved ahead of Barrett. Good. Cal was the smarter of the two men and therefore her greatest danger; she wanted to deal with him first. “C’mon fellas, we’re almost there,” she called out in a teasing singsong, encouraging them to follow her.

Sydney reached the critical turn a few minutes later. She scooted around the rocky point, squeezed her body into a narrow crevice, and waited for Cal to appear.

The crevice was a tight fit. The sandstone was rough and cold on her arms and it pressed against her shoulders. She made herself stand perfectly still and slowed her breathing while she waited.

The trail narrowed to a mere three feet in width here. On the uphill side stood the sandstone outcrop where Sydney waited in hiding. The downhill side had been sheered off during the quakes when a massive slide tore away a portion of the bluff.

Sydney’s plan counted on the fact that the men wouldn’t be able to see the drop-off until they rounded the point.

She heard their voices draw closer and held her breath. She would need perfect timing and a lot of luck to catch Cal off guard. She would only get one chance.

An onset of nerves made her shake, and she forced herself to let her breath out and relax. She strained to hear the approaching men over her pounding heart. Who knew that a heartbeat could sound so loud?

A moment later she heard scuffling footsteps nearby. She forced herself to be patient. Breathe. If she moved too soon she would lose the element of surprise and the opportunity to eliminate one of her captors.

5

Sydney bent her knees and wedged her shoulders and arms tight against the crevice walls. Another few seconds passed. The front edge of a body came into sight.

She brought her knees up and lashed out with her feet as hard as she could. Her feet connected with the man’s hips. Sydney watched, heart thudding in her chest, as he tottered for a moment, then windmilled his arms as he tried to catch his balance. For a moment he hung on the cliff edge and Sydney feared failure. Then he simply disappeared.

She heard a shout followed by a thud when he hit the rocks below, and then silence. Even if he had survived the fall of several hundred feet he would not be in any condition to come after her. One down, one to go.

Sydney slid out of the crevice and turned to run. A hand grabbed her long braid and yanked hard, snapping her head back. She struggled to stay on her feet.

Barrett wrapped the braid around his hand and pulled her against his chest. He hissed in her ear. “Bitch. Cal told you not to try anything funny.”

Sydney’s heart stopped beating for a moment. She gulped air and wished she hadn’t. Barrett’s rank, sour smell made her choke and cough. Her knees wobbled and she stumbled.

Barrett’s grip on her hair tightened. He twisted her head around, forcing Sydney to look into his hideous face. His good eye was narrowed and cold with fury. He squeezed her jaw hard with his free hand, his fingers digging into her cheeks.

“I should throw you off this cliff to join Cal, and I just might do that later, but I got bizness with you, girl. When I’m done you’ll wish that I had tossed you over first.”

Sydney was stunned by the pain of his grip. No one had ever intentionally hurt her before today. She clenched her stomach muscles, blinked back tears, and again willed herself not to show weakness.

Barrett pushed her away from his body, picked up Cal’s dropped club, and jabbed her hard in the back.

Sydney gasped. A new fear lodged deep in her belly. It became clear to her that Barrett would not leave her alive once he was finished with her. She was going to end up raped and murdered just like her sister.

“Now git movin’ and take me to your home.” Barrett jabbed her again, and Sydney stumbled forward. “Any more funny bizness and I’ll be only too happy to give you more of this here club. Don’t matter to me if I break a few bones before I have my fun. Might even make it more enjoyable.”