[Here is another chapter of Guns of the Border Region. I've been told that I write great fight scenes, and think this chapter contains one of my best. Also, there's part that's very rough and grim. In writing about a woman adventurer character, I was forced to acknowledge a big potential hazard of such a lifestyle for the sake of honesty. It did hurt. I love my characters, and Shadow is a favorite. In creating her, I wanted to see if I could create a female character as tough as Conan. Not quite, but she's easily as tough as the Man with No Name. A couple of historical notes: Incitatus was the name of the race horse the mad emperor Caligula appointed to the Roman senate. James Bowie's reputation as a knife fighter stems from one battle, the Natchez Sandbar fight. Copyright 2009 by Charles Hoffman]
CHAPTER FIVE -- SHADOW IN JEOPARDY
The frontier village called Eden consisted of a dozen or so rude log structures. Most lined the road that passed through the settlement, with some others off on the few narrow side streets. The road and streets were unpaved and muddy from recent rains. From within the cabins, the muffled roar of shouts, music and laughter could be heard. On the streets, furtive figures staggered drunkenly from one den to the next. Dogs and pigs rooted through heaps of offal. Beyond the settlement was night and the impenetrable black forest. The sole illumination was from the torches that cast a hellish red glare over the scene.
Eden’s largest establishment and central gathering place was Maggie’s Creekhouse, so called because of the dark nameless stream that flowed sluggishly past its rear. It was twice the size of the next largest structure and typically crammed full of rowdy patrons. Beer, ale and moonshine whiskey were greedily guzzled. The revelers competed in bouts of cards, darts, arm-wrestling and various drinking games. Music blared from battery-powered boom boxes. The lurid light from two fireplaces and candles on the tables sent distorted shadows dancing madly along the walls.
A gust of wind from an opening door made the candles flicker. Heads turned to check out the new arrival.
Shadow crossed the threshold clad in her black duster. She scanned the crowd like some hungry bird of prey, but the one she sought was not there. She raised her voice to address the entire throng.
“Has anyone in this dump seen Sailor Clanton? I would have words with him.”
The Creekhouse patrons grumbled and muttered among themselves. Then one rose in the back to face her.
“I’ve seen Sailor Clanton.”
It was Karla, the self-proclaimed “baddest bitch in the Border Region.” She was about the same size as Shadow, but a pink mohawk made her look taller. Her body was more sculpted, owing to an obsessive workout regimen. However, Shadow knew that Karla wasn’t just show; she had trained with some top fighters. And like Shadow, Karla dressed to impress. She wore torn fishnet pantyhose topped only by her gunbelt and a scanty vinyl thong. Her tight knee-high boots were also of glossy black vinyl. Above the waist Karla wore a red latex tube top and a spiked dog collar. Her bowie resembled a larger version of a military ka-bar, and her sidearm was a 9 mm Parabellum --the Luger commonly worn by Nazis in old war movies. Shadow thought the latter was a stupid affectation.
Not to be outdone, Shadow doffed her duster and cast it aside. She stood revealed in her black leather crotch-huggers, boots, gauntlets and Go-Go Lounge tank top. The two women warriors glowered at each other across a sea of leering male faces.
“Where’s Clanton?” Shadow grated between clenched teeth.
“Whatever you have to say to Sailor you can say to me,” Karla retorted with a haughty sneer.
Shadow rolled her eyes at that one. “Oh, so that’s how it is. So how long have you two been playing hide the salami anyway?” she snapped, to the hoots and guffaws of the crowd.
Karla was unfazed. “Long enough for him to appreciate what a real woman can do for him, as opposed to some lame-ass black-haired brat.”
Shadow seethed inwardly at what Karla had implied. Of course that lying sack of shit Sailor Clanton had gone and told everyone he had scored with Shadow anyway. Something else he had to answer for, she told herself. Then, as simply as one might adjust a control knob on an appliance, she turned off her anger and put it aside. Shadow was too much of a pro to allow passion to cloud her judgment when entering a volatile situation. But she kept an edge in her voice as she said, “Just tell me where Clanton is.”
“No!” Karla smirked. “You gonna make me, Lane?”
“Fine,” Shadow said coldly. She had never liked Karla anyway, and now took grim satisfaction in knowing that the matter of their relative fighting prowess would finally be settled. Karla was as dangerous as a spitting cobra when backing up some guy, but Shadow was certain that she could take her one-on-one.
What happened next that night in the Creekhouse became the stuff of legend throughout the New Settlements, the story told and retold for generations. Patrons shoved tables and benches aside to clear a space for the combatants. Shadow and Karla divested themselves of their weapons. Karla’s were held by a couple of cronies. Shadow left hers in the custody of Maggie and Joe, the proprietors. Then, in the midst of dozens of yelling, roaring spectators, the opponents squared off.
At first the women circled each other warily, taking each other’s measure and getting a feel for their makeshift arena. They had ample room to maneuver and the packed earth floor provided sure footing. Both women were in fine form. Their fighting stances assured balance and stability while still allowing for fluid footwork. Both had their guard up. Karla’s fists were tightly clenched. Shadow’s hands were held more open, ready to shift from striking and blocking to trapping and grappling.
Shadow was waiting for Karla to make the first move. She knew that she would not have to wait long. Karla was impatient and liked to show off. Leave it to her to get the ball rolling with some flashy opening move.
Nor was Shadow wrong. Screeching a loud battle yell, Karla abruptly launched a wide swooping circular kick that shot off the floor and arced towards Shadow’s head. With a deft weave of her torso, Shadow ducked under it and came up in punching range of her opponent. Had she been fighting a man she could have punched him in the balls while weaving. Instead she stung Karla with two quick jabs to the face just as Karla’s kick completed its arc. Karla’s foot was firmly planted back on the ground when Shadow struck, so she was not knocked off balance. An instinctive counterpuncher, Karla lashed back with a right cross. Shadow deflected it by swatting it aside. Karla danced back out of range.
Shadow did not pursue Karla to follow up her attack. For the time being she wanted Karla to come to her. Her plan was to allow Karla to take the offensive for now, and thwart whatever she tried to do. She hoped to frustrate and anger her opponent in this manner, perhaps causing her to commit a fatal blunder. Otherwise, Shadow would pace herself until Karla started to run out of steam, then beat the crap out of her.
Shadow’s defensive strategy was a sound one. Karla possessed a greater repertoire of martial arts techniques, honed to finer precision, but Shadow had a better grasp of their practical application. For example, Shadow would never have used some high-flying kick as an opening gambit. Such kicks placed inordinate demands on one’s attention, timing and energy. They were easy to defend against --stepping out of the way would suffice-- and left one exposed and vulnerable to counterattack if they failed. Better to save the kick for the coup de grace, after the opponent had been softened up and was ready to go down.
Fancy kicks did look impressive, though, and Karla was a glory-hound who loved showboating before an audience. She couldn’t just outfight an opponent; she had to look cool doing it. Shadow considered this a weakness to be exploited. The Creekhouse spectators, on the other hand, shouted their approval. To the uninitiated, Karla appeared the more skillful fighter. Those more knowledgeable about such things kept their eye on Shadow. The din of the crowd grew louder. Some threw bets, others took them.
Egged on by the crowd, Karla was quick to wade back into battle. She didn’t want to lose the initiative to her foe. Shadow knew that Karla would try to smother her by keeping her penned against the rim of the circle formed by the spectators. Rather than allow that to happen, Shadow strode forth to meet her.
The two women met in the center of the ring. There they circled each other, boxer style, once again. Shadow surprised her opponent by lashing out with a roundhouse kick that swung out horizontally to strike at Karla’s thigh. Shadow did not overextend herself by committing any real power to the kick; it was merely a feint aimed at probing Karla’s defenses. This did cause Karla to drop her guard, but only for a brief flashing instant as she blocked the kick. Still, it created enough of an opening for Shadow to bore in.
The combatants were mixing it up now, exchanging body shots and glancing blows to the head. Karla broke away, backpedaling. Shadow went in pursuit. Karla drove her back with more kicks. The blows Shadow had landed thus far were not telling; it would take a lot more of them to begin to sap Karla’s strength. She needed to deliver some really good shots. Karla’s kicks weren’t landing, but they were keeping Shadow at bay. If Shadow could get in close and really duke it out with Karla, she could follow it up with some grappling and a little thing called judo. But Karla had her opponent pegged as an infighter. She altered her own strategy accordingly. Her plan now was to rush in, do some damage, then back out just as quickly before Shadow could react. Repeat as necessary.
Karla edged in closer. When she was near enough to her opponent, she leaped up and lashed out with a front snap kick. Shadow avoided it, but it created an opening. Now toe-to-toe, Karla struck with two quick jabs and a hook. Shadow blocked with her forearms, but before she could counter Karla had glided back out of range. Another rush by Karla yielded similar results.
Shadow remained cool and unfazed by her foe’s tricky maneuvers. She quickly divined Karla’s strategy. She decided to lay a trap by offering an opening, hopefully enticing Karla into making some reckless move.
When Karla came in again, Shadow shed the straight punch she aimed at her face instead of blocking it. To Karla, it looked like the blow had connected with full force rather than glancing off. Shadow staggered back as though stunned. Thinking her to be off-balance, Karla launched a spinning back kick aimed at blowing her foe off her feet. Rotating her body to generate force, Karla thrust out her leg with all the power of her muscular thigh. It was a kick that could have blasted open a locked door. But it never landed. As Karla pivoted, exposing her backside ever so briefly, Shadow struck with a kick of her own. It was a simple straight forward thrust that flicked out like a serpent’s tongue and tagged Karla squarely in her hard buttocks before she could fully extend her leg. Had they been standing in center ring, it would have sent her sprawling face-first onto the floor. Then Shadow would have piled on top of her and ended the fight very quickly. As it was, Karla toppled into some spectators who caught her and checked her fall.
Karla felt herself being seized by rough hands that spun her about and shoved her back into the ring. There she collided with Shadow, who had stalked after her in pursuit. Karla had yet to regain her footing and fell awkwardly against Shadow, clutching at her for support. Her fingers locked in the fabric of Shadow’s Go-Go Lounge tank top. As Shadow backed away, the garment ripped down the middle. The ivory globes of her breasts bobbed free. The crowd went wild.
“Goddamn it!” she snarled angrily, “I liked that top.”
Stung to fury, Shadow seized Karla’s tube top with both hands and rent it asunder. The latex top snapped like a rubber band, flying off and away. Karla was left nude from the waist up. The crowd was on its feet and howling.
Her martial art technique momentarily forgotten, Karla struck Shadow across the face with her open palm. Shadow reeled from the blow. Karla skated back to the edge of the circle formed by the yelling mob. She stood poised, flaunting her magnificent semi-nude body.
“Yeah!” she screamed at Shadow, “My fuckin’ tits are bigger than yours too!”
Shadow said nothing. She stripped away the remnants of her tank top lest they hinder her movements. The women glowered at each other like two bare-breasted Amazon warriors.
For a tense moment the tableau held. Then, as if responding to some signal detectable to none but them, the women dived back into the fray. Karla strode forward. Shadow came only part-way to meet her, preferring to let her opponent come to her while she stood her ground.
Karla was visibly angry, and looked determined to put an end to the fight and her enemy right away. As soon as she was in striking distance, she unleashed a powerful karate straight punch. Chambered at the hip, it was driven by a twist of Karla’s supple body and a blind urge to smash. It was a finishing move, not an opening shot. Shadow blocked it easily, as well as the follow-up punch Karla delivered with her other arm.
The forearm block Shadow used to ward off the second blow flowed smoothly into an elbow strike that crashed into Karla’s face. Twisting to one side to deliver the blow, Shadow struck Karla’s other cheek on the backstroke. Karla was seeing stars and sought to clinch in an effort to pin Shadow’s arms. In a micro-second, Shadow weighed and discarded the notion of using a judo throw. Both women wore no clothing above the waist to grip, and their bodies were slick with sweat. Therefore grappling would be a futile waste of energy. Instead, Shadow drove her knee into Karla’s solar plexus. That would have knocked the wind out of most people, but Karla’s steely abs protected her. She merely grunted and struggled to hold onto her foe until her head cleared.
Shadow wedged her arms between Karla’s and pushed outwards in both directions. Karla’s arms were forced apart, breaking her hold. Karla was still dazed, however. Shadow resolved to make sure she stayed that way.
Shadow smashed a left hook into Karla’s head, striking with her open palm instead of a clenched fist. It was potentially a knockout blow, but Shadow pulled the punch. She wanted Karla conscious enough to tell her where Sailor Clanton was.
No answer. Shadow bitch-slapped Karla hard with the back of her hand.
“I can keep this up all night,” Shadow informed her. By way of emphasis she struck her again.
“Enough,” Karla gasped. She relented when Shadow raised her hand yet again. Shadow checked the motion and repeated her question.
“Need drink,” Karla croaked, indicating that her mouth had gone dry. She staggered over to where her posse awaited her and slumped down on a bench. Karla was handed a half-full pitcher of beer. She began to gulp it directly from the pitcher, some of the beer splashing onto her naked breasts. Putting the pitcher aside for a moment, she downed a shot of something followed by a chaser of more beer.
Shadow’s patience, never in great supply, was quickly exhausted. “Enough of this,” she snapped, “Now talk.”
In answer Karla’s lips curled in a wicked grin as one of her crew slipped her knife to her. The dazed look in her eyes had vanished, replaced by one of sheer malevolence. She rose and started towards Shadow.
Oh shit! She’s got a weapon. Thoughts flashed like flickers of lightening through Shadow’s mind. Get something in your hand, girl! Bottle. Better yet, heavy glass beer mug. Just grab something. Hurry! Her eyes darted about, searching for something suitable. Then she felt the comforting familiar shape of the hilt of her own blade as it was pressed into her hand by Maggie.
Shadow glared at her nemesis. “Are you sure you want to settle this with our bowies?” she said coldly.
Her eyes mad, Karla screamed, “To the death!”
“So be it.”
The women circled each other once more. The crowd was on its feet again, yelling, cheering, chanting the names of the combatants. Spectators jostled one another for a better view. A new round of wagering commenced. Gamblers shouted and waved handfuls of money.
Karla looked none the worse for the pounding she had taken moments earlier. The tough resilience of a Border Region adventurer was hers. She appeared as fresh and dangerous as ever. “I’ll carve you like a fuckin’ turkey,” she snarled.
Shadow said nothing. The time for talk had passed. She stood ready to do battle. To many onlookers it appeared as though she held her knife upside down with the sharp cutting edge facing upwards. But it was part of Shadow’s method. Held in this manner the blunt edge of the knife could be used to block and parry, preventing the keen edged blade from becoming nicked and notched. After fending off an attack, the knife could be inserted cleanly into the attacker’s vitals. A simple upward slash would then disembowel the enemy. This had been how men in olden times had fought with bowie knives, how the men of the Mississippi delta had fought, how James Bowie himself had fought on the Natchez sandbar.
Karla came rushing in like she was on fire, determined to press the attack. Shadow sidestepped and deftly parried her initial thrust. Karla’s knife-fighting technique did not match her empty hand skills. Her movements were predictable. Even so, she kept her blade in constant motion, a whirling arc of deadly razor-edged steel.
Where Karla was all fire and fury, Shadow epitomized icy control. Her movements were no less scintillating, but executed with a machine-like precision -- block, parry, riposte. Soon she had Karla on the defensive. She looked for some sign that Karla was beginning to falter. Then she could use the blunt edge of her blade to beat the knife out of Karla’s hand, disarming her and sparing her life.
No such luck. Karla’s iron arm never seemed to grow weary. Then Karla took Shadow by surprise with a wild slashing motion followed by a thrust on the backstroke. Shadow was only able to check the move by seizing the wrist of Karla’s knife hand. She sought now to drive her own blade home, but Karla also managed to grab hold of her foe’s weapon hand.
The women now stood toe-to-toe as each exerted her considerable strength in an effort to break the stalemate. Drenched in sweat, their naked bosoms heaved as they gulped down the cabin’s stale smoky air. The sleek cords of their muscles stood out in bold relief from the intensity of their exertions. The crowd that ringed them in howled and cavorted like devils.
Tense moments passed as the combatants shuffled about, their footwork slow and deliberate, as they jockeyed for some advantage of position. They inched closer together. Their sinewy arms strained as they fought to hold each other’s knives at bay. The women grappled in a deadly loveless embrace, the bare breasts of each pressed flat against those of the other.
Finally, Shadow caught a glimmer of an opportunity. Karla’s grip on Shadow’s wrist was less secure because of the gauntlet Shadow wore. Her hand began to slip. Shadow seized that instant to butt with her forehead and smash Karla’s nose. Karla was driven back and her grip was broken.
Her knife hand free at last, Shadow drove the blade to the hilt into Karla’s vitals. She then slashed upwards instinctively, ripping the blade free. Karla’s face was a white mask of agony as her entrails began to spill. Shadow quickly decided to end Karla’s suffering and afford her the dignity of dying without crying out. She plunged the clip point of her bowie between Karla’s ample breasts, piercing her heart and killing her instantly.
Shadow yanked her knife free and Karla fell dead at her feet. The din of the crowd faded and died. The spectators whose shouts had shaken the rafters mere moments before now loomed sullenly about like ghouls in conclave.
“What the hell are you assholes looking at?” Shadow demanded, “Two minutes ago you were all howling for blood. Well, there it is. She called the tune and you all saw it.”
Members of the crowd muttered incoherently. Shadow swore at them, her amber eyes ablaze like those of a basilisk; “Goddamn jackals and hyenas. Don’t let her lie there!”
Shadow dragged a long rude wooden table into the area that had served as the arena. She cleared it off with a sweep of her arm. With the aid of a few patrons, she laid Karla’s body upon it. Shadow closed Karla’s eyes, then tore down a bear pelt decorating one of the walls and used it to cover the body. Finally she set candles about the corpse and lit them.
The grim task completed, Shadow poured some liquor into a mug. She raised the mug in a solemn gesture, drained it, then hurled the empty vessel into the fireplace.
Maggie brought Shadow her weapon belt. Shadow fastened it about her waist and sheathed her bowie after cleansing it. She pulled on her duster. Before taking her leave she gave Maggie some money.
“See that she gets taken care of,” she told her. Then she was gone.
Upon taking her leave of the Creekhouse, Shadow returned to a small corral at the north end of Eden. There Christian awaited her with the horses.
“So how did it go?” he asked.
“Uh, not so hot.” She briefly recounted the duel to the death with Karla.
“My God! What’s going to happen?”
“Well, what passes for law around here doesn’t have a problem if someone gets killed in a fair fight. That sort of thing happens from time to time, and there were plenty of witnesses. But unless I miss my guess, one or more of those dicks back there are going to scamper and tell Sailor Clanton. He’s not going to like my killing his sweetie-pie. I know Clanton. If he’s not getting it regular, he gets cranky. He’s sure to blame me for what went down back there.”
“This can’t be good,” Christian observed.
“Yeah,” Shadow agreed, “But what choice did I have? I couldn’t back down from a fight. I’d be finished here. The same goes for my still. You can’t let shit like that slide.”
That ended the conversation. They mounted up and rode north for a few miles. At a fork in the road Shadow lead them down a narrow trail. From there they went off the path into a clearing.
“We’ll camp here,” she told him, “No fire. I don’t want to draw attention to our position. There’s no telling who will be riding the roads this night. Like I said, Karla’s buying it in a fair fight should have settled it, but it’s not like there’s some ‘code of the hills’ that’s going to protect us if someone decides to take up a vendetta.”
“I’ll take the first watch,” Christian volunteered.
“Never mind,” Shadow said wearily, “Incitatus’ll warn us if someone comes around. I want to zip the sleeping bags together so we can huddle together for warmth. And no argument from you, Church-boy.”
The clouds had parted, providing them with enough moonlight to prepare the camp without night goggles. While Christian was saying his prayers, Shadow removed her duster. He saw for the first time that she had lost her top during the fight. How beautiful her ivory body was in the moonlight! Christian averted his eyes, lest he succumb to impure thoughts.
Shadow spread her duster over the combined sleeping bags to provide additional insulation. Then she slipped in next to Christian. He found the nearness of her intoxicating, at once exciting and comforting. A lifetime’s worth of tension from the expectations of others seemed to seep out of him. He drifted off into a blissful slumber.
The sun was well up when they awoke. Shadow hadn’t meant to sleep so late, but the fight with Karla had been grueling. She arose and donned her duster. Christian had to wait in the sleeping bag for a few minutes until his erection subsided.
He rose presently and they broke camp. They led the horses back to the trail and were about to saddle up. Just then they heard a rustling in the brush and a voice.
“Hands in the air, bitch.”
A man emerged from the woods with a gun leveled at Shadow. He was a short, unkempt scruffy-looking fellow. She recognized him as one of the crowd from the Creekhouse. He had the drop on her. She had no option but to raise her hands. Keep your hands away from the gunbelt; don’t make him nervous, she thought. Maybe she could defuse the situation with talk.
“Okay, you got me,” she said, “Now suppose you tell me what this is all about.”
“You killed Karla,” the man said bluntly, “And she deserved better than to be killed by a tramp like you. I went out after you at daybreak, hopin’ to pick up your trail. Just my luck I happened to be goin’ past here when I heard youns movin’ around back ‘err. I left my horse back in the woods and hid, waitin’ for youns to come out.”
“Your name’s Chester, isn’t it?” Shadow kept her voice soft. She could see that the man’s face was red and puffy from crying. “Well Chester, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Karla barely knew you were alive. You saw what happened. It went down fair and square. It was her choice. You’ve got no call playing the noble avenger. None. So why don’t you stop all this?”
Chester wasn’t buying it. “I don’t care about any of that shit!” he roared.
After Shadow had left the Creekhouse, Chester had remained as the others began to file out. He just sat and stared at Karla’s body in repose, illuminated in the soft glow of the candles. He drank and cried and drank some more. But in spite of the whiskey he had downed through the night, he gun hand did not waver now.
“I don’t care about that shit,” he repeated, “She was a goddess. She’s in heaven now. And I’m sendin’ you straight to hell!”
Give Chester credit: he had gotten the drop on Shadow, a thing not easily done. But he made one mistake. He forgot about the tenderfoot.
Christian drew his revolver, aimed, and fired one shot into the center of the shorter man’s chest. It was enough. Chester pitched backwards without a sound and lay motionless in the brush beside the trail.
“Thanks,” said Shadow.
They looked down at their fallen foe. Chester lie sprawled at their feet, still as an old log. His eyes stared unseeing at the sky above.
Christian trembled, mouth agape, as the realization of what he had done began to creep over him. Shadow tried to snap him out of it.
“Just a flesh wound. He’ll be fine. C’mon Churchy, we gotta get outta here!” She dragged Christian over to the mare and all but shoved him into the saddle.
Shadow mounted Incitatus and they rode off together. Reaching the main road they headed north once more. After several miles, they stopped to water the horses at a stream.
Christian was still shaken by the encounter with Chester. “Why, oh God, why?” he muttered.
“Just another lovesick fool,” Shadow told him. After a moment’s reflection she added, “Love’s too precious to waste on ingrates. Remember that, Churchy.”
Christian began to regain some of his composure. “So now what?” he asked.
“I still have to find Sailor Clanton. This thing is getting out of hand. And to think that it would be over moonshine! I mean, I was expecting some trouble over my marijuana business in Transylvania. That’s why I have Martin and Ron as partners down there. We were ready; we had weapons and security equipment. Shit!”
“So what’s the plan now?”
“Try to locate Clanton’s whereabouts. We can make inquiries at some of the cabins up ahead, and at the roadhouses. If I can get word to him, maybe I can set up a meeting at some neutral location like one of the taverns.”
They continued on their way, keeping to the back roads. It was almost noon before they reached the first isolated cabins north of Eden. The information they were able to obtain was sketchy but sufficient. They learned that Sailor Clanton had been seen frequently in those parts over the last ten days or so, and that there had been a more than usual amount of activity along the main roads that morning.
“It all makes sense,” Shadow explained, “Clanton’s people are located still further north. He’s down here for a reason. He probably holed up in an old cabin near Eden. That would put him in striking distance of Leon’s place. And it looks like last night’s needlepoint with Karla has stirred up a hornets nest.”
Their next step was at a roadside inn called Bear Tavern. They ate lunch in the bar. Afterwards Shadow slipped some money to the proprietor and told him, “If Sailor Clanton should happen to show up here, let him know that I’ll be back here around sunset. We have business I want to straighten out.”
After they left the tavern, Christian asked, “Do we head north or south?”
“South,” said Shadow, “I want to spread the word around here that I’ll be awaiting Clanton at the Bear this evening. We’ll be back there before sundown. I don’t want to risk just running into Clanton on the road after dark. We’ll wait for him in the bar until midnight, then take a room there. We’re sleeping indoors tonight.”
Turning south, they revisited the cabins they had been to earlier. They left word there that Shadow could be found at the Bear Tavern come evening. Most of the cabins were located on back roads. From there they returned to the main road. Rounding a bend they found themselves face to face with a trio of men on horseback about a hundred yards away. All were armed with rifles slung over their shoulders. One of them was Sailor Clanton.
Shadow recognized Clanton instantly. Unfortunately Clanton had spotted her as well. He began to unsling his rifle.
“Shit!” Shadow spat venomously, then, “After me, Churchy, and try to keep up!” So saying she abruptly reigned her horse about, vanishing into the woods. Christian was quick to follow.
As soon as they were off the road, Shadow gave the spurs to Incitatus and they were flying like banshees through the gloom-shrouded forest. Christian did his best to keep pace on the mare. From behind them in the distance, a voice: “After them! Kill him but take the girl alive!” Christian dug his spur-less heels into the mare’s flanks, exhorting it to greater speed.
Had she been on her own, Shadow may well have eluded her pursuers. There was no way they could have brought her down with gunfire, given the difficulty of firing rifles on horseback at full gallop while navigating through the densely-grown woodlands. Shadow wove her way through the thick trees, avoiding entangling brush, jumping her horse over fallen trees and narrow gullies. Christian soon found himself falling behind. He lacked her skill in horsemanship, nor was the mare he rode the equal of the great stallion. He was forced to circumvent obstacles Incitatus cleared with a bound. Shadow was forced to drop back lest he lose sight of her.
Shadow had just begun to slacken her pace when the mare pitched forward, throwing Christian from the saddle. He landed unhurt in some bushes, but his horse was down with a broken leg.
Shadow rode back to him and dismounted. She looked down at the agonized mare, drew her pistol and put it down. Hate to waste a bullet, she thought, Gonna need all of them. Just gave our position, too. She could even now hear their pursuers crashing through the brush, not far distant. But in spite of all that, she could not allow the animal to suffer.
She grabbed Christian by the shirt front and pulled him close; “Not much time, so listen. Clanton wants to take me back alive, but you stay and you’re a dead man. Get on my horse and ride; I’ll hold them off. Double back and hide somewhere. Follow them and see where they take me. Come get me when the coast is clear. Got it?”
Incitatus reared up with flailing hooves as Christian attempted to mount him. Shadow jerked hard on the reins and held him steady until Christian was in the saddle. The she smacked the horse sharply on the flank to send it galloping off.
Alone, Shadow looked about for cover. There wasn’t much. The stout trunk of a fallen tree afforded the best protection. Shadow dove behind it, lying prone with her Glock extended. Great. A handgun against three rifles, she thought. Not that Christian’s revolver would have added much firepower. And knowing that twit, he probably would have saved the last bullet for me in order to spare me a “fate worse than death.”
Shadow fired off a shot at her pursuers as soon as they came into view. This forced them to dismount and take cover behind trees while still some distance away. A moment later they opened fire with their rifles. Bullets whined through the air above Shadow or thudded solidly into the log in front of her.
Shadow returned fire as best she could. Her assailants pinned her down under a barrage of lead while darting from tree to tree, working their way closer. In the meantime Shadow expended her pistol’s ammo, including that of two extra magazines.
The barrage by Clanton and his henchmen began to slacken when they realized Shadow was no longer shooting back. She called out to them.
“Clanton, hold your fire! I’m coming out.”
Shadow rose slowly from her place of concealment, both hands raised. Her left hand gripped the butt of the Glock between thumb and forefinger. She tossed it away into the brush. “See? I’m unarmed.”
Sailor Clanton and his cohorts emerged from their own cover and approached her. Clanton strode forward with his familiar cocky grin and self-assured swagger. The others kept Shadow covered with their rifles.
“So,” Clanton smirked, “What happened to the boyfriend?”
Shadow glowered. “The ball-less little shit stole my horse and ran off. He probably won’t stop until he’s back in the Confederacy.”
“Smart lad. I guess he knew that you weren’t worth losing his life over. Good for some laughs, though. Get over here.”
Shadow stepped forward, hands still raised. Clanton instructed one of his cohorts to bring the horses over. A tough rawhide lariat was affixed to one of the saddles. Clanton used it to bind Shadow. He made Shadow extend her hands in front of her, then tied them together at the wrists. After fastening the other end of the rope to his saddle bow, he remounted his horse.
With Clanton in the lead, the trio of horsemen trotted back through the woods and onto the road. Shadow walked alongside Clanton’s horse, tethered to his saddle bow.
Clanton laughed. “This is how it’s done, boys. You bring home the spoils of war tied to your saddle bow. Just like Genghis Kahn.”
Clanton’s cronies hooted uproariously, as they did at all of his nasty jests. Shadow walked along in silence, hell seething in her brain. You are so going to pay for this, Sailor Clanton. When I get done with you, you’ll wish you had never heard of me.
They went south a mile or so on the main road before turning up into the hills. Presently they came to a dark cabin in a clearing surrounded by pines. The sun was already setting behind the hills, casting the scene in deep shadows.
Clanton and his men tied the horses to a hitching post behind the cabin. They holstered their rifles in long leather sleeves affixed to their saddles. One of the men kept Shadow covered with a sidearm, even though her hands were bound, while Clanton led her around to the front of the cabin.
They entered the darkened structure. One of the men lit an oil lamp. The cabin appeared to be an old hunting lodge, abandoned until lately. Several bunks, a table and some chairs comprised most of the furnishings. In the fireplace freshly burnt logs had been heaped atop cold ashes. The single room’s corners were thick with cobwebs. Dusty shelves had been freshly stocked with provisions, mostly canned goods and foodpaste. All of which indicated that Clanton and company had occupied the cabin only recently.
“Tell me something, Clanton,” Shadow said, “It was you who shot up my still, right?”
Clanton grinned, not thinking for a second to deny it. “Yeah,” he admitted freely, “Me and the boys here. Have you met Mike and Lyle?”
“I don’t remember every maggot I’ve ever seen,” she answered scornfully. Mike and Lyle were a couple of slack-jawed dullards, unhandsome, unimpressive in any way. She recalled that Sailor Clanton, so strong, handsome and bold, had always had a tendency to surround himself with losers. It was a trait that fairly reeked of insecurity and desperation, as though he sought to magnify his own superiority by comparison. For their part, toadies like Mike and Lyle got to bask in Clanton’s reflected glory.
Clanton drew an ugly black automatic and waved it menacingly at Shadow. “I’m going to untie your hands now. Don’t try anything stupid. Hate to lose you before the party gets started.”
Clanton undid the knots and unraveled the loops of the lariat that bound Shadow’s wrists. She rubbed them to restore circulation.
“Now let’s get you out of that coat,” Clanton said, “Lyle, help the lady off with her wrap.”
Lyle made a move to grasp Shadow’s duster. Shadow swatted his hand away; “Get your fucking grimy paws away from me. I’ll do it.”
Shadow unfastened the duster, shed it, and cast it aside. The eyes of the men, including Sailor Clanton, widened when they saw that she wore no top beneath her outer garment. Her white body was as lovely as ever, but as she stood glaring at them it looked as cold and hard as a marble statue.
“Impressive,” Clanton remarked, but the sheathed knife on her belt did not escape his notice. “Lose the belt,” he ordered, “Slowly. Left hand. Toss it in that corner.”
After she did so, Clanton visibly relaxed. “You got what it takes, girl,” he told her. “Of course, Karla had a bit more.”
“Well, I hope you took lots of pictures,” Shadow snarled back, “Because last night I used her guts for party streamers. I take it you heard.”
Clanton struck her across the face with the barrel of the automatic. “Yeah, I heard.”
Stung to anger, he barked an order to the others; “Grab her and get the rest of her clothes off.”
Mike prepared to seize Shadow by the upper arms to hold her steady. The next thing he knew he was sailing through the air. Shadow had swiftly executed a judo maneuver to grab him and flip him over her shoulder. She hoped to flip him into Clanton to create an opening for her to escape, but Clanton sidestepped. Mike crashed into one of the bunks, collapsing one of its front legs.
Clanton thrust the muzzle of his gun into Shadow’s face. “Chill out or I will chill you out. Permanently.”
Shadow submitted as Mike staggered back from where he had fallen and placed her in a full nelson. Lyle knelt before Shadow and began to yank off her boots. Shadow still had some fight in her and kicked out. Her spur gouged a deep gash across Lyle’s face. He rose howling and clutching the wound.
“Don’t be such a baby,” Clanton told him, “It’s a scratch. Just pour some booze in it to disinfect it.”
Lyle did as instructed. Clanton turned to Shadow. “As for you…”
He hit her again with his gun barrel. Rather than risk a concussion, she acquiesced after that.
After they stripped her, Clanton went to the bunk with the broken leg and kicked out the other front leg. The front of the bunk crashed to the floor so that the bed lie tilted at an angle.
“Tie her to that,” Clanton told his henchmen.
Shadow was forced onto the bed at gunpoint, the muzzle of Clanton’s automatic held inches from her head. They tied her by the wrists and ankles to the bedposts. Then Clanton personally secured all the knots to make sure they would hold.
Clanton stepped back to admire his handiwork. Shadow’s nude body was bound spread-eagled on the bed. She lie totally exposed and helpless.
Clanton looked down on her in smug satisfaction. “You know, girl,” he told her, “We could have had something. I could tell you were hot for me back then, just like I was hot for you. But you had to go and let your stubborn schoolgirl pride get in the way. This could be our second chance. Before long you’re going to thank me for this.”
“In your dreams, asswipe.” For all the seriousness of her position, Shadow showed no sign of being intimidated.
“We’ll see about that,” Clanton said simply as he took off his shirt. He yanked the front of it open like Superman. Doffing the shirt he stood revealed in a red nylon mesh tank top that emphasized the muscularity of his powerful sculpted torso. Shadow thought he looked gay.
Clanton stood before her preening and flexing his muscles, actually striking poses like he was in some bodybuilder contest. He peeled the tank top off over his head, causing his rock-hard six-pack abs to ripple and undulate. It was the sort of move that drew gasps from the audience on ladies’ night at the strip club.
Shadow was unimpressed. “Nice try, Clanton. But I’m still as dry as sandpaper.”
Clanton’s rakish smile vanished as he kicked off his boots. “That’s too bad,” he told her. And so saying he unzipped his pants. He let them drop, then stepped out of them. He doffed his undergarments to stand before her naked.
Once again, Clanton posed for dramatic effect. He stood with his hands on hips, looking like some laughing young god about to ravish a hapless mortal woman. Shadow noted with disgust that Clanton lacked even the decency to send the other men away before he clambered onto the bed. They stood near, egging on their hero.
“Give it to the whore, Sailor,” Mike smirked.
Clanton looked back over his shoulder at them. “She’s not a whore,” he growled. Then, as though this were a sign of weakness, he hastily added, “Whores get paid.”
Clanton caressed Shadow, fondling her breasts and supple limbs. He kissed her face and neck, whispering endearments; “C’mon baby. You know you want it. Just give in.”
Shadow said nothing. She was working to mentally distance herself from the situation. Clanton had a smooth touch; he was not unskilled. Shadow briefly considered pretending he was someone else, but decided against it. She wanted nothing to diminish the fires of her hatred.
Clanton quickly became hard. Soon he was thrusting inside her. He started with a gentle rocking motion, but before long his jackhammer pummeling was shaking the bed. He was endeavoring to put on a porn star exhibition for the benefit of his worshiping fans. They ate it up. As in a nightmare, Shadow saw their ugly sin-pitted faces leering at her grotesquely in the unsteady lamplight.
Lyle tittered and cackled like a madman, “Hee hee heee. Hee hee heeeee…” The high-pitched squeal was enough to shred lesser nerves, but Shadow remained stoic.
Mike was playing cheerleader; “Fuck her, Sailor! Fuck her real good. You the man, Sailor, you the man!”
Sailor Clanton grunted loudly as he climaxed and gave one last vigorous thrust for emphasis. He rolled off the woman, totally spent. He smiled in smug satisfaction. Shadow said, “Okay lover, you can start now.”
Clanton rose from the bed, his face red, speechless in his fury. He strode over to a pile of gear placed near the table and strode back brandishing a riding crop. Curses spewed from his lips as he lashed the helpless woman. Shadow writhed beneath the crop with clenched teeth and did not cry out. Mike and Lyle howled like jackals as they watched the lewd spectacle of the naked man whipping the bound naked woman.
When he had glutted his anger, Clanton flung the riding crop away. He began to dress.
“Hey Sailor,” said Lyle, “Don’t we get a turn?”
“If I don’t break her soon you just might,” replied Clanton. “In the meantime, we’re going down to Eden to pay our respects to Karla. It’ll give this little hothead a chance to cool off and think things over, maybe figure out what’s best for her.”
“What if she gets loose?”
“She won’t. Trust me; I know how to tie a woman up.”
A few minutes later, they departed.
Outside, night had fallen and a harvest moon had risen above the pines. Three horsemen galloped away from the lonely cabin. Hiding in the woods nearby, Christian watched them ride off.
After his earlier escape, he had circled back in time to witness Clanton and his men take Shadow prisoner. He had followed them from a safe distance, using the woods for concealment. Once they had arrived at their destination, he had waited for them to emerge once more.
Now Christian approached the cabin warily. He eased the door open and gasped at what he saw luridly revealed by the flickering lamplight within.
Shadow remained as Clanton had left her, tied spread-eagled to the bed. She was the first thing one saw upon entering the cabin. The bunk lie tilted at such an angle that it offered a clear view of her nude body in bondage. Her ivory flesh was crisscrossed with welts from her whipping with the riding crop. She was slick with sweat and her breasts rose and fell with her heavy breathing. The supple muscles of her superbly toned body flexed and stood out in relief as she writhed on the bed straining against her bonds.
“You can jack off later! Stop staring at me and untie me!”
Shadow’s sharp words snapped Christian out of his stunned paralysis. He crossed the cabin in an instant and began to fumble with the knots that held her immobile. He struggled with them for a few seconds until she told him, “Get my knife over there.”
Christian retrieved Shadow’s bowie knife from where she had tossed it. The keen blade made short work of he bonds. Another moment and she was free.
Shadow sat up. She flexed her fingers and toes and felt circulation return.
“Merciful God!” Christian exclaimed, “Those fiends! Will you be alright?”
“I’m alright now,” Shadow replied tersely, “It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve had some oaf grunting on top of me.”
Shadow dressed and they exited the cabin. They went back to Christian’s hiding place, where Shadow’s pinto was tied.
“Did you have much trouble leading my horse back here?” she asked.
“Actually, I got back on and rode most of the way.”
“I’m impressed. Incitatus won’t usually let anyone ride him but me. Do you have your gun?”
“Yes. And yours. I saw where you threw it and went back and got it.”
“Good boy. I spent all the ammunition I had on my belt, but I have a couple more clips in the saddlebags."
Shadow retrieved the ammo and reloaded. She told Christian, “You stay back here with the horse. I’ve got some work to do.”
“What sort of work?”
“When Clanton gets back here, he is in for a big fat fucking surprise.”
Maggie’s Creekhouse had been the scene of an impromptu wake that day. Karla now lay in a coffin that one of her admirers had donated. On the morrow the coffin would be nailed shut, loaded onto a wagon, and taken to its final resting place.
Sailor Clanton sat with his cronies, moodily drinking. “She will be missed,” he said, although he didn’t seem too broken up.
“What about the one back in the cabin?” asked Lyle.
“That bitch deprived me of the best piece of ass I ever had,” Clanton informed him. “It’s only fitting that she take her place.”
Looking as though he had made up his mind about something, Clanton slammed some money on the table. “Get drunk on me, boys,” he told Mike and Lyle, “I’m going back. Give me an hour or so. I’m going to try a more romantic approach. Don’t need an audience this time. Could be she might start to warm up to me.”
“What if she don’t, Sailor?”
“She’ll get it the easy way. She’ll get it the hard way. Eventually she’ll start to break.”
Sailor Clanton left to put his theory into practice.
When he arrived back at the cabin, the first thing he noticed was that it was dark. The lamp must have gone out. He tied his horse in back and went around to the front.
Crossing the threshold, he called out, “Honey, I’m home!”
No answer. Before his eyes could adjust to the gloom within, Clanton felt the cold muzzle of a gun being pressed against his temple.
“You’ll never get to Sea World that way!” said a voice in the dark.
Next: Shadow's Revenge