Maryanne Winslow hitched her dapple-gray mare to a small aspen tree and waded through wild flowers so high they reached her knees. She walked with purpose toward an elderberry bush bent from the weight of its purple fruit. After checking on them every few days for the past month she’d determined that today the berries would be fully ripened and bursting with flavor. She spread an old flannel sheet out and unsheathed a heavy knife to cut the branches, then she gathered as many as she could carry, pausing only to wipe the sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her dress. It was an unusually hot day in Colorado’s high country.
She tied the corners of the sheet together and hefted the bundle over her shoulder. Maryanne was by no means a tiny woman. Born of Scandinavian pioneer stock, she was tall and sturdy. When she arrived back at the ranch cabin, her nine-year-old daughter Julia would busy herself pulling berries from their stems and help her make jelly. Maryanne left Julia behind, tending to household chores and keeping an eye on her brother, six year old Theron Junior.
Maryanne hung the makeshift bag to the saddle horn and mounted the mare. A low rumble of thunder echoed over the pine trees on the mountain that rose between her and home. She’d have to hurry to stay ahead of a morning rain.
“C’mon, Matilda.” She flicked the reins across the horse’s withers urging her to a lope. Her straw hat flew from her head, releasing a pile of lustrous auburn hair. Only calico ties kept the hat from landing in the tall grass. It bounced on her back in rhythm with the mare’s pounding hoofs.
Black thunderheads were roiling nearer the treetops as Maryanne reached the crest of the last rise before descending into the narrow valley. Her husband had built their ranch on a creek that emptied into Trout Lake, above which the forested slopes were resplendent with rippling streams and lush grass. The cold, crystalline waters provided an abundance of fish for the small family.
Maryanne slowed her mare and cocked her head. She wondered why smoke wasn’t rising from the chimney. She had told Julia to keep the fire up so the pot of soup she’d prepared in the morning could simmer all day.
“Now, why doesn’t that child do as she’s told?” Maryanne pursed her lips. As the mare picked her way down the slope, she scanned the corrals that penned their dairy cows. Her husband, Theron wasn’t in sight. Apprehension skittered up her spine. Something was not right. Caution prompted her to slow Matilda so she could approach the ranch yard quietly. Looking at the out-buildings and fields, she searched for evidence of something out of order. Her unease heightened. If Theron wasn’t in the ranch yard, he should be in the fields. And where were the horses?
A gust of wind let her know the rain would start any moment. She eased her heels into the flanks of the dapple gray to press her to move a little faster. Nearing the house, Maryanne saw the door was open. She reined Matilda in, silently slid off the horse, and left her ground tied. She tip-toed across the wide porch and peered in the door. What she saw brought her to her knees.
Theron was dangling from a low rafter. Entrails spilled out of him to the floor and dragged in a pool of blood as his body swayed in the breeze.
Maryanne wretched—her vomit mixed with the offal and blood. Wild-eyed, she searched the room for her children.
Forcing herself to her feet, she went into the bedroom. Julia lay motionless with her torn dress pulled up over her head. Maryanne tugged at the blue flowered calico, revealing Julia’s face. Her lifeless eyes stared at the ceiling and her blonde braids were soaked in blood. Julia’s throat had been cut. Maryanne pulled the garment down to cover her daughter’s violated nakedness. A spasm in her chest doubled Maryanne over in pain. Tears flowed down her cheeks, but she paid no attention.
Where was her son? He was nowhere in the house. Outside, mindless of the pelting rain, she searched for any sign of him. She walked through the side door to the barn. When her eyes adjusted to the dim light she looked around. It appeared to be empty, but as she turned to leave, she found her son hanging on the wall, impaled by a hay hook. Gus, the black and white dog that was always on his heels lay dead at his feet.
Maryanne lifted her son, hook and all, from the wall. Wincing, she pulled the hook from his back. She carried him to the house and laid him by his sister. She pushed his unruly red curls back from his forehead. “There, my sweet baby.” Painful choking sobs threatened to close her throat. She balled her fist and pressed it against her mouth. Turning her back on the grisly scene, she left the room
Maryanne dragged a chair next to her husband, stood on it and cut him down. A dull thump spread through the room as his legs crumpled underneath and the heavy weight of his body hit the floor. Mindless of her dress, she knelt in the bloody pool to stuff his entrails back into him. Her efforts were futile. Tears fell into the cavity as she swallowed waves of bile rising in her throat. In despair she sat back on her heels.
“I can’t put you back together.”
She rose and went outside to her mare. Pulling the bundle loose from the horn, she untied the knot and shook out the elderberries. Maryanne spread the sheet next to Theron and dragged him onto it. Wrapping the cloth as tightly as possible, she tied dishtowels around the sheet to secure it and keep his spilling intestines with the rest of his body.
Maryanne fetched a shovel and went to the apple tree she had planted ten years ago right after they were married. She’d just turned eighteen and glowed with energy and happiness. Now she was digging a grave for her family. She worked in a slow rhythm as she drove the shovel again and again into the black loamy soil. Her face was white with shock as she went about the task of preparing the burial site. Rain mixed with her tears, which she blotted away now and then with her muddy skirt.
The sun burst through the clouds as Maryanne walked to the barn—the rain was over. She picked up the dog. Blood from the bullet wound stained the white spot on his head. She carried him out and laid him beside the grave.
Back in the house, Maryanne rummaged through a cedar chest to find a crocheted tablecloth she’d inherited from her grandmother.
“This is fitting to wrap Julia in.” She pulled an afghan from the back of her rocking chair, the chair where she’d nursed both her babies. The memory brought more tears. She’d knitted the cover during her first pregnancy.
She swaddled Theron Junior in the colorful afghan and Julia in the tablecloth. Then she carried her children one by one to the grave.
Maryanne rolled her husband’s body onto the double-wedding ring quilt that had served as their bedspread and dragged him to the open hole. There was no way she could lower such a large man gently. He fell with a thud.
Next she kissed her daughter’s forehead. Holding the edges of the tablecloth shroud, she lowered Julia on top of her father. Then she knelt and placed Theron Jr. next to Julia. Last the dog—all of her family in one grave.
Leaning back on her heels she looked at the sky and wailed a single time, “Why?” She rose and walked to the meadow and gathered all the wild flowers she could carry. She dropped four flowers onto the bodies before shoveling dirt over them. The first shovel full was the hardest.
After patting down the black mountain soil with the back of the shovel, she laid the rest of the flowers on the mound. She returned the shovel to the barn and walked to the creek where she stripped off her bloody, gore-saturated clothes and sat down in a pool. Submerged, Maryanne stayed under the water until her lungs were bursting. Thoughts of never surfacing crossed her mind, but she sat up and scratched up a handful of sand from the stream bed. She scrubbed herself, but no matter how hard she pressed the sand to her skin she couldn’t feel it.
Naked, she walked to the corrals and swung wide all the gates. She opened the barn doors and herded the cattle through the corral into the ranch yard. Then she shooed all the chickens out of the coop and turned the pigs out of the sty. She seized a pitchfork, climbed the ladder to the hayloft and pitched all the hay down onto the ground. Finally, she opened the lid to the grain bin.
Maryanne led Matilda to the watering trough and left the mare loose to graze. She went into the house skirting the pool of blood and went into the bedroom where she dressed in her husband’s shirt and pants and pulled on boots.
Returning to the kitchen she slid the kitchen table aside and pried up a loose floor board that was hidden by a braided rag rug. Groping blindly around underneath, her fingers found an oilskin bag. She pulled it out, loosened the strings and looked in at the gold coins that had been in hiding there for the past ten years—her dowry and later on her inheritance added to it.
Laying out a dishtowel, Maryanne loaded it with biscuits and jerky from Theron’s last deer kill. She snacked as she worked—not because she was hungry, but knowing she’d need the energy—then tied the four corners together to make a bundle. Armed with a rifle, ammunition, the gold and food, she mounted Matilda.
Maryanne’s father had taught her to track game, so if she was alert and cautious and the murderers didn’t make it to town, she would find them.
First, she scouted for signs of horses leaving the ranch, which she found at the beginning of the wagon track road. None of the Winslows had left the ranch for three weeks and no one had visited, so this disturbed ground would have to be from wild animal or horses. Hoping to find further tracks, she followed the double ruts.
There, a lump of grass dug up. Probably from a horse’s hoof. Who had done this horrific deed? Indians? They’d never had trouble with Indians. Whites? Colorado had always felt like a safe, peaceable place. Regardless, whoever had slaughtered her family would pay. She would hunt them down if it took the rest of her life.
Maryanne kept Matilda to a walk as she scanned the ground. The chewed-up dirt told her the men appeared to have urged their horses to a gallop. The horses were shod, which meant white men. They had stolen two of the Winslow’s horses which would most likely be on leads. That would slow their progress. She wondered if the men had picked up the pace when the rain began and if they’d counted on it to cover their tracks. She could follow their trail today—but if it rained again, maybe not tomorrow.
Matilda whinnied and shied sideways. Maryanne leaned forward to place a soothing hand on the horse’s neck. “What is it, old girl?” she cooed. All of Maryanne’s senses were on edge. She signaled the mare off the trail toward a stand of aspen. Deep in the grove she slid off her horse, stroking the dapple gray as she listened intently. She looped the reins around a tree, eased the rifle out of its scabbard, and slung the strap over her shoulder, then made her way to the edge of the grove.
The sun was low in the sky, casting long shadows. Shivering aspen leaves formed more shadows and their constant rustle made enough background noise to disguise any misstep breaking a twig. Soon it would be dark. In the distance she heard the chattering of water over pebbles as a creek made its way downhill—more sound to cloak her footfalls. Moving deeper into the aspens, she headed for the creek. The foliage and trees were thicker near the water and she could use them for cover.
What was that? She stopped. Laughter? Careful to stay near the stream, she made her way toward the voices. The golden flicker of firelight illuminating white bark on the aspens made her freeze. She held her breath. Narrowing her eyes, she stared intently, trying to make out the shapes. She didn’t want to get near the horses. They might whinny and give her away, but she needed to get closer. Slipping the rifle strap off her shoulder she cocked the gun and held it in front of her. A careful, silent step at a time, she neared the campfire.
The camp was in a little clearing where the creek made a bend. The smells of fish frying and coffee boiling blended with the aroma of wood fire smoke. The pungent odors were strong against the clean mountain air. The men made no pretense of hiding out, or of fearing reprisal.
As she moved through the shadows she counted three of them. A tall, thin heavily bearded man was tending to the fish. Two more were stretched out on the ground using their saddles as head rests and smoking thin cigars. Smoke curled above the head of the small wiry looking man. The other was fat and wore a greasy leather vest. Are there others? Beyond, she saw the horses, including her stolen ones, grazing near the stream. Fortunately, they were too far away to react to her presence.
The men were talking and laughing. Easing down onto her haunches, she turned her head sideways to catch the men’s conversation.
“You shoulda seen the look on that farmer when he saw you humping his girl.”
Maryanne covered her mouth with her hand to stifle a gasp.
“Wish I had, but I was a little busy. Best piece I got in a long time.” This was followed by the sharp sound of a hand slapping leather chaps, accompanied by a low chuckle. “He’d a like ta kill me iffn you didn’t gut him and string him up.”
So it was you. Bastard.
A third voice. “Thought that dog was going to eat me alive out there in the barn,” the little wiry one said. “What in the hell were you doin’ with the girl while I was after them thar horses? In there havin’ all the fun?”
“You know, ba dum, ba dum—getting’ a little young stuff.” He made an obscene motion with his pelvis, and his laugh was a snort through his nose. “I’d a brung her along if she hadn’t screamed so much.” Maryanne slumped against a tree with her knees pulled up to her chest. Tears washed her cheeks.
That animal on her beautiful girl.
She wanted to sob and howl out her pain. Instead, she allowed rage replace her grief. She knew how to stalk animals. She took several long deep breaths, picked up her rifle and checked her knife to make sure it would slide easily out of its sheath.
If I go in shooting, I could kill one, maybe two—but not three. Outrage and horror buzzed like a swarm of hornets in her mind. She shook off the feeling. I’ve got to keep a cool head. Think of them as wolves. They would take a lamb from its mother and run off. She caught her breath. They’d killed her little lambs. She blinked back tears. Wolves were dangerous in a pack, but easy enough to pick off one at a time.
“Gotta take a leak.” The wolf who said he’d raped Julia announced. He started walking toward her.
Adrenaline surged through Maryanne. She slipped behind a large tree, laid her gun on the ground with care and pulled out her knife. She could hear him coming closer and she peeked around. He was less than three strides from her. He kept coming, then he stopped, turning his back to her, oblivious to her presence. He reeked of cigar smoke, booze and sweat, and swayed slightly as he unbuttoned his pants. Without a second thought, Maryanne reached for his hair with her left hand and deftly slashed his throat open with her right. No more trouble than bleeding a deer. He didn’t even make a slight moan. She leaned down and grabbed his penis and sliced if off. Rape my daughter, you won’t rape anyone else. She dropped it on him.
Realizing the other two men would wonder what happened and start looking for him, she made her way back to the waiting Matilda. Soon, the men would know they were hunted and either they’d start looking for her or break camp and hightail it. She needed to think and be prepared for one or the other. She was shaking all over as she buried her face against the mare’s neck, letting the horse’s clean smell replace the man’s stink. Maybe she should have stayed with the body. If only one came looking, she could have killed him too. Then the sound of rifle fire wouldn’t matter and she could still get the last one.
Matilda nickered softly which brought Maryanne into action. She shoved the rifle into its scabbard. Her judgment was clouded with emotion. She hadn’t planned this well. Calm down.
She heard a man call, “Hank, hey, Hank, what the hell you doin’ out there?”
They’ll find his body. She led Matilda back toward the wagon track. She wanted to be on the other side of it and ahead of them.
“Hank, the fish’s done. Come ‘n eat.”
Crossing the road, Maryanne looked for a wildlife trail. The moon had just come up. It was only a quarter, but it gave her enough light to see. On her trips to town, she’d seen pathways through the thickets that animals had made on their way to the creek. Ah, here’s one. She turned Matilda and they made their way up the trail. Maryanne stopped now and then to get her bearings. Surely the men had found the body by now.
There was a rise ahead with a craggy boulder near the road. It would make a good place for an ambush. It was just across the meadow and through another aspen grove. Calculating she was out of earshot, she urged Matilda to a gallop and they were soon across the open space and back into the trees. Reining the mare to a halt, she dismounted and tied her to a branch.
With her rifle out, Maryanne started to climb. In the moonlight she could make out the two ruts that defined the wagon tracks just below. A sound caught her attention. Horses coming at a high gallop. She braced herself against the rock and shouldered her rifle. Here they come. Just get one. Concentrate on just getting one. One-hundred yards away. Her finger was poised. They’re coming fast. Despite the coolness of the night, beads of sweat formed on her upper lip. She licked at a droplet. The horseman on the right was in her sights. She held her breath and squeezed the trigger. Her heart pounded in her ears. Did I get him? Yes!
He was being dragged along the ground by one foot caught in the horse’s stirrup. The panicked horse was running between the aspens, hurling the man against the trunks. She must have got a clean shot—he wasn’t fighting to save himself. The other rider whirled his mount around. When he saw his companion, he spurred his horse and galloped off. It was almost twenty miles to the nearest town. He couldn’t push his horse to go that far, especially not at night.
Maryanne half-ran and half-slid downhill and dashed along the backside of the rise to where Matilda stood munching on a tuft of grass. Maryanne braced her hands on her knees, and sucked in a gulp of air before untying the horse’s reins and swinging up into the saddle. When she emerged from the trees, she urged her mare to a trot. It was a short ride across the meadow to the road where she prodded Matilda to a gentle lope. She didn’t want a full gallop. It was too dark and the horse wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace.
Maryanne slowed the mare to a walk now and then to allow her to catch her breath. She needed Matilda for the long haul. Maryanne also didn’t want to come upon her enemy unexpectedly.
Slowing with care to round a bend, she found a horse—riderless. It was one of hers, a roan gelding she’d named Red. He was holding one hoof up and his breathing was labored. Maryanne looked around. She could be a sitting duck. The horse nickered. She was off Matilda in a flash.
Yanking the gun out, she led the mare to the side of the road and into the trees. The reality of her becoming the hunted instead of the hunter sharpened her senses. She crouched down and watched Red, wondering if his leg was broken or sprained. She wanted to care for him, but it was too risky. Where did that guy go? He could be anywhere, even behind her. She whirled around. Squinting, she concentrated on looking at every shadow, rock, tree and shrub as she made a full orbit. She suspected he might have gone looking for the creek which was on the other side of the road. He might want to stay near it as a source of water as he worked his way downstream toward a town. Or was he going back to get another horse? How would she manage to get near him with Matilda?
Knowing the mare would need food and water, she didn’t want to leave her here. And what was she going to do about Red? Not wasting much time on thinking, she decided to lead both horses to the creek and turn them loose where they would have grass and water. It was a chance, but one she was willing to take. She hoped her gelding’s leg wasn’t hurt so bad he couldn’t limp along on three legs. She tugged on Matilda’s reins to get her to follow. As she approached, he nickered again, but didn’t move. Maryanne reached up for the reins lying on his neck. Her voice was soft. “Come along, you can do it.”
Red took a tentative step, attempting to put weight on his injured leg. He whinnied in apparent pain. Maryanne ran her hand down his cannon bone. She didn’t think the leg was broken. She continued a stream of low conversation, coaxing him along, acutely aware that someone may have a gun trained on her back as she faced the horse and talked him through every step.
When the sound of the creek swelled, she unsaddled both horses, took their bridles off and stashed the tack in a thicket of bushes. “You’re on your own now. There’s plenty to eat and drink here. You’ll be all right.” She loaded her pockets with food, bullets, a few of the gold coins and hid the rest. She gave Matilda a pat, whispered, “Look after Red, old girl,” picked up her rifle, and started making her way in the shadows downstream. She looked up to check the position of the moon—must be near midnight.
Emotion had drained Maryanne, but anger still fueled her, and now the fear of being stalked overrode shock and grief. Where was he? She dodged trees, surveying her surroundings before every step. A meadow. No protection here. Would darkness shroud her enough for her to make it across? She hoped for a cloud to obscure the bright moon for one minute, just one minute.
Wouldn’t you know. Clear sky. Not a cloud anywhere. Should I stay here? Or should I chance it?
She crouched into a low running position and dodged rocks and clumps of bushes to get to the aspen grove on the other side. A ping and shower of shattered rock. Someone is shooting at me. From where? She straightened to run faster. Speed, she wanted speed. But was she running toward her enemy?
Gaining the grove, she threw herself onto the ground. Another bullet bit a chunk out of the tree above her head. She sat up and shouldered her rifle. He knew where she was, but where was he?
Move further into the trees. Maryanne wove her way through the aspens, moving away from the stream while hugging the largest trees for cover. Let me think. Would he go to where he last aimed to see if he’d hit me?
Can I climb any of these trees? I need a vantage point. Most of the large aspens didn’t have branches low enough. And those that did were too small to climb. There—a Ponderosa pine—perhaps? She could barely reach the first limb of the huge tree, but there were enough broken nubs of branches close to the trunk to provide her with a foothold. She climbed to the lowest limb and pulled herself up to the next level of branches. She wasn’t well-hidden, but she could see if anyone approached. Now she would wait. The night had turned cold. Her fingers were stiff. She blew on them to keep them nimble. Occasionally, she heard movement through the trees. Could be deer or some other animal, or it could be him?
She was about ready to give up her treetop vigil when she heard a twig snap. She raised her rifle and flicked off the safety. Did he hear? She saw him, and sighted him in along the barrel. He was close—looking up into the tree. Could he see her?
He raised his pistol and aimed. She squeezed the trigger.
Simultaneous explosions echoed through the grove. Blinding pain seared Maryanne’s side and the impact knocked her out of the tree. She hit the ground on her back, her rifle firing on contact, but he was on her in a flash. She whisked out her knife and jammed it into his side just as his fist smashed into her face. She lost consciousness.
* * *
Something velvety nuzzled Maryanne’s face. Light pierced her eyes as she forced them open. Matilda’s nostrils came into view.
“Hello, girl,” she mouthed through puffy lips.
She turned her head. She couldn’t move her arm. Lying on it was a big man, and dead weight—really dead weight. Propping herself up on her free elbow, she saw that one of her bullets had torn a hole in his chest and her bowie knife was still stuck in his side. She pushed him off, pulled out the knife and wiped it on his jacket.
The murder of her family had been avenged. She’d survived. But what for?
Roberta Summers lives in Farmington, NM with her husband and two toy dogs. She holds a Creative Writing Certificate and is published in short story, poetry, essay, memoir and a novel Pele’s Realm, a crime/adventure novel set on the Big Island of Hawaii where she lived for 25 years. Active in several writing and critique groups, her passion is her current manuscript, Fatal Winds, a story of the Utah Downwinders, people who have died or suffer from cancer caused by radioactive fallout. It was inspired by the deaths of family members who were exposed to fallout from the Nevada Test Site during the 50s and 60s. It is based on fact. She is a member of Women Writing the West and Pike’s Peak Writers where she served as a contest judge for three years. Fatal Winds won a place in their annual Zebulon Writers Contest. Follow Roberta on Facebook or her website: robertasummers.com.