“Speechless for once? Heck, I should have kissed you much earlier if I knew that would be the aftermath!”
I shook my head, too many feelings swarming through me. “That was a horrible thing to do!” I told him, smacking him against his arm. I nearly hurt my hand in the process; he was built like a rock.
He rubbed his chin and peered down at me with his head held high. “You don’t say? Maybe I should try again someday, see if I can change your mind.”
“Don’t you dare!” I yelped, pushing my finger into his chest. “That is no way to treat a woman.”
“Actually, that’s exactly how you should treat a woman. Give her what she wants.”
My head jerked back. This man was unbelievable.
“That is not what I want,” I scoffed. “I don’t know what signals you think you’re picking up on…”
I shot daggers at him. “But you’re a lying, swine-kissing bastard who just earlier held a gun to my friend’s head.”
“Maybe I don’t like your friend.”
I threw my hands up. “Why wouldn’t you like Avery?”
“Maybe I don’t like the way you look at him.”
My mouth flapped open for a moment. “How do I look at him?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I mean, I didn’t like the way you were looking at him. Before.”
“Before all of this,” he said, his voice becoming low. “Before you started looking at me that same way.”
He stared at me like he could find his truth somewhere in my eyes.
“You’re out of your darn mind,” I told him, hoping my cheeks weren’t turning pink. I didn’t look at Jake in any way other than with disgust. I brushed past him toward the outhouse. “I have other business to do, more important business than to stand around in the cold and argue with you.”
“You’re the only one arguing, Pine Nut,” he called after me. I could hear his boots crunch in the snow. I guess he really wasn’t going to let me use the latrine alone.
By the time I found the outhouse though, I was glad for it. Though it didn’t have a tunnel in the snow like last night, it was still black and isolated and I went back to being very afraid of the things that lurked in the dark.
“I’ll be waiting right here,” Jake said, standing between the hut and the horses with his rifle out.
Though I held my breath in the latrine, I was grateful for the privacy, and the fact that he couldn’t see my face as I tried to digest what had happened.
The son of a bitch had kissed me. It was quick and fast and nothing like I thought it would be, but he’d kissed me all the same.
I was glad he couldn’t see the odd smile that found itself on my face.
Hours later, when I was settled in my bed of straw and hides on the floor, sleep wouldn’t come for me. I kept getting up to check on Donna and having her sip more of the poppy-laced water and change her dressing. I don’t know how I kept it all together while I did so—the wound was getting worse, judging by the smell, and though it had stopped bleeding, there was a sickly black color building up on the stump that was hard to wash away.
Donna herself was either out cold or delirious and muttering the Lord’s Prayer over and over. Her skin had taken on this sickly ashen tone, and she was burning up, no matter what I did. Staring down at her, I felt nothing but remorse and guilt. It was my fault she was here, and I knew that even if we left tomorrow—which I somehow doubted since Jake’s word wasn’t reliable—she wouldn’t make the journey home.
And sometimes I doubted if we would too. When I put a cool compress on her forehead and turned around to eye the rest of the cabin, I couldn’t understand how Jake, Tim, and Avery could sleep so soundly. They were out like a cow kick to the face and I envied them. Were they such men that they weren’t afraid of the monsters that could be lurking outside the cabin at any notice? Or were they so hung up on money and greed that the flesh-eating monstrosities were just a mere obstacle in their way? Did hope make them feel invincible, and if I had some faith in our outcome, would I be invincible too?
I made a move to head back to my bed when I noticed Avery’s eyes were open and staring at the ceiling. For one horrible moment I thought he was dead, and the ground felt as if it were falling out from under me. But he slowly turned his head and gazed right at me. Then he put his finger to his mouth and looked over at Tim and Jake, passed out in their beds.
He rose with caution and came over to me. He was fully dressed, and only then did I notice he had picked up his satchel from beside his bed.
He coaxed me with his eyes to stay quiet then led me to the far corner of the cabin. “We’re making a run for it,” he whispered in my ear.
“What now?” I asked harshly.
“We have to go. There’s no way they’ll bring us back home alive.”
“They won’t hurt us,” I said feebly.
His eyes turned caustic. “And you’re taking someone’s word on that. We can’t trust them. We have to leave now, it’s our only shot.”
“But the monsters…”
“There are monsters in here too, you know.”
I wasn’t sure why I was stalling. “What about Donna?”
He glanced at her sadly. “We could try to take her, put her on Ali. But honestly, Eve, I don’t think she’s going to make it. She’s dying, you know that, don’t you?”
It was painful to swallow. I nodded. “What if they catch us?” I looked over at Jake and Tim sleeping. “They could wake up at any second.”
Avery smiled smugly. “I gave them a bit of opium in their tea. Just enough to make them sleep better.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know, Avery. I just can’t leave her here. Don’t you understand? It’s my fault this happened to her. If I hadn’t gone on this cursed trip, none of this would have happened.”
“That’s not how it works, so get that guilt out of your little heart.” He put his hand on my arm and squeezed it, trying to give me comfort. “If we don’t leave, she will die here. Even if they let us go back to River Bend tomorrow, she’d still die. We can take her with us if you want, but I think it’s a big mistake.”
“Then that settles it,” I said with determination. “We’re taking her. And while we’re at it, we’re each getting a bar of gold. Payment that was owed.”
He stuck out his lower lip, impressed. “All right. That’s what we’ll do. Come on, let’s get her out of here before they wake up.”
While Avery quietly ran out into the night to saddle up our horses, I quickly slipped on my dress, shawl, and boots, and grabbed my own satchel and the first aid pack while darting nervous looks at Jake and Tim, certain they’d wake up and catch us. I really wanted to believe Jake when he said they wouldn’t hurt us, but that was back when we were “behaving.” Now there was no telling what kind of men they’d become.
I’d be lying to myself though if there wasn’t a small part of me that hated leaving Jake this way, without saying goodbye. All I could do was shake it out of my head and blame it on female foolishness. One damn kiss had turned my insides all askew.
When Avery came creeping back in, we worked quickly to pick up Donna. She wasn’t a heavy girl but as deadweight, it took both of us to haul her off her bed and out through the open door.
“Where are we putting her?” I said through heavy breaths, her mass weighing down my arms. It was startlingly cold outside and I foolishly hadn’t put on my gloves. My fingertips and the end of my nose were numbing over. There was no light outside either, except for the moon that was shooting through cracks in the dark clouds. Everything glowed a sparkling white, though I felt the menace behind all the beauty.
He jerked his head toward Sadie who was eyeing us nervously. “Even if we tied her to Ali, there’s a chance she could fall off. Better we put her across Sadie’s withers and you hold on to her. You’re so light anyway, she’ll be able to carry the both of you even at a gallop.”
“What if they come looking for us in River Bend?” I asked. We brought Donna over to Sadie, and with all our might and as gently as we could, pushed her up across her neck, between her mane and the saddle horn.
“Well, we’re better off facing them there than up here, don’t you think?”
I nodded. With one last look at the cabin and the frozen, white expanse of Donner Lake, I swung myself up on Sadie and followed Avery and Ali deep into the darkening woods.
We weren’t able to ride as fast as we wanted, not at first anyway. This was the same expanse we had troubles with earlier and the trail was still hard to find, even heading back in the other direction. It was steep and narrow, and many times I was holding onto the belt we’d strapped around Donna’s middle for dear life, tree branches slapping my bonnet off my head. It wasn’t until the trees thinned out just enough to let the silver moonlight in that we really let the horses open up, going as fast as Sadie could handle with Donna’s cumbersome weight.
Because Ali the mule was tethered to Avery, and the trail wasn’t wide enough for two riding abreast, there were moments where I’d completely lost sight of them. Usually I’d hear the hoofbeats up ahead, a dull sound in the thick snow, and as soon as I rode around the bend, I’d see him and Ali’s scraggly tail flying straight back.
But when we came to a narrow passage that twisted between ice-covered boulders and frosted trees, it took me a while to catch up. I had to slow to a trot to let Sadie navigate the snaking trail, hearing nothing but the frothy sound of her exhalation, and when the path finally opened up, there was nothing in front of me but wide open trail.
“Avery?” I called out. My voice was quickly swallowed up by the trees that all seemed to lean inward, their branches heavy with ice and snow. Only a tiny sliver of moon lit up the sparkling white of the trail, casting everything else in eerie shadow.
“Avery!” I said again, louder this time. Sadie snorted and began to paw the ground with impatience, our breaths intermingling and hanging around our faces. I looked around me and saw nothing but the trees.
I closed my eyes and tried to breathe in the land. The cold stung my nose and burned down my chest, but as far as I could tell, Avery had still headed straight along the path. Perhaps his horse took off on him or he just got so caught up in the moment that he forgot to wait for me.
None of those situations were likely though. But I had to have hope. Hope made you invincible.
I exhaled and nudged Sadie into a slow canter, my eyes flitting back and forth among the trees, looking for signs of life and death. I rode and rode, the only sound the crunching of the snow under Sadie’s hooves and the whistle of the frigid wind blowing past my ears. Fear was a heavy hand at my back, panic was a breath on my neck. If I didn’t keep my head on straight, I’d submit to both of them.
Then I saw it.
Avery’s horse standing in the middle of the trail, motionless.
The rotting stench of blood and death filled the space around me as whisper light snow fell from the sky.
I pulled back on the reins, slowing Sadie down, and brought her over to Avery’s horse. He was still, with his head down to the snow. He almost looked like a statue, but I when I came closer, I could see his nostrils flaring, pale puffs of frozen breath coming out. His eyes were focused on the trees to the side of us.
I looked over to the shadows, and though I couldn’t see what he could, I could definitely smell it. Wherever Avery was, I could only pray with all my strength that he was okay somewhere, that he was far away from where I was, from the impending death that thickened the air.
They came without warning.
One pale monster on one side of the trail, another pale monster on the other. They both sprung from the forest undergrowth, causing the snow to scatter like diamonds in the wind. I had no time to act, but Sadie did. She reared as the two creatures came scampering toward us like albino apes, their eyes looking ghostly in the stark moonlight and focused solely on me.
While Avery’s horse made a run for it one way, Sadie was spinning on her hindquarters and bolting back the way we came. I made fists in her mane and flattened my body against Donna’s back as we galloped along as fast as we could before we hit the twisty passage from earlier. Through here I let all control of Sadie go and just closed my eyes and held on. I had to trust that she knew we were both in danger and let that animal instinct lead to our escape. There was no reason to fight and many reasons to flee.
We’d slowed down to a quick trot as she navigated the passage and almost made it back onto the open trail when a shadow flashed across the snow.
Seconds later something slammed into my back and I felt searing teeth in my shoulder. One of the creatures had leaped off the rocks and onto Sadie’s back.
I screamed, trying to lean over in the saddle to fight if off, and as my horse leaped forward, she bucked and I jerked my body to the other side. The creature let go and toppled to the ground in a heap.
I tried to look behind me to see what had happened, but all I could see was a haunting glimpse of blood on my shoulder before Sadie bucked again violently. I kicked her flanks, trying to get her to move forward instead, but she only sprinted for a few yards before she bucked again, as if doubly making sure the creature wasn’t on her.
I was still slightly sideways in the saddle and already off-balance. The buck lurched me forward against her shoulder, and before I could grasp what was happening, the snow was rushing up to meet my face.