Lee sawed on the reins steering the mule into the canyon. “Get those rocks ready, Sammy-girl.”
On the bench seat beside him, Irving pawed in his jacket for his slingshot.
A cloud scuttled across the sun. Shadows deepened the run-off channels carved into the sandstone walls. Red, brown and white bands striped the steep walls.
The place reeked of death.
Deaths Lee had arranged.
Tilting her umbrella back, Sammy peered up at him. Pain bracketed her lips. Bruises splotched her arm. Fist-sized ammunition teetered on her palm. “I’ve ’em Paw-Paw.”
Irving’s crooked frame creaked when he turned. His cadaverous fingers danced over the pile before he selected two potato-sized rocks. Yellow teeth flashed between his thin lips as he loaded his sling.
He would pick the best of the lot. Lee patted the spot next to him on the bench. “Set ’em here and when I say ammo set another five on the pile. Got it?”
“Can I shoot too? I brought my sling.” Sammy tugged a leather strap with a white patch in the center from under her blanket.
Lee shook his head. The girl was too delicate. If she died before he’d even broken clear of the ambush, everything would have been for nothing. “Stay under the umbrella.”
Her whining set his teeth on edge. “Samantha Neville, you will do as you’re told.”
With a frown digging into her sunken cheeks, she dropped deeper into the wagon bed. The umbrella closed her in like the lid of a casket.
“For pity’s sake, Lee. The girl’s fighting for her life too.”
Lee pierced Irving with a glare. Lee had a reason for breaking with a century of thespian tradition.
Irving was just wanted to see fifty-one winters.
Irving stared down at the floorboard. “Where do you think they’ll strike?”
“Same as usual.” The enforcers knew their role very well. Supporting cast like them were so eager to please, they rarely thought beyond their scripted lines. Little did they know it would be the performance of a lifetime.
But there wouldn’t be an encore.
Irving looked down the length of his sling. “I reckon there’ll be one on each side.”
“That’s usually how it works.” That’s where Lee had laid his booby traps. He guided the mule deeper down the throat of the canyon.
The walls closed in. Sand muffled the clomp of hooves. Here and there, the whistling wind had whittled away a column from the canyon face. Ahead a collapsed pillar lay in pieces across the path. Gaps appeared between the chunks. They looked random, but Lee knew better. He’d spent an hour under the moonlight arranging them just so.
Irving leaned toward him. “Thought you’d cleared a path?”
“Don’t worry about it.” The fool. If Lee had moved the boulders, the enforcers would have just knocked over another one. He kept the mule heading straight.
The animal balked in his traces, pulled to the left.
Lee cracked the whip and the mule slowed but stayed the course. It stomped on the crushed stone before clearing the debris. With a steady hand, Lee guided the wagon wheels through the openings he’d strategically arranged. The canyon forked dead ahead. They were almost there.
Irving leaned over the side of the cart. “Well, I’ll be damned. You did it!”
Of course, Lee did. This escape was two months in the making. Sweat beaded his upper lip. Unfortunately, that was the middle act, not the final one. “Look alive. The enforcers could decide to attack us.”
Irving’s back popped as he straightened.
“Move to the middle of the cart, girl.” Over the creak of the wood, Lee heard fabric rustle. The mule took the left fork.
“There’s one of the buggers!” Irving pointed halfway up the canyon wall. He raised his sling again.
Lee set a hand on his arm. “Wait.”
Twenty yards away, a beefy man struggled up the loose sand and rock of a landslide. He reached for a tree growing from the canyon wall to pull himself up. Branches shook from the weight. Leaves fluttered down before a board swung free of the limbs. The booby-trap drilled a cutting knife into the would-be executioner’s back.
Gotcha! Lee smiled. One down; one to go.
Turing on the bench, Irving raised his hand and cackled. “Damn, that’s fine directing.”
“This ain’t my first rodeo.” Lee completed the high five. His palm tingled from the slap. Then he saw it. A stone headed straight for him. He grabbed the other man by the shirt front and dragged him to the right.
“What——” Rock hit bone, caving it in. Irving slumped forward, blood drizzling from his parted lips. Life abandoned the crooked husk.
Another rock clunked against the side of the wagon.
The enemy would not win. Lee’s granddaughter would live. He slapped the reins on the mule. The beast lurched forward.
Another rock thumped against Irving’s body.
Lee positioned the corpse in the line of fire. Bending forward, he eyed the cassia bush. Butter-yellow blossoms waved from the silvery leaves. Once he reached that, they’d be home free.
Two more projectiles shattered Irving’s bones.
“You need more rocks, Paw-Paw?”
“Stay down, Sammy!” He urged the mule faster. The contrary beast kept the same pace. If he had his whip… But he didn’t. Just a little farther.
The pelting stopped.
Had the enforcer run out of ammunition? Lee fought the temptation to look. As an actor, he knew what happened to those who did. When the path curved to the right, he shoved Irving’s corpse over the edge. It landed with a thud and rattle, right onto the bush.
A heartbeat later, a piece of wood clattered against rock. Then rock banged into rocks. The noise grew from a soft rumble to a rolling thunder.
Lee picked up his whip and cracked it over the mule’s head. “Stay down, Sammy!”
A man’s scream echoed down the canyon then a wall of dust overtook him. Pebbles rained on the umbrella, pelted Lee’s back and knocked against his hat.
Coughing, he blinked the dust stinging his eyes and gave the mule her head. Thanks to traveling this route weekly since Sammy’s illness returned, the animal knew the path. A preternatural stillness engulfed him, broken only by the jingle of the harness and the slowing of his heart.
For a moment in time, it was just him and Sammy. He imagined her healthy——pink cheeks, strong arms and eyes bright from happiness, not fever.
The moment passed. Soon the air cleared. The desert stretched for miles in front of him. He eyed the lone tree in the distance. The marker for the supplies he’d squirreled away. Lee aimed for the chunks of black that marked an ancient road, a road that would take them to Abaddon and his granddaughter’s health.
Wood creaked. Plumes of dust rose as Sammy retracted her umbrella. She smiled. “You did it, Paw-Paw.”
“That I did Sammy-girl.” Once he collected their supplies, he could just kick back and relax. “From here on out, it’s all rave reviews and encores.”