Until Vincent happened upon the pair, the village seemed deserted, its few shops dark, a dental office boarded up, neither an automobile nor a buggy in sight.
He chose to ask the woman, for no reason other than the fact she had just stepped off the porch.
And though he thought his question mundane, she puffed out her cheeks. She gave a little squawk, drew her lips tight and tilted back her egg-shaped head.
“Why ask me? Go pick on the cadaver. Been around since before Moses.”
The old man grinned at the woman. “Said the sunburned dwarf.”
She squawked again. She kicked dirt at him as her baby let loose the loudest wail its tiny lungs could muster. “You can go visit the devil!”
“Reckon I will soon.” He picked at a scab on his thumb, the leathery folds of his skin jiggling with each dig. His widening smile revealed a toothless mouth, save one yellowed snag. “So ask me what then?”
“This here stranger is looking for the old Sulphur Cure.” She hoisted the baby up above her hip.
“You one of them big-city scavengers?” the old man asked. He didn’t meet Vincent’s gaze. He leaned up against the telegraph pole, scraped deeper into his skin, and furrowed his brow when blood filled the crevices of his knuckle.
“No,” Vincent said. “Not a scavenger.” Simply a drifter, he thought to himself, clinging to the notion that the journey would prove worthwhile. He had his doubts.
The man squinted. His reddened eyes danced up and down as he studied Vincent. “Forget the back road. Faster climbing from town here. End of Elm Street, up the path past the railroad tracks. On your own after the trail vanishes, but the towers’ll be your guide.”
He started to thank the man.
“Don’t give me no gratitude. You’re a hell of fool going up that hillside.” He turned away, licking his scab.
“Bet he’s a thief,” the woman said.
The baby kicked and squealed like a trapped animal.
* * *
Damned if he could tell whether the sound came from above or below him. The stone ledge he crouched under amplified the noise, as loud as a firecracker’s pop, followed by a hum as though an army of bees raced toward him. Beyond the pines he spied a glint of metal. October meant the height of deer season. The phantom gunman, he prayed, had his wits. He questioned his own sanity, hiking so far up, so late in the day. Hiking up at all, for that matter. The old man in town had been right. He was a hell of a fool.
“I trust you’re not hunting on my land.”
The voice called out from behind him. His heart jumped.
“And you’re asking to be shot,” she said, “wearing all that brown.”
The blue of her coat changed hue as she moved toward him. He didn’t care much for being surprised. If it weren’t for the gunman, he’d have noticed her.
“I’m the one being hunted,” he protested as he crawled out from under the ledge. “I think.”
“It doesn’t excuse trespassing.” She tugged at a blonde curl until it no longer clung to her eyelash.
Her demeanor and the timbre with which she uttered that word—trespassing—set him off. Was she next going to assume he’d been gambling, drinking, whoring, murdering?
“Before you accuse me of something, I was just looking for—”
“There are dark clouds moving in,” she said. “I can’t tell which is buckshot or which is thunder.”
“Seems it would be easy to figure the difference.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised. These hills do play tricks.”
She glanced at the satchel at Vincent’s feet. “We’ve had problems with people helping themselves to things up here. This Depression makes us all desperate, I suspect.” She let her eyes drifted back to his. When he made no outward sign of guilt or innocence, she focused on the satchel again.
“You can search my belongings,” he said, “if that will put your mind at ease. I promise I won’t be offended.” It might be easier that way, to have her read his brother’s letters, to let her decide if Theo was describing this place.
She scanned the hillside, a sovereign admiring her realm. “What brings you up here, then, Mr….?”
“Rhodes. Vincent Rhodes.”
“Vincent,” she said, barely above a whisper, sounding it out as if it were a foreign name to her. She smiled, though vacantly. “Pleased to meet you, despite the circumstance. I’m Helen Sage-Brown.” She paused, and her smile faded. “The landowner.”
On her last syllable a crack echoed down the hill. The branches of an oak fluttered, and twigs rained down on both of them.
“Too close,” she said through pursed lips. “That idiot will be the death of us all.” She went on as though Vincent had vanished. “I swear I’ll call the sheriff before the week’s out.”
Whoever the idiot might be, if indeed the culprit, he answered her with another shot.
“Esson!” she shouted.
“It’s your boogeyman again,” a distant voice called back.
Pointing to the stone ledge, she said, “You’d best take cover.”
Were they the intended target after all? Who on earth would be shooting at them?
Hell of a fool going up that hillside.
“Esson! Put your gun down!”
Helen waved toward the shelter.
Another downpour of oak tempered Vincent’s urge to race back down the hill.
“Stay there,” Helen instructed. She lifted the hem of her coat and started up toward the stand of pines.
Bad enough the shelter was wet and cramped, but how it would protect him from a bullet between the eyes eluded him. Seemed pointless. Still, he wasn’t about to argue with her suggestion, having little experience to draw on. How often is one at the mercy of an invisible gunman somewhere in the remote hills of central New Hampshire? He stayed put.
“Geoffrey Esson!” Her voice was as distant as the dark clouds over the horizon. The scream that followed knew no measure of distance.
He scrambled from beneath the ledge. He’d known her barely longer than the blink of an eye, but a scream wrought of pain and fear vanquished the divide among strangers.
He called out for her, his shouts slicing through the raucous rushing of water in the gully whose edge he raced along. No matter which direction he looked, she was nowhere to be seen.
Something flew at him. He saw only a flash of white as the object struck the side of his head. Several seconds elapsed before he felt the pain. His vision clouded. He thought he saw a figure farther up the path. Was it her?
Everything went dark.