The sky was dark as pitch except for the streaks of lightning skittering across the heavens. Fat drops of rain pelted the top of Mercy’s head as she hid from the world inside a vertical tomb. The muscles in her legs, pressed against brick on either side, trembled, and she tried to shift positions even as she listened for noise unrelated to the storm. Faceless men had been chasing her; now it seemed they had found her. She felt the rain run down the back of her neck and shivered. Maybe this is my punishment for leaving the protection of Elijah and Isaac At the moment, wedged into a brick chimney on the second story of a boardinghouse, she regretted that action greatly.
The wind ripped down around her, causing her to look up. Something wasn’t right. She squinted hard at another layer in the darkness—grayer, moving, closer than it should be. She had only a few seconds to think of the possibilities before a surge of lightning backlit a man leering down at her. Thunder followed, and her scream dissolved into the vortex of night noises.
“Come out, come out wherever you are, Miss Mercy.” The singsong tone of his voice mocked her, and her heart hammered. The sheer speed of what happened next took her off guard. A hand shot out and strong fingers wrapped around her arm. She tried to pull free as he tugged and yanked, moving her inch by inch toward the opening. His face was so close at one point she could smell alcohol on his breath as his other hand grappled for purchase anyplace on her body. But still she had the crazy thought that in other circumstances she would think him a nice-looking young man. Not at all like the bounty hunters she’d conjured up in her imagination.
She resisted with all her weight as he tugged, but it wasn’t enough and she could feel the end of her journey coming at her with ferocious haste. Thunder cracked overhead—so close it felt as if it was sitting right on top of them—and the young man seemed startled by it. Mercy seized the opportunity. She pushed upward, giving slack to the man’s grip on her arm, and catching him off-guard. For a second, his hold loosened, and she yanked her arm back with all her might. Without the tension and her weight, he lost his balance, staggered for a moment, tried to grab the edge of the brick, but missed. The angle of the roof lent itself to his swift tumble down the shingles and off the edge. She could hear his scream over the sound of a brief lull in the storm. More telling than the scream from his fall was the way it abruptly ended. An alarmed voice from below yelled out. “Hell’s bells, he’s down!”
Mercy swallowed big gulps of the wet air just before she felt herself slip down the brick toward an even darker place. She struggled against the fall, knees bent, twisting and turning until she thwarted gravity by wedging herself sideways in the chimney. She tried to still her escalating panic and told herself she was safe for the moment. At least, she thought, if anyone else came out on the roof and looked into the chimney, they’d not be able to see her. Now, if they looked up the chimney from the fireplace in the parlor, that might prove to be a problem. She had no idea how far she’d fallen—only that the sky above seemed further away. She wondered about the man who’d fallen from the roof, and wondered how many were left. She’d heard two men whispering in the hall outside her rented room, seen another standing thirty feet below as she’d stood barefoot on slippery shingles and contemplated her escape. Did the man survive his fall from the roof? What kind of people hunt someone for money? How long will they wait to catch me?
A soft but steady shower of rain hit the young man lying on the wet grass behind the boardinghouse. A man called Gus kneeled beside him. Behind them, three other men stood in an uncomfortable semicircle. Luther and Newt, two ex–Union soldiers who had saved each other on the battlefield more than once, traded sad glances. The third man, Harland, had spent the last four months of the war confined to an army hospital for two bullet wounds. Vengeance for the Confederate who’d shot him had gone unmeted. It was Harland who finally broke the silence.
“He’s gone, Gus,” Harland said. “Let’s get him outta the rain.”
But Gus didn’t move. Harland traded looks with the other men, who shrugged. Luther looked up at the pitched roof and shook his head. “I swear that vixen is half witch. Disappeared is what she did.”
“We need a new plan,” Newt said.
Gus never took his eyes from the man on the grass. “You keep after her,” he said. “I’m taking my boy home to his mother.”
It was the sound of garbled voices that made Mercy open her eyes again. She stared at a triangle of light on her arm and then looked up. Daylight. Broad daylight overhead that left her wondering how on earth she’d passed the rest of the night in the chimney. Her head throbbed, her joints ached, and her back felt as if she’d never be able to straighten it again. She shivered in her damp dress and, ironically, wished she were sitting next to a warm fire. Had she really fallen asleep in such nightmarish conditions?
The sounds below her floated up the flue, which magnified people’s voices. She pictured the interior of the boardinghouse, specifically the parlor with the large fireplace and the worn velvet chairs placed in close proximity to the hearth.
“Really, Mr. Douglas, that is most unkind!”
Mercy recognized the voice of Mrs. Douglas. She and her husband of fifty years had a strange way of addressing each other so formally; Mercy wondered if the two even remembered each other’s first name.
“I am not being unkind, Mrs. Douglas.” The old man’s voice was querulous. “I am simply stating the truth. That young woman was too beautiful for her own good. Beauty like that gets a woman in all kinds of trouble.”
“I liked her,” his wife said. “She was sweet and didn’t gossip.”
“We knew her all of three days. Not nearly enough time to form a suitable opinion of her.”
“You just said she was beautiful,” Mrs. Douglas responded tartly.
“That is not an opinion,” Mr. Douglas said. “It is a fact.” His tone said he regarded the subject closed. “I don’t remember a spring as cool as the one we’re in now, do you?”
If Mrs. Douglas was miffed at being dismissed, the pleasant modulation of her voice gave no evidence of it. “I don’t believe I do,” she said. “Well, maybe the spring of ‘32. Remember how cold it was the day Joseph was born? Positively frosty in April.”
“Yes, you’re quite right. That was a cold spring. And right now, it feels rather frosty in here,” he answered.
From her perch in the chimney, Mercy tried to shift her weight. She tried not to think of her thirst. Then she tried not to think about her other basic needs that needed to be met.
Below her, she could hear Mr. Douglas moving very close to the fireplace. More sounds carried up the shaft. Someone seemed to be stacking kindling as if intending to start a fire.
Mercy looked up at a sky that seemed miles away while she wriggled and turned to get her feet wedged in a better position on the brick. She’d have to climb up. Her legs quivered, muscles protesting every move she tried to make, as gravity seemed to grab hold of her ankles and pull her back down. She heard Mr. Douglas ask Mrs. Douglas for a match. Her nerves frayed to a breaking point, Mercy had a quick mental picture of a fire below her. The thought was so frightening her urgent need for the outhouse vanished and was replaced by sheer panic.
“Don’t light the fire!” Mercy yelled.
Silence from below, then, “Did you hear that, Mrs. Douglas?”
“I think it came from the stairs, Mr. Douglas.”
Mercy yelled again. “It came from in here. Don’t light the—”
She slipped and the hearth of the fireplace came quickly at her. She clawed at the creosote-covered brick to slow her descent, but it didn’t help—she dropped like a rock into the wide opening of the hearth in the parlor. She landed on the stack of kindling feet first, but her legs buckled and she found herself on her backside staring at the astonished faces of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas.
“Good day,” Mercy said.
Mrs. Douglas, holding a teacup, opened her mouth as if to scream, but no sound came out. Mr. Douglas stood rooted to the spot, a box of matches in hand, his jaw dropped in shocked surprise.
“I’m sorry if I startled you,” Mercy said, struggling to get out of the hearth.
“What the blazes is this?” Mr. Douglas demanded. “Where did you come from?”
Mercy tried to dust the chimney soot from her dress but then noticed her arms were as black as her dress.
Mercy looked around nervously. “Who else is here?”
“No one,” Mr. Douglas said. He went to the fireplace, braced his hands on his knees and bent to look up the chimney.
“How in the world …?”
“Where is Mrs. Kline?”
Mrs. Douglas seemed to have found her voice. “Bess hasn’t been down yet. It was a late night here. Lots of commotion.”
“She knows it was a late night, Mrs. Douglas,” Mr. Douglas said. “I believe we can surmise the commotion was about her.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Mercy said.
Mrs. Douglas swallowed hard, then pointed a trembling hand at Mercy’s chest. “You … you appear to have a gun in your bosom.”
Mercy pressed a soot-covered hand against the pistol tucked into the bodice of her dress, more to reassure herself it was safe than to apologize for it. “Yes,” she said. “I don’t have pockets.”
Mr. Douglas glanced at her pistol, then caught himself and looked away. “It seems you’re in a tight spot,” he said. He looked at the chimney. “No pun intended, my dear. Let’s get Bess and maybe we can help you figure this out.”
“Thank you for your kind offer, but I’ll be fine,” Mercy said. “No need to wake Mrs. Kline. I’ll just get my things and leave you all in peace.”
Mercy hurried out of the parlor. She tread lightly on the steps, carefully avoiding the two she knew creaked, and made her way toward her room. The door stood open and she could see the splintered wood of the door jamb where the lock had been kicked in. She should probably pay Bess, the landlady, for damages, but she’d spent her last dollar securing the room.
Mercy entered and went straight to the bed, got down on her knees and did a sweep with her hand to feel for her saddlebags and shoes. Nothing. She tried again, pressing herself even closer to the floor so she could extend her arm further—but again, her hand came in contact with nothing at all. She lifted the bed skirt, pressed her cheek to the floor and looked under the bed. She had little in this world—just her pistol, the clothes on her back, a pair of shoes, and a saddlebag. She might have been able to leave without the shoes, but the saddlebag was another matter. She didn’t know if the men had taken it or if it was still in the house. She stood and thought of what to do next, and that’s when it dawned on her—the bed was made. Neat as a pin. Quilt pulled up, pillow fluffed. It certainly didn’t look like the rumpled bed she’d deserted in the middle of the night. It looked like someone had done some housekeeping in the wee hours. Mercy had never been in her landlady’s room, but she knew where it was. She padded barefoot down the hall.