Sophia's ensuing silence stung like salt in an open wound. Despite her flushed cheeks, puffy eyes, and the long skein of hair tumbling all about, she remained a vision of beauty. He wanted to burn the picture of her in his mind forever. How would he live without her? How would he dispel her from his heart, his soul? He knew once he told her the horrible truth, she would hate him. He gazed into her tortured eyes with the unbearable realization he was looking at her for the last time.
"Jesse wouldn't have wanted this," he said and believed it in his heart.
"We will never know." She turned away. "Jesse is dead."
The sound of glass shattering echoed through the manor, followed by a ball of fire hurled through the bedchamber window. Shooting skyward, flames devoured the bed covers. Sophia rushed toward the bed and stumbled, her body catapulting into one of the posts. Their eyes met briefly and her body pitched forward before she crumbled to the floor.
Gavin glanced out the window. The barn was ablaze, and in the distance, Ricochet's frantic yelps rang in the air. With Sophia tucked under his arm and the haversack slung over his shoulder, he opened the bedchamber door. A heavy cloud of black smoke filled the upstairs hallway. Orange flames licked at the door to her parents' bedchamber and the main level blazed in coiled spires of crimson. The branch of an apple tree outside the broken pane caught his eye. Smoke, acrid and thick choked him. Broken glass crunched beneath his boots as he stumbled toward the window. Praying the limb would hold their weight he inched his way across it with Sophia over his shoulder and picked his way down the tree one painstaking branch at a time.
The sound of laughter came to him in the dark of night, a man's voice. Billy Cooper. Near the bottom branches, Gavin slid Sophia down his body and turned her around with her back pressed into his chest. With one arm clasped around her waist, he wiggled out of his shirt, and tucked it under her arms. Slowly he lowered her to the ground and jumped from the tree seconds later. Picking Sophia up, he carried her to an oak several rods from the blazing manor and laid her on the ground.
Her chest rose and fell in even breaths, but after several gentle slaps to her cheek, she remained motionless. Despite the raised purple bruise along her temple, she didn't appear to be injured. Bloodlust seized his heart. Perhaps it was best Sophia was still unconscious, he didn't want her to see the carnage about to be unleashed.
A sharp whir of gunshots echoed in the air and Ricochet's howling stopped. Gavin whistled for the hound, counting off every dreaded second the dog failed to appear. He unsheathed the knife from his boot and pulled the belt from his trousers, his trained body primed for battle. Billy Cooper and his friends would die this night.
Ducking between shadows from the moon, Gavin inched his way toward the front yard and thought about his odds―three against one, not good. Billy's ominous words rang in his ears, ‘Someone should put that wretched beast out of his misery’. If they killed Sophia's dog, a quick death would be long in coming. With the belt between his teeth, he stuffed the knife in his waistband and scanned the long carriageway for a lookout. Even Billy wasn't stupid enough to leave the back door open. In a cluster of sassafras to the left of the drive, the black-eyed deserter sat atop a sloop-bellied mount with his eyes peeled on the yard. Under a patch of clouds, Gavin crawled on his belly to the stand of trees. He came up behind the man on a dead run and knocked him from his mount. The horse reared, bucked and bolted down the dirt road.
The instant the man came to his feet, Gavin charged and looped the leather belt around the deserter's neck, dragging him to the ground. With an agonized moan, the man fell to his knees and attempted to wrest the cinch from his neck. Gavin had already looped the belt through the buckle, and now, he had only to stay on his feet and cut off the man's airway. The air hissed with a stream of gasps as the man writhed and kicked in the last throes of death. Seized by a powerful force of adrenaline, Gavin held fast and seconds later, the man's body fell limp.
A bullet sped by Gavin's head, so close he felt its speed. The sound came from the smokehouse several buildings from the barn. With the sky lit up brighter than the fourth of July, Gavin stood little chance of crossing the yard without being seen. Horses whinnied in the distance, Gambler, Mischief, and Baby Moon. Tearing through the paddock, they reared against the fence imprisoning them. Moments later, the sound of boards snapping split the night air. In her panicked state, the feisty mare had kicked the fence in and dashed across the pasture with Gambler and Baby Moon in hot pursuit.
Gavin heard the click of a gun in his ear. "If it isn't Gavin Langdale." Billy's whiny voice drifted around him before a hard boot to his back sent him sprawling into the dirt. "Tie him up, Schuster." Billy spat the words. "And then we'll find that green-eyed whore."
"What do I tie him up with?" Schuster asked.
"A rope, stupid."
"I ain't got no rope."
Gavin rolled onto his back and studied them.
Billy rolled his eyes. "Go get one off your horse, you idiot."
"Right." Schuster shuffled toward the smokehouse, stopped and turned to Billy. "What are we going to do with him?"
"I'm going to find his woman." Billy aimed the pistol at Gavin's chest. "She is your woman, ain't she, Langdale? You've been lusting over that bitch for years."
Gavin felt his jaw twitch. Be calm, wait for the right moment. "Remember what I told you, Billy. You touch her again, I'll gut you."
"That's brave talk coming from a man with a gun pointed at his chest." Billy pushed the stringy, blonde hair out of his eyes with his free hand. "I will find Sophia and when I do, you're going to watch me fuck her."
Gavin wanted to take his chances while Schuster was gone but he had to wait for the right moment. Hideous visions of Billy's dirty hands touching her drove him to the brink of insanity.
An untrained eye wouldn't have seen the shadow on the ground behind Billy, but Gavin had spent countless hours staring across smoky battlefields. Ricochet.
Schuster returned with a grin, holding the rope high in the air. "Found one."
"Well don't just stand there, tie him up. I'm hard just thinking about her creamy white thighs and pert little breasts." Billy turned to Gavin again. "Tell me, Langdale, are her nipples dark or pink?"
"You're a dead man."
When Schuster grabbed Gavin's arms and wrenched them behind his back, Gavin whispered, "Slēan!"
Billy leaned forward. "What did he say?"
Ricochet struck with lightning speed. Billy's pistol discharged; a knee-jerk reaction as he struggled for breath. Chortled coughs and an agonizing scream rent the air when Ricochet buried his fangs in Billy's throat and ripped it out.
Gavin sprang to his feet, spun around, and faced off with Schuster, delivering the first punch. Stunned, his face dripping blood, the man flung the length of hemp to the ground. Pain jarred Gavin's hand and shot up his arm. He shook it and waited for Schuster to come to him. Foolishly, he did. Forcing himself to rein in his rising panic over Sophia, he delivered a series of hard blows to the man's face.
Dazed by the vicious assault, Schuster dropped to his knees and tossed his hands up. "I give!"
Gavin stood over him and tried to catch his breath. "I should kill you."
"Billy forced me into it. I wouldn't have laid a hand on your woman, I swear."
Sophia. Her dark green eyes surfaced. Fear whispered through him. Struggling with conflicting emotion, he kicked at the dirt and picked up Billy's pistol. "I want you to take a message to Mule Cooper. If he steps foot on Arbor Rose land again, I'll kill him."
Schuster lifted his bloody face to Gavin.
"Your dead sidekick is out there under that stand of sassafras. Take him and Billy with you." He gestured with the pistol. "If I hear an echo of your presence after five minutes, I'll finish this."
Wiping his face with the back of his sleeve, Schuster struggled to his knees and staggered over to Billy. "His throat's been ripped out!"
Gavin shrugged. "Yeah, that's what happens when you piss off a wolfhound."
Ricochet growled and crawled toward Gavin.
"Four minutes," Gavin said.
"I'm going, I'm going." Schuster slung Billy over his shoulder, teetered, and then hobbled toward the horses, mumbling under his breath, "Mule Cooper's not gonna let this go. You killed his son."
"Tell him what I said."
Gavin waited until Schuster secured the dead bodies over the horses and sprinted toward the oak tree. What remained of the barn could be stuffed into a thimble, and the manor, a china cup. Sophia would be devastated. In Gavin's opinion, Arbor Rose was lost the moment the Yankees arrived, but for Sophia's sake, he'd kept the opinion to himself.
With his back to the wall, Gavin couldn't think. Sophia hated him. Arbor Rose wallowed in blackened ruins and Mule would come for him, harsh warning or not. If he had any God-given sense, he'd jump from the sinking ship, run from Sophia and her loathing for him.
One question lingered on his tongue—how?