Mister Slaughter (Matthew Corbett #3)

Chapter 24

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The sun came up, on a morning clear and cool. Birds sang in the trees. a passing breeze stirred the limbs and brought down a shower of autumn-burnt leaves, and Matthew picked up an arrow and saw on its bloody point a piece of skin matted with hair.

Slaughter at least had been given a new part across his scalp last night. Good, Matthew thought. On his inspection of the scene of battle this morning, he'd found the two other arrows Walker had launched, but only this one showed damage. There was some blood spattered on the leaves, but not enough to indicate that Slaughter had been hit by a lead ball. His legs were still working, that was for certain. Whatever Slaughter was up to by taking Lark and Faith from the camp, he might not be hobbled but he was surely hurting.

Matthew picked up Walker's bow where the Indian had dropped it in the dark after the ball had hit him. He could see where the mushrooms and weeds had been crushed by crawling bodies. and, more interestingly, he could see the edge of a ravine about forty feet away, falling down onto jagged rocks and a small stream; they could have all tumbled into it last night, and their bones lay together moldering into dust. Lying dead next to Tyranthus Slaughter for all eternity was not in Matthew's plans.

He followed the blood trail, as Walker had instructed. They'd known Slaughter was hurt from the blood they'd found in the clearing at first light. Either ball or arrow grazed him, Walker had said. But only a flesh wound.

Matthew saw where Slaughter had torn through the thicket like a mad bull. Drops and splatters of blood on the forest floor led Matthew onward into an area of slender pines. He stopped, looking closely at what appeared to be the bloody impressions of two fingers and the thumb of a left hand against one of the pine trunks. Slaughter had briefly paused here either to get his bearings or make a decision about what he intended to do. Obviously, he'd made a quick decision and carried it out with military efficiency. after all, hadn't he said he'd been a soldieri

But why, Matthew wondered as he'd already wondered several times this morning, hadn't Lark cried outi Or tried to fight himi Well, of course she knew what he was capable of, and what was she going to fight him withi In hindsight, they should have left her the knife, or at least wakened her and told her to take Faith and move out of the clearing, or hidden them somewhere, or

But they'd never expected Slaughter to get past them. To slip into the camp in the dark, and-wounded or not-make quick work of forcing Lark and her mother into the woods. Going to the southwest, Walker had said after he'd found the trail. Don't need an Indian to follow this one, he'd told Matthew. The stuck pig is still bleeding.

Matthew left the blood-smeared pine and continued walking along the path Slaughter had taken to the clearing. There were some thorns and thicket, but his boots had stomped through them. Matthew imagined what might have happened last night, when Lark had heard someone coming, had called his name-when he'd been too afraid to reply, for fear of Slaughter getting off a shot at the sound of his voice-and been answered by a quiet whisper up close to her ear, and maybe the hot barrel of the pistol up under her throat. Now tell your dear mother we are going to a safe place, or tell her we're going to play hide-a-seek, or any damned fucking thing, but know I will kill her first if you scream. I don't want to hear any noise from either of you. Just take her hand, and walk ahead of me. That way. Go.

Matthew wondered if Slaughter had told Lark that there was no hope for the two women if she resisted, but that he might let them go once they got a distance away. Would Lark have believed that, after what had happened at her housei Or might she have seized upon it, as a way to survivei Maybe she thought she could talk him out of killing them. Maybe perhaps possibly who could knowi

I myself have been a soldier, Slaughter had said. It seemed to Matthew that he'd certainly been well-trained in combat, in addition to his natural aptitude for killing. Slaughter elevated murder to the realm of art. He could plan an escape days-weeksi-in advance, plot his moves like a chess master, travel overland like an Indian, confidently stalk the dark like a cat, and shake off the pain of a nasty wound to fix his mind upon his purpose. He was skilled with pistols, knives and razors. He was utterly ruthless and ice-cold, and he possessed, as Walker had said, "a killer's eye in the back of his head".

a soldieri Maybe so. But it sounded more to Matthew as if Slaughter had been trained to be an assassin. For that job he seemed to be exceptionally capable.

His jobi Oh, that: Between jobs, but going back into the business of settling accounts.

What did that meani

Whatever it was, Matthew knew it wasn't good, and likely meant someone was going to pay with his or her life.

Matthew had his own account to settle. When he emerged from the woods, he saw that Walker was still sitting against a tree on the far side of the clearing, next to the ashes of last night's fire that had soothed Faith to sleep. Matthew felt the same hammerblow to the gut he'd taken at first light, upon seeing the bloody hole in the Indian's side.

Walker's eyes were closed, his face uplifted toward the warmth of the early sun. But even in the short time that Matthew had left him, to visit the battleground and find Walker's bow, the Indian seemed more frail, the facial bones more defined. His flesh was as gray as a gravestone. The bandage that Matthew had made from his cravat-the same cravat that had been utilized for the mercy killing of Tom's dog-was tied around the lower part of Walker's chest. It was dark with blood on the left side.

Walker opened his eyes and watched as Matthew approached. "Do I look that terriblei" he asked, reading Matthew's expression. and he answered his own question: "Death has been called many things, but never handsome."

"I'm going to get you out of here."

Walker smiled thinly. His eyes held the glint of inescapable pain. "No, you are not. If you wish to become an Indian, the first thing you have to do " He had to stop speaking, as he silently battled his internal agony. "Have to do," he repeated. "Is accept reality."

Matthew could find no reply. He'd already seen, in his inspection of the wound, that the ball had splintered at least one rib and driven deep into the organs. Where it had come to rest in all that carnage could not be determined. It was miraculous, he thought, that Walker was even able to talk, much less move. Walker had taken a handful of moss, pine bark, and broken-up green pine needles and pushed it into the hole, and then he'd said, Bind it up.

"Is there nothing you can doi" Matthew asked.

"No." It was firm and final, spoken without regret: the Indian way. "You'd better eat something, then we'll go."

Matthew ate a piece of the dried meat and drank some water from the flask that Lark had left behind. Everything tasted like the smell of gunsmoke, which permeated his hair, skin and clothes.

"The women are going to slow him down," Walker said as he again lifted his face into the sunlight. "So is his wound. They're leaving a trail any Englishman could follow." He winced, and waited for the pain to pass. "You know why he took them."

Matthew did. "He needed something to trade."

"For you," Walker said.

Matthew agreed: "For me."

"You know him well. I think he must know you well, too." Walker shifted his position a few inches and pressed his hand against the bandage. "He's not sure if he hit you last night. He knows if you're not too wounded to move you'll be coming after him. So: your life for the women. He's just seeking the right place."

"Where might it bei"

"Somewhere that limits your choices," said Walker. "He'll know it when he finds it. Until then, we follow."

Matthew offered him water, but Walker shook his head; he had also previously refused the food. "Listen," Matthew said, as he corked the flask. "I want you to know I thank you for doing this for me. For coming all this way, and " He let the rest of it go. "You didn't have to."

"I've already told you. I wanted the watch."

"Is that all of iti"

Walker paused; maybe he'd been about to say yes, Matthew thought. But now, with the hole in his side and his life leaking away, Walker decided to speak honestly. "Not all," he said. "When I first agreed yes, it was just the watch. The what would be the wordi The novelty of it. and the idea that life is a circle. Things come back to you, when you least expect it." He was quiet, gathering his strength again. "Then," he continued, "when I saw what Slaughter did at the reverend's house I knew what you were. What you are."

"What is thati"

"My chance," said Walker, looking into Matthew's eyes, "to walk the Sky Road."

Matthew said nothing.

"Though I am insane and taunted by demons confused in my mind," he went on, "I may be accepted home by the Great Spirits if I can help you catch this mad wolf. This creature who cannot be endured, among civilized men. The Great Spirits don't see red skin, or white. They see only the war between good and evil, which makes the world what it is. and they charge us to be their weapons. Their strength. They charge us to be their arrows, and fly true." He nodded, with the sun on his face. "You have given me my chance to fly true," he said. "But first we have to catch the monster. We have to pull his teeth." He coughed, spat dark blood onto the ground beside him and studied it. "Not good," he said, with a slight frown. "We have much to do before I become the spirits willing a walker in three worlds. Will you help me upi"

Matthew did. When Walker was steady, he asked for his bow to be returned to its sheath and the sheath slung across his shoulder, along with the quiver of arrows. He had his knife in its fringed belt and his rawhide bag of dried meat, which was nearly gone. On his face the black paint was smeared, the spirit symbols blurred by rain, sweat, and circumstance. He had lost a few feathers, but he was ready.

Matthew put the loaded pistol and the waterflask into his shooter's bag and the bag's strap over his shoulder. He looked at his black tricorn, which lay on the ground where he'd left it last night. He decided he didn't want it anymore, since two snakes had worn it. Then he was ready too. He offered his shoulder for Walker to lean against, but the Indian didn't even grace that gesture with a glance; Walker went on, slowly at first, as if over hot coals, but then with his hand positioned firmly against the bloody bandage he set off at a decent speed following the red spots and splatters that marked Slaughter's trail.

The sun continued its ascent. Within an hour, Matthew noted that Walker's pace had slowed dramatically and the Indian was limping on his left leg. When Matthew again offered to give support, Walker shook his head. His face was ashen, and glistened with sweat.

Walker was right about the trail being easy to follow. Though the blood spots had stopped, there was clear evidence of the passage of three people. The ground cover showed a plentitude of broken twigs and crushed weeds, and at one point Matthew stopped to examine an area under some pines that indicated dead needles had been brushed aside for someone to sit down. He could envision Lark's hand, trying to make her mother comfortable even on this march of terror. They might have rested here until daybreak. In the thicket nearby he found a few ragged pieces of blue cloth, trimmed with yellow, and held them up for Walker to see.

"The mother's apron," Walker said; his eyes were sunken and bloodshot. "Made himself a bandage."

They kept going. With the passage of another hour, Walker did not resist when Matthew put an arm around him to keep him upright. Every so often Walker spat blood upon the ground, and now his knees were weak and Matthew knew he couldn't go on much longer.

They were moving through an area of large white boulders shaded by yellow elms when Matthew noted Walker kept looking over his shoulder. By now the Indian was all but stumbling, and he had begun to half-mutter, half-sing a strange rhythm in his own language.

"Matthew," Walker whispered, his eyes heavy-lidded. "Stop here."

Matthew instantly obeyed, and helped him sit against one of the boulders. Walker's hand came up and grasped the front of Matthew's jacket.

"Someone behind us," he said.

"Behind usi" Matthew looked back along the trail they'd come, but saw only trees, brush and rocks. a spear of panic pierced him; was it possible Slaughter had circled aroundi

"Following," Walker said thickly. Bloody foam had collected in the corners of his mouth. "I saw him twice. Very fast."

"Saw whoi"

"Death," came the answer. "He is near, but he stays back."

Matthew again fixed his gaze along the trail, and focused on detecting the slightest movement-human or otherwise-among the trees. There was nothing. He crouched beside Walker, who was breathing raggedly and holding his side as if to keep his organs from spilling out. "I'm going to go ahead," he said quietly. "You stay here and-"

"Diei" Through his delirium, Walker gave him a savage, fearsome grin. "Not yet. I'm not ready. Help me."

"You can't go any further."

"I'll say when I'm done. Not yet."

again Matthew helped him to his feet. They passed through the jumble of boulders and found, just on the other side, a narrow but obviously well-used track that came up an incline from the right and led off into the forest on the left. Whether it was another Indian trail or a pathway used by fur trappers, Matthew didn't know. Fresh boot and shoe marks in the dirt showed that Slaughter was continuing his relentless advance to reach Philadelphia, with captives or not, and had gone left in the southerly direction.

In another few minutes, during which Matthew feared Walker was surely at the end of his strength, they came out of the forest and faced a new obstacle.

Before them was a ravine, about thirty feet in width. When Matthew stood at the edge and looked down, he saw gray rocks fifty feet below, and that same stream meandering on its way to the nearest river. a rope bridge had been strung across the ravine, but it was history; though it was still tied to its supports on this side, it had been cut away on the other, and now hung useless.

Matthew cursed under his breath. It was certainly Slaughter's work. How far would they have to go to find another wayi The answer was quick in coming, for when Matthew looked to the right he saw, at a distance of forty or so yards, a massive dead oak that had been felled in some turbulent windstorm, its roots wrenched up from the earth on this side and its branches entangled in the foliage on the other.

Though Walker's vision was fading, it was still strong enough for him to judge the situation. "Careful," he whispered. "This is the place."

Matthew knew it was. Slaughter had made sure of that by destroying the bridge. He opened his shooter's bag and withdrew his still-loaded pistol.

"I can't get across that," Walker said, "unless I grow wings."

"Come on," Matthew told him. "Hold onto me." They pushed through the underbrush and vines alongside the ravine, as rays of the sun streamed down through the trees. Birds chirped and sang overhead. Matthew was thinking furiously while watching the thicket on the far side. Crossing by way of that tree would be precarious for him; would it be impossible for Walkeri Maybe another rope bridge could be found across, but how far might that bei a mile or morei If at alli

Matthew thought maybe they both could sit on the trunk and pull themselves over. They could go slowly. as slowly as it took. But if this was the place, then Slaughter had to be somewhere nearby with the women, maybe watching them right now. The longer it took to cross, the longer either one of them would be a target for Slaughter's pistol, and he knew which one of them would be the first man shot.

Walker knew also. "Here," he said wearily. "Let me sit down. Here."

Matthew eased him to a sitting position on the ground, leaning against the oak near its base where the gnarled roots had burst forth.

"My bow. My quiver," Walker said. "Put them next to me."

Matthew did as he asked, and then he knelt beside the Indian. "Can I " He had to stop, and begin again. "Can I do anything for youi"

"You can go on. Quickly. With great care, Matthew. With eyes always open in all directions."

"all right," Matthew said.

"Hear me." Some strength had returned to the ragged husk of Walker's voice; he was a valiant brave, right to the end. "I will die but I shall not perish. I charge you to be my arrow. and if you if you ever get back to my village tell my father I might have been insane but I was a true son." His bloody hand came up and pressed Matthew's arm. "Will youi"

Matthew nodded. "I will," he answered.

Walker gave a half-smile. His eyes slid shut. Then he abruptly opened them again, as if he'd remembered something vitally important. "Do you want the watch backi"

"Oh, what a sad and stirring sight!" came the mocking voice, from the other side of the ravine.

Matthew felt Walker's hand fall away from him as he stood up and turned to face Tyranthus Slaughter, who had emerged from the woods. In his right hand Slaughter was holding his pistol; in the hand sinister was gripped the cord he had made from Faith's apron, which served to bind the women's wrists one to another. The bandage he had also cut from the cloth was tied around his head, and Matthew noted with satisfaction the dark splotch of blood on the left side just above the ear, which was itself crusted with gore. Slaughter kept the women in front of him as a shield. Even so, Matthew noted that Slaughter's clothing had improved: brown breeches, white stockings, a gray shirt and a beige coat. The strap of a brown canvas haversack slung diagonally across his chest. He knew whose boots were on the killer's feet.

"That red bastard got me," Slaughter said. "Just a nick, though. Be right as rain in a few days." He grinned, showing a mouthful of teeth which appeared larger now that he was clean-shaven. "Matthew, Matthew, Matthew!" He made a clucking noise with his tongue and rested the pistol's barrel on Lark's shoulder. "Keep that gun down by your side, now. Don't touch the striker. Tell me: what am I going to do with youi"

Matthew made a quick examination of Lark and Faith, who stood tethered by the killer's cord. Faith had left this world; she stood with her face downcast, her hair in her eyes. Her mouth was moving, perhaps repeating in her mind over and over some moment of childhood that sustained her even on this black morning. Like a child, also, she looked to have tripped and fallen on their journey here, for her nose and chin were both skinned and bloodied and dead leaves clung to the front of her dress.

Lark's eyes, though swollen red and surrounded by dark hollows, still held the shine of intelligence. She had been recently slapped, for a handprint showed on her left cheek. Matthew saw the vivid scratches where Slaughter's fingernails had caught her. She stared silently across the divide at him, and lifted her chin as a way to tell him she was yet all there in the mind.

"Well," Matthew said, as easily as he could with Slaughter's pistol aimed in his general direction, "you can drop your gun, untie the ladies, crawl across this oak like the slug you are and give yourself up, for I am arresting you in the name of New York, both town and colony, the Queen's Constable, the Queen herself, and the country of England. How does that soundi"

His intention had been for Slaughter to lose his temper, blow himself up like a bullfrog, and take a shot; the distance between them-near forty feet, from where Matthew was standing at the oak's roots-would severely test the flintlock's accuracy, and Matthew thought that if push came to shove he could get off his own prayerful shot and scramble across that damned tree before Slaughter could reload. He hoped.

But alas, it was not to be. Slaughter just laughed; the slow tolling of funeral bells freighted the air. "You are worthy," he said, when his laughter was done. He didn't say worthy of what, but Matthew suspected he meant worthy of a slow, excruciating execution.

"Larki" Matthew spoke to the girl, but kept his eyes on Slaughter's trigger finger. "are you all righti"

"Never been better," Slaughter said. "a little piece of custard pie, this one is." His arm moved, and now the pistol's barrel played with her locks of blonde hair. "Want the leftoversi"

Matthew felt the slow boil of rage in his guts. Taunting me to lose my temper and take the first shot, he thought. as Walker had said, You know him well. I think he must know you well, too.

"Matthewi" Lark's voice was steady; she had not given up, she had not broken. She was, he thought, an incredibly strong girl. If they got out of this, he would take both of them to New York, find care for her mother and whati Somehow erase all this horror from Lark's mindi "I want you to know," she went on, "that I my mother and I we're-"

"Blah de blah blah," Slaughter interrupted. "Is he deadi"

Matthew looked down at Walker. The Indian lay motionless, gray-faced, his eyes open but seeing nothing. a trickle of blood had leaked from his mouth. "Yes," Matthew answered.

"Throw the body over," Slaughter said.

Matthew stared across at the other man. "You come do it."

"I gave you an order, young sir."

"I'm not in your army." He offered a purposefully-mocking smile. "I'm surprised at you! a stalwart soldier, afraid of a dead Indiani He was my friend, Slaughter; I'm not throwing him over like a grainsack."

Slaughter paused; he worked his tongue in and out of his cheeks, and then he said brightly, "Leave him for the buzzards then, I don't give a shit. The business at hand, Matthew, concerns your coming across that tree. When you set foot on this side, and I blow your brains out, the two little squats go free. My word of honor. and as I told you, I never lie to men who are not fools. You, sir, have proven yourself to be no fool. Stupid, yes, but a fool no. Therefore, I do not lie."

"I appreciate the compliment. But being no fool, I should have to ask after my departure from this earthly realm, how long will they remain freei"

"ahhhhh," said Slaughter, and grinned again. "Ouch! You're making my head hurt."

"Your truths are lies, Slaughter," Matthew told him. "You know I'm going to follow you, wherever you go. You know I'm not going to stop." His heart was beating hard at this presumption that he would still be alive in the next few minutes. "If you give yourself up, here and now, I promise-"

"That the fucking noose doesn't cause me to shit in my pantsi" Slaughter had nearly roared it, making Faith jump and give a muffled little child's cry. "That I get a garland of red roses upon my fucking gravei" His face had also bloomed rose-red, so much so that small creepers of blood began to appear at his nostrils. In his rage he had swollen up again, all huge shoulders and massive monster's chest, spittle upon his lips and the red lamp of murder in the pond-ice eyes. "You idiot! You charlatan of a constable! What can you promise mei"

Matthew was silent until the tirade had passed. Then he said, "I promise that I will endeavor to buy you a title before you are hanged, and that it will be so marked on your stone." Katherine Herrald would have special connections; maybe she could be talked into arranging it.

Slaughter's face froze, his mouth half-open. Slowly, very slowly, his expression began to thaw. "Well said," he allowed. "The one thing I so devoutly wish, given to me whati an hour before I swingi and possibly marked on a black brick at the ass-end of Hammer's alleyi Oh but it's impossible, Matthew, bless your heart; you see, even if I was fool enough to give myself up, as you put it, I wouldn't live to cross the atlantic."

"and why might that bei"

"I have," he said, "a very strict employer."

Matthew frowned, puzzled by that statement. Employeri He was about to ask who that was when Slaughter thumbed his pistol to full-cock and held it against the side of Lark's head.

"You will throw your gun over," Slaughter directed, staring cold-eyed and remorseless at his enemy. "Now, young sir, or I shall have to scorch some blonde hair."

Matthew had no doubt it would be done. Though Slaughter couldn't reload again before Matthew got across the log, that would be no help for Lark. His bullpup was useless at this range. He could refuse and then whati No, he had to get closer to Slaughter. Try to make the man take a shot. He threw the gun into the ravine.

"The shooter's bag, too. Let's not be hiding anything I don't know about." When it was gone, Slaughter lowered the gun but kept it aimed between Matthew and the girl. "Sensible. Now we shall see what sort of a true-blue knight you really are. Come across the tree, like a good lad."

"Matthew!" Lark called, but he didn't look at her.

"Hush," Slaughter said. "Let him do what he must."

Matthew slowly climbed up on the oak and, sitting on it, began to slide himself forward. It was a very long way down, upon the treacherous rocks. His throat was dry; his mouth had no spit in it. He heard himself breathing like a bellows while his mind raced to figure how to save their lives. If he could make Slaughter fire a shot before he got too much closer but the distance was narrowing, and he might just have to leap at Slaughter and take his chances that the ball would not kill him outright. For this Englishman, time did not stop nor stand still. "a little faster, if you please," Slaughter said. "Don't mind your breeches, where you're going they'll give you a fresh pair with your name sewn across the bum, I'm sure."

Onward Matthew pushed himself, and now he was nearly halfway across. His legs were dangling over. He thought how much he'd hate it if he lost one of his moccasins. The sweat had beaded on his face; it ran in rivulets under his shirt.

"I will make it quick. That I would do for any worthy opponent. Right in the back of the head. Candle snuffed, the end. I'll do the same for them as well."

"Matthew!" Lark called, and when he looked at her he saw she had grasped her mother's hand. a strange kind of light gleamed in her eyes. Madnessi Determinationi "Just try, is all I ask."

"Oh, he's trying all right," Slaughter replied. "He's trying to think how to get out of this. Can't you see his eyes going 'round and 'roundi" He moved out from behind the women and motioned with the pistol's barrel. "Come, come!"

"My mother and I are already dead, Matthew," said Lark. and of Faith she asked the question, "Do you believe in Godi"

Yes, Momma. Had it been spoken, or had Matthew only imagined iti

"Do you believe that we need fear no darkness, for He lights our wayi"

Yes, Momma.

"Stop that nonsense!" Slaughter said.

"Do you believe in the promise of Heaveni" Lark asked.

Did Faith answer, or noti Yes, Momma.

"So do I," said the girl.

With one quick, strong, sure movement she tore the cord out of Slaughter's hand.

Making a leap forward, Lark threw herself and her mother over the edge.

They fell silently.

Matthew saw them hit the rocks like two dolls all dressed up in lace.

He had a shout in his throat, but it lodged there like a stone. His eyes filled with tears.

Slaughter peered over the edge. He scratched his chin with the pistol's barrel.

"Women!" he said with an air of disgust, and then he took the gun in a two-handed grip, held it at arm's length toward Matthew, and pulled the trigger.

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