It took us two nights to find our way back to Windswept without being spotted.
Laird and his men seemed to be everywhere and they’d gotten help. End of second night, all the moons had run their course and dawn wasn’t far away. Dela and I lay in the mercantile’s stable loft, spying on the ranchers gathered near the yellow skitter.
“Looks like Laird brought every friend in cattle country,” I said.
“Ain’t all of them his friends,” Dela replied. “I traveled these parts enough to know no love’s lost between the landsmen. They all think their own shit don’t stink.”
“Why are they here then?” I asked.
Dela glanced at me, tilted that one eyebrow and chuckled. A soft sound, we both whispered, but her laugh sent a shiver up my spine. “They don’t need no reason to hunt down the likes of us. I’m a custom-breaking woman. You’re a heretic and a child murderer.”
“It was an accident.”
She grinned. “I know,” she whispered. “Go tell them that.”
“Then what ..”
“Hell, maybe they just ain’t had a hanging in a while. It won’t make a bit of difference if they get their hands on us.”
She was right, of course. It didn’t matter what the truth was. What mattered to most folks was how things seemed to be, and there was nothing better to get them to set aside personal squabbles than a shared enemy.
And the thought gave me an idea.
First light had come upon us when they spotted the smoke.
“The barn’s afire!” one man shouted.
Not really, but we’d done everything we could to make it seem that way. We had fashioned a brazier from a battered washtub that seemed substantial enough to keep our fire from spreading. The wetted straw and dung we filled it with churned out smoke thick as a Far Banks fog.
It billowed from every crack and crevice in the barn, sent its stench upon the wind that blew toward the Furnace, demanding everyone’s attention. Nothing draws folks like a real good fire. The swarm of landowners and hired hands surged toward the smoke and heat, as if pulled by the same cord.
And not a single man stayed with the land-sailer.
Del and I waited at the far corner of the mercantile until the last of them ran out of sight.
“You get the chocks and the anchor,” she said. “I’ll set the sail in place.”
We scurried forward, each of us intent on our jobs. One good thing. We’d wheeled the skitter about before we left Windswept, so her nose aimed out into the Furnace. Dela freed the hatch and shimmied inside, as I hurried to the wheels to remove the chocks. When the last of the chocks popped free, I scrambled to free the anchor.
Of course, I should have done that first.
Before I could get to the anchor, the canvas sail snapped full before the wind. The skitter jerked forward, strained against the anchor rope, pulling it taut. Frantic to pull the anchor free, I set my weight against the drag, but it wouldn’t release its hold.
“There they are! ”It was one of the men at the barn.
Without thinking, I whispered words Eken had taught me and flung out my hand. He stopped as sudden as if he had run into a wall, and then flew backward across the hardpan. He stayed down. A gun barked at almost the same time and a bullet struck near my foot.
“Damn it!” Laird shouted. “Take them, don’t kill them!”
Something heavy hit the ground next to me. Dela’s leaf-bladed hunting knife.
“Cut the damned thing loose and get in here,” she shouted from the hatch.
I snatched up the knife, grabbed the line close to the anchor head and slashed. The skitter sprang forward. At first I figured the line would run through my grasp, that I would be left behind. But somehow I hung on, didn’t lose my footing, even though I stumbled along behind for a good one hundred strides.
My lungs were afire, my legs wobbled, by the time Dela set the brake to give me a chance to squirm through the open hatch.
My hands quivered as I dogged the cover. I shivered as I wormed my way into the cockpit. Dela made it better, though, turned her attention from the controls long enough to kiss me.
And as we kissed, the skitter rushed away from Windswept into the furious daytime heat of the Furnace.
Next: Sailing the Furnace