Art by Mark Evan Walker
by Charlaine Harris
Anne loved hunting season. When she’d begun her new life under a new name, she had established her legend: She’d been brought up to be at home in the woods. She and her sister had gone hunting with their father until Anne had joined the army. After she’d gotten out, Anne and her husband had hunted together every deer season, until his untimely death on the ski slopes.
A large percentage of that was fiction. Anne had never had a sister, had never known her father (or mother, for that matter), and she had never been married. It was true she’d been in the army. It was also true she’d always enjoyed hunting and was a very good shot.
No one in Colleton County needed to know that Anne was even better at close combat.
Today, the second weekend in hunting season, Anne DeWitt, Travis High principal, was having a very good day. Here she was, making her way through the woods, in glorious crisp weather . . . comfortable in her camo and boots, no makeup, her hair matted down by a knit cap. Anne loved being on her own with a rifle, a knife, and a gun. Just like old times.
Anne stepped on a stick, and the sharp snap made her frown. Her tracking skills were rusty. Chiding herself, she began to move from tree to tree with very little sound, despite the fallen leaves and branches.
She heard a shot from a distance, probably at least a mile. Some other hunter was having a successful day. The farmers on this road let hunters buy shares in the Denby Road woods. Only so many guns per day were allowed on the property, though that rule wasn’t always kept. Anne herself was not on the list for today.
A human sound stopped Anne in her tracks. She’d been preparing to step into the clearing in front of her. It formed a shallow bowl. She heard noises that told her she was not alone: a grunt, a scuffle of leaves, a curse. She froze in place, just concealed by the thicket.
That was how Anne came to see the murder.
A tall man with red hair and a short beard was wrestling on the ground with another man, a smaller man with clipped gray hair. This was not a friendly wrestling match, nor a sexual one, but a fight to the death.
Anne debated intervening. Preventing a murder would make good press. Anne was always looking for ways to elevate Travis High. On the other hand, press would also make her conspicuous. She’d been in the newspaper exactly twice since she’d moved to Travis. The first time, Anne’s headshot had accompanied the story of her moving up from assistant principal to principal, following the “tragic death” of her predecessor.
The second time Anne’s picture was in the paper, she’d been part of the crowd cheering the division victory of the Travis High baseball team, coached by Holt Halsey. He was much more to Anne than the baseball coach.
Anne decided against stepping into the clearing. It was best to avoid publicity. Sliding off her hunter-orange vest, Anne stuffed it inside her camo jacket. She drew her knife. Never hurt to be ready. READ MORE
Art by Jason Eckhardt
by Doug Allyn
“Ma?” Jason called quietly down from the hayloft. “Riders coming. Cavalry.”
“Blue or grey?” Polly asked, forking another hill of dried manure into the wooden barrow. Fertilizer for their sparse garden.
“Union patrol,” Jason said. “Eight regulars, and a scout at the rear. Maybe that Meachum bastard.” Ten years old, the boy could rank Union and Reb troops at two hundred yards, reel off the weapons in their scabbards, powder or cartridge. But there was something uneasy in his tone. . . .
“One officer,” the boy continued. “That captain who was here before. The sickly one. His same old Dutchy sergeant with him. But, um—they got prisoners, Ma. Three men afoot, eatin’ dust at the rear, with nooses around their necks.”
Polly’s heart froze, cold as a rock in a riverbed. “Your pa? Is he among ’em?”
“I—can’t be sure, ma’am. Too much road dust. Don’t believe so, though. They’re in butternut brown, and Pa wouldn’t—nah. It ain’t him. I never seen these three.”
Polly didn’t doubt her son for a moment. Jason already knew too much of war, as did every other child in southern Missouri.
Setting her pitchfork aside, she stepped to the open barn door, shading her eyes as she peered down the road.
Federals. Of a sort. Only one rider was in full uniform, the Union cavalry captain, tall, hollow-eyed, and gaunt as a vulture, with a skimpy goatee. His shoulders were slumped under his cloak, though the autumn afternoon wasn’t cold.
His troops were militia irregulars, dressed in a mix of work clothes and uniform coats or pants. Farmers and tradesmen, likely from Jeff City. Definitely Union men. Their mounts looked sleek and well fed. So did the troopers. She’d heard Bedford Forrest’s men were slaughtering their horses for food.
The riders looked her over as they filed into the yard. A farm wife, square as a stump in a man’s flannel shirt, canvas trousers, and pebble-leg boots. Handsome once, perhaps, but careworn now, her auburn hair wild and awry in the October wind, her hands reddened and rough from field work.
Polly scanned the prisoners’ faces, but Jason was right, none was familiar. They were a sorry lot, their uniforms and faces caked with road dust from trailing the horses—damn.
Aaron Meachum was with them, slouch hat tilted down over his eyes, grizzled cheek distorted by a plug of chaw. Riding a one-eyed claybank stud, meaner than its master, folks said. Born to trouble, both of them.
Casually, Polly picked up the coach shotgun she kept readily at hand and stepped out of the doorway with the gun cradled in her arms.
The riders pulled up in a semicircle, facing her.
“Good day to you, Mrs. McKee,” their leader said softly, touching his hat brim. “I am Captain Charles Gillaume, of the Eighth Missouri—”
“I remember you, Captain.”
“And I you, ma’am. As I recall, our last visit did you no injury, and yet you greet us armed?” He nodded at her weapon. “Not even a pretense of civility, ma’am?” READ MORE