March 11, 1919
The word ripped through Jace Denby’s
mind as he bridled the fastest horse in the Rumford stable. Minutes
from now, his sister Ruby would be telephoning the police. They would
arrive to find Hollis Rumford’s body sprawled in a bloody pool on the
bedroom floor. When they discovered Jace’s abandoned Packard in the
drive and his muddy boot prints on the carpet, they’d be after him
like a pack of bloodhounds.
The roads would be blocked. His best
chance of a clean getaway depended on catching the midnight train. If
he could scramble aboard unseen, leaving the horse to find its way
home, he’d be well into Kansas by morning.
The Smith and Wesson .38 revolver
lay cold and heavy beneath his vest. Hollis had died with three bullet
holes through his chest. Jace could only wish the shots had hit lower.
For what the bastard had done to Ruby, he deserved to hurt a spell
before he expired.
Springing into the saddle, Jace dug
his heels into the horse’s flanks. They rocketed out of the stable on
a beeline across the wooded fields. By now the westbound freight would
be pulling out of town. When it slowed down for the Wilson’s Creek
Bridge, he’d have one chance to leap aboard—but only if he could get
there in time. Otherwise, he’d be headed for Kansas on a prize
thoroughbred stud. Not that it mattered. If the law caught up with
him, he’d most likely be hanged for murder, not horse thievery.
The midnight wind was bitter, the
moon a pale scimitar veiled by tattered clouds. Behind him, Rumford’s
grand plantation-style house rose out of the flatland, growing smaller
with distance. Jace thought of his comfortable apartment in town—gone
like everything else he owned. If he went back for so much as a
toothbrush the police would close in, and he would finish his life at
the end of a rope. He had no choice but to run and keep running.
The train whistle, still faint,
echoed across the sleeping countryside. How would it feel, riding the
rails like a common hobo? Jace wondered. With degrees in geology and
engineering, he’d earned good money as a drilling expert. A few weeks
ago he’d taken the train to St. Louis to consult with an oil firm.
Traveling first class, he’d enjoyed prime rib, braised potatoes and
good California wine in the dining car. Now, with less than fifty
dollars in his pocket, he’d be learning a whole new set of survival
But at least Ruby and her three
little girls would be all right. Hollis Rumford had been considered a
fine catch when she’d married him ten years ago. Heir to a farm
equipment company, he’d been as charming as he was handsome. But his
infidelity, drunkenness and abuse had made Ruby’s life a living hell.
Jace had seen the ugly bruises. He had dried his sister’s tears. Lord
help him, he wasn’t the least bit sorry Hollis was dead.
Now Ruby would be a respectable
widow with a fine house and plenty of money. After a proper mourning
period, she’d be free to find a new husband—a decent man, God willing,
who’d treat her well and be a good father to her girls.
That had to be worth something,
The train whistle screamed through
the darkness. Jace pressed forward in the saddle, cursing as he lashed
the horse with the reins. On the far side of the field, the headlamp
glowed like a great yellow eye as the engine raced toward the bridge.
A ghostly plume of steam trailed from the stack.
He wasn’t going to make it.
Even with Hollis’s prize
thoroughbred galloping beneath him, Jace knew there was no way he
could beat the train to the crossing. But something drove him on.
Maybe it was the madness of what had happened tonight—what he’d seen
and done and all it implied. Or maybe he was just in shock. The rhythm
of hoof beats pounded through his body. The moon blurred. The wind
moaned in his ears.
By the time he neared the bridge,
the engine had reached the far side of the creek and picked up speed.
Boxcars and flatcars rattled along behind it, going fast, too fast.
Could he still do it? Could he fling himself out of the saddle and
make the leap? Catch something and hold on?
Would it matter if he died trying?
The whistle shrilled a deafening
blast. With a snort of terror, the horse bolted away. Jace clung to
the saddle, grinding back on the reins as they see-sawed across the
It took him mere seconds to bring
the animal under control. By then the train was gone.
The whistle faded into the night.
The moon shone down on a field of brittle grass, silvering each blade.
Exhausted, Jace eased out of the saddle and dropped to the ground.
Gathering up the reins, he led the spent horse onto the wagon road
that forded the creek. He could only hope to get clear of open country
before the dogs were brought out to follow his trail.
Yesterday he’d had his life planned
out—a lucrative career, money in the bank, marriage to the governor’s
niece and after that, maybe a try at politics. With the right backing,
he might’ve risen all the way to the Missouri statehouse, or even to
the U.S. Congress.
Ruby’s frantic telephone call had
changed those plans forever. Now only two things mattered—staying
alive and staying free.
The rest was best forgotten.