An Exciting Excerpt from ‘About-Face’
I have added one or two excerpts from my book, second in the Disfigured Series, but none of them happened to take place in America. This particular excerpt is at the beginning of Chapter Twenty-five, not long after Erik and Sylvie are brought together again after a separation of several months. It features one of the more heart-pounding adventures they experience. Think of Erik in the wild west (well, sort of wild).
Enjoy! If you have not yet read ‘About-Face’, I don’t think this will contain any spoilers.
‘And we were advancing, inexorably as the march of the seasons, toward a greater darkness, and even darker deeds.’
I was peering into a small oval mirror on one wall of our train compartment, trying to restore my disheveled coiffure, while Erik went in search of a porter to bring us some coffee and something to eat. As he returned, closing the door behind him, I sent him a shy smile.
“That was an interesting experience,” I said, pushing a hairpin into my coiled braid.
Erik regarded me with a raised eyebrow. “Interesting? Is that all it was?” He inquired with mock outrage.
“Well,” I explained, blushing, “I meant that the rocking movement of the train rather…” But I was not allowed to finish my sentence. I was forced to catch myself on the back of a seat as the train began to rapidly slow down. I looked questioningly at Erik.
“We seem to be stopping. Are we at the station already?” He went to a window, lifting the curtain to look outside.
“No, we are not. We do not appear to be anywhere near White Plains. This is odd; the first time I rode this train it did not stop except once to take on water and coal. But this is not where we stopped before.” Erik turned from the window, scowling. “I do not like this,” he muttered as he went to the compartment door. He almost lost his balance as the train came to a final, shuddering stop on the tracks. A strange, almost unnatural quiet descended. He shot a quick, apprehensive glance toward me.
“Stay here and lock this door after I leave. Do not open it until you know it is me.” He slipped out the door.
“But…” Even as I began to remonstrate, the door slammed shut behind him. I stared at it for a few seconds, bemused, then shook myself into action and hastened to lock it as requested. Once that was done, I went to peer cautiously out the window. I think I half-expected to see the train surrounded by wild Indians, but I knew I was being absurd. The train must have stopped due to something on the tracks up ahead, or perhaps some mechanical problem. Or at least, so I assured myself. But the longer Erik was gone, the more uneasy I became. Why was he gone so long?
Without really thinking of what I was doing, I began nervously gathering up my things and stuffing them into my small valise. I cannot say even today why I did that; I suppose it was just to have something useful to do with my hands. I was closing the clasp of my valise when the sudden, unexpected sound of a gunshot caused me to drop it with a small shriek. The sound had come from somewhere toward the front of the train. Was it really an Indian attack? Where was Erik?
The next sound I heard was rapid footfalls pounding toward our compartment from the next car ahead, almost instantly followed by insistent hammering on the door. My heart was in my throat until I heard a familiar voice.
“Open the door, Sylvie, and be quick about it!”
Relief washed through me; I rushed to the compartment door and flung it open. Erik flew inside, shutting and locking the door behind him.
“I heard a gunshot. What is happening?” I asked breathlessly.
“We have to leave the train, maintenant. Get my coat and my valise down. Hurry!” Even as he spoke, he was using all his strength to tear one of the bench seats off the floor. As I hastened to do his bidding, I saw him wedge the wooden seat back against the door to block it.
“Are we being attacked?” I asked, truly terrified now.
Finished with the door, Erik came to me and shrugged into his coat. I already had my valise in my hand, ready to go. He nodded approvingly.
“Good girl. Come, I’ll explain but we have no time to waste.” He pushed me toward the door at the back of the compartment, and just as we reached it, fists could be heard pounding on the other door. Someone shouted something I did not understand. I experienced a bizarre sense of déjà vu at the sound of banging on the door. Was this to be our fate: fleeing from narrow escapes? I certainly hoped we would escape!
Erik pulled me out of the train car, closing the door behind us. We were in a hot, cramped space between two cars, barely enclosed. He made for a half-door to one side that opened to the air, and beyond it could be seen open farmland, clusters of trees, distant barns. Erik leapt to the ground, ordered me to toss my valise down, and without further ado seized me around the waist and lifted me down to the rocky surface by the tracks.
A gunshot reverberated from inside our compartment, causing me to jump, and then a rending sound. Someone had shot off the lock to reach inside.
“Run!” Erik said in a low but urgent voice. We grabbed our things and dashed away from the train, directly into a field opposite. I followed him, too frightened to even look behind me, but every second I was afraid I would hear another shot, this time directed at us.
Erik made for a copse of tall trees, elms I think he said they were. But we did not stop there; we kept running, putting the trees between ourselves and the train. The air felt hot and thick, making breathing difficult. And I can assure you, Reader, that nothing is as difficult to do as is running with a valise in one hand and one’s skirts gathered in the other, trying not to trip and fall. Or hold up our progress, for our plight was desperate indeed. Fortunately, all the riding and walking I had done at home had got me in good condition, so I was able to keep up with Erik.
There was no time to talk, and we could not waste breath anyway. Pursuit was imminent, and it was becoming clear to me that this was no random attack: Erik and I were being targeted. I thought as I ran, gasping for breath, that there must be some truth in that old cliché, for fear did indeed give wings to my feet. I did not dare to glance behind us, for fear of what I might see.
From the copse of trees, Erik made for a line of green ahead of us and to one side. As we drew near it, I saw a narrow creek lined with willows and other shrubs; an excellent place to hide. He took my hand and guided me into a deep patch of willows and alders, their branches dipping low toward the softly flowing water. It was not a second too soon, for as we slipped into the underbrush I heard the sound of pounding hooves coming from the direction of the train.
We flattened ourselves down into a small depression reached by crawling under low-hanging brush. I was thankful for my bottle green travelling gown, for it was like camouflage. We could not remain concealed here for very long, but at least it gave us a chance to catch our breath.
Erik and I lay side by side, breathing hard, peering through the branches to catch a glimpse of our pursuers. Insects whined and buzzed endlessly in the humid air. I felt moisture collecting under my gown. A noise from the train caught my attention just then; smoke was puffing up from the stack and mechanical sounds could be heard. And then the train started moving again. As we watched in disbelief, it rolled away down the track, headed for the White Plains station. I thought of my trunk, my clothes, the portfolio of Erik’s drawings – all still on the train that was now picking up speed and vanishing in the distance. My jaunty hat and my lovely green jacket, all traveling away from me. We were abandoned to our fate.
“Why did they leave us like that?” I demanded in angry disbelief. “Why did they not try and help us?”
“I imagine having several guns pointed at them had something to do with it,” Erik murmured dryly.
“But what are we to do?” I swiveled my head to look at him.
As our eyes met, Erik managed a shrug, saying softly, “Do not worry, Sylvie. We have been in worse situations before.”
I felt a slightly hysterical laugh bubble up and forced it back.
“At least before, I knew why we were being pursued. But this is ridiculous.” I whispered with some asperity. “Who are these people?”
“I can hazard a guess, but there is no time to explain. Do you see over there across that field with the haystacks?” Erik pointed cautiously over his shoulder, across the small stream we lay near. I turned my head and saw, across the field, the outline of an old barn, dark brown and seeming to waver slightly in the hot summer air.
My eyes measured the distance and it appeared endless; to run out in the open and cross that space to reach the shelter of the barn filled me with fear. We would be seen, surely. As if to confirm this thought, four men on horseback could be glimpsed riding slowly toward the copse of elms. They were fanning out, studying the ground intently. And they all four carried guns.
“This is not really happening,” I murmured in a conversational tone. “I am having a strange dream.” Erik glanced at me, and his expression was grim.
“A nightmare, more like. Why is it that all Americans seem to carry guns? If I had my sword, or a length of rope…” he paused, watching the riders as they conducted their thorough search through the meadow and the trees. “But neither of those weapons can do any good against a gun. I have always disliked firearms.” He said it in such a self-righteous tone of voice. I repressed a retort, deciding to save it for later.
“Here, Sylvie, follow me,” he ordered, and began crawling through underbrush toward the edge of the stream. This was not particularly easy to do; my hat was on the train and my hair kept getting caught on twigs. Other parts of my anatomy kept getting caught on things, as well. But after a few awkward seconds we reached the little stream and came out of the bushes into a stand of willow, their narrow green and yellow leaves trailing in the water.
Keeping the thicket between us and our pursuers, Erik assisted me to cross the creek. The water was not cold, nor was it deep, but nothing could keep it out of my shoes. We splashed across and up the bank on the other side. Here we paused while Erik took stock of our situation. I stared across that open field in wide-eyed terror.
“They are still coming, damn them!” He muttered angrily. “We will have to run for it again. When I say go, make for that barn.”
I stared at him in mounting horror. “I…I can’t, Erik!” I whispered. I felt like a rabbit about to fly across a field with a hawk above me. It was paralyzing.
My husband grabbed me hard by my upper arms and shook me until my teeth rattled. “If you don’t run we will both be caught. It’s our only chance. Allons-y!” He swatted me sharply on my backside for emphasis. I picked up my skirts and did as he ordered. I ran. One of us, I thought wildly, must survive to return to Marie. One of us must get through this nightmare in broad daylight.
There were haystacks scattered seemingly at random in the field, and while I would not have thought of this, being too frightened to think straight, Erik naturally ran toward the closest one. In this manner we darted from hiding place to hiding place, always making toward the barn. To my eyes it never appeared to get any closer.
Erik peered cautiously around a haystack, saying, “They have reached the bushes; they have dismounted. They must be planning on searching them. They probably expect we are hiding there. Now is our chance, Sylvie.”
Snatching up my valise as well as his own, he seized my free hand and we tore across the remaining open space toward the barn. Its dark shadow fell across us before we actually reached it, as though it were helping to conceal us from our pursuers. Stumbling inside through a wide opening on to a straw strewn wooden plank floor, I could scarcely believe we had actually got here safely. Angels must have been watching over us.
I leaned against the wall of the barn beside the door; I think if it were not there to support me, I would have simply sunk to the floor. I was breathing hard, not just from exertion, but from fear. I watched Erik somewhat blankly as he made a hasty reconnoiter of the interior of the barn, and then came to pull the door shut. The door ran on a rusty track but went across the opening well enough. There was not, unfortunately, any way to lock it once closed.
He turned to me then, his face concerned. “Are you all right, Sylvie?” I could only nod by way of reply, for I was still out of breath. As my eyes grew accustomed to the shadowy barn, I could see it appeared long unused. There was some old hay in a corner, and a few farming implements, including an old plow. Old, stiff leather harnesses and bits of farming gear hung from nails on the walls. I was looking for something in all the detritus that would suffice as a weapon. My eyes came to rest on a very large horseshoe, and I pushed determinedly away from the wall and went across to lift it down from its nail. I hefted it in my hand; it was heavy, and would make an admirable cudgel.
Erik, watching me, smiled wryly. “No wonder I love you, Sylvie,” he said. “That is a good idea; I saw no farmhouse within sight, so it is likely they will make for this barn when they see we are not in the thicket. Let me see…” he began browsing among the flotsam of the barn, and soon picked up a coil of rope. He uncoiled it, stretched it, and busied himself tying a strange knot. I realized I was watching him prepare a Punjab Lasso, something I had never seen him do before. It was his deadly preferred method for dispatching an enemy. He sent me an abashed look.
“Just in case, Sylvie.” He said. It was four against two, I thought darkly, and they had guns. Would he even get the chance to use the lasso? However, I reminded myself, one of the two was Erik, and he was never to be underestimated. He had been underestimated once before, and look how that turned out.
“Who do you think they are, Erik?” I asked, watching as he came to the door. The only light in the old barn came from a square opening near the top, and from several missing boards. But there was enough light for me to see him grimace at my question.
“I admit I was not anticipating anything like this,” he admitted contritely. “I thought if something were to happen, it would be while we were still in New York. I thought Edythe might still be trying to get you out of the way.” He was looking down, his expression taut. Raising his head, he looked directly at me, his pale blue eyes troubled.
“What I think…sacre! I cannot believe I am saying this. She knows that we are on our way to White Plains, and that as soon as Edward arrives, we will make her conduct and actions against us known to him. She will, as we know, take advantage of any circumstance that works in her favor. We saw that when she pushed you in front of the carriage. I think she has decided to put an end to both of us by hiring some local gunmen. It would look like a random attack; no one would connect those men to Edythe Arlington, who is no doubt still in New York.”
I nodded in agreement; everything he said made perfect sense to me. And there was something else Erik had not thought of…perhaps an even stronger motive.
“You know, I have no doubt that when you rejected her advances the other night, she turned against you then. It may be a matter of…if she cannot have you, no one can.”
He stared at me aghast. “What? That is ridiculous. It is not as though I were some great prize to be won.” I sighed. Erik could never, I knew, see himself as a desirable man because of all those years of rejection he suffered. He seemed to think that I was the only woman in the world who could actually want him.
“Don’t you think it is possible,” I said carefully, “that Edythe, like myself, could see beyond your face to the man beneath? I see nothing strange about her finding you attractive, and we know that she is not the woman to let anything stand in the way of her getting what she desires.”
“It is as if some divine retribution was being brought home to me,” he muttered, his eyes turning haunted and sad. “Everything I did to Christine is being visited on me. Edythe Arlington must be a female version of…of the Phantom.”
“Not exactly, my love. You would never have stooped to murdering Christine if she refused to remain with you.” I replied dryly.
“Of course not!” he exclaimed, looking shocked.
“I believe the woman is deranged, personally. The very act of your rejecting her affections makes her wild with the desire for revenge. She needs to be put away somewhere, so that she cannot do any further harm.”
“I hope her father will see it that way. But he is completely taken in by her I believe.” While we conversed in low voices, Erik had kept one eye on a crack in the barn door. Suddenly he stiffened, and made an instinctive move with his arm to hold me back. They were coming.
There was a peculiar combination of emotions in me at that moment. Foremost was fear, for myself and for Erik. I forced away the hideous thought that he might be killed before my eyes. It was too overwhelming to contemplate. The other emotion was pure, hot fury. If I had Edythe Arlington in front of me at this moment I would surely scratch her eyes out. I hated her, and what she had done to us.
I did not harbor any illusions about my marriage: our happiness was hard-won, our small family still fragile. For all the good days, there had been bad days too. Erik had so much to learn about life and love, but it had all been worth it, for we had achieved what might be considered a miracle. And now, thanks to that dreadful, evil witch, it could all be snatched away.
My eyes went to Erik. No words were spoken between us; it was as if we communicated without the need for words. That is, until he motioned for me to stand behind him, far away from the barn door. He went to stand in the middle of the big room, and all I could think was that he was painting a target on his chest. He shrugged out of his coat and tossed it aside, the coil of rope lying at his feet. I was not going to cower behind him; I was going to fight with him!
I could see at once that my short stature would put me at a disadvantage, so I glanced around rapidly, until I spotted a three legged wooden stool nearby. Snatching it up, I placed it to one side of the door and stood on it, grasping my horseshoe firmly.
“What are you doing, Sylvie?” Erik demanded, sounding angry. “Come here and do as I say.” I did not spare him a glance.
“I will not. You need my help.” I said firmly.
“Damn you, Sylvie! I cannot protect you there! You are my wife; do as I command you! Come here before they are upon us.”
“No.” I answered pertly, glaring back at him. There was a taut silence. When my husband spoke again, his voice was like ice.
“If we manage to survive this, I am going to wring your neck, you little…”
I blew him a kiss.
“Je t’aime,” I mouthed to him silently. Flattening myself against the rough wood, I held my breath and waited, the shadows helping to hide me.
I did not hear the stealthy footfalls until the first gunman was almost at the door. Soft dirt and scraps of hay muffled the sound of his boots. A shadow fell across the slight crack in the doorway. My heart was pounding so hard I was certain the man must hear it. Was he alone? The silence was maddening.
After a few tense seconds a hand appeared, and the barn door was forced open with a rusty squawk of protest. A rectangle of sunshine fell upon Erik and illuminated him where he stood, surrounded by swirling, sparkling dust motes. In spite of his deceptively relaxed posture, he was as beautiful as a god, or an avenging angel. He raised his hands in the air in a time-honored gesture of surrender.
The gunman muttered something in English that I did not understand and came cautiously into the barn, his eyes riveted to Erik. His pistol was pointed straight at Erik’s chest. Before he could take another step, however, I brought the heavy horseshoe down on the top of his bare head. I have never had an opportunity to hit someone on the head (although I once wanted to, very much); I had no idea how much strength ought to go into the blow. Apparently it was sufficient.
Erik had already made a dive to the floor, anticipating that the ruffian might fire his gun as he went down under the blow. Instead, he seemed to relax slowly, the gun slipping from lax fingers, and he fell to the floor in a heap. His head was bleeding profusely, and I was sure I must have killed him.
While I stood precariously balanced on my stool, staring in shocked silence at the prostrate body on the floor, Erik sprang into instant action. He was at the door before I could draw a breath, stealthily looking out to see if another gunman was there. Then he turned back to the one on the floor. Kneeling by the body, he rapidly tied the man’s hands behind his back with a piece of rope. He picked up the pistol and held it carefully, examining it with a slight frown.
“Is he…he isn’t dead, is he?” I asked tremulously. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have understood that the mere fact of Erik’s tying him up meant he was still alive. Erik saw that I was still staring at my vanquished foe, and laughed ruefully.
“No, more’s the pity. He is only unconscious. But another one cannot be far behind.” He came to stand before me, and because I was on the stool, we were face to face. “That was well done, Sylvie,” he said, and pressed a hard kiss on my mouth. “But I am still going to throttle you.” His eyes held a suspicious glow in them, one that I had seen before.
“You are enjoying this!” I exclaimed accusingly.
Not bothering to deny it, he said cheerfully, “The next one is mine.”
“Have you ever actually fired one of those things?” I asked, doubtfully eying the way he was brandishing his newly acquired weapon.
“No, but how hard could it be? You just point it in the right direction and pull the trigger.” As he spoke he pointed the pistol toward the back of the barn. There followed a deafening blast and a spurt of flame seemed to shoot out from the barrel of the pistol.
The next thing I knew, I was on the floor of the barn, pressing my hands to my ringing ears. Erik dropped the pistol and knelt beside me, his face as white as paper. He ran frantic hands over me, apparently searching for a wound.
“Sylvie…Sylvie, did I hit you? Are you all right?”
I pushed his hands away angrily. “Damn you, Erik!” I exclaimed furiously. “Not only have you ruptured my eardrum, but now the rest of those ruffians know exactly where we are!”
Erik sat back on his heels. “I believe that is the first time you have ever sworn at me,” he said bemusedly.
“And it will probably be the last time, if those men have their way. Help me up – and please put that thing away first.” He did so, with alacrity.
I was right, bien sûr, for the rest of the hired gunmen were soon upon us. I had barely time enough to climb back on my stool, my ears still ringing from the loud gunshot. Erik pulled the body of the unconscious ruffian across the entry to the barn and sure enough, the first man in the door tripped over the prostrate body and crashed headlong onto the floor. Erik promptly brought the butt of the pistol down on the back of his head, and that was that. Now there were only two left. A flare of hope kindled in my breast. Perhaps we would win the day after all!
But alas! My hope was short-lived, for the other two burst through the door only a second or two later, guns at the ready. They exclaimed at the sight of their two comrades unconscious on the floor, and then one turned and caught sight of me by the door. His eyes went wide.
There was no time to hit him with my trusty horseshoe before I was seized in a hard grip. I caught a glimpse of an unkempt beard, a red neckerchief, and two mean-looking eyes as the man bore me to the floor of the barn. The horseshoe was forced roughly from my hand. The man glanced over his shoulder at the other ruffian and said something I could not understand, sounding excited. Then before I knew what was happening, he was on top of me. He gripped the bodice of my gown in both hands and pulled hard. I heard the fabric tear, and I screamed.
“Well, here’s a nice little piece!” Erik heard the gunman yell eagerly to his friend. “Kill that one and we can have some fun with her.”
He saw Sylvie being seized and shoved to the floor, where she fell in a tumble of skirts. The back of her head hit the wood floor with a painful thump. He saw a strange man cover his wife’s body with his own, pinning her small, struggling form to the floor, heard the rip of fabric. And then he heard nothing else at all, except a terrible roaring sound in his ears. The world turned blood red.