Episode 13: Stranger in the Woods
After gathering as many invitations as we could salvage and picking dresses for the ladies, we loaded Lloyd’s cart and started for home. Adrenaline still coursed through my veins as my mind replayed the carriage rounding the corner at top speed, nearly running us over. It had been hard to tell if the coach had gone out of control, or if the driver had purposely tried to run us down. Either way, it was almost worth it to see the mayor dusty and dirty, upset over his pale grey top hat that had been flattened by one of the rogue wagon’s wheels. His cheeks had flushed so fast, they might have burst if Mrs. Montgomery hadn’t called for his assistance. I chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” Pike asked as he pulled his horse up next to mine.
“I’m thinking how upset Mayor Grady was about his hat.”
Pike smiled. “There will be hell to pay when our good mayor gets his hands on that driver.”
“If he catches the driver. He ain’t exactly known for pursuing anything that doesn’t fill his pockets.”
“True, but if I know Grady, his pride won’t let this one go. Not after being bowled over in front of the likes of the Montgomerys.”
“Mmmhmm. Sweet Penelope.” I sighed, remembering the devilish glimmer in her eyes when she smiled at me.
My brother shook his head. “You start chasing the married ones, you’ll end up with a bullet in your chest.”
“An undesirable end for sure. Doesn’t keep me from thinking about it, though.” It’d be damn near impossible to forget that ruby red smile and the essence of lavender that rolled off her skin.
“You’re a sorry sight, you know that?” Pike clicked his tongue against his teeth and his horse trotted past mine, an act of subtle condescension that could only mean one thing—a race.
Before he had a chance to open up to full gallop, I whistled to grab his attention. Pike spun around, caught off guard.
“Not as sorry as you—when you get a face full of my dust.” I smiled, pulled up the reins, and slapped the backside of my horse. The mare lunged forward, darting around Pike’s steed, and hit full gallop. I flew by Lloyd and the horse-drawn cart.
“Some things never change.” He laughed heartily, a sound quick to fade behind me. “We’ll see you back at home!”
I glanced over my other shoulder, and Pike was hot on my heels, a pearly sneer plastered across his face. “You’re gonna get it, little brother,” he said as he pulled up beside me.
“Hiya!” I dug my heels into the side of my horse and hoped my next move would lose him. My steed shot forward, veering in front of Pike, and bolted into the shade of the wood.
“You’re crazy,” he yelled as he closed the gap between us.
We both laughed as we continued to plunge through the thick shadows of the woods. I hadn’t seen Pike laugh like that in some time. It reminded me of the many times we’d raced as boys, a memory of my childhood I never wanted to forget.
Suddenly, Pike pulled his horse to a stop. I slowed my mare and circled back to where Pike was dismounting. “Are you giving up?” I asked.
He waved his hand in a motion for me to keep it down as he left the trail and crept through the underbrush. The wind stilled and the rustle of leaves hushed. It fell all too quiet. A light flashed just ahead, as if a mirror had reflected the fleeting rays of the setting sun.
I followed him deeper into the forest. As we neared the source of the reflection, the outline of a coach frame appeared. “Hey, it’s that stupid contraption that almost bowled us over in town,” I said. “What’s it doing here?”
“Why don’t you yell some more and ask them?” Pike brought his finger to his lips. He pulled his hatchet from his holster, pushed a button, and opened a panel in the handle. He pressed a spring release and a miniature spyglass lifted from a hollow cavity. He brought the instrument to his eye and scanned the scene. “I don’t see anyone. But they can’t be far.”
I grabbed the device from his hand and looked for myself. “Let’s go check it out.”
As we crept through the woods toward the carriage, I was aware of every rustling leave and snapping twig. When we reached the edge of the clearing and rounded the side of the carriage, a campfire came into view.
“Looks like we’re just in time for din—” A loud metallic ping sounded as I stepped on a lever hidden under the leaves. Before I could warn Pike, a similar ping hitched behind me and at the same time my feet jerked out from under me. Within seconds, I hung upside down from a tree, its branches creaking as I swayed back and forth. My head bumped against a hard object, and when I spun around I was nose to nose with an upside-down Pike.
“Trapped like a couple of opossums,” I said.
The veins on Pike’s forehead throbbed, and his face was red from the blood rushing to his head. “After all our time at war, you still haven’t learned to watch your step.”
“You’re one to talk.” I jerked my torso and swung back and forth, trying to reach up and grab the noose tied around my ankle. “How are we gonna get out of this mess?”
“You don’t,” came a smooth female voice.
I pushed off of Pike to spin myself around and came face-to-face with a woman wearing men’s pants. She stepped toward us, her movement as fluid as the long black hair that flowed to her waist. Her sun-kissed skin contrasted the stark white shirt bound inside a lace-up leather corset. Goggles positioned as a headband held her hair out of soft cornflower eyes, their beauty rivaling Lucy’s.
“What are you doing on our property?” I asked, immediately regretting my demanding tone since I was in no condition to make her tell me.
She chuckled. “Ah, you must be the Albright boys. Not looking too all bright, if you ask me.” She gently pushed on my chest with her foot, making me swing into Pike.
My cheeks burned, first from anger, then from embarrassment. She toyed with us like a cat batting at a cornered mouse. I swatted at her leg, but she pulled away too fast. “D-D-Do you mind?”
“Look, Miss, we’re not going to hurt you,” Pike said in a level voice.
“I’m supposed to take your word for that?” The woman crossed her arms and leaned against the corner of the bronze carriage, a position that accented the curve of her hips.
“And why not?” I said. “We haven’t done anything wrong. You’re the one trespassing.”
“Give me a please, and I’ll think about it.” The way ‘please’ rolled off her tongue, wrapped in her smooth foreign accent, hypnotized me. The glimmer in her eyes told me she’d done it on purpose.
But Pike wasn’t impressed. “How ‘bout you cut us down, and we won’t fill you full of buckshot for trespassing, stringing us up, and almost running us over back in town earlier today.”
“Oh, that was you.” She smiled and her white teeth gleamed in the fading light.
I waited for an apology, but quickly realized that it was not coming.
“Very well then,” She reached behind her shoulder blades and pulled two sleek rectangular objects from a holster. She flipped her hands forward, expanding the frames into two large fans. The panels gleamed with gold and were etched with ornate scrolling patterns. Her hands shot forward and the blades slashed our ropes.
We fell to the ground in a tangled heap. Pike pushed me off of him and quickly stood up. I rolled to my side and removed the rope wrapped around my ankles.
The woman stepped into a fighting stance and held the metal blades over her head, no doubt ready to run us through if we made one wrong move. “Now don’t try anything funny.”
“Look, maybe we started off on the wrong foot. I’m Pike Albright.” He slowly picked up his hatchet from the grass and holstered it, then extended his hand. When she didn’t take it, he motioned to me. “And this is my brother, Al.”
I pushed myself up and brushed the dust from my pants. “Nice to meet you…” I trailed off, waiting for her to introduce herself.
She didn’t break her stance, but looked us over as if sizing us up. “Ana.”
“Ana,” I repeated whimsically. A name I’d never forget.
“Ana, what’s your business here?” Pike’s voice was demanding, more confident, now that he wasn’t hanging from a tree.
“I know your father.” She lowered her fans and turned toward the fire. “Well, my father knows him.”
“Is that so?” Pike watched her every move. “And just who is your father?”
“Diego Delgado.” Her dark eyebrows arched as if she was waiting for us to recognize the name.
“Never heard of him,” Pike said, first dismissing him as unimportant but following up quickly. “Wait, are you all the way up here from Mexico?”
“I have family there, yes, but we’ve been in New Orleans since I was a girl.” She walked over to the fire and gestured for us to sit down, pointing to a fallen log. “Hungry?”
I nodded and pushed past Pike. The air filled with a savory aroma, muted like cooked meat but full of spices. If she could cook half as good as she used her blades, I wasn’t going to say no.
“Why would someone from New Orleans be looking for our Pa?” Pike cautiously stepped around the fire and sat down beside me.
Ana dished me a small bowl, then handed some to Pike, holding his gaze as she spoke. “I have a message for him.”
I savored a bite of a full-flavored stew before speaking. “What sort of message?”
“The kind that’s only for your Pa.” Her eyes gleamed with a secret she wasn’t going to share with just anyone.
Pike tipped his head the side. “Then you might as well head back to Louisiana.”
A sly smile pulled at the corner of her lips. “You can’t stop me from speaking to him.”
“Don’t have to,” he said.
Her eyes darted to me and my gaze fell to the bowl in my hand. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Pike stood up and handed her a half-full bowl. “Our Pa’s dead. Come on, Al. We best be getting home.”
Her jaw dropped, but she quickly recovered as though she didn’t quite believe us.
I quickly drank my broth and returned the dish. “Thanks for the meal,” I said, following Pike in the direction of our horses. After a few steps, I turned around. “You should come with us. It ain’t right for you to be out here alone.”
“Don’t worry about me, I can handle myself.” She avoided my gaze and threw another log on the fire, sending sparks and cinders up into the air. “I certainly licked the likes of you two this evening.”
I smiled at her stubborn confidence. “Well, if you need anything, we are right over that hill.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine,” she said, but her gaze followed the direction to which I pointed. “Oh, and watch your step.”
We mounted the horses and started home. A cold breeze stirred in the undercarriage of the woods, reaching forward and chilling me with its fingertips. As our horses broke from the treeline, Albright Acres sprawled before us, the golds, reds, and purples of an ombre sunset fading over the roof of the main house.
My thoughts drifted back to Ana. “What is your secret?” As I whispered the words, the wind lifted them into the sky.
Stay tuned! Episode 14 posts Friday, April 3, 2015.