Author Elizabeth Lane
"The Horseman's Bride"
by Elizabeth Lane
Excerpt from "The Horseman's Bride"
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 skills.
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, didn’t it?
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 open ground.
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.