by: Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)
Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. Thats right, this is an uber story. Its also a sequel to my novel, Retribution, which, in turn is a sequel to my novel Redemption. (Thats right! Its a trilogy!) You really will want to read those first before tackling this one. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.
Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. And quite a lot of each, to be truthful. Were dealing with a bunch of ex-cons and assorted other nasty type people here.
Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, theres that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love, between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not avoid anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Dedication: Well, its that time again, to thank everyone who made the writing of this work a pleasure. Its a bit sad, as well, since this will likely be the last we hear of Ice and Angel, but heck, its been a fun ride, huh? So, deep debts of gratitude go out from me to the following people: Carol "youd just better have a happy ending!" Stephens; Elizabeth "Four" Baldwin, Linda "Lola" Lynch, Lisa "Sulli" Sullivan, and the rest of the Angry Beavers; Judi "you just better have a happy ending part deux" Mair, Mary "is the Pope Catholic" D, Candace "Theodyke" Chellew, the members of my SwordnQuil list for their wonderful support and feedback, my dogs Kricket and Pudderbear, and a host of other people Im going to kick myself in the morning for not mentioning. Thanks guys!!!
Feedback: As always, is most welcome. It not only makes this job of writing (which is really a love) much easier, it also makes me better at it. And that is my goal. To become the best writer I can be. If the spirit moves you, you may reach me atSwordnQuil@aol.com with any questions, concerns or comments.
Final Disclaimer: As with my previous two novels, this story will be posted in blocks of thirty or so pages per night. It is fully completed, down to the last punctuation mark, so I wont leave you hanging. J
The next several days passed quickly and, Ill be the first to admit, almost without notice, wrapped up as I was in a haze of sweet memories. After learning of Montanas decision to allow Rio to stay on, albeit without her membership in the Amazons, part of me wanted very much to finally clear the air with my one-time nemesis. Every time I thought to approach her, however, Pony or Critter would sweep down and give the poor woman yet another back-breaking chore to accomplish.
Still, on the few occasions our eyes chanced to meet, her expression was one of such supreme sorrow and regret that I felt my heart going out to her in a way it had never done for the people who had tormented me in the past. So I made myself a firm promise that we would get together and talk. Soon.
Early one afternoon, as I was making my way from the house to the stables, a bit of commotion stirred the women walking the grounds, and when I turned around to look, a dusty pickup was pulling the last several yards into the driveway.
As soon as it stopped, an attractive young womanblonde, with a California tan and a beaming smilehopped down from the cab. Seemingly from nowhere, Cowgirl blew by me and, with a loud whoop of joy, leapt into the womans arms, pinning her against the truck and melding their lips together in a kiss which sent the already warm temperature up another ten degrees.
"Cheeto," came Montanas voice from behind my right shoulder.
Turning my head, I looked at her, a question in my eyes.
"Dont ask," she replied, smirking.
"Probably best that I dont," I agreed.
After a very long, heated moment, the strangely-named Amazonat least I assumed she was an Amazon, though her parents could well have been flower children with a fondness for Frito-Lay products for all I knewreleased Cowgirl, grinned broadly, and waved to the rest of us.
Then, walking over to the passengers side of the truck, Cheeto opened the door and helped a young woman exit the cab, holding the womans arm until her feet gingerly came into contact with the ground.
A gasp went through the small crowd of onlookers as the young woman looked up, tucking a length of light brown hair behind one ear and smiling shyly at the gathered women.
I heard my own gasp join the rest as I saw the tragically marred beauty of the woman before me. Dark eyes peered out through swollen, blackened flesh. Her cheeks were puffed out to what I believed to be at least twice their normal size, the left one sporting a knot the size of a cue ball. Ugly black bruising stained the skin of her jaws and neck, where it disappeared beneath the collar of her shirt.
"Bastard." The snarled epithet came from somewhere behind me, and I could feel the crowds anger radiate through the yard.
The young woman dropped her gaze, her hand wandering, birdlike, to her throat. If it werent for the horrific bruising which covered her face like some demons patchwork quilt, Im sure her blush would have been readily seen.
From beside me, a woman stepped forward, taking the stranger into a tender embrace. As if breaking a dam, others came forward, and still others, until the woman was surrounded by a circle of support.
"Her name is Nia," Montana explained, low voiced, as I looked on, my jaw hanging agape. "Unfortunately, shes an all too frequent visitor to Akalan."
"Who did this to her?"
"Oh no," I half-moaned, half-whispered as my mind was suddenly deluged with scenes I spent long years trying to forget. Scenes of Peter standing over me, teeth clenched in an animals snarl, eyes bulging, hands tightly fistedwaiting to lash out . . .waiting . . .waiting . . .waiting.
I closed my eyes against the strength of those images, then opened them quickly when the small group of women brushed by me, Nia safely ensconced between them.
"Are you alright, Angel?" Montanas voice was soft with concern.
I turned a weak smile toward her. "Yeah. Just dealing with some memories."
She nodded sagely, but remained quiet.
"You said shes been here before?"
"Many times, yes." Now her voice held a note of deep sadness.
"The same man . . . ?"
"So why does . . . ." But I trailed off, the question unfinished. It was the same question Id asked myself a million or more times in my own life, and one for which there was no ready answer. Did she feel trapped, as I had, with nowhere to turn? Did she feel somehow deserving of his fists, his fury? Did she believe his tearful recriminations, his promises to do better, his pleas for just one more chance to show his love?
Id believed each and every one of those things in my own marriage. And though it shames me now to admit such things, back then, it seemed my only chance for survival. The woman I am now would never, I hope, accept the lies nor cower before the cruelties, but the woman I was then felt she had no choice in the matter.
Hindsight is, as is often said, viewed through perfect vision.
After a brief squeeze to my shoulder, Montana left me alone with my thoughts.
Nighttime came quickly and, as I was settling down for some well-earned rest, a soft knock came to my door. "Cmon in."
The door opened slowly, and Nia peeked in, freezing as soon as she saw me. "Oh. Im sorry. Youre getting ready to sleep. Ill just . . . ."
"No, thats alright," I replied, hastening to sit up. "Please. Come in."
"Are you sure?"
My heart breaking at her timidity, I gave her my brightest smile. "Sure Im sure." Pulling my arm from beneath the blankets, I patted the bed. "Make yourself comfortable."
"I . . .um . . .just came to see if I could borrow some toothpaste. I . . .dont have any and I . . . kinda saw your light on under the door."
"Help yourself," I replied, gesturing to my toiletries laid out neatly on the dresser-top.
With the bearing of a beaten dog, she made her way over to the dresser, retrieved the requested item, and after looking at me for another long, assessing moment, finally sat down gingerly on the bed, as if expecting me to kick her off at any second..
"I dont think weve been properly introduced. Im Angel."
Keeping my smile as bright and friendly as possible, I slowly extended my hand, watching as wary eyes took the gesture in. After a moment, she wiped her own hand off on her pants and extended it to meet mine. I began to clasp it gently, then stopped, looking down.
Only by the grace of some beneficent god was I able to keep the gasp in my throat. Though a woman I knew to be younger than myself by at least two years, her hand had the look of a crippled octogenarian beset with a horrible case of arthritis.
I knew without asking, however, that no disease laid its touch on those once supple fingers. Rather, they were deliberately broken and then refused treatment, left to heal as best they could. The end result was a crooked tangle of swollen joints only vaguely resembling the hand it used to be.
Noticing my starehow could she not?Nia smiled hesitantly, and retrieved her hand. "I . . .got it stuck in a . . . ."
"Dont," I whispered, on the verge of tears. "Please."
"Dont what?" she asked, her expression the very picture of innocence. An innocence I wasnt even close to buying.
"Dont lie. Not here. Not to me. Please."
"But, Im . . . ."
I watched as her shoulders slumped and her head bowed. "Maybe I should just go."
"Is that what you want to do?"
She looked at me for a long, silent moment. "No. Not really."
I smiled again. "Then stay."
Her smile was tiny, but it reached the dark of her eyes. "Alright. Thank you."
We sat in silence for a moment as I cast about for a conversation opener. "So . . .have you settled in ok?"
The smile broadened. "Yeah. The Amazons are so nice. They always make me feel at home here." She looked down at the bedspread, tracing an abstract pattern on its surface. "And safe, too." Then she looked back up at me. "Youre one, arent you? I think I remember them talking about you the last time I was here."
"Good things, I hope."
"Oh yeah. Very good things."
I grinned. "Guilty as charged. So to speak."
Her hand went up to tuck a strand of hair behind her eara nervous gesture that I well recognized, having done the same thing a million or so times myself. "If you dont mind my asking, what did . . . ?"
"I killed my husband."
Amazing how I could state that without any inflection in my voice whatsoever.
"You k . . . . For money?"
I caught myself laughing. "Not quite. We didnt have two nickels to rub together between us."
Her eyes were round within their swollen, black mask. "Then why?"
Could I speak of this thing aloud? Could I let it see the light of day in a way it never had before? Even with Ice, I had never spoken of it. It was something which was intuitively known, resting comfortably between us, yet not needing to be explored. A pink and purple elephant which grew smaller with each passing year.
In the end, however, I didnt seem to have much choice in the matter. It was almost as if fate had decreed that I save my story for someone who really needed to hear it. And it appeared that person was Nia.
"He was raping me at the time," I replied in a voice I scarcely credited as my own.
"But . . .thats impossible! You were married!"
Though a thousand sharp retorts entered into my mind, I found I couldnt utter even one. Not to a woman who had endured just as much as I had, and probably even more. "Rape is rape, Nia," I said, in the softest tone I could manage. "It really doesnt matter whos doing it at the time."
"But how . . . ?"
I shrugged. "He wanted something I wouldnt give him. So he took it." My gaze turned inward, viewing a movie meant for my eyes only. My arms came up to cross my chest, my hands gripping my shoulders in a hug of solace against the memories. "I didnt mean to kill him. I just wanted him to stop. But . . . ." Tears threatened, but I fought them back, heaving a great sigh and letting it go. "He just wouldnt listen."
"What happened?" Her voice was timid, unsure, delicate almost.
The movie continued to play, drawing me back to that night with vivid clarity. The sounds were there. The sights. The scents of alcohol and cigarettes. "I begged him . . .god . . .over and over . . .begged him to please stop . . .please stop hurting me. He wouldnt listen." I took in another deep breath, still fighting tears of anger and anguish, trapped in the past as surely as a rabbit in a snare. "A bat . . . . I kept a bat by the side of the bed. He worked nights, and I was . . .afraid. Afraid that someone would break in and . . .do exactly what he was doing to me. I didnt think. I couldnt. . . . I just reached out and grabbed it. And hit him. To make him stop, you know?" I felt my fists clench at the bed linen, wadding it up tight against palms wet with sweat. "And it worked. He stopped. He just . . .slumped down on top of me."
The tears fell, hot and scalding down my cheeks. I lifted a hand, brushing against them almost absently. "I remember not being able to breathe. So I just . . .pushed . . .him away from me. I remember him rolling off, like a rag-doll, almost. And I realized, when I looked down at him, that Id done more than just hurt him."
I looked up at her, wishing with all my heart, mind and soul that the eyes I was seeking out were a pale blue fire instead of the deep, somber brown I was actually seeing.
"Id killed him."
"No," she whispered.
"Yes. He was my husband, and I killed him."
The look in her eyes changed then, and to my horror, I saw the tiniest spark of speculation brighten their somber depths.
"No," I said, reaching out and grasping her wrist firmly. "No. Thats not even something to consider, Nia. Take it from me. It was the worst mistake Ive ever made in my life."
The speculative gleam remained, though she tried her hardest to eclipse it with a look of practiced innocence. "There isnt anything to consider. Richard loves me. Hed never do something like that to me."
I met her stare, suddenly feeling old beyond my years. My hand floated up to her cheek, pausing when she flinched away. "Love doesnt hurt, Nia. Not like that."
It was as if my words had drawn a veil across her eyes. She stiffened, then pulled away from me, as if I had somehow become suddenly dangerous; a thing to be feared.
And perhaps, in a very important way, I had.
"I think Ill . . .go back to my room now. Its been a long day and Im really tired. Thanks for letting me borrow this," she said, standing and waving the toothpaste tube. "Ill get it back to you in the morning."
Like a seasoned general who knows that losing a battle just might mean winning the war, I backed down and gave her a smile and a nod. "Youre welcome. Thanks for coming by to talk. Its good to meet you."
Her smile became a bit shyer, a bit more genuine. "Its good to meet you too. Goodnight."
Though the house was still and quiet, I spent the night wrapped up in a misery of memories, wishing for nothing so much as a pair of strong, loving arms to hold me close and chase away the demons of the darkness.
The days marched on in their interminable fashion; tin soldiers with no watch-spring to wind them down. Where I thought our night-time conversation would make Nia wary of my company, she seemed, instead, to seek me out, albeit tentatively, much like a child who wants desperately to jump from the high dive, yet can only manage a walk to the very edge before turning and scampering away in fright.
We talked of many things. Her childhood, which was very much like my own, yet very much different as well. Her marriage and life with Richard, the man she called her husband when words like "jailer" and "keeper" would have been much more appropriate. To my mind, anyway. Her hopes and dreams, which seemed to all revolve around this man in one way or another.
In many ways, being with Nia saddened me. It was so hard seeing someone in such a high state of denial, especially when I had been in much the same state earlier in my life. In other ways, though, it showed me just how far Id come from the woman I used to be all those years ago.
My chores at the ranch kept me busy, and almost before I realized it, another Thanksgiving was nigh. Living on Native American land with a group of women of many different nationalities changed the "flavor" of the holiday, to be sure, but because each and every one of us had something to be thankful for, the festivities went full steam ahead.
I woke up that morning feeling rather out of sorts. I wasnt exactly sure why until an offhand mention by Corinne brought home the differences between this Thanksgiving and the last, the first one I had prepared with my own hands, in my own home, my lover by my side instead of just in my memories.
Corinne, Critter and Pony tried their best to keep my mind and hands busy, and for a time, Ill admit that I was able to lose myself in the pleasant tasks that went with a feasts preparation.
But after the meal was cooked and laid out on the table, after everyone had gathered and thanks were given, Im afraid that the feast I had spent all day preparing suddenly lost its appeal, especially where my stomach was concerned.
After pushing the food around on my place while trying to give the impression that I actually consumed some of it, I threw my napkin down on the still-full place and made as if to rise from the table, well before even the quickest of eaters had thought to go back for seconds.
A gentle touch to my shoulder made me turn, and when I looked up, it was Montanas face I saw. "If youre through, do you have a minute?" she asked quietly.
I nodded quickly, fully expecting to be the first tapped for clean-up duty. I didnt mind, really, since it was another task which would hopefully keep my mind carefully numb. Holidays without the ones you love most deeply can be the most depressing of days. At least they are for me.
I know that sounds incredibly selfish and more than just a bit petty, and in many ways, it probably is. Looking back over that time through the wonderful gift of hindsight were all blessed with, I had so many things to be thankful for. I was free. I was warm, dry and well-fed. I was surrounded by people who loved me and cherished me for who I was. I was safe from harm and free from danger.
Why, then, did I feel so incredibly alone?
Rising to my feet, I followed close behind Montana. Instead of leading me into the kitchen, however, she instead ushered me down one of the darkened halls and into a room I hadnt yet seen. Soft lighting glowed from a small lamp on an equally small table set next to a deep-set window, heavily shuttered against the blinding sun. The walls were a soft white, the carpet a peaceful pale blue. Bookshelves lined three of the four walls, and several comfortable looking chairs sat to either side of the table.
I loved it on sight.
Walking over to the table, she picked up the handset of a cordless phone, returned, and handed it to me, smiling slightly.
Taking the phone, I stared at her. "What do you want me to do with this?"
Her smile broadened, becoming a grin. "Normally, you put it up to your head and talk into it."
"Fun-ny." Even so, I decided to do as she suggested and put the phone to my ear. "Hello?"
My hand went numb and I felt all the blood rush from my face, leaving me slightly dizzy. "Ice? Is that really you?" Tears clouded my vision, but I didnt care. I barely noticed as Montana quietly left the study, closing the door softly behind her.
"Happy Thanksgiving, my Angel."
"Oh god, it is you. Hi, sweetheart. How are you?"
"Doin alright. How bout you?"
"Im . . . ." My throat closed for a moment. "Im crying right now, but otherwise Im ok."
"Dont cry, Angel." The note in her voice only served to cause more tears to fall.
"No, theyre happy tears. Ive just missed you. So much."
"I miss you too, sweet Angel."
The sound of breaking glass came over the line, then, followed by loud, masculine laughter and the slightly discordant strains of music. "Where are you?"
"Mexican cantina," came the succinct answer. "The Yellow Dog, if the missing letters are any indication."
"Charming," I replied, grinning like a madwoman behind my tears.
"Definitely high society."
More breaking glass, more riotous laughter.
"How are . . .things?" I asked finally, feeling like some absurd extra in a James Bond movie.
"Slow. Cavallos on the run. One of my helpers tipped off the wrong man." The disgust was plain in her voice.
"Where are your helpers now?"
There was a moment of silence, and I pictured her craning her neck to see through the crowd. "About one tequila away from passing out. Again."
"And theyre supposed to be helping you?"
Her snort sounded softly over the phone line. "Guarding me, actually."
"Thats even worse!"
"Not really. Its better for me when theyre out of my hair."
I sighed. "I suppose thats true."
A silence settled between us then, though it was a comfortable one. That might seem silly, being quiet over the telephone, but since it was, at that point, my only connection to her, I took it willingly.
"Ice?" I asked when the sounds of laughter came through the line once again.
"If those guys are as bad as you say they are . . . ."
I chuckled. "Ok, worse. But . . . couldnt you just . . .you know . . .give them the slip? Come back over the border? We dont have to go to Canada. I mean, the desert here is huge. No one would ever find us. And . . .I really like it here. We could . . . ."
"I cant do that, Angel," her soft voice broke in.
"But why?" God, did I really sound as petulant as I thought I sounded?
"You know why."
"No I dont, Ice. I dont know why. Youve got a chance to be free of all this. Why cant you just walk away? It would be so easy."
"For how long?"
That question stopped me dead in my tracks. "What?"
"For how long, Angel? How long do we run? How long do we hide? How long do we look over our shoulders until some other well meaning neighbor does something without thinking? Until Cavallo finds our trail again and tries to finish what he started?" Her sigh was heavy and filled with emotion. "I wont put you through that anymore, Angel. I wont put us through that. Not anymore."
"But . . . ."
"No, Angel. Whatever happens, it ends here."
A shiver ran down my spine at the chord of utter resolution in her tone. Running my free hand over a bare arm, I wasnt surprised to feel the gooseflesh pebbling my skin.
"No more running, Angel." Her voice was hoarse, raspy. "No more."
By some sort of weird telephonic osmosis, the immense weight of that promise came to rest on my soul. It took up the burden gratefully while the rest of me seemed at a loss. "You shouldnt have to go through this alone, Ice," I whispered faintly, knowing she would hear me. "Not while Im sitting safe up here. Its not fair. Not by a long shot."
"Im never alone, Angel. You live in my heart. Dont you know that by now?"
Have you ever had one of those moments when you were so filled with absolute, spellbinding joy that your entire body just goes numb from the sheer enormity of it?
I was having one of those moments. I stared at the phone dumbly, as if it had just sprouted wings and was threatening to fly off.
When a loud burst of static shot through the line, I almost dropped it, and by the time I managed to collect my scattered wits and put the receiver back up to my ear, I heard a womans voice speaking in very rapid Spanish.
Then the line went dead.
Nothing, of course.
"Ice? Are you there?"
When the fact that that particular corpse had no hope of being revived filtered through my still-benumbed brain, I slowly replaced the phone back on its cradle, brushing my fingers against the warm plastic just briefly before letting go entirely.
I felt the very tips of my fingers then trail lightly against my lips, as if to seal in a phantom kiss. Her last words to me rolled through my mind over and over, unceasing and powerful as waves crashing against a distant shore.
"Wow," I whispered the four walls surrounding me, my voice as awed as a childs on Christmas morning.
Some time later, I found myself out past the well-lit courtyard, drawing the darkness around me like a well loved coat. The moon hung pregnant and low. Low enough to touch, I thought as I tried to do just that, my hand obscuring its deep-pitted face for a moment. The night wind was cool upon my skin. I felt alive, awake, aware, much like the desert around me.
A slight scuffle behind me heralded the presence of a nighttime visitor. Took em long enough. I chuckled inwardly, waiting with the patience of Job for my watcher to reveal herself as I continued to stare at the moon.
"Um . . .hello?"
Smiling slightly, I turned to watch Nia step diffidently to my side, her own smile shy and slightly off-center.
"Hi, Nia. What brings you out here so late at night?"
"They . . .um . . .wondered if you were ok. But no one wanted to go and find out for themselves." She shrugged. "I said Id do it. So, here I am."
"Thats very sweet of you, Nia. But Im alright. Really." Looking back up into the sky, I breathed deep of the fresh, cool air. "Just enjoying the peace and quiet."
She laughed softly. "Yeah, its pretty much of a zoo in there. Everybodys fighting over who has to do the dishes and what to watch on TV."
"Why doesnt that surprise me?"
She laughed again, a free and unfettered sound that clashed with the healing bruises on her face. After a moment, her expression became more serious. "Did you . . .talk to Ice?"
I looked back at her with some surprise. In the several conversations wed had, Ices name was never mentioned.
"Thats what they were guessing back at the house." Her tone became slightly defensive, as if shed taken my surprise for anger.
"Its ok," I hastened to assure her. "I just wasnt aware you knew who Ice was."
"Are you kidding? Everybody knows who Ice is!"
I couldnt help but laugh at her enthusiasm. "Oh they do, do they?"
"Sure. I mean, you cant hang around the Amazons for ten minutes without hearing about her. Its like shes some kind of god or something."
"Shes not a god, Nia. Shes a woman. An extraordinary woman, perhaps, but a woman just the same."
"Thats not what they say."
Smiling, I put a hand on her arm, pleased when she didnt flinch away. "Take it from me."
After a moment, she nodded, then craned her neck to look up at the sky. Letting my hand drop away from her wrist, I joined her in her study and a somewhat content silence fell between us.
"Are you scared?"
Her question was so softly uttered that at first I thought it was only the wind. But when I turned my head, I saw her looking directly at me, her dark eyes questioning.
Dropping her eyes from mine, she studied the dirt beneath her feet. "I . . .um . . .heard what she did to Rio in the stables the other day."
I blinked as my mind scrambled for a foothold in the conversation I seemed to be having.
"They say she almost killed her," she continued, still staring at the ground.
"They say that, huh?"
She nodded. "Yeah."
"Rio wasnt in any danger of dying." I knew that as well as I knew my own name. "Ice was very angry."
She looked up, not quite meeting my eyes. "Because Rio was threatening you, right?"
"Yes. Thats right."
"The Amazons say shes a very violent woman sometimes."
"She can be." Again, I spoke honestly, feeling no need to sugarcoat a fundamental truth.
This time, she met my gaze dead on. "And that doesnt scare you?"
A simple question, yes. But the answer was anything but simple. But if that night on the dock, seemingly so long ago, had taught me anything, it was that my perceived fear of Ice was really a fear for Ice. "Not in the way youre thinking, no," I answered finally, knowing she wouldnt be pleased with the answer, but having none other to give.
The look she gave me in return was one of patent disbelief and Ill admit that I felt my jaw stiffen at the seeing of it. "Those stories you told me about your husband. Isnt being with someone like Ice sort of like jumping from the frying pan into the fire?"
"Nothing could be further from the truth, Nia. Ice would rip out her own heart before shed raise so much as a finger against me."
"But how can you say that? How do you know?"
When my voice came, it was my heart that spoke the words. "Because she loves me."
And that was the most fundamental truth of all.
After a very long moment, she finally looked away. Her body seemed smaller somehow, as if my words had deflated something she held very tightly within her. "Oh."
Sensing her need to be alone to ponder what Id just told her, I laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, and when she looked up, gave her the slightest of smiles. "Im going to go back inside. Will you be okay out here?"
Returning my smile, she nodded. "Yeah. Ill be along in a little bit."
"Alright then. Happy Thanksgiving, Nia."
Her smile broadened. "You too, Angel. And . . .thanks. For giving me something to think about."
As I walked back into the house and prepared myself for bed, another Thanksgiving day passed into the mists of time, with an ending much sweeter than its beginning.
And for that, I was truly thankful.
It seemed that my head had hardly warmed the pillow when I found myself awake again. Craning my neck, I caught the none-too-faint noises of a door closing and feet quickly marching down the hall, sounds which had woken me from my sleep.
Slipping out of bed and tugging my T-shirt down to cover everything that needed covering, I quickly padded across the room and opened my door just in time to see Pony blow, like a hurricane, into the room next to mine. Nias room, my mind helpfully supplied as I crossed glances with Critter, who was following close behind, a no nonsense expression setting her face in somber lines.
Shouting, followed by a high, breathless scream vaporized the last of the sleep clinging to my system and, startled, I ran from my room into Nias. Pony was standing above the bed, her face brick with rage. In one tightly clenched fist lay the sheet that had once covered Nias body. The other hung loose by her side, though her muscles bulged beneath the tight shirt she wore, telling their own story about the state of her anger.
Nia was curled in a fetal ball on the bed, her hands wrapped tight around her head. She was moaning loudly in what I took to be sheer terror.
"Back off!" I yelled to Pony, pushing past Critter and slipping into bed beside Nia. I tried to gather her up into my arms, but at the first touch of my hand, she screamed again and jerked away, rolling over to the very edge of the bed and staring at us all with wide, blank eyes.
"What the hell is going on here?" I demanded, more than a little angry myself.
"Tell her, Nia!" Pony shouted. "Tell her what you did!"
Nias only answer was a moan.
"Go on! Tell her!!" The veins in her neck stood out in stark relief against the flushed rose of her skin. "Tell her, damnit!"
"Pony, stop! Please! Youre scaring her to death!"
"She deserves it! She deserves more than that! She . . . .goddamnit!!!" Throwing the twisted sheet down onto the bed, she turned and stalked over to the window, whipping the heavy blinds aside and peering out into the coming dawn.
I turned my head from that scene bestow a totally bewildered look on Critter, the only one among us who seemed to have retained at least some semblance of sanity.
"She called Richard to come and get her. Even worse, she gave him directions to the ranch."
"What??" In utter disbelief, I turned to Nia, who was once again huddled in a tight ball, apparently well past the point of responding to anything. I turned back to Critter. "How do you know?"
"Another Amazon, Tweaker, was with Cheeto in Las Vegas when they picked up Nia. Tweaker stayed behind to make sure Richard didnt follow them back to the ranch. Last night, she overheard him talking to a group of his buddies, saying that his wife had called him and he was going back down to, as he put it, break the bitch out." She ran one hand through her hair, sighing deeply. "That was about four hours ago. Tweakers tracking them as we speak."
"Six. In three cars."
She sighed again. "Yeah."
Pony turned slowly from the window, letting the blinds drop back into place. "That bitch has put every single woman on this ranch in danger." She laughed mirthlessly. "Its not like any of us was surprised when she called that overgrown shitbag. Shes done it more times than I can count." Her fists clenched again. "But this . . .this . . . ." Her jaw clamped down so tightly, I thought her teeth would shatter. "Motherfucker!" She turned back to the window again.
Resisting the urge to get up and try to offer comfort to Ponya useless gesture in any eventI settled for relaxing slightly and looking up at Critter. "What now?"
It was Pony who answered, however, still staring out the window. "Were gonna make sure that fucker forgets this place even exists." When she turned to face us, all traces of anger were gone. In its place stood calm resolution. "Critter, wake up Cheeto and have her help get all the women from the cottages in here. Once everyones inside, lock the doors and dont let anybody leave. Not for any reason. Got it?"
"Ill wake Montana and gather the rest of the Amazons. Well stop that bastard in his tracks. Understood?"
"Alright then. Lets get to it."
"What about me?" I asked, slightly miffed at being left out of the plans.
"You stay with her. Make sure she doesnt do anything stupid." The sneer on her face was quite pronounced.
Feeling myself stiffen, I came to my feet before I quite realized I was even standing. "Pony? Could I speak to you for a moment? Outside?"
Open-mouthed, she looked at me as if Id grown another head.
After a long, silent battle of wills, Pony backed down slightly, nodded brusquely, and stalked out of the room. I glanced at Critter. "Will you stay with her for a minute? I dont think its a good idea to leave her alone right now."
"No problem," she said, favoring me with a slight smile that had more than a touch of awe mixed in.
When I walked out into the hallway, it was to find it lined with women, each with a shocked expression on her face. I looked at Corinne, who was standing closest.
"Ill help with Nia," she whispered, and I gave her a grateful nod. If anyone had any hope of comforting Nia, it was Corinne. She just has a way of reaching out to the unreachable. Its a gift, and one Id gladly pay good money to have.
Ignoring the rest of the women, I followed Pony down the hallway, through the living room and out into the cool dawn. When she stopped, I stopped, staying several feet behind her and staring at a back she had turned to me. "Pony," I said softly.
Her fists clenched and the broad, thick muscles in her back bulged under her shirt, but she didnt turn around.
When she finally turned, her expression was a curious mixture of anger, respect and a curious sadness. "Little Angels all grown up, huh?" she said, a bittersweet smile on her lips.
"Pony . . .its not like that . . . ."
"No. It isnt."
"Then maybe you could explain it to me, Angel. Because the last time I checked, I was responsible for security here. Which means that in a situation like this, everybody listens to me. Even Montana. Or are you above that now?"
"Im not above anything. You know that."
"All I know is what I saw, Angel. And what I heard."
I laughed a little. "Funny. I was going to say the same thing."
Dark, narrowed eyes stared back at me. "What do you mean?"
"Pony, do you realize how much you terrified Nia back there?"
"So? You heard what she did!"
"Yes, I did. But do you also realize that what you did to her, how you yelled at her, was probably almost exactly like something her husband would do? I know its exactly what Peter used to do to me."
Her lips parted slightly as her eyes widened. Obviously, it was something she hadnt considered.
"Look. I know you were angry. You have every right to be. What she did was foolish and thoughtless. But its also in the past. What we have to do now is to work on some way of rectifying her mistake."
"Thats what Im tryin to do, Angel! Or do you think Im just givin orders cause I feel like it?"
"I realize that, Pony. But . . . ." How to put this tactfully.
So much for tact. I sighed heavily. "Listen. Keeping Nia locked up here isnt any better than the relationship you just got her out of. I know you dont like it. I dont like it either. Its dangerous. But the fact of the matter is that Nia did call her husband. And she needs to be given the choice to see him or not. If you take that choice away from her, can you really say that thats any better than what he would do to her?"
"Sure I can," she replied, sneering. "Im doing it because I want to protect her, and everyone else."
"And Im sure that sometime in his life, her husband thought the same thing. Either way, its wrong. Nia is an adult. She needs to be treated like one."
"Then she damn well needs to start acting like one!"
I took a step closer. "Thats not for you or me to decide, Pony. You need to let her make this choice. Its the right thing to do, and I think you know that."
I could see the knowledge come to her face. I could also see, by the set of her jaw and the tenseness of her body, how hard she was still trying to fight it. "I dont have time to be anybodys babysitter," she said finally, grudgingly.
I couldnt help smiling. "You wont have to. Ill do it."
"Oh no. No. No. No. No. No. Forget it, Angel. Not a chance in hell."
"Pony . . . ."
"Forget it, I said! No way, Angel. I do that, and I might as well let that bastard husband of hers put a gun up to my head and pull the trigger. At least then Ill only die once. You get hurt out there, and Ice will cut me up into little bitty pieces, then kill me, then resurrect me, then kill me all over again. Nope. Not happening. Sorry."
"Pony, listen to me."
I looked at her, struck with the almost unbearable urge to laugh. I could almost picture her on some playground somewhere sticking her fingers in her ears and shouting "Im not listening! I cant hear you! LaLaLaLa!"
I guessed my struggle against laughter must have shown up on my face, because she halted her rant in midstream, planted her fists on her hips, and stared at me. "Whats so damn funny?"
I wiped the smirk off my face, feeling oddly chastised, like a child with her grasping appendage caught in a baked goods container. "Nothing."
Clearing my throat, I struggled to get the conversation back on course. "At least hear me out, Pony."
"Can you handle a gun?"
"Then forget it. Period. End of story."
As she turned to leave, I reached out, grabbed her arm, and turned her back to face me. She looked at me, down at her arm, then back up at me. "You know, Im really getting tired of you doing that to me."
I dropped my hand to my side. "At least hear me out," I repeated. "Please."
Crossing her arms over her chest, she leveled her best glare at me. "Fine. Start talking."
"Nia trusts me. And I think, in some way, she respects me as well. We share the same history. If I take her out there, maybe shell be able to see exactly the kind of person her husband is. And maybe shell stop going back to him."
To her credit, she was really listening to what I had to say. "Thats a hell of a lot of maybes for you to risk your life like that, Angel."
"Youre risking your life too, arent you?"
"Yeah. But Ill have a gun in my hands."
"And Ill have twenty women with guns all around me. I think that evens the odds a little." I reached out again, and this time, she accepted my touch. "I wouldnt suggest this if I didnt believe it would work, Pony. All Im asking is for you to have a little faith in me and believe it too."
"And if I dont?"
"Then Ill do as you ask and stay inside. No questions asked."
As she looked at me, I could almost see the gears turning inside her head. After a moment, the faintest of grins curved her lips. "You know the name of a good shrink?"
"What?" I asked, blinking at the non-sequitor.
"I think I need to have my head examined."
When the meaning of her words caught up to me, I laughed out loud, crushed her to me in a grateful embrace, and kissed her soundly on the lips. "Thank you, Pony! You wont regret this!"
Laughing again, I pulled away, turned, and ran for the house.
When I found she wasnt behind me, I turned again, to find her just where Id left her, mouth agape, her eyes glassy. "Pony?"
"Bu. . . . Wa . . . . He . . . ." For a brief moment, I saw only the whites of her eyes, and I thought sure she was about to faint. Then she blinked, shook herself, and looked around to see if anyone had caught her brief lapse into insanity.
Unable to help myself, I laughed again, then completed my trek to the house, grinning like a madwoman.
Stepping inside Nias room, I wasnt surprised to see her safely ensconced within Corinnes all-encompassing embrace. The dampness of Corinnes nightgown attested to the many tears shed by the younger woman, and when I softly closed the door behind me, she gifted me with a tremulous smile, her head tight against Corinnes generous chest.
"How are you feeling?" I asked as I came to sit beside them both, laying a hand on Corinnes warm arm in thanks.
"A little better now, thanks," she said very softly, her eyes not quite meeting mine. Straightening a little, and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she pulled away from Corinnes hold, still not meeting my eyes. "Listen, Im sorry about all this. I know you must think Im some kind of nut for calling Richard."
"Im not here to judge you, Nia. None of us are. I think I can understand a little bit why you called him. I might have done the same thing, once. Thats not the problem here."
As I fell silent, she finally met my eyes, her own round and dark and full of tears.
Though part of me felt for her, I had to harden my heart just a little. "The problem, Nia, is that your mistake in giving your husband directions to the ranch could put some innocent women in danger. Do you understand that? And why its so?"
"But Richard wouldnt . . . ."
"Stop it, Nia," Corinne interjected, reaching out and tipping the young womans chin up, forcing those round eyes to meet hers. "Right now. If you wish to continue to lie to yourself, feel free. But dont force the burden of those untruths on others who dont deserve it."
"I dont know what youre talking about," Nia mumbled, but I could see that she did, in fact, know. Guilt was written in bold strokes across her face and her eyes wandered downward, despite Corinnes firm grip on her chin.
Knowing that continuing further down this path would only lead to Nia withdrawing into herself once again, I decided to try a different direction. Summoning up my friendliest smile, I turned it toward her and held out my hand. "Cmon. Lets get dressed."
Her eyes narrowed, suspicion seen easily within their clear depths. "Why?"
I affected an offhand shrug. "Well, since your husband and his friends are coming down to pick you up, dont you think it might be better to meet them in something a little more . . .substantial . . .than your nightgown?"
That "Angel just sprouted another head" look came back again, directed at me through two sets of eyes this time. I seemed to be getting that look a lot lately. I shrugged again, inwardly. Whatever works.
"You mean youre just gonna let him waltz right in here and take me?" Nia asked finally.
"Isnt that what you want?" When I wanted to, I could look very innocent indeed. In the periphery of my vision, I saw Corinne quickly hide a smirk behind her free hand. Ok, maybe not to people who knew me really well. "I mean, you did call him to come get you, right?"
"Yeah," she replied, though her voice didnt sound quite so sure as before.
"Lets get a move on, then."
But Nia didnt move. Not an inch.
"Maybe I changed my mind?"
Corinne snorted. "Its a little too late for that, my dear."
"Corinne . . . ."
"No, Angel. Im right. Its about time we stopped coddling this woman. Shes made her bed. The best thing for all concerned is to let her lie in it. Weve all had to do it a time or two. Perhaps its best to allow her her turn."
Nia straightened. "But maybe I made a mistake! You said you could forgive a mistake!" She was talking to us both, and we both knew it.
It was Corinne who answered. "Forgiveness is one thing, Nia. Forcing others to live with the consequences of that mistake is another matter entirely."
Nias eyes brimmed with tears again, and I watched, not without some sadness, as they spilled past the barrier of her lids and trickled down her bruise-shadowed cheeks. "So what do I do?"
I sighed, then held out my hand again. "Do you trust me, Nia?"
After a very long moment, she nodded, sniffling. "Yes."
"Then come on and lets get dressed."
"But . . . ."
Her gaze was timid as she looked from me, to Corinne, and back. "Ok," she whispered, her expression much like that of a condemned prisoner taking her final walk. She took my hand and I helped her to stand, then gave her a gentle push in the direction of her closet. Giving her an encouraging smile, I then turned and made for my own room to change into something more suitable for the occasion.
Since I didnt have any suits of armor or bullet-proof vests handy, I settled for a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Ok. One of Ices T-shirts. I suppose you could say that Id suddenly developed a taste for larger clothing. Go figure.
When I looked up after brushing out my hair, I saw Corinne standing behind me, her face expressionless. "What?" I asked, turning and laying the brush down on the dresser.
"Please tell me youre not going out there, Angel."
"Im sorry, Corinne. I cant tell you that."
As I moved to walk past her and out into the hallway, she laid a hand on my arm, stopping my forward progress. "Dont do this, Angel. The others are more than capable of handling that piece of excrement without your involvement. Dont put yourself in danger when theres no need."
Turning toward her, I gently removed the hand from my arm and stood with it clasped in my own. "I need to do this, Corinne. Nia trusts me, and maybe, just maybe, I can get her to see her husband through the eyes of reality instead of that little fantasy she insists on putting before the world. Shes made her mistakes, and shes paying for them, but I think she deserves this shot." I looked down at our joined hands. "I wasnt able to prevent things from going too far with Peter. Maybe my being there with her will keep her from making the same mistake I did." I looked up at her. "I need to do this. I dont need your blessing. But I do need your love."
As I watched, her face softened, her smile beautiful and tender. "You always have that, Angel." She squeezed my hand, then let go, giving me a gentle shove out into the hallway. "Youd best get going before I change my mind and do something that will doubtless land me in the ICU, courtesy of Ices fist."
I laughed, pressing a quick kiss against her cheek. "Never happen, my friend."
Her return smile was wicked. "Never say never, Angel."
"Ill keep that in mind," was my retort as I stepped fully into the hallway and went to collect Nia, who was coming out of her own room at the same time. She looked more than a little green around the gills, but when our eyes met, I could see her swallow convulsively, then straighten her neck and tilt her chin slightly in a rather impressive display of confidence.
Smiling, I gently touched her arm. "Lets take care of business."
As we walked down the hall, we passed a large group of women filtering into the house, some with mild looks of alarm on their faces, others just looking for the first available place to lay their heads, it still being rather early in the morning.
I caught Critters eye, and she gave me a brief smile and a short nod before turning away to deal with her charges. Cheeto entered the house as Nia and I left it, ushering still more half-asleep women into the house. She gave us both a small, polite nod before brushing by to continue her duties.
The sky was a stunning blood red as the sun shone its crescent over the tops of the far-off mountain ranges. Looking at it, I wondered if the color was an omen, then shivered internally at my own ghoulish thoughts.
The air was cool and crisp, a slight breeze ruffling my hair and leaving goosebumps in its wake as it brushed gently against my skin.
The courtyard was a bustle of activity, with woman moving to and fro, their faces set with serious purpose. Taking Nias hand in mine, I moved out beyond the crowd and headed toward the stables, where I could see Pony and the others assembling.
It was a mixed group of women gathering thereboth Amazons and several permanent residents of the ranch, each of whom looked supremely confident and capable, even in the face of what was sure to be a dangerous situation. They formed a single-file line facing Pony, who was kneeling on the ground in front of a long box from which she removed weapons, handing one to each woman in turn as they approached.
I could feel Nia stiffen beside me, her hand becoming warm and clammy as it rested in mine. I turned my head to see her staring at each weapon as it emerged from the box, her eyes wide and frightened. Smiling slightly, I tightened the grip of our hands and started forward again, determined to drag her behind me if I needed to. Thankfully, after a minor stumble, she quickly began walking under her own power.
Just as we were about to reach the group, the corral gate opened and Cowgirl rode out atop her spirited horse. Seeing us, she grinned, tipped her hat, twirled her rifle once in an impressive maneuver, and gently urged her horse into a trot in the direction of the orchard, giving us all a cheery wave as she passed.
A moment later, Montana emerged from the corral, seated astride a truly magnificent dappled gray mare who sported a snow-white mane and tail. Twitching her lips in a semblance of a smile, she touched the brim of her hat in a very Cooper-esque fashion, settled her rifle comfortably against her thighs, and, with a quiet hut, sent her own mount after Cowgirls.
We started forward again and, hearing our approaching footsteps, Pony gave us both a wave and a jaunty grin before standing up and brushing the desert sand from her knees. "Great day for a bloodbath," she joked with a gallows humor I well remembered, if couldnt quite appreciate, given the circumstances. "Were just about ready."
Soft footsteps from the interior of the stables heralded Rios approach, and when she stepped from the shadows into the newly risen sun with a gun in her hands large enough to bring down an entire herd of stampeding elephants, Ill admit my heart considered fainting dead away and taking the rest of my body with it.
She stared at me for a long moment, her dark eyes wary and watchful, before apparently realizing why my face was as white as the sun-bleached steers head which hung above the stable doors. Blushing sheepishly, she lowered the barrel of her shotgun until it faced the desert floor and held up her free hand, palm out, facing me.
It was then that my lungs remembered what their true purpose was and I took in a grateful breath, happy when that simple action dissipated the dizziness I was beginning to feel.
"Sorry," she mouthed, before turning her attention to Pony and dragging the now-empty wooden box back into the stable.
"Are you ok?" Nia asked.
"Um . . .yeah. I just . . .you know . . .saw . . .something."
She giggled a little, which relaxed us both. When Rio stepped out again into the sunlight, her gun was pointed carefully at the ground. Our glances crossed briefly, and then she turned, taking her place at Ponys left shoulder as the women moved out of the courtyard and onto the path that would lead them to the orchard.
I turned to Nia. "You ready?"
Looking up at me, her expression was, by turns, doomed and hopeful. "You dont suppose I could just . . .go back to my room and pretend this day never happened, do you?"
"Well, you could do that, yes."
For a brief second, her eyes lit up brighter than a joyful childs on his birthday. Then she sighed. "But if I keep hiding from my mistakes, nothings ever going to get better for me, is it."
"Nobody knows what direction someones life will take," I said with as much compassion as I could. "Not even their own. But this seems like a good place to start, yes."
She looked as it she were biting into a lemon. "Somehow, I knew youd say that."
"Ms. Predictability," I said through my grin, "thats me."
The shade beneath the orange trees was cool, dim and fragrant. I tried my best to blend in with the thick foliage around me, but I knew that unless these trees were suffering from a spectacular case of fungal rot, my bluejeans and black T-shirt could never be mistaken for part of the scenery. Nia, who was standing by my side as if glued there, was much better dressed for the occasion, sporting brown slacks and a green top. She was so frightened, however, that I didnt have the heart to tell her that standing next to me was like keeping company with a neon billboard. Or a bullseye.
Squinting against the dappled sunlight that occasionally filtered through the grove, I tried to spot the other women who were ensconced, as I was, within the thick fall of heavy foliage, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Except for Pony, who was standing behind the tree in front of me, and Rio, who was standing across the small road which led through the trees, it was as if the rest of the women had never been there at all.
Standing plastered against me, I felt Nia shift, then shift again.
"Whats wrong?" I whispered.
"I gotta pee," she replied in a five-year-olds voice as she continued to squirm against the pressure in her bladder.
The only thing that kept me from exploding with laughter was the vivid memory of my own similar situation while waiting to cross into Canada two years before. Some of my mirth must have shown on my face, however, because she scowled at me.
"Its not funny."
"No, I know its not," I hastened to reassure her, "but youre kinda gonna have to hold it for a little . . . ."
My helpful advice was interrupted by a horses quiet nicker. Pony turned to me, her face set. "Theyre coming."
Nodding, I looked back at Nia. Her face was chalky white, her expression slightly ill. "I . . .um . . .dont think holding it is gonna be a problem anymore."
Resisting the urge to step delicately away from her, I settled instead for a sympathetic smile. "Well, thats one less thing to worry about, right?"
The sounds of trucks barreling down the unpaved road made whatever she might have said into a very moot point. Feeling her stiffen beside me, I knew without even the slightest hint of a doubt that she was readying herself to bolt. Much as I wanted to restrain her, I knew I couldnt. Not and remain true to my own ideals, not to mention the spirit and intent of Montanas ranch.
To my immense surprise, though, instead of fleeing, she simply looked at me. "Please," she whispered. "Dont . . . . Dont make me do this. Please . . . ."
"You dont have to do anything you dont want to, Nia," I replied, gently as I could while sparing a glance over my shoulder to track the progress of the oncoming trucks that I could barely see past the line of trees blocking my vision.
"I cant . . .Im so . . .so scared." Her hands knotted in the fabric of her shirt, twisting so hard the fabric came very close to tearing. "He . . . . He . . . ."
Ignoring the action at my back, I turned my attention fully on Nia, sensing an epiphany in the making.
Her eyes were wide and dark and full of tears as she stared at me, past me, staring at something my own eyes couldnt see. "He hurts me," she whispered, as if saying it louder would seal her fate.
Blindly grabbing the front of my shirt, she buried her flushed face into my chest. I cradled her to me, knowing exactly what she was going through and crying a little for us both.
Her moans turned to muffled sobs and I comforted her as best I could, all the while tracking the action behind me by sound alone. When the trucks skid to a stop and a door opened, I turned, taking Nia with me, and shuffled forward slightly to a break in the heavy leaves blocking my vision.
Its amazing how such monsters wear the mask of the ordinary so easily. And thats just what he was.
Ordinary face, ordinary body, ordinary clothes. A man youd pass on the street without looking twice. Without wondering if perhaps he beat the holy hell out of his wife for the unpardonable sin of breathing too loudly.
I strained my ears to hear his voice and was not surprised to hear that it, too, was ordinary.
"Get those horses outta the way, bitch. Youre blockin the road."
"Youre trespassing on private property," Montana coolly responded.
"I dont see any signs," he scoffed, spitting off to the side.
"There arent any," Montana agreed.
"Then who says its private property?"
"And who are you? The fucking Queen of Sheba?"
"I might be."
"Just let me pass, dyke, before I run you and your fucking horses over."
"I suggest you do as I say and go back the way you came."
Crossing his arms over his chest, he squinted at her. "Or what?"
I heard the shot before I saw Montanas gun move, and watched as Richard danced away from the puff of desert dust blew up from where his foot had been a split-second before. When he looked up at her, his mouth was a perfect "O" of shock, and for a brief instant, he had the look of a schoolboy just caught with his fathers Penthouse.
"Go home, Richard," Montana said, her voice full and deep and unbending.
"Not without my wife," he snarled, finally gathering his wits about him. "You fucking kidnapped her and Im not leaving till I get what I came for."
"She wasnt kidnapped, Richard. You know that as well as I do."
His face flushed red. "Bullshit. You bunch of man-hating dykes kidnapped her like you always do, twisting her mind against me, filling her head with all kinds of shit until she finally gets wise and comes back to me. Now give me what I came for or Ill burn this place down and all you fucking dyke bitches with it."
"I cant give you what you dont own. Go home."
"The fuck I will." Spitting once again, he turned and gestured to his buddies, who were staring at him through the dusty windows of their trucks. "Lets just go the fuck around. Well be in and out before they know what hit em."
This is it.
Straightening, I pulled away from Nias death-grip on me and instead took her hand. "Cmon."
"Were going to stop this. Now. Before anyone gets hurt."
Her eyes were wide as saucers as she stared up at me. "We who?"
"Just cmon," I replied, turning and half-pulling her along behind me.
"Where the hell are you going?" Pony hissed, reaching out to grab me as I strode by.
Ignoring her, I kept on walking, determined to halt this fiasco in its tracks. As if sensing my mood, both horses tossed their heads a little and backed away, leaving me a clear path ahead. I stepped forward, taking Nia along for the ride, until the sun shone warm upon my face. Then I stopped and watched as Richards body froze, half in and half out of his truck.
After staring at us for a long moment, a cruel grin twisted his lips and he slowly pulled out of the car, straightening and crossing his arms over his chest. "About damn time. I knew you dykes didnt have the balls to pull this off. Come on, woman. Get your ass in the car now."
It nearly broke my heart to see Nia cringe before this maggot in the guise of a man. Her pulse was fast and thready beneath the touch of my fingers and her body trembled in fright.
Richards cocky sneer turned quickly into a scowl. "You mind what I say, Nia. Get in the car. Now."
"Maybe shes afraid youll beat the crap out of her again," Cowgirl observed from atop her horse.
"Shut your trap, bitch, before I shut it for you!"
"Id like to see you try it," Cowgirl replied, smirking.
Obviously shaking off the temptation, he looked back at his wife. "Dont make me come after you, Nia. Your ass is already in enough hot water as it is, making me come all the way down here. Dont make it worse on yourself." His voice was almost soft, his words almost kind, but the false compassion didnt even come close to reaching his eyes.
Taking in a deep breath, Nia straightened somewhat and pulled away from me. I nearly panicked, until I heard a word sounding suspiciously like "no" come from her mouth.
Apparently, Richard heard the same thing, because both his arms and his jaw dropped as his eyes widened. "What?!?"
"I said no, Richard. Im sorry you came all this way for nothing, but Ive changed my mind."
Disbelieving, I turned and watch as her lips moved. Yes, she was the one saying the words, in a voice that sounded very much like hers, but with somethingfortitude, perhaps? desperation? doom? delivered a subtle change to the tone of her voice; a subtle, but undeniable force to the words she was giving voice to.
Across the clearing, Richard made as if to clean out his ears. His neck stuck outrather like a turkeys I thoughtas he tried again to stare her down. "I better not have heard what I think I just heard, bitch."
"Im not coming back to you, Richard. Not now. Not ever. Im . . . really sorry I called you, but . . .just go now. Please? Its over."
His face went white, then quickly flushed to a deep red before settling, finally, for a truly impressive purple shade. "Its over when I say its over, you fucking cunt!"
Fists clenched in fury, he closed the gap between us in long strides, coming so close so quickly that I didnt even have time to get scared. Instead, I found myself watching as he shot out an arm as if to grab Nia by the throat and choke the life out of her.
In a completely reflexive motion, my own arm darted out and stopped his fist dead in its tracks. As if in slow motion, his head turned in my direction, his expression one of patent disbelief that someonea woman no lesscould actually be doing this to him.
My muscles strained against his rage-fueled strength, but the knowledge of what hed do if I let go made my task, if not easy, at least bearable.
"You better let go of my hand, bitch, before I rip your fucking head off."
Before I could answer, steely fingers bit into my shoulder and I was wrenched away from the scene and into Ponys somewhat prepared arms.
"You like beating on women, big man?" Rios voice roared out. "Why dont you pick on someone who can fight back, huh?"
Struggling out of Ponys tight grip, I looked over to see Nia being hugged tight by another Amazon whose name I didnt know. Quickly, I turned back to the scene unfolding before me.
"Come on, ya cheap little prick," Rio taunted. "Hit me. I dare ya."
Obviously stunned at the sudden change in game plan, Richards only answer was to blink stupidly at her.
"Coward," she spat. "Whats a matter, little man? Your balls crawled up inside your asshole, did they?" She said this last as a loud aside, deliberately turning her head toward the rest of us and living him an opening big enough to drive a tractor trailer through.
I almost shouted a warning as he gathered himself and launched at her, but she turned in more than enough time, stopping his advance with a hook to the face that flattened his nose and sent him stumbling backwards several steps, blood spewing from between the fingers now covering his broken face.
That action, apparently, got his friends attentions, because the clearing was then filled with the sounds of truck doors opening as seven men stepped out into the light of the day, their expressions murderous.
That sound, however, was quickly overtaken by the music of a dozen Amazons exploding from the trees, their rifles cocked, ready, and aimed at the idiots who thought to help their unfortunate "friend".
"Shows over, boys," Montana drawled. "Get back in your trucks before the coyotes eat whats left of you after were through with target practice."
If the situation hadnt been so serious, I would have laughed as the men slipped meekly back into their trucks almost as a single unit, all the testosterone suddenly gone from their puffed up little bodies.
"Well, well, well," Rio remarked conversationally as the last of the men was safely tucked away inside his truck, "looks like your buddies have about as much guts as you do, wife beater. Maybe next time, youll pick your friends a little better, huh?" Her laugh was loud in the otherwise silent clearing. "Cmon, prick. Lay one on me like you do your wife. Or aint ya got the sack for it anymore."
I watched as her muscles rippled like mercury beneath the heavy denim of her workshirt as her body prepared itself to react in whatever way she demanded. Unlike the last time Id seen her fight, Ices teachings were plain to see in the loose, limber set of her body and the alert cock of her head. "Whatcha waiting for, big man? An engraved invitation? You like hitting women, right? Well, Im a woman. So hit me!"
With a roar of rage, he came at her, fists swinging furiously. They grappled for a few moments before Richard got in a lucky shot to Rios head. His smirk was short-lived, however, as a thunderous right to the gut blasted the air from his lungs and doubled him over, the remains of his breakfast littering the ground between his feet.
"Had enough yet, pussy?" Rio taunted. "Or would ya like to go another round?"
After several long moments, he finally straightened, blood still pouring from his nose like water from a spigot. "Last chance, Nia!" he shouted, to the disbelief of us all. "Get in the damn car, woman!"
No one was more surprised than I was when Nia actually pulled away from her rescuers embrace and slowly walked toward her ailing husband. She stopped less than two feet away, and reached out an arm as if to touch him. At the last minute, she lowered it and looked at him instead. "Im sorry, Richard. I really am."
"Not half as sorry as youre gonna be, I can tell you that. Now get your ass in the car. Move!"
She slowly shook her head. "No. Never again. Youre not gonna hurt me ever again."
His smile was evil and dark. "Thats what you think."
Whatever he might have thought to do next was interrupted abruptly as a knee came up between his legs and robbed all the fight from his body. Gibbering high in his throat, his hands cupped his injured groin as his legs gave out and dumped him onto the hard desert ground.
"That was for calling me a bitch, you bastard."
Her knee came up again, this time landing against the side of his face and landing him on his back. "And that was for every time you made fun of me and yelled at me and made me feel worthless."
The leg lashed out, again and again, and again, raining blows against his unprotected body as she screamed out every sin hed committed against her person.
I felt myself move, but Rio beat me to the punch, and in two quick strides, managed to wrap the enraged woman tight against her massive body, pulling her quickly away from the writhing body of her husband as Nia continued to scream her hatred out into the desert.
Two other Amazons came forward and half-dragged, half-carried Richard over to the lead truck, opening the passenger door and shoving his mostly unconscious body inside.
Not more than a split-second passed before the trucks started up and pulled away in a shower of dust and sand.
A huge cheer went up through the clearing, the women shaking their rifles and shouting their triumph for a job well done.
"Its not over yet, you know," Pony said from her place next to me. "Hell be back. Not tomorrow, maybe, but soon. We might have won this battle, but the war isnt even close to being over."
"I know," I agreed. "But at least Nia knows what its like to stand up for herself. Thats a pretty important battle to win."
Grinning, she clapped me on the shoulder. "That it is, my friend. That it is."
To Be Continued - Part 5
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