About the Author
A former journalist, American author Marcia Muller is perhaps best known for her mystery series featuring San Francisco private detective Sharon McCone. She is the author of over 35 novels (three in collaboration with her husband, mystery author Bill Pronzini), as well as seven short story collections. She won the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 2005.
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By Marcia Muller Bill Pronzini
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Pronzini-Muller Family Trust
All right reserved.
Chapter OneT.J. Murdock
Bad storm making up. And moving in much faster than I'd expected.
You could tell it from the bruised look of the southwestern sky, the black-bellied cloud masses, the raw whip of the November wind. Already the muddy brown water of Twelve-Mile Slough-Crucifixion Slough to the locals-had roughened, creating wavelets that broke high against the muddy banks. The ferry barge, halfway across now, rocked and strained against the bridle looped over the taut guide cable. It took nearly all the strength I possessed to keep the windlass turning. If the storm broke with as much fury as I suspected it would, the crossing would be impassable well before nightfall.
The coming blow was a concern in more ways than one. Annabelle should have returned from River Bend an hour or more past. I hadn't wanted her to go at all, but she had convinced Sophie to let her take the buckboard in for supplies. Seventeen now, no longer a child but not yet old enough to find her own way in the world. Headstrong, impulsive, chafing at the isolation of our lives here at the ferry and roadhouse. The trouble in Chicago was too many years ago for her to remember it clearly, and to her there was no longer any danger or any need for hiding. Perhaps she was right. But neitherSophie nor I believed it. Patrick Bellright had a long memory, and his hate for me would surely continue to burn hotly until the last breath left his body.
On the barge, the Fosters were having difficulty with the nervous mare hitched to their farm wagon. Harlan Foster waved an arm, asking me to hurry, but it couldn't be done. The windlass creaked and groaned as it was, and the cable made sounds like a plucked banjo string as the barge inched along. At the rear of the Fosters' wagon, Sophie stood, spraddle-legged, against the pitch and sway. It was days like this one that I worried most about her assisting with the ferry work. She was as capable as any man, but cables had been known to snap and ferries to capsize, passengers and crew alike to drown. We could not afford to hire a man for the job, and, even if we could, I was loath to take the risk of it. We had been safe here for eight years now, but safety is illusory. People are seldom completely safe no matter where they are. And fugitives from a madman ... never.
The barge was nearing the Middle Island shore. Sophie signaled and made her way forward to lower the landing apron and attend to the mooring ropes. At her next signal, I locked the windlass and straightened, flexing the aching muscles across my back and shoulders. As Sophie tied the lines and the Fosters led their skittish mare off the barge, I turned to look up along the levee road. It was still empty, although the Sacramento stage was due from River Bend any time. But the stage was not what I was looking for.
What was keeping Annabelle?
Worry, worry. About the girl, about Sophie, about Patrick Bellright, about strangers, about the weather, about a hundred other things day after day. At times it seemed our lives were nothing but a plague of worry, leavened only occasionally by hopes and pleasures. If it weren't for Sophie and Annabelle, and my writing, my life would be intolerably barren.
The wind gusted sharply, shushing in the cattails and blackberry vines and rattling the branches of the willows lining the slough. I could hear the clatter of the loose shingle on the roadhouse roof. I had been meaning to fix that, just one of the many chores that needed doing. The roadhouse, built of weathered boards reinforced with slabs of sheet metal, stood on solid ground and was solid enough itself, but the puncheon floor inside was warped in places and in need of new boards; there was painting to be done, and a new wood stove was fast becoming a necessity. Outside, the short wharf that extended into the brown water tested rickety and at least two of the pilings should be replaced. The livery barn was in good repair, except for the badly hung door and gaps in the south wall boarding. And now winter was nigh. Another rainy season like the last would keep repair work down to the minimum necessary for reasonable comfort and survival.
This California delta, fifty miles inland from San Francisco where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers merged, was a vast network of waterways and islands linked by ferries and a few levee roads. Its rugged beauty and fertile soil drew farmers, ranchers, fishermen, shanty boaters, Chinese laborers, loners, eccentric groups of one type and another-and not a few fleeing from justice or injustice. But it was a harsh land, too, prone to bad weather and winter flooding. As many people as it attracted, it drove out in defeat and despair. The Crucifixion River sect, for one instance.
I shifted my gaze to the southwest, back along the levee road to where the peninsula extended into the broad reach of the Sacramento River. Stands of swamp oak, sycamores, and willows hid what was left of Crucifixion River, the settlement that had been built along the tip-more than a dozen board-and-batten shacks and a meeting house, crumbling now after seven years of abandoned neglect. The sect's dream of a self-contained Utopian community that embraced religion and free love had died quickly, destroyed by the harsh elements and the continual harassment of intolerant locals. I held no brief for the sect's beliefs, but I understood all too well their desire to be left alone to live their lives in peace, without fear.
I remembered the day they'd arrived from Sacramento, three score men and women and a handful of children in a procession of wagons. Everyone had been singing, their voices raised high and joyous:
We shall gather at the ri-ver, the beautiful, the beautiful ri-i-ver....
I remembered the day they had left, too, less than two years later. That day there had been no singing. As I ferried them across the slough, the faces aboard the wagons were bleak and stoic against a cold gray sky. I wondered again, as I had many times, what had happened to them, if they'd found their Utopia elsewhere. I hoped they had.
The Fosters and their wagon were off-loaded now, and I could see Sophie waving as they clattered up to the Middle Island levee road. She threw off the mooring lines, raised and secured the apron. Even before she signaled, I had bent again to the windlass. The barge would be waiting here on the eastern shore when the stage arrived.
By the time Sophie and I had it moored tightly to the shore, the first drops of rain had begun to fall. The roiling clouds had moved closer, their underbellies black and swollen, and the wind was a howling thing that lashed the slough water to a muddy swirl. The air had an electric quality, sharp with the smell of ozone.
Sophie rubbed a hand across her thin, weathered face. "What's keeping Annabelle? She should have been home long ago."
"Some sort of delay in River Bend," I said. "No cause for concern."
"The storm is almost here."
"If she hasn't left by now, she knows to wait it out in town."
"She won't. She hates River Bend more than she does this place."
"Then she'll be here before the worst of it."
"If she isn't, how will we know she's safe?"
"The stage is due any time. Pete Dell can tell us if he's seen her."
"And if he hasn't? What then?"
We were both thinking the same. River Bend was more than a dozen miles distant and the levee road would soon enough be a quagmire. If the downpour came fast and heavy and lasted long enough, the levees might give way at some point and render it impassable. More than one traveler had been stranded, more than one conveyance swept away in the turbulent waters.
"Thomas ... maybe I should saddle Jenny and ride toward town...."
"No. If she's not back soon, I'll go."
There was more rain now, the drops blown, sharp and stinging, by the wind. I took Sophie's arm and hurried us both to the shelter of the roadhouse.
I heard the rain begin when the coach had traveled only a few miles from River Bend. The threatening storm had been a topic of conversation between the driver and station agent in River Bend, but they had decided to continue on schedule in spite of it. I unbuttoned the side curtain to note that the sky was now dark with heavy, gray clouds. It was cold and damp in the coach. Perhaps we should have remained in town.
When I rebuttoned the curtain, I saw the young man and woman on the seat opposite me looking at each other, their eyes full of concern. "What if the storm prevents us from crossing to Middle Island?" she asked him in a voice barely above a whisper.
Excerpted from Crucifixion River by Marcia Muller Bill Pronzini Copyright © 2007 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust. Excerpted by permission.
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