Saturday May 8, 1880
The Colson Home
West of St. Louis, Missouri
Lord she was tired, but Emma Colson knew if she were to reach her seventeenth birthday, she must leave.
Her hands shook as she bridled her horse in the dark confines of the carriage house. She feared her Uncle Theo would discover her and give her another helping of his violent rage—or worse.
He slapped her so hard last night she still felt a stabbing pain at the base of her neck. Her tongue found the swollen, shredded flesh where her molars had torn into her cheek. The hurried breakfast of day-old biscuit and apple butter mingled with the tang of her own blood.
Her nose had stopped bleeding and she was surprised she could smell the manure and dank wet hay through nostrils clogged with clotted blood.
She had foolishly thought Theo’s depredations had reached some pinnacle, yet last night he unleashed his drunken fury more viciously than ever before. Flashes of his ugly face swam past in her mind, contorted in anger—or rapture—his beard soaked with sweat.
She shook her head. The pain in her skull cleared her thoughts.
At least he was too drunk to remove his trousers this time.
Shot, her agreeable three-year-old colt, was a handsome blue roan, smart, sturdy and fairly fleet—all the attributes necessary for the task ahead. He was her favorite over Thunder, a broken-down nag who only drew a carriage or cart when given proper intervals of rest and coaxing.
Her escape past the house and down the road to St. Louis was a gamble in either saddle, so she bet on the prospect that didn’t kick and bite as much.
She felt awful leaving her mother and sister with that loose sack of horseflesh to do the work, but on her fifteenth birthday her Uncle Theo whispered that Shot was his gift to her. He really bought the animal for farm work but built the lie to sway her toward his affections. Of all his lies, she clung to that one and did not hesitate to use his manipulations against him.
The memory of his hot breath in her ear froze her in a brief, icy panic. Theo’s ruthless nature pressed doubts upon her, but her anger flared, thawing the moment.
Her exodus charged her muscles and she slapped the saddle in place on the center of Shot’s back. While cinching the billet under his belly her ankle turned, causing her to fall hard against the wall. Several old horseshoes came free, narrowly missing her head. The whole rusty mess fell to the brick floor, clanging on the only spot not covered by hay.
She froze as the horrible peal echoed about the stalls.
She pushed herself off the splintered wall and listened a moment but heard nothing other than her own rapid heartbeat, the horse’s breathing, and the chirping of crickets in the dewy grass outside. She prayed the damp fog had muted the clamor, keeping it from reaching the house.
Struggling against her fresh panic, she increased her haste and secured her possessions to the saddle. All she took with her was bound in one small oilskin satchel. Shot proved eager and helpful through the whole matter. He too wanted to light out on any trail promising better treatment than the Colson homestead.
Thunder, cantankerous as always, let it be known how he loathed any early morning nonsense. He threw her plans of a stealthy escape into chaos as he whinnied and assaulted the old planks of the stable wall with his hind legs.
Emma’s heart fluttered. Dawn was a pale promise through the coach house windows as Emma felt her way across Shot’s flanks to find the reins. She ran her hand over his muzzle, drawing upon his warmth for courage. A low nicker rumbled in him, pulsing into her fingers. She groped about to the stable doors, leading the horse. Emma listened beyond, toward freedom, but heard little over Thunder’s petty complaints.
“Well, it’s gonna be now or never, my boy,” she whispered.
She opened the doors slightly. The iron hinges gave a ghastly, dry creak. No cries of alarm came from the house and she recaptured her breath.
Once in the saddle, Emma urged Shot forward. He nosed through the doors as a ship may crest a wave. When the doors scraped against Shot’s shoulders, Emma kicked and the young horse bolted.
Tearing through the gray mist, they closed the gap between the stables and the house, the road barely visible just beyond. Lamplight glowed in the window of the second-floor room Emma and her sister Louisa had shared. Louisa was awake.
The notion shocked her and she tightened the reins in panic. Shot responded by slowing fast and then clopping along the hardened earth at a trot.
Louisa threw the sash up hard, rattling the pane. In the grey morning light, Louisa’s face contorted into a sneer, long ratty hair waving wildly. A chilling wail came from the specter that once was her loving little sister.
“Poppa!” she keened. “Ems is leaving! Poppa! You got to stop her!”
Hope flickered but did not fade under the sentry call.
Emma knew Louisa was but a simple child, desperate for a father’s love, but she had taken to calling their Uncle Theo “Poppa.” That burned inside Emma, but never hotter than that moment.
Louisa’s betrayal made Emma react poorly. She thrashed and dug her heels into Shot’s flanks but drew the reins tight at the same time. Though a fine animal, Shot was a harness horse used to pulling the family carriage or the plow. His confusion at her commands made him stop, stiff-legged. Emma, an unseasoned horsewoman, was shirked sideways and slipped off the horse onto the wet lawn.
Her breath was knocked from her, yet she scrambled to her feet, rounded Shot’s back end and laid her foot in the stirrup while peering over the saddle—not at her sister, but the darkened window beside her.
Inside Theo and her mother’s room, a faint flicker of light grew then blazed.
Groping for the reins with her right hand and gripping the horn with the other, Emma launched herself back into the saddle. Her uncle’s shadow grew as he lumbered to the pane.
The window flew open.
She did not see Theo’s face, but heard the bellow from deep within his breast as it swelled in volume and rage. It reminded Emma of a mad, lowing bull.
No, she thought, he is worse than any animal.
“Emma!” The howl boomed across the farm and echoed back something fearsome, raising the hairs on her arms and neck. “How dare you? I do not know what in the world you are thinking, but you shall get from that saddle this very instant.”
She remained silent, intent on righting her horse. Shot turned in a circle and Emma realized, in her haste she had pulled both ends of the reins under his neck. Her sharp tugging made the colt think she wanted him to turn around. She threw the reins forward, and the horse stopped, facing back toward the carriage house.
She glanced at the house but Theo was no longer framed in the window light. Emma wondered if she had time to unhorse, straighten out the reins, and remount before her uncle burst forth into the growing dawn.
Shot wagged his blue-black head and fluttered his ears. An unspoken prayer was answered as he flipped his long nose upward and the reins floated up and right into Emma’s outstretched palms. She was stunned, but rattled back into the here and now when Uncle Theo exploded through the front door.
He cleared the porch and warped steps in one bound, bare feet slapping the front path. The bricks, slick with morning dew, provided poor footing and his feet flew out from under him. He landed square on his backbone.
Emma realized that Theo was armed with his old double-barreled shotgun, for when he struck the ground, one of the barrels belched fire and buckshot zipped through the air inches above Emma’s head, sounding like the quick ripping of fabric.
Surely he doesn’t mean to kill me? The thought was as fast as the buckshot, but she quickly spun the horse, laying her heels once more into his sides.
The gunplay and earnest kicking sent the colt down the cart path faster than Emma had ever known him to move. She did not risk a backward glance, but clods of earth and grass erupting beside her and the report of the shotgun announced Theo had righted himself and was bent on stopping her, dead or alive.
Though her escape wasn’t clean, it was an escape. That didn’t bar Emma from imagining Theo atop the hellish old horse, eyes ablaze and snot flying, gaining upon her in the misty West Saint Louis morning.
A quarter mile down, she was compelled against her will to look back, but saw nothing save the falling dust of her own horse travel.
“Good-bye, Momma. Good-bye, Louisa,” she whispered against the rush of wind. “And good-riddance to you, you bastard.”
And so she left, carrying her few belongings and Theodore Colson’s child.