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OUT OF THE DARKNESS

The thing had decided to end the game of cat and mouse and was making a beeline for them. They must reach the trees or they were doomed.

Suddenly the hummock appeared, a low mound bisected by the trail. The trees were not many, but some had thick trunks and might resist being uprooted. Emmeline raced to one, hooked her hands under Halette’s arms, and practically heaved her at the lowest limbs, shouting, “Grab hold and climb!”

“What about you?”

Emmeline whirled. The massive monster was almost on top of them. She jerked her rifle to her shoulder and took aim. But even as she fired, and her daughter screamed, Emmeline knew these were her last moments on earth. Her rifle boomed but it had no effect, and then the thing was on her. Emmeline tried to be brave—she tried not to scream—but God, the pain, the searing, awful ripping and rending.

It seemed to go on forever.

The Trailsman

Beginnings . . . they bend the tree and they mark the man. Skye Fargo was born when he was eighteen. Terror was his midwife, vengeance his first cry. Killing spawned Skye Fargo, ruthless, cold-blooded murder. Out of the acrid smoke of gunpowder still hanging in the air, he rose, cried out a promise never forgotten.

The Trailsman they began to call him all across the West: searcher, scout, hunter, the man who could see where others only looked, his skills for hire but not his soul, the man who lived each day to the fullest, yet trailed each tomorrow. Skye Fargo, the Trailsman, the seeker who could take the wildness of a land and the wanting of a woman and make them his own.

The Louisiana swamp, 1861—where death came

in many guises and many sizes.

1

The night was moonless but the mother wasn’t worried.

Emmeline had been born and bred in the Atchafalaya Swamp. She knew the bayous and cypress haunts as city women knew streets and alleys. She was at home here.

So it was that on a hot, muggy summer night, Emmeline and her youngest, Halette, started out from the settlement for their cabin. The trails were as familiar to her as garden paths to a Southern belle. Emmeline thought nothing of the fact that the swamp crawled with snakes and alligators. She had her rifle and she was a good shot.

But as they were leaving her best friend’s shack, Simone took her aside. “Maybe you should stay the night, oui? Start back in the morning fresh and rested.”

Non,” Emmeline said. “We can be home in a couple of hours if we don’t stop to rest too often.”

“Your daughter is only eight. You expect too much of her,” Simone criticized.

“No more than I expected of myself at her age.” Emmeline kissed Simone on the cheek. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine. I’ve have done this countless times, have I not?”

“Even so,” Simone said, and, glancing at Halette, she lowered her voice. “There have been stories.”

“Oh, please.”

“You’ve heard them. About the people who have gone missing. About a creature that is never seen but only heard. About the blood and the bones.” Simone shuddered. “I tell you, they terrify me.”

“Oh, please,” Emmeline said again. “Am I a child to be made timid by horror tales?”

Emmeline and little Halette had been hiking under the stars for over an hour now. They were deep in the swamp, well past the last of the isolated cabins that dotted the watery domain of the cottonmouth, save one—their own cabin. And they still had a long way to go.

“I’m tired, Mere,” Halette remarked. She had her mother’s oval face and fair complexion and her beautiful auburn hair.

“There is a spot ahead. It’s not far. I suppose we can rest there for a few minutes.”

Merci.”

The spot Emmeline was thinking of was a grassy hummock. The trail, after many twists and turns, often with water lapping at both sides, presently brought them there, and Halette, with a sigh of relief, sank down, curling her legs under her.

“Watch out for snakes,” Emmeline cautioned.

“I’m too tired to care.”

The breeze was strong. It brought with it the night sounds of the great swamp: the croak of frogs, the bellow of gators, the scream of a panther, and the shrieks of prey. These were sounds Emmeline was used to. She had heard them every night of her life. She gave them no more thought than a city woman would give the clatter of wagon wheels.

Emmeline sat down next to Halette, and her daughter leaned against her, saying quietly, “It’s pretty out here.”

Oui. I have always loved the swamp. Many people are afraid of it, but to us who live in it, it is part of us. It is in our blood and in our breath, and we can never be afraid.”

“I am now and then. When I am in our cabin alone at night and I hear noises.”

Emmeline squeezed Halette’s shoulder. “That’s normal, little one. When I was young as you, I would get scared, too. I imagined all sorts of things that were not real. Eventually you outgrow such silliness.”

“I will try not to be afraid, for you.”

Mother and daughter shared smiles, and the mother hugged the daughter, and it was then, from out of the benighted fastness of water and cypress and reeds, that there came a sound that caused the mother to stiffen and the daughter to gasp. It was a low rumbling, neither roar nor grunt yet a little of both, which rose to a piercing squeal and then abruptly stopped.

“What was that?” Halette exclaimed.

“I don’t know,” Emmeline admitted. “A gator, maybe.”

“I never heard a gator do that. No bear, either. Yet it had to be something big. Really big.”

“Whatever it was, it was far away.”

“Was it? Pere says that sometimes our ears play tricks on us. That what we think is far is close, and what we think is close is far.”

Emmeline grinned and ruffled Halette’s hair. “You worry too much. That is your problem.” She rose. “Come. We should keep going. I do not want to take all night getting home.”

They walked on, the mother holding the girl’s hand, and if the girl walked so close that their hips brushed, the mother didn’t say anything. They had gone several hundred feet and were in a belt of rank vegetation with solid

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