Crucifixion River - By Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini

Crucifixion River

by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

T.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 neither Sophie 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