10,797
23.12.2018

Caroline was used to restless nights. Over the past few years she'd developed a grudging envy for people who could climb into bed, close their eyes, and slip effortlessly into sleep. Since settling in Innocence, she'd come close to joining the ranks of those privileged dreamers. Now it seemed she was back at square one, facing long, dark hours in the frustrating pursuit of sleep.

The tricks of the insomniac were routine to her. Hot baths, warm brandy, dull books. The first two relaxed her body, but when she tried reading, her mind kept drifting away from the words on paper. There was a television cleverly concealed in a cherrywood armoire, but none of the late night shows caught her interest or bored her enough to trick her brain into sleep.

She couldn't complain about the heat, not here in the lovely cool of her room at Sweetwater. And she was used to strange rooms and strange beds. The one she'd been given was as gracious as any she'd found in the fine hotels of Europe. The bed was delicately feminine with its draping canopy and lacy pillows piled high. If that didn't seduce sleep, there was a plump daybed in misty blue satin that angled toward the french doors and offered a view of moonlight.

Vases of flowers fresh from the garden sweetened the air. Charming watercolors were scattered over the warm rose-tinted walls. A lady's dressing table held elegant antique bottles that glistened in the lamplight. There was a small fireplace of blue stone that would provide warmth and comfort on chill winter nights. She could picture herself cuddled under thick handworked quilts on some windy February midnight, watching the flames crackle and shoot shadows up the walls.

With Tucker.

It seemed wrong to think of being nestled up against him, in absolute peace, when there was so much grief and heatbreak around them. Another woman was dead, and she lay alone in some cold, dark room while her family was left to weep and wonder.

It had to be wrong to feel this soft glow of happiness, this insistent spring of hope when death hovered so close.

But she was in love.

Sighing, she curled on the window seat, where she could see the moonlight stream into the garden. The flowers were silver-edged and still, a touch of magic waiting to be plucked. Beyond, far beyond, was the glint of the pond that was Sweetwater. She couldn't see the willows, and was glad. If that was hiding from pain, then for one night she would hide. For now it was only a beautiful spot laced by moonlight.

And she was in love.

It wasn't possible to choose the time and the place to lose your heart. Caroline had come to believe it wasn't possible to choose the person who would take it. Surely if she could have chosen, it wouldn't have been here and now. It wouldn't have been Tucker.

It was a mistake to fall in love now, when she was just beginning to understand her own needs and capabilities. Now, when she had only begun to learn she could stand on her own, in charge of her life. It was foolish to fall in love here, in a place torn apart by tragedy and senseless violence, a place she would have to leave in a matter of weeks.

It was ridiculous to fall in love with a man who had made a study of romance and seduction. A charmingly lazy womanizer. A murder suspect. A poetry-spouting wastrel.

Hadn't she told herself he was just another Luis with a southern twist? And that by falling for him, she was proving herself to be the kind of woman who always chooses poorly and lives to regret the results?

But she couldn't make herself believe it, as much as she'd once wanted to. There was more to him than that, more than he admitted to himself. She'd seen it in the way he cared for Cy, in his loyalty to family, in the way he quietly held the reins of Sweetwater and a dozen businesses without strutting his power or demanding gratitude.

With Tucker it wasn't self-deprecation, it was simply his way. Here was a man who did what needed to be done, and did what was right without thinking about it. And who did it without stirring up the air with demands and worries and desperation about tomorrow.

No, the air around Tucker Longstreet was as calm and placid as the naps he was so fond of taking in the summer shade. As peaceful as a long, lazy tale spoken in a drawl to the music of a porch rocker. And as smooth as a cold beer savored on a hot night.

That was what she needed, Caroline thought as she rested her head against the window glass. That basic acceptance that life was usually a joke, and a person should be able to smile her way through it.

She needed to smile right now, Caroline thought. She needed that island of serenity he so effortlessly carried with him.

She needed him.

So why was she sitting here, searching for sleep, when what she wanted was within reach?

On impulse she uncurled from the window seat. On her way to the terrace doors she plucked a sprig of freesia from a vase. She stopped by the gilt-framed mirror long enough to smooth her hair. Just as she touched her hand to the knob of the doors, they opened to the sultry night. And to Tucker.

Her heart gave a quick, giddy leap that had her stepping back.

"Oh, you startled me."

"I saw your light." He wore loose cotton pants and carried a blade of sweet peas. "Figured you couldn't sleep either."

"No, I couldn't." She looked down at the freesia in her hand, then smiled and held it out to him. "I was coming to you."

The gold of his eyes deepened as he took her flower and offered Caroline his. "Isn't that something? Here I was thinking that since your notions of propriety wouldn't let you come to my room, I'd have to come to yours." He skimmed his fingers through her hair, then cupped her neck. Against her cool skin, his hand was hot and firm. " 'Desire hath no rest.' "

She stepped forward, into him. "I don't want rest."

Reaching behind, he pulled the door closed. "Then I won't give you any."

He caught her against him, and the first kiss was hungry, as if it had been years rather than hours since they'd tasted. The flavor of need was potent and addicting. They fed on it, enhancing appetites with murmurs and sighs.

Breathless, she pressed her lips to his throat, clinging to him as they stumbled toward the bed. He caught her hand as she reached for the lamp, drew her fingers to his mouth to nibble and suck.

"We don't need the dark." Then he smiled and covered her body with his.

While they made love in the light, and most of Innocence slept uneasily, McGreedy's bar was hopping. It was the beginning of a long weekend that would culminate in Fourth of July celebrations. The town council, which consisted of Jed Larsson, Sonny Talbot, Nancy Koons, and Dwayne, had-after heated debate-decided against canceling the annual parade, carnival, and fireworks display.

Patriotism and economics had swayed the vote. FunTime, Inc., had already been paid a hefty deposit for the carnival's two-night stand, and the fireworks had cost the town treasury a pretty penny. As Nancy had pointed out, the Jefferson Davis High School band and the Twinkling Batons majorettes had been practicing for weeks. To cancel the celebration at this late date would disappoint the kids and lower everyone's morale.

It was pointed out that it was unseemly and disrespectful to ride Crack the Whips and have pie-eating contests with Darleen Talbot barely cold. It was argued back that the Fourth was a national holiday, and that Innocence had ordered up its own patriotic celebration for more than a hundred years.

It was finally decided that a short speech honoring Darleen and the other victims would be given from the bandstand, and a moment of silence would be observed.

So banners and bunting had been hung while Teddy autopsied Darleen in Palmer's embalming room.

In McGreedy's some of the patrons had already begun the celebration. If the laughter was a bit wild or forced, if tempers were edgy, McGreedy was content in the knowledge that his Louisville Slugger was handy behind the bar.

He kept an eye on Dwayne, who was drinking quietly and steadily at the end of the bar. Since he was sticking to beer tonight, McGreedy didn't worry overmuch. It was whiskey that set Dwayne off, and at this point Dwayne looked more unhappy than drunk.

He knew he'd probably have to swing his bat and kick a few butts before the weekend was over. Tonight seemed friendly enough, though there were a few hardcases huddled in the corner, tossing them back and talking quiet. Whatever they were planning, he'd see that they took it elsewhere.

Billy T. Bonny took a slug of house whiskey. It pissed him off that McGreedy watered it down, but tonight he had other things on his mind. Every damn body in town knew he'd been seeing Darleen on the sly.

It was a matter of pride that he do something about her murder.

The more he drank, the more it seemed to him that he and Darleen had been in love.

He was among friends, half a dozen like-thinking men, including his brother, who were tanking up on liquor and hate. They spoke in undertones, wanting to keep their circle closed.

"It ain't right," Billy T. muttered again. "We're supposed to sit around with our fingers up our asses while some jerkoff from the FBI takes care of things. Well, he sure as fuck didn't take care of Darleen."

There was a general murmur of agreement. Cigarettes were lit. Deep thoughts were considered.

"What the hell good did some Yankee lawman do her?" Billy T. demanded. "Him and Burke and the rest of them're running around in circles while somebody hacks up our women. Oh, we're good enough to go out and look for bodies, but we're not supposed to do anything to protect what's ours."

"Probably raped 'em, too," Will said to his beer. "Probably raped the shit out of 'em before he sliced 'em. You gotta figure it."

Wood Palmer, cousin to the undertaking Palmers, nodded sagely. "Them psychos always do. It's 'cause they hate their mothers and want to screw them all at the same time, so they use other women."

"That's bull." Billy T. finished off his whiskey and signaled the waitress for another. His blood was already so pumped with alcohol, he could have opened a vein and fueled his gas tank. "It's 'cause they hate women. White women."

"There ain't been no black woman killed, has there?" his brother piped up. John Thomas had been drinking shooters for the best part of two hours, and was raring for hell. "Four women dead and not one of them colored."

"That's a fact," Billy T. said, and snatched up his whiskey the minute it was served. "And I guess that tells the tale."

Wood scratched the stubble of his beard while the others grunted in agreement. What Billy T. was saying made good sense to him, especially filtered through a haze of tequila. "I heard tell their heads was nearly cut clean off and their sex organs was carved up. That's psycho stuff."

"The cops want us to think like that." Billy T. struck a match, watched it burn. There was fire in his blood tonight, and it needed someplace to spread. "Like they wanted us to think it was Austin Hatinger killed his own daughter. Well, we know it wasn't." As the match fizzed out between his thumb and forefinger, he shifted his gaze from face to face, and what he saw pleased him. "We know it was a nigger. But we got us a Yankee fed, a nigger deputy, and a sheriff who'd sooner lock up a white man than a colored."

Will cracked a peanut. He was drinking beer and drinking slow. Justine was already giving him grief about spending so much of his pay on drink and pool. "Come on, Billy T., Sheriff Truesdale's okay."

"If he's so okay, how come we got four women dead and nobody paying for it?"

As all eyes turned on him, Will, sober enough to be prudent, decided to keep his own counsel.

"I'll tell you why," Billy T. continued. " 'Cause they know who did it, sure as Christ. They know but they don't want any trouble from the N.A.A.C.P. or any of those other egg-sucking groups. It's the niggers and the ever-fucking liberals responsible."

"They ain't hardly talked to no coloreds either," Wood muttered. "Don't seem right."

"That's 'cause it ain't," Billy T. said viciously. "But there's been one they've talked to right enough." He struck another match for the pleasure of watching it burn. "They've been over to talk to Toby March. That special fucking agent asked plenty of questions about him."

"Talking's all they do," Wood mumbled. "And we got another woman dead."

"Talk's all they're gonna do." Billy T. nodded as the others began to shift restlessly in their chairs. He could feel it, the hate, the fear, the frustration all melding together in a pot simmering with the summer heat and flavored by whiskey. "They'll keep talking and asking questions, and he'll do it again. Maybe one of our women next time."

"We got a right to protect our own."

"It's time somebody put a stop to it. One way or the other."

"That's right." Billy T. wet his lips and leaned in. "And I think we know what needs to be done. It's that March bastard doing it. They homed right in on him, then backed off. They even know he has a taste for white meat."

"He was sniffing around Edda Lou, that's for sure," John Thomas put in. "Somebody shoulda fixed him then. Fixed him good."

"And you know what he's doing?" They all turned to listen to Billy T. "He's laughing at them. Laughing at us. He knows they don't want no race trouble down here in Mississippi that those Yankee papers can turn all inside out. He knows they're going to look the other way 'lest they catch him with a knife in some white woman's throat."

"It's him all right," his brother agreed. "Didn't I see him standing at Edda Lou's window?"

"He was working at the rooming house," Will began.

"That's right." Billy T. sneered. "Working on how he was going to get Edda Lou out to the swamp so he could rape and kill her. He done work for Darleen, too. She told me how he came to patch her roof."

"He done work out to the trailer court where Arnette and Francie lived, too," Wood put in. "I seen him having a soda pop with Francie and laughing."

"That's how they tie all together." Billy T. took a last drag on his cigarette. "He got around them that way, and starting thinking how he'd like to do it to them. How he hated them for being women. White women. The cops don't want to see it, but I do. I see it plain, and I'm not giving that black bastard the chance to kill another of our women." He leaned forward, sensing the moment was right. "I got me some nice strong rope in the back of my car. Every one of us here's got a rifle he knows how to use. I say we kick off our Independence Day by ridding Innocence of a killer."

He pushed back from the table and stood. "Anybody's with me, get your gun and meet at my place. We got us a murderer to hang."

Chairs scraped against the scarred wooden floor. Men started out with an air of purpose tinged with vengeance, their pulses pounding with a sense of right sweetened by the anticipation of violence.

As they trooped out into the hot, sweaty night, McGreedy noted that they looked as though they were hunting for trouble. But as they were hunting it elsewhere, he went back to drawing drafts.

At the door, Wood glanced back to Will, who was standing by the empty table. "You coming, boy?"

"You bet." Will lifted his beer and sloshed it down his dry throat. "I'll be right along."

With a nod that was as much warning as assent, Wood went off to fetch his Remington.

"Oh, Jesus." Will gulped down more beer. He didn't want the other men to think he was pussy. That was the worst thing a man had to live down. But he was thinking, now, maybe there was something worse yet.

Hanging somebody.

He wasn't quite drunk enough to see it as justice. Nor was he sober enough to see it as murder. What he saw was Toby March twitching at the end of a robe-eyes rolling and bulging, face going purple, feet kicking empty air.

He didn't have the stomach to watch, and that was the sad truth. And if he didn't, he'd lose the respect of the men he drank with most every week. There was only one way to solve the problem as he saw it. That was to stop it before it happened.

Wiping his mouth dry, he walked over to Dwayne.

"Dwayne? You gotta listen to me."

"Go on, Will. I told you I'd wait another week on the rent."

"It's not about that. You see those boys that just left?"

Annoyed with the interruption to his drinking, Dwayne scowled into his beer. "I'm making it a point not to see anything."

"They're going out to the March place. They're going out there with a rope."

Slowly, Dwayne lifted his head and focused. "What do they want to do that for?"

"They mean to hang Toby March. They're going to string him right up, Dwayne, for killing all those women."

"Shit, boy. Toby's never killed anything but a possum in his life."

"Maybe, maybe not, but they went off to get their guns. Billy T.'s dead certain Toby done it, and he's fired up for a lynching."

"Shit." Dwayne rubbed his hands hard over his face. "Then I guess we'd better stop them."

"I can't do that." Shaking his head, Will backed up. "They'll ride me from now to next year if they think I chickened out. I've done all I'm going to."

People had come to expect sudden outbursts from Dwayne when a bottle was nearby. That was why no one did more than glance his way when he shoved the table aside and grabbed Will by the throat.

"The fuck you have. Toby gets hurt tonight, I'll see that you pay for it, same as the others do."

"Chrissakes, Dwayne. I can't go against my own kind any more than I have."

"You want to keep that roof over your head, and the job that's paying for it"-Dwayne lifted Will up on his toes and shook-"you get your ass over to the sheriffs office. You don't find Burke or Carl there, you go find them at home, and you tell them what you told me."

"Dwayne, Billy T. finds out I did, he'll kill me."

"Bonny ain't going to be killing anybody." He tossed Will toward the door. "Do it."

Half asleep and limp with pleasure, Caroline snuggled up to Tucker. She roused herself to trail a lazy line of kisses up his chest to his chin.

"I always thought propriety was overrated."

"Stick with me, darlin'." He curved a hand over her hip. "You'll forget there ever was such a thing."

"I think I already have." Her lips curved against his shoulder before she rested her cheek there. "Can we sleep like this?"

"Like babies," he promised, idly rubbing her back. He didn't pay much attention to the roar of the car down the lane, or the slamming of doors, the pounding of feet up the stairs. If Dwayne was drunk, or Josie was peeved at whomever she'd been sleeping with, it could wait until morning.

But Caroline stirred and started to speak even as Dwayne began to shout Tucker's name.

"Shitfire. He does pick his times." He kissed Caroline's shoulder as he rolled over and grabbed up his pants. "Just wait right here and I'll go quiet him down."

Tucker listened to his brother banging on doors and swore. He swung the door open and stepped out into the hall. "Jesus H. Christ, Dwayne, you're going to wake up the whole house."

"Already has," Cousin Lulu said from her doorway. She was wearing a Redskins football jersey and a headful of purple curlers. "I was having a right good dream about Mel Gibson and Frank Sinatra, too."

"Go back to sleep, Cousin Lulu. I'll handle him."

Wild-eyed, Dwayne burst out of Tucker's room. "Doesn't anybody sleep in their own bed anymore? Get your gun, boy. We've got trouble."

"The only trouble here is the beer you've been slopping down in McGreedy's." Delia grabbed his arm and tried to haul him to his own room. "What you need's a face full of ice to cool you off."

Dwayne shook her off and rushed to Tucker. "I don't know how much time we have. They're going to lynch Toby March."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about the Bonny boys and a bunch of their asshole friends going after Toby right this holy minute with a rope."

"Oh, Christ." Tucker saw Caroline come to the doorway, clutching her robe at her throat. "Wait for me," he said.

"I'm going with you." Delia was halfway down the hall in her red-feathered peignoir before Tucker stopped her.

"You're staying right here. I don't have time to argue with you. Call Burke. Tell him fireworks are starting ahead of schedule."

Delia stood as they clattered down the steps. She bristled until the feathers rustled.

"There are only two of them," Caroline said from behind her. "If Burke doesn't get there with help, it'll be only Tucker and Dwayne."

Cousin Lulu examined her nails. "I can still shoot Lincoln's face off a one-cent piece at five yards."

Delia turned back, nodded. "Get some pants on."

Toby rolled over in bed when their old mutt Custer began to bark. "Damn dog," he muttered.

" 'S your turn," Winnie said sleepily.

"How do you figure?"

"I'm the one who got up every night to nurse two babies." She opened her eyes and smiled at him in the moonlight. "Just like I'm going to get up with this next one in about six more months."

Toby skimmed a hand over her still-flat tummy. "Guess it's only fair I deal with the dog."

"Get me a glass of that orange soda pop while you're up." She patted his bare butt before he pulled on his undershorts. "A pregnant woman's got cravings."

"You sure did have them a couple hours ago."

That earned him a giggle and another slap. Toby stumbled, yawning, out of the room.

He saw the reflection of the fire in the front room window, that glitter of gold and red on the glass that made his heart sink and his blood boil.

He bit back an oath, hoping to get rid of the obscenity on the lawn before any of his family could be hurt by it. He was a man of deep faith and did his best to love his fellow man. But in his heart was a cold hate for whoever had lit the cross on his land.

He pushed open his door, stepped out on his porch. And found a gun poked into his naked belly.

"It's Judgment Day, nigger." Billy T.'s lips spread in a grin. "We just come by to send you to hell." Enjoying the power, he jabbed with the rifle barrel. "Toby March, you've been tried and convicted for the rape and murder of Darleen Talbot, Edda Lou Hatinger, Francie Logan, and Arnette Gantry."

"You're crazy." Toby could barely get the words through his lips. The dog was quiet now, and he could see old Custer crumpled on the grass-dead or stunned. Rage came quickly, then he saw the rope John Thomas Bonny and Wood Palmer were swinging over the branch of a gnarled oak. Fear followed. "I never killed nobody."

"Listen to this, boys." Billy T. gave a cackle while his eyes stayed dark and flat on Toby's. "He says he didn't do it."

Even through terror, Toby recognized that they were all piss-yourself drunk. That only made them more dangerous.

One of the others leaned on his shotgun and brought a pint of Black Velvet to his lips. "Might as well hang him for a liar, too."

"His neck'll stretch just the same. You nigger boys can dance, can't you?" Billy T. grinned until his eyes turned to slits. "You're going to do some dancing tonight. Why, your feet ain't even going to touch the ground. When you finish dancing, we're going to burn your place to the ground."

Fear turned Toby's bowels to ice. They would kill him. He could see that in their eyes. He would fight them, and he would lose. But he couldn't lose his family as well.

He shoved the rifle, felt the bullet sear his rib cage as it exploded. "Winnie!" He shouted in despair and terror. "Run. Get the children and run!" As he clutched at his wounded side, Billy T. brought the rifle butt down in his face.

"Coulda killed him." On a nervous giggle, Billy T. wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. "Coulda blown a hole in his belly, but that's not the way. We're gonna hang him," he yelled to the others. "Drag him on over."

He saw the woman rush out, shotgun blasting. In her terror, Winnie fired wide. Billy T. backhanded her and knocked the gun clear. "Lookie here." He snatched the struggling woman around the waist. "She's going to protect her man." When she clawed at him, he struck her again so that she fell dazed to the porch. "Hold on to her, Woody. Truss her up. When that cocksucker wakes up, we'll show him how it feels to have his woman raped."

"I ain't raping no woman," Wood muttered, already having doubts about the whole night's work.

"Then you can watch, too." Billy T. reached down and yanked Winnie down the steps by the hair. "Take hold of her, goddammit. John Thomas, you go in and bring those nigger kids out here. They got a lesson to learn."

Winnie began to scream, one keening wail after another. She kicked and bit and clawed as Wood bound her hands behind her back.

There was a shout from the house, a curse and a crash. John Thomas staggered back out to the doorway, his shoulder seeping blood. "He cut me." Holding out one bloody hand, he stumbled to his knees. "The little fucker cut me."

"Christ almighty, can't even handle a kid." Billy T. walked over to examine his brother's wound. "You're bleeding like a stuck pig. One of y'all bind this up. Keep an eye on the house. That boy comes out, do what you have to do." Near where the cross burned, Toby began to groan and stir. "I'm going to do this myself. For Darleen." He leaned over. One of Toby's eyes had swollen shut, but there was fear in the other. Billy T. fed on it.

It was power. He tasted it and found it heady. All his life he'd been second rate. Now he was about to do something important, even heroic. No one would ever look at him the same way again.

"I'm going to put this noose around your neck, boy." He reached up and snagged it. Dragging Toby to a kneeling position, he pulled the loop of rope around Toby's neck. "I'm going to tug it nice and tight." He slid the knot down until it pressed evilly against flesh. "But we're not going to string you yet. First I'm going to do to your wife what you did to those white women." He grinned as Toby fought against the rope and gag. "Only I bet I can make her like it. And when she's yelling for more, we're going to hang you."

"I don't hold with raping no woman," Wood said, firmly this time. Snarling, Billy T. whirled, bringing the gun up with him.

"You just shut the fuck up, then. It ain't rape, it's justice."

"I can't stop this bleeding."

Billy T. glanced over to where one of the men tried to staunch the wound on his brother's shoulder. "Well then, let him bleed for a goddamn minute. Won't kill him." He was losing them. He could feel it in the way the men were shifting their feet, shifting their eyes away from the woman who lay bleeding on the ground.

He set his gun down and unbuckled his belt. He was already hard at the idea of taking a woman by force. Once they saw how it was, what kind of man he was, they'd be behind him again.

"Somebody's coming, Billy."

"Probably that Will. Always was a day late and a dollar short."

He stepped over to Winnie, straddled her. He hooked a hand in the bodice of her nightgown when the car fishtailed to a halt, kicking dust as rifle fire split the air.

"I got this pointed right at your balls, Billy T." Tucker stepped out of the car, skin twitching at the idea of having guns aimed at him. "It's got more of a kick than I do, I guarantee."

"This ain't your concern." Billy T. straightened, cursing himself for setting his weapon aside. "We come out here to do what should have been done already."

"Yeah, burning crosses is your style. Like killing an unarmed man." He saw the blood on Winnie's face and was sickened. "Hitting women. It takes a lot of guts to come out here, what, six of you against one man, a woman, and a couple of kids."

"This nigger's been killing our women."

Tucker merely lifted a brow. "For all I know, you've been doing it."

"We're hanging us a killer tonight. You think you can stop us? You and your drunken brother?" He hauled Winnie up in front of him and took two backward steps to reach his gun. "Seems to me there's six of us and two of you."

Another set of headlights sliced the dark, and Delia's Olds cruised to a halt. Three women stepped out with rifles.

"Remind me to give them all hell later," Tucker muttered to Dwayne. "Looks like the odds just changed," he said to Billy T. "Evened up quite a bit."

"You think we're worried about a bunch of women?"

To show her feelings about that, Delia let off a shot that plowed the earth between Wood's feet. "Y'all know I can shoot. And these two ladies here, well, they're liable to get lucky. Caroline, you aim that Winchester at that asshole bleeding by the porch. He ain't liable to be moving around too much, so you should get a clean shot."

Caroline swallowed, then shouldered the rifle.

"Fuck this." Wood tossed down his gun. "I ain't shooting at no women any more than I'd be raping one."

"Then you might want to step out of the line of fire," Tucker advised him. "Looks like it's five to five." His lips curved as he heard the siren. "And that's about to change. Now, if I were you, Billy T., I'd set that woman down, real gentle like. Otherwise, my finger's going to slip and I'm going to blow a hole through your brother."

"Jesus Christ, Billy, put her down." John Thomas scrambled back against the steps.

Billy T. licked his lips. "Maybe I'll put one through you."

"I expect you could. But since you can't work that rifle one-handed, you'll have to put her down just the same. Then we'll take our chances."

"Put her down, Billy," Wood said quietly. "The gun, too. This is crazy business here." He turned to the others. "This is crazy business."

In agreement, they tossed down their guns.

"You're standing alone now," Tucker pointed out. "You can die alone, too. Doesn't make a damn bit of difference to me."

In disgust, Billy T. dropped Winnie to the ground, where she began to sob and crawl toward her husband. After tossing his gun aside, he started to walk toward his car.

"I'd stand where you are," Tucker said quietly.

"You won't shoot me in the back."

Tucker squeezed off a round that shattered the windshield. "The hell I wouldn't."

"Go ahead and do it," Cousin Lulu suggested. "Save the taxpayers money."

"That's enough." Caroline wiped sweaty hands on her jeans and hurried over to Winnie. "There's nothing to worry about now."

"My babies."

"I'll go to them in just a minute." She fought the knot loose from Winnie's wrists, hoping to free her before the children saw it. But they were already racing out of the house, Jim still carrying the butcher knife stained with John Thomas's blood, and the little girl tripping over the hem of her nightgown.

"Here now." Caroline dragged the noose over Toby's head. Her vision wavered with tears as she took the bloody knife to cut his bonds. "You're hurt." Her fingers came away wet as she touched his side. "Somebody call the doctor."

"We'll get him to the hospital." Tucker knelt down. Burke and Carl were already reading Billy T. and the others their rights. "What do you say, Toby? Up to a ride?"

He was holding his family, his good eye leaking tears as he gathered them close. "Guess I could stir myself." He tried a wan smile while Winnie wept against his chest. "You driving?"

"You bet."

"We'll get there fast anyway."

"There you go. Dwayne, give me a hand here. Delia, you take the kids on down to Sweetwater. Caroline." Tucker looked around as she stood and walked away. "Where are you going?"

She didn't look back. "To get a hose and put out this obscenity."