Suspicion's gate

Dusty dropped to his knees near enough to Jennifer to pat her face and tilt her head to allow her unimpeded breathing. One of the guards took exception to his efforts and struck him, but as he fell back on his ass, he saw that his efforts were helpful. Jennifer gasped, choked, and coughed her way to consciousness. Relieved that Skip had not killed her, but knowing the attempt itself could guarantee his death, Dusty rubbed his aching shoulder and watched the guards wrestle with Skip as they tried to tie his hands behind him.

Though the blow dazed him, Skip continued to struggle to reach the woman, his fury blinding him to the steep price he would pay, despite his failure to kill her. “Whore!” he screamed. Unable to get closer, unable to get free of the guards who held him, or those who gathered around Jennifer, he spat at her in frustration and rage.

Dusty’s head turned when the door opened again and a second set of footsteps, heavier than Jennifer’s, barreled down the wooden steps. von Hausen’s revolver was drawn and cocked and Dusty expected him to use it. Intending to throw himself in harm’s way, to protect Skip, Dusty struggled to his feet. One shot did ring out, and though the gun was pointed in Skip’s direction, the bullet passed harmlessly over his head, hitting no one. A warning shot only. Next time, Skip would not be so lucky.

“No…Hans…please…it is my fault…” croaked Jennifer as she realized through the haze what had happened and why.

Hans reached the foot of the steps and stopped, his pistol still aimed at the Australian. The guards had cleared away and he now had a clear shot if he chose to take it, a shot he could not miss. His finger trembled upon the trigger.

“Please, Hans. If you ever felt anything for me, I beg you. Hansy…please!”

He paused, hesitated, his resolve softened when he heard her use his pet name for the first time in months. He could not remember the last time she had used it. In his heart, however, he knew the usage was a trick, a way to manipulate him into giving her what she wanted, regardless of the effect to their marriage. His jaw clenched and the gun, which had begun to lower, came back up, this time turning ever so slightly in Jennifer’s direction. Then, unexpectedly, he relaxed at the noises behind him, the sound of two other sets of footfalls on the wooden veranda. Clara and Mila.

“Hans!” Clara shouted, not considering at that moment that perhaps she should use his rank or title or something other than his name in front of his wife and the soldiers. Lives were at stake and she had to do her part to save them.  All of them. He looked at her. Oblivious to anything then except her hypnotic green eyes, and then lower, to the protective arms she had wrapped around his child.

Hans squeezed the trigger. A cloud of dust hovered in the air above where the bullet was now embedded in the earth. His desire not to subject his child to the gruesome execution of a prisoner, and possibly her mother, stayed him from action more than anything else. There was a collective sigh of relief when he replaced his pistol in its fine leather holster and went to his wife’s side. He bent down to see if she was well. Despite that he had just spared, her life, and for the moment Skip’s, all Jennifer could see was the gun pointed at her by that man in that uniform and she recoiled from his touch. She believed it had been Clara who had prevented the killing, not her own efforts or some personal decision of her husband’s; in truth, it had been Mila’s presence that had stopped him. Her fury at Clara’s interference in her life only fueled her desire to escape Hans’ touch.

Hans saw it all in her eyes. Every fear, every rejection, every touch of blame. Glaring at Jennifer, he hissed in frustration, “This is your doing. Are you happy now?” Snarling with hurt, he resisted striking her and instead struck Skip hard across the face with the back of his hand, a blow that would have knocked Skip to the ground if the soldiers had not been holding him. “Take him to my office. I will deal with him there.”

He looked again at his wife, who still lay upon the ground and was now being hugged by their child, both reassuring one another that everything would be alright. Jennifer was murmuring that she had tripped and fallen, nothing more, a likelihood due to her drinking, though she had not had much to drink yet this morning. Hans wanted to kneel with them, offer his own words of love and comfort as he hugged them both…

…and then he saw Clara.

He growled and turned on to follow Skip and the guards to his office to mete out Skip’s punishment and hopefully still make it to the required luncheon on time. He was full of anger, resentment, and passion. But passion for who, he could not say.