Molly sprinted towards the building that looked like a church. Gravel kicked up near her feet and she zagged to the left, and continued toward the building. Behind her, the men who’d killed her family, followed, shouting, and firing both at her and into the air. She’d seen what they did to Ma, and didn’t doubt any less would happen to her. She clutched Uncle Joe’s pistol, and the pocket of her ripped dress had bullets in it that banged painfully against her thigh.
She put on a burst of speed, and burst through the rusted gate. Pounding up the steps, she staggered through the doors slamming them behind her. She ran to the far end of the building, and found a stairway to what might have been meant to be a choir loft. She crouched on the stairs, watching, trying to breathe through her mouth, and loading the pistol.
The doors crashed open, letting in the red light of the dying day as the sun sank below the horizon. Her pursuers were just dark, man-shapes in the doorway.
“I dunno, man. It’s a church.”
“Where’s the cross? Ain’t no church without a cross. She’s in here.” The thinnest one stepped in. “Where you at, girl?”
Molly watched silently from the shadows, then heard a soft creak above her. She looked up, pointing the gun. Another dark shape descended the stairs slowly. The red light gleamed off his polished boots. He held a finger to his lips, and crouched down next to her, ignoring the gun. He wore clothes like the riverboat gamblers they’d seen in St. Louis.
“Shall we kill them?” His breath was cool on her ear.
She nodded, eyes wide. He smiled, lips closed over his teeth.
“You wound the big one just outside the door. I will take care of the others.” He pointed. “Aim for the big one, right in the chest.”
Molly nodded again, and braced the gun on the railing. She fired, and the shape outside the door staggered back, then fell to its knees, coughing blood over the threshold of the door. The other two in the church turned toward the shadows of the stairway.
“Yes!” The man from the loft leapt over the railing, knives in his hands. The one in the lead dropped like a stone before he knew what hit him. The other, he grabbed, and buried his face in the crook of the bandit’s neck. The man screamed, his spine going rigid. A few moments later, the man from the loft dropped the body. He sighed, and licked the blood from his lips.
Molly raised the gun, aiming at him.
“Is that any way to treat your rescuer?” He smiled broadly, and she shuddered. “Come child, put the gun down. You can’t kill me with it, and I’d rather you didn’t hole my suit. It may be desperately out of style, but it’s all I’ve got.” As he spoke, he sidled closer, keeping his eyes locked on hers until he could pluck the gun from her hand. Molly squealed and tried to back away. He caught her arm.
“Let us be friends.” He spoke soothingly, as if to a small child or frightened animal.
“You… You’re a monster! You bit that…”
“Man who was going to rape you?” He kept his eyes on hers. “I’m your monster. You freed me. I owe you, my heart. Now, tell me why you’re all alone out here.”
Tears welled up in Molly’s eyes.
“Are there more of them?”
“Come.” He pulled her out of the ruined church, and along the path she’d taken, back to her family’s wagons. He had her crouch down in the grass. “Wait here, and if anyone but me comes this way, shoot them.” He handed the gun back to her, and melted into the darkness. A moment later, she heard shouting, a scream, and then someone ran at her. She shot, and the figure dropped.
“Good job.” Her monster said at her side. He put a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged him off and walked to the wagons. Her family lay dead where they’d been when she bolted: Uncle Joe, Ma, Pa, Steven, Agatha, even the baby. She stood in the midst of the carnage and started to cry.
“Shhh, my heart.” Her monster took her in his arms and held her while she cried. He smelled of dust and blood. She held tight to him and sobbed. When she’d quieted somewhat, he lifted her face by the chin.
“I am going to dig graves for your people. You get them ready. And then you and I will move on.”
“Because you want them buried, don’t you?”
“I need someone who can interact with the day… people. And you wouldn’t make it far alone.” He wiped tears off her face. “I’ll even carve markers if you like.”
“It’ll take a day or two to sort everything down to one wagon.” She looked him in the eye. “You can’t be out during the day?”
“No. And do try to remember that I saved your life.”
She contemplated him for a few minutes.
“We’ll sell the bandits’ horses at the next fort.”
“That’s my girl.” He smiled. “What is your name?”
“Molly, I am Stefan. I will protect you at night, you protect me during the day. Deal?”