Ethan stood over him, watched his eyes roll back in his head. He lay perfectly still.
No one moved. There wasn’t a sound in the kitchen except for Ethan’s hard breathing and Autumn’s small gasps and hiccups. Joanna stared down at Ox, unmoving, watchful, her eyes narrowed, her foot up and ready to kick him again.
A minute passed—more like a damned year, Ethan thought—before he saw Ox open his eyes. He stared up at Ethan. Suddenly he didn’t look like a madman bent on murder, he looked very scared. Ethan wanted to shout with relief because now he saw Ox behind those eyes, saw Ox’s confusion. Ox—the Ox Ethan knew—was back. Had the violence, the pain, brought him back?
“Is he all right?” Joanna asked.
“Yes, he’s himself again.”
“It was the pain that brought him back,” she said. “Pain somehow breaks the hold.”
Brought him back from where? What hold? What happened to him? Had someone done this to him? This Blessed?
Ethan came down on his knees, pulled Ox up in his arms, and shook him slightly. “Ox? Come on now, wake up. You okay? You there?”
It seemed to everyone in the kitchen that another year passed before Ox said, his voice low and gravelly, like he’d been screaming too long and hard and bruised his throat, “Yeah. Ethan—what happened? My jaw and my guts feel like they’ve been kicked through my backbone by Old Hestus’s mule. Why’d you kick me like that? And Mrs. Backman kicked me in the ba—She kicked me and I wanted to puke and die. And the kid, she attacked me. What’s going on here, Ethan? Why?”
“It’s over now, everything’s okay.” Now that was a whopper of a lie. As Ethan pulled Ox up, he looked closely into his clearing eyes and dusted him down. “You sit down, get yourself together.” After he’d settled Ox into a kitchen chair, he speed-dialed Faydeen. “Get all my deputies at my house right away. This is a bona fide emergency. I don’t exactly know what’s happening, but there may be a very dangerous man here, so tell them all to come armed and be very careful. Hurry, Faydeen…. Yes, yes, I’ve got Mrs. Backman and Autumn with me. They’re all right. Do it, Faydeen, now.” He turned to Joanna, who was holding Autumn against her side. He saw that the little girl was trying very hard not to cry. He came down on his knee in front of her.
“You did really good, Autumn. You grabbed his arm, kept your mama safe. I’m very proud of you.”
She snuffled once, then gave him a very small smile.
He patted her arm and rose. Joanna was as white-faced as her daughter. She looked panicked, ready to bolt. He said quietly, “Tell me what happened to Ox.”
She grabbed his arm, shook him. “I’ll explain later, but that’s not important now. Listen to me, Sheriff, you saw what he did to your deputy. He’s close by, probably right outside the window. He can make anyone do things, horrible things if he wants, crazy things.”
“Who’s close by?”
“A very scary man,” she said, trying not to pant with fear, trying not to lose it in front of her daughter. She lowered her voice. “We’ve got to get out of here.” Then she slapped her palm to her forehead. “No, I’m an idiot. He’s out there, and I can’t take the chance he’ll get Autumn. How are we going to get her away from here, away from him?”
Joanna grabbed for Ethan’s Beretta on the kitchen table. He closed his hand over hers. “No, stop. Dammit, you’ve got to tell me what’s going on. What the hell happened to Ox? You say this man made him act crazy? That’s true enough, but how? How did Blessed make Ox do this? How did hurting Ox break the hold? Talk to me, Joanna, stop holding back. If some crazy man is here, I need to know all about him, now.”
Joanna was so scared she thought she’d vomit. She saw him, through the kitchen window, saw him—yet in her brain, she knew it was only shadows, tree branches shifting in the night winds. It didn’t matter, she had to get that gun and shoot him. Or would he make her turn the gun on herself and blow her own face off?
Ethan shook her, then noticed Autumn ready to leap on him to protect her mother. He didn’t yell at her, he kept his voice low and quiet. “Joanna, look at me. I’m big and I’m mean and I know what I’m doing. You are not going to take my gun. I can protect you and Autumn, but you’ve got to tell me what and who I’m protecting you against.” He grabbed her and shook her again. Her head snapped back on her neck. “Pay attention here! Talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.”