He heard his deputy Larch yell, “Sheriff, front door!”
He ran around the side of his house to see Ox and Blessed, locked together like wrestlers, burst out of the front doorway, roll across the porch, and land hard on the flagstone steps. Both men were grunting and heaving as their fists pounded, blood from Blessed’s arm spreading over both of them. Ethan saw Blessed had a gun.
“Stay back!” Ethan yelled at his deputies. “Don’t shoot! You might hit Ox!” He got within six feet of where the men pummeled and battered each other when Blessed managed to jerk his arm out of Ox’s hold and fired. The bullet barely missed Ox’s face. It was so close it had to deafen both of them.
Ethan raised his gun. Enough was enough; he had to end it. He aimed carefully, only to have Ox suddenly roll on top of Blessed. All of them watched, guns leveled at the two men, when suddenly it seemed like Blessed was embracing Ox, but Ox wasn’t fighting him now. He was holding Ox close, and the two were staring at each other, Ox’s body blocking any shots. Neither man moved.
Moments passed before Ox came to his feet, Blessed coming up behind him, pressed against his back. Ox stood there, not moving, protecting him. All of them saw the gun pointing to Ox’s neck.
“Stay back, all of you, stay back, or this boy here’s dead!”
The Ox Ethan knew, the Ox he worked with, a man who was so tough he could beat the stuffing out of most other men without breaking a sweat, simply stood there, no expression on his face. He knew his deputies couldn’t believe Ox had folded, that he’d stopped fighting. It looked like he was now willingly protecting Blessed, letting him press his gun into his neck. Ethan raised a warning hand. “Blessed, we’re not moving. Look around you. You’re surrounded. Let Ox go, tell him to lie down. I won’t let you take him as a hostage. You hear me, Blessed?”
Blessed laughed, eerie and low. “No, Sheriff, Ox is my little buddy now, right, Ox?”
Ox didn’t move, didn’t speak, simply stood quiet in front of Blessed.
“Right, Ox?” Slowly Ox nodded.
Blessed yelled, “I want the kid! Bitch, I know you can hear me. You’ve probably got your gun aimed right at me. You send Autumn out now or this good old boy buys it. Now!”
Ethan heard her curse, knew she had no more bullets. She kept clear of the front door, but she was close. She shouted, “You’re not taking Autumn, you monster! Go back to that mad old woman and tell her it’s over. You’re not getting Autumn!”
His deputies were staring at Joanna, whose head came around the front door, but no one moved a whisker. Ethan figured he had maybe three more rounds in his clip.
He called out, “Why does the mad old woman want Autumn?”
Blessed screamed, “She’s not mad! It ain’t none of your business, Sheriff. I’m gonna hurt you bad for that, Joanna. Now I’m gonna kill me this big guy.”
Ethan said, “Wait, Blessed! Talk to me, maybe we can work something out. Tell me why you want the little girl. Tell me why she’s so important to you.”
He didn’t think Blessed would answer, but he did, his voice high, nearly a wail. “I gotta have her. You hear me? That’s all you gotta know.”
Joanna walked slowly out of the front door.
Ethan felt his heart drop to his boots. “Joanna, get back inside!”
“No, Sheriff,” she said, her voice as calm as the night. “He can take me if he’ll let Ox go. You just have to take care of Autumn, give her her last two pills.”
She waved him away. “Will you let him go, Blessed, and take me?”
“You thieving, conniving bitch! What would I want you for?” Blessed yelled. “We should have put your lights out as soon as Ma realized—” Blessed jerked the gun away from Ox’s neck and fired at her as she jumped back into the house.
BLESSED FIRED AGAIN into the open front door, and the bullet chipped off a huge hunk of the door frame. He yelled and stepped back toward the woods, pulling Ox back with him, firing at them with each step. Then his gun clicked empty, and he turned and ran. Ethan’s deputies fired after him. He doubted any of their bullets hit him this time unless through blind luck. It was simply too dark, and he’d been running like a berserker, in and out of the shadows and the trees.
Ethan knew Blessed had to be running scared. He’d not only failed, he was wounded. Ethan split up his eight deputies into pairs. To the three pairs who were going after Blessed in the woods, he said, “Listen to me carefully—this is not bullshit. Do not look at this guy in the face, you hear me? He’ll hypnotize you, and you’ll start acting like Ox. Yeah, that’s what he did to Ox, believe me. Do not look at his face!” He sent his other two deputies to their cars, watched them roar out of his driveway to cover the road. They’d try to keep Blessed pinned inside the woods until the others found him. If they didn’t, Blessed would disappear into the Titus Hitch Wilderness, at least that’s what Ethan would do. He had no clue whether Blessed was experienced in a wilderness. Maybe Joanna would know.