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and the heavy blade wedged itself in the thick, dense bone of his forearm. He gave a loud, high cry, then twisted his body, putting as much distance as possible between himself and the attack.

After hearing the stair creak, Russell had fled the room for the one down the hall. He stood beside the door with a gulp of air trapped deep in his chest, waiting for whoever it was to try the knob. The slow, cautious steps had stopped for a moment, then continued their track toward the room where the woman lay bound and bleeding. He eased the door open and saw the man standing in a crouch. A second later the stranger had sprung, throwing the door wide and stumbling into the bright room. Russell recognized his chance and moved forward, the axe high over his head.

There was only a half-dozen feet between them when the old, dry boards gave away his advantage. Russell panicked and threw a wild, desperate swing. But the intruder moved with amazing speed, miraculously avoiding the better part of the wavering blow. The axe missed the man’s head but managed a reasonable enough job on his arm. He forced the weapon free, raised it overhead and prepared for another try. But the man had moved again, beyond reach. And then the room exploded.

The bullet strayed slightly to the right, taking a chunk of rib from Russell’s left side. Then, in what could have been nothing more planned than an unconscious reflex, the axe flew from Russell’s hand and smashed handle first into the sheriff’s chest. The shock stunned him. He wasn’t sure as it struck which part of the gruesome weapon had made contact. Fannon grabbed at the site of the blow, expecting the worst.

The ear shattering noise had jolted the axe right out of his hand, and had somehow spun his entire body to the left. Russell didn’t know at that moment that he had been shot. But he did know that he was unarmed. He moved with a leap, putting the bed between him and his assailant, then dug into his pocket and retrieved the razor. It was open and ready for play with a single flip of his wrist.

But Fannon had not been blind to the man’s move. He saw the razor appear and leveled his revolver at the middle of Russell’s chest, the way he had practiced a thousand times but never actually had to test. With his left arm hanging limply at his side, pumping blood onto the floor in pints, the sheriff knew that if he didn’t end the thing soon, his deputies would find two bodies the following morning when they came checking on him.

Russell stood jeering at the sheriff from across the bed, aware that he had been beaten. His chest was heaving rapidly and the air wheezed in an out of his mouth in long spittle-filled streams. Fannon recognized the look, he had seen it many times before in the faces of the wild coons that he had been forced to trap and destroy every few years to keep their population under control. He had also found several traps tripped but empty, except for the severed legs that the animals had chewed off and left behind.

The two men stared at each other for several long, tension filled moments. Then Russell calmed. “I guess you’ve won, sheriff,” he said, only now noticing the gold badge pinned to the man’s shirt pocket. He held his arms out to his side in a surrendering gesture.

Fannon heard the defeat in Russell’s voice and lowered his gun, he

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