Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008
The title comes from a 1930 verse 'Other People's Babies', by A P Herbert:
Other people's babies - That's my life!
Mother to dozens, And nobody's wife.
- 1 -
'Miss Molloy! Miss Molloy!'
On hearing her name, Josie gave up on the stump she had spent most of the day trying to wrestle from the vegetable patch. She walked towards the small boy who came running into view, wiped her hands on an already filthy apron and rubbed one across her forehead, leaving a swathe of dirt in place of the sweat she removed.
'What is it, Micky?'
'Men at the gate.' The boy pulled urgently at her sleeve but she maintained her own brisk pace.
Micky shook his head of unruly brown curls. 'Ain't never seen 'em afore.'
'You haven't ever seen them before.'
'That's what I said.'
Josie sighed. She wasn't one for airs and graces herself but even the basics eluded most of her charges. As she cleared the trees, she saw seven horsemen waiting at the gate. Even from her present distance, she could see two were injured. She sighed but continued towards them. When she reached the gate, she scanned them quickly and reached the same judgement as Micky. She had never seen them before either.
'Good afternoon, gentlemen. Can I help you?'
A man in black urged his horse forward a couple of paces. He studied the woman in front of him. She was a pretty redhead, with sharp green eyes and a scattering of freckles across her nose. Her fineboned face and slender figure told him she was probably in her middle twenties but something in her expression suggested experience beyond her years.
'Afternoon, ma'am. Two of my men are in a bad way. Any chance of some food and rest?'
She evaluated their casualties. A big man of about fifty had bullet wounds to his upper arm and gut, while a smartly dressed man of about thirty-five also had two wounds, shoulder and thigh.
'You work for Richardson?' she asked.
'Never heard of him.'
He shook his head.
After a moment's thought, she opened the gate. She examined the men as they rode past. They were clearly exhausted and even dirtier than she was. The leader was about forty, with hair that would have been fair had it been less filthy. Behind him rode a tall man of similar age, with dark hair and a mustache, and a lad half their age, wearing a bowler and a pair of pearl-handled guns. The injured men came next, flanked by two men of about thirty. One was a negro and the other a long-haired man in a buckskin jacket. Their horses carried saddlebags, bedrolls and rifles. Josie guessed they'd been on the move for at least a week.
She turned to the boy. 'Micky, fetch Mark and Jim for me please.'
Micky ran ahead, swelled by his own importance at knowing about the visitors first. As they neared the house, he reappeared with two older boys, obviously brothers with the same sandy hair and pale blue eyes. The trio looked on while five men dismounted and then helped their two semi-conscious companions to do the same.
'Boys, see to the horses, will you? Gentlemen, this way please.'
Mark and Jim took three horses each, while little Micky took the odd one. The men followed Josie in, the negro and the long-haired man supporting their wounded comrades. Once inside, Josie led them to the library. It was the largest room in the house and the least often used. The men settled the casualties on the large leather sofas that stood either side of the fireplace. It was the negro who spoke first.
'I need to get the wounds cleaned and dressed.'
'Of course.' Josie returned to the hall, where a group of children had gathered and were trying to see through the library door. 'Sarah, boil some water. Angela, bandages. Ruby, some new rags. The rest of you, back to your books please.' She ushered them into the schoolroom and then went into the dining room to get a bottle of whisky. She supervised the delivery of materials to the library, checked that the negro had all he needed and then turned to the men's leader.
'Would you like to get cleaned up before you eat?'
He smiled. 'Reckon you might appreciate it.'
She found herself smiling back. 'I'm afraid I'm little better myself. There is a stump in the vegetable garden that has been beating me for a year and today has been yet another lost battle. Josie Molloy.'
He shook the hand she offered. 'Chris Larabee.' He introduced the tall man as Buck Wilmington, the youngster as JD Dunne, the negro as Nathan Jackson, the long-haired man as Vin Tanner and the two wounded men as Josiah Sanchez and Ezra Standish.
Leaving Nathan to work, Josie led the other four men through to the kitchen and set a pot of coffee on to brew. When the boys came in from the stable, she instructed the two older ones to fill baths in the bathhouse. Micky stood at Josie's side, watching the men with wide eyes.
'They'll soon have you taken care of,' she assured her uninvited guests.
'What is this place?' Buck asked.
'You ain't here by yourself, are you?' Vin asked. His voice was a soft drawl, filled with concern, something Josie had not heard in a man's voice for too long.
'No but my colleagues are away at present.'
'Who's Richardson?' Chris asked her.
She did not reply, asking instead, 'How were your friends injured?'
'Came up from the south,' he replied. 'Just passing through. Needed water and some fellas weren't too keen on us taking it.'
'Olsen,' she said. 'This used to be a good place till those two started. They're overgrazing the territory and now there isn't enough water in the dry season. The men they're bringing in aren't just a danger to each other.'
'Why'd you let us in?' Vin asked.
Her expression was a mixture of bitterness and amusement. 'If you were that type, you'd have come in anyway.'
'They give you trouble?'
She looked uncomfortable. 'Not generally. We don't have much they want. But some of the older girls '
She was rescued by the arrival of Mark and Jim announcing that the baths were ready. Josie sent the boys to the schoolroom before going to her own room to wash and change. Ten minutes later, she joined the children, who were dutifully sitting with their books open though she guessed there had been little studying.
'Who'd like to help get supper for our guests then?' Finding plenty of willing helpers, she delegated tasks all round and then went to check on the injured men in the library. She asked Nathan, 'Do you think they will be all right?'
'Reckon so. Lost a bit of blood but the bullets are out.'
He had cleaned the two men up and both seemed to be resting comfortably. Vin came in at that moment and offered to sit with them while Nathan took his turn in the barn. Josie returned to the kitchen to supervise her troop of assistants in rustling up a meal that would stretch to five extra servings, with some left for the patients.
Supper was almost ready when Josie saw one of her colleagues driving up in their ancient buggy with the three older girls. Lottie Delaware was ten years Josie's senior but with a fraction of her emotional strength. She was terrified of all men and Josie knew how much use she would be if the guests proved troublesome. Two of the girls, chestnut-haired brown-eyed sisters Ada and Susan, were as reliable as fifteen and sixteen year olds could be but Madeleine was another matter, seventeen and very much aware of her growing allure to men.
Josie went out to welcome them back and explain the situation.
'Oh my,' Lottie gasped. 'Why did you let them in? They can't stay here.'
'I told you,' Josie said calmly but firmly. 'Two of them are badly wounded. I couldn't turn them away.'
'What are they like?' Madeleine asked, excitement in her lively blue eyes.
Josie gave her a severe look. 'That is an impertinent question, young lady. It is of no consequence to you what they are like. I expect you girls to behave with decorum and courtesy towards these guests at all times, and no more than that. Am I making myself understood?'
'Yes, Miss,' the three girls answered in unison. Josie had no doubt that Ada and Susan would do their best. She had equally little doubt that she would have to watch Madeleine like a hawk.
She led the little party inside, hoping that somehow everything would turn out all right. All she needed now was for her remaining colleague, a dissolute reprobate by the name of the Reverend Peter Barker, to return.
Half an hour later, all but the two injured men were seated round the dining room table, five men, two women and a dozen children aged from six to seventeen. Their meal comprised a large caldron of rabbit stew, with a generous stack of buttered new potatoes.
Josie seated Lottie at the far end of the table from their guests, with children on both sides of her, but the woman's hands still shook so badly that she gave up trying to eat in despair. Always a pale woman, even her light brown hair and pastel blue eyes now seemed gray. Ada and Susan giggled at her plight until they caught Josie's stern glare and concentrated on their own plates.
Micky had been quick to take a seat next to the man in black and was now copying his every move. Josie saw Chris smile when he noticed the surveillance. The kindness in the man's face reassured her that he and his men posed no threat to her charges. That confidence was shattered when she saw where the man next to him was looking; Buck had been quick to appreciate Madeleine's charms and the girl beside Josie was encouraging his interest. Seeing no value in a scene, Josie held her tongue. Beside Buck, JD was thinking of nothing but his stomach as he worked through more potatoes than she ever recalled seeing a man eat at one sitting. Shifting her gaze to the next man, Josie met Vin's eye and knew he had seen her assessment of the others. His eyes creased into a slight smile, conveying wordless comfort that she had no cause for concern. When she caught herself admiring the ocean blue depths of those eyes, she hastily completed her examination with Nathan. The gaze he returned was too open and friendly to be a deception.
Looking back down the table at the children, Josie saw Mark seeking permission to speak. She nodded.
'Where you fellas come from?'
'Few days north of here,' Chris told him. 'Place called Four Corners.'
Taking Mark's lead, Jim chimed in. 'You gunfighters?'
Chris hesitated before answering. 'Not exactly. Unofficial lawmen, you might say.'
Josie looked up sharply. The description came uncomfortably close to how she imagined some of the men working for Richardson and Olsen viewed themselves. She decided to give free rein to the children's impertinence, on the off-chance she might learn something worthwhile.
Mark stabbed a potato thoughtfully. 'Wasn't too smart your friends getting shot.'
Four of the five men smiled at that, JD still being young enough to take offence at a youngster's honest criticism. Chris said only, 'Wasn't expecting someone to take pot shots at us for filling up a canteen.'
'That's Olsen for you. He's a yellow-bellied sack of sh-'
'Mark!' Josie cut the boy off.
'You know he is, Miss.'
'If you must impugn another man's reputation behind his back, please do so in standard English.'
'Yes, Miss. The man's a coward.'
'Richardson ain't no better,' a younger boy protested. He was a swarthy thirteen-year-old, whose coarse looks belied a very sweet temperament.
'Isn't any better,' Josie prompted.
His mouth now full of potato, the boy waved his fork in acceptance of the correction.
Mark made as if to say something then changed his mind. 'Guess not, Bob.'
Chris looked at them curiously. 'How you boys come to be here?'
'Orphans, ain't aren't we?' Jim told him. Indicating Mark, he added, 'Olsen had our old man killed. Richardson done Bob's Pa and Ma.' He looked at the others. 'Same thing with Micky, Angela and Ruby.'
The little girl Jim identified as Ruby was only six years old. She looked up at his words and her eyes filled with tears that spilled over onto her cheeks in seconds. Josie hastened to her side and gathered the delicate bundle into her arms, stroking her glossy brown ringlets in comfort.
'Hell, Ruby, I'm sorry,' Jim said. 'I didn't mean to make her cry, Miss.'
'I know. Go get Daisy for her, would you?'
The boy returned inside a minute with a rag doll. Ruby emerged from Josie's shoulder just long enough to grab the toy before returning to her safe haven. Josie returned to her own seat with the girl on her lap.
Their five guests exchanged grim looks. They weren't often privy to the day-to-day misery faced by the victims of the kind of men from whom they protected their own town. Exactly half of the children in front of them had been put in the orphanage by two men fighting over water rights.
Madeleine looked superciliously at the child on Josie's lap. 'For goodness sake, Ruby. You can't spend the rest of your life bursting into tears every time someone mentions your parents.'
Josie gave the girl a sharp glare but said nothing. For all her faults, Madeleine was ordinarily generous and the uncharacteristic bitchiness was only a misguided effort to sound grown up.
Unfortunately, the remark gave the three older boys considerable amusement. Mark spoke for them all when he said, 'Don't you worry none, Ruby. Reckon I rather my old man got shot than died of something he picked up in a knocking-shop.' After a moment, he corrected himself. 'I mean a brothel.' The other children giggled.
Josie ran a hand despairingly over her forehead while Lottie went even paler and then hurried from the room. Madeleine looked daggers at Mark and followed Lottie.
'If you three boys have so much energy to spare this evening, you can do the washing up,' Josie told them. 'Ada and Susan, please get the young ones to bed.' She handed a calmer Ruby to Susan, waited till the room was clear of children and then asked, 'Would you gentlemen like coffee or a drink perhaps.'
'Have a drink with us?' Vin asked.
She smiled shyly at him, then transferred the modest contents of the cupboard to the table and invited them to help themselves. Nathan went to check on his patients in the library.
'My apologies for the children's manners. I realize they aren't a good advertisement for my supervision.'
'Wouldn't say that,' Chris told her. 'They seem to mind you and look out for each other.'
'Oh yes, they do. To be honest, I'd have a job managing without Mark, Jim, Ada and Susan. Lottie is well Lottie and my other colleague is away a lot.' She wondered at the wisdom of telling them she was effectively alone. Still, if they were as astute as she judged them to be, they could see that for themselves.
'What's Lottie's problem?' Buck asked.
The question took Josie by surprise. She could have spent the whole night listing Lottie's problems but she knew what he meant. 'She's afraid of men.' She paused for a moment, then added, 'Not without reason.'
He followed up with, 'Was that true about the girl's father?'
Josie smiled. 'That's open to conjecture. Actually, the way I heard it, he was shot by an irate husband. Whatever the facts of the matter, it's certain he was a colorful character.'
'What about the other kids?' Chris enquired.
'Oh, the usual mixture. Charlie was abandoned as a baby, probably illegitimate. Maurie's mother died in childbirth, father couldn't cope. Sarah's parents went in the yellow fever epidemic. Ada and Susan's were shot during a bank robbery when the girls were eight.'
'You done this long?' Buck asked.
'I've been here since I was nine.' Needing a change of subject, she moved on to practicalities. 'I'm not sure where we can put you tonight. We're only supposed to have ten children so we're already over-full.'
'Don't worry about that,' Chris assured her. 'We'll bed down on the floor 'longside Josiah and Ezra.'
'Are you sure? I could move some of the children.'
'Wouldn't hear of it,' he told her.
An hour later, Josie waited in the hall while the men settled themselves for the night. She was concerned about having them in the house but she was a pragmatist: she could shut them in the barn and lock the house but five fit men could easily overcome whatever obstacles she placed in their path. Better to maintain a civil atmosphere and hope they did not disappoint her.
After bidding them goodnight, she went upstairs to her own room. Turning into the hallway, she saw movement at the far end of the corridor. She strode to the last door and into Madeleine's tiny room. The girl was in bed, pretending to be asleep. Josie went over and turned back the covers, finding her fully clothed as she expected.
Madeleine snatched back the covers resentfully.
Josie sighed. 'Don't be a fool, Madeleine. A few minutes of fun isn't worth years of trouble.'
'How would you know? You're wasting your life here, just getting old.'
'Someone has to look after the little ones.'
'But these men are nice, aren't they. You wouldn't let them stay if they weren't.'
'I think they probably are good men but they're still men and they can walk away afterwards. Don't forget that you can't and that they might not stop when you want them to. Now get some sleep. Please.'
Josie stood outside the girl's door for a moment, contemplating locking it. In the end, she decided not to do so. She always treated the children with trust and respect; she would do so now, even if that meant more messy consequences to deal with later.
- 2 -
The household was up with the light the next morning. Josie was surprised by Lottie's early arrival in the kitchen.
'C-can I help?'
Josie smiled and squeezed her hand, knowing what a nightmare the situation was for her. 'The children have got most things in hand. Could you ask Nathan if there's anything he needs for the wounded men?'
'The n-negro?' Lottie asked with wide eyes.
'He seems very friendly.'
Lottie made her way to the library. She had seen some of the men go outside, presumably to answer the call of nature or splash their faces in the trough. She knocked timidly at the door.
'C'mon in,' a voice called.
She put her head nervously round the door jamb.
'Hello, Lottie,' Nathan said encouragingly. 'What is it?'
'Josie w-wanted to know i-if you needed anything f-for them.'
'I got 'em cleaned up,' he told her. 'Reckon they could use a little bit o' breakfast though.'
'A-all right. I'll tell her.'
When Lottie arrived with her message, Josie prepared two trays with coffee, eggs and fresh bread.
'Would you take these along to them, Lottie?'
Lottie trotted along with the first tray, which Nathan took at the door, but he was occupied helping Ezra sit up when she arrived with the second. She waited a full minute before plucking up courage to take Josiah his tray. He was struggling to stay conscious, still weak from the blood he'd lost. Seeing his frailty, Lottie's compassion overcame her fear. She went to his side, set down the tray and propped him up with more cushions. Nathan was surprised to turn and find her helping his friend to sip coffee, smiled to himself and returned to his own patient. He could think of no one better able to conquer Lottie's terror of men than Josiah.
In the kitchen, an informal breakfast was unfolding in shifts as men and children drifted to and from the table. Chris was leaning thoughtfully against the back door frame.
'Nathan reckons it's gonna be a day or two yet before we can ride on,' he told Josie. 'Hate to impose but '
'It can't be helped,' she replied.
'You got enough food? Don't like to think of the kids going short.'
'Least we can do is help out around here. Must be able to use us somehow.'
She pondered that. 'Mark and Jim could use help with some of the heavier work. I'll ask them to show you what they need. Perhaps some hunting too. There's still some game in a canyon a few miles east but Richardson thinks he owns it.' She looked at Vin, evaluating his attire and the mare's leg at his side. 'I'm sure you could get in and out without being seen.'
He nodded. 'Reckon so.'
When Mark and Jim came in from their early chores, Josie told them about Chris's offer. They nodded and Mark said, 'We got trouble down in the bottom field. Ground's heavy and our horses ain't up to much.'
Buck grinned at Chris. 'Time to see what you're made of, farm-boy. Musta learned something all those years in Indiana.'
'Wouldn't laugh too loud, Buck. You and JD'll be helping.'
'Where's this canyon then?' Vin asked.
Josie looked across at Jim. 'I thought Mr Tanner might try hunting out at Swaggart's Bluff.'
'I could show you,' the boy offered.
Vin shook his head. 'Thanks but safer on my own.'
Jim considered that and then nodded. Leading Vin outside, he pointed across the landscape and gave detailed directions to the canyon, a description of the country to be crossed and what he knew of Richardson's activities. Vin smiled at him: the briefing was thorough and businesslike.
Chris, Buck and JD put in a long, hard morning helping Mark and Jim plough the bottom field. The boys had not exaggerated the difficulty but the soil was fertile and worth the effort. Three grown men with teams of young, fit horses finally managed to beat the land into submission.
They were just completing the final furrow when Ada and Susan appeared over a ridge, each carrying a large jug of lemonade. They handed the jugs to Chris and Buck, then watched shyly while the men drank. Mark and Jim exchanged amused glances at the girls' silence. They were usually a chatty pair.
'Cat got your tongues?' Mark enquired.
Ada kicked him.
'They won't bite you,' Jim added.
The two girls blushed deeply and set off back to the house with the empty jugs.
JD was sprawled on a patch of grass. 'Tell you what. You two should think about a change of line. This farming's too much like hard work. You're old enough to take care of yourselves, ain't you?'
'And do what?' Mark asked. 'Go work for Richardson? Olsen? Kill a few women and children maybe?'
'You could go anywhere.'
Jim ran a hand through his hair. 'We thought about it but Miss Molloy needs us here. Ain't nobody nowhere else that does.'
- 3 -
Vin found Jim's instructions as precise as they had seemed. He had no difficulty in locating the canyon and saw no recent tracks around it. Once confident he could shoot without being heard, he began the search for game. It wasn't abundant but, a little over two hours later, he managed to bag a deer.
He pondered the orphanage as he rode back, the stag thrown across his horse's shoulders. It was clear that life was hard for the group but equally clear that hardship had forged the same kind of bonds he now shared with his companions. He would have liked to discover such bonds when he had been a child, alone in the world like little Ruby. All he had discovered was the monotony of long hours locked away until he was old enough to work, his days broken up only by regular beatings, some deserved, most not. He caught himself sharply, shoving the memories back down where they had long lain buried.
His thoughts moved on to the young woman on whose shoulders the burden of care for a dozen waifs and strays seemed to rest. She was pretty enough by any measure but that wasn't what attracted him to her. He admired the devotion she showed to her charges and the adoration she inspired in them. Sorry to be adding to her troubles, he was pleased not to be returning empty handed now.
His pleasure was as nothing compared with the delight in the faces of the open-mouthed children who gathered round on his return.
There was a dreamy look in Bob's eye as he said, 'Venison.'
Micky looked at him in confusion. 'It's a deer.'
Josie hugged the younger boy. 'A deer is venison when you eat it, Micky, like a cow is beef. Thank you, Mr Tanner. This will be a rare treat for us.'
'Vin, ma'am,' he told her as he dismounted.
'Josie, sir,' she told him with a grin. 'Bob, help Mr Tanner with the deer, would you?'
With Bob's competent assistance, Vin made short work of skinning and cleaning the deer. They delivered the carcass into the kitchen, where Josie rounded up the other children and set about processing the meat into as many products as possible to meet their immediate needs and provide some variety in coming weeks as well.
Vin put his head around the library door but withdrew when he saw Nathan dozing peacefully alongside his sleeping patients. Wandering back outside, he thought about Josie's comment to Chris about a stump in the vegetable patch. He found it on the far side of some goat and chicken pens and was examining it when Chris and Mark joined him.
'Any luck at the canyon?' Chris asked.
'Bagged a deer.'
Mark smiled. 'You'll make some friends with that. What you doing out here?'
'Aw, just thinking 'bout taking this out,' Vin replied.
Chris looked at his friend in surprise.
Vin shrugged. 'Don't seem like the sort of thing a lady should be doing for herself.'
'Wouldn't touch it if I was you,' Mark told him.
'If Miss Molloy wanted that stump out, it'd be out by now. She comes here when she's riled and has a go at it. Don't know how she'd manage without it.'
The two men exchanged amused glances at the boy's understanding.
'So she was riled yesterday?' Chris asked.
The boy nodded.
Chris raised an eyebrow.
'Rev Barker. You ain't met him yet. You'll be lucky if that lasts. Maybe someone'll do us all a favor and shoot him.'
They made their way back toward the house. As they did so, they could hear shouting from inside. Seconds later, Buck emerged from the front door, pursued by an angry Josie brandishing a short whip. She caught him a stinging blow across the back of his thighs.
'I wasn't doing nothing. Really. She came on '
'I don't care if she begs you for it. While you are a guest in this house, you will show restraint. If you cannot do that, you will leave. If I have to tell you again, I'll be holding a gelding iron not a whip. Are we clear?'
He turned back to face her, impressed by the spirit she showed in accosting an armed man.
'Yes, ma'am. You have my word. Even if she begs.'
Suddenly aware of an audience watching the scene, Josie reddened and hurried back inside.
Chris had been amused by the tearing off his friend had received but not by the likely cause of it.
'Buck! What the hell?'
The tall man joined them. 'It wasn't nothing, Chris. Just that minx Madeleine. Caught me unawares.'
Jim and JD had also witnessed the scene and now wandered over. Jim and Mark grinned at each other.
'Was she serious about the gelding iron?' Buck asked them, only half in jest himself. 'Suppose that's one way to protect a young lady's virtue.'
'Reckon she knows she's a good bit too late to worry about Maddy's virtue,' Mark remarked.
Jim gave the tall man a serious look. 'She just don't need another mouth to feed, is all.'
Once again, the men were surprised by the boys' maturity. The look Chris gave Buck said quite clearly he thought the man might learn a thing or two from them.
Inside the house, Madeleine was displaying considerably less maturity.
'I hate you,' she spat at Josie, tossing her head of corn-colored curls. 'You made a fool of me.'
Tired of arguing, Josie turned her back on the girl. 'You were doing that quite nicely by yourself. If you want to behave like a tart, why don't you move into a brothel and at least get paid for it.'
Before stamping up to her room, Madeleine fairly shrieked her response. 'You're a frigid old cow like Lottie. You wouldn't know what it's like to want a man.'
Her words were clearly audible outside. Mark and Jim looked at each other, no longer amused.
'Stupid bitch,' Mark growled as they set off for the house. The boys knew Josie would not sink to Madeleine's level but they did not intend to let the matter pass without comment.
Buck held up his hands to forestall any comment from his friends. 'Honest, I was walking through the hall to see Nathan and the girl grabbed me. I ain't saying I wouldn't have but in this case I didn't. And I won't now. Don't you think I can see the lady's got her hands full.'
Mark and Jim let themselves into Madeleine's room without knocking. She was in angry tears on the bed.
'What the hell was that about?' Mark demanded.
'Mind your own business.'
'These fellas are just passing through, Mad. You wanna be five minutes entertainment?'
'You wouldn't understand. You're too young.'
'Don't be so damned soft, girl,' Jim told her. 'We ain't been too young since you known us. And Miss Molloy ain't too old neither. Some folks just think afore they do it, that's all.'
Seeing the anger was a poor cover for her self-loathing and frustration, the two boys left her to it. Downstairs in the kitchen, horrified by Madeleine's behavior, Ada and Susan supervised the younger children in the tasks Josie had assigned. Of the youngsters, only Bob really understood what the argument had been about.
Meanwhile, Josie was sobbing in a corner of the bathhouse. She knew she should not be upset by a foolish girl's taunts but felt her youth slipping away while she wrestled with other people's mistakes and misfortunes. Madeleine had been quite wrong when she said that Josie did not understand desire. In fact, she had been experiencing overwhelming desire during the twenty-four hours since the visitors arrived and it was as much as she could do to behave responsibly herself without having to think for other people as well.
Comfort came from an unexpected source. Lottie had been helping Nathan in the library when the confrontation occurred. Once it had blown over, she went in search of Josie. With the experience of her own fear and loathing, Lottie knew better than anyone that Josie did not share them. She might be exasperated by the consequences of men's violence and lust but she was neither frightened nor repelled by men themselves. It took Lottie ten minutes to find her. She closed the door quietly, sat on the floor and took her hand.
'Try not to w-worry about it. You know w-what it's like being that age. She didn't mean it.'
Josie nodded, blinking back her tears.
Lottie gave an uncharacteristic wink before saying, 'You do know w-what it's like w-wanting a man, don't you?'
'It is so obvious?'
'How long have w-we been here together?'
With a shrug and a smile, Lottie said only, 'W-we've got a nice venison supper w-waiting for us, thanks to your friend. Don't let Madeleine spoil it.'
The two women returned to the kitchen and started to crack the whip over supper. Lottie was right - venison was a rare treat, not to be spoiled by nonsense.
Meanwhile, Chris, Buck, Vin and JD had returned to the library.
'Everything okay?' Nathan asked.
Chris gave Buck a sidelong glance, to which the tall man responded with a wounded look.
Ezra was now fully conscious, with Josiah not far behind. 'So, gentlemen, where are we and what is our plan?'
Chris explained their circumstances and what they knew of local affairs. He concluded by asking Nathan how much longer he thought they'd need to stay.
The healer finished checking Josiah over before answering. 'Reckon two days should do it.'
An hour later, all seven men joined the women and children for supper. When Josie noticed Madeleine's absence, she went upstairs to talk to the girl and brought her down a few minutes later. Initially shamefaced, the girl was soon fascinated by one of the new arrivals at the table, the handsome visage of Ezra Standish.
Lottie and Josie exchanged meaningful looks when they discerned the new object of Madeleine's attentions. They knew she was fickle but her capacity for shallowness still surprised even them on occasion. Josie was relieved to see in Ezra's face a full grasp of the situation and a total absence of any intent to exploit it.
The atmosphere was relaxed as the diners savored their lavish meal. Even Lottie coped well and, shielded by her charges on all sides, managed one or two small smiles to Josiah and Nathan. Josie was pleased to see the first tiny signs of confidence in male company she had detected in a long time. Of course, most of the men they now encountered only compounded the problem.
The dreamy look had returned to Bob's face as he chewed a piece of meat into nothing. Josie watched him curiously, finally asking, 'Is it good, Bob?'
His eyes were moist as he nodded. 'Always used to have venison on my Ma's birthday, if Pa could get it.' He looked at Vin. 'Thanks, Mr Tanner.'
Vin waved the thanks away, unable to speak as the memories of his own mother flooded back. He looked at Ruby, thinking again of how she had been orphaned at much the same age as he himself had. She was in fine form this evening, struggling to chew a large piece of meat she had crammed into her mouth. He smiled at the earnest expression she wore while subjugating it.
Josie had been watching Vin out of the corner of her eye. She was initially puzzled by his interest in Ruby and, far from naïve as she was, it gave her a moment's concern. In his eyes, however, she saw only kindness and distant memories. Her intuition soon kicked in, telling her that he had lost his parents when small as the little girl had. Ruby was unfazed by his surveillance, returning his gaze with her large blue eyes.
Before long, Ezra pushed his chair back with a sigh. 'I congratulate you ladies on an exquisite meal. Mr Tanner may have provided the main ingredient but we have your gastronomic expertise to thank for the sublime result.'
Mark grinned at Josie. 'That how you want us to speak, Miss?'
Josie smiled at his impertinence. 'I wonder, Mr Standish, have you any experience in teaching elocution?'
Ezra entered into the spirit of the enquiry. 'I regret that my companions demonstrate my abject failure to raise standards in that area.'
Buck grinned at Josiah. 'Get the feeling he's insulting us again, if we could understand a word he says.'
Ruby was still watching Vin intently. She reluctantly took her eyes off him to address Josie. 'Leave the table?'
Josie gave her permission and the little girl carefully slid off her chair, walked round to Vin and held out her arms. Taken off guard, he took a moment before looking to Josie for her consent. When she signaled it, he gently lifted Ruby up. She settled herself happily on his lap and leaned against his shoulder, her left thumb in her mouth and right hand on his chest. He clasped his hands in front of her, creating a cozy cocoon without making any contact that could be misconstrued.
Vin's friends looked on in surprise. He was the last man they'd expect to inspire that kind of confidence or to respond so comfortably to it.
Angela and Sarah cleared the table while Ada and Susan hurried off to the kitchen. When they returned, it was with an apple pie and large jug of custard. Josie smiled at them. She wasn't a great meat lover but fruit pies were high on her list of favorite things. She hadn't known about the pie and understood that it was the girls' attempt to cheer her up following the afternoon's upset.
'Thank you, girls. That was a very kind thought.'
The dessert filled the diners to bursting point. Lottie took Angela and Sarah through to the kitchen to wash up, while Bob got the three younger boys off to bed. When Vin stood with the now sleeping Ruby still in his arms, Josie led him upstairs to the room the little girl shared with Angela and Sarah. He laid the fragile little body on the bed and then sat on the far side of the room while Josie transferred Ruby into her nightgown without waking her. With her back to him, Josie spoke softly.
'You're one of us, aren't you, Vin?'
'Never knew my Pa. Ma died when I was five. Putrid fever.'
'My mother died when I was born, my father when I was nine. Fever'n'ague.'
Josie put Daisy into bed with Ruby, tucked the covers round them and then sat beside Vin, who had made no effort to move.
'You do quite a job here,' he told her.
She blushed and stared at her hands. 'We all pull together.'
'Any team needs a lead horse.'
'Once in a while, I wish someone else would take the lead.'
He smiled. 'Doubt many could do it so well. You were kind to Madeleine tonight, after what she said.'
'We say all sorts of things when we're seventeen.'
He reached over and smoothed back a stray lock of her hair. 'But you ain't like Lottie, are you?'
She looked into his honest eyes. 'No. I know what it is to want a man. But I've spent my life surrounded by the consequences of it.'
He smiled. 'Won't be taking it that far. Trust me?'
When she nodded, he kissed her. The touch of his lips was tender, filled with understanding and shared experience. Josie had never known that a kiss could be so eloquent. She accepted the comfort of his arms and opened her mouth to his tongue. They permitted themselves ten minutes of exploration and indulgence before returning downstairs.
They found the men and older children playing cards in the library, Ezra with Ada, Susan and Madeleine, the other men with Jim and Mark. Recognizing the men's game as poker, Josie frowned at the boys with a twinkle in her eye.
Jim grinned back. 'We told 'em we ain't got no haven't got any money. We're betting stable duties.'
She examined the girls' game with interest. There was no evidence of betting.
'Whist,' Ezra explained. 'A fitting game for young ladies, I believe.'
Josie acknowledged his consideration with a smile. Seeing everything was in order, she and Vin wandered outside for a walk. She took his arm and steered him to the south side of the grounds, where they still maintained the remnants of the gardens the orphanage residents had enjoyed in more prosperous times.
'Mark said there's a man here we ain't met,' Vin said.
She nodded. 'The not-so-reverend Peter Barker.'
He grinned. 'Yeah, the boy's rooting for him taking a bullet. Who is he?'
'This place is owned by the church so there's always a clergyman. The previous one was a wonderful man, like a father to me and the others. These gardens were his work it'd break his heart to see them so run down but it's difficult to manage everything.' She paused for a moment to regain her composure. 'Barker was sent here when Reverend Thomas died. He was a bad lot from the start and I tried to get him replaced. At first, I thought the committee didn't believe me but I soon found out he'd been in trouble before - his family has influence so he's been dumped here where he can't upset anyone who matters. I don't have the right to throw him out and, in any case, what little money we get comes through him, after he's spent most of it.'
Vin wiped off a wooden bench with his sleeve and they sat looking out over the countryside towards the setting sun on the far horizon.
'What kind of trouble he give you?' he asked.
'Most kinds. He eats far more than his share of our provisions, drinks excessively, gambles badly and brings back the kind of men I'd rather didn't know we were here. He bullies the boys and pesters the girls.'
She looked at him awkwardly. 'I'm too old for him, if you take my meaning.'
He did indeed take her meaning and his face hardened. 'That why you were keeping an eye on me tonight?'
'I'm sorry,' she said quickly. 'That was rude of me. I didn't realize you saw.'
'That don't matter,' he assured her. 'A little thing like Ruby?'
'Ada and Susan take the brunt of it, because they're always around and they're too kind for their own good. That's why Mark and Jim hate him. He gave up with Madeleine long ago, after she nearly took his eyes out. I'm not sure how far it went with the little ones - we never leave them alone with him now but it was a while before such a thing even crossed my mind. I think I hope it was just looking and touching. That's all I saw.'
'Hell, you don't have it easy here, do you?'
'Perhaps now you understand Lottie better. You wouldn't believe what her father and brothers did to her. It was years before she spoke a word to anyone here. Reverend Thomas helped her through it all and she was just starting to enjoy life. Then he died, Barker came and the Richardson-Olsen thing started and she fell apart again. She likes Nathan and Josiah though - it's nice to see that.'
'They're good men. She won't have no trouble there.'
'You all are, aren't you? I never dreamed yesterday afternoon that I'd be walking in the garden with you and leaving the children with your friends.'
'You ain't still mad at Buck then?'
In the poor light, he saw more from her manner than her coloring than she was blushing again. He found her sensitivity touching, and rather surprising given the harsh practicalities of her life.
'I wasn't exactly mad at him. Madeleine isn't a child and I know she was asking for it.'
He smiled. 'Jim told us you don't need another mouth to feed. Reckon that put old Bucklin in his place.'
'Those two are wonderful. They're fifteen and sixteen, the same as Susan and Ada, and it's them I should be having to watch. When I saw they were growing fond of the girls, I talked to them but there was no need. They said their father told them not to do that unless they planned on being around for sixteen years. I didn't know him but he must have been a decent man. I daresay that's how he came to fall foul of Olsen.'
She took his hand and pressed it between her own. Not large for a man's hand, it was tanned but not callused. She guessed he spent a lot of time riding outdoors but it wasn't the tough hand of a man who worked the land. 'Chris said you were unofficial lawmen?'
'We keep an eye on a town. Was a rough place but it's getting pretty civilized these days.'
'What did you do before that?'
'This and that. Hunting mostly buffalo, bounties-'
'Bounty hunting! Surely that's dangerous?'
He smiled at her reaction and shrugged. 'Ain't no one got the better of me yet.' He tried to read her expression as she examined him in the fading light. 'What?'
She looked abashed. 'Nothing really. I used to read lots of those silly dime novels when I was young. I always dreamed of meeting exciting men who rode the west doing daring deeds. I hadn't realized you were one.'
He laughed. 'From what I seen, they spend most of their time playing poker. It ain't that exciting.'
'It is to me. Sixteen years here - sometimes the dreams are all there is.'
He kissed her ardently, happy to pass on whatever vicarious thrills he could from his own unchosen lifestyle to hers. The force of her passion surprised him as they went on to satisfy each other's desires safely.
Not fifty feet away, Lottie strolled past with Josiah, her hand resting timidly on his sleeve. Nathan had explained what he knew of her difficulties and, appreciating her compassionate nursing, the big man sought to repay the kindness. He was careful to maintain an air of quiet reassurance to build up her confidence.
The older couple heard Vin's groan and Josie's gasps. For all her fears, Lottie was not easily embarrassed - her childhood had seen to that - she smiled up at her companion and whispered, 'She's a-always so responsible. I'm glad your f-friend has made her f-forget the rest of us for once.'
Josiah returned her smile. 'Vin isn't much of a one for chasing. He must be taken with her.'
Even such a perfect evening could not go on forever and eventually they all turned in. As she lay awake, Josie reflected that only a day before she'd been hoping these uninvited guests would move on as soon as possible but now two more days seemed far too little time.
- 4 -
The next day, Ezra and Josiah paid the price for doing too much, too soon. Both were weak and feverish. Nathan and Lottie served their breakfasts in bed and then insisted that they rest through the morning. The other five men gathered in front of the house to see what they could most usefully spend the day doing.
'You reckon it's worth looking at the creek?' Jim asked Josie.
She looked thoughtful, then saw the men's eyes on her. 'We used to keep fish in the creek, netted part of it off into ponds, so we caught some of the little ones coming in and fed them till they were big enough to eat. A year or so back, Richardson poisoned it upstream from us so it was useless to Olsen downstream. We've seen a few fish again this summer and wondered about repairing the traps and ponds.'
'Why not?' Chris said. 'Enjoy a bit of fish now and again myself.'
When the group reassembled by the creek, the men were surprised to see the extent of the fish farm. There were eight fair-sized enclosures fed by a bank of traps. In the year and a half since it had been used, the waterside plants had quickly spread to fill the enclosures and jam the traps.
Jim explained how the set-up worked, with fish sorted by type and size. 'We let most types go, 'cause they ain't fit to eat or they die in the pens, but we was still getting a good meal twice a week through the summer.'
By dinnertime, they were soaked and filthy but winning. They took a short break and then fought on. Mid-afternoon saw the water flowing freely and the damaged netting repaired. With the traps operational again, they even had a few small fish in the enclosures before they returned to the house.
Josie and Lottie looked aghast at the crew of slime-covered workers before them. The boys went to find fresh clothes but the men were more of a problem, travelling light as they had been. Each had a spare shirt and underwear that Ada and Susan had laundered the previous day but pants were more of a problem. The two girls giggled, imagining their visitors without them. Josie tried to give them a sharp look but failed as she conjured up the same picture.
'Can we borrow anything of the not-so-reverend's?' Vin asked.
The thought of that made Josie herself giggle. 'You wouldn't ask if you'd seen him.' She made a gesture to indicate considerable girth but the suggestion had given her an idea. 'Reverend Thomas's old trunk is in the attic. Let's see what we can find, girls.'
While they waited, the men drew water from the well and washed themselves and their boots down. By the time they were done, the two girls came back with a selection of pants. The men took them and their own clean clothes to the barn and managed to kit themselves out tolerably well. The late Reverend's pants were too long for JD and too short for Buck but not bad on Chris, Vin and Nathan. There was soon a large pile of dirty laundry on the front step.
Ada and Susan returned with Sarah, Angela and Ruby in tow and were soon immersed in their task. The two older girls did the heavy work, while the three young ones carefully prepared each item for the main wash. Vin smiled as he saw Ruby select his red shirt from the pile and apply herself diligently to her scrubbing. The five friends rejoined Ezra and Josiah in the library and were pleased to find the invalids much improved.
'What on earth were you doing?' Ezra enquired. 'We saw the state in which you returned.'
'Clearing out a creek,' JD told him. 'Someone has to work so you can eat, Ezra.'
The workers stretched out, glad of a rest after their unaccustomed physical labor, but their peace was soon shattered by the arrival of Micky, Charlie and Maurie. Released by Josie from their books in the schoolroom only minutes earlier, the three small boys were full of energy. Micky leapt heavily onto Chris's stomach, making the fair man glad he hadn't eaten much dinner. Taking pity on his worn out comrades, Ezra took the boys over to the card table and entertained them with card tricks.
Mark stuck his head round the door at that point. 'Fancy some beers, fellas?' The men looked up in surprise, their expressions making it clear they certainly would. The boy held up a hand, 'Don't get too excited. We made it ourselves and, truth be told, we ain't so sure what it's supposed to taste like but it won't kill you.'
They smiled at each other after he had disappeared.
'Ain't much they don't try, is there?' Buck said.
'What was that about the not-so-reverend, Vin?' Chris asked.
Vin looked sideways at the small boys with Ezra, then summarized what Josie had told him without going into details of the extent of the man's misdeeds. As he finished, Mark and Jim returned with two large jugs of beer and a motley selection of glasses. They grinned as Buck gingerly tried the brew.
'Not bad,' the tall man said, taking another swig. 'Not bad at all.'
The other men soon passed the same verdict.
'Uh-oh,' Jim said, looking out of the window. The two boys turned as one and strode out of the library.
The men went over to the window, seeing a man who had to be Peter Barker. He was six and quarter feet tall, broad and fat. He was talking to Ada and Susan, while the three smaller girls cowered behind their elders' skirts. The men didn't need to hear what he was saying to read the drift of it in his stance and their response.
'Back so soon, Rev?' Mark called out as he and Jim approached. They carried shovels casually across their shoulders.
The man turned and scowled. He was not a bad looking man, although hard living had taken its toll on the assets with which nature had endowed him. He abandoned his harassment and went into the house. Josie intercepted him in the hall.
'Good afternoon, Reverend. We have some guests. Perhaps you'd like to meet them.'
'Since when do you rejects have guests?' he asked disdainfully. 'And why the hell would I want to meet them?'
Josie watched him collect a bottle from the dining room and head up to his room, then went into the library. She shrugged her apology for the man's rudeness, then spotted the three boys trying to hide behind Chris.
'What are you boys doing in here? Weren't you supposed to be collecting windfalls?'
'Yes, Miss,' they piped up in chorus before tearing outside.
'I'm sorry. I'm sure the last thing you needed was them bouncing all over you.'
'No problem,' Chris assured her. 'So that's the not-so-reverend.'
'Yes. Charming, isn't he? I'm surprised he's back so soon. Out of money, I expect.'
Peter Barker did not emerge from his room again until supper was well underway. Half the bottle of whisky he had taken upstairs now sat on top of two days steady imbibing but many years of hard drinking had given him a phenomenal tolerance for alcohol. When he entered the dining room, he was visibly taken aback by the nature of the guests to whom Josie had alluded. Barker wasn't astute enough to gauge the men before him but seven-to-one were not the kind of odds he liked, preferring adult-to-child in his favor.
The friends looked at him coolly, contemptuous of the sort of man who would heap additional miseries on the women and children who had shown them such kindness. The reactions of the children told the story that Vin had glossed over. The older boys and Madeleine registered anger and resentment. Ada and Susan showed a mixture of fear and embarrassment. The small boys cowered in the clear expectation of a blow at some point, while the little girls cringed in anticipation of something the men preferred not to think about.
Seeking to avoid a confrontation, Josie gave the man her seat and served up a generous portion of stew for him.
'So, what brings you here?' he asked no one in particular.
'Just passing through,' Chris told him. 'Ran into some trouble. These ladies have been very hospitable.'
'Have they indeed?' The innuendo in his tone was plain. 'I thought charity began at home, ladies.' He turned to Ruby on his right. 'Well, young lady, have you been hospitable too?'
The girl looked at him in confusion then scrambled down from her chair and ran to Vin's side. Barker studied Vin curiously, wondering what had passed to make the girl go to him. Vin read his thoughts and fought the urge to spread the man's brains over the dining room wall. He stood and, with a great effort of will, said only, 'Lost my appetite.' He took Ruby's hand, led her into the hall and sat on the stairs in silence for a few minutes.
'I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with B,' she said.
'You have to guess,' she told him. 'Don't they play where you come from?'
He envied her the resilience of a six-year-old as he tried to put Barker's sick insinuations out of his mind.
'Can you keep a secret, Ruby?'
The girl went rigid at his words. Out of sight in the dining room doorway, Josie experienced the same reaction. She couldn't bear the thought that she might be wrong about this man who seemed so special.
Not seeing Josie or noticing Ruby's response, Vin spoke softly, 'I don't know what starts with B. I can't read.'
Josie breathed again as Ruby relaxed and considered Vin's words. 'B is buh, like ball or boat.' She emphasized the start of each example.
'Book,' he said.
'No. You can't see any books here, silly.'
'True.' He looked round. 'Bell.'
He looked round again but could see nothing else that began with a 'buh' sound.
'I give up.'
She prodded his hip. 'Belt. Your turn.'
'Reckon this game's too hard for me,' he told her.
'Why didn't you learn to read when you were little?' she asked.
Josie leaned against the doorjamb, curious to hear his answer.
'No Ma and Pa, same as you, but I didn't have a place like this. Nobody wanted me.'
Ruby looked sadly at him and then brightened. 'Miss wants you.'
He stifled a laugh at that. There was nothing like the company of a small child to put things in perspective. He took her back into the dining room, determined not to let Barker rile him again. Also smiling at Ruby's artless indiscretion, Josie ducked back inside just in time to avoid being seen.
The other diners had settled into a tense silence, which continued until Barker had finished a second plate of stew. He fixed his eyes on the table as he said, 'I'm afraid I must ask you gentlemen to leave. Immediately.'
Josie objected crossly. 'You'll do no such thing. They'll stay until Mr Standish and Mr Sanchez are well enough to travel.'
'Madam, might I remind you who is in authority here?' Barker's tone was icy.
'I don't care. They've done more work in two days than you have since you came here.'
With an unexpected turn of speed, the man got to his feet and drove her into the kitchen, slamming the door behind him. Vin looked uneasily at Chris, uncertain whether to intervene. Chris moved to his side but waited, listening for sounds of violence. They could hear the rumble of Barker's voice but not the words. Josie's response was audible to all.
'You did what?!'
There was the sound of a heavy projectile hitting the door, immediately followed by Barker storming out. He paused in the hall doorway long enough to shout back, 'It's about time they started working for a living.'
'They do nothing but work for their living, you good-for-nothing layabout.'
He gave her a vicious look. 'Well, I'll leave you to tell them they can't collect.' With that he was out of the front door. A minute or two later, they heard him ride out.
For the first time in the visitors' acquaintance and the residents' memories, Josie looked defeated. She sank into a chair and buried her head in her hands. Vin rested his hand on her shoulder.
'Perhaps you had better go after all,' she said miserably.
'Why? What's he done?'
She looked at the anxious faces of the children. It wasn't a fit thing to discuss in front of them but they'd be facing up to it soon enough anyway.
'He's been gambling with Olsen's men. He says they'll be here to collect about eleven tonight, on their way back from Richardson's.' She looked up at him in horror. 'He bet the girls '
It wasn't often that the seven men were shocked but a clergyman, albeit a rotten one, betting the services of orphaned young girls was more than even they could take in their stride.
Chris spoke for them all when he said. 'We're not going anywhere. You can be sure of that.'
'You don't want to get caught up in this,' she told him. 'I don't doubt you're better than these men but there are a lot of them. And if you take them on tonight, we'll pay for it later.'
'And if we don't?' Vin asked. 'You think they'll just come the once and leave it at that?'
Josie returned her head to her hands, her body wracked by sobs. Deprived of Josie's strength, Lottie crumbled and the small children followed without even knowing what was wrong. Ada and Susan sat stunned, while Mark, Jim and Bob exchanged bitter looks. Madeleine's expression was pure rage, her frustration at being denied the pleasures she sought as nothing to her fury at being lost in a game of cards.
As Josie dried her eyes, she met the girl's defiant stare and straightened in her seat. Her smile was cold as she said, 'They better like it with a dead woman, Madeleine. That's the only way they'll be getting it here.'
The girl matched her smile and nodded.
Their determination was contagious. Lottie hastily comforted the six small children and ushered them, laden with dishes, into the kitchen to clear up. She closed the door, leaving the others to think in peace.
It was Ezra who spoke first. 'So the essence of the challenge is to repel tonight's assault, without bringing retribution on our hosts and without aggravating the volatile politics in the vicinity?'
There were cautious nods around the table.
'Would I be correct in thinking that few tears would be shed if blame were to fall on the Reverend Barker?'
He pondered that. 'Whose men were responsible for the injuries sustained by Mr Sanchez and myself?'
'Olsen's,' Mark told him. 'If you were at the river south of here like you said.'
'Do we know what they are doing on Mr Richardson's property this evening?'
Josie thought back to what Barker had said. 'Setting fire to it.'
Ezra drifted away into scheming mode, watched by the curious residents. Josie looked enquiringly at Chris, who grinned and said, 'If you need something complicated and underhanded, Ezra's your man.'
Without dragging himself out of his reverie, Ezra said distantly, 'I resent that characterization, Mr Larabee.'
Lottie bustled in with a pot of coffee and stack of mugs, smiling at Josiah before returning to her charges in the kitchen. The big man looked at Josie after Lottie had gone. 'She's a nice woman, isn't she?'
It was Susan who answered, speaking out for the first time in the men's presence. 'She's the kindest person in the world. We shouldn't have laughed at her the other night. She's been through so much.'
Ada nodded sadly. 'We may end up just like her.'
Buck snapped his fingers. 'Hey! Nobody's dying and nobody's ending up like anything. We got that straight?'
Nathan poured the coffee and JD passed the mugs round. Vin took the seat next to Josie, Buck joined Madeleine, patting her hand with a smile, while Mark settled himself beside Ada, Jim with Susan. The solidarity gave them some comfort while they waited on Ezra.
Eventually Ezra roused himself. 'I believe we should play the two sides off against one another, precipitate a considerable reduction in their forces and offer the Reverend as a sacrificial lamb. Provided that he answers for his crimes, I see no reason why Messrs Richardson and Olsen should exact any revenge on this establishment.'
He sipped his coffee before continuing. 'This evening, we shall unofficially join the ranks of Mr Richardson's employees, having chanced on the ladies here on our way to join him. While surprised by the arrival of Mr Olsen's men for their evening's entertainment, we shall escape safely and inflict some losses in the process. Miss Molloy will pretend to be unaware of their original intentions and grateful that their intervention has saved the young ladies from our unwelcome attentions.'
There were several frowns around the table and Jim said to Chris, 'You weren't joking about complicated.'
'We need some of Mr Olsen's men to return to their employer with news of Mr Richardson's reinforcements. We also need to implicate the Reverend in tonight's arson attack. Time is short on that count - you said they would be headed back this way by eleven, Miss Molloy?'
Josie nodded. 'Until he saw you gentlemen, I think he expected us to be in bed and was going to leave the front door open for them.'
'I wish we had more information. My inclination is to ask you two young gentlemen,' he indicated Mark and Jim, 'To pose as recruits to Mr Richardson's forces. I believe your personal situation lends some credibility to such a scenario, does it not?'
He had now lost the two boys. Vin translated, 'He means it was Olsen killed your old man. You'd have a reason to throw in with Richardson if Josie went in with Olsen.'
'Right,' Mark said. 'Yeah, that's true.'
'Precisely, Mr Tanner. And I'm thinking you might be the best person to deliver them safely to the right place, at the right time, without being seen yourself.'
'I believe that will set the two sides at one another's throats, with no interest in this place but some in the Reverend Barker. Do we know where they can find him?'
There was a silence, broken eventually by Bob. 'I know one place he goes.' All eyes turned on the boy, who looked uncomfortable and turned to Josie. 'Adelaide's.'
She frowned at him. 'Has he been bothering her?' she asked gently.
He reddened. 'You know what her old man's like.'
'Yes, but I didn't realize Why didn't you tell me, Bob?'
'She made me promise.'
Josie sighed, understanding only too well the shame that so often protected men like Barker.
The men looked at one another in disbelief. The revelations just kept coming.
'We need to know if he's there,' Chris said. 'But we can't send these men in with a girl there.'
Bob looked up at the clock on the wall. It was just gone seven. 'Reckon they'll be drinking a while yet if he is. I could go check, bring Adelaide back here if he is. It ain't far.'
Chris looked for Ezra's agreement before saying, 'Okay. JD, you go with him. Keep out of sight.'
While they waited for the man and boy to return, the others reviewed the details of their intricate plan. There were numerous ways for it to go wrong but it had the potential to get rid of Barker and slow the two cattlemen down considerably. The key difficulty was ensuring that no blame fell on the residents of the orphanage.
Meanwhile, although they didn't expect visitors until much later, they deployed Lottie with her troop of small children round the grounds, with strict instructions to report straight in if they saw or heard anything. She kept Micky and Ruby with her and sent the others in two teams, Charlie and Angela, Maurie and Sarah.
When JD and Bob returned less than an hour later, they brought Adelaide with them. She was an angelic looking twelve-year-old, with copper-colored braids and kaleidoscope eyes in a bewitching blend of blues, greens and browns. It was her arresting beauty she had to thank for Barker's unwelcome attentions.
'He's there,' JD told the others. 'Doubt he'll be able to stand up by the time anyone gets to him.'
Bob was still trying to entice Adelaide into the dining room. She hung back in terror when she saw six more men there, having struggled even to trust JD. Josie got up and put an arm round her shoulders.
'Hello, Adelaide. There's nothing to worry about here. I promise these men are friends.'
Mark gave the girl his seat between Josie and Ada, who clasped her hand in reassurance.
Chris nodded to himself as he ran the whole sequence of events through his mind one last time. 'Vin, get after Olsen's men with these two.' He looked at Mark and Jim. 'You boys know what you gotta do?'
'Warn Richardson about the raid tonight, tell him the Rev's in with Olsen but we wanna go in with him, and they can find him at Macadam's place.'
With the room so crowded and time so short, there was no chance for fond farewells. Ada and Susan looked at the two boys, their eyes filled with love and fear in equal measure. The boys grinned back, not underestimating the danger they faced but glad to have a plan of action. Vin put his hand on Josie's shoulder again, conveying not only affection but also some of his strength to her. No sooner had she lifted it to her lips than he was gone.
Keen to waste no time, Chris kept things moving. 'Rest of you, we need to work on the setup here. We wanna thin these fellas out but let a few back to stir things up at Olsen's. It ain't gonna be easy to stay alive and make sure we can get back in if they get any ideas of having some fun before moving on.'
Ezra smiled. 'I think we can arrange a few surprises to ensure we can maintain the upper hand at all times.'
'Get to it then,' Chris told him. 'JD, Nathan, Josiah, Bob help Ezra. Buck, you're with me. Let's take a good look round this whole place - I want all the surprises on our side. Josie, I want Lottie and Adelaide somewhere real safe with the littl'uns. You older girls are gonna have to play along with us to make it work. You up for it?'
His men were ready as he knew they would be. The others were daunted but Josie and Madeleine firmly took the lead in signaling their readiness.
- 5 -
Mark and Jim rode alongside Vin on the orphanage's aging team of horses. Having taken him to the route they expected the men to take from Olsen's holding to Richardson's land, they now watched in fascination as he systematically scoured the area in search of any recent activity. Eventually he saw movement on the southern horizon: Olsen's men were headed towards them, perhaps half an hour away.
'Looks good,' Vin said to the boys. 'We can stay ahead of 'em, make sure they're keeping with us and just give a bit of warning. We only wanna convince Richardson you're with him, not wipe these fellas out yet.'
They rode steadily onwards, monitoring the men behind them closely. There were about a score and they were moving purposefully, apparently sober and keen to complete their task, probably so they could get on to the recreation they expected to find at the orphanage.
Mark looked curiously across at Vin. 'Why you fellas going to so much trouble for us?'
Vin shrugged. 'Helped us, didn't you?'
'Ain't quite the same thing,' Jim ventured.
'Don't like to see sacks of dirt pushing folk around. Don't stand for it in our town, ain't gonna stand for it here. And it ain't right for a man to force himself on a woman, let alone these young girls.'
'That all there is to it? For you?' Mark enquired.
Vin grinned. 'Come on, boys. Reckon you know what's what - don't need me to draw you pictures, do you?'
They grinned back but Jim said, 'Didn't mean that. Can't blame you there but we meant with Ruby.'
'Oh.' There was a long silence before he put into words something he had never told anyone before. 'I been on my own since I was five, after my Ma died. Spent most of the next five years locked away till I was old enough to work. No games. No lessons. Nothing like what you got here. I ain't gonna let no son-of-a-bitch tear down what folk have worked so hard for.'
Surprised to find such a kindred spirit in the taciturn gunman, the two boys nodded.
When they came in sight of Richardson's place, Olsen's men were about fifteen minutes behind them.
'I'll wait up here, keep an eye out and then ride back with the news,' Vin told them. 'I ain't gonna be much use to you down there so you better make it good.'
'Don't worry,' Mark assured him. 'We know plenty about lying - heard enough of it off the Rev.'
The boys rode hard down the hillside, racing onto Richardson's property at such a pace that their arrival caused confusion rather than aggression. As they expected, they were taken in to see the startled rancher. It was the first time they'd seen the man close up. He was about fifty and ordinary in every respect, far from the towering fairytale ogre that they had somehow come to expect.
'You from that orphanage?' the man asked suspiciously.
They nodded, somewhat out of breath and exaggerating it to imply they had ridden hell-for-leather from there.
'Well, what're you doing on my property?'
Mark began their story. 'Come to warn you. Olsen's men are on their way here to burn you out.'
'How would you know that?'
'Rev Barker's stewed again, bragging about how he and Macadam are going in with Olsen to run you out.'
'Why would you warn me?'
The boys exchanged looks of surprise, as if it should be obvious why they'd come. Jim gave their reply. 'Olsen killed our old man. That's how we ended up in that dump. We been hoping you might take us on when we was a bit older but now well, we had to do something.'
'When is this supposed to happen?'
'Tonight. We got here as fast as we could but we had to wait till the Rev had gone out.'
The man considered their news. The conflict between himself and Olsen had been escalating steadily: it was plausible that the man was planning a raid. A deal with Macadam made sense, as one of the few remaining sources of water was on his land. Barker's involvement was strange, as the orphanage had nothing of value. Richardson caught that thought as it passed. The establishment could probably be transformed into a brothel, providing entertainment in a region sorely in need of it. He wasn't well acquainted with the residents but knew there were some girls of a suitable age, though the proprietress was more to his own taste.
Examining the boys in front of him, he saw no evidence of deceit. He knew who they were and that their father had indeed been killed by Olsen's men when he refused to sell his parcel of land. He saw no way they could be a threat, young and unarmed as they were. He looked across at his foreman.
'You heard 'em. Get out there and get ready. May not have long.'
His words were prophetic. Olsen's men closed in before the defenders were even in position, setting torches to the barns and stables. There was confusion as some men engaged the raiders and others tackled the fires. Mark and Jim joined the firefighting team, throwing themselves into the task with gusto partly to earn trust and partly because they did not relish seeing livestock roasted alive.
The raiders left as soon as they had ignited all the buildings. Richardson's men had taken out about half of them, with significant losses themselves. The first phase of Ezra's plan had been a success: Mark and Jim were ingratiated with Richardson and Olsen's party was reduced to more manageable numbers.
On the ridge, Vin saw what went down, the boys' role in fighting the fires and the losses taken on both sides. As the survivors turned to ride out, he spun his bay round and rode hard back to the orphanage. Chris and Buck were out front when he flew through the gate.
'Went to plan,' he said as he dismounted. 'Boys are in okay. Olsen's men down from maybe twenty to ten, 'bout ten minutes behind me.'
He tethered his horse with the others behind the house, ready for the quick getaway they intended to make.
They went inside, where Ezra quickly ran through the booby traps set up around the house to provide distractions or buy time as required. Lottie, Adelaide and the small children were hiding in the attic, unlikely to be found since the stairs were inside a cupboard in one of the bedrooms. Bob was concealed in the kitchen, ready to monitor events after the showdown. If any of Olsen's men did not leave immediately, he would bring news to the friends waiting up on a ridge looking over the orphanage.
The house was in darkness, as if everyone had gone to bed, but the moon was full and the undraped rooms were bathed in silvery light. The seven men and four women now stood in the hall, ready to embark on the second phase of Ezra's plan. The women wore nightdresses, as if they had been in bed when attacked. Posing as reinforcements on their way to Richardson's place when they had chanced on the orphanage, the men would be enjoying the women's services when Olsen's gang arrived to collect on the Reverend's bet. There was a chance the arsonists would not call in when their raid did not go to plan but they seemed unlikely to pass up the opportunity while Richardson's men were still busy with the fires.
There was an awkward silence, while men who were not in the habit of forcing themselves on anyone faced women who were not accustomed to providing such services willingly or unwillingly. After a few seconds, Madeleine gave Josie a grin that clearly said Can't do anything now, can you? and headed for the library, Buck on one arm and Ezra on the other.
Chris gave a shake of his head and a wry grin. 'Hope she's gonna try to look unhappy.' He put his hand gently on Susan's shoulder. 'You okay with this, baby?'
The girl smiled up at him and held out her hand to JD. They took the dining room.
Ada followed her younger sister's example, leading Josiah and Nathan into the schoolroom.
Vin extended his hands sideways with a grin. 'Looks like you get me.'
Josie smiled, 'I certainly wasn't going to let anyone else have you.'
'Hope you're gonna try to look unhappy,' he teased.
They kissed while Vin walked her over to the stairs. It wasn't a genteel place to engage in such activities but then he wasn't playing a genteel role.
In the library, Madeleine was enjoying herself immensely. Ezra held back initially, intending to play his role rather than live it, but the sight of Buck halfway down Madeleine's throat eroded his resolve and he obliged when she turned her attentions to him. Even Buck's colorful love-life did not normally entail sharing women but the ménage à trois would undoubtedly have consummated its passions had circumstances permitted.
Chris and JD were altogether more restrained, having no intention of doing more than the occasion required. JD was as embarrassed by the arrangement as Susan had been and the older man smiled at his reserve. Susan remained inhibited but curiosity was gaining ground. She was as fond of Jim as he was of her but there was a perilous appeal about the fair-haired man to which she was not immune. When he saw her temptation, Chris drew her into a passionate kiss. Fifteen was plenty old enough to get a taste of what a grown man felt like.
Ada had drawn the real gentlemen in the pack. She settled herself on Josiah's lap and kissed him fondly on the cheek. Nathan settled himself in a chair opposite, prepared to step in when he had an audience.
A few minutes later, Vin heard the approaching horsemen first, his senses alert as always. He was kneeling over Josie on the staircase, his tongue in her mouth and his body in a far greater state of arousal than he would have chosen, when he froze. He lifted himself a few inches from her face before calling softly, 'At the gate.'
Those playing roles took their places while those living them hastily poured psychological cold water over themselves. Even Madeleine trembled as they waited, knowing if things went wrong they might end up dead or held down by men of a very different kind to those now beside them. There was a delicate balance to be struck. The men wanted to be discovered unawares and make a convincing show on their victims' behalf but needed to get out alive without killing all the intruders.
Vin resumed his exploration of Josie but she felt the difference. His movements were mechanical and every muscle in his body was tense. He listened intently as the front door swung open, waited a second or two then announced his presence with a noisy kiss. Josie struggled free of his mouth.
'Get off me, you animal!' she hissed.
He stifled her words with his hand, while she tried to shove him off. His grunt was genuine when her thrashing leg caught him a glancing blow in his groin. He caught her wrists, pinned her to the stairs and pulled up her nightdress.
There were similar sounds of struggle from other rooms. The men worked in pairs, with one holding the woman captive while the other made as if to rape her. They put up a convincing show, tearing clothes and enjoying their prizes noisily.
Vin listened carefully as Olsen's men crept in and split up. Josie felt him draw his gun and stayed stock still while he gauged the men's plans and positions. He picked his moment and spun round, letting off two shots and rolling into the cover provided by the side of the staircase. Josie raced upstairs and flattened herself onto the landing.
In the library, Buck and Ezra took positions either side of the door and swiftly knocked out the two men trying to sneak in. Madeleine watched in admiration but then hid behind one of the sofas as they had told her to. They slid out into the hall, ready to back up the others.
Three men had entered the dining room as Vin loosed his opening shots. Susan was spread-eagled across the table, with JD behind her head and Chris between her legs. They saw their assailants silhouetted clearly against the window. JD delivered gut wounds to two of them with his pair of pearl-handled guns while Chris shot the third in his gun arm.
Vin had killed two of his assailants and was trading bullets with the third. His position was the most precarious and he was now pinned down. Buck didn't have a clear view of Vin's protagonist but starting firing anyway to give Ezra the cover he needed to work towards the man. When Chris reached the hall, he soon assessed the situation and edged along the wall to tackle the man from the other side. With his victim's attention diverted by fire from Vin and Buck, it was a simple matter to smash the butt of his gun down on the man's skull.
Meanwhile, disaster threatened in the school room. Josiah and Nathan also had three men to deal with but the youngest was a boy of eighteen who began firing at random as soon as the action started. In a confined space as they were, the danger from stray bullets was considerable. Josiah swept Ada into his arms and dumped her unceremoniously behind the desk but not before he felt a bullet thud into her body. He joined Nathan in returning a barrage of fire on the men in the doorway, cutting them down where they stood.
The house fell silent. A second or two later, the seven men stirred themselves into action, hurried to their horses and rode out. It was hard to leave the women to manage the situation but any suggestion the violence had been on their behalf could bring harsh consequences later.
Josie, Madeleine and Susan hurriedly lit lamps and assessed the situation. Susan screamed when she found Ada wounded, bringing the other women instantly to her side. A bullet was lodged in the girl's thigh, painful but not dangerous. Between them, they carried her to one of the library sofas and left Susan to sit with her while they checked out Olsen's men. The two at the library door were just beginning to come round. The man whom Chris had hit in the hall was still unconscious and the three wounded men from the dining room gathered round him. There were five dead, two in the hall and three in the schoolroom.
Josie was amazed by how precisely their friends' actions matched their plans. She hastily turned on her charms.
'I don't know how to thank you,' she told the recovering men. 'It was so lucky you were passing. Those animals forced their way in and said they'd kill the younger children if we didn't give them what they wanted. We didn't know what to do.'
The men looked at each other. The one with an injured arm said, 'Must be Richardson bringing in more men.'
'Better get back and tell Olsen,' one of the library pair replied. He looked at the gutshot men. 'Can you ride?'
They nodded, while the questioner roused the unconscious man roughly.
'You can't ride on like that,' Josie protested. 'We can dress your wounds.'
'Very kind, ma'am, but we got work to do.' he said curtly, before instructing his cohorts to load up the bodies.
When they had gone, the house fell quiet. Josie sent Madeleine up to fetch Lottie and the other children and then set about dressing Ada's wound. When they were all together again, they looked wryly around. The ruse had inflicted considerable damage on the structure but they were relieved to have escaped so lightly themselves.
- 6 -
From their vantage point on the ridge, the orphanage's protectors watched Olsen's men ride off with their fallen comrades. They had executed Ezra's plan to perfection and were now ready to improvise in response to events. Ezra himself was particularly gratified by the success of the plan, making redundant his other arrangements.
It was half an hour before Vin started and said, 'Two riders coming in.'
A few minutes later, they saw Mark and Jim on the trail below them. They waited to ensure the boys were alone then Chris gave a low whistle. It was barely audible and he hoped they would ignore it if they had company. Instead, they turned, scanned the ridge and then rode up.
'Hey, fellas,' Mark greeted them. 'Go okay?'
The anxiety was clear on both their faces. The men hesitated, not knowing how badly Ada had been hurt or whether they should mention it.
'Who?' Jim asked.
Josiah urged his horse forward a pace or two towards Mark. 'Ada's hurt. Don't reckon it's bad though.'
The boy nodded, his distress evident but his determination to deal with it equally so. Jim rested his hand briefly on his brother's arm, then gave a half-hearted grin to Buck and Ezra.
'Wasn't so sure you fellas'd get out alive. Don't tell me Maddy didn't make the most of it.'
The men grinned back. 'She's a very passionate young woman,' Ezra confirmed.
'That standard English for a tart?' Jim enquired good naturedly.
Mark looked back at the smoke still rising from Richardson's place. 'Richardson seemed to buy it all. Told us to get on back for now but there'd be jobs waiting for us later.' He snorted derisively at the notion. 'He's mustering his men to ride on Olsen.'
Chris nodded, then waved an arm expansively. 'What else we got here?'
Jim pointed out Olsen's place between two peaks. It was too far away to see anything, even with the moon to help them. He twisted in his saddle and pointed westwards. 'There's Macadam's homestead,' adding as an afterthought, 'Adelaide's Pa.'
'Reckon Richardson's men'll swing by there on the way,' Mark speculated. 'Probably won't come past here.'
'What about Macadam?' JD asked. 'This rate, he'll get it with Barker.'
'It didn't sound as if his passing would be much mourned,' Ezra ventured.
'No,' Mark said. 'Adelaide'll be better off without him, that's for sure.'
They sat in silence for a while, before Nathan said, 'I ain't seen stuff like this since the plantations. Never thought to see it again.'
Jim sighed. 'Five years ago, you'da thought it was the promised land. Then Richardson and Olsen bring in a load of hired guns, the Rev starts his fun and games, good folks leave or die. Didn't take long to turn to shit.'
Buck and Vin straightened in their saddles at the same time. The sound of distant gunshots floated in from the direction of Macadam's holding. A minute or two later, they saw the flames begin to engulf Adelaide's home. There was clear satisfaction on the two boys' faces as they pictured Barker shot and then roasted.
About fifteen minutes passed before they heard more riders on the trail below. This time, it was a dozen of Olsen's men riding on Richardson. The observers above them kept their silent vigil, intrigued to see what they had unleashed. They did not have long to wait and it turned out that both sides were playing for keeps.
First, a gunfight broke out at Olsen's. The fire was heavy and sustained, until it was interrupted by a series of huge explosions at Richardson's. There was a brief silence from Olsen's, after which the shooting resumed for about half a minute then petered out again. The reason soon became clear when flames engulfed the buildings.
The group on the ridge watched in fascination as the two sides trashed each other's property. Continued firing in both areas testified to the survivors being picked off as they left bombed-out and burning buildings.
'So, Ezra,' Vin said. 'This is what happens when you're not aggravating the local politics, is it?'
'I must confess I underestimated the volatility of the region. It would seem they have no intention of ceasing hostilities until there is nothing left to fight over.'
'Well, boys,' Chris said. 'Don't reckon we need stir things up any more. Let's get back and make sure everyone's okay.'
They returned to the orphanage, Mark way ahead as he rushed to Ada's side. Susan blushed at the sight of Chris but did not hesitate in making for Jim and sweeping him into her arms, while Madeleine kissed her two champions in turn.
When Lottie came in with her little flock, she was as shy as ever but her eyes shone with delight at seeing Josiah and Nathan return safely. They were all relieved to find their total casualties stood at one bandaged thigh.
When Ruby flung her arms round Vin's legs, he picked her up and nuzzled her cheek.
'You're all scratchy,' she objected.
He grinned and set her down. 'I best find someone who likes scratchy then.' He reached for Josie and pulled her close, picking up where he had left off earlier. Her charges watched the atypical indiscretion in amusement.
'Ain't waiting for them to come up for air,' Chris said as he shepherded everyone else into the dining room. Lottie and Madeleine soon organized drinks and they settled to swap notes. Vin and Josie slipped in last, she a fetching shade of pink.
Mark looked round his extended family. 'We were watching from up on the ridge. Richardson and Olsen look set to wipe each other out.'
Buck added, 'We can take a ride round tomorrow. See how it's gone.'
Adelaide looked shyly at JD. 'Thanks for bringing Bob to fetch me.'
'That's okay,' the young man assured her. He looked awkwardly at Chris, wondering what to tell her.
Jim leaned forward. 'They burned your Pa's place, Adelaide. They were after the Rev.'
'Reckon they got your Pa.'
Her luminescent eyes were unreadable as she turned to Josie. 'Can I live here, Miss Molloy?'
'Of course you can, Adelaide. We'd love to have you.'
The girl smiled. It was clear her father wouldn't be mourned at all.
It wasn't long before they turned in for the night. The men decided to play it safe and post a couple of guards, not expecting trouble but determined not to be caught unawares.
Chris caught Vin's arm, 'We'll do two by three. Don't need you.'
Vin nodded his thanks but shrugged, uncertain whether Josie would be willing to spend the night with him. She was with the older children in the dining room, Lottie having taken the others to bed. He loitered at the door. She knew his question but didn't know her answer, concerned about seeming hypocritical to the youngsters.
'Go for it, Miss,' Mark told her. 'Ain't too many like him come along.'
'Josie,' she told the boy. 'After all you've done, you five are friends.'
They smiled and Madeleine hugged her. 'Have some fun for once. He'll stop when you want him to.'
So she took Vin to her bed, knowing they would have only one night but grateful for it. They spent more time loving than sleeping but never at the risk of another mouth to feed.
- 7 -
The men rode out with Mark and Jim the next morning, splitting up and scouring the area for news and tracks. They intended to keep a low profile, not wanting to advertise their own presence or remind anyone about the orphanage, but they didn't see a living soul. All they found were bodies and destroyed property, dumping the former in convenient hollows and noting any potentially useful items among the latter.
They gave their reports over dinner, then loaded up their horses ready to head home. There were sad partings all round. Lottie took her courage in both hands and embraced Josiah and Nathan, too tearful to speak. Madeleine gave lingering kisses to Buck and Ezra, then joined the others in their thanks and farewells.
Micky presented Chris with his most prized possession, a pebble that bore an uncanny resemblance to a pig. Ruby tugged on Vin's pants until he lifted her up, pressed something into his hand and put her lips to his ear.
'It's an R,' she whispered. 'For Ruby. So you don't forget me.'
He examined the tiny silver charm, knowing he would never forget her with or without it. Josie walked him to his horse and embraced him one last time before he mounted. She looked up at the seven of them.
'I can't begin to thank you. You've made such a difference to us all.'
Now numbering fifteen, the group watched their liberators ride away.
- 8 -
A month later, Chris read out a telegram to his friends in the Four Corners saloon.
NEW REVEREND GOOD MAN USED TO VISIT IN THE OLD DAYS STOP HOMESTEADERS COMING IN STOP MARK AND ADA TO MARRY AND STAY ON STOP EXPECT JIM AND SUSAN NEXT STOP WE ALL MISS YOU STOP RUBY SENDS LOVE TO VIN STOP ME TOO STOP JOSIE
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