They had arrived back at the awful site and Chris immediately picked up Vins trail. Leading the other men now, he headed north. The tension between the four regulators was palpable. Lost in their own thoughts, each man rode silently, even the normally verbose gambler. Not even the normal clicking of cards being shuffled was present. Buck and Josiah looked to each other and recognized that they were the only ones completely aware of the eerie silence. Not only was the gambler unnaturally quiet, he had once again led his horse off to the side a short distance. The ladies man had an uncharacteristic shudder. It was as if the silence was a foreboding of things to come. Without words, the two men silently came to an agreement. Buck would take care of Chris, and Josiah would do his best to keep Ezra tethered to the group.
The blond leader was filled with warring emotions. On one hand he could, as a father, understand the parental need to have ones child beside him. But, also as a father, he had a hard time condoning the harm to other children to achieve that goal. His teeth clenched as he fought back the increasing headache and focused on comparing the murder of his own child to the attack on the orphan train wagons. In both instances, children were injured or, in his sons case, killed, for the sole purpose of someone elses goal. The father inside of him was debating whether there were ever acceptable losses in keeping your child with you. Would he be able to order the death of people, even other children, to keep his son? The line in the sand was getting a little blurry with that kind of thinking; he decided it would be best to stop thinking at all. Deep down he knew he could never live with himself as a man or as a father if other children died solely because of his need to have his son.
Ezra was no longer aware of his surroundings. He had fallen into a black abyss of thoughts and memories. He could still feel the almost lifeless cold body of the little boy in his arms. He saw the plaintive look in the sisters eyes, pleading for him to help her and her brother. Hes cold. The sisters words sang over and over in his mind.
As a traveler, Ezra was all too familiar with the orphan trains. He had seen many in his journeys. He laughed sardonically inside. The only difference between those children and him was that those children were going to be raised in one home. Though he hated the thought of children being sent away to live with strangers, he had seen the necessity of such a movement. Most of these children, contrary to the moniker, were not orphans; at least not in the conventional sense.
These were children whose parents were victims of the immigration influx. Hundreds of immigrants a day flooded New York City. Jobs were almost non-existent and those that were found were low-paying and demanded an exorbitant amount of hours; because of this, parents were often gone for the better part of the day. This would also lead to severe illnesses, leaving the parents unable to tend to their children. Or in other cases, parents who could not find jobs were no longer able to feed and clothe their children. In some cases alcohol became the problem. This left children, sometimes as young as three, unattended to wander the streets, the youngest being looked after by siblings, some not much older. Gathering together in clusters, these groups of unsupervised children had been nicknamed street Arabs. Young boys sold newspapers, cigarettes, rags, matches and anything else of value. Girls, if they thought themselves old enough, sold themselves. Those not old enough to do either wound up begging for food or money. It had become such a problem that children, even as young as five, were arrested and put in the same jail cells as adults. Some were sent to asylums.
It was the idea of Charles Loring Brace, a young minister, to start what he called the Childrens Aid Society. He gathered these wandering children into housing facilities. He then would get the parents signature of consent, if alive, to send their children away to live in better conditions. The children would then be broken into groups as small as fifteen and as large as one hundred and twenty and be shipped by railroad to other states, usually leaving on a Friday. Often times, these children had nothing more than the clothes they were wearing.
The idea was to give these orphans to families who wanted children. In return for a home, these newly placed children were expected to live as a member of the household, including doing chores. A day before a delivery of children was to arrive, notices were posted around that particular town. All those who were interested showed up at the appointed time. The day of the arrival the children would be given a new set of clothes to put on and then were herded into some building, most likely the church or hotel.
The interested families could then look over the children and talk with them. Sometimes these children were looked over the same way one would inspect a farm animal before buying it, teeth checked, muscles observed, etc. The families would then put down which child they wanted and, if it were agreeable with child, the match would be finalized. If, for some reason, a child was not chosen or they werent agreeable to the match, the child would reboard the train and move on to the next town. This didnt happen often because of the fact the child was far from home and had nowhere else to go. Thus the grandfather of foster care was born.
The young gambler thought of the drawbacks this had produced. Though the idea in principal had good intentions, there had been some serious flaws in the plan. For starters most siblings were separated, merely because most families could not afford to take more than one child.
Another flaw was that the chaperones knew nothing of the families these children were going home with. Although, for the most part, the homes turned out to be suitable enough, there were those were abuse was quite prominent.
Though it was unknown at this time, there would soon be another childrens organizations run by Catholic Sisters. This group would have people send in applications for children, and then each applicant would be interviewed. If accepted, the couple would be assigned a child. It was because of this that the Overseer of the organization running the orphan trains knew not only where the child would wind up, but what the family was like. The Orphan Trains would run from 1854 to 1926. Between seventy-five to two hundred thousand children were placed by the Childrens Aid Society alone.
Josiah had reined his mount up beside his younger friend and watched the emotions flash across his face. The green eyes slid over in his direction and Josiah restrained himself from flinching. They all knew that Chris could kill with only a look, but the ex-preacher never thought Ezra had the same capability, until now. Josiah contemplated this new side of his friend and frowned. Ezra was too young to have this deadly look in his eyes, but Josiah thought, everyone has a breaking point. Oh sure, they had all witnessed his exasperation with a certain event or outcome at the gambling tables or a shootout, but the big man realized, not one of them had seen the normally very controlled gambler lose it. Josiah suspected they were all going to be witnesses to that particular event, and it wasnt going to be pleasant.
After a few tense moments Josiah decided to try for a light conversation. "Ezra, you know " the man got no further before he was interrupted.
"Save the sermon for someone who needs it, Josiah." The terse reply was backed up by flashing green eyes that said more than words ever would. With that the gambler nudged his horse further up. Josiah didnt try to catch up. He knew some of the deadliest snakes in the world never made a sound before striking out at their victim. He figured he should count himself lucky that he had been given the slight warning.
The black-clad leader drove the men and horses hard. The need to get away from his own thoughts and anger was driving him on down Vins marked trail. The sun had long ago begun easing its way down to the line of horizon. The sky, if anyone had time to notice, was an array of colors, with its shimmering pinks and different shades of blues. No one had time to notice though, and the splendid picture went unappreciated.
Chris had it set in his mind that they would catch up with the tracker before they stopped. Buck knew this and regretfully shook his head. He also knew that the burden of getting the possessed man to stop had fallen on his shoulders. As Chris oldest friend, he alone was the only one in the group not affected by the mans glare or his rage. At least that is what he personified to the others; inside Chris biting remarks and hateful glares affected him like it did anyone else. He just refused to let anyone know, especially the man venting the anger. Buck had learned long ago that Chris, when in that mood, fed off of others fears and hate, fueling his to higher levels. The only way to bring Chris back down to earth was to take away the fuel. So, he pasted on his best friends face and rode up beside the man in black.
"What it is, Buck?" Chris asked sharply. It had taken a few moments to acknowledge the fact that someone was beside him.
"Need to make camp for the night," the other replied softly.
"Want to catch up to Vin before we do," the leader answered, never taking his eyes from the scene before him.
"Know that was the plan, Chris. But, it wont help if one of the horses picks up a rock or stumbles because it was to dark too see," Buck stated measurably.
The leader thought a moment then begrudgingly nodded his head in agreement. Buck pointed to a spot just ahead, then looked over to Josiah and tilted his head towards their new destination. The ex-preacher gave a slight nod and moved his horse off towards the gambler.
"Were making camp right up there, Ez," Josiah informed his friend.
"Go right ahead," he said flatly. Making no bones about the fact he didnt intend to stop.
"You might can ride all night, but Chaucer there is looking a little weary. Didnt think you were the type to take it out on your horse." The big man knew it was playing dirty by using Ezras beloved horse, but it seemed appropriate.
Ezra looked down as if realizing there was a horse under him and who it was, he shoulders suddenly sagged and without any preamble reined his mount over towards the place Buck had picked out to make camp.
Once camp was made, the silence that had followed them on the trail returned. Ezra was with Chaucer, looking him over. Coming to the conclusion his steed was in good shape, he removed an apple from the saddlebag and sliced it in two. Giving one half at a time, he could be heard by the others softly talking to the horse, though the words were unclear the sentiment was understood.
While Ezra was tending to his horse and Josiah was out gathering extra wood for the fire, Buck felt it was time to have a talk with his friend.
"Hey," he said as he sat down and leaned back on the same log being occupied by the blond. "Reckon if we leave at first light we might be able to catch up to Vin by mid-morning."
Chris only nodded. Buck shifted nervously.
"What do you want?" Chris quietly demanded.
He too, had learned a thing or two about his friend over the many years they had known each other. One thing he knew was that sometimes he scared his friend, but never let on he knew. Another thing he knew was that when Buck started shifting around a lot it meant the dark-haired man was going to say something Chris wasnt going to like. The shifting was Bucks way of announcing a heads up.
Buck began softly, "Look, Chris." Pausing a moment, he stared at the gambler; the man didnt really resemble himself. "This is a bad situation and its got the potential to get downright ugly."
"Cut to the chase, Buck!" Chris ground out.
Buck continued slowly, like walking on slippery shale rock. "You want to act as a father, I understand that. But you got to act as a leader, a calm level headed leader," he said, slowly letting his breath out and waiting for the explosion.
"I never said I was the leader!" the blond shot back, his green eyes blazing.
"No, but you are," Buck spoke evenly. "We need you to be." The dark-haired man indicated Ezra. " He needs you to be."
Buck lowered his voice to where Chris could barely make out the words. "One emotionally-invested gunman in the group acting irrational is going to be enough." Turning and looking right into Chris eyes, he kept going, "We dont need two." Buck stared hard at his friend communicating all the unspoken truths through his eyes.
After a few tense moments, Buck got up and walked off, letting this new information sink into the leaders mind. He moved across the fire and sat down, watching his friend. Chris watched the gambler intensely for a long time, thinking about Bucks words, and then the normally jovial man noticed the almost imperceptible nod of agreement.
The leader watched Ezra for a while longer. They had all witnessed the so-called selfish man carry out some very not-so selfish actions before. But, it always seemed the man knew what he was doing at the time. Chris knew inside that wasnt going to be the case this time when they caught up to the outlaws they were chasing. Buck was right, he needed to be in control when the time came.
Josiah suddenly appeared at the blonds side. For a large man, they had learned to their surprise he could be as quiet as the tracker or the gambler.
"Well?" the blond inquired. Figuring he was going to get round two in the lecture business.
Josiah shrugged his shoulders and commented, "Never can tell what a man will do when hes consumed with emotions he has no control over." Then he walked over and squatted in front of the fire. Chris understood that statement all too well.
After Ezra was satisfied that all was forgiven between horse and man, Ezra grabbed his rifle and headed out to the fringes of camp, silently stating he would take first patrol. The rest of the men eased into strained silence, waiting for supper to finish cooking and first light to come. It was going to be a long night for all of them.
Ezras mind seemed to focus in on the blood that covered the girls dress. Layton, that was her name. At the time Ezra remembered thinking what a perfect name, it had just seemed to fit the child. Ezra focused on those big, brown eyes of hers. They had been filled with so much hurt and pleading. Pleading for him to make it better, a con artist, scammer, trickster, gambler. He had been thinking what the heck did he know about saving a life, that was Nathans job. Then the boy had actually made a noise. Heaven help him, he had never felt more like running than he had at that moment. But, the boy was still alive; at least he was when they left. That little tyke had more guts than him; Sammy deserved to have a full life. Ezra swore to him that was exactly what hed have with Nathans help and Ezra would give him the revenge he deserved.
+ + + + + + +
Matthew Fleming was fighting the man holding him from behind in the saddle. The scrawny fists pummeled at the hand wrapped around his waist, fear enveloped his shaking body. In all his five years of life, he had never been apart from his sister; they even had slept in the same bed. He looked over to where nine-year old Vivian was being held by her captor for comfort and strength, tears streaming down her cheeks as she struggled to pry loose the fingers of the man clasping her small frame. The fine wispy blonde hair had earlier been tucked into a tight plait, now it hung loose and flew around her face.
Roger Marksman was leading his men at a racing gallop. His mind was traveling as fast as the horses were running. How had this happened? It was supposed to have gone so easily. Stop the wagons, collect the children and ride away. Thinking of what their boss would likely do when informed of the incident, the rugged man felt no sympathy for young Wakefield.
Whatever Fleming did to the stupid kid, he had it coming and no one in the group would step forward and stop it. The kid had been the last one to join the group and the men pledged their allegiance to the man who had garnered them money without turning them into blood-lusting outlaws. Personally, Marksman wanted to shoot the kid himself. If the hotheaded youngster had kept to the plan and done what he was instructed to do, things would have turned out as planned.
Tim Wakefield rode drag, not daring to look for alliances yet. He had seen the look on the hardened faces ahead of him when they ran from the scene. He would not find any friends just yet. He assured himself that once they got to camp it would be different. They would come around and defend his actions.
He felt no remorse in shooting the driver, in his mind it was a necessity. The driver had pulled his rifle; no matter the fact that everyone else seemed to think it was only a defensive move. The young killer saw in his minds eye the way to prove to his boss that he was a decisive man, one who could get the job done. He would be heralded and promoted to right hand man, taking over that know-it-all Marksman. When he took over the job the first thing he would do would get rid of that old man. He was too passive and slow. Yes, he would become the second in command and then soon afterwards replace Fleming altogether, the bone chilling screams of the children never bothering his conscience.
The fight eventually left the nine-year old girl, the overwhelming despair only been shown through the tears. The gut wrenching sobs floated through the air, piercing Roger Marksmans heart. It was an easy job gone wrong. Neither God nor Flemings would have mercy on Wakefield.
JD quietly walked back into the clinic. Even though it made his stomach churn to be there, he simply couldnt stay away. Upon entering he noticed the healer missing. Panic rose its head. "Wheres Nathan?" he asked puzzled. It wasnt like the healer to abandon his post when there was a critically ill person depending on him.
Mary looked up from the chair she had placed between the two patients. "He had to step out for a moment." The color in her cheeks told JD exactly what she meant.
"Oh," the sheriff simply said, the black bangs dancing in and out of his eyes as he nodded his understanding.
Mary looked up at the young man standing hipshot to her. "JD, would you mind taking over for me? I really need to go and see about young Henry. I have been here most of the afternoon and I really should collect him from Mrs. Potter and tend to him."
Mary could see the slight hesitation in the dark eyes staring back at her. "Nathan will be right back. You wont be here long by yourself."
JD nodded and even managed a ghost of a smile. "Sure, Mary. Go on. Itll be fine."
The blonde reporter passed by the sheriff and walked to the door before being stopped.
"How are they doing?" JD asked as he cautiously made his way to the previously occupied chair.
Mary turned and softened her look for the young sheriff. "Nathan said she," indicating Oleta, "should be fine in a couple of weeks."
Looking over at the other cot where the child slept, Mary finished quietly, "Not sure about him."
"Sammy. His name is Sammy," JD informed the woman who already knew the childs name.
Mary nodded and left the building wiping away the many tears running freely down her cheeks. How could anyone be so cruel to defenseless children? She turned towards the general store and wondered how she was going to mend the mental injury that the little boy she had willingly took in suffered.
JD sat down in the old chair and watched the steady rhythm of the womans breathing for a moment before turning his attention back to the little boy. The picture seemed incongruent to him; the little boy should be out running and playing, not lying here struggling to live. He wished Nathan would hurry up and get back; he didnt like being here alone. He knew he would only dwell on the days events and right now he wanted nothing more than forget this day ever happened.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan sat alone in the clinic. He had come back to find the young sheriff had replaced Mary. Nettie Wells had left earlier in the afternoon and making sure every child was placed and all was as well as it could be. The old ranch woman and Casey, had taken fourteen-year-old Swann and eight-year- old Emily home with them. The younger one had yet to make any acknowledgments of the happenings around her, but the healer had no doubts about the rancher helping the child.
Nettie Wells looked out of her window and watched the two older girls head for the barn. Swann and Casey had struck up an instant friendship. Casey would help the young girl through her trials and be there when the strong girls dam broke and needed a shoulder to cry on. The older woman turned back to the young pixie sitting in the timeworn rocker. Walking over to the chair, she lifted the child up and settled herself down in the rocker. Cradling the girl in her arms, she slowly began to rock and hum songs she once sang to her own children.
Back in town, Mrs. Potter fixed supper while her two children did their chores. Seventeen-year-old Melissa sat catatonic in a chair in the corner of the small kitchen. Her innocent mind was unable to comprehend the days ordeal. Mrs. Potter chatted incessantly to the other woman as if she understood every word.
Howard Fleming was pacing like trapped cougar. His unruly, curly hair, which he had been running his hands through constantly, gave him an added look of danger to his already angry appearance. The once cocky Tim Wakefield, who had been so sure of his rise in the ranks, was beginning to seriously doubt he would live to see morning come. absence. He had waited breathlessly with anticipation as he watched his men return. Fingers itched to touch his children once again. His heart fluttered with love meant only for the youngsters that would soon be in his camp,
The tall, muscular man could tell something was wrong the moment the riders came into view. The closer they got, the tighter his stomach clenched. He searched the small group and found the subjects he wanted. They looked terrified and peaked. He quickly assured himself that it was probably from having to ride with strangers. Once they were in their fathers arms, they would be all right. Something deep inside Roger told him differently and he wasnt going to like the news. He followed the mans glare over to the newest member of his group, Wakefield. The young man shifted nervously in his saddle.
Approaching the two children he gave them a cursory glance, wondering if they had been injured in some way. He had always imagined them flinging themselves into his arms, returning the same deep amount of love that he felt for them. He was not prepared for the reaction they did show. As he reached out to touch each one, they both shrank back from him. Cowering back into the restrictive arms that they had fought against earlier. Fleming turned and looked sharply at his right hand man then turned that harsh look onto the young man.
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