Warnings: Mentions Child Abuse but does not go into details
Disclaminer: Don't own them. Wish I did. No money being made
Thanks to my betas. Without them, you would never have understood my train of thought, Cathy, Deathsprite, Ryder, SubjectReality, and LdyStandish. In the middle of writing this story, the computer I was using, which belonged to my school, had to be turned in. There were so many computer bugs that they could not transfer my documents. And the disk I had saved the story to, didn't work either. I had to rebuild the first 14 chapters of the story. I hope I caught all the mistakes. If I didn't please let me know, so I can make corrections before it is archived. LOL I'm not sure exactly where it will be archived but I know it will be on LdyStandish's page. She pleaded with me.
Oh there is one more person I would like to thank. This person has nothing to do with our Mag7 fantom, but he was of great assistance to me. His name is Steve Edwards email@example.com. While I do know something about horses, I knew nothing about mules, which I needed for the story. Steve was a great help. Thank you so much, Steve. If you ever need any information about mules just ask Steve. He is a gem.
This never should have happened. No child should ever suffer as this child was suffering. No child should face such terror in its own home. Shaking her head, the old woman smiled down at the now sleeping child that lay on the clean straw bed. Picking up the cloth from the water bowl on the table beside her, she wrung out the cloth, and began to wipe the fevered brow. Hearing a noise from outside the cave they were hiding in, she froze. Holding her breath, she listened, praying that it wasn't him. Laying the damp cloth down, she slowly crept toward the cave entrance, staying low, just incase he was out there. As she reached the entrance, she dared a peek outside. Not seeing anything or anyone, she crawled outside, staying close to the outside wall of the cave. Her old brown eyes sweeping across the area. Looking for the noise, she knew she had heard. Movement in the bushes to her left caused her heart to leap. Holding her breath again, she watched. Searching for whatever was moving. There! There it was. The old woman smiled as she reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out a ball of heavy string. Making a small noose, she laid the string on the ground and after placing some grass in the middle, she backed away. Hiding just inside the cave entrance, she waited. Surprisingly though, she didn't have to wait too long. With one jerk, she won her prize. Pulling on the string she lifting the small rabbit off the ground. "Sorry, but there's a younin in there, that's about starved to death. And you're gonna help save her." With that said, she took a small knife from her pocket and slit the rabbit's throat. Looking at the rabbit, "Now see, that was quick and easy. She'll thank ya later." The old woman turned back into cave and began fixing the rabbit stew.
As the stew simmered, the old woman returned to the bedside of the child. Brushing her long fingers through the thick brown mass of curls that lay soaked with fever sweat, she mused, "No sweet thing. No child should be afraid in its own home. Problem for you is, that you and I both know that that place has never been home for you. It's just the place were you stay. "The child whimpered under her hand. "Shush, now child. Ole Hattie ain't gonna let nothing else happen to you. Doc done been here. Says, with a lot of rest and this medicine he left you gonna be right as rain. Course, if'n you go back to the house, you'll just end up back here or worse, dead. That man is just pure evil, I tell you, pure evil. And Ole Hattie ain't gonna let him hurt you no more. Should have done this long ago. See child, you don't know this, but there was another child. Along time ago. He's not a child no more though. He's grown man. A good man. I done sent him a wire. And I know him. As soon as he reads that wire, he'll be here as quick as he can, honey child. You can count on that boy. He won't let you down. Once he finds out about you, he'll be here before you can blink. You just wait and see. Young master Ezra will come. You can count on him." The child leaned her head toward the caring hand. Hattie watched as the small eyes tried to open. She could see the child was trying to focus but was failing miserably. Hattie smiled a sad smile at the child. The child turned its head, trying to see around Hattie, fear suddenly registering in those eyes. Hattie shook her head, "No need to fear child. He ain't here. And he don't know where you are. Not that he hasn't looked for ya, now, but there's too many folks that's tired of the way he's been treatiin' you, and are willing to help. And help will be here soon. We just gotta hold out a little longer." She watched as the child seemed to relax a little, "Think maybe you could eat something for old Hattie." She turned away to the stew, picked up a bowl that was nearby, and ladled a good portion of the stew into the bowl. She turned back to the child, and after helping her sit up, Hattie lifted the bowl and began to feed the child, "Here ya go, sweet girl. Old Hattie's gonna take good care of you. You don't need to worry no more about him. You trust me, don't ya child?" A nod was Hattie's reward. Hattie smiled, "Good. Now eat before it get cold."
Joey ran down the boardwalk. His pa had told him to hurry. He stopped running when he reached the batwing doors. Pushing them out of the way, Joey entered slowly. He'd never been in here before. Well, he had once before, but had promised his pa that he'd never come in here again as they were leaving the woodshed. But this was different. He was here on business. He looked around and found the man he had been sent to find. He walked up to right side, just behind the man. Glancing around the table, he saw the looks of the other men sitting around the table. Swallowing hard, he looked down at the man he was here to see, only to find the man looking back at him with a grin on his face.
"Joseph! What a surprise to find you in this establishment once more. I thought your last appearance would have convenience you to stay clear for at least another 10 years." The boy just stared at him, "Joseph, why are you here?"
Joey shook his head, "oh, I'm sorry." He held out his hand, which held the yellow paper. "A wire for you Mr. Standish."
Ezra picked a coin up off the table and as he handed it to Joey, he took the paper, "Thank you, Joseph."
Joey looked at the coin and smiled, "Thank you, Mr. Standish." That said, Joey turned and left the same way he had come in.
Chris smiled, "Good kid."
All eyes turned to Ezra as he opened the wire. As they watched, they saw his face pale. Nathan leaned up and touched Ezra's arm, "Hey, Ezra, you alright?"
"I am not sure, Mr. Jackson. I am not sure." He looked up into the faces of his friends and saw their concern. "Gentlemen, I I" He stumbled for words. Suddenly he stood and ran upstairs.
"What just happen here?" asked Buck.
Ezra was frantic as he ran into his room above the saloon. After grabbing is valise, began to throw his belongings inside, not taking the time to fold the clothing. He didn't care. He had to leave. He had to get back to Georgia. Unexpectedly, the door to his room was thrown open and standing there were the six men he had grown to count on. Six men he knew would watch his back. He stood there, frozen. He could see the concern in their eyes and they could see the fear in his.
"Talk Standish." Was all Chris said.
Ezra looked at Chris for a moment then returned to his packing, "I am remorseful Mr. Larabee, but I find that I must leave this locale. I have pressing business that cannot wait. I must express regret for my hasty departure. But rest assured if I had any alternative, I would not choose to depart."
Josiah step forward into the room and placed his hand on Ezra's shoulder, "Ezra, son, let us help."
Ezra looked down at the hand and then up into the blue eyes staring at him, "I don't know if you can."
"Talk to us. You might be surprised."
Laying his clothes aside, Ezra walked to the window. He pulled the curtain aside to look out onto the street below. No one said a word. Finally, Ezra spoke, "As you know, Maude would never have won 'Mother of the Year' award." He laughed lightly, "I've told you before how she would drop me off at the homes of different relatives until she felt she needed me for one of her cons." Still the men were silent. Taking a deep breath Ezra continued, "Well, one of the relatives I was forced to stay with was my Uncle Darice." Unshed tears could be seen in the gamblers eyes. "Uncle Darice was, no is the most deplorable example of humanity. He firmly believes in the Bible verse, 'Spare the rod and spoil the child.' Only his 'rod' is only limited to the first thing he can lay his hands on. If it had not been for several of his servants, Miss Hattie in particular, I would not have survived."
"What's all that got to do with the wire?" inquired Buck.
Taking a deep breath, Ezra continued, "The wire was from Miss Hattie. It seems another child, a little girl, has falling into the hands of Uncle Darice. Miss Hattie has requested that I come post haste, as the child's' life is in danger."
Vin shifted his stand, "Why contact you? Why don't she go to the local law?"
Ezra made no attempt to hide his laugh, "Local law? Rest assured, the local constable is firmly in Uncle Darice's back pocket. The moment Miss Hattie said one word to them, Uncle Darice would know and Miss Hattie would probably cease to exist." He drew a deep breath, "I have kept in touch her over the years. We have a mutual friend who filters our letters. This person is the one who actually sent the wire and he had to go to another town to do it. I don't know all the particulars but it seems I am the only one that can get her out safely." Ezra razed his head to Chris in eye, "Mr. Larabee, I have to go. I promised myself, that I would never allow another child to suffer as I did."
Chris nodded his head as he thought about it. After looking at each of the others, "We leave in an hour." With that he turned and left the room followed by the others.
Ezra ran out into the hallway, "But Mr. Larabee, this is my problem, not yours. There is no need for the rest of you to leave. I do not know how long I will be gone."
Chris stopped, turned around and walked up to Ezra, "You're one of us, Ezra. You're riding into something where you don't know the odds. You may need us." That said he turned and walked away.
A week later, after two trains and a stage ride, seven men arrived in the small town of Layfatte, GA, just over the Tennessee line. After securing lodging for the night, they decided to take a bath and relax before their ride tomorrow. Vin lowered himself into the hot steaming bath, which immediately began to sooth his aching muscles. Each man seemed to in his own world as they bathed. Ezra deeper than the rest. "So Ez, how far is this this what'd you say the name of the town was?"
"Flintstone, Mr. Tanner. Flintstone, GA. It is only about a half a days ride from here. A very small community. So small that everyone seems to know everyone else's business. And seven men riding in at once will surely be cause for gossip."
"And gossip is one thing we don't need right now, is it s brother?"
"No, Josiah it is not. I am afraid that if we all ride in there, that Uncle Darice will get wind of our arrival and that may hinder us in the removal the child."
JD looked puzzled, "So what does that mean?"
"That means, kid, that we gotta come up with a plan to get us all into town with drawing attention to ourselves and find this Miss Hattie."
"Quiet correct, Mr. Wilmington. Any suggestions gentlemen?"
Chris thought for a minute, "Do you have a way of contacting Miss Hattie?"
Ezra nodded, "Yes, we have a prearranged plan. Why?"
As he washed his arms, Chris continued, "Your Uncle Darice. What would he do if a stranger rode and ask for help, say, he needs water or his horse threw a shoe? How would your uncle respond?"
After some thought, Ezra answered, "Well, to the untrained eye, Uncle Darice would be most hospitable, but he would watch or have watched the strangers every move. Do you have a plan?"
"How about someone looking for job?"
'Uncle Darice raises some of the finest horse flesh this side of the Mississippi. He is always looking for experienced horsemen." Ezra smiled, "such as yourself, Mr. Larabee."
Chris smiled and nodded his head. The plan was on. Over the next several days, one by one, each man would ride into town, and secure a job. Chris would work on Uncle Darice's ranch and try to find Miss Hattie in case Ezra was unsuccessful. The rest would play it by ear. The remainder of the evening was spent over dinner and small talk, at several tables, not wanting to draw unnecessary attention to themselves or their conversations.
"Get up there, you stubborn mule." Abel yelled out at the mule that refused to budge. Abel smacked its rump with a switch but still the mule refused to move. "Come on now. Mr. Peterson's gonna be right put out if'n we don't get back to the house soon. So come on, work with ole Abel here." The mule just blinked and sat down. 'NO! NO! Don't sit down. Get up!" Abel yelled even louder as he pulled on the reins to no avail. Able was at a loss as to what to do. Mr. Peterson was not going to be happy. And when Mr. Peterson was not happy, everyone paid the price, even the animals. That is all except his precious horses. He stood there staring at the mule when he noticed a riding coming his way. Abel watched the rider come closer and knew the man was stranger to these parts. He'd never seen the man before.
The stranger rode up beside the wagon and stopped. He looked down from his tall black horse, studying the large black man leaning on the walking stick in his hand. His large hands calloused from years of hard work. A wide brim straw hat sat on his head and a thick layer of dirt covered his overalls, as well as the dirt on his bare feet. After taking in the problem, the stranger removed the cheroot from his mouth, "Need some help?"
Abel took off his hat, holding it between his hands in front of his self and bowed his head, "If'n you can get this ole mule up and moving, sir, I'd be much obliged."
Chris walked around the mule, patting its neck as he did. After he gave the reins a slight tug with not result, he returned to his mount and took down his canteen. Uncorking the canteen, he walked back to the mule, reached up and poured some water into her ear. The mule stood, shaking her head. Chris smiled and tugged on the reins and the mule started walking.
Abel laughed, "Well, if that don't beat all. I ain't never seen the likes. No sir, I ain't never." Shaking his head in disbelief.
Chris just smiled wider and slapped Abel on the back, "It's an old trick my friend. When a mule bulks, you gotta out smart them. The water throws them off balance. They aren't expecting it."
"Yes sir, I'll remember that. Thank ya, kindly."
Vin rode into town from the south side. Slowly, he rode up to the livery. As he dismounted, a boy around ten years old stepped out and took the reins. Vin tossed him two coins, "Bed him down good boy. Extra grain.'
"Yes, sir." Was the boy's reply as he led the Appaloosa into the barn.
Vin looked around, and then headed off the street in search of a job and more importantly information.
Buck and JD were the next to arrive, heading straight for the saloon and a drink. After being served a beer, they turned around and learned against the bar. Seeing a poker game in progress, they watched and listened. About 30 minutes of watching, Buck watched as one player stood to leave and walk out the door. Buck walked over to the table, "See you're a man short. Mind if I join ya?" The men at the table look at each other, then nodded for Buck to sit down. JD stayed at the bar, nursing his beer and watching Bucks back.
The next day Josiah arrived on the stage. He walked down street, straight to the church Ezra had told him was the Uncle Darice attended regularly. Walking up the steps, he came to the heavy wooden doors. Checking the doorknob, he found it to be unlocked. He entered the simple church, which would hold probably 100 people he estimated. As Josiah stood there, he heard a door open and close. Looking to the front left, he saw a young priest walking his way. The young man held out his hand, "Welcome to the Lords house. My name is Father Sullivan."
Josiah smiled and accepted the hand, "Thank you Father. Josiah. Josiah Sanchez. I am new to this part of the county."
Nodding his head, "Yes, I can see by you dress, that you are probably from somewhere out west."
"Arizona to be exact, sir."
The priest, placing a hand on Josiah's arms to guide him to the front pew, where they sit down, "Well, welcome to our small town. What brings you here?"
Josiah let his eyes wonder around the room for a moment before answering, "I'm not really sure, Father. Something has been pulling me here for several days. Something I can't explain. I wasn't even sure where this feeling was taking me, until I arrived here this morning and saw this church." He paused for effect, "Does that make any sense to you?"
The priest smiled, "Well, I'm not sure, but it could be God calling you for a purpose. Are you a God fearing man, Mr. Sanchez?"
"Used to be. Haven't been lately though. Seen too much hurt."
"Maybe God is calling you back."
"Could be. Could be." After a few moments of silence, "Father, would it be alright with you if I hung around for a while. I can do odd jobs here around the church, for a bed and food. I need to find my way."
Father Sullivan looked at Josiah and could have sworn he saw tears in the man's eyes, "Of course you may stay brother. Stay as long as you need. I know there is quiet a lot of work to be done in this old church. We can keep you quiet busy."
Josiah nodded his bowed head, "Thank you, Father. Thank you."
The priest rose from his seat, "follow me, Mr. Sanchez. I will show you where you can put your things." Josiah rose to follow him but the priest did not see the smile that crossed Josiah's face as they went back through the side door.
Later that same day, Nathan rode into town from the east. Searching the signs on the different windows, he finally found the one he was looking for. Dismounting from his horse, he wrapped the reins around the hitching post, and then walked up to the door. Upon entering the establishment, he noted the well-stocked medicine cabinet and smiled. When a door on the other side of the room opened and an elderly man stepped out, Nathan just stood there with his hat in his hand. When the man, who had a stethoscope hanging around his neck, looked up from the book he was looking at and saw a large black man standing there, he froze. "Is there something I can do for you, sir?"
"Are you Doc Mitchell?" The man nodded his head. "I have a message for you. Patience is not waiting; it's how you act while you're waiting. I hope I said that right." Nathan grinned.
The old man just stared at Nathan for a moment. "Ezra sent you?"
Nathan's grin grew wider, "Yes sir he did. Ezra outside of town right now, waiting for me to return. He said that you were his contact here in Flintstone."
Doc Mitchell smiled back and nodded his head again, "Yes, yes I am. I am so happy to hear that he has come. We were afraid something had happened. But it is so hard to get wires or mail in and out of town without his Uncle Darice knowing about it." He rubbed his hands over his face. "And if Darice finds out that Ezra is here, we will never get little Angelique to safety."
"Angelique's the little girl?"
"Yes. Darice did a real number on that girl. Beat her 'til she bled. If I could get my hands on her mama, I'd strangle her for leaving that baby behind like she done." Shaking his head, "But enough of that. We have work to do." Looking Nathan in eye, "He brought help with him? That's good. Darice won't think to be looking for two fellas with Angelique."
"What?" The doctor was startled.
"I said seven. There are seven of us. We work together in the Arizona territory as peacekeepers. When Ezra told us about the girl, we all decided to help. We didn't all ride in together though. We got one out at the ranch, working already. One is at the church. Three more are scattered around town in odd jobs or just hanging around. And like I said, Ezra is outside of town, incase anyone should recognize him."
The doctor smiled, "That is brilliant! I knew little Angelique could count on him. She will be so happy to hear that he is here and will rescue her." He picked his jacket off the coat tree and opened the door, "Let's go talk to him, shall we." Nathan looked a little puzzled but then nodded his head and left the office with the doctor right behind him.
Ezra sat with his back to a big magnolia tree, chewing on a blade of grass. He kept his nervous hands busy by shuffling his cards. His eyes never left the road below as his mind wondered. It seemed like a million years ago since he had left this place, vowing never to return. So why was he here now? Moreover, who was this child, that Miss Hattie felt that he was the only one who could save her. It didn't make any sense. His mind wondered back in time. To a time he really did not want to remember, but there it was, playing back in his head like it was yesterday.
"You stupid little brat! How could anyone be as stupid as you?" Ezra could still feel the bite of large belt as it made contact with his back. "I don't know why I put up with you. I curse the day your whore of a mother, dumped you here. If it weren't for the money she promised me in return, you'd be out sleeping with pigs where you belong! You are an embarrassment to this entire family. Do you know that? You are pathetic. Eight years old and you can't even master a simply word like audacity. And that's pretty funny, because you got all kinds of audacity, thinking you're as good as us decent folks. Well, I'm going to teach you a lesson you will never forget. I'll beat the bad blood out of you. You will never embarrass me again. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?
Ezra shuddered at the thoughts. Without even thinking about it, he rubbed his right shoulder, remembering that was the first time it had been dislocated. The monster didn't even bother to call the doctor to set it straight. Miss Hattie had gone for the doctor, two days later, when Uncle Darice had left for a business trip.
His thoughts changed direction. The face of Miss Hattie came into view. He remembered how the old woman would scurry around the kitchen of the large house that belonged to his uncle. He could still smell the fresh bread baking in the oven and taste with mouth watering peach and apple pies she would have sitting on the top of the stove to keep them warm. Life was good there, as long as Uncle Darice was not at home. But when he was, it was a living hell.
A noise caught Ezra's attention and he belittled himself for not paying attention to his surroundings. Thankfully, though, he found it to be Nathan and Doctor Mitchell. Ezra rose from where he sat and stood starring down at the men as they approach on the road below him. As they came closer, he noticed Nathan pointing to where they needed to go in order to reach their campsite at the top of the hill. Ezra walked around to where his horse was tethered and waited. As the riders approached, he smiled, "Doctor Mitchell, it is so good to see after such an extended period of time."
"Same here Ezra. I just wish it were under better circumstances."
After taking the reins and tying, the horses off they walked to the campfire and sat down. "So, tell me Doctor Mitchell, I understand that Uncle Darice has somehow gotten his hands on another child. A little girl at that. How in heavens name did he accomplish that? What fool allowed him another chance to destroy the life of another child?"
Doctor Mitchell just stared at him for a moment, "Maude."
Ezra shook his head, "Maude? What about her?"
Seeing that Ezra did not understand, the Doctor continued, "Ezra, what was happening ten years ago in this country?"
Ezra laughed, "Why the war of course. What does that have to do with why I am here?"
"During war Ezra, how much time went by between your visits with Maude?"
Ezra had to think, "Well, I'd say two years or so. But again what does that have to do with why you and Miss Hattie summoned me here?"
"My God, Ezra you really don't know, do you. Miss Hattie always said that if you knew you'd be here, but when you didn't come I thought she was wrong. I mean I honestly thought you knew."
With a brief pause and deep breath the doctor continued, "Ezra, during the war, Maude had another child. The little girl, Angelique. And when Angelique was only a few days old, Maude brought her to Darice to raise. Again, she has been paying him to keep the child." When Ezra did not say anything, the doctor went on, "Ezra you have a sister. She is nine years old. And she needs her big brother to help her. To save her. Do you understand?"
Ezra could only nod. It was Nathan that spoke up, "Doc, you telling me that Maude has kept this secret from Ezra for nine years. Refused to tell him that he had a sister. I knew that woman was cold, but this goes beyond even that. That woman is is a I just don't know what she is anymore." Nathan fumed.
Tears formed in Ezra's eyes and he did not try to hide them. He let them fall freely. Shaking his head, "How could she? How could she not tell me? How could she leave another child with that monster? What kind of monster does that make her?" Ezra jumped to his feet, wiping away the tears. He walked in a circle. He had to think. He had to get her out. He had to protect his little sister. Ezra paused, I have a sister! I have a baby sister! He couldn't believe it. He didn't know if he should be happy or furious. However, he would deal with those emotions later. Right now, he had to help Angelique. Moreover, if Uncle Darice got in his way, he would kill him and not think twice about it.
Buck had held his own during the poker game, thanks to some things Ezra had taught him. He could have done better, but he wanted to make sure he stayed in the game and no one get mad at him, so he folded at times when he didn't need to. Gathering information was more important than the money at this point. "So you fellas know were a guy could find a job around here? My friend and I are getting kinda low on cash and we really need some work."
The players on either side of Buck just grunted. However, the player across from Buck spoke up as he laid down his discard, "Might can check with some of bigger ranches around here. There's the Divver ranch, nice folks, but it's a small outfit. There's also the Rogers, but again small. The largest outfit around is the Peterson spread. Great horseflesh, good food and they say his bunkhouse is real nice. But Mr. Peterson himself, now that's a different story. Mean as a snake. While he dotes on those horses of his, he treats his hired help like they was dirt. And that little girl of his, I hear she's one of them there 'simple' kids, if ya know what I mean. And he's ashamed for her to even stick her nose out the door. Beats her something fierce from what I hear too. Poor kid, he shoulda went on and put her in one of them asylums ifn' he was gonna treat her this way. I mean it's not like she can help being 'simple' now can she."
Buck, with the appearance of studying his cards responded, "She's simple, uh. That's a shame. Where's her mama? Don't she try to protect the little one?"
All three players shook their heads but it was the one to his left that answered, "Ain't got no ma. Heard tell Peterson was so mad that she birthed a 'simple' kid, that he shoot right there in the bed."
Buck almost dropped his cards, but before he could say anything the man on his right spoke up, "Naw, that ain't what happened, you idiot He had kid, a girl. She growed up and ran off with some drifter. That kid he has now is her daughter, making it his granddaughter. The girl came home dropped the kid off and ran away again in the night, leaving her poor pappy holding the bag, so da speak."
Buck could not believe what he was hearing. He dared to glance a look in JDs direction and thought the kid was gonna faint right there on the spot. To say Buck was angry would be saying the sun comes up every morning. He could feel his guts wrenching, as he did his best not to let the angry show on his face.
Then the first player that had spoken, spoke again, "Don't really matter none how the child came to be, fact is, she's there and he treats her worse than any animal. I heard some of his hired help say that he barely gives the child enough food to eat. That along with the beatings, I don't know how she has survived. I was out at his place a couple of months ago. Was standing in the corral looking to buy a horse from him, when I happened a glance at the house. And there she was, looking out an upstairs window. Fellows, that kid can't be more than five years old. And she looked so sad. I asked about her, but was told to mind my own business, so I shut up."
Buck folded and pushed himself away form the table, "Thanks for the game fellas. But I gotta run for now. Maybe we can pick this game up another time." They all said goodbye as Buck and JD walked outside.
They didn't talk until they reached the ally and after they made sure no one was listening JD spoke up, "Buck what do you thinks going on out there? I mean what's all this got to do with Ezra? Think he's the little girl's pa? Finding out his little girl was being hurt would kill Ezra. You know how he is with kids. But if it is his kid, why is she here in the first place. It don't make no sense."
Buck rubbed his mustache, "No kid, none of this makes sense. I don't rightly know who that little girl is, but whoever she is, she needs our help and that's all that matters. Right?"
"Yea, right. The kid needs us."
Buck smiled, "Who are you to be calling somebody else a kid, kid?"
"Buck!" JD went to punch Buck on the arm, but Buck was already out of his reach walking toward their horses. They mounted and headed back to camp.
Vin had taken another bath, put on clean clothes, and walked over to the mercantile. He had seen a 'help wanted' sign in the window and applied for the job. It turned out to be a job as a stock boy and the owners were trilled to hire a man instead of boy, due to the heavy lifting that it would entail.
The day after Vin started working, he saw a bull of a man enter the store. Vin watched from the corner of his eye while he stacked the new fabric that had just arrived. He watched as the man wandered around, until he heard the voice of Mrs. Holston as she rounded the counter. "Mr. Peterson, welcome. What can I do for you?"
"I'm here for some supplies." He handed her a sheet of paper.
Mrs. Holston looked it over, and then smiled, "We can take of this. It'll take a while. It's a big list. Would you mind coming back in about an hour? I'll have it all ready for you."
The man tipped his hat, "That'll be fine, Mrs. Holston. I'll go run some other errands and come back."
"Thank you." She turned away as he walked out the door. She began walking around the store, picking up items and placing them on the counter. "Vin, dear, would you please be so kind as to go in the back and fetch a couple of boxes we keep out back. Then you can help me fill Mr. Peterson's order."
"Yes, ma'am." Vin nodded his head and walked out through the back curtain. Coming back a few minutes later, Vin carried several boxes. Mrs. Holston was talking with another customer, so Vin walked up behind her after sitting the boxes down, and placed his hand on her shoulder. She turned to look at him, "Now if you'd go around back and fetch me ten sacks of feed, I'll get everything else on the list."
He tipped his hat and walked out the door. Shaking her head at his back, That boy is a life saver. I've got so much to do here today. If he weren't here I don't know what I'd do.
After breakfast with the rest of the hands, Chris walked out to the corral to look at the stock. He had been hired to break the new arrivals. The buckskin currently in the corral had decided that he was not going to be broken today. As Chris watched other hands trying to get a rope on the animal, he shook his head. The horse was smarter than all the men. Without a word, Chris grabbed the corral railing and pulled himself up and sat down to watch the animal.
Well, to those watching him it seemed he was watching the horse. But what they failed to notice was the fact that Chris was sitting facing the main house. During dinner the night before, Chris was able to gather enough information to know that the little girl was "missing." No one knew where she was, especially, Mr. Peterson, and that was driving the man crazy. When she had first gone missing, he would ride out each morning looking for her, but not any more. Last time he had ridden in he made the comment "Hopefully, she's crawled off somewhere and died. World would be better off, than having than idiot around anymore."
None of the hands could understand it. They all knew of the abuse, but what could they do? It wasn't their place to tell a man how to raise his own kid. Was it?
Chris shook his head. He had to keep his mind on who he was looking for. Hattie, he had to find Hattie. All he really knew about her, was that she was an elderly black woman. His eyes search the area around the house, no one. He couldn't see anyone. With a deep breath, he looked back at the buckskin.
"HEY, COWBOY!" Chris heard someone call and he looked over to his right to find the foreman, looking at him. Chris held his glaze. "Boss, hired you to break horses, not sit on the fence. Get to work." Chris nodded and after taking a rope off the fence, he climbed down and walked toward the horse.
"Josiah! Would you mind helping me?" the young priest asked. Josiah laid down the spoon he was using to cook with and followed the priest into another room. When he entered the room he saw a crate sitting on the floor. "There, that crate. I need it to the side building where we have a small poor house. The crate contains little girls' clothing, donated by Mr. Peterson. I will sort them later and pass them out to some of our more needing parishioners."
Josiah nodded his head and reached for the crate, "It was awful nice of Mr. Peterson to donate these. His little girl outgrow all this at once?" Josiah asked with humor.
Father Sullivan looked startled. "Hum, no. Not exactly. The little girl, she hum, she well, she you know I really can't tell you anything of the little girl. I've never seen her."
Josiah hoisted the crate up on his shoulder and braced it with his hands, "You've never seen her? Doesn't she come to church with her father?"
"No. No she doesn't. Mr. Peterson told me once that she was a mite slow, if you understand my meaning. So he doesn't bring her out in public, which is understandable. God bless him for not putting her in one of those awful asylums, which he had every right to do. But he is a good God-fearing man, and he just couldn't do it to the poor little girl. He doesn't talk about her very much. Just occasionally, like when he dropped these clothes off. From what he told me, I think maybe she is sick and may not be long for this world."
Josiah's head shot up. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, I really shouldn't be saying anything. But I am so worried about Mr. Peterson. He seems so distraught. However, he does realize that when she does pass away, she will be better off and not have to suffer anymore. I think he has made peace with that thought."
Josiah could only nod his head as he turned away and headed out the side door to the poor house. If Father Sullivan had seen the anger on his face, he might have had second thoughts about allowing Josiah to stay at the church.
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Angelique screamed as she bolted up from her bed of straw. Hattie was eating some of the rabbit stew from yesterday when Angelique woke from a nightmare.
Hattie laid her plate down and hurried over to the now weeping child. Sitting down next to her, Hattie wrapped her arms around the girl and as she rubbed her back, she spoke in a soft voice, "Shush now. It was just an ole nasty dream. Not real, sweetie. Ole Hattie ain't gonna let nothing happen to ya. I made you that promise, didn't I? Master Peterson, he was out looking for you everyday, for a while. But now, he done quit looking. Thinks you done crawled off somewheres and died. But we know better don't we. Yep, we know Master Ezra's gonna be here real soon. He'll be here and he'll take care of everything. Yes he will." She rocked as she continued to rub Angelique's back. "I ever tell you about him? No don't reckon I have. He used to live here too. That's right. He was about four years old when he his mama dropped him off. Hmmmp! Dropped him off. Why, she done told Master Peterson that it was just for a few weeks. Turned out to be three years. She left her baby boy with that monster for three long years. Course she done left you a lot longer, didn't she. I shoulda done this along time ago. Ezra, he took all the beatins' just like you have. At first he cried, but he found, just like you, that crying only made his uncle madder. So he learned to hide his tears. But I could see the pain in his eyes. But it was more than the physical pain, it was the pain left by his mama. And you feel that pain too, don't you little one." Angelique's hand wrapped itself in the thread bare dress that Hattie wore and whimpered some more. Hattie pulled her closer.
"Hattie?" a voice from outside whispered.
She stopped rocking and looked toward the entrance of the cave. "Doc Mitchell? That you?"
"Yes Hattie. I'm coming in. I've brought someone with me."
Hattie smiled. "I hope it's who I think it is."
A soft southern voice was her answer, "Who else would come at your beckon call Miss Hattie." Ezra stepped through the mouth of the cave.
The smile on his face left when his eyes fell on the child in Hattie's arms. Quietly, he walked forward and knelt beside her. With his right hand, he reached out and touched the small face with his fingertips. "My God, Hattie, she's so small. Doctor Mitchell said she is nine years old, but she doesn't look a day over six."
Hattie nodded her head as she stroked Angelique's hair, "Yes, I know child. You know as well as I do how Master Peterson treats children. When your mama left little Angelique with him, he made her promise never to come back and take her away. Said she wasn't a proper example for the child. Hmmmmp. Some example he is. She's been beaten, cut and burned by that monster since the first day she arrived. She is not allowed outdoors, and when he is away on trips, she is locked away inside a tiny closet. We feed her through a trap door. He is the only one that has the key. On the coldest Georgia nights, the child sleeps on a piece of carpet on the floor, only a threadbare quilt to warm her." Hattie looked up at the now kneeling Ezra and saw the tears running down his face. With an old weathered hand, she reached up, wiped them away, and smiled at the boy she remembered.
Ezra sat down and lifted Angelique from Hattie's arms. They had to pry her hand from the dress, but once Ezra had her firmly in his arms, he wrapped his coat around her for warmth. She snuggled deeper into the embrace and latched onto his pristine white shirt with her dirty little fingers. Ezra didn't care.
Nathan and Ezra rode slowly back into camp with Ezra holding Angelique in his arms, his bedroll blanket wrapped securely around the child to ward off the cold winter wind. Pulling the horses to a halt, Nathan climbed down first, tethered Buster to the line, and then walked around to help Ezra with Angelique. Reaching up he took Angelique in his arms and held her while Ezra dismounted and tethered his horse. Then he took Angelique back and walked into camp. Nathan tended to the horses, then took a canteen over and sat it beside Ezra. He then set out stoking the fire, as Ezra sat down with Angelique and laid his cheek against her hair.
Continuing to stoke the fire, Nathan didn't look up. "I can't answer that question Ezra. I mean, back on the plantation I saw this kind of thing all the time against the slaves, but never on ones' own child. Ain't never seen the like."
"We have to leave this area immediately. We must gather our companions and put this dismal place behind us. Doctor Mitchell has an acquaintance who is an attorney. If we can get her to our territory, Judge Travis can grant me custody, enabling me to legally protect her. But until then, whoever has physical custody of her is the one in charge. And I am familiar with Uncle Darice. He may give the impression of having given up on finding her, but he hasn't. He has his spies out there. We cannot linger. Please, Nathan. Please go after the others. Angelique and I will ride ahead and we shall all convene in Lafayette. There, we can board the train for home. Please, Nathan." Ezra was desperate. He was beginning to lose control; something Ezra was not accustomed to.
Nathan laid the stick down and walked over to Ezra. Placing a hand on his shoulder, "Ezra, calm down. You ain't going to do that little girl any good if you lose control. You got to keep yourself together. We will get her out. Ezra nodded his head, the distress clear on his face.
Nathan patted his back. "You rest here awhile. I'll go fetch the others and then we will ride out together. TOGETHER, Ezra. We will do this together. None of us will allow anyone to hurt your sister again." Ezra stared down into Angelique's dirty face. "Do you hear me, Ezra?" Ezra nodded but never looked up. Nathan rose and walked back to his horse, tightened the cinch, and mounted. After taking one more look at Ezra, he turned Buster's head and rode away.
Ezra never moved from his spot. He sat there rocking and speaking soothing words to his little sister, as he ran his fingers through her short blonde hair. He reached into his inner jacket pocket and pulled out his handkerchief. Taking the canteen Nathan had left him; he poured some water onto the cloth, and then began wiping Angelique's face. As he wiped down her neck, near the hairline he saw something that made him take notice. A sore. But not just any sore. Ezra pulled her hair out of the way, and looked closer. Realizing what he was looking at, Ezra broke down and wept.
A short time later Chris rode into camp with Hattie riding behind him. "Hey Ezra. Look who found me. Nathan told her I was working at the ranch and she came looking for me."
She slipped off the horse and ran to Ezra. He sat there starring at her. She sat on the ground beside him and reached out to touch his face. He lifted his head however, when he saw the old slave woman, he broke. The tears rolled freely down his cheeks as he choked out, "Why, Miss Hattie, why?"
Hattie shook her head, "What, honey child? You know what he done. And you know he don't need no reason for his madness."
Ezra shook his head as Chris approached and knelt down. "No, look." He pulled back Angelique's hair to reveal his findings.
Chris leaned over and looked at it. "It looks like a burn. But how could she burn herself there?"
"She didn't, Mr. Larabee. That monster did. This, my good sir, is a burn from a cigar. And Uncle Darice is a heavy cigar smoker."
Chris sat back on his heels. The vein in his forehead protruded as he gritted his teeth. His thoughts went back in time to Adam. He remembered how hard it was for him to discipline his son, but he could not even begin to imagine beating him like this child had been. And then to burn the child in this fashion -- Chris was gritting his teeth so hard they began to ache. Shaking his head, he asked "Where is Nathan?"
"He has gone to gather the others so that we may leave this dreadful place."
Rising to his feet, Chris began the process of breaking camp. He wanted to be ready when the others returned.
Ezra looked at Hattie. "I cannot begin to thank you enough for sending me the wire. I know that you are now in jeopardy from Uncle Darice, should he find out you are responsible for Angelique's emancipation."
Hattie shook her head. "Don't you worry none about ole Hattie. I'll be all right."
"No, Miss Hattie, you won't be. Not if you remain here. If Uncle Darice discovers your involvement, he will not hesitate to eradicate you. You and I both know that."
"That may be, but there ain't much I can do about that, now is there?"
Ezra sat up straighter. "Yes, Miss Hattie, there is something you can do. You can come with me. With us back to Arizona."
"Master Ezra, I'm an old woman. I'd only slow you down."
"Miss Hattie, you've never slowed anyone down in your life. And besides, I'm being selfish here. I'm going to require help with her. She doesn't even know me. She will be terrified. A familiar face will go a long way in soothing those fears. She's been scared enough in her life, Miss Hattie; please come with us."
Hattie looked into his eyes and saw the honest truth there. "Alright, that is if Mr. Larabee here don't mind."
"Miss Hattie, we'd be glad if you joined us. We might be seven big tough gunfighters, but little girls scare us to death." Chris laughed.
She smiled. "I guess it's settled then. I'm going to Arizona."
Seven men, one carrying a small boy, and an old black woman waited their turn to board the train. Hattie was in front when they reached the steps of the train, with Ezra and child right behind her. The conductor pushed Hattie aside to help Ezra. Ezra glared at the man. "Excuse me, good sir, but this woman was ahead of us. Please assist her. We can wait."
"Oh, she ain't nothing. She'll wait 'till all the white folks are on. She knows her place." The conductor said, talking hold of Ezra's arm to help him on board.
Ezra jerked his arm away, "Unhand me, sir. And help this woman."
The conductor took his hand back and stared at Ezra. Shaking his head, he pushed Ezra aside, "Suit yourself. NEXT!"
Only what he found when he looked up, wasn't the next passenger, but six guns pointed directly at him. "I think the woman is tired and would like to get on board and find a seat. And then this gentleman would like to board with his son." Chris growled.
The conductor almost dropped his clipboard. He took a deep breath and swallowed hard, "Yes, of course, of course." He turned to Hattie. "Right this way." Hattie turned her back on the conductor to face Chris, "Thank you." She smiled and winked at him. Then she turned back to the conductor, holding out her arm for him to take and help her board.
Darice was furious. "WHERE IS SHE!" he yelled as he threw a bridle against the barn wall. "Where is that blackie woman? I knew she was the one who had been helping that brat. She's probably hiding her somewhere. I WANT THAT OLD HAG FOUND AND I WANT HER FOUND TODAY! DO ALL OF YOU HEAR ME?" His hired hands only nodded their heads and headed for their horses and Darice headed back to the house. If he had to beat the information out of that blackie to find that brat, he'd do it.
Everyone settled into seats surrounding Ezra and Angelique. Ezra sat in an aisle seat with Miss Hattie beside him and Angelique cradled in his lap. Chris and Vin sat in the seats facing them. Buck and JD sat across the aisle facing the same direction as Ezra, while Josiah and Nathan sat facing them.
Ezra removed the small cap they had placed on Angelique's head to pass her off as a boy. He cocked his head to one side as he combed his fingers through her baby fine hair. "Why Miss Hattie?"
Hattie looked puzzled, "Why what?"
"Why'd he cut her hair so short. She has such pretty hair. It's dirty and needs to be washed, but I can tell that it is pretty. Almost the same color as Mother's hair. I can imagine her with her blonde locks hanging down to her waist. But this, it's so so so ugly. " He looked up with the same sad eyes that Hattie remembered from so long ago.
She reached over and patted his leg, "That wasn't Master Peterson that cut her hair. I done that."
She bowed her head and took a breath, "Ezra, now just remember, that he can't hurt her no more. You gonna see to that."
"Miss Hattie?" Ezra grew more concerned.
"Ezra, that monster used to grab fists of hair and drag her across the floor. Her hair was looking so bad, I had to cut it. To keep him from using it to drag her and to make a look a might better. Please don't be mad at ole Hattie."
Ezra shook his head, "Miss Hattie, I could never be angry with you. I can only thank you for protecting her as best you could." He ran a thumb across his sister's cheek, "It'll grow back."
"Mr. Peterson! Mr. Peterson!" Hank, the Peterson ranch foreman, called as he entered the barn.
Darice looked up as he laid the down brush he had been using to curry his favorite stallion. "What is it?" he hissed.
"I think we might have found something!"
"This better be good!"
"Over in Lafayette. The ticket master said he sold a ticket to a black woman that fits Hattie's description."
"Did she have the brat?"
He shook his head. "No. Said the only kid he saw was with some guy. It was little boy. Said he look kinda sickly. The man was carrying him."
Darice thought a moment, "You get a description of this man?"
"Yeah, about thirty, brown hair, green eyes, and "
Darice's head shot up, "Did you say green eyes?" The man nodded. "That's it. How could I have been so stupid. Of course, that's how she did it. I should have seen it coming. I should have shot that woman years ago." He looked at the foreman. "You haven't been around long enough to remember him."
"Ezra. Ezra P. Standish. Maude's son. Angelique's older brother. When he was a kid, Maude dumped him here, too. He was here about three years. He was rotten just like the brat, but what can one expect from the kids of Maude Standish. Anyway, he's a man now. Last I heard he was living out west. In Arizona, I think. And old Hattie always had a soft spot for him. If Hattie wired Ezra about the kid, then yes, he'd come in an attempt to rescue her. But we know he's not going to succeed, don't we?"
"Yes, sir. He ain't gonna get far with her. I'll get the men on it." He replied as he turned and walked away.
JD saw them first. Five of them boarding the train at the Chattanooga station. He wasn't sure what it was about these men, but he didn't like them. He nudged Buck, who was sleeping beside him. Buck's hat was pulled down over his face as he tried to sleep. When JD nudged him, he merely tilted his head a little and looked out from under his hat. JD didn't say anything, only motioned with his eyes for Buck to look at who just boarded the train. Buck sat up and stretched while looking in the direction JD was telling him to.
Setting his hat back on his head, he nodded 'good job' to JD. Buck tapped Josiah with his foot and when Josiah looked at him, he nodded his head toward the men walking up the aisle behind Josiah. Josiah stood and excused himself, and walked to the front of the car past the men and stepped out on the landing. Chris watched as Josiah rose and stepped out into the aisle. Josiah looked at him and motioned with a slight nod to the men. Chris turned his head slightly and saw the men, and only turned back to see that Ezra and Nathan had both seen them as well. In a low whisper, he told Vin, "Group of men coming up the aisle. Loaded for bear."
"I know." Was all Vin answered as he laid his mare's leg across his lap.
"Ezra, you sit tight. Protect Angelique and we'll take care of the rest." Chris ordered. Ezra answered with by blinking his eyes, slowly. JD and Buck both had their guns out, hidden from view. Ezra had his derringer in his hand. While Chris and Vin looked relaxed.
"Hey, fancy man. Peterson wants his kid."
Ezra lifted his eyes to stare the man down. "Excuse me, good sir?"
"That kid. It belongs to Mr. Peterson of Flintstone."
Ezra didn't budge. "Sir, to begin with, this child is not an "it." Second, he is my son, who is ill. And thirdly, I would appreciate it greatly, if you would depart and not cause him any more unwarranted distress."
"That ain't no boy. It's a girl. And SHE belongs to Mr. Peterson, my boss."
Ezra laughed, "Sir, I have no idea who this Mr. Peterson is and if his child is missing I am sorry. But my SON is not his daughter."
The leader of the group smiled, "Well, now it wouldn't be that hard to find out which one of us is lying now would it."
Ezra lifted his arm along with his derringer, "Sir, if you or your associates there take one-step closer toward my son, I will kill you."
"How many of us do you think you can get with that peashooter?"
In one fluid motion Chris, Vin, JD, Buck and Nathan rose with their guns drawn, "More than you think." Josiah answered from behind the group of strangers.
The strangers reached for their guns, two spinning around to face the biggest man either had ever seen. They knew they were trapped. One of them tapped their leader on the arm, "Come on, Mike. I ain't getting killed here. Peterson wants his kid back, let him stand up to these guys. I ain't no gunfighter, but these men look like they just might be."
"Shut up, Carl. We're being paid to do a job. That's what Peterson expects from us."
"A lot of good that pay will do ya if you're dead." Vin said in a menacing tone.
Mike tried to glare Vin down, but he was the one who looked away first. Taking his hand away from his gun, "Come on fellas. Guess we had the wrong kid."
"Very astute, sir, very astute." Ezra replied just to dig the knife in deeper. He knew these men would report back to his uncle and hopefully, Uncle Darice would get the message to leave them alone. But, Ezra had his doubts.
A few hours later, the train pulled into the station at Huntsville, Alabama. The group had been discussing the events at Chattanooga and since both Ezra and Hattie believed that Uncle Darice would not give up, they decided to change their plans. Separately, they all disembarked the train and went in different directions. Ezra headed for a restaurant in an attempt to get Angelique to eat something. Chris and Vin stayed at the station, just to keep an eye on who was coming and going, while JD and Buck headed over to the stage depot to do the same. Josiah, Nathan and Miss Hattie went to find a general store in order to make some necessary purchases for the group.
An hour later, Ezra returned to the station and walked up to the ticket master. The man looked up and smiled, "May I help you, sir?"
Shifting Angelique's weight onto his hip, "Yes sir, I like to purchase two tickets on the next train headed for Arizona."
The man looked at this sheet, "Well, we ain't got no trains going directly to Arizona. Whereabouts are you headed?"
"Ah, I see. Well, the best you can do is travel from here to Memphis; from there you would make a connection in Harrisburg, AR, then again in Dallas, TX. From there you will catch the train to El Paso. Then from El Paso you will catch the stage into Tombstone."
"Very good. How much will that be?
'Hmmm, let's see," the man said as he turned to check his charts. "That'll be a total of $93." Ezra reached into his inside pocket and removed his billfold. Upon opening it, he removed several bills and handed them to the ticket master, who took the money returning his change along with the tickets. Ezra put his billfold in his pocket and walked away. As he rounded the corner of the building, he handed the two tickets to Chris and Vin, and then walked away.
Meanwhile, Buck and JD had purchased four tickets for the stage headed north and then turned toward the livery. Nathan purchased three riding mounts and one packhorse and headed for the stage. Passing each other, Buck, JD, and Josiah took the horses, while Nathan, Hattie, Ezra, and Angelique took the stage tickets.
Chris and Vin boarded the train and took their seats, facing each other so they could watch both doors. From their window, they saw Buck, JD, and Josiah ride out of town. They could only hope the remainder of their group made it to the stage. In a few minutes, the train would pull out of the station on it way to Memphis, to make the connection with the train headed for Harrisburg.
Vin leaned back, pulled his hat down over his face, and 'went to sleep." At least anyone who looked at him would have thought he was asleep. However, those who knew him knew that he was the most observant man they ever met. He seemed to be able see what was going on, even when he did sleep. Chris grinned and pulled a book out of the pocket of his duster and sat back to read it.
The trio who rode out on horseback was headed west. Knowing that their trek would take the longest to complete, they had decided not to take any detours.
Chris had decided that since Peterson now knew that seven men, one child, and an old black woman were traveling together by train, it made sense to throw them off by splitting up and taking different modes of transportation. By mutual agreement, they had also decided to wire each other at certain stops, just to keep everyone in touch and if one of the groups came up missing, they'd have a place to start looking. It was also agreed upon that since Angelique might need Nathan's help along the way, he and Miss Hattie would travel with Ezra. Only they were traveling as mother and son, who happen to befriend Ezra and his 'son' along the way.
Just as the stage pulled out with the foursome on board, a large group of men rode into town from the east. With well-oiled guns hanging on their hips, hats pulled down to hide their eyes, ten hired guns searching the streets for their prize. They pulled up at the train station, dismounted, and walked up to the ticket master.
The leader of said group, one Matt Poe, didn't say a word, but when the ticket master failed to look up and notice them, Poe slammed his fist on the counter. This only succeeded in causing the ticket master to drop the papers he was holding and jump back in fright. Putting his hands above his head he stammered as beads of sweat ran across his forehead, "I'll give ya all the money, please, just don't shoot."
Poe grinned, showing his tobacco stained teeth, "Ain't after no money, just information. You seen a fancy dressed man with a sickly looking kid?"
The ticket master didn't have to think but a moment, "Hmm, yea. Yea, I have. He bought two tickets. He was headed for Tombstone. Kid didn't look too good. But I really couldn't see his face very well. He kept it hidden in his father's jacket."
"You sure it was a boy?"
"Well, he was wearing britches, could see his short hair under his cap, but like I said I couldn't see his face. Guess it couldn't been a girl, but why would the man cut his daughters hair and let her wear britches?"
"Yeah, those are good questions." Poe answered as he tossed a coin to the agent. He turned to his men, "Spread out. They're on the train. If ya find them, come get the rest of us and we will take them together." With a nod of their heads, the men scattered to the different cars.
At the same moment on board the train, "Heads up, cowboy. We got company coming." Vin calmly proclaimed from under his hat.
"Yep, already seen 'em," Chris replied as he continued to read his book.
A gunman in a dirty brown shirt and vest entered the car, which held Chris and Vin. Chris watched him cautiously as he walked down the aisle, checking out all the passengers, stopping when he came upon a boy with his parents. However, the boy was obviously healthy and smiled at the man, so he moved on. Not finding who he was looking for, he walk past Chris and Vin and left the car out the back door heading to the next car. Chris took his hand off the butt of his gun, where it had been resting, and went back to reading his book.
After searching the train and not discovering the man or child they were looking for the men disembarked and met on the platform. "Where the devil could he be? Why buy a train ticket and not use it?"
Poe was puzzled. "Follow me." He ordered as he walked away. At the stage depot, he approached the stage master. He pushed the man to get his attention. "Hey, did a fancy dressed man and his kid buy a ticket for the stage that just left?"
The stage master stumbled as he was pushed and landed in the dirt on the street. He looked up at the man who had pushed him, "Naw, just a couple of men."
Poe was furious. He knew that the man and kid were on the train when it left Chattanooga. And he knew that the guy bought two train tickets headed for Tombstone. But he wasn't on the train. And now he knew he wasn't on the stage. Pushing his men aside he took off down the boardwalk for the livery.
As he stormed into the stable, the blacksmith was working over the coal fire, heating up a horseshoe. He looked up when the men entered and he didn't like what he saw. Keeping the shoe in the fire, he looked Poe in the eye. "Can I help ya?"
"Yeah, was wondering if a fancy dressed man with a kid rented or bought any horses from you today?"
The blacksmith shook his head, "Nope. Only horses I sold today were three riding horses and a pack horse."
"Big black fella and his mama."
Poe's head shot up, "two black folks? One of them an old woman?"
"I said it was his mama didn't I."
Things started to fall in to place for Poe. He turned and again pushed his way through the group of men. "Caleb, you and Mark grab the horses and meet us at the mercantile. We need some supplies." Caleb only nodded and ran off with Mark right behind him, while Poe led the remaining men to gather the needed supplies.
An hour later, all ten men were mounted, their packhorses loaded down with all their supplies as they rode west out of town. Poe had put the puzzle together - Peterson had told him that seven men and an ole black lady had taken his daughter. And that one of the men was black. And now a blackie and his 'mama' bought three horses plus a pack mule. Why do two folks need three horses? Yep, it all made sense now. This Ezra fella and the two blackies done rode out of town on horse back. Well, they won't get far. It was pretty good plan. Poe had to admire it. Yep, he liked the way this guy thought. He was gonna hate having to put a bullet in him.
(the 2nd half of this Chapter, I owe a ton of thanks to SasseyJ. I wrote it but hated the way it sounded. Sassey looked at it for 10 minutes and stuck a word or phrase here and there and it read so much better. THANK YOU SASSEY.
Angelique woke from her deep sleep, but didn't open her eyes. Her head hurt too much. Lying there, she searched her mind, trying to remember where she and Uncle Darice were going. Had he told her they were going on a trip? No, that can't be it, Uncle Darice never took her anywhere. MOTHER! Had mother actually come for her? Oh, she could only hope. No, wait. She moved her hand slightly to feel the cloth her hand was resting against. She froze. The fabric wasn't soft like her mother's dresses. And it wasn't worn, like Miss Hattie's. So who was holding her? Frightened, she searched her mind even deeper. Who was this person? The arms felt strong, she was sure it was a man. He was holding her. Holding her in a way no one had ever held her -- well except for Miss Hattie, and she already knew this wasn't Miss Hattie. So who was it? She took a deep breath. Between the soap and something that smelled really nice, she was sure it wasn't Uncle Darice. Nope, he smelled of whiskey most of the time. Let's see, he smells nice and he's holding me real careful like, and wait, he's talking to me. What's he saying?
"Shush now, Angelique. Everything's alright. Your big brother, Ezra, is here to help you."
BIG BROTHER? Did he just say big brother? But I don't have a big brother. Do I? Think Angelique, think. OH! Remember that time ya heard Mother and Uncle Darice talking about some guy named Ezra? Isn't that the name this man just said? Didn't he say his name was Ezra? Is that who Mother and Uncle Darice had been talking about? About my big brother! Oh, I sure hope so. Angelique tried to open her eyes, but all she could manage was to open them enough to able to look through small slits. There he is! He's smiling at me! Oh, he looks so nice. I hope he is my brother. Wait, he's saying something. What is it?
"Hey, there baby girl. It's about time you woke up. Thought maybe you had planned to sleep all the way to Arizona." Angelique's brows knitted together as her mind puzzled over what Ezra had just said. He laughed. He smiled at me! He's happy to see me! "I'll tell you what, you just relax and let your big brother do all the worrying from now on. Would that be alright with you?" There, he said it again! He really is my brother! I've got a big brother! A brother that wants to protect me! She reached up with her small hand to touch his face. She rubbed her fingers across his cheek and started to cry.
Ezra reached over to wipe away the tears, "Hey, none of that. There's no reason for tears. Have I frightened you, sweetheart?" She shook her head no. He smiled again, "Good, because that is the last thing I wanted to do. Oh, I have another surprise for you. Would you like to know what that is?" She nodded her head. "Good." He point across to the other side of the stage. "If you will turn your head in that direction, you will see the surprise." She turned her head in the direction Ezra had pointed and a smile lit up her face when she saw Miss Hattie.
Miss Hattie reached over and took hold of Angelique's arm. "It's about time you woke up. You've been a mite sick. Had ole Miss Hattie scared. But you're gonna be fine now, aren't ya honey child." Angelique looked over at Nathan and then back at Miss Hattie, the question in her eyes, "Oh, this is Mr. Nathan. He's a friend of your brother, Ezra." Angelique's eyes lit up again as she smiled, "That's right sweetie. This here is your brother. And he ain't gonna let no one ever hurt you again."
Angelique turned her head back to look at Ezra and smiled and then snuggled back in close to him and closed her eyes. Ezra looked down into her face, smiled back, and held her close. "That's right baby girl, your big brother will never allow anyone to harm you again."
Buck, JD, and Josiah rode in silence. Well, Buck and Josiah did. JD had been running a continuous monologue.
"I still can't believe Ezra has a sister. Can you believe it, Buck? I mean, Ezra didn't even know about her. How can a person not know about something as huge as having a brother or a sister, especially when ya got the same mama? What do you think Maude was thinking Josiah? Wonder why she didn't tell Ezra. And why would she leave the girl with someone as bad as Peterson? I mean ."
"Kid, shut up." Buck ground out while shaking his head.
"But Buck, don't ya "
"J.D.! Stop! You've been talking nonstop for two days now. Give our ears a rest, will ya?"
JD opened his mouth to protest, when Josiah spoke first. "Let's take a break fellas. There's a clearing right over there in that stand of trees, and it looks like there's a pool of water too." Not waiting for an answer, he pulled the reins of his horse and headed toward the clearing. Buck and JD reined their horses to follow. They had almost reached the clearing when a shot rang out. JD slumped over, but Buck kept him from falling by grabbing the reins of JD's horse. Buck spurred the horses forward towards where Josiah was returning fire from behind a tree. Buck jumped off his horse just as it came up to where Josiah's horse had been left. Running round to help JD dismount, Buck searched for their assailants. Practically tossing his young friend behind the shelter of another set of trees, Buck ran to help Josiah, all the while searching for the origin of the gunfire.
Firing from a rock outcropping on the other side of the trail the assailants had the high ground, which made it more difficult for Buck and Josiah. Buck motioned to Josiah that he was going to try and make his way around the rocks and come up behind the unknown shooters. Josiah nodded in understanding and started laying down a cover fire. As Buck crawled around through the trees, the now coherent JD pulled himself around to help Josiah. Between the two, they were able to hold the men at bay, and Buck scrambled across the trail, with bullets nipping at his heels. The whine of one bullet came close to his ear. Buck made a mental note to check that spot later to see if he was missing any hair there. Running flat out now, Buck managed to get around, up, and behind the rocky outcropping their assailants were using for cover. Buck shimmied up the back side of the rocks to the top, waiting for a bullet to end his luck. Upon reaching a boulder nearly directly above the men firing on his friends, Buck used the men's blindside to aim his gun at the closest man. Then, Buck pulled the trigger and fired. The man slumped behind his hiding place, dead. Taking careful aim at his next target, Buck fired again. Only this time, he shot the man in the knee. The wounded man spun to return fire, and this time Buck shot him in the shoulder. The gun dropped from his hand. Knowing he could do nothing more, and hoping to give his partner a chance to regain their lost advantage, the wounded man tried to signal that he was giving up. Buck started to come down and secure his prisoner when a bullet struck the bolder Buck was hiding behind. Buck stepped back, only to come around on the other side and fire again in the direction in which the bullet had come. Another assailant dropped to the ground, dead. When more gunfire turned toward Buck, Josiah was able to cross the trail and head straight up the rocks, dodging bullets and returning fire. JD remained at the clearing helping him with cover fire. As one man rose up to fire on Josiah, he had to expose himself. JD, taking a clear shot, watched his handiwork as the man fell down over the rocks to the trail below. Still another man appeared trying to shoot Buck, but Josiah shot him. Josiah and Buck each wondered how many more men were there out there trying to kill them.
"Hey, Poe. I thought this was supposed to be some fancy dresser with a sick kid, and two darkies?"
"These might not be the ones we're looking for, but they know where they are. You can bet your life on it."
"You bet your own life. I'm outta here."
With that, one man holstered his gun and took off running. A few moments later three more followed him, leaving Poe alone, as they dragged their wounded friend with them. The gunfire stopped as Poe took in his dilemma. He knew these men held the answers he needed, but he also knew that he was now outnumbered. He wasn't going to get those answers, so he made the decision to follow his men. Firing several times at Josiah and Buck, Poe ran to his horse.
With five men dead and six men, with one wounded, on the run, Buck and Josiah met back at the clearing. Buck jumped down from the last rock and hurried across the trail to JD. "J.D. How hurt are you?"
"I'm ok, Buck. Just a scratch." JD answered through clenched teeth.
"Yea, well, let Josiah take care of the scratch and I'll feel a lot better, ok?"
JD nodded his head, "Sure thing, Buck."
Buck walked away to tend to the horses after making certain they held the most secure part of the trail.
After making a tether line and securing the horses, he set about removing their tack. Once the horses were taken care of, he carried the tack to the clearing and then went off to gather some firewood. He stacked the wood in the middle of a rock bed he had made and lit it. Completing his work, he stepped back over to where Josiah was working on JD. Buck shook his head. JD sat there with a bandage on the back of his left shoulder, tied down with strips of cloth secured around his chest. "Kid, you look plum awful."
"Do you want to make camp? Or do ya think you'll be able to ride after ya rest a spell?"
JD looked down at his shoulder, then back at Buck, "I'll be ok. Just give me a few minutes to get my strength back and we can head out."
Josiah nodded his head, "Sounds like a plan. If you'll put the coffee on, Buck, I'll go get us something to eat."
"You got it. JD you just sit back and relax." JD only nodded as he leaned back against a tree and closed his eyes.
After two longs day, the train pulled into the station at Harrisburg, AR. Chris and Vin both stood and stretched out their sore muscles. Picking up their saddlebags, they exited the train and stepped onto the depot platform. Vin walked to the end of the platform and sat down on a bench, leaned back, and relaxed. At least that's what it looked like. Chris walked up to the window and rang the little bell sitting on the counter. A little gray haired man, wearing wire framed glasses that had slipped down to the end of his nose, turned around and looked up at Chris, "May I help you, sir?"
"Like to send a telegram."
"Of course." He hand Chris a yellow sheet of paper and a pencil. "Just write you message here and let me know when you are ready." Chris nodded and stepped out the way for other customers. He took a few minutes to write his message and then stepped back up to the window and again rang the bell. The little man turned around, "Oh, are you ready?"
Chris nodded again and handed the paper back to the man, "Need that sent right away."
"Yes, sir." He looked down at the paper.
Buck Willimington. Nashville, TN. STOP. Arrived Harrisburg. STOP. 7 Feb. STOP. Be at camp in two days. STOP. Chris Larabee. STOP.
Nathan Jackson. Memphis. STOP. Arrived Harrisburg. STOP. 7 Feb. STOP. Be at camp in two days. STOP. Chris Larabee. STOP.
"Let's see, that's 41 words so that's $2.05, sir." Chris handed him the money, tipped his hat and walked away.
Vin sat 'relaxing' on the bench when Chris walked up behind him. Without looking, "Ready to get something to eat. My stomach done thought my throats been cut." Chris just shook his head and stepped off the platform into the street.
The stage arrived in Memphis two days after it left Chattanooga. Nathan was the first to step off. He looked around and not seeing anyone that looked suspicious, he turned to help Miss Hattie down. After helping her to a bench, he returned to help Ezra with Angelique. Reaching into the stage, he took her from Ezra and stepped back. Once Ezra had disembarked, he stretched his arms and then took her back, her head resting on his shoulder. He walked over to Miss Hattie and sat down beside her. Miss Hattie reached over with her old withered hand, stroked Angelique's leg, and smiled. "See, I done told you everything was gonna be alright." Angelique smiled back and nodded, but she didn't say anything. Miss Hattie frowned, "What's wrong girl? You still feeling poorly?" Angelique shrugged her shoulders. Miss Hattie leaned over and touched Angelique's face, and then turned to Ezra. "Her fevers up. We need to get it back down before she goes and get worse again."
Ezra touched Angelique's face with his own hand and closed his eyes. With a deep breath he opened them and looked at Miss Hattie with pleading eyes, "What do we do Miss Hattie? We only have time a slight repasts before the stage pulls out. Maybe we should catch the next stage and take her to the local doctor here in Memphis."
Hattie shook her head, "No. No. We've got ta get her out of Tennessee. We've got to get to the Arizonia, where you live and get that there judge friend to give you custody. We stop now, Master Peterson's men will surely find us."
"She's right, Ezra. We can't afford to wait. We've got to keep moving. I picked up a telegram that Chris sent. Him and Vin will be at camp in two days. Only the wire was sent yesterday so that means they will be there tomorrow. They'll wait of course but with your uncle's men looking for you and the child, the sooner we meet up with the others the safer she will be."
Ezra nodded as he ran a hand through his hair, "Yes, you are perfectly correct, Mr. Jackson. I fear that I am slightly over whelmed at the moment. I just found out that I have sister a few days ago. In addition, that my dear mother had the gall to leave a second child with that monster, she calls her brother. And having been the first child she left there, I know first hand just what kind of monster he can be. I suffered many nightmares because of that man and I hate to think that little Angelique may suffer from the same nightmares."
Nathan knelt down in front of Ezra, placing one hand on Ezra's knee and the other on Angelique's arm and looked in the tear-filled eyes of Ezra's. "Difference is Ezra, is that you didn't have no body that cared what happened to you. But, Angelique does have someone. She has you. In fact, she has eight folks that care, you, Miss Hattie, Chris, Vin, Buck, JD, Josiah, and me. And once the judge finds out what been going on, he's gonna care too. You just wait and see. She's gonna be fine, Ezra, just fine. Just so long as she's got you to protect her."
Ezra blinked away the tears as he regarded what Nathan had said, "Mr. Jackson, you are truly a perceptive and extraordinary friend. Thank you."