Eighth story in The Lost Boys series.
Mary Travis smiled as she leaned against the sink counter. She could feel the fluttering like butterfly wings in her stomach. Sometimes there were harder kicks, especially when she ate. She finished the breakfast dishes, turning just as Steven came in to see her before he left for the next few days.
"I will be back as soon as I can," he told her. "I don't like leaving you like this." He ran his hand over the swell of her abdomen, smiling at the hard kick he felt under his palm. Mary smiled up at him, covering his hand with her own, "I'll be fine. Evie has been stopping by every day to check on me."
Several hours later, as Mary was hanging out some laundry, she heard a commotion in the hen house. They had been plagued by a rather wily little fox, which killed one of their hens and several of the chicks. Gathering her skirts, Mary headed for the house. Steven had bought a small rifle and taught her to fire it because one never knew what threat might arise in the unsettled territory. She checked the shells, hurrying across the yard where she could still hear the hens protesting something. Something came out of the small opening and Mary took aim. A few seconds later, she let the rifle down, staring in surprise as a petite figure stared up at her.
"Don't shoot, por favor," the girl begged. Her hair and clothes were dirty, feathers and straw sticking to her. "I was hungry," she explained softly.
"Oh you poor little thing!" Mary exclaimed, easing the hammer down as she pointed the rifle at the ground. "Come here. I won't hurt you." Warily, like a whipped dog, the small girl approached the armed woman. She flinched when Mary reached out to brush some of the straw from her hair. "Come into the house and let's get you cleaned up."
An hour later, Mary sat across the table from the girl, watching in horrified fascination as she wolfed down the leftovers from breakfast. They had managed to brush the worst of the straw and loose dirt from her hair and clothes and had used a pile of washcloths removing the dirt from her hands and face. The child ate as if she were afraid Mary would suddenly change her mind and take it away.
"My name's Mary. What's your name?" she asked. Startled brown eyes looked at her, the girl choked down the food in her mouth to answer, "Inez Recillos." Hesitantly, Inez picked up the biscuit and brought it to her mouth. When the plate was empty, the girl turned her attention to the glass of sweet tea. Finishing the drink, she belched softly, covering her mouth. Mary smiled, "Now, how about we see about finding you something to wear while we wash your clothes?" Inez glanced down, her hand brushing over the pinafore as she tried to smooth the wrinkles from the sturdy material.
Mary gave Inez one of the dresses she had kept from her own youth to wear while she washed the filthy dress the girl was wearing. It was one of the few pieces she had that her mother had made for her and she treasured it. She also poured heated water into the small tub she and Steven used, inviting the girl to fill it with cool water and bathe. From the terrified look that blossomed in the girl's eyes, Mary knew she would have to make her feel safe, somehow.
"You can lock the door. See, you just slide this bolt. No one will come in until you unlock it," Mary explained. "There are towels and washcloths in that little chest and soap on the wash stand." She backed out of the room, drawing the door closed. A minute or two passed before she heard the bolt slide into place. After her bath, Inez shyly offered up her filthy clothes to be washed.
Meanwhile, at Orin's ranch, the boys eagerly rushed through breakfast to get outside so they could begin their chores. Now that the horses had been brought from the upper pasture, there was a lot more to do. Vin continued to grow stronger. He was able to walk for longer periods of time and could manage the steps to the second floor. Storm was a wonderful incentive for him to work harder, Chanu had promised to let him help train the pony.
Josiah went to visit Hannah as often as he could, seeing improvement in her behavior. She wasn't cloistered in her room as much and the nuns said that her nightmares had decreased. Whenever her brother arrived, she greeted him eagerly, proudly showing off whatever painting she was working on at the time. She had given him a couple, scenes from places they had visited growing up. The only thing that ever gave Josiah pause was when he mentioned their father, then Hannah would withdraw, going sullen and silent. Eventually, he stopped bringing up the topic.
"See, it almost resembles the palms we saw in Jerusalem," Hannah said, showing him another of her paintings. "Sister Emma said that Brother Jiminez has offered to pay me for it when it's finished. A lot of people have asked about my pictures." Surveying the picture with a critical eye, Josiah could see that his sister had indeed managed to reproduce a plant she had only seen a few times when she was quite young. "It's very good," he told her, "I can almost smell the warm breeze." He couldn't contain the yawn that snuck up on him in a relaxed moment. "You're always so tired when you come to see me, Josiah. Are you not getting enough rest?" Hannah asked, worry marring her delicate features. "I'm fine, don't you worry about me. Why don't we go for a walk?" he suggested, distracting her.
It was a slow process, coaxing information out of Inez. Mary finally got the girl to admit that she was a runaway and an orphan. Her parents had been stricken by a disease that swept across the plantation where they lived. The plantation owner had brought the starving, grieving child into the big house, telling her she could be a maid. It wasn't long until she realized that he also planned to give her to his oldest son as soon as she was old enough. At almost thirteen, she knew her days were numbered. Mary had been horrified at the thought of the child being forced into marriage at so tender an age. She immediately offered Inez a place to stay.
"What will I do here?" Inez asked, already concerned that she had jumped out of the frying pan only to land in the fire. "Well, I will be having a baby very soon and I will need help when it comes. You could help me keep the house and help me with the baby," Mary suggested. She saw hope flair in the girl's eyes and held out her hand to shake on the deal.
Coming back from Vista City, Josiah still felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. He knew that the paints Hannah was using were expensive, that meant he would have to find a way to earn more to pay her way. In his saddlebags, he had three small canvas paintings she had given him. At least he was rested, having spent two whole days at the convent. When his horse looked around, nickering softly, Josiah noticed another rider coming alongside.
"Josiah! What brings you all the way out here?" Steven asked.
"I was visiting my sister, Hannah," he answered.
They rode in tandem for a while, chatting about the weather, the crops, how things were going at the ranch. When Steven suggested that they stop for lunch, Josiah hesitated; he didn't have anything except a biscuit and a couple of pieces of thick bacon. Steven insisted, saying that the horses would appreciate the rest break. Just ahead, there was a small pond that supported large shade trees and lush grass. Both horses perked up as the smell of good grazing reached sensitive noses.
Seated on the ground leaning against a tree, Josiah unwrapped his food. Steven unobtrusively watched the young man before tossing him one of the apples from his pack. Seeing that he had another, Josiah nodded his thanks, sinking his teeth into the juicy fruit. Somehow, he found himself telling Steven about the paintings he was carrying. When asked, he brought them out to show. Steven commented that they were quite good, that he could probably get money for them in Denver. Josiah let the idea roll around in his head for a while, smiling as he realized that maybe the paintings could cover the cost of the paint. After they finished their lunch, they caught their horses to head for home, parting when their paths diverged.
In a Kansas City hotel, a woman stared at the small newspaper article. It was advertising for information on the family of Ezra Standish, a minor child living in Denver. She folded the paper, heading for the telegraph office. In a matter of hours, she had her answers. Maude's quick mind tumbled through the possibilities, discarding each until she settled on the one with the best possible outcome. If the Honorable Orin Travis wanted to adopt her son, he was going to pay dearly for the privilege.
In his small study, Orin folded the page of the newspaper so that the advertisement was on the outside, tucking it into the satchel with the rest. He had sent to several large cities looking for family for Ezra. So far, he had copies from New Orleans, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and now Kansas City. If he didn't hear anything in a month or so, he would be able to file the adoption papers on the boy.
Turning to the other newspaper on his desk, he began to read. One name seemed to leap off of the page, causing him to go back and look over the story again. Glancing at the date, he quickly folded the paper and rushed out of the house. He hoped that it was a coincidence; the name Jackson was fairly common. He didn't want it to be the right Jackson; it would break Nathan's heart.
He found the young man a short time later, helping one of the ranch hands with a particularly frisky gelding. The animal was tossing his head and swishing his tail nervously at the idea of entering the small chute. Once confined, the men would be able to check its hooves without as much danger. Orin watched Nathan coaxing the fractious horse with a handful off fresh grass. The other man stood ready to turn the animal if it should try to head across the paddock again. When Nathan took an apple from his pocket and took a bite out of it, filling the air with the sweet aroma, the horse's nostrils flared. Extending his neck, the horse sniffed at the apple as it was offered, walking into the chute after only a little hesitation. While the animal stood happily crunching the fruit, the other man closed the gate.
"That was a good idea," Woody said as he leaned on the rail. "I should have let you bring him up instead of chasing him all over." Nathan smiled, reaching out to pat the horse. He had been learning a lot about the way horses used body language to communicate. It had been a hunch that the gelding needed a little incentive to enter the chute. Hearing someone approaching, he turned to see his guardian.
"Nathan, may I speak with you for a moment?" Orin asked. When they were out of ear shot of the other man, he nervously put forth the question he was dreading, "Did you tell me that your father's name is Obediah Jackson?" Nathan swallowed before nodding. "And you grew up on a cotton plantation in Georgia?" Orin continued. "Yes, that's right. What's this about?" Nathan countered. Orin sighed, taking the paper from his pocket. Nathan quickly read over the article, his hands shaking by the time he finished. "They're gonna hang him, aren't they?" he asked when he could find his voice. "I don't know, son, I really don't know. Would you like to like to take a ride with me to Eagle Bend? It may be the only chance you have to see him," Orin said, not mentioning the probable outcome.
The ride to Eagle Bend was mostly quiet. Nathan was lost in memories of his life with his father. He remembered the bitterness he'd felt at being literally sold to the captain of the ship. Looking back, he realized that Obediah had been trying to secure a trade for him, at the time he was just a sad, angry kid being sent off to strangers. Orin rode in silence, quelling the urge to ask questions of the obviously troubled teen. The charges against the elder Jackson were quite serious. They reached the town as it was beginning to get dark. Orin pulled up at the livery and sighed heavily. "We'll get a room at the hotel and then get supper," he told Nathan. "I want to see my daddy," Nathan replied. "We will, son, just as soon as possible in the morning," Orin said. He expected an argument but instead, Nathan's shoulders slumped as the teen got out of the buggy.
In the morning, Orin and Nathan drew curious glances and outright stares at the restaurant where they stopped for breakfast. As soon as they finished, they crossed the street and made their way to the jail. Two men, both heavily armed, stood outside of the door, blocking their entry.
"Sheriff Stains don't want to see anyone right now, he's a might busy," the first man said.
"I am here to speak to him about one of his prisoners," Orin said calmly. Behind the men, the door to the jail burst open and several men stumbled out, struggling with someone.
"We're gonna string him up!" one of the men announced loudly.
"You'll pay for what you did!" another called out as he shoved the individual in the middle of the weaving mob.
Orin stumbled as he was pushed by one of the crowd, coming face to face with the sheriff, "You know you can't do this Stains."
"No disrespect, Judge, but this is my town," Stains said as he glared at the jurist.
"You do this and I'll have every one of you in Yuma! The man deserves a trial!" Travis shouted. The lynch mob stilled for a moment, allowing the struggling man to gain his feet.
"Daddy!" Nathan cried out, surging forward.
"I can walk! I'm a free man!" Obediah protested, shrugging off the hands that still sought to hold him. Sheriff Stains stood, staring balefully into Orin's face. Although not long on the bench, he knew Travis had a reputation as a hanging judge, not something he wanted to test out with his own neck.
"All right boys, fun's over! Put him back in the cell and go on home!" the sheriff said as he slowly turned to face the men surrounding his prisoner. "Y'all heard me, git!" Grumbling in dissatisfaction, the angry mob shifted before they began to slip away. Stains grabbed the aging Negro by the arm and shoved him roughly back into the jail. Orin followed, holding Nathan, who was trying to get to his father.
While Orin and Nathan were having their difficulties in Eagle Bend, things at the ranch were taking a different turn. Josiah slowed the wagon as he reached the one-room schoolhouse. The boys started climbing out before he had fully stopped, running to drop their lunch pails in a pile before running to join the other playing children. Only Vin waited until the wagon was still before lowering his body carefully to the ground. "See ya, Josiah," he called as he collected his pail and the book he had borrowed from the teacher.
The ball bounced only once as it rolled across the dusty ground. Gavin Richter kicked it, sending it over the infield players heads. The red-headed boy put his head down and raced for first base. Standing in the outfield, Buck watched as the ball descended toward a group of girls playing in the shade at the side of the school building. Running as fast as he could, he got there just in time for the ball to land in his outstretched arms. Unfortunately, the momentum of the ball carried him over a tree root, sending him to the ground where his head met with the side of the building.
"Buck! Can you hear me!" JD yelled as he slid on his knees to the fallen boy's side. "Buck?"
Opening his eyes, Buck's face drew into a smile at the pretty face of the girl kneeling at his other side. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a handkerchief to dabble at the trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth, causing him to realize that he had split his lip.
"Buck? Are you alright?" Chris asked as he dropped beside JD.
"Oh, I'm fine," Buck replied, never taking his eyes off of the girl's face. "What's your name?" he asked. The girl blushed and the others giggled, knowing what was coming. "My name is Inez," she answered, her words melodious to the smitten boy. Just then, the teacher rushed out of the schoolhouse and sank to her knees.
"Are you alright, Buck?" the teacher asked.
"Yes ma'am," he replied, still grinning at Inez.
"Then let's get you into the school, we have a history quiz to complete," she explained, causing a groan to pass through the collected students.
Buck spent the morning mooning over the new girl, who was seated across the aisle. The teacher had come by several times, tapping his desk to remind him to keep his eyes on his own book. At lunch, Buck followed the girl, offering to share the chocolate chip cookie he had in his pail. Inez only giggled before excusing herself to sit with the other girls.
In Eagle Bend, Obediah Jackson was getting his day in court. Nathan listened as his father calmly related why he had killed the man in the alley. With tears rolling down his cheeks, he heard how his mother had taken her life. It took the jury less than an hour to find him guilty. Before the judge passed sentence, Orin rose and asked to make a plea on Jackson's behalf. The judge knew that he was not bound by anything the younger jurist said, since he was out of his jurisdiction, so he allowed him to speak.
Facing the room filled with angry, hostile faces, Orin let his gaze rest on the teenager he had taken into his home and heart. "I know that nothing I say can absolve that man of his crime but I ask you to consider granting leniency." He turned his eyes to the men of the jury, "Just for a moment I'd like you to try on Obediah's boots. A man walks into your house," he fixed his eyes on a man he knew to be a prominent citizen in the town, "takes your wife... and he rapes her. And you're powerless to stop him. He rapes your wife." Moving to another man, one he had seen the day before shopping with a small, tow-headed boy, "And then he threatens to take your 7-year-old child away from you. And you are powerless to stop him. Imagine what that must be like having to stand there and watch this grievous harm be done to your loved ones. And you're powerless to stop it. I would kill that man. You would kill that man. But Obediah Jackson could not kill that man. Not until 20 years later. When Obediah Jackson saw Jonah Catchings again and remembered all that he had suffered at his vicious hands and once again felt the sting of Mr. Catchings' abuse. Can any of you say for certain that you would have acted any differently? I believe the answer is no. If ever any man deserved to die, Jonah Catchings was that man; for all that he imposed on Obediah and his family and doubtlessly on many, many others. Just as surely, I believe Obediah Jackson deserves to live. I believe that as strongly as I believe in god's eternal love." Finally, he addressed the judge himself, "Your Honor, I am not asking you to set him free, he deserves to be punished for his actions. But does he deserve to die? If it were your wife, your son, you would have done what he did. I ask you to let him live."
Judge Dillon drew a deep breath and slowly blew it out. He knew that it wouldn't do anything to increase his popularity in the town but he had to agree that he would have done the same thing if it had been his family. Slavery was an ugly chapter in the history of his ancestors. He also knew that the man didn't have long to live. The doctor who had patched Obediah up, before he was taken by the lynch mob, said that he had consumption and would soon die. "A man who repaired furniture in the town where I grew up once told me that 'an eye for an eye leaves us all blind.' Although I do not condone what Mr. Jackson did, I understand the reason for his actions. I also know that hastening him to his final judgment will not bring Mr. Catchings back. It is the order of this court that Obediah Jackson spend the remainder of his days in Yuma prison." In the stunned silence, he banged his gavel and rested his aching forehead on his fingertips, trying to rub away the pain.
While displeased with the verdict, Sheriff Stains could hardly fault the judge. He knew that his prisoner was very near to dying. That evening, as he sat at his desk and wrote in his record book, he listened to the labored breathing and wet, congested coughing. Judge Dillon had ordered that the teenager be allowed to spend time with his father before he was transported to the prison.
Nathan had brought in herbs and a teakettle to try to ease his father's misery. Orin encouraged him to make his peace with his father and he was determined to try. Obediah listened as Nathan told him of the shipwreck and the six boys he had come to consider brothers. That night, as his father's fever-bright eyes drifted closed for the last time, Nathan wept.
The wild flowers were carefully placed in the tin can Nathan had set among the stones covering his father's grave. Orin had promised him that a proper marker would be erected there as soon as it was finished. The funeral had been a somber affair, with only a handful of people in attendance. A man dressed in a mix of white and Seminole clothing approached Orin, giving him a packet of papers and a satchel that had belonged to Obediah. At his side stood a strikingly beautiful young woman who was introduced by Eban as his daughter, Rain. Obediah had spent a few nights in their camp before his ill-fated trip to Eagle Bend and had left the items behind.
"It is not easy to lose a parent," Rain said to Nathan as he stood staring at the grave.
"At least he's not suffering," Nathan said softly.
"My father and I trade here often. I will see that there are flowers here when I can," she said.
"I'd appreciate that." Nathan lifted his eyes to the warm hand that clasped his. He followed it up until he was staring into her eyes. Overwhelmed by her simple promise, he began to sob. Rain stepped closer, pulling his head to her shoulder.
Orin offered his hand to Eban, "If you are ever near my place, please stop in for a visit."
"I will keep that in mind," Eban said. When Nathan's anguish had run its course, Eban moved to collect his daughter. He could tell that there was something between the teenagers by the way she kept looking back as they walked to their horses. Maybe he would have to begin trading in Four Corners.
Evie left the table and climbed the stairs to the boys' room. Buck had not come down for breakfast and it was getting close to time for him to leave. Tapping on the door, she eased it open to see the boy standing in front of the mirror, brush in hand. "Buck, you need to finish up and eat your breakfast," she said. He turned around and she sucked in her breath in surprise. "Buck, are you wearing your good clothes to school?" she asked. "Yes Ma'am!" Buck answered, "Don't I look handsome?" Evie hid her smile behind her hand as Buck turned back to the mirror again.
JD glared at Chris, interrupting the question he had been about to ask. He wanted to know why the older boy was dressed up in his Sunday clothes on a school day. Normally, it was Ezra who wore his best clothing to school. Evie handed him his lunch pail, distracting him from pestering Buck and sending him out to see if Josiah was ready to leave. Ezra surveyed Buck for a moment before stepping up to adjust the collar of Buck's shirt. The smile and subtle nod communicated his approval of Buck's style of dress.
That morning, at recess, Buck shyly approached Inez, "Would you like me to push you on the swing?" JD popped up from where he had been playing in the dirt with Casey, "I would! Push me!" Putting her lip out, Casey smacked the boy on the shin, "You promised to play with me this morning!" While JD was working things out with Casey, Inez took Buck's arm and allowed him to walk her over to the swing. Ezra had rushed over to claim the swing for his friend. Inez settled herself on the swing and Buck took the ropes in his hands. Ezra winked before moving to intercept JD, who had gotten up from playing with Casey and was headed for Buck.
On the other side of the schoolhouse, another budding romance was building. Chris leaned back against the trunk of the tree while Sarah Connelly sat facing him and off to one side. Per Ezra's suggestion, he had asked Sarah to help him with his spelling. She agreed to work with him at recess. With the spelling book in her lap, Sarah called out the words and Chris spelled them for her. It was a start. Grinning at how well his friends were doing with his help, Ezra pulled back from peeking around the corner of the building. The teacher had walked over to the mercantile to pick up a shipment of supplies and he saw her struggling with the unwieldy parcels. Dusting off his clothes, Ezra hurried to her side, "May I help you?" Mrs. Applewait gratefully handed off the larger of the packages to the eager boy at her side just as a man approached her.
"Excuse me, would you be the school teacher?" the Oriental man asked.
"Yes, how can I help you?" she asked.
"This is my daughter, Li Pong. I would like to enroll her in your school," the man replied. Any other conversation between the adults was lost on Ezra as he gazed into the girl's dark eyes. Li Pong had long, straight hair with bangs and wore a traditionally cut shirt and pants with dark colored slippers on her tiny feet. The children exchanged shy smiles as the adults talked. Ezra heard the Chinese man saying that his daughter could not yet read or write in English. Mrs. Applewait assured the man that she would have no problem at all, that Li Pong would fit right in with the rest of the children.
"Ezra, would you mind escorting her to the schoolhouse and introducing her to some of the others?" the teacher asked, smiling at the dazed look in the green eyes.
"Huh?" Ezra asked, not having been paying attention.
"Escort Li Pong over to the schoolhouse and introduce her to some of the other children," she patiently repeated.
"Yes Ma'am, I'd be honored," Ezra said as he offered his arm to the girl.
"You have very nice clothes," Li Pong commented as they walked. "My father and mother, they make clothing. Perhaps your parents will buy some of the things they make?"
In his mind, Ezra was already counting the money he had squirreled away and estimating how often he could persuade Mrs. Travis to allow him to buy new clothes. With a broad grin on his face, he led the girl across the street and into the schoolhouse.
That evening, the boys were just finishing up chores when the buggy pulled up to the barn. Nathan got out, moving like he was a hundred years old. He took his bag and another bag and headed for the house. Vin saw him and immediately detoured to catch him.
"Vin, could you come over here for a minute?" Orin called. The boy hesitated only a moment before turning to approach the buggy. He slipped an arm around Orin's waist, leaning into the man affectionately. "You boys need to give Nathan some space, all right? His father died a couple of days ago and he's still pretty upset about it." Vin looked up, his eyes beginning to fill with tears as he nodded. Orin gave him a reassuring squeeze before handing him the bag he had pulled from the buggy. Vin took the bag and turned toward the house.
Supper that evening was subdued as all of the boys were taking care not to say anything to upset Nathan. Evie, upon hearing the news, had gone upstairs to console the grieving child. Nathan embraced her, burrowing his face in her shoulder as he cried. A few minutes later, they were interrupted by Josiah coming into the room. Evie silently slipped out of the room, allowing the two young men time alone. Chris was next to climb the stairs. None of the other boys had much memory of their fathers and didn't feel the need to cling to Nathan.
The boys were clearing the dishes from the table when the front door burst open. Inez stumbled into the room, red faced and out of breath with excitement. "Mr. Steven sent me to tell you that the baby is coming!" she said.