Orphan Train

by Angela B.

Part One
Twenty-four-year-old Mrs. Oleta Kingston had never been a chaperone until she took this job. Giving into the idea that, at the age of twenty, she would be an old maid for the rest of her life, Oleta had gone east in search of the big cities four years ago. Six months later she met the man of her dreams, Lawrence Kingston. They had wed and had soon tried having a family, but it was not to be. Three years after their marriage Lawrence had been accidentally killed during a fire in the building where he was working. He and several employees had been working late when somehow, no one ever found out exactly how, a lantern had caught a curtain on fire. The men had been trapped inside within minutes; there had been no survivors.

Oleta had taken odd jobs to make ends meet, but soon realized she was no longer happy with the busy life of the city. Her happiness depleted the day the love of her life died. Knowing she needed more money than she had to get back west and be with her family, Oleta applied for the position of chaperoning orphaned children out west that had been posted in the post office. She was given the job and all the responsibilities that went with it. A train had only taken them halfway across Colorado since the railroad had yet to be completed. After departing the train, she hired two wagon drivers, Mr. Hostler and Mr. Johansson, to transport the children and their meager belongings on to the three towns, Vista City, Hamilton and Clear Springs, where hopefully all the children would be placed in good and caring families. She also, hired seventeen-year-old Melissa Appleway to help cook and look after the children.

The chaperone’s job of this caravan was to deliver the children to the three different towns in hopes of finding them new families. The drivers guiding the two wagons slowly across the landscape did not notice the men watching them from the plateau above. The men up above watched as the two wagons slowly made their way across the open field. They looked for the entire world to be travelers without a care in the world. Then the small band of horsemen started their downhill descent after receiving the ever so slight nod of their leader. As the horsemen descended from their hiding place, the laughter of the children could be clearly heard ringing out across the dry open prairie. One of the men on horseback hung his head slightly at the thought of why these two wagons were out here to begin with. They were part of the orphan train. Between the two wagons, there were fifteen children a couple were related, the rest weren’t. They ranged in ages from three to fourteen. The horseman shook his head; after they did the job there would only be thirteen children that would be homeless.

Roger Marksman was a man in his late thirties who had seen it all and done it all. He now rode with this small group of men of various ages and did the bidding for his boss. Overall, it had not been a bad life for him and he liked what he did. He watched the two wagons come into view. As the right-hand man, it was his responsibility to carry out the simple plan and achieve the directive of his boss. It had been planned out to the exact detail to accomplish the task without injury to anyone in the shortest amount of time. All he and the men riding with him had to do was stop the wagons and collect his boss’s two children.

Roger’s boss was none other than the notorious outlaw Howard Fleming. Howard Fleming had left his wife and children almost five years ago. Howard and his wife had lived in Chicago before moving on to New York, looking for better employment, but things didn’t work out as they had hoped. Howard had then convinced his wife that the west would be the best opportunity to make their living. So, Howard had left to go west, find a job and settle down. He would then send for his family. Charlene, his wife, after never hearing from her husband again, had been forced to take on a job. She had taken on the work of cleaning apartments for twenty cents a day. It had been long grueling work. After three years the job had finally wore her down and she had become quite ill, requiring a prolonged stay in a health facility. With no one to look after her children, she had, heartbrokenly, signed them over to the Children’s Aid and her children had been shipped off to find new homes.

Howard had learned of his wife’s ailment and his children’s removal from the home. He had felt remorse about not returning, but he never could figure out a way to explain to his wife how he had become a horse rustler and outlaw. Now his children would be forced to live with perfect strangers, so he had decided it was time to collect what was his.

What Howard was planning to do with the children troubled Roger, but he had learned long ago not to question the leader. The man, unlike many other outlaws, did everything he could to prevent innocent people from dying. That didn’t mean it always worked out that way, but he didn’t kill simply for the thrill of killing. The tall willowy man was very intelligent and so far had kept his men alive and quite wealthy. How the man planned to raise two kids on the run was not Roger’s problem. He had no doubt Howard would figure it out. His job was to collect eight-year-old Emily Laura, and five-year-old Matthew Christian. As the wagons passed by the small grove of trees, Roger and the six men with him moved out of the shadows and circled the precious cargo.

Oleta looked around at the children in her wagon and smiled. The adults had heard enough sibling bickering to fill a lifetime. For this reason and for the sanity of the drivers, she had split the siblings between the two wagons. Since there were actually only three sets of siblings this had not proven as difficult as it could have been. After the sparse separation, traveling had become a little easier if not a little more peaceful.

Oleta had to silently acknowledge the sad truth that in all likelihood these children would be separated by more than a wagon’s length soon enough. The length of a couple of homes, streets or, even more likely, towns would separate them. Placing more than one child in a home was very rare. More often than not, siblings were separated by whole states, never to see one another again. Many years later, when these children were grandparents and great-grandparents, there would be organizations that would help them find one another. Sadly, by this time, it would be too late for some, whether it was because of death, the child was too young to remember being adopted and didn’t know to look for other siblings, or because their names had been changed and the old name had been long forgotten.

Jake Hostler was a man who had lived many years and knew trouble when he saw it coming his way. Seeing the horsemen come out of the trees, he knew they would be quickly surrounded. The only way to get out of this was to remain calm and pleasant. He only hoped the other driver did the same. The older man pulled the horses to a stop and quickly glanced at his rifle, but held his hands on the reins in clear view. Roger and his men quickly circled the two wagons and noticed subconsciously the sudden silence of the children.

"Something we can do for ya?" Jake asked as calmly as he could.

"Just want the Fleming’s kids," Roger responded just as calmly, both men eyeing each other warily. Neither wanted things to get ugly, but both knew they could.

Before the driver could respond, five-year-old Matthew spoke up from the second wagon questioningly, "Why us?"

The brown-haired boy had crawled into nine-year-old Vivian Lawrence’s arms for protection and was curious as to why all these men would be looking for him and his sister, who was in the front wagon.

"This must be them," Tim Wakefield, twenty-three and hard as nails already, spoke firmly as he nudged his horse closer to the children, hovering in the rear of the wagon.

Vivian cried out as two big hands reached out and grabbed her as two other sets of hands pulled the little boy from her grasp. "Let me go!" she screamed. "I’m not Emily!"

"Now com’ on," Wakefield hissed as he pulled her onto his horse, ignoring the protests of the girl and the other children surrounding him. "Your pa is awful anxious to see ya."

Fear and outrage battling for dominance with outrage winning had Oleta on her feet as she stared into the dark brown eyes of Roger Marksman. "NO! You can’t do this! Put those children back. Why are you doing this?" she frantically called, her voice rising higher with each word.

"Let them go!" ordered Mr. Johansson, the driver of the second wagon, reaching for his rifle from under the seat.

Tim Wakefield, a boy no older than some the children in the wagon, jumped the gun and fired his rifle and ended what would have been an altercation in which no one was hurt.

At the sound of his rifle report more rifles were drawn and fired and a short but life altering gunfight ensued. Screams of children filling the air as they tried to find cover and protect one another. Seconds later, the gunfire died and the realization of what had happened hit Roger full force.

"Move out. Now!" Roger’s hollered, as the crying hysterics of children filled the air.

The small band of men rode away from the scene, the image of what they left behind seared into their brains for the rest of their lives. Jake Hostler and Paul Johansson both lay dead from multiple gunshots. Oleta Kingston lay unconscious, her life slowly ebbing away with the loss of blood and seventeen-year-old Meagan Thomas, who had signed on in order to get away from her dull life, sat statuesque in shock.

Emily sat frozen, unable to comprehend that her brother had just been yanked away from her life at the orders of her father. Her father. The man was supposed to be dead. Her mother had told her so. Emily had grown up with the stories that her mother had told her at night. How her father had gone west to search for a better life for them and had been killed. The information that he might be alive swirled around her head like a pesky fly on a hot day. She just wanted to curl up into a tight ball and forget the world. These past few moments had been the topping to a tumultuous six months. First, having her mother get sick, then being put into a housing facility with hundreds of other children. Then the train ride out here to this dry and awful forsaken country, then the bouncing wagon ride and now in the last two minutes she had seen her brother ripped from her eyesight and men she had come to know and like shot dead. It would be better not to think and with this thought, her brain slowly shut out the world.

Swann Henson was fourteen and the oldest of nine children. She stood up slowly, holding onto the young child who had found his way into her lap. Surveying the carnage and disarray around her, she found they were without any adult help. Instantly the oldest sibling instincts kicked in and she began issuing orders.

Turning towards twelve-year-old Dave Gibson, she ordered, "Get one of those horses unhitched from the wagon then ride for…" the name of the next town had suddenly slipped from her memory.

"Four Corners," Toby Benson filled in. "It’s only five miles from here," he volunteered the extra information as he joined his friend Dave and began helping unhitch the horses.

Toby had learned a lot about the land and the towns from his new friend Mr. Johansson. The man had been very easy to talk to and had answered every question Toby had asked with patience. Toby tried very hard not to think of the man that now lay dead in the front of the wagon.

Swann had gathered the few blankets they had and instructed some of the older girls in the front wagon to keep Mrs. Oleta as warm as possible and to use their petticoats to try and stem the blood flow from the single bullet wound in the woman’s right abdomen. Swann had tried a few times to shake Meagan out her shock, but quickly gave up and began enlisting the others to help one another. Swann searched for thirteen-year-old James Thomas and quickly found him at the second wagon cuddling as many of the younger girls as possible. Blood soaking his shirt quickly alarmed the oldest girl until rationality set in and made her realize it must have been the driver’s. Seeing the boy had control of things she turned back to the first wagon were the wounded chaperone laid.

Dave, with the help of Toby, climbed aboard the old wagon horse and with a quick look over his shoulder at the scene he was leaving behind, encouraged the horse into a faster motion than the steed had known in a good number of years. Dave, like the others had been raised on the streets. He was a scrapper and thought to no longer have emotions, but as he headed for the small town he realized, with tears streaming down his face, that this was not the case. For better or for worse, this single event would change the rest of his life.

Part Two

Four Corners had been quiet for the past couple of weeks, just the way the seven regulators liked it. The peace gave each of them time to work on their individual pleasures when not taking their turn at patrol. For Nathan, that meant going to the Seminole Village and learning all he could from their medicine man about the different plants and herbs that grew around the vicinity and, of course, seeing a certain woman he was fond of. For Josiah, it was extra time to spend working on the rundown church. It had just been a dilapidated building when the missionary’s son first arrived, it now began to look like a building one would not be afraid of entering. JD had spent some of his time practicing with his guns and the rest of it with Casey. Vin and Chris spent time out at Chris’ ranch, fixing it up and working with the few horses that Chris’s had bought. For Buck, well for the ladies’ man, there was only one thing in town that really occupied his mind and when he wasn’t doing that he was out at his oldest friend’s place helping out. Ezra, of course was busy with more lucrative activities.

On this day they had all managed to meet up at the Saloon to catch up on the variety of goings on around town and the outlying farms. Just finishing lunch, Josiah scraped the chair against the wooden planks as he excused himself from the table, heading back towards the church. He was finally making headway with the last window frame and he was anxious to get it finished before the next dust storm. Stepping through the batwing doors, he looked down the street and saw a plume of dust, indicating a rider coming in fast.

Stepping back a step, he called over his shoulder, "Chris". His deep voice indicating there was something happening out front.

The tall black-clad leader was up and headed for the door with the other five men in tow before Josiah could step onto the street. Chris came out with the others and looked in the direction the preacher was looking. By now the rider was only a block away and could be made out very well. Josiah reached up and grabbed the reins as Dave yanked the horse to a halt and slid off the mount before the horse was fully stopped. Nathan reached out for the boy, who was obviously upset and in a hurry.

"What’s the matter, son," Nathan asked, trying valiantly to hold the boy still.

"I’s gotta find the law, mister. And now!" the young brown-haired boy cried urgently, fighting to break from the healer’s grip.

The tall leader squatted down in front of the boy and took the small forearms into his big hands. "You found him. Now what’s the problem?" Chris wasn’t intentionally usurping JD’s position, but needed to calm the boy down so they could get information. The boy didn’t look familiar and, since he didn’t know whom the law in town was, Chris automatically assumed the boys’ family had problems out on the trail.

Dave looked into the calm, assertive, green eyes with his own panic-filled brown ones and felt a brief flood of relief.

"I’m part of the orphan train." Dave stopped, taking a deep breath, "We were out there," he said shakily, pointing in the direction in which he had just came. "These…these men showed up." He gulped in air while trying not to break down. "They circled the wagons and tried to take the Fleming kids." Shaking his head slightly, he corrected his statement, "Well they did…well, at least one. Vivian wasn’t Matthew’s sister, but they took her anyway ‘cause they thought she was Emily, but she weren’t."

Seeing the boy was getting close to losing it, Ezra stepped forward and placed a calming hand on the boy’s shoulder stated quietly. "Everything will be fine." The slight smile and bright green eyes gave Dave the ability to go on.

"They shot Mr. Johansson and Mr. Hostler and Mrs. Kingston. She’s our chaperone. The two drivers are dead and I think Mrs. Kingston was fixin' to die. Miss Thomas, she’s just sitting there not moving, but she isn’t shot though."

By the time Dave got the last part out, Chris was already barking out orders, heading down the steps and away from the group. Nathan ran for his clinic to gather up all his own supplies. Buck and JD were headed for the stables while Josiah and Vin headed for the mercantile to gather the extra materials they knew were going to be needed. Ezra sat down with the boy on the steps, placing a hand lightly on the trembling shoulders. "It shall be alright, young man. We will soon have the matter in hand and all things will be back in order."

Ezra understood all too well the need to have things be in order. To have everything in its proper place and be able to control one’s life. Life felt unorganized when someone else held the control. He hated the feeling of his world spinning out of control; he knew the young child beside him felt no different.

Soon, Chris came back with Mary in tow, followed by his friends with all their horses. After mounting, Chris noticed the young man getting up on the old wagon horse. Just as Nathan joined the men, he heard the leader tell the young boy it would be best if he stayed in town with the blonde reporter.

"I gotta go, Mister. If the kids see ya comin’, they’ll think it’s those bad men comin’ back. They’ll be scared," Dave explained, the need to continue to help his friends plain on his face.

"OK, but you better ride with me. Don’t think that horse is up to another ride," Chris consented with the barest of grins.

Before Chris could move, Dave sprang from his seat and up into the saddle in back of the leader. "We best get movin’," the brown-haired boy advised sagely. Chris only nodded his head and turned his mount’s head and galloped out of town with the other six men tight on his heels.

As they rode toward the attack sight, each man was lost in their own thoughts. How could anyone attack an orphan train? Why? What was so important about two small children? How many children had caught a stray bullet? These thoughts and more swirled through each man as they rode hard, hoping to arrive before any more died.

Buck watched his oldest friend, looking for the trouble signs he knew the man would be hiding. God help them all if any of the children had been killed. There would be no stopping the black-clad man, not even the devil himself. Buck knew they would follow Chris without a doubt to catch up to these monsters. Buck just hoped the six of them would be enough to save his blond friend’s soul this time.

As the men raced toward the site, they slowed their mounts and hesitated only for a moment to survey what lay in front of them. They watched as some children milled around the wagons as others sat on the ground holding and rocking younger ones. The first thing Josiah noticed was how quiet it was. Where there were so many children, there should be some noise, perhaps laughing and playing, but there was nothing but silence. It left the giant of a man feeling chilled to the bone. Lord, help these children, he silently prayed. They had already gone through so much hardship in their young life, now to deal with this.

The men went unnoticed at first until a small girl looked up and saw them. The seven men had never heard a more soul-searing, terrified scream as that of the small child. Suddenly, the field was filled with children running for the tree line laying off to the left. The same tree line where just a little more than an hour earlier had concealed the small band of riders that had changed their lives so dramatically. The men kicked their mounts into action as Dave began calling out that it was okay. The seven hardened men were to soon find out, like young Dave, that they were not quite as hardened as they thought.

Upon arrival, all seven men leapt from their horses, quickly ground tying them. Chris began calling out orders as Nathan ran for the front wagon to see what amount of damage had been done. He quickly scanned the driver and realized that young Dave had been right in his assessment, the driver was dead. Going around to the back of the wagon, the next thing he saw was an older child rocking a younger girl while speaking reassuring diatribes.

Nathan forced a reassuring smile he didn’t feel onto his face and spoke softly, "It’s alright. We’re to help you. I’m Nathan."

After climbing up into the wagon he crawled slowly up to them, he did a quick scan for injuries and was surprised when the oldest looked up at him, showing wisdom far beyond her years, as she spoke. "We’re okay. My name is Swann and this is Emily. They took her brother, Matthew." Looking up towards Nathan as if that should explain everything, and to Nathan, who had listened to Dave’s quick summary of the encounter, it did. "She needs help, though," she said, as she nodded her head further back into the wagon.

Looking over to where the girl had nodded, he saw a sight that sent shivers down his spine. A young girl was cradling a woman’s head in her lap while another young girl sat beside the woman holding a blood soaked cloth to her side. The dark healer stepped cautiously toward them. Hands out to his side, he smiled softly and, with a quiet healer’s voice, he spoke to the young girls as he squatted down to assess the woman.

"It’s okay," he began. "I’m Nathan. I’m here to help you." The healer spoke as he gently removed the young girl’s hand from the woman’s wound. "This must be Mrs. Kingston. You did a good job stopping the bleeding," he said, giving the young girls a warm smile. While his outward appearance was one of calmness, inwardly his mind was thinking of the amount of blood loss the lady must have had, and figuring out her chances of survival.

The young girl that had been tending to the wound nodded her head. "I’m Mattie and this is Florence. We did the best we could," she said, ducking her head slightly, "She gonna make it, Mister Nathan?" asking in a voice so low the healer almost didn’t hear her.

"We’re going to give her the best chance we can." Looking up into the two worried faces, he gave them an honest smile. The two girls smiled tentatively back. It felt good to have an adult be in charge.

Josiah headed toward the second wagon. The first thing he saw was the not-so-very-old driver slumped forward in his seat, blood coating the wood seat and flooring. Nearing the back, he could hear a constant thumping. Looking into the wagon, he watched, temporarily mesmerized, as seventeen-year-old Meagan rocked herself back and forth, thumping her head on the back of the drivers seat each time she rocked backwards. Climbing into the back, he slowly removed his large coat and cautiously stepped forward. Kneeling down in front of the teenager, he spoke gently as he wrapped his coat around the young woman.

"Here now, let’s not cause any more damage to yourself than has already been done," he said, as he carefully placed his arms around the girl and scooted her forward. Sitting down on the planks, Josiah took up the comforting rocking motion while he continued speaking softly.

Chris yelled at his youngest regulator to help him settle the horses, still tied to the wagons. During the children's quick and startling exodus, the horses had become quite agitated and restless. JD ran for the second team and grabbed the reins. Talking soothingly to the creatures, he did his best to avoid looking at the dead driver. He had heard Dave say that the drivers’ were dead, but in his innocent heart the young lawman had held out hope that the boy had been wrong. Why would anyone kill the driver of a wagon full of children? It seemed too impossible to imagine that anyone would harm a child. Children were innocent. They were supposed to be protected and cared for, not harmed and terrified out of their wits. As he slowly got the team under control, he looked over towards the stand of trees his other friends had disappeared into to retrieve the scared children who sought hiding places in them.

Chris couldn’t deal with his emotions at this moment and therefore had shut them completely down. He had grabbed onto the one remaining horse hitched to the front wagon knowing that inside was where the wounded chaperone lay. It would do no good for the horse to try and take off, dragging the wagon jarringly behind. He patted the horse’s nuzzle and spoke softly to it, calming himself and the horse simultaneously. He was startled when a young voice came from behind him.

"Are you a good man?"

Chris spun around and saw no one until he looked down into the brightest, scared blue eyes he had ever seen. Squatting down, he simply nodded his head, taking in the appearance before him. If he had to guess, the little boy before him wasn’t more than six, his blond wispy hair blowing in his face. The boy was wearing a brown shirt with dungarees and was barefooted.

"Well, let’s just say I’m here to help." A good man was not how people would normally describe the tall gunfighter. Holding out his hand, Chris smiled. "Name is Chris. What’s yours?"

"Henry," the little one answered. "Mister." Blue eyes suddenly cast downward, the voice becoming as small as the owner.

"Yeah," replied the older man reassuringly.

Blues eyes once again sought his, reminding the black-clad man of another set of blue eyes and wondered for a brief moment if this might not be how a certain tracker had looked when he was this age. "I got scared when those men started shooting at me." He ducked his head once more.

Chris noticed how the child implied that the men had been shooting at him and held back his growing anger. "I bet. I know I would have been scared if someone was shooting at me." Sneaking out a long arm, he gathered the small trembling child close to him and felt the wet tears on his cheek.

Once more he heard the soft voice, "Mister?"

"Yes, Henry," Chris said just as softly.

"When I got scared, I… I…I had an accident," Henry said quietly, the shame of such an incident filling his voice.

Chris held back the smile that threatened to come as he leaned back and looked into those small solemn eyes. If that was the biggest challenge for the moment, he welcomed it openly. "That’s okay. Those things happen. I know a lady who’ll be glad to loan you some of her little boy’s clothes when we get back to town."

The little boy nodded his head and wrapped his arms around the big man’s neck as the one time father scooped the child up into his arm and once again turned his attention to the horse and starting formulating a plan to capture the men who did this and exact retribution ten-fold.

Buck, Vin and Ezra headed for the trees and scattered out, with Dave right behind them calling out that everything was okay. Vin rounded a boulder and nearly tripped over two of the children. Seeing them back up in fear, he took on a relaxed pose, knowing children were very adept at reading body language.

"Hey there," he spoke as he sat down nearby.

"Hey," came the low reply of what Vin guessed to be a boy about thirteen.

"You gonna help us?" the younger child questioned. Vin guessed her to be the sister and about ten or eleven.

"Yep, I sure am. Name’s Vin," replied the tracker evenly, though his insides felt like they were being electrified. "You wanna come back to the wagon so we can get to town?" he asked.

Both heads nodded, knowing there wasn’t really a choice, but grateful for the small amount of control given to them. The boy got up and helped his sister to her feet and followed the lanky man out into the open. The young girl stopped suddenly and looked around furtively. Knowing instinctively what the girl was looking for he stooped down to meet her in the eyes. "They’re long gone, honey, and I’m gonna make sure they don’t ever come back."

The girl with the long brown braid nodded affirmatively, taking the man at his word. Somehow, she knew that whatever the man said, it could be taken as gospel. This man would not let anything bad happen to them again. Walking back to the wagons Vin asked for their names.

The boy stopped walking and said, "I’m Daniel Pierceson and this is my sister, Martha." Vin nodded once and started them walking again.

Buck was seething inside as he combed the area for more of the children. Stopping to get his raging emotions under control, he heard the faint sounds of a lullaby being hummed. Smiling to himself, he stepped over a fallen tree and headed for the sweet sound of a child. Stepping over another log, he almost stepped on the treasure he was seeking. Quickly adjusting his footing, he completed the step over and turned around. Backed up under the fallen log were two of the missing children. Gladness soared into his heart at this small victory. Stooping down he quickly let his eyes rove over the two huddled bodies looking for injuries.

The ladies’ man was quick to give them a large grin, noticing it seemed to quickly ease the fear from the girl and boy’s face. Looking at the brown-haired boy, he would put the boy’s age at twelve and the redheaded little girl with bright green eyes around seven.

"Hello there", he said softly, looking into the two sets of terrified eyes.

"Hello," the young boy replied, realizing his friend Dave had made it to town and gotten help.

Holding out his hands, the black-haired regulator suggested, "Name’s Buck. Why don’t we go back to the wagons." Then adding, "I got a friend, Ezra. I’ll introduce you to him. The man knows magic."

Buck continued talking as he picked up the lightweight girl and held out his hand for the boy to take, which he happily did. Finally, an adult to make things right again was in their midst, what a relief. The little girl looked at her newest hero with awe.

"Magic? He can do magic?" both children chimed at the same time.

"Yep, sure does," the ladies’ man answered, thinking his young gambling friend was about to have his hands full, entertaining these young folks and knowing the man would secretly enjoy every minute.

"By the way what’s your names?" The ladies’ man asked as he headed back towards the wagons, hoping the others had the same good fortune as he had.

"I’m Toby Benson and she’s Alice Hall," the twelve-year old answered as he trudged through the high grass.

"Well I’m pleased to meet you both," Buck replied as he tightened his hold on the redheaded girl he held in response to her tightening grip on his neck.

Ezra was fuming. He had long ago learned to keep his emotions under a tight rein, but this was inexcusable by any length. How dare anyone endanger children? The mangy dogs were going to have a lot to answer for and a short time to do it in. He had tromped through the grass and had been searching his area for only a few moments, but to him it felt like ages. He knew since he hadn’t heard a gun shot that not all the children had been found. He was about to turn and search another area when his hearing caught the very faint sound of crying.

As he neared the soft whimpering, he spotted two small bodies. Upon closer inspection, he noted that it appeared two girls, one was holding a large doll. He placed the girls ages around six, but knew from personal experience that malnutrition often stunted a child growth, making a child appear smaller than other well-fed children their own age. Ezra moved in closer, steadily, and inwardly winced as the two girls shrunk back from him in fear.

Crouching down to their level, he stuck out his hand and casually introduced himself. "Ezra Standish at your service. May I inquire as to whom I have the honor of being in the company of?"

The gambler almost laughed out loud when girls looked at each other quizzically. The action reminded him of how a certain young, black-haired sheriff looked when he became confused.

He tried again. "I’m Ezra. Who might you be?"

The light finally dawned on the bigger girl and she did the introductions, "I’m Catharine. Everyone calls me Cat and I’m seven. This here is Layton, she’s six and that’s her brother, Samuel." Indicating the still child that the gambler had at first mistook for a doll. "We call him Sammy. He’s hurt."

Ezra took a deep breath to calm his sudden churning stomach and began feeling suffocated as he took a closer look at the little boy. Blood was everywhere. It seemed to have changed the sister’s once yellow dress into crimson and Ezra had a sinking feeling that there was a good reason the boy was so still.

He was brought out of his thoughts when Layton spoke up in a whisper, "He’s cold."

"Well, I can fix that," the gambler answered lightly, as he removed his jacket. He gently placed it over the small boy and moved to take him into his arms. Ezra nearly fell over when the three-year-old mewed in pain. Relief, joy, fear and anxiety filled the man in one swift movement. Trying to stay steady for the two girls, but wanting to get the child back to Nathan as fast as possible, he stood and directed the two girls with his head for them to follow him.

"Let’s get back to the wagon. My very good friend happens to be the best doctor around. Nathan’ll have Sammy fixed up in no time." For the first time in many years Ezra sent up a silent prayer.

The men had learned on the way to the site that there had been originally fifteen children, with two missing that left thirteen. Chris did a swift count and came up with ten. Noting that Ezra had yet to make it back, he turned his attention to the girl that seemed to have taken charge. "Swann, who’s missing?"

The fourteen-year-old did a quick survey and replied with the answer. The leader was fixing to send Vin back out to help locate the last three when JD looked up and pointed out Ezra coming out of the tree line with a small body in his arms and two little girls almost having to run to keep up.

"N A T H A N!" Ezra’s cry alerted the healer that his help was immediately required. The healer jumped out of the wagon and raced towards the man holding the small figure, his heart pounding. Ezra had never sounded so scared. In fact, Nathan thought crazily as he ran to help, this was the first time he’d ever heard Ezra sound scared at all.

The healer gently took the bleeding child from Ezra and headed back to the wagon. His mind was whirling with fear and panic. He knew without a doubt these men implicitly trusted him and thought he could not fail. He knew otherwise and right now he had more critically wounded than he thought was possible to tend to. The chaperone, herself, was going to take all his attention and now this small child, who seemed to have already lost more than half his blood was mixed into the equation. The thoughts were overwhelming for the healer. At that moment he caught a glimpse of his gambling friend and the look itself almost sent Nathan over the edge. ‘Heavens, the man who two years ago didn’t trust me to set his dislocated arm now expects me to perform a miracle by saving this child’

The healer climbed into the wagon that held the wounded chaperone and the two shell-shocked victims, Josiah had moved the seventeen-year-old into the first wagon earlier. Keeping all the ones that needed looking after in one wagon. Seeing his friend’s haunted face, the preacher laid a comforting hand on the healer’s shoulder.

"No one expects a miracle from you brother," Josiah stated softly, reading his friend’s mind.

Nathan simply stared at the big man and shook his head then nodded over to left. "I’m sure that’s not quite true, Josiah."

The large man nodded in agreement sadly as he too, caught sight of Ezra’s face. Never had he seen such emotions on the younger man. It was true; the young gambler was expecting Nathan to pull off some kind of miracle and save the three-year-old. There would be no salvation for the ones who did this when the easygoing gambler got his hands on them. Josiah was pretty certain that not even the Good Lord above could stop Ezra from extracting his revenge and revenge there would be.

Vin, who had trailed Nathan out to meet Ezra, gathered Catherine into his arms while the gambler had turned and instinctively picked up Layton. The tracker headed towards the second wagon where the rest of the children had been placed. Ezra, though, swung the mite of a child up into his saddle and mounted behind wrapping one of his arms securely around the tiny waist and picking up the reins with his free hand. He was vaguely aware of the tracker mounting his own horse and heading off from the wagons. Somewhere in the back of his mind Ezra knew his comrade would soon be on the trail of the heartless marauders.

Nathan gave a slight nod towards Chris as he applied pressure to little Sammy’s wound, hoping for the best and expecting the worst. The leader, having placed little Henry in the saddle with him, trotted his black horse to the front and gave an indiscernible motion of his blond head and started towards town.

Josiah, flanked on one side by a child, had unsaddled his horse and harnessed it up with the other horse. Releasing the brake and tightening his hold on the reins, he gently slapped them on the back of the horses and started the wagon carrying the wounded homeward. The elimination of the souls of men would soon be at hand. How many of the seven also, lost their souls in the process was a question Josiah didn’t want to think about.

Ezra, having moved a ways off to the side, glanced behind him and noticed JD was riding on the other side of the second wagon, which Buck was driving, also flanked by two children. Buck and Nathan’s horses had been tied to the back of that wagon and the two divers were slung over them. Come hell or high water he would retrieve the two missing children and extract revenge unto those like none other had ever seen.

Now that he was longer issuing orders or directing movements, the leader’s mind began sinking into the grief that was overcoming him. Subconsciously he tightened his arm around the boy in front of him. The little one reminding him so much of the son he lost some years prior. He had seen the small bundle Ezra had carried back to the wagons and felt the pain fill his heart and the burning anger rising up in him, threatening to consume him and explode. He quickly tampered it down. He would find an outlet for the emotion later, but not now, not in front of these children. They had already seen enough.

Buck watched the all-too-quiet gambler from the corner of his eye. The brown-haired man rode slightly away from the group, as if already distancing himself from them. The countenance of the gambler told the ladies’ man it would be one hellish battle to keep this man that he had come to accept as a brother within their midst. But, in his heart he knew it would be a battle worth fighting. Buck had seen the look once before, the morning he and his long-time friend had discovered Chris’ home burnt to the ground without any survivors. Buck was not looking forward to trying to contain both men and he wasn’t sure he really wanted to, except for the nagging feeling that if he didn’t, both men would lose something more valuable than their lives. They would lose themselves and in turn lose this newly formed odd, if not slightly dysfunctional family.


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