"No....Please....I wasn't running. I swear I wasn't." The young woman's protests were silenced as the back of the man's hand connected to the side of her face for the second time. Tears streamed down her face as she tried unsuccessfully to fend off the blow.
"Liar!" The crazed man screamed at her as he grabbed her by the arms and started to shake her violently.
"I only wanted to walk a little," the girl sobbed, as the man continued to shake her.
"Yer lyin'! Yer tryin' to run away again, ain't ya!" he growled as he released her arms, only to send her tumbling to the ground as another hard blow struck her delicate face.
Before she could react, a man moved to stand between them. " I am afraid that I cannot allow you to continue to brutalize this young lady in my presence. You shall desist in you actions, Sir." Ezra Standish's sudden appearance startled the enraged man into silence, but not for long.
"This ain't none of yer business. Get outta my way." The man stood several inches taller than the gambler, but Ezra stood his ground. He did not like to take a beating, but he could not abide a man that would beat a woman. Sometimes he wished that he could go back to the way things used to be, but he could not. Since the day Nathan had coerced him to help Li Pong, he had experienced changes within himself that his Mother would certainly question. Before that time, he would never have entertained the thought of interceding on the behalf of one family member against another. Yet here he stood, facing a pair of fierce gray eyes that fixed him with an icy glare. "I told ya, get outta my way!" The big man tried to push past Ezra to reach the woman who lay cowering on the ground.
"You Sir, are not going to lay another hand on this young lady." The gambler's usually soft voice took on a commanding tone. Yes, disturbing changes that Maude would never be able to fathom.
"This 'young lady' is my daughter, and I'll do with her as I see fit," the big man growled.
"I beg to differ, Sir. You will cease your assault immediately." Ezra's green eyes flashed with barely controlled anger.
A sneer curled the man's lips as he spoke, "An', just who'll stop me?"
"I will!" the gambler said without hesitation. Behind him came a chorus of masculine voices as Josiah, Buck, and Chris all chimed in with, "and I will." A smile played on Ezra's handsome face as he realized that he was not alone in his stand. All four lawmen glared threateningly at the offender, while Chris added to the threat by placing his hand on the gun he wore on his hip.
The girl's father knew that he could not handle all four men at once. "Have it yer way," he hissed at the men he faced. "You want her, you can have her." With those words he climbed onto the seat of his rig, slapped the horses with the reins, and headed out of town. The peacekeepers watched until they were sure that he was not going to turn back.
Ezra took a deep breath and let the tension drain from his body, before turning to the terrified girl who was still lying on the ground behind him. He knelt on one knee beside the trembling girl, and spoke to her softly. "You can rest assured dear lady, that you are safe with my esteemed colleagues and me. We will cause you no harm." The sincerity in his voice, and the kindness in his soft green eyes, spoke more loudly than the words he uttered, and her trembling slowly began to subside. Then, without any warning, she let out a low anguished moan and began to weep uncontrollably.
Nathan rushed up to the group of men that now surrounded the sobbing girl, and he quickly took control of the situation. "Let's get her to the clinic. She might be hurt more than she can tell us right now." The healer reached out to lift the girl from the ground. At his touch, she cried louder and tried to move farther away. She leaned closer to Ezra. He motioned for the gambler to see if he could help with the girl.
Ezra reached out and gently helped her to her feet. Once standing, it became clear that she was too unsteady on her feet to walk all the way to the clinic, even with help. The gambler lifted her effortlessly into his arms and strode off, close on Nathan's heels, as the others followed closely behind.
+ + + + + + +
Six lawmen leaned on the railing of the landing, or sat on the steps, at the top of the stairs outside of Nathan's office. They waited for word on the battered girl that now lay inside. J.D. Dunne was the youngest of the group, and his young face showed the depth of his revulsion at what he had witnessed earlier. He heard the girl's cries as he came out of the jail, and the sound of her pleading voice still filled his mind. He knew there were men that liked to beat women. He had witnessed it before today, but it still sickened him. "What makes a man want to do something like that?"
Josiah's huge hand came to rest on J.D's shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Brother, there are all kinds in this world. We'll probably never know why the good Lord allows people like that to exist."
"I can't understand men that like hurtin' women. I can think of more pleasant ways to spend time in their company." Buck tried to lighten the mood, but realized his mistake when he saw the disapproving looks in the eyes of his friends. He decided it might be a good idea to keep his mouth shut for a while.
J.D. was not satisfied with the preacher's response. "But, how could a man do that to his own kid?" He just could not understand cruelty from a parent. His own mother had been so kind.
"Unfortunately, it isn't against the law for a man to beat his wife or child. The law says they belong to the man." Josiah tried to explain what he too had a difficult time accepting. "Some men treat their animals better than their blood kin."
All eyes turned toward the door as it opened, and the healer joined them on the landing. "How's she doing, Nathan?" Chris Larabee voiced the concern that they all felt.
"I don't know, Chris. She won't let me touch her. She won't hardly talk to me. I did find out that she's only seventeen. I can't tell for sure until I can check her over, but I don't think she's hurt bad, not physically anyway." He was clearly frustrated at not being able to tell them more. "She's been through some bad times. I'm sure of that much. She has the look of someone who's seen hell on earth."
Ezra's soft voice broke the silence that followed Nathan's declaration. "Mr. Jackson, may I be of any assistance? She seems to be somewhat comforted by my presence. Perhaps, if I sit with her for a time, she will be more accommodating to your ministrations."
Nathan looked appraisingly at the handsome gambler. Ezra was a mystery to his colleagues in many ways. The healer had had his reservations about the gambler in the past, but in this case, he seemed genuinely concerned about the young woman. "Thanks, Ezra. That might help. Just try not to upset her, you hear?"
"Mr. Jackson, there is no need to state the obvious. I will approach her with the utmost care, I assure you." Ezra entered the room where the frightened young woman lay. He had taken only a few steps when he heard the door open again and turned to see Josiah join him in the room. He nodded to the preacher. His quiet, unassuming way might help sooth the girl. He really needed to find out her name. It seemed impolite to keep thinking of her as 'the girl.'"
Ezra quietly moved to sit in the chair on the far side of the bed. She looked so small and fragile lying there curled up under the blanket. She was staring blankly at the wall opposite the bed, as silent tears rolled down her pale face. "Please excuse the intrusion, Miss, I assure you that I only wish to offer you whatever comfort my presence might bring. If I may introduce myself, my name is Ezra Standish." Her pale blue eyes moved to watch him as he spoke, but then they shifted to the big man who stood at his side when he finished speaking. "I see that you could not help but notice my esteemed colleague. This imposing gentleman is Josiah Sanchez. I know that his appearance may be rather severe, but I assure you that he is quite harmless. Mr. Sanchez is what passes as a man of the cloth in our fair municipality." Ezra gave her a dimpled smile. "Now that you are acquainted with us, might I inquire as to your name?"
"Rebecca....Rebecca Layton... My friends ... call me ... Becca." Her voice was barely audible as she tried to speak without breaking into sobs again.
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance Miss L... Becca." Ezra knew that this was not the time to stand on formality. She needed friends, not the distance of strangers.
"Is there anything we can do for you, Rebecca? Do you need anything?" Josiah asked softly.
"No, there's nothin' anyone can do." The injured woman began sobbing again as she curled tighter around herself.
"Is there anyone we can contact for you, a relative, or a close friend?" The concern in Josiah's voice was obvious. "We could try to make arrangements to get you where you need to go."
"There's no one, Mr. Sanchez." The sorrow in Becca's face said it all. She had lost everyone who had ever meant anything to her, or had she? There was something in the way she kept her arms wrapped protectively around herself, with one hand resting on her belly.
"Becca, I know this is a very personal question, but I have to ask you. Are you with child?" Josiah's soft words brought an alarmed gasp from the girl on the bed. Next to him, the gambler's mouth dropped open as he looked at Josiah with a look of complete astonishment on his handsome face. He could not believe he heard Josiah ask such a question.
The shock of hearing Josiah's question temporarily stopped her tears. She hung her head in shame. "How did you know?" The words were barely a whisper.
Ezra's head snapped back around to stare at the girl in the bed. The astonishment he had experienced over Josiah's blatant invasion of Becca's privacy was replaced by shock at hearing her response to the preacher. It was quickly followed by a look of pure horror. "Oh dear God! Did your father......" He did not get to finish the question before he was interrupted.
"No, oh no, not my father." The sadness in her eyes told him that she was telling the truth.
"If not your father, then who?" He knew the question was prying, but it was out of his mouth before he could clamp it shut. "I offer my sincerest apologies, Miss...Becca, I should not have asked something so personal." A blush crept up Ezra's cheeks as he felt embarrassment wash through him for being so blunt, and so personal, with a young woman he had only just met.
Josiah carefully sat on the edge of the narrow bed. "You don't have to tell us anything that you don't want to, but we're here for you if you want to talk." Ezra shot Josiah a quick look of gratitude for bailing him out of a very uncomfortable situation.
"His name was Will Carter." The young woman's voice trembled as she began telling her obviously painful story. "Pa was always mean, but after Mama died he got a lot worse." She shuddered, and her eyes pressed closed as memories of her father's cruelty flooded her mind. With some effort, she managed to continue. "Will knew things were bad with Pa. He promised he would find a way to get me away from him." Becca sniffed loudly as she tried to keep her nose from running. Ezra pressed his handkerchief into her hand. "Thank you, Mr. Standish." After dealing with the unruly nose, she continued shakily. "When Pa left fer town, Will came an' got me and we ran away. We wanted to find a preacher an' get married and then go somewhere Pa couldn't find me." Becca paused long enough to blow her nose again, and to gather her courage to tell the rest of what had happened. "It got dark an' we had to camp in the woods." She could no longer look either of them in the eyes as she blushed in shame. "It got so cold out. Will curled up next to me to keep me warm, and ..." As these memories rushed forward, so did a renewed flood of tears. Her slim body shook as she sobbed softly into the pillow.
Ezra reached out his hand and gently found her smaller one, and he held it tenderly in his own. His heart ached for the sorrow that he felt pouring from this fragile young woman. He was unaccustomed to feeling such strong sentiment, and he was not sure what he should do.
Josiah spoke softly, "Becca, you don't have to say anymore if you don't want to."
"I need to tell someone what happened. No one believed me back home. They were too scared of Pa to do anythin'." There was a renewed strength in her voice as she made her decision to tell them everything. She felt so ashamed, but she forced herself to continue before she could lose her nerve. "Pa found us the next mornin'. We were closer to the road than we thought, an' he heard our horses. Pa went crazy when he saw us." A sob caught in her throat. "He killed Will! He was right there holdin' me, and Pa shot him." Her grief was so intense that Ezra found it difficult to look at those pale, sorrow filled eyes.
There was not a hint of judgment in Josiah's voice; there was only concern when he asked, "How far gone are you, child?"
" 'Bout three months."
"You couldn't have expected to conceal your physical state from your father for much longer." Ezra could not help but shudder at the response he imagined Becca's father would have had when he became aware of her situation. The picture in his mind was not a pleasant one.
"I was gonna try to run away before he could tell. What's gonna to happen to me now?" The tears were threatening to flow again, but Becca fought to keep them in check this time.
"There is no shame in love. You made an error in judgment that's all. None of us are going to judge you." When she looked at Josiah and smiled, her gratitude for his kindness was clearly visible on her delicate features. Ezra's heart melted. How could she have such an effect on him?
"Is this the reason for your reluctance to permit Mr. Jackson to tend to your injuries? You were concerned that he would ascertain your maternal condition?" Ezra knew the answer before she could voice it.
Becca nodded slightly, and Ezra smiled at her encouragingly.
"Now that you have taken us into your confidence, will you submit to Mr. Jackson's ministrations?"
She drew a shaky breath and nodded again.
"I'll go get Nathan," Josiah offered.
+ + + + + + +
Out on the landing, Josiah quickly filled in the other men on the details of Rebecca Layton's situation.
Vin Tanner's face colored with rage. "Someone oughta kill that son-of-a-bitch!"
"What she described ain't nothin' but cold-blooded murder! How'n hell did he get by with that?" Buck Wilmington could not believe what he was hearing.
The six men stood looking at each other, but no one could offer an answer to Buck's question. Finally, Chris spoke up. "Don't know. But I do know Rebecca's going to have a rough time ahead of her."
"Reckon now I can go see how bad she's hurt." Nathan left his friends to go inside and check on his young patient.
Ezra was still sitting, holding Becca's hand when Nathan went back inside the clinic. Who would have thought it would be the gambler that would gain her trust. He was usually so self-centered. Nathan was amazed that he had put his own safety on the line for a stranger, but then again, this stranger was a young woman. Apparently, anyone could change.
"I think it would be best if I were to wait outside while Mr. Jackson examines your injuries." Ezra stood up and started to let go of her hand, but Rebecca refused to let go. "Becca, you really must release my hand. I will be just outside the door."
"Please don't go!" Both her words and her eyes begged him to stay.
"It wouldn't be proper for me to remain. I shall return when Mr. Jackson completes your examination." Ezra tried again to extricate his hand from hers, with no better results.
Tears were rolling down her bruised cheeks as she looked at him with desperation in her eyes.
He sighed in resignation. "Very well, I will remain." The gambler was clearly uncomfortable with this turn of events, but he could not leave her to face this alone. Not if she needed him to be with her.
"Thank you, Mr. Standish. I.....I feel safe with you here." At that moment, she looked so much like a frightened child that Ezra wanted nothing more than to protect her from everything bad in the world.
"Miss Layton, are you hurt anywhere else besides your face?" Nathan asked as he moved to the side of the bed.
"Yes, my back and my arms."
"I'm going to need to take a look. You'll have to take off your dress." Becca let go of Ezra's hand, and he looked away so she could undress for the examination.
Becca sat up and tried to do as the healer requested, but the pain was getting in the way. It hurt to try to move. She finally had to give up trying. "I can't, Mr. Jackson. I can't reach the buttons." Her voice shook from the effort.
Nathan carefully unbuttoned the long row of buttons down the back of her dress. He would never understand women's clothes. You would have to be a contortionist to manage to button all those buttons. Why didn't they just put them down the front. It would make a lot more sense. When he finally reached the last button, he gently helped her pull her arms from the sleeves. The bruises on her arms were extremely bad, but nothing could have prepared him for the sight of her back when she removed the camisole that she had worn under the dress.
At the sound of the healer's gasp, Ezra jerked around to see what had caused the healer to react in such a manner. Nathan was well practiced in concealing his reaction from his patients. The sight before him caused bile to rise in his throat as his stomach involuntarily tightened. There was hardly an inch of her back that was not bruised, or slashed, from being beaten with a wide strap. Some of the slashes were puffy and red, and clearly showed early signs of infection. Some of the bruises were old, but most of them were newly inflicted. Ezra was horrified, but he could not force himself to turn away again. What kind of beast could do this to his own daughter?
Nathan closed his eyes and took a breath in an effort to regain his composure. When he felt that he could trust himself to speak he asked, "How far down do the bruises go?" It was obvious that they did not stop at the top of her underskirt.
"All the way."
The healer moved closer to examine the wounds. These had been made by repeated beatings. Some of the bruises were turning that sickening green and yellow of being half healed, while others were intense shades of purple or black. The bruises would heal with time, but the slashes concerned Nathan the most. They could not be more than two or three days old. He had seen strap marks before, and they did not usually break the skin like this. She was so thin. There was not enough flesh on her body to absorb the force of the blows. The strap had hit little more than skin and bone. She had to be in excruciating pain, but she sat there, clutching a blanket to her bare chest and endured his probing without making a sound. The bruises wrapped around her sides and disappeared under the blanket. He gently loosened the blanket from her grip and held his side away from her chest. The bruises were not as bad here. What there were had probably been made by the end of the strap as it wrapped around her body. Satisfied that the worst damage was to her back, he asked her to lie down on her stomach. It took some effort for her to get turned over. She was moving with the slow deliberate movements associated with pain. Once she was settled as comfortably as possible, Nathan spoke softly to her. "Miss Layton, I'm going to have to remove...."
"I know." She was so embarrassed. No man had seen her naked, not even Will. It had been very dark that night in the woods, and they had not undressed completely. She closed her eyes and bit her bottom lip as she resigned herself to what was taking place.
Nathan eased the dress and underskirt off her lower body. He untied one leg of the long bloomers she still wore and began to slowly push it up the length of her leg. Bruises started to show at mid-calf. The farther up her leg he moved the worse the bruises became. The healer covered her rear end with part of the blanket, before he reached underneath to slide the bloomers off. When he lifted the side of the blanket, he saw that her injuries did extend all the way from her shoulders to her lower legs. Thankfully, the extra flesh on her legs and buttocks had helped to cushion the blows. The bruises were severe, and raised welts were still visible where the strap had struck her, but there were no slash marks. Nathan spread the blanket over Becca's lower body, and looked up at Ezra who was still staring wide-eyed at the condition of the young woman's battered back. Abruptly, he turned and strode out the door.
Out on the landing five heads snapped around at the sudden appearance of the healer. Nathan grabbed the railing with such force that none of the other men would have been surprised to see it snap in two in his hands. He was having a hard time regaining control. The men had never seen their friend like this.
Chris Larabee turned and stormed into the clinic, with the four other men close behind him. He needed to know what could cause such a violent reaction from Nathan. The scene in front of them stopped the men in their tracks. "God in heaven!" Josiah's strained voice came from close behind him. J.D. bolted from the room and nearly tumbled down the stairs as he fled from the clinic. Buck was out the door after the young sheriff before anyone else had a chance to react. Chris pushed the last two men toward the door, and they all rejoined Nathan on the stairs.
The black man was still fighting for control. In his mind, he was reliving his own personal hell. Memories of the beatings that he had been subjected to when he was a slave were so vivid that he could still feel each agonizing whip stroke as it struck and tore into the flesh of his back. The healer swallowed convulsively before attempting to speak. "That bastard nearly beat her to death! I swear, I could kill him with my own hands!"
Chris put his arm around his friend's shoulder. "Easy there, Pard. I know what your saying, but your not going to be any help to the girl if you don't calm down."
"Chris is right, Nathan. You've got to concentrate on Becca right now. You can get mad later." Josiah's soft words started to get through the haze of anger, and memories, that still clouded their friend's mind.
No one noticed when Vin headed down the steps.
+ + + + + + +
Buck had not realized the kid could move so fast. Just as he rounded the corner of the building, the sound of retching caught his attention. Not far ahead, he saw his young friend on his hands and knees behind the building. He stopped several steps from the younger man, where he waited until the kid crawled a few feet away from the mess on the ground. J.D. sat down with his back against the building, closed his eyes, and hung his head in humiliation. Under other circumstances, the older man would not have been able to resist teasing the kid, but not this time. He walked over and sat next to his young friend. "You okay, kid?"
J.D. only nodded. After a few minutes, he finally looked up. "Guess that's one more reason for you to keep looking at me as a kid."
"No, J.D., it ain't."
"Buck, I've seen stuff like this before and didn't end up puking my guts up."
"But they're always worse when ya see 'em done to a woman."
The young sheriff looked at his friend in astonishment. "Hell Buck, I was there when Wickes beat Nora same as you and Chris. I was the one that told Miss Irene's parents she'd been killed. I rode with you and Vin to look for Claire Mosely. Why would I react worse this time?"
"Nobody reacts the same every time they see somethin'. This may be somethin' that ya'll never get used to seein'. I saw a lot of it when I was growin' up, and I still can't get used to it. I hope I never do." He paused and drew in a slow deep breath. "Between you an' me, it made me feel a mite sick too." Buck hoped that this confession helped the younger man through yet another embarrassing moment.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan finally got control of the rage and temporarily set aside his hatred for the man who had beaten his own daughter. Josiah was right. This was not the time. There would be plenty of time later to vent his anger. Now was the time to focus his attention on his patient. "I need someone to see if Mrs. Travis can come and give me a hand, and ask her if she has something we can borrow for Miss Layton to sleep in." He started for the door, but he stopped and turned back to the other men when he thought of something else for them to do. "Oh, and ask Inez if she can send over some broth and biscuits in about an hour or so." Instructions given, the healer went back into the clinic.
"I'll go talk to Mary. Vin you go....Where's Vin?" Chris was startled by his friend's absence.
"He was right here. Where could he have.... Oh, No!" Josiah looked down the street just in time to see their missing friend riding out of town. The preacher took the steps two at a time as he hurried to go after the young tracker before he could get too far ahead of him. Chris was left standing alone on the landing, staring after the big man as he dashed toward the stables. Well, someone had to go talk to Mary and Inez, so it looked like it was up to him. He hoped that Josiah could catch Vin before he did something really stupid.
Once Vin reached the edge of town, he urged Peso to a gallop. He knew he could not push his horse this hard for long, but he wanted to put some distance between the town and him, before someone realized he was gone. After several minutes hard riding, he slowed the animal to a trot.
Josiah pushed Apostle to move faster. He had to catch Vin. His friend was going to make a big mistake if he could not talk some sense into him. It seemed like it took an eternity before he saw a small cloud of dust on the road ahead of him. Finally, he rode up beside the tracker. "Vin, stop!" The big man shouted over the sound of the horses' hooves. The tracker ignored the preacher and urged his horse forward. "Damn it Tanner, stop!" Josiah caught up again and reached out to grab one of the reins on the other man's horse.
"Let go, Josiah!" The fierce look on Vin Tanner's face would have caused most men to back down, but the preacher was not going to give in.
"Not until you talk to me. Then if you still want to go, I won't stop you," Josiah yelled as he pulled the tracker's horse to a stop. "What do you think your doing? If you find him and kill him, its cold-blooded murder."
"Don't aim to kill him." Vin tried to pull away from the big man, but Josiah would not let go.
"Then what do you aim to do?"
"Hurt him! Just like he hurt that girl." Vin's mind was set. The man needed to be taught a lesson, and he was just the man to do it. He had seen enough cruelty in his life, and he intended to do something about it. Living with the Indians had given him a fine repertoire of ways to turn the attacker into the attacked.
"Brother, I understand how you feel, but you need to think this through first." Josiah half pleaded with the headstrong tracker.
"I've done all the thinkin' I need to do." The normally restrained peacekeeper was getting more agitated by the minute.
"Vin, think! If you find him and beat him, who's he going to come back after? You've seen what kind of man he is." Josiah thought he could see his friend's anger begin to waver, but he was not sure. He prayed that he was getting through to him. He continued in a calmer voice, hoping that it would focus his friend's attention on his words. "He'll come back after her, Vin, not one of us! He'll go after the one he knows he can hurt. Can you live with that on your conscience? What if he kills her next time?" Josiah saw his friend struggle with indecision, and then he saw his shoulders slump in resignation.
"It ain't right, Josiah! He shouldn't get away with doin' somethin' like that." The young tracker looked completely defeated.
"No, it isn't right, but sometimes you just have to let things go." The preacher dropped the rein that he still held and watched as the younger man allowed those last words to sink in. Then, without another word, Vin turned his horse back toward town, and Josiah followed his lead.
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