Kid opened the door to see a little gap-toothed boy of eleven grinning up at him. "Telegram, Mr. McCloud," said the boy cheerfully, holding the message out to him, "All the way from Denver." The boy held out his hand for a tip and Kid absently dropped a few pennies into it before shutting the door.
"Kid? What is it?" Lou called as she walked in from the kitchen, wiping her doughy hands on her apron.
"Telegram. From Denver."
"Jamie?" Lou asked worry evident in the tremor of her voice. Telegrams cost money. Money their son didn't make working as a hand in a livery stable, but bad news tended to find the fastest route, regardless of expense.
Kid read over the telegram slowly, his forehead creased with worry. "Ain't from Jamie," he said softly. Lou looked at him expectantly, but Kid said no more, just handed the paper to her and went for his coat.
Lou gasped. "Who would do this?"
"I dunno," Kid answered, "but I guess we better get to Saint Joe to find out."
Noah Cody woke up with a terrible headache. He rubbed the back of his head with his hand and blinked several times, trying to make heads or tails of where he was. It was pitch black and he couldn't make out anything in the darkness. "Hello?" he whispered. The moment seemed to call for quiet, though he couldn't see why. "Hello?" he called out again, a little louder. "Anyone here?" There was no answer.
He stood up slowly and stretched. His hands hit a low ceiling of rough wood. He couldn't be sure if he was dizzy or if the room he was in was moving, but then, that hardly made sense. Last thing he remembered he'd been at the train yard helping move the show. His pa had asked him to help the tent crew. It was exhausting work, trying to roll up and tie down the heavy canvas tent without causing a tear. The tent was at the end of the train far from the noise and bustle of the animals or Sitting Bull's contingent. He'd been staring ahead trying to catch the eye of the new sharpshooter, who was pretty and young, when he'd been hit from behind.
He realized abruptly he'd been pacing when he ran smack into a wall at the far end of the room. A thought occurred to him, and he paced the length of the room again, and then the width. A rail car. He was sure of it. The sway of it, the size, there was nothing else for it to be. And the train yard in Saint Louis was so crowded, the chaos of moving the show, it would have been easy for bandits to knock him out and throw him into a car on another train, departing for parts unknown. But why? He laughed at himself for even asking the question. Ransom, obviously. His father was a wealthy man and anyone with eyes would have known Noah was his son. At sixteen he was already the spitting image of Buffalo Bill; tall, blonde hair, blue eyes, winning smile, and affable charm.
His pa would pay the ransom, there was no doubt about that, but Noah hated to have him do it. This was exactly the sort of adventure he had wished for a hundred times and he was going to make the most of it. The first step would be to find the door and then through sheer grit and determination open it. After that things would get more complicated. He could tell the train was moving at a good clip and dependent on the terrain they were traveling he'd break a leg or worse jumping out. But those were problems to be solved once the door was open and he could see what he was dealing with. Besides the train seemed to be slowing, and surely he would be able to land safely at a lower speed.
He was suddenly knocked off balance as the brakes squealed and the train ground to a stop. Noah scrambled to his feet anxious to find the door, and get out while he could. He heard rough voices outside, the rattling of a chain, and the door at the side of the car slid open with a creak. The bright sunlight hit his eyes and he staggered back, no chance to take advantage of the situation. "Ye're up," said a deep voice and when Noah looked back he found himself staring into the face of an immensely dirty man with a large black beard and a .45 leveled in his direction. "Don't try to be a hero, boy; you got a ways to go yet. Go on, now, get her in there." The man gestured to his companions, two equally unsavory individuals holding a young girl roughly by the arms.
She was a few years younger than Noah, with two dark braids and a pair of deep brown eyes magnified by a pair of large spectacles. She was daintily dressed in rose pink calico and clutched a book against her chest. She seemed extremely calm at being handled so callously and without thought Noah held a hand out to her, helping her safely into the car while the men below pushed her up.
Once she was inside the men turned away, leaving the one with the beard to close the door. Noah quickly pushed the girl behind him and stepped forward, wedging his boot into the last remaining gap as the door slid closed. The bearded man turned on him quickly. "I told you not to go acting the hero. Now get back in there."
"Gladly," said Noah pleasantly, "I was just hoping you might tell me where we're headed?"
"That's none of your concern."
"Fair enough," Noah agreed. He was, after all, responsible for the girl now and even if he might make a daring escape past the man, he wasn't sure how he could protect her while doing so. "Would you at least give us a lantern, then? You say we have a ways to go and it's darker than Hades in here."
"No lantern," said the man gruffly and using less force than Noah would have liked, was able to push the boy's boot out of the door jam and slam the door shut. Noah turned around in the dark and leaned back against the door. He didn't dare step away from it, for the chances of locating it again in the dark seemed unlikely.
"It was a good idea," said the girl in the darkness, "A lantern. If we'd had one we might have started a fire and when they came to save us we might have gotten away. Of course, they might not have saved us, so it would have been a gamble."
"I hadn't thought of that," admitted Noah, "I just wanted to be able to see."
"Oh. Well, that would have been helpful too."
"Did you know those men?" asked Noah.
"No," came the voice from the murky black. "I was out reading by the creek three days ago when they grabbed me. They were going to chloroform me but I said I'd come along quietly. I'm sickly, and have breathing irregularities," she explained, "and chloroform doesn't seem like a wise idea considering my delicate health."
Noah wished he could see her face. She spoke so matter of factly, when any girl he knew, certainly his sisters, would have been terrified. He himself was beginning to feel a little frightened having actually had a gun leveled in his direction. This adventure was turning out to be less fun than he had imagined. "Your family must be wealthy," he said, assuming she was being held for ransom too.
"No," she replied and he felt her suddenly standing beside him, leaning back against the door. "We own a trading post just past Fort Laramie. I don't want for anything, but that's more to do with my modest needs than our income. I'm Mary Cross. Who are you?"
"Noah J. Cody, Miss, at your service."
"Oh, Cody, well your father is wealthy, isn't he? My father used to know him. He likes to read about the show in the papers and then he laughs and shakes his head."
Noah smiled in the dark, proud of his father. He thought for a moment. "Your father wouldn't be Buck Cross, would he?" he asked after a while.
He sensed her nod, though he couldn't see her. "He is. They rode for the Pony Express together."
"I know," Noah replied thinking back over the stories his father had told him. Could there still be some enemy from that long ago hoping to use the rider's children to lure them into a trap?
Mary must have been thinking the same thing, because he heard her say, "I think we've been kidnapped to get revenge on our fathers for something. That sort of thing happens a lot in books."
"Maybe," Noah agreed.
"We'll have to be very brave, won't we? And very smart, so we can think of a way to escape before their sinister plot can be completed."
Noah put his arm around her thin shoulders. "Yes. We're going to escape and everything will turn out fine in the end." He spoke confidently, but inside he was terrified.
The note had said only to go to the Hotel Ritz in Saint Joe, Missouri for further information. With nothing else to go on, Buck had ridden out that same day. He'd tried to track Mary, but the tracks led straight to Fort Laramie, and there was no tracking in town, too much traffic, too much confusion. He'd been almost relieved when he heard someone had left a note for him with Captain Cassidy.
The note had done little to calm his fears, but at least it gave him hope. He had only been a few yards from the house, out of sight behind a rise down by the creek, but if she'd only cried out, he would have come running, would have saved her. But she hadn't screamed, and from the looks of the tracks by the creek, she hadn't struggled. It worried Buck that she had perhaps been enticed by the chance of an adventure. She'd always read a lot, perhaps too much, but being sick most of the time, there was so little else she could do. Buck wondered if he'd made a mistake letting her daydream, letting her believe in stories with heroes. He'd thought he could protect her for a few more years from the harsh reality of life, where adventures ended messily and heroes were few and far between.
He'd ridden hard for days, and both he and his mount looked the worse for wear. He'd have attracted attention walking into Saint Joe's finest hotel on his best day, but now, covered in dust and sweat, the gentlemen and ladies in the lobby parted to make space for him as though a wild animal had suddenly appeared in their midst. "Can I help you?" the clerk at the desk asked, his voice as oily as his slicked back hair.
"Someone left a message for me here," Buck answered, not even taking the time to be insulted by the sneer on the man's face.
"Your name, sir?" The clerk's voice was heavy with irony on the final word.
The clerk nodded wearily. "Of course, I should have known, you're one of them. Well, I have the message sir, but it isn't for you alone. It is for you and three other gentlemen. I was instructed expressly not to release it until all four of you had arrived."
Buck reached over the desk and grabbed the man's collar. "You give it to me now," he growled.
A strong hand reached out and pulled Buck back by the shoulder. "No use threatening him, Buck," a familiar voice said. "I tried that already."
Buck didn't turn to see who it was; it hardly mattered. "Okay, then I won't threaten him; I'll just kill him."
"Oh, I wouldn't do that, Mr. Cross," the clerk said stiffly. "The gentleman that left the message assured me that the hotel would be under surveillance, and if any of you were to give us any trouble or open the message prematurely, you will lose any opportunity to regain your property."
"Let him go, Buck," the voice said gently. With a jerk (,) Buck backed off (,) and turned to see who had stopped him.
Jimmy nodded. "Long time no see." Buck nodded and let Jimmy lead him towards a couple of chairs in the lobby. He offered him a cigar and when Buck declined, lit one himself. "I'm guessing you got a telegram too?"
Buck sighed and raked a hand through his hair in frustration. "Someone took my daughter, Mary. What about you?"
"Got a telegram saying they'd taken a daughter of mine, too."
"Sorry, Jimmy. I didn't even know you had a family."
Jimmy shrugged. "Me neither. Not sure who they got exactly, but guess I'd better see she's safe at any rate." Jimmy watched Buck fidget in the high backed chair. "Don't worry, Buck, I picked these seats for a reason." He pointed back towards the front desk. "We can see the front doors, we can see the desk. Anyone comin' in or havin' business with that jackass in the starched collar, we'll know about it." He paused for a moment, the smoke from his cigar curling over his head. "Guess we know who the other two "gentleman" are likely to be."
"Cody and Kid," Buck agreed.
"You still in touch with either of them?" asked Jimmy.
Buck shook his head. "I haven't seen anyone since you and I last met up, what, seven years ago?"
"Near about." Jimmy nodded. "I remember Mary. She was a cute kid, smart. They just took her, then, not the boys?"
Buck sighed. "We lost the boys last summer. Fever."
"I'm sorry, Buck." Jimmy awkwardly put a hand on Buck's shoulder and squeezed. The front doors opened and Jimmy stared hard at the couple scurrying in. He nudged Buck and pointed in their direction. "Guess we should have known they'd both come."
It was impossible to know whether it was day or night, but at some point the sway of the train had grown hypnotic, and Noah and Mary had fallen asleep. They'd mulled over several escape plans but nothing seemed viable. Mary had seen the door chained and locked from the outside, and a few attempts to open it made it clear it wasn't going to be budged. The only option seemed to be to wait for the next time the door was opened, but even then Noah had concerns. Mary was smart and brave but she couldn't do much in the way of fighting off grown men and Noah, himself, couldn't take on more than one at a time. He'd fought before of course, but only on stage, where his opponents were paid to take a fall and he'd always pulled his punches. It had gotten colder and Noah had draped his jacket around Mary. Eventually, the clickety clack of the rails and the darkness persuaded her to sleep and she'd nodded off, her head leaning against Noah's shoulder. A little while later, Noah found himself dozing off.
They woke up abruptly when the door opened again, and they both all but tumbled out of the car. It was night out, so there was no sudden infusion of light to daze them as had happened before. Tipping over, Noah's head had come into contact with something hard and immobile, as it turned out the head of the bearded fellow, who slumped to the ground, knocked out cold. Noah had taken advantage of the situation as best he could, catching himself from falling over completely, glancing over to see that Mary had steadied herself, and then managed to fairly gracefully tumble out of the car and onto his feet. The two other men from earlier looked at him a little stunned and he took advantage of their surprise to punch one of them in the breadbasket. For a split second the man bent over in pain and Noah readied himself to land another blow, but he wasn't fast enough.
"Do you want the girl to get hurt?" asked the third man, his gun drawn, and one hand clamped firmly around Mary's arm.
Noah stared at where his fingers dug into Mary's sleeve. She didn't cry out but he could see how tightly the man was holding onto her. "Let her go," he said softly.
"I will once we get where we're goin'. Now come on." The man jerked Mary out of the car and she stumbled trying to keep her balance as her feet hit the ground. Noah stretched out a hand and steadied her. The man Noah had punched earlier had regained his breath and grabbed Noah's shoulder to shove him along. The train had stopped, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and Noah looked towards the engine to see a fourth man with a rifle held on the engineer. Ahead of them, in the starlit dark, was a wagon. A dark figure sat at the reins and another in the back. Mary and Noah were pushed towards the wagon roughly.
"Tie 'em up," said the figure at the reigns in a gravely voice.
Noah turned to look at the still figure in the back of the wagon and in the dim light he could make out a young man, sitting forlornly, wrists and ankles bound. Someone started to tie Noah's hands the same. He looked over at Mary. "You don't have to tie her up," he protested, "She can't hurt you."
The man with the rope paused and looked at the driver for approval. The driver nodded. "Fine. But listen to me girl, you try to run or cause any trouble and I shoot you, you got it? Dead. I shoot you dead." Mary nodded slowly, the starlight glaring off her spectacles.
They were loaded in the wagon and Noah could feel Mary shivering next to him. She'd lost his jacket somewhere between the train and the wagon. He looked at the other young man. He was perhaps a little older than Noah, broader and bigger with curly hair and a swollen eye so blackened and bleeding it melted into the darkness of the surrounding night. He nodded in greeting at Noah. "Crawl over between us," he murmured to Mary, "you'll stay warmer."
She did what he suggested. The wagon started to pull away, a lantern danced from a pole tied to the wagon seat and illuminated nothing but empty prairie. Mary looked up at the stranger with them in the back of the wagon. "I'm Mary Cross and this is Noah Cody, and we think we're being held as part of a nefarious scheme to exact revenge against our fathers for deeds committed during their time with the Pony Express."
The stranger seemed unsure what to make of this statement but at last said, "Pleased to meet you, Mary Cross. Name's Jamie, Jamie McCloud."
Kid paced the length of the lobby for the thirtieth time. "Figures we'd be stuck waitin' on Cody."
"God only knows where that show of his is right now. Could take a while for him to get here from London," Jimmy said complacently.
"They're in Saint Louis," Buck stated and the other three turned to look at him as though he'd been withholding information. "I read about it in the paper."
"Saint Louis!" Kid exploded, "Then he should've been the first one here."
The clerk crossed from the front desk to where they were grouped in the deserted lobby. "Excuse me," he said imperiously, "but we have guests trying to sleep. Now, I think we have been more than gracious, but really you'll need to either take rooms or leave for the night. Our lobby is not made for camping out."
Several angry responses were about to be hurled the clerk's way when the front doors opened and shut with a bang. The clerk whirled around and suddenly left them, bowing and scraping at the man who just entered. "Mr. Cody, sir, oh, what a pleasant surprise, sir. What can I do for you, sir?"
"You got a message for me," Cody answered brusquely. "A man of mine stopped by two days ago to get it and you wouldn't release it to him."
"No, sir, I was left very strict instructions, sir. The message was not to be released until you and the others to whom it had been addressed," the clerk gestured effeminately towards the others in the lobby, "had arrived in person." Cody did not spare a glance towards the others as they started to walk towards the front desk.
Cody grabbed the man by the lapels and lifted him to his tip toes. "Do you understand that that message was left by someone who has taken my son? Do you realize that I have been meeting with Pinkertons and marshals trying to get him back and you have held up our investigation for two days by keeping that message from me?"
"No, no, sir," the clerk stuttered, "I did not realize. But as you are all here now, I am more than happy to - "
"Then do it," Jimmy roared.
The clerk scampered back behind the desk and into an office. Cody looked around at his friends. "Can I assume you all are here for some reason other than moral support?"
Lou held out the telegram she and Kid had received a week earlier. "We all got them," she said.
"So whoever it is has a grudge against all of us," Cody shook his head. "That don't narrow it down much."
Jimmy agreed, "We got into plenty of trouble back then, made a passel of enemies."
"That was us," Buck commented, "not our kids."
The clerk reappeared with a thick cream envelope and held it out towards Cody. Cody snatched it from his hands and led the way farther into the lobby, away from the clerk's prying ears. "Here, Lou, you read it," he said, handing the envelope over to her.
Lou unfolded the message inside and read aloud, "The pain of losing a child is something no one should have to endure. It tears out your heart and leaves you empty inside. It erases all notions of right and wrong. Twenty years ago I lost my boys, Frank and Emery, and since then I have bided my time to seek revenge against those that killed them. I have your children and I will kill them. At noon on June first I will kill each of them at the old Mission where you killed my sons. I don't mind telling you when and where it will happen and I hope you will try to stop it. But you will fail, and you will have to live with the same pain that I have borne for twenty years. Emmaline Pike."
For a moment there was silence, until at last Jimmy said with a shake of his head, "Never imagined they had a mother."
Silence returned. "At least not one that would claim them," Cody agreed at last.
The wagon kept moving all through the night and far into the morning. They hadn't spoken much for the driver was listening in and they had the distinct impression he wasn't someone you wanted to displease. Around noon they met up with several riders coming from the south. They led a horse with a pretty young woman tied to it. She was unconscious, a big bloody welt growing on her forehead. Around her waist was a fancy gun belt, but the holster was empty. The wagon paused long enough for her to be tossed into the back and she fell awkwardly, her body twisted and her head resting on Jamie's left foot. Mary was the only one who could move and without prompting, she shifted the stranger into what looked like a more comfortable position.
A little while later, a mission appeared on the horizon, and it seemed certain to all of them this was their destination. The sun was hot and the night's chill had long since burned away. The men riding with the wagon drank often from their canteens but nothing was offered to the prisoners, and nothing was asked for. Mary still clutched her book against her chest and Noah watched her keenly, waiting for the moment she would break down and cry like a girl her age should. That moment did not come, and they rode into the mission just as the strange young woman was coming to.
The wagon came to a halt, thankfully in the shade of what was left of the mission chapel. The girl on the floor of the wagon blinked her eyes up at the sky and looked around at them. "What the hell is going on here?" she asked loudly, with none of the caution or fear of the others.
For the moment no one was paying them much attention. The driver and the men who'd rode in with the wagon, were huddled together, and waiting anxiously for further direction. Mary glanced at them to be sure their attention was elsewhere and then bent down to peer into the young woman's face. "We've been kidnapped as a means of revenge against our fathers, who rode together out of the Sweetwater and Rock Creek Pony Express stations. Did your father ride for the express, too?"
"Not that I know of," the woman answered, only half paying attention, raising herself up on her elbows to peer around at their surroundings. "Untie me," she ordered Mary.
Mary glanced back at the men and followed their gaze to a large, heavily guarded woman striding across the mission yard towards them. "I don't think that's a good idea," whispered Mary and looked to Noah for assurance.
Noah shook his head at her slightly. "Not yet," he muttered under his breath. His mind was working as quickly as possible, trying to find a way out of their current situation, but even from the limited viewpoint of the wagon he could see that the mission was heavily armed. Their only chance would be to sneak out; they couldn't hope to mount an offensive.
The stranger evidently thought their chances were better. She glared up at Noah. "Who are you, and who put you in charge?"
"Nobody's in charge," Jamie McCloud said sternly. "Maybe you could get away if she untied you, but we wouldn't all make it, and whoever's left behind is likely to get worse treatment because of it."
The woman sighed in exasperation, one wisp of her dirty blonde hair catching in her breath and blowing skyward. She nodded her head in Mary's direction. "This one for all business is real noble of you, but the kid will slow us down. We ain't got a chance trying to get her out of this."
"Well, we're not leaving her behind," said Noah quickly, irritated by the stranger's attitude.
"Maybe you're not," mumbled the young woman.
The large woman had finally made her way across to the wagon. She stood a few yards away and stared with unflinching eyes at Mary, Noah, and James. "There was supposed to be four," she barked at the men, her eyes never moving.
"Fourth is in the bottom of the wagon. Knocked out cold when we got her," said the gravelly voice of the driver.
"Get them out. I want to see them," the woman ordered and the men jumped to obey. The woman kept her distance, staring hard at her four prisoners as the men pulled them from the wagon and lined them against the wall of the chapel. Noah kept an eye on Mary and was gratified to see that James was doing the same. At least he had an ally there. Even tied up the girl they'd picked up on the way was doing her best to be uncooperative. She thrashed around until at last a towering man built like a brick wall held her tight around the shoulders, and pressed a large knife to her throat.
The woman watched the struggle with disinterest. She was solidly built, with worn skin and thick grey hair pulled back into a severe bun. She looked old but moved with the strength and purpose of a younger woman. "You must belong to Hickok," she said to the girl once she'd been subdued.
"I don't belong to anyone," the girl spat back.
The woman did not respond. She looked over each of them in turn, her expression giving away no feeling or thought. "I had two sons," she said at last. "And your fathers killed them. And now, I will kill you, and they will watch you die, knowing that they failed to save and protect you. I will ask that my men treat you kindly until then, but if you try to escape, I will let them do with you what they will." She paused and looked at both Jamie and Noah in turn. "Let me be clear. It will not go easy on the little one." She gestured at her men and turned to go.
"Wait a minute," shouted the other girl, trying hopelessly to throw off the arm of the giant who held her. The woman paused and turned her head ever so slightly over her shoulder to hear what was said. "You made a mistake. I don't have a father."
"That is not what the prison records show," the woman answered.
"Well he don't know about me, let alone care about me. What sort of revenge is that? You'd just be killing a total stranger to him."
The woman sighed, "I know. But you'll have to do; you're all he's got."
Cody's money had transformed the clerk of the Hotel Ritz from a condescending ass to a sniveling flunky. The five of them had been given rooms and had spent a sleepless night in soft feather beds. Once the sun was up they were served a hot meal in the hotel's restaurant, which had been closed to all other patrons. The eggs and ham went cold as they pored over maps and talked over the situation. Pinkertons and errand boys came and went at Cody's command.
"Cody, I appreciate what you're doing here," said Jimmy at last, "But I don't think Pinkertons are right for this job. I've had run-ins with them before. People tend to get hurt or killed on their watch. They might bring in Mrs. Pike, but there's no tellin' what damage they'll do to do it."
Cody peered at Jimmy over a pair of reading spectacles he was using to review the map spread across the table. "I agree. We'll be the ones going in after them, but the Pinks can get us information. No reason to go riding in blind." Jimmy nodded in agreement. A Pinkerton came by and passed something into Cody's hand. Cody reviewed the paper and exchanged a few whispered words before sending the man on his way. He handed the paper to Jimmy. "Anne-Marie Gentry, 21, sometime bounty hunter. Last seen in Tucson, brawling with a couple of miners no one had seen before or since."
Jimmy looked the paper over. "Sarah," he murmured. He grabbed the bottle of whiskey Cody'd had brought in and took a gulp.
Kid laid a gentle hand on his arm, "Take it easy, Jimmy. We got to ride soon."
Jimmy jerked his arm away. "At least she's old enough to take care of herself," he muttered. He crumpled the paper in his hand. Time enough to sort through this new information once she was safe again. He tried to picture her, slim like Sarah, tough like him.
"Is Buck alright?" Lou asked, looking over to where their friend stood looking out the window. He hadn't participated much in their plans, hadn't eaten, and though everyone was worried, it was Buck who seemed worst off.
"He lost his sons last year," Jimmy said quietly, not wanting Buck to hear them talking about him. "Mary's all he and Jane have left."
Lou stood up immediately and joined Buck at the window. She gently laid a hand on his shoulder. "Buck, we're going to find them; they're going to be fine."
Buck shook his head slightly. "Do you think they're keeping her warm? It was the first day she got to go outside in awhile. She'd had a cold all winter. Doc said we had to keep her in bed, but I hated to do it. She's spent most of her life inside, in bed. She's very brave, Lou, but she's so small, fragile. What if they broke her glasses? She won't be able to see; she'll be frightened. What if-" he broke off, his voice choked with sobs and Lou leaned into his shoulder, rubbing his back like she had her son's when he was a boy.
"They're all together, Buck," she said soothingly. "Jamie will look out for her, I know he will. Noah, too," Behind them the others plotted and schemed, whispering over maps and whiskey, until at last Cody sent a bellhop to the livery to request their mounts be saddled. In a quarter of an hour they were on the trail.
The men took them to a small cabin at the back of the mission. A scrawny fellow, covered in dirt from his stringy ginger beard to his worn boots, was carrying a crate out of the cabin and adding it to a pile of similar boxes stacked outside against the back wall. The driver of the wagon glared at him as he struggled under the weight of the crate. "Ain't you got all those out yet, Red?"
Red shook his head vehemently. "I was s'posed to get some help from the others, but you know them, all lazed off. Anyways, there's only one left. I'll get it in a jiffy." He was already heading back inside. He disappeared into the cabin and came out with another crate, his thin arms straining under it.
The driver cursed at the sight of him. "One of you boys help Red out, why don't you? His arms are only about as thick as matchsticks." The driver grabbed Mary away from the man who held her shoulders as he stepped forward to help Red. "You double check in there too," the driver added, "don't you leave a single one of them in there. If you do, Mrs. Pike, she'll skin you alive."
Red peered back inside. "All clear, boss."
The driver grunted in assent and pushed Mary forward and into the cabin. The other three were shoved in behind her. "You can untie them now, if you want," said the driver to Mary as he closed the door. They all stood motionless as they heard the heavy bolt outside fall, locking them in.
"Well, come on then, untie me," said Anne-Marie with irritation. Mary waited for a nod from Noah before complying. As Mary turned to untie the two boys, Anne-Marie went to the lone window and peered out the dirty glass. "Jesus, they got guns everywhere," she muttered. It was getting darker outside, night was on its way, and the air inside the cabin was musty and cold.
"You warm enough?" Noah asked Mary and though she nodded, he could see the goose bumps rising on her arms. He set about building a fire in the fireplace. "Anybody got a match?" he asked.
"'Fraid not," said Jamie who had joined Anne-Marie at the window
"Here," said the girl, tossing him a leather wallet from her pocket, "Should be some in there." She sat down at the table with a sigh and looked at Mary. "What do you say, Chief, can you send out some smoke signals, get us some help?"
"She has a name," Noah snapped.
Mary didn't seem fazed by the stranger's rudeness. "I'm Mary Cross. And you're Uncle Jimmy's daughter."
"I'm nobody's daughter. Name's Anne-Marie." She looked around at the others. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I ain't keen on letting myself get killed."
Jamie joined them at the table. "I don't think any of us are looking forward to it."
"From what I can see out there," Anne-Marie continued, "there's at least four guards just around this cabin, and from what I saw earlier, I'd guess they've got fifteen or twenty out on the wall. And we got to take care of Mary here, and we don't have any guns ourselves," she paused and looked over Jamie and Noah speculatively. "Not sure you two can even handle a gun."
In the hearth a fire finally roared to life and Noah stood up and brushed off his hands. "I can handle a gun just fine. Pistol and rifle," he said smugly as he joined them at the table.
Jamie looked at him with raised eyebrows, but didn't contradict him. "I'm alright with a rifle, but all I've ever done is hunting; not sure I'll be worth much going against a gang like this."
"What about you, Dead-Eye?" Anne-Marie asked Noah. "You only ever gone hunting?"
Noah blushed, "Not even that. Just targets. Trick-shooting for the show."
Anne-Marie laughed bitterly and nudged Mary, "Looks like it's up to us, then, kid."
"Maybe we should worry about our experience once we actually have guns," Jamie suggested. "Did you have some plan for us to get some?"
A moment passed in silence as they each contemplated the hopelessness of their situation. "Couldn't we tunnel out?" Noah asked after a moment.
Jamie and Anne-Marie paid no attention to the suggestion. "I don't think we have time," answered Mary earnestly. She stood up and stared out the far window through the dusk. "And there's too many men for us to get out by using force." She turned back to face them dramatically. "We'll have to use cunning."
Two days hard riding behind them and the mission was finally in sight. "I suppose it's a bad idea to just go riding in, guns a-blazing?" asked Kid through gritted teeth.
Cody peered through a spyglass and then handed it on to Buck. "Pinkertons were right. They're heavily armed. Wish we had an idea of what the kids were up to in there. I don't imagine they're not giving Mrs. Pike some trouble."
Lou looked troubled. "Times are different from when we were their age. Jamie's only ever used a gun for hunting, hasn't fought much."
"Well, might be that Jimmy's girl will have to rescue our boys then," said Cody with a wink, taking his spyglass back after everyone had taken a look.
"What's our plan?" asked Buck impatiently.
"We ought to let her know we're here. She wants us to see it happen, she'll have to bring them outside or up on the wall. We'll have a better chance saving them if we can see them." Jimmy suggested.
Kid shook his head, "I want more time to find a way in. They're safe for the time being."
"We don't know that," Buck disagreed.
"We gotta get somebody on the inside," said Lou.
"She's got that place sealed up tight, Lou," Cody said. "Pinkertons tried posing as some of her gang to get in; guards shot them at the door."
"'Sides," Jimmy added, "She's been waiting for this for a long time. She's got to have been watching us. She don't recognize us, someone else in there will."
"Except she doesn't know about me," whispered Lou. "The telegrams, the letter at the hotel, they were all addressed to the four of you -"
"No, Lou, it's too dangerous," said Kid as if by rote.
"Agreed," said Cody, "We need to play by Mama Pike's rules until we know where the kids are."
"Remind me again why we're listening to the - how old are you?"
"I turned fourteen in March," Mary answered.
Anne-Marie nodded. "Why we're listening to the fourteen year old on this?"
"Cause she's the only one with a plan," Jamie replied.
Anne-Marie sighed in irritation. "And it's one helluva plan too. It ain't gonna work."
"Won't hurt to try," commented Noah.
"It might. Like if they let us burn to death in here." Anne-Marie's words were ignored.
Jamie shoved the last of the blankets they'd been given into the chimney. "There," he said. "Looks like we're ready." They all turned to look expectantly at Anne-Marie.
"Here goes nothing," she muttered with a shrug as she struck a match and flicked it at the small pile of wood in the hearth. They stood clustered around the fireplace watching as a tiny fire began and grew. With the chimney plugged the smoke began to float out into the small cabin. They watched a gray cloud slowly accumulate overhead. Anne Marie slapped her arms across her chest. "This is gonna take forever." But it was only a few moments later that the ashy gray smoke changed to black and started to billow heavily from the fireplace.
Jamie pounded on the closed door. "Hey!" he shouted, "You gotta let us out. Chimney in here is smoking."
"Keep quiet in there!" shouted one of the guards.
Jamie looked with alarm at the smoke that was beginning to fill the room. Mary coughed raggedly and Jamie's own eyes had begun to water. He pounded on the door again. "We ain't going to be able to breathe in here much longer."
"We're going to die in here," Anne Marie chimed in, kicking the door fiercely. She turned to the others. "I told you, they're going to let us burn to death."
"Everybody get low," Jamie commanded, choking on the acrid air even as he crouched down. Below the level of the smoke he was able to think a little more clearly.
"I don't think they're lyin'" said a guard outside, "Look in that window, it's darker than Hades in there." Inside they listened with held breath.
"It's a trick," another argued. "We can't let 'em out. They escape and Mrs. Pike'll shoot us in their place."
The first guard wasn't deterred. "I dunno, looks real to me. And I 'spect Mrs. Pike won't like it if we let 'em die just yet. She wants to have the honor of dispatchin' them herself."
Noah tugged at Jamie's sleeve as they waited to hear the guards speak again. He pointed over to the fireplace. Yellow flames were now jumping down from the chimney and out from the hearth; the blankets had caught fire.
"Damn it," muttered Jamie. He stood again and pounded on the door. "This place is on fire; you got to let us out!" Outside there was silence. The room was growing hot and the crackle from the fire louder. He turned back to the others. "They ain't lettin' us out. We're gonna have to try the window." He ducked below the smoke and scurried over to the window. They'd tried a million times to open it, but the window was small and tightly fitted into the sill. Jamie pulled off his shirt and wrapped it a few times around his arm before slamming his elbow through the glass. He carefully pulled out the largest remaining shards of glass. "Come on, Mary first." He held a hand out to her and helped boost her up to the window's height. "Mind the glass." Outside they could hear the guards arguing over whether to open the door. No one was watching the window. "Noah!" Jamie shouted as the fresh air caused the flames to surge, "C'mon!"
Noah clambered through the window, but it was a tight fit. One of the remaining pieces of glass dug into his shoulder and he felt the hot blood soak through his shirt. Outside he turned back to lend a hand to the others. "Ladies first," Jamie yelled over the crackling flames at Anne-Marie.
"Who said I was a lady?" she retorted, gesturing for him to go first even as she bent double with coughing.
Smoke poured out the window, making Noah's eyes sting as he watched them. He looked up at the clear sky, blinking away the tears. He cursed under his breath. "Jamie," he shouted back into the cabin, "you gotta move fast; the roof's caught."
Jamie pushed Anne-Marie ahead of him and steadied her as she hauled her shoulders through the window. She cursed as another piece of glass stabbed into her back. Suddenly she squirmed back into the cabin, disappearing into the smoke behind her. "I ain't gonna fit. You go."
"What do you mean you ain't gonna fit?" Jamie asked in exasperation. "We gotta get out of here, now."
"Well, I'm sorry," said Anne-Marie, "but I got lady parts and they ain't squeezing through that little window, alright? Get goin' if you can go, but you just can't squish a ten dollar body through a dime-sized hole."
"What the hell?" the driver's voice roared above the sounds of the fire. "For Christ's sake, somebody help Red out there! Fire hits those crates and this whole place burns down. Get 'em moved! Now!"
Noah peered around the corner of the cabin to where several men were busily moving the crates Red had stacked away from the fire. The fire was slowly climbing down the wall of the cabin. A few sparks had already hit the crates but quickly died. Noah watched in terror as Red stumbled backwards, running for cover as one of the last of the crates started to burn. Noah turned back to Jamie at the window. "Don't know what's in those crates but -"
Fortunately the explosion happened at the far corner of the cabin. Reflexively Noah curled his own body over Mary's. Once the last of the debris settled he looked back to see the cabin almost engulfed in flames. The window was black with smoke; he couldn't see Jamie or Anne-Marie. He grabbed Mary's hand and started running for the mission wall.
"What the hell was that?" asked Kid, pointing at a sudden plume of black smoke rising over the mission.
"Bad news," said Cody gravely.
Lou shifted uneasily in her saddle. "You ask me it's about time we ride down there and see what's going on."
"She's right," agreed Jimmy. "We ain't gonna find out anything more sitting out here. We got see what we're up against."
"Then let's go," said Buck as he urged his horse forward. They all kept their eyes on the cloud of smoke as it grew and shifted in the wind.
Their mounts made short work of the distance and soon enough they could smell the fire and hear the chaotic shouts of the men inside. Most of the guards along the wall had left their post when the fire started and only a few sentries remained to shout a warning as they rode towards the door. "Don't come any closer!" shouted one of the men, aiming his rifle in their general direction. His colleagues quickly followed suit.
Cody waved the letter from Mrs. Pike in the air. "We were sent for," he yelled. "Tell Mrs. Pike we're here."
The news was shouted back to someone inside the mission. The guards kept their sights fixed on the five riders and everyone paused impatient and motionless until at last Mrs. Pike, came striding into view along the wall. "That don't look like any mother I've ever seen," Jimmy muttered as the old battle axe regarded them haughtily from above.
"I'm glad to see you made it in time," the old woman shouted down to them with a curdled smile.
"Where's my daughter?" Buck called out to her immediately, no interest in playing games or trading barbs.
"I see we'll be dispensing with the usual pleasantries," the woman answered back. "Your children are here for now. You'll have to come back tomorrow if you want to see the show. I'm thinking we'll line them up here on the wall so you can see them, and then bang, bang, bang, bang, you can see them die." She smiled even wider, like a crocodile welcoming guests. "We'll save the littlest one for last, Mr. Cross." Buck reached for his gun and kicked his horse hard towards the mission door. "I wouldn't do that," Mrs. Pike cooed down to him. She gestured over her shoulder and from a stair case behind her two men suddenly brought Jamie and Anne-Marie up to the wall where they could be seen. "Let's not rush things. The other two are down below, but believe me when I say a gun is trained on each of them. You have until noon tomorrow to try and save them, but don't waste your chance now, because the minute you shoot one of my men or try to get in here, I'll kill them all."
Buck grudgingly guided his horse back to the others. "Jamie, you okay?" Kid asked. Jamie nodded, but it did little to quiet his parents' hearts. He'd lost his shirt and his chest and face were black with soot with blood showing red at his nose and lips.
"Anne-Marie?" Jimmy tipped his hat in the direction of his daughter. "Wish we might have met under better circumstances."
"Me too," she answered. She too looked worse for wear, soot and ashes and bruises marring her face.
"Let's see the other two," Cody yelled up at Mrs. Pike.
She looked nervous as she answered him. "You're not calling the shots, Mr. Cody; this isn't a show for you to direct."
Cody shrugged. "If we don't know you have them, then we aren't comin' back tomorrow. That's two of us you won't be able to torture any further."
Mrs. Pike looked infuriated by the suggestion and she turned to several of her men as though looking for an answer. None came. "Noah and Mary," Jamie croaked, his voice rough from smoke, "we were trapped in the cabin when it caught fire. They wouldn't unlock the door, there was an explosion - "
Mrs. Pike cut him off. "That ain't true!" She was panicked. "They didn't just die in a fire; that's too easy."
Buck was already moving forward again when Cody's hand caught his shoulder. Cody's face was pale, his teeth ground together as he spoke, "Not yet, Buck. She's still got the others."
"You best leave now!" Mrs. Pike screamed at them. "Or I'll shoot this boy right now for being a liar." She wrenched a gun away from one of her men and held it to Jamie's head. "You hear me? Get to ridin', right now! The next time, the last time, you gonna see them again is tomorrow at noon."
Jimmy led the way as they rode off; Lou craning her neck to see Jamie until she couldn't make him out.
Mrs. Pike paced angrily up and down the wall. "Where you want us to take them now?" asked the man who'd driven the wagon earlier.
"Leave 'em here," she answered curtly. "We need all our men up here on the wall. We gotta be ready when they try to rescue them." She looked at the man with venom in her eyes. "You take a few men and you scour this mission for the other two. I want them here in front of me before morning."
"Like the boy said, ma'am, they didn't make it out of that cabin."
"I don't believe that!" she shrieked wildly. "They're here somewhere and I want them."
The man shook his head. "I was there when they opened the door; only these two came out and it was burning something fierce."
"You had better hope that you are wrong, Silas. I want those two up here before sun up or by God I'll burn this whole damn place down."
Silas swallowed audibly and with a nod walked away. Mrs. Pike looked at a few of the guards. "They can sit," she said with a brief gesture at Jamie and Anne-Marie, then she too left the wall.
The guards shoved them down so that they were sitting with their backs against the mission façade. The sun was hot and what with the fire, their throats were dry. "Could we get some water?" asked Jamie.
One of the guards, a pimple faced boy with long and lank brown hair smirked. "Don't think so," he answered.
"That's alright," muttered Anne-Marie, "I think I need something a lot stronger than water today." She sighed and leaned her head back against the wall, closed her eyes against the sun. "So that was the man everyone thinks is my Dad."
"Yeah," said Jamie, "that's Uncle Jimmy."
"You know him?"
"Knew him." Jamie coughed into his shoulder. "He helped Ma out on the ranch until Pop came back from the war. I remember I used to wish he was my pa, 'cause he was there and I wasn't even born when Pop left, so I didn't remember him. Then Pop came back and Uncle Jimmy lit out the very next day, never said goodbye or nothing."
"Don't sound like someone you'd want for a pa. Running out like that," commented Anne-Marie. She sighed. "I don't guess he ever knew about me."
"Doubt it," agreed Jamie. "From the stories I heard, he would've done the right thing if he'd known."
"Guess we won't ever know now," she whispered.
Jamie looked at her. "You oughta give him a chance when we get out of here."
She laughed and shook her head. "If we get out of here…" her voice trailed off as the sky turned hazy and the sun dipped below the horizon.
Noah knew there was no way through the mission walls that wasn't heavily guarded. Over the wall seemed unlikely too, but at least if he could get them up high enough they could get a good look at the place, maybe see something that had escaped his notice before. He held Mary's hand as they slunk around, carefully heading toward the bell tower at the southern corner of the mission. A crumbling staircase led up into the tower and at the moment the spot was lightly guarded; most of the men either still dealing with the fire or making towards the front gate.
There must have been some ruckus up front because indeed every guard from the wall was now swarming in that direction and Noah carefully led the way up the steps, and into the belfry. Inside the tower what remained of the wooden floor was rotting and weak. Noah heard the floorboards protest loudly as he and Mary stepped inside, and he felt uncertain they would hold. Compared to the alternatives, however, he decided it worth the risk. Up above were the heavy beams that had once supported the mission's giant bell. The bell was gone now, but several ropes remained, looped over the beams and trailing down to the floor like snakes.
"Get out of sight," Noah whispered, gently pushing Mary towards the far and shadowed corner of the room. He peered out a window overlooking the mission and confirmed his worst fears. There was no easy way out. The front gate and smaller side entrance were each guarded by four men. At least fifteen others walked the wall itself. They'd been sent back to their posts fairly quickly; some hadn't even made it all the way to the front before being turned back. He ducked back inside quickly as he saw men coming both ways and headed in their direction. He ran nimbly across the floor and joined Mary in the corner, unconsciously shielding her body with his own. The men's footsteps grew louder and then stopped. One of the men was whistling, badly, and the sound grated on Noah's nerves.
"Hey, Eli," came a voice from one side of the bell tower. "You see what was goin' on up there?"
The whistling stopped as Eli responded. "Yeah, I got a look before they turned me back around. The fathers showed up, all heroic like. Mrs. Pike was in her glory till someone told her that we'd lost two of 'em in the fire."
"What's she care?" the first man asked. "Dead is dead."
Eli considered this for a moment. "I reckon so. But she ain't happy about it. She's got Silas and a few others scouring this place from top to bottom looking for them. But I seen that fire. Weren't no way those two escaped lessen they flewed up the chimney." The whistling began again. The day was rapidly turning to night and a chill wind blew through the bell tower. Noah felt Mary shiver behind him.
It seemed they were there for days, afraid to move, afraid to breathe. Eli whistling just outside of one wall, and his friend on the other. At last they heard the men's footsteps begin again, and fade away down the wall along with Eli's whistling.
As soon as he couldn't hear either man anymore, Noah looked out the window that faced out away from the mission. He grabbed the longest rope and gave it a sharp tug; its knot on the beam above held. He threw the rope out the window and looked down to gauge how far it went.
"We're not leaving Jamie and Anne-Marie," Mary whispered fiercely as she watched him.
"We got to," Noah replied.
"Mary, there's at least twenty armed men out there and I don't even have a gun, and even if I did…well, I'm not sure what use it would be. We've got to get help. If we can find our fathers we can tell them what the inside of the mission is like, how many men there are and such." Noah hoped he was telling the truth.
Mary crossed her arms stubbornly in front of her chest. "We got to stick together; that's what they would've done."
Noah sighed in exasperation. "Who would've?"
"Our fathers. When they were having their adventures with the Pony Express," She gnawed her lip nervously. "Then again, maybe this is one of those times they would have run like hell."
Noah nodded in agreement. "With odds like this, they'd be fools not to. Now come on. I'm gonna go down first and then you gotta climb down the rope as far as it goes and then let go. I'll catch you."
Mary looked out the window and down the rope where it dangled against the wall, ending a good ten feet above the ground. "You'll break your leg if you try to jump from there," she said in alarm.
"Don't worry about me," Noah answered, one leg already out the window. He paused on the sill and looked at her. "I can't come back up once I'm down, so you have to follow me. You promise? Because I wouldn't be any kind of gentleman if I left a lady in this precarious position." Mary nodded solemnly, and Noah disappeared out the window.
He had done the trick before. Of course in the show he was closer to the ground. Then again, he reasoned, in the show he was pushing off the side of a moving stage coach, so perhaps the risk evened out when all was said and done. He slowly lowered himself down the rope, reviewing the moments in the act leading up to the back flip off the side of the coach. He was the shotgun guard, lowering himself by a rope down to the passenger compartment; above him was Marcus Tandy as a highway bandit. He braced the soles of his feet against the side of the stage, Marcus aimed a pistol at his face and he pushed off the coach, doing one back flip before landing on his feet, drawing his own colt and killing Marcus before he could make off with the coach's valuable gold shipment. It was easy.
Reaching the end of the rope he pushed his feet against the mission wall. He looked up at where Mary peered worriedly out the window and down to where the hard packed earth loomed below. He inhaled deeply, bent his knees and pushed off, letting go of the rope. With the ease of a thousand rehearsals and a hundred performances his feet landed perfectly on the grass. He felt the extra height of the fall in his knees and ankles and the wind had been knocked out of him, but otherwise, he had made it. Up above, Mary clapped spontaneously and Noah gestured for her to follow him. She did so without hesitation and soon she was dropping into his arms and then they were running across the prairie.
"I don't want to talk about it," Buck said gruffly, shrugging off Lou's attempts to comfort him as they reached camp. He tied off his horse and stalked off a ways away, until he disappeared into the purple dusk. Cody followed him silently. Buck stopped abruptly and looked up at the few stars that were already glittering in the gloaming and slowly raised his arms to the sky. It was not a difficulty to recall the words to the mourning song, he'd sung it less than a year ago for his sons, but he found he could only get out the first few words, his voice ragged and shrill, before everything left him but a cold and empty grief. He let his hands fall and lowered his head, squeezing his eyes shut as the tears started to come.
A few steps behind, Cody watched Buck's shoulders shake. Tears for him seemed a long way off. He could not imagine a life without Noah. He wanted to be grateful for the three girls he still had at home, especially in the wake of Buck's complete loss, but his mind could not hold the thought for long. He expected Noah to pop up at any minute and assure him it was all just a prank, a ruse, and he could already picture his son's sly smile, hear his laugh. Cody stepped forward and reaching out a hand, squeezed Buck's shoulder. He looked into the sky, unable to think, unable to feel. They stood like that for a long time, as the sky darkened and the wind picked up, until the moon lit up the plain and turned the golden grasses silver.
They ran low through the prairie grass, listening to the shushing sound of it in their wake. Noah held Mary's hand tightly and listened carefully to her breath behind him, hoping he wasn't pushing her too hard. He led them towards the empty river bed, knowing that once over its banks they would be out of sight of the sentinels on the mission walls. Cottonwoods grew dark and crowded at the edges of the river bank and Noah headed straight into the largest grove, hoping for safety behind the trees. He pulled up short as they burst into a small camp, weak firelight painting the trees orange. Three unfamiliar faces, two men and a woman, turned towards them, slack jawed with surprise. The woman rushed forward with open arms. "Noah Cody?" she cried, as though expecting them and relieved at their arrival. Noah stepped in front of Mary and tensed. He'd led them into a trap. Mary squeezed his hand and stepped to his side.
"That's Uncle Jimmy," she said, pointing to the man across the fire.
Jimmy smiled and tipped his hat, "Hi, Mary. You sure grown up a lot since I saw you last."
The small woman had thrown her arms around them and held them tight, crying as she did so. Noah and Mary stood their awkwardly, still holding hands. "Lou," the last man said and pulled the woman away.
Lou stood there staring at them and roughly wiped her eyes. "Oh, I'm sorry. You don't even know me and here I am smotherin' you. It's just…it's so good to see you." She faltered slightly. "You both look just like your fathers."
"Speakin' of which, you best go tell them you're safe." Jimmy pointed to a clearing behind him. "They're out that way."
"C'mon," Noah murmured and Mary followed him out into the clearing. Their fathers stood at the edge of the river bank, still as statues, one looking up towards heaven and the other downward. They looked unfamiliar and Noah and Mary stopped a few feet away, unsure how to break the silence. "Pa?" Noah said at last, his voice breaking on the word. He felt himself blush at the sound. As though on one pivot, Cody and Buck's faces turned to look at them. They stared without expression. Buck looked at his daughter's face, and then her hand where she still clutched tightly to Noah, and at last at Noah, himself. Noah let go of Mary's hand immediately.
If the day had been hot, the night was making up for it with a vengeance. As the wind picked up the mission façade provided little protection for Anne-Marie and Jamie as they sat there, bound and beaten, exhausted and shivering.
"Sort of wish they'd just kill us already," commented Anne-Marie, licking her chapped and scabbing lips.
Jamie laughed ruefully. "Get us out of the cold at least." He peered up at the guards who'd hauled an old table and some lanterns up to the wall for a game of poker. Jamie slowly nudged himself closer to Anne-Marie and turned his back to her slightly. "Maybe we shouldn't make it too easy on them though." He waggled his fingers so that they barely brushed her sleeve.
"What do you suggest?" Anne-Marie asked.
Jamie wiggled his fingers again, and echoed the movement with his eyebrows. Anne-Marie stared at him blankly. "Get your hands over here and let me see if I can untie you," he sighed with irritation.
"Oh," Anne-Marie said with sudden understanding and quickly shifted herself so that her hands were beside Jamie's. She felt out Jamie's strong hands and the rope tied around his wrist. His fingers were stretching and bending trying to reach the knots around her wrist and she strained to do the same for him.
"This ain't gonna work if we're both trying to do it at the same time," muttered Jamie angrily as she got in his way for the third time.
"Fine then," she snapped back, flicking her finger hard against his own. "Stop it and let me get you untied."
Jamie snorted angrily. "You always such a pain in the - "
"No talking," ordered one of the guards without looking away from his cards.
"Suits me," Anne-Marie mumbled under her breath and tried in earnest to untie Jamie's hands. She fumbled and cursed and at last her hands stopped moving.
"You get it?" Jamie asked, and tried to separate his hands.
"No," she admitted. "My fingers keep going pins and needles; I can't feel what I'm doing."
"Damn it, woman," Jamie said a little louder than he intended. The guards turned to stare at them and he coughed loudly. Eventually the guards turned away again. "You better let me have a go at it," he whispered fiercely towards Anne-Marie. He gritted his teeth and set to it as the stars slowly passed overhead.
The morning was still, the light grey and eerie. Noah woke with a sudden start at his father's hand on his shoulder. Cody shushed him quickly, and pointed to where Mary still slept beside the glowing embers of the night's fire. Jimmy, Kid, and Lou were saddling up and Buck was already leading his horse through the cottonwoods towards the plains and the mission. Cody guided Noah by the elbow a ways away from the fire. Cody didn't have time for affection this morning, and he gave orders to his son in a business like manner, as he pulled on his gloves and checked his gun and ammunition. "You wait until Mary wakes up, and then you take her down to the river bed, and follow it East. There's a posse of Pinkertons two miles in that direction, led by a man named Sam Cain. He'll see that the two of you get a horse and get headed into town, alright? Once you're there you check into the hotel and you wait for us. If no one's there in two days, you telegram your ma in Saint Louis and Mary's ma at Fort Laramie. Got it?"
"What about you?" Noah asked reflexively.
Cody jerked his head in the general direction of the mission. "We've got to go get Jamie and Anne-Marie; we'll meet up with you in town."
"And what if you don't?"
Cody tilted his head and pursed his lips with agitation before answering. "I think I answered that question already, son."
"We're not leaving. We could help - we - we -" Noah stuttered. He was angry that his father would suggest he run. He'd gotten himself and Mary safely out of the mission after all, though he had to admit that was mostly due to dumb luck.
Cody seemed to sense what he was thinking. "Noah, you got one job in this and one job only, you understand? You keep Mary safe. Promise me you'll do that?" Noah looked back at where Mary still slept, and slowly nodded in agreement. Cody sighed in relief. "How's the shoulder?" he asked his son, patting the wound none too gently. Lou had picked out the last of the glass the night before and managed a rudimentary bandage.
"It's alright," Noah said, "stopped bleeding."
"Glad to hear it. If you're lucky you'll get a scar and have quite the story to tell the ladies." Cody laughed and tousled Noah's hair as the boy blushed.
"Cody, come on!" Jimmy called out, the last one left at the camp, the others already on the other side of the cottonwoods. Cody clapped Noah on the shoulder one last time and with a whistle for his horse followed Jimmy through the trees.
Kid and Lou had already mounted and their horses were prancing anxiously at the edge of the prairie. Buck remained by the trees peering back towards the camp with a worried expression. Cody slung his arm around Buck's shoulder as he walked by, turning the other man around as he passed. "Don't worry, Buck, she'll be fine. Noah's lookin' after her, and he's a perfect gentleman, just like his dear old dad." Buck snorted grumpily and shrugged off Cody's arm. He swung up into his saddle and started at a trot for the mission. "I say something wrong?" Cody asked Jimmy as they followed suit.
The five of them set off at a steady pace across the grass, the mission rising orange and gold before them in the sunrise. "Have I ever told you how grateful I am Jamie ain't a girl?" Kid whispered to Lou as they rode.
They rode silently and steadily up to the corner bell tower just before sun up. Just as Noah said, the rope was still hanging from the window. Buck went first, climbing straight from the saddle up the rope and into the small room. He made a signal for the others to wait and crept towards the window overlooking the mission. He saw the poker table, one man passed out across the top of it, a few others standing next to it drinking their morning coffee. Jamie and Anne-Marie were tied up a few feet away. Most of the men appeared to be walking the walls, with only a contingent of three or four below surrounding the chapel. Mrs. Pike was not to be seen. There were stairs leading from the ground up to the wall by the bell tower and on either side of the front gates and a herd of restless horses penned at the back. He walked gingerly across the rotting wooden floor to report back to the others. He peered out and whispered down to them. "They still got Anne-Marie and Jamie on the wall and there's about twenty-five men walking the wall. Somebody comes with me and we can spook their horses, might cause enough of a distraction to get some of them off the wall and give us a chance to get the kids."
"Alright," said Jimmy, "Let's get up there." He reached for the rope.
Buck shook his head furiously. "Noah was right; this floor won't hold more than two of us. Whoever's comin' with me better climb up. The rest of you'll have to wait until we get going."
Kid nodded, "I'm with you." He scrambled up the rope and conferred with Buck in quick whispers. He peered back out at the others. "We'll be out of here by the time the next one of you gets up the rope. We'll meet up back here."
"Be careful, Kid," Lou called out as Kid disappeared into the murky darkness with Buck. After a few heartbeats had passed, she grabbed the rope and started the climb up.
Cody looked at Jimmy. "Guess the two of you ought to get Jamie and Anne-Marie. I'll stay here and give cover. I should be able to see the whole place from that tower; I can watch your back."
Jimmy agreed. "Keep an eye out for Buck and Kid too." Lou disappeared into the bell tower window and he sighed and grabbed the rope. "Here we go," he muttered. Just as he let his weight hang from the rope a bell tolled, loud and sudden in the still morning. Jimmy clung to the rope for dear life as his horse shied away from under him. "I thought Noah said there weren't no bell," he grumbled.
"There ain't one here, you idiot," Cody answered. "Must be in the chapel. She wants to be sure we know what time it is." The bell rang again and Jimmy's already nervous horse startled and took off back towards camp. Cody slapped Jimmy's backside so that he got a move on, and said, "Guess we'll be leaving you here, Hickok. That horse of yours will be halfway to San Francisco by the time you're up that rope." Jimmy kicked ineffectually at Cody and climbed slowly up to the window.
The camp was beginning to stir as the light of the sunrise washed over the adobe walls. Kid and Buck crept up to the back corral and slipped in among the horses un-noticed. Mrs. Pike's men were being lured away from their post by the promise of coffee and bacon. A make-shift kitchen was handing out both behind the chapel. And regardless of the orders being barked out by those in charge, they dawdled, chatting and complaining to each other before heading back to where they belonged. Quietly, Kid opened the corral gate and headed with Buck to the back of the tightly packed herd. With a nod at Buck, he smacked the rump of a large roan mare. The horse turned around and snapped at him with her large yellowing teeth but there was no stampede.
Buck shrugged at him and tried the same thing on a nervous looking gelding. The result was only a shrill whinny. "They ain't gonna startle," Kid whispered loudly. Buck shoved a shoulder against another horse, hoping to get some movement started.
Buck pulled his gun and looked over to Kid. Kid nodded slowly and pulled his own. "One, two, three," Buck counted under his breath and then they both shot several times in the air and shouted at the top of their lungs. The horses shuffled slowly away from them and a young paint went running wild out of the corral but the stampede they'd hoped for wasn't coming.
"Not quite the distraction we were hoping for," Kid muttered as the men on the wall and at the chapel turned in their direction, weapons drawn. "Take cover!" he shouted and both he and Buck ducked down behind the horses just as the shots went off and twenty odd bullets came speeding their way.
"You got it yet?" asked Jamie urgently, opening and closing his hands trying to keep some feeling in them.
"I'm workin' on it," Anne-Marie grumbled back. She'd been untied for awhile, but she still hadn't been able to get Jamie loose. "This'd be easier if you'd let me look at it instead of trying to do this behind my back."
Jamie shook his head. "Too risky." As it was, the guards standing at the table drinking coffee were already watching them suspiciously. He jumped at the sudden sound of gunfire and yelling and the guards for the moment lost interest in their prisoners and instead stared across the mission yard towards the commotion. Gunfire seemed to explode from every direction and nearer to them one of the guards fell flat on his face as a shot hit him in the chest. Jamie jumped again. "That wasn't the ropes," he squealed.
"She's yours alright," Lou said with a laugh as she and Jimmy suddenly ran into view. She paused long enough to shoot down one of the guards, and then bending down pulled a bowie knife from her belt, and cut Jamie loose.
Jimmy helped Anne-Marie up just as another guard barreled towards them. Anne-Marie kicked the man hard in the sternum and he toppled head over teakettle down the stairs. Jimmy nodded at her in approval.
"Things are getting nasty," she commented, holding out her hand and keeping an eye on two men running down the length of the mission wall in their direction. "Give me a gun."
Jimmy shook his head and drew one of his Colts to shoot the man in the lead. Anne-Marie didn't stand on ceremony. She took the other gun straight from his holster and had the other man down by the time Jamie had stood up. "Where to now?" Lou asked. Men were beginning to converge on their position from every point.
"Back to Cody, I guess," Jimmy suggested with a shrug. But one look towards the bell tower made it clear that was not an option.
Anne-Marie had pilfered what weapons there were off the bodies of the two men they'd killed. She tossed Jimmy's gun back to him and slung a dead man's gun belt over her shoulder. "We better take cover and hope for help," she shouted, using the dead man's gun to wing another fellow making a run up the stairs.
Jamie tipped over the table, sending cards and a coffee pot flying. "Over here," he shouted. Lou and Anne-Marie dove down behind the table. Jimmy barely paused to register a bullet to his shoulder. He added his own shot to the man Anne-Marie had winged before; this time he stayed down. Calmly he walked over to the table and crouched behind it with the others.
"Ain't much cover for four of us," Jimmy muttered as another bullet clipped his hat.
"Don't look like we got a lot of choice," Lou answered, lunging out long enough to get a shot off.
"Hey, Bird-dog, here." Anne-Marie tossed Jamie a rifle she'd taken from one of the guards. "Time to do somethin' more than hunt with it."
"How come we keep running instead of helping them out? They're our family; we can't leave them." Mary had been arguing with Noah since she'd woken and steadfastly refusing to set off down the river.
"Do you think I like it?" Noah snapped back. "Look, they've probably already got Jamie and Anne-Marie and are headed to join up with the Pinkertons."
Mary had stopped paying attention and was staring over his shoulder at something. "What's that?" she asked uncertainly, pointing at small cloud of dust and blur of motion, headed straight for them. Noah turned and looked but couldn't make out what it was either at first. Mary ignored Noah's protests and walked through the cottonwoods to get a better view of what was coming towards them. Noah quickly grabbed the rifle Cody had left him and followed. "It's a horse," Mary realized as they emerged from the tree line. "That's Uncle Jimmy's horse!" she shrieked as the horse slowed down and then came to a stop a few yards away from the cottonwoods. She started off towards it determinedly, calling back over her shoulder. "They're in trouble, c'mon."
"They're not in trouble," Noah argued, though he didn't feel certain he was right. He followed after her. Mary turned around and stared at him, her arms crossed over her chest. She said nothing. Noah avoided her gaze for a moment and then with a shrug, gave in. "Alright, let's go." He mounted Jimmy's horse and held his hand out to help her up behind him. "Hold on tight," he said and kicked the horse into a run towards the belfry.
They could hear sporadic gunfire as they closed in on the mission. Those guards they could see on the walls were focused on either something going on inside or swarming towards the front of the mission. Noah looked back at Mary and they exchanged a look. It didn't seem possible that either of them could provide much help in the current situation.
"Their horses scattered," commented Mary as they got closer to the bell tower corner. Indeed Lou's, Kid's, and Buck's horses were all calmly grazing some ways away from the mission. Cody's horse stood impatiently pawing the earth, just below the rope that still hung from the bell tower window. Noah swung their own mount around wide to pass by the others. They all seemed unconcerned by the noise of the fight inside the mission and did nothing to keep Noah from grabbing at their reins. He led the three of them back towards the mission.
Noah looked up at the window and saw the telltale fringe of the back of this father's jacket. "Pa," he whispered fiercely as they got closer. The fringe didn't move. "Pa!" he shouted a little louder, but still couldn't be heard over the gunfire and shouting inside the mission. He started to stand up on the stirrups, reaching for the rope, but Jimmy's horse startled at the shift in weight and with a sudden whinny pranced nervously in place. Noah sat back down to avoid falling off.
"Noah?" Cody's voice rang out above them. "I told you to stay put."
"Thought you could use some help," Noah called back.
Cody sighed, "Can't say you were wrong, but if we get out of this, Buck's gonna kill us both."
Jimmy leaned back against the tabletop and reloaded his gun. He looked at what ammunition he had left, not even a full round. "Damn it, I thought Cody was covering us," he complained as another barrage of bullets came in from seemingly every direction. They spit dust as they hit the ground, sprayed dust and chips of adobe as they bore into the wall behind them, threw splinters from what remained of the table.
"They clued in," Lou shouted back. "Seemed like he had four of 'em closin' in on him last I could see."
Anne Marie leaned over the table and took down another one of Mrs. Pike's men. He fell only a few feet from them. "Didn't you have a plan for gettin' out of here?" she asked breathlessly as she ducked back behind the cover.
"Buck and Kid were supposed to take care of that," Jimmy answered. He stared at the edge of the wall behind them. "How far's the jump from here?"
"Too far," Anne-Marie said quickly.
Jamie sighed as he too reloaded. "Might be our only choice."
Jimmy rubbed at his ear vigorously. All the gunfire must've been making his ears ring, for he was certain he'd heard someone yell his name more than once. "Hickok!" He heard it again, the loud braying sound of a familiar voice. He looked below to the front doors, hoping that Kid and Buck had found them a way out of there, but that wasn't the case. "Hickok!" The sound was desperate now and he had to admit it didn't sound like Kid or Buck.
"Cody?" Jimmy whispered and then shouted louder, "Cody?" He looked at his companions. "Cover me." He was crouched down and didn't dare stand all the way up but only straightened enough to see over the three foot façade of the mission wall. Below was Cody with three horses in tow. Astride Jimmy's horse were Noah and Mary. "Cody, what are you doing?" Jimmy shouted.
"Got too hot down in that bell tower, Hickok, had to get while the gettin' was good. You got the kids? Is it time to call in the Pinkertons yet?"
Jimmy laughed. "You don't call 'em in now, there won't be anything left for 'em to do."
Cody nodded and reached into his pocket to pull out two small clay targets. "Noah," he called, tossing one high into the sky. Noah easily shot it, and as it exploded it left a cloud of orange dust hanging in the sky. Cody threw the second target and Noah shot it as well. Cody unfastened a rope from his saddle and made a quick lariat. He spun it slowly round, gaining speed and making larger circles as he went. He squinted up at Jimmy. "I toss this up there, you gonna be able to catch it, Jimmy?" Jimmy nodded. "You got something up there to tie it to?"
Jimmy turned and looked around him. "Nope," he yelled back. "I'll have to hold it while the others get down."
"What about you?" said Anne-Marie suddenly appearing next to him.
Jimmy shrugged. "Somebody's got to see that Kid and Buck make it out. 'Sides Cody's one horse short." He reached out and caught the rope Cody tossed, wobbling a bit as he lost his balance. Anne-Marie grabbed his elbow and steadied him.
"I ain't leavin' you," Anne-Marie said.
"Hell you ain't," Jimmy answered. He grabbed Lou's elbow. "Lou, come on."
Lou shook her head. "Jamie and Anne-Marie, first."
"Agreed." Jimmy tightened Cody's loop around his wrist and grabbed the rope firmly with both hands. "Go on, Anne-Marie."
"No," she shook her head. "Look, old man, if someone's gonna fight their way out of here, I got the best chance of makin' it."
"I've been through worse than this; don't you worry about me. Now, git!" Jimmy commanded. Anne-Marie didn't budge.
"We ain't got time for arguin' the point," Jamie shouted angrily. They turned to see their position had just about been overrun. Out of shot at last, Jamie stood up and swung his rifle into a man's face. Teeth and blood sprayed out in the afternoon sun. "Mother, go!" Jamie ordered, barely pausing as he ripped the man's gun from his holster and finished him. "Go! I'm right behind you."
"C'mon, Mrs. McCloud," Anne-Marie said, pushing Lou towards the rope and the wall's edge. "I'll lift you up and over the side if I have to."
Lou couldn't fight both Anne-Marie and Jimmy as they pushed and shoved her over the façade. "Jimmy," she spoke fiercely. "Anything happens to Jamie, I'm holdin' you responsible." And she disappeared over the edge of the wall.
Jimmy concentrated on holding the rope as Lou's full weight hit it and she slowly climbed down to her horse. Behind him, the fight had surged forward and both Jamie and Anne-Marie were backed up almost even with him. He felt the sudden relief on the end of the rope as Lou hit her saddle. "Next," Jimmy called with a nudge against Anne-Marie's shoulder.
"Not me," she argued, "Jamie's next."
Jamie shook his head. "I ain't climbin' down any rope." He turned so they both could see blood and raw flesh where a bullet had burrowed into his elbow.
Jimmy rolled his eyes. "Well things just keep gettin' better. C'mon Anne-Marie, get out of here so Jamie and I can figure out what's next." She started to protest and Jimmy shoved her back against the façade and she almost doubled over it. There was a sudden noise of thunder as all the horses from the back corral stampeded forward and through the mission. Kid and Buck both rode into view as well, heading straight for the front gates. Kid saluted Jimmy with a grin. "Alright, girl, over you go," Jimmy said, "Cavalry's here."
Grudgingly, Anne-Marie started to climb over. She felt Jimmy stagger and looked back to see him struggling to stay upright with blood blossoming at his side. She scrambled back over the wall to his aid.
"I told you to go," Jimmy roared.
"Well I never took to taking orders," Anne-Marie shouted back, tearing the rope away from him and slinging his arm over her shoulder.
"Jamie, down here!" Kid yelled up at them. He and Buck were able to draw fire and cover them as the three of them hobbled down the stairs. Mrs. Pike's men were dwindling and the horses, still careening around the confined space, were causing chaos, kicking up too much dust to see through, running through and knocking over what little cover anyone could find.
Buck managed to herd three horses over towards the front gates. He jumped down to help Jimmy up as Kid and Anne-Marie managed to lift the bar across the gates. The heavy wooden doors didn't budge. Buck added his own shoulder to it as the three of them pushed hard against it. Jamie joined them; sweat breaking out over his face as his arm protested the rough use.
A shot whizzed past Jamie, clipping his ear. He felt the sudden sting and was surprised at the amount of blood on his hand after he'd touched it. He was still staring at it dumbfounded when Anne-Marie nudged him, "Her aims getting a little too close to comfort."
"What?" Jamie shouted back, finding that things were beginning to sound slightly muffled. He followed Anne-Marie's gaze to the wall, where a crazed Mrs. Pike was shooting wildly at any of them she caught sight of.
"No, no!" she screamed from atop the wall. She wobbled on her feet and the wind picked at her hair and her skirt.
They had no time further to look at her, but put their focus and their strength into opening the door. The doors began to move and the weight of them once they got moving was enough to push them forward, swinging wide. "Get a horse!" Kid yelled as his own mount came charging in from outside and he swung up easily into the saddle. Jamie gave Anne-Marie a boost onto a passing palomino. She awkwardly clung to the horse's neck, clearly unused to riding bareback. Buck and Jimmy hung back as Jamie hauled himself up onto a large mare.
Above on the wall, Mrs. Pike turned her own attention to those outside the mission and took another shot. Noah heard Mary gasp as the bullet hit her arm, and he felt her jerk back with the force of the shot, her other hand gripped tightly onto his shirt, keeping her in the saddle. He had a bead on Mrs. Pike in an instant and pulled the trigger without thinking. Watching her sink to her knees like a sack of flour, her body now something unnaturally heavy, he felt himself heave, though thankfully without result. Cody had grabbed the reins of their horse. "C'mon," he shouted, pulling them forward.
"We have to get out of here!" yelled Kid pointing at the sudden dust cloud on the prairie where thirty Pinkertons were suddenly descending like the wrath of god upon the place. Noah swallowed convulsively and kicked their horse forward as they all made toward the river bed, the gunshots and shouts of the mission fading behind them with every hoof beat.
Jimmy'd had worse wounds. Fortunately, the bullet had passed clean through his shoulder and the other had only creased his ribs. Granted it hurt like hell but he'd survive. He let the Pinkerton doc poke and prod at the wounds and wrap them up in white bandages, but he'd been around long enough to know the best medicine was rest and whiskey. He pulled a bottle of rye out of his pocket and took a swig as he slowly crossed the busy camp. Sam and most of the Pinkertons had already headed for town, what was left of Mrs. Pike's gang with them. The rest of them were resting up for the night, getting patched and bandaged and cleaned up before riding on in the morning. Inside a big white tent, the others were caring for their wounded children, happy reunions all around.
At the edge of the camp, Anne-Marie sat on a fallen tree, staring at the smoking ruins of the mission and keeping her thoughts to herself. Jimmy sat next to her with a groan and offered her the bottle. She took it without comment and gulped down a drink. "You ought to let the doc look at your back," said Jimmy, eyeing with concern the bloody gash beside her shoulder.
"It was just a little piece of glass," she muttered, "nothing for concern." She'd washed up and the bruises on her face showed darker now. She had fine high cheekbones, like her mother, the same wide lips. The fancy gun belt around her waist was still empty.
"What're you plannin' to do now?" Jimmy asked. "You got a job to go back to? A fella?"
She shook her head. "Guess I'll just see what turns up. Something usually does. Thinking of maybe heading towards Denver." Jimmy nodded in silence. "Mary going to be okay?" Anne-Marie asked.
"Oh, she'll be fine. She's proud as could be. Buck's gonna be in trouble now that she's got a taste of adventure."
"And Noah?" She seemed embarrassed by her own concern. "I saw his face after he shot Mrs. Pike, didn't seem to sit well with him."
"Well, it ain't ever easy taking a life," Jimmy said sagely. "Noah's only been playing at hero until today. Reckon the real thing tasted a little bitter to him." There was an awkward silence and Jimmy watched Anne Marie purse her lips as though she was trying not to speak. He chuckled quietly. "Jamie's alright, too. Can't hear too great, which is probably a blessing, considering the lecture he's gettin' from Lou about sending her down the rope first."
"Good," said Anne-Marie. "Looks like you'll live too."
Jimmy nodded. "Take more than a few bullets to bring down an old dog like me." He sighed. "I ain't got much of a home waitin' for me; I might ride with you to Denver if it wouldn't be an imposition."
"I'm a little too old to suddenly become the dutiful daughter."
"Good," Jimmy commented, taking another swig of whiskey and handing the bottle to her. "Because I ain't never had what it takes to be much of a father. But I guess both of us can stand to have another friend. Helps to have someone watchin' your back while you're on the trail."
Anne-Marie wiped her mouth after she drank. "Yeah," she agreed, "guess I could live with that." The wind picked up and bent the grass on the prairie in front of them.
Behind them a couple of Pinkertons watched with disinterest. "This is exactly why I don't intend to marry," said one to the other. "Family ain't nothin' but trouble." The other nodded in agreement and they went about their business, their hearts strong but empty.
Author's Note: Much thanks to my lovely betas!