This is the thirty-first episode of a fiction serial, in 851 words.
I rushed across to Walter’s cabin, still half-asleep, and stumbling in the dark. Mary was on the ground outside, pointing in the direction of the trees on the bank of the creek. “Walter, they took him. Help him, Phin”. I ran off where she was pointing, not even thinking that I had no weapons, not even my knife. Yelling as I ran, hoping to rouse Henry and daddy. I couldn’t see a thing, but could hear horses in the distance. By the time I got there, I just made out the rider at the back. He was wearing a big white hood, and urging his horse on.
Then they were gone.
When I got back to Mary, Susan was there with her, and Henry was saddling up Lizzie. In the light of an oil lamp, I could see Mary had a bad injury on her face. It looked like her cheek was broke, and she was talking funny, in between spitting out blood. “I was asleep, something hit me hard on the face, almost sent me senseless. Men with hoods, they hit Walter with something, then two of them carried him out. I crawled to the door, but they were already gone. That’s when I screamed for help”. Susan was crying as she tried to do something about her ma’s face, but Mary just pushed her hand away. “Go and find him. You’re wasting time”.
Daddy came over on his crutches, holding a lamp in two fingers of his right hand. “Hold on now. Henry, unsaddle that horse. Nobody ain’t gonna find nothing when it’s this dark. Besides, those men could be waiting for you, and you wouldn’t have a chance”. He turned to my wife. “Susan, take your ma inside her cabin and clean her up. We will set out at first light and do our best to find Walter”. Mary started screaming again, and Susan held her close to comfort her sobbing ma.
Henry drove the wagon, with daddy sitting in the back, leg stretched out. I rode Lizzie up ahead. We headed south, in the direction of the biggest cattle spreads, but truth be told we had no plan, and no real idea where to look. Daddy had the Hawken and his pistol, and I had the Henry rifle as well as my forty-four, Under the wagon seat, Henry had two shotguns, both loaded and ready to use. If we found those fellas, there was sure going to be a reckoning.
Mid-morning, we saw two riders herding steers along a fence line close to the trail. I rode up close to the fence and waited for them to get close. “You fellas seen anything of some riders with white hoods on? They would have a tall negro with them”. The older man spit some tobacco in my direction, and a younger one with a fancy black hat spoke up. “White hoods? You dreaming boy? You had yourself a nightmare? Where y’all from anyway? You sound like a Johnny Reb”. The older man laughed out loud, showing brown teeth and the big plug of tobacco rolling around in his mouth. Black hat pointed in the direction we had come from. “Best you turn around and go home. You farmers ain’t welcome here”.
They rode off after the steers, and it had already dawned on me that they knew full well who we were.
Late afternoon, we stopped to rest and water the horses. Henry pointed at some trees, east of the trail. “Look there, Phin”. Henry must have had real good eyes. It took me a while to see what he was talking about. A thin wisp of smoke rising, like you might see from a campfire. Henry took up one of the shotguns, and turned the wagon left off the trail. I went to the side, grabbing the forty-four into my right hand. In the back, daddy sat up straight, and rested the Hawken on the edge of the wagon board.
Just inside the first few trees, we stopped. Henry jumped down from the wagon, and I heard my daddy groan real loud. “Oh no, not that. Oh dear God no”. The next moment, Henry fell to his knees, dropping the shotgun in front of him. I turned Lizzie around a big tree, and what I saw made my eyes open so wide, I felt they might never close again.
Walter was hanging upside down, from the lowest branch of a tree. His feet and hands were tied with rope, and that was tied off across on another tree branch. What was left of a small fire was still glowing and smoking under his head. It had burned his face off, but there was no mistaking it was Walter. I felt like I might pass out, and leaned against the tree, the bile rising in my throat but refusing to come up. Henry started crying, big tears rolling down his cheeks and falling onto the ground. Daddy snapped us both out of it.
“You’ve seen enough, I reckon. Now cut him down and get him in the wagon”.