Something was wrong.
Martha sniffed the breeze off the freshly turned fields. The spent earth seemed to smell different somehow after the harvest.
A cold wind sweeping off the mountains into the valley drove what little warmth she owned closer to her bones as it tried to steal the wrap from her shoulders.
Another chilly gust- she leaned into it.
“You gotta’ do better’n that ol’ man winter.” She lightheartedly addressed the dark roofed sky and drew the shawl tighter. “Quit pesterin’ me and go find my boys. Put your frosty fingers to their behinds and hurry ‘em on home.”
Luke and Matthew were known to stop at the creek after school for some fishing or the Mitchell’s ranch to ogle the prize quarter horses. The one time they were this late Matthew broke his leg falling from one of Carson’s apple trees. Luke- twelve at the time- carried his younger brother- almost his size- the entire two miles.
“Ok, Lord, I’m gettin’ a mite worried now.” This no sooner said she heard distant creaking of leather and groaning of wood in motion- followed by a “Hyeah, giddup” and the snap of harness to horseflesh.
Shortly an unfamiliar buckboard came into view. Two figures sat on the seat and one knelt behind.
“Whoa boy, settle down.” The appaloosa pranced to a halt and snorted.
“Howdy mam. I suppose these cubs belong to you.” The driver stepped down and both boys ran to their mother.
“Sure do. You two can explain later. Right now get cleaned up for supper. Thanks for returning my boys. I hope they ain’t in no trouble.”
“No mam. I was just passin’ through and offered ‘em a ride about a mile or two back.”
“How about somethin’ to eat, mister…?”
“Mason.” He offered his hand after wiping it on his shirt. “I’d be mighty grateful.”
After the meal Martha sent Matthew up to bed and told Luke to get their guest’s buggy.
“Yeah boy, do as your told and don’t come back ‘til you’re called for.” Mason’s tone had changed. He watched as the boy closed the door then backed Martha against the wall.
Her heart jumped. This could not be happening. He seemed so nice.
He was now close enough the smell of tobacco and whisky- and lack of dental hygiene- made her nauseous.
“I deserve somethin’ special for my trouble- havin’ to listen to those two brats for an hour. Don’t you agree mam?” He blocked her escape with massive arms. “The boys done told me your man’s gone to sell his crop and won’t be back for a couple days yet.”
She sought desperately for something to defend herself with- nothing in reach.
Leaning in toward her face he heard a metallic click- a sound all too familiar. He froze.
“Git away from my maw.”
He turned slowly to find Luke with a rifle. “You gonna’ shoot me, boy?” He sneered.
“If I hafta’. You jes’git in your buggy and go mister.”
“So this is the thanks I get? Wonder does your little brother feel the same?” He nodded toward the loft ladder.
Luke glanced to see no one. In an instant the man wrenched the gun from his hands and backhanded the boy landing him unconscious against the far wall.
Martha screamed and started toward her son. Mason grabbed her.
“Now, where were we?”
Martha watched his shadow, animated by the fire, dance on the opposite wall looming over her son like Satan himself over an unwilling sacrifice.
She closed her eyes. “Though I walk through the valley of death you are with me. Whom shall I fear? The shadow… of evil…” She spoke words as they came to mind, tossing her head side-to-side to postpone the inevitable.
As he grabbed her chin Mason felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Boy, you must be stup…” He never finished. A fist like a locomotive laid his nose over with his ear.
“Tom!” Martha squealed with relief.
Tom lifted his wife and they kissed hard.
“Maw?” Luke was coming around.
“What’s hapnin’?” Matthew rubbed his eyes.
“Get a rope, son, and two lanterns.” Tom turned to Martha. “I sure am glad that cold wind kept me a movin’. I kept thinkin’ about you and a warm fire. See to Luke while I take this guy to town.”
As Martha tended Luke’s wound she repeated, “Thank you Lord. Whom shall I fear? No one, Lord.”
The wind agreed through the cracks in the floor.
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