Brace Yourselves ...
Missouri, August 1853
A shot fired, then another.
Josiah King cried out in pain. The bullet got him right in the shoulder and he feared he’d lost his gun arm. He raised the arm up to test it and instead found himself firing yet again.
“They plumb got us pinned, Josiah! They’re gonna catch us and gut us sure!”
If Josiah could afford the time it took to roll his eyes at the comment he surely would. His friend Samuel Stone always had been a pessimist and his fear of being “caught and gutted” as he put it, only served to prove it. Sure they were in a fix, but did Sam have to add to their predicament with such comments?
The gunfire suddenly stopped. Josiah quickly took the opportunity to reload as best he could. His shoulder began to bleed profusely and his fingers were going numb.
“Woo whee!” Came a shout from beyond their cover. Josiah and Sam were hunkered down behind an old wagon they managed to overturn. The barn was nearby but the dirty dogs had cut them off before they could get to it. Likewise with the Stone’s cabin.
“Hey Stone!” A voice called from near the small cabin. “Look what we found!”
A girl’s scream suddenly rent the air and Josiah froze. “Oh my God!” He breathed. “Annie!”
Sam’s face drained of color as he looked to Josiah. “What are we gonna do, Josiah? For God’s sake, what are we gonna do?”
Josiah inched his way up to peek over the wagon bed. “Annie?” He shouted.
“Josiah!” Came the young girl’s pain-filled scream.
“We got your little sister, Stone! Now come on out or I’m gonna cut her up into tiny little pieces, take her home, and feed her to my dog!”
Sam squeezed his eyes tightly shut. “I don’t wanna die, I don’t!”
This time Josiah did roll his eyes and began to re-evaluate the man he’d called friend for the last three years. Men, he knew, often showed their true colors under pressure. “How much money do you owe this man?”
Sam opened one eye and looked at him. “A lot. More than I can pay … He’s gonna kill me Josiah! Please don’t let him kill me!”
“I told you to quite playing cards with the likes of him but you never listen, Sam! Never! Now they’ve got Annie! You have to go out there!”
Sam turned to him. “No I don’t! I don’t have to do nuthin’!”
Josiah’s mouth fell open, the pain in his shoulder forgotten. “You coward! That’s your sister they’ve got! They’re gonna kill her if you don’t do something! What’s she doing here anyhow? I thought she was with your aunt!”
“I don’t know, I swear I don’t! She was supposed to have left this morning!” Sam said as he began to sob. “I can’t … can’t go out… there!”
Josiah gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, and cursed under his breath. He then let go a long, weary sigh and stood.
“What are you doin’?” Sam screeched. “Are you plumb crazy?”
Josiah put both hands in the air as his gun flipped around to hang loosely by one finger. “Let the girl go!”
Six men stood in front of the cabin, young Annie Stone held in the strong grip of two of them. Men that looked strong enough to tear her limb from limb if they so chose. She looked small and bright in her lilac calico dress against the back-drop of huge, sweat drenched bodies. One of the men glared at him, looked to his comrades, and back again. “Who are you? You’re not Stone!”
“Let the girl go and I’ll see you get your money!” Josiah called over the wagon.
“Let the girl go and I’ll see you get your money!” Josiah called over the wagon.
“Are you crazy? You ain’t got no money!” Sam hissed from below.
“I got more than you.”
“Shut up, Sam.”
Meanwhile the six men eyed him, several whispering amongst themselves as the leader continued to glare. Finally, one said something to the leader. He laughed and slapped the man on the back. “You!” He called out. “Is Sam Stone with ya?”
Josiah glanced down at Sam who shook his head vigorously in return. Josiah looked back to the men. “He sure enough is!”
Sam cursed him.
Josiah didn’t care. One of them had to save Annie.
“Bring that scum out then or I’m gonna carve up this little girl!”
Annie screamed in pain as one of the men pulled her arm behind her back and yanked upwards.
“Stop it! Hurt her and you ain’t gonna get nothin’!” Josiah cried, his face now red with anger.
“Come on out, boy!” The man yelled. “We won’t hurt the girl if you do!”
Josiah closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath. It's up to You now Lord to get us out of this alive.
He stepped out from behind the wagon. Sam pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. Josiah took one last look at his whimpering form before he stepped forward.
“Toss your gun, boy! Then come over here.”
Josiah complied and tossed his gun to one side. He then started toward them. Annie’s eyes suddenly brightened at his approach. Despite the fact the man behind her held her arm painfully high, she still managed a look so full of hope it threatened to tear Josiah’s heart out. She was counting on him to save her. Not her coward of a brother.
Josiah stopped ten feet from the men. “Let her go.”
“You got guts boy, I’ll give ya that,” the leader said. “But I’m curious why you’re the one standin’ here and not Stone.”
Josiah’s face was expressionless. “Why don’t you ask him?”
The man spit, looked at his companions, then said, “don’t mind if I do!” He gave a nod of his head and three of his men quietly made their way toward the wagon. Within moments they were hauling a kicking, screaming, Samuel Stone back toward the cabin.
Annie began to cry as she watched them drag the pitiful, writhing form of her brother closer. She said nothing to him and instead turned her frightened eyes back to Josiah, the same look of hope filling them as they locked with his.
Josiah shut his tight for a second and took another deep breath. Anytime now Lord!
“Well would ya lookie here!” The leader laughed as his men threw Sam to the ground at his feet. “If you ain’t the most yeller thing I’ve ever seen!”
Sam raised his head to look at him. “Don’t kill me! Please don’t kill me!” He quickly pointed to Josiah. “You heard him! He’s gonna pay you, all of it he said!”
The man stared down at Sam with a genuine look of disgust. He then shook his head. “Ya know, I ain't sure you’re even worth a bullet.” He went to Annie and pulled her head up by the hair. “Is this your brother?”
Annie whimpered in pain and barely managed a nod.
“He is, huh?” The man said in disbelief, released her, then looked to his men. “Is this the same cuss we done played cards with last night? The one that talked all fancy and bragged about how he done shot and killed five lawmen single handed?”
Josiah let go a groan. “Oh for the love of God …” he mumbled to himself as he glared down at Sam.
The leader ignored him as he continued his sarcastic tirade. “The same one that was cheatin’ at cards last night?”
Sam whimpered a new as Josiah’s glare intensified.
The leader of the men took it all in and smiled. He then bent over and got his face right into Sam’s. “Tell ya what I’m gonna do, yeller. I ain’t gonna shoot ya. In fact, I’m gonna let this pretty little girl go. She can grow up, find herself a real man, get married, and have babies! Now how does that sound?”
Sam swallowed, eyes wide, and quickly nodded.
Josiah released the breath he’d been holding. Thank you Lord!
The man gave a curt nod to the men holding Annie. They immediately let her go. She gave a cry of relief and ran straight to Josiah. He took her in his arms and held her close. “It’s okay, Annie-girl. Shhhhh, you’re gonna be okay.” He continued to whisper words of comfort to her as she clung to him and softly wept against his chest. A pang of guilt hit him as he realized she had run to him and not Sam, and even though he’d been like a brother to her for the last three years, he wasn’t blood. Josiah often thanked the Lord he wasn’t. At barely fifteen she was a beauty and his biggest fear was the men would take her, use her, then leave her to die. He knew it could happen, it happened to his own cousin. Molly didn’t survive. The ordeal had killed her just as easily as any bullet could. Josiah stiffened with the thought. If any of these men so much as touched a hair on Annie’s head, he’d kill them. Kill them as sure as the sun sets.
He held her closer and breathed in the scent of her hair. He loved her, loved her with everything he had. But he could never have her…
“You!” The leader barked at Josiah. “Let go of that girl and get over here!”
Josiah looked at him, his eyes narrowed to slits. “You promise not to hurt her?”
“Ah heck, I’ll do better than that, she’s free to go.”
Josiah couldn’t believe his ears. “What?”
“You heard me. She’s free to go.”
Josiah looked down at Annie’s trembling form. “I want you to run, Annie, ya hear?” He told her in a low voice. “Run straight into town to the Sheriff’s office. Don’t look back, just run!”
She sniffed back her tears and looked up at him with frightened green eyes. The look in them about did him in, the thought of letting her go now torture. “Do as I say, ya hear?”
She nodded. Josiah let her go.
Annie took several steps away from him, took one last look at Sam, then turned and ran, ran as fast as she could. Unfortunately, it was right into the waiting arms of one of the men.
Josiah’s face was full of rage as he spun on the leader. “You said you’d let her go!” He spat.
“Yep, I sure will. Just as soon as Sam’s dead.”
Sam let out a frightful shriek. “You said you weren’t gonna kill me!”
The man looked down at him. “Oh, I ain’t gonna kill ya,” he said matter of fact. He then pointed to Josiah. “He is.”
Josiah’s face fell into shock as the men laughed. One of them walked up and shoved a gun into his hand. Annie screamed as the leader of the men roughly grabbed her and held a huge knife to her throat. “Like I said, he’s not worth a bullet from me. Kill him boy, and the girl goes free.”
Josiah stood in utter shock. He couldn’t think, couldn’t breath! Good Lord! What was he going to do? He took in Annie’s tear stained face, the man’s knife pressed hard against her throat. He had no doubt he’d kill her if he didn’t do what the man wanted.
Josiah then looked at Sam. He was on his knees, his face just as tear stained as Annie’s. “Don’t do it, Josiah! Please! Don’t do it!”
An odd numbness came over him as he stared at Sam. He heard the cock of a gun and suddenly realized it had come from the one in his hand. “He’ll kill Annie …”
Sam’s eyes narrowed as his hands balled into fists. His entire body shook with an unreleased sob. “I don’t care!” he then hissed. “You can’t do this! You can’t kill me!”
Annie let out a pain filled wail as the man holding her pushed his knife further into her tender flesh. Blood began to trickle down her throat. “Too bad,” he drawled. “She was such a pretty little thing…”
Josiah looked at him in utter horror, his intent to kill Annie clear. He swallowed, closed his eyes in resignation a scant second, opened them, and fired.
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