On The Way to Nowhere ...
New Orleans, December 1870
Elnora Barstow wasn’t the most graceful thing in the world but she wasn’t a total klutz either. But wouldn’t you know, right when she needed her feet at their nimble best, they failed her.
“Run, Miss Elle!” Jethro cried as he shoved her into an alley and began to push her ahead of him at a rapid pace.
She stumbled down the alley only to trip and fall, the action toppling Jethro over like a mighty tree. He landed on the other side of her and with lightening speed jumped to his feet. She didn’t realize a man of his size could move so fast and let out a gasp of shock when he grabbed her and pulled her up to stand before him. “We gotta move Miss Elle! Dey be comin’ round da corner any minute lookin’ for ya!”
Elle glanced up at her escort and doing her best to catch her breath, tried not to look frightened. “Surely we’ve lost them by now?”
Jethro, one of Mrs. Ridgley’s two huge Negro servants shook his head. “No ma’am. You don’t know dis sort of men like I do. Now I gots to get you to da train station and on your way before dem devils finds us!”
“But Mrs. Ridgley assured me this wouldn’t happen!”
“Dat was before dat devil-man Mr. Slade found out about you! He done been snoopin’ round da orphanage da last few days and must’ve got a look at ya somehow.”
Elle’s face fell. Mrs. Teeters, the head of the Winslow Orphanage, had warned her about a group of men who preyed upon the older orphan girls and tried to find when any of their lot were to leave the safe confines of Winslow’s walls. Having just turned eighteen a couple of weeks ago, it was time for Elle to either find decent work or a decent husband. Mrs. Teeters promptly skipped the first option and insisted Elle take option number two; become a mail order bride.
Elle took a deep breath. Option number two, however, was not supposed to involve running for one’s life through the dark streets of New Orleans!
“Now don’t be makin’ no trouble for ol’ Jethro Miss Elle. We gots to be on our way!” He gave her another shove to get her moving. She was about to comment when a shot rang out.
Elle spun at the sound only to face Jethro, his face locked in pain, as he sunk to his knees before her. “Run Miss Elle!”
Elle looked up. A man with a gun was standing at the other end of the alley. He grinned like the devil as he slowly made his way toward her. Elle gasped with panic. Jethro clutched at the left side of his chest, his face locked in a horrible grimace as he grappled with the gun belt at his side. “Jethro!”
“Why ain’t you runnin’? You gots to run Miss Elle!”
She looked at the big Negro, her heart in her throat. The bullet had passed clean through, missing his heart, if it hadn’t he’d already be dead. She at least knew that much, she also knew she couldn’t leave him. If she did he would bleed to death. She didn’t have much time.
She dropped her satchel to the ground and glanced at their assailant who stood not twenty feet away, a gun still in his hand. He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a crisp linen handkerchief. He casually dabbed the sweat from his brow and the back of his neck as if he had all the time in the world, then grinned at her once more. “Come along now and I’ll let him live,” he drawled in a deep southern accent.
She looked to Jethro, horrified. “I can’t let him kill you, Jethro. I can’t!”
Jethro fell forward and stopped himself with one hand. He looked up at Elle with a face so agonized it tore her heart out. “You gots to go, Miss Elle. Da train ticket's in my right pocket. Take it and run! He’s gonna kill me no matter what,” he rasped, his voice low. “Get me my gun …”
Elle’s eyes flew to the gun belt at his side as Jethro pushed himself against a nearby brick wall into a sitting position. Blood oozed from his wound and soaked his shirt and vest.
“Come now girl, don’t waste my time,” the man said casually. “What ever are you doing talking with the likes of him? Back away from him, now.”
Elle glanced at their assailant as she pulled the train ticket from Jethro’s vest pocket then once again looked into the big man’s pain-filled eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered to him.
“Run…” Jethro rasped as she handed him his gun. “He won’t shoot you, you ain’t worth nothin’ dead.”
“I’m tired of waiting. Let’s end this now,” the man said with a sneer as he began to stride toward them.
Elle didn’t think, she only acted when she heard the audible click of Jethro’s gun and watched as he struggled with the effort it took to lift the weapon. It was then everything slowed and time stood still. She hadn’t realized she picked up Jethro’s hand, the gun cocked and ready, until her small finger connected with his and they began to squeeze the trigger as one.
The shot was deafening and she reeled back onto the hard ground. Jethro sat against the wall, his head slumped to one side as, ears ringing, she shook her own head and struggled to her knees. “Jethro!”
He looked up at her. “Run now, Miss Elle. Dat devil ain’t gonna come after you no more, but … dere might be more on da way …”
Elle looked in horror at the man lying face down on the ground not feet away. “Oh my God! What have I done?” She looked desperately back to Jethro. “I killed him? Did I kill him? Oh God!”
“Run, Miss Elle,” Jethro said weakly.
Shouts could be heard heading for the alley. “Jethro! Someone’s coming!”
“Bad men, good men, don’t know which. Run Miss Elle. Either way, I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Elle began to sob.
“Do it for me, run…” he said as he closed his eyes and brought the gun to his chest where he weakly cocked it again.
Elle looked up one last time as the shouts drew closer. She let out a final sob, grabbed her satchel, got to her feet and ran. Ran and prayed like she’d never prayed before. Would they be good men, or more like the one that shot Jethro? How was she to know? If she heard another gun shot that meant they would have finished off the gentle giant. But if she didn’t, would it mean they were good men tending to him, or bad men who didn’t have to because he died the moment she jumped up and left?
Elle continued to run and stumble her way to the train station wondering if she would ever know.
She fought for breath as she ran and saw the conductor hop up into a car and shout his last call of “all aboard!” just before the train whistle sounded. Elle gave one final push with what strength she had left to make it. A man stood on the platform near one of the train’s open doors. He glanced at her before looking away, then quickly looked back and gave her a once over. Panic filled her as she saw his eyes narrow. She ran for the nearest car and took a flying leap into it, banged her knee on one of the steps and went sprawling. She quickly looked over her shoulder and watched as the train moved past the man but he gave no pursuit, as if he wasn’t sure of what to do. Neither did she. Elle wasn’t sure whether to sigh in relief or cry at the horror that made up her evening.
She didn’t get the chance to do either as someone yanked her to her feet. “What do you think you’re doing running after the train like that? Are ya trying to get yourself killed?”
Elle looked dumbly up at the conductor’s scowling face. “I’m … I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it,” she pushed out.
“Are you all right?” he asked with an impatient sigh.
She nodded as she brushed off the skirt of her dress with one hand. She then noticed he stood and eyed her warily. “I’m fine,” she said.
He held out his hand. “Let’s have a look at your ticket then.”
A chill went up her spine. She looked to the ticket she had crushed in her other hand and prayed there wasn’t any blood on it. She’d been holding the handle of her satchel in the same hand, but tossed it into the train car just before she launched herself in after it. She was surprised the ticket was still in her hand at all and silently thanked the Lord as she held it out to him.
The conductor snatched it from her and read it. “Long way to go, end of the line in fact. Just where you heading, miss?”
Elle let go a long sigh as she retrieved her satchel then turned to face him. “Nowhere.”