Monthly Archives: May 2019

A Little Child Shall Lead Them

     He was the meanest man in town – probably the whole county! He was rich and owned half of the businesses in the small northwestern town of Suttonville, Idaho. Of course, it was named after him, Samuel G. Sutton. The “G” stood for Grady; it was his grandmother’s maiden name. Most folks said it stood for “Greedy.” Some said “Grouchy.”

“Old Sam” was what the few who tried to consider themselves his friends called him. He said he had no friends – he just tolerated a few a little more than others. He had become Old Sam when his son was born – Sam, Jr. Junior had been killed almost seven years ago in a freak accident at the family silver mine, just after his twenty-first birthday. His mother went into a deep depression from which she never recovered and eventually had to live in a convalescent home under heavy medication. She died a couple of years ago and Old Sam really started to get old for real.

He lived alone in a large house at the north end of town. It sat on a tract of land that stretched practically halfway around the town and backed up toward the hills almost farther than the eye can see on a clear day. He had founded the town when he was a young man and had discovered silver in the hills nearby and after staking claim to that piece of ground, he gradually extended his property to its current vastness. The mine had played out a long time ago, but not until after it had yielded enough money to keep Sam Sutton wealthy for more than one lifetime.

He found Jean Borden from St. Louis in a mail-order-bride magazine and met and married her in Denver before bringing her to the town he was building in Idaho. When news got out about Sam’s silver strike, prospectors poured into the area to try their luck, too. A few found a little, but not much. Others came to make a living off the silver-seekers. Over time, with no more silver to be mined, even the merchants and saloon owners needed financial help. Sam opened up his own bank and soon nearly everyone in town owed him money.

He owned the only grocery store in town and one of the two cafes. On the other, he held the mortgage! There was the Sutton Inn for those needing a room for the night or for more permanent lodging. Most of the other businesses either paid his bank on their mortgage or paid Sam rent for the buildings he owned.

He had given a doctor his own place in town to entice him to set up a practice in Suttonville and later regretted it but couldn’t do anything about it. The local blacksmith owned his own place, too, which branched into a train depot later on. Only two trains a week stopped in Suttonville, though.

Sam had built a church at the opposite end of town from his place because Jean had wanted one. After Sam, Jr. died, Sam, Sr. quit going and quit supporting it financially. The parson had to move on and now a circuit-riding preacher came through on the Friday train and left on the Tuesday train, every other week. A few townsfolk kept the building clean and in good repair. The meager offering paid for the parson’s tickets and a room at the Sutton Inn during his stay. Parishioners took turns feeding him.

Now that he was “Old Sam”, he had everything and nothing. A big house with servants, land and livestock, fancy clothes, one of those new-fangled horseless carriages, more money than he could spend, and even his own town! But… no wife, no son, no friends, and no need for work – so no real purpose in life. When he showed himself in town, everyone spoke to him – but out of duty at best, fear at the worst. Most of what he had to say to others was about money they owed, foreclosures, and the like. He felt two things. He could buy anything he wanted, and he didn’t need anybody!

**********

Jessica Hawkes worked at the inn. She cleaned the rooms and did the laundry. Sometimes she took in other people’s laundry, too. She was twenty-six years old with a six-year-old daughter. She had never married, and no one knew who little Annie Hawkes’ father was.

Jessica’s parents had come to Suttonville in search of silver. Her mother died – some say she worked herself to death – when Jessica was only twelve. She had to cook and clean and sew for her and her baby brother and their pa. The boy died of scarlet fever when he was only two. Her pa couldn’t take any more and killed himself when Jessica was sixteen.

She had no family and nowhere else to go, so she took a job at one of the saloons just to make ends meet. She was pretty and had a nice figure and she drew quite a bit of unwanted attention from the men. The owner took a fancy to her and protected her but didn’t pay her much. Some think he had his own designs on her, but his marriage got in the way! She kept the place clean and did a little singing for tips. Her boss kept the men away from her.

No one in town ever saw her with anyone, so when she became ‘with child’ they were all shocked. She never told anyone who the father was. When it became a little too obvious that she was expecting, the saloon keeper let her go from her job. She kept her room at a boarding house and paid for that and food and eventually the baby by cleaning and sewing. A little later on, she got a job at the inn.

Annie was a pretty little girl. Jessica was a blue-eyed blonde, but Annie’s hair was black, and her big eyes were brown. Her smile lit up a room and now that she had started school, it was obvious she was as smart as a whip. Jessica had known it all along, but then she was prejudiced. Annie’s schooling proved it to be so.

Maybe part of the reason Annie leaned so much and so well was that she was very inquisitive. If she wasn’t asking questions, it was because she was exploring on her own. She helped around the inn with little chores. There’s no telling how many times Jessica found her exploring someone’s room! Annie often got so focused on her exploring that she wandered away from her mama and sooner or later was “bothering” someone in town.

Most of the townsfolk liked Annie, but just didn’t seem to know exactly how to treat her. All the other kids had mas and pas – Annie didn’t. For some reason that mattered. They would return her to the inn and make a comment or two to Jessica about keeping her “in her place.” Jessica wasn’t sure if that simply meant by her side or in society. She always figured it kind of meant both.

On one of her excursions, Annie noticed the shiny, strange wagon that Mr. Sutton rode around in, just sitting empty in front of the bank. She just had to check it out. She couldn’t understand how it moved. All the other wagons had horses pulling them! And this one was so different. The wheels were softer than those on the other wagons. The seats looked softer, too, so she climbed up inside the carriage to find out.

Sure enough – the seat was soft and comfy. There were knobs and buttons and levers to explore, too! And that one big lever with a knob on the end – what was that for? It had a shiny metal thing on it with a big black ball at the end of it. Annie wondered what that could be. She felt the ball and it was soft and squeezable. So naturally, she squeezed it.

She jumped at the sound it made! The she laughed and squeezed it again. Then she heard a gruff voice say, “Here now! What are you doing there?!” It was Mr. Sutton. He came out of the bank after the first honk of the horn and strode quickly up to his automobile. That’s what those wagons were called.

Annie looked up at the big man. She had seen him a few times before, but never up close. She had heard others say he was mean, but he didn’t look so mean to her. She spoke up, “Just looking at your wagon.”

He told her it was not a toy and she didn’t belong there. She had heard that many times before! And she didn’t think he said it any meaner thanh everyone else did. Old Sam reached down and picked Annie up. He hauled her up out of his automobile and set her down in the street. The blanket that Sam used for warmth as he drove caught on her foot and fell to the ground. He told her to get on home, picked up the blanket, and tossed it onto the back floorboard.

Annie walked slowly away as Old Sam returned to this office in the bank to finish up the brief task he had started earlier. Annie turned to look back. Seeing Mr. Sutton enter the bank, she returned to the “wagon.” She wanted to explore some more only this time she wouldn’t squeeze the horn!

She knew she shouldn’t be there, but this wagon was just too interesting. She got behind the steering lever and pretended to drive. The she heard voices! She looked toward the bank and the door was starting to open. He was coming back! What could she do?!

Old Sam was talking to someone in the bank as he backed through the door. He hadn’t seen Annie yet. She was panicking and looking frantically for someplace to hide. She saw the blanket in the back floorboard and got an idea. She climbed over the seat and quickly crawled onto the floor, pulling the blanket over her.

Old Sam walked to the street side of the automobile and climbed in. Reaching under the seat, Sam pushed the button that sparked the gasoline engine with a small explosion that started it running. He released the handbrake and pushed the accelerator pedal. The automobile motored down the street, guided proficiently by its proud owner. He was completely unaware of the stowaway!

Annie wasn’t quite sure what was happening. She was afraid to call out, so she just waited under the blanket. It took a little while, but the automobile finally came to a stop. She dared not move yet. She felt the “wagon” rock a little as Old Sam got out. She waited and listened. She didn’t hear anything, but she waited a little longer before peeking out.
Then slowly, carefully, Annie lifted the blanket edge to peek. She couldn’t tell where they were, but there were no stores or houses around. She couldn’t know it, but Sam had driven out to the old mine. She could see him walking around the hillside. His back was to the automobile, so she took off the blanket and climbed out to the ground. Keeping the “wagon” between herself and Mr. Sutton, she ran to some bushes and hid.

Mr. Sutton walked around. Annie watched from her hiding place. He would walk a little, stop, rub his head, and massage his neck. Then he’d walk some more and do it all again. Then he did something different. Annie didn’t understand it, but it reminded her of church.

Mr. Sutton looked up at the sky and raised his hands. Then he dropped to his knees and covered his face with his hands. Annie figured he was praying. In a couple of minutes, he wiped his eyes with his hands and got up. He returned to his automobile, started it up again, and drove away. He had no idea that anyone else was around, much less a little six-year old girl.

After he was out of sight, Annie walked out of her hiding place and moved to where Old Sam had left the area. She looked out and down the hill. She couldn’t see anything but trees and bushes and more hills and land. The dirt road that Mr. Sutton had driven down must lead back to town, but she couldn’t see it from there. Behind her was the boarded-up entrance to the abandoned mine and that she could see!

She quickly lost interest in the road home and walked to the mine entrance to peek inside. She blocked the sunlight by cupping her hands to her face. Her big eyes adjusted to the darkness, but she couldn’t see much. She would just have to get in there in order to see what it was like.

Annie pulled at one of the boards. It gave a little. She moved her hands a little farther out toward the end of the board. Gripping hard, she pulled with all the power the six-year old could muster. A groan, a creak, and at last a loud crack! The board gave way and Annie tumbled backwards to the ground. She got up, dusted herself off, and crawled through the newly formed entrance to Sutton’s Silver Streak Mine!

**********

Jessica Hawkes was busy cleaning the inn. Looking out an upstairs window, she had seen Annie saunter across the street toward Sutton’s Mercantile. Lem Daniels always tolerated Annie for awhile as long as he didn’t have too many customers. He usually gave her a piece of stick candy after Jessica had said it was okay. Eventually, he would shoo Annie toward the inn. Jessica had smiled and gone about her business.

She gathered the sheets, pillowcases, and towels from three rooms, remade the beds and replaced the towels with fresh ones she had laundered earlier. She dusted and swept the rooms. The inn had an indoor pump in the kitchen from which she refilled the pitchers in each room. By then it dawned on her that Lem had tolerated Annie longer than usual. She had not heard her return to the inn. Stepping out onto the front porch, Jessica scanned the street in both directions looking for Annie before crossing the street to the store. Since she didn’t see her daughter anywhere, she hustled over to relieve Lem of his burden.

Lem was surprised to see Jessica without Annie and said so. When she asked about her coming into the store earlier, Lem told her he hadn’t seen Annie all day! Jessica explained why she had thought Annie had stopped by and they both went outside to search for her. Lem went one way and Jessica went the other. They scoured both sides of the street in both directions and in a matter of minutes several others had joined the search.

Annie had not been in any of the places of business! The saloon keeper assured Jessica that Annie had not been in his establishment – ever! But one of his customers exiting the saloon only just then realized they were all looking for a little girl. He said he had seen one sitting in Old Sam’s automobile as he had entered the saloon earlier that day. He went on to describe the girl but added that Sam had caught her and took her out of the vehicle.

Jessica started running toward Sam Sutton’s house at the edge of town after asking the others to please keep looking. Maybe Mr. Sutton would know something about where Annie had gone. Lem closed up his store and ran after Annie. He was faster than her and caught up with her as she knocked on the Sutton door.

A maid answered the door and asked what they wanted. Jessica started to explain but was so rattled and winded from the run that she wasn’t making much sense, so Lem took over. He explained that Jessica’s little girl was missing and that the last time anyone had seen her, Sam Sutton was helping her out of his automobile in front of the bank. They were hoping he might have noticed where she went next.

The maid showed them to the parlor and went to get Mr. Sutton from his study. He came quickly once the maid had explained the situation. Sam knew Jessica from years ago and of course he had seen her many times since around town and at the inn. At one time, Sam, Jr. had shown interest in Jessica, but Old Sam had squelched that. She just wasn’t right for the son of the richest man in the territory. But he had always treated her with civility anyway.

He greeted Lem and expressed sorrow about Jessica’s plight. He asked how he might be of service to them. Jessica had regained her composure and explained that someone had seen Annie in his automobile and wondered if he happened to see which way she went after she got out. Sam said he had told her to go back to the inn and that she headed that way, though rather slowly. He had returned to the bank for just a few minutes.

Jessica explained that Annie had not returned the inn after all and asked if he had seen her or anyone else for that matter when he came back out of the bank. He said that he hadn’t. He simply got in his automobile and headed home. Jessica thanked him and as she headed for the door she began to sob and stumbled a little. Lem caught her by the arm and steadied her. “We’ll find her, Jessica. Don’t worry,” he assured her.

Jessica replied, “She is just so inquisitive. She explores things and places and just won’t stop until she’s satisfied with learning all she can. She could have gone to explore anywhere!”

Old Sam chimed in, “That’s why she was in my automobile – exploring it. I became aware of that when she honked the horn. I told her not to play with it. She didn’t seem scared at all.”

Jessica thought for a moment. “Any chance she returned to the automobile after you went back into the bank?”

Old Sam said, “Well, I guess so, but I came back out in just a few minutes and drove off. As I said, I didn’t see her around. Why?”

Jessica replied, “Well, she can be a little sneaky. I was just thinking perhaps she had gotten back in your automobile and was hiding there when you drove off.”

Old Sam said he didn’t see how that could be possible. “The vehicle is pretty open, and you can see both seats easily. She certainly wasn’t in either seat.”

Lem joined in the conversation. “Is there any place at all a little girl could be in the carriage and not be seen? Could she hide under the seat or something?”

“No way,” answered Sam. “There was nothing in that vehicle but me and my old driving blanket.”

“Driving blanket?” asked Jessica.

“Yes,” said Sam. “I get a little chilly when driving sometimes, so I keep a blanket in there to throw over my lap.”

Lem asked, “And you did that today?”

“Why, no, now that you mention it,” added Sam. “I remember now that it fell to the ground when I got the little girl out of the automobile. I picked it up and tossed it onto the floor in the back. When I got in later, I didn’t bother getting it.”

Jessica’s eyes brightened. “Could Annie have been hiding under the blanket?”

“Why would she do that?” asked Sam.

“Maybe she had gotten back in to explore some more and when you came out, she hid under the blanket because she knew she wasn’t supposed to be there!”

Old Sam thought it through. “You know,” he said, “I was talking to my bank manager at the door for a moment before I got in my vehicle. My back would have been turned to her if she was there. She would have had time to crawl under the blanket. Would she do that?”

Jessica replied with a knowing smile, “Oh, yes. She certainly would.”

Lem chimed in, “Then she would have ridden here to the house with you. But wouldn’t she just walk back into town after she got out of the carriage?”

Jessica started to respond to that, but Sam interrupted. “Oh no!” he exclaimed.

Jessica asked, “What?!”

Sam explained his concern. “I just remembered – I didn’t come straight home. I drove out to my old mine and walked around out there for a while!”

Lem asked, “You don’t think she slipped out of the carriage out there do you?”

Sam replied, “It is certainly possible. There was plenty of opportunity to do just that and to hide until I left.”

Jessica almost cried out, “The mine!”

Sam said, “Oh, don’t worry – it’s been boarded up for years. But she could be lost out there if she wandered off.”

Jessica was scared but holding it together. She was sure they were on the right track. “Lem,” she asked, “would you go back to town and see if you can get some help? I’m heading for the mine.”

Old Sam spoke up. “It’s too far. I’ll drive you.”

They quickly parted ways and set to the tasks at hand. Lem ran back to town and gathered a search party. Two wagon loads of people and a few more on horseback soon headed for the Sutton Silver Streak Mine. Old Sam got his hat, informed the maid, and took Jessica to the barn that housed his automobile.

When they got to the vehicle, Sam remarked that the blanket looked a little different than before, as if it had been repositioned. “It was Annie – I know it,” responded Jessica.

As they drove to the mine, Old Sam tried to reassure Jessica that they would find Annie and she would be alright. “Probably be just sitting there crying, waiting for help to come along,” he added.

“You don’t know Annie,” Jessica said. “She’s fearless. Terribly inquisitive. Always has to learn something, explore new places, try new things. She could be anywhere – but she won’t be just sitting there crying. It’s the mine that scares me.”

Sam tried again to calm her spirit. “It’s been boarded up and there’s no other way in. I saw it earlier and it’s still boarded up.” He paused for a moment, then added, “No, she couldn’t have gone into the mine. We’ll find her outside somewhere.”

“We have to, Mr. Sutton. She’s all I have in the world!”

“It’s none of my business, but what about the girl’s father?” asked Old Sam.

“He’s dead,” Jessica said and added nothing more.

“I’m sorry,” Old Sam said and drove on in silence. In a few minutes, they arrived at the mine’s entrance. “Oh my!” exclaimed Sam.

Jessica could see that a board had been torn loose and was lying on the ground. “She’s in there!”

**********

When Annie crawled in between the boards and entered the mine she was excited. She had never been in a mine before. It was dark, but she wasn’t afraid. The angle of the sun illuminated the entrance a little and her big brown eyes soon adjusted to the poorly lit tunnel.

As she slowly walked farther into the tunnel it got darker. She tripped over something and falling forward she banged her head a little before falling down. She peered in the darkness and felt around. She could see that she had tripped over some railroad tracks like those at the train station in town. Old Sam had removed the last several feet of track from the entrance just to discourage sightseers. Annie hit her head on an old ore tram still standing empty on the tracks.

She was a brave girl. She didn’t cry. She just rubbed her head and struggled back up on her feet. Most children her age would have gone back to the exit and headed for the comfort of their ma or pa, but not Annie. She was there to explore this mine. She only wished she could see better.

She went around the tram and followed the tracks deeper into the tunnel. In a little while she could see that there were two other tunnels going off from the main one in both directions. She chose the right tunnel, but it turned out to be the wrong tunnel!

In about fifty feet, she ran into a broken-down wooden barricade. She had no idea what it was for and she couldn’t see very well anyway, so she felt her way around it and continued slowly on. In about ten steps, she fell right into a hole! The barricade was a warning that the floor of the shaft had collapsed! Annie fell right into a dark hole about twelve feet down!

It was probably a blessing that she actually was knocked unconscious for a while. With no way to climb out and no one around to help her, she likely would have been frightened. As it was, she just laid there peacefully and sill for a while.

**********

Jessica jumped out of the automobile and ran to the mine entrance. She called into the tunnel for Annie and listened for a response. She did not get an answer. Annie’s little entryway was too small for an adult, so Jessica began to tug at another board. Old Sam caught up to her and gently pulled her aside. “Let me,” he said.  Sam jerked the board loose and tossed it to one side. Then he pulled at another and soon had it loose, too. He kicked at a lower board and knocked it free and cleared the entrance for anyone to go through. Jessica started to enter, but Sam stopped her.

“Wait, Jessica! You can’t see in there. I know my way around. It’s been a long time, but I can still remember. I’ll look. You stay here at the entrance and call out to her.”

Jessica followed Old Sam into the mine anyway until they got to the ore tram. Sam told her to stay there and keep calling Annie’s name. “Help will be here soon, and they’ll need to find you right here. There is more than one way she could go down here, and you might send someone back for lanterns and rope.”

“Rope?” asked Jessica. “Why rope?”

“There are pits in here, Jessica, where the tunnel floor has collapsed. I’m afraid she could have fallen into one,” replied Sam. He figured she might as well face the possibilities.

Jessica gasped. “Oh, please find her. Why couldn’t she be more like other kids? Most kids would have turned back when they saw how dark it is.”

Trying to comfort her, Sam replied, “Not all though. My Sam wouldn’t have. He got lost more than once in here. Broke his collar bone swinging from the barn loft. Nearly broke his leg trying to ride a horse that hadn’t been broken to ride yet.”

Jessica said, “He was headstrong, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, he was,” replied Sam. “He was a good boy though. And he was becoming a good man.”

“I know,” said Jessica. “He was.”

“Well, if your daughter is anything like my son was, she’ll be alright. You’ll see.”

“Mr. Sutton,” Jessica said softly. “Annie is like Sam. More than you know.”

“Well, of course, I don’t know her,” replied Old Sam.

“Ann is her middle name,” Jessica added. “Her real name is Samantha Ann. She’s named after her father.”

“What are you saying?” asked Sam.

“I’m saying she is named after your son – Annie’s father.”

“It can’t be,” said Sam in disbelief. “Sam might have gone against my wishes to be with you, but in the end he would have done right by you.”

“He didn’t know about the baby. He wanted us to get married, but I said no – not as long as his family was against it. We argued, but I wouldn’t give in. Then he was killed, and it didn’t matter anymore,” explained Jessica.

“My granddaughter,” sighed Old Sam. “I have a granddaughter!”

“Yes, you do,” Jessica said. “And right now, she’s lost in your old mine.”

“Jessica! Sam! You in there?!” called a couple of voices at the entrance. Two riders on horseback had beat the wagons to the mine and saw the entrance torn apart.

“Yes!” they both shouted back. “We think Annie’s in here somewhere!” added Jessica.

“One of you go back to town. Get Lem on the way and go get some lanterns!” yelled Sam. “And hurry!”

One of the riders took off and led the other horse for Lem. The wagons were approaching the mine. Lem got on the rider-less horse and the two headed off to town. The wagons arrived and unloaded. The first responder explained the situation as they had found it.
A few men got some rope and entered the tunnel, quickly catching up to Jessica and Sam. The others decided that since they weren’t sure Annie was in the mine, they should split up and scour the hillside just in case she had wandered away. All of their own tracks had obliterated any sign of Annie’s little feet near the mine, but a couple of the men were pretty good trackers and said if she was out there, they’d soon know it.

Sam explained the layout of the tunnels to the men. Until they got lanterns, he suggested they tie themselves together with the ropes and move forward slowly in a line. They should feel the ground with a foot before stepping forward, once they split off from the main tunnel up ahead. Jessica was to keep calling out so Annie could hear a familiar voice and not become frightened. If anyone heard anything, they would call back to Jessica. When they got farther into the tunnel, Sam quietly said if they found anything bad had happened to the girl – they should not call out but tell him first. He would explain to Jessica.

They proceeded on into the mine and split into three small teams when the two shafts split off from the main one. It was slow going and they couldn’t see much. They could hear Jessica calling, so Annie should have been able to as well, but so far there was no response.

On the outside, Lem and the other man were still riding back to the mine with lanterns and more rope. The others were searching the hillside and calling for Annie, but of course, to no avail for the poor little girl was lying unconscious at the bottom of a pit in the mine.

On the inside of the mine, the three teams proceeded very slowly, inching their ways forward. Sam’s team had gone to the right and soon stumbled upon the barricade. Sam remembered that the floor had collapsed just here shortly before they abandoned the mine.

The men carefully, meticulously moved the barricade to one side of the tunnel. “We’d better crawl from here,” Sam cautioned as he knelt down. More than one of the men marveled that Old Sam Sutton, the richest, meanest, grouchiest man in the territory was on his knees, crawling in the dirt, in the dark, looking for a little lost girl he barely knew! No one but Jessica and Sam knew he was looking for his granddaughter. Sam had suddenly found a new reason for living and a renewed spirit that drove him to find this little lost girl – Sam’s little girl.

He felt the edge of the pit and stopped. He told the others and they gradually inched forward and spread out along the edge of the hole. They discovered that there were only inches along the tunnel walls on either side of the pit. Sam recalled that it had not been quite that big before, so it had likely continued to cave in over the past few years. They had to be careful, but obviously, either Annie had fallen into the pit or she was somewhere else, because she could not have gone around the hole.

Sam called out to her, but there was no answer. He tried again. Still nothing. One of the men said, “She must not be down there. That’s good.”

Another responded, “Maybe. What if she fell in there and, well, she can’t call out?”

Sam said, “She could have gotten knocked out down there.”

One of the others, not knowing Sam’s new feelings toward the girl, offered, “She might not be alive, fellas.”

Sam quickly barked back, “She has to be! If only they’d get here with those lanterns.” He called out into the hole again, but still there was no response.

Jessica was still calling from her place in the tunnel. The other teams were still searching but finding nothing. The team from the main shaft had reached the end and was starting back. They could move faster because of the tracks. There was another shaft leading off from the tracks in a line parallel to the one Sam’s team was in. They turned off and headed into that shaft. They would have to inch down this path.

Finally, Lem and the first responder arrived with the lanterns. They rushed into the mine as the searchers were beginning to return from a quick search of the hills around the mine. The trackers said there was no sign that anyone had been anywhere around. Annie had to be in the mine somewhere.

Lem and Will Yates lit the lanterns and quickly found Jessica. She explained where the searchers were – up ahead and then split into three directions. No sound or signs from Annie yet. They left her a lantern and moved on. With light, Lem and Will were able to move much more quickly than the others and were at the junction of the shafts in just a minute. They called out and heard back from two of the teams. The third was now in the parallel shaft and farther away. Will took two lanterns toward them, heading down the main tunnel along the tracks.

Lem heard the other team off to his left and called out to his right that he’d be back in a minute. Sam responded, “No! Get us a light first! There’s a hole in the tunnel floor here. If she’s not in this hole, she’s not in this tunnel at all!”

Lem set two lanterns down in the junction and took one to Sam’s team. He found them in no time and Sam grabbed the lantern. He held it out over the pit as they all stretched to see in. It took a second or two to focus and they all called out, “There! She’s down there!”

Lem called back through the mine to Jessica before Sam could stop him. “She’s here!”

Sam said, “Wait!”, but it was too late. Jessica had heard Lem. The others had, too. And all were heading for the junction to get to the shaft where Sam’s team had found her.

Lem asked, “What’s the matter?”

Sam said, “I wanted to know what shape the girl is in before Jessica knew.”

One of the other men added, “In case it’s bad news.”

Lem apologized explaining he hadn’t thought about that. Jessica was scrambling their way, calling out for Annie. Sam rose to meet her, handing the lantern to one of the others. Jessica cried out, “Where is she?! Where’s my baby?!”

Sam caught her by the arms, stopping her, and said, “She fell into a pit. We don’t know yet how she is. She hasn’t spoken.”

Jessica covered her mouth with one hand. She was crying and trembling. “Is she….” – she couldn’t say it.

Sam quickly moved her thoughts away from that. “She may have hit her head and got knocked out. It’s maybe ten or twelve feet down. We’ll know more in a minute.”

Lem stepped over by Jessica and Sam handed her off to him. He took charge and gave the plan. “The rest of you lower me down by rope into the pit. I’ll see how she is and if it’s safe to raise her up.”

Phil Lawton interrupted. “Let me go – I’m quite a bit lighter and your strength will come  in handier up here.”

Another said, “He’s right. And let’s send down an extra rope in case we can’t pull them both up with one rope.”

Sam relented, admitting that was probably best. Then he added, “You be careful.”

They tied a rope around Phil, and he draped a second rope around his shoulder. The other teams had joined them in the tunnel by then and there was plenty of light. One of the other men had returned to the mine entrance with the news and to get a blanket and a canteen. By the time he returned to the pit, Phil was at the bottom with Annie.

They dropped a lantern to him, and he lit up the bottom of the pit. She was out cold, but Phil could see she was alive. He called out that news to the others. He gently checked her over and said it did not look like anything was broken and there was no sign of bleeding. It all sounded good and was bringing some relief to Jessica, but Annie was still out and looked so helpless lying there at the bottom of the pit.

They dropped a canteen down to Phil. He took off his neckerchief and wet it. He gently dabbed the cool, wet cloth on Annie’s face and wiped away some of the dirt. She moaned a little. He wet the cloth some more and gently squeezed it at her lips. The cool water wet her dry lips and she stirred a little and moaned again. He called up to the others, “I think she’s coming around!”

Jessica’s heart skipped a beat. She had hardly breathed herself, but she did now. Annie’s eyes were still closed. Phil raised her head a little and cradled her in his arms while he patted her forehead with the cloth and spoke to her. “Annie, can you wake up? Your mama’s here, Annie.” Phil spoke tenderly and quietly so he wouldn’t frighten the little girl. “My name’s Phil, Annie. Can you open your eyes for me?”

She blinked a little. Phil left the cloth on her forehead and picked up the lantern. He held the light up over her and she blinked again, then opened her eyes to a squint. She moaned again, then spoke, “Who are you? What happened?” She didn’t seem afraid at all, just inquisitive!

Jessica heard Annie’s voice and called down to her. “Annie! Are you alright?!”

Annie yelled back up toward her mama’s voice. “I think so. What happened?”

“You must have fallen into a deep hole while exploring the mine!” Jessica answered. “Do you remember how you got here?”

Annie thought a moment then answered, “Yes. I hid in Mr. Sutton’s funny wagon under a blanket and when he stopped at the mine, I got out.”

Jessica continued for her, “and then you came into the mine.”

“Yes, Mama. I’m sorry. It was dark and I didn’t see the hole.”

“Phil will help you get ready for the others to pull you up. Can you stand up?” Jessica asked.

“I think so. I’m okay,” Annie responded. She started to get up and Phil took her hand to help and to steady her. She was indeed alright.

Phil asked her, “Do you think you could ride on me piggy-back and hold on tight?”

“Yes, I think so,” Annie said.

Phil got up on his haunches and Annie crawled onto his back. She wrapped her arms around his neck and Phil stood up. He tossed up the canteen and then the lantern and said, “We’re ready!” Then to Annie he said, “Hang on, Annie!”

As the men up above pulled the rope taut, Phil grabbed a hold of the rope and lifted first one foot, then the other and pressed against the wall of the pit. They pulled up and he walked up the wall, holding on to the rope. Annie held on to Phil.

They made it easily to the top of the pit and Jessica reached out to take Annie in her arms. “Samantha Ann, you scared me to death!” she scolded as she squeezed her little girl tightly.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” Annie replied. “Am I in trouble?”

“Why do you ask?” asked Jessica.

“Because you called me Samantha Ann,” replied Annie.

The men all laughed, and that made Jessica laugh, and Annie followed suit. Soon the whole mine resounded with laughter. The echoes carried back to the entrance. “Listen,” someone shouted. “They’re laughing!”

Soon the entire rescue party was laughing! The group in the tunnel began to make its way back to the entrance. Old Sam stepped up to Jessica. “Can I carry her?” he asked.

Jessica turned her head to face Annie and asked, “Would that be okay, Annie?”

“He’s not mad at me?” Annie asked.

Old Sam heard her and took hold of Jessica’s arm to stop her. He looked at Annie and said, “No, I’m not mad. Can I carry you from here and give your mama a rest?”

Annie reached out to Old Sam and he took her in his arms and held her tight. She hugged the man that was her grandpa, even though she didn’t know it yet. The happy group quickly made it to the tunnel’s entrance and emerged to a cheering crowd. Sam wouldn’t let her go. He looked at Jessica and whispered, “Can we tell her?”

Jessica responded, “I don’t know. What’s going to happen if we do?”

Sam set Annie down to her feet. He said, “I need to talk to your mama a minute. Can you go sit in my funny wagon awhile?”

Annie replied, “You mean it?! It’s okay?”

Sam laughed a little and said, “It sure is.”

Annie ran to the automobile and climbed in.  Yelling back to Old Sam, Annie asked, “Can I honk the horn!?”

Sam laughed out loud. “Yes – but only a couple of times!” he said.  Annie responded with two honks! Sam and Jessica and everyone else for that matter laughed at Annie’s fun.

Then Sam Sutton turned to Jessica Hawkes and got serious. “Jessica, can you ever forgive a grumpy old self-centered man? I haven’t the right to ask, but I’m truly sorry.”

Jessica responded, “It’s okay, Mr. Sutton. I understand. But what about Annie? What good would it do to tell her who you are?”

Sam took Jessica’s hand. “I’ve been wrong and lonely for too long. I want you and Annie to come live with me. Be my daughter and my granddaughter.”

Jessica couldn’t believe her ears! “You mean that?” she asked. “Do you have any idea what kind of changes that will make?”

Sam responded, “Probably not, but I don’t care. Yes, I’m serious. Annie has already come into my life and changed me. I want to get to know her. She’s part of me. I want to help you raise her. Let me help you.”

Jessica reached out to Sam and he took her in his arms and held her. The rescue crowd couldn’t help but notice and were completely puzzled. Old Sam had come out of that mine holding little Annie. He let her sit in his prize automobile and even laughed when she honked the horn! And now he was hugging Jessica! What, they wondered, was going on?!

Jessica called Annie back from the automobile. “Annie,” she said when the child had joined them, “I have something very special to tell you.”  She proceeded to tell Annie about her father. Annie knew a few things – the kind of man he was, and that he died before she was born but had loved her mama very much. She didn’t know who he was. Jessica told her and introduced her to her Grandpa Sam. She explained that he never knew until today.

Annie looked at Old Sam. “Are you really my grandpa?” she asked.

“I really am, Annie. I really am.”

Annie hugged Grandpa Sam with all her might! Tears trickled down his face as he held her tightly. The curious crowd of rescuers had respectfully kept their distance, so they were as much in the dark about the situation as Annie had been in that silver mine!

Old Sam interrupted his hugging of Annie and stood up to address the crowd. “Folks! I want to say something to you! I want to thank you all for what you did today. You didn’t know it, but you rescued my granddaughter!”

At first you could have heard a pin drop. Then came a little murmur and questioning looks as each tried to confirm with the others that they had heard Sam correctly. “That’s right,” added Sam. “though I didn’t know it, Jessica and my son, Sam had hoped to be married. Annie is their child. Sam was killed before he found that out. I’m glad I lived long enough to learn the truth. And I want you all to know that from now on things are going to be different in Suttonville.”

And things did change – for the town and for the Sutton family. Rents and mortgages were lowered – wages were raised. Everyone’s standard of living went up! Soon a full-time parson for the church was called whose wife became the full-time schoolteacher. Some of the Sutton property was subdivided to encourage more people to come and farm or raise livestock. The town grew and prospered.

As for Old Sam’s place – it rang with laughter and love. It went from being just a house to being a real home.  Annie kept Grandpa Sam from being the grouchiest, meanest man around! Jessica, Annie, and Sam all had a family now. Eventually, Jessica found love again and the Sutton family grew. Annie continued her inquisitive ways, but that was how she learned. And Sam proved he wasn’t too old to learn new tricks either! That day that Annie led the town into that old abandoned mine, she led them to be a whole new town!

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Filed under Short Stories

Back to Sodom

I began this story as a prospective novel more than twenty years ago!  I got bogged down early on and laid it aside for a long time!  I would occasionally revisit it and jot down a few notes or even add to the ‘book’ a little, but felt overwhelmed most of the time when I thought of finishing it.  A short while ago when I decided to write some short stories, I decided to finish “…Sodom” as a short story.  Kind of makes sense anyway, since the main story is supposed to be a quickly written journal.  Hope you enjoy it!

**********

I finally had it right here in my hands. After years of research and interviews and following countless leads to dead ends, I had found it at last. In my hands was the legendary Ceremonial Knife of Abraham! The metal blade had tarnished and rusted some and, of course it was dirty, but the gems embedded in the otherwise smooth bone handle gleamed in the light from my lantern.

As I knelt inside the cave a few miles to the west of the Dead Sea, I remembered the journey that now had become worth it all. For years I had searched ruins and excavations throughout the Middle East. God had been good to this archaeologist from nowhere. I had a good job teaching my life’s passion, Bible Archaeology, at a small college in rural Iowa and the school had backed many expeditions to the Middle East for me and my students. We had conducted several successful digs and had brought back a fairly large number of relics over the years to build quite a nice little museum of ancient artifacts at our college. For several of these years, I had heard about a legend of the Ceremonial Knife of Abraham, and finally began, about five years ago, to take the legend seriously enough to research it.

Interviews had led to journals which led to investigations and more research and so on. Most of the information was sketchy at best and generally led to dead ends. The legend was that Abraham, Father of the Jews, had a special knife that he used only for religious purposes. It was just an ordinary knife to begin with – about 12 inches long, with a smooth curved handle carved from bone, and a razor sharp metal blade. However, according to the legend, Abraham had dedicated the knife to the Lord when Jehovah Himself commissioned him to circumcise all the males in his camp and establish a covenant people for Jehovah. From that moment on, only Abraham would use that knife and then only for religious purposes – circumcisions and sacrifices.

The legend said that Abraham made the knife more special by embedding several precious stones of various kinds into the bone handle and kept the knife in perfect condition – cleaned and sharpened before and after each use. It was said to be the very knife that he planned to use when called upon by Jehovah to sacrifice his child of promise, Isaac. The knife that the angel of God stopped in Abraham’s hand from plunging into Isaac’s heart. The knife Abraham then used to kill the ram that God provided as a substitute for Isaac.

According to the legend, another knife then began to be used in its place and the ceremonial knife was set aside as a reminder of God’s grace and provision, never to be used again as a knife, but rather as an instrument in worship. So much so, apparently, that years later, the keepers of the knife started a cult centered around the knife. They accorded themselves a special place among Abraham’s descendants and followers. They believed that descendants of those circumcised by Abraham with that particular knife were more spiritual than others. They should have places of higher rank and authority in the community and were worthy of more honor and even larger inheritances than those descending from men circumcised with lesser, more ordinary knives.

The Knife Cult naturally remained small for years and eventually died out with the loss of the knife, but the legend continued to be told among certain family groups even though the knife had been lost for centuries. Several years of searching had finally led me to a small cave in the foothills near the Valley of Siddim, just west of the Dead Sea, somewhere near the ruins of what were likely the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, and I had found it at last! Me – Dr. Ezekiel Smith, Ph.D., professor of archaeology from ‘no-name university in nowhere Iowa’, who – thanks to the famous Indiana Jones movies, had been nicknamed ‘Iowa Smith’ – held in my dirty, scraped up hands, the 4,000 year old Knife of Abraham!  The jewels alone made the knife worth a million dollars, but its historical significance and legendary status would more than triple that value. This was virtually the Holy Grail of the Old Testament and I had it!

My mind drifted off to the ancient land of Canaan and the days of Israel’s Father Abraham. I imagined his encounter with Jehovah which instructed him to take his knife and circumcise the males in his camp as a covenant sign of faithfulness to the Lord. Abraham took out his knife and held it up before the Lord and said, “I will, Lord. With this knife I will seal the covenant between you and me and all the males who follow after me. From this day on, this is Your knife, Lord.”

My vision faded out, then back into a second scene. Abraham, older now, and his son Isaac were on the mountain of sacrifice. Isaac lay bound on an altar of stones and wood as Abraham stood above him, knife in hand, tears streaming down his face. He raised the knife in the air and it glistened in the early evening sun. I could see that the bone handle now had several precious gems embedded into it. As he cried out, “Your will be done!” he started to bring down the knife, but his arm froze in mid-air. A voice called out to him from nowhere to “Stop!” A rustling in the bushes nearby led Abraham to a ram to sacrifice instead of his son.

I was suddenly shocked back to reality as gunshots rang out inside the cave! Bullets ricocheted off the rock walls around me. I dove for cover behind a pile of rocks as more shots were fired. Quickly I opened my leather belt pack and carefully placed the knife inside the foam-lined pack, careful to make sure I closed the pack securely. Still under the cover of the rock pile, I drew my pistol and peeked out between the rocks. I saw shadows on the cave walls back toward the entrance, but couldn’t see the men themselves.

I fired at the shadows. I hoped that return fire might scare them off or at least discourage them from coming closer. If I was lucky, maybe a ricochet would find a human target and they would retreat to care for their wounded comrade. I was alone in my search, so help was out of the question.  Undaunted by my shots, they returned fire. I knew I had only a couple of rounds left. Somehow, I had to find a way out of this, perhaps another cave exit, but what could I do to hold them back in the meantime?

Then I noticed a rock ledge above the passageway between us, closer to the intruders than to me. I fired two rounds at the rocks and prayed it would knock them loose. It did. The ledge began to crumble and rocks began to fall. I saw the shadows on the cave wall shrink back toward the entrance and I got up from my hiding place to run farther into the cave. The ledge had completely given away, sealing off the entrance. However, the loss of support weakened the cave roof itself and the entire passageway began to cave in. I started to run, then stopped abruptly, turned back to grab my hat that had fallen off when I dove for cover from the gunfire, and then raced back into the cave just as the ceiling above me gave way.

I ran deeper into the cave as rocks tumbled and crashed to the floor behind me. If I stopped even for a second, I would be crushed to death or buried alive. I kept running for my life, searching frantically ahead for signs of a way out.

Finally, I saw it – a ray of light ahead. I sped toward it, straining forward to reach the ever-widening spot of light before it was too late. I knew what the Apostle Paul had meant when he wrote of “pressing toward the mark for the prize” that awaited him, as I furiously tried to stay ahead of the falling rocks and reach the safety of the light. Diving through the hole in the hillside that had provided the daylight, I landed outside the cave with a loud crash of rocks behind me and a blast of dust following me through the hole in the wall signaling the final collapse of the cave.

Safe at last, I slowly rose to my knees and dusted myself off. I opened my belt pack to take another look at my discovery to make sure it was okay. I carefully removed the knife and held it once again in my hands.

Well, that’s the way it ought to happen. In reality, I hadn’t been shot at, nor had I narrowly escaped a cave-in. In fact, I wasn’t even in a cave at all, but rather a large excavation pit. I was near what many believe to be the ancient ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, but there was never a legend of the Ceremonial Knife of Abraham, much less the gem-studded knife itself. As I looked at the real object in my dirty hands once more, I saw a stone knife, dulled with age, with a broken ‘blade’. It was a nice find, but certainly not the stuff of which legends are made. Still, it was an ancient artifact and I carefully laid it aside to make notations of the discovery.

Just then one of my students shouted out, “Dr. Zeke! Over here!”  I stood up and looked toward the direction of the shout. It had come from over by the cave just west of our dig. We had found the cave entrance our second day in camp, on one of our nature walks. We often take a walk around the area in the early evenings during our digs to relax and ‘see the sights.’ The cave showed no signs of having had any traffic in years, much less of having been worked. It appeared that a recent rockslide had uncovered the previously hidden entrance. Possibly, an earlier slide from above had covered it up for years, maybe even centuries, and the entrance had only recently been revealed.

I had sent a couple of students to explore the cave while the rest of us began the painstaking task of digging, plotting, and sifting of dirt to find relics and notate their discoveries. We might work for days to recover even a few small relics of the past, hoping to find artifacts that might help us understand early Canaanite or Hebrew people and cultures.

Sean, a big country-boy from the Midwest, waved to me from the entrance of the cave. His partner, Alex, apparently was still inside. As I headed toward them, Sean continued, “We’ve found something! Come on!”

The others stopped their digging to join us. It was customary in our digs for all to converge, though carefully, on a discovery so that we all might be a part of the experience. As we gathered at the entrance to the cave, Sean informed us that the small entrance would open up to a fairly large room which they had begun to explore and dig in a little. We could enter only one at a time, but would have plenty of room once inside for all of us. He led the way in.

There were six more of us to follow Sean into the cave, but we crawled in quickly in anticipation of the discovery. Once inside, we all gathered around Sean and Alex, who were kneeling over a small, shallow hole near the west wall of the cave. Freshly dug dirt was piled to one side and their battery powered lantern lit up the entire cavern.

“Down here, Dr. Zeke,” Alex said, with excitement obvious in his voice as he pointed into the hole. “Some old clay pottery and a pouch of some sort. I can’t be sure, but it looks like something has been kept inside the pot – it’s broken and I see something in there.”

I knelt down beside Alex as the other students inched in closer with a couple of them holding up lanterns for even more light. “Let’s have a look.”

Taking Alex’s brush from him, I gently swept away some dirt and with my knife, carefully dug loose more dirt all around the edges of the clay pot. Alex worked tediously at digging the pouch loose and brushing it clean. It was smaller than the pot, so he finished before I did and carefully lifted it up for all to see. “It looks like an ancient wineskin or something. See the narrowed end for drinking?” Alex said.

Sean pointed to one end of Alex’s pouch and added, “And this looks like what’s left of the strap.”

One of the other guys called out, “Any wine left in it?”

One of the girls jabbed him in the arm, to which he replied, “Well, they say wine gets better with age. Any wine in this ought to be great by now.”

Another student asked me how old I guessed it to be. “Hard to say just yet, but eventually, the pottery will tell us.”

Soon, I had successfully freed the ancient jug from its earthen prison and had removed the two broken shards and handed them to one of the girls. Suzette carefully laid them aside, placing them out of the way and putting them together like puzzle pieces. Alex had handed over the wineskin to Sean and joined me on his knees at the clay pot. Together we carefully lifted it up and out of the hole and set it down on solid ground in the center of a circle of curious onlookers.

“It’s a little pre-mature, but based on where we are and according to lots of others I’ve seen like it, I’d say this is early Canaanite pottery – between three and four thousand years old,” I informed the others, as I examined the pot more closely. “I’ll be able to tell more once we get it back to camp, but it looks like that to me.”

Holding a lantern up closer to the broken part of the pot, Alex confirmed that he could see something inside. “There’s definitely something inside and I think it is some kind of writing pages. A manuscript I bet – maybe some Bible!” he conjectured wildly.

“Slow down,” I warned. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ll get these back to camp and clean them up and take a better look inside them. Some of you can continue to dig in here to see what else might be in this ol’ cave.”

Alex quickly chimed in, “I’d like to stay with the pottery and follow through on my discovery, if that’s alright. Maybe someone else can find some treasure in the cave, too.”

I told him that would be fine and assigned the two girls, Suzette and Callie, to work the cave with Sean and “Biggon”. That’s what I called Jake, because, well, he’s a biggon’ – 6’6” and 250 lbs of solid muscle. Naturally, he often served as pack mule on these expeditions.

“Alex and I will take the pot and the wineskin back to camp. Kyle, you and Kirk take over my place in the dig outside for now.” Kirk wasn’t his real name, but rather short for James Tiberius Kirkland – you know, like Captain Kirk of Star Trek. I guess his parents were Trekkies. I told the boys about the stone knife I had found outside and instructed them to retrieve it and continue searching in that area for more artifacts.

It was slow going, crawling through the cave entrance with the pot. I had to set it out in front of me as far as I could reach, then crawl up to it, set it out again, and so on. The others went out first and Alex carried the wineskin after putting the pottery shards in his back pack. By the time I had cleared the cave entrance and stood upright again, with the pot in my arms, Alex was already at the camp and the others were all working their new assignments.

The camp site was only about fifty yards away in a shady little indentation into the bottom of the hillside just south of the cave entrance. We had four small tents for sleeping in pairs, a larger tent for supplies and food preparation, a tent specially designed and equipped as a bathroom, and a large tent with equipment for the detailed work on our discoveries. Of course, we also had two trucks and a jeep for transportation and additional supplies.

The hillside rose slightly behind us and curved around us as well, giving us some shelter from wind and the afternoon sun. The east side of the site faced the open plain and if you kept going east you would come to the southern end of the Dead Sea. Our dig and the cave were slightly to the north of the camp, within easy walking distance. We were just west of some previous digs, in virgin territory, archaeologically speaking.

It’s likely that digs had not extended this far west of the Dead Sea before, as the most likely sites for villages were closer to the Sea and either to the north or south. Caravan routes would probably have been closer to the villages. Other than occasional campsites of herdsmen traveling along with their flocks through the plains territory, there weren’t likely to be any actual ruins this far west. Our group, however, wasn’t concerned with trying to excavate entire villages, nor did we have the financial backing for huge undertakings. We thrived on smaller, lesser digs and uncharted areas like this were perfect for us.

We would probably never uncover large cities nor discover whole ancient civilizations, but we could find plenty of relics. We knew how to content ourselves with smaller, less consequential discoveries and therefore, seldom be disappointed, though always hopeful. We could dream of finding the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail – or even the legendary Ceremonial Knife of Abraham – yet exalt in the occasional ancient wineskin or clay jar.

So, with great anticipation, but bridled energy, Alex and I worked to clean up and examine our newly found pieces of antiquity. He had the wineskin cleaned up and catalogued in no time. We wouldn’t try to open it up, but would wait to have it x-rayed back in the States. It didn’t appear to have anything in it anyway. Whoever had left it in the cave long ago had probably drank it dry before discarding it in the cave or dying there beside it. Maybe one of the others would dig up some bones.

The clay pot, on the other hand, definitely had something inside. It did look like some manuscript pages and I could barely keep from breaking the pot open to find the hidden treasure. The jar had a lid on it that somehow over the years had become sealed to the wide neck of the pot itself. I had to remind myself that due to its age, the pottery was a treasure as well and I should try to keep it as intact as I could.

So, first I cleaned and photographed the clay pot. Then I notated its discovery – journaling the details of when, where, and how we found it. Then I began to look for a way to get it open, hopefully without breaking it.

A little carving around the neck, in the joint between the pot and its lid, showed me that the neck had probably shrunk a little, sealing the lid tightly. Perhaps the clay had not hardened enough before use. Or maybe the damp air inside the cave had caused some shrinkage and tightening until the pottery finally hardened over the years. In any case, it would take a little work to break the seal, but I felt it could be done without damaging the pot. At the very worst, I could probably cut the pot where the neck and lid came together and then at least the artifact would appear to be intact, making a good display in our school museum.

A little more carving and prying worked the lid loose and Alex stood by, holding his breath as I opened the jar and laid the lid aside on the table. The Bible describes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the graces He brings to our physical presence as a “treasure in earthly vessels.” I was anxious to see what treasure we had found in this jar of clay.

Rather than moving the jar again, I stood on a short ladder in order to be able to see down inside. I wanted to be very careful when removing whatever was in there. You don’t just reach down into a 4,000 year old pot and grab the contents.
“It is definitely a manuscript of some kind,” I informed Alex. “Looks like it has been fairly well preserved, too.”

“The tight seal of the lid probably helped,” Alex offered.

“If the jar hadn’t been broken, the pages might well have stayed in perfect condition,” I added. “There are quite a few pages in here. I’ll pull out some and hand them to you. Place them on the trays as I lift them out, keeping them in order.”

We had special trays for such things as might roll off of a flat surface or blow away in the wind. The trays had a three inch rim all the way around them, much like a bread delivery tray, only solid. We could eventually spread out the pages, yet keep them safe from falling or blowing off the table. Even though ancient papyrus is much thicker and heavier than modern paper, strong winds could still blow them off a flat surface.

Every step of the archaeological process is painstaking, so it took several minutes to remove all of the manuscript and place the pages into four separate trays. Later, we could spread a few pages out inside each tray for further examination, though we would save most of that for after our return home. Generally, we would do some cleaning and a little cursory examination on site, then package up the artifacts for a long, safe ride back to Iowa. This was a rare find for us, though, and I wanted to learn a little more about what we had discovered before continuing our dig.

Soft brush in hand, I showed Alex how gently we must brush away the dirt from the pages. They were mostly in excellent shape, but a little decayed and soiled on the edge that was closest to the broken section of the pot. Some soil and moisture, naturally, had worked their way into the jar through the break, but damage was still fairly minimal. Being in a cave had helped – even temperature year round; protection from wind, rain, and snow; no traffic over the ground on top of the jar. We had no clue yet what we had, but it was definitely ancient and in very good condition. I was thrilled – Alex was ecstatic!

As we cleaned away some dust and dirt, I could see that the writing was not done professionally. I had studied enough ancient manuscripts to know that scribes were meticulously neat – straight lines, even strokes of the stylus, few errors allowed. Too many errors and the scribe would discard the page and start over. Ordinary people with common writing skills and agendas would simply scratch out the errors and go on. There was quite a bit of that and the lines of writing were somewhat erratic and uneven. What we likely had here was someone‘s personal journal or something like that.

The alphabet characters appeared to be akin to ancient Sumerian and Hebrew letters, though I immediately saw some that I didn’t recognize. I had studied several of the ancient Middle Eastern languages and their variations, but it’s not something I stayed fresh with and I knew I would need lots of help and time in translation once we got back home. For now, it was enough to verify that we had found a manuscript of ancient Canaanite or Hebrew origin, probably over 3,000 years old and in nearly pristine condition. Alex would make it into the history books – at least our own college history anyway. He walked around on cloud nine for the rest of the expedition.

**********

The past two years had brought many changes to my work at the college. All of the students who had been on the trip where we discovered the manuscript were gone now except Alex. He stayed at the college to work on his master’s degree toward a doctorate in ancient cultural studies, specializing in languages and writing forms. His work enabled him to help me translate the journal he had discovered.

Sean, who had been with Alex when he found the wine skin and the clay pot with the journal inside, had graduated with an agricultural degree and was helping his dad turn the family farm here in Iowa into big business.

Speaking of “big”, Jake hurt his knee in football, keeping him out of the pros, but was very happy as an assistant coach at a nearby high school and doing quite well. He loved the game and was an excellent role model for teenage boys. I imagine he will be head coach soon and eventually move up the scale as high as he wants.

Kyle is working on a Masters in business at a state university here in Iowa and Kirk – James T. Kirkland, that is – is a navy pilot, hoping to soon be flying off one of our country’s aircraft carriers. Thanks to the ROTC program at our college James is already a captain and yes, they call him “Captain Kirk!”

Callie earned her teaching degree and teaches junior high English and speech on a large Christian campus not too far from here. She and Suzette stay in touch through the internet as Suzette is usually overseas on assignment. She is a journalist for a major travel magazine and says she has seen lots of places she would love for us to dig up!

We’ve all stayed in touch and they have been very patient as Alex and I have taken our time to translate the manuscript, whose discovery tied us together with a very special bond. I kept the contents of the journal secret from them all, and everyone else for that matter, except for Alex of course, who helped me do the research and translating. Now, a grad student knew the contents as well from typing it up for us, but she was sworn to secrecy on threat of losing her position with the school. Alex had said “and maybe her life, too!”

Alex came through the door as if on cue as the final page eased out of the printer. “Is it finished? Is that it?” he asked, setting his books down to hurry over to my side.

“This is it,” I confirmed. “The first copy of Ka-mal’s Journal.” As soon as we had learned the author’s name and confirmed my suspicions that it was indeed a personal journal, we gave it that nickname.

I hit “Print” again to get Alex his own copy and gathered up the first copy to get it ready for reading. We separated it into several smaller sections for hole-punching, then reassembled the sections to insert into one of several binders we had already purchased for the manuscripts. We had bought a dozen, just alike, with a leather cover and the title already etched into the front cover, along with a sketch of a cave and a broken clay pot just outside the entrance.

We had to rein in our enthusiasm and almost overwhelming desire to sit and read the finished project right away. We printed enough copies to complete the twelve journals and set them aside. Later, I would hand write a note on the inside cover to each of the students who had shared in the discovery and present to them their copies at a private party we were planning for the occasion. Not until all the journals were ready did Alex and I each get our copy and sit down to read the story again.

Naturally, we already knew the story – we translated it into English. But it was different now. It was one complete saga, rather than seemingly disconnected words and phrases. I imagine it was like an actor watching his own movie for the first time. He knew the lines and the plot and had even acted out the scenes, but they say it’s really different to sit “outside” the film and watch it all come together. This time we were able to read it straight through and just enjoy the story. It really was almost as if we were seeing it for the first time.

I finished reading first, but only by a couple of minutes. I sat in silence, watching Alex as he finished. His eyes seemed to glow as they traversed the pages and though his lips moved slightly and silently with the reading, he couldn’t hide the trace of a smile – a proud smile.  “Awesome!” he said as he closed the journal. “Amazing!”

“And it’s real,” I said. “Not some guy’s novel written for fun or fortune, but the real-life story of a young man who lived and loved over 3,000 years ago.”

“I know,” said Alex. “That’s what makes it so awesome. I mean, the Bible is awesome, but somehow Ka-mal’s Journal just brings it even more to life.”

I knew exactly how he felt. That was a big part of the satisfaction I get on each new archaeological dig. Every discovery just helps to bring the scriptures closer to home. I’ve believed they were true since I was just a boy growing up in Illinois. Yet, though true and very relevant, they were still ancient writings. And even though Ka-mal’s story was ancient, too, we had made it brand new with our discovery and translation. The world would soon know the story and we heard it first!

The following weekend was a great time. Everyone from the original team was there, along with a couple of spouses and a few of our college bigwigs, including the college president. I made them take the time over refreshments to catch up a little with each other’s lives and reminisce some. A slide show of the photos from the dig was rolling by on the big screen TV to help with that, until finally I got their attention and brought the chit chat to an end. Alex slipped out to retrieve a small cart that held all the journals and wheeled it on cue as I told the group that we not only had a copy of the journal with us, but had a copy for each of the team to keep.

Alex glanced inside each journal in turn and called out the new owner’s name, handing to each of the students their own piece of history. I gave the President his copy and told the others they could share the remaining four if they wished to read it tonight or later check a copy out of the school’s library. They read it that night.  they asked me to read it for them this first time.

Eager to know the story, they scattered around the room to find a seat and I pointed out to them, as I do now to you, dear reader, that Alex and I stayed as faithful to the original writing as possible. I admit I felt obliged to color the narrative a little with more adjectives than the author had used, but the story itself is as much of his words as I think possible. Naturally, in translating ancient languages, some words can only be surmised from the context and the author hadn’t intended on writing a flowing novel, but I believe what you are about to read is truly what happened as it happened and just as the author intended it to read.

Here is a story of one man’s journey to manhood and its tragic ending. Here is a love story, a story of faith and commitment, a war story, and a warning to all who would wander astray. Here is a personal account of one who lived and loved and died in the days of Abraham of Old Testament fame. Here is a journal with a story we called “Back to Sodom.”

**********

My name is Kahlaharmal Ben-Zophan, youngest son of Zophan and Lamah of Sodom. I’ve been badly hurt and I fear I will die soon, but I am not afraid, for my father Abraham has taught me well. He taught me not to trust in this life, but to look to the future. His God has become my God and ours is a God of hope and promise. I know my God will save me – I will live again!

My story must be told. The house and town of my father and his father before him lies in ruins and ashes. I fear that everyone there is dead. Sodom has been reduced to ashes and all my boyhood dreams went up in smoke as the Lord rained fire down from heaven to judge the wickedness of my people. But I must start at the beginning. I can only pray that God will give me the strength to finish writing the story.

My parents were Zophan and Lamah of Sodom. They were both born and raised in Sodom, as were their parents before them. They married and settled in Sodom and my father took over my grandfather’s market. They were sellers of cloth and linens – materials for blankets, window veils, tents, and clothing of all kinds. My parents were not wealthy, but neither were they poor. A good, honest trade provided for a nice house and plenty of food and possessions.

My mother helped my father at the marketplace when she could, but soon the responsibilities of raising children demanded all of her time. In all, six children were born to Zophan and Lamah – four sons and 2 daughters – over the next eighteen years. I was the last child to be born into the family. My mother named me Kahlaharmal; my family soon shortened it to Ka-mal.

It was not easy to be the youngest child of six, but mostly, life was good. My mother taught me to read and write at an early age, though our town and temple had few scrolls to read. My father taught me numbers and business and I began to help at the market when I was ten years old. He also taught me the ways of Baal, our god. I had no reason not to believe, as all my brothers and sisters had before me.

Sodom was a large city on a direct trade route. We had many travelers pass through our gates and I soon learned the ways of the world – different dialects, customs, traditions, and beliefs. I learned there were other gods besides our Baal. Or maybe they were the same god, but with different names. Mostly, I saw that everyone was religious, but it had little to do with any other part of life.

In Sodom, we all did as we pleased. Our god required worship and sacrifice at the temple. Our parents demanded respect and obedience at home. But when one reached adulthood, he could make his own choices – please himself.

Life was simple and good while I remained a boy. My life revolved around our home and my father’s marketplace. But as I grew to manhood, things changed. Age brought more freedom – freedom to enlarge my boundaries to include all of Sodom. My eyes were opened to the pleasures and entertainments of the city. Back then it seemed exciting and an expected part of growing up. Now I see it for what it really was – selfishness, rebellion against God, sin, and evil.

In Sodom, one could indulge freely and openly in almost anything one could imagine. Ours was a free community. Civilized. Open to all kinds of new experiences. Wine was more accessible than water. Men spent as much time drunk as sober. Games of chance robbed many families of money needed for food and clothing. Many of my father’s merchant friends worked all day for wages, only to lose them in one or two games before going home to supper.

There was always a party someplace where one could find wine and dancing. Plenty of young women found it easier to make money with their bodies rather than through honest, decent labor. If you couldn’t find a party, there were places of business just for such entertainments. Even our temples employed prostitutes and offered much wine and riotous parties. I must admit, to my shame, that I participated. Somehow, it felt wrong, but it was all I knew. My father and my brothers were the ones who took me there first. Until I met Abram, years later, I did not know there was any other way.

Still, there were limits to which I would go. I drew the line at certain activities that many friends and some of my brothers would do. In Sodom, sex was the ultimate pleasure and for many, it did not matter how one had it. Men with women who were not their wives. Older men with young girls. Some fathers with their own daughters. And as I soon learned, men with men and women with women. This I did not understand. This I would not do. But others did and it was common practice in Sodom.

Such was my childhood and early manhood. Then I met Jazmara, the beautiful daughter of the man who owned the inn near my father’s marketplace. I was unloading some bales of cloth from a cart in the street in front of our shop. Trade caravans passed through Sodom often and brought goods from other places for us to sell in our markets. Many of these travelling merchants stayed over in Sodom to revel in our many entertainments.

That day, as I unloaded the new linens my father had purchased, I heard a commotion in the alley just around the corner. I went to see what was happening. As I entered the alley, I heard a muffled scream. I saw a man, one of the traders from the caravan, fighting with a young woman. He held her tightly by one arm as she struggled to get free. With his other hand he had covered her mouth to muffle her screams. She kicked and swung her free arm, trying to hit him, but she was no match for his strength. Her fight only seemed to amuse him.

I hollered at him to stop and he turned to look my way. He told me to go away. Then he said to the woman, “Come now. You’ll enjoy it. Don’t fight it.” I yelled again and by this time I was there beside them. I grabbed his arm and told him to let her go.

He did. Not out of fear of me, but rather in order to deal with me. Cursing, he told me to mind my own business and go away. He pushed the young woman down and told her to stay there until he got rid of me.

I am not sure if it was courage or fear or anger or all of them, but I did not give him the chance to decide what he would do to me. I hit him with all of my might and he fell down. He started to get back up and I bent down and hit him again. This time he did not get up. I did not stay to see if he was badly hurt or maybe even dead. I took the young woman by the hand and we fled. We did not stop running until we were clear across town. When we stopped, we were alone, near the west wall of Sodom, and we rested under the trees there.

We embraced as she thanked me and praised Baal for sending me to her rescue. I told my name to the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She told me hers – Jazmara. I have loved her from that moment until now. We talked for a long time and by the time we began to walk home, we knew all there was to know about each other. I walked with her to her father’s inn and said good-bye. I am sure I smiled all the way home.

From then on, my days and nights were spent working or with Jazmara. The entertainments of Sodom were no longer an attraction. I found all the pleasure I wanted in the company of my beloved Jazmara. I knew there would never be another woman for me. I hoped to one day take her for my wife. We talked about it often and she wanted that, too.

About a year later, she introduced me to a new acquaintance of her father’s – a man named Lot. She did not know too much about him, except that he was not from there originally and had no family in town. She said he had not made too many friends yet and seemed eager to do so. At the time, I had no way of knowing just how greatly Lot would affect our future.

For a long time, I thought life was grand and that the only thing that could make it better was when I would take Jazmara for my wife. My father said he had plans to expand our business and that we might just be the ones to help him with that.

Our city had a ‘sister’ city close by called Gomorrah. Most of the trade caravans came to Sodom, but not all. Some went to Gomorrah for business and entertainment, though there was not much difference between the two cities. Father felt that he could open up a small inn and purchasing center at the edge of Gomorrah and Jazmara and I could manage it! We could provide lodging and meals for travellers and buy their cloth goods to send to our market in Sodom. Jazmara’s experience working at her family’s inn and my training in our family business would make us a perfect fit for the new venture.

It seemed too good to be true! Jazmara and I talked about it often and I sometimes found it difficult to think about my daily chores. I daydreamed about our future home and family. I planned out how I would handle the business and bring in much money with the double business of the inn and cloth purchasing. I would be able to give Jazmara anything she wanted, though she said a life with me was enough.

At least, that’s the way it was for a long time. But something began to change in her over time. I cannot say what started it, but several things played a part in gradually turning Jazmara’s heart away from our dream. We planned to be married the next year. During that time my father would find the best location for our new business and purchase the land necessary. We would build our inn or repair an old house to be an inn or whatever it might take. We would get a stable ready for keeping the animals of our guests, as well as our own which we would need to transport our cloth purchases to Sodom. When all was ready, I would move in and begin working the cloth traders immediately. Shortly after would be the wedding and we would open the inn for business, too.

Father purchased the land and we began work. Perhaps that is when Jazmara’s drift began, too. I had to spend most evenings and any other free time getting the new place ready. There was a large house on the property just at the edge of Gomorrah on the side closest to Sodom and very near the trade route. The previous owner had let it run down considerably before he was laid to rest with his fathers. He had no heirs interested in the property, so they sold it to us.

Since the house needed much repair, my father was able to get it for a good price, but that also meant it would need much work. I now know that spending so much time on our future house and so little time with Jazmara was not good for us.

She came to Gomorrah often at first, to see our progress and imagine and plan with me how it would be someday. There were several rooms for lodgers and yet still room for a family someday. The large room just inside the entry could become a dining hall and a small room just inside the front door to the right could be used to do business with the traders. There was a small stable out back that we would add on to for the animals and plenty of water in the well. We would need a fence and lots of furniture and equipment, but it would work.

As time went on, Jazmara’s visits became fewer and farther between. When she did come, I noticed that her excitement had begun to fade. When I could, I would stop by her family’s inn in Sodom after my work day, before going to Gomorrah to work on the new place. I couldn’t stay long and she was usually busy preparing meals for their guests. Our time together was precious, but too short and frustration began to take its toll on what time we did have. Good times became rare.

Once, I remember looking so forward to a time when we had set aside two days in the future to be together. I could see a slight break coming in the work load at Sodom and the next expected caravan had been delayed by bad weather. I could stop the building work for one day and it would appear that we might both have an evening or two free.

I could not wait for that day! The time at my father’s market flew by and I hurried to Jazmara’s inn to get her. I planned to take her to Gomorrah for a meal and a tour of our future home and business. It had been quite some time since her last visit and I had done much to get our place ready. I was so proud and anxious for her response, but even more anxious to spend time with my beloved – neither of us having to work.

When I got to the inn, I rushed inside, expecting to find her finished with work and dressed to go away with me. She was finished with work and dressed to go out, but not with me. There was a woman there with her about our age, but I had never met her before. Jazmara introduced me to her and said that they had made other plans. She asked if I remembered meeting a man named Lot – I remembered. It seems Jazmara’s new friend was hoping to marry Lot. Lot and Jazmara’s friend associated with a different class of people than Jazmara and I and they were already used to a much different lifestyle – one that soon became a problem for us.

Lot’s wealth meant that he did not have to work for a living anymore, as he had herdsmen and servants for that. He had the money to indulge in fancy clothes and fine dining and entertainment. He had invited Jazmara to join them and I soon learned that her new friends and their lifestyle accounted for much of why she had not been to Gomorrah as often as before.

Jazmara explained to me that she would not be able to go with me for the evening. Her friend thought that maybe the party they were to attend might lead to an engagement to Lot and she really needed Jazmara for emotional support. I objected and tried to entice her by describing the evening I had in mind, but she would not be persuaded. I do not think Jazmara even noticed the disappointment in my eyes or my voice that surely must have been there, for I have never been good at hiding my true feelings.

I watched them hurry off to their party, laughing and talking, excited about the evening to come. I slowly made my way back to Gomorrah and tried to work some more on our house. My heart was not in it. My mind was at that party, imagining the temptations that Jazmara must have faced. I am certain that all the wealthiest, most handsome young men of Sodom would be there – asking my Jazmara to dance and to have wine with them, telling her how beautiful she is. They would not have to lie about that, but their intentions would be less than honorable, I was sure.

I had offered her a good future, but still a future of hard work, long hours, and only modest income, at least at first. They would offer no future, but many days and nights filled with music, wine, dancing, and – I shuddered to think of what else. Would our love for each other be enough for Jazmara to hold out and come back to me? I hoped so – I prayed to Baal for it. Yet, I knew that she had already slipped farther away from me than I had ever thought possible.

The days grew longer, the evenings less bearable. I saw her less and less as she partied more and more. My work on our house became more of a chore than a joy. I had very little hope of a change of heart in Jazmara, but I had to hope. It was all I had!

After a few months, I finished our house and new place of business and was just about ready to move in. Jazmara’s new friend had indeed gotten engaged at that party and Jazmara’s evenings had become filled with helping her friend plan the big event. They talked of clothing and feasts and who would attend. They dreamed aloud about how life would be once she was married. Meanwhle, there were more and more parties and more and more men vying for Jazmara’s attention. She swore she was staying faithful to me and a couple of friends of mine who had attended a few of the parties told me as much, but I could not help but wonder.

Time was my enemy. It was my fault for not paying enough attention to her. Jazmara was young and full of life. She needed to be able to live and enjoy her youth. It was too much to ask her to spend all her evenings at home while I worked on our future home.

I was busy and though I missed her terribly, I kept my mind occupied with the work. It was not the same with her. It was natural for her to fill her mind and time with other people, other activities. In the beginning, the parties were a real escape for her. But, alas, they soon became more than just an escape.

That lifestyle became her desire. Jazmara became the focus of many young men in Sodom. She never wanted for entertainment, elegant food and drink, and the attention of men. She began to revel in the attention. We drifted further and further apart until one day, she came to our home to tell me it was over.

Our home – such a distant memory now. Getting it ready had filled my every spare moment. I got the house ready, but it never became a home. She explained that day and said she was sorry, but we wanted two different things in life now and it could never work for us to be together.

I wanted to beg her to change her mind, but I knew it would do no good. She was no longer the Jazmara I had grown to love so much. I still loved that Jazmara and I hoped that maybe she would return some day. But I knew it would not be soon. As she walked away to return home, I cried for my loss. All my dreams and plans for our future were broken. I consoled myself with a slight hope that she would tire of her new lifestyle before it was too late. I would wait for her, no matter how long it took.

I started the business alone, hiring workers to do what I had planned for Jazmara to do. I had not seen Jazmara for a long time, but I heard stories – stories that broke my heart. I buried myself in my work to keep my mind off of Jazmara and when I was really busy, it worked. But at night, when all the travellers were asleep and the day’s work was over, I would often lie awake for hours and “dream” of what might have been. Between working so much and thinking about Jazmara in the meantime, I guess I was too busy to notice what was going on around us. Apparently, there was political unrest in the kingdom and others around us. Unrest that would boil over and change our lives forever!

**********

There was always a little unrest in the kingdoms of the plains where I dwelt. Each city had its own king, but we were not truly free. It was often whoever had the strongest army, perhaps the best walls around their own city, that actually ruled the area. Added to that, there was a constant state of intrigue and changing alliances. For much of my life, Chedolaomer, king of Elam, ruled the entire region, though he needed alliances to sustain that rule. And he had had them.

There was an alliance of four kings. Besides Chedolaomer, there was Tidal of Goiim, Amraphel of Shinar, and Arioch king of Eliasar. The rest of us had been subject to them for twelve years. It is all I knew. I didn’t like it, but I was used to it. A good portion of every piece of gold I earned went to line the coffers of Chedolaomer – for no good reason! But that is how it had been.

But in the thirteenth year of this servitude, things changed. Elam gathered a great army from its own country as well as from its three allies and waged war throughout the land. They moved from city to city all across the region, winning one battle after another, destroying cities, enslaving survivors, and worse. I had heard the almost daily reports, but I must admit I paid little attention – it didn’t concern me.

Ah, but it did! Our kings, Bera of Sodom and Birsha of Gomorrah aligned with Shinab of Admah, Shemeber of Zeboiim, and the king of Zoar. These five set out to confront the other four kings and their army in the Valley of Siddim. Scouting reports had said that the army of the alliance of the four kings was heading for Sodom. The sentiment was that Chedolaomer had to be stopped!

One day as I was headed to the market in Gomorrah for supplies for my inn, I was seized by three armed soldiers. They were not my enemies; they were soldiers in the army of Birsha, King of Gomorrah. I protested, but they told me to be silent. Instead, I told them I was not the enemy, but an innkeeper and merchant, right here in Gomorrah! They laughed and said that I was not anymore! I was a soldier in the king’s army! They told me that it was the duty of every fit, young man to help fight for freedom. I argued that I didn’t know how. They countered by saying I’d be trained.

And I was. For three weeks – every day – all day long – I was trained in hand-to-hand combat with a small sword, a dagger, and a shield. I was taught to shoot the bow and I learned some fighting skills and tricks. I despised every minute of it. The only time in my life I had ever fought anyone was the time I had rescued Jazmara a couple of years before. It seemed like a lifetime ago now.

Then came that dreaded morning. Soldiers came to take me with them. I was to gather my weapons and head for the front line of the coming battle! I felt so unprepared, but I had no choice but to go. By afternoon, I’d likely see battle! Our training camp had been on the opposite side of the cities as the Valley of Siddim where the battle would be fought. We marched most of the morning until we reached the battleground. By mid-afternoon I found myself standing along side a few hundred countrymen, ready to fight.

No amount of training could have prepared me for what happened that day. We fought with all our might, but we were no match for the army of the Four Kings. I was spared somehow. I fought and yes, I killed. I am not proud of it. I had no choice.

We had held our own for a while – our front line fought valiantly. But soon, the enemy began to break through. Our men were falling. Once the line had been breached it went quickly. Our men were being overrun and the defense of our homes and families was up to men like me. Merchants, herdsmen, farmers – not warriors.

The man next to me was attacked first. He raised his shield to fend off a blow from an enemy sword, but to no avail. A second quick swipe and the shield was knocked out of his hand. As the soldier poised for the death blow a new sense came over me. I don’t know if it was courage, anger, fear, or duty. Likely it was a little of all those emotions, but I stepped toward the enemy and struck him down with my sword. My comrade regained his sword and shield and ran the enemy soldier through the heart.

Another of the enemy ran in upon us and I turned just in time to fend off a blow with my shield and thrust my dagger into his side. He went down and I moved on. I remember two or three more such fights before I was knocked down. Two soldiers disarmed me and jerked me to my feet. They quickly tied my hands with a leather strap and pushed me to walk ahead of them.

My comrade lay dead a short distance away. It was chaos all around. Our lines of defense were gone. Our men lay scattered on the ground or like me, were being hauled away as prisoners. I could see that the army of the enemy was ravaging our cities, taking prisoners and looting the homes and businesses.

Soldiers and townsfolk alike were fleeing for their lives. The Valley was dotted with tar pits – hot molten morasses here and there. We had used the molten rock for heat and construction. In the madness of the war they became death traps for many. Screams – the smell of burning flesh – it was awful.

As I was pushed along with a few other captives, we met up with other squads of soldiers escorting prisoners from town. I recognized Lot among them. I could not help but think about his wealth and lifestyle. What good were they now?!

Then it came to me. I had learned more about his background. He was a nephew to a great man named Abram. Abram was not like Lot nor the men of Sodom and Gomorrah. Belief in his god kept him from the wicked lifestyle of my countrymen. He had been blessed by his god for that. Abram was wealthy. Not only did he own much land and livestock, but he commanded a few hundred tribesmen and servants – an army of his own! If anyone could help, it would be Abram and surely, he would intervene for his nephew Lot. If I could escape, I could find Abram and enlist his aid!

A plan began to form in my mind. Just ahead we would have to narrow down our little caravan of captives to tread cautiously between two tar pits. Just to the west of those were the hills and plenty of brush I could use for cover – if I could get there. I stumbled on purpose to delay. Others moved ahead of us as I struggled to get to my feet.

Finally, now at the rear of the caravan, it was our turn to navigate the pits. There was a soldier beside me and one just behind to guard our rear against attack. I rammed into the soldier at my side, knocking him into one of the tar pits! The rear guard had not seen that it was an intentional act of aggression on my part and his first instinct was to try to rescue his comrade.

I rushed forward to head-butt him in his side. He buckled but kept his balance. I dropped to the ground on my back and raised my legs. I kicked with all my might and propelled him into the pit with his dead comrade! His sword lay at my feet. I rolled over to it and managed to cut my hands free. Picking up the sword I ran for the hills.

There was so much chaos and confusion and noise that no one even noticed. I made it to the bushes and small trees, and then as quickly as I dared, I made my way up the hillside to freedom. I travelled as far as my strength would take me that night, finally collapsing among some rocks to hide my sleeping space.

At dawn, I awoke to regain reality and get my bearings. I had dreamed of Jazmara and our home and family – something the dawn reminded me did not exist. I quickly remembered the battle, my escape, and my mission. I moved on toward Abram’s country.
I found water along the way, but no food. It refreshed me. My mission sustained me. If Lot had been taken, perhaps Jazmara had been, too. Even if not, there were many others who had been and perhaps even some of my family. I had to find Abram.

Just before dusk on that second day, I stumbled into Abram’s camp near the Oaks of Mamre. He ordered his servants to fetch me some water and food. He fixed me a place to recline as the provisions were quickly brought to me. After a little water, I was able to tell him about the battle and Lot’s capture.

Abram stood and quickly gave the orders. He wasted no time. The commands went out – some gathered food and water – three hundred eighteen trained men armed themselves for battle. I begged to go with them, but Abram would not allow it. My weakened, weary condition would only slow them down. They would rescue Lot and any others and return them and their goods to Sodom!

Before they left camp to pursue Lot’s captors, I asked Abram how he could be so sure of victory. He replied that Jehovah would give him success. I had heard of Abram’s god and his faith in that god, but I knew little about it. Abram seemed so sure as he rode off that he would return as the victor. I would seek to know more about this Jehovah.

I ate and rested. The servants saw to my needs but mostly left me to myself to rest. I wondered if Abram’s god could indeed give him victory, saving his nephew Lot and many others. Perhaps Jazmara had also been taken – I did not know. It was a few days before Abram and his men returned.

This is what they told me: they pursued the army of the Alliance of Four Kings until they caught up to them far north of us: they waited until dark to get close. That night Abram deployed his well-trained army of servants around the enemy’s camp and attacked by surprise from all sides. Victory was assured, but many of Chedolaomer’s soldiers fled to the north. Abram pursued them until Chedolaomer and the kings who had aligned with him were all soundly defeated. Lot and all the others were rescued – men and women and all their goods! They were returned to Sodom and Gomorrah and the King of Sodom went out to greet Abram.

I had been sent for by Abram and was able to join them at the return and celebration. I have never seen such strength of character, yet humility as I witnessed in Abram! Such a contrast with his nephew Lot and for that matter most any of the men I had known growing up in Sodom.

I saw Abram meet with the mysterious King of Salem, Melchizadek, of which I had heard much good. Abram took wine and bread with Melchizadek and gave to him a full tenth of everything he had! The King of Salem blessed Abram.

The King of Sodom accepted his people back and offered to Abram all the possessions he had recovered. I was awed by the fact that Abram refused the goods! He said he had pledged an oath to his God that he would not take anything from Sodom. He wanted only his God, Jehovah, to get the glory from whatever Abram became or owned. I noticed that in his praise of Jehovah, Abram attributed all creation to Him. I decided then and there that if Abram allowed me to, I would return with him to his camp and become as one of his own.

**********

I did indeed return with Abram to his camp at the Oaks of Mamre. He became like a father to me. I learned much from him and he taught me about his heritage. I tried to model my behavior after him, taking his morality as mine, trying to develop his integrity and character. I learned about Jehovah and committed myself to worshipping him alone as the one true God.

When I had been with Abram for about a year, he called all his people together. He told us that Jehovah had reaffirmed his covenant with him. Jehovah would bless him and through him, bless others. He would bless Abram and Sarai with a son, even in their old age. He would make great nations from their descendants. He expected worship, obedience, and sacrifice from Abram and his people. Abram expected it from all who would dwell with him.

I learned that if I was to become one of Jehovah’s and Abram’s people, I would have to be circumcised. I consented, along with all the other men. It was a sign of commitment and sincerity of belief and obedience. After that I was one of them.

Jehovah changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. Time moved on and I got older, as we all do. I often thought of my family in Sodom and Gomorrah, but I never returned to visit nor did they attempt to contact me. I had a new family now – a new way of life – and a stronger aversion to the wickedness of my homeland. I wondered about Jazmara often. I still loved her – at least the Jazmara I had first known.

Occasionally, a traveler came through camp who had information about Sodom and Gomorrah. A couple of times someone came who had met my family or Jazmara.

Not once did I ever hear anything that pleased me or brought fond memories. Always, it was a bad report. I wondered how such people as I had grown up with and even loved, could continue to immerse themselves in such idolatry and wickedness. I wondered what the result of such living would be. One day I found out.

I had been with Abraham for nearly twenty years. I had not married because I simply could not forget my love for Jazmara. I spent most of my time serving Abraham’s family and others in his household. I was more than content though I was never quite happy without Jazmara.

One afternoon, three men came into our camp. When Abraham saw them, he rose and ran to meet them. I had never seen them in all the time I had served Abraham, but he seemed to know them, especially the one he who did most of the talking. Abraham called him my Lord and ask them to stay for rest and a meal. As they rested in the shade, Abraham put others to work preparing the meal.

I remained nearby, always listening and learning and serving Abraham and his guests. The one he had called Lord, told Abraham they would have a son. Sarah overheard and laughed because she was too old for such a thing to happen. He said it would happen in about a year!

Then the men got up and walked around a little. They stopped where they could look out in the direction of my homeland. I eased up closer, careful not to intrude. I got close enough to hear. The Lord told Abraham what he was about to do. The words sent chills down my spine and brought tears to my eyes.

He told Abraham that the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah was too much to bear any longer. The other two left toward Sodom and the Lord and Abraham continued their conversation. When Abraham realized the Lord was going to bring judgment upon my homeland, I realized that this Lord was in fact Jehovah! Abraham tried to bargain for my people. He asked the Lord to spare the cities for the sake of the righteous there. If even only fifty righteous lived there, would He spare them all? I thought to myself – I doubt there are fifty righteous.

The Lord said He would, and Abraham pressed for more. “What about forty-five?” he asked. The Lord yielded, so Abraham went even further. Would He spare them for the sake of forty? Yes. Thirty? Yes. I couldn’t believe it, but Abraham asked for twenty and finally just ten! Would the Lord spare all for the sake of ten righteous souls in all of Solomon and Gomorrah?

Abraham must have thought that surely there would be ten. His nephew Lot was there. We had reports that Lot had some daughters. They would be of age now. Perhaps Abraham thought that Lot would have passed along his faith in Jehovah to his family and maybe they had influenced others to the faith.

I knew better. I had lived among them. I had witnessed firsthand the wickedness of their beliefs and ways. No, even the nephew of the great Abraham would not have led to faith as many as ten people in all the city.

I could not bear to think of what was going to happen. I had no idea how the Lord would bring judgment, but it was obviously His intent for it to be total destruction. I raced to my tent. I got a bag and put in some clothes, a few other things, and some bread. I got a wineskin full of wine and without telling anyone, I left camp. I had to get to Sodom before it was too late. The men who had left in that direction had traveled the main route to my city. I took shortcuts. If I hurried, I could get there first. My family – Jazmara – they were facing death and did not know it!

It was shortly before dusk when I got to Sodom. I had gotten there first! I went straight to my family. Our reunion was brief and not too warm-hearted. We hardly recognized one another. We held little but blood in common anymore. I told them of my new faith in the God of Abraham. I told him how Jehovah had blessed Abraham. I reminded them how He had shown that in the rescue of Sodom and Lot twenty years ago. Then I told them of the destruction coming!

They laughed! They said too much religion had driven me mad! Their gods had sent no such warnings. If Abraham’s God wanted to do harm, He would have their gods to contend with. They would protect their people. I pleaded, but they paid no attention. I left to go warn Jazmara.

I found my once beloved at the inn of her parents. Our reunion was a little sweeter than that with my parents, but the result was the same. Neither she nor her family would listen. They laughed – not her – but her family. Out of respect for what we once had, she did not laugh. Nor did she believe.

I pleaded with her to leave with me before it was too late. She refused and told me I must go. She enjoyed the life she was living. Her beauty had not faded too much, despite the lifestyle she was leading. She tried to tell me of the freedom she enjoyed and pleasure she derived from the lifestyle she had chosen. She saw no reason to give it up.

I told her that her only salvation was to come with me now – leave the city. She should come with me and learn the ways of Jehovah. It was late, but she must have still cared a little for me, for we went outside alone and talked some more. She listened as I told her about my life with Abraham and his people. I told her about his heritage and journey of faith. I told her about Jehovah and the covenant He had made with Abraham. I shared with her about my commitment.

She said that was fine for me, but not for her. She would stay with her upbringing. She had her gods, her religion, her lifestyle, and it was all just fine. She started to describe the times she had enjoyed over the years and how I could have such times, too, if I would return. I told her to stop! I could not bear to hear what had become of her.

It would soon be dawn. I asked her once more to leave with me. I told her I loved her and asked her to come be my wife. We could start over. She smiled. I melted. She said, “No.” It was time to go. We had both made our choices. We were not of the same heart anymore.

With tears in my eyes, I watched her walk away. Jazmara went back inside and I turned to head out of Sodom before destruction came. As the sunlight of the dawn broke upon the new day, I began to feel uneasy. Something was happening – I could feel it! I didn’t see or hear anything yet, but I could sense it. Perhaps my family could, too!

I returned to the house of my father. They were beginning the work of the day as I approached. I asked if they had thought more about what we had talked about the night before. They said they had talked about it. It provided them with some good entertainment! They laughed at me again.

I left them with her merriment and went inside to try my mother again. She hugged me. She said she was glad I had returned. I had hopes, but she soon dashed them. She was hoping I had come to my senses! She asked me to forget all my foolishness and come back home for good.

Home? The camp at the Oaks of Mamre was my home. Abraham was my father. His people were my people, his God was my God. Sodom and Gomorrah held nothing for me. It held nothing for my family either – or Jazmara. It was doomed and they would not believe. I said goodbye for the last time.

With my bag of my belongings in my hand and my wineskin draped around my shoulder, I left my family for the last time and walked away. As I approached the edge of the city, the sky exploded with fire!

All around me hot balls of fire and smoke were falling from the sky! Smoke began to darken the sky! The molten hailstones were crashing into buildings, lighting fires all over the city. People were rushing for cover into houses and businesses. People were running out of burning houses hoping to find safety somewhere else. Fireballs were crushing people! The smell of smoke and sulfur and burning flesh began to fill the city.

I looked toward Gomorrah, the place of my former business and the home I had planned for Jazmara. Flames and smoke rose from that direction, too! Everywhere one could go, as far as the eye could see across the plains – smoke and fire and hailstones of molten rock!

Animals, people, every living thing was falling under the destruction. Jehovah was raining down fire from heaven. Evil would suffer today. Jehovah would have His vengeance on wickedness. I ran out of the city, headed for home!

I was struck by a fiery hailstone and knocked to the ground! Another hit my back and set my clothes on fire! I rolled around to put out the fire. Blood streamed from my forehead. I struggled to my feet and continued out of the city. I dodged as many fireballs as I could, but I was hit again and again!

Smoke filled my eyes and my lungs. My eyes burned; my throat burned. My body was beaten, sore, and bloody. I struggled on and finally made it to the hills just west of the plain that separated them from the cities. Somehow, in my confusion and distress, I stumbled upon the entrance to a small cave.

Once inside, I was safe from the fire that reigned from the sky. I could no longer hear the screams of my former countrymen. I prayed for their souls, even knowing somehow that it would do no good. They had made their choice. They were lost forever!

So, I changed my prayers. I knew I was dying. I should never have gone back to Sodom. I had heard Abraham plead for the lives of my people, but the Lord had shown us that not even ten righteous people dwelt in those two cities. I took comfort in knowing that I would die because I tried to save them.

My prayer was that I would live long enough to write my story. I had packed some writing supplies in my bag. I had brought a clay pot from Jazmara’s as a keepsake. I would store my story in that if I lived long enough to write it. Perhaps someday, someone would find it and know that the only right path is to choose to follow Jehovah.

So, I wrote. I cried. I prayed. And I wrote some more. And this last thing I will do is to place this in Jazmara’s pot and seal the lid…

**********

The reception room at the college was silent. Everyone had sat quietly as Iowa Smith, Dr. Ezekiel Smith, had read the Journal to them. Most had read along silently with him in their leather journals, but all listened, totally rapt with his narration. He had poured his heart and soul into the translation. He admitted that he sometimes felt as if he had become Ka-mal, felt his emotions, his pain. He felt that had helped him to fill out the narrative of Ka-mal’s primitive writing, yet stay faithful to its pathos.

Dr. Zeke looked around at his audience. The men stared forward or at their journals. The ladies wiped tears or simply looked at each other for a moment. All were in awe of the story – amazed at what they had discovered.

Finally, the silence was broken by the college president. All he could say was, “Amazing!”

Others echoed or added, “Wow!” What a story!” and the like.

The president raised his glass of punch and toasted Dr. Zeke, who immediately raised his glass and added, “To the team!”

Suddenly everyone wanted to talk! They had comments about their favorite parts or concerning the ‘cast of characters.’  They had questions about how it all might have felt. Callie, from the expedition, asked about the part in the Bible with Lot and the angels?

Suzette quickly added, “And Lot’s wife? Why wouldn’t Ka-mal have added all that?”

Alex took the lead there. “Dr. Zeke and I discussed that as we translated the diary. Remember how much time Ka-mal spent with his family and Jasmara? He was all night trying to convince them. The biblical account about the men of the city going after the angels at Lot’s house was happening at the same time.”

Biggon’ chimed in, “Yeah that’s right. Ka-mal wouldn’t have witnessed any of that.”

Suzette added, as if to answer her own question, “And he was just leaving the city when it all started. Lot’s family had left just ahead of that. Ka-mal wouldn’t have seen what happened to Lot’s wife either.”

Captain Kirk put in his two-cents worth saying, “And likely didn’t even escape in the same direction.”

Dr. Zeke gave a reminder to put the final touch on their conclusions, “Remember – this isn’t a history text, but just one man’s personal diary. He could only write about his own experiences and feelings.”

Alex raised his glass for one more toast. “To Ka-mal!” he said. They all took a sip of punch to toast their hero. Some began to chat about the journal or reminisce about the expedition, but a few sat down and turned to their journals to read it again and one more time, go “Back to Sodom!”

 

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Filed under Short Stories

A Nickel’s Worth of Trouble

He was only ten years old when he heard the news. Custer was dead! The whole 7th Cavalry had been wiped out by the Sioux at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He remembered being overwhelmed by confusion and grief. George Armstrong Custer had been his hero. How could he have been defeated?! But over the next few years he had come to grips with it and Custer had risen back up toward the top of his hero list.

And one of the things he had learned from that hero was to ride to the sound of the guns! So, he did. Nick Morgan had been casually riding to town from his family’s ranch when he heard the gunfire. Several shots in the distance echoed off the hills. It sounded like they came from Molly’s ranch! Without hesitation, he turned his horse and galloped in that direction. The shots stopped, but he rode on toward the home of his nearest neighbors, the Franklins.

Fear gripped his heart as he sped closer. He wasn’t afraid for himself – just of what he might find when he got there. In fact, most people thought of young Nickel Boone Morgan as fearless. He was only seventeen, but he could ride like the wind and rope, shoot, and fight like any man around – better than most. A keen eye and a calm squeeze on the trigger made him an excellent shot with his rifle. Untold hours of practice with a rope made him proficient with a lasso whether on foot or on Comanche. He had named his horse after the horse thought to be the sole survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. When it had foaled in the family stable, his pa, who had once seen the surviving horse while on a trip to St. Louis, said he looked like Comanche. The name stuck.

Nick learned to be a cowboy that could ride and rope and shoot and yes, even fight. His six-foot muscular frame had led to more fights than his ma cared to count. He was generally well-mannered and polite, but he could get a little rowdy at times and would always fight to defend the helpless or stand up for a conviction. He got a six-gun and holster for his fourteenth birthday and months of constant practice had earned him a fast draw with an accurate shot. By his 16th birthday he had won several local shooting and quick draw contests! Big, ruggedly handsome, looking older than his seventeen years – Nickel Boone Morgan was already a force to be reckoned with.

Everyone called him Nick except for his ma when he was in trouble and she called him Nickel Boone. Boone was her family name, descended from another of Nick’s heroes, Daniel Boone. The name Nickel came from the headlines on the day he was born. The U.S. government had just minted the first 5-cent coins two weeks earlier. On June 1st, 1866, when the young boy was born to James and Sarah Morgan, the newspaper had just arrived and the headline on the paper on the kitchen table read, “Welcome the Nickel.” It seemed to James like the only natural thing to name his first born.

Nick was kind of sweet on Molly Franklin who was a year younger than him. He would have ridden to the sound of the guns anyway, but his main concern was “is Molly alright?!” As he galloped toward her ranch, he began to scan the area in every direction. There were no signs of anyone near the ranch. Could the shots have come from somewhere else? He kept riding and looking and then he saw an Indian pony tied up at the far side of the corral. The two Franklin horses that were usually in the corral were not.

Nick reigned in his horse and dismounted with his rifle drawn from its scabbard almost before Comanche had come to a complete stop. He dropped to one knee making a smaller target while scanning the entire panorama. He saw no one. Not the Franklins – not any Indians. He saw that the front door of the small but cozy ranch house was wide open and then he noticed the haystack near the barn was on fire! Funny he hadn’t noticed that before.

It was eerily silent. He thought through the possibilities. Why just one Indian pony? If only one Indian had come, where was he? If Mr. Franklin had killed him, where was the body and where were the Franklins? Why was the front door wide open? He decided to fire off a signal shot. If there were Indians around, they had likely seen him already anyway. If all was okay, Mr. Franklin would signal back. Unless he thought it was more Indians!

Nick drew his six-gun. Mr. Franklin would know the difference between the sound of a rifle and that of a pistol. Indians don’t carry six-guns. He fired two shots into the air and waited and watched. He didn’t know he was being watched, but he felt like something was wrong. He got no response from the house or anywhere else for that matter.
He was not experienced in this kind of fighting, so he didn’t know if he could trust the feeling he was getting. He had to get to the house to see what had happened, but he also had to be careful. Should he walk in slowly or charge in fast on Comanche?

Nick decided on the charge. He had practiced long and hard at shooting from a gallop and was pretty good at it. Actually, he was very good at shooting cans off a fence rail at a full gallop – but then, cans don’t shoot back!

He returned his rifle to its scabbard and mounted his horse. He rode to his right first in order to give himself a few moments to get Comanche up to full gallop before he rushed into the yard. As he got close, he saw movement to his left. A young brave popped up behind the well that was to the left of center of the house. He was aiming his rifle in Nick’s direction. A shot rang out!

Comanche was galloping fast and the shot missed. The brave cocked his gun for another shot. Nick swung down over the opposite side of Comanche, hanging onto the saddle horn with his left hand. He stretched himself down and under his horse’s neck and fired his six-gun at the brave. Two quick shots and the brave went down! Comanche’s speed took them past the house. Nick righted himself in the saddle as he circled the house and reigned Comanche to a stop near the front door.

He had only two bullets left in the gun, but there was no time to reload. He hit the ground running and burst right into the house yelling for the Franklins. “Molly! Mr. Franklin! It’s me – Nick!”

The front room was empty. Nick kept his gun out as he looked around and called again for Molly. He ran to her bedroom door and opened it. No one was there. He called again, “It’s Nick!” but no answer came. He returned to the front room and strode across to the other bedroom. As he approached the partially open door of the Franklins’ bedroom, he heard a slight moan from inside the room. As he pushed the door fully open, Nick heard another groan.

Mrs. Franklin lay dead on the brass bed. On the floor on the opposite side of the bed was Isaac “Frank” Franklin, barely alive. Molly’s pa had been shot more than once and from the look of it, hadn’t long to live. It was as if he had used all the strength he could muster to stay alive long enough to tell someone what had happened.

Six, maybe eight Kiowa warriors – apparently a raiding party – had struck suddenly, without warning. They set fire to the haystack near the barn as two of them went for the horses. Mr. Franklin had been in the barn when he heard them ride in. When he saw who it was, he ran out the side door of the barn for the house. A couple of shots missed him. Molly came running from her bedroom and the two met in the middle of the house. He sent Molly to his bedroom with her ma as he grabbed his rifle from its perch above the fireplace mantel and joined them. He took one shot in the back from a buck who had just busted through the front door.

Frank made it on into the room and closed the door, but a second Indian fired through the bedroom window, hitting him in the left arm. As Isabelle, Molly’s ma raised up from the floor beside the bed to help her husband, the first brave burst through the bedroom door and fired another shot. It struck Isabelle, knocking her backward onto the large feather bed that quickly became her death bed.

Molly covered her face as her screams turned to gasps and then sobs. A third brave had entered by this time and shouted something at the other two. The first one grabbed Molly by the arm and jerked her roughly to her feet. She screamed again as he forced her out of the room. There were more shots fired by the others out behind the barn. – Frank stopped his story and pointed in that direction. “Jacob” was the last word he spoke.

Nick laid the man’s head gently on the floor and checked on Mrs. Franklin to confirm that she was dead. Then he hurried outside to the barn and went around back. Jacob was there. Molly’s brother had apparently been working a few cattle about a quarter mile from the barn by the trees that bordered the Franklin property behind the barn and house. Nick figured Jacob had come running in to help his family when he heard the shots. He had been working so he didn’t have a gun – he never got the chance to help.

Molly was gone. The horses were gone. Nick was a pretty good tracker for such a young man. The tracks led westward from the corral toward the hills. He ran back to Comanche and headed after the raiding party – after Molly. He knew he needed to go home. Needed to get help. Needed provisions. But he also needed to follow these tracks while they were still fresh. The wind was picking up and it had been so dry lately. He feared the tracks might blow away in the wind and the dust. He would return later, if he could, to get help.

**********

Four men with a wagon set out from a small town in Oklahoma Territory near the Texas border and headed southwest toward Mexico. Two men rode on horseback and two were in the wagon, taking turns driving the two-horse team. It was a small covered wagon in which they kept their provisions, extra weapons and ammunition, sleeping gear, and such. They were a scraggly looking bunch. Mean looking. None too clean, either. Always spitting tobacco juice and smelling of whiskey. They had plenty of extra whiskey in the wagon, too. Some for drinking, some for trading with Indians.

The two men in the wagon looked to be about forty and the two on horseback were much younger. One was about Nickel Morgan’s age, maybe a little younger, and the other maybe thirty. The youngest was a brother to one of the older men. They weren’t wanted by the law, but they should have been! They had done just about everything; they just hadn’t been caught at it any of it yet.

The men had heard rumors about Kiowa raiding parties, but they weren’t afraid. They had run into them before. As long as they didn’t run into a whole tribe, they figured they could handle it. If they did meet up with a large group, well, they could likely trade whiskey and guns for their freedom and maybe even a squaw or two!

Mostly, they planned to stay away from towns and steal whatever they needed – or just wanted – from farms and ranches between their current location and Mexico. If they came across any young, strong women, they would take them along for some “pleasure” and to sell as slaves later.

**********

Nick followed the tracks out of the Franklin ranch toward the west. In a short distance the dirt gave way to some scrub grass, but within less than a quarter mile or so the grass was taller. The wind was still strong, and the grass waved in the breeze. It was going to get harder to track the Indians as time went on. He didn’t dare turn back now or he’d lose them for sure. They headed for the hill country that led to the Texas border and then they veered southwest. From there, they might go anywhere.

They might also run into more Indians. Molly could be traded away for anything – or stolen again by a rival tribe. Nick would have to push on. They shouldn’t be too far ahead of him. He had only missed them by a few minutes, and he had only been at the Franklin ranch for maybe thirty minutes more. They couldn’t travel very fast since they were leading the Franklin horses and a captive. But then, Nick couldn’t travel very fast either as he had to keep checking for tracks. He dared not forge ahead too quickly. If they changed directions, he might miss it and lose them forever. Lose Molly forever! He tried not to think of what might happen to her.

She was hot and tired and thirsty. She had been riding bareback on one of the Franklin horses the Indians had stolen. She had ridden that horse many times, but never without a saddle and never in a dress! Her hands were tied with a leather strap and she had to hang onto the horse’s mane to stay on its back. One of the braves led her horse by a rope tied around its neck. One of the others led the second Franklin horse. There were six Indians left and they were beginning to wonder why the other brave had not caught up to them yet.

They spoke only in their own language, though they did not say much. Sometimes they would look or point at Molly as they talked and laughed. It frightened her when they laughed. Her imagination ran wild with thoughts about what they might be saying. She wished they had killed her like they had her family. That caused her to think about them and sorrow overwhelmed her.

She thought about Nick. She would likely never see him again. She had heard about girls who had been taken captive by Indians before and they seldom were rescued. A few had but things were never quite the same afterwards. She vowed to try to run away as soon as she had a chance. She hoped they would kill her if she didn’t get away.

Nick kept riding though it was getting dark. He was sure that they would keep heading southwest. From hunting trips with his pa, he knew there was water about an hour from where he was in the direction they were headed. That had to be where they would stop for the night. Perhaps they already had, and he would soon see their campfire. He shuddered to think about Molly with several Indian men in the camp!

**********

The Indians had made camp in a clearing near the stream where Nick and his pa had spent more than one night while hunting. He was about thirty minutes away. They had no idea that anyone would be that close unless it was their friend catching up. They assumed the Franklins would not be discovered for quite some time. If they had been, Lone Wolf’s job was to lead the searchers off in a different direction! They were thinking that might be why he hadn’t caught up to them yet.

They were so sure of themselves that they didn’t even post a guard. That was to be their undoing! Nick wasn’t far away, and he kept coming, though slowly now that it was dark. However, there were four other white men closer than Nick! A wagon had stopped just northeast of a campfire that one of them had spotted glowing in the distance. After a brief discussion, the thirty-year-old, Nathan Tanner, rode off to scout out the campfire.
The Dawson brothers, Sam and his kid brother Dan, stayed with the fourth man – the oldest and their leader, Mort Keeler. They gave the horses and themselves a rest and drank a little whiskey while they waited for Nathan to return. They figured they just might gain a ready-made supper and a few extra supplies from whoever belonged to the campfire!

It didn’t take Nathan long to return. He had stopped his horse short of the campsite and crept close enough to see who had made the fire. It gave more than enough light for him to see six Kiowa braves and one frightened captive white girl. Even in the flickering light of the campfire, as scared as she was, she was a mighty tempting sight for Nathan Tanner. He was tempted to rush the camp with his guns a-blazing! But he realized it made more sense to go get his partners. Besides, he would have to share her with the others anyway!

He crept back to his horse and quietly rode back to the wagon. He found the others sharing a bottle and joined them as he laid out the situation. He claimed rights to the girl, offering to forego any share in the horses or guns. The others objected or laughed and reminded him it had always been “share and share alike.” Mort gave the plan and they slowly, quietly rolled on in a little closer to the Indian camp.

The men stopped about a quarter mile away and tied off the horses with some grain handy to keep them content. They stayed together as they stealthily approached the camp – they had done this before. On Mort’s signal, the other three gradually spread out until they had all but surrounded the camp. The only side without a man was boarded by the stream. When Mort was sure that they were all in place and ready, he took aim at the brave closest to the girl and fired.

Immediately, the others fired, too. The braves had been easy targets in the light of the campfire and in only three seconds, four of the six dropped dead! Molly screamed and fell over sideways to get low on the ground. The remaining two braves jumped up and ran. One went for his rifle and the other headed for the stream to escape.

Mort dropped his second target as he reached the stream’s edge and the brave fell into the water. Nathan got the last brave as he picked up his rifle. It was all over in less than a minute. Molly laid there trembling, but hoping she was being rescued. Her hope quickly faded back into fear as the four men walked into the camp. They were rough looking. They laughed and each bragged on his kill shot. Tanner reached the girl first and helped her sit up.

Sam Dawson got his first good look at Molly and looked her over pretty well. He turned toward his young brother and said, “She looks about your age, Dan. Might be a good time for you to become a man!” They all laughed as Sam quickly added, “After I break her in fer ya!” More laughter came as Molly realized that she was still a captive.

The men split up the chores under Mort’s direction. Dan and Nathan went back for the wagon and horses. Sam and Mort gathered up the rifles and meager provisions. When the younger two returned they topped off the water barrel with buckets of water from the stream. Sam and Mort tied the six Indian ponies and the two Franklin horses to the back of the wagon. They ate a quick bite from the rabbit the Indians had roasting on the fire and prepared to move on.

Nathan asked, “Why not stay the night?”  Though he directed the question to Mort, his eyes moved to Molly.

Mort noticed and answered, “This pretty little gal doesn’t look like she’s been with these bucks very long. And if I’m right, there could be some folks out there lookin’ for her right now.”

Sam chimed in, “We had best git busy and git gone. Plenty of time later fer campin’.”

Dan said he’d fix a place in the wagon for the girl. Mort winked at Sam noting Dan’s interest in looking out for the new addition to their traveling band. It was only a matter of minutes before all was set. Dan asked Molly her name as he led her to the wagon and helped her up into it. Mort heard her and introduced the men to her as he and Sam climbed to the wagon seat and Nathan doused the fire out. Dan mounted his horse and the caravan eased out of camp. Nathan stayed behind as the wagon headed to the southwest again.

After the others had gone, Nathan cut a branch from one of the trees and dragged it around to wipe out the wagon tracks. Then he mounted his horse and rode off to the north. About a quarter of a mile out, he stopped and dismounted. He walked his horse around for a little bit and then mounted again and slowly walked off to the west. In a little while he picked up the pace as he turned south and rode to catch up to the wagon. He hoped to confuse anyone who might come along soon looking for Molly.

What he didn’t know was that he had been watched as he dragged out the tracks and rode out of camp! The fire was out, but the moonlight was bright enough for the keen eyes of a wounded brave to watch his enemy’s actions. The brave had pulled himself to the bank of the stream after Mort’s second shot hit him in the back. He had lain there as if he were dead as Nathan filled the water buckets just a few feet away. Later, he had slowly dragged himself closer to the camp to watch the men clean out the camp, load the wagon, and tie off the horses. He watched Nathan Tanner try to hide the tracks and lay a false trail out of the campsite. Then he crawled closer to the smoldering fire.

Several minutes later, Nickel Morgan slowed Comanche to a walk as he approached the area that he knew held the stream where he had camped before. He remembered there was a clearing nearby, but it took him a few minutes to get his bearings in the dark. As he walked slowly and quietly toward the clearing, he wondered why there was no campfire and no noise. He had been so sure that the Indians would stop here.

He smelled the smoke that still lingered from the fire that had been doused just a short time ago. He tied Comanche to a tree, patted him gently, and crept off toward the source of the smoke smell. As he crept up behind a big rock, he could see the remains of the camp massacre in the moonlight. Nick scanned the area quickly, six-gun in hand, and counted the bodies of four braves that he could see from his position behind the rock.
He saw no horses and no Molly. He had no idea yet how to account for what he saw. He would have to examine the camp for more clues, so he walked slowly into the camp with all of his senses on full alert for any sign of trouble. As he walked, he kept scanning – looking and listening. He spotted two more bodies, but no Molly. He silently thanked God. But where was she?

He saw that the fire had been doused. He knelt to examine the ground around him and discovered the tracks of the wagon as it had rolled into camp and prints of shod horses. The Indian ponies were not shod. White men had been here. They killed Molly’s captors and took her and the horses away! He was sure of it.

He stood up but remained stooped over as he walked around looking for the tracks of the wagon that led out of the camp. They had been obliterated by the branch. It was an old trick his pa had taught him – told him his great, great uncle Dan’l Boone had done it that way long ago. Nick would have to make an ever-widening circle of the camp in hopes of eventually cutting across the tracks of the wagon. Then he heard a moan from over by the fire!

He drew his gun – fast – and turned in the direction of the moan. The brave on the ground was stirring, trying to turn over. Nick holstered his gun and went to him. Kneeling down, he turned the Indian over on his back. Nick could see the brave was near death. “Where’s the girl?” Nick asked. He gestured to show long hair and repeated, “Where girl?”

The brave understood. He pointed in the direction the wagon had left camp and said in broken English, “White men. Wagon.”

To confirm, Nick pointed in the same direction and asked, “White men took girl that way in wagon?” The brave nodded yes.

Nick asked how many – holding up first one finger, then two, then three. The brave held up three fingers. Then he pointed in the direction in which Nathan Tanner had ridden and held up one finger. Nick thought it through and asked, “One man went that way?” The brave nodded and died. Nick rose to check the tracks.

He could see that one shod horse had indeed ridden off to the north. “Why?” he wondered. “Why would one leave the other three and go a different way?” Then he got it! It was to complete the masking of the wagon’s trail. A fourth man had scratched out the wagon tracks and then set out on a false trail. He likely would eventually head the other way and catch up with the wagon. Nick ran back to get his horse and returned with him to the campsite. He filled his canteen from the stream and let Comanche get a drink, too. Then he rode off in the direction the dying brave had indicated the wagon had gone. It didn’t take long to confirm that he had “told” the truth.

**********

Nathan Tanner had cut across country and caught up with the wagon. They didn’t know it, but they were only about twenty minutes ahead of Nickel Boone Morgan. He couldn’t travel fast at night, but he could go faster than a wagon pulling six Indian ponies and the two Franklin horses! The four outlaws and their captive had no idea that anyone was on their trail at all, much less that close. That gave the outlaws a false sense of peace and offered no hope to young Molly, who dreaded the time when the men would stop to make camp!

Nick could not push Comanche’s pace, but he couldn’t back off either. He knew he was close, but he had to stop occasionally to find signs that he was still headed right. A wagon and ten horses left plenty of signs. In daylight, Nick could have galloped after them. At night, he had to travel more deliberately.

It only took about ten minutes for Nick to get close enough to hear them a little way out in front. He forced himself to slow Comanche to a walk. He couldn’t risk detection. He needed a plan. He had to trust that while they were moving, Molly was safe. He decided to keep this distance and trail them until they made camp. Meanwhile, he would try to formulate some kind of plan.

As Nick and Comanche walked along behind the outlaws, Nick tried to imagine what they might be thinking. No doubt they were anxious to make camp. They were probably arguing over who would take Molly first! Nick shuddered at the thought. He wondered what it would take to make them feel safe enough to stop and make camp for the night. More time? More distance between them and the Indian camp? What?

Then it dawned on him. If it was him, he would have one of the men stop and wait a while. Find some vantage point to wait unseen and watch to see if they were being followed. He reined Comanche to a standstill. How could he continue to trail them, yet avoid being seen – or worse, being ambushed?! He wasn’t familiar enough with this part of the country. His earlier hunting trips had only been as far as the clearing by the stream. He didn’t know what lay ahead nor what kind of terrain was in either direction flanking his path.

His first thought had been to veer off to the northwest a ways and try to actually get ahead of the wagon when he circled around. He could have done that if it was daylight. He could easily outpace the wagon with its trail of horses. But daylight was still hours away and with no sign of anyone trailing them, they might stop for the night while he was circling around. He could get ahead of them and they would be camping at their leisure – with Molly!

He decided on a compromise. The prairie seemed wide enough to allow a parallel trail. He could move off to the west just a little and keep an even pace riding parallel to the wagon, rather than behind them. He could risk being closer since he would never overtake them and hope they only waited and watched along the trail directly behind them. Being closer, he would hear if they stopped for camp.

It seemed like the only way he could keep up with them yet avoid being ambushed. He turned Comanche to the west and headed out – first at a walk, then at a trot to be able to come up even with the wagon, though at a safe distance at its right flank. He slowed to a walk again as he gradually closed the gap between them. He got close enough to hear them.

His plan must have worked for in about thirty minutes, the wagon stopped. Nick stopped, too. He dared not get any closer yet. He wanted to make sure of their plans. In a few minutes it was clear that they were planning to set up camp. He would need to form his own plan quickly and then strike even more quickly. There were four of them and from what he had seen at the Indian camp they must be crack shots and crafty enemies. This time, though, the element of surprise would be in his favor, not theirs.

He tied Comanche to a tree and got his rifle and rope. He didn’t have much ammunition so he would have to be accurate when he shot with either gun. He had reloaded his six-gun before leaving the Franklin ranch. He crept slowly toward the new campsite – watching, listening. They had stopped among a small grove of trees, with a few clumps of bushes and single trees scattered around them. This gave Nick cover to move in close and get the lay of the camp.

The full moon kept him from getting too close but allowed him to see what they were doing. No one even gathered wood for a fire, so apparently, they had opted for a cold camp to avoid discovery. Two of the men set up a picket line and tied off the horses. The other two unhitched the wagon team and one took them to the line while the other got Molly out of the wagon. With the horses secured at the picket line, one of the men got up into the wagon and began handing out blankets, feed sacks, and a few boxes. Nick’s heart had leapt a little at his first sight of Molly!

He could see that her hands were tied, but she seemed okay. The young man that helped her out of the wagon led her to one of the trees and helped her sit down. He then returned to the wagon for some blankets which he gave to Molly. Dan Dawson then got her some food. Nick couldn’t tell from a distance what it was, but he guessed some hard tack and biscuits. He watched her try to eat a little.

The others spread out their blankets in a circle. Two used saddles to make leather “pillows” and they all got some food. Nathan Tanner took Molly a cup of water. All the men were talking and laughing, but Nick couldn’t make out any words. He could see that the men were washing down their food with whiskey. It wouldn’t take long for one or more of them to drink up enough courage to brace the others for dibs on Molly!

Nick told himself to be ready, but he still didn’t have a plan. He was sure he could shoot and kill in a fight, but could he simply shoot a man, even a bad man, from a sniping position? Just shoot a man down?! He might have to. He couldn’t face four men at once. He also couldn’t risk one taking Molly for a shield. He still didn’t have a plan.

As his mind raced to try to form one, things began to change in the camp. The tone of some of the voices changed. Nick guessed they were beginning to argue over Molly. He hoped they’d shoot each other over her but couldn’t count on that. He would just have to be ready to do that himself! The argument stopped abruptly. He wondered what they were up to.

Nick saw one of the men take Molly by the arm and draw her to her feet, pushing her toward the center of the camp. Nick raised his rifle, just in case. Another man went to the wagon and returned with a box in one hand and something else in the other. Nick couldn’t tell what else he had. He set the box on the ground, upside down and put the other object on top of it.

They all formed a circle around the box and Nick could finally see that they were starting to play cards. He lowered his rifle and at first, he thought maybe they decided to play cards and leave Molly alone since they couldn’t agree on who could have her. But as they played on and drank more, the laughter and gestures toward Molly suggested to Nick that they were playing to see who would get her – first!

Nick noticed that the one who had first gotten Molly out of the wagon was not drinking. That was Dan, though Nick didn’t know that. He decided that when the shooting started, that man’s sobriety might mean he should be the first target. The ones drinking might be slowed by the alcohol and less likely to shoot straight.

Nick could take him out with the first rifle shot from ambush and get another before they knew what had happened. He would rush the other two hoping that in their drunkenness, neither would grab Molly nor be able to hit a moving target. He could hopefully take them both out with his six-gun. His fear was Molly getting in the way.

He was almost ready when one of the drinkers suddenly stood up and shouted, apparently in victory. He had won the prize – Molly! He reached down and grabbed her up to her feet and that changed everything. She would be right in the way and he would have her there to use as a shield if Nick fired. The man took Molly by the arm and started for the wagon.

“Not here!” one of the others shouted. “Take her out there somewhere!” He waved his arm in a wide circle indicating outside the camp. The man with Molly, Nathan Tanner, stopped and looked around, spying a clump of bushes in the moonlight. Heading Molly toward the bushes, Tanner had no way of knowing that Nickel Boone Morgan was behind the clump! Nick had Plan B in the works now.

Hiding among the bushes, he could wait and take Molly’s captor without a shot. He could then snipe shoot the sober one and maybe one more before they knew what hit them. With Molly safe behind the bushes, Nick could take the others either way.

He wished he could let Molly know somehow that she would be alright, but he couldn’t. She was struggling against her captor, but he nearly dragged her along. She was crying, pleading, but it was useless. Nick had to block it from his mind and stay focused, hidden behind his bush with his rifle in both hands. As they came around to behind the bushes, Tanner pushed Molly to the ground and dropped to his knees beside her. He tauntingly said, “This is gonna be fun!” It wasn’t!

Nick stepped out of hiding and brought his rifle butt down hard on the back of Tanner’s head. He didn’t know it, but he had just killed him. Tanner’s body slumped over Molly and she screamed a little. The men in the camp grinned at each other, except for Dan. Through her tears, Molly saw Nick standing over them and realized Tanner was not a threat anymore! She struggled to get out from under him and Nick knelt down to help her. She sat up and leaned into Nick, whispering his name, asking him, “How…?”

Nick interrupted her and told her to hush. He released his hug and took out his knife to cut her hands free. Whispering, he said, “I’ll tell you all about it later. Right now, I have to finish this.” He rose to his feet, still sheltered by the bushes. He told Molly that after two shots he would leave her the rifle and rush the camp. Nodding toward Tanner he added, “If he comes to, shoot him.”

The other three outlaws were into another poker game. Nick spotted the young sober one sitting facing Nick with Mort to his right and his brother Sam to his left. Nick was glad that Dan was facing him. He would be the first to go and Nick didn’t want to shoot him in the back. He took aim at Dan’s chest with plans to go for Mort next and calmly squeezed the trigger.

At just that exact moment Mort raised his whiskey bottle for another swig. Nick’s bullet shattered the bottle on its way to the target and blew into Dan’s heart, knocking him backwards. Mort yelled out a drunken curse and fell backward, too. Sam jumped to his feet and immediately looked in Nick’s direction. Nick’s second shot dropped Sam at this brother’s feet.

Mort was scrambling for cover under the wagon as Nick handed the rifle to Molly, drew his pistol and ran for a tree to his left. He deliberately fired a shot toward the wagon so Mort could see where Nick was going. He wanted to draw attention away from the clump of bushes, lest Mort fire into them and hit Molly. Mort had drawn his gun and squeezed off two quick shots toward Nick as he ran to the tree. There had been little chance of hitting Nick – it was nighttime, Nick was running, and Mort was drunk and in shock.
Mort called out, “Who are you? What do you want?”

Nick answered, “A friend of the girl!” Then he dropped to the ground and crawled to another clump of trees to his left.

Mort responded, “Take her and go!”

Nick replied, “I’ve already got her! Throw out your gun and come out with your hands up!”

Mort fired a shot into the bushes but was way off. Nick had moved to test how well Mort could see his movements. No more talking to the enemy. It was kill or be killed. Nick fired at shadows under the wagon – then ran to the next tree as he fired again on the run. Mort’s next bullet hit the ground behind Nick. That was four if he hadn’t reloaded and Nick was pretty sure he hadn’t, so he fired back hoping to engage Mort in a gun battle to keep him firing. Mort obliged with one more, leaving only one bullet in his six-gun.

The next tree over from Nick held the picket line of restless horses. They were tugging at their ropes, but still tied. Nick ran for that tree and shot at Mort again, hoping to force him into using his last bullet. It didn’t work. Even drunk and confused, Mort knew his business. Nick realized that if the man was aware enough to know he was about out of bullets; he might also be reloading even now. Nick needed to end this quickly.

Nick slipped out among the horses, knife in hand. He cut the ropes of each of the Indian ponies, holding on to the lead ropes in his left hand as he went. He guided them toward the wagon, figuring Mort was busy reloading. Releasing the ropes, Nick stepped back behind the horses. He smacked a couple of them and yelled, smacking a third on the rump and waving his arms madly. The horses stampeded toward Mort’s end of the wagon. Mort was in no danger, but he couldn’t see Nick running toward the “former poker table”. Nick dove to the ground behind the body of his first target, firing on the fly. Mort pumped two shots into Dan’s dead body and Nick raised up to shoot Mort in the only part of his body he could see in the dark under the wagon – right between the eyes!
Nick laid there for a second or two to collect his breath. He knew the three men around hi were dead. He wasn’t sure about the one he had left with Molly. He hadn’t heard any shots from there. He called out, “Molly?! “

She yelled back, “I’m here! This one’s dead!”

Nick stood up and said, “So are these three! C’mon out!”

Molly stepped out from behind the bushes, now holding the rifle by its barrel, dragging the butt on the ground. When she saw that Nick was standing tall and holstering his gun, she dropped the rifle and ran to him. He held her tightly while she sobbed into his chest. He told her it was over, and she’d be okay now, but then let her cry it out.

They walked to where Nick had tied off Comanche and brought him back to the camp. The Indian ponies were gone now, and Nick was fine with that. He would take the two Franklin horses and the two from the outlaws back home, along with the wagon team. He told Molly they would sleep awhile and head for home early in the morning.

Molly helped him tie up Comanche along with the others at the picket line. Walking back to the wagon, she told him she didn’t think she cold sleep with the dead bodies around. They might even attract animals! Nick said he would take care of it and got a shovel from the wagon.

As Molly cleared a place to sleep inside the wagon, under cover, Nick dug one large hole among the trees. He pulled all four of the outlaws to the grave and laid them in there. He got two blankets from where the men had spread them out for sleeping and covered them in their grave. Then he filled the grave back up with dirt. There just weren’t enough rocks around to cover the graves in stone.

Molly came out from straightening up the wagon and asked about a marker. Nick replied they didn’t deserve one, but Molly said, “It’s about who we are, not them.” So, Nick broke up the box that had been their poker table and tied together a cross after he scratched “4 OUTLAWS” on the crosspiece. He hammered the cross into the ground with the shovel at the head of the grave.

The couple climbed into the wagon to try get some rest. With Nick there for comfort and safety, Molly went right to sleep. Nick had had quite an eventful and draining day himself, so he soon followed her into slumber land.

**********

Birds chirping at the break of dawn woke Nick up and when he stirred around, Molly awoke. It took a minute or two for her to realize it all had not just been a bad dream! She really did lose her family and get taken captive by Indians! And there was Nick – he really had saved her!

“Good morning,” she said to greet her hero.

“Good morning to you, too,” Nick replied. “You want to start home quickly or take time to build a fire and eat something?”

“Let’s just go. I know there’s no one waiting for me at home, but I want out of this place anyway!”

Nick said he’d get the horses and wagon ready as soon as he could and he put on his boots, climbed down out of the wagon, and did just that. Fifteen minutes later, he turned the team toward home and the young couple began the slow trip back. Nick and Molly were on the wagon seat. Comanche and the four saddle horses were tied on behind the wagon. Quite a different picture than when the wagon had pulled into the camp the night before.

With saddles, bed rolls, guns, and a variety of other provisions neatly packed inside, they had no choice but to retrace the wagon’s trail back to the clearing by the stream where the outlaws had left the bodies of the raiding party. Nick tried preparing Molly for what they might see there and what they might do about it.

They approached the clearing a little before noon, but they were not at all prepared for what awaited them. As they got closer, they could see a group of men and horses! Nick told Molly to get in the back and hide. He took his six-gun out of its holster and laid his rifle beside him on the seat. He watched the men spread out a little across the face of the clearing and he braced himself for another fight.

It never came. When the wagon got close enough for the men to clearly see the driver, one shouted out, “It’s Nick!”

Nick turned to Molly and said, “It’s Pa, Molly! C’mon up! It’s Pa and some men from town!”

Nick!” shouted James Morgan. Then as Molly climbed into view to sit beside Nick, James added, “and Molly! He’s got Molly!”

The men ran out to meet the wagon and escort them in. Nick climbed down one side to hug his pa as one of the other men helped Molly down as well. It was a bittersweet reunion. Nick with his pa with the young couple safe and sound, but no family to greet Molly. Both of the “kids” took a little time to wash up and they all shared their stories over lunch.

When Nick hadn’t come home from town when expected, James went looking for him. He learned that no one had seen him in town at all, so he rode by the Franklins before beginning to worry. After seeing what had happened there, James went back to town for the sheriff and more help, they had a decent but quick funeral for Molly’s family this morning and the rescue party set out to track the Indians. James was pretty sure Nick had gone after them, too.

They found the Indians and the wagon tracks at the clearing, buried the bodies, and were just about to begin a search for signs to tell them which way to go, when the wagon appeared on the horizon. The rest, of course, Nick knew.

Nick and Molly had much to tell but had already agreed that it would be up to Nick to tell the part about the gun battle. After all, Molly had not actually seen any of it after Nick had clobbered Nathan Tanner behind the bushes. She did tell that part of the rescue.
Nick merely said that after that there was a shootout. He had killed two with his rifle and then shot it out with pistols killing the last one. He buried them in a small grove of trees, spent the night in the wagon, and headed home early this morning.
“Home,” Nick said. He took Molly’s hand and repeated himself. “We’re headed home.”

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Filed under Short Stories

As the Crow Flies

The following short story was an entry of mine last year to a contest.  A publishing company sponsored it.  They gave the first and last paragraphs and I had to write exactly 48 paragraphs in between, connecting them.  No actually dialogue to be included.  Any subject.  I joined the contest late so I only had a week to write it, edit it, and send it in.  I didn’t win anything, but I think it’s a pretty good story.  See what you think:

No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.

But this was it! He was close – He just knew it. His spirit had come back to him. He was on track again. His instincts were back. He had felt things for the first time since “the failure” – his gut was working again! He just had to be in time – this time. For the first time in three years, he felt alive. He had hope. He felt like he could make a difference again.

Alex McCall used to be a good detective. He had once been a good cop, then struck out on his own and had become an even better private investigator. He had been very successful – once upon a time – but that all changed with one case. He had found stolen goods. He had solved insurance fraud. He had found long-lost heirs to a fortune! He had tracked down more than one criminal for the police. He had found a couple of missing teens and once thwarted a ransom attempt by a couple of thugs who had taken a little boy from his rich grandfather. But three years ago, he was too late.

Oh, he found the woman, just not in time. He was less than thirty minutes late to save her from a gunshot to the head by her kidnapper! It was not his fault, but you couldn’t convince him of that. The police had interfered and slowed down his pursuit. But that didn’t matter. No matter how many people said it was not his fault, he could not shake the idea that it was. He felt he should have done something differently. If he had avoided the police. If he hadn’t called it in. If …if…if… He had replayed it in his mind almost daily for nearly three years now. But it didn’t help. Laura Cantwell was dead, and he missed saving her by less than a half an hour.

Ever since then he was a mere shadow of his former self. He didn’t drink, but sometimes almost wished he did. Maybe that would have helped him forget. But he had watched his father drink away his family, his future, and eventually his life and Alex had vowed that would never happen to him! Sometimes he wondered what the difference was. He wasn’t drunk, but he seemed to be in a stupor. He was wasting his life, no good to anyone, yet sober. What difference did it make? But he still refused to drink.

He had survived the loss of his wife to a freak automobile accident when he was still a rookie cop. He was on night patrol and she had to go to the store late at night in the rain by herself. A truck slid off the road in front of her and she lost control of her car trying to avoid it. She was killed instantly. He was thankful she hadn’t suffered. He was thankful that they hadn’t had any children yet and he would not have to raise them alone. He handled that well, yet somehow, he couldn’t get past “the failure.”

He had never remarried. He threw himself into his work. Maybe that’s what made him so good. He had little in his life to distract him. He could stay focused. There was no one to worry about at home. Danger made no difference without a wife waiting for him to come home at night. He could stay at the job for hours on end and know that there was no one lonely at home. None of that mattered now. He couldn’t focus on anything for very long. Everything seemed somehow to remind him of “the failure.”

There was a brief relationship about a year and a half earlier, but he quickly messed that up, too. Just a real nice lady he had met on a stake out. He spent some time, three nights in a row, at an all-night diner, watching the fleabag hotel across the street. The owner of the diner was also the waitress. She was attractive and funny and since it was late at night, she had time to spend with him. They hit it off right from the start. For two short months he almost forgot about Laura. Then one night they were watching an old gangster movie and a young lady was kidnapped. The police didn’t get there in time to save her either! He reverted into his stupor and fouled up his new relationship. He didn’t treat her badly – he just didn’t treat her at all. She walked away. He never saw her again. He read in the paper one day that she had gotten married and that was that. All he had after that was work and very little of that.

He kept his license current and continued to take cases, just nothing big. He only took on enough to make enough money to pay the rent and buy a few groceries – and he didn’t eat much anymore. Occasionally, he would take on an accident probe or perhaps solve a hit-and-run. Mostly he worked divorce cases. He hated divorce cases and before “the failure” he wouldn’t even take them on. Spying on philandering husbands or a lonely, cheating wife, driven to an affair out of desperation for love from her husband. Following, watching from the shadows, taking pictures, chronicling dates, times, and places to verify the affairs. Helping one spouse get the goods on the other to get out of a bad marriage without paying for it. But it didn’t require much from him to do and it paid the bills.

Not enough for a new car or even a good used one, but enough to keep the old El Dorado running. Once it had been new and drew attention and envy. Then it became a classic. Then a classic in need of a makeover. Now, it wasn’t much more than a beater that needed constant repairs and occasionally more than he could afford. Mostly, he just didn’t care anymore. Not since he failed to save Laura. He had solved the case, but he lost her!

He had rehearsed the story over and over in his mind so many times. He dreamt about it – when he could sleep. He wrote about it. For a few weeks he had seen a therapist and even actually talked about it. Not to anyone else, ever, but to the therapist. It didn’t help. He tried praying about it, but apparently, he didn’t know how to get through. Or maybe God wanted him to work through it on his own. He didn’t know, but it didn’t work. Nothing did. But things had worked. Once upon a time, he was good. That’s why they called him.

Usually, if it was a criminal case, Alex was contacted by the civilian party after the police had their shot at it. Sometimes, though, even the police would call him. He had been that good. Being a former cop had probably helped, too. In any case, literally, when you needed help, you could count on Alex McCall. He knew how to get things done. He solved puzzles. He had instincts that were usually right on target. His “gut” told him what was what. He got feelings down deep and had learned to trust them. And it had all worked, right up to and including the Laura Cantwell case.

He had discovered that Laura had met a man online and started up an internet romance. Eventually, they set up a meet at a nice restaurant on a Friday night at 7:00. She never showed up. David Johns figured she had gotten cold feet and changed her mind. He tried to contact her again for a few days to no avail and then read about her disappearance in the paper! He called the police, even knowing that he would probably wind up the prime suspect. He had been, but the police quickly cleared him.

Her parents had called in Alex to help after the police hit a dead end. In a short time, Alex knew and convinced the parents that this David guy had nothing to do with it. He had learned that Laura had been stalked online and David had been hacked that night to change the meeting place. Laura went to meet him somewhere else and had been abducted.

A week later, Alex had tracked the hack back to an internet café, spotted the hacker on a security video and retrieved the message to locate the new meeting place. There, he dug up security footage from a camera across the street that had captured the abduction on film. A contact at the DMV gave him an address for the vehicle that turned out to be an empty house. The police took over and eventually came up with a more recent address, but it didn’t pan out either.

Alex finally left the police behind to go it alone again and soon had traced the car’s movements through several traffic cams and security footage from businesses along the abductor’s route. It led him to an abandoned apartment complex on the city’s south side. He called for police back up and was told to wait. He did but he shouldn’t have. While the police searched the complex with Alex waiting in a squad car, the kidnapper shot Laura and tried to get away. He was killed in a gun battle with the police, but by the time Alex figured out which apartment he had used, Laura was dead.

Until today, he had not been able to get past that. He went to Laura’s funeral, but it didn’t help. Probably because he never knew her. He really couldn’t grieve. He visited her parents a few times over the first few months. They were kind and he knew they did not blame him in the least. In the end, he knew he was much more of a downer for them than they were a pick-me-up for him. So, he stopped going by. He always figured he had finally done them a favor when he did that.

He had not taken another case like Laura’s until this one, but Sondra Keller’s parents had practically begged him. The police were at a loss. Her parents were desperate. They had researched Alex and knew his history. They were convinced he could help. They knew Laura’s death was not his fault. He could do this, and they needed him. He said he would try, but his heart was not in it. Even when he began to make progress he still had to force himself onward.

But gradually, he was coming back. His old instincts were sparking back to life. His mind was clearing from the fog he had been in since “the failure” – as he called it. His gut was feeling something besides hunger again and it had brought him to this tee in the road. He had reluctantly agreed to search for Sondra. He looked into what had happened, what the police knew, what they couldn’t figure out. Sondra was 42 years old and single. She had never married, didn’t even date much. She had immersed herself into her career and had done well in real estate. She was close to her parents and visited them often, especially for dinner and a little TV on nights she wasn’t with a client.

A quick check of her laptop by the police techs showed that someone had hacked her computer and had been cyber-stalking her for a few weeks. Whoever this geek was, he had learned her habits and her schedule. The Geek knew when she was home alone and when she went out – often even where she was going. It didn’t take much for him to figure out a place and time to grab her.

There had been no ransom demand, so the police were baffled. After a little research, Alex discovered that a half dozen 40-50-year-old women in a few neighboring towns had gone missing in the past few months. There had been no ransom demands, no dead bodies so far, and no trace of any of them – few clues, nothing solved. Alex suspected a connection and followed up on it. There was very little inter-departmental cooperation and no one else had tried to connect the dots. All the cases were too new to have attracted much attention yet. Except for Alex, that is.

He found out that each one of the women had been cyber-stalked and soon learned that all could be traced to the same internet café in his town. A security video from the café led to identifying a suspect and a search warrant produced enough evidence to arrest the cyber-Geek. He confessed to his part of a sordid sex-ring, but he did not know the identities of hardly any of the others involved. It took little more than a couple of days for Alex and the police to learn the whole affair and catch most of them.

Some rich, spoiled fraternity boys at a local college had tired of partying with girls their own age. One tried his hand at seducing the mother of one of his friends and found it to be both challenging and satisfying. He then challenged his frat brothers to try to do the same, but they soon found it difficult to find good prospective “partners.” It did not take long for them to escalate to kidnapping and rape! They hired the Geek who knew about a big, strong, easily-influenced criminal type who could help with the kidnapping. The Geek and the Big Ox had contracted to track and take those six women for money from the frat boys. Later, they sold the women to a drug cartel for sex-trafficking. The Geek had made the connections on the dark web – all very discreet and hush hush. All contacts were made online. He purposely didn’t know where to find the Ox, so he really could not help them find where he had taken Sondra. The boys gave a decent though vague description of the big guy from one brief meeting.

Alex took the description and left the station. He had picked up on something no one else seemed to notice. He almost told his lieutenant friend, but then he remembered “the failure.” He had blamed himself for three years for letting the police take over his investigation about Laura. He wasn’t about to let that happen again! So, he kept it to himself and returned home for some quick research.

The Geek had made one little off-hand remark that set off a little twinge in Alex’s stomach. When questioned about the Big Ox, he said he had never seen him, didn’t have his phone number, and did not really know anything about him at all. A few seconds later, though, he said something about him being such a low-life, what with always drinking whiskey and riding mechanical bulls. Alex had a hunch that he might find a man fitting Ox’s description at a bar with one of those mechanical bulls.

A quick online search gave up only two such places in town. There were a few more in the county, but Alex felt sure it would be one of the local ones. A few years before there would have been more to check out, but the fad had faded some and now Google only revealed two. One on each end of town. Naturally. Occasionally, the leg work went smoothly and contacts were close together, but this one was just the opposite.

The first one turned out to be one of Alex’s versions of Murphy’s Law (he called it McCall’s Law): when time is of the essence, you can count on some leads to be a big waste of time! The bartender listened to Alex’s description of the man and said it fit lots of guys, but only a few of their regular bull riders. He asked about likely behavior patterns but as Alex finished his description of those, the man was already shaking his head. He told Alex that he couldn’t think of any of the riders that would fit the bill. Alex thanked him and moved on. With the drive and the questioning, he had wasted a good half hour. He quickly crossed town to the other bar.

By the time he arrived it was mid-afternoon and not much was happening. There were only a few people in the bar. That made for a good talk with the lady bartender but showed quickly that Ox was not there now. The young lady behind the bar was very helpful and sympathetic to Alex’s need to know. After he described Ox to her, she said she just might know who he was looking for. In fact, he had just left there less than an hour ago! She only knew him as Joe. He always drank quite a bit, usually whiskey, and rode the bull several times. He hit on every female in the place every time, but never seemed to score even a kiss, much less a date. There was just something kind of scary about him. He left alone today, as always.

Alex got her to go over some security footage with him that overlooked the bar’s parking lot. She pointed him out to Alex as the video showed Joe exit the bar and climb into an old jeep and drive away – north out of the parking lot, away from town. The jeep would not be hard to spot because Joe had backed into a pole while leaving and broke a tail light. Alex grabbed the gal and planted a big kiss right on her lips and thanked her! As he hurried out of the bar, she struggled a moment to regain her composure and called out for him to come back real soon! Apparently, it wasn’t only his investigating skills that were returning.

Alex fired up the Dorado and headed north. He had no idea where he was going, but his gut was working again. This was the guy and he was headed back to where he was holding Sondra. If Joe somehow got wind that everyone else had been arrested, he would surely kill her. Alex would have to be in time to save her. He just could not fail again. The bar was at the edge of town. He figured that Joe would have her stashed out of town somewhere and that’s why he headed away from town instead of toward it. Alex followed his instincts and as he approached the junction at the city limit, he got the feeling he should pull into the big one-stop gas station on the corner. Maybe Joe had stopped for gas.

Alex questioned the young attendant behind the counter and sure enough, Joe was just there a little while ago! The attendant had noticed the jeep pull in. Joe didn’t get gas but stopped in for whiskey and cigarettes. He already smelled of alcohol. He took the time to try to flirt with the other attendant, but she rebuffed him. He cussed a little at her, paid for his stuff, and left. The attendant had watched him leave to make sure that he did and noticed that instead of continuing north on the highway, Joe had left the lot heading west from the junction. He offered to help Alex if he needed advice about the area, since he had hunted all over that section of the country and knew it well. Alex put the attendant’s number in his phone but didn’t notice that his battery was very low. Alex would have lost Joe had he not listened to his gut and stopped at the station! He was only minutes behind the Ox now, but the jeep could still be long gone.

There were no side roads for the next couple of miles, but suddenly, just ahead there was a turnoff to the right. Alex slowed down and looked down the side road. His gut reacted so he pulled onto the road and took a good look around. There! Fresh skid marks on the road. Someone – he figured drunk Joe – had recently skidded around the corner, leaving the marks as he regained control. Alex’s gut told him Joe had turned here. He listened to his gut and proceeded down the road.

In about a half a mile, the road came to a tee. Alex stopped and looked both ways. It was still daylight, though overcast, and Alex could see quite a way in either direction – uphill to the right and downhill to the left. No sign of anything either way. Sadly, his gut was silent this time. He had no clue which way to go, nor what might lie in either direction. He didn’t feel like he had the time to waste on another trip that would lead to nowhere. He decided to call the station attendant for advice. No bars on his phone! McCall’s law again – another time waster.

He got out of the Dorado and walked around trying to pick up some tower power. Nothing. He started back up the hill toward the main road. One bar, two, then three bars as he topped the hill! He called the station and explained his dilemma. The young man knew exactly where Alex was. He told him that up the hill to the right of the tee was an old abandoned lumber mill that some folks still went to just to cut some wood on their own. Alex figured that would explain the saw he heard when he first got out of the car. He also thought that wasn’t likely the place to hide a woman.

The young man said that down the hill from the tee, the road went on for several miles before winding back around to town. When Alex asked him if there were any side roads or any old houses or cabins around, the attendant remembered one. Once while hunting in that area, he had sought shelter from the rain in a cabin not too far from the tee. He told Alex that there was a gravel road on the right about two miles downhill from the tee. That road would go for three or four miles, winding around until it played out at a cabin back in the woods. He said the cabin was probably only two miles from the tee as the crow flies, but it would take quite awhile to drive there in a car. It was five or six miles and most of it was on a rough gravel lane. Alex somehow knew that was the place. That is where Joe went – where Alex would find Sondra. But would he be in time?

Alex thanked the man and headed back down to the Dorado. His phone went dead. When he got to the car, it was dead, too! Nothing. Not even a moan or a groan. The only sound was the clicking of the ignition as the engine stayed silent. He started to get out of the car to hurry back up the hill and call for help. Then he remembered his phone had just died. He was on his own and it was a long walk to the cabin. Even if his gut was right about Sondra being there with Joe, Alex knew he might not make the five or six miles in time to save her. What else could he do? Nothing. He would have to try, so he got out of the car to start walking.

It was just then that he heard crows cawing and looked up overhead. Two crows flew directly over him heading out over the field in the direction of the cabin. He remembered the attendant saying the cabin was probably just two miles as the crow flies! He had to do it. He could cross the two miles of field faster than follow the road – it just had to be the right way. He climbed over the fence, set his sights on a big tree way out in front of him in the direction of the cabin – he hoped – and started walking as fast he dared go through the rough field. Once he got to the tree he could find another marker further on to help him stay on the straight crow path.

For an out-of-shape man of 55 who hadn’t done much exercising in, well, forever, Alex kept up a pretty good pace. He was driven by his need to get there fast. He could not risk losing any time – not this time. He could not let Sondra be another Laura! He pressed on, until finally, he made it to the other side of the field. He crossed that fence, too and quickly stepped onto some gravel. It was partially grown over with grass, but it was a gravel lane. The cabin had to be to the right if the lane dead-ended at the cabin like the station attendant had remembered. He headed that way, powered by a second wind. Or was it his third wind? No matter.

In just a couple hundred yards, the lane stopped at a clearing in the trees and there sat the jeep in front of an old cabin, broken tail light and all! He was right. He knew he had been, but he felt validated somehow. Now, if only he was not too late. He couldn’t let himself even think otherwise. He had to stay focused! If he was in time, Sondra would need him.

This time he would be there for her. This time he was on his own. No back up, but no police who might have to go by the rules and delay him. He would not sit this one out in the car. He remembered – he didn’t even have a car to sit in! Even drunk, Joe was big and might be a handful. But then, Alex had no intention of fighting with him. He double checked his gun to make sure it was loaded and ready. He knew it was, but he always checked anyway. He left the lane to creep toward the cabin in the grass.

He snuck up to a window on the side of the cabin, keeping low until he reached it. Then he slowly raised up until he could peek inside. He was in time! Sondra was alive! She was sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of the front room. Her hands were tied together behind the chair back and her ankles were tied to the chair legs. Joe stood in front of her, yelling at her. He staggered a bit – obviously drunk. Alex was about to storm the front door when Joe pulled a gun out of his belt and started waving it around. Alex stopped. If he rushed in, Joe might shoot Sondra! He had to hope that Joe was not done taunting her. He needed time to plan a distraction and get Joe away from where he could easily shoot her. He quietly crept around back.

Joe took a big swig from his whiskey bottle and then held it out to Sondra, yelling at her to take a drink. She couldn’t have taken a drink if she had wanted to – her hands were tied behind her back. Joe put the gun back in his belt and grabbed her hair, pulling her head back and down, forcing her chin upward. He held her head in place as he poured whiskey into her mouth and all over her as she sputtered and gagged. He hollered at her to swallow it! Alex could hear the yelling and figured as long as Joe was yelling, he wasn’t shooting. Sondra just cried and sputtered some more. Joe took a knife from the table nearby and reached around to cut her hands free. Alex found what he needed out on the back porch.

Joe handed the bottle to Sondra and told her to drink it. She refused, but he pulled the gun again. She tried to drink it but could barely manage a sip at a time. Alex found a metal bucket, a rope, and a wooden barrel on the back porch. He tied the rope to the bucket handle and set the bucket on top of the barrel. Then he slowly backtracked, unwinding the rope as he walked toward the window where he had been. That was as far as the rope would reach. It would have to do. Joe was yelling louder and pointing the gun at Sondra. Alex took out his gun and pulled on the rope. The bucket crashed loudly to the porch.

Joe was surprised by the banging out back. Even drunk, he ran to the back door to see what had caused it. Alex went quickly and quietly to the front door and carefully opened it. As he stepped inside, he motioned to Sondra to be quiet. Joe jerked open the back door and stepped outside. It would not take him long to discover it was a set-up. Alex had to work fast! He got the knife from the table and handed it to Sondra. She would have to cut her legs free herself. If things went wrong, she could at least run for her life. Joe saw the rope tied to the bucket and turned back into the house. Alex heard him yell out a cuss word. He knew Joe was coming. Joe bolted through the back door with his gun in his hand to face whoever had done this.

Alex had never planned to wait on Joe to get back into the front room. Instead he side-stepped over to where he would be facing Joe as he came through the back room. Seeing Alex, Joe raised his gun to fire. Alex dropped him with three quick shots to the chest! Joe fell to the floor, dropping his gun. Alex rushed to his side and kicked the gun away. He stooped down to check on Joe. He wasn’t moving, but he was still alive. There was no way he could move to get the gun again, so Alex left it for the police to find and returned to the front room to Sondra.

She was free now and standing. She fell into Alex’s arms and sobbed into his chest as he assured her that it was all over. He told her no one could hurt her now. She asked if Joe was dead and Alex told her not yet, but he probably wouldn’t last long. She needed to see for herself, so with Sondra still clinging tightly to him, they shuffled together to the doorway so she could. Changing her focus away from Joe, Alex asked if Joe had a cell phone. He knew that Sondra’s had been smashed and left behind when Joe took her. She said he did and that it was on the end table by the couch, but she wasn’t sure there was any tower power there. She had not heard him make or get any calls.

Alex got the phone and thankfully, there were bars on it! He called the police. Sondra would not let go of him as he talked. She learned his name as he identified himself to the police and told them what had happened and how to find them. They would get men out there as soon as possible and send an ambulance, too. Alex checked on Joe once more. He was still alive, but barely. Alex didn’t much care. There wasn’t anything he could do for him anyway, even if he had wanted to help. He and Sondra stepped out onto the front porch and into some fresh air to wait for the police. It must have been late in the afternoon. All Alex knew for sure was that he had gotten there in time – this time. Sondra didn’t want to talk about it yet, so they chatted to get to know one another. She had a million questions for her hero!

When the police arrived, Alex surrendered his weapon to one of them and the questioning began. A couple of them went inside to confirm what Alex had described on the phone. One returned with Joe’s gun. Another began to cordon off the cabin with yellow tape, while another radioed back to the station. The ambulance arrived shortly after the first patrol car had. One of the EMTs came to check Sondra over while the other went inside the cabin to check on Joe. He returned quickly to get the gurney and ask his partner for help with Joe. Amazingly, Sondra was okay, so they left her with Alex and took the gurney inside.

In a little while, the police dropped off Alex and Sondra at the El Dorado. The ambulance had taken Joe away but didn’t need the siren. There was a pretty good crowd of law enforcement officers around the Dorado. Local police, county deputies, and a few state troopers. Some had jumped and charged the Dorado’s battery. Alex had charged his cell phone in a squad car while answering questions about the rescue. It was time to go. Alex told the police that he would bring Sondra by the station.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Dorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery.

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