“Run to the woods, Quinn. And no matter what happens, you stay hid there, boy. You understand me?” Pa gripped him tightly by the shoulders and stared straight into Quinn’s eyes-same as he did when he caught him in a lie.
“Yes sir, Pa,” he said.
“Promise on your honor.”
Pa hugged him close, then shoved him out the cabin’s back door. “Now get, real quick.”
Quinn ran as hard and fast as he could, reaching the trees seconds before the torch-bearing riders pounded over the hill and up the side pasture to the cabin. He and Pa had seen them coming only long enough to hide the former slaves in the hidee-hole beneath the root cellar while Ma cleaned up any signs more than three people had been eating dinner at the table.
Crawling down low into the brush beneath a giant fir tree, he crept close enough to see what was happening at the cabin, but not so close as to draw attention.
“Where you hidin’ em, Halliday? We know you was a Yankee sympathizer during the war. You got any them freed slaves here?” the leader on the white horse yelled.
They’d dragged Ma and Pa out of the cabin, the group circling them as if they meant to trample them beneath the horse’s hooves. Ma clung to Pa, who stood straight and proud, the torch lights casting eerie shadows on them both.
“Found ’em, Colonel,” two men yelled as they emerged from the root cellar, the black couple walking meekly in front of the men pointing pistols at them.
The gray-clad renegades wrapped rope around the woman’s hands and tied them to the pommel of a saddle. Before they could do the same to the man, he bolted, running in a direct line for where Quinn lay hidden.
“Stop him, dammit!” The Colonel yelled.
A shot rang out. The man’s body jumped up in the air as if a huge gust of wind blew him off the ground. His face twisted in mute surprise and pain as screams erupted from his wife.
Eyes clenched shut and his hands over his ears, Quinn hunkered lower into the brush, his heart trying to beat right out of his chest. Afraid the rebels would find his hiding place, he bit the inside of his cheek to keep from making any noise. Near the house he could hear the Rebs talking, but couldn’t make out what they said.
“No! Dear God, please don’t!” Ma suddenly screamed.
Quinn risked a peek and saw Pa sitting astride one of the rebel mounts-a rope around his neck and up over a branch of the old oak in the yard. Two men held Ma by her arms as she struggled to get free.
“I love you! Remember your promise.” Pa yelled and Quinn knew he was telling him, as well as his Ma.
Quinn remembered his promise and hunkered lower into the underbrush, despite the urge to run out and save Pa.
A moment later A rebel yell split the night.
The horse bolted.
Pa flew off the horse, jerking about, suspended in air by the rope.
Ma screamed again.
Through tear-filled eyes Quinn watched the men drag his sobbing mother back to the cabin, then he looked back to where his Pa’s body-limp and lifeless-hung from the same tree he’d spent many an hour climbing. At first he heard the men’s laughter and his mother’s screams. Eventually all sounds from the cabin stopped. The soldiers milled about the farm collecting things. Finally, they climbed on their horses, bags of food from the root cellar and chickens from the hen house they’d killed hung tied to their saddles. One had the milk cow following him. The Colonel signaled them to move out, the black woman stumbling along as she tried to run after the rider she was tied behind-no more important to the men than the cow.
Night gave way to the gray mist of morning.
Still Quinn remained hidden.
Tears streaming down his face, he gave in to the sorrow and pain. He’d made Pa a promise-on his honor, something important to Pa-not to come out. And he always kept his promises to Pa.
Once the sun cleared the trees at midmorning, and he was sure none of the renegades had remained behind or returned, Quinn slowly crept out of his hiding place. Scratching where the bugs had crawled up his britches and bit him, he made his way past the dead man in the yard to the cabin, hoping Ma would be there waiting to comfort his fears.
Ma was there-her lifeless eyes staring out the backdoor as if begging him to cover her bloody, naked body. He grabbed the patchwork quilt off the bed and pulled it over her, his tears dripping onto her face before he covered it too.
A horse whinnied outside.
He grabbed Pa’s revolver from the mantel and went to the front door.
The tallest man Quinn had ever seen, dressed in a long black coat and Yankee-blue hat, sat staring up at Pa.
“You know how to shoot that pistol, lad?” the man asked never looking away from Pa.
“Yes, sir,” Quinn said. It was the truth. He might never have shot the pistol, but he’d shot Pa’s rifle plenty of times hunting. He knew to aim and press the trigger.
“You going to shoot me?” “Depends.” Quinn walked into the sunlight, both hands holding the heavy gun pointed at the huge man. “You one of them bastards that done this to Ma and Pa?”
“No, son. I’m the one hunting them.”
Quinn lowered the weapon. “I want to go with you.”
“We’ll talk about it, but first I think we should cut your Pa down, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Quinn said, dashing the hot tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.
“If I hold him steady, do you think you could climb up there and cut the rope?”
Quinn looked at the tree, then at Pa’s body swinging slightly in the breeze. His heart jumped into his throat.
“Son, it’s a dishonor for us to keep him hanging there. Sometimes a job is a hard thing to do, but it still needs doing.”
Quinn nodded his head. “I can climb that old oak. I do it all the time.”
He set the pistol on the porch bench, then started up the tree. Halfway up, the stranger handed him the biggest, ugliest knife he’d ever seen. Once he reached the branch the rope was looped over, he straddled it and shimmied out until he sat directly above Pa. The stranger had dismounted and stood holding Pa by the legs. Quinn swallowed the bile that rose in his mouth and concentrated on sawing through the rope.
Finally, the last strand gave way and Pa’s body dropped down over the man’s shoulder. He didn’t even slump under the weight.
By the time Quinn climbed down, the man had Pa stretched out on the bed he shared with Ma and her still covered body lay next to his. On the floor near the fireplace lay the former slave his father had tried to help. Quinn stood in the doorway staring at the two people he loved most in this world.
“You got any cider out in that root cellar, son? I’m mighty parched,” the man said, blocking his view of his parents.
“Why don’t you go fetch us a jug and I’ll get some cups.”
Glad to have a task to focus on, Quinn hurried to the root cellar. When he returned the man sat on the porch bench, the cabin door closed. He poured them both a cup of cider while Quinn sat on the bench beside him. After they’d both finished their drink in silence, the man poured them another.
“You got any kin close by?” the man asked.
“No, sir. Nearest kin is my aunt back in Ohio.”
“Don’t suppose you want to go back there?”
“I have a ranch out in West Texas you could come live on with my wife, Juanita and me. You’d learn all about raising cattle, riding horses and ranch life. Think that might suit you more than farming in Ohio or here in Missouri?”
For the first time since he’d seen the torches approaching the farm in the dark of night, Quinn felt a glimmer of hope.
“I think I’d like that, sir.”
“Well, we have to dig some graves if you want to bury your parents. Or we could do like the Vikings used to do to their fallen comrades.”
“What was that?”
“They would build a big woodpile and burn their dead soldiers.”
“Why’d they do that?”
“Well, they believed it would free their spirits from this world to travel to Valhalla, what they called heaven.”
Quinn pondered the stranger’s story a bit. “I think we should do that. Not build the wood pile, but maybe burn the cabin so Ma and Pa can go to heaven together.”
“You sure you want to burn down your home?”
Quinn looked around at the farm he’d called home all his life. It had held nothing but good memories. He stared at the oak tree. Now he’d remember nothing but the horrors of last night.
“No, mister. This’ll never be home again.”
The man nodded and finished his cider. “Well, best gather what you want to take with you.”
Quinn gathered his things-the sweater Ma made him last winter to grow into, a second pair of britches and two clean shirts. He took the book he and Pa had been reading, the family Bible, Pa’s rifle and revolver, along with ammunition for both. Finally, he made a bedroll out of the quilt on his bed and took the tintype his parents had made when they got married.
Outside, Old Blue-the only horse the renegades hadn’t taken-stood saddled and ready to travel next to the stranger’s mount. Quinn tied his belongings in place, patting the old horse to reassure him they’d be okay.
“You ready, son?”
Quinn looked over to see the man holding a torch and another ready to go in the fire he’d made near the house. Heaviness set on his shoulders as he took the torch from the man and held it to the wooden slats of the low-hung porch roof the stranger had doused with lamp oil. The fire caught and spread up the roof.
As he watched the flames, Quinn stepped back, the pain he’d been fighting burning as brightly in him as the cabin burning before him. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you Pa or protect Ma. But I promise someday everyone of these bastard outlaws will pay for what they did-on my honor. He watched as the flames, consuming the cabin, both his parents and the man his parents had tried to help. It was a fitting thing, since his parents had helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom over the years, even before the war. As the fire grew, he felt the change in his life, like a door slamming shut.
The man kept busy soaking the ground around the cabin with water, even sending Quinn to fetch more buckets of water from the creek. Finally, the fire slowed as the cabin and contents were consumed into a black pile of charred rubble.
“We’d best head out if we’re going to catch their trail before dark,” the stranger said standing beside him.
They mounted and turned up the trail away from Quinn’s childhood.
“Sir?” Quinn asked when they’d rode a few miles.
“What am I supposed to call you?”
“I’m Captain Anson McCarthy, United States Marshal. You can call me Cap if you want.”
Quinn tried the name in his head and decided he liked it. “Cap, I’m Quinn Halliday.”
“Well, Quinn, let’s put some daylight behind us.” And with that the pair rode off into the west in search of the murdering outlaws.