The Return (Part Five)

January 15, 1897
Edith Bowen

When Miss Waters finally agreed to stop for the night, it was already getting dark. The girls hustled about in the last vestiges of light to make a clearing in the snow. Miss Waters and I gathered wood and stones for a fire. Beans were cooked in a large pan over the fire and the girls ate heartily even though the food was less than any of us are accustomed. Sleep came readily with dreams fit for adventurers. We were all exhausted and exhilarated.

I would have screamed. I wanted to, but the rough hand clamped over my mouth and nose prevented the needed air for anything more than panic. My eyes shot open wide and scanned the blurry darkness for any sign of what was happening. I tried to move but I found my arms restrained and my legs unable to do anything more than kick uselessly at air and dirt. I was being dragged away from the camp.

“Hush.” a familiar voice whispered.

My vision began to clear and the hand over my mouth eased a little. I blinked and turned my head to see. It was Miss Waters.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Quiet. We’re not alone.” She said.

I bit my tongue to keep the flurry of questions in my head from coming out. Cold, groggy, and confused, I relied on my instincts and all of them told me to trust Miss Waters. Feeling more awake, I began to look around and it was then I saw them. Sarah had been watching them all along I realized and most importantly they had not seemed to notice us.

Had I not overheard Miss Waters’ conversation with Mr. Howe before we left, I would have thought they were a welcome sight. Knowledge however, is a dangerous thing and even the small amount I had told me these men were going to be trouble. Miss Waters had clearly made the same determination while I had been sleeping.

At first they seemed to only be looking and watching. Then they moved in closer and while nothing overtly told me they meant us harm, I could feel it in my bones. Something about the way the firelight flickered on their faces made them appear like demons.

“What are we going to do?” I asked.

“Wait.” Miss Waters replied.

I looked at her quizzically. Could she really mean to wait for them to attack someone before revealing ourselves?

“We have an element of surprise, but it will be wasted if we reveal ourselves now.” Miss Waters said.

I nodded my understanding, wondering just what it was she would expect me to do when the time for waiting was over. The men slowly walked through our camp, carefully stepping around the sleeping girls. After a moment I realized what Miss Waters had already understood; They were looking for someone.

My inclination was to assume they were looking for Miss Waters. The look on her face suggested she thought the same. We were both surprised when they stopped, apparently finding the one for whom they were looking. Instinctively, I looked to Miss Waters for guidance.

She was intent on watching the men. They grabbed the girl much as Miss Waters had grabbed me only minutes earlier. The light of the fire flickered just right and I recognized the girl instantly as Elizabeth Bassett. I choked down a reflexive gasp and continued to watch in silence.

Amazingly, they were able to move to the edge of the camp before Miss Bassett made enough noise to stir the other girls. For a moment I hoped that the girls waking would cause the men to leave Miss Bassett and simply run. I should have known better. Whatever reasons they had for going after Miss Bassett were clearly more important than any risk of being identified for authorities later.

“Damn.” Miss Waters said.

“What?” I asked.

“This is going to get messy.” She said.

We started moving back toward the camp. The girls were nearly all stirring from their sleep and some were standing up looking bewildered. Miss Cushing was the quickest to notice what was happening.

“Hey! Let her go.” Miss Cushing shouted.

One of the men pulled a gun and shot it in the air. Any girl not yet awake, was then. Anna dived to the ground and several other girls mirrored her. It is one thing to challenge a man with words but when guns are drawn it is time to join the meek.

Miss Bassett managed to break free from the man holding her for a moment. She kicked out and her boot struck the man who had fired the gun right underneath his chin. He choked and sputtered and stumbled and then turned on her. He swung his hand hard and the pistol slapped into her face sending blood spewing from her nose and mouth.

I gasped.

“Get the girls out of here, now!” Miss Waters ordered.

She did not wait for a response. Had I not been next to her I would never have seen her in the shadows as she approached the men. The knot in my stomach told me things were about to go from bad to worse, but Miss Waters had made her choice. The was no stopping her and for that, she was Miss Bassett’s only hope for escape.

I hissed to get the girls’ attention.

“This way!” I said.

The girls did not need to be told twice.

We scrambled through the trees and snow. I stayed at the back and Miss Cushing led the way. I stopped at the top of a hill and looked back. In the moonlight I could see the men on their horses and what must have been Miss Bassett with one of them. I could see no sign of Miss Waters and I wondered briefly if they had simply shot her and left her for dead while the rest of us had ran.
Miss Spooner turned back from the group and came to stand by me. Her steady hand grabbed my arm in support. I glanced at her and then looked back in the distance.

“There was nothing you could do to help her.” Miss Spooner said.

Then we heard the neigh of a horse echo in the night. The horse carrying Miss Bassett raised up in the air, sending its rider and Miss Bassett tumbling into the snow. A moment later two girls were running down toward the trees, away from the men.

The men were not willing to give up so easily though and gave chase on horseback. The girls had not a chance of outrunning them, but Miss Waters must have known from the start. As the first rider neared them, they dropped to the ground and the horse ran past unable to stop so short. The horse just behind was on them though.

Miss Waters swung a branch up from the ground, sending up a cloud of snow and startling the horse into throwing its rider as well. Even as the man scrambled to his feet on the ground Miss Waters swung the branch at him striking him over and over until he dropped unmoving in the snow.

Miss Spooner and I held our collective breath, unable to do more than watch the nightmare before us. The first man was back on them with his gun drawn. I could hear him sneer across the distance. The sound of his fist connecting with Miss Waters’ face, echoed in the night.

Miss Bassett tried to fight back, but she was ineffective. Her attempts did nothing but land her flat in the snow with more blood spilling from her injured nose. Miss Waters should not have been underestimated though. She might have been caught off guard for a moment but she was not far from finished. As she pushed herself up from the snow, I could see the anger beaming through her eyes. She spat blood in the snow like it was bad wine.

In what must have been a rush of adrenaline she doubled her fists together and rammed them into the man’s gut. I could almost hear the gush of air as it rushed out of his lungs leaving him gasping.

Miss Waters threw herself down to the ground and rolled in the snow coming up into a kneeling position facing the man.

He moved toward her.

Miss Bassett screamed.

A gunshot rang out in the air.

The night became eerily silent and I felt dread like a blanket on my shoulders. Neither Miss Waters nor Miss Bassett were moving. Miss Spooner and I ran down the hill toward our friends.

Three men got back on their horses and rode away at full gallop.

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