Ruby and her brother huddled together in the loft of the barn and cried as they listened to the blood-curdling screams of their mother. Even though the war had ended months ago, there was a small renegade band of Union soldiers who continued to ravage the countryside, causing total destruction to anything that lay in their path.
"We gotta do something. Mother's in trouble," cried Cole.
Ruby cowered in the corner behind a hay bale. "Mother said to stay here no matter what, Cole. We have to wait."
"Well, you can if you want to, but I'm not waiting."
Cole climbed down the ladder from the loft and grabbed a pitchfork on his way out of the barn. Two riders were still on horseback near the front of the house. As Cole ran towards them, one of the men pulled his Colt 45 from his holster, took aim, and fired off one round, knocking Cole to the ground. Blood poured from his head. Ruby, watching from between the slats on the boarded-up barn window, let out a scream and ran to her brother's side. Cole was out cold but still breathing. Ruby picked up the pitchfork and lunged toward the men. Once again, the rider pulled the hammer back and took aim.
"Hold fire," yelled the man in the Sergeant's uniform from the doorway of the house. "We don't kill no girls." He turned his attention to Ruby. "Drop the fork little lady, and you won't be hurt."
Ruby stopped running and did as he asked.
"Let me take her to the barn and show her how to respect a man in uniform," said the shooter, as he holstered his gun.
"At ease, private. You'll do no such thing. Get ready to ride. We're movin' out."
Ruby stood there, her legs shaking with fear, and watched as the men exited her home with sacks of their belongings.
"You want us to burn it, Sarge?"
"No, leave the house, but get their horses and burn the barn," he commanded.
They mounted up and rode off to the west, away from town.
Ruby tore the bottom of her dress and wrapped Cole's head with the cloth. He opened his eyes and moaned, "Mother?"
Sparks from the barn had ignited the roof of the house as the two of them raced inside. Mother was lying in the middle of the kitchen floor, bloodied and bruised, her dress torn to shreds. Cole ripped off his shirt and covered her up.
"We need to get her out of here. Help me carry her."
Ruby, with tears streaming down her cheeks, took her by the legs.
They managed to get her outside just in time. The old dried-out timbers of the house burst into flames as if a bomb had gone off.
Mother reached up and touched the side of Cole's face. "You look out for your sister now, boy. Be good." And she closed her eyes one last time.
* * *
Cole and Ruby each took turns shoveling scoops of earth into the grave and said their goodbyes.
"You are welcome to stay with the Mrs. and me for as long as you need," said Rev. Johnstone.
"Thank you, Reverend, you've both been most kind, but we got word from our uncle in Kansas. He wants us to join him there. Me and Ruby will be leaving at the end of the month."
"So be it. You will always have a place here if the need comes up."
* * *
The train whistle blew loudly as the engineer slowed to a stop. The conductor came on and announced that they were taking on water before continuing on to Dodge City. Ruby leaned over Cole's lap to look out the window.
"There is a man in a wagon out there waving," she said.
"That's Uncle Herman," Cole yelled, and they jumped from their seats and ran to the platform. Herman Morse, their mother's brother, beat them to the steps.
"Why did you meet us out here?" Ruby asked.
"What, no hello first?" Herman said. "Anyway, my place is closer to the water tower than the station in town, so I took the shortcut. C'mon, your Aunt Hattie is dying to see you. She's cooked up a big turkey dinner just for the occasion."
* * *
Cole and Ruby settled into their new surroundings. Life sure was different in Kansas from what it was back home. The land was flat and dusty, most people lived in either cabins or sod houses. There wasn't a single plantation house to be seen. No lush greenery hanging from the trees. The people that lived in the area were all from somewhere else, others were just passing through.
"Cole, I want you and your sister to take the buckboard into town and get some supplies. I hear tell that Mr. Tolliver has a new shipment of peppermint candy at the General Store. I think maybe you should add a couple of sticks to the list."
* * *
Ruby helped Cole stack the supplies in the back of the wagon. Cole wiped the sweat from his brow. "Sure is hot. I could go for a cold drink of water right about now."
Just then a ruckus could be heard coming from Sullivan's Saloon.
"Cole," Ruby called out in a loud whisper, "Look. It's them."
"Look, the guys coming out from the saloon. Look at the uniforms. It's the same men who hurt Mother back home."
"How can you be sure? We're a long way from home. What would they be doing in Kansas?"
"Cole, I'm telling you. I will never, ever forget the face of the man who pointed a gun at my head. It's them, I know it is. Look, there are three of them. There should be one more coming out. And he should have stripes on his sleeve."
The barroom doors swung open and a red-headed scruffy guy in a Sergeant's uniform stepped out and mounted his horse. The others followed him out of town.
"Now, do you believe me?"
Cole hung his head and shuffled his feet in the dirt.
"I know what we gotta do."
* * *
Several nights were spent sneaking out of the cabin after their aunt and uncle had fallen asleep, in order to search for the soldier's hideout. They were nowhere to be found.
The next night at dinner, Uncle Herman was telling stories, as usual, and told of the time when his new foal escaped her pen and ran wild. She was lost for days until he finally located her in one of the alcoves of the nearby canyon.
Cole and Ruby looked at each other at the same time with the same grin on their faces. That night, they headed straight for the canyon.
As they walked the creek bed, the rocks were slippery underfoot, it was hard to be quiet. Up ahead, they could see the reflection of a campfire on the canyon walls. Cole and Ruby got into a position so they could see around the bend, sure enough, there were four men in blue soldier's uniforms, and one was red-headed.
Ruby motioned to Cole to turn around and leave. When they got back to their horses, Ruby said, "I've got an idea."
"Let's go home and I'll tell you all about it."
* * *
"So, what's your big idea?"
"Look, you and me, we can't fight them in a shootout, obviously, and if we tell Uncle Herman about them, he'll want to get the Marshal from Dodge City. They may be gone by then. What if we sneak in while they are sleeping and steal their guns and tie them up?"
"Don't be stupid. That'll never work."
"Okay then, that's what I thought you'd say. Want to know what plan B is?"
"Not if it's as stupid as plan A."
"We kill them in their sleep," she said. "It'll be like pickin' off a fox in a hen house. They will never know what hit'em."
Cole looked at Ruby like she had gone loco. "Are you serious?" he said.
"You seen what they did to Mother. They gotta pay."
Cole thought for a minute, then said, "We'll go to hell."
Ruby glared him right in the eye. "I'm good with that. How about you?"
* * *
As soon as Cole was sure that Uncle Herman and Aunt Hattie were asleep, he and Ruby crept out of the cabin and headed to the barn. The moon was full and cast their shadows across the ground. Suddenly there were three shadows. They stopped dead in their tracks and slowly turned around. There stood Uncle Herman.
"You didn't really think you'd get away with this did you?"
"Don't know what you mean Uncle," Ruby said trying to sound innocent.
"I know what you're up to."
"Never mind how. Let's just say you two aren't as secretive as you think you are."
"You can't stop us," she said. "If you saw what they did to Mother, you'd let us go."
"Your mother was my sister. I never said anything about stopping you, I'm going with you. Three against four is a little better odds, don't you think?"
Another voice from the shadows blurted out, "I think four against four is even better," Aunt Hattie said as she buttoned up her overcoat. "Shall we?"
* * *
"We need to climb the west side of the canyon. The moon will be at our backs. Hattie, you stay here at the entrance, in case one of them tries to get away. You got Betsy loaded?"
"Both barrels, dear. Just like you showed me."
When Uncle Herman, Cole, and Ruby reached the peak of the canyon, they spread out and laid on their bellies overlooking the alcove at the bend in the creek bed. The bright moonlight shined down on the sleeping soldiers like it was daylight.
"Ruby, would you like the pleasure?" Whispered Uncle Herman.
She nodded, then yelled, "Y'all put your hands up and come out of there."
They jumped up from a deep sleep with their guns waving, rubbing their eyes, and yelling, "Who's there? Show yourself."
"Throw down your guns and put your hands up," Ruby yelled again.
They all looked up at the ridge and began firing.
Cole and Ruby ducked and kept their eyes on Uncle Herman.
"You heard her, throw your weapons down," he yelled.
They fired again.
Uncle Herman nodded his head and the three of them leaned over the edge and commenced shooting. It was like shooting frogs in a tree stump hole. Three soldiers fell with the first round of shots. The last one standing was the same one who shot Cole and pointed his gun at Ruby.
Ruby looked over at the other two and claimed, "He's mine." She aimed her rifle, squeezed the trigger, and plunked his kneecap. He went down in a heap.
"That one is for my brother," she yelled.
She pulled the trigger one more time, striking his right shoulder, knocking him on his ass. She must've hit an artery because the blood spurted out like a fountain.
"That one was for pointing your gun at me. The next one is for what y'all did to my mother."
"Fuck you!" he yelled out, trying to lift his pistol.
"In your wildest dreams, you son of a bitch."
Ruby pointed the rifle and eyeballed the sight. She lined it up with his forehead for the kill shot. She hesitated, lowered the barrel, took aim at his midsection, and pulled the trigger again. He grunted as the bullet plunged into his gut.
"Now suffer, you bastard."
Herman looked over at his niece as she stared into the canyon. The tears streamed down Ruby's face as she watched the life ooze from the man's body.
"Let's go home," he said.
* * *
Hattie cooked up a big breakfast of eggs, grits, and salt pork. Everyone sat quietly and tended to filling their bellies until Uncle Herman finally broke the silence.
"Looks like the chickens were really generous this morning," he said.
"They were. I hope y'all are hungry after last night," Aunt Hattie replied.
Ruby glanced over at Cole, then sheepishly said, "About that, Uncle Herman, what happens now?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, young'n."
"You know, last night in the canyon."
"Don't know nothin' 'bout no canyon. Me, I slept like a wee child last night. How 'bout you Hattie?"
"Like a rock dear, like a rock. All night long."
Uncle Herman looked up from his plate, "And that, boys and girls, is the end of the story."