The little firecracker had Harrison stoking the fire in the stove and had two pots ready to boil. She moved efficiently, making herself right at home in the kitchen. Jack and Mick had finally joined them in the kitchen, after coming in from where they’d been riding the boundaries of the property between their place and Finley’s stolen one. They all sat quietly, watching the pretty girl in their midst.
Tucker joined them in the kitchen a few moments later. “They told me my services weren’t needed. That no damned Barratt was touching their aunt.”
“Stubborn lot of them,” Hughes said, loud enough for the girl to hear. She thinned her lips at him and straightened her spine. “Spirited.”
Hughes wrapped a hand around his daughter-in-law’s arm and pulled her to the table. “Sit. Tell us what happened to your aunt. Why you came here.”
She stared at him for a long time. Then she sneered. “Because we had nowhere else to go. If we stayed in Whar—where we came from…” She shivered.
Hughes sat down across from her. Her husband stepped up to her back. They all waited. Hughes looked at her. “She told me some in the barn. But not all of it. What happened to all of you?”
“Do you believe in demons and hell, Mr. Barratt? Because that’s the men we were dealing with. The kind of place we were.” She shivered again and again. The depth of her fear shocked him. Mick hopped up and went into the parlor. He returned with a blanket his mother had knit years ago. He handed it to Harrison, who wrapped it around his new wife’s narrow shoulders.
“Tell us. So that we understand. Tell us why you had nowhere else to go.” Hughes gentled his tone, as he realized the girl was just as harmed by what had happened as her aunt. “How did your aunt get those scars?”
“There’s a man… a rancher where we came from. He owns most of the town and the surrounding land. He had eight sons, and they were all meaner than the one before. He owned the supply store, the grocer, everything. The only business in town that wasn’t his, was the doctor. My uncle Ethan. Aunt Jude helped him with the patients, and he started training Jami when she was old enough to be a help. Jami is good at it, too. If she’d been a boy… but anyway. My mother and uncle both died from cholera, along with Aunt Jude’s baby boy. My aunt tried to keep their house, but the rancher stole it out from her. She tried, but she had three babies to take care of and another on the way, and had just buried another, along with her husband. So, she and my cousins moved in with us. We had a place on the edge of town. It was enough for us, we made do. My cousin was born, and we were doing ok. Until…” She stopped and looked toward the stairs. There was such wild grief on her face Hughes’s breath caught.
“Until…” Harrison prompted, brushing a hand down her blonde hair. “Go on, Emmaline.”
“Until that monster decided my aunt had grieved my uncle long enough. When she turned him down, he turned vicious. He wanted her and wanted her bad. Suddenly we couldn’t buy flour or anything else in town. Daddy had to go a few towns over to do it. He was gone one day, but we needed supplies. So Aunt Jude, Jessi, Jami, Izzy, and I went to town. We split into two groups. Less likely to be accosted that way, we thought. I had one of the pistols, just in case. Aunt Jude had the other. She took Jessi and Jami. They were going to the mercantile, and it was owned by the rancher’s brother.”
“What happened, little girl?” Hughes asked. Did the girl even realize she was crying? She was such a fiery little thing, to see her like this… It wasn’t right. Not at all.
“Two of his older sons were there. And they somehow split Jami off. Got her outside before Jessi realized what was going on. When Jami screamed. Jessi’s always been protective of Jami, and the rest of us. They’d wanted Jami, you see. And knew if they got her outside, Jessi would come running. Then they’d have both of them. They… saw them as a prize, being identical the way they are. Their daddy had told them they could do whatever they wanted to us, but Aunt Jude was his. Jami fought, and she fought hard. That made Clive angrier and angrier.” She pulled in a deep, shuddering breath. She firmed her shoulders. “When Jessi got to Jami, he’d cut Jami from shoulder to hip, cut through her dress and through her skin. Sliced her right up. Right there in the alley behind the mercantile. Izzy and I heard Jessi’s scream. And Jami’s.” She wiped her eyes with the cloth Harrison held out to her. His boy sank down in a chair next to hers and pulled her closer. “When… when Aunt Jude got there from inside, Jami was bleeding badly, and Jessi was trying to fight the other brother off. They were laughing. It was just fun for them. Aunt Jude tried to help. But they had guns, too. Clive pointed it at Jami and somehow… Jessi tried to cover Jami with her own body or Aunt Jude did. We don’t really know how it happened. We just know they were all trying to protect each other. The bullet went through Jessi first, and then through Aunt Jude. Grazed Jami in the side.”
Hughes cursed. The girl flinched, and he forced himself to calm down. The last thing she needed was a big, angry man scaring her now. “Go on, precious girl. Tell us the rest.”
“Jessi… Jessi got Aunt Jude’s gun. And she shot Clive in the heart. Just killed him right there. There was so much screaming. Izzy and I—we got there, but no one was helping them. There was so much blood and everyone was just staring at them. At Clive. Even though they saw what happened. No one was helping because they were too scared to. Finally, someone did. The minister, I think. And the dentist. A doctor was traveling through and didn’t know how the town was. But he wasn’t a very good doctor. Drunk most of it. They carried them inside the hotel across the street. Jami healed pretty quick. On her feet again in a few weeks. Jessi, too, I guess. Though she was down for a few months. But Aunt Jude… Clarence, Clive’s brother, had cut her pretty bad, too. Her arm was mangled. With the damage from the bullet and infection… she feels horrible pain still. It took her months to recover. Sometimes when she’s hurting, she just shuts down till she’s better. Walls it all off somehow. She probably hurt herself today.”
“So what happened after?” Harrison asked. “Anything done to them?”
“To them? Not a damned thing. And it just got worse after that. The rancher blamed Aunt Jude for his son’s death. Said if she’d just given him what he wanted, it wouldn’t have happened. His six older remaining sons were everywhere we went. Our cattle were stolen and slaughtered, our barn was burned—while they trapped Izzy in it. She barely got out. They caught Izzy and Janie and Ally feeding stock one morning and… they forced Izzy and Ally to watch while they held Janie under the water in the pond. Repeatedly, they forced her under. They finally stopped when Zebadiah realized Janie was a full-grown woman and her dress was soaking wet. He liked what he saw. They left when I came running with the shotgun. The other brothers were just as bad. Throwing rocks at Aunt Jude’s middle two girls just for sport, following Jessi around the range, brandishing knives at Jami in the church just to scare her. Grabbing me outside the church, even. Everywhere we went. We tried to get help, we did. But no one could challenge them. Or would.” She rubbed her arm over and over. “They broke my arm by knocking me off my horse. Jami and Aunt Jude set it themselves that night. They shot Janie’s mule out from under her. Went after Annie and Ruthie on their way home from school one day until their own brother made them stop. All sorts of things designed to scare us. To hurt us. Until… four months ago.”
“What happened?” Tucker asked, his arm braced against the doorframe behind her. Where he could see up the hall if his wife needed him.
“Dad had a friend in the bar one night. He showed up in the middle of the night and got Dad and Aunt Jude up. Bob Decker, he was sweet on Aunt Jude himself. He heard…. The brothers were drawing straws, you see. To determine which of the six older brothers got each of us girls first. Right there in front of everyone. They were going to come to our place and just take us. Kill our father and the six younger girls, even Aunt Jude’s baby. Just like that. And there was no one to stop them from doing it. We knew that. Everyone knew that. We grabbed what we could carry and loaded the wagons. We left within an hour, with just our mules and a few cows, Izzy’s sheep, a goat, and a few baby chicks. We had no choice. We stayed with another friend of my father’s, for a few weeks. Until Daddy bought Finley Creek from a man he met in the mercantile a few towns over. Now we’re… here and trying to start all over again. And it’s just the same as it was then. Men taking what they want. Not caring who they hurt.”
Harrison shocked the hell out of Hughes when he scooped the little blonde up and shook her slightly. “No, it’s not the same. I promise you that. They’ll never hurt you again. I won’t let anyone hurt you ever again. I swear that to you, Emma-mine.” He pulled her to his chest and carried her out of the room and up the stairs, talking the whole way. “You’re safe with me. I promise that.”
Girl was too busy crying to fight him.
Hughes looked at his four remaining sons, seeing the shock they all felt. The horror. If something like that had happened in Barrattville… there would have been an immediate response. The ones responsible would have been killed where they stood for that kind of assault on helpless women. “Four months? Plenty long enough for that bastard to track them down if he wanted. To plan. Go nowhere without your weapons. Hendrick, head on up to your brother’s place. Give him a heads up that trouble may be coming. Might be best if he brought his girl back down here for a while. Easier to protect our little chicks if they are all in one place.”
Hendrick nodded. “Done.”
“Mick, Jack, get your gear. We’re going over to Finley’s. Let him know his sister is here and those girls of his are safe. We took four sets of hands from him, he’s going to need some help for a day or two. I want those kids of his guarded until I can figure out what we’re going to do. I’ll spare some hands, too. Just be on the safe side.” He would not leave his youngest two as sitting ducks, either. “Tucker, you keep an eye on the women here. Give our hands a heads up, let them know to keep their eyes opened for trouble. Everyone stays armed every minute.”
“Taking a personal interest in this?”
“Figured I may just as well take your advice and get me a pretty female in my bed to keep. Since there’s one in there now that I find fascinating, I think it is expedient if I just keep her. Did you get a look at the injuries?”
“Consistent with what her niece said. I don’t think she received the best care right after it happened. Damned lucky to be alive.” Tucker’s eyes burned with his own anger. “But it explains why I scared Jami so much when I kissed her.”
“And it explains why they complied with the weddings. They were afraid of what we would do to their family if they didn’t cooperate.” He said it loud enough for all his sons to hear. “But the past is past, even if it’s just been a day. We never intended to hurt those girls.”
“And we’ll make sure that’s known,” Hendrick said as his wife came back down to grab the warm water. He watched her for a long moment, a look of tenderness in his eyes. When he looked back at Hughes there was determination—of a man to protect the woman who mattered most. “I’ll get a message to Turner, get him and Jessi back down here. Take care of my Izzy until I get back.”
The girl just watched him leave, a confused look on her sweet, pretty face that broke Hughes’s heart.
His boys had a long road ahead of them now.