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Authors: Stone Wallace

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BOOK: Black Ransom
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ONE

IT HAD BEEN
a long but satisfying trip, and as Ehron Lee Burrows prepared to bed down for the night next to the warmth of the campfire built in a rock-settled clearing near the gently flowing currents of a creek, he felt relaxed and ready for shut-eye. But sleep didn't come as easy as he had hoped and he figured, rightly, that it was due to anticipation. He was impatient to get back to his wife, Melinda, and share with her the good news. Yet eager as he was, he realized that he had to try and get some rest if he planned to wake at sunup to complete the last leg of the four-day ride back to his sister-in-law's house, where he and his wife, with child, had been staying.

Ehron Lee once more tried to get comfortable. He shifted in his bedroll and turned onto his side . . . when the soft rhythm of snoring he was hearing suddenly erupted into a deep, rumbling snort, emanating from his traveling companion, his brother-in-law, Winston Maguire. At first irritated by the intrusion, Ehron Lee couldn't help but shake his head and smile as he watched Winston's mouth twitch as if in involuntary acknowledgment of the sound. Ehron Lee had appreciated having him come along—both to have someone to talk to during the long ride and also to help assess the value of the property he had planned to purchase, as a present for his wife.

Times hadn't been easy for the couple. When they married, Melinda was just a girl of seventeen. Sheltered and somewhat naïve, but pretty and possessed of a gentle sweetness, she was someone with whom Ehron Lee fell deeply in love. Hardly had they begun their life together when Ehron Lee was called up to fight in the War Between the States, serving in the Union army. After the war ended, Ehron Lee, who had fought with distinction and through many brave battlefield actions had attained the rank of lieutenant, returned home only to find that his family's fortunes had been tragically lost. It had always been Ehron Lee's intention to work and build on his father's property in Kansas, providing a fine and stable home for Melinda and the children they hoped to be blessed with. But trekking back to Lawrence after the Confederates had suffered a bloody defeat at Sayler's Creek Ehron Lee was devastated to discover that bloodshed had also erupted two years previously in his hometown. Properties vast and small had been pillaged; menfolk and even children mercilessly killed and women violated. Ehron Lee learned that among these casualties, his father's estate had been looted, burned, and reduced to rubble by the butchering guerrilla force under the command of Colonel William Clarke Quantrill. Miraculously, Ehron Lee's father hadn't been killed, though many of the men who worked for him and who rushed to defend the property had been slaughtered. Perhaps those who died were the fortunate ones. The horror of what had transpired during those morning hours proved too much for Ehron Lee's gentle father, who promptly suffered a paralyzing stroke and would be forced to live out his years in a state of absolute incomprehension in a hospital for the insane.

If Ehron Lee was grateful for one thing, it was that Melinda had not been present at the time of the raid. Although she had briefly stayed with Ehron Lee's father after her husband went off to fight, she eventually acceded to the demand of her sister that she come live with her and her husband at their small-acreage farm in the southern Arizona town of Brackett.

And it was there that Ehron Lee, too, found himself following his horrible discovery. While Ehron Lee got along well with Winston and less well but cordially with his sister-in-law, Abigail, he was a proud man and yearned to provide Melinda with a house of their own. For the year that he lived with his in-laws, he not only helped out with labor around the farm but also worked hard at a variety of jobs to earn enough money to build a stake with which he could purchase property and build a home for Melinda and the baby she was soon to deliver.

His in-laws were basically good folk, but after a while Ehron Lee had discovered qualities in the pair not entirely to his liking. His sister-in-law had a tendency to moodiness, frequently shifting into periods of sullen behavior while Winston was an indolent sort with a fondness for a bit too much corn whiskey—though it never made him contentious; in fact, he became relaxed and good-natured, as otherwise he had a somewhat nervous disposition. But it was an environment in which Ehron Lee did not particularly favor to raise his child. Between these peculiarities and his determined desire not to further wear out their welcome, Ehron Lee decided it was time for him and Melinda to move on.

Luck smiled upon him when he learned of good acreage going for sale at a price he could just afford. The land even included a small ramshackle house. That was when he and Winston rode out together to meet the seller and survey the property. Both Ehron Lee and Winston, who was normally a wary man, were impressed with the fellow and took him to be an honest sort. It was evident that the land would need some work and the house itself required extensive repairs—extra rooms would have to be added since the seller had lived there alone and had no need to expand—but overall it looked good at the cost. And, better from Ehron Lee's standpoint, the soil looked adequate for planting and the crops sure to grow from the field would not only feed his family but should also put a little welcome money in his pocket.

By now brimming with excitement as he once more reviewed the successful outcome of their trip, relishing their good fortune, Ehron Lee was wide awake as he lay by the campfire, hands clasped behind his head, smiling broadly as he stared up into the night. He couldn't wait to tell Melinda about the deal he had made. Prudently, he hadn't told her the true reason for this trip, merely explaining that he and Winston were off to spend a little “man” time together. As with most women, Melinda would express a hesitancy to have her husband invest the money he had worked so hard for in uncertain property, even though Ehron Lee had reminded her many times that with a child on the way and, God willing, more to follow, they had to build their own life and not rely on the generosity of her family.

While he experienced a twinge of guilt about withholding this transaction from her, he felt certain that Melinda would not be unhappy with his purchase.

He was shaken from his pleasant thoughts by another of brother-in-law Winston's shattering snorts. When Ehron Lee turned to look at him, he noticed that Winston had wakened himself with the sound he had just expelled.

Winston took a moment to focus and to collect his thoughts.

“You heard that?” he said, acting surprised.

Ehron Lee nodded and smiled. “As did half the territory, I reckon.”

“What're you doin' still awake?” Winston groggily asked his companion as he scratched his fingers through his mop of curly blond hair.

“Can't sleep,” Ehron Lee replied with a sigh.

Winston was a heavy man, well over two hundred pounds, the layers of fat resulting partly from an improper diet but mainly owing to his excessive alcohol intake, both of which contributed to health concerns. He propped himself up on an elbow.

“After ridin' for most of the day, you can't sleep?” he said. “Woulda figgered you'd be plumb tuckered out.” He emitted an exaggerated yawn. “I sure as hell am.”

“Yeah,” Ehron Lee said. “Tired enough, but I got too many things rushin' through my head.”

Winston smiled and maneuvered his ample bulk into a sitting position. “Yeah, well . . . guess I can 'preciate that. Thinkin' 'bout your purchase, I reckon?”

Ehron Lee nodded.

“Mighty fine little piece of property you got yourself,” Winston said. “Sure to make Melinda happy.”

Ehron Lee gave an absent nod. “That's what I'm hopin'.” His mood suddenly became restless. “Hell, shoulda rode straight through. Coulda been back in time for breakfast.”

“Early supper'll have to do,” Winston said calmly with a grin.

Ehron Lee relaxed and smiled self-consciously. “Reckon I'm too anxious.”

“Reckon,” Winston agreed.

Winston then heaved a sigh, pulled himself with some effort from his bedroll, and lumbered over to his horse. He reached inside his saddlebag and pulled out what looked to Ehron Lee to be a small bottle. Familiar with his brother- in-law's habits, Ehron Lee didn't have to guess its contents.

“You're gonna need some shut-eye with the ride we got ahead of us, and I got just the thing,” Winston said as he sat next to Ehron Lee, settling himself against a large rock. “A coupla slugs of this here corn whiskey and yuh'll feel right sleepy in no time.”

Though not normally a drinking man, Ehron Lee sat up, accepted the bottle, and pulled a good swallow. He grimaced at the burning taste and handed it back over to Winston. Winston lifted the bottle in a salute and guzzled back twice as much as Ehron Lee had, though his own reaction was a satisfied exhale of breath.

“Good for what ails yuh,” Winston remarked expansively as he started to pass the bottle back toward Ehron Lee, who declined with a shake of his head.

It didn't take long for Ehron Lee to feel the relaxing effects of the whiskey. Although he doubted that it would aid his sleep, it did make him less anxious.

The liquor also helped to protect his his body against the chill of the night, providing a comforting warmth. Gazing up into a vast sky filled with stars, smudges of shadowy, purple-edged clouds, and a large, low September moon and listening to the soothing sounds of the water as it coursed through the creek, Ehron Lee grew strangely reflective, which generally was not his nature as he was a taciturn man rarely given to expressing his innermost thoughts. But suddenly he was in the mood to talk, to share what he was feeling with his brother-in-law.

“Strange how things turn out,” he began, at first speaking as if to himself.

Winston looked at him, the expression on his jowly, red-blotched face uncomprehending.

“Strange?” he echoed as he withdrew a half-smoked cigar from his breast pocket and struck a match against the edge of a rock to light it. “How d'yuh mean?”

Ehron Lee's gaze continued to reach far off into the night. All was still and quiet except for the crackling of the campfire and the flow of the creek.

“Just got to thinkin' 'bout the war,” he said, his voice mellow and introspective. “Rememberin' back to the fightin'. Things that I saw. Men dyin' all around me, and me never knowin' day to day if I might be next. Most of the time doubtin' if . . . if I'd ever get back to Melinda. Yeah, sometimes thinkin' that way—‘specially on those long nights 'fore we'd be goin' into battle, when everyone was quiet with their own thoughts, I'd write notes I prayed would never have to be delivered to her . . . Havin' those doubts gnawin' away at me . . . more times than not, I was sure I'd go crazy. Saw enough men that did.” He paused, and then he lightened a bit. “Guess what I'm sayin' is, back then I never coulda believed things woulda worked out like they have.”

“You earned some good comin' to yuh,” Winston said as he puffed on his cigar.

Winston spoke those words with sincerity, appreciating Ehron Lee's need to express his thoughts. His brother-in-law had never really spoken about the war after he'd returned and moved in with him and Abigail, certainly had never discussed specific events. He'd also never talked about finding his home in ruins and the tragedy that had befallen his father. Winston understood and, out of respect, never badgered him with questions, like some folks were apt to do. But he wasn't ignorant of the horrors Ehron Lee and others like him had experienced. News was reported daily and Winston kept abreast of it all, though he tried his damndest to keep the discouraging updates from Melinda, especially the reports where the Union army suffered a defeat on the battlefield, experiencing heavy casualties—perhaps Ehron Lee among them.

Owing to his poor health and obesity, Winston was exempt from military duty, and because of that, he figured Ehron Lee would never expect someone who had not participated in the war to understand what he had been through, which likely was the reason he'd never said much. That . . . and more understandably not wanting to upset his wife with tragic tales of having to kill men and the times when he himself had come close to death. Those were experiences Ehron Lee elected to keep to himself.

Winston was correct in his assumption. There were many things about the war that Ehron Lee didn't want to discuss—or that he even wanted to remember. But he knew those memories would never abandon him. The still-vivid details often haunted his dreams, pulling him from sleep in a cold sweat, a silent scream lodged in his throat. There were the faces of the men and especially the boys he'd been forced to kill on the battlefield. Faces that once had been defined by individual features but now over time seemed almost to blend into a whole. The horrified and pleading expressions of his own mortally wounded comrades, those for whom he could do no more than try to provide comfort in their last agonizing moments of life. The helpless screams that came both from their injuries and the realization that they were dying. Nor could he forget those times when he was forced to assist in battlefield surgery: extracting bullets and even helping with the crude amputation of limbs while under heavy fire.

BOOK: Black Ransom
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