Second Chance

I am very proud of my heritage. My family, especially the women, have always done what was needed to survive. Without my brave descendants, we would still be in England ruled by a family monarchy. We have escaped imprisonment, famine, traveled oceans and land to find a place to belong and live our lives free and happy. My family has benefited from their strife. We have a successful farm that we own and quite a large and happy family. As the oldest child in a large family, I help my parents as much as I can.

We see our neighbors quite often around the fence line, mending a post or searching for a runaway animal. We barter with each other to provide the other what they are missing. It is a beneficial system for us both. They have a smaller family with one son and a baby daughter. Their ancestors were some of the first groups to migrate to America during the colonial times, so they have been here a lot longer than we have. Their son, Robert, is about the same age as me. We have grown up together and know each other well. We are to be married, and our parents will be giving us small portions of their lands to start our own farm and family. Things were going pretty well.

Then in 1930, our luck began to change. The stock market crash didn’t affect us much out here in the West, but then the drought started. With the passing year, the drought affected our crops and created a storm that devastated most of what remained.  Robert and our fathers decided to travel from Kansas to the big city to see what factory work they could get, while we stay behind and tried to get our farms running again. We hoped that some of us would have enough luck to find a way to survive through the next winter.

In September, four months after the men had left, we lost our last cow. With our last hope for meat for the winter, those of us still behind had a family meeting. Mary, Robert’s mother, and my mother Catherine decided it was best to pack what we needed and take our last four horses to move to Chicago where the men had gone. The last we heard from them, they were still trying to get jobs, but all hope for our farms is lost. There was no longer a reason to stay. With Mary’s little girl Hazel so small, we needed to find shelter before winter fell. So, in many ways, we once again lived up to our family name and did whatever it took to survive.

***

Our trip started out quite well considering there were six of us. You might even say it was boring. We avoided most of the towns choosing to sleep under the stars. None of us were a stranger to the wide-open night and knew well how to take care of ourselves. Simply put, we followed in the footsteps of our ancestors.

One week after we started our journey, my sister Grace and I had just put the fire out and tucked in for the night when I heard a small noise. Now granted in the open like this, people often hear scary noises for any number of real or imagined reasons, but I was an expert at animals and could tell it was nothing like that.

Grace turned to me and said in a whisper, “What was that?”

Putting my finger to my mouth to quiet her, we quietly rose and peeked out of our wagon. We were just in time to see two men whisking away our horses.

“Hey!” I screamed running after them. I wasn’t far behind them, and it seems that my presence had thrown them off. One of the men turned to look at me causing the horse that was latched to him to break free. Grabbing hold of the horse, I swung my shoeless foot over his bare back, and we chased after them. I followed them into the next town, but I quickly lost them without a better lay of the land. I rode through the town, but at this time of the night it was mostly quiet so I decided to head back.

When I got back to camp, everyone was up waiting on my return. I had never seen so many sullen faces, but it was this moment that I faced three at the same time.

“What are we going to do now?” my mother asked me.

“It will be okay, Catherine. We will figure something out,” Mary, my mother-in-law said. “It may take a little longer now than we expected.” And we all look down at little baby Hazel as she coos.

“No!” I say, “I followed them into the nearest town. I know they are there, but I lost them in the dark. Tomorrow we will go into the town, and we will find them, get the horses back, and get back on track to be in Chicago before it turns cold for all of our sakes.”

***

My mother and I went into town the next day leaving Mary with the others to protect what remained of our belongings. The little town of Centreville looked different in the daylight. It was loud and full of people. No one paid any attention to us giving us the ability to blend in and scope out every nook and cranny of the town.

As we wandered around, the town seemed rather unaffected from the stock market crash. The people were well-dressed and happy. Even though we had avoided most of the towns since we left home, we have met several people. Every person had told us stories on how their town had been affected by the crash. The struggles they were having to survive even though they did not have direct ties to the stock market. Then there were those who were affected in the same way we had by having their way of life and survival destroyed by the drought. These problems did not seem to exist here. They seem to be in a little bubble where nothing bad had happened.

None of the buildings were run-down, but rather seemed like they were recently new or renovated. I was amazed at how well-off this town was. Despite being a small town, there was no lack of successful businesses full of customers. By mid-day we finally found our horses in a barn behind the tavern. We rode back to camp and discussed with the others how to get our horses back.

***

“We should go to the Sheriff,” my mother reasonably suggested. “Surely he would help us get our horses back.”

“Non-sense,” Mary said. “There is no way to prove they are ours. Even if we could, do you really think the sheriff would believe female strangers over men he has probably known since they were children?”

“What do you think we should do then?” I asked Mary.

Mary only had to think a moment before whispering, “Simple. We steal them back. If we wait until night like they did, we would be gone before they realized their stolen horses had been stolen from them. Besides Anna has a way with the beasts. They would probably follow her without much prompting or noise.”

I looked at her, dumbstruck. “You want me to commit a crime?” I said to her.

“You wouldn’t be committing a crime. They are our horses. We are simply retrieving them. We wouldn’t be hurting anyone except maybe the horse thieves themselves. I’m okay with that,” Mary responded.

The question was could I be okay with that? Finally, my mother broke the silence. “I don’t know Mary. I am not sure if I am comfortable with Anna going in there alone. What if something happens? I could never forgive myself. I will go.”

“Mother, you cannot go alone. At least let me go with you. It will be easier if there are more of us so we can just ride the horses out.”

“Then I am coming to,” my brother Harry said bursting in from behind the linen. “They stole three horses and if there are three of us, it will take us less time to get them out of town.”

“My brave children,” my mother said to us both. “Anna is grown, but Harry you are still a child. I cannot risk your life over some silly horses. Even if we need them to get to Chicago.”

“Mother please. I am fourteen now,” Harry replied. “I can help, and you haven’t let me help at all since father left. I am the man of the house now. Father said so. Let me come with you.”

My mother sighed and responded. “Okay. You are right. You are the man of the house now, and I am very proud of you. We leave at nightfall. Mary, you and Grace get everything together and ready to go. We will have to ride as soon as we return. We need to be out of the area before sunrise to stay safe. We will have to ride all night.”

And with that, we just went along with Mary’s plan before even thinking about the consequences.

***

I thought being a thief would be exhilarating. I am with my brother and mother in the breezy, dark night waiting for the town to still. We stay just outside of town watching but not daring to make ourselves seen by anyone in town. We barely even speak to one another. The plan is to wait until it seems most everyone has went to bed and sneak in and break out our horses. Seems super easy, but something feels off. After all, the two men who stole our horses to begin with were up late, so how can we really know when it is safe to get our horses?

I chock my fears up to the quietness between me and my family. It gives my mind a lot of time to contemplate, and I am just nervous. After all, Mary is right. These horses belong to us. After what seems like a lifetime, the hum of people disappears. My mother, insisting on being the lead, goes first to make sure the street is void of people. She signals Harry and I to follow her to the tavern. Staying in the shadows, we sneak our way to the barn. My mother signals that she will open the gate and keep watch while Harry and I retrieve our horses.

As Harry and I tiptoe quietly into the pen, we locate our horses and begin to put their bridles over their heads. Suddenly my fears become a reality, as we come face to face with the same man who had taken our horses the night before.

Clearly not prepared to give away his realization of who I was, the thief said to us, “What do you think you are doing trying to steal my horses?”

But I am not ready to give up and lose our only way to make it to Chicago. I reply, “Your horses? These horses belong to us! You stole them last night from our camp. I even rode after you into this town. I remember you. I will tell the sheriff if I have to.”

Visibly unshaken, the man took a step towards me and responded. “I am sorry little lady, but these horses are mine. I brought them back from an auction late last night. I even have the sale papers to prove it. As for the sheriff, well you’re looking at him.”

Letting that piece of information soak in for a moment, the silence that lingered between the three of us was loaded with unspoken threats. Just then he fell limp to the ground with an umpf. Confused, I looked up from the man laying quietly and see my mother standing over him with a shovel. Just like that, the moment was over and my mother, Harry and I were left running on foot out of town to our camp as fast as we could. Not once stopping until we were there.

Even in the pitch black, we managed to locate our camp rather quickly. Only once we were there did we stop to look behind us. No one was following us, but we knew it was only a matter of time.

“Mary! Grace!” my mother yelled though visibly winded and sucking in breathes. “Grab Hazel and whatever else we can carry. You too Anna. Harry. We must get out of here and fast. Load whatever you can with our last horse. We will have to walk until the next town, and figure out what to do then.”

No one questioned my mother’s authority, and Mary and Grace asked us no questions about our misadventure. Quickly we gathered as much of the necessities we could carry out of the loaded wagons, and prepared to make a hasty escape. The only problem was, gathering six people and supplies was not a quick activity. It was not long before the thieving sheriff caught up to us, and this time he brought his whole band of friends. And whether his friends were thieves like him or just good citizens helping the sheriff, there was no way any of them would choose us over him.

As I looked up into the sheriff’s face, I could have sworn I saw a bit of smugness in his eyes, and the corner of his mouth twitched as if he wanted to smile. How I wish I could wipe that look right off his face. Then I thought how my mother had hit him with a shovel, and I couldn’t help it, a big, satisfied smile crossed my face.

“How’s that head of yours Sheriff?” Yeah that did it. The smugness was gone, but then so was my smile. His friends had my family bound, and as he dismounted, he came over to do the same to me.

“The bump will heal,” he whispered in my ear. “But you and your band of miscreants are in a lot of trouble that you will not be so quick to get out of.”

Ah damn, the smugness was back. And so was the pit of fear in my stomach.

***

A jail cell is much worse than sleeping outside. It is colder, more sterile, and so quiet it borders on spooky. The only sound between the three cells we were in was Hazel cooing completely unaware of the dire situation we were in. It has been 12 hours since the sheriff brought us in, and we have not seen the thief since he brought us here. Only slightly aware of day breaking through the window at the end of the hallway, I could only guess that it was still too early to take care of the new pests giving him a hard time.

How could the sheriff be a corrupt thief? How would we ever get out of here because of that one horrible fact? Looking around at my family, I could tell I was not the only one thinking these things. None of us had spoken since being brought here. Mostly because Harry, Grace and Hazel had been sleeping since shortly arriving, but my mother, Mary and I were all thinking so hard, you could almost hear it.

Suddenly the silence was broken when the door opened and footsteps thudded down the sun laden hallway. Apparently, the Sheriff thief and I had grown a certain bond, because he walked straight over to me as I was slinked and resting on the bars even though it was evident both my mother and Mary were the matriarchs of the family.

“Good morning. I hope you slept comfortably,” the Sheriff thief said with slight amusement. “I am not going to press charges for the attempted horse thieving.” I heard my mother-in-law snicker, but unperturbed, the sheriff continued. “It was just a simple misunderstanding, but I am afraid that I have been forced to hold you on assaulting me with the shovel. I am sure you understand. I can’t have people in this town thinking they can do whatever they feel like.” Looking me straight in the eye, he smiled.

“You may want to make yourselves comfortable,” he continued. “You’re going to be here awhile. Besides, from what I can tell from your makeshift camp, you have run out of ways to get out of here. I don’t think you will be able to get to, where was it you said you were going, oh yeah, Chicago any time soon.” He visibly laughed at us as he walked right back down the same hallway and out the door leaving us alone once again.

***

Maybe an hour later, Harry, Hazel, and even Grace were asleep once again. Who could blame them? It is so quiet and boring in here, but I unable to sleep. My thoughts are racing through my mind. How are we going to get out of this mess?

“I should have gone alone,” my mother said under her breath, breaking the silence. “I could have saved both our families from being stuck in here.”

“Mother, no!” I said to her. “We are family, and we should always be together. We would not have left you even if you were in this situation alone. We still would have needed to find a solution to get you out. Your life is important to all of us.”

“Anna, I am getting older. Mary too. That is the true reason we left Kansas. I knew to get our farms up and running would take more than Mary and I could do alone, even with the help of the three of you. I knew we had to leave. So, I sat down with Mary, and here we are. Stuck in this god-awful situation.”

“Well then that settles it,” I say, “We have to get out of here and get to father before it is too late.”

“And we have to find a way to stick it to our sheriff friend and his so-called law-abiding town,” Mary said.

My mother smiles sweetly to me before responding to Mary. “Just how do you propose we do that?”

“I think I have an idea. It will not only make them pay, but it will help us get to Chicago since everything we owned was confiscated by our dear sheriff,” Mary told her.

With those words, we once again started working together to plan how to get out of the cell and back on our way to Chicago.

***

“We cannot do that Mary!” my mother exclaimed. “It is one thing to steal something that belongs to us, but to steal something that was never ours. It would just be wrong.”

“Did you look around when they dragged us in here?” Mary calmly replied. “Did you not notice how this town looks completely untouched by all the troubles that are out there right now. No one in this town is innocent. I believe they prey on people like us trying to escape their hardships. They use us to stay thriving. Their bank is probably full of other people’s money they stole or procured somehow.”

This stunned my mother, but already fed up with what this town was doing, I asked her, “But how would we even pull it off? We got caught trying to steal horses. Our horses. We will never get away with robbing a bank.”

“We will if we give our kind and honest sheriff something to distract himself. Like hunting a few fugitives who escaped his town jail,” Mary said with the slightest smile on her face. “We just need to make him think we have left town so he will follow us with his band of merry outlaw townspeople. It will give one of us the opportunity to get in, steal the money and get out before he realizes we never left. He will never find us if we take a different route than the one we were planning.”

“You have really thought about this,” my mother said.

“Well, we have had a lot of time on our hands in this place,” Mary replied.

Finally waking after sleeping all day, the children joined us. “I want to rob a bank,” Harry said.

“Me too,” said Grace.

“Absolutely not!” my mother responded. “Not this time. I am not taking any chances. I am doing this alone!”

“No!” Mary and I say together. Although Mary seemed more disappointed than determined not to let my mother do this alone.

“Yes. It will be my pleasure to get the Sheriff back this time. For my family, and I think it is the right thing to do. Considering the situation of course,” my mother calmly replied. “The rest of you need to find some way to get some of our belongings back and a way to escape this place.”

So, the plan became that my mother would rob a bank, alone, while the rest of us stayed as far away and safe from the danger as possible. I wasn’t about to let that happen, but there was no use arguing about it now. I would simply join her once it was too late for her to argue with me over it. Mary would not fight against me going to help her. Before we can do anything, we have to get out of this jail cell.

Just then our soon to be duped sheriff walked in, and as always walked straight over to me. Mary pointed this out to me. It seems that Mr. Honest here may have a thing for me as so very twisted as that is. After all, not only did he arrest us after stealing our horses, but I am happily married. Unfortunately, using me seemed the only idea we could come up with to escape this place. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

I try smiling at him, but I can tell I am forcing it too much. Instead I stick with my usual scowl. It has worked so far, wouldn’t want to change now.

“Back from stealing someone else’s livelihood?” I ask. I could tell I shocked my mother and Mary. This is not what we had discussed, but I just couldn’t bring myself to be nice to him. He isn’t nice, and would not be attracted to nice. I ran with it.

The sheriff smiles at me. Honestly, he likes this? Our sarcastic banter is a turn-on for him? Ewwww. How do I get him to let me out of this cell to look around? I need to find a way out of here for my mother’s sake. For all our sakes.

The sheriff walks right up to me. We are standing face to face. So close, only the bars are between us. I don’t blink. I know this is a test. He wants to see if I am as tough as I talk. He is trying to intimidate me. I won’t give him the satisfaction.

I add with a voice just above a whisper to goad him a little “Are you avoiding me?” Leaving the rest of my family out of the statement. I want to make him focus on me, and forget about everyone else. In a way, I am protecting them. The same way that mother is trying to protect us. When had I become maternal? Something to think about, but maybe later. Right now, I needed to concentrate on the man right in front of me.

“Why would I avoid you?” the sheriff responded to my question speaking only for me to hear. My plan is working. “I like your smart mouth. In fact, there is a lot I like about you.” With that he pulled his gaze from mine and started to run it and up and down me.

I stand my ground, trying not to break our connection. Unsure of what to do next, but I know his attention needs to be on me. I can feel the others trying to make themselves as small and quiet as possible, but just then baby Hazel awoke with a small coo. It was time to eat. The sheriff’s gaze shifted and his expression changed. He once again realized we were not alone. Determined to get him back on track I begin to say something, but he cuts me off.

“Put your hands through the hole,” he demands still looking at my family. I begin to question him, but his eyes cut to me and I can see I have no choice. I put my hands through the hole. That is when he reaches for his hand cuffs. With no gentleness, he clanks them around my wrists. This time he speaks to my family. “Do not stand. Do not come toward the bars.”

He reaches for his keys. He breaks from my gaze to insert the key into the lock in the cell. I quickly look down trying to see which key would gain our freedom. Memorizing its shape and color to save us time when we needed it most. The bars swung open, and the sheriff ushered me out. I know this was the plan, but where was he taking me and what was he planning on doing to me? Questions I had not thought through enough. This plan could be more dangerous than stealing the horses was or even the plan to rob the bank. I was the object of desire here. What would he do to accomplish his goal? I already know he is not of good moral character.

In that brief instant, I thought about Robert. He is sacrificing for me and our family. He is a strong, kind and caring man, and I love him. Then a realization hits me. The sheriff closes the cell door and places his hand to cover the small of my back ushering me both forward in motion and out of my head, back into the moment I am in. With the new insight of myself, I know this cannot continue. This is too dangerous for me, especially now.

Hoping to catch him off guard, I scramble backward lodging him between the bars and myself. I know that I can only do this a few moments before he overpowers me, I quickly try to come up with a new plan. Before I had the chance, the pressure he was putting on me was lightened. I turn only to realize every one of in my family had a hold of something on the sheriff through the bars holding him in place.

My mother’s voice propelled me into action. “Hurry Anna!”

I quickly look around. I find a book and swing it as hard as I can toward his head. With a thunk, the sheriff’s eyes rolled back in his head and his body went limp. Again. “Twice from the same family,” I say to his body now sunken to the floor. “You really should be more careful of your surroundings, sheriff.”

I quickly bend over, grab the keys and unlock the door. While my mother is unlocking my handcuffs, Mary rips a piece of her dress and shoves it into the sheriff’s mouth. Then she takes his belt wrapping it around his head to keep the piece of fabric in place. “Give me the cuffs,” she says.

My mother hands them to Mary who cuffs the sheriff this time. With only one hand cuffed, she says, “Harry, Grace, Anna. Get him into the cell, back against the bars. Catherine, make sure we have all the keys and anything else he could use to escape.”

We all did as she asked. As we propped the sheriff up against the bars, Mary grabbed his wrists and finish handcuffing him through the bars. We all look at her.

“It is so he cannot remove the gag. Now he is stuck in the cell, and cannot scream for help,” she says. “We don’t have to make him chase ghosts now. We do this before he can escape. We saw how often people come in here. It will be a while before anyone will check on him. We can rob the bank and get out of town before anyone knows he is missing.”

“Amazing,” I say to her.

“We have to hurry though,” she says.

“In a minute,” my mother says as she comes over to me. She grabs me by the arms. “Are you ok?” she asks pulling me in for a hug.

“Yes,” I say. Lowering my voice into her ear, I whisper, “Mother, I’m pregnant.”

For a moment, we just stay in the embrace. She doesn’t say anything to me, but I know she heard me. I can tell by the love I feel between us. She pulls back, holding me at arm’s length and smiles so big at me. I feel myself begin to smile as well. Tears well up in both our eyes, but now is not the time or the place. We both simultaneously shake it off.

“No turning back. Time to do this,” my mother says with more determination than before. I have a feeling that is mostly because of me.

We close the cell door, taking the keys with us. Even if they find the sheriff, it will hopefully take them a while to get him out.

“While your mother is at the bank,” Mary says, “we will have very little time to find a way to ride out of here. We need to be in and out within an hour. Stay safe Catherine!”

With that we leave the sheriff’s office and go our separate ways. I will help Mary and my siblings find our horses again. Then I will head over to help mother. We can do this.

***

I helped Harry, Grace and Mary gather what we would need for the next few days. They have the horses. Mother and I are to meet up with them in a day’s time. This will give them a head start. They should be able to stay safe this time even if we get caught. We decided on just the horses. We would be faster without the wagons, the horses only carrying us and a minimal amount of food and other supplies. For our plan to work, we must be fast. We took a horse for each of us. They took mother’s horse with them, and I steer my horse back into town and stop at the bank. It seems rather quiet, so I can tell that mother has probably already started robbing the bank. Huh, we are robbing a bank. I try to push the nagging voice warning me of danger in my head away again.

I put on a disguise, like we planned on for mother to give us anemity and help us escape. I walk into the bank slowly so mother would not spook on me. She had taken the sheriff’s weapon when she was searching his unconscious body to help with the heist. When I walk in my mother turns and sees me.

“What are you doing here,” she yells without saying my name. She knows it’s me. “I told you I would do this alone. I don’t matter remember.”

“We are in this together, ok?” I tell her. “Besides, now is not the time to argue about this. We need to get out of here. Quickly.”

With a sigh, she turns back to the teller who is putting money into a bag for my mother. The bank is almost empty with only a few employees behind the counter, which is lucky. It is easier to avoid the magnitude of what we are doing if you don’t have to look anyone in the eye.

“That is all there is,” the teller says quietly as she hands my mother two large bags full of money.

My mother looks the teller in the eye and says, “If you wait to get help until we are out of town, I will give you each a handful of this. It should be more than they are paying you here. I don’t need all of it. We are just paying back an old friend.”

I look away from watching the door to look at the women behind the counter all nod their heads to my mother. Slightly confirming Mary’s theory that no one in this town is truly innocent. She gives them each their share and moves towards me at the door. “Let’s get out of here,” she says.

We strap the money over the horse, a bag on each side to distribute the weight, and both jump on. I urge the horse toward the town limits. My mother is holding tight to me. As we pick up the pace, my mother says right into my ear making sure I can hear her, “No matter what, do not stop. Do not try to save me. You must take care of my grandchild. It is your priority now. Promise me!”

Unsure of why she was saying this now, I hesitate for a moment. We have done it. We are on our way to freedom, and we will see Robert and father again soon. My mother prompts me again. “Promise me!”

“I promise,” I say while nodding my head so she knows I agreed.

Just then I hear voices, and they are shouting at us. Before I could even comprehend what was happening, my mother jumped off the horse. She tumbled to the ground and rolled. From there I could hear her yelling at me, “Keep running!”

I turn to see the sheriff approaching her. Thinking to myself, I turn to ride on faster. I can go get Mary, and we will come back for her. We can put together another plan. Our plans never seem to work out the way we plan, but we will try. We will not leave my mother with that man.

I glance over my shoulder once more, and that is when I see my mother raise the gun she had stolen from the sheriff and point it right at the very same man. Everyone he had with him stopped where they were, unsure of what she was going to do. All the men slowly surrounded her and raised their guns toward her. She has successfully distracted them in forgetting about me. Then, I hear a shot, and moments later I hear several more shots.

As I continue to look behind me, tears beginning to well in my eyes, all I can see through the circle of horse legs is a body collapse to the ground. My mother’s lifeless body contorted in the dirt. No movement. As the horses disperse, I see that her body is not the only one lying on the ground. Only a few feet away from my amazing mother, lies the body of the horrible thieving sheriff.

I force myself to look away and push my horse harder and faster. As the tears escape running down my cheeks unable to stop the sadness, something unexpected happen. I smile. My mother did it. She probably eliminated the one person who would have cared enough to come looking for us. She saved us, but now she is gone.

***

After a full day of riding alone, I finally caught up to everyone else. Despite the circumstances, I was no longer crying. Mostly because there were no more tears to cry. I was exhausted and dehydrated. I told the whole story to everyone, who reacted the way you expect a family to react. We continued riding in silence for quite some time. We reached the next town that afternoon, where we decided to trade the extra horse for additional food and supplies. Mary and I knew we still could take no chances and needed to get as far away as we could as quickly as possible. It would be harder trying to steer an unmanned horse.

Days turned into weeks, and still we had not run into any more trouble. If someone was trying to find us, we had seen no signs of them. We would be in Chicago by nightfall. Mary and I discussed what we would have to do once we got there. We knew we had plenty of money to survive now. The most important thing now was stay unrecognized. We would need to start again somewhere new, where no one knew us. We would gather the men and find a new destination for home.

We still needed to find shelter before winter, now not only for Mary and baby Hazel, but for the new life that was growing inside of me. We would be starting our family, but we would never forget those that fought for the life we have. Like I said before, I am very proud of the family I come from. I admire all the women who came before, but now the one I most admire is my mother.

THE END