They all slept in the one room that night. Jacob, David and Grace on the bed Alister and Oliver on the floor.
It was pure luxury to have a roof over their heads and bread, cheese and milk in their bellies. They hadn't stayed in a town in weeks as funds were low but the older boys decided that the youngsters needed a night off from bugs, wild critters and rain. David was starting to cough, Oliver could only hope the rest of the kids wouldn't come down with it. He couldn't afford cough elixir for everybody.
His place on the floor was nearest the window. He watched as miners and cow hands made their way to the saloon. At 18 he wasn't much of a drinker, he didn't really care for the taste but he wished he could go and be as carefree as those ranch hands who earned their money and lost it just as quick on a bad hand or an over priced drink with a saloon girl. One such lady walked past then having tempted some Cowboys towards the saloon. She caught his eyes looking at her and smiled up at him. On immediate instinct Oliver cowered behind the curtain but then he felt foolish, very foolish, just like a kid. He peered out again and she was still there smiling. She mouthed something to him and wagged her finger for him to come join her. He shook his head with a blushing smile of his own. She actually looked disappointed or was that just wishful thinking. She moved off then, Oliver watched her as she sauntered over to other men. They looked as though they were used to her advances and it was nothing special. They followed her just the same, talking amongst themselves.
Oliver frowned to himself. He wondered what it would be like to be with her. The thought filled the young man with blushing shame but he imagined following her to one of those upstairs rooms, seeing her in those tight corset underthings, touching her.
A whining sound called his attention. He waited, hoping she would settle.
"Ollie, Ollie," Grace called out in the dark.
"Shut up," Jacob mumbled as he turned over. Oliver took hold and slid Jacob out of the bed and on to the floor.
"What the hell," Jacob yelled.
"Watch your mouth," Oliver slapped him lightly on the cheek.
"Look, full view of any gun fight that might happen," Oliver gestured to the window as he put his brother to the floor and pulled blankets up over him.
Jacob was sold on that and peered out in hopes of just such a violent incident.
Oliver lay fully clothed over the bed covers beside Grace. He hoped she'd settle down but she peered up at him with frightened blue eyes.
"Is very dark Ollie,"
"It's night time Grace," he said, brushing her fringe back from her face.
"But the Devils will come," she whimpered on the point of tears.
Oliver ran a hand over his tired face. Sometimes he found it hard to keep patience.
"I told ya before Grace. There ain't no such thing as Devils."
"But what if there are and they know I'm scared of them. They'll come for me Ollie I know they will."
"Why should they come looking for you," Alister suddenly asked from his spot on the ground.
"Because they know I'm afraid of em," Grace turned to the disjointed voice.
Alister thought for a moment. "So these all powerful Devils are looking for one girl who is afraid of them."
Grace nodded fearfully.
"Exactly so. So firstly they'd have to find the planet we live on, then they'd have to find America. Then they would have to find Nevada and then they would have to find a little one horse town called Harmony. Once in Harmony they'd have to find the very boarding house the little girl is staying in and then they'd have to ask someone below in reception which of the 22 rooms above contains a little girl who is afraid of them. It seems to be a lot of trouble to go to just to find one little girl. I shouldn't bother if it were me."
Grace frowned as she thought all this out.
"I'm tired now I think I'll sleep." She said as she settled back down.
Silence prevailed then aside from the occasional hacking cough from David.
"Alright Davy?" Oliver asked the ten year old.
The boy nodded in the dark and turned over in the bed.
Late afternoon of the following day Alister headed over to check on Ned and give him some oats. Oats were supplied at the livery but you had to pay for them and feed your animal yourself.
"Can we give him some sugar," Grace skipped as she walked.
"Can we please, he likes sugar,"
"No, we need the sugar," Alister took hold of the collar of her dress as they crossed the busy street.
"Aw can we please," she looked up at him.
"Look where you're going Grace, concentrate." Alister told her sternly.
"That's good advise," a tall man in a ruffled expensive looking suit pulled away from the Saloon wall.
"That's good advice," he smiled jeeringly.
Alister took Graces hand and casually backed away.
"You're a right pretty thing. You gonna make a handsome saloon girl when you're grown." He smiled down at Grace.
"Thank you," she smiled up at him.
"Don't talk to strangers Grace," Alister muttered.
"I is just bein nice boy. Do you know who I am?"
"No sir," Alister answered.
"Nate Callum, my Father owns most of the mines in this area. There now, you didn't know that now did you."
He looked down at Grace then and cupped a hand under her chin.
"Yep I'm looking forward to seeing you in the saloon,"
Alister suddenly lashed out and pushed his hand away.
Nate Callum's face darkened as he took a step closer to the boy.
Alister gave Grace a slight push off to the side. Then with a slight shake in his hands he reached up and removed his glasses.
"You need a lesson boy, I'm gonna take you over to that barn over there and take my belt to you. What you say about that?"
Alister turned to Grace. "Go to the boarding house," he told her.
Grace looked from one to the other. She backed away trembling slightly and ran.
Nate Callum looked cautiously around to see that no one was paying attention. He then took hold of the boys arm and crossed the street.
He had a gun on his hip, he was at least 20 pounds heavier than Alister and very much broader.
Once they reached the seclusion of the barn the man released Alister and pushed him into a corner.
"I'll be doing you a favour boy. You don't have no pa, you don't know how to show your elders the proper respect. Not your fault but you need to learn."
"Just get it over with," Alister said, his voice shaking slightly.
He nodded unbuckling his belt and pulling it through the loops.
"Put yourself over that hay bail boy," he grunted as he wound his belt in his hands.
On shaky limbs Alister did as requested. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes tight as he waited for the first lash.
"What's goin on here,"
They both looked up as a tall figure stood at the door.
"What's this about Callum?" He spoke sharply.
"Aww nothin Deputy. I was just havin some fun with the boy,"
"Get the hell out of here before I run you in for the night."
Grace came in with the Deputy, she stood shifting nervously from one foot to the other.
"Now Deputy Glen, I don't think I need tell you that I come from a very powerful..."
"You know that shit doesn't wash with me, go on before I lose my patience."
With a tip of his cap Callum quickly took off. Alister stood up feeling heartily embarrassed to see how easily this man dealt with his tormenter.
"Are you ok boy?" Deputy Turner looked with concern on the tall skinny lad in front of him. If ever anyone needed a hot meal.
"He didn't hurt ye did he?"
"No sir, he hadn't started."
"I saw you boys ride in last night, no folks?"
"They're coming," Alister put in quickly.
Subconsciously he took hold of Graces hand.
"I see," Glen looked at him for a long minute. "Ok well I think I'd better walk you over to the boarding house. That is where you're staying isn't it."
"Yes sir," Alister answered guardedly. "But we can manage thank you."
"I'm gonna invoke deputies privilege here and insist," he said as he held out his hand for Grace to take it.
She did so, just happy to be in the company of this nice adult.
Oliver held the fresh onion in his hand. An onion boiled up in milk yep definitely that was it. Cures all kinds of ills. He'd ask the woman how runs the boarding house to...
"Can I help you?"
Oliver jumped slightly and turned to the lady. She gave him a warm smile. She was old enough to be his mother and yet she was still pretty with tied up honey blond hair hanging in ringlets at her ears.
"How much for this onion?" He asked.
"It's five cents,"
"And a canister of milk?"
"That's three cents, do you have a canister for me to fill?"
"Yes ma'am, I'll have to go get it though. It's on the wagon." He blushed slightly.
"So you need milk, an onion, anything else?"
He thought for a minute. Five cents plus milk. Plus food for their evening meal. They still had cheese left over...
He stopped his calculations, his eyes slowly reverting back to her. What was she looking at?.
Then as subtly as he could he pulled his sleeve down over the bruise marks on his wrist.
"I fell," he told her, without meeting her questioning gaze.
She was a stranger, no need to tell her about the drunk who tried to steal their only gun and the last of their money. It was just lucky he was drunk. It took both Oliver and Alister to bring him down.
"Must have been a nasty fall." She said noting the greenish bruise mark at his jaw line.
She suddenly put out her right hand. "Madeline Grimes," she smiled. "And you are?"
"Oliver Cayden," he muttered self consciously as he shook her hand.
"Well Oliver," she sighed "I'm actually glad you're here. Our helper is absent today and I need those boxes brought to the basement." She pointed to five medium sized boxes containing potatoes, carrots and beans.
"I have enough money. What I don't have today is help. If you were to bring them down for me I'll fill out your order. You'll need food for supper as well I'm sure. You know I have some left over stew..."
Oliver had lifted a box already but froze in his actions on mention of home cooked stew. His hearted lifted in his chest but then he frowned.
"No ma'am, you don't sell no stew here and we don't take no kindness. If you could just..."
"I ain't offering no kindness. The stew goes to your or the cats. Now hurry with them boxes. I haven't got all day to stand here talking to you,"
"Yes ma'am," Oliver moved quickly to the door with the first box.
She smiled to herself as she began filling a box for him.
The children crowded to the door. Even Jacob. David got so excited his took fit of coughing.
"Ali, I can smell food," Grace beamed back at him.
Alister was reading a newspaper he found in the street.
"Yes food is served here, come away. You're only tormenting yourselves," he told them.
The door opened and the children stood back.
Oliver came in carrying a large box and one great canister with steam rising from it.
"What's that?" Jacob asked, smiling all over his face.
"That Jacob is your dinner,"
Even Alister got up now to smell the fresh broth.
"Where in heaven did you get that?" He asked,
"How bout you hold on to your questions and take hold of this," Oliver told him, holding the box out towards him.
"Come on now back up, back up," he kicked out at the children crowding in on him.
Alister put the box down on a chair. "Oliver, there's a lot of food here, we can't possibly afford this,"
"I paid in labour," his older brother grinned back at him.
"Can we have the stew now," Grace asked bouncing on the spot.
"Set cutlery out on that box Grace." Oliver told her. "Jacob cut some bread for everyone. I have milk and onion I want to give David before we eat,"
Jacob growled at orders given but at fourteen he knew better than to argue when older brothers were hungry. He went to fetch his knife. David winced at the thought of onion and milk. He wanted stew first but he dutifully went to his brother and took the large tin cup from him.
"I know it's not nice but I want it all gone," Oliver told his sternly.
David nodded and did his best.
Oliver smiled down at him, happy he'd found something to help with his cough.
"I think we should stay here a while Ali, I have a good feeling about this place."
Alister nodded agreement but really he wasn't so sure.