He landed hard of the dirt ground, dust rising up around him. Somewhere he could hear his baby sister crying. He tried to get back up but the big man came and stood over him. Oliver was a lean lad of fifteen years but this man acted as though he'd just taken on the town champion.
"I'd stay down if I were you son. You ain't winnin this one." He grinned proudly, wondering if his cronies had noticed his moves.
Oliver watched as the last of their worldly possessions were hurled out through windows, their clothes, toys, blankets, pots, pans crashed and tumbled to the ground around him. But more importantly the baby was crying. Oliver couldn't move. The man held a foot down on his chest, holding him in place and cutting off his oxygen. He looked to his right, the baby was standing alone, her napkin dripping into the dirt below her. She held a tiny finger to her mouth as she wailed. He signalled to Alister. Alister was all of thirteen years but as Oliver saw things, he was just standing there like an idiot watching their sister cry. Oliver signalled fiercely at him. Finally he looked over, his face ashen in colour. Oliver pointed to the baby. Jacob got to the child first and tried to hoist the three years old up but couldn't manage it. Alister took her from him and though shaking with fear himself stood with a protective arm around his sister and younger brother.
The hired thugs. had set fire to the house. They planned to raise it to the ground. Their boss only wanted the land, he didn't want the run down shack that went with it.
Panic suddenly rose in Oliver's throat. David, where's David.
He shot upwards, his eyes scanning wildly around for the boy. Sweat glistened on his chest and neck as he struggled to get his breathing back under control.
"He's over there," Alister mumbled as he pointed to the sleeping child.
Oliver nodded his thanks to his brother.
"You have to start letting it go Oliver, it was over three years ago now." Alister told him seriously. "We were best out of that house anyway."
Oliver couldn't agree.
He looked across the camp fire with some relief at the small bundle curled up by a large tree.
"How come you're awake," Oliver tried to change the subject.
Alister sighed. "Just going over our accounts. We are going to need to economise a bit. I don't want us eating into our rainy day fund just yet."
Oliver ran a hand through his dirt blond hair. "If we economise anymore Al we'll be eating rats."
Alister pushed his spectacles up on his face and fixed Oliver with a look not unlike a disapproving school teacher.
"It's Alister, and yes we can economise. For instance, did the younger children really need candy canes at the last town we stopped at."
"We hadn't eaten in a while, they needed the sugar."
"They can pick berries."
"Alister you know as well as I do, I gave David and Grace a rough time of it. I didn't know when we'd make the next town and I had to keep them moving. We could have been attacked by bandits again.
Alister nodded grimly running a pencil over his account book.
"I know, it's just that I want to make sure we have enough. We need another job Oliver."
"I could get money," a small voice called out in the darkness.
"We all know your methods of getting money Jacob and if I ever catch you again I'll blister you good." Oliver told him sternly.
Jacob just huffed at him.
"We'll end up using all our savings to bail him out some day. The shame of it, my brother the convict." Alister said airily.
"It was just some dollars from a card table," Jacob told them, the fourteen year old frowning in the darkness.
"Well do it again and see what happens," Oliver growled at him.
Alister turned to face him. "You could have been killed you stupid boy and then where would we be. We'd have to lay the raccoon traps without you."
"You'd catch nothin." Jacob leaned up on his elbows a little delighted at the subtle compliment.
"Why's everybody talkin?" Another voice called out.
"Well done, now you've woken the baby," Alister told Jacob.
"I'm not a baby, I'm six years old." Grace got unsteadily to her feat and started to head out of camp.
"Hold there, where you goin Grace?" Oliver called after her.
"I need to go," The little voice called back.
Quickly Oliver threw back his blanket and hiked on his boots. He got to his feet and walked over to where she stood waiting.
"I don't want you coming with me, you'll look," she frowned up at him.
The other sniggered. Oliver put a hand to the back of her neck and stirred her towards the trees.
"I won't look, get going, we ain't got all night," He muttered as he led her out of camp.
The following day they made their way to a little town called Harmony. People paid them little heed, five scruffy children, a small wagon and a pony.
Oliver's boyish face took in their new surroundings in one all consuming glance. There were dangers everywhere for children travelling alone. Oliver was just eighteen and thus far had managed to keep them all in one peace but orphaned children were well sought after to work in the many mines skirting the area. He'd had to fend off potential kidnappers already on their long journey.
They stopped just outside the Mercantile. Oliver was about to go in when a large man in a leather apron accosted him.
"You can't leave that wagon there, it's blocking up the street," he growled.
Jacob was quick with his answer. "It ain't blockin up nothin. There's plenty of room for wagons to go back and forth. Your just being awkward for the sake of it."
"I'll take my belt to you, you young git," As he moved towards him young Jacob got down from the wagon to confront him.
Oliver was quick to intervene. "He doesn't know what he's saying, he's just a kid."
The man looked to be a blacksmith by trade, with leather apron and greasy looking well toned arms. He towered over Oliver.
"Yeah well move that wagon along. You're blocking up business to my store."
Oliver nodded and took hold of the reigns of their pony Ned.
"Your store is two doors down, we ain't blocking nothing," Jacob called after him.
The man turned and gave the boy a filthy look before heading back to his shop.
As soon as the man disappeared Jacob began backing up as Oliver approached him. He grabbed hold of the front of his jacket.
"You get up on that wagon with the other kids," Oliver told him.
"I will not, you ain't the boss of me." Jacob struggled in his grip.
With some little effort Oliver picked up the young teenager and fired him into the back of the wagon. He landed heavily cursing to himself.
The two little ones followed him with big eyes as Oliver once again took hold of the reigns. They vowed not to get on his wrong side today.
They booked the wagon into the Livery stable over night and went to the mercantile to get some small bits of food. Bread, cheese, milk and a small pie.
"There's the boarding house over there," Oliver told them. "We'll see if..."
He didn't finish. He ran out to grab hold of Grace. She had meandered out onto the road.
"You need to stay with us, don't wander off," he told her sternly.
She nodded agreement but her pale blue eyes weren't looking in his direction at all. Oliver sighed heavily and gave her a small smile.
"Come on, you're probably getting hungry." He took her hand and walked with her across the road.
Just as they were about to enter the boarding house Alister came down the steps.
"I've booked us in, it looks ok. It's family run and there seems to be other children staying here." He told them.
They had stayed in questionable places before, not such a good idea. Gun shots at all hours of the night and of course Grace would have to wake up and hear strange noises coming from the next room.
They entered the building anxious to settle in and eat the bread and cheese feast Oliver had bought. No one noticed the man across the street staring intently at them as they entered.