Prologue: instant loss
Charlie had nodded off again, this time his head dropped to the table it was propped over. His jaw banged painfully against the hardwood, and he jerked upright, wincing and cursing. It had been five days since Pa had gotten sick, and the night watch had been murder for the whole family. Doc Greeley said that until his body fought the disease he needed to be under constant supervision. It seemed to Charlie that his father was too far gone in the illness to start to fight back. He couldn't even speak, he just lay in bed, groaning and crying out on occasion, often gasping for air as though he hadn't breathed in hours. Ma had been the rock of the family, keeping Charlie and his three sisters focused and calm, but it was clear to see that the situation had begun to wear her down. They all worked at Mr. Kern's slaughterhouse in his Pa's stead. It was tortuously difficult work with tremendously unforgiving hours, but Mr. Kern's had steadfastly refused to allocate any help for them. This evening, Ma had gone to Mr. Kern's residence to try to persuade him to be a little more forgiving, given their situation. It had been hours she was gone. He was worried sick now, but his sisters persuaded him to be patient. Maybe Kern just needed to hear the whole story, they argued. He was lost in thought when his arm was snatched up in an iron grip.
"Boy!" Alfred wheezed with great labor, "I need water!" Charlie leapt up.
"yes sir!" he called as he sprinted out the door and towards the well. He was three steps down the road when he stopped in his tracks. His mother was running towards him, a hundred yards or so out.Behind her were three riders, all in black and wearing red spook hoods. They bore down on her so rapidly she never had a chance to call out to him.
He watched in shocked horror as the three riders trampled his mother. Two of them rode on towards him at full gallop, and the third slowed to circle back to their felled victim. Charlie wheeled around and ran back into the house, his heart bursting through his chest as he screamed for his sisters to wake. He had made a bee line for his rifle, listening to the sound of the riders circling their little house. His elder sisters called out to him from out of his line of sight, but he had to concentrate on loading the gun. One, two three, he counted the shells into his rifle, forcing his brain to lock in on the task at hand. He heard screams. He was shaking hard now. Five, six, seven. The windows of the house exploded inward, and a strong, acrid smoke filled the room. Somewhere, a door was being kicked in, and he heard Clara screaming in terror. As he closed the breech of his Sharp, a gunshot rang out, and Clara's screams stopped abruptly. He roared in desperation and charged into the next room, rifle raised. He only barely noticed the blurred motion of a fist swooping out of the darkness to slam into his face. The force of the punch lifted him off his feet, and flat onto his back. Frustration and rage gave way to panic, terror; his eyes came to focus on a pistol pointed at his face. The hammer drew back, and the last thing he heard was Margaret shrieking in pain. He wondered if Pa was spared the horror by dying before this attack. Then his world exploded.
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