Barney and Charlie were riding on the lead wagon, sharing tales with Bill Hawks who rode his horse beside them, taking a break from his morning scouting duties. From ahead a rider appeared, rapidly materialising into the form of Coop Smith, another of the train's scouts riding ahead of their trail.
'What's up Coop?' Barney asked, ever forthright in the self-assured manner of a fourteen year old boy. 'You look like a pack of Comanche are on your heels!' His face betrayed the hope that he would see his first Indian war party, still of an age where that was more entertainment than terror.
Cooper ignored the boy, riding up close to Bill and whispering in his ear, his expression grim and his eyes darkly shrouded by his frowning brow.
Bill first frowned and then set his jaw into a hard grimace. 'Charlie, get the wagons into a circle over by that patch of wood,' he told the wagon's chef.
'Is it an injun raid?' Barney asked excitedly, his hand already reaching for his rifle.
'Don't scare up trouble, Barnaby,' Bill said grimly. 'Charlie, I'm going to ride down the line. We're stopping at those trees for the night.'
'But we've not even travelled for half the day,' Barney protested, looking to Charlie for confirmation. 'Why would we stop now?'
Charlie smiled in his good-natured way and put a calming hand on the boy's leg. 'Now you just keep your hat on there, Barney. When ol' Bill's got his dander up it's best not to argue, so let's just do as he says.'
Once the wagons were arranged by the trees the people of the wagon train gathered around the centre to listen to what the wagon master Chris had to say.
'Now folks, I know this is a mite odd to stop so early in the day, and we don't want to worry you none,' the gruff wagon master said. 'There ain't no Indians around here so you can all quit worrying on that score. About a mile or so ahead of us, just beyond the other side of this wood in fact, is a small settlement called Newhaven. Seems there's been a spot of trouble there recently and I'll like to call on twenty strong fellas to help me head over there and set things right. It shouldn't take more'n half a day to organise so as for the rest of you get some rest. There's a stream over to the east a ways through the woods and Charlie is going to take anyone who'd like to bathe there for the afternoon. I would ask you all however not to go outside either the wagon train or the stream, keep together and keep safe. Unless you are with me then no one is to go to Newhaven. Are we all clear?'
The people of the train nodded solemnly and in a short while Chris, Bill, Cooper and twenty men were ready ride out.
'Where do you think you're going?' Bill asked Barney gruffly as the boy made to mount his horse.
'To the village with you, Bill,' Barney said. 'Chris said you needed a hand.'
'The hell you are,' Bill growled sharply. 'You will stay right here, with Charlie.'
'But nothing!' Bill Hawks snapped. 'You stay told, boy. Come near Newhaven and I'll give you more than just my hand to worry about.'
Barney gaped at the man as Bill swung his horse around, kicking him forwards without another word. How dare Bill talk to him like that! What did he think he was, a baby? He could help them dammit!
'What's going on, Charlie?' Barney demanded of the cook for the hundredth time.
Charlie's face was creased in a frown but then he brightened with a falsely cheery smile. 'Oh don't you worry none, Barney, they'll be back before you knows it. Now, how about you give me a hand herding these youngn's to the creek?'
Barney sat on the side of the stream, throwing in stones as hard as he could, his face creased up in a mighty scowl.
'Gee, you could light a fire with that face,' a boy near enough his own age, named Seth, said. He strolled forwards, hands deep in his pockets, another boy from the train, called Isaac, in tow.
'Aw... hell,' Barney huffed, his pride still smarting from Bill's rebuke. 'What have they got us cooped up around here for like kids?!
Seth shrugged nonchalantly. 'Who knows? Who cares?'
'Ain't you curious?' Barney demanded, turning round and fixing the boys with an adventurous eye. 'Don'tcha want to see what the secret's all about?'
Isaac nodded. 'But Charlie's got us cornered with the other kids,' he said. 'How're we gonna get to Newhaven?'
'We just wait for him to go to sleep,' Barney said as if it was the simplest thing in the world. 'Charlie always gets sleepy in the afternoons; I always have to take over the reins!'
Sure enough as the sun began to dip down in the sky so did Charlie's head. Tired out from the play and rambunctious behaviour of the wagon train's children, the wagon's cook began to doze.
When they were sure the man would not be easily wakened, Barney, Seth and Isaac, slipped away unnoticed by the other children, who were content to play on their own.
After half an hour or so the boys found that they had reached the other side of the woods and could see a few buildings rising up on the horizon.
Only the wood of the houses were blackened by fire. Of the six houses, two had lost their roofs entirely. A strange, unnatural smell began to reach them, sort of like Charlie's attempts at Steaks which always ended with a blackened, shrivelled offering.
Seth stopped, his face reflecting the pale pallor of the other two.
'What's up, c'mon,' Barney hissed.
'I... I don't think this is a good idea, guys,' Seth said cautiously. 'Something ain't right here.'
'Aw, get a grip, Seth Buller,' Barney rolled his eyes but they fell on Isaac, who looked equally wary.
'I don't like it, West,' the boy said, his voice stammering a little. 'Let's just go back, ok?'
Barney huffed an aggravated sigh. 'Ya bunch of wimps!' he said, striding off towards the village. When he got closer to, he had to suddenly drop to the forest floor and the cover of some bushes as he caught sight of Bill and Cooper riding by.
'You find any more?' Bill was asking the younger scout.
'Not yet,' Cooper said, his voice strained and frightened sounding, much to Barney's surprise. 'Last time we rode through there were thirty five, I only count twenty so far.'
'I've started the men digging,' Bill replied. 'Keep looking.'
Barney frowned at this exchange, feeling increasingly more unsure about his idea. But then he thought about the two boys in the trees behind him and the way Bill had treated him like a kid that morning and he rallied, he'd show them!
He pushed himself forward on his elbows, shimmying through the bushes to try and get as close to the settlement without being spotted by Bill or the other men. All of a sudden his hand touched something soft and fleshy before him. Frowning into the dense shrubs, Barney scooped aside some new-fallen leaves to try and get a better view of what it was. Then he recoiled in horror, almost letting out a cry as he saw what it was that he had found.
The dead woman's eyes stared lifelessly from her mud and blood splattered face, her mouth open in a silent scream. Her clothes were torn and her back was a bloody mess where a gun had stripped the life from her. A cloth wrapped bundle under her arm was soaked in drying blood.
Barney scrambled backwards to his feet, not caring if anyone heard his retreat, but then he tripped, falling over something which turned out to be a man's severed leg, the rest of the poor soul not far away, hacked to pieces. Barney brought his hand up to his mouth, suppressing the compulsion to be sick, then he looked up to the village and saw what the men were cutting from the beams of a burnt-out house.
Barney turned and ran.
A week later Bill Hawks and rode his horse slowly into the wagon train camp, dismounting and putting up the creature before heading to Charlie's camp fire. He took a mug of coffee from the pan and sipped gratefully at the thick liquid, so strong it could have passed for tar. He sighed contentedly, his body relaxing in the way of a very wearied man after long days in the saddle.
'I rode round these hills more times than I care to think,' he said to Charlie's unspoken request for an update. 'No sign of whatever tribe it was that was responsible for...' he shot a dark look at the cook and left the sentence hanging. 'Any sign of Chris yet?'
'He shouldn't be more'n a day behind you, Bill,' Charlie said. 'It's a hard job for him though, having to tell that last town we passed about those settlers, some of 'em were family, I'm sure.'
Bill took a deep breath and let it out slowly, shaking his head.
'There you are,' Cooper said, arriving at the campfire and grabbing a mug of the hot brew as he nodded his head in recognition of the senior scout. 'How's the trail?'
'Clear to St. Louis,' Bill sighed.
'Good,' Coop said with conviction. 'I have no wish t'come up against whoever could do... that,' he buried his face into the coffee, unwilling to let his mouth continue talking along the path it was set to run. 'How's the kid?' he asked Charlie, his voice sounding a little strained of patience.
'Barney all right?' Bill asked in concern.
Cooper and Charlie exchanged a meaningful look.
'Well?' Bill demanded, worry rising in him. 'He's not sick, is he?'
'Oh no, better than ever,' Cooper said with a hint of bitterness. 'Full of life, as a matter of fact.'
'What's that supposed to mean?'
Cooper let out a heavy sigh. 'Look, Bill. I'll say it plain; that boy has been nothing but a darn nuisance since you and Chris left the train. He's been surly, rude, lax in his chores- the ones that he does, that is- and an all round pest. He won't eat with us, he won't go to bed when he's told,' Cooper shook his head. 'I tried yellin', I tried setting him more chores or homework but he just won't mind!'
Bill's face had darkened throughout this tirade and by the end of Coop's speech had grown quite red about the neck. 'Where is he now?' he asked.
'I sent him into the wagon to bed with no supper,' the younger scout said. 'Bill, I just didn't know what to do with him.'
'I can think of something,' Bill said grimly, standing and heading to the wagon. He climbed the steps and pushed aside the curtain to enter. Coop and Charlie shared another look and turned back to their coffee, knowing that what they were about to hear would be neither pleasant nor quiet.
To their surprise the wagon flap was pushed open again.
'He's not here,' Bill said, his voice low with anger.
'I watched that door like a hawk,' Charlie said defensively.
'Rest easy, Charlie, he didn't leave by the door,' Bill said. 'Unless you wanted a window in your wagon, that is.'
Charlie's eyes widened and he sprang to his feet, dashing to the wagon and thrusting his head inside to view the damage. 'Why that cotton-picking, lousy little rapscallion! I'm going t'give that hoodlum what fer!'
'Easy, Charlie,' Bill said, laying a calming hand on the older man's shoulder. 'Let's find him first.'
Barney sat on a moonlit rock in a clearing of a long stretch of trees, his eyes opened as wide as his sleep-deprived body could force them. Whenever he felt like he was slipping into sleep he pressed the nails of his right hand into the palm of the left, rocking slightly to keep his body moving. He shook his head to clear it and then pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, grunting with the strain of staying awake.
'Barnaby West Jr.!'
Barney jumped to his feet, swallowing down his sudden terror as he stared at the approaching figure of Bill Hawks.
Bill came up close and grabbed the boy's jacket lapel, raising the other hand to point in the very epitome of angry remonstration. But his face softened and his frown turned into a look of concern. 'Barney? What's wrong, boy?'
The small touch of kindness in his mentor's tone was enough for Barney to finally loose his composure. He had been churlish and snappy all week but now his face creased up, tears welling in his dark rimmed eyes. 'It won't stop!' he cried. 'Bill, oh please make it stop!'
'Stop what, Barney?' Bill asked, moving his hands to rest on Barney's shoulders, squeezing them tightly in reassurance. 'What's the matter?' He frowned. 'When did you last sleep, boy?'
'I can't,' Barney moaned. 'They won't stop screaming!' He brought his hands up and pushed them against his face as if to press out some awful sight, sobbing and then beginning to cry pitifully.
'Who?' Bill asked, his voice tinged with worry but as firm as he could muster. When Barney didn't reply he tried a new tack. 'Boy, Coop says you've been acting out since I left, do I have to stay as a constant reminder for you to mind us?'
All Barney could do was hitch his breath, shaking his head miserably.
'What's happened to you, Barney?' Bill asked. 'Why this time last week...' his voice trailed off and he stood staring at the young teen, his mouth hanging open in horror as he suddenly knew what was going on. His grip tightened on Barney's shoulders and he shook the boy none too gently. 'Barney? Barney! Now you just stop that and look at me right this second!'
Surprised by the man's change of tone, Barney obeyed, his breath still catching in his throat in powerful sobs.
'Barnaby West, I want you to answer me truthfully now,' Bill Hawks said, his eyes piercing into the young boy's. 'Last week, did you go to Newhaven?'
The look that the boy gave him almost broke the old scout's heart and it also told him all he needed to know. His eyes fluttered closed in deep regret for the boy's pain and he pulled him close into a gruff bear hug.
'I'm sorry, Bill,' Barney wailed, clutching hold of the man's shirtsleeves and burying his face in his chest. 'I'm sorry for not minding you, I'm sorry!'
Bill clutched the back of the boy's head, his fingers working into the blonde locks and he pushed his cheek into them. 'Hush, boy, don't you think about it any more... Those folks are put to rest now; they're not suffering no more.'
Barney gasped and moaned his way through a flood of tears, his body shaking with the relief of telling someone his terrible secret. They stayed that way for some time, until there were no more tears to shed.
'You ok?' Bill said finally, pushing himself away from the embrace to look with deep concern at the boy.
Wordlessly, Barney nodded.
'Well then.' Bill let go of Barney and he turned around, aided by the moonlight as he found a suitable branch from a sapling and cut it free, stripping the new growth from the lithe branch with his penknife. Barney stared at the display, not knowing quite what was happening but just glad that the man was close. Then Bill turned back to face him and he suddenly became less sure that this was such as good thing after all.
Bill took a firm hold of Barney's upper arm and then pulled him down with him, kneeling on the forest floor and pulling the boy so that he fell over the knee that was bent at right angles. He lost no time in pinning the boy in place with his left arm, the other holding the sapling branch up in the air.
'What're you doing?! Barney squeaked, his hands and legs scrabbling on the floor; he didn't exactly try to get off the scout's knee but he did wriggle considerably all the same.
'I'm doing what I promised you would be getting if you went near that place,' Bill said gruffly. 'I can't believe you disobeyed me like that, Barney! What if the folk that did those terrible things were still around?!'
'I'm sorry, Bill!' Barney apologised, his voice high and his eyes squeezed shut in anticipation.
'As for your appalling behaviour this week,' Bill said, his right hand with the switch still raised up high. 'Well, I recon that you've suffered enough already for that, but you are going to apologise to Charlie and Cooper, and anyone else you've put out, understood?!'
'Yes,' Barney nodded frantically. 'Yes, sir, Bill, I will!'
'And the cost of a new cover for the wagon comes out of your salary, is that clear?'
Bill nodded grimly and let the switch finally fall, hearing the small squeak of surprised pain that the blow elicited. He swiped the branch up and down in a continuous rhythm, leaving no part of Barney's backside free from the sting of the new branch.
Barney soon began to cry at each stinging blow, a strangled sound laced with tears of shame and regret. He kicked his legs but did not try to get off the man's knee, simply hiding his face in the crook of his elbow and beginning to bawl.
Bill decided at this point that the boy had had enough and threw the switch down in disgust of it. Swiftly he stood, dragging Barney up with him. Before he was done he pushed the boy over his arm, the right hand crashing down on a succession of spanks that punctuated each word.
'NEVER *SMACK* DISOBEY *SMACK* ME *SMACK* AGAIN. *SMACK* WHEN *SMACK* I *SMACK* TELL *SMACK* YOU *SMACK* TO *SMACK* MIND *SMACK* ME *SMACK* I *SMACK* EXPECT *SMACK* YOU *SMACK* TO *SMACK* MIND!' *SMACK* *SMACK*
Barney howled, dancing on the spot as the swats fell on his abused flesh, breaking from the hold as soon as Bill loosened his grip and clutching at his scorching rear to try and rub away the pain.
'And that goes for Chris, and Coop, and Charlie, and any of the other adults on this train,' Bill finished, wagging a finger at the lad.
Barney nodded miserably, his eyes and backside sore. He made to walk past the man back to the wagon train but then hesitated for a moment before quickly snatching a tight hug around the old scout's waist. 'I'm real sorry Bill,' he said. 'Thanks.'
'I'm sorry to, kid,' Bill said sadly. 'Now you go on back to bed. You can get your other sorry's done in the morning.
Barney broke way and flashed the man a wan smile. 'Night, Bill.'
'Night kid,' Bill replied, allowing himself a small smile as he ruffled the boy's hair. 'You sleep well now.'
Barney very much doubted that as he made his way to the wagon, the images of the villagers from Newhaven still fresh in his mind. The past week his dreams had been filled with the gruesome sights and smells of that village, so bad sometimes that he saw them when he was awake.
Thankfully, no one was around when he reached the train and gingerly made his way up the steps and into the wagon, laying down on his stomach without even attempting to remove his pants. His eyes fluttered shut and almost instantly he fell into a deep and blessedly dreamless sleep.