Sorry, it took a little longer to get this out than I wanted… when I finally had a chance to work on it, I realized I'd saved it on my work computer and I was at home. Bummer! Anyway, thanks for waiting and here it is… the FINAL chapter! Thank you to everyone for reading and for those of you who took the time to write reviews! This is the first time I've written fanfiction in a looooooong time, so I was really happy that it was so well-received.
You guys are the best!
Blood blossomed across Cook's chest. His small eyes grew wide in shock and he looked at Mary as though he couldn't believe what had just happened. Slowly, he looked down and put a hand to his chest where a fresh bullet had just imbedded itself. When he pulled his hand away, there was a very surreal look on his face and he toppled over.
Jack leaned in to check on him warily. The large man was laying on his back and breathing heavily, his hand still pressed against his wide chest, his eyes narrow and dangerous as he glared back at his young nemesis.
"Mary," Franklin said, looking at Mary, shocked. Jack looked at her as well. Her eyes were wide and she looked shaken. But Jack saw that her gun was still cocked; she hadn't fired. In a moment of confusion, he checked himself for a gunshot wound, thinking that the cook had shot him after all and he had somehow not felt it, but there was no extra blood on the stained shirt that the slave boys had retrieved for him.
The sound of the ringing gunshot had alerted the watchmen and there were now shouts from around the camp as they conversed with one another loudly. None of the other soldiers had emerged from their tents.
Suddenly, there was a rustling from beyond the border of the forest and Jack turned just in time to see dark figures approaching. His chest swelled, hope rising in his heart further than it had in weeks.
The Yankees were closing in on the British camp.
He had always expected the moment of the Yankee arrival to be a loud and rowdy affair, but the men that were coming closer through the trees were being stealthy and quiet, hoping to keep their location a secret from the watchmen until the last possible moment. They snuck like wraiths around trees and over branches. Jack knew that the Yankee military was merely a ragtag group of soldiers, but tonight, these men were on a mission.
Cook looked at where Jack was staring and saw the movement as well. His eyes widened again and he drew a deep breath and shouted as loudly as he could, which cost him quite a lot of blood.
"To arms! The Yanks are in the trees!"
With that, he lifted his pistol-carrying hand, aimed it at Mary and before anyone had time to react, he pulled the trigger.
Mary dropped to her knees and then fell forward, laying still. Jack's world stopped as the blood drained from his face. He felt sick as he kneeled on the ground where he had been when Cook first arrived on the scene. Time seemed to freeze in that moment and he felt tears well up in his eyes. He heard shouting around him as the Red Coats were trying to shake themselves awake and prepare for a battle, but Jack didn't care. Suddenly, nothing mattered.
Franklin rushed to Cook and kicked the now-useless pistol from Cook's hand. He then dropped to his knees next to Mary, rolling her over into his lap, putting an ear to her chest and listening intently.
"Jack!" he said suddenly, "She's alive!"
Jack could have cried and he very nearly did as his legs pushed him up, despite the protest coming from his wounds. When he reached Mary, Franklin deposited the tiny frame into Jack's hands and he felt for her pulse. It was there, strong as ever. No blood.
Mary's eyes fluttered open and she looked from Jack to Franklin, momentarily confused. After her brain caught up to the present, she sat up quickly. Jack and Franklin made noises of concern, in case she was hurt and they just didn't see it, but she swiveled around on her backside and looked at both of them.
"How is that possible? He shot you… didn't he?" Jack asked, bewildered.
"Yes, I felt it hit… my chest feels sore…" Mary said, feeling her torso for any damage.
"She gets shot and her chest just feels sore," Jack said, laughing at how that sounded, but he was eternally grateful that it was the reality of the situation. Mary gave a small sound of recognition and she pulled something out from her shirt; it was the heavy, thick coin necklace that someone had replaced her teeth with. It no longer mattered what country the coin came from, or why her teeth had been traded for it; this beautiful coin had just saved her life.
Jack reached over and pulled Mary into a quick hug, tears of relief in his eyes, but he was quickly brought back to the present. The Yankee soldiers were approaching swiftly now that Cook had told the watchmen that there really was trouble at hand; Jack was able to catch the color of the clothing of the closest men now. As they advanced closer, one man aimed his musket at the three children.
"Don't shoot!" Jack said, loud enough for him to hear, holding up his hand, fingers stretched, "We're on your side! We're captured slaves."
The man lowered his musket and eyes the children curiously.
"We're here to help you," he whispered. The trees were still blocking him from the view of the Red Coats who were now searching everywhere they could for their attackers. "Are there more of you?"
"Yes, but I'm the oldest," Jack said, "Anyone who looks younger than me is on our side."
The man nodded and looked back to his fellow soldiers. They were all wearing regular trousers and neutral-colored shirts that looked worse for wear. One man among them was dressed in what appeared to be a sort of uniform; it didn't look much fancier than what his men were wearing, but it was obvious that this man was the leader. He gave a swift nod to the men on either side of him and they took off, narrowing the distance between themselves and the Red Coats. Several shots began ringing out and Red Coat soldiers were dropping as they tried to find where the attack was coming from.
The leading soldier kneeled down on his haunches to look Jack in the eye and asked calmly, but seriously, "Do you know where I can find the leader of this camp?"
"He usually spends his time in that cabin over there," Jack explained, pointing a finger across the camp to the small building that was one of the two remaining buildings in the area. The leader gave Jack a smile and patted his shoulder before standing up, pulling a pistol from the inside of his jacket and a rapier from his belt.
"Try to gather the other boys as best as you can," he ordered, "keep them safe and when we're finished here, we'll take you back to our camp. You've done well."
Jack, who was no longer used to being treated so cordially by adults, was too taken aback to respond in kind to the man before he took off toward where General Walsh surely resided.
"What do we do now?" Franklin asked.
"We do what the man says; get all the boys together," Jack answered. He stood up slowly, pulling Mary to her feet. What a group they looked to be; there was Jack, who was beat up, Mary, who had just been shot and Franklin, who had only recently gotten over his own illness. Jack suddenly felt fingers wrap around his ankle and he looked down to see Cook staring back at him. His eyes were no longer wide with shock or narrow with contempt; they were pleading. The tables had finally been turned and it was now Jack who held the fate of his adversary in his hands.
Jack pulled his foot back, out of the reach of the Cook who was lying on the ground, no longer able to move, his lifeblood still seeping onto his shirt that was already dampened and red. Slowly, he leaned forward and reached into the man's pocket, wrapping his fingers around the chain of his mother's locket. He put the locket around his neck, hoping that it would keep him and his sister safe as his mother had said. Then, in what was easily the coldest moment of his life, Jack picked up the box of knives, took Mary by the hand, gave Franklin a nod of the head, and steered them away from the chef, leaving the man to himself in his final moments.
As a battle raged around them, gunshots firing almost constantly, Jack, Mary and Franklin ran together towards the stable where they knew some of the boys were bound to have taken shelter in the chaos. They were right; all six of their roommates, as well as several straggler slave boys were hiding away, crouched in the corners. When Jack, Mary and Franklin entered, some of the boys screamed, but then noticed who it was in front of them. They all stood up in unison, walking closer to Jack, who began to pass out knives, starting with the older boys and working his way down to the younger ones until he reached the boys who he felt were too young. They took the knives solemnly, their jaws set. The moment they had been waiting for was finally upon them, but now that it was there, they weren't sure they had the courage to carry out the most dangerous part.
"There are other slaves out there, trapped in the gunfire. If you have a knife, it means you need to go outside with me and help to guide them here; if you don't have a knife, stay in here and keep each other safe," Jack ordered, "We need to gather any other slaves together so that we're ready to leave when the Yanks are. I won't lie; some of us might die out there, but never leave your friends behind, no matter what. Be men that your fathers can be proud of."
The boys nodded and although Jack had essentially promised death to them, his words made them feel braver and stronger. Without another word, the boys with knives slipped past Jack and the others and into the nightmare that was the furious battle. Jack handed Franklin a knife. Franklin nodded and followed the other boys. Finally, Jack turned to Mary, who held out her hand for a knife.
"No," Jack said simply. Mary became instantly defensive.
"You can't decide that, Jack!" she said, "I want to help. Besides, you're hurt more."
"You've done enough," he told her, sincerity covering every word, "You saved my life tonight, Mary. I know I can count on you to do what's best for the boys in here."
Mary looked as though she were ready to continue arguing, but closed her mouth. With finality, she nodded. Jack pulled her close in a quick hug, which she reciprocated. Jack turned on his heel and left her and the other boys behind.
Almost as soon as he exited the stable, he collided with an older man. The two fell over and when Jack looked to see if it were friend or foe, confusion caught him for a fleeting moment. He was looking back at what appeared to be an older version of him, with a beard.
"Pa?" Jack said, finally realizing who it was.
"…Jack? Jack!" Paul Overland righted himself and scrambled over to pull his son into a bear hug. "Thank God…"
Jack wrapped his arms around his father, grabbing fistfuls of the older man's shirt as he clung to him, allowing himself a brief moment where he could, for once in this camp, be the comforted child. Paul, being a man of brief, yet sincere displays of affection, pulled Jack from him within a few seconds.
"Where is your sister?"
"In the stall, just there," Jack said, pointing his thumb to where he had just come from. Paul nodded.
"You've done well, Jack. I'm proud of you."
Jack grinned at his father and the two of them stood up, but were quickly forced to duck again as a gunshot exploded the wooden door frame behind them. Paul, who had been carrying a musket, quickly looked for the culprit, aimed and shot. A dead ringer.
"Pa, the other boys are finding stray slaves in the area and sending them here. I've got to help them," Jack explained quickly to his father. Paul regarded his son and nodded.
"Do what you have to do," he said and he was off, shooting at several Red Coats that had his friends cornered. Jack didn't have time to watch his farmer father in action, so he quickly stood up, disregarding his knife wound and ran into the fray. What was really only about twenty minutes of gunfire seemed like forever to Jack as he ducked, crawled, ran and otherwise scrambled anywhere he could think that the missing slave boys would be taking cover. He found several hiding in the outhouse and escorted them back to the stable. As most of his assailants were firing from a distance, Jack didn't have to resort to using his knife, but he still felt safer carrying it around with him.
When he went to the officer's cabin, he chanced a peek inside the window and was shocked to see General Walsh laying face down on the floor, his eyes open and blank, blood pooling underneath him. The Yankee leader had already done his job and moved on.
Behind the cabin, he found several boys taking cover, Franklin amongst them. His young friend had done a good job of finding those who had hidden; he had five or six boys behind him. When he saw Jack, he gave a quick smile and motioned for the older boy to crouch down with them.
"I'm not sure how to get everyone across this field," Franklin admitted once Jack was within earshot.
"Maybe you could walk around the perimeter?" Jack suggested.
Franklin gave him a questioning look, "What's that?"
"A perimeter—it's… um… around the border of the trees," Jack explained, pointing his finger, demonstrating the pathway.
The dark boy nodded and said, "That's a good idea." He motioned for the other boys to follow him and quickly took off, running in front of the trees, but out of the fray. Jack watched them go for a while before he decided to continue his search for anyone who hadn't been found yet; although it seemed the majority of them were now safe, or on their way to safety.
Exhausted from exerting so much energy while still on the mend, Jack had to grip the corner of the cabin that he was hiding behind to pull himself up. He looked out at the battle to catch up on who may be winning. More and more Red Coats were laying on the ground, dead or dying. There were still many who were standing, but they were quickly becoming outnumbered. Jack was able to pick out a surprisingly still-standing Lieutenant General Quagmire, whose age did not deter him from representing his prowess on the battlefield. He swung his cane and fired his musket skillfully and although they were on opposite sides, Jack couldn't help but feel admiration for the man who had shown him relative kindness in his time here.
Quagmire stopped his fighting when no soldiers were left around him and he too began casting his gaze around. He caught sight of Franklin and the other boys who were running around the edge of the forest. For a moment, Jack thought he was going to let them go, more concerned with the remaining Yankee soldiers, but it was not to be done. He reloaded his pistol with ease and pointed it at the row of boys who were almost like ducks in a carnival game, lined up perfectly.
Suddenly understanding Quagmire's intention, Jack ran towards the old man with a panicked hope that he could reach and disable him in time. When he realized he wouldn't make it, he turned to the boys and shouted as loudly as he could, "FRANKLIN!"
Franklin stopped and turned to look at where the voice had come from, but then his curious eyes widened in shock and pain. Blood spouted from his throat and he fell to his knees. The other boys panicked and scattered, some running into the trees, some continuing along the border at a faster pace and some running back from where they had come. Everything went quiet for Jack. Franklin… poor Franklin, who had never known freedom; who had only just started to taste it… no…
Without thinking, Jack ran towards where Franklin lay, in the open. He pulled the boy up roughly, hoping that the same miracle that had been performed for Mary earlier would now be passed to his only other friend in the camp. The blood running down Franklin's throat and onto Jack's hands told him the painful and true reality of the situation. He lowered Franklin into his lap, tears formed in his eyes as he watched the dark boy try to catch his breath. When Franklin realized that Jack was supporting him, he looked up at the brown-haired boy.
"I… never told… you…" he quivered, his words hoarse and strained as he spoke through his injury. Jack didn't tell him to stay quiet; he knew that Franklin understood his condition and instead listened for what Franklin deemed important to say, "My papa's dead… my… mama's dead too… you said to… to make my papa proud… but he's not here no more… so… I wanted to—to make you… proud… instead."
Jack opened his mouth to respond but all that came out was a loud cry that even took him by surprise. Once he started, he couldn't stop crying, and buried his head in Franklin's chest, his shoulders trembling as he sobbed. Franklin waited mutely, hanging on to whatever life left that he had left in him.
When Jack felt that he could keep himself together, he raised his head and choked out, "I am so proud of you."
Franklin smiled peacefully, his eyes clouding over, "Tha's good…"
"Your mama and papa are too. I know it." Jack continued quietly, tears escaping from his eyes and landing on Franklin's face. Franklin started to nod, but stopped when it hurt his neck. He gave a deep cough and his expression screwed up painfully.
"Tell Mary… I'm glad she was… my friend, too…. I'm so happy she named me… Franklin…"
His eyelids trembled for a moment and then closed. He took several large breaths, each becoming more peaceful until finally he inhaled deeply, gave a shuddering exhale and was gone.
Jack didn't know what do to. He needed to make sure the other boys got to the stable safely, but he didn't want to leave Franklin's body here. Setting his jaw to hold off whatever pain was to come from his wounds, he pulled Franklin's arm up and over his shoulder, hauling the boy up, carrying him in a fireman hold, and made for the stables.
Unfortunately, the time Jack had taken to help his friend pass, Quagmire had used to reload his pistol and take up another one from the ground. He pointed both at Jack and fired them simultaneously.
Jack's luck that night, which had helped him to avoid gunfire, was gone. There was a burning sensation in his thigh that spread with the shock of the bullet. The second bullet entered through his stomach, causing the muscles he was using to carry Franklin's weight to give out. Jack crumpled to the ground, Franklin's body landing on top of him and rolling off. He didn't stand up; he couldn't. He was spent.
Quagmire limped over to Jack, reloading his pistol once again. When he reached the young boy, he took aim at Jack's face. Jack didn't have the energy to do anything except stare down the barrel of the revolver, thoughts of death running through his mind.
"Admirable though your intentions to save your friends were, I am duty-bound to end the lives of those who are actively fighting against us," Quagmire said to Jack, cocking his weapon. There was a moment of silence between the two of them as they regarded each other, the chaos of the battle around them ignored.
Jack could no longer hold his eyes open. He was losing consciousness quickly, his blood draining. Death was near; he could feel it. His eyes fully shut and he waited almost serenely for Quagmire to pull the trigger.
Darkness spread from the corners of his mind, consuming his awareness as it moved until he slipped into an unnatural sleep.
The first thing Jack could tell through his eyelids was that it was now light outside and he was warm and comfortable. He didn't want to open his eyes just yet and instead took count of what he could feel. There was a pillow under his head and he could feel a blanket covering his bare chest. He moved his head slightly to the side and suddenly there was a small hand being placed on his chest.
"Jack?" he heard a familiar voice ask, but he couldn't identify it; his mind was still pulling itself from slumber. The voice called again, "Jack?"
Jack opened his eyes blearily and he had to close them again quickly; he hadn't expected the light to be so bright. He tried to open his eyes again, with more success this time. A pair of familiar brown eyes met his. Mary was leaning over him, examining his face as he became more aware of his surroundings.
He tried to sit up, but a larger hand held him down by the shoulder.
"Whoa, there, son," his father said, sitting on his other side. Paul and Mary both looked relatively at ease, so Jack could tell that the fight was over. They were inside a medium-sized tent and Jack was lying on a small mat on the ground. In the corner of the tent, Mary's kittens were playing with each other. He wondered briefly where Flossie was until he realized that there was a warm weight curled up on his lap. There were no other occupants in the tent; just the three family members and the cats.
"Did we win?" was the first thing Jack thought to ask. Mary laughed and Paul chuckled.
"Yes, we won, thanks to you," Paul's brown eyes twinkled as he winked at his son, "Mary told me what you did to protect everyone in that camp; I am so proud of both of you."
"What took you so long to get to the camp?" Jack asked, picking harmless fun at his father. Mary decided to answer instead.
"Aaron blames you for that," she explained, giggling, "He said 'that was not a one-day journey—Jack better not become a mapmaker—ever.'" She imitated Aaron's voice. Jack and his father chuckled, Jack placing a hand on his stomach to sooth the pain caused by his laughter. Without warning, his laugh stopped and Mary and Paul watched him apprehensively as his eyes donned a look of immense grief.
He looked at Mary and said quietly to her, "Franklin…"
"I know," she replied, equally as quiet. She lowered her head and stared at her lap miserably. Paul sighed heavily and placed a large hand on the shoulders of each of his children. Mary's face screwed up in anguish and she buried her face in her hands, crying. Giving Jack a meaningful look, Paul walked around Jack's bedding, crouched down and wrapped his arms around his daughter, stroking her shaggy hair and rocking gently back and forth.
"There, now," he rumbled softly, "It's alright. He's free… he's finally free…"
Jack learned in the next two weeks that the camp's soldiers with whom he was currently residing, had been actively purging the land of the Red Coats for some time. Campfire stories of heroism were recalled nightly and through them, the newly freed children learned that many of the girls had already been rescued from their own enslavement and sent home. There were many out there still, but the men promised to find them as soon as they could.
After a time, Jack was finally allowed to walk stiffly around camp, with crutches that had been roughly fashioned for him by a woodcarving soldier. According to the doctor who frequently visited him, he had been lucky to survive the shot to the stomach. The other wounds such as the knife gash and the bullet to Jack's thigh, though deep and serious, had luckily missed vital organs and veins. The bullets had to be surgically removed, but once they were gone, Jack was promised that he would return to his normal speed in no time—if he diligently took the medicines and did the exercises that the doctor had prescribed to him.
Once he was well enough to travel, a wagon and team of soldiers were arranged to escort the boys to their homes across the territory. Mary and Jack both spent all the time they could with their father for they knew that it could be years before they saw him again.
Finally, it was time to say good-bye. Mary carried her basket of kittens and Jack leaned on his crutches and they said their farewells to their father. He bent forward to adjust the scarf that had been wrapped around Mary's head for warmth and hugged her tightly. Then he turned to Jack and gave him a clap on the shoulder.
"Give your mother my love," he said.
"We will," Mary said. She smiled through the sadness of this departure, knowing that at the end of road, their mother was surely waiting for them with open arms. After giving her father one last hug, she crawled into the wagon, placing her basket beside her and curling her knees up to her chest as other boys boarded. Some of them, Aaron included, also had fathers in the same camp and they, too, were speaking quietly to each other.
"You'd better get in the wagon too, son," Paul said gruffly. Though he was a tough farmer, his daughter had always had the power to reach inside and pull out the sensitive side to him and her goodbye had gotten to him. He helped Jack limp to the edge of the wagon and held his crutches while Jack rolled carefully into the opening, wincing slightly.
Jack took the crutches from his father, but then suddenly had a thought, "Wait."
He dug into his pocket and pulled out his mother's locket. Giving it one final stare, he dropped it into his father's waiting hand.
"She gave it to me to keep us safe. I think she's want you to have it now," Jack explained. His father gave a chuckle and hooked it around his neck, hiding the heart with the collar of his shirt to protect it.
"Thank you," he said, "Take care of them."
"I will," Jack promised.
After the rest of the boys were loaded into the wagon and the soldiers were ready, the procession took off into the forest, heading first for Burgess. Trees swallowed up their view of the camp and their father. Jack and Mary sat together quietly, Mary with one hand in the basket, teasing the kittens with her fingers.
"Jack," Mary said finally, "Thank you."
"For what?" he asked honestly.
Mary opened her mouth to answer, but paused, realizing just how many things she could list off. When the number in her eyes grew, she closed her mouth with a smile and said simply, "Everything."
Jack smiled and rubbed a hand through her bangs the way his mother used to for him. He leaned towards her and kissed her forehead. They settled in for the long ride home and Jack lost himself to his thoughts. He closed his eyes, remembering Franklin's death and wondering what had happened to Quagmire if he hadn't shot Jack. Not that he wanted to know. Jack wished dearly that Franklin were in this wagon with them, chatting and asking Mary to teach him how to write big words. Though Franklin's parents were gone, Jack knew that there would have always been a place for him at the Overland's table. Franklin had given his life to protect others and Jack hoped that if he were to die, it would be doing something just as heroic. He promised to himself and to Franklin's memory that he would dedicate the rest of his life to doing his best to defend children that needed protecting.
And so, on his way home went a guardian before his time.
Holy crudmuffins, it's done! Thank you SO much to everyone for reading and reviewing! I hope you'll drop one last review before you leave! I love hearing everyone's thoughts on the story!
Edit: Oh, I wanted to apologize for killing Franklin. I can't believe how attached I got to his character! I had written for him to die when I was plotting the story, but the entire time I wrote, I kept going back and forth on whether I actually wanted to do it. In the end, I decided that I really wanted the story to end just as it started; with just Jack and Mary.
For those who may be wondering, I don't have any ideas for new stories just yet, so if you'd like to keep up with me and my work, I spend more time on my DeviantART account, also under the name Golden-Flute. The URL to my DA account is on my fanfiction profile, if you're interested at all. :)
…Jeez, I had so much more that I wanted to say, but now I can't remember a single thing! Curse you, short memory!
Anyway, all the best to you guys!