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Something was terribly wrong.
Sara Beth awoke with a start. The darkness seemed filled with unnamed dread. She sat up in bed and strained to discern what had disturbed her usually peaceful slumber. At first she thought that perhaps there had been another minor earthquake, which were common in the city by the bay, but she felt no tremors. She did, however, hear plenty.
Downstairs, Mama's voice was raised, pleading, and although Sara Beth couldn't quite make out her stepfather's words, she could hear the rumble of his gruff-sounding reply. That was very unsettling. Mama had married Robert Reese when Sara Beth was but five years old, and in nearly thirteen years she had almost never heard her parents argue.
Rising, she wrapped a shawl around her shoulders over her long nightdress, tossed her head to free her heavy, reddish braid, and tiptoed to the adjoining room to check on her younger half-brothers.
Peeking in at the small beds, she noted that all three boys appeared to be sound asleep. Josiah was the youngest and the most restless. As long as he wasn't stirring, there was a good chance none of the boys had been disturbed.
She gently eased the door to their room closed, went to the head of the stairs and paused at the banister to listen carefully. What she overheard made the fine hairs on the back of her neck prickle.
"Don't go, Robert," her mother pleaded. "Please. For the sake of the children, if not for me."
"You don't understand, Isabelle. I work with the man. I owe it to him to give him a chance to explain before I take my findings to the authorities."
"He's evil. I can see that even if you can't. How do you think he got so wealthy while we scrape by and live so meagerly?"
"Do you wish you'd married him instead? Is that it?"
"No. Of course not."
"Then stop acting as though you want to protect him."
"It's you I want to protect, not him. Can't you see that?"
Sara Beth crept silently down the stairway until she reached a vantage point where she could see both her parents. Mama was still dressed, as was Papa. It looked as if they had never gone to bed.
Jerking his arm from his wife's grasp, Robert Reese grabbed his top hat and greatcoat and stormed through the front door, not even glancing in Sara Beth's direction as he passed.
As soon as he had slammed his way out, she hurried the rest of the way down the stairway to comfort her mother. "What's happened, Mama? What's wrong?"
Isabelle covered her face with her hands and began to lament. "I've buried one husband. Now I fear I shall have to bury another."
"Oh, Mama! Papa Robert will be fine. I know he will. We'll pray for him."
Sniffling and wiping furiously at her eyes, Isabelle shook her head. "No, he will not be fine. Not unless I can talk some sense into him before he goes too far." She cast around the cozy room, her eyes alight in the glow from the kerosene lamps, then moved quickly to her sewing table and took her reticule from the drawer. "You mind the boys."
Sara Beth's sense of foreboding deepened. She reached to restrain her mother, but was shaken off like a pesky insect. The older woman grabbed a hooded cape, threw it over her shoulders and strode purposefully toward the door.
"Mama. Wait. Where are you going?"
"Meigg's wharf. If I don't return by morning, go next door to Turner's store as soon as they open and ask them to send someone to fetch Sheriff Scannell."
"Why do you have to leave us?" Sara Beth asked, the quiver in her voice mirroring the trembling of her body.
"Because there's evil in this old world," her mother said. "And your father is determined to stand alone against it in spite of everything. I have to be by his side whether he wants me there or not." She paused at the open door, her expression somber. "If anything should happen to me, go to Ella McNeil at the Ladies' Protection and Relief Society. She'll take care of you just as she took care of both of us when you were a little girl."
The last thing Isabelle said before she closed the door behind her was, "I love you, dear heart. Always remember that."
Sara Beth didn't even consider returning to her room or trying to sleep. She paced. She prayed.
She fretted. Then she pulled herself together with a final, "Please God, help us," and decided she must act.
She had no doubt that it would be foolish to venture out on foot at night, especially down toward the wharf, although her mother had done exactly that. She also knew that the fate of her entire family might rest on her being there to render aid. That was why Mama had gone after Papa Robert, wasn't it? How could she do less?
It wasn't as though Sara Beth had never been to Meigg's wharf before. She knew the old man who ran the menagerie off the alley down by Francisco Street. Abe Warner had been friendly to her and the boys every time Mama had taken them there to see all his amazing animals. And he'd always let them feed peanuts to the monkeys that roamed free in his watering hole dubbed the Cobweb Palace.
That establishment was run-down and dirty even without all the resident spiders that he refused to kill, but the old man was jolly and Mama had deemed him harmless. If Sara Beth could reach that section of the wharf safely she knew she'd find sanctuary.
The trouble was, she couldn't run off and leave her little brothers alone. Therefore, the first thing she had to do was rouse them and see that they were warmly dressed.
Lucas, the eleven-year-old, would help if she could manage to awaken him sufficiently. And Mathias was pretty self-reliant for being only seven. If they couldn't manage to dress two-year-old Josiah properly, she'd tend to his needs herself.
Rushing up the stairs, she barged into the boys' bedroom, raised her coal-oil lamp high and shouted, "Everyone up. We're going on an adventure and we have to leave right away."
The shot echoed through the rickety frame buildings and resounded along the docks.
An elderly, balding man in his nightshirt stuck his head out the window of his bedroom on the second floor of his establishment and squinted down through the fog, seeking the source of the noise.
Directly below, a woman screamed. Another shot was fired. Then another.
The old man ducked back inside, fumbled into his trousers, tucked in his nightshirt and stuck his bare feet into run-down boots as he pulled his braces over his shoulders. He didn't know what had happened but he'd bet his bottom dollar that somebody was in need of a doctor. And he knew just where to find a good one. He only hoped that whoever had been injured could hold on long enough for proper help to arrive.
By the time Sara Beth got her brothers ready to go and led them out onto the street, the fog was lifting and there was a pale pink glow beginning to warm the springtime sky just over the hills to the east.
She had hoped to be able to tuck Mama's little single-shot pistol into her pocket for protection, but when she'd gone to fetch it, it was missing, which was comforting because it was probably with her mother.
Sara Beth would be armed only with her wits, her courage and the "full armor of God" that the Bible spoke of. That would be sufficient. It had to be.
At the last minute she'd taken one of Mama's bone knitting needles and had stuffed it up the narrow sleeve of her coat. It wasn't much defense, considering the riffraff they might encounter, but it gave her courage a slight boost.
"Luke and Mathias, you tend to Josiah," she said as she led them down the front porch steps and onto the street. "Take turns carrying him if you must. Just keep up with me, stay very close and don't say a word, you hear?"
Luke obeyed as expected. Mathias was his usual ornery self. "Why?" he asked in a shrill whine. "Where's Mama? And why do we have to go out in the dark? Papa will be mad."
"If you must know, we're going to meet Mama and Papa." Sara Beth used her most commanding tone to add, "Do as I say or I'll tell them you misbehaved and you'll get a whipping."
Mathias made a sour face and scrunched up his freckled nose, but he fell into step as instructed. Sara Beth turned away so he wouldn't see her start to smile. There was a lot of her own orneriness in her little brother, and his antics often reminded her of herself. Luke was the serious one. Josiah was the inquisitive imp. But Mathias and she were kindred souls, never satisfied to bide their time and always questioning authority.
"I hope and pray I'm doing the right thing this time," Sara Beth whispered to herself as she led the way along the plank walkway toward the Pacific shore. "I truly do."
In the misty light of approaching dawn, she could see a few figures moving silently in and out of the deep shadows. Their presence gave her a start until she realized that none seemed the least interested in her or her little band of children. That was just as well, she reasoned, marching ahead boldly to allay her own fears, because until she reached the safety of the Cobweb Palace she was more vulnerable than she'd ever been.
The shortest distance to Meigg's wharf was via Francisco Street, so that was the route she chose.
Feral cats, busy raiding the rotting garbage dumped at the edges of the raised walkway, hissed and spat as she and the boys passed.
Time and again, Sara Beth glanced over her shoulder to make certain her little brothers were staying close as instructed.
The moist, damp air blowing ashore from the bay seemed to press in on her, its cloying smells almost overpowering. Never before had she noticed how filthy this neighborhood was. Nor had she anticipated how desolate it would seem at this time of the morning.
Always before when she had been there, the area had been bustling with all sorts of people, men and women, rich and poor, intent on their own business or simply out seeing the more colorful sights of the city. To find the neighborhood so apparently abandoned was unsettling.
Suppressing a shiver, she boldly marched on. They were almost there. Her breathing became shallow with anticipation, her heart pounding even more rapidly.
There were lights shining from the windows of the Cobweb Palace when she rounded the final corner. Moreover, many of the local inhabitants who had been out of sight during her approach had apparently been congregating in front of Mr. Warner's menagerie building. The crowd there was considerable, and it was growing.
Sara Beth paused a moment to assess the situation, then gathered her brothers to her, relieving the older ones of baby Josiah.
"Keep close to me," she ordered. "Grab a handful of my skirt and don't you dare let go until I say so, understand? This crowd is very big and I can't hold all your hands at the same time. We mustn't get separated."
"Yes, ma'am," Luke said, his brown eyes wide.
Mathias, too, nodded, although Sara Beth could tell he'd be off in a jiffy if one of Abe Warner's tame monkeys scampered up and wanted to play tag. Reinforcing her command she glared at him. "You, too, Mathias. Promise?"
He made a silly face. "Okay."
"Good. Now come with me. I think I see Mr. Warner in the doorway of his store and I want him to watch you while I find out what's happened."
She didn't voice all that she was thinking, partly because she didn't want to frighten the boys, and partly because she wasn't ready to accept that her parents might be at the center of the knot of men gathered on the rough, weathered walkway.
The moment Abe spotted her, he hurried over. "You children shouldn't be here."
"I had to come," Sara Beth said, handing the still-sleepy Josiah to the trusted old man. "Is it… ?"
"Come inside," he said. "There's no need for you young'uns to see all that. No need at all. No sirree."
Sara Beth grasped his coat sleeve and stopped him. "Tell me. Please?"
She saw him look to the boys, then shake his head. The sadness and empathy in his expression told her more than any words could have. Much more than she wanted to know.
Biting her lip and fighting dizziness, she passed all her brothers into Abe's care, then whirled and ran back into the street, pushing her way through the gaggle of onlookers.
A young, dark-haired man in a black frock coat was crouched down next to three bodies that lay on the walkway. Two had already been covered and he was laying the muddy folds of a wool cape over the face and upper torso of the third to mask it.
Sara Beth immediately recognized the fabric of her mother's skirt and gave a little shriek.
The hatless man quickly stood, focused his dark, somber gaze on her and grasped her arms to stop her from proceeding.
She tried to lunge past him toward the bodies as she fought to free herself. "No. Let me go!"
Posted July 3, 2012
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Posted February 13, 2012
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