Finding Hope
Chapter 11 - Unexpected Ally

This time, the stranger decided to wait for the morning explosion of post breakfast activity to wind down before looking through the peep hole. He could see the family milling about - there were three little girls doing some kind of handiwork on the porch together, while the boys lugged sacks around the side of the house. The stranger wasn't sure, but he thought there might have been oats in one of the bags, judging by the trail the smallest boy was leaving while he struggled with the over full bag. That meant there was probably a horse or two around the side of the house that the stranger couldn't see.

The family was eventually gathered for dinner, and the sun soon fell below the horizon, draping the house in velvet darkness for a third night. The stranger couldn't stand his thirst any longer. Weak or not, he was going to have to brave the property, at least to quench his thirst. He eased the door open, and gave half a thought to the creek behind the shed. But if he went that way, he'd do best to just keep walking - it was too risky to come back to the property without a clear sight of the house. And he wasn't sure he was up to the task of roaming the countryside on foot with this sore gut. Besides, those boys were taking sacks of grain around the side of the house for a reason. They were either storing the stuff, or they were feeding someone with it. Either way, that meant staving off starvation for another day.

He bent over and skittered across the yard as quick as he could, one eye on the front door of the house, the other on the corner he'd soon be rounding into the unknown. He braced himself against the side of the house, and looked around the corner.

To his surprise, there was a whole menagerie quietly snuffling in the night. A chicken coop stood next to a small, muddy pig sty. There were several small pigs sleeping comfortably in the slop, and no noise came from the coop. It would be so easy to take one of the little animals and run off with it - but the noise would bring the family running, probably with a shotgun in every pair of steady hands. The stranger had counted no fewer than five children able to walk and talk and carry a heavy load, and he'd seen a mother and a father milling about when he'd first arrived. Eight shooters for sure - even if he wasn't still healing, the stranger wasn't so sure about those odds. His belly grumbled, but he ignored the chickens and piglets, took a long draught from the pig's water trough, and forced himself to continue his search.

He made a slow, nerve wracking circuit around the property. The shed he'd been holed up in was in the back, close to the stream, far from the nearest outlet to a well worn road. The smaller animals were housed on one side of the main house, but the barn was on the opposite. He'd seen its side when he'd first snuck into the shed, but he hadn't really gotten a good look up close. The look he was getting now weighed heavily on him - it was close to the opening to the nearest road, sure, but the idea of sneaking a horse out of the barn, past the house, in such tight quarters? Not likely.

Still, he had to take a quick peek inside the barn. He needed to know what exactly, if anything, he was working with. He eased the door open, wincing as the rusted hinges squealed a bit. He paused, listening for signs of life, either from the house, or the barn itself.

A soft nickering made his ears prick. Horse. He loved the sound of horse, felt like it was a sound he was born to hear, like it was a sound he'd die with. Hunger still called, but the sound of pleasantly curious horses was lulling, and drew him in like a siren. He picked his way in the darkness towards the sound, mindful of hay and random bits of equipment that weren't properly secured.

He reached the stalls without incident, and paused as the horses took in his presence. The soft sounds that had drawn the stranger to the stables was becoming sharper, like they were trying to decide if they were going to sound the alarm. For a moment, panic began to rise in his breast, and one of the horses began to whinny. He backed away, and forced himself to calmness. If he upset the horses, someone would surely come to check on them, and he had no intention of being caught in a strange barn in the middle of the night. He didn't live through... whatever the hell it was he'd lived through just to hang in some kangaroo court for horse stealing.

As the stranger's heart calmed, so did the shifting, restless anxiety in the stable. After a moment, only one horse still seemed to have any interest in him, and he approached it cautiously, careful to keep away from the others. He moved in close, and the horse leaned down. He didn't have the nerve to reach out, but he spoke, softly, gently. "Hello, friend. Can't sleep? Me neither."

The horse lifted its head and looked at him with soft, knowing eyes. It blew out a quiet breath, and then proceeded to join its brethren in ignoring the stranger. An ignorant man might have taken offense, but the stranger felt warmer, almost... hopeful. Like he'd found a silent partner. All he needed now was an opportunity.

Opportunity came in the morning, after breakfast, before the drill of daily chores. The children were running about, taking advantage of the few minutes of the pleasant lethargy that overcame the adults full bellies before the real work of the day began. They were squealing and shouting and making all kinds of ruckus - and then he heard a real scream, a cry of fear. The stranger's first instinct was to run to help, but after his body tried to jerk into action, he reigned himself in, and settled for listening, and maybe getting a look through the little window.

He crept up to the door and gasped. A child lay on the ground, under the shade of one of the only trees planted close to the house. The boy wasn't just dozing, though - the stranger could see the twist of his limbs, the plume of dust that was beginning to settle around the child, and the broken branch that swung ominously overhead.

In a few moments, the rest of the family was crowded in front of the tool shed, trapping the stranger inside and blocking his view of proceedings. He slunk down to the dusty ground and listened intently as the mother moaned, the children whimpered, and the father swore violently. Finally, the grandmother began to speak. Her voice was soft, too soft for the stranger to understand, but the whimpering and moaning stopped, the swearing quieted, and soon people were saying "Yes, ma'am," and he could hear movement.

The stranger listened hard at the door, and could hear someone cry out, sob a little, and then the voices were subdued again. He risked peeking out of the window, and saw the eldest child, a handsome girl, leading a pair of horses to an unhitched wagon. The next oldest child was bundling the little ones up in coats, while the mother and grandmother wrapped the injured one in a blanket.

This was his chance. The family was preparing to leave en mass with the injured kid. He could grab a horse and go! He watched with rising hope, as the family climbed into the wagon and rode away. He poked his head out, hesitantly, listening for signs of life as he emerged in the light of day. Nothing. He should make a break for it.

But even as he picked his way back to the stable, his conscience kicked up one helluva fuss. The family was already going to have to pay a doc. He should leave them some kind of payment for the horse.

But he couldn't - the only things of value in his possession were necessary for his survival - and those were simply the clothes on his back. There was the gunbelt... but he hoped to eventually get a gun to put in it, and anyway he'd still need to get food for himself and for this horse he was gonna take, so he needed to be able to trade the belt later. But maybe he could help the family with their chores, so they wouldn't necessarily lose a full day's work getting the boy mended.

It took him a few minutes to find the feed, but he made quick work of feeding the hens and the pigs (and helped himself to a couple of eggs in the process), before looking in on the horses. They knew something was up, and they weren't inclined to be calm or friendly just yet. He fed them anyway, hoping that with a bit of routine, they'd accept him as friend rather than foe, so he could get the hell away when he'd absolved himself of the crime he knew he was about to commit.

He turned his attention to the house. There was a stock pile of wood that needed to be chopped down to fit into the stove, and the breakfast dishes were still on the table where the adults had left them to tend to the fallen boy. The stranger cooked his pilfered eggs with what little fire was still burning in the stove, and picked his way around the leftover biscuits and coffee and bits of meat, before clearing the table and heading out to chop up some of that wood.

The time hiding away in the shed had done his gut some small amount of good. He got through several good swings before he was winded, and his gut didn't double him over like it had done just a couple days past. Maybe he'd been working too hard at the Wards. Or maybe he just didn't want to be under their thumbs after all.

Whatever the case, he found he only needed a moments rest before he could stand up straight. When he did, a beautiful spotted horse stood before him, blowing gently on him. "Oh!" The horse didn't shy away from him. It drew closer, and watched with interest. "Are you my friend from last night?" The horse ducked down, searching his hand. "I ain't got no apples or nothing like that. But I can stroke you. That okay?"

Time stood still while he ran his fingers through the silken mane, and he might have stood there forever, if a hunk of wood hadn't slid down from the stack and startled him from his daydream. He withdrew his hands. "No time left," the stranger said. He arranged the woodpile again as best he could, and thought of what a paltry payment that was. But there was nothing for it. He had to leave, now, before he was caught and his chance to slip away was lost forever. "No time."

The horse looked at him, and then walked around the side of the house, to the open road. Then it returned, and stared at him.

An odd feeling came over the stranger. "You wanna help me?"

The horse came and butted him, nuzzling the side of his face, and then turned and went in and out of the barn.

The stranger watched warily, before following the horse into the barn. The other horses were still in their stalls, and didn't seem the least bit interested in the strange man who'd fed them their breakfast. The spotted horse came in beside him, and headed towards the other side, where, in the dark, an old and tired looking saddle hung on the wall. The stranger grabbed the saddle and threw it on his new friend, who waited patiently to be buckled in. Then he mounted up, leaned close to the horse's ear, and said softly, "Get me out of here." And then they were gone.

Chapter 10
Chapter 12

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