Written by A. LaFaye
Illustrated by Peter Catalanotto
A Breakfast Serials Story
Searching for a Plan
The Story So Far: Eleven-year-old Iah Thomas has just discovered the kidnapped girl, Vinca Hemshaw, in the hold of the steamer! Now, with a second chance to help her, can he save her from the evil Rattler Cole?
I spent the next morning drowning in my own worries, twisted up over the idea that Miss Vinca Hemshaw could show up on this very boat, crated up like a hog. Would she be able to stay down below? That girl seemed like a caged bear, ready to tear itself free. Speaking of bears, what would Cole do if he found out I’d been in the hold? What could a bumbler like me do to get that girl off the boat?
What’s more, that Cole had a hefty bunch on his side. The fellas he played cards with all looked ready for a fight. They didn’t wear their guns out like he did. But their stiff pockets told all. You could see the guns riding in ’em when they shifted in their chairs.
How in the devil could I outsmart all of them folks?
I started thinking, maybe with his liberator ways, Mr. Davis might know a thing or two about sneaking people out of harm’s way. That is, until he came walking into the cabin and went straight up to Cole to say something into his very ear, like two partners casing the same bank. Cole didn’t move, just sat there stiff as a tombstone. The two of them had to be in on it together. So much for a little help from Mr. Davis. He walked off, but I couldn’t help feeling like he’d left me in the middle of a lake in a boat with no oars.
Only thing that kept me afloat was the talk at the tables. Serving drinks among men who gamble is a good way to get the lay of the land. Folks talked about Cole, telling tales about who he’d killed and how many times he’d cheated old man death. Now, you can imagine all that talk had me melting with fear, but they also said the pilot wouldn’t loan him air to breathe.
Clearing away glasses at my turtle’s pace, I stayed at one table long enough to hear the whole story.
A man with a vest that looked like parlor curtains said, “Cole came onboard telling Carroll he wanted his own men posted all over the boat. Said he had cargo that needed guarding.”
“I’ll bet,” said another fella. He laughed as he squeezed out his cards, hoping to make the flush he had brewing. “What do you think? It’s stolen gold?”
“Rifles for the soldiers at Fort Union,” answered a sallow man, bluffing with a pair of duces.
“Well, Carroll told Cole he had his own men to keep watch of the boat. Cole said he’d keep his cargo in his stateroom with that kind of security,” the vested man said.
“What did Carroll do?” asked a fella with a full house.
“Said there’d be another boat upriver in two weeks.”
They all laughed, even the fella with two clubs in his heart flush.
I’d been right about Mr. Carroll. He was no man to mess with, even if you were Bearclaw Cole.
“But Cole heads down there at least five times a day,” said the vested man.
“Makes you almost want to take a peek.” The duce fella smiled real sly.
“Boy, you plan to spit clean those glasses right here?” Full House asked me.
“No, sir.” I shuffled off before they started to suspect I was giving signs to help some fella cheat.
Come lunch, I walked the deck to try and shuffle together a plan, but my thoughts kept tripping over a whole other snag.
I’d started to notice even more stiff-pocketed fellas wandering the ship. By the time I got to the boiler deck, they had me nervous enough to pull up to the rail to steady myself.
“You’re looking pale, Iah.” Mr. Davis’s words spun me around. Without meaning to, I’d stopped right in front of his office.
“I’m fine.” I nodded, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the fellas chatting up ahead. In my mind I saw them blocking my path, their guns out, their eyes filled with the threat of death.
Mr. Davis followed my gaze, then said, “Come inside, Iah.”
I stepped in. He closed the door. The room wasn’t much more than a closet, but I felt kind of safe.
“Cole’s men got you nervous.”
“Ranches up near Fort Union have taken to war over rumors of gold and a need for more water. A few of them have brought in hired guns like Cole and his men to keep the peace, but it doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
“You have a stake in a ranch, Mr. Davis?” Mama always said smarts can make up for courage in a pinch, and I felt right proud for jumping right to that question. I’d test old Mr. Davis’s loyalty a little.
He squinted at me. “No, what makes you ask?”
My mind spun like the paddle wheel. “You know a lot about ranching.” Whew.
“Oh, it pays to know what you’re traveling through, Iah. That’s all.”
“Well, I don’t much like traveling among all these fellas with guns.”
“Stick to your work and they won’t harm you none.”
“Yes, sir.” I left feeling worse than when I went in. I didn’t know any more about whether Mr. Davis would help Vinca or not, and I knew too much about just how dangerous those men were. I’d heard tell of all the bloodshed over property rights and water rights and cattle theft. Folks downriver said it was as bloody as any war. And I didn’t want no part of war. Three years ago this summer, my daddy gave his life at Vicksburg fighting for the Union, and we lost the family farm to taxes for his trouble.
(To be continued.)
Text copyright © 2006 Alexandria LaFaye. Illustrations copyright © 2006 Peter Catalanotto. Reprinted by permission of Breakfast Serials, Inc., www.breakfastserials.com. No part of this publication may be reproduced, displayed, used or distributed without the express written permission of the copyright holder.