Dust blew into Mary Wilson’s eyes. There was a sudden lurch and her sewing kit bounced across the floorboards of the wagon. Jed came out of the ruts again, Lord love him. At this rate he’d shake the damned wheels off before they got to Hard Bluff. Young Ezra tapped her on the shoulder.
“How much longer, reckon?” His voice crackled with impending manhood. Mary had a mother’s patience, but if this boy that she loved so much was ever going to become a man, he’d need to learn some of his own.
“Make yourself useful. Get up front and hold the shotgun for your pa. While you’re there, go ahead and pester him about the time, see where it gets ya.”
Ezra looked about to sulk, but to his credit the boy mastered himself. He stepped out of the opening at the rear of the covered wagon. Hanging loose against the road bounce, he shimmied along the frame to the front seat. Mary watched her son’s silhouette take the spot next to his father. By God, the boy and him were almost the same height. A confusing mixture of pride and melancholy warmed Mary’s chest. For a while she forgot all about the ruts and the bumps and her scattered sewing kit.
A high pitched scream broke the peace.
Hoofbeats filled the air. Mary attempted to call out but panic had her dumb-stricken.
The air exploded with gunfire.
Fire ran through Mary’s nerves. With quiet horror she saw that the savages had cut away patches of her skin. She held herself still in case they were still around.
Voices came and went. The sun lowered.
Later, the dark sky came into some kind of focus. The attackers were still near. Mary stared upward, lost for while in the river of stars that streaked the firmament above. Orange flickering came from the direction of the voices.
Mary tried to sit up but pain burst with a flash across her vision and everything went dark again.
When the sun woke Mary her tongue was so swollen she could hardly get breath past it. The reek of old fire stained the air. She struggled upright, ignoring the pain. Chunks of her own hair and skin lay in the dust at her feet, blackened with dry blood.
Her husband’s body hung from a tree, his lower half burnt away. Underneath him were the charred remnants of their wagon. A body lay on the ground in a pool of black beside the fire.
She ran to her maimed boy. They had made sport of him; took his ears and his limbs for trophies. Mary screamed, not caring if the savages heard her. If they came, she’d bite and tear until she was overcome.
A cautious whinny shook her attention, she bared her teeth and stared wild-eyed in its direction.
Louella nosed from behind a stand of scrub brush. Mary cried out in shock at the small miracle.
“How’d you survive, girl?”
She could have asked herself the same question.
The only things of worth in the ruins of the wagon were Jed’s bowie knife and her sewing kit. One instrument to take things apart, another to mend them.
Mary put a hand to her son’s pale cheek. They’d taken his arms and his feet and his ears. She touched the stump of his shoulder, moving her thumb over the cut skin and muscle. Her grief quickened to rage.
She would make him whole again.
Mary covered her son with a blanket. She laid what was left of him over Louella’s back.
“Go on, girl. This way.” The ambushers weren’t careful with their trail.
Mary tied Louella to a mesquite tree in the darkness. She padded with soft feet toward the distant light of a campfire.
A man and a boy sat in the glow of the fire. Both were dark featured in battered buckskin. The man wore a bandolier of braided hair, strung with drying ears. Death and rot thickened the air.
Mary lunged at the man, crying murder, knife aimed at his heart. He slipped her easily. His hand came down like iron on her wrist, wrenching the knife away. He pinned Mary to the ground near the fire, only a moment later did he seem to register what was happening.
The man’s face spread into a cruel grin. He reached for the bowie knife. Mary snatched a hot coal from the fire with her free hand and smashed it into the man’s cheek. His grin warped into a howl as he lost his grip on her arm. The stink of her own burnt skin filled the air.
She grabbed the knife with her unburned hand and sunk it down to its hilt in the man’s chest, deflating his scream. Now she turned to the boy.
The boy who was about the same age as Ezra. Who wore a pair of fresh ears at his belt, a trophy that did not belong to him. The boy was paralyzed in fear at the monster before him.
Did Ezra scream like this when they took his limbs? Did he cry out when they took his ears, did he have the same pathetic look in his eyes?
The work was long. Louella whinnied and stamped against her tether but Mary knew it would pass. She kept to her labors.
She sewed the boy’s limbs onto Ezra. Returned his missing ears.
She made him whole.
Ezra opened his eyes, spilling tears over his dirty cheeks. Mary threw her arms around him.
“Mommy?” He said, his voice was a mewl. Mary pulled back to see him wide-eyed with fear. “I’m scared.”
She slapped him across the mouth.
Ezra crumpled before her, whimpering like a cur. Mary reached for the bowie knife.
At first he cried out as Mary cut away the parts she’d taken from the savage boy. She gave Ezra a hard wallop with the butt of the knife to stop his noise.
The man’s arm fit well enough. She worked needle and thread while Ezra’s snivels dampened into low snorts. By the time her work was done he’d been long silent. The sinews of his new arm danced while he opened and closed his hand.
Ezra’s eyes grew hard.
“I’m okay, momma,” he said. A mannish rumble underpinned his voice. He placed his hand on her shoulder, an iron grip she’d felt before. “Give me the knife.”
He walked toward the trail holding the bowie knife down at his side. Mary followed with Louella.
“We need to find help, food. You’re the man now Ezra,” she called out.
Ezra nodded without turning to look back.
“You two are lucky to be alive.” The man’s voice trembled with something like awe at the two bloody figures before him. His eyes were on Ezra, though he addressed Mary. “Hard Bluff isn’t too far. I can get you there, get a doctor.”
“Bless you. Ezra, see? A real man is generous.” She turned to her boy but he was moving toward the man. “Ezra?” Her son flicked the knife blade while he walked, the motion came smooth like he’d practiced it a million times. “Ezra?” A tremble shook Mary’s voice.
Ezra cut the stranger down before Mary could move to speak. He knelt over the dying man and went to work with the knife.
Mary held her tears at bay. She knew they no longer had anything to fear.
Rumors on the Great Western Plains told of a danger more fearsome than any highwayman or rebel native.
She appears at the edge of the trail, her raw scalp blackened with dry blood. But woe to you, Samaritan for The Patchwork Boy’s flashing knife will be the last thing you see. Your ears will soon take their place on the long braid he wears like a bandolier.