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Jessica awoke to the sound of gunshots. Matt was already dressed, and his shock was evident in the deep lines of his forehead and the way he gawked in disbelief at his surroundings. "We've got to hide," Matt told her as she put on her petticoat. "Hear those volleys? Border ruffians, no doubt."

"It sounds as if the whole town is under attack." She slipped on her dress and removed her red garnet brooch, putting it in her pocket for safekeeping. "What shall we do, Matt?"

"I don't know. Maybe you ought to wait here while I run ahead and see what's going on."

"Are you insane?" She quickly buttoned her dress. "I'm not going to stay here and wait to see if you get killed. I'm going with you." Her gun was still in her dress pocket. She thought of telling Matt she had it but then decided against it. Maybe Matt would do something rash. Best he didn't know she had a weapon.

Jessica could sense Matt was going to argue with her about her joining him, but she grabbed onto his arm and kept pace with him. They stopped when they got to the corner of New Hampshire and Pinckney Streets. Far down one street were hordes of men on horseback shooting and yelling.

"We can probably make it to the City Hotel," Matt said, his voice wavering, his eyes revealing his fright. "C'mon."

Some people were standing outside with stunned looks. Matt avoided talking to anyone and kept urging Jessica to walk faster, to run if she could. When they got there, the City Hotel owners, Nathan and Laura Stone, looked puzzled as they stood near the entrance. Nathan recognized Matt with a polite nod. "Any idea what's going on, Mr. Lightfoot?"

"Looks like we're being attacked. Maybe it's Quantrill and his bunch. There's been talk he might do something like this." Nathan scratched his head. "If it's true, I can't believe it. When I knew him as Charlie Hart, he was always well-mannered." Matt's face soured and he was about to say something in response, but Jessica quickly jumped in: "We need a room. Anything you've got."

Nathan's wife Laura had Matt sign the register and showed them to a room on the third floor. "Normally," she said, trying to make light of the matter, "I wouldn't rent a room to an unmarried couple. Given what's happening this morning, I don't care." She disappeared out the door before Matt or Jessica could thank her.

"Maybe that's a reason we ought to get married," Matt joked.

Jessica wasn't in the mood for lighthearted banter and went to the window. A crowd of men on horseback had gathered outside the Eldridge House. "That's strange," she said.

"What is?"

"No volleys. No yells or whoops. A lot of the men-maybe those ruffians who invaded the town-are just standing quietly outside the Eldridge, looking up. What's going on?"

Otto felt someone shaking him, telling him to get up immediately. At first he thought it was part of his dream where he had knocked on the door of a cabin to inquire if the occupants would accept a slave girl he had just rescued. The physical shaking Otto now felt confused him. But when he opened his eyes, he was surprised to see a look of alarm on Penelope's face. All she had on was a chemise and her wedding ring. She looked beautiful…but frightened.

Otto pushed himself up off the floor where they had made their bed last night. "What's wrong?"

"Just listen. Hear that? It sounds like a band of outlaws have taken over the town." She hurriedly put on her petticoat. "We've got to get the children up and leave."

Otto heard the sound of hooves and intermittent gunfire and yelling. Thoroughly confused as to what was happening and why, he got dressed immediately. After helping Penelope with her hoop skirt and buttoning her dress, he roused the children from sleep. Six-year-old Emma kept pressing her father with questions as he dressed her: "Where're we going?…Why are you scared?…Aren't we gonna eat breakfast?…"

"I'll answer all your questions later, sweetheart," he replied, lifting up the child while Penelope took Mitzi's hand. Otto glanced at Penelope and felt he could read her mind. She was probably thinking if this were Quantrill's band, he might be in mortal danger. But where should he and his family go?

When they stepped outside, a building at the far end of the block was on fire. One man lay dead on the wooden sidewalk four doors away. Marauders on horseback rode back and forth down the street, firing their revolvers.

Penelope grabbed Otto's arm. "Put Emma down and hide down under here," she said, raising the hem of her dress. Otto put the child down but blinked at her suggestion. "You mean under your skirts? I'm sorry, but I refuse to do that!"

"Shush! Do it if you love me. Please!"

Otto felt foolish as he hid under her voluminous dress. "I feel like such an idiot," he said, holding her legs for support while hunched over in the strange darkness of her underclothes.

"I'd much rather have a live idiot," she said, "than a dead martyr."

He heard his daughters giggle, but Penelope shushed them as well.

"Otto, I've got to hide you in that secret cellar of ours on Vermont Street. Tinker probably hid there last night. You and the children will be safe there."

"And how do you suppose I'll get there by hiding here, darling?"

"I'll walk slowly so you can walk on your knees and keep pace with me. We'll get there eventually."

Otto, feeling increasingly foolish and wanting no part of this humiliation, was about to crawl out from under her dress when he heard the gruff voice of a man: "Who yah talkin' to, lady?"

"To my daughters. And it's none of your concern."

"Yah look familiar. You're Mrs. Heller, aren't yah? Where's your husband? I want to see him."

Emma giggled. "You can't. He's playing peek-a-boo."

Otto felt the blood drain from his face. Please, Emma, be quiet!

"What does she mean by that?" the man growled.

"She's just a child talking nonsense," Penelope said. "Leave her alone. I'm not Mrs. Heller and I don't have a husband, so please quit pestering me."

"I'm wastin' my time with yah, woman," the man said. There was no further conversation, but Otto heard other terrible sounds-gunfire, shouting, and ladies sobbing in soulful desperation to save their husbands. Penelope started walking, one small slow step at a time. Otto, crawling on his knees, his hands on her thighs, tried his best to keep pace with her. He imagined the disgrace that the slave Ishmael must have felt when he had to hide, with trash heaped upon him, in the false bottom of Otto's merchant wagon. Safety, Otto thought, comes with a price, sometimes a humiliating one.

His thoughts evaporated when he heard Penelope shriek, "Otto! It's a good thing you can't see what's going on here. What a horrible sight! I just saw a man thrown into a burning building.

When they heard the gunshots, Hugh and Elizabeth Fisher took their children and headed toward Mount Oread for safety. Two of their older boys, Willie and Charlie, ran ahead of them. Eight-year-old Joey held his father's hand, while Elizabeth carried their six-month-old infant.

Hugh stopped, gasping for breath, as he leaned against a tree. "I won't be able to travel that distance, Elizabeth. Not after my illness."

Elizabeth looked back at their brick house a hundred yards away, at the northwest corner of South Park. She then turned her head toward the west and spotted Willie and Charlie running off with their friend, Bobby Martin. Twelve-year-old Bobby, wearing a suit of clothes made from his father's blue Yankee uniform, was easy to spot.

Elizabeth worried why her two boys were taking off with their friend, not bothering to look behind them to see where their parents were. She'd run after them if only she wasn't carrying the infant and if she didn't have to be concerned about the safety of Joey and her husband.

"Don't worry about the boys," Hugh said. "They're fast runners."

"But I am worried. They're just boys and there are insane men out there shooting guns."

Hugh pressed her hand. "Please, Elizabeth. Trust in the Lord."

By the time they arrived at their house, dust from the charging horsemen could be seen billowing in the distance, less than a half mile away. "Quick, hide in the cellar," Elizabeth said, looking around to be sure no one saw him entering the house. "They're not going to find you there."

No sooner had Hugh gone down to hide in their unfinished cellar, when there was a rapid knock on the door. While her son Joseph sat on a chair in the dining room, Elizabeth, holding the infant, answered the door. Four rough-looking guerillas pushed their way in. "Let me speak to Reverend Fisher," one of them demanded.

"He's not here," Elizabeth answered. "He left some time ago."

"I don't believe you, ma'am." He strode in with the three others and started throwing furniture about. Joseph, obviously terrified, ran to his mother and clung to her leg. After going from room to room, one of the men came back, his face flushed with anger. "We've got orders to see him. Now I'm gonna ask you again: where is he?"

"I've already told you he's not here."

"You're a damned liar. Let's search the cellar, men."

Elizabeth said a quick prayer while they went down to the cellar. "It's too dark down there," one of the men said. "Bring me a lamp, woman!"

Elizabeth's mind raced. She wasn't about to give them a lamp to help them find her husband. "It'll take some time for me to find," she answered. "I don't know where it is." She thought about the new kerosene lamp they had bought. It was an invention that perhaps these bushwhackers hadn't seen yet. Holding her infant, she went up to the second floor, but stopped at the top of the stairs.

The men came up from the cellar. Three of them began searching the house again. One of them looked up at her. "Hurry up and find it, woman!" Another began racing up the steps, cussing at her.

Elizabeth knew she couldn't stall any longer. Running into one of the bedrooms, she grabbed the kerosene lamp. "I found one," she shouted, as she turned down the wick into the coal oil before bringing it to the ruffian waiting for her on the stairs.

The man tried repeatedly to light the kerosene lamp, but failed. He passed the lamp around, but no one seemed to know how to light it. The men were furious when Elizabeth insisted she didn't know anything about this type of lamp. All the while, she hoped and prayed the delay would give Hugh sufficient time to somehow escape.

"Get me another lamp!" one man demanded.

"I can't," Elizabeth said. "I need to watch my child."

"Damn you! I'll watch your precious child for yah." He took the baby from her and ordered her upstairs to look for another lamp.

She brought down a lamp, which the man lit and took with him, racing down to the cellar. All kinds of horrible thoughts went through her mind. What could she possibly do if they discovered him? How could she prevent his murder?

"He must have escaped!" the man yelled, returning from the cellar. "Burn this house down, men! If he's here, he'll be a dead man!"

Elizabeth tiptoed downstairs when no one was around. She looked about. No sign of him. But then she heard him whisper, "I'm still down here."

The fire, Elizabeth thought. They're setting the house on fire, and Hugh's still in the cellar! 

Excerpted from Sissy! © Copyright 2005 by Tom Mach. Reprinted with permission by Hill Song Press. All rights reserved.

by by Tom Mach

  • paperback: 345 pages
  • Publisher: Hill Song Press
  • ISBN-10: 0974515922
  • ISBN-13: 9780974515922