Eleven year old Mike Stout tried to sit up. Turning to one said, he saw why. A head, covered in a tangle of blonde hair, Hannah Leigh’s, was resting on his should, Trying not to awaken her, he gently raised her head a little and eased his shoulder free.
Hannah stirred, and looked at him through bleary eyes, “Oh…,” she said, sweeping some of the wayward hair from her face. “Sorry…Mike,” she continued, tucking her hair behind her ear and hitting her sleeping friend on her other side with her elbow.
“Sorry, Aurelia,” she said.
“Ugh…” Aurelia Ryder said, rousing herself.
Mike nudged Charlie Peyton on his other side. “Wha…” said Charlie.
“I think we’re moving,” said Mike, picking up his one-eyed cat, Captain Jack.
“Where are we?” asked Charlie.
All four sat up and took in their surroundings. The steamboat’s galley was still looking tidy after their previous day of dish washing and cleaning. The sound of the steamboat’s engine puffed and gasped amid the muffled roar of splashing paddlewheels and the clanging of pots hanging from the ceiling.
“I hope the sheriff doesn’t know where we are,’ whispered Hannah.
“Hope he’s ain’t on board,” whispered Aurelia, looking around.
“Ain’t no way he knows, he thinks we’re dead,” said Mike, in a low voice, unaware that their rescue the previous day when the steamboat ran over their getaway row boat with the dead body of Aurelia’s uncle Julius in it, had not gone unnoticed.
Beyond the pantry door, the cook reached for a pot and caught sight of the four friend’s looking at him, “Rise and shine, it’s almost time to wash dishes again and you lot had better get some food before the others wake up looking for their breakfast.”
“Where are we, sir?” said Mike, rubbing his eyes.
“Just picked up some passengers and cargo in Cairo. Next stop Cincinnati,” the cook said. “
Mike thought about the sheriff and the posse chasing them, “What kind of passengers?”
“Look kids, I heard about how we run over you in the channel and I figure that just like me, you’re orphans.”
Mike and the others straightened and stared wide-eyed at him. The cook stiffened and came closer, a knife in one hand and a pot in the other. He thrust the pot at them, “Haven’t run away from an orphanage or anything like that?” he said, bending over them, a beaded necklace swinging from his neck.
“They look like Seneca,” said Charlie, pointing to the necklace.
“I’m Tuscarora and—”
“— you ran away from boarding school,”
“No, sir. I never went to boarding school,” said Charlie.
“How come?” said the cook.
“Well Ma is not Tuscarora so I didn’t have to go.”
“So what you all worried about then.”
“Well she’s not my real ma. But the adoption people don’t know that. That’s how come, I was able to stay at home,” said Charlie.
“Look kids, I am just like you—I ain’t had no Ma or Pa either. Least, none I can remember. But Captain’s sent a telegram ahead to say he had you four on board. I’m afraid, you all are going to be handed over to care in Cincinnati. So how about you telling me all about yourselves? Otherwise, I can’t help you none.”
Mike and the others looked at each other.
The cook pointed at Charlie, “You can’t be running away from an orphanage, seeing as you told me you were Tuscaroran when you saw that my Seneca neck beads, and you…” he turned to Aurelia, “…ain’t white like these other two, and they don’t mix different folk in orphanages as far as I know. He looked sternly at them, “So what you all a running for? You ain’t running from justice now, are you?”
Hannah stiffened, her face flushed, “There ain’t no justice in Frog Creek, not with sheriff Bullfein. He shot Aurelia’s Pa and my Pa and we don’t rightly know if they’re alive or… “
“Mister, There ain’t no law where we come from.” said Aurelia, “Just the sheriff who runs the town for DeForrest. And—”
“—and,” said Mike. “Sir, you’re our only hope. And you’ve been good to us,” he said, knowing he had to tell the cook everything—well almost everything; there was no way he was going to tell about Nolos-Gweh, his alien mentor and the hidden laboratory under the French Castle in Fort Niagara. He looked at the others before continuing. “What Hannah and Aurelia is talking about is that yesterday we were running away from the sheriff when you picked us up.”
“Go on,” said the cook.
When Mike had finished telling him about their narrow escape from the sheriff and his posse, the cook looked at them incredulously. For a moment, no one said a word as the cook looked at each of them in turn. “Son, you sure can tell a yarn. I reckon you’re a regular Mark Twain …prison break indeed,” he said, laughing.
“But it’s the truth sir,” said Mike.
“Sure,” said the cook, wagging his hand in the air. Picking up some plates, he ladled food into each of them. “Still, I ain’t had a good yarn in a long while so I reckon it’s worth breakfast.” he said, thrusting a plate at each of them in turn. “Yes sir, the darnedest tale I heard in a long while.”
After they had eaten, Mike turned to the cook, “How come we’re still aboard, Sir?”
“Too much paperwork for Captain. He couldn’t spare the time to hand you kids over,” said the cook. “That and I told him what a good job you did washing dishes last night. Of course it didn’t hurt either when I told him how his breakfast would be late on account of me being so short of help.”
“Thanks mister,” said Mike.
The cook nodded, “No problem. Captain said you can stay until we reach Cincinnati. Then… I’m afraid” he looked at each of them sympathetically “he won’t have any choice but to hand you over to the police…sorry.”