Gather The Children
Town Marshal Franklin sighed and put down the rattan fan he’d been using to create a futile breeze and shoo the flies. He straightened, brushed the dust from his worsted, brown jacket, and jammed his hat over white locks. At fifty-five he was old for his job in Arles, Texas and he knew it. Eighteen sixty-five had not been a kind year. There had been riots in Houston and Galveston; hungry people fighting for supplies. Once there had been only hardened adventurers passing through his town. Indians and Comancheros might cause concerns, but they remained well outside the town limits. Now he dealt with men who were probably Jayhawkers, Nightriders, or Redlegs. There were bands of hungry, angry men coming home from the War: men coming home to a home no longer there. Not content to let matters alone, Congress was considering a Reconstruction Bill.
Franklin stepped into bright, June sunshine and stood alongside the others gathering around some kid on an old, dapple-grey horse. The kid was leading a gaunt roan with a body wrapped in a tarp and draped over its swayed back. The boy sat rod straight, Henry rifle ready, body tensed, his lips a dead white slash against tan skin. The kid looked ready to shoot if anyone came too close or moved too fast.
To ease matters, Franklin pushed his hat back, stepped slowly forward, and asked softly, “Well, where did y’all find him?”
The boy’s weathered hat covered long, curling, black hair that hid most of his features except glowering, grey eyes that raked the crowd. Boy seemed the right term for there wasn’t a beard yet and at the distance of four feet it was obvious he hadn’t bothered with bathing. Franklin felt that the kid wouldn’t bother shaving if he didn’t wash.
The boy fixed hard eyes on him, then on the star, and back to Franklin’s face. “Ah didn’t find him. Ah kilt him. He’s Butch Zale, Comanchero. There’s a five hundred dollar reward and ah want it.” The voice was cold-edged hard.
Franklin was startled. A murmur swelled and flowed through the crowd. “We’ll need to take a look. Zeke, pull that body down.”
Zeke didn’t like the job. His movements were rough and jerky. “Gawd, he’s done gut shot him. Somebody give me a hand.”
The people were more interested in looking than touching. They watched, but no one moved.
“When did y’all shoot him?” asked Franklin. He had to keep control of the situation.
“Yesterday mornin’. Ah’d been followin’ him.”
Franklin squinted against the sunshine pelting downward and was thankful he hadn’t had to go after Zale if he and his group had truly been that close. The idea of this kid sneaking up and getting away without a scratch was preposterous. Still, it was best to proceed with caution as long as the kid sat there ready to blow away anybody that moved wrong.
“Where did y’all take him?”
“In a gully by the foothills. They tho’t they wuz hid.” His voice had become a reasonable tenor that wasn’t cracking. Franklin revised his estimate. Possibly the kid was about sixteen or seventeen.
“We’ll need details for identification. I heard Rolfe is in town. Somebody go find him,” commanded Franklin.
“No need to look, Marshal,” came an answer.
The crowd parted for two men moving closer. “Ve been vatching.” A stream of brown, tobacco liquid erupted from between the lips covered by a blond and graying mustache, expertly missing the bystanders. Rolfe, ex-mountain man, sometimes wolf hunter, now a cattleman, still wore his buckskins and moccasins. A bowie knife hung from the waist of his short, blocky frame. The man beside him towered over Rolfe and the crowd, his huge, lumbering body swaying almost like a bear. He stood more than a foot taller than Rolfe and was equally wide. Unlike Rolfe, he wore boots and duck trousers, his dark blue, collarless shirt was covered at the neck by a blue bandana, and the wide brim hat of a cattleman sat square on the large head.
Franklin nodded at the two. “Take a look and see if it’s Zale.”
Rolfe walked over and squatted, peering down at the crumpled form while the big man stopped a few feet from the kid and his rifle, seemingly watching the crowd and it’s wonderment at the developing tableau with amused, brown eyes.
The kid was grinding his teeth at the delay. “How’s he gonna know if’n it’s Zale?” He shot the question at Franklin, but kept shifting his glare between the ex-hunter and his waiting friend.
“Believe me,” assured Franklin. “He knows.”
Rolfe stood and nodded to Franklin. “Dot’s him. By damn, poy, I couldn’t haf done it better. He died slow.” Rolfe’s voice was filled with admiration, the blue eyes hard and knowing. Like his friend MacDonald, Rolfe was now studying the young man.
The boy jerked his gaze back to Franklin. “Now, ah want that reward!” His voice was harsh and reward came out like ree-ward.
Franklin shifted his weight to relieve the pressure on his corns. “It don’t happen quite that fast. First there are papers to be filled out, then…” he stopped as the Henry rifle was pointed directly at him.
“You son-of-a-bitch! I killed him. It’s mine!”
Franklin stood opened mouth at the authority ringing in the young voice, the sudden change of language, and the rifle pointed straight at his heart. No one saw the huge companion of Rolfe leaping the distance separating them. MacDonald shoved the rifle upward with his right hand and used his left to drag the young body down with a thud. Franklin caught the horse and handed the reins to Zeke. The boy rolled and went for the revolver at his side, flinging it up toward the giant when a knee caught him on the chin. With ease, MacDonald reached down and pulled him upright, turning the body and clamping his left arm around the boy. With his right hand he crunched down on the boy’s right hand, extracted the revolver from the boy’s suddenly loose grip, and flung it to Rolfe. Then he removed the other revolver, ran his hand over the boy’s back and flipped a knife from its hidden sheath. Rolfe caught the knife while MacDonald ran his huge hand over the boy’s front pockets and pulled out a pocket knife.
“His boots, Mac, his boots. He’s probably got another knife in his left one.” Rolfe was watching with professional interest.
“Aye.” MacDonald leaned his weight into the skinny body and bent the boy over and tightened his grip. “Be still, damn ye,” he said mildly enough. He shifted his hold to the right and fished up the knife from the boot sheath. Only then did he release the boy.
The kid came up with fists clenched, chest heaving. He gauged the size of the man and his strength and knew he had lost, but rage boiled through him, unreasoning and unrelenting. “God damn y’all fuckin’ son-of-…”
A huge hand exploded on one side of his face and then on the other, stopping the flow of words. He stood swaying, dazed, the world heaving, but he would not go down. His eyes cleared and he could feel the silence in the crowd, waiting, wanting more violence. He flicked his tongue to the side of his mouth where blood seeped.
“Can ye hear me now?” The voice was low and rumbling with the music of a different tongue.
“Then ye nay ere say such words to me again; nay ere in the presence of ladies.”
The boy stared upward and sucked in his breath, partially to finish clearing his mind and partially in wonderment. Where did this big bastard come up with the right to tell him what to say? God, he thought, look at the size of him. It was wonderment, and he still didn’t have his money. The marshal’s voice cut into his thoughts.