Gather The Children
Toma the Justine stared at his controls and the rushing water below in horror and disbelief. What had happened in the intervening one hundred and twenty-four years? He was on the third planet from a star the main civilizations called the Earth and the Sun. When he landed it had been the Year of Our Lord, 1712, in their incorrect reckoning.
When he enlarged the cave to hide his ship, the Golden One, the terrain was stable and there were no people to discover it. Homes, small cities, and what the inhabitants called settlements now dotted both sides of a wide, flowing river. All types of river craft plied the water below. He checked and rechecked his coordinates. They were as correct as the first time, second time, third time, and fourth time he had run them.
If he let himself be seen while trying to find his ship capable of carrying him back to his world, someone on this planet would surely see his scouting craft. There was also the unpleasant fact that this exploratory craft did not possess the necessary power to extract the larger vessel, wherever it was. He could dive again, but it would be futile. He had found nothing below the surface but fish, logs, rocks and bits of sunken debris from the river traffic that moved along this great channel called the Mississippi.
He desperately needed to find a place less populated to hide his craft containing information he had gathered about this planet and its various peoples; information encoded on crystals for further study and extrapolation. Toma knew of one other place on this continent that had not shown any evidence of seismic activity. If he fled back to the more civilized continents, the population numbers increased the risk of his craft being discovered long before any rescue ship from his own planet would search for him or find him.
Like many on this continent, he fled to the area known as Texas. He buried his craft far from the sight of man. He would need to live out his life among these primitive beings that valued golden metal, land, and social position above the welfare of their like beings, and many disdained those who sought knowledge. It was a bitter, bitter end to his quest.
Chapter 1: Lorenz
“Hey, Marshal, better come right quick. Some kid’s hauling in a dead man.” Zeke Cawley stuck his head in the office long enough to yell and then yanked his head back through the door like a turtle retreating into its shell.
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.
“Thank y’all, Mr. MacDonald. Zeke, haul the remains over to Doc Huddleson and get Mr. Mallory over here.”
“I’m right here, Marshall.” Mr. Mallory stepped from the crowd. His Justice of the Peace office was next door, and at the first buzz of excitement, he had joined the rest of the lookers.
“Fine, I need y’all to take a statement from this lad and from Mr. Rolfe.”
The boy let out his breath, hardly believing what he was hearing. “Ah get my gold?” he asked.
Franklin gave a wry smile. “I’m afraid the government doesn’t work quite that swiftly.”
The boy was puzzled. “Why not? Thar’s the bank.” He pointed across the street in the general direction of the next block.
He doesn’t read, thought Franklin to himself, but that was not unusual. “The United States government doesn’t keep its gold in some town in Texas. It keeps it up North for the Yankees. We have to send the papers to them.”
“Hell, ah need the gold.”
Franklin noted the boy’s worn jeans, held up by a frayed rope, his ragged shirt, the sloppy, split boots, and sighed inwardly. Damn, young fool. Poverty probably explained the chance the kid took going after Zale, except, there was the full armory MacDonald had stripped off the youth. That didn’t make sense. Of course, weapons were cheap now. Men would sell a prized rifle for a bag of flour. “We might as well go inside,” he said. “Mr. Rolfe, would y’all write down your reasons for recognizing Zale? If y’all can’t, Mr. Mallory will, and then y’all can make your mark.”
Rolfe grinned. “Vhat language do du vant, Deutsch or English?”
“English, Mr. Rolfe, English will be fine.” He turned to the crowd. “That’s all folks. The excitement’s over for today.” He led the way inside followed by Mallory and Rolfe.
At the door he realized that the boy was still standing in the middle of the street, hands clenched, undecided, his felt hat still in the dirt where it landed when MacDonald had slapped him.
MacDonald solved the problem. He bent down, lifted the hat, and handed it upward, grinning as he did. “Ye might as well learn the ways of townsmen.”
The boy slammed the hat on and followed. He could devise no other method to regain the weapons that Rolfe and MacDonald carried. The gold, he decided had somehow been lost, but he needed his guns. He did not like stepping into the building. He had avoided buildings for well over a year and this was certain sure to be another place where people told you what to do and what not to do.