"It ain't right!"
"Shut up and do what you're told!"
"No.. it ain't right.. I ain't gonna let you kill them."
He cringed as another gunshot cracked through the air. The man, still tied to the chair, fell backwards and lay on the floor, his leg twitching as his blood colored the floor.
The children screamed at the sound, "Daddy!"
Aidan stepped forward, staring into his uncle's face, "That's enough... you don't need to kill them!"
"Get out of my face boy!"
He didn't know where the gumption came from, but it was all he had left. "I said no!"
"You gonna kill him too?" It was the wife that spoke, anger seething from her eyes as she strained against the ropes.
Barnabus Crandall cursed and aimed his gun for the woman's head, "Shut your mouth woman, or your children'll be orphans before the night is out."
"Please Uncle...you've taken the money, they ain't got much else. Let's go." His tone seemed almost whiny... it was so plaintive that even the woman, who was so angry a minute before turned to look at him.
"Mind your mouth boy, I'm in charge here."
Finding a last reserve of strength he pressed on, "Please."
Well, whiskey and hard luck had made Barnabus mean, real mean. The boy hit the floor unconscious, he body barely made a sound as it crumpled in a heap. "I said, mind your mouth."
The children screamed and the woman bared her teeth, "You'll rot in hell for this."
Barnabus motioned for the men to continue ransacking the house. He opened the cylinder and spun it along his arm, two bullets left in the chamber. "Two bullets Mrs. Marcus, one for you and one for one of your children. Any last words-"
"Nothing you'd want to hear."
"Fine. Then I'll kill one of your boys first-" He raised his gun and pulled back the hammer.
Her younger son whimpered and she tore her gaze away from him and back to her tormentor, "Leave him alone you monster! He's only a boy!"
He grinned and trained the gun on the boys chest. "Boys grow up. I don't need some young pup on my tail...thinkin' he's gonna avenge his Mama." He fired and the boy slumped over, his head lolling from his shoulders.
Her scream ripped through the cabin and she struggled against the ropes. Knocking over her own chair, she tried to drag her chair in front of her other son., "Davy..quiet down baby.. quiet-"
The second shot rang out and Davy's chair fell to the floor beside her. His vacant eyes bored into hers ... cold and unseeing.
"Davy.. Davy... "she gasped out his name again and again, her cries howling through the air like a banshee.
Feeling the wave of anger smash over him, Barnabus let it take control. He aimed the gun at her head and pulled the trigger.
It clicked in impotent rage and he merely stared as she flinched beneath him.
Her fear dissolved as she looked on him with new eyes. Eyes empty of love and life stared him down, "I don't care how you do it.. just get it over with. Kill me."
Her voice ran like ice cold water, "You heard me... I want to die."
He chuckled and moved closer, sliding his knife free from his belt, "I think I can oblige."
Dawn broke over the little cabin, it's feeble rays of light, barely able to reach the motionless forms inside. The barn smoldered as the fire struggled to die out. With hardly a thing left to burn, it was simply starved.
The Sheriff and his two deputies raced out toward the trailing clouds of gray smoke, silence wedged between them. They dismounted and patrolled the grounds, even though their instincts told them that the men responsible were long gone.
James Hickok and Teaspoon Hunter rode into town just scant minutes after the sheriff left. They made their way toward the jail, only to be hailed by an old man standing at the edge of the walk.
Pointing his cane toward the west he intoned the news. "They'd be out there.. looks like the Marcus place went up in flames last night."
Teaspoon shifted in his saddle, the news unsettling, even though it re: strangers. "Doesn't sound like the sheriff expected this."
The elderly man shook his head, "No.. no one would, the Marcus family is pretty quiet. Man, wife.. two young boys. Don't know much else."
Teaspoon tipped his hat and turned his mount only to find Jimmy already leading his horse toward the west. "You seem pretty sure that we'll be heading out there Jimmy."
Jimmy looked back over his shoulder, "We're goin' ain't we?" Teaspoon nodded, "You know me too well son, much too well."
Tom Haskell slipped his hands under Mrs. Marcus' shoulders and braced his legs to lift, "Kill .... me..."
His face froze in horror, "Sh-sh---sheriff Harmon?"
The sheriff turned toward his deputy, "What is it Tom?"
Tom nodded toward the woman laid out on the floor, "Did you hear that?"
The sheriff was at his side in a moment, "Mrs. Marcus...? Mrs. Marcus, can you hear me?"
Her eyes searched about, every movement excruciating. "The boy..."
Sheriff Harmon wiped at his face with a kerchief, "Looks like that's the whole family."
The lawmen reached for their weapons before seein' the glint off of the silver stars pinned on their shirts.
Teaspoon reined in a few feet away, tipping his hat as he did, "We were ridin' through, thought we'd come out and help."
"Mighty obliged, Marshal ----"
"Hunter, Teaspoon Hunter, I'm the Marshal over in Sweetwater," as Teaspoon dismounted the sheriff nodded recognition, "and this here's my deputy James Butler-"
"Well Mr. Hickok, Marshal Hunter, glad you stopped in.. but right now all we need," he turned away and set a wooden handle into Teaspoon's hands, "is help diggin' the holes."
Jimmy walked past Teaspoon and the sheriff, over to the shaded side of the house where all the bodies had been laid out. Covered by handmade quilts, they where laid out side by side, father, the two boys, and their mother. Deputy Haskell was just about to cover over her face when Jimmy's hand stopped him. "What happened?"
Tom huffed out a breath, tryin' to still the tears that threatened his composure. "All killed, sometime last night."
"This the mother?"
"Yeah.. when we found them this morning.." his voice broke and Jimmy's heart froze, "she was still alive."
One of the smoldering timbers of the barn cracked and half the structure fell into a heap.
"Dunno.. I mean, carved up the way she was... we all thought she was dead."
"She tried to tell us what happened... but the only thing we could understand was," He pointed over to the cottonwood tree, "the boy .. the boy.. she kept repeating it over and over, until she died."
Jimmy looked at the boy, he couldn't be more than fourteen years old. His head hung forward even though he was bound to the tree, "You're sayin' the boy did it?"
Haskell shook his head, "That's the only thing we can figure. I was her dyin' words that told us."
Looking down at her face, Jimmy felt the bile rise up in her throat. She'd seen her husband and children killed and survived through the night, ripped open and layin' on the floor. He bowed his head as he covered her with the blanket, "So what happens now?"
Teaspoon walked up, holding out a shovel, "We bury them son."
Jimmy stood and took the shovel in his hands, "We ain't gonna wait to take them into town."
The sheriff spoke next, "As it stands, we don't have a graveyard in town." He looked around the property, "We bury them where we can."
He blanched, but gripped the shovel with resolve, "Where do we dig?"
The sheriff nodded at the cottonwood where the boy was tied up. "Under the tree I guess, looks like there's enough room under the shade of that tree, maybe give them some comfort."
Deputy Haskell bristled, "Comfort? Hardly. The only comfort they'll get is when we hang that murderer."
Later that day, Teaspoon and Jimmy stood outside the sheriff's office, quietly discussing the case. "Don't seem right Teaspoon, that boy ain't big enough to cut up a woman-"
Teaspoon didn't seem convinced either, but was tryin' to rationalize the crime to himself, "Dunno Jimmy, they say that when a body is mighty angry.. they'll have the strength of a person twice their size."
"Angry? Did that boy seem angry to you?"
"No.. but we weren't there last night, we don't know what happened."
A chair splintered inside and Jimmy was through the door in an instant. The boy stood in the middle of his cell, staring impassively at the deputy. Haskell gripped the bars between his hands and pressed his face against the bars, "What is your name!?"
"Haskell? What are you doin'?"
Reaching down for his gun, Haskell turned to the Marshal, "I'm gonna get some answers."
Jimmy slipped Haskell's gun from his holster, "Not like this."
Red in the face, the deputy looked about ready to use his bare hands, "Stay out of this."
Jimmy'd already turned to the bars, "You best answer him." When all he got was a stoic look, he asked the question again. "What is your name?"
Teaspoon joined Jimmy at the cell wall, "You wanna tell us what happened last night?"
The boy stared out, a vacant look his only defense.
"I told you Teaspoon, the boy's hardened."
"I ain't gonna tell you how to do your job Sheriff, but I want you to look at that boy and tell me you think he could get the jump on the whole family and tie them up without any help."
Sheriff Harmon's eyes narrowed, "Then he'd best be giving up the names of the men that were with him."
They all stared at the boy, it was the first thing he'd said since they'd found him.
Teaspoon took advantage of the momentary silence, "So that we can bring the others to justice."
"Others?" There was real fear in the boy's voice, "there weren't no others."
"Told you-" boasted Haskell.
Jimmy moved closer to the bars, "Come on now.. this ain't no joke boy."
"I know it ain't no joke, but it's the answer I got."
Haskell shook the bars with rage, "and we're gonna hang you boy.. just wait.. we're gonna hang you!"
The boy stared back with icy blue eyes, "Then get it over with."
Leaning against the bar, Jimmy lowered his voice as he talked about the murders with Teaspoon, "I still say it don't make sense."
Teaspoon set his glass on the wooden runner of the bar, "I can see your point son, but the woman said-"
Jimmy set his sandwich down on the plate, "She didn't say anything... not really. She said 'the boy,' but that could have meant anything."
Nodding, Teaspoon motioned toward the window. Across the street, one of the deputies paced outside, shotgun held in his hands. Sometime that morning a crowd had gathered. The West, for all it's wide open spaces, was a 'small' place when it came to gossip.
Angry voices had started to call to the lawmen inside the jail. They wanted a hanging and they wanted it today. Luckily the law had stood fast so far. The crowd continued to gather and the voice were growing too loud to ignore. "They seem pretty convinced."
Jimmy scoffed, "Since when have you gone by what someone else thought?"
Teaspoon shook his head side to side, a wry smile stretched his lips, "Son? Anyone ever tell you you know how to cut a man to the quick?"
Jimmy's shoulder shook with a single huff of laughter, "Learned it from you Teaspoon."
The easy banter between the two stopped as the crowd roared it's displeasure outside.
Straightening up, Teaspoon laid some coins on the counter, "Well, we ain't gonna get to the bottom of this standing around here."
The two lawmen, sans badges made their way slowly through the crowded tables. As they neared the doorway, a group of men shouldered their way through the doors. Their boots brought in half of the dirt from the road, "Set up the shots! We've got ourselves a powerful thirst."
Teaspoon found and opening in the procession and slipped through. Jimmy, on the other hand, was trapped between a table and a serving girl. She wasn't particularly worried about him, it was the saddle tramp pawin' at her that she was worried about. "Hey, give me your order, but keep your hands off, I ain't that kind of girl."
The man leered down at her, "Aw honey.. there ain't no question what kind of girl you are!" He snatched a full mug of beer off her tray,
The leader of the group moved forward, "I'll have a beer." She nodded and moved to pass him, "What's goin' on outside?"
She shrugged and moved on past him.
He seemed angry at her for ignoring the question.
Another one of his men caught the arm of a man on his way out of the Saloon, "You gonna tell us?"
The man stood frozen, his mouth hung open in fright.
"Hey now, you boys leave him alone." The frightened man ran out of the Saloon and around the corner out of sight. All eyes turned to the 'drunk' leaning against the wall, "There now, no need to hurt him, cain't you see, he's probably scared of his own shadow."
"What about you old man?
"Me?" Teaspoon slipped his thumbs under his suspenders and smoothed them down. "I'm not afraid of much..." he took a moment to measure up all the men in the group. "What did you want to know?"
The leader stepped forward, "Well now, we just rode into town, thinkin' of stayin' for a spell," He looked over his shoulder at the crowd in the street, "but that crowd out there looks pretty mad. You know what they're shoutin' about?"
"Seems they brought in-"
"That murderin' scum!" Another man from the town mowed through the batwing doors, and hailed a serving girl for a drink. "Them Law-dawg ain't gonna let us hang the bastard!"
The man off the street tossed back a shot of whiskey at the bar, "The spawn of satan himself. Murdered the Marcus family last night, all four of them. Well hell," another shot was tossed back into his gullet, "if they ain't gonna let us hang him... then there's gonna be a whole mess of angry people around town."
"Well that's ridiculous!" answered the leader. He leaned closer to Teaspoon, "Seems to me like the law just ought to hand the boy over to the crowd and let them spare the town the cost of a fancy hangin'."
He moved on to join the rest of his men, leaving Teaspoon staring after him. Jimmy moved closer as the leader was swallowed up in the group of men pushing against the bar. "Did you hear that?"
Teaspoon nodded, "Yep, seems like things are makin' more sense by the minute."
Jimmy moved off toward the bar, only to be pulled back, "Let me go!"
"Not until you start thinkin' like a law man."
"Son, we know that, but we've got to prove it first."
The batwing doors at the corner of the room burst inward with a rush of air, "He's gone!"
Every head swung around, but no one would ever know who called out, "Who?"
"The boy! He's gone!"
Teaspoon and Jimmy found their horses milling in the throng of people crowding the streets. On the boardwalk outside the jail, the sheriff was busy tryin' to calm down the crowd. Once they'd walked their horses clear of the crowd, they mounted up and headed out of town. Out toward the Marcus house.
Tears, hot and wet slicked over his face, the graves still freshly covered weighed on his soul as if he himself were buried under all that dirt. He bowed beside the graves, the breath frozen in his chest, "I'm sorry.. so sorry.. I tried... I tried everything I could-"
Voices, loud and angry bubbled up inside of his mind. The people from the town they wanted him dead! He clenched his jaw, still angered by what had happened in town. He should have been prepared for the hostile attitudes today but he hadn't been. Damn them all! Why should it matter what they thought of him? But strangely it did.
Then, he had to admit, it wasn't the town he was really worried about. He sifted his hand through the loose dirt on the graves, he felt for the Marcus family. They were laid out under all this dirt.. why? 'Cause they didn't have enough money to make his uncle happy.
Hooves plowed up behind him but he knelt, immobile with guilt.
"What are you doin' out here?"
"Why do you care?"
Jimmy ignored the bitter tone, "Most of the town thinks you're long gone."
Teaspoon dismounted and followed Jimmy to the boy's side, "Well son, we're glad we found you first-"
"Why? You gonna shoot me?"
Teaspoon shared a look over the boy's bowed head, "Shoot? Um.. no. We were thinkin' more of provin' you didn't kill the Marcus family."
For the first time, since they'd found him, the boy looked up at them. "How do you figure to do that?"
"Testify? I can't do that… he'd kill me!"
"If you testify, he won't be able to do anything like that. They'll hang him."
He froze, his eyes hooded as they stared down at the ground. "Hang him?"
Jimmy knelt down and tried to look him in the eye, "He'll never be able to hurt you again."
The boy's eyes flew up to meet Jimmy's gaze, "I ain't worried about me-"
"What about those boys. The Marcus boys."
"I never thought he'd-" He looked up and Jimmy saw the first tears the boy had shed since the morning the Marcus family had been found. "Never thought he'd hurt 'em. Just scare them, so's they would give him their money."
Jimmy fought back his own comments, letting the boy have a moment.
"The problem was… they didn't have none."
The pause was excruciating for Jimmy. "Can you tell me the rest?"
The boy shook his head. "Why not?"
"Nobody'll believe it."
"I'm only a boy."
Jimmy watched the boys' face. It was stoic and unemotional again. He'd probably heard his uncle say things like that again and again. "That's not true, Teaspoon would, I would."
He shook his head harder, "Uncle Barnabus-" the boy froze. His face stretched over a surprised 'o', "I never shoulda… he's gonna-"
Jimmy set a hand on the boy's shoulder, "He not gonna do anything to you. I'll make sure of it."
The eyes that looked back at him held little hope, "Then you're gonna try and kill him."
Jimmy's eyes never let his, "No. I'm gonna bring him in. He's gonna go to trial and the judge will make him hang, and then you won't ever have to worry."
He sucked in his bottom lip and Jimmy watched as his chin trembled, "Then where will I go?"
He brushed Jimmy's hand off his shoulder, "They'll hang my uncle and the rest of the gang. They'll go in the cemetery. Me…I guess they'll ship me off to the orphanage."
The boy walked out of the room and planted himself down on the porch steps, his shoulders stiff and tense. Slowly, Jimmy stood and looked out the open door. The boy had a point, what would happen to him?
Teaspoon came to stand beside him, "You get anymore out of him?"
"Yeah." He looked to his mentor, turmoil in his eyes, "Now, I'm more worried than ever."
"We'll bring in the man that did this."
"And he'll hang."
"What happens to him?" Jimmy motioned out the door.
Teaspoon took in a deep breath and followed Jimmy's gaze, "Interesting question Jimmy. You got an answer?"
"No." His tone hedged, waiting for Teaspoon to continue, "You?"
Teaspoon clasped a hand on Jimmy's shoulders, "Hickok, you got two options." He paused to look at his deputy, "you can let the judge take of this problem… or-"
Jimmy nodded, "Or?"
Teaspoon's mouthed stretched over his teeth as he sucked in a breath, "I've got faith in you son. You'll figure it out."
It was still the middle of the day when Teaspoon returned to town. He rode up one of the side streets hoping to avoid notice by the law. Tethering his mount on the dark side of the Saloon and found his way in through a side entrance and sidled up to the man he'd spoken to that morning. "Damn it's hot out."
Barnabus tossed back his drink, "You don't say."
Teaspoon eyed the bustling Saloon, "Looks like every body from three towns over came in while I was gone."
"Yep." He motioned for another drink, "Where did you go anyhow?"
"I had some business to attend to. Found some puzzlin' tracks on my way."
"Tracks?" Barnabus leaned closer, "What kind of tracks?"
" Footprints.. small ones at that… heading over by that burned out house. Strange though."
"Well, the family was killed last night... but these tracks were made sometime today."
The man scoffed, "Well now, how would you know that?"
Teaspoon leaned back against the bar, "Well, I used to be a bit of a scout. Spent some time down in Texas, scouting for Houston."
Barnabus nodded, "Tracks huh?"
"Yep…small like a woman's… or a-"
Barnabus shoved a double eagle coin in Teaspoon's hand. "Thanks friend. I'd be real obliged if you'd keep that information to yourself."
Teaspoon put the coin between his teeth and bit down hard. "Well thanks, 'friend', I sure will."
"He ain't comin'."
Jimmy waved a hand to quiet the boy; "He'll be here."
"How do you know your friend didn't run off on us."
Shaking his head, Jimmy tried not to laugh, "No, not Teaspoon."
Horses, over half a dozen of them, came into view, Barnabus at the lead. He rode up by the house and jerked his mount to a stop, "Come on out boy!" The men looked around, hands poised over the butts of their guns. "I ain't got time to waste boy, come on out!"
He made a move to leave, but Jimmy held him still.
"The laws after you.. they'll be here soon. So you better come on out. We're your only chance!"
Somewhere, a prairie dog called out. Jimmy motioned for the boy to stay in his hiding place. Moving in careful, measured steps, Jimmy stood and called out to the men, "He ain't goin' anywhere with you."
"And who might you be?"
Jimmy turned so his badge flashed a bright light into their eyes, "James Hickok, deputy-"
"James 'Wild Bill' Hickok? Well now, what do we owe this pleasure to?"
"I want you to leave the boy alone."
"I'm responsible for him."
"Fine job you've done so far."
Barnabus dismounted, seemingly unconscious of the twin Colts pointed at his chest, "He's my brother's boy and I'll have the raisin' of him."
"Not if you're dead you won't."
Laughter, dark and cruel broke the silence, "Brave words Hickok."
"Throw your weapons down." Now, the rest of the men joined in the laughter.
Barnabus stared back, "Thinkin' to bring us in by yourself?"
"I ain't alone."
"That, we know."
Barnabus drew his gun in one swift motion and fired a shot into the dirt at Jimmy's feet. Hickok didn't flinch, but the boy barreled out from his hiding place and ran out in between the two men. "Stop!" He looked back at Jimmy, "I'll go with them."
"No you won't!" Teaspoon appeared at the back of the group. "You go back over by those rocks and let us handle this son."
"No one else is gonna get hurt because of me." He took a step closer to his uncle.
"Son? That ain't the right thing to do."
The boy didn't acknowledge Teaspoon, "He's family."
Jimmy called out, "Family, don't leave you to die for them."
"He took care of me." He took another step.
"That's right boy, come closer."
"Don't move!" Jimmy pulled back the hammers of both Colts.
The boy called back over his shoulder, "It ain't worth you getting' hurt!"
"That's my call."
Turning, the boy took a step back toward Hickok.
"Don't you dare." The threat was quiet but potent, the boy froze.
Jimmy looked into the boy's eyes and nodded. "Remember the Marcus boys."
The boy sprang into action, running for Jimmy as fast as he could. Barnabus aimed for the boy's head while his men tried to clear their weapons. One well placed warning shot from Teaspoon set the others straight.
The first shot went wild, but the second drove straight toward Jimmy's heart. It wasn't until the last minute that the boy fell against Jimmy and knocked him out of the way. Shots continued to pepper the ground around them until Jimmy put an end to it with one well-placed bullet.
Barnabus howled from inside his jail cell, "Don't think you're free of me yet!"
The sheriff shook his head, "We will be in a few days…as soon as they finish that scaffold outside."
"I ain't gonna hang!"
"Sure… sure Barnabus. It ain't like I've never heard that before." Pokin' his head out the door, he called to the two men enjoyin' the shade. "You fellas stickin' around for the hangin'?"
"No, we'll be heading out as soon as we figure out what to do about the boy."
Exhausted from the events of the last few days, the boy lay fast asleep on a cot inside the Sheriff's office.
"Oh, that reminds me." Sheriff Harmon pulled a piece of paper from his vest pocket. "This came for you by Pony Express this mornin'."
Jimmy took the paper and read it carefully.
Teaspoon leaned against his chair, rocking it on its back legs, "What you got there Jimmy?"
Looking back, Jimmy smiled, "The answer."
Two days later an odd little group awaited the stage. Jimmy stood beside the boy, his hand on his shoulder. As the driver secured the bags on the top of the stage, the passengers climbed into the carriage, finding their seats for the long journey.
Jimmy squeezed his shoulder, "You'll be fine."
The boy shot back, "I ain't scared."
Chuckling in silence, Jimmy answered back, "I would be."
Eyes, wide with disbelief stared up at him, "You?"
"You're goin' to be fine. You'll love them."
"They're just folks-"
Jimmy leaned down, "you won't feel like that after you meet them."
Tears laced through the boy's lashes, "You're just sayin' that."
A knowing look from Jimmy made the boy turn away. "You think so?"
"Yeah, what would people want with me anyway. I ain't the smartest kid around or even the strongest. Why would anyone want me. I ain' t nothin' but an orphan."
Teaspoon and Jimmy shared a knowing look before Teaspoon set the boy straight, "That don't matter to these people. You're already family as far as they're concerned."
The stage driver called down, "The boy about ready to go?"
Jimmy looked up into the morning sun, "Yeah.. just about."
Teaspoon handed a letter up to the driver, "Here ya go. This instructions are all there."
As the stage driver opened the letter an pored over the contents. Jimmy helped the boy up into the carriage and saw him settled in, "You mind them."
He leaned back against the seat and crossed his arms over his chest, but there was a smile in his eyes, "Yes sir."
Jimmy slid the bolt home, locking the stage door. "All set!"
The stage driver nodded, "Well, better head on out if'n we want to make good time to St. Jo."
The stage rocked as the horses pulled against the brakes, restless to continue their journey. A head peered out of an open window. "Jimmy?" Both Teaspoon and Jimmy looked up, "What're their names again?"
The horses lurched into a run as the driver released the handbrake. The stage rolled into action and Jimmy and Teaspoon stepped into the street and waved, "Cain... Sam and Emma Cain!"