The Midnight Twelve
Hairann © 2019
All Rights Reserved
West of Shadynook 1818
Long after dusk settled over the desert, the landscape veiled in darkness as there was no moon to illuminate the night sky, a boy of nine years was awoken from a deep sleep. He was dreaming of hunting rabbits with his father when a strange feeling gnawed at the edge of his mind. Confused by the sudden intrusion, he wiped the crusted sleep from his pale green eyes, before he glanced around the dark room and waited for them to adjust. His only source of light was an almost dead fire that burned its last log in the hearth; its embers barely gave off a red glow, let alone any real source of light.
On many a night such as this, the swaying shadows caused him to tremble in fear, unable to discern what they were, as he woke from an unsettling dream or for the need to relieve himself. Eventually he outgrew those fears, but tonight they managed to unnerve him once more as the strange sensation that awoken him still weighed on his mind.
As the feeling grew stronger, he glanced toward where his parents slept unaware, before turning his attention to the window on the far side of the room. For a moment, he hesitated—the floor beneath his bed would be cold, and he didn’t want to risk waking his parents as the old, worn wooden planks creaked beneath his feet. Things never ended well for him whenever a misstep caused his father to wake.
Try as he might, the sensation refused to release its urgent grasp on his mind. His lone blanket tossed aside, he crawled out of bed, breath held as though that might prevent the boards from their inevitable betrayal and made his way over to the window. Hands pressed firmly on the ledge, he pushed himself up and looked through the condensation. Even though the fire no longer heated the small home, it was still warmer within than it was outside during a cold, desert night.
With only the stars shining above him, he saw little more than the silhouette of cacti and the outline of the fence that surrounded his family’s lone mare. Staring out into the cold, dark night, he watched as a star twinkled out of existence. An ominous chill crawled its way down his spine—a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold. As he glanced once more out into the land that surrounded his modest two-room home, he saw nothing but the dusty ground and the darkened sky that was always present. Whatever had caused the strange feeling refused to make itself known to him, and the young boy frowned in annoyance.
Perhaps he simply imagined the entire thing; his sleep-laden mind was prone to play tricks on him. About to give up the feeling as having been his imagination and head back to bed, the boy caught a flare of light from beyond the edge of their property.
Confused, he watched the small flame dance around a few feet off the ground as it grew ever closer to his home. Soon he realized what it was he was seeing—a torch. Its small flame was as dim as the one in his own hearth, no doubt caused by the distance. Its movement was almost rhythmic as it seemed to rise and fall in sync with his breathing. It dawned on him that whoever carried the torch did so from the saddle.
He wondered who might wish to call on them at this late an hour, especially when visitors during the day were a rare occurrence. The torch’s singularity was proved to be short-lived as flame after flame appeared behind it, their bearers now close enough for him to see. A knot formed in his throat.
The boy let go of the window ledge and made his way to where his parents slept unaware. “Papa,” the boy called out as he gently shook him, his shaky voice betraying the fear that rose within him.
His father shooed him off with a wave of his hand, not bothering to open his eyes. “Get back to bed, Ezra. It was just a nightmare.” He rolled back over and appeared to fall asleep once more.
Not wanting to suffer his father’s wrath in case he decided to bring out the switch, the boy was about to give up and go back to bed when he remembered how many torches were on a journey toward his home at that moment.
There was no innocent reason he knew of for men to be headed toward their house that late at night and in such large numbers. Once he decided it was worth the punishment if he turned out to be wrong, he pushed on. “Papa, men are comin’.”
His father growled even as he turned to glare at him in the dim firelight. The boy shivered in dread at how his father might punish him, but he refused to let his apprehension deter him. “Riders are comin’, Papa. With torches. I lost count at ten torches.”
His father threw back the covers, jumped out of bed, and rushed toward the window.
His mother, awoken by the commotion he made, sat up in bed. “Benjamin, what is it? Who is outside at this hour?”
His father didn’t answer.
Unsure of what to do, Ezra stood in silence as his mother, a young woman of twenty-eight years, climbed from the warm bed, and silently made her way over to the window. She glanced out into the front yard, and her breath hitched in her throat, audibly enough for him to hear.
He moved closer toward his parents in order to see outside, barely able to make out the torches as they cast an eerie glow on the hardened faces of the men who bore them before his mother stepped in front of him to block his sight.
“He found us, Benjamin. After all these years, he finally found us,” she whispered as she trembled in fear; the vibration even noticeable in the dark braid that fell on her back. In that moment, he knew with certainty that nothing good would come from meeting with the visitors outside. If his mother had ever felt anything other than happiness, she took great care to ensure he never realized it. How frightened must she have been to not even bother with pretenses.
“Aye, my love, but we have shared ten more years of freedom than we were ever meant to have. We knew he would find us eventually. No one leaves alive, we knew that in the very beginning. We both can’t escape from our fate, but it is not too late for you and the boy, Lisette. Take him and make your way out the back before they have the chance to surround us. They will surely kill him if they find him here, but as none knew your pregnancy was the reason we left, they will not know of his existence. I will convince them you died years ago. Hide in the large bushes and wait until they leave to do so yourself. Do not risk being heard.”
No one leaves what alive? Ezra thought. Why are they here to kill any of us? How was my mother being pregnant with me the reason they left whatever it was that they ran from? Ezra knew not to question his parents at that moment and instead continued to watch them in silence. Watch as his mother shook her head defiantly, tears forming in her eyes. Watch as his father leaned down and placed a kiss upon her lips.
Watch as the fight slowly faded out of her eyes, and she nodded before she cupped his father’s cheeks, resting her forehead against his. It was a gesture he saw many times in his short life, usually when his father returned from being gone overnight, but he had never before seen it seem so sad.
His mother grabbed his arm and led them through the small room they occupied and into the kitchen. Without releasing her grip, she gathered his overcoat, shoes, and a loaf of bread, before ushering him to the back door. She did not bother to grab anything of her own. “Take these and follow your father’s instructions. I wish more than anything to go with you, but I cannot risk your father’s assumptions that they will believe me dead.
“If they don’t, they will not stop until they find me, but they have no way to know of your existence. We left them before they realized I was pregnant. Hide in the bushes and do not move from that spot until long after the riders have gone. They may leave a rider behind for a little while, and if they find you, they will kill you. Now listen to your mama and go.” Before he had the chance to speak once again, his mother placed a quick kiss upon his confused brow and pushed him out the back door.
A moment later, he heard the bar come down, locking him out and preventing him from trying to go back inside. He made his way around the small house, not bothering to put on his coat or shoes—he had no chance to outrun them anyway.
He pushed his way into the bushes, making sure he was close enough to see the riders when they arrived out front, but far enough out of sight they would be unable to see him. He was less than ten feet away from where his parents were standing inside his home, but he might as well have been a half a world away. Though the four walls that made up his home had never been quite enough to keep out all of the winter’s chill, they were enough to keep the sounds trapped within so he could not hear what they were saying. Were they arguing about his mother’s decision? Would his father agree, or would he try to send her out again?
The riders arrived, stopping a few feet in front of the porch. The men fanned out behind the first one to stop—Ezra counted a dozen of them. Unsurprisingly, each carried a pistol or two in holsters at their hips. Two of them, the riders who were at the ends of the group, held rifles across their laps. Each one’s clothing differed slightly, either through the color and pattern on their shirts or that some wore vests while the others wore jackets, but it was not hard for even a boy as young as him, who had never seen an outlaw in his entire life, to figure out that was exactly who they were. Something about the dark look in their eyes, the grimaces set on their faces, convinced him they were not men of law.
“Come out, Grayson, I know you’re in there!” the man in the front called out, startling Ezra and causing him to shake the bush slightly. Holding his breath, he froze as he watched for any sign of the men hearing him, before finally exhaling in relief when they continued to glare at the front of his house. A moment later, he heard the telltale creaking of the front door opening and his parents’ footsteps making their way across the threshold. He was not able to see them from his position, but he did hear his parents stop at the top of the stairs.
“Took y’all long enough. Was startin’ to think you turned coward and ran again, Benjie. It’s good you finally show some courage at the end. Won’t stop what’s comin’ but won’t have to make it worse in spite neither. Mister De Voe sent’cha a message I’m supposed to deliver before you die.” The man spat, his dark eyes never leaving his parents.
“He said to tell you that ain’t nobody leaving the Pine Box Crew except for in one. Your fate is already sealed, Benjie boy, but Mister De Voe said he would be more than happy to let Lisette warm his bed in exchange for her life.” Ezra didn’t completely understand the odd grin the man was giving his mother, but he knew whatever he was suggesting was not something his mother would approve of, even if he had not seen the man’s mouthful of rotten and blackened teeth. One of the other men, who was out of his line of sight, let out a creepy laugh.
Judging by the man’s next words, he was correct. “Your choice, but it ain’t like it would have been the first time you laid with the boss man.” The man smirked before gesturing over his shoulders at the men behind him. “I’ll let the Johnson brothers send you on your way.” The man turned his horse around and headed back in the direction they came from only a few minutes before. As he passed his men, he nodded to them. Two broke away, moving closer to the porch as the others followed after their leader. Not daring to move, Ezra clenched his fists so tightly his nails bit into his palms as the men raised their six-shooters at his parents.
He knew without being able to see that his parents stood there unarmed, their only rifle currently sitting on the table in the gunsmith’s shop as it waited to be repaired. They were unable to defend themselves as a loud noise thundered around them. The deafening sound filled the air repeatedly as the men continued to fire, their horses whinnying in protest to the sudden noise. It was not long before the sound was drowned out by his parents’ screams, confirming at least a few of the bullets hit their targets.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as he shut his eyes and waited for it to stop, unable to bear watching any longer. Eventually, the men ran out of bullets, and the noise stopped as suddenly as it began. Ezra opened his eyes to find them already making their way toward their comrades. They stole his father’s horse and left without looking back.
That was how little taking the lives of his parents mattered to them. They were not even worth a second glance, a confirmation that they were no longer suffering. He bit into his bottom lip to prevent himself from making a sound while the men were still close enough to overhear him. The fire from their torches grew farther and farther away. Each step their horses took provided him with a little more protection.
He heard his parents wailing in pain, apparently still alive for the moment, but he was unable to force himself to move. The gunshots echoed through him, each one piercing his heart a little more than the last. The brave face he put on for his mother was now all but forgotten as he shivered in the foliage, his heartbeat pounding louder in his ears with each passing moment. He would have to come out of hiding eventually—every second he wasted was another moment he would never get back with his parents, but he was still too scared to move.
He would have remained there, unaware of the passing time, had he not heard the soft, frail voice of his mother calling out to him: “Ezra.”
His head shot up, searching around for what must have been her ghost speaking to him when he remembered she was still alive. His eyes flitted around, searching for a sign of any dangers lurking nearby, but still, he was frozen in place even after he was unable to find any.
“Come to me, baby. You are safe,” his mother’s voice called out again, assuring him. This time, the pain in her voice was enough to get him to rise to his feet once more.
He rushed toward the front of the house and skidded to a halt at the sight before him. Mere feet away, his parents lay on the porch, bleeding badly from wounds even he knew would prove to be fatal. His father’s hauntingly empty eyes stared off into the distance even as his chest continued to rise and fall ever so slightly. His mother’s gentle eyes turned toward him, unfocused, as her hand raised barely an inch off of the porch toward him.
Once more, he froze, unable to will himself to move as he took in all that was before him, burning it forever into his memory. Every drop of his parents’ spilled blood. Every painful gasp for air. The frighteningly hollow look in their eyes. He would memorize every last bit of it, even knowing it would haunt his dreams for the rest of his life because he knew this would be the last time he would ever see them. As much as he wanted to remember them as they were the night before when he went to sleep, a peaceful, loving memory of his parents would not serve him well if ever he wished to avenge their deaths.
No longer would this be a porch where his mother used to read him stories as the bright summer sun sank below the horizon, continuing until the words were no longer legible in the dimming light. Now it would be the place his parents were gunned down for reasons unknown to him. No longer would the stairs before him be where his father taught him how to clean his gun and skin a rabbit properly. Now they would be the final steps he took toward his living parents.
No longer would it be a place that held so many of his favorite childhood memories. Now it held the bodies of his dying parents; their blood seeping into the grain of the wood and forever staining it. Hearing his mother weakly calling out his name once more, he tentatively took a few steps toward her. He scanned the scene before him but refused to look on either of their faces. With each step that brought him closer, he made out more of the details that were missed before, opting to concentrate on them instead of the actual people before him.
The sticky, red blood continued to gush from their wounds, staining their clothes and pooling beneath them. He listened to the raspy breathing of his mother and the wet, gurgling breaths his father struggled to take. “Mama, Papa,” he gasped before collapsing beside them, finally turning his attention to their paling faces. Grabbing her raised hand in his smaller, chubbier ones, he barely managed to whisper, “Mama,” once more before the tears burst from his eyes and he collapsed against her bloody form.
“Listen to me, my sweet baby boy. Papa and I ain’t long for this world, and there is nothing to be done about it. You cannot stay here, it ain’t safe without us. Pack only what you can manage and make your way toward the rising sun. It will lead you straight into town and to Sheriff Jarrett. He can take you to your grandmother’s. You will be safe there, my dear Ezra.” She paused for a moment, struggling to take a breath as she cupped his cheek. Both of them ignored the smudge of blood she left there as her strength drained away, and her arm fell back to her side.
“This world is full of good, honest people, but there are also those more evil than you ever imagined. If you ever hear the name Godfrey de Voe, run as far and as fast as you can, for you will find none worse than him. He is the man that has murdered us and is far more dangerous than you can believe. Be safe my child and know that you were loved more than life itself by your Papa and me.” Her words tapered off as she lay back and closed her eyes. Apparently, even the simple task of keeping them open required more strength than she had.
Laying down beside her, undaunted by the pool of blood beneath him, Ezra wept as he curled up in her loving arms. It wasn’t until the sun rose on the horizon that he finally lifted his head once more and glanced toward the bodies of his dead parents. The uncertainty of his future path was all but forgotten the moment his parents breathed their final breath. He was an orphan now and one day, though he didn’t know where or how, Godfrey de Voe would pay for what he had done. He rose to his feet with determination and set about the long, exhausting task of burying his parents.
As soon as Ezra finished adding the last shovelful of dirt on to his mother’s grave, he collapsed in exhaustion on top of her final resting place and remained there all night.
When he awoke the next morning, the events from the night before were forgotten by his sleepy mind for a moment, and he imagined he was in his warm, lumpy bed.
But as a crow cawed in a tree no more than a few yards away from him, he quickly realized he was sleeping outside. With that realization, the memories came flooding back all at once, and it became clear to him that the lumpy blanket he thought he was sleeping on was, in fact, the mound of dirt that covered his mother’s lifeless body.
He leaped to his feet and nearly tripped over the shovel he discarded beside him, squeezing his eyes closed against the horrifying sight of his parents’ graves. Wiping his dirty palms on his pants, he tried not to think about what the crusty substance that stained his arms and clothes was. Without looking back at the small graveyard he’d dug himself, Ezra made his way into the silent home that used to be filled with the happy, loving sounds of family.
The sound of his mother giggling when she caught his father staring at her when he thought she hadn’t been looking, was gone. The sound of his father’s voice calling him over to sit in front of the fire and instructing him on how to whittle a chunk of wood into a tiny bird would never echo within the walls again. His own laughter when his mother would tickle him as she tucked him into bed at night, saying every day should start with a smile and end with a laugh, would ring out no more.
Now the house was empty, void of all sound other than the loud beating of his heart as it echoed in his ears and the sniffles he tried to fight. Boys didn’t cry, not according to Papa, and he did not want disobeying his father to be the last thing he did in his childhood home. That would wait until he was safely in his grandmother’s arms. Even though he had never met her before, he knew he would be safe and welcome with her. She was his only living relative now, and you took care of family, right? But, as he had no other choice at the moment, he decided it did not matter how he was received when he arrived. First, he needed to get there.
Making his way around the small home he was sure he would never see again after that day, he gathered up what he was able to take with him; what he couldn’t bear to leave behind. His father’s whittling knife. His mother’s necklace. The train his father whittled for him for his ninth birthday a few months back.
Grabbing the pillowcase off of his parents’ bed, he added the items he collected, along with the loaf of bread his mother gave him the night before. He went to the kitchen and grabbed what food he found, adding it to the makeshift sack before throwing it over his shoulder and making his way outside once more.
As his mother instructed him, he headed due east, toward the sun that was still rising, already forcing away the previous night’s chill. He had only been there a few times since they bought the homestead when he was a baby, but he knew the trip into town would take him a good while since he was walking.
As he thought about their last trip into town, the image of his mother laughing at something his father said on the way home flashed through his mind. He did not understand what had been so funny, but just the thought of his mother’s beautiful laughter was enough to cause a sob to escape his lips without warning, startling him. Stopping for a moment, he shook his head, steeling his shoulders defiantly, and then continued walking toward his destination. Each hour, each mile passed by in a blur as the tears threatened to fall. He paid them, and the passing scenery, little mind.
One foot, then the other. One step, then another. Over and over, he whispered these instructions to himself until he was no longer sure if he was actually speaking out loud or if it was all in his mind. He had no way to know how long it took him to walk the distance from his home to the small town where they bought their supplies, the journey completely forgotten the moment his eyes landed on the sheriff.
How long or how far the journey had been was irrelevant as he had no wish to remember the last time he ever walked away from his family—from his home. He did not want to think about the unshed tears that stung his eyes or the throbbing of his feet that had him wanting to call out for his mother. He became a man the night before, the moment his father took his last breath.
Making his way over to the small sheriff’s office, its old porch creaking as a man with a gold star on his chest paced back and forth. Two other men, each sporting a silver star, seemed unconcerned by his behavior as they rested their heads against the wall behind them. Ezra gave the lawmen a once over to assure himself they were not there the night before, even if he hadn’t really gotten a good enough look at any of the men to confirm either way. It didn’t seem likely. There was something in the way they carried themselves, not to mention how they were dressed that seemed as if it was the exact opposite from the twelve men from the night before.
Turning his attention to the man with the gold star—Sheriff Jarrett, his mother had called him—he couldn’t help but notice how his soft eyes reminded him of his mother’s. Though where hers were green, much like his own, the sheriff’s were blue. His short, dark hair reminded him of his father’s.
He seemed shorter than his father even as he stood on the porch above him, but Ezra wasn’t entirely sure if that wasn’t his memory making his father seem larger than life. As Ezra approached, the sheriff froze, no doubt startled by the sight he must have made covered in dried blood. He rushed toward Ezra. “What has happened to you, boy? Whose blood is this?”
The sheriff’s sudden movements startled the deputies, causing them to jump to their feet and join him before Ezra. “Ma and my Papa were killed last night. Men came to the house and shot them dead. Ma said you would lead me to my grandmother’s home. You know how I can get there, right?” He looked up at the sheriff with tired, watery eyes. He managed to keep the tears in so far, but they were always on the edge and ready to fall as soon as he let his guard down.
“Don’t you worry about that none, boy, your parents made arrangements with me in case anything were to happen to them. Said they needed to be careful living that far out of town, and in all honesty, I always thought they were worried for nothing. Guess your parents knew better than I did. I’ll take you to your grandmother’s.” The sheriff turned his attention to the two silent men standing beside him. “Head out to the homestead west of here. See if you can pick up their trail. I’ll be back before dark.” Barely noticing their nods of agreement, Ezra kept his eyes trained on the sheriff as he made his way toward the small one-horse wagon that was tied up beside his office.
“Let’s go, boy. It’s not a long trip by wagon, but far too long to walk.”
Nodding, Ezra allowed himself to be picked up, along with his bag of meager belongings, and placed in the front seat of the wagon. The sheriff climbed in beside him, signaling for the horse to go. Much like the men the night before, he never looked back to make sure the deputies were following orders, but Ezra did, for a moment wondering if he should have told them about burying his parents.
Before he made up his mind, the sheriff was already guiding the horse toward the northeast, and Ezra did his best to ignore the hot sun that was now bearing down on them. The sheriff turned his attention to him once more, giving his appearance a closer inspection, a sad, sympathetic expression on his face. Clearly, he pitied him. What else was there to be feeling at that moment? It was bad enough his parents were killed, but to add having to bury them himself on top of that, it was a wonder he had not gone into shock—or perhaps he already did. In truth, Ezra had no idea how it felt to be in shock so, for all he knew, maybe he was.
“Have you ever met your grandmother?” the sheriff ventured after a few minutes passed in silence. Ezra continued to stare off into the distance. Though he did not see anything that was in front of him, he was unable to pull his eyes away t