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 to focus on something else. “Priscilla Mandel is a bit rough around the edges, but I’m sure being around her only grandchild will soften her. Met her a few times myself, but it has been a while since I’ve been out this way.”
Ezra didn’t fault the man for his attempts to draw him out, but he could form no reply—his body had already given up listening to what he wanted. As time passed by slowly, Ezra wondered if the silence was causing the minutes to draw on even more than they usually did. How long would it take them to reach their destination? One hour? Two? Would he regain control over himself before they arrived and he was expected to move again?
“If you don’t like it with your grandmother, there is always the Mayview Orphanage south of Shadynook. I’ve taken a few children there over the years. Seems like a decent enough place,” the sheriff continued, undaunted by his silence. Judging by the heavy sigh that came from the sheriff, he was not completely unaffected by Ezra’s inability to respond.
Ezra tried to smile but couldn’t manage it. If he had, it would have been a shadow of the smiles he used to grace his mother with when the men came back from a day of hunting and found her waiting there with open arms. A pale reflection of the grin that nearly split his face when he managed to trap his first rabbit and turned toward his father to find him beaming with pride. He was certain, in that moment, that he would never truly smile again.
Eventually, the silent trip came to an end as the sheriff pull the wagon to a stop a few yards before a small, two-story home made from warped wood that had seen better days. It wasn’t much to look at, even if it was bigger than his parents’ house was, and the dingy windows and tattered curtains that surrounded them showed their owner either cared little for their upkeep or was unable to handle the work they required by herself. Ezra was not at all surprised to find an old woman, slightly hunched from age, make her way slowly out onto the porch to greet them.
The shotgun she aimed at them, however, was completely unexpected. Ezra managed to find the strength to hide behind the sheriff, moving for the first time since their journey began. The older man’s body shielded most of the exchange from him, but he still saw him raise his hands in surrender. “It is Sheriff Jarrett, Mrs. Mandel. We have met a few times already. Must you point that gun at me every time?”
Ezra was startled when the sheriff chuckled at the seemingly dangerous woman, but he did not dare question his reaction. That would draw her attention to him, and that was the last thing he wanted at that moment.
The sheriff continued. “Remember? I came out to help rebuild your roof last year after that huge storm?” As he spoke, he tilted his head back to show her his face unobstructed by his hat. She lowered her gun, but continued to hold it tightly and did not look the least bit welcoming to Ezra.
“It’s all right, boy,” the sheriff assured him. “She’s not going to hurt you.”
Ezra did not move. Instead, he took the opportunity to examine his only living relative more closely. Her long gray hair was pulled up into an unkempt bun, her stiff fingers no doubt unable to pull the strands tight anymore. Her dull, brown dress was covered in patches.
“Funny, I don’t remember promising no such thing,” she said. “You best be explaining what you are doing on my property before I decide to forget who you are again.”
For a moment, Ezra wondered if he would not be better off going to the orphanage the sheriff mentioned on the way there. Just as quickly as it crossed his mind, Ezra pushed the thought away. No matter how strange the first meeting with his grandmother was going, she was the only family he had left. If his mother was there, he knew she would be telling him first impressions were not always a true reflection of who somebody was. He shouldn’t blame her for her reactions since they showed up on her property without warning. And worse than that, he realized, he was still covered in his parents’ blood. With the sight that they must have made, it was no wonder his grandmother behaved as she did.
“Sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Mandel, but Lisette was killed last night along with her husband. This is their boy. Years back, I was instructed to bring him to you if anything were to happen to his parents. I am simply fulfilling my obligation to her.” Catching the sheriff’s attention turn toward him, Ezra finally took his eyes off of his grandmother long enough to look up at the sheriff and find him nodding in her direction. “You should greet your grandmother. Wouldn’t want her thinking your mother hadn’t raised you right.”
Ezra reluctantly did as he was instructed and nodded to her in silent greeting. “You got a name, boy?” she demanded, her voice devoid of any compassion or familiarity. Try as he might, he found himself unable to answer her. “Spit it out, boy, I ain’t got all day. Either tell me your name, or I will call you boy from now on.”
Her warning went unheeded as Ezra remained silent, but not because he was unable to force himself to talk still, but because he decided it probably wouldn’t matter either way. Something told him she would be calling him that whether he told her his name or not. And honestly, it didn’t really matter what she called him anyway. The only people he wanted to hear calling his name never would again. Perhaps once they had gotten to know each other and grown closer like a family should, he would tell her, but for now, he held his tongue.
“Very well, boy it is. Well boy, get on down out of the wagon. There are plenty of chores to be done before supper tonight.” She went inside without waiting to see if he would follow. Ezra barely made out what she grumbled under her breath. “Idiot child running around and getting herself knocked up.” Ezra bit his lip to prevent himself from calling after her and demanding she take back what she said about his mother.
“Grandmother!” he called out as he rushed toward where she was sprawled out across the bottom of the stairs, dropping to his knees as he rolled her onto her back. Brushing her gray hair out of her face, he was startled by the cool touch of her skin. Gasping softly, he forced himself to look into her eyes, finding what he feared he might. Her eyes stared into nothingness. She passed alone while he was out doing his hunting and chores. If he had returned, checked in at some point in the day, he might have been able to have been there for her in the end, but Ezra knew with certainty that she would not have wanted him by her side.
She hadn’t wanted him for a single moment in the four years he lived with her, and he knew her heart would not melt in the end. She would not have called out for him or reached for his hand to hold as she passed. Four years they lived beneath the same leaky roof and not once did she ever call him by his name. She never spoke to him like a grandmother, only ever as an unfeeling taskmaster. Never a gentle hand upon his head, instead she turned to the well-used rod.
Resting back on his heels, Ezra stared at her lifeless form in silence as the tears fell down his cheeks. He did not cry for the woman he lost, as she never gave him a single reason to, but because he was completely alone once again. This time, he did not have a long-lost relative to stay with, no other family to take him in. As he sat there, unconcerned by the passing time, he wondered how any of this was fair. Why had so much been against him when he always did as he was told?
What had he done to cause himself to be punished so? For the second time in his short life, Ezra was being forced to bury a member of his family without any help. At least this time, he decided as he dragged his grandmother’s body outside, there would be nothing to run from. But there was also nowhere for him to run to even if there was. He had no one—nowhere to go.
He was completely and utterly alone in the world. Ezra could do anything he wanted, go anywhere he wanted, but the only thing he wished for in that moment was to be in his mother’s loving arms once again. Instead, once his grandmother was laid to rest, he walked into an empty house and sank to the floor. Hugging his knees to his chest, he rested his head upon them and allowed the tears to fall freely. He would no longer worry about what his father would say if he saw him crying.
It no longer mattered that he was the man of the family and needed to be strong, be brave, as he was the family now. As he sat there, his tears more for the parents he was never able to mourn properly than for the grandmother who never wanted him, he thought about nothing else than their smiling faces as he allowed his exhaustion to catch up to him once again.
The sound of dry leaves crunching under boots echoed around Ezra as he removed a rabbit from one of his traps and made his way back home. Although the trees near his home did not cover much of the land, they were quite dense and more than once blocked the sounds from the outside world from reaching his ears.
So it came as no surprise to him when he crossed the threshold of his tiny forest and found Sheriff Jarrett waiting for him on the steps of his porch. He did not know if the sheriff figured out his grandmother passed away because she did not greet him with a raised shotgun or because he passed her three-week-old grave on the way in, but the sympathetic expression marring his face was enough to assure Ezra he already knew. He would have liked nothing more than to ignore the look, but unsurprisingly, the sheriff had other plans.
“I am sorry for your loss, son. I think it is time for you to move on to the Mayview Orphanage. A boy your age should not be alone. You should not have to deal with everything by yourself,” the sheriff insisted instead of giving him a proper greeting as he usually did when he visited. Assuming he was simply startled by returning to find so much had changed since his last visit, Ezra decided not to hold his lack of greeting against him. However, that did not mean he would agree with what he was asking for either.
“Sheriff Jarrett, I am doing fine here by myself. I have been taking care of myself for far longer than the three weeks she has been gone. The only real difference is now I have to cook for myself. I am not going to an orphanage. I am old enough to take care of myself, and I already have a place to live. If you force me to go there, I will run away and come back here where I belong.” Ezra sat down on the porch and skinned the rabbit without waiting for him to reply. No matter what the sheriff decided to do about him tonight, they still needed to eat before the sheriff got back on the road.
“Tell you what—I will give you a month to prove yourself to me. If, when I return, you are well fed, in good health and able to take care of the house—if I can find nothing here to make me worry about your safety, I will allow you to remain on your grandmother’s land. I suppose it is your land now. Is there anything you want to talk about, Ezra?” Even if he did not come right out and say it, it was not hard for Ezra to figure out that he was referring to his grandmother’s passing. As much as he wanted to forget everything that happened, he knew it would be better to talk to the sheriff for now.
He would have no one else to talk to for another month other than the birds he whittled and hid up in the trees after his grandmother threw his first one into the fire, and they weren’t very good conversationalists. “There isn’t much to tell, to tell you the truth. She fell down the stairs one day, and by the time I found her, she was cool to the touch. I don’t even know if she died and fell down the stairs or fell down the stairs and died. No way to know, but it don’t matter none either. She’s gone, and she would not be my choice to bring back even if it was possible. Till the day she died, she still never once called me by my name.
“I finally told her one day hoping it would help bring us closer, finally make us seem at least somewhat family, but she acted as if she didn’t hear me and continued to call me ‘boy.’ That is all I ever was to her, some random boy that showed up on her doorstep and became an unwanted burden for her. I don’t miss my grandmother, Sheriff, I don’t miss who she never was, who she never wanted to be for me. I miss my mother and my papa. I miss the life I lost with them. Going to an orphanage would never bring that back, it would only make me miss it even more.
“At least here, even if I am alone, I feel connected to them. This was the house my mother grew up in. I sleep in the same room she did when she was younger. I sit at the same table and eat from the same dishes she did as a child. I climb the same trees for apples. I chop the same trees for wood that she did once she was old enough.” He paused for a moment as he tried to imagine his mother up in the trees as a child; instead, he was plagued by a vision of his grandmother yelling at her from the front porch to stop dawdling like she had done to him many times. “This may not be where they are buried, where they lived the happier years of their lives. I do not know if my father ever stepped foot on this land, but this is where I feel them the most. Back home, I would only feel their deaths and not their lives.
“I would not go back there, even if I was certain it was safe from those men, and I would no sooner leave here. This is home now, and for the first time since I met the unfortunate woman who was supposed to be my grandmother, I feel like I am home. That I am wanted and welcome. The chickens have never looked at me with disdain. The horse has never slapped me across the face for something my father did many years ago.”
Having already said far more than he planned on to the sheriff, Ezra grabbed the skinned rabbit, and leaving the fur to be dealt with later, he began making his way inside when he was stopped by the sheriff’s words. “If things were so bad with her all this time, why did you never say anything when I came to visit? I might have helped things between you two.”
Instead of answering, Ezra continued making his way into the kitchen and rebuilt the dying fire in the hearth even as the sheriff followed in after him. As he prepared the rabbit to roast over the fire while he dealt with the fur, he explained over his shoulder, “You would have tried bringing me to the orphanage if you realized how bad things were with my grandmother and me. Most of the time, I kept hoping that tomorrow would be the day when things finally became better between us, but each new day left me disappointed. Truthfully, I would debate asking you to take me away the next time you visited each night as I laid down to sleep, but each morning somehow brought me renewed hope that things would be different.
“I kept telling myself that I would regret it if I gave up on the only family I had left, never knowing how things might have changed the day after I left. Even with my foolishness, at the very least, I was here to bury her instead of her body being left there to attract animals. But none of that matters anymore as she is gone, and I am not.” As he added the rabbit to the fire, he turned back to the sheriff, who had a strange expression on his face. “What is it?” he questioned as he moved over to wash his hands in a nearby pail of water.
“Sometimes you sound far older than you actually are. Perhaps you are correct, with this wisdom you seem to have even at such a young age, and you will be okay by yourself. If I do agree to let you stay here after I have returned in one month and see that you are able to live on your own, I will start coming by once a month instead of every two, but I do not see why there would be any problem with it. At the very least, without your grandmother here, you will have more fur and vegetables to trade with the townsfolk.”
Ezra nodded in agreement and led them back outside and tended to the rabbit fur while the sheriff told him stories of what happened in town since his last visit. Since it was a quiet town, very little was worth mentioning. Ezra was certain he only updated him simply to give them something to talk about, but he admitted, at least to himself, he looked forward to his visits and what little he learned about the outside world. It may not have been the whole world, but it was certainly a world away from the small existence he lived in here even before his grandmother passed away.
One day Ezra headed out to check on the traps again as the sun was setting. They were empty, and with a sigh, Ezra made his way back toward his home. Before he crossed the tree line, he heard voices drifting on the wind. His disappointment was quickly forgotten and replaced by apprehension. The sheriff was not due to return for a couple of weeks, and no one else ever came to visit in the almost six years he had lived there.
Doubting their arrival would lead to anything good, Ezra quietly crept closer and hid in the thick underbrush to eavesdrop on the trespassers. As he crouched there, watching as a group of five men tore apart his home in search of anything worth stealing, the night his parents died played in the back of his mind. Though these were not the same men who were there that night and, as far as he knew, they were not there to kill anyone, he still found himself shivering despite the warm air.
The man who appeared to be the leader called out, “Take anything of value. Bring any pretty ladies you find hiding in there to me. Y’all can keep the ugly ones.” Ignoring his crude joke, Ezra turned his attention to each of them he saw moving around and committed their faces to memory. They were far too young to have been the men there the night his parents died, far closer to his own age than theirs, but they were dressed in the same fashion as the men had been.
Not that he needed any other proof of their nefarious nature, considering how they were currently treating his property. He was not too worried about the fact that they were ransacking his home, as long as they didn’t burn it to the ground after they were done. Anything they took was replaceable. There was nothing of value for them to steal since the money he was able to save up was buried out in the yard. It was a habit he developed after his grandmother stole his earnings for the third time, and he kept it even after she passed. The only object he cared about was his mother’s necklace, which was safe around his neck.
He reached to touch it, but it was not there. Patting his neck inside his shirt in case it was hidden, he realized his worst fear was coming true. He forgot to put it back on that morning after he bathed. It was still inside the house. Silently he prayed the men would not find it, but his prayers went unanswered as one of them came stomping down the stairs with the necklace dangling from his closed fist.
Ezra felt an overwhelming urge to go and get it back from him, but knowing his mother would not want him to risk dying over it was enough to hold him in his place. He was vastly outnumbered by men and guns, as the shotgun at his side only had two bullets loaded, and he would need to be extremely lucky for those to hit their targets. He only ever used the gun to chase off coyotes that were trying to get to his chickens. He had never even pointed it at another human being, let alone attempted to pull the trigger. Biting his lip at the thought of losing his last connection to his mother, Ezra turned his attention from the necklace to the man holding it. “No one’s home, boss. Looks like only one old biddy lives here judging by all the useless crap in there. Lots of her mending supplies about. Not much jewelry neither, just this one.”
Holding his breath as the man held it up for his leader to inspect, Ezra felt a quick flash of hope that they might leave the necklace behind, believing it to be worthless. He had no idea if it was worth anything or not, but he doubted it was expensive considering the simple life his parents led.
“Another dud? Why did McKinley stick us with this section anyways? These houses are miles apart and not worth the trip,” the leader grumbled, drawing Ezra’s attention back to him.
He was so focused on memorizing their appearances to give the sheriff a description of the men that he almost missed what he said next. “Surely we’d serve Pine Box better by hitting wealthier houses and earning our spots faster. At this rate, we won’t even make it into their lowest ranks. Gather up the food and animals, then saddle up. This pile of junk is depressing me.” The realization that they were taking his horse or that they had indeed kept his mother’s necklace would not dawn on Ezra until much later.
At that moment, there was only one thing on his mind as the man’s words unknowingly sparked a long-forgotten memory. He suppressed the memories of that night as much as he was able, but now a single thought flooded back to the surface, refusing to be ignored any longer. Almost as if the man was standing in front of him once more—Ezra once again nine-years-old hiding in the bushes—he heard the words the man spoke to his parents all those years ago.
“Ain’t nobody leaving the Pine Box Crew except for in one.”
Pine Box. Pine Box Crew. Surely, they must be referring to the same thing. What were the chances they weren’t? No, they had to be referring to the same gang, but how far must their reach have been to kill his parents back home and rob his grandmother’s home almost six years later? And with a much younger group? These men were not responsible for his parents’ deaths, he was already certain of that, but what if their leader was? What if McKinley was there that night?
There was nothing to even suggest he might have been—simply being in the same crew did not automatically make him guilty, but could Ezra give up a possible lead to the men responsible for killing his parents? Did Ezra want a lead that sent him anywhere near a man possibly surrounded by robbery and murder? But even as he thought this, he realized he would not let the man who ordered the death of his parents get away with it. He did not know how or when, but he would find the Midnight Twelve, and they would lead him to his ultimate goal: Godfrey de Voe.