Charlie was the color of the dust in the road, curled in self defense. Three men surrounded him. The tall one shoved his boot into the pit of Charlie’s stomach. He gasped, choked on the dust, his head resting against the hard packed dirt. He was well and thoroughly beat.
Brody looked him over. “What should we do with this one, boys?” The wind nearly pulled Brody’s hat off as he looked up. His sleek mare nickered in the distance.
“String ‘im up over Turnem’s Creek,” said Jim. “Won’t be comin back for a long while.”
Charlie coughed halfheartedly, tried to roll over. It hurt. He didn’t have energy to hurt.
Brody stroked his beard, bent down. “Ever been to Turnem’s Creek, feller?”
Charlie’s eyes flicked away in the slightest motion.
Brody nodded. “See y’have.”
“Seems a shame,” said Rickets, “with the fight in this one. Don’t see that often, Brody.”
He stood still, dry wind tugging at his poncho. “Don’t’s right,” he said, and spat in the dust inches from Charlie’s face. He bent down, close enough so that the others couldn’t make out his words. “What’re you so tight on keepin in that log cabin o’ yours?”
Charlie’s face was expressionless. The muscles clenched in his jaw. “Don’t,” he whispered. “Don’t.”
“Hey, lookee there, Boss,” said Rickets, pointing to the split rail fence. Like a blossom in the wind, a little girl hung on the lower railing. When she saw the finger pointing her way, she turned and ran.
“I’ll get her,” said Rickets, and lurched forward.
Before he took three steps, a shotgun rang out. Once. Twice.
Rickets collapsed in a dark pool of blood. Not far from him, Jim lay dead in the street. Brody jumped up with a black oath, caught his hat in his hand, and swung onto his horse.
A third shot, and a fourth. The mare’s tail jumped as she galloped away, but the bullets flew past, harmless.
In moments, she was at Charlie’s side. She placed the gun by his hand, then hesitated, afraid to touch him. Brow furrowed, she felt along his ribcage, soft as could be. Stopped in one place. Bent closer. He gasped.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” she murmured, and caught his gaze. “They’re safe,” she nodded. “All of us. When I saw Elsie wasn’t with us…”
He was trying to speak. She stopped and leaned close.
“Brody,” he said, barely audible. “If only you took him. These… these rats are nothing. But leave him alive…” He lay back and groaned.
“Brody will take time,” she said, looking up while her hand lingered on him. She tried to smile and coax him upright.
Charlie winced. “Me too. Let me—” She eased him back and placed the gun in her lap.
Dust blew past them, late sunlight drawing hand shadows in the clouds. She shielded his face, smoothed his wrinkled collar. “Next time,” she said, “we’ll be ready.”