Ollie Randall had something to prove. His ma was the schoolmarm, and his stepfather was a jack of all trades who specialized in leather goods, such as shoes, boots, and tack. He also made custom belts and holsters for the occasional buyer. He was a quiet man, and twenty years older than Ollie’s mother.
Ollie’s long departed father was a town marshal who was killed by a drunk while Ollie was still nursing, so he had no memory of him at all. There was an old tintype on the mantel, and now at fourteen years of age, Ollie was told by his mother that he bore a strong resemblance to the handsome stranger seated on the chair with his hat on his knee. Ollie’s mother stood behind him, with one dainty hand resting on his broad shoulder. She looked very young, and pretty then, not so worn and weary as she did today.
Ollie looked up and down Jasper Street, but saw no one, not that he expected to see anyone out and about at two o’clock on a rainy morning. Behind him, he could hear the Breckling boys rummaging around in his stepfather’s leather shop. He was about to abandon his watcher’s post to hurry them up, when he heard a muffled exclamation. Seconds later, Herbie Breckling was beside him, holding his stepfather’s cash box.
“Found it! Let’s get out of here.”
The Brecklings came from a good, but luckless ranch in Texas where they once lived with their mother. Their father died of influenza years before and he too was a law officer. He was the elected sheriff in their county. Now they desperately needed a road stake to get back home, and Ollie Randall provided the solution.
When his mother teaches school, and his stepfather is a quiet and distant old man making leather products for the townsfolk, a boy like Ollie can sometimes feel that he has to prove that he’s no choirboy. He especially feels that way when he’s being rawhided by the likes of Dun Crawford, town bully and ne’er-do-well.
“Well now, ain’t you the pretty boy! Looks like your ma thought you was a girl and dressed you accordin’!”
Dun Crawford pursed his fat lips and spat a brown stream of tobacco juice on the boardwalk, splattering Ollie’s shoes.
“Leave me be, Dun. You ain’t so much yourself, being’s you’re so fat from loafing all day.”
An angry Dun Crawford struggled to hoist his bulk off the bench in front of Hoyt’s Tavern, but by the time he finally gained his feet, Ollie has disappeared around the corner. Well, no matter. He needed to confer with the Breckling boys anyway. He had an idea that would benefit all parties, and with no risk to himself.
Marshal Bob Quincy sipped his warm coffee and gazed out the window of his darkened quarters over the jail. A man of his age seldom sleeps through the night without having to relieve himself at least once in the chamber pot. After that, it was his habit to pour a cup of coffee from the pot on the still warm stove, and check on the sleeping town from his second story window. That’s when he spotted Ollie Randall on the boardwalk in front of his stepfather’s leather shop before he disappeared into the shadows of the recessed door.
“Now what the hell is that boy doing out in the rain at this time of night?”
Since he lived alone, no one heard him muttering to himself. He was just deciding whether to dress and investigate when he saw the three Breckling brothers emerge from the shadows and hurriedly step off the boardwalk into the mud of the street. One was carrying a small box, and Marshal Quincy had a good idea what it was. He dressed quickly.
Ollie Randall didn’t care much for tobacco, but he filled and tamped his pipe anyway. All the bigger boys smoked, and he wanted to be accepted, so he lit up, and puffed the pipe into life. The hot smoke burned his tongue as always, but he didn’t let on.
The shack where the Breckling brothers were staying was down by the river south of town, and under a massive cottonwood. By lantern light, they were counting the money found in his stepfather’s cash box. Herbie Breckling was the oldest at seventeen, and his sixteen year old brothers were twins, Joseph and Jacob, born after their ma got saved one Sunday. Two years ago, she died suddenly, and the boys were suddenly orphans and owners of a ranch with no stock, no crops, and no money.
The stock had been sold at a loss the year before after a drought dried up all the water holes and the small creek. Their neighbor still had some good water, so he bought the small herd and paid them what he could. Then he told them of a gold strike in Arizona, so they saddled up.
By the time they rode into the town of Crown King, high up on the Bradshaw, all the streams were already staked and claimed, so they tried to hire out to other miners, but there were no takers. Desperate, they heard about the cash box, and when they approached Ollie Randall about it, he was eager to prove himself, so here they were.
“There’s right at sixty five dollars here.” Herbie Breckling glanced at Ollie. “How much do you want for your share, Ollie?”
Ollie looked down at his shoes as a sudden wave of remorse and guilt swept over him. He had stolen from his own family.
“I don’t want none of it. You boys take it all.”
“You feeling bad about this Ollie?” Joe Breckling was staring at him. Ollie nodded silently.
“I ain’t never stole nothing before, and I sure enough never took nothing from my own kin.”
“We never stole nothing either.” Herbie glanced around the room. “We needed to get home, so we done it, but now, I just don’t know. What about you boys.”
The twins looked at each other and nodded. “Maybe we should put it back. This ain’t right. Besides, Ollie, it wasn’t our idea anyway.”
Ollie’s head jerked up and he was about to speak when the door to the shack slammed open. Standing there in the lantern light was a grinning Dun Crawford.
“That’s right. It wasn’t none of your notion boys. It was mine and you owe me a finder’s fee. And if you’re thinking of taking it back, you just hand the whole thing over to old Dun, and be on your way.”
He looked at Ollie. “I owe you one for sassing me, boy, and if you say anything about this to anyone, I’ll fix you proper.”
He stepped through the door and lowered himself into a chair. Then he pulled a revolver out of his coat pocket and placed it on the table in front of him.
“My finder’s fee is fifty percent. Hand it over.”
No one moved. Finally, Herbie spoke up.
“I reckon you can have it all. We all agreed that what we done was wrong, so we don’t want none of it.”
Dun’s fat lips smiled, and his tobacco yellowed teeth looked like more like fangs in the lantern light.
“Well, you sure enough did take it boys and not me, so I’m in the clear. But if any of you says anything about me getting the money, I’ll hunt you down and do for you. You understand?”
The boys all nodded, and the fear was plain on their faces.
“What about me, Dun? I’m no child, and that’s my money you stole.”
Ollie turned and stared at his step-father Charlie Stills, standing thin and tall just outside the door. He looked old and worn with deep creases in his face.
Charlie Stills glanced around the room. “You boys go on outside. I’ll deal with you presently.” His eyes came back to Dun Crawford.
“You ease away from that pistol, Dun. I don’t want any misunderstandings.”
Dun smiled at the old man and grabbed for his revolver. What happened next stunned the boys.
A moment ago, Charlie Still’s hand was empty, but now it was holding a big revolver, and it was pointed at Dun Crawford, whose own hand was hovering over his still untouched weapon.
“It’s up to you Dun. Whether you pick it up or not makes no never-mind to me.” The old man’s hand was steady, and he was coolly appraising Dun Crawford.
“I’d leave it where it is Dun. If you twitch, he’ll put two bullets in your chest and one in your brain. And believe me, he can do it. Charlie here is a retired Texas Ranger.”
Standing by the wall, Ollie’s mouth dropped open in amazement.
Marshal Bob Quincy stood behind and to the right of Charlie, with his Winchester at full cock and staring down the barrel at Dun Crawford, who paled and quickly withdrew his hand.
“I knew your pa, John Breckling, before he was killed, boys. He was a good man. We made one or two arrests together.”
The boys were seated on benches in the leather shop, and the man they now knew as a Texas Ranger was leaning against the wall. At the mention of their father’s good name, the shamefaced Brecklings stared down at their toes.
“You are not cut out for the outlaw life boys, because they have no conscience, and you do. You did wrong, sure enough, but then you saw the error of your ways and were looking for a way to set things right. I know. I was listening.”
There was a twinkle in his eyes.
“If you are going to tell secrets boys, next time don’t tell them in a shack that has bigger cracks then it does boards. Do you boys know Harv Benton?”
The boys glanced up, surprised at the turn of events. Herbie nodded. “Yes sir, we do know him. He’s a neighbor. His ranch borders ours.”
“He owes me a favor, so I’m going to send a telegram instructing him to hire you boys on until you get back on your feet. Part of his herd is rightly mine, so when you’re ready, you have him cut out my brand and run them on your range. I won’t give them to you, but I’ll let you earn them. Tomorrow, I’m putting you and your horses on the train back to Texas, so be ready. There’s a couple bunks in the back room, so go get some sleep.”
Charlie Stills looked over the brim of his cup at his stepson. Behind him, the bright orange rim of the morning sun gleamed over the hill east of town. They were in Ollie’s mother’s kitchen, but she was still in bed.
“I made a mistake, Ollie, when I chose to keep my past a secret and I made another mistake by not taking a hand in your raising. I didn’t want to interfere with your mother, and I didn’t want to force you to accept me, so I stayed back. I fault myself for that. A boy needs a man to guide him, and when your mother married me, I should have been that man. I’ll ask your forgiveness.”
“What will you do about my part in stealing your money?” Ollie’s face was white and drawn with worry.
“We’ll call that one square. I made a mistake and so did you. I’m going to change my ways, and I suspect you will too.”
Charlie Stills rose with his cup and walked past his stepson, ruffling his hair as he passed.
It was the first time Ollie had ever called him that.
“How did you get that gun out so fast? I didn’t even see one!”
The tall old man turned and grinned at his son. He pulled back the lapels of his coat, exposing a shoulder holster holding a big Colts .44. Ollie had seen the rig hanging on the leather shop wall many times, but he always thought it belonged to a customer. He grinned back at his father. Things were going to be very different from now on.
“What are you men up to so early in the morning? Will you fetch me some stove wood for breakfast, Ollie?”
“Yes, Ma. Right away.”
Julie Stills stared at her son as he dashed off, and then looked quizzically at her husband.
“He didn’t give me an argument! He always argues!”
Charlie Stills nodded and smiled at his beloved wife.
“Sit down Julie. I have some good news.”