The boy sat at the base of the south wall, his knees pulled up in front of him. He remained very still, a small figure in a sliver of shade created by the roof overhang on the square, two-story, red brick town hall.
Beads of sweat slid between the boy’s shoulder blades and soaked his shirt where his back met the wall. He leaned forward, repositioned the gun from the belt line at the small of his back to a more comfortable spot at his side, then rested his chin on his knees and stared down the shimmering ribbon of highway that ran through Owen.
Rachel Beasley and Wanda Richardson were seated on a wooden bench under a large elm tree shading a small patch of green in the dried, yellow lawn bordering the town hall. The lawn, which had been fried by 30 consecutive days of temperatures that hovered near 100 degrees, was split by a sidewalk leading from the curb to the front steps of the building. The women fanned themselves languidly with their broad-brimmed straw hats.
Daniel Watts, Warren Nader and Buddy Williams huddled together in the shadows of an iron monument dedicated to four soldiers from Owen who were killed during World War II. Watts, Nader and Williams moved only to dab their glistening foreheads with white handkerchiefs.
Mary Upton and Laura Ivers stood on the sidewalk fronting the town hall. Every so often one of the girls would giggle excitedly or reach out and touch the other, pushing gently to make a point.
“Flashing red lights up the way,” Mary Upton announced, jabbing her arm toward the highway and bouncing on the balls of her feet.
The boy watched as the separate knots of people coalesced into a crowd at the curb. He stood slowly, dropped his arm alongside the bulge at this hip, and made his way to the front of the building. He climbed three cement steps to the porch and positioned himself next to the large double doors that opened into the town hall.
A black and white car shimmered in the liquid illusion that rippled across the surface of the asphalt, then appeared to solidify and gain speed as it closed.
“I see him! I see George,” Mary Upton screeched, her red curls bouncing as she hopped with excitement.
The boy could distinguish four figures in the car; two in front, two in back. His concentration was broken by the smell of spiced cologne. Ned Travis stood on the opposite side of the doors. The scent caused the boy to draw his shoulders up around his ears, as he did every third Saturday when Travis put the finishing touches on his haircut by slapping the stinging blue liquid on his freshly shaved neck.
“Morning, Martin,” Travis said to the boy, his eyes trained on the road. “Little surprised to see you here.”
“Merl,” Travis called into the darkened entrance of the town hall, without taking his eyes off the road.
A large man stepped from the shadows on the porch. His light brown shirt, the buttons straining against the bulk of a massive chest, was sweat-stained under the arms. He held a ten-gallon hat in one hand and a red bandanna in the other.
From the corner of his eye, the boy saw Travis nod in his direction as Sheriff Merl Thaxton shared a “Good morning” with the barber.
“Martin,” said the sheriff, acknowledging the boy. “Come to see George one last time before they carry him off to Richels?”
The boy shrugged a response.
“Sure enough, it’s George and they got three men guarding him,” Travis said as he toyed with a pair of scissors in the pocket of his white smock.
The boy moved away from the doors and walked to the weathered wood banister framing the porch. His back to the sheriff, he positioned the gun closer to his belt buckle.
As the car pulled to the curb, the officer in the passenger seat waved the people away. “Give us some room, please.”
The officers watched intently while the group retreated and reformed, lining both sides of the sidewalk leading to the town hall.
Mary Upton bent at the waist, peered into the car and clapped her hands excitedly. “I went to high school with that boy,” she said.
“I know that,” Laura Ivers replied pretending exasperation. “So did I.”
“Yeah, but I sat right next to him,” Upton continued. “Rentz was always next to Upton.”
The boy squinted into the bright sunlight and watched closely as two officers emerged from the front seat of the black and white. They positioned themselves on either side of the car and the one on the curb side opened the rear door.
“We got the prime spot,” Travis said proudly, sliding up next to the boy. “George’ll have to go right past us here.”
The sheriff glanced at Travis and Martin, wiped a circle around the sweatband of his hat with his bandanna and sauntered down the steps to the sidewalk. He stopped, put on the hat, adjusted it carefully, then made his way toward the car.
A small, frail man swung two chained legs out of the rear door and set his boots on the curb. He hesitated, shot an apprehensive look at the greeting party, and peered up at the officer standing nearest the door. A hand appeared from behind, pushed on the prisoner’s scrawny shoulder, forcing him into a standing position. The officer who had been on the far side of the car came around the front and signaled the group forward. The prisoner was sandwiched between the men in front and one behind.
Mary Upton reached to her side and grabbed Laura Ivers by the wrist. Both girls were wiggling with excitement.
Warren Nader, standing across from the girls, waved awkwardly at the approaching phalanx. “Hey, George,” Nader called as the prisoner passed through the gantlet, “welcome home. Can I get you a soda or something? Remember you used to shop in my store?”
“Of course he remembers,” Laura Ivers said, again injecting an exasperated call to reason in the goings-on. “Everyone in town does.”
The prisoner ran his tongue nervously across his thin, liver-colored lips. His cheeks were hollow, his skin so pale it was almost translucent, and his eyes deep-set, giving him a skeletal look. His attention darted from one side of the sidewalk to the other without settling on anyone. After a quick inspection, he lowered his head and pulled his chin to his chest.
Daniel Watts stepped in front of the foursome and backpedaled as they approached. “George worked at my gas station when he was in high school,” he informed the officers. “Worked for gas for his truck.”
“Sir, move out of the way, now,” one of the officers demanded, placing his hand on his holster. “Right now.”
Sheriff Thaxton came up behind Watts and gently eased him onto the grass. He leaned forward and whispered to the officers leading the procession. The prisoner followed his conversation. His eyes widened and he moved as close behind his escorts as he could without stepping on their heels. The group, with Thaxton in the lead, veered away from the sidewalk and cut across the grass toward the side of the building.
Ned Travis stiffened. “Hey, what’re they doing?”
The boy’s knuckles whitened as his grip tightened on the banister.
“But….” Travis left the word hanging, scurried down the steps and followed the assembly around the building.
The others stopped at the point where the officers detoured and watched the tight squad enter the building, trailed by Travis.
Wanda Richards asked no one in particular, “How long is George going to be here?”
“’Bout two hours. That’s how long they usually stay,” Warren Nader answered.
“Funny how you don’t really pay attention until it means something special to you,” Rachel Beasley remarked thoughtfully. “I never gave any thought to how long they stayed in town. Most of the time I never even knew when they came through.”
Ned Travis appeared from the darkness of the town hall’s entrance and was pushed onto the porch by one of the officers. He waited until his escort turned away, then scowled at his back.
Mary Upton hurried toward Travis. “Did George say anything about us being here to see him?”
Travis shook his head. He jabbed his thumb in the direction of the entrance. “Locked him up before I could say hello or anything.”
“Isn’t it neat how things worked out?” Mary Upton exclaimed. “I mean with Owen being on the way to Richels from Eureka and all. Gives George a chance to stop at home before he has to go into that horrible place.”
“Seems like they should let us have a word or two with him,” Daniel Watts said indignantly.
“Yeah, it’d give him a ‘pick-me-up’ I imagine,” Buddy Williams added. “Be nice to know friends still care when things go bad.”
“If he was tried here he woulda got off,” Laura Ivers declared. “Too bad Owen isn’t the county seat instead of Eureka.”
“Well, I know I don’t believe he robbed all those banks,” Mary Upton declared. “And if he did, it’s only because the bank took his farm away.” The girl balled her hands and drew them under her chin. “Why, I bet George was robbing those banks to help other people.”
When this remark drew blank stares all around, she added, “You know, to give money to other folks, so they wouldn’t lose their farms.”
“Could be,” Daniel Watts said, nodding. “I read once that Pretty Boy Floyd did that and they shot him for it.”
“George did kill his parents,” Ned Travis noted, breaking the mood. “That’s what he’s going to jail for. Didn’t hear much in Eureka about the bank part of it.”
“Oh, we all know his daddy beat him something awful,” Rachel Beasley protested. “His lawyer said as much at the trial. I read that in the Eureka Sentinel.”
Laura Ivers poked Rachel in the side and jerked her head toward the porch.
The group fell silent. Mary Upton fanned herself vigorously with her open hand.
Rachel bent her head toward Laura. “S’okay, Martin didn’t hear anything.”
Travis clicked his scissors nervously and twitched a smile at the boy, who was staring into the middle distance.
Warren Nader approached the group after a quick pass by the side entrance. He stood a moment collecting his thoughts, then offered, “How about I go to the store and grab some sodas, some stuff for sandwiches, and we wait right here to see George off?”
“I’ll run over to the diner and get us some pie for dessert,” Rachel Beasley said.
“I’ve got a coupla card tables and some folding chairs in the shop,” Travis volunteered. “We can set’em up under the tree” – he gestured toward the elm – “and relax a bit.”
The boy came down the steps as the group dissolved. He crossed his arms in front of his waist and returned to the shade along the side of the building. As he settled, the side door swung open and slapped against the brick wall, startling him.
One of the officers stepped from the doorway. He lit a cigarette, shaded his eyes with his hand, and glanced up at the sky before turning toward the building, where he saw the boy huddled in the shadows.
“Got enough shade there to share?” he asked, tilting his head and blowing a stream of smoke into the air.
The boy nodded.
The officer squatted and pulled hard on the cigarette. The end of the butt fired red, then grayed. An ash fell on the man’s pant leg. “You here to see George, too?” he asked as the smoke billowed from his nose and mouth.
The officer’s attention was drawn to Travis and Nader who were setting up a card table under the elm tree.
“I heard’em say they’re gonna wait on George,” the boy said in response to a question in the officer’s eyes.
The man raised his chin in the direction of Mary Upton and Laura Ivers who were busily removing items from two brown grocery bags lined up on the now assembled card tables. “What’re they doing?”
“Gonna make sandwiches.”
“Yes, sir. And Mrs. Beasley went for some pie. Like a picnic, I guess.”
“A picnic?” The officer’s voice pitched high in disbelief. “In this heat?”
“Said they were gonna get comfortable ‘til George leaves.”
The officer stood and pulled his dampened shirt away from his body. “George was nervous about coming back here. Doesn’t look like he had reason to be, you think?”
“What was he nervous for? The boy leaned into his question.
“I don’t know. Like maybe some of these folks might not be real happy to see someone back in town who murdered his own parents.”
The boy’s mouth hardened, his lips thinning. His eyes shifted to the activity under the elm tree. “They don’t care nothin’ about that.”
The officer rested a shoulder against the wall. He looked down at the boy. “Really? Why do you say that?”
“Never cared before.” The boy felt the man’s eyes on him and began scratching his finger in the dirt. “But George got his name in the paper and now he’s famous.”
“Well, he asked us not to stop, but this is the place we stop to rest, get some gas and eat. Always the same when carrying prisoners from Eureka to Richels.”
The officer shifted his weight. “Said he didn’t care about eating, going to the bathroom, nothing.” The man took a final drag on his cigarette and tossed the butt to the grass, where a thin wisp of smoke curled into the air. “He wanted to keep going right on past. The man’s a coward. Not worth the effort those folks are making.”
The boy flicked a look at the officer. “Why didn’t they send him to the ‘lectric chair?”
“Can’t say. I’m no judge, but if I was George, I would’ve begged for the chair. He’s going to be in hell for the rest of his life. He’ll wish he was dead before he’s spent his first week in Richels. Those boys up there will make mincemeat out of little George Rentz.”
A beat of silence passed and the officer looked at the boy. “Maybe the judge knew exactly what he was doing.”
“What about those banks he robbed on top of the killings?”
Yeah, maybe the judge let him off easy ‘cause he was gonna give the money to other people so they wouldn’t lose their farms.”
“Lose their farms?” The officer’s face was a mask of disbelief. He pushed away from the building, stood and pointed at Travis, who was handing a sandwich to Rachel Beasley. “Is that what this is all about?” They think Rentz is some kind of Robin Hood?”
“Jus’ tellin’ you what I heard.”
The officer laughed loudly. Mary Upton and Laura Ivers looked in the direction of the laughter, then returned to their lunches.
“He tried to rob a bank. One bank and he screwed that up. Dropped the money all over the floor as he was running away and begged the bank guard not to shoot him.” The officer looked down at the boy. “It was such a fiasco that the whole bank thing was dismissed so they could get at the murder charges quicker.”
“Did he kill anyone?”
“Besides his parents?”
The officer shook his head, more in disgust then in answer to the question. “Like I said, George Rentz is a little coward. His kind only goes after people he knows can’t hurt him back.”
“Bob,” a voice called from the side door.
“Be right there.” The officer stared in the direction of the elm tree. “Seems to me like your friends have way too much time on their hands.”
“Aren’t my friends,” the boy replied.
The officer stopped in the doorway and looked down at the boy. “George’ll get what’s coming to him. Child molesters, rapists and cowards like him who kill their parents have a real tough time in prison.” He winked at the boy and disappeared inside the building.
It was his father’s hoarse voice that woke Martin. The old man was standing over George’s bed. “I ain’t askin’ again,” the old man said angrily. “It’s four-thirty and we hafta’ deliver what little we got to the market before the others beat us there and we miss out.” He jabbed at George’s shoulder. “I don’t have time for your back talk.”
George pulled away. I ain’t goin’ nowhere with you.” His face contorted in anger, his eyes wide and alive.
The boy pushed himself to the corner of his bed and squeezed against the wall. It was always bad between them but the boy saw it was different this morning. They weren’t going to be able to come around from this.
“You never been good for nothin’ and you never will be,” the old man yelled with his face close to George’s ear. “If you ain’t goin’ to work for your keep in this house, then get out and find a place of your own.” He yanked the thin hopsack cover off George and tossed it on the floor.
Martin turned his back to the argument. He knew his father needed George to drive the truck. The old man was almost blind. But he knew better than to say anything.
Martin wasn’t sure what happened next. All he knew was that his father fell on top of him and was punching up at George, who was leaning on the old man and beating him with his fists.
“You won’t ever hit me with that strap again, “George was yelling, his face red with rage, veins popping at his temples.
It was then that Martin saw the thick belt in his father’s hands.
George yanked the old man from Martin’s bed and shoved him through the bedroom door onto the wood plank floor in the front room. He raced after his father, who was scuttling across the rough boards on his hands and knees.
George picked up the belt, which had fallen on the bedroom floor, and was about to hit his father across the back, when his mother grabbed his arm. “Don’t you dare do that,” she said through clenched teeth.
George shoved her away and swung the belt at this father, who was trying to push himself into a standing position. The old woman came at George again. He struck her with the back of his hand sending her hurtling toward a wall.
Martin raced into the room and saw his mother beginning to crumble. He reached her in time to keep her from falling. As she leaned away from the wall, Martin saw a red streak smeared against the plasterboard. His hand went to the top of her head and came away covered with blood.
As Martin lowered his mother into a chair, her eyes saucered and she raised her arms over her head. Martin heard his cheekbone crack before he felt the sharp, hot pain seared the side of his face. A blow spun him around and he faced George, who came at him with a piece of firewood. A flash of bright lights exploded in front of Martin’s face. There was a terrible ringing in his ears, and then blackness.
Martin was surprised to find himself on his stomach and pushed his upper body off the floor. He stared down at a puddle of blood. It was expanding as a red stream poured from his nose. This tide was fed by blood coming from a gash that ran the length of his cheekbone.
He struggled to his feet but couldn’t maintain his balance and fell. Martin took a deep breath, fighting off the urge to be sick, and stood, his hands resting on his knees. He widened his stance and slowly straightened.
Martin’s mother was sitting in the chair, her back to him. He approached and put his hand on her shoulder as he came around the side of the chair. He was having difficulty focusing on his mother’s face, which appeared to be cocked at an awkward angle. Finally able to wipe and blink away the blood and tears, Martin saw that his mother’s head was almost severed from her neck.
He whirled away and staggered to the middle of the front room. He was having trouble breathing and either passed out or slipped on the blood-slickened floor. The next thing he knew he was staring into the open, blank eyes of his father, who was sprawled at the base of the wood-burning stove. Martin crawled to the front door and pushed it open. He tried to stand but couldn’t and rolled into the night.
The first thing he remembered after three days in the hospital were the stars he stared up at as he lay on his back in the yard. He was thankful for that because the second thing he remembered was the ugly red slice across his mother’s throat.
Warren Nader gestured toward the town hall. “One of them officers just peeked out. Betcha they’re getting ready to leave.”
“Let’s put some of the food together for George to eat on the way to Richels,” Mary Upton suggested, gathering up a sandwich, soda and piece of pie.
“There they are,” Laura Ivers announced shaking her hands in front of her excitedly.
The party of four men stepped away from the front door of the town hall. Before starting down the steps, the officer checked the prisoner’s handcuffs and leg irons.
Mary Upton and Laura Ivers walked hurriedly toward the building, the other following in their wake.
The officers moved in a tight formation, walking across the porch and down the stairs. The prisoner head bowed, pinned himself close to the backs of the leading two men.
“We got some food for George,” Mary said, holding a wax paper coated bag toward the advancing men, who ignored her.
The boy positioned himself at the end of the sidewalk and watched the huddle advance toward him. As they neared, he yelled, “George, I’ll come to see in Richels. Wanna make sure you’re doin’ good.”
The officer who had been talking to the boy was at the head of the group. He jabbed his chin toward the grass and the boy stepped out of the way.
The prisoner, his eyes wide, and head swiveling, tried to locate Martin. When he saw the boy, he hesitated a step, almost tripping on the chains joining his leg irons. He held the boy’s gaze and opened his mouth, but made no sound.
“Don’t let nothin’ happen to my brother before you get him to Richels,” Martin called to the officers as they passed.
Mary was still waving the bag in the air as if pleading for someone to take it from her.
The lead officer pushed the prisoner into the back seat of the black and white and turned to Mary. “He doesn’t need anything from you.” He glanced around and found the boy. “We’ll take real good care of him.”
Mary stood, her arm hanging in the air, a look of confusion on her face.
The officer tipped his hat, smiled and got into the car.
Copyright © 2012 by J. David Bethel
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J. David Bethel is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been published in popular consumer magazines and respected political journals. He is the author of Evil Town, a novel of political intrigue that has received high praise from Washington opinion leaders, and is one of only a few novels available through Kindle that has been rewarded with Five-Stars by all readers who provided reviews. Bethel spent 35 years in politics and government. He served in the Senior Executive Service as a political appointee where he was Senior Adviser/Director of Speechwriting for the Secretary of Commerce; directed speechwriting offices for other Cabinet officials, serving as Chief Speechwriter to the Secretary of Education; and lead speechwriter in the Department of Transportation’s Office of Policy and International Affairs. He also served as press secretary/speechwriter to members of U.S. Congress. Bethel authored the speech given by Senator Paul Laxalt (R-Nevada) nominating then-Governor Ronald Reagan as the GOP candidate for President. Bethel works as a media consultant for a number of prominent communications management firms, including Burson Marsteller and The Wade Group. He writes speeches, opinion editorials and Congressional testimony for CEOs from the nation’s largest corporations, including the Monsanto Corporation, Hilton Hotels Corporation, and Royal Caribbean Lines. His op-ed pieces have appeared in The Washington Post and other prominent newspapers around the country. Bethel graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors from Tulane University and lives in Miami, Florida.