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THE BROTHERS O'BRIEN
By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2012 William W. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
West Texas, May 28, 1866
Texans are a generous breed, but they do not confer the title of Colonel lightly on a man. He has to earn it.
The two men who sat in the sway-roofed, sod cabin had earned the honor the hard way—by being first-rate fighting men.
Colonel Shamus O'Brien had risen though the ranks of the Confederate Army to become a regimental commander in the Laurel Brigade under the dashing and gallant Major General Thomas L. Rosser.
O'Brien had been raiding in West Virginia when the war ended in 1865, and thus escaped the surrender at Appomattox, a blessing for which he'd thank the Good Lord every single day of his long life.
He was twenty-three years old that June and bore the scars of two great wounds. A ball ripped through his thigh at First Manassas and a Yankee saber cut opened his left cheek at Mechanicsville.
By his own reckoning, Shamus O'Brien, from County Clare, Ireland, had killed seventeen men in single combat with revolver or saber, and none of them disturbed his sleep.
The man who faced O'Brien across the rough pine table was Colonel Charles Goodnight. He'd been addressed as colonel from the first day and hour he'd saddled a horse to ride with the Texas Rangers. A Yankee by birth, the great state of Texas had not a more loyal citizen, nor fearless fighting man.
"Charlie," O'Brien said, "it is a hell of a thing to hang a man."
Goodnight stilled a forkful of beans and salt pork halfway to his mouth. "Hell, Shamus, he's as guilty as sin."
"Maybe the girl led him on. It happens, you know."
Speaking around a mouthful of food, Goodnight said, "She didn't."
"She's black," O'Brien said.
"So, what difference does that make?"
Goodnight poured himself coffee from the sooty pot on the table.
"Shamus, black, white, or in between, he raped a girl and there's an end to it."
O'Brien let go of all the tension that had been building inside him, words exploding from his mouth, his lilting Irish brogue pronounced. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and all the saints in Heaven save and preserve us! Charlie, he's a Yankee carpetbagger. He's got the government on his side."
"Yeah, I know he has, but I don't give a damn. He's among the worst of the carpetbagging scum and I've got no liking for him. He called me a raggedy-assed Texas Reb—imagine that. I mean, I know it's true, but I don't need to hear it from a damned uppity Yankee."
"Is that why you're hanging him, because he called you raggedy-assed?"
"No, I'm hanging him for the rape of a seventeen-year-old girl."
"Charlie, you're not a Ranger anymore. You don't have the authority to hang anybody."
"So the government says. A Union general in El Paso told me my enlistment ran out at Appomattox. Well, I don't see it his way. The Rangers didn't tell me I'm done, so as far as I'm concerned I still have a sworn duty to protect the people of Texas, men, women, and children."
O'Brien was a big man, sturdy and well built, with the thick red hair and blue eyes inherited from his ancestor Brian Boru, the last High King of Ireland. His pine chair creaked in protest when he leaned back. "They'll come after us, Charlie, I'm thinking. And the gather just completed."
Goodnight considered that. He scraped his tin plate, the noise loud in the silence and stifling heat of the cabin. Finally he said, "By the time the Yankees give up their plundering and get around to investigating we'll have the herd across the Pecos and be well on our way north."
"They look after their own, Charlie," O'Brien said.
"And so do I, by God." Goodnight pushed his plate away, leaned back, and sighed. "That was an elegant meal, Shamus."
His poverty an affront to his Celtic pride, O'Brien said, "I am shamed that my poor house had so little to offer. Salt pork and beans is not a fit repast for such an honored guest."
Goodnight stepped lightly. "The food was excellent and freely given. You did indeed do me great honor, Shamus."
O'Brien and Goodnight were Southern gentlemen of the old school, and the mutual compliments were accepted without further comment.
"Will you hang him, Charlie?" O'Brien said. "I mean, after all that's been said."
Goodnight consulted the railroad watch he took from his vest pocket. "Yes, at noon, fifteen minutes from now."
O'Brien listened into the morning, his face grim. "He screams for mercy. You'll hang a coward."
"He's a carpetbagger. He was brave enough to throw women and children off their farms, but he's not so brave in the company of men." Goodnight's eyes hardened. "God, I hate his kind."
"What's his name?"
"Do you care?"
"Not really. I'm just curious."
"Dinwiddie is his last name. That's all I know."
"Ah, then he's not a son of Erin."
"No, he's a son of a bitch."
His name was Rufus T. Dinwiddie, and he was not prepared to die well.
When Goodnight's drovers, Texans to a man, dragged him toward a dead cottonwood by a dry creek, he screamed and begged for mercy, and his broadcloth suit pants were stained by the loosening of his bowels and bladder.
Dinwiddie was a small man with pomaded hair and a black pencil mustache. His brown eyes were wild, filled with terror, and they fixed on Shamus O'Brien's wife, who stood beside her husband, a ragged parasol protecting her from the hammering sun.
"Save me, ma'am!" Dinwiddie shrieked, the dragging toes of his elastic-sided boots gouging parallel furrows in the dirt. "In the name of God, save me."
Saraid O'Brien was pregnant with her second child. Her five-year-old son Samuel stood at her side, frightened, clinging to her skirts.
She turned her head and glared at Goodnight. "Will you hang such a man, Charles?"
Goodnight said nothing, but the shocked, sick expression on his rugged face spoke volumes.
"He shames you," Saraid said. "He shames all of us here."
The rope was around Dinwiddie's neck and the little carpetbagger's screams had turned to hysterical shrieks that ripped apart the fabric of the young afternoon like talons.
Goodnight had seen men hanged before, but all of them, scared or not, had at least pretended to be brave before the trap sprung. A man who died like a dog was outside his experience and the last thing he'd expected.
He stood rooted to the spot as the drovers threw Dinwiddie on the back of a horse and then looked at him expectantly.
The man was no longer screaming, but he was heaving great, shuddering sobs. Still he pleaded for mercy.
Saraid rounded on her husband. "Shamus, if you hang that miserable wretch today you'll never again be able to hold your head high in the company of men."
She grabbed Goodnight by his upper arm. "And that goes doubly for you, Charles."
He looked like a man waking from a bad dream. "Saraid, he raped a girl."
"I know, and she stands over there by the cottonwood," the woman said. "She is the wronged party, so let her say what the justice is to be."
Goodnight shook his head. "I did not expect this, not in a hundred years."
If Saraid heard, she didn't respond. She said only one word that held a wealth of meaning—the name of her husband. "Shamus." Her green eyes glowed like emeralds.
O'Brien said nothing. He drew his .36 caliber Colt Navy from the holster on his hip and strode toward the cottonwood. "Take him down."
The hands were confused. "But, Colonel, the boss says to hang him."
"I know what he said, but this man isn't worth hanging," O'Brien said.
The punchers looked toward Goodnight, but the man stood frozen where he was, Saraid's slim hand still on his arm, as though she was holding him in place.
"Get him down from there," O'Brien said again.
The men did as they were told.
To O'Brien's disgust, Dinwiddie let out a loud wail and threw himself at his feet. He kissed the toes of O'Brien's dusty boots and slobbered his thanks. O'Brien kicked him away.
Rape was a serious offense and there was still justice to be done. "You men, put his back against the tree and hold him," the colonel said.
As he was hauled roughly to his feet, Dinwiddie cried out in alarm. "What are you doing to me?" he squealed.
"An eye for an eye, me lad." O'Brien's face looked like it had been carved from rock.
The black girl, slender, pretty, wearing a worn gingham dress, stood near the cottonwood. Her face was badly bruised. When O'Brien got closer he saw the arcs of a vicious bite on her neck.
He pointed the Colt at Dinwiddie. "Is he the man who raped you?"
The girl nodded. Her eyes were downcast and her long lashes lay on her cheekbones like ragged fans. "He hurt me, mister." She didn't look at O'Brien. "And now I'm afeared I'll be with child."
About two dozen men, women, and children had gathered from the surrounding shacks to see the hanging. They called the dusty settlement a town because of its single saloon and attached general store, but within a couple years the place was destined to dry up and blow away in the desert wind.
"Nellie works for me as a maid, Colonel," a fat woman said, stepping so close to O'Brien he could smell her sweat. "I examined her after she was undone, and she's tore up all right, fore an' aft if you get my meaning."
Tears trickled down the girl's cheeks and sudden anger flashed in O'Brien. Suddenly he wanted to smash his fist into Dinwiddie's face.
"Hey, ain't you gonna hang him?" the fat woman said.
O'Brien ignored her. He grabbed Nellie's arm and said, "Come with me, girl."
A breeze had picked up, lifting veils of yellow dust. Near where Saraid and Goodnight stood, a dust devil spun, then collapsed at their feet like a puff of smoke. Insects made their small music in the bunchgrass and the air smelled thick of sage and the new aborning afternoon coming in clean.
Goodnight watched O'Brien, as did the crowd.
The residents of the town had come to see a hanging, but Dinwiddie's cowardice had spoiled it for everybody, especially the women. The ladies expected the condemned man to make the traditional speech blaming loose women and whiskey for his undoing, though he had a good mother. That always went down well at a hanging. It gave wives the opportunity to glare at their cowering husbands and warn darkly, "You pay heed, or this could happen to you."
But the spectators, their rapt attention fixed on Shamus O'Brien and the colored girl, had decided that not all was lost, for a fine drama was unfolding.
At least that's how it looked to Saraid. Why else would the people stay and brave the noonday sun to see a poor, cowardly wretch suffer for his sins, grievous though they were?
O'Brien led the girl called Nellie to within six feet of the cottonwood. A couple grinning punchers held Dinwiddie's arms, so his back was against the trunk.
The little man's eyes widened when he saw the Colt in O'Brien's fist. "What the hell are you going to do?"
O'Brien ignored him, thumbed back the hammer, and passed the heavy revolver to Nellie. "Shoot him."
Dinwiddie's expression went from fear to disbelief and back again. He glared at the girl. "Pull that trigger and I'll see you hang, missy."
The girl held the Colt in both hands. She started to lift the revolver, hesitated, and looked at O'Brien, her brown eyes afraid.
"Go ahead," O'Brien said. "He can't hurt you now."
Dinwiddie made an appeal to the crowd. "Stop this!" he screamed. "Are you going to stand there and see a white man get shot?"
No one moved or said a word, their collective stares on Nellie and the wavering blue Colt.
Goodnight stepped beside O'Brien. "This ain't gonna work, Shamus. Damn it, we'll put cotton in our ears and string him up."
But Nellie surprised them.
She raised the Colt in both hands and pointed it at Dinwiddie's head.
The man screeched and tried to break free, his eyes wild. The punchers held tight to his arms, strong men who quickly subdued his puny struggles.
The muzzle of the revolver trembled, then Nellie let it lower slowly, her skirt slapping against her legs in the hot desert wind.
O'Brien thought she was done. That she couldn't go through with it. He heard Goodnight curse under his breath and a collective sigh raise from the crowd.
The girl stopped the Colt's descent when it pointed at Dinwiddie's crotch, and pulled the trigger.
The ball slammed into the little man's groin and he screamed in pain, his mouth a startled O of shock.
Nellie fired again. Same place.
Stunned, the punchers dropped Dinwiddie's arms. The man's knees buckled and he sank slowly to the ground.
"All right, he's had enough," O'Brien said. Almost gently, he took the Colt from the girl's shaking hands. "Go home now, girl."
She buried her face in her white apron and stumbled away. The fat lady stopped the girl, put her massive arm around her shoulders and led her toward home.
"You done good, girl," she said as they walked away.
Dinwiddie was traumatized, his pinched, narrow face white. But, no matter how shocked a groin-shot man may be, he'll always rip open his pants and check on his jewels.
Dinwiddie did—and what he saw made him shriek in horror.
Unbelieving, he looked around the crowd, then at O'Brien and Goodnight. "It's gone," he wailed. He looked down at his groin again. "All of it."
"Then you'll never again rape another woman," O'Brien said.
"Help me," Dinwiddie wailed. "Get me a doctor."
O'Brien deliberately turned his back on the man. He said to Goodnight, "I've got a bottle of Old Crow in the cabin if you want to get the bad taste of Dinwiddie out of your mouth."
"Shamus, we should've hung him," Goodnight said.
O'Brien smiled. "Well now, all things considered, I'd say he's suffered a fate worse than death."
Young County, Texas, June 6, 1866
As a junior partner, Shamus O'Brien rode drag behind two thousand longhorns, a remuda of sixty horses, eighteen drovers and—
"What the hell does Charlie call that damned contraption, Colonel?" Luther Ironside said. He'd been eating dust for an hour and was even more cantankerous than usual.
O'Brien smiled under the bandana that covered his mouth. "A chuck wagon. And for heaven's sake call me Shamus. We're not in the army any more."
"Damndest thing I ever saw, Colonel," Ironside said. For a few moments he considered the vagaries of Goodnight's invention, then said, "It takes a score of oxen to haul the damned thing. He must've loaded up with a heap o' grub."
"We've got six hundred miles of hard country ahead of us before we reach Fort Sumner," O'Brien said. "We'll need all the grub we can carry and more."
Ironside snorted. "Just wait until we hit the Staked Plains. Them drovers are gonna be too tired and too thirsty to eat." He grinned like an undertaker. "Or too dead from a Comanche arrow."
O'Brien had no illusions about what lay ahead. Texas longhorns never wanted to go anywhere. They preferred to stay right where they were, especially if grass and water were near, and that's why they had to be driven. On a good day the herd would cover twelve to fifteen miles, but there would be few good days. The relentless sun would dry up waterholes and bring drought and dust and flies and dead beeves. Sudden thunderstorms would mill the cattle and cause stampedes across a hard, unforgiving land miles from anywhere.
It was enough to make a thinking man wonder what the hell he was doing out there in the first place.
Saraid, young Samuel on the seat beside her, was up ahead driving O'Brien's Studebaker wagon and four-horse team. With her was a stowaway. Nellie, fearing retaliation from the Federals, hid in the back of the wagon and only revealed herself when there were fifteen miles of git between her and the settlement.
Ahead of Saraid rolled the chuck wagon. Goodnight and his partner Oliver Loving rode point.
Luther Ironside leaned over the side of his buckskin, spat, then rubbed off his mustache with the back of his hand. "How you figure Miz O'Brien and the younker are holding out, Colonel?"
O'Brien pulled down his bandana. "Just fine, I'm sure. Saraid is a strong woman. Why, back in the auld country she could plow a field as well as any man, and her only a slip of a girl."
Ironside nodded, pleased. "Young Sam will hold up. He's a quiet youngster, but he's got sand."
"He did all right back at the cabin," O'Brien said. "He was scared, I could see that, but he held his ground."
Ironside nodded. "He'll make a fine cavalry officer when the South rises again."
Excerpted from THE BROTHERS O'BRIEN by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2012 William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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