Twelve Mighty Orphans
From the front porch of the farmhouse near Kirkland, Maggie Ann Brown spotted the barefoot boy running from over a quarter mile away. His feet lifted small clouds of dust and his face showed the strain of his effort. Maggie Ann could not remember seeing her four-year-old run that fast.
Little Hardy Brown's arms and legs were like miniature pistons. As he moved closer, Maggie Ann could see that he was mouthing words she could not hear. There was no telling how far he had come, or what he had seen, for the boy was a rambler and might wander the farmland all day, or fish the local creek until the rust-colored sun melted into the horizon.
Out in far West Texas, just south of the Panhandle, the land is covered in cotton and wheat and the grain elevators rise up like Greek temples. So flat are the plains that a silo some ten miles away seems to be sitting on your neighbor's property. In the early summer, when the north wind gives up and the sun's furnace kicks on, the ground starts to fracture and turkey buzzards take a rest. That July afternoon of 1928 was a scorcher, and Maggie Ann knew it was not advisable for any child to be working that hard."Slow down, Hardy!" she yelled. "You're going to bust a gut."
The boy darted through the front yard and his right foot kicked aside a tricycle. There was an assortment of children's toys strewn across the bare ground, along with a tire iron and a rusted tractor engine.
It was a typical shotgun farmhouse with a long, narrow hallway down the middle. "Shotgun" because, if you fired a shotgun from thefront door, the shot would travel down the hall and straight out the backdoor. The place once belonged to a farmer, but a few years earlier he had gotten other ideas. The economy of Childress County was now booming, thanks to an abundance of cotton and wheat. Folks, in spite of Prohibition, were ready to party. So Hardy Brown Sr. decided to lay down his plow and crank up the whiskey still.
Stills, in fact.
So much potato whiskey was cooked up on the Brown's ten acres that a twenty-four-hour guard was hired to keep the thirsty neighbors at bay. The sheriff of Childress County looked the other way as he pocketed his share, and the operation ran as smoothly as the old cotton gin out on the main highway.
Hardy Brown Sr. was a tall, dark-skinned man with thick sideburns that made his face look menacing. They said he had a lot of Comanche in his blood. The warring Comanches had ruled West Texas until the U.S. Army crushed them in the Red River War of 1874. Brown was thick with muscle and could lift a truck off the ground by laying on his back and leg-pressing it, and he did not mind letting people know that he would kick their dog asses if they decided to cross him.
This bootlegger was actually two people. There was also the happy family man who played with his kids and took them fishing. He had grown especially fond of Hardy Jr., the baby in the family, who feared nothing and was always into something.
Besides being the good father, Brown was also a fornicator and a fighter and a wild bull rider. Saturday nights in Childress, hundreds of people gathered to watch the men fistfight for fun on the town square. The local dairy owner would challenge the hardware salesman and they would duke it out until one fighter determined the other had the advantage. In the end, the two men would shake hands and go back to being friends and neighbors.
Few people wanted to tangle with Hardy Brown. Unlike the others, he did not view the event as "sport." The man had killer blood in him. He could throw a pile-driving right hand that would send you to the hospital, or worse. The toughest hombres in the county had stoppedaccepting his challenges on Saturday night. So, he would simply wade into the crowd and start swinging.
It was little wonder that his rivals hated him. Whiskey money had transformed the laid-back cotton farmer into the biggest bootlegger between Fort Worth and Amarillo. He loved the fact that he ruled the world of outlaw whiskey. The once quiet county was now swarming with angry family clans. At the height of Prohibition, and just ahead of the Great Depression, the business of bootlegging had erupted like a West Texas gusher. The clans battled each other every day for money, turf, and moonshine. Highway 287 was a Texas version of Thunder Road. Whiskey stills around Kirkland were as prevalent as red dirt, the product as precious as a kiss from a Wichita Falls debutante.
Naturally, the hard-charging, stone-fisted Hardy Brown became the most despised man in the county. Driving Highway 287 between Childress and Kirkland one afternoon, he realized that a green Packard was trying to run him off the road. Never one to dodge a confrontation, he steered to the side as two men jumped out of their car. Brown did not reach for a gun or a knife or even a billy club from the backseat. He pulled out a singletree.
A singletree was like a long baseball bat with a hook on the end. The device was primarily used to hitch two plow mules together for the purpose of keeping them side-by-side. The first attacker did not see the blow coming. Brown swung the long club and watched the hook sink into the man's skull. The second man tried to flee, but Brown pursued him, hacking away skin and clothing until he pleaded for mercy. He was left to suffer in a pool of blood.
As he drove away that day, Brown knew that a bounty would soon be on his head; men would come calling with killing on their minds.
A few days later, while walking along a country road with his four-year-old son, Hardy Sr. did not see the Gossett brothers step off the front porch and sneak up behind him with sawed-off shotguns. The twin blasts catapulted the unarmed man more than ten feet as a chunk of ribs and most of his spine were blown away. Little Hardy took off running and did not stop until he reached the family's farmhousesome two miles away. Maggie Brown, now standing on the front porch, felt almost paralyzed when she saw the fear in her son's eyes.
"Mama, they killed Daddy!"
"Up the road?"
"Who killed Daddy?"
"Them Gossett men."
"How did they kill him?"
"Shot him in the back. Both of them."
Maggie Ann was now in a panic. She dashed into her bedroom and inexplicably started pulling on stockings. She quickly put on a cotton dress and a pair of leather shoes and stashed some belongings in a cloth sack. Upon reaching the front door, she turned to her four children.
"Mama will be back just as soon as she can," she said. "I promise."
Maggie Ann took off running down the dirt road the opposite direction that Hardy had come. Every few steps one of her dress shoes flew off, and she finally tucked it under her arm and kept going. Her stockings split and now her exposed right foot was plastered with dust.
"Where is Mama going?" little Hardy said.
"She's going to the train station," his older sister Katherine said. "She's getting out of this place."
"She's scared of them Gossett men."
IN THE DAYS ahead, the four Brown kids lived in constant fear of the Gossett brothers. Jeff, Rebe, Katherine, and Hardy slept together in the same bed every night with the covers pulled over their heads.
Mona, the oldest sibling in the family, who had married a few years earlier, tried to bring some comfort to the family. She returned to the house where she had grown up and was accompanied by her husband, Spurgeon Clark, who had been a business partner of Hardy Sr. Mona had some news.
"Fortunately, our daddy was a Master Mason in the local lodge andhis dues were paid up. That qualifies all four of you to go to the Masonic Home down in Fort Worth. It's an orphanage, you know. But I hear that it's a pretty good place. Most of all, you will be safe there."
Katherine began to cry. "I don't want to go," she said. "My friends are here. And we've got three cats and two dogs, and who's going to take care of them."
"I will," Mona said. "You've got more important things to worry about, like getting an education. You will get some learning at the Home."
Jeff cleared his throat. "When is Mama coming back?"
"From the way she ran out of here, never. I don't think we'll ever see her again in Childress County."
"Doesn't she love us anymore?" Katherine said.
"I haven't talked to her and I don't know where she is. But I'm sure she still loves you."
Hardy Brown Sr.'s body was deposited into a pine box three days later and he was buried in an unmarked grave.
Not long after the funeral, a picture on the front page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram showed hundreds of trucks and cars parked about the town square of Kirkland. The caption read, "Cotton Money Comes to Town." A little farther down the page, a headline blared, FARMER SLAIN NEAR CHILDRESS.
The whole county was buzzing.
The Gossett brothers were arrested in a timely manner and then released on bond. George H. Gossett was the first to be tried in Childress County, and the result was a hung jury. Some said you could not find a single citizen in Childress County brave enough to convict a Gossett.
George H. Gossett's next trial was moved to Donley in Clarendon County, and a change of venue sent his brother, Howard Gossett, to nearby Memphis, Texas. Both trials were to set to begin the next month.
When George H. Gossett's trial ended in a hung jury, Spurgeon Clark decided to take matters into his own hands. More than just an in-law, he had also been a close friend and a loyal partner of HardyBrown's. The two had been inseparable at times, and some folks thought they were brothers.
One day, Clark drove to the Brown farmhouse and picked up little Hardy.
"Where are we going?" the boy said.
"To take care of some business."
Late that afternoon, a man wielding a double-barreled shotgun kicked down the front door of the Gossett farmhouse. A four-year-old boy was by his side. The Gossett brothers tried to escape and Spurgeon Clark blew them away. Moments later, Spurgeon and Hardy stood over the men to make sure they were dead. Spurgeon wanted the young child to know that justice had been servedTexas style.
"Those were your daddy's killers."
It was a story that both Jeff and Hardy Brown would tell for years. Naturally, it was a chapter in their lives that would haunt them forever.
The next Wednesday, the Southern Pacific train pulled into the station in Childress. The four Brown children stepped off the platform into a new world. They knew they would never see their daddy again.
They were not sure about their mother.
AFTER A LONG and arduous train ride to Fort Worth, four kids with sad and dirty faces stood outside the fence of the orphanage and watched kids playing in the bright sunshine.
Footballs sailed high against a hard blue sky.
Hardy Brown looked at his brother, Jeff, and said, "I ain't never seen anything like it."
Eight-year-old Jeff Brown watched the chaos on the playground. "They played baseball at my elementary school. But I've never seen a ball shaped like that one."
As the gate swung open, Hardy Brown took off running and there was nothing the Brown kids could do to stop him. He ran straight toward a football and kicked it for more than twenty yards. Whereupon he was smacked in the mouth with a hard right uppercut. In no time,Jeff Brown had the assailant on the ground, rapping his head with hard knuckles as the boy yelled, "Get off of me, new kid. New kids aren't supposed to be fighting."
"How'd you know I was a new kid?" Jeff said.
"Because you got shoes on. We don't wear shoes around here till October."
Jeff shucked his scarred leather shoes to reveal dirty, sockless feet.
"Now let's fight," he said.
"I don't want to fight you."
"Because you look mean."
"In that case, keep your dirty hands off my kid brother."
Little Hardy puttered down the field and retrieved the football. Tucking it under his arm, he took off in the other direction. No one said a word.
Jeff Brown thumbed his chest. "We'll do whatever we feel like doing around here for as long as we feel like doing it."
Like his brother, Hardy Brown wore scarred leather shoes and overalls. There was virtually no hair on his head and the sides of his head looked like a peeled onion. Jeff Brown had yet to grow into his big ears, and his hard, angular face would have given the appearance of a boy much older, if not for the splotch of red freckles. Katherine Brown's hair was dark and curly and her skin was darker than the others. She was a year younger than Rebe, who had just turned thirteen and did not seem to comprehend much of anything. One of his eyes had been badly damaged in a fight and made a sharp right turn. His mouth was slightly agape and every few seconds he gulped the air with a loud snort.
For the last thirty seconds, a tall man in his twenties had been half-trotting for more than a hundred yards to reach the Brown kids. He was barrel-chested, with thick hands.
"That kid," he said, pointing at Rebe. "That kid looks retarded. What the hell happened to that boy's eye?"
"Went through a meat grinder," Jeff said. "Now, mister, you leave my brother alone."
"Son, you apparently don't know who I am. I am the dean of the little boys. You'll be answering to me for many years. You refer to me as Mr. Wynn."
"Well, Mr. Wynn, it's nice to meet you," Jeff said. "But you leave ol' Rebe here be."
With one hand, Big Frank Wynn grabbed Jeff Brown's hair, and with the other pulled a rubber hose from his back pocket. He spun the boy around and whacked him on the butt.
"One, two, three, four, five," he counted. "How many more do you want, boy?"
Orphans crowded around to watch. They waited for the tears to bubble up in the new kid's eyes. But nothing changed in his expression and, instead of crying, Jeff Brown burst into laughter. Wynn spun the boy around again and whipped him five more times.
Nothing seemed to faze him. The boy was still laughing and soaking up the attention from his fellow orphans when the dean kicked him in the backside and yelled, "Get your butt up that hill to the dormitory. And you can forget about your supper tonight."
TWELVE MIGHTY ORPHANS. Copyright © 2007 by Jim Dent. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.