Harper Gillespie, newly fourteen, rode up to a place locals called Baby’s Bush to meet two of his friends: Dave Erich and Robinson Pike, both of whom were several years older. The bush stood in the middle of a field between two lines of pines. Almost as big as a house, they said every time someone tried to cut the bush down, they would have to stop because they heard a baby crying.
Coming from the pines, Harper spotted his friends and raised a hand to greet them. Pike smiled big and wide, as he always did, and tapped Erich on the arm, pointing towards the direction Harper was coming. Erich reached into his jacket and took out a bottle of whiskey, tossing it to Harper as he rode up alongside next to them.
“Cheers to the birthday boy.”
Harper smiled and looked over the bottle.
“Don’t worry, it’s real.”
Pike was cackling already, “Go ahead. Try some.”
Harper took the cork out of the bottle and brought it to his lips.
He coughed and wheezed after he took the shot, while the other two laughed and nearly fell off their horses.
“Here,” Erich held out his hand for the bottle.
Harper tossed the bottle back and wiped his lips with the back of his sleeve.
“It’s a man’s drink. Guess you ain’t one yet,” Pike laughed.
Harper laughed while Erich passed the bottle to Pike, who quickly took a swig before dismounting and handing it back to Harper. Erich cleared his throat.
“You give any more thought to our little proposition?”
“Does this answer your question?”
Harper opened his saddlebag and pulled out a Navy revolver wrapped in a piece of cloth. Erich and Pike watched in silence, honestly surprised.
Pike began to cackle again, “You ever fire that thing?”
The boy didn’t respond.
“Heh. You ain’t even got a holster, boy. How you gonna carry that thing around?”
Erich cleared his throat again, “Thought you said you was bringin’ a rifle?”
“I… Well, I was. But I couldn’t find it this mornin’. ‘Sides, it’s my daddy’s. Don’t think he’d like me takin’ it. Don’t reckon he’d notice this bein’ gone.”
“What’s he gonna use it for anyhow?” Pike asked just as a gunshot sounded off in that valley.
All three of them jumped out of their saddles as Henry Gillespie rode to the center of the valley, rifle in his hand. Once their nerves had settled a bit, Pike and Erich looked to each other, unsure what they should do. Henry Gillespie fired into the air again and the two boys’ nerves got the better of them. They rode off north. Maybe, a town or two over.
Henry came up alongside his son and put the rifle back in its boot on his saddle. He held out his hand without saying a word. Harper couldn’t stand to look his father in the eyes in that moment. He handed over the whiskey.
His father clicked his tongue, “Not that, boy. The revolver.”
Harper handed his fathers’ gun back to him. He sighed and trotted off back home, Harper riding behind him a ways, but right in step. Back at the ranch, Harper put himself to bed. His daddy didn’t speak to him for the next four days. On the fifth, he woke his son just before dawn and had him saddle the horses.
“Where we goin’?” Harper asked, still wiping the sleep from his eyes.
His father didn’t answer, just helped him finish with the horses. It was about a two hour ride to Cedar Rock from where they lived on that smalltime ranch. The ride, like the last four days, was quiet. Harper followed his father as they slowly made their way towards Cedar with the rising sun at their backs and the dried crunch under their feet.
By the time they arrived, a crowd had amassed in the center of town. The smell of dirt, shit and freshly cut wood filled the air. Coming around the corner of the smithys’, Harper saw the gallows. He wasn’t close enough to see who the two necks were in the gallows, but they did look awful familiar. Least until they had bags put on their heads. Harper and his daddy stood near the back of the crowd. A finely dressed man came out and stated the sentence: death for horse thieves.
As much as he tried, Harper couldn’t move an inch closer. His father held his shoulder firmly. The man who announced the sentence pulled a lever, and the two men hung in those gallows. Harper felt tears well up in his eyes. He looked up his father, who held his shoulder still, and waited for him to say something. But he didn’t say a word. Just held his shoulder tight.