Rand tried to follow Pa’s advice on most things. Maybe because Pa wasn’t one to waste words, Rand paid attention to those things he did say. They seemed important.
Like the time at the beginning of this school year. Rand was beginning 7th grade, which meant going to the junior high school for the first time. He was nervous about that, moving on to a new school. This school had a reputation. The kids Rand knew never had had any trouble at their elementary school. It had been mostly farm kids there. But three other elementary schools fed into this junior high, and those three were the schools town kids attended. The farm kids had all heard about fights between the townies and the farm kids that occurred there. So he was nervous. Rand had never been in a fight.
And then, about a week before school began, Pa and Rand were mucking out the stalls where their few cows were milked, and while they worked, Pa said, “Randy, this new school you’re going to. What’s its name again?”
Rand looked up at him. He knew Pa knew the name of it as well as he did. So if he asked that, there had to be some reason for him doing it. Rand just didn’t know what it was. But he played along.
“Warren G. Harding Junior High School, Pa.” He didn’t say any more than that. Wherever Pa was going with this, he’d let him lead the way, and Pa would get there, eventually. Rand also didn’t bother to once again correct his pa about his own name. A few months ago, he’d decided Randy was a little boy’s name. He’d told his folks he’d prefer to be called Rand from then on.
At least Ma had gone along with it.
“Warren G. Harding, huh? He was a president, you know.”
Rand didn’t see any need to respond to that. So he said, “Mmm,” and kept on shoveling.
Pa kept working too, for a spell, then said as if he’d been pondering this, “Don’t remember much about him, though. Not even who was ahead of him, and who followed. Must have been important enough to get a school named after him, though.”
Rand stayed silent. What surprised him was that Pa was saying all that and there didn’t seem much reason for him to. That just wasn’t Pa’s way. This meant that something was going on. His Pa wasn’t one to jabber. If he spoke at all, it was usually because there was something that needed to be said.
“That school’s been there a while. Wasn’t there when I went to school. Didn’t have a junior high then. First grade all the way up through high school. Did you know that?”
Of course Rand knew that! He’d lived with Pa his whole life, and he’d sometimes heard Ma and him reminiscing, which admittedly wasn’t often, them being as they were. Rand glanced up at him only to see Pa staring at him. Rand dropped his head, waited a moment longer than was necessary, and said, “Mmm,” again.
Rand was thinking maybe Pa was trying to get him in the mood for chatting. He couldn’t see any other reason for him to be beating around the barn like he was doing. Rand guessed that Pa realized from Rand’s responses that whatever it was Pa was trying to do wasn’t working because the man sighed, propped his shovel against the side of the stall and said, “Let’s take a break.”
Rand had no problem at all with that. Scraping up shit wasn’t the worst chore on the farm, but it wasn’t the best, either. They walked out of the barn into the bright sunshine. It was a warm August day, and while it was some cooler in the barn, Rand had been sweating, and coming out into the sun was even worse. Pa led the way to the shaded side of the barn and sat down, leaning back against the weathered, red-painted boards. Rand started to do the same, but stopped and shucked off his shirt first. The air felt good on his damp skin. He flipped the shirt over behind his shoulders so it would be between him and the rough boards and settled back against it.
They sat there, contemplating the day. Rand plucked a long-stemmed grass blade and chewed on it, relaxing. Finally, Pa cleared his throat. Man, whatever this was, Rand thought, it was something. It almost seemed as though Pa was nervous, and that wasn’t like Pa at all. He was the quietest, most self-collected man in the world. Rand turned his head to look at him, and found Pa looking back. In fact, Pa was running his eyes up and down Rand’s body. And, he was sort of smiling.
“Randy,” he said, and Rand sat up a little straighter. He guessed Pa was ready to come to the point.
He was. “Randy,” he repeated, “you’ve been quieter than usual the past week or so.”
He paused to let Rand deny it, or agree, but Rand had lived his entire life in this family. He took after his parents in almost everything, either consciously or unconsciously. When there was no real reason to say something, you didn’t. Rand remained silent.
“I imagine you’ve been quieter because you’re facing a challenge next week, going off to a new school. That’s always scary for a kid. You probably aren’t sure what to expect, and you aren’t sure you’ll know how to act. Is that what’s been bothering you some?”
Rand raised his eyes to his father, then nodded. “A little,” he said.
“No surprise.” Pa’s voice was warm and gentle. “So I thought maybe I could help.” He paused, and Rand shifted a bit to find a more comfortable piece of ground to sit on.
“Where you’ll be going, there’ll be all sorts of boys, all wanting to find their place in the school. They’ll all have their own way of doing that. Some will be friendly, some will try to get in with the popular kids, some will be cut-ups, and some will do it by being tough. Most everyone will be trying to ft in and get noticed one way or another — to find a role that fits them, that they’re comfortable with.”
Pa stopped, and Rand didn’t say anything, thinking it was pretty likely Pa’d get going again in a moment or two. Rand simply waited. The way Pa had ended, it seemed he might have more to say, and was just gathering his thoughts. Rand never had gotten criticized for keeping his mouth shut and had learned quiet was an easy way to be.
He wasn’t a bit surprised when Pa spoke again. Rand knew his pa better than he knew most things.
“Most of those kids, they’ll be playacting to some degree. Very few will just simply be themselves. The reason for that is they don’t think they’ll come up to the mark unless they put on an act.”
Pa paused again, but the pause was shorter this time as he’d reached the point he’d been leading up to. He’d already said a lot for a man of few words.
“I suggest, Randy, that you do exactly what most of them won’t be doing. Be yourself. Be honest, be honorable, and just let the others do as they will. By doing that, everyone else will come to see that you’re not trying to be anything you’re not, and that’ll earn you respect from those that matter. Best of all, you won’t wear yourself out trying to be someone you’re not. Do you think that sounds sensible?”
Rand thought before speaking, then nodded. “In fact,” he managed, “it sounds good.”
Pa smiled. “There’s more to it, but it all comes from the same place. These guys who try to get ahead by scaring kids and starting fights? They’ll pick on the ones they don’t think will fight back. Now if they’re really stupid, they might make a mistake, seeing how quiet and reserved you are. They might think that means you’re timid. They might think you’re scared, and try you on for size. What I say is: stand up to them. That’s being honest. That’s showing everyone who’s paying attention that you’ll protect yourself. That’s showing you have the confidence and the will to do that.”
Rand was looking at him now. He hadn’t heard anything like this from Pa before. His pa so rarely gave him straight-out advice like this that it made an impression when he did. Pa was one to teach by example, not words.
“You know I don’t want you fighting,” Pa continued after studying the trees at the far end of the fields, over a half-mile off, for a spell. He scratched his knee, then said, “But, if someone starts something, it wouldn’t hurt if you were to let him and everyone else know he’d made a mistake. A moment ago I looked at you when you took your shirt off. You don’t look like most kids your age. I think the reason is that you do a lot of hard work around here.”
It was true. Rand was strong. In the past year, his shoulders had grown wider and his arms had begun to show some muscle definition. His body had begun to fill out, too. He was still slender, but he carried himself in a way — he moved in a way — that showed he wasn’t a gangly young colt any longer. He was growing up, and he looked it.
His pa was continuing. “I’m sure you can handle any of those guys who might want to try you on. But even if you were a runt, my advice would be the same. Stand up for yourself. If you have to fight, do it, and fight hard. You’ll probably only have to do that once. Win or lose, no one will mess with you after that.”
Rand looked down at the ground. He wasn’t sure how to ask what he wanted to ask. He didn’t want to disappoint his pa. But, there was something he wanted to know, and this wasn’t a conversation that was likely to be repeated.
“Well… what if I am scared?”
Pa nodded. “You probably will be. Fear is natural. It helps us
know when there’s danger around. Everyone feels fear. Courage isn’t
being unafraid. Courage is part of your basic integrity. It’s what allows
you to do what you need to do even when you’re afraid. So, if you’re
scared, what you need to do is stand up for yourself anyway. Sure, you might lose, but
if you handle yourself well, if you don’t run away, if you fight the best you can,
you’ll win because you’ll know you didn’t let yourself down, and that’s
very important. You can keep your head up after that, even if the other guy wins They
Came With Guns. If you back down, he wins and you lose everything. Fight and
fight hard, as hard as you can, and whatever the outcome, you’ll have won the important
They sat quietly for a few moments, and then Pa said, “But looking at you, I doubt you’ll lose. Not if you’re going up against another 12-year-old, at least.”
Rand had followed Pa’s advice. He’d gone to school, watched how other kids behaved, hadn’t said much, and witnessed the scrambling for position in the school’s social hierarchy. He didn’t get involved in it. His life was on the farm. He was helping his pa and had been for some time, and Pa had told him that someday the farm would be his, and while he enjoyed learning and the classes at school, the stuff out on the playground, the stuff away from the teachers, the stuff going on in the halls, often it all seemed silly to him, especially considering how important it was to the other kids.
He hadn’t been confronted. He’d seen it happen with other kids. He’d seen a few fights. They didn’t last very long. There were teachers around and anyone caught fighting would be suspended. But there were pushing contests, and a couple of kids taking swings at one another which only lasted for a second or two. These confrontations were usually started by the bigger kids. Everyone learned which kids to avoid.
Rand was a little taller than most of the 7th grade boys. He wondered whether that was the reason no one had picked on him. Or maybe it was that he was usually in the background. Maybe people just didn’t notice him. Whatever it was, it was fine with him. But he was going to follow Pa’s advice if it anyone did call him out. He hadn’t yet known his pa to be wrong about anything that mattered.
Rand had made one friend. He was a kid who’d gone to the same elementary school Rand had attended, another farm kid, one who hadn’t been in his class any of the six years he’d attended the school. Rand knew who he was because one knew all the kids in the school — what their names were, what teachers they had — but he hadn’t really talked to him in all that time. On the first day, getting on the bus to go to Warren G. Harding, Rand had seen the boy sitting alone. The seat next to him was one of the few vacant ones left. He looked at the kid first before sitting, but the kid was looking out the window. So, Rand just sat down. The boy kept staring out the window. That suited Rand fine. He’d just as soon ride to school in silence, anyway.
It was the same going home. He was a little behind the others getting on the bus because his teacher in his last class had wanted to talk to him, asking him if he’d prefer being called Randall or Randy. Rand had said it didn’t matter, trying to be polite, but the teacher had insisted on a preference, and so finally Rand had said most people who knew him called him Rand. That answer hadn’t been good enough. The teacher had been insistent, wanting to know which he preferred, not what other people called him. Rand had wanted to form an opinion of the man but remembered Ma telling him how it was best not to judge people, especially when you don’t know them well, and so Rand pushed that aside. Finally, just to be done with the conversation, Rand had asked the teacher to call him Rand. The teacher had smiled and written it done. The entire encounter, however, had made him almost late getting to the bus.
The seat next to the morning kid was again one of the few empty ones, and this time Rand just settled into it without hesitation.
It took three days of riding next to each other to and from school before either of them spoke. Rand didn’t speak because he wasn’t accustomed to starting conversations and was very comfortable with silence, accustomed to so much of it at home. The other boy didn’t because he was appallingly shy.
Over the next two months of school, always sitting next to each other on both trips, they did talk, beginning slowly with the other boy, eventually and tentatively, taking the initiative. Rand had already known the boy’s name was Booth. Booth lived on a farm further out of town from his. He learned that Booth had two younger sisters, a mother and a stepfather. Booth talked about what went on at their farm, but mostly about school. It seemed once he felt he could talk to Rand without being put down or teased, he had a lot to say, and being shy, he hadn’t been able to say it to anyone else. It also helped that Rand had very little to say back, giving Booth the opportunity to talk almost the entire time they were together.
So Rand eventually had a friend at school. He also had a lot of acquaintances, kids he’d gone to elementary school with, but as with many farm kids, his life had always been centered on the farm. No other kids lived close by, and he enjoyed being out on the farm, being with his pa, watching and learning. He’d not had the time to make close friends with kids his age nor the opportunity.
They came with guns.
Rand could see them coming. He was in the barn, sitting on the floor of the hayloft, looking out across the fields. They came out of the woods at the far end of the cornfield. There were four of them, walking in a line, each spaced about ten yards apart. They were far enough away that he couldn’t see what kind of guns they had, but he could tell they were either rifles or shotguns.
There was something about them that was as frightening as the guns. They walked with a sort of tension in them. They looked around as they walked, looking for what he wasn’t sure. But they appeared to be on edge, carrying their weapons not casually like hunters did but at the ready so they could shoot quickly if they had to.
Rand slid back away from the loft door. The men weren’t looking at the barn as best he could tell, and he didn’t think they knew he was there. He slithered back into the dark loft, then got to his feet. The loft was filled with newly stored hay bales, and the sweet, grassy odor was heady and rich. Yet he hardly noticed it as he ran down the aisle between the bales to the ladder and slid down it to the floor below.
He knew Ma and Pa were in the house. It was late, just before sunset, getting on toward suppertime. All his chores had been finished long before, and Pa was done with his outside work for the day, too. Rand ran into the kitchen. Ma was at the sink, and Pa was sitting at the table tinkering with a tractor part that lay on some newspapers.
“Pa,” Rand said, “I saw some men walking across the field, carrying guns.” His words stumbled over each other out of his nervousness and haste in getting them out.
Pa looked up at the boy, wrinkling his forehead, unsure of why his son, normally so calm and reserved, was acting like this. Rand saw he needed to explain better, but the need to explain, to make his pa understand just why the men had scared him so, was hard to put into words. He just did the best he could, a part of him realizing he wasn’t making much sense.
“They were spread out, not together, all in a line. I didn’t like it, Pa; it looked bad somehow; I don’t know. It just looked bad. They scared me. There’s four of them, Pa, and they’re coming. Coming right toward the house. They’re coming now.”
Pa looked at the boy for a moment, at the state he was in, pushed back his chair and stood. “OK,” he said. “We’ve got a few minutes here. Walking across that field is slow going. We’ve got time to get ready. Maggie,” he said, his voice calm as always but with a sharper, harder edge than usual, “take the Winchester and a box of shells and go up to our bedroom. Open the windows a little, then stand back so you can see out without being seen. Watch both the back and the side yards as best you can.”
Then he turned to the boy. “Randy, get the .22 and get into the nook.” He gestured at the kitchen nook where they ate most of their meals. It contained the table where Pa had been sitting. The nook was a recess in the back kitchen wall and had a bench on each side of the table and along the back. Pa always sat in the single chair which was at the end of the table. Ma sat on one side of him and Rand on the other on the benches.
Ma wiped her hands on her apron and without speaking got the rifle from the chest in the hallway. Pa stopped her before she went upstairs. “Listen, you two,” he said, half turning to better include Rand. “We don’t know what’s happening here, but better to be prepared before we need to be than after. You two are going to have to decide what to do. I’ll be waiting to see what happens by the front door. Randy, you’re guarding what happens from the rear, and Maggie, you’re overseeing what you can from above.
“You both be careful. This might be nothing, maybe just some guys wanting permission to hunt on our land.”
The boy shook his head, and Pa saw and nodded. “Randy, I know you don’t rattle easy. I know you’re 12, but you’re smart for your years, and because you’re upset, well, I take that seriously. If you say we should be careful, we should be. So, I’ll be careful, and you both be, too. But, if for some reason you need to shoot to protect yourselves or to protect the house, do it. If they give you a reason to shoot at them, shoot to kill. I mean it. I don’t want these men in our house for any reason. If they try to break in, you don’t want to try to wound them. There’s more of them than us, they’re all adults, and they’re all armed. So be careful, and don’t be timid if you have to shoot. They have no business at all coming into this house without being invited — or standing around outside it with firearms threatening us, either. If they do, then we need to protect both the house and ourselves. OK, let’s get where we need to be.”
Ma turned around, and Rand saw her heading up the hall toward the stairs. She hadn’t said a word. Neither of his folks was much for talking when it wasn’t necessary.
Pa watched Rand as he crawled under the table. Rand stopped there, and Pa said, “No, go all the way to the back wall and get on the bench. You need to be able to move and aim and not have anything in your way. You can still crouch down if you need to, but you have to be able to see. If one of them comes in the back door, shoot him. The only reason he’d come in without permission is to do us harm. You have both the right and the responsibility to protect the house and your ma and me.” He stopped and looked into Rand’s face. “Are you OK with that?”
Pa’s voice was hard, but not angry. He wasn’t angry at Rand, and Rand knew that. Pa was just giving him to know what his responsibility was. Rand was glad he was doing that. There was no time for indecision now.
Rand was scared. He was scared of the men and what they might do, but also he was scared he’d somehow let his pa down. His pa was proud of him, mostly, and Rand didn’t want to lose his trust. He didn’t think he’d have a problem doing what he was being asked to do if those men came into their house carrying weapons.
Because of his vantage point, he could just make out Pa taking their shotgun out of the chest. He watched as Pa loaded it, and then moved out of his sight. Rand got onto the bench against the back wall, the rear one of those which surrounded the table. This was where they ate most of their meals, and the benches were where people sat when there was company, the kind of company that ate in the kitchen rather than the dining room. Rand wasn’t sure if he should kneel or sit. It was more comfortable sitting, and he seemed able to move more easily if he were doing so, so he decided to sit even if he’d be more visible that way. He tried lowering his head down to table level to decrease his visibility but realized someone would have to come all the way into the kitchen through the back door to be able to see the nook was there and even farther to see into it; they’d have to be almost to the hallway door to see him sitting there with his rifle.
He decided not to lean down.
He put the .22 on the table, then put it in his lap instead; it felt awkward, having it on the table, and he didn’t want to fumble with it, trying to pick it up with shaky hands. Then he thought to check and found it was loaded, but there was no cartridge in the chamber. He jacked one in, then checked the safety. It was on, and he clicked it off, thinking as he did that this was the first time ever he’d had that rifle in the house with the safety off.
Rand had no trouble using the rifle. He’d been shooting it since he was eight. Pa had showed him how. Pa was real good with it, too, but Rand expected that. Pa was real good with just about everything.
Then Rand was done getting ready. Now it was just waiting.
Waiting. Thoughts kept running through his head. He was making himself more and more scared the longer he sat, but he couldn’t seem to make the thoughts stop coming. He imagined the men all in the house, Pa and Ma dead, and their guns aimed at him. He could picture the men walking up the stairs to where Ma was. He could see them hitting Pa with a rifle butt and then dragging him to the barn and hearing the crack of a rifle.
Time passed, and even then his imagination didn’t let up. What if the men had just walked past the house? What if they weren’t interested in them at all? Or, what if they went into the barn and simply stayed there, waiting for Pa to come out of the house, planning to shoot him, then come for his ma and him? What if he just sat here and Ma and Pa stayed where they were and nothing happened? How would they know when it was safe?
But Rand was pretty sure something would happen. A month ago, a farmer and his wife had been gunned down in their house over in the next county. The newspaper said there was evidence that four men had broken in, shot them both, then ransacked the house for anything that was valuable that they could carry out.
The farms in this part of the state were large, and gunshots wouldn’t be heard from one farmhouse to the next.
The men hadn’t been caught, and Pa said all the farmers he’d talked to were locking their doors at night now and keeping a shotgun close to the bed.
Pa knew the county sheriff, Pete Brevard, and Pete had told him they hadn’t a clue who the killers were. The sheriff’s deputies were traveling around and telling folks to be careful.
Those four men at the end of their field had looked scary. He’d seen hunters in the fields before. They’d carried their weapons differently. They’d walked closer together. There’d been an easiness to their strides and relaxed postures that these four men hadn’t had. Maybe he was thinking of that farmer and his wife and making this all up in his mind. But Rand didn’t think so.
He didn’t know how long he waited, his heart beating fast, his breathing rapid, scared enough to be trembling, trying to make his mind stop working. Then…
There was a loud knock on the front door. Four good thumps. Then nothing. Pa didn’t answer the door. Ma was quiet upstairs. Silence.
After about a half a minute, there were four more hard knocks. This time, Rand could hear Pa answer. He called out, “Who’s there?”
There was no answer to that. Instead, there was a pause for four or five seconds, and then three booms one right after the other, so loud they left his ears ringing. His heart jumped to his throat.
Was he dead? Rand felt desperate. He was about to crawl out from behind the table, but then he heard the roar of two more shotgun blasts. These had a different pitch, and he knew immediately that it was because these shots had been pointed away from him instead of toward him. Pa must have fired back.
Almost immediately, he heard the rifle upstairs crack, once, twice, three times. Then he heard something else.
There was a board in the kitchen floor that creaked when stepped on. Just slightly, but it did, and Rand heard it then. He realized what had happened. While the front door was being blasted, a guy in the back had used the noise to cover any sound he might make him coming in through the kitchen door. Rand remembered; in all their rush to prepare, no one had locked the back door!
He knew where the squeaking board was and knew he had time to raise the .22 from his lap and point it toward where the man would appear. When he did this, he found his arms were trembling. He tried hard to calm himself, couldn’t, and finally rested his left elbow on the table. That helped him bring the rifle under control.
He waited, and only a moment later could see a three-quarter profile of a man carrying a shotgun step past the nook partition wall. The man was looking toward the hall, not toward the nook. He suddenly stopped and raised his gun, aiming down the hall. Rand stopped breathing, like Pa had taught him, steadied his aim on the back of the man’s head, and squeezed the trigger.
The bang of the shot resulted in the man simply collapsing on the kitchen floor. Rand pumped another cartridge into the chamber and kept the .22 aimed at him, but the man wasn’t moving at all. Then two more cracks were heard from upstairs, and Ma called down, “Hank! Hank! Are you all right? Rand? Oh, Rand!”
He was frozen where he was, and somehow his voice didn’t seem to work when he tried to answer. But he heard his father yell, “Yeah, I’m fine. Randy, you OK?” For the first time in his life, Rand heard anxiety in his father’s voice.
He swallowed to wet his throat, but there was nothing to swallow. “Yeah,” he said, as loud as he could, but all that came out was a croak. He was surprised anyone could hear him.
Pa’s voice came from the same place it had been before. Evidently he was staying still till he knew what the situation was. “How many are down? Randy?”
Rand swallowed again, then said, “I shot one. I think he’s dead.” His voice sounded stronger, he thought, but still not a bit like it usually did.
“I shot two,” he heard Ma call. Her voice didn’t sound much like her, either. “I think one’s still alive. I don’t know about the other one.”
“OK,” Pa said. “The one by the front door isn’t moving and doesn’t look like he ever will, so that’s four. But, stay up there and keep watching through the windows, Maggie. Randy saw four men, and that’s probably all there are, but we’re not sure of that. So keep watching. I’ll call Pete.”
The phone was in the kitchen, and Pa came in. Rand was trembling harder now. He wasn’t sure why. He just was.
Pa looked down at the man on the floor, then kicked the shotgun that was lying next to him away before stooping to pick it up. He stopped before touching it, however, and then just slid it over to the wall with his shoe. He came back and looked at the man for a few seconds. The man wasn’t moving any of his limbs, and Rand didn’t see his chest moving up and down, either. Pa finally leaned over and touched the side of the man’s neck, holding his fingers there for a few seconds. Then he stood up.
“He’s dead,” he said. Then he turned to the boy. “You did real good, son, real good. Probably saved my life — and maybe all of our lives. I was still keeping watch on the front, making sure no one else was looking to come in that way. I was behind the grandfather’s clock in the hallway, figuring that was good cover from the front, but the guy coming from the kitchen would have had me in his sights before I’d even have known he was there. I’m proud of you—” a slight pause, then “—Rand. But I knew you could do what had to be done. I never doubted it for a moment.”
By then Rand had crawled out of the nook and run to him. Pa’d put down his shotgun on the table and taken the boy in his arms. He held him close in a tight hug, and they both just let the world happen for a few moments, not thinking at all. Rand’s heart didn’t seem to want to slow down, though, even with the hug.
When Pa loosened up his arms, Rand made sure he had his balance and stepped away a little. “I can’t stop shaking, Pa,” he said. “I’m not afraid any more, not really, but I keep shaking.”
Pa didn’t laugh or smile, but then he was usually a stolid man. He just said in his normal dad way, “That’s the adrenaline, Rand. After you don’t need it any more, it takes a bit to let go, and you’ll be shaky or maybe even nauseated for a little while.”
He glanced back down at the man on the floor, then said, “I’ve got to call Pete; he needs to get out here. Go up and keep your mother company. Don’t touch anything that belongs to these men. When someone dies, the police always want to reconstruct the scene, and they’ll take fingerprints and all that. So, just go wait with your mother. She probably needs a hug, too. You can do that for me, can’t you?”
The sheriff didn’t come alone. Rand was still upstairs with Ma, each of them looking out a different window, when the cars began to arrive. There were a bunch of them, all with their lights flashing. Three of them pulled into the driveway and the others stopped along the road in front of the house.
Men wearing flak jackets and carrying rifles came out of the roadside cars. Some deployed behind them, watching the scene, while others fanned out, some approaching the house, some moving cautiously around the outside. Rand had been looking out the back window, but when he’d heard the sirens in the distance, he moved to join Ma. From there they could see the cars approaching and the men getting out.
From the back, he hadn’t been able to see anything but the barn, the back yard and the fields. At the side of the house, Rand could see two bodies lying in the yard, one near a tree, one more out in the open. Neither of them was moving.
Now that the authorities were there and Rand saw men approaching the bodies, he ran down the stairs to join Pa. He didn’t say anything, just wrapped an arm around Pa’s waist and stood next to him and listened.
The sheriff, who Rand thought of as Pete because Pa called him that rather than his title, listened to what Pa had to say, then sent men to search the barn to make sure no one else was around. Then he had Pa and Rand both go into the kitchen. The man Rand had shot was still where he’d fallen. Rand didn’t look at him more than a glance and then looked away.
Pete asked Pa to have Ma come down, and when she was there, the four of them sat at the table. Rand had thought maybe Pete would sit on the chair at the head of the table, but then guessed he had some respect and knew that that was Pa’s chair. Rand slid in on the bench past where he usually sat and the sheriff followed him, ending up in Rand’s usual place. Ma sat where she always did.
Pete asked all of them to tell their parts of what had happened, and Pa nodded at his son. “Rand was the one. He’s the reason we’re all still alive. He should start.”
Rand blushed. Pa was always kind and praised him when Rand did something special, but Rand couldn’t remember Pa ever saying anything like that to someone else about him when Rand could hear it. He couldn’t help but blush.
They were all looking at him. “I saw these men come out of the trees at the far end of our field,” he said. “I was up in the barn loft just sort of thinking on things.” He went on to tell why he’d been suspicious of them, and that he’d remembered the other farm family that had been killed recently and how he’d run in the house to warn Ma and Pa.
Pa then told how he’d told Ma and Rand that they had to protect themselves and their house and how Rand got in the nook, Ma had taken the upstairs, and he’d got in the hallway behind the grandfather’s clock.
“Pete, I had no idea if the threat was real or not, but why take chances? I waited, and there was a loud knock on the door. We have a doorbell and most everyone uses it, but these were loud, aggressive knocks. I almost went to answer it, but decided it might be a tad safer to wait. I’m glad I did, because he knocked again, and I called out to him, asking who it was. He waited a short spell, maybe for me to come to the door, then blasted the door with three shots. You can see the door. Almost shredded the thing. From where I was peeking out, I could see light through it. Big chunks are missing, and the rest is mostly just strands of wood.
“I didn’t hesitate then. I knew what was what. We were under attack. I could see a part of a moving shape through the splinters, and I fired at it. Twice.”
He stopped, and Ma continued with her part. “I was scared to death when I heard those shots. I almost ran down to see about Hank, but instead I kept looking out the side window. It wasn’t but a moment till I saw someone come running from behind the house across the yard. He was moving, but he wasn’t far off. It took me three shots, but I hit him. I never shot at a person before. Maybe that’s why it took three shots, him as close as he was. I think I hit him in the leg because he took another step before tumbling over like his leg wouldn’t hold him up.”
It was Rand’s turn again. “I heard those shots from upstairs and then I heard a man come into the kitchen from the back door. He couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there. He moved to where he could see up the hall where Pa was, and I saw him raise his shotgun. I had my .22 already up. I shot him.”
Rand stopped, picturing in his head how the man’s body had seemed to just loosen up and collapse, and through that mental image he heard Ma speaking. It sounded muted to him, like he had something in his ears.
“I heard the pop of Rand’s rifle, and then someone came out from behind the tree in our yard. He didn’t seem to know what to do. At first he looked like he was going to run for the field but then turned and took a step toward the house. Right toward me. He had a rifle in his hand. I shot him. He went down, and then I called out to see if Hank and Rand were OK.”
Pete had had a tape recorder running. Now, when no one said anything else, he reached to turn it off but then didn’t. Instead, he asked, “Did any of you do anything else then? Like pick up their guns or move the bodies or like that?”
Pa shook his head. “I told them not to disturb anything, Pete. Rand went upstairs to be with Maggie. Oh, wait, I did check for a pulse and move this one’s shotgun” — without looking at it, he nodded at the body on the kitchen floor that a deputy was squatting down next to, going through the pockets — “so it wouldn't be near his hand. I just kicked it over to the side there.”
Pete nodded and then did turn off the recorder. He looked at Ma and Pa, then at me. “That’s some story. You’re all real lucky, although it sounds to me like you all did exactly the right things, so maybe it wasn’t just luck. These guys were ruthless. They’re likely the ones who killed that couple in the next county a month ago, and probably were the ones who did the same thing downstate twice before that. Same MO. I think what happened here was, Rand saved all three of you. Without his warning you with what he’d seen, when you heard those knocks on the door, you’d have gone to answer it, Hank, and they had no mind to take prisoners.”
Pa had Rand stay home from school the next day. He said one of the deputies or crime-scene investigators or, well, someone had been flapping his gums, and it seemed the whole town knew about what had happened. No surprise there because there was a big story in the morning paper about it, too. They even had a picture of the house. It was taken from a good distance away because the sheriff had deputies keeping people away, but there sure was a picture.
No pictures of anyone in the family, at least.
But Pa had Rand stay home. Theirs was a private family, and being the center of attention didn’t appeal to any of them. Pa thought it best if Rand wasn’t subjected to the stuff and nonsense he’d have to deal with at school so soon. It was a Friday, and Pa figured that over the weekend things would calm down a little. Rand was happy with that. He didn’t need every kid at school coming up to him and asking what had happened — and the teachers, too. Rand didn’t even want to tell it once, let alone fourteen hundred times. He’d killed a man — a man who’d needed killing, certainly — but still, he’d done it, and he was even then trying to make sense of how he felt about that.
The story in the paper had the details spelled out pretty accurately. Pa told Rand he’d spoken only to Pete, and Pete was ready to scalp someone if he could find out who’d spoken to the press. The paper said ‘unnamed sources’ had told them what had transpired. They named Ma and Pa, but not Rand. They wrote the names Hank and Maggie Miller; Rand was mentioned only as their son, a juvenile, with no name appended. The paper claimed, a bit sanctimoniously, that it didn’t name juveniles in news stories. Hah! The town was only a little over 11,000 people. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. Rand’s name would be passed around to everyone in town before noon that day. He was the boy the paper said had killed one of the attackers.
The newspaper, being in the business of selling papers, had written the story in the most sensational way it could. An editor had decided to focus on a hero, and the most compelling hero would be the youngest. They made the story about Rand.
So Rand stayed home and helped Pa fix the tractor. The two talked some as they worked, which was the way of things, but Pa never did have much to say when it wasn’t necessary, and Rand, as usual, followed his pa’s lead in this. Pa took the time to tell him what to expect, though, and said to be polite, to be honest, and if he didn’t want to talk about it, just say that, and then repeat it over and over as necessary without saying anything more.
Now it was Monday, and he was returning to school for the first time since he’d been written about in the paper. He was more nervous than he’d been the first day of junior high. He knew he’d get lots of attention, and he wasn’t sure how he’d handle it, other than to do what Pa had recommended: just tell anyone he didn’t wish to talk about it. Repeated as needed.
He wore jeans — well, everyone wore jeans — and an old, dark-blue, hooded sweatshirt, thinking maybe he could hide in the anonymity it provided. It didn’t work. He was badgered all morning and everywhere he went by people wanting to talk to him about it.
While Pa’s advice was good advice and fitted his personality, Rand had been pretty sure he wouldn't be allowed to follow it. And that proved to be the case. It began on the bus.
Booth was excited to see him. “Hi, Rand,” he said, and even though they were now friends, his face got a little red over his own audacity. His eyes were flashing, and he could barely control himself. “I read in the paper about what happened. My pa showed it to me. He asked if the boy they were talking about was you. I’ve, uh, I’ve sort of mentioned you to them at home. And they wanted to know. I almost called you.”
Rand sighed. Right off the bat, here it goes, he thought. But, in this case, he knew he had to say something. He had a feeling it wouldn’t take much to make Booth crawl back in his shyness hole, and he liked that Booth was no longer as shy — with him at least. Booth seemed rather delicate and Rand had never seen him speak to anyone else.
“If you read the paper, then you know most of it, Booth. The paper got it pretty much right.”
“But, but, how did you feel? Were you scared to death? I would have been. And what did it feel like, shooting that man? Did you just do it or sort of hesitate and have a hard time pulling the trigger? Did he see you? Did he try to shoot you? Did he say anything? And—”
Rand put a hand on Booth’s leg and squeezed a little, hoping to stop the torrent of words. It didn’t work, and so he had to do something else. He raised his voice just slightly and said, “Booth!”
His friend stopped, blushed again, but kept looking expectantly at Rand.
Rand sighted. “Look, this just happened, and it still upsets me to think about it. People will be asking me all day to talk about it, and I don’t want to. But you’re different, you’re my friend, so if you just ask me one question at a time, I’ll answer what I can. OK?”
Booth nodded rapidly, then said, “Were you scared?”
Rand copied Booth’s nod. “Yeah, it was very scary. But Pa told me I had to help him and Ma protect the house and all of us. I didn’t really have much choice.”
“Wow! So he just came right in and you shot him. My gosh! I’d have been too scared, I think. He would have just shot me as I stood there frozen.”
“I was scared, but not too scared to make sure he didn’t hurt any of us.”
Booth was looking up at him with big eyes, and Rand felt a little funny. It looked like Booth was treating him like someone other than just his friend. He hoped that wasn’t going to happen with everyone. He was still the same kid. He didn’t want everyone treating him differently. Mostly, he liked being left alone. He much preferred standing aside watching the crowd, not being a participant in the middle of it.
Booth asked more questions, and Rand gave short answers and then Booth, as was his way, spent a lot of time putting those answers into his own words and describing how he’d have behaved, and soon they were at the school.
Before they got off the bus, however, Booth had one more thing to say.
He gulped, blushed, and said, “Rand, I like you. I got worried, reading the paper. I’m glad you’re OK. I’m glad you’re my friend. I like…” And then Booth blushed even harder and dropped his eyes.
Rand wasn’t sure what he meant. Just the way he’d said it, how it sounded. Booth seemed to be trying to talk with his eyes as well as his voice. And his eyes had seemed to be saying something more than the words. But then Rand thought maybe he was imagining things about Booth.
Rand sat at the back of the room in his first class. It was where he always sat. The class bubbled around him, as usual, and as usual, he was silent. For some reason, however, the class seemed different — and just a bit disappointing. When the bell rang, he got up with everyone else, but instead of filing out of the room, he stopped by the teacher’s desk.
The man looked up and then set his pencil down. “Rand. Say, I read about you in the paper. Is everyone all right at your house?”
“Yes, thanks, we’re all fine. But that wasn’t what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“OK. Go ahead.”
“I just noticed something today. In class, you call on most everyone. Except you never call on me. Is there a reason for that?”
Mr. Unger felt a wry smile form on his lips which he quickly made disappear. “Yes, there is. Would you like to know why?”
Rand nodded. “Please,” he said.
“OK. Where do you sit?”
Rand thought that was an odd question. Mr. Unger certainly knew where he sat. But Rand answered, anyway. “I sit in the back row.”
“And do you see me calling on any of the kids in the back row?”
Rand had to think. “I guess not,” he said after a moment.
“That’s right. I’ll tell you why, too. At the beginning of the year, I let kids pick their seats. I’ve been teaching for 20 years. At the junior-high-school level. Most teachers opt not to work with kids your age. I like your age. I like watching you all develop. You change so fast at this age. But, in 20 years, I’ve learned some things. And one of those things that’s always been true is, kids who choose to sit in the back don’t want to participate in class. Mostly, they don’t even want to be in school, but that isn’t always true. It is true, however, that they choose to sit there because they want to be involved in the class as little as possible.”
Rand thought about that and realized that was why he had chosen that seat.
He felt a little embarrassed, realizing that.
Mr. Unger continued. “Yes, I know, some people will say I should force you all to be involved no matter if you want that or not. But the thing is, I want to teach kids who want to learn. If I spend my time trying to force feed the kids who aren’t interested, I’ll be shortchanging the kids who do want to learn. There are a lot more of them than the reluctant kids. But you know what? Every now and then, a kid from the back row will realize he’s not getting his fair share in the class, and he’ll come up and talk to me about it. You can’t imagine how pleased I am when that happens. And that’s what you’re doing now, isn’t it?”
“I guess so,” said Rand. “I just… somehow… I don’t know… things feel different now, and I guess I want to be part of the class more now than I did before.”
Mr. Unger nodded. “There’s an empty seat in the second row. Why don’t you sit there from now on? And, be ready, because I’ll be calling on you.” He smiled.
Rand smiled too. “Good,” he said. “And thanks.”
Rand walked to his next class, realizing as he did that he sat in the back there, too. He sat in the back in all his classes where the teachers allowed the kids to pick their own seats.
Before the day was done, he talked to all those teachers, and was assigned new seats in all their classes.
It happened at lunch. They had an entire hour. Some kids brought lunches; some ate in the cafeteria. Rand brought his lunch from home, and Booth bought his at school, so they didn’t eat together. Cafeteria kids had to eat inside. Rand liked being outside whenever he could and liked to avoid the crowds, and so that’s where he usually ate.
Today, he sat down against the tree where he was usually able to eat and be by himself. He pulled his hood up to be less conspicuous, but it didn’t help. He was quickly surrounded by a group of girls. Girls had been pestering him all morning when they could. Rand didn’t have anything against girls, but he didn’t like them much in packs. And today they had been in packs. He was a celebrity, and they wanted in on that.
At least, eating lunch, he didn’t have to say much. They were mostly all talking at once, and on the few occasions a single question was thrown at him and the noise stopped as they waited for an answer, he could take a bite of his sandwich and then point to his mouth and shake his head. That didn’t stop them; they started up again and babbled on, but in doing so they allowed him to get away with not having to say much of anything.
The crowd of girls had grown larger as he’d been eating. When he heard something going on, it took a moment to register over the chatter and giggles. But then he clearly heard a voice he recognized.
“Leave me alone!” The voice was high pitched. And it was Booth’s.
Rand shoved himself up and away from the tree. He pushed through the girls and saw Booth and Andrew Courtman. A circle of kids was forming around them.
Andrew was a 7th grader just like Booth and Rand. But unlike Booth and Rand, he wasn’t 12. He was 13 going on 14. He’d been held back a year. He was bigger than his classmates and seemed always to be angry. He was one of the ones everyone had learned to avoid.
He was holding onto Booth’s arm, holding it up so that Booth was almost pulled off his feet. Booth was scared. Rand could see that. Kids were crowding around, but no one seemed to want to help Booth. They wanted to see what was going to happen.
Andrew looked angry and excited at the same time. The hand not holding Booth’s arm was in a fist.
“Damn faggot!” he shouted. As Booth’s ear was about three inches from his mouth, Rand figured he must have been saying it for the crowd to hear.
Andrew shook Booth’s arm, which caused him to cry out in pain. Rand didn’t hesitate. He forced his way through the circle and up to Andrew. “Let him go,” he said.
Andrew’s eyes flicked from Booth to Rand. “Why? He’s a faggot. I overheard him telling someone he likes a boy named Rand. He’s got it coming.”
“I’m Rand,” Rand said. “And I told you to let him go.”
Andrew must have seen something in Rand’s eyes, because he did let go of Booth, who fell to the ground and then had the sense to scuttle away before standing up. While he did that, Andrew and Rand had their eyes locked.
“You think you can take me,” Andrew said, finally, and followed that with a sneer.
“I have no idea,” Rand answered. “Maybe. Maybe not. But I do know if you ever touch him again, it’ll be the biggest mistake you’ll ever make.”
Rand hadn’t moved away from Andrew. He was considerably lighter than the older boy and perhaps an inch shorter. Something in his posture, however, made Rand look Andrew’s equal.
Andrew kept staring into Rand’s eyes. He was surprised at what he saw. He was used to smaller kids being scared, not wanting to meet his eyes at all. This boy wasn’t showing any reluctance to face him, eyes and all. But, he was smaller. Andrew was sure he could beat him. Still, those eyes…
And, the boy wasn’t backing away, which he could have done. He simply stood there, waiting for Andrew to decide what to do. Why wasn’t he scared?
The crowd around them was getting restless. Andrew could hear things being said. He’d about decided to take a swing at Rand, a quick one when the kid wasn’t ready, when he heard someone say, “That’s the Miller kid. The one who killed that guy.”
Another voice from the other side of the circle penetrated Andrew’s head, too. “I heard he shot two men. And it didn’t bother him at all.”
Andrew refocused on Rand’s eyes. They were hard and cold. This was that kid? The one who…? And the kid seemed to be waiting for Andrew to do something. Just waiting. Not scared, not excited, just waiting.
Andrew pulled himself up a little and said, “I’ll do whatever I want, and you can’t do anything about it. I want to mess with him, I will.” Then, moving to walk away, he reached out one hand to shove Rand back. Rand’s hand came up quickly and batted Andrew’s hand away, hard.
“Don’t mess with me,” Rand said, his voice as cold as his eyes.
Andrew hesitated, and the crowd’s noise stopped. Then Andrew said, “Whatever,” in as dismissive a voice as he could manage, turned and walked off, being careful he didn’t bump Rand in the process.
Booth was standing inside the circle, neither part of the crowd nor of the two antagonists. Rand watched Andrew walk away, then turned and found Booth. He stepped over to him, put an arm around his shoulders and without saying a word, began walking. The circle quietly parted, and the two walked through it, heading back to the school.
As they walked, Booth tentatively raised his arm up to Rand’s shoulders as well, a daring accomplishment for him.
When they were out of earshot of everyone else, Rand asked, “You OK?”
Booth nodded, then said, “I was really scared.”
Rand looked down at him and winked. “I was, too,” he said.
My thanks to my editors. Their polish makes my writing shine.
The cover drawing is by Paco, a wonderful young artist whose talent is astonishing.
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