The badge felt heavy on Tommy’s shirt as he saddled his horse. All four younger brothers crowded around him, staring at the badge, taking in what it meant. Max stood close enough to be nearly interfering with the saddling. Robert was feeling poorly, so he was sitting on a bale of hay, and Eugene stood next to him, one hand absently patting his leg in childish comfort. Delsin stood close but out of the way, holding Tommy’s saddlebags for him. Outside the barn, dawn had barely begun.
“Can I touch it?” Max asked.
“Is it heavy?”
“Is it made out of gold?”
“Maxwell.”Tommy complained, not turning from saddling his horse. “It don’t matter what the badge is made out of, it matters what the man wearing it is made out of.” Those were the words Pa had said as he pinned the badge to Tommy’s shirt not ten minutes before.
“You ain’t a man.” Max said.
Tommy considered this. He was fifteen but tall, nearly as tall as Pa. He was filled out some but even at a distance he wouldn’t be confused for a grown man.
“I reckon Pa thinks I am.”
“What’d he make you deputy for anyway?” Max pressed on. He was a couple months shy of fourteen, and perpetually envied Tommy his privileges and responsibilities.
“He needed someone to ride with him.” Tommy said, purposely leaving out that it was because no man in town stepped forward to ride with Pa to apprehend Lester Beck. On a good day Lester was a walking mountain, on a bad day - and lately he only seemed to have bad days - he was as dangerous as a volcano. Early yesterday morning for some imagined or fabricated slight, he’d set the Newstead’s barn on fire. Jack Newstead had had an attack and died trying to save his property, and Mrs. Newstead was left a widow with three young girls and no barnful of hay.
“He could take me too.”
“Somebody’s gotta run the ranch and look after Ma and the boys ‘til we get back.” Tommy said. “Ain’t no saying how long we’ll be gone.”
Aside from not being old enough, Max talked too much. Lester would hear them coming two miles away. At eleven, Robert was quiet but without enough stamina. Eugene was eight; he didn’t talk as much as Maxwell, but he spent a lot of time in his own thoughts. Tommy thought, of all his brothers, Delsin would be the one he’d take on the trail. He was five going on six, but he stayed quiet and kept his eyes open all the time, and in the three years they’d been family, Tommy had yet to see Del frightened of anything.
“Ready?” Pa strode into the barn, his breath rising in the chilly air. He carried two of his best rifles. Ma was right behind him.
“Here, put this in your scabbard.”
Pa handed Tommy one of the rifles and he took it without question. Before, last year, last night even, he might’ve asked why he was getting one of the best rifles. But last night he was a boy; this morning he was a man and men understood these things.
When Tommy turned from putting the rifle in his scabbard, he saw that Pa was handing him money, more money than Tommy thought he’d ever had in his hand. Behind him, even the boys gasped.
“Keep the small bills in your wallet, hide the large ones. In case we get separated.”
“Yessir.” Tommy said again even though the prospect of getting separated from Pa set him back. He chased the fear away. Men understood these things.
Ma approached him then. By the law, she was his step-mother, but that didn’t matter to Tommy. She’d been his Ma three years now. She was his Ma. As she stood in front of him, Tommy expected the usual reminders - keep his jacket buttoned, keep his feet dry, mind Pa. Instead she only gripped his shoulders and looked up into his eyes.
“You do what you have to.”
Then she hugged him hard and kissed him and turned back to Pa who took her into his arms and kissed her so hard the boys behind Tommy giggled. Before, last night, he might’ve giggled too, but this morning he was a man and he knew that was a kiss meant to last the rest of a lifetime. Thinking that, knowing that, Tommy wondered if he’d ever laugh at anything again.
Then Pa hugged the boys and hugged Ma again and they mounted up and rode out into the gray dawn.