"How much longer do you think it will take you to finish those pens?" Sarah Larabee asked her husband as she dished hot buckwheat griddle cakes--the summit of breakfast--onto her familys plates.
Chris considered a moment as Vin helped himself to more bacon and soft-scrambled eggs. "Weve been moving along faster than I figured on," he admitted. "If it doesnt rain, we might be able to set the last posts this afternoon. Thatll be the biggest part of the job; we can put the rails in later." He looked to his friend for an opinion. "What do you say, Vin?"
The young Texan swallowed his mouthful of fresh peaches and nodded. "Figure thats about the size of it," he agreed. "We done cut the holes for em, its jist a matter of socketin em in place, that dont take two. I s thinkin maybe Id take me a ride down south tomorrow, see can I get an antelope or two, maybe drop off a half at Miz Netties on the way home. You reckon?"
Chris hid a smile. Vin was a hard worker and as loyal as a hound, but after seven impressionable years among the Comanches he would probably never be able to fully settle into a white lifestyle; at least a couple of times a month he felt the need to get away for a day or two, covering his quest for solitude by doing some hunting en route. "Sure, Vin," he said. "Adams big enough to help me heft the poles in if I need him. But be sure you get back here by Friday night, all right? JD and the others may need some help to deal with the crowds on Saturday, and I want to get an early start into town so we can finish up our shopping before things get lively." He knew that his friend had a certain inclination to lose track of the days of the week, since they werent a feature of Indian life: Vin tended to count by moons and seasons and years.
"Sure try," the younger man promised. "Aint so far down to where they like to range, maybe forty mile or so; Peso can do that in half a day or less."
"Youd better take a pack horse, though," Chris suggested. "I dont think hed stand to have two dressed antelopes loaded on his back; ones pushing it. When are you going to get yourself a proper horse instead of that evil-tempered mule you ride, Tanner?"
"Hey," Vin objected, "aint nobody calls him a mule but me." It was something of a moot question, as they both knew. Peso had been foaled of their best stallion six years ago, but even after he was gelded he seemed to think he was a stud, and if you messed with him hed take a piece out of you. Nobody could ride him except Tanner--though more than one had tried. After having to refund three successive buyers money, Chris had been about ready to shoot the big black, but Vin had claimed him as part of his share of that years profits and had been riding him ever since. Even he had to keep alert for the horses teeth and heels, but he seemed to enjoy the game; he claimed it kept him sharp.
After breakfast, Adam headed off to the barn to shell corn for the stock while his father and adopted uncle returned to the task of building the pens; then he settled down on the front porch to churn the days butter, clean the lamp chimneys and trim the wicks before refilling all the reservoirs with oil. This done, he pumped a bucket full of water and carried it over to the men working on the corral. Chris and Vin gratefully took a break, pouring dippers of water over their heads and taking long cooling draughts of it. Adam waited patiently until they were done, then said, "Pa, can I talk to you private?"
Larabee looked at his son quizzically. Adam trusted Vin as a big brother and sometimes was readier to confide in him than in his parents; it was unusual for him not to want the Texan to hear his thoughts and concerns. "You mind, pard?"
"Reckon Ill go see what Sarahs got left in the cookie crock," said Vin with his crooked smile, and wandered off across the yard.
Chris sat down with his back against one of the newly-erected posts and waited till Adam settled beside him. "Whats on your mind, son?"
"Katies gonna be three next month," the boy observed.
"I know," Chris agreed, wondering where this was leading.
"Ma says you and her always planned on havin a big family," Adam proceeded. "But two aint awful big, is it?"
Oh, thought Chris, I think I see now. "No," he admitted, "its not."
"So," said Adam, "are you figurin on havin another baby pretty soon?"
"Well," Chris mused slowly, "Im not exactly sure about that, Adam. Its not a thing a man has the last say on, you see. You know how some of our mares have a colt every year we breed em, and some have one for three or four years and then skip a couple of seasons before they catch again."
"Yeah, I know," said the boy. "Its just...well, Vin always calls you an old man, so..."
"Vin should watch his language," Chris growled, but the twinkle in his eye told the boy he didnt mean it.
Adam grinned back at him, then sobered. "It aint I dont love Katie," he explained, "but I sure would like to have a little brother. Somebody I could teach things to, like Vin has me. You know?"
"Yeah. I did that, with your Uncle John. Course, he was a lot closer my age than any brother your Ma and me could make for you--only two years younger, almost to the day." He was silent a moment. Adam probably didnt remember his parents second child, Josh, who would have been six in March if he hadnt died of scarlet fever at the age of fourteen months. Hed had his mothers auburn hair and upturned nose; he would have made a good contrast to his brother. Sarah sometimes went out to the grove to put flowers on his grave, but she didnt take the children with her. "Tell you what," he proposed, pulling himself out of his reverie, "Ill talk to your Ma about it and well see what we can do. Did you finish your chores?"
"I gotta take out the ashes, then Ill be done, unless Mas got somethin special for me to do. Thought Id go down to the creek and see if I could catch some fish for dinner."
"Do that first," Chris advised, "so youll have more time--thatll give you a better chance of gettin some. Tell your Ma I said it was all right. You can get the ashes afterward."
He watched the boy race joyously off to the house to get his pole, stopping only long enough to accept a couple of piecrust cookies from the returning Vin. God, what did I ever do to deserve such luck? he wondered. A friend whos more like a brother, a fine wife and son and daughter, good land, a good breed of stock, money in the bank, and now even Judge Travis recognizin me by namin me sheriff. Better than I thought Id end up with, some of those cold lonely nights on the trail or in the War.
"Boy all right, is he?" Vin asked quietly over his shoulder.
"Yeah, hes all right," Chris agreed, getting to his feet. "Just wants a little brother. Dont you say one word, Tanner!"
Wednesday late afternoon
JD had just settled down in the office swivel chair when the door opened and Josiah Sanchez came in. "Good afternoon, John Dunne," the big man greeted him.
"Hey, Josiah. Want some coffee? I just started a fresh pot."
"No, thank you, I just enjoyed a refreshing pitcher of lemonade in Mrs. Potters kitchen. It was just what I needed after five hours working on the church roof." He rested a hip on the corner of the desk and swept off his broad hat.
JD grinned. "I bet. You ever think of just doin indoors work till the summers over? You could likely get that roof patched before winter sets in, if you dont do anything but that startin around October or so."
"That I could," Josiah agreed, "but this is the season for cloudbursts, and I dont want the interior flooded and all my hard work washed away. No, Im afraid the roof is the first priority. But what I will try to do is work on it only in the early morning. That will leave afternoons free for peacekeeping."
"Ill ask Chris if we can rearrange the duty roster so youll have mornings for that," JD promised. "Bet the last thing a preacher expects is to end up helpin enforce the law."
"In a sense, perhaps, though of course we give a lot of attention to explicating Gods law," said Josiah. "Whats that youve got? A new printing of Wanted posters?"
"Yeah. Stage got in a couple hours ago. I waited long enough for the mail to get sorted and then went over to see if anything had come in for us, and this was it. You want to look after I do?"
"Might as well," said Josiah, and then turned his head as the door opened again. A woman entered, dressed in a fashionable green travelling outfit that brought out the emerald color of her eyes, a little green hat with a feather perched on her perfectly coiffed creamy-blonde hair. She was, JD thought, about the age of Mary Travis, though perhaps not as pretty. Both men hastily stood up as she paused on the threshold, looking from one to the other.
"Gentlemen," she said, in a voice that carried a strong flavor of the South. "I am in need of the sheriff."
JD stepped around the desk. "Im sorry, maam, Sheriff Larabee aint here just now. Im JD Dunne, first deputy--is there somethin I can do?"
She hesitated, studying him dubiously, but JD was getting used to this kind of reception from strangers and withstood it calmly, just straightening his shoulders a bit and surreptitiously hooking his thumbs over his gunbelt to call attention to the twin Lightnings at his waist. "I sincerely trust so, Mr. Dunne. I was to meet my son here, but he is not to be found. I have inquired at every lodgin facility I could discover, and no one admits to having seen him."
Josiah put his hand on the back of the cane-bottomed chair that stood beside the desk. "Wont you sit down, Mrs.--?"
"Standish," she supplied, "Maude Standish. Thank you, sir." She swept her skirts gracefully around and seated herself, folding her hands in her lap. JD marked how, in their pearl-colored gloves, they played nervously with her beaded purse. He settled back into his swivel chair and reached into a drawer for a tablet of ruled paper.
"Okay," he began, "Ill need to have your sons name and description, and where he was comin from. Were you expectin him to be here before you?"
"Yes. I was engaged in a business matter in St. Louis when I wrote to him to commence the journey; I knew it might take me a week or so to conclude my affairs there, so I considered it wise to give him a head start. He had been domiciled with my sister-in-law in Louisiana--Alexandria, to be precise. He was to board the Texas & Pacific Railroad at Anandale, which is scarcely more than a mile from his aunts home, and ride to the end of the line--I believe the name of the community is Arlington--and then board the Yuma stagecoach. In El Paso he was to change to a northbound coach and so come here. I consulted several maps in plannin it, and calculated that he should have arrived on June 23rd if all went well, though I recognize that in this country such things cannot be counted on."
JD jotted notes. "No, they cant always, and with--what, three connections to make--theres a fair bit of space for problems. Still, it seems like two weeks woulda been enough to make up for any delays he hit. Well, I can send some telegrams and see if he made his changes okay. Whats his name?"
"Ezra," the woman replied-- "Ezra Patrick Standish. He is twelve years old, though somewhat small for his age. He is slightly built, with green eyes, fair skin, and chestnut hair, and would be well dressed and have a sole-leather trunk with his initials on the lid in brass nailheads."
JD wrote it down. "Kinda young to be travellin alone, aint he? Maybe not so much the travellin, but the stayin here by himself after he got in?"
Maude Standish pursed her lips. "Ezra is quite experienced at lookin after himself, and I sent his aunt a bank draft to cover his expenses. I have no doubts as to his ability to avoid trouble until I could join him. I realize I may have erred on the side of caution, leavin such a sizeable margin of time in between our two arrivals, but my business was such that I could not precisely tell when I would be departin St. Louis, and I recognized that, as you point out, he might not be able to make all his connections exactly."
"Well," sighed JD, "hed be a lot easier to trace if hed come out on the UP or the KP or Santa Fe and made one change at Cheyenne or Denver or Pueblo, but I guess there wouldnt be a lot of kids that age goin west by themselves."
"It seemed somewhat redundant to have him go to the eastern terminus of any of those lines, which would involve a northward journey from Alexandria, only to double back south to get here," the woman observed. "And, of course, it would have been considerably costlier. I wanted to save as much money as I could for the remainder of our journey."
"Where were you planning to go from here, Mrs. Standish?" Josiah inquired.
"San Francisco," was the reply. "I understand it is possible to take stage hence to Santa Fe, and from there down the Rio Grande Valley to Socorro, where a connection can be made to Prescott and across the state line at Blythe."
"Yes," the big man agreed, "its the best way to avoid the oven along the Border at this season, and hopefully the worst of the Apaches too--Geronimo hates the Mexicans even more than he does the Anglos, and he likes the pickings south of the Line, so he tends to stay down in that part of the Territory as much as he can. But its a long journey, better than fourteen hundred miles from here to Frisco, and nearly a thousand back to St. Louis on top of that by the most direct route I know of. I must say I can understand why a lady such as yourself would find it pleasant to break your journey and lay over a few days."
She cocked her head and graced him with a small smile. "Thank you, sir. May I be so bold as to inquire your name?"
"Josiah Sanchez, maam, at your service. I realize you must be concerned over your boys safety and in need of some distraction; might I offer myself as your escort? Theres not much to be seen in Four Corners yet, but I can at least attempt to guarantee that no one bothers you."
The smile became somewhat wider, mischief twinkling in the green eyes. "I do believe most people would hesitate to argue the point with you, Mr. Sanchez. Would you be willing to assist me in findin a place to stay while Deputy Dunne commences his inquiries? I had thought to take lodgings in the hotel, but if I am to be forced to wait here longer than I had expected..."
"Certainly, maam. Where did you leave your luggage?" Sanchez stood and offered his arm, and she accepted it and swept out of the office at his side.
JD watched them go with a quizzical look. Aint ever seen Josiah act like that before, he thought. Course that dont mean much, I aint known him that long. Well, at least his company might keep her from worryin about the boy--Josiah can talk up a storm when he wants to, and hes done a lot of travellin and had good schoolin. He looked back to his notes. If the kid was stayin with his aunt, sheda sent word to Miz Standish if he couldnt make the trip for some reason. So I best start by contactin the stationmaster in Anandale, see if he sold any boys that age a ticket through to Arlington. He tore off the page, folded it and tucked it in his inside coat pocket, and stepped out onto the boardwalk, carefully locking the street door behind him.
When Buck woke, the sunlight falling on the rocks outside the cave mouth was the rich color that suggested it was late afternoon. Ezra was sound asleep beside him, and after a moments thought Buck decided there was no reason to disturb the older boy. He put on his shoes and vest and half slid down the slope to the floor of the canyon. The bay mare was drowsing under the cottonwood where Ezra had left her. Buck went behind a rock and took care of business, then decided to see what the local animal life was doing. He picked up a stout mesquite stick in case he happened to meet a snake, took a drink from the basin, and began strolling slowly through the trees. The mesquites ranged from fifteen to twenty-five feet in height but didnt grow thickly together--they werent even bushy enough to give a hot man shade on a summers day--so it was easy for a boy, even one who was tall for his age, to make a way through them.
After a while he found himself confronted with what seemed to be a bushy tail, at least eighteen inches long and ringed in black and white, dangling from a high branch. Curious, he shifted his position, trying to get a good enough angle to see what it was attached to. Lying stretched out on the limb with its stomach against the bark and its four feet hanging down on either side was a small, tawny-gray animal with a sharply pointed face and erect, triangular ears. "Well, hey," said Buck softly, "what are you? I never seen nothin that looked like you before."
The animal opened a large black eye and peered down at him with no apparent fear, then raised its head, its nose working as it tried to get his scent. Buck reached in his pocket and found a few raisins and part of a slice of bread and cheese. After a moments thought, he took the bread by one edge and held it up so the animal wouldnt accidentally put its teeth in his finger if it was interested. The creature blinked and stood up on short, slender legs. It had a long, graceful-looking body, about two-thirds as long as its tail, and rounded haunches, and there were white patches above its eyes. It craned its neck down as far as it could, nose whiffling. "You gotta come down further if you want it," Buck said. "Youre too high up for me to reach." He backed toward the trunk of the tree to show the animal the path it needed to take. The animal, as if it understood, began footing its way along the branch, brushing against the dangling beanlike pods.
An hour or so later, when Ezra blinked his way back to consciousness and found himself alone on their improvised bed, his first reaction was something disgracefully close to panic. He hurried to the mouth of the cave and scanned everything he could see of the canyon, his heart racing. Buck was only seven; what if hed been bitten by a snake, or frightened the mare into kicking him, or--worst, and almost likeliest--wandered off looking for his Miz Abigail? He probably didnt have a lot of conception of just how far he had to go to get back to Kansas City. The older boys sharp green eyes shuttled swiftly over the scene and settled, after a moment, on an ebony head and gray-vested back not far from the site of this mornings campfire. Buck seemed to be bent over, concentrating on something on the ground before him. Ezra checked his derringer and skidded down the slope, forcing himself not to run: if there was a snake, the last thing he wanted to do was frighten it, or Buck, since snakes were likely to perceive quick movement as a threat. Ezra might not be familiar with this Southwestern country, but snakes he knew: hed spent most of his life in various rural or small-town Southern environments, which writhed with serpents of all kinds, including poisonous ones--coral snakes, copperheads, pygmy and timber rattlers, and cottonmouths where it was swampy.
Buck was absorbed in figuring out what his new friend liked to eat. It had accepted the bread but displayed true enthusiasm for the raisins, so he had decided fruit was something it enjoyed. Then it had sat down and begun to groom itself, scratching with a hind leg, licking its fur, and using its moistened paws to clean its ears, cheeks, and nose. Buck had been enchanted. He had tried catching a couple of grasshoppers and offering those: the creature gobbled them down happily. Then it strolled over to the basin to drink, and encountered a leopard frog, on which it pounced. It seemed not at all afraid of him, and though it had strong-looking claws, it made no effort to scratch him. As it became more comfortable with his presence, it began to "speak" occasionally, in squeaks and metallic chirps.
"Mr. Wilmington! What are you doin?" demanded Ezra from behind him.
Buck looked around with an innocent smile. "I made a friend," he explained. "I found him in one of the mesquites. He aint scared of me at all. Hes pretty, aint he? Look at his tail!"
"Leave that creature alone at once!" Ezra commanded. "Do you want to be bitten?"
"He dont bite," Buck retorted in a tone of surprise. "He likes me. I been feedin him grasshoppers and he picks em right out of my fingers. Im gonna keep him."
"You most certainly are not!" declared the older boy vehemently. "Even if the animal displays no aggressive tendencies, it almost certainly harbors fleas. And wild animals cannot be depended upon. Let it go back to its den, Mr. Wilmington. We must eat our supper and be on our way."
Buck stood up and squared his shoulders, and Ezra realized once again how close to his own size the younger boy was. "I aint leavin him. Hes my friend. Im gonna call him Climber, cause thats what he does."
"You will not call him anything. You will leave him here when we ride on."
"No. If he dont go, I dont go."
"What, you mean to remain here? Absolutely impossible! What will you eat? How will you make a fire? What if a snake should bite you?"
Buck looked doubtful for an instant, then tightened his features back to a mask of resolve. "I dont care. Climbers mine. I aint leavin him no moren Ma woulda left me at a stage station on our way here." Suddenly a look of sadness overcame him. "Back in Kansas City Miz Abigail had a cat, and she had kittens. Miz Abigail said I could have one for my own if I wanted it, but Ma said cats didnt like to travel and we couldnt take it on the train or the stage. She said when we got to Tombstone shed get me a cat, or maybe a dog. But I aint gonna get to Tombstone now, I reckon, so I gotta get my own pet. I want Climber."
Ezra found himself thinking of the pets his cousins had had--dogs and cats, canaries and pigeons, rabbits, guinea pigs, white mice, lambs, chickens, goats, piglets, even tamed raccoons, squirrels, quail and mockingbirds, badgers and otters, and a fox cub which had been adopted by one family cat after its mother was killed in a trap. He had watched the other children play with these animals and envied them the companionship and unconditional love and acceptance they received. He had yearned for one of his own--no specific kind of animal, just an animal that would be his own, his friend, that would go with him wherever he was sent to live, that would be loyal to him and comfort him when he felt lonely--until he got old enough to realize that it was just a dream and it was time to put such juvenile foolishness aside. But this didnt mean he couldnt empathize; indeed, the very fact of having experienced the life he had had convinced him that other children shouldnt be left so desolate as himself. Buck was only seven--too young to be forced to give up all his dreams--and perhaps more so because, except for Miz Abigail who was no blood relation to him and might yet refuse to take him in, he was now completely alone in the world, unlike Ezra, for whom his mother would doubtless contrive to find some as yet unmined lode of relatives to assume his care. He has lost a mother he loved, Ezra thought, a mother who loved him. He needs something to care for, something that will show him affection. Perhaps it will help him to overcome his bereavement, and anything that will stabilize his life cannot but be a beneficial thing at this point; certainly it will make our journey easier. After all, the animal may well run off of its own accord after a day or two. I suppose I can bear with it until then.
"Very well," he agreed with a resigned sigh, "but if it bites either one of us, on that instant it goes! Is that understood?"
Bucks face lit with a dazzling smile. "Sure, but he wont. I know he wont. Youll see."
"Indeed, we will see," muttered Ezra. "Now find some more mesquite sticks and we will make a fire for our supper."
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