The boy peered cautiously around the empty packing crates in the midst of which he had taken refuge, eyeing the retreating backs of the two bigger lads. He was lighter than they, faster on his feet and better at dodging, but they knew the ground, and it had been a long hard flight before he found this back-alley refuge. He ducked quickly back into his place of concealment as one of them seemed to slow his pace, and huddled deeper into the shadows of the pile, holding his breath and listening. His heart was beating so rapidly it sounded like a drum in his ears, and he was surprised they didnt hear it as clearly as he did.
The scuffling sound of their shoes against the bare earth didnt pause, and gradually it died away into the distance, accompanied by an occasional burst of bickering speech whose exact import he couldnt make out clearly. He counted very slowly to five hundred before venturing out into the open again. The boys were gone. Perhaps, after all, it had been a mistake to go off on his own, but he had been bored staying inside, and wanted to explore. El Paso was a young town, its site having been first settled only fifty years before, and a notably dusty one besides, but like all towns located on the road to a major pass, it prospered exceedingly by the funnel effect, augmented by the establishment of Fort Bliss in 49 and the surge of westbound traffic that had been inspired by the discovery of gold in California the same year. To the east an arid plain stretched for hundreds of miles, broken only by flat desert tablelands, and here, since farming was virtually impossible, cattle ranches had begun to appear, employing picturesque "cowboys" who tramped the streets in high-heeled boots and wide-brimmed hats; to south and west the mountains encroached upon a rich and flourishing valley which provided an extensive trade in wine and brandy, raisins, and dried fruits; and to the north reared the bare craggy peaks of the Franklin Mountains. With the Southern Pacific Railroad already building toward it from California, the Texas & Pacific from the east, and the Santa Fe from the north, canny folk were already increasing the population, hoping to be in on the ground floor once the steel arrived and inspired a second boom. Apache raids, the visits of wandering prospectors, and the hordes of desperadoes and gunmen who found the river a convenient crossing combined to keep it in a state of turmoil unlike any town he could ever recall visiting in his entire short life, and the close presence of the Mexican border added an exotic flavor that aroused the boys native curiosity. In any case, it was always a good idea to know the place you were staying in--not just your current lodgings, but the larger surroundings. What routes were there out of town? Where could you hide if you suddenly discovered that someone was watching your temporary abode? Where were the best places to find well-heeled marks? When did trains or stages come through, and what was the law like? Knowledge, as Mother always said, was power.
Unfortunately, the bigger the town, the more bullies--boys or men--it was bound to harbor, and he hadnt gone more than eight or ten blocks before he fell afoul of two examples of the breed. One he could have taken despite his disadvantage in size--he had learned early on how to give a good account of himself with his fists--but not a pair. Discretion being the better part of valor, he had made a run for it. Now, seeing by the tint of the sky that the hour was growing late, his chief concern was to find his way back to his temporary home--if he could.
It shouldnt be too hard, he decided; there were few houses in this bustling border cowtown that were as large or as elaborate as Miss Isabelles three-storey brick Mansard mansion with its tall center tower and grouped double and triple windows. Keeping alert for the return of the two bullies, he made his way down the alley and out to the street, looking past the false fronts on either side for the tapered truncated-pyramid outline of the mansions tower. There! Was that it? He would need to find an opening between the buildings, ideally a cross-street, before he could get a better look at it. It hardly seemed possible that it should still be so close after the chase hed led his pursuers, but then hed circled and doubled back so many times that he wasnt entirely sure of his directions himself any more; all he was certain of was that the house was on the east edge of the town, which meant he would need to put his back to the sun in order to find it. Keeping his eye fixed on the roof that interested him, he jogged quickly along the street--and ran into something solid and immoveable.
"Whoa, there, son, hadnt you better watch where youre goin?" a cheerful voice inquired from somewhere above his head. He looked up--and up, and up--into a grinning face bisected by a black mustache beneath the broad brim of a cowboy hat. This was the tallest man he had ever seen.
"Im terribly sorry, sir," he offered. "I thought I saw the roof of my house."
" Smatter, you lost?" Before he could say yes, no, or maybe--or even decide what the best option would be--the big man had bent down and scooped him up off the ground. That was definitely an improvement, since it gave him a boost of at least three feet, but it also brought him nose-to-metal with the silver-plated brass five-pointed star pinned to the mans flashy red vest, revealed as the movement swept his long canvas jacket aside. DEPUTY MARSHAL, EL PASO, TEX., it read. "You know where you live?"
The boy hesitated, his mothers many cautions regarding the minions of law and order echoing in his memory. If he said yes, the deputy would ask for further information and probably insist upon escorting him back. If he said no, he might be assumed to be homeless or otherwise worthy of closer scrutiny by the marshals office--or even by the courts. Choosing the lesser of the two evils, he said quietly, "Yes, sir. On--on Porter Road."
The mans eyebrows went up. "Well, shoot, youre a long ways from home, aint you? Wheres your folks at? They know youre runnin around loose?"
"Mother has probably discovered my absence by now," the boy admitted. "But she knows I will find my way back in due time."
Buck Wilmington tilted his head, regarding the serious little face with interest. Dont sound like he reckons shell be too upset about him bein gone, he thought. Reckon maybe its somethin hes done before and shes used to it, like Ma used to be with me. Still-- He gave the child a closer once-over. Small and slight, a bit pale, but there was color, however delicate, in his cheeks and his weight felt solid in Bucks arms. A well-fed child, healthy, but not inclined to spend a lot of time outdoors, the deputy decided. His clothes confirmed that estimate: not the full pleated pantaloons, shirtsleeves and broad-brimmed hat that most Anglo town boys wore, but a stylish belted jacket in a light brown melton cloth that barely reached his hipbone, bound with quilted satin all around the neck, hem, and front closure, fastened by satin tabs stretched between pairs of buttons, and a pair of knickers to match running into tall gaiters that covered the instep of his shoes. And a neat little Scotch bonnet, creased fore and aft and finished off with two trailing swallowtailed ribbons at the back. Good-quality clothes, probably expensive--Buck would bet eight dollars or more just for the suit--and in good repair, and the boy spoke as if hed been schooled, better than El Pasos public system could afford; a home tutor, or even a boarding school back East somewhere. Comes from some professional family, maybe? Papas a banker or a lawyer or somethin? Sure looks it. The childs chestnut hair was neat and well slicked back, and he watched Buck gravely with intelligent emerald-green eyes. He wasnt much bigger than Adam had been, the last time Buck had seen him. The deputy bit down hard on the swell of grief that threatened once again to overwhelm him, as it did every time something reminded him of his lost "nephew." There wasnt but one man on the face of the Earth who missed Adam more than he did...supposing Chris was even still alive now.
"Well," he said, pulling himself back to the present and his duties as a deputy with a mental jerk, "I reckon I can get you back a lot quicker than you could do by yourself. Want a ride? My horse is right over there."
"Thank you, sir."
"Name aint sir," Buck rebuked gently, turning toward his waiting gray. "Its Buck Wilmington."
"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington...Deputy Wilmington," the boy amended.
Buck had been wearing a badge here for over two months, and was familiar with the town and its outskirts. Porter Road led out to the military reservation at Fort Bliss, and whether because of the proximity of the Army--most of whose officers came from good families--or because it was about as far from the Mexican border (to say nothing of the notoriously quirky Rio Grande, which had a tendency to change its course at will, slicing off large chunks of Texas and transferring them to Mexican jurisdiction) as you could get and still live within a reasonable distance of the center of El Paso, it had gradually assumed the role of "rich mens street," the home of professional men, retired ranchers, successful merchants, and the like. Of course, that was farther out. Close in, just beyond the edge of the business district, was where some of the classiest bordellos and gambling halls in town were located. Buck imagined it irked the respectable ladies no end to have to drive right by them whenever they went into town in their carriages, but it was either drive by them or go a long distance out of the way--and, after all, most of those places were pretty quiet at the time of day when a respectable lady was likely to be out and about: they didnt start to gear up till after seven or eight oclock, when men, having finished their days work and eaten their supper, ventured out again in search of diversion.
He lifted the little boy onto the grays back, settling him astride the pommel, and mounted behind him, holding him within the loose circle of his arms so he wouldnt fall off--though the child seemed quite at home with the horses gait and not at all troubled by the height. "So," he said, "I told you my name, you gonna tell me yours?"
"E--Edward Sands," the boy responded.
The surname didnt ring any bells in Bucks mind, but El Paso was, after all, a good bit bigger than most towns hed visited in his wanderings, and a man in his position didnt have much occasion to socialize with the upper crust. "What fetched you so far from home, Ed?" he pursued.
"I was explorin," was the meager reply.
"Done that myself a time or two when I was your age," Buck told him. "What is your age?"
Buck smothered his chuckle. Hed bet "almost" was quite a few months away. Adam had begun saying he was "almost" six when he was barely past his fifth birthday. Nine. Adam would have been nine next year, if hed lived.
Platas easy long-legged trot took them out along the northeastward course of Texas Street, which was one of the two major thoroughfares of the town, and onto Alameda Street, which ran east-west and, because it was within easy walking distance of the business district, was a district of small cottages--gabled Victorians in frame, adobes trimmed with gingerbread millwork--inhabited by store clerks, bank tellers, and other low-echelon wage-earners who couldnt afford to commute by horseback or private carriage. The boy had come a long way, Buck reflected: from the point of their encounter to the junction of Porter Road with the County Road was a good three miles, and close to another before you hit Montana Street, which was where true "respectability" began. Around the County Road junction the resort district began. Reaching the intersection of Porter, Buck reined his mount to the north, noticing the high central tower of Miss Isabelles bordello three or four blocks ahead--the tallest building in the district, and one of the tallest in El Paso. He smiled to himself. Miss Isabelle had started out in Miz Abigails house in Kansas City, where Buck had done most of his growing up; she was only a couple of years older than himself. In a high-priced house like Miz Abigails it wasnt hard for a girl to put money by if she wanted to--and most did want to, either to send their children off to school or to establish themselves independently, perhaps in the pleasure line, perhaps in something more respectable--and Buck had been delighted, if not exactly surprised, to discover that Isabelle now ran the thrivingest, fanciest whorehouse between Mesilla and Laredo. The two of them had spent a whole evening catching up not long after hed first taken a job with the law here.
Little Edward Sands had been so relaxed and compliant within the circle of Bucks arms that the last thing he was expecting was to have a set of strong small teeth sink into the wrist of his rein hand. Reflexively he yanked the limb back with a yelp, and the boy squirmed off the pommel and dropped to the ground, rolling as he hit and coming to his feet. Plata had squatted back on her heels, half rearing, as the unexpected sharp movement of her masters arm put pressure on her bit and pulled her head around. Edward scurried out of the way as she swung in a circle, hooves flurrying. Buck was so occupied with trying to keep his seat and get the mare under control that he barely registered a flash of brown against the yellowish dust of the road, the flirt of navy-blue ribbons flying out from the rim of the bonnet behind, the patter of fast-moving shoes. By the time he had Plata settled, the child had disappeared.
Buck swore quietly to himself in bewilderment. "Now what the hell you reckon brought that on, Plata-horse?" he wondered aloud. He hesitated a moment, the reins lifted in his hand, considering the wisdom of seeking the child out. But Edward had said he lived on this road, and his clothes certainly seemed to confirm that possibility, so he was near enough to home, probably, to get the rest of the way on his own. Maybe hed been afraid that riding up to his front door with a deputy, or more accurately in the custody of one, would get him in more trouble than he already was. Having been a boy once himself--and a willing co-conspirator in much of Adams mischief besides, if not indeed often the instigator of it--Buck could understand that fear. He studied the site of the bite; it didnt look like the kids teeth had even broken the skin, hed been more startled than hurt. His boss might call it assault on the person of an officer of the law, or interference with a deputy in the performance of his duty, but Buck didnt think Edward was a major desperado. He kind of admired the kids grit, not to mention his quickness of wit and movement. "Hell be all right," he decided. "Best be gettin back, townll start heatin up once its dark and we aint had our suppers yet."
It was two nights later that a shooting affray erupted in Miss Isabelles parlor. Buck was the first of the deputies to get there, and found a dead man on the velvet carpet, a live one standing over him with a recently-fired Colt .41 revolver in his hand, and a hysterical girl in the corner being comforted by several of her cohorts. Miss Isabelle and two or three of the other women explained that the dead man had attacked the girl, the other had hurried to her rescue, and the first had then threatened the second with a pistol, forcing him to shoot in self-defense. Buck did indeed find that the corpse was clutching an unfired Smith & Wesson .32, and had moreover been shot in the front, which meant that according to common Western custom the incident would be branded, not "murder," but "a killing." He sent the house stablehand to fetch the undertaker, had the girls friends take her upstairs with smelling salts and brandy, and exacted Miss Isabelles promise that shed be taken off duty for the night. "Youll likely all have to appear in court," he said-- "at the inquest anyhow. But I dont reckon therell be any trouble over it." Experience as boy and man alike told the deputy that whenever a murder, suicide, or "mysterious death" occurred in precincts frequented by prostitutes, the authorities generally chose to ignore the fact that they were technically habitual lawbreakers and their residences were illegal establishments. The courts readily accepted their sworn statements as being just as valuable as anyone elses in establishing circumstances of death and arriving at a legal judgment on culpability. With Bucks own testimony regarding what he had found to support theirs--or even without it--the credibility of Miss Isabelle and her girls was unlikely to be challenged.
After things had quieted down some, Buck was standing in the front hall settling a few last details with Miss Isabelle and the bouncer when he felt eyes on his back and turned to see who was there. Directly over his head, a pair of startling emerald-green eyes in a small pale face peered down through the railings of the front stair. Well, what the hell! Buck thought in astonishment. "Ed?!"
The little face ducked back out of sight, as if the boy was well aware that he shouldnt be up at this hour, let alone eavesdropping on adult affairs. "Miss Isabelle, whos that kid?" Buck demanded. "Whats he doin here?"
"He lives here," the madam replied, "just like any child whose mother works in the house."
"Ill be damned," Buck muttered. "Ida sworn he was out of one of the rich families places further out."
"Youve met him?" Isabelle asked curiously.
"Gave him a ride most the way home just the other day," Buck told her. "He was way down in the center of town about as lost as a dogie calf, and it was gettin late." He chose not to mention the bite.
"Ill have to tell Melinda--thats his mother," Isabelle observed. "She might want to thank you. The boys all she has."
Buck shrugged. "No need. Comes with the badge."
But it kept eating at him that the kid just didnt look as if he belonged in a bordello, even a high-class one like this. So he began making quiet inquiries. Melinda Sands, it turned out, had joined Miss Isabelles staff about two weeks earlier; exactly where she had come from no one was certain (and, being Westerners, they were too polite to ask), though it was pretty obvious that, like her son, she was of Southern origin. She didnt entertain the clients herself, but served as downstairs hostess, kept the books, and supervised the purchase of whatever the house needed, much as Bucks own mother had done in Kansas City, thereby freeing the madam to give her entire attention to executive concerns--hiring and firing, dealing with the authorities, resolving disputes, and so on.
Not until Miss Isabelle sent him a note care of the marshals office did he realize that word of his interest had filtered back to Melinda and that she had responded by initiating some inquiries of her own. Now she wanted to meet him. Never one to refuse a lady her slightest wish, Buck cleaned himself up a bit and presented himself at Miss Isabelles front door at the appointed hour of two P.M., when customers were nonexistent and most of the girls were either upstairs getting dressed or downtown seeing to their errands. A Mexican maid showed him to the madams office at the back of the house, where Miss Isabelle introduced him to her hostess and then left them alone. The maid provided coffee, thick slices of fresh brown-crusted bread, homemade butter, quince honey, cherry preserves, pink crabapple jelly, and a loaf cake with white frosting sprinkled over with coconut.
Melinda Sands was still a young woman--Buck guessed her age at under thirty--with meticulously dressed blonde hair (not brassy-blonde either, but almost creamy in hue) and the same intelligent green eyes as her son. Buck wasnt sure hed have described her as beautiful, but she had a presence about her, the air of a lady--and yet he sensed long experience behind those eyes; when youd worn a badge long enough you developed a feel for such things. As befitted a hostess, she was dressed not in the kind of tight, gaudy, sequined ankle-length gown, slit to the knee on one side and deeply décolletaged, that the working ladies would don in the evening, but simply, modestly, and conventionally, in the "princess" style currently fashionable--closely fitted over the hips to show their true line, skirt dropping straight to a deep pleated flaring ruffle all around the hem, and set off from it by a draped band of plaid silk tied in a bow on one side. A modest standup lace collar and placket frill and little white pleated cuffs provided finish. Her hair was trimmed with violets and white lace (the flowers picked up one of the colors in the plaid, which in turn contrasted nicely with the coral of the hem ruffle and the apricot hue of the dress body). Little green turquoise pendants hung from her ears, and she wore an oval ivory locket on which was painted a golden-haired Madonna with a rosy Child folded in her blue mantle.
"Thank you, Deputy Wilmington, for respondin so promptly to my message," she said. "Please make yourself comfortable. How do you take your coffee?"
"Just black, thank you, maam."
The woman poured for both of them, buttered a slice of bread and proffered his choice of sweet spreads; Buck chose the crabapple jelly. "Bein an officer of the law," she began, "you are doubtless a busy man, so I will come directly to the point. I am informed that you have been inquirin as to my antecedents and role in the house. Might I ask why?"
"It aint anything official, maam, if thats what youre worried about," Buck assured her. "I got no reason to think youve done anything the law d take an interest in. Just happens I met your little boy a while back, lost downtown. Didnt know he was livin here till I spotted him lookin through the stair rail the night that feller Dodson got shot in the parlor. What I saw of him, he just didnt look like most kids you find in houses like this one. I took him for a lawyers or bankers boy. Thats why I got to askin."
"Isabelle informs me that you were yourself reared in a brothel," Melinda observed, "so I dare say you can speak from experience. Indeed, I recognize that my sons appearance is at odds with his current place of residence, but I have tried to bring him up as a gentleman." Buck thought again of the bite and held his tongue: he doubted that biting officers of the law was something gentlemen were supposed to do. "Isabelle speaks highly of you, Mr. Wilmington--your character in general, your honesty, your loyalty, your courage and dedication in protecting those dependent upon you. And you enjoy a sterling reputation in El Paso itself. It is fortunate that you have some familiarity with my boy, since I find myself in a dilemma regardin him. You will have noticed that he is an attractive child. I find that certain of the patrons here have been eyein him inappropriately, and there have been a few minor altercations--settled by our bouncer, which is why your office was not called upon with regard to them--over him. I do not wish to leave my position; the remuneration is better than any conventional employment I might obtain in this city. Neither can I move out of the house and take lodgings for myself and Edward elsewhere, as that would require me to abandon him to his own devices all day; at least while we are livin here, he can be looked after by the staff, provided he does not wander off, as apparently he did on the day you encountered him. I understand that you are quite well compensated for your efforts at maintainin law and order--one hundred dollars per month and three per arrest, is it not? Bein unattached, as I am informed you are, you doubtless have much of it to spare at the end of the month, and I would of course provide you with an appropriate percentage of my own earnings for Edwards maintenance."
She met his bewildered gaze forthrightly. "I am requestin, Mr. Wilmington, that you accept custody of my son. Temporarily, of course. Only until I can accumulate through my labors here a stake sufficient to return us to my family back East. It would do him so much good, at his age, to be closely associated with a male figure for a time. His father is gone, and the men who work here, while decent enough, must sleep most of the day, when he is most likely to be in need of their supervision and example, and concentrate upon their work in the evenin."
Buck wasnt sure what to say. This was absolutely the last thing he had been expecting. "Maam, I know youre doin me an honor, trustin me enough to ask me to do this, but I aint exactly in a position to be lookin after a little boy. I live in a boardin house--"
"All to the good," Melinda interrupted. "That means there is a landlady on the premises, and perhaps household help as well. They can provide supervision for Edward while you are occupied with your official duties, and then you can be with him during your free time. I admit that when he is bored he has some inclination to vanish in search of stimulation, as you will have observed, but he is not a disruptive child. Given sufficient reading matter and a quiet place where he can amuse himself, he will cause no trouble."
"Hes got mighty pretty manners, maam, I noticed that," Buck admitted. "But I just...maam, Ill be straight with you, I aint plumb sure I could handle it."
She considered this, eyeing him thoughtfully. "There was another little boy, perhaps?" she ventured.
Buck lowered his head. "Yes, maam."
"No, maam. My partners. Adam Larabee, his name was." Buck reached into his inner vest pocket for the little daguerrotype case that never left his possession. On one side was the last picture that had ever been taken of his mother; on the other, a family portrait of himself and the Larabees, taken to celebrate Adams fifth birthday. "Him and his mamma...they died in a house fire. Two years ago."
"Allow me to offer my condolences," the woman said. "Clearly I ought to have looked more closely into your past before requestin this favor of you. I see that it would be cruel for me to expect you to assume the care of a child who must remind you powerfully of the one you lost."
"He dont exactly, maam. They dont look or talk alike, and Lord knows they dont dress alike! But he is about as old as Adam would be." He folded the case shut and returned it to his pocket. "What will you do about the boy if I dont take him on?"
She sighed. "A community of the size of this one must support several facilities for the care of orphans. At least there he will be protected from sexual exploitation. I shall simply be forced to surrender him to the care of one."
Being an officer of the court, and having worn a badge in more than one jurisdiction over the last twenty years, Buck had some familiarity with the practise. Not all children who lived in orphanages--or, in the case of many boys aged ten to sixteen, in the so-called "industrial schools" maintained by the various counties--were in fact without parents. When people decided they couldnt manage their children, they had them arrested, or more often put them in a school, the latter actually being thought of as doing them a favor, because they would "learn to be good" there. Edward was too young yet to be shunted off to one, but the orphanages werent a lot better: they tended to be chronically underfunded even if the directors were decent, well-meaning people--and all too many werent. And if anything happened to Melinda once the boy was in official custody, hed probably end up staying there until he was grown, unless she left some sort of instructions regarding whom to contact. Admittedly Buck didnt know the boy very well, but given his upbringing and work experience he had developed a certain insight into human character, and he had a very strong feeling that to put Edward Sands into an institution--any institution--would be almost the same as putting a gun to his head. He was smart, well-mannered, well-dressed, and small for his age--just the kind of child who would attract every bully for half a mile in any direction--and he was clearly unused or unsuited to doing farm work or household chores to earn his keep. What if itd been Chris and Sarah that had died, and Adam thatd been left alone? Buck found himself wondering. Would I have wanted to see him go to some orphans home? Even if the ranch wasnt there to support us any more?
That aint the same thing. He was near as much mine as he was theirs. "Uncle Buck," he called me, from the first he started to talk. We were family.
But, hell, Miz Abigail always used to say all of us in the house were family, even though most of us werent related. Family aint about blood, shed say. Its about caring.
Buck knew about men who liked boys; you couldnt grow up in a bordello and not learn a lot about the secret seamy side of Victorian life. Most such men didnt patronize brothels because, even if they were married for appearances sake, they werent really interested in women, but there were some who went double-gaited, and those might very well find a boy like Edward to their liking. The bouncer in a good house was there as much to protect the housekeeping staff and the children of the working girls as he was the girls themselves. But Edward had already proved at least once that he wasnt easily confined. It wouldnt be difficult for one of his "admirers" to keep a lookout for him, or hire it done, and have him quietly snatched off the street. By the time he was found, if he was, the damage would have been done. As a deputy, it was Bucks duty to prevent such exploitative behavior, just as it was his duty to go around trying doors when he had night shift and make sure some storekeeper hadnt carelessly left his premises unlocked and vulnerable to thievery. And he knew from experience that he got along well with small boys. He had loved Adam dearly, and Adam had loved him. Sarah and Chris had never expressed any qualms about leaving their son in the care of his adopted uncle, once even for close to two weeks when they took a second honeymoon to Denver. God knew he had money enough, even without anything Melinda might contribute: hed never been prone to throw it around, except on dinners and pretties and the like for the women he courted--he never had to pay for their company and he took a lot of pride in that, but good manners dictated that he compensate them (and the children some of them came equipped with) in some fashion.
"No, maam," he said firmly, "you wont. Ill take him."
Her face lit up. "Will you, Mr. Wilmington? Oh, thank you! I shall never be able to repay your kindness. You have no idea what this means to me."
Buck sighed. "I reckon its time I started livin again," he mused. "I told Chris often enough, after, that Sarah and Adam wouldnt want him to lock his heart in a box and forget all the good theyd done him. Reckon I ought to practise what I preach. When do you want me to pick him up? Id like to go talk to my landlady and see if I can get us a bigger room--"
"Of course, I understand completely. I shall have to explain the change in circumstances to him in any case, and see that his trunk is packed. Shall we say tomorrow at this same time?"
"Ill be here, maam," Buck promised.
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