by Sevenstars


Jarrod Addison had been brought to Broken Bow as a boy of twelve, when his parents moved out from Texas, as many of the earliest settlers had done, to intermingle with the incoming stream of Northerners and Midwesterners who made their way along the Old Santa Fe Trail. The Addisons had established a little two-by-twice "stock farm" that had gone under in the Panic of ’57, casting young Jarrod out, at sixteen, to provide for himself. Already talented with a handgun, he had passed an apprenticeship in the pre-War buffalo-robe trade, then gone on to a decade or so of town-taming, serving as marshal of a succession of notorious towns. In such communities--mining camps and cowtowns alike--it was generally accepted policy to choose for that office some conspicuous killer, on the theory that desperadoes would either respect his prowess and present a low profile, or, if not, get the worst of the encounter. Like most such peacekeepers, Addison was large, well-dressed, impressive in appearance, and coldblooded, with little regard for human life--except his own. He chose his victims and opportunities with great care so he could earn or add to his reputation with little personal risk. Sometimes he did a little secret extracurricular work, forcing a gunfight with a sub rosa employer’s enemy or bushwhacking him. At thirty, an age by which most gunfighters were either dead or thinking seriously of retirement, he returned to Broken Bow and got himself elected sheriff of Rincon County. His official salary was ninety dollars a month--about the average, and good money too, in a day when a man earning six to ten a week could support a large family quite adequately--and in addition, owing to his natural familiarity with the country, he doubled as a troubleshooter for the Rincon Cattlemen’s Association at four hundred a year in four installments, which wasn’t a full-time job, more of an on-demand situation, involving dropping whatever he was doing and going to the aid of any Association member who called on him. But in Rincon County, as in most other Western localities, there was a sort of unspoken consensus that officials of the law--judges, marshals, sheriffs--deserved anything they could get in return for the unsavory job of dealing with the criminal element, and the easiest way to get it was by way of kickbacks--"side-money," it was called--from the bordellos, free-lance prostitutes, and other county vice rackets, as well as the theaters, which to many of the more strait-laced citizens weren’t much better. License fees and table charges, collected monthly, were one of the simplest responsibilities for a frontier lawman to assume, with saloons paying an average ten dollars a week and gambling operations $17.50, the money being handed not to Addison himself, but to an intermediary, a gambler who promised "protection" in return. Double taxation was also common, since a sheriff was sometimes the county tax assessor, collector, or both as well, permitted to keep ten per cent of monies collected: one fee was recorded for the public account book and the other quietly went into Addison’s pocket. The "decent folks" winked at it as long as he stayed discreet and they could remain undisturbed by the sordid realities around them. With the occasional bounty for the wanted men he brought in (mostly dead, since that was easier), he could do very well.

Addison, however, had never forgotten the humiliation of seeing his family turned off their land, and was convinced that the whole county had laughed at them for it. He was determined to make enough money off his job to join the ranks of the powerful, ideally by paying full cash down for land and a herd and entering the cattle trade at the top, or near it. There proved to be many other ways to make a dollar out of his office, and over the last seven years he had discovered most of them. One of the simplest involved the transients who passed through: stage passengers, drifting cowhands, and the like. It was very easy to arrest a man for vagrancy or some other trumped-up charge, then assess a fine that left him basically destitute and run him out of town, or "persuade" him to sign over his horse or some other property in return for his liberty. Addison was always very careful in the choice of his victims, and since they were strangers, with no local ties, his constituents saw no reason to be troubled by it; indeed, for the most part they weren’t even aware of it.

When Alfred Whittington assumed the directorship of the county orphanage five years ago, Addison had seen yet another golden opportunity. Like all lawmen, he had of necessity developed a keen insight into human character, and he recognized Whittington for what he was very quickly--basically a bully, but not of the open and forthright kind; he preferred to concentrate on society’s most helpless, the children with no families to care what became of them. As was true in most rural districts, people would readily assume the care of any child related to them--grandchildren, nieces, nephews--as a matter of blood obligation, but there were always some who had no relatives to take them in, and it was these who ended up in the Home; many were the offspring of venal saloon girls, free-lance whores, or outcast Indian women, who had no madams or tribespeople to take the children in when their mothers died--if, indeed, the mothers didn’t simply give them up, as some did--and others came of local "good" girls whose kin were eager to avoid the stigma of "shame" and for whatever reason hadn’t been able to marry off the erring daughter in time. Once these unfortunates were securely in county custody, Whittington was able to tyrannize them and earn money from their labors without anyone questioning him, as long as he didn’t let his charges show open injuries often enough to arouse the suspicions of the local medical community and the few soft-hearted citizens, like preachers. The proceeds weren’t very large, but after a time Addison was able to originate a new wrinkle. On occasion a child would come through on the stage, perhaps going to join parents who had gone West earlier, perhaps being sent to a new home after losing his own. These young travellers were theoretically supposed to be in the charge of the driver, but Addison had managed to persuade the County Commissioners to pass a local law empowering him to remove them from the latter’s custody for what he deemed "good and sufficient cause." Once this was done, and the child was temporarily placed in the orphanage where Whittington could benefit from its labor, it wasn’t difficult to extort money from the family by claiming their young had been kidnapped, or had fallen ill or been injured and required medical care. The little pawns were easily intimidated into keeping silence about what had really happened, and up to now there had never been any repercussions from the racket. Addison had to share the proceeds with Whittington, but Whittington, like most bullies, was basically a coward, and had been persuaded to be content with twenty-five per cent.

When young Ezra Standish stepped off the stage to eat a meal while the horses were changed, Addison saw dollar signs. The boy was so neat and spruce in his striped long trousers, white broadcloth vest, and pale gray coat, with his red necktie and speckled straw hat (an item never seen on any Western boy who wanted to retain his self-respect) and even a ring on his little finger, that it was obvious he was both a stranger to the frontier and came from money--and the precise, educated way he spoke to the waitress at the hotel dining room only reinforced the impression. Addison had figured he’d be worth at least five hundred dollars to whoever he belonged to--and if they chose not to pay, he could be bound over to the orphanage until he was sixteen.

And now he was gone. And Addison was furious.

Fortunately, he had a good idea of where the boy would be going. He had, after all, seen young Standish’s ticket: it was paid through to Four Corners. Addison had been planning to head up that way in any case, to make contact with whoever the boy was supposed to be meeting; this only meant he’d have to make the trip a little earlier than he’d intended. As for the other one who’d disappeared along with Standish, the sheriff didn’t care about him one way or another: one whore’s byblow more or less wasn’t a major cause for concern--there would always be more of them. Though that one had been big and strong for his age and could have been a nice little gold mine for a few years.

Still, it was Standish who mattered most. Once he’d sent out the telegrams about Whittington’s stolen horse, Addison sent down to the stable to have his own saddled, and gathered up the trail gear he always kept at the jail in case of sudden alarms. He wouldn’t trouble himself with trying to track the fugitives, who were, after all, both young and green, and would be lucky to even make the journey alive, supposing Standish even knew where he was supposed to be headed; he’d just swing around the west end of the buttes (that was the shorter route) and beat them to Four Corners. If they didn’t show, well, Whittington still had Standish’s clothing; it might be possible to trick the family into paying ransom for their boy even if he was already dead. Five hundred dollars--or maybe more, depending on what his impressions of the family turned out to be--was too nice and round a figure to give up without working for it.

Tuesday night/Wednesday morning

The mare was a good horse, with the short back, stout loins, flat croup, and excellent legs that enabled the bearing of a heavy rider; her long neck, high withers, flexible pasterns, and extremely sloping shoulders gave her grace of motion, high action, a long stride and an elastic gait. Despite her impressive height, she must have had some mustang blood in her ancestry, for she proved to possess a natural singlefoot, an easy, deceptively slow-moving gait with four distinct beats that could take her along a clean, level trail at a good fourteen miles to the hour and be maintained for long periods without fatigue, while offering extreme comfort to her riders, saddleless though they were. Ezra wasn’t familiar with the maze of trails that led through the buttes behind Broken Bow, but he knew how to check his directions by the stars, and he knew there had to be ways that would bring them out onto the dry northern plain, for the cattlemen who had their establishments there routinely drove at least some of their stock in the other direction rather than swinging the long way around the Grenadiers. He let the mare choose her own way, aware that horses saw much better at night than humans did, and concentrated on what he would need to look for, and do, when it came time to stop and rest.

"How come we’re goin’ to Four Corners, Ez?" Buck asked from behind him.

"Mr. Wilmington," said Ezra in irritation, "I neither planned for nor requested your company, and in return for my magnanimity I think the very least you owe me is the courtesy of addressin’ me by my full and correct name. It isn’t difficult to remember or to say. Ez-ra. Two short syllables. Please use it."

He could feel the younger boy shrink back from close bodily contact in reaction to the sharpness of his tone, and knew an instant’s regret, but quelled it immediately. He’d spoken no more than the truth, after all: Buck was a responsibility he hadn’t sought and didn’t really want, and would only serve to consume their meager supplies all the more quickly. And he, Ezra Standish, was the older of the two, the better educated, the natural leader. The sooner Buck learned to accept his subordinate status, the better they’d get along.

"Sorry, Ezra," Buck mumbled. "I’ll try and remember."

"See that you do," said Ezra. "As for the answer to your question, we are goin’ there because that is where I was to join my mother."

"You got a mother, Ez--I mean Ezra?"

"Indeed." Not that I have passed a great deal of time in her company these last seven years or so, he added mentally, but that is beside the point. She is, indubitably, an adult and my blood kin; once I am with her, Sheriff Addison will have no excuse to exercise his powers under that somewhat ridiculous local ordinance he invoked as a means of gainin’ custody of me. "Unaccompanied minor," indeed! I can hardly have been the first, nor yet the youngest, child placed in the care of the stagecoach company’s employees, for whatever reason. Whatever can the county lawmakers have been thinkin’ when they enacted such a measure? Surely frontier children have accomplished even more notable journeys without any adult supervision whatsoever. Quite apart from that, if I recall the lessons of history, slavery is illegal and a war was fought over the issue of impressment.

"I used to have one," Buck confided in a subdued voice. "She died. That’s why I have to find Miz Abigail. Ma said if she died I’d go to live with Miz Abigail, and if Miz Abigail died I’d live with Miss Olivia, and--well, I don’t know where I was supposed to live if Miss Olivia died. I think about it and it scares me."

"And this Miz Abigail is to be found where?" Ezra prompted--not because he was really interested, but because he wanted to have some idea of just what he’d put himself in for.

"Her house is in Kansas City. That’s where I was born, Ma said." Buck sighed. "I wish we hadn’t of left. I liked it in Miz Abigail’s house. It was all full of color and laughter and nice smells and pretty ladies, and they all loved me ’most as much as Ma did. And Bella--she was the cook--she made the bestest food. Ma had the nicest bed...sometimes she’d let me play on it afternoons while she was in town. It had red velvet drapes and a coverlet that was all slickery and smooth to touch and so soft..."

Oh, Lord, thought Ezra, I do believe he’s describin’ a bordello. Well, it explains a good deal. Buck wasn’t a troublemaker or a bully; from what Ezra had seen of him he was the kind of child who was always eager to please, to be thought of as "good," to do what the grownups told him. He was, as children that age usually are, a reasoning and responsible being and reacted well to directions--as long as he had heard what was said to him, though sometimes he didn’t because he’d been daydreaming, and he also forgot readily and needed to be reminded. He seemed to feel sorry for younger children who "spoiled" things by "being bad." Yet Whittington had seemed, from Ezra’s observations, to have it in for him. He always seemed to get the dirtiest, toughest jobs possible for a boy his age, and the least error or failure was met with a caning. Buck never protested, but sometimes at night Ezra had heard him crying softly in his bed. Ezra himself had no particular objection to bordellos, though he wasn’t entirely clear about what went on in them; chiefly he knew that the people who decried them were often the same ones who held low opinions of saloons and gambling, two factors that tended to loom large in his mother’s life. If anything, he actually found himself feeling just a bit more sympathetic toward Buck on account of where he had apparently spent his life heretofore.

"If Kansas City was your home," the older boy said, interrupting Buck’s evocation of past scenes, "how did you happen to be in Broken Bow? Kansas City must be close to eight hundred miles from here."

"Ma said it was time we went on and made a place of our own," Buck explained. "She said we were goin’ to the Arizona Territory, to a place called Tombstone. She said there was so much silver there the Mint should build a branch. Only..." he hesitated, his voice catching-- "only she got sick and we had to stop and let the stagecoach go on without us. Dr. Burnell said she had an--an in-flam-mation of the bowel and he couldn’t make her better, and she died."

"And she had made arrangements for you to return to Kansas City in such an eventuality?" Ezra prompted. He had heard of Tombstone, even in the Valley of Virginia, where he’d spent eight of the last ten months: last year a prospector named Edward Schieffelin had discovered rich outcroppings of silver some seventy miles southeast of Tucson, and with a brother and a friend named Gird had founded the Tombstone Mining District, so called as a sendup of the people who had warned him he would "find nothing in that country but his tombstone." Within a short time Eastern money had begun pouring in to develop the mines. One of Ezra’s many cousins had been a secret devotee of dime novels and had shared with Ezra some of the things that had been written about such boom towns; the older boy could clearly see why the type would be attractive to anyone whose livelihood involved separating others from their money.

"She give me a letter that she said I had to show to anybody who asked me who was supposed to take care of me," Buck agreed. "She said there was a paper in it that was just as good as money and would be enough to pay my fare back to Kansas City." Ezra guessed this meant a bank draft, which was somewhat less vulnerable to thievery than cash was. "And she said there was a second letter in it too, that I had to keep pinned to my drawers till I saw Miz Abigail again. Only that man with the badge, he took it away and put me in the Home and said I had to stay there and do what I was told. I ast him when I’d be goin’ back to be with Miz Abigail, and he said I wasn’t ’cause she didn’t want me. But that can’t be true, ’cause Ma said she would, and Ma never lied to me, ever."

I wish I might say the same of my own, thought Ezra with a brief wistfulness, and then shoved the thought away. His mother had at least taught him skills that would make it possible for him to survive on his own, as Buck’s hadn’t--although that might have been in part because Buck was too young. No, that couldn’t be right. Ezra himself had been learning card skill and conning when he was no older than Buck was now. Maybe gambling and conning were different from whatever it was people did in bordellos. Yes, that would explain it. It would have been nice if Buck were a bit older, a bit nearer his own age; maybe Buck could have helped him learn just what did go on there. But if Ezra at the exalted age of twelve didn’t know, how would a seven-year-old be expected to? He decided it was just one of those things he’d have to be patient about. Mother had always said that patience was a great virtue, especially in their profession. A con had to be permitted to run until it was ripe; a pigeon at the poker table had to be nursed along until he was ready to stake everything. If you pushed too hard too soon, you scared them off. Sometimes you got the law interested in you as well. That was definitely not desireable.

The buttes cast deep shadows that filled the canyons between them, making it difficult for the boys to see anything of their surroundings. Now and again a disturbed bird twittered from some crack in the high stone walls; once a dark slender snake slithered like a living ribbon across the mare’s path, its head raised as it hunted; once Ezra thought he caught a fleeting glimpse of a deer, larger-eared than the whitetails of Virginia but equally as graceful. Several times the boys heard the yipping of a fox, and once something high up on one of the buttes set up a shrill wailing howl--Ezra wasn’t sure, but he thought it was what some of the other children had called a coyote, apparently a kind of small wild dog.

They had made their escape about eleven o’clock. By one the moon had disappeared from view, and the canyons were darker than ever, but Whittington’s mare kept on moving easily, seeming not at all bothered by the lack of light or the lateness of the hour. Around four came the transient light of false dawn; by that time Buck had fallen asleep, leaning against Ezra’s back, with his cheek resting against the older boy’s shoulder. The heavy night air began to thin and shift, every hint of breeze died, and the air seemed to grow chillier. Not even the night birds were moving now, and the insect noises gave way to a fragile hush that tautened the earth, broken only by the regular muffled rhythm of the mare’s hoofbeats in the soft sandy ground. At four-thirty, just as gray dawn was beginning to light the sky, the canyon widened out, then fell away, and Ezra checked the mare and looked out over the dry plain that stretched as far to east and north as he could see, and west to the bony ridge of hills running down to merge with the buttes away off to his left. The first chirps of birds began to sound. The mare lowered her head, pulling a bit against the reins, and began to crop grass. A big-eared, round-tailed kit fox ghosted hurriedly across their path, making for its den. A blue-black bird with a crest like a jay’s flew by, spilling a run of flutelike song. A covey of small gray quail, each with a drooping black plume on its head, appeared out of a thicket of mesquite and took wing westward, angling toward the buttes as they went. Ezra knew that Eastern quail drank a lot; perhaps their Western cousins followed the same pattern, and if they did, following them might lead to the water boys and horse alike must have. We had better lay up for a few hours at least, and rest the horse, he thought. Now that we have attained open country, it will be simple to maintain a northward course by the stars; we can easily continue our pattern of travellin’ by night, which in such an arid terrain may be the easiest and safest thing to do--and in any case will cut down the odds of our bein’ seen. With a firm hand he tugged the reins until the mare’s head came up, and turned her to follow the moving blot of birds. "Come, good steed," he urged, "let us see if those clever avians can show us where to find drink."


The quail turned up a narrow canyon, where they were joined by a flight of turtle doves, crossing the outgoing path of two or three swallows with nest-building mud visible in their beaks. Glancing downward, Ezra observed lines of animal tracks bunched up and pointing in the same direction, some blurred with age, others fresh and sharp. A couple of miles up, the birds converged on a spot where the rock wall of the nearest mesa was faulted and some willows and cottonwoods, most no bigger around than whipstocks, and a clump of green--salt grass and mesquite--huddled close to the sheer face. A few gnarled, green-branched cedars also grew along the base of the formation, filling the air with a dry, sweet fragrance. Ezra checked the mare, scanning the scene with quick, restless eyes. Twenty or thirty feet past the greenery he spotted a dark blotch in the side of the mesa, six or eight feet up at the top of a shallow slope where part of the rock had crumbled--a cave? That would make an excellent place to den up; they would be able to get out of the sun.

A buff-colored bird about the size of a small crow, but with legs as long and strong as those of a grouse, an erectile crest and a foot-long tail, came darting toward them from the green patch, a small lizard writhing in its beak; sighting the mare, it flicked its tail to the left, turning that way in mid-stride, and took off a-wing, circling wide around the horse and her riders. Ezra remembered the stage driver telling him that you could always trust a lizard to find good water. If the bird had caught this lizard where the greenery was, which seemed the likeliest possibility, that meant the water supporting it was wholesome. Squeezing with his legs, he moved the bay forward. She lifted her head, nostrils working: there was water, she had smelled it. Buck stirred and lifted his head off the older boy’s shoulder. "Where are we?" he asked sleepily.

"I don’t know, exactly," Ezra admitted, "but I believe we are about to reach water. We’ll camp here and let the horse rest."

" ’M hungry," Buck declared.

So am I, Ezra agreed mentally, but he wasn’t about to say so aloud. All the children in the Home were always hungry, not so much because they weren’t fed--Whittington had enough intelligence to know that starving children couldn’t work--as because they were worked harder than their growing bodies could withstand. It wasn’t a sharp stabbing hunger, but a sort of constant dull ache, a sensation of being shorted. "We shall eat as soon as our valiant steed has had a drink," he promised. "We must take good care of her, Mr. Wilmington, or we shall certainly be left afoot."

Birds flew up in alarm as the mare approached the green patch. Sure enough, there was water: a silent, steady seep flowing out of the fault and collecting in a basin hidden among the rocks beneath it, almost completely concealed by the thorny gray branches and lacy foliage of the mesquites. Ezra felt a moment’s gratitude to the stage driver, who had taken a deep interest in him and let him sit up on the box and imparted to him various words of wisdom regarding this strange arid country. Mesquite, he had said, was a poor relation of Eastern honey locust, and needed permanent water for its roots, and it couldn’t take much alkali, whose bitter taint pervaded most desert waterholes. So if you dug near a mesquite, soon or late you were bound to find drinkable water that wouldn’t gripe in your stomach. But mesquite roots could sink thirty feet into the earth, while those of salt grass rarely went beyond ten, and the water table where it grew was often less than a yard below the surface. This suggested that the spring was indeed wholesome, as the presence of the roadrunner’s lizard breakfast had indicated, and that there was more water under the ground. Ezra located an outcropping of rock about fifteen inches high, drew the mare up alongside it, and helped Buck slide down, then followed him and tied the horse to the nearest mesquite. The boys drank and dunked their heads, then Ezra went back, untied the bay and led her to the water. Since she wasn’t hot, he knew he could let her drink as much as she wished.

"We shall need firewood," he said. "Mr. Wilmington, be so good as to break off some branches from these bushes while I see to our mount."

"Sure, Ez," Buck agreed cheerfully, bolstered by the prospect of food. The older boy sighed resignedly and returned his attention to the mare. When she seemed to have had her fill, he dragged the feed sacks off her withers, unstrapped the blanket from her back and laid it out damp side up to air and dry, and removed her bridle, leaving only the stable halter and line over which he had buckled it. He led her about fifteen feet from the water, where a tongue of salt grass reached out from the thicker patch close around the basin. He was about to tie her when she suddenly scissored her legs and lurched downward. Alarmed at first, he relaxed as he saw her begin to roll on a patch of dry sand, kicking her legs in the air. He had seen horses do this at Cousin Tom’s farm in the Valley. "Horses aren’t like cats and dogs, that can lift a hind leg up over their backs and scratch," the man had explained to him. "When their backs itch they have to roll--and saddles make them itch." The mare did so enthusiastically, three or four times, and then scrambled erect, shuddering her coat to shake the sand off. Ezra tethered her securely to the largest cottonwood he could find, so she could shelter in its shade if she wished, and went back to join Buck.

The mesquite had an unpleasantly gummy sap, but its very hard, dense wood, once started with one of Ezra’s precious matches, burned about like coal, creating a pungent smell but no more smoke than a good cigar or pipe. Ezra set some ham to frying in one of his two pans, emptied a can of mixed vegetables into the other, rinsed out the empty receptacle, and filled it with coffee beans, wrapped in his handkerchief and pounded with a rock, and water. He buried a couple of potatoes in the ashes to roast in their skins, as he and his cousins had sometimes done in Virginia, where he had learned what little woodcraft he possessed. He sliced off several thick slabs of bread and spread tinned butter on them, added a couple of slices of cheese to each, and handed Buck a portion to keep him quiet and occupied while the main part of the meal cooked. Before long both boys were feasting contentedly, though Buck made a face at the taste of the coffee and begged for milk. All Ezra had was the canned condensed kind, which was sweet, so he compromised by mixing it half-and-half in the beverage. Buck, fortunately, was old enough to have a good mastery of eating utensils; he handled them moderately well, though he found it difficult to get the vegetables onto his spoon without using his free fingers as a pusher. He used his handkerchief as a napkin, wiping his fingers and face inside the fold of it. He wasn’t especially enthusiastic about the vegetables, but ate them conscientiously, dispatching them first to get them out of the way, then going on to the ham and potato and bread. They had to share the cup, since there was only one, and eat off the same plate, but neither of them really cared: it was the best meal, or at least the most abundant, either one had had in two weeks or more. For dessert Ezra cut and sectioned an apple, then shared out some Malaga raisins and Zanta currants. Replete, the boys sat for a time and let their meal digest, then Ezra remembered his responsibilities. "Go and wash, Mr. Wilmington."

"Why?" Buck demanded. "I ain’t dirty."

"A gentleman always washes before retirin’," Ezra told him. "And physicians have shown that people who keep themselves clean are less likely to fall ill. If you should sicken, I would have no means of carin’ for you, and we dare not approach a doctor, not at least until we have joined my mother." But will she accept responsibility for him? he found himself wondering. She has left me in strange households enough, what possible obligation will she consider she has to a child entirely unrelated to her?

He shook the thought off. Buck for his part seemed to be remembering that it was illness that had taken his mother from him, and this was enough to persuade him that Ezra’s directive was to be followed. "And rinse your handkerchief," Ezra added, as the younger boy wandered off to the waterhole. "And watch out for snakes!"

He cleansed the plate, cup, and pans in dry sand, then went over to the spring and rinsed them, washed his face and hands and blotted them as dry as possible with his handkerchief. Buck, having obeyed the older boy’s directions, was sitting quietly on a stone watching the local bird life: another of those glossy crested blue-black ones picking its way through a cedar, feeding on the still-green berries; a stout, seven-inch woodpecker, with a barred back and red cap, drilling in the mesquite; a pair of noisy, quarrelsome shrikes, with black masks and white underbellies, popping in and out of the thorny branches--Ezra guessed, from his knowledge of the Eastern species, that their nest was hidden in there somewhere--and impaling small lizards and desert mice on the long thorns to be eaten later; a handsome small buff-colored hawk swooping down on tapered wings to seize a grasshopper. He turned sleepy but fascinated eyes on a heavy, ten-inch, club-footed tortoise that came laboring into view, paused, and began digging a hole in the sand. "Ezra," Buck called softly, "look at the turtle! What’s it doin’?"

"I dare say it is not an ‘it,’ but a ‘she,’ " Ezra replied, "and she is preparin’ to lay her eggs." He had seen turtles in Virginia do that, although they usually chose locations near running water.

Buck knew that chickens laid eggs, and that if you didn’t eat the eggs they eventually turned into baby chicks. "Will the eggs be little turtles after a while?" he asked.

"Yes, they will," Ezra agreed. This was enough to guarantee that Buck’s attention would be riveted on the process, and Ezra took advantage of this fact to explore the cave he had seen. It was really little more than a pocket, ten feet deep at most, but it seemed to be dry, and he found nothing to suggest that any wild animal had claimed it. He hadn’t dared to bring any regular blankets along with him--he’d had to leave his own draped over a wadded pillow, so that if anyone happened to look before morning they’d think he was still asleep in his bed--but he had been at the Home long enough to know that nights in this country could get sharply cold even in the summer, and in the barn he had found Whittington’s lap robe, a four-by-five-foot oblong with a heavy rubber face and a plain black plush lining. He laid it out on the cave floor, rubber side down, and fetched their supplies and the mare’s surcingle, saddle blanket, and bridle up from the campsite, storing them in the back of the cave where any curious animal was unlikely to penetrate, since doing so would involve passing the boys in their bed. He scooped sand over the fire, then stamped on it until he was sure it was out. He checked the mare’s tether to make certain it was secure; she had apparently grazed her fill and had retreated to the shade of the cottonwood. The tortoise, attentively watched by Buck, had excavated her nest to a depth that seemed to satisfy her, and positioned her posterior over the hole; nine leathery white eggs dropped slowly one by one from beneath her tail into the cavity she had created. As Ezra went to collect the younger boy and take him up to the cave, she hauled herself forward and began scraping sand over the eggs. This clearly bewildered Buck. "Why is she buryin’ her eggs, Ezra? Are they dead?"

"No, that is simply what turtles do," Ezra explained patiently. "Do you see how she has dug the hole where the sun will fall upon it? She will leave the eggs there, and the heat of the sun will incubate them. After a time the young turtles will hatch and dig their way out."

"You mean she don’t brood ’em, like a hen?"

"No, she goes her way and permits them to shift for themselves. Turtles, Mr. Wilmington, are what we call reptiles, and most reptiles do not unduly trouble their minds regardin’ their young." The similarity to his own mother didn’t escape him, but he resolutely quashed the ungrateful thought.

"I’m glad I ain’t a turtle," said Buck.

"If you were, you would never notice the lack," Ezra told him. "One cannot miss what one has never had. Come, it’s time we went to bed. Neither of us had a great deal of sleep last night."

Buck yawned. "Yeah, I’m sleepy."

"Have you, ah, been to the outhouse yet?"

The younger boy blinked. "There ain’t no outhouse here."

"Then go behind that boulder," Ezra directed. "We have only one blanket and I do not propose to permit you to make a mess of it."

Obediently Buck disappeared behind the specified rock, and an unmistakeable sound indicated that he was carrying out Ezra’s instructions. Ezra took his turn, fastidiously washed his hands again, and led the way up the slope to the cave. "We shall probably not need the coverin’, but we can lie on the blanket and be more comfortable than we would on the bare rock," he said.

" ’Kay," Buck agreed willingly. He peeled off his vest and rolled it up to make a pillow, then lay down and waited until Ezra did the same. "Ez?"

The older boy sighed. "What is it, Mr. Wilmington?"

"Will you tell me a story?"

Ezra was nonplussed. He knew that storytelling was hardly a feature of life in the Home and wondered how Buck had come to the decision that it should be indulged in here. Then he remembered that Buck’s mother must not have been dead more than a month; the boy’s memories of her were still clear, and they had apparently been close. Perhaps she had been accustomed to lull him to sleep with song and story. "I am not your mother, Mr. Wilmington."

"I know that. But I--" he hesitated, then shrugged without sitting up. "It’s just...bein’ out here all alone with just you..."

Of course, thought Ezra, he is searchin’ for somethin’ familiar to anchor to. It has been a crowded and stressful last twelve hours for him--and, bad as the orphanage was, he had at least had a month to grow accustomed to it. Now once again he is in a strange situation. The older boy considered the petition. Until he could find some means of getting Buck back to Kansas City and his Miz Abigail, neither had anyone to depend on but the other; the more they strove to preserve harmony and good feelings between them, the likelier they would be to complete this journey. And why in the name of anything sensible am I even contemplatin’ the possibility of returnin’ him to her? he wondered. Not that I doubt my ability to provide him with sufficient funds to make the trip, but still, he is no kin of mine.

And yet...I assumed the responsibility for him, however unwillingly, just as my various relations have done for me over the years. And havin’ assumed that responsibility, they have, I must grant, always seen adequately to my material needs. It was a question of honor. They did whatever proved necessary to ensure that I was properly cared for--fed and clothed me, provided a warm dry bed, saw to my schoolin’, summoned a doctor when I was unwell. The Home certainly will not do more than the minimum for him, but apparently he has good reason to think Miz Abigail will. Therefore honor requires that I return him to her bosom, just as it required my relatives, however begrudgingly, to supply my needs.

"Very well," he sighed. "Can you read, Mr. Wilmington?"

"Sure. Ma and Miss Olivia was teachin’ me."

"Do you know a book called Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles and Mary Lamb?"

"No," Buck admitted. "What’s it about?"

"It is a collection of retellings of the plays written by a very famous man, many years ago," Ezra explained. "A play is a story that is told on a stage, by people in costume called actors. One goes to a theater and pays to see it. But Mr. Lamb and his sister wished to make the works of Shakespeare accessible to children who might be too young to attend the theater, so they wrote the plays out as stories, like other stories you might find in a book or a magazine.

"Mr. Shakespeare wrote three kinds of plays: tragedies, histories, and comedies. For the most part it is the comedies that are the most pleasant to watch, and when I was not much older than you are I had the opportunity to view several of them: As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. I had read their stories in the Lambs’ book before that, and the one I most enjoyed, of all the four, was The Tempest, which is said by many to be the best of all the comedies. It is the story of the magician Prospero, who dwells on an enchanted tropical island with his lovely daughter Miranda. Twelve years before the play opens, Prospero was the Duke of Milan. Absorbed in his necromantic studies, he permitted the affairs of state to drift into the hands of his treacherous and unnatural brother Antonio..."


Comments to: sevenstars39@hotmail.com