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Promise

By Geraldle

Copyright © 2001

ONE-Thursday-August 7,1879

At mid-morning, Joshua Horner, walking along the trail, topped a rise. Seeing a glint in the distance he shaded his eyes, and could see water a few hundred yards off of the trail. He sighed with relief, yet anxiety remained as well, his canteen was empty. The last water he had seen was bad, the carcasses of several small animals warning him of that, and that had been yesterday, if this water was bad he probably wouldn't have the strength to reach more. If he was lucky it would be good and if he was really lucky, maybe there would be enough water, so that he could take a bath, and wash the ragged remnants of his clothing.

As he approached the water, he could see that it was actually a pond, and it was big enough to swim in. That is it would have been, if he knew how to swim. And a gigantic sigh of relief went through him as he saw three deer drinking at the edge of the water. A doe, a buck and a fawn. Despite his yearning for water, he stopped, and waited, with resignation, they had been here first and they deserved to get all the water they needed. Once they left would have to be soon enough.

Not the usual attitude perhaps, of a just turned ten year old, who had been kicked out by his aunt and uncle three months ago. But consideration for animals was part of his makeup, something he couldn't and didn't want to change.

Finally the deer were finished drinking and moved away from the pond, not even realizing that Josh was there. Approaching the pond, he knelt at the edge, and taking the lid off the top of his canteen, he placed it into the water and pushed the opening under, bubbles coming to the surface as it started to fill. After a few seconds he pulled the canteen out of the water, and swished it around, and then poured the water out of it, onto the ground.

Now that the canteen was clean, he dipped it back into the water and let it start to fill again. Long before the canteen was full he pulled it out of the water, and eagerly brought it to his mouth and took a long drink of water. It wasn't very cool but it was refreshing and when he had drunk his fill he tipped the canteen and poured the rest over his head and shoulders.

He got up and began to strip off his clothing. He held his trousers up to the light and looked at the seat ruefully. One of the holes was at least two inches in diameter, and there were several smaller ones as well, and that was just in the seat of his trousers alone. And the cloth of his shirt and trousers was so thin that it was almost possible to see right though them, even in the places were there weren't holes.

He was painfully thin, having missed many meals, and if it hadn't been for the goodness of a few people, he would have long since starved. It was a tough time, and very few people had jobs especially, for an unwanted stray such as Joshua.

He got into the water and cleaned himself as well as he could in the circumstances. He would have liked to have spent a long time soaking in the water, but he knew that as long as he stayed no animals would come to drink, so after fifteen minutes he got out of the water. He didn't dare scrub his clothes, they would have fallen to pieces at that type of treatment, so after dipping them in the water, he wrung them out carefully and put them back on. They would dry on his body, and for a while he would be a little more comfortable in the heat.

He was aware that, if he knew how to find it, there was plenty of food around him. Wistfully, he wished that he knew what to look for, he could have stayed here for several days, but he didn't, so he had to head for the nearest town, where he might get a scrap or two before he was run off. After taking a last drink, he filled his canteen to the brim and fastened the top on it carefully. He had been careless once, a couple of months before, and most of the water had leaked out of the canteen, while he was asleep. It hadn't been vital that time, but now it very well might be.

TWO

His clothes had dried on him in less than fifteen minutes, to Josh's disappointment. He'd hoped they would have stayed damp for at least a little while longer. He saw some specks circling above, in the distance and he knew they were buzzards and that some poor animal was dead or dying. He knew that someday, probably in the not too distant future that they would be circling above him.

As he came closer, they were still circling, so he realized their victim was still alive. If he could have avoided the area, he would have, knowing that he could do nothing. But there were rocky areas just off the trail, just at this point, and as tough as his feet were, there were traps even for the wary and it would be very easy to sprain or break a leg. Either would mean death to Josh.

When he got closer, he could see that it was a saddled horse. The buzzards were starting to come in cautiously now for a landing, but each time the horse would raise its head and scare the buzzards off. If it had been almost any other animal, Josh would have hurried past, with pity in his heart, but a saddled horse might mean a rider, and he would have to look, though he probably wouldn't be able to do anything. There was a faint track in the direction that the horse had probably been on. Straying off it, he had got his leg caught between two rocks and falling had broken it.

As he passed the horse, trembling in fear and pain, his heart went out to it, but he hardened his heart, and sidled past it. About two hundred yards along the track he came across a man, on the side of the track. He too had an obviously broken leg, but aside from that, he seemed in pretty good condition, sitting up, and swearing a blue streak. Josh wasn't particularly interested in the language, the man wasn't saying anything that Josh hadn't been called in the last few months.

The man looked up as he heard Josh approach. He was astonished by what he saw. A ragamuffin of a boy, with enormous holes in shirt and trousers, leaving nothing to protect his modesty, if the boy had any left. His large brown eyes, looking even bigger in that hunger pinched face. topped by a mop of wild blond hair. A solemn face, with lips that seldom smiled.

Despite his own predicament, the man George Vinson, felt pity as he looked at the boy. To hide his emotion, he asked with abruptness, "Did you see a horse on the trail?"

In a very soft voice, Josh answered, "I'm sorry, Mister, he's got a broken leg."

"Damn," said Vinson, "is he suffering?"

Josh nodded wordlessly. He watched as the man tried to get to his feet, and then fell backwards holding his leg, biting his lower lip, before he said, "He's been a good horse. He deserves to be put out of his misery."

Josh held his hand out to the man, and realizing what he wanted, George slipped the thong off of the hammer of his six- gun, and pulled it from his holster. He looked at the boy, standing patiently holding out his hand. Finally, he handed the gun to the boy. "I don't imagine you know much about guns, it's a Colt .44 single action revolver. That means you have to pull back the hammer to cock it, before you can pull the trigger to fire it."

The boy nodded. He pulled the strap of the canteen over his head and handed it to the man. "I imagine you could use a drink."

Turning abruptly, he headed back toward the horse, hearing the man yelling after him, "Bring back the saddlebags, bedroll, and the canteen if you can."

THREE

He stood above the horse. He wished he could comfort him, but he didn't know anything about horses. Trying could panic the animal and cause him more pain. He needed both thumbs to pull back the hammer, and he just managed it with two. He expected a recoil, but he was still astonished at the force of it, as it jerked the gun out of his hands, and the noise and the smoke from the gunpowder.

He looked down at the horse and with dismayed satisfaction saw that the bullet had done the job. He looked down at his stinging hands and then, looking around for the gun saw it a couple of yards away. He picked it up gingerly, hoping it hadn't been damaged. The cylinder still turned, but the only way he could find out if it still worked, was to fire it again, and he had no intention of doing that.

Remembering Vinson's last instructions, he had no problem unstrapping the bedroll or the saddlebags, but the horse had landed on the canteen crushing it. It made an awkward load for Josh, it wasn't all that heavy, but he had to carry everything. The saddlebags kept slipping off of his narrow shoulder, and the bedroll and gun were awkward in his hands. He didn't dare put the gun in his waistband, his trousers would never have withstood the weight.

He was glad to get back to Vinson. "The horse landed on the canteen," as he handed him the six-shooter. "The gun jerked out of my hands when I fired it. I hope it's not damaged."

With expert hands George went over the gun, not detecting any damage. "It's a pretty sturdy weapon, that Colonel Sam produced. I saw a man use it as a hammer one time, and then fire it without any problems a few minutes later."

"I want you to make me a promise." said George.

Josh said, "I have to know what it is first."

George looked at the boy, and he felt strangely pleased by the answer. A boy who wouldn't make a blanket promise, was more likely to carry out a real one. Unbuttoning his shirt, he undid a money belt and pulled it out. "In here, is one thousand twenty four dollars. I took out a loan last year which was for eight hundred dollars, it's due in a couple of months. I sold some cattle to get it, and since I had some additional business to take care of, I foolishly sent the two hands I had along, back to the ranch. Realizing I was being followed I took this trail to try and lose them. I've got a bad feeling that I didn't."

"I think the only way, it's going to leave here, is if you take it. If the loan isn't paid off, then my daughter-in-law will lose the ranch. I want you to promise to try, just try, to deliver it to my brother Gene. She won't starve if she loses the ranch, she has plenty of family in the area, but I'd like my grandson to get the ranch." He chuckled. "My daughter-in-law is in for a big surprise, when she finds out that I left it to her son Joseph, instead of her, and named my younger brother as executor of my estate."

"Here give me those saddlebags." Josh handed them to George, he opened and took out a small buckled case. Opening it, he set it on the ground. "Here sit between my legs, with your back to me." and Josh did so being careful not to bang the broken leg. "Not quite so close, I need a little room to work." and the boy moved ahead a little, still mystified.

George took a pair of scissors and a comb from the case. "Have you ever had a haircut?"

"No, when my hair got too long, my aunt would just take a knife and hack it shorter." said Josh.

"Well, you're about to get your first haircut from a true professional. I worked in a barbershop in New York for seven years. When I was twenty I stood looking down at the hair or the floor and said the hell with it. I walked out and hopped the first train heading west.

"I joined a wagon train in Independence, Missouri and I ended up in this country. A rancher out here took pity on me and hired me as a horse wrangler, and then I became a cowboy, saved my money, got a little lucky in finding some gold and I bought a ranch." While he was talking, he was working. While the only hair he cut anymore was his grandson's Joseph, his hands had lost none of their expertise and in a few minutes, Josh was looking at a totally different boy, in George's shaving mirror.

"Now we've changed that part of you, we'll change the rest of you as well." as he started to reach into the saddlebags again he grunted with pain and grabbed his broken leg.

Josh looked at him with concern, and George saw it and said, "Sorry, kid, there's nothing you can do. I need a doctor or somebody who knows what he's doing and I don't expect either out here, not before the men who are following me find me."

FOUR

George put the pain out of his mind as much as he could and took out the packages he had bought for Joseph. He handed them to Josh, "Here kid, I don't imagine you've ever had a present before."

Josh's eyes grew big, "Really?"

"Really, now see how fast you can open them." which turned out to be pretty fast. A hundred years later many kids would have turned up their nose at the things in the package, but to Josh they were things of wonder. Knee length drawers, something he had never worn before, Levis, a red and black check shirt, and a leather belt.

"I know it's hot to wear drawers kid, but with new Levis, you'll need them. They're great after you break them in, but until then, if you tried to wear them on bare skin, they'd almost chafe it right off. I brought them for Joseph, and he's a little bigger than you are, but you need them more then he does. Put them on."

As with the haircut, the new clothes made Josh feel like a new boy. As George had said, they had been bought for his grandson Joseph, so everything was a little big for Josh, but he wouldn't look out of place, since most parents bought clothes their children would grow into. With the belt cinched tight, the Levis were in no danger of falling down, and rolled up cuffs were normal. Even the bare feet were normal, being summertime, even those children who went to school would be out, and most likely barefooted.

FIVE

The area had been cleaned up, everything that would tell of Josh's presence had been placed in the packages the clothes had been in, and carefully buried by the boy, and then rocks placed over them. While it didn't look completely natural, it would take an expert tracker to find the buried evidence.

With Josh standing with his new drawers and Levis around his knees, George fastened the moneybelt low on his hips. "If you're wondering why it's so light, the thousand dollars is in paper money. Aside from that, there's twenty four dollars in coin. Two five-dollar gold pieces, ten silver dollars and six half-dollars and eight quarters, you can use..." He suddenly stopped speaking as both of them heard a noise. Josh didn't recognize it but George did. It was shod horses coming toward them.

"Get dressed, Josh and hide. Don't come out whatever happens, unless I call you. I imagine these are the men that were following me." George said calmly, checking his gun, and cocking it and then let it rest by his side where it was almost invisible.

Josh scurried out of sight, taking his canteen and the small amount of beef jerky that George had had in his saddlebags, and was able to find a hiding place where he could see without being seen. Four men drew up close to George and dismounted. The leader, a swaggering man in his mid-twenties and wearing two guns, leered at George, "Hello, George, we been lookin for you."

"Yes, Reese I know, and I'm not even surprised to find out who it is. But then..." and George fired, and easily handling the recoil, he thumbed off a second shot. Reese Matthews was very, very fast, but even so, completely surprised as he was if the bullets had been aimed at him, he would have died. But they weren't, the first took Ben Hogue between the eyes, the second hit Davy Matthews in almost exactly the same place. They were the outdoorsmen, the trackers, they were the danger to Josh.

George didn't get off a third shot, as Reese thumbed off two shots so close together they sounded like one, both piercing the heart and killing George instantly.

SIX

Josh wept silently as he watched Reese tear open George's shirt, in search of the money belt. Cursing, he emptied the saddlebags and untied the bedroll strewing the contents all around. But found nothing. His face was bitter, he stood above George Vinson, and drawing his gun, he shot the dead man in the chest four more times. Not bothering to reload, he shoved his gun back into its holster. Wrapping Ben Hogue and Reese's brother in their bedrolls, the two men loaded them on their horses and headed for the road.

Josh would have liked to say goodbye to the man who had befriended him, but he had been told by George not to, but to head for the trail, and for the nearest town, if anything like this happened, and to be careful to stay out of their sight.

Josh looked up at the sun, which told him it was a little after noon. He decided that he should wait for about half an hour before following Reese Matthews and his one remaining man.

*****

It was getting close to dark and Josh had been trudging along for about six hours, he was thankful that George's gift had included a pair of drawers, the Levis were chafing even though them, he shuddered to think what it would have been like without them. He began searching for a place to sleep. With wild animals around it was dangerous to sleep out without a fire, but Josh's life in itself, was a danger, and this would not be the first time he had slept out alone.

Finally, he found a place that looked like it might provide a little comfort, so lying down he curled up and quickly fell asleep.

The sun in his eyes woke him. He bit off another chunk of jerky, and continued his hungry journey. After another three hours of walking, around mid-morning, he rounded a bend and saw the town about half a mile further down the road. A couple of hundred yards from the town, a bridge crossed a small stream. After beating as much of the dust off of his clothes as he could he washed his face and hands, and hand combed his newly cut hair, trying to make himself as presentable as he could.

Just over the bridge, there was a small house, where a middle aged woman was trying to cut some wood. Josh asked politely, "Ma'am, could I cut your wood to earn a meal." She shaded her eyes with her hand. If she had seen him yesterday morning she would have cut him dead right there, but the new clothes and neat haircut, made a difference.

"Fine, but I expect plenty of wood cut, you hear me!" she growled.

"Yes Ma'am." opening the gate of the picket fence he walked over and took the axe from her hand. He put the first log on the chopping block and, shortening up on the axe, began to cut wood. It was something that he had been doing since he was six, and he was an expert at it. He was very hungry, but he was used to that as well, that's the way it had always been when he cut wood for his aunt. Cut wood and then eat, if she was satisfied, and wasn't in a bad mood.

After a while, the woman came out of the house, "All right, boy, that's enough, my man will be back in two or three days, and that's plenty to tide me over till then."

SEVEN

Since aside from the beef jerky, Josh hadn't eaten for close to two and a half days, he sat down at the table eagerly, and she provided him with a good meal. His stomach was filled long before he would have liked it to be.

She looked at him in surprise when he pushed away the plate, "Thank you, Ma'am. That was good."

She stood looking down at him, "Is that all you can eat? My kids when they were your age, would've eaten twice that, just as a first helping."

He looked at her with his large brown eyes, "I don't get to eat much, that's all I can manage." There was no self pity in his voice, he was simply stating a fact. It touched the woman's normally hard heart. Cutting several slices of bread, she put them in a bag, and then after hesitating a little, she took a dime out of a cookie jar, and put it on the table in front of the boy.

He looked at her in amazement, and protested, "That wasn't part of the deal!" Looking into those eyes, she realized with astonishment, that she would have to force him to take the dime.

She pointed one large finger at him, "Now you take that. I haven't used a switch for a while, but I haven't forgotten how, and if you don't take that dime, you'll hurt my feelings, and I promise you I'll use a switch on your backside."

He could see that she meant it, and with hesitant fingers he picked up the dime, and looked at it in awe. He'd never had a whole dime in his life, and even pennies had been very rare. He had a thousand dollars in the moneybelt around his waist, as well as twenty-four dollars in coins. He thought George Vinson had been going to tell him he could use the coins if he needed to, but he hadn't finished the sentence, so Josh wouldn't touch them, except if he couldn't survive any other way, and he'd have to pay it back to clear his conscience.

He put the dime in his pocket and picked up the bag with the slices of bread. He just said a simple, "Thank you, Ma'am." as he got up and walked out of the door. She stood at the door, watching him as he walked toward the main part of town, shaking her head in pity. She knew that a boy on his own simply wouldn't live very long, unless he was willing to steal, or do anything to stay alive.

EIGHT

He stopped at the livery stable, where a middle-aged man was sitting, whittling and chewing tobacco.

"Mister," he asked in his soft voice, "How far is the next town?"

The man looked at Josh for a moment, spat some tobacco juice to the side, "Twenty miles, kid."

"Thank you, Mister," and Josh wandered away, he was a bit dismayed. He could walk twenty miles in a day if he started early and walked late, but if he left now he'd have to spend another night in the wilderness. While he would do so when he had to, he wasn't stupid enough to do it unless absolutely necessary.

He had the bread, which he could eat for supper, and the dime would be enough for a meal in the morning, and since most diners opened early in these Western towns, he could leave early enough to make it to the next town. He would have to find a place to sleep tonight where he could stay out of sight, and then leave in the morning.

*****

As he was walking along the street thinking, a stagecoach went by and pulled up a couple of buildings away. While Josh couldn't read, he recognized the Wells Fargo sign on the building. A man who had come out of the building when he heard the stage approaching, said disapprovingly, "You're late, Tom. What kept you?"

"Oh we saw some buzzards circling. I intended to ignore it but, the Reverend Stokes was riding up top with me and he insisted we stop and look. We found a dead horse and a ways past that a dead man. The good Reverend insisted that we bury him. Well it was too hard to dig, so we piled up plenty of rocks over his body so that nothing could get at the body. Wasn't nothing on him that we could find to say who he was."

Josh felt relief that George Vinson had gotten buried, he'd tell his brother when he reached Rowley, and he could arrange for a marker. He was thinking about George Vinson and not paying attention, and he ran into the very situation that he had intended to avoid by staying out of sight.

Three boys, a little older and somewhat bigger, because they had gotten decent food all of their lives, suddenly appeared in front of him. The biggest grabbed the paper bag out of Josh's hand. Taking a look inside and seeing that it only contained several slices of bread, he laughed and just threw it into the center of the street where a passing wagon ran over it.

Josh eyes blazed with anger. While the woman was right about one thing, Josh wouldn't steal, but he would fight, and he could fight. His aunt and uncle had five boys older than he was, and they had come to learn that it wasn't wise to force Josh into a fight, even though they were all much bigger than he was. But these kids weren't that much bigger.

He kicked the laughing one in the groin, who found that being kicked by a bare foot, from a boy who had never worn shoes, was almost as bad as by someone shod. With a shrill cry of protest, he grabbed his groin, going to his knees.

Josh grabbed one of the other boys by the neck and jerked his head down, and his nose crunched satisfactorily as Josh brought his knee up. Shoving the boy away from him, he kicked the first one in the jaw, with his bare heel, and he went over backwards, not out, but not far from it.

When Josh made a move towards the last boy, he broke and ran. Never had they been treated like that by one of their victims and he was terrified. Josh looked mournfully at the bag of bread, that had going to be his supper.

"Ah, that was a pretty sight, kid." Josh spun around and saw a man dressed as a gambler looking at him.

Josh was still angry and he said with annoyance, "That was my supper." he protested. The gambler reached into his pocket and taking out a silver dollar, he threw it to Josh, who caught it automatically.

"And well worth the price. I've been in this town since I bought the saloon, just over a year ago, and I've seen them bully many boys. I figured that they'd get their comeuppance sooner or later, I just never figured it would be a wee sprout like yourself. Supper is on me." The man turned and walked away. Josh looked down at the silver dollar in his hand. Unlike the dime, this morning he had no objection to taking it. The man obviously thought it was well worth the price. With $1.10 he would be able to afford dinner as well as supper, with enough left for the next town.

Looking around he saw that the two boys had managed to crawl away, so putting it out of his mind he went in search of a place where he could spend the night. He knew that sometimes livery stables would allow people to sleep in their lofts, but from seeing the man who ran the livery stable earlier, he doubted that he would find him that generous.

He finally found a place in an alleyway, that wasn't traveled that much, and the earth was not hard like the streets. It would make an adequate place to sleep. He only noted absently that it was beside the saloon.

Nine

Josh had spent most of the day in the alleyway and had eaten around two, wanting to avoid any crowd at the diner, and then had supper at six, and he still had seventy cents left from the $1.10.

At around seven, still in daylight, he curled into a ball and went to sleep. A noise in the alley woke him up. It was fully dark, though looking toward the street he could see some light, and there was a man silhouetted against it, as his eyes became more accustomed to the dark.

Josh was careful not to make any noise, but he kept his eye on the man. After a few minutes, the boy saw him draw a gun and raise it. Realizing that the man was about to bushwhack somebody, Josh yelled at the top of his voice, "Ambush!!!" and then flattened as close to the ground as possible. The man swung around and fired instinctively at where the voice had come from. For a fast taken shot it came very close to achieving its objective, the bullet hitting the wall just above Josh's head, causing him to flinch. As soon as he fired, the man realized how stupid he had been, and began to spin back toward the front. But he didn't make it, as a shotgun unloaded both barrels at him, followed by three gun shots.

The six-gun missed, only because the man was already going down from the shotgun blasts, which had almost cut him in half. Josh was trembling from his close call. Eyes tightly shut, he curled into a ball and like a turtle, had no intention of coming out.

TEN

Josh was lying in a bed, in the upper floor of the saloon, and he was beginning to uncurl, the stress draining from his body, he began to get sleepy, and slowly drifted into sleep.

When he woke up, daylight shining through the window, he was naked, and he jerked to a sitting position with alarm. On a chair beside the bed, were his clothes and on top was the money belt. Coming to his knees, he reached for it and checked its contents, and was relieved that it was all there. He fastened it around his waist, laid down, and went back to sleep.

A couple of hours later he woke up again, hungry now. The gambler from the day before was sitting on a second chair which he had moved close to the bed. He nodded at he table beside the head of the bed. "I brought you some breakfast, figured you might be hungry." Josh sat up and looking, saw that there was a tray with some buttered bread and a glass of milk. And a small bowl filled with something he had never seen before. He pointed at it, "What's that?"

"That's jam. I gather you've never seen it before?" the gambler asked.

"No, I've heard about it, but this is the first time I've ever seen some." Taking a piece of bread he spread some of the jam on it with the knife provided, and bit into it. His eyes lit up when he tasted the sweet jam. His eyes closed blissfully as he ate the first slice of bed, only opening them long enough to take a drink of milk."

Again he couldn't eat as much as he would have liked, after only a couple of slices, he was full. "That tasted good," he said shyly. "Thank you."

"No," said the gambler "Thank you, you saved my life last night, when you yelled. What in heaven's name were you doing in the alley?"

Josh looked at him with surprise, "Sleeping of course. I thought it would be too far, to get to the next town before night, and I didn't want to spend another night in the wilderness. Towns are safer, though sometimes there are dogs and they aren't afraid of people, so you have to make sure that you don't have any food on you, or they can be dangerous."

"You've got more than a thousand dollars in that money belt and you were sleeping in an alley." asked the gambler, surprised.

"It isn't mine," Josh said simply, "I promised I'd bring it to this man's brother. I think he was going to tell me that I could use the coins to help with the trip, but he didn't get a chance to finish. If I get where I have to go, without spending any of it I will."

"My name is Carl Brennen, do you want to tell me about it?" asked the gambler.

Josh considered it. The man already knew about the money. If he decided to take it, Josh couldn't stop him, and nobody would believe that a kid like him would have that much money, so the man would have been completely safe, in doing so.

Josh began to talk, telling about it, from the time he saw the buzzards, till he had ended up here in bed. Brennen started to say something and then he stopped. He had been going to offer Josh a reward for saving his life, but he reconsidered. If he thought Josh would have taken the money he still would have offered, but from the story, Josh had told he didn't think the boy would accept it.

Finally he spoke, "Will you object if I pay for a stagecoach ride to Rowley." Josh thought about it. The man wanted to reward him and would be hurt if Josh didn't take something, so reluctantly Josh nodded, "Just enough for the stage, that's all."

Brennen picked up the tray and headed for the door. "Since you aren't sick you can get up anytime you want. And by the way, the man who killed George Vinson, Reese Matthews, that was him in the alley last night. He came into my saloon the night before last and lost one hundred dollars. He hinted that I was cheating, but he wouldn't come right out and say it. He had a bad reputation, and I guess we know how he got it. By this afternoon he'll be in Boot Hill."

Josh grinned with pleasure.

ELEVEN-Monday-August 11,1879

They were just coming into Rowley, and Josh had a sore bottom and after the jolting he had gotten over the last three days, he thought that he would have preferred to walk.

He jumped down from the stagecoach, glad to see the last of it. He asked the one of the men meeting the stage. "Mister, can you tell me where I can find Gene Vinson?"

The man looked at him in surprise. "It's right across the street, kid. It says GUNSMITH."

A little embarrassed, Josh said, "Sorry, Mister, I can't read."

Walking around the back of the coach, Josh walked across the street. While he couldn't read the sign on the window that said Vinson Gunsmith, all the guns on the display behind the glass, told him which building it was.

From the back he could hear an argument, "Claire, I don't know what my nephew ever saw in you, you're almost as bad as Reese Matthews."

Josh pushed through the curtain in the doorway between the main part of the store and the back. A man with a work apron on was standing with his hands on his hips, staring at a blond woman who was clutching her purse tightly, anger on her face. A boy just a little older than Josh was sitting on a stool, his face red with embarrassment.

"Mr. Vinson, Reese Matthews got improved an awful lot a few days ago. Somebody cut him in half with a shotgun." They all turned to look at Josh, a smile coming to Vinson's face, but Claire's face went white with shock.

Josh guessed the reason why, "Ma'am, why did you tell Reese about the money?"

Both Vinson and her son's eyes jerked back to her. Her face went red with embarrassment and her lips thinned. Both Vinson and the boy looked sick, as she showed her obvious guilt.

The boy jumped down and stood beside his great-uncle, staring at her intently, "You did, didn't you?" he stared up at the man, "Uncle Gene, can I live with you? I'll never live under her roof again."

Josh said, vindictively, "You don't have to, your grandfather left the ranch to you, not her."

She stiffened in shock, but said with anger in her voice, "Without that money, the bank gets the ranch in a couple of months."

Josh pulled his shirt out of his Levis, and unfastening the money belt he walked over and gave it Gene Vinson. The man opened it and taking the paper money out of the belt, he counted it. "One thousand dollars, Claire. That'll pay off the bank loan. I don't know how you were going to profit if the bank had gotten the ranch, but obviously you were, otherwise you would have been more upset."

She stalked out of the store in anger. Gene and Joseph Vinson were too stunned, by what they had just found out to notice when Josh also left. Back in the workroom, Gene picked up the paper that the money had been folded in, and he realized that it was a letter. He began to read it.

Dean Gene and Joseph,

I've only known the boy who will deliver this money belt for a couple of hours, and I already know that without help he won't survive for very much longer.

He has a sense of honor, that is more important to him than life itself. How he has lived this long, I don't know. There was one thousand and twenty four dollars. Unless he has no other choice, I would bet that that's exactly the amount that you will receive.

Gene put the letter down on his workbench for a moment and counted the coins. Exactly twenty four dollars. Plus the thousand in paper money. Going back to the letter.

You'll have to be careful about how you approach him. Offer him something he hasn't earned and he will refuse. If you offer him a job to do chores around the house and the store, he will accept it. You'll have to let him sleep in the shed for a while. Hopefully he will become part of your family, but it will take weeks, so you will have to be patient.

Judge Howard has my will and letters for both you and Joseph. See him as soon as you can.

Love George

Epilogue-Tuesday-September 23,1879

Josh had been working for Gene Vinson for six weeks, and he slept in the shed. He woke up when he heard someone entering the shed, and he stiffened, then relaxed when he recognized Gene's footsteps. He didn't protest when Gene lifted him up and carried him into the house, and when Gene put him in bed with Joseph, he turned over and went back to sleep.

He still wasn't a member of the family, but George Vinson would have been pleased at the big step that had been taken tonight.

END

5.30.02

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