Danny sat in the corner of the kitchen. Despite several attempts by the family to lure him to the table, he still wasn’t comfortable with being included. The old man, Jack, he was kind enough. Lately,
he’d even started to accept Danny’s help with some of the things he couldn’t do any longer.
Besides that, he paid well and he’d given Danny a home.
All that, though, couldn’t erase the past. There was no taking away what he’d done.
I’m still responsible for the beating the old man took at the hands of the Sims gang.
I’m the one who dragged Elvira out there and nearly got everyone killed…
Danny sighed and settled deeper in his chosen hiding place. This particular corner of the kitchen
was near enough the fire of the stove that it kept him toasty warm. Of course, Maria and David were family too, weren’t they? David even took a bullet for Ethan, though. Hard to believe that was almost two years ago.
No one else seemed to blame Danny, though. Harrison pointed out more than once that he
wasn’t the one that pulled the trigger, nor was he the one who led Jefferson Sims out to the ranch in the first place. Harrison was a good man since he’d been sober, and more than once had owned that he was the one who’d created the whole stinking mess. But Danny had heard the other things, too, how Harrison had lost his wife and turned to drink. Drink did mighty funny things to a man and it was hard to hold him responsible.
Especially since Danny couldn’t make that excuse. He’d joined the gang of his own volition. Well,
more on his stomach’s, if he thought about it. Orphan boys had a hard time getting fed real regular when they were out on their own. The gang had at least given him that much.
Not much more, though, unless you wanted to count the cuffs and blows they’d offered when
he didn’t do as he was told.
Probably the best thing Danny had ever done was to stay and help Jack recover from the beating
the Sims gang had given him. But since the old man had gotten better and only walked with a cane, Danny had been more than a little unsure where he fit, anymore. No one had said anything about him leaving. In fact, his duties on the ranch had gone beyond tending the old man and he was learning to do real ranch work. Harrison was teaching him how to ride and shoot. They’d become family of a sort. His family.
He grinned now as he watched them as they sat around the table at dinner. He loved the give
and take of Ethan and Elvira and the others. Danny never knew his parents. For a time, he’d thought Jefferson Sims had taken him in because he’d liked him. He’d even thought of them as brothers. As it turned out, his only interest in Danny was because a young boy was easily manipulated. He’d used Danny to steal things for him. To do things that hurt others in the end.
It was different with Jack. Jack was a grouch, especially when he was getting better and still
unable to work his own ranch, but he was a good man and he cared for Danny. He was probably the first ever to do so.
Danny thought about this as he sat balancing his plate on his knee. It was heavy, laden with
biscuits and gravy and thick slices of ham. He grinned when they laughed and listened intently when they discussed the business of ranching and the important affairs of the day. He stayed on the edge of the family, but it was close enough. Besides, he liked the stove. It was cozy in his corner, and he felt comfortable there. The warmth of the fire and the warmth of the family went a long way to counter the chilly February winds that coursed down the snow-capped mountains and crawled in through the cracks in the floor and walls.
There must have been some bullet holes that they’d missed when they’d patched the place,
Danny thought as he tucked into the food. He could feel cold tendrils wrap around his feet as he ate.
Maria came back into the kitchen. It was her genius with a pan that gave them the meal they
enjoyed. Danny loved to live with Jack and Harrison, but neither of them were much for cooking.
Jack once set an iron skillet to fire and Harrison could only throw meat on a campfire.
Danny looked down at the perfectly prepared meal and wished once more that he could stay
here long enough to learn cooking from Maria. He wondered if he could manage the meals for Jack and Harrison, at least until he was strong enough to do some of the things that only Harrison could do at the ranch.
I just need to help. To feel useful.
Danny sighed. Whatever he did now, he wasn’t sure it would ever be enough to repay what he’d
“I put the dear one back to bed.” Maria grinned. Maria always grinned when she dealt with the
baby, who was a year old now. She’d recently learned to walk, creating no end of trouble for everyone.
Elvira said it was the bane of her life when her daughter started toddling because Elvira spent her days chasing the girl down. She smiled fondly when she said it, though.
“Funny,” Maria teased her. “All the times I chase after the little ladybug, I never seem to bump
Elvira laughed and ducked her head. She waved a surrender as Ethan reached out to tickle her.
She shrieked and swatted him while the rest of the table divided between assuring Maria that she was doing a wonderful job and commiserating about their children’s toddler years.
Danny had little to add to the conversation, but the glow of their family rubbed off on him on his
perch by the stove. He grinned, feeling like he was part of the family, too.
“Your mother complained about you, too.” Harrison pointed a fork at Elvira. “When you learned
to walk, you’d strip naked and head for the nearest cornfield. She had a devil of a time finding you.”
“No.” Elvira blushed even deeper, but the grin on her face was infectious. “Come on, Pa, that…
Harrison was laughing harder. “Yes, you.”
“Don’t listen to him!” Jack rapped his cane on the table. “I’ll have you know, Harrison is the
the same boy that decided the well house was his secret getaway.”
Harrison dropped his head into his hands and laughed harder yet. Even when the joke was on
him, it was a good one.
Jack grinned. “Your mother pulled you out soaking wet, your diaper weighed more than you
did.” To the gales of laughter that followed, Jack added in an undertone, “But then the fool went back and did it again!”
Elvira stood and leaned over to Maria. She said something to her as Harrison continued to laugh
at the ribbing Jack gave him and left the room. Danny ate his meal slowly, having finally come to accept that no one was going to wrest it from him if he didn’t eat fast enough. That alone had taken a long time.
Jack was warming to his subject when Elvira came hurrying back into the room. “Maria,” she
said, interrupting her grandfather mid-sentence, “you said you put the baby down?”
“Si.” Maria nodded vigorously.
“Si… well… I had her asleep for a while, but when I went to check on her about… ten minutes
ago, I suppose, she was out of her cot and wandering around. I tucked her back in and came out here again.”
“Vi?” Ethan gave his wife a long look.
“She’s not there.”
“What?” Maria leaped to her feet. “I just put her there ten minutes ago!”
Danny set his fork down quickly. It wasn’t unpatched bullet holes he’d been feeling swirling
around his feet. He jumped up and set his plate down quickly on the table.
“Danny?” Jack called querulously. But Danny was squatting, his hand down near the floor.
“It’s cold,” he said and headed to the front room. “The door is open!” he called out. The rest
came running, Elvira repeating a high-pitched litany of “No, no, no…”
There was a little patchy snow on the ground, remnants of a storm three days ago, but there
wasn’t enough to leave tracks and the ground was frozen solid. A little girl out in that wouldn’t leave any traces, not easily seen, anyway.
“Ethan?” Elvira was panicking now.
“She goes with you to see the stallion.” Ethan grabbed his jacket from the peg by the door and
threw Elvira hers. “Get to the barn, look for her there. Maria,” he said, and turned to the cook, “go and look in the outbuildings on the east side of the house. David, take the west.”
“What about us?” Harrison was already pulling his jacket on.
Elvira slipped out and ran to the barn screaming the child’s name. “Jolene!”
“Someone has to be here in case she shows up,” Ethan said brusquely and ran through the door.
Maria followed, David on her heels, only he stopped the moment he got outside and thought briefly before going any further.
Out there on the porch like that, the wind cut through his shirt. Harrison and Jack were talking
behind him, neither of them liking being left behind, but there was logic in what Ethan said. If Jolene did show up in the house, someone had to be there to let the others know.
Danny closed the door quietly and headed to the edge of the porch.
When he was with the Sims gang, they’d had a tracker. The man was a natural; he could track a
wild deer over rock and he would point out the signs he was looking for. It wasn’t enough that these rocks were here, the lines in the dirt that went from were the rock was to where it used to be told the tale. How far it moved, direction, everything, or so he said, was written just as clearly as if it were in a dime novel.
Danny had his doubts that any one of them had ever read a dime novel, but the tracker’s skills
were self-evident. He jumped off the porch and began looking at the ground. Heavy boots marked the passage of Ethan and Elvira and David, a more feminine shoe gave away Maria’s path, but there were still signs, if only one knew what to look for.
There was a small divot in the dirt just here. It could have been made by a big toe, if the toe was
an infant’s. That scuff next to it… maybe the blade of the foot? The child just began walking, her pace wasn’t exactly steady. That would explain the reason for the scuff mark there, rolling to the other foot in an effort to stay upright.
And there, in the snow: a perfect impression of five little toes. They were pointed away from the
house and toward the stand of trees. There was a cattle fence between the trees and here; for a small child, it seemed a long way away.
He turned and blinked. He didn’t realize he’d come that far from the house. He called out to the
adults, cupping his hands against the cold winter wind, but the ice tore the sound from the air and no one came to help him. He considered turning back, getting help. The wind was going through his shirt and pants as if they were nothing.
That was what decided him. The baby was wearing less than he was, by any standard. If she had
been set down for a nap, then she was probably wearing very little to begin with—and if Elvira had stripped off her clothing at that age and her daughter was anything like her…
He jogged quickly to the fence, ignoring the terrain and any other clues. If she passed through
here, he was more likely to pick up other indicators—time was precious.
He stopped at the fence line and searched for clues. What were the words in the tracker’s book?
He didn’t find a single mark or scuff, and he cursed himself for a fool. He should have taken the extra time and followed the signs one by one.
He was about to return and get someone else when he spotted a blade of grass that looked…
wrong. It was a tall shoot, one the cows hadn’t been able to reach. It grew at the corner post of the cattle fence and it waved at him. He bent down and pushed it down with his finger. It was bent on the bottom and the juices of the grass were still sticky where it broke a little. It was thin evidence at best, but it was all he had to go on.
He stood where the grass was bent, aligning the path he’d followed behind him and looked
The wind grew colder, though he didn’t realize that was even a possibility. Looking up, he
realized that heavy clouds had moved it. Hadn’t Jack been rumbling something about getting another snow? It always did when his hip started hurting real bad. Danny suddenly started wondering if the old man had been hobbling more today than usual.
Looking up at the clouds removed all doubt. There was a snowstorm coming in. If the winds
didn’t let up, it looked to be a full blizzard. And Jolene was out in it.
Danny leaped the fence and ran for the woods as fast as he could run. The child was barely
walking and had a ten-minute head start on him. She shouldn’t have been able to get this far this fast.
Or were all toddlers fleet of foot? Remembering the conversation regarding Elvira’s and Harrison’s toddler years, Danny suddenly understood that “shouldn’t be able to” had nothing to do with toddlers.
He found where a group of leaves had been kicked, though many of them had already
succumbed to the winds and found other places to decompose. It was working, he was finding his way out…
The winds stopped. Just like that. Crossing into the trees had somehow created a break… no… it
wasn’t the trees. It had simply stopped blowing.
He wasn’t sure if that was a good sign.
Danny tried to quiet his breathing to listen. The trail had run cold, the scant evidence finally
There was a sound, barely heard. A shuffling sound. Something moving through the underbrush.
A baby’s wail, thin and reedy. Danny was running through the trees before he thought about it.
A new sound hit him as he moved. A high-pitched yipping carried over the trees.
Coyotes. They were cowards, kept away from humans and human dwellings and never went
after anything too large, like a full-grown horse or a cow. But foals were often victim to their packs. A human child would be a grand lunch, indeed.
Danny stopped, breathing hard, his heart pounding in his chest. Jolene! Tell me where you are!
After a moment, he heard what sounded like a hiccup and fussing. He dodged through a copse and had to throw himself off the trail at the last moment.
Jolene lay in a small heap at the base of a tree. She was shivering in her thin nightgown, but that
was good, right? It was after you stopped shivering that was dangerous. Danny tore his shirt off and wrapped the child in it, hoping it still held enough of his body heat to warm the girl.
A low rumble behind him made him freeze. He turned slowly. There, a pack of coyotes ranged
behind him. The bared fangs and raised haunches belied the idea that they had any fear of him at all.
Danny pulled Jolene closer to his chest and stood slowly. One of the animals edged closer.
He could feel, rather than hear the pack follow him. They were faster than he, more sure-footed
on the shifting, frozen ground. It was only a matter of time before they brought him down. He poured everything he had into running as fast as he could, clutching Jolene to him tightly. She whimpered something then, something that sounded a lot like his name, which was crazy. Jolene wasn’t even talking yet, not anything that made any sense, anyway.
A shot rang out, though he couldn’t have said from where. Don’t shoot me! I have the baby! He
couldn’t have yelled it, he couldn’t have whispered it, every last breath was needed just keep him and Jolene alive.
Another shot and one of the coyotes yelped and ran off, abandoning the chase. Danny was able
to make out the form of the rifleman now. Rather, riflewoman. He saw Elvira taking aim from the fence line. Another shot fired. Another coyote broke off and ran in the other direction. At that distance, wouldn’t be able to kill anything, but it would still hurt a hell of a lot if you got hit.
Elvira lifted her rifle and another figure, Ethan, broke from her side and ran toward Danny. He
met the boy halfway and took the child from him, giving the youth a warm jacket to wrap up in.
Ethan looked at his daughter and his face grew pale. Without a word, he turned and ran to the house bellowing for Maria.
Danny staggered back. Elvira’s aim had deterred the pack. They’d run back into the woods for
easier prey. Jolene was in her parent’s hands, though he didn’t think she was moving when they’d taken her from him. In fact, her lips had seemed kind of blue, her skin porcelain.
Dead. She’s dead.
Danny’s lung burned with the effort he’d put them through with such cold air and he fell to his
knees trying to leach a little warmth from the jacket. If the baby had died after all, there was no point to trying anyway.
Just a little nap. I’ll be fine if I can rest a little. He looked up as Harrison came running to him and
Danny smiled when he realized he was falling. Harrison was there to catch him.
Light came slowly as Danny opened his eyes and found himself on the sofa in Ethan’s front
room. Harrison had told him once that Elvira and Ethan had bought the thing all the way from Kansas City with the reward money from capturing Jefferson Sims. Here he was, laying on it and dirtying it up.
He tried to get up, but the front room was wrong, somehow and kept moving under him. He fell
back into the couch. Maybe just a moment. I can’t do any harm to it in a short time, can I?
Harrison appeared at his side, a hot cup of tea in his grasp. “Drink this slowly.” He held Danny’s
head and tilted the cup to his lips. The boy could feel the warmth course through him.
Ethan suddenly appeared next to Danny, kneeling by the boy, his face lined and edged with
worry, though the smile on his face held no sadness. “She’s fine,” Ethan said. “She’s going to be just fine.
You saved her.”
Danny couldn’t credit what he was hearing. Surely, she was dead. “I did?”
“You did. She even woke long enough to ask for you. Said it right out. Danny. Or something
pretty close to it. Said your name before she even said mine,” Ethan said and laughed to show there were no hard feelings. “She’s alive, Danny. Because of you.”
“Something someone should have told you a long time ago,” Harrison said thoughtfully. “Maybe
if someone had told you… things might have turned out different.”
“You still can,” Jack interjected. He limped to the back of the couch and leaned over. One
gnarled hand reached out and patted Danny’s head. “You saved her. She’d going to be just fine.”
Danny gasped as Ethan buried his head in the blanket and grasped the boy’s hand.
“Thank you,” Ethan said, finally speaking to the boy the words he’d needed to hear so long ago.
Danny smiled and closed his eyes, feeling his body fall back toward sleep. He dreamed of a
golden-haired girl with big brown eyes and wondered what the future would hold.