Western Short Story
The Lost Boy
Jim Bryson

Western Short Story

They were tired beyond belief, beyond all their expectations and almost beyond the limits of their endurance. But they had a compelling vision, they had a goal and they had an endless fund of passion that would carry them forward day after day on this long and demanding journey. Twenty-eight adults and children travelling in eight wagons heading from the east to the west, from Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee toward central Kansas, toward new lives and exciting times on the expanding western frontier. They travelled from the familiar toward the unknown, determined and unafraid. It was story that played itself out over and over across the western territories.

The wagon train had stopped for lunch, a somewhat longer lunch than was usual for the group. Tom Hardy, their seasoned trail master, had noted the fatigue of the people and the animals, the mules, oxen and horses that pulled the wagons and he had forgone the pressure to cover miles in favour of resting people and animals alike. They were more than halfway to their destination, after all, and could afford a longer rest. He helped to unhitch the animals and lead them to a wide meadow of abundant grass and water where he and two of the other men now stood watching and guarding the valuable animals. One of his men went from animal to animal, carefully checking their feet and shoulders, the places where wear and tear would be most evident.

In the small camp, small cooking fires burned as noon meals were prepared and served and then the necessary utensils of those meals were cleaned and packed again into the wagons. After nearly two and a half hours, Tom Hardy signaled it was time to get moving. It took them almost another half-hour to get all of the animals hitched to their wagons and to start the train moving west once again. It was a ritual they knew well and had been repeated countless times over the preceding weeks.

As they gathered things together and prepared to ride their wagons ever more westward, Sarah Tolliver made certain that her son Caleb was safely tucked in the back of the wagon. The boy had been a bit more tired than usual of late and though it seemed to her not to be anything too serious she was determined to be careful and see that he got his daily rest. She tucked him securely into his corner amid soft bedding and then went about getting the last of the gear stowed away in the wagon and helping with the hitching of the animals.

Unknown to her or her husband Ned, Caleb, needing to do the necessary, had slipped out of their wagon without saying anything and headed into the nearby woods on the east side of the trail. He wandered for some distance off the trail and, finding an inviting tree, did his business promptly. At that point a small brown rabbit wandered across his path and he watched the animal that was watching him in turn. He was amused by the little nose wiggling its way up toward him and he was surprised the rabbit did not startle and run away when he moved closer. And then it was gone, with a nod, a turn and a leap into the foliage.

Caleb suddenly realized it was long past time to return to the wagon but as he began to walk toward where he thought the trail might be he found he was confused about the direction. He stopped several times to stand and listen but heard nothing that would give him a sense of which way to go. Then he thought he recognized a particular tree and headed toward it. But after walking a few minutes he still did not see any trail or hear anything. He began to worry now and ran in halting steps in the direction he thought would return him to the wagons. But it did not and he realized, even in his young mind, that he was lost, something that can happen easily in heavy woods. He stood helplessly for a moment, not knowing what to do. Only then did he think to yell and yell he did, though his tiny voice seemed small and faint against the giant trees that surrounded him. And still he heard nothing that would help him. Then he remembered something his father had told him as they started on the journey. If you ever get lost in the woods, Ned Tolliver had said, stay put until someone finds you.

So Caleb, considering that advice, found a piece of shade beneath a large tree and sat there, his back against it, to wait for his parents to come and find him. But to a boy of seven years, time passes very slowly and it was less than an hour later that he stood up, frustrated with waiting and decided to find the wagons himself. He began walking, not knowing he was headed away from the trail and toward the far mountains still hidden beyond the forest.

It was almost three hours later when the wagon train stopped for a rest and more than a half-hour after that before Sarah Tolliver checked to find that Caleb was missing. It was still another half-hour of frantic searching in each of other wagons and talking to others before they realized he must have been left behind. Sarah Tolliver was distraught, Ned upset, embarrassed and angry.

Tom Hardy wasted no time with recriminations. He directed one of the other men to lead the train onward while he rode back to the noon camp to search for Caleb. He provided a horse for Ned Tolliver who insisted on accompanying him. Wisely, Tom Hardy agreed, as no one travelled alone, even in these relatively safe times, in case of an accident or injury that might occur. There was no danger from Indians, but groups of outlaws still haunted some trails, finding the many smaller wagon trains easy picking.

It was two hours of hard riding before the two men reached the place where they had camped at noon. They sat their horses and called aloud and Hardy fired three carefully spaced shots into the air every fifteen minutes while they searched for tracks. But none were found. They spent another two hours making a circle around the campsite, still without any sign of Caleb's presence or passing.

"I cain't go back to my wife without that boy," Tolliver lamented. "I just cain't do it, Hardy. It'll just kill Sarah. I just know it will."

Tom Hardy nodded. "I know it, Ned. I understand what you're going through. I'm guessing he went west toward the big meadow where the going was easier rather than heading into the forest. Little kids don't much like going into the dark and it's hilly and pretty hard-going that way."

Ned Tolliver nodded. "That makes sense, Hardy. Let's work our way out from here in that direction until it's too dark to see. Then we can make a camp and continue in the morning. That alright with you?"

Tom Hardy nodded. "We'll give it two days, Ned, but then, if we find nothing, we've got to head back. You understand?"

Ned Tolliver nodded. "I know. If we don't find him by then, it'd be too late for him anyway. It'd break my heart, Tom, but I understand."

The two men headed east, not knowing it was in exactly the opposite direction from that in which Caleb Tolliver was walking.

Caleb was getting more and more tired as darkness approached. He was smart enough to climb up a high tree and settle himself securely before falling asleep but he was mighty cold that night. He had come away from the wagon in only his day clothes and a light pullover sweater and though it was already late into the spring, the nights were still quite cool in the forest.

He woke to the early morning sun in his eyes, cold and hungry and with growing apprehension, fearful that no one was ever going to find him. Still, he resolutely walked on, seeing now the purple mountains that had been shielded by the forest. Each time he found water he stopped to drink and from time to time he found berries and, knowing no better, ate them. To his good fortune, they were edible. He also chewed on damp grass.

Another cool morning turned to a warmer afternoon and then to a cool evening and the darkness again closed in on him. This time there were no tall trees to climb and so he found shelter among some rocks and curled himself into a ball, finally falling asleep with warm tears running down his cheeks.

Ned Tolliver was unusually quiet that morning, Tom Hardy noticed. He knew why. He could see Tolliver was coming to a conclusion to which Hardy had come some time ago. Whether they had gone in the right direction or the wrong one he did not know but there was no sign of the boy or his passing.

"We've got to go on back to the wagons, Ned," he said softly. "If we don't find him by dark today, there's probably no more we can do. We'll stay the night then we have to head back."

Ned Tolliver did not turn his head, but nodded slightly. "I know," he said in a quiet voice. "I've known it in my heart since yesterday."

Caleb was warm, warmer than he had been. He stirred and rolled onto his side, pulling the blanket with him. Then he startled. Blanket?

He opened his eyes. It was no blanket but a thick brown coat, a very large one. He sat up and rubbed his eyes with his fists and then smelled the bacon, and his stomach rolled. He got to his feet and stood a moment, then walked the few steps that took him outside the rocks. He saw a small fire burning, a pan of bacon and scrambled eggs simmering on stones and a canteen of water sitting beside it. He walked to the fire and stared down at it in disbelief.

"Best eat while it's hot, boy," the deep voice said.

Caleb turned, startled, and saw the man sitting on a log twenty feet away from the fire. "Been sitting here waiting for you to wake up, boy," the man said, a smile on his face. "Thought you'd be hungry when you did. Found those bird eggs late last night and figured you could probably use the meal."

He pointed toward the fry pan. "Go ahead," he said. "That's all for you. I've eaten. Eat it up. You look like you could use it. There's a plate right there."

Caleb tipped the contents of the fry pan onto the plate, then picked it up and ate hungrily, putting away eight strips of bacon and the three eggs.

"Go slow, boy," the man said. "There's no rush. You eat or drink too fast when you're hungry or thirsty and you'll pay later."

Caleb finished his meal and put the plate down on the ground, then turned as the man stood up. Caleb had never seen anyone so big and tall, not even Mr. Hardy who was a big man, and he was a little afraid. This man was dressed in buckskins that were light brown and he wore a flat-brimmed black hat.

Sensing the boy's hesitation, the man smiled a warm smile. "No need for you to worry about me, boy. I mean you no harm. I came across your tracks a few miles west of here sometime late last evening and followed along, mostly because I was curious and also to make sure you were alright. Was quite a surprise, I can tell you. Mind telling me what the heck you're doing out here all alone?"

Caleb told him what had happened.

The man's eyes widened. "I'm impressed you were able to take care of yourself out here on your own, Caleb," he said. "And you've been lucky not to run across dangerous animals. Your folks will be worried about you."

Caleb nodded, a tear at the corner of one eye. He brushed it away.

"No need to be sorry about tearing up, Caleb," the man said. "This is a frightening situation for someone as young as you. I'm sure you're thinking about how worried your mother and father will be. They'll be hunting for you."

Caleb nodded. "Mr. Hardy, too."

The man smiled. "Tom Hardy's the trail master? Good. He's a handy man."

Caleb nodded.

The tall man said nothing more for a minute.

"We've got two choices," he said. "We can head back to where you left the wagons the day before yesterday. There might be folks there looking for you off the trail, though I doubt it very much. Or we can head over the mountain and across country and try to cut off the wagon train before they reach Settler's Pass. I believe we should do that. I think Tom Hardy would go back to look for you, but not finding you or being able to trail you, they'd give up the search after a couple of days and head back to join the wagon train. They'd believe you to be dead or as good as if you were still lost in this forest and they'd have to move on."

"Do you have a horse?" Caleb said, looking around and not seeing one. He knew most western men rode rather than walk.

The man shook his head. "I had a horse until the day before yesterday but he stumbled into a hole and broke his leg and I had to shoot him. That was a sad thing, Caleb, because out here a horse is more than transportation. It's a friend. I stowed the saddle and tack in a tree and I'll go back for it later. But I've more horses and gear at my cabin in the mountains," he continued, "and we'll head there to get horses and the supplies we need for travelling. Can you walk?"

Caleb nodded.

They proceeded to clean up around the campsite, stowing things in a pair of large saddlebags that the man draped over one shoulder, his rifle carried in his free hand. And then they turned and headed toward the nearby mountains.

"We'll reach the base of that nearest mountain about noon today," he explained, "and then it'll be another couple of hours to reach my cabin. We'll take it easy and you tell me when you need to sit down and rest. Alright?"

Caleb nodded, determined to keep up with the big man.

The tall man kept pace with the small boy as they travelled, shortening his lengthy stride to accommodate Caleb's steps. The boy was tall for his age, but still, at six feet, five inches tall, the man's stride was far greater.

"You live all the way up there in the mountains?" Caleb asked, pointing. The man nodded.

"Why do you live so far away from everything?"

The man frowned. "Well, that's a bit of a story, Caleb."

"I like stories," the boy said. "Mr. Hardy used to tell us kids stories over the supper campfire when we overnighted at different places."

"He's a good one," the man said. They walked in silence for a time.

"So," Caleb asked again, "why do you live so far from everything?"

The man considered the question for a moment. "Probably to just get away from people and towns," he began. "I used to live in the east, like most folks who are coming out here now. I had a good education, went to good schools and had a nice family, kind parents and two brothers I was close with. If I'd stayed back there I probably would have become a lawyer, the same as my father and one brother, but that didn't seem very interesting to me. Then I was offered a job working on the railway, laying track as the rail lines stretched further and further west. I did that for almost four years and it was good honest physical work. Met some real interesting people, too.

I went back home to where I grew up a little after that and visited family, and then I got itchy feet again and signed onto the crew of a freighter shipping out for the Orient. For the next four years I travelled the oceans of the world, seeing sights I never thought I'd get to see. I met people from more than twenty different countries and found that folks are much the same no matter where you might find them. Mostly good, some not so much and some downright nasty and evil. It's important you learn early in life how to tell good folks from bad, Caleb, because you can't always tell right off by just looking at them. Some of the best folks look rough and some of the worst look mighty fine. Takes some listening and thinking to tell for sure. Best you remember that."

"I will," Caleb Tolliver said. Then he paused.

"Mister, what's your name?"

A marked hesitation. Then, "You can call me Crispin, Caleb."

The boy smiled. "I never heard that name before. I like it."

That made the man named Crispin smile. "I do too," he said. "It's Irish and it was my father's middle name."

They reached the lower foothills just after noon and rested while they ate cold jerky and dry rolls with hot beans and a lot of cold water. Then they hiked up the side of a mountain slope, not a particularly difficult climb but always upward and they stopped often to rest. Crispin could see the boy was tiring, given that he had to take three steps for each of the taller man's.

Three hours later they turned past an outcropping and Caleb saw Crispin's log cabin, somewhat small it seemed to him, and noted it was built behind a sheltering row of large rocks, completely invisible from below. When they reached the cabin, Caleb saw it was a bit larger than he thought, though still smaller than their home back in Virginia. But it looked solid and he said so.

"When you build something, Caleb," Crispin said. "Build to last. Out here it's the shiny things that rust most quickly but the solid well-build things seem to last forever. It's the same with people. Sometimes the ones that sparkle can't really stand up to the challenges while those that appear weak have spines stronger than tall pines. You just never know about folks sometimes."

The comfortable wood furniture inside the log and stone cabin was handmade and well-built. There was a large stone fireplace and along one wall shelves full of books, more than twenty it seemed to Caleb, though it was probably fewer. He commented on that when Crispin came back into the cabin.

"I like to read," Crispin said. "Over the years I've been able to pick up books here and there, sometimes buying them, sometimes trading for them. I brought six back with me the last time I was east. Some books you read only once and, having put them down, never think or need to pick them up again. But a really good book, one that's well-written, is like a place you've been before or a friend you've known and when you go back and read it all over gain you see things you never noticed the first time. Those are the kinds of books I keep."

They took time to clean up around the place and then Crispin led him behind the cabin to a small grassy meadow where four horses, their heads down, chomped on high yellow and green grass. Crispin whistled and two of the horses lifted their heads and turned to walk toward him.

"They're not in a corral," Caleb said. "Aren't you afraid they'll run off?"

Crispin laughed. "Not these horses," he said. "They're mountain bred and they like it here where they're spoiled. Besides, there are cougars and bears in the mountains and I want my horses to be free to fight them off or run as need be. A corral would just make things more dangerous for them. Animals are really a lot like people, Caleb. They need company and if you treat them well and show them you care, they never run away. I mean, why would they when they have everything they need right here and the freedom to come and go as they please?"

There was a painful wistfulness in those few words that even the young boy noted, but he said nothing. He had noticed the picture of the pretty woman on one of the shelves in the cabin and wanted to ask about her but decided not to. He noticed some things in the house that were things a woman would have and guessed the woman in the picture had lived there before but that she did not anymore and had left some things behind.

Crispin got saddles from a small shed and saddled two of the horses.

"Can you ride?" he said.

Caleb nodded. "My father let me ride a little when we were back at home but not when we were on the trail with the wagons. He said it'd be too dangerous for me to ride out where we didn't know the land."

"Well, today you ride. I've shortened the stirrups for you and she's a pretty gentle and sure-footed horse so I'm sure we'll have no trouble going down the mountain and across to Settler's Pass."

He packed sufficient food and other necessary items for travelling, telling Caleb it would be sometime late the next day or early the day after when they caught up to the wagons. Caleb noted Crispin was wearing a pistol and belt, though he had only been carrying a rifle when they met in the forest.

"But we'll find them," Crispin said. "Don't worry about that. They're not going to leave the trail and we'll catch them easy enough before Settler's Pass."

They started down the mountain, riding slowly and side by side.

"You're wearing a gun now," Caleb said, pointing to it. "But you weren't before. You just had your rifle."

Crispin nodded. "You notice the little things, Caleb. That's good. Up here in the mountains and down in the forest a pistol's actually not much use. A rifle's the weapon you need for protection and hunting. But down among the people, well, you never know who you might come across and it's always better to be prepared. And even better not to need it at all."

"My mother says men who wear guns are bad men."

"In some cases your mother would probably be right, Caleb. But we also need to have guns out here to protect people like your mother from any of those bad people. Does that make sense?"

"I'm not sure," the boy said, shrugging. "What's safer, if everyone has a gun or if no one has guns? That's something she says too."

Crispin smiled. "She sounds like a very wise woman, Caleb. But even the wisest person I know, a philosopher, a man named Qualen, would have real trouble coming up with a solid answer to that question. Right now, out here in the west, weapons are necessary for survival and protection. It may be that someday our societies will advance beyond the need for weapons, but I doubt it."

"What's a society?"

"You ask a lot of questions, Caleb," Crispin said, smiling, "but you ask some really good questions so don't ever stop asking them. Let's see. A society is a group of people who decide to live together with a set of rules for how they behave and how they treat each other. If you have the right people with the right beliefs and rules and who behave respectfully you can have a strong society and everyone can be happy and do well."

He stopped his horse suddenly. Caleb did the same. Crispin raised his eyes, turned his head side to side and then sniffed the air. Then he started his horse forward again, occasionally looking around.

"Something wrong?" Caleb asked.

Crispin shook his head. "I don't think so, but this horse was sticking his ears up and all around and sniffing the air and that can sometimes mean there's something out of place. But I don't hear or see anything to be concerned about. Might just be an animal scent that he picked up."

"You sure know a lot of stuff," Caleb said.

Crispin smiled. "It probably seems so to you because you're still so young, Caleb. But I spent a lot of my early years in good schools and you can learn a lot in school if you pay attention and work hard. Some kids don't like school so they spend more time being unhappy about going than they do learning what they're taught. That's a mistake. I've been out here in the west for several years and out here you learn different things than you learn in eastern schools. But out here if you don't learn those things well and if you don't learn fast you might not last. So it's important to try and learn something new every day and then practice and practice until you're good at it."

"I sure hope there's a school in Kansas I can go to," Caleb said. "Mom teaches me reading, printing and numbers most every day while we travel and sometimes some other kids are there too, but a school with real books, well that would be something."

"Indeed it would," Crispin agreed. "Education is important and sometimes young people don't realize its true value until they're much older. You've already figured it out, and that's good."

The afternoon passed without incident and they found a spot for a camp with overhanding trees and a running stream. They unsaddled the horses and Crispin showed Caleb how to rub them down before letting them loose to eat and drink. Caleb stood on the trunk of a fallen tree to rub down the little grulla mare.

"Other folks been here," Caleb said, pointing to the ground.

"I wondered if you'd notice," Crispin said. Then he pointed to various tracks and markings. "Four men," he said. "One's very heavy and you can tell that by how deep his boot tracks are. One's got rundown heels on his boots."

He looked around. "I'm guessing they were here for a late lunch about four hours or so ago and they've moved on."

"Are they going in the same direction as us?"

Crispin thought for a moment. "Yes, I believe they are, Caleb."

He took the fixings for dinner from his saddlebags. "Let's eat and get some sleep," he said. "I want to get moving at first light, maybe a bit before."

Caleb thought Crispin was concerned about something but the man seemed as calm as ever so he did not ask. The meal was simple but filling and they took to their bedding and Caleb, to his surprise, was immediately asleep.

When Crispin shook him awake it was still dark, though early morning light was showing along to top edge of the mountains to the east.

"Time to go," Crispin said. "We'll stop for breakfast on the way."

The horses had been saddled and they were on their way with just enough light to see where they were going. The light of the early morning slipped down the mountains and across the plains to meet them during the next hour. Although Crispin seemed the same as always, and they chatted as usual as they went along, Caleb noticed they moved a little quicker and that Crispin studied the ground a bit more than the previous day. Finally, Caleb's curiosity got the better of him.

"Is there trouble, Crispin? You seem different today."

The man turned to look at him seriously. "I'm not sure, Caleb. I'm a bit concerned about the men who camped where we stayed last night. I think I recognized the horse track of someone I know, and if so, then these are the kind of bad men your mother talked you about. And they're heading in the direction of the wagon train. Four well-armed men could easily attack a small train just like yours and that's got me a bit concerned."

"Can we warn my mom and dad and the others?"

Crispin shrugged. "If we can get close enough to the wagon train before those men do anything, I suppose I could fire a few gunshots in the air. That'd get the attention of the men on the wagon train and Tom Hardy would know just what to do. But let's see what we can do ourselves before that."

It was three hours later that Crispin saw the campsite off to the side and the four horses. They were still two to three hours from where the wagon train was likely to be, so there was still time. He thought about riding past and warning the wagon train and that was probably the smartest thing to do. But sometimes he just did what moved him in the moment rather than doing the smart thing.

"Caleb," he said. "We're going to ride down and talk with these men. When we get to their camp I want you to stay sitting in the saddle. You see that rock formation in the distance, the one that looks a bit like a church steeple?" He pointed toward a slim finger of rock some distance away.

Caleb nodded.

"If there's any shooting, any at all, you ride straight for that steeple rock as fast as that horse will carry you and keep on going until you're past it. Keep going straight and you'll hit the main trail ahead of the wagon train. You can wait for them there on the trail and they'll come right to you."

"What about you?"

Crispin smiled. "I'll be riding right behind you. But don't look back, just keep riding. Do you understand? This is important." His voice was quiet, but the tone of his voice was firm.

Caleb nodded, appreciating the seriousness of the situation.

So, with Caleb in tow, Crispin rode down to the camp.

The four men watched as the two riders came down the slope to the camp. Two remained seated at the fire, cups and plates in their hands and two others stood and walked to the edge of the camp to await their arrival.

When they reached the edge of the camp, Crispin stepped from his horse and took off his coat, laying it across the saddle. He turned to the men standing some twenty feet away. He was smiling.

"Morning, Myles," he said to the big man. "Coffee hot?"

Myles Rawlings narrowed his eyes. "Crispin? That you?"

Crispin nodded. "As ever was."

"Whatcha doing out here, Crispin?" Myles asked. "I thought you moved on further west to California or somewhere such."

Crispin shook his head in answer and then pointed to Caleb. "This boy got lost from a wagon train that's heading toward Settler's Pass. I'm taking him back to the train so he can join up with his folks. They'll be missing him."

"Wagon train?" the man beside Rawlings said. "That's the train we . . .

Rawlings raised a hand to stop the man from continuing.

"We'd plans for those wagons," Rawlings said.

"Then you'll have to change your plans," Crispin said. "I'd not want anything to happen to those folks. I've gone out of my way to bring this boy back to them and that's what I'll be doing."

Then there was silence. Even Caleb could sense the tension building.

"There's four of us," the man beside Rawlings said.

"Shut up, Brooks," Rawlings said. "I'm doing the talking."

"We ain't passing on this train," Brooks continued. "Not for some kid."

"Actually, you are," Crispin said quietly.

"He's right though, Crispin, there's four of us here," Rawlings said, though uncertainty was clear in his voice. The two men by the fire were now standing and waiting but not moving closer. Not moving at all.

Crispin nodded. "That's a fact, Myles. That's a fact. But it's me."

"You try anything," Brooks said, "and mebbe we'll just shoot that kid."

Myles Rawlings knew Brooks had just made a terrible mistake. He looked down and shook his head and when he looked up again he saw that the tall man's grey eyes had darkened and narrowed. A chill ran up and down his back. This was Crispin. Myles Rawlings swallowed and searched for the right words.

"I suppose we can pass things up this one time, Crispin," he said. "As a favour to an old friend. Wouldn't want the kid to miss out on getting back together with his folks. Know I'd feel the same if it were my kid."

Brooks' face was now crimson. "What in hell you talking about, Myles!"

Myles Rawlings turned to Brooks. "Lincoln, you do what you want. Me, I'm going to pour myself a coffee and then we're heading back."

He nodded to Crispin. "Good to see you again, Crispin." He turned and waved the other two men back to the fire where they sat and poured coffee.

Lincoln Brooks was angry and a little confused by what was happening. Myles Rawlings was a known bad man, a tough one, but he seemed to be acting like a fool, Brooks thought. Well, if Rawlings did not want to take this man on, then Lincoln Brooks would take care of it for him. He was gun handy and always had taken care of such things.

He looked at Crispin once more, weighing his chances and suddenly he found he did not much like what he saw in front of him.

"Indecision can kill a man," Crispin said. He was smiling.

Brooks decided. "Another time," he said simply, and turned to walk away. But it was a feint and he went for his gun as he turned.
"I guess you can do the honours and bury him," Crispin said to Myles Rawlings. "Buzzard bait might be all he's good for."

"Had the same thought myself," Rawlings said from the fireside. Rawlings just smiled ruefully and shook his head. Then he poured another two cups of coffee, stood and brought one over to Crispin. The other he handed up to Caleb who was still sitting in the saddle, but had not ridden off.

"You drink coffee, boy?"

Caleb nodded and took a sip. "It's good," he said. He was in shock over what had happened and they could see it.

"You see, boy, that man lying there was a real nasty man," Rawlings said. "If your friend Crispin here hadn't come along, he would maybe have hurt some of the people you care about. Now he can't do that. So what Crispin did had to be done. I hope you understand. Crispin here, he's one of the good ones."

Caleb nodded, but avoided looking at the body.

Crispin holstered the pistol and sipped at the coffee. He had not taken his eyes off the two men at the fire, though they showed no intent to move.

"Good coffee," he said. Rawlings nodded.

"Appreciate what you said to Caleb," Crispin said to Rawlings. "Maybe you should be taking your own advice, Myles. You're too good a man for this."

"Been thinking the same thing," Myles Rawlings said. "Might be time."

Crispin just smiled and nodded. "Keep thinking." Then he turned, mounted his horse and he and Caleb rode toward the steeple rock.

Crispin did not look back.

"Did you really have to shoot that man?"

Crispin looked over at the boy and nodded. "It was what he said about killing you, Caleb. Anyone who'd threaten a defenseless child would hurt anyone. If I didn't do it, someone else would have to eventually. He drew on me and he would have killed both of us. So yes, I had to."

"They were afraid of you."

Crispin shook his head. "Not really. They're pretty tough men, Caleb. You have to be that tough to make it out here. But they're not stupid, especially Myles. He considered the situation and then decided. In other circumstances, it might have been quite different."

Caleb shook his head. "Nope, they were afraid of you."

Crispin did not argue. After all, the boy was right.

Three hours later they arrived at the intersection of the trail on which the wagon train would approach. Crispin got down and checked the trail for recent tracks. "No sign of wagons rolling through here recently," he said. "We're ahead of them, as I hoped we'd be. Now we wait for them to get here."

They made a small fire and Caleb helped prepare a meal of beans, biscuits and tea, and he especially enjoyed the tea, a rare pleasure.

"Are you going back up into the mountains to your cabin?" he asked. "It's pretty far away from everything."

Crispin nodded. "That's home, Caleb, and home matters."

"But won't you be lonely?"

Crispin smiled. "I'm never lonely, Caleb. I may be alone a lot of the time but as long as I've got the mountains, my horses, my books and my thoughts and memories, I can never be lonely. And from time to time I have visitors."

"Like that man Myles?"

Crispin shook his head, smiling ruefully. "No, Caleb, I don't let men like Myles Rawlings know where I live. Myles is alright on his own, at least most of the time but I'm not as trusting of the kinds of men he rides with."

"Like that lady in the picture in your cabin? Does she come to the cabin?"

Crispin shook his head. "Her name is Emily," he said. "She lived with me for a while but she did find it too lonely, and after a time she went back east."

"Will she come back some day?"

Crispin shrugged. "I'm not sure, Caleb. I hope so. She said she might. But it's been almost two years so I don't really know if she will or not."

"You should ask her, Crispin. She might just be waiting for you to ask her."

"I'll give that some thought, Caleb. You might be right."

"I'll miss you, Crispin."

"I'll miss you, too," Crispin said. "I enjoyed our time together and our talks. You're a smart and thoughtful boy and you're not afraid to ask questions, very interesting questions. And you're curious, which I think is very important in someone growing up in a new part of the country. We've enjoyed each other's company and now we'll have those memories to carry with us."

He sensed a far-off sound, distant but coming nearer. The wagon train. He climbed onto a rock to check. He could see, some distance away, the eight wagons and recognized Tom Hardy's big bay horse out in front.

They cleaned the site and Crispin packed things away.

"I'm going, Caleb," he said. "You wait here for the wagon train and your folks. They're going to be mighty happy and surprised to see you."

"But they'll want to thank you!" Caleb said. "I want them to meet you!"

"There's no need for their thanks," Crispin said. "I didn't do it for them, I did it for you, and I was happy to help. Besides, I'm shy of folks."

Caleb held out the reins of the horse to Crispin but the tall man shook his head. "A boy like you, so tall and grown up, you're too big to be riding in a wagon. You should have a horse of your own. You keep this one. She likes you. But you have to promise to take care of her and think of me when you ride her."

Caleb nodded, astonished and at a loss for words.

Crispin shook his hand just as he would any man, mounted, turned and rode into the woods without a backward glance. Caleb mounted the horse, using a nearby rock to climb on and walked it down the trail toward the wagons.

From a secluded spot in the woods, Crispin watched the happy reunion of parents and child, rightfully pleased with himself. Then he turned the big horse and pointed its head back toward the far mountains.

He was going to miss that boy.