Southern Arkansas, 1868
The word sounded like a curse to Will Danville’s ten-year-old ears. Whatever that word meant, the way the town’s doctor spat it out, dropped the wagon flap and stepped back confirmed it wasn’t good.
“Will they die?” he asked, trying to hide the fear he’d been feeling ever since Ma, Pa and his baby brother took sick.
“Don’t know, son.” The doc walked back to his buggy and climbed inside, Will close at his heels. “Doubt the baby will make it through the night, though.”
“Ma and Pa?” Will grabbed hold of the reins, preventing the old white man from leaving. “You gotta do something. Give them something to make them better. Please?”
“Sorry, son. Ain’t nothing I can give them. Nothing I can do for them. Even if the town folks would let me take a wagon of sick freed slaves into town, they won’t want cholera anywhere near them.”
“What do I do?” Tears rolled down his cheeks.
The doctor looked at the darkening sky warning of the coming storm. “Try to keep them warm and dry. Get them to drink if you can. Fresh water, not the stuff in that barrel.” He pointed to the one strapped to the wagon. “Now let go the reins, boy, I need to get back to town.”
Will watched the buggy disappear over the rise headed east to the last town the wagon train had passed through days before.
Before Tanner, the wagon master, had broken camp that morning, he’d gone into town and asked the doctor to come see what ailed his family—the only kind act the man had shown them since allowing them to join the wagon train back in Tennessee. The only wagon of non-whites heading west, they were forced to travel at the rear of the train, camp out of the circle at night—always down stream at the creeks and rivers—and fend for themselves for fresh meat.
Thunder rumbled in the sky.
Keep them warm and dry.
How was he supposed to do that? There wasn’t a house anywhere near.
He scanned the trees and land around the river where they’d camped two days ago. Maybe if he got the wagon under a bunch of trees they wouldn’t get too wet. Hoping to travel behind the wagon train, he’d already hitched Buster, the mule, to the wagon that morning like Pa had taught him. Then Tanner told him he couldn’t bring sick people on the trail.
“Ain’t looking after no kid and a bunch of sick people,” was all Tanner had muttered, but he did send one of the scouts to town for the doc. He supposed he should be grateful to the old man for that.
“Will?” Ma’s hoarse voice called from inside the wagon.
“Yes, Ma?” he said, climbing up onto the wagon seat and peeking under the flap.
She stared up at him from the blankets, her eyes sunken from the disease, too weak to lift her head. “Son, I want you to take Bessie into town and sell her.”
Will looked to the back of the wagon where the milk cow was tied on to follow the wagon. “But Ma, there won’t be no milk for us if I do that.”
“Listen to me, son.” She coughed and coughed, so hard her frail body shook from the effort. The she wiped at the blood spilling over the corner of her lips. “You heard the doctor. Your pa, brother and I aren’t long for this world…”
“Don’t say that, Ma,” Will said, trying to fight back the tears burning his eyes.
“It’s the truth and don’t you ever hide from the truth, you hear me?” She had just enough strength to use her mother voice.
Her face softened and she held her hand out to him. He took it, feeling the dry skin stretched out over her bony fingers.
“Will, my mama and papa were slaves, their mamas and papas were slaves. You were born a slave. But since the war we’ve been free. Pa and I hoped to start over out west and live as free people, but the good Lord has a different idea for us.” She squeezed his hand as another round of coughing wracked her body. “Son, I want you to promise me you’ll leave us here, take Bessie and sell her. Take that money and survive. Let me rest in peace knowing one of my children is finally free.”
“I promise, Ma. But I ain’t leaving you now. That doctor could be wrong.” He wouldn’t give up that hope. The thought of being alone scared him and he’d promised Pa the day he came to take him and Ma away from that old plantation that he’d never be afraid again, so he clung to that hope.
“All right then.” She heaved a sigh and squeezed his fingers before letting go and closing her eyes. “You’re just as stubborn as your daddy.”
The mention of his father, the white master from the plantation he was born on, made the tears finally spill. This time in anger.
He wasn’t nothing like that old man and it hurt that Ma would say so.
He looked over at the man curled protectively around his mother and infant brother, protecting them even as he neared death. No, he was like his Pa, Gabe Danville, a hero and a good man.
Picking up the reins, he snapped them against Buster’s rump to move them under the canopy of trees further up the riverbank. He wouldn’t think about his past life. He wouldn’t think about Ma, Pa and the baby dying. He wouldn’t think about being alone. He was going to think of only one thing.
Keep them warm and dry.
∗∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
A week later, weary and sad, Will rode Buster into the next town down the trail. He’d tied his few belongings to the old mule’s back. It would’ve been easier to go back to the town they’d passed through, but he didn’t want to see that town or the people who’d willingly let his parents die. Better to move further ahead. Head west.
“Well, lookee here, Ned. Where d’ya suppose he got that mule?” A tall man dressed in dungarees, boots, floppy gray confederate hat and a long coat nudged the man next to him as Will rode past the saloon.
“Leave the boy alone,” his companion, seated in a chair on the wooden sidewalk with one foot up on the railing, said. He tipped his own hat back and studied Will. “Where ya goin’ with that mule?”
“Just ridin’ through town, mister. Lookin’ for supplies.” Will stopped Buster a moment and studied the two men, with his head slightly bowed.
“Did you steal that mule, boy?” the one named Ned asked.
“No, sir. Buster belongs to my family. My pa gave him to me.” It was the truth. He didn’t think anyone needed to know his family had all died before he left them.
“I think yer lyin, boy.” Tall-and-mean took a step off the porch only to be stopped by Ned’s hand on his arm.
“Joe, I said leave the boy alone. He hasn’t caused any trouble, yet” The other man stood up and the sunlight glinted on the bent metal badge on his chest. The man pointed to the end of town. “The Smith’s mercantile is down that way.”
Will got the idea he was the town sheriff and was warning him not to cause trouble. He kicked Buster’s side and snapped the reins to get him moving, still feeling Joe’s squinty-eyed-gaze following him. He’d seen that look ever since they left Tennessee, but he’d always felt protected from it when sitting between Ma and Pa on the wagon seat. Now he was alone and that meanness was meant just for him.
As he rode through the rest of the town he kept his eyes straight ahead, the back of his neck tingling to warn him more than just Joe didn’t like a half-white, half-black boy riding freely through their town. Too damn bad. Ma made him promise he’d go west and he needed supplies to do that.
Outside the mercantile, he stopped Buster and slid off his back. An older man in a long gray apron swept the porch to the right of where Will tied Buster’s reins to the hitching post. When he stepped onto the porch, the man moved over to block his way.
“Where ya thinkin’ yer goin’, boy?”
“I came for some supplies, mister.”
“Only white folks can go in this door,” the man said. And as if they’d been waiting for their cue, a fair-haired family of five walked past and into the mercantile.
“But I need to buy some things for the trail, mister.” Will reached in his pocket and pulled out a few coins. “I have my money.”
“So you do, but you ain’t going in this door. You go round back and Ol’ Mose’ will get you what you need. Now get with you.” He swept the broom at his feet as if Will were no more than the dirt he was sweeping from the porch.
Will narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips, anger surging through him.
He wasn’t a slave anymore. He had every right to walk in the door if he wanted, but what good would it do to walk in here and make the owners mad at him? He needed food for his trip west and grain for Buster and he had a feeling making this man mad might not get him any of those things.
Swallowing his anger, he shoved his money into his pocket and stepped off the porch. Eyes lowered to the ground, he didn’t see the man in front of him until he slammed smack into him.
“Whoa, there, son.”
Huge hands settled on his shoulders to steady him. Slowly Will looked up, and up, and up. He was a mountain of a man. The biggest man he’d ever seen. Bigger even than Pa.
“Sorry, sir,” he said, swallowing hard.
The man smiled and the sudden fear that had jumped inside Will at seeing the man dissolved. “You need to watch where you’re walking. A man should always pay attention to his surroundings.”
The man nodded, released him. Will watched him stride confidently into the store. That was the first white man who’d ever treated him kindly. He lifted his head and turned to climb onto Buster. Maybe things would be better out west.
He might not like it, but he swallowed his pride and rode around back of the store. He slid off Buster’s back and tied the mule to the scraggly tree a few feet to the side of the back entrance. As he turned, he heard jangling of spurs and froze.
“Well, lookee what I found. What cha’ doin’ back here, boy? Fixin to steal from Smith like you stole that old mule?” Mean Joe took another step and trapped him between Buster and the wall.
“No, mister. I’ve got money to pay for my supplies.” He tried not to look down, but he couldn’t help it. Joe’s stale tobacco breath inched up his fear.
“I don’t believe you. I think you’re a horse thief and we hang horse thieves here in Texas.” Joe gripped him by his shirt and forced him back into the wall, hard.
“No, I swear, I didn’t steal Buster and I’m not gonna steal from Mister Smith. I have money.” His heart raced.
“If you’re not lying to me, let me see it.”
Will swallowed and pulled some of the coins from his pocket. His hand shook as he opened his palm, the coins jingling.
“Now how do I know you didn’t steal those, too?” Joe leaned in and sneered at him. “Your kind always stealin’ white folks hard earned money.”
“It’s mine. I…I sold Bessie…our cow.”
“I think I’ll confiscate these here coins,” Joe said, scooping them out of Will’s hand just as a shadow fell over them.
“You wouldn’t be stealing from my friend there would you, Joe?”
Will looked over Joe’s shoulder at the mountain man staring down at them. The man wasn’t smiling this time and he looked meaner than Joe.
Joe looked over his shoulder, dropping the coins back into Will’s hand and swallowing hard. “Uh, no sir, Marshall. Just checking to be sure he had enough to buy his supplies from Smith.” He released his grip on Will’s shirt and moved to the side.
“You okay, son?”
“Yes, sir,” Will said, relief pouring through him. This time when he looked up, he noticed the star pinned to the man’s chest. U.S. Marshal had been pounded into the metal.
“Good.” The marshal clamped a big hand on Joe’s shoulder. None too gently by the grimace that filled Joe’s face. “I’d hate to think you’d rob some one as defenseless as this boy.”
“Uh, no Marshal, wouldn’t do that.” Joe’s Adam’s apple bobbed in his effort to swallow as he inched further away from them.
“Don’t you have somewhere else to be then?”
“Yes, sir, Marshall. Sure do.” He turned and hurried away.
“Put those coins away, son, before you lose them and let’s go see about your supplies.” The Marshal turned and walked back into the store. Will shoved the coins into his pocket once more and hurried after him.
“Are you a real U.S. Marshal, mister?”
The man paused at the door and held out his hand. “Captain Anson McCarthy, U. S. Marshal at your service.”
He hesitated a minute then shook the man’s hand, firmly, just like Pa had taught him. “William Danville.”
“Glad to meet you, William. You can call me Cap. My boys and all my friends do.”
“You can call me Will, sir. That’s what my ma and pa called me.”
“Called? Did something happen to them?” Cap’s eyes narrowed and he stared up the path where Mean Joe had disappeared, as if he thought the man might’ve had something to do with their dying.
He could’ve lied and gotten his tormentor in trouble, but something about Cap made him want to tell the truth, no matter what.
“They died last week. Cholera got them back up the trail a ways.”
“Sorry to hear that, son.” Cap opened the door and held it for him. “Let’s get you some supplies and maybe a bite to eat over at the café across the street.”
His stomach picked that particular moment to growl and eating sounded pretty good. He followed Cap into the store, head held high and his eyes trying to take in everything around him.
They sat out on the wooden plank walkway eating fried chicken watching the folks moving about town. When the café owner refused to let Will inside, Cap had said, “Well, pack up two plates then and we’ll just dine outside.”
He’d also gotten a pitcher of lemonade to share and a whole apple pie.
Cap finished off his chicken then let out the biggest burp Will had ever heard. He snickered and Cap laughed.
“One advantage to eating outside, Will, is you can let loose a wallop of a burp and no one cares. Inside we’d have to use table manners.”
“Yes, sir. Ma always made me say excuse me.”
“Sounds like she was a good ma.”
“The best.” Suddenly, he wasn’t hungry anymore and set his last piece of chicken back on the plate.
“So, where you heading from here? Got some folks in these parts?”
“No, sir. Pa was moving our whole family out west. I promised Ma, I’d keep going.”
“Did your pa have any particular destination in mind?”
“No. Just some place west.”
“The west is a pretty big place. I’m headed back to my ranch, Los Hombres, in west Texas. It’s near a little town called Little Mesa. You’re more than welcome to hitch along with me. You can even stay at the ranch a while if you want. See how you like ranch life.”
“Do you got any children?” Back on the plantation there’d been this white boss who liked to take the boys out by themselves when no one was looking. Ma had kept him close by until the day Pa had come to take them away. He sure hoped Cap wasn’t one of those men.
A shadow passed over Cap’s face, then he shook his head. “My wife Juanita and I don’t have any of our own. But a couple of years ago two boys a little older than you, Quinn and Dakota, came to Los Hombres and have grown to be like sons to us. “
“Dakota? That’s a funny name.”
“Not to Dakota. He’s part Sioux.” Cap picked up the pie and cut a big chunk to put on his plate. “Tell you what, you think about it a while. To be honest with you, son. There’s going to be people all over the country who aren’t going to be kind to a freed slave, even though the law says they’re supposed to. At Los Hombres things are different. A man earns his keep, boys included. Each man is treated with respect based on his abilities, not on the color of his skin.”
“I don’t know much about ranching.”
Cap shoved some pie onto his plate. “You’re smart. You’ll catch on fast.”
Will took a bite of pie, his appetite returned. “So that what you was doing here? Ranching business?”
“No, sir. I had a cattle rustler to turn in up North for trial. Just passing through on my way back to Los Hombres.”
They ate on in silence. He mulled over everything he’d learned about the marshal. He sure was big and he felt a little safe since they’d met. Cap had bought their lunch, but didn’t try to buy his supplies for him. Said, “A man should feel proud about buying his own needs.”
A fellow could do worse than a traveling companion than his own U.S. Marshal. And from the way Cap spoke about Los Hombres, he wanted to see this ranch of his. Maybe he’d stay a while or move on if it didn’t fit him.
His decision made, he finished his pie, wiped his hand on his dungaree leg and held it out to Cap. “Thanks for the offer, Cap. Buster and I’d be pleased to join you on the trail.”