Gold is a dangerous thing; especially, when a poor man claims it was a gift. What would most folks think?
Of course that he stole it. That's why seventeen-year-old Dalton Fry was lying on a jail bunk awaiting
trial for robbery and murder.
This isn't how the story of the Prodigal son was supposed to end, Dalton thought. He knew better.
His pa was a part-time preacher and rancher. The low point in the story was when the lost son longed to
eat the pig food and came to his senses.
Dalton had come to his senses the month before. He'd walked away from a company mine in southern Colorado.
Chasing cows had been peaches compared to mucking out ore in a hole in the ground. The sulfurous aftertaste
of blasted dynamite still lingered in his mind. He'd rather eat cow dust than hack up mine grit.
"Hey boy," Ike Dobey, the recovering drunk in the next cell called, "why can't you just admit you killed
Crazy Harry and stole his gold?"
Dalton ignored him. A week's worth of drunk and disorderly men had come and gone since his arrest. Twenty-four
hours crawled slower than dirt. Morning light was gleaming off the wall outside his cell, he wished he could stand in it and warm up.
"You can't be more than sixteen," Ike said. "They might not hang you if you confess."
No one believed him. Dalton rubbed his peach-fuzz beard. If he'd just left Harry by the side of the road.
He was almost dead anyway. But Pa had taught him, "You can't go wrong walking on the mercy-side of the road."
Well, circumstance proved Pa wrong. Dalton wondered if his pa received the telegram Sheriff Yeager had sent.
Why would his Pa bother to come? It was only two days until Christmas and Pa wouldn't leave his younger
brother and sisters to celebrate alone. And with the way Dalton had left, walking away from hay in the field.
He hoped it hadn't rained. But he hadn't thought about that then.
Dalton sat back against the cold brick wall and pulled the thin blanket over his legs. "God, you know I've
only tried to do good since I started home. I know I don't deserve your help, but if you could work a
Christmas miracle, I'll serve you and do whatever you want."
"Boy, you know hangin' ain't an easy way to die," Ike's voice echoed from the other cell. "I don't think
they'll hang you on Christmas day, probably the day after. A hangin's like a carnival. Folks need time so they can plan for it."
"Why don't you go back to sleep?"
"I'm so hungry I could eat a goat, hooves and all."
"They won't feed us until the cafe opens up."
"How long will that be?"
"Awhile," Dalton said, "when the night deputy gets off duty he'll go eat his breakfast and then bring us ours."
"He'll probably do a lot of jawing before he remembers us."
"That about sums it up," Dalton agreed, "But I think most of the jawing is about me."
"Why would you invent such an outlandish story? Crazy Harry was a skinflint; he
wouldn't even buy a fellow a drink. Let alone give somebody his gold."
"That's what happened. I can't help if it's the truth."
"So why'd he give you his gold?"
"Cause I tried to save his life and he couldn't take it with him," Dalton said. "The day before he died
he told me where to find it. I took two bags out and left three."
"There's more gold."
"Yeah, I didn't want to be greedy. I wanted enough to buy a new bull for my pa and some bottom land that yields better meadow hay."
"You are nuts, kid. You should have taken it all and rode away."
"Then it would've looked like I robbed and killed him. That's why I told the deputy about everything when I met him on the road."
"You turned yourself in."
"I couldn't have lived with myself. If I was going to accept that gold, I wanted it legal. And if I had
wanted to get away, I could have. Jasper, Harry's mule is half thoroughbred. Harry used to race Jasper
in match races all over the mid-west. I guess he made lots of money before he bought his claim."
"I'll be danged," Ike said. "I thought nobody but Harry could handle that cantankerous jack. You know,
the liveryman Olley Klem wouldn't let Harry stable that mule. That no-account won't get along with horses."
"That's cause Jasper wants to race them."
"If you learned how to handle that jack, you had to have been with Harry awhile."
"I was with Harry nine days after I found him beside road. At first, I saw Jasper standing over what
I thought was a body. Jasper spooked and ran away when I approached. It took me half a day to carry
Harry and backtrack that mule to his shack. I wanted to go for a doctor, but Harry didn't want me to
leave. I think he was afraid he'd die alone."
"Now that's a lie," Ike yelled. "Harry was tougher than nails."
"Mister, death's a fearsome enemy," Dalton said, "but Harry made his peace before he breathed his last."
"Made his peace. The only peace Harry knew was to give you a piece of his mind. And it was good no ladies were present."
"Harry made his peace with God. I'd like to think that with the Good Lord's help I eased Harry's crossing over."
"You sound like a preacher."
"I should be, that's what my pa is. I'll never forget the calm that settled over Harry's face just
before he died. The worry lines smoothed out and he was smiling."
Ike sat in silence as if he didn't how to respond.
"I never understood why Pa was so driven about helping others," Dalton said. "Now I do."
"It doesn't appear that your God is helping you right now."
"Maybe not," Dalton replied, "but I wouldn't count the Lord out. Sometimes his ways are mysterious."
"I'd say He's cutting it pretty close when you're about to hang."
The hallway flooded with light. A deputy entered with two plates of flapjacks. He passed the plates
and a bottle of syrup through a space under the cell doors.
"No meat," Ike complained.
"This isn't a hotel," the deputy replied and opened the hall door. "Dalton, you got a visitor. I'll
send him in when you're through with breakfast."
Dalton set his plate on the bunk. "Go ahead and send him in, I'm not really hungry." His stomach was suddenly
queasy. He hoped it was his pa, but he didn't know what he was going to say. His heart felt like it was in his throat.
The door opened and the deputy led in a large-shouldered man. It was the livery stable owner Olley Klem. What could he want?
"I need your help," Olley said. "That blasted mule of Harry's is tearing my place apart. He's kicked down
two stalls and scared the horses half to death. If we can't get that demon settled down I'm going to have
to shoot it. Sheriff Yeager says I have to keep him as evidence."
"You're in real trouble now," Ike teased. "They're going to add horse stealin' to your charges."
The deputy's hard glare silenced Ike.
"I'm pretty sure I can calm Jasper down," Dalton said. "I spent a lot of time with him
before Harry died. Harry kind of pampered him."
"So you can't tell me how to settle him down?" Olley asked
"I don't think he'd let you close enough. Ask the sheriff to let me out for a little bit. I promise I won't run."
"I don't think Sheriff Yeager will do that," the deputy replied.
"He'd better," Olley growled, "Or the county's gonna buy my stable."
"That's a slick plan," Ike said after the deputy and Olley left. "You can escape on the racing mule."
"I wouldn't even try, I gave my promise."
The door opened and the deputy returned. The keys rattled in the cell door.
Dalton jumped to his feet and waited at the door.
"Back up," the deputy commanded and opened the door.
Dalton stepped back. The deputy kneeled and bound Dalton's ankles with leg shackles.
"Just a minute," Dalton grabbed two flapjacks off his plate, broke them in half, and stuffed them in his vest pocket.
Dalton blinked in the bright sunlight that filled the sheriff's office. The shackles clattered as he followed the
deputy to the front door. Sheriff Yeager was waiting on the boardwalk with a man Dalton didn't recognize.
"This is Doctor Carston," the sheriff said, "he's the county coroner. He and your attorney just got back from Harry's place."
"My attorney?" Dalton stuttered, "What . . . what'd they find out?"
"We'll tell you when you get back," the sheriff said.
Dalton followed the deputy, the shackles clattered quieter in the dirt street. He heard someone behind him. The
doctor and sheriff were a few steps behind. Townspeople lined the boardwalks as they walked up the street. As
they passed the people stepped off the walks and joined in the procession. Dalton felt like he was being led
to the gallows.
When Dalton entered the dark livery entrance, he stopped to let his eyes adjust. The strong smell of manure
and hay almost made him sneeze. Dust motes danced in light beams from holes in the roof. The stalls were empty.
There was not a single horse. Jasper was snubbed to a central post, his ears back, and eyes wild with fury.
Spectators gathered around the building.
A hush settled over the crowd when Dalton advanced toward the mule. He stood still a step away from the post.
"Hey, old boy, I'm back," Dalton spoke gently. Jasper's ears flipped forward in recognition. Dalton loosened
the lead and stepped closer, just enough so Jasper could smell the flapjacks. "I've got something for you.
It's your favorite. I'm sorry that they don't have any molasses on them." Jasper nuzzled the vest pocket and
stepped back. Grabbing a piece of flapjack Dalton slowly held out his palm. Jasper took the flapjack and ate
it. Dalton scratched the mule's nose. Jasper nuzzled the vest again. Dalton gave him another piece.
Voices chattered in the crowd. "That cinches it," someone said.
"He's telling the truth," called another.
"Hallelujah, I told you he was good with animals." Dalton knew that voice. It was Pa.
Dalton turned. His pa was standing in the livery entrance his arms wide open and smiling the biggest
smile Dalton had ever seen. He ran as fast as the shackles would let him and stumbled into his father's arms.
"Son, I heard you needed a lawyer, so I thought I better come."
Dalton was crying. This is the way the prodigal's return ended.
"Let me in there," Sheriff Yeager called, "we need to get those shackles off and then I'll meet you back at the office."
After the sheriff unlocked the shackles, his pa placed his hands on Dalton's shoulders. "I'm proud of you, Dalton.
You did for that old man what Jesus would have done." Tears rimmed his father's eyes.
"He was facing the shadow of death," Dalton said. "Someone had to walk with him."
When Dalton and his pa entered the sheriff's office five bags were setting in the center of the sheriff's desk.
"Merry Christmas, young man," Sheriff Yeager said. "Harry meant you to have this. Who would have guessed that
gold was hidden in that mule's stall? If you hadn't told us we would never have found it. We wouldn't have
entered that stall if you hadn't ridden Jasper to town. That was a miracle in itself. And I will never forget
that peaceful smile on that ornery old man's face. You were there when he needed you most."
"What about that mule?" Olley yelled from outside. "I want my stable back."
"And by the way," the sheriff added, "you get the mule too."