Milt Wilcox unpinned the badge from his vest and hefted it in his palm. It didn't weigh much. Didn't look like much either, coated as it was with trail dust and smudged with ash. Too many campfires, he reckoned. He ought to polish it.
Rubbing his thumb across the engraved letters—U.S. MARSHAL—he remembered a time when polish mattered, years ago, well before he'd taken this job and headed west.
His name had been different then. There'd been more words and letters to it, so many it wasn't worth the breath it took to say them all. 'Milt Wilcox' was a whole lot easier to spit out. Back in that other life, the only thing that had distinguished him from his father had been a number at the end of all that nonsense. Maybe it had been fitting, back then. Milt had looked after his brothers almost like he'd been a second father to them.
A glance at the sleeping youngster on the other side of his fire brought one of those brothers to mind. Henry had been the youngest of Milt's four younger brothers, and the one Milt had felt the strongest need to protect.
Damn you, Henry, Milt said to the figure in his head as he closed his fist around the badge.
Then he looked across his fire again and tried to reckon why seeing the good-for-nothing kid lying there brought long-buried memories of his kin flooding back to life.
Until the kid had mentioned his pa—a word Milt's own father would have abhorred—Milt hadn't given any measure of thought to his latest prisoner. And he sure hadn't given any measure of thought to the life he'd led back east since he'd turned his eyes to the frontier.
What made that night at that campfire with that particular convict so different from any other that it drove Milt to do so much damned thinking?
The afternoon had been the same as any other since he'd first pinned on his badge. He'd taken a convicted murderer off the hands of a local sheriff to transport him for incarceration at the territorial prison. That's all this kid had been to Milt right then: just another outlaw, no different from the long string of no-goods, young and old, Milt had corralled over the years on behalf of the United States justice system. Outlaws were outlaws, pure and simple. Most were about as mangy as that kid, although some were almost as polished as Milt's father had been.
Then that kid had called him sir, thanked him for the blanket and the bowl of half-cooked beans, and, to top it all, he'd told Milt, "You remind me of my pa."
Milt had squinted over at him, calculating in his head just what the kid might have meant.
"Pa was a sheriff," the kid added. "A good one. Not like the one who sent me here."
Studying him more closely, Milt started to see him as a youngster, a boy who should be out catching tadpoles.
Still, he was an outlaw. A wanted man. Milt had better things to think about.
"I wanted to be a lawman, too," the kid said later. "I was going to be just like him."
Those words came out in a woe-begotten tone that had hit Milt bone deep. He'd had to hit back. "You're a long way from being a lawman, kid. So why don't you quit your jawin'?"
The kid took that hit right in the eyes. "I wanted him to be proud of me," he replied in choked gasps as tears started to spill from the wound Milt had struck. He sounded more like a lost little boy than a convict. "Pa was the best man I ever knew. Better'n any man alive." With his hands cuffed in front of him, it was as awkward for him to rub the tears away with his shirt sleeve as it was for Milt to watch him do it.
Then Milt had made the mistake of looking deeper, deep enough to see that boy loved his pa with the same fierce intensity Milt had seen in his youngest brother's eyes in the seconds before they'd gone empty. Henry had loved their father so much he'd been willing to kill or die for the sake of that love, even as Milt had been willing to kill or die to stop the ugly polish from spreading like the sort of disease it was. Civil War is what they called it, a polished name meant to mask the worst kind of mangy ugliness.
This kid wasn't Henry, but he was just as blind. Love like what Milt saw in that boy's eyes was deadly. Milt reckoned it a sure sign of cold, hard contagion. "There's not a man on earth who's better than any other," Milt had scolded.
"My pa was! Everyone said so!"
Milt hadn't even bothered to grunt in response. Teaching the kid about how folks mask their ugly wasn't his responsibility. Getting him to prison was.
The boy sure was young though, younger than Milt had been, maybe as young as Henry, back when Milt had finally seen past his father's mask all those years ago. Milt had found his father wiping blood from his boots. The elder William Charles Milton Wilcox had been standing beside the corpse of a slave named Tobias, a man Milt might have called friend, had their stations in life been different.
"He tried to escape," Milt's father had said casually, as though he'd just tossed out a rotten apple. Then, the apple forgotten, he'd smiled and cheerfully asked whether Milt had invited a polished friend to Sunday dinner.
"I wanted to kill him." This time the kid's words could have come from Milt's own lips.
"Why?" Milt rasped around something thick in his throat. "Because he was too damn good for you?"
Frustrated, Milt had shot back at the boy, "Why would you want to kill your pa?"
The kid's face had turned ashen. "No. I didn't mean . . . " He shook his head slowly, his Adam's apple bobbing in a heavy swallow. "I . . . I meant the man who killed my pa. Gunslinger shot him down in cold blood, right in the middle of the street. Pa never even had a chance to draw."
Milt got thrown by that answer. Pure instinct had him throw something right back. "Vengeance is a fool's excuse, kid. Damn shame. Too young to know any better, but old enough to face a judge."
"I did know better. I didn't kill him. I wanted to, but I didn't. Pa wouldn't ever forgive me if I had."
"Hate to tell you, but corpses don't do much forgiving."
There'd come that ashen look again. Milt almost felt bad for saying what he had, but he wasn't about to apologize for it. The boy had to learn sooner or later. Besides, Milt didn't much like the way the kid was causing him to think.
In a memory far worse than that of his father's bloodied boots and harder to bury, Milt saw himself on a battlefield, facing young brother Henry. A fateful twist of irony had Milt in Union blue and Henry in ragged, rebel grey. Henry, impassioned with all sorts of ugly contagion, hadn't hesitated like Milt had. Henry had shot to kill, but his aim had been off. Milt's shot, which should have gone wide from Henry's bullet burrowing into his arm, had hit its mark with a precision that would haunt Milt until his dying day. Henry had been dead before he'd hit the ground. Never even had the chance to blink.
That battlefield was years behind Milt and miles away. And the kid on the other side of his campfire wasn't Henry. And Milt sure wasn't that boy convict's older brother.
"Who was it, then?" Milt had asked. Maybe if he got the boy to talking, Henry would go back to being buried. "Whose life was worth throwin' yours away?"
The kid's eyes had clouded up with more of those little boy tears. "It wasn't my fault he died. But they wouldn't listen to me. I tried to save him. I swear I did."
So did I, Milt told himself. Trouble is, you can't save someone who doesn't know he needs saving.
And you can't pretend something's buried if you keep carrying it around with you.
Milt stopped breathing when realization hit him with more force than Henry's bullet. He'd never actually buried his father's legacy, had he? No. He'd embraced it. The only difference between them now was what kind of ugly they were hiding. Milt's ugly was a thing called the law. He'd let the law blind him to justice.
There hadn't been anything just about two brothers fighting against each other all those years ago over two different ideals of right and wrong.
And there wasn't anything just about delivering a dead sheriff's scared, young, grieving son to prison.
Another look at the badge cuffed in his palm showed Milt it was crusted over with a whole lot of ugly, the kind of ugly he'd seen in the bloodied polish of his father's boots.
Milt's hand moved before his thinking could stop it. By the time thinking kicked in, the badge was sitting in the fire, getting all its ugly licked clean by the flames.
And finally Milt could breathe easy. Instinct felt a whole lot more comfortable than all that gut-churning thinking.
Grabbing a key from the saddlebag beside him, Milt pushed himself to his feet and stepped to the other side of the fire. The kid stirred again, looking like he wanted to come awake but just didn't have the energy for it. That boy was far too young to be in irons. He hadn't even learned how to keep wary out on the trail. A grown man would've come awake before Milt had taken a single step toward him. The boy should be in a bed in a warm house with a mother and father looking after him. Or an older brother.
The chains clattered when Milt released them. That's what finally brought the kid around.
"Wha . . . what are you doing?"
"You'll sleep better without this weight." Milt started to slip the key into his pocket out of pure habit. Then, realizing he wouldn't have any need for it anymore, he tossed it into the fire instead. "If you want my advice, leave at dawn. Take the bay. She's a good animal, but not so fine as to catch any notice. Your best bet is to head north. Keep clear of as many folk as you can for the next hundred miles or so. You should be good once you reach Montana, but if you keep going north all the way to Canada, you'll be even better. Take a new name. Start clean."
The kid stared at him.
Milt turned away. "You don't have to wait for me to fall asleep, if you'd rather light out now," Milt settled himself into his bedroll. "But you'll get farther if you're rested. I ain't gonna chase you down, either way."
Still, the boy didn't move. Milt was reminded of an injured coyote pup separated from his pack and eyeing a momma wolf to see whether she was planning to eat him or feed him. Damn. He didn't trust Milt. And why should he? The thought stirred a memory of big brother Milton coaxing ten-year-old Henry out of hiding from the monsters in the woods.
You'll be safe with me, Milt had promised.
"Why?" The question came as a whisper, so soft and uncertain, Milt almost didn't hear it.
Sighing, Milt turned, facing the kid again. "Because," he said, looking right into the boy's frightened gaze, "prison isn't the right place for a boy like you, no matter what you've done."
Because, Milt added silently, the monsters in prison are real, and there wouldn't be a damned thing I could do to protect you from them.
"I told you, I didn't do it."
"It don't matter."
"If it was anyone's fault, it was Bobby's. He snuck up behind me and tried to push me in the river."
Milt said nothing.
"He was always messin' with me," the kid went on. "Always laughin' at me, and makin' the others laugh, too. When he pushed
me, I . . . I grabbed onto him," the boy clutched two fistfuls of air. "But I fell anyway, and
I . . . I guess I pulled him in, too. The current took us. I thought we were both done for. Then I got
caught up in a bunch of tree roots. I held on tight, and I hollered at Bobby to take my hand. He . . . ignored
me. Like I wasn't even there, like he always did when he wasn't lookin' for a laugh. He was a Prescott, and I was just the new kid.
I guess he didn't even figure I was good enough to save his life. The last I saw of him, he was hangin' onto a log. Then it rolled
over on him. He never came back up."
It was the longest string of words the kid had pulled together since Milt had taken him off the hands of the Prescott's bought and paid for sheriff.
"That it?" Milt asked.
The boy gave a hesitant shrug. ""I . . . I reckon."
Milt nodded, then rolled over to go to sleep.
"I can't just . . . run."
"My pa would say running's for cowards. He'd say I have to clear my name, or . . . or accept the consequences."
Milt sat up to face him again. "Kid, some of the bravest men I ever thought I knew turned out to be the biggest fools.
Now, I'd rather be a livin' coward than a dead fool. What about you?"
* * *
After two days of hard riding and four more spent weeding through tall tales and the marginally reliable words of town and trail gossips, Milt spotted chimney smoke floating upwards from the trees. The sight was both welcome and disturbing. Any other outlaw would have taken off that first night at the campfire. But this kid wasn't like any other outlaw.
Dismounting in front of the tumbledown cabin, Milt ground-tied his horse, and then headed inside to find the boy standing frozen, facing the door, eyes wide with something that looked a little like fear and too much like hope.
"You came back," the boy said.
"Said I would, didn't I?" Milt dropped his hat onto a table that no longer showed any of the dirt and dust that had covered it when he'd left. Frowning, he glanced around to see that the boy had kept himself busy cleaning things while Milt had been gone.
Milt swung his attention back to the kid. "Guess I'm not sure why you stayed."
"Said I would, didn't I?"
Fighting the smile that wanted to emerge after hearing the boy throw his own words back at him, Milt shot back, "Even after I warned you there were long odds against me being able to change anything?"
"Where would I go?"
"I told you where to go! A man can get lost up north."
"I'd never shake having a price on my head."
"That kid Judge Miltass sent to prison can't shake it."
"But you don't have to be that kid. Not anymore."
"I can't change who I am."
"Boy, everyone changes who he is at one time or another."
"Wasn't talkin' about me."
"I said everyone, didn't I?"
The kid blinked and turned away from Milt's glare. "What'd you find out?" he asked quietly.
"You were right. The Prescott's own these parts. There's not a soul around who'd speak out against 'em."
"Then you believe me?" The kid looked at Milt again.
"I believe Robert Prescott was a worthless, yellow-bellied scoundrel who'd be alive today if he'd trusted you."
"Then you believe me." Hope flared in those young eyes.
Damn shame Milt was going to have to snuff it. "It's not me you need to convince. It's them folks in town. And none of 'em will talk for you instead of Prescott."
"I wanted to help him, but the current was too strong."
"The law says different. You pushed him into that river. You're lucky the judge had enough of a conscience not to have you hung."
"I guess this is it, then." The boy took a deep breath, puffing out his chest. "Thank you, Marshal. You did more for me than anyone ever has, other than my pa. He would've been proud to know you."
The kid's bearing changed then. For the first time since Milt had taken him from the Prescott's roughshod jail, the kid showed signs of the man he had yet to become, a man resolute to accept a fate he didn't deserve.
"Something tells me," Milt said, "I would've been prouder to know him."
The boy flashed him a smile that vanished on the trail of a heavy breath. "I'm ready," he announced.
"To go to prison."
Sighing, Milt shook his head. "No, boy. You're not. And you never will be."
"I don't have much choice."
The words, bravely spoken, told Milt to follow his instincts. "Yeah, you do," he said. "I was thinkin' about heading north. Try some homesteading. Maybe open a trading company. Call it . . . Marshall and Son."
"Look, kid. An appeal might help, or it might not. Ain't no guarantees. That's the way of the law. But I know what's right. Locking a boy like you in prison isn't even close."
"The Prescott's think it's right."
"Don't you worry about them. I can promise you they'll get theirs." He met the boy's gaze, letting his own eyes say words he would never voice: he'd set things in motion; the Prescott's rule would be brought to an end, and justice would win out. But it was going to take time. "Just like you'll get yours," he added, "outside of prison."
The kid stared at him, his brows drawn, looking scared and confused. The coyote pup again.
Milt shrugged. "If you're so cocksure ready to go, you'll have to get there on your own."
The kid's eyes widened.
"Otherwise," Milt added. "I'd be proud to have you ride with me for a while." He held out his hand. "Name's Jacob Marshall. Most folks call me Jake."
The boy's mouth flopped open.
"I hear folks call you Emmett," Milt added. "Emmett Marshall."
Milt looked him square in the eye. "I'd be honored to finish what your pa started in raising you."
"But you'd be breaking the law."
"I'd be doing what's right."
Hesitantly, the kid took his hand. "Emmett?"
Milt shrugged. "If you like. Name's up to you, son."
The kid's eyes glistened, but his smile was genuine. "Emmett's fine." He tightened his grip, almost like he was afraid the current might wash him away as it had Bobby Prescott.
Or maybe like he was aiming to keep Milt from washing away.
But they weren't caught up in a flooded river. Instead, they were about to bring a flood, one that would wipe clean as much mangy ugliness as ugly polish.
And for the first time in his life, Milt found himself unmasked.