It was dark and cold, the only light coming from the crack under the ill-fitting door. The boy huddled in the bed, shivered against the cold, listening to the low mutter of voices from the adjoining room.
Outside everything was buried in snow. The window was thick with frost, shutting out what light there might have been. Once he heard boots crunch on the snow as a man walked back from the street.
Suddenly Ma's voice lifted, strident and impatient. "I've got no time for the kid! Now you get rid of him! Let one of those farmers have him. They all seem to want kids. Lord knows they have enough of them."
Then Van's voice, quiet, even-tempered as always, "Myra, you can't do that! He's your son. Your own flesh and blood."
"Don't be a fool! There's no place in my life for a kid." After a moment of silence, she added, "What kind of life could I gve him? Batting around from cow town to mining camp? Get rid of him, Van." Her voice rose sharply. "You get rid of him, or I'll get rid of you."
"Is that all it means then? I knew you were a hard woman, Myra, but I thought I meant more to you that."
"You're a fool, Van. Without me, you'd be cadging for drinks around the saloons. You take him out of here right now, and get rid of him. I don't care how you do it."
The boy tried to huddle into a tighter ball, tried to shut his ears against the voices, to close out the growing terror.
"All right, Myra. I'll see to it."
There was a mutter of voices again, and then he heard Ma go out. For a few moments there was silence, then the door opened, letting in a rectangle of light.
"Val? Are you awake? We've got to get you dressed."
Van was slim and tall, with a sort of faded elegance; there was a puffiness around his cheeks, and an ever-present smell of whiskey; but his easy good manners never failed him, and Val admired him for that.
When he was dressed, Van took him into the other room. The boy rubbed his eyes against the stronger light, and then the outer door opened again and Myra came in. She did not look at him or speak to him. All she said was, "Get him out of here."
Van shrugged into his buffalo coat, and then he picked up Val and carried him to the door.
There Van hesitated. "He's only four years old, Myra. Can't you--?"
"Get out!" her voice was shrill. "And close the door after you!"
"Myra, I'll say he's mine. Nobody will know--"
It was icy cold in the barn. Van saddled his horse, lifted the boy to the saddle and mounted behind him. He hesitated again, holding the boy to him and waiting while Val wondered when he would start. At last he touched his heels to the horse and they moved out of the barn toward open country.
Wondering, Val snuggled down inside Van's buffalo coat. Why were they going that way? There was nothing out there but open plains, but he trusted Van, and in the warmth against him he closed his eyes.
They had been riding for several minutes when suddenly Van swore, and wrenching the horse's head around, he turned back upon their trail. Snow was already covering their tracks, and it was bitterly cold.
"Are we going back, Van."
"No, Val, we can't go back. At least you can't. We're going visiting."
When the lights of the town could again be seen, Van said, "Do you remember Will Reilly! I think you'll be staying with him tonight."
Val did remember him, a tall, wide-shouldered young man, not much older than Van, but somehow stronger, more forceful. He was a man who rarely smiled, but when he did his whole face seemed to light up. Val not only remembered him, he liked him.
By the time they reach the hotel Val was chilled to the bone. Van tied the horse to the hitch rail and carried Val inside to the stairs.
The clerk looked up. "Mister, yuou'd better not leave that horse out there. It's forty below."v
"I'll only be a minute."
They went up the stairs and down the carpeted hall. Van stopped and rapped at the door. When the door opened a wonderful warmth came out.
"Will, I've got to ask a favor."
Will Reilly stepped back and let them come in, closing the door behind them. The chimney from the huge fireplace in the lobby came right through this room, accounting for the heat.
Reilly was in shirtsleeves and vest, and a gold watch-chain draped from pocket to pocket of the vest. "What is it Van? You know I'm expected downstairs. Couldn't this wait?"
"It's the kid, Will. Myra told me to get rid of him. He's cost her plenty in the past few days, and she told me to get rid of him or not come back."
"All right, take my advice and don't go back. If you need a stake I'lll give you the stage fare to Denver and enough to make a start."
"At what? Thanks, Will, but no . . .no."
"Well? What do you want me to do?"
"Keep the boy until morning, will you? I couldn't think of any other place to take him, and the boy likes you."
"What do you think I am, a nurse? All right, put him on the bed, but you be almighty sure you come back to get him in the morning, d'you hear?" Then more quietly he added, "She's a fool. That's a mighty fine boy there."
Van put Val down on the bed and helped him undress; then he covered him up. The warmth of the room after the cold Montana night made him very sleepy.
There was a moment or two of subdued talking, then the door closed and Val heard the sound of footsteps going away.
Val opened his eyes and peeked at Will Reilly as the gambler combed his black hair, and buckled on his gun belt and holster. He caught Will's eyes in the mirror and quickly closed his own.
"All right, Val. Quit faking. I know you're awake."
Val opened his eyes and Will grinned at him in the mirror. "I'm a gambler Val, and I'll be gone most of the night. If you want a drink there's water in the pitcher and a glass beside it. But you can rest easy--nobody will bother you here."
It was broad daylight when Val opened his eyes, and Will Reilly was sleeping in the bed beside him. Will lay on his side with the holster near his hand, the pistol grip only inches away. Carefully, Val eased from the bed so as not to disturb the gambler.
On a stand near the window were six books, all much worn. Val picked up one of them and turned the pages, but he was disappointed to find no pictures. Then he went to the window and looked out.
From up here the street looked very different. He could look right down into the wagons, and if they were not covered by canvas tarps he could see what was in them. He had never been able to do that before.
The men standing in front of the stage station wore buffalo coats or mackinaws, and most of them had ear-flaps. He could see their breath in the still, cold air. One of the men turned his face toward Val--it was Van. Just as Val saw him, Ma came from the stage station and got on the stage, scarcely waiting for Van to help her in . Van gave one quick look toward the hotel, then followed her into the stage.
The door closed, the driver cracked his whip, and the horses lunged into the harness and went down the street with a rush, turning the corner at the bottom of the street and disappearing from sight.
Val stood staring after it, feeling queer. They were gone. Van had left him behind.
"What do you see, Val?"
"Wagons. Lots of wagons. I can see right down into them."
Will indicated the book Val had taken. "Did you like it?"
"There weren't any pictures."
Will smiled. "I suppose pictures are pretty important in a book."
"Anyway, I liked to hold it."
Will Reilly gave him a thoughtful look. "Now, that's interesting. So do I. I have always liked the feel of a good book. It's like a gun," he added. "When a man opens a book or fires a gun he has no idea what the effect will be, or how far the shot will travel."
He sat up. "I'll get dressed and we'll go downstairs for breakfast. Van will be coming for you."
"They aren't coming."
Will Reilly glanced at him sharply. "What do you mean?"
"They went away. I saw them."
"Oh?" Then, realizing the boy's position at the window, he said, "You saw the stage leave?"
"Well, I'll be damned."
Will Reilly dressed slowly and with care, trying to hide his anger. That would be like Myra. Like Van, too. Van had been dodging responsibility all his life.
He looked at the boy, who was dressing slowly, clumsily. "Did you go anywhere before you came here last night? I mean, did Van take you anywhere else?"
Val pointed toward the wide-open plain. "We rode out there, a long way out."
Out there? In this kind of cold? Could the first idea have been to abandon the boy, leave him to die in the cold? At forty below that would not have taken long.
Did Myra know he was alive, then? Will considered that, and doubted it. If Myra had planned for the boy to be abandoned--and she was just the woman who could do it--Van would never dare tell her what he had actually done.
Will Reilly's own beginning was scarcely better, and he had survived. How he had done it was not pleasant to remember, but he had survived. Did this boy have the guts it would take? Could he be tough enough, resilient enough, and wily enough to make his way? Will turned and looked thoughtfully at him.
There was a lost and wistful look about him, but there had been no tears, at least there were no traces of any now. He looked--well, he looked pretty much as Will Reilly might have looked at that age.
Will Reilly was an immaculate and coldly handsome young man who had the reputation of being an honest gambler--and no man to trifle with. He had had his bad times and his good, but he knew cards and he knew men, and he won much more often than he lost.
"We will have breakfast, Val, and then we will decide what to do." He put on his coat and straightened it. "What's your name, Val? I don't believe it was ever mentioned."
"Valentine. Ma said my pa's name was Darrant."
"Darrant? Yes, that could be. Well, you're got some good blood in your veins. I knew Durrant, and he was a good man, a brave man."
Val was quiet at breakfast. He liked the tall, easy young man who talked so readily yet took the time to listen to him, too. Reilly talked of his steamboat days on the Mississippi and the Missouri, and Val listened with rapt attention.
Reilly considered the people he knew who might perhaps be equipped for the right job, but he came up empty. The local minister was a fire-and-brimstone gospel-shouter who saw evil in all things, and who would never allow the boy to forget who his mother had been.
Ed Kelly, a good man with three children, had a wife who was ailing.
After three days had passed, Will Reilly was no closer to a solution. The boy had the run of the hotel, and was liked by everyone. And a curious fact brought itself to Reilly's attention. The arrival of the boy coincided with a consistent run of luck that left him a substantial winner. The pots he had been winning had not been large, but they had been several percentage points higher than was reasonable.
On the morning of the fourth day, Loomis who operated the hotel, stopped him on his way to breakfast. "Will, the Reverend was inquiring after the youngster. He declared you were no fit man to have a child, and I think they're fixing to take him from you."
Will Reilly was nothing if not a man of quick decison.
"Thanks, Art. Now about that buckboard of Bronson's? Did you ever find anyone to drive it back?"
Art Loomis was not slow. "I can have it hitched up and out back waiting, Will. I'll even pack for you."
"I'll pack. You get the buckboard hitched, and while you're at it, stop by Fergunson's and buy a couple bedrolls for me and a hundred rounds of .44s. I'll also need a camp outfit."
Dunker would know all about the boy. The Reverend had preached the funeral sermon for Mrs. Schmitt. The Reverend Dunker's allies would be Mrs. Purdy, and probably the wife of Elkins, who operated the Ferguson Store. Elkins himself was a good man, but Reilly had no use for the Purdys, for Mrs. Elkins, or for Dunker. There was little of the milk of human kindness in any of them.
He stepped out into the brisk morning air and paused briefly in front of the hotel. Because of the early hour, there were few people about. He turned abruptly toward the store.
Jess Elkins got up when Reilly walked in, and from the expression on his face Reilly knew that he himself had lately been under discussion.
"I'll need some warm clothes for the boy," he told Elkins. "You have a nice town here, but it is cold this time of year."
"Yes, sir. He's about four, isn't he?"
"He's about five. Give me four sets, complete. And he'll need a warm coat and a cap."
Elkins glanced up at him. "You sure you want to spend that much? After all, he isn't your boy."
"In a sense he is." Will Reilly was not one to hesitate over lying in a good cause, and it would give them something to worry about, something that might keep them in doubt until he could get away. "The boy is my nephew."
"Nephew? " Elkins was surprised. "But I thought--?"
"You thought he was Myra Cord's boy? He is, of course, but his father was Andy Darrant, my half-brother. Andy asked me to care for the boy. That was why Van Clevern brought him to me."v
He paid out the money, and gathered up the parcel and started for the door.
"You're Darrant's half-brother? Why, I never--"
"Be in tomorrow," Reilly said. "There's some other things I need for him. Tablet, pencils, and such."
He walked quickly back to the hotel, his boots crunching in the snow.
It was very cold, too cold to be starting out in the snow on a long drive. And if it snowed any more the buckboard would be a handicap. But he had his own ideas about that, and when he reached the lobby he glanced around. It was empty, and there was no one at the desk. He walked right through to the back door.
Art Loomis was coming in from the back. "Everything is ready, Will, but if I was you I'd hole up right here. It looks like more snow."
"Can't be helped. The wolves are breathing down the back of my neck, Art."
"Ain't you even waitin' until dark?"
"No. As you say, it may begin to snow. Art, if they come around asking questions tell them I said something about driving out to the Schmitt's to pick up some clothes for the boy."
It required only a few minutes to pack, and Loomis took the trunk down the back stairs himself. Then Reilly bundled Val into the seat and tucked a buffalo robe around him.
"Good luck, Will," Loomis said. "You'd better look sharp until you're over the pass."
"Will?" Art Loomis was staring at him. "Why, Will? Will you just tell me why?"
Will Reilly looked at the horses' backs for a moment and then he told the truth. "Art, I never had a kid. I never had anybody, never in my whole life. This is a fine boy, Art, and I figure he came to me for a reason."
He slapped the reins on the horses' backs and the buckboard started off fast.
He did not turn down the main street, but circled the livery barns and left by the back way. It was bitterly cold, and it was thirty miles to the nearest shelter of any kind.