The west Texas wind blew relentlessly, hurling tiny bits of ice that felt like razors against his leathery cheeks. His unshaven jaws were heavy with ice, and even his Stetson sagged under a load of sleet.
Tom Larkin trudged on, keeping a keen eye out for some kind of shelter. He cursed himself for being a fool, letting those boys get the jump on him like he was some greenhorn kid. Kids didn't have any respect for their elders anymore. Those boys were headed for trouble; that was sure. Their first error had been mistaking him for a saddle bum. The second had been assuming he would run scared. They were obviously used to bullying strangers. Maybe their parents had some kind of pull with the law in Sweetwater, but old Sheriff Dudley wasn't going to be much help this time - not against a U.S. Marshal.
Somewhere up ahead, the boys were bound to be holed up, and though he had lost the trail hours ago, he had a good idea where they were headed. He hadn't been in this area for fifteen years - since he was an eight-year-old boy. This country had been burned into his memory, though. He remembered every inch of the road between Sweetwater and Austin. He remembered his mother sitting beside him on the wagon, trying to be brave - all the while, he knew she was crying inside. He had been vowing to return some day - make Sanders and Dudley pay. No, he hadn't forgotten the lay of this land. The sudden April storm had taken the boys by surprise, but it wasn't going to last forever. When he caught up with those boys, he'd teach them a lesson they wouldn't soon forget.
Right now the most important thing was staying alive, and that wash up ahead might provide the means. He stumbled to the edge of the wash on numb toes and slid down the steep embankment to the sandy floor. He had traveled no more than a hundred yards before he found what he was looking for. Where the wash took a sharp turn, the seasonal rains had produced flash floods that had gradually carved a deep pocket in the wall. It wasn't the best shelter, but it was situated in a way that would protect him from the brunt of the storm.
Once inside the meager shelter, Larkin opened his slicker, removing the sticks he had been collecting since the storm began. The fire wouldn't last long, but the coals would put off enough heat to keep him from freezing.
The storm lingered into the night and finally passed on, leaving a sparkling cold dawn in its wake. Larkin stiffly emerged from the makeshift shelter and stretched. Making a thorough scan of his surroundings, he was oriented again. There was no point lingering, so he scaled the steep wall of the wash and set out in a northwesterly course. Sweetwater wasn't more than a few hours away, and the walk would do no more than limber his stiff joints. He'd be ready for action when he reached town - more than ready.
His first business at Sweetwater was the sheriff's office. Sheriff Dudley glanced up as Larkin entered the office, but after a brief disgusted look, he returned his attention to the poster on his desk. He hadn't changed much. His hair was gray now and his shoulders were stooped, but he was still judging people by the way they looked. Dudley never had much use for poor dirt farmers and scrawny eight year old kids. Maybe they reminded him of something he couldn't stand - work.
Larkin kicked the door shut. "I want to report a robbery."
Dudley slowly lifted his gaze from the poster and looked Larkin up and down. "Wha'd they take, your soap?"
Let him laugh now. Larkin was ready to throw him enough rope to let him hang himself. Wouldn't that be a switch? He could hardly be expected to recognize an eight year old boy fifteen years later, and Dudley had never met Marshal Tom Larkin. Larkin had been looking forward to this day for a long time and he was going to savor every moment. Larkin's smile was sour.
"Three boys jumped me a ways out and took my horse and gun."
Dudley leaned back in his chair and eyed Larkin with mild amusement.
"Three boys? You sure it wasn't a baby girl with a bottle?"
Larkin laughed without humor. "I guess horse stealing isn't a hanging offense around here any more. Or was that law only for poor dirt farmers?"
The amusement in Dudley's eyes vanished and they took on a wary expression.
"I didn't get your name, mister."
Larkin waved a hand. "We'll get to that later. Right now I want to give you a description so you can pick those boys up."
Dudley hunched over his desk and shot Larkin a warning look. "I'll handle this in my own way. Now you just give me your name, and then we'll get started."
Larkin launched a description of the three boys. Dudley glared at him, but Larkin could see a spark of interest - and something else. When he finished the description of the boys and how they had caught him sleeping, Dudley leaned his chair back against the wall.
"I know those boys. They're a little spirited, but they ain't bad. They'll be in town in a few days and I'll ask them...."
"A few days isn't good enough," Larkin interrupted crisply. "Now are you going to go get them, or do I have to do it myself?"
Dudley's gaze was icy. "Listen here, you smart mouthed kid. You leave them boys alone or Sanders will have your hide. This is my town and I'm the sheriff. You just keep your nose clean around here, or you'll be the one behind bars.
Larkin choked back an emotional response. So Sanders had married again, and now he had three boys. No, nothing had changed. If there was mischief about and a Sanders was involved, someone else was always responsible. Well, this was one time Sanders wasn't going to tell the law what to do. He plucked the badge from his shirt pocket and tossed it on the desk in front of Dudley.
"I want those boys picked up - today.
Dudley's jaw dropped and his front chair legs hit the floor with a grinding sound. He picked up the badge and stared at it. When he turned it over and read the name on the back, his face went white. He glanced up at Larkin.
"Tom Larkin," Larkin confirmed dryly. "U. S. Marshal. Now are you going to go get those boys, or do you want me to take care of it my way?"
The color returned to Dudley's face with a vengeance. "Now look here. This badge don't give you no right to carry out a grudge. Just because you and Sanders have a score to settle, don't mean ..."
"Do I have to remind you that those boys jumped a U. S. Marshal and took his gun and horse? That wasn't a wild mustang they captured, and I know they aren't old enough to have a family to feed. Those boys bought themselves a pack of trouble, and they're not getting out of it because their name is Sanders. You're not calling the shots this time, Sheriff Dudley. I am." He grabbed up his badge and tucked it back into his breast pocket. "You get out there and pick those boys up - today."
He was pushing hard, and Dudley was a man who didn't like to be pushed. It was no way to get a job accomplished, and it crossed Larkin's mind briefly that he was letting his position go to his head. Dudley deserved it, though. Larkin turned on one heel and headed for the door. He couldn't resist throwing a parting barb over his shoulder as he stepped out the door. "Today, Dudley. Or I do it my way."
Dudley was still sputtering when Larkin closed the door. He'd go get those boys, all right. Larkin grinned. It must gall Dudley to take orders from the boy he once told would never amount to anything. Of course, right now he didn't look like much. He rubbed his jaw and squinted down Main Street. What he needed first was a bath and a shave. Some new clothes and a good hot meal would improve his disposition. But what he was really looking forward to was a comfortable bed. The brief rest before the boys jumped him, and the cramped snooze last night was the only sleep he'd had in five days.
Larkin woke with the evening sun shining in his eyes. Dudley should be back by now. Larkin dressed in his new clothes and glanced in the mirror as he combed his hair. At least he was more presentable. Appearances were always important to Sanders. Not that Larkin gave a hoot whether Sanders was impressed with him. Larkin pinned his badge over the shirt pocket and gave it a pat. At least there was one badge Sanders and his kind couldn't buy.
Two horses were tied outside the sheriff's office and only two pair of hostile eyes turned on him when he entered the room. So Sanders was going to try buying or bullying his sons out of trouble. Let him make his best try. He wasn't pushing around a scrawny eight year old kid and a grieving widow this time.
As usual, Sanders wasted no time getting to the point.
"What did you do to my boys, Larkin? If you've hurt them ..."
Larkin lifted a brow. "What did I do to them? Don't you think you have it a little backwards? They stole my horse and gun. Once again a Larkin is the victim of a Sanders, and the Larkin gets blamed."
Sanders stared at Larkin, his jaw muscles working. When he spoke, his voice was controlled.
"Don't take it out on my boys, Larkin. They're not bad, they're just ..."
"Oh, no," Larkin interrupted in a tone fairly dripping with sarcasm. "They have Sanders blood in them. They can't be bad."
Sanders wasn't liking it a bit, but this time he was forced to bargain. It should have been a sweet moment of revenge, but the expression in Sanders eyes was poignant. He wasn't defending his name this time. He was defending three boys he loved dearly. The pain was there in his eyes. Larkin knew a moment of doubt. Was he using the boys to get even with Dudley and Sanders? No, of course not. The boys had committed a crime that was punishable by hanging. They had left him in an ice storm to die. Sanders had to love them because they were his children. Dudley defended them because they were the sons of his best friend. But Larkin harbored no such sentiment. Those boys weren't innocent children. They were boys who had taken a wrong turn and were galloping down the road to serious trouble. Why should Larkin be made to feel guilty?
Sanders turned imploring eyes on Larkin. "The oldest is only sixteen. The other two are only a year younger. They've never been in trouble before. Well, not anything serious, anyway."
"There's a first time for everything," Larkin answered curtly, trying to ignore the agony in Sanders' eyes. Did he also see shame? "They were old enough to commit a man sized crime. They'll have to accept the responsibility - and the punishment."
Sanders shook his head. "You don't understand. I expected them back last night, but they never got home. It isn't like them."
Larkin laughed shortly. "No, I don't suppose they did. Once they went through those saddle bags, they must have figured out I wasn't a useless bum. They're probably half way to the border by now."
Sanders went pale. "They wouldn't do that."
He wasn't spouting garbage. He actually believed in those boys. For a moment Larkin actually felt sorry for Sanders. But no. This was Sanders, the man who had accused Larkin's father of being a horse thief. Sanders had put the rope around Joe Larkin's neck without soiling his hands on the lowly farmer. And Dudley had refused to listen to Larkin's side of the story. Those wild mustangs were the property of any man who had the courage to catch and train them. But Sanders had insisted they were his, because they were on his property. It wasn't about wild mustangs and horse stealing, though. It was about Sanders wife. She knew those mustangs weren't tame enough to ride, but she was bound and determined to prove something to Joe Larkin. In the space of a week, Sanders lost a wife and Tom Larkin lost a father.
Larkin pointed an index finger at Sanders. "The last time I saw your boys, they were riding off with my gun and horse. They left me to die in an ice storm. Did you think they would do that, Sanders?"
This was nothing like Larkin had imagined. He had the upper hand. He had Sanders and Dudley where he wanted them, but he wasn't enjoying it. Not one bit. Dudley wasn't going to do anything. He was leaving it up to Larkin. If those boys were brought in, he was going to have to do it.
Larkin spun on his heal and headed for the door. "If you think I'm going to eat dust while you two sit here swigging hot coffee, you'd better think again.
Dudley and Sanders followed him out the door. Sanders adjusted the cinch on his horse and mounted smoothly. Dudley climbed into the saddle stiffly and sat hunched over the horn. Larkin stared at him.
Are you up to this ride, Dudley? You look a little pale."
Dudley scowled at him. "I'm fine. Let's get this thing over with."
Sanders caught Larkin's attention and spoke in a tone too low for Dudley to hear.
"He's all stove up with the gout."
Larkin stepped around and grabbed the reins on Dudley's horse.
"Just a minute there. I forgot I don't have a horse. I'm going to have to borrow yours. You'd better stay here in case those boys come back. We need someone with the authority to throw them in jail."
Dudley glared at him and made a clumsy dismount, muttering something about it not being his jurisdiction anyway. Larkin refrained from pointing out that the same was true with his father, but they hung him, all the same. Dudley limped up to the board walk and turned to Larkin.
"Fifteen years is a long time to hate, boy."
Larkin adjusted the stirrup and tightened the cinch another notch. He swung into the saddle and stared down at Dudley. "I didn't come after them. They came after me."
After two hours with no sign of a trail, Larkin was beginning to wonder if the boys had perished in the ice storm. That was when he found the tracks - four horses, one of them his own. The strange thing was, the tracks were headed back to where they had jumped Larkin. Surely they hadn't become that disoriented in the storm. Even so, with daylight, they should have been able to figure out their error. He said as much to Sanders, who only shook his head and sighed.
"My boys aren't lost, Larkin. If you haven't figured out what they're up to by now, you wouldn't believe me if I told you."
Larkin stared at him. "You think they're running?"
Sanders gave him a sharp look. "No!" He jabbed his heels into his horse and galloped ahead.
Even now, with all the facts plainly before him, Sanders couldn't admit that his boys had done anything wrong. Nothing had changed. Nothing would ever change.
Far ahead, four dots appeared on the horizon. Sanders couldn't deny they were running now. What would Sanders do?
Sanders answered the question immediately by speeding ahead toward the figures. After a few minutes, it was obvious that the boys had spotted them, and that they were heading in their direction. They probably recognized their father, and they wouldn't recognize Larkin on Dudley's horse. They thought they were safe.
The boys drew their horses to a halt in front of Sanders, who immediately began his own inquest.
"Joe, Tom, Tim. Where have you boys been? I expected you back yesterday."
Joe glanced at the other two. "We've been looking for the owner of this horse."
Sanders scowled at them. "Where'd you find the horse?"
Joe shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and glanced at the other boys again. "Well, we came on this bum asleepin’, so we figured to have a little fun. We grabbed his gun and run, but he jumped up and started calling us thieves." Joe shrugged. "I guess I lost my temper some, and I told him if he thought we were thieves, then thieves we would be. I grabbed his horse and we ran off. After a while I cooled off, and we were taking his horse back when the storm hit. We couldn't find him anywhere."
To his credit, the boy did look remorseful - and he could have stuck with the story about finding the horse. Larkin pulled his horse to a stop beside Sanders and lifted the brim of his hat so the boy could get a good look at his face.
"So you figure he died out here in the storm, do you?"
It took the boys a few moments to recognize him, but then their jaws fell. Joe's gaze dropped to the star on Larkin's chest and his eyes widened.
"Mr.... Marshal," he stammered. "We were only funning."
Larkin leaned across the horn. "So that's your idea of fun, is it? What if I'd shot at you? Would your idea of fun have been to shoot back? And what if one of you had been killed? Would it still be as much fun?"
Joe shook his head. "We wouldn't have shot at you. Anyways, you were asleep and we sneak up on each other all the time."
Larkin nodded. "Yeah, I was asleep all right. I'd just delivered some prisoners and I'd spent the last three sleepless days and nights riding through Apache country. I felt safe and I let my guard down long enough to sleep. If you boys had caught me the night before, I'd have figured you were Apaches - and you'd all be dead now."
Sanders visually measured each of his boys before he spoke. "I know you boys were only playing a foolish game, but the fact is, you did steal Marshal Larkin's horse. Even worse, you stole a horse from a man because you thought he was defenseless." He shook his head and sighed. "You boys are going to have to go into town with Marshal Tom Larkin, here."
Three pair of awe struck eyes were riveted on Larkin. Sure, his reputation had awed more than one teen who thought his work sounded exciting, but this was carrying it a little far. The boys were speechless. Finally Tom broke the silence.
"This is the man you named me after?"
Larkin jerked his head around and stared at Sanders. Sanders nodded.
"And Joe was named after his father. I knew I'd never forget the mistake I made, but I thought maybe I could replace the life I took. I was wrong, boys. I'll live with what I did for the rest of my life. You're lucky you didn't wind up doing the same."
Larkin dismounted and handed the reins of Dudley's horse to Sanders. He swung into the saddle of his own horse and turned to Sanders.
"I'm not pressing charges, Sanders. Dudley was right. Fifteen years is a long time to hate." He glanced at each of the boys. "I'm giving you the second chance my father never got. Don't waste it."
They shook their heads vigorously and their chins came up. "We won't."
Larkin touched his hat to Sanders and swung his horse around, loping off into the sage brush. He felt years younger. Maybe it wasn't too late to start that ranch down Austin way.
This story can be found in the collection of short western stories, "Horse Opera."