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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 a life could I give 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 than 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, listened to her retreating steps as she walked along the path toward the street. For a few moments there was silence, then the faint clink of glass in the next room; the door opened, letting a rectangle of light fall upon the bare plank floor.
"Val? Are you awake? We've got to get you dressed."
Anything was better than the cold bed, but he dreaded going out into the night, and dreaded more whatever was to come. He liked Van, and he trusted him. Sometimes when they talked Van referred to themselves as the two V's.
Van was slim and tall, with a sort of faded elegance; there was a puffiness around the cheeks, and an ever-present smell of whiskey; but his easy good manners never failed him, and Val admired him for that, and for the stories of his boyhood that he often told Val when Ma was not around. She detested hearing Van talk about anything that had happened before they met, and would not tolerate any mention of his family or the schools he had gone to. His family had been wealthy, and the schools had been good schools.
Van struck a match and lighted the lamp. In the light, the bare room looked even more bleak and empty, even emptier than the rooms on the farm where he had stayed until a few weeks ago.
It had been cold there, too, although there was usually a fire in the fireplace, and the farmer and his wife had been kind. Then the farmer's wife had become ill and nobody had any time for Val.
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. Van turned the horse to reach over and push the door shut, then they moved away 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. Maybe more than anybody, but he could not have said why that was so.
By the time they reached the hotel Val was chilled to the bone. Not even the heavy buffalo coat could keep out the bitter cold. Van tied the horse to the hitch rail, and carried Val inside to the stairs.
The clerk looked up. "Mister, you'd better not leave that horse out there. It's forty below."
"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'll 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 down 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. It seemed as if he had been cold as long as he could remember.
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. Then Will came over to him and gently ruffled his hair. "You go to sleep, boy. You'll be all right here."
Reilly picked up a small holster with a derringer in it and buttoned it at a special place inside his belt. "A bit of insurance, Val, boy. We live in a harsh world.
"Always give yourself an edge, boy. You may never need it, but it saves a lot of worry. Learn to depend on yourself, and if you expect nothing from anybody else you will never be disappointed."
He sat down on the bed beside Val. "Remember this, son. You are all you have. Learn . . . learn everything you can, then you will always know a little more than they think you know. Most people in this world are out to take you. It isn't always their fault, but it is the way they live. If you know that, and make allowances for it, you won't go far wrong."
He got up and reached for his coat. "I am 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."
After Will left the room, Val lay awake only a few minutes, studying the flowered wallpaper. A dresser with an oval mirror stood against one wall, and there was a huge old wardrobe filled with clothes . . . Val had never seen so many. Will Reilly had more clothes than Ma. Several pairs of polished boots and shoes were on the floor of the wardrobe.
There was a Winchester standing in the corner, a rifle that had seen much use, by the look of it, but a rifle that had been cleaned and cared for. There was a big black trunk against another wall.
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.
He had walked that street several times with Van, but never with Myra. She had not wanted anyone to know he was hers . . . if he was. Val had never been sure about that, but it might be that he just did not want to believe she was his real mother.
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 earflaps. 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.
Until a few days ago he had seen Ma only a few times. He had lived with the people on the farm, and once in a while Ma came out to visit, and once she brought him some candy. She would sometimes pat him on the head, but she would never listen to anything he wanted to tell her. Then she would leave again, very quickly. He seemed to remember other people in other towns.
Then a few days ago a black shiny carriage had come to get the lady where he lived, and there were other people too, all wearing black, and after they had all gone away the man brought Val into town and left him with his mother.
He was standing at the window now, staring after the stage, when he felt eyes upon him, and turned around.
Will Reilly was lying awake, hands clasped behind his head, watching him. "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 swung his gun-belt around his lean hips. His anger at being left with the boy was gone. It was far better that they had brought the youngster here than to leave him out there to die. But was it, really? What kind of a chance did the boy have?
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.
From the Paperback edition.