“Remember I have a gun,” Sam warned Heyes and Curry the next morning. “So you better not try anything.” They had made camp after several hours of riding. Sam had slept with his gun nearby and the blanket pulled up to his chin.
“Where’d you learn to use a gun?” Heyes asked with asperity, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
Curry checked the pot of beans over the dancing fire; seeing they were heated he dished out three plates, handing one to Heyes and one to Sam.
“Never you mind. But I can shoot real good,” Sam warned, taking his plate from Curry.
“Great,” Heyes mumbled, settling down to his breakfast. “What next.”
“I can’t believe you only brought beans to eat.” Sam complained, nonetheless hungrily stirring his spoon in the food and taking a huge mouthful. “We ate better at the …” he looked up startled at Heyes and Curry at what he almost let slip. He looked down at his food and quickly gobbled another spoonful.
“The orphanage?” Curry guessed softly. Sam continued to eat with great energy as though he didn’t hear him.
“So why did you run away?” Heyes asked. After another mouthful of beans, Sam let the spoon drop in his plate, not once looking up from his food.
“The other kids were always pushing you around. You couldn’t do anything or go anywhere. I figured I might as well be on my own. It couldn’t be any worse.” He put his plate down and pushed it away from him.
“You know, Sam, this ain’t a good way for you to go,” Curry said. “Always getting in trouble and stealing from people.”
“I want my freedom, just like you got your freedom, riding around anywhere you want to go.” Sam said earnestly.
“We don’t wanna go to San Francisco,” Heyes pointed out acerbically.
“Why not?” Sam demanded. “What’s wrong with San Francisco?”
“Because we ain’t going by choice!” Heyes snapped.
“You got relatives there?” Curry asked, distracting Sam from Heyes.
He shrugged. “Just figured it’d be a good place to go.”
“You might find it a little rough,” Curry said. “You sure we can’t take you back to the orphanage?”
“I ain’t going back,” Sam shouted. “I want to go to San Francisco!”
“All right, all right.” Curry said, dropping the subject.
The bartender looked up from the glass he was wiping as the saloon doors swung open. He had never seen this man in here before, and he wouldn’t mind if he didn’t again. The tall, broad shouldered cowboy had a face that showed the years none too kindly; it was a hard face. He looked like he hadn’t seen a bath or a bed in some long time. Beneath his beaten up black cowboy hat, his dark eyes were alert and scanned the room intently before falling upon him behind the bar. The bartender noticed the gun tied to the man’s right leg as he approached, the way he wore it easy.
“I’m looking for a boy, blonde hair,” he said in a deep rumble. “Name’s Sam Floriano. You seen him?”
The bartender looked down at the glass in his hand for an instant, amused that another one was looking for Sam, and nearly dropped it when the man pounded on the bar.
“I asked you a question.” The fierce eyes bore into his own, and his heart began to pound fitfully.
“I know who you’re talking about,” he said quickly. “I ain’t seen him, but I heard he rode outta here last night.”
“West,” the bartender pointed vaguely, unable to pull his attention from the man’s eyes. “He was riding with two men, one dark haired, one blonde.”
“Thanks.” The stranger threw a coin on the bar, and in a moment the saloon doors swung behind him and he was gone.
“We gotta get rid of him.” Heyes said that night, watching the flames dance in the night breeze. Sam was sleeping on the opposite side of the fire, buried beneath hat and blanket.
“We can’t just leave him,” Curry said, resting his head back on the large boulder he sat against.
“Why not?” Heyes frowned, receiving a disapproving look from Curry. “Come on, Kid. We gotta do something. I ain’t taking him all the way to San Francisco.”
They had ridden all day. And it was a long day, with Heyes and Sam bellyaching about each other. Curry was glad the boy was asleep and he finally had some peace and quiet. Well, quiet anyway. He was uneasy. All day he had the nagging sensation that they were being followed, but every time he scanned the landscape, there wasn’t the slightest sign. So he was glad to come across this outcropping of boulders beside the road. It was a good place to camp and offered good cover. Just in case.
“Why don’t you take him to San Francisco, and I’ll just stop at the next town we come to and wait for you.” Heyes suggested. “We don’t even need to flip a coin.”
Suddenly Curry whipped out his gun. “Heyes,” he whispered, “we got company.” Heyes quickly pulled his gun from its holster and they both stared into the night, listening intently. In a breath they heard a whinny, and two horsemen materialized from the darkness into the light of their fire.
“Howdy boys,” Jake said. He and his partner rode in holding up their arms.
“Saw the light and thought we’d stop by,” Tomes said, as both men slowly lowered their arms. Heyes and Curry holstered their guns, Curry never taking his eyes off the strangers. The men made no move to dismount.
“We’re looking for a boy.” Jake said. “His name is Sam. Blonde headed kid. You seen him?”
“What do you want with him?” Curry asked, cutting off whatever Heyes was about to say.
“What difference does that make?” Tomes asked gruffly.
“You from the orphanage?” Heyes asked hopefully.
“Yeah, that’s right.” Jake said. “They hired us to find him and bring him back. They’re paying us pretty good, so we can make it worth your while if you know his whereabouts.”
Curry didn’t answer. Something just didn’t feel right. But Heyes nudged Sam with his boot.
“What’re you doing, waking me up?” Sam complained sleepily. “You better start treating me better.”
Heyes grinned and pointed at the two horsemen. “They’re here to take you back to the orphanage.”
Sam sat up and rubbed his eyes, and stared at the two men.
“NO!” he screamed, jumping up and pushing Heyes in front of him as though for a shield. “I ain’t going with them!”
Tomes barely twitched for his gun when Curry already had his in hand.
“Now you’re just asking for trouble.” Curry said smoothly. “Throw your hardware down here, nice and easy.” They begrudgingly did as they were told. Sam dashed behind Curry as Heyes collected the guns and made sure they didn’t have rifles.
“You’re gonna regret this,” Jake snarled as Heyes emptied their guns of bullets, then put them in their saddle bags.
“I don’t think so,” Curry said assuredly.
Heyes then pulled their hands behind them and tied them tight with rope hanging from their own saddles.
“Mister, I’m coming back for you,” Tomes growled.
“I’ll be waiting,” Curry answered smoothly.
“I think you two can ride off hard and fast,” Heyes said. “even without your hands. Otherwise we might have to make you get down and tie you to a tree.” The two men glared at Heyes as he took the reins and turned their mounts around. Then with a yell he smacked each horse hard on the rump, sending both galloping away. As the sound of pounding hooves faded, Heyes turned around and angrily stormed over to Sam.
“What was that all about!” he demanded.
He pulled his hat lower over his face, and sat down with his back to him. “Nothing,” he mumbled.
“Look here,” Heyes said angrily, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him up to face him. “I’m getting tired of being dragged around by you. I’m ready to take you to that orphanage myself!”
“Stop it!” he cried, trying to free himself from his tight grip. His hat fell off and his face was clearly visible in the firelight, and so were the tears in his eyes.
Heyes released him and stepped backwards. “Why are you crying?”
“I ain’t crying!” Sam yelled, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “Just got dirt in my eyes.”
“Sam, what’s going on?” Curry asked. “What do those two men want with you?”
Sam eyed Curry suspiciously, then glanced at Heyes, who was watching him.
“You know, if we were gonna hurt you,” Heyes said, “we woulda done it by now.”
“Come on, Sam,” Curry urged gently. “Talk to us.” Sam sat down and watched the reflection of the wavering flames on the faces of the two men. They could have given him to the murderers, but they had protected him. Perhaps he could be truthful with them. He sure didn’t have anybody else. For a few minutes, the only sound was the crackling of the fire. Finally Sam spoke.
“My momma and I didn’t have no family. She worked in a saloon, and we lived in a room above. But then she got sick. She died a few months ago, and I was left at the orphanage. Then I ran away.”
Curry shot Heyes a sympathetic glance, then turned back to Sam. “What did those men want with you?” he asked gently.
“If I tell you, you gotta help me,” he pleaded desperately, his face tragic in the shadows of the firelight. “You gotta get me to San Francisco.”
“We’ll help you,” Heyes promised. He looked Sam steadily in the eye, and the boy made his decision.
“Sometimes I sleep in the stable loft. The other day, I heard voices, and I saw…” He quickly looked down at his feet, afraid to say the words out loud.
“What did you see?” Heyes encouraged softly.
“They stabbed a man, killed him.” He rushed. “They musta heard me, cause one of ‘em started to come up. I ran to the window and climbed out, cause I carved foot holes in the wall so I could get away if I ever needed to. Momma always said make sure there’s more than one way out wherever you are.” He glanced at his two companions, then looked down at the dirt and began drawing circles in it with his finger.
“I was hiding under the hotel porch when I heard you two talking, and I figured you’d help me.” He looked up at them again. ‘I wouldn’t really tell on you, honest. I wouldn’t want anyone telling on me.”
“That’s okay, Sam,” Heyes sighed.
“You know you gotta tell the sheriff,” Curry said.
“I can’t!” Sam cried. “If’n them two men don’t kill me, the sheriff’ll make me go back to the orphanage!”
“Look Sam, we know what it’s like,” Heyes said. “We were both in an orphanage too.”
“You?” Sam asked in surprise, wide eyed.
“We sure were.” Curry said. “It might not be the best place for you, but it beats living in the streets and stealing. That can only lead to trouble.”
“But you two turned out okay,” Sam said.
“We were lucky.” Heyes told him. “You might not be.”
“Besides, you can’t keep running and hoping those men don’t find you. They know you saw them kill a man, and they ain’t about to let it go.”
“We’ll stick with you the whole way,” Heyes assured him.
“We’ll make sure you get to the sheriff safe and sound,” Curry added.
“Can I think about it?” Sam asked.
“Sure.” Curry smiled. “It’s nearly daybreak. We’ll have a quick breakfast and head out. No telling when those men will be back.”