This is my all-in-one version, because it was suggested that it'll be easier for people to just read it as one post, rather than as five separate ones, one for each chapter. I hadn't thought about that -- I'd honestly not gotten as far as the idea of "people reading this". I'd only gotten to the "writing it" part.
So, here it is again, in what might be a more convenient form for people.
I did not create all of the characters which I'm using here, although, of course, I created my take on them. Most of the time, when people write fan fiction, they include here a note as to whose characters they actually are, and note that they are being used without permission, and without an intention to make a claim to said characters. However, while I can tell you that Fran Striker was instrumental in creating the core characters, it was done as a work-for-hire. I can further say that, after much bouncing around, the legal rights to the intellectual property currently might sit with a company called Classic Media, or they might not, because various pieces of it have been sold to various companies.
But the MORAL rights of the characters? That's another question entirely. Perhaps the actors who played the characters have rights to them, especially since they continued to appear as those characters, and were beloved as them.
In the end, I claim only the same right to these characters as any child playing in his or her yard with sticks as six-guns has. My toys here are words, and typing, but I am nonetheless playing the same games of make-believe as a child playing with action figures in her room, or running around outside yelling, "Bang! You're dead!" "No, I'm not! You missed!"
I claim no greater right to these characters than that, but no lesser, either.
1: A telegram brings bad news. A trip from college in Boston, back home to Texas.
WESTERN UNION TELEGRAPH COMPANY
To: Miss Sarah Reid
Wellesley College, Wellesley Massachusetts
From: Captain Daniel Reid
Received May 30, 1880
FATHER DYING – DAN
The telegram required a laconic style, but, even had he written a letter, Dan would have been unlikely to say much more. After all, what more needed to be said, Sarah thought, as she quickly finished packing her belongings. It didn't take long: other than books, Sarah didn't accumulate very many possessions, and those packed quickly into trunks that she was having shipped back home.
It took her less than a day to explain the situation to the faculty, to write a few notes to the people to whom she wanted to say goodbye, and to telegraph her travel arrangements back to her brother, and before noon on the next day, she was on a train heading out of Boston, back to her home. She had completed her schooling.
When her brothers met her at the station, their grim faces told her that, as fast as the train had been, it had not been fast enough.
"You've grown, Sarah," he said, looking at her, eye-to-eye. She was surprised to find that she wasn't looking up at her older brother – they were both nearly six feet tall.
"I should hope so, Dan – it's been four years, and I was only fifteen when I left." She turned to John, her younger brother. "You've grown, too."
"I missed you, Sarah. I'm glad you're home," her brother replied.
When Sarah had left for Boston four years ago, it was the first time the three of them had ever been separated for long. They were close in age, in temperament, and in friendship – Dan was only a year older than her, and John a year younger. Their mother had died when they were young, and, with their father always in the fields, they had been constant companions.
They looked at each other, and suddenly Dan picked her up in a bear hug and swung her around. "I'm with Johnny. I'm glad you're home. It's just the three of us, now."
And then, simultaneously, all three of them broke down in tears.
They rode in the wagon back to the farmhouse they'd grown up in. Their desire to be silent and solemn in mourning for their father traded off with their desire to gossip and catch up with each other's lives. At the moment, gossip was in the lead.
"I suppose there's not much good hunting in Boston, is there?" Dan asked.
"Believe it or not," Sarah replied, "I was a member of a hunt club at Wellesley. Foxhunts. It kept me in practice riding, but no shooting, of course. And they made me ride sidesaddle, if you can imagine that!"
John laughed. "I'd pay good money to see that!"
"I'll make a deal with you: if you get a sidesaddle, I'll let you watch me ride it, if you go ahead and ride it after."
"What else did you do at college, besides forget how to ride correctly?" John asked.
"Oh, I kept busy. I acted in quite a few Shakespeare plays – with my height, I learned how to pitch my voice lower, and played many of the male lead roles. Some singing, too -- I even played the tenor role in Rossini's Guillaume Tell. Of course academics took up most of my time, but I still found my way to making some friendships, too. How has your new career treated you?"
"Being in Danny's unit is everything I hoped it would be," John replied.
Dan nodded. "I must say, Johnny is blossoming, Sarah. I'm proud to have him as a Texas Ranger with me, just as proud as I am to have him as a brother."
"And the rest of your unit? They don't complain about nepotism with you recruiting your own brother as your aide-de-camp?" Sarah asked.
Johnny laughed. "In the Rangers, at least in Captain Daniel Reid's unit, being an aide-de-camp isn't much of an extra honor. It simply means that I get to do all the menial tasks. Nobody seems to resent that I get to build up the fire, do most of the mending, and tidy up the barracks when we're not in the field." He thought a minute. "Including me. I mean, I don't resent it, either. I'm the youngest and most junior, and everybody pitches in, anyway. Even though those are all technically my jobs, everybody else usually takes a piece to help out. All for one and one for all, you know."
"How many of you are there?"
"Besides Johnny and me?" Dan asked. "Four others. There are six of us, total. I'm sure you'll meet them soon; they'll all be here for the funeral."
At that, the three of them quieted down again. Mention of the funeral pushed their desire for silence to the forefront.
Sarah broke the silence. "How did Father die? He was perhaps forty-five, and I'd not heard of an illness."
After a few moments, Dan answered. "That's one of the things we need to talk about. Look – Dad wrote a letter for you; he had a few things he wanted to say, including explaining that. He'd hoped to hold out long enough to tell you in person, but, well, 'the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley.' It seems, though, that the best way to answer your question is to, well, let Dad answer it. Here."
Sarah took the letter, and opened it. Her father's graceful Spencerian penmanship looked out at her. Even when he was dying, he had written carefully and beautifully.
My dearest daughter Sarah;
I had wanted to be able to see you before I died, to say goodbye, but this letter will have to do. I'm told that I won't last long enough to give you my love in person. Still, I die confident that I've lived a good life, knowing that I have three children of whom I may be proud.
Sooner or later – somewhere – somehow, we must settle with the world and make payment for what we've taken. That time quickly approaches for me, and when I'm asked what I gave back to the world, I will point to you and your brothers. Any one of you would pay my debt in full, with interest. But to have three children such as you? My cup runneth over.
I am so proud of you, Sarah. I have done my best to give you and your brothers a decent education, but only you went on to go to college. And I know that you will use your education and skills for the betterment of humanity. All people are created equal, and all people have within themselves the power to make this a better world. Your brothers have chosen to do this through joining the Texas Rangers, and I'm proud of them for that. But I have a feeling that you are going to use your gifts to do even greater things.
You know I love you, but it nonetheless should be said: I love you, my dearest daughter Sarah. And I am proud of the woman you have become. I wish I could be around to watch how you change the world, but know that, from where-ever I am, I will be watching with joy. I will miss you, of course; nonetheless, it's been fifteen years since I've been with your mother, and I must admit that I'm looking forward to joining her in whatever comes next.
All things change but truth, and truth alone lives forever. Know this truth: I love you and am proud of you.
Sarah noticed that the letter was getting too blurry to read. She stopped, and realized that it wasn't the letter that was blurry, but her eyes. She wiped her eyes with her handkerchief, and took a few deep, shuddering breaths. Her brothers remained silent. And Sarah continued reading.
In the larger sense, those are the important things. Yet I must tell you things which are important in the temporal world, too. If I leave out any details, your brothers can fill them in, but it's for me to start the story.
Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5:
"If thou didst ever thy dear father love
Revenge his most foul and unnatural murder!"
Of course, I am not the ghost of old Hamlet, and I do not wish revenge. Revenge destroys the one who carries it out more thoroughly than it does the one to whom the revenge is directed. But I do want justice. Not only for me, but for the people whose rights I was defending when I was shot.
As Sarah read, her father's words took her back a bit over a week, when a visitor came asking a favor . . .
2. What caused the situation
Clayton Reid was weeding his kitchen garden when he saw a rider approaching down the road. He stood up and brushed off his hands, as a young Indian man dressed in buckskins dismounted and tied his horse to the fence surrounding the house.
Clayton nodded at his visitor. "Morning. What can I do for you?"
"I believe I'm speaking to Mr. Reid?" the Indian said.
"That's right. And you are?"
"I'm not surprised you don't recognize me. The last time you saw me, I wasn't even five years old."
Clayton squinted. "Tomas? Tomas Silverheels? What a wonderful surprise! Please, come in and tell me everything you and your parents have been doing for the past fifteen years."
Tomas smiled. "With pleasure."
They walked into Clayton's kitchen and he brought out a kettle and coffee grinder, and began to prepare coffee for the two of them.
"Mr. Reid --"
"Clayton, if you please. If you call me 'Mr. Reid,' then I'll have to call you 'Mr. Silverheels,' and since I remember you when you were making and eating mud-pies, that would just be odd."
Tomas laughed. "Okay, Clayton, then. Clayton – I wish this was just a long-overdue social visit, but I'm afraid I'm mainly here to ask you a favor."
Clayton nodded. "I suspected as much. And I'm glad of the opportunity. Anything I can do to help you and your family, I'm glad to do. "
"My parents would like to ask you to run an errand for them. Could you come to our farm some time in the next few days? They can explain it to you."
"I have nothing critical today. Let's finish our coffee, and I'll come out with you."
The Silverheels' farm was only a few miles from the Reids', but it was almost impossible to find if you didn't know where it was. Tomas's grandfather had chosen the most obscure, inaccessible spot he could find to homestead. But Clayton found that he still knew every step of the way, and, less than two hours later, he was standing outside their door.
Nikan and Ramona Silverheels were waiting for him. Clayton shouldn't have been surprised that they looked fifteen years older.
Nikan stepped forward, reached out his hand to shake, then thought better of it, and pulled Clayton into a bear hug. "Glad you could come. But knew you would." His English hadn't improved much in since Clayton had seen him last, but it was perfectly serviceable and understandable.
Ramona came in for a hug as soon as Nikan released Clayton. "It's good to see you. It's been far too long." Ramona's English was better than her husband's: she'd grown up speaking both it and Witchita, as well as Spanish, and was a native speaker of all three.
Clayton looked at the floor. "Well. . . after Emily died . . ."
"You should have let us help you," Ramona said. "We wanted to."
"I know. I just . . . couldn't impose on you like that."
"We're your friends. And we always will be. And to have a friend, a person must BE a friend. You should have let us be your friends."
"Yes. You're right," Clayton said. "But I'm here now."
"Of course you are, Clayton. You've always been better at giving help than accepting it."
Clayton nodded, acknowledging the truth of the statement. "So. How can I help?"
Nikan grinned. "First, you help us drink this coffee. Then you help us eat this food. Then you help us know what you do for past fifteen years. Only after, we tell you what else."
"Fair enough. I think I can do that for you."
The next several hours were delightful. Clayton couldn't remember a time he'd laughed so much, so hard, so long. He wasn't a dour man by nature, and had always shown a cheerful disposition to his children and neighbors, but even so, a small part of him had been under a cloud since Emily's death. These friends, who had known Emily as well as he had, were able to shine sunlight right on that part of his soul.
Finally, though, the conversation turned serious, and Nikan was ready to ask his favor.
"My father sick, dying."
"I'm sorry to hear that. I was wondering why he wasn't down here with us."
"Yes. But him dying not sad. He old, have good life. He have plenty years. But, he now sick, in pain. Him sick, THAT sad."
"What can I do to help?"
"You know that Ramona very good doctor. She make many medicines from plants around; she help him pain very much. But only so much she do."
"I'm at the limit of what I can do without store-bought equipment," Ramona continued. "We are almost entirely self-sufficient on this farm, and we haven't needed anything from outside in a long time. But I could do much more to alleviate my father-in-law's suffering if I got certain supplies and equipment purchased from the town."
"I'll be happy to buy those for you and bring them to you," Clayton said. "I understand that you don't have much money."
Nikan scowled. "That not the problem. The problem that we DO have much money."
Ramona said, "About five years ago, Tomas was breaking a new field to expand our maize crops. He discovered a vein of silver."
Nikan continued. "This do us no good. We self-sufficient. We not need silver, not WANT silver. Father come here to Texas, when his tribe's land in Michigan territory taken. If people find there silver here on our land, people come and take our land. So we just ignore silver, cover it up, not tell. If we use silver, people know we have silver, people come take our land. Whites take Indian land when Indian have thing Whites want."
Clayton nodded, unwillingly. He wished he could deny the accuracy of the charge.
Ramona took over. "That's why we need your help. An Indian coming into town with silver nuggets would be in danger. A white man has a better chance. If we give you the silver, and a shopping list, it will attract less notice than if we did it ourselves."
And so, when Clayton left, he left with a pouch of silver nuggets and a list of the medical equipment and supplies to buy with them. It was sheer bad luck that, the next day when Clayton went into into Sven Jorgensen's general store to make the purchases, a man called Slippery Jim happened to be there at the same time.
Slippery Jim had a number of notable features. The first one was his absolute lack of notable features. It was remarkable just how unremarkable he was. It was very easy to forget that he was even there. When he was a boy, it had happened more than once that the teacher hadn't noticed that he was still inside the schoolhouse when she locked up to leave. This didn't bother him at all. Because he second notable feature was the devious mind that he had which figured out ways to use this to his advantage. He'd never had a bad grade in all his years of schooling, because he used those moments locked in by himself to find the schoolmarm's grade book and change anything he wanted.
Since nobody ever watched him, it had been easy for him to learn to watch other people, and the third notable thing about him was how well he could see opportunities for gain.
He worked for a man named Butch Cavendish, and he was in the general store, watching everyone come in and out, and seeing where the opportunities were. Sometimes, the opportunities involved murder. Jim didn't mind that, as long as there was plenty of money involved, and Butch liked it better if there was killing.
The Cavendish gang was feared all over the region. They were vicious, ruthless killers, and they moved around enough that the Texas Rangers hadn't been able to track them down, even though they'd been trying for years.
Slippery Jim saw Clayton paying with silver nuggets, and knew that he must have a silver mine. And he knew that this was their opportunity this time.
He slipped out, and into a nearby saloon, and sat down at a table near the back, next to a tall, skinny man with buck teeth and a pinched nose. There was no way he could be called anything other than Weasel, so that's what he was called.
You could see Slippery Jim just fine, if you looked at him. You just never remembered him later. But Weasel, if you saw him, you'd certainly remember him – but he had a trick of not being seen when he didn't want to be. He was also the best tracker Butch Cavendish had ever found – so, even if you were out of Weasel's sight, he would be able to follow you.
"Weasel. I think I've figured out what we're going to do here."
Weasel spat at the spittoon, missing by a good two feet. "There's something worth our time here? I thought this would just turn into one of those towns where there was nothing worth taking, and we just had to kill a bunch of folks to keep in practice."
"I can't make a guess at how much killing there's going to be. But I just saw a fellow with a sack the size of your fist, filled with silver nuggets."
Weasel's smile tended to make people think of Jack-o'-Lanterns. "Yep, I suppose that might be worth taking off of the fellow's body."
Slippery Jim rolled his eyes. "The purse is nothing, Weasel. Think about it. That fellow has a silver mine, or at least knows where one is. We're not for the purse – we're for the mine that filled it. I'm going to point him out to you. You follow him and find out where that mine is, or at least where the fellow lives. Then you come back here, and you and me, we go back to Butch and let him know what we found. Maybe we'll know where the mine is, or maybe we'll just know where the fellow lives. Either way, we can work with it."
Weasel's smile got even bigger. "I'm glad you're here to do the thinking, Jim. Without you, I'd just'a killed the feller and been done with it. Your idea's much better. Butch'll like it, too, I bet you."
Clayton didn't have the slightest idea that he was trailed from the general store all the way to the Silverheels' farm. Nobody in that farmhouse noticed the gangly form hiding outside the window, listening to everything they said. Nobody saw him creep silently away after dark. And the night was still young when Slippery Jim and Weasel were reporting what they'd found to Butch Cavendish at the hidden campsite they had set up in the hills outside of town.
"Lemme get this clear, then," Butch was saying. "It's a silver vein, so rich that you can get a pouch full of nuggets without hardly trying. There are only four people who live on the land, and one is an old man, and one is a woman. And they're Injuns, anyway. And they keep to themselves so much that almost nobody even knows they're there. And you can't find the place unless you know where it is. And besides the silver, there's a house there, and a farm, and plenty of food."
"Unh-hunh," Weasel confirmed. "That's about the size of it. Well, right now, there's that white man who did the shopping for 'em, too. Looks like he's sleeping there tonight, at least – he would have left before sunset otherwise."
Butch's grin was like something from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. "I thought we'd just come here, grab something, and keep moving. Never thought we'd find a place that we could use as a base. It's perfect." He thought for another moment. "How defensible is it?"
This was another topic Weasel knew well. "What I saw was only one path that horses could get through. And that path goes through the bottom of a ravine. There is good cover and good sitelines overlooking that ravine – perfect ambush conditions."
Butch thought. "So, if they knew we were coming, they could make it tricky on us. Well, I suppose that means we shouldn't let 'em know we're coming. Best way to do that is to move fast, move soon. And there's no time sooner than right now." He turned around. "Alright, men: break camp, pack up, and make sure you've got your guns handy. We're moving on to a better camp, and we only have to kill five people to do it!"
3. How the situation came to pass
Tomas couldn't sleep. There was too much on his mind. All his life, he'd lived more-or-less secluded on his family's farm, for what he believed was good reason. His grandfather, Beshkno, had been through great hardship caused by white men, and had taught them all that the best way to keep away from trouble was to keep away from other people.
But was that the right thing to do? Clayton believed in justice – he didn't deny the injustice of what was done to Beshkno's tribe, but he believed that people must fight injustice rather than hide from it. Yet Beshkno had a point, too. He had a duty to keep his own family safe, and to fight would certainly have harmed them. Would Tomas's parents even have survived without Beshkno's care and caution in hiding?
There was almost a full moon that night, and the sky was clear and the stars shone. Scout, Tomas's horse, was as sure-footed as a mountain goat, and, even after the moon set, there would be enough light to see by. So Tomas woke Scout and saddled him, and they set out to give Tomas a chance to think. They rode in the rocks above the ravine which led from the farm to the town. And Tomas saw a group of men carrying rifles and pistols, leading their horses toward his home.
Even riding among the rocks, Scout and Tomas were much faster than Cavendish and his men, and, after he silently crept out of their hearing, he was almost able to manage a gallop for some of the way. He woke the rest of his family.
"There is a band of armed men approaching along the ravine. I can't imagine that, at two in the morning, they have any benevolent intentions." As Tomas spoke, Nikan quietly translated for his father, who spoke no English. Beshkno replied, and Nikan now translated for Clayton, who spoke no Potawatomi.
"I feared this day. Even if the white man's government didn't take this land, we have always been vulnerable to white bandits. We have no place to flee to, so we will have to fight. We have been able to trade for rifles and ammunition enough from Ramona's Wichita family, which we have used for hunting until now. So, now we will use them to defend our home.
"Clayton, you will ride for town to attempt to find reinforcements. Perhaps we may hold out for enough hours for that to make a difference."
"No, sir," Clayton replied. "It must have been carelessness on my part which attracted these bandits and led them here. I have to stay and defend this place with you. Besides, I can't find my way back to town without following the ravine which the bandits are using. Tomas and Scout are the only ones who have a chance to get there and lead a party back. A slim chance at best – but none of the rest of us have any chance at all."
"I'll try, Mr. Reid, but they'll be here in just a few minutes. It's unlikely I'll even be able to pass their lines."
Nonetheless, he re-mounted Scout, and rode carefully along the ridge. But he wasn't able to get far before the situation came to a head.
Beshkno, Ramona, Nikan, and Clayton took up positions with good cover and clear fields of fire.
Cavendish's men rode into an ambush, and, for a few minutes, Clayton let himself hope that they might hold out, or even drive off their attackers. A half-dozen of Cavendish's gang fell.
But four normally peaceful people couldn't hold long against the crowd of merciless professional killers. Far from breaking at the unexpected resistance, Cavendish's men were infuriated by it. The four friends fought hard and valiantly. Beshkno was the first to fall.
A screaming giant of a man charged forward, brandishing a torch in one hand and a pistol in the other. Clayton pumped two bullets into him, but he didn't slow down. He threw the torch into the shed where Clayton and Nikan were fortified, and the shed burst into flames. The giant emptied his pistol at Clayton and Nikan, then fell back. Nikan was hit, and fell.
Clayton grabbed his friend and dragged him out of the flames – and felt a sudden needle of pain in his back. He'd exposed himself, and one of Cavendish's men had shot him in the back. The man approached, and shot Nikan twice. Then he grinned and leveled his pistol at Clayton. Clayton tried to crawl away, and discovered that his legs wouldn't move.
A horse whinnied, and the man fell to the ground with a crushed skull. A horse had kicked him. Clayton looked up. Ramona had managed to get to the stables and was riding a mean-looking stallion bareback. She reached down; Clayton reached up. They barely managed to clasp hands, Ramona kicked her horse's sides, and dragged him out of the line of fire. She dismounted, draped him over her horse, and rode off into the broken ground away from their attackers.
A volley of fire made her wheel her horse around, and take cover behind the barn. Clayton couldn't even clearly see where the shots were coming from, and they were pinned in place.
Suddenly, he heard hoof-beats, and Tomas's voice shouting, "Hi-ya, Scout! Come on!" A flurry of shots from Tomas's Winchester rifle followed, and a grunt as one of the shots found one of Cavendish's men. "Hurry, Mother – I'd draw their fire. You get yourself and Clayton away, and I'll follow."
Tomas began firing again, and Ramona kicked her horse into a gallop. They broke away over the rough ground, and behind a ridge, and rode hard for Reid's farm.
Tomas made it to the Reid place only a few minutes after Ramona and Clayton. Ramona was bleeding from several superficial wounds from splinters of rock and wood kicked up by bullets, as well as from a few more serious wounds from ricocheting rounds. One round had gone right through the fleshy part of her thigh, and into her horse. None of her wounds were life-threatening, or, apparently, even incapacitating – when Tomas slid off of Scout, she was busy treating Clayton's wounds.
Tomas staggered in, and collapsed into a chair. He'd lost his rifle on the ride, after his left arm was broken by a bullet. It seemed to be a clean break, and none of his other wounds seemed as serious, but he wasn't paying much attention.
There were two other men there, in Texas Ranger uniforms – Dan and John Reid, on leave from their unit, who had arrived earlier that day to visit their father, and had now found themselves treating him in a makeshift field hospital on their own kitchen table.
4. The situation now. The arrival of the other Rangers. What transpired then.
Sarah's brothers filled in a few more details.
"Ramona is an excellent doctor," Dan said. "She traveled with the Union Army during the war, and was a far better medic than any of the 'official' ones. But Dad's wound was just too serious. His spine was hit. The fact that he survived long enough to write that letter to you is due entirely to Ramona's skill, and she was also able to relieve much of his suffering."
"We telegraphed back to the Ranger headquarters to let them know what's happened," John continued. "The rest of our unit should be arriving today. Dan, and I aren't enough to take on Cavendish's gang just the two of us, but with our unit, we ought to be more than a match for them."
"Your whole unit is only a half-dozen men. Cavendish still over a dozen, even after Tomas's family and Dad killed as many as they did," Sarah objected.
"Yes, but we're trained for this sort of situation. Cavendish's men are hardened killers, but they're killers, not soldiers, not Rangers. They fight one-on-one; they don't understand tactics the way we do. We Rangers are expected to prevail against two, three, even four times our numbers. And we will," Dan said.
"I think you're being overconfident," Sarah said. "This is personal, and it's clouding your judgment."
"It's always personal, Sarah," John said. "If it wasn't our father, it would still be someone's father who died. Murder is always personal. We can't ever forget that."
Jim Bates, Sam Cooper, Jack Stacy, and Joe Brandt came on the afternoon train, and the six Rangers joined with Sarah, Ramona, and Tomas in the Reid's kitchen to discuss how they would proceed. They looked over the maps that Ramona and Tomas had drawn.
"Looks to me," Jack said, "if we can manage to get over this ridge here, we can sneak in from behind. They're going to be watching the ravine that is the main way in, but if we can get through over here, we can catch 'em unawares."
"It'll take some stealth. That's my job," said Sam. "Jim and me can creep through, and set up here and here, on the east and west sides." He pointed to two spots on the map. "Then, the other four of you can come in hard from the south, over the ridge, and that just about ought to do it."
Sarah had never come closer to military tactics than reading Julius Caesar's accounts of the Punic Wars, but she had to admit that it looked pretty convincing. "I suppose you're right. If you can get into those positions, I guess a half-dozen men will be able to defeat all of Cavendish's men."
Ramona said, "The trick is going to be getting into those positions. You can't go along the ravine; Cavendish and his men will be watching it. And you're going to need some sort of guide to lead you over that ridge – the land there is tricky. Tomas or I would be the natural choices for that – but," she gestured to her bandaged leg and Tomas's splinted arm, along with their other wounds, "we're just in no shape to go. The only thing I can suggest is to go into town and see if there is someone there who knows the area well enough to act as a guide. Our homestead is remote, but there are a few hunters and trappers and the like who know the area well enough to get you where you need to go."
"Why can't Dan or John just take us there?" Joe asked.
"I haven't been there since I was eight years old," Dan said. "John was five. I don't think we'd remember enough to get us through."
Jim said, "Fair enough. I'll go head into town tomorrow morning and ask around for someone who will suit."
The next day, word spread quickly through the town that some Rangers were looking for a scout or guide that could help them deal with the Cavendish gang that was holed up nearby. Eventually, Jim found himself pointed to Sven Jorgensen's general store. Everyone said that Sven knew everybody in town, and that, if anyone knew someone who could help, it'd be Sven.
The store was closed up when Jim came, but a medium-sized unremarkable man answered quickly enough when he knocked, and introduced himself as Sven.
"You must be the Ranger looking to find a guide. I heard about you, and I may have just your man."
A tall, gangly man came out from the back room. "Howdy. I'm William. Only been around this town a couple weeks, but I'm the best darned scout you'll ever find. If anybody can get you to where you need to go, I can do it."
Jim looked him up and down. "If you can do it, you're our man."
When they got back to the Reid's farm, Dan pulled Jim aside. "You sure we can trust this fellow?"
"The man at the general store, Sven, vouched for him."
Dan nodded. "Jogensen's a good man, and an excellent judge of character. I'm satisfied."
William suggested that they have lunch, then head out just after noon. "I don't know the area just perfect, but I know it okay. We ought to go out soon, to give ourselves as much time as we can to get there."
"Yes," Dan agreed. "Sooner is better. It's not going to take Cavendish long to hear that there are Rangers in town, if he doesn't already know. Our best bet is to get there this afternoon, take a bit of time to look around and plan our attack, then attack tonight after dark."
William seemed uncomfortable inside, and ate outdoors. The Rangers, Tomas, Ramona, and Sarah talked distractedly during lunch, but they were all clearly thinking more about the battle to come than paying attention to conversation. The end of the meal was greeted with an emotion not entirely unlike relief as the Rangers were able to start actively DOING rather than planning and waiting. Sarah's brothers hugged her, then mounted up. The Rangers, led by William, rode off down the trail.
After about five minutes of watching Sarah pace and fidget, Ramona spoke up. "Why don't you go into town and pick up a few things at the general store? There's nothing we absolutely need, but I can think of a few things that might be useful, and neither Tomas nor I are quite in a condition to do so." She indicated their respective bandages and splints. "More importantly, you could use the change of scenery. Believe me, the best thing for you right now is to be doing something."
Sarah nodded. "How are you dealing with everything?"
Ramona gestured to the array of ingredients and equipment on the table in front of her. "I'm continuing to work on my medicines. Tomas has been sleeping; his injuries are worse, so he needs the rest. Work and sleep – those are the best medicines for both worry and grief."
"Then I'll be back soon."
She saddled her horse, and rode into town. But when she got to Jorgensen's general store, she was surprised to see the front door closed and locked. It wasn't unheard of for him to take some time off in the middle of the day, but it wasn't usual, either. She dismounted, and peered through the windows inside. She didn't see anything unusual, and didn't hear any response to her knock, so she went around the back of the building.
A window was wide open. She climbed in.
Jorgensen's body was crumpled in the middle of the floor in the back room. Blood had soaked into the wooden floor from the gunshot in his back. In a daze, she walked over to him, tried to straighten out his limbs, which were fairly stiff. All at once, the implications struck her. She ran back to her horse, and galloped back to her farm. She burst into the kitchen where Ramona and Tomas were.
"Sven Jorgensen's been murdered."
Ramona and Tomas looked up, startled, and Sarah went on.
"From the stiffness of his body, I think he was dead before Jim went in to talk to him, which means that, whoever Jim talked to, it wasn't Sven. It's a trap."
Even injured, Tomas and Ramona managed to saddle their horses in almost no time.
"I have a fairly good idea the route William must be leading them," Tomas said. "They have a good head-start on us, and Mother and I are injured, but I'm certain we know the land much better than William could. Perhaps we will get there soon enough to make a difference."
They rode hard, but were still out of sight of the Rangers when they heard the fusillade of shots from far ahead.
After the initial volley, the shots tapered off to individual shots. Sarah, Ramona, and Tomas rode quickly but cautiously up to the canyon from which the shots had come, and found what they feared – the bodies of the Rangers. A few other bodies, presumably of Cavendish's men, were visible up above, at the ridge of the canyon – so the battle wasn't entirely one-sided, but the Rangers had had no chance.
Tomas and Sarah stopped in shock, although Ramona scanned the ridgeline for any remaining enemies. Only when she was satisfied that they weren't in any current danger did she ride forward to join her son and Sarah.
The base of the canyon was a slaughterhouse. The bodies of a half-dozen men and horses lay strewn around the ground. They'd clearly been cut down in seconds, but, even so, every one of them had a gun in their hand, and had managed to return fire.
Sarah dismounted, and walked forward, blank-faced. She walked toward each body, checking for signs of life. She closed each body's eyes, straightened its limbs, went to the next one. She left her brothers for last.
Tomas and Ramona sat silently.
She paused for a while before Dan Reid's body, and finally moved on to John. She closed his eyes, and laid him out, then stood up. She turned to Tomas and Ramona. Her eyes were unfocused and her face was slack.
She picked up a bullet that had missed the Rangers and had impacted into a rock. She inspected the flattened bullet and began speaking. Her voice was calm, and she had a professorial, lecture-like tone, but her face didn't change from its blank look.
"The medieval alchemists considered all things to have a hierarchy. Humans were at the pinnacle of the beasts, while gold was the highest of the metals. It seems ironic that these men, examples of the finest that humanity has to offer, and therefore the highest of the highest of the animals, were all killed by lead, the basest of all metals.
"It's not right. Primitive man fought with bones, and wood, and stones. There is symmetry in that – if people are brought down and returned to the earth, it was done with things already of the earth. Homer's heroes all fought with bronze, a metal which reminds us of the sun, and of gold. Bronze is a metal suited for heroes. The Romans fought with iron, and King Arthur's knights with steel. These, too, are metals which may kill a man. Iron may rust, and show the color of blood. Steel may shine like the moon, like silver. I can accept that.
"But lead? How can it be that these men, balanced on the finest point between the highest of the animals and the lowest of the angels, can be brought down by the basest of the metals?"
She bent over, and unfastened the silver star from her brother's vest. She straightened up, examining the badge she held in her hand.
"If they had to be killed," she said, " if people must die by violence, it ought to at least be by silver, by something pure and holy, not by base lead."
She turned around, and started walking purposefully up the scree of the canyon wall, heading for the wilderness. Tomas stared for a minute, then, when it became apparent that she intended simply to walk off into the badlands, he stepped forward to retrieve her. Ramona put a hand out, and stopped her son.
"We have to stop her!" Tomas protested. "She'll die out there!"
Ramona looked at him steadily. "We have to give her that chance."
Tomas stared at his mother with a look of shock and horror. Ramona continued.
"I've seen this before, in the war. She's just lost everything – her entire family. A part of her has just died. Out there in the wilderness, she'll either find something to replace it, or the rest of her will die with it."
"We have to go after her! We can't leave her to die like that! How can you be that cruel?"
"I'm not being cruel. This is the kindest thing we can do for her. If I'd lost you, along with your father and grandfather, I'd be doing the same thing as Sarah. And, had you lost me, so would you. She has to find a reason to live. Living without a reason is crueler than dying."
5. In the wilderness
The gecko stared at Sarah. "Well, certainly, I understand your grief, but are you certain that wandering out here in the desert is the best way to deal with it? After all,
'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father;
But you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness."
Sarah might have laughed at that, but laughing would have made her chapped lips start bleeding again. "Are you certain that that's the proof-text you want to use? Claudius had murdered Hamlet's father. I don't think that Claudius is an unbiased source here."
"Still," the lizard went on, "it didn't work out too well for Hamlet, did it? Hamlet isn't a very good role model for you, either."
"I wonder about that," Sarah said. "I wonder whether Hamlet was mad. And, I suppose, by analogy, I wonder whether I, myself, have gone mad."
The lizard flicked its tongue. "I don't feel it's my place to offer an opinion to that issue. Nonetheless, I feel obligated to point out that you're talking to a gecko."
The lizard spun around and went back into the crack in the rock. He'd been doing that every time the buzzard swooped lower, and Sarah thought it very rude of the buzzard to keep interrupting their conversation that way. Still, it gave her a chance to ponder what the lizard had been saying. She looked down at the silver star she was carrying. The edges of it were crusted in dried blood from the burst blisters on her hand, and she suspected that her fingers wouldn't unclench from around it, even if she'd wanted to try. But it meant something. And that's what she was trying to figure out.
While it was true that her grief was three times as great as that of her brothers', they had also encountered that first part, the death of their father. And they had found some reason to go on. They sought justice, not revenge, and they sought it as Rangers. This star was a symbol of what it was that caused them to continue, even in their grief. Could it do the same for her? If her grief was three times theirs, it stood to reason that she would simply have to hold to that symbol three times as strongly as they did.
She pondered further. There had been, of course, two of them, so three times as strong, by two brothers, meant six times the commitment. And that was how many men there were in the Ranger unit! So, clearly, she would have to be, by herself, not merely a Ranger, but an entire Ranger unit, on her own. Could a lone Ranger do as much as an entire Ranger unit? Clearly, it was her duty to find out.
Yes, she thought, the lizard was right. She did have a duty to fulfill, the duty of her brothers, and their unit. If they couldn't do it, she had to take up their mantle. She stood up to go home.
And that's when she realized the error in her plan, as she simply didn't move. Her legs wouldn't obey her. She blinked, and the world spun around and her eyes closed. The problem was that, now that she had a reason to live, she no longer had the strength to do so. Without some sort of miracle, her new-found purpose would die here with her. Still, she thought as she sank into unconsciousness, dying with a purpose, even an unfulfilled one, was much better than dying without one.
It was freezing cold when she opened them again, and the sky was dark. She hadn't, truly, expected to ever wake again, at least not until Judgment Day, and it took her a moment to figure out what had wakened her. It was an animal moving around behind her.
"If you are a coyote, I'm afraid that there is a buzzard who has a prior claim," she would have said, had her voice worked. Instead, she merely managed a small croak, and the animal came around into her field of view.
Sarah prided herself on the accuracy of her observation, and she felt that simply because she was dying, and, in fact, most of the way to dead, was no excuse for sloppiness in this regard. She'd worked with horses all her life, and so she wanted to be careful to appraise this one accurately. Could it simply be her weakened state that was interfering with her judgment, or was this horse actually the most magnificent animal she'd ever seen?
She felt sorry that she'd most likely be dead by morning, because she wanted to see his coat by daylight. By moonlight, the stallion's coat appeared to be pure white. He looked to be about sixteen hands high, and had lines like a Lipizzaner or Andalusian.
He walked around her, and nosed at her curiously. Sarah was surprised to see that he was unshod. "Really?" she tried to say. "You're a mustang?" Again, a tiny groan was the only sound that came out.
The horse seemed to make a decision. He began nudging her with his head, and she somehow managed to get an arm around his neck. He effortlessly pulled her to her feet, and she clambered onto his back. She wasn't riding him – she was merely draped over him like a blanket. And they were moving somehow.
After some period of time, the horse stopped, and bent his head. Sarah rolled off, and twitched in shock as her hand splashed in cold water. The horse had brought her to a spring, and she carefully took a small sip of water.
Her stomach protested, and she retched, and she took another small sip. The horse also drank carefully, and after a long time, Sarah realized that she might live until morning.
"If she doesn't come back today, I'm going out there to look for her, or at least for her body," Tomas said. As the Cavendish gang still held their ranch, Tomas and Ramona were at the Reid's farm. The farm still had chores that had to be done, and they had no other place to stay.
Ramona nodded. "I suppose you're right. By now, she's either found a reason to live, or she's died."
Tomas suddenly rushed to the window. "What was that? It sounded like the hoof-beats of an unshod horse: what would a mustang be doing this near a ranch?"
Ramona was closer to the door, and got outside first. "Tomas – you'd better come here. You're better with wild horses than I am."
Sarah was semi-conscious, on the back of the white horse. The horse looked uncertainly around – cautious, but not frightened.
Tomas approached carefully, and reached out his good arm to Sarah. She collapsed to the ground, and Ramona and Tomas carried her inside. The horse shied away slightly, but came back quickly. He seemed more curious than nervous, and started walking around the yard as the humans went in.
Sarah was a mass of blistered sunburns. The parts of her clothing that weren't shredded away were glued to her chapped and peeled skin.
"Tomas! Get me a pair of sewing scissors, then find the Reid's bathtub and fill it."
Sarah spent perhaps a week in a delirious haze. She had vague memories of drinking water, and broth, and of talking, but she couldn't remember what exactly she said, or, for that matter, whether she was really forming words at all. And then, one day, she woke up.
"Good. You're awake," Ramona greeted her briskly. "First, your brother's star is on the table next to you. It took some doing to get it out of your hand, and you will certainly have scars from its points, where you were clenching it. Second, you've had two visitors. That stallion hasn't left. He doesn't let the rest of us get too close to him, but he's been looking in the window of your sick room every few hours. And second, a friend of yours from Boston."
As if on cue, a tall black man walked in. He had shoulders like a blacksmith, and a pleasant, intelligent face.
Sarah discovered that smiling still rather hurt her face. It was worth it, though. "Abraham Lincoln Gambrell. What are you doing here?"
"Howdy, Miss Reid. When I heard that your father had died and you were going home, I decided to see if I could be any help. I'd been thinking of moving out West after school, anyway – this is where the mines are. Besides, Boston is a wonderful city, but people there are still a little wary of hiring a black engineer."
"Of course – I should have thought of that. You finished Massachusetts Tech at the same time I finished Wellesley."
"With honors, even. And degrees in mining engineering, mechanical engineering, and metallurgy. Honestly, my experience as a blacksmith rather helped. I had more practical experience with the concepts than many of my classmates."
"I can't tell you how pleased I am to see you, Linc," Sarah said.
"I'm glad, Sarah. I was hoping to see you again after graduation."
"All right, that's enough chatter for now," Ramona broke in. "Sarah, we're going to get you dressed, and up and walking. You've spent enough time abed – it's time to start using your muscles again."
This process was far more painful than Sarah expected, but, over the next couple days, she improved rapidly. As did everyone else. Ramona was completely healed, and Tomas was getting impatient to remove the splint from his arm. Whenever she walked outside, the stallion approached her, and followed her around with an attentive air. She'd never heard of a horse adopting a human before, but it was clear that this white horse had decided that the two of them belonged together. In fact, he allowed her to saddle him, and she began to ride him daily.
Sarah did a lot of thinking, and, one day as they sat down to their noonday dinner, she spoke up.
"My father taught my brothers and me to try to work for justice and a better world. I'm the only one left. I feel that I have to continue that work."
Linc smiled. "If you'll excuse me a moment, I have something for you." He stood up and walked out of the room.
Sarah wrinkled her brow in surprise and confusion.
Ramona saw her expression and said, "We thought you'd make that decision. You talked about it constantly when you were delirious. So we made you something."
Linc came back, and placed a pearl-handled Colt .45 Peacemaker on the table in front of her. Along with a handful of shining bullets.
"Ramona and Tomas told me about what you said before you went into the desert – about how wrong it was that people could be killed with lead. Ramona and I took the silver that we had from their mine, and cast these silver bullets. I then modified this pistol to handle the different weight."
Ramona went over to a drawer in a chest at the side of the room. "I have these for you – John and Dan's spare uniforms. I adjusted the tailoring to fit you – it didn't take much; you are almost exactly the same size as your brothers were." She placed trousers, shirts, bandanas, vests, and hats next to the pistol. "Also, this." She took the star that Sarah had clenched through her ordeal in the desert, and put it on top of the pile. It had been polished to a bright shine, but, if you looked carefully, you could still see the slight discolorations on the points where it had dug into her hands.
"And this is from me," Tomas said. "You may find it useful to conceal your identity, and pose as a man. People might not take a woman as seriously." He placed a leather mask on the table.
Sarah looked up at her friends, through tears. "I don't know what to say. You know me better than I know myself."
Linc smiled. "Obviously, the first thing we're going to have to do is to get the Silverheels' farm back from Cavendish. Once that's done, I'll be able to get as much silver as we're going to need to finance your fight against evil."
Ramona said, "Nobody can be truly alone. Even if you're going to attempt to be a lone Ranger, fighting your brothers' fight, you will need us to give you a headquarters, and support."
Tomas said, "And you won't be alone."
Ramona looked at him.
"I've been thinking. I'm going with you. Linc and Ramona will be plenty to hold down the fort. I'm going to traveling with you, on the front lines."
Ramona shook her head. "You're my only family. I can't risk you."
"No," Tomas said. "Father and Grandfather thought that we could protect ourselves by retreating from society, and making a place of our own. But they were killed, and we have been driven from our home. The only true safety is in creating a society of law and justice, where we ALL can be safe. The risk is in staying behind. Sarah and I will go out into the world, and fight for justice and right. Only THAT will make us safe."
Ramona smiled sadly. "Tú eres tonto," she muttered. But her voice was filled with love and admiration.
Tomas said, "Well, if I'm going to be dumb, what better cause is there?" He turned to Sarah. "So, you hear that? Apparently, I am tonto. So that's who I'll be. I'm Tonto, and you can be my sidekick, the Lone Ranger."
Sarah laughed. "Well, okay, Tonto. But I'm not going to be a sidekick. I'll be your partner, instead."
"And what about your horse? I don't think that horse will let us leave him behind. He'll need a name, too."
Sarah looked at the table. "I think his name ought to be obvious," she said, and held up the handful of silver bullets.