Alone, the old gunslinger lay in bed listening to the frigid wind making its way down from the north. Cold blew through cracks in the old shack, but it seemed warm inside, some of this due to the fever and some to the fire crackling in the stove.
* * *
Lying in the same clothes that he wore when he found the bed sometime last week, he wondered who had stoked the warming fire. Could it have been the boy? Surely not, he had ridden out for Texas last fall before the weather closed in.
Oh what the old man wouldn't have given to see him just once more. Knowing that his time to saddle up and ride on to the great beyond was drawing near, he thought back to the life he and the boy had shared.
Rising to cough brought more blood and phlegm, the only cloth nearby was saturated in the spew from recent episodes. A traveling doctor had told him it was consumption that had taken hold. "The hell it is," He had said to the doctor, "As sure as my names Mont Morgan I don't have no damn consumption."
Hell if that old doctor hadn't been right.
Half empty, a bottle of whiskey had been left on a table by the bed along with one of his pistols. So far the whiskey had helped, in due time, there might come a use for the Colt.
Morgan struggled with the bottle and lay back on the bed thinking about the boy. It would be something to see him just once more, once more before he was planted for good in the bone-orchard at the bottom of the hill.
Whiskey beginning to ease the pain, Morgan fumbled rolling a cigarette and lit it from the lamp near the bed. More coughing followed the first drag. Turning his head, Morgan spit the blood and phlegm to the floor and took another hit, closing tired eyes wishing to see his boy again.
Now there were as many rumors as to how Morgan and the boy fell in together as there were lies about the lost Dutchman's gold mine.
* * *
Truth was, Mont and some of his pards had hit a bank in Coffey County and were blazing a trail in trying to get away. Mont took a high fork up through the hills. To the benefit of those pards the posse followed his trail and not the others. Old smoke drifted on a gentle wind, Mont figured the jig was up, he had run onto civilization out here in the badlands with any number of gentlemen ready to grab hold of him as he rode through.
The smoke wafted from the remains of an old shack in the middle of a sharecrop farm. A young lad of maybe four or five years of age mulled about dirty and tired, his tear-streaked cheeks told of a story Mont didn't have the heart to ask.
Reining in his mount, Morgan asked, "Where's your folks son?"
A flood of tears welled up in the boys eyes, Mont knew well what the answer would be.
"Got any kin folk in these parts boy?" Morgan asked glancing back over a nervous trail as the lawmen were bearing down hard behind.
Morgan was an outlaw, no disputing the fact, but he couldn't leave the boy out here alone. Once the sun went down it would get mighty cold on the plains and there was no guarantee the lawmen trailing would even find him. It had to have been twenty miles to the nearest settlement and the boy would surely starve to death if the coyotes didn't start picking at him.
Morgan reached down extending a hand to the lone boy and pulled him up into the saddle, "I'm in a predicament here son," Morgan said, "But I'll see to it that you get to the next town safe."
Spurring his big Chestnut mare on, the gunslinger reasoned out a plan for the boy. Morgan had never been much on paternal instinct. He didn't have any children or rather any that he stayed around to provide for. That's not to say the outlaw had never been with a woman, he had bedded down with plenty of 'em. Surely he was the father to many a tike running fatherless like he had in his younger day.
When darkness came, Morgan hobbled his mount near a spring fed creek and secured a place for both he and the boy.
"You hungry son?"
The boy shook his head in the affirmative not saying a word.
"Hard bread and coffee's all I got for us tonight, but I'm glad to share it with you," Morgan said already preparing some for the boy.
Morgan's bedroll only contained a coat and one old wool blanket, a tattered leftover from the war. After supper the boy stayed close to Mont Morgan and the little fire. Morgan wrapped the lad in wool and covered himself with his canvas slicker to keep the night air away.
Miles turned into days, Morgan found that he had really taken a liking to the boy and the boy seemed to like him although he never said a word. The lad could understand well enough, he just couldn't talk.
Two weeks and who knows how many miles the pair traveled when they rode into Denton Texas. With the mare spent and no law on their trail, Morgan figured they'd have to rest for a few days.
"Now you got any problem with me telling them you're my kid?" Morgan asked the boy, smiling at the thought of a place to stop. "If it'd be right with you, that's what I'm going to say if anyone starts to asking questions."
The boy nodded as Morgan stepped off at the town's livery and set him to the ground. A shave, good hot bath and a meal later, Morgan and the boy were resting comfortably in a second floor room at the Illinois Hotel. Saddle bags full of money Morgan had saw to it that they both had a new suit of clothes to boot.
"Now son," Morgan explained, "It's time for me to be moving along. You know put some distance between me and those lawmen that I've been running from."
Tears streamed down the lads cheeks as he shook his head in the negative clinging to Morgan's leg.
Knowing that he was probably all the boy had other than the prospect of a lifetime spent in the orphanage, Morgan asked, "Do you want to continue on with me, son?"
Smiling the boy shook his head in agreement.
It wasn't a bad idea come to think of it. No one would be looking for a clean shaven man traveling with a small boy in his keep.
"Well then young fellow," Morgan said, "We'll see this thing though to the end I reckon. I'll look for us a pack horse and we'll start out early tomorrow, if that'd be right with you?"
Together for good, Morgan and the boy walked to the livery to check on the mare, when a fellow started asking an awful lot of questions.
Morgan explained, "Dammed rouge Indians killed the old lady and burned me to ground. This here boy is all I got."
The boy smiled a coy smile as he stood next to Morgan's leg, a holstered Peacemaker against his cheek.
"Yes sir," Morgan answered, "I reckon I can work cattle as well as the next fellow in line?"
When the sun came up the next morning, Morgan and the boy awoke in a one room bunk house at the Triple R Bar S ranch. It wasn't much, just a room with chow and dependable work. After terrorizing the land, settling down wouldn't hurt Morgan's feelings any and steady pay would stretch the bag of money from that bank in Coffey County. Besides the old woman that did the cooking at the ranch took a liking to the boy as did he to her. Morgan would have someone to look after the lad while he was away earning a living for him and the boy.
Ten years flew by as Morgan and the boy worked on this ranch and that, one going bankrupt another selling out. Mont traded an old saddle for a good little horse and taught the boy to work and rope cattle. A Navy .36 Colt given when Morgan figured the boy was fifteen provided a smile just short of ear to ear. The boy was a natural with a gun in his hand.
* * *
Well built, the boy started working alongside Morgan to earn his keep, turned out to be a hell of a cowboy when there came a need. Pay from the weeks work in his pocket the boy took a liking to drinking whiskey and chasing the whores in town, wasn't anything wrong with it as far as Morgan could see, just a young man sowing his oats.
Morgan had taken ill one winter and had never quite gotten over the cough. Notice had been given that the ranch would be liquidated. Morgan and the boy could stay on for a month or so, but would have to move on by spring.
Long winter nights were spent near the stove sharing a bottle of whiskey with Morgan retelling his stories of the gun slinging days. The boy understood that old Mont wasn't his father, he had never forgotten his folks, but it was Mont Morgan who had been there when he cried, carried him to the doctor in the snow and taught him the things that a boy needed to know. The boy enjoyed those stories. Morgan felt the boy becoming agitated at their lot, restless.
Consumption the doctor had said about the cough that winter. Morgan argued, but he knew the diagnosis was true. He had felt sick inside for some time. Spent from hard years of drinking and raising hell, Morgan knew it would soon be over. How soon?
"You think we could pull just one off?" Morgan asked one night by the stove, "I'd like to feel my heart pumping just one more time like it did back then."
The boy was becoming restless, Morgan knew that try as he might he could never contain such a boy to working on some ramshackle ranch in the middle of nowhere.
Spinning a blued Colt pistol on his index finger, the boy smiled and nodded.
Taking the bottle back from the boy, Morgan rubbed his head saying, "Well then partner as soon as I can get healed up from this cough we ride."
Problem was, Morgan didn't get better. One night the cough got so bad the boy got their horses saddled and managed to get Mont up in his for a cold ride into town. Powders and a bottle of tonic quieted the ailment some. Warmer weather brought more improvement.
Morgan traded an extra horse for a Winchester rifle and a few dollars credit at the mercantile in town.
A good supply of coffee, whiskey and tobacco was packed away for the coming ride. Plans were made and remade near the stove over coffee by morning and whiskey by night.
One morning as Morgan warmed by the stove, the boy led their horses up to the bunkhouse having rolled their blankets and fastened their belongings behind the saddles.
Morgan looked back at the cozy little cabin as the miles grew that morning, he knew they could never come back to the way things had been. He loved the boy and didn't want to see anything happen to him, but there was no way to stop this train now and he knew it.
Crossing Texas like a deadly twister, the pair hit a bank in Lubbock and made their getaway in the direction of Albuquerque, with the latter being on the receiving end of another gunfight. Phoenix and San Diego both fell victim before Morgan and the boy headed north for a little rest. By that time Morgan was spent from hard use. A little river town provided the shack were the pair of outlaws could lay-low for a time and try to heal.
A country doctor confirmed the earlier diagnosis of consumption, Morgan and the boy remained holed-up trying to sort the future.
Outside of the lonely shack, a vicious cold wind was dying down. Full and bright in a cloudless sky a winter moon watched from afar.
Morgan reached over for the revolver on the table. Now here was something that felt good in his hand, cold and well made the Colt brought a sense of peace. He reached over to turn down the lamp it no longer provided comfort. Dull and lifeless his eyes could no longer see, maybe they didn't want to see anymore. Blind now from the whiskey and the cancer ravaging his worn body Morgan gasped for breath, his chest rising and falling in great convulsions.
"Now Lord," Morgan coughed, "I know that you and I haven't seen eye to eye on most everything." He stopped to cough and spit again before continuing, "But don't hold it against the boy. He couldn't help the circumstances that found him." Blood trickled from the corner of Morgan's mouth as tears began to flow down his weather burned cheeks.
Taking in the feel of the Colt in his hand, Morgan said in a tired voice, "Lord, see to it that the boy finds his home in Coffey County before the weather turns bad out on the plains. I loved that boy more than anything in this miserable life that I was given."
Outside under a bright moon, the boy urged his mount onward. One shot rang out ahead from the rundown shack. Echoing in the cold night air, the sound swirled around and around as tears of pain began to flow unabated. Looking over his shoulder, intermittent flashes from the doctor's buggy were following close behind.
Dismounting at a full run, the boy pushed back the door and fumbled with a Lucifer to light a lamp on the table. Sulfur from the match stung swollen eyes as the young man, no longer a boy, knelt by the bed taking the hand of the only father he had known. Smells of piss, cheap whiskey and stale tobacco smoke overwhelmed the senses.
With Angels gathering about the somber scene, words struggled to trembling lips, "I love you father."
Words Mont Morgan had waited a lifetime to hear.