The spindly little girl smiled a gap toothed grin that threatened to melt his heart. She waved enthusiastically to him from her father’s arms as she was carried out the door.
“Don’t forget to change the dressing at least twice a day,” Doc called out. The girl kicked her feet, one of which was swaddled in gauze.
“Much obliged, Doctor Dillon,” said her father from the doorstep.
“And you little missy,” he said with a grin “YOU just stay away from the smithy when you’re barefoot. Next time it might be more than a nail I pull out of your heel.”
The girl bobbed her head affirmative as her father swept her into the dusty street. Doc went to the sink and pumped water into the ceramic bowl. He grabbed a lye cake from the basin edge and lathered up his hands. A spot of blood on his sleeve caused him to tsk at his own carelessness.
The sound of booted feet clumping on his porch caught his ear.
“Just a minute,” he called from the back room of his one story office. Quickly he searched about for a clean shirt, doffing his soiled one. He only had one sleeve on when he rushed around the corner, partially blind.
Doc paused, held still as a rock. He knew that voice, full of life and confidence and yet somehow still cold. Slowly he drew his shirt on the rest of the way, his face poking out of the collar to see a sight he had long dreaded.
The man who had spoken was tall, six and half feet at least. He had a barrel chest and a well trimmed mustache which blended seamlessly into his equally manicured beard. A black shirt with silver buttons adorned his chest, and a Crow Indian necklace lay in stark contrast against it. Eyes the color of arctic ice gleamed from under a black felt hat.
For a time they stared at each other. Finally the man spoke.
“What’s the matter? You look like Death himself just walked in the door.”
“Maybe he has,” Doc said, stuffing his hands into his pockets. His fingers closed on a straight razor handle, though he didn’t draw it out.
“You’re looking good,” said the visitor, eyeing him up and down. “Got the muscle of a negro man.”
“Then I count myself lucky,” Doc said. “Why are you here, Dad? I made it pretty plain back in Missouri that I didn’t want a damn thing to do with you.”
“That you did.” His father’s polished snakehide boots clomped along the wooden floor as he surveyed the office. Picking up a stethoscope, he stared at it with his back to Doc. “You really are lancing boils and wiping noses in this shithole, aren’t you?”
“It’s a living.” Doc crossed his arms over his chest. Whatever the old man’s business was, he didn’t seem to want a fight. Not that the straight razor would be a match for the silver-plated engraved Colt at his father’s hip. “Melville was in need, and I took an oath to help those in need.”
“And first do no harm.” His father turned about and put his arms akimbo. “What about the harm you’ve done to our family? Jimmy cried for three days after you ran out on us.”
Doc licked his lips. “How is James, Dad?”
“Just fine, no thanks to your bad example.” He grinned, though it sent a shiver down Doc’s spine rather than reassuring him. Then the old man’s piercing eyes narrowed to slits. “It’s time to come home, son. The family needs you.”
“The family? Or that collection of bandits and degenerates you ride with?”
“Family is family.” His father sighed and withdrew a silver tobacco tin. He extracted a thin slip of paper and proceeded to roll a brace of cigarettes. He lit one with a match, puffed on it until it was smoldering, and offered it to Doc.
After a moment’s hesitation he took it. The old man always sprung for the good quality Turkish tobacco. The best they could get in Melville was cheap southern junk, unless a train from Big Timber came in. He took a long drag and savored the flavor, watching his father closely the whole time.
“I need you, son.” His father puffed on his own cigarette, eyes somehow glowing brighter than the ember.
“I’m a doctor now, Dad.”
“I know. I couldn’t be more proud, believe it or not.”
His father’s jaw worked, steely gaze unwavering. For just a second, Doc figured he’d went too far.
Then the old man relaxed.
“Suppose I deserve a little of that,” he muttered. “I need you because you’re a doctor, Manny. Me and the boys have a long ride ahead of us. Be damn useful to have a sawbones on hand.”
“I can recommend a few.”
“Manny.” His father blew out a long stream of smoke, seeming like a dragon of yore. “You really don’t have a choice.”
“What will you do, Dad? Draw that pistol and shoot me? That’s what mankillers do, right?”
“I would never hurt my own flesh and blood.”
“I seem to recall getting cuffed around quite a bit growing up.”
“That?” His father laughed. “That was just to toughen you up. Besides, I never raised a hand to you once you were a grown man, and you know it!”
“Well, if you’re not going to shoot me you might as well leave,” Doc said stiffly. “Because I’m not going.”
“That so, ’Doctor Dillon?’” His father drew himself up to his full, impressive height, thumbs tucked into his gunbelt. “Let me ask you this, boy; How long do you think you’d last in this town if I told them your real name? That you’re not Daniel Dillon of Kansas City but Manfried Dalton, Jr.? They’ll ride you out of town on a rail...if you’re lucky. That or turn you in for the reward.”
Doc felt his heart hammering, his mouth gone suddenly dry. For a moment he considered running out the back door, but what would that get him?
“I think I always knew,” he muttered “that the past would catch up to me someday.”
“I’m not here to talk about the past, son.” Big Man Dalton relaxed, hands returning to his sides. “I’m here to talk about the future. A golden future for all of us.”
Doc licked his lips. Old feelings he’d kept buried for years bubbled to the surface, as well as images of gold nuggets and paper dollars.
“I heard about the Pinkerton robbery,” he said slowly. “How did you hide ten thousand bars of gold?”
Big Man tilted back his head and laughed. “That’s for me to know, and you to find out...son! Pack your things. We leave tomorrow at sunup.”
Doc nodded. Big Man headed for the door, stopping when he was halfway outside.
“Oh,” he said “don’t bother trying to run. I got Sid and Mark watching the road. It’s good seeing you again, son.”
Doc waited until the big man was out of sight, then heaved a heavy sigh.
“Wish I could say the same, Dad. Wish I could say the same.”
Melville was a rough town by reputation, but Doc had learned that many of the people who lived there were of good moral stock. Most of the troublemakers were from out of town, desperados and mankillers looking for an out of the way spot to lay low.
Like his father. Big Man was already outside his office when the sun first kissed the morning sky, his big white stallion lapping up water from a trough. There was another mount, saddled and freshly shorn waiting for him. Forcing himself to be calm, Doc gathered his things for the journey. The previous night he’d put up—or given away—much of the medicine and equipment he couldn’t carry on horseback. All the took with him from his home of the last three years was a pack full of clothes and a black medicine bag.
“Good morning,” Big Man said cheerfully when he stepped into the gentle morning light. Birds chirped merrily or zipped about the azure sky, free from the burdens of the mortals below. His father took something out of his saddlebag and tossed it to Doc.
Doc caught the bundle, already knowing what it was before he unwrapped it. His old Winchester revolver, fully loaded and accompanied by a holster and belt.
“I don’t want this,” he said, starting to hand it back.
“Put it on.”
Doc swallowed. Big Man had spoken softly but intensely, his blue eyes glinting with malice.
“Fine.” Once he put the gun belt on, he was shocked by how familiar it seemed. “I not about to shoot anyone, though.”
“So you say.” Big Man grinned. “I know you, boy. When we get beset by Injuns or lawmen or even other killers, I expect you’ll find that pistol right in your hand where it belongs.”
Doc stuck his foot in the stirrup and swung into the saddle. His father had selected a spotted gelding, which may have been a veiled insult. He scratched the beast between its flickering ears and tuned his gaze on Big Man.
“Let’s be off, son.” Big Man kicked his horse into a trot, Doc following suit a moment later. If the residents of Melville knew they had one of the most wanted men in the country riding down main street, they gave no sign. A few of the townsfolk offered waves or friendly greetings to Doc as they passed.
He felt like a traitor, leaving them like he was. Big Man was right, though...he had no real choice.
Except to gun down his own father, of course. The thought had occurred to him during his restless, haunted attempt at slumber. Right now, the old man was riding a few paces ahead. It would be simplicity itself to pull his revolver and put a bullet in his back...
Doc gritted his teeth. He may have had his share of skeletons in the closet, but he wasn’t about to commit patricide. Besides, all of his memories weren’t necessarily bad; An image of his father teaching him how to ride came to mind.
Big Man must have noticed his trepidation, because he slowed his pace until they were riding abreast. His azure stare seemed brighter than the sun, capable of dispelling any shadows in which Doc might hide.
“What’s on your mind, son?” he asked in a causal tone that belied his reptilian stare.
“I was just thinking of that day you and ma and me went down to the river.”
“We went to the river lots of times, boy.”
“The time you taught me how to ride,” said Doc.
Big Man’s gaze wavered, and for just a moment he didn’t seem like a dangerous outlaw, but nostalgic father. “I do remember that day. You kept getting bucked off that old gray stallion...”
“But I kept getting back on.”
“That you did, boy. Your momma told me to make you quit the first time you came up with a bloody lip, but I wasn’t about to do that. I was very proud of you that day, son.”
“I know.” Doc pushed up his hat so he could look his father clean in the eyes. “You held my hand all the way back home.”
“Where did we go wrong? How did we get to this point?”
Doc tried to hide his shock. Big Man seemed quite serious, for once not blaming everyone but himself.
“I think it had something to do with you taking to killing for a living,” Doc said with some harshness.
“And when assassination didn’t pay generously enough, you went and started robbing coaches. When robbing coaches wasn’t getting you rich, you graduated to trains.”
“Enough!” Big Man glared at him, his fierce blue orbs forcing Doc to look away. “You know good and damn well why I started doing the things I did. Your mother--”
“Was dying.” Doc turned slowly to face his father again. “You were trying to get money for a good doctor from one of the big cities. I get that, but why did you keep on after she--”
“Why did I keep on? Why did you ride out with me?”
“Because you filled up Jimmy’s head with dreams of gold, and living easy down in Mexico. Someone had to come along to keep both of you from losing your heads. Just one more score, right dad? Then we’ll be able to retire. I got sick of hearing that! There wasn’t going to be an end to the blood, dad. There wasn’t going to be an end.”
They rode in silence, passing under the shadow of a water tower. In the distance, a train whistle screeched, sending a plume of smoke to mingle with the scant clouds in the perfect autumn sky.
“It is coming to an end, son.” Big Man’s voice was soft, but full of conviction. “This is the score I’ve always been talking about. Think about what you can do with that money, son. You think that Melville is in bad shape? Try heading down Mexico way, boy, and you’ll see poverty and disease and misery like you’ve never seen. You could open a clinic, fully staffed, and spend the rest of your life helping people. Isn’t that worth spending some time with your family?”
Doc sucked in air through his teeth and nearly exploded into speech. “That’s why you came for me isn’t it? You don’t need a damn doctor, you just want me to come along on your crazy scheme for sentimentality’s sake! That or....”
“Or what?” Big Man said in a growl.
“Or you want me to forgive you,” Doc said.
“Forgive me? What the hell have I done wrong, boy?”
“Wrong?” Doc laughed. “Wrong? You’re a...you’re a piece of work, dad. You’ve been robbing and killing for the past twenty years--”
“Oh, it’s okay if the damn railroad kills people, but not me?”
“That’s not even the same--”
“I think it is the same.” Big Man seemed more confident now that they were on the outskirts of town, his voice rising in volume. “They yank the land right out from under whoever has it—Injun or settler or whoever—and brutally enforce their edicts with their own private ‘security’ force that has more outlaws than I’ve ever ridden with.”
“You’re being ridiculous, Dad.”
“Am I? Just try standing in their way and see what happens. And the government ain’t no better, boy. They’ve been murdering their way across this land from the get go, taking what they need and trampling anyone who gets in the way.”
The two men left the last building of Melville behind them. Big Man kicked his horse into a cantor, with Doc following a moment later.
“Where are we heading?”
“Got ourselves a camp nestled in the Big Horn mountains. Once the last of the stragglers catches up, we’ll start our ride for the border. Ain’t nothing gonna stop us then.”
“No matter how many people we have to kill,” Doc said bitterly.
“That’s the spirit!” Big Man slapped his thigh and cackled.