by Sean Manseau
“Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war!” - Julius Caesar Act 3, scene 1
A quarter mile of steep dirt road ran from Highway 9 up to Shepherd’s cabin, and he took it slow, enjoying the crunch of fresh snow under his pursuit car’s tires and the sharp tang of pine wafting through his open window. To the right, occasional breaks in the forest framed the soaring Sacramento Mountains. Shepherd was thinking he could take Nicholas up to Sierra Blanca next weekend. Teach the kid to ski. That’d be a good time family time.
Family...six months ago family seemed a gift fate had denied Shep and his wife June. The boy’s arrival had changed that. He’d brought a whole new kind of happiness into their lives, and for that they owed him. Shepherd was looking forward to making good on that debt.
This pleasant reverie lasted until Shep rounded the corner at the top of the driveway and found two unfamiliar vehicles parked next to his wife’s beat-up orange Bronco. A ’74 Country Squire station wagon, tan with wood trim, and a Ford Econoline cargo van, enamel blue. Both with government plates. CYFD stenciled on the side of the van. CYFD was Lincoln County’s Children, Youth, and Families Department.
“Well fuck me,” Shepherd muttered. He killed the ignition and sat there listening to the tick-tick-tick of the cooling V8 engine, squeezing and releasing the steering wheel rhythmically, telling himself to relax. He and June had known this moment would come. Maybe it had caught them before their preparations were complete, but that was no reason to panic.
“Because they aren’t taking him,” he told his reflection in the rear view mirror.
“Alright? They just aren’t.” He shoulder butted the door open, climbed out of the car, put on his uniform’s Stratton hat.
Shepherd had been doing better than eighty when he spotted the boy walking along Rt. 54 in northwestern New Mexico. By the time he’d decided he wasn’t just seeing things, he’d already gone a quarter-mile past.
Late May, gold poppies blooming, temperatures already breaking 100 degrees almost every afternoon. A kid on his own in the middle of the desert. Shepherd, six feet three inches of State Trooper in jackboots and jodhpurs, got out of the car to wait for him. The boy just scuffling along, his red denim overalls gone gray at the cuffs. His blond hair was plastered dark at the temples, and his face was pale, with patches of hectic color in his cheeks. Maybe on the verge of heat prostration. But as he stopped about six feet away, he didn’t look scared, or even relieved. Expectant, maybe.
“Bit of a hike from here to Carrizozo,” Shepherd said, taking off his mirrored aviators and giving the kid what he hoped was a reassuring smile. In fact, it was almost twenty-five miles to Carrizozo, and a good twenty miles back the other way to Tularosa. To the west stood the barbed wire fences of the White Sands Missile Range. To the east there was nothing but sand and scrub brush for days. “What’s your name, son?”
“Nicholas,” the boy said.
“Well, Nick, you want to tell me how you got way out here on your own?”
The boy shrugged. “They dropped me off.”
“Who did, your parents?” That there were people who had kids and didn’t give two tin shits about them made Shepherd want to hawk up and spit in the dust.
“You know what kind of car they drive?”
The boy shook his head.
“You eaten today?”
For the moment, Shepherd decided to let it go. He sighed and went around to open the cruiser’s passenger door. “Well, climb in. I might have something left from my lunch.”
Except he didn’t. All he had were the crusts from his sandwich and a thermos of watery ice coffee. Not the kind of thing to offer a what, a ten year-old? A good-looking kid, but skinny. Shepherd decided to make sure the boy had at least one good meal in his belly before he was abandoned to the horror of New Mexico’s foster care system. June’d be happy to set an extra place at the dining room table.
Right now he ought to offer the kid something, though. Take his mind off things. Shepherd sat in the driver’s seat, considering, then reached past the boy to pop open the glovebox and pull out his secret stash. “You like comic books?”
He handed the boy issue #39 of Captain Marvel, ‘Ba’al Shar and the Gate of Infinite Tomorrows’. Shep also had The Fantastic Four, Namor the Sub-mariner, and Jonah Hex. He’d loved comics since he was a kid. Brought a stack with him to Vietnam, where they’d helped keep him sane. He hadn’t seen any reason to stop reading them now that he was a Trooper.
On the drive Nicholas had pored over the Captain Marvel book. He kept it rolled in one fist while he ate, went to sleep on the living room couch with it under his cheek.
June fell in love with the child at first sight. After dinner she joined Shepherd on the porch swing, a sweating glass of lemonade in each hand. At this altitude the desert evenings were usually cool, but tonight the air was almost sultry. Meteors were dropping behind the Sacramentos like white hot sparks.
“Poor thing, he just looks so exhausted,” she said, handing Shep his drink. “Lyle…do you have to take him to Las Cruces tonight?” Las Cruces was where the CYFD kept wards of the state. “Can’t we let him sleep here?”
Shepherd frowned. “We do that, I’ll be in for an ass-chewing. Sgt. Newkirk is hell on procedure, you know that.” But when she tipped her face away to hide her disappointment he put a finger under her chin to draw her back. “Hey, I don’t mind. Newkirk’s bark is worse than his bite.”
“My hero,” she grinned, and kissed him.
As Shepherd sat with his arm around his wife and watched Sierra Blanca’s snowline burn orange and pink in the sun’s last light, he thought, That kid needs a family. And immediately after: Why not us? Both of them well north of thirty, married for nine years next April. There had been too many mornings when he pretended he hadn’t heard June crying in the bathroom over the onset of her period, him lying in bed, wondering if it was his fault. Maybe it wasn’t the usual way, but if the Lord sent them a child to care for, who were they to question His wisdom?
When Shepherd left for work the next day, Nicholas was still asleep in the guest bedroom. At the State Police barracks, Shepherd had checked the teletype: no missing persons report had been filed for a boy answering Nicholas’s description. He kept checking, every day for a month, and then it just sort of fell by the wayside. Now somehow it was six months later, and Shepherd was thinking he might be in some deep shit.