Southern California 1878
Sheriff Daniel W. Higgins walked out of the bedroom he shared with his wife Adelaide, and took his seat at the breakfast table. Adelaide poured him a cup of coffee, and then moved to the stove where she began turning the flapjacks. Their nine-year-old daughter, Whitney Mae hurried into the room, braids hopelessly crooked, and her powder blue hair ribbons tied in knots instead of the neat little bows her mother always fixed. One of her white stockings had elected to slouch about her ankle, and her left shoe was buttoned wrong. The hem of her dress was wrinkled so badly that Daniel wondered if she had slept in it. In her haste to arrive at the breakfast table she upset the glass of milk Adelaide had set out for her, sending the rich white liquid cascading across the table, through the newspaper and into her mother's chair. She blushed at the sight of the mess she had created. "Oops." She said quietly.
Adelaide sighed and brought a rag to wipe up the spilled milk. She tossed the soggy newspaper into the wastebasket, and then wrung out the rag over the scrap pail.
"Sorry, Mother." Whitney said when Adelaide had finished cleaning the mess.
"Try to be more careful next time, dear," was all Adelaide said, but Daniel could tell that his wife was frustrated and his daughter was on the verge of tears. To make matters worse the flapjacks had burnt while Adelaide cleaned the table, and all that remained were crunchy black wafers. Now Adelaide looked ready to cry. Daniel forced a smile.
"Come on girls, there's no use crying over spilled milk…or burnt flapjacks either. The milk's all cleaned up, and I'm sure that with a little syrup the food with taste just fine." Adelaide looked doubtful, but carried the platter of blackened pancakes to the table along with the jug of maple syrup. After checking to make sure her chair was dry, she sat down. The family joined hands as Daniel led in prayer.
"Our Heavenly Father, we thank you for this day and for the blessings You have already given to us. We thank You for this food and pray that You will bless it to the nourishment of our bodies, and that our bodies with be used in Your service. We also ask that You would keep us all safe today in the various tasks before us. We ask Your blessings upon those that are ill, and pray that You would save those that do not know You. Please forgive us of our sins, and we ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen."
The flapjacks required soaking in a great deal of syrup before Daniel could chew them, and Adelaide didn't even attempt to eat hers. Whitney moved a lone crunched up flapjack around on her plate for several minutes before asking to be excused. Adelaide followed the girl to her bedroom to fix her appearance. Watching his wife's graceful stride, Daniel briefly wondered where Whitney had gotten her clumsiness. By the time he finished breakfast Adelaide and Whitney had returned, the latter now sporting perfectly matched ebony braids tied with crisp blue bows. Both stockings stood rigid against her lower limbs, and her shoes were in excellent order. The hem of her periwinkle dress still left something to be desired, but was scarcely noticeable now.
"Did you finish your sums last night?" Adelaide asked as they entered the room. Whitney indicated that she had and Adelaide handed her a lunch pail. Whitney hurried to give Daniel a kiss before she left for school.
"Bye, Mae," he whispered affectionately. He had seen other fathers give a quick tug on one of their daughters' braids, but he didn't think Whitney's needed any encouragement to droop and sag. He settled for patting her arm before she hurried out the door. After she had gone Daniel pulled a still disconcerted Adelaide into his arms. He let her sniffle a few times before speaking.
"It's okay, honey, these things happen to everyone." He kissed her temple.
"You had better go, Dan." She said, "You don't want to be late."
Daniel smiled. "Yes since there is so much crime in the thriving metropolis of Las Navaja." Daniel replied jokingly. He kissed Adelaide again, this time on the lips, "I love you."
Daniel had come west as a scared fourteen year old kid with no practical sense about anything. He'd had a falling out with his parents, and foolishly left home one night during a rainstorm. Six months later he had been in a Los Angeles saloon drinking cheap whiskey and cheating at poker. One of the other players realized what he was doing and pulled his gun. Erastus Thompson saw what was about to happen and hauled Dan out of the bar as the gunfight erupted. The next thing Dan could remember he was at Thompson's ranch The Honest T, his gun (which he'd never owned bullets for) had been taken from him, and no one could tell him how to get back to the city. It would have been foolhardy to try to find his way. The ranch, as well as the town of Las Navaja, were in the middle of the desert. So he had stayed. Many times throughout the years Dan had wondered what Erastus was doing in the bar that night. The man was a faithful Christian who would never drink an alcoholic beverage or gamble. He had asked once or twice why Thompson had been there, but all he would say was "The Lord provides." Dan had finally taken that somewhat cryptic answer to mean that what Erastus had been doing there was none of his business other than to know that God must have sent him to preserve Daniel's life. Erastus had insisted that Daniel work to earn his keep, so he had become a ranch hand. His coworkers had made him work as hard as any grown man would, but Erastus had treated him like a son. Though Las Navaja had a saloon, and several of the hands spent Saturday evenings there, Daniel was not permitted to go. He bucked and rebelled against authority, even going so far as to sneak from his bedroom window, but Erastus would always be waiting at the saloon door when he arrived to turn him back home. Every Sunday Erastus and Daniel went to church. Daniel ignored the messages, but Erastus insisted on discussing them on the way home. He was always disappointed that Dan hadn't paid attention, and for some reason Daniel didn't like disappointing Erastus. So, he began listening to the sermons, and stopped trying to sneak to the saloon. And when school started in the fall he went. He made good grades too. Erastus, who could barely read, told Daniel he was proud of how well he completed his studies. Three years passed and Dan finished school. The morning after graduation Erastus handed him a paper, and told Daniel it was his graduation present. The other presents he had given Dan were a new Sunday suit each spring, a pair of boots, a horse, and a Bible. Daniel curiously unfolded the paper. It was a map from Las Navaja to Los Angeles. He had looked in bewilderment at his mentor, "I don't get it." He had said.
"You can leave now." Erastus replied simply, "I took great pains these three years to make sure you didn't find out how to leave Las Navaja. I wanted you to become a respectable young man." He paused and for the first time Daniel sensed that the man really cared about him, "You have, Dan, and now you're old enough to make decisions for yourself." Erastus had walked away, leaving Daniel staring at the map. Dan had left the next morning. When he had stopped to camp for the night he had found his Bible in his saddle bag along with a note Thompson had asked one of the hands to write for him.
Dan: I knew you would leave this on purpose, but you do need it, you just haven't figured it out yet. I pray you will soon. Your life will be more pleasant if you let God control it. Trust Him, Dan, He knows what's best for you. I've never said these words to anybody before but, I love you, Dan. I pray for you always. E.T. Dan had burned the note that night, and action he had regretted many times in the years since. About halfway to Los Angeles, he was assaulted by a group of Mexican banditos. Once they were satisfied that Daniel carried no gold, they beat him, bound him, and left him with nothing but his Bible. Daniel had finally cut himself loose with a broken bottle he'd found, then wandered in the desert until he was crazed from the heat and lack of water. Once he tired of chasing mirages, he sat in the shadow of a boulder and began to read his Bible. He started at the beginning, because that was the way he had started every other book he had read. When Daniel got to the chapter where Hagar was stranded in the desert and couldn't see the well beside her, he laughed out loud. And it was then that he began to pray. "Well, God, if You're listening You can see that I'm in the same spot as Hagar was, and that I really need some water here." What he had expected Daniel wasn't quite sure, but a lake certainly didn't materialize in front of him. "Sure He knows what's best for me." Daniel scoffed, thinking of the letter Erastus had sent, "Getting attacked by thieves and left to die in the desert." He gulped. Up until now he had never considered that death was an actual possibility. Naturally he knew that people died, but Dan hadn't really thought that it might happen to him. Coming face to face with his own mortality was a sobering affair. Daniel began to worry. What had the preacher said about when people die? Something about the soul? About eternity? About torment for those who rejected Jesus. Daniel had no doubt that he was guilty on that charge. The thought of eternal torment was more sobering than death. But he was certain to die in this desert. What could he do? Desperate, Daniel began scouring his Bible for an answer. He read until night fell and anxiously awaited the dawn, shying at each coyote's howl for fear. Just when Daniel was certain he would never see daylight again, the sun rose majestically above the mountains. He reached for his Bible, intending to continue where he had left off, but was instead intrigued by the passage it was opened to. Two men had been arrested, and had started singing praise to God in the middle of the night, while in prison. Then an earthquake came and all the prisoners were loose. The jailer woke up, saw what had happened, and prepared to commit suicide. One of the singers, a man named Paul, told him to stop because everyone was still inside. The next part grabbed Daniel's attention and riveted his eyes to the page. The jailer went into the cell and asked "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Daniel was elated, finally an answer to his question! Trembling all over he read the reply, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved," Daniel sat back filled with wonder. Could it really be that simple?
Daniel had finished the book of Acts that day while he waited for death. He begged the Lord that it would be over quickly. However, that wasn't the prayer God intended to answer. As darkness settled over the barren plain, Daniel looked around at the place he would spend what he was certain would be his last night on earth. The desert was truly beautiful at night. The stars sparkled above him, declaring the glory of the God who had made them. A coyote bayed at the moon, which cast shadows of everything. And that's when Daniel saw it. He gasped. "Surely not…" he whispered, then walked forward slowly. He touched it gently and almost cried. "Oh, Lord, thank You!" he plunged the broken bottle into it, slicing a large section off. Daniel had not seen the well beside him, because it was wrapped in the body of a barrel cactus. Dan slept under the cactus, as if he feared it might walk away during the night. When dawn broke he saw that he was in a virtual forest of cacti. In addition to the barrel cactus there was prickly pear, ripe to be picked, and Nopales. Daniel could live off them for some time. Sucking on a slice of barrel cactus, Daniel walked back to his rock, and began to read the book of Romans. He was reading about being a "living sacrifice" when he heard a rider approaching. Deciding that a lone bandit might not be too dangerous since Daniel had nothing to steal, he crawled out from under his rock. The rider reigned in cautiously, and Dan was shocked to see Patrick Kirk from the Honest T, leading a spare horse.
"Dan!" the other man exclaimed "What are you doing here?! You left almost a week ago! You ought to be in Los Angeles by now!"
"It's a long story, which I'll be glad to tell you if you'll take me home." Dan had replied grinning.
"Well," Patrick had said, "It's you I've come for, but, I've got bad news, Dan."
Daniel grew serious, "What's wrong Pat?"
Patrick had bitten his lip, "I guess there's no easy way to say it, Dan. Mr. Thompson died two days ago."
No! Daniel wanted nothing more than for Patrick's words to be false. Erastus can't be dead! I need him! Fighting to retain some measure of composure, Daniel had cleared his throat, studied the sand beneath his feet for a moment, then met Patrick's gaze, "What happened?"
Kirk had shrugged and looked away, "We don't really know for sure, Dan. The doctor thinks it was probably his heart, said he'd been having trouble for some time. Anyway, when he never came outside, we got worried, so, Knowles went inside to see about him, and well… he was already gone."
Numb with grief, Dan had swung onto the horse Pat had brought him, and the two had turned back toward Las Navaja. Neither spoke for several hours. Daniel watched the Mojave Desert transform around him, its landscape changing with each passing mile. He hadn't really seen the painted buttes or the imposing saguaros though. He was instead mourning all the opportunities he had lost. Finally he could take the silence no longer. "What about burial arrangements?" he quietly asked Patrick.
Kirk glanced at Daniel before turning his eyes back ahead. "The funeral will already have been held if that's what you're asking." He replied, "We didn't know how long it would take me to find you, so we couldn't very well wait."
Daniel was puzzled, "Why did you take such care to come find me anyway?" he asked. "I didn't exactly leave on the best of terms."
Patrick had shrugged casually, "It ain't rightly any of my business to know, but Knowles said the solicitor McGranahan insisted that we had to find you, before any of Mr. Thompson's affairs could be settled." His answer had served only to raise further questions in Daniel's mind, so he had ceased inquiries.
They stopped for the night at an oasis that, under different circumstances, Daniel would have thought to be quite beautiful. Instead of admiring the scenery, he had curled up in his bedroll and wept like a child. He hadn't been able to sleep, but had instead passed the night in prayer, overwhelmed by grief. Dan had been silent all the next day, responding monosyllabically to everything Patrick said. At daybreak the morning after they could see the familiar landmark announcing Las Navaja. The name literally meant "The Knife" the town having been so named because of a knife-shaped butte pointing skyward. "The Knife" could be seen for at least thirty miles before one entered the city of Las Navaja. When Daniel and Patrick had entered town, Dan had gone straight to the office of the attorney, Jason McGranahan. Mr. McGranahan had cordially invited Dan to take a seat across the wide oak desk from him. Obediently, Dan had sat. McGranahan had then pulled a pair of worn spectacles from his breast pocket, wiped them with his handkerchief, and finally settled them on his nose. He then took a large envelope from his desk drawer, and broke the seal.
"Dan, I took the liberty of hinting to Mr. Saward about what Erastus' will says. I hope you don't mind."
Dan could have cared less who knew about it, "You spoke with whom?" he asked, mustering his best manners and his most grown up voice.
"The –ah- foreman at the Honest T; I needed to explain to him why it was so imperative to locate you."
Daniel doubted anyone had called Knowles Mr. Saward in a very long time. He nodded politely, "Yes, of course I understand your position, Mr. McGranahan, you did exactly right."
The attorney had smiled at Dan over the rims of his spectacles, "You don't know what this paper says, yet, boy. You might change your mind about that."
Dan's patience had worn to a nub by now, but he struggled to mind his manners, "If then, you would be so kind as to proceed, I am indeed very curious as to what you are getting at."
"Very well," McGranahan had cleared his throat. "I won't bore you with all the legal jargon I'm required to put in here, but will simply tell it out straight. Erastus left all his worldly possessions to you, Daniel."
Dan had been dumbfounded, "I don't believe I quite take your meaning, Mr. McGranahan. Could you perhaps be a bit clearer?"
McGranahan had chuckled, "You are Erastus Thompson's sole heir, Daniel Higgins, and to be perfectly frank, you're the richest man in the town." After giving Dan a moment to absorb the shock of what he had just heard, the lawyer had presented him with a small envelope. "Erastus insisted I give you this when we read the will. I don't know who wrote it for him, but it was already sealed when he gave it to me. I've not opened it."
Dan had placed the letter in his pocket, and properly thanked Mr. McGranahan for his assistance. The attorney had looked at Daniel with some confusion, "I had expected you to be somewhat excited, Dan." He'd remarked casually.
Daniel had forced himself to sound calm as he looked at the other man, "Sir, I greatly appreciate the lengths Erastus went to in order to provide for me, but I would gladly live a pauper to have him back." He had then quietly closed the door. Dan had mounted his horse and turned toward home. What was Erastus thinking?! He'd thought as he rode. I can't run a ranch! It was then Dan had remembered the letter in his pocket. He had stopped alongside the road and opened it.
Right about now you're probably wondering what possessed me to leave the ranch to you. Yes, I know that it is a big responsibility for someone as young as you are, but I truly believe you to be equal to the task. I love you like a son, Daniel, well, at least I think I do, I can't exactly say seeing as I never had one. Trust in the LORD, Daniel, He will never let you down. He loves you even more than I do. Take care. E.T.
Daniel had folded the letter and shoved it back into his pocket. Lord, You know I really don't want a ranch. Dan hadn't received any audible direction, so he had continued back to the Honest T. One of his hands had taken his horse, and Dan had gone into the house. He had spent a lonely few hours, sorting through Erastus' belongings, then heard a knock on the front door. He had opened it to find his foreman on the other side.
"What did you knock for, Knowles?" he asked, not bothering to close the door, since the oppressive June heat was no different inside than out.
"Trying to be polite, Dan."
"Forget it." Dan ordered, "No more door knocking. You want something, you come in."
Daniel had continued to run the ranch, to the best of his ability, relying heavily on Knowles for help. For several months after Erastus' death, Dan had been unable to face sleeping in the house alone, so he'd slept in the bunkhouse with everyone else. During that time he had become good friends with Patrick Kirk, whom, Daniel had been astounded to learn, was only two years older than he. Dan had joined the Baptist church in town where Erastus had taken him for years. He had also become close to the pastor Elliot Lowry and his wife, Sabine. He had eventually traveled to Indiana where he found his mother critically ill and his father already in his grave for more than a year. He had spent the last month of his mother's life at her side, wishing he could make up for lost time. When Dan was twenty-two he had taken a trip with the Lowry's to San Francisco to meet a missionary family. They had spent only three days in Frisco with the Hutchinson's, but during that time Daniel became very attached to the missionary's daughter, Adelaide. The young woman was both beautiful and intelligent, but it was her zeal for the Lord that Daniel had noticed. Elliot Lowry had encouraged Daniel to speak with Mr. Hutchinson. Daniel took the advice and was delighted to find out that Adelaide was staying in the states to attend a ladies finishing school after her parents returned to China in four months. Countless times Dan had sat at his desk and penned the words, "Dear Miss Hutchinson" which eventually became "Dear Adelaide" and after two very long years, "My Beloved, Mrs. Higgins."
Love is blind. So reads the old adage and Daniel had completely missed the signs of how unsuited to ranch life Adelaide would be. She had despised it, but being a dutiful and loving wife, had stuck it out until Whitney was two years old. It was then that the longtime sheriff, Lowell Newton, had decided to retire and move back East, and Las Navaja was left without a lawman. Many people had thought Dan ideal for the position, but he hadn't wanted the job. He had grown to love working the Honest T, and had no desire to leave. Adelaide had asked him to consider things carefully, and pray before refusing candidacy. Dan had halfheartedly prayed about the sheriffing position, mostly so he could tell Adelaide he had done so, but, was convinced that couldn't be the Lord's will. In November the election was held, and Daniel had been elected by eighty five percent of the voters as a write in candidate. He had sold the ranch to Knowles, and moved his family to the town house they still lived in. Seven years passed, and life for the Higgins as well as most of Las Navaja remained much the same.
Daniel never bothered to lock the jail. There was nothing of value in the building and he figured if someone wanted to lock themselves in a cell that was fine with him. The illustrious position of "Sheriff of Las Navaja, California" guaranteed nothing more than boring days. Dan spent most of his time sitting at his desk doodling aimlessly on scraps of paper. Several nights a week he'd have to tell the saloon goers to "Keep it down in there!" and once in a while he'd had to go in an knock some heads together. The biggest case he'd ever had was when an ambitious ranch hand had robbed the emporium's safe. The saloon owner had gotten suspicious later the next night when the normally broke man had a great deal of cash to bet on cards. That had been two years ago and the man was still serving time in a state prison.
Despite the boredom, Dan didn't mind the job nearly as much as he'd expected. The town was generous, so he never had to worry about providing for his family. He was supposed to have a deputy, but it seemed he no sooner got one sworn in than he took off in search of gold, women, or gunfights. Daniel had once offered the position to Pat, who had told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn't interested. The last deputy, Rippon Bliss, had moved away six months ago after being called to preach. At least he'd had a decent reason for leaving. Today, Dan propped his feet up on the worn oak desk, and browed the new WANTED posters he'd received in the mail the previous day. Four horse thieves, one gunslinger and a pair of train robbers. Dan settled in to read their bios.
"Sheriff! Come Quick! It's Urgent!" Dan was jerked awake by the sound of someone yelling. Nowhere near willing to admit he'd been enjoying a mid-morning nap, Dan grabbed his hat and rushed outside. Francis Lyte, the owner of the boarding house, was holding a young man on the ground, hands behind his back.
"It's a good thing you was in town, sheriff." Francis panted, "This cowpoke tried to walk outta my establishment without paying. Three nights board it was too!"
"I didn't mean to cheat you, sir," the man spat tersely, "We was a jawing and I forgot that I hadn't settled up yet."
Dan couldn't be sure that the stranger was telling the truth, but Francis had an active imagination, and thrived on drama. Dan had frequently wished the man would put his talents to good use. A run in with Francis before noon- he must be learning patience today. "I'm sure we can settle this in a reasonable manner, gentlemen." Dan said aloud stressing the last word. "Come into my office and we'll discuss the problem over coffee." Sure, Dan could have just let the traveller pay Francis now and send both on their way, but he wanted to make sure the man wasn't a threat to the town. Besides, it would be nice to have a bit of company.
"Aren't you gonna handcuff him, sheriff?" Francis asked in shock when Dan turned to walk toward the jail.
Daniel turned around in exasperation, "Francis it's thirty feet to my office. I'm sure that between the two of us, we can keep him in line for that long."
"So, no, I am not going to handcuff him. Now, come on." The three men walked into the jail. Daniel rustled up extra chairs and coffee cups for his visitors. He took his seat behind the desk, and pulled a notepad onto his lap. "Now then, gentlemen; I am certain that this can be resolved in a manner satisfactory to everyone. But first," he turned to the young man, "I don't believe we've met. I'm Daniel Higgins, sheriff, as you know."
"Martin Watts." The man shook the hand Daniel offered. Francis heaved an exasperated sigh, and Dan shot him a glare.
"Pleased to meet you. Now, Mr. Lyte would you mind telling us what happened?" As if Francis would mind.
"Be happy to sheriff." Francis gulped. "Well, Eliza was just clearing the breakfast dishes, when this miscreant came down the stairs." Watts started to object to being called a miscreant, so Dan intervened.
"Gentlemen, let's not be name-calling." Dan realized he sounded like a schoolmarm Talk nicely, children. He grimaced.
"Well anyway," Francis went on as though nothing had happened, "He came downstairs, and said he was ready to leave. He gave me his key and while I was writing it in the Register, he began commenting on the weather. We talked for about five minutes, and then he walked right out the front door, still owing me THREE DOLLARS AND FORTY-SEVEN CENTS!" Francis glared at Watts, then sat back in his chair, obviously still stewing.
Daniel took a long swig of coffee before handing the floor over, "And you did not intend to jip Mr. Lyte?" he asked Mr. Watts.
"No, sir. I just got to talking about the weather and completely forgot that I hadn't paid yet. I'd be more than happy to give him the money now, though." He smiled.
"I'll say you had better give me money now!" Francis exclaimed, "You'll make him pay, sheriff, won't you?"
Dan held up his hands, signaling quiet, "Mr. Watts is perfectly willing to pay, Francis. It doesn't appear that I'm going to need to make him do anything." Watts counted out three fifty and told Francis to keep the change. The boarding house keeper eagerly pocketed the money.
"There." Daniel stood and they followed suit. Watts shook their hands and walked out. Dan followed Francis to the door. "You know Francis," he said, "I read that the Los Angeles Examiner is accepting serials. I think you should have a go at it." Maybe if Francis got interested in writing, he wouldn't need to create so much drama.
"You really think I could write?" Francis asked, stepping out of the jail.
"With the Lord's help you can do anything." Dan replied, "He has blessed you with great creativity. I certainly think you should pray about it. Here," Daniel walked back inside, "I saved the advertisement for you." Francis left and Dan puzzled over Mr. Martin Watts. For some reason the name sounded familiar, yet he was certain they hadn't met before.