Fourteen-year-old Caleb trembled as he sat alone in the jail cell in Summit Point, Montana, fearful of what would happen next. Whatever happened, he knew it would be bad. The deputy sheriff would soon return to send him back to the foster home—or worse. He knew stealing was bad, very bad, but he'd thought he didn't have a choice. He had spent his last few dollars on food three days ago, and, this morning, he'd been so hungry he'd stolen a couple of sandwiches from the deli case at a local curb market. When he'd been caught, he'd wished he could just sink into the pavement. As Caleb reflected on his situation, he heard the deputy sheriff's boot pounding the corridor.
The deputy sheriff had brown hair and smooth skin, and he was thin. Caleb doubted the guy had even hit thirty. The tall man opened the cell and said, "Come on. It's time for us to have a talk." Seeing no other choice, Caleb got up, followed him to his office, and took the chair next to his desk. A 2006 calendar from a local d**g store hung on the wall behind the desk, and Caleb saw that no one had torn off the April page, though it was mid-May.
"What's your name?" the deputy sheriff asked.
Caleb had been questioned by the police before, so he played it tough and kept quiet. He focused his attention on a wall clock over the deputy sheriff's head. The second handspun around for nearly a minute.
"You're not helping your situation, you know."
Still, Caleb said nothing.
"You know that if I don't return you to your home, I'll have to call the state juvenile authorities."
Caleb crossed his arms and kept quiet.
"The store owner is furious. He wants to slam you in jail."
"Better that than being in a foster home," Caleb snapped.
"So you do talk. Hi, my name is Ben, and you can call me Ben." The deputy sheriff smiled and extended his right hand to shake, but Caleb kept his arms crossed. "Are you hungry? I am."
Caleb said nothing, but Ben picked up the phone, called a Chinese restaurant, and ordered two meals. "Life is always better when you're full," he said.
"So how did you wind up in our fair town?" Ben asked, while they waited for the food.
"I hitchhiked from Nolen's Butte, caught a ride in a battered pickup with some creepy, short guy with a big nose. After I got in, I saw he had a g*n, and I got scared. I thought he might try to kidnap me or something. When he stopped to get gas, I said I had to use the bathroom, which was at the back of the building. Then I ran behind the buildings along Main Street, while the man was pumped gas, and ducked into that curb market." Caleb realized he was chattering like a three-year-old and shut up.
"He may have been harmless," Ben offered, "but better safe than sorry. I suppose you know it's dangerous to hitchhike. Where were you heading?"
"Nowhere in particular."
The deliveryman arrived, and Ben paid him, opened the bag, and pulled out several containers of food, drinks, and chopsticks. He slid two containers and a drink across the table to Caleb. Then Ben started eating his meal with the chopsticks.
The smell of chicken with Chinese vegetables rose in the air, making Caleb's mouth water, but he made no move to eat until Ben had half-finished his meal. When he couldn't stand it any longer, he opened up his container and started to reach in with his fingers, but Ben stopped him by clearing his throat and passed him a plastic fork. Caleb took a bite of food and asked, "Do you hate me, too? Everybody hates me."
"No, I think you're a nice kid who has had it real bad. Why did you run away from your foster home?"
Caleb looked down and said, "I was afraid. They were going to beat me up again."
"Guys at school?"
Caleb nodded and said, "I tried to fight them, but they always ganged up on me. And I'm the one who gets in trouble."
"What about your foster parents, didn't they help you?
Caleb shrugged, staring at his hands. "No, they didn't believe me. They wouldn't do anything about it."
Did they punish you?"
"No, they just ignored me when I complained about it. They said I just made it up."
"So where did you hide?"
Surprised, Caleb looked up. "In the library. How did you know?"
"I knew another boy with the same problems." The deputy sheriff paused and smiled. "He eventually solved them."
Caleb stared at the man a long minute, and then the realization hit him. "It was you, wasn't it?"
"Yes." The deputy sheriff smiled again and said, "I'm an orphan."
Just when Caleb was beginning to relax a bit, he thought of something that made him tense up. "How do I know you aren't lying?"
"I don't have a reason to lie. I believe you aren't lying. I think you'd rather go to jail than lie."
"I never get away with lying. It just makes things worse." Caleb looked down and sighed. "Jail's better than being beat up."
"Fighting is never good. Getting beat up is never good. Running away is never good. Sometimes you don't have a choice, but you can't let people keep beating on you."
"How do I stop it?" Caleb asked.
"I can't give you a good answer to that." Ben looked Caleb directly in the eye and said, "I feel the answer you need may come sooner than you think."
"You're not going to tell me, are you?" Caleb asked, feeling bitterness and disappointment.
"The only thing I know to tell you is that you have to learn to defend yourself. You can't afford to let yourself be beat up."
Caleb started to ask how, but the deputy held up a hand and said, "You're still in big trouble. I'll have to put you in the jail cell while I try to fix this problem you have."
"And then you're going to call the juvenile authorities, aren't you?" Caleb asked, while looking at his feet.
The deputy sheriff sighed and said, "I have to." He put Caleb in the cell and left the office. Caleb spent a long, lonely hour stewing over the situation. When the deputy sheriff returned, he opened the cell. "It seems your name is Caleb," he said, as he led him back to the office.
As soon as he entered the office, Caleb noticed the front door was slightly ajar. Another man stood in the middle of the room—a very tall, broad-shouldered man with a large knife tucked in his belt. The man looked at him with hard-set eyes. Caleb spooked and bolted out the door.
The sun shone brightly outside, but before Caleb could get his eyes adjusted to the light, he crashed into a wall of flesh, bounced back a step, and looked up. A massive, spotted gray horse stared down at him.
Caleb looked up and saw a young, redheaded girl looking down over the horse's shoulder. "She's a Percheron. She's a real beauty, isn't she?"
"She's a monster!" Caleb yelled.
A hand on Caleb's shoulder turned him around. The big man looked down at him and said, "You'd better come back inside." Caleb followed him back into the office and sat in the chair in front of the desk. The man pulled another chair up close to Caleb and sat down.
"I've made the call to the state juvenile authorities," the deputy sheriff said. "It seems they know about you, Caleb. Someone must have it in for you. You have quite a long record of running away from foster homes. They want to send you to the juvenile center. Do you understand what that means? It means no foster homes, no running away, and no freedom. It means you could be behind walls until you're eighteen. Not just overnight."
"I'll escape," Caleb snapped, but he began to tremble and clenched his hands into fists, hoping the men didn't notice his white knuckles.
The deputy sheriff said, "I doubt it. The juvenile center is like a prison. Kids just don't escape from there. The state is sending a car down here to pick you up. It should be here within an hour, maybe sooner. The report says you're an orphan. Do you remember your real parents?"
Caleb looked down at his lap and mumbled, "No, I was a baby when they died. I cried a lot, and nobody would adopt me. Nobody will adopt me now."
"You have no family, no other relatives?"
Caleb mumbled, "No."
"Foster homes don't seem to work for you, and your prospects of being adopted are slim at best. Unfortunately, the folks at the juvenile center think they're well-equipped to handle you."
Caleb's shoulders twitching. He blurted out, "I can't go there. I'll die! I'm too small. There are gangs there. They beat up kids like me. Just let me go. I'll leave. You'll never see me again."
"I can't do that," Ben replied softly. "It would be wrong for me to turn you out like that. If it means anything to you, I really don't think you should go to the juvenile center. You're a good kid. You didn't do anything to deserve this. Sure, you stole a couple of sandwiches, but feeding yourself is just basic survival. It's just not my decision." He paused a moment and said, "However, I can give you another choice, one the juvenile authorities don't like, if you'll take it."
"What's that?" Caleb asked, almost pleading.
"Go with Raven here." The deputy pointed at the large man sitting next to him. "If you leave with him, the juvenile authorities can't touch you, at least not for a while."
Caleb looked up at the big man and asked, "Who is he?"
The deputy sheriff answered, "He's called Raven. He's a friend of mine, and he's just now leaving town. I guarantee you'll do better with him than with the state."
Caleb took a closer look at the man. He had huge hands. He wore a dark green jacket and trousers with knee-high, soft, leather boots. The man's eyes spooked him; they were a flinty gray, hard set in a weathered face. He looked to be very tough and ready for a fight.
Raven said, "I can promise you that you won't be locked up. You won't go hungry, and you won't be beaten or abused. There'll be some hard work involved, but I think you can handle it. However, if you don't like it, I'll bring you back here."
"Why should I go with you?" Caleb demanded. "You're just going to cut me up with that knife. How do I know you'll bring me back here? Besides, what kind of name is Raven? It sounds like a girl's name."
"It's just what I'm called." Raven paused a moment before saying, "I can promise you the adventure of a lifetime. You'll get a chance to do things you never imagined possible. For a start, you'll learn to ride horses. What you can and will do is up to you. It seems to me to be much better than your other choice."
Caleb looked down at his feet and considered this for a long minute. For some reason, he believed the man. The hard work part scared him, but the adventure part drew him in. He had always dreamed of escaping to a different world. Ever since he had discovered adventure books in the library, he had wanted a different life. He looked at Raven and then at Ben and asked, "Why are you doing this?"
The deputy smiled. "As I told you, you remind me of myself when I was young. I don't want you to go to the juvenile center. I think you can do better if you have a chance. If you continue the way you're headed, I think you'll have a bleak life. Living on the street or in the juvenile call is an invitation to g**g violence. Raven helped me once, and I'll bet he could help you. He didn't tell you, but the hard part is that he'll make you keep up with your schoolwork."
"Do I have a choice?"