The sheriff stared at me threw the bars and I at him. I was bruised battered and tired. The grime and dust of the long journey still clung to my clothes and the smell of horse and sweat still filled the cell around me. That there sheriff though, was looking fresh as a daisy. I knew that he had suffered as much as me during the last few months but his sunburns had been treated and his shirt was pressed and his denims were warshed. During the last two days I watched him polish his boots and clips his nails, there wernt much else to do but watch him as he watched me.
"You know it aint right whatcha gone and done Sheriff!" I said as lowered myself down back onto my cot. The metal springs underneath the old feather stuffed mattress squealed in protest.
"How do you figure that Slim?" he asked as he opened up a large vanilla envelope that was filled with wanted posters from Oklahoma.
Tired of saying the same thing over and over again I breathed deep and just cause I had nothing else to do I said it again.
"I didn't steal Charlie Mccord's stud!" Leaning back I put my foot up on the bars that contained me and that were lined up against the bottom of the cot.
"Well you was riding it! It had his brand on it and you rode right into town hiding the brand with your blanket. If that aint stealing then you tell me what is!" He shook his head already frustrated with the conversation.
"Besides Mccord's horse you stole mine as well! Next thing I know you gonna tell me that you didn't steal mine." I shook my head as I lowered my hat over my eyes looking to get some sleep.
"Now you know that aint right sheriff I only borrowed it so I could not attend the neck tie party you were throwing for me the next morning! "That aint fair sheriff if'n you was in my shoes wouldn't you had done the same?"The sheriffs brown eyes squinted while he thought about it for a minute.
"No Sir, I don't think I would have." He paused as he let me chew that over for awhile.
"I think if I would have stole a horse as fine as Mccord's I would have swallowed my medicine and allowed my neck to be stretched. Plus Slim you and I both know you been running them steer's out of the Flat Mesa ranch for nigh on to two years now and you could been hung for that alone." I got angry and responded with venom.
"None of that beef had a brand on it and you know it! The Parkers still aint branded that beef up on the mesa and you and I both know that unbranded beef means its free range stock and anybody could have a piece of that." Getting back to my feet I began to pace the seven by ten foot cell. My boots clopped up and down on the worn weathered planks of wood that made up the floor.
"If you were so sure that what you was doing was right then why'd you run that beef at night and during the meeting's on Sunday?" The Sherif asked he eyes searching mine for the truth and he found it. He had me on that one and knew it. Instead of waiting for an answer he continued on with the same verse that he had quoted at the church when they all decided to hang me.
"Thou shall not steal!" Turning from me he reached in his vest pocket for the making's of a smoke.
As he rolled himself a cigarette I leaned back and pushed my hat over my eyes content with the knowledge that this man had no sense of justice and that I would have to come up with another plan. There was no way was I gonna get my neck stretched over something I did, let alone something I didn't do I had busted out already once and it took that Sheriff damn near two weeks to bring me back in and no one was more surprised them me when that Sheriff brought me in with my hands tied behind my back and knot on my head that looked like I had been kicked by a mule.
Tired though like I was I knew that my will to live would eventually show me a way out of this here predicament and Id would sure high tail it out of this country once and for all. This time if I got out I would know the resilience of the man that hunted me and I would be a lot more determined to get away.
"Sheriff you mind rolling me one of those things. I figure they aint gonna kill me. Now that your so determined to do so." The Sheriff looked up at me and I saw kindness in his weathered old face.
"Why sure son I don't mind and you know that your all wrong about me. I aint determined to kill you. The town is. They figure that if they let you go then next thing you know word will spread about this here area being lenient on horse thieves.
Then where'd we be? Huh? That's right, up shit creek without a paddle. We'd have all kinds of stock go missing round these parts and we'd all go brook during round up time. I tell Yah it aint easy being a Sheriff here and having to follow the will of
other people. But that is exactly what I do, cause I swore an oath. Yup, I gave my word that I would protect these people so that they could build themselves a fine, upstanding city that someday might be able to stand without the cattle barons and the railroad tycoons. That they could build and have for their children what they never had. Freedom. My job is to ensure that they have freedom from the likes of you, who would rather rob then work. Steal then labor. Kill then allow to live." He paused as he rolled the paper over the tobacco and licked the sides.
"That's a darn lie sheriff and you know it. I have worked just as hard as any man. Matter of fact the only thing I ever dreamed of was working a ranch of my own. The cattle I wrangled on the Mesa was in brush so thick that you had to park your horse and go in with a Machete. Them Parkers never rounded up that beef cause it was just to hard for them to do so. There were steers in there that were as ornery as a mule with a hurting tooth and mean too. They had long horns in there that would rather have died then to wear a lariat and they tried everything they could think of to gore ya or to get away. But I outsmarted em! Yes I did. I found out that them there beeves would hole up in the thickets until right after dark before going to get themselves a swaller or two of water. That's why I hit em at night! As for running em on Sunday go to meeting's why do think Sheriff I ran em on Sunday? You know I was courting Kelly Ann until all this mess
Id have given my eye teeth to be setting next to her listening to the preacher holler. Instead of driving cattle down to Laramie. Truth is Sheriff , that after spending my days sleeping in the dust eating canned beans and dried salt pork and my nights stalking angry beef. Sunday was the only day of the week that I had to push the twenty or thirty head that I was able to gather to market." The sheriff stood up out of his creaky chair and walked over to the cell. I saw him slip the thong off of his revolver as he walked closer. He was a cautious one Ill give em that. Fore if he'd have given me a chance I would have made me swallow his teeth and bolted out the door. But he was to wary and instead he just threw me the smoke and a match.
I was tired of talking. Man shouldn't have to talk to defend himself he should allow his actions to speak for him. I guess my actions though weren't clear enough and if this little town didn't wake up and smell the coffee then they would have innocent blood on their hands...mine.
"What about Mccord's horse? How'd you come by it if'n you didn't steal it?" He asked as he walked back to his desk and lifted his smoke from the ashtray.
"Charlie and me we were partners. We was gonna buy us a ranch together me being boss him being foreman. He had him that stud that was bought for him by his pa on his birthday. Well he got gored one night and that horn hit him right below the belly button and out his back. Matter of fact I had to kill that big bull just to get ole Charlie off his sticker.
That's how deep he was on it. It's a shame to cause that bull was gonna be the stud on our lot that we were fixing to buy right south of the Pecos. Any how I had picketed my Sorrel about five miles back and walked in with a rope and a machete the only thing around was that palomino stud of Charlie's. You know Charlie, he would ride across the street rather then walk. I never knew a more bow legged son of gun then him. So after plugging that bull and pulling the horn out of Charlie I hopped on his stud and hightailed it back here which was the closest town so I could get a saw bones and get my partner some help. Course that's when Tom Parker saw me and called me out as hoss thief. Then yo'all ramrodded me and told me you was gonna hang me and that's when I had to bust out and get back to Charlie. So that's what I done but of course by the time I got back old Charlie he had gone upstairs to his maker and I had you on my tail. So I pushed
deep into the thicket cause I didn't want to join ole Charlie upstairs just yet. I wanted to keep my word to him." I paused there and crushed the remainder of my cigarette out with my boot. The sheriff glared at me threw dark eyes when he heard I had given my word out.
"Whatcha mean by that?" he asked. Tilting my hat back over my eyes I leaned back against the cold wall.
"Ah nothing. Just forget about it. It don't matter none any how you got a service to do. I got my soul to worry about." I closed my eyes and waited as I heard the chair squeak and the sheriff's boots thump on the hard wood floor.
"Now Slim you didn't mention any of this in the trial why was that?" Bitterly I swung my legs around and tilted my hat up at the same time.
"Cause all's I could think about was getting back to Charlie I couldn't bother with thinking about the trial. I had to figure a way to get back to Charlie." The Sheriffs wise old face nodded as he looked down and kicked the bottom of the bars.
"So what did you promise Charlie?" he asked genuinely.
"Let me have a swaller from that flask and Ill tell you." I said as I pulled my hat off and ran a calloused hand threw my greasy unwashed hair. The Sheriff went back to his desk and opened the drawer while I rubbed my eyes. He came back and unscrewed the top for me and handed it to me threw the bars. I could tell he was starting to relax and that was good. I accepted the flask and lifted it to my lips.
"Careful." He warned
"That's the good stuff!" I nodded to him as I took a long pull. It was like fire as it ran down my throat and into my empty belly. It landed like a bomb and I leaned back and allowed the pleasant warmth to spread through out my tired body.
"Man you aint kidding what is that stuff?" I asked as I handed back the polished steel flask.
"Scotch." was his response as he tilted it himself.
"So about this promise?" He asked again.
"Well it something I should talk about Sheriff due to the fact I was told this information in confidence."
"But since Charlie is pushing up daisy's I guess I could tell just you. Bu you got to give me your word you wont breathe a word of this to any one, cause Charlie said it would just kill his mother." Sheriff looked at me and said.
"Even though your getting your neck stretched tomorrow Slim I give you my word that I wont say a thing!" I grunted with a approval and then told him. First though I looked around to make sure their was no one else within ear shot. He followed my lead even though he knew that there was no one else around. Lowering my voice to a whisper I leaned close and he followed suit.
"Charlie was married!" I whispered. The sheriffs eyes widened with surprise.
"What do ya mean he was married? He's been courting Mandy Johnson for nigh on to three years." I held my pointer to my lips and said
"SHSHSHH, why do you think he aint married her yet?" I said.
"It was all for show! Me and him went across the border about a year or so back to sell some horse flesh to the government down there and he ran into some big Don's daughter. Well one thing led to another and he fell head over heels in love with that there Mexican gal. She too with him from what I saw. Well a few days went by and I had lost track of Charlie. Next thing you know he popped up at a local cantina buying every body cigars and drinks with our stock money!
I couldn't believe it myself anyhow, you know how his ma feel's about Mexicans." The sheriff nodded as I continued" he swore me to silence till the time was right to buy the ranch and mover her on up past the border. Seems he got himself a couple of kids with her too!" The shocked expression on the sheriffs face was imprinted in my mind as I leaned back and watched his reaction. I continued.
"So any how Charlie lay there with that horn threw his middle and his blood all around me and all over me and he looked at me with his eyes all filled with pain and the knowledge that he was heading up to the high range and he made me swear that I would give Guadalupe his share. Guadalupe Maria Lopez Mccord that's the Senora's name. Any how I sat there and made him that promise knowing that if I didn't come threw that there little lady would be finished. Cause you know her pa like Charlie's ma didn't cotton to her marrying no Americano, let alone a Texacan. So anyway that's the whole story and now that Im about to get my neck stretched, I pass that there promise I made to you. Sheriff ,you're the only one that knows and it will be on your conscience for I know how you and Charlie's pa go way back and that will be his kindred that be going hungry down Mexico way. Though I aint a spooky man I sure wouldn't want them kinda haunts on my
soul." The sherif he pondered what I said for a bit and then pulled out a couple of papers and handed me one threw the bar.
Sitting in silence the two of us rolled our smokes and listened to a drunk piano player banging away on a out of tune piano. After a bit we crushed out our smokes both of us now afraid of the dawn. Titling his hat back on his old white head. The Sheriff ran his fingers along his handle bar moustache and clapped his knees.
"Well Slim I hope you have a good night sleep cause it'll surly be your last. I hope that when you pass on over that it will be quick and painless." My brain began to panic as I imagined the rope tightening around my neck and then I decided that there was nothing more to be said.
"You to Sheriff for it will probably be your last good night of sleep as well." The Sheriff nodded with a glint of mischief in his dark brown eyes.
"Now if you go breaking out of here, (Which I doubt cause of the new bars we put in) don't be going over to the stables to get your stud, even though it's all saddled and packed cause it wont do you no good. Its all locked up in the corral in the back." With that his gnarled old calloused hands turned the knob on the hissing gas lantern and the Sheriffs office went black. In another moment the front door opened and the tall silloute of a strong western man walked out into the lantern lit streets. His last comments flexed my brain and I sighed deeply as reached up to tilt my hat over my eyes. It was just as I lowered the brim over my brow that the glint of something shiny caught the glare of the moonlight threw the window.
Not believing what I saw I stood up in shock and noticed that the ring of keys that locked the jail cell was lying on the floor with in my reach. Wondering if this was some sort of trick it took me another half hour to act on the gift the Sheriff left me. It took another hour for me to creep threw town to the stables where there waiting for me was that palomino stud. All packed and ready to go. Once my thighs struck leather though I was out of the county within a day. The pounding of the hooves on the ground was a welcome sound to my tired ears and I knew that I wasn't gonna stop until I crossed the Mexico border and into the arms of the woman I love. In the distance a lone train whistle blew as it pumped it's way towards the town I just left. I laughed to myself as freedom was mine.
At seven thirty am the El Paso train blew it whistle and steam blasted thirty feet into the prairie air. People dressed in their Sunday go to meeting clothes waited anxiously with flowers for their loved ones to join them. The Sheriff was there like he was every Saturdays to make sure that the bad ones that showed up on the trains realized that this wasn't a good place to be. He was chewing on a long piece of grass and happy with the decision he had made two days before. In his heart he knew he had done the right thing and that Charlie Mccord's young uns would be done right by the wrangler Slim.
A conductor stepped off the train as another started to open the doors to the passenger cars. Children excited by the appearance of the weekly train and the realization that this is how the mail arrived ran to and fro. Women with sun umbrella's spinning chatted and smiled while balancing giant hats that were covered in ostrich feathers.
The Sheriff nodded at Mrs. Johnson who arrived to pick up her husbands sister.
"Good afternoon Sheriff how are you doing today?" She asked while struggling to hide her Arkansas accent.
"Im doing well Mrs. Johnson how is that lovely daughter of yours doing?" Mrs. Johnson pulled out a fan and began to fan herself violently.
"She is doing well Sheriff excited of course! Busy with all her plans you know how it is!" Now the Sheriff being confused asked her.
"What plans Mrs. Johnson?" he figured that she would be in morning over Charlie. Mrs. Johnson slapped him on the arm.
"As if you don't know. She's to be married to Charlie Mccord on Saturday! I sent the invitation to your office just last week."
The sheriffs jaw dropped two inches. He reached out and grabbed Mrs. Johnson my both arms and with sorrow in his heart began to stutter as he prepared himself for the woman's reaction.
"Im so sorry to have to be the one to tell you this Mrs. Johnson but Charlie Mccord is...is well he is..." Just then Mrs. Johnson shook off the sheriff and with a loud screeching voice yelled out.
"Hey Charlie over here Charlie!!" She waved at someone behind the sheriff with her cursed fan. Realization began to dawn on the Sheriffs face as he turned and watched as Charlie Mccord stepped off the train with a giant smile and a bowler hat on his greased up head.
With a traveling bag in one hand Charlie waved with his other as he spotted Mrs. Johnson out amidst the crowd. In a fine grey suit and polished boots Charlie pushed his way threw the crowd and hugged Mrs. Johnson with sincerity and then turned to the Sheriff and held out his hand.
The sheriff weakly grabbed it as reality violently shoved aside the fairy tale that he had bought hook line and sinker.
Mrs. Johnson grabbed Charlie by the arm.
"So tell me Charlie how was Sante Fe?" She asked
"Oh it was just grand!" Charlie responded as he looked at the Sheriff with concern.
"Sheriff you okay?" he asked as he watched the Sheriff turn pale followed by a deep dark red. His brown eyes usually filled with mirth were almost black with rage and hatred.
"You look like you seen a ghost?" He said as the Sheriff waved him off and turned to go. Mrs. Johnson waved at him as he turned away.
"Sherif the ceremony will be at noon sharp followed by fiddles at my house around two. Hope to see ya!" The sheriff yelled over his shoulder.
"I wont be there! I got a dog that needs catching!"