Western Short Story
The first time Deputy Jeff Froman, from Stone Hill, saw Myrtle Billings he was in love, head down, straight ahead in love. Every time he turned around in town, she was there in a dress that clung like a wet sheet clings to a pole. At least a dozen times he saw her, free and loose, leaning, bending over things in the general store, getting up in her little buggy that had a tight little seat, or bouncing on a palomino the color of sunset, the color her hair must have been when the full moon grabbed a handful of it.
He’d do anything for her, short of criminal, because the awesome weight of the badge sat on him the same way his weight sat on his horse who’d carry him to damnation or perdition.
Myrtle, of course, was fully aware of the deputy. She had picked him out as soon as Chet Hawick got caught coming out of the bank with all that money in one bag almost too heavy to carry, all those dreams wrapped up in one bag. The deputy, of course, was new in her plans.
She kept hoping these encounters with the deputy were like the first time she saw Chet Hawick back in Droverville, on the second floor porch of the hotel, stretching in the morning sun, hanging out his bed clothes on the side railing; the day she first fell in love. Oh, he was a lady’s man, she had heard, from the time he was a young copy of himself, handsome as ever could be handsome, curly hair that fell over one of eye, giving him the look of the little devil that he was. She felt like squeezing him all over.
Living with her aunt and uncle in their little house outside of Droverville, the uncle on his last bed, she was unable to move around with any decent freedom. Myrtle was good to them, did for them, cleaned up daily, only asking to get away at evening time to catch her breath, breathe some fresh air, forget her worries, “and plan all the things I’ll have to do tomorrow.” The last part became the clincher for her nights out.
It was on one of those clinching nights that she finally met Chet Hawick on level ground, at the first turn in the road past her uncle’s little house. In a matter of a mere hour he claimed her forever, not knowing that he already owned her completely, as completely as he’d ever own a woman in his life.
On top of all other things going on in his life, the good stuff, the middle-of-the-trail stuff, the not so shiny stuff, Hawick was bound for trouble. Trouble sat bundled up like a cold beggar, waiting for him to make the move to shake it all loose. Some people in this life come marked to such a degree, whether they like it or not, whether or not they can work their way out of it, whatever it is called … Kismet, fate, destiny, lucky as a grub on a hook in the river.
His mind was always elsewhere, grasping at edges, thinking of good fortune, quick fortune. He figured the bank at Stone Hill was the answer to all his small problems; it had all the answers wrapped in little paper bands, or in gold nuggets or gold dust he wouldn’t bother putting on the scales when he made the transaction … at the point of a gun. Telling Myrtle held no fear for him; she’d never tell on him no matter what it cost her. She was his one-woman-for-life.
“What if you get caught?” Myrtle said, her voice a bit saucy, but not poking fun at him.” How long would you be in jail?” Her smile was like a new morning out on grass as green as her favorite shawl. Not only did it light up Hawick, it lit her up too, warmed her, brought her into his arms again. “I’d miss you awful, Chet. I’d miss you like a mother cow misses a lost dogie. I’d go crazy.” She hugged him tightly as they were walking on the edge of town, out where the air moved over them, and the stars were beginning to show themselves for what they were, distant markers, dream places, hopes almost within their reach.
He had pointed out one star almost directly over a mountain peak. “That one’s the leader of the whole pack, Myrtle. Tells me where I have to go when the whole world is dark except up there in the sky with him. He’s there every night too, comes back all the time, just like I’ll come back if they caught up to me.”
She hugged him again, while she looked at the boss star.
“You know where it’s pointing me now, Myrtle? It’s pointing right out to Stone Hill and the bank there that’s loaded up with all the money we’d ever need and we can have it all in a few seconds of work.”
He sensed her belief in things. “Don’t worry, Myrtle. I wouldn’t be in jail for long. Not long at all. I’d break out. I’d break out just to be with you, seeing you smile like that makes me fuzzy all over. No jail can keep me. You can make me do anything.”
She felt herself crumble when he said things like that. Her toes tingled, her heels trying to leave the ground, and the swimming sensations that crawled up her backside like they were shaking her clothes loose of her. It would take her out of the tight kitchen, the small room where her uncle made such horrid demands on her time, and her unable to breathe the way she wanted. When it all came around, she could go where she wanted to go, do what she wanted to do, be with the man she loved and do whatever he wanted to do in this whole life. It all looked so good the way he set it off to the side, waiting for them, like a freighter with a wagon loaded with all the goods ready to take them any place they wanted … Independence, St. Louis, even Chicago or New York, all free time on their hands and plenty of new and exciting things to do and all that fresh air to breathe.
Moments later, on an edge of town, they heard a series of gunshots, then silence sat down on the town until they heard hoof beats racing somewhere in the darkness.
Myrtle, feeling caught up in the invisible drama, clapped her hands and said in a joyous and fateful manner, “Go for the boss star. Go for the boss star. It’ll take you away. They’ll never catch up to you.”
“Oh, Myrtle,” Hawick said as he hugged her, brought her as tightly as he could against him. “You’re one special kind of a girl. I hope that dude, whoever he is, whatever he’s running from, gets away. But I know this, if he does get away he must have a girl someplace that’s just like you. If he gets away, he has to have a girl like you.”
The hoof beats faded away, lost in the dark night and the field of stars. Myrtle, looking up, said, “All those other stars are looking for something to say, too, Chet. I can hear them stretching to talk.”
“Oh, Myrtle,” he said again, “they’re just telling us to go to Stone Hill next week. They’re agreeing with you, sweetheart. You and them are all in it with me. Don’t it feel great?”
He wasn’t two feet out the door of the Stone Hill Bank and the sheriff stuck a gun in his backside.
“Drop it all right there, son,” the sheriff said. “That includes the gun, too; the gun and the bag of money. I’ve been waiting for you since you went in there. I saw you watching the place all day yesterday just like a dog waiting for a bone. This your first bank holdup, son?”
The sheriff picked up the gun, yelled into the bank, at the banker, “Come out and get it, Harold. It’s all on the ground out here. I’m taking this young feller to jail.”
He nudged Hawick with the point of his pistol, saying in a soft voice, “Best move it along, son. Bet you’ve learned a lot already, haven’t you? Not to sit around like a hungry dog when everybody else has things to do. If a young man wants to sit around all day, doing nothing, he should do it in the saloon, or out on the stream trying to catch a real fish, not across the street from the bank and yawning all day like help itself was waiting to help him out.”
Deputy Jeff Froman, at the jail that night, thinking still of seeing Myrtle around town for a few days, was surprised when she knocked at the door of the office, two lamps throwing soft light around the room. The lump came into his throat in a soft blob as she sifted into the room with two cups of coffee in her hands.
“I thought I’d bring each of you a cup of coffee. Made it myself.”
The light from one lamp was directly on one side of her face, the loveliness of her accepting all that soft light, finding the beauty there.
For a bare moment he thought she had come to see him, but that fell apart as she said, “Can I see a dear friend of mine that I heard might be locked up in your jail? I couldn’t believe it. My mother says he’s the son of her best friend and she used to watch him years ago, loved him to death she did, just like she loved me. She wants me to check on him, and I promised her I would. I have to go back to Droverville in the morning. Can I see him? I’m not carrying a gun or anything like that and you can see if you want.”
Froman almost choked on that as she opened her jacket and said, “No guns, see. No place to hide a gun. You can fish around and there’s no gun.”
“Oh, just to make sure,” he said, “’cause the boss would give me hell if I didn’t.” The search was timid, but revealing … no gun, but loveliness almost in motion as she breathed deeply, sighs loose in the room, his and hers.
The lamp light showed her more beautiful than he thought, and he let her into the cell room, three cells empty and Hawick standing in the other cell, his hat on, a huge smile on his face.
“Why, hi, Miss Myrtle,” he said, as she handed him a cup of coffee. “I bet your mom sent you to check on me. Just tell her I did a stupid thing. Will you do that for me? I wasn’t thinking. I bet she’s angry with me.”
Froman pointed her into the back room of the jail, closed the door behind him, and sat at the desk. That’s when he saw the cup of coffee she had set on a small table under the gun rack. He sniffed the container, took a sip, and was pleased at the taste and the aroma. He couldn’t let anything slip by him, that’s for sure. The sheriff would boil him in oil if he messed up.
He knocked at the door, said, “Miss Myrtle, you want that other coffee?”
“Why, Deputy,” she said, smiling back at him coyly. “I did bring it for you. You knew that all the time, didn’t you? I hope it’s okay, the kind you like.” Her smile was luminous and haunting, half in shadow, half in lamplight.
“Oh, it’s okay,” he said. “I just took a little sip. Just a little one, if you don’t mind my checking. Can’t let the sheriff think I messed up at all.”
He smiled again at her.
Hawick smiled at her.
Froman shut the door.
Ten minutes later, when Myrtle opened the door and walked into the office, Deputy Froman was sound asleep in his chair, his head on the desk. He wouldn’t wake up for an hour at least. Myrtle knew for sure, after what she had put in the coffee.
She lifted the keys off a hook, unlocked the cell door, and she and Hawick slipped out the side door of the sheriff’s office and mounted two horses tied off down the alley between two buildings.
They were outside of town, in the darkness, at a fork in the main road, and Myrtle simply said, as Hawick kissed her on the lips, “That’s really a nice kiss, Chet. I knew I’d miss you. Now all we have to do is follow the boss star.” She pointed up over the mountain.
He didn’t dare say, “It’s the North Star, Myrtle.”
It’d spoil the new dream.