Western Short Story
Costa Tailcoat's Breakout from Jail
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The Mitonville sheriff, George Hamlin, big, ugly as sin, torrent for a voice, slapped Costa Tailcoat on the back of his neck and shoved him into the only empty cell with a rough push, a notice that Saturday night was getting near the end, the town about to close its doors, and the sheriff eager to get at his sleep. Another Saturday night closing shop.

Costa, away from the herd, had never been in Miltonville, but had heard the stories born and bred there, probably in these cells now crowded to the hilt. Yet he hadn’t expected this latest twist to his evening; jail, iron bars, the rough edges of its sheriff, cast away from the open grass, the rolling hills, his riding pals, at times, cattle strung out for more than one eye could detect.

Mexico. land of music and gaiety, of revolutions by the hour, of challenges to his for manhood, lessened its grip as he worked a herd trail to several markets, ingested the people and their customs, learned a few lessons along the way, felt he was fitting into a piece of America across the border.

That was, until he was challenged in a saloon to, “Get out of our country and go back to Mexico and those wars you people have on every corner, in every village.”

Costa hadn’t even finished his first drink, was thus suddenly facing a gunhand, and about to draw his own pistols, both of them, when he was hit on the head by a rifle butt in the hands of Sheriff Hamlin. The headache still bothered him the next morning, and the iron bars a bigger bother. Besides, he couldn’t remember the face of the man who looked like he was going to draw on him ‘for being Mexican!’

He might never see that man again, and he was sure he wouldn’t see him in this jail, the odds too much in favor of the American belligerent when it came to an American and a Mexican holding down a job in America.

Costa started thinking about making his way free of the jail; it was no place for a Mexican boy regardless of his personal make-up. The questions he asked of the other prisoners were pertinent to his escape needs, the ways and how’s of getting things done, even as his mind kept craving the open grass, the rolling hills and valleys, the sharing of responsibilities of a herd of cattle sometimes longer than he could see from one end to the other end.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Hamlin walked about continually, pacing his slow steps, letting free his hammering voice, stepping up his command of prisoners to the nth degree, completely disregarding their needs, their care or their comfort.

What he did detect was a replaced bar in his cell door that was not made of the original iron, but being of a malleable material that his energy could twist to a wider advantage from the other bars: the only possible escape route, as far as he could see and worth every thought he could squeeze to such an opening, the door, he thought, possibly resurrected from a dump pile, and installed for a second go-around. And his escape had to be completed this very night, according to information other prisoners offered in answers to questions Costa asked of them: “The man gets a piece of the town pie from the town council for lock-ups of prisoners for two days or more, keep trouble makers off the street and out of the saloon and the stores, all of it putting money into his pocket.”

Costa had studied Hamlin for one night, knowing he drank himself to sleep after his final tirade of the evening, “You guys keep the noise down so I can get my sleep.” It was like a trade mark being early established.

Costa took no other prisoners into his confidence, wary of any one of them cottoning up to the sheriff for favors.

Night came, lights of any kind being dimmed or shut down, darkness settling into Miltonville in a kind of abrupt softness, a distant coyote out on the prairie grass in concert, a drunk who had escaped jail sang a monotone in a dark alley, while he scratched around for a place to sleep, to drop his head until dawn broke open. But not in the jail, even as midnight made its move into Time’s circle.

Costa had a slight angled view of the sheriff as he swigged the remnants of a bottle, curled himself onto a cot hanging off the wall of his office. And began to snore in short minutes; Time creeping onward.

Costa closed his eyes as though he too had fallen asleep, peeking every now and then at the other prisoners he could see making their own night noises, cots squeaking, boots at a minimum dropping from feet, snores coming quietly at first, and then in crescendo of lock-up music.

The sheriff’s snores the loudest of all night noises, probably enough for all prisoners to shut their eyes and ears to their surroundings; no place to go, nothing to do, all of it coming to Costa, every peep and snore gaining the upper hand on the night, the sheriff slowly getting drowned out by the sounds of jail life coming to own the night.

Costa paid attention to every sound every second of the night, feeling Time spend itself in the darkness, until he gauged all elements coming into play; the snoring, the whispers at odd moments, the same coyote perhaps adding his call, a horseman passing by at a slow trot, perhaps on his way home or back to a campsite or a trailside set-up, no hurry to get there.

Costa, the lone Mexican prisoner in Miltonville’s jail, slowly stood up, took small breaths, made sure his boots would not wake up another prisoner, grasped with his strong hands, all his arm muscles at work, and loosened the objective bar in the cell door and laid it under his cot, away from any accidental kick or touch ringing it like a bell in the midst of darkness.

He was afraid to breathe, even as he slipped his thin body through the opening, stood outside the opening still holding his breath, let it go, and stepped into the sheriff’s office, scooped up his side arms and placed them on his waist, walked directly past the snoring, noisy sheriff, and went out of the jail directly to the barn housing prisoners’ horses, until he found his own mount, saddled him up, walked his horse past the sheriff’s office, still as quiet as a mouse on a prowl. Then he rode at a slow gait out of Miltonville until he was on the wide open spaces of West Texas where he urged his horse into a heady run for a half an hour or so, until he’d never be missed by the sheriff, who’d never in any likelihood admit that one of his prisoners had escaped from his jail.