Western Short Story
The Wanted Posters Marked X
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Donny Digby, all 11 years of him in one skinny little package, rushed into the ranch house where he lived a few miles outside of Plainview, Texas, yelling for his mother: “I saw another one of them posters, Mom, with the X across the bandit’s face like he had just done it just before we got there, because it wasn’t like that yesterday when I saw it, when me and Jersey walked right in front of it. But it was like he had just done it, if he’s the one who’s doing it, like Dad says he is, like leaving his own mark wherever he goes, which is like all around us, then that’s where he’s hiding out, just all around us, and you can bet on that, just like shadows you can’t see yet ‘cause they ain’t landed yet from where they come from.”

His mother pictured him jabbing his hands onto his hips like his father did when he made such similar announcements, as if it was the hear-all and end-all of a current argument, like said and done, the final word on matters of importance, a kind of my-last-word-on-the-matter.

Donny stopped to catch his breath, which let his mother in on the conversation. “Well, Donny, as long as he stays away from us, we can let him have his fun, because when they catch him, and they will catch him, they will make him pay for all his crimes, ever last one of ‘em.”

She stopped short of enumerating a list of Troy Atwater’s crimes, including the too-local murders of a pair of brothers who spoke up about him at the saloon in Plainview. The pair of them didn’t last a week, both found dead, shot from ambush while at fence work on their own property and not a single sign seen of the killer, but everybody in Plainview knew it was Troy Atwater who pulled the trigger each time and giggling to himself at each moment of revenge.

The Plainview sheriff, as a result of the double murders, told the whole Busted Horn Saloon that he was going to put posters all over the territory about Troy Atwater. The posters turned out to be an elaborately-sketched drawing of his face topped by a dark sombrero, and his name printed bold as sin and in big black letters right underneath the drawing of his scarred face, almost like the artist had dug in a knife to count his hatred as No. 1 of the local haters club. Significant lines and twirls came like personifications of scars and the associated hatred the artist must have been working to in his mind or in his hand, which really don’t make no difference to the reader of the wanted poster because they ended up showing a man almost alive and scarred by deepest black ink exhibiting the deepest black hatred, like some people said rather loudly, even for this dog of a man, “Looks like Hell runneth over him a’ready.”

And the posters were all over the territory, like a small army had spread them for the sheriff. He was sure he’d nab and chain Troy Atwater, and sooner than later. But life in the old West rarely went the easiest and quickest way: it had a mind and a reason of its own. it seemed to say to those in the middle of it, and to the young beginners and learners of things as they see what’s going on all around them.

Donny and Jersey, on ponies of their own, made wide and round trips of the territory, never for once figuring they’d run into the real thing, even on the wide-open spaces of cow grass, trail runs, and the few special landmarks of the area, such as a few rocky hills sticking up like sore thumbs, and the every-now-and-then clusters of trees always marked by most recent habitation of ashes of dead fires, scattered trash that wouldn’t or didn’t burn in the fires, initials cut into trees, or odd names scratched on flatter rocky surfaces, simple reaches for eternity, or the next user of the site.

That’s precisely where Donny and Jersey met up with their poster hero-of-sorts when they saw a man with his back turned to them as they approached, and scared the be-jeezus out of them when he spun about and they saw the wild, ugly, fearsome face of Hell itself looking at them with an evil grin about a mile wide on a face never again to be forgotten by either of those boys.

“Howdy, boys,” said the face. “I’ve been waitin’ to meet you for a spell or two for more than a month and never did chase after you but waited for you to walk in in me sometime, like just now.

“Course you know who I am and I seen you lookin’ at my pixure painted like I was Satan come free of the darkness to scare Hell out of ever’body and send it back to where it belongs and all ‘em folks go on about their own business and not mine. I know you ain’t ever seen me make my X across my face which bothered me from the first time I ever seen it.”

And like he had forgotten all about any manners, suddenly said, “I ain’t goin’ to bite you up and chew you down, just goin’ to spend a while with you since the first days I seen you lookin’ at my posters a’ready X’d up by me to get back at the sheriff hisself. That man wants to plain hang me by my neck in the middle of Plainville in front of the whole town, which I ain’t favorin’ too much.”

Donny at last managed to speak up. “We ain’t done nothin’ but look at all the X’s and tell my Mom what we seen, and how many times we seen ‘em.”

“What cha momma say about them things? She on the sheriff’s side? Tell me what she says, and I won’t do nothin’, so help me.”

He had his hands on his hips and Donny thought Troy Atwater looked like his father the way he did it, like the last word was just said on the matter and all arguments closed and put away.

“She said the sheriff’s goin’ to catch you some day, but she don’t know when.” He shrugged his shoulders like she never said any more about the man in the posters. A picture of this man in front of him coming to his house and whipping his mother, and here he was with Jersey and neither one of them had a gone to get rid of that man and that thought.

And right then, at that exact moment, Donny saw a shadow move among other shadows and a single shot destroyed Troy Atwater’s rifle where it leaned against a rock, and he stepped forward with two guns drawn, and said, “Don’t move, Troy or you’re dead as you’ll ever be, and you boys get over here away from him so I can put the handcuffs on him and take him to jail.”

Donny said, “How’d you know we were here, Sheriff?”

“Oh, your mom told me, Donny, and I’ve been following you boys for a week now, and it sure has paid off. She was right on the button on this. Moms always know what’s best for their wandering boys.”

All the way back to Plainview, the boys collected all the posters of Troy Atwater they came across, thinking souvenir hunting was the perfect pastime.