Western Short Story
Behind rocks, rills, tree shadows, rows of bushes, anything to hide his person nearly frozen to his bones, Toby Huntly had kept out of sight of the posse searching for him, three weeks going on forever it seemed. He even used outhouses on some ranches in his own search for the man whose time he had served time in jail for two years, one month and three days into the next marker on the cell wall, and the day before his breakout, using the deputy’s own gun, but given back to him, empty of course, in a swap for jail keys.
He knew Sheriff Cantell had made a deal with the territorial judge to keep him locked in his cell, “to teach that wise-ass youngster the rules of a good or bad life.” Cantell, as can be said, would chase him to the Gates of Hell to bring him back and make the lesson stick: “You don’t break out of my jail and stay loose for long, that I guarantee.” He said that to himself, or in any private conversations, to a trail pard, and to a bulging saloon, the audience making no difference to him whatsoever.
The deputy was fired from his job, in front of everybody in the Broken Rib Saloon, only after Cantell had berated and shamed him in a tirade, and the deputy saying under his breath, “Even if I spot the kid, I won’t tell you or anybody. That’ll tell you, big honker, in one stroke, if you ever find out. There’s more of getting even with somebody than just plain jail time. That’ll make up a swallow for you for smoke.” He wasn’t sure what way to go, but things were working in him, a host of possibilities en route, his mind cranking wide open for the good stuff of getting even with a rat, to make simple lessons paramount in meaning, to give life singular promise, revenge caught in another word.
He had found a horse on the loose, fixed with reins and a blanket, caught up in a tight little area after a rock-fall, but no saddle, no sight of a rider fallen off, and no way out of a natural trap. Toby somewhat engineered the horse’s release, found water for him, petted him down, found a friend for life: one taken away, obviously, and one given back. He named him Spider, for the sake of any escapee on the quiet lam from lock-up of any kind.
In six days, travel, as though he was a hound sniffing every foot of the way, Toby traveled the route that Rocco Bartlett had made across a good-sized piece of Colorado, asking questions, getting “ums and ohs and ahs and ughs for answers, until an eventual answer lit his eyes up.
One response like, “I saw a fella looking like that near a week ago, heading north-west after stealing a pie from a woman and right out of her wagon. Didn’t hurt the lady but scared the hell out of her. She lives up there on that hillside. Mary Kate’s her name and tell her Barney sent you ‘cause she gave that pie-stealer a scoot with her rifle, could have knocked him out of the saddle, she could, a damned good shot, but was scaring him off like she was no easy mark for him. Lit out like the devil was chasing him. Yup, north-west like he had someplace to get to.”
Each piece of information about Rocco Bartlett’s moves seemed to prove he was just on the run, but heading for safe grounds, perhaps home territory, a place eventually in the sun, a place at ease from the perils, either side, of his way, for or against him. Law or disorder in the mix.
The final piece of information came from a fellow traveler going the other way. “Saw him just a day ago. First time in six or seven years since he run out of the family after his father was killed, and like he was chasing someone. Never saw him again until yesterday, looking like Hell had found him or the Devil himself. Some men, and he’s one of them, carry such signs the whole rest of their life if he lasts that long. Rocco sure wears such notice. I’d watch him sure if he was around me, And all the way, all the day.”
It all came as further proof of a man’s steps in life, how he rides the way he does, what he’s at every time he mounts up, whose turn to worry?
Toby measured it all, piece-meal parts into the full story, and knew how it was going to end, at pointed weapons, at personal stand-offs between two men, leaving one man standing in the cloud of smoke or dust, one at either end.
Does the good guy always win? Hell, no! It comes with aim, desire, cause, dimensions of time, care, worry, even the last comfortable sleep paving its way through somehow to the trigger pull, the aim, the cause behind it all.
The hunter came into Middle Carson, Colorado, the jail breakout seeking the man whose time he had served himself, now here for the payback, the announced guilt of the true party, the witness or witnesses’ signings of a confession, the return home, the long road back through Sheriff Cantell’s country, the hoosegow affiliations, the clearing up of death’s truth.
The man at the end of the bar fit all the descriptions, wholly or partly, as he moved to a table, came back to the bar to bring his drink he had forgotten behind him, sat down, as the stranger entered the saloon. Even as he sat down, an ominous sense told him the person following him all this time was now looking downward into his soul, a man he’d never seen before but knew it was him, the look on his face, the lapse of time in his eyes, the twist of his lips as though a curse was bubbling up in his throat.
“Rocco Bartlett, I served time for you. I’m bringing you back with me because I broke your jail time to come get you, to chase you all over Hell and creation, to this minute. Confess now, to these folks in front of you, or I’ll kill you right here and be done with it. I’ll serve no more time for your killing, then or now, as God is my witness and these folks here about us.”
The slithering snake, Rocco Bartlett, folded in place, knowing the sight of the person who had followed him all the way to this new Hell, his home grounds.