© Karen Snape-Williams
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CUT AND RUN
I’m looking at the sky. A beautiful, blue Arizona sky. Not a cloud. Not a bird. Just blue. Couldn’t be in no better position to appreciate the vista. What with lying here. In the dust and the dirt. In the middle of the street.
Last time we conversed Lord, was the day we planted Pa. The day I sat in church puzzling as to why in hell everyone was sobbing, weeping and bawlin`. Way I saw it, Pa was an evil son of a bitch. Thrashed me if I was good and beat me if I was bad. Didn’t know if I was coming or goin`.
“You done crashing around, Jeremiah? You woke me up, boy.”
“You fed those chickens?”
“Milked the cow?”
“Bacon smells good.”
“Sure does. And I got some oatmeal bubblin’ on the stove. Made it just the way you like it, Pa.”
“Oatmeal! I’m sick of darn oatmeal.”
With Ma dead some eight years and Pa now lying beside her, didn’t take long for the bank to foreclose on the farm and for me to clear out. Been killin’, stealin` and whorin’ ever since.
Hitched a ride with a wagon train. Ten families. Hard-working folks from back east, rolling west and searching for a better life. Fine intentions but stupid.
Six days out, grumblin` about the dirt and the heat, they unhitched the wagons by a river and went bathing. Warned `em about the unhygienic conditions. The flies and mosquitos buzzing around their heads, but they didn‘t pay no heed. Didn’t take long for disease to spread through the camp. Twenty miles out of Flagstaff they’re sickin` up and hollering they want to stop. I told them nobody stops in Indian territory unless they‘re planning on dyin`.
Heard the whoopin` an hour later. High on the ridge above us, saw the line of Navajo warriors, two hundred or more, shrieking and yelling, waving their bows, tomahawks and rifles high in the air. Felt the sweat running down my spine. Felt my mouth go dry as a creek in high summer.
Man in charge ordered the wagons to form a circle as those Indians galloped down the ridge. War painted, feathered and furious, they were hell bent on a massacre. I got down low. Fired off a few shots with my rifle. With folks dropping all round me I knew it was useless. Those Indians outnumbered us three to one.
There was a boy beside me. Big blue eyes. Fighting tears. Trying to be a man. Failing. In those few seconds, as women screamed and men died, I had to make a decision. The boy was twelve, maybe thirteen. Strong lookin’. Heavy. Knew he’d take some haulin’ to his feet. It’d waste precious time and time was precious. Way I figured, we’d both die.
I rolled out from under the wagon and let fly with a couple of bullets. Ran for the nearest horse and climbed aboard. Didn’t look back. Recall some unease about leaving the boy. Fretted over it for a time.
Now that horse knew this was a make or break moment and he stuck out his neck, lengthened his stride and flew across that plain. Couple of Indians made an attempt to chase me down, but those red skins know when they’re beat.
Didn’t stop till I reached Flagstaff. The horse, a black stallion with a streak of white lightning down his nose, weren‘t even lathered. I named him Roscoe. Checked the saddle bags when I climbed down. Threw my head back and laughed out loud when I found them plumb stuffed to the gills with money. Walked across to a saloon. Ordered a whiskey and then another. Strolled the length and breadth of Flagstaff, till I’d found the best hotel in town. Ate a steak. Took a bath. No mosquitoes.
When a man’s pockets are overflowing, a town like Flagstaff can empty them quicker than a sieve holding sand. I’m not ugly. Not exactly handsome. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Five feet and eight inches of average. Once I’d bought me a suit, a hat and a pair of shiny black leather boots, heads began to turn. When I walked in the saloon that first night and paid for drinks all round, my status in town moved up another peg or two.
Certainly became a hit with the ladies. Could take my pick. But a man needs to be careful. Out west, skinny whores ain’t skinny due to their eatin’ habits. Lay with the wrong one and a man can catch a nasty disease. One that makes his privates shrivel. Didn’t want none of that. No siree. Ain’t partial to fat whores neither. Never make it to the finishing line, if you get my drift. Don’t get me wrong, Lord, I was never pernickety. Red hair. Blonde hair. No hair. Good set of teeth is exemplary though not crucial. Way I see it, a man doesn’t look at the mantle when he’s stokin` the fire. I had fun. They had fun. Where’s the harm, Lord?
Stands to reason what I`d perceived as a fortune was small change to the big hitters in town. Pretty soon, I was checking out of that swanky hotel and taking a room above the hardware store. Wasn’t long before I’d pawned my suit and shiny black leather boots, for one final deal of the cards. Kept my gun. Ivory handled revolver, sitting in an open-top holster, butt forward. Man offered to buy Roscoe. Didn’t even consider it. Loved my horse. Besides, I had one of those premonitions I’d be needing him.
A queen of clubs and an ace of spades sealed my fate. The two cards I couldn’t account for when the game concluded. Weren’t in the deck or spread out on the green cloth. They weren’t in the winning hand of my opponent. Man was sly and mean lookin`. He wore black. Head to toe. Had friends and associates all round the saloon. Would have been foolhardy to draw my gun.
I went outside and waited in an alley. He came out alone. Held to the shadows till he drew alongside, then I reeled him in. Pointed my gun at his big fat nose and said. “You stashed two cards you cheating son of a bitch.”
He laughed. Held up his hands, fingers spread. Thought he was being so darn clever till he saw what I could see flashing white in the moonlight. Two cards. Queen of clubs. Ace of spades, poking out from the sleeve of his shirt. I shot him. Took every dollar he owed me and then some. It was time to cut and run. Climbed into the saddle and pointed Roscoe north.
Lord, I aim to be honest and truthful about what I’ve done in my life, but time is pressin’ and it would become mighty repetitive if I related all incidents and events. During those intervening years, I drank, I screwed and I killed more men than was right. Just about covers it.
After the bitter cold of a northern Arizona winter, my wanderings led me south, onto the Farley Ranch, west of Tucson. The offer of a dollar a day, two hot meals and a bunkhouse to sleep in, assured I’d be shaking the rancher’s hand.
It was roundup time. My roping skills impressed Mr. Farley. Impressed his daughter, Ellie May, too.
Once branding was done I set to repairing the fences enclosing Farley’s territory. It was hot and thirsty work and most afternoons, before I rode back to the ranch, I’d find myself some shade under the branches of a jacaranda tree and take a siesta. One particular afternoon, I opened my eyes to find Ellie May, riding up. My Lord, she was pretty. Blonde hair reaching down to a tiny waist. Green eyes. Perfect skin. She climbed down from the saddle and sidled up, hips a-swaying. Sat down beside me, real close. Thighs touching sort of close.
“Thought you might be hungry, Jeremiah. Brought you something to eat.”
Now it didn’t take long for me to get the idea, what with those flashing eyes and moistened lips, even from the tilt of her head, there was more on offer than a slice of apple pie. I wasn’t wrong.
Summer had been and gone when one day at noon, Mr. Farley wandered into the barn where I was brushing the mud off Roscoe. I glanced up and nodded. For an old guy, he was in good shape. Could make out plenty of hard muscle rippling under the white, cotton shirt he was wearing. Short, fuzzy, grey hair. Old scar tissue filling in the cracks on weathered skin. His arrival made me uneasy. Just stood, chewing on a piece of straw and watchin’. Wasn’t my place to begin conversation. Him being the boss an’all. So I carried on brushin’.
“What you doing, Jeremiah.”
“Guess I’m brushin’ the mud off my horse, sir.”
“That’s not what I’m asking and you know it.”
I looked up. I shrugged. I got back to brushin’.
“Okay, son. Let’s do some straight talking. You messing with Ellie May?”
I stopped brushing. He stopped chewing.
“Got a problem with my question, boy?”
“No, Mr. Farley. I like her. And she likes me. Don’t see no problem.”
He spat the straw out and took a step towards me. I put the brush down and did the same.
“I was gonna run it by you first, sir. Wouldn‘t be polite if I didn‘t put you in the picture. You see, I’m planning on marrying Ellie May.”
Now I shall never understand why I said that. The thought hadn’t entered my head before Farley‘s arrival in the barn. Truth was I’d got everything I wanted. Food. A bed with clean sheets. And Ellie May. She cost me nothing and I was content for our arrangement to continue without the need for gold rings. I guess he’d riled me up and I wanted to see how far I could push.
He fixed me with this cold, hard stare. “Let me tell you something, Jeremiah. You’re a piece of shit. I stand in shit all day. Wipe it off my shoes before I go inside my fancy house and eat dinner with my family. And right now, mister, I’m wiping you off my shoes. You’ve got one hour. One hour to get off my land or I’ll put a bullet in your head, cut you up and feed your remains to my hogs."
I met his gaze. I checked out the scar tissue. Noted the busted nose. Ran my eyes up and down his frame and decided I could take him. Didn’t need a gun. Didn’t need a knife. His old bones weren’t equal to his big mouth. Only I’d gone one whole year without messin’ up and I ain't a stupid man. I knew Farley was trouble. Big trouble. It was time to cut and run.
You know, Lord, seemed as if Roscoe understood this was the end of the line. He kicked up so much dirt as we galloped off Farley territory, an onlooker would have believed a train had jumped the tracks and was hurtling cross-country.
I rode North. Shot, skinned and ate my share of marmots and jackrabbits during those years of bedding down under the stars.
Sometimes, when I was skirting a town, with the sun slipping and darkness descending, I’d rein in Roscoe. We`d look down from a ridge onto those pitched-roof framed houses, with lanterns flickering in their windows and I’d get to pondering. Would picture a scene in my mind. Always the same. Never changed.
I’d have a wife. She was called Rachel. She had blue eyes and wore her long hair plaited, coiled and pinned up round her head. She wore a clean white apron over her frock. She was strong. Handsome. Upright. God fearin’. And she loved me. I was the only man who’d ever remove those pins. I was the only man who'd know what lay underneath that frock and apron. And when I walked through the door each evening, Rachel would be waitin` for me.
We'd share a kiss or two and she‘d say, ‘Time for supper, Jeremiah. Go clean up.’
I’d do as I was bid and when I returned a pan of stew would be set down in the middle of the table. We’d all sit down and say a prayer and then we‘d eat. There’d be a child too. Didn’t have a name for the child. Reckoned he’d be a boy.
Liked to dream the dream. Don’t rightly understand why. Guess I liked it for what it was. A dream. And dreams don’t come true. Not asking for any sympathy, Lord. I chose my own path.
Those days of wanderin’ took its toll on me and Roscoe. Decided it was high-time we came in from the wilderness. Crossed the Verde River and headed into Prescott.
Was in a contented frame of mind when I rode into town this morning. My days of killin’ and wandering were over and I was gonnah straighten myself out. Figured Prescott, a mining town with wide streets and plenty of fancy folks walking on ‘em, was the place to do the straightening.
Roscoe and I ambled along Gurley Street. Peeled off before we got near the courthouse. Stopped and touched my hat to a woman in a grey, high-collared frock. Gave me a look from under her black bonnet that could turn milk sour. A whistle and a peel of laughter diverted my attention to a couple of gals leaning from a window above a saloon. They wore low-necked silk. Feather boas trailing down the wall towards me. Seemed mighty enticing to a man who ain‘t had the company of a woman for a long, long time. Decided I wouldn’t be giving up on the whorin’.
Tied Roscoe to a hitching post outside of a saloon on a street named Whiskey Row. Elbowed my way in through the swing doors. Bartender looked up from polishing glasses.
“What can I get ‘yer.”
Bartender poured me a glass. I drank it. He poured me another.
“Anything else I can getcha?”
“Feeling kinda` hungry. Could you fix me some food?”
Bartender turned around and hollered. Chinaman appeared from out back. Bartender spoke a few words to the Chinaman. Chinaman nodded and vanished to wherever he’d come from.
I handed the bartender three dollars and took a seat in the corner. Back to the wall, facing the door. Old habits. Ran my eye over the gaming tables, the wood panelled walls covered in steer horns and oil paintings of naked women. Nodded to a couple of old-timers who sat nearby, chewing tobacco and emptying their lungs into brass spittoons. Took another swig of whiskey. Chinaman reappeared. Set down a mug of coffee and a plate loaded with steak n’ eggs.
I can truthfully say those steak n’ eggs was the tastiest meal I have ever had. Meat was juicy. Egg yolks ran into the juice. Was mopping up with a chunk of bread when the Chinaman returned.
I handed him fifty cents. “Best meal I’ve ever tasted. Thank you kindly.”
Chinaman was mighty impressed with my tip. Gabbled away in his own language then put his hands together like he was prayin’. I smiled at him and nodded. Chinaman nodded and bowed. All this noddin’ an’ bobbin’ set me to laughin’. Laughin’ so hard, I didn’t notice the two men entering the saloon. Had their boots on the brass foot rail `fore I saw the stars pinned to their lapels. Chinaman saw them too. Picked up the crockery and skooted.
They leaned across to the bartender and said something. Smaller guy, thick set, youngish, kept his eyes directed at the mirror as the taller man turned and looked my way. Had one of those droopy moustaches. Covered the lower part of his face.
I took a few sips of coffee. I pondered on whether my past misdemeanours had followed me into Prescott. But I hadn't seen my face glued to no wall. I finished my coffee. Eased back my chair and glanced across. Sheriff and his deputy ignored me. Seemed in deep conversation as I walked to the door and pushed my way through. Took two paces and stepped off the boardwalk. Walked round Roscoe, and was preparing to climb aboard when I heard the saloon doors swing open and slam shut.
“That your horse, boy?”
I dropped the reins. Looked around Roscoe to find the Sheriff with the drooping moustache was standing on the boardwalk above me.
“Sure is.” I said.
He took a step toward me. Signalled with a flick of his hand to his badge. “Names Brown. Sheriff of this town. What’s your name, son?”
“Must have cost you some?”
“Your horse. How long you had him?”
“Few years. All told about five.” I adjusted the strap of my saddlebag and glanced around. Couldn’t see hide nor hair of Brown’s deputy.
“You a gambling man, Jeremiah?”
“So where d’ya get the money to buy the horse?”
I swallowed. Sheriff Brown was asking questions so fast I couldn‘t think straight.
“Man can hang for stealing a horse, Jeremiah.”
We’d been in tight situations before but I swear I’d never seen Roscoe this troubled. He was fidgeting and twisting, his eyes wild and rollin’. By the time I’d steadied him, Sheriff Brown had drawn his Colt 45 and was aiming to shoot me down.
“Put your hands up.”
My hands were going somewhere but they sure as hell weren’t going up. As I reached down for my gun my horse shied and spun around. Brown took his shot and the bullet, the one with my name on it drilled into Roscoe’s head. My horse gave his life to save me. And it made me mad as hell. I fired my weapon. I shot the Sheriff. Put a bullet into Sheriff Brown‘s skull, smack between the eyes.
Found the Deputy soon enough. Stepping out from my left, he was raisin' his weapon. My aim was good. Knew I couldn’t miss. About to shoot when I saw his face. I saw those big, blue eyes. The same blue eyes of the boy I’d left under a wagon, twenty miles out of Flagstaff, all those years ago. Impact from his Peacemaker sent me staggering into the street.
So here I am, Lord. Light is fading and the blue sky ain’t blue anymore. Folks are gathering round to watch me die. There’s a gapin` hole where my chest used to be and my blood is gushing and minglin` with the dust and dirt of a street called Whiskey Row.
I, Jeremiah Jones, soon to depart this world ain’t seeking redemption. Got only one regret. Should have taken that boy along with me.