There’s lots of things I don’t understand about the white man and one of them is his strange attachment to his hat. Most men would rather lose their pants than their hat. They’re also oddly honorable when it comes to hats. The same man who will shoot you for looking at him cross-eyed, or gut you for a pinch of gold dust, will treat your hat like it’s a sacred object.
Which is why I’m not too surprised when, just before we ride out, someone picks my hat up and jams it down on my head. I find it oddly reassuring. I’m going to be hanged, but at least I’ve got my hat.
Maybe I’m starting to catch on.
Even with my hat, the ride is miserable. For one thing, it’s humiliating. I bounce around like a sack of flour when Coyote starts trotting. I can’t get my balance. I’ve got no way to get my feet in the stirrups. And it hurts. I’m going to have bruises in places it’s not polite to mention. Part of me wishes they’d just kill me now.
Tobacco-juice face rides up close to me and grins. “I’m going to have fun watching you hang.”
That makes one of us.
“Ain’t you got nothing to say?”
So you’ll have a reason to hit me? I’m not that dumb. But I know it doesn’t matter if I reply or not. He’s going to find a reason to hit me anyway.
He slugs me in the stomach, folding me over.
Yippee! I’m right three times in one day. I should start a service.
“Leave him alone, Randy,” deep voice says.
Randy looks at deep voice like he’s thinking of bracing him, but then he just shrugs and moves away. “Whatever you say, Wyatt.”
Wyatt’s got a handlebar mustache just starting to fleck with gray. He wears a flat-brimmed, flat-crowned black hat and I can see the gold of a watch chain running across his vest. His eyes are dark brown and penetrating. I feel the urge to tell him the truth.
“I didn’t do it. I didn’t shoot the marshal.”
He claps me on the shoulder. “I don’t care, son. That’s for others to sort out.”
I see the glint of a star when his jacket shifts. “You’re the sheriff of Pueblo then.”
“I’m the sheriff, all right. Just not of Pueblo. I’m heading back to the Arizona Territory tomorrow.”
That’s too bad. I have a feeling I’d get a fair shake from this man. I shoot a look at Randy who’s taking a pull on a tin flask he pulled out of his pocket. Wyatt follows my look.
“It may not help you much, son, but you can take comfort from one thing. Man like that usually gets what’s coming to him and it usually ain’t pleasant. There’s too many people out here in the West who don’t have the patience for his kind.”
“It’s something,” I say. “But I’d rather have my hands free and a head start on my horse.”
“I’m sure you would,” he says, not unkindly. “It won’t happen while I’m around.”
I sag in the saddle. I’m trying to stay positive here, but I can’t see much light no matter which direction I look.
“What side? Your mother or your father?” Wyatt says, surprising me. I thought I’d heard the last from him. I give him a confused look, then it hits me.
“That’s odd. Usually it’s the other way around. What tribe?”
“Apache. Chiricahua Apache.”
“Tough sonsabitches. How in God’s green earth did a white man bed one of their women and live to tell about it? Or did he?”
I nod. “She found him half-dead with a bullet hole in his chest. He was running from the law. She nursed him back to health.”
“How’d she get away with that?”
“Chief’s daughter. And my ma, well, when she sets her mind to something…have you ever cornered a cougar?”
Wyatt gives a low whistle. “She sounds like quite a woman. Your pa still living out there with the tribe?”
“Nope. Pa likes gambling and drinking too much. He lit out when I was only a cub. Only seen him once since then.”
“Is that what brings you clear up to Colorado, running with the kind of hombres who knock you out and leave you to the law? Are you looking for your pa?”
I shrug and clam up. I don’t like this talk all of a sudden. I give him my best flat face.
Wyatt moves away after a minute. I don’t look after him. The truth is I don’t know why I left the tribe. I could say it’s because I never really fit in there, but that’s no more than a piece of it. I sure don’t fit in this world either. Though I do like wearing a hat.
It’s after dark when we get to Pueblo. It’s not much of a town, sitting a few miles out on the plains by the Arkansas River. A handful of wooden buildings fronting a single street, most of them looking like they’ll fall down in the first good wind. We pass three saloons before we get to the jail. Out on the wooden porch in front of the jail is a balding man with a pot belly. He grabs a lantern hanging off a nail and holds it up.
“Is that him? Did you get him?” He sounds kind of breathless.
“We got him,” Wyatt says.
“Where’s the rest of them? Passengers said there was seven or eight of them.”
“The rest of the posse is still chasing them. I’m riding out in the morning. I don’t have time to chase them to hell and back.”
The pot-bellied man holds the lantern up to my face. I see he’s wearing a star. There’s a lot of food stains on his white shirt. “The important thing is you got him, the killer.”
I resist the urge to tell him I didn’t do it. It won’t do any good.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this, Wyatt. You know I’d have rode out after him myself, if it wasn’t for this bum knee of mine.
Wyatt grunts and I get the feeling he doesn’t think too much of pot-belly’s bum knee.
“Take him in and lock him up, deputy,” pot belly says.
I’m not happy when I see who the deputy is. Couldn’t it have been anyone but Randy?
Randy’s grin shows a good gap between his front teeth. He pulls a Bowie knife off his belt and cuts me free of Coyote, leaving my hands still bound behind my back. Before I can dismount myself he yanks on me and I fall on the ground. Since I can’t get my hands around, I hit hard. Great. More bruises. I’m not going to make a very good-looking corpse.
“C’mon, Wyatt. Let me buy you a drink and show you my gratitude,” the sheriff says.
Deputy Randy picks me up off the ground and shoves me toward the jail as the rest of the posse disperses. “I got a surprise for you,” Randy says as he pulls the door open and shoves me inside.
I trip and almost go down, just managing to keep my balance. You don’t realize how nice it is to have hands until you don’t get to use yours.
Randy picks a lantern off the room’s only table, along with a heavy key on a ring. Grabbing me by the upper arm, he jerks me along into the back room and throws me up against the bars of the cell.
“I got a new friend for you,” he says, holding up the lantern. “I think you two are gonna get along just fine.”
What I at first take for a sleeping bear gets up off the cot and shambles over to the light.
It’s going to be a long night.