The man Hayworth found inside wasn’t John Colton, the current and soon to be former sheriff of Sundance. Instead, he found a portly man with a bald head, a few strands of hair raked across the top. He was wearing a blue shirt and sat at the sheriff’s desk, and at the sound of the door crashing in, the sight of two guns pointed straight at him, the man’s face turned ashen. Hayworth wasn’t sure if he’d even breathed in the last ten seconds.
Hayworth glanced around the jailhouse. Off to the side, seated on a straw mattress with plate of something in his lap, Everett sat in the cell, smiling like he'd just heard a joke.
Turning back to the man at the desk, Hayworth said, “You’re Henry Clausen, the livery owner, right?”
The man’s eyes moved left to right as if he were looking for someone else to give him the answer. Sweat beaded up on his slick forehead; it stained the pits of his shirt. A mass of tobacco bulged beneath the skin of his left cheek and bobbed once as he swallowed. Finally, he nodded his head.
“Why are you here?”
“Th-th-the Sheriff asked me to sit in.”
“And where’s the Sheriff at now?”
Clausen shook his head. “Didn’t say. He just saddled his horse and rode out.”
Behind Clausen, a dog lowered its head, bared its teeth and growled. The hair along its spine rose up into a long cord.
In the cell, Everett threw his plate to the floor. He brushed his hands and said, “One thing about this town, while they ain’t so good on hospitality and manners, they at least know how to cook up a mighty fine meal.”
“It doesn’t look like they know how to let a man wear his own clothes, either,” Hayworth said.
Everett looked down at himself. “Yeah, that.” He snorted. “John’s way of being funny, I suppose.”
Everett shrugged. “I told you, we go back a ways.”
“Well, it don’t look so funny to me.”
“You ain’t looking at from his side.”
“And you are?”
Everett shook his head. “Nah.”
Hayworth turned back to Henry Clausen.
“You’re still here?”
Clausen looked confused and Everett laughed.
“You don’t seem to understand the situation, Henry. Don’t you have a family you love, a life you’d like to keep on living?”
“Then I’d advise you to hightail it before my friend loses all patience. He’s already got the guns out, and I can tell you he doesn’t like to put ‘em away without shooting something.”
The man jumped up. He shuffled past Hayworth and then bolted through the door.
“Man was in too deep,” Hayworth said. “Didn’t seem to know it ‘til just now.”
“Which goes to prove what we always say,” Everett added. “Some people are just too stupid to live.” His face hardened then. “And what took you so long?”
Hayworth stepped toward the desk. The dog growled again. He glanced at it, stomped a boot on the floor, and the animal scurried under the desk. It barked a couple of times. Turning to Everett, he said, “When you didn’t return to the camp, I wasn’t sure what to think, so I decided to ride on in, ask around.”
“And you spent all morning asking questions?”
“No, I talked to Francine first.”
Everett slowly leaned back, laughing. “I can see it all now. How is she doing?”
“I imagine she don’t have much else to say.”
As Everett shook his head, Hayworth looked the cell over.
“How 'bout we get you out of there?”
Everett nodded. “And get my clothes back. And after that? I've got some business with the Sheriff.”
“You heard Clausen, he doesn’t know where the man went.”
John rode west, his back feeling the heat and weight of the mid-morning sun. He wasn’t sure what he would say to Lois when he found her, but he knew he had to find her just the same. It had been fifteen, maybe sixteen years since he last saw her--too long to live in the shadow of the past.
Have you settled all your debts?
That was the question Everett had asked. Like he knew all along how John felt about things, how he felt about Lois. From the moment he first saw the warmth in her smile, the twinkle in her eyes when she laughed, the delicate skin of her cheeks, John had felt an attraction like he never had before. And hearing her voice, calm like a slow moving stream, as she talked about literature and men whose names he didn’t recognize, John knew he would stop and listen to her all day if she wanted it. Forget about the chores--the floors that needed to be swept, pews that needed to be dusted; when Lois was around, the rest of it ceased to exist. Which was shocking in a way, come to think of it. But it wasn’t like he could have stopped to talk with his father about it, the man so pure and focused that John knew he would have sounded like a braying mule had he even tried to explain.
In the end, John found he couldn’t talk to anyone about his feelings. As it turned out, Everett had seen Lois too and made the first move. So, John stuffed everything away and locked it up tight.
Riding along, John heard that voice just as clear as he did on that night so long ago.
Bet you money you can’t do it, John. Not from here, anyways.
At the time, it was a bet worth taking. As he cleared the hill and looked down on the dusty town of Wilson, though, John once again felt the heaviness on his chest, the sick feeling in his gut.
How strange it was that life could turn things upside down.