“You have the sorriest jailhouse I ever laid eyes on.”
Everett had been in his custody only six hours now, the sky outside still as black as coal, and already John had started to entertain thoughts that his prisoner might not make it until Tuesday, the day Elroy Hardings, circuit judge for western Texas, would show up for his monthly visit to Sundance. The whiskey from last night had finally drifted away, promising a massive headache in its wake, and if John had to suffer through much more of Everett’s groaning, he might just dispense with the circuit judge and execute a little justice of his own, the rule of law be damned.
“And believe me,” Everett continued, “I’ve seen plenty of jails in my time.”
Which proves what? John thought. He didn’t say anything though; instead, he rubbed at the bridge of his nose.
He looked at the floor where Toby lay with his head between both front paws. He’d received Toby a couple of years back from the Florence widow. He didn’t want to take the dog at first -- given his record, John didn’t know how he would manage to be a good owner -- but Mrs. Florence insisted, saying that her husband Gerald had passed on. She didn’t see the need in staying around either, and she didn’t want to leave the dog stranded. Looking down now, John was glad he took the dog. Toby was about the best friend in the world any man could have.
“You may think you have me locked up for good,” Everett said, “but I promise you this won’t be the last jailhouse I’ll ever see.”
The dog glanced up with sad eyes and thumped its tail once.
John said, “I know how you feel, friend.”
Toby rolled over on his side with an exasperated huff of air.
“Hey,” Everett bellowed. As if John had been a hundred feet away and not ten.
John looked up.
“I’m hungry. So, how about you rustle me up something to eat? Or don’t you believe in feeding your prisoners?”
John swiveled in his chair and kicked Toby’s bowl toward the cell. It scuttled along the floor like a scorpion with its tail on fire. When it hit an uneven board, the bowl toppled over and a crusty chunk of refried beans that Toby had left uneaten fell out.
Everett looked at the floor. “You can’t be serious.”
John turned away to hide his smile. Sure it was silly, borderline childish, but it felt good just the same and he told himself not to feel sorry about it.
Everett stepped back and slumped onto the straw mattress in the corner of the cell. “What’ve you got against me, John? You want to be a hero, that it?”
John shook his head. “I’m no hero,” he said. “Besides, your problem ain’t with me, it’s with the law.”
Everett blew out a long trailing whistle. “Well, I’m glad we got that straight. Seriously, though, you haven’t liked me for years. Ever since we went to shoot that coyote.”
“It’s true,” John said. “I don’t like you. I don’t know what it is, maybe some people are just born bad, but you’ve been riding trail with the devil for years now and for a long time you’ve had it coming. And mostly I’ve had to sit by and watch, unable to do something because either I didn’t have the power or when I did I couldn’t prove anything. But now, you’ve made a mess of things. I have a body. I have your gun. And better yet, I have your admission of guilt.”
“Which is your word against mine.”
John nodded. “You have a point. But I’m willing to wager on it. How about you?”
Everett shook his head, smiling as he said, “Like you said, both you and the judge have it out for me.”
“Again, it was you that pulled the trigger on Mendoza.”
“And now, what, you finally have a conscience over some greasy farmer, that it?”
John stared at his desk for a moment. He sighed.
“As the duly elected sheriff, I’ve been entrusted with a responsibility to stand up for the rights of others. Even greasy farmers.”
“Ah, that’s just talk. You don’t believe a word of it.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Everett, I do believe. And I intend to do the job, even if that means I have to face off with the likes of you.”
Everett chuckled. “You did your job all right. After you drank up enough of that courage you keep hidden in your desk.”
John snorted. He reached down, opened up a drawer, and lifted out his bottle of rye whiskey. He looked at it for a moment, contemplating the reasons why he should drain it or why he shouldn’t, but then pulled the cork and tilted the bottle toward the floor.
“Well, look at you,” Everett said, “finding some of that old-time religion.”
“Just deciding to cut all ties.” John looked at Everett. “To everything that has kept me down.”
Hayworth Dalton heard the pop and hiss of firewood and opened his eyes.
“Put another log on, will ya Everett?”
When no response came back, Hayworth looked around the makeshift camp. He found that he was still alone.
Everett had said he just going in to spend a little time with a woman, be back in a bit. Looking around the camp now, though, Hayworth saw that Everett never make it back. Which meant there had been some trouble.
“Ah nuts.” Hayworth reached for his guns. This was the way it had often been with his old friend -- ever since they’d joined up years back -- Everett finding himself in trouble and Hayworth always rescuing him. Truth be told, it was starting to wear like a bad saddle. And now, it seemed, he’d have to do it again, ride back into Sundance and figure out what mess needed to be cleaned up.