The Bounty Hunter - A Will Starr Short Story
The Bounty Hunter
Sam Fletcher held the faded circular in his lap so that the light from his fire illuminated the face and description of the fugitive. Then he spat into the embers and put it back into his vest pocket along with his reading spectacles. He lifted his hat and ran his fingers through his shock of gray hair.
“You coming in to my camp or are you going to skulk around out there all night like some damn coyote? I seen you half a dozen times already, boy, and I could have shot you dead to rights, but I take considerations for damn fool kids.”
A tall, thin boy appeared out of the darkness, obviously unsure of what to do next.
“I didn’t mean any harm, Mister. I am sorry for my poor behavior.”
“A man should come clean when he’s wrong boy, but don’t apologize and grovel like that. It makes you appear weak, and someone might decide to take advantage.”
The boy sat, and Sam handed him a cup. “Have some of that there stew in the pot. I kilt me three rabbits today, and I fetched up some wild onions I found. It’s right tasty if I do say so.”
As the boy dipped his cup in the stewpot, Sam looked him over with a practiced eye. Satisfied, he leaned back on the saddle he was using for a backrest..
“Where’s your horse, son?”
The boy gestured into the darkness. “I got him picketed out there by some grass. My tack's out there too.”
Sam nodded. “Best go fetch him and your tack after you finish that stew. I seen Indian sign a few miles back, and they can steal a horse while you’re sitting on it. No sense makin’ it too easy.”
The boy nodded, put down the empty cup and rose to fetch his horse.
“I make you out to be Billy Brighton, the boy who kilt his ma and pa last week.”
Billy Brighton halted in mid stride and slowly turned around, astonishment written on his face.
“How would you know that?”
“I’m a bounty hunter. It’s my business to know every wanted man and boy for a hundred miles around. Seen your description on a wanted poster, dead or alive”
Billy paled. “Are you going to kill me? I never done it.”
“None of you wanted men ever done it, but it don’t make no never mind to me, one way or another. There ain’t no re-ward for you, so I don’t much care about it, other than to keep you from killing me too.”
“I never killed them. I found them dead and reported it right away, but that no account Sheriff Baines saw an opportunity, so he said I did it.”
“Now why would he do that?”
Billy shrugged. “I been seeing his daughter Molly Baines some, and he didn’t like it much. He told me to keep my distance, but Molly is strong willed, so she met me on the sly. I reckon he saw a way to put a permanent stop to it.”
“So I can turn my back on you?”
“Yes sir. I ain’t no murderer.”
“You best fetch your horse. How come you ain’t armed out here?”
“I thought it best to leave my weapons with my horse. I didn’t want nobody at this fire to misunderstand my intentions.”
Sam Fletcher nodded. “Pays to be careful, but what if I was a robber or an assassin? You’d be in a pretty pickle about now. Next time, keep your weapons about you, but keep your hands where folks can see them.”
“And quit calling me ‘sir’. I was an enlisted man and just as good as anybody else. My name is Sam Fletcher. Call me Sam.”
“Yes, Mister Fletch… Sam.”
Billy dumped his saddle and blankets near the fire. Then he picketed his horse within sight of the fire and started gathering firewood under the approving eye of Sam Fletcher. No one asked him to gather wood and no one had to.
When Billy returned to the fire, Sam held out the cup with the last of the stew. Then he pulled the circular out of his pocket and studied the face again.
“Is that a wanted poster? I ain’t never seen one.”
“It the man I’m after, name of Les Quint. He’s wanted for murdering a judge. There’s a five thousand dollar re-ward for him, dead or otherwise.” He handed it to Billy whose eyes widened.
“This is him! This is the man who murdered ma and pa! He come by at supper time and ma fed him. Then he slept in the barn.”
Billy paused, shame-faced. “I snuck out to go see Molly, and when I got back, that man was gone and my folks were dead. He took the cash box ma had hid in the flour bin. I reckon they thought if they gave it up, he would not kill them. I should have been there.”
“If you had, you’d probably been dead along with them. Quint likes to kill people.”
“Maybe. When I heard that the sheriff accused me, I cut out there quick. We were going to lose that farm anyway because the bank was about to take it. And Molly let it be known that she wasn’t interested in a killer like me, so there ain’t nothing back there for me.”
Sam wrapped his blanket around him and rolled over. Billy did the same, and the night was silent except for the crackle of the fire. He thought Sam was asleep until he spoke in a low voice.
“You might as well ride with me in the morning then, boy. We both got a good reason to find Les Quint.
Three days later, they were scouting for a good spot to ford the Verde River, when Billy Brighton spotted a lone rider skylined on a distant ridge. Sam pulled out a spyglass and studied the figure for a moment. Then he handed it to Billy who had never used one. When he finally saw the rider, he nodded excitedly.
“That’s him! I’m certain of it. He’s big and ugly.”
Sam was looking doubtfully at the river. “Don’t see no good place to ford it, do you?”
Billy shook his head. “No, but it looks wider and slower down stream a piece. We can try it there.”
Sam hesitated. “I don’t like to cross a river where it’s deep. I can’t swim.”
“I can, so let me try it first, and if me and my horse make it, then you can follow.”
For the first ten feet or so, Billy’s horse kept its feet, but then it was swimming and drifting downstream. Suddenly, it lunged and found footing, scrambling up the far bank.
Sam eased his own horse into the river and seemed to be doing well until his horse suddenly began to panic and lunge. Instantly, Sam was in the water, flailing desperately, but with his boots full of water, it was a losing battle and he was going down for the second time when he felt a rope settle over his shoulders. Then he was unceremoniously jerked and tugged to shore by Billy on his horse.
Billy gathered up Sam’s horse as the old man coughed up the muddy water in his lungs. He looked anxiously toward the far off ridge, but the rider was gone. At last, Sam began to breathe normally, and he gathered his thoughts.
“Let’s build us a fire so’s I can dry out. While I’m doing that, you ride up there and see if you can spot Quint. He may be nooning somewhere. I don’t think he knows he’s being followed.”
Sam took off his clothes and hung them on sticks around the fire. His bedroll was still dry, so he wrapped it round himself against the chill. Billy made sure Sam was able to fend for himself and then rode off at a fast clip. Half an hour later, Sam saw him skylined on the ridge.
Three hours later, Billy had not yet returned, so a worried Sam put his still damp clothes back on, doused the fire and mounted up. He began to question the wisdom of sending Billy alone, and cursed himself for a fool. Finally, he topped the ridge, but for several minutes, he saw nothing. Then he spotted a still figure stretched out on the ground far below. His spyglass identified him as Billy Brighton. He nudged his horse and began to pick his way down.
It was nearly sundown before he reached Billy’s body, and he was immensely relieved to see him twist around when he heard Sam’s horse approaching. He was bound hand and foot, and gagged. His face was badly swollen, probably from a beating. He had another rope around his ankles that led some fifty feet off to the south. Sam pulled his revolver, looking slowly all around. Seeing and hearing nothing, he dismounted.
Billy rubbed his wrists as Sam built a fire.
“He was waiting for me, and when I rode around that outcropping, there he was with a rifle. He had me snookered good, so I dismounted with my hands up, but when he saw who I was, he clubbed me with the butt of that rifle. I went down, and I remember being clubbed a few more times before it all went black. Next thing I knew, he had me tied up like this and he had that long rope in his hand as he was mounting up. He was fixing to wrap it around his saddle horn and drag me. Then I heard a snake rattle somewhere around him and that horse took off fast with Quint’s foot caught in the stirrup. That rope jerked plumb out of his hand. I had plenty of reason to hate that man, but I never heard a man scream like that. It went on and on…”
Billy shivered involuntarily and Sam added wood to the fire.
“We find him in the morning, son. Have some coffee, and I’ll make us something to eat.”
They found the horse first, grazing quietly. They found what was left of Les Quint a few minutes later. The sharp rocks and thorny brush had done their work as he was dragged through them. All his clothes were gone and he was unrecognizable.
Sam Fletcher drew a pouch out of his saddle bags and counted out a few coins. He handed them to a puzzled Billy Brighton.
“I got a brother name of Gordon Fletcher about ten miles west of Billings up Montana way on the Double F Connected. That there’s enough money to get you there, and there ain’t nothing here for you anymore except a rope, so you head out, and I’ll take Quint to the Federal Marshal’s office. They know me and they know I was after him. There won’t be no questions. Then I’m coming to Billings my own self. I’m tired of the bounty life.”
“Put that carcass in a box, Henry, and get it in the ground right off. It’s the ugliest thing I ever saw and it’s stinking up the whole town.” The undertaker nodded at the marshal.
Marshal Din Ballard walked with Sam Fletcher down the dusty street and into the Lucky Nine Saloon where the barkeep drew them both a beer. They took a table along the wall.
“Well you done it again, Sam, although I question your methods. The territory is much safer with Les Quint dead.”
“He’s dead for sure, Din, but I can’t produce the body. He drowned, but by the time I found him there wasn’t nothing left to bring back.”
The marshal stared at Sam. “Well then whose body was that?”
“It was a kid by the name of Billy Brighton. His horse drug him, but it was just an accident. He was wanted too, but there ain’t no re-ward. Guess you can pull that circular on Brighton down too.”
The marshal glanced at Sam, took a thoughtful sip of his beer and chewed his lip, nodding all the while.
“I saw that circular, and I would have thought Billy Brighton was much smaller than that from the description. But I’ll pull that circular on him, Sam. I surely will. Now let’s go get your money. I’ll take your word that Les Quint is dead. After all, you’ve never lied to me.”
Marshal Ballard gave Sam Fletcher a slow, knowing wink and they finished their beer.