Published on Sunday, August 11, 2013
The Ride to Baxterville
By John Laneri
Sensing movement, Jillie slowly opened her eyes and watched him push the covers aside and quietly ease away from the warmth of her bed.
"Do you need to leave so early?"
"Sorry I woke you. But, it's time to get my horse saddled. I need to collect my reward money in Baxterville."
A smile formed on her lips. "You were over me so fast that I didn't get a chance to see socks." She pointed to the side. "They're probably under the chair."
With that, he dropped to the floor and began scrambling about.
To Jillie, Sheriff Matt Carson was the only man to ever capture her heart. With his peppered hair and curled mustache, he continued to be the highlight of her life, even though, after twenty years, he remained a confirmed bachelor.
Smiling pleasantly, she pulled the covers close to her neck, feeling the morning chill tingle her shoulders. To her, the air seemed cooler than normal, especially for an early November in Neverton, a small Texas community along the cattle trail to Fort Worth.
Jillie Marbley was generally thought of as a free spirited woman. Most folks simply referred to her as 'Aunt Jillie', a name designating her as the proprietress of the finest establishment in North Texas.
While it was common knowledge that her house served the spirited, most people were unaware of her other endeavors, which included the ownership of several saloons and hotels scattered throughout much of the area.
Over the years, she had become a wealthy woman seen by many as a lively personality and formidable negotiator – one who dispensed captivating charm, graceful elegance and a persistent manner.
She rolled to the edge of the bed and watched him reach for a boot. "I can dress while you get breakfast. Then, we can spend the whole day together." She chuckled softly. "Once we get to Baxterville, I'd like to visit my saloon. A little surprise visit never hurts the manager – helps to remind him whose boss."
He turned to her, noticing the first rays of morning sun highlight her red hair. "Maybe, another time," he replied, as he moved beside her and reached to stroke the hair.
She touched his arm lightly, letting her fingertips travel playfully over the skin. "I thought we could spend the day enjoying each others company – anything to give us more time together. Saturday nights are not enough. I need more of you."
"I'll be too busy watching the prisoner to be much company."
With a flourish, she placed an arm across his shoulder and pulled him toward her. "I'm riding with you – that's final. Now, go downstairs and tell my maid, you want breakfast. And, be sure to tell her to pack a basket of food and a warm blanket. We can stop on the way back and have a picnic."
An hour later, they were on the trail riding into a cold brisk wind, following a narrow stretch of dirt that cut through rolling brush land in the direction of Baxterville.
The prisoner, a man wanted for robbery and attempted murder, rode ahead them with his hands bound in metal cuffs firmly secured to his saddle horn.
"Who'd he shoot?" Jillie asked the Sheriff just as she turned away from a gust of cool air.
"I understand he wounded some fellow that repairs boots for a living and then rode off with over three hundred dollars in cash."
"Three hundred dollars!" she said quickly. "That's a goodly amount of money for a boot maker to carry in his pocket. With that kind of money, I could travel to New Orleans and paint the town from one side of the Mississippi to the other."
He turned to her and grinned. "Would you really go to New Orleans without me?"
"If I did, I'd probably moon about, feeling lost."
Laughing aloud, he redirected his attention to the prisoner.
She watched him a moment then playfully spurred her horse ahead.
Easing near the prisoner, she offered the man a smile. "Howdy, mister. Fellows call me Jillie."
His eyes shifted in her direction. "I know who you are. And, I was wonderin' if you was plannin' to speak to me." He studied her for a moment then turned away to spit the juice of a chew toward the road. "In case you're curious, I'm a notorious outlaw."
"Outlaws don't bother me," she said carefully. "I've known plenty of ornery characters in my time."
He turned to her. "You're a mighty fine lookin' woman, feisty too. I like your red hair and green eyes – gets my juices to flowin'. You can call me Jebb."
Fluttering her eyelids, she said, "Why thank you, Jebb. I like men that appreciate my charms." She continued to watch him then said, "You don't seem worried about going to jail."
"No need to be," he said confidently. "Got myself a good hand."
"What kind of cards are you holding?"
He glanced toward the Sheriff. "What I see with my eyes and hear with my ears – that's what I got. Matter of fact, I know enough about the corruption in Baxterville to take a few people with me... if I go to prison."She frowned. "I haven't heard of any corruption. Usually, I'm kept informed of most shenanigans in these parts. Maybe, you're mistaken."
He laughed quietly, his confidence certain. "I know of people in that town with their hands into some mighty deep pockets." Lowering his voice, he again glanced toward the Sheriff then whispered, "The money, I'm accused of stealin' came from the saloon."
Her head snapped in his direction. "From the saloon!" she said quickly. "Who's... who's stealing from the saloon?"
He aimed another spit to the side then said, "A pretty woman like you don't want to hear the vile circumstances of what got me accused of shootin' at that fellow."
"I'm a big girl now," she replied, trying to control her emotions. "Tell me about the saloon. I'm always interested in juicy gossip."
Once again, he glanced toward the Sheriff then returned to her. "The truth is, I was pokin' around in the alley behind the saloon one night when I heard arguing coming from a back office. Naturally, I was curious, so I crept up to the window to see who was talkin'."
He paused to direct another spit to the side.
"Like I was saying, when I got to the window, I saw these two fellows shoutin' at each other. One was the saloon proprietor, that bartender fellow named Raymond. He runs the place. The other person was the one they accused me of shootin'. Folks call him Shoey cause he fixes boots and shoes in his shop."
"Did you take the money?"
Smiling, he said, "Well, I took the money but in a roundabout way.
"It seems the saloon fellow was pokin' the preacher's daughter. From the jest of things, I gathered Shoey was plannin' to tell both the preacher and the saloon man's wife about his flirtations."
"So, you think the money came from the saloon's cash box?"
"Ma'am... there ain't no thinkin' to it. I watched it pass straight from the money box to Shoey's hand. Matter of fact, I saw them pass the money every few weeks. That's what gave me the idea to take some from Shoey. I figured he'd be easy."
Jillie felt a dry taste begin to form in her mouth as she began to appreciate why the cash flow from her saloon in Baxterville generally remained on the low side. "How much would you guess changed hands?"He studied her for a moment. "Why are you sweatin' ma'am? The air's fairly cool."
"The day seems warm to me," she replied, as she reached to unbutton her coat. "You were telling me about the money."
"From what I saw, I'd guess about a thousand, maybe more. That was mighty sweet looking money."
"Most money looks sweet when it comes easy."
Slowing her horse, she returned to the Sheriff's side and rode quietly beside him, trying to compose her thoughts.
He glanced toward her. "You look pale. Are you feeling okay?"
"I'm fine," she replied, as she dabbed a handkerchief to the moisture on her cheeks.
He continued to study her. "I still think you look pale. Did the prisoner say something to upset you? If he did, I'll kick his head all the way back to the Brazos."
"It wasn't him. But, the morning does seem warmer than usual."
An hour later, as Baxterville came into view, Jillie again spurred her horse ahead and galloped beside the prisoner.
"How would you like to make fifty dollars?
His eyes lifted in interest. The realization that someone was offering him more money than he typically saw in a year caused him to choke on his chew. Spitting it away, he asked, "How much did you say?"
"You heard me the first time," she replied quickly. "So here's my offer, when you get to Baxterville, I want you to tell everything to the town sheriff same as you told it to me. In return for your efforts, I'll hire you a lawyer from Fort Worth and reward you with fifty dollars – cash money."
"Why would you want to do that?"
"If you're not interested, I'll have my own conversation with the Sheriff in Baxterville."
"No, don't do that," he said quickly. "I'll tell everything I know."
"You're being smart," she said, as she indicated a fat roll of bills stuffed in her boot.
His eyes turned to the boot where they remained fixed for some time before slowly returning to hers.
She answered his look with a simple smile, then confidently, she watched his eyes return to the money in her boot. For Jillie, Jebb had just become her ace in the hole.
She glanced over her shoulder toward the Sheriff. He appeared comfortable, his body swaying gently to the motions of his saddle. On his lips, a smile of contentment lazily followed the curl of his mustache. He was undoubtedly having a good day, but then again, every day was a good day for him.
Once in the town of Baxterville, she turned to the Sheriff and said, "I need to stop at the saloon. It may take some time, so when you're done at the jail, look for me near the town square. And, don't forget, I packed a picnic basket and warm blanket."
"How could I forget our picnic? All this work has me feeling hungry."
She continued on, her horse taking her toward the saloon.
Stopping beside a hitching post, her thoughts returned to the roll of bills tucked safely inside her boot. It was a comforting feel, knowing that her backup money was safe and secure.
But, as she was dismounting, her foot slipped from the stirrup. Unable to control her backward momentum, she let out a shriek and tumbled to the ground, her backside landing squarely in the dirt.
Saloon, refusing to look about to see if anyone had witnessed the incident. Her first order of business, she knew, was to inform her saloon manager of exactly who was in charge.
Shoving open the doors to the saloon, she walked up to the bar. "Where's Raymond? I need words with him."
The morning bartender, a young fellow with freckles on his nose, looked up surprised. "Howdy, Miss Jillie," he said, as he hurried toward her. "Today's Raymond's day off. He turns the saloon over to me on Sundays. Is there something I can help you with?"
She glanced about, noting a fair number gentlemen gaming her tables. Smiling to herself, confident that the money was still coming in, she returned her attention to the bartender and said, "I need to look at the ledgers."
"Raymond doesn't let me touch the books, but I think he keeps them in the desk. I'll try to find them for you."
"I'll find 'em myself," she said as she started away, her boots echoing ominously across the floor.
Making her way to the back office, she soon located the business journals in a bottom drawer of a desk. An hour later, as the enormity of her loss became apparent, her shoulders began to slump. In all likelihood, Jebb's words were true, she concluded, as she pushed the ledgers aside, her spirits sinking even lower.
Coming slowly to her feet, she started for the door, certain that her manager needed to be dismissed, and if all worked out, prosecuted for his crimes.
Before leaving the premises, she remembered to stop long enough to hire the assistant bartender to manage her affairs. Then finally, in an attempt to mellow her day, she downed a double-shot of her finest whiskey before heading out the door determined to confront Raymond and attempt get her money back.
Standing on the steps in front of the saloon, she looked about the town. Only a few of the local shops were open, so she started toward the bartender's house, her mood growing increasingly acid by the minute.
Just then, from across the street, she noticed a gentleman running along the boardwalk. Behind him, she spotted her former bartender in close pursuit. She started toward them then stopped just as they ducked into the jail house.
Moments later, a gunshot exploded. It was quickly followed by several equally ominous blasts, rolling through the air – each coming in rapid succession.
Gripped by uncertainty, she took another step then spotted the Sheriff stumbling from the building, his forty-four in hand.
Running to his side, she asked, "Are you all right? What happened? Why the shootin'?"
"Good God Almighty... some fellow shot and killed my prisoner," he replied, as he fanned the smoke away from his head. "Thought I was a dead man."
"I was worried for your safety – all that shooting."
"I appreciate your concern," he replied. "It was a mighty nasty scene in there. One of the worst ever. Bullets flying everywhere. No way to take cover."
He removed his hat to wipe away the sweat. "Give me a second to clear my head. You don't know how close I came to taking one." After a couple of deep breaths, he continued, "I'll give you the details later while we're enjoying our picnic. But just now, I need to be sure the town sheriff has his wits back."
Ten minutes later, Jillie saw the him leaving the jail, his boots stomping through the dirt.
She hurried to his side. "Are we leaving so soon?"
"If we linger too long, the Sheriff will probably want me write out a bunch of paper work. He can clean-up his own mess for all I care."
She touched his arm. "You said, someone was shot."
He paused to let her catch up. "It seems, some fellow named Shoey, a boot maker, walked straight into the jail and shot my prisoner in the chest. It was a foolish thing to do with all the guns about. Now, less go have our picnic. I'm hungry."
"Shoey?" she asked, "Shot your prisoner, Jebb?"
"That's what I said. Shoey put one straight through Jebb's heart. That was about the time, some fellow that tends bar over at your place stepped in the door and took out Shoey. The way bullets were coming and going, I had to take him down myself."
She startled in disbelief, her mouth dropping in surprise. "You shot the bartender?"
"Yep... I got him square between the eyes. His boots probably lifted a couple of feet off the floor."
"Did Jebb get a chance to tell his side of the story?" she asked, hurrying to stay beside him.
"He didn't have much chance to talk, the town sheriff spent the whole time before the incident counting out my fifty dollar reward – lots of one dollar bills. Then too, he's a bit slow when it comes to numbers. I didn't think he'd ever get past twenty. But, I got my fifty dollars for transporting him here – that's what counts."
When they reached her horse, he stopped to look her over, noting the ruffled hair and streaked cheeks. "You look a mess. I've never seen you so scruffy."
"It's been a long day," she said wearily. "My life seems to be going in all directions. I should have stayed in bed this morning."
Suddenly, he pointed toward the ground. "Look at what I found," he said as he reached down and picked up a roll of bills. Brushing the dirt away, he hurriedly began counting the money. "Look at this", he said excitedly as he glanced about. "I found five hundred dollars laying in the street. Some high rolling gambler probably dropped his stake. Your horse was standing on it. Today must be my lucky day!"
Fearing the worst, her hand quickly darted to her boot. Finding it empty, her shoulders again slumped.
Concerned, he asked. "You look pale. Is there something I can do?"
"No, nothing," she replied weakly, as she watched him fold the money and stuff it in a pocket. "Give me a minute. I'm feeling light-headed. Things are happening too fast."
He unhitched her horse and handed her the reigns. "When you're ready to ride, we'll go have our picnic. I've been thinking about curling up in that blanket, taking you in my arms and whispering sweet things in your ear... been thinking about it all morning."
He mounted his horse and started away.
Reluctantly, she thrust her boot into a stirrup. And soon, she was following him, watching the sun dip closer to the horizon as her mood fell further with each passing mile.
Finally, he looked back at her. "I take it you didn't have a good day."
"It was one of my worst ever. Everything went wrong."
"Sometimes that happens. When it does, you have to shake off the bad and let the good things come naturally. That's the way life works. You'll feel better just as soon as we get in that blanket... doubt we'll come up for air before nightfall."
"I'm not interested in getting tossed around in a blanket. My nerves are shot."
"You'll come to life after I give you one of my famous back rubs – might relax you a bit. In fact, we need to talk about spending a week or two in New Orleans."
Forgetting her day, she quickly spurred her horse ahead and returned to his side. "Did you say something about New Orleans?"
He looked her way. "You're smiling again."
"You always know how to make me smile. That's why I love you so much."
"You'll be smiling even more when we curl-up in that blanket after our picnic."
She nudged him with a boot. "I'm talking about New Orleans. Did you know, I read in a magazine about a small hotel near the river where the staff serves meals in the room? They even serve 'em in bed, if you're too tired to move. I'd like to try it out."
"That's a mighty tall order... might cost a fortune."
"Maybe so, but with all that money in your pocket, we can even take a side trip to Saint Louis on a steam boat. I'd like to see the river too."
Grinning the Sheriff replied, "It sounds like you're already spending that five hundred dollars. I suspect you've been saving it for a rainy day."
She turned to him, surprised. "How'd you know it was my money?"
Laughing aloud, he replied, "Cause, you're the only one in these parts that can afford to carry five hundred dollars stuffed in a boot. I've been wondering when you'd decide to spend it."
John is a native born Texan living near Houston. His writing focuses on short stories and flash. Publications to his credit have appeared in several scientific journals as well as a number of internet sites and short story periodicals.