(A Short Story by Lee Clinton )
Gallup, New Mexico 1888
Sheriff Harry Carter pulled the kid off the 4:15 Atlantic and Pacific after a formal complaint to the station master. The allegation involved a physical altercation with two passengers and the conductor by a cocksure adolescent sporting an arrogant attitude and smelling of liquor.
The sheriff had seen it all before and could have laid a charge of disorderly conduct on public transportation, but he decided to give the youth a second chance. He would hold him overnight, let him sober up, and see if he showed any remorse in the morning. If he did, he would put him back on tomorrow’s 4:15, but only after he’d paid retribution for his sins by scrubbing out the cells and whitewashing the front fence and hitching rail.
However, none of that happened.
When signing him in, his charge gave a false name. Carter didn’t know it was false until it became clear that the kid couldn’t spell the name he’d just given. He said it was Ralph Raymond but wrote Ralf Raymon. Even an illiterate knew how to spell his own name. This feeble fabrication annoyed the sheriff. It had been a long day. Yet, he constrained his irritation and asked again. This time the name he presented exhausted all patience. John Smith was not only unimaginative but too much to bear for one day. Smith was escorted downstairs to the cells and locked up for the night without another word being uttered by the sheriff.
As the key turned in the lock, the kid demanded to know, ‘What are you holding me on? You have no measure against me.’
The sheriff had three signed witness statements. However, he let it go and still said nothing.
‘Need a blanket here, sheriff, a pillow too,’ came the demand.
The sheriff remained mute.
‘Damn and hell, are you listening to me, sheriff?’
He wasn’t. Instead, he just turned away to climb the stairs back up to the office to finish off the day’s paperwork.
Gallup was no metropolis, but it did have a second lawman, a deputy, only he was down Red Rock way looking into a dispute over water being drawn from a well by a neighbour who had failed to ask permission. So, Sheriff Harry Carter sat down at the office table and pulled out all the wanted posters on file and went looking for the true identity of the prisoner he was holding in the cells. Experience told him, when someone tries to hide their identity, they are usually wanted for something, somewhere.
Yet, he found nothing.
Rita, who had come from El Paso the previous year to live with her sister, cleaned the office once a week and had neatly filed all of the wanted posters just the week before. When she saw the scattered jumble on the table she asked why. Harry told her. Without saying a word, Rita went downstairs to the cells, looked at the prisoner, returned and said she had seen his face on one of the posters.
Harry said, ‘Well, damned if I can find it,’ only to quickly apologise for his intemperate language and ask if she would take a look.
It took Rita ten minutes to identify the kid.
He was William Travis Lithgow, wanted on an outstanding warrant for two counts of aggravated assault, suspected horse thieving, and threating violence against a prominent person. For one who looked so young, he had certainly matured his charge sheet in quick fashion.
The prominent person that Lithgow had threatened was a district judge. This was significant as that particular offence fell under a federal statute and required notification to the US Marshal in Albuquerque.
His name was Leon Ryan.
Ryan was a softly spoken left-hander in his forties who had never married. To some, his appearance and polite manner was perceived as a weakness, but they were wrong. Below this exterior was a hard edge. Some knew of it, most didn’t. Those who had experienced it were sometimes startled. One was US Marshal Ben Rollins from Tucson who witnessed Ryan shoot two men in what seemed to be cold blood. It had happened during a brief confrontation where Rollins saw no imminent danger as he believed both men to be unarmed. On inspection of the bodies after the shooting, two concealed handguns and two horn handle switchblade knives were found along with a pocketbook spelling out a plan to rob the Catalina branch of the First National and to kill anyone who tried to arrest them.
Rollins asked, ‘How did you know of their intent or that they were even armed?
Ryan replied, ‘It was just a feeling.’
‘What sort of feeling, exactly?’ quizzed Rollins.
‘That you and I were not going to see tomorrow.’
When Marshal Ryan arrived in Gallup to pick up Lithgow three days after Carter had sent his telegram to Albuquerque, his opening words were, ‘Billy, do you want to see tomorrow?’
Billy’s reply was, ‘What? See tomorrow? Of course I want to see tomorrow. And what’s that to you, anyway?’
‘Absolutely nothing,’ said Ryan, ‘but if you were to ask me what it meant to see tomorrow, I’d say absolutely everything.’
Billy had no idea what the marshal was talking about. He’d grown up without a thought to rattle around in his head and he wasn’t about to get one anytime soon. When the shackles were applied, Ryan noticed the smooth soft hands of someone who had never done a day’s labour in their life, be it hard or soft. It caused him to shake his head, the youth of today had all been born after the end of the war in ‘65 and had no idea of the sacrifice or the treasure that had been expended to forge the nation that he now wanted to take for a free ride.
The two boarded the noon train back to Albuquerque and took up a position in the rear right of the last carriage in 3rd class, close to the guard and luggage compartments. The marshal sat on the aisle, his gun away from Billy who sat against the window. No tickets were required and on sighting the cuffs on Billy, just as Ryan showed his badge, the conductor asked if any assistance was required. Ryan shook his head to advise that it wasn’t.
The train left on time and arrived on schedule at Grants Station for a water stop. Billy said he wanted a piss. Ryan took him to the WC and stood outside the door in the narrow corridor and told Billy to whistle while he was relieving himself.
‘Why?’ came the response from a curled lip of resentment.
‘So, I know that you haven’t left by the window.’
When the train received a heavy jolt due to a miscalculation by a brakeman when hooking up four flat beds, baggage tumbled from the overhead racks in the passenger cars, and the marshal was thrown forward against the wood panelled passageway, knocking off his hat. When he retrieved it from the floor and returned it to his head, he noticed that Billy had stopped whistling.
The door remained locked.
The train was in motion when the conductor finally unlocked the door.
Billy was gone and the small window was open.
Ryan rushed to the back of the train, through the luggage compartment and into the guard’s cabin. The conductor followed and unlocked the door to the rear platform. The marshal looked back over the empty flatbeds seeking to locate Billy.
He couldn’t be seen.
‘Maybe, he’s up on top,’ suggested the conductor.
Ryan stepped up onto the handrail then onto the rungs of the vertical iron ladder. He climbed until he could see over the tops of the three passenger cars as they swayed to the pull of the locomotive now travelling at speed. He went to climb up further, but the conductor pulled on his cuff. ‘Too dangerous,’ he called. ‘If you can’t see him, maybe he’s hiding between the carriages. We can check from inside.’
The search revealed nothing until the conductor pointed to the shadow being cast by the train as it turned south at Cubero. The silhouette of a reclining body could be easily seen below the last carriage.
‘What’s he holding on to?’ queried Ryan above the rattle and hum of the rolling stock as they stood on the steel plate between the carriages.
‘He’s wedged himself in between the bearers and the water tank for the WC.’
‘How the hell did he get down there?’
‘With great difficulty I suspect. Do you want me to stop the train so you can get him out?’
‘When’s the next stop?’ asked the marshal while having to speak directly into the conductor’s ear over the noise of the train.
‘Mesita, in less than an hour, to pick up the mail.’
‘Be uncomfortable under there.’
‘Sure hope so,’ said Ryan.
‘What’s he up for?’
‘With parole for good behaviour, I’d say five. But he hasn’t learnt to behave so probably eight.’
‘Long time for someone so young. Looks sixteen.’
‘He’s eighteen, but yeah, still young.’
‘But old enough to know better,’ offered the conductor.
‘That too,’ said Ryan, ‘but nowadays they breed them ill-mannered and dangerous.’
‘Tell me about it. Getting so you can’t tell some of these young bucks to take their boots off the back of the seat without having a gun pulled on you.’
Ryan was about to agree when the shadow of Billy disappeared. ‘Shit, he’s fallen off, stop the train.’
The conductor hurried forward, his girth bouncing off the side of the corridor. The marshal rushed back to the rear platform of the guard’s compartment. Standing on the railing to get a better view over the flatbeds, he caught sight of a body lying beside the tracks.
The train began to slow, and Ryan alighted as soon as the speed was down to a quick walking pace. He commenced to run back towards Billy, now some three hundred yards away. When he got close, he could see the mess. Billy’s foot had been severed at the ankle, an upright boot sitting in the middle of the tracks. The young man’s face was as white as a sheet with a look of disbelief as he repeated, ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God.’
Ryan pulled the belt from his waist, crouched down and looped it below the knee. He pulled it tight to allay the flow of blood then lifted the leg in the air.
From this position, Billy could now see the full extent of his injury. ‘Oh God, my foot has been taken right off. I can’t live with only one foot.’
‘Sure you can,’ said Ryan. ‘lots of men lost limbs in the war and they survived.’
‘I’ve seen them pitiful characters,’ said Billy, ‘I don’t want to be like them.’
The marshal kept the leg elevated. ‘Them? They seek neither pity nor a handout. They just get on with life and make the best of it, like we all do.’
‘They become maimed beggars. I’ve seen. I’d rather shoot myself before that happened to me,’ and with that pronouncement Billy rolled to his right and with his hands still cuffed, seized the marshal’s pistol and withdrew it from the holster.
Ryan’s head had been turned as he looked back towards the train as it slowly backed up, the conductor hanging from the side with a red flag to signal to the engineer. He felt the Colt leave its holster and turned to look at Billy, the barrel pushed up under his chin, tears streaming from his eyes.
The marshal’s shout of, ‘No,’ was the last word Billy was to hear as the sound of the pistol-shot punched through the still dry air.
The train was now less than twenty yards away as it slowly came to a halt, the conductor stepping down and hurrying to the marshal’s side. ‘Good Lord, what’s he gone and done?’ came the call on arrival.
Ryan was still holding Billy’s leg aloft. ‘This is all my fault. You asked me if I wanted the train stopped to get him out, and I left him hanging there.’
The conductor seemed to dismiss the marshal’s omission, just shaking his head in disbelief. ‘Ain’t never,’ he said quietly as his gaze shifted from Billy’s face to the severed ankle and then to the boot in the middle of the tracks. ‘What do you make of something like that?’
The marshal lowered the leg back down gently to rest the stump upon the end of a sleeper. ‘I don’t. I used to think I knew what made people tick. Not sure anymore.’
‘Maybe the loss of a foot and going to prison was just too much for him to contemplate. Guess he saw no future, no tomorrow.’
Marshal Leon Ryan took his pistol back from the lifeless hands of William Travis Lithgow and returned it to its holster. ‘If that was so,’ he said softly, ‘then maybe the kid was way smarter than I gave him credit.’