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Published on Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Borrowed Time

By Richard Prosch

 

In the winter of '84, they pitched Kid Joseph straight into the warm yellow glow of the hotel lobby, not like a boy and not like a man, but trussed up like a shock of kindling to burn, the ropes around his wrists and ankles frayed and crusted with ice. Two bearded men on each side had gnarled blue hands at his elbows, and two more devils chuffed behind with shotguns and revolvers. They steered the Kid toward Kimbel at the front desk. From his post beside a straw-filled fainting couch, Daniel watched a reporter from The River News follow them in.

   

Kimbel jumped like a sack of cats and fumbled with the registration book. "Mister Voss," said Kimbel, filling in the ledger, "and Mister-"

"Captain," said Voss, full of frost. "Captain Edward Voss, Greely, Holt County, Nebraska.

Daniel adjusted his cap and bit down on the small plug of tobacco between his back teeth. When his mouth was full of the burned wood and apple taste of it, he swallowed, as he had learned to do since coming to work at the Grand Dakota Hotel.

"Of course, very good," stammered Kimbel as he scribbled. The shadows from the kerosene lamps danced across the patterned pink wall paper, and the hotelier looked quickly at Voss's hard face, then shivered with the wind. "Close the door, Daniel," said Kimbel, quiet, but hard, like Daniel had left it open.

Kid Joseph, two years older than Daniel, whistled Whiskey Parker.

"They wired us you'd be coming," said Kimbel, "but... well..." He fell silent as Voss introduced the other men, deliberately failing to mention the slender cargo shuffling his snow covered boots on the weathered oak floor.

"I really should have the prisoner's name," said Kimbel. "For the record, you understand."

Voss shook his head.

"Boy, take Captain Voss's bag," Kimbel hissed. Daniel did as he was told.

"Reckon we should find us something to eat," said Voss.

"Suits me, Cap'n," said the Kid, his lazy voice full of eighteen summers and invulnerable. "Why don't we rustle up a Christmas ham with all the trimmings?" He looked directly at Daniel then and gave him a wink, like he could slip away at any time.

One of the bearded men, Gardner, slapped the Kid's head, knocking his cap to the floor.

"No second helpings for you," said the Kid, and Daniel hid his smile with the effort of lifting Voss's satchel. He swallowed some chew again, and it left him feeling lightheaded.

"Please sir," Kimbel tried again. "The boy's name? Just for the record?"

The news reporter, Daniel thought his name was Barry, leaned forward with expectation, a pencil tapping softly at a small tablet.

Voss laughed, and Daniel let the bag slip to the floor. Baring yellow teeth, Voss pushed his charge forward. "This here is Arnold Joseph," he said, "heir to some of the greatest horse thieves in history." He paused like a preacher, his words hanging in the air.

A beat.

Two beats.

Not a preacher.

A showman.

"Slick as pig shit and twice as yellow," said Voss.

"That's the nicest thing you've said to me today," said the Kid, and all the men laughed.

The sole survivor of Doc Samson's gang and the bad goings in '81 and '82, Joseph allegedly earned his own chance for the gallows swiping half dozen geldings from one of the big Holt County ranches. The previous afternoon, word had come from Vermillion that Voss and his men had finally caught up with Joseph in an east Dakota cornfield. The road back to Nebraska led through Engle's Mill.

Daniel laughed too, then lugged the canvas bag over rugs and along the floor. Kimbel busied himself getting two heavy quilts from a cupboard in the wall while Barry scratched out notes for the morning edition. The horseplay and wood heat had everyone more relaxed, but when Daniel locked eyes with Kid Joseph, he saw the older boy's gaze was rigid and dark.

Turning under Kimbel's scrutiny, Daniel led the party to a pair of adjoining rooms at the back of the building.

"You in the army, Captain?" said Daniel while carefully lighting the first room's lamp.

Voss pushed the Kid onto the feather mattress and untied his hands while Gardner kept the scattergun level. "You can call it that," he said. While Kimbel spread out the blankets, Barry stayed in the hallway, scribbling audibly on his pad.

"We're an army of concerned men," said the man with the Colt.

"Ain't really none of your business, son," said Gardner.

"Give the boy something for his effort," said the Kid.

"I don't take orders from you," said Voss. Even so, he reached into his hip pocket.

"Not until the show," said the Kid. "Just wait until tomorrow."

What show, Captain?" said Barry.

"Thought we might hold us a social event," said Voss. "Give everyone a chance to meet a bona -fidey outlaw. Maybe you could arrange it?"

Voss pulled out a money clip, sterling silver and bent out of shape with a thick wad of bills, Daniel had never seen anything like it.

"What would you say to the fellowship hall of the Lutheran church?" asked Barry. "They're holding a basket dinner tomorrow."

"I'd say that suits us just fine."

"That coin's my property," said the Kid. "Any of you fellas keeping accounts?"

After handing the reporter a few bills, Voss peeled off five dollars and held it just beyond Daniel's grasp, "You fetch whatever we need, whenever we need it. " Daniel eyed the money and nodded.

"For as long as we stay," added the big man.

Then the reporter could no longer keep his curiosity in check.

"Is it true you caught the kid with his trousers down?"

"Was there gun play?" said Kimbel.

"When did you learn he was in Dakota?"

Voss held up a callused hand, and when he spoke his voice was heavy and flat as a smith's anvil but the mirth of a circus ringmaster still danced in his eyes. "One at a time," he said. Voss had been on the Kid's trail for the better part of two years. Daniel could tell he was enjoying his time in the limelight.

"Why didn't you just find a good piece of hemp and a sturdy oak limb?"

"He'll be turned over to the Holt County Sheriff day after tomorrow," said Gardner before Voss could speak up. "Nice and proper."

"Ain't' nobody here a killer," agreed Voss. "Leastways, no convicted killers," his eyes landing on Joseph.

The Kid grunted. "You just can't help showing off, can you, Ed?" he said. "Whyn't you show everybody my watch?"

Daniel hadn't see Kimbel leave, but when his boss reappeared in the door he carried a bottle of corn whiskey and glasses. While Kimbel handed out drinks, Voss reached into the pocket of his flannel coat and took out an ornate silver watch.

"This here is a key wind specimen of genuine silver," said Voss, raising the watch high into the candlelight, its hunter case returning a score of orange stars. Daniel had never seen a time piece so large, or so beautiful. Like a living thing it breathed in and out, and the liquid candle reflection slid around beveled curves and shone like the sun across the silver flat planes. "It's more than twice the size of regular pocket clocks. On a full year's wages, none of us here could buy such a treasure." Voss grinned, anticipating the punch line. "The Kid bought it outright with three days earnings."

Eyes wide, Kimbel gasped with pleasure, and Barry shook his head. "Imagine such a thing," he whispered.

"I talked to the jeweler who sold it to him back east," added Gardner. "That thing's worth a fortune."

"More important," said Kid Joseph, "it keeps good time."

"Time is all you got left," said Voss.

"So why don't you give some back to me?"

Voss chuckled, popped open the lid and pretended to peer into the glass. "I'd say you got about 72 hours."

"Let's have another drink anyway," said the Kid, and after Voss tucked the watch carefully away, everyone did, even Daniel.

Later, in his own room and drifting off to sleep, Daniel wondered about the Kid. What must it be like to be so free, to grow your hair long and not answer to anybody about anything. What would it be like to just live, to name things whatever you wanted to name them, to know you owned every rock and blade of grass, every rabbit and squirrel and every horse, whether someone had penned it up or not.

Daniel had known freedom close to that only once, when he'd walked away from his family's eternal bickering and equally endless farm work to spend the night beside a whistling post, so that when awakened by the train, he might jump aboard and ride far away. But he didn't have Kid Joseph's courage; he couldn't yet lay claim to the wandering hills. He'd only rode the train for a few miles, and a day later took the job at the hotel in Engle's Mill for room and board.

 

*         *        *

 

The next day, a gun in Kid Joseph's hand made two school marms literally swoon and drop, so Voss reluctantly cut short that part of the show. "I assure you folks, there wasn't a bullet within reach."

Held at the ankles to a ring in the makeshift wood platform, Joseph shrugged and Voss holstered the empty revolver.

"I hear he does a right fancy spin with that Colt," said someone.

"Heard he's a fast draw too."

At least a hundred people came and went and milled around the fellowship hall of the new Lutheran church. Through his smile, Voss quietly cursed himself. The men should've charged admission.

Kimbel stood close to the stove and a bubbling coffee pot, visiting with Barry as handed out special editions of The River News. Those two had stayed up drinking together long after the rest of the hotel had gone to sleep. Thick as thieves.

"Let's have a hymn, Captain," called a tall man beside the player piano. With a nod, the old notes were pounded out.

Daniel leaned against a far back wall and read the newspaper.

Citizens of the northern plains are experiencing supreme relief at a requiem to months of terror. Unjustly menaced by a roughneck left over from inglorious days past, the people of our territory can thank their merciful Creator for the diligence of Captain Edward Voss and the good men of his company who valiantly tracked the heinous outlaw and horse thief Arnold Joseph into Dakota where the unchurched ruffian was found cowering in a corn field.

  

Around him, the crowd enjoyed the supreme relief Barry wrote about, but Daniel thought it owed less to the capture of Kid Joseph and more to the roaring wood stove and the tables filled with fruit breads, biscuits, and pie.

While expert gunplay on the part of Voss and Gardner was reportedly involved, it is the impression of the River News that eighteen-year old Joseph ultimately had no stomach for a man's fight and surrendered readily to his betters. Quickly unarmed and thoroughly searched, Kid Joseph, as he's become known to some, was found to be in possession of not less than several hundred dollars, a heavy gold money clip, and a Swiss-made Chinese duplex watch of sterling silver.

"I heard the social presentation was the Captain's idea," said a man just under the din. "But obviously the Kid loves it."

"It's a good example for the children. Plenty young men will think twice after today."

"Gives the people a chance to witness law and order first hand," said the first man.

"Voss ain't wearing a star," mumbled Daniel. "If you don't mind me saying so," he quickly added.

Both men stared blankly and moved away.

The time-piece is a rarity, its oversized hunter case dotted with glamorous Oriental detail; its bleached, stainless face showing a simple exquisite display. Arnold bragged to this paper that the piece keeps perfect time, but there too the boy comes up wanting. Due to an unfortunate defect in the clock's escapement, the otherwise smooth sweep of the second hand will jump now and again, eventually gaining a full minute for every passing ten.

When the song was done, Voss cleared his throat and again addressed the crowd.

"You farmers might work all year and still have barely enough to survive," said Voss. He cocked his head at the Kid, who seemed to glow as he pulled the money clip with its thick packet from his shirt. "Yet this boy earned enough in a couple days for the clip alone."

The Kid bowed and grinned without a care in the world.

"And you ought to see his pocket watch! Of course it's stolen property, but we let him keep it." Daniel glanced around and saw that Voss owned the crowd. He sent home the punch line with the voice of an accomplished showman. "Why not? He's living on borrowed time."

The laughter was deafening as the Kid was patted his flannel coat pocket. Daniel could tell that something was wrong. Voss turned, expecting to see the watch on display, but Joseph shook his head. Voss frowned and answered with a shrug.

Then Kimbel was beside him. "I need you to run over to the hotel," he said.

"What?" For a moment, Daniel couldn't think. Last night Voss had slipped the watch into the pocket of his coat before he'd hung it in the room's tall wooden wardrobe. Daniel had seen him.

"Need you get the big picnic basket," continued Kimbel. "Mr. Barry wants to put together a basket for his sister."

Daniel stared at his employer absently. "Mr. Barry."

"Yes, Mr. Barry's sister. The poor dear is bedridden," said Kimbel.

"Yes sir," said Daniel, moving toward the door. He turned back, but Kimbel was already gone.

.. .the otherwise smooth sweep of the second hand will jump now and again...

Around him, everyone gasped with pleasure as Voss and the Kid spun twin lariats in a synchronous act. The tall man by the piano squealed with joy.

"You can always tell a horse thief by the way he swings a rope," he said.

Falling in with a boisterous family of Swedes, Daniel let himself be moved to the door, his thoughts trained on the hotel and all the hiding places there.

 

*         *        *

 

The church crowd had scarcely begun to break up when the north wind picked up, and the clouds again grew dark. The Captain's party agreed to spend the night in the home of Gardner's daughter and son-in-law across the Missouri, a short drive into Nebraska. With a few hours of daylight still ahead of them, they made ready to leave. One of the vigilance men brought the horses and wagon around to the front of the church, while Gardner and the others marched Kid Joseph out just as they'd brought him in. Tied at the wrists and ankles, he stood patiently under guard. Inside the church, Voss gave his farewells.

With a careful air of indifference, Daniel approached the wagon.

"Sir?" It was the first time he spoke directly to the Kid.

"Son?" They were only two years apart, getting closer with each breath.

"I found your watch."

The Kid's eyes flickered and lit like a holiday candle. "By God, so you did." Joseph watched as Daniel moved his hands across the cold silver casing. "Where was it?"

Kimbel and Barry tumbled from the church, talking loudly, laughing. When they saw Daniel holding the watch, they quickly looked away.

"It never left the hotel."

Joseph looked over his shoulder, but Kimbel and Barry were already shuffling down the street. His hands clasped, and so only Daniel could see, the kid made a gun from his thumbs and forefingers and pretended to fire at them.

As snow started to fall gently into the street, the younger boy held out the time piece.

"No," said Joseph. "I'd like you to have it."

Captain Voss strode from the church, his scarf pulled around his face, his leather gloves looking stiff and ineffectual. He shouted at Gardner, "Get him the hell on board."

"C'mon Arnold."

"I understand it doesn't keep good time," said Daniel.

"Truly it don't," said Joseph, and Daniel nodded.

"Be well," said the Kid. He climbed up the wagon and sat next to Voss. "Full ahead, Captain," he said without looking back.

Daniel watched the wagon make two long tracks down the street and turn and vanish. He started to run ahead, maybe just to catch one more glimpse.

And then he stopped.

Be well.

"I will," whispered Daniel, and he turned and started to walk out of town, and just like that, the entire world opened up for him, and he knew he could have it.

"I'll be just fine."

No longer needing it, he pulled the hotel cap from his head and launched it through the thickening snow.

He thought he knew where he could find a horse.

THE END

 

Richard Prosch has produced an extensive body of creative nonfiction for trade association Web sites and journals. His fiction has been published online at BeatToAPulp.com and TheWesternOnline.com.

 

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