Published on Monday, August 6, 2012
None of Ours
By Chuck Caruso
As their two-horse farm wagon rounded the bend, Corky pointed to the far side of the road. "Look there, Dad. Something's going on."
"Easy there, son," Everett Mills said. "We'll see about this." He reined in the horses and brought them to a slow walk.
One of the men began toward them then, stepping over large rocks to pick his way to the road. The other man pushed back the sides of his coat and crouched low next to the man on the ground. As he did so, Corky and his father could see that he wore a pair of pistols on his hips. The man's face tilted downward and was hidden by the wide brim of his hat.
"Do you think those are road agents?" Corky whispered to his father.
"Hush now, son."
Corky thought of his father's Winchester stashed under the seat of their wagon. He wondered why his father hadn't reached to take out the rifle. "You want your gun, Dad?"
"I said hush."
As the lead man reached the side of the road next to them, he offered the father and son a wary smile as he touched the edge of his hat. "Whatcha want here?" he asked.
"Thought maybe we saw trouble," Everett said.
The stranger shook his head slowly. "Nothing for you to concern yourself with," the man said. "It's all taken care of."
"It's no trouble," Everett said. "We're headed into town if one of you men needs help. Looks like you've got a fallen companion there."
The man glanced over his shoulder at the scene behind him. When he turned to face the father and son again, his forearm brushed back the side of his coat and they could see the big black revolver holstered on his hip. "Listen, mister," the man said. "This ain't nothing you want any part of. You or your boy here. You hear me?" The man's voice had gone as flat and dead as his eyes.
In the lingering silence that followed, Corky cast his eyes back and forth between the man and his father. He sensed a powerful tension between the two men but he did not know what might happen. No one moved or spoke for a long time, and the world seemed almost to have stopped around them. In the quiet, the horses shifted on their feet. Next to him, Corky heard his father breathing heavily through his nose and swallowing hard against a dry throat. The boy found himself holding his breath, for it seemed that at any moment this terrible stillness might erupt into a horrible and sudden violence.
The boy watched closely as his father shifted his own clear eyes away from the dark gaze of the stranger, turning his face toward the horses where they stood awaiting his instructions. In the high distance, a bird whistled faintly from some tree top. The boy breathed.
"Move along now," the man said.
Everett snapped the reins across the flanks of the horses and the wagon lurched into motion.
The man by the side of the road smiled again, almost warmly this time, but the boy did not trust this expression for he saw that it came from the man's pleasure at his victory over Corky's father. As their wagon rounded the next bend, the man started back toward the scene in the woods.
"I reckon those guys were outlaws," Corky said.
Holding the reins in one hand, Everett tipped back his head to take a long drink from his canteen. Droplets rolled down his chin as swallowed. He said, "We don't know that, son."
"But that other fella was down."
"Now, we don't know any of the particulars," Everett said, squinting at the road ahead of them as he drove his team.
"We'll tell the sheriff, won't we, Dad?"
Everett turned suddenly fierce eyes on his son. "We'll tell nobody about this, you hear me?"
"Don't you want Sheriff Halstead to go after those guys? I think those road agents were robbing that fella on the ground and maybe they even killed him."
"We don't know that it was anything like that," Everett said.
"But, Dad," Corky started. Everett cut him off.
"Leave it, boy! That trouble ain't none of ours." Though his father had never raised his hand against him except for the occasional deserved punishment against boyish transgressions, Corky almost felt that his father wished to strike him. He held his tongue and faced forward in silence.
After a time, Everett said, "I'm sorry, son, but you get too many fool notions in your head from those nickel books you read. I just think we best keep to our own business and let things sort themselves out."
Corky said nothing but chewed on the inner corner of his lip anxiously. He felt a deep ache in the back of his throat as he fought to hold back the tears threatening to rise from within him. His heart felt hollowed out and his throbbing pulse thundered in his ears. It was the first time in the boy's life that he knew his father for yellow.
Chuck Caruso teaches American literature and creative writing in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with a medicine woman and their two cattle dogs. His fiction has appeared in many print magazines and anthologies. Most recently, his western noir tales have been published online at Flash Fiction Offensive and Fires on the Plain.
Visit his blog at http://jcdarkly.wordpress.com/.