Somehow I'd always figured I'd go down like this. But then the sheriff rushes in and hollers, "hold everything!"
"Praise be to God," the sap next to me blubbers. "I'm not supposed to be here, you know."
But I see Dusty standing in the back, calm and in control, pompous smirk on his mug, and I realize he's behind the sheriff's calling a halt to the ceremonies.
The crowd oohs and aahs as the sheriff explains he's gotten a telegram and it turns out I'm innocent. The crowd don't like the "innocent" part. They never met me, but they'd turned out to see a hangin', and the bounty on my head is too high to be a mistake. The noose is loosened, anyways, though, and my hands are untied. The crowd voices its displeasure.
The sap next to me cries, "No, me! What about me?!"
I wink at the sap as my neck is freed from the rope. He spits on my shirt. But that don't bother me. I wump him on the shoulder and jump off the platform.
The sheriff grabs my arm. "You best hurry up and get out of here. I'm not gonna kill you, but they might, and you'd deserve it, too."
But wallowing in the crowd's outrage is too much fun. I stretch my arms to the sky and slowly turn all the way around so everyone can get a look at my innocent ass. They call me names, curse my dead mother, and throw fistfuls of sand and pebbles at my face. They spit, too, like the sap did, but they miss as often as they hit.
To divert attention away from me, the platform trapdoor is thrown, and the sap loses his footing. But no one pays mind, and the sap strangles unnoticed. Dusty shoves his way through the mob and grabs me by the collar. Over the mob noise, he shouts, "What the hell is wrong with you?" and pulls me away from the excitement. Behind me, the sap gags in desperation. As the mob grows more ornery, the sheriff doesn't move from the side of the platform. He's content to let them take the law into their own hands, and ready to turn his back if things get out of hand. But it don't get that bad before Dusty drags me out of harm's way and we ride off in a cloud of dust.
* * *
But Dusty can't blackmail the sheriff this next time. The sheriff and the preacher's wife have been found out, and he's been run out of town. The preacher's gone, too, disgraced, and guilty by association.
Everyone's yelling at me again, jeering, calling me names. It's worse than before because I got away. They're intent on seeing I ain't getting away again. And with that last sap underground, it's just me this time. The rope is tighter this time, too. All I can do is hope Dusty's around again somewheres with an ace up his sleeve.
Someone starts shooting off a ways. I crane my neck to try to spot him. It's Crazy Abe, a crack shot crackpot. Dusty and I met him a few days ago, stumblin' upon the aftermath of a raid. He took a likin' to us, but what he's doing shooting at the sky, I don't know, and everyone's screaming and falling to the ground or running away.
Except one person, who's standing around like nothing out of the ordinary's going on. It's Dusty! Not yelling, not running, he's simply watching Crazy Abe shoot holes in the heavens. The deputies crawl on their bellies and elbows to get close enough to Crazy Abe to take him down. Someone sneaks up behind him and conks him on the head. Crazy Abe spins around and shoots even more wildly than before. There's a mob closing in on him and next thing I know Dusty is in front of me hacking away at the rope above my head.
"Behind you!" I shout.
Someone has caught on and is rushing us. Dusty whips around and shoots him next to the star on his chest. He falls backwards. Crazy Abe must be dead by now. Dusty finishes with the rope and I fall to my knees, rubbing the rope burn on my neck.
"Let's never come back here," Dusty says as he grabs me by the hand and we run to where he's got the horses stashed.
* * *
Dusty convinces me that we should lay low for a bit, and we head to his mama's farm. I ain't seen her in years. She never liked me much. I see her remembering how much she didn't like me, for a few seconds, before she reluctantly greets me with a hug.
There ain't no adventure here. We get stuck digging up potatoes and carrots. After a bit I spot one of the farmhands sitting on the ground, leaning against a post. "Ain't you gettin' paid for this?" I complain. "What am I doin' in the dirt if you're just sittin' there? I don't get nothin' for sweatin' in the dirt."
I hear Dusty's mama tell him that she'd feed him three meals a day if he'd stick around. He would always have a roof over his head at night. And he can settle down with a nice girl and take over the farm; he don't even need to wait for her to die. She keeps bringing up this girl named Clara. Me and Dusty used to put worms down her dress when we was kids. Dusty's mom wants him to marry her, and I gather Clara's interested, too.
She's so happy Dusty's home that she draws him a bath. I can't even remember the last time I had a bath, so I hop in first when no one's looking, getting the water before Dusty mucks it up. Dusty sits next to the tub while I soak off the months of gunk and grime. He looks longingly at the water and me, and admits he has no interest in marrying Clara, the girl we tormented all those years ago, but that he wouldn't mind sticking around the farm a while longer.
"I ain't stickin' around," I say.
"Well, now, you don't have to, but I wish you would," he says. The dirt freed from my skin floats on the surface of the bathwater. Dusty sticks his fingers in the water and swirls it around.
His mama sends us out to fetch a chicken for dinner. I say she should do it herself, but Dusty drags me outside and I watch him scoop up a chicken that gets too close. He twists its neck until its bony feet stop flailing in the air. He hands the chicken to me and tells me to start plucking; he's going to feed the ones he didn't kill. So I start plucking, one feather at a time.
"This is woman's work!" I say, throwing the dead bird back at Dusty.
She's trying to turn him into a farmer, Dusty's mom is, but we're outlaws, me and him, and always have been. She used to cry every time Dusty and I got into trouble when we was boys, but me and him was just answering our callings. She forbade him to see me back then, not that that ever stopped us. She feeds me good now, so much stew and bread that it feels sinful, but I can tell she'd rather I warn't around. She won't kick me out, though, afeard I'll take Dusty with me if she does.
But I hear them talking about it, and I know I gotta convince Dusty otherwise, before he gets all domesticated-like.
"What are we doing here?" I complain to him. "I don't wanna do this no more."
At this moment, what I don't want to do is to be milking cows before the sun is even up. Dusty shakes me pretty hard to wake me in the morning. I didn't ask for no bed, nor ain't it my fault a bed is more comfortable than the ground. And I never got kicked by no cow before coming back here, neither. When they're full of milk, they's supposed to be uncomfortable, so if I'm milking them and making them feel better, what do they kick me for?
"We got no place else to go," Dusty says.
"That never stopped us before. You don't want to be tied down somewheres."
"I'm thinking of stickin' around." He's finally out with it. "Mama needs lookin' after. And she can pay one less farmhand with me around."
"Now looky here, she's turning you against me!" I accuse him. "She wants you to marry that stupid girl!" I yank hard on an utter, too hard, and get a groan from the cow.
"I don't want to marry no girl," he says. "I only want you to stick with me."
"This ain't no way to live," I say, gesturing toward the open end of the barn where you can see the rising sun behind the farmhouse and the gardens. "We was living real lives before, and I aim to get back to it. And you're comin' with me."
I kick over my milk bucket. It warn't a quarter full but the contents spill out anyway. I huff out of the barn to gather my things, leaving Dusty behind. But I know he'll follow. His mama cries when we head out, and he cries some, too. I'll chide him for that later.
* * *
Now everybody's dead, and that includes the lynch mob that was after us. I recognize some of the faces that had yelled at me before, eyes now looking up at me wide and lifeless, skin blistering in the sun, blood-soaked shirts topped with dust and flies. Last time I saw them their eyes were full of fire. The sheriff is over there, the ex-sheriff, now the dead sheriff. Maybe he talked them into this.
The sheriff had it out for me, of that I'm sure. But it warn't me who squealed on him for sleeping with the preacher's wife. We busted in on him with her, yes, but he bought us off to keep us quiet and we honored the deal. It warn't our fault everyone found out anyways and ran him out of town. The preacher packed up and left, too, but he headed in the opposite direction, from what I heard.
Dusty's down there, the poor fool. It might've been him after all who told on the sheriff, now that I think about it. But if so, I don't know why. Dusty put up a good fight today, sneaking up on foot; they didn't hear him until he was breathing down their necks. He just about pulled it off, too, getting everybody, but not before they got him, too. He crawled towards me, to my horse, and grabbed the stirrup.
"Help me, Dusty," I said. "Get off your sorry ass and cut me loose!"
But he was too weak to stand. He lost his grip of the stirrup and his arm thumped to the ground. Looking up at me he said, "Sorry." But the good Lord only allowed him one last breath. Sorry for bungling the rescue, I figure he meant. Well, I'm sorry, too.
Sorry because I will most surely hang to death this time, from this tree, miles from civilization, feet dangling two feet above the ground. They had me tied up, sitting on a horse, and they was about ready to whip its ass out from under me when Dusty showed up.
But instead we sat there, the horse and me, all afternoon, till the horse got thirsty or hungry, or just plain bored, and pulled out from under me, and trotted away.