The Drifter

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Ariel Johnson took a long pull from her coffee cup, a drag on her roll-your-own, one last deep breath, and tried to explain. “Dad, you keep saying you can’t understand why Garrett didn’t hang around the Territory to defend himself. You wouldn’t run, not even from a charge like that.” She shuddered, just thinking about it. “And neither would my big brother, not normally.”

She didn’t bother to add that the word normally didn’t exactly apply to this situation. One of Garrett’s best friends was a Pinkerton detective who’d told him,

“Cowboy, I’ve been chasing outlaws in this part of the country for more than ten years now, and I’m telling you, the accusation alone has you two thirds of the way to prison. No man that’s ever gone to trial in this Territory has ever beat it, not once, no matter how long after the fact before the charges were laid. You’re in serious trouble”.

Serious trouble that could land him in the Territorial Prison at Deer Lodge.

No, that wouldn’t help with Pops Johnson, so Ariel just gave him the other half of the truth. “He’d have fought it here, but the trial would have gone down right here, right down the street at the local Courthouse. It would have been in all the papers–and he didn’t figure you and Mom needed to have all the nosy old gossips in town nattering about your son behind your backs. He hit the trail for your sakes.”

“Hngh.” The old man said no more than that, but he lightened up. Ariel knew; she could read her father as easily and surely as she could read the day’s weather in the morning sky. “You ’bout done with that coffee, LIttle One? I got that colt of Dapple’s to show you.”

Change of topic; the subject was closed. Good enough for now.

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My new job wasn’t bad. Of course, for a guy who’s a drifter at heart and watching his backtrail for both lawmen and vengeful ex-inlaws, new is a relative term. The itch to move along usually started squirming my insides after two, maybe three weeks in any one place. I’d been busting broncs on the PS nigh on five weeks now. Still hadn’t felt the need to roll my gear and mosey on, not yet.

Which was downright awesome.

Randy, the strawboss, grinned when he’d counted out my thirty in silver. “You’re one helluva bronc fighter, Johnson. You figger on comin’ back once this is blown?”

At the PS , they understood drifters. Something about cowboys who thought a good way to make a living was by climbing up on crop-eared outlaw range horses and having the blindfold pulled, they tended not to hang around for too many seasons. But like I said, I wasn’t feelin’ the itch, not yet, so I told him, “Iffen you’ll have me back.”

He jist grinned a little wider and watched as I spurred my Roman nosed roan toward town.

Thing is, money don’t burn a hole in my pocket the way it seems to do with most cowboys. I’m really what you might call kind of conservative. I don’t drink that much, not so’s I fergit where the Hell I’m at or who the Hell I’m with, anyway. I always know how much is in my poke, at least to the nearest dollar.

I always know to keep my mouth shut about the fact I ain’t broke, too. Broke that law, once. The bunch that jumped me broke three of my ribs before it was all said and done. The hanging judge let me off, said they was riffraff anyway, good riddance and all, but it still cost me every penny I had.

You know, fer the sawbones to patch me up, and the blasted judge made me pay fer the caskets, too.

“Jist be happy you ain’t hangin’ for murder, son,” he’d advised me, pausing to hawk a gob into that brass spittoon he kept beside the bench, “and don’t be givin’ me no contempt of court guff ’bout them caskets. I could fine you that much jist fer litterin’, considerin’ the sort of trash you left lyin’ around there on the street.”

I’m still trying to figger out how to hang that danged judge and git away with it.

Bad news at the telegraph office.

“Garrett,” Ariel’s message said, “Shawna showed up at your place. Pestered Mary.”

That was all, but it was more than enough. I had me a war to fight, here and now.

Lawyer Donlan sent the letter. He didn’t much like that I made him use my wording, not his. Tried to tell me he was the lawyer and I wasn’t. I pointed out he was taking my money, it was my legal danger, and I’d appreciate a bit of cooperation. That might not have convinced him, but he was late on his land payment and needed my two silver dollars somethin’ fierce.

A little fact he didn’t know I knew, of course.

My daughter, Shawna, had pressured my wife. Well, Hell, Mary was still my wife at the time; the divorce papers weren’t final yet. She’d demanded that Mary tell her where that no-good father of hers–that would be me–was hiding out these days, the lily-livered cross between a coyote and a yellow bellied sapsucker. Sweet Mary told her nothing, naturally.

And naturally I was steamed. Accuse me, that’s one thing. Hassle somebody I care about, the war is on.

Shawna had also told her former stepmother that she demanded a face to face meeting with me and “had a few things she wanted to say” to me.

Fine.

The letter was straight to the point:

Dear Shawna,

Your father, Garrett Johnson, has retained me as his attorney simply to make sure things remain civil in the meeting you have requested. He is agreeable to meet with you at the Old Mill in Cheyenne, a neutral site located roughly halfway between your home and his present place of employment.

You have stated that you have “a few things to say to him”, and he wants you to know that he has a few things to say to you as well. To ensure civility, he requires adherence to the following rules:

1. You are welcome to bring any two companions of your choice to the Old Mill to ensure your personal safety, as long as no companion is related to you by blood.

2. No firearms or edged weapons allowed in the building.

3. He is willing to pay travel expenses for you and your companions.

4. Each party must be accorded time enough to clearly state whatever needs to be said.

5. No insults, no swearing, and no chewing tobacco. Smoking is allowed.

Please reply at your early convenience.

Jedediah Donlan, Attorney at Law

Well, preacher, you pretty much know the rest. Shawna never did take me up on that offer, and she never told the lawdogs they could start looking for me in Cheyenne, either. My best guess? She and the rest of the clan, all those inbred ex-inlaws, hadn’t known what to do when the mangy, cowardly coyote who’d run from their accusations with his tail between his legs had suddenly turned–and turned out to be a snarling daddy wolf in kill mode.

One thing I learned, studying Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. You pick yer battleground; you don’t let yer enemy do it.

Now, I know it’s hard enough for you, having me ask for yer daughter’s hand in marriage, what with me having been widowed once and divorced into the bargain. But you know as well as I do, as much as the dark underbelly of the West ain’t even close to what they write in them dime novels, I did not do what I was accused of doing. I may be a drifter, but …our whole family is blond and blue eyed, all but my grandson.

When that boy come out lookin’ the spitting image of Sitting Bull, you know it wasn’t me that impregnated my daughter.

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