The whiskey stung going down. Sheriff Houghton coughed back the cheap swill and took in a deep breath through his nostrils, taking in the scents of Old Delilah’s saloon. That one sniff carried with it the musty memories of liquor, twice chewed tobacco, and the unmistakable truth that it had been weeks since the bartender before him had seen a bar of soap. He quickly rejected the breath, pushing it out from his mouth with great force and slamming his empty glass onto the table.
“You’re doin’ nobody favors here, Kipp.” The words came out in a drawl croak, still recovering from the whiskey’s hard punch to his throat.
On the other side of the bar, Kipp poured another stream of the fiery potion into Houghton’s glass. He smiled with his mouth, but his eyes ran cold. He poured the man another drink. “You got that right. I ain’t doing favors for nobody, cuz I ain’t hidin’ that boy on your poster, Sheriff. Never seen ‘em, don’t know ‘em, and he ain’t my business.”
The sheriff grasped his glass tentatively, but did not drink. He stared down into the swirling golden liquid as he contemplated the barman’s lie. He knew Kipp to be an honest man who paid his fines and did his time in the Sunday pew, yet Houghton knew there was a history between Kipp and the boy’s mother, Susie. For him to say he had never known the boy was a bald-faced lie. If this man were hiding the boy, then it was only a matter of time before he would break. “Alright.” Houghton said. He threw up his hands in surrender. “You don’t know ‘em. He wasn’t here.”
Kipp lowered his defenses and relaxed his jaw. “Like I said.”
The room went silent for a time. The sky outside had gone black, the streets deserted. There was only one other man in the building, seated at the farthest table from the bar. Kipp had only just now noticed him, due to his lack of movement and the tan duster he wore, which acted as camouflage in the dusty saloon. “Last call!” Kipp shouted across the room. “Last call, Fella!” When the man showed no signs of life, Kipp walked over to him and placed an empty glass near his nose, checking for breath. He examined the fog on the glass carefully, then cleared the man’s table and left him to continue his rest.
As he returned to the bar to clean the glass, he glanced at the sheriff again and grumbled. “What’s there such a price on that kid for anyhow? He ain’t more than ten or so.”
Houghton returned his hands to his full whisky glass. His right eyebrow curled. “How is it you know he’s ten, iff’n you don’t know the boy, Kipp?”
Kipp, now back behind the bar, brushed the notion away with a rag he was using to polish the glass. “Oh now, Sheriff, I was just lookin’ at that great doodle you’d done of ‘em. I was just supposin’ he was young from it.”
Houghton, still unconvinced, pushed his glass away and sat up straight onto his barstool with crossed arms. “You were supposin’?”
“Yessir. I was supposin’,” Kipp defended. “And supposin’ he’s that young, wouldn’t you suppose he’s got some folks? They’d sure know his whereabout’s wouldn’t they.”
Houghton leaned forward, resting his elbows on the bar counter top. “That’s an awful lot of supposin’ on a kid you don’t know, that you’ve never seen, that’s none of your business.”
There was a tumbleweed silence as the men examined one another with grave suspicion. Houghton knew Kipp, and he’d all but decided on trusting him, but he couldn’t help but wonder. An anxious sweat broke out over his face. Behind that unwashed beard, those lazy grey eyes, and the gap-toothed smile, could there be a man capable of harboring a fugitive?
The sleeper in the corner broke Houghton’s thoughts short with an unconscious chortle as he broke wind. The sound filled the otherwise empty space, and the smell was enough to make even Kipp, in his unwashed glory, turn up his nose. The two men shifted to glance at him, then returned to one another, the tension broken with a shared smirk.
“I worry for his mama is all.” Kipp said, putting the glass away. “Must be worried to high heaven if she don’t know where he is.”
This sentiment amused Houghton. He wasn’t sure if this comment confirmed he knew Susie or if it secured his innocence. He choked down his still full glass, voicing his distain for the beverage with a breathy gasp. He stood and brushed his pant legs, returning his hat to his head and offering Kipp a well folded bill for his trouble, which he declined with the wave of a calloused hand as he poured himself a whiskey.
“On the house, Sheriff. Here’s hopin’ you get your man.” Kipp raised his glass in a toast to Sheriff Houghton, with a smile that cast even more suspicion.
Houghton still had one more card left to play. He decided that if he told Kipp enough of what the boy had done, perhaps he could elicit a confession of some kind. He didn’t tell him all of it. Truth be told, so much of it didn’t make sense. All that blood on her with no open wounds, the bullets found laying in the dirt near the body. The sobbing boy who was there one minute and gone the next. He was beginning to think it was all just the heat. That he had imagined it all. He wouldn’t tell Kipp everything. Just what he needed to know.
“I wouldn’t worry much for his mama now. She won’t be missin’ him much, being as she’s dead. Her blood’s all over the kid, if you believe the stories.” Kipp’s eyes widened, his face pale. After a careful study of the bartender’s stunned expression, Houghton decided that it was best to simply end the evening and let his words stew. He would return tomorrow and see if Kipp was ready to talk . “Like I said, you’re doin’ nobody favors if you know where he is.”
With that, the Sheriff adjusted the hat on his head and turned to leave.
Kipp stood still a moment after the saloon door swung closed. He wanted to move but couldn’t. He wanted to shout, to curse his grief at anyone who would listen. Somehow he had a feeling that his last lone patron in the corner wouldn’t wake if he did. Still he just stood motionless. What in the Sam Hill have you gotten yourself into now, Kipp? What the hell has you done? What has HE done?
He’d always thought of himself as a good man, an honest man, and yet here he was, lying to the law, implicating himself. And for what? Some kid. Not just some kid. Susie’s Kid. Susie. She was dead now, gone. He’d never told her, but she was the closest thing he would ever have to a daughter. He had wanted to cry, to break down when Houghton had said the words. Still, he protected the child. That is what Susie would have wanted, even if the child had been her undoing.
After several attempts to awaken the man in the corner, Kipp decided that the man was nothing to bother with and would likely see himself out when he woke. He checked the body again for signs of life and locked up his establishment, casting a cautious glance outside to ensure that Sheriff Houghton had gone. He stood in the room a moment, taking in the scent of dust, wood, and mildew.
His shock had been simmering, and now it had come to a slow rolling boil. Anger filtered through all of his thoughts, clouding them. He walked behind the bar to a small storage room and slammed his clenched fist down on a mildewed whiskey barrel. He spoke to the air. “Now you wanna tell me what you done that has Mr. Law barking at my door at all hours, or should I ask ‘em back here to tell me his own damn self?”
From inside the barrel came a shuffle and a knock. The lid tumbled off and a tuft of ash blonde hair rose up from the inside, followed by a pair of bight blue eyes and a soot covered face wearing a scolded expression. It was as if he had been caught drinking the communion wine and had come to seek his penance. His body trembled and his eyes swelled. He opened his mouth a bit, but no words came.
“I’m waitin’.” Kipp barked. He tapped his foot impatiently. “Why you wanted, kid?” His voice rose with urgency. He shook the paper in the child’s face. “You kilt your momma?” Did you kilt Susie? My Susie? Is that her blood on your trousers? You kilt yer momma, and then you come here and ask me to hide you. Is that it? You gonna have a go at me too?” His voice was now a rolling thunder that filled the full saloon. He imagined it would wake the man in the bar, but figured it would likely not matter much what a lazy drunkard heard.
“I ain’t kilt my momma.” The boy mumbled.
Kipp put a hand to his ear. “Eh?” He’d heard well enough. He just wanted to hear it again.
“I said I ain’t kilt my mama!” The boy’s voice cracked and warbled, he wiped away a variety of fluids from his face with his soiled sleeve. Kipp gestured to him to continue, eyes wide with impatience.
“I was too late to help her. She was gone dead when I got there” The words were coming out, but they were muffled and broken. He stopped a moment and sobbed into his filthy hands, dirt mixing with the salty water and stinging his raw cheeks. “Real dead.” He said. “Can’t be helped kind. There was no going back.” Kipp allowed the boy a moment to continue his tears. He kept repeating that last part. “No going back.” It was a mantra to him, keeping him in his grief. “No going back.”
Kipp fought back the urge to embrace the child. He tried not to recall the day his own mother died, when the fever took her and left him with nothing at just fourteen years old. He didn’t want the kid to see his sympathy, but it was there. He knew this child couldn’t have killed his mother. There wasn’t any way this whimpering mess of a boy could do that to anyone.
“Then why you hidin’? Kipp asked, finally. “If you ain’t done it, then go to Houghton and tell ‘em true. You ain’t done it. I believe you. He’ll believe you. Hell, He believed me, and I’m the worst damned liar this side of the Mississippi.” Kipp laughed a little, but the boy didn’t.
There was a still darkness in the boy’s eyes. His grieving abated for now. He was still inside the barrel, but standing erect in it, stone still. There was fear in him. Real fear. The kind that you can’t shake.
“I ain’t hidin’ from the law.” He said. There was a tone to it, an ominous one. He said the rest with his eyes, burrowing them into Kipp with gritted teeth. The truth of it hung in the air, haunting them both. The boy hadn’t killed sweet Susie, but whoever had certainly wasn’t going to leave loose ends.
Before further explanation could come, the creak of boots on floor boards sent the boy back into his whiskey barrel. Kip covered the barrel and turned around to find himself eye to eye with the darkened well of a pistol barrel. Even more startling than the gun itself was the man at the other end. Standing at his full height, with his eyes wide open, the man appeared much more of a threat than he did earlier, when Kipp had checked his vitals and declared him harmless. “Now, I thought you was sleepin’?” Kipp choked.
They called him “The Possum”. Only once Kipp had heard of him before and it was never told whether the man who stood before him was an outlaw, a bounty man, or a murderer. The only consistency amongst all the rumors was that the Possum only ever wanted them dead and never alive. It was said that he never flinched at the thought of killing anyone, even a woman or a child. His namesake was earned by his reputation to “play dead” until the time was right, hidden in plain sight. Sometimes he was a dead body, or an unconscious man you just stepped over in brawl, and sometimes he was just a drunk, huddled in a corner, so fast asleep that one might think he was dead.You never called on the Possum if you wanted your money back. You called him when you were done waiting.
“All right, son. Common out where I can’t see ya or I kill ‘em!” The Possum spat as he shouted to the room. His word’s came out in raspy broken spurts as he struggled to keep a piece of tobacco lodged in his cheek. “We can do this easy or hard, kid! Your mama’s time was up! She shoulda paid the man what he was owed, and you, well you was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now I don’t know how you done the thing with the bullets, or how you got away like you did, but I got yah now. I can’t let you be. Wouldn’t be responsible, lettin’ a motherless little bastard run around. Better yah get shot quick than starve to death in the heat.”
Kipp placed a shaking hand over the barrel of the gun and met eyes with the man. “He’s with me now, cousin. We ain’t gonna say a word. You can rest assured he’s safe and silent.” He thought perhaps a friendly tongue would calm the man, talk his finger away from the trigger.
He thought wrong.
“Ain’t your cousin.” The man replied. He fired a shot into Kipp’s palm. The ensuing explosion surprised Kipp as a thunder clap filled the room and specks of blood splattered his vision. Kipp look down at his ruined hand and saw a blackened tattoo around a stone sized hole, now filling up with blood. Kipp fell to his knees on the hard floor and snapped his eyes shut, praying that if he closed them tight enough, he might disappear. The Possum’s gun was now pressed to the bartender’s head. “The boy!” The Possum shouted.
Kipp, his eyes still closed tight, pointed shakily with his good hand in the direction of the whiskey barrel. He felt the Possum’s pistol moved away from his skin. Warm liquid trailed down his leg.
Kipp could hear the struggle, the barrel opening, the muffled sounds of such a small and helpless body fighting against the strength and muscle of a full grown man. The air stung his nostrils with the scent of blood and sweat. The floor was hard beneath him as he stayed there, crouched, eyes closed, waiting for it to end.
The gun fired again, and the room went cold and still. It smelled of lighting before a storm. All of the sounds simply stopped. There was no struggle anymore, no crying or shouting.
Kipp opened his eyes.
Time was still. The bullet had stopped, suspended into mid air. Kipp and the boy remained in motion, while everything else appeared stagnant. The boy was backed up against the barrel, a bullet within an inch of his red and watery nose. Kipp watched, stunned, as the boy reached a shaking hand towards the bullet, picked it carefully with his thumb and index finger, and turned it on its axis to face his assassin. The boy gave a deliberate wave of his right hand and the bullet continued on its new course, punching a hole into the Possum’s stomach.
The gunman fell, bleeding and dropped his weapon. He coughed and sputtered, unsure of how he had come to be shot. The boy kicked the Possum’s gun into the corner of the room and came to stand over the injured man. He made a clockwise gesture with his index finger over the man’s stomach. The Possum jerked spasmodically on the floor, his body cracking and crumping in a series of sharp spurts coughs and moans. Then he was still. What would have been an agonizingly long ordeal of bleeding out and waiting for death had been condensed into 10 short seconds. Kipp had been wrong about the boy. He did have it in him to kill.
The boy came to crouch down beside Kip. “Gimme your hand.” He said. Kipp hesitated. He wasn’t sure if he could trust the boy, or if he was even a boy at all. “I ain’t gonna hurt ya.” He said impatiently.
Kipp held out his disfigured hand and the child examined it before pointing his index finger at the wound. This time, the boy’s hand motion was counter-clockwise. Kipps hand itched and tingled with the bites of a thousand mosquitos as the wound sealed itself. When the boy finished, the hand was covered in blood, but otherwise looked and felt as normal as it did an hour ago. The boy gave a slight grin, reminding Kipp once again that this was Susie’s child.
Kipp reached down and picked up the bullet that had passed through his hand. He placed the blood soaked souvenir into his pocket and turned to thank the boy, but he and the body were gone.