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Bedtime Kids

“Howdy, little pardner, are you lost?”

The man’s voice comes out of nowhere in the buzz of the crowd. It scares me.

His big face comes too close. Scruffy gray beard. Squinty eyes. A yellow-teeth smile. Something brown is stuck between two of them near the corner of his mouth. His breath stinks. Like a skunk that’s been dead for a long time. But not as bad as when Dad ran over one. The smell stayed with us until the tires finally scraped it all off onto the road.

My own eyes get squinty as I search for Dad. He was just here. We were standing at the Pony Express statue, and he was reading one of the signs next to it, and I walked along the rope fence, waiting for him to finish reading. Again.

I… walked away…

Dad said to never walk away. But if I did, find a policeman and tell him—or her—I was lost.

A tap on my shoulder. “Let’s get unlost.” The squinty-eyed, yellow-toothed man wears an ugly jacket. It’s that yucky color of spicy mustard, the kind I tell Mom not to put on my ham sandwich. He reaches for my hand. Lots of black under his fingernails.

Stranger danger!

Run! Find a policeman.

I don’t see a blue uniform.

I don’t see Dad. He had on a red shirt with gray squiggles. He’d laughed and said I’d be able to see him easily if we got separated.

But I don’t see him.

Is Squinty Eyes still there?

Oh, no. He’s getting closer. Following me. His eyes even squinty-er. But no smile.

Hide.

I twist to the right, almost crashing into a lady with two girls a little older than me.

“Watch where you’re going, kid,” says the bigger one.

I spin around and speed up, almost tripping over my own boots, and my cowboy hat falls off. No time to pick it up.

Look back. Squinty-Eyes isn’t behind me. Is he going to “head me off at the pass” like they say in cowboy movies? What would the Lone Ranger do?

I slow down. I search:

Squinty Eyes? Can’t see him.

Dad? Can’t see him.

Policeman? Can’t see one.

Hiding place?

Yes!

A covered wagon. The long side of it is next to the wall. I slip in between. But can people see my boots even if I stand behind the wheel?

There’s a hole in the cloth cover. Maybe I can squeeze through it. I’m small. And nobody will see my feet if I’m inside the wagon.

I wiggle through. It only rips a little bit. I stay low. The whole wagon is empty. Hiding behind a barrel would’ve been even safer. I crawl to the opening in the back and raise up very, very slowly. I keep my head by the cloth part and peek out from the edge. I can see a lot of people, but they can’t see me. I hope.

I look for Dad’s red shirt. Lots of blues and blacks and whites and—red!

No, that man’s too fat to be Dad.

All those blue shirts and not one of them a policeman.

           Uh-oh—the yucky mustard jacket. And he’s holding my hat.

I duck down. Keep walking, mister. Don’t look in the wagon. Don’t look. Don't look.

I count to one hundred. At least, I think I do. I might have forgotten my seventies. Anyway, I count as far as I can think to count.

I dare a quick peek, then back down. No mustard jacket. I slide to the other side and peek out again.

He’s there! But I only see his back. He’s talking to somebody in front of him. The other person steps to the side. A short lady with glasses and she’s wearing a police uniform.

What if Squinty Eyes is pretending to be my dad? And he’s telling the police lady that I’m his kid? Then, he'll kidnap me, and I'll never find Dad. I'll never see Mom again.

But if I jump out now and tell her that guy's not my dad, will she believe me?

Move back to the side. Make sure she can’t see me. Got to think

Okay. I’ll go over there. Tell her the truth. If she tries to make me go with Squinty Eyes, I will run away. And I will scream, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” And I won’t stop until the whole cowboy museum is looking at me. And maybe then Dad will find me.

Deep breath. Look outside. The ugly mustard jacket and the blue police uniform are walking away.

Go.

I jump out of the covered wagon. A family walking toward it stops in surprise.

“Can I get in there, too?” the boy asks his dad.

I don’t wait to hear the answer. I run.

Follow the mustard jacket. Look for a red shirt. Is the police lady still with Squinty Eyes?

Yes.

I race up to the blue uniform. I tug on it. “I lost my dad. Can you help me?”

The lady smiles. Squinty Eyes waves my hat high above his head. He looks too happy. Don’t trust him.

The police lady asks. “ What’s your name?”

“Jaxon Sanders.”

“We’re very glad we found you, Jaxon.”

“That man is not my dad.” I give Squinty Eyes a mean look, as mean as the Rifleman when he’s protecting his boy.

“Of course, he’s not.”

She believes me! Will she arrest him?

Squinty Eyes doesn’t look scared of her. He just keeps waving the cowboy hat high above his head.

“And that’s my hat,” I tell the police lady.

Squinty Eyes hands it back to me.

The police lady smiles at him. “This is Cowboy Dan. He used to be a real cowboy. Now, he works at the museum, and he’s been helping your dad look for you.”

A real cowboy? Wow.

And I’d run away. From a good guy. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Squinty Eyes—I mean, Cowboy Dan—holds out his hand to shake. I grip his hand like Dad taught me. A man’s handshake.

A red shirt hurries toward me through the crowd.

March 20, 2024 16:25

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3 comments

Trudy Jas
18:06 Mar 24, 2024

Lovely story. Great child's POV And welcome to Reedsy. Look forward to reading more of your stories.

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Linda Sammaritan
19:00 Mar 24, 2024

Thank you. I haven't written JUST for fun in a long time!

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Trudy Jas
19:14 Mar 24, 2024

And the world has been poorer because of it.

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