issue twenty
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(2575 words)
Hall Jameson
Swagger

       Sam's feet ached from cowboy boots not yet broken in. She limped down Main Street, trying to maintain her typical, self-assured swagger, but she could feel blisters forming on the balls of her feet.

She hobbled to the fence and pulled off her boot. The dog on the opposite side hurled himself against the fence, attacking the wood and wire angrily, trying to get to her -- the trespasser! Sam jumped to her feet, holding her freed boot. The dog's gaze locked on the boot, and that's when Sam first saw it: the spark.

Dropping the boot, Sam searched the tall weeds until she found a stick. She held it up in offering. At first, he growled, lips curling, but she spoke in singsong tones, and the dog tilted his head. Sam saw it again -- a light in his eye; a puppy glimmer. Then, his tail began to wag. She'd always wanted a dog! She would call him Roland.

Roland was a scrappy mongrel, one ear torn, a gray, hollow socket where his right eye should be, his black nose boasting a jagged white scar. She heaved the stick and he raced after it, dragging it back to a gap in the fence. He snarled when she reached for it, but she knew he didn't mean it, because the spark was there. She threw the stick repeatedly, and Roland raced after it.

A whistle and an angry shout interrupted them.
       
A man emerged from the shack at the far end of the yard and grabbed Roland roughly by the collar. He picked up the stick Sam had thrown, and struck the dog. Roland yelped.

"Stop that! Leave him alone!" Sam yelled. The man jumped back, surprised. He opened his mouth to shout back, but paused when he saw her.

His eyes tracked to her hat, her vest, her long suede jacket, her cowboy boots. They rested a long time on her hip, where her weapon bulged under her jacket. Eyes still on Sam, he issued another lash to Roland's hindquarters, tentative, more cursory than cruel. Then he dragged the dog inside the tattered shack and slammed the plywood door.

Her head began to throb and she threw her boot at the fence. She would rescue that dog from the evil man -- the Junkyard Bastard. Roland belonged with her, in Old Boot, Montana. He was a sheriff's dog.

She smiled and the pain in her head eased as she thought about Old Boot, an abandoned mining town tucked in the mountains. Unlike Industry, it was a quiet, safe place; an authentic western settlement. In photographs, the buildings were dilapidated, false fronts warped and jagged, the main street a dusty track. She'd feel right at home there, trucking down that street with her fine-tuned Industry strut. In Old Boot, you didn't have to mail-order your Stetson; it waited for you on the fencepost at the edge of your drive.


**


       Two weeks later, Sam swaggered down Main Street, chin high, jaw set, hat cocked to the side, steady on her feet, her boots now broken in. As always, she wore her gun slung low on her hip, concealed by the long suede jacket. Her gun knocked on her hipbone down Main Street as she followed the wagon wheel ruts covered by asphalt; but she knew they were there.

She patrolled the town of Industry every evening, starting at the storage units. At dusk, they took on their genuine form: stables constructed of aging planks, the cowboy's rides concealed by sturdy wooden doors. From there she wandered between Industry's brothel and the mercantile across the street. In the distance, skyscrapers pierced the darkening sky. Sam frowned and rubbed her eyes, relieved when the buildings were replaced by the familiar swell of mountains.

At the end of Industry's Main Street, a plank and chicken-wire fence surrounded an overgrown lot. Heaps of rusted metal, soggy cardboard boxes, and other chunks of debris filled the yard. Roland peered at her from between the slats of the fence. A low growl rumbled in his throat and a tangle of drool escaped over the edge of his curled lip when he saw her. She peeled a poster from the telephone pole next to the fence. On it was a quick sketch of her with the message:

WANTED. DEAD OR ALIVE. SAM.

She thought about crumpling it up and letting it float away. She didn't merit a Wanted poster -- she was the sheriff, not an outlaw -- but instead, she folded it and tucked it into her vest. The poster was an invitation from her old friend Carlton. She would catch him on her way out of town. The saloon was always her last stop.

Roland licked her hand through the slats of the fence. He had a new wound above his vacant socket, fresh and pink.

Save me. Save me, Sam, his blue eye pleaded.

"I will, boy. Very soon, okay?" The wound infuriated her, and prompted a familiar, strumming pain in her left temple. "I'll get you out of there." She scanned the wooden fence laced with chicken wire. It wouldn't be easy. The fence was sturdier than it appeared, and the Junkyard Bastard was always watching.

Today, he sat in a ratty armchair nudged up against the front of his shack, an old patio umbrella propped open over him. He wore a filthy T-shirt beneath suspenders, his round belly threatening to tear out the tough stitching. Greasy hair sprouted from the edges of a grimy ball cap. He watched Sam warily. They'd come to an understanding of sorts. She tapped the bulge on her hip. He returned the greeting by slowly extending the middle finger of his right hand and thrusting it in her direction.

She sat with Roland until the Junkyard Bastard finished his beer and disappeared inside the shack.

"I'll be back later tonight, boy," she whispered to Roland. "You're a good dog."


**


       "Hey there, Sheriff. You're runnin' a little behind tonight," a friendly voice said from the alley.

"Yeah, I know. I stayed with Roland a little longer than usual. He has a fresh gash on his head. I'm sure The Bastard did it." Sam balled her fists.

"Prob'ly. Whatcha got there?" Carlton nodded to the book tucked under her arm.

"Oh, I almost forgot. I brought this for you. It's called, The Gunslinger."

Carlton took the book and smiled, whistling through the gap where his left incisor used to be. "That's real nice, Sam. Thanks!"

"You're welcome. I hope you like it."

"I'm sure I will, long as it's not scary. I'm not into that scary shit. I'm a romantic." He placed a weathered hand over his heart. "Just like you, darlin'."

"Yeah, well this romantic darlin' is thirsty. I believe you left me this invitation at the other end of town." She slapped the wanted poster on the bar -- a warped board propped up on cinder blocks next to Carlton's cardboard shelter.

Carlton was Industry's barkeep, and the owner of the Diamond Saloon. Every night, they drank hot coffee and, on occasion, cheap whiskey. They discussed books, dogs, and Sam's plans to relocate to Old Boot.

"Glad you got my invite." He poured coffee from an old camping kettle into a cracked mug.

"You got anything stronger?"

Carlton's eyebrows shot up. He scratched his head. "Well, I just might, in the back." He disappeared into his cardboard shelter and returned with a bottle half-full of amber liquid.

"How's this? A little in your coffee?"

"Yes, please," Sam said. "Thank you. Just enough to take the edge off. I'm feeling jumpy, plus I've got a little headache."

"How come you're jumpy?"

"Because it's happening tonight, remember?"

"You're getting Roland out?"

"Yep. I have the wire cutters and a crowbar, and I've already been to the fence, so the Bastard thinks I'm done for the night. I figure I'll creep back up there just before dawn, get to work on the fence, pull Roland out, and we can be on the road to Old Boot before The Bastard knows what hit him. It's not like he's gonna miss the dog. He certainly doesn't deserve him!"

"I agree, Sam," Carlton said. "And I'll be here for you. Whatever you need."

"Why do you sound so sad, Carl? You should be happy for me! I'm going to rescue my dog! Then we're going to Old Boot!"

"I just don't want to see anything bad happen to you, Sheriff. You're my gal, my favorite cowgirl."

"Everything's gonna be fine. I can't wait to get Roland out of there and see him running free and easy in Old Boot! We're gonna be so happy there, the three of us." She slurped her coffee and smiled. "Right, Boss?"

"Right, Sheriff," Carlton agreed. "You bet."

"To Old Boot!" Sam gushed, raising her mug.

"To Old Boot," Carlton echoed, a somber look in his eye.


**


       3 a.m., Industry. Sam and Carlton stood in the dark, side-by-side, at the head of Main Street. They walked, in stride, to the edge of town. The only sound: the crack of their boots on the pavement. It echoed off the metal buildings on either side of them -- the stable, the hotel, and the mercantile.

Roland sat in the dark near the fence. He snarled happily and wagged his tail when he saw Sam. She shushed him gently, scratching his nose through the fence.

"Good Boy! Keep quiet now. You'll be out of there in a just a sec," she whispered. She handed the wire cutters to Carlton. He went to work on the chicken wire, while she yanked at the wooden slats. Gradually, a jagged hole opened up in the fence.

She looked at Carlton and smiled. "We did it!" she whispered. Then to Roland, "Come,boy. Come on!" The dog backed away, whining. Sam scrambled through the opening and Roland began to growl, low and even.

"It's okay, boy," Sam murmured.

"Be careful, Sheriff!" Carlton whispered. He started through the hole, swearing as his shirt caught on the sharp wire.

Suddenly, Roland issued a loud bark, and ran off into the dark.

"Roland, no!" Sam shouted, and started after him. "Come back!"

"Sam, wait!" Carlton reached for her. He caught her heel and she stumbled, falling to the ground.

She turned on him. "What the hell are you doing? I need to get Roland!"

"What the hell am I doing? What are you doing? You're gonna get yourself hurt!"

"No, I'm--" Sam started, but she was cut off by a loud crack. Carlton dropped on top of her.

"What the hell was that?" she gasped. "Get off me Carlton! You're heavy."

Carlton did not move. Sam squirmed out from beneath him. "Carlton?"

There was no answer. "Carlton! Oh my Godů" she squeaked. Another crack rang out, followed by a piercing yelp.

"Roland?" Sam sprang to her feet. She leaned over and shook Carlton's slumped body, but he lay motionless. She took a shaky breath, flipped back the front of her jacket, and drew her weapon. A stout form materialized in the thickening mist. A smaller form, Roland, limped toward her from the shadows.

"Roland! Here, boy! Here, boy! Come!" Her right hand gripping her weapon, she offered her left hand to the approaching dog. There was another crack, and Roland yelped, his haunches collapsing beneath him. The dog pulled himself up and hobbled off into the darkness toward the fence.

Something tore through her left shoulder. She fired, squeezing the trigger repeatedly, aiming at the shadowy figure. Finally, the form dropped and did not move.

Sam sank to her knees and moaned. Fire burned in her shoulder. Her head throbbed. A dog barked in the distance. Carlton's voice called to her. A dark mist filled the space between the shadows. It filled her eyes, her head, her lungs, until she could no longer see. She welcomed the darkness. Her dog and her friend were in there somewhere.

"My dog... my dog..." she whispered into the darkness.


**


       Sam woke to a rhythmic beeping. She opened her eyes and blinked. She lay in a bed in a bright room. Strange machines surrounded her, the source of the beeping. Her head ached. She sat up and the room began to spin.

"I was hoping to see you again," a man in a white coat remarked, "but not in the emergency room with a gunshot wound." He eased her down onto the bed. "I'm Dr. Kingston, Sam. We've been trying to contact you for weeks. You never returned our calls. But now you're here, and we can fight this thing. With proper treatment and rest, you have an excellent chance. Even after being shot."

Sam frowned at him. "I was shot? Carlton? What happened to him? Is he okay? My dog, Roland... Where's my dog?"

"Just relax now, you need rest. The tumor was causing hallucinations. They found you wandering around the industrial section early this morning, badly injured. A homeless man was with you when the ambulance arrived. Maybe this man was Carlton?"

"Carlton! Junkyard Bastard!" Sam slurred. "My dog?"

"Yes, I think there was a dog," the doctor said. "A stray, in rough shape, malnourished and vicious, covered in blood -- yours, I'm guessing. He went after the EMT's when they tried to work on you. Animal rescue probably captured him and put him down."

"No! Roland's a good dog!" Sam cried. Her head felt thick, her vision blurry. The beeping of the heart monitor sped up and the doctor put a gentle hand on her forearm.

"You need to rest now, Sam. You've been through a lot. The surgery went well, and I was able to remove most of the tumor, but you've got a long road ahead of you."

"Carlton. Roland..." Sam whimpered.

The doctor's brow furrowed. "I'll give you something to help you rest. That's the best thing for you right now."

"Roland? Come here, Boy! That's a good dog!" She slurred into her pillow as she drifted back into the darkness.


**


       9 a.m., Old Boot, Montana. Sam's boots kicked up the dust of Main Street. The long street curved around the bend and disappeared into the corral at the far end of town. Her dog, Roland, trotted next to her. He looked up at her with his one blue eye, tongue lolling happily from the side of his mouth.

"Good dog!" she said. She scanned the livery, the mercantile, and the hotel with a sharp sheriff's eye. All was quiet in Old Boot today. Perfect. She breathed in the crisp mountain air and smiled. There were no headaches in Old Boot.        

A paper, pegged to the fence post outside the stable, ruffled in the breeze, catching her eye. On the poster was a sketch of her face drawn in black pen. It read:

WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE: SAM!

"Doesn't he know by now that I'm the sheriff, and not an outlaw?" she said as she tore off the poster.

The dog gave an affirmative yip.

"I know, I know. I'm the Caretaker. But I prefer Sheriff, you picky old mutt." She scratched behind his ears.

She crossed the street, heading toward the saloon, gun bumping her hipbone, her black Stetson cocked back on her head -- her Old Boot swagger perfected. She looked at the crooked false-fronts and old wood of her town and grinned. She'd made it.




*

M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Hall Jameson. All rights reserved.