The flaming twig briefly illuminated the bounty hunter’s craggy face as he used it to light his cigarette. Once again the bound figure sitting across the fire from him begged for his freedom.
“Please, you don’t have to do this. My family has money. I can pay you whatever you want.”
“You know what it says on your wanted poster?”
“How the hell should I know? I didn’t even know I was wanted ’til you showed up and arrested me. You could have at least waited and let me get my money’s worth from that girl.”
“Says dead or alive.” The bounty hunter said, ignoring his captive’s complaint.
“So?” The prisoner said, sulking.
“So if you don’t shut up, I may just decide to take the quieter option.”
The prisoner stayed quiet for almost a minute before he resumed his begging.
“I ain’t even done nothin’ wrong.”
“Ain’t for me to decide. That’s the jury’s job.”
“I don’t stand no kind of chance with a jury. Soon as they find out I rode with them boys, even for a little bit, they’re gonna’ be callin’ for my head.”
“Then I reckon you made your bed when you started ridin’ with ’em.”
“Hell, I didn’t know who they was at the time. Once I figured it out, I got away soon as I could.”
“Well, maybe if you tell the jury that, they’ll let you go if you testify against ’em.”
“Ain’t no way I’m doin’ that. The jury might hang me, but that ain’t nothin’ compared to what they’ll do to me.”
The sound of approaching hoofbeats drifted across the prairie and the prisoner jumped to his feet and tried to run. The bounty hunter yanked on the rope attached to his legs and he fell on his face in the dirt.
“Now where do you think you’re goin’?”
“Please. You gotta’ let me go. That’s them comin’ for me. I’d know the sound of that gimpy horse of Dave’s anywhere.”
“You sure about that kid?” The bounty hunter asked as he stood up and brushed the dust from his trousers. Without waiting for an answer, he checked the loads in his pistol.
“Yes! Let me go or they’ll kill me.”
“Just lay there in the dirt and let me take care of this.” The bounty hunter said, holstering his pistol.
As he did, three figures on horseback emerged from the darkness. Their faces half-covered with black handkerchiefs turned brown with dust.
“Evening boys.” The bounty hunter said. “Coffee’s fresh if you want a cup.”
“We ain’t here for coffee, Old Man.”
“Well then, I don’t know what else I might be able to help you with.”
“We’re here for him.” The leader said, pointing to the whimpering lump on the ground.
“‘Fraid he ain’t for sale.”
“I didn’t say nothin’ about buying him. We’re just gonna take him.”
“Well, son. I got a bit of a problem with that.”
“I don’t give a da…” The outlaw started to yell before he was cut off by three loud gunshots followed by three thuds as the outlaws fell from their mounts.
The prisoner slowly looked up from the dirt only to see the bounty hunter standing there with his pistol still smoking in his hand. As he watched, the old man, suddenly not looking so old any more, holstered his pistol and drew his huge Bowie knife. He turned toward his prisoner.
“Well, I guess I don’t need you anymore.” The bounty hunter said menacingly.
“No. Please. I promise I won’t talk no more. Take me in. I’ll go happily.”
The bounty hunter leaned in low with the knife. The prisoner tensed, waiting for the killing blow. Instead, he suddenly felt his hands and feet fall free. He lay there in the dirt, trying to process what had happened. By the time he realized he was being set free and had gotten to his feet, the bounty hunter had tied the dead outlaws to the backs of two of their mounts. He held the reins of the third, Dave’s gimpy nag, out to the prisoner. The prisoner gave him a questioning look.
“You’d best get on out of here.” The bounty hunter said.
“You mean you’re not gonna’ take me in?”
“For what? You never was wanted for anything but to give testimony on these three. I don’t guess they’ll need you for that no more.” The old man chuckled.
“But then why… You were using me for bait.”
“Sorry ’bout that.” The old man said, flipping him a silver dollar. “The next girl’s on me.”
“You son of a…”
“Don’t finish that sentence, boy. I could still bring you in and say I caught you ridin’ with ’em. Now git.”
The man gave the bounty hunter one last dirty look before mounting Dave’s old horse and riding for town.