Chapter One: How I became a bounty hunter
Hello there. My name is George and I’ve been sitting in this library waiting for you to appear. Please, do come in! Cigar? Scotch? No? That’s fine. I hope you do not mind me smoking here and there. It’s a Cuban. I figured you might wish to partake. Here, allow me to cut the tip. There. Ah! Matches… here they are in my vest pocket. Oh, you like this jacket? Thank you. I bought it in a little French store with my friend, Fred. Fred and I were searching for an internationally wanted criminal. This guy, Ferdinand Hiberium, had become a serial killer in several countries. Always three and always within two days before escaping to the next country of his choosing. Anyways, that’s not the story I’d like to tell. But thank you for complimenting my coat. I’d like to tell you how I became a bounty hunter. Is that alright? I know there’s the party going on, but I could use a break from the fakery and perfume. Thank you.
When I graduated high school in New York – upstate – my parents wanted me to become a lawyer or doctor. My father, himself, was a well-known lawyer in the region. My mother, of course, raised me. And she taught me gardening and self-reliance. It was those values I most cherished. So, when I told my parents I wanted to head West and stake my claim on the free land, they were quite disappointed, my father more so than my mother. This was after the Civil War, of course. Thousands of people headed on the well-known Oregon trail. But there were plenty of routes. I took one that was off the beaten track. I left my home at the age of 18 with a few dollars and my father’s lame horse. He told me: “I’m sad to see you choose a life of poverty and misery over success. But, this horse will get you somewhere. And you can always eat it if it dies.”
Well, the horse got me into Ohio. I had spent a dollar on food and decided to conserve what I had left. I carried what I had to my name – a blanket, knife, and some food – to the next town over: Kingsville. This town wasn’t much more than a bustling village. I came across a large garden area and saw a couple of berries. I picked three or four until a big man came running out of a cabin nearby.
“Get out of my berries, mister!”
I apologized and explained my travels and how little I’d eaten. I offered him a few pennies for some berries. He accepted and told me to get on my way soon. As I moved closer in town, I kept looking back at his garden, full of herbs and vegetables. That was the garden I wanted. But I knew I needed some money and a new horse before I continued Westward.
At the tavern, I enquired about odd jobs around town. The host, a mustached man whose ribs were almost showing he was so skinny, pointed back towards the garden. “Mr. Ketchner has been looking for garden help since his wife passed. Either that or the lumber mill down the road a quarter mile.”
When I knocked on Mr. Ketchner’s door, he opened it with a frown. “What do you want? More berries?”
“No,” I said, “but I’d like to work for you and tend the garden.”
“Have you experience with these plants?”
“Aye. I worked with my mother nearly all my 18 years.”
“I’ll give ye three days to prove yourself. Have you a place to stay?”
“No. My horse died North, where I left him in the woods. I have not much, but my willingness to work and wish to go westward.”
“Alright. Then you can sleep in the spare room while you prove your worth. How would you like your pay? Money or food?”
“A mix, sir. A free lunch and half wages?”
“Aye. That’ll be fine. I work up at the store most days, so you’ll be on your own. Don’t steal nothing or I’ll have you in the jail soon enough.”
Have a puff of that cigar before it goes out.
Well, I worked for Mr. Ketchner for several weeks. He knew nothing of gardening. So I taught him something every day. He allowed me into his life more. It turned out that Mrs. Ketchner, God rest her soul, had died in a train robbery. Mrs. Ketchner had kept the garden alive and well. She worked in it for a few hours every day between her household duties and hosting the ladies of the town for afternoon tea.
When it came time to harvest, Mr. Ketchner was pleased at the amount of food. I taught him pickling and storing his bounties. Mr. Ketchner and I got on quite well. For a while.
“George,” he stopped me one day, “I think it’s time you move on.”
“Is there something I did wrong, Mr. Ketchner?”
“No, son. But the harvest is done and you’ve taught me enough so that I feel comfortable taking over your duties next year. I’m sorry, but I no longer need your work.”
I was quite upset, as I thought I had found home.
“Very well,” I said, “Would you give me a care package to help sustain me on the next part of my journey?”
“Yes, George. You’ve earned it.”
The next morning, I woke earlier than usual to walk to the train station. I decided there is no sense in walking and no point in buying another lame horse. So, the train seemed the best option. I bought a one way ticket for Wyoming territory. I didn’t have much to bring on board, save some food, $5, and a few clothes. Oh, and my trusty garden knife.
A gentleman sat next to me, wearing the nicest suit I had seen. I complimented him as such and he smiled and kept his gaze forward.
The train journey? It was mostly uneventful. Many stops along the way. Skip to the end? But then you’d miss how I became a bounty hunter. Ah, that got your attention, didn’t it? Okay. Anyhow.
We were in the far western point of Illinois. It had been a few days. I stepped onto the station platform to stretch my legs. I walked up and down the platform a few times. When my legs started to feel like legs again and not molasses, I stepped into the train. I heard quite the commotion where my seat was. The well dressed man was arguing with what looked like a cowboy. Both were holding pistols aimed at each other, but the cowboy as holding a woman hostage.
“Put your gun down, stud! I’ll shoot her,” the cowboy said.
“Fine, I’ll set it down,” the gentleman said, inching his gun down.
The cowboy shot him straight in the head. The gentleman fell with a thud and I saw a paper in his waistcoat pocket. It had folds with great use in the creases.
“Alright, this here is a hold up. No one dies unless someone else does something stupid. Money in the hat now.”
The cowboy went up the rail car and held out his hat. Folks forfeited their money . As the cowboy neared the end of the car, I hid behind the door. I waited a few moments, hoping he had turned around. Was this the same man who killed Mrs. Ketchner? Who was the gentleman sitting with me? I heard a shout and a gun shot. The bullet whizzed past my face. Then another blast and a thud. He got someone else. I peered around the edge of the door and saw another body lying next to the gentleman. The cowboy was staring at a woman.
“Was that your husband? I’m sorry,” he said.
The woman was silent.
“Did I call your man? Oops,” the cowboy shrugged.
I stepped into the car. The cowboy looked at the boy next to the woman.
“Was that your daddy, boy?” the cowboy asked.
I stepped closer.
“Why don’t you tell me that was your daddy?”
The gentleman’s gun was one step further.
“I’m gonna kill one more person in here because these two won’t tell me if I killed their kin,” the cowboy shouted.
I stepped once more. Everyone screamed as the cowboy raised his gun. He began to circle it around. He was close. I could smell his chewing tobacco. The little boy looked at me. His eyes were filled with tears. He hugged his mother, who only stared at the dead man next to me.
“Who should I kill?” the cowboy began.
I reached my fingers around the revolver on the ground.
“These two for not saying nothin or someone else?”
The cowboy swung his gun around. It was near me, but the man looked at the woman and the boy. I picked the gun up and pointed it at the cowboy’s belly.
“Or someone else?” The cowboy turned his head. He looked down and met my gaze. There was surprise in his pupils. And fear. It was the first time I saw real fear. And a tinge of guilt? I’m not sure. Because the next thing I did was empty that revolver into his gut. I must have hit an organ or two from my upward trajectory. He didn’t last long.
There was yelling outside. A sheriff and his deputy ran onto the train with their guns raised. They pointed at me, looked at the dead men, and lowered their guns.
“Holy shit, Dan, that’s Tony Train,” the Sheriff said.
“Who killed him?” the deputy asked.
I looked at the gun in my hand and the gentleman next to me. I reached into his pocket and took out the paper. There was a picture of Tony Train and Wanted in connection with several train robberies. $100 bounty dead or alive.
“He did, Sheriff,” the little boy said. He pointed at me.
“Boy, did you kill this man?” the Sheriff said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Then we best head to the station so I can get you his bounty money. That your gun?” The Sheriff said.
“No, it’s his,” I indicated the gentleman.
“Looks like Sid the Bounty Hunter. He said he was after Tony. Shame,” the deputy said.
“You keep that gun, kid. What’s your name?” Sheriff asked.
“Well, George. You can add ‘bounty hunter’ to the end of your name now,” Sheriff said, “Dan, have some men take these bodies to Gary. He’ll make some coffins. And call the paper. We need to showcase this. Good work, George.”
I took that money and gave $50 to the woman and her boy. I still had more money in my pocket than ever before. I could buy a horse and still have enough. But I decided to stay on the train. In town, I bought a box of .45 caliber bullets and a telegram to Mr. Ketchner. I told him I may have got the man that killed his wife. It felt good. But I couldn’t decide if it was doing the right thing or the fear I saw in Tony’s eyes.