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Rated: E · Fiction · Action/Adventure · #2262984
A bounty hunter is bringing a man to justice for a crime he did not commit.
A Cool Breeze in August

Rick Stein

         John Simmons sat quietly on that stinking hot August day listening to the wheels grind over the seams in the railroad track. Like a rapid-fire machine gun, the persistent "rat-a-tat-tat" ticked off the miles through the Oklahoma flatlands. The train was old even for 1953. Wooden floors exposed the path countless passengers had worn over the two decades the train had commuted through the Midwest. The air conditioner, in a desperate attempt to work, whimpered a pathetic moan like a wounded animal and was as usual, useless. They called the plastic seats "faux leather", giving them a sense of undeserved quality. "Faux" or real, when it's that hot, sweat runs down your back, your shirt sticks to your skin and together they attach to the plastic. The fan the woman opposite John was waving gave her no relief nor did her cranky son. The boy raised everyone's misery quotient with his wining.
         "Stop fussin, Nathan, and sit still," fan lady barked at the boy.
         "But, it's hot, mama. When we gonna be there?"
         "In about an hour if the train don't stop again."
          It was not unusual in this flat, featureless prairie for a stray cow to find comfort on the tracks necessitating a pause in the journey long enough to remove the interloper.
"Listen to your radio, Nathan. It will help to pass the time and stop fussin' so much!"
          The boy adjusted his uncooperative suspenders and sat back to the strains of Hank Williams twanging through "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." The song ended and the announcer revealed the obvious:
         "This is 96.1 KXY radio from Oklahoma City. It is a steamy 84 degrees at 10am going up to a high of 95 with 90 percent humidity. Yes, folks it's going to be another hot one!"
         John Simmons was 6'2". His frame did not fit well in his seat which angled slightly too upright for him to sit back and stretch his legs. Even if he could, there was little room between himself and fan lady. Migrant workers were here too, going to Texas to pick avocados and other fruits. The Spanish tongue and mid-west English drawl competed against each other like two violins playing a soulful country ballad and The Mexican hat dance simultaneously, completely unaware of the other. It's staccato and legato phrases were a counterpoint to the groan of the air conditioner. The dissonance added to the passenger's overall wretchedness
. Fan lady was anxious to move so her son would not stare at John Simmons. The reason was painfully obvious. It was his shackles.
          Simmons was oblivious to all but the oppressive heat. Sweat ran off his forehead onto his wire-rimmed glasses which he could not wipe as the handcuffs connected to the chain around his waist, were attached to the shackles. These iron restraints, resembling a poorly designed highway system running over his body kept him immobile, exactly what a man accused of murder should be as he is transported by the bounty hunter who caught him. He was on his way to Wichita, Kansas for trial. There was no doubt as to his guilt. He already confessed and had no regrets. When Lucas Sanchez, bounty hunter extraordinaire, burst into his hotel room Simmons merely sighed and shot his hands in front of him ready for the cuffs.
         "John Simmons, I am bringing you to Kansas to stand trial for the murder of your brother-in-law, Steven Perkins and I, sir, am going to collect my $25,000 bounty."
         Simmons was silent. He knew he could not run forever and that this day was inevitable. He merely nodded his head, resigned to his fate. Ironically, he felt relieved. The year-long run from the law was over. Maybe if he would have stayed, a jury would have been more sympathetic to his story. He would now have to tell it after being a fugitive.
         Lucas Sanchez was tall as well. But whereas Simmons was slight of build, Sanchez was burly and muscular, the same gritty stock as the workers he chatted with. Given a choice between slaving in the heat ten to twelve hours a day for pennies or chasing fugitives for dollars and being his own man, Sanchez chose the latter.
         "We got time, Simmons and you ain't goin' nowhere. So, tell me, why'd ya kill him? You don't have to tell me, but like I said, we got time."
         The captive turned towards the window. The last thing he wanted was to give explanations to this man who saw him only as a winning lottery ticket. The train slowed around a curve. He watched as a bird flew up, lingered and fluttered away. He wished he could do the same.
          Simmons turned towards the Mexican and in a soft, measured voice asked, "Can I impose upon you to wipe the sweat off my glasses?" He rattled his chains.
         "Sure, why not? You know Simmons, I ain't heartless and this ain't personal. I just look at it as doing the public a favor by bringing a criminal to justice and making a living at the same time. I got family ya' know!"
         And with that the bounty hunter removed the wire rims from his neighbor's face, took a wet, stained red plaid handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the lenses. Seeing that he merely smeared perspiration and dirt over the glass, he put each one near his mouth, exhaled forcefully, adding to the humidity and wiped even more vigorously. Convinced the lenses were better, he returned them to their owner with unexpected care.          
"So, Simmons, I did you a favor. Now, it's your turn. Why'd ya do it?"
          The fugitive once again turned towards the window. His winged companion had flown. Miles of wheat and corn rushed by with only a few farm houses dotting the landscape. In the distance, perhaps over Kansas, a few dark clouds were forming.
         "Yeah, I see them too." His captor offered. Maybe it will rain and cool us off a bit."
         "That would be most welcome."
          "You talk funny, Simmons." the Mexican revealed a broad smile with an uneven array of stained yellow teeth.
          The train would stop briefly in Elk City. The passengers could get off but stay on the platform.
          "Let's go, Simmons. I need to stretch my legs. Better wait for the rest to go first. You ain't gonna be movin' too fast."
          As passengers walked by they gave a short but curious stare at Simmons.
          Fan lady's son, unable to hold back, blurted, "Why is that man in chains, mama?"
          "Oh, hush up and keep movin!"

          The two men, one walking and one shuffling, made their way onto the platform. As the train belched steam, the bounty hunter took a pack of Camels from his pocket. He pulled one out and tapped it on the side of the pack. Cupping his hands around the flame as a whisper of a breeze wafted through the stifling humidity, he lit the stick. The rush of smoke stung his eyes and made him squint. He looked at his captive. Simmons stood motionless, pathetic and helpless.
          "You want a smoke, Simmons?.
          Simmons looked at the Camel and said nothing. He just nodded. The Mexican lit it with his own and placed it between his lips.
          The larger man took a drag and gazed north. "Looks like rain is heading this way."
          Simmons looked towards the darkening and the endless expanse of wheat.
          A man could get lost here. He thought.
          He had tried and failed.

          His thoughts strayed to his younger sister, Lily, now a widow and living with an aunt because she couldn't live alone.
          "Lily" fit her well. A fragile flower. A loving, good natured child. She was, as they said in hushed whispers, "a bit slow in the head."
          "Something just ain't quite right with that girl," they'd say pointing at their temples.
          Their parents always cautioned John to "keep an eye out for your little sister." And he did. She was precious to him. Sitting on the veranda at night she'd say, "Tell me a story, Johnny." and her brother would explain the constellations, fabricating stories about Orion the Bear and The Little Dipper. She'd put her head on his shoulder and listen. He could look into her eyes and, behind that sweet smile, beyond that childlike naivety, see something missing, a clarity that just wasn't there. A pretty girl who grew into a beautiful young woman with a fine figure, she would have been a fine catch for a young man if only she were, well... normal.
          She met Steven Perkins at a Saturday night dance. He was twelve years her senior, drank heavily, swore often and couldn't keep a job. But he could be charming. He certainly charmed Lily, who being too nae did not realize his intentions. Lily was just happy to have a man pay attention to her and thrilled at his proposal after only a two-month courtship. Both John and their parents pleaded with her not to marry Perkins, but one night they eloped. Lily and Perkins showed up one week later, Perkins with no job and Lily not knowing what to do. John's reflection was interrupted by the conductor.

          "All aboard!" The two men dropped their cigarettes, stomped them out and lumbered back to their plastic seats.
          "You know, I read the paper" Sanchez said wiping his forehead. "You claimed self-defense. You claimed you caught your brother in law beating your sister. You pulled him off and he rushed at you. You pushed him away and he fell backwards and hit his head on the table."
          "Tell me, Sanchez, do you have a younger sibling?"
          Sanchez looked at him quizzically.
          "I mean a younger brother or sister. Do you have one?"
          Sanchez' face suddenly clouded. He did not answer immediately. He looked away and blinked quickly.
          "I'm sorry if my question was painful. I meant no harm." Simmons waited.
          The Mexican again looked forward, sighed deeply and said, "Yeah, I do. Or, at least I did; a brother, Carlos. He was 5 years younger than me."
          He pulled a tattered wallet from his back pocket, removed the rubber band holding it together and thumbed through small scraps of paper. He found an old black and white photo and placed it in front of the smaller man's face.
          Simmons squinted and studied the photo. It was Sanchez, probably around twelve years old, with his arm around a younger boy.
          "That was my little Carlito. The sweetest kid you'd ever meet. Always laughing and joking around."
          Did something happen to your brother?"
          "None of your damn business, Simmons!"
          "I obviously touched a nerve. I apologize."
          Sanchez turned away and once again pulled the worn plaid handkerchief from his pocket.
          Turning back to Simmons, "We went swimming in a pond and were playing hide n' seek. His foot caught under a branch. I saw his head only a few inches from the top but I thought he was just hiding so I didn't pull him up. Let him have his fun I said to myself. By the time I realized what happened, it was too late. I had to carry him home to mom. I could have easily saved him. I can't stop the nightmares."
          Simmons shook his head slowly." I am so sorry. Obviously, you two were very close. "
          Simmons looked down at his cuffs. The train whistled as it approached a turn.
          "Sanchez, what would you have done if someone tried to hurt your little brother?"
          The Mexican shot back angrily, "I would have killed the bastard!"
          "That's exactly what I would have done and that's what I did!"
          Simmons stared expectantly at Sanchez.
"You claimed self-defense but he had no weapon. You said he hit his head on the table, The medical examiner said his skull was fractured with something like the vase they found on the floor. It even had blood on it."
"He rushed at me!"
          "But, he was hit in the back of the head. That's not self-defense! I have the newspaper article right here." Sanchez pulled it from his sack and pointed.
          "I know what it says. But, to call it a murder implies that I committed a sin. I did the world a favor. The bastard did not deserve to breathe the same air as my sweet Lily."
          Simmons again turned towards the window and watched the storm clouds move closer. Lily and Perkins lived in a small shack about five miles from town. John and his father tried to make it livable.. Perkins was no help. When he was home, which was rare, he was useless. He'd sit on his rear and brag about how he was going to get rich. He did nothing besides talk.
          Perkins was a mean drunk and he was drunk often. Lily would appear black and blue saying she fell or give some other excuse but John knew better. After one nasty swollen eye, Simmons grabbed Perkins by the collar, threw him against the wall, furious "I don't know why my Lily stays with you, you miserable son of a bitch, but if you ever lay a finger on her again, I will kill you!" Looking into Simmons' eyes, Perkins knew he meant it.
          Another whistle and the train made another stop as, once again a cow decided that, of all the places in the eternal vastness of the prairie, the track would be a fine place to
          "May as well stretch our legs and have a smoke. Let's go Simmons."
          The pair trudged off the train amidst a line of fan waving humanity. Standing on the open prairie, Sanchez said, "You know, I am a sympathetic guy. I'm gonna remove one of those handcuffs so you can hold your own smoke. You right or left handed?"
          "Right handed." Simmons responded.
          The Mexican picked a small key from his collection and released the manacle.
          Simmons shook his arm vigorously to get the circulation going and said quietly,
"Thank you."

          Sanchez took a long drag from his cigarette. "Looks like it's a gonna pour pretty good. Them clouds are mighty angry."
          Intermittent dark clouds offered momentary relief from the unforgiving sun. A whisper of a breeze hinted at the coming storm.
          "You never know. August can be sunny as heck one minute and stormin' the next. But a cool breeze would be mighty nice."
          "Yes, a cool breeze would be a great relief."
          The engineer and the conductor did their best to implore the cow to move. The cow just stared and chewed its cud. After 20 minutes, the bovine decided it was time to move on.
          "Well, time to get back on. I may as well leave your hand free. It don't look like you are goin' anywhere."
          " I appreciate that, Mr. Sanchez. I truly do."
          "Sure, I told you I had a heart. Why don't you call me Lucas?"
          The bounty hunter sat quietly and reflected deeply. He pulled the newspaper article from his sack and reread it. He moved his head side to side and bit his lower lip. He was trying to figure out a mental jigsaw puzzle whose pieces didn't fit.
          "John, I ain't no genius, but there is something about your story that just don't make any sense. Why were you in their place anyway that day?"
          Simmons sighed impatiently." Why is that important? Isn't it enough that I confessed?"
          "Yeah, yeah. I know. But it just don't make any horse sense. Maybe I can help you in the trial. Why were you there in the first place?"
          The adversary was becoming a friend and Simmons grabbed the opportunity "It was a Sunday and I told Lily I would come over to help them fix some loose boards on the front porch."
          "OK. Then what happened?"
"As I came to the door, I heard screaming. The door was locked. I kicked it in. Perkins was straddling Lily punching her in the face. You have the article
"Yeah, I read it. But you said you hit him when he rushed towards you. But, he was hit in the back of the head and on the left side. You are right handed!"
          Simmons was silent. Turning away and resting his head against the window, he felt his heart pounding against the glass. His reflection was of a man standing in front of a circus mirror: the grotesque newspaper image: a cold-blooded murderer who had already threatened his victim in the past. And then there was the truth, a truth he would not reveal.
          Simmons also saw his captor's reflection in the glass and believed he saw a man squinting through a fog, discerning hidden details, beginning to see the truth.
          The Mexican stroked his stubble.
          Afraid of the question and more fearful of the answer, Simmons did not respond. The rough-hewn man placed his hand on Simmons' forearm, not to restrain him but to comfort him.
"John...Lily was left handed, wasn't she?"
Simmons squeezed his eyes shut as if doing so would make the outside world disappear.
         "She hit him on the head, didn't she? Answer me, John. That's what happened! You're taking the rap for your sister, aren't you?"
Simmon's shoulders began to shake.
"Why don't you just take me back and collect your reward? That's what you want, isn't it? I confessed, damn it!"
          "Next stop, Amarillo!" The conductor bellowed.
          "It will be a few minutes, folks. Gotta wait for a Pullman to leave." he said as the train squeeled to a stop.
          "You can get off for a few minutes, if you like."
          From Amarillo, two more trains would bring them to Wichita, Kansas where John Simmons, murderer, would be handed off to the police. Sanchez would collect his $25,000 and head west to do it again.
         "Lets' go John, let's share a smoke." The two men ambled off the train and sat on a large rock in a painful silence.
         The bounty hunter lit a Camel, gave it to Simmons and waited.
         "Those clouds look pretty mean, John. Looks like it may rain any second."
          Indeed, the wind bent the interminable wheat fields to its will. Like thousands of ballet dancers, stretching from right to left, they pointed towards the trains' final destination; Amarillo.
         "Ya know, John, if Lily went to trial, she could get off easily. The jury would be very sympathetic. After being beaten by her violent husband, Lily protects her brother from attack."
          "Lucas, a trial would be too traumatic for her. She may look like a woman but mentally, she is only a child. She couldn't take the stress of the cross examination. I can't allow it!"
         Most of the passengers were climbing back onto the train to avoid the imminent storm. The two continued to sit, the wind whipping the cigarette smoke.
          Sanchez again stared at the photo of himself and Carlito in silence.
         "You know, John, a man could easily get lost out here, don't you think?"
         Simmons smiled weakly," So, I thought!"
         A sudden flash of lightning and crack of thunder announced the imminent torrent.
         "John, I am gonna take a leak before we get back on. Be right back."
         Sanchez walked about fifty feet away and stood thigh high in wheat with his back towards his captive. It seemed strange to the chained man that he stood hands on his waist, considering his purpose of going there.
         As the rain began to pour, Simmons raised his head to capture a few healing drops. Feeling the caress of the cool breeze, for a fleeting moment, he felt free. The rain smacked the wheat and the rock with dull thuds. Then he heard a crisp "ping" as the rain hit metal. A small key rested where Sanchez had been sitting. Confused, Simmons' eyes turned towards the bounty hunter who was looking over his shoulder towards Simmons. Their eyes met.
          Sanchez thought, "Well, John, what are you going to do? Maybe you're tired of running. Maybe I should just take you back and collect my $25,000."
          Simmons' eyes remained fixed on Sanchez'. "If I stay and have a trial, maybe, somehow, I can get off. If I go, I'm a fugitive again."
          The bounty hunter turned and looked towards the open field. The rain fell harder. Distant lightning and explosive thunder foretold of a dangerous eruption: a tempest born of tension from searing heat and stifling humidity, of love for one who could not help herself and a sense of self preservation. It grew and folded into itself, until, like a giant growling monster, it towered the two men with its fists clenched, screaming loudly. Simmons and Sanchez waited for the inevitable. The ogre beat its chest violently and roared, releasing its rage in driving sheets of rain and deafening rolls of thunder. Streaks of lightening illuminated sky and earth, showing nature's fury in alternating bursts of blinding light and ebony.
Simmons screamed as well, a prime evil expression of emotion and unresolved frustration that mixed with the thunder and was heard only by him.
          "If I run I can somehow send for Lily. We can escape to a place even more remote. If I stay and let him take me back..."
         Sanchez could wait no longer. Too dangerous to be in the open, he walked back accepting whatever he found as God's will. The blowing gale made it difficult to see. Eventually he reached the rock to find a pile of chains and the rain-soaked cigarette. He looked north towards Kansas and the miles of wheat.
          "God bless and good luck, John."

          Sanchez boarded the train and completed the journey to Amarillo.
          He ambled inside to the ticket window,
          "One way to Oklahoma City, please."
          Ticket in hand, he waited. Outside, the storm continued unabated. Howling wind tossed debris across the platform and onto the track. He grabbed a Camel, tapped the end and cupped his hands to light it. Quietly, he looked towards the eternal open prairie.
          Taking a long and pensive drag he thought, "A man could sure get lost out there."
          A man can also get so lost in his thoughts. Time seems to stop and it did for Lucas Sanchez. He stared at the black and white photo with the frayed edges he kept in his wallet. Closing his eyes, he let his mind revert to a previous time in a pond many years ago.
          "Come out, come out, wherever you are!"
          His thoughts were suddenly shattered by the conductor.
          "All aboard for Oklahoma City with stops at Elk City, Clinton and El Rino!" He stood up, walked outside, dropped the butt and stomped it out with his boot.
         The old, rickety train that had made countless runs between Oklahoma City and Amarillo lurched reluctantly forward. He took John Simmons' seat by the window and watched the torrential rain pound mercilessly on the mesmerizing fields of wheat. He thought about Carlito, Lily and Simmons. Somewhere in that vastness John Simmons was no longer in chains, at least not the physical variety.
         Towards the rear of the car, a young man strummed an out of tune guitar, singing softly,
"The heat of the day yields to relief in my slumber.
I dream of you my angel.
You're like a cool breeze in summer."
Lucas Sanchez, bounty hunter extraordinaire sat back, closed his eyes and tried to sleep.



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