|One-eyed Bart spit a stream of tobacco on the pokey's floor. With his one good eye he glared at the deputy in charge of guarding him. The first thing he planned to do when his boys busted him out of this place would be to plant a boot in the man's face. Nobody took his Shirley from him.
He turned the toothpick hanging from his mouth with a twist of his tongue. His fingers itched for the guns hanging over the wooden table across the room, right next to the cell keys. He felt naked without the cool metal strapped against his thighs.
Dusk fell and Bart flicked the toothpick and his chaw into the spittoon near the bar-covered window. He stretched himself out on his bunk and pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes.
"Sleep sweet, Ol' Bart," Deputy Mitchell said with a laugh. "There's a noose with yer name on it waitin' for ya. Come sunrise, you'll be singin' with the angels." He slapped a hand against his chaps, causing a puff of prairie dust to waft to the floor.
"We'll see who's walkin' through the valley of death tomorra, Deppity," Bart muttered as the officer sauntered out the front door to roll a blanket.
As the crickets came out to chirp, Bart tried to get comfortable on the old bunk. The deputy returned from his smoke and settled into a hard-backed chair. It wasn't long before the deputy was sawing logs so loud that when the signal came, Bart almost missed it over the snores.
Bart returned the three light taps on the brick wall and in an instant, the hoosegow was flooded with his boys. They each had a grubby bandana covering their noses and mouths, though it didn't do much good at protecting their identity. The Clayton Gang were well known in every dusty town.
Bart grinned as Mack kicked the deputy's chair out from under him. The man was startled from his slumber as his face cracked against the wooden floor. Johnnie's boots clumped across the short room and the keys jangled from his hands as he unlocked the cell's metal door. Bart stepped out with a little jig and snatched his guns from Martin's hands.
"Took you boys long enough. I was beginnin' to think I'd be pushin' up daisy's in the bone orchard come morn."
Mack grunted as he hog-tied the deputy with a gut line. "Lands sakes, Boss! Ya know we'd never let ya swing."
Bart tipped his Stetson back and gave the kid a nod. "I reckon yer right. Now what're we gonna do with this lily livered chucklehead?"
Martin whipped out his gun and aimed it at the deputy's head. "Ya want me to bed 'em down, Boss?"
Bart watched the officer's face pale.
"Well now, I ain't beyond jimmying a bull. But afore we get shed of him, I wanna know what he did with my precious Shirley." Bart crouched down next to the deputy's face and scowled. "Best you speak up right quick, Mitchell," Johnnie passed him a knife and Bart ran the edge of it along a dirty nail. "I ain't got much patience when it comes to my girl."
The deputy licked his lips, his eyes caught on the blade. "She...she's in the stable. I promise she ain't been hurt, Bart," His eyes suddenly welled with tears. "I ain't ready to cash in yet, Bart. I got a wife and two girls at home. Jest...jest toss me in the cell and go. I'm beggin' ya--"
Mack let loose with a kick and the deputy gasped in pain.
"Don't waste a bullet on 'em," Bart commanded his boys. "Just lather 'em up a bit and tie 'em to his chair. A gunshot'll just alert the rest of the town to our escape." He sighed and pulled his britches up a notch. "I'll be waitin' for y'all in the stable. I know Shirley's been pinin' fer me, poor girl."
Laramie's hand caught his sleeve as he was about to step out the door.
"Boss, we ain't got time to rescue that lunkhead in the stables. In another hour or two the sun's gonna be risin' and we need to be long shed of this place!"
Bart felt the rage rise in his chest. His mouth twisted into a snarl as he grabbed the younger man's cotton shirt and slammed him into the jail's hard wall.
"Don't you tell me Shirley ain't worth saving! We ain't leavin' this town until I get her back, ya hear?"
"Sure, Boss!" Laramie swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbed nervously.
"Next time you speak out agin her I'll lick ya somethin' fierce!" Bart growled.
"I hearn ya the first time, Boss."
Bart let Laramie loose with a little shove and stomped down the jailhouse steps.
"Ya sure are one persnickety fella," Laramie grumbled. Bart ignored him and stalked off to the stables.
Bart's eye had already adjusted to the dark when he slipped into the barn. There was a strong smell of horse and leather. He slunk past each stall, peeking over the sides of each paddock door for his love. He found her at the end of the barn. Her dark hair was tangled with hay and her eyes were full of fear.
"Now, now, Shirley. Don't ya recognize me?" he lowered his voice and held out a hand, waiting for her to come forward. With a nicker the Piebald took a step, shoving her muzzle against his palm.
"Yer lookin' for a treat, eh girl? Well, I ain't got nothin' now but as soon as we get outta town I'll find ya the biggest apple I can. A purdy apple for a purdy girl." He leaned forward to buss her forehead before leading her out of the stall and through the barn.
Once they were under the stars, Bart swung a leg over her bare back and settled himself in for a long ride.
"I'll always come fer ya, Shirley, don't ya ever forget that," he murmured as the boys pounded down the dirt road on their own steeds. Bart held back a shout and nudged Shirley's sides with his heels. She jumped into a gallop and the two of them took lead in front of the gang.
"There's no greater love than that of a man and his hoss," Bart whispered as they flew over the hill and away from town, "No siree, there ain't none greater."