|Young Billy Shaddy's bare feet scuffed through the dust of Empire City's main thoroughfare. False-fronted buildings and ramshackle houses lined the meandering streets of the southeast Kansas mining town.
Propelled by a hot wind, dust devils whirled across the roadway. Billy considered chasing one and trying to stay inside it, but the heat discouraged him. He zig-zagged from one patch of shade to another. Through thick calluses, his feet stung when they touched the sun-baked earth, and warped boardwalks offered no relief.
"Hey, John!" Billy brushed back his sweaty blond hair and waved to an approaching figure. "Hurry! Wanna tell ya sumpn'!"
"Too hot to hurry." The other boy did not hasten his leisurely pace. Ten-yea-old John Conner was the son of one of Empire City's few black miners. He was popular among his peers, most of whom envied his gift for colorful narrative.
The boys met and turned down Oak Street. "So whatcha wanna tell me?" John asked.
Billy's face was flushed by heat and excitement." Well, Pa heard some guys talkin' behind the livery stable yesterday sayin' Jesse James is gonna rob the bank. Right here! Tonight! Let's me an' you sneak out an' watch for 'im. If we was to see ole Jesse, wouldn't that be a tale to…"
"Whoa-how'd you know they's anything to it? Prob'ly a rumor. I heard Jesse's down in Mexico. Anyway, where'd we lay up to watch? I gotta know more before I make any commitments."
Commitments. Billy wished he knew some of them two-dollar words. And could fancy up a happening so's to tell it like John could. "How d'ya DO that?" Billy had asked countless times. "How d'ya know what to say?"
But John always shrugged and said, "Hey, I can't be givin' away my trade secrets, can I?"
Right now, Billy was indignant. "Rumors?" Well, din't Jesse hold up the bank over in Baxter Springs a coupla years ago? Was that a rumor? I betcha he's holed up in one a them caves along Shoal Crick. So he'll hafta come through Galena an then cross Short Crick, an' we c'n hide in them little trees on the other side of the road between here an' the crick."
"Yeah, an' what if some of them Galena boys sees us?"
Rivalry between Empire City and Galena was intense. Last summer, along the creek separating the two towns, a barricade had been built and shots had been fired across it before a group of Galena miners burned it down one night. Billy's biggest regret was that he had slept through the excitement.
"Naw," Billy declared. "What'd they be doin' north of the crick at night?"
John considered. "Well. . .maybe. Y'know, it ain't easy for me to git out. If I ain't there by bout an hour past sundown, you better give it up an' go home."
Billy did not reply. If John didn't show, and Jesse did, Billy would have a story all his own to tell. Not as well as John could tell it, but Billy's having actually seen the outlaw would bring him a measure of glory. He hoped.
They spent the rest of the long afternoon finding shade in which to sit and discuss all they knew, or thought they knew, about the exploits of Jesse James.
After supper, they met on John's front step. In the yard, John's three little brothers frolicked like puppies, impervious to the heat. As the sunset glow dimmed and the first stars appeared, John's mother called the smaller boys in. Billy rose and announced loudly, "Guess I'd better git on home." He added softly, "See ya in 'bout an hour."
"If the little guys'll get to sleep so I c'n slip out," John muttered.
Billy had a one-window shed room to himself. Ma and Pa slept in the main room, which served as bedroom, kitchen, and parlor. After the sound of his parents' voices ceased, Billy crept to his open window and climbed over the sill.
A quarter-moon gleamed in the cloudless sky. Billy flitted behind and between houses, avoiding rectangles of lamplight cast on the ground by a few lighted windows. He detoured around heaps of chat and rocks, keeping a wary lookout for irregular hollows of deepest black which marked mining holes. Some were prospectors' shallow excavations, but others were shafts that reached a depth of twenty feet or more. They were everywhere-in vacant lots, in alleyways, even in yards.
From downtown came faint sounds of music, laughter, the creak of wagon wheels, a horse's whinny. A boom as of a muffled cannon shot reminded Billy that mining for lead was a round-the-clock operation with blasting and digging going on day and night. "Ain't no darker down there at midnight than it is at noon," Billy's pa had told him.
Near by, a dog yapped tentatively, then whined with pleasure as it recognized Billy. Glancing back at the dog, Billy walked straight into something clammy. He gasped, flailing at his adversary until he realized he had encountered a line of laundry too damp to be taken in before dark.
He paused at the edge of town, high on the hill overlooking Short Creek. To his right shone the lights of Empire City, and down across the creek the lights of Galena twinkled back. Off to his left, a bob-white called.
He descended the hill, crossed the road, and settled himself on dead leaves and grasses under a stand of scrub oak. He wasn't sure which he wanted more: for John to hurry and keep him company, or for John not to come at all so that he, Billy, could be the sole reporter of this bold venture.
The days heat abated and a slight breeze cooled Billy's moist face. He lay back and looked at the sky. Above Empire City glimmered the North Star. If it was such an important star like everybody said, how come it wasn't brighter. As he attempted to reconcile this disparity, a great dark shape blotted the stars from his sight. He blinked, then stiffened in terror. For what seemed an interminable stretch of time, his eyes remained fixed on the menacing phenomonen. Then the shape slowly shifted and he heard the rasp of grass being torn from the earth. A cow.
She raised her head and Billy discerned a frayed rope dangling from around her neck. His heart still thudding fiercely, he rose and grasped the rope and led the cow partway up the hill where he tethered her to a catalpa tree beside a privy. Her owners might be in for a tedious morning search, but at least they wouldn't find her at the bottom of a shaft.
"Wonder if cows eat them ole catalpa beans," Billy mused as he returned to his hideout. "They'd oughta be good for sump'n."
He pondered the thought while altering the direction of his gaze from up the hill for John, to down the hill for Jesse. Neither materialized. Billy's fancies grew disjointed. Envisioning various catalpa creations of a culinary nature, culminating in a dish of chopped beans in bacon grease, he dozed.
A penetrating shriek brought him bolt upright. He glared wildly to either side. Then ahead. Behind. Nothing. He glanced upward and glimpsed the spread of wings as a screech owl took flight from a limb directly above him.
"Whew!" He drew a shaky breath and slumped back against a tree. Now he wished fervently for John. Time shared with a friend is only half as long.
His tailbone ached. He curled up on his left side. His left arm went to sleep. He rolled onto his right side. His right hipbone protested. He flopped onto his back and once more gazed up at the stars.
"Hssst! Billy! It's most sun-up."
John was shaking him. "I looked in your winda an' seen you wasn't there so I come on down here. Never thought you'd stay all night." There was a touch of awe in his tone. "Didja see 'im?"
Billy sat up, stretched, yawned, and scratched his head. "Naw, he din't come. I waited all night, an' got scared t'death by a cow an' a screech owl. Not much've a story, huh?"
"Hey!" John protested. "I KNOW 'bout stories, an' this n's a dandy! Whatcha do is tell it funny as you can an' git everbody laughin', an' then at th' end, you hit 'em with some big words."
Billy shook his head. "Don't know none."
"Listen! Jes' kinda strut a little, like you'd had BIG plans, an' you say real serious: 'but if ole Jesse HAD come along, well, I was prepared fer th' eventuality! An' then you jes' quit and don't say no more."
Suddenly Billy realized John had shared one of his trade secrets. How often Billy had heard John finish an anecdote in this very manner, making a solemn pronouncement using a jaw-cracking word or two, then grinning and refusing to say anything further!
So after parting from John, Billy practiced in an undertone as he trudged homeward, "... but if ole Jesse HAD come along, well, I was prepared for the e-ven-tu-al-it-y. I was prepared for the e-ven-tu-al-it-y.