Bait and Switch

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: January 02, 2018

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Submitted: January 02, 2018

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Bait and Switch

 

 

Both my knees cracked as I bent down alongside the gently flowing brook. The full moon above danced off the soft ripples in the current and provided plenty of light. I submerged both hands completely grimaced as the cuts across knuckles stung briefly. I bit down hard as I scrubbed both hands feverishly for several seconds.

I stepped back from the riverbank both hands to free the excess droplets, and brought them close to my face for further inspection. They were clean. Well, as clean as my hands ever were. I looked down at the crystal clear water and watched as the crimson colored cloud slowly dissipated and began to float downstream. Satisfied that I had washed off what was left of the young man, I retreated away from the went to check my haul.

There hadn’t been enough time to clean the place out as much as I would have liked, but better to be out a minute too early than a minute too late. I spilled the rucksack out onto the long grass and surveyed the contents. First thing’s first, I grabbed the wallet. It felt pathetically thin in my hand so I wasn’t expecting much. I slowly peeled it open, reveling in the suspense. Sure as shit, my suspicions were right. Empty.

I fished out the identification. Alexander James Watney. Seemed like a noble name. I quickly scanned the document and found the date of birth. The poor son of a bitch was only seventeen years old. He had seemed much older. I thought about how long his body would sit in that farmhouse not more than a mile from where I stood before someone would come along to find him. That is, unless the pigs got to him first. Pigs will mow through a field of crops or a corpse with the same vigor. That’s the thing with pigs, particularly the feral ones. They wont just eat the flesh off a dead body. They’ll eat the whole thing, bones and all.

Alexander James Watney. Alexander James Watney. Alexander James Watney.  

I said his name to myself three times to commit it to memory. I always liked to assume the surname, at least for a few days, as a quiet homage to their now extinguished lives. Hell, since they wouldn’t be seeing any more sunrises, I figure the least I could do is make sure their names did.

I quickly sorted through the rest of what were Watney’s belongings; casting all of it, save for his wallet, into the brush nearby. I took a moment and stared towards the heavens. Thousands of stars flecked the backdrop, despite the glow from the moon. I thought of heaven and hell and I knew I had a one-way ticket punched in the wrong direction. No matter though. Who would want to spend eternity with a bunch of goodie-two-shoes? No. Let me laugh with the sinners. Part of me was looking forward to it.

The belch from the locomotive that sounded as if it were right across the savannah interrupted my thoughts. I had to get out of town, and fast. I scampered up a nearby tree and strained my eyes, scanning for a plume of smoke. The whistle screamed again, warning the crew of its imminent departure from the station. I leaped from my limb that was about 8 feet high and rolled forward just as my feet touched the ground. I grabbed my tattered ruck and was off and running.

Whether it was from the headmaster at the orphanage or the cops after I cooked a stone right at his head, I’d been running from something my whole life. Running down this train would be no problem.

It took an all out sprint to catch the train and proved to be a more difficult feat than I had imagined it would be. I had had just enough gas in my tank. Finding the energy to jump aboard would be a different story. I ran alongside the tracks and hastily tossed my ruck inside an open boxcar. All that was left was to hop aboard. My legs had grown rubbery and my thighs were burning. I was completely spent as I tried to muster the strength for one final leap.

I jumped with as much force as I could manage and grabbed ahold of the frame to the opening with both hands. The train was gaining speed as I was slowing down. My legs were being dragged along while they struggled to find their footing and get the boost I would need to pull myself up. The more they dragged, the more strain was felt on my arms. My grip was weakening and I was now concerned not just with making it aboard the train, but with being pulled under the train and churned up like ground meat. Just before my finger hold caved, a hand appeared from the darkness of the boxcar.

  Instinctively, I grabbed ahold of it. “I got ya, fella!” the owner of the hand bellowed out.

With our combined strength my body was pulled high enough above the floor of the opening, both of us toppling inside. I landed on top of the man, and I quickly rolled off and laid flat on my back, my stomach rapidly rising and falling as I struggled to catch my breath. My breathing rate slowed as I began to my wind. I sat up and reveled in my victory.

“Thanks a lot, sir,” I said. “I don’t think I would have made it without your help.”

“It is the least I could do,” the man said, rising first to one knee, and eventually to a standing position. He dusted the dirt and dried straw that clung to his knees as he rose. “I reckon I oughta pay things forward as often as I can.”

The man flashed a near toothless smile. His face was filthy. Combined with his lazy eye, he had a distinctly psychotic look. “Well, thank you,” I said.I quickly took stock of my surroundings. Half of the boxcar had bails of hay stacked to the ceiling while the other half was completely empty, save for the other man’s small suitcase and a pile of hay that had been fashioned into a makeshift bed. Seeing me stare at the pile of hay, the man sprang to his feet and pulled a hay bale from the stack to the opposite side of the boxcar. He reached into his back pocket, removed a pair of rusted wire cutters, and snipped the wire that ran around the perimeter of the bale. He removed the pieces of wire, tossed them outside of the boxcar, and quickly spread the hay about, making a bed that mirrored his.

“There ya go. This should do ya fine,” he said, the smile still plastered on his face.

I smiled in return, picked up my ruck, and dropped it in the center of my bed. It looked more like a bird’s nest, but I had spent a lifetime sleeping in, on, and under various things. Such is the life of a transient serial killer.

“The name’s James Honeycutt,” the man said, extending his hand.The swollen fingers of a lifetime of hard labor engulfed my own, and I instantly felt emasculated. I felt like a young boy shaking hand with his elder. I knew right then I’d have to kill him.

James and I sat with our feet dangling out over the side of our boxcar. The gentle sound of the metal wheel gliding perfectly onto the rail served as backdrop for our conversation. The air was warm, but the cool wind brought on by the moving train made it particularly comfortable.

As we talked, James went over to his sack and removed an amber jug that was about half full before returning to his seat. He gave the cork top a slight tug and freed the small amount of pressure that had built up inside. As soon as he removed the cork I caught a whiff of the swill. He took a long pull, with some missing his mouth, dribbling down his chin and getting trapped in his gruff beard.

“Shine?” he asked, motioning the bottle in my direction.

“Sure.”

“A buddy of mine has himself a still back around Santa Fe. He gave me this jug as a sort of going away present,” James explained.

I took a sip from the jug, swirled it in my mouth for a moment, before feeling the familiar sensation of fire burning down the back of my throat.

“What you think?” James asked.

“It’s ok,” I responded coolly.

“Just ok?”

“Yeah, just ok. I’m not one to tell a man his business, but you might wanna tell your friend to use a longer copper tube. It’ll smooth it out a bit.”

James looked at me, his eyes widening to match that stupid grin of his.

“You slick son of a bitch. You got a still of your own?” he prodded, cackling with delight.

“Not anymore. But growing up in the mountains of North Carolina has a way of making most everyone an expert,” I explained.

“Golly. North Carolina, eh? How long you been out west?”

“For a few years now. Been bouncing from here to there working odd jobs. The plan was to make my way out west and try my hand at prospecting, but its taken me a little longer than I thought it would,” I said.

  The man’s face beamed as I spoke of prospecting.

  “Oh baby! Hungry for that gold, eh?” he said, leaning back and releasing a maniacal laugh.

“Isn’t everybody?”

“Indeed they are. I’m headed out that way myself. But not everybody got what I got!” he exclaimed, with that same abrasive cackle.

“And what might that be?” I asked, taking the bait.

He pulled his feet in from over the edge and stood . He bent over and removed his right boot, took out an envelope, and handed it to me. The envelope was damp and yellowed, and smelled like old cheese. I opened the envelope, removed the letter inside, and unfolded it.

I read it in its entirety, and then read it again. I looked up from the piece of paper at the disheveled mess of a human being that stood before me. The expression on my face was one of shocked disbelief. He looked up at me and saw that I had finished the letter before again breaking into laughter and having another long pull of moonshine.

“Ain’t that the prettiest thing you ever read in your life?! How lucky am I!” he exclaimed.

I joined in his laughter and flashed a smile of my own. He was wrong about how lucky he was. He just didn’t know it yet. Any luck he had was drained the moment he stuck his hand out and helped me aboard. Before I had even finished reading the letter, my plan was beginning to formulate.

_______________________________________________________________________________

James and I sat and stared out at the open veranda. The sun was starting to peak over the mountain range in the distance, casting a beautiful pink shroud over the morning sky.

James took a lengthy swig of the moonshine, finally draining the last drop. We had been passing it back and forth, but I had been spitting it back in the jug before returning it, never consuming more than a small sip. I needed every one of my senses and knew I had to be as sharp as possible. This practice doubled in getting James completely inebriated.

James was a chatty drunk, and was more than eager to talk about himself, both things working to my advantage. For hours I had let him ramble on about himself, starting from his childhood and right up through today. I prodded him along with questions, committing as many of the finer details to memory as I could manage. The more he spoke, the more I hated him, though there was nothing particularly unlikable about James Honeycutt. On the surface, he was a simpleton. A ne’er do well with neither the acumen nor the fortune to simply get out of his own way. For hours he went on and on about his failed harebrained schemes. He was always looking to get rich quick and had one excuse after another for why it never came to fruition.

After I had finally gleaned what I hoped would be enough information from him, I asked James if I could see the letter again. That same, shit eating grin crept across his face, and he was more than happy to hand it over. Honeycutt, now completely drunk, was still sitting over the edge of the boxcar with his head tilted back and his eyes closed. He whistled obnoxiously without a care in the world.

I secured the letter into my back pocket, picked up the now empty jug that housed the moonshine, and crept behind him. With a thunderous blow, I crashed the bottle through the top of Honeycutt’s skull. A mixture of glass and blood exploded as the jug made impact, and Honeycutt’s body slumped. He was bleeding profusely and would be dead in a matter of minutes, but I didn’t feel like waiting.

His legs still hung over the side of the boxcar. I bent down and grabbed his torso under each of his arms. His body was heavy and lifeless. I propped most of his weight at the very edge and got on one knee directly behind him. I balanced as much of his body along the edge of the boxcar as I could before gently nudging his body over the edge. As I had hoped, the fast turning wheels below grabbed ahold of his clothes, his body, or both, and sucked him under like he was being snatched up by a demon. The giant metal wheels chewed him up without so much as a hiccup. I smiled and felt the internal chaos that had plagued me my entire life quiet, just as it had each time before. I laid down on my makeshift bed in the boxcar and prepared to enjoy the next ten minutes or so of peace.

The rest of the time riding the rails was spent with measured comfort. I was ecstatic to have the letter in my pocket, but was careful not to let my guard down. As a frequent non-paying traveler of the railroad I had become pretty adept at avoiding the bulls.

Just after sunrise, the train pulled into a station and jarred me from a shallow nap. With little time to mask my presence in the boxcar, I climbed into the far corner of the car, holding myself up in the shadows by pressing my legs out into the walls. With my rucksack exposed, the guard noticed it and climbed in for further inspection. I leaped from my perch like a cat on a mouse, raining blows down as gravity propelled me. The bulls were known for their savage beatings, and it felt good to deliver one in kind. His face was pulp, but he’d live. I kicked his body out of the boxcar as the train left the station, but not before I rifled through his pockets. He had no money, but he did have a train schedule. You can imagine my delight when I saw Mariposa only a few stops away.

I had become a master of deception, honing my skills of cunning and boondoggling as a matter of survival. Combined with my rapier wit, I knew I would have no troubles passing as James Honeycutt, brother of EB Honeycutt. I began the mental process of getting into character immediately.

The freight train began to slow as it entered the station at Mariposa. Before it had come to a stop, I jumped off while it was still moving at a healthy clip. I couldn’t risk being discovered by the bulls, lest they savage me the way I had one of their own. Normally, I enjoyed getting into a fracas, but not while this letter sat in my pocket. It was my ticket out.

The camp of Mariposa wasn’t far from where I’d jumped from the train. I ran over the details Honeycutt had told me again and again. I tried to focus my excited energy on the letter, but it did little to take the edge off.

As I approached the edge of camp I felt my heart beat against my rib cage. Like many of the mining towns I’d either stayed in or just passed through, there was a palpable buzz in the air. The prospects of striking it rich was always just one more turn of the shovel, or one more pan of the riverbed away from becoming a reality, and it was worn on the faces of every person I passed. I had had my own delusions of grandeur when I left North Carolina and headed west. Now though, I had a sure thing.

I strode through the center of town with my nose up in the air. I walked with an assumed arrogance that didn’t match my attire. My pants were caked with dried blood and my boots had lost their shine months ago. I presented as your average Joe, with one tiny, but significant difference...the letter.

The boon the town had experienced was obvious. The main thoroughfare was abuzz with multiple new construction projects to service the influx of people that the gold rush had brought. The lavish styling of three separate whorehouses beckoned me. If I hadn’t such pressing matters to attend to, I would have surely made my presence in town known at one or all of these establishments.

I drew the attention of the faces I passed. Their eyes studied me, a common look of disdain found in each of them. I couldn’t be sure if they were distrustful of a new face, or if it represented something more. I pushed it from my mind; I’d pick someone out later.

I walked past the hardware store, the butcher shop, and the bank. I spotted the ’s office on the far end of the street, and my stomach fluttered. Standing at the door to the ’s office, I took a deep breath. I felt the familiar tingle surge through my body. The same surge I felt when I was about to kill someone.

I gently pushed open the door and slowly entered the very place I’d spent my whole life avoiding. This time though, promised to be different. The ’s office was small. They hadn’t expected the boon to be as big as it was, and now they themselves with subpar facilities for a town this size. The office was an open space, with two opposite facing desks on the left side of the room, with a pair of cells occupying the other side. In the first cell was a man with a beard past his belt and hair that could have stretched damn near from one end of the cell to the other. The man was curled in a fetal position on the tiny bench inside the cell. The smell of booze was emanating from his cell and took over the whole room. There was dried blood on his cracked lip and I wondered if it was the or a fellow patron at the saloon that had caused it.

There was a man in uniform sitting at one of the desks reading a copy of The Mariposa Gazette. Apparently he hadn’t heard me enter. I took off my hat and cleared my throat audibly to announce my presence.

“Excuse me, sir,” I added.

The officer slowly lowered his paper whilst raising his eyes to meet mine. The room was softly lit and I got a good look at the officer for the first time. I was startled by how young he appeared. He had soft blue eyes, smooth skin, and still carried a bit of baby fat in his chin.

“I don’t recognize you,” he barked curtly. “You new to camp?”

  My first impulse was to lunge over the table and whip him with his own pistol. We both knew he was only posturing, but I needed him to think his bluff was working.

“Yes, sir. I hope to only take a minute of your time. Are you Sheriff Hockley?” I asked as I removed my hat and slumped my shoulders slightly.

“Depends who’s asking,” said the young officer as he kicked his feet up on the desk and returned his gaze to the paper.

“Sir, my name is James Honeycutt. You might have been acquainted with my brother, EB Honeycutt. Sheriff Hockley sent me a letter informing me that the good Lord called EB home,” I said in a hushed tone, continuing to play the beta.

The officer swung his feet off the table and sprang to attention. This was the reaction I was hoping for. “Mr. Honeycutt,” he stammered. “I’m Deputy Taylor. I’m so sorry it was your brother’s death that brought you to town. Sheriff Hockley has stepped out but he should be back shortly.”

“Thank you kindly,” I said. “I hope EB didn’t cause you too much trouble. No doubt his drinking landed him in here more than a few times. I damn near thought that was him lying in the cell. That is, until I saw the hair of course. EB was already starting to lose his hair when he was still a young man.”

“Well without stepping on the deceased’s grave, I’d be lying if I said EB didn’t have to sleep it off from time to time. Other than those small transgressions, EB was a model citizen here in Mariposa. Please, have a seat,” Taylor said, motioning me towards the wooden chair that sat facing the two desks. “Coffee?”

“Got anything stronger?”

Taylor smiled wryly and nodded. He reached into the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. He poured us each a shot. He raised his glass, and I in turn raised mine.

“To EB,” he said.

“To EB,” I echoed.

We clinked glasses and shot it back. I felt the familiar whiskey burn as it slid down my throat and into my belly.

Taylor and I continued to chat while we waited for Sheriff Hockley to return. So far, things were going well. At the mere mention of the letter, the roles of Taylor and me shifted. The power had been returned to the rightful place.

As Taylor and I waited, I made sure to pepper the conversation with personal anecdotes that were true to the Honeycutts. Thus far, I seemed to be operating without suspicion, though Taylor seemed to be closer to nervous than reverential.

The door could be heard opening, accompanied by the sounds of heavy footsteps clapping against the wood floor. I turned towards the door and saw a burly man, every bit of 6’4, sizing me up. The way he owned the room left little doubt as to the man’s identity. Surely, he was Sheriff Hockley, and it would be him, rather than Taylor, that I would need in my pocket.

“Sheriff Hockley, this is James Honeycutt. You know, the brother of EB Honeycutt,” Deputy Taylor said with a conspiratorial inflection in his voice.

“Is that so?” Sheriff Hockley said rhetorically. “Nice to be able to make your acquaintance. The name is Sheriff Hockley. I take it my letter found you.”

“The pleasure is mine, . You’re letter brought with it great sadness and heartache. It had been years since I was able to last see him. To be truthful, I didn’t even know he had settled in Mariposa until your letter arrived.”

“Myself and Deputy Taylor would like to extend our condolences for the loss of your brother. He was a pillar of the community, and a man whose influence was significant. Do you have the letter I sent?” Hockley asked.

“I do,” I said, suppressing a smile and removing the golden ticket from my rear pocket.

I handed it to the , who took the seat that had been previously occupied by Taylor. I sat down as Hockley removed the letter from its envelope and studied his face as he read it.

“It’s with all due discretion and sensitivity that I must proceed. I recognize the signature and handwriting to be my own and am satisfied that this is indeed the letter that I mailed to James Honeycutt. However I have a civic duty to ensure that I verify your identification,” Hockley explained.

I swallowed hard. The ramifications if I couldn’t convince the lawman sitting in front of me that I was indeed James Honeycutt would be dire. But I had worn 1,000 masks. This one would be no different.

“Of course, sir. I was just explaining to Deputy Taylor how I received the letter in Arkansas where I was working as a ranch hand,” I said. “I only wish I would have came out before his passing. It’s been years since I was last out West.”

Sheriff Hockley reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a short stack of papers that I assumed were both the will and deeds left behind by EB and the information he had gathered on James.

“Where were you when you were last out West?” he asked, casually leafing through his papers.

“I was a ranch hand about a half a day’s horse ride orth of here actually. I stayed at the ranch about a year before I decided to bet on myself and try my luck out East,” I said confidently, regurgitating all the information I pried from James before I threw him into the teeth of the freighter.

I made sure to keep my tone even and my body relaxed. I had become a master of controlling my emotions as it suited me, and a lifetime of sneak thievery was about to pay off. Sheriff Hockley continued our conversation in a casual manner. It was obvious he was poking and prying for information, and cross-referencing it against his notes. I remained calm and in control. James had a motor mouth, and I held onto every word that escaped his lips. Throughout the interview with Hockley, there were only a few times I was unequipped with the foreknowledge, but I was able to give a vague enough answer to avoid detection. I could feel the rapport and trust being built between us with each question that was asked and answered.

“Well, Mr. Honeycutt, you’ve produced the very letter that I mailed, and answered all questions I have posed. Everything you’ve told me matches my information to a T.”

My heart thundered in my chest like a hundred wild horses roaming the countryside.

However, I’m going to need you to sign an affidavit. It’s a legal document that says that you are in fact James Honeycutt. I’ll retain a copy here and file it with the local magistrate. I hope you don’t consider this an indication of doubt on my part” Hockley explained.

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Of course not, . You have a job to do. I’m sure EB would appreciate you going the extra mile on his account.”

Sheriff Hockley again reached into his desk and slid the paper I was to sign in front of me. I reminded myself to play it cool. I pretended to read it diligently before scribbling a signature on the bottom.

I stole a glace at the jailbird sleeping one off. He hadn’t budged. In a few hours, I’d be doing my best to get as drunk tonight as he was the one previous. Apparently, the and the had similar plans as Hockley took the whiskey bottle and poured us all another round. We all raised our glasses and took a pull.

“Sheriff Hockley, would you mind if I held on to the letter?” I asked.

“Sure. It’s addressed to you, ain’t it?”

I forced a weak smile. A smile that grew considerably bigger as Hockley handed it over. Before tucking it away, I read it one more time, amazed at my good fortune.

Mr. James Honeycutt,

On behalf of the Mariposa Sheriff’s office, we regret to inform you of the untimely passing of your brother, Ernest Brown Honeycutt. We are hoping this letter finds you well and in good health. Your presence is requested to assist in settling the estate and affairs of Ernest Honeycutt.

As you may or may not know, Mr. Honeycutt had purchased a plot of land that upon which he established a hard-rock gold mine. As the legal next of kin, the land and the mine, as well as the personal wealth of Ernest Honeycutt, will be transferred to you. Despite the passing of Mr. Honeycutt, the land continues to be panned and mined under the control of his business partner, Mr. Albert Bullock. Upon your arrival, and confirmation of your identity, as the legal next of kin of Mr. Honeycutt, half of the ownership of the mine and plot will be transferred to you. The estate of Ernest Honeycutt is estimated to be worth between $80,000-$90,000.

I look forward to your safe arrival in camp. Ernest Honeycutt was a respected member of Mariposa, and we eagerly await the arrival of his brother.

Sincerely,

Sheriff William Hockley

Mariposa, California

August 28, 1854

 

“Where are you planning on spending the night, Mr. Honeycutt?” Hockley asked, breaking into my thoughts.

“To be honest, I haven’t figured that out just yet. I don’t plan on spending too much time in camp. I need to be back East as soon as possible. I’ll take whatever money my brother left me and send a proxy to settle the remainder of his estate,” I said coolly.

Hockley circled around the desk, standing to the side of “Well, we have two hotels here in Mariposa. I’m sure both will offer you a fair rate as soon as they learn you are a Honeycutt. There’s just one more thing,” Hockley said, his eyes darting from me to Deputy Taylor. I turned to face Taylor, and before I could react, his hand holding a leather sap came thundering down on the top of my skull.

I’m not sure how long I lost consciousness. When I came to all I could see was darkness. Without warning, the darkness gave way to light and my eyes struggled to adjust to the brightness. As my senses returned, I could feel the rope strung tight around my neck and I could smell the death on it that clung to the threads. My hands and feet were bound. Beneath my feet was a tiny wooden stepstool. Before me stood a throng of onlookers, their faces running the gambit between empathetic and bloodthirsty. The rope around my neck was so tight that I could hardly swallow. I heard the footsteps of Sheriff Hockley approaching. My mind struggled to figure out what had happened and how I had been discovered.

“Mr. James Honeycutt,” Sheriff Hockley bellowed, addressing the crowd as much as me. “This day has been a long time coming. Today only shows that nobody is beyond the reach of the long arm of the law. I hold in my hand a warrant commanding the arrest and execution of James Honeycutt for the murder of Samuel Wheeler some twenty years ago. No matter what, you cannot outrun justice.”

My mind raced. I wanted to cry out, to kick and scream, to explain that Hockley had the wrong man. The explosion of emotions was so intense I thought my skin might burst. Shocked disbelief gave way to anger. Anger at the injustice of it all. It was then that I realized it, and a strange calm passed over me like a warm blanket on a cold day. Sheriff Hockley wasn’t about to hang the wrong man at all. He was only hanging the wrong name.

 

 


© Copyright 2020 Frank DiPietro. All rights reserved.

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