Thursday, October 10, 2013

Hole 15: The Marshall's Law and the Hang Loose Man

Hole 15: The Marshall’s Law and The Hang Loose Man

Bertie the Kid shuffled farther into the shadows of the pine trees lining Hole 15’s green. Something told him that the gathering taking place on the edge of the green was just the group he was looking for.

The three members of the Don R. party clustered close together. Bertie the Kid could not help amuse himself by observing that they looked a bit different with dry clothing on. Closing the circle of conspiracy was Russell Brands. Bertie only knew that Russell Brands had been a frequent competitor in the Back Nine Rushes before Bertie participated. While Russell never did attain creekboy status, in the year Kid Carson won for the first time, Russell had a respectable showing right behind Adam Grizzwald, who became creekboy after Kid Carson broke his bone. Now the sixteen-year-old appeared to have taken up golfing, though he looked admittedly awkward with what appeared to be hand-me-down golf clubs as he spoke earnestly with the others.

“I’m telling you, I think he’s double-crossing us!” one of the Don R. party boys hissed.

“You should know,” Don R. panned, “you’re the expert at double-crossing.”

The boy sneered, “That pine branch woulda’ broke and you know it, Don. I swear, you’ll never let us hear the end of that.”

Though Russell Brands looked silly trying to shoulder a bag of golf clubs, he still commanded the current conversation. “He’s not going to double-cross us, you idiot. He needs us. Who’s got the customers we got for selling golf balls? No one. The deal is busted without us. Besides, we haven’t given him money yet … how can he double-cross us when there hasn’t even been a trade of golf balls for money?”

As soon as Bertie the Kid heard Russell Brands mention “golf balls,” it confirmed his suspicions. For the past four days, Bertie had been combing every last nook of Hole 15 with only the smallest returns. He had experienced good and bad days before on other holes, but the diminishing returns from Hole 15 for four days straight defied reason. After the second day, Bertie started paying closer attention to signs other than golf balls.

In the spirit of Rough Rider, Bertie examined the areas around likely caches of golf balls. On or near all of them lay the tracks of a lone bike, and all the tracks pointed to the person on the bike: faint shoe indentations just above spots that once held golf balls, broken branches at the height of a boy. In one dried up mudhole, Bertie could even see where fingers had gripped into the ground to scoop up a ball. Someone was poaching his golf balls.

Most of the tracks were only a couple days old. Yet, no matter how fresh the tracks, Bertie the Kid could not find the culprit--or anything more than a smattering of golf balls. After the first couple of days Mr. Cassidy quipped that maybe he should get his eyes checked. On the third day, however, Mr. Cassidy scrutinized Bertie’s light pickings, then looked at Bertie curiously. The creekboy wanted to say a lot to Mr. Cassidy concerning the dearth of golf balls, but he knew that any accusations he made would sound pathetic without a person’s name to attach to it and some proof. Bertie the Kid remained quiet.

And now, after four long days, Bertie finally found a connection to the missing golf balls. From what it sounded like, these boys were not the ones taking golf balls, but they were connected to someone who was and were helping to sell them. Bertie the Kid’s ears strained to catch every last phrase.

Don R. was the next one to speak out, his prominent chin bobbing with every word spoken. “I’d agree, Russell, but then why aren’t we seeing the golf balls? This was supposed to be the dropping point--has been for the last couple of weeks.”

Russell Brands shrugged. “Maybe he’s fishing some extras out of Mack Lake and is a bit behind. Who knows? All I know is we’ll get them.”

One of the Don R. party spat into the hole of the green at Hole 15. Then he squinted his eyes. “Wait a second. There’s a golf ball in the hole.” He pointed down. “Do you think that golfing party in front of us left it here?”

Don R. approached the hole and peered in. “A golfer didn’t put that ball there. It’s a driving range golf ball.” Don R. fished the ball out of the hole. He grabbed his accomplice’s shirt and used it to wipe the spit off the ball, then held it up so everyone could see the red stripe that circled the dimpled sphere. The red band around a golf ball was Burnt Creek’s way of reserving balls for the driving range only.

Russell Brands approached the golf ball with interest, “Golfers aren’t supposed to take a ball from the driving range and use it on the course.”

Don R. lifted the golf ball in order to give it closer scrutiny. “There’s writing. Someone used a marker to write a note on it.”

The two boys from the Don R. party suddenly crowded in around Don R. and Russell Brands to get a peek at the writing . It took all the restraint Bertie the Kid had to not join them. “What does it say?” one of them shoved Russell Brands backwards. Russell, no pushover, shoved back.

The other member peered over Don R.’s shoulder and answered, “The top part says, ‘Bertie the Kid trailing me.’” At the sound of his name Bertie self-consciously crouched down farther into the undergrowth around him. He certainly was not expecting to hear his own name being read off of a golf ball. He never suspected that the person he had been trying to discover would know about his investigation.

The boy who read the message then shifted his position to now look at the ball from a lower angle. “And the bottom says, ‘Drop off ... tomorrow ... noon ... at--’”

“Shut your trap!” Don R. hissed. Then his voice lowered, “Didn’t you read the part that says Bertie the Kid is on his trail?” Don R. suddenly swept his eyes around the green, and Bertie froze. Don R.’s eyes slid right past the deep shade of the pine trees as they circuited the green. Though he seemed to discover nothing of consequence, there was still suspicion embedded in his slitted eyes.

“Let’s go to the clubhouse,” Russell Brands nodded to the west. “No creekboy will overhear us there.”

One of the Don R. party winced. “But we didn’t even finish the Back Nine. I was just a few strokes off par!”

Russell Brands seemed to have little enthusiasm to keep on golfing, but he gave in. “Fine, then let’s move on to Hole 16 and get this over with.”

The Don R. party agreed and turned to exit for Hole 16’s tee. Don R. lingered for a moment, taking one last glance around the area. Finally, he turned and stuffed the golf ball into a pocket of his golf club bag. As Don R. swung the strap onto his shoulder in his hurry to catch up to the others, however, the golf ball rattled to the lip of the pocket. Bertie the Kid watched the ball eagerly, hoping that with each step, the jolting would force the ball out.

Bertie grit his teeth as Don R. almost disappeared around the corner on the path towards Hole 16. Suddenly, however, Don R. dropped his score sheet. He bent over, picked it up, and as soon as he stood up to rush forward, his foot bumped his golf bag enough to force the golf ball to tumble to the ground. The oblivious Don R. then passed beyond a screen of trees and out of sight.

Bertie did not waste another second. He jumped back behind the pine trees, mounted Silver and shot towards the golf ball. Without even dismounting, he unclipped the Returner and easily gathered the fallen message.

Just as he recoiled the Returner, out of the corner of his eyes, Bertie noticed a form materialize from out of the deepest black of the same pine tree shelter where he had been crouched only moments earlier. Before turning to investigate, Bertie the Kid cocked the Returner, plopping the golf ball into his open palm, and then holstered the Returner. The form revealed itself to be an adult man bruskly charging forward. The man wore a black, collared shirt, complemented by a black visor, gray slacks, and black golfing shoes. This wardrobe matched the man’s dark eyes, his ebony hair, and a black mustache bristling out from underneath a sharp nose.

Before Bertie the Kid could even consider a retreat, the man reached Bertie, locked the creekboy’s wrist into one of his hands, and removed the golf ball with his other hand.

“Garrett Marshall,” Bertie the Kid observed drily.

“Bert Gardner,” the man responded, his voice a loud whisper.

As the assistant golf course manager, it was inevitable that Garrett Marshall and Bertie the Kid would meet. The fact that the ambitious Garrett Marshall generally covered afternoons and preferred to patrol the Front Nine, however, meant that their introduction had been delayed. Because Bertie the Kid knew of Marshall’s reputation for disliking for creekboys, he would have been just as happy if they never met.

Now, however, there was no question about whether they met or not, with Garrett Marshall’s hand melded to Bertie’s wrist. The darkly clad assistant golf course manager fully expected an outcry from the creekboy, but did not get one. Instead, Bertie the Kid simply sat and regarded the Marshall--as he had come to be known among creekboys--with a face of indifference.

“It’s no secret that I don’t like creekboys on this course, but since Mr. Cassidy allows it, I can manage to ignore their presence.” The Marshall’s mustache twitched. “But the minute you step outside your bounds and start taking things you’re not supposed to … such as golf balls pocketed directly from someone’s golf bag …” he lifted up the hand holding the red-striped golf ball, “… well, then, that’s where I draw the line.”

Bertie the Kid took some satisfaction in saying. “The golf ball wasn’t someone’s personal property. It’s a driving range golf ball.”

The Marshall cynically examined the golf ball with his one free hand and recognized the red band around it. He paused, “Why, that’s even worse! It means that you’ve been stealing Burnt Creek property.” Garrett Marshall’s mustache lifted at their corners. “You should know as well as anyone that driving range golf balls are strictly off limits for both creekboys and golfers alike.”

Bertie slumped. He had somehow managed to worsen his situation.

Bertie the Kid considered explaining more, but the tone of disdain in the Marshall’s voice told him that the man would not care for explanations, no matter how valid. Bertie thought back to where the Marshall had emerged only moments earlier and realized that at some point that morning he must have spotted Bertie the Kid and decided to trail him, hoping to catch any misstep. This manufactured delinquency with the driving range ball was the perfect one. “It’s time we report this to Mr. Cassidy,” the Marshall crowed.

Normally this kind of threat would mean little to Bertie the Kid. Mr. Cassidy did not seem the type to worry about one ill-gotten golf ball. However, because of Bertie’s recent poor performance with gathering golf balls, a snatching of a driving range golf ball would look suspicious. Bertie cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Mr. Marshall, sir. It won’t happen again.”

The Marshall sneered, “Oh, I’m sure it won’t, Bert Gardner. Because I’m going to get you fired--maybe even convince Mr. Cassidy to cease this creekboy foolishness and forget holding another one of his Back Nine Rush carnivals.” Bertie could not think of a response that would change the Marshall’s mind. As if to confirm these thoughts, the man said, “Now, off your bike. If you want to keep it, you’ll walk it alongside us as I take you to the golf cart.”

Bertie the Kid obeyed. Silver trotted next to him as the Marshall dragged the creekboy past the pine trees and over to the edge of the fairway beyond where he had left his golf cart, a brilliant white machine that contrasted sharply with the Marshall’s black wardrobe. Once there, Marshall Garrett used his free hand to toss Silver carelessly into the back of the golf cart where golf clubs would normally be placed. Then he ushered Bertie into the front seat, still maintaining his vice-like grip on Bertie’s wrist.

The Marshall wheeled his machine through the north side of Hole 15, across Hole 18’s fairway, and onto the slender path of rough separating Hole 18’s fairway from the expansive and open driving range on Bertie’s right side. Garrett Marshall’s choosing of the quickest route back to the clubhouse proved to Bertie that the man was not bluffing.

With the clubhouse now in sight, Bertie felt that even though speaking had not yet affected the Marshall’s resolve, he had to try something else while he had a chance. “What are you going to tell him?” He tried to sound beaten.

“As much as Mr. Cassidy loves his little creekboys,” the Marshall gloated, removing the golf ball from his pocket to brandish it while he spoke, “I don’t think he’ll much appreciate hearing about you looting Burnt Creek property.”

Bertie’s keen eyes caught a view of the scribbles of black writing on the ball, giving him an idea. “And you think Mr. Cassidy will believe that I took that golf ball after reading what’s on the top half of it?”

The Marshall brought the golf cart to a halt and lifted the ball close enough to his eyes that some stray mustache hairs nearly touched it. He tracked the words carefully. With the golf cart stopped and the whirring of the engine ceased, that left only a solid silence while Bertie waited out the Marshall’s verdict. The man’s lips pursed as his dark eyes left the golf ball and settled on Bertie the Kid. Bertie could see the written words had the proper effect. He decided to drive the point home. “Why would I write that I was trailing myself?”

The assistant golf course manager nodded slowly in a moment of realization. “You wouldn’t.”

Bertie the Kid relaxed. Then suddenly the Marshall’s free hand flashed out towards the driving range. Bertie flinched at the movement that took place in front of his face, but then recovered enough to catch a glimpse of something releasing from the Marshall’s hand. Incredibly, the man had tossed the precious golf ball onto the driving range amid a smattering of other similarly striped driving range balls.

Bertie’s eyes froze on the location of the ball as it rolled to a stop, though part of him wanted to look back at the Marshall to see what in the world the man was thinking. Fortunately for him, the Marshall voiced the answer, “But I can always grab a different ball on our way in to see Mr. Cassidy, one that won’t have confusing notes written on it.”

Exasperated, Bertie the Kid spouted, “If you were going to lie, why wait until now? You could’ve made up something up long ago.”

The Marshall turned forward. “It’s no lie that I found you in possession of a driving range golf ball. Why should it matter if it’s different than the one I caught you with?” The golf cart suddenly started forward as the Marshall resumed their path. Before they made too much progress, Bertie--his eyes still locked on the abandoned golf ball--took his baseball cap and flung it as far as he could. The spinning cap caught a slight breeze that helped it to hover before it took a fortuitous drop squarely on top of the vital golf ball.

Stopping the golf cart as soon as Bertie the Kid made his desperation throw, the Marshall contemplated turning back. Instead, he just laughed as he tightened his grip on Bertie’s wrist. “Very well. If it wasn’t enough to lose a stolen golf ball, you can now rest assured that your hat will fall victim to Thaddeus Diamond. As you can see, he’s in the golf ball picker tractor right now and will snatch it up on his next pass.”

The dark green tractor, with a perch covered by a protective cage, swung around after reaching the north end of the driving range. Inside the cage of the tractor, a man could be seen deftly handling the controls. Out in front of the tractor, like little antennae, groped four extensions, each holding a separate golf ball collector. These arms stuck out in front of the tractor and used small wheels to hug the ground like a vacuum on carpet, finding the driving range golf balls, picking them up with rotating tabs, and dumping them into baskets sitting on top of the rolling forerunners.

The Marshall referred to the driver as Thaddeus Diamond, but most everyone knew him as the Hang Loose Man. According to a conversation that Bertie the Kid had with Kid Carson as they watched the driving range tractor from the clubhouse one day, the man had lived out most of his earlier life as a beach bum surfer, but his old age brought him into the care of one of his landlocked, adult children. Looking for some good, part-time employment, he took a job at the Burnt Creek, clearing out the driving range once or twice a day. He likened the rolling mounds of the driving range to the ocean swells he had spent most of his life on.

The fact that Mr. Cassidy offered him the job at all was a credit to the golf course manager, since Thaddeus could barely see more than thirty feet in front of him. Too many years of sun reflecting off of beautiful ocean ripples into his unprotected cornea caused him to become legally blind. However, Mr. Cassidy liked his laid back, “hang loose” attitude, and after a few trial runs, found that the defunct surfer could make out enough blurred landmarks that it was not too difficult for him to simply sweep back and forth across the driving range, knowing when to turn by the placement of some special flags at specific intervals throughout.

Now, the Hang Loose Man worked his way across the driving range on a direct course for Bertie the Kid’s hat and the ball that held the key to who had been clearing out Hole 15 of excess golf balls. If Bertie the Kid felt uncomfortable about going to the clubhouse with the Marshall before, now he positively squirmed. As the Marshall zipped the golf cart forward Bertie’s desperation caused him to shift towards the edge of his seat. The sudden regripping of Marshall Garrett’s hand, however, told him that the last thing the Marshall would allow at this point was an escape attempt.

The clubhouse swelled up in front of the two as the white golf cart came to the end of Hole 18. Less than a minute more and the Marshall would be parking outside of the golf store and dragging Bertie the Kid in to see Mr. Cassidy. Suddenly, the golf cart jerked to a halt.

A golfer in front of them stood on the edge of the fairway between the green and the path to the clubhouse. A tricky chip shot would be required to get the golfer’s ball over a mound, yet not past the green. The Marshall, suddenly civil when it came to golfer etiquette, chose to wait for the golfer’s swing so as to not throw off the shot. The golfer turned to acknowledge the golf cart before swinging and Bertie immediately recognized the face of Catherine Williams.

Catherine saw Bertie, and then saw the Marshall gripping his wrist. She made some quick calculations, then called out. “Go ahead and pass.”

The Marshall nodded, not needing further prompting, and zoomed on the last stretch for the clubhouse. As they swept past the pinegineer, she gave Bertie the Kid a meaningful look. Bertie the Kid could not be sure how to interpret the look, but he knew it hinted at some sort of strategy and that he should be prepared. As the Marshall curved the path of the golf cart to park it parallel with the clubhouse, Bertie suddenly heard a familiar voice yell, “Fore!”

A second later a golf ball came screaming into the moving golf cart, smacking  the dash in-between the passenger and driver and ricocheting off the roof. The Marshall, completely unexpecting this golf ball barrage, drew both hands up to his face. In the process, he released his hand from Bertie the Kid’s wrist. The creekboy did not waste a single moment. As soon as his wrist was free, he hopped over the seat and lifted Silver out of the golf bag holder.

The Marshall had not yet stopped the golf cart, since his foot remained on the accelerator while his mind tried to process what had just happened, but Bertie the Kid would not wait for him to stop. With the golf cart bumping over the rough lawn to the side of the clubhouse, Bertie’s hands melded with Silver’s handlebars and the two jumped off the back. By the time Silver’s front tire met the grass, Bertie had managed to slip his feet around the frame and mash onto the pedals. Without a backwards glance, Bertie the Kid and Silver tore away from the Marshall and his ride.

Though Bertie the Kid could have easily headed for the nearby wilderness between Hole 18 and 15, in his mind, there was only one place to go. As he jetted past the green of Hole 18, he managed to release one hand from Silver long enough to throw a grateful salute at Catherine Williams, who nodded back and urged him onward.

Bertie’s eyes shot forward. The Hang Loose Man purred in his tractor towards the spot where Bertie the Kid knew he had left his hat. If he did not get there in time, the hat would probably be mangled or tossed up with the rest of the balls into the baskets on the golf ball retriever. Worse, the golf ball that held the information that Bertie was desperate to have would be lost among hundreds of other golf balls and then taken directly to the maintenance room at the side of the clubhouse and mixed with thousands of golf balls to be distributed to driving range customers only. If he hoped to get anything from that golf ball, Bertie had to get to it before the Hang Loose Man did.

At Bertie the Kid’s current angle, he knew that the tractor would reach the hat before he would, so he swerved onto the driving range and set himself on a direct course to converge with the tractor’s path to his hat.  Almost immediately golf balls started sailing all around him. The golfers at the driving range, who normally found pleasure in taking aim at the Hang Loose Man any time he emerged to harvest golf balls--even though several posted signs prohibited it--now found a new target in the streaking form of Bertie the Kid.

The best move Bertie could make was pile on more speed to the already racing Silver. This threw off the golfers’ attempted drives and gave Bertie the Kid renewed hope that he might be able to reach the hat and ball on time. After dipping into a small recess in the driving range, Bertie the Kid found himself turning to trail the Hang Loose Man. The tractor glided leisurely, a good chipping distance ahead of him. Only a couple dozen yards beyond it, Bertie the Kid spotted his hat.

“Let’s go, Silver!” Bertie the Kid urged, digging for one more burst of speed from his faithful steed.

The already streaking forms shot forward and Bertie found himself closing the distance on the unaware Hang Loose Man. Still, the relentless machine inched closer to his vulnerable hat with its precious cargo. As both of them worked up an incline, Bertie finally began to pass the caged tractor, just in time to see the hat and golf ball straight in front of the Hang Loose Man’s golf ball collectors.

A few more seconds and there would be no more hat and ball.

Without thinking about the risks, Bertie suddenly reached to his hip and released the Returner, while at the same time catapulting in front of the Hang Loose Man. It only took a second for him to steer Silver out in front of the machine. Then, Bertie the Kid eyed his hat, extended his arm, and fired the Returner.

The shot had to be perfect. Not only did it have to hit the hat, but it had to sink into it enough to pick up the one golf ball hidden underneath. The Returner’s shaft flew forward, the claw enmeshed itself with the cap, a round indentation gathered in the claw’s center, and just as the golf ball collector touched the edge of Bertie the Kid’s faded golf ball cap, the creekboy snapped the Returner’s arm back into place, with the cap and ball following. Without even pausing in relief, Bertie continued forward so as to remove himself from the Hang Loose Man’s path. The tractor whizzed past him, the long haired, soft-hearted man in the cage oblivious to the action that graced his domain. He simply reached the end of the line and swung back to go the other direction.

Bertie the Kid’s pursuit of the tractor and his hat placed him back at the edge of the driving range, near where the Marshall first tossed the ball out of his golf cart. He trotted Silver to a halt as soon as they passed beyond the driving range and back onto the rough of the Back Nine. Here he hoped to catch his breath after the exhausting dash and take a second to scrutinize his prize. But just as he was about to cock the Returner to release his hat, his periphery caught sight of a white machine jolting in his direction. His head swiveled in time to see Garrett Marshall charging toward him in his golf cart, his eyes aflame with anger.

Bertie the Kid immediately clipped the Returner, with its catch, to his hip. Then he took off across the Hole 18 fairway. The Marshall cut after him at an angle, allowing him to whir right up to Silver’s back tire as they jumbled across the rough separating Hole 18 from 15. Bertie swerved to throw off the Marshall, but the assistant golf course manager capably zipped right back behind Bertie.

Desperately, Bertie the Kid slipped into the trees lining the fairway leading up to the green of Hole 15, hoping that the Marshall would have a difficult time following with the golf cart. The Marshall seemed to ignore the danger of entering the trees and plummeted full force into Bertie’s wake.

Thanks to his sprint to catch the Hang Loose Man, Bertie the Kid found himself running out of steam. It was all he could do to suck in air as his jellied legs exerted all their strength to stay ahead of the pursuing golf cart. His hope rose, however, as he saw a thick screen of bushes and trees ahead. He found a narrow opening between trunks and slipped through. He ventured a glance backward and saw that the Marshall opted to swerve over some small bushes instead of following Bertie through the narrow pass. Though low, the bushes proved stout enough to push the cart’s wheels off the ground, grinding the Marshall to a halt.

Bertie the Kid did not stay to witness more. He weaved through more trees until he was forced to stop when he heard a familiar trickling sound. He reined Silver in just before the upper portion of the Burnt Creek, where it threaded past the eastern holes of the Back Nine. He looked down on it from a shaded bank edge, noting how it was thickly littered with boulders throughout. The high banks on either side were similarly marked with rocks interspersed among huge tree trunks and roots.

Just as Bertie the Kid took in this view, he heard something crashing through the underbrush behind him. Incredibly, the Marshall had not allowed his stranded golf cart to stop him. With a distressing determination, the man in black charged forward on foot and now was catching up to Bertie just as the creekboy realized he had reached a dead end.

A second later, Bertie the Kid made the connection that he had been in this situation before. The creek need not serve as an obstacle, he thought, but as protection. Gauging by the unforgiving sharp rocks pointing up from the creek six feet below him, Bertie knew that hopping down into the creek would not work. There was no pool to catch his fall, like the one in front of the ash tree in the Badlands when the Jesse James brothers pursued him. His eyes quickly scanned downstream until stumbling upon just the right possibility.

Among the bouldered edge of the creek, one rock jutted out over the waters like a sort of shelf. Bertie’s biking eyes knew that it would be perfect for launching. Though as his mind followed his intended jump, the creekboy knew that it could never get him to the too-distant other side. However, parting the creek waters in the middle of the Burnt Creek, a tabled rock jutted impressively upwards, with jagged edges but a smooth top. Bertie’s eyes then skipped forward. On the opposite side of the creek, in line with the shelf rock and the rock in the center of the creek, the lip of the bank lowered just enough to convince Bertie that he and Silver just might be able to connect the dots.

Bertie the Kid did not wait to think it over. Silver sailed downstream, parallel with the edge of the creek towards the shelf rock. Just before reaching the launch pad, Bertie turned back towards the trees in order to give himself a little bit of room before charging at the rock. Then he wheeled a half circle that brought him onto the last stretch of earth before the rock. He pumped Silver’s pedals and leaned forward, pushing down to put as much weight into his leap as possible. The pair hit the edge of the shelf rock and Bertie the Kid pulled up.

In a majestic arc, Silver soared over the rushing creek waters below. The front tire came down on the flat-topped boulder just as the bottom tire followed. Bertie the Kid had no time to recuperate. The moment they landed, he yanked up again on Silver’s handlebars, urging him into another leap.

This time Silver had lost quite a bit of momentum, so when they left the middle rock, they sailed forward, but not up, in a straight line for the opposing bank. Just as Silver’s front tire began to descend below the lip of the receiving creek edge, they arrived. The front tire slid onto the root-infested ground beyond the bank, with Bertie powering the back wheel to claw up the embankment edge to flat ground.

Bertie the Kid brought Silver to a halt so he could gain control after the bumpy landing. He ventured a glance backwards, across the Burnt Creek, and saw Garrett Marshall standing at the brink of the opposite side. The Marshall’s face burned with a strange look on his face that was a mixture of anger, awe, and confusion.

“I will catch you someday, Bertie the Kid,” the Marshall called out, his black visor bobbing in unison with his black mustache as he spoke.

It was supposed to be a threat, but Bertie noticed that it was the first time the man had ever referred to him by his nickname. The creekboy smiled, taking it as a mark of unintended respect.

While Bertie the Kid made no response, he did release his cap from the Returner, remove the golf ball from it, and place his hat on his head so that he could give the Marshall a proper tip of his bill before navigating the tree roots past the creek.

When he meandered out of eyesight from the creek and found a spot where he could rest, Bertie the Kid pulled Silver to a stop. Then his hand brought the elusive driving range golf ball to his view. The jerky handwriting at the top still asserted the message that Bertie the Kid trailed the author of the note.

Bertie shifted the ball to look at the writing on the bottom half. There, in the shade of the pine trees surrounding him, Bertie the Kid saw the message: “Drop off tomorrow noon Sally Moon Stand.”

Bertie the Kid knew the place. And he would be there.

©2013 Marty Reeder