Friday, November 1, 2013

Hole 18: Outcast of the Burnt Creek Back Nine

Hole 18: Outcast of the Burnt Creek Back Nine

Bertie the Kid breathed softly as he stepped delicately through the heavy rough of Hole 18. The wind howled loud enough that he did not need to be quiet, but because he was deliberately disobeying Mr. Cassidy’s orders and had broken his exile of the Burnt Creek Golf Course, he felt the need to be overly cautious.

Part of Bertie the Kid’s conscience tugged at him relentlessly. Bertie was a faithful creekboy. With the exception of not ratting out the Anderson boys, Bertie performed Mr. Cassidy’s bidding to the letter and never broke a rule set by the golf course manager. Until this day.

Bertie finally saw a gleam of white. Stuck in the small fork of a tree, a golf ball had escaped the notice of the poacher--of Kid Cassidy. Bertie still had a difficult time adjusting to this ugly truth. More than ever he wanted to talk to Kid Carson. He was angry with him, yes, but more than that, he was bewildered by him. Why? For all the lies that Kid Carson had told Mr. Cassidy, one thing Bertie agreed with: he and Kid Carson could see so much of each either in themselves. It is what made his previous conversations with him so easy--they understood one another. Yet, now, Bertie could not understand this glaring and devastating side of him.

Bertie the Kid did at least understand one thing as he left the golf course in exile the day before. If he simply did nothing, then he would be finished at Burnt Creek for good. That is why he chose to dismiss Mr. Cassidy’s final demand and surreptitiously enter the golf course for at least one, last time.

Kid Carson, Bertie knew, would find golf balls, whether he got them at the Back Nine, Front Nine or even bought them back from Russell Brands or Sally Moon. Bertie the Kid could talk things through with Mr. Cassidy all he wanted, but the creekboy realized something that he had instinctively known all along: words were meaningless. Mr. Cassidy seemed to only hear excuses. If Bertie had a bag of golf balls that he had retrieved from Hole 18, in Bertie’s mind, that would make the golf course manager start to listen.

Now, with the golf ball from the tree fork, Bertie the Kid raised his golf ball number to four. Not hefty enough to even cause Mr. Cassidy to blink. Worse still, this was even after several hours of searching. The other three were golf balls that had been lost recently enough that they avoided Kid Carson’s first sweep of Hole 18.

Bertie also knew that it was unlikely that more golf balls would be stuck in the forks of trees, though this little grove just in front and to the right of the Hole 18 tee provided plenty of tree forks. With most pine trees, the branches shot out perpendicular to the trunks, but the deciduous trees surrounding Bertie, mostly scrub oaks and maples, had plenty of branches sprouting out from other branches.

Through those branches, Bertie the Kid saw the overcast morning that was the result of the previous day’s strong winds. The clouds were so heavy when he first arrived just past sunrise--sneaking past the clubhouse patio, through the rough of Hole 15 and then slipping over to Hole 18--that Bertie could not even tell when the sun rose. Most of the morning, the sky around him felt like the dark gray before dusk. The winds further accentuated the solemn mood of the setting, and Bertie kept listening for the sound of thunder to cap off the scene.

Nature’s somber grinding contributed to Bertie the Kid’s building despair. Only four golf balls in as many hours. If he did not find more soon, then he might as well mount Silver and ride off of the Burnt Creek Golf Course forever. The wind seemed to encourage his thought by slamming into him, eager to push him off the course.

Just as Bertie resisted the breeze’s fierce assault, his mind arrested the line of thinking that encouraged quitting. He remembered how, at the Back Nine Rush so long ago, he faced a similar challenge. He thought he had found all the golf balls in the area, but when he needed more, a shift in his focus helped to open up new possibilities of discovery.

A couple maple leaves snapped off their branches and fluttered into Bertie before whipping around him and onto the ground. The drifting leaves and briskness in the air told Bertie that summer was at its climax and that in a couple months this area would soon be blanketed with leaves.

This thought directed Bertie the Kid’s sight to the ground. Below him spread the roots of the tree community. Those roots were webbed with dirt that seemed almost flakey on the top surface, then harder below. Something Linus Foley said the day before struck Bertie the Kid. According to Mr. Foley, the jewelry he searched for got lost below the previous year’s leaves.

Bertie knelt to the ground and his eyes searched the grove floor carefully. Instead of seeing plain, brown sheets of dirt, like he used to see, Bertie the Kid now saw that even dirt had history. Tiny traces of thin lines framed a myriad of outlines of old leaves that had faded, melded, and decayed into a solid mesh of dirt.

Bertie realized that this layer of earth would not have been there last year, that the leaves were hiding last year’s floor. Bertie the Kid pushed his cheek to the soil and scanned the surface of the tree-filled rough at ground level. Here and there, his eyes noted small, subtle mounds just pushing above otherwise flat areas. Bertie the Kid chose the bulge nearest to him and immediately scraped the ground with his fingernails. The dirt flew off in large chunks, the layers of leaves from long ago. Suddenly, he saw it. The perfect sphere of a dirt-covered golf ball appeared from underneath one of the pieces Bertie removed.

Within moments, the golf ball was in his bag. Five. Soon, though, Bertie knew he would lose count. The more, nearly imperceptible, mounds he found in this little grove, the easier it became to locate and unearth others.

As he worked, Bertie remembered Kid Carson mentioning that as a Back Nine creekboy, he just missed reaching Hole 18 before the course closed for the season. That, Bertie realized, must have been why the elder creekboy chose Hole 18 to begin his poaching. It meant that Kid Carson could almost justify the hole as rightfully his for the picking, since he never got around to it. Kid Carson then managed to pick up last year’s golf balls not hidden by last year’s blanket of leaves--probably under the pines, evergreen shrubs, and deep grass. The poacher could not have imagined that he would be stepping over an impressive stash of last season’s lost golf balls any time he walked through this grove.

A little over an hour later, Bertie the Kid boasted a respectable load of golf balls in his bag. He scanned the area once more and found one last mound sitting under a lowered tree branch. Bertie bent it forward and past the target area with one hand while his free hand touched the ground. His fingers, stained dark by the rich earth, scraped the last mound in the small grove. Bertie now felt he had enough to go to Mr. Cassidy and start a conversation. The thought of actually speaking to Mr. Cassidy spilled a wave of relief over him. He felt that--


The crack of a dead branch on the ground was not loud, but it was close. Considering Bertie the Kid’s status as an imposter, that small sound struck him to the very core with fear. Whoever had stepped on that branch had already seen him. Bertie mentally railed against himself for letting down his guard. Only in the last quarter of an hour, with a bulging bag of golf balls and thoughts of a reconciliation with Mr. Cassidy on his mind, only then did Bertie the Kid start to relax and forget to keep his eye out for anyone approaching the grove.

Bertie froze in his position as he listened to footsteps shuffling closer behind him. He kept his back turned, one hand still in his bag where he had dropped the ball, one hand holding the branch forward. His mind raced with possibilities while he waited to see what would happen.

For a brief moment, when the footsteps stopped and nothing happened, Bertie the Kid wondered if it was only a golfer looking for a deviant shot. The weather made it seem unlikely that a golfer would be out today, he thought, but possible. Then the person spoke, and Bertie knew that he was wrong.

“Bertie the Kid. Figured we’d find you here today. It’s my duty to inform you that you are trespassing on Burnt Creek Golf Course property.”

The Marshall.

Bertie the Kid’s spirits tumbled from the relief of finding golf balls to complete despair.

“I’m going to ask you to stand up slowly and come with me. We’re going to head to the clubhouse again, you and I. Except this time, I’m not going to let go of you no matter how many golf balls are fired my way.”

Bertie knew better than to suspect a bluff from the assistant golf course manager, but a part of him wondered if going to the clubhouse was such a bad thing. “You’ll take me straight to Mr. Cassidy?” He kept his face down and his back still turned. If the Marshall took him to Mr. Cassidy, bag and all, that would give him a chance to speak with golf course manager on his own terms.

The Marshall’s feet rustled on the ground. “I don’t think that will be necessary. Mr. Cassidy is a busy man. I think I’ll just notify the police and have them meet us in the parking lot. Mr. Cassidy can learn about it later when I take him the paperwork.”

Something in the Marshall’s voice hinted that the man was intent on keeping Bertie away from Mr. Cassidy.

Bertie the Kid knew he could not let the Marshall lay a hand on him. Once it latched, nothing would compel the man to release his grip. He heard the Marshall start to bend over towards the crouching Bertie. The creekboy’s outstretched hand holding the branch suddenly offered the opening Bertie the Kid needed. “Actually,” he said, “I think I’ll go tell Mr. Cassidy about it now.”

Immediately, Bertie ducked his head and let go of the branch. Eagerly, the tensed branch shot past Bertie the Kid and smacked into the unsuspecting face of the Marshall. The slap caught him so off guard that he rocked back on his heels, lost his balance, and then smacked into the ground on his backside.

Bertie did not see any of this, however. As soon as the branch whizzed over his head, he leapt to his feet and sprinted towards the edge of the grove. He jumped over some bushes bordering the area and traversed down a slope into a tree-filled depression, where he had parked Silver hours earlier. After hopping over some reaching roots, Bertie the Kid saw Silver propped up behind a patriarchal pine tree.

Behind him, he heard the recovering Marshall bash through the undergrowth, but Bertie the Kid knew that once he mounted Silver there would be no catching him. The creekboy barely slowed down as he jumped over the back tire onto the seat, flicked up the kickstand, and pounded down on the pedals. “Let’s go, Silver!” he urged.

The two rolled forward and Bertie the Kid swerved to steer around a stand of pines. At that point he noticed something terribly wrong--the turn slowed him to a near dead stop. For a brief moment the surprising change in speed caused Bertie to lose control. His quick hands recovered and he pumped the pedals again. His momentum momentarily returned, but Bertie noticed that any adjustment with steering caused Silver to wobble and decelerate as if he were riding through a deep sand trap.

Taking a second to look away from the path ahead, Bertie’s eyes fell down to the front tire. His heart dropped. The front tire mushroomed onto the ground as the wheel cycled underneath him. This was not just a flat tire, Bertie realized, looking at how completely the wheel smashed into the earth, this was a slashed tube. Someone had deflated Silver’s tire, and--in the same act--deflated all of Bertie the Kid’s hopes of escape.

Just as he reached this conclusion, someone jumped into Bertie the Kid’s path, forcing him to turn a bike that could no longer steer. As a result, Silver crashed to the ground and Bertie the Kid flew forward, crumpling in a messy heap reminiscent of the crash at his first Back Nine Rush.

Consistent with that distant moment was the presence of Jesse Woodson. The eldest of the two Woodsons was the one who had stepped onto the path. He looked down at Bertie and extended his hand, a grin on his face as they both recognized the mirroring of the first time they had come face to face. “You’re not going to turn down my hand this time, are you, creekboy?”

Bertie the Kid could only open one eye, his other one throbbed in pain and stayed shut. Still, he saw enough to know that he was out of options for running. Bertie managed enough dignity to ignore the hand and push himself, groaning, into a sitting position. He readjusted the strap of the bag of golf balls, which had managed to hold onto its precious cargo through the crash. Then he heard approaching steps.

James Woodson emerged from behind him, fingering an open pocket knife. “I think he’s too proud, Brother,” he said. “But his bike don’t look too proud with the tire huggin’ the ground like that. You should probably check for leaks, little creekboy. It’s not good to let a tire leak all the way like that.”

James’s smirk, accompanied by the pocket knife, told Bertie the Kid everything he needed to know about Silver’s flat tire. Defeated, Bertie still managed to be defiant. “It’s also not good to trespass on Burnt Creek property,” his voice rasped a bit, “But the Marshall will tell you all about that in just a few seconds.”

The Jesse James brothers laughed. Before they could clarify what they found humorous, the Marshall trudged through the bushes and down the sloping earth behind Bertie. “Hey, Mr. Marshall,” James Woodson snickered. “I guess we’re in trouble for trespassing, ain’t we?”

The Marshall ignored James and came over to Bertie the Kid. “Did you hurt him?” The question surprised Bertie, even if it was asked without compassion.

“Naw,” James answered. “He took a tumble trying to get away on his bike. Jesse tried to help him up, but he don’t care for our friendliness.”

The Marshall’s vice-like hand gripped Bertie’s shoulder and the creekboy winced as it forced him to a standing position. “Alright, trespasser. Let’s go back to where I found you. Someone’s waiting for us.”

The Marshall and Bertie the Kid led the way with the Jesse James brothers following from behind. In spite of Bertie’s limp and restricted vision due to his swelling eye, they managed to make it up the incline and back to the small grove quickly. As soon as they passed into the trees, Bertie the Kid noticed a small form leaning against a trunk at the far end. It was a silhouette that he would now recognize anywhere.

“I guess creekboys ain’t all dumb,” Jesse Woodson was the first to speak, directing himself towards the figure. “The little squirt went straight for his bike, just like you said he would.”

Kid Carson pushed himself off the tree trunk. He saw Bertie’s bruises, and Bertie thought he saw the elder creekboy hide a flinch.  James followed up giddily, “Yeah. Too bad for him, though--the tire went out!”

Kid Carson glared at James. “The tire? You didn’t just move the bike somewhere else?”

James snorted, but the Marshall interrupted. He had little patience for anything other than the business at hand. “Looks like he got a substantial haul.”

Kid Carson redirected his look to Bertie the Kid’s bag and saw its bulge. His eyebrows raised. “Good. I thought I might have to run over to the Sally Moon Stand if nothing showed up in the next half hour or so. The Back Nine is pretty bare lately.”

Bertie the Kid looked around him with a combination of shock and dismay. They were all in on it. Bertie could barely fathom how or why the Marshall was permitting the Jesse James brothers on the course. He especially did not understand the tolerance that the man showed towards Kid Carson, a creekboy--his enemy. Yet, despite these contradictions, here they were, at ease enough to hint at previous meetings. The Marshall used his free hand to pull Bertie’s bag up and off his shoulder. Then all of his morning’s work dropped past the Returner on his hip and plumped onto the ground.

Kid Carson stepped forward, ignoring Bertie the Kid entirely as he picked up the bag. “They’re pretty dirty.” He glanced at Bertie, his face betraying a small sense of wonder. Bertie could tell that Kid Carson wanted to know where he found them. If that was the case, the moment passed as Kid Carson looked back at the Marshall. “But it’ll be enough.”

The Marshall nodded. “Alright, then. Let’s wrap up this business.” He looked over to the Jesse James brothers. “You two. You’re guarding the trespasser while I go get the golf cart.” The Marshall turned his face down so that Bertie the Kid could look up at his black eyes underscored by his bristling mustache. “I thought you might make a run like the last time I chased you, so I left the golf cart on the other side of the Burnt Creek in case you got flushed out that way.  Without a bike, though, I guess you weren’t going too far.”

Bertie the Kid turned his face away from the Marshall’s, but by that time the assistant golf course manager was already looking back at Kid Carson. “Head over to the golf ball washer at the end of Hole 14. Clean the balls up so that Mr. Cassidy will think they should have been easy picking for Bertie to get--dirty ones will make it look like you had to work to find them.” Kid Carson nodded.

The Marshall continued, this time turning back to the Jesse James brothers. “When, I come back, we’ll all head for the parking lot where I’ll contact the cops. Once that’s taken care of, I’ll see to it that you’re properly paid. If things work out like I’m hoping, I’ll get a hold of you for future jobs dealing with trespassers.”

Bertie the Kid listened to the plans, exasperated and helpless. It was shocking enough to find out that Kid Carson had been the one stealing golf balls. But now, Bertie saw that the Marshall clearly led the conspiracy, even to the point that Kid Carson followed up with a question: “What should I tell Mr. Cassidy when I see him?”

The Marshall paused to think. “Keep playing your cards light. We’ve got to keep Mr. Cassidy suspicious of Bertie the Kid without you looking like a nark.” The Marshall weighed some options in his mind, then spoke, “Tell him this. Say that the balls were a little bit out of the way and that maybe Bertie the Kid just didn’t see them. Mr. Cassidy won’t believe it, but the more you keep defending Bertie, the more his accusations against you seem fake.”

Kid Carson gave another dutiful nod. While Bertie the Kid remained stupefied by incredulity, everyone else nodded to the Marshall, indicating that they understood the plans.

The Marshall left the scene first, striding purposefully over to the fairway toward the bridge crossing the Burnt Creek to Hole 17. Kid Carson lingered, if only momentarily. His fingers toyed the Returner hanging from his hip as he looked over at Bertie. Their eyes met. Kid Carson’s eyes flickered between thoughtful embers and ambitious flames. Bertie’s replied with a cold, hollow look. Silence dominated for a dozen seconds.

“Before you enter Mr. Cassidy’s office with my golf balls today, I’ll see you again ... in the Burnt Creek Café,” Bertie stated coolly.

Strangely, Kid Carson did not doubt his sincerity. “I’ll be ready for you.” The elder creekboy strolled out of the trees, found his mount, and left for Hole 14.

“Ain’t it fun to see the kids play?” James taunted.

“Gimme your belt,” Jesse replied.

James lifted his eyebrows but obeyed. “Say, you thinkin’ of whipping him? I want a turn.”

“Don’t be an idiot, James,” Jesse drawled. “We whip him and they’ll ask questions. I happen to know that the little creekgeek can be a bit squirmy, and he just told the other Kid that he’ll see him at the Burnt Creek Café. Well, it ain’t happening on my watch. Not unless you want to answer to the Marshall when he gets back.” Jesse grabbed Bertie the Kid and shoved him towards a tree. Bertie resisted at first, but once James came over to assist, Bertie’s sore body gave in.

The Jesse James brothers wrapped Bertie’s arms around the back of the trunk and Jesse used James’s belt to bind the creekboy’s wrists together. Jesse tugged on the belt enough to make Bertie inadvertently cry out, then he secured it. Once they had Bertie set, they walked around to the front of the tree and started talking about what they were going to do with the money they got from Garrett Marshall.

Bertie twisted his arms, but the more he moved, the more pain he felt. So instead, his mind raced. He had to get to the Burnt Creek Café before Kid Carson finished washing the golf balls. Once Kid Carson walked into that office with those golf balls, Bertie knew that any last appeal to Mr. Cassidy would be lost. The question was how to do it.

If he waited for the Marshall to return, Bertie knew he would be transported to the clubhouse under the steady watch of the assistant golf course manager. An escape, he felt, had to be now or never, with the Jesse James brothers looking the other direction and before he was under the Marshall’s grip. But Bertie’s aching wrists argued against this possibility.

The other devastating reminder was the brothers’ cruel crippling of Silver. Even if he could somehow free his hands, he could be easily chased down on foot. His mind rehearsed the ugly scene of Silver’s flattened tire, and he ached for his bike. These thoughts compounded with the increasing darkness from gathering clouds around him, mounting Bertie’s despair. Each passing minute put him further and further away from redemption. How much longer can Kid Carson wash golf balls? he thought. How much longer until the Marshall pulls up in his golf cart? Bertie the Kid knew those questions would be answered soon enough, and either would spell his impending doom.

Then the Jesse James brothers scooted even farther away from him towards the fairway. The Marshall’s back, Bertie the Kid thought, resigned. But it was not the Marshall. Instead, the creekboy saw someone he did not expect. Standing on the fairway, beckoning the two brothers over to him, was the rogue Anderson twin, Sits-in-the-Sand-Trap. The Jesse James brothers took no more than a passing glance at the limp form of Bertie the Kid before they stepped towards Sits-in-the-Sand-Trap.

While it was a change of scene, Bertie’s bound wrists still negated any hope of escape--until he heard a voice whisper in his ear, “Keep your head down and hold still.”

Bertie the Kid’s heart leapt, but he held his body still. Behind him, he felt the belt tighten and then drop to the ground. “When I give the word,” the voice continued, “Turn quietly around and follow me. Do not make a noise.”

Though his face still hurt him, Bertie the Kid managed to lift up his good eye and peek carefully towards the brothers. Sits-in-the-Sand-Trap was showing the Jesse James brothers something. He could not see exactly what it was, but he recognized the Anderson twin pulling something back and letting it go. Both brothers exclaimed and jogged a short distance out of sight. With the boys removed Bertie saw that the item of interest was a slingshot that Sits-in-the-Sand-Trap wielded proudly. Bertie surmised that the boys must be checking out a hit target.

“Now!” the voice urged.

Slipping around the trunk, Bertie at once recognized Rough Rider urging him onward. The creekboy knew that he still faced a mountain of problems, but the fact that he was looking at a friendly, loyal face after feeling so outnumbered and alone, caused him to inadvertently smile as the two silently slipped farther into the trees behind the grove.

Once they started walking down the slope on the other side, the creekboy felt confident enough to whisper, “Where in the world did you come from, Rough Rider?”

The Anderson boy could not help but smile back at Bertie the Kid. “Your talk with Sits-in-the-Sand-Trap yesterday left him thinking about loyalty. He felt that he should be more loyal to the one person who is truly friends with the Andersons.”

The two half-walked, half-slid down a particularly steep section of the pitched ground. “Earlier today, he saw the Jesse James brothers at the Sally Moon Stand. They came asking if Sits-in-the-Sand-Trap had seen Bertie the Kid. He asked them why and they told him that they thought you’d be on the course and that the Marshall had hired them to catch you. Just then, the Marshall rode up to the stand and told the boys that he saw your bike over at Hole 18.”

“That reminds me, the Marshall will be coming back at any moment,” Bertie the Kid said, looking back the direction they came.

“Probably. But, Don R. overheard the Jesse James brothers and told Sits-in-the-Sand-Trap that he would try to stall the Marshall. He was talking to the man about some approaching golf competition when Sits-in-the-Sand-Trap left the stand. He rode as hard as he could for Anderson territory and found me. We came immediately.”

“Don R., huh? And Sits-in-the-Sand-Trap.” It was hard to believe that only minutes ago he had felt so alone. “You were just in time.”

“A little early, actually,” Rough Rider replied. “The Marshall must have needed to look for Kid Carson. Then he parked his golf cart a good walking distance from where you were gathering golf balls so that you couldn’t detect him. That gave us time to scout out the situation. Sits-in-the-Sand-Trap checked things out by the trees up where they held you, and I checked things out down here below.”

Just then they heard some yells and crashing through the deep rough behind them. “They figured out that you’re gone,” Rough Rider said, “Go to your bike, go now!”

They were now near the point where Silver had given out on Bertie the Kid earlier. Bertie started forward, but then remembered. “They slashed my tires! My bike won’t work.”

Rough Rider smiled, even in their urgency. “Of course it will work,” he shoved Bertie forward.

Confused, but impelled to action by the approaching sounds, Bertie the Kid took some steps forward. He turned back to try to re-explain the situation to Rough Rider, but the Anderson boy had disappeared already. Bertie the Kid jogged a few more steps and then understood.

Directly in front of Bertie the Kid, Silver rested on its kickstand, the back wheel in the same condition as before, but the front wheel … Bertie’s one good eye scanned it knowingly. The front wheel was not his. He took a split second longer to examine it and recognized it as the front tire to Rough Rider’s bike.

He gawked in amazement for a moment and turned around to find Rough Rider and thank him, but instead he saw the Jesse James brothers charging through the trees in an effort to catch him. For a moment, Bertie froze, not knowing what to do. The next thing he knew, a form came flying out of a tree and tackled James Woodson. The Marshall’s mercenary flopped to the ground in a heap. Bertie watched Rough Rider wrap his legs around James’s legs and then brace one arm around James’s chest with the other around his back, rendering him motionless.

This did nothing to slow down Jesse, however, who continued forward, intent on snatching up Bertie. The creekboy briefly considered hopping onto Silver, but he knew that the steed was a couple steps too far. Instead, Bertie looked at the ground between him and Jesse and immediately formed a plan.

Quicker than eye could track, the Returner slid off of Bertie’s clip and fired at a branch on the ground. Once set, the Returner prong waited for Bertie to retract, but Bertie held off. It only took Jesse a few long strides to cover the distance between him and Bertie the Kid, but in the middle of one of those strides, the eldest Woodson boy found himself unable to reach his foot forward. The recoiling Returner with the branch managed to catch the Woodson’s foot and cause him to stumble face-first to the ground.

Bertie the Kid did not take the time to offer Jesse Woodson his hand. Instead, he cocked the Returner to release the branch, then he re-clipped the contraption and hopped onto Silver. The bike shot forward towards the edge of the tree-line, but after a couple of pedal strokes, Bertie braked. A blazing white golf cart jolted to a stop on the fairway directly in front of Bertie’s intended escape route. From inside the golf cart, the Marshall stared Bertie down fiercely.

Bertie released his breath. He had come so close. From behind him, he heard a straining Rough Rider call out, “Now you show them what you can do, Flying Tires! Now you fly!”

Flying Tires heard James Woodson struggle against his captor, he heard Jesse Woodson start to push himself back to his feet, he heard the Marshall call out for him to stop, but the creekboy pushed it all to the back of his consciousness. Instead, he listened to Rough Rider’s cue and searched the trees in front of him. Just as Rough Rider implied, one tree trunk angled away and low to the ground to the left of him. The trunk bent horizontally before gradually rising. Then, just before reaching the border of the fairway, it shot straight up.

Without further bidding, Bertie the Kid slammed down on his pedals and flung himself towards the tree trunk. Just as he reached it, he yanked up on Silver and the steed ably crested, balanced, and proceeded along the rising trunk. The Marshall sat dumbfounded, tracking Bertie the Kid until the roof of his cart blocked the view that would have shown Bertie and Silver launch off of the tree trunk, land on the roof of the golf cart, and then plummet in a controlled drop onto the fairway beyond. Bertie’s legs absorbed the shock from the drop, causing one foot to jar off the pedal, but within moments the bike and rider recovered and maintained their forward momentum.

To the side of him, on the fairway, Bertie the Kid heard a rollicking “Yip-yip!” He ventured a glance to the side and noticed a celebrating Sits-in-the-Sand-Trap urging him forward. Bertie managed a nod of the head before he channeled all his focus into putting as much distance between himself and his pursuers as possible. At first he sped down the fairway of Hole 18, heading straight for the clubhouse. Soon enough, however, he heard the persistent hum of the Marshall’s golf cart making up for lost ground.

Bertie the Kid knew that if he was going to rid himself of the Marshall menace, he would have to find a way to throw the man off his trail for good. Taking a hard swerve to the south, Bertie gave himself a bit of a buffer by sliding over to Hole 15. Instead of turning east, and taking the same path as when the Marshall pursued him before, this time the creekboy went west.

The Marshall began to catch up again once their path straightened, but just before he reached the streaking Bertie, the creekboy found the tee of Hole 15, zoomed across the driving spots, and flew down the slope. Once at the bottom, Bertie the Kid careened across the bridge leading to Hole 14. The tight path going to the bridge slowed the Marshall just enough to buy Bertie the Kid a few more moments, but the incensed assistant golf course manager was starting to get reckless in his pursuit, tearing across the Hole 15 tee and forgetting the brakes down the slope that followed. Bertie began to worry that the Marshall would simply charge directly into him. Still, though, Bertie did have at least one more trick, and it relied on the Marshall driving at his current level of insanity.

The creekboy wheeled around Hole 14’s green and found a familiar gap in the cattails lining the edge of the fairway. Without even pausing to consider his actions, Bertie powered Silver into Mack Lake, showering lake water everywhere as he entered. His momentum brought him about halfway to the McSwan’s island before he heard a monstrous splash behind him. He swerved Silver to the side and turned to watch as a huge wave crashed forward, formed by the Marshall’s overworked golf cart.

The cart managed to gain an impressive distance towards Bertie before slumping irrevocably into the lake. By that time, Bertie had swerved Silver into a channel between cattails leading back to the fairway. Due to the mucky lake bottom, Bertie had to pump hard to make any headway. Soon enough, however, he found his way onto dry ground.

Bertie the Kid peeked around some stalks and saw the Marshall making a pathetic attempt to push the golf cart far enough out of its mire that the wheels would gain traction. So focused was he on the effort that he never saw Mr. McSwan coming.

As much satisfaction as it would have given Bertie to watch the ensuing scene, he knew that he was running out of time. He retraced his path around the green while he listened to the curses and yelps of the beleaguered assistant golf course manager harmonizing with the fierce hiss of the male mute swan.

Just before crossing the bridge back to Hole 15, Bertie the Kid stopped at the golf ball washer to the side of the path. Kid Carson was not there. That meant that he had gone for the clubhouse. It also meant that, for all of Bertie’s work, he was too late.

Bertie the Kid’s swollen face ached just a little bit more at the thought. But then his good eye zeroed in on the golf ball washer. He noticed that the cleaning device still had a good amount of soapy water dripping from it. Because the bubbly streams of water seeping out of the washer were still long and running, Bertie knew that Kid Carson had to have left within moments. This meant that Bertie the Kid just might stand a chance at catching him.

Silver flung forward, screaming across the bridge, clipping around the tee of Hole 15, and shooting through the rough separating it from Hole 10. The machine worked almost with a mind of its own, dodging trees, rocks, and dips at full speed while Bertie the Kid’s mind staked itself on the one thought of arriving at the Burnt Creek Café before Kid Carson could breach the back door to Mr. Cassidy’s office.

The two hit a jump and flew out of the rough and onto Hole 10’s fairway. The hill leading up to the clubhouse barely registered for Silver, who charged up it at top speed. At the summit, Bertie the Kid did not even pause to properly park Silver. Instead, he braked and Silver’s back tire slid across the cement patio. As the noble steed came to a halt on the ground, Bertie hopped off and in a single movement jumped at the door to the patio. The door was still closing from someone else using it.

Bertie the Kid raced into the Burnt Creek Café, guiding himself around tables while heading for the corner that led to Mr. Cassidy’s office. Just as a scurrying form broke past the final table en route to the door, Bertie the Kid jumped up, slid across the table, landed on the other side, and called out, “Stop!”

Kid Carson halted mid-step, and Bertie the Kid took a few steps forward before easing to a standing position. Kid Carson slowly turned around. “Bertie the Kid.”

“Kid Carson.”

“I guess we’re meeting at the Burnt Creek Café ... just as you said.” Kid Carson fingered his Returner thoughtfully. “And I’m ready for you ... just as I said.”

©2013 Marty Reeder