Every day little Johnny Miller swept the run-down porch of the local General Store, and every day was the same. He would walk the dusty streets of Amarillo as the sun rose with his faithful dog Bailey. Together they’d stand on guard against the endless clouds of dust. Sadly, sweeping only took so long, that is to say not long at all, despite Johnny’s short stature. Being only seven made it awfully hard to hold a broom properly. Yet, Johnny managed, as it was ‘of the utmost importance that they maintained a reputable establishment,’ or something of the like; he didn’t pay much mind to Mr. Finch’s words when it came to the shop- only when it came to the money.
Johnny swept idly as he tracked two incoming dust clouds at the edge of town. He watched them lazily hoping that hidden within those clouds were the strangers from yesterday. Several men had come to town, hats hiding their faces from the beating sun. They hadn’t done much and already their presence made Amarillo more interesting. Folks didn’t like having strangers around, said they only ever brought trouble. Johnny wasn’t sure what kind but if it helped pick up the pace in this sleepy town then he was up for a little trouble.
The clouds drew closer carrying the steady drum of horse hooves. An agitated Bailey rose from her place at the top of the stairs and began barking as two strangers approached. Their horses had a wild look about them and were burdened with an assortment of gear- clearly, these were traveling men. One wore a trim suit and spoke exaggeratedly, the other looked to be a rancher, burly and covered in dirt. The strangers cast a glance Bailey’s way before hitching their horses. Johnny made sure to avert his eyes as they spoke to one another, aware of the attention Bailey was drawing, “Hush, Bailey quit it.”
The men parted ways, the fancy man headed for the Saloon, the other approached slowly, hand out in greeting as Bailey sniffed him before gently patting her. Johnny watched wringing the broomstick between his hands, “S-Sorry ‘bout her mister.”
“Ain’t no harm done,” the man drawled remaining focused on the dog.
Slowly Johnny began sweeping again, regarding the man before him. His face was young, but his eyes were hard and gray. A top his head sat a worn hat that seemed as much a part of him as the scruff on his chin. So distinct was his hat, with bullet holes punched through the brim, that the boy could not pry his eyes from it.
The stranger must have caught him staring. Johnny cleared his throat, forcing himself to meet those hard eyes, “That’s a nice hat mister.”
The man rose from his place one foot perched on the step-in front of him and removed his hat, holding it out for inspection, as if it were the first time he’d ever seen it.
The man quirked a brow, “Thanks kid, suppose it ain’t bad,” he said while eyeing the boy, then flashed him a crooked smile, “what’s your name?”
The boy perked up, “Johnny, Johnny Miller that is.”
“Well, Johnny Miller, how well do you know this town?”
“Been here a few years now,” he stammered scratching the back of his neck, “Ma and me came here when Pa died, said there’s more oppor…opportunies.”
“Opportunities huh?” the man looked back over his shoulder to the rest of town. Three shops lined the main street including the General Store, at the end sat rundown homes and an abandoned farm. “Yeah, well it’s a fairly…sizable town you got here, plenty of places to work I guess.”
“Biggest town for miles!” Johnny chimed.
“I’ll bet,” he chuckled, “So that why they’ve got you workin? Don’t think sweepin’ makes a lick of difference out here.”
Johnny could help but laugh, “Me either, but Ma needs help or we’ll be sleepin’ with the sheep again.” The man’s brow furrowed at that, he was thinking hard the way adults always seemed to do. Afraid he spoiled the mood Johnny leaned in close with a goofy smile and whispered, “Plus if I earn enough I can buy candy and Ma won’t have to know!”
The man brightened, giving him a quick pat as he entered the shop, “Keep at it kid, you’ll get there.”
Johnny smiled to himself as he resumed his chore, pleased that he had made a new acquaintance, and there was still no trouble to be found. Folks were clearly wrong about the newcomers; all a bunch of suspicious fools. Not a few moments later the door chimed and the man emerged, bottle of whiskey in hand. The porch creaked under his weight as he parked himself on the bench and began drinking.
“So Johnny, you know who lives in that house on the edge of town?” he asked while patting Bailey, who was enjoying the attention as much as Johnny.
“Yeah, that’s McKinney land. No one goes there,” he hoped the man didn’t plan on introducing himself or there would be trouble.
Johnny stopped sweeping to look around and make sure no one was listening, “He ain’t nice. Folk thought he had all kinds of money, started goin’ and sniffin’ round. Each of ‘em caught a bullet, least that’s what everyone says. And a few years back Mrs. McKinney went missin’ no one knows why.”
The man nodded his head thoughtfully, scratching his beard. Johnny could tell his mind had gone somewhere distant, so he went back to work enjoying the silence between them. It was nice having someone to watch the town folks with; the man’s presence was comfortable even.
“Mr. Callahan, there you are,” a boisterous voice called breaking their quiet spell, “are you ready to depart this deplorable town?”
Johnny looked to the man hoping he would stay, but all he received was an apologetic smile. He followed as the man slowly rose to meet his brightly colored friend, “Yeah, guess so.”
Disappointed, Johnny stood at the edge of the porch and watched as they mounted their horses. Before he could say his farewells, the man reached into his satchel and pulled out a bag of candy, “it was nice talkin’ kid,” he said with his signature smile and tossed the bag.
Johnny dropped his broom and waved to the pair as they rode away; eyes never leaving that bullet-riddled hat.
Sun had finally set as Johnny padded down the street, Bailey in toe. He popped a candy in his mouth savoring its sweetness as he passed the Saloon. Music and laughter poured from every window, louder than ever before. More strangers had come looking for a good time and based on the noise they were making he figured they found it; the whole town would undoubtedly be drunk tonight.
Johnny neared the end of the lane when the crack of a gunshot rang clear. Bailey perked up as Johnny stopped beside her staring into the darkness.
Bailey tore off down the street, without thought Johnny gave chase. More shots rang out before he finally caught Bailey by the scruff of her neck, “Dumb dog-”
He froze as an old man crawled out to the road soaked in blood and pale as a ghost; it was Mr. McKinney.
Johnny stared at him wide-eyed as the old man clawed at the ground, “H-Help.” Rustling in the bush made Johnny’s heart race, quickly he grabbed Bailey and hid behind the nearest wagon. Fear hit him when he heard a familiar gruff voice, “Who you callin’ for old man?”
It couldn’t be. Holding Bailey for dear life Johnny peeked between the wheel spokes of the wagon. Mr. McKinney was lying on his back now, pistol held to his head by a man who covered his face with a red bandanna. There was nothing to distinguish him aside from his hat; a hat marked by bullet holes. The old man begged, pleaded for his life. A second man emerged from the bush, then another; their faces unrecognizable to the boy. They laughed at the old man’s weakness, demanding to know where the money was. Johnny turned away, tears falling down his cheeks. Guilt washed over him at the realization that this was his fault. He told the man about the McKinneys. This was the trouble folks warned about.
A final shot. Then a wet thump. The boy buried his face in Bailey to stifle his tears, the music of the Saloon now all too far away. He sat there confused trying to reconcile the fact that the man he met earlier was killer before him. He had thought about running but the idea of being shot scared him too much, so he waited. He waited as night passed, while the body was dragged and the men, still laughing, disappeared; he waited confused and afraid, hoping he never found trouble again.