This is a story of the American West. The story of cowboys who ran out of cows to chase. The story of migrant workers and the story of one migrant in particular, Jack Racketts, a renegade son in a big family, who wanted to be tough, who wanted to be free.
After the surrender of the South in the civil war, Jack punched cattle in Kansas then just drifted from one meaningless job to another. It wasn’t that he was lazy. He pulled his weight but never more than his weight.
He was argumentative. He would argue that the sun rose in the West if someone declared with too much certainty that it rose in the East.
He had an unerring knack for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. It wasn’t on purpose. Jack wasn’t mean or vindictive. He just had an inappropriate sense of humour and an opinionated manner. It drove everyone to distraction and more than once lost him a job or worse got a few men so riled up that they were ready to kill him.
Fights were frequent and Jack had the scars to prove it.
After too much time chopping wood, hammering nails, climbing ladders, just for his dinner, Jack went looking for his big brother Frank and found him in a little town in Arizona called Sawdust.
Sawdust was just something left over after you make something useful. Silverload was the real county town but it was twenty miles further up into the Galiuro Mountains.
Sawdust was too close to Chirichuaha country for folks to get too comfortable. But that’s where Jack found Frank and he was grateful for the shelter offered him.
Jack's brother Frank was the the town's sheriff. The job came with a shack and a horse, but not much else. He had moved to Sawdust after getting mustered out of Grant’s army. He originally came looking for silver like everyone else, but settled for keeping some semblance of order in a town that was not much more that a stage depot where passengers bound for Silverload changed from the comforts of the Santa Fe stage line to Herman Potter’s broken down Wells Fargo hand me down stagecoach that four knackered out draft horses pulled up and down the mountain every forty eight hours.
He had been there about a year when he sent for his mother. Dad had died in the war years and Mom was left on the Illinois farm with the younger ones. Now all the younger ones, including Jack, had gone off. Gone wandering. Gone out west.
There were no girls to stay home and look after Mom. The farm got sold and Mom came out to Sawdust to live with Frank. She made herself useful cooking for drifters. The few outlaws that Frank managed to apprehend and keep in the pitiful jail, got the left overs.
Sawdust had a grubby hotel with a small but decent dining room, a livery stable, a general store, a school, a dress shop and a saloon. Most of the houses were down the hill, closer to the creek, out of the way of passing trade, and passing trouble. Sawdust was nothing anyone would take much pride in, but Frank liked it, and Sawdust liked Frank.
And for all its modest benefits, Frank was rather pleased with his position and was terribly worried when Jack turned up. He was afraid Jack would do something stupid and embarrass him in front of the storekeeper and the livery man.
Against his better judgment Mom persuaded Frank to look after Jack. It would cost him nothing to make Jack a deputy. Nobody objected.
Frank was none too happy. He knew Jack was a troublemaker. He had been ever since he was a kid.
‘I’m only agreeing to this because Mom wants it. You better not bring any disrepute on us. I don’t want no trouble Jack. You get yourself a job and settle down or get gone.’
Jack promised Frank it was all going to be fine. Jack knew that his luck was running out. Sure he could keep on drifting. Maybe go out California way. But that was a lonely life. Too lonely for Jack.
Jack wanted somewhere to belong and Sawdust was his last chance. He was nearly twenty and if he didn’t find a wife and something to do soon, he was never going to be able to.
He was good with horses and Herman Potter took him on as a stable hand. He fed and groomed the horses, tended and cleaned the harnesses, collected the hay from Miller’s farm, made the coffee, cooked the breakfast and anything else Herman was minded to ask him to do.
When he had some time, he would sit behind Harry Johnson’s store and argue with Harry's idiot son Horseface, Tom Appleby and a half breed Chirichuaha who went by the name of Blue Eyes.
One afternoon Jack shot Horseface. Shot him in the middle of the chest from no more than two paces away. Horseface was dead before he hit the ground.
Jack took Frank's horse and ran like a rabbit at the sound of a baying hound.
‘Leave him go,’ said Mom.
'I can’t,’ said Frank and he saddled up and rode after Jack.
Mom’s last words were, ‘Then you get him and bring him back unhurt. He’s entitled to a fair trial just like anybody else.’
Jack was a good horseman but so was Frank. Jack tried every trick in the book to shake him, but Frank kept coming. Frank was gaining.
It was a race across a stretch of salt flats that ended it. Jack was the first to make the rugged outcropping of loose rock and cactus. He looked desperately for place he could make a stand and try to persuade Frank not to kill him. He knew Frank was going to kill him. He didn’t want to be killed by his very own brother.
But Jack didn’t find a place. Instead his horse went out from under on the way down a steep incline of loose rock. The horse came down on Jack hard. He felt his leg snap and something in his back go wrong.
When Frank caught up with him, Jack was in a pitiful way. Thrown from his horse. His leg was broke and pinned in a crevice.
There he lay. Helpless. The horse skidaddled.
Frank didn’t come up on him right away. He was rightfully cautious and his natural circumspection meant that Jack lay under the blistering sun for several hours unable to move anything but his arms. He couldn’t reach the pistol that had popped out of his holster. It was just beyond his fingertips.
The horse had run off with the water.
Frank didn’t approach him until the buzzards started circling.
'Did ya kill Horseface on purpose?' he asked Jack after he'd given him a drink of water from his canteen.
'If he's dead, I reckon yes,' said Jack.
'You meant to...?' asked Frank.
'I reckon maybe I didn't,' Jack ventured tentatively, sensing a way out.
'You had a reason?' asked Frank.
'I reckon yes,' said Jack.
'And what did you reckon that reason might 'a been?' asked Frank.
'Damn he made me mad, Frank,' said Jack.
'Mad ain't worth a man's life Jack,' said Frank.
'I know. I know. I ain't really got an excuse. I know it. But killin' me won't do nothin' for nobody. You could set my leg, ride off and tell everyone that I's dead. No one's goin' to call you a liar.'
'And spend the rest of my life wonderin' when you'd turn up again,’ said Frank. ‘You’ve done it this time. Nothing for it but to take you in and hang you.’
‘Mom ain’t going to let you hang me Frank. You know that.’
‘I ain’t got no choice.’
‘Just put my pistol in my hand. I’ll save you the trouble of a hanging. I’m finished anyway. I think my back's broke.’
‘The right thing is to take you in.’
‘You can’t always do the right thing by doing the right thing Frank.’
‘You’re going to get a trial. What if the judge decides not to hang you?’
‘You think you can keep being sheriff if they don’t. I know Horseface was a good ol'boy. Everybody liked him. None too smart, but he didn’t hurt nobody. It was my fault Frank. I got him mad. He didn’t mean it but he was going to kill me. I was sure he was going to kill me. Yeah that's right. It was self defense. He was goin' ta kill me.’
‘Don’t see it that way Jack. Blue Eyes won't tell it that way. I reckon your goose is cooked this time.’
‘Just give me my pistol Frank. Let me put an end to it. You can tell ‘em I got away. I don’t want to be carried back like this. I’d die anyway.’
Frank looked down at Jack. He had a decision to make. It would be a decision that he would have to live with for the rest of his life. He looked out across the salt flats. The mirages shimmered up into the sterile blue sky……. With a deep sigh he kicked the pistol within his brother's grasp, walked to his horse, his back open to Jack and the pistol.
Jack lifted the pistol and pointed it at his brother's back. He pulled the trigger but the hammer fell on an empty chamber.
Hearing the dull thud Frank turned back and looked Jack straight in the eye.
‘Christ Frank,’ said Jack. ‘I’m hurting.’
'So am I am,' said Frank and without a further word he mounted his horse and rode off. He had not gone very far when he heard the shot and suddenly a great burden was lifted from his shoulders.