Lightning flashed off to the south of town and Daniel Sampson noticed the dark, roiling clouds of the impending storm. Thunder boomed moments later, shaking the weather-worn, wooden buildings along the dirt main street of Flander’s Junction.
“That was a good one,” Ritter Wells said. Sampson spun on his booted heel and found his tall, lanky friend standing behind him.
“Kinda snuck up on me there, Rit,” Sampson laughed.
“Ha, good thing I’m not Mengler, eh?” Ritter replied. Sampson felt chills run up his spine at the mention of Albert Mengler.
As the town’s newspaper man, Samson had splashed the details of Mengler’s despicable crimes across the front page each week. Albert Mengler’s horse-thieving and murderous ways had become grist for the scary stories told around campfires and in farmhouses all over the Arizona Territory.
As an honorary member of the sheriff’s posse Daniel Sampson was also credited with capturing the dreaded outlaw. Sure, the sheriff and his volunteers had brought Mengler in and, yes, Sampson had been the one to find him, but it was more of an accident than real tracking work. Slipping off the steep rocks above the stream where Mengler happened to be bathing would never be considered heroic, but the public was satisfied. Mengler was not and he swore to end Sampson’s life. That was before he disappeared into the night after escaping from the town jail.
“Don’t fret,” Ritter said, noticing the queasy look on Sampson’s face. “Ol’ Mengler wouldn’t stick around just to get even with you.”
“I s’pose,” Sampson responded skeptically, eyeing Ritter’s brown and white Appaloosa. He noticed the bedroll tied up behind the saddle, the full set of saddle bags, and Ritter’s Winchester sitting snuggly in the scabbard on the left side of the horse. “Goin’ somewhere?” he asked.
“Yup,” Ritter smiled.
“Oh,” Sampson replied. He felt a pang of sadness, but he didn’t know why. He and Ritter hadn’t been friends for very long. Yet, when they’d met he’d liked Ritter right off and they were fast friends.
The kid had grown up on a farm to the east of town. His aunt was a librarian in Missouri and she sent the family books for every birthday or holiday. Ritter was well read and loved to talk about books and writing. He’d started coming around a year earlier, helping Sampson with odd chores in the newspaper office. They traded books and discussed things like philosophy and travel, things that most other members of the small, desert community had little time for.
“I want to see some of this old world, you know?” Ritter admitted once, as they finished the next day’s paper.
“There’s a lot to see,” Sampson replied, wiping ink from his hands.
“Someday, I’ll get my chance to see somethin’ more than this dusty territory!”
“I bet you will.”
Sampson and Ritter were separated by a number of years and were at different stages in their lives. Yet, he liked the kid and was shocked by the news that he was leaving. Ritter’s curiosity about the world and his joyous spirit reminded him of what it’s like to be young and have the universe at your feet.
“Where you headed?” Sampson asked.
“Sierra Madre,” Ritter said with his signature wide-mouthed grin. “I know a guy with a gold claim. I aim to strike it rich!”
“Good luck,” Sampson said. “And watch your back.”
“Positively!” Ritter hooted. “Hey, if I see Mengler I’ll tell him you said hello.”
“Don’t bother,” Sampson snapped, quickly adding, “I’m sorry to see you go.”
“It’s my chance, you know?”
“I’m guessin’ I’ll be back through at some point,” Ritter said, extending his hand. Sampson shook it firmly, reaching his left hand out and grasping his friend’s shoulder fondly.
“Be careful, Rit,” Sampson warned. “You won’t be around friends anymore.”
“I know,” Ritter nodded, patting his Winchester. Ritter pulled himself up into his saddle. “Adios, muchacho.”
“See you, friend,” Sampson said. He watched his friend ride out toward the storm. In a matter of minutes the wall of dust that preceded the rain swallowed Ritter and his Appaloosa.
Sampson went back inside his office to shut all the windows. He looked at the little card pinned up above his desk. It was a drawing of Salineville, Ohio, the town he left when he was a young man. He looked out the window at the shabby little town he’d ended up in. He nodded grimly and headed for the door, hoping to beat the storm to his house. Looking into the distance one last time, hoping to spot his friend, he whispered, “Hope you find what you’re lookin’ for, Rit.”