Billy had been on the trail for four hot, dusty, windless days. His horse Rudy was exhausted and badly in need of a pasture, but he didn’t dare stop. Not for more than a few hours deep in the dead of night when it became dangerous to continue on. He had a price on his head and he needed to get as far away from Colorado as he could. Rudy understood, he was sure of it.
The badlands of New Mexico had seemed a logical direction, then. He had heard the deserts were inhospitable and the natives even more so, but that’s what made the direction so appealing. No posse was going to brave this desert just to apprehend a failed bank robber. He didn’t actually have anything they needed to retrieve. Yeah, New Mexico seemed like the perfect choice. At the time…
He knew he was getting close to the cattle town of Lincoln, because he could smell the cow shit blowing in on a high desert breeze. The trail had merged with a real road a few miles back and he had happily followed it toward the distant mountains, which grew closer and gave way to greener foothills, spotted with cattle.
Billy’s mind was wandering and his gaze unfocused when Rudy suddenly stopped, almost pitching him forward. He snatched at the saddle horn and grabbed a handful of mane. The gods of the desert must have been smiling on him that day, because he didn’t fall. Instead, he blinked his eyes into focus, their gaze falling on the object in the middle of the road that had spooked his horse.
He rubbed at his eyes and peered at the object laying in the sand, where the road crossed a draw, some 15 feet ahead. Damned if that didn’t look like a hat. Billy nudged Rudy forward with a gentle heel to the withers. The horse refused to budge.
“C’mon Rudy, it’s just a stupid hat,” he said encouragingly. He nudged the horse again. Rudy shifted with a grumble, but refused to move forward.
“Shit! C’mon, you stupid nag, we’re almost there! It’s right over that rise. You’ll get all the water and grain you can swallow, just… get… a move on!”
The horse blustered and stepped backward. Irritated, Billy swung down from the saddle, grabbing the bridle and pulled the horse toward him, to look him dead in the eye.
“There ain’t nuthin’ in that draw but rocks and sand. Whut the hell’re you on about?”
Rudy’s eye bulged with fright. The outlaw snorted.
“If there was a snake you woulda heard it by now!” He contemplated the situation and finally gave in. “Fine. I’ll check it out. You stay put, got it?”
The horse nickered. Billy released the bridle and grumbled forward.
“What idjit leaves a perfectly good hat laying in the middle of the road, anyway?”
Billy’s eyes narrowed and he scanned the area around him, expertly. If it was a trap, he’d almost sprung it. He stepped back toward a large boulder on the side of the road. Turning, he scrambled up onto it, his guns at the ready.
The vantage point gave him a clear view of the area surrounding him. The valley he was traversing was a bowl, so he could literally see for a mile in every direction. Not a soul stirred, except a few cattle and a single, circling shadow in the cloudless, bleached-blue sky.
He stepped back down off the rock, unconvinced. Something didn’t feel right. He stared at the hat, now half the distance it had been before. He looked back to make sure his horse was still where he left it. Rudy stared back at him quizzically. He nodded and continued forward, stopping just a few inches shy of the mystery hat.
Billy played with the toothpick in his mouth. He’d never seen anything like this in all his years roaming the West. It was a hat, alright, but not just any hat. This was a Stetson. Top of the line. Dudes were spending two month’s wages for those hats in the cities. Why, then, would something so valuable find itself here, in the middle of the road, in the badlands of New Mexico?
He gave the hat a nudge with his boot. No snake. He rolled the toothpick around in his mouth. For the life of him he couldn’t figure this puzzle out. So, he pondered.
Finally he settled on a scenario he could live with. Some dude on business in these parts had been this way. Maybe a big wind, or a dust devil came up from behind him and blew his hat off his head, blinding him with dust so he didn’t see where it got to. By the time he was able to see, the hat was long gone and he had to move on without it. Yeah, that was plausible. It also gave Billy a much-needed chuckle at the dude’s expense.
He squatted beside the hat, marveling at how clean it was. No dust could be seen anywhere on it. The dude who lost it must have passed this way just minutes before. Billy stood and looked around him again. No sight of the dude anywhere.
‘Oh, well, finders, keepers. One dude’s loss is this cowboy’s gain,’ he thought to himself, pulling the worn, dusty, sweat-stained hat from his head and tossing it aside.
He lifted the new hat from its resting place on the sandy dirt and inspected it. Clean. So clean and inviting. It even had that new hat smell. Must have been a recent purchase. Billy’s grin turned into a full-faced smile. It was his lucky day. Standing, he placed the hat on his head, marveling at how snugly it fit. Almost like it had been made for him.
Turning back to Rudy, he threw his hands out in a presentation. “Well, what do you think?”
The horse reared up, squealing loudly. Billy took several steps forward. “Whoa, now, Rudy. What’s got you so spooked?”
The horse regained its feet and danced backward. Billy stopped.
Without warning, Rudy spun around and bolted, back the way they had come. Billy was stunned, but shook it off quickly and ran after the retreating animal. He never had a chance of catching up and after a quarter mile sprint, he gave up, hands on knees, gulping down air like it was precious. He stood, gasping and looking in the direction of the delinquent Rudy. His hands moved to the hat, which had not budged during the flight.
Billy sighed with resignation. Rudy was smart. He’d find his way to Lincoln eventually. Turning back in the direction he’d come, he shrugged and put one weary foot in front of the other, heading in the direction of the cattle town.
The cowboy never felt the fine, micro-tendrils slipping through the greasy follicles on his head and drilling into his skull, then into his very brain. He smiled, feeling very optimistic and energized with each step. That feeling of good will soon gave way to euphoria and suddenly he could see exactly what he’d done wrong in Colorado Springs. He knew exactly what he should have done instead to make the bank heist successful. He knew exactly how to make it work the next time.
Smiling ecstatically and stepping lightly, Billy rubbed the edge of his new hat’s brim, stroking it like he would have done a woman. Or a favorite dog. Oh, there was no doubt about it, this was a very special hat. It made him feel like he could accomplish anything he set his mind to – anything at all. For the first time in his lusterless, uninspired, outlaw life, Billy was feeling very, very creative…