|Welcome To The Bullpen
By Harold Ratliff
Billy stepped out of the cabin well fore daylight. The feel of the cool morning air felt good against his grizzled old face. Billy really wasn’t that old but his thirty odd years and the life he lead made him feel that way. Stepping back inside, he grabs his first cup of coffee to begin the day. Billy took this job bout six months ago. Too many people were beginning to want him dead. His former life as a hired gun was catching up with him fast. Seemed there was nowhere Billy could go that death wasn’t following. Sitting down in a saloon for a stiff drink or a good game of cards can never happen again he thought to himself.
Going over the chores he had in store for the day in his head, Billy suddenly turned toward the door. “I know I heard footsteps on the porch,” he thought. Billy got up and cautiously walked back outside. Nobody was due up to this camp for another month. It was still dark out but day was just beginning to break over the distant mountains. Billy searched the shadows before shrugging it off as another trick of the mind. He had been having a lot of those these days.
Billy went back inside and poured himself another cup of coffee. “This will be the last of the morning. I gotta get moving,” Billy told himself. “Billy, Billy, Billy Wilder,” a voice called from outside. “Billy, I come up here to kill you.” Billy doused the lamp with a wet finger and swiftly moved through the dark room from one window to the next searching for any form out in the shadows where the voice could have come from. Billy’s six-shooter was in his hands. He didn’t even remember drawing it from its holster. But then, drawing a gun was something Billy was good at. Some even said he might be the best.
His mind raced, trying to recall the last several years of his life. “Who could have found me way up here?” Billy asked himself. Only Jimmy Franklin, the ranch boss knew he was up in camp, and Jimmy wouldn’t tell anyone, would he? Billy and Jimmy had been friends a long time. In fact, Jimmy was one of the few people Billy could call his friend. You just don’t make many friends slinging a gun as Billy had.
Billy knew he needed to get out back to the horses. He didn’t want to get stuck up here without a mount. The camp-house did offer a little cover slipping out the back. The sage was high enough that, coupled with the cover of darkness, Billy could get to the horses unnoticed. There wasn’t an exit to the back when Billy arrived so he cut himself a makeshift door that led to the sage at the back of the cabin. If you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t see it.
Billy knew that whoever come after him would expect him to go for the horses so when he reached the corral, Billy hunkered down in the shadows and waited for daylight. He had played this game before and knew he could out wait anyone.
Billy listened for any sound, any movement, but none was heard. Daylight came and except for the trees rustling in the wind, there was nothing else moving. The horses weren’t edgy and paid no mind as the day began to wind its way into the shadows. In fact, the only one on edge seemed to be Billy. He wondered why he felt this way. Nothing ever bothered Billy. He had nerves of steel, but something wasn’t right with this and Billy didn’t like it.
Billy thought back to where the voice may have come from and who it may be. He suddenly realized, he had no idea. The thought even crossed his mind, “Did I hear it in the first place?” Billy would not allow himself to believe that he was hearing voices. Nevertheless, a cold chill ran down Billy’s spine as the waiting game continued.
As the sun wound its way across the sky, Billy wondered how his life ever got to this point. He remembered an old cowboy telling him one time that man didn’t choose life as a gunfighter, the life of a gunfighter chose the man. Billy knew that even though the lifestyle had been good to him, he wanted nothing more than to walk away and become… normal, whatever that may be.
Being this high up in the hills made for a rather pleasant day, except for the invisible someone that wanted to kill him. With all the thoughts running through Billy’s head, the day quickly passed and nighttime would come soon.
Billy hadn’t seen or heard anything except a few cows bawling in the meadow below. He knew he couldn’t stay here and needed to slip his horse out of the corral as quietly as possible. This was not going to be easy because with darkness moving in quickly, sound was starting to carry. Billy slipped his horse out into the deep shadows and left the gate open so his remuda could get out and graze. He knew the horses would most likely making their way to the meadow below.
It was completely dark as Billy slipped back into the cabin the same way he had slipped out. He quickly and purposefully put together a few things in his saddlebags to get him by for a few days til he could ride down and let Jimmy know that he needed to send another hand up to camp. Billy knew he couldn’t remain there. Somebody had found him. Somebody always finds him. But, that was his life and there was no one to blame but himself.
As he crept back into the deep shadow cast upon the land by the moonlight, Billy’s hair began to stand on the back of his neck. “Am I losing my nerve,” Billy asked himself. He shrugged that notion off but could not help but wonder how much longer he was going to be looking over his shoulder. Suddenly, Billy felt an uneasiness that he had never felt before. The sudden realization hit him that one day, he would die and that it would most likely be at the hand off someone trying to make a name for himself or someone just repaying an old debt.
He crawled into the saddle and slowly began working his way towards the meadow below then across to the next ridge. He turned to look back towards the cabin and through the moonlight, thought he saw movement so he moved out a little quicker. Billy hadn’t had any sleep in several hours but knew this would be a sleepless night. He had to put distance between himself and whatever he hoped he was leaving behind.
Billy didn’t want to cover a direct path to Jimmy. Whoever it was found him on that mountainside probably knew he was working for the B Bar H and would be going back to make right before cutting a different path. Billy figured that if he hadn’t shown up in three days, whoever had come looking for him would figure Billy called it even and lit a shuck for parts unknown.
With several hours and miles between him and the cabin, Billy figured he would make camp and get a little shuteye. He had been checking his back trail best he could in the dark and didn’t believe he was being followed anymore. Nonetheless, this would be a dry camp with no campfire. Billy had packed some jerky and had a full canteen. That should get him by for a while. He staked his ole sorrel on the tall grass just a few yards from where Billy decided to lay his head. The ole boy was a heck of a cow horse but would also let him know if danger was creeping in.
Billy awoke with the sun peaking through the trees and onto his face. He glanced over at the sorrel and realized his ears were perked up and he was searching for something. Billy suddenly heard a horse headed his way. “Hello, in camp. Don’t shoot, I’m comin in friendly,” said a voice. Billy thought he recognized the voice but before he could put a face to it, Jimmy rode into camp.
“I been looking for you,” Jimmy said. “Rode up to the camp-house and you was gone.” Billy slid his gun back into its holster without Jimmy noticing. “I was comin to have a talk with you face to face,” Billy said as he motioned to his saddlebags offering Jimmy some jerky. Billy walked for his saddlebag to get Jimmy a chunk when he suddenly realized that it was Jimmy’s voice he heard at the camp-house and Jimmy wouldn’t ride all the way up just to talk. Billy slowly turned to see Jimmy holding a gun on him.
“I thought we were friends,” Billy inquired. “We are,” said Jimmy, “but this is business, it’s not personal. Times are hard and two fifty dollar gold pieces go a long way to help resolve that.” Billy did the one thing Jimmy didn’t expect. With blinding swiftness, he drew his gun and shot Jimmy twice in the chest. Billy’s action was so swift and unexpected that Jimmy never knew what happened and was unable to return fire. Billy was just that fast. Billy thought to himself, “Is this what my life is worth, two fifty dollar gold pieces.”
And with that, Billy took the gold pieces from Jimmy’s vest figuring this was wages he had coming. Jimmy was a friend so Billy buried him, took one last look around and rode away. No need riding back to the main house now. One more thought entered Billy’s mind as he looked over Jimmy’s grave, “Someone paid Jimmy to kill me and that someone was still out there.”