Western Short Story
A Deadly Presumption
R. Orin Vaughn


Western Short Story

Tommy Bowling was in Pete’s Place when the stranger came in. Tommy pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his shirt pocket, looked at it, and then got in such a hurry that he stumbled and tripped over his own feet leaving the saloon. He just could not get on his horse fast enough to ride out to the Cord ranch and tell Phinehas.

Now according to some eastern newspaper clippings and a dime novel, Ed Gant had killed nearly thirty men. Half that many would have been closer to the truth, and most of that figure was in a Texas range war. Gant had a reputation as a gunfighter sure enough, and he had put down his share of notorious shootists. Always a fair fight though; they said he never drew first.

Phinehas Cord was sitting on the corral fence watching his young fiancée Leah exercise a new mare he had bought for her in Tucson when Tommy came racing down the road and stormed into the lot. Tommy reined back and slid his horse to a halt in a cloud of dust in front of the corral.

Tommy’s horse wasn’t fully back on its feet before Tommy was clambering at Phin who had jumped down from the fence. Eyes wide and jumping with excitement he said, “It’s HIM. It’s HIM. He’s in Martin’s Break right now, at Pete’s Place.”

It’s who?” said Phin as he grabbed Tommy by the shoulders. “Calm down here and talk to me a minute, dog-gone it. Who’s in Martin’s Break at Pete’s?”

HIM,” said Tommy as he shoved the worn newspaper clipping into Phin’s face that he had just pulled out of his shirt.

Phin snatched the paper from Tommy, stepped back and looked at it. “Ed Gant’s in Martin’s Break?” said Phin. “You sure it’s Ed Gant, Tommy? What would he be doin’ in Martin’s Break anyhow?”

Don’t know fer shore. Told Pete he was waitin’ for someone,” said Tommy.

How do you know it’s him for sure?” Phin said. “Did he say so?”

It’s him I tell ya. Said his name was Gant. Looks just like that ther pitch’r. Phin, yer goin’ in ain’t ya? Ed Gant’s killed near thirty men.”

Ed Gant huh,” said Phin, his blue eyes smiled with anticipation. “Yeah, you bet I’m goin’ in. Gant’s just what I’ve been waitin’ for. I’ll wash up and get my pistols.

Tommy,” said Phin, “you go back into Martin’s Break and make sure Gant stays put until I get there.”

You bet’cha, Phin. I’ll keep him around if I have to buff’lo him myself.”

Leah approached the corral gate and asked, “What is going on, Phin? What is Tommy so excited about?”

Nothin’ you should concern yourself with darlin’,” said Phin. “You just go ahead and enjoy that mare. I got to get cleaned up and go into Martin’s Break to take care of some business. Don’t you worry, I’ll be back in time for supper.”

I’ll put the mare up and go with you,” Leah said.

NO,” said Phin sharply. “N-o. You need to stay here and wait on your parents. I’ll be back before supper. This is man’s business and it ain’t a woman’s concern.” Phin turned and hurried toward the house.

Inside, he hurriedly stripped off his shirt and poured a pan of water. He told his Mexican housekeeper to get him a clean shirt.

He was washed down to his waist and jamming a clean shirt into his britches when Leah came into the house. Phin paid her little mind as he removed a holstered pair of nickel plated Colts from off the wall rack and buckled them around his waist. Leah stood silent as Phin loaded the two pistols with new cartridges from a drawer in the gun case. One at a time Phin spun the cylinders on his arm and held the pistols up to his ears. Listening intently, he smiled at the precision sound of the movements. Phin clicked the hammers, spun both pistol in his hands and planted them firmly in place one at each side.

Leah took a deep breath and crossed her arms. Her almost black, dark brown eyes were flashing with frustration. “You are going into Martin’s Break to start a gun fight, aren’t you?” she said.

What if I am?” said Phin. “I told you it ain’t nothin’ for you to be concerned about. I’ll get this taken care of quickly and be back here before your parents even get here.”

If you are still alive you mean,” Leah said as tears welled up in her eyes. “Ed Gant is a seasoned killer, Phin. He’s not a half-drunk cowboy or a young inexperienced man like Jimmy Rowe, that you can goad into a fight.”

Yeah, what about Jimmy Rowe?” said Phin. “I know you were sweet on him. He should have known better than draw down on me.”

I never had anything for Jimmy and you know it Phin,” Leah said. “He just liked to talk, that’s all. He was a nice boy.”

Tears of frustrated emotion welled up in Leah’s heart and she felt a lump in her throat as she started to speak. “Oh-h Phin,” she said, “I just... I just don’t understand you at all sometimes. Why do you do this to me?”

I ain’t doin’ nothin’ to nobody,” said Phin. “I told you before, my mother died out here on this ranch and no one even knew it. A year and a half ago the old man died and if it wasn’t for this ranch, no one would have known he ever lived. People are going to know who Phin Cord is. When I walk down the street with my woman at my arm, people are gonna step aside, because they’ll know who I am and what my reputation is. They’ll have respect.”

You don’t have to kill someone to have respect,” Leah said tearfully trying to reason with Phin. “Just treat people right.”

My old man was good to people and all anyone ever done was take advantage of him. Nobody, is gonna take advantage of me. Never.”

Please Phin, don’t go,” Leah said. “Ed Gant will kill you.”

Don’t you worry about that my dear. I’m the fastest there is. Nobody can beat me. You’ll see, I’ll be back in time for supper.”

Phin,” Leah said firmly as she straightened herself and dried her tears with a hanky. “I won’t take this anymore, if and when you come back I won’t be here. I mean it, Phin.”

Suite yourself,” said Phin. “But, I’ll be back and you’ll come back too. You’re my woman and we’re gonna get married soon.”

Not this time, Phin. This is it, I won’t see you anymore. I have had enough of gun fighting and killing.”

Phin tightened his lips and made fists with his hands, his eyes were fiery with rage. He turned and stormed out of the house slamming the door behind him with all his angry force.

In Martin’s Break, Tommy was at the head of the bar talking to Pete the saloon owner and watching the stranger playing poker with two local cowboys. Pete removed a black stub of a cigar he was chewing on from his teeth and pointed at the stranger with the chewed end. “You know,” he said, “I thought I heard that Ed Gant had a scar in his upper lip from bein’ smacked with a gun butt?”

Hell Pete,” said Tommy. “How could you see it under that big thick mustache?”

Oh…Yeah,” said Pete. “Prob’ly why he’s got a mustache, huh?” Pete stared at the stranger curiously.

Phin Cord entered the saloon and paused in the doorway. He studied the men playing cards, they paid him little attention. Then he walked over to the bar where Pete and Tommy were standing. “Is that him over there?” asked Phin.

Yeah, the one against the wall to McCann’s right,” said Tommy.

Pete scratched his scruffy beard and brushed his bushy mustache with his finger and pointed with the cigar again. “You know,” he said. “I don’t think he’s got no scar ‘neath that mustache, Tommy.”

Phin looked at Tommy and said, “What the hell’s he talkin’ about?”

Will ya shut up about the damned scar, Pete,” said Tommy. “Pro’bly just a damned story anyway. I tell ya, that’s shore enough Ed Gant. Look at the dog-gone picture.”

Tommy slapped the old worn newspaper clipping on the bar. Pete looked at it and then at the stranger playing poker. “Yup,” he said. “It does look like’m- sorta?”

Phin looked hard at Tommy. “You’re sure about this Tommy?” he said.

Al’m damned shore, Phin,” said Tommy. “Hell, fer shore his names Gant, an’ he looks just like that there pitch’r don’t he?”

Phin raised his palm to silence the pair and started to ease his way down the bar. He stopped and stood watching the stranger play cards from about eight feet away. The men playing cards did not seem to be bothered by his presence. After a few minutes, Phin flexed his fingers and stood erect and loose.

Suddenly “GANT,” said Phin. Through squinted eyes the stranger peered across the dim lit room at this challenging figure.

That’s right,” said Phin sharply. “I’m talkin’ to you mister. Your names Gant, ain’t it?”

Yeah, I’m Gant,” said the stranger. “Don’t think I know you though.”

Stand up Gant,” Phin said. “Face, Phinehas J. Cord.”

What for kid? I don’t know you,” Gant said.

I know you, Gant. And, I’m sayin’ you’re a yellow dog card cheat. I saw you slip that last card out of your vest pocket,” said Phin.

Hey, what’s this about, kid? I ain’t no card cheat, and I ain’t slipped no cards. What’s your beef son.”

I ain’t no son of yours. I said you’re a low-down card cheat. Now, either admit to it or stand up and draw that hog-leg you got there.”

Gant’s anger was up now. He stood up and kicked his chair aside. The other two card players got up and moved quickly out of the way.

Look kid,” said Gant, “I don’t know what your problem is but, you’re sure enough getting’ under my skin.”

Too bad. Go for that smoke-wagon if you don’t like it,” said Phin.

I won’t draw on you kid,” Gant said.

TOMMY,” said Phin. “Give us a count to three. On three Gant.”

Gant said, “I ain’t drawin’ on you kid. Forget it.”

I’m drawin’ on you on the three count,” Phin said. “Either way Gant, you’re a dead man.”

Without taking his eyes off of his prey Phin said, “TOMMY Count.”

All…all right Phin,” Tommy said, his eyes jumped with excitement as he began the count. “One…Two…Three...”

Gant hesitated a brief moment and Phin waited for him to make a move. When he did make his move; in a flash Phin drew both Colts and -BOOM- two deafening explosions from Phin’s pistols sent Gant sprawling backward against the wall to his instant death.

Phin let out the breath he had been holding and slowly a grin filled his face. With a twinkle in his eye he chuckled and said, “Did you see that? I beat Ed Gant, I beat him bad. He hardly even cleared leather. I told you boys, I’m the fastest there is. Nobody can beat me.”

Dave McCann, one of the poker players spoke up. “Somebody will come along,” he said. “And, it might be sooner than you think.”

You want to try your luck, McCann?” said Phin.

No, not me,” said McCann. “I ain’t no gunman.”

Good. Then carry that sorry son-of-a-gun out of here,” said Phin.

TOMMY,” called Phin.

Yeah Phin,” called back Tommy obediently.

Help McCann get this dead body out of here,” Phin ordered and then said, “Drinks on me for everybody when you get back.”

You bet’cha Phin,” Tommy said enthusiastically.

Tommy and McCann picked up the lifeless body and started toward the door. “Here take this too,” said Phin as he picked the stranger’s hat up off the floor. Phin noticed something, the initials C J G burned into the band. “What’s this mean?” he wondered. He shrugged and tossed the hat on the corpse.

Tommy and McCann awkwardly carried the dead man out of the saloon.

They were back within fifteen minutes. McCann collected his drink and went back to the table to sit by himself. Everyone else took their drinks at the bar with Phin.

Shortly, another stranger walked through the saloon doors at Pete’s Place. He addressed the small group and said, “Afternoon men. I’m supposed to meet my brother here. His horse is outside, but I don’t see him around. You fellas seen him by any chance?”

The saloon was silent. Phin took note of the stranger. He noticed the newcomer had a scar running from the corner of his top lip and almost to his nose.

What’s your business here, stranger?” said Phin.

Like I said, I’m supposed to meet my brother here. He goes by C J, C J Gant. I’m the new appointed U.S. Marshal, and my brother’s comin’ down to join me and be my deputy.”

The stranger pulled back his vest to reveal a U.S. Marshals star pinned to his shirt. Then his eyes narrowed and turned real serious. He addressed the men in the saloon again. “I have the feelin’ you boys know somethin’ about my brother,” he said.

Tommy, not being able to contain himself any longer spoke up proudly and said, “Yeah- we shore do. In fact, we just carried him out’a here. Phin there out gunned him in a fair fight.”

Phin turned to face the stranger and took a step back away from the bar. “You’re Ed Gant, ain’t you mister?” he said.

That’s right,” said Ed Gant. “You the one gunned down my brother?”

Yeah,” said Phin. “As a matter-a-fact I am. He was cheatin’ at poker and I called him on it.”

I find that hard to be true. I don’t believe that for a minute. C J never learned poker.”

That’s right,” said McCann from the table. “We were teachin’ him when young Phin there goaded him into a fight by accusin’ him of cheatin’. He wasn’t cheatin’, cause he didn’t know hardly nothin’ about playin’.”

With a cold hard glare and a demanding tenor Marshal Ed Gant said, “So you think you’re a pistoleer, huh sonny? Hand over them fancy pistols youngster. I’m arrestin’ you for the murder of my brother a U.S. Deputy Marshall.”

I…I ain’t gonna hand you nothin’” said Phin. “You know, I out-drew your brother and I’ll out-draw you too.” Phin took a step back and readied himself, but this time his confidence was shaken; yet his pride couldn’t and wouldn’t let him give it up.

If that’s the way you want it, sonny,” said Marshal Gant. “Then I reckon I can sure enough oblige you.”

Gant stood firm. Phin went for his right-hand Colt. He beat Marshal Gant’s draw by a measure, but he was not as sure of himself as before. Phin’s shot took off Gant’s hat and skimmed his hair. However, when Gant’s .44 spoke, the slug was true; young Phin fell and lay on the floor lifeless.

As McCann stepped over him and was leaving he said, “Told ya.”

A stiff breeze blows on a lonely hill a few hundred yards behind the deteriorated Cord ranch house. The stout wind clears dust off of one of the three grave markers. Washed out and barely visible the words appeared-

PHINEHAS J. CORD

SHOT BY MARSHAL ED GANT

1860 – 1883