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Western Short Story
He had simply
stepped over from one building to the next one, from one flat roof to
another, a wide step but one step. The agility in his body,
especially in his legs, had diminished from several falls … not
unexpectedly. The challenge in the beginning, in getting here to the
roof of the Trail Drive Saloon and Hotel in Willowbar, Oklahoma, was
climbing from his saddle to the porch roof in the back of the general
store. His horse had stood still long enough for him to manage his
way erect on the saddle so he could pull himself up onto the roof. If
he had fallen, it might hurt and be noisy, but noisy he didn’t
Once up on the porch roof the rest was easy. On the way he flexed his gun hand as often as he could, the fingernails all trimmed the same as in the early days when he never threw a caution aside … never let a broken nail mess up a fast draw, never snag on an edge of cloth or leather, never let a life hang in the balance of a broken fingernail. He felt the slight difference from the new to the old and a small laugh started in his chest, but he managed to shut it down. None of them in the saloon had any idea he had slowed down.
They all thought he was dead.
They all thought Leather Goods Gregory was dead.
They all thought he was killed by a posse whose fusillade of bullets cut him down as he rushed from a half-fallen barn on the burnt-out site of Curtis Curly Lockwood’s old spread on the Cimarron River. The victim had fallen, rolled over several times in pain, and finally ended up face down in the dust. One man kicked him several times to make sure he was dead. He yelled an exultation loud and clear, “He’s dead, boys! He’s damned dead! The drinks are on the house!”
They left him there with his elegant holster, made from his design by a Ute maiden as part of her Bear Dance and which brought him the nickname of Leather Goods Gregory. The holster was empty of his special long-barrel pistol created by a Kansas City gunsmith, an infamous weapon of destruction in the hands of this sharpshooter. Here, as sworn by the posse, was the gunman in the dust, still and silent, nevermore to cast a shadow in any direction. Disregarding the possibility of anyone being alive in the barn, they all rushed into town to tell Lockwood. He had promised an open bar at the saloon for all posse riders when Gregory was killed, captured, or run over by a stampede of cattle, even sporting his own brand. Lockwood finally changed that invitation to the whole town, though women were not included.
But names had been noted that once hung in the air. There was a man in the barn who had heard the names called out in the subsequent moments of Gregory being declared dead … and the rush to town.
Gregory planned on letting everybody know how wrong they were about his death; especially Lockwood, land baron, land thief, and a plain old bushwhacker who had come all the way from jolly old England like he was a mighty purist bent on nothing but good deeds. The two had a long history of enmity and contention from the time Billy Gregory was just past his 10th birthday … a hot July 21, 1867 when his parents were killed by masked renegades during the supper hour. They hadn’t even opened the door when they were leveled by gunfire, with the boy still sitting beside the Cimarron River a mile away where the fish were biting as good as ever and he dared not let them be, as though it was a moment in heaven.
It was later as he scrambled on his own around the Cimarron River basin that young Gregory first heard rumors about the suspected association between Lockwood and the masked killers. With insistent poking about, scratching at odd place and various parties, compiling the names of Lockwood’s ranch hands, he became convinced Lockwood was responsible for the murders of his parents, and noted the man’s subsequent acquisition of his parents’ property.
The names hung in place as if they had been spoken only the day before.
When the orphaned lad latched on to a family moving upriver, his hatred and call for revenge went deep under his skin and sat there as he grew into manhood. He paid his dues on every kind of a job, learned how to shoot, how to become so good at it that word on his prowess spread around the territory. In turn he was a lawman, protector of the downtrodden, hired gun in some situations demanding corrective action against crooked operations and crooked men, and a general force against evil no matter what it took, consequences included. A few times he had been jailed and let free by a temperate judge who had looked with approval on Gregory’s stands against real criminals.
At 26 years of age, notorious in one manner, infamous in another, he could no longer deny the festering inside him. It had brought him back down the Cimarron River.
Lockwood knew of his arrival in the area, and made the connections. It would pay to keep an eye on Gregory, “that orphan boy who has come to something.”
Now on the roof of the hotel, Gregory found it easy to make his way onto a rear porch roof and gain entry into an unoccupied room on the second floor. The room opened onto a hallway with stair access directly down into the Trail Drive Saloon where Lockwood’s open bar extension neared the end of its second day, last call coming at midnight.
He lay low while he listened to the liquor setting deeper into the customers, measuring that depth by the noise rising in the saloon, a constant and hilarious yowl of men caught up in another spirit. That noise grew louder and brought with it several outbreaks between acquaintances, or good friends on a couple of occasions. The spats were resolved by blows to the back of the head by a few of Lockwood’s ranch hands brought in just for that purpose. Lockwood was plainly celebrating the death of a man, “Who’s hated me for something I didn’t do many years ago, and killed three of my men, which no rancher can abide because we’d end up with no faithful hands.”
He had qualified it all by adding, “This celebration will not be interrupted for long by a few stupid drunks. If one man fights back ferociously, he’ll be clubbed into silence by two gun butts and dragged out of the saloon for deposit in the alley beside the bank.” When the drunken mob roared with laughter at that remark, it brought a broad smile to Lockwood. His face, hardened by his 60 years at carving out a large place in the west, was the kind that needed a smile, and the broader the better.
It was his last smile of the evening, for he had been looking for his son Carlton who had not shown up for two days. His son’s trips away from the ranch, mysterious to some of his ranch hands and to much of the community, but not to his father, were exclusively connected to his insatiable need to be with, and abuse, young Indian maidens. Lockwood’s continuing questioning glances at his top hand standing by the door only brought back shrugs saying he had received no good reports from a few men scattered in a local search for Carlton Lockwood.
Meanwhile, in the upstairs room, Gregory was turning over in his mind all the images and notes and whispers he had accumulated over the years … some of them admittedly false but some of them obviously true … and used them all to fortify his stance. Foremost of those images was his actual return from the river that fateful day with a dozen fish on his line and his tingling with joy at the prospect of his parents’ great pleasure when they’d see his catch.
It was all dashed, crushed, tossed to the wind, just as the catch was, when he saw his parents clutching each other in death, his father lying across his mother, his body riddled with bullets as he had tried to protect her. Young Gregory had suspicions, but using his head as his father had always urged him to make greater use of, he began his collection of evidence against the mighty Lockwood. That collection had grown steadily over the years and had brought him here at this time to exact revenge, the inner darkness too long-carried and now allowed to speak its own mind.
The strong images had provided Gregory with a revelation that he’d toss into Lockwood’s lap in front of as many people as possible, as many witnesses as possible, for it was his sole intention to not just bring the big shot rancher to his knees but to end his dominance in the Cimarron River basin. To kill him directly would not be enough; to wound him all around would be better.
Much of it leaped into his mind, the way he ought to present it, what advantages he had to attain, what results he should expect. Clearly none of it was touch and go; he had to be decisive in his plan, in his approach, in his actions.
He had carried plenty of ammunition with him, a rifle, and three hand guns, all ready to do his bidding, to go directly as aimed, to accomplish the act of vengeance. At times he thought it would overpower him and had slowed down his anger and its energy, found the natural pace he had known much of his career.
At one point, after 11 PM, he had slipped the door to the landing open, only to find a young lady, a pretty thing exiting another room, staring at him. He shushed her with a finger to his lips, brandished a revolver, pointed down into the saloon, and directed her back into the room. She did not appear again.
Then, feeling it was time, he slipped out the door with rifle, bandolier, and hand guns, bent low and moved to his right so he could see down into the saloon, see Lockwood at his customary table in the far corner, several men lolling there with him, a few of the ladies running drinks to their table. He kept low, finally knelt back against the landing wall where he could keep his eye on Lockwood and some of his men. Others he spotted in the room: at the bar, at another table, two of them standing at the door like sentinels on army watch, the top hand making slow rounds throughout the room.
If it was to be nothing else, it would be last call for one or more principals.
One hand gun, a Colt repeater, he placed on the floor. Two others were in his gun belt. The rifle was a Winchester Model 1866 lever-action rifle. He was also a skilled shooter with this weapon.
Gregory felt himself ready when another spat broke out down below, two men clubbed from behind and dragged out of the Trail Drive Saloon to be deposited in the alley beside the bank. The patrons to a man laughed at the interruption, as if they could laugh at themselves, saying “At least it’s not me. Not yet.”
At his table, Lockwood sipped on his drink as he had done all evening, and so did his men at the table. Few others in the saloon, if any, saw them tempered in their drinking, but Lockwood had demanded it from his men: and beware the man who did not obey.
When the clock above the bar said 11:29 PM, a single round slammed into the clock, destroying its acute mechanism. A second round, before any man in the saloon could make a move, slammed into Lockland’s table close to his elbow and smashed the glass but inches away. One of Lockwood’s men tried to draw his revolver when another round slammed into his side arm.
The yell came from the landing above all of them in the saloon, “Your time is up, Lockwood! Just like the clock says!”
That voice carried instant sobriety to some of the patrons.
Gregory yelled out to the entire saloon. “We have you all covered. None of you move, and that goes special for the biggest killer and murderer in the whole river basin, a ranch stealer, a horse thief, a plain old fashioned killer who hires all his shooters and won’t let himself get caught in any crossfire, Curtis Lockwood. And it goes to all of his men spread out through the saloon who haven’t been drinking their fill by orders of the big boss. The rest of you are so drunk you couldn’t help yourself if war broke out.”
At that moment Lockwood yelled out, “Who are you? What do you want?” He appeared as if he wanted to stand up, but didn’t dare to.
“You’ve been calling me Leather Goods Gregory for a long time now, but when I was just 10 years old my folks called me Billy. That’s what they called me until they day they were shot by a hail of bullets from a band of masked men. I suspect that some of those same men were in on my “killing” two nights ago when your men, including Danno Hanlon and Iggy Ignawyckz and Slice Diamond, who we’d bet were in on the murder of my parents because they’re been working for you all this time. “
Lockwood managed to say, “Who’s we? I don’t see anybody else with you.”
“Oh, we’re around. You don’t think I’d make this last call by myself, do you?”
“A voice from the other end of the room said, “Are you really Billy Gregory, the one I used to go fishing with in the cove where the river bends? Is that really you, Billy? I’m Harvey Dean.”
Before Gregory could answer, Lockwood’s top hand, and top gun, made a move at his place beside the door, and Gregory put a round into his right forearm that must have carried away fragments of bone with it, as blood went everywhere. He’d never use that arm again to cock a rifle nor toss a saddle on the back of his horse.
Silence reigned in the once noisy saloon. The two bartenders stood their ground, neither one moving. Glasses stopped tinkling. Chair legs sat motionless as dead weights settle onto them.
Lockwood said, trying to fit some steadiness in his voice, “You’ve got no evidence that said my men had anything to do with that terrible killing of your parents. I’m deeply sorry for that, but it was not me. It was not Danno or Iggy or Slice. They’re not that kind of men.”
“Oh, yes they are,” Gregory said, “because I heard them. I was in the barn when they thought they had killed me. I heard them plain as day. But it was not me, of course, who they shot. It was someone I made put my clothes on in the barn before your men showed up. He was playing around with someone in the barn. I heard the screaming. I heard a girl screaming.”
A sudden realization, a sudden fear, slammed through Lockwood. His face turned absolutely white. His chin drooped onto his chest. His mouth fell open, but no words came forth, but his bloodline was telling tales.
The prevailing stillness said that the saloon, in one quick image, was now a kind of courtroom, as well as a wooden mausoleum for broken dreams.
The entire gathering listened as Gregory said, “He had a young girl tied naked to a stall post and was abusing her like Hell had come on Earth for one last fling.”
Lockwood knew who that tormentor was. So did his men, the ones who had killed the boss’s son. Many in the audience knew too, the stories so difficult to keep hidden forever.
“She was a Ute maiden by the name of Chorita. I took her to her father, Chief Ouray, The Arrow, of the Uncompahgre Utes. You can bet your last drink that he’ll be letting you know how the nation feels about it.”
At one end of the bar, Territorial Judge Herman Godring, enjoying his last day in town on his rounds of the territory, slammed an empty jug on the bar top and proclaimed loudly and clearly, “Court is now in session.”
A half dozen or more of Lockwood’s men tried to rush from the saloon but they were swallowed up by the crowd of patrons who suddenly, in two nights of free liquor, felt a lot of old pains, and old memories, break loose from their lack of temerity.
It was a night to remember, even if it was last call for some of them.