Western Short Story
Prairie Wells: The Wichita Kid (Part Four of Five)
The Wichita Kid
It was another hour before dawn. Morning air coming through the open window brought with it the smell of prairie grass and sage. Williams rolled over and sat up on the bed and looked out over the cool and shadowed Texas prairie. Breathing deeply of the scented air, he thought to himself, "A morning like this augers well for the work of the Lord." He reached for his boots.
"Smoke," he said in a whisper, holding his boots in one hand and leaning over the other bed. The sleeping man continued snoring. Williams touched the sleeper's shoulder and said again, "Smo . . ."
Smoke came instantly awake. In a single motion he snatched a revolver from under his pillow and rolled off the bed. As Williams fell back against the wall he heard the click of the revolver being cocked. "Hey! For Christ's sake, Smoke!" He looked across at the pointed gun and waited for the shot.
Smoke released the tension on the hammer and lowered the revolver and laid it on the bed. Shaking his head, he said, "That was a real scare you gave me, Mr. Williams."
"I'm sure it was," said Williams. He was calm enough, considering what had just happened. "Jesus," he added.
Smoke got to his feet and picked up his revolver and yawned and stretched. Williams followed the gun with his eyes as it pointed at the ceiling. Smoke, he thought, handles a gun so casually. As though he were at a table with a fork and a spoon. "Well, I'm surely awake now," Smoke said, "An' like we talked las' night, we best git down the road if we plan on Prairie Wells any time soon."
The two men dressed and went downstairs. They got their horses from in front of Cantrell's and walked them over to the livery barn for feed and water. By the time the sun came over the horizon they were on the road to Prairie Wells, and after an hour they were at the Bonita Creek ford. They halted and dismounted. Bonita Creek, with water and wood, was a good place to stop for breakfast.
Smoke let out a yell a few yards down from where they had left the horses. "Tracks!" he shouted, "We got some tracks here! We got company!" He had punched into a clump of willows looking for firewood and found freshly broken branches. There were hoof prints, as though a horse may have been tethered among the willows. Smoke threw down the wood he was carrying and dropped low with his hand curled over the butt of his revolver. He looked up and down the creek, listening for the snap of a twig or the rustle of leaves. He saw nothing, heard nothing. Williams had run over to the horses and taken a carbine from the boot by his saddle.
After several minutes with no sign of anyone else at the ford, Williams stepped cautiously over to where Smoke knelt, studying the tracks. Williams half whispered, "Read anything in them?"
"Only one man, that's fer sure. An' he's not an Indian--the horse is wearin' shoes." Walking in a crouch, eyes on the ground, Smoke followed the tracks out into the grass. "Whoever he is, he camped here last night an' took off maybe less'n an hour ago. No dew on the beat-down grass. Yep, goin' west, jes' like us. We'll see him when we get to that rise yonder." He pointed at a slope in the direction of Prairie Wells.
"Well, if it's only one man, we don't have to worry. And anyway, he's ahead of us. Let's make our coffee, Smoke, and finish off the biscuits. We'll get a sight of whoever he is later. He has to stop sometime, just like us."
"Couple o' things," Smoke said. "First off, he tried to brush out his tracks when he broke camp, an' next, he stayed here all night--so where's his campfire? He buried it when he left, that's what he did. Those things are tellin' me we got a man that doesn't want people on his tail. The feller ahead o' us is carryin' problems."
Williams said, "Troublesome observations, Smoke, but I've always said, one thing at a time. Right now, let's make that coffee."
* * *
They caught up with the rider late in the afternoon. Coming around a bend in the road they saw a sharp, steep rise a short distance off to their left. An object at the base of the rise, whatever the object might be, was bright and flashing in the rays of the sun.
"That's him," Smoke said. "Do we go over an' be neighborly, or do we keep ridin'?"
"There are two of us," Williams said. "We got nothing to worry about. We'll be neighborly." He turned his horse off the road and started toward the reflection. Smoke followed. The two riders made no attempt at concealment but Smoke slipped his revolver a couple of times in his holster and Williams unbuttoned his coat to make his revolver more accessible.
Arriving at the base of the rise they found the source of the reflection to be a skillet and a cooking pan hung from a cord attached to a short stick. An end of the stick was wedged between rocks. The skillet and pan, blown back and forth by the breeze, were swinging and revolving in the sun.
"What the . . ." Williams tried to turn his horse as soon as he saw the odd and rather menacing source of the reflection, but it was too late. A man appeared at the top of the rise holding a rifle, and the rifle was sighted on him.
"Hold it, right there, mister. Both o' you. Put yer hands up."
"You got us, friend," Williams said, lifting his hands above his head. Over his shoulder he said, "Don't try anything rash, Smoke."
"Friend?" the man said. "I ain't no friend o' bounty hunters er depittys. Now git off'n them horses an' keep yore hands in sight."
Williams made no move to get off his horse, but continued to hold his hands in the air. He said, "You have us wrong, sir. We are neither deputies nor bounty hunters. I am a man of the Lord, and the man behind me is the Lord's Protector. Allow me, as evidence, to show you the Bible I am carrying. I have it right here in my saddle bag." He started to lower his arm.
"Stop!" the man yelled. "Touch that saddle bag an' Christ hisself ain't gonna save you! Now do what I tole you. Git off them horses."
Williams and Smoke had no choice. Once on the ground, they stood with their hands in the air as the man slowly came down the hill, holding his rifle on them.
Once he was standing before them, they saw that the man holding them at gunpoint was, in truth, hardly more than a boy. He had a round, smooth face and the tall hat on his head came down a little too far over his ears. He was wearing a brown vest and lambskin chaps. A revolver hung at his right hip.
Williams said, "We're not going to argue with you, sir, but can we put our arms down? We mean no harm. Don't even know who you are. Out here on this desolate prairie we are all lost sheep looking to the Lord for salvation. He wants us to be friends."
The young man laughed. "Maybe He does, but He ain't me. I got half a mind to hike both o' you back to the road an' turn you loose for Big Spring 'thout yer horses." He paused, frowning. "'bout all I kin do. I ain't a man that kills in cold blood."
Williams said, "Mighty glad to hear that." He slowly lowered his arms. "Now if you will allow me to get my Bible we can prove who we are. And I'm wondering, you have any food with you? All we got left is coffee."
The man didn't answer the question. He said, "I'll check yer bag myself. An' you back there. Keep yer hands up. I don't trust you. You don't look like no preacher to me."
"He's not. But he's a good man and he's no back shooter."
"Keep 'em up anyway." Holding his eyes on Williams and Smoke he undid the thong with one hand and reached into the saddlebag and pulled the Bible halfway out. He let it slip back. He waved his rifle at Smoke. "You can let 'em down. Slow. An' bring your horses. We'll just go around the side o' the hill to my camp."
On the way he said, "I shot a rabbit this afternoon. A big jack. That's the food I got. You hear my shot?"
"No," Williams said. "It was the way the wind was blowing, I guess."
"I seen you behind me early this mornin'. I was lookin' fer some'un follerin' me an' I thought somebody jes' might be back there." He chuckled. "Nice little trap, huh?"
"That was a dandy," Williams said.
"I sanded off those pots to make 'em nice an' shiny."
Smoke said, "Who you runnin' from, kid?"
"Hold it. Stop right here. Turn around, mister."
They turned. The man was looking at Smoke. He said, "Anybody that calls me a 'kid' better be mighty quick with a gun, mister. You that quick? I killed a man in Wichita for 'bout the same thing, an' I shot a deppity in Liberal." His face was getting red.
"Now, men," Williams broke in, "take it easy. I'm sure, sir, our friend Smoke--that's his name--meant nothing at all by what he said." He looked hard at Smoke.
"O'course not," Smoke said, reluctantly. "An' anyways, what's the harm? Ain't you never heard o' Billy the Kid? An' there's a feller up north that goes by the handle o' The Sundance Kid. You say you stretched a feller in Wichita? Shot a deputy? Stars! Maybe you're The Wichita Kid!"
"You mean there's a Wichita Kid?"
"No. I'm sayin' you got a big repetation by this time. Folks jes' might be callin' you 'The Wichita Kid'."
There was a pause. Then, "Yer most likely right, mister. Half the state back there is lookin' fer me." Again he paused, staring at Smoke with his pale blue eyes as though he were looking through him, seeing off into the distance. Under his breath he said, "The Wichita Kid."
* * *
Smoke wasn't much older than the Kid, himself--perhaps three or four years older. He certainly gave the appearance of youth with his open expression, his rather high, piping voice and his easy laughter. But make no mistake about it, he was a killer. He was a gunfighter who had killed several men in the course of his travels with Williams. Two of those had been hard men, gunfighters just as he was a gunfighter. Now, squatting on his heels at the side of the campfire, Smoke was sizing up this young stranger. He drank his coffee and watched as the Kid cut up the rabbit.
"Them's some chaps you got there, Wichita."
"I like 'em."
"Why'd you tangle with that feller back there? In Wichita?"
"Mostly, I just didn't cotton to him."
This abrupt, unexpected answer brought on a thoughtful silence. Finally Smoke replied, a serious expression on his face, "Well, I'd say fer sure that's a plenty good reason to dust a man. If a man ain't who you like, why, what else kin you do?"
"This is all we got," the Kid said. He had piled the rabbit meat on a tin plate and the plate was sitting on the ground. "Grab a piece an' poke it in the fire. I'll be mighty glad to hit Prairie Wells for some real food."
They cooked their rabbit on sticks held over the fire. The burnt pieces were tough and tasted of greasewood smoke, but they ate hungrily. They finished off with coffee. By the time they were through it was nearly sundown.
Standing at the fire with his hands behind his back, Williams said, "You travel light, Mr. . . . What is your name, sir, if I may ask."
The young man was sitting cross-legged before the fire. He threw the last coffee from his cup into the flames and said, "Jes' call me what the other man said. The Wichita Kid. I don't need no other name."
"Well, then, Wichita," Williams continued, "You travel mighty light. Don't you usually carry food in your saddle pack?
"Been in a hurry," Wichita said. "I had to keep a step er two ahead o' the law, an' besides, I got to meet a man in Prairie Wells."
"Somebody from back in Kansas?"
"No. Feller in Dodge said a man named Foster lives out this way. He's a ranch hand with the Diamond D. I got to meet him."
"Now, that's a strange . . ." Williams started to speak.
Smoke had been standing by the horses. When he heard Wichita say the name 'Foster' he turned. "Foster? You speakin' o' Dade Foster by any chance?"
"That sure be him.
"Foster's a fast man with a gun, Wich. I didn't know he was in these parts. How come you're in cahoots with the likes o' him?"
"I'm not. I only heard o' him in Dodge. I never met the man, but I have it in mind to find out if he's as fast as they claim. I've been wonderin' if he's the lightnin' they say he is."
"From what I know 'bout the man, from what I've heard, yer curiosity is gonna git you kilt."
"Think so?" Wichita got to his feet and stood for a moment looking at a prickly pear cactus fifteen or twenty feet beyond the fire. With a swift movement he drew his revolver and put a hole through one of the broad leaves. He holstered his gun and turned to Smoke. "That do?"
"Tolerable fast I'll admit, but lemme ask. Was that the leaf you was aimin' at?"
Wichita faced around and shot at the cactus once more. He missed the leaf with this second shot.
"Too bad, Kid. I guess this here's what you were tryin' to do." Smoke slapped his hand to his side and drew his own revolver and fired twice. The cactus leaf exploded into pieces. "See that leaf standin' over there all by itself?" Smoke fired once more, punching a hole through the solitary leaf. With the sound of the shots still ringing in their ears, Smoke dropped the cylinder in his revolver and replaced the spent cartridges from his belt.
Wichita took a step or two backward away from Smoke and the campfire and said loudly, almost yelling, "There ain't nobody makes a fool out of me, mister! Nobody! Draw!" He was in a half crouch, his arms out from his side, his face inflamed.
Smoke turned to face him but before he could do anything more Williams stepped between the two men, his arms extended toward one and the other. In a commanding voice he said, "In the name of God, hold up, sirs. So lately we were friends, and it comes so quickly to this. Let not vanity and pique lead us to rash acts." He turned to Wichita. "Save your bullets, sir. Let's get into Prairie Wells. If you still feel this way, then so be it. But now, here at this campfire, as friends, let us reflect that He has given us the days of our lives, and He has numbered them."
The words were spoken calmly, authoritatively, and The Wichita Kid was thrown off stride. After a short pause and looking around Williams to still keep his eye on Smoke, he said, "You 'spectin' me to take that?"
Williams said, "Don't know, but I would expect a man like you to do what the Lord approves. To shoot one's partner over a friendly campfire doesn't appear quite right."
"This ain't over," Wichita said, but the tension went out of him and he took a few steps across to where the coffee pot was hanging over the fire and jiggled the pot. It was empty. He stood staring into the fire.
"Nevertheless," Williams said. "Thanks be to the Lord."
By the time all of this had transpired, the sun was a red ball at the edge of the horizon. Williams went over to where they had tethered their horses in a clump of mesquite and took a pair of hobbles from a ring fastened at the side of his saddle. "We better hobble them tonight, boys," he said. "They might get spooked out here. I don't feel like chasing horses in the dark."
Smoke said, "Hold on jes' a minute, Mr. Williams. We be friends, like you say, but I don't rightly feel I can lay snorin' all night 'side a man who was lately wantin' to draw on me."
"Now yore callin' me a back shooter."
"No, I'm . . ."
"Hold on! Hold on!" Williams said hastily. "I'm thinking, Smoke, that you can go off a little way and bed down there for the night. We can meet here in the morning. How's that sound?"
Wichita said, "Jes' what would keep this certain party from sneakin' back durin' the night?"
Smoke said, "Now who's accusin' who o' bein' a back shooter?"
"God d . . ."
"Those aren't the words to use," Williams cut in. "Boys, the only other way I can think of is this. Neither of you is going to sleep tonight, so maybe we should just pack up and travel. There's a full moon and a fair road and riding will be easy. We'll be at Prairie Wells early tomorrow morning."
Wichita shrugged and said, "Yeah," and Smoke agreed with "Suits me jes' fine." The three of them broke camp and repacked their gear and turned their horses toward Prairie Wells.