Western Short Story
One of the passengers getting off the Grimsby stage, a young man of perhaps twenty years of age, somewhat handsome, was strangely hatless and frowning. The last one off the stage, stepping lightly down onto the dusty road, he visibly fought for recognition of the town of Great Red on which an August evening had established its grip, with a pinyon jay calling from the distance and purple setting its own table.
Without a hat he was not a range rider, nor a cowpoke for that matter, though he wore a pair of Smith & Wesson #3 “Americans” on his hips. The tone of his skin agreed to the assessment that he was no cowboy. Looking pallid but not sickly, his blond head clear as honey, he was a question within itself. He searched for known edges and contours his mind, a long time ago, had put away. Familiar shapes of some buildings came slowly out of the purpled dust and the passage of time, like old night monsters reasserting themselves from a harried past. The bank, still square with yellow lights in its windows, was now brick-faced and more safer and rugged looking than it had been. Flickering lights glowed in its interior and on the windows and showed people moving about inside, like commodities on the march. Shadows moved past other lights in other building fronts. More building shapes came harshly into place as being new, though one church steeple lay darkly memorable against the quickly changing purple sky swallowing the distant Wah Wah Mountains.
Of course, all those looks said he’d been here before.
Instantly, he was again prodded by the mew-ing call of the jay as if it was coming all the way from a high point beyond town. The sense of pain hung about in the purple sky the way an old plug hangs on by its hooves. The otherwise evening silence was thick as dough, and his mind ran the gamut of its contents. From far back, from ten years ago, came the noise, the gunfire, his grandfather’s last cry, and the ensuing and endless silence. The jay sounded again, reasserting itself in its old way, and a mourning dove called up its own memory from the heart of town. In all his time away, he had not forgotten a note, a shadow, the split second of reality that had brought death.
Nor had he forgotten one face in the lot of the town.
The young arrival turned and looked at the saloon. His name was John Plunkett III.
No sign now existed to give the saloon a name, but he knew the place; ten years east in Philadelphia, school, knocking about, memory and resolution had finally brought him back for a last call. Mazie Plunkett, his grandmother, had told him, during his ten years away, he could only go back one time to Great Red. “One time, and one time only, John.” That gracious and resolute old lady had ways and means he could not really fathom. He could still see her eyes frozen on his eyes. They had never left him. Nor had her charge.
This then, he readily agreed, would be his one visit. The worn, velvety smooth handles of John Plunkett’s twin guns sat on his slim hips like fingers in a glove. In truth, his fingers would look more comfortable on black and white keys of a piano, though his eyes had a different song in them. His shoulders appeared square though not ruggedly so. Boots on his feet had no spurs. His denim pants were caught with rivets, and his denim jacket looked trail worthy and trail worn. And he wore no hat. No wide-brimmed Stetson. No rain beater. No sun beater. No water trough for a thirsty horse. One would think he had never been a horse rider at all, even here in this cowboy town.
The late afternoon stage had tottered into Great Red and halted at the Grimsby Hotel rail, the sun a sudden dead disc edging the far Wah Wahs. The driver had drawn the reins into a tight loop and the shotgun rider had pulled on the brake handle, setting it with a hard foot. Dust rose from the dead stop. Townspeople with obvious deep interest turned to study the passengers coming into town, looking for old faces, fixing new faces. Some looked from behind sundry lit windows. Curiosity, as at arrivals in any town, was as thick as the purple sunset.
The sign on the side of the stage in letters so dark and severe they looked to be chiseled in place, said Grimsby & Co. in a knowable and proud flourish. Six passengers had stepped down into the dust of Great Red’s lone single road, passing east to west through town. The stage had been in the westerly direction for a long day’s run. The team’s horses let off an understandable relief and skittered for timely rest, for water and oats. The driver and his shotgun rider, sore and cranky and dry, covered with several layers of multi-colored dust, could taste the first drop at the bar. The passengers felt the involuntary flex of stiff muscles, and the ignitions that thirst fired. In the somber western sky, beyond the edge of town, purple tones called for the full of evening and the pinyon jay, still in flight, sounded again its own call for day’s end.
The hotel and the saloon took hold of the young arrival. A long time ago the saloon at the hotel had been Billy Butterworth’s Place. For an adolescent John Plunkett III it had been a noisy and fun place to watch from a favorite side window in a tight alley, where every now and then, on a really nice end-of-the-month day, one of the customers, noting the pallid look of the boy, the dry lips, would set down a half glass of beer for him, nodding at the acceptance in the boy’s eyes, knowing truths come early to some boys, and they’d be better for it.
On one of those days, while sipping a beer almost as big as he was, he saw a man across the saloon’s long room draw his weapon, spin and shoot a tall man at the other end of the bar.
The tall man was his grandfather.
He was the only ten-year old boy in Great Red that day and for part of the afternoon he had sat in the window seat of Great Red’s one saloon, seemingly invisible because of a slight frame, a weak-looking body, an emaciated face, and eyes saying he had all ready seen his share of Hell… here on this side of the grass. His grandfather, John Plunkett, had, half a dozen years earlier, pulled him away from white renegades who’d killed his mother and father. Now he had brought him into town again, bought him a bag of sweets, and told him to be ready to go back to the ranch by suppertime. Grandmother Mazie Plunkett, at the small ranch southwest from town, would be waiting for them. “I know that town, John, and everyone in it. Bring the boy back for his supper.” It was fact more than threat, but she’d always spoken with echoes worth remembering.
John Plunkett never got up from the saloon floor. The shooter, notorious Karl Grimsby Brigmin, known to one and all as KGB, walked to Plunkett’s body, pulled his pistol from his holster and set it in the dead man’s hand. “”I understand you all saw what he was at.” No one in the room visibly or audibly objected, though smoke still issued from Brigmin’s pistol. Not a soul paid heed to the boy still sitting at the window, wedged on the ledge. It was only the barkeep who looked longingly at the boy sitting on the window ledge, saying in his eyes what was in his heart.
The boy remembered crying on the way back to the ranch, bringing his grandfather’s body on the wagon. Remembered Mazie, after burying her husband on a small rise behind the ranch, dragging him a few days later to a stage heading east, in his pack the handguns he had slipped from his grandfather’s body. “We’re going back east, Johnny. Back home, away from here. This place is not for us with your grandfather gone, your mother and father gone. It owes us nothing.”
He had never found contentment in her last statement. She had never sat in his window.
Thus the handguns were returned to Great Red after more than a thousand rounds had passed through their chambers. That passage had also been accompanied by the image of Karl Brigmin’s smoking pistol, the stillness in the saloon like a battle was over and done with, the field littered with the dead.
Now, at the end of this long ride, at the end of day getting swallowed up by evening, time touching at his fingertips, John Plunkett III looked down the alley beside the saloon. The window sat like a break in the solid wall, as though time had left it untouched. In the saloon, KGB sat with his back to the wall, at a table with a few haggard card players. He was exacting demands on them. Eyes were his best tools, his own and those who looked back upon him with whatever message they broadcast or received. He turned all those looks back onto his opponents, unnerved them with their own gear. And he could laugh at each small success, knowing it would all add up. For all practical matters, the town was his, including the old John Plunkett ranch, southwest out of town.
Everybody knew that at least four other bodies, henchmen on the payroll, always sat in total attention when KGB was in the saloon, or anyplace else, their feather-touch handguns quick at hand, nervous eyes measuring each and every movement. With their help, that’s the way KGB had built his small empire… a town, a dozen scooped up ranches, the bank, the blacksmith shop, the hotel and the saloon, and the livery. Once attained, once they had become his surely and legally on paper, his hunger paused. That they all bore his middle name of Grimsby, was the sole patronization of his ownership. He thought well of this small condescension. One day, he’d assure a confidant if he had one, Great Red would be called Grimsby.
He’d wait a bit yet on that point.
Brigmin was thinking that thought when his eyes crossed the room to see Jake Flinter, behind the bar, staring at the window in the side wall. Jake, for almost a dozen years, was as good a bird dog in the saloon as a man could want. His face was secretly expressive and he could size a man up from the first step into the saloon, measuring trail dust, twitching mouth, how sidearms rode with pride just below one’s hips, mark which hand carried a rifle if he carried a rifle into a strange saloon, if he looked, rabbit-like, over his shoulder, at what might be pushing behind him.
Jake Flinter, at another time, owned Billy Butterworth’s, crushed by the hard heels of KGB, paying back his due, yoked forever it appeared.
Brigmin swung his gaze to the window and the thin, frail person sitting on the sill as if he had collapsed there. Nothing, at the moment, clicked in Brigmin’s mind, though he could feel something trying to scratch its way into his consciousness. In a slight apprehension he looked again at Jake Flinter who broadcast no alarm… he raised no eyebrow, slacked no chin, made no eye movement. With ease Brigmin assayed the four henchmen at attention as always in the wide room, all well-paid, well-deputized, and well-situated.
He relaxed and went back to his cards. Night had made a sudden drop. Purple hues had dipped to black. An owl called from a tall tree or the eave of a barn. Suddenly, in aftermath of night’s quick entry, the piano tinkled an announcement. When the patrons looked up they saw the hatless young stranger sitting at the piano. Another note sounded, then another. Brigmin looked around, checking the whole room. He had not seen the young stranger move from the window ledge. From the bar Flinter had produced no warning. Another note sounded. It was melancholic. Brigmin did not know the word, but he knew the sound. It sat beside the other deep thought sitting down in mud in his mind, trying to stand up on its own. A new note came, as dread as the previous one. A silence followed across the room as if it were flushed right from darkness. Brigmin tried to see the word Grimsby in its flourished glory on every property marker across the valley, all the way to the Wah Wahs. All lay hidden and unwritten.
With some electric nerve making a pulsing notice, he looked at Flinter who was staring at
the young man at the piano, the two Smith & Wessons in his hands. Alerted suddenly, alarmed, factors coming into play he had long forgotten, like loyalty and expectation and revenge, Brigmin swung about to pull his own weapons.
The shotgun blast from the bar tore clean through him and four men from different points in the room blew Jake Flinter away at the bar. And all four shooters, forgetting about the piano player, felt the wind whistling through them and the bullets from John Plunkett’s handguns in unerring aim accompany the wind.
It was not known who in the room killed the young piano player, though at least five men had shot at him. It was never known if Jake Flinter had known the young stranger before that night, but the whole town came to know that John Plunkett’s grandson had paid his one visit to Great Red, which to this day has never been called Grimsby, not even once.
And an old lady in Philadelphia, a few years after her grandson’s return to Great Red, took all that was hidden straight to her grave.