Western Short Story
He was a loner. He didn’t look like he had much of a personality, even looked downright characterless, but I think that’s the way he preferred it. He sat slumped in the saddle on a piebald mustang that showed its age; a weary mount with its head lowered as if to graze. Horse and rider seemed indifferent to everything around them. Nobody could figure how old either of them were, or just how fit or run-down. All they saw was just an old saddle tramp on an aging cayuse drifting through, looking neither left nor right.
There was something however, that caught your attention; what it was I don’t know, but the few souls in the only street in Flint, Arizona, immediately turned to stare at the unlikely duo. Flint is a small community, just a gathering of buildings deep in the Mojave Desert that you will not find on any map. A small spring, located nearby is used by cattle ranchers who water strays, then stop for a beer or two before heading back to the ranch. Apart from that, the odd Apache wanderers pitch their wigwams and trade. In the late eighties these once feared warriors had finally integrated into white society to a certain extent.
Interest in the stranger was probably stirred because someone riding during the heat of the day when nobody else moved, was an anomaly; summers in this arid county tended to be scorching hot. Most citizens either stayed inside or were seated under an awning. Seemingly unfazed, horse and rider continued along the dusty street until they reached the livery stable, where the rider, using his knee, guided the horse into the corral.
Suddenly things came to life, the man sprung out of the saddle, showing agility worthy of a younger man. Even the horse sensed the change as the head raised and the tail twitched; both animal and rider appeared animated. He began the task of unsaddling the bronc as I ambled on over to greet him.
It happened to be my job as sheriff to keep myself aware of the comings and goings of everyone in town. For twenty years I performed these duties, conscious about my responsibilities.
“Howdy,” I began.
Swiftly, he turned to face me, hand whipping towards the colt 45 strapped to his hip. Seeing my star, he relaxed and, whispered, “Howdy, sheriff.”
“Name’s Williams, Bill Williams,” I offered, disconcerted at the way he stared at me. It was his eyes that drew my attention, one brown, one blue. The blue eye moved from side to side taking note of everything in sight, while the brown one stared fixedly straight at me. For one moment, this phenomenon startled me until I realized the brown eye was false.
Tearing my gaze from that weathered face, I quietly studied the man. A shade under six feet tall, body stooped from being too long in the saddle, he wore dun colored trousers and a matching badly faded shirt, a dirty, flat-crowned hat pulled forward to shade his good eye and a stained kerchief. The thought came to my mind he was a dun-colored individual. Even his tired old horse appeared the same shade. They would be difficult to spot in the desert because of this matching shade of sand colored attire. Only his six-shooter seemed new, well-oiled and cared for. That worried me some.
“Staying long?” I queried.
“Maybe.” He answered slowly and deliberately, that fixed eye staring right through me.
“Where are you from?” I could tell this stranger was very taciturn.
“Back yonder.” He waved a hand in the direction he had traveled.
This was going nowhere.
“I’m Lew Smith.” Another terse remark. He offered his hand and I gripped it. His strength made my hand feel puny. His palm felt calloused and rough from some kind of hard labor.
We continued to stand under the hot sun, each trying to fathom out what to say.
“Hotel’s up the street, Martha cooks a good breakfast. You be stayin’ thar?”
“Maybe.” He surprised me by adding, “Maybe I’ll sleep hyar in the barn.”
“I’ll see ya around,” I said pointedly, warning him that I’d be keeping a close eye on his movements. I turned back and crossed the street.
It took him about an hour to settle his horse and his gear to his satisfaction. I watched as he strode towards the Red Dog saloon. It would be deserted at this time of day, but when the Bar-6 cowpokes came into town later on things would liven up.
I settled down for the rest of the afternoon, stirring at sundown to make my rounds. I dropped in for a bite to eat in Ben’s diner, telling him about the stranger. There was no need as everyone in town had observed his entry.
I left the café muttering, “Better check on what is goin’ on, Ben, Bar-6 will be arrivin’ soon.”
“Wild bunch them lot,’ Ben said, “Good luck, Tom. Call me if you need me.” Ben was a retired Texas ranger and handy when things got out of hand.
As I walked towards the saloon, I noticed Lew sitting outside, his gaze checking anyone entering our small settlement. I nodded as I passed him and slipped through the batwing doors. Several men stood or sat drinking beer. Three of them, I observed, were Bar-6 cowhands and well into the stage of intoxication. They looked up as someone came in behind me. Turning, I saw it was Lew.
One of the trio made a snide remark about the false eye and his companions joined in the baiting.
Lew stopped, faced them, but said nothing. He removed his gun belt, walked to the bar and placed it on the top. Returning to the three cowhands he stood close to the table and just stared.
“What’s the matter, stranger? Can’t see whar ya’all is goin’?” This brought loud guffaws from the other two. Lew just continued to stare.
I knew something would break out. Lew’s behavior and his stance provoked the three men and angry comments replaced the humor.
“Ya’all wanna fight, you dumb drifter?” asked one.
No response. Lew didn’t even move a muscle, so the three drunks leaped to their feet and confronted him.
It was over before it even begun. Lew drove his fists into all three men, deep in the lower bellies, followed up with hard fists to the faces and all three lay on the sawdust covered floor retching and heaving.
Turning around, Lew buckled his gun belt back on and walked outside. I followed and watched as he sat down again.
The sun neared the horizon and several Bar-6 riders rode up, dismounted and tied their horses to the bar in front of the saloon. Two of them stared at Lew in consternation as he stood up. He strode towards them, making them back up, reaching for their guns. Before they could clear leather, two shots rang out in quick succession and both men fell in the dusty street, blood pouring from chest wounds.
Holstering his firearm, Lew turned to me and said, “Family feud.”
“Is it over, now?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he answered..
Without another word, looking straight ahead he crossed to the livery stable and saddled his horse. Strapping his effects to the saddle, he mounted and left, back to where I first saw him.
A sudden wind storm, stirred up some dust and the pair faded into the murky atmosphere like ghosts.
“He’s gone?” Ben had sidled up beside me, “Ah reckon that was Lew Campbell, not Smith. Heered he’s the most dangerous man in New Mexico, Those Campbells had a feud goin’ for nigh on thirty years. Do ya reckon he’ll be back?”
I looked at him and said, “Maybe.”