Western Short Story
So, this is Cheyenne, I think as I ride into the city.
I've heard many interesting stories about the place. That there are more millionaires in this city than any other in America, or possibly the world, but I’m not sure how anyone can know that for a fact. I've also heard that the city has past its heyday, or so Mary Hayes, the landlady of Rawlings House, was fond of saying. She blamed the city’s demise on the killer winter of 86/87 which, she claimed, killed virtually all the cattle in the area. I suspect that was an exaggeration, but I have certainly seen the skeletons of a large number of cattle during my travels in this part of Wyoming Territory.
‘The barons have less money now,’ Mrs Hayes had explained, ‘and when they spend less everyone gets less, so we all suffer’. And I can see what she means, because for all the splendour of the buildings and wide streets, Cheyenne does have a rundown feel to it. It’s as though an exuberant amount of money was spent on constructing the place, but none on the subsequent maintenance of the buildings. Nevertheless, I plan to partake in whatever remaining opulence the city has to offer, so have decided to stay at the Inter-Ocean Hotel, apparently the best in the city.
I feel like treating myself to a bit of luxury after the pleasant experience of the family run boarding house I stayed at in Laramie. Pleasant as it was, I did feel as though I was being mothered by the owner and Mrs Hayes, who was visiting. I feel the need for a bit of anonymous service from impersonal waiting staff.
I decide to take a detour to have a look at the Wyoming Cattle Association’s building, the Cheyenne Club, as it’s known. I have been hearing much about that club of aristocratic hoodlums in the news recently, so thought it would be interesting to see where they hang out.
Riding past the grand building, I realise it was probably an imprudent decision. Standing on the raised veranda are three men I recognise, and who recognise me. They have interrupted their conversation and now stare down at me, watching as I ride past. They are Albert Bothwell, Thomas Sun and Ernest McLean. We know each other, because I witnessed their lynching of a couple of homesteaders less than a week previously.
McLean is taking a particular interest in me. He leans against the balustrade and glares down at me, his hands resting on the grips of his pistols. My hand drifts automatically to my own Colt strapped to my side. I ignore the tall gangly Bothwell and Sun, and focus on McLean. He has threatened me in the past. I can feel the heat of his anger towards me burning my skin. I sit back and bathe in its warmth. Angry men very often end up dead.
“Hey, gunslinger!” he calls. “You know anything about the murder of George Henderson?”
I do, of course. It was me that sent the man to an early grave. I pull my horse, Anthracite, to a halt and rest my hand obviously on the grip of my Colt.
“No, Mister, I don’t. But I know a lot about the murder of Frank Buchanan. It was George Henderson that murdered him, in cold blood.”
“You're a lying son of a bitch, mister.” He shouts. I see his grip tighten around his pistol.
I lift mine from its holster and hold it by my side. With me sat astride Anthracite, he had the advantage in a draw, until now. I have shifted the advantage away from him and to myself. He’s no fool. He understands. He scowls, releases his grip, drops his hand. Bothwell leans in and says something into McLean’s ear. McLean spits angrily in my general direction. The three of them make their way along the veranda. Bothwell and McLean enter the building, but Thomas Sun pauses. He turns to look at me. I wonder what he’s thinking. Most likely he’s wondering what the hell I’m doing in town, why am I showing my face, putting myself in danger? I holster my Colt and ride on.
Those are good questions. The simple answer is I never thought to do any differently. It has been my intension for a while to stop over in Cheyenne, on my way to Denver. It’s true, I did make an unplanned stop in Laramie for a few nights to delay my visit to Cheyenne. But that was a precaution, to give myself time to get the lie of the land, to understand what danger I might be in after witnessing the lynching of the homesteaders, Ellen Watson and James Averell. However, it never crossed my mind to avoid Cheyenne altogether, even though I knew that was where the cattle barons involved in the lynching would be. But then my first reaction is always to confront those that threaten me. Some may say that’s fool hardy, but I’m a man determined to make a reputation for myself. I’m a gunslinger and that does not allow me to skulk in the shadows. No, I have to come forward and dare those that threaten me to try their luck. And anyway, Cheyenne is supposed to be one of those places one should visit, so, after taking another detour to see the Opera House, I draw Anthracite to a halt outside the Inter-Ocean Hotel.
It’s certainly an impressive building, but I don’t find it particularly attractive. It’s too square for my liking. The fact that it’s a posh place is obvious from the uniformed doorman and the smart clientele that are entering and leaving.
As I dismount and take my kit off Anthracite, I wonder if I might bump into Tom Horn. He’s supposed to be a regular in the hotel’s saloon. He would be an interesting man to share a beer with.
The service at the Inter-Ocean is beyond compare, but that’s the problem and before long I find the constant attention from the staff stifling. I don’t seem to be able to move a muscle without someone enquiring if they can do anything to help. It’s all very impressive, but I find it overbearing – intrusive, even. If this is how the staff behave generally, imagine how bad it must be in the restaurant. I decide to have my evening meal in the more relaxed atmosphere of a smaller, less pretentious eatery not far from the hotel I spied on my ride through town. I amble through the lobby, and receive a formal, smiling good evening from the desk manager and a uniformed fellow opens the door at just the precise time for me not to have to adjust my stride. He tips his hat at me. I give him a nod.
I turn right and stroll down the boardwalk. The street is lively with people. Not the whooping, hollering types I’ve experienced in some of the rougher towns I’ve frequented; these folk are more sedate, more refined. They greet me in a genteel manner as we pass one another. Even the men leaning on the railings seem sober. As I pass one of these men, he stands up and bumps into me. I turn to apologise, surprising myself that I’m drawn into such genteel behaviour so quickly. But when the man faces me, I recognise him as Ernest McLean and I see the deadly intent in his eyes.
I step back to give myself more room to draw my Colts, should I need to. He smiles cynically at me. He takes my action as one of fear. I'm happy with that, it will make him over confident. Over confident opponents are generally easier to beat.
“You’re a lying son-of-a-bitch, Cotton.”
I remain silent. Keeping my eyes focused on his, with his hands in my peripheral vision. He’s keeping them from his pistols, but not far enough for my liking.
“Buchanan ran off,” he snarls. “He’s a son-of-a-bitch-coward. Would rather run away than face the humiliation of having his lies being exposed in court.”
“What lies are those, McLean? I seem to remember seeing you push Ellen Watson off the rock. Did Buchanan get to that level of detail in his accusations? I doubt it, because he wasn’t there to see that. But I was. I was also with Buchanan when Henderson murdered him. Fortunately, someone killed Henderson, so he’s out of the picture. You, however, are still very much alive.”
He takes this in by just staring at me. I can see his mind working as he processes the details. He’s not a bright spark, I conclude. Then he steps into my space, too close to draw his pistol and use it effectively, but he places me in the same position. I wonder if he’s done it on purpose. I move my hand from the grip of my Colt and rest it on the handle of my Bowie knife.
“What you saying, Cotton?”
“Simply that when it comes down to the detail, it was you that murdered Ellen Watson.”
He swings his huge fist back. As he starts to swing it towards me, the tip of my knife pricks his throat. I grab him by his shirt front and force him back so his spine is arching over the rail. He howls, whether in surprise or pain I don’t care.
“You need to improve your technique, Ernie,” I growl.
He stares at me wide eyed.
A hand drops purposefully onto mine holding the knife. The grip is firm, but not aggressive.
I look to the side.
Thomas Sun smiles at me.
“Gentlemen, please, this is most unseemly. This is Cheyenne, not some miners’ camp.”
“Call your dog off, Sun, before I have to deal with it myself.”
“Like Henderson?” he asks flatly.
“Call him off.” I dig my knife a little deeper. A spot of blood oozes from below the point.
Thomas’s grip tightens over mine.
“This is a simple misunderstanding, Mister Cotton. Ernie’s a little tense, what with everything that’s happened recently. Isn’t that so, Ernie?”
Ernie scowls at me.
I feel Thomas’s hand push the blade a little.
“Isn’t that so, Ernie?” he repeats.
“Sure. Just a misunderstanding,” Ernie says, begrudgingly.
Thomas pulls the blade away and pushes my hand down.
“There,” he smiles at me, “as I thought. Ernie and I were just on our way to the hotel saloon, may I invite you to join us?”
Ernie’s eyes click to Thomas, a look of disbelief etched on his features.
I cock an eyebrow at Thomas.
“I think I’ll give it a miss this time if it’s all the same with you.”
He takes Ernie by the shoulder and leads him away. When he thinks they are out of earshot I hear Thomas reprimanding Ernie under his breath.
“That was impressive knife work, mister,” I hear someone say as I turn to continue my journey to the eatery.
I stop and look at the fellow.
He’s seated on a wooden chair, tilted on its back legs, his back resting against the wall behind him.
“But,” he continues, “I believe you’re more a gunman than a knife man.”
I do not respond. This could end up in a challenge. I study his features, but the thing of particular note is his steady, unblinking gaze and the pair of Colts strapped to his hips. He drops the chair onto its front legs, stands and extends a hand.
“Name’s Horn, Tom Horn.”
I take his hand. He has a good, firm grip.
“Well, now, I wondered if I might bump into you, Mister Horn. Cotton, Billy Cotton.”
“Billy Cotton, eh? Ernie just got off lightly if what I’ve heard about you’s true.” He grins at me. “What was that all about, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“The lynching of Ellen Watson and James Averell.”
“A bad business, and they’ll get away with it,” he observes.
“I thought there was a witness?” I say.
He gives me a knowing look. “I thought I just heard you say he’d been killed.”
Tom shrugs. “Makes no difference anyway. The cattle barons run this town, run this territory. They can pretty much do as they please. Even if Buchanan was still alive his testimony would be of no help getting justice for the victims. Same would be true for any other witnesses there might be.” He looks me directly in the eye as he finishes.
I nod slowly. “I'd pretty much come to that conclusion myself.”
“For someone new to town you cotton on pretty quickly.” He laughs at his joke.
I humour him, I’ve heard it before.
“I’m looking for somewhere to eat,” I say. “Can you suggest somewhere that serves good food that’s good value.”
“Not the Ocean then?”
“Yep, not the Ocean.”
“I know just the place. Owners a good friend of mine.”
“Care to join me?”
Tom smiles. “Sure, why not?”
It’s later than I intended when I trot out of Cheyenne the following day, but I had a leisurely breakfast, made all the more enjoyable when Tom Horn stopped by the hotel to join me and the hotel manager gave me a substantial discount on account of me being a friend of Tom's. All in all, it’s been a good start to the day.
We have not been journeying for long when I notice a change in Anthracite's behaviour. He’s pricking up his ears and rotating them as though there is something of interest behind us. I take a look but see nothing. The landscape is pretty much flat, so for anyone following us to remain hidden they must be taking care to stay out of sight. Anthracite continues to act agitated, so when we come across a scrape of a valley washed into the grassland by a now dry stream, I dismount and walk him into the valley. I continue walking along the valley for a little distance to a place where it’s deep enough to more or less hide us. Then we wait.
The grass in the dry river bed is especially succulent and Anthracite seems delighted to have the opportunity to graze. He relaxes and drops his head to the grass. I lie back on the grassy slope and watch him. We wait for what seems like ages. The gentle sound of Anthracite grazing is soporific and I’m almost dozing off under the warm sun when Anthracite suddenly looks up. I draw a Colt and slither up the grassy bank. I remove my hat and glance over the rim of the bank. I spy a man. He has dismounted and is squatting down, examining the ground at the point where Anthracite and I descended into the little valley. I'm impressed by his tracking skills. I duck down, put my hat on, stand up and walk up the slope. He sees me, leaps up and goes for his gun, but he’s too late, mine is already pointing at him. It’s Ernie McLean.
“You’re worse than a stray dog for following people,” I tell him.
“You going to kill me or allow me to defend myself.”
“The result will be the same.”
He scowls at me.
“No, you’re right, execution is not my style. Step away from your horse.”
He frowns, but does what I say.
“Just in case I miss. Don’t want to shoot the horse by mistake.”
I drop my Colt into its holster.
“Defend yourself.” I tell him.
He nods, turns slightly to reduce the size of my target. I'm fine with that I always practise with narrow targets. But I stand straight on. It makes aiming easier. When I draw, I tuck my elbow into my waist. It seems to make my aim consistent and means I can focus on speed. As we are quite a distance apart, aiming is important, maybe a little higher than normal, I decide.
I’m waiting. I can’t see his eyes, so it’s the shift in his posture I’m focusing on. If you watch his hand, by the time he moves it it’s too late. It’s all about those tell-tale shifts in the body, the drop of a shoulder perhaps, or a swing of the hip just before the hand moves, that I’m looking for. They’re difficult to disguise unless you’re an experienced gunfighter and I’m working on the basis that McLean is not.
His waiting confirms my suspicions. He’s overthinking this. The distance has probably unnerved him, making him recalculate where to aim over such a distance. At last he moves, and he's like a huge semaphore flag. My gun goes off before his is halfway up. I hit him in the base of his throat. I had over compensated myself; aimed a little too high. Luckily, I hit him dead centre or my bullet may have just skimmed over his shoulder. My second shot is also off before his, but only because my first killed him stone dead. I’m glad I made him move as the shot would have hit his horse, which would have been a shame.
I go up to my new horse and remove all the gear except the bridle and lariat which I loop around the horse’s neck. I lay the gear beside McLean’s body, which I straighten out. I lay his hands on his chest and place his hat over his face. He could be sleeping. Then I call Anthracite, secure my new horse to my saddle, climb on board and nudge Anthracite on.
I hope Ellen Watson is looking down on Wyoming at that moment. If she is, she would see the man who pushed her to her death lying dead in the grass. She has received some justice. Not the full-blown justice she and James Averell deserve, but a justice of sorts. As for myself, I feel a small respite from the guilt I carry for allowing their murder, for not doing enough at that critical time just before there was no turning back. I look up at the azure sky, with its drifts of brilliant white clouds. I like to think she’s looking down on me, thankful for my small contribution of getting her a little justice. Anthracite snorts. He always seems to know when I’m off on a flight of fancy.
“Okay, you old cynic,” I chide him. But then I realise he’s snorting at something else.
In the distance I see a buggy. As we get nearer, I see that it’s new. It stands out, starkly white against the tawny landscape. I get the sense that I’ve seen it before, and then it strikes me like a hammer. It’s the same buggy I saw at the lynching of Ellen Watson and James Averell. I draw Anthracite to an urgent halt as my hand slides over the grip of my Colt. The man standing beside the buggy on that day was Thomas Sun, but today I cannot see anyone in it or near it. I scan the tall-grassed landscape for any sign of humanity. I see none. It’s as if the buggy has been abandoned. I frown; it seems to be a peculiar place to leave a buggy. I dismount and walk Anthracite towards it. My arm is tensed ready to pull my Colt. I get to the buggy. It’s empty. A chill runs through me. I scan the flat horizons. Then I relax. If Thomas had wanted to shoot me, he would have done so already. A moment latter, I hear the murmur of voices. I look beyond the buggy and see the very top of a light-coloured hat peeking above the grass. I step up onto the buggy for a better view. It creaks and the owner of the hat sits up and looks around at me. It’s Tomas Sun. He stands up urgently, telling his companion to stay where he is. The other person sits up and looks at me, it’s a boy. Thomas approaches me. I step down from the buggy and wait, my right hand resting on my Colt. As he nears me, he recognises me and stops abruptly, fear flits across his handsome features for a moment, then he recovers himself.
“Billy Cotton,” he announces.
“Thomas Sun,” I echo.
“You here to kill me?” He opens his coat to show he’s unarmed.
“Buchanan was unarmed,” I remind him.
“You saw it?”
“That, and other things.”
“That was a bad business.” He recites what I said at the lynching of Ellen and James.
“And it seems justice will not prevail.”
“No, it seems not. And I regret that very much,” he declares. “They were good, honest people.”
He sees my gaze shift. He turns to look.
“I said stay there!” he orders, but his son ignores him and walks to his father. Stops beside him, leans into him. Thomas places a hand on his shoulder. They stare at me silently.
I grunt, amused at the tableau of father and son standing before me.
“The answer to your question, is no, not today.”
I drop my hand to my side, turn and walk to Anthracite and mount.
“Is that Ernie’s horse?” Thomas asks.
I look him in the eye, but say nothing. Then I nudge Anthracite on, guide him past the buggy and continue my journey.
“Who’s that man, pa?”
“Someone you don’t want to grow up to be, son.”
I pull Anthracite up and look back at them. They stand there looking at me.
“Hey son,” I call. “Make sure you listen to your pa and grow up to be a fine upstanding man like him. But remember, son, in the end we’re all judged by God for the deeds we’ve done.”
I nudge Anthracite forward.
“What did he mean, pa?”
“He was being ironic, son.”
“Well, it’s sort of … sort of a grown-up joke.”
“I know a grown-up joke, pa.”
“Yes. I told it to ma. It made her cross. She told me never to repeat it.”
I turn in my saddle to watch them.
They start to walk towards the buggy. Thomas’ hand resting on his son’s shoulder.
“Shall I tell it to you, pa? Shall I tell you my joke?”
I see Thomas look down at his son and smile. “Best not, son. Best listen to your ma.”
I grin to myself. There it is, the full father-son tableau. I nod to myself, frowning. I won’t kill Thomas today. I probably never will. Some men are just better alive than dead.