Western Short Story
I drew my stallion to a halt and looked over his glossy ebony head to read the sign. It read, DEADSTONE, KANSAS. I glanced over the sign at the ramshackle collection of dusty-brown wooden buildings, towards the town that would serve as my next step to infamy.
The contrast between the tumble-down appearance of the town and the immaculate wording on the sign was intriguing. I glanced back at the sign and a chuckle rattled in my throat – some joker had put a minus in front of the number of people who lived in the town. The neat script read: Inhabitants: -1032. The last two numbers had obviously been repainted on numerous occasions. My gaze drifted to the right onto a ragged, lopsided sign that stood beside the first one. On it was painted, in an untidy scrawl, Recently departed: 23. The 3 had been painted by adapting the 2. There was less pride taken in this sign than in the one beside it.
Twenty-three? That’s more than I’d heard. The last count I’d heard was 21. I frowned. My victory was going to be even more notorious than I’d anticipated. I considered, for a moment, turning back, riding away and returning later, once the score had got higher, maybe to 25, a nice round number, easy to remember, but I quickly changed my mind. I shook my head, frowning more deeply. It mattered little whether the tally was 23 or 25, after I had killed Daniel Jackson my reputation as a gunfighter might supersede even that of Wild Bill Hickok. Then I scowled. I doubted I would ever be as famous as Hickok, I did not have the same skills in self-promotion.
For a while, I sat there, under the heat of the scolding sun, musing, remembering the time I had met Old Bill, as I liked to remember him. A smile crept over my lips, what a young fool I had been in those days, all puffed up like a displaying cockerel, strutting around with my shiny new Colts strapped to my hips, my face glowing in the appreciative stares of the towns folk I passed. My smile widened into a small, self-mocking laugh. Little did I know that the townsfolk, my ‘appreciative’ audience, were silently laughing at me, at the young self-important dick-head strutting down their street like some Greek hero. I pursed my lips, remembering the humiliation Old Bill had subjected me to.
“Hey, Hickok,” I had yelled confidently.
The man stopped. He rolled his broad shoulders, lifted his hands away from his guns, palms forward and slowly turned to face me. The sun glinted on his Marshal’s star.
I stood before him with my feet planted firmly on the dusty road. My shoulders back, my hands hovering beside my pistols. I felt good – calm and supremely confident.
I remembered the thoughts that flashed through my mind – I can take this man, this famous gunman. The man who ordinary men sought out so they could shake his hand, the man that women fawned over. I could take him and then all his fame would transfer to me. I would be the one who men would tip their hats at, out of respect. I would be the one who could bed any woman in any town in the west – yes, I knew I could take him. Hickok’s voice had broken into my thoughts.
“What do you want, son?”
“Who the hell you calling son?” I demanded.
Hickok shrugged, the front flaps of his great coat rising and falling like theatre curtains. He was a big man, much bigger than my scrawny frame, but bullets don’t know the difference and they say big men fall harder.
“Sorry, son, it’s just that I don’t know your name.”
That word again – son.
“Don’t … call … me … son,” I growled.
I was tempted to plug him there and then, but his hands were too far from his guns, his palms were facing me. Some might have interpreted them as pleading with me not to kill him. I allowed myself the brief belief that that was the case. But as I looked into his blue-grey eyes, I knew he was not afraid. He seemed … resigned, bored even.
“So, what’s your name, son.”
“Billy. Billy Cotton,” I snapped, jutting my chin forward and nodding curtly at him.
“Well, Billy? What is it you want?”
“Well that’s the damned stupidest question I ever heard,” I said, with as much contempt as I could muster.
Hickok spread his hands wider.
“Make it your best shot, son.”
I felt myself lean forward, as though I needed to be closer to him to understand what he had just said. My brain fizzed. I felt my brow furrow in confusion. What the hell was going on? The man was fouling up my plan. He knew I could not shoot him like that! I was suddenly aware that we were surrounded by townsfolk. Instead of scurrying into the surrounding shops for protection, they had all come out onto the street and were gawping at us, at me, as though I was some circus act, some circus clown.
“Draw, damn you!” I demanded.
Hickok dropped his hands a fraction. His eyes were now slits of hard ice blue. I felt a thrill rush through my veins, my heart expanded with elation. He was going to draw!
Then he cleared his throat.
“Go home, son,” he said in a tired voice and turned his back on me and walked away.
I was dumbstruck.
“Come back you coward!” I yelled. “Come back and draw!” I screamed at his back. My tongue darted uncertainly across my lips. My eyes flashed around the crowd. They were all staring at me. My eyes fell on a beautiful girl. Her auburn hair cascaded passed her narrow shoulders. Her floral summer dress caressed her small breasts and hung off her shapely hips. Bright sunlight silhouetted her long, thin legs through the fabric. Our eyes met. She tittered. I smiled back, but her features grew stern and her eyes filled with disdain. With a contemptuous curl of her lips she turned away from me.
The crowd dispersed under a murmur of mocking comments and derisive laughter.
I still remembered the humiliation after all these years; the hot flush on my cheek as the girl turned her back on me, the belittling tone in Hickok’s voice as he told me to go home. In absolute mortification, I had strode back to the livery stable, saddled my horse and rode out of town; a dejected, dishonoured child. I was twenty-six at the time and have never felt less of a man than I did at that moment. However, I have come to realise, since, that that was the best lesson I ever received. I hated Wild Bill Hickok that day, as I left the town, but have since come to admire him. I even made a pilgrimage to Mount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, South Dakota to visit his last resting place and lay some flowers on his grave. I believe they were violets. They reminded me of the colour of his eyes.
A sudden gust of wind flung dust over me and my black stallion and brought me from my reverie. I looked at the dusty town. I nudged Anthracite with my heels and he moved forward with an easy rolling gait.
Old Bill Hickok may have taught me the hardest lesson of my life, but I never learnt to be anything else but a gunslinger. And so here I was in Deadstone, Kansas still plying my trade in death. But I was different now; Old Bill had taught me that I needed to grow up and I had. I was still as confident, maybe even more so, but I believe I am less arrogant and, actually, a much better gunman than when I confronted Old Bill. No, I never lost the desire to be as famous as Wild Bill and the others. But it’s more difficult now. Times are different. People seem satisfied with their heroes of the past. They don’t seem to need or want new ones. And the young generations of today are more interested in getting rich and being business men and clerks and in having office jobs. It seems the grand pioneering days are fast disappearing and the papers are less interested in what we gunslingers get up to, some are even disparaging of our way of life. But recently a few papers have picked up on a story concerning a man called Daniel Jackson. It seems he could be the next Wild Bill Hickok, even if in a smaller way. If I could have taken Old Bill on ten years ago, I certainly can take on this Daniel Jackson now. The fame from doing so may be just a shadow of what I might have had for killing Old Bill, but in the circumstances it’s better than nothing and it could be a step closer to the fame I desired. Ned Buntline might even be interested in writing my story.
As I approached Deadstone, I noted that the ramshackle appearance of the town had more to do with the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of the buildings, than an actual tumble-down appearance. In fact, the town was in good order, the wooden buildings well maintained and the signs painted in the same impeccable script as that at the entrance to the town. But the buildings were arranged in a chaotic manner, as though God had placed them without any thought to uniformity, as a consequence the main street through the town could not be easily determined and I rode around like a lost soul searching for the saloon.
There was the usual assortment of shops; a general store, butcher, barber, baker and the like, but all of them seemed to be closed. Neither was there anyone on the streets, but then the furnace heat of the sun would be enough to drive anyone into the cool shelter of their dwellings. I turned the corner of a building and there in front of me was the saloon, as the large, immaculate sign pronounced. The strains of When Johnny Comes Marching Home drifted over the heat waves towards me from the open door of the saloon. I guided Anthracite towards it. He drooped his head in appreciation of the end of a long day’s riding.
I secured Anthracite within the shade of a neighbouring building and ambled towards the saloon, scanning the town with an interested eye. I mounted the steps to the wooden boardwalk in front of the saloon; my boots clumped noisily on the wooden planks as I sauntered across the boardwalk. I pushed the doors open and strode into the gloom of the saloon.
There was no sudden silence of the piano player stopping nor the rustle of clothes of the townsfolk turning to stare at a stranger in town – this was because they were all already looking in my direction, as though they had been waiting for me to enter. The experience was so weird that I almost faltered in my step, but girding my loins, I continued across the room. The floor boards creaked under my boots. I walked towards the bar, to where the bar-keep was standing, eyeing me with interest.
“Whiskey, please, Bar-keep.”
“Coming up, Mister.”
I turned and lent back against the counter and stared back at my silent audience. They were sat around a number of tables scattered around the room and they stared back without the slightest hint of embarrassment. My eyes drifted across their features without really taking in any of the detail, except that they were a mixed bunch of businessmen, cowboys, miners and frontier men. The tune on the piano changed seamlessly to Tramp, Tramp, Tramp! The piano player was the only one not staring at me; he was focused, trance-like, on playing his piano.
“Your whiskey, Mister,” the bar-keep announced.
“First one’s always on the house.”
I lifted the glass of amber liquid and saluted the bar-keep. I took a cautious sip. I’ve had too many experiences of free whiskey being undrinkable, but this liquid bathed my tongue and sent a silky warmth around my mouth and the vapours suffused my sinuses with a sensation of smoky satin. It was the finest whiskey I had ever tasted. I took another, almost involuntary sip, as if to make sure of what I was experiencing. It was divine and I told the bar-keep as much.
He smiled back with pleasure.
I was about to continue the conversation with him, when he stepped aside and a woman in a flowing white dress appeared at my side. She gently placed a full glass of whiskey on the counter in front of her.
I turned to her. Her skin was so pale, it seemed almost transparent. Her lips were thin and her mouth a little too wide for my liking, but she had an unquestionable beauty about her that I could not quite put my finger on.
“Hello,” she said.
“What’s your name, Mister?”
I started at her forwardness, but answered nonetheless. “Billy. Billy Cotton.”
“Why’re you here, Billy Cotton?”
I looked at her, frowning. “My, ma’am, you’re not slow in coming forward.”
She did not respond, so I continued.
“What’s your name?”
Elisa went to speak, but I interrupted her.
“They always this rude, with their staring?” I asked, cocking my head over my shoulder at the still staring crowd.
“They’re intrigued by you.”
I turned to look at them. They continued to stare, silently, back at me.
“I can see that,” I said, acerbically. “What is it about me that intrigues them so much?”
“Why you’re here?”
I looked at her.
“That’s my business,” I retorted.
She stared into my eyes, as though reading my thoughts, then she said, “If you want our help, you’ll need to tell us who it is you’re looking for.”
“How do you know I’m looking for someone?”
“Why would you come to Deadstone, if you were not?”
I frowned. There must be a multitude of reasons why someone might wish to visit Deadstone, but I had a specific reason. I had come looking for someone, so, I could not think of what other reasons there might be. I shrugged. “Okay, I’m looking for Daniel Jackson.”
Elisa nodded her head slowly. “Daniel,” she murmured, looking down at her glass. Then she lifted her eyes and transfixed me with that mind-reading scrutiny. Her eyes were pale-blue, like distant, misted mountains. “So, you wish to die.”
I felt my entire body twitch. I was not sure whether she had asked a question or made a statement of fact.
“What do you mean?” I asked dumbly.
“Men only come to meet Daniel in order to challenge him, and since he arrived in Deadstone all twenty-three that have done so have died. Do you wish to die?”
I stared into her eyes, trying to get beyond the barrier of their white-blueness and into her mind, to read her thoughts, as she seemed to have done with me. But her mind seemed as closed as that of a corpse.
“I’ll not die,” I announced. “I’ve killed almost as many men as Daniel Jackson. And I shall do the same to him.”
She placed a white cotton-gloved hand over my hand. Her touch was cool against my skin and as light as a feather, and it sent a prickle of sensation rippling up my arm. I withdrew my hand from under hers.
“Let me tell you something, Billy Cotton.” Her eyes studied my face. “You seem to be a brave man to me. But uncertainty has crept into you since you entered this saloon.”
“Well, now ..,”
She held up her hand to silence me. “Let me finish, please, Billy Cotton. Are you married?”
“No,” I felt compelled to reply.
“Shame,” Elisa murmured.
“Yes, shame. It means you have less reason to leave.”
“I’m not leaving until I’ve dealt with Daniel Jackson.”
“Let me tell you something, Billy Cotton.” She paused. Those cool-blue eyes were on me again. “If you persist in dealing with Daniel Jackson, you will not be leaving Deadstone.”
“What do you care?” I asked, irritation burning in my voice.
“I do care,” she replied. “I care because I know what it is to be alive. But if you wish to join us in Deadstone, then that is your decision.”
“I didn’t say I was staying after I’ve finished my business here.”
She pursed those thin lips of hers, so that nothing remained of her mouth but a thin line.
“Let me warn you, Billy Cotton, you will not win against Daniel.”
If what she said was meant to convince me to leave, it failed. I was now even more determined to challenge Daniel Jackson, and kill him. I would show Elisa, I would show all of these staring idiots, that I could succeed. I would win and then I would leave this middle-of-nowhere, God-forsaken town.
“Let me tell you something, Miss Elisa,” I snapped. “I’m not afraid of anyone, let alone Daniel Jackson. How come, if he’s so good, if he’s so invincible, he hides away in this desert town, miles from where any normal person would even conceive to live.”
Elisa remained silent for a moment, her eyes studying my face.
“Very well, Billy Cotton. Since you’re so adamant, I shall get Daniel for you.”
Her eyes roamed over my face again and then she turned and walked towards the saloon entrance. For a moment, I watched her glide elegantly away from me. Then I turned and gulped my whiskey down in one. I reached to do the same with Elisa’s untouched whiskey, but the cool gloved hand of the bar-keep restrained me gently.
“No,” he said firmly. “That’s not yours. Here.” He picked up the bottle and poured me another generous shot.
I knocked that back as well, not even taking time to savour its mellow wonders.
“Is there a hotel?” I demanded.
“Yes.” The bar-keep pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “Turn left out of the door. It’s down the street. You can’t miss it. It’s run by Miss Dawlish.”
I turned and tramped out of the saloon, trying to ignore the staring audience, but their stares sent a prickle over my skin, as though someone had walked over my grave. The sunlight blinded me as I stepped out of the saloon and I had to shield my eyes as I tramped down the steps onto the dust of the street. I turned towards the hotel.
“You looking for me, son?”
I stopped dead. The voice had come from behind me. My spine tingled at the thought of a barrel aimed at it. I raised my hands above my head and turned, very slowly.
Daniel Jackson was standing in the middle of the road, some forty yards away. His hands rested casually on his hips. I lowered my hands and rested my palms, open handed, on the grips of my Colts.
“Yes, I am old man.”
He chuckled at my attempted insult. He waited.
I suddenly felt foolish. Standing there like some impudent upstart confronting someone who had experienced life and survived. I didn’t know what to do or say.
“Yes, I am,” I repeated into the silence.
“How can I help you, son?”
The word still irritated me, but I had grown not to let it show.
The heat shimmered between us, it seemed that I could almost see through him. He was dressed like a normal cowpoke, not in black or the elegant attire of a gunman, that I had expected. Not like Old Bill. I remained silent, hard-faced. I lifted my hands and made ready to draw. Making my intensions clear.
Jackson shook his head slowly. “Listen, son, I’ve no quarrel with you. Leave it be, let’s just walk. You go your way, I’ll go mine.”
“I didn’t come all this way to just walk away.”
Jackson seemed to slump.
“Did Elisa speak to you?”
“She did. So?”
“Did she warn you?”
“Look, son, you can’t win today. Take Elisa’s advice. Leave town.”
“You think I’m yellow?”
His position shifted. I drew. His reaction was incredible, but I had started first. My pistol whipped up. I squeezed the trigger and my gun barked as it pointed at his chest. I saw the barrel of his gun jump a fraction later. I hit him square on. But he seemed not to notice. Then his bullet struck me.
I awoke in panic as though I been drowning and had at last managed to gulp a breath of fresh air.
“Hush, hush, you’re okay, Billy,” said Elisa, placing a soft restraining hand on my shoulder and pushing me back onto the bed.
“Did I kill him?”
I looked down in alarm. I was wearing different clothes.
“He got me. Is it bad?”
“Very, I’m afraid.”
“Am I going to die?”
“Thank the Lord.” I slumped back, relieved. But where was the pain? I frowned at Elisa. “Where’d he get me?”
“Through the heart.”
I looked at her, confused. She looked different somehow, more solid, less transparent.
She smiled at me. “You’re one of us now, Billy Cotton.”
What the hell did that mean, I thought. I was about to ask, when she started to remove a glove from the slender hand. I watched as she removed a glove and reached for a water beaker. Her hand passed through it. She replaced her glove, picked up the beaker and poured a glass of water. She offered it to me. I sat up and went to take it. My hand passed through it. I tried again. What was going on? Was I dreaming?
“You’ll have to put on one of your new gloves,” she said, lifting it off the bed beside me.
I drew it on and took the glass from her. I lifted the glass to my lips. She placed a restraining hand on my arm.
“Don’t,” She said.
“Don’t try to drink it.”
“Because you don’t need it and you can’t”
“What the hell is going on?”
“You want to know why you’re not going to die, Billy Cotton, even though Daniel shot you through the heart?”
I looked at her dumbfounded.
Elisa smiled again. “Well, Billy Cotton, the reason you’re not going to die is because you’re already dead! You’re one of us, now, Billy. Welcome to Deadstone!”
She laughed gaily, and her eyes sparkled like light reflected off the waters of some vast blue Lake.