Western Short Story
The 21 Foot Rule
Clay Hardy

Western Short Story

Flint Erikson pushed his way through the rickety saloon doors. The doors continued to creak behind him as they eventually settled back in place. Dust that had been migrating on the stained and splintered tables wafted into the air as he moseyed inside. When his deep brown leather boots weren’t crunching on the discarded pistachio shells they were sticking to the dried-up beer that layered most of the establishment’s wooden floor boards.

Approaching the bar, Flint sat down on the far-left seat at the corner of the bar. His seat. His eyes squinted as they struggled to adjust to the darkness. All the windows were boarded up with bent and rusted nails hanging out of them, save one window, which the afternoon’s sun was struggling to break through.

Flint surveyed the patrons with suspicion. On its best day, this place was filled with at least half a dozen seedy characters. On its worst day, it was a who’s who of the Wyoming’s most notorious criminals. In the shadowy corner of the saloon near the pool table, were a few guys setting up a rack. One of them eyed Flint and that right there told Flint that the man was new in town. You didn’t make eye contact with anyone in this saloon. Hell, you didn’t make eye contact with anyone in this town. Everyone knew that. At least everyone who was a regular passing through. That’s what this town was for; just passing through.

On the outskirts of the Big Horn Mountain range, and a night’s ride north from Buffalo, Wyoming, One Horse Ridge had become the preferred place for seedy characters to hide out. Buffalo was well known for having outlaws and folk heroes like Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane make regular stops. This led to an influx of overzealous reporters, onlookers and most notably, lawmen frequenting Buffalo. This had pushed those craving anonymity to make the ride to One Horse Ridge. As deputy for the county, Flint’s official duties were to travel up and down the roads leading into the Big Horn Mountains to keep the roads clear of potential hazards. Namely outlaws looking to rob folks. That rarely happened though. Folks in these parts knew Flint and most had the sense not to cause trouble with him around.

Mostly, Flint just enjoyed the solitude on the trails. Along with his horse, Flint’s most frequent companions were the Wyoming wildlife. He would regularly come across the occasional Buffalo along with small herds of five to ten Big Horned Sheep. But now that it was summer, the scorching temperatures kept most wildlife away. Except for the occasional prairie dog or rattlesnake.

His duties brought him into One Horse Ridge roughly twice a week. The town had just four buildings that had managed to stay afloat. The first of which was the largest building you saw upon riding in. It was a hotel which had reasonable rates and a small but professional staff. The perfect spot where someone could hide out for a few days with supplies and room service brought straight to their room. The hotel even had a small room reserved, free of charge, for the town’s one and only part-time law man. The second building next to it was a General Store, where folks could stock up on food, supplies and most notably, guns and ammo. Next was a doctor’s office. One doctor and two nurses. Far from the best medical care but finding a place where they could get patched up with no questions asked was rare. The final building was the saloon.

“Welcome back Sheriff. What’ll it be?”

“Just a beer. And call me Deputy, not Sheriff,” Flint corrected him.

The short stub of a man who tended bar at the One Horse Ridge Saloon nodded. His name was Murray. Flint squinted at the water spotted mug of beer that was slid in front of him. Nearly half the mug was foam. Flint sighed and took a swig. The Saloon had been through half a dozen bar tenders in the past year. At this point, finding any man brave enough to serve drinks in this town was a pleasant surprise.

“Beer alright Sheriff?”

Flint sighed. “It’s fine. I see we got a few new regulars in town,” Flint said while nodding at the two men in the corner of the bar.

“Those two? Yeah, they showed up a few days back. Been asking about you.”

“Just so happens, when I got in this morning, the door to my room was kicked in. Place was ransacked. Just the two of them?”

“Yeah but they got a double C tattooed on the back of their hands.”

Flint raised an eyebrow “That so?”

A double C was the calling card of the Cheyenne Cowboy gang. Word had been spreading about their exploits. The stories about them were savage. Folks were nervous just talking about them. Not only because of how brutal they were but by their numbers. From the sound of it, the gang had close to thirty members.

“What did you tell em when they asked about me?”

Murray shrugged. “Just told them we got a lawman who passes through from time to time. Nothing else.”

Flint lowered his voice. “Good. I assume you still got your shotgun in the back room. Might want to go make sure it’s loaded.”

Murray nodded. He finished polishing a glass and then set down the dirty grey towel before disappearing into the back room behind the bar.

Flint took a swig and then wiped foam off his dark goatee with the back of his sleeve. He gave a sideways glance to his right as the sound of boots clomping down with spurs clinking on the wooden floor caught his attention. He slowly set the drink down as his left hand grazed his holster. Once his right hand was free it too hovered over his other holstered revolver. He swiveled his stool to the right to face the man walking toward him.

“Afternoon,” the man said as he sat down at the bar. Just one bar seat separated them. “You the law in this town?”

“That’s complicated.”

Based on his getup, he looked as if he’d just graduated from a professional gunfighter class. Black cowboy hat without a speck of dirt on it, brand-new shiny spurs on freshly shined boots, and an oversized duster coat concealing whatever arsenal he was carrying. He had a knowing smirk on his face.

Flint relaxed his body language and turned his stool back toward the bar. He needed to appear calm and in control.

The young guy titled his head to the side. “What’s complicated about it? You either the law or you aint.”

“You’re not from around here.”

“Oh yeah? Gotta say, I don’t like your tone.”

“Gotta say, that’s too damn bad .”

The kid looked back at his friend who was still hovering near the pool table. “Guess we’re gonna get in a gunfight today. Shit it aint even noon yet.”

Flint glanced at his friend who had set down his pool cue. Still concealed in the shadows he was staring right at Flint. Not moving. Not making a sound. Waiting.

Flint took another swig. “I’m not the sheriff. Just a deputy.”

“Not what I hear. People say you’re the law in this town.”

“People, huh? Like I said before, you’re not from around here. This town doesn’t have a sheriff.”

“Bullshit. A town like this? With no sheriff?”

“Sheriff’s are elected. Not a soul in this town stays here long enough to put in roots, much less vote. On top of that, no Sheriff, at least none that I’ve ever met, would have the balls to try and enforce the law in this town.”

“And yet, here you are, deputy.”

Flint shrugged. “Most folks who visit, those with any sense anyway, understand how things work here. You come to this town because you’re looking to get away from trouble. Even then, sometimes folks do show up trying to start some shit. But there’s an understanding.”

“Understanding? Why don’t you educate me?”

“You draw down on somebody here it’s common knowledge to expect a skill level you might not find anywhere else. Professionalism would be the best word for it.”

The kid chuckled and leaned over the bar. He poured himself a shot of whisky, downed it and then swiveled around on his stool and leaned back so that his elbows were resting on the bar. Now it was his turn to try and appear calm and relaxed.

Flint didn’t budge. But he knew the kid would be making his move soon.

The kid continued, “So let’s say I was to pull a gun on the next man who walks in this bar?”


“Hypothetically. So, say I pull a gun. You’re saying there’s a good chance whoever that man is, he’s gonna be a crack shot?”

“More than likely.”

“And what makes you think I’m not just a good a shot as him?”

“Several factors really. It’s a quality you can’t really put into words. Basically, it comes down to a subtle difference.”

“Which is what?”

“The difference between criminal and outlaw. I’ve no doubt you’re a criminal son. But you aint no outlaw.”

Flint blinked in surprise as the kid let out a loud and long whistle. “Wait just a minute,” he said while pointed at the group of framed photos hanging over the bar.

Flint noticed the photo he was pointing at was the one directly across from Flint’s seat.

“That guy on the wall. He looks an awful lot like you, deputy.”

Flint bobbed his head a few times. “Coincidence I guess.”

The kid squinted to read the caption under the photo. “Fenton Erikson.” He let out another long whistle. “The Fenton Erikson. Heard about him. Legendary gunfighter and outlaw. Haven’t heard much about it him the last few years though. Guessing he must have retired.”

“Guess so.”

Flint had run with the Erikson Gang for over a decade in his younger days. But the gang had disbanded close to three years ago. Unlike most gangs who were forced to disband because of members dying or getting sent to jail, the Erikson gang had been so successful they had all gotten bored. They had all made enough money to go their separate ways and live relatively comfortable lives. All six members had large bounties on their heads, but all were smart enough to make anonymity a way of life.

Fenton Erikson now had a small ranch secluded away in Durango, Colorado with plenty of time to fish and hunt. Flint hadn’t visited his father since the previous summer. He would need to rectify that soon.

The thud of boots approaching on the wood floor caught Flint’s attention. The young guy’s friend was a bit older and his clothes were a bit worse for wear. Dark hair that was braided, he was clearly Native American; Cheyenne to be specific. No duster like his friend. Just a tan shirt complete with leather straps around the arms and back. All to hold a series of knives both large and small. He remained quiet, but his eyes had a smoldering fury that told Flint he was the real threat.

Flint stood up from his seat and rested both hands on each of his holstered guns. “Think it’s time, I ask you two to state your business.”

The young guy chuckled again. “You think you can draw on the both of us before one of us gets to you?”

The friend stepped near enough that he was just inches away from Flint. From this close, Flint could see the man’s nostrils flaring. The kid was right. With him on Flint’s left and the Cheyenne at his twelve he wouldn’t be able to draw on them both at once.

Flint visualized himself headbutting the Cheyenne in the face. If he was fast enough he could break the man’s nose. The kid would draw down but by then Flint would be on the ground. Hopefully with enough time to get a shot off. The only problem would be his aim. Headbutting the Cheyenne would leave him dazed and his aim would be hindered.

Out of the shadows of the bar stepped Murray, rifle pointed at the kid. “Not gonna happen!”

The kid stepped back from his stool, arms raised. “Whoa. My friend and I were just enjoying a few drinks. Nobody wants to cause trouble in your bar okay?”

Murray shook his head and before Flint could stop him he said it.

“This aint my bar.” Then he nodded at Flint “It’s his old man’s.”

The Cheyenne and the kid exchange a glance.

Then the kid took another step back. “Guess we did come to the right place.”

Flint didn’t budge. He just kept staring at the Cheyenne who just kept staring right back. Just inches apart.

The kid then stepped closer, looking down at the bolo tie around Flint’s neck. “You know it’s funny, that bolo tie of yours. It looks familiar.”

“It should,” Flint mumbled as he nodded at the photo above him.

The dark leather bolo featured a weathered chrome snake head with red and black eyes and matching chrome rattle on the end. It was the signature look for each member for the Erikson gang. Even as a sworn deputy, Flint still wore his. Most people knew better to question him about it.

“It’s a badge of honor. If you were part of a real gang. I’m talking about legit outlaws, you might know something about that.”

“So, you’re both a deputy and an outlaw? How does that work exactly?”

“Tough to say. Anyone who’s ventured to find out is a corpse.”

Silence filled the room. Then the kid left out a laugh.

“You sure got a way about you Deputy. A lot of folks have said a lot less to our gang and found themselves dead. As a lawman, I’m sure you’ve heard of us. The Cheyenne Cowboys. Only true gang of both Whites and Indians. Got us our own badge of honor,” The kid said while showing the back of his hand to Flint.

The Cheyenne did the same. Flint glanced down and saw a double C on his hand.

Flint snorted. “Maybe one day you’ll graduate to being real outlaws.”

“You know it’s funny we were all having a chat about that the other day,” the kid said. “Thought to ourselves, ‘How can we make a name for ourselves’. Then we were at this bar in Colorado. What was the name of it?”

“The No Name Saloon,” The Cheyenne said.

Flint squinted in surprise by not just the fact that the Cheyenne had finally spoken. But also, by how deep his voice was. He sounded like a grizzly bear with a heavy cigar habit.

“That’s the one,” the kid said. “We was in this bar and the bar tender starts telling us about this retired outlaw who lives just down the road. Has his own ranch. Of course, we head over and sure enough, there’s old Fenton Erikson. You’re old man.”

Flint swallowed nervously. Something about the way the kid was talking told Flint he was telling the truth.

“We get there and it’s our whole gang. All twenty-eight of us surrounding this old man. So, we ask him where his stash is. But he won’t tell us. See we figure, an outlaw legend like him has a huge stash of cash hidden away. Old man won’t say a word. But we know he’s got it seeing as how a week before we had run into another member of his gang.” The kid looked at the Cheyenne. “What was the guy’s name?”

“Scott Marx.”

The kid snapped his fingers, “That’s it. Scott Marx. Mean son of a bitch. We tortured him for hours and hours until he gave up his stash. Then we kept torturing him until he tells us that when your gang split up, you all went your separate ways with your own stashes. Says he isn’t sure where any of the rest of you wound up but gives us a general location for each of you. Your old man was the first name on the list. And like I said, we got him surrounded. He won’t say a word. We even kill Scott Marx right in front of him and he won’t tell us where ya’ll are or even where is own stash is buried. So now we’re at an impasse. Then we decide; six of us split up in groups of two and head out in the general direction that Marx pointed us in to find the rest of his gang. The rest of us are still at your old man’s place. Putting him through all kinds of pain until he talks.”

The kid’s eyes had seemed to light up excitedly as he told this story. He was enjoying watching the anger in Flint’s face.

Flint’s fist slammed down on the bar. “You’re full of shit.”

“Afraid not. Now you have a choice deputy. You can give us your stash and we can be on our way or we can settle this outside. Being a “professional” as you put it, I assume you’ll choose the later?”

“You assumed right. Except I still don’t believe that Scott Marx would tell you a damn word. I don’t even believe he’s dead. I think you and your friend are all talk.”

The kid nodded. “We thought you might not believe us. My friend here used a knife and slit him right in the neck. Old Marx was a bloody mess. And we brought proof.”

The kid reached inside his jacket.

“Easy now,” Murray said as he continued pointing his rifle at the kid.

The kid raised his left hand in the air as he slowly reached with his right. Flint heard the clink of chrome on wood as the kid set down a bolo tie. One matching both the one in the photo on the wall and the one Flint was wearing. It was identical in every way. From the chrome snake head down to the rattle. Scott Marx’s bolo.

“There you have it. Like I said, you can hand over your stash or we can settle it like proper outlaws. We’ll give you a few minutes to decide,” the kid said as he stepped back towards the door. “Won’t we!” he called out to the Cheyenne.

The Cheyenne slowly stepped backwards and eventually joined his friend outside.

Murray lowered his gun. “Whatchu gonna do Flint?”

Flint’s heart was pounding. His friend, Scott Marx…dead. He checked both his guns and then holstered them. “Shot of whiskey.”

Murray scrambled to fill a shot glass and Flint downed it without hesitation. He adjusted his hat and tightened his tie. “My horse is in the stable behind the hotel. Anything happens to me, make sure he’s looked after.”

Murray nodded.

Flint slowed eased the doors open and stepped outside. Both men were waiting in the street.

Flint tilted his hat slightly to the side to the obscure some of the glare from the sun. “So how do you wanna do this? We can just draw down on each other right here. The two of you and just me.”

The kid shook his head. “Nah we had a better idea. See my friend here doesn’t have a gun. Just knives. And we were curious if the stories about your old man were true. At least the ones that Scott Marx told us.”

“A lot of stories about my old man. He was an outlaw for a lot of years.”

“Well one story got our attention. One about any time somebody would challenge Fenton Erikson to a gunfight he would lay his gun down and pick up a knife. Said he would stand roughly twenty-one feet away and by the time the fella challenging him could draw in time, Fenton would have charged ahead and stabbed him to death. Said Fenton called it The Twenty-One-foot rule. Good test to see who was quicker.”

Flint nodded. “Story is true. My old man really put to rest that old debate between guns and knives once and for all. And who woulda guessed, Knives came out on top. Word got around and more and more outlaws challenged him but he never lost. Quick old man with a knife running up and killing someone before they could even get a shot off. Hard to believe. But it’s true.”

The kid let out a long and loud whistle again and then grinned. “Thought so. See my friend here and I are betting that your old man taught you the Twenty-One foot rule too. Hell, maybe you’re just as good.”

“He did. Taught me how to win on either side though. I can kill you with a gun or a knife. What’ll it be?”

“Gun” the Cheyenne barked.

He unsheathed two large knives. Each one rusted and dull. Flint stepped forward until they were roughly twenty feet apart. Then the Cheyenne charged. Flint drew his right gun and fired just as the large man barreled into him. The man’s knee cracked into Flint’s left rib cage as he collapsed into the dirt. The Cheyenne tumbled on top of him, plunging both knives down simultaneously. One knife landed in the dirt, the other pierced straight into his left shoulder.

Flint fired a couple more rounds before gasping in pain. He grimaced and grunted as the two wrestled around, blood and dust filling the air. Flint fired until his gun was empty, and the Cheyenne stopped moving. He quickly shoved the dead man off and scrambled to get back on his feet, his eyes searching for the kid.

The kid had his arms crossed, as if he was assessing Flint’s fighting skills with no stake in the outcome. The kid removed his duster and moved forward until he was roughly twenty feet away. His hand hovering over his holstered gun he smiled at Flint, “Okay then. Now we’ll have to see how good you are on the other side of things. Pick up a knife.”

Flint, his brow sweating, leaned forward to pick up one of the knives with his left hand. But he couldn’t. His hand trembled as pain shot up and down his arm from the knife wound in his shoulder, blood dripping down. The kid chuckled as he watched Flint pivot to pick up the knife with his right hand.

“So how did he do it,” the kid asked with surprising sincerity. “An old man, charging forward and winning against guys younger and stronger. Seems hard to imagine.”

Flint, still out of breath, smirked. “My old man, he taught me to never play by the rules.”

Flint threw the knife in one quick motion. The blade landed with deadly precision in the kid’s throat. After some stumbling and gurgling, the kid collapsed.

Flint sat down and caught his breath as he held his right hand against the wound in his shoulder. Murray rushed out from the bar and helped him to the towns Doctor. After some shots of whiskey for the pain the Doctor and his nurses stitched him up before leaving him to rest.

Several hours later, the doctor returned. Balding and with wisps of a white beard he sat down next to Flint and offered him some water. “Murray told us about what the kid said to you in the bar. Your shoulder’s in okay shape but it needs to heal. Any chance of you resting for a few days before you ride to your old man’s place?”

“Not riding to my old man’s place. Not yet anyway. Have a few stops to make first. I’ll be getting the Fenton Erikson gang back together.”

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