Western Short Story
Once I reached the trail, it turned out to be a fairly short, uneventful ride into town. There was a decent-sized hill, some might say a small mountain, between my sleeping spot and town, so that’s what blocked the light and probably any sound. Or maybe it’s just a quiet town.
The little spot where I’m sitting now and watching is perfect for doing just that. Or for a picnic. I’m high enough to be able to look into town and close enough to see most of what’s happening on the street, and this little grove of trees offers good protection until I’m ready to be seen. I’m not expecting any trouble, and there’s no reason to think there will be any. But, on the other hand, I don’t know many western travelers who live to see the other side of thirty years old that don’t show caution when they can.
This town looks pretty much the same as any of the dozens of small territory towns I’ve traveled through and around: one main street lined with a bar that has what looks like an apartment on the second floor, a surprisingly large bank, a hotel, a livery and a general store dead center. There are a few other small buildings scattered around, maybe an attorney or doctor has set up shop or there might be a sheriff’s office, though not all small towns have a sheriff. I don’t see a church or a schoolhouse, so I’m guessing that any praying and learning that takes place happens inside private homes. The homes I do see are set back from the main street and look to be relatively new. There don’t seem to be many people moving about. Maybe it’s too early in the day, or maybe there simply aren’t a lot of people who live or visit here.
Now, running out of coffee and sugar is a good enough reason to go into town, but as I settle down on the grass to watch for a bit, I realize the cigar I’m lighting up is my last one. There are certain things a man can’t do without for very long—food, water and sleep being among the most important. Then, there are things a man shouldn’t do without, and for me, one of those is a fine cigar. Whether it’s in the evening after a long day on the trail and a good meal or, like right now, just sitting on a pretty hillside among a small grove of trees, it is one of the pleasures of life.
I started smoking cigars when I was young, which my mom didn’t much care for. But my uncle would occasionally sneak me one, and sometimes he and I would have a cigar together while we were out for a long ride in the countryside. My uncle used to say that a gentleman should fight fair, hold his liquor, always treat a lady with respect and enjoy a fine cigar whenever possible. As a matter of fact, after spending weeks with only Horse as company, sharing the same watering holes, and the same sleeping areas, I’ve come to wonder if just about the only thing separating me from the animals is the ability to light and enjoy a cigar.
So, if I had any thoughts about riding around this little town and staying to myself, which I sometimes do, I set them aside as I watched one of the locals walk into the general store and walk back out with a nice, big cigar. I can almost smell it from here. Now, I consider myself a practical man. But that doesn’t mean I’m not open to, or susceptible to, signs, and I took this cigar as a good one.
Horse and I start down the hill, nice and slow. I’m about halfway down when I remember that I have exactly one dollar to my name, and while that should be enough to take care of Horse for a couple of days, it leaves nothing leftover to pay for supplies, a bed, meals or that fine cigar. With both my stomach and my saddlebags sitting far too close to empty, I’m going to have to figure something out, and the sooner the better.
I pass a couple of one-room shacks on the way in, and the first building on the main street is the livery stable, Parker’s Livery. Horse and I ride up and see that the stalls are about half full. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. I hop down and start to take Horse’s saddle off. Just as I’m doing that, a kid, maybe twelve years old, comes around the corner.
“Hold on mister, I’ll take care of her for you,” he says politely. Even though he looks like he could, he’s young, and Horse can be ornery when she wants to.
“Well young man, Horse is pretty particular about who she lets touch her, or even feed her. You any good with horses?”
“Mister, you call your horse, Horse?”
“Always have. She never seemed to mind, and she never asked me to call her anything else. And you can call me Brock.”
“Brock, that seems like an odd name for a horse, but as long as she likes to be rubbed down like a regular horse and enjoys her oats and corn, I can take good care of her for you.” I like the young boy. He seems polite and confident, and I feel as good as I’m going to about leaving Horse with him.
I start to say, “Son—”
“My name’s Huck. Not Boy, not Son, it’s Huck.”
“Huck,” I say, “here’s my last dollar. I plan on staying in town a couple of days, three at the most. Will this cover it?”
“It sure will,” says Huck.
I ask if this is going to be OK with Mr. Parker. “Mr. Parker is gone now—it’s just me and my dad,” Huck says. “My dad broke his leg a couple of weeks ago and can’t come in to work quite yet, so I’ve been running things. He should be feeling better and come back to work soon. We charge two bits a day for a rubdown, some oats and fresh hay in her stall. With the extra you’ve given me, I’ll pay special attention to Horse and make sure she gets some good corn. All mustangs like corn.”
“Well Huck, that sounds fair. Do you know of anywhere in town where they might need some help? I’d like to earn enough money to cover my room and board while I’m here and my supplies for when I leave.”
“Mr. Hinton owns the general store on the other side of the street,” says Huck.
“Just the other day he asked if I could help him out because he’s got a lot of work and, now, no one to help him out. My dad said I have too much to do here to take another job, so I had to tell Mr. Hinton no, even though I would have liked working around the guns, the people and the candies. Maybe he still needs some help.”
I thank Huck for his help and for taking care of Horse, and I walk down the street until I see the sign that reads Hinton’s General Store. I stop for a minute and take a look at everything being displayed in the large front window. You can learn a lot about a town and the people who live in it by the merchandise displayed in the general store window. There are tools right up front. An ax and a hatchet, plus a hammer and a couple of saws. A good-sized water barrel is covered with blankets and a nice, soft material, like a lady would use to make a dress. There are curtains hanging too. The window seems to be saying, “We’re still in the process of building our town, and there is work to be done, but we’re also far enough along that some of the ladies will be wanting nice things.”
I walk up the three steps that lead from the dirt street to the neatly swept deck that stretches end-to-end across the front of the store. Two long benches, one on either side of the door, welcome visitors to sit and relax, and it’s easy to think that for conversations best not had in a saloon, this might be the town meeting spot. The benches are empty though, so maybe it’s still a little early in the day. Stairs lead off of each side of the deck, since the building is not connected to any other building.
I let myself in the front door, and immediately, my senses are back at work. The smells hit me first, even before my eyes register what they’re seeing. Gun oil, vegetables, a recently slaughtered pig, perfume—perhaps from a recent customer, or maybe for sale—all blended together in a distinctive, only to be found in a general store, smell. My eyes see walls covered with shelves that are filled with clothes, tools, medicines, pots, pans and dishes. Three jars full of hard candies sit on top of the main counter, perhaps to keep them from tempting the young ones who stop by, or perhaps because Mr. Hinton enjoys a candy or two during the day.
Under the candies, locked in the glass-topped cabinet are the guns and ammunition, and standing behind the counter is a man I assume is Mr. Hinton. He appears to be close to sixty years old, with strong hands and arms, but a bit stooped—like a man who’s worked hard for a long time and now has the look of a man who is tired. Not the kind of tired that goes away with a good nights’ sleep, but the kind of tired that has built up in a man and takes a while to go away. He is wearing a gun, but not in a way that makes me think he’s been doing it for long. And right in the middle of the counter, between the hard candies and the cash register, is a jar of cigars.
I introduce myself and ask if he is Mr. Hinton. “Yes I am,” he says, “but you’re welcome to call me Ray.”
“Ray, I’m new to town and not planning on staying more than a couple of days. I’m hungry, broke, need supplies, and I have a real strong desire for one of those cigars. I’m a hard worker with a strong back, and I heard from Huck down at the livery that you might be needing some help. If you do, I would be grateful for a job.”
“Brock, I’ve been broke myself. And I might be again one day. I’ve got a wagon full of fresh supplies out back, and I like the idea of not carrying them in myself. I also have plenty that needs to be cleaned up in here. The work isn’t easy, and there’s plenty of heavy lifting. I would pay you five dollars to work for me for three days, plus throw in room and board at my place for a couple of nights. It’s been lonely since my wife, Ellen, passed last year, and I could use the help and the company. My daughter, Sophie, is still living at home and was helping out here for a while, but lately she hasn’t been coming into the store much.”
I wonder why Sophie isn’t helping anymore, but I don’t feel comfortable asking such a personal question, at least not yet. “Ray,” I say, “thank you. You throw in one of those cigars, and we’ve got a deal. I’ll get started unloading that wagon right now.”
We shake hands—his is a fine, strong grip—and I get to work right away. I’ve never minded hard physical work. It helps keep the muscles limber and frees the mind to think. On the trail, you can never completely relax. Plenty of time to think, but never a time to not be alert. In town, it’s usually safer, or at least it feels that way, so I’m looking forward to unloading the wagon, having a nice dinner, a shot of bourbon and a fine cigar, and sleeping in a warm bed.
I’m on my fifth trip in—each time bringing two fifty-pound sacks of beans, one on each shoulder, and thinking how the people in this town must love beans—when I hear some fellas laughing. Not the kind of laughing that brings a smile to your face and draws you toward it, but the kind of laughing that makes you quietly set down two sacks of beans, slide your right hand down a little toward one of your guns and then walk quietly into the main part of the store. Ray can see me, but the other men, three of them, have their backs to me and don’t hear me come in.
Ray is still behind the counter, but he is not laughing. The three men, who must have only just walked in since I wasn’t out back more than a couple of minutes grabbing those sacks, are laughing with each other as they help themselves to whatever they want.
I just watch quietly, unseen, as the big guy says, “Why isn’t your pretty little daughter coming into town anymore.”
Ray, ignoring the question, asks, “Are you going to pay this time?”
“I told you to put it on our account,” the big guy says.
“You haven’t paid anything on your account since you got here,” Ray protests.
“I told you, anything we want goes on this account.”
Ray’s hand drops ever so slightly toward his gun, and the big guy reaches quickly and easily for his, saying, with no trace of laughter, “You don’t want to do that. I don’t think you’re fast enough.” And it is clear from Ray’s face that he didn’t, and that he isn’t.
At this point, I step in. “Hello, gentlemen. My name is Brock Clemons, and I work for Mr. Hinton. May I ask your names?”
“Who the hell are you?” asks the big guy, so far the only one to speak.
“As I said, my name is Brock Clemons, and I work for Mr. Hinton. I heard him explain to you that your account is in arrears, so I’m afraid you’ll have to pay cash for the merchandise or leave it here at the store and come back when you are able to pay.”
The big guy looks around at his friends, looks back at me and asks, “And if we don’t?”
“Then I’ll have to stop you from taking the merchandise from the store, on account of the fact that I work for Mr. Hinton.”
The big guy, who has still not introduced himself, starts to let his hand drift down toward his low-slung pistol. Thinking he will understand, I say, “You don’t want to do that. I don’t think you’re fast enough.”
He looks again at each of his friends, who have yet to speak or move since I walked in. “Do you think you’re fast enough to take all three of us?”
I enjoy a good conversation as much as the next guy, especially after two weeks on the trail, but I am tiring of this one, so I simply say, “Yes.”
That seems to surprise the big guy and break the tension a little. He starts to laugh again, and then so do the other two. His hand moves away from his gun, and they all turn to walk away, leaving the merchandise. Looking back over his shoulder, the big guy says, “Mister, I think we’ll find out soon enough if you’re fast enough. But not now.”
The three men walk out the door, and I follow them as far as the porch, watching to make sure they keep walking down the street—which they do, toward the livery. Men like that have what my uncle used to call “coyote courage.” Coyotes will attack anything that is weaker than them, or if there are enough coyotes, they’ll attack something larger. But a coyote will never fight what others might call a “fair fight,” and men like this are the same way. If asked to deal with something straight up, they will more often than not look for an excuse and back away, just as they did here. The big guy’s last comment, “but not now,” was a thinly veiled threat and a sad attempt to hold onto whatever dignity he thinks he has. He didn’t want to lose face in front of Ray, but for all his bravado, even with them having three guns to my one, he still must not have felt certain they would win.
It strikes me as they walk away that there is something going on here, something more serious than a couple of thugs stealing a few supplies. I turn to Ray, prepared to ask for an explanation, but he has already started giving me one.
“Brock, thank you for helping me out there. He was right about the gun. I don’t want to use it, and I’m not fast enough. I put down my guns more than twenty years ago and haven’t worn one since, until today. I’m not sure why I’m wearing one now, but as helpless and trapped as I’ve been feeling, I felt I needed to do something.”
“Tell me what’s been happening and why you’re wearing a gun.”
“First, let me apologize. Before I offered you a job, I should have told you about what is happening in our town. The truth is, I saw your guns, I saw a man who looks like he can use them, and I think I was hiring that more than someone to carry supplies. That wasn’t right.”
“It wasn’t right, but let’s put it behind us and start fresh, which means telling me what’s going on and why you feel you have to wear a gun.”
“Well, it’s a bit of a story, so how about if we finish unloading the wagon and then I give you that cigar, we sit out front for a bit, and I tell you what’s been happening. Just let me take this gun off and put it back in the case. I don’t know what made me think I would use it. There was a time, a long time ago, but I think we both know now that I won’t.”
So, after quickly finishing up with the wagon, we settle down on one of the two large benches. The front porch gives us a great view of the entire town, and of course, should anyone visit the store, Ray will know right away. Ray starts in on a hard candy, and I light up my cigar. There are times when lighting a cigar is a quick, almost mindless, process. Grab a cigar and a match, light it up, and you’re ready. But, when afforded the opportunity, taking your time and doing it right adds to the overall enjoyment. Start with the smell, savoring it like you would a good glass of wine. Feel the cigar, roll it top to bottom, and make sure there are no hard spots, which would impact the draw. Wet the mouth end and get it ready for a good, clean cut. Finally, light it up, making sure the light is even all the way around. Then, and only then, take that first long draw. I ask Ray if he smokes cigars.
“I used to and I miss them. For years my Ellen wanted me to stop, even though she liked the smell, she didn’t think they were good for me. I don’t know why, but I never quit while she was alive. After she passed, the first time I picked one up, I just couldn’t light it. I’m not sure why, but since I thought she might be looking down at me, maybe it was my way of saying I should have quit when she asked. And if she is looking down, maybe it gives her a smile.”
But, as he watches me light up my cigar, it is clear that he misses them. I’m not sure what to say. I don’t have a wife, never have. Horse doesn’t seem to mind when I smoke, or at least, she’s never said anything. My uncle taught me to never light a cigar when a lady was present, or in someone’s home, unless invited. So outside of that, or a time when I’m afraid of providing a bright red target for an arrow or a bullet, I’ve never much hesitated to enjoy a good cigar. And this is a pretty good cigar.
Ray starts to tell me how a little over a week ago, these three men rode into town, and their first stop was the Dusty Rose Saloon.
“I wasn’t there, but I’ve been told they walked in like they owned the place, ordered a round of drinks, and when Will—Will Blanchard, he’s the owner of the Dusty Rose—asked for payment, they said to open up an account. When Will told them he doesn’t do accounts, they told him to start one anyway.”
At this point, Ray stops for a moment and seems to be wrestling with his own thoughts at the same time as he’s trying to gather them. I’m not a man who is afraid of silence, and I often need a little time to figure things out myself, so I lean back and focus my attention on my cigar, giving him all the time he needs. After a minute or two, he starts again. Some men do their best thinking when they’re talking, working things out as they go, and I’m starting to think Ray is like that.
In barely a whisper, he says, “Maybe we could have stopped them then. Maybe if we had stood up and called their bluff, none of this would have happened. But we didn’t. I wasn’t there, and I’m sure not saying I would have done anything if I had been. You saw me this morning, and I was pretty quick to back down. But, there are lots of us, and maybe we could have done something. Maybe we should have. But when we didn’t, they kept pushing.
“They’ve been running up a tab at the Dusty Rose, and they even stay at the hotel across from the Dusty Rose some nights, especially after they’ve been drinking, and all of that goes on the account. Ansel Portis owns the Soft Beds hotel, and when he tried to stand up to them, they beat him pretty bad, right in front of his wife. After they were done, the three of them stood there in the street, laughing, and we didn’t do a thing. That was probably our last real chance. We should have stood up to them then. We should have banded together and confronted them, but we didn’t. None of us are gun hands, or even really fighters. But, it was mostly because we were scared.
“I’m next on the list of businesses they use, and if this keeps up, it won’t be long before they put me out of business. They keep asking about Sophie. That first day, the boss, he didn’t take his eyes off my daughter. He never touched her, but it was the way he looked at her. I’ve been afraid to let her back in the store since then, so I’ve been running it by myself. But as you can see, there’s not a lot of business anymore because the townspeople are afraid to come outside, and those who live out of town are afraid to come in. As for Sophie, she’s a strong-willed young woman, just like my Ellen was, and I don’t know how much longer she’s going to stay quietly at the house.”
As Ray finishes up his story and I start to try and put together what is happening to the town, I see Huck walking quickly toward us. He has a large, red welt on his left cheek. It must hurt, but he isn’t rubbing it. I invite him up on the porch and ask what happened.
“Three men walked into the livery and ordered me to take care of their horses—groom and feed. They hadn’t been in the livery before, but I knew who they were. I asked them for six bits, and the big one told me to put it on their account. I told him they didn’t have an account, but they didn’t care and told me to open one. When I told them they had to pay, one of ‘em grabbed me, and the other one smacked me around a little. The big guy just laughed.”
It’s bad enough to hold or hit a boy, but to stand by and laugh? As I listen to Huck, I feel my anger building.
“After that,” Huck continues, “they asked to see your rig, but I wouldn’t give it to them. That’s when one of them quirted me across the face. They threw me on the ground and told me that when they came back in the morning, their horses better be ready to go. Then they started looking around until they found your stuff. They went through it, but I don’t think they took anything. I’m sorry Mr. Clemons.”
“Huck, I told you to call me Brock, and thank you for trying to stop them. There wasn’t much for them to find in my stuff, but I’d still rather they hadn’t gone through it, and they certainly shouldn’t have hit you.”
I ask why it took him so long to come down and say anything, and he tells me he was taking care of their horses. “It’s not their fault who owns them, and they needed to be rubbed down, watered and fed. Now that that’s done, I’m looking for those men and my money.”
I look at Ray, but he turns away. He looks like he was the one who was slapped across the face, not Huck. I can only imagine what he’s thinking, seeing a twelve-year-old boy planning on trying to stand up for himself, alone, against those men.
I look back at Ray and ask, “Is it OK if I open a small account at your store for Huck?”
Somewhere between a laugh and a sigh he says, “Of course.”
I tell Huck, “Go on in, help yourself to some hard candy, and help Mr. Hinton finish putting the supplies away. I think I’ll take a walk down the street and check on your customers, and see what their payment plan is. Stay inside the store until I come back, both of you.” Huck does as he was asked, but the last look he gives me only confirms that he’d been on his way, by himself, to find those three men—and wishes he still was.
“One last thing,” says Ray. “We had planned on having a town meeting tonight. We were going to talk about these men and what we should do. Maybe that’s why they’re leaving their horses with Huck and planning on staying until morning. That way, they figure we can’t talk openly or make any plans.
There are moments in a man’s life when things change. Sometimes we see those moments coming, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we have control over those moments, or think we do, and sometimes we don’t. I guess if I’m honest with myself, a part of me thought, “Not my town, not my problem.” And maybe, ten minutes earlier, I could have ridden out of this town and been on my way. But that was before they hit Huck. I like that boy.
I get a sense there’s more to Huck’s story than he’s shared with me, and any thoughts of leaving disappeared as I watched him reluctantly walk into the general store. Only a little less reluctantly, I walk down the main street to the front of the Dusty Rose, grind out the stub of my cigar in the dirt and walk up to the swinging doors, immediately seeing the three men from the general store—the only ones standing at the bar.
I have only been in town for a couple of hours, and except for the three from the general store, I have never seen any of the people in the bar, and none of them know who I am. And yet, in the way that happens in western towns, they all seem to know immediately that something is going to happen. I know it too, I just don’t know what. I let the doors swing closed behind me as I stride toward the bar.
The inside of the Dusty Rose looks like the inside of almost every western small town saloon I've been in in the last few years. Here, the double swinging doors open to the left of center. To my left are hooks for coats and maybe saddlebags, but they're empty now. Even though it's a bit cold out, with fall right around the corner, the men are still enjoying the weather, so no coats. And the absence of saddlebags probably means that everyone here, with the obvious three exceptions, is local. To my right, there are four tables, each with four chairs. A card game fills the far table, but it looks more social than it does serious. One of the tables is empty, and two people are seated at each of the other two tables.
There is a long bar that easily has room for a dozen men, though currently the only three are the ones from the general store. The ones I'm looking for. I hear the big one, still the only one I've heard speak, order another round of drinks, with the now familiar order to "put it on our tab."
I make eye contact with the bartender, Will, who's standing in front of the three, so that they are between us. He looks like a man who’s been behind this bar forever, and if not this one, another one, or another dozen. He seems to sense trouble and looks toward the three, then back to me. He serves them their drinks and, without a word, makes his way toward his right and meets me at the bar as I walk forward. As I start to order a bourbon, one of the reasons I came to town in the first place, one of the two quiet fellas notices me. He leans over and whispers something to the big guy (so at least one of the two quiet ones can talk), and now all three turn to look at me.
They’ve had a couple of drinks and some time to think about what happened at the general store. Men like this operate on, even feed on, fear. If the men in town are afraid of what might happen if they challenge these three, then they won’t challenge them. Once that fear has been established, there is almost no limit to what men like this can, and will, do. And as time goes by, the bullies are emboldened, the townspeople grow accustomed to being afraid, and it gets worse and worse—as evidenced by the fact that today these men held and hit a twelve-year-old boy.
As courageous as Huck was, and is, he is still a boy, and they held him and hit him. And so, while at one point I might have left the men of this town—most of whose names I just realized I still don’t know—to fix this themselves, we are past that now. And even if I wasn’t willing to push this, they will. When word gets around that I backed them down, and it most likely already has, without so much as a punch thrown or a shot fired, they’ll be afraid that others in town might get the same idea. And they might. So, for all those reasons, the next little bit of time will go a long way toward determining my future, their future and the future of this town.
Without a word, or even a glance at the three of them, I take my time and savor my glass (Will generously poured a bit more than the standard shot) of bourbon. It burns, just a little, but I enjoy the sensation, and I enjoy knowing these three guys are getting plenty antsy. I can see Will looking at me, I know the three at the bar haven’t taken their eyes off of me, and I can feel the other men crowding toward the door, unwilling to leave, unwilling to help, unwilling to risk getting hurt.
I turn to face the three, slowly opening my coat so that both guns are in easy reach. I flex each hand, mostly out of habit but also to make sure they’re loose and ready if I need them. I hope I don’t, but these three are feeling backed into a corner, and that makes it hard to know how they’ll react. As I set my feet, they spread out a little. One of the quiet guys stays close to the bar, the big guy is in the middle, and the one who first saw me is on my far right, closest to the door.
“Which one of you hit Huck?”
“Who’s Huck?” asks the big guy.
“He’s the boy at the livery stable, and one of you quirted him across the face while another of you held him.” I could have let it go there, and maybe I should have, but I didn’t.
“Where I come from, it takes a coward to hold a boy so he can be hit and a special kind of coward to hit a boy who’s being held. I like the boy, and I’m here to make things right.”
No one speaks. Now, I’m not a great poker player, but if you play long enough, you do learn to read faces and look for quick tells. The big guy and the guy closest to the bar both look very quickly at the one on my far right, so I’m pretty sure he was the one. I stare at him while he tries to figure out what to do. Finally, counting on the three-to-one advantage and probably feeling he has nothing to lose, he speaks.
“I hit the boy. So what?”
“Well, you shouldn’t have done that. So, I’d like you to walk down to the general store, apologize to the boy and pay him the six bits for taking care of your horses. And I want you to pay off his small account, which I believe, by now, has some hard candies against it.”
After quickly looking at his two riding partners to make sure it is still three against one, which it is, he responds. “And if I don’t?” His comment is somewhere between a sneer and a challenge. I think I liked it better when he didn’t talk.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist. I just rode in this morning, but I’m already quite fond of the boy, and I won’t allow him to be mistreated. Plus, you went through my stuff, which he asked you not to do, and I’d rather you hadn’t. Now, if you think you’ll have trouble with the words, don’t worry, I’ll be with you every step of the way and will help you if you need it. As for the money, that will be your responsibility.”
At that moment, I see the one closest to the bar start to reach for his gun. Since he hadn’t tried that at the general store, I suspect his courage is due to the drinks and the mistaken belief that I’m too distracted to watch all three of them, but that isn’t at all true. With my left hand, I draw and have a bead on him before his gun leaves the holster.
At this point, I have an idea. I order him and the big guy to slowly remove their guns from their holsters and set them gently on the bar. Their hesitation is met with me cocking my Remington 1858, and so, very reluctantly, they do as I had asked. I turn to the third guy and tell him he can keep his gun, unless he agrees to take the walk. When he asks why, I tell him, “I’ve never shot an unarmed man.”
I then turn to the other two and order them to sit down on the floor, where I figure they’ll be less likely to cause any trouble. They hesitate, and I suppose they are considering their options, or maybe just struggling to swallow their pride, but I’m hungry and running out of patience, so I reach out and kick the one closest to the bar in the shins. I’m not sure what he was expecting, but I’m fairly confident that wasn’t it. He sits, or falls, to the floor, and the big guy quickly follows, but not without curses and threats. Again. That leaves just me and the one who hit Huck.
He seems surprised, angry and a little confused, but he doesn’t back down. I tell him again that if he apologizes to the boy and pays him for the horses and the candy, he will be free to go.
He looks at the big guy, clearly the leader, at least among these three. The big guy tells him to do as I say, and that they will come back later and take care of this. Which I take to mean, take care of me. This is the third threat they’ve made in less than an hour, and the second in just a few minutes. These guys love to make threats, and I am beginning to take it personally. However, I’ve always been a man who tries to take care of one problem at a time, and right now, the problem is Huck. I’m pleased when the third guy starts to turn toward the door.
I’ll never know if he’d planned this all along, maybe he simply had reached his limit and unable to see himself apologizing to a twelve-year-old boy, or maybe he heard something in the command from the big guy that let him know he’d better not walk out that door without a fight. But, for reasons we’ll never know and that no longer matter, he starts to turn and draw. The gun in my left hand stays pointed at the two on the floor while my right hand draws and fires very quickly, and then fires again. Both shots enter his right rib cage from the side since he has not yet finished turning. His gun falls to the floor, and he quickly follows, dead before he gets there.
I’ve heard men say that time slows down during a gunfight, that each moment and detail is imprinted on the mind. This has never been the case for me. I can play it back later in my head, which is a blessing and a curse, but when it’s happening, it’s all instinct and practice. In this case, the gunfight was over quickly, but I don’t think for a moment that this will be the end of the problems, which I have now bought into. But I figure I’ve at least let the bullies know that things are going to change. That it won’t be as easy to control the town and these people as it has been for the last couple of weeks. And maybe, just maybe, this will prod the men in town to begin to stand up on their own.
I look back at the two on the floor, who haven’t moved, at Will, who stayed right where he was the entire time, and at the eight men standing in a group by the door. Nothing seems out of the ordinary, except for the dead man and the two bullies sitting sullenly on the floor, so I holster both guns and ask Will for another bourbon. This one I drink quickly. It seems to me like there might be two kinds of men, those who have to drink before they can shoot someone and those who have to drink after. I’m not sure what it says about me that I had one before and after. I enjoyed both, but I don’t think I needed either.
I ask the men by the door to go get the sheriff, and I learn there isn’t a sheriff in this town and never has been, which, at least in part, explains what has been happening. I look at the two men on the floor and order them to stand up. I tell them that they are free to go, but their guns will have to stay here. I tell them that if they leave and never return, their accounts, will be forgiven, but if they return to town, at any point, for any reason, they are going to have to pay in full. I think they understood me, but I don’t think they believe me.
I ask the big guy for two dollars. He hesitates at first, probably stunned by what happened and still trying to plan his next move. But he reluctantly gives me the money, still adjusting to not being in charge. I hand one of the dollars to Will for the drinks and the other to one of the men by the door, asking him to bring it down to Ray’s store and give it to Huck for the horses and the candy. Then, I ask the same man, plus two others, to bring the bullies’ three horses and rigs from the livery back to the Dusty Rose.
We get the two living ones saddled up and strap the third one across the back of his horse. Their guns stay in the bar. Without a word being said, but what I believe to be a very clear mutual understanding, the three horses rode out of town.
I turn and walk back into the Dusty Rose, hoping someone might buy me a cigar and a bourbon.