Western Short Story
The old man from the livery stable, Horn Bixel, came into The Dividing Sun Saloon and said, in a rather strong voice for such an old body, “I got a message for Boyd Doutty. Is Boyd Doutty here?” His gaze swept around the room looking for a new face, a stranger’s face, at least to him.
At a corner table, in the middle of a poker game, pot money scattered like a circus on the table top, currency, coin, a watch with a fob still attached that looked to be gold, a man stood up, still holding his cards. The man stood 6 foot and 5 inches into the smoky air and was the tallest man old Horn Bixel had ever seen. The message sender, Beau Jack Riddley, had said, “Horn, once you see this man, you’ll never mistake anyone for him again. Nobody looks like him. Tell him he’s a mine rat. See what he says. I know he’s there. Came in over three hours ago. When he leaves a place it’s like the cavalry leaving the fort – everybody knows.”
“Beau Jack Riddley wouldn’t even come up to Doutty’s shoulders,” Bixel said to himself. That was followed up with the next part of the message to Doutty. “Beau Jack Riddley says you’re a mine rat, Boyd Doutty, and a stinking shot with your side arm.”
“That I am, until I’m in real trouble,” Doutty replied.
“Also said you was a lousy cowpoke. Said you dragged your feet and slowed down a whole herd of beef cows from getting to market.”
“Oh, I’ve been that,” Doutty said, still holding his cards, getting ready to sit down and concentrate on the game. “Can wear out my boot heels anytime I want for a bad trail boss.”
“Beau Jack says you’re a cheater from way back in your history.” A nervous edge had slipped into Bixel’s tone of voice, as if he realized he might be mistaken for the messenger. “Beau Jack Riddley said that, not me.”
“Look, old man, I’ve cheated at women, at cards, but not this hand, at head counting at the railhead, just about any place a man makes a decision. Tell Beau Jack that for me.” He sat down.
“He said you stole from some old folks.”
“Oh, I’ve been a thief a time or two. Most of us here, going back to when we were buckaroos in knee pants, copped a thing or two from parents or aunts and uncles or older neighbors who didn’t account for all their goods left around, like they were gifts for the needy, being us hungry kids. Ain’t no major crime there.”
“He told me that you left your sister for the Indians. Left her flat.”
“His riling me ain’t going anywhere, old man. You can tell him that in case you run into him again today, but I wouldn’t go chasing that wild hombre, like as not to start shooting up the place if he gets a mind to. That man’s something else, if you was to ask me about the real him. I bet he’s got other ideas about my sister, if you know what I mean, though such facts might really be too far past things for you. And it might be too damned late for him if that’s the way. Fact is, I left my sister with Two Crows Flying, the great Kiowa chief, who’s well-known this side of the mountain. He’s her husband, preacher-married, tribe-married too, and they’ve started a family. Can you imagine that? … I’m going to be an uncle.” He asked for one card from the dealer, looked around the room, and said, “When’s Beau Jack want to see me, mister? He set a deadline for you to carry up here and tell all these people hanging around this town now that the big cattle drive has been completed?”
Bixel, now part of a seeming soapbox, also took a turn to look around the room and saw he was really part of the prime action about to go on in the town, a place that had been too quiet for too long. The last big action in the usually staid town was the planned hanging of Someday Harry Quillick, convicted of murder and robbery, but who was sneaked out of prison by a crooked deputy during the night, Both of them hightailed it out of town and are still on the loose, having eluded two or three posses called for chasing down nonsense clues and trail signs.
Bixel, on the spot, feeling the difference in his life for the time being, enjoying it immensely, trumpeted his voice up so that every person in the room could hear him, He spoke like he was at a convention of sorts, the main speaker, or at least one of them, on the podium.
There was a sonorous quality to the old livery man’s voice, and the words rose and flew. “5 o’clock, he says, that Beau Jack, down there in the livery practicing drawing his weapons all the time like them old-time killers we hear about all the time. Those stories that run through this place like prairie fire every Saturday night. 5 o’clock, he says, when the sun gets cut in two pieces by the top of that mountain out there.” He pointed to the west. He was also pointing at the wall behind the bar that carried a huge mirror in which he saw both himself and the tallest cowboy he had ever seen, still showing he was that tall even though he was now sitting down.
Doutty, looking at the last card dealt to him, with a huge smile on his face, the kind poker players love to see and read, or really hate when they know what they’re seeing, said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Bixel, all fears gone, stepped up his part in the coming duel. “The last thing Beau Jack said was you kissed Bill Gentry on the trail one day. He saw you.”
The tall, lean, almost servile cowboy stood, his face marked for the first time, dropped his aces-over-eights full house face up on the table, and said, “Tell him it’s now.”
The greased hand, free of the grip on a winning hand now gone, as if unseen in its movement, was filled with a long-barreled gun Bixel had never seen before. And he had never seen such speed on a long, lanky frame like this fellow’s. Doutty checked his weapon, for ammunition load, rolling cylinder clean and smooth, and holster having no raggy edges. The routine was practiced, steady, smooth as a river trout working at worms or grubs.
Bixel backed out of the doorway and hustled down the dusty main road of Apple Falls, Wyoming, where a mountain without a name cut the sun almost in half on a certain number of days in the year. He made a show of himself, as he tried to run, pumping his arms in the air, crying out, “Duel coming! Duel coming!” drawing the attention of practically the whole town of Apple Falls.
At the livery he told Riddley all that had transpired at the saloon.
“Said that, did he? Now? Guess it’s now or never then.” He handed the old man a few gold coins. “These are for you, old feller. I might not need them again. In the Promised Land a man don’t need to carry any vitals or victuals or coin with him. There’s nothing needed, nothing for sale, and all you need is free and right on the counter.”
Bixel said, “He’s awful fast. I saw that. Awful fast.”
“Faster than me,” Riddley replied, “and always has been.”
“You knowed him long?” Bixel said, finding more questions rising in him than he dared ask. “How long you knowed him?” Inside information, good inside information that nobody else had, was often worth a few free drinks.
“Seems forever. Yep, seems forever. Since we were kids in Oklahoma Territory.”
“You faced him afore? Drawed on him?
Riddley, performing another practice quick-draw, showed Bixel he wasn’t fast enough to take Doutty. Bixel felt the shivers go down his backside. A horse snickered in the stalls, then another, and he knew they were sensing his fear floating in the air as ripe as a tart fruit. The taste of a green apple filled his mouth. It was the same taste he had known in the bank the day it was robbed, a teller killed, the bandit pointing his gun at Bixel’s head.
Beau Jack Riddley said, “You said the sheriff was really out of town?”
“I sure did. Went off day afore yesterday to see his daughter and new grandson down in Fremont. Be gone a week or more. Deputy, such as he is, young Sterwick, is watching the town.”
Riddley showed the fear that Bixel still tasted in his mouth, deep in his throat, like a green apple not ready for eating. “Might need him if things get too sticky, if you know what I mean.”
Three or four horses snickered in their stalls, and Bixel tried to keep his mouth closed, to contain that tart taste. He didn’t need any runaway horses. Didn’t want what he had on hand to get out of hand. But he finally realized he had to breathe. He took a deep breath, felt it shimmer down into his chest, and said, “You really going out there now? This minute? Facing that man? That Boyd Doutty? In front of the whole town of Apple Falls?”
“Guess I got to go sometime. Don’t I?” The question sat in the air.
“Should I get the deputy, just in case?” Bixel said, the apple still in place, the horses snickering, him knowing they could smell every last odor on him. Somewhere, from far off, came back the smell of one of his mother’s apple pies set out on the little porch of the house, and from half a mile away he swore, then and now, that he could smell the pie.
Riddley, drawing once more in the most clumsy manner imaginable, death a certainty for him, stared at Bixel with an owl’s shadowed eyes look. “Oh, my,” thought the old man, “he’s saying things without words just like the horses picked up things from me, like how scared I’ve been. What is this life coming to?”
Riddley’s awed look was still in place as he said, “No use ducking things. What’s going to come is already running on good legs, like a cow pony working out there on the grass, the drover at his real mercy. I’ll have to face it. You go tell him I’ll be there shortly.” The next practiced quick-draw was not quick; it was the most mortal act Bixel had seen in a month of Sundays – like instant death. The shivers ensued; the apple smell came back on the air. It definitely was a horse snickering in the last stall, as far away as could be in the livery.
The look on Riddley’s face was darker, like an owl overhead in the livery, up in a corner of the loft, hanging out for the day. And the look on his face was not a holy look. “Go tell him, I’m coming to face my destiny. Make sure he hears you, and he understands you, and he knows what I am saying.” Holding back for a minute or so, he continued; “Be warned,” he tossed in like the ante was being raised in a poker game, “death and fun make a weird game.”
That went by Bixel in a hurry, yet he ran from the livery and began yelling when he was but one foot out the door. “A duel coming! A duel coming! Boyd Doutty’s gonna kill Beau Jack Riddley. A duel up there by the saloon. Boyd Doutty, fast as greased lightning, against Beau Jack Riddley, like a one-armed man milking a cow.”
All the way down the street he yelled it out, again and again and again. Slowly but surely a crowd began to form along the street. Kids and younger folks came out of alleys, rushing, gay, overflowing each other, like school was out, gabbing and screaming and letting loose what had collared them for the whole day. They were bubbly and effervescent and too excited to realize that death might eventually have a part in this day. Older folks meandered into place, nothing more curious than curiosity. The really old citizens began to slip away from their safe retreats … back rooms, upper rooms of houses, little old cabins left over from another century, or another war, from rooms they rarely left.
The hubbub grew, found its own acceleration, formed its own voice, and woke up the rest of the town to the impending incident. Apple Falls was alive and breathing, and full of potential sting, of sudden realization that death, certain death, was never far away from the little town.
Back in The Dividing Sun Saloon, Doutty, having lost all his chips, the scowl yet on his face, stood and announced to all: “I guess I’d better get out there and get rid of this big mouth, let him draw first, fire off a dumb shot a mile wide of his target, and drop him where he stands with one shot from this trusty gun of mine. He quick-drew it in a flash, spun it in the air over his head, let a sun ray bounce of its shiny barrel, and started toward the door. Many men beat him to the exit, not wanting to be caught short, or shot, in the coming duel. In a hurry the room was clear of customers, half sober and half not and all excited by the prospects of a real shoot-out. They rushed to coveted places along the street, and a hush settled over the town as if a blanket had been thrown from on high.
Boyd Doutty, tallest man ever seen in Apple Falls, strode out of the saloon and went straight to a place in front of the saloon. It was on the only cross street on the main street of the town, and at the other end of that short cross street loomed the livery with its doors closed tight. The two buildings were about 200 feet apart, each standing two floors high, painted dark red, and a long hitch rail in front of each building. With the general store and the bank, they were the four busiest places in town.
Doutty practiced all the while on his quick-draw, not looking at any of the crowd, intent on his perfection. The gun swung easy in his hand, each time, every time. His ease at the task was remarkably visible to the entire crowd. And standing there, all 6 feet and 5 inches of him, he was a near omniscient figure to viewers small and big, child and adult. Now and then someone would gasp or take a deep breath, imagining being at the other end in this coming duel.
Suddenly, with a squeak all the townsfolk recognized, the doors of the livery stable swung wide and Beau Jack Riddley stepped gingerly into view, his arms stiff at his sides, his head downcast … a sure loser for sure. Not once did his seemingly stiff arms and hands move to practice a quick-draw. He stepped forward, one clumsy step at a time, one foot slowly following the other.
“C’mon, Riddley,” yelled Doutty, “come and get it. Come on, big mouth, come on up here and get this over with. I lost my money in a game and need to get it back.”
Waving his arms like a windmill, he motioned him on. “C’mon. Riddley, let’s get this over with. And I’m getting hungry and thirsty at the same time.” The cuff of his shirt was rubbed across his chin.
“God help him,” someone in the crowd said, as Riddley stepped toward Doutty. Then, after a slight pause, he took another step. And another. The crowd gasped. He moved closer to the long, lanky man standing in the dust of the road like some pillar stolen from antiquity, the long arms posed at his waist, slightly bent, ready to explode as quick as his gun.
Riddley came on until he was about 70 feet away from Doutty. With an agonizing look on his face, he went for his weapon. The draw clumsy. He fired.
Doutty did not move.
Sometime, somehow, someone had placed three bottles and two cans, probably during the night, on the ridge of the saloon. One of them, a can, flew off the ridge as Riddley’s bullet hit it. He fired again, so inconceivably off target.
Doutty had not moved.
Riddley shot again. Another can jumped from the roof of the saloon and plummeted into the street.
Doutty, looking up behind him with great disdain, quick-drew his weapon and fired two shots. On the second floor porch of the hotel, two cans jumped into the air, twisted, and crashed on the boardwalk with a tinny sound.
The crowd gasped in surprise. How could Doutty miss at such a short range? Was not this tall man so smooth with his weapon?
He fired again, and another can flew up and flew down, just as Riddley fired and another bottle was smashed by his bullet.
In all of Apple Falls, there descended a silence whose depths no one had ever heard before.
And in the midst of that silence, on a wire hung across the street at a steep angle between two buildings, all arranged by an unknown someone, a stuffed bird, big as a pheasant, flew down the wire. Both Boyd Doutty and Beau Jack Riddley fired their weapons simultaneously. The bird on the wire exploded into a cloud of feathers that floated down over the crowd silent as snowflakes.
In the crowd, one person snickered, like a horse, and then another, both with slow realization.
Riddley rushed at Doutty, who was rushing toward him. Some thought each of them were such bad shots that there’d be a fist fight. But the two adversaries of a sort hugged each other, and Doutty, with the stentorian voice, yelled out for all to hear: “The carnival’s coming. The carnival’s coming! There’s a camel coming here. And a lion in a cage. And clowns. A half dozen clowns. And a whole freight car of games for kids and people to play. And we’ll have a shooting contest with the winner getting 100 dollars, and let me tell you right now that me and my pal, Beau Jack here, won’t be allowed to be in the contest.”
And under the floating feathers from the bird on the wire, once as big as a pheasant, the laughter began, and the anticipation of Apple Falls first carnival, even as the two antagonists still hugged each other.