Western Short Story
He made sure the sun was always behind him, morning or afternoon, cutting the odds in his favor, the odds needing to be evened, if possible, for the runt in any pack in all the West, at his 5-foot flat evened at the top of his head, a shrimp on the back of a gigantic horse of ordinary size, then ever smaller standing in place in a row of two men, each facing death at the other’s hand, people of all orders watching the slice of drama cutting into their day, Hell or Heaven of a sort in the mix.
“Shorty’s in for it,” one would say, in a kind of tempered discontent for the little guy, or, “He’s done for the day and the draw, diddley-do, diddley daw.” The tune always coming up before a shot was fired, and at each end of the meeting, in front of a hundred on-lookers, the little man stood alone in the dusty road of a dozen towns, all five-foot of him upright in the dusty air, like mercy had been exceeded for the hundredth time, and him on the winning end.
For such little men, like Little Joe, they certainly had their persuasions placed in the right order.
Over the course of time, it would be easy to see some gamblers had picked him as a favorite, even at a small gamble, for nobody ever looked more likely to be facing death than him; “dropped-dead for sure any day now, and maybe tonight,” was surely said by one or more on-lookers in the vast crowds that tinniness or littleness gathered up its fans and supporters.
Dueling or quick challenges to the draw do make insatiable demands on groups of on-lookers not directly facing their own deaths, but surely come to the death of another lost soul or a soul about to be lost, to get itself turned loose into eternity. “He can go anyplace in the whole damned universe and get lost in a second, once he gets lost here. There’s no chasing him around once he gets to where he’s going. Not a chance.”
His escapes were history to any man mounted on a horse, or who helped drive a herd of cattle, or who helped maintain a fleet of horses, occasionally, for the good of all, he’d join up in a posse to seek a sworn killer, thief, or rustler, and he’d be known right off the bat to be so condemned and so condensed, without a doubt. “There’s more than a shortness of breath if you’ve got a chance to look around.”
Dueling, facing a draw, was not called for just correcting a wrong, but sometimes to feed a passion or temper rushing in one’s spirits, like knocking an enemy down, never plain hating a dueler, but closing the draw to finality, a last scene in a melodrama, winner take all, loser on his back in the dust of a road in a little town getting its piece of excitement, its own due, specially if it landed on a Saturday night, highlight of a weekend; Sundays, all knew, are spent hauling selves back to regular status, “Do or get done,” a boss might say.
Picture it if you can: A lone man, smaller than guesswork, well-packed on his hips, pistols ashine, walks into a saloon and shoves his way onto a piece of the bar, nudging another shrimp of a man out of the way, without a single word of apology, size being the judgment behind the call.
After cruel words are said about one’s size, either way, the duel is arranged to the thrill of the saloon crowd and that word rushes out onto the dusty road, the forthcoming death-bed made up on the spot. Death always lingers at such a consecration, the crowds hungry for solution, drama, death one way or another, and not often picking either side. It was really seen as Saturday night entertainment, made a dead town get up and whistle a new tune
“Whoa, there, fella,” would say the one nudged from his spot, “I don’t like what you just did, so apologize or think about the outcome. It won’t come to a nice end.” Dare enough in any language, cowboy English, Spanish, a converted Indian using hand signals to make a statement on his own for his own no matter how far away sat his chief or sat his God in deep paralysis of thought, a wish for the good old days.
“You bustin’ my chops?” was a standard reply, as hands reached for Colt pistols, and the bartender leaning over and popping one or the other with a heavy club and adding to the discussion, saying, “Hold it, pal, not here, not now, not in my place. Not ever, or end up on the floor stone-cold out of it.”
He’d bang again the club on the bar shaking the total saloon to the roots of every drinker, bringing the promise of death onto the scene, for things as they are, never stand still as they are, make Saturdays almost into Sundays.
The resulting WHOMP shaking some men, pleasing others, finding silence as strong as appeasement. Death or the threat of death or the promise of death, has no replacement. It’s something to be talked about all day Sunday, and the whole week following, believe me.
The most delicate move of all happened in a raw little town without a name until someone called it Death Valley, where the big fight of little people came to its grim reality in a pitch to opposites, if you can believe it, Hell being more places than one and at the same instances, believe you me!
It was set up by its chief gambler and biggest bettor, Fatman Gregson, practically on the spot, when he recognized that Little Joe was in his saloon, and promotion had to be placed afoot and about. “There’s another tiny killer hereabouts that can make the day for everybody,” “especially for me,” his mutter mumbling at the expectation.
He set off for his conversion, his preparation at a nearby source, building up his arguments of why’s and why not’s to be used at his quick destination, a miner’s camp a mere mile ride away, to get his target up and running, to brace the whole lot of them in town, to make a show for them all, a show of shows, a knock-down winner of a show, like he used to have in his old days.
Fast-Draw Dewsnap would come into town, be the big scene maker, make himself a few hundred bucks, play the game. It was a cinch-maker, a do-all to end all do-alls, Lincoln on the map again.
“Nothing’ll happen,” he said, he promised. “It’ll be a joke for a jokester. We can’t lose out. It’s a piece of cake.”
From his sly mouth, speaking to a few employees and friends, good talkers and word-spreaders, the very word went forward all over Lincoln territory: Little Joe has been challenged by another little snort of a short me, Fast-Draw Terry Dewsnap has called Little Joe a fake, a false rider of the mystic horse, an out-and-out liar all the way around the horn, and challenges him to a duel on Saturday morning the next. and thus save Sunday for the celebration of another death that’s worth the effort: Fast-Draw pitted against Little Joe, a natural, a winner of winners to the death of one of them, or both if you could believe in gargantuan outcomes, like two shrimps out of the way of normal men in a single and simple round of bullets almost as big as they are.
Old-Miner Disher, longest here hereabouts than anybody else, cotton to every loose tongue, every secret at open source to hm, had heard everything, and stood aside as the crowd gathered in Lincoln that fabulous day of tiny souls at the brink of Evermore.
Disher knew it all, all the dribs and drabs sliding toward him like snakes on the loose in your cellar or your back room, all the meat of all the plans and arguments and stories in promotion, Disher standing aside as the crowd grew, bulging Lincoln beyond itself and two tiny creatures on the path of death, all just for being celebrated on Sunday, all the edges and pages and loopholes of the day come together as one result, more gold than gold.
There with sunshine at his back, Little Joe, the challenged, and there at the other end, the challenger, Fast-Draw Terry Dewsnap, as small a mark on the road to Hell as one could be found. All Lincoln in attendance, and Disher feeling most the impact, the oldest man in the crowd, here in Lincoln the longest, the cornerstone itself of society and civilization of a local nature, caught up by his own information, and a sense of gratitude.
At the height of Lincoln’s biggest crowd watching the two tiny killers align themselves in the dusty road of Lincoln, as society merged every soul it could squeeze into a bunch and mark itself as plain fools, he blabbed out the truth to Little Joe, knowing Fast-Draw Terry Dewsnap could not hear him, he yelled out, “He’d just a kid, Little Joe. He’s just 11 -years old and his father with never finding a single nugget, has offered him up to the Gods of the crowd as the other target,”
The two participants kept moving closer to one another, and Disher kept yelling, “He’s just a kid, just a boy of 11 years. He likes to play with toy guns his father makes for him. If you win, you get judged down the centuries as a kid killer, a shooter of babies, a childhood enemy killed in battle. Want that tag on your stone, on the tongues of these onlookers as they depart this scene and spread such a word every which way?”
It all came as a big surprise to Little Joe who saw a glimpse of the future and knew it was in his hands. He spun about, looking for Fatman Gregson in the crowd, the almost- promoter of a false death, death of a kid, saw his fat face smiling in the sun, shot him dead with one shot, even as the father of Fast-Draw Terry Dewsnap, kid all the way, swept him up and carried him off, maybe together they might find one true nugget in the time to come.