Western Short Story
In his heart and mind, down in the core of his nerves, Tolliver knew momentum had started anew in Tascosa.
The newest stranger in a black hat and a vest matching its color and trim was riding into Tascosa on a magnificent black with one white sock. Only Tolliver the gunsmith took note of everything as he sat in front of his shop, the evening sun sloping on him and the rider, shadows getting long legs. It was said of Tolliver, settled in Tascosa for almost ten years, like a native son, that he had the eyes of a Pawnee scout and the fingers of a piano man. Those eyes measured the stranger on the big black, as his fingers twirled on the makings of his own smoke. Tolliver was unhurried and content, but he was intent. Behind his shop counter he’d be intent, as he would be on horseback or sitting there in the sun, his character always in place.
Behind him the display in his shop window showed a collection of hand guns and rifles worth a lot of money … each prime weapon and a scattering of shot guns on display. Tolliver’s reputation was founded on a number of things … contest winners who used weapons beyond belief, lawmen who moved with longevity, sharpshooters who could excite a town into instant attention by way of a bank hold-up or a sheriff shot dead in the main street, or a quiet game of poker in a corner table of a quiet saloon suddenly gone amok.
All of those characters needed and wanted guns with the quality of Tolliver’s guns. He didn’t make them, but he brought them to perfection with his good eye and delicate hands.
The first note Tolliver mentally locked away about the stranger centered on the pair of guns sitting in dark holsters riding on his hips, in rhythm with the bay’s hoof beats, as if they advertised the music of a shooter. To Tolliver, the man without doubt was a shooter, an out-and-out shooter. He marked him a snap-draw artist, quick as a skittish colt, sudden as a puma’s leap, the kind of a man who walked away from duel s in the one dusty road running through too many towns. In spite of stories always circulating about him when shoot-outs and duels were discussed, Tolliver found a certain liking for the man. He supposed it was his bearing, the aloofness, the confidence sitting around him, like a protective wall. That clued Tolliver back to his own younger and exciting days. And he knew this man’s name; Teal Forsythe.
The other man was already in town. He had come earlier in the week; Judah Pawkins.
In his ten years abiding in Tascosa, he had never misjudged a stranger’s roll in life. And often knew what had brought a new man into town … some man, like this new stranger, Forsythe, high on a horse, well-dressed, cool as a morning breeze, was already there, as if the telegraph had aired a boxing match … the contestants are now available. All, he thought, in line with his own sole interests of making a living, which was the propulsion of solid lead pellets through the air with unerring accuracy.
Tolliver, hands down in all of Tascosa County and in the whole territory, long reigned as the best at his craft. Dead men, a lot of them in their own negative way, spread the word … Tolliver’s guns gave any man the edge in a draw down, the duel at sunset, pushing the pellet where it was meant to go, its direction so accurate there was little room for replay, or little time.
As he studied Forsythe upright in the saddle, a polished shine broke loose from his gun handles when sun rays struck them, the way subtle arguments or advertisements are set off. Cheap publicity for the price. The handles, he was thinking, were smooth as plow handles or old reins touched with the sweat of a man’s hands. Response was built into the smoothness, how they’d slip from leather pouch to a pair of hands quick as a jack rabbit at escape. Tolliver, at another speed, in a rare return to a prior form, felt the old stance, the hand movements, the acceptance of destiny, life often in the balance … there’d be a move, a shot, a man would fall. It had never been him that did the falling.
Forsythe, at another quick study, looked tall and lean, and the gunsmith saw how the stirrups were set at a low point, for comfortable riding or easy mounting. He’d wait to make up his mind on that point, his thinking finding itself centered on another man, the other stranger who had come into town a few days earlier, the one and only Judah Pawkins, gunsmith in his own right, but from the other end of gun work.
Many roads led to Tascosa, Tolliver thought, often ending up at his shop. Strangers meant business for the town’s only gunsmith or they meant gun play in the main street or in the saloon. It never failed. Often it was both, at times in rapid succession.
Now, twice inside of a week, two strangers to Tascosa had ridden into town without so much as a hoopla or a private salute from an ordinary citizen. Tolliver, on the porch of his shop, enjoying the sun on his face for a few minutes each day, had noticed them as he noticed every move that went on about him. That awareness had arisen as a scout for the army, out ahead of the troops at a great distance, and first in the line of trouble. He had paid his dues to sit and enjoy the sunlight, finesse a trigger’s mechanism in a pistol, set a gun sight to perfection for the nerveless hand, or heart. His own images, his own history, leaped on him in a stab at penance: loose youngster with choice weapons, army scout, shootist, deadly shootist, tired shootist, gunsmith, Tascosa businessman.
Forsythe appeared to Tolliver’s practiced eye to be lean, deadly lean, deadly quick, and deadly accurate. It was his manner in the saddle; surprise would never catch him.
Pawkins, he thought, looked as if he never ate, didn’t need food, feeding instead on the challenge of the gun, the dare of the taunt, the inky headlines in small newspapers spread across the territory.
Tolliver wondered if there was any difference beside life and death. He’d watch Forsythe and Pawkins like it was a stage play. He’d keep his eye on the main characters. The decision brought him to the saloon in the early evening to watch the early action, the pace setting in motion, the establishment of ploys and characteristics freely given as if posed.
“Hey, Judah,” he said to Pawkins in the saloon, “I just missed you one night in Gatesville when I got out of town in a hurry.” They were standing at the bar, a few regulars between them, the regulars drifting away in a matter of seconds as the conversation continued.
“I heard you were there, Tolliver,” Pawkins said, the name said with respect. “I wondered why you left, but guess it was for the best.” He seemed to be saying, “You were older then and older now.” His eyes had not stopped shifting around the room, measuring, detecting, assuming nothing.
“Hell, man, I was slower then than I am now, and now I’m almost useless.”
“You still have the long fingers and the good hands for fixing these things?” He pointed, from up high, down at his hip-slung weapons.
Tolliver appreciated the message in that movement as did every man in the room experienced in gun play. “Yep, still keep my hand in it.” He smiled with his answer, holding out his steady hands, not a twitch in them. “No weight to drag them down.”
He added, “Save some time for me, Tolliver. I’ll drop in to see you.”Tolliver could feel at his fingertips the trigger mechanisms in Pawkins’ six guns being tuned so fine that a breath of cool air might set them off. He held his breath for a few seconds.
From the table near the door, Forsythe, not to be left out of the talk, said, “Tolliver, I saw you in Clancy’s Place once over in Caliber Pass, just before it burned down. That time when Hostetler was running away with half the towns around and half the women in them, like he was a god from way up in the Nations.”
“He did swing a steady trail, didn’t he?” Tolliver offered. His head nodded several times and all the men in the room, including Pawkins and Forsythe, looking as if they wondered about the possibilities of such a life, short as it was, but somehow sweet as a pie.
Forsythe jumped right back. “Boy could have been dead before he died.”
All the men laughed, and Pawkins said, “Until that stagecoach woman, hiding the gun in her skirts, gutted him right up close, him getting so close to her he got too far away.”
The banter went on for most of the evening, and the next evening. Some gents who were not there the first night began to drift in, the word spreading about the banter, Tolliver in the mix, Forsythe and Pawkins in the same room, like the place was a loaded canister.
Sooner or later things would happen, the saloon busting up. It was inevitable.
For two nights Tolliver steered the conversation. Others joined in, telling old tales, new lies, their own little actions in the big west. It was a stage play waiting for resolution.
But Tolliver loved it most, at length admitting that he liked Forsythe and Pawkins, knowing how much they reminded him of himself, a mirror dropped beside him as he looked around the saloon, seeing his body in more than one place. The experience was ghost-like, spiritual, and carried more messages than Tolliver could interpret.
“But I like those two gents,” he kept saying to himself.
Tolliver meanwhile waited the tip-off, the slightest move. He kept watch. It would be an arched eyebrow, the twitch of a lip, the sweat seeping off a brow so subtle only a candle light or oil lamp could make it visible. The longer the evenings wore on, the longer the shadows grew in the saloon until all shadows were gone. The constant and enjoyable talk stayed at a sense of justice, disarmament. It was tolerable times for Tascosa’s saloon life.
Once, in a near silence that slipped into the saloon wolf-like, Tolliver heard the musical bells of a lead ram of a sheepherder’s flock. Things were changing, and perhaps duels and gunfights, the kind he had known for years, were also on the way out. More than once he heard the bells in the middle of the saloon, like a knell settling on him, settling on a way of life that was making a final statement.
Yet something told him the climax between Forsythe and Pawkins was coming, within a day or so. Fate said they had been pointing at this day and also said he’d be in the mix, being the gunsmith, being the old and the new in one frame.
So it was that both gunslingers came to the old gunslinger turned gunsmith, leaving their weapons for fine tuning so delicate it could not be measured. Each one, leaving his guns about an hour apart, saying, “I’ll be back late afternoon. Make ‘em good.” The words were almost exact. Tolliver knew the signs.
So it spilled over that evening after two rounds of drinks, when an eyebrow twitched or a sneer was instant punctuation to another’s words, that the dare was dropped like a gauntlet in the midst of men folk in the saloon. It went outside in a hurry, the regular customers leaving the saloon first, crowding the doorway en masse to get a good viewing spot. The duelists went out last, in turns, like actors going on stage. The evening sun was cut in half by a mountain range, so Forsythe and Pawkins lined up north and south, lest one man get caught in a sun flash.
The silence was the breath ready to set off the trigger mechanisms.
Down the street, at the livery, a horse caught at attention. From the mountain holding half the sun, a wolf called dominion. A twist of dust swirled from the road bed and slipped down an alley like boys at tag. Horse chatter came again, but folk chatter was caught up in dry throats. The curious were here, not because they wanted to see a shooter die, or a shooter lose a duel, but they didn’t want to miss whatever might happen.
It all went as planned … almost.
Not one person in town, including the editor of The Tascosa Herald, could recall later how it ticked down to the draw of the two shooters. But there came again the melancholy call of the wolf off a rise in the shadows of the mountain. A horse, down an alley beside the livery, kicked at a water trough. The thud was unique and solid. A careless man sneezed in the depths of the crowd.
And the two men, without a word, went for their guns. With grace and speed their hands were full of guns. Each aimed at the other and nerves tensed on triggers at the most sensitive point of balance.
The trigger mechanisms clicked again as if they had found empty chambers.
Pawkins and Forsythe pulled their triggers half a dozen times, both staring at Tolliver standing at the front of the crowd.
Tolliver’s hands were slung on his hips as if he stood in judgment of the world, as if he wore an invisible robe. He stood alone, primary and yet susceptible, as others in the crowd backed away from him.
Before anybody moved, before either of the gunfighters said a word, Tolliver yelled at both of them, his voice ringing the way it might sound coming half wild but controlled from Sunday’s pulpit, a strange mix for the former gunfighter turned gunsmith.
“Both of you gentlemen would be dead right now and we’d all go back into the saloon and start drinking again, every damned one of us here. Today would go away and tomorrow would go away on top of it and you’d be forgotten in a hurry.” He snapped his fingers with the sound of doom. “You’d be gone as fast as that.” He snapped them again. “Each of you.”
Those words settled on everybody in hearing distance, each listener gagged by the weight of truth as the dead-earnest saucer of silence sat down on top of Tascosa.
Still the judge at judgment day, like a prophet off the dark mountain, Tolliver pointed at both of them and began laughing the way he’d laugh at a good story at a saloon rail bar or at a campfire out on the plains.
With that laughter realization settled on all those gathered: Tolliver, in a gesture of mercy, had truly fixed the guns of Forsythe and Pawkins.
He laughed long and loud as he began to saunter toward them, and yelled loudly and clearly, in the same voice of deliverance, its timbre deep with conviction and truth and certainty that no man can deny, “Dead men can’t laugh,” he said. “Dead men can’t drink this night with us. Dead men can’t play a decent game of poker with trail pards. Dead men can’t saddle up in the morning and ride out on the prairie with the cows. Dead men can’t be lovers or fathers.” He held both his hands in the air and finished by saying, “Dead men can only swim in the darkest river their minds can imagine.”
In the midst of certain truths, the inevitable ones, the humor came to them all, to the duelists and the crowd as a throaty laugh engulfed the whole town of Tascosa in a night that was remembered into two more centuries.
Even the proposed duelers entered into the laughter as they all followed Tolliver the gunsmith back into the saloon.