Western Short Story
The shotgun was hung, out of customers’ sight, on two large hooks under the bar top of The Great Stride Saloon in May’s Hill, Texas. That shotgun had not moved in more than a year, and customers rarely thought about it, though Todd Brunnell, the barkeep, was alert and ready to use the weapon whenever it was needed. There were late nights, nobody around to observe the chore, when he took the gun down and cleaned it up, wiped off the dust, and now and then getting in a little target practice out of town, far enough not to be heard. Only best friend Curly Charles knew about the secret care and the secret practice, that information tightly locked away from others in town.
Once, when riding back into town after one such excursion, Curly straight out told Todd, “One day when you fire that gun, you’ll hit more than your target. You’ll scatter shot over a wide path. You won’t like the result, and there’s chances you’ll lose some customers, and I mean for good. And perhaps some good man, a good farmer or a good cattleman may go blind if hit in the eyes. If you want to kill a guy, really kill a guy, one who’s ready to wreck your joint and kill off a few of your old customers, you ought to use a rifle. It’s your best bet, level and true, and,” he also advised, “with some added practice thrown into the mix. It’s a simple switch for the most part, one gun for another gun, but the results sure can be different. Some folks might start to call you a protector and some might call you a killer, or a dead shot, or the Barkeep Banger or the Saloon Sniper. It’s the circumstances that end up forming the outcomes, making it what it becomes, what it seems to have been. You and I know that’s how things supposedly happen, all from the aftermath, all from the twist in the tail.”
Todd’s response to all of Curly’s arguments and proposals was a simple, “I do what I gotta do,” and Curly knew that would be the sum total of Todd’s response, the last word on the matter.
The change was made and so were the arrangements, the practice shooting bringing some comfort with the heft of the rifle which, immediately, was hung under the bar in place of the shotgun, Todd hoping he’d never have to fire it.
But the way life works from any angle, from odd sources, it was an avid gambler, card crank, bellyacher supreme, known as a quick gunner, Butch Keegan, also a long-time customer, who took care of the rifle hanging idle. During the heated curses, uproars, castigations from May’s Hill rising out of a poker game, Keegan yanked out his pistol and shot the man beside him at the table, the round tearing through the man’s shoulder. Two friends of the wounded man drew their weapons to help him out. Todd Brunnell, behind the bar, swung loose the rifle, before the whole place was shot up, and fired a single round. That single round dropped Butch Keegan to the floor as quick as a rock falling off a short cliff, all of the quick action followed by a most surprising silence in the usual noisiest of atmospheres.
A man at the bar, sipping his drink first, finally broke the silence, saying, “Holy gawd, Todd, where’d you learn to shoot like that? That was a phenomenal shot.” He rubbed his hand across his broad forehead, exposing his nervousness, and added, “It’s a good thing you didn’t use that old shotgun of yours, you might have wiped out the whole table. There’s no tellin’ now.”
The sheriff closed the case on the spot, noting; “Closed case, shot while defending customers, according to an official witness, me.”
But the word on the gunner working the bar at The Great Stride Saloon in May’s Hill had spread all over the Texas territory, and drew an odd lot of curious folks of all personal bents. They came to May’s Hill, Texas to gawk, sneaking looks at the rifle hung under the bar from an end-of-the-bar view, gabbing about the incident, asking questions of all sorts, especially about Todd’s quickness. Much of their revelations simply added fuel to the fire, and spun the stories clean out of kilter and into one whopping big lie, included in what hit the trail with them when they left town. May’s Hill, Texas became the talk of towns, so to speak. And Todd Brunnell being a heap of that talk.
In short order terms, he became a target for a name, for a reputation, for a piece of Texas lore. That’s the way the wheel turns back to the beginning, without a doubt.
Curly saw it all, heard it all, began to see it all hanging on the hips of every new, brash, young customer coming into The Great Stride Saloon, packing pistols on their hips, flashing their hardware every chance they got, “getting known,” to use a phrase.
Curly sent eye notes to Todd whenever a new young desperado of sorts entered the saloon, like he was a ticket taker on the job, keeping count, keeping Todd aware of what and who of a certain type was new in the saloon.
Todd, for his part, was thankful for the tip-offs, trusting Curly the whole route of the way. Why not? They had been pals forever, it seemed, and trust was earned as well as alerted.
Came the day, high noon on a Saturday of a hectic week, when Curly slipped away from his usual post to relieve himself, that a new, young stranger slipped into the Great Stride Saloon and stood just inside the door, flat-footed, loose in all his joints, a slight tip of acknowledgement of his head and eyes sent toward the bar where Todd had been standing just a second before.
That quick disappearance of the barkeep was reflected on the youngster’s face as he wondered where the gun-shooting barkeep had disappeared to in such a hurry; his right hand immediately feeling the sure presence of his holster.
Todd Brunnell, never daring to fall asleep on the job, had seen Curly leave the room, the newest stranger stand at a most positive declaration just inside the Great Stride door, and had dipped below the bar top and out of sight of all customers in the saloon. His left hand loosening the rifle from its hooks, even as he slithered his way along the back side of the bar to one end, and crouching out of sight.
At that moment of great concern, Curly re-entered the bar, saw the stranger at declaration, and Todd out of sight, went to draw his own pistol from his holster.
Todd, seeing Curly’s move, declared himself with a loud cough, rose up at one end of the bar, the rifle at his shoulder and aimed at the stranger.
Each of them fired their weapon, Curly, the stranger, and Todd the barkeep. The saloon went into a state of bedlam, men diving for the floor, slipping under tables, sliding down beside the three walls of the saloon available to them. Some men piled on top of other men. Moans came from all over the saloon floor, all coming atop the dying echoes of simultaneous gun shots from pistols and the one lone rifle in the hands of the saloon bartender.
The stranger had been hit with a pistol shot and a rifle slug. He fell dead to the floor. Curly had been hit in the right arm, some bones shattered, but still alert.
Legend tells us that barkeep Todd Brunnell, age 82, born 1804, died in Houston, Texas, June 1886, in a corruption of evening shadows, when he was shot off his porch rocker by a wild shot from a street duel between two strangers. His best friend, Curly Charles, was sitting right beside him, one arm paralyzed, one eye blind. No other information is available on Mr. Charles.