Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The man they call Gutterson came swaggering through the saloon doors and it was at that moment I knew someone was going to die. See, a rider came through the day before and stopped in for a drink. I was sitting in my usual spot—a table with one chair over against the back wall—facing the door when the rider walked in and ordered a drink. He struck up a conversation that I couldn’t help but overhear and heard him say something about Lorne Gutterson and Ricochet.
Now, being that Lorne Gutterson was a wanted man who everybody knew was a wanted man and the town I just so happened to be indefinitely reigned in at was called Ricochet, it didn’t take a man from back east to know that Gutterson was on his way here. That, and a man from back east couldn’t have known that the sheriff of Ricochet, a man by the name of Surrey, had been killed only three days before the rider came in by a bullet that…well, that ricocheted. The day after the sheriff had had it out with a local mountain gang and had bounced a bullet off the side of the jail and killed himself, the only deputy in the town flipped his badge at the mayor and lit out on a gold mare.
So there we were, a town without a sheriff or a deputy, awaiting the arrival of what the mayor had called a “highfalutin fella” from West Texas to come up and take the place of dear ol’ Sheriff Surrey. He was still a week away when Lorne Gutterson’s spurs came chinking up the boardwalk and right into the saloon. A few folks looked up when he entered but then when back to their doings because not a one of them recognized Lorne Gutterson. My gaze fell on him and I just kept on watching because, you see, my path and Mr. Gutterson’s path had crossed before. Years ago, after the war.
Lorne Gutterson and I used to ride with a man whose name ain’t worth mentioning. Suffice to say that man was a bad man who started out doing not-so-bad things. We were a part of that fella’s gang and rode with him down along the Mexico border. We held up a coach or two, roughed up the occasional cowhand and made off with somewhere around three dozen head of cattle. Now, we never killed anyone. At least, not until Gutterson decided to kill someone. And that someone was a poor Mexican heading across the border to his land who just happened to be passing through on the wrong day of the week at the wrong time. So when the big man in charge gave the go ahead to take the hombre, Gutterson got a little carried away and pumped him full of lead in what he said was “a slip of the finger.”
Gutterson couldn’t have been more than twenty at the time and was the youngest in our posse, that’s why we sometimes called him “Kid.” The brain of a youth who thinks he’s God being what it is, he looked like one of us had strolled right up to him and slapped him good and hard when we started cussin’ him for gunning that hombre down. He just couldn’t get it through that space between his ears that a reckless act didn’t make him head-honcho, and not shooting a Spanish-yelling Mexican was good enough for everybody involved. That was the day he started notchin’ that old .44 Army revolver he said he got from some drifter named Wales. We never learned who Wales was and we didn’t rightly care. But Gutterson notched the barrel and bragged about how he’d killed the Mexican feller despite the fact that the Mexican was unarmed at the time and was sitting peacefully on his wagon with his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide as nickels when Gutterson shot him down. That was when he said he was going to start notching that barrel for every man he killed. Boss made him bury the body and that stung him a bit, but he didn’t have a mind to do anything until about a week later.
We were moving into a canyon that day when Gutterson and another man in the posse by the name of Leek started up an argument. Boss told ‘em to shut up or separate but the kid wouldn’t have it. Got to the point he threw down on Leek and before Leek’s gun could clear leather that big .44 blew a big hole in him and blew him clear out of the saddle. Well, Leek had a good friend riding with us and he pulled on Gutterson. He missed however many shots he took and Gutterson shot him square between the eyes. By that time the rest of the posse all pulled out their guns and…you see where this is going.
By the time it was over with, the kid had shot down all the posse save for me and the boss. That’s four men he killed that day. He rounded up the horses and held guns on us and told us to get down off our mounts. He roped them in with the rest and, still holding his .44 on us, said to me, “Dol,” because my name is Dolan but they’d made a habit of calling me Dol for short. He said to me, “Dol, I’ve always liked you. And you’s the only one smart enough not to pull on me. For that, I ain’t gonna kill you.”
The boss, who was standing there with me, said, “That’s all well and good, Lorne, but you’d better kill me. Because if I ever see you again, I’m gonna put a bullet in your little tiny head and blow your brains from here to the Dakotas.”
Gutterson just grinned, like the whole thing was some big joke, and said, “Boss, if I ever see you again, I’ll be sure’n give you a chance.”
Then he told us to drop our guns on the ground and start walking further into the canyon and not to turn around or he’d shoot us. When we finally turned around, he’d lit out and all that he left was a cloud of dust in the distance, at the mouth of the canyon. We started back, found our guns where we’d dropped them and two canteens he’d left for us, and moved on past the bodies of the rest of our posse.
“You know,” boss said, “I probably shouldn’t complain. Been lookin’ for a way out of this for a long time.”
“You can’t tell me you’re happy for that skunk who calls himself a man.”
“Happy, Dol? Lord have mercy, no. First thing I’m gonna do nearest town I get to is put up a bounty on the dumb kid. But I’m thinkin’ it’s best we split ways up here. Go somewhere, forget what we’ve done. Just ain’t cut out for this outlaw life.”
I’d agreed with him, and when we got out of that canyon he went west and I went north. Came across the nearest town after about two days and found took up work riding shotgun for one of the coaches there. Earned enough money to buy me a good horse and ride out west after a couple months. I drifted for a few years and heard at one point that boss had thrown down on Gutterson in Abilene and Gutterson had got him first. That was the last I heard of Gutterson, and I drifted on in to Ricochet.
And then he came swaggering into the saloon, up to the bar, and ordered himself a drink. Bartender came over and started serving him, and I just kept watching from my perch in the corner. Finally, our eyes met and I half expected Lorne Gutterson to say something. But he just nodded and looked back to his drink. I couldn’t tell if he didn’t recognize me, or if he did and just wanted to keep things quiet. Well, either way, ever since I watched him gun down those boys in the posse I’d been wanting to have a few words with him. So I finished my drink and got out of my chair and walked over to the bar and stood next to him. I just kept looking at him ’til he finally looked ‘round at me and said, “Can I help you with somethin’ friend?”
“Why Lorne,” I said. “You don’t remember me?”
He squinted at me real hard, and out of the corner of my eye I saw his hand hovering above that .44 he wore on his hip. “Do I know you?” he said. And I said, “Well sure. Heard you and boss crossed paths again back in Abilene.”
His eyes widened a little, then he grinned and slapped my arm. “Dol?” he said it out loud and laughed. “Dol Mauser? Why, I didn’t think I’d ever see you again!”
“Small world,” I said and grinned. I looked over at the bartender and said, “Hey, Pat.” Pat’s the bartender’s name. “This here’s Lorne Gutterson.”
Pat the bartender said nothing, just looked from me to Gutterson. I winked at him and looked back at Gutterson. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and that beard of his was patchy at best. Looked like he was trying to grow it out, probably told himself it made him look tougher, more like a man. I knew when I said the name it would be like a bombshell went off in there, and I was right. It wasn’t just Pat the bartender who didn’t say a word, it was every other man in there. They all turned around in their chairs real slow and looked at us like we were on some performance stage. Gutterson glanced around at them and tipped his hat. If he was anything like the kid I knew years ago, he didn’t mind the attention. In fact, he liked the thought of being looked at and feared. Now, I ain’t saying the kid shouldn’t have been feared. He was fast on the draw and unpredictable. But he was only unpredictable because he was crazy in his head.
When he looked back at me and smiled, he said, “So you heard about boss?”
I nodded. “I heard. Also heard you got a pretty good size bounty on that head of yours.”
The lines in his face tightened a little. “You ain’t lookin’ to collect it, are you ol’ buddy?”
So the kid, well he wasn’t a kid no more, not by age anyway, wanted to swagger. Fine by me. I shook my head. “Nah.”
“Good. ‘Cause I was gonna say, if memory serves me right, the last time I saw you you was standing in the middle of a canyon on the other side of this ol’ smoke-wagon here.” He patted the butt of his gun. “And if I ain’t mistaken, I let you walk out of that canyon.”
“That’s right,” I said. “You did.”
“And I think I told you I always did like you.”
“Well, that’s enough to melt even the coldest of hearts, Lorne.”
He didn’t say a thing. Just kept lookin’ at me, trying to figure something out. “You know,” he said after a minute, “there’s a reason I always did like you.”
“Why’s that, Lorne?”
“Well, you see, you’s the only man in that group I couldn’t figure. Boss was the boss, Telly liked to talk big but didn’t have the stones to match his own words, but you, Dol…you I couldn’t keep my finger on. Never could tell what was going on in that thick skull.”
I said, “Well bless my soul. I never would’ve thought myself such a com-plex individual.”
He threw back the whiskey the bartender had poured for him, all the while keeping his eyes on me. When the glass hit the table he shook his head and said, “You sure you ain’t lookin’ to collect that bounty, Dol?”
“Then what’re you doin’ here?”
“Eh, I been here a while already. Just by chance you showed up here too.”
“You didn’t leave when you heard I was coming?”
Pat dropped a whiskey in front of me and that told me something. I turned it up and swallowed it down every burning drop before setting the glass on the counter and shaking my head. “No, Lorne. See, I’ve never been one to run from a yellow-bellied son of a whore.”
That struck him like a snake bite and only the venom ran through his veins then. Sounded like a second bombshell hit the room. His face got a little tighter and his lips curled up into a smirk. He turned his body so that he stood full-frame at me. He cracked his neck and said, “Like I said, Dol. I never did know what was goin’ through your head. But now, looks like you’re gonna have to collect that bounty…. Or die tryin’.”
I said, “Lorne, I told you, I don’t want that bounty.”
His lips twitched into a half-smile and he knew that he had me.
Then I grinned real big and said, “But Pat here, he sings a different tune.”
The kid’s head snapped to the side and Pat the bartender was holding a short, double-barreled Remington scattergun in his hands. Gutterson’s gun-hand shot down and gripped the butt of his .44 but my hand took hold of his wrist. It happened so fast that he only just took one last look at me before both barrels on the Remington roared and one second I was looking in the kid’s eyes and the next second I was looking clean across the room, Gutterson nowhere in my sight. I looked over at Pat the bartender, whose mustache twitched at that was the end of it.
Looking around, I saw the kid lying on the floor, his stomach and chest a mess of red. Somehow, he was still breathing. I stood over him and his eyes flickered at me. I knelt down and watched his fingers twitch, still trying to grab that .44. I pulled it from its holster on his side and looked it over, counting seventeen notches on the barrel. He must’ve been hurtin’ something awful. Then again, he might’ve been numb to the whole thing. But one thing was for sure. He knew he was dying, and every man in that saloon knew it too. I brought back the hammer of that .44 and stood up, aiming it right at his heart. “Now we’re even,” I said, and pulled the trigger.
Pat the bartender walked around and stood beside me. He looked at me and said, “Well, that it?”
“I reckon so,” I said. I tucked the .44 into my waistband and lifted my hat off my head and sat it back down again. Digging at the itchy scruff on my neck, I turned and started for the doors of the saloon. Behind me, Pat said, “Where you going, Mr. Mauser?”
“Driftin’, I s’pose.”
Without stopping, I walked through the doors and said, “I figure that man named Wales’ll want his gun back.