Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Cotton Simpson and the First Sergeant chatted amicably as they walked toward La Cantina, a saloon in The Flat. The Flat was a raw town on the Texas plains situated next to Fort Griffin. Separating the troopers stationed at that post from as much of their $13 to $18 a month as possible was its sole reason for existence.
As the two men strolled thru The Flat, they were getting acquainted in that slow, desultory way that private men have of coming to know one another. A question was asked. A short silence followed. An answer shorter than that silence came next. A longer silence stretched before the next exchange.
Like all veterans of The War, they named their old units. First Sergeant Pardue asked Cotton about his time with Berdan’s Sharpshooters, and Cotton asked Pardue about his time with the 79th in Arkansas. Finally, Thomas Pardue talked a bit about his current posting with the 9th Cavalry and chasing renegade Kiowa and Comanche, and Cotton told Thomas about his most recent time up on the Llano Estacado with his crew of buffalo hunters.
Thomas entered La Cantina a step in front of Cotton. The bar was a stretch of polished wood with a large, long mirror hanging above it. Bottles of all sizes, shapes, and colors filled the shelves in front of the mirror. A beer barrel bracketed the shelves at either end. Round wood tables, each ready to seat six or eight men, were scattered across the open floor. A keno table with its dealer and a few players was backed up against the front wall between two large, paned windows facing out onto the sidewalk and street. A staircase to the second floor ran up the back wall. The place smelled of fresh sawdust, frying meat, old cigar smoke, and beer.
As Cotton and Thomas stepped up to the bar, cowboys at one of the tables leaned in and spoke to each other in low, harsh tones. Then all five leaned back and stared silently at the two new customers.
As Cotton motioned to the bartender, who smiled to see him, a cowboy at the silent table stood up. He was taller than Cotton, maybe an inch or two over six feet. Like both Cotton and Thomas, he wasn’t bulky; a life of hard work in the saddle had burned him down to tight muscle and bone. He rubbed his lean, tanned face, hooked his thumbs in his belt, looked toward the bar, and said, “I don’t drink no place they let in yor kind.”
Cotton wasn’t wearing a pistol, and his buffalo gun was usually more useful as a club than a firearm when he was facing a cowboy and his whiskey in a place like La Cantina. He laid his Sharps on the bar. Keeping his hands clear of his body, he turned slowly to face the cowboy. He said, “You got something against buffalo hunters, cowboy?”
“Mister, I don’t like the taste of buffalo. I hate the smell of you who hunts ‘em. But, half the time they call this place Hide Town ‘cause a bunch of the folks here live someway or ‘nuther off of buff. I guess I can take that.” Looking at Thomas he said, “But, it sure don’t mean I gotta drink and eat with what you Yankee boys dress up in blue and call yor ‘buffalo soldiers’,” said the cowboy as his hand brushed back a bit along this belt toward his Colt.
“Mister,” said Cotton, “I gotta say you sure seem to dislike all sorts of things. You don’t like anything ‘bout the trade in buff that keeps this town alive for ya. And, the men you don’t care for, well, it don’t matter to me too much what other folks call ‘em. I just call ‘em the 9th US Cavalry. Those troopers you don’t care fer are the folks who risk their lives fighting renegades so cowpunchers like you and your pardners can get drunk and not have to worry about losing yor hair when you drag yor drunk butts back to whatever spread you’re working. Oh, and they’re also the folks who make sure there’s a spread waitin’ for you when you get back, not just some burnt-out buildings surrounded by dead folks.”
Cotton paused for a moment to let his anger subside and continued, “So, why don’t you just sit on down now, enjoy a drink with yor buddies, and we’ll do the same.”
The bartender was a broad man with a pair of mutton chops that almost joined at the point of his chin. He’d been watching the entire exchange. He put down glasses in front of Cotton and Thomas and said, “Frank, come on, just sit on down now. If drinking with these folks riles you too much, then prob’ly best you pay up and take yor buddies somewhere else.”
“It don’t work that way with me, Heinrich. Frank Lewis don’t go nowhere he don’t wanna go. And he sure don’t get run out of some place by the likes of these two.” Gesturing back to his table, he said, “We’s here, and we intends to stay here. If that means Frank Lewis needs to send some other folks out the door or straight to Hell, so be it.” said the cowboy as he moved slowly around the table toward Cotton and Thomas.
The other four cowboys at the table moved their chairs back and began to rise. Thomas had turned a bit and partially hidden his rifle from the five. He thumbed back the hammer, but he kept the Spencer pointed at the floor.
As the cowboys moved, a tall, heavy man with a neat beard and mustache stepped out of an office door near the rear wall and moved between the cowboys and the two men at the bar. The vest and pants he wore with a stiff, white shirt looked like part of an expensive suit. He also wore two ivory-handled .44s Army-style with the butts forward. But, unlike an Army rig, his open, tooled holsters slanted slightly forward, and he wore them just to the front of his hips.
The big man said, “Frank, you need to pay attention to what Heinrich says. You and yor sidekicks should be leavin’ now, or this whole thang could get nasty awful quick.” As he finished speaking, he rested his hands lightly on the butts of his pistols.
The cowboy and his friends stopped. They all stared at the big man. Frank said, “We ain’t lookin’ for trouble with you, Slim. This ain’t your fight.”
“Frank, this here’s my saloon, and you oughta know that whatever I decides is my fight--is my fight. I’m thinkin’ you may need to stop drinkin’, Frank, or at least stop drinkin’ here. Whiskey seems to make you an even more unpleasant feller than you is when you’re sober.”
Slim’s eyes never left the cowboys and his hands never left the butts of his pistols, but he jerked his head a bit toward Cotton. “Besides, this smelly, buffalo hunter is half-owner of this saloon. He and I go so far back we both done fergot when we met."
Slim eyed the cowboys who were beginning to spread out from the table and said, “If you or any of yor pardners puts a hand a bit closer to the hogleg he’s carryin’, then we’ll have ourselves a serious dust-up here.
As he looked from one cowboy to another, Slim continued, “Now, shootin’ is bad fer business. Blood on the floor makes some customers nervous-like. So, I hope you boys just sit on down and let ever’body go on ‘bout their business, or you can jest go on an do yor drinkin’ someplace down the street. They’s plenty of saloons in The Flat. But, if you’re set on playin’ this hand out, then best you start dealin’.”
Frank knew the big man’s reputation. When Slim started running La Cantina, men from nearby ranches imagined they’d ride roughshod over the tall man with his big belly, his fancy clothes, and shiny pistols. They figured he was ‘all hat and no cattle.’ Slim killed three men with those pearl-handled .44s before the cowboys finally realized La Cantina was Slim’s ‘spread.’
Slim ran his place the way the best foremen and owners on the range ran their ranches and their crews. Do things his way, and you got a pat on the back with a big hand covered by a glove made of soft, Mexican leather. Step out of line, and that glove came off, exposing large scarred knuckles. Then, if you were lucky, you ended up with your head slammed through a wall. If you were unlucky, then he was standing over you with a smoking pistol in each hand, while you spent your last moments wondering how a fat man moved so fast.
Frank turned his head slightly to check on the boys behind him. All of them had moved their hands away from their pistols and were backing slowly toward the saloon’s swinging doors. He turned back toward Slim.
Slim said, “No reasons to take all day with this, Frank. It’s simple. It’s just pull in yor horns and sit down, walk on out, or try yor luck.”
After a few, long moments, Frank relaxed his right hand, turned, reached down, and threw back a shot of whiskey that was sitting on the table. He pulled some silver from his pocket, pitched it on the table, grabbed the half-empty bottle from the table, and walked toward the swinging doors. As he reached the doors, he turned, looked directly at Cotton and Thomas, and said, “I don’t care for people causin’ me trouble. I’ll see the two of you some other time when you don’t have yor fat wet nurse around.”
Slim’s booming belly-laugh split the tense air in the bar. He said, “Frank, I got to say. I wadn’t sure, but now I am. You are as stupid as you are ugly. If Cotton or the Sergeant here so much as stub a toe in The Flat, then I’m gonna come lookin’ for you and shoot off one of yor legs at the knee. If a runaway wagon hits one of ‘em, then I’m gonna tie you behind that team of horses and whup ‘em ‘til they so tired they can’t drag your carcass no further. Frank, you need to be purty careful. You make it mighty temptin’ fer some folks to put a few holes in that belly of yors to hep you get rid of all that black bile yor carryin’ ‘round inside. Now go on out."
After Frank Lewis and his friends left the saloon, Cotton looked at Slim and said, “Well, that’s what I call an unpleasant surprise. I swear I’ve never known you to whip a horse. Now, you’re threatenin’ to whip teams of horses ‘til their plumb tuckered-out. ”
Cotton looked at the Sergeant and said, “You know, you go away for a few months, come back, and all your friends have changed for the worse. It’s a sad thing.” Cotton looked at the bartender and said, “Heinrich, I’m upset. Why don’t you pour my friend and me a shot of that good whiskey Mr. Slim likes to keep just for his own self? That might go a long way to making me feel a bit better.”
Heinrich nodded and slowly lowered both hammers on the double-barreled 10 gauge he’d been holding. As the argument with Lewis had developed he’d taken the scattergun from its resting place on a shelf just beneath the top of the bar. Keeping it low, he’d moved toward the end of the bar nearest the door to give himself a clear field of fire at the cowboys confronting his bosses. Now he put it back and reached for the Slim and Cotton’s special whiskey.
Slim moved toward Cotton and Thomas at the bar. Heinrich filled their glasses. Slim downed his whiskey and said, “Now you know ‘id never whup a horse. I just said that ‘cause, at the moment, it sounded right. Man can’t be held to what he says in the heat of battle. Frank’s the only one of them cowboys likely to cause trouble. Them other fellers ain’t the killin’ kind, ‘less they get so drunk they can’t see and mistake you for an Indian.”
“I expect introductions are pretty much in order,” said Cotton, “since you were both just getting ready to kill the same fellows. Philip Williams, usually known as Slim, this is First Sergeant Thomas Pardue of D Troop, 9th U.S. Cavalry. Thomas, Slim, like me, was one of Colonel Berdan’s Sharpshooters in The War, though, unlike me, he had the honor of being the worst rifle shot in any Sharpshooter regiment.”
The men shook hands, and Pardue said to Slim, “If you was the worst shot in the Sharpshooters, then what would’ve happened if those cowboys had them a bit more to drink or a bit more sand? No offense meant, ‘course.”
Cotton looked at Slim and said to Pardue, “They’d all be dead. Before you could’ve fired a second round from that Spencer of yors, no man at that table would’ve been standing. Slim can barely hit himself with a long gun, but it’s a different matter entirely with those .44s. That and his Hellfire Stew were all that kept him in the Sharpshooters, besides of course, the fact that he could carry more ammunition than a horse. The big man is awful sudden with those pistols. He’s almost as quick with them as he is with a spoon.”
“Speakin’ of spoons,” said Slim as he rubbed the substantial belly covered by his vest, “that little to-do got me feelin’ kinda empty. I expect you two could use some supper, too. In fact, Sergeant, from the looks of ya, you may need to stay here a couple of days so I can put some meat on yor bones.”
With that said, Slim directed his partner and guest toward a table in the corner where all three men could eat and at the same time survey the entire room. Slim ordered buffalo backstrap, camp potatoes fried with onions, beans cooked with tomatoes and chiles for the three of them, and a big stack of corn tortillas with a slab of butter and some salt.
”I thought the last thing a buff hunter would want would be a chunk of buffalo meat, though I do admire it myself,” said the Sergeant.
“Oh, I really like buffalo meat, and Slim’s here got an old boy back in his kitchen who knows how to cook it enough ways to keep it interestin’.”
“It’s our buff, too,” said Slim. “Cotton and me cure and ship meat from most all the buff he and his crew kills. The tongues, humps, and backstraps is the most pop’lar back east. We cure it and ship it with the hides. The meat we don’t send back east, we cure anyway and sell to places like Fort Griffin or Fort McKavett. Some we just send up to the reservations for them Quaker’s to give to what they call the civilized Indians riding the reservation.”
“So, you’re the ones we got to thank for the break we get every once in a while from them stringy cows our Commissary Sergeant buys. Well, me and my troopers thank you,” said Thomas, raising his glass.
“Well, purty much anything,” said Slim, “is better than bacon grease and hardtack, which I expect we all had too much of back in The War. But, for my money, buff is a good step farther from it than beef.”
Slim had Heinrich bring over three tall beers to go with their whiskey. As they waited for their meals and worked on their first drinks, Sergeant Pardue said to Cotton, “I didn’t know buffalo hunters were that big on owning things, outside of a good rifle or two and maybe a heavy wagon. I been missing somethin’?”
Cotton smiled and said, “Not much. I had a bit of money ‘fore the war started and couldn’t find anything to spend it on while I was busy trying my best not to get killed. Then, Slim and I started hunting buff up in Kansas after we left the Army. I shot’em, and Slim took care of the rest. By the time the northern herd gave out and we got down here, we’d saved up some more. We figured that if we could kill all the buff up north, then it wouldn’t be long before we did the same down here. So, we decided to see what else we might do. It always seemed to us that saloons stayed busy through pretty much anything. The owner of this place had been having himself a bit of dalliance with the previous Town Marshal’s wife, and he thought it was a real good time to move on. So, we got a good price, and Slim took over.”
Slim took a sip of his whiskey, backed it with a sip from his beer, and said, “The man was named Jameson, as I remember. Feller was silly ‘nough to fergit rule number two.”
“What’s rule number two,” asked Thomas?
“Don’t ever get mixed up with a woman whose husband kills people for a livin’.”
“If that’s rule number two, then what’s rule number one?”
“A cavalry man like you don’t know rule number one?”
”Naw, don’t guess I do.”
“Rule number one is -- there’s no such thang as havin’ too many guns or too many cartridges.”
“Turns out I did know that rule, just didn’t know it qualified as rule number one.”
“You got a different rule number one?”
“Sure. Don’t never join the Army.”
“You got a rule number two?”
“Yep. Rule number two is, if you join the Army, end up in the artillery stationed in Washington, DC.”
“Seems ‘bout right to me, though it don’t look like you done too well followin’ yor own rules. What ‘bout you Cotton?”
“I’m just a dumb buffalo hunter,” said Cotton. “Only rule I got is its best not to go up on a buff unless you’re really, really sure it’s dead.”
“Well, you two seem to have yourselves a fine saloon here. I see a few gambling tables and some Keno,” said Thomas. “See a piano over there in the corner. I knows it’s a bit early, but I don’t see no saloon gals. How can you have yourselves a saloon without women?”
“Purty easy,” said Slim. “We pour an honest drink. We serve good food and plenty of it. Our gaming tables run on the up-and-up. Things don’t get out of hand too often here. Only people likely to get hurt in this place are them I hurt, and I only hurt them who want trouble. They’s plenty enough bawdy houses here for a man to go to if he should want some female companionship. My partner here, Cotton, had him a preacher for a daddy, and he may have strayed a bit from the path of righteousness, but he says he ain’t straying that far, though I do tell him we could turn a nice profit if….”
“Best we 'Make Ready', looks like Frank’s coming back with some new friends,” said Cotton as he moved his chair back, reached for his Sharps, and stepped to the left. Thomas unsnapped the flap over his Colt, cocked his Spencer, moved to the right and dropped to a knee behind an empty table. He put his Colt on the table. Slim pushed back his chair and drew both his pistols as he turned and moved toward the saloon doors with the same unexpected grace and swiftness that Cotton had seen so often in The War.
Slim strode to a position roughly 20 feet back from the center of the doors. Heinrich noticed the action and reached under the bar for his scattergun. The lone waiter in the saloon quickly put down his tray of food, moved to the end of the bar away from the door, and reached beneath his apron for his own pistols.
With quick, long strides, Lewis led five men up the two steps onto the walkway in front of the saloon. All of them had Frank’s, lean, working cowboy build. Two of them even had features that marked them as Frank’s kin. One of those who might be a brother or a cousin carried a shotgun, while the other carried a single handgun. The remaining three had either one or two pistols in hand.
As he moved forward quickly in a slight crouch that would let him bull the saloon’s swinging doors open with his left shoulder, Lewis drew his pistol. Just as his shoulder moved the left door back a few inches, Slim fired four rounds thru the slender opening between the doors. The rounds stitched Lewis from just above his belt buckle to just below the line of his hat. Lewis took one step back and fell flat on his back on the wooden, plank walkway. Both his eyes remained open. For that short second before they went vacant, they seemed filled with surprise.
Some customers at the bar or tables had already noticed the developing fight and either crawled or ran in a low crouch away from the doorway and Slim. Slim’s firing at Frank instantly got the attention of all the other customers. These men were now madly scrambling their way over the bar, away from the bar, or any direction out of the saloon that’d seem to take them away from the line of fire.
Only a man of about 45 or 50, wearing a bowler hat, an impressive mustache, a suit coat, and two pistols in shoulder rigs remained at the bar. He’d just come in the saloon, and he now rested his tall, lanky frame against the bar and turned to watch the action, while he sipped his whiskey.
The attacker carrying the shotgun screamed “Frankie” as his leader fell. He raised his shotgun to his shoulder. Firing over the doors, he loosed both barrels into the place in the shadowy saloon where he thought Frank’s killer might be standing. He dropped the shotgun, reached for his pistol and stepped toward the swinging doors. He was met with blasts from both barrels of Heinrich’s 10 gauge and two sharp reports of the Sergeant’s Spencer, which seemed almost like one continual sound. The heavy buckshot and the .56 caliber rounds punched through the doors, leaving the man lying dead almost boot-to-boot with Frank. They also left two small holes in his chest and bloody hole the size of a dinner plate in his belly.
From the gunsmoke and shadows inside the saloon, Slim who’d shifted to one side and dropped to one knee after he fired, called to the men standing in the sunlight on the sidewalk, holding their .44s, and looking down at the corpses of their two companions. He said, “We got plenty more where that come from. If you fellers want to ride the rails to Hell with yor buddies, then just you come on in. But now might be a real good time for you to think about what’s worth dying for and what ain’t. Frank had a beef with me, and it’s settled. Frank ain’t gonna know one way or the other what happened after he went down.”
Cotton had taken up a position to the left of their table so that he could see the men on the walkway through one of the large windows onto the street. He saw three of the remaining four men cut their eyes at each other and begin to lean away from the saloon. But, the other man, one of those who resembled Lewis, stood rooted to the planks, staring at the two dead bodies. After a few moments, he yelled back at Slim, “Those was my two brothers you killed. You think I’m gonna let that pass, you no-good bastard.” His face was largely covered by the shadow of his hat, but his voice was young and tense.
“Yor momma still alive, boy” yelled Slim?
“What? What did you say,” asked the remaining Lewis brother?
“I asked you a question. Is the momma of you three boys still alive?”
The boy’s voice showed his puzzlement. He said, ”What? I.. Uh…. She’s down to San Saba.”
“Best thing you can do fer her is take yor two brothers back to her. Let her bury ‘em and mourn ‘em proper, and let her know that she still has at least one son left. You step toward that door, and she’ll lose all three of ya. Whose gonna take care of her then? You want her losing three sons today? You think your brothers would want you to leave yor momma without yor help?”
The other men had moved off the porch and were backing away slowly with considerable sunlight showing between their gun-hands and their holstered pistols. The young brother, though, stood with his pistol clenched tightly in his right hand, looking down at the bloody carcasses that had just a few seconds before been his brothers. For a moment, he turned his face upward. Cotton could clearly see the boy’s agony. He even caught glimpses of the sparks of light reflected by tears running freely down the boy’s face. Cotton now saw he was probably no more than 15 or 16 years old.
The boy’s shoulders shook, and then he straightened them and looked upward again. He let out a yell that was more like the scream of a wounded animal and moved toward the saloon doors, cocking and raising his pistol. The boom of Cotton’s .50 caliber buffalo rifle was a thunderclap that filled the entire saloon. The young man’s scream died. He spun and fell between his dead brothers, his body curled in on itself.
Everyone inside the saloon looked toward Cotton. Both Thomas and Slim had turned their weapons toward him, in case the sudden noise meant an unexpected attack. The three remaining attackers immediately turned and ran toward the alleys across the street from the saloon.
The man in the derby standing at the bar took his hand down from one ear, took another sip from the whiskey glass in his other hand, and said to Cotton in an overloud voice, “Hell, why didn’t you just throw sticks of dynamite at ’em. It wouldn’t have been as loud. Between that coach gun, the Spencer, and that Sharps, it sounded like the inside of one of them damned Napoleon cannons we used in The War. Hell, I think I may’ve lost what little hearin’ I still had in my left ear.” He then put down his glass and walked out what was left of the saloon doors.
“That it, Cotton,” asked Slim?
“Those three other fellows are headed for California as far as I can tell,” responded Cotton.
“Heinrich, you best get the undertaker,” said Slim.
“Best get a doctor first,” said Cotton.
“You or Thomas hurt?”
“We got two bodies outside, but, I just shot that boy outside in the arm. Figure he’s pretty shook up because of the wallop a .50 caliber carries, but I’d prefer he didn’t’ bleed to death while you load up his dead brothers,” said Cotton.
Just as Cotton finished speaking, the man who’d stood and watched the battle called from the sidewalk. “Slim, that buddy of yors is either a bad shot or a really good one. This here Lewis kid just has a big-ass hole in his arm. He’s bleeding like a stuck pig, prob’ly got a busted bone in there, but the Doc ought to be able to do something for him.”
The man pushed back his bowler and scratched at the top of this forehead and continued, “I figure he’ll prob’ly have hisself somethin’ near to a useful arm after all the healin’s done. ‘Course, this was Chickamauga, a surgeon with a bloody saw be pitchin’ that arm of his on a pile of limbs and pushing that boy off the table so’s he could hack up some other poor fool. But, we’s more civilized here than they was at Chickamauga, which all-in-all ain’t that hard a mark to beat.”
Slim turned to Cotton, “you shot him in the arm?”
“He was a 15 or 16 year old kid looking at the guts of his brothers spread all over those planks. He had so many tears in his eyes I’d be surprised if he could’ve hit that gaudy mirror you hung up behind the bar.”
“Just a minute here. Let me get his real clear. You left the brother of two men we killed alive to come back and hunt us down when he gets his strength back and can find all his cousins and uncles?”
“Slim, remember my rule about buffalo? I guess I got another rule, too. Unless I truly have to I don’t kill a boy crying so hard he can’t see, even if he is waving a loaded pistol around.”
“You know you’re likely to be out shooting buff when that boy brings back his family. You just dumped me in the hole under the outhouse. That’s all yor rule just done.”
“I’m sure sorry to break up this little spat ‘tween you two ol’ ladies, but I got business to get done here,” said the man who’d walked out onto the sidewalk and discovered the Lewis boy was alive.
“I guess introductions is in order,” said Slim. “Cotton Simpson and First Sergeant Pardue, let me introduce ya to the feller with the bad ears, our latest Town Marshall Captain Percy Young, formerly of the 8th Texas Cavalry of the Confederate States of America and the Texas Rangers. Percy, I’m pleased for you to meet my pardner Cotton Simpson, formerly of the 1st Regiment US Sharpshooters and his friend, First Sergeant Pardue, with Hatch’s 9th Cavalry over at the Fort.”
Been nice to meet you gentlemen under differ’nt circumstances but, what I need to know now is what started this entire ruckus. I saw the end of it, and I got no problem with what happened. Them boys come lookin’ for trouble, and they found more’n they could handle. But, what in the name of bloody Hell started this mess?”
“Captain,” said Slim, “why don’t I have Heinrich pour you a drink and tell you the whole sorry tale.”
“Thanks, Slim, tomorrow the judge is gonna want to know the whole story. And, I’ll be taking care of that Lewis boy after he’s all healed up. He can’t gang up with folks and go tryin’ to kill locals. That’s just plain disrespectful fer a young’un and bad fer business.
After Captain Young walked away and the threesome made their way back to their table, Thomas asked Slim, “If he’s the Marshal, then why didn’t he step in when it looked like the shooting would start.”
Slim looked back as the Captain waited for Heinrich to fill his glass and his ear and said, “Fellers who made it through five years of The War aren’t folks to be taking too many unnecessary chances. Seems like they feel they’ve had all the luck they can expect in one life. Also, he knows that folks in La Cantina can handle what they need to handle without his help. If those boys had made it through the doors, I ‘spect he would’ve slapped leather.”
As Cotton, Thomas, and Slim sat down again, the waiter came over and asked, “You fellers still up for supper?”
Slim looked at his two companions and said, “Anybody here feel like eatin’ right now?”
Cotton said, “Bit of whiskey might go down good. Don’t think I’m ready for much else. Thomas?”
Thomas said, “I think a drink be good right now.”
Slim told the waiter to clear the table, bring new glasses, and a new bottle. The three men sat in silence until they had their drinks. Cotton looked at Thomas.
He asked him, “You remember every man you ever killed, Thomas?”
After a pause and a sip of whiskey, the Sergeant said, “Oh, Hell, no. You was in The War. You know what it was like. Crowd of men wearing one color uniform shootin’ at a crowd of men maybe 100 or 200 feet away who’s wearing a different color. People all around ya getting shot, and yor trying to reload and fire as fast as ya can. Everybody all bunched up. You don’t even aim half the time. But, some few ya remember as clear as you’d see a man walkin’ in that door. Over 20 years gone by now, but I still remembers a few. You, Cotton?”
“Being a sharpshooter was different. We almost never fought in ranks like you infantry. We’d be out 300 yards or so ahead of the lines, and we’d be shootin’ at other sharpshooters or pickets. When the Reb infantry started forward we’d fall back and were usually kept in reserve. Sometimes, we’d even go behind Reb lines to find officers and artillerymen. It was a more personal kinda thing. You remember a few, and I guess I remember a bunch. Some are as clear as you say. Others are just a filled-out uniform aimin’ cannon or readin’ a map. Slim?”
“Oh, I spent most of my time runnin’ messages or ammunition. Like you said, I wadn’t really what you’d call a sharpshooter, so that tended to keep me outa trouble. But, those I did shoot, it was usually close up with my pistols, and I do remember. But why in Hell’s name, Cotton, did you get us started on this. Bad enough that we just killed most of a family, though they was a worthless bunch. Now you want us thinkin’ about what all we had to do in the war, and what we had to do out here. Why you want to dwell on such?”
“When I was lookin’ through that window at those men on the porch, I saw what happened to them, and when that boy was yellin’ I had that Sharps aimed right straight at his heart. Then he looked up. I saw tears running down his cheeks as he started for that door, and I just took him in the arm. Didn’t think about it. Didn’t decide anything. Just did it. As best I figure, I just didn’t want that young boy’s wet face in those dreams I have on a bad night. Slim, he may be back, and I know you and Heinrich are the ones who’ll most likely be here. But, there’s nothing I coulda done different.”
Cotton looked at the Sergeant and said, “You warned me, Thomas. I was so damned sure of myself that I didn’t pay you any mind. Now, I got you in a gun battle that’d never have happened if it weren’t for what my Daddy, that ol’ preacher man, woulda called my ‘sin of pride.’ I apologize to ya.
Rising from his chair and reaching for his rifle, Cotton said, “Now, I need to go back to the post, get my mount, and head back to Buffalo Gap and the rest of my crew. Thomas, you oughta stay here. Have yourself drink with the big man and eat what ya want. I’ve just got to be leavin’.”
“I’ll go back with ya,” said Thomas. “Had purty much all the excitement I can stand for one night myself.”
Good-byes were said all around. Promises of another, better evening were made. When Cotton and Thomas walked through the now shredded and crooked swinging doors, they were careful not to step on the dark patches that Slim would take care of later. As they left, Slim closed the full doors of La Cantina behind them and dimmed the lights.
The walk back to the post was quiet; the only sounds they heard came from the saloons and bawdy houses they passed. When they reached the post stable, Thomas helped Cotton prepare to leave. As they shook hands and Cotton mounted, Thomas said, “You need to be careful now, riding out in the dark. Not likely to be too many Camanch out there, but it’s easy enough to take a fall.”
“Moon’s good enough to help me along,” said Cotton. “Gets too bad, I’ll find a place to bed down.”
“You know, Cotton, we coulda gone to yor place tonight and had us some good backstrap and whiskey. Bet that Slim even keeps himself some fancy cigars. Coulda been a fine evenin’. Instead, we got Frank Lewis. Lewis was there, and he was a man just full of black bile, like Slim said. Men like Frank Lewis go ‘round their whole lives pointing a gun at their own head, askin’ somebody to kill them. Eventually, they get someone to help ’em pull the trigger. Want to blame someone. Blame him. I shot his brother, and I didn’t shoot him because of you. I shot him because Frank Lewis was crazy enough to bring his own kin into a fight that’d never have happened if he’d shown a lick of sense. Hell, and with all that, you still saved his little brother, so he’d have a chance to be more a man than Frank was ever gonna be. That boy may turn out just as bad, but maybe not. He got that chance ‘cause of you.
Cotton turned his mount toward the post gate and Thomas said, “You come on back when you want, and we’ll head on up to La Cantina again. I’ll try me some buffalo done up by somebody who knows how to cook it, and we’ll get us some of Mr. Slim’s cigars. You take good care now.” Thomas slapped Cotton’s pony lightly on its hindquarters, turned, and walked slowly toward his quarters as Cotton rode past the night guard out on to the moonlit plains.