Western Short Story
He rode into that little town somewhere in the Powder River Country on an old appaloosa dappled with gray. He picketed the appaloosa in front of the saloon, and slowly made his way inside.
Jonah Hush was an old man.
His hoary posture and the worn-out spring in his nearly crippled step made the fact all the more obvious. Nonetheless, he wore a six-gun tied down on his hip, doubtful that, should he ever have to draw his gun, he would walk away from the encounter. But it was his gun that he wore with pride, a symbol of his vanity; the only thing he had left to boast about in his fifty-eight years of age.
It was a Colt Peacemaker, one of fine craftsmanship with an intricately designed pattern running the length of the barrel. Hush had carried that gun for several years, and it looked then as it had when he’d first taken it off the body of a dead Union officer down at Little Bighorn. His gun was all he’d ever cared for in life.
His gun, and a woman.
The interior of the saloon was as musty and arid as the Great Plains outside.
The little rundown place was occupied only by the bartender and two cowhands who sat at a table in the corner, drinking whiskey and swapping stories of their time on the trail. The bartender looked up when Hush entered and offered a dry smile. Hush gave the man a quick nod and started over to the bar.
“I’s ‘spectin’ ye’d be ‘round ‘bout now,” the bartender said.
Hush let a wry grin cross his dry lips, “Ye outta. Ye know I cain’t go more’n a munth without my whiskey.”
The bartender pulled out a shot glass and placed it on the bar in front of Hush. Then he turned and collected a bottle of whiskey from the shelf on the wall behind the bar. He popped the cork and poured some of the whiskey into the shot glass. Hush turned the drink up, a part of him welcoming the rush of liquid that would help him drown out the memories of his life’s happenings, while the other part despised the hard taste of the whiskey as it burned all the way down his throat.
His better half won the inner conflict of morals when he sat the glass back down on the table and the bartender poured him another round.
As he downed his second shot, the doors to the saloon slapped open and two young bucks came swaggering in, talking loud and being all high ’n mighty and such.
Hush paid them no mind, and dropped his glass back onto the surface of the bar, waiting for the next round to come.
When the whiskey didn’t come, he looked up at the bartender, who stood looking at the two newcomers with a pestered look on his face.
“I told ye two boy tuh not be a-comin’ back in here ‘til ye learnt ye sum mannurs,” the bartender barked.
The first of the two boys was as shaggy-headed and ornery-looking as any boy his age might’ve been. He turned around and looked at that bartender with the biggest, most wiseacre grin that Jonah Hush had ever seen. “It’s alrite, Mr. feller,” the boy said. “We dun learnt us a less’n.”
“In a day’s time?” the bartender replied, inclining his head. “I don’t thank so.”
“It’s true,” the second boy who’d entered chimed in. He was a bit shorter than the first boy, and his hair was blonder but not as thick. He was trying to grow a mustache on his upper lip, and Hush decided he wasn’t doing too good of a job at it. “We dun been down tuh tha church an’ we dun as’d the Good Lord tuh furgive us.”
“That so?” the bartender said, glancing over at Hush, who remained quiet and pretended to be occupied with an invisible spot on the surface of the bar.
“That’s so,” the first boy replied. “Now can we go ‘bout an’ have us a drink?”
“I s’ppose so,” the bartender said, pulling out two more shot glasses from underneath the bar.
The two boys looked at each other, smirked, and then stepped up next to Hush as the bartender poured the drinks.
“That’s tha firs’ time I ever hear’d of a body askin’ the Good Lord tuh furgive ‘em, an’ then they turn rite ‘round and go off a-gettin’ drunk.”
The first boy downed his drink quickly and turned to face Hush, resting his hand on the mahogany grip of the gun he wore on his hip. “What’choo a-sayin’, ol’ timer?”
“Oh, me?” Hush said, glancing over at the boy with a small smile. “Nuthin, son. Jus’ thankin’ out loud’s all.”
“Maybe it’s bes’ you jus’ star’ keepin’ yur thankin’ up in dat dur crazie mind uh yurs, ol’ timer. If yuh ain’t car’ful, a body jus’ mite come by an’ put a bullit in yuh.”
The bartender looked carefully over at Hush, who returned the gesture with a glance.
But neither men said nothing.
Finally, the bartender looked over at the boy and sighed. “Son, yuh bes’ be car’ful what-cha say. Yuh’re a-talkin’ tuh Jonuh Hush.”
The two boys exchanged quick looks, and the second one piped up a bit. “He’s Jonuh Hush, is ‘e?”
The bartender nodded.
“Why, he ain’t nuthin’ but a ol’ timer.”
“That’s rite,” Hush said, looking around at the boy, resisting the urge to slap that stupid-looking hair-for-a-mustache right off his face. “I’m jus’ an ol’ timer.”
“I hear’d tell yuh kilt eighteen men,” the first boy said after a moment.
Hush shook his head. “Whoe’er tol’ yuh that, boy, they’d be a-lyin’ to yeh.”
The two boys exchanged puzzled looks.
“I kilt nineteen.”
“How many was womenfo’k?” the first boy asked after a moment. “My paw says you kilt womenfo’k.”
“I ain’t never kilt no woman.”
“My paw says you did.”
“I don’t cur wha’chur paw says, boy. I ain’t never kilt no woman.”
Suddenly there came a curious glimmer in the boy’s eye, a glimmer that came and left almost in the same instant. But in that instant, Hush became uneasy, and he lowered his right hand to pull his duster back a piece, revealing the Peacemaker that sat in a holster on his hip.
“You callin’ my paw a liar?” the boy asked.
Hush looked down and poured himself another shot of whiskey. Just as he reached around for the glass, a clump of tobacco spit landed in the amber liquid. For a long moment, Hush watched the liquid turn from amber into a sickening shade of brown, and then he looked up at the boy, who finished shoving a wad of tobacco into his mouth.
“Skin it,” Hush said softly.
“Huh?” the boy said.
“I said, skin it. You got it set on yur mind, yur gonna kill me. So you jus’ go rite own ahead an’ skin ‘at smoke wagon uh yurs. ‘Cause when you turn ‘round to walk outta here, I’m a-gonna kill ye dead.”
The bartender drew back several steps. The two men sitting at the corner table were now on their feet and eyeing the door. The second boy took a full step back and stood wide-eyed and nervous.
“You jus’ an’ ol’ man,” the first boy said furiously. “You cain’t hit squat!”
Hush peered at the boy from underneath the brim of his black hat. “Guess you’ll jus’ have tuh skin it tuh fin’ out.”
Tension clung to the musty air of the saloon.
All sets of eyes in the saloon darted back and forth between Hush and the boy.
Everything was still.
Then the boy’s hand fell.
Hush palmed the Peacemaker and shot once.
The boy’s gun was only just clearing leather when the bullet struck him just beneath his chin, shattering his jaw bone, before it exited from behind his ear, taking a portion of his ear with it.
Before the report of the first shot had resounded off of all four of the saloon’s walls, Hush fired a second shot that hit the boy in the chest and knocked him backward into his friend. They both toppled over, the second boy pinned under the body of the one that Hush had just killed.
The boy clambered out from underneath his friend, took one look at the body, and then looked up at Hush, his eyes wide with fear. “No!” he shouted, throwing up his hands, turning, and running for the saloon doors. “Don’t shoot!”
Hush waited until the saloon’s batwing doors slapped shut before he holstered his Peacemaker. The bartender stepped back up to the bar and took another shot glass from the shelf on the underside of the bar’s surface. He filled the glass with whiskey and passed it to Hush.
The two men in the corner casually sat back down and went back to talking in their low voices, paying Hush and the body hardly any mind at all.
Hush downed the drink and sat the glass back down on the bar before glancing over at the bartender.
“Yeh did it now,” the bartender said. “Yeh know who’s boy he was?”
Hush nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“Then yeh know he’ll be a-comin’ after yeh.”
Hush took a coin from the pocket of his greatcoat and passed it to the bartender. “Sorry ‘bout the mess.” He tipped the brim of his hat, then he turned and walked back out of the saloon, stepping over the body of number twenty as he went.
He passed through the batwing doors, stepped off the boardwalk, and then swung up into the saddle of the appaloosa.
As he turned the horse and spurred it down the street, he berated himself for what he’d just done.
It was the call of the gun.
The thrill of the fight.
He couldn’t get away from it.
He’d tried to forty years.
The boy with the bad mouth had been Jed Maslow. He wasn’t unlike his father, Jared Maslow. Jared Maslow had a ranch about twenty miles from town. He would come. Sooner or later, he would come to find Jonah Hush.
And there would be blood.
They came sooner than expected.
The following day, at dusk, Hush was sitting inside of his small cabin several miles outside of town. He was enjoying a hot cup of coffee and watching the fire burn in the pit several feet in front of him.
The first bullet came through the window behind the chair he was sitting in, punctured the chair, and caught his right shoulder. The second bullet closely followed the first and hit somewhere overhead.
Dropping his coffee, Hush threw himself to the floor and, with his left hand, fought to take hold of the Peacemaker lying on the table beside of the chair. Another bullet struck the opposite wall, and he caught a glimpse of two figures standing outside of the window. He finally managed take hold of the Peacemaker and came up on one knee, firing at the two men as quickly as he work the hammer of the Colt.
He saw one man go down about the same moment he felt a bullet penetrate his side. He gritted his teeth and fought to stand, firing off two more shots that put down the second figure standing outside of the window.
Then all was still.
There was no way for him to tell how many more there were. He thumbed six fresh cartridges into the Peacemaker and brought back the hammer.
“Jonah Hush!” came the voice from somewhere outside of his home.
He didn’t respond.
“This is Jared Maslow! Come on out now!”
Hush glanced down at his side, trying to ignore the stinging pain in his shoulder.
“Come out now, and I promise you, we’ll make it quick!”
Hush pondered his options. He was going to die anyway. Fifty-eight years old was a long time for a man to live in a country like that. And that country was no place for old men.
Weakly, he made his way over to the door and forced it open. He half-walked, half-stumbled off his front porch to stand before two men on horseback, one of them Jared Maslow, the other was the second boy who was with Jed Maslow the day before.
“That’s him!” the boy shouted to Maslow. “That’s him!”
Maslow stared hard down at Hush. “You shot my son.”
Hush looked up at him. “That’s rite.”
“And now, I’m gonna kill you.”
“Well,” Hush said, trying to ignore the pain in his shoulder and side, “there’s somethin’ that yer boy hadn’t learnt, that yeh ain’t learnt, neither.”
“That so?” Maslow said.
Hush gave a curt nod.
“And what’s that?”
“When yer gonna kill a man, kill ‘em. Don’t stan’ thur an’ talk’ ‘bout it.”
Hush lifted the Peacemaker and shot. The first bullet knocked the boy out of his saddle. Hush then turned the Colt on Maslow and fired three shots as quickly as he could. The first shot whipped by Maslow’s cheekbone, but the next two hit him square in the chest. He remained in the saddle for a moment, and then he slid off one side and landed hard in the dirt, where he lay motionless.
Hush stood there for a moment, and then collapsed back onto the front steps of his porch.
He lay there for a time, bleeding, thinking about his life.
After a while, his vision became blurry, and his thoughts became unclear. For an unknown amount of time, he spiraled into darkness.
When he came to, he was inside his home, and a big black man was hovering over him.
“You okay, mister?” the black man said.
Hush looked inquisitively at him, trying to remember what had happened after the gunfight. “Who’re yeh?”
“M’name’s Marcus Brood, mister. And you been shot up something awful. You lost a lot of blood.”
Hush lay there for a time, staring into the dying embers of the fire in his home. Finally, he looked back over at the black man, who sat in the bullet-riddled chair with his coat drawn around him. “Son,” Hush said, “I need yeh tuh kill me.”
Marcus Brood’s eyes grew wide. “Mister, I ain’t never killed nobody before in my life.”
“It’s alright, son. Yeh’ll be doin’ me rite. I’m in a bad way. I ain’t a-comin’ outta this’n. I’m in a bad way, boy. I’m dyin’.”
The Colt Peacemaker was lying just out of his reach, and Hush eyed it longingly.
The black man looked at him for a time, and then reached over and picked up the gun. He looked down at the gun, and carefully cocked back the hammer. “Mister, I don’t know if I can.”
“Yeh gotta, son. Yeh gotta. I’m in pain. Jus’ get it over with. Put it rite betwixt my eyes so’s I don’t feel nothin’.”
The black man pointed the gun down at the old man’s face and looked nervously down into Hush’s eyes.
Suddenly Hush recognized the man’s face. He had been one of the men at the corner table back in the saloon.
Hush gave the man a weak nod, and for a single hellish instant in time, everything seemed to stop.
The next moment, his world exploded into a flurry of sound and pain.
Marcus Brood stood over him, his hands trembling. After a moment, he let the Peacemaker slip from his fingers, and he drew back away from the body of Jonah Hush. He turned, adjusting the tethering strap of his old and weather-beaten backpack. He crossed over to the table and, with trembling hands, rolled up a large piece of bread in a napkin and placed it in his backpack.
Then he walked back outside and stood on the porch for a long moment. He looked around at the dead men who lay outside, and for a long moment he wondered who the man had been.
Someone would surely come looking for the men, and if they caught him there, questions would be asked, and he would more than likely be found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit.
Only, he wondered that if by killing the man in that home, had he committed a crime?
After a time, he stepped off the porch and out into the night. Without a glance back, he turned and started off down the trail.
And after a time, he was gone.