Western Short Story
He was a six-footer with broad shoulders, long arms, quick hands with either gun on his hips. Other gunmen would never challenge him if they knew him ten seconds before death, sudden movements of threat, a sure promise in the air. Gamblers bet on him at the outset, won with him, saw death coming downhill in a hurry.
His name was Jeb McGilvery, an excellent horseman to boot, but not with their own boots in the mix, as testimony said in every place he stopped for a drink or two, to get his mount’s horseshoes fixed, to see an old friend, female most likely, from earlier outings on the trail.
Texas was home to him no matter where he paused on the cattle trail, coming from or going to in any direction, generally northeast for delivery of cows, and a special meeting with apparent gunmen on the way, by demand or accident. Life, his and others, usually ended in a face-to-face session on the dusty street of a small town, chance the ruling thumb, death, one way or the other, standing as the champion of the day. He could not tally the count, others did that for him, at a bar in a saloon, at a trail-side camp fire, at a peaceful meeting between friends of the task at hand, the counters and legend carriers of the age, often before railroads cut into the source of delivery,
The chosen example would arise in certain ways; from a spoken curse, taking the side in an argument, some gunner of repute standing in the way of another gunner, like McGilvery, legs wide apart, hands loose at the sides, the glare of the sun behind the challenger in most cases, ability not always being the sight-picker, death’s door ajar plainly waiting for a result, getting slammed shut in someone’s face before he damned well knows it, Hell, of a certainty, damned well-known at a final breath taken for most of those who chose this life, this Hell on Earth.
Such a situation was developing right in front of him, as Buck Regan, also a noted gunman, reacting to what he considered a slur coming at him in a packed saloon, the Elk’s Emporium, in the heart of Kansas, on the trail to the Chicago market. Regan was a kid in a man’s game, if one wishes to establish a comparison, a kid at a new game for him, man versus boy in the game of life, and death, the usual result of encounters.
Regan stood like a kid, a pure but young braggard at the crux of life, to be ever-known, or be ever dead, his stance too jaunty for one just starting out in this life. at this moment assuming what he had not earned, McGilvery as an opponent, a task not yet explored for one such thing, not to be considered for the first second of his last day on the living Earth. Many other men had stood for the last time, facing up to McGilvery in a show-down, stealing the center of a small town for the center of their final discussion, taking over a dusty town road at the height of day.
It never lasted very long, never in McGilvery’s time, his name to be whispered or declared in all the saloons across the land, like the fastest horse and rider had carried the word about the latest victim to those most interested, more than a headline in a small town daily newspaper, the space out front being taken over by a new death had shoved all other news aside, death being dealt before birth, before a joyous celebration.
When the latest declaration was delivered, most responses cane in Jeb’s favor with particular references such as, “It’s about time he got rid of that bum. Should have done it before he got a leg into the murder business, like backside murder being his specialty,” or “Letting one man espousing a rotten part of his rotten life getting away with the worst of crimes in front of sheriff or marshal or their deputies doing much about proper demise.”
In saloons, barrooms, dispensers of the habitual disease among men, the words flew from New York to Los Angeles, east coast to west coast without rivalry in the rumor game, his name openly favored as one who did his best for the lot of society in any way made and measured.
In one Cleveland roust-about, one man declared “Jeb McGilvery is a hero of the highest order, never mind the politicians that feed on such singular characters as they emerge the width of the country, on the move from east to west.”
Jeb himself, freed from Roscommon back in Ireland by his mother who wanted more for her son than was promised there, sought added chances in another life, in a new country promising better chances for all men, imports or not. He relished the new chances afforded him, self-promised to manage his life in supportive manners, become more than just a model citizen, become the hero he had become, accepted everywhere in the new and growing new land of freedom.
When he killed the worst Indian-become-killer, Chief Fox Crawl, he was made the new character in new songs, new stories in print editions, newest character in a cartoon series in a Wyoming weekly, his popularity climbed a dozen degrees that one politician in Washington started the rumor he was a cinch to be elected the next president of the good old USA, a huge lump of favoritism began to swell his own mind, took a hold of his thoughts, made mis mind too distractive, drew down his self-protection to an uncertain level he did not recognize, brought him under the eyes of a deadly killer, Two Guns for Hire, once known as Plain Billy Smith, straight from Hell.
It erupted in the Several Shades of Blue Saloon in Wyoming, Billy Smith saying most boastfully, “I am the best shot of anyone in this here building right now; that includes every gunman in this room bar none, and that includes you, Jeff McGilvery, big shot among all big shots, soon to enter death’s doorway at my command.
Big Jeff, of course, not believing a big shout from a small mouth, stood up, his back to Billy Smith, and walked to the door, all the way, saying, “I’ll be out there waiting for you, big mouth, waiting for you, my guns waiting to do my talking for me.”
There was a marked silence in the room, only Billy Smith man enough to move, to say, “This day is long overdue. It’s time to get rid of a curse on the land once and for all.”
Nobody in town, hearing the oaths spoken, the double damnations released, dared enter the dusty roadway, standing aside along edges and corners of a dozen or so buildings, to get a view of the face-off, the face-up, between deadly guns, wondering who would be victorious at visual murder, most hearts pounding, even as bets were made, “I got Billy Smith for ten bucks,” and another voice said, “I got you covered.”
Several such bets were made on the edge of the dusty road, history coming face to face with them, some knowing what was going on, some not, folks as usual thinking all history was behind them, waiting to catch up to them.
Not in this case, as both men drew in the same instant, but only Jeb McGilvery kicked up a bit of his own dust, history, as made right in front of them, Billy Smith riding out of town before another new gunner moved into place, history ever on the move, sure to be repeated here as well as elsewhere.