Western Short Story
Kitten Murphy worked at the Three Cactus Saloon, and what else was in those walls, to earn a living to feed three kids; she had no husband to help her. The saloon was in Midville, Colorado and her small, homey cabin was near the edge of town, hers and hers alone, no debts attached to the place, built by a couple of friends from the saloon, like working customers come to her rescue. The two workers built the cabin in a week, for which Kitten paid with favors for that whole week, getting to know them and their ways at life.
When she went off to work each day, she left the kids in the care of an older Sioux half-breed woman who had a kind heart and a sense for justice and learning, hired as a teacher also. She too had no husband and not likely to get one, but kids were her chief interest anyway. The kids, at her feet, learned survival elements necessary for a life on the plains, life with hard edges.
Kitten, dawn to dusk, and usually further, earned money from the bar, and steered men to a group of women who treated male customers with high favors in back rooms, usually cowboys off passing cattle drives or loners in their own passage, tired, lonely, on their own searches for the goods and cares found along the way.
She had a fondness for most of them, honest, hard workers when they worked on cattle drives or local ranches, off for a breather in town, a small respite in the long days. She saw them at their best and at their worst, knew the capable gun hands, the survivors of a tough life, seeking just another day, another soft night if feasible, Some of them took a place at the bar and stayed until their money was gone, Kitten often sneaking a last drink for the good ones, men who treated her with respect during their stop. Sometimes, for a special man that sparked her interest with good behavior, she’d treat to a quick interval in her room, always looking to find a new husband, a father for her kids.
Brick Halliday came closest of all, him coming off the trail, studying Kitten, finding the woman most interesting, most promising. He was a decent looking man who kept a clean face, trimmed beard, hands to himself, a nodder more than a talker.
One night early in arrival in town, he said, “I saw your home at the edge of town and your children at play. The older boy is inventive, leads them like he’s a little father. Is he about 11 years old, maybe 12?”
Those few words, that close in-sight of her kids, sparked her interest, and she thought of him the way he thought of her, she was sure. Here she was, 32 years old, with a job, with kids, without a husband, cast once into the lonely world and fighting her way back loving her small ones with a swollen heart, a core of tenderness under her edges, at times exposed to the world of strangers having their own hard cores.
When Halliday began to be a regular customer after finding a job at a nearby ranch, the nominal affair began to develop, each one knowing their place in the world, and the place of the other. Respect, of a sort, based on current results, developed between them, her comfort and beauty hanging on for a long ride, his determination to keep busy at life and share his good will and care to shower on the other. When he was shot accidentally, as an on-looker at a duel, she had him brought to her little cabin for rest and recuperation.
He loved her for it, and began to know her children in a special way, his wound healing with her care, his spirit coming back in place, itching to get back to work. He saw Kitten, away from work, as a kind and lovely woman and mother, and a lonely woman in spite of all conditions.
And it was 11-year old Jack who spotted the strange rider studying the camp from several points, either studying the layout or the occupants. That rider, Kitten found out from her sources, was a nosey, grubby and unpleasant character named Bull Leonard, a man on the lowest level, and his activities frightened Kitten who told Halliday who said, “Get my guns back for me. The sheriff probably has them. Tell him what you told me, who’s hanging around, and he’ll give them back.
Kitten delayed a few days, giving him a little added rest and more healing time, absolutely needed for standing tall, handling a gun, facing an ugly foe with an evil past on just about any account, but never in jail for a long spell. Bull Leonard, it was said, forced his will and ways on all he came in contact with, man, woman or child, held no restraints on his small crimes; beatings, leaving people limp and sore and somewhat disabled when he departed. Stories had swelled with the years, and it was not the first time Kitten had heard about him. Nor Halliday’s first time.
A few days later, feeling his oats for the first time in his recuperation, Halliday told Kitten, “We can guess he has his eye on you, Kitten, or on the kids, or he’s really waiting to clear me out of the way. We’ve got to consider what way he’s leaning. Whatever it is, won’t be fun. I’ve never seen him in action but have heard from some pretty tough dudes I’ve ridden with that he’s merciless to anyone he picks on.”
He realized he could have said some more, told them specific tales about Bull Leonard. But it would only frighten them to a higher degree, and scare the Hell out of them. That would serve no purpose. It would have to be him, in a face-to-face with Bull Leonard.
Kitten retrieved his weapons from the sheriff and brought them back to the house, tucked away in a bag under the seat of her wagon, then slipped the bag into the cabin, aware the whole while that she was delivering the difference maker in the threats somehow directed at her and her family, and the most likable man still recovering in bed.
In spite of his condition, she noted the ease that Halliday used in handling the twin Colt Peacemakers, now shining in near newness, as worked on by the sheriff and a hireling, both believing that weapons should be in their best condition at all times; life in the old west making that determination.
A few nights later, Brick Halliday and Kitten rode off into the darkness where he had some practice at handling the guns again. His attempts on that trip pleased him. Him soon to be ready to face Bull Leonard, a man who used threat and power and fright as much of his armor.
Young Jackie called the shot a few days later, saying on the sly so his brother and sister would not hear him. “He’s out there now, Bull Leonard, behind the first clump of trees. He’s been there as long as I’ve been looking since the sun came up, like maybe all night. I bet he’s got something on his mind right now, like sneaking up on you, Brick, or shooting you in the back.
The warnings from the boy roused Halliday’s attention, set his mind to a course of action. Kitten went off to work, the kids were tucked into comfortable and safe corners within the cabin, and Brick Halliday, from behind a tree at the cabin’s edge, fired two high shots into the clump of trees where Bull Leonard had his horse tied up.
“I know you’re there, Bull, been there all night most likely, hanging on like a sneak thief, waiting for the target to move. Why don’t you step out like a man and say what’s on your mind, or has the cat finally got your tongue, you scared to death for the first time in your life.”
There was no response, no movement, until a round came thundering back toward him, landing on the other side of the tree.
“You still scared, Bull? Afraid to step out and face a man just out of a sick bed. Tough target, huh, Bull?” He felt like he could have belittled him for hours and get nowhere, and suddenly, as if from a mirage, there’s Bull Leonard stepping into plain view from behind his bush hideout, hands at his sides, pistols tucked away in holsters, a giant man, an ugly man from the word go, but now, after weeks of spying on a target, coming clear in the open.
The world about the pair went silent, Kitten at work, the kids under cover, Brick Halliday facing the day of reckoning, his stamina still coming back into place, his energy. His spirit not failing him at this moment. He knew he had to marry Kitten, to house her and her kids in this place, after Bull Leonard was taken care of.
Leonard said, “Hi, Brick,” and went for his gun immediately, likely catching his opponent unawares. His gun was in his hand when a round from the other direction thundered into his chest, all his anger gone to pieces, all his lost hours gone for nothing. He took the nothing with him to the nether world.