Western Short Story
Prairie Wells: Three Riders (Part Five of Five)
The road they traveled became in time nothing more than an abandoned wagon trail. Years ago cattlemen had found a shorter route between Big Spring and Prairie Wells, but in spite of the moonlight the three riders had missed the turnoff. Now they occasionally had to bend low in their saddles to discover the old trail, buried in the prairie grass. "Here she goes," one would say, "this way." They would straighten in their saddles and for awhile follow, like Indians, the mere whisper of a track through the grass.
So having missed the main road into Prairie Wells the riders, tired and short tempered, got into town several hours later than they would have. It was nearly noon. October though it was, a hot sun beat back from the street. They pulled up at the livery stable and the Wichita Kid slid impatiently out of his saddle, still angered by their delay. He stomped across the boardwalk, spurs ringing, and slammed into the small office.
"Take care o' them nags out there," he said curtly, nodding over his shoulder. Those abrupt words were addressed to an old man standing in the middle of the room. The man was tall and thin and slightly stooped, and he was holding a broom. His shirt was dirty. The cuffs of his trousers were ragged and his ancient scuffed boots were run over at the heels. He had watched through the window as the men hitched their horses to the rail.
The man said, "I don't run the stable, mister, an' the boss ain't here jes' now. I only sweep up around the place, occasional."
The Kid stepped over to the old man and grabbed a fistful of his shirt. He pulled the man along behind him to the boardwalk outside.
"See that?" he said, pointing to a sign hanging across the boardwalk. "What's it say?"
"I . . . I don't rightly know, mister."
"Ya dumb . . . Can't even read, can you? It says 'Livery.' This here's a livery stable. Now, I'm goin' across the street to that there saloon fer a while, an' when I get back my horse an' my pards' horses had better be taken keer of." He released his hold on the shirt with a little shove and stepped off the boardwalk and started across the street, not looking back. Smoke and Williams left their horses and fell in beside him.
"There wasn't any need for that," Williams said. "He's just an old man."
The Kid said, "When I want somethin' done, I want somethin' done. I don't settle fer lip."
Smoke laughed. "You're a mean 'un, Wich.
That time of day the saloon was nearly empty. The saloon keeper, a thin, hollow-eyed fellow, was mopping at the counter with what looked to be an old shirt. Two men were playing cards at a small table. A lone cowboy stood with his boot heel on the rail and his elbows on the counter, an empty shot glass in front of him.
"Three whiskeys," the Kid said, looking at the saloon keeper and holding up three fingers. "An' bring the bottle."
Smoke said, "How'd ya know I didn't want a beer?"
The Kid shrugged. "So get one."
Williams said, "I see there aren't enough sinners here today for the Lord's work, Smoke. Maybe we can relax a bit, at that. Whiskey is probably what we need. It'll help us keep things in perspective." He tossed off the drink that had been set in front of him and took the bottle and refilled his glass.
The Kid slid his glass down the counter toward the cowboy and now he reached around to grab hold of the bottle and take that along, as well.
"Have a drink, cowboy," he said, tipping the bottle over the other's glass, "or am I addressin' the marshal o' this here burg?"
The cowboy turned. His watery blue eyes and flushed face told of an hour or two spent in the saloon. His speech was slow. "What makes you think I'm the marshal, stranger? Obliged fer the drink, though."
"Why, you jes' got that important look about you, tha's all."
The cowboy failed to catch the mockery behind the Kid's words. In all innocence he said, shaking his head, "I ain't the marshal, stranger, an' what's more there ain't been a marshal in Prairie Wells since old Porter took off his badge. Five, six years ago.
"What! You mean there ain't no marshal in town? What about law 'n order, an' criminals goin' wild, an' such. I never heerd of a town 'thout a marshal."
"Lots o' places in these parts don't have a marshal. Folks do their own work when they have to, like stringin' up horse thieves. Besides, we got a good man we can pin a badge on, if it ever gets down to that." The cowboy chuckled, picked up his glass and with a light toasting gesture toward the Kid downed the contents in a gulp. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
"An' to tell the truth, stranger, you just missed him. That feller I'm talkin' 'bout is almost a sheriff, and he was with me, here in this very saloon, this mornin'. We came in fer supplies. He left with the wagon an' I stayed cuz I still had a thirst." The cowboy turned away and a worried look came over his face. He said, "I hope he can square this with ol' Drexel. I'd hate to get kicked off the Diamond D."
The Kid stiffened. "Did I hear you mention the Diamond D?"
"You with that outfit?"
"Ya heard that, too."
"Well, then, you're in with Dade Foster. They say he's a Diamond D man."
"Tha's him, all right. An' Dade was the feller with me this mornin'. The Diamond D boys call him 'sheriff,' but he ain't really. Too bad you missed him."
"Too bad is right. We lost our way on the trail last night. Damn."
"You an' your friends want to meet him?"
"I surely do. Can't speak for my friends."
"Gimme one more swallow o' that painkiller, stranger, an' I'll hit the trail. If that's what you want, I'll tell Foster you'd like to meet him."
The Kid smiled a hard, tight smile and poured another shot of whiskey into the cowboy's glass. "That's what I want. Tell Foster the Wichita Kid is waitin' in town for him. Tell him to make it easy on himself--no hurry. But the Kid is waitin'."
The cowboy picked up his glass. He raised it. Again there was the light toasting gesture, but now it was the Kid who missed the faint mockery in the act.
* * *
They finished the bottle between them. Out on the boardwalk Williams said, "I'll see about the horses and be right along, boys. See if they got a room in that hotel we passed."
He pointed back down the street to a two-story building. A sign over the boardwalk read, "Hotel--Rooms by the Week." It was the only two-story building on the street. The few other functioning buildings were ramshackle false-front stores and offices. There was a blacksmith shop, a general store, a dentist, the livery, the saloon, and one or two others. A few empty buildings were scattered up and down the street with boards nailed in big X's across their windows. Directly across from the hotel was a substantial stone building that at one time must have served as a government building or a bank. The building was abandoned. What remained of the roof was caving in and there was no door at all for the wide doorway. The big front window was boarded over.
The noonday sun cast a golden sheen over the town's dusty street. The street was empty except for a wagon with its drooping horse in front of the general store and a man sitting in the shade outside the law office.
"Lively little place," Smoke said. He wiped a hand across his face. "Hot, too. Wonder when it last rained here."
The two men were nearly at the hotel when the Kid said, "Hope you got money with you. You an' yer friend'll have to pay fer this. Buyin' that whiskey tapped me out."
Smoke said, "You do travel light, don't ya, Wich? First, you don't carry any food an' next, all you had was that dollar fer whiskey. I allow you'll be sellin' yer clothes soon."
"It won't come to that. An' I'll tell you plain, Smoke. Don't call me 'Wich' no more. Hear me?"
Smoke said, "Why, you shoulda let me knowed, if it bothered you."
They walked through an open door into the hotel lobby. The lobby was a cavernous room furnished with three straight chairs by the front window, spittoons beside the chairs and a long bench against one wall. Several pigeonholes--all empty--graced the far wall, directly behind the counter. Stairs at the side of the counter led up to the second floor and a short hallway led to a rear door. There was no one in the lobby.
At the counter Smoke looked first down the hallway and then up the stairs. "Anybody here?" he asked in a loud voice. When there wasn't any answer Wichita went over to the stairs and looked up the stairway and yelled, "Hey! Who's runnin' this place?"
They heard an upstairs door open and a man appeared at the top of the stairs. He was adjusting a pair of suspenders with one hand and carrying a revolver in the other. He gave no sign of coming down. He said, "Whatcha want?"
Wichita said, "Why, you . . ." and started up the stairs. Smoke grabbed his arm and stopped him. Close to his ear he said, "You jackass. Can't you see that gun?" Loud enough for the man to hear he said, "Ain't this a hotel? There's three o' us, an' we need a room."
"I only see two," the man said.
"He's comin'. You got a room or don't ya?"
The man put the revolver in his pant's pocket but kept his thumb hooked in the pocket. He came down the stairs saying, "Howdy, folks. Sure, I got a room. But I have to say it's a strange time o' day to be checkin' in.You gave me a little scare because I didn't know who you might be. Still don't, entirely. I don't get much business these days, an' anymore I don't expect much." He went over to the counter and took a skeleton key from underneath. "Hot out there, ain't it? You shoulda been here last year. It was even worse. Hot an' dry. O'course, that was August an' this here's October. Killed most o' the trees in town an' I swear, if it had kept up we would have had to change the name from Prairie Wells to jes' plain Prairie. I'm gonna have to see money up front on this, gents."
Smoke said, "Let's see the room, first."
"That's what we're doin'."
They went up the stairs and the man opened the door on a room furnished with a bed and an army cot, a washstand with a piece of a mirror over it, and a table with two chairs. A window looked out over the street. There was a dead cockroach, a huge cockroach, lying on its back on the windowsill.
Smoke said, "Wonder what killed him."
"Three o' you, I'll make it two dollars a night," the man said.
"Good enough by me, an' I'm votin' fer Mr. Williams, too. What about you, Kid?"
Wichita shrugged. "It's your money."
"We'll take it, mister. The other feller's on his way an' he'll settle up. So now, is there a place around here we can get some food? We ain't et since yestiddy, an' not much then."
"Hattie's. Jes' up the street across from the old jail. Only it ain't really Hattie's no more. She died o' the fevers two years ago an' her husband is runnin' the place with their daughter. That's Emily. She does most o' the work while Ellsworth sits out front. Worthless sort of a polecat, in my opinion. Why, I remember . . ."
"Hattie's. Thanks, mister. That our key? The other feller'll be right along." Smoke crowded the man out the door.
It was not long before Williams joined them at the hotel. They heard him talking to the hotel owner and then heard his boots on the stairs. He came into the room carrying saddlebags draped over one shoulder and Smoke's rifle in his hand. He threw the saddlebags on the floor and laid the rifle on the bed. He said, looking around without enthusiasm, "I had to pay the man two dollars for this? We'll have to bring in one of the bedrolls." His eyes came to a stop on the cockroach. In a blur of movement he pulled the gun at his side and fired one shot. The cockroach disappeared into a splintered hole in the sill.
The Wichita Kid, staring at the windowsill, said "Fer the jumpin' Jesus."
Smoke laughed. "That cockroach was already dead."
"I don't like those things."
The hotel owner came running up the stairs and burst into the room, revolver in hand. "What's goin' on in here!" he shouted, looking the room over with a wild glance. He saw the hole in the windowsill. "Who did that?" he yelled. "What for? You'll have to pay extry fer ruinin' my window. There ain't no carpenter in town, an' I'll have to do it myself."
"There was a cockroach on the windowsill."
"You didn't have to shoot him."
"I suppose not." Williams reached into his vest pocket and pulled out several silver coins and offered them to the man. He said, "This ought to pay for it. I'm sure there's at least five dollars there. We probably won't be doing anymore shooting."
The man took the money quickly. "It's against the law, mister. Shootin' is. Upsets ever'body." He turned around, grumbling, and left the room.
Williams bent over the bed and began to untie the saddle pack. "I never seen shootin' like that," said the Wichita Kid, his eyes still on the splintered sill.
Without looking around Williams said, "And I seriously doubt that you'll see it again."
"Where'd you learn to do that fancy shootin'?"
"It's something you can learn part way, Kid. Maybe you can learn some of it, but the other part . . ." his voice trailed off. "Don't worry about it. Let's get something to eat. The man downstairs said he mentioned Hattie's."
* * *
The Wichita Kid had spent a sleepless night. He had thought of Dade Foster many times during the long, dark hours, and he knew that sometime, when day came, Dade Foster would come riding down the street. So at five o'clock, with Smoke and Williams still asleep, he picked up his clothes and gun belt and, carrying his boots, walked carefully and softly downstairs. He put on his clothes in the lobby and went outside.
He wondered what kind of a man Foster was. Short, squat, mean? Tall, cold, assured? He wondered when it would be. Probably not in the morning, when the town was silent and the air clear and clean. Showdowns didn't happen in the morning. It would be when the sun was high and sweat was trickling down a person's back. Or it might be late in the afternoon, when the shadows of the buildings stretched across the street and a man's steps took him in and out of the sunlight, walking down the street.
He had thought many times during the night of the way Williams had shot the cockroach off the windowsill. Lying with his eyes wide and staring, sleepless, he saw a scene on the ceiling of Smoke almost carelessly drawing and firing; he saw the cactus exploding into flying pieces as Smoke casually reloaded his revolver. The words came back to him, the words Smoke had spoken: "From what I know about the man, your curiosity is gonna get you killed." Was Foster as good as Smoke? Was Foster as good as Williams? Maybe Foster was better than either one of them. ". . . your curiosity is gonna get you killed."
He walked down the deserted street to the livery stable. The huge double doors to the stables were padlocked, as he had expected them to be, but the office itself was simply a part of the stable. He forced an entry through the flimsy door to the office. Once out in the stable, he found a heavy claw hammer with which to pry the padlock loose.
There were several horses in the stalls. The Kid found his own horse and took down his saddle and pack from a peg over the stall. He was saddling the horse when he heard a scuff of boots out in the office. He drew his revolver and waited.
"Who's there?" A man holding a shotgun appeared in the doorway. He looked this way and that into the dim interior of the stable.
Half hidden in the dim light and standing behind his horse the Kid said, "Drop the gun, mister, er your a dead man."
The shotgun fell to the ground. The man raised his arms and said, "Don't shoot. I ain't got nothin' much here. But take it, an' I never seen you."
"I came fer my horse. Git over here an' put that saddle an' gear on him while I hold this gun. Do it quick, mister, an' open that big door. I'm in a hurry."
The man did as he had been ordered, urged on by the slightly hysterical note in the Kid's voice. The Kid led his horse out. Before he swung up into the saddle, he faced around and said, "I need money--travelin' money. What you got here? You must have some money."
"I don't keep money in the barn."
"Now that's mighty strange. This is a business, ain't it?" The Kid, looking hard at the man, reached slowly for his revolver. He was frowning.
"Lemme see what I might have."
They went back inside the office and the man brought out a tin box from behind some bottles and boxes on a shelf. The Kid said, "Damn you. I ought to kill you fer lyin' to me." He waved his gun at the box. "Empty it there on the counter." A few paper bills and some silver and gold coins fell out onto the counter. The Kid picked up all of the coins and put them in his shirt pocket. Nodding toward the bills on the counter he said, "You keep the spinach. That ain't real money. Now, you jes' come on outside with me where I can watch you an' I'll mount up an' make tracks out o' this town."
The Kid rode the few remaining blocks down main street, sure that the man at the livery was watching him. Once out of sight behind the first rise in the ground, he did not continue west at all but left the road and circled north around Prairie Wells and headed back toward Big Spring.
* * *
The Wichita Kid was wrong in thinking that showdowns never happened in the morning. Foster rode into Prairie Wells a little after sunrise with Clif Atkins, another Diamond D cowboy. Foster had said, "I want to meet this feller as soon as he's got his boots on, Clif. We'll get this over with quick."
Smoke and Williams, in addition to three or four early risers and the livery owner, were out in the street when Foster and Atkins rode up. The group was gathered under the big cottonwood in front of the livery stable. The stable owner was waving his arms wildly and talking to Williams.
"No, I can't jes' bring out yer horses an' let you ride away. Yer partner busted my door an' stole my money. I had more'n six dollars in that tin box. Somebody's got to make it square. Yer his partners." He waved a hand at Smoke. "Both o you."
Williams said, "We had no intention, sir, of doing wrong here. He above, whose eye is on the sparrow, would frown mightily on such an act. I merely ask that you bring out our horses. We'll make good your loss and then be on our way."
Williams was a paid, professional gunman.¹ He hired out for such work and he had a reputation as one of the best. But he was not one to be petty and engage in sharp practice when dealing with people. As the horses were being brought out Williams pulled a leather bag from an inside pocket of his coat and took out a ten dollar gold piece. He handed the livery man the coin in exchange for the reins of his horse.
The two riders were about to mount their horses when Foster, leaning on the pommel of his saddle over close to the railing asked, "Is either o' you gents the Wichita Kid?"
Both Smoke and Williams turned. Smoke said with a laugh, "Jes' foller that streak o' yellow out o' town, mister, an' he'll be at the end of it." But his smile faded as he abruptly came to himself. "How'd you know about the Wichita Kid? Are you maybe that Dade Foster, comin' into town to meet him?"
"Well, as you kin plainly see, he's turned tail an' he's gone. But I been wantin' to meet you myself, Mr. Foster. I been wantin' to meet the cowhand with the big repetation."
Smoke turned back to Williams. He said, making sure that he spoke loudly enough for Foster to hear, "This is the man that chased our pardner clean out o' the county. We gonna stan' fer that?"
Williams said, "The Kid's problems were none of ours, Smoke. He wasn't our partner. We best be on our way."
Smoke was deaf to what Williams had to say. Standing before him was Foster, a ranch hand turned gunman with a sizable reputation, and a question had suddenly risen in his mind, a question that had to be answered: who had the faster gun? It was the same fatal question, and the same morbid desire to know the answer, that had brought the Wichita Kid to Prairie Wells.
Smoke said, "They say yer the fastest draw in these parts. One thing fer sure, you certainly proved you kin scare kids."
There was a long pause with neither man saying anything. Foster threw his leg over his horse and stepped down, keeping his eyes on Smoke as he did so.
"Ever draw on some'un besides a kid, Foster? It's a little diff'runt."
Smoke took a few steps out into the street, away from the group of people. He stood with his thumbs hooked in his belt. Moving over close to Atkins' horse, Foster whispered up to Atkins, "Watch that other feller for me," and then he, too, went into the street.
"Damned if this ain't sudden," Foster said, facing across. "We never met, a'fore. An' it doesn't appear the Kid was a special friend o' yours, anyhow. Why you want to do this?"
Smoke laughed, remembering the Wichita Kid's words. "I guess I just don't cotton to you."
It was over quickly. Foster said, "You know, I wouldn't care so much 'cept that . . ." and they drew their revolvers and fired. Foster's shot was ahead of Smoke's. Foster had thought carefully beforehand of such a situation. He had come to the realization that the advantage always would be with the man talking, for the other man would be listening. Smoke staggered and fell backward and lay still.
There was silence in the group and not much movement. One of the horses stamped and snorted. Foster, looking down at Smoke, holstered his pistol and said, "One o' you fellers help me get him out o' the street an' over to the side. We'll have to call Levitt an' tell him we got a dead man at the stable." A man came forward. The others began to stir.
"That's not the end of it, Foster!"
It was Williams. The words were spoken in a harsh, ringing voice. He had taken off his coat and moved away from the group. "That man was my friend, Foster. Damn you! Smoke was the only true friend I ever had and you tricked him. I'm going to kill you for that."
Foster said, "I don't know who you are, mister, an' I don't know who your friend was. Maybe I'm sorry about what just happened, an' maybe I'm not. But you saw it all. You saw the whole thing, standin' there. Your friend just wouldn't stop his bullin' in. He just kept raggin', raggin' 'til I had to do somethin'. You expect me to get killed just so you an' your friend could ride happy down the trail? 'Fraid you got the wrong man here."
Williams made no response to this. He was waiting. Foster could sense the impatience in the man. He knew that Williams would start shooting the instant he had a shot clear of the other men and the stable. Foster hesitated a moment, then started to move out and away from Smoke's body. As he took his last step he gave a quick movement to the right and pulled his revolver and fired. The two revolvers went off in a single, indistinguishable roar.
Williams spun and fell on his side and rolled over on his back. Foster had felt the tug at his vest and shirt and he looked down to see the rip in the cloth, and the blood. He took a couple of deep, careful breaths. The bullet had gone between his arm and his chest, skinning along the ribs. His quick movement to the right, in anticipation of what Williams would do, had saved his life.
He walked over to where Williams lay, breathing hard with blood on his lips. Williams' eyes were open. Foster thought he could see a look of surprise on his face. Williams said, "You mean I missed?"
Williams gave a liquid, gurgling gasp. "You're the only man I ever shot at that . . ." What he was saying ended in a last, strangled cough.
Smoke and Williams had not been the only such men to make their way to Prairie Wells. There had been the rider from El Paso, who, like the Wichita Kid, had come deliberately seeking out Dade Foster. And there would be more of these men, of that Foster was certain. His friends had been right, and the marshal back in Dodge City had been right.
Foster was suddenly sick to his stomach. He found he was sweating in spite of the cool morning, and his hand shook as he holstered his revolver. He stumbled across to where his horse stood and he mounted into the saddle without being aware of what he was doing. "Come on, Atkins," he said. "Fer Chris' sake, les' go."
¹ Williams was born in Toledo, Ohio, and he lived there until he was a young man. The only item of note from his youth was his feat of walking a high wire without a net across Jervis Street in downtown Toledo.
Williams had a natural ability with firearms. He had worked briefly as a trick shot performer with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Among "men of the trade," Williams was known as "Preacher Williams." Between assignments he travelled the towns of West Texas as an itinerant preacher, holding "meetings" and collecting money. Not that he needed the money, as he was paid very well for his other work. Williams never explained why he chose an avocation so much opposed to that of a hired gun.