Western Short Story
There was no law in that town.
Only the law of the gun.
Prosperity was ruled by two types of men. The men that did the killing, and the men that did the dying.
Terry Mulqueen was one of those men who did the killing. Not the actual killing, rather, but one who put out the bounties and ordered specific individuals to do the dying at the hands of other, more experienced killers.
He was a big, bulky man, barrel-chested and burly. His face was chiseled and mean-looking, and Terry Mulqueen had the look of a tough man about him. And he was tough, a tough card to shuffle when the hand was already in play.
And somehow, when his card was played, it was always by a sleight of hand.
Terry Mulqueen more or less presided over the town of Prosperity, a town he himself had founded thirteen years before. It had all been a part of a scandalous underhanded play that resulted in his being one of the first to settle the land upon which Prosperity was built. He’d earned himself a pocketful of golden rocks, a good piece of land in the mountains surrounding that northern town, and a guilty conscious.
The gold was proof that the land really was prosperous, at some point in time, and the boomtown he himself had named Prosperity was erected just months after his find. He’d invested his money into building up the only saloon in the town, The Precious Stone. The land he’d laid claim to he’d set to panning and digging up in search of more gold. As for the guilty conscious, he’d managed to get over that fairly quickly.
But in thirteen years’ time, Terry Mulqueen never extracted another cent’s worth of gold from his land.
Business had hit a low point when, like an answer to Mulqueen’s prayers, John Sturm had come riding into Prosperity. He drew rein outside of The Precious Stone and swung down and out of the shining black leather saddle, custom made with careful precision and delicate hands.
His perfectly-tailored gray herringbone coat hugged his shoulders rather comfortably. The dark vest he wore underneath his coat was of an intricate floral design. His matching gray bowler hat was cocked just a fraction sideways upon his round head, a symbol of orthodoxy and eastern fashions. Both of which were hard to come by in Prosperity during that time.
His posture was nothing short of perfect when he stepped purposefully through the doors of the saloon and over to the bar.
The man behind the bar looked up and over at him when he entered.
“What can I get for you?” the man behind the bar asked.
“I’m looking for Mr. Mulqueen. I’ve been told he owns this establishment.”
“Who’s askin’?” the man asked, lifting an unsure eyebrow.
“Sturm. John Sturm, if you must know. Now I’m here to see Mr. Mulqueen regarding matters that do not concern you. So if you would please send for him, I would be very grateful.”
“Ain’t no need to send for him,” the man behind the bar said, “when I am him.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“That’s right, Mr. Sturm,” Mulqueen said, extending his hand. “I’m Terry Mulqueen, and this is The Precious Stone, my establishment here in Prosperity.”
Sturm shook the man’s hand and removed his hat, placing it down upon the surface of the bar.
“Now,” Mulqueen asked, placing two shot glasses before them and reaching around for the whiskey, “what business are you here to discuss with me?”
“I’ve been told that you have a claim to a piece of land just north of here.”
Sturm watched him pour a shot of whiskey into both glasses before continuing. “I’m here to tell you that I may be interested in purchasing that claim.”
“That so?” Mulqueen said, straightening a little and assuming his best businessman composure.
“Well…what makes you think it’s up for sale?”
Sturm tasted his first shot of whiskey and replaced the glass back down on the bar. He swallowed hard and fought to keep the dreadful liquid down in his stomach. “Is it true,” he asked, “that you found gold on that piece of land?”
Mulqueen narrowed his eyes at the man. “Maybe.”
“What did you do with the money you received for it?”
“You mean, what would I do with the money had I actually found anything?”
Sturm held his hard gaze, unblinking.
“Well,” Mulqueen went on, “I’d have to say look around. This is the only place a man can get a drink, try his hand at cards, and get himself a woman for a night in the whole dang town. And I run the place. I’d have to say I’d invest every ounce of my money into makin’ this place the best, even when it’s the only one around.” He downed his shot of whiskey and swallowed hard. “How much?”
“No way. Ten.”
“You may have found gold on that land, Mr. Mulqueen, but from what I hear, you’ve recovered no more gold on that land since your first find. And besides, that land itself is not worth ten thousand dollars.”
“I gotta make more than the average cowhand, here. My business is the life of this town, and I gotta make sure I can deliver to the people. Gamblin’ and women are in high demand around these parts, and I gotta make sure I can keep both of them ‘vailble here at The Precious Stone. ”
Sturm eyed him, measuring him up. Finally, he said, “Seven.”
Mulqueen looked thoughtful for a moment, chewing his bottom lip. “Fine. Done.”
“Seven thousand it is,” Sturm said, digging into the inner pocket of his coat and removing a neatly folded paper.
He unfolded the paper and placed it in front of Mulqueen, who looked at it with a curious expression.
“Can you not read?” Sturm said after a moment.
Mulqueen looked back up at him and grinned. “Yeah, yeah. Sorry.”
“It’s a deed to the land. If our deal is done, then sign it.”
Sturm removed a writing utensil from his coat pocket and signed his name at the foot of the paper.
Mulqueen took the pen from the man’s hand and put his mark at the foot of the page, next to Sturm’s signature.
Sturm smiled and pocketed the paper. “I’ll have a copy of this deed made out and back to you by the end of the day, along with your money. Good day, Mr. Mulqueen. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”
Mulqueen watched the man turn and walk out of the saloon.
As Sturm left, he brushed shoulders with another big, tall fellow who wore a faded checkered shirt and a dusty gray hat.
“Oh,” Sturm exclaimed when he tipped the man’s shoulder. He wheeled quickly to face the man and swept his hat from his head. “I beg your pardon! Excuse me, my friend.”
Mulqueen grinned to himself and watched as the big man turned away from Sturm and continued on into the saloon. The man crossed over to the bar and Mulqueen inched closer to him.
“Jus’ sold that no account piece of land,” he said.
“To who?” the man asked, glancing around the saloon.
“The man you jus’ pass’d at the door.”
“He know it ain’t no good?”
“He was sure of himself…and the land.”
“But does he know that they ain’t no gold there?”
“Le’s hope it stays that way.”
“You worried, Othello?”
“Well then you’ll have to keep a close eye on Mr. Sturm. He may be more trouble than he’s worth.”
Mulqueen reached around for another shot glass and sat it on the bar in front of them. He poured Othello a shot of whiskey and watched as the man turned it up and swallowed the amber liquid hard.
Othello could drink.
He could ride.
He could shoot.
Those were the only three reasons Mulqueen had hired him on.
But a fourth reason had made itself evident as of late.
Othello was loyal. As loyal as they come.
“Y’know,” Othello said, dropping the shot glass back to the surface of the bar, “I heared tell that Val Hartigan’s in town.”
“Uhn-huh. You know what that means.”
Mulqueen inclined his head. “If Val Hartigan’s in town, Othello, then that’ll mean a-shootin’.”
“What would Val Hartigan want here, in Prosperity, anyway?” Mulqueen asked, narrowing his eyes.
“Dunno,” Othello said. “I ain’t never seen the man a-fore in my life.”
“Me neither. How’d you hear it?”
“I heared some folks over in Ritter’s End talkin’ ‘bout him a-comin’ thisaway.”
“‘Bout time this town picked up sumah them high-rollers,” Mulqueen commented as he poured Othello another round.
That evening, Sturm returned with a hand-written copy of the deed and a check for seven thousand dollars.
He gave them to Mulqueen, thanked the man again, and then rode out of town. Mulqueen watched him go with a curious look in his eye, and then went on to bed.
Three weeks’ time passed, during which John Sturm was rarely seen.
Terry Mulqueen never crossed paths with Val Hartigan, and came under the assumption that the man had just passed by without even stopping in Prosperity. Although, even if the man had ridden into a town for a day or so, the chances were that no one had recognized him, as Mulqueen had yet to hear an accurate description of the man.
Then came the day, when Mulqueen was in his room on the second floor of the saloon, there came a sharp, impatient knock on the door.
“Huh?” Mulqueen asked from his prone position on his bed.
“They’s somebody wantin’ tuh see yuh,” Othello said from the other side.
“Who is it?”
“That feller you sold that no account piece of land to.”
Mulqueen groaned. “What’s he want?”
“He don’t seem too happy.”
“He ain’t sayin’. Wants to talk to you d’rectly.”
Mulqueen rolled out of bed and tugged on his boots and overcoat. He opened the door and stepped out into the hallway, where Othello stood, waiting.
“Wonder what’s got into his craw?”
“I’m thinkin’ we both know what it is,” Othello said as Mulqueen started down the stairs.
John Sturm was standing at the bar, hat in hand, and on his face was a look of disgust and irritation. His eyes met Mulqueen’s as Mulqueen walked down the stairs. When he’d reached the main floor, he crossed silently to the bar and stood next to Sturm.
“What can I do yuh for?” Mulqueen asked.
“A full compensation for the land I purchased off of you,” Sturm replied bluntly, a fire in his voice.
Mulqueen looked into his cold eyes and then back down at the surface of the bar. “What fur?”
“I think you knew that the land you sold me was empty of gold. I think it was empty of gold a long time before I came along.”
“I never told yeh if I found gold, Mister!” Mulqueen hissed.
“But yet you sold it to me!” Sturm shot back. “There is not a decent man on the planet who would swindle one in such a way as you have, Mulqueen.”
For an instant Mulqueen saw a white rage explode in the man’s eyes, a white rage the likes of which Mulqueen had never seen before. For a moment, he thought that Sturm’s hand would drop his hand and palm the mahogany grip of the Buntline Special in the holster on his hip. But instead Sturm stood motionless.
And as quickly as it had come, the flicker of white rage in Sturm’s eyes simply disappeared.
“Keep it down, would yah?” Mulqueen said, inching closer toward Sturm. “Look, I didn’t think you’d find it right away, but they’s still gold out there. I been findin’ it ever’ once in a while, and I ain’t no swindler. Mebbe you jus’ ain’t doin’ it right.”
“Panning? I beg your pardon!”
“Well…” Mulqueen said, looking thoughtful for a moment, “I’ll make it up to you. Othello is one of my most trusted people. I’ll send him up yur way come mornin’, and you two can git lookin’ fur that gold.”
There came a glimmer of doubt in Sturm’s eyes.
“Othello’s been pannin’ fur gold well before this here country was even settled. He’s the best ‘round. Yeh’ll find gold fur shore if’n yeh let him come up thataway in the mornin’.”
Sturm looked hard at him for a moment.
“From one honest man to another,” Mulqueen said quickly. “Lemme make it up to yeh.”
Sturm turned on his heels. “Fine,” he said, placing his hat on his head. “I’ll be waiting.”
Mulqueen watched him cross the floor and thrust the batwing doors open with his shoulders. When the doors had slapped shut, he turned and made his way back up the stairs. Othello was standing on the balcony, listening to the conversation below. When Mulqueen topped the stairs, their eyes met.
“Make it look like a’ accident,” Mulqueen said, and then he turned and went back into his room.
He was lying in bed the following night.
Othello had yet to return.
It was not like Othello to be late.
Then it hit him, a thought so unbelievable, so improbable, that he was shaken to know that it had been he himself who had thought of it.
Mulqueen bolted upright and swung his legs to the floor.
Could it be that John Sturm was really…Val Hartigan?
There was absolutely no way…
He stood and shook the thought from his mind. He turned and started for the wash basin on a small table at the foot of the bed. He splashed water into his restless face and looked up at the doorway.
The darkened silhouette of a man startled him, and Mulqueen jumped back in fright, knocking the table over and spilling the water all over the floor.
“You’re a liar, Terry Mulqueen,” the voice was sharp, cold, and drenched with lifelessness.
“Wh--Who are you?” Mulqueen managed to say.
The man stepped into the thin strand of silvery moonlight streaming in from the nearby window.
It was John Sturm, his once handsome face now cut and bloodied. One of his eyes was nearly swollen shut. Mulqueen thought that he looked almost inhuman.
“Othello didn’t go down without a fight,” Sturm said.
“What are you talkin’ ‘bout?” Mulqueen demanded.
Sturm’s hand hovered over his gun. “You know good and well what I’m talking about, Mulqueen. You tried to have me killed today.”
“Othello was a good man, and because he listened to you, it got him killed.”
“But…” Mulqueen suddenly realized that it would do him no good to try and talk his way out of it. He was cornered. And like a cornered rat, he would have to fight his way out. He glanced over at the bedpost near his left hand. His gunbelt and six-gun were draped over the post, just inches away.
If only he could just reach his gun…
He looked back at Sturm. “Who are you?”
He asked the question, but something inside of him lurched even as he asked.
He knew the answer he was going to receive, and he dreaded it.
“My name is Val Hartigan, Mulqueen. John Sturm is an alias. When men live by the gun, sooner or later some young buck comes along who thinks he’s better and faster. And the day that I’m too slow, it’ll cost me my life.”
“Wouldn’t be a bad thang,” Mulqueen spat. “The west needs to be rid of men the likes of you!”
“And what about you, Mulqueen? What about men like you?”
Mulqueen opened his mouth to respond.
But he didn’t.
Suddenly his hand leapt forward for the gunbelt over the post and…
He hadn’t even seen the speed of the draw. His fingers were touching mahogany as an orange flame flowered somewhere in the darkness in front of him. He felt the bullet enter into his stomach, and he felt the same white rage enter into his eyes that he’d seen in the eyes of the man who was now his killer.
Terry Mulqueen would not die without putting up a fight.
He reached for his gun again, and for a moment, Hartigan hesitated.
Out of compassion, or just to give him a fair chance, Mulqueen would never know why Hartigan did not shoot him a second sooner.
As Mulqueen’s gun cleared leather, a second round slammed him in the shoulder and third went through his cheek. He toppled over the bedpost and rolled from his bed onto the floor, shouting as many curses as he knew.
Slowly Hartigan crossed over to where the man lay.
Mulqueen stared up into his face, the bullet hole evident in his face. It had entered just below his nose and had exited just below his ear, taking a portion of his ear along with it. “You’ve killed me!” he managed to scream.
“Yes,” Hartigan replied a moment later. “Yes I have.”
Hartigan lowered his Buntline Special to an inch above Mulqueen’s face.
Mulqueen muttered a final curse, and then his world exploded into a blinding array of sound and pain.