Western Short Story
Rubin Barnstead, Optimist
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

A young town of booming west Texas, Gray’s Cottage had grown from a mere cabin at the juncture of two rivers rushing out of the mountains and merging into a rugged river now simply called Gray’s Cottage River. A small ferry was located right there at Gray’s Cottage, at a distance from the center of town, with the nearest fording ten miles downstream. Pretty as a picture, the site of the river, with its great obstacles to fording, had halted a few wagons on their further westward trek. It made some folks, bound for California but caught up by the site, to put down the start of new roots.

Noel Carmichael, the sheriff of Gray’s Cottage, pinned a poster on the door of his office, which also served as the one room jail; providence and enforced law made more rooms unnecessary for a good part of the town’s existence … at least for the time being.

The tone of the town was about to change, Carmichael believed, because some disturbing crimes had happened, the kidnapping of women folk in the region. He figured some robber gang, hanging out in the area, was looking for housekeepers of a sort.

Looking across the street at Miss Kitty Albright behind the window of her father’s general store, he decided to hang a poster there also. He waved at Miss Kitty, who’d spend the whole day at the store, as she did most days for the past year. Her father would come in at suppertime, gab with the late-comers around the cracker barrel, and close up late.

Kitty, as Carmichael had observed on certain occasions, was sweet on Rubin Barnstead, though he was not sure if Rubin knew. Kitty’s mother had died a year earlier, with great discomfort her last few months, from an unknown ailment.

The poster announced the shooting contest for a week hence, Saturday, July 4th, 1876. In good-sized letters the poster read, “Any person 13 years old or older, with decent eyesight and a working rifle, is invited to take part in a shooting contest behind Flaherty’s Livery on the date above. The admission price to enter the contest is any gold piece of the realm. All proceeds go to the winner as judged by the town council.”

Rubin Barnstead, 14, part boy and part man, stared at the poster for a solid hour, contemplating what he’d do with the winnings. He too had lost his mother and his father finding money tight as ever. He tried to figure how much money would be involved in the match, but ran out of ideas when he thought of some of the poker players in town tossing in a fee of more than a gold dollar, the smallest minted gold coin in the country. It made him sing with anticipation. “I can win it, I know I can.” He said it a dozen times to himself.

And it took a quick turn toward a bigger prize when Rubin heard all the gamblers in town, and all of them carrying side arms, decided to toss in a 5 or 10 dollar gold piece for their entry fee. That decision upped the situation into mercurial possibilities. The gamblers to a man figured it would be a bigger win than a real decent game of poker. And the gamblers all could shoot, it was known. It was like they’d locked up their money from the inside.

The sheriff, on the job since the inception of the office, had a thought on the situation different from Rubin’s; he knew what some gamblers did just to win a pot on any given table on a rowdy Saturday night. This was especially evident when a trail drive set up camp at the edge of town for a night of whistle-wetting too often frowned upon by trail driving bosses.

Carmichael knew a sudden win often breeds insatiable hunger. A few desperate situations had occurred in town at poker tables, though none had resulted in death, or even a shooting. But sometimes the threat was almost akin to war sitting on the edge of the seat. Carmichael did not look forward to a huge pot for the shoot, though he had a soft spot for such affairs, having won a few himself in his career … which was quiet for the time being.

With his participation in other shoots, Carmichael had seen a few cheats in operation, before, during and after the matches. The manner of cheating was as various as the individuals involved, and that included back in a corner of East Texas the lone woman cheater he had ever met. He suddenly found himself deeply engrossed in the images of Folly Buttes, best woman shot he had ever met, and also the slyest cheater, when he spotted young Rubin Barnstead staring for the umpteenth time at the poster tacked on his door.

He envied Rubin and his future; the older generation looking on the newer generation. As an observer, Carmichael had been privy to many messages, said and unsaid in the town. He saw Kitty looking out the store window.

“Rubin, you counting your winnings already? I know you got a dollar in the pot, but practice is better than dreaming, which I figure you know. You ought to be back home making good on every shot.”

“I don’t have any more bullets but the ones for the shoot. And Pa can’t afford to get more. Makes me think I could sweep out the office or something so’s I could buy me a few more.”

“What are you shooting with during the match, that old Winchester of yours?”

Rubin leveled his gaze at the sheriff when he replied, “Pa says I can use his Sharps Hartford, 45 caliber. Calls it his thunder gun. Knocked me off my feet the first shot I took. I been working with it.”

Carmichael liked the honesty of the boy and the light in his eyes. “I got a box of shells for you right in my office, Rubin.” He smiled and continued, “It’s only a loan, though. You can pay me back from your winnings.” The sheriff actually thought it was an investment in the community; he’d count on it somehow.

“I really can pay you out of my winnings,” Rubin said, proud as truth, the gleam on his face as bright as a sunrise over the eastern plains running all the way to Gray’s Cottage. He walked off with the box of shells as if he could go on until he hit the Pacific Ocean.

Carmichael watched as Kitty Albright waved to Rubin from the store window, as though she had been sitting right there waiting on him. The sheriff loved her spirit, her independence, her loyalties, and Rubin, both Kitty and him realized, would be a good catch for her someday.

Rubin entered the store where Kitty was smiling bright as the dawn sun and her eyes lit with some kind of message he could not detect, though a good feeling piled down through him. He felt like he did the time he caught Old Barrelmouth a half mile upriver. He never told anybody he had used a dead mouse as bait. Secrets were secrets, and belonged in a special place.

“What were you and the sheriff talking about, Rubin? You seem to be in cahoots with him on something.”

Rubin wondered how she knew everything going on some days. “He loaned me some shells for my pa’s gun I’m using in the shooting match. It’s his 45 caliber Sharps.”

“A loan?” she said.

“Yes,” Rubin gleamed. “I’m going to pay him back out of my winnings.”

“Your winnings?”

“You bet,” he said. “It’s good as gold.” That part made him smile his brightest, and Kitty could have kissed him, his face so clean, his shirt just as clean, a neat man just about entering her life, just the way she knew it would.

Instead of kissing him, she plopped a box of shells on the counter and said, “Well, Rubin, here’s my loan on the same account.” Her eyes were the clearest blue Rubin had seen this side of a flower on his mother’s unfinished quilt, a blue prairie flower that stuck in his mind since the day she had sewn the remnant into her unfinished quilt.

Rubin walked out of the store almost giggling with joy and the newness that was spreading somewhere in his body. He clutched the two boxes of shells in his hands, a share of gold. Behind him, leaning on the store countertop, Kitty Albright had closed her eyes one more time for the barest second.

For the best part of the week, after his chores were done on the small ranch, Rubin set up various targets and practiced with the Sharps rifle, locking down his aim and the targets to a critical juncture. The rifle was a new dear friend. He knew it from the stock, fitting under his arm like an old toy come back to visit, up to the sight line like an edge on the quilting frame his mother had worked on, still sitting as she had last used it in the corner of the ranch house.

Thrills ran through him every time he hit his target, a conscious tremor he counted on that was sparked by his outlook on things in general, life in particular.

“You’re doing dang good with that Sharps, son,” his father admitted at the supper table late that evening. “You have any misses tonight?”

“Only one, Pa. Only one. I won’t miss again like that. Maybe something on my mind.”

Secrets were secrets, Rubin thought, and belonged in their place, even if they concerned his father. And before his father could say more, Rubin added, “And I’ll work at cleaning the rifle tonight, Pa. A good cleaning and a good oiling. It all leads to a good win.”

Beside his mother’s blue prairie flower hanging out in the back of his mind, he saw Kitty Albright’s smile. Her teeth gleamed like gems on the loose, her lips gone fire red.

Saturday morning, match morning, broke over Gray’s Cottage with a glory like a flag unfurled from its banner and a fresh breeze rushed in from the river. Dawn, like an old mine rediscovered, was loaded with promise. Excitement for the day coming ran through the gathering crowd at the far end of town, away from the river end. Noise was a gab fest among the people, horses tied up for a good part of the day at a makeshift rope hitch rail, and shooters warming up for their chance at gold. Clusters of friends or those with like interests gathered in places along the hitch rail line, gamblers in one bunch, merchants in another, cowpokes and trail folk mixing their interests and points of view about the match.

“I heard,” said one cowpoke, “that the gamblers have this thing all roped up. Heard they have a real sharpshooter in their hands who can shoot the eyes out of a prairie dog at a hundred yards. Who’s got wagering going on here? Who wants to bet against the best gambler? I got a month’s pay says a gambler wins it all.”

This statement caught the ears of Rubin Barnstead. “I’ll take two dollars of that,” he said, and offered his money in exchange for a simple chit from the cowpoke.

“How do you want to play that money, son?”

“That a gambler don’t win,” Rubin said.

“Oh, and who’s going to win?”

“I am,” Rubin said, the way he had been saying it for a whole week.

“All right, kid,” the cowpoke said, “If you win the first part of your bet, I’ll use that to cover your second bet and say you don’t win the shoot. That okay with you?”

“Fine with me,” Rubin offered, and swung away to take a few practice shots down between two buildings with the view looking out on the grass. He put two slugs into the same can cover nailed to a stump. The good feelings persisted within him. The crowd was noisy as ever. Some shooters had taken their shots already, with nothing to shout about however. His comfort zone was pleasant, confident.

As Rubin spun away from his practice shots, his gaze shifted from the crowd and passed down through the center of Gray’s Cottage. He did not see one horse tied to any hitch rail in the whole street going down through the center of town, and realized everybody was up this end of town, their horses, and some wagons and carriages, tied to the temporary hitching rope tied between two trees.

What he did see that sent a puzzle running down through his body was one rider coming into town from the ferry end and holding the reins on a second horse that had no rider but was saddled. The rider was obviously bound for the livery.

Rubin took a second look as the rider passed by the livery stable and tied up both horses in front of the general store.

Question and quandary dwelled in him in sudden uncertainty. He was not sure of what he was seeing, though some unknown feeling wanted to leap up from a part of his consciousness.

His heart leaped as he saw the man come out of the store hauling Kitty with him. She was struggling mightily, and the man, bigger and stronger it was evident, managed to toss her across the saddle of the second horse. She kicked and screamed and though Rubin could not hear her because of the crowd noise, fear struck deep within his body. And another sudden realization came also; if the two of them got to the ferry they would be long gone before riders got on the trail.

Rubin saw the man hit Kitty with his fist, and then reach for the reins that tied the two horses at the hitching rail. Two shells sat in his pocket for the shooting match. Two. And Kitty and her abductor were at least 150 yards away. Nobody else, he realized, had seen anything happening; no alarms or alerts had been heard. He was in the mix alone. Her smile came at him. Her blue eyes. His mother’s flower yet on the unfinished quilt.

The ferry was so close to the pair, the kidnapper and Kitty Albright.

He slipped a shell into his rifle and placed the rifle over the top of a simple stone that providence or a casual toss had put in place. Perhaps by a boy younger than he was. The pair of them were on saddles; one upright and one prone, Kitty’s legs still kicking, making their own statement. He realized the slightest wavering on his part, the slightest wind change, a hiccup or a sneeze, that Kitty might become his target in this matter. He recalled how long it took to get down to the fording, even when he pushed his horse to make the ride quicker than ever. He knew he could shake if he let himself do so, but he couldn’t. Kitty’s smile came back again, the color in her cheeks, the red of her lips, and the sense of knowing she was behind the counter whenever he entered the store.

The kidnapper tried to push Kitty between him and the crowd, as if he had seen Rubin sighting on the Sharps rifle. But Rubin Barnstead, optimist, dreamer and hoper, positive of his own prowess with the Sharps rifle, sighted down the barrel and slowly put pressure on his finger. Noise was jumping around him; people screaming at good shots, close misses, odds shifting in everybody’s mind. His father noting his behavior, looking down the street into the heart of Gray’s Cottage, wondered what was happening.

With a pain never known, Rubin Barnstead squeezed off the shot and dropped the kidnapper right out of his saddle. Kitty’s mount raced toward the river. Rubin ran to the temporary hitching rope and untied a horse. He raced into the center of town and caught up to Kitty long before the river.

She hugged him. Tenderly. For a long time.

That evening, after Kitty finished her turn in the store, as if nothing at all had happened, Rubin and Kitty went for a ride on the wide grass beyond the town, where the mountains leaned down on them with the deep shadows.

Beneath a lustrous, golden moon they paused, far out on the prairie. She brought his hand to her and then his lips. Under the moon he shook with the new mystery.

On the ride back Kitty said, “Rubin, I’ve been waiting years for you, while you were playing boy.”

“You’re done waiting,” Rubin said. “I am sure of that.” His confidence was still high and mighty.

Not for one minute had he thought about not winning the shooting match.