Western Short Story
In the early morning, an empty bottle flew over the batwing doors of the saloon. It flew past a horse tied to the hitching rail and splintered in the street.
Alone in the saloon, Billy Joe Tucker, a young cowboy, sat at a table and stared at a full bottle of whiskey on it.
“He called me a liar,” Billy Joe shouted.
He pounded on the table.
“No man calls me a liar and lives!”
He grabbed the bottle, opened it, and took a swing.
He thumped the bottle on the table, pulled a pistol from his holster, and wiped it with his hand.
“Let one do it, others will, too!”
“And you’re as good as dead!”
He spun the cylinder, then grabbed the bottle, took another swig, and thumped the bottle on the table.
“As good as dead,” he said again.
He loaded each of the six chambers, then stood and knocked over his chair.
He pulled back the hammer of his pistol and clicked it, then released it and eased it onto the firing pin.
“But soon, he’ll be dead . . .”
He jammed the pistol into his holster and turned to the bar.
“. . . . dead as that cougar I was tellin’ him about!”
The night before, in the crowded saloon, Billy Joe stood at the bar, an empty shot glass in his left hand.
“I been tracking that cat for a day and a half,” he said, “and I finally seen him. He was a-creepin’ toward me. I pulled my iron . . .”
He raised his right hand and pointed his forefinger at Johnny Black, a middle-aged man who leaned against the bar.
“. . . and plugged him!”
Billy Joe pounded the shot glass on the bar.
“You got something to say, Mr. Black?” he shouted.
“Nope,” Johnny said.
“I think you do.”
Billy Joe sneered at him.
“You callin’ me a liar?” he asked.
Johnny looked at him.
“I’m not callin’ you nothing, young man,” he said.
“You’re thinking I made up the story.”
“I’m not thinking nothing.”
“Yeah, you are!” Billy Joe shouted. “You’re thinking I made up the story about the cougar.” He snarled. “You’re thinking I’m a liar.”
“I’m callin’ you out!” Billy Joe shouted.
“Let’s just shake hands,” Johnny said, “and go our separate--”
“You tell me where and when, Mr. Black, and I’ll be there.” He curled his lip. “And you better be, too.”
Johnny turned toward the batwing doors and took a step.
“I’m telling you, Johnny Black,” Bill Joe said. “I want a showdown with you.”
Johnny turned to him.
“On the street in front of this here saloon!” Billy Joe continued. “Tomorrow morning!”
“You’ll have your showdown, all right,” Johnny said. “Every man does. But no man knows when it’ll be . . . or who it’ll be with.”
He turned again and walked away.
Billy Joe looked at Johnny’s old leather gun belt. He looked at the shiny ivory grip of Johnny’s pistol.
Alone in the saloon in the early morning, Billy Joe grabbed the bottle of whiskey and took a swing.
“When somebody calls you a liar,” he shouted, “you gotta fight him!”
He took another swing, thumped the bottle on the table, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“What else can you?”
“Ride away,” someone said.
Billy Joe drew his pistol and turned toward a shadowy corner in which he saw the silhouette of a young man leaning against the wall.
“Just ride away,” the young man said.
“Who are you?” Billy Joe asked.
The young man moved into the light: he wore the same clothes as Billy Joe and looked exactly like him.
“Good question,” the young man said.
Billy Joe stared at him, then blinked and stared again.
“’Member when Betty Sue accused us of being with Sally Marie and we had been--but said we hadn’t?” the young man asked. “Some would say we was a liar, and they’d be right.”
Billy Joe stared at the young man, who shrugged.
“So,” the young man said, “I gotta say I’m a liar.”
“But . . . but I really did plug that cougar!” Billy Joe said.
“Did you, now? And when was this?”
“Six . . . maybe seven months ago.”
“I recollect that six or seven months ago, you wasn’t tracking no cougar for a day and a half . . . at least not the four-footed kind.”
Six or seven months earlier, in the evening, Billy Joe stumbled through the brush, a foolish grin on his face.
“Oh, Sally Marie, you is one wild woman!”
He screamed lewdly, repulsively.
He drew his pistol and fired six times in the air.
“Billy Joe!” a woman shouted.
He turned and saw Betty Sue, an angry young woman.
“You was with that whore Sally Marie, wasn’t you?” she shouted.
“Na . . . na . . . no, Betty Sue,” Billy Joe stammered. “No! I always been true to you!”
“Then what are you doing near her cabin?”
“I . . . I’m trackin’ a cougar.”
In the saloon in the early morning, Billy Joe stared at the young man.
“Look,” Billy Joe said, “whatever you are--”
“You know who I am,” the young man said.
“I called him out,” Billy Joe said. “If I don’t fight, everybody’s gonna think I’m a coward.”
“You know who you called out, don’t you?”
Billy Joe nodded slowly.
“Then you know he’s a gunman,” the young man said.
“What if he is? If I don’t fight him--”
“If you do fight him, you could kill him,” the young man said. “He’d never have another drink or another woman or another breath of fresh air.”
The young man shook his head.
“He’d never see another sunrise or another sunset. But you would, ’cuz you’d be alive . . . unless he killed you.”
“Do you think he could?” Billy Joe asked.
“I don’t think he could,” the young man said, then smiled. “I know he could.”
“What am I gonna do?” Billy Joe asked.
He glanced at the batwing doors, looked back at the young man.
“Maybe . . .” Billy Joe said, “maybe he won’t come.”
“Here I am, Billy Joe,” someone called from the street.
Billy Joe flinched.
“What am I--?”
“Take off your rig,” the young man said, “go outside, and tell him you don’t want to fight.”
“Tell him you was drunk. And you’d be telling the truth.”
“He called me a liar,” Billy Joe said.
“Did he really?”
“I . . . I think so.”
“Well, you have been a liar.”
“If I don’t fight, everybody’ll think I’m a coward.”
“Maybe not,” the young man said, then shrugged. “But even if they do, you’ll see the sunset tonight.”
“Everybody’ll laugh at me.”
“Maybe not,” the young man said. “But even if they do, you’ll see the sunrise tomorrow.”
“I don’t wanna fight,” Billy Joe said.
“You don’t have to.”
“Yes, I do!”
“No, you don’t.”
Billy Joe looked at the pistol in his hand, then looked at the young man.
“Yes, I do,” Billy Joe said.
“Well, then,” the young man said, drawing his pistol, “fight.”
On the street, Johnny Black stood, facing the saloon.
“I come to tell you I don’t wanna fight,” Johnny said. “I don’t remember calling you a liar, but if I did, I wanna tell you I didn’t mean to.”
He looked at the batwing doors.
“You’re too young to die,” Johnny said, “and I’m too old to kill again. Let’s just shake hands and go our separate ways.”
Someone fired a shot.
Johnny grimaced, walked to the batwing door, and walked through them. He saw Billy Joe lying on the floor of the saloon, a gunshot wound in his right temple.
“Well,” Johnny said, “you had your showdown.”