Western Short Story
Six-Gun Sugar Stetson in a Race for Life
Tom Sheehan

Cowboy, ranch hand, sometimes deputy to a few sheriffs in Bridgeton, Texas, often a disputant in favor of any small rancher like his father, Sugar Stetson was named by his mother on her death bed the day he was born, his father ever saying in endless tribute to both of them, "That was the last and the only word she said when she held him at birth, 'Sugar,' so 'Sugar' he is." Thus was a legend of a kind traveling the whole of Texas, even as his prowess with a six gun grew and stormed each and every saloon within a few hundred miles of his home range; "That Sugar Stetson sure can handle that six gun of his." to accompany that statement, they'd make a practice quick-draw at their for-sure empty belt line as if their idea of a six gun was aimed and ready for action, right at the belly of a listener.

Sugar's best friend, steadiest friend, as we'll come to know by varying degrees, was Big Boy Ben Kindle, the fattest cowboy you can imagine, who was married to a woman twice widowed, half again twice his age, who presented him a son who kept falling off his horse, a pony at first, and a pretty-as-a-picture Appaloosa named Balloon as he grew into his early teens, still fall-prone.

Surely the great story tellers of legends in every Texas saloon need to have handles on a running start to get a legend going, as in the case of Six-gun Sugar Stetson, the names going two ways at once, with and for him.

Thus it was (as they say yet in those same saloons), that the lone bank robber came out of the Bridgeton Bank of Texas on a quiet Monday afternoon, a shot suddenly coming through the bank window behind him as he mounted his horse and Sugar Stetson at that precise moment stepping out of Garrity's General Store, goods in hands, dropping the goods to the dust and drawing a six gun from his holster in a most rapid move, drawing down on a bank robber with a gun already in hand.

It was a debut into legendary discussion.

"That bank robber," several legend makers could spout in unison, "armed a-ready, a bag of dollars looped on his saddle horn, looked up and saw a cowboy dropping his goods in the store doorway and took aim. It's a bet among all of us he never knew the pain that tore through his chest right pronto, Sugar Stetson so fast on the draw, so direct in his aim and, you have to admit, his bullet faster than his own hand." A pause would follow, to which was added, "That there was Six-gun Sugar Stetson in action."

As much as his friend's unexpected baby son was born, so came abreast a cowboy's second name, attached for good regardless of all future actions on his own, including a touch of buffoonery on his part. Of course, believers among you, the intent will be viewed as intended, marked as unselfish, a real piece of education coming free-hand to a young boy, known from day one, as if by his mother's selection, Yaqui by name, prone to falling off his horse, each arm broken at different times, two fingers also broken in the mix, a couple of seasons of embarrassment on his part, a similar piece of that embarrassment shared on his father's part, a scourge of course to his heavyweight father for years knowing the sense of ridicule, except when his pal Sugar Stetson was within hearing distance, which was as some might say "a might good mile and a half long at the ear."

"I don't know how much he can take, Sugar," Big Ben said to his pal one day as they sipped a few beers at the saloon bar, "'cause he's some like me and some like his Momma, who don't give a crow's ass about noisy-ass neighbors."

Sugar was deep in thought about the subject, and replied, "It will only take one lesson, Ben, one lesson of a lifetime, to change things for him. He's worth anything we can do for him."

"You got an idea, Sugar?"

"No, not yet, but it's abrewin' in place, 'cause I'm trying to put my arms around it and it ain't here yet."

When Big Ben asked. as a filler in a pause of conversation, "You gonna run in the big race this year, Sugar? You think Sweets can run the race like he did last year?" The idea came out of the wide open prairie that ran away, in long paces, from Bridgeton, often caught in a warm breeze racing across the stretch of grass and weed, unused paths, horse tracks years deep under dust, wide views that ran the whole circular ring of the horizon. It was also where death was damned near visible from unmarked graves rising noticeable atop wind-swept mounds, the odd lot of small creatures looming like caricatures of the West itself, sitting like outposts at their duties, gophers, dogs of any kind from no pack of hounds, Injun rats setting a spell on food hunts, a wolf not particular of his coming or past kills, the bones and feathers of a dead bird, for sure some of its odd parts in flight again.

As fast as images came to him, in colors, caricatures, bold as brass at the back of his mind, he saw much of a whole charade, piece by piece, from the very depth of his mind, but nothing of the finish line,

Six-gun Sugar Stetson lined up at the rail of Josiah Breeds' ranch, a mile from town, on his horse named Sweets, with 40 other riders on their fastest and or their favorite mounts in the 12th running of The Bridgeton Borders Race, established by the one-time saloon owner, Josiah Breeds' brother, Enos Breeds, who simply wanted it to end in front of the saloon to start a day of celebration. It was usually considered a gimmicky race for the first few runs, but chicanery, chance and motivational choice gave the winner a solid year of grace at the bar every Saturday night. All of them thought about the third year winner who was dead a month after his win, out on the trail, shot and killed by an unknown scoundrel who also killed his horse and scarred his saddle with a keen knife, and had not yet been identified.

But for some of those hard-working hard riders it was still like getting a raise, Saturday night becoming larger each year, race day a big winner for the saloon itself, for the saloon owner, and for the winning rider with his year of a free run at the bar on Saturday night..

It was a jovial time in most situations.

Now, for the first time, Six-gun Sugar Stetson wanted the lead when he came into town and the final loop around town once to end up at the posted rail of the saloon. It was imperative to him, made him shout out continuously how he was going to win the race. "I got you all dead at the finish! I'll win by more than this horse's neck and your horses' ass-ends! No man can beat me to the saloon this day when I'm on this Sweet horse! None of you! None of you!"

The odd part of the whole thing, spoken openly in the ranks of racers, was that Sugar had not won in four previous tries, coming in second the year before, and the other three times in the also ran entries, left in the pack, prairie dust floating around the mix of them..

A stranger could tell, from both tone and temperament, there was a healthy respect for him from all the others, most of the taunts and replies of a sort of friendly response."You're a whole year older, Sugar, and a whole year slower! Your horse is a whole year slower too! Last year was plain all-out luck for you, Sugar! Look at you now, Sugar, a loser right at the start," followed by a most noisy fit of laughter. Lots of riders laughed. It was great fun to do so. It was entirely comfortable, without a quick-draw in the mix, now or later, and figured by many of them to be the only chance to laugh at him. They all knew each shout embraced a kind of respect that he had earned in his young years, and each one being a mild touch at a rather friendly retort among old pals.

"Sugar's a great pal to have," might have been vocalized from all the contestants, or from most of them, to be sure.

Crowding at the starting line, but alone in his own thought, Sugar knew something had to happen during this new year of the race: he had hopes for a spectacular finish, a glorious outcome, a remarkable turn of events, and nobody in the entire town had any idea of his intentions. Once more, he thought, he faced the odds on his own, no help promised him.

When the starter's gun went off, Sweets leaped out at Sugar's command and the spurs' jabs applied with fervor. He was long-legged and speedy and had been a most trusty companion to his owner for five years. Sugar knew the old thrill that came over him and his horse under pressure of an event or an incident; there had been many of them, some as important as mere survival of the pair, or the capture or demise of a wanted man, many reasons possible for the cause undertaken. Despite all its charms, its general and peaceful nature through much of the years, service of one sort or another made declarations on the populace as a whole, and on law-abiders from any outset.

This occasion was entirely new to Sugar; he kept looking for the break in the cause, the loophole in the loop, the solution to a problem without a name.

Realization and a quick scan behind him told him he was ahead of the mob of characters, the closest riders being friends from their youngest years. Big Boy Ben Kindle, however, was nowhere in sight, back there near the aft end of the racers, no horse apparently ever to make a difference in a race for him. Instead of seeing Big Ben up close to him at the lead, he thought again about Ben's son Yaqui, the clumsy one, the outrageous slings and arrows of youthful taunting thrown at him for years done and for years yet to come, just like the ones his father had endured, notwithstanding Sugar's oft corrections.

He was wondering how he'd react if he had a son of his own with troubles of his own. It made him lean forward in Sweets' saddle, another thrust coming with his thoughts.

Sweets kept him out in front of the slew of riders as Bridgeton loomed ahead of him, its collection of small buildings forming a pattern on the plains where a stream came down from a hill at the foot of a mountain, the first settlers liking the looks and the promises of the area a mere 40 years earlier.

The feeling of competition suddenly closed around him as he felt rather than heard a rider coming close upon him. The spurs tapped energy from Sweets, who leaped ahead as if he too had measured time and effort. The dusty main street, the saloon on the far corner around which he'd have to ride a loop around to the joys of a gathering awaiting the finish of the loop and the arrival of the winner.

The crowd screamed its excitement as Sugar and his nearest competitor started around the last loop nearly neck and neck, Sugar and Sweets in a thin lead. When the pair shot around the last leg of the race, the loop nearly done, the saloon only 50 yards away from them, Six-gun Sugar Stetson, in the clumsiest closing in years, fell off his horse and rolled like a silly character in the dust of Bridgeton's main road, the saloon mere yards from him, his arrival like a burlesque actor doing his part of dedicated humor. The laughs and guffaws were solid and fully appropriate, and promised to be worthy of mention for years to come.

That's just the way Six-gun Sugar Stetson presented it to young Yaqui Kindle, down between two buildings of the town a short while later, "Anybody can fall off a horse, Yaqui, even when it counts, like at the end of a race like I did. You know all those who saw me will keep reminding me in the oddest ways they can think of. Of course, it'll all be up to me how I handle the jokes they'll toss at me. But, as I tell you now, they won't mount to a hill of beans, not to me and not to you either." He laughed and continued, "You have to admit, when I say mount it comes with more fun than they can imagine. That's the way to play it out."

Young Yaqui Kindle nodded his affirmation and understanding, a special deed indeed done and accomplished.