Western Short Story
As Clay Brentwood rode down the mountainside in the southern part of New Mexico territory, a calm settled over him – all his worries seemed to disappear. He was riding down to do a job that needed to be done and that was the long and the short of it. Nothing more needed saying or thought about.
Astride the black stallion, Clay entered the town limits of Bristol Springs. The black stallion, it’s head held in regal splendor, danced down the dusty street less than two hours after the sun brought news of the coming day.
On the stallion’s back, a stranger with a tied down widow maker on his hip rode easily in the saddle. Clay Brentwood looked neither left nor right, yet his eyes, shaded by the brim of his hat, missed nothing.
At this time of morning only a few people were on the streets. Those that were, stopped and shaded their eyes and watched as the stranger on the black stallion passed by.
One young woman in particular caught Clay’s peripheral vision. She was about to enter a shop, but stopped and turned slowly to look at him from beneath a wide, flat brimmed Spanish styled hat.
Clay’s heart skipped a beat. Their eyes locked for no more than the blink of an eyelid, and then she turned and hurried into the shop – the hint of a smile on her lips.
Keeping his eyes looking straight ahead, Clay pulled the loop from over the hammer of his forty-four pistol, allowing him to pull the big hog-leg and do battle at the first sign of trouble – which he expected, but none came – at least not right away.
Reining in at the sheriff’s office, Clay ground hitched the big horse, knowing he would stand quietly, waiting for him to return.
Looking through the front window, the sheriff’s office appeared to be empty.
“Where can I find the sheriff?” Clay asked of an elderly man who was sweeping the wooden sidewalk in front of the sheriff’s office.
An old man, with a bent back and watery eyes stopped his sweeping and stared at Clay for a long moment. Leaning on the broom, he looked past Clay and admired the big horse that stood quietly without being tied to the hitch rail.
That is some horse, he thought to himself, wondering how this stranger come to be riding such a fine looking piece of horseflesh – him dressed like a man who didn’t have two nickels to rub together.
After a moment, the old man’s eyes drifted back to the man and the pistol hanging against his leg.
When he saw no badge, he asked, “You the law?”
“No sir,” the man said. “Just ah man passin’ through,” Clay said. “But I might have some business with the law here in town if he happens ta be somewhere nearby.”
Pointing toward the office, Clay continued. “Looks ta me like the sheriff’s office is empty, and I thought you might be the kind of man who keeps his eyes open and just could be knowin’ where he is,” Clay said through a wide grin.
On the ride into town, Clay had decided to check out the local law before making a final decision on how to handle things.
The old man eyed the stranger, then spit a stream of tobacco juice into the dusty street.
“Down at the cemetery. You can find the sheriff down at the cemetery,” the old man said. “The Beeler gang shot him four days ago when they treed this here town. So, I reckon Curly Beeler is the law here, now. Kinda self-appointed, you might say. If you’re looking to talk to him, you’ll find him over at the cantina.”
Clay touched a finger to the brim of his hat. “Much obliged, old timer,” he said as he turned and walked back toward the black stallion.
“Better shuck that widow-maker, mister. Curly Beeler don’t allow nobody to pack a weapon here in town ceptin’ him and his gang,” the old man called out to the stranger’s back.
The hint of a smile appeared on Clay’s lips as he stepped into the stirrup and swung his leg over the saddle, then turned the black stallion toward the livery stable down at the far end of the street.
Clay felt bad about the sheriff, but the truth was, this made his decision easier. With no law around to interfere, he was free to do what needed to be done. In a sense, he would be acting as the law, the judge and jury - along with the one to carry out the death sentences.
As he rode up to the livery stable and stepped down, Clay glanced down the street and saw the old man hot-footing it toward the cantina. Curly would hear about the stranger who had ridden into town, packing hardware. At least they couldn’t say he sneaked around like a coward.
Clay saw no one to turn his horse over to so he stripped the black stallion of his saddle and halter – Clay didn’t believe in bits. He took his time and gave the horse a rubdown with a piece of gunnysack he found hanging over the railing of the stall.
The big horse nickered and shook his head at Clay as he was turned into a stall. Clay gave him a small bucket of oats and a pitchfork of hay, along with a bucket of water.
Emerging from the barn, Clay was confronted by two hard looking men who were standing in the middle of the street. Curly had wasted no time.
The one on Clay’s left was tall and rangy, dressed in a black suit. He wore a white shirt with a string tie that had a silver tip at each end. The gunman had a turned down mouth that sported a pencil thin mustache, and eyes as cold as winter rain – a brace of pistols tied down in the gunfighters style was all the information Clay needed.
The other man was shorter and built more like an oak tree stump. His eyes were bloodshot and his teeth were yellow-brown. The stub of an unlit cigar was clamped tightly in his teeth. His clothes were worn and wrinkled. Clay would bet the man didn’t shave or bath on a regular basis.
Instead of a sidearm, the man carried a double barrel shotgun called a stagecoach gun. Both hammers were thumbed back.
The man dressed like a gunfighter was trying to take the strangers measure and was puzzled. The stranger was not a tall man, maybe five foot eight, but looked lean and well muscled. He would guess the man to weigh around a hundred and sixty or seventy pounds – it was hard to tell. The man definitely didn’t fit the image of a gunfighter – his Levis were worn and patched. His boots were old and scuffed, and his once dark blue shirt had seen too many days in the sun.
Upon further inspection, the gunfighter found his answer under the wide brimmed hat that shaded the stranger’s eyes.
Even though the stranger’s eyes showed no hint of fear, or anger, or emotion of any kind, those eyes told the gunfighter somebody was about to die, and for the first time in his life, he felt a shiver run down his spine.
“Ain’t nobody allowed ta carry ah gun, ceptin’ us,” the man with the shotgun said. “So, jest unbuckle yer holster and let’er drop.”
Beyond the two men in front of him, Clay Brentwood saw faces peeking around corners and from behind closed curtains.
High up on his left, a man stood on the roof of the cantina, holding a rifle loosely in one hand while he smoked a cigarette with the other. The man looked to be nothing more than your everyday loser, hiring his gun out instead of working at an honest job. The man seemed none to concerned about whether the two gunmen in the street could handle one lone drifter, so he just stood there casual like, waiting for the show to be over.
With a slight movement of his eyes, Clay checked the sun. It was on his right and their left, giving neither of them the advantage.
When the roar of the gunfire subsided and the smoke disappeared, except for the three dead men, the street was empty.
No one had seen the stranger draw; nor did they see him dive to his right as his Colt delivered three deadly pieces of lead. And no one saw him come to his feet and sprint down the ally. The dance was over before anyone realized it had begun.
Blue-gray gun smoke drifted into the cloudless sky as the sun beat down on the three dead men who were already beginning to draw flies.
Once the gun smoke disappeared, people came out to take a closer look at the three dead men. Each and every one of the townspeople who witnessed the event, secretly smiled beneath their sombreros and bonnets as they turned away and went about their business.
Curly Beeler took a long pull at the bottle of tequila and tried to fit everything together in his mind. He licked salt off the back of his hand, and then sucked on a piece of lime. Three of his best men were lying dead in the street, and no one had a clue to the identity of the man who did it. A total stranger walked out of the barn and without saying a word, shot down three of his men and then disappeared like a whiff of smoke.
Curly took another pull from the bottle, his mind in a whirl. “He’s got to be a Texas Ranger,” he said to the other men in the cantina. “Nobody else would have the brass to stand against me like that.”
Curly’s hand was shaking as he reached once more for the bottle and its nerve calming liquid. After his third drink, his nerves were beginning to calm some when one of his men charged through the bat-winged doors and headed straight for the bar. The man, called Leroy, was young, in his early twenties. He had a pug face that made him look like he’d been smashed in the face with the underside of a frying pan.
“You ain’t gonna believe this boss,” the shaggy headed young gunfighter spit out. “That feller yer ah lookin’ fer, is down at the restaurant, sittin’ there, calm as ah mill pond, eatin’ his breakfast.”
“You sure it’s him?” Curly asked.
“Seen him with my own eyes!” the young man said. “I was in there havin’ ah cup of coffee when he come ah walkin’ in like he didn’t have ah care in the world and sit down at ah table and ordered his breakfast.”
“And you didn’t do anything?” Curly asked.
“Sure I did. I come down here ta tell you.” the young man said.
After a moment, his eyes grew wide. “You didn’t think I was gonna try ta take him all by myself, did ya? After what he did ta Blackie and Stump and Tom?”
“No, I reckon not,” Curly said, shaking his head. “You ain’t got the cajones.”
The young, would be gunfighter frowned and ordered a beer, gulped it down, then went over to a table and sat down across from another young gunslinger about his own age who was playing solitaire with a deck of worn out cards.
Curly made a motion with his hand and four sour faced gunmen left their table and walked over to the bar.
“You boys go down to the restaurant and tell that fella I want to talk to him and then bring him back here.”
“Well... supposin’ he don’t wanna come?” one of them asked.
“Then kill him!” Curly said with a snarl.
The four gun hands looked at each other, and as one, turned and headed for the door.
From where Clay sat, he could see the street and watched as the four gun slicks nervously came down the street, talking back and forth as though they were discussing a plan of attack.
After taking another bite of ham and eggs, Clay took a long sip from his coffee cup, then stood up and made his way to a darkened corner.
“Just stay in the kitchen and hunker down behind somethin’,” Clay said to the man behind the counter. “I’m guessin’ there’s ah bit more dancin’ ta be done.”
Clay reached the dark corner and turned around, his right hand hovering above the Colt hanging on his hip just as the four gunmen entered the restaurant with pistols already clinched in their fists.
“You lookin’ for me?” Clay asked.
As one, the four gun slicks spun in his direction, raising their pistols as they did so – but before even one of their pistols discharged a lethal ball of lead, Clay’s big Colt belched out four death warrants so fast it sounded like one, long, loud roar.
The restaurant owner would later say the stranger walked over to his table, sat down and finished his breakfast in a leisurely fashion, then stood up and ambled out the back door like nothing had happened. The ten dollar tip the stranger left on the table was never mentioned.
Along with the rest of the town, Curly heard the gunfire and assumed his hired guns had killed the stranger.
For the first time today, Curly began to relax. It was over. He hoped the man had some identification papers on him so he could find out who this stranger was – not that it mattered all that much, especially now. The man was dead and the town was his again. Curly poured himself another shot of tequila.
Many of the townspeople were saddened by the thought that the stranger could be dead. They were just getting used to the idea that he might be the one to kill Curly Beeler and his gang, or at least run them out of town.
When the owner of the restaurant came down the street, informing everyone he met about what had happened, they quietly but discreetly cheered the stranger on.
The restaurant owner hurried down to the cantina to tell Curly what had happened in the hopes Curly would go easy on him for bringing the news that his gun hands were dead. He knew it would go harder on him if he said nothing.
The restaurant owner stood in front of Curly and recited what had taken place, wringing his hands on his apron, hoping and praying Curly wouldn’t shoot him. Curly was known to be a man of sudden moods.
When the restaurant owner finished his story, a cold chill ran through Curly like someone had dumped a bucket of ice water on him. Curly waved the restaurant owner away, turned toward the bar and reached for the half empty bottle of tequila.
“Who the hell is this man?” he said to no one in particular.
Curly began to shake at the thought of the man coming for him next. He took a long pull from the tequila bottle and sighed as the liquid burned deep down inside him.
Curly had only two men left – the two young would be outlaws. He motioned to them.
Reluctantly, they stood up and made their way in Curly’s direction, neither of them wanting to brace the stranger, but they were even more afraid of Curly.
Curly checked his pistol and made sure it was loaded with six rounds. He wanted to load the stranger up with as much lead as he could.
Curly and his last two pistoleros stood, guns in their fists, facing the bat-wing doors.
“We don’t talk... we just shoot as soon as he comes through those doors,” Curly said with an edge of fear in his voice.
Even though they had been standing there less than two minutes, it seemed like an eternity and their pistols felt like huge weights in their hands. Each one of them was close to the breaking point when a voice behind them spoke only one word, “Beeler.”
Curly and his two remaining gun hands spun around, unloading their pistols in the direction of the voice – their bullets killing the back wall.
A few feet to the right, Clay’s pistol exploded three times. The last two would be outlaws were kicked backward – bullet holes in their chests over their hearts. They were dead by the time they hit the floor.
Curly felt a sharp pain as a bullet plowed its way through his right shoulder. Unable to control his fingers, his pistol slipped from his hand and landed on the floor. Curly looked down and saw blood gushing from his wound, staining his white shirt.
“Who the hell are you? I got a right to know!” Curly shouted – fear seeping out of him as thick as honey dripping from a comb.
The stranger just stood there, taking his time while he reloaded his pistol, his eyes watching to see if there were any more of Clay’s men to deal with. Counting in his head, he believed Curly was the only one left, and when no one else showed up, he dropped his pistol back into his well-worn holster, then walked over and stood in front of the infamous outlaw.
While Curly stood in front of him, bleeding and shaking, Clay rolled a cigarette and lit it, drawing deeply of the smoke, then blew smoke into Curly’s face.
“Two and a half years ago you put a bullet along the side of my head and thought you’d killed me. I was stunned and couldn’t move, but I wasn’t dead. I was forced ta watch as you and your gang raped and murdered my wife and killed our unborn child.
“You and your men laughed the whole time. Next, you burned my house and barn and other buildings. Then you stole my horses n cattle.”
Clay took another puff from his cigarette and blew the smoke into the air, slowly. “It took me awhile ta get back on my feet, but I did, and I’ve been just two steps behind you ever since,” he said, staring into Curly’s eyes, hoping to see some semblance of him remembering the incident, but even with the information he’d given Curly, Curly’s eyes were still blank.
It was as if the whole affair had no meaning for him, which made Clay even angrier. How could he do such violent things and never remember them? Things like, rape, and murder and stealing meant so little to Curly that he didn’t bother thinking about the suffering and grief he left in his wake.
Taking his time, Clay smoked his cigarette while he tried to let his anger subside, but time did little to relieve his pain.
Curly just stood there, staring back at Clay with a blank stare, wondering what the stranger was going to do next?
Clay wanted to smash Curly’s face in with his fists – beat him until he was dead, but instead, he took a deep breath, trying to will himself to stay calm, which didn’t work. His desire for revenge was too strong. After another moment, Clay reached out and shoved the lit end of his cigarette into Curly’s bloody wound.
Curly let out a scream and tried to remove the burning cigarette, but Clay stayed his hand and watched Curly suffer until he passed out.
Clay grabbed the bottle of tequila from the bar and poured it over Curly’s face and waited. When Curly opened his eyes, Clay dragged him to his feet and slapped his face. Next, he pulled a long, double-edged knife from its sheath and held it in front of Curly’s bulging eyes.
“This little pig sticker is called an Arkansas Toothpick, and is razor sharp on both sides. Can you guess what’s gonna happen next?”
Curly’s breath was now coming in ragged bursts and noises came from somewhere deep inside his throat. He wanted to break loose and run, but the stranger held him in a tight grip, and his right arm was useless to do anything.
“My wife used ta read from the good book at night after supper. I remember part of one of the passages that seem ta fit this occasion,” Clay said. “An eye for an eye and ah tooth for ah tooth.”
He smiled at the suffering he could see in Curly’s eyes. “And that’s what I’ve been doin’ here today, Curly, collectin’ what the good book says I’m entitled ta collect,” Clay said.
Curly wanted to talk, but nothing came out. A wet spot began to form on the front of his pants and his breathing became even more ragged. He was going to die at the hands of this man and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
Clay looked into Curly’s eyes and saw a dead man standing in front of him. “You ain’t nothin’ but ah cowardly piece of scum that don’t deserve ta breath the same air as decent folks. Without somebody backin’ you up, you’re just another two-bit killer that ain’t worth the price of ah bullet,” Clay said as he reached out and sliced Curly’s throat from ear to ear, then tossed him to the floor.
Staring down at the dying outlaw, Clay’s insides were filled with rage. He wanted Curly to know what it meant to suffer before he drew his last breath.
After a long moment, the anger inside him began to subside. Clay came to his senses and his hands began to tremble. The rage he’d felt ever since the loss of his beloved wife and their unborn child was beginning to finally subside. Two and a half years of pent up anger had finally been lifted from his shoulders. It was finally over.
Clay wiped the blood from his knife on Curly’s shirt, then tossed a twenty dollar gold piece toward the barman, who caught it, easily. “That should take care of what needs cleanin’ up, plus, you can keep whatever you find in their pockets, plus what you can get for their horses and gear.”
The bartender, who also owned the place, whispered, “Yes sir.”
The bartender watched as the famous outlaw, Curly Beeler, head of the most notorious gang in this part of the country, lay on the floor of his cantina, blood spewing from his neck as he gagged out something unintelligible.
He would leave the bloodstain on the floor. In fact, he would cordon it off. It would mean a lot of money. Men would come from miles around to see the bloodstain and hear the story. The stranger had done him a large favor today.
Clay Brentwood walked through the bat-wing doors and drew a large breath of fresh air, then blew it out slowly, trying to come to terms with what he’d just done. He was not a man killer, but in this case, revenge was called for and he’d obliged.
By the time the bat wing doors finished swinging back and forth, Curly Beeler was no longer among the living and his rotten soul was headed straight for hell. At least that’s where Clay hoped it would go as he sauntered causally down the street in the direction of the livery barn.
Everyone who had been standing outside the cantina, parted to let him pass, afraid to say anything. As soon as he entered the livery barn, the men of Bristol Springs rushed inside.
After gawking at Curly’s body and the pool of blood, they bellied up to the bar where the bartender was pouring whiskey as fast as he could, all the while telling them everything he’d seen and heard, with the restaurant owner tossing in his two cents worth when he could get a word in.
Standing just outside the door, several of the townswomen, including the young woman wearing the Spanish style hat, were committing to memory every word the bartender and restaurant owner was saying, for they would repeat the story over and over many times.
“We ought to give that fella a reward,” one of the men at the bar, said.
The men all shook their heads in agreement, but not one of them offered to go down to the livery barn.
Fifteen minutes later, the people of Bristol Springs watched as the black stallion pranced down the center of the street with the stranger riding easily on his back.
Some were happy to see him go. A man who could shoot down ten men and not blink an eye was not the kind of man they wanted ruling the roost over their quiet little town.
On the other hand, if this man wanted to take over the job of sheriff, they could all rest more peacefully at night.
Still, no one hailed him to ask him to stay and keep the peace. As far as they were concerned, he was just a stranger who rode into town on a black stallion, killed Curly Beeler and his gang, then rode away without a word, as though this was something he did on a regular basis.
Though no one knew his name or where he came from, the story of his short visit would become that of legend, and the bloodstain on the cantina floor would be proof that Curly Beeler had died here.