Western Short Story
Craterville came up like the rock came down, in one helluva hurry. When the dust cleared, there was a town where the hole used to be, and a hundred or more shafts were slicing down into the earth. After six men were shot, five of them bushwhacked, one surprising a thief deep in his digs, the saloon owner, Harry Wilkes, called a meeting of town businessmen. Wilkes once was a conductor who got off his train one day outside Omaha and never got back on.
He spoke to his fellow business owners. “We need a sheriff, you’ll all agree. He should have been here yesterday, but I’ll settle for tomorrow, or better, tonight.” His gaze went around the room, now and then settled on a face, or the eyes sitting in that face. When a man looked away, at a wall or a pal or down at his boots, Wilkes moved on. Attitudes and special interests of men were easily discernible to him; it was part of his business as a saloon owner, and the long years he’d been at the game of men and booze. He thought he should have known the reaction coming from those who had made investments, having a building with a door through which traffic came to spend money.
Wilkes, it was already determined, had no comic make-up; none at all, and he kept it that way. He stood wide-shouldered, heavy at the hips, skin shiny and as dark as a worn saddle. And he wore his wide-brimmed hat every place, in the saloon, behind the bar, welcoming new help, having his steak and eggs at the back end of the room, at an occasional game of poker when a herd was driven in. He even wore it getting a shave from the barber. Some said he might wear it to bed, but never was it said to his face.
“If nobody steps up for the badge, let me suggest one of you to wear it. I know each one of you better than the man sitting beside you right now.” He looked around again at more than twenty men gathered in the saloon. At a corner table, hat set close on his eyes, head at an arrogant angle as if he had heard the same pitch before, sat the newest patron simply known only as Norman Noble, The Shot. Noble, it was said about town, had won a few shooting contests before he had slipped into town, played cards, drank little, stayed away from few ladies, every now and then would ride off alone at dawn. “I go out where I can practice my shots. If I mess up, I don’t shoot anybody.”
Once he was asked if he had ever shot anybody by mistake, or however. “Sure have,” he said. His face did not change a muscle, or its weathered tone, the one owned by all horsemen… skin like bark, minimum of a day’s growth on his chin, a faint tickler on the top lip, a nose the sun would own again in a hurry, eyes set back as if looking out from a campfire into the darkness. Only his hands, flexing lightly, broadcasting talent, were different.
“Permanent,” he said. No one had brought the question up again. The two guns holstered on his hips were unknown to the men of Craterville. A few had asked, and the few backed off as Noble drew both weapons faster than any draw ever seen. The questions stopped. The make and model of those handguns were never identified. Word developed, as words do, that he had made his own weapons, that one day he would set up shop, arm every hand in Craterville.
Wilkes, since the first day Norman Noble put a coin on the bar, had wondered about him. Dressed like most other riders who came, drank, caroused a bit, and went, Noble had one small difference setting him off from all the others. His hands, to any eye, had not yet found true labor. And it was obvious that Noble worked to keep them idle-looking; they were always clean, nails carefully trimmed, knuckles smooth as rifle bore, fingers hanging loose like a rope ready to fly. Wilkes himself, at that determination, had picked him as a card man, dealer or card sharp, but Noble never picked up a deck of cards in The CC Emporia, never looked over a shoulder at a game in the works, sipped small sips sometimes for half the night. Wilkes wondered if he could play the piano, but was bound not to ask the man that question; not on a bet. The ladies, too, stayed away from him, as if they knew something nobody else knew.
If nothing else, Wilkes knew his ladies better than he knew his men. He would also bet on this intuition.
Wilkes wondered what kind of liability Noble might carry if he took the job as sheriff. Even as that thought carried its way in his thinking, he was allowing the trade-off to be a give-and-take situation. There was not one man in the room that he would put ahead of Noble, and no reason for his stand, other than where he thought Noble was an unknown factor, all the others would soon prove to be dead-heads at the job, if not dead. They were clerks. They’d build the town into a city, but they’d never wear the badge, nor ought they wear it. Clerks were builders, not shooters, and a sheriff had to be a shooter… if he wanted to stay alive.
As Wilkes sipped on his whiskey, smelling it more than drinking it, aware of the trouble it could free, had freed before, Noble’s eyes were looking straight into his eyes. He seemed to be saying, “I’ll be your man. Make it worth my while and I’m your man.” Wilkes swore he could hear Noble’s voice saying those words. They set out in a straight line from Noble’s eyes rather than from his mouth. The man, Wilkes further realized, had a brand set into his eyes, seared so deeply that no cowpoke on the prod could ever disturb it, or re-arrange it. That, Wilkes admitted, he’d bet on too. And this night Noble’s lips never moved, not a flick, but Wilkes heard the words again.
Wilkes, in a sudden move, stressing his next words, slapped the bar top. “Not a man in this house could say any better than Norman Noble for the job. Anyone got a topper for that idea?” The nods around the room, almost to a man, slight, as if afraid they’d be marked for their approval, were affirming his offer.
At the table in the corner, Noble stood up, shifted the holsters at his hips with a faint bodily shrug, and walked to the bar. “I’d put my hand out on the deal,” he said, looking first at Wilkes and then drifting his eyes around the room, “but I want a small concession to go with the job.”
Wilkes, unable to think of anything that would be too prohibitive, immediately agreed. “You got it, Noble, and I’ll stick by it.” He looked around the room and none of the businessmen objected. A weight, after all, had been lifted off their backs… they had a sheriff; the town would move a bit easier, a bit safer.
“What can we do for you, sheriff? You name it.”
Noble displayed a speaking ease as he leaned against the bar. “I want the handgun concession for the town. Any man who lives here or works here and needs a gun, he’ll have to buy it from me. They’ll be the same as these,” and with unbelievable speed and finesse they would only see from him, he quick-drew his pistols and flashed them at the men in front of him. A few of them backed up involuntarily, weights shifting, chairs straining, the dark barrel snouts looming like death itself. “I guarantee the price will be fair. I guarantee they will be just as good as these two,” and he flashed the pair of pistols again. The room was nearly silent. Neither a glass tinkled, nor a chair creaked anew. Not a boot dragged on the wide-board floor. Only a few sighs could be heard.
“No problem there, as far as I can see,” Wilkes said, and quick as a whip, while the chance was there, he asked, “And what kind of guns are they?”
“These, gentlemen,” Noble said rather proudly as he held up the brace of guns, “are Noble Model 9s, the one and only Noble Special, designed, developed and made by me, by my hand, my trusty hand.” The two side arms were settled softly back into their holsters without a whisper of leather, the way cotton touches wool, almost intimately. He went on to say, “They’ve been through a damned tough development. Each one of them is perfect, tested completely in every way and sworn to by me. I’ve got enough of them to take care of every Thomas, Richard and Harold in town.” He laughed a happy little laugh for them as they settled back in good humor.”And probably enough for some new folk who decide to settle down here. I swear I can feel in my bones that Craterville will become a special place, a very special place. You mark my words.”
Was Norman Noble a soothsayer or a magician? Even history can’t answer that question.
Craterville, for over a year from that moment of conscription, became quiet, safe and civil. Sheriff Noble was called upon to jail but a few rowdy trail hands, now and then a card cheat or a petty thief, but there was not one murder committed in the town or in the local mines. Few disputes arose from any cause or reason. When Noble took his morning rides, though not as often as earlier rides because of unknown reasons, not one soul ever trailed him. Curiosity languished and fell by the wayside or the trail. And his gun business, which from the start some people thought was rigged to bring Noble a small barrel of money, was just as quiet, as if he had put a cap on his own business. When Oren Bentley’s mule crushed his hand gun on the same rock where Oren had set it down to fix a wire cut in his leg, Oren replaced it with a Noble Special #9. Only a week later Chad Winnick lost his Colt when part of his mine came down behind him as he was setting up a small charge that suddenly went haywire. A few trail hands or trail bosses, caught unarmed for a variety of reasons, also bought Noble Special #9s… and there never was a gun store or a gunsmith in Craterville.
When the second meteor came down on Craterville, as if it had followed the same path from wherever such devastation comes, as if the pair had been playing long-distance tag in some far-out playground, there was nothing left to Craterville but the same old hole. Nowadays gun museums, of course, flourish in the wide ranges of the Old West; in Texas, Utah, Oklahoma, California, Minnesota, Colorado, to name a few places, but if any person since that calamitous time at Craterville has ever seen a Noble Special No. 9, it’s never been discussed openly and never brought forth, the way some collectors guard their special hobbies. No secret auctions or hidden sales to start rumors. No antique shows like those on television. Nothing. But the feeling is that at least one Noble Special #9 must exist someplace. The real possibilities arise when thinking about the odd trail hand or trail boss leaving town with a new purchase or that Sheriff Norman Noble, on one of his regular rides in early morning, was out of town that fateful day. When he left he was obviously armed as usual, but he too was never heard from then on, nor any clue ever come in to play about his stash of hidden weapons, out and beyond Craterville, apparently buried by eternity itself.