Western Short Story
The Devil's Dew
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

A friendly freighter passing by the ranch told Trace Gibson to expect his brother Turner in town Friday week. Turner had gone off a few years earlier after a stupid family argument. Trace missed him a great deal.

Waiting for Turner a whole day in Devil’s Claw, Trace had ridden out to greet him in the tail part of the day and found him dead. Turner, as life made its demands on a 20-year older, had been cut down by a bushwhacker or by someone he knew who got close enough to kill him. It was no gunfight to end gunfights. Go figure, Trace thought.

Turner, the older brother, had never been late, even to a casual whipping by their father. For two years and some months he’d been away from home, with scattered messages from him to Trace delivered by trail hands, stagecoach drivers, a couple of freighters, now and then a gambler on the move. Turner Gibson, in that short time, had become a noted gun fighter with a dozen notorious shootouts to his credit, mainly main street duels with nasty mouth kids wanting to climb on his reputation or a bad guy too soon from leaning on a saloon rail.

Whoever shot Turner Gibson in the back outside Devil’s Claw, had gone through his pockets and his saddle bag. His guns were taken … two pistols and a Winchester rifle. Likewise, his hat was nowhere to be seen, though the wind, still moaning in the canyon a dozen miles from Devil’s Claw, could have carried it off. Trace had given that thought a quick study and decided against the wind as thief because Turner’s bandana was gone too. Turner, early a lady’s man, never went without a bandana as part of his outfit on horseback, usually a yellow bandana if the shirt was right for it, and it generally was. Trace had seen him a few times looking in a mirror and setting the knot the way he wanted it seen, bright and bold. Color choices had been a good mix for a good looker. The hat and the bandana were a pair; the bandana and shirt were a pair; he and Turner had been a pair.

Now it was five years later, Devil’s Claw still the same small town, but life was different for young Gibson.

When he sauntered out of the leather merchant’s place in the middle of town, he saw that all the other ranch hands had gone. The day had been strange in its way. Up and down the street he looked and could not see one of the ranch hands. In fact, he didn’t see anybody. The street was deserted; no strollers, no kids running free, no horses hitched to the hitching rails in front of half a dozen store fronts.

Then Trace remembered the carnival had come to town, set up on the far end of Devil’s Claw, near the river, but out of sight of the main street in town.

That bright afternoon, most of which he had spent letting the leather merchant fix his holster and gun belt, about worn to a frazzle, would fall to evening soon enough. The hand-me-downs from his brother Turner would never go out of style with him no matter what the regular crowd was toting these days.

Once more, like it happened every day, and dozens of times if one, he saw Turner’s face as he last saw it … a half smile, one eye bright and the other winking at him, his head nodding that they had made the right choice at a youthful prank. Life always bounced around his older brother; he led the way.

And a hundred times or more Trace Gibson had recalled the words of a gunfighter, Chocker Baron, who once sat in his parents’ kitchen, drinking coffee after he had performed a serious favor for them, talking about his chosen way of life.

Trace and Turner, both bright-eyed, had sat the edge of the loft in the ranch house, listening to every word.

Chocker Baron had the name, the looks and the speed (or finesse or talent or whatever one would call it) to be a friend of the ladies, a steady eye at the card table and a deadly opponent in a gun duel. Once a childhood friend of Trace’s folks, Baron had come along at the most opportune time in the dead of night to re-enter their lives. He caught a desperate fugitive from the law stealing a horse from the Gibson barn. Baron had called him down and killed him in a moonlit duel between the barn and the bunkhouse.

The outlaw’s gun was still in his hands when the sheriff came to investigate. “Simple case of self-defense,” he said, and added, “and a nice piece of work getting this piece of trash out of the saddle, or keeping him from getting in the saddle. I sent this character off to jail twice now. I won’t have to do it anymore. You’re clean on this one, Chocker, but I’d prefer you don’t stay too long in my territory. You know the younger ones will be after you, craving for a free run at every saloon they walk into as the man who got Chocker Baron. There’s a couple of them in town right now that give me uneasy feelings whenever they’re around. Like they’re drawn to trouble and walk around tossing off I-can-spit-further-than-you dares. Some kids don’t know when to quit.”

The sheriff had looked at Trace’s parents and said to Baron, “Take your time getting reacquainted but don’t take too long if you know what I mean.” He tossed the dead man over a saddle and advised them, “As for this one, I’m taking him to boot hill where desperados and most gun fighters end up. It goes with the territory and the occupation, if that’s what you’d call it.”

Young Trace swore ever afterward that the sheriff looked at Turner and him leaning over the edge of the loft as if he was delivering a personal sermon to them. But Turner had all eyes on Chocker Baron, and the figure the gunfighter cut for all to see.

Later, with the sheriff on his way, Baron sat in the kitchen talking to the youngsters’ parents about the life he had led since they were kids, when other kids picked on him because his father stuttered when he talked. His voice was husky and crude when he said, “A few of them got paid back f’some of it. I took care of meaner ones, one-way t’other.”

The talking went on long into the night, with barn owls interjecting now and then, and a coyote or two not being left out of the dark scene. Coffee aroma rose upward to the loft along with an occasional touch of a bourbon or a rye taking a fare turn. A sloppy breeze, coming right from the barn, ran itself through the kitchen window. Night was afoot, but the talk was the chief element of the gathering.

The boys listened to everything Baron said, who summed up all things by telling them how he had stayed alive so long. “A gunfighter can’t mess up his hands in a stupid brawl. Not with some loudmouth who’s half drunk in a saloon, bragging about how good he is with his guns. And in ordinary days he can’t get his good hand, his gun hand, caught up in a twisting saddle, or a rope that can snap a finger or a wrist. Neither can he leave his fingers in a doorway to get slammed on. If he happens to get drunk on a weekend in a strange town, which he shouldn’t do in the first place, and has to crawl a ways to sleep, he can’t have his fingers out straight so’s a horse or a mule or some big oaf can stomp ‘em. He has to crawl on his knees and his fists. On the trail he can’t take a chance of burning his hands on a coffee pot or a frying pan or get too near a blacksmith’s tools in town or lean too close on an anvil. There’s the devil to pay for that.”

He swigged on a coffee and said, “What I’m saying is he can’t invite trouble on himself. There’s enough of that stuff introducing itself by name. It’ll say, from practically nowhere, ‘I’m Billy B. Quickshot. Bet you heard a me ‘cause I heard a you.’ That’s how it’ll come. Just like that, from a snotty-nosed kid hasn’t gone on a trail drive yet even for board or learning or past the horizon just off there for that matter.”

Baron had waved his hand at the whole world beyond the ranch and Devil’s Claw. “They’s all kinds out there.” He swept his hand again.

Trace had a good memory; he remembered every word. Turner had too. And it all kept coming back to Trace in stronger terms when he started wearing his brother’s gun belt. For five years Trace thought about that killing and how Turner must have walked into something he could not see or, on the other hand, could see so well he didn’t worry about it. Like a friendly face or a known face. There were too many things still loose about that incident. It bothered him at anything he was doing, even sitting at the fishing hole at the river.

Turner’s pockets, he envisioned again, had been emptied. But as hard as he tried he could not remember what Turner carried in his pockets. Then, from odd moments of memory, from things they had shared, came the image of the small knife from his grandfather. And then the image of a locket he’d found at a wagon where all the passengers were gunned down, including a girl no more than 15, a girl who was beautiful even in death. Turner said had taken the locket to keep her memory alive, he and Trace talking long into the night at a campfire. “It’s like a piece of her gets carried on, Trace,” he explained. “I swear sometimes I dream about her, her being okay, her folks being okay and living near us, me going to call on her. I bet I dreamed that a hundred times. A whole hundred times, like she was worth every minute of it.”

Such thoughts continued to burn in Trace Gibson’s mind all his wakened hours, and sometimes in his sleep. The five years passed as quickly as sin since the day he found Turner’s body.

Mindful of what messages came to him from some sixth sense, young Gibson had started looking every which way on the trail, no matter where he was. Campfire. Saloon. At the bar or the card table. Branding. Line riding. Night riding while crooning a lullaby for the cows. He looked for old faces and new faces, and generally saw none that offered him any uncertainty or doubt. But he was aware of a new sensation settling on him, about him, as cool as a morning breeze out on the grass, and as foreboding as the steep walls of a silent canyon. More than once he thought the sensation or awareness playing on him was Turner trying to tell him something from the other side, from “over there.”

“Look out for this one, Trace,” he might say. “Don’t give him an inch on anything. Don’t turn your back on him. Don’t lean on him. Watch how he treats his hands. Where he puts his hands. Remember what Chocker said that night.”

Trace had a good memory; he remembered every word. For those five years he thought about that killing and how Turner must have walked into something he could not see or, on the other hand, could see so well he didn’t worry about it. Like a friendly face or a known face. There were too many things still loose about the murder.

He went to the other end of Devil’s Claw and saw the crowd way off on the grass, and the colors of the carnival were again as bright as the lowering sun, the crowd mingling. Music came riding on a slight breeze. He could almost hear the gaiety on that same lift of air. There was a cadence to it. It said, “Gaiety,” he was sure.

It also said, “Be alert.”

“What the heck,” he said and rode to a rope that held a lot of tethered horses. The line ran between a tree and three poles dropped into holes. He tied off his horse and waved to an old friend. He saw an old girlfriend, one of the cowpunchers from the ranch, then another. Friends were all about him.

He walked around through the crowd and spent a few minutes looking at booths and games of chance. Then he saw a man setting up a new booth at the farthest edge of the carnival, near the riverbank, and an unknown cowboy was talking to him.

Gibson heard the cowboy say, “You oughta make it a quick draw game. I’d go in for that, go again anybody, me and my quick shot.” With one swift motion one of his guns was in his hand. He faked a shot for the carnie guy. “See, like I said, nobody fast as me, you oughta make it a quick draw game. “

“I gotta do it my way, kid,” the carnie said. “I ain’t in it for kicks. I got a family I gotta feed. They wait on me every trip, every set-up I do. Quick shot stuff makes me a judge and I ain’t no judge. So, the game here stays the way I run it all the time. Hell, I’m late this trip, havin’ to get here myself on a freighter’s wagon. I gotta get goin’ here.” He stepped aside to get back to work.

“You ignorin’ me?” the cowboy said, standing like a dare had been dropped at the man’s feet. “I ast you, are you ignorin’ me?’

Trace heard Turner just like he was speaking to him in the loft of the house. “That’s a fancy bandana he has on, that loudmouth kid. That’s the kind I wore all the time, isn’t it? You ever see him before? You think he’s real fast? How about him facing down on a man in the street, fair and square, one on one? Think he’d stand up?”

Trace Gibson stepped over to the carnie man and said, “You setting up a new game here? When will it be ready. I haven’t seen any game that I liked so far. What kind of a game have you got?”

The loudmouth in the bright bandana said, “He’s havin’ a quick shot game here, like I just said to him.”

Gibson said, “I didn’t hear him say so. You’re just a passing cowboy. You ain’t a carnie.”

“You callin’ me a liar?”

“What fits you, you better wear it, mister.” There was an unnerving tone in Gibson’s voice.

“Do you know who the hell you’re talkin’ to?” The cowboy had his legs spread in a familiar stance. His hands hung loose and empty.

“Who?” The snicker came with the single reply.

“Listen, kid, you don’t wanna mess with me. I got a dozen scores with my guns, all fair and square. They been talkin’ about me over half the territory, call me The Classy Bandit.” He pulled on his yellow bandana. “It’s part of my name. Saw a guy once thought he was faster than me, he was wearing the same kind of bandana. I like it. Told him I wanted it, said I’d draw for it. He lost.”

“Where was that?” Gibson said. “When?”

The loudmouth cowboy suddenly backtracked. “Oh, it was a long time ago and a long way off. A long way off.”

Turner had another chance. “Watch him, Trace. He’s a cheat.”

Gibson looked at the bigmouth’s guns. They looked familiar, but many men carried the same kind. “I’d draw with you in a quick shot game,” he said, “but you’d have to put up more than the carnie can put up. He’s got kids to feed. What have you got that would make a good wager? You got lots of money? Anything valuable? Want to put up your horse? Your saddle? You name it.”

“Pretty sure of yourself, ain’t cha?”

“Sure as shootin’, as they say.” Gibson felt himself loosening up. He heard Turner’s voice, but couldn’t make out the words.

“I got a few things. Let me show you.” His hands dipped into both pockets and pulled out a small roll of bills and a gold ring, and put them on the carnie’s table. “How’s them?”

“Not enough,” Gibson replied. “You don’t back up your so-called reputation with much. That all you got?” The snicker was loud and clear.

“Wait a minute,” he said, “that ain’t all I got.” From his pocket he drew a locket and threw it on the table. A chain was attached to it. “That’s all gold,” he said. “It was my aunt’s. It’s worth a lot. More than a hundred dollars. That satisfy you?”

“Sure does,” Trace Gibson said. “That locket was stolen from my brother’s pockets by a backstabbing bushwhacking coward who wears yellow bandanas like my brother wore.”

The loudmouth quick shot cowboy went for his guns, but Trace Gibson had five years of speed in his own move, all saved up for one fast draw at the edge of the carnival at Devil’s Claw.