Western Short Story
The Gunfight
Bill Henderson

Western Short Story

“Oh for Heaven’s sake!”

Millie Ferguson placed her knitting in her lap as she gazed out the window. Hattie Winnow placed her own knitting on the table beside her chair and struggled to her feet to see what was transpiring. She too peered out the window at the town’s main street, but saw nothing.

“What, pray tell, is out there that provoked you to call upon Heaven, Millie?”

Hattie and Millie were sisters. Hattie was the widow of Clarence Winnow, and Millie was a spinster. The house on Main Street had been in the Ferguson family for years, but there were no more heirs, so it had been willed to the town to serve as a library when the sisters passed on. But since they were both in their early forties, neither sister was in any hurry. The books could wait.

“Well look closer! That fool Kirby Willis has two pistols in his belt. He’s no gunman!”

“Oh, Millie! You’ve been put out with poor old Kirby ever since you were in school together. He can’t help it if he’s the most bashful man in the territory.”

Millie sniffed. “He made me look the fool when he bid on Lucy Edwards’ supper box instead of mine. I made all his favorite things, and he ate with Lucy instead. I ended up eating with Joe Barney, for pity’s sake!”

“Well, he said later that he thought it was your box because he saw you carry it into the church.”

“I was just helping Lucy!”

“Kirby didn’t know that.”

Millie sniffed again. “Well, he should have asked.”

Hattie smiled and patted her sister gently on the hand. “Who packed what box is supposed to be a secret. That's the whole idea of a box supper and the fun of it! Kirby was not to blame, and in any case, that was years ago!”

Kirby had gone off to fight in the Great War between the States, but it was ten years before he came back and then it was with his new bride. Millie was devastated, although they never actually had any sort of ‘understanding’. In fact, other than an occasional dance or a box supper now and then, there had been nothing Millie could hang her hat on romantically, but she had her dreams of becoming Mrs. Kirby Willis. She assumed that Kirby would some day muster the courage to ask for her hand. Instead, he asked someone else, and she became an old maid.

It was not that she had no other choice. Several young men came courting, but they weren’t Kirby Willis. Later on, other, more mature men also tried to tempt her, but she had resigned herself to spinsterhood. Finally, the gate to her path saw no more suitors.

Hattie pulled back the curtains and peered out. “Why, he is carrying two pistols.” She glanced back at her sister. “Whatever for?”

“Marshal Dally is out of town for a fortnight, and Kirby volunteered to keep an eye on the town. Yesterday, there was a telegram warning that the Newly brothers might be headed this way. I suppose the fool thinks it’s his duty to arrest them should they appear in town.”

Hattie moved behind her younger sister’s chair and placed her hands gently on her shoulders. She spoke softly.

“He’s not a fool, Millie, and you know it. He’s one of the best men around, and you’re just hurt because he doesn’t have the courage to approach you and ask for your hand. Everyone knows he loves you just as much as you love him, although I don’t know why you do. He’s the homeliest man in the county, and you’re still the most beautiful woman around, even as a forty year old spinster.”

Millie jumped to her feet and angrily faced her sister. “Kirby Willis is not homely! He’s just rugged looking, that’s all.”

She hesitated.

“Well, perhaps he’s not the most handsome of men, but his face has…character. And that is all I have to say on the subject!”

Millie flounced off into the kitchen, and Hattie turned to hide her smile. Kirby Willis had an enormous Adam’s apple, and a beak of a nose to match. He was tall, bone-thin, and gangly, so she’d never understood Millie’s attraction to him, but no matter. Millie loved him and that was that.

Millie’s voice called out from in the kitchen, over the clatter of pans being readied for the day’s baking.

“And you’ve always been prettier than me, Hattie, so I am not the most beautiful girl around, either.”

Hattie smiled again and looked out the window, but the street was deserted except for an old gray dog hopefully looking for scraps.

Kirby Willis saw to his guns one more time, assuring himself that they were fully loaded and ready. He hadn’t been this afraid since he led the charge against the Rebel forces that ended when he was shot down. He crept into the brush, where he was found the following morning by the Townsend boys and nursed back to health by Rebecca Townsend on the family farm.

The Newly brothers had also fought in the Big War, but for the other side. After the war, they kept on killing and marauding, but this time for their own gains. Now they may be headed here. He rose and peered out the window at the deserted street. It was the nooning hour, and most folks were eating.

His healing took a long time, and then he stayed on out of gratitude to help rebuild the war damaged farm. Rebecca made it plain she was interested, and Millie by then had probably wed, so they were married.

He took a Winchester out of the rack, and considered carrying it, but decided his two pistols were enough. He had twelve shots, and if it took more than that, he would be dead anyway. He smiled ruefully at himself as he replaced the rifle. The Newly boys probably wouldn’t even pass through this little town, and here he was thinking about dying in a blazing gunfight.

He brought Becky back home, where after ten more years, she took sick suddenly and died within two days. There was no town doctor, so no one knew what had taken her life. She was buried up on the knoll among the town’s other dead. There were no children.

Millie had first been visibly angry that he had married another, but after Becky’s death, she patted his shoulder as she passed by during the funeral. It was a small thing, but he was grateful for her understanding. He often wondered if she would still consider having him, but she gave no sign, so he decided to leave it alone. Besides, he was too bashful to ask her anyway.

He walked out the door and stood on the boardwalk for a moment. A rooster crowed from somewhere, disturbing the silence. Nothing was moving but a pesky fly buzzing around his hat as he stepped out into the dust of the street.

“I’m off to the church, Millie. Sarah Burnside is expecting me to sing with her Sunday, so we’re going to practice. If the cows hear us, they’ll probably deliver sour milk.”

Millie smiled. Hattie had a beautiful voice, but she always claimed it was akin to a tomcat midnight serenading on a backyard fence. The screen door slammed, and she was gone.

Millie was opening the oven door to check on her loaves of bread when she first heard the loud voices. One of them sounded like Hattie, so she walked to the parlor window and peered out.

There were two grinning men on horseback, and they were blocking the path Hattie was walking. Both were strangers to Millie.

“I’ll thank you kindly to give me the way, gentlemen.”

Hattie spat out the last word with a great show of contempt. The larger man laughed and was starting a reply when something caught the corner of Millie’s eye. It was Kirby Willis, and he was striding purposefully down the street toward the strangers.

“You men cease molesting that woman at once.” Kirby had a revolver in each hand. “I’m thinking you would be Sam and Tom Newly, the two curs we've been waiting for.”

He kept walking quickly toward them as he spoke, and they sidestepped the horses away from Hattie, who ran behind a big oak.

What happened next was the topic of many a conversation for months. No one saw who fired the first shot, but suddenly the air was filled with the blue of powder smoke and the roar of constant firing. Hattie watched in horror as Kirby Willis stood calmly in the street while the two men on horseback shot down at him. But both of Kirby’s guns were also firing rapidly, and she watched in astonishment as first one, and then the other brother simply rolled off their frightened and bucking horses, stone dead.

For a moment, Kirby stood there silently, automatically reloading his guns as he watched the two men lying on the ground. Then he walked up to the brothers and toed each of them. Satisfied that they were dead, he turned and walked rapidly down the street to the Ferguson house, where he slammed open the gate and then rapped loudly on the door. An ashen faced Millie opened it and stared up at Kirby.

“I thought you would surely have married while I was gone all those years off to war, so I married Becky. After she died, I never had the fortitude to speak up, so now, while I do have some temporary courage, I’m asking if you will have me. Will you, Millie?”

Millie nodded up at him silently, as he stood there, his big Adam’s apple jerking up and down.

“Then it’s settled? We are to be married?”

She nodded again, and he abruptly spun on his heel and strode away, leaving a stunned Millie with her mouth open.

“Well, I must say, that your Kirby is a man among men, Millie. I was terrified, but he just stood there calmly and shot both of them down, as cool as you please.”

Hattie nodded inquiringly at her sister’s cup.

“More tea?”

“Yes, please.”

As Hattie rose, she stepped on something. When she bent to pick up the small object, she spotted a second one just under her chair. She slowly gathered them up and then held the two shiny brass cartridges out to Millie, staring at her sister. By the fresh smell of burned gunpowder, both had been recently fired.

Millie shrugged her shoulders and then rose, lifting the Winchester rifle from its hiding place behind the curtain.

“I told you Kirby was no gunman. He can manage a rifle fairly well, but with a pistol, he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if he was standing inside it.”

She looked at her older sister. “This will be our solemn secret, Hattie.”

She turned, put the rifle back on the wall rack, and sat back down.

“Yes, I would like some more tea, if you please.”