Western Short Story
Reverend Josiah Black poked at the crackling fire under the coffee pot sending sparks fluttering into the air. Hearing the faint snap of a twig and the soft nicker of a horse, he dragged the Greener shotgun out from under the black frock coat beside him.
“Hello, the camp,” came a voice from the night.
“Come out where I can see ya,” ordered Josiah, thumbing back the hammers of the scattergun.
A rider, not looking much over twenty years old, stepped his paint horse inside the edge of the firelight. “I saw your fire and smelled your coffee.”
“Step down and bring your cup,” offered Josiah, holding the Greener on the young rider as he stepped down from his saddle. He wore a leather vest over a brightly colored cotton shirt stuffed into Levi’s. He wore spurs strapped on his boots and a black Stetson on his head. Twin Colts, tied down in a buscadero rig, circled his waist. He retrieved a tin cup from his saddle bag.
“Much obliged,” replied the young rider as he poured the steaming liquid into his cup. He reached around the fire with his right hand. “Name’s Johnny Breen.”
Josiah lowered the hammers on the Greener. “Josiah Black,” he replied, shaking his hand.
Johnny sat down across the fire from Josiah and sipped his coffee. “I heared of you. You’re that preacher huntin’ the Colter boys. What’d they do, if you don’t mind me askin’?” A chill suddenly came over Johnny when he looked into the cold gray eyes of the Reverend.
“I spoke against ‘em in a cattle war and they burned my church down. Found my little girl inside. My wife never got over it and one day I found her hanging in the burned out church. I promised ‘em both, that day, the Colters would pay for what they done.”
“How many is left?”
Josiah held up one finger. “Jess Colter.”
Johnny drank the rest of his coffee and tossed the remaining drops from his cup into the fire. “Well, good luck to ya. I’ll be movin’ on. Thanks again for the coffee.”
“Night ain’t no time to be travelin’,” said Josiah. “You’re welcome to bed down next to the fire.”
“Much obliged again. I think I’ll take you up on that offer.” Johnny walked over to his horse, secured and unsaddled it and brought his saddle and bedroll to the fire. He unbuckled his gunbelt, removed a Colt from its holster and laid it next to him under his blanket. “No offense, I just like to have it handy, just in case,” he explained and slid his hat down over his eyes.
Josiah awoke the next morning to the sizzle of salt pork and the smell of fresh coffee.
“Ain’t much, but it will fill your belly,” said Johnny when he noticed the preacher stirring.
The Reverend threw back his blanket uncovering the Greener laying beside him. “I just like to have it handy,” he said and got a big smile back from his new friend.
After finishing breakfast, Johnny took out the makings from his shirt pocket and offered them to Josiah. “I’m headin’ to Fort Griffin. Figure maybe I can get a lead on Colter there,” said the Preacher.
“Good a place to start lookin’ as any. Mind if I ride along?” asked Johnny.
“Suit yourself. Be kinda nice to have someone to talk to for a change.”
The two companions rode into the town of Griffin, Texas and dismounted in front of Shanssey’s Saloon. They shouldered through the batwings and surveyed the light, early afternoon crowd as they walked to the long mahogany bar. The balding bartender huddled over a copy of the local newspaper spread out on the bar in front of him. He looked up at the soft jangle of Johnny’s spurs and met them as they reached the end of the bar. “What’ll it be, gents?”
“Whiskey,” said Johnny.
“Make it two,” added Josiah, holding up two fingers.
“You sure you’re a preacher?” asked Johnny. The Reverend smiled as the bartender filled the two glasses in front of them.
John Shanssey, owner of the saloon, stood in the doorway of his office watching the new arrivals. He rolled the unlit cigar to the other side of his mouth and walked down the length of the bar toward the twosome.
The two companions tossed back their drinks and ordered beer. Shanssey reached them as the bartender slid the mugs of the foamy liquid on the bar. “Howdy, boys.”
“Hello, Shannsey, it’s been a little while,” replied Johnny.
The saloon owner nonchalantly took a match from his vest pocket, scratched it on the bar and sucked the flame to the end of his cigar. He looked at Josiah and waved the match to extinguish the flame.
“This here’s…” started Johnny.
“Reverend Josiah Black,” interrupted Shanssey. “The gun totin’ preacher ridin’ the vengeance trail. Your reputation got here before you did.”
Johnny’s attention turned to a corner table where two men got up from their chairs. “Wanna play a coupla hands?” he asked Josiah
“Lead the way,” replied the Reverend.
“Enjoy yourselves, boys,” said Shanssey, taking a draw from his cigar.
As they neared the table, Johnny recognized Kate Elder standing against the wall behind Doc Holliday who had just finished dealing a hand.
“Mind if we sit in?” asked Johnny, pulling out a chair opposite the gambler. Holliday looked up and smiled. “Well, well, Waco Johnny Breen, by all means.” Doc then looked at Josiah who had occupied a seat next to him. “And Josiah Black. You disposed of all the Colters yet, Reverend?”
The player sitting across from Josiah interrupted the reunion. “I hate to interrupt this little get together, but we was playing cards.”
“Patience, my good man,” said Doc.
The three players at the table finished the hand with Doc Holliday raking in the modest pot. The impatient man, who had folded, reached over to look at Doc’s winning hand.
“You didn’t pay to see them cards,” said Josiah.
“Pay no mind to him,” said Doc; “I’ve taken enough of his money to allow him a peek now and then.”
“Well, he ain’t gonna do it while I’m sitting here. Consider this your warning, mister.”
The man snickered as the cards were put in front of him to deal the next hand. He dealt the cards around the table and after Johnny and the dapper man next to him passed, Josiah threw a dollar into the middle of the table. Each player anted their money in turn and Johnny threw three cards face down on the table. “I’ll take three.”
When Johnny received his three cards, Josiah threw one card face down and received one back. An ace of hearts paired up with the ace of diamonds joining the three Jacks already in his hand. Doc received his cards and Josiah put five dollars in the middle of the table. Everyone folded except the cocky little man across from the Reverend. He looked at his cards and then at Josiah. He folded his cards and threw them in the center of the table.
When Josiah reached for the pot, the man across from him reached for the cards the Reverend had thrown on top of the other cards. In a flash, Josiah pulled the hunting knife from the scabbard on his gunbelt and pinned the man’s hand to the table on top of the cards.
“I warned you, mister,” he said from between clenched teeth. The Preacher picked up the money leaving the man’s hand pinned to the table. John Shanssey walked up as Josiah pulled the knife from the table, wiped the blade off on the man’s shirt and returned it to his gunbelt.
“Problem, Reverend?” asked Shanssey.
“Nothing I couldn’t take care of.”
The dapper man sitting next to Johnny excused himself and left the table.
“Seems like our little game has lost some players,” remarked Doc, watching the man next to him bleed all over the cards.
“Somebody always seems to find a way to mess up a good time, Doc,” said Johnny.
“Another time, then,” said Doc as the Reverend and Johnny rose from the table.
“You and Kate join us for supper, Doc?” asked the Preacher.
“We would be glad too.”
“We’ll be there.”
Josiah bowed to Kate and looked back at Holliday touching his fingers to his hat. “We’ll see you then.”
They were already having coffee when Kate entered Della’s Café ahead of Doc. Johnny waved at them and received a smile from Kate in return. The eyes of the early evening diners followed the gambler all the way to the table. The two companions stood up when Kate reached the table.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” greeted Kate as she sat down in the chair pulled out for her by Josiah. They saved the chair against the wall for Doc and all three sat down together.
“Good evening, Miz Kate,” said Johnny, “we’re glad you could make it.”
Kate smiled at Johnny. “Doc and I don’t often get dinner invitations, so we make the most of them when we get them.”
“You boys ordered yet?” asked Doc.
“We were waitin’ on you,” replied Josiah.
“Well, let us wait no longer,” replied Doc and waved at the waitress.
“We’ll have our usual,” he said, and Josiah ordered stew and biscuits, while Johnny ordered a steak and potatoes. They included a round of coffee.
“So, what brings you boys to Fort Griffin?” asked Doc.
“Lookin’ for the whereabouts of Jess Colter,” replied Josiah.
“Ah, yes,” said Doc. “He seems to be the only one left as I recall.”
The waitress brought the steaming plates of food and set them on the table. “We figured Fort Griffin might give us a lead on his whereabouts,” said Johnny.
“What’s your stake in all this, Johnny?” asked Doc, trying to hold back a cough.
“Just in it for the ride, Doc. You know I could never turn down a good fight.”
They finished their supper quietly until Johnny pushed away his empty plate and called the waitress over to order a piece of apple pie.
“Boy must have a hollow leg,” Josiah said to Doc.
“Still growing,” replied Doc with a smile as he watched Johnny dig into the fresh pie.
Doc reached inside his coat and produced three cheroots. He offered one to Josiah, another to Johnny and put the third between his teeth. He struck a match on the table, lit his cigar and offered the light to Josiah and Johnny. He shook it out just before the fire reached his fingers. Finally, with a cloud of smoke over his head, Doc rose.
“As much as I’ve enjoyed this, gentlemen, I need to make a little traveling money. Shall we, my dear?” Doc walked around the table and pulled Kate’s chair out.
“Where you headed, Doc?” asked Johnny.
“Tombstone. Wyatt Earp and his brothers are headed that way. They say the weather would be good for me.”
Johnny extended his hand to Holliday. “Good Luck, Doc. Kate, try to keep him out of trouble.”
“You ask the impossible,” she replied with a smile.
“Come, my dear, time is money,” said Doc, waving at his friends as he and Kate walked out the door.
“When we leavin’?” asked Johnny when Doc Holliday and Kate Elder stepped out the door.
“First thing in the morning.”
The next afternoon the two companions reined up at the top of a rise. Below them, Josiah noticed a covered wagon sitting at an awkward angle with the two horses still in their traces. Reaching into his saddlebag, he pulled out a pair of field glasses and looked down at the wagon. After a couple of minutes, he handed the glasses to Johnny with a smile on his face.
“You’re kiddin’ me,” exclaimed Johnny. Lowering the glasses, he looked over at Josiah
“You see ‘em,” replied the Preacher, as Johnny put the glasses back up to his eyes. Three women stood on the tailgate of the wagon looking down at two women on the ground bent over the back wheel.
“Ladies in distress,” exclaimed Johnny, handing the glasses back to Josiah.“Waiting for their knights in shining armor.”
The Reverend returned the field glasses to his saddlebag, heeled his horse and followed Johnny down the rise.
“Riders comin’,” said the youngest of the women on the tailgate and disappeared into the wagon. The other women, putting their hands to their foreheads to shade their eyes, looked toward the oncoming riders.
“You boys are close enough,” said the young woman. She stepped onto the tailgate and sighted down the barrel of a Winchester. “State your business.”
“We saw you was in trouble and thought we could be of some help,” replied Johnny, making sure his hands were up away from his guns.
“May, put that thing away, these boys don’t mean us no harm,” said the oldest looking of the women, standing near the back of the wagon.
“That’s what you say,” replied May.
“You boys gotta excuse May, her manners ain’t so good,” said the older woman. “Step down, my name’s Madge Jennings.” She offered her hand to Josiah and Johnny when they approached the wagon.
“This here’s Claire Olson,” she continued, pointing to the woman next to her.
Two of the women jumped down from the tailgate. “The golden haired one is April Hanlon, the other is Jillian Sinclair. The ill-mannered one up there is May Perkins.”
“Ladies,” said Josiah, tipping his hat.
“Glad to meet you,” said Johnny, also tipping his hat. Both of them got smiles and nods from all the women except May who still standing her post on the tailgate.
“Now, what seems to be the problem here?” Johnny asked, bending down to inspect the wheel leaning at an odd angle in a hole.
“Axle’s broke,” said Josiah, joining Johnny under the rear of the wagon. He stood up, looking around. “I don’t see nothin’ we can make one out of, neither.”
“Got one,” said Madge, pointing under the wagon, “in the possum belly, under the dry firewood.”
“You got a wagon jack?” asked Johnny.
“In the wagon,” replied Madge, pointing toward the open tailgate.
Josiah took off his black coat, laid it across his saddle and climbed up into the wagon where he found looking down the barrel of May’s Winchester a bit unnerving.
Without warning, he swept his arm up, causing the cocked weapon to discharge into the air. He grabbed the Winchester’s barrel and wrenched it from the young woman’s grasp. He levered the rifle, littering the back of the wagon with unspent shells and handed the empty rifle back to May. “Little girls shouldn’t play with loaded weapons.”
When he squatted to open the trap door in the floorboards of the wagon, May grabbed the barrel of the Winchester and raised it above her head.
“Josiah!” shouted Johnny.
The Reverend barely had time to block the blow with his forearm. He grabbed the rifle and pulled it from the grasp of the enraged woman again despite the pain shooting up his arm. With all the power he could muster, he exploded from his crouch and planted his right fist on the side of May’s face, knocking her from the tailgate of the wagon. He threw the Winchester to the ground and resumed his search for the wagon jack as April and Jillian rushed to May’s side.
By the time the Reverend and Johnny repaired the wagon, May was being helped to her feet by April and Jillian. They sat her down in the shade with her back to the wagon wheel. Jillian stretched to lower a dipper into the water barrel on the side of the wagon and offered it to May.
“I want to thank you boys for your help,” said Madge, as Josiah returned the jack to the back of the wagon. “You’re welcome to tag along with us if you’re going our way.”
“And where is it you’re going?” asked Josiah.
“A new town called Bentley sprung up at the railhead near the west Texas border. A friend of ours opened a saloon there and invited us to join him.”
The Reverend looked over at his companion. “New town. Most likely, don’t have much of a lawman. Be a good place for our boy to hold up.”
“Can’t hurt to look,” agreed Johnny.
They camped for the night along a creek that wasn’t much more than a trickle. Josiah and Johnny left camp with their Winchesters and came back an hour later loaded down with sage hens that April and Jillian roasted over the fire. After eating their fill, the two companions poured a final cup of coffee, retreated to the edge of the firelight and spread their bedrolls.
“Uh-oh, here comes trouble,” warned Johnny when May Perkins rose from her seat by the campfire and walked toward them.
“At least she ain’t carrying a rifle,” replied Josiah, with a chuckle.
May stopped when she reached the two companions and turned to look back at the campfire where Madge sat watching.
“I’d like to apologize to you boys for the way I acted today.” A slight swelling was apparent on the left side of May’s face where Josiah landed his punch. “I should have been thanking you for helping us instead of trying to cave your head in with a rifle butt.”
“And I apologize for hitting a lady,” countered Josiah.
“It seems we got off on the wrong foot, so let’s start over,” suggested May, holding out her hand. “I’m May Perkins.”
“Glad to know ya, May. I’m Johnny Breen and this fella you scuffled with is Reverend Josiah Black.” They both shook hands with May.
“Sit with us for awhile?” offered Josiah.
“I have to get back,” declined May. Turning back toward the fire, she gave the two companions a shy wave. “Thanks again for the help.”
They watched May until she sat down next to Madge at the fire. “She’s gonna make somebody a good wife some day,” said Johnny.
Josiah smiled as he put his hat over his eyes.
Large tents lined the boardwalk on both sides of the Bentley street as the sound of saws and the staccato of hammers could be heard from buildings in various stages of completion.
Madge Jennings stopped the wagon in front of the Bentley Hotel, one of the few finished buildings in town. Josiah and Johnny angled their horses to the hitch rail and dismounted. Heads popped out from around corners to catch a glimpse as the women climbed down from the wagon and walked across the boardwalk into the hotel lobby.
“Howdy, folks, what can I do for you?” said the desk clerk as the group strolled through the lobby.
“First, we’d like rooms,” said Madge.
The clerk turned around, taking three keys from the pegboard behind him. “I’ve got three rooms left,” he said, putting the keys on the desk and swinging the register around to the newcomers. He dipped a pen in the inkwell and held it up to Madge. “That’ll be three dollars.”
After they all signed the register, Madge reached down the front of her dress and pulled out a wad of folded money. She peeled off two bills and put them on the desk in front of the clerk. Josiah took a silver dollar from his pants pocket and tossed it on top of the bills.
Madge picked up the keys and handed one to the Reverend. “You boys get one and we’ll take the other two.” She turned back to the desk clerk “Now I need to know where….”
Two gunshots interrupted Madge and was closely followed by a third. When Josiah and Johnny reached the door of the hotel lobby, a crowd had already begun to gather in front the saloon across the street. A young boy ran down the boardwalk, popped his head into the sheriff’s office and then ran back toward the crowd of onlookers.
“Looks like we got a little excitement,” said Johnny, watching the portly sheriff walk briskly toward the gathered crowd. Feeling a jostle behind them, they turned to find the women standing on tiptoes trying to look over their shoulders.
“You women stay here,” said Johnny as he and Josiah stepped out onto the boardwalk.
“Not on your life, buster,” objected May, leading the women out of the hotel lobby.
Following the lead of the women, Josiah and Johnny jostled their way through the crowd in front of the FOUR ACES saloon. Sitting on the floor with his back against the bar, the bartender held his hand to his bloodied shoulder talking to the sheriff. A dead cowboy and an overturned chair lay next to a table in the middle of the saloon.
“What happened, old timer?” Josiah asked the toothless old man standing next to him holding open the batwings. A blue kepi sat precariously on the old man’s bald head.
“Dead man got caught cheatin’ and took exception to getting’ called on it. Only he took exception with the wrong man,” said the old timer, a touch of a smile across his face. “He barely cleared leather.”
“Who shot him?” asked Josiah.
“Jess Colter,” replied the old timer, pointing to the end of the bar where a man, wearing crossed gunbelts, stood facing the barroom with his elbows hooked on the bar.
The sheriff walked over to Colter, handed him the Colt he was carrying in his hand and motioned him toward the door. Colter dropped the gun into the empty holster and pushed himself away from the bar. He smirked at the sheriff and sauntered toward the saloon entrance. The crowd parted as Colter shouldered his way onto the boardwalk and stepped into the street.
“Seek and ye shall find,” whispered Josiah as he watched Jess Colter disappear into the Café across the street.
Two men helped the bartender to his feet. “Take him to Doc’s,” ordered the Sheriff and followed them to the door. “Saloon will be closed for awhile ‘til Harold gets back on his feet,” he said, pulling the saloon doors closed amid groans and objections from the crowd. “Let’s go folks, show’s over. Anybody I catch hangin’ around here will spend the night in my jail.”
As the crowd dispersed, Johnny saw Madge follow the men up the stairs beside the sheriff’s office. “Where is Madge going?” he asked May.
“Remember that friend she mentioned? That’s him, Harold Satterfield. He offered to make her a partner in his saloon and she included all of us.”
The men helped Satterfield up onto the examining table of Doctor Arlen Sutton. He noticed Madge standing in the doorway as the two men who helped his patient left the office.
“Can I help you, Madam?” asked Sutton, helping Satterfield off with his bloodied shirt.
“I’ve come to see how Harold is,” said Madge, edging further into the room.
“It’s alright, Doc,” said Satterfield, “ I’d know that voice anywhere. That’s my new partner Madge Jennings.” She walked up to the table as her partner laid down.
“Now, let’s get a look at that shoulder,” said Sutton.
Satterfield winced as the doctor started to probe his wound. Taking Harold’s hand, Madge held it while the doctor searched for the bullet. A couple of minutes later, he triumphantly held up the slug and dropped it in a small basin.
“You’re going to have to take it easy for a couple of days,” said Sutton, securing the bandage to Satterfield’s shoulder and sliding his arm into a sling.
“But I got a business to run, Doc,” objected Satterfield.
“What’s wrong with letting your partner run the saloon?”
“Yeah, what’s wrong with it?” echoed Madge.
The saloon owner looked from Sutton to Madge. “Okay, so I’ll take a coupla days off.”
Johnny and the Reverend sat in the hotel lobby with the women when Madge came through the door, slapping two room keys down on the desk.
“We won’t be needin’ our rooms, we got another place to stay.” She turned to the other four women. “Ladies, we have a saloon to run.”
Despite an objection from the desk clerk, Madge collected her money. “I got a job for you boys, too,” she said.
Looking at each other and shrugging their shoulders, they fell in behind the women and followed Madge out the door. She climbed up onto the wagon seat and guided it across the street, while the rest of them walked behind it to the saloon.
Madge enlisted the help of three men who happened by and they unloaded a piano and roulette wheel among the contents of the wagon.
“Doesn’t surprise me the wagon broke an axle,” said Josiah, as they watched the men push the piano into the saloon.
Satterfield stood at the end of the bar watching the men push the piano across the barroom.
“Who’s gonna play that thing?” Satterfield asked Madge as she directed the positioning of the piano against the wall.
Before Madge could answer, one of the men moving the piano sat down on the bench and began to play a lively tune. Smiling at her partner, she walked over to the piano. “You play any others?”
The young man instantly switched to another song just as lively as the first.
“You looking for a job?” asked Madge.
He stopped playing, put his arm across the top of the piano and turned toward Madge. “Yes, ma’am, I am,” he replied with a smile.
“Not anymore, you start tonight.” Madge held out her hand to her new piano player. “I’m Madge Jennings.”
“Pete Worley,” said the young man, shaking Madge’s hand.
Madge turned toward the Reverend and Johnny. “You boys got a job too.”
“But, we ain’t looking for no job,” objected Johnny.
“Well, you got one anyway, temporary like. Making sure there ain’t no more gunplay in here,” said Madge, getting a stunned look from the two companions. “Just until I find someone permanent.”
“I guess we could help out for a coupla days,” said Johnny, looking at Josiah and shrugging his shoulders.
“Good, be here after supper before the crowd gets here,”
The two companions stepped out onto the boardwalk from the hotel dining room. Hearing the tinny piano music, they looked down the street toward the saloon. “Guess we better go see what Madge has planned for us,” said Johnny.
The saloon was already doing a brisk business when the Reverend and Johnny shouldered through the batwings. Madge waved at them from the near end of the polished mahogany bar. “Howdy, boys, ready to go to work?”
“What is it we’re supposed to be doing?” inquired Josiah.
“Protecting the girls and making sure it don’t get too unruly in here,” replied Madge.
Johnny watched as Claire deftly slid away from the clutches of one of the cowboys. “That could turn out to be quite a chore.”
“Just make sure they don’t get manhandled or roughed up. Anything else is on them,” replied Madge.
“Looks like we got our work cut out for us,” Johnny replied.
The night proved to be uneventful until Josiah heard a scream.
“Let me go,” yelled May, struggling to keep from getting pulled up the stairs. He recognized the smiling, Jess Colter enjoying the struggle to take May up to the second floor.
“Let her go,” ordered Josiah, stopping at the bottom of the stairs.
“Not likely,” replied Colter, continuing the struggle with May.
“The lady said to let her go,” repeated Josiah. He drew the Walker Colt from his holster and leveled it at the struggling couple.
The smiled faded from Colter’s face and he released May’s wrist sending her scurrying down the stairs. “You just made a big mistake, mister,” he said, looking down at Josiah.
The piano music stopped abruptly and chairs scraped the floor as patrons moved from the line of fire. “Finish your drinkin’ elsewhere,” said Josiah.
“You runnin’ me outta here?” asked Colter, stepping down the stairs.
The Reverend thumbed back the hammer on the Walker Colt and waggled it at the gunman. “Move on.”
Colter stepped down from the staircase and stared at the Preacher who waggled his cocked Colt again. “Move it.”
A smirk appeared on Colter’s face and he turned from Josiah. He weaved his way around the tables and swaggered through the batwings.
Josiah let the hammer down on his Colt and nodded at Pete Worley, who turned back to his piano and struck up a tune. In an instant the buzz returned to the room.
The rest of the night proved uneventful until the last of the patrons left well after midnight. Madge offered the Reverend and Johnny a nightcap, but the Preacher declined.
“It’s past my bedtime,” he said. “I’ll see you ladies in the morning.” He pointed at Johnny. “Try not to wake me when you stumble in.”
Josiah left the saloon and strode across the street to the hotel. As he stepped up on the boardwalk, Jess Colter appeared from the shadowed doorway of the General Store.
“You thought I didn’t recognize you, didn’t you, Reverend?” he said. “It’s time I settled up with you for my brothers.”
Josiah heard the click of the gun hammer and dove off the boardwalk an instant before Colter pulled the trigger. Drawing the Walker Colt before he hit the ground, he rolled and fired twice as he came to his feet. Colter dropped where he stood with two bloody holes in his chest.
Johnny came up beside Josiah as the Reverend reloaded the Walker Colt and dropped it in its holster. “You knew he was gonna be out here, didn’t you? That’s why you left me back there.”
“Jess Colter was a back shooter just like his brothers. I didn’t want anybody taking a bullet meant for me.”
“Well, now that it’s over, Madge offered us a job,” said Johnny.
“Got a job,” replied Josiah, “I got a church to rebuild.”