Western Short Story
The Rifle
Louis M. Serra

Western Short Story

Around here… and everywhere else I guess, they call me Prairie Pete. Ain’t never been on the prairie though. Ol’ Jake Withers says my face looks like the prairie… all dried out n’ crinkly. I’ve been running this ol’ off-the-trail hotel/saloon for so long that no matter what anybody who stops by here says to me, I’ve heard it before. That is until this young man showed up telling his story.

Ol’ Jake Withers and Shotgun Hanks and I were going over old stories on how each of us out-did the other when we were about ten years older than a five year-old cactus. Jake bragged about the record number of rattlers he got one summer, but Shotgun wasn’t about to go down in less than first place. He was just startin’ up his story when that young man I mentioned came in.

The saloon door creaked as it opened. The three of us looked to see who was coming in. It was a young looking man about no older than my new boots. He looked around at the dusty old saloon and asked for a drink of water. Then he asked where the sheriff was. Before anyone could say anything to him, he sat down at our table and hit us with a bigger story than any of us could fetch up in our head.

He was kinda nervous as he started talking. This is what I remember from all he said. You be the judge.

He started with, “I guess you old-timers are pretty familiar with the desert out there. I was taking rifle practice out about three miles from here. I think you call it Twin Bluffs I don’t know why though. It only has one peak to it.” He took a couple of quick breaths trying to calm down. Whatever happened out there really shook the nerves outta him. While he started up again, I went over to get him some water.

“As I was saying; I was trying out my old Winchester 1873 that I bought at an auction, when I was scared out of my boots by an old man who snuck up on me. He waited until I caught my breath and asked me were I got his rifle from.

“I told him it was mine and that I bought it in Laramie three days ago. Then it dawned on me that he didn’t have a horse or a car or anything else to get around in the desert. When I asked how he moves around, he just shrugged his shoulders and said ‘I get around.’ He immediately went back to saying that I had his rifle.

“I began to get a strange feeling in my stomach about him when he held out his hand, hoping I would give him the gun.”

Our young visitor took a breath and paused to see how we would react to his story so far.

Well, considerin’ that Shotgun, Ol’ Jake Withers, an myself have been aroun’ for so long that even Satan himself, has fergotten about us, there’s not much this yung’n can say to surprise us. Wishin’ to not hurt his feelins’, I asked, “What did this fella look like?”

“Well, he was as old as you three if not older. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound…”

Shotgun let out a real bone-shakin’ laugh. “Hell, kid. You don’t gotta be sorry. We’re older than dirt an’ we knows it. Before you go on about this feller, what’s your handle. You know… your name.”

“Oh, Parker. Leroy Parker. As I was saying, he held out his hand, but when I backed away from him he dropped his hand to his side as if he was going for a side arm.”

“Side arm?” Shotgun asked. “You mean a six-shooter?”

“Yes, sir. That’s what I thought he was doing. I got scared and turned to run. I tripped and lost my balance. The rifle went flying one way and I went the other.”

I guess this fella was so scared he didn’t realize he hadn’t told us yet what the old man looked like. This time I asked him. Shotgun Hanks never was much on patience.

“Uh, Leroy? You still haven’t said what this fella looked like. We can’t help you until we know who to look for. You see son, the sheriff you want is right here. He’s an ugly bugger but Ol’ Jake Withers here has been the star man for over thirty years. He knows everyone and every inch of land around here. So, go on now. What did this fella look like?”

Leroy Parker took a sip of water and then told us what we really didn’t want to hear. “Let’s see, his beard was funny shaped. Almost like a volcano pointing downward. It seemed to have a hole in the bottom. His eyes were as black as can be. His hair was red, which was strange because his beard was…”

“Black.” Jake cut him off.

“Yeah. How did you know?

While the young man drank his water, the three of us sat there and stared at each other. We were waiting for the other to say something. Finally, Shotgun asked the man, “This Winchester you bought? Did it have a Black Stock with red and silver markings on it?”

Young Parker was surprised by the question. “How did you know?”

“Where is the rifle now?” Jake asked. Do you have it outside?”

“No, sir. That’s why I went looking for the law. I guess when I tripped and lost the rifle this old man grabbed it and took off. Where he went and how he went I don’t know. As I said, I didn’t see a horse or a car. There’s no way he could have run that fast for me to loose sight of him. Hell, you know yourself that’s all flat land out there. You can see for miles. I looked everywh…?

Jake cut him off. “You cudda looked all day son and never seen him. Do you know where you are right now? I mean to say do you what town you’re in?”

The young man looked at us as if we suddenly growed out two heads apiece. He gulped his water, then weak-like said, “Iron-Hole? Iron-Hole, Utah.”

“You’re close.” I said. “Actually, no one knows for sure if’n we’re part of Arizona, or New Mexico, or even Colorado. You can say that we almost don’t have anywhere to call home.”

Jake and Shotgun both laughed so loud that you see this Parker fella wasn’t sure now if’n he should run or go along with us ol’ coots.

Jake decide to take on his role as sheriff and started asking Leroy Parker more about what happened out there.

“Go on, son, tell what else you can about this man. Did he seem angry or just concerned that maybe you had his gun?

“I’m not sure how to describe him anymore than I have, sheriff. No, he wasn’t mean. He wasn’t angry. He seemed very curious. He said he’s been looking for it for a long time. He said it was stolen from his home… I think this where I didn’t hear him right… ninety years ago. I know he’s old, but… not that old.”

While Parker had been talking, Jake had walked over to the bar for some glasses and a bottle of whiskey. He set down the glasses and started to pour.

“Uh, excuse me, sir. I don’t drink.” Parker said.

Not batting an eyelash, Jake said, “I think you’ll start as soon as we show you something down the street. Take my word for it, son, have a snort. You’re gonna need it.

After we all had a drink or two… we took Leroy Parker over to our town’s now closed museum. After many decades of showing our town’s growth from the early 1850’s to nowadays, the town council decided to close up the building because of all the vandalism from tourists.

The last attack on the museum was the most costly. Walls were busted up. The paintings of the town’s old west-days were painted over in black ink. Most of the artifacts were either broken or stolen. Its been closed up for over ten years. No one has gone in there to do any kinda work to fix it up. They figgered it ain’t worth it. That is, all but one man.

When we got there Jake used the only key left for the door. He keeps it so no one can ‘accidentally’ open up to help themselves to what’s still there.

No one ever told the electric people to turn off the power, so the City people keep paying the bill. We turned on the lights.

Shotgun Hanks had gone straight to where he wanted Leroy Parker to see something. He called out to him and waved him over. As Parker stood next to the man, Shotgun reached out to grab a thin rope. The rope led up to a curtain covering a box.

I reached over and took a small towel off a photograph of one of the town’s founders. I asked Parker if he knew who this is?

“That’s, that’s him!,” he said, excitedly. No wait. That must be his granddaddy. That’s right? Right?”

Jake and I joined Shotgun and as the three of us stood there looking at this Parker fella, we each silently prayed that we were wrong about what we’re thinking. Not waiting any longer, Shotgun pulled the rope and the curtain fell off the display case it covered.

“That’s my rifle!!” Leroy parker yelled out. That’s my rifle. How did it get there? How did…?

Jake shaked his head and softly said, “I sure was hopin’ it would be here. Its about time.”

This young man turned and looked at Jake and stared at him as if wasn’t sure he heard Ol’ Jake right. He looked at us’n too and started shakin’ his head too. He didn’ know if’n he was around crazy men or if’n he was goin’ crazy from bein’ out in the sun. He finally spoke out to anyone listening.

“What is going on here? Why are you guys not surprised to see my rifle up there? Did you put some old-timer up to coming out there to get my gun? No, wait. You didn’t know I was out there. What the hell happened here?”

Ol’ Jake took on his sheriff role again and tried to sound real formal like. “I think its time you come back to the saloon and hear the whole story. I gotta hunch you’re gonna want that drink now. Let’s lock up here.” He turned to the door and we follered him.

After seeing what we saw, the drinks were on the house. Because I own the place, nobody argued. We just drank in silence for a few minutes. Finally, young Leroy Parker couldn’ take it anymore. He started asking questions.

“Is any one going to tell me what we saw over there. I mean besides what looked like my rifle.”

Shotgun answered first. “It’s your rifle… I better say was your rifle. That stick belongs to a local hero. His name was Morgan Strong. He was the sheriff here in Iron Hole way back when. He took on one of the Hole in the Wall Gangs. Don’t rightly know which one. Some say it was ol’ Butch himself along with Sundance and few others. Anyways, he beat them back so hard… some say they rode all night to get back to Wyoming.

“Of course back then little stories growed big real easy. No one knows fer sure which gang it was. It was right after that big fight that our Governor came here to thank Sheriff Strange for saving the town. He presented him with a Winchester 1873 to show Utah’s gratitude.

Every cowpoke for a hunert miles wanted that gun. Then it happened. One night Strange was patrolin’ and a shot rang out. Then another. By the time anybody looked outside Sheriff Strange was laying out in the street with two big holes in him. When they rolled him over, they saw his rifle wasn’t under him. Whoever shot him took his gun. They took him to the doc’s office. The doctor said the sheriff lived just long enough to say who shot him and that he wouldn’t rest until he got his rifle back.”

The young man poured himself one more drink, swallowed, and then asked, “Did he get his man? Did he get his rifle back? I guess that case in the museum is in honor of Sheriff Strange. What I don’t get is if his rifle is there… why was that old man acting like he was Sheriff Strange and demanding my rifle? Its obvious that I didn’t have the sheriff’s rifle. What gives?”

This is where you had better pour yourself another one. You see, the sheriff died before he could get the rifle back from the one who shot him. So, he has been hunting for the man who did it or at least a relative who might have the rifle.”

“Wait a minute! I bought that rifle in Laramie. I didn’t steal it from your museum. I’ve never been here before. I only came this way by chance. I was…”

Jake looked at me and said, “you tell him, Pete. You got a better handle on this.” I agreed.

“Listen up, son. No one says you stole it. We believe you bought it. We also believe you came here through … I think you call it, fate. You see, the rifle has been gone all these years and we had a spot in the case if’n we ever got it back. Well… thanks to you and what powers are out there, we have the rifle in its case as it should be. That means Sheriff Morgan Strange can finally rest in peace.”

Parker wasn’t sure if’n the whiskey got to him because he still didn’t put two and two together. “Wait! How did I help. I don’t get it?”

Jake looked over to Parker and with an ol’ granddaddy smile said, “you helped by bringing back the rifle your great granddaddy stole from Sheriff Strange.”

Now the young man was dizzy from whiskey. He tried again to find out what happened to him. He asked Jake to explain… one more time.

Shotgun decided to come up with the answer and let Jake take a breath. “Its this way, son. Thanks to you, the rifle is where it should be, Morgan Strange is resting peaceful-like, and your ancestor is probably paying the price for shooting down a sheriff and stealing his rifle. As far as we can tell the forces of life took you to Laramie to buy the rifle and then guided you here so Morgan Strange could get back his gun and get his final rest.”

Leroy Parker needed to know. “Okay, but just who is this relative that supposedly shot the sheriff?”

Up until that minute things seemed almighty serious, but his question caused the three of us to laugh like little kids. I asked him if he ever heard of a man called Robert Leroy Parker.

“No.” He said. “Who the hell is he?”

Shotgun was quick to answer. “Have you ever heard of Butch Cassidy? Also knowed as Robert Leroy Parker, your ancestor.