Western Short Story
The new pistol with stag-horn grips rested on a small back table in Brodie’s Saloon, its cylinder open and empty. Two men on opposite sides of the same round poker table occasionally looked at the weapon. Both had envious eyes.
It was a Colt .44, the latest and most powerful of handguns. Several cartridges were by its side.
A deck of cards was stacked in the middle of the pockmarked table, each pasteboard covered with grime and sweat from a thousand dirty hands.
“Your hand, Wagstaff,” said Zeke, the younger of the two. A dead cigar stub occupied the corner of his mouth, below a stringy handlebar mustache. He coughed, squinted, and readjusted his sweat-stained hat against the glare of an overhead oil lamp.
The other man bent forward in his rickety chair, a Bowie knife wedged behind his wide belt. He wore an old coat, shirt and pants, a contrast against shiny new boots that covered his big feet.
The tent-saloon was hot and stuffy. Its barrel-stove generated more smoke than heat.
Sweat peppered Zeke’s bronzed forehead. He squirmed in his dirty clothes and creaky chair and reached for his shot glass. It was empty. He scowled and grunted.
Without taking his eyes off the larger man across the table, Zeke ordered another whiskey from McCarthy, the saloon’s owner. The big-footed bartender was a short, thick-lipped man with gray sideburns and a double chin. He yawned and sleepwalked from behind a make-do bar of planks on barrels. His face sagged like his fat belly. His worn boots churned dust from the dirt floor. He’d bellyached earlier about the dying gold camp’s boot maker skipping before exchanging a fat bar tab for a promised pair of new boots.
“Watch your backside, Zeke!” McCarthy had whispered earlier. “Wagstaff cheats. I’ve seen him. And his belly knife ain’t got a conscience.”
Zeke had worked part-time in the saloon until business dropped off. Zeke considered him a friend.
McCarthy had acquired the saloon from Brodie’s widow after her drunken husband staggered into a hundred foot mineshaft. Another reason McCarthy seldom drank, he said.
He refilled Zeke’s glass.
Wagstaff lifted his empty one.
“You already owe me twenty dollars,” frowned McCarthy. “Keep drinkin’! You’ll be seein’ double cards 'fore long.”
“Fill the damned glass and stop complainin’!” Wagstaff’s speech was slurred.
The barkeep topped the shot glass. “But, I see you had enough dough to get new boots. Those should have been mine.”
Wagstaff proudly displayed his black boots.
“Got ‘em last week before the shoemaker skedaddled. But don’t worry none, McCarthy,” growled the gambler. “You’ll get your damned money!”
Wagstaff gulped half the refilled glass.
The saloonkeeper gave his pocket watch another look. It was long past midnight. He stifled a wide yawn and again wiped the rough wood of the bar with a damp rag. It was something to do. “Ain’t you two ever goin’ home? Like to get out of here ‘fore sunup. My tail’s draggin’.”
The men had been at their game since early evening.
Wagstaff yawned and stretched. “Not till one of us walks out of here wearin’ this pistol.” He stroked the bluing of the Colt .44. “The next hand should do it.”
Zeke Davis shrugged.
Wagstaff shuffled and dealt the battered pasteboards.
Zeke sipped his fresh whiskey, and checked his cards. His deadpan expression remained.
The dealer held his five cards close, jockeyed their positions, and gave a satisfied grunt.
The saloon was empty, except for the three men. It had emptied by ten o’clock. Tomorrow was Monday, a workday in the Lucky Cuss, the backwater camp’s last commercial gold mine. It now operated with one small shift of hard-rock miners, its output rapidly declining. Another month and the camp would be just another ghost town up a twisted mountain trail in Colorado Territory: scattered log cabins, rusting mining equipment, open tunnels and pits, and a dozen lonely crosses in its rocky cemetery.
Zeke and Wagstaff had found the revolver that afternoon along the steep path leading up from the river. They weren’t friends, but had been walking together toward the camp’s remaining store and saloon. They saw the weapon at the same time among the weeds and bushes. It was new, and bore elegant stag-horn grips.
“Must’ve fallen from someone’s holster,” said Wagstaff.
Both men asked around, but nobody knew who owned the pistol.
“Long gone, whoever it was,” offered a prospector ankle deep in the nearby river. “Wish I could say it’s mine, but it ain’t.” He swirled water and sand in his gold pan, then cursed and flung the contents back into the surging water.
* * *
Zeke and Wagstaff didn’t like each other. They had tangled weeks before over a woman working the cribs behind McCarthy’s saloon. Wagstaff got jealous every time Zeke bought Bessie’s affections for two dollars.
“I think she’s kinda sweet on you, Zeke,” said McCarthy.
Everyone called the big-boned Swede, Bessie the Cow. She and the other “girls” had recently moved to Gold Creek, a new boomtown eight miles west, where gold strikes were coming faster than lies at a family reunion.
Neither Zeke nor Wagstaff could afford to buy out the other, so they agreed they’d settle the pistol’s ownership by playing poker.
“This is the hand that’ll do it,” said Wagstaff. “Read ‘em and weep.” He spread a pair of eights and three jacks. He smiled and reached for the stag-horn pistol.
“Not so fast!” Zeke slowly fanned his five cards on the gritty table.
“F-Four a-aces?” stammered Wagstaff. His speech was more slurred than before. “Can’t be!”
Across the room, McCarthy quietly reached under the bar.
“You were dealin’.” Zeke picked up the pistol.
“No one pulls...pulls four a-aces by ch-chance.” Wagstaff stumbled over his words.
“Played ‘em the way you dealt ‘em.”
“Ain’t possible!” growled Wagstaff.
Zeke opened and closed the firearm’s empty cylinder and spun it. He liked the balance of the weapon and the beauty and feel of its stag-horn grips. His calloused hand stroked the gun’s barrel. “Always wanted a pistol like this.”
Wagstaff squirmed in his chair, his face red. He drained his whiskey glass, slapped it on the table and staggered to his feet. His legs wobbled from drink and hours in the hard chair. He glared at Zeke: “Don’t know wh-what you did to w-win. But y-you d-damn well did s-some-...somethin’!”
Behind the bar, McCarthy quietly resurfaced holding a short object in both hands.
“Wagstaff, you sayin’ what I think you’re sayin’?” Zeke glared back and reached for the cartridges on the table.
“That gun’s mine!” yelled Wagstaff. He yanked his Bowie knife from his belt, leaned forward and slashed at Zeke. Zeke instinctively pulled back, toppling his chair, and sprawled backward onto the floor. The pistol and cartridges flew.
Wagstaff crawled across the table, and slashed again with the big blade. Its tip ripped Zeke’s vest and shirt.
Noise and smoke suddenly filled the saloon as McCarthy unleashed the right barrel of a sawed-off shotgun. The impact knocked Wagstaff off the table onto the floor. Whiskey bottles rattled as the shotgun’s recoil slammed McCarthy into the shelf behind the bar.
Wagstaff kicked and groaned once, then stopped moving.
“Never liked that man,” said McCarthy. “Now we can all go to bed.”
The spread of pellets ripped open one side of the canvas saloon. Wind and cold air rushed in, swirling the shotgun’s smoke.
“Ain’t but the second time I’ve ever shot a man,” muttered McCarthy. He examined the dead man and the tattered canvas. “Bet Wagstaff had more cards up his sleeve than hair. Dang it! I’ll never see that twenty dollar bar tab he owed me!”
McCarthy rubbed his chin, eyed Wagstaff’s boots, and turned to Zeke. “Friend or no friend,” he said, “that’s two dollars you owe me for drinks.”
Shaking, Zeke staggered to his feet, and placed two silver dollars on the bar.
McCarthy refilled the scattergun, and stuffed it back under the bar. “Zeke, you all right?”
Zeke said he was, but didn’t look it. The blood had drained from his face. His mouth hung open. Sweat beaded on his forehead and glistened on the tip of his nose.
The saloon quickly filled with a scattering of sleepy-eyed, gawking miners in wrapped blankets, dirty long johns and untied boots.
“What happened?” asked a red-shirted man with mutton chop sideburns. He rubbed sleep from his baggy eyes.
“Go on back to bed, Gustus,” sighed McCarthy, stifling another yawn. “Ain’t nothin’ to get excited about. Wagstaff just couldn’t believe he’d lost in poker...since he was the one cheatin’.”
The newcomers surrounded Wagstaff. A pool of blood encircled the body. The man called Gustus tapped Wagstaff’s boot with his own. “Hey, McCarthy, can I have his boots?”
“Stay away from them boots!” warned the bartender. “They’s mine! And so’s his knife.”
Zeke continued shaking. “Didn’t...Didn’t quite have the pistol loaded,” he said. “He’d have...have got me for sure with that Bowie knife.” His face regained a little color. “Thanks McCarthy.”
“Zeke, you enjoy that purdy pistol. But watch your backside for cutthroats like Wagstaff.”
McCarthy rolled up the sleeve on the dead man’s right arm. An Ace of Diamonds tumbled onto the floor.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Zeke.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn ya,” replied McCarthy. He turned to the onlookers. “Anyone know Wagstaff’s first name? I didn’t like him, but the least we can do is scratch his full Christian name on his grave marker.”
“Me thinks it might be Willard,” said a big-eared man with an Irish accent. “But I ain’t sure.”
No one else said they knew.
“Well...then just Wagstaff will do.” McCarthy tugged at the dead man’s boots. “Give me a hand, Zeke. These’ll cover the money he owed me. I’d skin him, but I don’t know anyone who’s buyin’ greasy hides.”
“You gonna leave him there all night?” someone asked.
”Take him home if’n ya want.” McCarthy grunted off the corpse’s left boot. “Otherwise you boys can help bury him in the mornin’.” He yawned again. “Soon as I get this other boot off, I’m goin’ to bed.”
* * *
The next morning, under black thunderheads, Zeke, McCarthy and a few miners wrapped the deceased in some old feed sacks.
“Looks like it might rain,” said Zeke. The stag-horn pistol was stuffed behind his belt.
“Snow, most likely,” offered Gustus, the crimson-shirted miner from the night before.
The men lugged their heavy burden to a nearby hillside dotted with leaning crosses and fading wooden headboards. They took turns digging and cursing the rocky soil.
“That should do it.” Zeke tossed his shovel aside and climbed out of the fresh grave. The hole was three feet deep and about five feet long.
“It’s deep enough,” observed McCarthy.
“See you’re wearin’ the dearly departed’s new boots,” said Zeke.
McCarthy rubbed them clean on the back of his pant legs. “Be a terrible waste,” he said, “to bury good boots with a no-account gambler.” He eyed the .44-pistol behind Zeke’s belt.
“That’s a beautiful piece you’re totin’,” he said. “Hope it brings ya better luck than it did Wagstaff.”
A few raindrops hit the small group.
“Rain’s comin’,” said the man in the red shirt.
“Told ya,” smiled Zeke.
They bent the body and hurriedly placed it on its side in the grave.
“His feet’s stickin’ out,” warned the Irishman.
A flour sack had slipped, revealing Wagstaff’s toes through worn socks.
“So...?” questioned McCarthy.
“Ain’t decent to bury someone like that,” proclaimed the same man.
McCarthy kicked some dirt and gravel over the exposed feet. “That better?”
“Well...” said the Celtic man, “...I...I guess so.”
The mourners quickly covered the remains, pounded a crude cross of split wood into the ground, and wedged its base with rocks. The name Wagstaff and the year 1873 were scratched on the cross arm.
”Me still thinks...maybe...Wagstaff’s front name might be Willard,” voiced the same big-eared man from the Emerald Isle. He scratched his tangle of dirty hair. “But I ain’t sure.” His breath smelled like a broken whiskey barrel.
“We’ll let God or the devil sort it out...if either one wants him,” offered McCarthy.
“Seems like the wise thing to do,” chuckled the Hibernian. He uncorked a small bottle and reluctantly passed it around.
More raindrops splattered the dusty ground.
“Hurry it up McCarthy,” urged Zeke. “Before we get soaked.”
“Go easy on me whiskey, boys,” said the Irishman. “It’s me last pint.”
The red-shirted man grinned and grabbed the bottle. “Had I known it was a wake, I’d a brought a friend.”
A broom-skinny man took a big gulp from the bottle and laughingly added: “A free drink from a Irishman? Never would have believed it! The Lord works in mysterious ways...”
“Shame ‘Bessie the Cow’ ain’t here,” someone offered. “Could a sung us a hymn. Always ‘preciated her singin’... among her many other talents.”
The men chuckled and turned up their coat collars as a cold wind whipped at the light rain.
”Shouldn’t somebody say somethin’?” questioned a miner with a beer belly and Santa Claus beard.
The small group stared at the grave.
“You do it McCarthy,” said Zeke. “You’re wearin’ his boots.”
“Hurry it up,” someone said. “We’re getting’ wet.”
McCarthy again wiped his boots on the back of his pant legs. “Well,” he said, “I guess it’s up to me.” He cleared his throat, removed his hat, and placed his right hand over his heart. Rain dripped from his upturned face.
“Well, Lord, this here gamblin’ man named Wagstaff--we don’t know his first name--just know his worthless carcass in this rocky grave is all yours, ‘cuz we sure don’t want him.” He kicked at the mound. “He left a twenty dollar bar tab! That’s why I’m keepin’ his boots...and his Bowie knife. But I need ‘em more than he does...’cuz he’s dead.”
There wasn’t a wet eye among them, except for the rain.
McCarthy stood silent for a moment, and then added: “Can’t think of nothin’ else to say.”
“How about ‘Amen’?” asked Zeke.
“Even I’ll drink to that!” McCarthy slapped on his hat and reached for the Irishman’s pint bottle.
The funeral was over.
The men scattered as lightning flashed, and the light rain suddenly became a downpour.