Western Short Story
The Welsh Gunner (Mae Gynnwr Cymru)
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

"Hey, Laddie, mynd i ffwrdd ar y llong i America. Dweud hwyl fawr, yn awr yn gwneud yn dda.”

What Dafydd Craddock’s Welsh grandfather said was, “Hey, Laddie, go off on that ship to America. Say goodbye, now do well.” Dafydd Craddock was 15 years old at the time. His grandfather continued, “And I heard word from her uncle who says your favored Catryn Davies will be going soon, to a place over there called Arizona, a western territory of the country, to live with her other uncle. You’re bound to meet her. America must be a country as small as our own.”

We can imagine him seeing the whole of Wales tucked down low on the Great Isle of Britain.

The old man, nowhere but Wales his whole life, had never seen any weapon beyond a blunderbuss and the word “America” said to him, by its very intonation and the stories he heard eventually that came off ships, from sailors who lingered in port pubs, from transplants one way or another, “The man with the gun is the man in charge.” So he said it in the Welsh, “Mae'r dyn gyda'r gwn yw'r dyn sy'n gyfrifol.”

Those were words that the young man would remember all his life that was bound to come to him in two parts: his young life locked into the mountains of Wales and his second life that began when he got off a ship at an American port, the burgeoning city of New York where roads led north and south but mostly west.

The legend of The Welsh Gunner, therefore, was about to begin, there in New York, just as the last of the broad Atlantic’s motion passed beneath his feet and the new world leaped up around him with masses of people amid crowding buildings he had never imagined. And the noise was shattering, and sent him westward also quicker than he could imagine at arrival.

“Wales,” he might have muttered, “was nothing like this.” It popped through his consciousness as, “Cymru oedd dim byd fel hyn.”

The young man learned the difference early, and all the ways that went with heading west across America and the adventure that he rode into or came upon, horse and gun just after his outset becoming constant companions. He saw grasslands wider than memory, mountains that touched the sky, wildlife banded for stretches of miles, and the native people presenting themselves unlike anything in Wales.

Dafydd Craddock, David to some and “Dai” to others, quickly became “Die” to those on the other side of the ocean and the other side of the gun. Notoriety rises by the empty cylinder or the full cylinder in the west when the “fast gun” is set to participate in a deadly duel and the opponent happens to be the meanest sheriff ever to wear a star and one who has a particular hate for anything attached to or emanating from the English isle proper.

A reason for death came easy to such a mindset, as surely a reason to survive must have accompanied it.

Dermot Clougherty, Irish-hard, son of murdered parents in the old country, became sheriff of Dickson, territory of Arizona, immediately after the Great War was over. He ran a small campaign for sheriff on a slogan that simply said on a bunch of hand-painted signs tacked on the main street buildings of Dickson, “Might is right and right is fast.” The election was quick though loaded with questions and the new sheriff shot his first suspect the very evening the badge was pinned on his chest. It was a loud-mouth drunk who carried a stentorian attention to his own slogan, “The Irish rebound by the deadly pound.” It was his own play on words that the drunk had been spitting out all election night in the saloon.

It did not take long to rile new sheriff into fast action. When a mysterious gun fell near the drunk (from who knows where), Clougherty claimed the drunk was drawing on him. “A simple case of self protection,” he claimed to one and all. Of course, his word carried more weight than a dead drunk no matter if that drunk had come from London itself, which his voice said he did.

David Craddock swung his horse off the trail headed toward the flat roofs of Dickson he had seen from a high ridge. Sweat ran on him, discomfort too, and his stomach screamed at him again and again. The trail had been long. His horse, possibly more tired than he was, slowed in its gait at the least incline. Young Craddock was thirsty, hungry, his horse needed a rest obviously, and he promised to find himself a bath, get his clothes washed, and become a bit civilized for a change. The old calling could often call in the midst of newness.

But wearing twin pistols on his belt called for attention by those who looked upon him, especially being a stranger.

Mack Bristow at the livery wondered how long it would take Sheriff Clougherty to hear about this strange young man, note his guns and how he wore them, loose, easy to get at, and showing wear at the handles … both of the youngster’s weapons. Yet he was a handsome young man with alert eyes and his head always at a slight cock, as though those eyes were busy at scrutinizing something just beyond … perhaps no place, or nothing in particular, but riveting at the same time. A beat-up Stetson sat on his head, a green bandana loosely wrapped his neck, and he wore black, loose work pants and deeply-scarred boots equipped with old spurs.

At Mrs. Em’s Place, there at the edge of town, Craddock enjoyed a leisurely bath in an iron tub in her barn, had his clothes washed and hung to dry, ate his first solid meal in days, and ended up dressed fine and dry. At the back end of her house he also rented a room. The comforts were neat and clean and he paid two weeks in advance. Mrs. Em liked the looks of the young man who also had good manners and exhibited a sense of charm. She admired a special quality in his voice, in a distinctive way beyond what she was used to.

He was barely 19 years old and had learned much in his few years in America. That experience included protecting himself from braggarts, loudmouths, gun hands seeking live targets, and rustlers bent on stealing cattle from his varied employers as he moved on in the new country. He had a steady hand, was a sure shot at practice or live targets, but avoided what he could and when he could.

But three face-up duels cast his lot in among young legends that someway move ahead of them in most saloon and campfire talk. None of that talk said he was looking for a Welsh lass seen only a few times in his life. And love, as some old hands say, is often found in silence and soft memories.

At one saloon in Colorado, the way word is carried, it was heard: “They’ve begun to call that Craddock kid ‘The Welsh Gunner.’ Some say the words in the real Welsh, as they tell me, and though the words sound odd, they really sound true. I never knew many Welsh came here from their old country. And folks’ve been calling him “Die” since that duel he had in Texas with the slick gun hand known as The Boomer. ‘The Boomer,’ as the same folks are sayin’, ‘ain’t booming anymore.’ Gone silent as the ghost he‘s become. And now he’s no more’n a notch on a Welshman’s gun butt. Ain’t that a piece of news for ya.”

The word ran the room, all ears hearing about the “Die” part and, as usual, when they spread the word further upon leaving, they embellished so much that the young Welsh fast gun gained a rollicking reputation. “The Number 1 killer in all these parts.” “Don’t get messed up with him. He’s deadly with the gun. It’s why they call him ‘Die.’”

Catryn Davies’ voyage, on the other hand of tales, was less adventurous at first, less exciting at first, and left her with much sadness at having to leave her fading family and her homeland. Soon, all her relatives would be gone and she’d have to carry on. A new start in a new land with a healthy uncle offered her that opportunity, so she had taken it with the advice of another elderly uncle locked onto his death bed.

With the keenest recall of all, she brought back incessantly the secret look that Dafydd Craddock sent her way each time they saw each other. Some of those times they did not even get a chance to talk. So, alone aboard ship and with mere memories, she had depended on an older sailor for protection, an able seaman with a dozen journeys under his belt. With his help, crucial in a few situations because of the prestige he carried aboard ship with his mates, she had landed without harm in America and would never see the sailor again.

That separation, too, became part of her sadness, as she wondered where sadness ended and happiness might begin, or have a chance to begin. Once again, as usual, a dream of seeing Dafydd Craddock, meeting him at some crossroad or at some wayside stop, or near one of the rail yards that were popping up across the landscape, took possession of her mind. Such possession cautioned a smile on her part, worked its way into her journey toward Arizona, made the trip not only durable but palpable. A sense of pleasure and richness of spirit, at times, gathered in her soul; she tried often to touch it, and only found a sense of satisfaction.

Physical revelations leaped at her during that journey, about the land around her, and about herself carrying unknown hungers. How wide was America, how open between its rich and wild looking mountains where wide, long and verdant stretches of grasslands spun their mileage before her, those stretches often dotted with herds of cattle or some other strange animal just as big but more ferocious looking and traveling in groups sometimes strung out for more than a mile. Of course, she could say to herself, “This is the kind of land where animals like these can roam at their freedom, where they could never do so in Wales. Truly, America is different, bigger, larger, carries more room for change, for excitement.”

It all made her think of Dafydd all the more as she neared her Arizona destination, though who knows how far away that might be; the mountains still ran into blue skies, red sunsets, dark silhouettes of evening, and the grass, too, went its rich way, endlessly, endlessly.

At one point, not knowing the proper word, she knew “transition,” felt it like she felt her own soul; there it existed, there it remained, untouchable, believable, but radiant. The mountains might contain magic; the prairielands too, certainly her soul did.

Catryn had blossomed into a dark-haired beauty with eyes that talked to men without trying; she was not aware of her impact, even though her able bodied seaman friend had tried to warn her of that fact. There were times sunlight sat in her hair and in her eyes with an announced beauty, giving her advantages she was unaware of. But other women saw it besides men, knowing what true beauty and innocence was at one and the same time.

When one man in a coach said, “Where are you going, daughter?” she curled into a ball at the man’s voice, the look in his eyes, wishing her able seaman was present, or Dafydd Craddock wherever he was.

The other passengers, three men, slept for long periods. The man spoke to her only when the other men were sleeping. That too was caution.

She had already experienced a train robbery and a coach robbery. Life was not so calm here, she thought. The trip would be worth it if she came across Dafydd, even once; but America was proving itself to be larger than thought.

In Dickson, at Mrs. Em’s, Craddock heard the talk about the Welsh Gunner coming to town. It came at his window from another guest staying at Mrs. Em’s. “He’s comin’ to town, Mrs. Em, that Welsh gunman they talk about. A youngster at an old man’s game. He’s comin’ here soon. Been seen on the way, from what I hear. Half a tad I heard too. Wonder how him and Clougherty will handle their introduction.”

Mrs. Em, in her mind seeing the young man she thought to be sleeping in the corner room, with his good looks, his good manners, wondered what his days would be like with the kind of men that ran the town, notably the new sheriff who easily was not one of her favorite persons. One of her woman friends in town declared that her husband had seen Clougherty shoot a drunk who had never handled a gun in town that anybody ever saw. So, she’d say nothing about the young man before he introduced himself to the town proper. She’d not even say anything to a tenant. There rose a feeling that the young man’d take care of himself in a positive mode. She’d never had a son, but somehow knew the feeling for strange seconds.

A certain comfort forged a way on her.

But she still worried and made herself promise not to say anything about him to anybody.

With darkness descending this day on Dickson, Craddock rose from his half sleep, washed his face and put on his boots, vest and gun belt. It was time to visit the town.

As Mrs. Em watched him leaving, feeling more than a slight kinship to the handsome and polite young man, she drew him aside on her porch and lowering her voice advised him of certain matters in Dickson and the ways of some of the citizens.

When Craddock walked into the Horse’s Tail Saloon, the evening was carrying shadows in a hurry to land in total darkness. All eyes fell on him, including Sheriff Clougherty who shifted back in his seat at a corner table, a winning hand splayed out on the table, a smile on his face. “Well, looks like my night has started off with a bang.” He winked at the other players. “Filled an inside straight and then see the kid gunner’s finally arrived after all the fancy talk about the Brit himself. Looks like a kid out of the sandbox if you was to ask me.”

“You gonna get on him real quick, Derm?” one of the players at the table said to the Clougherty, still holding onto his winning hand, a smug look on his face. He too shifted his chair for a better view of the room as the sheriff had. Probably realized by all of them in attendance, a common scene was setting itself in place, a scene that came repeatedly across the land at the time, usually past the Great River but often on the other side of it too where cattle and horses and mules impacted their actions and needs. Smoke from cigarettes, cigars, an occasional clay or briar pipe, rose like a steamy vapor above their table, as it did in other parts of the saloon. The accompanying smells of barns, horses, hay feed, dung, the odd earth itself, could be detected by a keen nose, all which were accepted by the many men and the few women in the saloon as necessary elements of life. Men aired the odors of earth and animal as though they were their own odors from the outset. Out and about the land, rivers kept them sensibly clean, rivers and occasional ponds or pools leftover from some natural source, but not a daily tub, not a daily warm bath. Odors were part of the riches of the land, declaring the place or act one was habitually locked into, spent their labors at.

It was in this vein that all of them saw in the doorway an extremely handsome young fellow, his eyes attentive and alert the way he tipped his head and studied the room like a professor, as though looking for answers from a surprising source. His eyes were busy looking right past other eyes and scrutinizing something on a wall, something hidden, something possibly waiting just for him. His Stetson looked like it had been through the Great War, but a newly pressed green bandana braided its corded hue on his neck. Mrs. Em had personally tended his shirt and pants, which looked brand new, hot-iron pressed with lines down the front seams or arms lengths, and his worn boots were set with a new shine that did not show on another pair of boots in the whole saloon.

It might have been thought by every man in the saloon that Craddock, the Welsh Gunner, was out of place, beyond his status, a target for derision from even the slightly meanest of them out for a joke or to twist a friend into a follow-up action.

Dermot Clougherty was ready for the Welsh Gunner. He’d been ready from the first word of him. In fact, he was ready for anything that smelled of the British Isles, including Scotland and Wales and all of Ireland itself, if that portion of the Isles brought up the hate and venom that waged a continuous war within his mind, worked out of his body, especially by the palm of his hand on a revolver butt, a finger on the quick trigger of the revolver.

“You bet I am,” Clougherty said with the slow venom coating, enveloping each word, and showed in the scowl that screwed his face into one of natural hate. “I been ready for this my whole life. This is going to be a show, a come-down, a blessing of all my feelings, a one-way ticket to hell for this Welsh kisser of the Crown. Ain’t none of ‘em went through what we went through, what shoved me out of Ireland feet first so I could get a decent breath, get a chance to get back at ‘em, get even.”

“He’s so young lookin’, Dermot. Looks like a baby, so prettied all up. Looks like Ma Em’s got him all dolled up for us, like her own kid dressed up and out on the night.”

“You mean, for me. I’ll talk to her later ‘bout what she favors in this life in this town.” The venom leaked there too, in his reference to Mrs. Em.

And Catryn Davies was sent off by her Uncle Paul on the final stagecoach leg of her exploratory journey, hoping to find the man of her dreams. Her uncle had heard about the Welsh Gunner nearing Dickson and said she ought to go there and seek him out. “Don’t carry a dream forever without trying to make it come true.” He kissed her cheek. “Go with love and hope.”

In the stagecoach she knew one of the other passengers would be hard to put off if he got the opportunity to make his advances. She kept her eyes off him, but was aware, fully aware, that he’d be up to no good if given the slightest chance. She could not recall how many times she might have muttered her prayer of sorts in Welsh because of a weird thought that the man might understand her, saying, 'O, Dafydd, yr wyf wedi clywed y sgwrs amdanoch chi, am y saethwr o Gymru. Yr wyf yn gobeithio eich bod ar yr ochr dde o gynnau, ar yr ochr dde y gyfraith, ac yn agos digon i fy helpu os wyf angen eich help. Y dyn fy mhoeni i heb hyd yn oed i mi gyffwrdd eto. '

In English the man would have heard her say, “Oh, Dafydd, I have heard the talk about you, about the gunner from Wales. I hope you are on the right side of guns, on the right side of the law, and near enough to help me if I need your help. This man bothers me without even touching me yet.”

She shivered again as Dickson appeared on the horizon, the flat roofs in the distance catching a spread of moonlight, a few lights twinkling from the heart of darkness as the coach neared its destination only an hour late.

In the bare light of the moon and a few lights flickering in windows, the coach drew up in front of the small hotel attached to the Horse’s Rail Saloon. Lights from the saloon fell onto the horses and onto the passengers stepping down from the coach. When Catryn stepped down to the roadway, the rude passenger held her hand, then squeezed it tightly, and whispered in her ear what no one else could hear.

She shrunk away from him and heard the strangest and most welcome sound she had heard in years, a lone Welsh voice coming from the suddenly quiet saloon where seconds earlier it had been buzzing with heavy talk.

The voice had said, “Hold on there, mister. I’m a peaceable man.” At first, as if in reaction to something, it came in the Welsh: 'Dal ar yno, Mistar. Rwy'n ddyn heddychlon. ' It got her immediate attention before the English version came and spun her to the saloon door, hope banging at her heart. There was a very familiar tone in the voice.

She stepped into the saloon and said, “Dafydd Craddock, have you been hiding from me?”

At those words Dermot Clougherty spun around, caught between two obviously British Isle connections right here in his own town of Dickson, in his favorite saloon, in front of his curried audience. He was standing at the ready for a duel, facing a handsome young man who had suddenly and immediately been drawn to the loveliest lass the Sheriff of Dickson had seen ever.

The handsome Welsh Gunman also spun around at Catryn’s voice, ignoring the sheriff, gun hands and resting, the saloon crowd holding its breath, waiting for the sounds of battle, and seeing in their midst young love at its peak as the two young ones rushed at each other.

Even the hard sheriff, knowing loss, knowing separation, knowing utter loneliness, knowing what life keeps for some souls, spun back to his table, to his cronies, to his cards.

Life, he envisioned, had another pair of winners.

They were not at his table.