Western Short Story
Out here, west of the Mississippi like it was a wall, he felt naked when he was not carrying his guns. Without his gun belt, without his Colts, he was a babe on or off the saddle. He’d dread the time when he didn’t have them … and needed them more than ever. That time had not come for him yet.
But all morning he’d felt strange. For three days in a row the morning had broken over the Tetons like a bright strike of red and orange that could have blinded him lying beside the embers of his trailside campfire. But this morning dawn was heavy with grayness, inverted shadows that seemed to come from nothing standing upright and, as if the mountains had demanded, silence came of the whole universe. The lone coyote had skulked on the perimeter of first light, but had obeyed that demand for silence.
The dawn was ominous from the destruction of the first shadow, how it moved and then disappeared, not like a prairie flower opening or closing its petals.
Was today the day?
Was it was one more day of another bully? So many of them he had come across; men too big for their britches because of a lucky shot that took down a man with a name and created a new name for the bristling and strutting of a gun-smoke peacock, a name always and only fit for saloon talk, boasts, duels outside saloon doors, a name fit for a man lost within himself.
He asked under his breath so as not to disturb his horse, “Was it to be the last day of another bully?” The horse seemed to sense a change, flicked his ears for that awareness.
“He’s smarter than me in some cases,” Serge Ruskowski said of his horse and agreed with himself.
Later, after a strange and silent ride, Ruskowski stood at the entrance to the Mustangs Seven Saloon in a town in Nevada so small it had no name yet … though there had been some arguments about names suggested. Maybe it was not yet a town. Maybe it was a settlement or a village, or just a plain old clutch of buildings with no long promise. One man at the bar had suggested “Horseville” as the name and he was almost laughed out of town. Another man, three to seven sheets into his own wind, said, ”We should call the place Nowheres Elsewhere or something stupid like that because it ain’t gonna be here that long.”
An old timer, a prospector tired of it all, too-long bearing old wounds, angry at stupid disputes, shot and wounded him. As he fell to his knees, he said, “Don’t tell me how long I won’t be here. Hurry ain’t any part of me.” He was sick for a week, but felt he was cured with his first drink.
Ruskowski knew it happened like that west of the Mississippi.
Ruskowski, one time a teacher in Massachusetts before he heard the west calling, enjoyed the repartee in the saloon but not the shooting part. He’d kept saying to himself, “I ought to write all this stuff down,” but the rigors of his travel, of course, and existing in the west itself, surviving, kept that promise hidden.
At the bar he ordered a beer that came warm as usual in the hot months, but it was like a tonic at the moment. Savoring the first mouthful for extra seconds, he turned around to survey the saloon, but there were no surprises, no familiar old faces in the lot, until the door opened.
The whole morning’s apprehension said he was looking at a new name in shooting lore, a name that moved ahead of itself across the sweep of the plains, up and through torturous mountain trails, into the small clutches of buildings where early folks had settled, and moved on, to dust or destiny.
Heading for the bar, a presence in and to himself, the strut so evident, was Knock-down Cameron Kellog, now appropriately dressed in all-severe black as though he was the messenger of death itself. A Colt sat against his right hip, a wheel of a whip on his left hip curled like a snake ready to strike.
Ruskowski could have laughed, but it was a useless point; he’d rather add the scene to his collectible events that one day would be gathered in a printer’s grasp.
He had heard about Knock-down Kellog for over a month now, on the trail, in saloons, from stage and freight drivers who had daily contact with rumor and boast. Some of that talk was indeed laughable, but none of yet said face to face with the all-black killer of a famous gunman, Nolan Extrawnery, who had been notorious only for so long himself.
Palaver and dealing had stopped at two poker tables as the players, to a man, came to abrupt and upright attention: Do not move too suddenly in the presence of a killer! Other tables full of men at unguarded talk came to a frozen standstill, hands stopped at expression or handling a drink: Don’t attract a killer in the midst.
Men at the bar, at the cure, remained upright and looking in the broad mirror at the black visitor: Don’t turn around, don’t pay attention to the newcomer, don’t move quickly doing anything, including breathing heavy.
The bartender, his hands on the bar top, kept them there, fully visible: Don’t start a scene, don’t give cause.
The one-time teacher, keeper of scenes and images, was the lone movement in the Seven Mustangs Saloon as he turned slowly about to get a full face-to-face view of the newcomer.
Not wanting to waste his appearance, or his strut, Kellog said to Ruskowski, the lone mover, “Are you looking at something, mister? You see somethin’ interestin’ you?” His black-gloved hands were at his sides, where they had been since his entrance into the room, sort of part of the priming of his weapons, the Colt and the whip, heaven and hell for some poor unfortunate.
Ruskowski said, “I figured I’d see you today. Heard about you all along the trail for over two months now, how you got the gunman Extrawnery in a show-down and whipped him clean.” He harrumphed at “whipped him clean,” and added, “Not with the whip that time, but with your white-handled Colt sitting on your all-black outfit like it’s a messenger of fate and destiny.” There was neither smirk nor frown on his face as he said it.
Kellog sputtered. He had never been approached this way. Unanswered questions ran through his mind. He was in full view of everybody in a full-house saloon, him, Knock-down Kellog.
He took a deep breath he tried to hide, and said, “Mister, you got leather in you and I’m buying you a drink.” He stepped forward and stood at the bar with two fingers of his left hand, his whip hand, on the bar, and said, “Two beers, keep, for me and my friend. He’s got real leather in him and we’re gonna soften it up a little, if we can, me and you.”
Ruskowski said, his voice the same tone as his recent words, “I’ve had the cure already, Knock-down, but I’ll have that beer. Where are you from originally? Were you born out this way? I’m from Massachusetts where I was a school teacher, but now I’m going to write a book about the west that’s all around us now, how the country, from coast to coast, is changing.”
Kellog brightened immediately, “You mean you’re gonna write a whole book by yourself, about west people, about gunfighters and sheriffs and barkeeps and saloon men like them here.” He swung his left hand in a circle as he acknowledged everybody in the saloon, as if he was wrapping himself and Ruskowski with them.
Ruskowski relaxed into his new grasp of western things. “Yep,” he said, “a whole book all by myself, and about all them folks you just mentioned. They’ll all be in it. I can handle it like you can handle that whip.”
“It takes some doin’, don’t it,” Kellog said, not making a question out of it.
“Sure does,” Ruskowski filled in. “Were you born with it at your side?”
The new notorious gunfighter laughed at that, and spurted out with, “Boy, you got quickness with your leather, long as you ain’t makin’ fun of me.”
“Never do that to a subject in your book,” Ruskowski replied. “That’s like biting off your own fingers.”
“Hell, you got a way with words, mister. What’s your handle?”
The reply was full in a sure voice, “I was named at birth as Serge Ruskowski by parents who had come from Poland through France and England, and I was born in Boston and schooled there and taught kids there and got the fever to come out here and see what was happening to this country of ours.” He sipped his drink as Kellog looked at him with an odd stare.
That stare was accompanied by a statement of confirmation. “Boy, you got your life all writ up, ain’t you?” His pause was a nod of the head that found an answer to a quick search, “And I’m in it too? All of us in it too?” He circled his left hand again, the whip hand, around the audience, as if joining the entire west in Serge Ruskowski’s coming book.
The potential author said, “Then, can I say you were practically born with the gun in your hand, practically really meaning you learned to use it very early in life. Did your father teach you or your grandfather?” He sipped his beer again.
“Hell,” the gunfighter said, “My granpap I never saw and the only thing my pa could handle was a jug and my ma with a punch now and then, so I was all alone by 13 and stole my first gun and boxes and boxes of ammunition and went into the swamp and burned all that stuff up on birds and boars and more birds ‘til I could shoot good as the next man and better’n most of ‘em.” The peacock strutted with his words.
Heads around the room, including the barkeep’s, began to nod at a relative situation, as if each one had come the same path to guns and life on the early run.
When Ruskowski nodded also, Kellog said, “Did it come to you too, just like that? You steal a gun and learn it?” His smile was wide and full blown and the patrons of the Seven Mustangs Saloon, every one of them, smiled and nodded again, each of them in on it.
Leaning against the bar, Ruskowski said, “No, not just like that. I had saved some money from my teaching job and bought a gun when I decided to come out here. I felt I had to learn it, learn to shoot, to handle the gun.”
“You do any good with it?” Kellog asked, nodding his head again like he was letting the whole room in on the discussion.
“Some,” said Ruskowski and let it go at that.
Not fishing for any more answers, Kellog tapped the bar again with two fingers of his left hand, and the barkeep pushed the drinks forward, as talk in the saloon returned to some minor buzz, but awareness of all the patrons of what was being said at the bar.
And so it went as the gent from Massachusetts interviewed Knock-down Kellog for an obvious chapter in his coming book, and the whole saloon heard just about every question asked and every answer that came forth through the long afternoon, Kellog in the most friendly and approachable manner conceivable for a notorious gunman of the old west.
It seemed to be drawing to a conclusion as Ruskowski came to the Kellog’s latest show-down. “Tell me, Knock-down, how the show-down with Nolan Extrawnery came about. Did it have an innocent start? Did he start it? Was he aware of your gunman’s capabilities? Did you know who he was? “
“Whoa there, Sergy boy. That’s mighty fast on the brain and calls for some reinin’ in. Course Extrawnery knew who I was ‘cause I shot a gent just the day before who was gunnin’ for me. Everybody knew he was lookin’ for me, so I called him out and he went dead real quick,” and he almost said, “We found out later that he was dead drunk before he died,” but didn’t say it, like it would have made a big difference.
With all heads in the saloon now turned back to full attention, he continued, “So Extrawnery heard about it too and knew he had some kind of competition from me in the same town, Mill’s Fork. He just wanted me out of the way, cut a new notch like they say. He tried to get me to draw in the saloon down there and I got him outside and we went at it and my second shot got him and his first two missed me and so he went down,” but he did slip and sputtered, “he wasn’t that much of a shot, like he was at the end of his tether you might say when writ down.”
Knock-down Kellog was human in a small hurry and quickly more so when he said to Ruskowski, “You didn’t say how good you got with the gun you bought. Is that it you’re wearin’ now? What is that? That ain’t no Colt. It’s an old Remington. You pay real dollars for that thing?” His laugh was roped in a bit from his usual, but his singular disdain for the old weapon was fully evident.
But there came the clearest and sharpest statement Serge Ruskowski would ever write when he flash drew his old Remington with a long barrel and put two rounds no more than two inches apart in the far wall of the Seven Mustangs Saloon where a bull’s eye was circled on the wall atop another gunfighter’s very declarative statement.
The fake gunfighter and the real author shared 40 years of friendship from that very day. Both men are buried in the cemetery at Tell Some, Nevada, no more than a dozen miles from where Serge Ruskowski’s book was published much later in his life, the only book Knock-down Kellog ever got to read, satisfied he had found his name there as clear as the peak of the mountain that hung over them for all those years.