Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“Alright, boys,” Bucky Garland said, “show yer hands.”
Orn Bisby glanced over at Jim Tucker, who shot him a nasty look.
“You heard him, Bisby,” Tucker said quietly. “Show ‘em.”
Bisby tossed his cards nonchalantly onto the surface of the table.
Tucker looked at them, and the smug look on his face turned into an expression of utter astonishment. “They ain’t no way!” he exclaimed. “You cheated!”
“Easy, Jim,” Hal Mercer said from his seat on Bisby’s left. “He played that hand fair an’ you know’t!”
Tucker stood so quickly that his chair toppled over backward and clattered to the floor. The saloon they were playing in fell silent, and an invisible thread of tension fell upon the place. Tucker’s hand hovered over his shooting iron, but Bisby stared at him calmly from the other end of the table.
“Look here, Tucker,” Garland said, “this ain’t the place to lose your head and start a-shootin’ ever’thin’ in sight. He played a fair hand and he beat you.”
“He ain’t done it!” Tucker shouted. “He cheated!”
Suddenly Jim Tucker’s hand fell, but before his gun had cleared leather, three quick shots rang out in rapid succession, so quickly that the three sounds blended together as one. Cards flew into the air from the surface of the table. Hal Mercer turned backward in his chair and scrambled away from the table while Bucky Garland sat stiffened and pale in his seat.
Slowly, Tucker’s fingers loosened from the mahogany grip and the Colt slid back into its holster. He looked down at the red stains on his shirtfront, and then at the three small bullet holes in the surface of the table. He looked back up at Orn Bisby, who sat calmly in his chair and stared up at Tucker, unblinking.
Tucker swayed for a moment, and then toppled over backward, landing on and crushing the wooden chair he had been sitting in only moments before.
For several long moments, there was utter silence in the room, as the patrons all looked around at Orn Bisby. Garland was trembling, and Hal Mercer had already fled through the saloon’s batwing doors.
Then, calm and collectively, Bisby stood, and holstered his Smith and Wesson Russian model that he wore in a holster on his left side. He casually collected the money he’d won from the surface of the table, and nonchalantly tipped the brim of his hat to Bucky Garland before turning and walking over to the bar.
“You shouldn’t’ve done that,” the bartender said in a low voice as a quiet murmur started up in the saloon.
“The way I see it,” Bisby said in a hushed tone, “I didn’t have much of a choice.”
“Maybe,” the bartender said, pouring a shot glass of whiskey and passing it over to Bisby, “but Jim Tucker was the younges’ of two boys from down El Paso way. Bunch of roughnecks if ever they was such. Mercer there’s good friends of ‘em. You can bet they’ll be a-comin’ up thisaway in a few days. If I was you, I’d be a-leavin’ town as soon as I can.”
“Well,” Bisby muttered, looking down thoughtfully at the amber liquid in the shot glass, “I appreciate the advice, but I just think I’ll be staying for awhile.”
“It’s your life, mister. Just be sure you ain’t nowhere near this here saloon when the shootin’ starts.”
At that moment, a man came plowing through the batwing doors. Bisby glanced around and saw a star pinned onto the man’s breast pocket.
“I heard shootin’,” the man said, his hand close to his gun. Then he saw the body of Jim Tucker.
“It was a fair fight, marshal, between this man here and Tucker,” the bartender said. “And ever one of the people here can attest to that.”
“That so?” the marshal said, inclining his head and glancing around the room with his eyes.
What patrons who seemed to pay any mind to his presence nodded.
Then the marshal’s eyes fell upon Orn Bisby, who pocketed a wad of bills and started for the batwing doors. As he made his way by the marshal, the marshal caught him by the arm.
“Keep them guns of yurs put up,” the marshal said. “One more time, fair fight or not, and I’m takin’ you in.”
Bisby gave the marshal a curt nod, and then walked through the batwing doors and out of the saloon, into the cool night air.
For a moment he stood on the boardwalk and rolled himself a smoke.
He lighted it, stepped off the boardwalk, and then started up the street.
All he had ever known was a deck of cards, a fast horse, and an able gun.
Orn Bisby was a quiet, reserved man. He didn’t speak much, resolving that it was best to let the cards decide and, if necessary, to let his gun do the talking. A smooth card hand for as long as he could remember, it was gambling that kept him wealthy.
But it was a greased gun hand and a fast draw that kept him alive.
He would hit all the cow towns once or twice per year, from Abilene all the way to San Francisco. But there was one town in particular, that seemed to appease his constant craving for the cards and keep money in his pocket.
Dodge City offered him the mollification that every gambler found necessary to sustain the constant craving that resided deep down inside of them. The river boats back on the Mississippi was where he honed his skills with the cards, but Dodge offered him the excitement he sought while still being able to play his cards with a fair hand. Perhaps, he thought, that was why he was foolish enough to stick around when the Tucker brothers were blazing a trail up to Dodge for the sole purpose of putting a bullet in him.
Though he hadn’t mentioned it in the saloon, he had had a previous run in with the two said Tuckers. Jim had been the youngest, and, as a result, the most trigger-happy of the three.
And that was what got him killed.
Coy and Potter Tucker were the older brothers of Jim Tucker.
Coy was the oldest, and the meanest, as far as Bisby could remember.
Potter was the one in between, and he was the most levelheaded, but easily the best with a gun between the three of them.
Bisby had seen the two brothers shoot it out with a fellow back in Desdemona, and the shooting had been a result of a remark made by the fellow concerning the build Coy’s horse. It was a senseless shooting, but one that had made Bisby wary of the brothers. He’d known Jim Tucker to be their brother, but the situation he’d found himself in back in the saloon had called for no other option other than killing.
Jim Tucker wasn’t the first man he’d killed.
And by the way things were shaping up to be, he wouldn’t be his last.
It didn’t bother him. Killing, that is.
At first it had gotten to his conscious, but the way of the west was the law of the gun. Orn Bisby had quickly come to realize that once he’d gotten off the Mississippi river boats and had come west for himself.
He didn’t know how long it would be before the brothers arrived, but he would be ready.
He wasn’t going to let the looming threat hang over his head.
No, he would play his cards until they arrived.
It was three days before Coy and Potter Tucker rode into Dodge.
And by the way they looked, they had killing on their minds.
Coy was a big, mean-looking fellow, with a thick shock of curly blonde hair and a thick, full beard. He wore two guns, both of them tied down, but the holsters were reversed, calling for a cross-draw when it came time for his shooting irons to clear leather.
Potter was built slightly smaller than Coy, and only wore one gun. He kept a neatly trimmed mustache on his upper lip, but looked nonetheless a cold, hard man, bitten by the desert sun but resilient enough to withstand the harsh ways of the territory and the men who walked in it.
Hal Mercer rode with them, but he looked as shaky as ever.
They all three came swaggering into the saloon with Coy in the lead.
“Where is he?” he barked as he forced his way through the batwing doors.
The bartender and the few patrons who occupied the saloon at midday looked up at him.
“He ain’t here,” the bartender said in a low voice.
“Well then, where is he?”
The bartender shrugged, and went back to scrubbing at a spot on the surface of the bar.
Coy glanced around the saloon, then he crossed over to the bar and looked square into the bartender’s face.
After a moment, the bartender looked up and peered at the man from behind his half-moon spectacles.
Suddenly Coy reached forward and took hold of the man’s collar. With a show of brute force, he brought the bartender’s face smashing down onto the surface of the bar.
“I wanna know where the man who killed my brother is. And if somebody don’t tell me right this instant, I ain’t gonna be too happy.”
At that moment, the batwing doors opened, and Orn Bisby strolled casually into the saloon. He paid the scene no mind, but crossed over to the bar, ordered a bite to eat, and then made his way over to the corner and sat down at the table in which three small bullet holes were visible in its surface.
Potter stared hard at Bisby for a long moment, and glanced over at Hal Mercer, who nodded casually. Potter looked back at Coy and nodded toward Bisby. “That’s him.”
Coy looked over at Bisby, who casually checked the time according to a gold-lined pocket watch hanging from his intricately patterned, rosy-colored vest. As the bartender picked himself up off the surface of the desk, a steady flow of blood dripping from his nose, Coy started over to where Bisby sat, followed closely by Potter and Hal Mercer.
Bisby produced a thin deck of cards from the inside of his vest and began to shuffle them instinctively. Coy walked around and sat down at the seat across from him, the same seat Jim Tucker had been in just before he died.
Hal Mercer took up the seat to Bisby’s left, the seat closest to the door. Potter walked carefully around behind Bisby, seemingly sizing the seated man up, before taking up a seat on Bisby’s right.
“I take it you gentlemen are here for a game?” Bisby said obliviously.
The patrons in the saloon quietly stood and started for the batwing doors.
Coy looked hard across the table at the man seated on the opposite end. “We’re here because you killed our brother?”
“I’ve killed a lot of men,” Bisby replied, without looking up from the cards he was shuffling. “Are you sure it was your brother?”
Coy glanced over at Mercer, who nodded quickly. “Yeah,” Coy said, “we’re sure. And it was three days ago. Right here in this here saloon.”
“That was your brother, huh? Well, friend, I’m sorry to say that it was a fair fight. Your brother drew first.”
“That still don’t mean that you didn’t kill him.”
“Well now, that’s true. But you know as well as I, sir, that when a man draws iron, the man he’s drawing against has every right to defend himself.”
“The way I heard it, you was cheatin’ in a card game.”
“I don’t cheat,” Bisby said, placing the cards facedown in two identical stacks just in front of himself. He looked up into Coy Tucker’s face. Then he offered a small smile. “You should ask Mr. Mercer, here. As I recall, he was present at the time of the card game.”
Hal Mercer grew all the more nervous at the mention of his name. He was now chewing his bottom lip and picked his shaking hands up off the surface of the table.
Several faces were crowding the windows into the saloon, and amongst them was Bucky Garland.
“Watch ‘em, Coy,” Mercer said in a quiet, quivering voice, “he’s fast with that Russian.”
“I reckon I seen you somewhere’s before,” Potter Tucker said suddenly, looking over at Bisby.
Bisby glanced at Potter. “I’ve seen a lot of folks in my day. Maybe you have.”
Potter looked deep in thought for a moment, and then appeared to let the issue drift to the back of his mind for the time being.
“I ain’t lettin’ you walk outta here alive,” Coy said after a moment.
“I think,” Bisby said, looking at the man from underneath his wide-brimmed black hat, “that we should let the cards decide.”
“Have you fellows played cards before?”
Coy glanced unsurely at Potter, who stared expressionlessly at the three bullet holes in the surface of the table.
“I already know Mr. Mercer has tried his hands at card playing once,” Bisby said, “and I can’t say that I’m impressed with his skills. However, with work, I’m sure we might show him a thing or two.”
“You ever made it as far into Texas as Desdemona?” Potter asked suddenly, looking up at Bisby.
“Perhaps,” Bisby said quietly, picking the cards back up and nonchalantly going about shuffling them once again.
“What’d you say yur name was again?”
“Names are for tombstones,” Bisby said firmly.
Coy stood abruptly, in the same manner that Jim Tucker had just before he’d died. “I’ve had enough of this. If names is for tombstones, then yurs is goin’ up on one right now.”
There was a moment’s hesitation just before Coy’s hands moved crossways, and Orn Bisby had played cards long enough to know how to read his opponent and read him well. He had tried to avoid the conflict, but now it was inevitable. With one hand, he tossed up the cards he was holding so that a cloud of spades and hearts filled the air above the table’s surface. His other hand fell to the .44 Russian in its holster, and his draw was quick and smooth.
His first shot went off a split second before Coy’s did. Bisby’s round splintered wood and tore through several cards before slamming hard into Coy’s chest, while Coy’s round cut the air just next to Bisby’s cheekbone. Bisby stood, simultaneously firing another round in Coy’s direction before turning the gun to his right and firing a single shot that plugged Hal Mercer square between the eyes.
Three other shots bellowed, and Bisby felt something hit him hard in the side and felt another bullet tug at his shirtsleeve. He ignored the stinging pain and fired two shots in Potter’s direction. The final few cards spun down to the surface of the table, and Bisby whipped his gun hand around to fire his last shot at Coy Tucker.
The saloon was hazy with smoke and cards littered the surface and area around the table the four men had been sitting at.
Hal Mercer was slumped in his chair, his eyes wide and blank, his head lolled to one side with a bullet hole visible in the center of his forehead.
Potter Tucker was lying on the floor next to his own chair, a stream of blood pouring from two bullet holes visible in his back. His gun was still clutched in his dead fingers.
Coy Tucker was still standing. His guns were dangling at his sides, and his shirtfront was stained with blood. His eyes were wild and furious, but his face was pale and his expression was weak and helpless. The shots Bisby fired at him were so well placed, that it seemed only his anger and hatred and unwillingness to let go of his own life kept him standing there.
He looked into Bisby’s face, and then slowly lifted his right gun hand.
Bisby had fired all six rounds from his gun, and he watched as Coy Tucker brought a Colt up level with his chest and cocked back the hammer.
His next move was a gamble.
But gambling was all Orn Bisby had ever known.
So he took the gamble, and his left hand came up in a blur of motion, swiping the small knife concealed in his waistband. He brought his arm back and hurled the knife forward, and the blade plunged into Coy Tucker’s throat with such force that the weakened man teetered backward onto his heels, and his gun went off into the ceiling.
He gurgled for a moment, blood spouting from the open wound in his throat, and his eyes fell upon Orn Bisby’s calm face. They remained locked their as his guns fell from his hands, and he staggered forward, sprawling out onto the surface of the table.
His next breath was his last.
And then all was still.
Bisby holstered his .44 and brought his hand over to his right side. He found that Potter Tucker’s bullet had hit him, but had struck one of the buckles of his gun belt and had not penetrated his skin. He would be bruised, but that would be all. There was a large hole in his shirtsleeve, but other than that, he stood tall and straight.
Suddenly he felt a hand lay upon his shoulder. He turned and found the bartender looking up into his face.
“The marshal’s on his way,” the bartender said. “I’ll let you out the back way, you get your horse, and you ride out of here right now and don’t you ever come back.”
Bisby nodded and followed the bartender around the bar and out through a back door. “I appreciate this,” he said to the bartender solemnly.
“Forget it,” the bartender replied, dapping at his bloodied and swollen nose with a handkerchief. “Just git goin’.”
Bisby circled around the saloon and slipped into the corral while the focus was on the happenings in the saloon.
Ten minutes later he was riding out of Dodge, and he stopped a ways outside of the town and looked back.
Dodge City had been a placed he’d enjoyed, a place that had kept money in his pocket, the drinks pouring, and had pretty women aplenty.
He turned away and then spurred his horse on.
He would ride west.
He would explore the frontier.
If necessary, he would establish his own self a place to call home.
Until then, Orn Bisby would ride.
All he needed was a fresh deck of cards.