Herb’s blog, Herbdate 22114-685: Originally written and/or posted previously elsewhere on Herbdate: 17875 aka 01/13/2009:
Here we have another story I had written and forgot about. It hasn’t seen the light of day since January 2009.
1/13/09: I handed “The Writer’s Book of Matches” to Margaret and asked her to pick one. She found this on page 120:
“A cowboy composes a letter at his favorite saloon before going out to face another gunfighter.”
This is written with background noise and constant interruption and also accepting a big stereotype of what is commonly called The Old West. Although almost everyone in that time carried a gun and knew how to use all manner of them, not all of them were gunfighters. That being said, there were some…
It was high noon as I stood at the top of the main street and sweated. I’d heard of Killer Jackson, of course, who hadn’t, but I never dreamed I would meet him. And never like this. I stood at the South end and waited. Having the sun and Boot Hill both at my back seemed to help. Well, it was time to be a man about it now, even though Jackson was a killer and hired gun and I was just a puncher and don’t even really like to fight. I had done the right thing, though, no matter what, and would go down knowing I had at least done right. In my mind’s eye, I replayed the scene from earlier that morning while I waited for Jackson to show.
A couple of teenaged kids had ridden into town on a buckboard early that morning, a brother and sister from one of the area ranches or farms it seemed. They had a rifle on the seat but otherwise were unarmed. I was on my way to the Rattler Saloon to refresh myself and try to find a little work to do so I could eat, when I saw a giant of a man step out of the General store. He was unshaven and looked unwashed and his boots were dirty and scuffed. I didn’t notice all this at first. The first thing I noticed was the big hunk of metal in a worn leather holster tied down to his leg. The butt of the gun was right where his hand fell as he stood with his arms by his side and had a number of notches in it. I’m kind of a middle-sized five foot and eight and I felt like a midget in a circus sideshow compared to him. That didn’t matter after what happened next.
I’ve never been one to be to picky about whether some thing or the other was exactly on this side of the law or that. One of the reasons I came out here from the East had to do with my attitude about such things. I had tried to do the right thing and even went to school for a while, but there always seemed to be some reason or the other I wound up on the wrong side. You know, if you don’t lock your door, someone could try it and walk right into your store and help themselves to whatever they wanted. Before I finally left the East for good I had caught a man cheating at cards and killed him. It was a fair fight but the constabulary asked me if I thought a change of scenery might be a good idea.
There are, however, some things that are universally right or wrong.
“You’re a pretty little thing,” Jackson had said to the girl, shoving her brother aside and taking her by the arm, “Why don’t you come with me?”
“I don’t think so! Take your hand off me!”
“I like having my hand on you, sweetie.”
The boy was white as a ghost and you could tell he was scared, but he tried, I’ll give him that, “Leave my sister be!”
“Aw, I ain’t goin’ to hurt her none.”
“Click-click,” said the hammer on my pistol. I couldn’t stand by and watch this. Sure, I’ve done my share of stuff, but this was different. “Perhaps you didn’t hear the young lady. She asked you to unhand her. That is what her brother was trying to reiterate to you and it seems like a reasonable request.”
He didn’t know what to make of me. I could see the wheels turning in his brain, his hand right there on the butt of his gun, but I had the drop on him and could have done the world a favor right then and there. I didn’t know it, but if there ever was a man needed killing, it was this one. He let the girl go and she ran to her brother. The big guy looked at me with a look that probably could have tamed a rattlesnake.
“Do you know who I am, Curly?” I have always hated that name. It makes me mad. I can’t help what my hair looks like, but it’s a moniker that sticks no matter where I go.
“I don’t care who you are. You don’t know who I am, either, or you’d be a little more respectful.” He didn’t know me, nobody did, but with a character like him you can’t show fear and if you can put it on that you’re tougher than you look, sometimes it helps. It puts doubt in a bully’s mind.
“You just got lucky and got the drop on me. Meet me on Main Street at noon in a fair, man-to-man fight and we’ll see. Or are you afraid?”
“I’ll be waiting.” I kept my gun on him until he had mounted up and rode off.
The kids came up to me and the squeaky-voiced boy thanked me while his sister just stood there like a frightened doe. A crowd had gathered and I wondered where all these people had come from. Why was it like that? A crowd this size could send a guy like Jackson packin’. Or me, for that matter, but folks are scared, I guess. An old man walked out of the Rattler.
“Say, where’d Killer Jackson ride off to in such a hurry?” The name was known to everybody, me included. Killer Jackson. The story was related and the old-timer said to me, “Young man, you done right to help them kids, but was I you I would just ride out of town as fast as possible and put as many miles behind you before noon as you can. There ain’t nobody’d blame ya a-tall.”
“Well,” given Jackson’s reputation I knew he was right, but I couldn’t do it. A man like that would surely look for revenge on those kids and who knows how many people before and after that were and would be his victims? So, instead of asking for directions like a smart person would have done, I said, “No. Nope. I ain’t never ran from another man as long as I’ve been alive. I’ve been whooped a few times, but I never backed down or ran. It ain’t in me.”
“Well, a hailstorm of lead’s gonna be in ya if you don’t. I seen him shoot before. There ain’t nothin’ like it anywhere. Nobody’d think less of you. Just go.”
“Instead of trying to get me to run like a chicken, why don’t you come to the saloon and I’ll buy you a drink and you tell me everything you know about this Killer Jackson? Does he use a gang? Does anything make him afraid?” We sat at a table in a corner, my back to the wall, “How does he draw his gun?”
“Mister, he’s lightning fast and rattlesnake mean. You should have killed him right then and there.”
“Well, you’re helpful.”
“I seen it with my own two eyes. Feller called him Jackie, thinking he was being funny or clever and he had whipped that gun out and started shooting as soon as he cleared leather.” That might be my hope. I had no choice anyway. I had it to do. One thing filled me with regret, however. Having met so many good and honest people I had thought about maybe getting a little place out here and sending for my mama. Sort of to make up for all she had to put up with me through the years.
“Mister Old-timer, does someone around here have some paper and a pencil or something like that?”
“Heh-heh-heh. Whatcha gonna do? Write a letter at a time like this? You need a shot of whiskey.”
“No, no whiskey. A cup of coffee and something to write with.” A pot of coffee was fetched and someone found a pencil and paper and even an envelope. The coffee was good. Hot and black and think as mud. It was likely I would die but at least I’d have a decent cup of coffee. I started to write.
I opened with the standard greeting of “Dear Mama” and told her about what had happened, knowing she would be proud that I had done the right thing but that she would cry when she realized what was going on.
“And Mama,” I went on, “I know you didn’t ever approve of my friends and I guess that since I have been out here and seen how honest people live and work, I maybe don’t altogether approve of them either anymore, but there is one last thing that needs to be done. This Killer Jackson is worse than the worst of the people I ever knew and he must be dealt with. There is no lawman out here and he knows it and does whatever he pleases. I am sure that what he tried to do today was nothing compared to what he can and will do. Justice out here is served only one way.
“Here’s what I want you to do. If you don’t get a second letter from me within three months, I want you to go down to the Blackstar tavern and tell Schmidty at the bar that you’re my mama and that you’re looking to find my friend, Snake-eyes. Give Snake-eyes this letter and tell him I’m dead and to come and get Killer Jackson.
“Mama, I can hear your voice arguing about it, but please. This is my last request. You may never hear from me again but I have seen real evil and it has to be destroyed.
“With Love from Your Son,
“If I live through this I might even become a lawman.”
That last line would make Snake-eyes laugh right out loud. I gave my letter to the express rider. Everybody in town knew what was going on, and he took out like a war party was after him. My letter would get through and Snake-eyes would have no compunction on how he killed this man, he would just do it and the world would be a better place.
The noon sun was hot on my back now and I briefly hoped he would not show. Then the face of that girl and her brother flashed into my mind and I knew what I had to do and I knew I was in the right. Suddenly at the other of the street stood Jackson. I took a deep breath and recalled conversations I had had all along the way. People who knew gun fighting. Had seen it and been in it.
I watched that hand so close to the butt of his gun as I walked toward him. My throat was dry. I had loosened my holster and the pistol sat easy there, but I had to have time, since I didn’t have speed. I would need to get one good, clean shot at him because that was all I’d get. He walked forward. Arrogant as any bully ever was. I hated him and I hated his kind. The tag from his tobacco pouch hung right over his heart. I had something to aim at. Could I throw his timing off with a little banter?
“You still got time, Jackson. I’ll let you go and we can forget about this. You just leave this area for good and don’t come back.”
He stopped walking toward me and laughed and laughed as I walked toward him.
“I mean it, Jackie…” I never got to finish my sentence. Apparently he hated to be called that and I had lucked into calling him the one thing that would make him go wild. He bellered with rage, like a wounded bull, and went for his gun. He was fast. I had never seen a gun clear leather that fast but I was ready. The old-timers down the trail had told me to always use my head. Don’t waste time aiming, just point like you would point your finger and shoot. He was wild and his first shot went through my left shoulder. I pointed my gun at his tobacco tag and fired. A look of anger and shock crossed his face as I kept walking forward and fired and fired. Blood shot from his chest like a fountain in a park making little mud puddles in the dust. He tried to say something and pointed his gun at me and shot as he fell to the ground. The bullet went into me, but I didn’t care. I had won. I had rid the world of an evil disease.
A buckboard wagon full of armed men came clattering around the corner just then. The young man from earlier had gone like wildfire out to his ranch and brought his pa and all the hands. I started to collapse and the last thing I recall is strong hands holding me up.
The doctor tells me I was lucky I got him to shoot wild like that and even luckier that both bullets just went right on through me. I am under strict orders to stay in bed and rest, but, well, the rancher has decided that he would put me up, so it ain’t so bad. I got a pretty little nursemaid waiting on me hand and foot. I could get used to this.
I wrote my mama a letter the next day telling her I was okay, but it was too late. Her and Snake-eyes weren’t gonna wait around no three months nohow. They lit out and came right where I was at.
Y’know, I think I could get the hang of this life. No more drifting. I’m gonna talk to pa about how to get started on my own. I mean, I have my mama and my friend and maybe, just maybe…well, I could talk to him about that too.