The Gun Fighter - A Western Short Story
The Gun Fighter
“That’s five out of five in three seconds flat!”
Luther Johnson spoke from the porch without looking up from the harness he was mending.
“A man should know how to shoot.”
Billy Silvers turned and grinned at the thin old man.
“Lester Wiggins had best step aside, and mind his mouth.”
Luther glanced up at Billy from under bushy brows.
“A man should also know when to shoot, Billy.”
He put up the harness and regarded the young man. He had raised Billy after his father had died and made him an orphan. His mother had died birthing Billy, and his father took to drinking. He died in a saloon, when a stray bullet from a gunfight at another table hit him in the back of the head. Nobody questioned Luther when he said he would raise Billy. After all, there was no one else, and he had been foreman on the Silvers ranch. Billy had grown up referring to him as ‘Uncle Luther’, although they were not related.
When Billy turned eighteen and came into full possession of the ranch, he immediately made Luther Johnson a partner, and changed the name to the Rafter S Bar J. Luther had been stunned by Billy’s generosity, but Billy just smiled and gave the old man a friendly slap on the back.
“It’s me that owes you, Uncle Luther.”
Luther Johnson knew better, but kept his silence. It was better that way.
Billy Silvers had grown into an uncommonly strong and handsome man. He was also good hearted and level headed.
“You’re letting this Lester Wiggins get to you, Billy. Looking for trouble with him will get you killed.” He spat into the dust. “So he hurrahed you some! So what? It ain’t worth dying over.”
“He shamed me in front of Molly. That ain’t no small thing!”
“Molly don’t give a tinker’s dam what a drifter like Lester Wiggins says, and you know it! She’s been cow-eyed over you since you was in short pants. This is ain’t about Molly. This is about your own foolish pride, son.”
Billy dropped the empty shells in his pocket and reloaded. Then he walked to the fence and set up five more cans. He turned and walked back to the porch, facing Luther. Suddenly he whirled and drew, all in one motion, firing five times in one steady roar. All five cans went spinning off the fence. Without a word, he climbed the steps and went in the house. Luther picked up the harness and sat back down.
“That boy can shoot,” he thought. “Of course, them cans wasn’t shooting back.”
Lester Wiggins and three other hard cases had drifted into town about a year ago. They took up residence in an abandoned dugout down by Millers Creek, and did odd jobs for other ranches and a business or two. That, and possibly some petty thievery, kept them in drinking and gambling money, and fed them at Baker’s Café, where Molly worked as a waitress.
Molly Blakely had grown up with rowdy cowboys and their rough humor, so Lester Wiggins and his crowd presented no problem to her at all. She quickly put all of them in their place, and it was an unwritten law in the west that molesting a woman would earn the offender a one way trip to the nearest tree limb.
Folks pitched in to help raise George Faley’s barn, so he threw a barn dance in gratitude, and Billy Silvers escorted Molly Blakely, who had recently and joyfully agreed to marry him. Luther Johnson was smoking his pipe in the shadows of a cottonwood when a laughing Billy and Molly came outside for some air. Lester Wiggins, who had been sharing a bottle with two others down by the tool shed, decided to rawhide Billy a little. Words were spoken, and an enraged, but unarmed Billy was forced to back down to the three armed men. He was humiliated, and Luther Johnson was worried. An angry man was vulnerable.
For the next month, things went well, and Billy seemed to cool off. Lester Wiggins and his bunch had business elsewhere, so Billy’s courting of Molly Blakely in town continued undisturbed. Then, on a warm Saturday morning, they drove a wagon to town to pick up rolls of fencing.
“You want breakfast, Uncle Luther?”
“No, I had some bacon and coffee. You go say howdy to Molly, and I’ll get our order together. I see some loafers in the mercantile, so we’ll swap lies until you’re through seeing your lady.”
Billy’s ears reddened. He too had eaten bacon at the ranch and wasn’t all that hungry. He just wanted to say hello to Molly. He walked across the dusty, busy street.
The dark interior of the mercantile was cool and smelled of new denim. Luther placed his order, and while it was being filled, he joined the others sitting around the cold wood stove.
Molly brushed a stray lock back off her forehead. The kitchen was hot, and her lovely brow was damp. She smiled down at Billy and filled his cup.
“I wish I could sit with you, Billy, but lots of folks are in town this morning, and we’re running to keep up.”
“I understand. I just wanted to say hello. I have to help Uncle Luther load up anyway.” He finished his coffee, and waved to Molly as he stepped out the door.
“Looks like something’s happening out there.” The speaker was one of the loafers, standing at the mercantile’s store window and gazing down the street. Luther stood and walked to the front of the store. It was Billy, Lester Wiggins, and two others, facing each other in the street. Luther stepped outside.
The formerly busy street suddenly looked empty as folks crowded inside the various businesses. A few daring souls stood in entryways, their curiosity trumping their good sense. Billy Silvers calmly faced the other three, hoping that his shaking hands were not noticeable.
On Wiggins’ right was a gray haired, hatched-faced older man Billy did not know. On his left was bucktoothed, Jug Swanson, a sallow complected youngster who was rumored to have murdered a sheriff in Oklahoma.
Lester had called to Billy as he stepped out into the street, and Billy had walked over to see what he wanted. As he did, the other two had come from opposite sides of the street and now, Billy was neatly boxed. He had already decided to kill Lester first, if the shooting started. He had heard what Lester had said to Molly.
“Looks like you are armed this time. Maybe you also found some courage.”
Billy knew Lester was trying to force him to commit. Billy said nothing and waited. Then he saw hatchet-face looking at something behind Billy, his face paling. Billy heard footsteps in the dust come up beside him and stop. It was Luther Johnson, and he had the double barrel shotgun from the wagon in his hands. In his waistband was a revolver Billy had never seen before.
“You fixin’ to get yourself killed old man?” Lester Wiggins was almost sneering, but the hatchet-faced, older man was suddenly sweating.
“Les? Maybe we should just drop it.”
“What the hell are you talking about? What is wrong with you?”
“Les, that there old man is Joker Johnson. I seen him before. It’s him for sure.”
Everybody knew the story. Some twenty five years ago, three hard cases had robbed the Cody bank and were getting ready to mount up when a lone cowboy confronted them.
“Is that the bank's money you fellers are carrying? If it is, some of it belongs to me, so you best take it back.”
As a man, all three clawed for their guns, but none of them so much as got off a shot. Folks who witnessed it swore that they never saw the cowboy pull his revolver. It was suddenly in his hand and three shots sounded like one. All three robbers were down, and when the one who was still alive tried to raise his weapon, the cowboy warned him first, and then shot him between the eyes.
The few who knew him called him Joker Johnson, because he liked to tell funny stories around a campfire. No one knew he was deadly with a pistol.
Lester Wiggins hesitated.
“That right, old man? Are you Johnson, the Wyoming gunfighter?”
Luther nodded. “I’ve been called that. I didn’t ask for it.” Billy was stunned at the revelation, but he held steady, watching the other three.
Jug Swanson was now openly looking around for a way out. Hatchet-face took an involuntary step backwards.
Luther glanced at Lester Wiggins, and their eyes held. Suddenly wary, Lester realized he was looking death square in the face. He looked down at the dust. Luther raised the shotgun.
“I want you and your rabble to pack and leave the territory. If I ever see any of you again, I’m going to figure you’re gunning for me or Billy and I’ll shoot you down on sight. Understood?”
“Understood? I ain’t askin’ again!”
All three men nodded.
The three turned and began to walk away. Luther watched them for a moment and then jerked his head toward the wagon. “Let’s go load up, Billy.”
They had turned on their heels when Billy heard the double click of a hammer being cocked. He whirled and drew in one swift motion, just as a shocked Lester Wiggins was bringing his gun to bear. Five shots slammed into Wiggins, and to his left, Billy could hear the roar of the ten gauge shotgun.
“Folks in town all swear that you were well within your rights to defend yourselves, and I have no call to doubt it. Those were three bad men, although I had no papers on them.”
The sheriff drank the rest of his coffee and stood, his eyes on Billy.
“That was some shooting, but don’t let it go to your head son. Gun fighting will get you killed, sure enough.”
Billy nodded. “It was something I had to do, Sheriff, but I still get sick to my stomach whenever I think about it. I’m no killer. I don’t ever want to have to do that again.”
When they were alone again, Luther put a revolver on the table and looked Billy square in the eyes. It was the one he had at the gunfight.
“This has been gnawing at me for years, Billy, and it’s time to come clean. I fired the bullet that killed your father, and that there is the gun I used.”
Billy started at him, the shock plain on his face. Luther nodded at him, and continued.
“Oh it was an accident, that’s right enough, but it don’t make it any easier. I was standing against the wall watching a card game when the dealer was caught cheating. Bullets were suddenly flying everywhere, and when one almost hit me, I drew and fired at that dealer. Then I saw your father go to the floor, and I knew what I had done.” He stopped and wiped at his eyes. “Nobody saw me fire, and they all agreed it was an accident, so I talked to a preacher about it. He said maybe I should just say nothing and raise you to try to make it right.”
He looked at Billy, his old eyes were pleading for understanding.
"Your pa was my boss, but he was also my best friend, Billy. Maybe my only friend, and I killed him."
Billy reached across the table and picked up the gun, turning it over and over, but saying nothing. Then he rose and went to his room. A moment later, he returned and put a small object on the table. It was a partially deformed bullet. Luther looked up at him, a question in his eyes.
“Doc Turner stopped me the day I turned eighteen and took me to his office. He showed me that bullet, and told me he dug it out of my father’s head.” He looked at Luther. “That’s the bullet that killed him. He said I could have it if I wanted it. He’d kept it all these years. I took it.”
He picked up the revolver. “This gun of yours is a Navy Colt, caliber thirty six.”
He looked at Luther for confirmation, and Luther nodded.
“That bullet is a forty one caliber. You did not kill my father, Uncle Luther. We’ll never know who did, but it wasn’t you.”
Luther Johnson, the hardened gun fighter, buried his head in his hands and wept quietly. Billy stood and walked over behind him. He patted Luther on the shoulder and then busied himself washing the breakfast dishes. When he finished, he looked over at Luther and grinned.
“We’ve got us a ranch to run, so let’s get at it, and while we are, I’ll want to hear some of those funny stories you used to tell, Uncle Joker Johnson!”