Western Short Story - Percival Beckham
“That’s him at, the far end of the bar…the big, ugly feller.”
“Thank you, bartender.”
The speaker was a small, dapper man, dressed in a natty suit, and holding a bowler hat in his left hand, as he marched the length of the bar to confront the lone, shaggy, mountain of a man silently nursing a beer. The big man’s head was covered in a wide brimmed, sweat-stained hat, and he was wearing a leather vest over a faded polka dot shirt. He wore dusty, faded black jeans, and he hadn’t bothered removing his range chaps or Mexican style spurs. On his shirt hung the star of a United States Marshal. On the bar in front of him was a scarred, short-barreled ten gauge shotgun.
“Am I addressing Marshal Durham?
For a long moment, nothing happened, and then an eyeball rolled itself from under a large, shaggy eyebrow, first sideways and then down, finally fixing itself on the smaller man.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I am Percival Beckham, of the St Louis Beckhams. You may call me Percy. Are you Marshal Durham?”
He turned his broad, weather beaten face toward the little man and regarded him further, this time with both eyes. A puzzled frown floated across his bearded face, and he took a sip of his neglected beer.
“I’m Bull Durham. At least that’s what folks call me when I ain‘t around. They think its funny. You think it’s funny?”
“Oh, I see. You mean the Bull Durham tobacco brand. Yes, well, I suppose it might be funny, but I am not a man of humor. I’m a rather serious sort, as you’ll see, and I am here on serious business. I mean to kill a man and I want you to be a witness.”
Marshal Durham turned back to his beer.
“If I witness you killin’ someone, I’ll have to arrest you and hold you for a fair trial. Then I’ll hang you. Now go the hell away and leave me be.”
“The man I mean to kill is Turney Jackson, and I aim to do it in a fair duel.”
The Marshal made a low, rumbling sound, which Percy soon realized was a chuckle.
“Hell, Turney will have you for breakfast. He’ll swaller you whole. Besides, all his killin’s have been lawful. He goads the other feller into the first move, and then he kills him in self-defense.”
“Not always, Marshal. He killed my brother in a small town alley outside St. Louis, and it was cold-blooded murder. Now I propose to challenge him to a duel, or label him a craven coward, as he chooses. As the legal authority in this territory, I am asking you to witness the procedure, and keep it above board.”
The Marshal sighed unhappily. He motioned to the barkeep for another beer and peered sideways at Percy Beckham.
“When are you proposin’ to commit this suicide? Jackson can get a gun out faster’n you can blink.”
“I understand Mister Jackson takes his coffee at Ma Turner’s Café in the mornings. I shall challenge him there tomorrow, if it’s convenient. And I will not be armed.”
“Well, Percy, it ain’t convenient, and it ain’t what I prefer to do of a morning, but if I’m to keep the peace, I suppose I’ll have to be there. Now go the hell away and leave me be.“
Three horses were tied off in front of Ma Turner's, lazily switching flies as Percival Beckham waited on the boardwalk, watching Marshal Durham stride across the dusty street, an unhappy look on his face, and his shotgun under his arm.
“Good morning, Marshal.”
‘You still aim on foolishly getting yourself killed? I figgered a good night’s sleep might make you get reconsidered.”
“Shall we Marshal?” Beckham open the front door to Ma’s and waved the Marshal through, stepping in after him.
Durham looked around, and jerked his head at a man seated across the room. “That there’s Turney Jackson, seated back there in the corner by hisself. He’s the tall thin feller with the blond hair.”
Percival Beckham strode to the table, pulled a pair of rough leather range gloves out of his back pocket and used them to slap Turney Jackson hard across the mouth. The surprised Jackson lurched over backward and both he and his chair hit the floor hard. He jumped up and grabbed the revolver hanging on his hip, cocking it on the way up, and brought it to bear on an unwavering Percival Beckham. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Marshal Durham bring the shotgun to his shoulder, and realized it was pointed straight at him. He hesitated, unsure.
“That little feller ain’t armed Turney. You shoot him, and I’ll be obliged to do for you.”
Confused, Jackson stared owlishly back and forth at his two antagonists for a moment. Then he lowered his weapon.
“What the hell is this? And who the hell are you, fancy-pants, and why did you sucker punch me?’ He felt his lip with his left hand, and it came away bloody.
“I am Percival Beckham, of the St. Louis Bechams, and you killed my brother in a Missouri alley. Now I am here to challenge you to a duel, Turney Jackson, and then, I shall kill you.”
Jackon’s mouth sagged, and his head leaned slightly sideways in an effort to understand what was happening. One moment, he was deciding on eggs or pancakes, and now he was bleeding from the mouth while a St. Louis dandy was ranting about an almost forgotten killing and threatening to kill him in revenge.
He eyed the small, thin man for a long moment, and then grinned with his broken and bleeding lips. Dropping his revolver into its holster, he looked Beckham in the eye.
“Well, dude, I don’t remember your brother, but if you want to join him in hell, I’m just the man to oblige you.”
Beckham nodded. “You are challenged, so choice of weapons falls to you. Blades or firearms?”
Puzzled, Jackson hesitated a moment, and then laughed. “What the hell are you talking about? I don‘t know nothing‘ about blades, but I can shoot the butt off a fly at fifty yards!”
“Very well, firearms it is. Choice of weapons goes to you and rules of combat go to me.”
Percival Beckham turned to Marshal Durham. “Can you recommend a suitable field, where townspeople will not be in danger?”
“School’s out, so I reckon you can use the playground. That’s north of town.”
“Very well.” Percival Beckham glanced at Turney Jackson. “Noon at the school playground. Bring your second, and I shall have mine.”
Turney Jackson snorted. “Second? It’ll take just about that long to send you to hell!”
By noon, a small crowd had gathered in the schoolyard as the word spread. Several buggies from town were there, and riders from various ranches were standing around. A few mothers were minding children near the school building, and baskets of food were being spread on blankets.
Percival Beckham, accompanied by a tall thin man dressed in a suit and carrying a polished wooden box, walked up to a smiling Turney Jackson, standing with two, rough looking men. Marshal Bull Durham strolled over to join the small group.
“This is John Smiley, my second and my manservant.” He turned to Smiley who opened the box, displaying a brace of two, finely crafted, dueling pistols.
“Them are mighty pretty, but I’ll just use my own, “ said a grinning Jackson.
“I’m afraid you don’t understand, sir. You chose firearms, to which I agreed, but now the choice and method is mine, and I choose single shot pistols, at forty paces. Are you backing down sir?”
Jackson’s face grew red. “Hell no, I ain’t scared! I just prefer my own weapon!”
“We each get a single shot. If neither are successful, the challenge is complete, and the duel is satisfied. Your weapon is a repeating revolver, and you might forget you have but one shot. I ask again, are you backing down?”
“Hell no, but how do I know that you won’t give me a bad pistol and use the good one on me?”
“The choice of pistols is yours, sir. They are matched in every way. Which one do you want?”
Marshal Durham grinned in spite of himself. He was beginning to like the little man and he was no longer so sure of the outcome. He decided to prod Turney Jackson a little. He never had cottoned to him, anyway.
“You gonna let this little dandy buffalo you Turn? I thought you were such a tough man.”
Furious, Turney Jackson reached into the box and grabbed a pistol. He examined the cap and hammer and then, satisfied, he nodded. Marshal Durham held out his hand, and Jackson reluctantly handed over his revolver, swallowing hard as he did so. Percival Beckham lifted the remaining pistol and nodded at Smiley, who cleared his throat.
“Stand back to back, gentlemen, and on my count, take twenty paces, turn, and fire.”
Smiley turned to Marshal Durham.
“If Mister Jackson should attempt to turn and fire prior to the count of twenty, I shall shoot him. It shall be your responsibility to shoot Percival Beckham, should he try to do the same.”
Jackson’s mouth dropped, and he glanced at Marshal Durham for confirmation. Durham just grinned at him and shrugged his massive shoulders.
“These boys are serious, Turney. Better make that first shot count, since that’s all you’ll get.”
John Smiley positioned the two men back to back, and then stepped away.
“Gentlemen, cock your pistols.” There were two clicks. Percival Beckham stared straight ahead calmly. Turney Jackson wiped the sweat off his brow with his kerchief, his eyes darting side to side.
“On my count, take one step forward and pause. After the count of twenty, you may turn and fire at will. One!”
Each man stepped forward, taking another step as Smiley droned the count. As the count neared twenty, the crowd went silent in anticipation. Percival Beckham was still calm and smooth, but Turney Jackson was notably agitated. At last, John Smiley uttered the word ‘twenty’, and Jackson whirled, aimed and fired.
Percival Beckham’s head jerked to the right, and then he straightened and smiled at Turney Jackson. “That was close, Mister Jackson. I heard it fly right by my ear.”
Turney Jackson’s jaw dropped, and his hand dropped to his now empty holster.
Percival Beckham raised his pistol high into the air and then slowly brought it down to bear on Turney Jackson. Jackson looked around helplessly, and then turned back to stare at Percival Beckham in horror. He saw Beckham’s right eye lining up over the sights of the pistol, and he frantically held up his hands.
“Now wait! You just hold on, there! You just wait! Stop!”
Suddenly, Turney Jackson bolted and ran, dodging and darting behind onlookers and then around the side of the schoolhouse. Seconds later, they heard the sound of hoof beats, as Jackson raced away down the schoolhouse road.
The stunned onlookers were silent for a ,moment, and then somebody chuckled. Suddenly, the whole crowd broke up in laughter. Turney Jackson’s days as a fearsome gunfighter were over. He would forever be branded as a coward. No matter where he went, the story would follow.
“You beat him at his own game. Your brother would be proud of you.”
The marshal and Beckham were talking over breakfast at Ma Turner’s. Beckham glanced around, and beckoned the marshal closer.
“That man Jackson killed in Missouri was not my brother. I have no brother.”
Marshal Durham’s mouth dropped. “What? But you said…!”
“I’m a writer, Marshal. I’ve been assigned to write about all you hooligans out here, so I decided the best way to get a good story was to make myself part of that story. I knew about Jackson from the article on that shooting, so I looked him up, and made my challenge.”
He sat back, grinning and waiting.
Marshal Bull Durham slowly shook his massive head. “You could have been killed, you damn fool! That bullet passed right by your head! It was so close you jerked away!”
Percival Beckham’s grin grew even larger. “Not at all, Marshal. I just did that to make it look good. After all, I’m no damn fool. You see, both those guns had a double charge of powder and wad, but no bullet."
"So Turney Jackson..."
"That's right Marshal...he ran away from a blank!"