Western Short Story - Dogtown
“Who the hell is that?”
The stranger walked his big bay slowly down the street, sitting upright in the saddle. He was a handsome enough man, but there was a hint of cruelty in his face. He carried a brace of pistols, one on his right hip and one shoved down in his waistband. He wore a flat-brimmed black hat, with a red kerchief at his throat. There was an jagged white scar on his face, running down his right cheek, probably an old knife wound. His horse and outfit spoke of money, far more money than an ordinary cowhand could afford. He looked like trouble.
“Looks like he could be that Cleavey Rhingold feller, the Missouri gunfighter. He’s supposed to be in these parts. I have a circular on him in the Post Office, but he ain’t wanted in the Territory.”
The speaker was Frank Warren, the postmaster. The other man was Chinese Bob, who wasn’t Chinese at all, but ran the local laundry where several Chinese worked. They were standing in the shade of a giant cottonwood, in front of the blacksmith shop. Bob rubbed his hands and spoke again.
“Wonder what he’s doin’ in Dogtown? Ain’t no bank to rob.”
“Ain’t no marshal to kill neither. We don’t have one.”
“Don’t need one. This here is a quiet town.”
The two men glanced at each other and smiled.
Frank Warren shrugged his thin shoulders. “Well, the stage came in and I have mail to sort. I’ll check that Rhingold flier again. See you Chinese.”
The stranger wheeled his horse to the rail in front of the Whistle Stop saloon, and tied off. He mounted the steps to the board walk and pulled off his gloves, looking carefully around. He pulled off his hat and beat some of the dust off his clothes. Satisfied, he pushed open the batwing doors and stepped into the cool interior.
Seth Reynolds looked up from behind the bar. The stranger looked like a hard case, but he’d seen plenty of hard cases in his time. He wiped a glass with his towel and examined the shine. Over the back bar, the ticking clock read just after one in the afternoon. The saloon was empty except for him and the hard case. Somewhere a dog barked lazily and someone down the street was working a noisy pump for water.
Heavy boots sounded on the wooden floor, and Seth looked up into a pair of cold gray eyes. Cleavey Rhingold, leaned on the heavily varnished bartop and studied the bartender.
“I’ll have a beer.”
Reynolds filled a mug from the tap, and when it came time to put a head on it, he looked at Rhingold with questioning eyes. The man nodded, and he added the head with a practiced flourish. He set the beer in front of his lone customer.
“That’ll be a nickel.”
Cleavey Rhingold fished a coin out of his vest and tossed it on the counter. Seth Reynolds punched keys on the register and dropped the coin in the drawer.
“Yeah, mostly ranches. There’s a few prospectors down by the creek, but that’s some lean and hard scrabble work. There’s some fifteen feet of overburden just to get to bedrock.”
He paused and wiped at the counter.
“There’s some logging up on the mountain, but they keep to themselves mostly. They come down for barn dances and such, but that ain’t often.”
“I didn’t see a bank?”
“Don’t have one. Folks keep their own money. They don‘t trust banks.”
“Who’s the law around here?”
“Ain’t got any. Closest is the US Marshal, but we ain’t seen him in two years.”
Rhingold nodded, sizing up the situation. This was a plum, ripe for picking. He decided he’d be staying the night after all.
“What kind of whiskey you serve?”
“Just the one…rye. A drummer brings it by once a month. It ain’t bad.”
“I’ll take a shot, and another beer to chase it.”
Cleavey Rhingold gulped his whiskey and grimaced, following it quickly with his beer.
“Hell, that’s there’s rotgut!’
“It’s all I have.”
“Well, let’s have another and a chaser.”
An hour and three shots later, Rhingold pushed a silver dollar at Seth Reynolds.
“Think I’ll take a turn about the town. See what I can scare up!”
He grinned wolfishly, winking at Reynolds.
“Well, best be careful,” replied the bartender. “This here’s a tough town.”
Rhingold smirked and stepped through the batwing doors. To his utter astonishment, the first face he saw was Becky Thurston. She saw him at the same moment and gasped.
Three years earlier, Becky Thurston had left him standing at the altar in Missouri. She had reluctantly agreed to marry him after he had pressured her for months, but had learned at the last minute that he was suspected of murdering three men and a woman in Iowa. She had quickly packed what few belongings she had as a young schoolteacher, and had disappeared, leaving him in a packed church, embarrassed and humiliated. Now she was standing in front of him, her face pale and frightened. Behind her stood several schoolchildren, eyes wide and looking from one to the other, wondering what was happening.
“You got this coming , Becky.”
Cleavey Rhingold grabbed her by the throat of her dress and slapped her hard, twice.
“Leave her be, Mister.”
A small girl with pigtails who looked to be about ten years old had stepped away from the other children, and into the street. She was wearing a dress made from a feed sack.
“Shut up kid.”
Cleavey Rhingold turned back to Becky, who was sobbing and bleeding from her upper lip.
“I said leave her be.”
It was the pigtailed girl again, and in her hands was an unwavering, .41 caliber, double-barreled Derringer with the hammer eared back.
Cleavey Rhingold looked at her and sneered.
“Hell, you ain’t nothin’ but a child.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed slightly and she pulled the trigger. Cleavey Rhingold felt the bullet slam into his chest and he stared at the girl in horror. He watched stupidly as she pulled back on the hammer and fired the remaining barrel, again hitting him in the chest.
He was lying on his back in the hot dust of the street. A tall, gaunt man had his shirt open and was looking at his chest. He could feel the blood running down his side.
“Are you a doctor?” He was surprised at the weakness in his voice.
“Who, me? No, I’m a barber. I’m also the undertaker, and from the looks of those wounds, you’ll be needing my services in a few minutes. Hell, you could cover both shots with a silver dollar. That’s some shooting!”
Bewildered at the suddenness of it all, Cleavey Rhingold rolled his head to the side and saw the bartender, Seth Reynolds, staring down at him.
“I’ve been shot and killed by a damn kid, barkeep!” His head was rolling from side to side in disbelief, as his eyes began to dim..
Seth Reynolds spat in the dust and nodded his head.
“Well sir, it’s like I warned you. This here is a tough town.”