A few days later, I’d checked on Clem and was walking from his house through the back of the hardware store. I overheard a strange voice talking to the boy.
“Ya gotta stake me. I ain’t got money at all. Don’t forget I can tell everybody who you are and why you’re here.”
The boy shushed him up real good so I couldn’t hear anything else. He must have given him some money because the young hellion went out of the hardware store with a big grin on his face and smart-stepped across the street to the saloon without looking left or right. I slipped out the back door and I was almost in his tracks before he even got his boots out of them.
I stayed off, watching him. He drank continuously, got into a poker game and lost steadily.
Pretty soon he was out of money, out of the game and out of whiskey. He just sat there awhile playing with a copper coin, twirling it around and around on the empty table.
I could tell what was going through his mind. Maybe he could get some more from the boy, that’s what he was thinking I went to the bar, got us both whiskeys and carried them over to him. I sat down and began some idle conversation, then inched towards my real questions.
“I see you know Johnny.”
“Johnny Bell at the hardware store.”
“That ain’t…nah, don’t know nobody in this town.”
“What made you think it was this town I was talking about?”
“What…hey, what are you trying to pull, mister?”
“Look, don’t get riled. I heard you talking to Johnny. I don’t know what his real name is, but I guess you do.”
He was now drunk, and not a good liar anyhow. Got out of him that they knew each other from a small town in Texas. Knew the boy had left a few months ago to go north to find the man who killed his pa and he was going to kill him in return.
“Who is this man your friend is going to kill?”
“Damned if I know, or care. I never knew where he got hisself off to. I jist drifted through town and ran into him. That’s all I know, mister.”
I could tell he was eyeing me to see if he could wheedle anything else out of me. Talked to him a little longer, but I believe that’s all he really knew. I gave him some money, suggesting that he keep drifting and painted a little picture as to what would happen if he didn’t. One town is just as good as another to a drifter.
At my place that night, over apple pie and coffee with the whisky bottle half full in between us, I told Johnny what his “friend” had revealed. Needless to say he was hopping mad. He tried to leave but I told him I’d just hang on his shirttail until he told me the truth about why he was in Los Olivos.
It took a while before he started his talking.
Johnny’s mother had just died and in going through her things he found a letter she had stashed away. “The man who wrote that letter says he saw the gunfighter right here in Los Olivos. The one who killed my pa. The letter was five years old, but that’s the only lead I have. That’s why I’m here.”
“And what are you going to do when you find him?”
“I’m going to shoot him down just like the dog he is. Just like he shot my pa.”
“Tell me about it.” I poured us another healthy shot of whiskey.
“I was four years old. Ma and me were on the boardwalk just coming out of the emporium when I saw my pa across the road. I was going to run to him when I saw him pull his gun then all this blood is spurting out of him and he’s falling down. I ran to him but he was already on the ground, dead.”
“So you saw who shot him?”
“I don’t remember. I was too busy watching my pa. Then my mother carried me off. Don’t really remember much else. Ma never much talked about him even on a good day.”
I took another sip of whiskey knowing that drinking the whole bottle in one gulp wasn’t going to take the dread away. Wish I had a tonic for those things. The bigger problem at the moment was what to say to someone who has been planning an act of revenge for almost all his life and was closing in on his target?
“You have someone in mind?” I said.
He sat there, quiet. all through me fixing my pipe, staring off and seeing pictures in his mind. I kept glancing at him while I was tamping the tobacco down.
Finally I got it out of him. A whispered name I could barely hear. “Hank.”
“Why him?” I said, trying not to get too riled up. “Why not Clem Enderly or Seth Barstow at the General Store for starters? A lot of other men in Los Olivos and a lot of others on farms around here.”
“Not somebody who never comes to town like he doesn’t want to be seen. Like he’s hiding out. And if that’s not enough, heard him talking to Mary when they thought I was sleeping. Something he said.”
“You mean while you were delirious? Even if you’re right, and I think you’re plumb out of your head just like you were then, if you kill Hank or anyone, you’re going to end up doing just what you think he’s doing. Hiding out. Hiding the past.
Hiding out and regretting your life.”
“I gotta do this. After I read that letter, I swore on my mother’s grave that I’d have revenge for pa’s death.”
“Did she ask you to do this?”
“No. But she never married again and I always thought she was still longing for him.”
“You don’t know that. I’m not saying anything against your pa, but you don’t know what went on between them. Maybe she had a bad experience and didn’t want to repeat it. So don’t say that you’re doing this revenge for her. You’re doing it for yourself. You just want an excuse to justify killing somebody. You’re not even sure who it is. You better get some more proof, boy, since you’re talking about my friend.” I knew I was getting hepped up, but I just couldn’t help it. I was harboring a viper in my bosom, namely this kid, and I was none too happy about it.
He made a move to get up, but I said, “Wait up a bit. I’m not finished yet.
You say this man who shot your pa was a gunfighter. How do you know he can’t beat you at the draw still? And, if you beat him, there’ll be someone coming after you. Well, boy, let me tell you, there’ll always be someone faster than you.
“Better to start mending fences. See if Mary will have you, settle down, do some good in the community.”
I could only hope he’d start forgetting about revenge, about taking someone else’ life, so I taught him all I could about saving lives. Took him along with me calling on sick folk and letting him help me in my office when he could. He seemed ready enough to tag along and help, yet I had to believe he was still thinking about getting even for his father’s murder. But he never let on that there was even a ghost of that thought in his mind.
I didn’t press him on whether he was going to ask Mary the big question.
If he had his revenge, he wouldn’t be getting Mary. Surely he knew that.
When I tore July off the calendar, I decided to bait him a little that evening, see which way he jumped on the issue. I wanted it resolved and the idea of revenge gone. “How can you be looking to kill a man,” I said to him, “when you’re helping me patch them up?”
“That man is different. He doesn’t deserve to live.” He hadn’t paused a beat, knew exactly what I was talking about.
“Thought only God was supposed to be making decisions like that.”
And speaking of God, I took him to church with me a couple of times, but he was too restless to be sitting still listening to the preacher talk about forgiveness.
He’d seem to forget his purpose for days on end. He had a real head for making people feel better, good bedside manner. I was right proud of him. Then
I’d catch him with that look in his eyes. Seemed like he was going back and forth. Not wanting to give up on his mission of revenge, but liking what he was doing with sick and ailing folks, seeing them get better because of what he was doing for them.
I told him people make mistakes, bad ones, but they have to go on, and getting revenge was not the way to do that.
“Hank’s a good man,” I said. “Been working that farm for a lotta years. Got married along the way, had Mary, but her mother died in childbirth. Me and Hank raised Mary between us. So it’s not every young fellow I’d be suggesting to ask for Mary’s hand. She’s almost as much my daughter, too.”
A father is a father, right or wrong. And the kid had seen his father shot down. Had to take that into account as to how Johnny felt.
Johnny couldn’t forget that day when he was four years old.
And neither could I.
That day was the turning point in our lives for Hank and me. I took to remembering–
Hank and I were in a small town in Texas, crossing the dusty road that ran through its center. Had a boardwalk that was covered over on the other side. It being mighty hot in Texas in the summer, we were headed for the shade.
We turned around at the voice. In the middle of the road was a man about twenty, if that. His eyes were on me. Seen that look before, lots of times. Knew what he wanted, but I wasn’t going to give it to him. Hank looked at me. We turned around and kept walking toward the shade.
A bullet hit the dust near me, sending up a little cloud. Hank threw himself down. I turned, after all it was me he had his sights on. I made no move for my gun. Knew he wasn’t going to shoot me outright. That’s not what he wanted.
“What can I do for you, mister?” I said, slow and easy-like trying not to rile him further.
“Want to see just how fast you are.”
“Guess I’m just fast enough to still be alive. We’re just passing through, not looking for any trouble.”
“No trouble. Thought we could draw and see who wins.”
“Because I think I’m faster than you.”
“I agree with you. You’re faster than me.”
“We gotta prove it, lest folks don’t believe me.”
I bet a lotta of folks didn’t believe anything he said. He had to prove it. I didn’t doubt he was fast. Typical small town kid who’d outgunned anybody who’d challenged him and now he wanted to go up against the big guys. I sighed. There are no old, bold gunfighters.
“We’re in town on business, maybe you can help us. There’s some gold in it for you.” Hoped the thought of money might change his mind. “Any strangers in town?” We were bounty hunting, a good job for fast guns.
The mention of gold didn’t change his look by even a flicker of his eyes. He wasn’t interested, at least not at this minute. Maybe later, when he shot somebody and wanted to buy drinks on the house. Probably at the same saloon he’d just come out of.
“Draw first and we’ll talk later.” He was still holding his gun on me. “I’m putting up my gun. Get ready to go at it.” He slid the gun into his holster, his hand hovering over it.
“Let’s talk first and if you’re still of a mind for drawing then we’ll settle the matter about that. There’s a nice reward for this fellow.”
Dr. Gay Toltl Kinman has eight award nominations for her writing, including three Agatha Award nominations; several short stories in American and English magazines and anthologies; eight children’s books; a Y.A. gothic novel; two adult mysteries; several short plays produced; over one hundred and fifty articles in professional journals and newspapers; co-edited two non-fiction books; and writes three book review columns, and articles for two newspapers. Kinman has library and law degrees. http://gaykinman.com
By this time the whole town knew our business, not that they didn’t size us up the minute we rode in. Problem with them all knowing was that the man we were hunting knew also and was probably saddling up at the livery stable that very moment.
“Draw!” he shouted.
“I’m not drawing.” I turned my back and started walking toward the shade. I heard the sound of the gun slide the leather. I dove for the dust as a bullet whizzed past my head. Another shot sounded at the same time so they could have been as one.
Which meant they weren’t from the same gun.
As I rolled over, the man was starting to crumple, his chest red. Hank was still in the prone position only now with his gun out.
Before I could move, a four-year old boy ran over yelling “Pa, Pa,” and threw himself over the red chest.
Something gripped my heart with a spiked fist. I couldn’t move, only watch the scene play out.
The boy was followed by a woman who was barely out of girlhood. She stood looking down at the man, her eyes a lot older than the rest of her, then pulled the boy, now bloodied, off his father.
The way I remembered the woman looking down on her husband, she wasn’t feeling too sorry, like maybe she expected him to come to this end, like maybe she was even hoping for it. Maybe I read a lot into that look that might’n have been there. But that’s what I saw.
From that day, we gave up bounty hunting. I swore I’d help people live and use all I’d learned in the Army to be the best doctor I could. Hank took to farming.
Hank saved my life and I never forgot that.
He never forgot the boy who saw his father killed.
There were some things I couldn’t heal.