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Published on Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Substitute Gunfighter

By Lowell "Zeke" Ziemann

 

Marshal Jeb Smith entered his office after making his evening rounds. Caldwell was quiet now. The Longhorn herds that came up the Chisholm Trail were loaded and gone. Trouble that came with rowdy celebrating Texans now ebbed and Main Street calmed.

Smith pitched his hat on a peg that hung on the wall above his roll-top desk. He removed his holster and hung it next to his hat. After a deep relaxing breath, a soft smile broke across his dignified face. He sat down on his swiveling reclining chair, took a cigar from the humidor, lit it, and inhaled the bitter-sweet aroma.

The latest edition of the Caldwell Clarion newspaper lay on his desk. After reading the headlines he leaned back and swung his long legs up on the desk. Once again he forgot to remove his spurs and added a few more scratches to the scarred left front corner of the desk top.

   

After hanging the spurs on the pegs, he opened the paper and found his name in a letter to the editor from Parson Chandler. The letter chastised him for using rough old fashioned enforcement methods that were too aggressive with lawbreakers.

"Parson, put my boots on and you'd be dead in a week," he said to himself. The Marshal grinned at the thought. "The sanctimonious young fool."

 

*         *        *

 

The sudden roar of a .45 erupted and spoiled his reverie. Smith sprang to his feet. A gunshot at midnight always meant trouble. He strapped on his gun, grabbed his hat and walked out the door.

He saw Sally running from her Diamond Saloon. "Vin Barker's been shot... I'm goin' to fetch Doc," she shouted as she passed.

"Who'd want to shoot an old farmer like Vin?" asked Smith. "Emmett Lee," she said, her voice trailing off as she ran down the street and entered Doc's office.

The Marshal rushed to the saloon. Two saloon patrons sat on the floor next to Barker. Smith knelt on one knee and placed Vin's hat under his head. The old farmer was unconscious.

"He's dyin'," said Bert, the bartender. Barker's teen-age son looked down at his father and wept.

"Who shot him?" asked Smith.

Bert nodded toward the tall thin man resting a foot on the bar rail. "Emmett Lee... over there talking to Hattie."

"Vin never carried a gun," said the Marshal.

"He had one this time," said Bert. "Much as I hate to say it, Vin pulled his gun first. Never had a chance with Lee."

The Marshal turned his head and looked at the bar where Emmett Lee calmly sipped his whiskey. Void of conscience, pity or shame, he paid no attention to the commotion on the floor. Instead, he focused on the saloon girl.

Emmett Lee took pride in his soiled reputation. He had killed before. Each time he goaded someone into a fight, he outdrew his enemy. No jury would convict a man for defending himself.

The Marshal spoke with a tone of sharp bitterness. "What's your story Lee?"

Emmett Lee shrugged. "He drew a gun from his coat pocket and turned it on me. So I shot him. Ask anyone here," he said.

The Marshal's eyes narrowed, riveting on the feared gunfighter. "Someday, somewhere, you'll meet him," he said.

"Meet who?" asked Lee.

Smith rose from his knee and took a step toward Lee. "The man who will send you to Hell."

The gunfighter chuckled. "Perhaps you'd like to try. I'd be pleased to meet you in the street."

The Marshal paused. His heart told him to accept the challenge and rid the world of this killer. But once again he reflected on the sworn oath he taken as a lawman. Self-control trumped his emotions. "I'm a marshal," he said. "Not a gunfighter."

Smith walked slowly toward the door. He passed Vin's son and gently touched the youth's shoulder. "Billy, stop by my office when you're through here."

Parson Chandler entered with Doc. They brushed by the Marshal as they passed each other in the swinging doors.

 

*         *        *

 

An hour later there was a knock on the door of the Marshal's office.

"Come in Billy. Are you all right?" Parson Chandler walked in with him.

"I guess so," said Billy. He hesitated. Rocking back and forth he spoke in the high pitched voice of a sixteen year old. "Why didn't you kill him?"

"Now Billy," interjected the Parson.

"I'm a lawman, not a gunfighter, and surely not a killer," the Marshal replied. "What happened before Lee shot your Pa? I've never seen Vin with a gun."

"Pa just bought one when we came to town. We sold some chickens and eggs to Ed's Grocery and two hogs to the butcher. Pa figured he'd be carryin' a load of cash, so he thought it a good idea to go about armed," Billy replied.

"But why draw on Emmett Lee?" asked Smith.

"Well, Pa wanted to have a drink and I wanted a beer," said Billy.

"There's where the trouble started," interrupted the Parson. "Guns, liquor and women are a volatile mix. A church goer like you should know."

Smith raised his hand to silence the Parson. "Quiet, Parson. Billy was telling the story," he said.

"So we stopped at Sally's and... and Pa bought a round for all the men there... except Lee," Billy explained. "Pa said he wouldn't drink with a killer."

"That was a mistake," said the Marshal. "But Bert said your Pa drew first."

"He did, 'cause Lee swore at him and called him a 'dumb sodbuster' and slapped him a couple of times. Then..." Billy stopped to take his kerchief to his eyes and blew his nose. "Then Pa reached for the new gun in his pocket and Lee shot him. Emmett Lee should be shot."

The Parson grabbed Billy's arm. "'Vengeance is mine' says the Good Book. Are you through Marshal? Billy come, stay with me tonight."

Billy looked to the Marshal for approval.

"Go ahead," said Smith. "Come back in a couple of days Billy." Then he sent a warning look toward the Parson before turning back to the youth. "You're a man now Billy. Come back alone."

 

*         *        *

 

At first light the next morning Marshal Smith rose from his bunk in the room behind his office. A knock on his door jolted him awake.

When Smith opened the door, Billy stood in the doorway. His eyes were red. "Couldn't sleep. And I'm tired of the Parson's preaching."

The Marshal dressed and pulled on his boots. "What are your plans."

Billy rocked from side to side. His jaw was set. "I'm torn Marshal. Mad then sad. Mad then sad, mostly mad."

The Marshal leaned back in his chair and let the young man compose himself. "Billy, I know your Ma died a couple of years ago. Can you run the farm?"

Billy relaxed some. "I may sell the farm and go to the University, like Ma wanted. I'm good at book learning... especially figures. 'Been keepin' the books for the farm since I was twelve. Our neighbor, Otto Bauer will buy it. He's always expanding his land. Got four sons to keep busy."

Billy lowered his eyes to the floor. "Marshal, I want to see Emmett Lee dead."

"Don't you try it, Billy. Don't you try it," the Marshal spoke like a General giving a command.

"I won't. I ain't a fool," said Billy. "He'd kill me sure."

Billy paused and pleaded with his eyes. "But you could. Pa always said you were the best around these parts with a gun."

"Are you asking me to call him out?" asked Smith. "I just can't do it. It's not a lawman's job to provoke a gunfight. My job is to prevent one."

"What if Lee throws down on you?" asked Billy.

Smith looked into the teenager's eyes. "That's different. But Emmett Lee is not known to challenge a man who could possibly beat him."

"All right," said Billy. He smiled and walked toward the door.

Billy left. The Marshal put on his hat and vest. He thought about the situation. Billy sparked of intelligence and wants to go to the University. But, just what might be going through the young man's head? Grief and revenge wrestled for control of Billy's mind. It could lead to trouble.

 

*         *        *

 

A week later Sheriff Smith sat relaxed on a chair in front of his office. According to Sally, Emmett Lee had visited Hattie a couple of times, but she had not seen Billy.

Parson Chandler crossed the street and approached. He stopped at the edge of the boardwalk. "I'm concerned about Billy," he said. "I've seen him a couple of times since his Pa was killed and he seems very quiet... very deep in thought. Have you talked with him?"

"Only on the morning after the shooting," answered Smith.

"And?" asked Chandler.

"Law business," said Smith.

"He listens to you... why I don't know. Some sort of ridiculous heroic-male thing, I guess." said the Parson. "Billy wants to show you he's got grit."

The Marshal smiled and shook his head but did not reply.

The Parson continued the uninvited conversation. "If you see him again I think it is your duty to tell him to stay out of saloons and above all to forget any kind of retribution in the killing of his father. You must do the same. I'd prefer that Billy goes off to the University at Lawrence with a clean forgiving heart and not one full of hate. Do your duty with compassion."

Smith quickly rose, kicked back the chair and looked down at the Chandler. The Parson took two steps back. "Parson, there's forgiveness and there's justice. You are in the forgiveness business. I am here to see justice done. There is a line between the two. Don't cross it. I won't tell you how to preach, and damn it, you'd best quit writing letters to the paper. And never tell me how to enforce the law! Goodbye."

The Parson hurried across the street without looking back. Jeb Smith picked up his chair and sat back down.

 

*         *        *

 

As the late autumn afternoon sun warmed the rutty street, Marshal Smith watched Billy Barker ride his small Pinto pony up to the bank. Otto Bauer followed in his buggy. An hour later both emerged, and shook hands.

Billy crossed the street and walked up to the lawman. "Howdy Marshal Smith," he said. "I just sold the farm to Bauer. Money is in the bank. I kept a hundred dollars cash for expenses."

The Marshal rose to greet the young man. "So you're headed to Lawrence to study. Good. Shake the dust and bad memories from Caldwell off your boots. I wish you well."

"I'm not leaving just yet," said Billy. "I have some unfinished business here."

Smith cocked his head to one side. "I hope you don't mean something foolish."

The conversation stopped as both men squinted into the setting sun toward an approaching rider. Emmett Lee slowly walked his tall sorrel horse down Main Street without acknowledging the two men in front of the Marshal's office. He tied his horse to the rail and entered Sally's Saloon.

Billy turned toward the saloon. "Excuse me Marshal."

"Wait Billy," said Smith. He walked up to the youth and patted the coat pockets of the jacket Billy wore. He pulled a handful of cigars from the inside pocket.

"What are these for? You smoke?" asked Smith.

"No sir," said Billy. "Got them for my friends as a going-away present." He turned to leave.

"Open your coat if you walk into Sally's. Be certain Lee knows you are unarmed," Smith warned.

 

*         *        *

 

Like the other businesses on Main Street, Sally's profits slowed after the Texas drovers left. She stood at front corner of the bar and counted cash from the register. Her piano player plunked out "Oh Dem Golden Slippers" and the music filtered through the levered swinging doors and out into the street. Bert walked around the saloon and lit the lanterns. Emmett Lee stood at the far end of the bar joking with Hattie.

Billy entered. Sally looked up and glanced over to Emmett Lee. "Good Lord," she whispered.

Four regular patrons playing poker at a back table stopped their game. They stared at Billy and sent sideways glances at Lee who continued to concentrate on Hattie. The piano tune ceased.

"Hello Billy," said Sally.

Lee spun around and placed his hand on the butt of the .45 in his holster and stared at the youth. Hattie slipped away from Lee's arm and slid behind him. She peeked at Billy and sent a suggestive smile toward the youth.

Sally closed the cash drawer, edged toward the door and peeked down the street. She stepped out and beckoned to Marshal Smith.

"I just sold the farm," announced Billy. "I'm buying a round of drinks for the house."

The poker players rose, but stood still at their table.

"Bert, pour one for these four gentlemen, not Lee," said Billy.

The gunfighter smirked and spoke in a low, loud raspy voice. "You got the same manners as your Pa. I guess the apple din't fall far from the tree."

Sally watched from the door.

Billy tensed. He looked toward the door. Marshal Smith walked in.

At the sight of the Marshal, Billy's shoulders sagged and he breathed deeply. He opened his coat wide. "Relax Lee, I ain't armed," he said. He turned his back to Lee and looked toward the table.

"Gentlemen," Billy said to the Poker players, "Come get your whiskey. And, here, have a cigar. Not you Lee."

Lee took a wide stance, raised a fist and scowled. "You sassy little pup. Maybe I should teach you some respect."

The poker players looked at the Marshal for a minute and then walked to the bar to get their drinks.

The piano player struck up slow version of "Silver Threads among the Gold."

Marshal Smith stood just inside the door, watching, ready.

The four card players took their drinks and cigars and hurried back to the table. The cards were not dealt. The men waited for something, anything, to happen.

Lee's look would have intimidated the Devil himself. He thrust a long finger in Billy's direction. "You cowardly son of a sodbuster. Get heeled and go to work!" he shouted.

The Marshal moved to a table in the middle of the room and sat down. He watched every move that Emmett made. Sally walked to the table and stood behind him.

Billy smiled at the poker players; then moved to the piano player and handed him a coin. "Play a waltz for me sir," he said.

Then he walked to Hattie. "Dance?"

To Marshal Jeb Smith, the picture became clear. He said nothing, but rose and moved two steps closer to Billy who led Hattie to the small dance floor. The four poker players slinked down and peeked over the table top.

Lee suddenly charged Billy and grabbed him by the back of the coat collar. He spun him around and sent a punch to the youth's stomach and a second one to his jaw. Billy went down, but came up with his head between Lee's legs. He rammed the top of his skull into Lee's groin. Lee doubled over, but raised one boot and kicked Billy in the ribs.

Billy scrambled backward and struggled to his feet. He reeled against the piano and yelled through bloody lips. "You dirty coward. You murdered Pa".

"You're a dead man," yelled Lee. He drew a knife from his belt and flung it toward the staggering youth. The blade nicked the left shoulder of Billy and quivered when it stuck in the side of the upright piano.

Lee cursed violently at missing Billy's head. Then suddenly he twisted about and faced the Marshal. He stopped and stood quietly for a second. "You dirty badge hanger. You sent this boy to provoke me!" he screamed. He grabbed for his gun.

Smith responded and two shots sounded like one.

.

The Marshal winced and grabbed his shoulder, then quickly fired a second time. The killer spun around and fell on the foot rail of the bar. He bled from two holes in his chest.

Lee looked up at the Marshal and spoke in stuttered gasps. "I guess... I guess... I met him," he said.

The Marshal pointed to the patrons under the poker table. "Get Lee out of here. Cart him to Doc's parlor, then tell Doc I need him here at Sally's."

 

*         *        *

 

Four days later Billy reined his pinto pony to a stop in front of Jeb Smith's office. A carpet bag hung on his saddle horn.

The Marshal sat in a chair on the boardwalk, his left arm in a sling.

Billy tipped his hat. "Good bye Marshal. Glad you're all right. I'm headed to the University of Kansas in Lawrence."

Smith nodded and smiled. "You took a risk and a beating. But you planned it, didn't you."

Billy Barker grinned, spurred the small pinto, and left without a word.

THE END

 

Lowell "Zeke" Ziemann is a former teacher, coach and Compliance Supervisor for the Arizona office of a Wall Street Firm. He has been writing western short stories for several years and recently had an anthology of his work published. His work has been published at The Western Online previously.

 

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