Published on Sunday, January 12, 2013
By James P. Hanley
The two men faced each in the small room, both staring, their hands near their guns, challenging the first move. In the confined space, any bullet fired would penetrate and exit, leaving a fatal wound. The taller of the duo put his gun hand behind his back and his fingers twitched, the shaking climbing up into his palm and vibrating his wrist. He stood quietly until the shaking stopped.
"Are you gonna go for it?" the opponent called out. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, both pulled their guns upward, the taller man's weapon pointing first.
"Dammit, Sheriff, you beat me again," Deputy Virgil Adams said, "but you got to admit, I'm getting faster."
"Yea, Virgil, you are, but close don't matter much in a gunfight."
"Nick, this is beyond a small town doctor; you need to go to a big city hospital, maybe in the City of Kansas. With the Missouri-Pacific Railroad reaching there and the stockyards growing, they probably have some real good doctors who can diagnose what's wrong with you."
"I can't leave town without raising suspicions. I haven't even told my deputy. If it gets real bad, I'll go to a city doc but for now, I can handle things."
"The town has been quieter since you've been wearing the badge but the tremors could get worse, so be careful. I'm sorry about your wife, Annie; did she know you were getting the shakes?"
"Yes; she wanted us to leave and join our son and daughter in California."
"Maybe that's still a good idea."
"Thanks for the advice," Sheriff Bristol said, barely masking the facetiousness.
In the evening, Nick Bristol made the rounds along the main streets of Browning, hovering near the two saloons on each end of the wooden sidewalks where trouble most often developed, when it did. As he neared the Red Bird establishment, he saw Deputy Adams approaching from the opposite direction, and they went into the building together. Rain had just started and pinged on the tin roof and metal overhang. Inside, there were card games in the corners and two men sat slumped over a table, a nearly empty bottle between them. A few looked up at the Sheriff and the Deputy but soon turned away, unbothered. The bartender on duty was a gray-haired man who had been pouring drinks there for ten years, knew everyone who came in, was a good resource for the Sheriff and wasn't bothered by the bluster of drunken, ornery cowboys. But that day he seemed unnerved, which Bristol sensed.
"Everything okay, Doug?" he asked.
While answering that things were fine, he pointed with the top of his head toward a man sitting at the end of the bar. Leaning forward to avoid being overheard, Doug said, "He's trouble; threatened one patron who was minding his own business. He hasn't paid for his drinks and when I refused to serve him, he took his gun out and placed it on the counter."
Walking to the end of the mahogany bar, Sheriff Bristol approached the man who looked up and scowled. Bristol thought the face was vaguely familiar as if printed on a poster. Unshaven, unbathed—apparent from the surrounding odor—the man wore a heavy shirt, black pants and dirt-covered boots. A scar ran across his forehead and a gouge was cut in a cheek. The most distinctive aspect of his appearance was his glistening belt with imbedded silver beads and a pearl-handled gun which hung loosely in the holster.
"Howdy, mister. If you're passing through, you need to pay your obligations, including your bar bill before you depart."
The man stared at the Sheriff and stood up straight in a posturing gesture. When he saw Deputy Adams, he slinked back down on the bar stool. "I'll pay for this rotgut, don't you worry;" his eyes darted between the two lawmen.
Later in the evening, after Virgil had gone back to the jail, Bristol continued his patrolling of the streets and heard a loud crash. Turning around quickly, he nearly stumbled when his left foot seemed immobile as if glued to the wood sidewalk. The sound was followed by a body flying out of the saloon and landing on the pounded, hard street. In a few minutes, the man rose and looked back at a figure in the doorway and while wobbly, ran as fast as he could, falling a few times before disappearing behind a building. In the entrance of the saloon, the stranger with the fancy gun belt stood, laughing at the fleeing figure. The Sheriff walked to the saloon and as he approached saw the man look around as if searching for something. "You alone, Sheriff?" he asked in a tone of derision.
"I can handle things by myself."
The cowboy stepped off the sidewalk, "I'll be heading to the hotel, but will be leaving town for a while. I suspect we'll be seeing each other again." As he walked past Bristol, he looked down toward the Sheriff's right hand and noticed the tremors. "You cold or scared, Sheriff?"
"Got to be the cold, 'cause there ain't nothing frightening around here."
In the morning, the Sheriff looked out the window of the jail and saw the menacing man grip the reins of his horse and slowly mount. Bristol came out of his office to the front of the building and both men looked at each other until the stranger rode out of town. Still standing outside, Bristol didn't see his deputy approach.
"Saw that man ride out; guess we won't get any more trouble from him."
"Let's hope so," the Sheriff answered. As he turned to go back inside, his hand shook and he moved his arm out of his deputy's view. By the time they were in the jail, the tremors had ceased.
A few weeks later, as Bristol sat in his office, Doc Breslin came in. "You alone, Nick?"
"No one else here."
"I wrote to a physician in Chicago who specializes in palsy and described your symptoms. He answered quickly and mentioned an old article from 1807 by a man named Parkinson about a shaking disease. The symptoms seem familiar to what you're experiencing. Not much can be done for it."
"Thanks, Doc; it's been getting worse."
Over the next few days the town was relatively quiet: a few fistfights, a minor theft and some cattle stolen outside of town. One day, Bristol rode out of town to a remote section of woods, posted a piece of paper to a tree and drew his weapon to fire at the make-shift target. After shooting a few rounds, his gun hand shook and he fired despite the quivering movement of the gun; the bullet struck a low branch. As he rode back in town, he saw the man with the fancy gun belt returning with two others; all three had the look of danger, he thought.
At nightfall, the three strangers were in the saloon and while boisterous, didn't cause problems. Near ten that night, the bartender came to see the Sheriff, who often stayed late in his office.
"Sheriff," he said, almost breathlessly, "those men who rode into town today are up to no good."
"How do you know that?"
"Charley Reynolds, you know him—"
"Yes, Charley has been a guest here often," the Sheriff interrupted.
"Well, he's grateful that you let him sleep it off in an unlocked cell. He was drinking as usual and had his head down at a table next to those three. Likely they thought he wasn't listening, but he was. He overheard them talk about how they were going to get you and your deputy and have their way in the town before the Marshals arrive. The nasty one who was here before is named Matt. Charley stumbled to the bar to tell me what he overheard. Those three still paid him no mind."
"Thanks for telling me. I don't expect anything tonight."
"No, they've been drinking heavy and would be too drunk to fight."
By one o'clock, the three men had settled in the hotel and the Sheriff rested in one of the cells until the rising sun peered between the bars. When Virgil showed up, Bristol explained what the bartender had conveyed.
"What are you going to do, Nick?"
"I already sent a telegraph to the area Marshal with the details and the one man's first name. I guess they'll be sleeping late and won't try anything until after dark. When the sun goes down, we'll hunt them down and arrest them or tell them to leave town. I don't want to start a fight—if it comes to that—when most of the town citizens are on the street."
The evening sky was dimly lit by a quarter moon and clouds shielded blinking stars. The Sheriff and the Deputy left from the jail and walked slowly down the street. "Hear anything from the Marshals?" Virgil asked. Bristol shook his head. Across the dirt road, they saw one of the men who'd ridden in as part of the trio. The man, dressed in dark clothing with a wide brim hat pulled down so that his ears protruded, quickened his pace, turning periodically to see the lawmen. At the next corner, he headed into a space between buildings. Virgil looked at the Sheriff and their wordless exchange signaled the deputy to follow. Within minutes, a second man came out of the saloon and glared at the Sheriff. "I saw the other lawman go chasing after my friend. We ain't done nothing wrong."
"You're not welcome here, and all three of you need to get out of town."
"That ain't happening." The outlaw moved onto the dusty street, flexing the fingers of his gun hand. "I figure you're the only one in the way."
"I'm not the only one," he answered.
Just as he spoke, two quick shots rang out from behind a building; the similarity of sound implied two bullets from the same gun.
The cowboy laughed sardonically. "Just like I said, you're the only one in the way." As soon as he finished speaking, he reached for his holster. The Sheriff's hand twitched but it was not his gun hand so his movement was swift and his 45 was pointed before the other man had fully elevated his gun. The Sheriff's bullet struck him in the center of the chest and the man flew backwards, dead as soon as he struck the ground.
Bristol holstered his gun and walked toward the still body. Just as he was near the man the third—the one named Matt—stood in front of the saloon doors.
"You had no right to kill him."
"He drew and I answered." The shaking in his left hand had extended to the right side of his body.
"Well, he's a lot slower than me," the outlaw said as he stepped in the street.
The Sheriff gripped his arms to stop the trembling but it didn't work.
"You better be scared," the outlaw said, mistaking the shakes, "you're about to die."
As the man spoke, the Sheriff could feel his arms and hands quieting, but the man started for his gun before Bristol had complete control of his movements. The momentarily delay was costly as the outlaw's hand was on his gun pulling up before the Sheriff could reach for his. Bristol's upward motion closed the gap but the other man got off the first shot. In his haste to fire, he aimed the barrel of the pearl-handled Colt high and to the right, striking Sheriff Bristol's shoulder and sending him to the ground, gun flying from his grip. The shooter walked slowly over and standing over the Sheriff, pointed his weapon. "This bullet ain't gonna wound."
The shot came quickly—but from a distance. The outlaw fell, nearly landing on top of Bristol. Deputy Adams ran toward his injured boss, checking first to ensure his shot had been fatal. Lifting up the Sheriff, he dragged and carried the nearly unconscious lawman to the doctor. For the next few days, the Sheriff seemed on the edge of death but slowly began to improve, and by two weeks' time, was out of danger. He was carried by stretcher to the town boardinghouse where the proprietor's wife took on the role of nurse.
When Virgil came to visit, Sheriff Bristol was sitting up. The Deputy explained that all three men were buried. "The next day, a message came from the Marshal that the man named Matt was Matt Boothe and was wanted for murder. The other two were sidekicks." He added, "I'll be glad when you're fully recovered and back to work."
"I'm not going back to work." Bristol explained the shaking he'd been experiencing and how it almost got him killed. "You'll make a fine sheriff, Virgil. As soon as I'm well enough, I'm heading to California to be with my kids and their families."
In a few more weeks, Nick Bristol, no longer sheriff, rode slowly out of town, his few remaining possession tied to the back of his saddle. As he proceeded, the townsfolk stopped and waved or tip their hat until he was out of view.
Jim Hanley is an adjunct professor who has written articles in professional journals, as well as mainstream, mystery, humor and most recently, Western short stories, published in a variety of print and online magazines.