A Short Story by
A James Hindle
We were in a small town in Johnson County — population 279.
My buddy Lenny Todd and I, Kelan Hart, were on our way home — the end of an epic road trip that had taken us south to Florida and back, now in Wyoming, on our way north to Alberta. We had gathered a lifetime of memories and thought we were nearly home. But halfway through Wyoming, fate was not yet through with us.
The main street could have been a Hollywood set — a time capsule of Wyoming’s 1800s Wild West. The only suggestion it was 1963 was the paved highway passing through town. Aged buildings lined the short main street: a bank, general store, hotel and a saloon with a hitching rail where you could tie up your horse if you had one. Several other authentically old west structures dotted the main street, all making one feel they had ventured back in time.
My old Volkswagen Beetle had served us well, but unfortunately, began suffering mechanical problems. Its demise was rapid. We had barely made it, the engine knocking and smoking as we limped into the only gas station available in the small town— an old converted livery stable now attempting to service the automotive industry. I turned off the ignition to talk to the attendant. When I tried to start it, I had no luck.
Repairs to the engine would be far beyond what we could afford. We were not about to abandon our vehicle, but we were stranded. The only choice was an embarrassing long-distance phone call home to my dad, as a desperate teenager might do. Reluctantly, he agreed to come to our aid and drive the one thousand miles to Wyoming to deliver us and my car, connected to a towbar, home. I knew that I would be in his debt forever. His arrival would not be until the following evening, so Lenny and I got a hotel room above the saloon for the night.
We spent the next morning investigating the locale — chatting with the residents, listening to their folklore that at times stretched the imagination — stories of cowboys, desperados, wild-west gunfights, and lawmen of legend, who had lived in, passed through, and died violently in shootouts, many on the streets where we stood.
By noon, we were exhausted. Dad would not arrive until the evening, so we booked the room for another night. Lenny took an afternoon nap. I wandered into the saloon, ordered a Coke and sat contemplating my discomfiting situation, as well as our morning’s history lesson.
An old cowboy shuffled through the saloon doors, a worn, sweat-stained hat draped over his head, possibly the same vintage as himself. A long oilskin duster hung open from his shoulders, draping behind him like a cape while revealing a holstered six-gun strapped to his leg. The doors slid past his body and fluttered shut behind him. Like his clothing, he appeared a bit worn — his eyes focused on the floor just beyond his step. As he passed the bar, he motioned to the bartender with a slight flick of his finger and continued in my direction. Hesitating as he approached — perhaps I was sitting at his usual table — he chose the table to my right and settled himself into the chair. By the time he had made himself comfortable, the bartender had placed a beer on his table and was headed back to the bar. As he passed my table, he gave me a wink. I wasn’t sure what it meant: perhaps a suggestion of something to come. For a moment, I felt nervous.
The old man removed his hat and stroked back his long white hair. A partially missing ear and a scar on his cheek begged a story of what event had happened in his past to cause such modelling. Re-donning his headgear, he reached for his glass, took a swallow, then settled back, sighing as if that was all the work he could muster for the moment. His eyes narrowed as if trying to hide his thoughts, then drifted in my direction, and he nodded a silent, ‘Hello.’ I returned his greeting in kind; then we sat . . . silent . . . each staring at the drink on our table.
Beneath a bristly stubble of beard, his face was tanned and weathered from years of exposure to nature’s elements. When he leaned forward, putting his glass back on the table, the oilskin coat slid back from his hip, revealing the revolver snuggled to his thigh.
My Gawd! A western gunslinger! A cowboy! Was there a movie production occurring in town? Was he an actor taking a break, waiting for his scene call?
Aware of my staring at the weapon on his hip, the gunslinger spoke. His voice was smoky and measured — a John Wayne drawn-out sort of speak.
“Never seen a revolver before, son?”
I was mesmerized. I stumbled out a reply.
Well, I-I must admit, I’ve n–never met a gunslinger. I-I mean, someone wearing a six-gun . . . on their hip. Are you an actor? Is it a real gun?
My Gawd! ‘Never met a gunslinger! Is it a real gun? ‘Maybe I should just ask for his autograph and leave before I thoroughly embarrass myself?
Recognizing my embarrassment, his face wrinkled into a partial smile.
“ It’s real alright,” he said. “Been with me a long time. Don’t get much use out of it anymore—’cept maybe to shoot the odd coyote.”
He twisted toward me, and introduced himself.
“Names . . . , Jackson Cantrell.”
The name rolled off his tongue like it should have been preceded by a drum crescendo.
“K-kelan Hart,” I stuttered out.
Then he did the most unexpected thing. Upholstering the weapon, he placed it on my table. I stared at it lying next to my coke. I reached to pick it up.
“Careful there, son,” he said. “She’s loaded.”
Like, he had to warn me!
It was a cold and cumbersome piece of hardware. The metal, tarnished from years of exposure, was otherwise pristine. The wooden grip was a dark chocolate colour, shiny from years of being squeezed by sweaty hands. I stared at the bullets in the cylinder. Yes, it was ready to shoot. I couldn’t believe such an awkward weapon could be quickly drawn and shot . . . accurately. All I had ever seen of such things was in movies and television. It was daunting seeing one strapped to the side of someone sitting next to me and, even more so, now actually in my hands.
“It looks old,” I said.
“It is, son. ‘Bout seventy-five years or more, I reckon.”
The words chewed out of his mouth.
“Startin’ to show its years, though—kinda like me.” He gave a half smile, then took the last swallow of his beer and placed the drained glass back on the table.
When I handed it back, I noticed four distinct notches carved into one side of the wooden handgrip. ‘Notches,’ I thought. ‘My Gawd! What did they represent? A scorecard of killings? Human lives that ended by this weapon? Why was he wearing it now?’
Questions I was almost afraid to ask. I thought about the age he said it was and the stories I’d heard earlier in the day from town folk as I toured the small town. It was a weapon from the late 1800s, the time of the outlaws like the Wild Bunch.
“Seventy-five years,” I said. “That goes back a long way. How’d you come by it?”
‘How’d you come by it?’ I was doing it again! He must think I’m a moron trying to mimic him.’
That slight smile curved a corner of his mouth again and then faded. He reached for his glass, then, remembering it was empty, rested back in his chair. That movement was my cue. I looked toward the bar, signalling the bartender to bring another round. Then we sat—silent—waiting. Perhaps I had been too nosey. Or maybe he was thinking of some memory that he could share with the naïve kid he had for an audience?
The bartender delivered our drinks. He placed a beer in front of Cantrell and the other, along with my coke, on my table. That seemed unusual; I was sure I was underage. Perhaps it wasn’t a concern here in the Wild West Wyoming country. I wasn’t about to argue. I paid for the drinks and took a sip before he changed his mind and took it back. As I put my glass back on the table, I noticed the old man glancing again in my direction. He motioned his glass toward me, a silent salute of ‘Thanks,’ took a swallow, and then settled back in his chair.
“You a stranger to Wyoming, son?”
I told him about my journey back to Alberta with my buddy Lenny, who was currently taking a nap in our hotel room . I drivelled on for a few minutes with my story — he patiently listened — I’d bought him a beer. I finally shut up.
“Alberta,” he said. “Good cattle country. A bit like Wyoming, if my memory serves me.”
I told him what little I knew of Wyoming I had learned today from townsfolk’s stories.
“Mostly romanticized history of wild-west lawlessness. Outlaws and desperado gangs from the past, like ‘The Wild Bunch,” I said.
His cheek twitched a smile, and he gave a slight snicker. “There was lawlessness alright,” he said. “Though it didn’t seem all that romantic at the time. It was just the life.”
He hesitated, then added, “For some, a short one.”
He stared down at his drink, possibly retreating into thoughts of his past. Finally, after another swallow of beer, he rested back and began to tell me a tale.
“It was tough in Wyoming back then,” he began. “For many folks—probably most I’d say—life was a damn hard struggle. Wyoming was changing. The railroad had come in — good news for the cattle markets. But it also brought in settlers, small-time ranchers and farmers, most with government-endowed settler’s deeds. They fenced their land, cut up the open rangeland, blocked off large sections of grassland from the big herds the wealthy cattle barons owned and that caused detours for the large cattle drives.”
As he told his story, he spoke slowly, pausing to think about what he was about to say. He was a master of the tale, and I was his captive. He continued.
“Hostility grew. These new, small-time farmers were a problem, a thorn in the cattlemen’s operations — destroyers of the open land for herd grazing and cattle drives. The owners of the massive herds saw them as an expense of both trouble and money. They accused the settlers of cattle rustling and range busting, but the courts supported the government-entitled farmers. In desperation, they turned to a more aggressive approach to ridding themselves of this problem; threatening the small landowners, burning them out, even killing.”
He paused and took a drink of his beer.
“Were you around here, then?” I asked. He was a grand old gentleman, but I didn’t know his age.
“I was. I was just a boy. My folks had a homestead, actually not too far from here, in Platte County. Dirt poor, they were—30 or 40 head of cattle, but they had one of those government settler’s deeds. It was their start to a new life. I was too young to have much opinion on it back then.”
He put his glass back on the table.
“One day in the spring of ’91, my Momma, Pa and older brother were workin’ in the yard when a posse for the cattlemen’s association rode in. I was in the house doin’ chores for Momma. It wasn’t long before I could hear them all shoutin’ back and forth; my folks were being threatened. They were tellin’ Pa that he had no rights to the land, that the government deed was invalid. Then, they began accusing him of cattle rustling. I was pretty young, but I knew that wasn’t true. Pa told them that he had brands on all his cattle, but it didn’t seem to make much difference to them.”
Jackson’s eyes, heavy-lidded and squinted, shifted left and right in a threatening glare at the vision his thoughts evoked. I could almost feel the rage that the memory had set in him.
“They were no legal posse,” he said. “They were paid gunslingers and hired hands of the Cattlemen’s Association. The Invaders, they got to be called by most of the locals. Their job was to drive out the small landowners by whatever means necessary, tear down their fencing and get back the open rangeland.”
I was almost relieved for the break when the bartender arrived with two more beers, again leaving one in front of each of us. I paid him and turned back to hear more of the Cantrell’s tale. He was a skilled storyteller, and the beer was cheap. This was turning into a brilliant afternoon. I was sorry that Lenny had Lenny was missing this.
“So, what happened with the ‘posse’?” I asked.
Cantrell took a small sip of beer.
“I heard several loud gunshots. They echoed through the house like a stampede of horses. I ran to the door to have a look, expecting to see the riders bullying my family, shooting in the air and still shouting threats. But, when I peered out, my brother and Pa were on the ground, and Momma was screaming.
I scrambled around the house to get my rifle and some shells. Pa had taught me to shoot, hunting pronghorns. I was panicked and not as quick as I wanted to be. By the time I came out the door with my loaded gun, they’d all ridden off, except for one rider, who had his back to me. His gun was pointed at my Momma, crying over my brother, lying on the ground in a pool of blood beside my Pa. He fired once, and she slumped over my brother. He didn’t hear me coming up from behind. When he swung his horse around to face me, I had his head in my sights; damn near blew it clean off. His body flipped backward off his horse.”
I’d been holding my breath; it was time to breathe. I wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come out. He paused, eyes shifting in my direction then back to the glass in his hand.
“My family had been murdered in front of me, and I killed one of the men that had done it. I was afraid some of the posse would return when they heard the loud crack of my rifle, and I knew they’d shoot me just as fast as the rest of my family. I removed the gunslinger’s gun n holster, and the cash from his pockets then caught his horse and climbed up into the saddle. I took one final look at my family lying in the blood-soaked dirt and left; my face was soaked in tears even though I didn’t remember cryin’. I headed out—west toward the mountains. I didn’t know where I was going; I was just riding.
Seen a lot of country since then, but I’ve never been back to the old homestead. Don’t imagine it’s even still there. But that’s where I got the gun.”
I was still at a loss for words. I looked at the holstered gun, the weapon that had killed his mother and possibly the rest of the family.
Gawd! Six or seven years old. When I was that age, I could barely walk to school without help. I could not imagine having the maturity to do what he had done. What does someone that age do to survive in such a harsh environment? Words tumbled, almost incoherent, from my mouth.
“Where did you go? H-how did you live?” I asked.
His mouth was dry from telling his story; he paused for a drink and then continued.
“Things were pretty tough for a while, but once I got over the loss of my family, life didn’t seem all that bad. I had a good horse and saddle, a gun n holster that was too big for me to wear, and a rifle. I roamed a lot of country.”
He gave a little snicker. “I wore an old floppy hat that hung down over my face to hide my age best I could. I worked when someone would hire a kid, earned a few dollars here and there.”
He paused for a drink and thought a bit.
“Stealing . . . , did a lot of stealing. I even got to thinking I was good at it. Until, one day in Casper, I must have been eleven or twelve by then, I tried to sneak out of a store with some rifle cartridges in my pocket, but the owner caught me. I think he would have killed me with the whippin’ he was about to lay on me, except a stranger stopped him. The two of them talked for a bit, the stranger hanging onto my collar all the while. Then he stepped on my foot to keep me from moving while he paid the man. I was impressed with his payin’ for my shells, but I remember I’d thought for sure all my toes had been broken. After that, we headed outside. He told me I was free to go. But for some reason, we stood and talked for a while. He was impressed that I had my own horse n saddle and rifle—bein’ alone and all—and I was grateful for the rifle shells he’d paid for. After a bit of talking, he offered me a job at his ranch, tending his horses. It sounded good; I had nowhere I had to be, so I took it.
His property was on the edge of the Big Horn Mountains, over near Dubois. It wasn’t much of a ranch; he had a bunch of horses and a few head of cattle, but I got paid some, and I had food on my plate and a bed to sleep in. He was one of the friendliest men I’d ever met, quick with a joke and he liked to tell stories. It wasn’t long, though, ’til I learned why he wasn’t much of a rancher.”
Cantrell paused long enough to take the last swallow of beer from his glass and settle back in his chair. This old man sure could suck ’em up; I flagged the barman to bring him one more. There was no way I could ever keep up with his drinking, but I didn’t mind paying for his beer and listening to the story.
“He was an outlaw, just like the ones the townsfolk here was tellin’ you about. He rustled cattle from the big range herds, held up banks, and robbed trains. The Funny thing was, everyone seemed to like him—even the odd lawman. He was a kind of Robin Hood, always sharin’ with those that needed it. His name was LeRoy—LeRoy Parker—though most of his close friends called him Butch. He’d done a little jail time, despite that, he was one of the smartest men I’d ever met: a real schemer. When he planned a bank or train robbery, he’d have a relay of fresh horses waiting every few miles on their getaway route. When they were being chased, they always had fresh horses waiting for them, while the posse’s horses were now worn out.
There were hideouts in the mountains that a lot of those—desperados, as you called them—could get lost in and not be found. Robbers Roost, Hole in the Wall; there were others. I got to see some of them in my short time with Butch.”
I was absorbed in the tale, sitting on the edge of my chair, glued to his every word. Such an adventurist history. I could have listened for hours, but . . . .
Another person strode through the saloon door. The cowboy’s clothing was like Cantrell’s, although he was slightly taller and a younger man. His step was brisk, and when his oilskin coat flipped open, it exposed a holstered six-gun, like a warning of, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ His weathered face had the same three or four-day growth of beard. He glanced in our direction, then signalled to Jackson: a friendly—time to go‘—motion with a nod of his head, then turned and breezed out of the bar as he had entered.
“Well, son, that there’s my Partner, so I suppose it’s time for me to head out.” He stood and reset his hat on his head and finished the last swallow of his beer.
I slid my chair back and stood up; he extended his arm, and we shook hands.
“Nice meetin’ ya, kid,” he said. “And thanks for the beer.”
As he turned to leave, I called after him,
“Thanks for the story.”
He turned his head back toward me and touched his hat — a final goodbye.
There were so many questions that I’d never have answers to. I felt like I had my book taken away before I reached the end of the novel.
The clock above the bar said 5:00 pm. The afternoon had passed quickly. I was about to go wake him up when Lenny walked into the bar.
“Man! I’m hungry,” he said, glancing at the nearly empty beer glass in front of me. “What’ve you been up to?”
We still had several hours before dad was expected. We ordered a light snack, and while we ate, I shared my afternoon experience with Jackson Cantrell and the unfinished story. But the supply of beer ceased.
Lenny had missed an amazing and memorable afternoon.