The Guitar Man – Part 10: The Last Gunfight and Me
After his brilliant short series ‘Dogbite’, Chris Adam-Smith has written a new series featuring the adventures of The Guitar Man. The first installment is available here.
Part 10: The Last Gunfight and Me
It really was one of those balmy Texas days. A slight breeze rippling the long meadow grass fenced off and awaiting the arrival of the horse stock. Deer had emerged from the woodland and were grazing by the small stream that trickled down from the hillside, a hawk crisscrossed the field, mocking birds sang and the Indian paint brush bloomed. Yes, it really was one of those fine days, and it would end in gunfire and bloodshed, neither of which were of my choosing.
It is true, I am but a songster with a Martin guitar. I have never deliberately shot a man. Even that one time I shot a river boat pirate in the foot and gave him cause for considerable concern and likely contributed to his drowning in the flooded Mississippi River, was an accident. I have never discharged my little .32 in anger. But that was before Harry Straight crossed my path and Harry Coen presented me with, what he considered to be, a real man’s revolver.
The summer touring was done and the autumn saw my friends and me at the new ranch, the old Huckabee place two miles west of Orville, transformed into the J slash J Ranch. I had hired Samuel, the young New Orleans plumber, and a local crew supervised by retired Orville sheriff’s deputy Tom Bingham, to rebuild our new acquisition and rebuild it they did. The ranch house rapidly grew around the lone standing stone chimney, all that remained of the Huckabee’s house and where I had my first encounter with local rancher Harry Straight, my new neighbour. Straight was not a large man, in fact he was a good deal smaller than his reputation would have one believe. His diminutive stature was somewhat disguised by the tall white Stetson so beloved of the growing band of motion picture cowboys and the undersized quarter horse he favoured. His high-heeled fancy snakeskin boots also gave the illusion that he was a big man walking tall. He wore an ivory-gripped Colt in a hi-ride holster fitted to an elaborate silver concho decorated shell belt.
He rode into my yard one bright but chilly autumn morning and cast a cloud over my life darker than the storm Uncle Charlie had cast over my younger days and the subsequent memories of the day I had accidentally ended his life with a three-pronged hay fork. I was working that morning with Samuel who had really taken to life away from the Big River. I was fixing the new corral, wiring and nailing sweet smelling peeled pine poles together in the anticipation of our first delivery of livestock.
Straight walked his pony over to where I was working and smiled down at me, his three companions ranged themselves a little behind him. I noted they all wore firearms, not a too common a sight for a man to wear a gun outside of his pants and certainly one frowned upon by Tom Bingham’s successor. County Sheriff Abe Thorn had, because of the railroad, made Orville the county seat. Thorn, with the help of a couple of deputies and a town council appointed marshal, kept a tight rein on things within the town, and his first ordinance had been the express ban on the wearing of firearms. It was a much-welcomed decree by many of the citizens who could see the old west was dying and a new one being born, but not by the belligerent few who saw it an infringement on their rights one of whom was, apparently, Harry Straight. Two of his companions were Mexican but the third man who rode tight at Straight’s side, was an American. A slim man, pale of face, obsidian black half-closed eyes, long white hair falling from beneath his hat and onto his narrow shoulders. He was dressed entirely in black. He never once took his eyes off me. It was a little unnerving but I ignored it and did not return his stare.
‘Howdy, neighbour,’ said the man in the big hat in a high-pitched voice. He smiled down at me beady eyes almost hidden in deep folds of fat. He leaned down and offered his hand. There was something about him I instantly took a disliking to and I did not invite him to step down as was the custom. I took his offered hand, it was clammy, the handshake meaningless. ‘Name’s Harry Straight, you’ve maybe heard of me?’
I nodded. ‘Yes, sir, I have.’ I remembered Tom Bingham telling me he owned most of the large valley but had shown little interest in the old Huckabee place.
‘I did not realise this property was up for sale.’ He looked around him. ‘You have done a pretty fine job of the old place, new barn, bunkhouse, corral and several cabins under construction down by the creek. What are you aiming to do with it, you don’t mind my asking? My land hems you in and it’s not enough to run a Texas herd over.’
‘Not cattle, Mr Straight, horses. I aim to raise some fine saddle horses here and give the easterners a taste of the big Texas Hello.’
He grunted. ‘I see you’ve fenced off the green meadow to the north…’
‘Winter grazing, fenced to keep cattle off it in the winter and out of it in the summer.’
‘I don’t intend to have any of my own other than a few milk cows and maybe a dozen pigs, I kind of like pigs.’ I removed my hat and wiped the damp from the leather sweatband.
‘How are you intending to move your animals to the railhead or wherever? Across my land?’ There was a definite edge to his voice.
‘No, sir, we won’t trespass. There are two county roads and the state road to the railhead so we don’t need to stray.’
‘How much did you pay for this place, again if you don’t mind my asking?’
‘That, I do mind.’ I said, conscious that Harry Coen had moved into the shelter of the large barn door.
‘I can find that out but it makes no never mind, I’ll pay you in American gold twice what you paid for it.’
I laughed. ‘No dice, Mr Straight, this is where I was born, where I grew up and where I intend to grow old.’
‘Don’t laugh at me, son, I tend to get what I want around here one way or the other.’ Without another word, he nodded to his men and lead them from my yard at a dust raising canter. The implied threat, like his dust, hung heavy over me and ruined my birthday.
I feigned surprise when, at supper, the five of them broke into song with Happy Birthday and toasted me. I said they shouldn’t have but I didn’t really mean it and they knew I didn’t. Then came the neatly wrapped gifts each of which I carefully opened and dutifully expressed surprise and joy taking care not to seem more excited by one than another. Samuel, the young New Orleans plumber I had persuaded to move west with us and help Tom Bingham who managed the crew I had hired to restore the old ranch, gave me a shining new steel wrench with an equally shining smile. Georgy bought me a new black Boss of the Plains Stetson telling me how fine I looked in it and how more appropriate it was than my usual black homburg now that I was a rancher.
Tom Bingham gave me his silver and enamel gold in-laid sheriff’s badge, an embossed star set in a silver circle given to him on his retirement. He also presented me with a bright, white metal badge, a simple star set in a shield identifying me to be an Orville County deputy sheriff. ‘I had a word with Abe Thorn, he’s a decent man but it’s a big county and he can’t be everywhere. He said to swear you in, probably wouldn’t help much but it might just may persuade Straight to back off and leave you be. I had told him about the man’s visit and he said he would talk to Straight but doubted it would do much good, he said Harry is old days, old ways.’
Jessica gave me a kiss and a smile put her tongue firmly in her cheek and told me in a husky voice for all to hear that she would me give me my present later, they chuckled at that as she left the table and quickly returned with a candle bedecked cake and set it in front of me. ‘I have no real idea of how old you are, Guitar Man, so I set it back a few years and settled for twelve. More laughter. And, finally Harry Coen presented me with a bulky and weighty parcel.
I carefully undid the wrapping and opened it. A heavy cedarwood box. All eyes were on me as I opened it. A beautiful 44-40 Colt Artillery. The revolver in polished blue steel with walnut grips and a five-and-a-half-inch barrel nestled in the green velvet lining. I stared at it, taking in the odour of wax and gun oil drifting from the box. He handed me a canvas bag. You will need this, it should fit.’ It was a black tooled leather gunbelt with matching looped holster that slid around the belt to any position the wearer chose.
‘So’s you won’t shoot yourself or anyone else in the foot next time, I will show you how to use it. Not like that little .32 you sometimes wear under your shoulder. You’re a rancher now, a Texan, and you need more gun than that. People will look at you when your tote that big iron and say, now there’s a real Texas cowboy. And you will nod and say, you are damned right I am.’ He laughed, they all laughed.
And so, the celebration ended with music from Harry Coen and me on guitars, Georgy on the trumpet, Jessica on piano, Samuel on his whistle pipe and the old sheriff on a small harmonica. A sing-song, music and dancing evening. And then it was midnight and Jessica and me amid chirrups of laughter, retired to get that extra special birthday present. I started to follow her out but turned back and picked up the Martin.
‘What do you need that for, Johnny?’ Harry asked.
I smiled. ‘A lullaby.’
The next morning Harry Coen and me were up beyond the treeline among the granite boulders in back of the ranch. Harry was wearing his gunbelt with my new piece in the holster. He stood away from me, carefully drew the piece and fired off four aimed rounds, spinning his carefully placed tin cans out and over the rocks. ‘Just take your time, aim, squeeze the trigger and lean into the recoil. You will get it done with practice.’ He replaced the cans, walked back to me and passed me the reloaded Colt and I dropped it into the holster which I wore butt forward on my left hip but closer to my belly.
‘Go for it but remember, you are not a quick draw artist, take your time. Here, plug your ears with these.’ He handed me two cotton wads.’
I plugged my ears but did not take my time. My hand brushed the wood grips and it seemed to leap out of the holster and into it. My thumb cocked the hammer on the rise and my finger was tight on the trigger for the first shot, but for the second, third and fourth, I held the trigger back and fanned the hammer with the heel of my left hand. The tin cans went every which way. Harry Coen stared at me long and hard. ‘You’ve done that before.’ he said, a curious question and answer all at the same time.
‘Never.’ I said, almost as surprised as he was. ‘Honestly, Harry, cross my heart,’ I said with a smile spinning the piece on my trigger finger and dropping it back into the leather as if I had been doing it all of my life.
‘I’ve only seen shooting like that but one time before and it was that same piece in the hands of a man called Judas Coffin.’ Harry said quietly.
‘He was a sometime lawman and sometime gun for hire back in the day. He had a similar gift bestowed on him he knew not from whence it came. No practice no experience, he used that gift with or without a badge, he told me to never stop believing, do not recognise the distance between your eye and the firearm in your hand, point with your eye. He retired alive and well, lives in Wyoming, newspaper man now, storyteller, acquainted with your friend Mark Twain. His name, although he does not use it, is Judas Coffin. You should meet him sometime. He taught me a lot, like how to shoot the Derringer. That little piece was tooled for me by the same gunsmith who worked on that Colt, he gave my little barrels extra rifling, smoother action, recoil damper and who knows what else. Coffin gave me that Colt, had it specially made for him, he owed me a big favour and it was his way of saying thank you. I am not too sure giving it to you was such a good idea though.’
Over the few months following my birthday, the odd cowboy had drifted along the edge of my property always moving away when approached. The fence was wrecked in one or two places but the riders I had hired quickly replaced it. We blamed the cattle that wandered freely. And as the winter died and spring was on the rise, I had my second encounter with Harry Straight. He rode into the yard as on the first occasion this time flanked by four men, two Mexicans, a young kid and the droopy eyed man Harry Coen had told me later, was Sleepy Joe Slade, a known gun for hire from New Mexico.
Straight had sent his lawyer out a couple of times each time offering a slightly increased price for the ranch but I had sent him packing with an emphatic not to bother me again.
There was no preamble this time though. Straight simply leant down from the saddle looked me square in the eye. ‘You paid 1000 dollars for this piece of land and my last offer is for 3000. A more than fair price for all of the work you put in. It’s my one and only offer. I need the grazing. If have to come back I will burn you out. I will give you a week to change your mind then I will hit this place like the twister did last time, only harder.’ That was it. He spun is horse around and led the riders out at the gallop.
‘I heard that.’ Tom Bigham stepped out of the barn, he had a sawed off, double-barrelled 12 gauge under his arm. ‘Best I go into town tomorrow and have another word with Thorn, he won’t stand by for that kind of intimidation in his county.’
‘No, Tom,’ I said, ‘forget it, it was bluff and bluster. Those days have long gone. He’ll cool down, sulk a little maybe, but he knows better than to try a stunt like that.’
But that wasn’t how it happened. Like I said, it was one of those days.
Harry Coen had driven the ladies into town and Tom Bingham and Samuel were working in the barn. I saw the riders coming and instinctively I stepped into the house and took the gunbelt from the hook and strapped it on. I didn’t need to check the load it had five rounds in the cylinder with an empty under the hammer, the only real safely catch. I stood in the shadow of the porch and waited. The same crew as on the last visit two Mexicans, the kid, Sleepy Joe Slade and Harry Straight, five of them in all. They stopped in the middle of the yard.
Straight looked over at me. ‘I warned you, gave you fair warning, made you a fair offer. I will be generous with you, Guitar Man, I have a bill of sale in my pocket, you sign it you ride out of here with 3000 dollars in your pocket, you don’t sign it there will be blood and that blood will be yours.’
‘Those days are gone, Mr Straight, long gone.’
‘Not for me they haven’t.’
I stepped down off of the porch, ‘I will be generous with you, sir, I won’t bring the law in on this, you just turn and ride out of here alive or stay here and die.’ The tough, colourful talk was not really me. Harry Coen had advised me it was the only language men like Harry Straight understood. I had the county deputy’s badge pinned to my holster and made sure Straight could see it.
He laughed and pulled, he was slow but Sleepy Joe Slade was fast and my first shot knocked him out of the saddle and my second hit Harry Straight high in the right shoulder. He dropped his weapon and struggled to hold his horse which pitched and turned, throwing him onto his backside on the hard-packed yard. One of the Mexicans had a gun out as Bingham emerged from the barn firing as he came and putting the man down with one barrel of the Greener shotgun and clearing the saddle of his companion with the other. The latter’s horse bolted running into the kid’s mount, the youngster’s animal rearing, dumping him down in the dirt his Colt flying from his hand. He looked startled and lost. Bingham reloaded his 12 gauge but it was all over. In less than thirty seconds three dead men and Harry Straight moaning on the ground and the kid standing there under Bingham’s shotgun.
‘What will it be kid,’ Bingham asked quietly, ‘you want to pick it up or ride?’
‘You going to shoot me in the back, mister?’ The youngster’s voice trembled.
‘I’m thinking on it.’ Bingham said, ‘I’m purely thinking on it.’
You wouldn’t, would you?’
Bingham looked over at me. ‘What do you think, Boss?’
‘Up to you, Tom, he’s under your gun. ‘I don’t much never mind one way or the other.’ And we both knew that wasn’t true but the kid did not. I was looking down at Sleepy Joe Slade, a third eye just above his nose punched there by my bullet, the other two staring up at the big empty. A sight I knew would stay with me forever. I walked over and kicked Harry Straight’s Colt clear of his reaching hand, took his red bandana and set about putting a tourniquet on his arm.
The kid said, ‘I was only obeying orders. I was just…’ His voice trailed off.
‘I heard that a lot after the Civil War, boy, but it never cut no ice with me then and it doesn’t now, a man makes up his own mind as to what is right or wrong.’ He stared at the kid long and hard. ‘Mount and ride, I ever see your face in these parts again and I will finish the job. You can live to tell your kids you were involved in the last gunfight in Orville County.’ The kid held his hands high and slowly backed to his horse then turned and ran the last two yards, made a running mount and vanished in a cloud of dust.
I smiled after him. ‘Kentucky by nightfall, I reckon? Give me a hand here with Mr Straight will you, Tom.’
The yard was a bloody mess mostly where Bingham’s scatter gun had done for the two Mexicans. We loaded Harry Straight onto the buckboard and with the help of a wide-eyed Samuel, dumped the three dead men in beside him and covered them with a tarpaulin. I got a blanket from the house and settled it over the moaning Straight.
‘You take him into town but best I come with you and give it to Thorn direct.’ Bingham said quietly.
‘OK, Tom,’ I said, ‘Whatever you think is right.’
And that was about the end of it and seems now almost like a long ago but it wasn’t.
Harry Straight just up and faded away. I never pressed charges and he sold off his ranch in small lots several of which I bought. He had completely lost the use of his right arm where my round had crippled his shoulder beyond repair and he found riding difficult. He moved east and that was that.
Sadly, old Tom Bingham passed away two years later and we miss him greatly. He kindly left his small parcel of land and the house to Samuel which raised a few eyebrows in Orville but, the town had really outgrown the old times and was progressive in so many ways.
Our ranch is doing well and the cabins are filled with easterners in the spring and summer and even in the winter for the hardier wannabe cowboys. Harry and Georgy have a fine town house of their own but spend a lot of their time with Jessica and me. We all still take a working vacation on the Belle and even perform some weekends in the high-class saloons of Orville, old habits die hard.
Harry Coen and me often sit outside in the cool of the evening smoking, drinking and reminiscing on the old times, like the time we first met and performed together at Sally Anne James’ little trail-side bar. We heard they put a main county road in right alongside it and she sold the place for a small fortune. We just smiled at the thought of the new owner building a bigger wayside bar and hoped he didn’t dig the foundations too deep out back.
My stories make me an easy dollar or two in Eastern magazines as Mr Twain predicted they would. Harry and me write songs for the budding, big hatted singing cowboy moving picture heroes. We recently overdubbed some songs for two old-timers from a town called Dogbite. They were real old-time cowboys and they looked the part riding their horses up beside some handsome, young leading man, but they could not hold a damned tune between them.
I have accepted the name of Johnny Guitar; it has a certain ring to it.