Published on Thursday, June 30, 2011
The Bad Gun
By David Harry Moss
Jim Kirby, a sheriff's deputy, sat at a table by a window in Weber's Eatery having a meal of tea, buffalo steak, sweet potato, boiled Indian corn, and a hard biscuit. Jim had an angle to the street were the sun, low to the west, cast long bleak shadows. He could see the livery stable and a cluster of weary looking people waiting for a stage that ran in the coolness of night to a string of dingy cow towns located away from the rail line.
A gunshot sounded from behind the eatery but Jim didn't flinch. He knew it was Weber dumping garbage and shooting at rats. Jim spotted Sheriff Wes Cutler exit the jail and cross the rail tracks that split the main street in half. Cutler strode loose limbed toward the livery stable. All of a sudden Cutler pulled a gun from a holster and shot a man waiting for the stage. The well-aimed bullet struck the man between the eyes and blew the man's head apart. Jim sprang from the chair knocking over the table and spilling his plate of food onto the sawdust floor.
Sheriff Wes Cutler packed two black handled, forty-four caliber Remington's, one on each slim hip. An ominous glare in Cutler's dark eyes stamped him as a dangerous man. He had a lean build and a knife-blade sharp face bisected by a well groomed, black mustache. There were stories of Cutler killing dozens of men during the Civil War and more lurid tales of torture and murder when he commanded a Union prisoner-of-war camp. After the War, Cutler became a lawman, beginning in St Louis and moving on to Kansas City and Fort Worth and then farther west, going to nameless, end-of-the-line railroad towns on the Union Pacific, towns rife with lawlessness and killing. People feared Wes Cutler and some even idolized him for his quickness with fists and guns.
Jim Kirby saw himself as one of the idolizers. Now, in 1870, Jim had just turned eighteen. He struggled with what was right and what was wrong and needed a model for what constituted a man. Jim's father, a no account Missouri dirt famer who died broke and in debt, had disappointed him. In Wes Cutler, Jim thought he had found what he was looking for. A day after Jim arrived in town, Jim applied for the vacant deputy job and Cutler hired him.
Jim and Judge Sirus Drain arrived at the scene of the shooting simultaneously. Drain was a thin, slope shouldered man with a sooty gray beard.
"What happened here, Wes?" Judge Drain asked.
"Keegan reached for a gun so I shot him."
"That's a lie." The words came from a petite woman with wide, horror-stricken eyes and teeth that looked like kernels of corn. The woman, whom Sheriff Cutler once had labeled a drunkard, was Keegan's wife who had waited on tables in the saloon where Keegan tended bar. He got fired after the saloon owner accused him of stealing, a charge Keegan denied.
"Cutler's a liar and a killer."
"You watch what you say, woman," Judge Drain said. "Wes Cutler is a peace officer and an honorable man."
"Everyone here saw what happened."
Judge Drain scanned the throng. "Well, someone speak up or everyone gets held over." A man in the group, a gambler, cleared his throat and eyed Wes Cutler who had his palms resting on the handles of his guns. The man looked down and shuffled his feet in a nervous gesture. "It happened the way Sheriff Cutler told it. Keegan reached for the gun on his hip and Sheriff Cutler had no choice."
Jim slunk back. It happened fast but he didn't recall Keegan going for a gun. It seemed that Keegan had his arms crossed over his chest.
"That settles it." Judge Drain said.
"It settles nothing," Mrs. Keegan said. "Everyone here is afraid of that killer wearing a badge."
"I told you to watch what you say," Judge Drain warned. He let his eyes fly around again until they settled on a fat, slovenly man working on a wad of chaw tobacco. "Smiley."
The fat man, Smiley Dobbs, the stage driver, spat a stream of tobacco juice into the dust, and stepped forward.
Judge Drain said, "Make sure Mrs. Keegan is on that stage even if you have to tie her to the seat. I'll see that her husband gets buried."
Jim walked away head down. Maybe Keegan did go for a gun. It probably happened that way. Jim made up his mind that Sheriff Cutler acted in self-defense.
A few days later, on a hot summer morning, Cutler roused Jim from his bed in the rooming house. "Time for your first man hunt," Cutler said.
Jim sprang from the bed. "Who are we after?"
"A trouble maker named Slocum."
Slocum was an on again, off again railroad worker and a buffalo hunter. Jim thought of him as a likeable fellow. Jim reached for his shirt. "What did Slocum do?"
"Left town owing for supplies at Greeley's Trading Post. He's heading for Indian country."
"What does Slocum owe for?" Jim asked, pulling on his pants.
Cutler lit a cheroot with a wooden match. Thin, gray tendrils of match smoke twisted upward. "Some coffee, beans, a slab of bacon, a breach loading shotgun, and a box of shells."
Jim tugged on his boots and grinned. "That comes to about $60. Should we waste time going after Slocum for that little?"
Cutler's fierce expression caused Jim to shudder. "When a man owes another man and doesn't pay, it's the same as robbery."
Outside, on the dusty street, the sun beat down like a red lick of fire. Jim buckled on a gun belt and squinted against the brightness. He saw the line of glinting track running straight and long in the heat haze, saw hastily built wood frame buildings and tents housing sleep-cheap hotels, eateries, gambling saloons, whiskey bars where you could get a drink for as much as 25 cents, and brothels.
They crossed the tracks to the blacksmith shop and livery stable that crowded against the railroad depot stacked high with timber and iron rails. Next to the depot squatted the sheds for the Chinese laborers who worked for $32.50 a month while white workers demanded $52.00.
In silence, they saddled their horses. Cutler slipped a Springfield .50 caliber carbine into a scabbard hooked to his saddle. Leaving town, Jim waved to a saloon girl, Ruby Gload, a drifter, slender, with reddish brown hair and an almost pretty face, formerly of Abilene and other towns, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette with brown paper and black Mexican tobacco, and standing in the shade on a plank sidewalk of a saloon. Twice, when Jim did night duty, Ruby stopped by and they played chess.
"Take my advice and stay away from that woman," Cutler said, in his smooth even voice. "She's a tramp."
They rode out of town toward the high plains, an endless swath of grassland dotted with thousands of grazing buffalo. A slight hot breeze blew their strong bison scent in sweltering waves across the prairie. They cut a path through the slumbering herd, Wes Cutler leading with his roan, Jim a few yards behind on a frisky bay.
Jim remembered seeing Slocum, a medium-sized wiry man, the night before in a saloon, playing and losing at a faro table with Ruby dealing. Jim thought that, at his worse, Slocum drank too much but that described most men Jim knew.
The trail followed a series of meandering creek beds dry except for infrequent pockets of water. They rode for two hours, Jim edgy and alert, Cutler calm in the saddle, under a cloudless, brassy sky, the air thick with the sweet, sun-baked scent of blue-green grass. Jim had the sense that tracking a man was commonplace for Wes Cutler. On a knoll laden with red and yellow and blue and pink and purple and white wild flowers they stopped. Four hundred yards way, they spotted Slocum leaning against his horse and waving his arms. Jim bounded to the ground, knelt, wiped sweat from his eyes, and focused in with his binoculars.
"It seems he wants us to join him," Jim said.
Jim heard movement from behind but did not turn. Seconds later the crack of a carbine jarred him. Slocum fell and Jim wheeled around dumbfounded. "Slocum wasn't running away. He was just out for a ride."
Cutler's eyes became slits; his lips were tense. The sunlight burned on his face like hell fire. "That's where you're wrong. Slocum wanted to lure us into range so he could use that shotgun. Now he won't get the chance."
Jim turned and spit out a bitter taste. He felt Cutler's fingers digging into his shoulders like talons, spinning him back so that they faced one another. Cutler's glare was harsh.
"Slocum was evil. He had to be stopped."
Confused by what had just happened and unable to think straight, Jim tried to break free but Cutler's strong fingers dug in deeper, bruising bone.
"Are you a Bible reading man?"
"No." Jim took a deep breath. "Let go of me." Cutler released his grip.
Cutler lowered his shoulders and seemed to relax. "When I was a kid growing grew up back East, my father was a fire and brimstone preacher. He got me to reading the Book so I could know the difference between right and wrong. The passage that stuck with me the most was Romans six, verse twenty-three. 'The wages of sin is death'." Cutler sighed. "Sin killed Slocum, not me."
"And Keegan? What about him?"
"The same, sin did it; like sin did it to all the men I've killed."
They strapped Slocum's dead body to his horse and in silence rode back to town. It was dark when they arrived. All the while Jim tried forcing himself to believe that what Cutler had done, first to Keegan and later to Slocum, was justified.
That night Jim made his rounds. He stopped in the saloon where Ruby Gload worked and watched her dealing faro. He drank a shot of whiskey and a glass of warm beer. Outside, on the crowded plank sidewalk, Jim felt dizzy and leaned against the wall for support. He closed his eyes. He heard a cough and opened his eyes and saw Ruby Gload rolling a cigarette with slim deft fingers.
"Are you all right?" Ruby's voice was whimsical.
"I'm not sure. I'm starting to believe that I'm not cut out to be a deputy."
Ruby nodded. She put a match to the thin rolled paper stuffed with tobacco. Smoke engulfed her.
Jim returned to the jail, a shack that had a cell with slats of board instead of iron bars. Jim found Wes Cutler sitting behind his desk cleaning a gun with an oily rag.
"I'm going to quit. I'll work out the week because I need the money and then I'll turn in my badge."
"That's too bad. I thought you had the makings of a good lawman."
Jim went into a tiny back room to get a drink of water from a wooden bucket. He heard a gunshot, Weber shooting at rats in the alley Jim guessed, and heard the scrape of footsteps coming into the jail from the rowdy street. A gun barked loud and sharp. Jim hurried back into the jail proper and saw Ruby Gload standing in front of the desk with a smoking revolver. Cordite burned Jim's eyes. He saw Wes Cutler slumped forward, face flat on the desktop, and saw splotches of blood on the wall behind Cutler's desk. He saw blood pouring over the desktop from the bullet hole in Cutler's forehead. The sight of it sickened Jim.
Ruby set her revolver on the desk, being careful that it didn't touch blood. Her hands trembled. Her smile was rueful. Her features seemed stiff. Jim slumped into a chair. Ruby clenched her fists. Her lips twitched. She looked deathly pale.
"You and that crooked Judge can hang me if you want for what I did here," Ruby said, "but let me tell you something first. I'm a Mississippi girl." Her voice wavered, loud and then hushed. "Wes Cutler murdered my husband and murdered my brother when he commanded that prisoner of war camp during the War. He wore that sheriff's badge and before that the Blue uniform because it gave him the freedom to kill. I've been building the nerve to do this for a long time. Wes Cutler was the Devil in human flesh."
Jim took a deep breath to compose himself. He saw that Ruby's eyes were wet. "I believe you, Ruby. I saw what Cutler did to Keegan and to Slocum. I want you to take that gun and toss it in the big pile of garbage behind Weber's eatery. Then go to your room and pack your bag and tomorrow get on a train or the stage and go far away from here."
"Who will you say killed Wes Cutler?"
"An avenging angel."
Ruby left the jail. Jim knew he would never see her again.
Jim trudged the street, scouring the clogged, smoke-filled gambling tents, noisy with tinny music and loud voices, until he found Judge Drain and pulled him from a poker game.
"Someone shot Sheriff Cutler. He's dead."
Judge Drain hooked his tobacco stained thumbs inside his red suspenders and tugged. "Any idea who did it?"
Jim grimaced. "It could have been anyone. Cutler had it coming to him."
"Isn't that the truth." Judge Drain began stuffing tobacco into the bowl of a briar pipe.
Jim said, "I'll get the undertaker."
"Thank you." Judge Drain put the flame from a wooden match to the tobacco packed in the pipe bowl. "Are you willing to stay on?"
Jim frowned. "Only until you find a replacement, and hurry up the search."
For no clear reason, Jim began thinking of his father, raising a son alone after the mother died, working on that meager plot of land because it was all he knew, remaining steadfast so his son could grow up and have a chance in the world. Something he never felt before, an admiration for his father, for his father's sense of decency, for his father's grit and courage, took hold.
David Harry Moss is a writer and an actor. His fiction has been published in print and online. He writes in many genres. As an actor, he has appeared in numerous films, most notably Silence of the Lambs as an F.B.I. agent. Currently, he lives in Pittsburg but he has also lived in Minneapolis and Phoenix.