Published on Monday, March 1, 2010
A Cold Morning in Cooper's Fall
By Daniel W. Davis
I'd never been in a duel before, and wasn't too keen on the idea now. I'd hoped Johnson would get off his ass and do something about it, but being sheriff of a town and enforcing the laws aren't necessarily the same thing, and he was leaning against the post outside the barber shop, watching from underneath that ragged hat of his.
Wilcox stood beside me. He had my revolver in his hand, and he gave it to me. I hefted it and glanced at him. He was looking at Richards, who was taking off his jacket and placing it over the back of a chair.
"Want to trade?" Wilcox asked. "I'll shoot the son of a bitch for you."
After a brief hesitation, I scowled and put the gun in my holster. "No. I got him."
"You'd better, 'cause if I have to shoot him, I'll get a hanging for it."
I glanced Johnson's way, thinking that he should've just run us out of town. That would've been the proper thing to do; hell, Wilcox and I'd been run out of more towns than we'd spent the night in, it felt like. There were things you did and things you didn't do, and letting some rich banker call a duel in the middle of town usually fell in the latter category. But then, in towns like Cooper's Fall, the banker usually had everybody by their throats-- or, rather, their wallets.
Still, I couldn't help but admire Richards a little. A man didn't find too many bankers willing to shoot it out with men like myself and Wilcox. And maybe, if Wilcox had been the offender instead of me, Richards would've left well enough alone, and Johnson would've persuaded us to leave, and I wouldn't have been risking my life in the early spring air in this godforsaken mountain town.
I was still getting used to the altitude. We'd ridden into Cooper's Fall two days before, tired and breathing heavy. Wilcox and I had both been in the mountains before-- both been to Cooper's Fall, back in the day-- but it'd been a while, and that kind of air is something your body tends to forget. Breathing was a struggle; I could actually feel my chest and lungs working overtime, and I'd been walking around light-headed, dizzy. I was sure I had enough of my wits about me to shoot straight, but it would be close; the only skinnier people than him I'd seen were starved slaves and prisoners back in the war. He was just fifty feet away, and he looked like a damn twig.
He was pressing down his jacket, getting rid of the wrinkles, showing off. I let him, getting used to the weight of the Colt at my waist, the feel of the brisk air in my nose and mouth. Wilcox patted my shirt flat, but the breeze ruffled it up again, and he gave up, stepping back from me and looking me up and down. His head looked like a bear's, and I said to him, "You need a shave."
"You live, I'll consider it."
"What you think my odds are?"
"Man like that challenges you to a duel? Either he's good or arrogant. Which you think?"
I watched Richards finish pressing down his shirt and hitch his belt. His revolver was finely polished, a European model I'd never seen before, black and silver and gold in the morning sun. His pants were flat against his legs, same with his shirt and vest, and he carried his shoulders back and straight, his curled hair shifting in the wind. He walked out to the middle of the road, a few yards from where I stood.
"Good," I said. "I think he's good."
"Too good," Wilcox said, and it wasn't a question, and I didn't say anything to it.
I'd learned, during the night I spent in jail, that Richards owned seventy-five percent of the businesses in Cooper's Fall. I'd seen similar situations in similar Western towns; people come out here, they're either shrewd or naive, too often the latter. Men like Richards make their fortunes out here; back east they might be small fish, but here they're on top, and the few who ever dare challenge them either get run out of town or buried under it.
I caught movement from the corner of my eye, upwards, and I turned and looked. She was in the window of the hotel's second-floor hallway, hidden just behind the curtain, not looking at me but at Richards. I stared at her, and I reckoned she knew I was looking but wasn't going to acknowledge it. A woman gets a man killed, you'd think she'd have the courtesy to smile at him one last time.
But I could understand her. For a girl like Miranda, latching onto a man like Richards was about the best thing that could happen. She was petite and blond, built just right, the way you hardly ever find out here. Yet I knew she was a western girl, born and raised in Cooper's Fall. Richards put his hooks in her early, marrying her when she was just seventeen, and in the five years since, I wondered how many men she'd fooled around with who hadn't gotten caught. I'd just been unlucky, or too confident. I'd underestimated Richards, that was for damn sure, and I knew better. You don't go underestimating a man you never met.
Richards waved to his wife, who ducked back inside the window. We both watched her depart, then turned and faced each other.
"Good luck, Horace." Wilcox hefted his Winchester rifle. "I'll get him if you don't."
Small comfort, but I nodded and he walked away.
"I'm glad you were able to make it," Richards said. His voice wasn't as soft as you would think; it was roughened by dust and sun and whiskey, the voice of a panther. His whole persona was feline, the way he shifted his weight from foot to foot, his arms and legs slowly, almost imperceptibly, flexing.
I had nothing to say and so just looked at him.
"One shot at a time," he called out, not just to me but to everyone. "One shot at a time." He smiled at me. "If we need more, that is."
I gave him his acknowledgment by nodding slightly, and our hands drifted slowly to our holsters. He faced me at an angle, slimming his profile even further, but I'd never been much of a crack shot and so faced him fully, trusting my instincts. It was all I had.
I drew first. I knew I would have to. A man like Richards, he waits; he has all the time in the world, because he's good, far better than me, and he knows it. So I dropped my hand and drew, and the only thing that saved my life was that I was faster, and as I drew I turned. I was firing before his gun was fully out, but anybody who's ever seen a duel can tell you that it isn't how fast you are that matters, and my bullet went wide, striking the ground behind and to his right. His bullet, which he'd aimed at my heart, hit me in the arm, and I spun to the side, falling on my knees.
The echoes of the gunshots mingled. There was only a small crowd gathered, and they watched us closely, most of them nodding and smiling that I'd gone down first. I let my weight fall back, so that I was more or less upright, and I watched Richards closely. He was nodding to himself, emptying the cartridge out of that funny revolver of his. He smiled at the crowd, then began walking towards me.
"I must say, you're fast," he said.
And then I raised my Colt and fired the remaining five shots. At least one hit, because he collapsed to the street, surprise beginning to register on his face. As the echoes circled around us, I watched him, looking for movement. A couple twitches in his right leg, but nothing else. I pushed myself up and turned to the sheriff.
Wilcox wasn't quite smiling at me, but he seemed rather satisfied with himself. I wasn't too concerned with how he'd managed to sneak the extra bullets into the gun; when Wilcox wants something, he usually gets it, and that's just the way it is.
The crowd was watching me silently, too shocked to be angry yet, but I could tell Johnson was starting to get riled up, and he watched as I approached him, my left arm numb and bleeding. He was toying with the revolver at his waist, but Wilcox wasn't too far from him, armed with the Winchester, and Johnson wasn't stupid. His fingers danced over the grip of his gun, but there was no way he could punish me for cheating at something that was illegal anyways, and so he was the first in the crowd to turn away and leave. Everyone else did likewise until only Wilcox, myself, and a few stragglers remained. The latter group retrieved Richards' body and carried it into the hotel, where I've no doubt his wife would grieve over her lost coin purse.
Wilcox took my gun and reloaded it, then stuck it in my holster. "Reckon we'd better get."
I nodded. We walked to the stable and mounted our horses, making sure to leave proper payment on the ground behind us. I mentioned that there was a town about ten miles back the way we'd come, and odds were there was a doctor there, or at least somebody with some medical training, so we road east out of Cooper's Fall, the cold morning air pressing against my lungs and squeezing them tighter than a trigger.
Daniel W. Davis is a graduate student born and raised in Central Illinois. His stories and poems have appeared in various online and print journals. You can follow his work at his blog.