THE GUNFIGHTER • by Damon Wioskowski

Tom, the saloonkeeper, kept an eye on the stranger at the end of the bar.  The man’s grubby face and well-worn clothes were at odds with the polished oak bar on which he now leaned and the gleaming brass foot rail that bore his weight.  Each time the man lifted his arm to wipe his mustache, Tom caught a glimpse of a pistol tucked in the waistband of his trousers.  Guns weren’t prohibited in town, but the sheriff frowned upon anyone wearing them on Main Street.

It was late Tuesday afternoon and the saloon was nearly deserted.  On a crowded night, Tom would hardly have noticed the stranger amongst the throng of drinkers and card players.  But tonight he had little else to occupy his thoughts.

“What’s your name, mister?” Tom asked.

“Name’s Bill,” the man answered, never looking up from his shot glass.

“Well, Bill, there’s another saloon across town you might find more comfortable than this one.  Some of my customers get jumpy whenever someone brings…”

Before Tom finished his sentence, a young man entered the saloon, his eyes fixated on Bill.

“Bill Murphy!”  The newcomer was well dressed and wore a sharp-looking beaver fur hat.  His waist bore a pair of holsters, each housing an intricately etched gold-plated pistol.  His boots were so shiny that Tom could see his reflection in them.  He was obviously a gunfighter and couldn’t have been a day over twenty.  Bill stared into his whiskey and never turned round to see who was addressing him.

“I’ve followed you for two weeks, Murphy.  My name’s Cody Tate and I don’t believe you’re half as fast as people say you are.  But, if you’re half the man they say, you’ll meet me outside in thirty minutes.”  And with that, the young gunslinger disappeared back into the street.  The handful of patrons in the saloon jockeyed for position at the window, all vying for a clear view of the street.  Bill, seemingly disinterested, threw back his whiskey and ordered another.

Had Tom been seated, he would have fallen out of his chair.  The sullen man at the end of the bar was none other than Bill Murphy, the fastest gunslinger in the state of New Mexico.  But the more Tom looked at him, the harder it was to fathom.  This flesh and blood Bill Murphy was nothing like the Bill Murphy depicted in the five-cent stories sold in the general store.  The man in the stories was a fearless and muscular man who never backed down from a fight.  He wore an eye patch and a black leather bandoleer, and carried a pair of flashy pistols.  Maybe the young gunfighter had made a mistake.

“Mister, I don’t know if you’re really Bill Murphy or not.  Quite frankly, it don’t matter none to me.  You don’t look like you’re in any shape to face that kid right now.  There’s a back door out of here behind the bar.  If you leave now, most of these folks won’t even notice.”

For the first time all night, Bill looked Tom straight in the eye.

“Thanks, Mister, but today I’m gonna stop runnin’.  The kid’s right, I’m Bill Murphy.  I’ve been in twenty-eight gunfights in the last six years and I’ve never lost.  That kid out there couldn’t beat me on his best day if it were my worst.”  Bill grabbed the whiskey bottle and poured himself another shot and threw it back.

Tom’s expression betrayed his disbelief.

“I used to be just like the kid.  Cocky and loud and slicker than a greased weasel.  I made my bones when I killed Lucky Williams.  Killin’ a man is easy.  It’s killin’ all his friends that wears you down.  Before I knew it, one fight led to five, then ten, then twenty.  Seems everyone wants a piece of the man that shot Lucky Williams.”

Bill poured one last shot and swallowed the whiskey hard.  He stood up, pulled the revolver out of his waistband and spun it around in his hand with unbelievable speed.  Forward, then backward, then forward again.  He stopped briefly to check the cylinder before resuming the display.  The saloon patrons clapped in unison.

“I’ve been runnin’ ever since I killed Lucky.  Goin’ from town to town, trying to blend in.  Sleepin’ in hotels when I had the money or out in the brush when I didn’t.  Always watchin’ my back for the next young kid out to make a name off me.  No chance for a job, a home or a family.  I’m tired.  I thought killin’ Lucky Williams would make my fortune.  All it really did was dig my grave.  But today, I stop runnin’.”

Bill extended his arm and the two men shook hands.

“Thanks kindly for your hospitality.”  Bill pulled a silver dollar from his pocket and slid it across the bar.  Then he strode out of the saloon into the street to face his demons and Cody Tate.

Moments later, the report from a single shot filtered in through the saloon doors.  Tom couldn’t see what had happened as the window was blocked by a group of gawkers.  After what seemed like an eternity, footsteps approached the saloon doors and Cody Tate walked in.

“Yeehaw!  I just dusted Bill Murphy with one shot!  Drinks are on me!  Life is gonna change for Cody Tate!”

Tom shook his head. The young man had no idea.

Damon Wioskowski writes out of Pennsylvania.

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