shooter bullet


by Gary Jacobson



      I ached to kill him right where he stood, but the sheer hatred and intense loathing burning in the eyes of the stick thin man in the long black frock coat made me pause. Crazed horses bolted around the wrinkled scarecrow sermonizing to an unseen congregation in middle of the dusty street, his sallow pasty skin as gaunt as crumpled paper, thunderous indignation ringing in his voice.

      "Hallelujah to his holy name oh ye prodigal son," he bellowed, sounding like Pastor Bartock, an itinerant hell fire and damnation preacher who stumped Rimrock from time to time. "Pay heed to your Glorious Master oh ye iniquitous lamb, for the day of reckoning is nigh when the Almighty shall speak with the roar of lions and the tinkling of cymbals His holy word to proclaim."

     "I beseech ye now, oh ye contentious mongrel," He blustered, shaking his fists at me, then thumping the sky. "Put away brother Satan's tool of destruction from thine lowly hand. I say unto ye, ye who are not as worthy as the dust under the feet of the Redeemer of man, ye cur pup, ye usurper of the holy Word, yea verily, guns in the hands of ungodly sinners lead to unholy degradation. They lead the impenitent transgressor to the very pits of Hell...yea, even unto eternal damnation."

     "I must be dreaming," I mumbled, shaking my head. The bitter smell of gunpowder and dust clogged my nostrils, but the screeching, grating voice, sounding like a rusty wagon wheel, brought me back to my senses. Pa and my brothers lay strapped dead across their horses like deer after a hunt -- and ma lay dead inside our burning cabin.

      "Vipers and harlots abound in the land," ranted the man in the black tunic. "Sinful carrion rend God's great loving heart with blasphemies. His eyes grow weary. He cries great tears for this profanely evil generation casting their lots with Satan this ignoble day. He sees the unjust drawing the very blood of the lamb from unholy vessels, empty and infertile as the desert, barren of the word and the glory, and He is sorely anguished."

     "The Father of us all hath decreed sacred condemnation for the unrighteous wine bibbers that do blaspheme and perform all manner of sin, corruption and evil before Him...this very millennium. Yea verily, this very hour, executers of the Omnipotent Master's Holy Word usher in Christ's peaceful thousand year reign in power and glory. By the hand of His anointed servants, in His divine wisdom, God purges those children who stray from His holy purpose, for they are sinners that pervert His doctrines. With the sword of righteousness He purges them, enlisting His consecrated servant, His shepherd, the watchmen of His vineyards, to adjudge the depraved acts of the wicked.

      Behold, yea verily...I am His armor of righteousness...I am His sword. Praise be the Lord! I shall gather His lost sheep, this lost generation. With the word and the sword shall I gather them in His name. Hallelujah, God is great...amen! The judgement day is nigh at hand when the wicked sinner shall reap what they sow in wickedness. Yea verily, the Lord's pruning hooks shall pluck the evildoers from His sight, smiting them with power and glory through mine strong right arm."

     "I just got to be dreaming," I muttered, standing with my guns drawn. "He's crazy! How can this be? Any minute ma'll wake me up. This isn't real...can't be real."

      The day had started with me practicing my quick draw like always,

breaking the early morning calm that had reigned over Rimrock through the night. A red mongrel dog howled forlornly at the intermittent gunfire, spinning in the dusty street. Roosters crowed lustily at the sound infringing on their beholden duty to arouse the residents, as wisps of straggly smoke, shiftless as the July morning, drifted lazily from hillside cabins.

      My shooter empty and smoking, I pondered on the plumb ventilated target dummy's worn out pants and shirt I'd stuffed with tumbleweeds and propped up against a tree. In most places the shooting would have caused alarm, but in Rimrock ithe sound of funfire was only a signal to awake from the night's slumber. Rivers of sweat ran into my eyes as I blew the smoke from my shooter, rubbing a sleeve heavy with chalky red dust across my forehead. Lifting my hat to wipe away the sticky sweat, I pushed the sandy hair out of my eyes. "It's already gettin' hot," I yelled to the tired old mountains around me. "It ain't even hardly day yet," I said, listening as my voice bounced and echoed from the red hills.

      A dust devil kicked up the powdery earth in the dusty street below, as the hot sun of another day chased away the morning chill. Like a small twister, I watched the funnel of whirling dust mosey back and forth in front of the saloon like a drunken cowboy sauntering through town -- like it had no better place to go, and wasn't in no all-fired hurry to get there.

      That's when I first saw the strangers. The four of them rode into Rimrock only a few feet from where I watched. They might've seemed relaxed as they rode, to him that didn't know how to see. But I knew. Took mighty hard work to look so easygoing.

      It was the mean, hard look in the eyes gave them away. It belied the calm. Their gunhands hung a split hair away from their shooting irons, poised and ready, guns slung low on their hips in holsters tied to their legs. Stalking eyes watched their backtrail, cruel, suspicious stones, probing every shadowy doorway as they passed. Nothing moved they didn't know about.

      More than looking for trouble, they were trouble itself. I knowed when I seen gunfighters good at their trade, for many such had come and gone in my young life. Rimrock was no ordinary town. Cuddled up in the heart of the Oklahoma badlands between the rich Texas cattle-lands to the south and the Kansas railhead to the north, Rimrock was an outlaw town. Rimrock was a robbers roost where outlaws would bide their time in the red hills between jobs.

      With steep, red sandstone cliffs falling away on three sides, Rimrock held reputation as a stronghold from posses. Sagging roofs and hastily constructed lean-to's in the red rock shadows had the look of temporary shelter. It was a passing through place -- a stepping stone to other places, a town built around the idea of moving on to something better sometime. To me this refuge of tumble-down shanties and pigsties was home. I knew no other.

      The gunfighters saw me too, but gave me no never-mind. They saw only a slip of a kid not worth giving any thought too. A lot of people misjudged me like that.

      They dismounted and passed into the dim-lit saloon -- all but one. In the thick half-light, a man lean as twisted rawhide slumped against the porch in the long shadows. His blood-dark vest was the same color as the whiskers on his unshaven face.

      I quickly forgot about the strangers when I caught sight of my father Ben, and brothers Jed, Johnny and Ringo, on the other side of the ridge below. Ben and Ringo passed out of sight into Dry Canyon, while Jed and Johnny stood guard. I knew after making a deposit in the family bank, a cache in Dry Canyon, they'd piece their way up to Rimrock. I'd been watching for them, waiting, knowing they'd be along shortly.

      Dropping from the grassy earth to the hardpan dirt of town where my cabin nested, I raised the bandanna tied around my neck over my mouth, cause the air was still full of choking dust beat up when the gunfighters rode through.

      I saw the mysterious stranger back into the shadows as I passed, but thought nothing on it, anxious to give mother news of the homecoming. Cackling laughter came from the saloon as I passed, evil and cold. I tightened my coat against the suddenly chill breeze.

      The Day men had left ten days before without word of where they were heading, or what they were going to do...leastwise to me. But I knew! I'd listened to the talking one night when they thought me asleep -- talked of a bank raid over the border into Texas -- family business. The talk stirred out of the pot and into an argument when pa suggested I should be included in the raid. "After all," he said, "he's grown tall as most of his brothers at 17, Laura. He's fast a draw as any of'm."

      "Ben!" my mother'd said, a cold, stern sound to her voice.

      But father didn't back down. "I've eyed our pup drawing and shooting since he sized up smaller'n one of them tumblyweeds blowin' out back. He's fast to slap leather'n faster on the trigger. It's like he was born a toothin' on a bullet and totin' a shooter, Laura. I never seen the like in all my born days, I swear I haven't."

     "Oh no, Benjamin Day," mother had said firmly, and I heard something make a loud crash. "Oh no you don't. There's to be no more discussion on that subject here."

     You could feel the daggers leaping from mother's eyes like burning pokers. "Benjamin Day, the decision's been made, an you be know'n it. I've set by calm's an autumn cucumber as you made gunfighters out of my first three sons, with nary a word of complaint...tell me if it tain't so."

     "Well, sure Laura, and I'm beholden, but..."

     "And didn't I nurse Ringo when'e took a bullet in the gullet'n we thought him done'fer. Then when a posse mad'nuff to chaw on horseshoe nails captured Jed, I like to have died...hear me good, Ben, I like to have died. You and the boys saved him...they'dve lynched him sure if you hadn't, but the bloodshed and the killing it took... Listen well Benjamin Day, it just ain't gonna happen to Billy, thass all. It ain't gonna happen."

     Pa knowed he was whipped good and proper when ma used his full name, and had surrendered himself to sitting out the blow. Ma didn't stand up often against her man, but when she did, you might as well go on to something else, because there was no talking her down. When she made up her mind, it was made up.

     "No," she continued, "you've made killers and thieves out of my first three children, Benjamin Day." I could just see her tongue breathing withering fire. "There ain't a whole lot I can do 'bout it now, but as God is my witness, Benjamin Day, Billy's goin' to grow up honest...if'n I have any say in't." To stress her meaning, she held a cast iron frying pan aloft, waving it like the sword of righteousness.

     I could just see father smiling gentle-like, trying to settle down his woman, not wanting to get his head flattened. Ben knew facing down a wounded she-bear with a switch was an easier chore, so the argument ended there. "Don't know why I brought it up, Laura," he'd said. "I knowed this thinkin' was in'ya from the start. But the boys'n me...we sure'nuff could use another gun beside us...we surely could."

     "Laura..." pa bellyached, and prob'ly thought the argyment done, but ma hadn't finished. Land a goshen no, she hadn't finished, not by a long shot.

     "Shesh up now, Benjamin Day. When your raiders took me kicking and screaming...I hated you. When you told me I's to cook and clean for you'n bear your young...I wanted to kill you. And when those Starr brothers you outlawed with got hung, but you escaped...I was there for you. I bore you six children...and somewhere long the way started to love you. I sorrowed with you during that cold winter when our two girls died from the fever."

     "You're not bad as you let on, Benjamin Day...just got a bum steer'at set you rid'n on the wrong trail. That's all. I know you be'a loving me too, Benjamin Day. But Ben," she whispered, low and lovingly," and I knew right then that pa was lost as a chipmunk down a well, "you had your way at every turn. Now it's my turn to have a go...and I say no. Leave my last son be, y'hear me Benjamin Day? Leave my last son be."

     "Pa's home!" I yelled, as I hung my guns beside the door. I couldn't help noticing ma's disapproving look at the guns as she shooed me off, putting on extra side pork and eggs for her men.

     "Wish you hadn't gone a'shooting this morn'n," she scolded. "Could'a used some'at to help me with the chores, y'know."

      "Ma, I'm most of 18. I'm too old fer stuff like chores'n such. I be hanker'n to do more'n woman's work all'a time. I'm a man, ma. It's high time I started being treated like one."

     "I'll treat you like one," she said, grabbing my ears quicker'n a jackrabbit can jump out of a hot skillet. "Ow-w-w, ma, that hurts! stop it now...please stop? Why you go'n treat me like a child? Ow-w-w-w, yes'm, yes'm, I'll get to'm right away."

     Her lectures spoke in silent and simple words -- but firm, in a way I couldn't help but understand. More important, I reckon, I learned'm, and turned to the breakfast dishes.

      She gave me a knowing nod, and asked, "You read those two books I got you by those English writer fellas?"

     Before I could answer, I heard pa and brothers outside. I forgot mother's question as I headed out the door to greet them.

     The smile disappeared as I came out the front door and was greeted by a hail of bullets.

The acrid smoke of gunfire, billowing dust beat up by bolting horse's plunging hooves, and the surprised cries of agony from my father and brothers, filled the heavy air with confusion. Bullets came from everywhere.

     Jed and Johnny had met death instantly, Jed doubled up over the hitching rack, Johnny face down in the parched Oklahoma dust that fast became a rusty red as it soaked up pools of blood. Pa and Ringo lay behind the wood porch. Both had taken several bullets, but still fired into a churning cloud of dust.

     Dazed, as if on the outside looking in on a bad dream, I shut my eyes. When I opened them again, the bad dream hadn't gone away. I wanted to run, to hide, to get away, but my feet wouldn't move.

      Mothers scream brought me out of the hiding place in my head where I'd retreated. I turned to grab my gun beside the front door -- at the same time I smelled smoke from the house on fire. Bitter smoke plumes hovered, already so thick they made my knees wobble. I didn't know where to go, caught in the middle, outside with pa, or inside where ma'd screamed.

     My hesitation resolved when I saw the man with the blood-red vest from the saloon struggling with the limp form of my mother. Lustful passion burned in his eyes. "Leave'er alone," I bellowed, and the man with hair the color of red flame dropped my mother in a lump like a sack of flour, and turned to look down the barrel of my shooter.

     "Now hold on a minute son. Don't go gett'n too hasty," the man pleaded, and his voice brought me back to my senses.

     The reality of it all stopped me stone cold. Target dummies and tin cans had been the only things at the end of my gun before -- never a real live man.

     Red saw the hesitation; saw the puzzle in my eyes. He looked for a way out, but finding none, turned. His grinning eyes appeared as empty as a dry well, and as non-caring. He begged in a whiny voice, "Understand me boy, I didn't mean no..."

     Suddenly he jumped me, but I acted without thinking when he forced my hand, and two lead kicks to the gut pushed him back. I watched lost, wide-eyed panic come into his eyes. He doubled up, clutching at his belly, shocked by the sticky blood bubbling out of his red vest between his fingers. I didn't recall firing the first shots, but when he came at me again I fired twice more to put him down -- this time with dead reckoning.

     "Mother," I cried, squeezing the frail, limp body tight to my chest -- but she was dead. I held her to me for the longest moment, sobbing. I hoped if I held her tight enough she would feel my warmth, and I could will her back to life. "She cain't be dead," I wept unashamedly. "She's not dead...mother, wake to me. You're my life, my world, you cain't be dead." I somehow expected that when I pulled back she'd smile, and the color would once more be in her cheeks.

     But pushy quiet jerked me awake when the noise and confusion outside stopped suddenly. I laid my mother aside tenderly, took one final look, turned and stepped to the door. The gunplay had ended quick as it began. I heard shouts and running on the boardwalk down the street -- probably aroused townspeople.

     Two of the strangers I'd seen riding into town earlier were hog-tying the limp bodies of Jed and Johnny to a horse like deer after a hunt. "Cain't be real," I muttered, stepping up to the two men in the street waving my gun. "Stand back or get a bullet for your trouble," I growled, as the men turned to face me.

     I was staggered by the contempt smiling in the eyes of the closest one, but the sheer hatred burning in the other made me hesitate. "Ought to plug you right where you stand," I said, aching to kill him. But he just stood there without twitching a muscle, gun holstered, posing no threat other than with his eyes.

     I'd just shot my first man, and these two didn't even have their guns drawn. I couldn't see for the tears. Rage covered my eyes -- red and orange. Angry yellow streaks flashed violently.

     It had to be a dream -- it had to. But why couldn't I wake up? I blindly began to pistol whip the nearest stranger unmercifully, again and again. Then everything went black.