Coulter faced the man on the street. Gunfighters could be so tiresome. It used to be you’d fight for a reason. An offense, no matter how slight, would be enough. But even then there’d been men like this one. Only now there were more of them.
They didn’t need a reason. Not even a fancy of your horse, or your gear. Or even just your hat. It was all for the fight now. For the thrill. For the reputation. Coulter spat in the street. He hated these men. They all had another thing in common; they were never very good.
God knows why they chose to take their last breath in the dust, the lead of another man’s gun spilling their guts out into the street. Coulter guessed they just never had much brains to speak of. He squared off, the clock on the tower to the west clicking over; one minute to five. The sun had dropped down behind the saloon. It was nearly time.
The man stood facing him, they were north and south points in the street while the townspeople hiding in the buildings around them held their breath. It was a scene often played out in towns like this, nothing new to them. They hid because they didn’t want to get involved. Didn’t want to be one of those unfortunates - hit by a stray bullet. Usually fired from the loser’s gun, as he fell.
Coulter waited. The man waited. The clock ticked.
When the hour struck they both went for their guns. Coulter was faster. Much faster, as he’d known he would be. He knew the type. Now that it was over he could consider the man’s face. He’d been scared. Despite his aggression, he’d been scared. So...why had he picked a fight?
It niggled at him. That wide eyed fear he’d seen, behind the angry mask. Sure, most were scared, after all they had a fifty fifty chance of dying, once the fight began. But this was different somehow. Coulter’s impression had been that the stranger hadn’t wanted to fight.
He headed down the street to the corpse, gun belt creaking. He never wore spurs, didn’t understand the ones that did. Only a poor horseman needed them to control their mount. And sometimes, you might not want to be heard as you jingled your way down the street.
Using the toe of his boot, he rolled the body over, guns drawn...just in case. The sightless eyes and open chest wound showed him his caution wasn’t necessary. He surveyed the body, experienced eyes cataloguing what might be worth taking. Anything the winning gunfighter wanted rightfully belonged to him. Once he left the body on the street, whatever was left belonged to the first who took it.
He unbuckled the gun belt; the stranger’s guns looked better than his. Were much better, he realised on brief examination. He put them between his feet and continued his search. When he was done he walked away with the guns and belt, a silver-handled pocket knife, a fine leather money pouch and the three hundred dollars it contained.
Later he would think over why a man with such riches wound up here, in these circumstances. But for now he was hot and tired, and in need of a drink. He didn’t speak of the money he’d found. He didn’t want a quick death in his sleep, courtesy of the blade of a keen-eared thief.
In his room, he put his new belongings on the table beside the bed. He took off his boots and placed the money in its pouch inside the left toe and pushed them under the bed. He glanced at the knife. It would be useful, though he had one similar. But it was the guns he was itching to get a closer look at.
After his first hurried glance on the street, he’d assumed the guns were nickel plated. But he realised now as he held them up to the kerosene lamp they were in fact silver. Well, it made sense a rich man would have an expensive pair of revolvers. Coulter tried to remember whether he’d ever seen a set of silver guns before.
The intricate pattern inlaid on the grips was also something new to him. He wasn’t sure whether it was just a pattern or if it was supposed to look like anything in particular. It didn’t look like much to him, though the fanciness of the engraving definitely set them apart. Now he was even more intrigued by the stranger who’d challenged him. He would think over the events of the day while he bathed.
The lady of the boarding house had drawn a bath in his room so he could bathe in private. The dense, thick perfume of his cigar filled the small room as he bathed in a haze of smoke and considered the day. Considered his opponent. A rich man. A refined man – something that could be told simply by his clothes – what the hell would he be doing picking a gunfight in Nowhere, Texas?
Clearly he was a city man, apparent from his dress and his gear, though his smooth white hands gave him away, as nothing else did, so completely. The man had never done a days’ hard labour, as almost every man in these parts had. Whether it was for himself or someone else, labour was the currency here, as it was in every other small, isolated town.
In the morning the livery owner would pass the reins of the stranger’s horse to him, along with all his gear. Coulter figured the tack would be as fine as everything else the man had owned, the horse as well. Better than the nag he considered his. Had to be.
Coulter glanced at the guns he’d draped over one of the posts at the foot of the bed, a good distance away. Not just by habit had he placed his own guns beside the bath. No gunfighter worth his salt would rely on weapons he’d not tried before. Especially considering the manner in which he’d received them; their last owner could hardly verify their quality.
The silver handles glinted at him. He was itching to get them out onto the range. Do some target practice. He had an idea they would sit sweet in his hands, and fire just as good. Pity it was dark; that would also have to wait until morning. They sure were a pretty pair. His hands clenched; they couldn’t wait to hold those grips.
So he couldn’t practice with them, that didn’t mean he couldn’t try them on, did it? The belt he was sure would fit, and even without shooting them he could hold them, practice drawing them, feel their weight as he watched himself in the mirror.
He climbed out of the cold water, soap and dirt clinging to his skin. She’d left him two towels; just one was a luxury in these parts. They were small but they did the job. He struggled, still damp, into his long johns and crossed the room to the chair beside the bed. He reached for the belt.
A knock stayed his hand. He grabbed one of his own guns instead and went to the door, taking up position beside it.
Not a voice he recognised. The accent was much more polished than he was used to hearing.
“Who wants to know?”
“My name is Smith, William Smith. I need to speak with you, it’s a matter of urgency. May I come in?”
He was silent for a moment; he was wary of strangers. You never knew when a stranger was going to become your next opponent. Wary fighters could pick their opponents before it was too late.
“Or perhaps we could talk next door? I could use a whiskey.”
Coulter opened the door slowly, took in the stranger and the empty hallway behind him with one look. He grabbed the stranger’s jacket front and pulled him into the room, closing the door behind them, all in one fluid movement.
“Smith, you say?”
“That’s right,” Smith sounded a little rattled now. Good.
“Do we know each other?”
“No, we don’t. But I have some important information for you,” his eyes fell on Coulter’s newly acquired weapons. “And I know those guns.”
That last statement put Coulter on his guard.
“State your business plainly, mister.”
“This will be difficult for you to accept. I...I need to tell you about these guns. And why you don’t want them.”
“Trust me Mr Coulter, these guns...they’re not...not what they seem.”
Coulter took another look at Smith, perhaps he’d misidentified him with that first look. Crazy usually gave itself away with a look, sometimes a smell. And if not, well, the words would usually do.
“I used to know their original owner. He died a nasty death; gunshot to the belly. I tended him, and in the days he lay dying, he told me about his guns. At first I didn’t believe him. He knew I wouldn’t. But he told me to follow them, and I’d see. He made me promise in fact. And I’ve been chasing them ever since.”
Coulter settled into the chair by the door, indicated Smith take the one by the bed. The man had a way with words; he’d listen, with reservations. But a good story was a good story. And made all the better by a good storyteller.
“This is the closest I’ve been to them since he himself wore them around his waist. When I knew nothing about them. When I didn’t know what they were.”
“They look like a couple of silver-handled six shooters to me Mister. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Smith was nodding, “they do, don’t they?” The sickly smile pasted to his lips unsettled Coulter. Another cross for the crazy side.
He looked at the guns with new interest, what more could they be?
Smith cleared his throat. Coulter could have offered him water; the lady of the establishment had provided him with a jug and a glass. But he didn’t.
“Did I mention my friend crafted these guns himself? His father was a gunsmith. He tried unsuccessfully to teach his son the craft, but these were the only guns he ever finished.”
Coulter grunted, “fine work for such a man.” He trailed a finger down one of the handle grips, noting Smith shudder as he did so.
Coulter waited. It was some time before Smith was able to drag his eyes from the silver guns back to Coulter’s face. He took the time to study his visitor. Another city man. Coulter figured they must be breeding them someplace. He wondered if this one also carried a large fortune in a leather purse beneath his fine silk vest.
Smith had obviously been on the trail for some time, fine as his gear was, it was definitely trail-worn. The desert really was no place for fine garments. Coulter thought he may have been able to hear the strands rotting as they sat there.
Smith he guessed, would probably never allow himself to be seen by his peers looking so unkempt. Clearly he hadn’t mastered the art of shaving without his city comforts; he’d given up some time ago. Two or three scars too late Coulter thought.
“I followed the guns west. My friend’s, Morgan his name was. Morgan’s killer took them to a town called Depression. By the time I got there, he was dead. Killed by another gunfighter. Headshot, apparently.”
Coulter was beginning to wonder whether he really did want these guns after all. They were sounding at best like bad luck. At worst, defective. His eyes fell on the pair hanging in their fine leather holster. Oh he wanted them alright. Even if they were defective. Maybe Morgan and his killer were just not able to handle them properly.
Smith was eyeing him warily, “I know what you’re thinking.”
“You’re thinking you’re better than Morgan, and this other man, can’t remember his name. There might be something wrong with the guns but you can handle them.”
Coulter played poker, that’s how he made his living. The ranch work didn’t pay all that well, it was more about having a place to stay if he felt the need for one. He won more poker games than he lost because he never gave his hand away. He didn’t know how Smith had known what he’d been thinking, but he was damned sure the man wasn’t going to know how much he’d startled him with his own thoughts coming out of Smith’s mouth.
“They’re not defective. They shoot fine, or so I’m told. Most of the ones that walked them into a fight never drew them.”
Coulter held his breath. Fifty men? Fifty? “How long have you been chasing these guns mister?”
Fifty men in two years? He’d never heard such a thing. Most gunfighters rarely fought. They avoided it when they could. The ones who didn’t, they didn’t last two months, let alone two years. How could the same set of guns have ended up in the hands of so many bloodthirsty men?
“They were chosen. The men.”
Though he knew, he had to ask; “by who?”
Smith was slow to answer. His eyes had fallen on the pieces in question again and a haze had come over him. Coulter saw the want in his face and felt a quick stab of jealousy. Those were his guns. He didn’t like the stranger eyeing them off like that. He was about to speak his mind when Smith finally turned that thick, drugged gaze on him.
“The guns. The guns chose the men.”
“Mister, I don’t know what kind of smoke you’re on, but you’re not making any sense. They can’t choose anything, they’re just guns.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t feel it too,” Smith all but whispered. “I see the look on your face when you settle your eyes on them.”
Coulter didn’t speak. Couldn’t, actually. He swallowed and discovered his mouth was dry. He was on the brink of believing it, believing everything Smith was telling him, was about to tell him. He backed away from the edge, with a sudden spurt of anger.
“You want to choose your next words carefully mister.” He stood up, his six feet two towering over Smith, still sitting in the chair by the bed. He had one of his own guns in his hand, and he knew they weren’t defective.
Smith eyed him carefully, “easy Mr Coulter. I’m not armed after all. I’ve asked about you. I know you’re a fair man. A good man.”
Coulter didn’t move.
“I know you wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man,” though he didn’t sound as sure of himself now.
A good man? Is he what passed for one of those out here? That didn’t say much for the rest of them. He had in fact never shot an unarmed man. He wasn’t sure if he was about to start with Smith, he felt he might. But he didn’t want to. He eased back into his chair, rested the gun on his lap, his right hand still wrapped around the grip, finger only a breath away from the trigger.
“Finish your piece Mister. Then you can be on your way.”
He could see the apprehension on Smith’s face. His belief that he needed Coulter to understand, that he needed him to believe whatever he was about to tell him. Coulter kept his face expressionless.
“The man who killed Morgan, he wasn’t a gunfighter. He had a piece granted, but I’m sure you know that just owning a gun doesn’t make a gunfighter. He saw Morgan’s guns. That was all it took. He called him out into the street.”
Coulter had wondered about this Morgan. Though the set of guns hanging across from him was especially fine, he wasn’t a gunsmith. But had he been a gunfighter?
“Morgan was handy with his weapons, and though I wouldn’t call him a gunfighter, he could defend himself,” Smith continued as if he had once again read Coulter’s thoughts.
“I don’t know why he lost. I wasn’t there, but apparently he didn’t even draw, and the challenger had not been especially quick. The sun was high and bright, both men were sweating. Perhaps his fingers slipped on his holster. Though according to one of the townspeople, he didn’t even grab for his guns.”
A fight between a man who made his living with his guns and one who didn’t was usually a dead certainty in the gunfighter’s favour. A fight between two gunfighters, or two men who weren’t, well, that would be anyone’s guess. Maybe it had just been Morgan’s time. Though he was sure Smith had his own crazy theory.
“I think...I think the guns chose to move on. Maybe, I know this sounds crazy, but maybe they needed to gain access to more people. Morgan had never left his home town of Waterford. I discovered that his challenger was the first traveller to come through since the guns were crafted.” He took in Coulter’s expression, it was difficult for anyone to mask disbelief of such outlandish claims.
“I know you don’t believe me. I didn’t really expect you would,” Smith let out a sigh. “When I heard what kind of man you were I decided to try anyway. This, as I said earlier, is the first time I’ve caught up with them.” He spared a glance toward the holster hanging over the bed post.
“Whether you believe me or not, there’s something wrong with those guns. They need to be destroyed. Melted down. Something.”
After a moment he continued, “I followed Morgan’s killer west, discovered he was a particularly bloodthirsty man. Especially for one who previously had been a travelling salesman.”
The importance of that statement was not lost on Coulter. That kind of man rarely became a gunfighter. And if they did, it was usually done for a reason. Revenge, justice. Something personal. That didn’t seem to be the case here.
“In Westerly, he challenged the wrong man. He was killed in the street outside the saloon. The guns moved on. I uncovered a pattern. Some of the men were gunfighters, some weren’t. Whatever they had been before, after they received the guns they became unusually aggressive gunfighters with an unrivalled lust for blood.”
He settled forward in his seat, “Did you not notice these traits in the stranger who challenged you today? He did so with no cause, knowing of your reputation. Knowing he would most likely die. But he did it anyway. With confidence, with conviction.”
It was true, he’d noticed all those things. Coulter almost mentioned the fear he’d also seen. But he didn’t want to encourage Smith, didn’t want to buy into his crazed ravings.
“They’ve never had company such as yours. The steady westward direction they’ve been heading, toward gunfighter territory, I’ve been wondering if that’s what they’ve been looking for,” Smith spoke almost to himself.
He eyed Coulter cautiously, “imagine what they could do in gifted hands such as yours. Fifty men in two years? If you had a mind to, how many men could you kill in two years?”
Coulter shifted uncomfortably. He was no killer. Killing a man did not necessarily make him one. He never looked for a fight. He never killed unless he had to. Unless he had no other choice. The idea that if he wore these guns he would kill indiscriminately, with no cause or reason, did more than make him uncomfortable. It offended him.
The offense, though not intended as such, riled him, “I warned you to be careful of your words.”
Smith stiffened, “I apologise. I didn’t intend to offend you. I just wanted you to understand what you’ll be taking on, when you equip these guns.”
Coulter didn’t calm, “So you believe, what? That they’re possessed? Morgan’s evil spirit perhaps?”
Smith knew he was being derided, but he was an intelligent man; he would not rise to the bait. “No. It’s something else. Something more primitive, something less complex than an evil spirit.”
Coulter sneered, “and how do you suppose this came about? Did this Morgan create these guns using voodoo?”
“All I know is, he was a mean son of a bitch. He made those guns as an affront to his father the gunsmith; see what I can do, and choose not to?”
“You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. You’ve been heading west, so you crossed the desert. No man could cross that way and not believe spirits exist. You’re inviting trouble Mister.”
Coulter wasn’t a superstitious man, but he’d seen things in his travels. And superstitions were usually based on fact. You speak ill of someone who’d passed and you were practically inviting them to have their way with you.
Smith was quiet as he searched Coulter’s face. “If you believe in spirits, then why not this? Why is it so different? If I’d said the guns were possessed by the spirit and bloodlust of a dead man, would you have automatically believed me?”
Coulter paused, now there was a question. But he’d seen things. Those were the things he believed in. What had he seen that supported Smith’s claims?
“So far, I’ve seen nothing to verify anything you’ve said,” Coulter quashed the memory of his dead challenger’s fear. “They’re just a couple of six shooters. Nothing more. Gunfighters who challenge for no reason are a dime a dozen this side of the Red River.”
Smith pursed his lips, “that may be so.” He seemed to come to a decision.
“Would you consider selling them? I’d give you a fair price. More than fair.”
Coulter wasn’t surprised by the offer. Whether the man wanted to destroy the guns or whether he wanted them for himself, he’d expected this. The man wasn’t a gunfighter, he was city born and bred. This was probably the only way he knew to secure the guns.
But he didn’t want them destroyed. Even if he didn’t have them himself, they were too fine to be melted down. He wouldn’t have it.
“There’s no price you could offer me. There’s nothing wrong with these guns,” he replied stubbornly. “And I won them fair.”
Smith nodded, shrugged, “perhaps you’re right.”
Coulter didn’t believe for a second that Smith had given up. He was on his guard, though he hadn’t moved or given away his readiness in his expression. Smith stood, took a step toward him. Coulter stiffened. Smith held out his hand, ready to shake.
It was his right. Coulter couldn’t shake it without releasing his gun. Not something he was particularly pleased to do, but he intended to shake the man’s hand. He wanted to see what the other man was planning. How far would he go?
He stood, put the gun into his waistband - a place he could easily get to, with either hand. He grasped Smith’s extended hand. He saw the intent in his eyes long before he moved. He kept his grip, let the man make his move to Coulter’s right. Smith went for Coulter’s new guns.
Coulter could have had his gun out into his left, and a shot out before Smith had pulled one of the new guns from their holster, but instead he waited. He almost casually took the gun from his waistband with his left and took aim. Smith had yet to reach the bed, dragging Coulter with him by his right hand. Coulter turned to face the bed, took a shuffling step to keep up with him.
Smith grabbed the nearest gun with his own left. Coulter, still facing Smith’s back, waited. He didn’t shoot unarmed men. Nor did he shoot them in the back. When Smith managed to turn, their arms were crossed in front of their bodies.
Coulter squeezed the trigger.
The explosion was loud in the small room. The bullet found its mark; Smith was dead before he hit the floor. Coulter released his hand, let the man fall beside the bed. He heard someone hurrying down the corridor. He swung back to the door, aimed at a spot that would roughly be in line with a man’s chest, should he enter the doorway.
It was the lady of the house, her face white. She relaxed some when she saw him standing there. She took a step into the room and Coulter lowered his weapon. She took stock of the situation, noted the gun still in Smith’s left hand. She turned to Coulter.
“I’ll get the sheriff.”
He nodded. She wasn’t happy, but at least it looked to be a fair shooting. He heard her rush down the stairs and out into the street. While he waited he dressed and packed the rest of his gear. He’d soured to the town and changed his plans to leave in the morning. He’d get the livery owner out of bed and claim the rest of his prize now.
When he had everything ready, he glanced at the holster hanging over the bed post. The gun in Smith’s hand he would leave until the sheriff came, so he could see for himself. But he was going to try on his new guns now if you please, now that the interruption had been dealt with.
The leather was soft and supple, it seemed to have been well cared for. He cinched it around his waist, settled it just below his belt. They felt good, the felt somehow right. The gun Smith had taken was the left. He felt the right one in its holster, the weight of it pressed against his leg.
Gripping it gently, he pulled it out, aimed it at the wall. Nice. It fit his hand perfectly. He glanced down at the one in the dead man’s hand. No, he should leave it. It was only for a few minutes. Once the sheriff had seen it he would pick it up. Put it in its rightful place.
He put his finger on the trigger, a hairs’ breadth away from firing the bullet in the chamber. He’d never had such fine guns, or even guns that just seemed to be so completely his. He wanted to test them. He fired a shot into the wall, not knowing or caring if there was anyone in the room behind it. He grinned, they were perfectly balanced, with perfect true aim.
But now he wanted something real to shoot at. A real target. He heard the music in the saloon next door pick up, almost as if on cue. His grin widened. He was sure he could find something real to shoot at there.
He tied the holsters down, first the right and then the left. He took the gun from the still warm hand of the dead man and dropped it neatly into its holster. Perfect. Coulter fitted his hat to his head as he crossed to the open door.
There was no one in the street. He took a left outside the boarding house, crossed the alley beside it. He took the four steps up to the saloon doors one at a time. Coulter placed his hands on the top of each door and swung them out. Inside, he went looking for trouble.
Coulter faced the man on the street. Gunfighters could be so tiresome. It used to be you’d fight for a reason. An offense, no matter how slight, would be enough. But even then there’d been men like this one. Only now there were more of them.
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