Pay Day in St. Helens, a Western Short Story
The gunman, Taylor Keeze, waited a moment and listened. He wore a dirty blue striped shirt buttoned to the neck and a low-crowned wide brimmed hat. He had a body as thick and tough as an oak stump, a lumpy head and skin as rough as tree bark. He drew his Colt Peacemaker, crashed his foot against the cabin door and rushed inside.
A man sat at a table close to the door, he half turned and Keeze shot him high in the shoulder. The shot threw him against the table and he slumped underneath it like a sack of grain. A second man by the back window scrambled for his gun but Keeze rushed across the room and shot him in the chest slamming him against the wall. He slid down the rough boards like mud off a shovel.
Gun smoke clouded the room, the air thick with noise and bitter with the smell of cordite. He could see that the man by the window was dead, his mouth hung open and his eyes stared into Hell.
Keeze dragged the table aside and looked down at the wounded man. He knelt and pushed the gun barrel into his neck and thumbed the hammer back
‘Where is he?’ Keeze said in a deep raspy voice, he pressed the gun down and forced the man’s face into the dirt of the hard packed floor
‘Where’s who?’ said the man out of the corner of his mouth, Keeze lifted the gun and the man raised his head and spat, his lips strung with blood, red froth dribbled across his chin. Keeze said
‘I’m looking for Mike Malone and I heared you know where he’s at.’ The wounded man coughed wetly
‘You was told wrong mister; I don’t know no Mike Malone,’ he winced with pain ‘what in the hell has he done to you to make you take it out on us?’
‘Never you mind what he’s done to me, that’s my business. Don’t you play smart with me neither I don’t know nothing about him – all I’ve got is a name. Where is he?’
‘I don’t know him I swear, I cain’t tell you what I don’t know.’ Keeze squeezed the trigger and shot him in the head.
‘Liar,’ he said, he stood and walked out. His partner Fred Bolt sat on his horse waiting, Keeze shrugged
‘They ain’t saying nothing.’
‘Did you kill them?’
‘I’m Taylor Keeze ain’t I? Killing’s what I do.’
Fred Bolt wanted desperately to know who Malone was and what he had done to Keeze but he also knew that it was safer if he didn’t know anything about it. Like his Pa always said you never get too close to a riled rattlesnake, mind you it hadn’t done him much good. Bolt couldn’t help but ask anyway
‘Lookit Taylor maybes you got it wrong about this Malone feller, you don’t know nothing about him. What did he do to you that you got to put right?’
Keeze walked over and stared up at Bolt. Fred Bolt had red hair, pale empty eyes and big square teeth, he had killed plenty in his short harsh life but he knew that Keeze was a dangerous man, meaner than a wounded grizzly and that was on his good days
‘Sorry Taylor,’ Bolt said ‘forget what I said will you. What now?’ Keeze stood in silence for a long time looking across the horse’s withers off into the distance, maybe he heard voices in his head, we’ll never know. He nodded to himself and said
‘There’s a town down the road a piece, we go there. Malone’s in these parts I can feel it, tell me I’m wrong.’ Bolt stayed silent. Keeze laughed long and hard, shivered like a rabid dog and climbed onto his horse. He sawed on the reins swung the buckskin east, booted him in the belly with his heels and the horse gouged and lifted big clods of earth as he galloped up the incline. Bolt followed and they poured it on, the horses running hard until their necks and flanks shone dark with sweat, their mouths and shoulders threaded with wisps of saliva. Their hooves thrummed down the rutted track away from the cabin in the hills towards St. Helens, Columbia County.
Keeze and Bolt went into the Three Jacks saloon and Keeze sat and fumed. He boiled in his own juices with a face as red as a well slapped backside. Half a dozen slackers propped up the bar and two drifters sat at a corner table. It felt like the temperature in the saloon had dropped to freezing when Keeze stalked in, the drinkers at the bar were hushed and jumpy and they all avoided looking his way. That was how Keeze liked it.
Keeze bit the skin on his finger and spat it out, he sat, he fidgeted, his eyes were slits in his grim face and he stared at everyone in turn like an accusation. A few more customers came in; maybe thirty minutes after Keeze and Bolt got there an older man with a mathematical look to him limped in and took a coffee to a table by the back door. Three tenderfoots came in laughing and talking in loud voices, they saw Taylor Keeze and Fred Bolt, two gunslingers spoiling for a fight and riding hard for hell. The three men quieted down, reckoned they had stuck their heads down a porcupine hole and walked straight back out.
Keeze drank, swirling the whisky around his mouth and enjoying the coarse flavour. He felt the old man’s gaze on him and he swung his head towards him. The old man sat hunched over with his hands wrapped around his cup. He had bits of hair brushed like strands of straw across his shiny head. He wore wire rimmed glasses and had a full thick moustache. He looked as thin and hard as a hickory stick. His eyes sparkled like icy water.
He held Keeze’s stare.
‘What the hell are you looking at?’ said Keeze. The old man shrugged his bony shoulders and picked up a tobacco pouch and a pipe from the table by his elbow. He worked the tobacco into the pipe with his finger and pressed it down in the bowl. He lit the pipe and watched the smoke drift away and sat there like he was enjoying a day out at a summer fair.
‘You’re getting on my wrong side right quick Pop,’ said Keeze. The old man raised his eyebrows, blew a smoke ring, sucked on his pipe and watched Keeze.
‘What now?’ said Bolt. Keeze glared at him and said
‘Fred you need to stop asking questions, you hear me good on that. I’m thinking is all.’ Keeze sat, his jaw ridged with anger while a wild fury buzzed in his head. He felt the liquor spread through his body, whisper in his ears and ignite a rage that burned like an inferno in his mind.
‘I’ll find him and when I do there’ll be a reckoning, nobody does what he done to me and gets away with it.’ He slammed his hand on the table and said ‘By God there’ll be a reckoning Malone.’ He sat and simmered like a rodeo bull penned in the bucking chute.
One of the drifters at the corner table stood and crossed to the bar. He was tall and slim with a slow easy way of moving, smooth and slick like warm butter, his hand rested on the gun rig strapped low on his right hip. He stood at the shadowed end of the bar and faced the room while he ordered the drinks.
‘Make it Old Crow will you Mike,’ his partner said from the table, Mike nodded while his eyes scanned the room. Mike came back with the bottle in his left hand, his right hand hung loosely at his side. He was a careful man. Keeze watched him with a smile on his thin lips. Fred Bolt pushed his chair away from the table a little and waited.
All of the anger seemed to dissolve out of Keeze and you could see his thoughts collecting in his eyes as his hand tightened on his gun. Keeze stood and he pointed at the drifter Mike, he held his Colt in his other hand with the trigger taut against his finger.
‘Hey you,’ Keeze said.
The drifter wore his hat slanted down on his forehead, he raised his eyes and looked out from the shadows under the brim and said
‘Don't be pointing your finger at me,’ he had a bleak, severe mountain boy face and a tough look about him. Keeze just carried on pointing and said
‘I've been looking for you, I’m here to set things straight, I’m Taylor Keeze.’
The drifter pulled a face and said
‘That don’t mean jack to me. I don’t know no Taylor Keeze.’
Keeze felt his anger return and seep through him
‘You’re lying like a rug. I’m hunting Mike Malone and I reckon that’s you. You’ll regret the day you started messing with me. I just killed two fellers for lying to me. Everybody’s got to pay for what they’ve done somewhere down the line.’ The drifter scowled, his eyes lit up and his face flushed, he said
‘I don’t know you and don’t reckon I’ve done you any harm but you keep pointing at me and you’ll wake up dead.’
‘You know what,’ said Keeze ‘after all you done to me I figured you’d have the sand to admit it when I found you. Still an’ all I always had a notion you was a yellar belly. You're going to hell mister, right now, we ain't got time for talking.’
A brittle tension grew in the room.
The old feller by the back door stood up and said to Keeze
‘Maybe you got the wrong man. You’re looking for Mike Malone, well maybe you found him anyways,’ he tapped his chest with his pipe stem ‘then again maybe you ain’t. You’ll never know, I aim to kill you.’ His voice hardly rose above a whisper but they all heard him.
The old man ran his finger down the centre crease of his Stetson put the hat on and straightened the brim. He pushed his coat back over the gun rig on his hip and hitched his belt up. He stood with his pipe in his mouth letting the smoke drift out of his nose and waited.
Keeze glanced at the drifter Mike and said
‘You’re next.’ He swung to the old man and said ‘Alright Pop I don’t know what’s got into you or if what you said is right but I’m going to kill you dead.’
‘Let’s get to it then,’ the old man said.
Now Keeze was fast, everybody guessed that, and he already held the Colt in his hand but that old boy drew and fired before Keeze could lift his gun arm. He nailed Keeze right in the heart. He held his gun at arm’s length pressed his hand tighter on the gun butt and turned to Fred Bolt, his arm locked as solid as a rifle barrel. Bolt was on his feet his hand on his Colt, they stared at each other and there was no give in either of them. The old man’s eyes looked as big as an owls behind his glasses, fixed straight ahead, hunter’s eyes that burned with certainty staring down the front sight of his gun barrel. The air exploded with smoke and flame and the bullet, like a fist, hammered into Bolt’s chest and Bolt went down hard. Folk just knew he was not getting back up. He didn’t.
Everyone in the saloon turned from the two dead bodies and looked for the old man but the back door stood open, he had gone.
The old man headed back to the cabin in the hills to bury his son.
© 2018 John M McNally