Sensing his rider’s mood, the big black gelding lumbered down the dusty main street of Dry Gulch, Texas. Unguided, he stopped at the water trough in front of the livery stable but didn't drink until Roland loosened the reigns.
"That's a fine looking horse, Mister." A young stable hand walked up as Roland stepped over to the trough. Roland took off his hat and hung it on the saddle horn. He dipped his hands into the water, and ran them through his dark hair.
"You'll see to him?" Roland asked.
"Sure, what's his name?"
"Horse," Roland said and untied his saddlebags. "What's yours?"
"Everybody calls me Slim."
"Rub him down good, extra oats," Roland said. "I'll be over there."
Over there was a two story unpainted structure where a man could get a room upstairs, a meal in the small cafe underneath, and a drink next door in the saloon.
Roland paid the man at the desk for one night and took the stairs to his room on the second floor where he threw his saddlebags on one side of the bed. He took the only chair in the room and put it against the door then stood at the window and watched the stable hand across the street brush Horse and lead him into the livery.
Roland lay down on the bed and reached for the saddlebags.
He had folded the telegram and put it in his bag three days ago and had not looked at it since. He got it out now and unfolded it.
FEVER GOT ROSE FUNERAL TOMORROW
His wife's father had never liked him, thought he was low class and that his chosen vocation was unworthy. The fact that he would not hold the funeral for a few days to let him travel home didn't surprise him. The man was lower than a snake's belly in a wagon rut, always had been.
So instead of going home, Roland had wired Austin and taken some time off. He bought two bottles of whiskey and rode and drank with no destination in mind, no plan to follow. He rode into Dry Gulch this afternoon dirty, needing a bath and a shave, and more whiskey. He'd never been a big drinker, but he was learning.
After a nap and a bath Roland walked two blocks to the barber shop where he got a shave and a haircut. He thought all that would make him feel better. It didn't. He crossed the street and walked past the Western Union office and then Marshal's office. He nodded to the elderly man with the tarnished star on his chest that was reared back in a chair out front and kept walking.
The sun was going down, the slight breeze felt cool on his face as Roland looked up and down the dirt street. An old dog lay in front of the steps of the general store. He didn't bark as Roland stepped over him and went in. He bought a cigar, lit it and went back out. He decided to walk down to the local saloon.
Roland pushed the swinging doors open and stepped into the saloon. He stopped and looked around. A crippled man sat at the piano playing some song he didn't recognize. Four men set at one of the tables In the back playing poker. Other men and a few dance hall girls were scattered through the place. Roland went to the bar and ordered a beer, deciding he might need to start cutting back although he wasn't sure why.
Roland sipped his beer and watched the men play cards in the mirror behind the bar. After about ten minutes the bartender brought him a fresh beer and some free advice.
"I see you watching those fellers," he said. "if you're thinking about setting in, I'd advise against it."
"Why is that?"
"Two of them are local cowboys, and Slim works at the livery but the big guy with the beard..." the barkeep just shook his head.
One of the girls, an older red head stood behind Slim and had the whole time Roland had watched the game. It was obvious Slim had eyes for her and obvious to Roland at least that lady luck was getting a bit of a raw deal. The red head was signaling the man with the beard after seeing the cards in Slim's hand.
Suddenly Slim jumped up turning over his chair. When he spoke every eye in the place was on him.
"You're cheating!" Slim's face turned blood red. "I don't know how, but you fold every dang time I have a passable hand and when I don't you raise and call and you done took all my weeks wages!"
By then the other two men had got up and moved away from the trouble. The remaining man raked the money in the center of the table over to his side and then got out of his chair. He smiled and pulled the pistol on his left side out of it's holster with his right hand and slid it across the table to Slim.
"Nobody calls Bob Hemmer a cheat, son." Roland turned from the bar toward the fracas and finished the last of his beer as he watched.
"I ain't no gun hand, Mr. Hemmer," Slim said staring down at the Colt.
"You ought to have thought of that before you lied on me," Hemmer said. "Put it in your belt, you can draw first."
The two cowboys, and Slim's red head snickered. Roland slammed his beer mug on the top of the bar and when everyone turned their attention to him he stepped away from the bar.
"Haven't known Slim very long but he seems to be a fine appraiser of horses," Roland said staring at Hemmer. "and a better judge of card players."
He turned back to the barkeep and motioned for another beer. Silence echoed behind him as the bartender delivered it and whispered, "You don't know who you're messing with."
Roland sipped, smiled, and spun back around. He watched as Hemmer moved away from the table ignoring Slim and heading to the bar.
"I know exactly who I'm dealing with," Roland said under his breath to the barkeep.
"Do I know you?" Hemmer stopped about fifteen feet away, right hand poised above his remaining revolver.
"Wouldn't think so." Roland put his beer behind him on the bar and stared at Hemmer.
Eternity stretched as the two men watched and waited. A fly buzzed between the two and even though both were aware of it neither man's eyes followed.
The sound of Slim thumb cocking Hemmer's other pistol was as loud as dynamite in the saloon and Hemmer jerked his head toward it, then back instantly. Now he faced Roland's gun, it was out and at chest level. The barrel looked as big as a wagon wheel.
"Leave the money," Roland said. "Live to cheat another day."
"Put that gun back in the holster and try that while I'm looking," Hemmer said.
Roland hesitated, then lowered the hammer on his gun and had it almost to the holster when Hemmer went for his.
Roland got the first round off and it hit Hemmer high on his right shoulder. Hemmer's shot shattered the mirror behind Roland. He would not get a second.
Roland shot the man twice so fast the shots almost sounded like one. The first centered in his chest and the second found it's mark above the left eye. He was dead before he hit the floor. Roland reloaded the three rounds from his belt and turned back to his beer.
The bartender raised up from behind the bar. "You know who you just killed?"
The Marshal was in the Western Union the next morning when Roland walked in. He assumed Roland was looking for him.
"Just sent a wire to El Paso," the Marshal said wiping sweat from his brow with a dirty handkerchief. "Reward money will be here day after tomorrow on the stage."
"Won't be here," Roland said. He stood at the counter and wrote out a message for the clerk to send. The Marshal stood and waited and wiped at his brow again.
"I can't take the money," Roland said.
"Dead or Alive," the Marshal pointed to a board with wanted posters tacked on it on the wall.
Roland fished in the pocket of his denim shirt and pulled out a badge. He tossed it to the sheriff who looked at it and smiled.
"Texas Ranger?" The Marshal asked.
"Not after that wire gets to Austin. Do me a favor and give that to the next Ranger that comes through?"
"Sure, but that doesn't mean you can't take the money."
"Wouldn't be right," Roland said. "Give it to Slim, and don't let me find out you kept any of it."
The Marshal gulped and shook his head no.
Roland walked over to the board, studied it for a bit, and pulled a couple of posters down. He folded them and put them in his shirt pocket.
Slim had Horse fed, watered, and saddled when he got to the livery stable. The sun was just peeking over the horizon and there wasn't a cloud in the blue Texas sky.
Roland swung into the saddle, turned the black gelding to head out of town. He noticed the creaking of the leather as he got adjusted and thought for the first time what a soothing sound it was.
The horse sensing its rider's mood broke into a canter.
Again I want to thank Jason Whitman for the use of his photograph. I saw the picture on Facebook and it fit perfectly with the image I had of Roland for this story. I asked Mr. Whitman if I could use it and he agreed. A link to his website is below please check out his photographs. They are awesome!
Also, I often wondered if I could write a western like our buddy WillStar and I found out real quick, I can't! But it was a challenge and I enjoyed writing it. I'll link one of his below so you can see how a guy who actually knows something about the west does it!
- The Raleigh Brothers, A Roland Short Story
Roland is back! This time on the trail of a couple of brothers, wanted-dead or alive.