Short Stories

THE TOUGHEST SPOT ON EARTH

     Harry Blazes stopped when he heard a rifle crack.  Not that gunshots were uncommon in Baxter Springs, Kansas, but a rifle usually meant a murder.  He hurried down the alley, relying on the moonlight to guide his steps.  When he stepped into an open field just behind the stores, he paused, and looked about. 

     A burly figure stood, rifle in hand, glaring across the grass.  Harry noticed him, and called out.  “Hey, man, what’s going on?”  

     The black-garbed figure jumped.  He smoothly palmed a six-gun and blasted away at Harry.  Blazes had lived long enough in wild country to know when to run, and those bullets tearing away the wood around his ears told him it was time to go.  

     He came back with some friends and found a dead man up next to a building.  He had died instantly after being shot through the heart.  He was unarmed, and unidentified.  But a friend found him. 

     “I know him!” cried Bobby Phelps.  “Him and I were working a stream in the Rockies.”  Seized with suspicion, he bent over the body.  “His gold . . . it’s still here.”  Looking up, he added, “He never was no fighter, never got in fights, or nothing.  In fact, I think he was a Quaker.”

     Thus was the picture presented to Smoky Walker when he rode into Baxter Springs a day later.  He promptly investigated.  “So he stood about here?”  Bobby nodded in assent.  

     Smoky poked about the debris.  “Here! Look, three casings.”  Smoky carefully looked them over.  “Who around here owns a ‘73 Winchestor?” he demanded.  “These casings are them new centerfire .44-40’s.  The ‘61 Henry’s and ‘66 Winchestors use them .44 Henry rimfires.” 

     As it was early 1873, not many had a ‘73 Winchester.  Bobby was able to compile a short list of men who had them.  Of the 12 men on the list, all but three had been absent at the time of the shooting.  One the remaining men was an eastern preacher, another was Bobby, and the last was Mayor J. R. Boyd.  

     Smoky thought for a minute.  “No,” he said.  “It wasn’t Boyd.  He may have murdered Marshal Taylor last year an’ refused to pay that dry-goods bill, but he ain’t responsible.”  

     “Really?  The bullets match his gun.”

     “Yep.  Someone borrowed it.  And quick-like.  He missed twice before he made a killing shot.  Notice how he hit about 8 foot high and then about 6 foot high?  He was correcting to make that shot.”

     “But what if he was just a bad shot?”  

     “No.  He used his six-gun like a master gunman.  No one that good could miss a man by two feet at 35 yards with his own gun.”

    Bobby presented this evidence at Mayor Boyd’s trial.  The court gave ear to it, and decided that J. R. Boyd was “not responsible for the untimely death of the prospector.”

     Alex Taylor swore when his men told him how the court decided the matter.  “Who figured this here stuff out?” he demanded.  

     “Bobby Phelps.  I think a man named Walker helped ‘im.” Grant Borges was no happier than his chief.  After all, he was paid when the job was all done.  

     “Well,” Alex stroked his jaw as he fleshed out a plot.  “Carry off that Bobby man.  And when you do it. . . .”

     When Bobby disappeared early the next morning, Smoky Walker was immediately suspicious.  He investigated the hotel room and noticed the wrinkled bed and crumpled carpet.  He discovered a few traces of mud and followed them downstairs.  The prints crossed the rough sidewalk and entered the street.  

     There, Smoky decided that they had been gone only an hour or so.  The prints were still sharp, but water had begun to fill them.  Two sets went in, and two out.  But the two that went out had sunk a little deeper.  Most likely, then, they carried Bobby on their shoulders.

      At the middle of the street, the two men came abreast.  Smoky thought it strange, because it was much harder to carry a man that way.  But then he considered the wagon tracks that were only a foot ahead.  So while the sheriff and a few other curious folks walked through the bar across the way and into the next street, Smoky mounted up and followed the wagon tracks out of town.  

     The wagon’s driver must have urged the horses on at a great speed.  The horses’ tracks deep where they had thrust down hard to run.  After about four miles, the wagon slowed, and the horses’ hoofprints became shallower.  

     The wagon tracks entered a draw.  Smoky circled around it, taking care to remain out of sight.  No tracks left the draw.  They must be waiting to meet somebody.  And then he saw it.  A thin line of heat waves wafted upward from a hidden fire, obviously made with dry wood.

     Smoky figured that they would keep Bobby out of sight.  He decided to play dumb and ride down and share a cup of coffee with them.

    The three men started when Smoky rode into the draw.  “Howdy, stranger.”  Rhett Davis apprised the new-comer.  

    Borges poured a cup of coffee for him and Smoky accepted it.  But he noticed how his companions drank their coffee with the left hand.  They shot the breeze for only a few minutes when a black-garbed rider swept down into the gulch.  

     “I done looked into that fellow that helped Bobby investigate.  Boys, that was Smoky Walker!”

     “So what?” Davis asked.

     “He rode for ‘Hanging Judge’ Parker.  An’ he helped catch seven of them uns that killed other deputies.”

    “Oh!  That Smoky Walker.”  Davis lost his confidence.  

     Before anyone continued the conversation, Smoky lifted his hat brim and stared the “boss” square in the face.  Alex Taylor jumped and his men looked at him.  But he was jerking a six-gun.  His hand came up level and a .44 magnum bullet smashed his gun and tore it from his grasp.  Taylor gasped.  He had never been beaten before.  

     The henchmen looked back at Smoky, who sipped his coffee.  It was then that they noticed that Smoky grabbed his left gun.  They paused, considering how fast he might draw with his right hand.  

     Smoky smiled and took another sip of his coffee.  The silence and the waiting was killing them.  Finally he spoke.  “Davis, let down your gun-belt slow and easy.”

     When he was done, Smoky bade Borges do the same.  Alex let his down slowly, bitterly.  He had almost killed the man who had gunned down his cousin, Marshal Taylor, a year previously.  But he pulled no punches now.  If Smoky could draw that fast with his left hand, he had no chance in a match between his left and Smoky’s right. 

     The Marshal was rather surprised to see Smoky ride in with four outlaws in front of him.  But he was still happy to lock them up.  Bobby returned to his lodgings to press charges and Smoky rode out.  A half-a-mile out he stopped on a hillock, and looked over his backtrail for a moment.  He gazed at Baxter Springs for a few seconds, and then swung away, glad to leave behind him the “toughest spot on earth”.

Note to the reader:

In the heyday of Baxter Springs, the cow-town near some mineral springs became known as the “toughest spot on earth.”  Gunfights were so common that everyone carried weapons and few people took notice of them.  On one occasion, Mayor J. R. Boyd ran up a high bill at a dry-goods store, which he refused to pay.  When Marshal Taylor came calling, Boyd resisted arrest and mortally wounded the Marshal.  He was charged with murder, but convinced the court to change it to aggravated manslaughter- self-defense.  The incident apparently did not adjust his views on his own qualification to rule, and so Boyd resumed his post at city council meetings as though nothing had happened.

Judge Issac Parker controlled the whole Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma).  He presided over more than 13,000 cases and more than 9,000 pled guilty or were convicted.  He sentenced 160 of them to hang.  So rough was his district that approximately one-third of his hundreds of deputies were killed in the line of duty.

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