Billy rode towards town. It had been several years rather than months since he'd been into Blowers because he hadn't liked the changes taking place. He'd heard there had been a move to change the name of the town, founded by Colonel Blowers, to erase its 'brutal and common past' whatever that meant.
Colonel Harrington Blowers hadn't been common. He was a leader of men who looked up to him, with many fearing him with his reputation for having killed more than twenty men and a couple of armed women who shot at him. Nor had he been brutal, raising Billy's father who became Lieutenant Ben Willis, as his own son and women loved the Colonel, way too much possibly because it was said half the town were his descendants. Townspeople who had no real work to do tended to prattle on like that. Both men were long dead.
Billy looked at the sun, confirming he'd be in town by noon. He wanted to buy a new saddle and make a final attempt to try to find out who his mother was and was she still alive. Most of the old 'uns were dying out. He thought he was fifty-five, give or take a few years. His hair was graying so he knew that reckoning was about right. Out riding the boundary lines or on cattle drives the days and nights ran one after the other with such monotony that time appeared not to matter. Once he uses the arrival of the first snowfall as an age counter but gradually the need to know seemed to become irrelevant. Ma'am Bridger would have a calendar in the homestead but Billy had never stepped into that house again after she, a fairly recent bride, had tried to mess with him when her husband was away doing business. Their boy and girl were now grown up and had gone East. If the boss wanted him the boss came to the bunkhouse.
That was another thing, Billy thought, looking down to the Blue River to eye the new bridge that had replaced the ferry and the ferryman's house had since been burned to the ground. Progress? Well it had been scary crossing during flood in the ferry and so far big floods had not swept away the bridge.
The bunkhouse thought returned. At the peak twenty-seven men had been in that building with Billy, and now he slept there alone. The ranch had been sold down and now was small enough to require only Billy and three other guys who had the cheek to call themselves cowboys who lived in a new bunkhouse built near the foreman's house. That guy now had the fancy title of ranch superintendent. After three fights that guy learned to leave Billy alone. The boss came across each Sunday and gave Billy his orders for the week, which sometimes included working with the other men when real work was being done.
He patted his bay on the neck and she walked on to the bridge as if she'd been across it before, which she hadn't. But she was smart enough to see there was no ferry and with Billy pressing a knee into her right side knew to turn left towards the structure and with Billy in charge she had nothing to fear.
There was a sign but Billy couldn't read and never would. It was just another complication in life.
"Ten cents mister," said the kid.
"Oh yeah?" Billy smiled. "Find yourself a job and you won't have to beg."
"Mister Luke," yelled the kid.
A big guy around thirty came out of the tiny shelter.
"Ten cents to cross the bridge. It's a toll to pay towards construction, maintenance and operation."
"I haven't any money," Billy lied.
The big guy stepped forward to grab Miss Jean's bridle.
Billy pulled his Colt.
"And you leave your six-shooter and rifle with me. The Town Ordinance says..."
Billy cocked the gun and the guy let go of the bridle, raised his hands, smiled and stepped back four paces.
The toll man said, "On you go, insisting on ten cents is not worth a bullet in the chest. Watch out for Sheriff Jones and especially his deputy Melvin Marks, the terror of Placeville.
"The name of this town stranger. You passed the sign."
"I didn't notice. It's always been Blowers to me."
"It was officially re-named by President Roosevelt soon after he came to office."
"President Harrison is the president."
The toll man asked where had the stranger been? "President Arthur left office in 1893. Yes, where have you been? This is 1906 or don't you know that?"
As Billy rode across the bridge he thought although politics had never interested him unless the stupid actions of politicians affected beef prices or introduced new restraints on ranching, he did recall being invited to the homestead for a 'Turn of the Century' party, a big party, but he declined as Ma'am would be there and probably would be after a piece of him. He'd never do that to the boss. Anyway, the boss came down dressed for dinner and they had a couple of whiskies together. They talked about the old days and the boss was virtually weeping. Then Ma'am arrived - someone drove her down in one of those scary cars. She was dressed mighty prettily but looked old, too old for sex he figured. She had a whisky with them and then tried to kiss Billy in front of her husband. The boss said let her so Billy stood at attention and endured it.
Billy could scarcely recognize the town or city as the toll man had called it. The saddler was still there, same guy in fact, but the stables had gone. He traded his old saddle and felt the guy was robbing him but he did explain that costs had soared in recent years and officials were greedy about taxes.
"We should shoot the lot and start again," Billy grinned.
The old saddler laughed and produced a whisky bottle. Don't let the sheriff or especially his corrupt deputy catch you packing guns. You should have left them at the toll gate."
"What does corrupt mean?"
"Deputy Marks steals money from us, pistol whips anyone who resists, forces himself on women, including other men's wives and beats teenage boys for what he calls, 'To toughen them up so they won't be weak like their fathers'."
"Why isn't he shot or run out of town?"
"He's vicious and feared."
"It only takes one bullet?"
"Yeah, true, but it takes one guy with grit to fire it."
Miss Jean didn't much like the new saddle but Billy knew it would grow on her over time. He shook his head when watching the automobiles scaring the horses. He wondered how many rifle bullets it would take to kill an automobile.
Just then Billy heard a woman screaming. He jumped on to Miss Jean and raced along the street at a gallop, skidding to a half sixty feet from a guy who'd obviously knocked a woman to the ground and had his boot planted across her stomach. He ignored Billy.
"Get up bitch or I'll have you here in the middle of the street."
"Unhand that Lady," Billy snarled, jumping to the dusty ground.
Miss Jean intelligently moved away to flank the appalled onlookers.
That led to the lean and mean looking guy to take his foot off the young woman. She scuttled away, limping and terrified.
"You're packing a gun stranger. You are under arrest. In the powers vested in me..."
"Shut your mouth asshole."
The gasps from onlookers could be heard.
Billy tensed and grunted, "Are you Deputy-sheriff Marks?"
"Yes old fellow. And who are you? I'd like to know because I'm about to remove those yellow teeth of yours. Then you won't be talking for a few days plus carrying a few busted ribs."
He drew his gun and grasped it by the barrel.
"Touch me and you're dead."
"Threatening a lawman. You are about to pay for that," growled Marks, flipping his gun to grab it by the grip. He fired twice, both bullets missing Billy who was walking calmly towards him. Billy then drew, shooting Marks's gun arm, smashing bone and then shot him in the belly.
Bystanders shouted and screamed. The villainous Deputy-sheriff screamed in agony and the shouting around them died, as if people knew they were watching the end of a reign of terror. As Marks began to fall Billy planted a bullet into the top of Marks's head.
"Call the Sheriff," someone yelled.
"No, cheer the hero," someone countered.
Bystanders cheered, clapped and whistled. When that died away Billy said, "He fired twice before I drew."
"We are your witnesses cowboy," a deep-voiced man shouted.
Billy whistled and Miss Jean trotted to him. He mounted, raised his hat to the womenfolk and left the dramatic scene at an easy canter, heading to the bridge.
The toll man stood in the center of the bridge outside his office, shotgun raised. Billy slowed Miss Jean to a walk and stopped when reaching lethal shotgun range.
"Who did you rob - a bank?"
"No, I killed your Deputy-sheriff who appeared about to violate a woman. But he put two shots my way before I drew and put two maiming shots into him and then a finisher into his brain."
The toll man lowered his gun and stood aside.
"Go in peace, city hero."
Back at the bunkhouse Billy loaded two packhorses with containers of water, horse feed and food for himself and took them over the ridge behind the bunkhouse and tethered them out of sight. He resaddled Miss Jean and waited.
The Sheriff and posse came in automobiles just on nightfall. They trooped into the old homestead bristling with guns. None came on horses and that make Billy smile. The old ways were going but horses would not fade away entirely. There always would be people who liked horses and he couldn't image any vehicle ever going where he was about to go.
He opened the gate to the horse pasture and set the horses out on the run and went back to the bunkhouse and set it alight with four fires he'd prepared, soaked in gasoline. The boss had been talking about doing that for perhaps ten years. The bunkhouse was well alight when he reached the top of the ridge on Miss Jean and waited.
The posse tumbled out of the homestead and began firing at the flaming bunkhouse. He grinned thinking that was the level of posse mentality.
The sky was clear and there was a half-moon so Billy rode slowly for three hours, allowing the horses to pick their way, figuring he would be safe from any pursuers if they had the brains to run his way on a quick scout. He could expect a horse-mounted posse coming in his direction after dawn. They would be able to track him but would give up before entering the desert.
It took Billy, the last real cowboy - well that's how he saw himself - three days to cross the desert.
* * *
Fourteen years later, a guy believed to be in his early to mid seventies, died in a facility for the destitute in a town in Arizona. He'd called himself Billy, nothing else. Billy had no papers, no identity whatsoever, and refused to open a small locked black box that after admission would keep under his bed.
After his burial the woman in charge of the home where Billy had been a resident for three months and eight days opened the box with Billy's key. He couldn't read or write and because his only interest seemed to be talking about raising cattle and riding and the breeding of horses he was nicknamed 'The Cowboy'.
Inside the box they found a loaded Winchester .44-40 and a Colt single-action long Peacemaker and boxes of ammunition and a photograph inscribed 'Miss Jean a few days being put out in retirement'.
"I wish we had known more about Billy," said the elderly woman in charge to an assistant. "For all we know Billy could have been the last of the old-time cowboys. We could have just witnessed the burial of a legendary figure."
The box was handed over to the authorities who donated it to the town museum where possibly it could be in basement storage to this day.