Fifty Dollars

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: November 29, 2019

A A A | A A A

Submitted: November 29, 2019



Fifty Dollars

Oakwood, Iowa, 1878


“What you got here son is a genu-ine piece of modern-marvel engineerin'.” said the clerk, turning the gun over in his hands and staring reverentially at it. “A Colt .45, Single Action Army, ‘Peacemaker’ revolver. Six bullets in the cylinder, solid housin', no drop cylinder or breachin', maple grips, steady hammer draw,” he pulled back and cocked the hammer and sighted the gun at the glass counter, “almose’ no reflex, an' light as a feather.” He locked the hammer back and tossed the gun lightly in his hand to demonstrate the weight. “There ain’t no more reliable handgun in the whole west of this here country from Illinois to Los-An-ge-les. And for only fifty dollars you couldn’ wish fur finer.”

Caleb watched the light playing on the barrel of the gun in the clerk’s hands; it really was a beautiful thing to behold. He had the fifty dollars in notes that he’d got transferred at the bank. The teller had handed them over to him one at a time as if hurt to see them leaving his care and going to such grubby young hands. He’d immediately stuffed them in his leather glove and buried the glove in his coat pocket. He squeezed the glove in his pocket now and felt the paper crinkling inside.

“Yes sir, one fine instrument," the clerk continued, "but that’s what it is; an instrument and I wanna ask if you’re real sure you’re ready to operate it. See, a rifle is the tool of all men- you hunt, scare or shoot predators (jackals and coyotes and the like), and provide for yourself with it. A good, solid Winchester should stand above the hearth of all men’s homes. But a pistol? A pistol is for only certain kinds of men. See, it has only a certain kind of job- it ain’t too good for huntin’ and it ain’t too good for fighting coyotes, but it’s real good for killin' people. And that’s what it’s for- when a man wants to stand before another and be prepared to cut him down, when a certain type of man has that certain type of need then he’ll find the pistol his instrument of fulfilment. If that’s your purpose, if you’re that kind of man, then here’s the best fifty dollars you’ll ever spend.”

Was he that kind of man? He'd never thought he was before. He'd been in scrapes, even cut someone- Tommy Nash when he'd gone for Caleb’s hat his father had bought him only two days before. Tommy had tried to snatch it out of spite, when Caleb was walking with Lucille down the boardwalk and Caleb had tried to talk him down but Tommy had had a plan to make him look a fool and no amount of talking would turn his aim. They'd got to fighting in the dust and dirt of the street and Tommy had got the drop when Caleb drew his short roping knife he always kept on his belt- he'd drawn it on instinct, like a scorpion that uses its pincers until the very last then brings in its tail. Tommy hadn't even noticed the cut Caleb made, thought it was a weak punch, until someone screamed, and blood started falling all over Caleb where he lay beneath him. They were only young men, or old boys then, but Tommy got the measure of him. Caleb's pa had beaten him black for it, he'd felt sick for days and couldn't cut worth a damn for a long time after- was he that kind of man?

He knew what Lucille would say- that she didn't care, that it wasn't important. When they were alone together and looking up at the stars in old Gunderson's barn it didn't matter one bit what any other man thought. At those times he felt it too, understood her and agreed, but walking down that thoroughfare in the unforgiving sun her words didn't carry the same weight. With bruised looking old Tommy and his pals from Doug's Ranch spread out along the Bella Vista's porch, and MacLennan, the silver mine foreman, with his rough cronies over by the livery hollering at any who passed by, it meant more to be a man and be known for being one.

"Maybe it ain't for yer?" the clerk said, "It's a tough old job killin' a man. Got's ta look 'im right in the eyes to do it, unless you're some backshootin' son-of-a-gun, although I don't see's you as one to be fair to ya'. But you got's to look right at 'em and know you're the reason the lights dimmin' in their eyes. Ain't no fun to be had."

He didn't expect it to be fun, that wasn't what it was about, not fun, or easy, but maybe it was necessary. That was the thing, maybe he didn't want to do it but maybe he didn't have a choice- at least the way he saw it.

Lucille thought he had a choice, she was always saying as such; 'we all got choices in no matter what we do, and we choose right by those we love, not those we hate.' He couldn't see to her way of thinking. What if the people we hated were the ones that chose and you got stuck with how they'd turned it out? Maybe it wasn't a case of whether he could kill any man- maybe it was more about whether he could kill just one man. That's all he had planned.

Things hadn't been so tough- pa had died of the lungers disease and left the cattle to him. There wasn't any more family but Lucille's folks had taken him in and fed him regularly, kept him in good health.

But the cattle dried up and then he came to town; Virgil Green of Green's Livestock, a big cattle herder from Fort Laramie, Wyoming. He'd swept in and bought up every head of cattle he could find except Caleb's, who wouldn't sell out of honour to his pa. They'd come to crossed words with Caleb's youth being brought in to prove his wrong footing but Virgil could see Caleb had a stubborn streak and wouldn't budge.

So sure enough Caleb started getting rustled. Only two or three at first, disappearing during the night, but then more, and some would be found with their throats cut. He called on the Deputy, Bud Caplan, but got nothing- Virgil had beat him to it and the word of a nineteen-year-old boy was nothing against that of a big shot steersman from Wyoming.

Things got bad as the herd thinned and Virgil made him a rough offer, the worst price he'd ever known for good horn. Caleb took it badly and tried to sell elsewhere.

Virgil had got to them too though, no one would bite; he got laughed at enough times to make a preacher pull irons.

He went home and talked it out with Lucille's pa and was all ready to give in and sell to Virgil when the shouts started about the fire- the barn his pa had built by hand with timber cut from the Peeshaw's themselves.

Only 15 steers survived- the rest were buried with the ashes.

Fifty dollars paid, Virgil played the sympathiser the whole time he dished out the cash and Caleb kept his jaw as tight as steel as he took the notes.

Thing was, Virgil wasn't finished.

All the trouble had brought the steersman often to the house and there he'd taken a fancy to more than just dry cattle- he'd found himself in need of a lady wife.

"And see, it ain't just bein willin'," the clerk continued, "any man can sit at home and tell himself he's willin' to kill his rival, and state the crimes that death is owed for. But holdin' up that barrel turns off the rest of the noise- you stop all thinkin' an' it's just those eyes lookin' at you and askin' you not to do it- see no one wants to get shot at, even in a clean draw. Even the toughest cold-blooded prairie dog who's killed a hundred bandits and's faster an quicksilver don't wanna die- and don't want you pullin' on ‘em. They'll have something right in the very back o' the eyes pleadin' with yer not to pull the trigger- that's what you got to be able to face. There ain't no mercy to be had, no sir!"

Caleb held out his hand to the clerk to take the piece and he handed it over. The grip was warm where the man had been holding it and felt comfortable- it fitted so well in the palm, like holding hands with Lucille. It had a weight but not near as bad as pa's old Winchester repeater.  He sighted it in the mirror behind the counter.

"Well you sure do look the part there young fella! If only lookin' was all that it meant."

Caleb didn't care how it looked, if anything the reflection scared him. He flushed red and tried to imagine him gunning Virgil down; could he do it?

The cattleman had made an offer to Lucille's pa for the lady’s hand almost double what he'd offered Caleb for his steer. Old Tom was no fool and could see what the man was doing but times had got hard for the Canning's too and with the extra burden of Caleb's misfortunes added to their troubles he'd found it hard to refuse the offer. Tom had lost the liking for Caleb- he saw him as a son and not a son-in-law. He would support him and look out for him but he wanted better things for his daughter. He'd never outright said as such but Caleb had felt it many times.

Lucille had snuck out only two weeks ago and run over at nearly midnight to Caleb's place- old Tom's tool shed that'd been fitted up for a bunk room. The report was Tom had given in, the wedding would be in a month with the Judge presiding.

Caleb could remember the feeling. The sensation flooded back to him as he held the steel in his hand and watched himself in the mirror- sat there in the lamplight as Lucille quietly spelled out his doom. His cheeks had burned and he saw them colour now. He felt ridiculed- humiliated by the out-of-towner. He knew in his soul the man meant nothing honourable by Lucille; only wanted to break Caleb. He saw in the reflection his eyes harden with the hatred and anger.

"Why, there it just might be..." the clerk said in a more hushed tone, watching Caleb. "There's something in you kid, an' maybe it's what I's sayin' about, just maybe."

He put the gun back down on the glass counter. This was the moment, one of those cold moments of destiny you read about in dime novels, where you wrote your future in a single choice.

See, the money wasn't all his, and wasn't for a gun.

They'd got it together- what was left of the fifty for his steer after what he'd paid Tom in room and board, and Lucille's earnings from her dressmaking. They'd put it together and got it to the bank to keep her old pa happy, but last night she’d shared her plan with him- two tickets with room & board and food along the way, a straight shot to California and a new life, $25 each clean down the middle.

He stared down at the gun where it glinted in the sharp morning sun. He could picture California; the sea (which he'd only ever read about), the mountains, oranges on trees for anyone to pick, Lucille sat out resting on a porch, waiting for her man to get home from work. But something about it wouldn't sit right. Deep beneath it all ran this scarlet vein of cowardice. It wasn't just Lucille, it was Pa- fifty dollars for cattle Pa had raised from calf and built a roof for with his bare hands, and given on his deathbed to Caleb- fifty dollars was what Virgil had thought that was worth to a man, or a boy as he saw it- what lay before him on the counter was the fifty dollars Virgil had really bought; fifty dollars the price of cold vengeance. Lucille would hate him for it, maybe she would. But maybe she'd be better off. She would be waiting for him soon, they'd arranged to meet at the platform with almost no time to spare so as not to change their minds. He thought he could hear a faint whistling now, far off in the Peeshaw mountains as the 08:10 made its way down the valley.

"I can throw in an old holster I got from Lucky's if you like? An' bullets is free o' course."

Caleb pulled his glove out his pocket, "I'll take it." He said, not looking the clerk in the eye.



© Copyright 2020 B A Jones. All rights reserved.

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