Yee haw! I done went an’ wrote a western!
This story was written after reading a couple of westerns by mystery writer, Robert B. Parker. I don’t think I’ve ever read any other westerns but I had an idea and thought it would be fun to try. So I wrote this and submitted it to a magazine called All Genres Literary Magazine in 2012. The editor wrote me and told me he rejected it because there wasn’t enough action and it wasn’t a traditional western. I, of course, thought, No shit .But I ended up writing a new western just to show him (and myself) that I could do it—I called that one “The Legend of Justice White”—and he published it. But I never liked that one as much as I like this one so I’m posting this one instead.
Originally published in Rope & Wire, January, 2013.
The Ballad of Judas Kane
By Lee Wright
A kid from somewhere up in Oregon winged me a few weeks back. I put a bullet through his heart sure enough, but not before he took a pretty good chunk out of my left bicep. Had he lived long enough, the kid might have enjoyed the considerable honor of being the first man to get off a shot against the great Judas Kane. ‘Course that kind of reputation can make a man cocky, reckless. And, if I hadn’t killed him, some other gunny would have done it soon enough. Kids like that rarely last long, no matter how fast they are.
This happened just outside a rathole saloon in a little west Texas town called Far Orleans. There wasn’t much of a crowd to witness my wounding, but word travels fast on the dry desert winds. By now, people from the Rio to the Rockies will know about how Judas Kane almost lost to a kid no one has ever heard of.
The kid had heard of me though. Said he recognized me from a photograph he saw in Abilene. Said I looked older in person. I told him I was older—older by several hard years.
He said he’d heard I was the best. I told him I’d heard that too. I’ve heard a lot of things about myself—some of them true, most of them not. And I knew where it was going. He hadn’t had much to drink, but he’d had enough. I could see it in his eyes, in the way he stood.
He told me he’d killed ten men and at least twice that many Indians, maybe three times as many. I wasn’t impressed and I reckon it showed. He asked how many notches I had and I told him notches ruin a good pistol grip. That wasn’t a good enough for answer for him. He pressed me and, eventually, I told him I didn’t know; I’d lost count.
“That many,” he said.
I nodded. “That many.”
The kid wanted to buy me a drink, but I told him I buy my own drinks; always have. That offended him. But he was looking for offense. He wanted a reason to call me out. It was nearly an hour before he found one. So, while I was waiting to kill him, we sat with our backs to the wall, drank our whiskies, smoked our cigars and watched the Mexican girl dance. She wore a bright yellow dress with red lace. Wasn’t a great dancer and not much of a singer, but she didn’t have to be. She had every eye in the place. Even the other girls watched her from their chairs at the back of the room beneath the stairs. Her name was Inez and she reminded me of someone I had known when I was about the kid’s age. Later, as I walked away from the kid’s body, blood filling my sleeve, she was what I was thinking of. Inez, I mean. Not the other one, the one from long ago. Though, before long, my thoughts went back to her. They always do.
“What was his name?” the doc asked as he sewed me up.
“The kid? Don’t know. Didn’t introduce himself. Or, if he did, I don’t remember. Said he was from Oregon. Do remember that.”
“He have any people around here?”
“Came in with a couple of friends about the same age. They left him in the dirt.”
“Think they’ll come at you?”
He nodded, tied off the last stitch and began to dress the wound. “I assume you know how to care for a gunshot wound,” he said.
“No. Not really.”
He explained the process, gave me a bunch of supplies and, when I tried to pay him, he waved the coins away.
“I don’t take money from legends,” he said.
I put the coins on the table, said, “I pay my debts. Cash.”
“Maybe there’s another way,” he said.
So, by the time I rode out of Far Orleans, I’d killed the two men I went there to kill originally, plus the kid from Oregon, and the guy who’d raped the doctor’s only daughter.
And now I’m on a train, heading east. The rumble and clack should be relaxing but isn’t. We’re still several hours outside of St. Louis and the tracks here are rough, uneven. In the distance, beyond a line of low hills, I can see the glow of a raging fire that’s sweeping across the plain, just as it has been for nearly a week. The smoke is lost to the night but, to the south, no stars sparkle in the sky, no moon glows. Even on the moving train, I can smell the charred grass.
I’m in the back seat of the last passenger car, left side, aisle seat. I have a clear view of the only viable entrance to the car and my right hand is free. The Colt is holstered under my left shoulder and, its usual place, is a custom-made ten gauge over-and-under with the barrels and stock sawed down. I had a special rig made for it a couple of days ago and I sit with my right leg in the aisle, the ankle bent back under my thigh so that the blunt barrel extends just beyond my knee and points at the forward door. It’s the first scattergun I’ve ever owned.
An old novel lies on my lap, a page about halfway through dog-eared to mark my place. A dead man sits in the seat facing me. He sat down there hours ago without saying a word. He simply nodded to me, took out his own novel and began to read by the light slanting through the window. Occasionally, he would make a notation in the book with a stub of pencil he’d pulled from his breast pocket. He didn’t seem to be heeled, but I kept a discreet eye on him just the same. Eventually, he tired, took off his glasses, laid his pencil and book aside, yawned and closed his eyes. It was only when sleep slackened his face that I recognized him as a man I killed nearly ten years earlier in Arizona. I can’t recall his name or why I killed him, but I will never forget how he looked lying face up in the mud of the corral. I wonder if the kid I killed in Far Orleans remembered the faces of the men he killed. I wonder if he killed as many men as he claimed. I’d bet the answer to both is no.
I’ve seen probably fifteen or twenty dead people walking around in the last few years. Some of them had heard of me, but I don’t think any of them knew they looked exactly like someone I killed.
In the early seventies, I spent a bit of time riding with a weathered old Englishman named Hudson. He was always dressed real nice—even on the trail—and he talked like some kind of sissy, but on the job he was hard and cold and handled a gun about as well as anyone I’d ever met. Probably only myself and a dark-eyed kid named Robert Cole are any better. Mostly, I don’t say much when I’m working—or when I’m not for that matter—but Hudson was a talker and, one day, while we were riding in a private three-man posse with an Apache tracker, he told me about a guy from Greece who claimed that all life was cyclical.
“And everybody’s got a doppelganger. An exact twin,” Hudson said. “That twin might be ten, fifteen, even fifty years older or younger than you. Hell, they might not even be born in your lifetime, but there are only so many kinds of people and, eventually, we all come around again. Out here in the wide open, it’s not so obvious because the population’s low, but go to a big city like New York or Boston and you’re likely to see two or three people a month that you know from somewhere else. Hell, you might even run across yourself sometime.”
I nodded and, for a long while, we rode in silence. We followed the Apache who was following three-day-old sign. All the while, I was thinking about something that happened just before the war.
With things getting tense in the south, I had hired on as private security for a plantation owner and his family. He stayed behind to see to his land while I accompanied the women and children to London where they were to stay with distant family for the duration of the war. I wasn’t there long—not more than a few days—but I did get a chance to walk through one of their grand old cemeteries. It was so old that it was full up and they weren’t putting anyone else in there. I spent a good half hour walking around, looking at the stones, the names, the dates. There were some so old the names and dates had weathered right away. Those people—the ones under the weathered blank markers—are about as gone as you can get. They aren’t just dead; they are utterly forgotten. I still remember a few other things about London, but those old stones are what has stayed clearest in my head
That kid I killed back in Far Orleans won’t get a stone. He’ll get a wooden cross in a little plot of land out past the stockyard. If he’s lucky, one of his friends will carve his name on the cross. Not that it matters, really. In fifty years or so, if there’s no family to keep it fresh, that little cross will be gone and, in another hundred, maybe less, the city will swallow up the cemetery and all the souls therein. Or maybe the prairie will reclaim the land. I’ve seen that happen too. It happens quicker than you’d think; the land is hungry.
I take my eyes off the sleeping dead man and look out the window for a bit. I can see the fire now, actual flames. A modest cabin stands in ever-shifting silhouette against the wall of fire and a covered wagon is moving away from it, toward the tracks.
Hudson said once that guys like us are a prairie fire. We sweep across the great, empty spaces burning up anything or anyone that gets in the way. And we burn so brightly that they can see us from the tall buildings back east. No one knows how it got started or where it will end, but end it will. No fire burns forever except the one we’ll find after we die.
The door at the front of the car opens and Robert Cole, the legendary shooter from St. Louis, steps inside. His hat is low, shadowing his eyes and the collar of his duster is up. In the dancing orange glow of the fiery night, his face is waxen and flat, almost featureless. I don’t see his gun but I know that it will be on his left hip, pearl handle gleaming. I saw him shoot in Arizona, must have been ten or fifteen years ago. Jesus, he was good. No reason to think he isn’t still.
Though I can’t see his eyes, I feel them sweep the car and stop on me. I feel them drop to the shotgun strapped to my leg. His lips twitch into a thin smirk then he nods once, turns and leaves, moving back through the train.
After Cole is gone, I sit for a moment staring at the place where he stood then I flip to the back of the novel. It ends on an odd numbered page so the backside is blank. I gently pick up the stranger’s pencil from his lap and write:
My name is Judas Kane. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia on June 10, 1839. I scouted for Longstreet then came west after the war. I never married and I don’t have any family but I once loved a woman named Carmen.
I look at what I have written for a minute then added:
Before the war, I visited England.
When I’m done, I tear the page from the book, fold the paper, tuck it into the band of my hat, and get up. Then, leaving the shotgun behind, I go to look for Cole.
© 2013 Lee Wright
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