Trail Of No Return
The rider was slumped over the lathered piebald as the dusty town came into view. He was wearing a stained brown cowboy hat with a bullet hole in the crown. A beat up Allin Springfield .50 caliber rifle was in the saddle boot. The horse was tired and having trouble walking at a slow pace. One shoe was missing and the white markings under his neck were caked with dust.
The streets of Hedgehog, Texas were already busy. Wagons filled with men and their families were moving toward the center of town to the mercantile store. Brooms, buckets, hemp ropes, bridles and other merchandise were hanging from posts in front of the store. Boys and girls were running behind the wagons enjoying a day away from the farms. Horses were drop tied at the rail in front of the saloon. The town was no different from any other place the rider had visited. A dilapidated livery and corral were at one end of the town. Three clapboard buildings, a saloon, dry goods store, and boarding house were on Main Street.
The rider had memorable recollections of this dried-up town. He and his brother, Jesse, hung around the streets listening to talks of drought, local politics, bank robbers and outlaws. They lived with their father and mother on a run-down farm working hard to have food and shelter. Once he saved his brother from drowning when Jesse slipped on a foot log. Bart, the oldest and biggest, took whippings for Jesse. Once Jessie forgot to close the gate and the cow destroyed their Mother’s garden. Bart told his father he left the gate open and took the beating.
Thinking of his family, Bart dismounted to rest his horse. The long trek from Cheyenne carrying a two hundred pound man just under six feet had become burdensome for his gelding. The rider felt rocks poking his sockless feet wedged into boots that was too small. Pieces of wire held the soles of the worn leather. “It’s not much farther, Blue Boy. We’re just about home.” Blue Boy trudged on toward the town and livery.
“Howdy,” the old stableman said spitting a wad of juice. His shirt was stained with tobacco drippings. His gaze took in the weary horse and the sun-baked man flipping a coin toward him. The hostler caught it and put it into his grungy pocket.
Bart always took care of Blue Boy before considering himself. With Blue Boy in the stable, Bart headed for the Wild Rose Saloon. A tall lanky cowboy leaning against the wall of the saloon pinched his cigarette to smother the spark and threw it on the ground. The stranger noticed everything. The trails he rode left no room for carelessness.
The swinging door brushed against Bart as he entered the tar-papered saloon. He stayed to the side of the door accustoming his eyes to the light. The smell of smoke and alcohol reached his nostrils. Several dusty cowboys dressed in chaps were at the bar. The sound of cards being shuffled and the laughter of a painted lady came from the middle of the room. Crossing to the polished oak bar, he noticed a grey bearded bartender wiping glasses. A faded picture of a naked woman hung on the wall behind the bar.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked.
“Whiskey,” replied Bart, placing his left boot on the gleaming brass foot rail. Bart raised his glass to his mouth. A younger, red headed man wearing a bright blue-checkered shirt and shiny black boots edged beside Bart. He spit missing the spittoon on the floor by the bar deliberately spitting the wad on Bart’s boot.
Bart turning toward the man said, “Damn.” The tinkling of glasses stopped.
The belligerent man reached for his gun saying, “This isn’t a place for scum.” He never cleared leather. He was looking into the barrel of Bart’s worn six-gun thinking death was upon him. Silence cut the air.
Bart cocking his pistol broke the silence. Pointing the barrel toward the man’s head Bart barked, “If you ever pull down on me again, you’re a dead man. Get out before I kill you.” All was quiet as the man shuffled out. The other cowboys looked at each other astonished at such a fast draw.
Hearing the commotion, the card players looked up. One gambler wearing a splendid black sombrero, grey pants, black boots and white silk shirt, the clothes of a professional, was sitting with his back to the bar. He was Bart’s brother Jesse. Turning Jesse yelled, “Bart.” Bart faced the gambling table moved swiftly toward it. The brothers met halfway with surprised looks on their faces slapping each other on the back.
“Where’ve you been?” asked Jesse.
Bart scowled, “That’s a long story. I heard you were killed fighting with General Lee.”
“I was a prisoner for awhile.” Jesse said. Placing his hand on Bart’s shoulder he asked, "Got a place to stay?”
“I just got in town,” Bart said with a frown noticing his clothes compared to Jesse’s attire.
Jesse lowered his arm saying, “I’m staying at the Long Branch Hotel. Let ‘s have a drink and go up to my room.” The two brothers turned toward the bar. The bartender set out two clean glasses and poured whiskey into them.
The bartender stared a minute finding nerve to say, “You’re Jesse’s brother, the gun-slinger.”
Bart shrugged his shoulders replying, "I've put a few under the green tent.” Bart and Jesse lifted their glasses. Bart noticed a bulge under the left sleeve of Jesse’s suit. He knew Jesse had a hidden gun and went by the gambler’s code shoot first and ask questions later. The brothers drank their whiskey quickly and moved cautiously toward the swinging doors. Every man in the saloon knew that Bart was almost a legend as a gunfighter.
Entering Jesse’s room, Bart noticed a porcelain washbasin and a broken sliver of mirror on a table by the cherry bed. The bed with a red spread was placed away from the window. This gave Jesse and Bart a good view of the street. Jesse had an array of clothes and boots scattered on the floor. Jesse walked to the window, peering into the street asked, “What brought you back?”
Bart reached into his pocket for a cigarette. He struck a match, waiting until the tobacco glowed before answering, “There’s nowhere else to go. I'm tired of being a fast gun. I'm a target for anyone who wants to be the fastest. I've worked for thirty and found as a cowhand. All I have is a horse, saddle, two shirts, and two pair of pants. In every town there’s someone wanting a reputation. I thought if I came home maybe, the town would let me be. I'll go see the sheriff first thing tomorrow. Who’s got the job?”
Jesse leaving the window told Bart, "He's Bob Thompson. I just see him around town. Let's go downstairs to eat. Then we’ll go back to the Wild Rose.”
Bart reaching in his pocket said, “Jesse, I’m down to blanket. I only have a three dollar coin.”
Jesse answered, “Don’t worry Bart. I'll take care of you. You always took care of me. Remember all the whipping you took for me.” Jesse looked into the broken mirror with pale blue eyes raking his hair with his fingers before leaving the room. In the dining room, Bart took a table with his back to the wall. Jesse sat on the side. After ordering, Bart and Jesse sat quietly. Everyone in the room was whispering and staring at the two brothers. The two brothers knew they were the reason for the talk. When the food arrived, it was gulped down hungrily. Leaving the Long Branch, Jesse went back to the Wild Rose Saloon to find a high stake game. Bart deciding against another trip to the saloon went upstairs to Jesse’s room. Bart went to sleep not knowing when Jesse came home.
The next morning the brothers were out of bed with the sunrise. The brothers stomped down the stairs. Reaching the street, the two noticed the quietness of the town. The reds, yellows, and grey of the sky welcomed the morning. Bart reached for his gun, slipping it up and down in his holster. It had to be loose in case he needed it fast.
Putting his hand on Bart’s arm, Jesse pointed across the street, saying, “Dell’s Café is the best place for breakfast.” After eating a big breakfast of steak and eggs, the brothers were once again on the boardwalk. Jesse returned to the Wild Rose. He spent his days playing solitaire unless he had a chance at a betting game. Bart looking around strolled down the street toward a faded sign that read sheriff. Entering the office, Bart was looking into the cold, grey eyes of Sheriff Thompson. Sheriff Thompson, looking at wanted posters, raised his eyes to look at Bart, knowing this was a gunfighter from his appearance and low hanging gun. Staring at the visitor, Sheriff Thompson said, “You’re Bart Watson. Some of the town’s people think you’re ‘wanted but I can’t find a poster on you. I don’t want any killing in my town. Staying long?”
Bart replied, “Jesse’s here. I may stay at the home place but right now, I need work. I can ride fence, work cattle, and break horses. Maybe you can tell me where to look.”
Sheriff Thompson laughed saying, “That‘s not all you can do. I hope I don’t have to see how good you use that gun.”
Bart retorted, “I just want to be left alone, not face anyone.”
Clamping a cigar in his mouth, the sheriff said, “Maybe I can help you. Pete Barnes owner of the Bar B was in town last week hunting someone to ride some broncos. His place is just north of yours. Tell him I sent you. Maybe you deserve a chance.”
Leaving the sheriff’s office, Bart hurried to get Blue Boy. Blue Boy needed a shoe before he could be rode. Leading Blue Boy saddled into the sunlight, he heard someone yell. “Bart, Bart Watson.” Bart found a blonde boy with a light complexion about sixteen standing with his feet apart. The boy brushed his hair out of his face while looking straight at Bart. Returning his arm to his side the youth said, “You call.”
Bart stepped away from his horse said, “Kid, don’t do this.”
The boy screamed, “Don’t call me a kid. My name is Billy Crawford. I’m going to be a big man when I gun you down like a dog.”
Billy’s hand flashed toward his ivory handled .44 caliber pistol. Before Billy could unholster his gun, he felt a sudden shock. With a look of disbelief, Billy grabbed his bleeding shoulder dropping his gun. Sheriff Thompson hearing the shot ran toward the livery. He stopped suddenly seeing Bart. The old man running the livery told the sheriff, “Billy came gunning for Watson. Most excitement I’ve seen in a long time.” With Billy leaning on him, the disgusted sheriff turned to walk toward the doctor’s office. Bart led Blue Boy down the street to find a blacksmith.
Bart found a big man wearing a smutty apron standing over an anvil holding tongs gripping a glowing horseshoe. His other hand held a big hammer. The blacksmith glanced at Bart before returning to his work. “My horse needs a shoe,” Bart said politely.
The filthy blacksmith said, “I’ll look.” After looking at Blue Boy’s hooves, the blacksmith said,”All the shoes needed replacing. “It will take a couple of hours for me to make and fit them.” Leaving his horse to be shod, Bart went to find Jesse.
Jesse was still at the table in the Wild Rose shuffling a deck of cards. Bart told Jesse, “If I get the job at the Bar B, we can fix the old place together, plant a garden and have a few cattle.”
Jesse looked up suddenly dropping the deck of cards face up showing the King of Hearts. “Bart, I don’t want the damn place. I’m a gambler with 52 pharaohs”
The look of disappointment that crossed Bart’s face was short lived. Two shabby dressed men entered the saloon bellying up to the bar for a glass of the grape. The men’s hats were pulled down over dark faces from hours on horseback hiding their hair color. Both had holsters tied to their legs. One had a Biscadero gun belt with a gun on each hip. The tallest man said, “We’re after the reward. We’re sending you to hell.” Both men grabbed iron, splintering chairs with blazing guns fired in haste.
Bart dived to the floor firing his gun as he fell, Jesse let his.41 pearl handled Remington double-barreled derringer fall from his sleeve into his hand. A moment later, the two men lay on the sawdust floor with unseeing eyes. Bart’s first shot plowed through the cowboy’s last meal and the second his heart. Jesse’s two bullets caught the other in the chest.
Bart seeing blood on Jesse’s sleeve exclaimed, “Jesse, you’re hit.”
Jesse looking at his sleeve replied. “It’s just a graze.”
While ejecting the spent shells and reloading, Bart said, “I’m leaving. If I stay, we’ll both be in danger.”
Jesse having put a bullet in his small gun slipped it under his sleeve. Picking up his deck of cards, he said, “Bart, let me help you. You can’t leave without money. You’ll be barefoot before long.” Jesse looked up from his cards for a moment handing Bart a wad of bills. He started flipping the cards as Bart left the saloon for the last time. Bart thinking there should have been more between him and Jesse walked to the blacksmith’s shop. Bart stood watching the street while the blacksmith finished shoeing Blue Boy.
After getting Blue Boy, Bart rode north. He wanted to see the old place before he left the territory. The house looked worse than he had expected. Weeds and brushes were everywhere. The roof was caved in. The rock chimney was the only part intact. His mother’s flower garden was covered in thorns and weeds. For a moment, Bart could see her on her knees pulling weeds and softly humming to herself.
Around back of the house, Bart had to wade through high growth to get to the two sunken graves. Their ma had died while the brothers were on a cattle drive. Their pa died while Bart was on the outlaw trail. Standing by the graves, he whispered, “Ma, Pa I tried to come home. Pa you were right strapping on a gun means never going back.” A sadness swept over him as he walked away leaving for an unknown destination. Bart riding off into oblivion looked back toward the graves knowing he could never put down roots and was destined to be alone.
Author: Revia Perrigin
Author: Revia Perrigin