The quiet ones, a short story by JOHN-WHITEHOUSE. Date added: 2008-02-24. Times viewed: 1631.
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- Intro: Will Pickett can't face killing himself - but he knows someone who will do the job for him
- Will Pickett took another swig from the whiskey bottle and cast a forlorn glance about him. In his mid-twenties, he was of medium height and scrawny, with long melancholy features topped by reddish-brown hair. Home was a shack on the outskirts of Lizard Creek, a small Kansas cow town, and he was presently seated at a table which stood in the middle of the hut's only room.
"All my life I've been a snivellin' coward," he wailed, talking aloud to himself. "Folks push me around, make wisecracks, razz me and I ain't got the guts to even talk back at 'em. It'd be different if I had some beef but I ain't - five feet nothin' and skinny as a polecat, that's me. Look at me - one of the finest cowpokes around and I can't hold down a job anywhere. Everyplace I go it's the same - I always have to quit 'cos guys keep pickin' on me."
Will grimaced as he thought of Deke Sommers. Deke was six feet tall and built like an ox and had caused Will a lot of grief at the Big A ranch.
As Will had stated, he'd endured similar torments throughout most of his adult life. Because of his diminutive stature and slight build he stood out among the bigger brawnier men with whom he worked, making him a target for those with a bullying tendency. Drifting from place to place, he'd fetched up in Lizard Creek, finding work at the Big A ranch. He'd only been there a month, however, when the taunts of Deke and his cronies had become too much and, like so often in the past, he'd been forced to quit. Since then he'd spent nearly all his money and his situation was now quite desperate.
"I'm broke," he moaned. "I barely got two nickels to rub together."
Tears gathered in his bleared and reddened eyes. Taking another long gulp, he carried on, his speech becoming more and more slurred.
"I can't stand livin' like this, I'd sooner be dead than yeller." Laying his head on his arms, he wept.
He reached for the bottle, then stopped. "I'm gonna kill myself. Yeah, that's what I'll do."
Rising to his feet, Will crossed the room to a cupboard standing by the bed. He jerked open a drawer and stared at the six-shooter nestling in its leather holster. And his soul shriveled within him. Covering his face with his hands, he reeled away.
Unable to stand the confines of the shack any longer, Will snatched open the door and stumbled out into the night. The sky was a vast dome of star-flecked blackness from which the moon gleamed down like a watching face. Will howled at it, his cries a mixture of anger, sadness and despair.
"I can't do it," he wailed. "People say I'm yeller and they're right. I don't even have the guts to shoot myself." He fell to his knees and sobbed.
A rising wind breathed through the gloom, carrying on it the strains of piano music. They came from the Four Aces saloon. Hearing them, Will was reminded that Jake Harrigan was in town. The saloon was where the gunman would be around now.
Suddenly, from the depths of despair and alcohol, an idea, fantastic and paradoxical, was born.
"I'll get Jake Harrigan to shoot me," Will said to himself. "At least folks won't remember me for being yeller."
The realization that his troubles would soon be over seemed to calm Will a little. Clambering to his feet, he went back inside the shack and strapped on the gunbelt. Then, with a new sense of purpose, he set off for the saloon.
Jake Harrigan sat near the end of the bar on a high stool, around which the folks who were making merry were careful to leave a respectful space. In his mid-forties, he was tall and broad-shouldered. Short dark hair topped lined sinister features in which cold grey eyes gleamed from beneath craggy brows.
The gunman was a legend to the folks of Lizard Creek although this was the first time he'd honored the town with his presence. In fact, his reputation traveled before him over much of the west. Dark and terrible were the tales of his deeds.
A couple of guys were leaving as Will entered so his arrival went unnoticed. However, a moment later, all eyes were upon him as he cried out: "Jake Harrigan! That's the varmint I'm lookin' for!"
Drinking, dancing, gambling all stopped as a hush descended. Men and women gaped, unable to believe what had just happened. Will Pickett had yelled - actually yelled - at Jake Harrigan! The folks held their breath, expecting the lunatic in the doorway to be mown down at any moment in a hail of lead. As for Harrigan, he'd jerked around at the sound of the words, hand shooting to the big silver gun at his hip but he had not drawn and now stood, eyeing the intruder somberly.
Will strode across the room, people standing aside to make way. He stood before Harrigan. "Jake Harrigan! A fine gunman you are, you lousy tramp!"
A frightened, strangulated gasp escaped the onlookers. Several shrank back.
Harrigan continued to stare at Will with a mixture of puzzlement and amazement. He spoke. "You tired of livin', feller? Don't you know I could shoot you where you stand?"
"Then why don't yer?" Will sneered, unable to keep his voice from shaking a little. "Or don't you have the guts?"
Harrigan gazed at the smaller man, his features impassive. Inside, however, a deep feeling of unease was growing, fuelled by the suspicion that this was some sort of trap.
Perhaps this fellow was some terrible gunfighter, so terrible that even Harrigan would be no match for him. Yeah, could be. How would he have the nerve to dare Harrigan otherwise? Over the years a good few had tried to send him into the next world but all had shown Harrigan the respect due to him. But this shrimp not only seemed to have no fear of Harrigan but was treating him with a sneering contempt. The guy had him in some sort of cinch, but how?
Maybe there was a gunman planted in the crowd; or in the back room, peering through a crack in the door. Perhaps another crouching behind a window somewhere along the street should Harrigan call the guy outside.
Harrigan's stomach tightened. Cold sweat beaded his brow. His hand fell limply from his hip.
"You ain't got no call to be picking a fight with me," he said, thickly and with some difficulty. "I ain't got no quarrel with you. Let's...let's have a drink and forget about it."
Will scarcely heeded what the man was saying. It wasn't courage that was keeping him going but a kind of insanity and he wanted to get the whole thing over with before he lost his nerve and broke down completely. All he wanted was a quick death, not delivered by his own hand, but Harrigan seemed determined to prolong the agony. Perhaps the gunman had so much contempt for Will that he wouldn't even waste the powder on him.
"You ain't nothin' but a big false alarm," Will screamed, scrabbling frantically for insults which would sting Harrigan out of what Will thought was a contemptuous indifference. "You ain't nothin' but a low-down yeller coyote who ain't got the guts to shoot anybody except in the back." In a maddened rage, Will raised his hand and struck Harrigan across the face with resounding force.
The gunman froze. Then he went pale. "You ain't trickin' me into no cold-blooded slaughter," he cried and, barging past Will, he plunged through the doors and out into the night. Seconds later there was a sound of hooves galloping away along the street. Jake Harrigan was never seen in Lizard Creek again.
In the saloon silence hung like an icy pall. In a daze, incapable of coherent thought, Will lurched across the room and peered through the doors into the street.
"Huh? Where'd he go?" he mumbled.
"He's probably halfway across the state by now," said a voice behind him. "You frightened the life out of the guy."
As Will turned the speaker patted him on the shoulder. "The name's Joe Withers. I'd sure like to shake your hand, Mister Pickett. Just between us, what was the grudge between you and Harrigan? Oh, hey, I forgot - you guys don't need no grudge. You just wanted to show him who was the best man didn't you?"
There was a tap on Will's shoulder and he wheeled round to see Deke Sommers standing before him.
"Will...I mean Mister Pickett...I...I'd just like to say I'm awful sorry for all that stuff up on the Big A." His voice was trembling a little and he wore an anxious expression. "I didn't mean anythin', I was just foolin' around, that's all. Please say there's no hard feelings."
"Huh? No, I suppose not."
"Oh, thankyou Mister Pickett," Deke babbled as Will felt his hand pressed in another firm grip. He looked around to see a tall middle-aged man beaming at him.
"The name's Tex Mallory. You've probably heard of me." Will nodded. The man was one of the wealthiest cattle dealers around those parts.
"Liked the way you handled yourself just now," Mallory said. "Knew when to stand your ground. Could've backed down but you didn't. I could use a guy like you. I've got some important business dealings coming up. I figure you'd be one hell of a negotiator. Tell you what - I'll call on you tomorrow, see if we can work something out. What do you say?"
"Huh? Yeah, okay." Still in a daze, Will stumbled through the doors and away along the street.
In the saloon an excited buzz of conversation broke out.
"This is somethin' to tell our grandchildren about...Never thought I'd see the day...Jake Harrigan takin' one on the pan and runnin' away...Will Pickett of all people, and him being such a mild, quiet type...The quiet ones are the worst, it's them you've got to watch out for...You know who he really is? The Secotah Kid. String of kills as long as your arm...Harrigan sure knew him. Boy, was he scared..."
On his way back to the shack, Will shook his head in disbelief.
"Well, I'll be damned! They looked up to me, treated me with respect. Even Deke Sommers. I'll be damned!"
Will threw back his head and howled at the moon. This time, however, his cries were filled with joy.
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