However, looking back, I sure wish I'd have picked a smart woman to fall for, because I wasn't the only one with eyes for Sally.
Bob Derner had money and land. I suppose he was handsome in an oversized, rough cut sort of way. I mean, if a woman liked a man that looked like he was chiseled from marble, well over six feet tall, and dark of hair and eye. Of course some women might have preferred my five foot nine inches of height, my medium build, scraggly brown hair, and freckled skin. But I suspected Sally Hitchens liked Bob Derner more, both his looks and his money. Me, I had a few lonely dollars earned from some temporary deputy work when the jail was full, and the sheriff had to run down some renegade, or when cowboys were in town and an extra gun was needed to keep the peace. I also earned a dollar on occasion by helping the blacksmith shoe horses. Sandy, the barkeeper, paid me on busy nights to keep order when the inevitable rowdies came to town, and that was my most regular earnings. Besides my poverty, I was known for being handy with a gun. Perhaps this made me bolder than my station in life, for a man who can use a gun gets respect. I'd shot three men, one who had jumped me at the jail and tried to take my gun, another who had shot an unarmed fellow at the saloon, and a drunk who shot me in the shoulder and was preparing to fire again. In the first case, it was purely an accident that I'd killed the fellow, as we were wrestling over the gun. The second case was because I was working at the barroom, and was expected to protect the patrons. The last case it was either him or me. I can't say I was proud of any of the shootings, but in a fairly small town, it got me a reputation.
Perhaps it was the gunman reputation that kept Bob Derner from beating my brains out with those big ham-like fists of his. Or maybe it was the fact Bob didn't like to get his hands dirty. He always acted as if he was miles above everyone in our small town, and liked to play the gentleman, though that was aimed mostly to impress Sally. Too bad I didn't realize sooner that Sally had no interest in me besides making Bob jealous. Later I would learn that half the time she spent with him she talked about me, bragged about how I was depended upon by the sheriff, and what a wonder I was with a gun. She never worried about making me jealous, only about keeping me around long enough to reel Bob in. But it took awhile for me to realize it. Meanwhile she was deepening Bob's hate for me with every fresh compliment she threw my way.
One night when I was helping the bartender to keep the peace at the saloon there was a fellow who entered and locked eyes with me the moment he arrived. He was trouble, it was written all over him, from his low hanging gun and tied-down pistol, to the way he swaggered and refused to get out of anyone's way, plowing a path up to the bar. He had a permanent sneer on his face, and eyes that burned into a man like black coals. I kept a wary eye on him for the first three nights he was at the saloon, but had dismissed him as a mere braggart by the time I came back to work at the bar a week later.
It was a quiet evening, a sort of lazy, warm summer night that dulls the senses. Even the normal stink of smoke, sweat, and alcohol of the saloon had lessened to the point it no longer offended one's senses. It was the bar glass that saved me, not my alertness or awareness.
Sandy asked me to slide him the empty glass next to my elbow. I bent down slightly to reach for it, and that is when the mirror behind the bar shattered. I dropped to the floor by instinct -- this was the third time the mirror had been broken since I'd started working at the bar -- and I turned as I dropped, spotting the mean-faced man who I'd first noticed a week earlier. He was pointing a pistol at me. Drawing my Colt, I fired as I dove behind a table. His shot whizzed above my head; my shot was wild and did not touch him. He fired three more shots into the table, and I rightly figured he would be reloading. It was now quiet except for the occasional curse and question from barroom patrons spread at various locations throughout the saloon, the majority of them were also on the floor. Only the reliable poker players refused to duck, as often was the case--they valued the pot more than their lives.
My eyes searched for the shooter, and fear crawled up my spine as I realized he had moved, and I didn't know where. Yet luck saved me again, for when he did move, his boot heel struck a chair, causing it to squeak across the wooden floor. As he raised himself to shoot, I fired, and this time my aim was good.
I could give the sheriff no reason for why the man wanted me dead, so he marked it up as sheer meanness and liquor, not the first time that combination had come to our town. Yet the experience unnerved me, making me far more wary in the days ahead, both at the saloon, and outside of it. A man I did not know had died by my hand, and I could give no reason as to why he had tried to kill me.
Bob Derner seemed quite moody when I next saw him. Yet Sally beamed over my marksmanship, and said she couldn't wait to discuss it with Bob. From the sour look on his face, I figured she had already been doing so.
Two days later, Sally invited me for tea. Somehow, Sally had forgotten that she invited Bob as well. We sat there giving murderous looks to each other, while smiling at Sally and her mindless talking. By now, even I had to admit that Sally was not the sharpest tack in the roof. Though when she smiled that pretty smile, she need not be a scholar to please me. I'd mastered the art of deception better than Bob. He kicked my leg beneath the table; I grimaced, but placed a perfunctory smile on my face by the time Sally looked my way. Bob didn't do so well when Sally rose up to get a plate of cookies for Bob and myself. I rose up with her, giving her my hand to help her rise, and I just happened to spill my hot tea upon Bob's arm. He ranted, raved, swore, and said he'd get even with me, while I tried hard not to laugh, and Sally played the peacemaker.
Maybe it was because of the fellow in the bar, or maybe I was keeping an eye out for Bob's payback, whatever the case, I spotted a suspicious acting fellow near the boardwalk several days later, and quickly realized he was following me. There was no place in front or to the side that would allow me cover, so I turned and faced the man. As I opened my mouth to ask him why he was following me, lamplight glowed from the window next to the stranger, shining upon the ivory handle of a pistol, and I saw him reach for the gun.
"Sheriff, I have no idea who the man was, or why he tried to kill me," I told the sheriff a half-hour later.
"Are you sure you haven't made someone angry? Could someone be holding a grudge against you?"
For the first time I considered how much Bob hated me. Could he want me out of the picture enough to hire someone to kill me? The Sheriff had sent a description across the wire regarding the first assassin. He was a known gunman, generally hired by cattlemen to deal with land disputes. He found papers on the second man, the fellow carried around his own wanted poster folded in a pocket stitched inside his shirt, perhaps a badge of "honor". There was $900 dollars bounty on him for robbery and murder. I collected that bounty, and might have felt funny about it if he had not tried to kill me.
A few weeks later I was walking down the boardwalk, musing about my nemesis. The main thing about old Bob was that he was relentless. It seemed every time I called on Sally, there was Bob, sitting on the front porch with her, sipping tea. If I hadn't been so angry with Bob for trying to steal Sally away from me, I might have found it funny. Picture a very large man, sweat trickling down the side of his face, big ugly smile painted on, and trying to imitate Sally by daintily holding a teacup. Yes, it would have been funny had I not been sparkin' her also.
When I went down to the sheriff's office to lend a hand at watching some drunks he'd hauled in the night before, the sheriff said:
"John Waller," he always used both my first and last name when he had something serious to tell me, "Thompson from the mercantile store stepped in here a few minutes before you arrived to say that there are three rough looking fellows down at the bar that might be trouble. They were asking about you."
Now the first thing I naively thought was, where do I know those fellows from? But when I saw the concerned look on the sheriff's face, it registered--he thinks they are here to try and kill me, just like the other two shooters.
"Sheriff," I said, "could it be that these men have me confused with someone else? Perhaps there is another John Waller in these parts, or perhaps they had a different man described to them who looks a lot like me? No one would hire killers for my sorry hide." "I'm going to get to the bottom of it," said the sheriff.
"And I'm going with you," I said.
"Oh no you're not. You've got work to do. Get some coffee in those drunks and clean out my jail."
I wanted to argue with him, but I'd seen that look on his face before, it brooked no debate. I'd just given the third drunk his cup of coffee when shots rang out from down the street. It chilled my blood, and for several moments I tried to convince myself it was just some rowdies firing off their pistols, even though it was early in the day for such a thing.
The door to the sheriff's office burst open, and Thompson, with his young clerk following behind, entered and words poured out of his mouth, "Sheriff's been shot, he's probably dead. Those three rowdies did him in," The clerk, standing next to Thompson nodded his head up and down in agreement with his taskmaster until you'd have thought it would break. Strange how things like that strike you funny when the situation allows for no humor.
Thompson agreed to allow his clerk to watch the jail as I strapped on my gun belt, said a silent prayer to the Almighty, and headed toward the bar.
There are moments when time seems to crawl by, and this was one of those. Faces stared out of windows as I walked toward the bar. Some were accusing, already having heard that the troublemakers had been hunting me, but had killed the sheriff instead. I tried to ignore them, and focus instead on finding the sheriff.
Sandy walked up to me as I entered the saloon. "He's dead, John." He pointed toward the hallway at the end of the barroom. Sandy kept a bed back there; sometimes he slept at the saloon instead of going home after work. Once or twice I'd slept there when the night had run long and the trouble had been fierce.
"Thompson said it was three men looking for me." I looked up at Sandy and he nodded affirmatively. "Did they happen to say why they wanted me?"
"The sheriff asked them, but they said it was none of his business. He told them everything that happens in this town is his business. Then the greasy-haired man told him to move on, or else. When the sheriff reached for his gun, greasy drew fast as lightning and shot the sheriff in the chest. Then the other two men each put a bullet in him." Sandy wiped at his eyes. I placed a hand on his shoulder, and he turned to go outside.
I went to the back and kneeled down beside the sheriff, my friend. Several red stains blossomed from his shirt, and my anger began to seriously blossom as well. Who wanted me dead? Who had killed my friend because he got in their way to finding me?
As I was walking toward the the bar, Jesse Harmon walked in. He worked at the Derner Ranch that Bob's father owned. He stopped in front of me and said, "Bob's been bragging about how you won't be around much longer. Among the men on the ranch it's no secret that you and Bob have been sparkin' the same woman, nor is it a secret that he hired men to get rid of you, at least that's what has been whispered around the past few days. What's more, in the last few days he's also been sayin' as how he would see you dead no matter the cost. Evidently he sent out the word for hired guns weeks ago, placing a thousand dollar bounty on your head." Jesse paused, and looked toward the room in the back. "Is the sheriff back there?" I nodded to his question. "I never thought it would go this far or I'd have said something sooner. Bob is a bully and a coward at heart, but I sure never believed he would stoop to this." He stopped talking, and let out a sigh. "I'm really sorry John. The sheriff was a good man." I nodded and started to go out the door, but his words stopped me, "Those three men are up the street, near the sheriff's office, and Bob Derner is hiding in the loft at the stable. He wants to see those men kill you. If you want, I'll throw in with you, don't need any job bad enough to sit by while this goes on."
"I appreciate it Jesse, but one man is already dead because I didn't take care of this myself, and I'll not have another man's death on my conscience." Before walking out into the street I mused, "Bob and I always seemed to have a competitive rivalry. I never would have thought he'd kill to get Sally. Guess I never cared so much about her, for I'd never have tried to kill another man for her. I knew Bob was determined to have her, but placing a bounty on me--I would never have guessed it."
The sun was well up in the sky by now, and it was becoming a hot day. My tongue felt large and dry in my mouth, and I wondered if I should say something to the three men before I fired at them. I reckoned that I'd be dead before the day was done, and again thought to myself that Sally was not worth dying for. My father's words about choosing a smart girl rather than a pretty one had come back to haunt me. No smart girl would have played two fellows so long and hard against each other that it came to bloodshed. And it seemed to me now, at this late hour, that Sally and Bob deserved each other. Yet I regretted that I would not be able to kill Bob, God knows he deserved it for getting the sheriff murdered, but the three shooters came first, and it was unlikely I would survive that meeting.
They were waiting, and stepped out to meet me as I drew near the sheriff's office. It might not have been what's considered religious, but I prayed the Lord would let me get at least two of them. There was no talking, and hardly any time for thinking. Greasy reached for his gun and so did I. But I ducked as I fired, and he didn't. His bullet clipped the hair next to my right ear and mine took him in the stomach. Something knocked me backwards, and I felt a burning in my shoulder. I fired again and hit another shooter, a man wearing a gray hat, my bullet struck him in the face and he screamed. I was aiming for his chest but glad to hit him at all. I was hit again, this time in my left thigh and it dropped me onto my left side. I fired again, this time hitting the third gunman in the chest. All three of the villains were down, and I was still alive, though not sure for how long or how bad my wounds were.
There was no time to consider my wounds because I heard Jesse's voice behind me, "Put down that scatter gun Bob."
I painfully twisted around and saw Jesse had his pistol on Bob, and then I saw Sally running up the street. I swore when she threw herself into Bob's arms and threw a scowl at me as if somehow this situation was my fault. But as I pointed my pistol at Bob she screamed and started pleading for his life between cursing me as a scoundrel and a bloody gunman. Funny how people can only see things one way when they want to. Bob hired men to kill me, yet I was, in her eyes, the scoundrel. What a damn fool I'd been to ever take a second look at that idiot of a girl.
Jesse tried hard to explain the situation to her and asked her to step away so that Bob and I could finish this face to face. But she was having none of it.
"John, if you ever cared about me, don't shoot Bob, you know you are a better shot than he is," she said pleadingly, but hate and bitterness was behind that false humility. She had played a game with Bob and I, all the time planning on marrying that big cowardly fool, only if I killed Bob, her plans for a wealthy husband would be for naught. How could I ever think she would marry me, a penniless man over Bob and his family's wealth? These were the thoughts running through my head as my blood flowed into the dust beneath me. Bob said nothing; he just kept staring at the pistol in my hand, and the dead men behind me.
"Sally, the Lord knows you and Bob deserve each other, and I don't think I could hurt him more than to saddle him with you for the rest of his life," I said. Then I looked at Jesse, "Get these two out of my sight, for I'm liable to kill Bob if I have to look at his ugly mug another minute, and a stray bullet might just hit that useless woman beside him."
It took me three weeks to recover from my wounds, and it turned out that I had no proof against Bob. His hired guns were dead, and his previous bragging alone would not hold up in court without a witness proving Bob's meeting with the gunmen and his hiring them to kill me. The bounty had gone out by word of mouth, no paper trail connected the offer to Bob, so he escaped his crime on this occasion. But you can bet I watched him like a hawk in the years to come, for now I was sheriff. I had a limp from the bullet in my left leg for the rest of my life, and a lifelong wariness for the wily ways of women, but I'd like to think this event had made me wiser. One thing was for sure, a gun and a prayer had kept me from the graveyard. It was a miracle I'd come through the "War Over Sally" as I would call it in years to come. I'd grown through the ordeal, and if I would remember its lessons, I might just be around long enough to find me a true "Sally" that was smart, and good, and I'd appreciate her the more for what I'd experienced with Bob and his witch of a wife, for Bob and Sally married not long after our ordeal. I was tempted to ask if I might give the bride away, it would have been my pleasure to hand the witch over to Bob, but it was best to let the ashes of that fire grow cold.COMMENT