He spun around, six-gun abruptly in his hand, but it was only a tumbleweed, playing in the capricious desert wind. Jamming the pistol in its leather holster, he licked his lips and sucked in some of the cool night air.
“This ain’t the way to do it,” he told himself. “If I’m not careful, I’ll shoot myself in the foot.” He looked up at the sharp stars, and took another breath. “Gotta get calm,” he muttered.
But he also had to find Bo.
Bo Thompson, a hotheaded kid who thought he was great with the gun, who wanted to be Number One. But Bo wasn’t; he, Billy Jackson was widely credited as the fastest, most accurate gunslinger around.
And it had cost him.
Oh, it was a thrill, at first, knowing he was the fastest gun. He had killed very few; because of his accuracy, he could smash a hand or ruin a shoulder. He liked that; he was not a killer, unless there was no alternative. Then he started getting the challenges; one by one they came, wanting to bring him down so that they themselves could be Number One.
In the distant night, a coyote’s wail drifted toward the moon. Billy kept on walking; the camp wasn’t far away. He could have come by horse, had ridden most of the way, but now. . .he didn’t want Bo to know he was there until – he was there.
The instance with the tumbleweed was a result of his way of life. He always had to be ready for danger, ready for another kid who wanted to take him down, to prove he was the top gunslinger, to be able to brag, “I brung Billy Jackson down.”
Billy tried to get out of the gunfighter business. He bought some land, built a cabin on it, started accumulating a herd of cattle. Then he met Sally.
Sally Borden gave him the will to live. She was a school ma’rm, and somehow, in some way Billy couldn’t understand but was glad to accept, she loved him. Billy smiled, remembering. Her cornsilk hair was wonderful, as were her sky blue eyes and lovely face. But nothing was more wonderful than her agreeing to marry him.
After that, there was no doubt his gunfighting days were over. He couldn’t risk his life, not when there was a chance for him to live it out with Sally.
Now he saw the glow of a campfire, hidden behind a boulder ahead of him. Bo was no dunce; the boulder rested against a high cliff; it would be hard for someone to sneak up on him.
Billy pulled his gun. He had cleaned it thoroughly after removing it and his gunbelt from the charred chest that had been in the attic, where he had put it after promising Sally he would never kill again. He cleaned it and tested it, using six bullets.
It was as good as ever.
Billy remembered how happy Sally had been when he put his gun and belt away. “That life is behind you now, dearest,” she had said, smiling up at him in satisfaction.
He thought she was right, wanted her to be right, and gloried in the days that followed, when he helped Sally with her garden, enjoyed her thrilled satisfaction when the first sprouts broke ground.
Then Bo Thompson showed up. Billy had been downtown, at the general store getting supplies, when a voice behind him said, “Hey, look at that; a gunslinger without no gun!”
Billy Jackson turned at looked levelly at him. “I’m a rancher,” he said, simply, and turned back to the store counter.
You’re Billy Jackson,” Bo said, stepping forward. He slapped a six-gun down on the counter. “There’s a gun. Use it, or I’ll be killing an unarmed man.”
Billy suddenly spun around, his fist swinging from his long arm. He hit an unsuspecting Bo on the jaw, and the man dropped. He was still unconscious when Billy paid the storekeeper and left.
An owl in a mesquite bush hooted softly. Gun in hand, watching his step so no cracked branch or tumbled rock would announce his presence, Billy made his way to and around the boulder. There was a sudden rush of wings when the owl took off, and Billy dropped to the ground. The owl, and Billy’s instinctive response to danger, saved his life; a bullet zipped through the air where he had been standing.
Still flat on the ground, he said to a shadow in the bush, “This ain’t the way to do it, Bo. You know that.”
There was silence, broken only by the desert wind rustling dried leaves, and then the shadow straightened. “It’s time, Billy. You came to me.”
“I have a gun aimed at your gut,” Billy told him tightly. As he said it, he remembered what had brought him here. Bo had tried all sorts of strategies to bring him out, all of which Billy ignored. Except the last one.
The last one, when Bo had killed Sally. He had tied her in the house, poured kerosene on it and sat fire to the frame structure. Fire. Sally had made no secret of her fear of fire. There had been a note nailed to the fence post. It said, “You shudda heard her scream, Billy.” Rage seared through Billy, rage even more intense than the fire.
There was no signature, but it was clearly Bo’s work. He had done it because he knew it was the only way to stir Billy Jackson to fight him.
“I’m here, Bo – but this ain’t the place. I could kill you right here, but you know I won’t. Main Street at ten o’clock. I’ll spread the word, and everyone will be there. You don’t want it like this, Bo. You want people to see you draw on me. It’ll spread like wildfire.”
Bo walked away from the bush. Even with only the moon to reveal his face, Billy could see the grin. “Ten o’clock, Billy. That’ll be when you die.”
“Not before then, Bo.” Putting two fingers to his lips, Billy blasted a whistle to summon his horse. Even though Bo had gone to his campfire, Billy didn’t holster his gun until he was on horseback, well away from Bo Thompson. Bo wanted to kill Billy in public, where everyone could see – but Billy couldn’t trust him since he had just attempted bushwhacking him.
Bo wanted a crowd, Billy knew, but he wouldn’t want a marshal there. The town marshal objected to murder on the street. Of course, as far as Bo knew, the marshal was still out of town. Billy knew differently.
At ten o’clock, Billy Jackson and Bo Thompson faced each other on Main Street and, as Billy had promised, the sides of the street were lined – lined by people standing well off the street, out of the line of fire. Lined with people talking softly to each other as they observed the two men.
Billy Jackson looked at Bo. “First strike of the town clock, Bo.” His voice was cold and his thoughts were cold as he remembered what it was like to have a wife like Sally; remembered what it had been like to be a hunted man, hunted by young squirts like Bo who wanted to make a reputation. It hadn’t been a life, it had been hell.
Sally might not approve of this, he thought, as the clock struck. His hand flashed to his gun – and his bullet struck the doorframe where the marshal who, as Billy had arranged, had just stepped out of a doorway across the street. That would guarantee the marshal’s attention and tell him he wasn’t shooting at Bo, who would either go to jail for murder or spend a hellish life as a top gunfighter. Maybe Sally will understand. I’ll ask her, as I’m gonna see her soon. The words went through his mind as the slug ripped through his heart.
Art by Jim Garrison